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love, in fire and blood

Chapter Text

The war was not going well.

In fact, it was going quite badly. Each day brought fresh defeats. Their supplies dwindled and their forces were pushed back, again and again. Lan Wangji had lost track of how many funerals he attended in the last two years. But he kept a careful tally of the hours and days and months.

The days were growing short. He wasn't sure how their forces could survive a second winter on the battlefield. Yet there was nothing to do but press forward.

So every morning, Lan Wangji woke early. He dressed in the white robes of his sect and he fought in another battle. Afterward, he tended the wounded and allocated their meager supplies. Once that was done, he joined his brother inside the meeting tents.

After two years of fighting alongside the various sect leaders, he knew them fairly well. They knew him, too. None of them expected him to speak during the meetings. Instead, Lan Wangji had the luxury of listening in silence. His brother marshaled a fresh set of battle plans with his fellow sect leaders, and Lan Wangji paid close attention.

But the sect leaders had grown restless, their attention wandering during meetings.

No one dared to whisper the truth: We are losing, losing badly. But it was written upon their faces. Even the lowliest foot-soldiers and servants could see it. There were reports of defections each week. Peasants fled nearby villages, while servants quietly packed their bags and disappeared into the night.

By Double Seventh Festival, the truth could no longer be denied. The Sunshot Campaign was failing. It was only a matter of time before their forces were overrun.

Wen Ruohan's power seemed limitless. Countless puppets had been destroyed, and scores of his soldiers slain on the battlefields. But the results of each battle were meaningless. If their forces slaughtered dozens of Wen Ruohan's men, he simply raised them as walking corpses. They tried to burn as many corpses as possible, but they couldn't destroy all of them. Wen Ruohan had ways of securing more bodies whenever his supply ran low.

Victory over such a foe was impossible, and Lan Wangji knew it. But though he sought desperately for a solution, he couldn't find one. During the meetings, the sect leaders seemed equally helpless. Not one had prepared his people for this type of war. A decade ago, fighting a man who raised the dead would have been unthinkable. Not a single sect leader had prepared countermeasures for such an enemy.

Lan Wangji never knew who first spoke the Yiling Patriarch's name. But within hours, it seemed to be everywhere. Soldiers murmured it as they burned the day's dead. Servants whispered it as they cleared the tables after another fruitless meeting. By the next day, cultivators and sect leaders spoke the name openly.

Shall we not ask the Yiling Patriarch for his aid? Who else could hope to defeat Wen Ruohan? If we cannot fight his wicked tricks, should we not seek the aid of an immortal?

Lan Wangji listened with a growing sense of unease.

Little was known of the immortals who dwelt within their lands. There were not many of them. Most, like Baoshan Sanren, had withdrawn centuries ago. They shrouded themselves on remote mountaintops, teaching a select group of cultivators. They never meddled with politics.

The Yiling Patriarch was no different. But he was by far the youngest of the immortals. He had cultivated to immortality—so it was said—less than a decade ago. And he could still be found by those who sought him. He had made his home in the Burial Mounds, less than a shi's walk from Yiling.

But few cultivators dared to approach him. Rumor had it he lived on a mountain made of corpses. Like Wen Ruohan, he knew the vile secrets of reanimating the dead. He, too, used corpses as servants and serfs. It was even said that the Patriarch had perfected a method of controlling resentful energy. He didn't just raise corpses. Spirits and demons also did his bidding.

To the profound relief of the cultivation world, he seemed to prefer solitude...with a few exceptions. Wandering cultivators claimed that he had taken a handful of disciples. And every now and then, a score of weary peasants might beg him for succor after a hard winter. Those who entered the Patriarch's domain disappeared behind the wards of the Burial Mounds.

They emerged later—still alive, villagers whispered—to trade in the markets on the Patriarch's behalf. But his followers were relatively few. No matter how many souls he claimed, he never communicated with the world outside. He never spoke to sect leaders, much less appeared at discussion conferences.

His power was said to be great. He was an immortal, beyond any doubt, and had once been a cultivator. No one seemed to recall his name or sect affiliation. Shuddering over rumors of his abilities, the cultivation world had always seemed grateful for his indifference.

It is best, Uncle once muttered, not to draw the attention of such a being. Leave him to his forsaken lands and his cursed people. Let the immortals meditate in silence and solitude.

Lan Wangji let the name—Yiling Patriarch—rest on his tongue. But he did not speak it, and he watched his brother as the sect leaders debated.

Their forces were depleted, and Wen Ruohan was stronger every day. If they lost the war—and it was clear now that they would—the cultivation world would be swallowed up by the Wen sect. Every cultivator would be dead or wearing the Wen crests.

They would be fortunate to survive the winter. If they somehow managed to last till the spring thaw, Lan Wangji knew that the cultivation world would be forced to surrender by summer. They would have to beg Wen Ruohan for peace on any terms, and Wen Ruohan was not known for showing mercy.

It was once unthinkable: consulting the Yiling Patriarch, begging him to use his wicked tricks on their behalf. Now, it had become inevitable.

Lan Xichen's face was tired and resigned. But when the sect leaders took a vote—shall we send a letter to the Patriarch, asking him for aid?—the result was unanimous. The letter to the Patriarch was drafted and dispatched within hours.

Two days later, a reply arrived in the shape of a ghostly black butterfly. It alighted on the table in the war tent, then unfolded itself into a sealed scroll. The message was short, yet potent.

I will come in person. Every sect leader must be present. Every sect leader must be accompanied by their heir and their first disciple.

He named a date for the conference, a fortnight away. There was no post-script, no salutations or closing remarks.

The letter passed from hand to hand. Brief as it was, it was picked to pieces. The Patriarch had not promised his aid, and many of the sect leaders saw that as a bad omen. His demand—the presence of the most valued and powerful members of every sect—was equally concerning.

But it was too late to retract the message. They couldn't shy away and try to evade the Patriarch's notice. He was coming in person, the letter said. He would speak to the sect leaders himself.

Lan Wangji listened as the sect leaders made contingency plans. They speculated wildly on the Patriarch's response, trading the letter back and forth to support their theories.

When it was his turn to examine the letter, Lan Wangji gave it an indifferent glance. The penmanship was remarkably poor. Whoever was responsible for the Patriarch's calligraphy lessons had clearly done an abysmal job.

But perhaps he had never received such instruction at all. Some claimed that the Patriarch was the son of a rogue cultivator. Others said he was not a man at all, but a demonic creature masquerading as a cultivator. No cultivator, it seemed, had met him and returned to tell the tale. If there lived a teacher responsible for the Patriarch's upbringing and education, he or she had never come forward.

Lan Wangji set the letter aside and tried to put it out of his mind. His expectations for the meeting were low. But when they spoke privately that night, his brother was cautiously optimistic.

"He has never attended any political meeting before." Lan Xichen's brow furrowed with thought. "I hardly think he would take the trouble of coming here, only to tell us that he refuses to offer his aid."

Lan Wangji conceded this point with a nod.

But why should the Patriarch be so evasive? Why should he refuse to discuss the matter by letter? Why should he refuse even the smallest commitment: If we can come to a suitable agreement, I am willing to help you?

"Perhaps he feared the letter would be intercepted." His brother's voice was doubtful.

That, Lan Wangji knew, was unlikely. It was Nie Mingjue's hand who had written the first letter. The response had been bespelled, and no one but Nie Mingjue was able to break the scroll's seal. How could such a missive be intercepted?

His brother had no answer for that. But the mystery of the scroll didn't bother him. He had saved his concern for the scroll's contents.

"Of course, I understand why he wants the sect leaders present." Lan Xichen studied the table for a moment. "But I don't know why he wants our heirs and first disciples to be there."

His brother was not alone in his worries. Half the afternoon had been wasted debating this matter. Some sect leaders feared that the Patriarch meant to slaughter them all at once. Perhaps, they murmured, perhaps he is on Wen Ruohan's side, after all.

Others were more hopeful. It may be, they said, that the Patriarch wishes to take our measure. He might wish to see whether the most powerful cultivators of this age are worthy of his assistance.

A few speakers had suggested that the Patriarch might plan to take hostages or servants. But this seemed unlikely.

After the Patriarch's existence became public knowledge, a handful of smaller sects had tried to win his friendship. They had offered him disciples and servants. But their offers were coldly rejected. The Patriarch absorbed some wanderers into his sect, it was true. He took a few rogue cultivators and orphans. But he had accepted no emissaries from the sects.

Lan Xichen suggested that he might have changed his mind. Perhaps he desired a closer relationship with the sects now. But there was no use theorizing about what an immortal might do. They could not begin to guess what such a man wanted, or planned, or believed. Such matters were not Lan Wangji's concern, in any event. His only duty was to keep his fellow disciples alive until the Patriarch came.

Some days, he succeeded. Others, he failed. But their forces struggled and fought, and most survived the following fortnight. On the appointed day, a large tent was erected to shelter the sect leaders and their heirs. When the designated hour arrived, they were ready.

Lan Wangji sat at the head of the tent, at his brother's left. Nie Mingjue was seated to his brother's right. Nie Huaisang and their sect's first disciple had been given chairs nearby.

Across the tent, Jin Guangshan was flanked by his son and nephew. Jiang Wanyin shifted restively, his sister at one side and his first disciple on the other. The remaining sect leaders ranged across the tent, ranked by precedence. Their heirs and chosen disciples clustered around them.

Nie Mingjue had much to say—in private, of course—about their sudden appearance. For months, several sect leaders had been conspicuously absent from the war efforts. They appeared only for discussion conferences and vanished when the fighting grew bloody. Now they had turned up for a glimpse of the Yiling Patriarch, conveniently forgetting to take part in the day's battles.

Lan Wangji had noted this, too. He gritted his teeth.

He couldn't fault Jiang Yanli or Nie Huaisang They held a high rank, but their cultivation was weak. It would be foolish for either of them to venture near the battlefield. There were others, too: sect leaders who were feeble or elderly, hardly able to lift their swords. But many of the faces inside the tent were youthful and vibrant, yet they had contributed nothing to the war efforts.

Last night, Nie Mingjue had growled over the arrival of Jin Guangshan's elaborate carriage. He remarked that Jin Guangshan never missed a discussion conference or a party. Yet he always had excuses for why he was 'needed in Lanling' during the bloodiest battles.

Nie Mingjue had watched the man climb from his carriage, beaming and nodded to his fellow cultivators. He gripped his calligraphy brush so tightly it snapped in two.

During their brief meeting outside, Jin Guangshan had done nothing to soothe his temper. Lan Wangji could see for himself that Jin Guangshan was smugly pleased to have the chance to speak to an immortal. The fact that his own forces had contributed few victories to the war efforts didn't seem to weigh on his conscience.

Lan Xichen had wasted half the morning trying to calm Nie Mingjue. Then he was forced to spend half a shi soothing his brother's temper, too.

This is not the time for in-fighting, he murmured. We must present a united front when the Patriarch arrives. Wangji, I know we're all annoyed with Sect Leader Jin. But please try to bear with it for now.

Lan Wangji agreed to hold his tongue, and Nie Mingjue did the same. The sect leaders—lining up according to rank and precedence—clearly felt the gravity of the moment, too. They arranged themselves with remarkably little squabbling. Even Jin Guangshan refrained from taunting others.

Then they waited. And waited. And waited.

Lan Wangji tracked the movement of the sun as their guests shifted restlessly inside the tent. The Patriarch had indicated that he would arrive early. But the morning faded away, mists burning away with the rising heat. Then, when the sun was at half-mast, the silks covering the tent door were brushed aside.

The Patriarch arrived without warning, pushing his way inside as thick tendrils of resentful energy followed. The servants outside, tasked with announcing his arrival, rushed after him. Their faces were terrified and bewildered, as if they had somehow missed his approach.

The tent had been full of idle murmurs and casual conversation. But as the Patriarch entered, the assembly fell utterly silent. Half the guests stiffened, and Lan Wangji wondered if they hadn't expected the man to appear.

His appearance itself was something of a shock. The Patriarch was young, or powerful enough to keep a boyish face even during old age. Lan Wangji watched him with a careful eye.

If the Patriarch had been a non-cultivator, he would have guessed the man to be in his early twenties. But among cultivators, age was never easy to judge. In any case, the Patriarch had a firm, youthful body. His complexion was unlined and unblemished. He had a loping walk, and he entered with jaunty carelessness. As he gazed around the tent, his eyes were dark and amused. His lips curled into a faintly mocking smile.

"Don't get up on my account!" He dropped into a chair a white-faced servant had provided.

No one had, of course. Some of the sect leaders stared, too petrified to move. The others—like Lan Xichen, like Nie Mingjue—were clearly struggling to make sense of the situation.

The Patriarch had arrived alone, without disciples or attendants. There was no sword at his side, merely a flute tucked into his belt. The fabric of his black robes was of good quality, but the robes themselves were plain and unadorned. He looked like nothing more than a well-to-do rogue cultivator.

His appearance might be disarmingly simple, but sheer power rolled off his body. It was dizzying, and for a moment, Lan Wangji felt faintly nauseous. He glanced at his brother and saw that Lan Xichen's brows had drawn together. Jiang Wanyin looked pale, and even Jin Guangshan had been momentarily struck dumb.

No one had risen at the Patriarch's arrival. But at the sound of his voice—drawling and sardonic, with a faint reverberation of power—the guests scrambled to their feet.

Lan Wangji rose and joined them as they knelt before the Patriarch. Such obeisance rankled. Nie Mingjue's jaw was tight, and he clearly despised kneeling before this man. But the Patriarch was an immortal, and they were begging his aid. Kneeling was imperative.

They must demonstrate their humility, and Lan Wangji knew he ought to keep his eyes lowered. Yet he found himself stealing glances in the Patriarch's direction. The man had poured himself into a chair and slouched lazily against the side. He slipped the flute from his belt, twirling it between his fingers. Every gesture reeked of insolence, and he rolled his eyes when they knelt.

"Yes, yes." The Patriarch waved a hand. "I feel very honored and respected. For heaven's sake, get up. I didn't call you here to lick my boots."

They returned to their seats in silence. A servant slipped forward timidly with a cup of their finest tea. It was fresh and steaming, but the Patriarch gave it a contemptuous stare.

"What?" He let out another sarcastic laugh. "There's no wine? I hope your plight isn't as desperate as that!"

Lan Wangji bit his tongue and dug his nails into his palm. He was sorely tempted to stand and reprimand the Patriarch for his shameless request. It was scarcely noon, and none but Jin Guangshan would have considered drinking wine this early. To refuse tea and demand wine in its stead was a shocking breach of etiquette.

But he forced himself to remain still. He counted his breaths.

The servant girl tripped over herself in a rush to bring the Patriarch their best wine. She offered him a cup, but the Patriarch ignored it. He plucked up the bottle and drank straight from it. Then he waved his hand again.

"Everybody who isn't a sect leader, or an heir, or first disciple had better leave. Otherwise, you'll just confuse me."

No one dared contradict him. The servants, attendants, and lesser disciples hastily withdrew. In fact, they nearly climbed over each other in their rush to leave. Lan Wangji felt his jaw clench once more.

Nie Mingjue was nearly grinding his teeth to splinters. But Lan Xichen had managed to keep his face politely blank as the Patriarch swilled the last of his wine.

"Now, the sect leaders should name themselves and the people they've brought with them."

The Patriarch leaned forward, his hands on his knees, and smiled at the company. It was not a friendly or welcoming smile. It was the smile of a man who knew he held the whip-hand. Lan Wangji took his eyes off the Patriarch long enough to scan the tent.

Nie Mingjue was not the only cultivator plainly outraged by the Patriarch's imperious manner. But they were petitioners and in no position to take offense. Lan Wangji watched the fury rise in their faces, then watched as each sect leader swallowed their anger

Lan Xichen began the introductions, his manner perfectly tranquil. He named himself and his brother: Lan Wangji, heir presumptive and First Disciple of GusuLan.

Lan Wangji felt the Patriarch's eyes rest heavily on him. But Jin Guangshan—never one to pass up an opportunity to hear his own voice—seized the opportunity to introduce his own family. Nie Mingjue and Jiang Wanyin followed suit.

Under different circumstances, the introductions might have been a lengthy process. Lan Wangji had suffered through dozens of meetings with endless back-and-forth: the praise of accomplishments, the polite demurrals, the reciprocal compliments. Such introductions were always tedious and time-consuming.

But the Patriarch complimented no one and sought no praise in turn. None of the guests, it seemed, were thickfaced enough to boast of their own skills before an immortal. So the introductions were concluded with remarkable speed.

The Patriarch listened in silence, scrutinizing each face. Then, when the last sect leader had finished, the Patriarch slouched back against his chair.

"Fascinating." He tipped the wine jug thoughtfully from side to side before taking another sip. "Forgive me if I forget your names in the next five minutes. I'm afraid I tend to do that."

No one dared reply. But Lan Wangji saw several sect leaders—Jin Guangshan in particular—bristle. They were not accustomed to being disregarded.

The Patriarch took his time finishing the wine. When he was done, he tossed aside the empty jug and surveyed the room.

"Humor me for a moment." His voice was pleasant and dark-edged. "I have a few questions. I've heard rumors, of course, but I like to check my facts."

Lan Wangji saw his brother straighten slightly. His own body tensed in anticipation as the Patriarch's eyes roamed from face to face.

"Who among you are the strongest cultivators?"

Another time, there might have been a rush of voices. Dozens of cultivators would have offered a few modest compliments to their fellows, then proudly declared their own accomplishments. But today, the room was silent.

The Patriarch threw his head back and laugh.

"My! We've very modest, aren't we?" He smiled, revealing astonishingly white teeth.

Lan Wangji kept his eyes on the Patriarch's face, dissecting each feature.

He was—Lan Wangji felt sure most would agree—a handsome man. There was something magnetic about his presence. The Patriarch had fine features, long limbs, dark and expressive eyes. He exuded power with every breath.

Yet there was something in his manner that Lan Wangji did not like. He was insolant, true. But that was nothing. Powerful men often swaggered around, and there was no reason why the Patriarch should be any different. Immortals were supposed to be above such pettiness. But perhaps immortals were only humans writ large, with the same flaws and foibles.

The Patriarch slung a leg over the edge of the chair, throwing back a cloak lined in red silk to reveal dark riding trousers. His eyes were sardonic as he gazed at his petitioners. Lan Wangji was not troubled by that. What bothered him was the speculative gleam in the Patriarch's eye. This man had come with a purpose. Lan Wangji was not sure anyone present would like it.

"Let's see." The Patriarch tapped his chin as if in thought. "I've heard a great deal about Sect Leader Lan and his brother. I've heard of Sect Leader Nie and Sect Leader Jiang."

He went on, naming half a dozen disciples. The Patriarch pointed to each one in turn. Then he spread his hands.

"Is it safe to say I've named the most capable individuals?" He smiled, full of honeyed sweetness. "Anyone I've missed?"

Those who had not been named squirmed, but did not protest.

The Patriarch had indeed named the ten cultivators generally regarded as the most gifted. He had named those with the strongest golden cores. These cultivators were well-known for their swordplay, their scholarship, their prowess in battle. So the assembly gave an uneasy murmur of agreement.

"Very good." The Patriarch clapped his hands. "Now, let's do this quickly. Everybody who's married or betrothed, stand up."

It was a profoundly odd request. Astonishment kept the guests frozen for a few seconds. But slowly, half the tent shuffled to their feet.

Lan Wangji watched the Patriarch's face as he surveyed the results. About two-thirds of sect leaders had risen. But most of the heirs and disciples remained seated. The Patriarch studied each person still in their chair. Most, Lan Wangji saw, were trying to evade his gaze.

When it was his turn, Lan Wangji stared back stonily. The Patriarch seemed to mark that. For a moment, his eyes were almost amused. He had the temerity to wink at Lan Wangji. Then his attention slid to the left, passing over Nie Huaisang and Jin Zixun.

Lan Wangji stared at the floor of the tent, mortified and bewildered.

"Marvelous." The Patriarch motioned for them to be seated again. "Thank you for your patience."

Everyone sank into their chairs. Lan Wangji saw several guests exchange baffled looks. After a moment, Jin Guangshan gave a forced chuckle.

"The Yiling Patriarch has caught us off guard!" He stroked his beard. "I thought we were going to discuss war matters. Does he have something else in mind?"

The Patriarch didn't appear to be paying attention. He had abandoned his own chair and crouched beside the cabinet where the servants kept the refreshments. The Patriarch rifled through, pushing items aside. There were platters of dried fruit and nuts, but the Patriarch ignored those. He retrieved another bottle of wine and uncorked it, wandering around the room.

"Oh, your little war isn't very important!"

The guests hissed at one another in muted indignation, and the Patriarch laughed quietly.

"Ah. Excuse me. It's very important to you, and to the peasants being slaughtered by the Wens. But there's not much to discuss there."

He plucked at the maps spread out on tables. Then he pushed aside a few markers, toppling a diagram Nie Mingjue had spent the morning constructing. Nie Mingjue's fists clenched. Lan Xichen laid a quelling hand on his arm.

"You want Wen Ruohan dead," the Patriarch continued idly. "You want his corpse puppets eliminated. You want his halls burned to the ground and his soldiers disemboweled and begging for mercy. Have I about covered it?"

He sounded as if he were assembling a list of things to buy in the marketplace. Lan Wangji watched his brother—like Jin Guangshan—assume an artificial smile.

"The Patriarch is correct that we would let to see Wen Ruohan deposed." His brother's voice was mild. "We certainly would like a way to counter the cultivation methods he's using. If you could offer your wisdom on this matter, we would be very appreciative."

The Patriarch laughed around his next mouthful of wine.

"Oh dear." He swiped a hand over his mouth, wiping away the spilled wine. "I'm not so sure I have any wisdom to share. But I would also like to see him deposed. He's become very annoying!"

Lan Wangji felt as though every guest in the tent suddenly let out a breath. Shoulders lowered, hands unclenched, eyes brightened. A few of the sect leaders nodded to each other in relief. The Patriarch was no friend of Wen Ruohan, then. He was here to offer aid. That, their wry smiles seemed to say, is worth a certain amount of humiliation.

"So, you want him dead." The Patriarch waved a hand. "That's fine. You want everyone who has fought under his banners dead. No argument."

He paused. His tone darkened slightly.

"We're not going to go around killing peasants, or non-cultivators unlucky enough to be born with the Wen surname." He let his eyes rest on each sect leader in turn. "But I'll agree to the rest."

I'll agree to the rest. He spoke as if matters were that simple. As if the assembled sect leaders merely needed the Patriarch agreement, and their enemies would fall.

Several guests perked up. But Lan Wangji saw in a few faces the same quiet unease he felt. Victory could not possibly be so simple.

His doubt was quickly justified. The Patriarch set down his wine and turned to study the room.

"Now, then!" He gave another knife-edged smile. "What will you give me in return?"

Lan Wangji realized later that the sect leaders had likely planned for such negotiations. But the thought of bargaining had never crossed his mind. If the Patriarch deigned to appear, Lan Wangji had expected him to offer help out of pure altruism.

Immortals were said to the best and noblest of all cultivators. The Patriarch's existence—his cultivation methods—had certainly challenged that belief. Yet Lan Wangji had thought that any cultivator who achieved immortality must be motivated by benevolence and a sense of justice.

But the Patriarch gazed around the tent with a sort of amused expectation. He seemed to be waiting for a counteroffer, a bribe, an offering. Lan Wangji's breath stuck in his throat.

He was not fit to be Sect Leader. Lan Wangji had always known this, and he thanked the heavens that his brother was born first. He could not do what his brother did, negotiating with obstreperous politicians. It was all he could do to hold his tongue and keep from challenging the Patriarch on the spot. Even that, he did for his brother's sake rather than his own.

It was difficult, though, to swallow his fury. Withholding aid in a time of crisis—demanding something as crude as payment—should be challenged. The Patriarch should be publicly shamed for bargaining over human lives. Lan Wangji felt his face grow hot with anger.

But Lan Xichen did not flinch. When he spoke, he sounded perfectly calm.

"As you can imagine, our coffers have been much depleted by the war." He gave the Patriarch a polite, rueful smile. "But if you can tell us what you have need of…"

The Patriarch pushed himself up and sat on the edge of the table. He paid no mind as the maps crumpled beneath him.

"Not money," he said briskly. "Not gold or silver. Not rice or salt or pigs. I have enough of those things. You can have too much money, you know."

His eyes lingered scornfully on Jin Guangshan's gold and silks.

Lan Wangji felt more than heard Nie Mingjue's snort of approval. The Patriarch garnered a great deal of ill-will during his entrance. But Lan Wangji knew he had dispelled the budding resentment with that remark. As far as Nie Mingjue was concerned, anyway.

The Patriarch swung his legs idly. He looked as if he were bargaining over the price of radishes, rather than the fate of the cultivation world.

"What else do you have to offer?"

"We would be willing to offer quite a bit in return for Wen Ruohan's defeat," Lan Xichen admitted. "But I'm afraid we don't know what an immortal such as yourself desires. Please advise us."

Lan Wangji watched the Patriarch with narrowed eyes.

He couldn't imagine what use an immortal might have for gold or silver. An immortal wouldn't even require food. He could practice inedia for centuries, living off his own powerful qi. Even immortals needed shelter and clothing, of course. But the Patriarch's needs were already provided for. Many sects—including the Lans—sent annual tribute.

It was considered courteous to offer immortals cloth, ink, books. Some sects even offered up silks, furs, or costly medicinal herbs. Immortals had achieved the goal toward which all cultivators strove. They deserved reverence and material support.

In the Patriarch's case, the tribute was also a subtle bribe. Publicly, sect leaders denounced his unorthodox cultivation. But in private, Lan Wangji knew they schemed for ways to make him their ally. Lavish tributes, then, served as a request: Open your gates, lower your wards, and teach our disciples. They were also a plea: If you will not share your power, then leave our lands in peace. Do not use your abilities to harm us. We will offer you tribute if you will leave us alone.

Lan Wangji resisted the urge to shift uneasily. Whatever motivated the sect leaders to send a tribute, the gifts had been given. So the Patriarch could not possibly require more money or supplies. He needed no livestock or crops. What, then, did he intend to ask as compensation?

The Patriarch seemed to be considering the question himself. His mouth twitched, and he laughed aloud.

"You used to try and send me concubines." He shook his finger at the sect leaders. "Do you remember that? It was very funny!"

He sounded sincerely amused. But Lan Wangji felt the tension in the room rise.

Lan Wangji hadn't heard about that. A few sect leaders, though, looked openly panicked. Their faces had drained of color. Lan Wangji realized that they must have sent such disgraceful offerings, and he gave them a sharp glare. 

"I heard those offerings were rejected." Nie Mingjue's voice was brusque. "Have you developed a taste for them now?"

He regarded the Patriarch with a stern frown. No trace of guilt marred his face. But then, Nie Mingjue could not have been involved in such plans. Lan Wangji couldn't picture him walking into a sitting room that held a concubine, much less buying one as a gift.

"No, no." The Patriarch chuckled. He drew up a leg, resting a muddied boot on the map's surface.

Lan Wangji narrowly resisted the temptation to flinch. Such reckless disregard for reference materials would earn a harsh punishment in Cloud Recesses. But there were not in Cloud Recesses, and he had no authority to punish an immortal. So he clenched his hands inside his sleeves and remained silent.

"I just wondered why those gifts stopped!" The Patriarch tilted his head. "Did you run out of attractive young men and women, willing to share the Patriarch's bed?"

A few sect leaders turned to each other. They shared a meaningful glance.

"The Wu Sect has quite a few lovely courtesans," Sect Leader Wu remarked hesitantly, "if the Patriarch wishes."

At once, the dam was broken. Other sect leaders leaned forward, their voices rising as they offered courtesans of their own. Jin Guangshan loudly declared that he would personally examine the brothels of Lanling.

"I shall find the most beautiful and talented prostitutes for the Patriarch," he declared, in the tone of a man making a noble sacrifice.

This time, Nie Mingjue did not bother to hide his snort. No one but Lan Wangji seemed to notice, though. A dozen people were speaking at once, seizing eagerly on the Patriarch's apparent interest.

But Lan Wangji saw at a glance that the Patriarch was not truly interested. He listened to the clamor with sardonic amusement. There was contempt in his eyes, and Lan Wangji felt a sick twist in his gut.

The purpose of this meeting was to win the Patriarch's favor. To accomplish that goal, Lan Wangji had expected the sect leaders to display their strength and virtue. He thought they would demonstrate that they were worthy of the Patriarch's help, that their spirits were pure and their ideals noble.

As he stared into the Patriarch's dark eyes, Lan Wangji knew they had failed.

Their forces had fought hard. Many disciples had been brutally slaughtered. Others were permanently injured. They would never hold a sword again, and they had become a burden to their sects rather than an asset.

If nothing was done, the survivors would fall to Wen Ruohan one by one. Every sect would be snuffed out, the cultivation world united under Wen Ruohan's tyrannous rule. Their very existence was at stake. The sect leaders should have appealed to the Patriarch with grace and dignity. They should have calmly outlined their plans and discussed the requested compensation.

Instead, half the guests were naming prostitutes and courtesans far too readily. Lan Wangji felt bile rise in his throat. It was plain that most sect leaders were entirely too familiar with such individuals. They were appallingly quick to trade them to the Patriarch, too.

He could hardly blame the Patriarch for his contemptuous smirk as his eyes roved around the room. When his attention fell on Lan Wangji, the smirk deepened. Lan Wangji could feel the helpless indignation on his face and he tried to school his expression to neutrality.

Sect Leader Chen opened his mouth.

"And of course," he spoke over Sect Leader Zhou's lavish descriptions of local brothels, "if you have a mind to marry, my eldest daughter-"

But he never finished his sentence. It was Sect Leader Zhou's turn to interrupt him.

"Of course!" Sect Leader Zhou lurched forward. "Nearly everyone here has a son or daughter eligible for marriage. Immortal One, you saw that yourself."

Lan Wangji expected the Patriarch to give another sharp laugh, paired with a cutting remark. Instead, he clapped his hands twice. A strange smile crossed his face.

"Ah, how nice of you to bring that up!" The Patriarch slid off the desk and paced around the room. "It's such an excellent solution. If you provide me with a spouse, I will surely do all in my power to help win your war. How can I turn my back on my new in-laws?"

The conversation in the room ground to a halt.

Lan Wangji felt the sudden burst of tension among the guests. Then the sideways glances began.

A few sect leaders shrank back. But others drew themselves up with interest. Perhaps they were already picturing it: their son or daughter, married to an immortal.

Once again, Lan Xichen interjected calmly.

"If the Patriarch wishes to make a marriage alliance, surely we can discuss this."

The polite smile was back on his face. But Nie Mingjue shifted at his side. Lan Wangji saw that he was frowning. He seemed no more pleased with the idea of providing a spouse than a concubine.

The Patriarch returned to his seat as he polished off the second jar of wine.

A few of the sect leaders murmured amongst themselves. Sect Leader Nie wasn't the only one frowning in displeasure. Other guests looked as though they were connecting the dots, too.

"Sorry?"

The Patriarch lifted his head as the murmurs reached a crescendo. He smiling at two sect leaders who had whispered to one another.

"You have to speak up, you know! Some of us are hard of hearing."

Sect Leader Yu cleared her throat.

"The Patriarch has asked us to bring our heirs and first disciples to this meeting," she observed. "Does that mean he intends to choose a spouse from among those assembled here?"

Her face was carefully neutral. The Patriarch only shrugged in response.

"Of course." He tipped the jar, shaking out the last few drops of wine. "Why else would I have asked you to bring them? I had to see what my options are."

The reaction was instantaneous but muted. Under different circumstances, Lan Wangji suspected that half the guests would have left in a huff. But when faced with the Patriarch's overwhelming power, most sect leaders only whispered and stared.

Sect Leader Ouyang puffed himself up like a chicken, though. His bushy brows drew together. Sect Leader Yao took matters even further, exclaiming in indignation. His son joined the outcry. 

"Outrageous!" Young Master Yao thumped the arm of his chair. "To parade all the young masters and mistresses before him, like pigs at auction!"

Several pairs of eyes watched the Patriarch anxiously. Lan Wangji felt the resentful energy surge and flicker. For a moment, he wondered if the Patriarch would strike the young man dead.

Instead, he only threw his head back and laughed.

"You're so angry!" The Patriarch cast aside the wine bottle. He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "There's really no need to be. Surely the young master doesn't think my favor will fall on him?"

Young Master Yao flushed a vivid red, and his father made another affronted sound. But before anyone could protest this remark—or apologize on Young Master Yao's behalf—the Patriarch spoke carelessly.

"The choice is obvious." He waved at hand at the front of the tent. "I want Second Young Master Lan."

Lan Wangji had long practice in remaining still, so he did not flinch. But his brother did, subtly and almost imperceptibly. Nie Mingjue's flinch was considerably less subtle.

Within an instant, Lan Wangji found himself in a most undesirable position: every single person in the tent had turned to stare at him. The Patriarch's eyes, however, had shifted to Lan Xichen.

No one spoke. After a long silence, Lan Xichen parted his lips. He took a slow, deep breath.

"Immortal One." His voice was flawlessly, impeccably gracious. "May I ask. Why have you selected my brother?"

"Why? Hm."

The Patriarch raised a theatrical eyebrow. He rubbed his chin, as if deep in thought.

"Well, he's clearly the most beautiful among you. The strongest cultivator, among all the heirs and disciples. You're asking me for quite a favor, you know. Don't I deserve the best you have to offer?"

Lan Wangji was careful to keep his face blank. But he let his hands, hidden beneath the fabric of his sleeves, curl into fists.

The most beautiful. The strongest. The best you have to offer.

Like pigs at auction, indeed. Young Master Yao's words were impolitic but his sentiment was perfectly accurate.

Lan Xichen's smile grew rather tense.

"Certainly, we understand that we are asking a great deal." He inclined his head respectfully. "But if we are discussing the terms of a marriage, perhaps we should move this negotiation to a private setting."

Such negotiations were never carried out in public. Marriage talks took place behind closed doors, with the proper intermediaries. Lan Wangji knew this, like everyone else present. Surely the Patriarch knew it too.

But he only sighed, as if Lan Xichen had disappointed him.

"Sect Leader Lan. There's really nothing to negotiate." The Patriarch's tone was almost kind. "I have no interest in squabbling over dowries or bridewealth, and you know that. You will give me your brother, and I will hand you victory on a silver platter."

Victory.

He let the word linger in the air, allowing each guest to savor it.

Victory, after so long. An end to the fighting. An end to the Wens' tyranny. The survival of their clans, their sects, their families. Justice for the dead and protection for living. Victory.

Would anyone believe that one life was worth more than that victory? Could Lan Wangji prize his own freedom above the lives of every man and woman in the cultivation world? Every servant and peasant threatened by Wen Ruohan's depravities?

He could not, and he knew it. The Patriarch must know it too.

"That's the deal I am offering." The Patriarch spread his hands. His impudent smile had disappeared. "You can take it or leave it. But if you refuse, I'll know that nobody here plans to negotiate in good faith. You'll have to fight this war on your own."

Lan Xichen's eyes were agonized. He stared mutely at the Patriarch and did not reply.

He never would. Lan Wangji knew it with sharp, sudden clarity, as if he'd been struck by lightning. His brother would never sell him for any price. Lan Xichen would waste hours, days, weeks looking for another solution. In the meantime, people would die and the war would be lost.

His brother would never speak. So Lan Wangji's duty was clear.

"We accept," he said.

His brother drew in a sharp breath.

"Wangji," he murmured, brokenly.

But Lan Wangji kept his eyes on the Patriarch. He didn't turn to his brother. If he allowed himself even a brief glance, he feared his resolve would weaken.

He couldn't let himself think of the future: parting from his brother, leaving Cloud Recesses, disappearing into the Patriarch's domain. He couldn't think of what he was giving up. He could only think of what the cultivation world would gain.

The Patriarch smiled with teeth.

"Very good!" He clapped his hands again. "I like a decisive spirit! Second Young Master, I am sure we will be very happy together."

Lan Wangji inclined his head in polite agreement. But he was sure of no such thing.

"Let me give you a betrothal gift. Come here." The Patriarch held out his hand.

It was, perhaps, another power-play. He wanted to Lan Wangji to rise and walk to him, symbolically. Lan Wangji felt a sharp burst of resentment, and then crushed it mercilessly. He must not think of such things. He forced himself to think of Lan Mingzhu instead.

She had been his third cousin, almost exactly his age. Since they were four years old, they had shared every class. Her cultivation had been high, and her skill with a blade exceptional.

But she was weary from many months of fighting, as they all were. Yesterday, her guard had slipped. It had been only a momentary lapse. But in that instant, a Wen sword had gutted her.

She bled out in seconds. Lan Wangji could do nothing but grip her shoulders as blood streamed from her mouth. Afterward, he burned her body so Wen Ruohan could not raise her as a puppet.

Lan Wangji thought of his cousin, dying in his arms before her twentieth birthday. Then he swallowed and rose from his chair. He reached the Patriarch's side in seven short steps.

The Patriarch smelled like petrichor and smoke. He gave Lan Wangji a teasing smile.

"Hold out your hand."

Lan Wangji obeyed. The Patriarch removed something from his own hair. There was a flash of silver, and a lotus hairpin was placed gently into Lan Wangji's palm.

It was almost quaint in its simplicity. Lan Wangji had seen such hairpins often while traveling in Yunmeng. But the Patriarch folded his hand around the pin as if it were a priceless treasure.

"Wear this during your next battle," he said softly. "I'll send for you within a month."

Lan Wangji slipped the pin into his sleeve and retreated to his seat.

The clamor of voices rose again. Lan Wangji didn't bother to listen. The other sect leaders wanted to know what the Patriarch planned to do. What sort of help did he plan to offer? How could this token—most of them had not even seen what it was—possibly win a war?

But the Patriarch dismissed their concerns, rising smoothly to his feet. His eyes were dark and humorless. When he spoke, it was only to Lan Wangji's brother.

"If the battle goes against you—if I fail to uphold my part of the bargain— of course you'd be free to keep your brother."

He tossed his head, as if the idea was unspeakably foolish.

"But when you win, I'll expect you to uphold your part. I'll send an escort to Cloud Recesses on the next new moon. Don't keep them waiting."

Naturally, Lan Xichen had other questions. But there was no time to ask. The Patriarch pushed through the flap of the tent, and he was gone.

A few sect leaders tried to pursue him. They returned seconds later, gasping in shock. The Patriarch hadn't drawn a sword and flown away. He had not mounted a horse. He had simply vanished, leaving nothing behind but a dark, wicked pulse of energy.

Voice rose, frantic and furious. Each sect leader seemed to be trying to speak over the next. But Lan Wangji did not bother to listen to any of it.

He rose and bowed to his brother. Then he pushed his way out of the tent. No one followed him. The sect leader standing by the entrance leaped out of Lan Wangji's way, as if he carried a contagious illness.

Within his own tent, Lan Wangji knelt on his bedroll and stared at the silver hairpin for a long time. The etchings were softened from heavy wear, but he saw no trace of tarnish. Lan Wangji turned the pin over in his hands.

Nothing felt out of the ordinary. But the Patriarch would not have staged this display for no reason. So Lan Wangji tucked the pin into his hair. Then he waited.

His brother joined him hours later. He looked as if he'd aged several decades in a single afternoon. At first, he only stared at Lan Wangji in silence. Then he took Lan Wangji into his arms, the way he had when Lan Wangji was very small.

They did not speak. But then, there was really nothing to be said.

Chapter Text

That night, sleep proved elusive. Lan Wangji lay awake, staring at the walls of his tent. He couldn't manage to put his thoughts in order.

Dawn came too quickly. They were far from the mountains of Cloud Recesses, but the mornings were still chilly. The autumn equinox was drawing near. As he rose from his bed, Lan Wangji dressed in careful layers to ward off the cold. He combed out his hair and fastened it away from his face. But when he reached for his forehead ribbon, he hesitated.

Before turning in, he had removed the lotus hairpin. It lay on a set of soiled robes, just barely touching his forehead ribbon. The pin looked almost fragile in the thin morning light.

Lan Wangji tied on the ribbon, as he had every morning since his third birthday. His hand hovered restlessly over the pin. After a long moment, he forced himself to pick it up. He slipped the pin into his hair and adjusted his guan. Then he left the tent, his steps measured and even.

The morning brought a new initiative, a change in strategy. When Lan Wangji entered the main tent, he found Nie Mingjue in a foul temper. Sect Leader Nie had arranged the new formations himself, and he intended to spend the morning explaining his plans. But the other sect leaders weren't paying attention. They were fully absorbed in a discussion of the Patriarch's visit.

It took some cajoling before the group settled down to the topic of military strategy. Somewhat reluctantly, the sect leaders agreed to move forward with their battle plans. Lan Wangji would be among the vanguard, while Nie Mingjue led a separate force from the south. Lan Xichen would command his troops from the air.

Lan Wangji had long since discovered that a dozen sect leaders could always find something to argue over. He expected someone to ask why their disciples had not been given a larger role. The arguments would begin there, and soon everyone would be squabbling. But today, the sect leaders merely nodded along as Nie Mingjue outlined his plans. Then the conversation veered back to the Patriarch.

Sect Leader Wu pondered over the Patriarch's promise, wondering what form his help would take. Sect Leader Yu muttered that the aid might never arrive. Other sect leaders chimed in, taking one side and then another. They argued back and forth for a full incense stick. Finally, Sect Leader Zhong suggested delaying the initiative altogether so they could wait for the Patriarch to fulfill his promise.

Nie Mingjue cleared the table with a furious sweep of his arm.

"Enough!" He slammed a fist down, leaving a deep crack in the wood. "Get to your positions or flee back to your lands! Fight like cultivators, or cower and wait for help. The choice is yours."

The sect leaders departed in a huff. Once they were gone, Nie Mingjue slumped over the table. His shoulders were bowed and he did not look at Lan Wangji. After an awkward pause, Lan Wangji left the tent quietly.

He had never been skilled at guessing another person's thoughts. But somehow, he knew exactly what was on Nie Mingjue's mind. Sect Leader Nie must be desperately grateful that his own brother had been spared. He was an honorable man, though. So he must be bitterly ashamed of his own relief. 

Lan Wangji felt cold inside, but he couldn't judge Nie Mingjue. Every sect leader must be struggling with similar feelings. After the Patriarch's visit, they must have returned to their tents and wept with gratitude. They must have thanked the heavens that the Patriarch's gaze had not fallen upon their own people.

Some, Lan Wangji knew, might feel a brief disappointment. Leaders of less prestigious sects might grieve a lost opportunity. They might wish that the Patriarch had chosen their son or daughter. But after Lan Wangji disappeared into Burial Mounds, their disappointment would surely vanish. They would shiver and count their blessings. In time, they may even kneel in their ancestral halls, grateful that their families had been spared.

Lan Wangji couldn't blame them. If their positions had been reversed, perhaps he would have also felt a shameful sense of relief. As it was, he merely felt hollow. But he tried to fulfill his duties, preparing for battle as if it were an ordinary morning.

His fellow cultivators, though, made it difficult to forget his circumstances. Already they seemed to consider him marked by ill-fortune. As they assembled into formation, half a dozen men and women skirted nervously away from Lan Wangji. They seemed afraid to approach, terrified to even brush up against his robes.

Lan Wangji pretended not to notice. The lotus pin felt like a leaden weight, but he ignored it. He took to his sword and led the disciples to the skies.

Wen Ruohan's puppets roamed the battlefield in a ceaseless patrol. The corpses shielded his citadel and his people. Unless their forces pushed the corpses back, living Wen soldiers would not emerge. Only seldom did they manage to drive the puppets off the fields. But sometimes, their forces progressed far enough to draw out the living soldiers. Nie Mingjue hoped this new formation would once again lure the Wens out of hiding.

Lan Wangji circled from the air and waited for his brother. When he caught sight of Lan Xichen's white robes, he turned his attention to the south. The flare came: Nie Mingjue's signal. Lan Wangji gave the sign to the cultivators at his back, and they descended.

He hadn't allowed himself to wonder what would happen when he took to the field. In his heart, Lan Wangji half-believed that nothing would occur. Perhaps it was only a vain hope. After all, if no aid came, their promise to the Patriarch would be void. So Lan Wangji let himself believe, just for a moment, that this battle would be like any other.

But as his foot touched the ground, the nearest puppet twitched. Then it twisted in a spasmodic jerk. Lan Wangji took up his sword and stepped closer. He prepared to strike.

Yet before he could aim the first blow, the puppet flickered. The skin shaded red and gray, like a dying ember. Then it crumbled and turned to dust.

Lan Wangji held himself very still. He took a deep breath of the stale, dusty air and stepped forward. Another puppet shambled in Lan Wangji's direction. He walked forward and met it calmly.

Once again, he had no need to draw his sword. The puppet spasmed and flickered. Then it shriveled and turned to ash.

His fellow cultivators clustered nearby, keeping a careful distance. Their stares pressed against Lan Wangji's skin like a physical weight. He knew they were watching with horrified, dumbfounded eyes. But he had no time to offer reassurance.

Lan Wangji took another breath and let it out slowly. He stepped forward again, and he did not allow his gait to falter.

No one called out for him to stop. That was a blessing. Lan Wangji couldn't have stopped, and he had no explanations to offer. He hardly understood what was happening. He only knew—as a third corpse crumbled, then a fourth—that the Patriarch had somehow kept his promise. The puppets drifted toward Lan Wangji like moths to a flame.

He walked the battlefield for half a shi, his movements unhurried. As soon as he stepped within range, the puppets took notice. They strayed toward Lan Wangji, abandoning other combatants. Each one perished in turn.

Every now and then, Lan Wangji glanced around the battlefield to see how the others were faring. But they had withdrawn from the fight as soon as the puppets turned his way. The Lan disciples waited in silence, circling the skies. Nie Mingjue's forces held their position, as did his brother's.

Lan Wangji drew some comfort from that. The others were safe. Perhaps there would be no more deaths in this war. A fortnight ago, the idea was an impossible dream. Suddenly, the dream had become a reality.

It was too late for Lan Mingzhu. But it wasn't too late for the rest. No more grief-stricken families would commission memorial tablets, or hold funerals for cultivators who had died too young. Lan Wangji held that thought against his heart. It was enough to give him courage, even as his mind drifted further ahead, teasing at the edges of his own grim future.

In time, the Wen soldiers realized that something had gone wrong. The battalions stationed around Nightless City stirred. There was shouting and movement, soldiers in red surging onto the field.

Lan Wangji gripped Bichen's hilt as he watched their approach. His brother's forces swung into motion, along with Nie Mingjue's. The Lan disciples landed and hurried forward.

Years later, Lan Wangji would realize that the puppets' destruction might have been enough. Without the corpse puppets, their forces could have won the war. Their cultivators were strong, surely capable of dispatching the Wen soldiers. They could have won the war on their own merits.

But perhaps—after the disastrous meeting where half a dozen sect leaders offered him concubines—the Patriarch had no faith left in their abilities. In any case, he didn't withdraw his aid once the Wens took the field.

The first company approached on foot. Several dozen puppets remained, writhing in silent agony. But as the Wens drew near, the puppets corpses grew still. Then they turned stiffly and lurched toward the approaching Wens.

The soldiers must have believed that their puppets were falling back, bolstering the Wen forces. Lan Wangji could hardly fault such an assumption. The puppets were meant to be under Wen Ruohan's control. It would never occur to the Wens that the puppets might harm them.

But the puppets tore into the Wens like wild dogs. Lan Wangji stared, unblinking, as the corpses savaged the soldiers. They tore at the Wens with their teeth and nails. Then the puppets broke the Wens' necks and gutted them with their own swords.

Lan Wangji watched as the Wen soldiers screamed, wept, and died in the dark soil of Nightless City.

Then, because he didn't know what else to do, Lan Wangji moved on.

The war was over now. Lan Wangji felt the truth pulsing through his veins. Three-quarters of the puppets were dust. The others were wild, rending last few Wen soldiers limb from limb. The war was over, and the Wens had lost.

But the formalities must be observed. The war would not be finished until Wen Ruohan was dead.

By the time Lan Wangji arrived at Nightless City, it was already on fire. He couldn't sense whatever had turned the puppets mad. But it had spread like a contagion, racing ahead of their approach.

As he stepped into the citadel courtyard, he found Wen Xu's mangled body. Screams echoed from the surrounding buildings. Blood flowed in small streams.

Lan Wangji watched it flow and thought of the snowmelt that came every spring in Cloud Recesses. The runoff swelled the small rivers and brooks. He and his brother used to sail boats in the streams each year. It was strange to think of such things now, but Lan Wangji couldn't help it. He wondered—as he stepped over another puddle of gore—if he would ever see another spring in Cloud Recesses.

Their forces were at his back. But they still gave Lan Wangji a wide berth. Some hesitated to enter Nightless City at his side. His brother joined him, though, and so did Nie Mingjue. Together, they ventured inside. Together, they watched Wen Chao devoured alive by a rabid puppet. Together, they made their way into Wen Ruohan's throne room.

Wen Ruohan's mind was clearly shattered. He screamed when he saw them. His eyes were wide and white, shot through with broken blood vessels. He looked as if he were seeing something horrific, rather than three silent cultivators.

Lan Xichen tried to speak, to demand unconditional surrender. But Wen Ruohan was past sense. He gave no formal surrender. He only screamed until his lips were flecked with blood. He continued to scream until Baxia opened his chest from navel to throat. Then, at last, he fell silent. And, like a candle guttering out, there was nothing left.

They made their way outside. The puppets had been reduced to ash, drifting in the hot wind. Wen corpses lays scattered across the flagstone. Not a single Wen soldier had survived, but they found many servants. The servants had spent the last shi cowering under their beds and hiding in cellars. They emerged only to fling themselves at Nie Mingjue's feet and beg for mercy.

Something, Lan Wangji knew, would have to be done with the survivors. But he couldn't think of that. He hadn't lifted his sword against a single enemy, but he was suddenly exhausted. When his brother suggested—gently, uneasily—that perhaps he'd like to rest, Lan Wangji did not refuse. He returned to his tent. Their forces shied away at his approach. Some even took an anxious step back, as if they feared him.

Lan Wangji took off his guan—but not the lotus pin—and lay upon his bedroll. Then he slept and woke into a different world.

***

Afterward, the rejoicing was great. The horror of the final battle was forgotten, and the celebrations lasted for days. Lan Wangji did not join them.

The thought of being near others—watching their feasting, drinking, celebrating—was unbearable. Deep down, Lan Wangji sensed they would be grateful for his absence. His presence would have soured their joy. They did not want to remember that their triumph had a cost. With Lan Wangji ensconced in his tent, the price of victory was easy to forget.

He remained secluded for three days, waiting. The war had ended in a matter of hours, but there were still countless arrangements to be made. Peace treaties must be drawn up, spoils divided. By rights, most would go to the Lan and Nie sects. They had sacrificed the most cultivators, played the largest role in the war efforts.

But the Patriarch claimed a share, too. His letter arrived the day after the battle, another exquisite dark butterfly.

The survivors you found in the city are mine. Send them within a fortnight of the wedding. They are to arrive unharmed and well-fed.

This missive—short though it was—provoked a lengthy discussion. The resentment toward the Wens had not vanished with the war's end. Lan Wangji knew that some cultivators would have liked to expel their fury upon the bodies of the survivors. The survivors were chiefly servants, farmers, and concubines. But that didn't matter to some in the cultivation world. They would have liked to see everyone living under Wen Ruohan's protection hanged from the walls of Nightless City.

This, however, was out of the question. The survivors belong to the Patriarch now, and so did Lan Wangji.

The closing negotiations took a week to complete. Lan Wangji stayed until the final treaty had been sealed. Then he made the long journey back to Cloud Recesses.

Uncle met him at the gates, white-faced. Lan Wangji hadn't written, hadn't been able to find the words. But his brother had sent a letter. The news of his betrothal had already spread through Cloud Recesses. The Patriarch had sent letters, too.

He had named the wedding date: the new moon, less than a fortnight away. He would send a party to collect Lan Wangji, he said. The wedding itself would take place in the Burial Mounds.

Lan Xichen had sent a reply, requesting the honor of hosting the wedding at Cloud Recesses. But the offer had been coldly refused. The Patriarch had sent him another curt message:

He's marrying into my household, so it's customary for the marriage to take place here. I've heard that the Lans are noted for their traditionalism. Surely they will not object to this arrangement.

Naturally, there could be no objection. The war was finished, and they owed their victory to the Patriarch. Lan Xichen showed his brother the letters, his face anxious. But Lan Wangji only shook his head.

"Let it be so," he said.

His brother's face crumpled.

At Cloud Recesses, two copies of the betrothal contract were waiting. Lan Wangji applied his own seal to the documents. One would be filed in their hall of records. The other would be sent to the Patriarch to formalize the betrothal. Lan Wangji watched as the contract was sent off, and he felt the noose tightening around his own neck.

There wasn't enough time to observe all six etiquettes. Not in the strictest sense, anyway. But the elders had arranged for a cursory exchange of gifts. As the days wore on, Lan Wangji's chambers filled with new items. Some were from the Patriarch, turned over to Lan Wangji as his rightful share of the marriage payment. Others were gifts from his own family. Lan Wangji examined each item passively, without interest.

His wedding robes had been selected. Jewelry was brought out of storage. Letters flew back and forth, hammering out the final arrangements. Then, in a breathlessly short space of time, everything had been prepared.

After his return to Cloud Recesses, Lan Wangji had been relieved of his duties. It was customary in his sect for disciples to spend the fortnight preceding their wedding in meditation. Lan Wangji tried to be grateful for this period of quiet reflection. But the silence and solitude grated against his nerves. He couldn't focus his attention long enough to meditate.

The Lan sect had hundreds of rules pertaining to marriage. Lan Wangji felt that he ought to spend some time pondering them. Within a matter of days, he would make a solemn and lifelong oath. He should make plans for his married life, and consider how he might best fulfill his duties as a husband.

But the teachings of his ancestors felt useless here. They could not prepare him for this sort of marriage. Lan Wangji gave up on meditation by his third day and spent hours walking the remotest corners of Cloud Recesses.

At night, he lay awake, turning the lotus pin in his hands. He ached to get rid of it. The pin felt cursed somehow. Lan Wangji wanted to hurl it into a stream and let the currents carry it to a hidden cove. But disposing of the pin would change nothing. The bargain was already sealed, and the Patriarch had fulfilled his promise. Lan Wangji could not refuse to fulfill his own.

The day before his wedding, Lan Wangji's belongings were packed into trunks. His wedding robes were aired, pressed, perfumed. The servants laid out his jewelry with fastidious care. Lan Wangji took no interest in the preparations around him. Instead, he ate his meals with his brother and uncle. He tried to savor their dwindling time together.

His brother had asked about visits. But the Patriarch had been evasive, and Lan Wangji knew that he might never see his family after his wedding day. So he tried to make the most of their final day together.

It was hard, though. His brother and uncle watched him with stricken eyes. They spoke to him in soft tones, as if he lay on his deathbed. They talked around his marriage, searching for other subjects to discuss. But what else could they possibly speak of? Lan Wangji's mouth felt dry, and he couldn't muster up a single word in response.

Then, after lunch, the head physician of Cloud Recesses paid him a visit.

Lan Wangji had dreaded this meeting, but he knew he couldn't hope to avoid it. Before their weddings, Lan disciples always met with a physician. This was the time for disciples to receive instruction on marital intimacy. It was a mortifying ritual, but one Lan Wangji couldn't possibly escape.

He greeted the physically politely and invited her to sit. Then he poured the tea, and listened to her advice.

As the physican spoke, he made a feeble pretense of drinking from his own cup. But his throat was too tight to swallow. The physician described—in devastatingly clinical terms—what Lan Wangji should expect from his wedding night. Then she provided a pot of salve and explained its purpose.

Lan Wangji bit his tongue until he tasted blood.

The physician paused and lifted her attention from the tea. She asked if he had any questions. He knotted his fingers together beneath the table and shook his head.

Under different circumstances, Lan Wangji might have felt some curiosity or enthusiasm. Had he married for love, he would have wanted to bring his spouse pleasure. There were ways to learn such things, even in Cloud Recesses. Disciples on the verge of marriage were permitted to read any text in the library, even those marked 'restricted'.

Lan Wangji had always refrained from looking at those kinds of books. Other disciples had smuggled them in as contraband, but Lan Wangji never allowed himself even a brief glimpse. The rules forbade him from reading such texts before his wedding. He had followed those rules diligently.

Under better circumstances, Lan Wangji might have asked to see the texts now. The act of consummation was still largely a mystery to him. He understood the mechanics, especially after the physician's horrifying lecture. But he didn't know how to use dual cultivation to strengthen the marriage bond. He didn't even know how to kiss, touch, or caress his spouse.

If he had married for love, he would have wanted to correct his ignorance before the wedding night. But he wasn't marrying a lover who had captured his heart. He wasn't even marrying a respectable young man or woman, chosen by his elders for political purposes. He was marrying the infamous Yiling Patriarch.

Lan Wangji knew better than to hope for pleasure or affection from such a man. So he had but one goal: to endure his wedding night with a minimum of discomfort and embarrassment.

When the physician asked if he would like to see the 'marriage books', he only shook his head. She didn't press the matter. But as she left, she physician paused in the doorway and cleared her throat.

"You may," she began delicately, "wish to prepare yourself beforehand. It will be your first night together. Your husband may be...impatient to consummate the union."

Lan Wangji forced himself to nod once more. The physician bowed her head in reply and vanished in a swirl of pale blue robes.

Once she was gone, he tucked away the pot of salve. His trunks were nearly filled, but they had been left open for the final night. Lan Wangji concealed the salve underneath vials of hair oil and cakes of fragrant soaps. He tried to forget its existence.

But her words followed him around. They rang in his ears: Your husband may be...impatient.

By custom, he was to spend the night before his wedding alone. He bathed, washed his hair, and rinsed it with rice-water. Then he dried his hair before a brazier. There were other rituals he was meant to perform tonight: hair-combing, incense-burning, meditation. But Lan Wangji didn't have the heart for them. He stared into the dancing flames, feeling as though he'd swallowed a block of ice.

Your husband may be...impatient, she had said.

The physician had been diplomatic and gracious. She had chosen to imply that his new husband may be eager to consummate their marriage. No darker hints had crossed her lips. She hadn't dared to suggest that the Patriarch might deliberately cause his new husband pain or humiliation. Yet Lan Wangji knew the possibility must have occurred to her. It had certainly occurred to him.

Immortals were meant to be above pettiness, cruelty, and savagery. But what did cultivators know of immortals, anyway? Immortals kept to themselves. Many had severed all ties with the mortal realm, and they lived only in myth. Others—like the Patriarch, like Baoshan Sanren—lived in the remote wilderness. They didn't mingle with the cultivation sects. Who could say what these beings were like in private?

And although he was immortal, the Patriarch practiced a corrupt form of cultivation. He raised corpses, wielded resentful energy. Such a man might find it amusing to torment his spouse. It was not unthinkable.

Lan Wangji drew some comfort from the Patriarch's second letter, the one that demanded the Wen survivors arrive unharmed and well-fed. That seemed promising. The Patriarch didn't want them harmed or mistreated. He could not be entirely cruel, then.

But perhaps the Patriarch only wanted the pleasure of breaking them himself? Or maybe he saw them as beasts of burden: hands to till his field, backs to carry heavy loads.

Some cultivators treated their beasts with great care, then returned home and beat their spouse. Lan Wangji could not pretend to be ignorant of such things. Gossip was forbidden in Cloud Recesses, and so was violence. But whispers carried even into the Jingshi. It was forbidden to strike your spouse, yet some did it anyway. The Patriarch might be one of them.

When his hair was dry, Lan Wangji blew out the candles. He lay still beneath the covers and tried not to think. But sleep was a long time coming.

***

The Patriarch would not send for him until the afternoon. Even so, Lan Wangji was accustomed to rising early. He woke at dawn, as he had since childhood. Then he dressed and fixed his hair with special care.

The wedding morning was the traditional time for the leave-taking ceremony. He must drink tea with his family, then visit his instructors and the sect elders.

Under different circumstances, Lan Wangji would have found joy in this ritual. The leave-taking ceremony was a time of celebration. Parents delighted in showing off their children, now grown to adulthood. Instructors were pleased to watch their former students flourish. The elders, too, rejoiced to see another disciple honorably married.

If Lan Wangji had married a respected cultivator—a sect leader, perhaps, or their chosen heir—the leave-taking ceremony would have been quite different. It might have brought pleasure and gratification to every guest in attendance. But he was marrying the Yiling Patriarch, and so the ceremony was ghastly.

Lan Wangji poured out the tea. He kowtowed to thank his elders for raising him. Then he bowed to his instructors before offering the traditional gifts, prepared by this brother.

His former teachers tried to smile as they accepted their gifts. A few elders managed to offer feeble congratulations. But it was a grim charade, a parody of the joy he had always expected to see on his wedding day. Lan Wangji's stomach churned each time the elders exchanged another uncomfortable glance.

It was a relief to return to his rooms to rest. But there was no time for meditation to soothe his racing mind. Lan Wangji had only a few short minutes to study the familiar surroundings. His heart thundered inside his chest.

He had lived in the Jingshi for five years now. His family had bequeathed it when he came of age and left the dormitories. Lan Wangji had expected to spend the rest of his days within these four walls.

But soon he would be somewhere very different. He tried to imagine what his new home would look like and discovered that he couldn't. Perhaps the Patriarch would give him a fine suite of rooms, out of respect for his station. But perhaps his new rooms would be cold and cramped, full of battered furniture and thin bedding. Lan Wangji didn't know what sort of treatment he ought to expect. So he sat quietly behind his desk and tried to prepare himself for the worst.

At midday, the servants brought a steaming bath and Lan Wangji scoured himself carefully. He found himself painfully conscious of every cun of skin. His body would soon be under inspection, for the first time since he was a young child.

He hardly knew how to prepare for that. But he found the perfume oils the Patriarch had sent. After drying off, he rubbed the oils dutifully into his skin. His brother would join him soon, to help him finish dressing. Before he could arrive, Lan Wangji retrieved the pot of salve. Then he did what the physician had recommended.

He had never dared to touch himself in this fashion before. Lan Wangji found it strange, and largely unpleasant. He'd heard enough—from whispers in the dormitory after lights-out—to know that this act was meant to be pleasurable. But perhaps it was only pleasurable for people who managed to relax. No matter how hard he tried, Lan Wangji couldn't manage that.

Breathing exercises didn't help, and neither did cultivation techniques. Every muscle in Lan Wangji's body stubbornly tensed in anticipation. In the end, he gave up. He prepared himself as well as he could and hoped it would be enough.

Lan Wangji washed his hands thoroughly and dressed in his under-robes. Then he slid open the door of the Jingshi and waited

His brother was flawless punctual, as always. He had dressed in his finest robes, and Lan Wangji took a moment to admire them. His brother would not attend the wedding. He would do nothing but accompany the palanquin to the gates. Lan Xichen was Sect Leader, though, and it was his brother's wedding day. Lan Wangji knew better than to think his brother would disrespect the marriage by dressing carelessly.

Lan Xichen's robes and guan reflected the solemnity of the occasion. But his face was bleak and desolate, and it tore at Lan Wangji's heart. He would have liked to comfort his brother, but a queasy feeling had settled into the pit of his stomach. He didn't feel qualified to comfort anybody. In fact, Lan Wangji felt rather in need of comfort himself.

He marshaled his thoughts grimly. This is best, he told himself. It is best that the Patriarch chose me.

It might have been so much worse. The Patriarch could have asked for Lan Xichen, after all. Or he could have asked for someone vulnerable, like Jiang Yanli or Nie Huaisang. Their low cultivation would not support them through any kind of physical ordeal. If the Patriarch proved cruel, perhaps they wouldn't have survived.

Lan Wangji, at least, had a strong golden core. His will was even stronger, and he healed quickly. He could survive whatever lay ahead. He could survive, and keep the alliance intact.

He held still as his brother dressed his hair. Lan Xichen worked with fastidious care, combing his hair into a style befitting a married man. Once that task was complete, he pinned the elaborate jeweled headpiece in place. As he worked, he spoke in soft, reassuring tones.

"I received a letter from the Patriarch's chief physician." Lan Xichen slid the last hairpin into place. "She asked me to let her know if there was anything she could do to ensure your health and wellbeing in your new home."

Lan Wangji didn't nod. The headpiece was heavy and forbade sudden movements. Instead, he met his brother's gaze in the mirror. His brother's eyes were anxious but hopeful.

"It was a gracious letter," he added. "Perhaps she will become a friend."

Lan Wangji didn't expect to find friends in his new home. He had never managed to find any elsewhere, not even in Cloud Recesses.

He had his brother and his uncle. He had his instructors. He had the respect and esteem of virtually everyone he encountered. But Lan Wangji had never secured anyone's friendship. He ground his teeth together and forced down such selfish, childish thoughts.

Silently, he reviewed the disciplines. He reminded himself to keep his priorities in their proper order. He need not seek friendship in his new home, and he would be unwise to expect it. Instead, he should hope for respect. If his husband came to respect him—if he instructed his household to treat Lan Wangji with respect, too—that ought to be enough.

Lan Wangji resisted the urge to swallow. His brother's eyes were on him, and he couldn't afford any nervous gestures. But if the Patriarch did not issue such instructions, Lan Wangji realized he'd have little recourse.

He wished, suddenly, that his family had thought to prepare him for this moment. Some families did. They taught their children what to do if they married into a home that proved hostile. But no one had ever expected Lan Wangji to meet such a fate. It had always been tacitly understood that Lan Wangji would bring his spouse home to Cloud Recesses.

Lan Wangji toyed with the edge of his robes.

Even if his elders had married him out, it would never have occurred to them that he might face persecution. If Lan Wangji married out, it would have been a political match, probably to the leader of one of the Great Sects. His new spouse would have taken care to treat him with respect. Mistreating Lan Wangji would only offend the Lan sect and spoil the marriage alliance. 

But such rules only applied to sect leaders. The Patriarch was an unknown entity. He wasn't beholden to the Lans, and they could exert no pressure upon him.

He had demanded Lan Wangji's hand. Lan Wangji still wasn't sure why. Their marriage seemed to serve no political purpose. But even if the Patriarch had chosen the marriage himself, that was no guarantee of congeniality. If this marriage soured, the Lan sect could offer little protection or retribution.

It was no wonder, then, that Lan Xichen's eyes were so worried. Lan Wangji waited until his hair was finished. Then he reached out and touched his brother's hand.

"I will be well."

He tried to throw the proper reassurance into his voice. But Lan Xichen shut his eyes, as if pained. They shared a hurried embrace. There was time for nothing more. The appointed hour had arrived.

A gong sounded three times: the Patriarch's attendants were waiting.

Lan Xichen helped him with the veil. It blotted out the familiar surroundings of Lan Wangji's bedroom. Everything was dyed scarlet, the soft blues and misty greens of Cloud Recesses shrouded in a rosy haze. For a moment, Lan Wangji felt as though he'd returned to the battlefield. There had been so much red there, hundreds of men and women bleeding out.

But he was still in Cloud Recesses, and this was a different kind of battle. A bloodless fight.

Lan Wangji could navigate around Cloud Recesses with his eyes shut. His brother led him anyway with a gentle hand on his arm. They bowed before their parents' tablets in the ancestral hall. Uncle joined them there, and Lan Wangji bowed to him too.

Uncle touched his hand.

Lan Wangji couldn't see his face. The heavy embroidery on the veil obscured his vision. He was meant to keep his eyes lowered anyway, in a show of filial piety. But he could feel the way his uncle's hand trembled. His stomach clenched.

The disciples of Cloud Recesses had lined the paths to see him off. Lan Wangji saw the hazy figures through the veil, but he heard nothing more than whispers.

Weddings in his sect were always solemn affairs. The ringing gong was the only concession made to the tradition of scaring off evil spirits. No one games played with the wedding attendants, and there were no pranks or amusements. Lan disciples were not permitted to be frivolous.

Lan Wangji knew this was for the best. Even if his sect had followed such traditions, no one would dare trifle with Patriarch. He couldn't imagine anyone holding Lan Wangji as a playful hostage, demanding that the Patriarch turn over red envelope as compensation.

But the Patriarch had not come himself. Lan Wangji had learned that already. His husband had sent an honor guard instead. They would escort Lan Wangji to the Burial Mounds, and his husband would meet them there.

Uncle had grumbled over this. He seemed relieved that the Patriarch would not defile Cloud Recesses with his presence. Yet he was angry, too. It had seemed like a deliberate slight. Traditionally, the Patriarch ought to collect his new spouse in person.

But Uncle's irritation and the murmurings of the elders hadn't mattered. They were in no position to argue with the Patriarch, and he undoubtedly knew it.

Lan Wangji kept his head tilted down as they walked to the gates. That was the proper posture for a disciple who was marrying out, anyway. But it also allowed him to watch his own feet. He wondered how many times he had walked across the paths of Cloud Recesses. Then he wondered if he would ever walk them again.

When they reached the palanquin, Lan Xichen drew in a sharp breath. Lan Wangji lifted his eyes.

He saw the outline of the palanquin, with seven or eight people clustered nearby. But his vision was obscured by the veil, and he couldn't tell what had disturbed his brother. He reached out with his own senses. Then he caught his breath and fought to keep from recoiling.

Four men or women stood around the palanquin. They were breathing, and they had pulsing golden cores. But there were four more bodies present.

Bodies. Bodies without breath, without spiritual energy. Corpses, reanimated to carry the palanquin. A mist of resentful energy clung to them.

Lan Xichen stiffened. Lan Wangji grabbed his arm without conscious thought.

He knew, with visceral certainty, that his brother would fight to keep him from being taken. His brother would not allow him to enter the palanquin, to be carried down the mountainside by these creatures. But Lan Wangji dug his nails subtly into his brother's arm. They had always been able to sense each other's thoughts and feelings. He tried to project a message to his brother now.

Do not resist. This is only a message, a display, a show of force. Do not give them the satisfaction of seeing your anxiety. Do not let them bait you into an argument.

Lan Xichen held still for several long seconds. Then he took a deep breath.

Lan Wangji exhaled slowly and relaxed his grip. He knew his brother was arranging his features into a gracious, benign expression. His brother was preparing to play the part of the sect leader, to overlook this insult. His heart ached for his brother and for himself. But they could do nothing for one another. Lan Wangji focused instead on the dim shapes, visible through the veil.

A figure stepped forward. It bobbed, as if bowing.

"Sect Leader Lan." A woman's voice floated out of the misty red haze. "I am Physician Wei Qing. We have exchanged letters."

"Physician Wei." Lan Xichen's voice was slightly strained. But he made a short, polite bow. "It is a pleasure to meet you in person."

A short silence followed. Lan Wangji suspected the two were having a nonverbal conversation. He couldn't see their faces or gestures, though. He felt strangely helpless, trapped in his finery.

His sword would be sent with him on the palanquin. Lan Xichen carried it now. But it was not customary for Lan Wangji to carry it during the wedding.

Whether he would be permitted to keep it in his own home...remained to be seen. No one in the cultivation world would dare to take Lan Wangji's sword away from him. It was a hideous breach of etiquette to separate a cultivator from their sword. But the Patriarch was not bound by something as trivial as etiquette.

"I am sorry we can't stay longer," Wei Qing said, at last. "But the Patriarch is anxious to have the wedding completed."

Lan Wangji sensed that she was speaking to him, rather than to his brother. He understood, and he knew his role. Lan Wangji took an obedient step toward the palanquin. One of the walking corpses placed a stool before it.

"Perhaps we will meet another time." Lan Xichen squeezed his arm, one final touch. "In the meantime, please take care of my brother."

Lan Wangji pressed his lips together. He must not speak, he knew that already. Tradition dictated that he remain silent until the ceremony was complete.

Afterward, he could speak...if his husband wished him to do so. But Lan Wangji was gifted when it came to remaining silent. He realized suddenly that he might have ample opportunity to practice this skill in his new home.

"Sect Leader Lan, you have my word."

Wei Qing sketched another bow. Then she stepped forward, replacing Lan Xichen at his side. She took Lan Wangji's arm.

He pushed down the impulse to shove her away. Instead, he gritted his teeth and let her guide him to the palanquin. She handed him up, and he settled himself behind the silken walls.

Once he felt sure that no one could see him, Lan Wangji allowed himself the luxury of a deep, shaky breath.

Decorum, he reminded himself, was essential. He could not control the circumstances of his marriage. But he could regulate his own conduct. The marriage would take place, whether he liked it or not. So it was infinitely better to arrive with his head held high.

If he arrived kicking and screaming, the Patriarch might still take him. Lan Wangji had the ugly suspicion that his new husband was prepared for defiance or resistance. But he refused to disgrace his family through reckless conduct. He was leaving Cloud Recesses, but he could carry the sect teachings with him.

Lan Wangji resisted the impulse to touch his forehead. It felt strangely empty beneath the veil.

The elders had decided that it would be wiser for Lan Wangji to arrive without his ribbon. It didn't harmonize with his red wedding robes, and Lan Wangji was no longer a member of the Lan sect anyway. When he arrived at his husband's home, he should appear willing to join his husband's household. If he clung to his natal sect, it might offer insult.

Lan Wangji had listened to their arguments without objection. When the meeting was done, he folded up his forehead ribbon and offered it to his brother. But Lan Xichen wouldn't take it.

"You are still part of this sect." His brother spoke with uncharacteristic ferocity, folding Lan Wangji's hands around the ribbon. "This will always be yours."

He hadn't said, Cloud Recesses will always be your home. But Lan Wangji knew it was what he meant. So he packed the ribbon into his baggage.

There was a clatter behind the palanquin, as the last of the luggage was loaded onto a donkey cart. Lan Wangji resisted the impulse to turn toward the noise. The sides of the palanquin were drawn tightly, the interior dim and stuffy. It smelled of perfume and incense, and the scent was hardly unpleasant. But the confines were oppressive. Lan Wangji's skin itched. He tugged at the edges of his robes and tried to slow his rapid breathing.

"Hanguang-Jun, please bear with it for a while."

Lan Wangji froze. Wei Qing's voice was calm. But somehow, she sounded as if she knew what he was thinking.

"You won't be shut up in there for long. We just need to get down the mountain. We'll make the rest of the trip very quickly once we reach the base."

Lan Wangji did not speak, and the palanquin lurched forward.

It was not his place to ask questions. But he had wondered how they planned to travel to the Burial Mounds. The journey would take a fortnight on horseback. Lan Wangji couldn't imagine that such a lengthy, uncertain trip would be agreeable to anyone.

Perhaps they would allow him to fly his sword. That would still take at least a day, though, and the wind would spoil his wedding regalia. By the time he arrived, he would not be fit to be seen.

As they made the slow trip down the mountain, Lan Wangji picked the question to pieces. But he found no answers. He quickly grew distracted by the thought of his bearers. His palanquin was carried down the steep mountain path by walking corpses. There was something profoundly disturbing in that knowledge. Lan Wangji held himself tense for half a shi, expecting the bearers to trip.

But they made the journey in relative safety. Once they reached the mountain base, the ground smoothed out and the procession drew to a stop. Someone tapped on the side of the palanquin. With some misgivings, Lan Wangji rolled up the sides.

He was grateful for the fresh air, hungry for the sight of daylight. Yet it was not proper to lift the sides. He wasn't meant to converse with anyone on his journey. But he found only Wei Qing, standing beside the palanquin.

"We're waiting for the cart to catch up," she said briskly. "From there, we're going to use a portal. It will transport us to Yiling."

Lan Wangji remained silent. His mind was racing.

Teleportation talismans were hardly unknown, but their uses were limited. Transporting one person—even a trip of a few li—required a vast expenditure of spiritual energy. Most cultivators lived their entire lives without ever using such talismans.

He had never heard of a talisman that could transport nine people, three donkeys, a palanquin, and a cart. Nor had he heard of a talisman that could cross thousands of li. But it would explain how the Patriarch had appeared and disappeared outside that tent. Lan Wangji digested this information slowly. His husband had extraordinary abilities, indeed. Though Lan Wangji had hardly expected anything less.

It occurred to him, after a moment, that he had made no reply. But Wei Qing didn't seem disturbed by his silence.

"You can stay in the there for the trip," she added. "It might feel strange, but you won't be harmed. Just sit still, and we'll be there soon."

He tilted his head slightly, to show he had understood. The headpiece made the movement uncharacteristically clumsy, but she seemed to understand.

Wei Qing stepped back from the palanquin, and he lowered the sides once more. His escorts waited behind the palanquin.

Lan Wangji heard faint whispers, as Wei Qing spoke to someone. A male voice replied. One of the living escorts, then. But Lan Wangji didn't turn to look. He tried to occupy his mind by reciting the rules silently.

After a while, he heard the unmistakable sound of wheels rumbling against the southern road. There came the heavy tread of pack animals, and a murmured comment from the driver. The cart drew to a stop.

Wei Qing gave a short cry: an invocation of some kind.

A prickle of energy danced over Lan Wangji's skin. He felt a sharp, potent burst of power. Something blossomed ahead, hot and bright as the sun. The bearers lurched forward, and the palanquin passed into smooth, dark heat. It was like entering a tunnel, like entering the sun. The breath choked inside Lan Wangji's lungs. Sweat broke out against the back of his neck.

Then the pressure eased. The palanquin lurched, as though the bearers had regained their footing. There were human voices, somewhere faraway.

At first, Lan Wangji couldn't tell what the voices were saying. But the palanquin drew closer, and the formless shouts became cheers. He held very still and listened. Drums clamored, alongside the sharp crackle of fireworks.

Propriety dictated that Lan Wangji remain within the palanquin. He must stay inside until they reached his new home. The Lan disciplines decreed that propriety was essential at all times, especially during a solemn occasion like a wedding.

Lan Wangji wrestled against temptation. He reminded himself of the disciplines. Then he gave in and nudged aside the silk walls of the palanquin. He shifted his veil, just enough for a brief glimpse at the world outside.

They had entered a town. Lan Wangji didn't recognize it. But Yiling had been part of the Patriarch's domain for years now, and few cultivators dared to enter it. Lan Wangji watched with sharper interest, his eyes darting between fruit-carts and sloping roofs.

The buildings were surprisingly ordinary, and so were the people. Hundreds of men and women thronged the streets. Lan Wangji saw no curse marks, no signs that the people were corpses in disguise. They looked just like the merchants, farmers, shopkeepers of Caiyi Town. And they were cheering, just as the people of Caiyi Town would have done, had Lan Wangji brought a spouse to his home.

He watched for a few more moments. Then he adjusted the red silk walls and straightened his veil. Fireworks popped, and the sound of music continued. The normalcy was somehow reassuring, and Lan Wangji allowed himself a deep breath.

This, at least, was conventional. So many wedding traditions had already been omitted. There had been no proper negotiations, nor a dignified period of betrothal. Instead, the Patriarch had claimed Lan Wangji and named the wedding date.

Nobody had matched their characters. They had not to consulted a fortune-teller to determine whether it was an auspicious wedding date. The Patriarch had selected the date himself, after all. Lan Wangji knew that if the elders tried to delay the wedding, that would be decidedly inauspicious for their sect.

The elders had still arranged for an exchange of gifts. There was a contract, hastily constructed, determining the marriage payment and marriage portion. But Lan Wangji had never been fooled. Such arrangements meant nothing. The elders only wished to save face and give the marriage the appearance of normalcy. This was no typical marriage, bound by rituals and traditions.

Yet somehow, the cheering crowds soothed him. Lan Wangji hadn't realized that he expected them, not until he heard the voices and the drums and the fireworks. He had expected his wedding to be a celebration. And it seemed his wedding was...for the people of Yiling, at least. He listened, drawing strength from their voices, as the palanquin moved inexorably forward.

After a while, Wei Qing drew up beside him. She did not ask him to lift the sides. There were too many eyes pointed in his direction. But she spoke just loudly enough for Lan Wangji to hear through the silk walls.

"We're nearly there. He'll be waiting for you, and he'll take you inside to make your bows. Then there will be a feast, and you'll go to the wedding chambers."

She paused. Then she cleared her throat delicately, like the physician at Cloud Recesses.

"It's not a good time to discuss this." She paused, awkwardly. "But do you need to ask any questions?"

Lan Wangji fixed his eyes on the bells strung inside the palanquin. He had to swallow several times before he could speak.

"I do not."

He modulated his voice so Wei Qing could hear him over the shouting crowd. As he spoke, he couldn't repress a grimace.

Even if he were entirely ignorant about what awaited in the wedding chambers, he would hardly have stooped to discuss it here. It was broad daylight; a hundred people were looking on. Surely nothing could be more humiliating than a discussion of intimate matters here, with a woman he had just met.

Wei Qing did not press the matter. She rode beside the palanquin in silence for a time, then moved on.

The palanquin drew closer to his new home. Lan Wangji felt a dull pulse of resentful energy that strengthened with each step. The cheering faded, the town left behind. The bearers took to an incline. Lan Wangji realized that the path led straight into the heart of the mountain.

We're nearly there, Wei Qing had said.

So, he thought. The rumors were true.

People said that the Yiling Patriarch lived within the Burial Mounds. But Lan Wangji had always doubted the veracity of these stories. Other regions belonged to the Patriarch, too. He had claimed the mountain range that circled Yiling. A handful of villages had also fallen into his hands.

The Jiang sect had tacitly accepted this incursion: the land south of the Long River was now under the Patriarch's domain. It was not, perhaps, a terrible loss. Lotus Pier and their most valuable croplands were well north of the river. But Lan Wangji had heard that Madam Yu chafed at the shifting borders.

She was dead, though, along with Jiang Fengmian. Their son was scarcely Lan Wangji's age, his sect almost destroyed by the Wens. The new Sect Leader Jiang was in no position to resist. He wouldn't launch a fruitless quest to take back his ancestral lands from an immortal cultivator.

Like the Lans, he must accept the Patriarch's demands. Accept them, and pray that he asked for nothing more.

A fine mist shrouded the palanquin. Lan Wangji shifted uneasily, conscious that they had entered a populated area. Once more, people surrounded their procession. But the people of Yiling had been loud and merry. The people of the Burial Mounds proved much quieter.

Lan Wangji sensed that some of them were not truly human. There was the disorienting sensation of movement unaccompanied by spiritual energy: corpses walking beside the path. The living inhabitants spoke in soft, curious tones. He listened closely, but he couldn't deceipher what they said.

A gong was struck, and the palanquin came to a stop. Wei Qing rolled up the sides. Lan Wangji recognized her silhouette even through the veil.

The murmur of voices sharpened with interest. A few people edged forward, angling for a better look. But no one dared approach.

Wei Qing helped him down onto a path made of red cloth. He stepped—as was customary—over a saddle. Lan Wangji studied the polished leather with bitter amusement. This ritual was meant to bless him with safety and tranquility. He wondered if he would find either in his new home.

But there was no time to waste in idle thoughts. His husband was nearby. His oppressive power pulsed like a beating heart. Lan Wangji didn't need to lift the veil to recognize his husband's presence. Nor did he need Wei Qing's murmured explanation: she was releasing his arm, turning him over to his new spouse.

The Patriarch's hand closed around his arm. His grip was firm, yet not cruel. He led Lan Wangji into his home, and the wooden doors shut heavily at his back.

Chapter Text

Once he was inside his husband's home, Lan Wangji itched to take a look at his surroundings. But he held himself still. There would be time for that later, presumably. There would be a great deal of time to inspect his new home. A lifetime, in fact.

Provided, of course, he was let out of his chambers. Perhaps he wouldn't be allowed to roam at will. The Patriarch might choose to keep him imprisoned in a small suite of rooms. It was the fate that had befallen his mother, after all. It would seem like the bitterest sort of justice if Qingheng-Jun's son met a similar end.

Lan Wangji pushed that thought away and focused on his steps. The veil still obscured his vision, but the floor was smooth and polished. He had his husband's arm, too. At least there was no risk of an embarrassing, inauspicious fall.

The Patriarch guided him into a silent hall, and the doors shut behind them. The hall felt vast and airy, but also strangely empty. Lan Wangji squashed the temptation to lift his veil.

According to tradition, they must make their bows before the Patriarch’s family. But Lan Wangji sensed no living presence nearby. Clearly, the Patriarch hadn't brought him before his parents or relatives. Curiosity prickled at Lan Wangji’s skin.

The first rumors surfaced only seven or eight years ago: another cultivator has attained immortality. Then the years passed, and the rumors turned from a whisper into a shriek. A thousand stories circulated about the Patriarch's origins. But no one seemed to know the truth. 

Before the war, Lan Wangji had never bothered to pay attention to those rumors. He could honestly claim to be uninterested in such matters. Uncle had always discouraged his disciples from speculating on the Patriarch's history, anyway.

It was true: the Patriarch had attained the supreme goal toward which all cultivators strove. But in Uncle’s eyes, the Patriarch was no role model. His methods of cultivation were inherently corrupt. Thus, his origins were unimportant and curiosity about his powers forbidden.

Lan Wangji had accepted these limitations and asked no questions. But now, his ignorance burned.

If his husband were a man—a cultivator—then he once had parents. He had a home, perhaps even a sect. It would not have been so very long ago. But somehow, this knowledge had been lost. The Patriarch had emerged, as if from the aether, as a powerful immortal. No one knew his family name or ancestry.

Slowly, Lan Wangji sank to his knees on the cushion laid before the altar. He started his bows, his husband at his side. When the first bow was complete, Lan Wangji risked a glance upward.

It was difficult to see through the veil. But he could just barely make out two memorial tablets. Perhaps they held the names of the Patriarch's mother and father. Platters of fruit, flowers, and incense had been laid on the altar. Offerings, it seemed, to his deceased parents. Lan Wangji studied them and resisted the temptation to turn in his husband's direction. But his curiosity sharpened.

What woman bore you? What man sired you? Where were you born, and what name did they give you?

He could not ask, though. Lan Wangji could only make his second bow, then his third. Then the ritual was complete, and they were married. Lan Wangji knelt on the pillow and waited.

If his husband had living parents, there would be a tea ceremony. But if they had made their bows before an altar, then his in-laws were dead. Further obeisance was unnecessary. The Patriarch could take him directly to the wedding chamber. He could remove the veil and consummate the marriage. Lan Wangji’s married life would begin within moments.

Every nerve in his body tensed at the thought. Lan Wangji forced his muscles to relax, one by one. He was so occupied by this task, he neglected to duck away when the Patriarch reached out.

His husband tugged off the veil in one smooth movement. Lan Wangji tensed again, his posture rigid.

This was not proper. His veil shouldn't be removed until they were within the wedding chamber. Lan Wangji reached out with his senses, relieved when he perceived no one else in the hall. No servants or attendants were present, and the doors were closed. If anyone was eavesdropping, Lan Wangji felt no sign of their presence. His eyes darted to the altar.

The memorial tablets hung on the wall, but he wasn't close enough to read the names. Incense smoldered beside a platter of gleaming fruit. Lan Wangji kept his gaze locked onto the thin plume of smoke. They were not meant to look upon each other yet. His husband had been precipitous in his removal of the veil, but that did not excuse impropriety on Lan Wangji’s part.

After a few seconds, his husband tsked.

“What happened? You glared at me so fiercely in that tent! Now you’re too shy to look at me?”

His voice was honeyed, smooth. He sounded thoroughly amused. But then, he had often sounded amused during the wretched meeting that had sealed their betrothal. His amusement had been lined with contempt. His husband didn't sound contemptuous now, yet there was a mocking undertone to his voice. Lan Wangji didn't like it.

And his husband was wrong, of course. Lan Wangji was not too shy to look. He had merely been brought up with a strong sense of propriety. A married couple was not meant to look upon each other's faces until the moment of consummation.

He fixed his attention firmly on the fruit, the incense, the altar. But his husband took his chin, turning his face. Lan Wangji found himself looking into the Patriarch’s dark eyes.

“There you are!” The Patriarch hummed. “Ah, look! You’re even glaring again. What have I done wrong this time, I wonder?”

The amusement in his voice deepened. Lan Wangji hadn't intended to show his displeasure, but he felt himself scowling anyway.

He dropped his eyes to his husband's robes. They were a deep scarlet, the exact shade of arterial blood. The color was sickeningly familiar. Lan Wangji had seen a great deal of it on the battlefield.

“You were not supposed to remove the veil yet."

The Patriarch laughed, shifting on his knees. Though his wedding robes were loose-cut, Lan Wangji could make out the lines of his husband’s body. The Patriarch rested his hands on his lap. The strange dark flute was still stuck through his belt-loop.

“I wasn’t?” His husband’s voice was full of affected surprise. “But how are you supposed to eat with it on?”

Lan Wangji meant to keep his eyes lowered. But they lifted in surprise.

“I am not.”

He had married out, and so he was meant to fast for three days. That was the custom, and Lan Wangji had followed it diligently. Tomorrow, he would be permitted to eat. But the wedding banquet was not for him. It seemed peculiar that the Patriarch did not know this.

His husband made a disparaging sound.

“I don’t intend to starve you, you know. Everybody’s worked so hard preparing the wedding banquet. They’ll be disappointed if we don’t eat it.”

Lan Wangji remained silent, thinking hard.

He could practice inedia for a long time. It was no true hardship to go a few weeks without food. Still, he had never truly starved before. He was not eager to experience such a thing.

His husband's remarks were reassuring, then. Lan Wangji had anticipated that he would be fed in his new home. But he did not know for sure. He knew nothing for sure, and that knowledge grated his nerves raw. Lan Wangji clenched his jaw and held his tongue.

His husband heaved a sigh and reached out, helping Lan Wangji to his feet. It would have been impolite to shake off his hands, so he allowed his husband to guide him from the hall.

“Well, come on. The food will get cold.”

Lan Wangji followed grimly. But he felt strangely naked without the veil. The absence of his forehead ribbon was like a brand.

Every day since his third birthday, Lan Wangji had tied on the ribbon before leaving his chambers. The prospect of being seen without his ribbon—by strangers, no less—made his skin crawl. Yet he could do nothing to stop it. He curled his hands into fists inside his sleeves, and he trailed his husband a dining hall.

At least three dozen guests were waiting. Upon the Patriarch's entrance, the guests rose and bowed to him. Then they bowed to Lan Wangji.

His husband smiled as he guided Lan Wangji to their table. He addressed a few remarks to the assemblage, and Lan Wangji absorbed not a single word. He was suffocated by the sudden fear that he would be expected to say something to the guests. It was not customary for a married-in spouse to speak publicly at their wedding. But nothing about this day had been customary.

Mercifully, no one asked him to speak. Lan Wangji took the chair beside his husband, and they sat. A few musicians, positioned near the rear, began playing. Servants streamed into the hall with steaming plates and quiet chatter began.

Several guests studied Lan Wangji with undisguised curiosity. He was accustomed to that, and he kept his eyes on his own plate. An assortment of dishes was set before him, chiefly braised meats.

He couldn't eat those. But it didn't matter. Lan Wangji found he had no appetite. He let the servants lay out the meal and focused his attention on the guests.

His husband sat in a careless sprawl, quite unlike Lan Wangji’s stiff posture. Wei Qing was seated at his side. She was accompanied by a young man, perhaps a few years younger than herself, and four others. Lan Wangji didn't know their names, and his husband made no introductions. The Patriarch kept up a mindless chatter, exclaiming over the food and the wine. Most of his remarks were directed at Wei Qing and her companion. She rolled her eyes at his jokes while the others chuckled.

They stole glances at Lan Wangji every few seconds. Lan Wangji pretended not to notice.

When the wine appeared, his husband poured a generous measure for himself. He tried to fill Lan Wangji’s cup, too. But Wei Qing stopped him, turning the cup over.

“The Lan sect forbids the consumption of alcohol.” She waved away the wine jar. “Your husband does not drink.”

A quiet dread twisted in Lan Wangji's stomach. He was grateful for her intervention, but he wondered if she had wasted her breath. His husband could easily ignore her. The  Lan sect may forbid alcohol, he might say, but you do not belong to that sect any longer. You belong to me, and I say you will drink.

Lan Wangji knew he was in no position to refuse. His fingers twitched and he missed his sword like a lost limb.

But his husband only stared in shock for a moment. Then he shrugged.

“Ah, what a waste!” He drained his cup and refilled it in the next breath. “Well, more for me!”

Lan Wangji inclined his head politely and sipped his tea. It was fragrant and mellow, the leaves of high quality. Somewhat unwillingly, he tasted the vegetables too. But they were seasoned with something that made his mouth burn. He contented himself with plain rice after that.

As the eighth and final course was laid on the table, Lan Wangji felt the weight of his husband’s gaze. He had turned away from Wei Qing, glancing between Lan Wangji and his untouched dish of abalone.

“Husband, is the food not to your liking?”

He didn't sound angry. There was a slight edge to his voice, though, which made an honest answer impossible.

“The food is fine.” Lan Wangji took a measured sip of his tea.

The Patriarch made another amused, contemptuous sound.

“Is it? You’ve eaten about three bites. Are you sick? I’m sure our trusted physician has her needles handy, if you need treatment.”

He smiled at Wei Qing, and she rolled her eyes again. There was a marked fondness and familiarity between the two. It set Lan Wangji’s teeth on edge. He didn't know how to interpret their behavior.

Wei Qing had been part of the wedding party, the attendant charged with collecting Lan Wangji from his natal home. That suggested that she was the Patriarch’s kin, perhaps a sister or a cousin. But might she be something more to his husband?

Lan Wangji set down his cup and folded his hands on his lap. He was well-aware that he might have to tolerate a disagreeable presence in his husband's home.

According to the strictest etiquette, he shouldn't notice or care about concubines. They performed a base role in the household, and they could not threaten Lan Wangji’s position. Under normal circumstances—a political marriage to a sect leader, perhaps— he might not have minded at all. If he had no wish to serve his spouse in bed, it would have been easy to bite his tongue and look the other way.

In such a marriage, Lan Wangji's position would have been entirely secure. He was the brother of Sect Leader Lan, one of the Twin Jades of Gusu. Concubines were nothing compared to him. Their presence in his home—even in his husband’s bed—would have been meaningless.

But his position here was so unstable. Concubines seemed to present a far greater threat than Lan Wangji had ever imagined. Especially concubines who had won his husband’s trust, even helped to negotiate his marriage.

He took a deep breath. This time, he couldn't remain silent. His husband was waiting expectantly and Wei Qing was watching, too. Everyone at the table was watching. Lan Wangji clenched his fists beneath the table.

“The Lan sect does not eat meat,” he said simply.

It was not forbidden, exactly. When visiting another sect, the custom was relaxed. If their host served meat or seafood, Lan disciples could indulge without violating their principles. The laws governing hospitality and respectful conduct as a guest took precedence.

But Lan Wangji found himself stubbornly unwilling to touch the dishes laid before him. They looked well-prepared and the food was clearly of the highest quality. Yet he seethed with inward resentment. Surely he had made enough allowances for one day.

His husband gave Wei Qing a sharp look. She heaved a sigh.

“They didn’t tell me that." She sent an annoyed glance in Lan Wangji’s direction. “I wrote to Sect Leader Lan. I asked if there were any particular customs or health concerns we should be aware of.”

She spoke with exaggerated deliberateness, like a child reciting lessons.

“He told me about the ban on alcohol,” she continued. “He did not tell me that the Lans abstain from eating meat.”

Lan Wangji stared at the table. He supposed his brother had made a calculated decision to omit that rule. Perhaps he didn't want to risk annoying the Patriarch with too many restrictions. The rules against eating meat were not so rigid, after all. Lan Wangji was not required to follow them in someone else’s home. Perhaps his brother had decided to let that restriction go, in hopes of smoothing the way for a peaceful marriage.

The Patriarch gave Wei Qing another beady-eyed stare, but he let the matter rest. He helped himself to Lan Wangji’s portion of abalone and finished it in two bites.

“No alcohol!” He dragged a finger through the sauce. “No meat! My dear, just what does your sect do for fun?”

He licked his fingers clean. It was an appalling display of table manners. Wei Qing slapped at his hand and gave him a napkin, but the Patriarch blithely ignored her.

“Fun is not a priority in my sect.” Lan Wangji kept his voice dignified, controlled. “’Diligence is the root.’”

There were activities that Lan Wangji enjoyed, of course. But he had not been taught to prioritize fun, nor self-indulgence of any kind. He anticipated, though, that his husband would fail to appreciate this sort of discipline.

Sure enough, his husband's nose wrinkled.

“How very dull."

He drew Lan Wangji’s shark-fin soup over to his side of the table. Perhaps he planned to say something more. He looked as if he were about to argue the matter further. But they were interrupted by a small child.

It was a boy, Lan Wangji saw. He was three or four, well-dressed with round cheeks. The child darted up to the table and leaned against Wei Qing’s companion. But she made a grab for him, so he scurried away. He circled the table and clung to the Patriarch’s robes.

The Patriarch swung the child into his lap without hesitation.

“Aiyah, look at you!” His voice warmed as he pinched the boy’s cheeks. “What happened? You ate up all the pork on the other tables? You had to come sniffing around here?”

The boy gave an unrepentant grin. He settled comfortably into the Patriarch’s lap, beaming.

Lan Wangji felt his breathing stop. But after a moment, he forced it to restart. He had prepared for this too. Men of high rank often had illegitimate children.

He wondered if the child’s mother was Wei Qing, or another woman sitting in the hall. His palms itched, and he suppressed the temptation to look around. Perhaps some nameless, faceless woman was watching him even now.

Lan Wangji felt a reluctant stab of pity. If the mother was watching, she must be writhing with jealousy. It could not be pleasant for her to watch her lord marry another. But perhaps she felt secure enough in her position. The Patriarch had married a man, after all. His new husband could hardly give him a child.

He took a careful breath. Naturally, he had considered this matter already. Marriages between men or between women might be rare among peasants. But they were common enough among cultivators. With a strong golden core, a cultivator's lifespan was long. There was no urgent need to produce an heir. Nearly every cultivator of rank had siblings and cousins to carry on the bloodline. In the eyes of most sects, it was best to marry for economic and political gain. Heirs could be acquired elsewhere.

For one such as the Patriarch, there was no need whatsoever to marry a woman. He was immortal; an heir was pointless. So Lan Wangji hadn't been surprised when the Patriarch failed to single out the female cultivators inside the meeting tent. He didn't require a wife who could provide him with a child. A husband could serve his purposes just as well.

But Lan Wangji had wondered if the Patriarch might have created children out of pleasure rather than duty. Now it seemed that he had an answer.

The boy, curled in his father’s lap, regarded Lan Wangji with shy curiosity. He seemed to be inspecting Lan Wangji, so Lan Wangji allowed himself to inspect the child in turn. He was an attractive child, certainly. The boy had fine features and thick dark hair. His small limbs were sturdy, his face open and cheerful.

He kicked his feet idly for a moment. Then he glanced toward the untouched dishes before Lan Wangji. The Patriarch rubbed the child’s head, his eyes warm.

“Well, you're in luck. My husband doesn’t eat meat. So I bet he’ll give you some of his food. Won’t you?”

Lan Wangji knew this was a command rather than a request. But he didn't mind. The child had been staring openly at his pork, and Lan Wangji was glad to turn it over.

The boy gave him a frank smile in return. He ate clumsily, the Patriarch helping to break apart the larger chunks of meat. His face was fond as he scolded the child for eating too quickly.

“Don’t eat so greedily!” The Patriarch ruffled the boy’s hair. “You’ll turn into a pig yourself!”

He made soft, piglike snuffling sounds in the boy’s ear. The child laughed around a mouthful of food. Against his will, Lan Wangji felt himself soften.

It was…heartening, somehow. At the very least, it was a relief to discover that his husband was capable of showing kindness to his child. Perhaps he would never warm to Lan Wangji, but that was unimportant. Lan Wangji could tolerate marriage to a man who disliked him. What he couldn't endure was a husband who treated his children unkindly.

The child stole more glances at Lan Wangji as he ate. When he was done, he turned to his father and whispered something in his ear. The Patriarch laughed roughly, as if surprised. He took a gulp of wine before he answered.

“Go ahead and tell him, then!”

He poked the child in his side. But the boy squirmed and hid his face against his father’s robes. The Patriarch heaved a sigh.

“Oh, we’re shy now?” He scooped the boy up so they were face to face. “Where was this shyness when you were running over here like a little beggar, stealing all his pork?”

The child smiled again, ducking his head. But he did not respond. The Patriarch tried to cajole him into speaking, to no avail. Finally, the Patriarch gave up and turned to Lan Wangji.

“A-Yuan thinks you're very pretty,” he said frankly.

“Thank you,” Lan Wangji said, thoroughly startled. “A-Yuan is also a handsome child.”

The boy beamed at him. The Patriarch’s expression thawed slightly, and Lan Wangji felt a small sliver of hope rise in his chest.

Perhaps his husband had expected him to receive the child coldly. Most new husbands and wives would undoubtedly be displeased to discover an illegitimate child in their courts. But Lan Wangji didn't want to scorn his husband’s children. He would never have any of his own, after all. The only children in their household would be those borne by his husband's concubines.

Lan Wangji realized he would like to know such children. In Cloud Recesses, he had often worked with the young disciples. It had been pleasant to help them with their lessons. He would enjoy teaching his husband's children calligraphy or how to play the guqin. He hoped he would be permitted some involvement in their upbringing.

Wei Qing gave him an odd look. Lan Wangji couldn't quite decipher it, and he puzzled over that look for the rest of the meal. If she were the child’s mother, perhaps she meant to warn him off. Or perhaps she was merely surprised that he hadn't reacted to the child's presence with open distaste. Lan Wangji couldn't be sure.

But soon, there was no time left to consider the matter. The desserts were cleared away—Lan Wangji’s meager appetite had waned long before their appearance—and the banquet came to a close.

His husband’s smile became rather artificial. As he waved over a trio of female attendants, his face shuttered. Sincere pleasure had lit up his eyes when A-Yuan crawling into his lap. But that was gone now. The Patriarch's voice grew sardonic again.

“These ladies will show you to your chambers."

He gestured to the women, who smiled widely at Lan Wangji. Their lips were painted red, and their faces very pale. Lan Wangji rose from the table and followed them.

It was not until later—halfway down the hallway—that Lan Wangji realized the women were dead. They were startlingly lifelike. Wen Ruohan’s corpse puppets had been so different. Their milky eyes and cracked skin stood out like a beacon.

They were crude, Lan Wangji realized. His puppets were rabid animals. They lurched, they bit, they attacked. They served their purpose as cannon fodder.

But these women were quite different. They moved smoothly, with a fluid gait. Their skin was a creamy whine, their eyes black as ink. At first glance, they might pass for ordinary courtesans. Only the faint black veins near their temples revealed the truth. And they could speak. This knowledge chilled Lan Wangji to the bone.

As they walked, the women glanced toward him. Then they put their heads together, whispering and giggling. The sound was deeply disturbing.

Of course, reanimated corpses weren't meant to exist at all. It was blasphemy, a corruption of proper cultivation. Such things could only be achieved by wielding resentful energy, which should never be done. Not under any circumstances. On this matter, the Lan teachings were perfectly clear.

But if it was done, it should result in mere puppets. The corpses should be walking dolls, vessels for hunger and hatred. They should not smile. They should not speak. They should not look so knowing, as if they understood what was happening better than Lan Wangji.

His skin prickled with gooseflesh. The sensation only worsened when the women followed him into his chambers.

The rooms were pleasant, at least. Lan Wangji took a quick glance around. It was a reassuring sight. He had not been sent into a barren cell, devoid of comforts. The Patriarch had given him a suite: a sitting room, a study, a bedroom, and a private bath.

There was a desk in the study. The sitting room held a table, chairs, cushions. Scrolls hung on the wall, and thick woven rugs lined the floors. It was not Cloud Recesses—not home—but it was comfortable. A sliding door at the right lead to a small garden. Lan Wangji couldn't see what was out there. Night had fallen, plunging the world outside into the darkness. But the glimpse of a shadowed tree was soothing.

There was a large bed, too, shrouded by gauzy red curtains. He had no time to examine it. One of the women shut the garden door. Another closed the door to the hall. They led him into the bedchamber. His baggage had already been brought in. The cases that had held his wedding finery lay open, waiting. Lan Wangji hesitated inside the room, unsure what to do next.

But the women swarmed him like hornets, and he understood. They meant to help him. They meant to undress him. Lan Wangji held himself very still and bit the inside of his cheek.

It was, perhaps, proper. He hadn't brought any servants from Cloud Recesses. The Patriarch hadn't allowed it and at the time, Lan Wangji had thought that was a blessing. There was no one at Cloud Recesses he wished to bring with him. No one there deserved to share his fate. He didn't need body servants anyway. Lan Wangji could dress himself and fix his own hair. He had done it all his life.

But the wedding attire was another matter. He wasn't sure how to deconstruct the headpiece or what to do with the dozens of jeweled pins. The robes were heavy, with two more layers than usual. Lan Wangji hadn't the faintest idea where to begin.

His brother had helped him dress this morning. But his brother wasn't here now, and the robes must be removed. So Lan Wangji gritted his teeth and sat at the small vanity. He let the corpse-women touch him with their cold hands, plucking away the pins and taking down his hair.

When it lay loose around his shoulders, Lan Wangji found himself glancing into the mirror. Some of his hair was still drawn back in its customary half-knot. The women had loosened the ties, but they left the knot intact with a single hairpin speared through. When Lan Wangji took a closer look, he saw that it was the lotus pin. Somehow, the women seemed aware of its purpose. They were conscious that this was not to be touched.

Lan Wangji studied the pin in the mirror as they packed away the headpiece and dropped the jewelry into its case. The pin was grounding. It reminded Lan Wangji that he had made a bargain, one he must carry through. Just now, the cost seemed very high. But it was not an unreasonable price. An end to the war. An end to death, savagery, purposeless suffering. Peace for the cultivation world and for helpless peasants. The Patriarch had given them victory with a snap of his fingers.

It was a worthwhile bargain, Lan Wangji reminded himself. He could not place such a high price on his own freedom. This marriage—and what must happen next—wasn't too high a price. Not in exchange for so many lives.

At the women’s prompting, Lan Wangji stood. They removed the heavy outer robes, then the inner robes made of red silk. Then they stripped off the next layer, made of scarlet lace. Bit by bit, they stripped him down. Soon he wore nothing but his inner robes, the thin layer of white silk from Caiyi Town. They tried to remove that too. But Lan Wangji clutched the robes shut and stepped away from their hands.

One of the women pouted, and the second frowned. The third only gave a fluid, melodic laugh.

“Leave the master something to remove,” she whispered.

This time, the others laughed too. Lan Wangji felt his cheeks burn, but the women retreated after that. The door closed behind them and Lan Wangji was alone. There was nothing left to do but wait.

He was meant to wait on the bed. Lan Wangji knew that much. If the Patriarch had handled matters properly, Lan Wangji would have sat on the bed fully dressed. Then his husband would have removed his veil—and everything else—with his own two hands. He had not done this, though. Lan Wangji was left standing alone in his thinnest robes.

There was tea, so Lan Wangji drank. He wasn't especially thirsty. Drinking tea was infinitely easier than eating, so he had emptied several cups during the banquet. But it gave his hands something to do.

After a moment, he rummaged through the vanity drawers and wardrobe shelves. He discovered that his belongings had been unpacked. The women had taken away the wedding finery, perhaps to put it in storage for future generations. Lan Wangji wouldn't need those robes or that headpiece again. But his own clothing was tucked into drawers and lined up on shelves.

Inside the vanity, Lan Wangji found jewelry he didn't recognize. He touched the items cautiously, wondering if they were meant to be gifts. Perhaps he was meant to wear this jewelry in his married life. There were unfamiliar robes in the wardrobe, too. He might be expected to retire his white and blue Gusu robes in favor of his husband's colors. Perhaps he wasn't meant to wear anything, save what his husband gave him.

It was just another puzzle, one he would have to solve tomorrow.

A faint headache pulsed in his temples, but Lan Wangji ignored it. He pushed aside the items that had been laid inside the drawer—his hair oil, his soaps, his combs—until he found the pot of salve. Then he stepped behind the privacy screen and freshened his preparations.

It had been a long day, after all. The place between his legs was still disconcertingly slick, but Lan Wangji wasn't sure it would be enough. So he did what he could, then cleaned his hands and put the salve away. He wondered, with a dull sort of horror, if he would require more salve soon. Perhaps not. If his husband had concubines—even children—he might prefer to spend his evenings with them. The Patriarch might perform his marital duties just once, to seal their union. Afterward, he might return to his women.

But back in the tent, the sect leaders had asked the Patriarch why he wished for this marriage. Why he had chosen Lan Wangji. The Patriarch had said it was because of Lan Wangji's beauty. So perhaps he wouldn't be satisfied with one night, after all. If Lan Wangji’s appearance had enticed him, he might wish to bed his husband often.

Lan Wangji tried not to think about that. It was not an altogether pleasant thought.

Yet...

The prospect wasn't as horrifying as it might have been. Lan Wangji sat on the edge of the bed. He tried not to think on this, but thoughts crowded in. The Patriarch was a handsome man, with dark eyes and a wicked grin. His body was young and firm. He wasn't repulsive, not in matters of appearance. It wouldn't necessarily be a hardship for Lan Wangji to perform his marital duties with a young and handsome man.

But resentful energy flickered throughout the Patriarch’s halls. Every time Lan Wangji felt a trace of it, he felt queasy. And when he glimpsed the corpse women—their bodies still intact and supple—his skin crawled.

Does he take them to bed? Lan Wangji wondered. Do they serve him in that manner? Is he so depraved that even bedding corpses seems acceptable?

The little food Lan Wangji had managed to choke down churned in his stomach. Thoughts of his husband’s trim waist—his warm smile as he held his son—turned to ash. Lan Wangji was sickened once more by the thought of sharing his bed. But there was nothing to be done. He was here, in his husband’s home. The betrothal contract was signed, the bows performed. He had been undressed, and he was waiting for his husband to complete the final marriage rite.

There was no sense feeling either excited or repulsed, so Lan Wangji tried to feel neither. Instead, he sought to empty his mind. He succeeded just enough that he didn't flinch when his husband entered the chambers.

When the Patriarch saw Lan Wangji sitting on the bed, he did a double-take. Then he sighed.

“Oh, they took off everything, did they? Those girls!” He spoke with fond exasperation, as if the women were nieces or daughters.

Lan Wangji wasn't sure if that tone made the situation more disturbing, or less so. His head was whirling. He opted to stay silent and watched dully as his husband poured the wine.

“I know you don’t drink,” his husband muttered, bringing over the cups. “But humor me and pretend, and we’ll finish the rite.”

Lan Wangji was entirely prepared to humor his husband—to pretend—in many respects tonight. He took the cup and they crossed arms. Lan Wangji touched the wine to his lips, hardly swallowing more than a drop. It tingled on his tongue and a slight warmth spread through his blood.

His husband was very near. He smelled like soap and osmanthus oil. They weren't touching, not quite. But his husband sat on the bed, and Lan Wangji felt the heat radiating from his body. The Patriarch seemed warmer than most.

Perhaps it was only the blazing qi of an immortal. Power curled around his every limb. Lan Wangji could have sensed him from across a great hall, even with his eyes closed. The Patriarch seemed to exist in the eye of a storm. His shape was that of an ordinary man. A handsome man, perhaps, but an ordinary one. Yet he was not an ordinary man. To be near him was to face a wall of qi, and it struck with the force of a tsunami.

Lan Wangji resisted the urge to swallow. His husband was watching him, so he kept his eyes trained on the wardrobe and tried to give nothing away. He did not intend to make a fool of himself tonight.

Perhaps the Patriarch expected tears or pleas for mercy. Or perhaps he expected his new husband to give in gratefully, to moan like a whore and praise his virility. Lan Wangji didn't intend to do either. He would fulfill his duty and no more. The Patriarch would have to be content with that. He must take what Lan Wangji was willing to surrender.

His husband reached out, toying lightly with his hair. As Lan Wangji stared at the dark wood of the wardrobe, he tracked his husband’s hand. First, it brushed a strand of his hair away from his face. Then it drifted up. Lan Wangji felt his husband adjust the lotus pin. But he didn't speak or remove his own clothing. Nor did he push aside the thin underrobe, baring Lan Wangji’s body.

“Tell me something,” his husband began.

Lan Wangji waited in silence. His husband sighed.

“I’ve heard that Cloud Recesses has very strict rules.” His hand withdrew from the lotus pin to rest on his knees.

Lan Wangji’s own hands were folded nearly on his lap.

“Three thousand disciplines,” he affirmed. “Yes.”

The Patriarch made a sound of mingled horror and surprise.

“Three thousand,” he echoed. “Really?”

Lan Wangji nodded.

He thought it strange that the Patriarch did not know this. Most sects had heard of the Lan disciplines. They sent their disciples to study in Cloud Recesses and gain an education in these matters. But the Patriarch had never been a guest disciple, and surely he had never visited Lan Wangji’s home. He was ensconced in the Burial Mounds. Perhaps rumors of the Lan disciplines had never reached him.

His husband scoffed.

“No alcohol, no meat, and three thousand rules!” He shook his head. “And I’m told that they require you to wake at dawn and go to bed by hai-shi every night. Is that true?”

“It is.”

Lan Wangji inclined his head.

His internal clock told him it was nearly that hour now. But during the war, he had learned to stay awake later than usual. Maintaining a regular schedule was a luxury few could afford on the battlefield.

“What a place! Needless to say, you won’t have to follow those rules here.”

His husband spoke with a casual reassurance, as if he expected his words to be a comfort.

But hearing that the disciplines Lan Wangji had always known wouldn't be found in his new home…it was no comfort, really. This place doubtless had its own rules. Lan Wangji did not know what they were. He would have to learn them, and he did not look forward to that process.

His husband scratched his own head.

“But if you’ve been awake since dawn, you must be exhausted. Husband, you should get some sleep.”

He rose to his feet and dropped the wine cups on the tray. Then he was gone, without a backward glance.

Lan Wangji was left alone, stunned, sitting on the edge of the bed in his thin shift. He did not know whether to feel relieved or insulted.

Chapter Text

When he woke, Lan Wangji spent some time staring up at the ceiling. As a child, he'd been taught to rise promptly. Disciples in Cloud Recesses were meant to climb from their beds at sunrise. They washed, dressed, and broke their fast. Then they began their daily lessons without delay. Unless the disciple was seriously ill, lingering in bed was unacceptable.

But Lan Wangji wasn't in Cloud Recesses any longer. If he wished to spend time lying beneath the covers, there was no one here to stop him. He shifted against the sheets, watching as daylight spread through the room. The longer he stalled, the guiltier he felt. He had no excuse for remaining in bed. He was neither ill nor injured. His body was in the same condition—precisely the same condition—as when he left Cloud Recesses. Further, Lan Wangji couldn't even claim to have slept poorly.

He couldn't honestly say he had slept well. But he had slept, and that was something. The bed was soft, his chambers warm and dry. They were clean and well-appointed. As he gazed around the room, Lan Wangji decided that he could live well enough within these four walls. Somehow, this discovery brought little comfort.

Once sunlight spread into his chambers, warm and golden, Lan Wangji forced himself from the bed. He washed his face and hands, then dressed slowly. As he reached into the wardrobe, his hands fell upon a set of familiar blue robes. There were plenty of new robes waiting on the shelves. But he couldn't bring himself to touch them.

Lan Wangji made excuses for his reluctance and told himself he must not be premature. Perhaps they ought to be saved for a special occasion. Or perhaps they were meant for someone else altogether, and they had been placed in his chambers by mistake. Such an error might be possible. It wouldn't happen in Cloud Recesses, of course. But discipline in his husband's home seemed far more lax.

He shut the wardrobe door, hiding the new robes away. It was a relief not to look upon them. As soon as he opened the vanity, though, he had the jewelry to contend with.

Lan Wangji chose to ignore it, and he fixed his hair with his favorite guan. After some consideration, he removed his forehead ribbon from its pouch. He tied it on and studied himself in the mirror. The face that stared back was jarringly familiar. This was the first day of his married life, and he had somehow expected things to be different. He had believed that he would be different.

But when Lan Wangji stared down at his hands, he found them unaltered. He hadn't changed in the slightest, perhaps because he was not truly married. He had taken his bows. Yet he had not become a married man.

Lan Wangji felt a creeping heat along the back of his neck. He turned away from the mirror with a huff, but it wasn't easy to distract himself. His wedding night had been so...unexpected. Lan Wangji still wasn't sure what to make of it. Somehow, he had failed to prepare himself for this possibility.

Consummation wasn't strictly necessary. Their marriage contract was still valid. According to both law and custom, Lan Wangji belonged to his new husband. He could never return to his natal home without the Patriarch’s permission. His husband didn't need to claim Lan Wangji’s virtue to seal the union. The alliance was secure enough.

Lan Wangji felt sure that such things must have happened before. There had been so many political marriages throughout the years. Some of them must have been chaste. Surely there was precedent, and it didn't truly matter if their marriage remained unconsummated. Yet Lan Wangji felt stunned, caught off guard.

He folded himself into a meditation pose on a woven rug beside the brazier. Then he shut his eyes, trying to think it through. He had thought the Patriarch must be a lustful man. Perhaps the presence of a child had deceived him: the boy was proof that the Patriarch had taken lovers. But it wasn't proof that his husband's lusts were indiscriminate.

Lan Wangji furrowed his brow.

Perhaps he had been guilty of making rash assumptions. His husband practiced dark methods of cultivation, and the use of resentful energy was inherently corrupt. So Lan Wangji had thought the corruption must have spread to every part of his husband's life. He thought his husband's morals—his appetites—must be affected. Once he heard of the Patriarch's powers, Lan Wangji decided he must be the sort of man to indulge in physical pleasures. Perhaps his husband indulged freely, shamelessly, with reckless abandon.

But he had no evidence to support these claims. He had made an assumption, and the Lan disciplines forbade those. Lan Wangji had copied that rule a thousand times over the course of his life. He knew better than to make reckless judgments.

Lan Wangji curled his hands on his lap and frowned at himself. Penance was clearly necessary. He must find a way to atone for this lapse. The punishments of Cloud Recesses were no longer available to him, but he must find some method of self-correction.

Slowly, he sank deeper into meditation. He picked apart his swirling thoughts, unsnarling the tangled knot in his mind. As he worked, Lan Wangji shifted on his knees, restive and embarrassed. There was something lurking at the back of his mind, hidden behind his surprise at their chaste wedding night. At first, Lan Wangji tried to avert his eyes and ignore it. But at last, he forced himself to name the emotion.

There it was: wounded pride.

His ears burned, yet Lan Wangji sat with the knowledge for a full minute. He did not allow himself to flinch. His pride had been injured, and he was both shocked and indignant. The Patriarch had not touched him, and Lan Wangji had been arrogant enough to suppose that he would. He had assumed that the Patriarch would find him desirable.

Lan Wangji understood—in an abstract sense—that most people did. He had been praised for his beauty for years. But he had never considered himself vain. He sought to be a scholar, a swordsman, and a cultivator. Throughout his life, he had honed his body and mind like a blade. He kept a proper focus, just as his instructors taught him. He made sure that he always strove toward honorable and exalted goals. In the face of such ambitions, superficial qualities like beauty were unimportant.

The fact that he was beautiful became an insignificant detail: he had two arms, dark hair, a freckle at the base of his left wrist, and he was beautiful. Lan Wangji had never expected anyone to recognize his beauty, or respond to it. At least, he hadn't thought so. But now, humiliation crept through his veins.

He had expected his husband to look upon his body and feel lust. The Patriarch’s refusal to consummate the marriage had injured his pride. Deep down, Lan Wangji couldn't help but feel affronted.

Does he not wish to bed me? What part of my body is undesirable? Am I not beautiful, elegant, enticing? Why would he prefer to spend his wedding night with his concubines when he could have me?

This revelation was appalling. Lan Wangji rose to his feet and vented his humiliation by pacing around the room. It wasn't enough. He slid open the door to the garden and he paced that, too.

The garden was small, ringed by thick stone walls. But it held two large trees, flowering bushes, and a fish-pond. Lan Wangji circled the garden ten times. Then he dropped onto the stone bench and glared at the fish. He repented at once. The poor creatures had done nothing to deserve his ire. He was only angry—profoundly angry—with himself. Pride was forbidden by the Lan discipline. Lan Wangji saw now that he had been guilty of terrible pride. He had scarcely been married for twelve hours, yet already he had violated two disciplines. He must serve his penance at once.

Lan Wangji resolved to perform his penance at once. He would copy out two of the Lan sect's most essential texts. Without the library of Cloud Recesses, he no longer had access to the originals. But that was irrelevant: he had memorized half the library by his tenth birthday. He would make ten copies from memory. It would serve as a punishment for his foolishness.

Resolved, Lan Wangji marched back to his chambers. He waited until a maidservant came, carrying tea and hot water. There was no paper or ink in his rooms, so he requested some. The maid seemed surprised, but she brought a large stack of paper and several sticks of ink. Her eyes were curious as she laid the items on the desk. 

Lan Wangji offered no explanations. He settled himself behind the desk and spent the next shi copying lines. It wouldn't do, he realized, to waste paper in his new home. He must not set an example of extravagance. So he made his characters very small. When he finished, he laid out the pages. Some were still wet with ink. But others were dry, and he arranged these into a tidy stack. Lan Wangji surveyed the results with bitter amusement.

The servants would certainly find his actions curious. They would undoubtedly wonder why he spent this morning—the first of his marriage—copying an unfamiliar text from memory. But perhaps they would take it as a strange foreign custom. Lan Wangji hoped he wouldn't have to answer any questions on the topic. He couldn't explain that he was punishing himself, much less why.

He pushed the paper aside with a quiet sigh. The maid who brought his tea had explained the daily schedule. A light meal, the first of the day, would be served at chen-shi. She had offered to bring his meal sooner, if he wished it. But Lan Wangji had respectfully declined. It seemed wiser to follow the customs of his home. Besides, delaying his breakfast would serve as an additional punishment.

But it was nearly chen-shi now. He couldn't afford to be late. So he rose and smoothed out his robes. He resisted the urge to return to his bedchamber and look into the mirror. As he copied, he'd been careful not to spill any ink. He was still clean and tidy, and nothing else mattered. Further pride or vanity would be inexcusable. 

Before he left his chambers, though, Lan Wangji took up his sword. It had arrived safely and spent the night beside his bed. He ran a thoughtful hand over Bichen's hilt. His sword hadn't been confiscated or hidden. That was encouraging. He'd been half-afraid that Bichen would mysteriously 'disappear' during the trip. The sword was a comforting weight against his side, and Lan Wangji had missed it.

Still, he wondered if he was pushing his luck. Perhaps he wasn't expected to carry a blade in his new home.

Under normal circumstances, it was hardly permissible for any cultivator to set their sword aside. A cultivator's sword was everything, and it always remained within arm's reach. But the Patriarch himself seemed to carry no blade. Lan Wangji hadn't seen any other swords at the banquet, either.

He stewed on the question for several minutes. But in the end, he took Bichen with him. He couldn't bear to leave his chambers without it. It would feel as strange as leaving without his forehead ribbon. Lan Wangji wasn't prepared to do either...yet. Yet if his husband issued an order, he would have no choice but to comply.

Bichen's hilt dug into his palm. He kept his face neutral, though, as he followed the maid into a small bright room. Breakfast had already been laid out. A fragrant, steaming pot of tea sat at the center of the table. An array of snacks ranged around the teapot. There were the traditional items for a wedding breakfast: peanuts, lotus seeds, and dried longans. A plate of sesame cakes was placed in a position of honor. 

Lan Wangji hesitated over the food. His husband wasn't present, and it seemed impolite to begin without him. But the maid poured his tea and held out the platters of food with an air of expectation. Cautiously, Lan Wangji served himself and began to eat.

As he picked apart a sesame cake, he studied his surroundings. The room was clean, airy, and well-furnished. Still, it felt oddly empty. Lan Wangji was accustomed to taking meals communally in the dining halls of Cloud Recesses. The dining hall was always free of conversation, but it was full of people. The quiet here felt strange and oppressive.

Fortunately, perhaps, the stillness didn't last. Before Lan Wangji could finish his first cup of tea, the Patriarch entered.

He ambled into the room, oddly rumpled, groaning at the sunlight streaming through the window. His eyes narrowed, as if the sun had personally offended him. Once he finished scowling at the daylight, he slouched into the chair across from Lan Wangji.

"You look far too alert,” he complained. “It's the crack of dawn! What are you doing up so early?"

Lan Wangji took a measured sip of tea.

"I have been awake for a full shi."

It was, he thought, hardly the crack of dawn. But his husband evidently wasn't an early riser, nor had he spent much time on his toilette. The Patriarch had changed out of his wedding clothes and into a disarmingly plain set of red and black robes. But his clothing was creased, as if he’d spent half the night crouched over a desk.

Lan Wangji finished his tea and set the cup down.

It might not have been a desk, he realized. His husband may have spent the night sprawled across another piece of furniture. Another bed. He had left the wedding chamber early, after all. He might have sought a more congenial bed, with a more congenial companion.

Lan Wangji pushed that thought stubbornly out of his head. He already did penance for his pride and foolishness. As he copied, he had settled the  matter within his own mind: according to law and custom, his husband had a perfect right to seek out the company of a concubine. Lan Wangji refused to spend the first day in his new home sulking like a jealous lover.

His husband heaved a sigh.

"That's the result of going to bed at hai-shi, is it?” He scooped up a handful of peanuts and shelled them. “I hope you realize that no one here expects you to keep those hours. You can stay awake till dawn, for all I care! I often do."

Lan Wangji peeled a lotus seed in silence. Such an absurd statement did not require a response.

He felt his husband’s eyes pass over his body. The Patriarch seemed to note the presence of both the sword and the forehead ribbon. But he didn't remark on either. His own sword was still absent, yet the ever-present flute was slipped through his belt. Lan Wangji noticed it, and remained equally silent.

"You didn't like your new robes?” His husband motioned to the blue Gusu silk. “I told them to put the new things in your chambers."

Lan Wangji glanced down at his own robes. He set the lotus shells aside.

"I wasn't sure if they were intended for me,” he temporized.

His husband gave a snort.

"Of course they were intended for you. Why would I put someone else's clothing in your wardrobe?"

Lan Wangji had no retort. It was just as his husband said: of course, the robes were for him. Deep down, Lan Wangji had known the truth. These sorts of gifts were customary for a married-in spouse. He had joined his husband's home, so he ought to wear his husband's colors.

There was nothing wrong with the new robes. They were well-made, fine silks with delicate embroidery. Lan Wangji could find no cause for complaint. But the robes were strange. The colors were too bright, the patterns too bold. Lan Wangji would never have chosen such clothing for himself. Such clothing wasn't even permitted in Cloud Recesses.

Still, compromises must be made. Lan Wangi remembered—with a queasy, sinking sensation—what his husband kept reminding him. He was no longer in Cloud Recesses.

"I will wear them tomorrow,” he offered.

His husband shrugged, splitting a sesame cake in half.

"Suit yourself."

He didn’t seem angry that his gifts had been spurned. But Lan Wangji felt a pulse of unease at his husband's cool, impersonal response. He shifted in his char.

It would be appropriate, he decided, to make some sort of conciliatory gesture. His husband had made allowances for him. He hadn't objected to Lan Wangji's choice in clothing, or the presence of his sword. Lan Wangji ought to let his husband know that he, too, was prepared to make allowances.

"Will your son be joining us?"

He kept his voice entirely neutral, free of jealousy or resentment. Yet the Patriarch did not seem to hear him. He was busy eating the sesame cake. Then he chased it with a large gulp of tea. But when that was done, he went strangely still.

"Sorry?" He lowered the cup to the table.

He didn't seem to understand the question. Lan Wangji stared at the Patriarch, flooded with dismay.

Surely his husband wasn’t going to play dumb. Lan Wangji was prepared to tolerate concubines and illegitimate children, but he refused to engage in some protracted charade. He would tolerate their presence in his new home. He wouldn't pretend to be ignorant of their existence.

After a puzzled moment, his husband choked.

"Oh, gods.” He passed a hand over his face, slightly flushed. “A-Yuan isn't my son!"

"I see. Excuse me."

Lan Wangji was too surprised to feel humiliation. But he was sure the embarrassment would come later. He stared into his teacup.

He had spent hours in self-imposed punishment. Several dozen sheets of paper had been wasted in copying lines. Yet his penance had proved useless. He had left his chambers and promptly made another reckless assumption.

Lan Wangji took a deep breath. He must recopy the text an additional five times, while performing a handstand. Perhaps that would cure him of this fault.

His husband rubbed his jaw. Then he gave a rueful sigh.

"Not your fault.” He sighed. “I didn't consider what that looked like."

Lan Wangji peeled another lotus seed, for the sake of giving his hands something to do.

It had certainly looked like something. The child approached the Patriarch at his own wedding banquet. He climbed into the Patriarch’s lap without a hint of hesitation. The Patriarch fussed over him, scolding him for eating too quickly. Lan Wangji was fairly sure that anyone witnessing the scene would have drawn a similar conclusion.

That, of course, did not excuse his own reckless assumptions.

"He's Wen Qing's cousin." The Patriarch toyed with a peanut shell. “His parents are dead. An accident some years ago."

Lan Wangji blinked.

"Wen Qing?"

He was sure—quite sure—that the woman had given the name of 'Wei Qing'. Nobody had told him that she was a Wen. Lan Wangji stared at his husband, his breakfast forgotten.

The Patriarch grew very still. For a moment, Lan Wangji thought he'd evade the topic: Ah, I misspoke. The war has been on my mind, that's all! Of course I meant Wei Qing! But after an uncomfortable pause, his husband dropped the peanut shell onto the table. He refilled his teacup.

"Technically, she's a Wen. Most of the people here are Wens by birth."

The Patriarch set the teapot down. Then he seemed to remember his manners. He refilled Lan Wangji’s cup too.

"A few years back, they showed up at my gates. They weren't favored by Wen Ruohan. Or they didn't want his favor." The Patriarch’s mouth gave a humorless twist. “The whole Dafan Wen branch eventually defected. They came here to escape the war."

Lan Wangji digested that.

These rumors—the Dafan Wen branch's disappearance—had reached Cloud Recesses. The cultivation world had discussed the matter in whispers. But everyone quickly concluded that Wen Ruohan was to blame. He wouldn't have been the first leader to fear an insurrection. Nor would he have been the first to quietly prune a troublesome branch of his clan.

Lan Wangji exhaled, tension leaving his shoulders.

Rumors had been true enough, then. The Dafan Wens had probably fled to escape just such a fate. If they hadn't found favor with Wen Ruohan, he would have killed them eventually. Their branch was an old one, nearly as prestigious the main line. Wen Ruohan would have wanted no threats to his line of succession.

And once they fled, where else could the Dafan Wens have gone? Who else would have sheltered them?

Distrust of the Wens had cut deep into the cultivation world. After all, Wen Ruohan was known for keeping a network of spies. No sect would have thrown open their doors and offered aid. The Dafan Wens could hardly hide with peasants. Non-cultivators couldn’t protect them against Wen Ruohan. They could only hope to find safety here: on the Patriarch’s mountain, under the protection of an immortal.

Lan Wangji considered carefully, and realized it made perfect sense. But the silence stretched out, long and awkward. He couldn't think how to break it.

His husband tapped a finger meditatively against the table.

"Is that going to be a problem?" he asked.

There was a sharp edge to the Patriarch’s voice. Lan Wangji shook his head.

"No."

His husband lifted an eyebrow.

"No?"

He sounded disbelieving. Lan Wangji tried not to rise to the bait, but he couldn't help feeling piqued. They were married now, after all. His word of honor should be enough to satisfy his husband. But then, Lan Wangji wasn't sure he would trust the Patriarch's word of honor. So he could hardly blame his husband for refusing to extend the same courtesy.

"If they were not involved in Wen Ruohan's crimes, why should I blame them?" He kept his voice calm and measured. "It would be unjust."

The Patriarch tilted his head as if surprised. He gave a small, sardonic laugh.

"We must be just, above all else."

The sarcastic edge had returned. Lan Wangji wasn't entirely sure what to make of that. But he inclined his head politely.

"Yes,” he agreed.

It was the truth, anyway. Justice must come before everything else. It was what he had always believed, and he didn't intend to abandon his ideals now.

The Patriarch shelled a few more peanuts and ate them slowly. After a moment, he laughed aloud. This time, his laughter held a trace of sincere amusement.

"Did you think my court was littered with illegitimate children?” He glanced up from the food, his eyes mischievous. “Did you think you married another Jin Guangshan?"

Lan Wangji resisted the urge to grimace. He could think of no worse fate. The terms of his marriage were daunting enough: Lan Wangji had married a powerful immortal of uncertain character, who practiced a forbidden method of cultivation.

Still, if his husband intended to be faithful—or at least discreet in his dalliances—that was a significant mark in his favor. Jin Guangshan had never been known for his discretion. Evidently, his conduct had been infamous enough to reach the ears of an immortal.

"I considered that you might have illegitimate children," Lan Wangji allowed. “Some men of your position do."

His husband snorted as he polished off the last of the sesame cakes.

"Well, I don't! There are plenty of kids around here, but none of them are mine.” He pushed aside the empty plate. “A-Yuan tends to get underfoot, though. If you don't like that, I'll tell him not to bother you."

The Patriarch’s tone was polite but rather cold.

"I would not object to his company."

Lan Wangji paused as soon as the words were out of his mouth. He had spoken heedlessly, but he realized he had spoken the truth. He knew he'd have to tolerate his husband’s favorites, even if they proved a nuisance. But spending time with A-Yuan wouldn't be a hardship. He seemed a bright, friendly child. If the child wished to keep him company, Lan Wangji was entirely willing to receive him. He wasn't likely to have many other visitors or companions in his new home.

The Patriarch hummed.

"What about my husband?” He tilted his head. “Hanguang-Jun, isn't that what they call you?"

Lan Wangji frowned over that. The title sounded strange from the Patriarch’s lips. But perhaps any title would seem feeble beside his own. What was a title, bestowed by mortals, compared to immortality? Lan Wangji had held his title for only a few months, anyway. It still sounded odd. Some days, he struggled to remember that the title belonged to him. It seemed better suited for someone far older.

He nodded anyway, and his husband smirked.

"Do you have any children I should know about?" He folded his arms, assuming an expression of mock disapproval.

It was a joke, Lan Wangji knew that. But he couldn’t help but twitch with displeasure.

"I do not. Such things are not done in my sect."

The Lan family register hadn't recorded an illegitimate child in more than fifty years. Admittedly, hasty marriages did sometimes occur. Every now and then, a wedding happened very quickly and a child was born six or seven months later. But very few Lans indulged in concubines or illicit lovers. Illegitimate children were almost unheard.

His husband rolled his eyes.

"I bet they're done more often than you know!"

Lan Wangji couldn't repress his frown. The Patriarch saw it and he threw up his hands.

“Ah, but I believe you! I'm glad to hear I don't have any stepchildren tucked away someplace."

Lan Wangji was glad, too. If the only children in his husband’s home were orphans or disciples, that was a tremendous relief. The morning suddenly seemed much brighter.

His husband had said nothing about concubines, of course. Lan Wangji had noticed that. But he decided it didn't matter. If such individuals existed, Lan Wangji would hear of it eventually. He wasn't likely to cross paths with them, and no one would expect him to make conversation with his husband’s lovers. If the Patriarch ran his home like any other sect leader, he would keep his concubines far away from his lawful spouse. Lan Wangji reminded himself that there was no reason for worry.

Still, they finished their tea in awkward silence. Afterward, the Patriarch rose to his feet. He headed for the door and didn't invite Lan Wangji to follow.

Lan Wangji swallowed the last of his tea and tried not to feel slighted. Naturally, this visit was merely a courtesy. It was the day after their wedding, so the Patriarch must exchange a few polite words with his new husband. But his husband's duty was done. Now he could return to his lovers or his studies. He could tend to the daily tasks that always burdened a man running his own household, or he could retreat behind closed doors for the esoteric cultivation of an immortal.

Somewhat against his better judgment, Lan Wangji rose to his feet. His job was to be accommodating. He mustn't annoy his husband with questions or petty concerns. It wasn't his place to delay his husband when he clearly wished to be elsewhere. But he had been holding a certain question against his heart, and he asked it now.

“Am I permitted to write to my family?”

The Patriarch paused in the doorway and glanced over his shoulder. He gave Lan Wangji a strange, unreadable look. Lan Wangji studied his face closely. But he couldn't interpret that expression, no matter how hard he tried.

“Why not?” His husband shrugged with elaborate carelessness. “After all, Hanguang-Jun is well-known for his honor and discretion.”

Lan Wangji asked no further questions. He understood the implication.

Hanguang-Jun is known for his honor and discretion.

It was true enough, but his husband wasn't offering an idle compliment. It was a potent reminder. From the moment they took their bows, Lan Wangji’s first allegiance was to his husband. So his letters must not include any information that would violate the Patriarch’s privacy or paint him in an unflatteringly light. His correspondence must be polite, discreet, impersonal.

Lan Wangji knew this already. He did not need his husband to remind him of his duties here.

Restlessly, he returned to his chambers alone and sat behind his desk. There was plenty of ink and paper. He could begin a letter now, if he wished. But he discovered he had nothing to say.

His new home was comfortable, and he was treated with respect. His brother would be pleased to know that. But the letter wouldn't console him as much as Lan Wangji might hope. His brother knew that Lan Wangji couldn't complain openly. There was too much risk of the letter falling into the wrong hands. His husband may even read the letters himself before sending them out.

A promise that his brother was content in his new home and treated well…it was worth less than the paper it was written upon. Lan Xichen knew that.

Lan Wangji clenched his hands on his lap. For a moment, he ached with a homesickness so profound that he almost felt ill. Before the war, he had rarely been away from Cloud Recesses for more than a few nights. His trips abroad had been short, often in the company of his sect members.

The war had kept him away from home for many months. But Lan Wangji had endured that, knowing he had no alternative. If their forces didn't prevail, he wouldn't have a home to return to. Wen Ruohan had already burned Cloud Recesses once. If he wasn't vanquished, he would do it again and slaughter every cultivator who fled. Lan Wangji had known that, and he consoled himself with a private vow: if they won the war, he would return home for good. He would pass through the gates of Cloud Recesses and stay there forever.

His eyes burned. He tried to swallow the grief that rose in his throat. But it surged up, again and again. He could hardly bear to think of spending months, years, decades away from his home. The truth—that he may never see Cloud Recesses again—was unendurable.

Stubbornly, Lan Wangji battled down his emotions. He swallowed hard and blinked until his eyes stopped burning. 

Moping wouldn't help, but diligent research would. First, he must understand his new home. He needed to acquire more information, both about the land and its inhabitants. There must be subtle rules that governed this place: traditions, customs, and alliances. Lan Wangji needed to learn them. Only then could he place his feet on solid ground. He could learn, and prepare for whatever came next.

With that thought in mind, Lan Wangji stood. The best way to begin, he decided, was by developing a floorplan.

***

It was fortunate that Lan Wangji had told his husband he didn’t mind A-Yuan. The boy found him, mere hours later.

Lan Wangji had spent the morning pacing the halls of his husband’s home. It was not overly large. Cloud Recesses was three times its size. Even so, he decided it would be wise to familiarize himself with the different rooms. He half-expected that someone would stop him, though, or direct him back to his chambers. But as he walked through the halls, no one disturbed him.

The ancestral hall—where they made their bows the day before—was sealed with talismans. From the servants, Lan Wangji learned that his husband had a private study somewhere in the hills. He did not permit others to venture there. Aside from these places, Lan Wangji could go where he chose. No one interfered, and no one stopped him.

Aside from A-Yuan, that is.

Halfway through his exploration of the northern pavilion, Lan Wangji heard running footsteps. He looked up and found the boy sprinting freely down the hall. A harried-looking nursemaid rushed after him.

She bowed to Lan Wangji and he nodded politely. But he had no time for a further greeting. A-Yuan had already tugged on his robes. Lan Wangji looked down, and the child beckoned him shyly. He knelt.

“Hi,” A-Yuan said, once their faces were level.

“Hello.”

A-Yuan toed at the ground, then risked a glance upward. He had bright, smiling eyes and a mouth that was struggling to repress a grin.

“You married Gege?” he asked.

It was a strange way to refer to the immortal Yiling Patriarch. But perhaps his husband didn't lord his status over small children. To A-Yuan, he might only be ‘Gege’.

“Yes.” Lan Wangji nodded.

A-Yuan gave that some consideration.

“Where did you come from?”

His small hands tugged curiously at Lan Wangji’s robes and the dangling yaopei. He even reached for Lan Wangji’s forehead ribbon. To Lan Wangji's relief, the child didn't complain when his hands were gently directed elsewhere.

The poor nursemaid, though, looked ready to faint. If A-Yuan didn't know the meaning of the forehead ribbon, then she did. Or perhaps she was merely horrified to see her charge pawing at her master’s husband.

Lan Wangji returned his attention to A-Yuan's expectant face. He tried to think how he might explain: I come from a place called Gusu. It seemed unlikely that the child would understand.

“Do you have a map?” he tried.

A-Yuan didn’t, but there was a meeting room near the main hall. The nursemaid showed them there. Inside, Lan Wangji found a large, detailed map pinned to the wall. He lifted A-Yuan up and pointed out his home. Then he traced a line to Yiling, showing A-Yuan how far he had traveled.

The boy asked what Cloud Recesses looked like. Lan Wangji did his best to describe it, but he had never been skilled at using words to sketch a picture. A-Yuan frowned, clearly dissatisfied. He asked for a drawing instead.

Lan Wangji wasn't especially skilled at drawing, either. But there was ink and paper in the room. A-Yuan's small face was so hopeful. Lan Wangji sat obediently at the table and attempted to draw the mountain that held Cloud Recesses. After some thought, he added three figures: himself, his brother, and his uncle.

He explained the identity of the figures, and A-Yuan's face lit up. At once, the boy insisted upon drawing a picture of his own family. As he worked, he gave a longwinded description of his seemingly endless supply of aunts and uncles. Then he told Lan Wangji about the lotus ponds to the east, and the many animals he had seen there. He endeavored to draw a picture of these. It was mostly comprised of black, inky blobs, but Lan Wangji admired it dutifully.

He was given A-Yuan’s masterpiece as a gift. Lan Wangji carried it back to his chambers after the child was removed by his nursemaid. There was a great deal of ink covering his small hands, and she said he needed a bath.

Lan Wangji sensed that she wasn't pleased to have her charge so thoroughly dirtied. She didn't seem willing to reproach him, though. Instead, she bowed respectfully as she departed. On the walk back to his chambers, Lan Wangji gave her behavior quite a bit of thought. His husband seemed to have instructed the household to treat Lan Wangji with respect. That was encouraging.

As he examined his chambers, Lan Wangji felt even more at ease. The worst of his fears hadn't come to pass. His husband hadn't mocked him or abused him. He hadn't put Lan Wangji into a cold, comfortless room. He hadn't snubbed Lan Wangji publicly, or urged his people to treat him with contempt. There was much to be grateful for, and Lan Wangji knew it. It wasn't the marriage he might have dreamed of, but it was better than he had expected.

He placed A-Yuan’s drawing in a position of honor above his desk. Then he examined it with considerable satisfaction. A-Yuan’s presence was another unexpected blessing. The boy had such a friendly, affectionate temperament. Lan Wangji would have liked the boy even if he'd been a concubine's child. But he was deeply reassured to know that A-Yuan was no such thing.

If he was only an orphan, living with his extended family, there were no barriers. Lan Wangji didn't need to worry about propriety, discretion, or unpleasant gossip. He might see the child often, perhaps even daily. There would be no need to grapple with tangled court politics, wondering if he might offend the child's mother or tarnish his own reputation.

Lan Wangji set a stick of incense burning. Then he knelt behind his desk to think. The morning, he felt, had been spent usefully. He had inspected his new home and memorized its layout. Perhaps tomorrow he could do the same with the grounds. Lan Wangji hadn't seen much from the covered palanquin, but he felt sure there were gardens surrounding the hall. A-Yuan had spoken of lotus ponds and play-areas. If the grounds were safe for a child, surely Lan Wangji would be permitted to walk them.

The servants had watched him carefully today. Lan Wangji had felt their eyes tracking him as he paced the halls. But he hadn't sensed any malice or scorn. They hadn't seemed fearful, merely curious and inquisitive. And the outer doors were not barred. When Lan Wangji walked past the main door, the servants hadn't even twitched. No one had rushed to stop him from passing over the threshold.

He didn't believe he was a prisoner in his husband's home. If he wished to leave—to make a trip down the mountain and into Yiling—then he would undoubtedly need the Patriarch's permission. But Lan Wangji had no desire to test those boundaries. Not yet, anyway.

Lan Wangji furrowed his brow and watched as the incense burned. Once the first stick had turned to ash, he replaced it. Then he sat back on his knees and stared at the desk. He ought to write to his family and assure them of his safety. When he took up his brush, though, the words didn't come. He wasted several sheets of paper trying to put together a coherent letter. Then he gave up and fulfilled his earlier promise instead.

Lan Wangji made five more copies of the text in a handstand position. When that was done, he burned the papers in the brazier, one by one. The papers caught fire and crumbled to ash: his punishment was complete. Yet he felt restive and unsatisfied. He had pushed open the door to the garden to keep an eye on the world outside. Lan Wangji doused the brazier and looked up to discover that the morning had vanished. The sun hung high overhead.

The second meal, the maid had explained, was served at wei-shi. Like the first meal, it would only be a light snack. The most substantial meal was served at you-shi. This meal, she said, was the one the Patriarch regularly attended.

She had finished her explanation with repeated assurances that she would be happy to deliver food at any time, day or night. But Lan Wangji had shaken his head. He must acclimate to his new household and fall in with their traditions. The established mealtimes were acceptable. It was his duty to comply with his husband's schedule.

So Lan Wangji set aside the brush and paper. He straightened his clothing and washed his hands. Then he joined the rest of the household in the dining hall.

Once more, he was seated beside Wen Qing. Her companion from the previous night was still at her side. Lan Wangji had wondered if he might be her husband or betrothed. It developed, though, that he was her brother. His courtesy name, she said, was Wen Qionglin. But Lan Wangji quickly discovered that virtually everyone in the household knew him as 'A-Ning'.

As soon as Wen Qing began making introductions, several family members darted up to the table. They nodded to Wen Qing, beamed at 'A-Ning', and eyed Lan Wangji with frank curiosity.

Lan Wangji felt a prickle of unease as dozens of eyes turned his way. Small talk had never been one of his strengths. He didn't have half his brother’s skill at putting people at ease or making them feel welcome. He tried his best with the Wens, and wasn't certain  he succeeded. But at least he didn't seem to offend anyone during the meal.

The Wens were undoubtedly conscious of his silence as he ate and the awkward pauses between his replies. Yet they seemed prepared to make excuses on his behalf. For most of the people at the Burial Mounds, Cloud Recesses was impossibly far away. It might as well have been on the moon. They clearly took it for granted that such a distant land had many strange customs. They seemed perplexed by his conduct, but not insulted. 

Silence during meals was the rule in Cloud Recesses. But his new home was very different. The Wens chattered freely throughout the meal, and Wen Qing took it upon herself to explain their settlement as they ate.

“There are about sixty people living here." She piled a second helping of roast duck onto her brother’s plate. “Most of them are related to my family.”

She did not name her clan. If she knew that the Patriarch had accidentally confessed the truth, she gave no sign of it. Lan Wangji nodded along politely.

“The rest are servants or disciples." She served herself a modest second portion of rice and chewed slowly. “There are five official disciples and half a dozen orphans too young to have formed their golden core. They’ll stay here for now. If they manage to form a core, the Patriarch will keep them and train them up. If not, they’ll probably go to live and work in one of the outlying villages.”

Lan Wangji nodded once more.

She explained that the Patriarch’s domain included five villages. Yiling was the principal town. Most trading and purchasing took place there. The villages were largely concerned with farming and housing the growing population.

The villages would need to expand, Wen Qing said. The Wen refugees trickled slowly into Yiling, sent in batches by Sect Leader Nie. Their best estimates suggested that two hundred additional bodies would arrive by winter. These individuals would require food, housing, and medicine. No single village could accommodate so many. But the Patriarch planned to split up the refugees and send them to different villages. Some, Wen Qing admitted, might come to serve within the Patriarch's halls.

His husband’s home had a name: Demon-Subdue Palace. Wen Qing sighed as she uttered it. Then she gave Lan Wangji a sharp look.

He blinked. Her expression suggested that she expected him to object to the name or to ridicule it. But Lan Wangji wasn't sure how to respond. He opted to stay silent, turning the name over in his mind. 

The name wasn't entirely blasphemous. Subduing resentful energy was the duty and privilege of every cultivator. Some might consider it pretentious to refer to one's court as a 'palace'. But surely no one could begrudge an immortal a bit of pomposity.

Lan Wangji sipped his soup and avoided Wen Qing's gaze. But he felt a slight twinge of unease.

Under different circumstances, no one would remark upon this name. But the Patriarch used demonic cultivation. He raised and invoked resentful energy. That made the chosen name quite ironic. Yet it would surely be in poor taste to say so.

He spooned up the last of his soup without comment. Wen Qing seemed to realize that her announcement would win no reaction. She rolled her eyes.

“It was meant to be a joke, I understand.” She sighed. “Your husband thinks he's funny.”

Lan Wangji would have to take her word for it. He hadn't seen that side of his husband. But then, he hadn't seen his husband at all since their marriage. He had disappeared after breakfast and Lan Wangji hadn't heard a whisper of him since.

Wen Qing hinted that this wasn't unusual. Sometimes, the Patriarch walled himself up in his study for weeks. He usually appeared for evening meals and in the afternoons, he often helped the older disciples with their lessons.

But every now and then, he disappeared into the hills. He wouldn't come out for days at a time. The household seemed to accept that he must be busy with something important during these intervals. No one suggested disturbing the Patriarch's solitude for anything less than a dire emergency.

No one told Lan Wangji what he was meant to do during these absences, either. He had brooded on the question all morning, yet found no answer. What was he meant to do in his new home?

There were servants to carry out the mundane tasks of daily living. There was a teacher for the disciples, a rogue cultivator who made her home at the Burial Mounds. There were the Wens, who evidently managed their own smaller households and tended the gardens. But there seemed to be no role for Lan Wangji.

After lunch, he returned to his chambers and gave himself over to another period of meditation. He shut his eyes, cleared his mind, and tried to answer the question for himself.

In Cloud Recesses, he had been busy from dawn to dusk. As a child, every hour was spent in lessons and studies. Once he became a senior disciple, his instructors expect him to assume other duties. He went on night-hunts, yes. But he also led classes for the younger students, graded papers, and prepared lessons. Sometimes, his instructors had asked him to search for reference material in the library. Now and again, the elders requested that he contribute his calligraphy skills. He helped make copies of valuable texts to exchange with other sects and aided with formal correspondence.

 With so many duties, Lan Wangji seldom had much free time. If he found himself with a spare shi, he was expected to put it to good use. He meditated, practiced sword forms, and strengthened his cultivation.

Lan Wangji surveyed his empty schedule with a dull sinking sensation. There was no use for his skills here. Dangerous beasts and spirits wouldn't intrude on the Patriarch's land. He was too powerful: resentful energy shaped itself to his well, or it fled far away.

Crime, Lan Wangji knew, must be equally unheard of. Who would dare to commit robbery or assault at the Patriarch's doorstep? Lan Wangji wouldn't need to protect the people here or keep the peace in Yiling. Not when his husband had power to spare, along with a fearsome reputation. No one had indicated that the disciples needed his aid, either.

There was a library. Lan Wangji had been reassured to discover that. His husband's library was considerably smaller than that of Cloud Recesses, but it boasted several hundred texts. Some of them were even unfamiliar to Lan Wangji.

He supposed that he could spend his days within the library. If no one needed his help, he could immerse himself in research and cultivation practice. According to the Wens, his husband often shut himself away in his own study. Perhaps Lan Wangji was meant to do the same.

Perhaps that was his true role here: to cultivate to immortality and provide his husband with eternal companionship. It wasn't an ignoble goal. Lan Wangji knew that his elders had always hoped that he or his brother would manage to cultivate to immortality. Such an achievement must require years of uninterrupted study. If his husband wanted to provide the solitude necessary to achieve this goal, Lan Wangji knew he should be grateful.

But the idea made him restless. He eased himself out of his meditation and stared miserably at the wall. The prospect of spending year after year, alone in the library, was surprisingly daunting.

Study was valuable, but not to the exclusion of all else. Lan Wangji wanted to make an impact on the world, to protect the weak. If he couldn't do that, how could he find either peace or satisfaction?

He let out a quiet sigh, his shoulders slumped.

That sort of mindset was selfish, though. He mustn't think only of his own gratification. He had his duties: to support his husband, and to ensure the success of a powerful alliance for the sake of his family. Lan Wangji copied out a short text on diligence ten times, engraving this thought at the front of his mind.

Then he nodded to himself, rose to his feet, and opened his wardrobe. He pushed his way through the stacks of fabric, making a mental inventory. Ten sets of robes had accompanied him from Cloud Recesses. The elders had been distressed there wasn't time to prepare a better trousseau, but Lan Wangji had thought he owned a perfectly suitable quantity of clothing.

Disciples of Cloud Recesses were not permitted to be wasteful. Legend had it that Lan An never kept more than three sets of robes. Many disciples took him as their model. Over the years, the Lans had developed a reputation for frugality and plain clothing. But as their sect grew in power and prestige, allowances were made. Each year, the rules loosened. The elders murmured that their sect couldn't afford to look weak or impoverished. The main family, at least, must dress more lavishly.

Ten sets of robes, made of the most expensive silks, wasn't an unreasonable number for a cultivator of Hanguang-Jun's station.

But as Lan Wangji sifted through the wardrobe, his dismay grew. Ten robes was considered the outer limit of propriety, and he had packed accordingly. His husband, though, had given him ten additional sets of robes. Lan Wangji now had twenty sets, and that seemed like shameful overindulgence.

He took out the new robes, examining each set. There were robes for each season. Black winter robes, patterned with silver plum blossoms. Spring robes, embroidered with blue peonies. Summer robes covered with lotuses and koi fish. Autumn robes awash with gray chrysanthemums and mandarin ducks. Each robe was exceptionally well-made, with a matching set of under-robes.

Lan Wangji shook out the black winter robes and held them against his body. They had been made to fit. He tried a set of blue spring robes, and found that they had also been meticulously tailored too. Unease prickled against his skin. How had the Patriarch had managed to prepare so much clothing so quickly? Their betrothal period had scarcely lasted a fortnight.

He frowned as he refolded the robes, tucking them away.

Some of the preparations might have been made in advance. His husband could have bought the silks, hired seamstresses, and chosen patterns. He could have done this before he ever set foot into that tent. Why not, after all? He clearly knew that the cultivation world intended to seek his aid. The war was almost lost. He must have expected a plea for help to come.

And he had introduced the idea of marriage with such alacrity. He must have prepared his response. The Patriarch must have planned to acquire a spouse. Perhaps he had already known it would be Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji stared at the robes neatly stacked within the wardrobe. Suddenly, he felt faintly queasy. 

If the Patriarch wished to choose a spouse, there were few options available. Naturally, he would wish to choose a cultivator from among the sons and daughters of a powerful sect. The Great Sects would have been at the top of his list.

But if he tried to marry one of the current sect leaders, chaos would ensue. His spouse would have to abdicate their position and join the Patriarch in the Burial Mounds. Their sect would bitterly resent such a disruption, and the deposed sect leader would be equally resentful. The Patriarch must have anticipated this. So he must have planned to marry one of the sect heirs instead.

Lan Wangji shut the wardrobe and sank onto the chair beside the vanity, thinking hard. If the Patriarch wished to choose from among the heirs to the Great Sects, the field was remarkably narrow. He had but two choices: Nie Huaisang and Lan Wangji. Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan were already betrothed to one another, and there were no other legal heirs.

Jin Guangshan had been prolific, littering the cultivation world with illegitimate children. But like most sect leaders, his legal offspring were few. The main branches of the Great Sects seldom produced more than one or two children per generation. It was likely, then, that the Patriarch already had his choice in mind. He had entered the tent planning to demand a spouse, and knowing that his choice would be Lan Wangji. 

Lan Wangji sat very still for a moment. Then he forced himself to continue his inventory. He slid open the drawers and touched each familiar piece: the guans, the yaopei, the silver hairpins. He had brought three of each into his marriage. There was no need for anything more. But his wedding jewelry had been behind in its case. There were several other pieces inside.

He fingered the clasp on the case.

At first, he thought the items had merely been loaned to him. The items worn during a wedding were not always a permanent gift. Sometimes, they were given only for the ceremony, then taken back to storage. But the case had been left behind in his chambers. That suggested that the items were meant for his continued use.

Lan Wangji snapped open the case and took a look inside.

There were decorative combs made of ivory and jade and pearl. There were jade bracelets, silver rings, gold hairpins. There was a catfish pendant, too. No doubt it was meant to symbolize a happy marriage.

Lan Wangji lifted the pendant into his hands and studied it.

The Patriarch had arrived at the meeting with marriage in mind. He had heard something, too, about the cultivators who were present. He knew which were renowned for their strength, beauty, and righteousness. He had not chosen blindly. The Patriarch had asked every sect leader to be present, heirs and disciples in tow. But he must have narrowed down his list of potential spouses before he entered the tent.

Perhaps he had purchased the marriage gifts in advance: the fine silks, the expensive jewelry, the lucky charms. The Patriarch might have received a description of Lan Wangji’s appearance long ago. He might have instructed his seamstresses to make robes to fit. The clothing and jewelry Lan Wangji discovered might have been placed in this very room weeks ago, long before their meeting on the battlefield.

Lan Wangji shifted uneasily on the chair. He wasn't sure how he felt about that prospect.

To be idly chosen, picked out of a crowd of anonymous faces, was insulting. If the Patriarch had selected him on the spot for his beauty or family background, then such a careless selection was offensive. But if the Patriarch had made his choice in advance—choosing Lan Wangji, then manipulating the political climate to secure to marriage—that was far worse.

He toyed with the pendant and set it upon the vanity. After some thought, he withdrew the jade bracelets as well. They were clear white jade, an auspicious wedding gift. He ran his thumb along the carved edges.

Lan Wangji knew that the cultivation world had considered him a desirable match. The Lan sect was strong, wealthy, respected. There were many lesser sects who would rejoice to marry a son or daughter to the Second Jade of Lan.

But what did the Patriarch care for those trifles? He needed nothing from the Lan sect. There seemed to be no reason for the marriage. It made Lan Wangji’s teeth itch.

If the Patriarch had behaved differently on their wedding night, Lan Wangji might have drawn certain conclusions. If his husband had sought a bedwarmer and intimate companion, the marriage might have made some sense. Yet he hadn't touched Lan Wangji. He'd shown little interest in spending time with his new husband, and left the breakfast table as quickly as possible. It left Lan Wangji bewildered, disoriented, off-guard.

Just what did the Patriarch want from him?

An immortal had no need of a spouse. They might take one anyway, for the sake of companionship. If immortals didn't require food or sleep, perhaps they still felt certain physical urges. A marriage for pleasure's sake seemed perfectly reasonable. But if the immortal desired no intimacy, what was the purpose of marriage?

Lan Wangji arranged the jewelry on his vanity. He studied it grimly.

He had received generous wedding gifts. The Patriarch had clearly spared no expense. In every respect, Lan Wangji had been treated in a manner befitting his station. He had received comfortable rooms, even a private garden. He had been showered with silks and jewels. The Patriarch had done everything a wealthy lord or lady was expected to do when they married in a spouse. Lan Wangji knew it would be churlish to complain.

And yet.

He bit the inside of his cheek and scowled into the mirror.

If the Patriarch wouldn't assign Lan Wangji a role in his home, then Lan Wangji must find one himself. He could go to the library tomorrow and study the available texts. Then he could speak to Wen Qing again. He could try to better understand the management of his husband's lands: what crops were grown, how building materials were purchased, what education the children received.

He could ask permission to work with the disciples, too. If he was turned away—if his help was refused—then he would find something else to do. Even if the domain of an immortal, there must be some work to be done.

Lan Wangji nodded to himself. Then, with another sigh, he returned to his wardrobe and reorganized his clothing. He had placed his own robes to the front, but that wasn't right. If he wore the colors of his natal sect, he would only offend his husband. Lan Wangji must demonstrate that he was making an effort to fit in. For the sake of courtesy, he must show proper gratitude for his husband’s gifts. He sorted his robes by season, studying each one.

Mid-Autumn Festival was less than two weeks away. However, it was technically still summer. In Cloud Recesses, such things didn't matter. Young disciples wore white at all times, and even disciples who had come of age wore chiefly whites and blues. The elders sometimes wore delicate shades of gray or pearl. But bright, seasonal colors were exceedingly uncommon.

He was no longer in Cloud Recesses, though. And summer had not yet ended.

Lan Wangji withdrew a robe of deep ocean blue, patterned with white lotus flowers. The colors were similar enough to his daily attire, and wearing this wouldn't feel too unnatural. But when paired with the jade bracelets and the catfish pendant, it would surely send the right message.

He would wear them to dinner, he decided. If his husband attended the meal, he would see that Lan Wangji intended to show proper respect for his new household. Whether that would make any difference in his husband’s demeanor remained to be seen. But Lan Wangji felt a quiet wash of satisfaction. At least he could content himself with this: the knowledge that he was performing his duties.

With duty in mind, he sat behind the desk again. He picked up his brush and wrote a calm, tranquil, reassuring letter to his brother.

Chapter Text

The Patriarch dined in the main hall that night. He dropped into his seat with a lingering look in Lan Wangji's direction, followed by an idle remark upon his husband's attire.

Lan Wangji resisted the impulse to smooth the unfamiliar blue silks. They still felt odd, as if he were wearing someone else's clothing. But at least his husband seemed satisfied by his appearance.

His husband darted glances his way during the course of the evening. But most of the Patriarch's attention was taken up with A-Yuan. The boy had returned to the table, seeking attention. Lan Wangji found himself deeply grateful for A-Yuan's antics. They kept the whole table amused and diverted focus from Lan Wangji. He felt sure that the less scrutiny he received, the better.

Strangely, though, Wen Qing seemed displeased by his husband's meager attempts at conversation. Several times, she tried to subtly direct the Patriarch's attention toward Lan Wangji. But the Patriarch either failed to notice her efforts, or chose to ignore them. When the meal was over, he excused himself from the table and left without a backward glance.

Wen Qing glared after him. Her expression was so fierce, Lan Wangji half-expected his husband to stop in his tracks. But he didn't, and the table emptied quickly after that.

Back in his chambers, Lan Wangji puzzled over her behavior. Perhaps the marriage had been Wen Qing's idea. If she orchestrated the match, no doubt she was disappointed by the results. A matchmaker was never pleased to discover that the couple had no interest in one another. Lan Wangji turned that theory over in his mind. It seemed plausible. But he couldn't make the pieces fit quite right.

Why should Wen Qing have urged the Patriarch to marry? If his husband had been a sect leader, Lan Wangji might have understood. Respectable sect leaders always married at a young age. Their elders and friends urged them to settle down, to provide a good example for the rest of their sect. Lan Wangji knew his brother was facing similar pressures.

But the Patriarch was no sect leader. He wasn't obliged to set an example of a harmonious marriage, or forge advantageous political alliances. Why, then, should his friends care if he remained unmarried? And how could Wen Qing have influenced him to marry, if he didn't wish to do so? Lan Wangji could only imagine what sort of power that would require.

True, Wen Qing seemed close to the Patriarch. She clearly played a vital role in managing both his household and his people. Yet Lan Wangji couldn't easily determine the true nature of their relationship. He picked that question apart as he set aside the jewelry and took down his hair.

They weren't overfamiliar. He'd watched them closely during two meals and saw nothing untoward. The Patriarch teased her and she rolled her eyes. But they took no liberties with each other. Not where Lan Wangji could see, anyway.

He unwound his forehead ribbon and tucked it away. His brow furrowed as he carried on with his toilette, running an oiled comb through his hair.

If they were lovers, Lan Wangji saw no sign of it. And if Wen Qing loved the Patriarch, he couldn't imagine why she arranged his marriage to another. Nor could he understand why she tried to push them together during dinner. It was a puzzle he could not unravel, no matter how hard he tried.

Lan Wangji tried to set the question aside. He finished combing out his hair. Then he washed his face and hands with grim concentration. Evening ablutions complete, he changed into his sleeping clothes and climbed into bed.

As he blew out the candles, he wondered if his husband might join him tonight. Perhaps the Patriarch had merely chosen to delay the consummation. Perhaps he thought they weren't well enough acquainted for such things just yet. Perhaps he would change his mind, as the days wore on.

But he did not.

Lan Wangji fell into a peaceful, though uneasy routine. He rose early and he broke his fast alone. Then he meditated in the garden and fed the koi fish. There were two, and they gradually became used to his presence. Lan Wangji was wryly amused to see that even the fish wore the Patriarch's colors: red and black.

After his morning meditations, Lan Wangji dressed with care. He selected from among the robes provided by his husband. The cask of wedding jewelry remained in his drawer. Lan Wangji paired the new robes with a set of combs or bracelets. Then he scrupulously arranged his hair, always keeping the small lotus hairpin tucked within. Once he was satisfied with the results, he roamed Demon-Subdue Palace.

His initial impression had been correct: no restrictions were placed on his movement. The ancestral hall and his husband's study remained off limits...not just to Lan Wangji, but to everyone at the Burial Mounds. Aside from those places, though, Lan Wangji was free to go where he chose.

He spent his mornings in the library. It held a pleasantly large quantity of new reading material. He drew up a list, then methodically worked his way through the unfamiliar texts. Afterward, he joined the household for the midday meal. 

In the afternoons, he left the hall and walked the grounds. The mountain proved as steep and rocky as Lan Wangji had anticipated. The soil wasn't right for farming, not on a large scale. But the land was fertile enough. The Burial Mounds overflowed with trees, shrubs, and lotus ponds.

There were gardens too: kitchen-gardens full of herbs and vegetables, rather than ornamental plants. Lan Wangji didn't mind that. The sight of greenery cleared his mind and set his heart at ease. Cloud Recesses had always been full of plants and wild animals. He had feared that his husband's home would be a desolate place, devoid of living creatures.

But there were many animals living nearby. The Burial Mounds held several small fish ponds and bamboo groves full of birds. There were strange ruins as well. The Wens didn't seem to know where they'd come from. The ruins were old, relics of another age. If the Patriarch knew what had stood here, he hadn't told them.

It didn't take Lan Wangji long to realize that the house itself—the buildings that made up Demon-Subdue Palace—were young. He circled the complex on the third day after his marriage, studying the exterior. Each building was solid and well-made, only slightly worn by wind and rain. It might be ten or twenty years old, at most. The gardens and lotus ponds seemed equally young.

As Lan Wangji moved through his daily routine, he listened carefully. The people of the Burial Mounds chattered freely, and Lan Wangji paid close attention to every fragment of conversation. Eavesdropping was be forbidden in Cloud Recesses. But he had found himself in a strange place, and he felt he needed every advantage he could get. His conscience pricked him. Yet he listened anyway.

Most of the people at the Burial Mounds proved to be Dafan Wens. The rest were orphans, picked up by the Patriarch during his travels. None had lived at the Burial Mounds for more than a decade. In fact, the Dafan Wens arrived only seven years ago. The others had trickled in over the last four or five years.

As Lan Wangji listened, he was careful to remain silent. But the unasked questions burned in his breast.

A decade ago, the Yiling Patriarch had been unheard of. Rumors of his existence had surfaced slowly: until six or seven years ago, the cultivation world hadn't been sure whether such an immortal truly existed.

Then, almost overnight, the Patriarch's name had been everywhere. Peasants claimed to have seen or met him near Yiling. Cultivation sects grumbled that some power was interfering with their night-hunts, driving away their prey. Strange barriers appeared around Yiling, disrupting travel. Soon, the Patriarch's power was too obvious to ignore. For trained cultivators, the truth was plain: the Patriarch was indeed an immortal.

But he couldn't have lived at the Burial Mounds for long. Lan Wangji frowned over that realization. Then he wasted a full shi trying to make sense of it.

Had he come to Yiling from somewhere far away? Perhaps he'd cultivated to immortality in distant lands, then relocated here? Lan Wangji thought it must be so. The Patriarch seemed to have no ties to any of the sects. If he'd trained nearby, his history would be better known. But if he'd come from faraway places, what had brought him here? Why had he not remained in his own lands? Had the powerful resentful energy of the Burial Mounds acted as a lure?

As Lan Wangji tended to his correspondence one afternoon, a thought struck him. He set down his brush, and his breath caught.

Perhaps the Patriarch had been driven away from his native lands. His own people might have grown uneasy with his cultivation methods. The cultivation world was on edge too. Rumors about the Patriarch had only intensified since the marriage.

Lan Wangji smoothed a thumb over his brother's latest letter. Naturally, Lan Xichen had said nothing of these rumors outright. They had to be circumspect in their correspondence. But Lan Wangji could read between the lines, and he knew what his brother was implying.

An immortal who could raise the dead was deeply discomfiting. Even if the Patriarch had never set foot beyond the Burial Mounds, the cultivation world would have regarded him with suspicion. But the Patriarch had left his mountain. He had obliterated an army in an instant. Then he had married a scion of one of the most powerful sects. It was no wonder the sects were growing nervous. They were bound to wonder if the Patriarch intended to follow Wen Ruohan's path.

His brother was curious to know if there was any truth to these rumors. He, too, wondered what had prompted the marriage. But Lan Wangji had no answers to give. After two weeks of marriage, he had hardly seen his husband. The Patriarch attended meals infrequently. Outside of mealtimes, their paths rarely crossed. He never visited Lan Wangji's chambers, much less his bed. Lan Wangji's only comfort was that his husband didn't seem to visit anyone else's bed, either.

He had seen no hint of concubines at the Burial Mounds. Though he'd listened carefully, he heard no gossip about his husband taking a lover. During the weeks following their wedding, the Patriarch hadn't traveled outside the Burial Mounds or made mysterious nighttime visits to the village. He had spent most of his time in his study. It seemed unlikely that he had a lover hidden there.

Lan Wangji supposed that his husband merely spent his days working on secret forms of cultivation. The people of the Burial Mounds appeared to accept this explanation, and he couldn't find a reason to do otherwise. So he tried to push the matter from his mind. But it was surprisingly difficult.

Before he left Cloud Recesses, Lan Wangji had thought the matter was settled. He acknowledged that his husband might have concubines or lovers, and he told himself that he didn't care. In the comfort and safety of his own home, Lan Wangji had sincerely believed that such things wouldn't matter.

Yet as the days passed, he grew restless. He wasn't sure which discovery would provide greater relief: that his husband had a secret lover or that he didn't. After all, the Patriarch had shown no interest in befriending Lan Wangji. He had spurned Lan Wangji's bed. If he had a concubine...

Well. It would explain his behavior, anyway. And it might help Lan Wangji better understand his role in the household.

If he knew for certain that his husband's heart—and his bed—were otherwise occupied, Lan Wangji could lay the matter to rest. He wouldn't lie awake after hai-shi, wondering if his husband would come. He could set aside his worries and half-formed hopes, and carry on with his life. But the news would also come as a terrible disappointment.

When Lan Wangji rose on the fifteenth day of his marriage, his bed was still empty. He stared at the ceiling and forced himself to acknowledge the truth: he was disappointed.

Lan Wangji chewed on this discovery as he shifted restlessly beneath the silken sheets. He wasn't desperate for his husband's touch, aching for a caress, burning with lust. He wasn't entirely lost to propriety. If his husband never wanted to share his bed, Lan Wangji could find his peace with that.

Even so, he thought his husband might dine with him. He expected that they would drink tea together. Perhaps his husband would ask him to play the guqin or sing for him. They could have spent some time together, at least. Passion might be impossible in their marriage, but Lan Wangji had still hoped for companionship. Now, it looked as if he'd receive neither.

There was no sense in brooding over it, though. So he dragged himself from the empty bed and prepared for his day. He had found ways to fill his time, at least.

A few days prior, he had seized upon his husband's rare appearance in the dining hall. He asked if he might observe the disciples' lessons, perhaps even help their instructor. His husband had given him a long, unreadable look. Then he shrugged.

"Why not? I'm sure the kids would love to get some tips from the famous Hanguang-Jun! They've heard of you, even way out here!"

He gave Lan Wangji a bland smile. But he granted his permission, and that was enough.

The next day, Lan Wangji was introduced to the disciples. There were five of them, ranging between the ages of ten and sixteen. When he appeared on the training fields, they stared at him saucer-eyed.

Their instructor was a rogue cultivator by the name of Zhang Huizhong. A woman in her late thirties, she had wandered for years before settling in the Burial Mounds. She provided daily structured lessons while the Patriarch attended to other matters.

Lan Wangji enjoyed watching the disciples, but his presence clearly made them nervous. As he observed their swordwork, the youngest disciple dropped his blade. The boy's face turned scarlet. Lan Wangji picked it up and urged the boy to try a different grip. He demonstrated on his own sword and the boy nodded fervently. He didn't seem to be paying attention as Lan Wangji gently adjusted his fingers.

But afterward, the floodgates opened. Lan Wangji was swarmed by the other disciples, each of whom wanted his opinions on their swordforms.

It was pleasant to spend time with students again. Instructor Zhang didn't seem to mind his presence, either. When he offered to oversee part of the daily practice sessions, she agreed readily. From that day forward, Lan Wangji devoted two hours of each afternoon to the disciples. The rest of his afternoons were given over to the younger children.

A-Yuan, as the Patriarch had claimed, liked to get underfoot. If Lan Wangji was sitting, the boy climbed into his lap. If he stood, the boy begged to be picked up. On his fourth day in residence, A-Yuan seized his hand and proudly showed Lan Wangji the lotus ponds. Then he introduced Lan Wangji to his friends. The younger children were a rag-tag group between the ages of three and eight. Several were old enough to begin formal education. Lan Wangji was disappointed to discover that they had received little in the way of structured study.

Wen Qionglin was in charge of the young children, and he did what he could. He helped the children practice their reading and writing and he taught a little basic arithmetic. Lan Wangji discovered that he tried to teach the children meditation, too. But there were six of them, and they were exceptionally energetic. Sometimes they were more than Wen Qionglin could manage by himself. He had confessed as much to Lan Wangji, with obvious embarrassment.

Far from disapproving, Lan Wangji had been quietly overjoyed. Here was a genuine problem in his new household, one he was capable of solving. Lan Wangji had been so relieved, he nearly thanked Wen Qionglin for his inability to manage the children on his own.

That night, Lan Wangji reflected carefully upon his own education. Seated behind his desk, he labored until he created a timetable that would have won Uncle's approval. He allocated time for reading and for reciting lessons aloud. Wen Qionglin could manage those alone. A portion of the morning was devoted to arithmetic. Two elderly Wen women could help with those lessons. Afterward, the children would rest and eat lunch.

In the afternoons, Instructor Zhang could guide the young children in meditation, teaching simple exercises to strengthen their small bodies. Meanwhile, Lan Wangji would tend to the disciples in her stead. When Lan Wangji finished with the older children, he could teach the younger ones calligraphy and music.

Lan Wangji presented Wen Qionglin with the timetable, and the young man readily agreed to try it out. For the most part, it went well. But Lan Wangji quickly discovered gaps in the children's education. Reading, arithmetic, and calligraphy weren't enough. They needed training in etiquette and proper rites, too.

He had already learned that manners were exceedingly lax at the Burial Mounds. Few people adhered to the strict etiquettes Lan Wangji had grown up with. He didn't think altering the culture of the Burial Mounds—imposing all three thousand disciplines of Cloud Recesses upon the children and disciples—would be received well. But it wouldn't hurt the children to learn the social customs they would encounter if they left the mountain.

So Lan Wangji had rearranged the timetable and prepared a few simple lessons. He expected them to go fairly smoothly. After all, customs and traditions were not difficult to learn. They merely required practice and memorization.

But as soon as his lessons began, the children poured out an exhaustive number of questions: Why must I bow to this person, but not that person? Why do I use this form of address for a rogue cultivator, but that form for a cultivator affiliated with a sect? Why am I allowed to drink tea in this way in a restaurant, but must drink it another way in someone's home?

Lan Wangji had a solid foundation of learning to draw upon. He had read hundreds of books and attended countless lectures. His own childhood had been full of methodical instruction. But he found himself stymied by their questions.

Wen Qionglin was no help. When the children grew restive, they climbed all over him and left him utterly incapacitated. One afternoon, Lan Wangji turned to him for help answering the latest question: Why is it rude to point the spout of the teapot at guests?  He found Wen Qionglin on the ground, buried beneath four small children. A-Yuan sat proudly on Wen Qionglin's chest.

A-Qing, a rambunctious girl of seven, was waiting expectantly for her answer. Lan Wangji turned back with some misgivings. He had already learned that she was a street-urchin, found Yi City. Her time there had given her a shrewdness and sharp wits. She wasn't easily distracted. When she had a question, she clung to it tenaciously.

Lan Wangji opened his mouth, then closed it. He didn't know why it was impolite, merely that it was. But A-Qing wouldn't be satisfied with such an answer. He was rendered helpless beneath her unimpressed stare.

"Aiyah!" A voice behind him sighed. "Don't you know anything?"

Lan Wangji turned, surprised to see his husband approaching. The children brightened, and A-Qing sat up in eager anticipation.

The Patriarch didn't often join their lessons. In fact, it had never happened before. Lan Wangji had an uncomfortable suspicion that his husband timed his visits around the lessons. Somehow, the children managed to see his husband often. When Lan Wangji arrived, they showed off the toys or treats the Patriarch had brought. But when Lan Wangji was present, the Patriarch was mysteriously absent.

Until now.

The Patriarch crouched beside Lan Wangji. He gave A-Qing an exaggerated eye-roll.

"Forgive his ignorance." He shook his head solemnly. "Everybody knows you don't point the spout at anyone because they might fall into the teapot!"

Lan Wangji stared, astonished. His husband's expression didn't flicker. Not even when A-Qing gave him a deeply skeptical stare.

"How could a person fit inside a teapot?" she huffed.

The Patriarch rubbed his jaw.

"Ah, well, I admit it doesn't happen often." He inclined his head at Lan Wangji. "Hanguang-Jun forgot to mention something important. It's not impolite to point the spout at a fat person. It's only impolite if the person is skinny, like you!"

He reached out the pinch A-Qing's sides and she squirmed.

"If they're too thin, they might slip right through the spout. You have to be very careful about these things!"

His voice was grave, as though issuing a dire warning. But there was a glimmer of amusement in his eyes. Lan Wangji saw it, and A-Qing did too.

She folded her arms and burst into loud protests: She would not be fooled! She wasn't a baby like the others! She knew that a person couldn't fit inside a teapot!

The Patriarch merely shook his head sorrowfully. His expression suggested that the girl would surely learn the dangers of teapots the hard way. Then his eyes roamed over to Wen Qionglin. The spark of amusement kindled further.

"A-Ning!" he called out. "Are you getting bullied again?"

"No," Wen Qionglin said, somewhat unconvincingly.

A-Yuan still sat astride his chest. A-Mei, a girl of four, gleefully dumped handfuls of dirt over Wen Qionglin's head. The Patriarch rose and scooped her into his arms.

"Look at all of you!" He surveyed the small band of children. "Are you trying to bury him in the dirt? Do you think you can sprout a new Uncle Ning that way? He's not a radish! It wouldn't work!"

This declaration was met with a chorus of protests. The Patriarch laughed aloud.

"Oh, you're so convinced?" He scratched his chin. "Well, who knows? Maybe I'm wrong! Let's try it!"

He herded the children over to a small patch of dirt. Some of the Wens had tilled the land the previous day. They intended to plant a fresh crop of radishes, or so Lan Wangji had heard. But no seeds had been sown yet. The soil was dark and freshly turned.

The Patriarch deposited A-Yuan on the ground. Then, with great ceremony, he planted the child in the soil.

Within moments, A-Yuan was filthy. The rest of the children, eager to help with the planting, grew equally grubby. They seemed overjoyed. Lan Wangji sensed their caregivers would be less than pleased, when the time came to do the laundry.

"A-Yuan, you may be onto something!" The Patriarch sprinkled a handful of dirt over A-Yuan's shoulders. "This could be a new method of cultivation. We'll put you here and water you every day. We'll make sure you get lots of sunlight."

The children volunteered their own advice on how to cultivate a small boy so that he would grow properly. The Patriarch listened to their suggestions with mock seriousness.

"But if we sprout three more A-Yuans, what should we do?" he asked. "How will we name them?"

The children shouted out suggestions while Wen Qionglin watched with a benevolent smile. Lan Wangji watched too, entirely flummoxed. Such play wasn't permitted within Cloud Recesses. No instructor there would deliberately dirty a child under their care. Nor would they encourage such absurd, fanciful ideas. But the children laughed, loud and joyful. The Patriarch's smile was wide and sincere.

A gong sounded, echoing across the hills. The evening meal was imminent. Wen Qionglin suggested taking the children to wash up, and the Patriarch nodded.

"We'll try again tomorrow. A-Yuan, don't worry!" He dug the boy out of the soil and brushed him off. "When you start sprouting, I'll give you all the credit for your discovery. You can be the Radish Patriarch, in honor of your accomplishment."

A-Yuan trotted away happily. He was, Lan Wangji noted, absolutely filthy. If Lan Wangji had ever returned home in such a state, he would have been punished most severely. But the children seemed to have no fear of punishment. They scampered off behind Wen Qionglin, heading toward the wooden outbuildings where the Wens resided.

The children, Lan Wangji knew, lived there. They were cared for by the Wens, or servants who had come to live in the Burial Mounds. None of the children had living parents. But they were surprisingly cheerful. They seemed content to live in this strange place, surrounded as they were by friendly faces.

Lan Wangji realized that their departure had left him alone with the Patriarch. When he turned, he expected to find that his husband had vanished as quickly as the children. To his surprise, the Patriarch remained. He helped Lan Wangji gather the calligraphy brushes and tea sets used for practice.

"You have a lot of patience with them!" he remarked, as Lan Wangji stacked the cups.

Lan Wangji looked up, startled.

"Not so much as Wen Qionglin," he answered, after an awkward pause.

He had come to admire Wen Qionglin during their shared lessons. The young man was never confused or vexed by the children. Nothing seemed to trouble him: not their noise, or their endless questions, or their inability to sit still. The children sometimes climbed onto his shoulders and tugged at his hair. Yet he never reprimanded them or sent them away.

Lan Wangji had been astonished by his easy patience, particularly after he learned that only A-Yuan was part of the Wen clan. The other children weren't his blood, but Wen Qionglin accepted them just the same.

The Patriarch chuckled, rolling a chipped saucer between his hands.

"Ah, that's not patience. He just gets bullied by them a lot." He gave Lan Wangji the saucer and dropped the final cup on the tray. "He's accepted his fate. Probably he did something sinful in a past life, who knows?"

Lan Wangji blinked. He wasn't sure how to reply. The Patriarch still seemed to be in a whimsical mood. But Lan Wangji had never been skilled at making jokes, so he finished arranging the items on the tray in silence. The Patriarch watched him as he worked.

"You're trying to civilize these little animals?" He waved a calligraphy brush before handing it over.

Lan Wangji took the brush but frowned at the epithet. The children were difficult to manage, but they weren't animals. He was prepared to admit that they lacked self-discipline. They couldn't pay attention for long periods and quickly grew restless. Yet they were eager to learn more about the world outside their borders. Lan Wangji felt sure that their education was a worthwhile endeavor. He told his husband so.

"They should develop such skills," he explained, "even if they never require them."

The Patriarch's mouth quirked.

"I can't argue with you there." He handed over the final brush. "Remind me to introduce you to Xiao Xingchen."

The Patriarch leaned back on his hands, chuckling to himself.

"He's a good example of what happens when immortals forget to teach their disciples how to do things like order in restaurants or barter at the marketplace."

The Patriarch's voice was fond, and he spoke of Xiao Xingchen with startling familiarity. Lan Wangji stared.

"'The bright moon and gentle breeze?'" he ventured cautiously.

His husband nodded.

"That's him." He dusted the soil off his hands. "We're relatives, after a fashion. He doesn't live here, exactly. But he and his cultivation partner stay here often. They'll probably drop by for the winter."

Lan Wangji blinked some more. He'd heard of Xiao Xingchen, of course. It would be difficult to find a cultivator who hadn't. But Lan Wangji had never met the man. He came and went as he pleased, belonging to no sect.

Lan Wangji adjusted the stack of cups on the tray. It was astonishing to hear that Xiao Xingchen was on intimate terms with the Patriarch. But perhaps it shouldn't have been. Xiao Xingchen had been the disciple of an immortal himself. The Patriarch and Baoshan Sanren might know each other. Perhaps they were even blood-kin. Xiao Xingchen might be a link between them.

His husband tilted his head. His eyes were amused, as if he knew Lan Wangji's mind was making jumps and seeking connections. But he didn't volunteer anything more.

Lan Wangji swallowed. He had so many questions about his husband's origins. The Patriarch must know that. Yet Lan Wangji put his questions aside. His husband had never before spoken to him with such easy familiarity. Lan Wangji was afraid to break the tenuous peace.

"I see." He tidied the tray, then set it aside. "I would like to meet them."

The Patriarch snorted.

"Would you? They're the ones who brought me A-Qing!" He pointed in the direction the small girl had taken. "So that should tell you something about their taste and temperament! Are you sure you want to meet people who would take in a girl like that?"

Lan Wangji nodded without hesitation.

"Yes. She is very bright."

The disciples had been rather shy when they met him. Even the younger children were bashful at first. But not A-Qing. The day after the wedding, she approached him boldly. There had been a war, or so she'd heard. She wanted to know if he had fought in it, and how many enemies he had slain.

Lan Wangji had tried to evade the question. War was horrific, and she was only a young child. It would not be right to speak openly about such things. But he soon realized that A-Qing was neither timid nor squeamish. When he failed to provide sufficiently gruesome descriptions, A-Qing had taken charge of the conversation. She treated him to a long story of what she would have done to Wen Ruohan. As she spoke, she punctuated her narrative with furious sweeps of her toy sword.

Afterward, she asked him to peel her pomelo and she ate it in two bites. Then she gave him a wide grin, revealing several missing teeth, and ran off without a farewell.

Uncle, Lan Wangji knew, would be horrified by such a lack of decorum. But he was already fond of the brash, impudent girl. There was no doubt that she was bright and capable, with raw spiritual energy. She had yet to form a core, but Lan Wangji believed she might manage it. 

The Patriarch gave him a knowing glance.

"Too smart for her own good, you mean." He scratched his scalp. "Ah, she reminds me of someone."

He didn't enumerate, though Lan Wangji regarded him curiously. The Patriarch's tone implied that he was thinking of himself. But Lan Wangji found it difficult to imagine his husband as a gap-toothed child. The Patriarch must have been a child at some point. Even immortals were children once. Yet Lan Wangji couldn't picture it. His husband's past seemed shrouded in mist.

"I heard you've been working on sword forms with the others," the Patriarch added.

"Yes." Lan Wangji inclined his head. "When I can."

They had a full-time instructor already and his presence wasn't strictly required. He had started looking forward to the lessons, though. The disciples were very promising. 

His husband studied him, his gaze speculative.

"Tell me your opinion of them."

Lan Wangji gave that request the careful consideration it deserved. He straightened his spine, thinking deeply. He had only joined the disciples' lessons for ten days. But that was enough: he could already see each disciple's strengths and weaknesses. Most possesses a remarkably degree of raw talent. However, they were young. Their skills were rough and unpolished.

"Liu Deshi is skilled, but brash," Lan Wangji began slowly. "He handles his blade well, but he forgets to watch his blind spots. Zhou Qiaohui's cultivation is improving. She still uses her sword as a blunt instrument, though. She has not yet learned to harmonize with her blade."

Only the two eldest disciples had been gifted with swords. The Patriarch had forged the blades himself, the disciples told Lan Wangji. As they spoke, the older disciples' faces glowed with pride. The younger disciples had looked wistful. They would receive their swords within a year or two, once their cultivation was stronger. For now, they managed with wooden practice swords. They did fairly well. But Lan Wangji could see that they needed time and training before they were ready for spiritual weapons.

Lan Wangji assessed each of the five disciples in turn. As he spoke, his husband's eyebrows climbed.

"You've paid close attention," he remarked.

Lan Wangji inclined his head.

"I often worked with younger disciples in Cloud Recesses."

He hadn't realized how much he liked it—or how much he would miss it—until he left home. Once he discovered that there were children in the Burial Mounds, Lan Wangji had been swept with a tide of relief. If there had been no students to mentor, Lan Wangji's life would have felt very empty indeed.

"In addition to your own training, of course." The Patriarch lifted his brows.

"Yes."

He had many duties in Cloud Recesses, and Lan Wangji had found pleasure and gratification in each one. But he preferred assisting his instructors in the classroom. That, and night-hunting. He treasured every opportunity to venture into the field to help the common people.

Lan Wangji resisted the urge to frown. It seemed that his future wouldn't hold much in the way night-hunting. He chose not to think of that, though. At least he could still teach. That was something, and Lan Wangji was determined to cling to every pleasure he could find in his new home.

The Patriarch sat silent for a few moments, absorbed in thought.

"Maybe you and I will duel sometime."

He spoke idly, as if the offer was meaningless. Perhaps it was, for him. But Lan Wangji stared at his husband, too shocked to speak. The Patriarch's mouth quirked again.

"What?" His voice turned teasing. "You didn't think I could?"

Lan Wangji parted his lips. Yet it took several seconds before he could muster up a reply.

"Of course not," he said slowly. "But you do not carry a sword."

The Patriarch must have one somewhere. Who had ever heard of a cultivator—an immortal, no less—who didn't know how to wield a blade? Still, the Patriarch never carried his sword. At first, Lan Wangji had found that impossibly strange. He always felt uneasy if Bichen was out of his reach. Most cultivators detested even temporary separation from their blade.

But his husband merely shrugged.

"I don't need one," he said. "It tends to get in the way. But of course I have one. Do you think you can guess its name?"

"No." Lan Wangji tried not to sound as stupefied as he felt.

His husband heaved a sigh, his shoulders slouching.

"Not even one guess? Ah, you're no fun!"

The Patriarch pouted. His lower lip actually pushed out, as if he were no older than A-Yuan.

Lan Wangji stared at his husband. Then he turned his attention to the tray. But his gaze drifted back to the Patriarch, again and again. Something had thawed between them. Lan Wangji didn't know how or why, but he could feel it. A nervous, tentative hope fluttered in his chest.

His husband had spoken to him, voluntarily. He had teased Lan Wangji. There had been no sardonic looks, no artificial smiles. His husband hadn't disappeared into his study. Instead, he sat in the waning sunlight and sprawled inelegantly on the grass. He seemed in no hurry to leave, and Lan Wangji did not dare to excuse himself. Instead, he thought carefully for a few moments. Then he spoke.

"Tomorrow is the Mid-Autumn Festival."

His husband tipped his face back, eyes on the golden autumn sunset.

"Is that right? I guess so."

His voice was lazy. He seemed to think that Lan Wangji was merely making an observation. Lan Wangji bit the inside of his lip and tried again.

"The children want to go to the village to see the lanterns."

Some of the Wens planned to go into Yiling and join the celebrations. They would take the children with them. The disciples would visit the village, too, with Instructor Zhang as a chaperone.

Lan Wangji had heard much of their plans over the past few days. They tried to pay attention to their lessons whenever he was present. But as soon as his back was turned, they whispered about the foods they planned to eat, the trinkets they wanted to buy, the lanterns they hoped to make. The younger children, of course, were in a fever of excitement. They talked of nothing else besides the festival. It had made Lan Wangji long for something, for a celebration of his own. 

The Patriarch hummed and said nothing. Then, suddenly, he sat upright.

"Oh? Oh! Does Hanguang-Jun want to accompany them?"

His voice sharpened with understanding, but he didn't sound displeased. If Lan Wangji asked to go with the children, he sensed his husband would agree.

That was heartening. He had yet to ask if he would be permitted to leave the mountain someday. If his husband didn't plan to immediately refuse, that was an encouraging sign. But it wasn't exactly what Lan Wangji had hoped for. He chose his words with particular care.

"Mid-Autumn Festival is important." He paused. "I would like to celebrate with my husband."

The Patriarch didn't answer at first, and Lan Wangji's stomach tightened. He feared he might have asked too much.

Perhaps his husband would prefer to spend the holiday elsewhere. If so, Lan Wangji knew he must not object. He didn't want his husband to spend the holiday with him out of duty and obligation. Neither of them would enjoy that.

But after a brief silence, his husband's face split into a smile. It was bright, lovely, and entirely unexpected.

"Why don't we go into town, then." He swayed forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I don't show my face in Yiling much anymore. Why not."

For a moment, his face clouded. Then his expression cleared and he turned to Lan Wangji, his eyes full of mischief.

"Ah, I have an idea. Let's go in disguise!"

"Disguise?" Lan Wangji echoed.

His husband nodded.

"If we show up looking like ourselves, everyone will stare at us. Do you want to spend the whole evening with people fawning over Hanguang-Jun and groveling before the Yiling Patriarch?"

Lan Wangji could think of nothing he wanted less. He'd had quite enough of being stared at.

The Wens didn't 'fawn' over him, of course. But they certainly watched him curiously. So did the children and the servants. Lan Wangji felt eyes on his back every moment of every day. It would surely be much worse in the village. There, Hanguang-Jun and the Yiling Patriarch were almost mythical figures.

"No," he admitted.

His husband made an approving sound.

"So, we'll wear a disguise!" He laced his fingers together, rocking back. "I have just the talisman. Nobody will suspect a thing."

Lan Wangji had never worn a disguise before. Not a single day in his life. He had always entered the world as himself. According to the teachings of Cloud Recesses, it was dishonorable to do anything else. But his husband seemed to find a childlike pleasure in the idea. Lan Wangji couldn't bear to spoil his good mood.

"Very well."

He nodded agreement, and his husband grinned.

They went into the dining hall together. That was pleasant, too. The Patriarch sat at his table and he spent most of his time talking with the Wens. But he had a few words for Lan Wangji. In fact, they spoke more than they had during any other meal.

The flutter in Lan Wangji's chest unfurled. It felt as if a bird was beating against his ribcage. He didn't even mind the spicy, heavily seasoned food. There were more vegetarian dishes on the table anyway, braised tofu and fried eggplant. The Patriarch urged him to try this dish, or that one. He lamented that the cooks had never quite mastered certain dishes.

"They have more of my favorite foods in Yiling," he said. "We'll try them together tomorrow."

Wen Qing raised her eyebrows at that. But she offered no objection.

When the meal was over, the Patriarch disappeared again. Still, Lan Wangji felt a warm glow of satisfaction as he returned to his chambers. It lingered even as he meditated and finished his latest letter home. After sealing the letter, Lan Wangji combed out his hair with special care. Then he spent some time inspecting his wardrobe.

Tomorrow was a festival day. It would be proper, then, to wear something suitably festive. Lan Wangji withdrew a set of red robes, patterned with gold bamboo. He had brought them from Gusu and nearly forgotten about them. He had worn them only once, three years prior, for his second cousin's wedding. There had been no other occasion for such robes. In Cloud Recesses, red was seldom worn outside of weddings. Even during festivals, most disciples wore blue and white.

Lan Wangji felt sure that the customs were different in his new home. So he hung up the robes to air overnight. Then he sifted through the jewelry case until he found a pair of golden phoenix hairpins. He felt slightly foolish, dithering over his attire. Such practices were unbecoming for a Lan disciple. But they had become a habit over the last two weeks.

He had already scraped together a few feeble justifications to defend his behavior: He had married into another home, and his attire reflected upon his husband's wealth and status. He mustn't be sloppy or careless. Nor should he neglect his husband's preferences. He ought to show respect by wearing the items his husband had given him. It was Lan Wangji's duty to observes the rituals and customs of his new home. By doing so, he would enhance the prestige of his husband's household and his natal sect.

The logic was faultlessly sensible and proper. Lan Wangji knew that even his uncle could not object. After all, the austerity of Cloud Recesses only went so far. Sometimes, their sect had to bend to worldly concerns. Uncle would not wish his nephew to lose face, or cause his husband to lose face.

But deep down, Lan Wangji knew the truth. He toyed with the hairpins, running his thumb along the phoenix's wing. Embarrassment coiled in his belly.

It wasn't concern for his new household—or respect for his social position—that drove his sudden interest in personal aesthetics. The truth was far more humiliating. He couldn't even bear to think of it during the light of day. But when he was in bed, candles extinguished, Lan Wangji allowed himself to admit the truth: he wanted to look nice for his husband. He squirmed with mortification beneath the bedcovers.

It had begun as a sort of defiance. His first few days in his new home had been miserable. The Patriarch seemed to have no use for him, and Lan Wangji had felt slighted and piqued.

Am I meant to be nothing more than an attractive ornament? he had wondered. Well, if that is all he wants from me, then let him have it!

As Lan Wangji gradually found a place for himself, these feelings faded. He didn't feel quite so much like a useless ornament. He could make himself useful, teaching the children and disciples. That was a valuable role, a noble pursuit. Lan Wangji felt reasonably confident he was performing his duties well. The children seemed to enjoy their lessons, at least.

And perhaps his husband was warming to him. He had agreed to spend time with Lan Wangji tomorrow. That seemed to signify that he saw Lan Wangji as a spouse, not just a well-dressed figure who sat by his side during meals. In time, perhaps Lan Wangji could be more than a mere ornament for his husband.

His heart should have been at ease. But it wasn't. The Patriarch had shown a willingness to spend time with him and somehow, Lan Wangji only felt a deeper compulsion to attend to his appearance. It was foolish. It was nonsensical. He knew it, and he writhed in silent mortification. But he couldn't shake the feeling, no matter how hard he tried.

Lan Wangji stared up at the darkened ceiling.

He couldn't fault himself for desiring his husband's good opinion. That was natural enough. Anyone might wish to be valued by their new spouse. But if his husband valued him for his virtues and abilities, that ought to be enough. Lan Wangji should demonstrate that he was a faithful and hardworking spouse, a trustworthy teacher. He should show his husband that he could share his burdens, help manage his territories.

If his husband valued him for those reasons alone—if he never took a second glance at Lan Wangji's face or his body—it should be enough. Lan Wangji knew he should be satisfied if he won his husband's trust and esteem.

But he wasn't. His face burned. He tugged the covers over his head like a child.

It wasn't enough. He didn't want an indifferent companion, a husband who valued him only as the elders of his natal sect had. Lan Wangji wanted a husband who smiled when he walked into the room. He wanted a husband who talked with him for pleasure, rather than duty.

Shamefully, he even wanted a husband who liked to look at him. He wanted a husband who wished to share his bed at night.

If his husband had been unattractive, it might have been easy to set these selfish desires aside. Lan Wangji didn't like to think himself shallow. But if his husband were ugly or deformed, perhaps he would have felt relieved to return to an empty bed every night.

His husband wasn't homely, though. The Patriarch was really…quite attractive. Lan Wangji had noticed that at once. At first, it had meant nothing. Within the last few days, though, his husband's appearance had started to matter.

The Patriarch had fine features, clear eyes, long limbs. His skin was unblemished, his hair lustrous. He had a very pleasant smile, too. Lan Wangji had seen a great deal of that smile as he played with the children. He found himself wishing that such a smile might be aimed in his direction more often. And he had realized that it wouldn't be a burden if his husband finally decided to claim his marital rights.

Lan Wangji turned over in bed. He drew the blankets tight around his body with a sigh.

He must think on this no more. His husband gave no indication that he wanted such things from Lan Wangji. That was also his right: he remained free to avoid Lan Wangji's bed. It was useless—and appallingly crass—to waste valuable energy wishing for his husband's attentions in the bedchamber.

Lan Wangji realized that he'd grown too used to life in the Burial Mounds. The disciplines of Cloud Recesses seemed far away. He hadn't meditated seriously on the rules, not since the first day of his marriage. This, no doubt, was why his thoughts had grown so wild and untamed. So he shut his eyes and set about correcting the problem. Silently, he recited the three thousand disciplines until he fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji had intended to spend the morning of the festival in the library. But quiet, solitary study proved to be impossible. The children were frantic with excitement, and they refused to submit to their lessons. Wen Qionglin couldn't calm them on his own. Lan Wangji found himself drafted into service.

The children wanted to hear stories in honor of the holiday. Lan Wangji couldn't help there. He had always been a poor storyteller. Fortunately, Wen Qionglin could manage that on his own. Lan Wangji held A-Yuan and A-Mei on his lap, striving to keep them still throughout the story of Chang’e. Afterward, Wen Qionglin arranged for games and projects. The children made clumsy paintings of the rabbits on the moon, and A-Yuan gave his to Lan Wangji. Once they finished their paintings, the children rested.

Lan Wangji carried the painting back to his chambers. Over the last few weeks, he had developed quite an art collection. Of course, A-Yuan’s drawings were mostly indistinguishable splotches of ink. But the child was proud of his work, so Lan Wangji was proud on his behalf. The temptation to show off A-Yuan's accomplishments had proved overpowering: Lan Wangji had already sent one of the boy's paintings to his brother.

He enclosed a letter, explaining that the painting belonged to a small child who lived in the Burial Mounds. Lan Wangji added that he helped oversee the child's education. A-Yuan, he added, had already outstripped his own artistic skill. This particular painting represented the boy's efforts to draw a turtle he had found in the lotus ponds.

His brother had been thoroughly amused. With his next letter, he sent a painting of his own. It was exquisite, as all Lan Xichen’s paintings were: a red maple tree with a small bird perched upon the highest branch.

A gift, he explained, for a fellow artist.

Lan Wangji presented the painting to A-Yuan, and the boy joyfully claimed it as his own. It was almost a pity, Lan Wangji thought. A painting by Sect Leader Lan was a valuable gift. It ought to be hung in the main hall, where it could be displayed to visitors. But A-Yuan refused to place the painting anywhere but his bedroom. Wen Qionglin had whispered that the boy was extremely proud that he had received such a special present. He showed it off to all his aunts and uncles, Wen Qionglin said.

Lan Wangji had received many of A-Yuan's masterpieces in return, with requests to pass a few onto his brother. He placed the latest painting beside his desk. As he gazed at it, he couldn't help feeling slightly melancholy.

He had always taken his brother's presence for granted. Since the moment he took his first breath, Lan Xichen had been at his side. He had shared Lan Wangji's burdens, guiding him through each new stage in his life. Lan Wangji had thought their togetherness would continue for eternity. Even after they married and started families of their own, Lan Wangji expected that his brother would continue to guide him.

Surely his brother would help raise his nieces and nephews. He'd teach the children painting, mediation, the art of conversation...all the skills Lan Wangji lacked. They would live together, under the same roof, and his brother would teach him how to be a father.

But now his brother was far away. Perhaps he would never meet A-Yuan, or any of Lan Wangji's new students.

Lan Wangji found that his eyes were suddenly burning. He blinked hard and swallowed the lump that had risen in his throat. There would be time later to dwell on such unpleasant thoughts. Today was a holiday, and Lan Wangji was celebrating with his husband. He must make the most of this opportunity.

He dressed with fastidious care, then arranged his hair. The phoenix hairpins seemed highly auspicious. After some thought, Lan Wangji slipped in the lotus hairpin, too. It didn't harmonize with the red and gold. The small silver pin looked almost shabby beside the polished phoenixes. This pin wasn’t fit part of a splendid, elaborate set of wedding gifts. It was the sort of hairpin that anyone might buy at a village market.

But Lan Wangji hadn't forgotten its origins. Nor had he forgotten the way his husband had placed the pin gently into his hands, as if it were a priceless treasure. This simple hairpin had won a war, so it seemed fitting that he should wear it today. Once the pin was in place, Lan Wangji studied the results in the mirror.

He had half-expected his husband to him to demand the lotus pin's return. The Patriarch had never attempted to retrieve it, so Lan Wangji had kept it. He wore it every day, discreetly tucked into his hair. On a few occasions, his husband had spotted it and a strange expression had crossed his face. But he hadn't instructed Lan Wangji to put the hairpin away.

Lan Wangji reached up, tracing a thumbnail over the lotus design. Then he surveyed himself from head to toe. He thought he looked suitably festive. It might be a wasted effort, though. His husband intended for them to go in disguise. Lan Wangji wasn't sure what form that disguise would take. But surely they would have to hide their face and their elegant clothing.

He sighed as he turned away from the mirror. It might be frivolous and wasteful to spend so much time preparing himself. His husband, however, had finally shown an interest in spending time with him. Lan Wangji didn't wish to look like a pauper.

Outside, he joined the children in the courtyard. A crowd of Wens had formed, laughing and joking. The adults jostled each other playfully while the children scurried underfoot. Lan Wangji watched the group, pleased to note that nearly every face had become familiar to him.

Wen Qing and her brother planned to escort the young children. The disciples would be accompanied by Instructor Zhang. A dozen others would travel in a group, celebrating and making purchases in town. The rest of the Wens had agreed to remain behind. They would host a small celebration for themselves, then prepare for the night's banquet. Lan Wangji saw that they were looking forward to the celebration. Even the faces of the eldest Wens were bright with excitement.

The children, of course, were the most excited of all. As soon as he set foot in the courtyard, A-Yuan seized his hand. He chattered freely, already eager for the treats that awaited. Lan Wangji listened patiently as A-Yuan made a list of his favorite foods. It was a very, very long list.

At his side, Wen Qing sighed. She seemed to anticipate that she'd be spending the afternoon wrangling overexcited children. But she was smiling, and so was her brother. The entire settlement seemed to be in a festive mood.

When the Patriarch arrived, he was smiling too. Lan Wangji stole a glance from the corner of his eye. His husband wore his customary colors: black and red. Lan Wangji had already observed that his husband had a dozen sets of robes in the same shades. The robes were flattering, and his husband cut a sharp figure. His face was warm and open as he studied the waiting crowd.

"Well, come on! Come on! Hurry up, or they'll start having fun without us!"

He swung A-Yuan onto his shoulders, then ushered the rest down the winding trail. Lan Wangji lifted A-Mei into his arms. Like A-Yuan, she was too small to make the trip on her own. The other children scrambled off, chasing one another. They grew so excited that A-Yuan and A-Mei became restless. Halfway down the mountain, they begged to be set down. The moment their feet touched the ground, they set off.

Lan Wangji watched the children dart joyfully around the Wens. A-Yuan clambered over rocks and fallen branches, while A-Mei dirtied her festival robes within minutes. A-Qing's hair had already fallen out of its braided buns. The Patriarch heaved a sigh.

“They'll be filthy by the end of the day! We’ll have to dunk them in the lotus ponds when we get back."

He smiled as he spoke. Lan Wangji’s heart lifted. He liked the fond way his husband spoke of the children. His husband’s quiet indulgence touched on a tender place inside Lan Wangji's soul.

The Wens were indulgent too. At first, Lan Wangji had found it astonishing: the children were never scolded or punished. Not even when they dirtied their clothes or wandered off to dig in the dirt. No penalties were imposed for running, hollering, or climbing on the furniture. They received remarkably little discipline. In that respect, the Burial Mounds was utterly unlike was Cloud Recesses. Lan Wangji’s own upbringing had been strikingly different.

But he couldn't deny that the children were thriving. They were happy, well-fed, and fond of their caregivers. Aside from the occasional scuffle or quarrel, they got along well with each other. They were impossibly curious, too. Lan Wangji often felt adrift at sea, surrounded by such noise and inquisitiveness. He liked them, though. He liked their lively spirits, their small hands, their cheerful impudence. He particularly liked the way his husband watched them, his eyes soft with affection.

After a moment, the Patriarch turned to study Lan Wangji. His mouth quirked.

“Ah. You look very nice! We won't have to throw you in the lotus pond, I think!"

His husband's voice was teasing. Lan Wangji's ears grew warm.

"I haven’t seen you in red before," his husband added, after a moment. "Not since the wedding.”

There was a strange, heavy note in his voice, but words themselves were idle. Lan Wangji's steps slowed almost unconsciously.

“Ah, but let me guess! There are three thousand rules in your sect, right? You’re forbidden to wear red, is that it?”

Lan Wangji let out a small sigh. His husband had developed a strange interest in the Lan disciplines. He seemed horrified by the sheer number, but when he was in a playful mood, he quizzed Lan Wangji about their contents: Is this forbidden? Or this? How about that?

Lan Wangji had offered to supply his husband with a bound copy of the sect’s rules. His brother would send one, if he asked. Or Lan Wangji could write them out from memory. But his husband hadn't taken him up on his offer. Instead, he'd expressed profound horror at this discovery: You've memorized all three thousand rules?!

“Not forbidden,” Lan Wangji replied. “But wearing red is not customary. Not outside of weddings and festival days.”

Some disciples wore their customary blues and whites even on special occasions. Lan Wangji decided to keep this bit of information to himself. He suspected that it would only horrify his husband further.

“I see, I see.” The Patriarch slipped his hands into his pockets, slouching along the path with a grin. “But they had some rules about clothing, right? Three thousand rules! Some of them had to be about what you’re allowed to wear.”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji admitted.

“Tell me some of them!"

Lan Wangji sighed again. He knew how this conversation would end: his husband would only shake his head, wondering how anyone could live in such a restrictive environment. But his husband was smiling and high-spirited. He seemed to be in a teasing mood, and Lan Wangji found—somewhat to his astonishment—that he wouldn't mind being teased. So he recited a dozen of the rules that dictated proper dress.

His husband interrupted every few seconds.

“No more than three ornaments on your yaopei!” he exclaimed. “Why?”

Lan Wangji considered that question for a moment. It was a surprisingly common question in the Burial Mounds: Why? The children asked it at least a dozen times each day. His husband did too. But this question was seldom asked in Cloud Recesses. Lan Wangji often struggled to find an answer.

“I do not know,” he confessed after a short pause. “I believe that rule was meant to discourage ostentation. The founder of my sect believed we should avoid excessive or lavish spending.”

The Patriarch laughed.

“But you were dressed very lavishly when you came here!” He shook his finger at Lan Wangji. “Your family gave you very nice wedding robes and that fancy gold headpiece. What’s the difference?”

There wasn’t one, not really. Lan Wangji sighed a third time.

“That was a wedding. And I am a member of the main family line.”

His husband laughed louder.

“So that’s how it is!” He folded his arms, shaking his head in mock disapproval. “Husband, doesn’t that strike you as a little hypocritical?”

A few weeks ago, the question might have stung. But a great deal had changed since then. Cloud Recesses felt very far away. Some days, Lan Wangji felt as though his time there belonged to another lifetime.

He missed it sometimes. The quiet, the structure, the predictability...it had been soothing. But distance had its benefits. Lan Wangji found it easier to acknowledge the tiny inconsistencies that had always secretly bothered him.

“Yes,” he said.

The Patriarch laughed again. This time, he sounded sincerely startled. He turned, walking sideways so he could stare at Lan Wangji.

“You answered that so honestly!”

Lan Wangji gave a tiny, incremental shrug.

“It is a fair judgment. My sect believes in austerity, but where politics are concerned…these rules are not always followed strictly. It is hypocrisy.”

There were many such incidences of hypocrisy, and they had always frustrated him. In Cloud Recesses, he hadn't dared to speak of such things aloud. But he'd noticed each inconsistency, and they grated against his skin.

His brother always found it easy to manage the shades of gray. He could bridge the gaps, balancing their sect's strict disciplines with the need for political maneuvering. Lan Wangji had never been good at that. In his mind, a rule worth following should be followed at all times. If his strict disciplines annoyed the other sects, so be it. He frowned to himself, remembering how often his strictness had annoyed his fellow disciples. It was one of many reasons he'd never been fit for sect leadership. It was heaven's mercy that Lan Xichen had been born first.

His husband’s argument was reasonable, though. Lan Wangji couldn't dispute it, even if he had wanted to. But having scored a point, his husband grew indulgent.

“Ah, well. We’re all a little hypocritical, now and then." The Patriarch's smile was almost kind. “We’re humans, after all. It can't be helped!”

Lan Wangji gave his husband a curious glance.

They were humans, of course. Even immortals were technically humans. But somehow, he had supposed that cultivators who reached immortality must be different. Surely immortals had triumphed over their baser inclinations?

His husband noticed the glance. He grinned and lifted his brows.

“Did you think that immortals had managed to purge those faults?” He shrugged. “Sorry to disappoint you! But it’s not true.”

“I am not disappointed." Lan Wangji spoke slowly. “Only curious.”

He couldn’t help feeling curious. Immortality was the ultimate goal of every cultivator, yet few had ever met an immortal. Their powers were obscure, shrouded in myth.

Lan Wangji had shared his husband's home for fifteen days. He still didn't know what powers his husband commanded. His husband had cultivated to immortality, so he must have changed in the process. He must have transmuted himself. Lan Wangji was desperately curious to know what it felt like. But there was no delicate way to broach such a topic. His husband already seemed determined to keep him at arm’s length. They didn't have the sort of relationship that invited personal inquiries.

His husband gave him a crooked smile.

“Maybe we’ll talk about that sort of thing sometime."

For a moment, he sounded almost grim. Then his tone changed, infused with forced levity.

"But not today! It’s a holiday, so we shouldn’t waste our breath on serious topics.”

Lan Wangji understood, and he nodded.

He didn’t mind delaying this conversation. It could wait for weeks, months, years. He only wanted to know that they would discuss such things eventually. If he could be assured of that, it was enough. Lan Wangji could wait a lifetime to learn his husband's secrets.

As they reached the mountain’s base, the path sloped gently. Yiling lay ahead, gleaming with lanterns. The children scrambled forward, but the Patriarch laid a hand on Lan Wangji’s arm.

“Wait here,” he murmured.

He jogged over the Wen Qing. She was already was struggling to restrain A-Yuan and A-Mei. Wen Qionglin was besieged by the other children, A-Qing tugging on his arm. They looked up at the Patriarch's arrival, and he dropped a fat money pouch into Wen Qing’s hands.

“Buy them candy and toys!" He scruffed a hand over A-Yuan’s head. “Feed them until they puke!”

“I will do no such thing,” Wen Qing grumbled.

But she pocketed the money. She took A-Yuan and A-Mei by the hand, and they trooped off into Yiling. The other Wens had already scattered in every direction. Lan Wangji lingered behind the wards surrounding the Burial Mounds. They prickled against his skin, pulsing with quiet power.

The Patriarch said his farewells to the disciples. They bowed in response.

“Everyone, make sure to behave very honorably." His husband's voice was full of false gravity. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”

The disciples appeared to take this instruction seriously. Lan Wangji, however, looked at his husband askance. Once they were alone, the Patriarch started to laugh.

“My husband is giving me such a suspicious look!” He heaved a put-upon sigh. “What is that expression meant to suggest, I wonder?”

Lan Wangji had not intended to assume a ‘suspicious look’. He tried to clear his expression, but he couldn’t smother his response.

“You told them not to do anything you wouldn’t do."

His husband’s eyebrows lifted with amusement.

“Oh? So you’re wondering what I wouldn’t do?” He leaned in. “Well, then, watch me closely. You’ll see what I’m capable of!”

Absurdly, Lan Wangji swallowed hard. His husband was very close and somehow his scent was familiar. He smelled just as he had in the war tent: smoky and dark, like fresh rain against scorched grass. Heat poured off his skin, qi blazing.

If his husband had lingered—his shoulder brushing against Lan Wangji's—matters might have become dire. Lan Wangji might have embarrassed himself. But his husband stepped back and drew out a talisman. He slapped it against Lan Wangji’s chest, then surveyed the effect.

Lan Wangji blinked. A soft pulse of magic trickled over his skin. It felt as if he'd stepped into a cool stream. When he looked down at his chest, he saw no change in his appearance. The Patriarch applied a talisman to himself, and he looked equally unchanged. Lan Wangji stared doubtfully at him doubtfully. His husband rolled his eyes.

We won’t be able to see a difference,” he explained. “But nobody else will recognize us. Come on!”

The Patriarch was correct. They stepped into the crowded streets of Yiling, and no one even glanced their way. The town was busy, the streets teeming with people. Every man, woman, and child had thronged to the marketplace. But despite the crowds, they slipped through the streets unnoticed.

For a while, they walked in comfortable silence. Then the Patriarch remembered his favorite amusement, and he demanded to know which of the activities in the marketplace were forbidden by the Lan sect.

Drinking juice, as Lan Wangji demonstrated, was not forbidden. Buying a stuffed goldfish for good luck was also acceptable. But when his husband paused to wager a few coins on a game of chance, Lan Wangji couldn’t repress his frown. His husband laughed at him.

“Such a stern face!” he teased. “I take it gambling is forbidden by the rules?”

“Absolutely forbidden.”

Uncle had very strong views on gambling. Children in Cloud Recesses weren't permitted to even play at gambling. If Uncle saw a child placing a mock-wager, he was sure to dole out a punishment. Gambling, Uncle always said, is a sure path to moral depravity.

Lan Wangji repeated this axiom. His husband’s eyes lit with a mischievous gleam.

“What if you made a tiny wager? Just a single copper piece?”

When Lan Wangji frowned, the Patriarch dug another coin out of his pocket.

“Here, I’ll even give it to you. That way you’re not losing your own money. What’s the harm?”

Lan Wangji felt his frown deepen.

“’One small misstep paves the way for larger failures.’"

His husband blinked.

“A quote by Lan An,” Lan Wangji added.

The Patriarch sighed. He flipped the coin high in the air, then caught it in his hand. He pressed the coin into Lan Wangji’s palm.

“’Gambling with a single copper coin is entirely harmless, and even encouraged.'" A smile teased at the edge of his mouth. “A quote by the Yiling Patriarch.”

Lan Wangji knew he ought to refuse. But his husband's eyes danced and he was clearly enjoying himself. Slowly, Lan Wangji took the coin.

Just this once, he told himself. Just to humor my husband.

Uncle wouldn't approve, but Uncle wasn't here. So Lan Wangji put the coin down on the bench. He chose a number at random and pointed to it. The man behind the stall rolled the dice. When he lifted the cup, the dice showed Lan Wangji’s number. His husband threw his head back in laughed.

“See!” he cried. “Look, you didn’t even lose money! You won a prize. I told you it was harmless.”

Lan Wangji took his prize grimly. He had won a spun-sugar sculpture in the shape of a chrysanthemum, attached to a bamboo stick. The stall-keeper grinned amiably, but Lan Wangji couldn't return the smile.

Somehow, he felt that that fate was working against him these days. Mysterious forces seemed determined to chip away at his morals. Perhaps it was destiny, or perhaps it was just his husband.

“The profits of sin." Lan Wangji grimaced at the sugar sculpture, then pushed it into his husband's hands.

“Oh? You don’t want it?” The Patriarch took the stick and waggled the flower. “You’re giving it to me because I am already so sinful?”

“Because it was your coin,” Lan Wangji corrected.

His husband brightened.

“All right, I’ll accept.” He took a large bite, crunching the sugar between his teeth as they walked.

Lan Wangji hoped to escape the evening without committing any further violations against his sect's principles. But within minutes, his husband pulled him to a stop before another stall. This one sold a variety of wines. His husband’s eyes gleamed.

“Well, I already know drinking is forbidden by the rules." He flicked a silver piece at the merchant as he chose a bottle. “But is it forbidden to keep your husband company while he drinks?”

Lan Wangji gave that question due consideration. Technically, it was forbidden to keep company with individuals who were prone to drunkenness. The exact phrasing of the rule, however, referred to friends and business associates. It didn’t say anything about husbands. Lan Wangji knew he was splitting hairs, but his husband was waiting raptly for the answer. So he shook his head.

“Not forbidden,” he decided.

His husband gave an exaggerated sigh of relief.

“Ah, that’s nice. I’d hate to have to hide behind the stables to drink this.”

He uncorked the jug and took a large swig as they walked. Lan Wangji watched him drink with a certain measure of horror.

In some ways, he'd grown accustomed to this. His husband—and the rest of the Wens—often took wine with their meals. After two weeks of marriage, Lan Wangji no longer grimaced when he saw wine on the table. Yet he still wasn't used to his husband's peculiar habits. The Patriarch drank straight from the bottle, and he often ate with his fingers.

Lan Wangji resisted the urge to wrinkle his nose. He could, perhaps, find excuses for drinking alcohol. But poor table manners were quite clearly forbidden by the Lan disciplines.

The Patriarch drained half the bottle in two gulps. Then he wiped his mouth and grinned.

“Tell me something." He swayed forward, lowering his voice. “I am your husband, so I expect absolute honesty.”

Lan Wangji slowed his steps. Naturally, he was prepared to offer his husband complete honesty. His lawful spouse—the man with whom he’d bowed before heaven and earth—deserved nothing less. Even so, Lan Wangji felt a nervous, uncertain thrill. The feeling intensified as his husband leaned in close.

The Patriarch's voice was grave and solemn.

“Have you ever had alcohol?”

Lan Wangji realized that his heart rate had—for no apparent reason—sped up. He frowned at his husband and tried to slow his pulse.

“I wouldn’t judge you!” The Patriarch waved his hands, his face the picture of innocence. “I’m sure most of the disciples in your sect have tried a little sip!”

“I have not,” Lan Wangji said firmly. “They have not.”

His husband gave a doubtful hum.

“You’re so sure of that?”

Lan Wangji slowed to a stop.

“It is forbidden." He spoke slowly but emphatically. “We take our commitment to the disciplines seriously.”

He couldn't help feeling a sharp prickle of irritation. His husband seemed to think the rules were merely quaint customs. But they were the structure around which Lan disciples built their lives. Naturally, Lan Wangji had never ‘tried a little sip’. Nor had the other disciples.

But a memory suddenly surfaced. Two years prior, Lan Wangji remembered that half a dozen disciples were punished for sneaking alcohol into Cloud Recesses. Uncle had been furious, and it had been a minor scandal at the time.

Lan Wangji pushed that memory away. Such things did happen every now and then. A few disciples always fell prey to temptation. Lan Wangji shifted uneasily, an uncomfortable sensation of doubt pulsing through his veins. His husband's assertion must be incorrect. He hadn't suggested that 'a few' disciples had transgressed. He claimed that 'most' disciples had done so. Lan Wangji felt sure that couldn't be true.

But his husband looked unconvinced. He wore a dark, sardonic smile. Lan Wangji had seen that expression often during the first days of their marriage, and he disliked it. The Patriarch tipped his wine jug thoughtfully, taking a sip.

“If you expect everyone else to be as virtuous as yourself,” he said, “I think you’re going to meet with a lot of disappointment in this world.”

Lan Wangji had nothing to say to that. Fortunately, his husband didn't seem inclined to pursue the matter. His face cleared, and he bounded over to another stall.

“Now! What about mooncakes?” He scooped up a box. “Are those forbidden by the disciplines?”

“They are not,” Lan Wangji said.

His husband nodded triumphantly and bought the box. They ate them together as they walked.

“Melon? Taro? Dumplings?” His husband spoke through a mouthful of food.

Lan Wangji shook his head patiently.

“Not forbidden.”

“Toys?” His husband paused before a stall, admiring the display.

Lan Wangji started to reply, then hesitated. His husband whirled around, his eyes full of horror.

Toys are forbidden?”

Only half of his affront seemed affected. Lan Wangji grimaced.

“Excessive noise is forbidden."

Naturally, the children of his sect were permitted toys. But their play was meant to be educational. Parents and teachers encouraged paint supplies, counting games, and memory exercises. The elders generally approved of toys that helped improve coordination and balance, too. But his husband had stopped before a stall selling toy drums. In his heart, Lan Wangji knew that these wouldn't be allowed within Cloud Recesses.

His husband scowled, folding his arms.

“What is ‘excessive’?” he demanded. “By whose standards?”

“A drum would be considered excessive." Lan Wangji nodded to the display.

His husband’s face darkened further.

“Do you mean to tell me,” he spoke slowly, “that you lived your whole childhood without a toy drum?”

Lan Wangji nodded cautiously. He hadn’t realized that this declaration would prove controversial. His family had given him plenty of other gifts. Lan Wangji knew that his childhood had been highly privileged. He had never been deprived of the things he needed.

But his husband shook his head in disgust. Then he bought the drum and deposited it into Lan Wangji’s hands.

“Unacceptable. Deeply unacceptable!” He shook his finger emphatically. “I will write a strongly worded letter to Sect Leader Lan. Who's in charge of compiling the rules? The elders? I’m going to tell them they need to create a new rule. ‘All children must be given a toy drum, so they can annoy their teachers and parents!’”

For a moment, Lan Wangji was almost startled into smiling. He was surprised by how much effort it took to control his expression. That had never been a problem before. But his husband stomped his way down the street. He seemed truly indignant.

Lan Wangji turned the drum over in his hands. He was a grown man, a married man. Surely he was much too old for this sort of toy. Yet his husband had insisted on purchasing it, as compensation for the fact that Lan Wangji had never received one as a child. It was…quite funny. Lan Wangji schooled his expression, but he felt a smile flicker at the edge of his lips.

“Remind me once we get home!" His husband chewed vigorously on a roasted lotus seed. “I’ll send off the letters tomorrow.”

“Very well.”

Lan Wangji ducked his head until he was confident that his expression was neutral.

His husband glanced at him sideways. Then he groaned.

“Ah, you’re lying!” He squinted at Lan Wangji. “You won’t remind me! You’ll let me forget!”

“I have promised to remind you.” Lan Wangji folded his hands primly. “Lying is also forbidden.”

He wouldn't dare to omit the promised reminder. Not if his husband truly considered the matter important.

The Patriarch eyed him skeptically for a moment. At last, he seemed convinced. He turned his attention to the children, who had just filed past. They trailed after Wen Qionglin like ducklings. Their small party didn't glance toward the Patriarch or Lan Wangji. Their talisman must be working well. But the children were clearly distracted. Each one clutched a spun-sugar stick of their own. They ate voraciously, and their hands looked very sticky.

“Look at them!” His husband groaned and shook his head. “At least one of those kids is going to throw up all over Wen Qionglin’s shoes before the day is through. Mark my words.”

Lan Wangji hoped it wouldn't come to that. But the children rushed toward a sweetshop, and Wen Qionglin dug out the money pouch. So perhaps it was a vain hope, after all.

The children's faces were bright with joy and wonder as they looked around the market. Lan Wangji watched them scurry off. He felt the urge to smile again, stronger this time. His husband tugged on his sleeve.

“Let’s do a lantern,” he suggested. “For luck!”

Lan Wangji nodded and followed his husband to a nearby stall.

They had passed two or three such stands already. Merchants had set out supplies: premade lantern frames, fine paper, ink, brushes, candles. For a fee, patrons could quickly assemble their own lanterns. Lan Wangji paid the fee this time. His husband had spent enough money for one day.

The Patriarch chuckled as Lan Wangji took out his money pouch.

“I forget I haven’t married a pauper!” He picked out out a sheet of paper. “Your family sent you money?”

Lan Wangji nodded again. He felt a small twinge of guilt over that now. According to tradition, his family had been freed from their financial obligations toward him. Lan Wangji had married into his husband’s home, and it was now his husband's duty to provide for his needs. But before he left Cloud Recesses, his brother and uncle had taken him aside. They had given Lan Wangji quite a bit of money and urged him to write if he needed more. Lan Wangji couldn't bring himself to refuse. He knew they worried his husband wouldn't offer the proper financial support. At the time, Lan Wangji had shared their fears.

But he saw now these fears were unfounded. The Patriarch’s lands brought in enough money to support the settlement. Whatever flaws his husband might have—he had claimed to be an imperfect being—he certainly wasn't miserly. The Patriarch bought the children whatever they wished, and he hadn't hesitated to open his purse for Lan Wangji.

It was pleasant, though, to treat his husband. So Lan Wangji paid the merchant and helped select the lantern frame. Once their paper was spread out on the bench, the Patriarch took up the brush. He tapped it thoughtfully against his chin.

“Hm. What should we write on it? A riddle? A wish?” He nodded to himself and loaded the brush with ink. “I’ll wish that all our radish plots magically turn into potatoes.”

Lan Wangji sighed. He still didn't know much about his husband or his new home. But he knew that the kitchen gardens produced a generous crop of radishes. Lan Wangji also knew that his husband wished to have them torn up in favor of potato plots. Wen Qing had overruled him, and it was a frequent source of contention between the two. Lan Wangji had the impression it was merely an old joke, one neither of them had bothered to explain.

“There!” The Patriarch waved the paper to dry it. “It might even come true. There must be a spell or a talisman I could invent.”

He frowned, as if considering the matter. Lan Wangji glanced down at the talisman on his own chest. His husband did appear to be very skilled at finding creative uses for talismans. Lan Wangji was curious to know how far this capacity for innovation went.

“What do you want to write?” His husband dipped his brush in ink once more.

Lan Wangji frowned at the blank portion of the paper.

“Traditionally, the lantern should include a blessing. For safety and prosperity.”

His voice sounded unenthusiastic, even to his own ears. The Patriarch made a disparaging sound.

“How boring! Haven’t you had enough of tradition? Anyway, why do you need to wish on lanterns for those things?”

It was true. Lan Wangji was married to an immortal. He lived behind powerful protection wards, and he had as much safety and earthly wealth as anyone could desire. Wishing for further prosperity seemed shamefully greedy.

“Come on, think of something else!” His husband prodded him with the end of the brush. “How about a picture?”

“I am not very good at drawing,” Lan Wangji admitted.

That was shameful, too. After all, drawing was one of the Four Scholarly Arts.

Lan Wangji felt sure that he had mastered the others. He was skilled with both the guqin and the calligraphy brush. He held his own playing qi, too. But his paintings had always been rather amateurish. He certainly couldn't compare to his brother. Lan Xichen's paintings were renowned for their beauty and composition, while Lan Wangji's were merely...passable.

He smoothed his thumb over Bichen's hilt. For a moment, he thought his husband might be disappointed to discover this flaw. But the Patriarch's face brightened.

“Oh? We’ve finally found something Hanguang-Jun doesn’t excel at?”

He leaned forward, a wide grin on his face. Lan Wangji thought he sounded perversely delighted at the prospect. He gave his husband a sharp, disapproving look. But the implication was rather flattering. His husband implied that Lan Wangji excelled in so many things, it was difficult to find any shortcomings. A pleased glow lit inside Lan Wangji's chest.

“Fortunately for you,” the Patriarch tapped his own chest proudly, “your husband is an accomplished artist. Now, tell me what to draw.”

Lan Wangji hesitated.

“A rabbit."

“Why a rabbit?”

The Patriarch did not wait for an answer before sketching out his drawing. But when Lan Wangji failed to respond, he glanced up. Whatever he saw on Lan Wangji’s face filled his eyes with unholy glee.

“Husband! Are you secretly fond of rabbits?”

Lan Wangji couldn’t muster a response, and the Patriarch laughed aloud.

“You are!” he cried.

Lan Wangji tried to resume his disapproving expression. He didn't think he succeeded. His husband snickered to himself as he turned back to his sketch.

“I’m fond of rabbits too. It’s true!” he added, when Lan Wangji gazed at him doubtfully. “They’re very tasty.”

Lan Wangji managed a properly annoyed look then, but his husband only laughed harder.

“You’re too easy to rile up!” The Patriarch wiped away tears of mirth as he set the brush down. “Look, I’ll make it up to you. Here’s a very nice rabbit!”

Lan Wangji examined the drawing. He was forced to admit that his husband spoken truthfully. The Patriarch had made a surprisingly detailed sketch: a plump rabbit, crouched on a flat stone, surrounded by grass. It did look like a very nice rabbit.

“It is well-drawn,” he allowed.

His husband looked self-satisfied.

“Of course it is.” He dusted off his hands and folded the paper around the lantern. “It’s almost too good to send off into the sky! But we’ll send it up as a blessing. A wish for many rabbits, and lots of rabbit stew.”

Lan Wangji refused to wish for any such thing. But they lit the candle and lifted the lantern, and it floated up in the dark sky. As he turned to watch the lantern's progress, Lan Wangji caught a glimpse of the Wens gathering near the town gate.

The Patriarch spotted them too.

“Everybody’s heading back home, I suppose.” He shifted off the counter and gathered up the rest of his mooncakes. “Well, let’s go see if everyone made it back in one piece. Do you think Fourth Uncle is drunk underneath a stall somewhere?”

Lan Wangji didn't bother to reply. But his chest felt warm, and he was happier than he's been since his the moment of his betrothal. His husband, he realized, had a sense of humor. He had a childlike spirit, too. He was much friendlier than Lan Wangji had anticipated. Perhaps this discovery shouldn't have come as a surprise. The children were fond of him, and so were the Wens. He couldn't have won their affection and loyalty if he had a cruel nature.

But Lan Wangji’s expectations had been abysmally low. He hardly even dared to hope for civility from his husband. Yet the Patriarch had teased him and talked with him. He bought Lan Wangji toys and helped him make a lantern. That was a great blessing.

Something fragile and hopeful unfurled in Lan Wangji's heart. He had taken it for granted that theirs would never be a true marriage. But perhaps things weren't as hopeless as he imagined. Someday, they might have a marriage of affection and mutual respect. The evening had passed so pleasantly that winning his husband's affection no longer seemed like an impossible dream.

They threaded their way through the crowds, moving slowly toward the gates. The Patriarch’s body brushed against his. Lan Wangji felt every brief touch like an emblem of fire. But the crowds thinned as they reached the edge of town, and the Patriarch stepped aside to inspect a display of tanghulu.

Lan Wangji waited patiently. He wondered whether he should advise his husband to leave the tanghulu behind. He’d spoil his appetite for the banquet if he ate any more sweets. Before Lan Wangji could speak, a snatch of conversation from a tiny wine stall caught his attention.

“No, I saw the wedding procession myself! Of course, nobody’s seen Hanguang-Jun since. But they say he’s up there.”

Lan Wangji tried not to turn. But the temptation was overpowering. He glanced to the side, his eyes searching for the speaker. A few young men clustered around the stall. The owner, a potbellied man with a mustache, was listening to their chatter. One of the men frowned as he emptied his cup.

“Didn’t the marriage happen very suddenly?”

His husband stiffened slightly. Then he turned, elaborately careless, toward the man who has spoken. Lan Wangji's hands twitched at his sides.

Gossip, Lan Wangji reminded himself sternly, was forbidden. He couldn’t stop the men from whispering, not without revealing his identity and causing a scene. But what he could do—what he should do—was urge his husband away. They ought to return home quickly and finish celebrating the holiday. Eavesdropping was also forbidden. If they remained, they would be guilty of just that.

Lan Wangji tried to force his feet to move. The owner’s voice rang out before he could manage it.

“Of course it did! We can’t understand why.” The man swabbed his counter with a filthy rag. “If Hanguang-Jun was a woman, I’d think there must be a child on the way!”

The Patriarch choked. Lan Wangji felt a flush spread along the back of his neck. The men didn't seem to notice their eavesdroppers. They continued to whisper, trading rumors and secondhand gossip.

“They say Hanguang-Jun is very talented and a powerful cultivator.” One of the young men scratched his chin. “It’s not such a strange choice.”

The owner snorted.

“I’ve heard he’s very beautiful, too. The Patriarch might have wanted a beauty in his bed.”

His husband’s hand closed around his arm and steered him away. When Lan Wangji found the courage to turn, he was surprised to find that Patriarch looking as embarrassed as he felt.

“Goodness!” The Patriarch cleared his throat. “Don’t people have vulgar minds!”

“Mm.”

Lan Wangji busied himself, adjusting the packages in his arms. He had somehow taken possession of the mooncakes. The stuffed goldfish and the drum had been shoved into the crook of his elbow. Lan Wangji rearranged them, trying to spare himself the humiliation of looking at his husband.

Of course, people were talking. Lan Wangji had understood that already. He tried to use that thought to will the blush away: People will gossip about the marriage. You knew this long before your wedding day.

The men hadn't uttered a single word that hadn't already crossed Lan Wangji's mind. He, too, had wondered if the Patriarch married because he wanted a lover, a bedwarmer, a pleasure-companion. When they met inside that tent, the Patriarch had implied that he found Lan Wangji attractive. Lan Wangji had wondered if he arranged the marriage for that reason alone.

But it was one thing for Lan Wangji to make private assumptions about his own husband. It was quite another to know that others were speculating upon the most intimate details of his marriage. Lan Wangji's face burned. He was nearly tempted to go back, to reprimand the men personally. But that would only throw oil on the fire. He would humiliate himself, as well as his husband.

So Lan Wangji kept a firm grasp on the packages. As they walked, he studied the town gates as if they were the most fascinating things he’d ever seen. They approached the gates in awkward silence. After a moment, the Patriarch gave a smothered laugh.

“Husband."

Lan Wangji turned involuntarily. He dragged his gaze up and met his husband’s eyes. They were dancing, but the Patriarch had assumed a solemn expression.

“You’d tell me if you were with child, wouldn’t you?” His voice quivered with amusement, but he sought to maintain an air of gravity. “You wouldn’t keep such a thing secret?”

Lan Wangji was vexed to find his blush deepening. It spread from his brows to his chest.

“Nonsense,” he said gruffly.

He quickened his pace, and his husband scampered alongside.

“Hm, does that mean you’re not pregnant?”

His voice was blithe. He didn't seem troubled that there were strangers nearby who could hear such absurdities. Lan Wangji walked faster.

“I suppose that’s for the best." His husband gave a theatrical sigh. "We have too many children already. Oh, look, it was A-Bao who threw up!”

This last remark was added as they drew within sight of the Wens. Based on the state of his robes, Lan Wangji guessed that A-Bao had indeed been sick. He had obviously recovered, though. He played happily with a toy horse, chasing after A-Yuan. Lan Wangji felt his heartbeat settle. He allowed his steps to slow. They were nearly there, nearly at the gates. Nearly home.

He marveled at how easy it was to think of the Burial Mounds as home. When he left Cloud Recesses behind, he had thought he was walking into a demon's lair. But his new home was no such thing. It might be known as Demon-Subdue Palace, but it was a homelike place. If he was destined to spend the rest of his days there, Lan Wangji found the prospect surprisingly agreeable.

But as they turned the final corner, they passed another cluster of people. They were evidently deep in their cups, whispering furiously. The Patriarch paused to listen.

“Well, no one knows for sure what he does up there!” A man leaned against the counter, slurring his words. “But everyone’s heard how the war ended.”

The group nodded grimly to one another. Lan Wangji's stomach sank. He tried to quicken his pace again, but his husband caught his arm.

“You don’t see so many of the walking corpses these days, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t up there.”

The group turned to stare at the mountain looming overhead.

“The mountain is large,” an old man murmured. “He could have an entire army, even larger than Wen Ruohan’s.”

Lan Wangji felt his husband’s fingers tighten around his wrist.

“The other Wens are his now, too.”

The woman’s voice was hushed, but she had been drinking too. Her voice carried, perhaps farther than she might have expected.

“I heard it from my sister-in-law," she hissed. "The Patriarch claimed them at the end of the war. All the Wen soldiers are dead, but he claimed the servants and peasants who survived.”

“Now what would he want with all that riffraff?” the old man grumbled.

“Ah, that’s the question!” The drunk man swayed in. “Why would he get involved with the war at all?”

Lan Wangji felt every line of tension in his husband’s body. His own throat was tight. He had asked himself each of these questions, at one time or another. But it was dreadful to hear them spoken so plainly. The grim, bleak look in his husband’s eyes was worse. Lan Wangji didn't know what to make of it. He twisted his wrist, brushing their fingers together.

“Husband,” he murmured. “The banquet.”

The Patriarch nodded, and they walked away. But the evening was spoiled for his husband. Lan Wangji knew it. They took off their disguise talismans, and his husband put on a show for the children and for the Wens. He swung the children into his arms, joking loudly as they walked back up the mountain. He ate every dish at the banquet and drank deeply of the chrysanthemum wine. He was noisier and merrier than anyone present. But somehow, it felt hollow.

Wen Qing glanced shrewdly at the Patriarch as he refilled his wine cup for the fifth time. She didn’t stop him, though. Lan Wangji didn’t dare to intercede. The fragile, tremulous connection forged during the evening had shriveled and died.

His husband didn't look his way during the banquet. He didn’t speak to Lan Wangji at all. When Lan Wangji excused himself at hai-shi, his husband didn’t even bid him goodnight. He certainly didn’t indicate that he planned to join Lan Wangji in bed that night.

As he removed his red robes, Lan Wangji felt empty inside. His marriage seemed to be built on quicksand. At every turn, Lan Wangji faced the sharp, vicious reminder that he didn't truly know his husband. He didn’t even know why his husband had chosen him as a spouse, or what he hoped from their marriage. Lan Wangji certainly didn’t know whether the gossip—the Patriarch could be building an army!—was vile slander or rooted in truth. His husband would not confide in him.

He didn’t even know his husband’s name.

Lan Wangji set aside the robes for cleaning. He took down his hair and combed it. Then he laid the lotus hairpin beside his forehead ribbon and placed both into a pouch beside his bed. The two seemed to go together. He couldn’t possibly explain why, but he couldn't imagine forgoing either. Somehow, though, he had an uncomfortable suspicion that someday he'd have to surrender one. Lan Wangji frowned at the pouch, his spirits sinking further.

Such decisions, he told himself, need not be made tonight.

He finished undressing and prepared himself for bed. Afterward, he paused to arrange his new items. The stuffed goldfish would be hung on the northern wall. He tucked the drum into the desk drawer, on top of A-Yuan's old drawings. The most recent masterpiece—the drawing of the harvest moon and the rabbits—he pinned above the desk. Lan Wangji tucked the disguise talisman into the drawer, too. He still wished to examine it later and understand how the Patriarch managed it. He would get no answers from his husband’s mouth, it seemed. So he must look for clues elsewhere.

As he climbed into bed, he felt thoroughly disheartened. But he touched the pouch containing the hairpin and tried to revive his hopes. There was so much he didn't understand yet. Perhaps it would come in time. He wasn't willing to give up yet. Not after seeing so many glimpses of the Patriarch’s lively spirit.

He thought of his husband’s smile and the way he laughed when drew the rabbit. Then he shut his eyes and blew out the last candle.

Chapter Text

During the first few weeks of Lan Wangji's marriage, the world still clung to the fading summer. The days were warm, long, and leisurely. But after Mid-Autumn Festival, the weather changed. Autumn had arrived, with winter close on its heels. The changing seasons soon threw Lan Wangji's daily routine into disarray.

In Cloud Recesses, he had lived far away from the fields. He understood that there was a rhythm to farming, but he knew nothing of such matters. The peasants and villagers near Gusu managed their own affairs. It was the duty of cultivators to keep the peace and purge resentful energy, not to farm crops. So the business of agriculture was foreign to Lan Wangji. The harvest itself was almost a mystery.

But it was impossible to avoid the harvest once he joined his husband's household. As soon as autumn arrived, everyone living in the Burial Mounds grew busy. The whole household set to work harvesting food, making tallies, and preparing for winter. These duties came as something of a surprise for Lan Wangji.

Through careful observation, he discovered that only a third of the Dafan Wens had golden cores. Among those who possessed cores, their cultivation was fairly weak. None of the Wens carried a sword or trained as a cultivator. Instead, they devoted themselves to other practices. The Wens were teachers, physicians, and skilled laborers. They traveled between the Patriarch’s villages, sharing their services between each interconnected community.

But in autumn, everyone turned their attention to the harvest. Even Wen Qing, a trained physician, set aside her practice for a few days. Half the household scattered to the outlying villages to help in the fields. Those who remained behind kept busy, too. The rocky mountain soil wouldn't support grain fields or rice patties, but crabapple and persimmon trees took root. Lan Wangji discovered goji and pear trees, too. Meanwhile, the kitchen gardens were heavy with cabbages, radishes, peas. And the lotus ponds must be emptied before the first frost. 

The Patriarch expected that everyone would lend a hand. The children must abandon their studies for a few days, he said. Their help was needed.

“They’re so greedy!" He dangled a delighted A-Yuan upside-down by his ankles. “They should know where all the food they gobble up comes from!”

Lan Wangji couldn't object to that, not when his husband offered up his own labor. Once the harvest began, the Patriarch turned up his robes. He slogged into the lotus ponds and worked right alongside the Wens. Lan Wangji blinked, startled. But he was growing used to his husband's strange ways. He understood, too, that he must follow his husband's example.

So he turned up his own robes and joined the others in the muddy water. As he worked, Lan Wangji kept an eye on his husband. The children splashed around, clamoring for his attention. Lan Wangji tried to listen, but he couldn't focus on their chatter. He was too busy watching his husband. It was profoundly strange to watch an immortal perform such a mundane task. Yet the Patriarch seemed to enjoy manual labor. After six weeks of marriage, Lan Wangji had nearly forgotten that his husband was an immortal.

It was surprisingly easy to forget. The walking corpses still lingered in his periphery, and they were an ever-present reminder. But there weren't so many as Lan Wangji had originally believed. During the first week in his new home, he seemed to walk past another corpse every shi. Each glimpse filled him with fresh horror. Slowly, though, his horror had faded. He took the time to count the corpses, to study them. Then Lan Wangji realized the truth: there were only ten in total.

The corpses performed everyday tasks: fetching water, carrying loads, and sweeping the floors. The corpse girls Lan Wangji met on his wedding night were in charge of the laundry. They leered whenever they saw him, but they didn't speak to him again. Nor did any of the others. Not a single corpse had approached him or given him any trouble. They often watched Lan Wangji when he was nearby, though.

Lan Wangji watched them, too. As he conducted his observation, he realized that the people of the Burial Mounds were wholly unbothered by these creatures. The children regarded the corpses with a benevolent disinterest. Meanwhile, the adults worked alongside them without a word of complaint. No one seemed to find their presence shocking or distressing.

The Wens' indifference had, perhaps, rubbed off on Lan Wangji. His horror and disgust were blunted. Sometimes, Lan Wangji forgot about the corpses entirely. As the days passed into weeks, it grew difficult to remember the truth: these were creatures who should not exist. They were a blasphemy against the natural order. Lan Wangji knew this was so. Yet he couldn't make himself believe it. He saw the corpses merely as women who did the laundry, or the men who collected firewood.

One of the corpses lingered next to the lotus ponds, watching the Wens. He waited patiently beside a pile of baskets. If the Wens filled one with harvested lotus, he carried the basket inside. Lan Wangji studied the man's pale face, his eyes tracing the thin black lines that crept along the man's throat. The man watched benignly, smiling as the children shrieked and splashed each other.

It was hard, Lan Wangji admitted to himself, not to think of him as a man. He had seen these corpses speak and seen them smile. They had names. This one was known as Li Honghui.

Lan Wangji wondered whether the man had received this name at birth. Perhaps he had chosen the name himself, after the Patriarch raised him from his grave. Lan Wangji couldn't be sure, and asking seemed terribly discourteous. So he gave the man a polite nod and then turned away. He helped the children pick lotus pods and tried to keep them from splashing each other with mud.

But every now and then, he glanced toward the man curiously. He knew he mustn't ask how the man had become...what he was. Lan Wangji did wonder, though. He wondered about the corpses, and he wondered about his husband. Aside from his walking corpses—and the events that ended the war—the Patriarch never flaunted his power. Lan Wangji felt the pulse of powerful qi every time his husband drew near, but the Patriarch made no showy displays.

He didn't need to, of course. His home was secure, and his settlements were thriving. The wards around the Burial Mounds were impenetrable. Lan Wangji felt sure that the other villages must be equally well-protected. In any event, the cultivation world regarded the Patriarch with fear and awe. None would dare to threaten him or his people. There was no need for him to show off.

Still, his husband spent a great deal of time in closed-door cultivation. Lan Wangji couldn't help nurturing a fierce curiosity about that. Particularly since he saw no evidence of the results. When the Patriarch left his study, he seemed to leave his studies behind. He joined the rest of the household, joked with the Wens, and told the children outlandish stories. After he finished teasing and laughing, he rolled up his sleeves and helped with the harvest. He never breathed a single mention of his secret cultivation work. 

Lan Wangji loaded up another basket and sent it off with Li Honghui. A-Yuan and A-Bao had lost interest in lotus-picking. They were involved in a splashing battle that had grown rather intense. Lan Wangji separated them gently, coaxing them back to work with the promise of sweets. As the words left his mouth, the back of his neck prickled with guilt. He could feel Uncle's disapproval, even across thousands of li. Lan Wangji knew better than to succumb to the shameful practice of bribing children into proper behavior. Yet he had succumbed within his very first month in residence.

His husband had laughed when he learned of this.

"Oh, that can't be helped." He swung A-Mei around, lifting her small feet off the ground. "It's the only way to keep them in line. By all means, bribe them!"

Wen Qionglin sheepishly admitted that he, too, was guilty of bribery. Lan Wangji had been temporarily comforted. But his husband's easy acceptance—his amused indulgence whenever he learned of Lan Wangji's failures—was puzzling.

Lan Wangji still wasn't sure what to make of him. He watched his husband carefully as their settlement finished the day's work: picking fruit, pickling vegetables, and brewing wine. The children and the Wens treated him like an ordinary man. As expected, they respected him as their lord. If he made a suggestion, they obeyed. But they didn't hesitate to smile at him, or to chat as if he were a neighbor in the marketplace. The Patriarch treated his people with unfailing gentleness and kindness.

When he and Lan Wangji were alone, though, his behavior could be quite different. His moods were erratic. Sometimes, he was cheerful and amiable. He teased Lan Wangji, just as he teased the children. They discussed household matters: a slight quarrel between the disciples or arrangements for the children’s lessons. On rare occasions, the Patriarch spent the morning with Lan Wangji in the library. He wrote out his correspondence while Lan Wangji ground ink. Lan Wangji prepared cinnabar paste, too, so his husband could affix his seal. His husband was always in high spirits then, and Lan Wangji treasured these moments.

He had kept his promise. The morning after Mid-Autumn festival, he reminded his husband of the letter to Cloud Recesses. His husband promptly marched over to the desk and wrote to Sect Leader Lan. The letter was written with an exaggerated formality.

A matter of great importance had come to his attention, the Patriarch said. He had discovered that children in Cloud Recesses were not permitted drum toys. He was highly disturbed by the news, and he felt this oversight must be corrected at once. He awaited Sect Leader Lan's assurance that the matter had been dealt with.

His husband beamed as he stamped his seal and folded up the letter. Lan Wangji merely sighed. He shook his head as he dropped the letter into the proper receptacle. Then he went straight to his own chambers to write a letter of his own. He tried to explain to his brother that the original missive was a joke. It was whim on his husband’s part, he said. It must not be taken seriously. His husband was merely perplexed by the Lan sect's rules, and he had a peculiar sense of humor.

But his brother had one too. Lan Wangji had forgotten that, so he was caught off guard by his brother's reply. Sect Leader Lan quickly sent a reply, one equally brimming with formality. 

He had taken the matter before the elders, he said. They had seemed unwilling to add the proposed new rule. However, Sect Leader Lan would not dare to carelessly dismiss his brother-in-law's suggestion. Accordingly, he had given the matter profound thought. In spite of the elders' resistance, he decided there was merit in the Patriarch’s suggestion. He had bestowed a toy drum upon his youngest cousin, A-Yi. He would observe the child over the next few months, tracking the results of this case study. Should the toy drum prove beneficial to the child's upbringing, he would gladly take the matter before the elders once more.

In a private letter to Lan Wangji, he described the gift in greater detail. The child, he said, was overjoyed with the present. The child's parents were not. Lan Xichen was not high in their good grace at the moment, and he feared he had created a terrible rift in their family. As he wrote the letter, he claimed he could hear the toy drum echoing from the courtyard. There was no escaping the sound, not even in the most remote hills. 

Lan Wangji sighed and shook his head over that letter too. But he read it aloud the next morning, and his husband laughed. Knowing his brother as he did, Lan Wangji felt sure that Lan Xichen had laughed too. In light of his husband and his brother's combined mirth, Lan Wangji couldn't bring himself to complain.

During such moments, Lan Wangji's heart felt light. He could almost pretend that he had an ordinary marriage. There was still no passion, but they were becoming well-acquainted. Their conversations were almost friendly, and he enjoyed discussing mundane household concerns with his husband. The Patriarch smiled often during these interludes, and Lan Wangji had the delightful feeling that his presence was a source of pleasure for his husband.

But sometimes, his husband pulled away and turned cold. He would disappear for days at a time, without warning. Upon his return, he assumed a sarcastic manner. He seemed to be spoiling for a fight, ready to take offense at any perceived slight. Lan Wangji wasn't sure what to make of this. After a few weeks, he swallowed his pride long enough to ask Wen Qing's opinion. She clearly knew his husband best, and she would know if something was truly amiss. She treated the matter lightly, though.

"The Patriarch has low moods sometimes," she said. "They'll pass. It's nothing for you to concern yourself with."

Her tone was nonchalant. But she, too, could be evasive. Her shifts in mood were subtler, harder to detect. Sometimes, Lan Wangji caught her watching him with something like suspicion. As they brought in the lotus harvest, Lan Wangji caught her at it again. She studied him as he waded into the muddy water, her face inscrutable.

Neither she nor the Patriarch had been forthcoming about the lands beyond the Burial Mounds. After a month and a half of marriage, Lan Wangji still knew almost nothing about how the settlement or the villages were run. He couldn't help feeling slightly resentful. As the Patriarch’s husband, it was his duty to help keep the accounts. He ought to know how many crops this field yielded and how many people were housed by that village. But no one seemed to trust Lan Wangji with such tasks. 

As the harvest wore on, though, he gathered several scraps of information. In time, he stitched them into a cohesive whole. He quickly discovered that the Patriarch’s domain was run like a sect. No one referred to it in such terms. But there were disciples of all ages. There were teachers and physicians. There were non-cultivators who did the cleaning, cooking, laundry. There were peasants in the fields, crops bought and sold.

Slowly, Lan Wangji collected enough information to make an educated guess about the population. Once the last of the Wen refugees arrived—sent by Nie Mingjue, as promised—there were perhaps three or four hundred people living in the Patriarch’s domain. Yiling held an additional five hundred citizens. The Wens did not seem to count Yiling in their tally, though. The Patriarch ruled the town in name only.

This discovery was somewhat discomfiting. As bathed that evening, Lan Wangji dwelled on the matter. He had spent another day in the lotus ponds, and there was a great deal of mud to remove. His mind wandered, drifting once more to his mysterious husband. He was still vexed by how little he knew. The Patriarch seemed determined to shut him out from tasks that rightfully belonged to Lan Wangji. He should be keeping up the accounts, managing the villages, hiring servants and laborers. But when Lan Wangji offered to do these things, his husband grew secretive and evasive. It grated against Lan Wangji's nerves.

Even so, he could bear it. If he was only trusted to help with the children's education and the disciples' training, he could be content. That was enough, and Lan Wangji would never demand more. He was troubled, though, when he thought of his husband's powers. They were married, and yet Lan Wangji knew little of his husband's abilities.

Upon this topic, Lan Xichen's letters did nothing to set his mind at rest. Lan Wangji felt sure that his brother intended his correspondence to be a comfort. And it was...for the most part. He told Lan Wangji of the lectures at Cloud Recesses, the new disciples, the night-hunts and competitions. In turn, Lan Wangji told his brother about the children's lessons and his cultivation practice. It eased his mind to know that everything seemed well at Cloud Recesses. He hoped to offer his brother equal peace of mind: the knowledge that Lan Wangji was safe, provided for, working with young disciples once again.

But Lan Xichen's last two letters had been full of coded allusions. The sects were restless, he hinted. The Patriarch's decision to claim the Wen refugees and spare them further punishment had no been a popular decision. Moreover, the Patriarch's territories now held over a thousand people. Having so many men and women under the Patriarch's command made many sects uneasy. Most of the Patriarch's people weren't cultivators. As far as Lan Wangji could tell, only a few dozen had golden cores and the majority had no combat ability whatsoever. But the sheer numbers left a bitter taste in the mouths of some sect leaders.

The sects also disliked the fact that the Patriarch had claimed several villages and fields. Lan Xichen intimated that they felt immortals ought to sequester themselves in some remote place, accepting a handful of disciples. They ought not to style themselves as feudal lords, governing people and accumulating wealth. The immortal in question had terrifying powers, too. He possessed the ability when he ended a war in a single afternoon. The sects were wondering what he might do next. 

Lan Wangji couldn't pretend to be surprised. After Wen Ruohan, it was natural for the sect leaders to be on their guard. They must remain vigilant against future tyrants. That was justifiable and understandable. And some sect leaders had always cast a jealous eye upon anyone who appeared to have greater power. But this prospect—his husband, loathed and mistrusted by the cultivation word—made Lan Wangji's stomach twist.

After he climbed from the bath and dried off, he sat behind his desk. Lan Xichen's most recent letter arrived that very afternoon, yet Lan Wangji had already read it thrice. He picked it up again, his eyes scanning over the familiar lines.

In the letter, Lan Xichen quoted two lines from an obscure poem. The verses spoke of changing seasons, the approaching winter. His brother claimed that Mid-Autumn Festival always reminded him of this verse. To a casual reader, this remark might seem entirely straightforward. But Lan Wangji knew the truth.

The lines his brother quoted referred to the first snowfall. Yet he had taken the lines out of context; the poem itself was quite different. It told the story of a man of wealth and power who grew proud and domineering. His fellows resented him for his advantages, and their resentment was sharpened by his haughty demeanor. Soon, they began to plot against him. In the end, they murdered him in his sleep.

The man's dwindling power was represented by the changing season. His death was the sudden winter. It wasn't a well-known verse. Perhaps most cultivators wouldn't have recognized it. As a young disciple, though, Lan Wangji had written an essay on this poem. He had argued that power was often corrosive to the spirit. Those who attained high rank, he said, must take care not to overreach themselves.

Lan Xichen knew this, of course. He had graded his brother's essay himself.

Lan Wangji read the letter a fourth time, then a fifth. Then he slipped the letter into his sleeve and paced restlessly around his chambers. He wasted half a shi brooding in his small garden. The koi had grown sluggish, he observed, as the weather turned colder. They seemed to be preparing to hibernate. Lan Wangji studied the fish for a while. Then he drew the letter from his sleeve and read it again.

He saw no signs that the Patriarch planned to take action against the sects. His husband rarely spoke of the cultivation world. Very few people in the Burial Mounds took an interest in sect politics. If the subject happened to come up, his husband responded with subtle contempt. He expressed no interest in the sects' doings. Not once had he asked Lan Wangji for his opinion of the political situation.

At present, the Patriarch was thoroughly occupied with the harvest. He kept busy helping the refugees to settle in, too. If he spoke of anything, it was his plans for the spring. He intended to build new houses, dig new wells, and expand the fields. They would need to made adjustments, he said, to feed and house the growing populace. There was no avarice in his eyes when he spoke of such things. Lan Wangji couldn't believe that his husband sought to build up his settlements to seize power. The implications in Lan Xichen's letters seemed wholly misguided.

...Yet his husband spent a great deal of time by himself. During these periods of solitude, he tended to secret matters. Lan Wangji knew nothing of what his husband did while alone in his study.

He had assumed it was merely closed-door cultivation. Such activities were common enough in Cloud Recesses. From time to time, disciples retreated to a remote cottage and meditated in solitude. They studied ancient manuals and perfected their techniques through exhaustive practice. There was nothing dishonorable about private cultivation work. And perhaps there was a specialized form of training, one that immortals must perform on a regular basis to sustain their qi.

Lan Wangji had considered that, and he had been curious over his husband's absence. He hadn't been perturbed, though. He took his husband's explanations at face value and did not insult him with intrusive questions. But as he stared down at his brother's letter, Lan Wangji realized how little he knew of his husband's private life. He hadn't the faintest idea what his husband thought, dreamed, or planned. His husband's secret wishes and hopes were a mystery to Lan Wangji. He was beginning to despair that he would ever solve the puzzle.

He folded up his brother’s letter and put it away. He tried to forget it. But before he went to bed, he changed his mind. Lan Wangji slid the letter out of his desk and slipped it into the brazier. It hurt to destroy any of his brother's letters. His heart ached as he watched the paper catch fire. Still, he set his jaw and told himself it was for the best. There were, after all, only two possibilities.

Perhaps his husband was innocent of any dark ambitions. He might wish only to rule the people he already had, living peacefully in solitude. This theory had merit: the Patriarch had claimed several groups of Wen refugees, but only because they had nowhere else to go. They wouldn't meet with fair treatment elsewhere in the cultivation world. No matter where they went, they would be persecuted for their association with Wen Ruohan.

So the Patriarch had brought them here and hidden them behind his wards. The others—the servants, the disciples, the young children—were orphans too. Lan Wangji had learned that already. They had been found by the Patriarch or his people during their travels. There was no one to look after them, so the Patriarch brought them into his own household. That was just and reasonable. No one could blame a man who offered a home to the lonely and forsaken.

Lan Wangji gazed unhappily at the dying flames. The letter was gone, turned to smoke and ash. But Lan Wangji couldn't destroy his own fears as easily. It was possible, after all, that he had been deceived. Demonic cultivation was said to corrupt the spirit. His husband's strange absences might be proof of that. He might spend his time not in peaceful cultivation, but nurturing some deep plot. In short, it was possible that the Patriarch planned to do what the sects feared.

Perhaps he did plan to conquer them and rule as an ageless emperor. After all, he had married the scion of an old and respected clan. Such a marriage might further legitimize his claim, smoothing his path toward power. 

Lan Wangji waited until the brazier went dark. Then he climbed into bed and shut his eyes. He tried to empty his mind. But sleep didn't come. He realized that his position in the Patriarch's household might be extremely precarious. If his husband meant to conquer the cultivation world, surely he wouldn't hesitate to dispose of a spouse who seemed disloyal. By making himself appear suspicious or untrustworthy, Lan Wangji might sign his own death warrant.

If that was how matters stood, then Lan Wangji must burn any letters which seemed to contain malicious rumors. He could do little to protect himself, but he must be cautious, prudent, ever-watchful. He must not breathe a word of these rumors or indicate any suspicion toward his husband.

Lan Wangji set his jaw and resolved to remain vigilant. But as the days passed, he found it hard to hold onto his suspicions. The Patriarch was playful with the children and the Wens. He helped to bring in the harvest with his own two hands, and the crops were plentiful. When they spoke in private, Lan Wangji found his husband's good mood had been restored. The Patriarch joyfully anticipated the hawthorn wine and rice wine to come. He discussed the merits of each wine in detail.

Lan Wangji had politely reminded his husband that he didn't drink. Surely he was a poor audience for this impromptu lecture? But his husband waved off these protests.

"It's because you don't drink that I'm explaining these things!" he gasped indignantly. "I'm trying to help a poor benighted soul! Weren't you the one who said the children should learn things, even if they never have to use them? Take your own advice!"

Lan Wangji sighed. Then he listened patiently as his husband enumerated the many ways in which rice wine was superior to hawthorn wine. It was a tedious discourse, but Lan Wangji found himself concealing a smile. His husband had been pleased as a child over the foods and trinkets at Mid-Autumn Festival. He delighted in wine, sweets, toys. And as Double Ninth Festival approached, he seemed as eager for a holiday as the children.

The day before the festival, the Patriarch was in especially high spirits. He planned to visit the villages today, he said. He hadn't left the Burial Mounds since their marriage—not the Lan Wangji knew of, anyway—but he intended to make a trip now.

“I want to make sure everyone is settling in,” he explained.

Lan Wangji nodded.

He would have liked his husband to invite him along. But he didn’t, and Lan Wangji told himself he must accept that. He tried to keep his disappointment off his face, even as a shard of ice settled in his chest.

His husband studied him, his gaze thoughtful.

“Maybe next time you can come with me?” He spoke almost tentatively.

The shard of ice thawed, splintered, dissolved. Lan Wangji lifted his eyes.

“I would like that,” he said softly.

His husband smiled, and Lan Wangji's heart gave a traitorous thump. He found himself trailing after the Patriarch as he prepared for his departure. It was quite unnecessary to follow his husband to the barrier. But Lan Wangji did so anyway. He wanted to see his husband off properly.

“You stay busy while I’m gone." The Patriarch swung a cloak around his shoulders and grinned. “Make the kids work hard! There are still some lotuses to bring in, so crack the whip! They can slack off tomorrow.”

He spoke with such gentle fondness, Lan Wangji couldn't take his talk of whips seriously. He nodded at his husband obediently. Then he hesitated.

“About that,” he said.

His husband turned and blinked. Lan Wangji hesitated some more.

It was, perhaps, not the right time to broach this topic. His husband had business to attend to. He was trying to leave, and Lan Wangji was delaying him. Besides, they had already discussed the preparations for the festival. They would not go into Yiling this time. For this holiday, everyone would remain within the Burial Mounds.

It’s tradition, his husband had said. You’re supposed to climb a mountain, so we can do that here!

The sloping peaks of the Burial Mounds would indeed make a good place for races and games. Afterward, there would be a banquet with chrysanthemum wine. Wen Qing had acquired plenty of zhuyu, too. They could make wreaths and air out the buildings. All this had been decided weeks ago.

But there was something they hadn't planned for, and it troubled Lan Wangji's conscience.

“Will we light incense tomorrow?” he asked, delicately. “Or burn offerings?”

That was tradition, too, the most vital tradition. They should visit their ancestors' graves, light incense, and burn paper offerings.

Lan Wangji couldn't journey to his parents' tomb. He understood that already. Cloud Recesses was too far away, and it was unseemly to leave his husband's home so early in their marriage. But he could still demonstrate filial piety by honoring his husband’s ancestors.

Yet he didn't know how. He didn't even know where their graves were located. There were two memorial tablets in the hall, and those were Lan Wangji's only clue. He had concluded that the tablets most likely belonged to his husband’s parents. If that was so, then Lan Wangji should set out offerings and burn incense to them. He had married into his husband's home, and this was one of his duties. But the hall had been sealed since their wedding day. Lan Wangji hadn't known how to request entrance without causing offense.

The Patriarch grew very still. For a long moment, he did not answer. When he finally spoke, his voice held a strange echo of shame.

“I’m pretty lax about that.” He flexed his hands, tugging on the edge of his cloak. “I try to burn some incense on festival days, when I remember. But sometimes I forget.”

Lan Wangji could not pretend to be surprised. He already knew that his husband could be forgetful. The Patriarch didn't always recall what day it was, or even what month. He didn't observe the small courtesies or the daily rituals that had always been a part of Lan Wangji’s life. His husband’s schedule was irregular, governed largely by his whims.

Perhaps this was to be expected in an immortal being. The days must bleed together for him. Every season must seem like the last. Still, it wasn't right to neglect one’s filial duties. If his husband struggled to remember what he owed his parents, Lan Wangji must help him.

“May I assist?”

His husband studied him in silence. Then he gave a slow, lopsided smile.

“Sure. You’ll arrange some offerings?”

“I will.”

Lan Wangji bowed his head, thinking rapidly. If the offerings had been neglected recently, they ought to be especially generous this time. There must be incense, fruit, and wine. Flowers too, perhaps. The children could gather them this afternoon. They could burn joss paper as well. No courtesies should not be neglected, no ritual omitted. Lan Wangji would never meet his in-laws in this lifetime, but he could still show them respect.

“Then we’ll go in there together.” The Patriarch murmured. “Tomorrow, before the banquet.”

His mind suddenly seemed far away. But he smiled at Lan Wangji before he left, and gave a casual wave.

He didn’t mount his sword, which he seldom carried. Lan Wangji had seen the blade only twice. His husband still refused to tell him its name and Lan Wangji had failed miserably in guessing. His husband had laughed uproariously at his feeble attempts. But the sword was nowhere to be found today. His husband he didn’t take out a transportation talisman, and he certainly didn't mount a horse. He was simply gone, between one breath and the next.

Lan Wangji stared at the space his husband had occupied moments before. His idle displays of power were still startling, and a little unnerving. But Lan Wangji was determined not to think of his husband's powers or the contents of his brother's last letter. Instead, he supervised the children as they picked the last of the lotus.

Afterward, Wen Qionglin took most of the group to gather wild chrysanthemum. Lan Wangji decided not to join them. He sat on a small bench beside one of the lotus ponds, A-Yuan on his lap. A-Qing stayed behind with them. She was enjoying the muddy pond too much to give it up. She brought in the last few lotus pods and cracked them open. Then she waited impatiently for Lan Wangji to shell the seeds for her.

She was old enough, Lan Wangji, knew to perform this task herself. And she had eaten a full meal scarcely an hour before. She couldn't possibly be hungry again. But A-Qing liked to eat often. She liked to have others prepare her food, too. Lan Wangji hadn't approved of this trait at first. He thought it might be pure idleness, the sort of behavior that should be trained out of her.

Wen Qionglin had been the one to share her backstory. One afternoon, while the children were napping, he whispered that A-Qing had spent time on the streets. After her parents died, she had been homeless. She sheltered where she could and wandered freely. She ate, Wen Qionglin said, whatever she could find. Often, that wasn't much. She had only come to the Burial Mounds—only found a home, with regular meals—a year ago.

After hearing that, Lan Wangji found it impossible to reprimand her. He peeled the seeds without complaint, and both children glutted themselves. There were pears, too. He cut and peeled one for A-Yuan, and intended to do the same for A-Qing. But she didn't have the patience to wait her turn. While he was carefully quartering A-Yuan's pear, she devoured hers, skin and all.

Lan Wangji watched as she ate it down to the core. He opened his mouth to remind her that she mustn't eat the seeds. She always tried to eat every scrap of her food, and he felt they must break that habit. 

But suddenly, A-Qing dropped the pear. She leaped to her feet and tore across the yard.

“Daozhang!” she shrieked joyfully. “Daozhang!”

Lan Wangji turned, just in time to watch A-Qing hurl herself—muddy clothes and all—against a cultivator dressed in white. A man in black stood at his side. He grimaced a bit at the filthy child. But he greeted her with a quiet smile. When she took his hand and pulled him toward the bench, he did not draw away.

“Look!” A-Qing’s face was bright with joy as she towed the men along. “Daozhang is here!”

Lan Wangji lifted A-Yuan off his lap so he could rise.

There was only one ‘daozhang’ in A-Qing’s life. So there could be no doubt as to the pair's identity. A-Qing spoke often of Xiao Xingchen, who had found her in the slums of Yi City. She spoke, too, of his cultivation partner Song Zichen. Lan Wangji had heard a great deal about both of them, and he'd been looking forward to this meeting. He felt rather vexed that the introduction must take place here, in a muddy field, without anyone to mediate. It was a terrible place to receive guests, the first guests in his married life.

Of course, the men weren't exactly guests. Lan Wangji already understood that the Burial Mounds was the closest thing they had to a home. But he shifted to his feet uneasily, distressed that he had no chance to make the proper preparations.

If the pair found anything lacking in their welcome, they didn't say so. Perhaps it was hard for them to notice much, with A-Yuan and A-Qing clinging to their robes. Once they fought their way free of the children, they bowed to Lan Wangji. He returned the bow, and A-Qing took care of the introductions.

The two men shared a look then, one that Lan Wangji couldn't decipher. Song Zichen’s face was impenetrable. Xiao Xingchen, however, had a ready smile.

“We’ve heard of you, of course! We were so disappointed not to attend the wedding.” His smile deepened. “We didn’t even hear of it until after the fact. I wonder why the Patriarch was in such a hurry to marry. He didn’t even wait for his old friends!”

Song Zichen gave him a small nudge. Xiao Xingchen fell silent, but he kept his mischievous smile.

Lan Wangji parted his lips, but he wasn’t sure how to reply. The marriage had been conducted in extreme haste. He knew that better than anyone. He, too, wondered why the Patriarch had been in such a hurry. He had no explanation to offer.

Fortunately, A-Qing had much to tell her beloved daozhang. She insisted on taking him around the settlement, showing him the results of the harvest. That gave Lan Wangji time to escape inside and arrange for tea. Once that was done, he slipped inside an empty room and smoothed his creased robes. He tried to prepare himself for the always-grueling task of entertaining company. Now more than ever, he missed his brother.

But Lan Wangji was spared the worst of the hosting duties. Once the Wens heard that Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen had returned, they streamed into the hall. The children pushed each other aside in their rush to greet the pair. Meanwhile, the disciples waited—with poorly concealed eagerness—for their turn. Yet again, Lan Wangji was overwhelmed by the chaos of his new home. In Cloud Recesses, greetings were performed in an orderly manner. But in the Burial Mounds, Lan Wangji seemed the only one who conformed to the strictest etiquettes.

He had tried to teach the children some of these courtesies. The results, however, were inconsistent. They certainly didn't bother to wait their turn, delaying their greetings until their elders had performed theirs. But he had progressed far enough that A-Qing no longer gulped down her tea. Lan Wangji supposed that was something, at least.

Xiao Xingchen took notice, and he laughed.

“Such good manners!” he teased. “I’m sure the Patriarch didn’t teach you that. Has someone else been instructing you?”

She nodded. Her mouth was full of sesame cake, so she pointed at Lan Wangji. Pointing was, of course, another breach of etiquette. But Lan Wangji was trying to tackle these things one step at a time. She had stopped gulping her tea, and she had nearly stopped talking with her mouth full. Teaching her not to point would have to wait.

Xiao Xingcheng’s mouth twitched with amusement. Song Zichen merely shook his head over A-Qing's antics.

The hall had emptied by then. The Wens returned to their work, drying fruit and smoking fish. The disciples also returned to their lessons, somewhat unwillingly. They exacted a promise from Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen to review their progress. The pair were interested to hear that Lan Wangji had been helping with their sword lessons. They wanted to discuss the current curriculum, and such topics carried the conversation for half a shi. The frequent interruptions from the children helped fill the silences, too.

“You’ve worked very hard,” Xiao Xingchen remarked, during a lull. “I’m sure the Patriarch is grateful for your assistance. We’re often traveling, so we aren’t much help with the children’s education.”

“We just keep bringing him more orphans,” Song Zichen added ruefully.

“It is no trouble,” Lan Wangji murmured.

It wasn’t, or at least it was no burden. The children certainly required a great deal of attention. But he was grateful to have a role to perform in his new household.

He was grateful, too, that the children helped conceal his meager social skills. A-Qing chattered freely with the men, keeping them occupied. After a while, A-Mei and A-Yuan burst in, sobbing over some small quarrel, and Lan Wangji had an excuse to leave the table for a few minutes. By the time he had smoothed the matter over—they had fought over a toy and broken it in the struggle—the Patriarch returned.

He swept into the room. When he saw the two cultivators, his face lit up.

“Of course, you came on the one day I was away!”

He gripped Xiao Xingchen’s arm affectionately. To Song Zichen, he merely gave a respectful nod. But he surveyed the two with evident fondness. Lan Wangji felt an absurd pulse of jealousy.

“You couldn’t have come yesterday, or tomorrow.” The Patriarch heaved a sigh. “You must have done this on purpose. You waited outside the barrier until I was gone, isn’t that right?”

“We chose an unlucky hour,” Xiao Xingchen admitted. “But we wanted to be here for the festival. We were also eager to meet your husband.”

He flashed a meaningful glance in Lan Wangji’s direction, while Song Zichen gave the Patriarch a flat look. The Patriarch let out another sigh, this one heavier than the last. He grimaced at Lan Wangji.

“They’re angry with me because I didn’t stall the wedding until they returned.” He spoke in a loud stage-whisper. “Husband, please protect me!”

It was a joke. Lan Wangji was sure of that. It would be absurd to suggest that these men presented any true threat to the Patriarch, or that Lan Wangji could offer protection. But he had never been good with jokes, always slow to find a proper response. He stood, uncomfortably silent, and eventually the conversation continued without him.

“We’re not angry,” Xiao Xingchen replied. “When you have strong feelings for someone, sometimes you can’t bring yourself to wait. We understand this.”

He and Song Zichen exchanged a long look. Lan Wangji found himself averting his eyes in embarrassment.

They were cultivation partners, after all. Naturally, they must have deep affection for one another. But sharing such tender glances in public—nearly in public, anyway—was really quite shameless.

Lan Wangji pushed down another flicker of irrational jealousy. Such feelings were foolish, petty, and nonsensical. If the two men were happy together, that was a fine thing. Their happiness certainly took nothing away from Lan Wangji. Yet something about the way they looked at each other—the way they moved in tandem and picked up one another’s conversations— made him burn with envy.

It must be very pleasant to have that sort of bond. Navigating any journey or hardship would be effortless with such a partnership. Lan Wangji wished…

But he stamped down on that thought. He turned his attention to the conversation before him. The two men were chiding the Patriarch for not giving them notice of his marriage. His husband made feeble excuses.

“Well, there’s been a lot to think of.” He scratched his head. “The wedding, the war, the harvest…”

“I see. That’s why you forgot to write and tell us you were married?”

Xiao Xingchen's tone was deliberately pleasant. It was just the voice Lan Xichen used when he was displeased with someone. Lan Wangji winced.

“We had to hear the news from Wen Qing,” Song Zichen put in.

The Patriarch groaned.

“If you weren’t running around the ends of the earth, I would have remembered!” He jabbed an accusing finger in their direction. “If you were living next door, I would’ve told you right away.”

They shared another of those embarrassingly intimate looks. Lan Wangji turned his eyes away again.

“We will forgive you,” Xiao Xingchen decided. “This time.”

“Yes, yes.” The Patriarch dropped into a chair, helping himself to the few snacks A-Qing had left untouched. “I won’t have any more clandestine weddings. On my honor!”

“I should hope not,” Song Zichen said mildly. “Your husband might have something to say about that.”

It was merely a lighthearted joke, but it left a sour taste in Lan Wangji’s mouth. He tried to dismiss it from his thoughts. Even so, it stuck to him like a burr all through dinner.

His husband’s attention was entirely focused on his guests. If he thought Lan Wangji was unusually quiet during the meal, he gave no sign of it. He didn’t tease Lan Wangji or try to draw him out. Instead, he was busy with his friends. He wanted to know everything the pair had seen and done on their travels.

Xiao Xingchen was courteous, and he made some attempts to include Lan Wangji in their conversation. But Lan Wangji found he had little to say. The three men were speaking of places he had never been, people he did not know. The general topic—night-hunting—was familiar enough. But their conversation was full of private jokes and references that Lan Wangji did not understand.

The jealousy returned again, kindled into a burning fire inside his chest. Lan Wangji tried to douse it without success.

If circumstances were different—if he were married by choice, for love—this sort of talk would be nothing. Lan Wangji could listen with perfect equanimity. He would rest secure in the knowledge that he and his husband had their own private jokes. They could trade soft looks and subtle touches, like Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen. They might even grow bold enough to hold hands under the table. Lan Wangji would have no cause for jealousy, and his heart would be at peace.

But he didn't have that sort of marriage. He and his husband had no private jokes, no secret references. His husband gave him no gentle touches or lingering looks. Lan Wangji couldn't even answer the simplest questions from the Patriarch’s friends: Why did you marry? Why did the wedding happen so suddenly? He knew nothing of his husband. Not his name, not his history, not the reason for their marriage. He knew nothing; he had nothing. There was nothing to hold onto, nothing to bolster his spirits.

Lan Wangji excused himself after dinner. His husband scarcely paused in his conversation as Lan Wangji left the table. Xiao Xingchen seemed faintly surprised by his early departure, but he did not press Lan Wangji to stay.

As he left the hall, Lan Wangji heard his husband explain that the Lan sect rules required an absurdly early bedtime. He laughed, and the sound turned Lan Wangji’s stomach. He hadn’t minded such teasing before. His husband often sighed over the restrictiveness of the Lan disciplines. But when he said such things in private, it felt like a lighthearted joke. To hear him mock the rules in front of others was painful. Lan Wangji felt as though all his careful attempts at intimacy had been shredded to pieces, disintegrated in the course of a single evening.

Once he was alone in his chambers, Lan Wangji allowed himself to feel wretchedly unhappy. He thought about writing to his brother. Lan Xichen would comfort him if he could. If Lan Wangji found his marriage an unhappy one, he knew his brother would try to offer consolation.

But when he took out a sheet of paper, he couldn't bring himself to write a single character. It would be shameful to confess such petty, self-centered thoughts. He was safe in his new home, treated well. He had no right to ask for anything more. Besides, a letter of complaint would only worry his brother. Lan Xichen already had the cares of an entire sect on his shoulders. He did not need any further burdens.

In his heart, Lan Wangji knew that his brother was already scrutinizing his letters, searching for any clue that Lan Wangji had been mistreated. If he complained openly, it would only reinforce Lan Xichen's deepest fears. His brother would become upset, and there would be no way for Lan Wangji to soothe his anxieties from afar.

He couldn't trouble his brother. He couldn't be so selfish, so unfilial.

Lan Wangji sat in the small garden for a while. He watched the waxing moon, reflected in the pond's surface. The water was misty, gently steaming. He had placed a warming talisman near the pond to keep the fish comfortable. But with the changing weather, their activity had ceased. They ate very little and seldom swam to the surface. Lan Wangji found himself envying the fish. He wished he could sleep through the next several months too.

Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen sometimes stayed through the winter. His husband had told him that already. The first snows would arrive soon, and the two cultivators must know that. Perhaps they had timed their visit before the first frost. They might be planning to settle down, to stay for several months.

If it was true, Lan Wangji knew he ought to be grateful. His husband clearly enjoyed their company, and so did the Wens. The disciples, too, would benefit from their guidance. It would be a fine thing for the settlement if they remained all winter. Lan Wangji knew this. He told himself sternly that he must not be selfish. But he felt bitter, somehow.

He didn't even have the comfort of knowing that his resentment was justified. The pair were skilled cultivators, renowned for their righteousness and benevolence. They had treated Lan Wangji with perfect respect and courtesy. It was unforgivably childish to resent their presence. But Lan Wangji couldn’t seem to root the feeling out of his own heart.

He undressed and took down his hair. As always, he removed the lotus pin and his forehead ribbon. Carefully, he tucked them away. In the morning, he knew he'd have to do penance for tonight’s childishness. Yet copying lines seemed to have no effect. As he lay in bed, Lan Wangji tried to think what punishment would be best. He could imagine no greater punishment than spending further time in the pair’s presence, trying to be sociable. So he decided that was just what he ought to do.

With that, he blew out the last candle and shut his eyes.

Chapter Text

Mid-Autumn Festival had meant a trip to town and presents, so the children had been giddy. Lan Wangji feared that Double Ninth Festival would bring another fever of excitement that would disrupt his lessons for days. But this holiday only involved a few games, followed by a small banquet. On the morning of the festival, Lan Wangji was relieved to find the children complacent over the coming celebrations.

He had forgotten, however, about Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen's return. Their arrival had created a firestorm of enthusiasm among the children and disciples. Lan Wangji knew better than to try to conduct lessons with the children in such a state. So he turned them over to Wen Qionglin and his aunts. If the children couldn't submit to lessons today, they might as well spend the morning in play. Lan Wangji had his own duties to attend to, anyway.

Once the children were settled, he turned his attention to the banquet. There were still several arrangements to be made. He selected the final dessert course, and Granny Wen helped him choose the wines. Then he checked on the status of the harvest.

After his trip to the villages, the Patriarch had evidently brought back several cartloads of supplies. There was certainly plenty of food, enough to see their settlement through the winter. Lan Wangji helped the Wens update the inventory to record each new cask and barrel. He watched as the Wens carted away the final sacks of rice and grains. Then the supplies were stacked upon shelves and the storehouse securely locked. Lan Wangji turned over the updated inventory to Second Uncle and returned to the kitchens to prepare offerings for his in-laws.

The children had gathered plenty of chrysanthemums. Lan Wangji arranged the blossoms with fastidious care. He stacked persimmons and pomegranates neatly on a platter, trying to make the arrangement artistic. A jug of wine and two cups served as the finishing touch.

Granny Wen had retrieved some of their best incense from storage. She'd arranged for someone to fetch joss money from town, too. Lan Wangji knew she wouldn't fail in her duties. But he checked three times to make sure she had chosen unbroken incense sticks. Then he inspected the joss money before tucking it into his sleeve. Finally, he surveyed the tray with a thoughtful frown. He wondered if the deceased could truly sense offerings made on their behalf.

Spirits knew, of course, when offerings were made. Yet he wasn't sure if the offerings brought any sensory pleasure. Could they taste the fruit? Smell the incense? Consume the essence of the wine? Perhaps they could only sense the feeling behind the offering. Lan Wangji sighed, flicking a tiny fragment of dust off the tray. He hoped his in-laws could sense his esteem.

Lan Xichen would make offerings to their own parents today. He might be in the Lan ancestral hall at this very moment. Lan Wangji's frown deepened. He hoped his parents could sense their offerings, too. He would like to think that the dead found peace in being remembered. But he didn't know for sure. He could never be certain, not until he crossed into the afterlife himself.

He brushed those thoughts away. The tray was prepared, so he set it aside. The banquet preparations were underway and the offerings were ready. Lan Wangji had already dressed for the festival. There was nothing left to tend to. Even so, he studied himself pensively in the polished pans hanging on the kitchen wall.

His husband's wedding gifts had included robes suitable for late autumn. The black silk was embroidered with a golden phoenix and red maple leaves. Lan Wangji had fixed his hair with the phoenix hairpins once more. The lotus pin was tucked discreetly behind. As he peered at his reflection, he felt tolerably sure that his appearance was acceptable. Surely he wouldn't disgrace his in-laws, not dressed in his husband's gifts.

The offerings were prepared, though. His toilette was finished. He had nothing more to do, and he found himself restless. The previous night, he had planned to spend his spare moments tormenting himself with Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen's presence. Today, they were nowhere to be found.

At the midday meal, Wen Qing confided that they were busy. They had spent the morning talking to the Patriarch in his private study, she said. That discovery was its own kind of punishment. Lan Wangji still hadn't been permitted within his husband's study. This news—their guests were allowed entrance into a place Lan Wangji could not go—stung. But Lan Wangji told himself he must endure it.

After lunch, he forced himself to find some occupation. The Wens planned to air out the rooms with zhuyu and fetch the winter clothes out of storage. Lan Wangji helped with that. Then he supervised the disciples' races up the mountain. His husband didn't watch the races, but he reappeared just in time to crown the winner.

The disciples were flushed with exertion. When the Patriarch teased and praised them, they flushed further. The younger children waited at the foot of the mountain, cheering the disciples on. Once the Patriarch appeared, they mobbed him. Lan Wangji watched as his husband ruffled hair, pinched cheeks, and threw a few fortunate children high into the air. But when that was done, the Patriarch gently shooed the children away.

"Husband." He turned to Lan Wangji. "Shall we?"

He inclined his head toward the ancestral hall. Lan Wangji nodded.

The disciples—even the youngest children—drew back politely. The Wens also stepped aside. It wasn't their place to enter the ancestral hall, and they knew it. Lan Wangji was only allowed within because he was the Patriarch's lawful spouse. The Wens hung back as they walked to the hall.

Granny Wen met them outside with the tray of offerings. Lan Wangji took it from her with a nod of gratitude. Then he fought the urge to smooth his robes or fuss with his hair. It had been windy outside. The children's races had stirred up clouds of dirt and bits of grass. He had no time to find a mirror, and he hoped he wasn't too mussed. Of course, it wouldn't matter much if he was. His in-laws were no longer a part of the living realm. Perhaps they couldn't really see him. But Lan Wangji felt a sudden pulse of self-consciousness. He couldn't bear to disgrace himself before his husband's parents.

His husband unsealed the ancestral hall with a few quick touches. Then he took the tray from Lan Wangji's hands and carried it inside. Lan Wangji followed, glancing surreptitiously around the hall. On his wedding day, there had been no opportunity to study his surroundings. The veil had blocked his vision during the ceremony. After his husband removed it, Lan Wangji had been too vexed and surprised to think of anything else. So he took his time now, examining each corner of the hall.

For an ancestral hall, the room was surprisingly small. The ancestral hall of Cloud Recesses was ten times larger. But then, their hall held many generations of memorial tablets. The Lan ancestral hall even had a separate chamber, which housed the tablets of sect leaders and their spouses.

His husband's hall was nearly empty. There were only two tablets on display, hanging above a small shrine at the front of the room. Lan Wangji couldn't help a sudden burst of curiosity. Yet he knew he must keep his eyes lowered in respect. Cautiously, he helped his husband lay out the fruit, wine, and flowers. Together, they lit the incense and made their bows. Once the ritual was complete, Lan Wangji gave in to temptation. He risked a glance upward.

Much to his astonishment, one of the tablets held a familiar name.

"Cangse Sanren?"

He had not intended to speak aloud. They were within a sacred place, after all. He ought to remain respectfully silent or use his breath for prayer. But the name escaped his lips before he could call it back. His husband made a quiet sound of acknowledgment.

"She was my mother," he said quietly.

Lan Wangji stared at the tablet. He wanted to turn to his husband, but something about his tone kept Lan Wangji still.

The Patriarch's voice was heavy and tense. Lan Wangji's skin prickled, and he knew he must choose his next words carefully. He bit the inside his cheek as he thought the matter over.

"Your mother and Xiao Xingchen shared a master."

This explained a great deal. Lan Wangji had wondered what had drawn Xiao Xingchen from one immortal mountain to another. The Patriarch had hinted that they were related, after some fashion. But this information—the identity of the Patriarch's mother—explained everything.

The Patriarch huffed.

"He's technically my shishu." He sighed, rocking back on his heels. "But I don't call him that. We're close to the same age, after all."

Lan Wangji digested that morsel of information. They were close to the same age, his husband said. Lan Wangji didn't know Xiao Xingchan's age. But he suspected the man wasn't very old. He had heard that Xiao Xingchen descended from the Celestial Mountain as quite a young man. He'd been part of the cultivation world for ten or fifteen years, at most. It wasn't likely that Xiao Xingchen was over thirty.

If he and the Patriarch were of a similar age, then his husband was young. Much younger than Lan Wangji had supposed. Lan Wangji's brow furrowed. He didn't think his husband could possibly be younger than himself, but he might be just a little older.

That was shocking, baffling, nearly unthinkable. How could a man cultivate to immortality at the age of twenty? Twenty-five? Even thirty? According to the ancient texts, this feat often took a century or more. But then, his husband was the grand-disciple of Baoshan Sanren. Perhaps she had taught him special techniques that sped up the process?

"Have you met Baoshan Sanren?" Lan Wangji asked tentatively.

"Once." The Patriarch was silent for a moment. Then he let out a sigh. "Just once."

Lan Wangji considered that as he studied the tablets. They held only names: Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze. He wondered when they had died. He had heard of the death of Cangse Sanren. It occurred many years ago, when Lan Wangji was still a very young child. She was well-known, however, and highly respected. People spoke of her life—and her death—for many years afterward. Lan Wangji wasn't sure when she had passed from the mortal world. But he had heard that she died on a night-hunt, like so many cultivators before her.

There had been other stories, too. Lan Wangji frowned as he remembered them. It was said that she and her husband disappeared. Her friends had wondered what became of her, and rumor suggested that she might have returned to the Celestial Mountain with her husband. Many years had passed before her body and her sword had been found. With that grim discovery, her fate had finally become known.

Lan Wangji had never heard that she produced a child. His stomach turned over, and he wondered what had become of his husband after his parents' death. Perhaps Baoshan Sanren had taken him to the Celestial Mountain and raised him there? He would have liked to believed it was so. But his husband claimed he met his mother's master only once. If she had raised him—if she had been his master, too—surely he would address her differently. And if they shared a master, Xiao Xingchen would be his shixiong, not his shishu.

Lan Wangji felt his brows draw together. Where had his husband passed his childhood, then? Who had taken charge of his education, if his parents died so young?

"I had wondered where the name Wei came from." He kept his eyes on Wei Changze's tablet. "Wen Qing used it when she came to collect me."

He understood it was an alias. But he thought perhaps the surname had been chosen at random. The Patriarch shook his head.

"Some of the people around here use it," he murmured. "The ones who were orphans or servants...they don't always have a family name of their own. The Wens use it too, whenever they have to leave the mountain."

He fell abruptly silent. Lan Wangji stole glances at his husband from the corner of his eye.

"I don't make them use it," his husband added. "They're not my blood relatives, and they're certainly not my chattel. But they can use my name if they want to."

Lan Wangji nodded.

It made sense, of course. Many servants and refugees had no family names of their own. Others, like the Wens, had forsaken their name for the sake of protection. They would undoubtedly be glad to take the Patriarch's name as their own.

"I am sure your father would not object," Lan Wangji ventured.

He wasn't, though. Not really, anyway. Allow another to use your family name was a serious matter. Many cultivators defended their family names fiercely. Some even refused to give their name to illegitimate children, saving it instead for the children of their lawful spouse. Perhaps Wei Changze wouldn't have liked to pass his name to servants and refugees. Perhaps he would have been offended to have his name given to anyone but his descendants.

His husband gave a small, humorless chuckle.

"I don't really remember him, so I can't say for sure!" He reached out to rearrange the items on the altar. "But he was a servant too, you know. I don't think he'd believe they were dirtying his name or anything."

Lan Wangji turned to stare at his husband. It was unseemly but help it. His husband had been so reticent about his identity. This was a great deal of information to absorb at once. Lan Wangji stared, but his husband didn't meet his eyes.

Something itched at the back of Lan Wangji's mind. He chased after that flicker of memory until he managed to capture it.

"He was…in service to the Jiang clan?"

His husband turned as well, face full of surprise.

"So I've heard. How did you know that?"

Lan Wangji parted his lips slowly.

"I believe your mother and father visited Cloud Recesses once with the former Sect Leader Jiang. I heard my uncle speak of them. He remembers your mother well."

Uncle had spoken of her before. Not with fondness, perhaps. But uttered her name with respect, and he seemed to regret that such a gifted cultivator had died so young. He hadn't shared any stories of her exploits, however. Some of the other disciples had fulfilled that task for him. Once, Lan Xichen had whispered a story about Cangse Sanren, too. Lan Wangji had never forgotten that tale.

"Your mother shaved my uncle's beard," he confessed.

The Patriarch made a startled noise, halfway between a gasp and a laugh.

"She did what?"

He rocked forward. His gaze was fixed on Lan Wangji's face, his expression caught between mirth and astonishment.

"Husband. Are you serious?"

Lan Wangji nodded.

"Mm. I heard the story from a reliable source. They quarreled over something."

He furrowed his brow. He couldn't remember this part of the story. Perhaps his brother hadn't known the source of the quarrel himself.

"A disagreement during a night hunt, I think. So she shaved his beard."

As a child, he had been quite horrified by this story. His brother, though, had thought it rather funny. At the time, Lan Wangji hadn't seen any humor in such an affront to their uncle's dignity. But the story had a different resonance now. Lan Wangji thought of the mischievous gleam that flickered in the Patriarch's eyes. He remembered how his husband roughhoused with the children and teased Lan Wangji about his sect's rules.

If his mother had a similar spirit, she couldn't possibly have gotten along with Lan Qiren. Lan Wangji considered that, then closed his eyes briefly. It was surprisingly easy to imagine a young woman with his husband's lively spirit. He could almost hear an echo of her laughter, reverberating against the walls.

The Patriarch reached up to cover his mouth. Tears glazed his eyes. For a horrifying moment, Lan Wangji thought he must have caused his husband terrible distress. But his husband was merely fighting against a fit of hilarity. He lost the battle quickly. The Patriarch slumped against the altar and he howled with laughter.

The ancestral hall was not a seemly place for mirth. Yet if his mother had enjoyed pranks and amusement, perhaps it was the right place after all. She might enjoy hearing her son's full-bellied laughter, echoing against the polished floors. If so, she certainly heard her fill. It took a full minute for the Patriarch to regain his composure.

"I don't know what to say to that." He gasped for breath, wiping tears from his eyes. "I hope your uncle deserved it!"

"I had not been born then," Lan Wangji said demurely. "I cannot say."

He was grateful for that. In such a conflict, he couldn't possibly take a side. Uncle raised him, so Lan Wangji owed him a filial duty. But he owed allegiance to his husband's family, too. Lan Wangji studied his mother-in-law's tablet. He wondered what she would think if she had lived to see her son wed Lan Qiren's nephew.

"Did it grow back?" the Patriarch asked, fighting down another chuckle.

"It did." Lan Wangji nodded.

"I see, I see."

The Patriarch passed a hand over his mouth. He was no longer trying to hide his amusement. Still, he bowed deeply before the tablet.

"Mother, I hope you're satisfied with your revenge! Whatever quarrel you had with that man, please don't take it out on my husband!"

Lan Wangji sighed, and he bowed alongside his husband. He had married into his husband's home, after all. Like anyone in his position, he must throw himself upon his mother-in-law's mercy. He certainly hoped she didn't hold a grudge. But if she did, Lan Wangji couldn't do much to appease her. He could make offerings, at least. Lan Wangji recalled his duties and withdrew the stack of joss paper from his sleeve. He set it on the altar and lit the brazier in preparation.

The Patriarch made an impressed noise.

"Ah, you even brought joss paper?" He turned to the tablet, pointing at Lan Wangji. "Mother! See what a filial son-in-law you have?"

Heat rose in his cheeks. But with his husband's help, Lan Wangji finished the ritual. They burned the paper, sheet by sheet. When it was gone, they extinguished the brazier. Lan Wangji changed the incense and lit a fresh stick. There was no need to linger, though. The ritual was complete. Even so, Lan Wangji studied the altar critically. He must return in a few days, he decided, to clear away the wilted flowers and overripe fruit. Afterward, he'd replace the offerings with something else. If his husband allowed it, he'd make fresh offerings every day. It was the least he could do for his in-laws.

After a moment, his husband sighed again.

"You couldn't make offerings to your own parents this time."

His voice was unexpectedly kind. Lan Wangji folded his hands tightly on his lap, a swell of emotion rising in his throat. Double Ninth Festival was the traditional time for men and women who had married out to visit their natal home.

Lan Wangji had long since accepted that he couldn't make such a visit himself. Not now, not when his marriage was still so uncertain. He had known from the moment of his marriage that such a visit was impossible. It was hard to think that he may never see his parents' tablets again, but he didn't wish to sound ungrateful. He tried to measure his words carefully.

"My brother will do it in my place. Uncle will help him."

Together, they would observe all the necessary rituals. His brother was the eldest child, anyway. By rights, it was his duty to prepare the offerings. Lan Xichen would never fail to perform his duties. Lan Wangji knew that. So his parents would receive a visit from their eldest son, along with generous offerings. It had to be enough.

But his heart ached when he thought of the celebrations he was missing. He and his brother always collected gentians for their mother and laid them before her altar. When he shut his eyes, Lan Wangji could almost smell their subtle perfume. He swallowed hard.

"I also do not remember my father," he added softly. "But I have not forgotten my mother."

After his father's death, Lan Wangji had merely observed the necessary rituals. He knelt before the gravesite and burned offerings. He wore mourning clothes for the prescribed period. In every respect, Lan Wangji did what he was expected to do. Yet he had hardly known his father. They met only a handful of times during his childhood. During these rare visits, they seldom spoke. Lan Wangji always felt that these visits were a source of grief to his father, a reminder of the wife he'd lost.

He wouldn't dare to speak such unfilial thoughts aloud. But in his deepest heart, Lan Wangji couldn't bring himself to love his father. He had always suspected that his father never loved him.

His mother had been so different. Mourning his father had been a simple matter: Lan Wangji needed only to observe the prescribed rites before carrying on with his life. His mother, though, could not be forgotten after burning incense or bowing before the coffin. His grief for her was still etched on the surface of his heart. In some ways, his mourning would never end.

His husband was very quiet. Then he lifted his head.

"You can make offerings to them in private." He spoke haltingly. "That's not forbidden or anything. And if you want, we could set up a little shrine here. It's too much space for just my parents, and they wouldn't mind sharing."

Lan Wangji turned from the altar and stared at his husband again. He didn't know what to say.

It was hardly traditional. In fact, it would not be appropriate or seemly. Combining family shrines was not customary. But if the gesture was unorthodox, it was also startlingly generous. And the ancestral hall did seem empty. Lan Wangji gazed at the bare walls and spotless floors. It was too quiet, too desolate, too empty.

Someday, other tablets might dot the walls. His own tablet would hang here, too. If he and his husband adopted children, their tablets would join the walls. Within a few generations, the hall might be transformed. The thought made Lan Wangji bite his lip.

If he and their children failed to reach immortality, the Patriarch would watch them die. They would age and sicken before his eyes. Then he would bury them and he would live on, ageless and eternal. Lan Wangji couldn't bear to think of that. Immortality was considered the most exalted of achievements. But if one was condemned to spend eternity alone, immortality seemed like a punishment.

At once, he felt a sharp stab of guilt. The first six weeks of his marriage had been difficult, and he hadn't worked diligently upon his own cultivation. Perhaps his distraction was excusable. Even in Cloud Recesses, newly married couples were excused from their duties for a month or two. But now that he had settled into his new household, he must adjust his priorities. He ought to spend more time refining his cultivation, strengthening his core. He could hardly expect to achieve immortality overnight.

Yet if he worked diligently, he might find success. Then his husband would be assured of a companion. The Patriarch would always have someone to help him make offerings to his parents. And to the Wens, who would gradually sicken and die in the decades ahead. He shouldn't have to shoulder such burdens alone.

Lan Wangji carved that goal onto the surface of his soul. Then he nodded briskly.

"I would appreciate that."

In the coming years, they could expand the hall. But for now, a second altar would fit along the northwestern wall. There, Lan Wangji could make offerings to both his parents and in-laws. He didn't know what his father would think of such an unconventional arrangement. He felt sure, though, that his mother would be like his husband's parents. She wouldn't mind sharing.

After the last stick of incense was gone, Lan Wangji followed his husband from the hall. He waited as the Patriarch sealed the doors, because it seemed polite to wait. But he expected that his husband would quickly find an excuse to leave. Instead, he shifted restlessly from foot to foot. Then he gave a crooked, uncertain smile.

"I have something," he said. "A few somethings. I got them in the eastern village. There were lots of them, so I took four. Do you want to see?"

"Yes," Lan Wangji said, after a bewildered pause.

He could hardly make sense of his husband's disorganized statement. Evidently, his husband had brought something home. Now he wanted to show it to Lan Wangji. That did sound like proper marital behavior. They ought to examine new purchases together, especially if his husband had acquired something for the household. Lan Wangji nodded dutifully, and his husband seized his wrist.

He expected the Patriarch to take him into the storeroom or the library. But instead, his husband led him outside. They passed through the back garden behind the kitchens, threading their way down a narrow path. Once they were beyond the vegetable plots, they reached a smooth grassy area. The space was lined with large boulders, and the Patriarch had somehow shifted the boulders to make a ring. A thick patch of grass lay the center.

Lan Wangji didn't understand what had brought them there. But then he spotted a flicker of movement. The Patriarch pointed triumphantly.

"Look!"

Lan Wangji's breath caught. Within the grassy ring, two small rabbits scurried about. Soon, they were joined by a third rabbit, then a fourth. The rabbits were very young. They were barely big enough to be away from their mother. But they looked very soft. They scrambled around their enclosure, inspecting the foliage. One particularly bold rabbit placed its small paws on the rocks and lifted its head to take a look at its visitors.

"They're not for eating, I promise!"

The Patriarch vaulted over a boulder and snatched the curious rabbit up before it could escape.

"Their mother just had her last litter of the year. The farmer said there were six, and these four are big enough to live by themselves. The others are runts, so they have to stay with her."

Lan Wangji bent down. Gingerly, he lifted a small rabbit into his hands and cupped it in his palms.

The Patriarch's rabbit struggled. After a moment, it managed to free itself and hide in the grass. But Lan Wangji's rabbit only gave a tremulous quiver. Then it settled on its haunches and stared at him with dark, liquid eyes.

"Are they weaned?" Lan Wangji asked softly.

The rabbit in his hands felt unbearably fragile. It wasn't a newborn, though. Like its siblings, nosing their way through the grass, it seemed able to move freely. Lan Wangji lowered the rabbit into his lap. Slowly, he reached out to the others and let them sniff his fingers.

"The farmer said they started eating vegetables." The Patriarch tromped over, making far too much noise. "But we'll have to keep them over here for now. We don't have a pen yet. If we let them run wild, they'll eat everything up. The little vermin!"

He reached for another rabbit, but it bolted. The rabbit scrambled away from the Patriarch and dove beneath the sweeping fabric of Lan Wangji's sleeve. Lan Wangji moved his hand, shielding the rabbit. He felt its body tremble beneath his palm. The quivering stopped after a moment, as the rabbit realized it was safe.

The Patriarch heaved a sigh.

"Ah, why are they so obedient with you? They bit me twice when I picked them up!"

He sounded as sullen as a child. Lan Wangji felt an involuntary smile touch his lips.

"You startled them," he murmured. "Don't move so quickly."

He sat in perfect stillness to let the rabbits acclimate to his presence. His husband, of course, was never entirely motionless. But the Patriarch seemed to understand, and he tried to mimic Lan Wangji. After a few minutes, the rabbits ventured closer. One sidled up to Lan Wangji's thigh, while another sniffed curiously at his left knee. The rabbit on his lap nibbled at his yaopei.

In time, Lan Wangji managed to lift a rabbit and transfer it into his husband's lap. He showed his husband how to hold the rabbit gently, yet firmly. How to support the legs and belly, so the rabbit felt safe.

The rabbit twitched. But this time, it didn't bite. The Patriarch's face brightened.

"Do you like them?" he asked, once the silence had stretched to the breaking point.

His eyes were warm, and Lan Wangji knew that his own quiet delight must be obvious.

The rabbits were lovely. He had always wished he could keep some of his own. But pets were forbidden in Cloud Recesses, so he had given up on that dream long ago. These rabbits were wonderful, an unexpected gift. The gift was especially precious because it came from his husband. His husband, who had remembered their idle conversation from the festival.

He remembered that Lan Wangji liked rabbits. Then he took the trouble to find some and offer them as a gift. He had presented the rabbits, his face soft and hopeful, and asked, Do you like them? As if the answer mattered to him. As if he cared whether Lan Wangji's idle wishes and childhood dreams were fulfilled.

Lan Wangji nodded and kept his eyes on his lap. If he looked at his husband, he feared he might embarrass himself. They were not in Cloud Recesses, of course. Still, Lan Wangji still felt that excessive displays of emotion ought to remain forbidden. But his heart was full to bursting. His husband had given him expensive wedding gifts: silk robes, gold hairpins, jade bracelet. Lan Wangji has been duly grateful for those. They acknowledged his status as a cultivator, and the respect he was to be accorded in his husband's home.

Gold and silks, though, could not compare to this gift. The lavish jewelry had only been for Hanguang-Jun, younger brother of Sect Leader Lan. The rabbits were a gift for Lan Wangji, a gift for a husband.

"Yes," he whispered. "Thank you."

It was an inadequate response, yet he could think of nothing better to say. His throat was too tight. In one afternoon, his husband had obliterated every doubt that had troubled him last night. Lan Wangji had lain awake, fearing he could never be happy in this marriage. Then his husband had placed a rabbit into his arms. He had said, We can set up a shrine for your parents. Lan Wangji couldn't even remember why he'd felt so slighted and pushed-aside last night. The memory had crumbled to dust.

"I would have gotten them for you sooner if I knew you liked them!" His husband bumped against his shoulder. "I gave you koi fish instead. Wen Qing said those are very proper and auspicious. But I realized they've probably started spending their days napping. So they can't keep you company anymore."

It was another blow against Lan Wangji's battered heart. The koi pond was not merely an ornamentation, then. His husband had chosen it as a gift, to keep Lan Wangji company in his new home. When he realized Lan Wangji was deprived of company—the fish hibernating in the cold weather—he had fetched rabbits instead. Lan Wangji swallowed hard against the painful lump in his throat. He didn't trust himself to speak. So he kept his eyes on the small brown rabbit curled up in his lap.

His husband reached out to scratch its head.

"So, when you get tired of wrangling the wild children, you can come here and wrangle some wild rabbits." He laughed. "Isn't that generous of me?"

He sounded as if he were joking. But it was generous. Lan Wangji hardly knew what to say.

"It is very generous." He spoke quietly. "But I don't have a gift for you."

His husband laughed again. This time, it held a ring of surprise.

"That's fine!"

Lan Wangji shook his head.

"It is not." He met his husband's eyes. "I will think of something."

It occurred to Lan Wangji had he had done little for his husband since their wedding. In terms of household duties, perhaps he had acquitted himself well enough. He helped to train the disciples and he looked after the children. On festival days, he arranged banquets and procured offerings. Sometimes he helped his husband with menial tasks, too. When his husband had letters to write, Lan Wangji ground ink and prepared sealing paste.

But anyone could perform those tasks. Lan Wangji had done nothing more than any well-trained servant might do. He felt he ought to do something that only a husband could do. Yet he couldn't think of anything suitable.

The Patriarch's mouth quirked.

"Don't put yourself out!" He scratched his chin and lifted a brow. "Ah, I know what! You should do some calligraphy for me! Some of the walls are too bare. I've been meaning to buy something to hang on them, but I never seem to get around to it. Make some scrolls and we'll put them up."

Lan Wangji frowned. That, too, seemed unsatisfactory. Scrolls were no substitute for four beautiful pets. But if that was what his husband wished for, then it must be done. Lan Wangji considered the matter and gave a firm nod.

"I will."

He smoothed a hand over the rabbit's fur and tried to think of some way to make the gift special. Generic scrolls wouldn't do. He couldn't copy mundane blessings, common lines of poetry. He must think of something his husband would like. There must be a way to personalize the scrolls to suit his husband's preferences. Lan Wangji considered asking his husband what he'd like best, but he swallowed the question. His gift had been a surprise, after all. He must surprise his husband too.

Perhaps he could ask Wen Qing and Wen Qionglin for their advice. They might know what his husband would like. Lan Wangji could seek guidance from Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen too? There was no reason to spurn their help.

The jealousy of last night felt increasingly far away. The longer he thought of it, the more absurd Lan Wangji felt. What did it matter, after all, if his husband considered the two cultivators close friends? Shouldn't Lan Wangji rejoice in their presence? They made his husband happy, after all. Perhaps they could teach Lan Wangji how to do the same.

Lan Wangji was so lost in his plans, he didn't notice when the Patriarch cleared his throat meaningfully. His husband had to tap him on the shoulder to get his attention. Lan Wangji turned, and found his husband looking at him with an odd expression.

"Did you know that belonged to my mother?"

His fingers lifted from Lan Wangji's shoulder, brushing against something in his hair. It took Lan Wangji a moment to realize that he was reaching for the lotus pin. The touch felt staggeringly intimate. His fingers grazed Lan Wangji's ear, brushing the space just below the forehead ribbon. Lan Wangji's throat went dry. He had to swallow several times before he could manage a reply.

"I didn't."

The Patriarch huffed a quiet laugh.

"Ah, of course not. How could you?"

His hand lingered, tracing over the pin. Lan Wangji watched his husband's face, transfixed. He must be touching every petal. Perhaps he was rubbing his thumbnail along the small nick Lan Wangji had already noticed, the one at the center of the bloom. The pin was battered and worn. It had been so, even when Lan Wangji received it. But he wished now he had done something to restore the pin to its full glory. If he had known it belonged to his mother-in-law, he would have tried to polish it.

"They were just rogue cultivators, so they didn't have much money." His husband's voice was strangely detached. "No fancy jewelry or extravagant wedding for them! That's the only thing I have that was theirs."

Lan Wangji drew a slow breath.

"Do you…"

His husband's eyes dropped from the pin, moving to this mouth. Lan Wangji almost became distracted, but he forced himself to continue.

"Would you like me to return it?"

There was hardly breath behind the words. But his husband heard him anyway. He shook his head with a sad smile.

"No. You should keep it." He touched the pin once more. This time, his fingers grazed over the forehead ribbon. "But look after it properly, okay?"

Lan Wangji fought down a blush as he nodded.

He could honestly say that he had taken good care of the pin. He was glad of that now. It was fortunate that he'd always treated the pin with special reverence. It had felt wrong to do anything less: the pin was the instrument through which a war had been won. It was the symbol of their marriage, even more than the red wedding robes or the golden headpiece. It would have been wrong to trifle with such an important object.

But if it belonged to his mother-in-law—if it was her only remaining heirloom—then he must treasure it above all else. The pin, too, was a precious gift. His husband had given him many of those. Far more than Lan Wangji had realized. He frowned at his lap and decided he must try to even the score.

His husband seemed satisfied with their current arrangement. He took Lan Wangji's arm, pulling him to his feet. Then he paced around the ring of rocks, making plans for the rabbit pen. They would need a large one, he said. The farmer had given him a pair of males and a pair of females, so they must expect at least one litter in the spring. There was room to spare, though. They had plenty of open space, and enough food to waste on pets.

The Patriarch anticipated that the children would be eager to meet the rabbits. But he said that they wouldn't be allowed to play with the rabbits until Lan Wangji gave permission. Lan Wangji must decide when they were responsible enough for pets.

As they walk back inside, Lan Wangji felt as if his chest was glowing. He was briefly tempted to look down, to make sure that his golden core wasn't trying to escape his body. But he knew this feeling had nothing to do with his cultivation. It had everything to do with his husband, brushing their hands together as they walked. It was the way his husband talked, cheerful and easy, sharing whatever whimsical thought that enters his head. It was how his husband asked him to help judge what was best for the children, when they were ready for new responsibilities.

The warm feeling only intensified when they returned to the hall. The children crowded around, kites and flower-cakes in hand. A-Yuan attached himself to Lan Wangji's leg, while A-Mei swung delightedly at the Patriarch's side. The rest of the afternoon passed in a golden haze. Lan Wangji didn't even mind when Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen joined their party.

Xiao Xingchen played with the children, while Song Zichen sat with Lan Wangji. They drank chrysanthemum tea in peaceful silence. Song Zichen was gracious and didn't force a conversation. Lan Wangji discovered that he didn't mind sitting quietly at his side, watching the children play.

Most of the Wens were still off paying respects to their own ancestors. There were tombs in the back hills, Wen Qionglin said. They belonged to the Wens who died after arriving in the Burial Mounds. Some, Lan Wangji understood, were old or sick when they fled Wen Ruohan's territories. Even with the Patriarch's powerful cultivation and Wen Qing's medical skill, they didn't last long. But they were entombed properly, at least. They died surrounded by family and they received full funeral rites. Lan Wangji gathered that was some comfort to the surviving Wens.

During the early days of his marriage, he had wondered if any of the walking corpses were Wens. He hadn't dared to ask such an indelicate question. But Wen Qing seemed to guess his thoughts.

"They're nobody we know," she told him bluntly, while sorting out her medical supplies in the late afternoon sunlight. "They're old bodies. They were thrown into the Burial Mounds a long time ago. They had a lot of resentful energy, so the Patriarch was able to raise them and stabilize their minds."

Lan Wangji nodded politely and asked no further questions. He was curious, though, and Wen Qing clearly knew that. She pinned him with a stare.

"We don't ask him to raise our dead," she added gruffly. "It wouldn't work anyway. We don't have anything to be resentful over. None of us have been murdered, or murdered someone else. If someone in my family dies, it's just because they're too old to carry on."

Lan Wangji tried to bite his tongue. The question escaped anyway.

"A-Yuan's parents...?"

Wen Qing's face clouded over. She busied herself with the herbs for some time. When she spoke, her voice was very low.

"That was an accident. They went hiking in the hills, and there was a rockslide. The rains had been heavy that spring and..."

She broke off. Lan Wangji averted his eyes, so she didn't have to suffer through the discomfort of someone witnessing her grief.

"We got to them as fast as we could," she said, after a long silence. "But it was too late for me to do anything."

She grew quiet again and spent some time stacking the jars. Lan Wangji thought the story might be finished. He intended to excuse himself with an apology. But before he could hurry off, Wen Qing spoke.

"They were good people." She rolled a jar between her hands. "They didn't have any resentment or any reason to look for revenge. Maybe he could've brought them back anyway, but I asked him not to try. We all did. We wanted them to move on and be reincarnated quickly."

She stuffed the last of her supplies into the crate and marched away. Brief as it was, Lan Wangji spent a great deal of time thinking over that conversation. It was, perhaps, a relief to know that his husband didn't disturb or corrupt peaceful spirits. But that meant that every one of the walking corpses had been raised through the use of resentful energy. They had clung to this world in bitterness, grief, and a desire for revenge. For a few days afterward, Lan Wangji studied the walking corpses with added caution. 

He had to admit, though, that his husband had brought them under his control. He had calmed their spirits, cleared their minds. They weren't lurching creatures like Wen Ruohan's, fixated on revenge and mutilation. Whatever resentments had kept them tethered to this existence, it no longer appeared to dominate their thoughts.

As he sat in the sun on Double Ninth Festival, Lan Wangji glimpsed the corpse-women who attended him on his wedding night. They stood apart from the Wens, whispering to each other. But they were smiling at A-Mei, who was weaving flowers into A-Qing's hair. Lan Wangji watched them thoughtfully.

They were once prostitutes, Wen Qing said. The women had served in a flower-house for a time. Then they had become concubines of a rich lord. After his death, his wife and son had killed the women out of spite. Their bodies were thrown into the hills. By the time the Patriarch found the remains, their murderers were long since dead. But the women had willingly risen under his command. He repaired their bodies, and they took up residence in his halls.

If they happened to pass by Lan Wangji in the halls, they winked and grinned. They caught him watching now, and they leered again. Lan Wangji averted his eyes quickly. He was almost—but not quite—accustomed to such forward behavior. Yet for a brief moment, Lan Wangji wondered whether he should speak to them. Like the other walking corpses in his husband's domain, they seemed remarkably human. Lan Wangji sensed that these women remembered what it was to be alive. If that was true and if they had indeed been concubines, then perhaps...

Perhaps they understood certain things. Perhaps they could advise him. Such women must know how to entice a reluctant husband to complete the last of the marriage rites. Perhaps they could tell Lan Wangji what he ought to do.

A guilty heat flickered over his skin. Lan Wangji finished his tea briskly, tucking that thought away. He wanted to show gratitude toward his husband and turn their awkward marriage of convenience into a proper union. But this wasn't the proper moment for such thoughts.

The Wens had returned from the tombs; the gong had been struck. The children were on their feet, scurrying toward the hall. Lan Wangji let the crowd carry him inside, and the banquet began. Granny Wen's hours of preparation had not been in vain. There were noodles and river crabs, a rich beef stew and mung beans. There were chongyang cakes and osmanthus jelly. There was a vast quantity of wine.

Lan Wangji served himself a modest portion. It was difficult to eat in such a clamor. The hall echoed with voices, and children darted between tables. But Lan Wangji found he didn't mind. His husband's eyes were bright as he looked around the room, and he smiled at Lan Wangji often. Lan Wangji was so delighted by that, he succumbed willingly to his husband's demands that he try a spoonful of radish soup. Even the oily red sheen of the broth failed to dissuade him.

The spice, however, scalded his tongue and throat. When he couldn't quite hide his grimace, the Patriarch gave a triumphant cry.

"You see?" he demanded of Wen Qing. "Radishes are so awful, even delicious spices can't make them taste good! Look at how disgusted my husband is! This is all your fault!"

Lan Wangji took a discreet sip of tea to cleanse his palate. He was profoundly grateful when his husband and Wen Qing fell to arguing over the crop rotation for next spring. No one inflicted any spicy soup upon him after that.

Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen disappeared shortly after the final course arrived. Lan Wangji had expected them to remain, as they had the previous night. He had thought that they might be drinking companions for his husband, and he had almost regretted his inability to provide that sort of companionship. But tonight, they didn't linger. As soon as the final dishes were served, they rose and made their bows.

As they left the hall, Lan Wangji observed that they mirrored each other's movements. When one turned, so did the other. When one stopped to listen to a conversation, the other did too. His gaze lingered on the men, perhaps too long. The Patriarch noticed, and he nudged Lan Wangji's foot beneath the table.

"What's wrong?" he asked. "You had such a serious look just now! Are you still angry about the radish soup?"

There was a teasing hint in his voice. Lan Wangji knew it wasn't a serious question, but he shook his head anyway.

"They did not stay long." He let his eyes drift toward the pair, just as they passed through the doorway.

"Oh! Song Lan doesn't really like crowds." The Patriarch sat back against his chair, polishing off his chongyang cake. "They put up with it yesterday because it was their first evening back. But they usually don't stay too long. Not when it's like this!"

He waved his hand around the room. Though the final course had been served, the banquet was still lively. The children were gorging themselves on desserts and the adults were deep in their cups. The hall rang with cheerful conversation.

Lan Wangji could understand Song Zichen's aversion. After a month and a half of marriage, he had almost grown used to noisy meals. But some days, the clamor was exhausting. He was the Patriarch's husband, though, so he couldn't excuse himself too early. He must wait until the final course had been consumed.

"You sat with him for quite a while today!" His husband picked up a fallen chestnut from his plate and ate it. "Did you like him?"

"Yes," Lan Wangji said.

He was surprised to discover that it was true. Often, he evaded such questions: Did you like that person? Lying was forbidden, yet so was discourtesy. There seemed to be no proper response. But Song Zichen's presence had been entirely agreeable. He seemed content to watch his cultivation partner play with the children. Beyond one or two questions, he asked nothing of Lan Wangji. They merely sat in comfortable silence.

The Patriarch laughed.

"Let me guess." He pushed aside his empty dish and pointed a finger at Lan Wangji. "You probably said three words to each other, then sat in complete silence for half a shi!"

"Yes," Lan Wangji admitted. "But it was pleasant."

The weather was fine, and the children were enjoying themselves. The chrysanthemum tea was exceptionally good, too. The afternoon had passed without any cares or burdens. Lan Wangji had wanted nothing more than to savor it in silence.

His husband seemed to realize this, and he laughed even louder.

"I bet you two would get along well." He tilted his head. "You should spend more time with him."

It was a peculiar suggestion. Lan Wangji hadn't expected his husband to suggest that he spend time with another man, not when he and Song Zichen were both married. For a moment, Lan Wangji did not know how to respond.

"And with his cultivation partner?" he asked, slowly.

The Patriarch waved a careless hand.

"Well, yes. They're practically fused at the hip!" He took another swig of his wine. "But they aren't together every minute of the day. You can spend time with just Song Zichen. Trust me, Xiao Xingchen isn't the jealous type!"

He chuckled to himself as if the very idea was humorous.

Lan Wangji took a sip of his tea. He hadn't received the impression that either Xiao Xingchen or Song Zichen were jealous individuals. They clearly had a strong bond, and they spent half the meal making eyes at each other. Under such circumstances, it would be absurd for them to doubt the other's fidelity. And Lan Wangji was married, too. He could socialize with other married individuals without any fear of impropriety or gossip.

But something about the suggestion bothered him. Perhaps it was only his husband's careless tone that grated against Lan Wangji's nerves. Xiao Xingcheng, he said, was not the jealous type. Evidently, his husband wasn't the jealous type either. Somehow, Lan Wangji was faintly disappointed. There was no use dwelling on that, however. He tried to redirect the conversation.

"They have been together for a long time?"

The Patriarch made a noise of affirmation.

"Ages and ages. They met right after Xiao Xingchen came down from the Celestial Mountain. They've been traveling together ever since."

He gave a thoughtful hum.

"I don't remember when they got married. It happened before I met them. They married pretty young, I think."

Lan Wangji gave that some thought. He tried to create a mental timeline and failed miserably. If he knew his husband's age—or that of the others—it might be easier. But Lan Wangji didn't, so he was forced to accept defeat. He supposed, though, that the pair had been together for ten years. Ten years of living together, traveling together, sharing a life. Ten years, and they didn't seem to have grown tired of each other yet.

"They are very fortunate," Lan Wangji said softly.

"Ah. They are!" The Patriarch's voice grew serious. "I've always thought so, anyway."

Lan Wangji could hope for nothing better. If his husband looked at him the way the pair looked at each other—after a full decade of marriage—then Lan Wangji would have nothing left to wish for.

His husband drummed his fingers against the table.

"But I can see they don't want to spend time with me today. What faithless friends!"

He made a face at the empty doorway.

"Husband, you'll have to make it up to me. Let's go to the library for a while, and you can keep me entertained."

Lan Wangji blinked. The request was astonishing, but he was in no mood to refuse.

"I will do my utmost," he said.

His husband laughed again.

Sometimes when he laughed, his eyes crinkled in amusement. They did so now. Lan Wangji felt a quiet burst of pleasure. During the last few weeks of his marriage, he had discovered that he enjoyed that expression. He particularly enjoyed being the one to provoke it.

"You say things so seriously sometimes!" His husband chuckled to himself. "Even when I'm talking nonsense, you reply in such a serious tone. It's very funny."

Lan Wangji hadn't intended to be humorous. But if he could please his husband, it was all right. His husband had asked to be entertained, after all. Lan Wangji was fortunate that his husband wasn't difficult to amuse.

The Patriarch waved him over, and they rose from the table together. They passed through the doorway, down the hall, and into the dark quiet of the library.

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji never set foot in the library after sundown. He had spent countless hours there since the first day of his marriage. But he always entered the library in the morning, always during daylight. As he followed his husband into the darkened room, Lan Wangji thought it looked strange. The Patriarch activated a few lighting talismans and the candles sparked to life. They cast deep shadows onto the shelves, the walls, the windows.

He lit an oil lamp on the desk. At his husband's urging, Lan Wangji sank obediently into a chair. His husband dropped into the chair at his side.

"Now!" The Patriarch turned to him with a grave expression. "Under normal circumstances, here's what would happen: I'd sit with Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan. We'd bring out the wine."

He reached below the desk. There was a hidden cabinet, it seemed. Lan Wangji hadn't realized it was there. But his husband touched a panel and the cabinet swung open, revealing a winejug and a stack of cups. Lan Wangji gave the items a horrified stare. He'd sat behind this desk for weeks, never suspecting that it harbored such a guilty secret.

"Such a face!" His husband chuckled as he filled one of the cups. "You didn't know this was in here, did you? Well, I keep it sealed up so the kids can't get into it. That's very virtuous, isn't it?"

It wasn't especially virtuous, Lan Wangji thought. But perhaps it showed a certain measure of responsibility. So he gave a grudging nod. His eyes locked onto the pale yellow wine, and his husband sighed as he lifted the cup.

"Ah, but there's a rule about not drinking in libraries, isn't there?" He gave his cup a mournful stare. "I can see by your face that there is!"

There was no such rule. It would never have occurred to anyone in Cloud Recesses to drink within the library. The library was a sacred place, after all. Centuries of dedicated cultivation had produced thousands of treasured books. The library held the wisdom of ancient cultivators, now gone from this world. No one would dare to sully their memory by drinking there.

"There is no drinking anywhere in Cloud Recesses," Lan Wangji said carefully. "But especially not in the library."

His husband gave a good-natured roll of his eyes and tipped some wine into his mouth.

"As I was saying!"

He dropped the empty cup onto the desk, rocking forward.

"If Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen were here, we'd sit down and bring out the wine. I'd have a little too much to drink. We'd play some games, maybe gamble a tiny bit. Not for money! For tokens, like these!"

Seeing Lan Wangji's growing expression of horror, he withdrew a bag of wooden tokens. They had been hidden away in yet another concealed drawer. Lan Wangji wondered just how many places in his husband's home held such contraband.

The Patriarch pushed one of the tokens into his hands. Lan Wangji sighed and inspected it dutifully. It was only a simple wooden token, marked with a denomination. It wasn't money, at least. But Lan Wangji knew his uncle's opinion on play-gambling.

"Song Lan and I would take every last one of Xiao Xingchen's tokens," the Patriarch added cheerfully, "because he's the worst gambler in the entire world! Then they'd tell me what sort of things they saw on their travels and what rumors they heard."

That part, at least, matched Lan Wangji's expectations. When the three spent time together, he supposed that they discussed night-hunts or current events. He hadn't expected such virtuous cultivators to indulge in drunkenness and gambling. But after watching his husband's indulgences for weeks, the revelation was too shocking.

The Patriarch placed the bag of tokens and the wine in front of Lan Wangji. Then he beamed expectantly.

"Which of those activities would you like to try?"

Lan Wangji eyed the items. After some thought, he pushed the tokens away.

"Not gambling."

His husband sighed.

"Because it's forbidden?" He spirited the tokens back to their hiding place.

Lan Wangji shook his head. It was forbidden. But he had already broken that rule once, during Mid-Autumn Festival. Another lapse wasn't so unforgivable. Besides, he was no longer in Cloud Recesses.

He still clung to the rules. They had formed the cornerstone of his life, and it was hard to let them go. He had a new life, though, and different priorities. If his husband truly wished for him to gamble—if doing so would make his husband happy—then Lan Wangji was prepared to do so. Even so, he'd prefer to avoid such a course of action. He had a very compelling reason, too. 

"No. Because I believe I could challenge Xiao Xingchen for his title." Lan Wangji shook his head grimly. "My performance would not be entertaining for you."

He felt quite sure that he'd lose all his tokens within the first three rounds. He'd never gambled, after all. He didn't suppose he'd be much good at it, not without practice. His husband laughed aloud.

"Oh, no. I think you're selling yourself short!" He scratched his chin. "But what an interesting question! Who is worse at gambling: my shishu or my husband? We must answer that question someday!"

Lan Wangji resigned himself to his future humiliation. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad. Xiao Xingchen would be humiliated right alongside him, anyway.

"All right, no gambling tonight." The Patriarch propped his chin on his hand, frowning. "Hm. You haven't traveled much recently. But I'm sure you have some stories you could tell, about night-hunts and such."

Lan Wangji shook his head again.

"Not entertaining ones."

He wasn't a good storyteller, either. His elders had always praised him for his short, succinct night-hunting reports. Lan Wangji did not—like some overzealous disciples—liven up his reports with narrative flourishes or dramatic phrasing. He couldn't have done such a thing if he'd tried. He only knew how to state the facts: We tracked the demon down outside of the town and found it hiding in the abandoned mill. Then we subdued and exorcised it.

The Patriarch gave a considering hum.

"Ah. Well, how about gossip? Would my husband like to tell me all rumors he's heard?"

Lan Wangji gave him a pointed look. His husband heaved a theatrical sigh.

"Yes, yes, I can guess!" He threw up his hands. "'No eavesdropping is allowed, according to the Lan disciplines!' But sometimes accidents happen, like when we were in Yiling."

He learned forward.

"You must have heard something. Do you want to tell me all the interesting gossip you've heard over the last few years?"

"There was a war," Lan Wangji said dryly. "I was on the battlefields. There's no gossip there."

He had hardly spent the last few years at glittering parties or lively hunts, surrounded by throngs of interesting people. During the war, there was time for nothing beyond his daily duties. He had fought; he had killed. He had tried to keep himself and his fellow disciples alive. If he wasn't fulfilling those duties, he was sleeping or eating. Even if he had been inclined to gossip, there had been no opportunity.

But the Patriarch only shrugged.

"Hm. Is that so? I think you might have been looking in the wrong places. I'd think battlefields would be full of gossip!"

If that was true, Lan Wangji hadn't heard any. He gave his husband a small, economical shrug.

"But no gambling, no gossip, no travel-stories…" His husband shook his head sadly. "Well, that only leaves one option!"

With that, he poured a fresh cup of wine. He placed the wine in front of Lan Wangji, who gazed at it doubtfully.

"Husband!" The Patriarch's voice held a trace of coaxing. "Shouldn't you try a little of the wine? It's a festival day, you know. And they say chrysanthemum wine is very good for you."

He lowered his voice as if confessing a secret.

"I've even heard this wine can slow down the aging process and add years to your lifespan! If you want to cultivate to immortality, drinking this wine is absolutely necessary!"

His husband's nearness was quite distracting. He smelled of smoke, steamed pork, and chrysanthemum flowers. His shoulder, warm and firm, pressed against Lan Wangji's. A teasing grin had spread across his face.

Lan Wangji fought the urge to swallow. It took a long moment before he managed to come up with a response.

"Is that how you accomplished it?"

He couldn't quite keep the heavy skepticism out of his voice. When the Patriarch heard it, he laughed uproariously.

"Ah, that's perfect! That's what I'm going to tell people!" He thumped the desk. "Whenever anyone asks the secret of immortality, I'll tell them I drank barrels of this stuff. I took baths in it. That's what I'll say! Husband, you have to back me up on this!"

He nudged Lan Wangji's shoulder again. Their ankles brushed, too. Everywhere their bodies touched, Lan Wangji felt as if he'd been branded with a hot iron.

"Lying is forbidden."

He was gratified—and rather surprised—to discover that his voice was perfectly even. But his husband made a disparaging noise.

"How do you know it's a lie!" He pouted, tapping a finger against the rim of the cup. "I could be telling you the secret of immortality right at this moment! You've never tried chrysanthemum wine, so you're in no position to dispute it."

It was a perfectly logical statement. Lan Wangji had no counterargument prepared. His husband laid a hand on his arm, and that disordered his thoughts even further.

"You're not in Cloud Recesses." His husband's voice was patient. "Drinking isn't forbidden here. Really, I'd think even your stodgy old elders would bend the rules on the Double Ninth Festival.

"They would not," Lan Wangji replied promptly.

He felt quite sure of that. But he lifted his eyes to the Patriarch's face as he said so. That was a mistake. His husband was smiling, open and amused. He was very beautiful when he smiled. Lan Wangji had been aware of that for some time. But when his husband was smiling at the children, the effect was blunted. A crowd of people helped dull the effect, too.

There were no children or Wens in the library. The room held only Lan Wangji and his husband, and his husband was smiling at him. Lan Wangji's heart stuttered inside his chest. With some effort, he tore his attention away from his husband's bright eyes. He fixed his gaze on the cup in front of him. He couldn't quite remember what they'd been arguing about. The wine, of course. But every argument Lan Wangji could have marshaled in his defense crumbled to dust.

His husband's face was amused, even fond. Lan Wangji wanted to keep that expression on his face for as long as possible. The rest of eternity, ideally. His mouth opened without his permission.

"One cup," he said.

He didn't dare to look at his husband's face. But the Patriarch whooped with delight and pushed the wine into Lan Wangji's hands.

"One cup!" he agreed joyfully. "It's very good wine, so I think you'll be begging for more. But don't worry. I'll cut you off before you get drunk."

Lan Wangji knew that would be best. He had no idea how much wine it took to become drunk. His husband swallowed cup after cup, with no perceptible effect. He was an immortal, however. A seasoned drinker, too.

His brother had a trick for burning off the effects of wine. He used it whenever he was obliged to drink with the other sect leaders. But he had never taught the technique to Lan Wangji. There had never been a reason: Lan Wangji followed their sect's disciplines to the letter. Lan Wangji realized suddenly that it might not take much wine to make him quite drunk. For a moment, he hesitated.

But he caught another glimpse of his husband. His face was radiant. Lan Wangji emptied the cup without a second thought, and his husband laughed.

"You drank that so quickly!" he cried. "With this sort of wine, I think you're supposed to savor it. Oh, well. I'm in no position to judge."

He took the cup from Lan Wangji's hand. That was for the best. Lan Wangji's fingers felt very strange. He wasn't sure he could have held the cup himself. He blinked down at his hands. They looked just as they always did. Yet a peculiar warmth spread through his palms. His fingers were plagued with pins-and-needles, as if they had fallen asleep.

Lan Wangji flexed his hands. His vision was strangely wobbly at the edges.

"Well, what did you think? Husband?"

His husband sounded very nice. Lan Wangji liked to listen to him. His voice was so expressive and flexible. Lan Wangji wasn't entirely sure which tone he preferred. He liked the way his husband sounded when he was feeling playful. His husband had a way of teasing that was quite enjoyable. But the way his husband spoke during their first meeting had also been...appealing. His husband had been smug, contemptuous, insolent. There was power in his voice, a casual assurance that he could destroy everyone present with a snap of his fingers.

The memory spread heat through Lan Wangji's body. The warmth in his fingertips migrated to his throat, his cheeks, his ears.

"Aiyah." His husband made a peculiar noise, somewhere between a laugh and a groan. "Don't tell me you're drunk already! After one cup?"

There was a lilt to his speech. He sounded as if he were asking a question. But his voice flowed over Lan Wangji like water across a stone. It was difficult to parse the meaning of each individual word. Lan Wangji decided not to try. It was pleasant just to sit there and listen to his husband.

"Here, here, look at me!"

His husband took hold of his chin and turned Lan Wangji's face in his direction. Whatever he saw there made him laugh.

"Oh, no. I've discovered the truth." His thumb tapped lightly against Lan Wangji's jaw. "This is why your clan isn't allowed to drink, right? You're all a bunch of terrible lightweights who get drunk off of one cup?"

Lan Wangji decided that he liked his husband's hand on his face. But it wasn't enough. Many other parts of their body weren't touching. That did not seem right. He was suddenly very drowsy, too. His eyes wanted to close, yet he had a dim suspicion that it wouldn't be right to sleep here. The desk was too hard, not right for sleeping. The low chair was also uncomfortably rigid.

His husband's body, though, was far more pliant. So Lan Wangji slid out of the chair onto the bamboo mats that lined the floor. His husband was still seated, but that was fine. Lan Wangji could simply kneel on the floor and rest against his husband's side. His thigh made a very comfortable pillow. Lan Wangji made use of it and closed his eyes.

His husband made a small strangled sound.

Then, after a moment, Lan Wangji felt a hand stroking his hair.

"Oh, dear." His husband tutted. "We've already reached the sleep stage? How boring. I was hoping you'd be the sort of drunk who'd dance on top of the tables."

It took a long time for the words to penetrate. When they did, Lan Wangji shook his head.

"No. Too much effort."

Climbing atop the table seemed an insurmountable feat. Why should he do such a thing, when he had a comfortable spot right here? His husband had very peculiar ideas sometimes. But he also had an exceptionally pleasant lap. Lan Wangji pressed against his thigh, tucking his face against his husband's hip.

His husband made another choked sound.

"Ah. Husband." He cleared his throat. "Might I ask what you're doing?

"Warm," Lan Wangji answered.

His husband was always so warm. Lan Wangji wanted to press his their bodies together, trace his husband's meridians with his fingertips. He wanted to search for that source of warmth. He wanted to touch his husband's bare flesh, to feel the qi radiating from his skin.

"Ah. I see!" His husband let out a long sigh. "You're cold, that's it? Well, the weather is changing. Here, I'll give you this."

There was a shuffle, and something settled around Lan Wangji's shoulders. It was warm and it smelled like his husband. Lan Wangji felt the edge of the fabric blindly—opening his eyes also seemed an insurmountable task—and realized it was his husband's cloak.

"There." His husband patted his cheek. "Is that warmer?"

Lan Wangji frowned.

"Warmer," he allowed. "Not warm enough."

They were simply not close enough. That was the problem. Fortunately, it was easily remedied. Lan Wangji shifted up, reaching out for his husband's shoulders. Then he climbed onto his husband's lap, straddling his husband's thighs. He leaned against his husband's chest.

That, he decided, was much better. He kept the cloak around his shoulders. But he swayed forward, resting his head on his husband's shoulder. It was much warmer like this and much more comfortable. Lan Wangji couldn't understand why they hadn't arranged themselves like this before. Clearly, this was a superior seating arrangement. It was no matter that they hadn't, though. The solution had been discovered now. They could simply carry on and remain in this position for the rest of their lives.

His husband seemed to be choking. That was distressing, mainly because it jostled Lan Wangji. He waited patiently for his husband to settle down. After a moment, his husband let out a shaky laugh.

"My goodness."

His hand brushed over Lan Wangji's back.

"It's a good thing we're already married!" His husband cleared his throat. "Otherwise, this would be very scandalous. If we weren't married and your family caught us like this, I suppose I'd have to marry you straightaway. To repair your honor!"

"Mm," Lan Wangji agreed.

His husband's body shook again, this time with laughter.

"'Mm?' That's what would happen? Your family would scold you harshly for climbing onto a man's lap if he wasn't your husband?"

Lan Wangji gave that question serious consideration. Lap-sitting was indeed quite unacceptable for unmarried couples. Certainly, it was worthy of punishment. His brother had never punished him, not even when Lan Wangji knew he deserved it. But with Uncle, it would be quite different.

"Brother would not scold," he decided gravely. "Uncle would."

"I see." His husband's voice was full of suppressed amusement. "Well, never mind. We're respectably married, so it's all right! No one can scold you!"

Lan Wangji gave a small nod. He settled against his husband with a feeling of deep satisfaction. They were married, so there could be no possible objection. Even Uncle could not scold him for sitting on his husband's lap. According to Lan An, marriage was a sacred state of being. Self-restraint was necessary with everyone except a spouse. So Lan Wangji slid his arms around his husband's shoulders. He shifted his weight, settling comfortably onto his husband's thighs. Then he tucked his face against his husband's shoulder and breathed deeply. His husband's scent seemed to be everywhere.

His husband patted his back.

"Ah, I really wasn't expecting this."

He almost seemed to be speaking to himself, so Lan Wangji didn't bother listening too closely.

"Who would have thought you'd be such a cute, cuddly drunk? I'm very glad to know you haven't done this sort of thing with others."

His husband's hands paused.

"Hm. Or have you?" He tugged at a strand of Lan Wangji's hair. "I know you haven't gotten drunk before. But maybe you've given someone a cuddle like this?"

The hairpulling caught Lan Wangji's attention. He frowned, drawing back from his husband's shoulder. He didn't want to pull away. But he needed to frown at his husband, not at his husband's robes.

"No."

He spoke firmly, with all the decisiveness he could muster. But his husband seemed to be fighting a smile.

"You look so scandalized!" He poked Lan Wangji's cheek with a finger. "Please understand, I'm not insulting your virtue. If you sat on a handsome gentleman's lap before you came here, I wouldn't think less of you!"

"No." Lan Wangji frowned, affronted. "Was unmarried. Not allowed."

Sitting on a handsome gentleman's lap was acceptable now. But only because the handsome gentleman in question was his husband. If he were still unmarried, such a thing would be unacceptable. Lan Wangji realized, though, that it would be difficult to resist such temptation. If he were close to this man yet still unmarried, it would be hard to restrain himself.

His husband sighed.

"Ah, such strict rules!" He gave Lan Wangji's hair another affectionate tug.

Lan Wangji discovered that he enjoyed that. In fact, he enjoyed it a great deal. His husband could do more of that, if he liked. If his husband wanted to wind his fingers through Lan Wangji's hair—tugging his head back to expose his throat—that would be quite all right. Lan Wangji sat very still, hoping his husband would do just that.

His husband smiled down at him. But his smile had an odd edge.

"It seems wrong to take advantage," he spoke haltingly. "But may I ask one more question?"

Lan Wangji gave a swift nod. His husband could ask as many questions as he liked. Especially if he kept doing this—petting Lan Wangji's shoulders and hair—while he asked them.

"Well, I won't insult you by asking if you've done that." His husband laughed softly. "If you're not allowed to sit on any laps before marriage, I'm sure the answer is no. But have you kissed anyone before?"

Lan Wangji stared into his husband's eyes. It seemed to be a sincere question. His husband wasn't laughing at him, at any rate. But it was a profoundly strange question.

"Unmarried," he repeated.

He spoke slowly, and perhaps rather pointedly.

"Unmarried. Forbidden."

His husband's mouth dropped open.

"Even that is forbidden? Even kissing?" He sighed and let his head fall back. "Ah, I can't believe that most of your clan follows that rule. If you tell me they do, I won't believe you!"

It was difficult for Lan Wangji to focus. His husband's mouth was very red, his neck long and pale. Lan Wangji wished to touch both places, preferably with his own mouth. That ought to be allowed, surely? He stared fixedly at his husband's mouth, struggling to digest his remarks. His head felt as though it were full of a thick, sticky syrup. But in time, Lan Wangji understood. He even managed a reply.

"Excusable," he admitted. "If you marry them later."

It was technically not right to kiss before marriage. Lan Wangji knew that much. Some disciples still indulged in such things, though. If they were already betrothed—or if they entered into a betrothal shortly afterward—the elders generally turned a blind eye. And after the wedding, couples could do as much kissing as they pleased.

Lan Wangji considered the rules of Cloud Recesses. He couldn't remember all of them just now, but he was quite sure there were no limits on kissing after marriage. He intended to tell his husband this—a gentle hint, perhaps—but his husband interrupted.

"Oh, I see now!" His chest shook with another laugh. "So if a couple is courting, and they sneak into the gardens at night to do a little kissing…well, it's all right. As long as they're married by next spring! That's how it is?"

Lan Wangji nodded. That was how it was. So far as he knew, anyway. He hadn't done any courting, or any surreptitious garden kissing. But other disciples had. Lan Wangji had heard of their romances and their eventual weddings.

"Hm." His husband tilted his head thoughtfully. "Well, that makes sense. But you weren't courting anybody before our betrothal?"

Lan Wangji frowned harder, his brows drawing together. He didn't like this topic of conversation at all. It was unpleasant to think of courting, romancing, or kissing anyone besides his husband. He was married now. There was no one else he could possibly court or kiss. It was most disturbing that his husband didn't seem to understand that.

He gave his husband a displeased stare. Perhaps he looked rather petulant, too, because his husband's mouth twitched into a smile.

"So, that's a no!" His husband sighed. "Understood."

He patted Lan Wangji's hair again. That was enough to secure his complete forgiveness. Lan Wangji forgot about the previous conversation, forgot about lap-sitting, garden-kissing, and familial-scolding. He focused instead on the sensation of his husband's fingers running smoothly through his hair. He laid his head on his husband's shoulder again and closed his eyes. He felt his husband's chest shift in another sigh.

"Well, I feel like I should probably take you to your room to sleep it off." His husband twined a lock of hair around his fingers. "But who knows when I'll get another opportunity like this?"

His voice sent small, pleasant vibrations through Lan Wangji's body. Then his husband shifted slightly.

"Husband," he said abruptly. "Tell me what you want most in this world!"

Lan Wangji furrowed his brown and gave that due consideration.

"Rabbits," he decided.

His husband gave a startled, amused scoff.

"Really? Ah, that's doesn't tell me anything new!" He nudged Lan Wangji's arm. "I already gave you some rabbits."

Lan Wangji hadn't forgotten. His new rabbits were small and soft. They curled trustingly inside his palm. He liked them very much. His husband seemed dissatisfied with this answer, but Lan Wangji failed to see the problem.

"What else do you like?" his husband pressed.

Lan Wangji pursed his lips, thinking harder. It was a perplexing question. He wasn't often asked what he liked.

"The children," he offered.

The children were frequently loud and sometimes very sticky. But Lan Wangji liked their small hands and their bright faces. He liked the way they became excited when they mastered a new skill. He particularly liked the way the children wanted to be held whenever they became tired or frightened. And he liked the way they climbed onto his lap and asked him to peel their lotus seeds.

His husband made a small sound. He didn't respond right away. Then he cleared his throat.

"Well, we already have lots of children, too!" He laid a hand on Lan Wangji's hip. "And Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan try to foist a new one on me every year! Are you saying you're in a rush to get even more?"

His voice was gently amused. But Lan Wangji gave that some consideration, too. After a moment of profound—and somewhat laborious—thought, he decided that he wasn't in a hurry. His husband was correct: they had several children already. Besides, he seemed confident that more orphans would appear eventually. Lan Wangji could wait for their arrival.

"Can wait," he promised.

His husband laughed softly.

"All right. Please wait patiently." His hand shifted, gently stroking Lan Wangji's arm. "I'm sure we'll have some more brats running around someday."

Lan Wangji let himself drift peacefully. His husband's hands on his body felt very nice. Lan Wangji suspected that it would feel even nicer if he wasn't wearing any clothes. But taking off his clothing seemed like too much trouble at present. He decided he could wait patiently for that, too. This was enough for now: his husband petting his hair, stroking his shoulders.

"Rabbits and children," his husband murmured pensively. "Rabbits and children. Well, what else? What else were you hoping for, now that you've married the infamous Yiling Patriarch?"

Lan Wangji's married life was quite pleasant already. The rabbits and children were essential elements, of course. Fortunately, there were plenty of both. His husband's lap was very comfortable, too. Lan Wangji felt that the most important factors were already present. But he considered his husband's question carefully. His husband deserved a thoughtful response.

After a moment, Lan Wangji realized that one element was missing. He lifted his head from his husband's shoulder.

"Chickens," he said.

His husband blinked.

"Chickens?" he echoed. "Ah, we have some! Maybe you didn't see them yet. They're on the northern edge of the settlement, behind the kitchens."

Lan Wangji had seen those chickens. But they weren't the right sort of chickens. They were his husband's chickens. According to tradition, Lan Wangji should have provided some chickens too. Lan Wangji had married into his husband's home, so he should have brought chickens with him. Chickens symbolized prosperity, unity, a happy marriage.

Somehow, this ritual had been overlooked. Lan Wangji's heart sank. This was a gross oversight. His husband's chickens could not make up for it.

"No."

Lan Wangji lifted his head gravely. He felt his features settle into a deep frown. How could his family have neglected to provide him with chickens?

"No?"

His husband's eyes were bewildered. He smoothed a strand of hair out of Lan Wangji's face.

"What do you mean, no? Did they all escape and no one told me?"

"Not escape."

Lan Wangji spoke slowly. His tongue seemed too large for his mouth, and it was difficult to construct a full sentence.

"But not the right chickens. Need better chickens."

For a marriage rite, he needed good chickens. The rite had been grossly neglected for the first six weeks of his marriage. Thus, the quality of the chickens could not be compromised. Good, he decided, wasn't enough. He needed the best chickens. Lan Wangji nodded to himself and climbed off his husband's lap.

"Well, then we can - ah! Where are you going?"

His husband caught his wrist. Lan Wangji intended to head for the door, but he stopped obediently when his husband squeezed his hand.

"To get chickens," he explained patiently.

His husband stared at him. He seemed caught between silent incredulity and laughter.

Lan Wangji waited for his husband to give his approval for this important mission. The ground seemed to ripple beneath his feet. He swayed, and his husband rose quickly from the chair.

"Husband, I don't think we need to do that right now." He took hold of Lan Wangji's shoulders. "How about this? We'll wait until tomorrow, then go into town and buy more chickens."

Lan Wangji scowled. He didn't like that idea. He had been married for weeks, yet he had failed to provide the traditional chickens. His oversight should not be allowed to persist for another day. But the ground lurched beneath him and he couldn't manage to free himself from his husband's grasp.

"Husband! Please be reasonable. It's late, and it's dark outside." His husband's voice was coaxing. "Probably all the farms and shops are closed anyway. Nobody's going to sell us a chicken at this time of night."

"Can take some," Lan Wangji suggested.

His husband was quite correct: the farmers and shopkeepers would be asleep. The cages, however, would be left outside. They could retrieve the chickens without disturbing anyone. It was an excellent suggestion. Lan Wangji felt quite pleased with himself for thinking of it. But his husband clapped a hand to his forehead with a groan.

"'We can take some?' Is my illustrious, respectable husband suggesting chicken theft? Ah, what have I done? The wine has destroyed your virtue!"

The words failed to organize themselves into a sensible pattern. Lan Wangji couldn't quite understand what his husband was saying. So he waited, staring into his husband's face. His husband sighed and lowered his hand. He was smiling again, rather ruefully, and he patted Lan Wangji's shoulders.

"Husband. I promise we will acquire some chickens in a perfectly respectable fashion. They will be very good chickens, I promise."

He squeezed Lan Wangji's shoulders consolingly.

"The best chickens! But we'll go tomorrow. When it's light out, and we can pay for our new chickens. All right?"

It was not a satisfactory arrangement. Yet if his husband wished to handle matters this way, then Lan Wangji must comply. He wanted to please his husband, after all. He wanted to make his husband happy. If his husband felt the chickens must wait, then Lan Wangji must not quarrel over it.

"Mm."

His husband tugged on the loose edges of Lan Wangji's robes.

"Ah, look at you." He studied Lan Wangji, his eyes amused. "You're such a mess. Your ribbon is even crooked."

Lan Wangji reached up to straighten it. Then he paused.

"Fix it," he told his husband. "Please."

The forehead ribbon was not to be touched idly. But it could be—it should be—touched by his husband. Yet his husband had not touched it. This was another oversight, one that must be corrected quickly.

"All right, all right." His husband chuckled. "I can't have my husband looking like a ragamuffin, I suppose."

His long, slim fingers reached up and he nudged the ribbon back into place.

Lan Wangji held very still. His husband straightened the ribbon, tugging the loose ends to smooth them out. Lan Wangji was very pleased by such thoroughness. He thought it might be nice to remove the ribbon entirely and place it into his husband's hands. Once the ribbon was fixed, though, his husband stepped back. He surveyed the results with a sigh.

"I'd better take you back to your rooms," he murmured. "Come on! Let's hope we don't run into anybody."

He guided Lan Wangji through the library door. Once they stood in the hallway, Lan Wangji stared blankly at his surroundings. The library was located at an intersection. There were four paths laid before him. They all looked the same, so Lan Wangji chose one at random. His husband groaned and caught his shoulders, steering him in a different direction.

"Did you forget which way we're going?" He took Lan Wangji's arm, drawing him toward the left. "We've been married for a month and a half. I'd think you'd remember the way to your own rooms by now!"

"Doors look the same," Lan Wangji muttered sullenly.

He couldn't be expected to remember everything, after all. Not when each hall was nearly identical. His husband was being quite unfair. But his husband laughed and squeezed his hand. Lan Wangji instantly forgave him.

"They do!" His husband heaved a sigh. "Unacceptable. I'll paint them all different colors, how about that?"

That, Lan Wangji decided, was an excellent solution. His husband was very clever. Very handsome and clever and kind. Lan Wangji was extremely fortunate to have such an exceptional husband. He followed his husband contentedly and they threaded their way down strange halls, past lookalike doors. Eventually, his husband opened one and pushed inside.

Lan Wangji was pleased—and faintly surprised—to find that they were within his chambers. His husband steered him past the sitting room, toward the bedchamber. Lan Wangji sat on the bed obediently.

"Ah, they brought you some water!" His husband seized the pitcher and cup waiting on the washstand. "Very good. Here, try to drink some."

Lan Wangji tried. He promptly discovered that he had forgotten how to drink water. It was quite distressing. But his husband laughed and he guided the cup, tilting it so Lan Wangji could drink. That was very nice of him, Lan Wangji thought. It was nice to be married to a husband who could help with such things.

Once the cup was empty, his husband reached out. He used his thumb to wipe a stray drop from Lan Wangji's jaw. That part was nice too. His husband gave him a crooked smile.

"I think you're going to have a headache tomorrow," he groaned. "Please don't blame your poor husband. It's really not my fault that you got drunk off one tiny cup of wine!"

"Will not blame husband," Lan Wangji said dutifully.

His husband set the cup on the bedside table. Then he sat beside Lan Wangji on the bed.

"So formal! I feel like you should call me something else."

He studied Lan Wangji as if deep in thought. Lan Wangji could only stare back blankly. His husband was his husband, after all. What else should he call his husband, except what he was? But his husband seemed to expect something more.

"Any suggestions?" His husband's mouth twitched. "Somehow, you don't seem like the type for pet names. But I wouldn't have guessed you'd be a cuddly drunk either. So what do I know?"

His husband must know a great deal. He was an immortal, after all, and skilled cultivator. He must know many things. That line of thought proved distracting. His husband tapped his wrist, reminding Lan Wangji of the topic at hand.

"No pet names," Lan Wangji decided. "Husband."

His husband huffed a quiet laugh.

"Well, I can't argue there." He patted Lan Wangji's knee. "I am definitely your husband."

Lan Wangji nodded with satisfaction. His husband's hand lingered on his knee. That was…interesting. It made Lan Wangji want something, but he wasn't sure what. His thoughts still seemed muddled. It was difficult to focus on any given topic. His husband wished for another name, though. Lan Wangji had none to give. He knew his husband's title, and nothing more.

"Don't know your name," he pointed out.

It was only meant as a statement of fact, but his husband flinched.

"No. You don't."

His husband's face clouded, and Lan Wangji didn't like that. After a moment, his expression cleared a little.

"Ah, but you know my surname now. Don't you?"

Lan Wangji blinked, and his husband prodded his arm.

"It's Wei!"

Lan Wangji remembered then, and he nodded. It had been a very long day. A great deal had happened. There had been children and rabbits, and a tremendous amount of food. Perhaps he could be forgiven for forgetting such an important bit of information. But his husband's surname was Wei. Lan Wangji studied his face and decided it suited him. It was a handsome name, and his husband was a handsome man. He was handsome when he smiled, and when he looked serious, as he did now.

"Maybe I'll tell you my given name someday soon," his husband murmured. "But it's been such a long time since anyone called me that. If you called me by that name, I might not know who you were talking to!"

Lan Wangji couldn't make sense of that statement, and he soon gave up. It was all the more reason Lan Wangji should continue to refer to his husband as his husband.

"Husband." His husband's voice turned slightly mischievous. "Remind me how old you are."

Lan Wangji counted on his fingers.

"Twenty," he said, once he was finished counting. "Twenty-one this winter."

His husband's eyes gleamed.

"Ah, then I'm older than you!" He leaned forward, nudging Lan Wangji's arm. "I know what you should call me!"

Lan Wangji listened attentively.

"I'm your senior, so shouldn't you call me Wei-gege?"

His husband was struggling to keep a straight face. Lan Wangji blinked some more.

"Come on," he urged. "Humor your husband. I just want to hear it once."

Lan Wangji would gladly humor his husband in whatever way he wished. It was proper, after all, to humor your spouse. And he liked the way his husband grinned when Lan Wangji allowed him to tease and joke.

"Wei-gege," he said.

His husband smothered a laugh into his hand. He snickered to himself for a moment before straightening up.

"That was very cute," he decided.

Lan Wangji preened.

"Thank you. I appreciate you indulging your ridiculous husband."

He filled the cup again and guided it to Lan Wangji's mouth.

"Drink some more," he prompted. "One more cup, and then you can sleep."

Lan Wangji felt very tired indeed. The thought of sleep was very agreeable. He drank the water, and his husband took the cup away. Once the cup had been disposed of, his husband fingered the fabric of Lan Wangji's sleeve. He withdrew his hand afterward.

"I'm not going to even try to remove this." His smile became rather fixed. "So I'm afraid you'll have to sleep in it."

Lan Wangji frowned down at his robes. They were a heavy silk brocade with a great deal of embroidery. The sash was snug around his waist, and it did not seem right for sleeping.

"Not comfortable," he protested.

His husband studied the robes, too. Then he sighed.

"No, not really," he murmured. "Ah, okay. We'll just take off the outer layer and your shoes. Just that much, okay?"

Lan Wangji was perfectly willing to remove as much clothing as his husband desired. But he couldn't manage to undo the ties and sash. His husband had to assist him. He set aside the yaopei and slid off Lan Wangji's shoes. Then he helped remove the heavy outer robe. There were two layers left, plus the trousers underneath. But they were made of a thin material and Lan Wangji didn't mind sleeping in those. Without the outer robe, it seemed easier to breathe. He sighed with relief.

His husband draped the robe over the foot of the bed. Then he cleared his throat.

"Here, I'll take these out too." He slid the phoenix hairpins from Lan Wangji's hair. "Otherwise you'll stab yourself in the eye in the middle of the night, and we don't want that. My husband has very nice eyes. I don't want them ruined."

Lan Wangji preened at that, too. His husband also had nice eyes. They were clear, dark, fathomless. Lan Wangji found it very easy to get lost inside them. His husband set the hairpins on the table. He frowned at Lan Wangji's forehead.

"Do you sleep in the ribbon? That doesn't sound comfortable either."

"Pouch," Lan Wangji said.

His husband didn't seem to understand. So Lan Wangji pointed to the table drawer. He waited patiently as his husband withdrew the silk pouch.

"Oh, it goes in here? I see!"

Lan Wangji waited some more. After a moment, his husband understood that he was meant to remove the ribbon himself. It was only fair, Lan Wangji thought. That was part of a spouse's duty: to tie and remove the forehead ribbon every day. His husband was a bit clumsy at this task, but that only meant he needed more practice. Lan Wangji decided that his husband should remove the ribbon every night. He would learn quickly that way.

"Pin too," he added.

His husband tried to put the phoenix hairpins into the pouch. Lan Wangji frowned, tugging his hands away.

"No. Not those."

He turned his head so his husband could see the lotus pin.

His husband made another soft, strange sound. But his hands lifted, plucking the lotus pin from his hair. Lan Wangji stared expectantly until his husband dropped the pin into the pouch.

"Ah," his husband said quietly. "This one goes in the pouch with your ribbon while you sleep?"

Lan Wangji nodded. After a moment, his husband nodded back.

"Okay. There!" He sealed the pouch and replaced it in the drawer. "They're both safe! I'll put these over here, and I'll start this up. Hurry and get under the covers, so you don't get cold."

His husband darted around the room, returning the phoenix hairpins to the vanity and lighting the brazier with a brief touch. Flames sparked inside, followed by a reassuring burst of heat.

Lan Wangji wished to obey his husband—hurry and get under the covers—but he couldn't figure out how to manage it. His body weight pinned the bedding in place. No matter how much he tugged, he couldn't turn down the bed. His husband started to laugh, and warm hands closed over Lan Wangji's

"Even that was too much to ask!" His husband sighed, very near his ear. "I should have known! Here, stand up for a minute."

He helped Lan Wangji struggle to his feet. Then he pulled back the bedding, and Lan Wangji slid beneath the sheets. The underrobes tangled around his legs. It was too much trouble to straighten them out. He was really very tired, and grateful when his husband smoothed the bedding over his chest. He arranged Lan Wangji's arms and patted his hand. But then he tried to leave. Lan Wangji didn't like that at all.

He caught hold of his husband's robes. His husband turned back, and his face soft with surprise. Lan Wangji clung stubbornly to the robes. At last, his husband sank down onto the bed with a startled laugh.

"Oh? What's this? My husband hasn't dismissed me yet? I'm not allowed to leave?"

Lan Wangji shook his head. He had a vague notion that he was meant to do something else with his husband. A marriage bed was supposed to involve other activities. But those seemed like too much trouble. He was tired, and the bed was very soft. The idea of vigorous movement did not sound appealing.

Even so, his husband should remain. They were married, so he should spend the night in Lan Wangji's chambers.

His husband gently pried Lan Wangji's hand away from his robes. He took Lan Wangji's hands in his own. This time, he didn't let go. Holding his husband's hand was much better than clutching loose robes. Lan Wangji relaxed into the sheets and shut his eyes.

"How about this?" His husband's voice was warm and kind. "I'll stay here until you fall asleep. Does that arrangement meet with my husband's approval?"

He was laughing again, but that was all right. His husband had a beautiful laugh. Lan Wangji liked to hear it.

"Stay," he mumbled.

He didn't want his husband to stay only until he fell asleep. Sleep was nearly upon him. That meant his husband would leave very soon.

It wasn't right, he decided. His husband should stay the whole night. He should climb beneath the sheets and lie next to Lan Wangji until daybreak. Lan Wangji wanted to ask him to do just that. But he couldn't make the words come. He tried to form the sentence in his mind, and it unraveled before it could reach his mouth.

His husband said something, very softly. Lan Wangji couldn't understand the words. His husband's hand was warm and strong. Everything was dissolving, and he floated like seafoam.

Between one breath and the next, he fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji woke to dim sunlight and a piercing headache. He opened his eyes, then immediately shut them. Pale dawn filtered through the windows, worsening his headache tenfold. Faint as it was, the sunlight drove into his eyes like a thousand needles. Bile rose in his throat and Lan Wangji struggled to swallow it down. He lay against the pillows, sick and bewildered.

He hadn't been ill for many years. Not since he was a young child. He had formed his golden core at such an early age, sickness was but a distant memory. Somehow, Lan Wangji had forgotten what it was like to feel unwell. But now, his temples throbbed. He pressed his palms against his eyes, hoping to relieve the pressure. It didn't help. So he tried to force himself out of bed, toward the pitcher of water on the nightstand.

As soon as he was upright, nausea rolled over him. For a long, terrible moment, Lan Wangji thought he might vomit. He battled back nausea and took a long drink of water. Then he surveyed his bedchamber, blinking at the thin morning light. Since childhood, he always had risen before dawn. Judging by the angle of the light, he had somehow overslept by a full shi. Lan Wangji rubbed his eyes and stared out the window in confusion. Slowly, he turned his attention to his body.

In spite of the water, the nausea and headache persisted. But a brief examination revealed that he had no fever. He found no sign of injury or serious illness. When he probed his core, he found his qi undiminished. It was slightly unbalanced, perhaps. Lan Wangji prodded at his own meridians, yet he saw no cause for concern. His qi was settling, mending, rebalancing. Something had gone wrong, but his body seemed to be managing.

He gazed down at the washbowl, bewildered. It occurred to him that he wasn't wearing his sleeping robes. He wore—he had evidently slept in—the two inner robes he'd donned the previous day. They hung around his body, crumpled and creased. His outer robe was slung across the bed. It hadn't been hung up properly, and his sleeping robes were still neatly tucked away. Lan Wangji frowned at the pristine sleeping robes lying in his drawer.

How had this had happened? Why had he failed to undress properly before going to bed? It was wholly unlike him. All his life, he'd adhered to a strict nightly ritual. He had never fallen asleep in his daytime clothing. Not even during the war, when he was mercilessly tired every night.

There was a gaping absence in his recollections of the previous night. Lan Wangji prodded uneasily at the vacant space in his memory. He tried to trace his way through the previous day, working in chronological order. First, he had prepared offerings and helped make arrangements for the banquet. He and his husband had visited the ancestral hall, then the gardens. They ate dinner with the rest of the household, and his husband took him to the library. And then…

There had been wine.

With a swift stab of dismay, Lan Wangji remembered the wine. His husband had brought it out of a secret hiding place. He had teased Lan Wangji into trying some. Lan Wangji had a vague memory of lifting the cup, touching it to his lips. Then, nothing.

He stared around his bedchamber, face burning. Nothing looked to be out of order. Lan Wangji had woken his own bed, partially dressed. He couldn't remember how he got there, but at least he had made it back to his chambers. Whatever happened after he drank the wine, he hadn't suffered any injury. No physical injury, anyway. His dignity might have taken a rather serious blow. His reputation might be in even worse shape.

There came a light tap on the door. Lan Wangji startled as Zhao Lifen poked her head timidly into the room. Then he resisted the urge to flinch.

It had taken time to become acquainted with everyone in the Burial Mounds. But Zhao Lifen was one of the most familiar faces in his new home. She had been in charge of his chambers since his wedding day. Every morning and evening, she brought him tea. She smiled at him whenever he thanked her. Lan Wangji had no reason to flinch from her presence. Zhao Lifen had always been polite, gentle, accommodating.

But as she stuck her head through the door, embarrassment swept through his body. His shame deepened when she stepped forward, evidently relieved to find him awake.

"You didn't send for tea this morning." She spoke in a soft whisper, as if addressing an invalid. "I got worried."

Humiliation churned in his stomach. Lan Wangji tried to offer some explanation, but he found himself too mortified to speak.

"The Patriarch said he thought you might be feeling sick," Zhao Lifen added kindly.

Lan Wangji swallowed hard. His husband had told the servants he wasn't feeling well. Then he must have witnessed Lan Wangji's intoxication. Worse, he must have realized that Lan Wangji was drunk enough to be sick the next morning. Yet again, Lan Wangji felt that he might like to vomit. But he bit the inside of his cheek and drew in a deep breath.

"I will be well," he said carefully. "I would like some tea, yes."

Zhao Lifen brought him the tea. She brought a tray of food, too. Then she drew water for a bath and bustled around, tidying the room. She folded his scattered clothing and took them away for cleaning. As she worked, she kept building up the brazier. Lan Wangji realized she was afraid he might catch a chill.

His cheeks burned. Her kindness was utterly humiliating, and he thought he'd rather face open scorn.  After a night of drunkenness and dissipation, he deserved it. But the poor girl plainly had no idea why he was ill. She finished preparing the bath and left the room with a kind, guileless smile. 

Once she was gone, Lan Wangji slipped into the hot water. He tried to steady his uneven heartbeat and calm his frayed nerves. Zhao Lifen, he told himself, clearly didn't know what had happened. He couldn't decide whether that was a good sign, or a very bad one. He must have embarrassed himself before his husband, but he hoped that no one else had witnessed the display. 

The bathwater began to cool. He shifted deeper into the tub and thought of using a warming talisman to reheat it. In the end, he decided against it. He didn't deserve a hot bath. He deserved punishment. But as he thought of that, Lan Wangji felt faintly sick again.

Of course, his husband must be disgusted with his behavior. Lan Wangji must atone for the lapse somehow. He must submit to whatever punishment his husband wished to impose. Lan Wangji knew there was no alternative, but the idea left him uneasy. He knew what sort of punishments were given in Cloud Recesses. Disciples who humiliated themselves with drunkenness were subjected to the discipline planks. Such a punishment was no worse than he deserved. If his husband only imposed that—several strikes with a wooden plank—then Lan Wangji wouldn't dare to complain.

He only hoped they could handle his punishment privately. Punishment was due, but he hoped it wouldn't be delivered publicly. In Cloud Recesses, punishments often took place before the clan elders and fellow disciples. They were meant to serve as an example and a warning to others. Lan Wangji understood the purpose of making such offenses public. Yet when he imagined being punished before his husband's household, he quailed. 

If his husband chose to punish him before others, there would be no way of hushing it up. Despite his sect's ban on gossip, Lan Wangji had some idea of how quickly rumors spread. If the Patriarch's husband received a public punishment, the entire settlement would hear of it within half a shi.

Zhao Lifen's solicitous behavior was reassuring, though. If Lan Wangji had offended his husband, at least he hadn't chosen a cruel or degrading punishment. He hadn't restricted Lan Wangji's access to food, tea, or baths. That was comforting, though hardly a surprise. After a month and a half of marriage, Lan Wangji had difficulty imagining his husband imposing such punishment. His husband never beat the servants; he never even raised his voice. If the children misbehaved or the Wens made an error, the Patriarch treated the matter lightly. He was apt to laugh over a mistake, not rush to impose a punishment.

But then, Lan Wangji had never seen his husband truly provoked. His husband was quite indulgent with the children. He overlooked their faults and misdeeds, and he was patient when they showed poor judgment. They were only children, though. Their mistakes were innocent, harmless errors. Often, they made mistakes because they didn't know any better. Lan Wangji certainly knew better. He wasn't sure how his husband would react to such a gross misjudgment on his part.

When his skin began to pucker, he clambered out of the cold bath. After drying off, Lan Wangji dressed in clean underrobes and sat at the vanity. When he gazed into the mirror, his heartbeat stuttered.

He wasn't wearing his forehead ribbon.

Lan Wangji jumped up and rushed to the bedside table. He plunged his hand inside and found the ribbon in its pouch. As soon as his hands closed around the silk, he almost gasped with relief. The lotus pin was there too. Both objects were unmarked, undamaged. Lan Wangji emptied the pouch into his palm and touched the items gingerly.

Had he put them away before falling asleep? He must have done so. Who else could have done it? His husband wouldn't have known to put them inside the pouch. Not unless Lan Wangji was lucid enough to tell him where the objects belonged. He sank into the chair once more, laying the ribbon out as he took up his comb.

If he had been clearheaded enough to tell his husband where to put the ribbon, then surely he would also have been capable of putting away the ribbon himself. Lan Wangji thought that over, fixing his hair and pinning it in place. It seemed likely that he had put the objects into the pouch with his own two hands. But perhaps his husband had done it. He might have touched the ribbon, taken it off with his own hands.

Lan Wangji's cheeks grew hot. He refused to acknowledge the rising blush. Instead, he kept his eyes on the wardrobe as he pinned his guan into place. He tied on the ribbon with careful, deliberate fingers. As he worked, he ignored his reddened cheeks in the mirror. It was foolish to blush. There was nothing embarrassing about his husband handling the forehead ribbon. The idea shouldn't have been the slightest bit embarrassing. They were lawfully married, so it was entirely acceptable for his husband to handle the ribbon. There could be no possible objection.

But Lan Wangji's face still burned. The heat didn't disappear until he finished dressing in clean robes. He drank his tea, ate his meal, and immersed himself in meditation. Once he had finished, he frowned at the bright sunlight. His late awakening had delayed his schedule. He missed his morning sword practice and part of his studies in the library. There was time to salvage the rest of his routine, though. 

The headache had disappeared with tea and food. After meditating, the nausea was gone too. The embarrassment was harder to shake, but that was no excuse for shirking his duties. So Lan Wangji marched off to the training fields. He ran the disciples through their sword forms and cultivation practice, just as he did every day. To his relief, no one gave him any strange looks. Everyone behaved quite naturally.

Somehow, Lan Wangji felt as though he harbored a guilty secret. It felt as though he were a thief, his pockets full of stolen property. Yet he disciples trained diligently. The Wens smiled at him as they always did. Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen joined the disciples' lessons just before the midday meal. They spoke to Lan Wangji with perfect civility. Wen Qionglin stopped by with a question about the afternoon calligraphy lessons. His behavior, too, seemed entirely normal.

By the midday meal, Lan Wangji had almost begun to think his fears were baseless. Perhaps nothing had happened at all. He had drunk wine, yes. But perhaps he had managed to behave naturally...at least long enough to stagger back to his chambers. Perhaps he had worried over nothing.

But when his husband arrived, he greeted Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen. He slid into his seat. Then he flashed a glance in Lan Wangji's direction. Lan Wangji's stomach plummeted to his feet. That one brief look was enough: his husband knew something.

"Good afternoon, husband."

The Patriarch's voice was very sweet. It held a strange undercurrent, though. Lan Wangji couldn't interpret it. Perhaps it was just the same teasing lilt his husband's voice often held. But was it something more? Was his husband angry? It was difficult to tell.

During their first meeting, Lan Wangji had seen contempt and disgust in his husband's eyes. His voice had been light, mocking, sardonic. He had power to spare, yet he hadn't used it against anyone in the tent. Not even Young Master Yao, who challenged him openly. His husband gave no sign that he was the sort of man who lashed out violently in a fit of rage. But surely he still felt displeasure. Surely he found ways to make his displeasure known.

"Good afternoon," Lan Wangji murmured.

He stared fixedly at his plate of rice and bean sprouts.

"How are you feeling today?"

His husband placed a subtle emphasis on the world' feeling'. The undercurrent in his voice grew stronger. It almost sounded like he was smothering a laugh. Lan Wangji's throat was suddenly very dry.

"I am well, thank you."

His responses sounded strangely wooden, even to his own ears. Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen darted glances his way. But mercifully, they asked no questions.

"Are you?" His husband smiled. "I'm glad to hear it."

Then he turned to Xiao Xingchen and asked about his recent travels. The meal passed without further incident. Lan Wangji's stomach settled, and he managed to eat a respectable portion of his food. The Patriarch gave him several amused glances throughout the meal. He made no reference to whatever happened last night. Whatever had occurred, he seemed to find it funny.

Lan Wangji knew he should feel a sense of relief. If his husband was amused by his conduct…

He shifted in his chair. It wasn't ideal, perhaps. Lan Wangji did not wish to be a source of mockery. A respectful marriage couldn't exist on such a shaky foundation. Still, his husband's amusement was far better than his husband's anger.

Though he prodded his mind desperately, he couldn't shake loose even a scrap of memory. The entire evening was a black void. If Lan Wangji remembered what had happened, he might have known how to manage things. He could decide what he ought to say to his husband, what apologies would be most fitting. But he remembered nothing, and he couldn't help but imagine the worst.

When he tried to imagine it—the worst—his mind shrank back in horror. What, precisely, was the worst thing he could have said or done? Lan Wangji couldn't quite bring himself to confront the possibilities. But he couldn't cower in shame, either. He had to face the consequences of his actions. With that thought in mind, he waited for the right moment. After his husband finished his meal, Lan Wangji asked for a private word.

The Patriarch agreed. He followed Lan Wangji out of the room with a bemused expression. Lan Wangji took a moment to confirm that they were alone, sequestered in a seldom-used corridor. Then he turned to his husband.

"I apologize for my behavior," he said in a rush. "I will accept whatever punishment you see fit."

He hoped this might placate his husband. But his husband only blinked. At once, all trace of amusement slid off his face.

"Punishment?" he echoed. "For what?"

Lan Wangji found he couldn't answer. He didn't know precisely what he'd done that warranted punishment. He was fairly sure, though, that there must be something. Alcohol was forbidden in Cloud Recesses for a reason. While intoxicated, a person was liable to behave with a scandalous lack of propriety. But Lan Wangji couldn't bring himself to speak of that.

His husband stared, his brows drawing together. Then he took a step toward Lan Wangji.

"Didn't I tell you that drinking isn't forbidden here?"

His voice was gentle. He scrutinized Lan Wangji's face as if trying to solve a puzzle. Whatever he was looking for, he didn't seem to find it. He studied Lan Wangji in silence, then heaved a sigh.

"I reminded you of that last night," he added. "I wonder if you remember it."

Lan Wangji sensed that it was a rhetorical question. He shook his head anyway.

"I remember."

He just barely remembered that much. His husband had poured the wine and teased him into trying some. He had reminded Lan Wangji that he wasn't in Cloud Recesses any longer, that consumption of alcohol wasn't forbidden.

"Do you?" his husband asked.

He gave Lan Wangji a meaningful stare. Lan Wangji sensed that he wouldn't be permitted to sidestep the question. He resisted the urge to squirm like a guilty child.

"I remember drinking the wine," he answered softly.

"But nothing after?"

The Patriarch continued to stare, a frown etched on his face. Lan Wangji didn't answer. There was no point, really.

His husband was quiet for a moment. Then he sighed again.

"Husband." He took Lan Wangji's hand and patted it kindly. "If you're thinking you offended me last night, you're very much mistaken."

Lan Wangji's heart gave a violent jolt as he stared at their joined hands. His husband had never touched him in such a way before. It was gentle; it was intimate. He flattened Lan Wangji's palm between his own. The Patriarch's hands were very warm.

After a long moment, Lan Wangji slowed his racing heart long enough to lift his eyes. His husband's mouth twitched with suppressed amusement.

"You were…really very drunk." He coughed lightly, as if trying to conceal a laugh. "But you didn't do anything wrong."

Lan Wangji stared doubtfully. His husband gave his hand a reassuring squeeze.

"I swear it!" he cried. "You were a very agreeable drunk. Not rowdy or belligerent at all!"

"I am…glad to hear it."

Lan Wangji's voice was uneven. He couldn't help that, though. The situation was profoundly embarrassing. He wasn't sure he had ever felt so embarrassed in his life. And his husband insisted on holding his hand for this wretched conversation. Of course, it was very kind of him. But it did absolutely nothing to restore Lan Wangji's fractured composure.

"And anyway, I'm the one who gave you the wine!" His husband's face relaxed into a smile. "So it's really my fault. Why would I punish you?"

"I am still the one who behaved…" Lan Wangji trailed off. Then he cleared his throat. "However I behaved."

His husband gave him an odd look, something halfway between humor and confusion. Lan Wangji didn't have time to puzzle it out. The Patriarch's thumb stroked over the back of his hand, and it sent arrows of fire throughout Lan Wangji's body.

"Well, I'll make you a deal." He smiled again. "I'll suspend punishment as long as you promise me something."

"...Yes?" Lan Wangji blinked.

He could hardly refuse. Whatever promise his husband wished to extract, Lan Wangji must give it. It was the least he could do to make amends. His husband had given him the wine. But Lan Wangji was still responsible for his own conduct. He must accept the consequences of his actions, just as Uncle had always taught. Perhaps his husband would ask him to swear never to drink again? Lan Wangji felt entirely willing to make such a vow.

His husband tilted his head, a thoughtful look in his eye. The smile hadn't left his face.

"You're not allowed to drink with anyone else," he decided. "Not ever! With me, it's fine. But you're not allowed to get like that with any other person. Agreed?"

Lan Wangji stared in bewilderment. Slowly, he nodded.

"Yes. Agreed." He hesitated. "I do not intend to drink again."

He didn't like the way his husband phrased that: You're not allowed to get like that with any other person. Lan Wangji didn't know what he 'got like'. But if such behavior couldn't be repeated before others, it must have been deeply improper.

His husband's lips turned in a slight pout.

"I have to be honest," he sighed. "That's a little disappointing. Well, it's your choice!"

He released Lan Wangji's hand and stepped back. It was Lan Wangji's turn to be disappointed, but he tried to withdraw from the conversation in a dignified manner. His husband was due to speak with some of the Wens, and Lan Wangji had duties of his own. The rest of the afternoon was spent with the children, and they kept him so busy he had no time to think. 

Later, in his chambers, Lan Wangji tried to feel something like gratitude. He had been unforgivably reckless. He shouldn't have drunk alcohol, not even at his husband's urging. He was only fortunate that he hadn't humiliated himself before the rest of the household. It was equally lucky that his husband had offered to shoulder the responsibility, excusing Lan Wangji's behavior altogether.

He tried to draw a useful lesson from this unpleasant experience. His elders would wish for him to learn from his mistakes, so he must try to gain some wisdom. Clearly, drinking alcohol was just as foolish as the Lan disciplines always claimed. Lan Wangji ought to strengthen his commitment to the disciplines. He must correct his lax behavior. And he had grown lax, Lan Wangji saw that now. His husband's home was so different from Cloud Recesses. Rites were neglected, customs omitted, rules bent. Informality was the norm. 

At first, Lan Wangji had tried to accept it. He hadn't wished to offend his husband by stubbornly refusing to acclimate. It seemed wiser to adjust himself to suit his surroundings, rather than attempt the reverse. The adjustment had been easier than Lan Wangji might have expected. He settled into his new home, and he told himself that his elders would understand the compromises he made in the process. Some rules—like the one mandating silence during meals—must be set aside. If he insisted on following every last discipline of Cloud Recesses, he couldn't possibly have a harmonious marriage. It seemed all right to make allowance, to let some of the rules go. 

But he had grown too careless. For the sake of his marriage, he might have to forgo the most rigid customs. Yet here was no excuse for violating the disciplines regarding alcohol.

His husband hadn't wanted to punish him. That was...pleasing. But Lan Wangji knew he must impose a punishment upon himself. Copying lines seemed to have no effect, but there were alternatives. He could perform another hour of meditation each morning, or put himself through rigorous sword forms. He could deny himself physical pleasures, like steaming hot baths.

Grimly, Lan Wangji drew up a mental plan. He decided that he would begin tomorrow. By carefully regulating his thoughts and his behavior, he could restore himself to the correct path. He should begin by ordering his thoughts. Too many foolish, senseless questions had consumed his attention in recent days. They only served as a distraction, so he tried to banish them.

But no matter how hard he tried, Lan Wangji couldn't rid himself of one stubborn question.

You're not allowed to get like that with any other person, his husband said.

Just what had Lan Wangji done last night?

***

The next morning, Lan Wangji recommitted himself to his schedule. He rose before dawn and performed his additional meditations. When the time came for sword practice, he planned to ask Xiao Xingchen or Song Zichen to spar with him, too. Sparring with a talented opponent would improve both his swordplay and his mental focus. But much to A-Qing's disappointment, they had already packed in preparation for their departure.

"There's something we need to attend to," Xiao Xingchen explained. His tone was somewhat evasive. "I'm afraid it can't wait. But we'll try to be back by the first snowfall."

According to the Wens, the first snows would come within a month. Lan Wangji wondered what matters could require the attention of two such powerful cultivators. But he kept his resolutions firmly in mind. He must focus on regulating his own conduct and not waste energy on fruitless questions. It wasn't his business where they went or what they did. So he accepted their departure and saw them to the edge of the Patriarch's territory.

A-Qing was inconsolable, though. The day after the pair left, she refused to participate in her lessons.

"They promised they would be here all winter," she wailed. "Why do they have to leave? They just got here!"

She buried her face in her arms and wouldn't pick up her calligraphy brush. Lan Wangji had a guilty suspicion—perhaps it was only his uncle, whispering in his ear—that she should be punished for her defiance. But he didn't have the heart to reprimand her. It had been many years since his mother's death, but her memory was still fresh. Lan Wangji recalled how disappointed he'd been when the elders took him away from her home after each monthly visit.

He slipped A-Qing a few persimmons, and she ate them furtively while the rest of the children worked. A-Qing wasn't too broken-hearted to eat, then. Lan Wangji was relieved to see it. But her question bothered him: Why do they have to leave? Lan Wangji had no answer for her.

They had undertaken some sort of mission for the Patriarch. Lan Wangji understood that much. No one had told him so, but he could stitch the pieces together. The pair had disappeared to the Patriarch's study and sat in conference all morning. When they emerged, Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen announced they were leaving. They didn't say where they planned to go, or what business required their attention. Lan Wangji knew better than to ask, but he couldn't help worrying.

Aside from his disgraceful display the night of the festival, he thought his marriage was going fairly well. Whatever mistakes he'd made that night hadn't spoiled anything. His husband treated him well and spoke to him kindly. But there was still no trust between them. The Patriarch never took Lan Wangji into his confidence. He shared little information about himself or his personal history. The particulars of his territories—how they were run, who lived in the villages, what sort of control the Patriarch had over the town of Yiling—were equally opaque.

Lan Wangji still didn't know what his husband wanted from their marriage. That bothered him, too. His husband didn't need a political alliance with the Lan sect, and he didn't seem to want one. He clearly hadn't married for the sake of acquiring a bedwarmer. If he wanted an heir, he could choose one from among his disciples. Lan Wangji seemed to fulfill no purpose in his husband's life, and he couldn't make sense of that.

But he tried to be content. When he counted off the days in his mind, he realized he'd been married for a mere seven weeks. It was a remarkably short span of time. Lan Wangji knew he couldn't expect deep intimacy after only two months of marriage. It might come, though. Perhaps things would be different, years from now.

Much to his surprise, Lan Wangji found himself disappointed over Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen's departure. He had looked forward to having sparring partners. Song Zichen had also mentioned that he was fond of xiangqi. He was pleased to discover that Lan Wangji also enjoyed the game, and they had planned to play together. The departure of the two cultivators had dashed those plans to pieces. After they mounted their swords and sped off, Lan Wangji sighed.

His husband laughed.

"What's that for!" He elbowed Lan Wangji lightly. "You've only known them for a few days! Are you really going to miss them so much?"

"Song Zichen promised to play xiangqi with me," Lan Wangji explained, somewhat apologetically. "I was looking forward to having an opponent."

It was an idle, childish complaint. His husband ought to have taken no notice of it. But that evening, the Patriarch herded Lan Wangji to the library and seated himself behind the gameboard. From then on, they played together every night. When they grew tired of xiangqi, they moved on to qi. Then his husband brought out the dice games.

"We won't gamble!" he insisted at Lan Wangji's frown. "We won't make any wagers, how about that? What's the harm in playing dice if you aren't gambling?"

Lan Wangji couldn't think of a valid objection. So they played dice, and every other game his husband could think of. He seemed to enjoy coming up with new games to teach Lan Wangji. They were mostly peasant games, and it wasn't likely that many cultivators knew them. In the Great Sects, at least, children spent their free time perfecting their qi strategies. But when the Patriarch discovered that Lan Wangji knew few games besides qi, he was indignant.

"I'm writing another letter to your brother," he declared. "The children of Cloud Recesses need toy drums and dice games! How can you understand the concerns of the common people if you don't know their games!"

Lan Wangji couldn't quite parse that logic. His husband seemed determined, though. After his next trip into Yiling, he brought back a wide variety of games. This time, Lan Wangji hadn't been invited to accompany him. His husband made the trip alone, in disguise. Lan Wangji sensed that that Patriarch wanted to learn what rumors were circulating. Yet if he had a secret purpose for his visit, he didn't mention it. He returned laden down with toys and games, and tipped them into Lan Wangji's lap.

"You didn't have any of these when you were a child," his husband said solemnly. "So I have to give them to you now. I can't have my husband living a life of deprivation!"

Lan Wangji was amused and touched. But he protested that he was a grown man. He didn't need such things, and his husband shouldn't waste his money on frivolities. The Patriarch merely shrugged.

"If you don't want them, just put it all aside for now." His mouth quirked. "Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan are sure to drop off another kid someday. We can save the toys for them."

Lan Wangji had already discovered that the pair often acquired orphans during their travels. They had brought A-Qing, A-Mei, A-Bao, and four of the five disciples. Several of the children in the outlying villages also owed their safety to the two cultivators. Some of the children were orphans. They had tried to make their own living by begging or stealing, before finding a home at the Burial Mounds. Others were born to unwed mothers who couldn't keep them and abandoned them at a temple. A few had been surrendered by parents who had too many mouths to feed, and no desire for another child.

"It's Xiao Xingchen's fault," the Patriarch complained, with evident amusement. "He's such a soft touch! He sees a sad-looking kid sitting by themselves, and he can't leave them alone."

But Xiao Xingcheng wasn't the only one with a soft heart. Lan Wangji saw that his husband was equally tenderhearted when it came to lonely, forsaken children. No matter how many children arrived, he never turned any away. He spoiled the children, doted upon them, and gave them a home. The child's origins didn't seem to matter. A-Qing had been a thief; A-Mei was the daughter of a prostitute. It made no difference to the Patriarch. He welcomed each child.

Lan Wangji could offer no objection. In fact, he found himself rather pleased with the idea of additional children. During quiet moments, he found himself making idle plans for the future. In time, they might split the children into separate classes. The duty rosters could be changed to accommodate additional teachers. With expanded classrooms, they could offer the children a wider range of lessons.

He thought the matter over as he sorted the toys and games his husband brought home. After some consideration, he set aside several books and drew up new lesson plans. He found himself thinking of courtesy names, too. Lan Wangji didn't know if his husband would let him choose the names when the time came. Such plans were entirely premature, really. But he couldn't help indulging in a few quiet fantasies.

He didn't have many idle moments for dreaming, though. With Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen gone, he was kept busy with the children and disciples. Each morning, he practiced his swordwork and cultivation. Then he went straight to the small schoolhouse or to the disciples' practice fields. When he could find a spare hour, he dedicated himself to his calligraphy and his music. He had promised his husband that he'd prepare several scrolls, and that wasn't a difficult task. Yet it took time and careful focus. He labored over the scrolls for a week before he was satisfied with the results.

Once the scrolls were finished, he turned his attention to his guqin. It had occurred to Lan Wangji one afternoon that he'd never played for his husband. That didn't seem right. Music was important in his clan, and he had always expected that he'd someday play for his spouse. He drew out his guqin that evening for a practice session, and he quickly realized he'd become slightly rusty. He'd used his guqin often during the war, but only as a weapon. It had been a long time since he played for the pleasure of music. So he devoted the better part of a week to polishing up his skills.

When he was ready, he offered to play for his husband in the evenings. The Patriarch had seemed surprised, then pleased. He listened attentively, and sometimes he returned the favor. Lan Wangji already determined that the ever-present flute was a spiritual weapon. But it turned out that his husband used it for music too. He knew several bright, merry tunes, and Lan Wangji listened to them with pleasure.

In private, Lan Wangji began a rough composition: a flute and guqin duet. After Double Ninth Festival, Lan Wangji wrote down the first few bars. The piece took shape slowly, day by day. He worked on it every night and told no one of its existence. He would wait, he decided. Once the piece was finished, he would judge it carefully. If it was good enough to share with his husband, then perhaps he would suggest that they play it together. Lan Wangji felt a warm glow whenever he imagined it.

Autumn began to fade into winter. The weather turned cold and the gardens were empty. Even with the harvest over, he found himself busy from dawn till dusk. Even so, he shuffled his schedule and set aside three shi each week. Granny Wen had agreed to teach him to cook, and Lan Wangji was determined to work diligently at his studies. After the festival, he had thought it might be nice to cook something for his husband. It seemed like the sort of thing married couples ought to do for one another. Lan Wangji itched to do everything that married couples ought to do.

But his skills in the kitchen were meager. Cultivators of his stature simply weren't expected to cook. Children born into powerful sects were taught to be scholars, warriors, leaders. If a child was unlucky enough to be born with a weak core, they might be permitted to focus on household tasks. Children who couldn't wield a sword or master powerful spiritual techniques would only endanger themselves if they trained with the other disciples. So they might be sent to the kitchens or the weaving rooms, to make productive use of their time. Such children, though, were often considered something of an embarrassment to their sect. Many cultivators were quite proud of the fact that they never learned to boil an egg or stitch a seam.

At least Cloud Recesses expected its disciples to master a few basic skills. As a child, Lan Wangji had learned how to make congee and millet porridge. He knew how to fry tofu and pickle vegetables. If he were forced to do so, he could keep himself fed. Yet he wasn't satisfied with his current level of knowledge. Millet porridge and tofu wouldn't suit his purposes. The Patriarch enjoyed rich meats and spicy sauces. He liked elaborate sweets and soups that took a full day to prepare. These dishes were a mystery to Lan Wangji. So he turned to Granny Wen and asked her for help.

Under her guidance, he learned to make dumplings and steamed buns. She taught him how to roast fowl and concoct flavorful sauces. Gradually, Lan Wangji progressed to cakes, soups, and stews. It took time, and he wasn't as naturally skilled in this field as he might have hoped. But Lan Wangji had always been a devoted student. He applied himself to his lessons with force and fervor. If his husband knew of the hours Lan Wangji spent in the kitchens, he gave no indication. Lan Wangji kept the news to himself for the time being. Once he was confident in his skills, he would allow his husband to sample the dishes. He hoped it would be a pleasant surprise.

Fortunately, his husband was too occupied to notice much. As the season progressed, he traveled often to the outlying villages to help the refugees to settle in. And soon, there was another matter to attend to. One morning, Lan Wangji left the training field and discovered the Wens carrying packages up the mountain. Several crates had been stacked in the main hall. His husband stood beside the pile, surveying it ruefully. When Lan Wangji gave a curious blink, his husband merely sighed.

"Tribute," he said.

Lan Wangji understood at once. The sects had made tribute to the Patriarch for several years now. Lan Wangji knew of the custom, and he knew that his own sect participated in it. But he hadn't realized the offerings were so generous. The Wens were laden down with sacks of grain and lacquered boxes. Within a quarter of an hour, the hall was quite full. Wen Qing darted around the hall, inspecting each container.

"They always send things at this time of year." The Patriarch shook his head over the boxes, faintly mystified. "The first day of the tenth lunar month, every year. I have no idea who told them to do this!"

Lan Wangji believed him. After two months of marriage, he'd had time to learn the ways of his new home. His husband didn't seek charity or wealth from others. His people worked their land and sold their crops, just like any other village. The Patriarch often joined them in the fields, and he had special techniques for speeding up agricultural work. He'd found, the Wens confided, a new method for locating a good place to dig a well. He'd also discovered a better way to irrigate the fields. He could use his own curious brand of cultivation to shelter the settlements against harsh weather. With Wen Qing's help, he kept the livestock healthy and encouraged their production.

Much to Lan Wangji's mystification, his husband had even invented an automated spindle and loom. Given the right materials and enough spiritual power, it could produce a dozen bolts of fabric within a single day. The results were sold in Yiling, along with the surplus crops, for a generous profit. After every market-day, there was always plenty of money for new purchases. The merchants of Yiling voluntarily paid a tax to the Patriarch, too. It was a form of compensation; his presence kept the town free of robbers and bandits.

With the storehouses overflowing and the people well-feed, further tribute was quite unnecessary. But the sects had sent it anyway. So Lan Wangji helped sort the boxes and updated their storehouse records. As he worked, he examined each item with interest. He was curious to know what the sect leaders deemed a proper tribute to an immortal.

Qinghe had sent wool and sable. Lanling offered up two bolts of feather-light silks and five bolts of cotton. Yunmeng contributed a large box of inks and dyes. The smaller sects sent a varied assortment. Lan Wangji opened the boxes and found books, tea, gold bracelets, and polished combs. His own sect sent fabrics from Caiyi Town. The silks and cottons were startlingly familiar. Lan Wangji couldn't resist the temptation to touch them. He reached out, rubbing the material between his fingers. His husband took notice.

"You can keep that," he remarked lightly.

But Lan Wangji shook his head.

"Unnecessary."

He had an absurd number of clothes as it was. His chambers were full of robes, jewelry, and the children's handicrafts. He felt sure he had enough material wealth to last a lifetime, even if he cultivated to immortality. Yet his husband seemed determined to add to their possessions. During his last trip to Yiling, he bought two additional bolts of silk. He brought home toys and games for Lan Wangji, along with several new varieties of tea.

Lan Wangji had protested this sort of reckless spending. But his husband always shrugged off his protests. He was equally indifferent to the piled-up offerings that now littered their hall.

"If you don't want it, just put it in the storehouse." He nodded at the blue silk in Lan Wangji's hands. "I'll take it out to the villages and see if someone there can make use of it. Or we can use it to make up new robes for the kids. They're growing like weeds."

His husband laughed suddenly.

"Ah, do you think we're feeding them too much? Should we just give them hay and lettuce, like the rabbits? Maybe then they'd stay small and cute!"

Lan Wangji sighed tolerantly. He passed over his husband's absurdities. But he realized that his husband's words were partially true: the children had grown. It didn't seem possible for children to grow perceptibly within a matter of months. Yet half the children were taller than they'd been on his wedding day. They had almost outgrown their festival robes. The disciples could use new clothing, as well. Lan Wangji had already noticed that their practice wear had become a bit threadbare.

It hadn't occurred to him that he was meant to do something about that. But once they finished sorting the tribute, his husband gave him the keys to the storehouse. Lan Wangji couldn't help feeling pleased at this long-awaited show of trust. His pleasure, however, was tempered by a swift resolve to live up to his new responsibility. If it was his job to manage their supplies, then it was also his duty to ensure that the children were properly clothed.

He spent the next morning sorting through the new fabrics. A-Yuan, he decided, would like the green silk with embroidered dragonflies. A-Mei would prefer the pale blue with pink butterflies. The gold and black bamboo would do for the rest of the young children. The red silk would make robes for the older disciples. Lan Wangji piled up the fabrics and added a few bolts of cotton for their daily school robes. When that was done, he surveyed the pile with a frown.

His husband hadn't suggested any further trips to Yiling. Lan Wangji wasn't sure if he was permitted to venture down the mountain himself, and he didn't know where to find a tailor anyway. But when he confessed this difficulty to Wen Qionglin, he discovered that three of the Wens had apprenticed as seamstresses. Wen Qionglin promised that they could make up the children's new robes. When Lan Wangji showed them the fabrics, they were quick to agree.

They discussed how the robes would be cut and styled, and the Wens prepared to draw up their patterns. They needed measurements, though. So Lan Wangji made the ill-advised decision to round the children up and explain that they would receive new clothing. The afternoon lessons promptly descended into chaos. It took him a full shi to measure the wriggling children and overexcited disciples.

He told his husband about the ordeal that night, and the Patriarch threw his head back and laughed.

"You see?" he demanded. "You should've kept it all for yourself! Ah, you were so foolish. You could've had a dozen new sets of robes. Instead, you wasted the fabric on disobedient children!"

He smiled broadly as he spoke. Lan Wangji felt the now-familiar flutter inside his chest.

"I do not need a dozen new sets of robes," he said primly.

Each time he opened his wardrobe or looked inside his bureau, he felt guilty. He owned far too many items. Some days, he could almost hear Lan An's spirit, lecturing him on the value of austerity. He sounded distressingly like Uncle.

His husband sighed and shook his head, as if gravely disappointed.

"Foolish, foolish! Don't you understand how marriage works? You're supposed to be greedy!" His voice turned playful as he propped his fists on his hips. "You're supposed to nag me and say, 'Husband, why don't you hurry up and buy me some new robes and jewelry? Don't be stingy! What's the point in marrying an immortal if he doesn't spoil me?'"

"You do spoil me," Lan Wangji retorted.

It was the truth. His husband was forever bringing him toys and trinkets from the marketplace. He had given Lan Wangji rabbits, along with more clothing and jewelry than any spouse could possibly require. His scolding ancestors reminded him of his overabundant possessions every day.

Even so, Lan Wangji felt sure that his virtue hadn't been corrupted by material gain. His new possessions were not important. What he valued was his husband's attention, and he had also been spoiled with an abundance of that. The Patriarch had started taking his midday meal with Lan Wangji. They spent virtually every evening in each other's company. During the evenings, they played games, practiced their music, and talked. Lan Wangji delighted in this new development, and he felt thoroughly spoiled.

But when he said so, his husband choked on his tea. He lowered the cup, his face red. Then he started laughing again, covering his mouth with his hands.

"Oh, no. I just remembered something!" He thumped his fist on the table, eyes gleaming. "I know what to get you for your next present!"

Lan Wangji frowned and set down his own teacup. He tried earnestly to dissuade his husband. After overseeing the harvest and helping to inventory the storehouse, Lan Wangji had some idea of how deep his husband's pockets went. He knew the Patriarch wouldn't bankrupt himself by purchasing a few purposeless gifts. But he had received all the presents he required. He told his husband so, but the Patriarch shook his head.

"No! You asked me for this, and I forgot!" He swept a deep, formal bow. "Please forgive your forgetful husband. But don't worry! I remember now, so I'll make sure to fulfill your wish!"

Lan Wangji stared in bewilderment, but his husband refused to say anything more. He rushed off and Lan Wangji was left blinking at an empty room.

That night, he lay awake and tried to puzzle it out. He couldn't remember making any special requests. Lan Wangji had wanted more duties and freedoms within the Burial Mounds, and he'd received them. He'd asked to lead the children's lessons, to teach the disciples advanced sword techniques, and to share his husband's burdens in managing the household. His husband had permitted all of this. Lan Wangji found himself surprisingly satisfied with his married life.

...Well. He was nearly satisfied, anyway.

Lan Wangji shifted beneath the bedding. It was growing cold on the mountain. The first frost had come, glazing the ground with a thin rime. But Demon-Subdue Palace was quite comfortable. His husband had found yet another creative use for talismans: they circulated heated air, keeping the rooms comfortably warm. The Wens had talismans of their own, and braziers to ward off any lingering chill.

The nights could be chilly, though. Sometimes, Lan Wangji wished that he was not quite so alone in his bed. His husband's body ran warm, after all. Whenever Lan Wangji sat at his husband's side, he could feel the heat radiating off his husband's skin. He was guiltily aware that it would be pleasant to share a bed with such a nice, warm body. They didn't even have to touch each other, if his husband didn't wish for that sort of intimacy.

Lan Wangji squirmed with displeasure at that thought, but he forced himself to accept the truth: they didn't have to touch. They were managing well enough without it. His husband was, anyway. He had never claimed his marital rights, and Lan Wangji began to suspect—with a crushing sense of disappointment—that he never would. They spend every evening together, yet his husband always excused himself around hai-shi. Lan Wangji was left to retire to his chambers alone. The Patriarch never once said, Husband, how about I join you in bed tonight?

Lan Wangji shifted again, tangling the blankets around his legs. He still didn't know how to interpret his husband's indifference. After two months in his new home, Lan Wangji felt quite sure that there were no concubines to be found anywhere. There certainly weren't any in the Burial Mounds. There might be some in the villages, but Lan Wangji suspected otherwise.

The Wens were straightforward people and they didn't seem especially skilled at lying. They had grown used to Lan Wangji's presence, and he had never detected any awkward or pitying glances. When Lan Wangji mentioned his husband's trips to the villages, no one rushed to change the subject or lapsed into embarrassed silence. He had the impression that the marriage had somehow caught the Wens off guard. But they didn't seem shocked. No one seemed to be wondering why the Patriarch would marry Lan Wangji, when he already had a lover elsewhere.

Of course, some of the people in the Burial Mounds were young and comely. Lan Wangji had watched them with particular scrutiny. His husband was never improper with any of the Wens, though. Certainly he was never improper with the servants. He was friendly with Wen Qing and Wen Qionglin, but not in the manner of a thwarted lover. Wen Qionglin clearly held him in awe, while Wen Qing treated him like a troublesome younger brother. His gaze never lingered on them, and he never sought time alone with anyone. Not with anyone except Lan Wangji.

That, of course, was just as it should be. It brought Lan Wangji some measure of consolation. But the Patriarch still hadn't approached his husband's bed. Lan Wangji wasn't sure what to make of that.

He settled on his back, staring into the darkened room. The memory of his wedding night had begun to take on an unpleasant flavor. Lan Wangji suspected he might have sent the wrong message, one he didn't know how to retract. After they had crossed cups, they should have consummated the marriage. Lan Wangji had made no attempt to be seductive, though. He certainly hadn't indicated that he looked forward to the bedding process. He hadn't known how to conceal his dread, and his husband must have seen that he was unwilling. Lan Wangji squirmed again, restless and embarrassed.

His feelings had changed since then. Lan Wangji could hardly bear to think of such things anywhere but within his own chambers, in the dead of night. But he no longer found himself dreading the possibility that his husband might join him in his bed. He wished his husband would come. Yet that prospect seemed increasingly unlikely. Slowly, Lan Wangji found himself considering that perhaps immortals had no base desires. Perhaps, by cultivating to immortality, such bodily lusts were purged.

Or perhaps his husband was not inclined toward men? If that was the case, Lan Wangji didn't know why he had been chosen. He still couldn't make sense of that choice. As he grew accustomed to the Wens, he wondered if they had urged the Patriarch to take a spouse. Perhaps his husband had married to soothe his friends' concern for his welfare or to set an example of respectability for the people of his settlement. Perhaps he needed a helper, someone to oversee the children's lessons and prepare for banquets. Lan Wangji supposed it was a common enough reason to marry. Sect leaders often married to set a good example for their disciples and secure an assistant for themselves. Perhaps immortals were inclined to do the same.

Even so. If his husband found women more alluring, he ought to have married one.

Lan Wangji rolled onto his side. His thoughts were petty and childish, and he knew it. There was no sense in thinking about this further. So he buried his head beneath the pillow and forced himself to sleep.

Chapter Text

If his husband never wished to bed him, Lan Wangji decided it wasn't such a terrible loss.

He had much to be grateful for: duties, responsibilities, valuable work within his new home. His husband treated him kindly, too. The cold courtesy of the first uneasy weeks of their marriage had been entirely forgotten. Now, his husband spoke to him with affection and humor. Lan Wangji had the pleasure of his husband’s companionship, and his husband treated him with respect. It would be selfish—vulgar, even—to lament the absence of physical intimacy. So Lan Wangji tried to push it out of his mind. But that task proved more difficult than he would have liked.

During the day, it was easy enough to repress his body's appetites. Lan Wangji had long practice with that. In Cloud Recesses, disciples were taught cultivation techniques to manage lustful thoughts. As a young man, Lan Wangji had learned how to clear his mind, suppress inappropriate impulses, and firmly quash any feelings of arousal. He had practiced diligently; he has mastered the techniques. His composure had never faltered, not even when he was very young and his body was just awakening. He was proud of that.

But during sleep, self-discipline was impossible. Lan Wangji often woke each morning, his body aching for release. Since his wedding, the problem had worsened tenfold.

At home, he had merely spent some time each morning in meditation. A short meditation session siphoned off excess yang energy and balanced his qi. Within half a shi, he was ready to emerge from his bedchamber and join his classes as a model of Lan discipline. Marriage, however, had changed everything for Lan Wangji. He tried to continue making use of his sect's meditation practices, the secret cultivation techniques his instructors had shared. But they had become completely and utterly useless.

Every morning, Lan Wangji awoke in a mortifying state. He tried his best, of course. He washed his face in cold water and changed into clean clothing. Then he knelt on his meditation mat and tried to clear his mind. Throughout the session, he used every cultivation technique he knew. He worked diligently to suppress his body's urges. Yet nothing worked. He always surfaced from his meditations to find his body in the same restless, impatient physical state. His desires refused to be silenced, and they paid no attention to Lan Wangji's attempts at soothing them. Lan Wangji was left bewildered, perplexed, and stubbornly aroused.

He didn't know what to think. If his husband had shared his bed the night before, such a reaction might have been expected. Lan Wangji might have concluded that nightly intimacy had taught his body to expect further attention the following day. It would be a little embarrassing but perfectly understandable. His husband had never touched him, though. So his body’s demands were humiliating and pointless.

When Lan Wangji awoke to find himself hard, again, he gritted his teeth. Yet there was nothing to be done, so he shut his eyes and took himself in hand.

In his natal sect, meditation and suppression were the preferred methods of dealing with such problems. Several disciplines cautioned against overindulgence in self-pleasure, and Lan Wangji had an uneasy suspicion that pleasuring himself every morning qualified as 'overindulgence'. But he didn't know what else to do. If he didn't meet his body's demands, it was impossible to carry out his duties. He had no choice. 

He bit his lip and brought himself to completion as quickly as possible. Then he washed thoroughly before dressing for the day. He bundled up the soiled laundry, uncomfortably aware that the corpse-women were in charge of the wash. They had been courtesans, Wen Qing said. He presumed that they would recognize the stains on his bedding. There was nothing Lan Wangji could do about that, either. His cheeks burned as he tried to push the thought away.

His mind cleared and his body temporarily sated, he finished his morning meditations. Then he reviewed his plans for the day. There was plenty to think of, and Lan Wangji marshaled his thoughts in the proper direction. But the moment his back was turned, his thoughts strayed. They turned toward his husband, over and over, no matter how often Lan Wangji steered them away.

Lan Wangji thought that A-Qing should receive additional cultivation training. She seemed to be making progress toward developing a golden core, and further study would benefit her. He tried to map out the training exercises and course of study she would require. Instead, he found himself imagining the Patriarch’s delight if she successfully formed her core.

He turned his thoughts to his music instead. He mentally reviewed his new composition and considered what he must do to complete it. But then he thought of his husband, wondering if the Patriarch would enjoy the finished melody.

Desperately, Lan Wangji tried to think of his cooking lessons. But that only led to thoughts of his husband's preferences in food and alcohol. Lan Wangji found himself thinking that he ought to learn to cook more spicy dishes, since his husband liked them so much. 

It was useless. Every single activity in his schedule was inextricably tied to his husband.

Lan Wangji marched from his chambers and went straight to the practice field. He emptied his mind entirely, putting himself through a rigorous session of sword practice. Perhaps if he exhausted his body, he would exhaust his appetite for his husband too? Lan Wangji nodded to himself. It seemed worth a try. So he focused on every movement of his muscles, every pulse of his qi. He tried his best to elevate his mind and purify his thoughts.

He lasted for half an incense's stick of time. Halfway through a maneuver, he remembered his husband's promise to spare with him someday. And that led Lan Wangji to muse on the question of immortality. Would he be able to achieve it someday? Would he be able to remain at his husband's side forever?

Lan Wangji dropped out of formation. He lowered his sword and let his shoulders slump. Then he allowed himself the indulgence of a long, heavy sigh.

It seemed that trying to eliminate his husband from his thoughts was an exercise in futility. He gave up. For the rest of the morning, he let himself think of his husband wholeheartedly. His husband's face lingered in his mind, and the sound of his laughter rang in Lan Wangji's ears. It was distracting, he admitted. But it was better than the alternative. Thinking of his husband was less painful than trying not to think of his husband.

Lan Wangji managed to work his way through his daily routine. He completed his meditation and sword practice. He taught the disciples and tended to the younger children's lessons. After lunch, he freshened the offerings in the ancestral hall. Then he met with the kitchen staff to discuss the weekly menu. He spent a shi with Granny Wen and learned to make red bean dumplings.

But he was conscious of his husband’s absence at every moment. His husband wasn't even within the settlement today. Early that morning, the Patriarch had taken several of the Wens and gone hunting. They intended to acquire some fresh meat before the first snow. The previous night, he had invited Lan Wangji to come along. The invitation was pleasing, yet Lan Wangji hadn't been able to stomach the thought of hunting.

His husband had laughed at his squeamishness.

“But you go night-hunting!” he protested. “You’ve done that many times! Haven’t you destroyed plenty of evil spirits and other creatures?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji admitted. “But it isn’t the same.”

That sort of hunting was quite different. It was always gratifying to destroy harmful creatures, ensuring the safety of the commonfolk. The work was meaningful and necessary. Lan Wangji knew he had always done it well, and he hoped to do it again someday. It wasn't the same as hunting animals, though.

His husband grinned.

“Ah, you’re so timid about killing poor innocent creatures!” He prodded Lan Wangji’s arm. “You fought in a war. Hanguang-Jun was famous for his prowess on the battlefield! But I mention shooting pheasants, and look at the face you’re making!”

Lan Wangji did not have a mirror, so he couldn't look at the face he was making. Still, he knew he wore a grimace.

“War is war,” he conceded. “Night-hunting is night-hunting. It’s different.”

During battle, killing couldn't be avoided. Enemies must be slain and restless spirits must be subdued. Wild animals, on the other hand, were merely trying to survive. Lan Wangji felt unaccountably guilty at the thought of ending their fragile lives. If it were a matter of survival, he would manage it. If hunting game was the only way to keep himself alive—if the children were starving and needed fresh meat—then he would do what he must.

But nobody at the Burial Mounds was in danger of starving. Their larders were full of vegetables, beans, and dried fruit. There were heaping sacks of rice and millet. Lan Wangji had seen them with his own eyes; he had counted the supplies up and made an inventory. So he couldn’t bring himself to join the hunt. Not even for the sake of spending a little more time with his husband.

The Patriarch had waved to the children as he set off, promising to bring back lots of good food. The Wens beamed at the departing group, then speculated on what to do with the skins and feathers from the game. Lan Wangji listened peacefully. After two and a half months of marriage, he finally knew everyone’s name. He understood each member's role in the settlement, too. He knew who was a farmer by trade, who had trained in carpentry, who was skilled at embroidery. It was much easier to follow the Wens' conversations. He could enjoy their happy chatter without feeling excluded.

Some things were still a mystery, of course. While Lan Wangji had a general grasp of who was related to whom, none of the Wens seemed to pay much attention to the strictest details. To Wen Qionglin and the children, everyone was ‘Auntie’ or ‘Uncle’ or ‘Granny’. The grown men and women pinched A-Yuan's cheeks, regardless of whether he was their nephew or their third cousin. They fussed over Wen Qionglin as if he were their own son.

Lan Wangji wasn't accustomed to such familiarity and easy intimacy. But he was learning, and the Wens had helped him. They'd been a little aloof at first, perhaps. They warmed to him quickly, though. Lan Wangji understood why they had been leery when he first arrived. They'd heard of his reputation and they knew he was a highly-ranked cultivator from a Great Sect. They must have feared that Lan Wangji would turn out to be a spoiled young master, sneering at farmers and ordering around the servants.

Once they saw that he did not wish to do this, they had proved astonishingly friendly. It hadn't taken much: Lan Wangji had spoken to the Wens politely and offered to work alongside them, and they had accepted him as one of their own. If there was something Lan Wangji wished to know—the place where the children’s old clothing was kept, perhaps—they told him readily. They walked him to the storehouse themselves, then proudly showed off the clothing that their own children had once worn. Lan Wangji had already heard a number of family sagas: births, deaths, weddings. They were quick to share their past joys so he could better understand their private jokes and traditions.

Lan Wangji watched the Wens busy themselves with their afternoon chores, feeling profoundly content. It was very pleasant to be welcomed into their community. He was particularly relieved that the Wens never seemed offended when he was slow to respond to their quips or teasing. He'd never been a gifted conversationalist, and he knew this failing had often been interpreted as haughtiness. But the Wens seemed to understand him, and they accepted him as he was.

Aside from Wen Qing, of course. She was gracious to him whenever they spoke, yet Lan Wangji still sensed that she was trying to keep him at arms' length. Sometimes, he sensed her watching him. He had even caught her staring openly, her eyes speculative, as if trying to solve a puzzle. Whenever his husband was away, she almost seemed to expect to catch him in some crime.

Lan Wangji felt her eyes on his back the entire time the hunting party was away. It irritated him, but he couldn't approach her. It would be foolish to provoke a confrontation over a few sideways glances. She had always treated him civilly, anyway. When he had questions, she answered with remarkable frankness. He had nothing to complain of, no insult or slight or snub. But sometimes, she looked at him with a strange sort of suspicion.

He frowned to himself as he cleared away the children's outdoor lesson materials. They were playing with Wen Qionglin now, and Lan Wangji had been left to tidy away the supplies. Wen Qing was nearby, allegedly gathering wild herbs. Yet he sensed this was merely a pretense, and she had come to watch him. His nerves prickled. He couldn’t imagine what offense she expected him to commit.

There were few formal rules in the Burial Mounds which he could transgress. Lan Wangji had discovered a few laws, written down and signed in his husband's hand. The inhabitants must refrain from overt crimes like theft, assault, or murder. But those laws were just a formality. Lan Wangji felt sure that such crimes had never truly been committed within the Burial Mounds. Nearly everyone in the settlement was related by blood and bound by ties of affection.

As for Lan Wangji, he had no cause to harm anyone. The very idea was absurd. And as the Patriarch’s husband, he could hardly be guilty of theft against his own household. So even if he had been inclined to commit a crime, none seemed readily available. Lan Wangji frowned to himself as he cleaned the brushes and put away the ink sticks.

Briefly, he wondered if Wen Qing thought he might be unfaithful to his husband. She always seemed to be lurking nearby whenever the Patriarch was away. Perhaps she doubted his virtue and thought he might meet a lover for a tryst? But this, too, seemed wholly absurd. There was no one in the Burial Mounds who could have drawn his interest. He spent most of his days with the children and the disciples. Even if he had found a likely candidate, he would never betray his husband. He felt sure he had never given anyone any reason to doubt his fidelity. 

He puzzled over Wen Qing’s odd behavior as he finished his cleaning. Yet he couldn't make sense of it. In the end, he was forced to accept that they would both end the day in disappointment: he had found no answers, and she had caught him committing no crimes.

Lan Wangji was so busy—watching Wen Qing watch him—that he quite lost track of time. He'd scarcely put away the last of the supplies when his husband returned. They tromped up the path and the children ran to meet them. The Wens streamed out of their houses, shouting excitedly.

The hunting party had clearly enjoyed tremendous success. Lan Wangji saw two braces of pheasants. There were ducks and geese, along with a deer. All the animals were, unfortunately, quite dead. But Lan Wangji didn't have to look at the bloodied corpses for long. The game was whisked off to the butcher’s hut. The hunters lingered, thronged by their family. They were in fine humor, glowing with excitement and telling of their accomplishments in the field.

Lan Wangji intended to wait politely while the rest of the Wens offered their congratulations. But his husband darted forward. He caught Lan Wangji's wrist and drew him off to the side.

“Come here!” he cried. “I have the present I promised you.”

He towed Lan Wangji along. Lan Wangji went where his husband directed, somewhat unwillingly. He wasn't sure he wanted any present that could be acquired during a hunt. Yet it would be impolite to refuse. So he followed his husband behind the Wens' houses to a quiet spot that overlooked the path down the mountain.

With a flourish, the Patriarch pointed to the ground beside the woodpile. Lan Wangji looked down. There were two small cages and each one held a chicken. A very alive chicken. Lan Wangji stared at the chickens blankly. His husband burst into raucous laughter.

“You don’t remember, do you?”

Lan Wangji blinked several times. Then he shook his head slowly.

He wasn't often forgetful. In fact, he was never forgetful. Forgetfulness wasn't permitted within Cloud Recesses. But he couldn't imagine why he'd been presented with chickens. He gazed at his husband, bewildered. If he had indeed forgotten something—a request for chickens?—that was quite shameful. His husband seemed delighted, though. He dropped into a crouch beside the cages.

“That night you were drinking,” he snickered, “you insisted that we needed chickens. I told you, ‘We already have some!’ But you weren’t satisfied with those. You wanted to rush off and find some more right away.”

Lan Wangji felt his ears burn. If that was all—the most embarrassing thing he’d done that night—he knew he'd gotten off lightly. He folded his hands and forced himself to listen without flinching. It was mortifying to be reminded of something absurd he’d said while drunk. But it was suitable penance for his offenses.

“Well, of course I wouldn't dare to ignore my husband's opinions! So I thought about what you said very carefully!”

His husband stroked his chin. He seemed to be struggling to keep a solemn expression on his face. When he looked up at Lan Wangji, his eyes were dancing.

“I even went to take a closer look at our chickens, just to be sure. As expected, they are mangy.”

The Patriarch nodded emphatically.

“Now that it’s cold, they won’t even lay many eggs. Lazy, unsightly chickens! So I thought, ‘Ah, my husband is right! What disgraceful chickens we have! He deserves better chickens than these!’”

The blush spread from his ears to his throat. Lan Wangji ignored it. He nodded to show his husband he was listening.

“So I searched very carefully until I found these.” The Patriarch waved his hands at the cages. “What do you think?”

He sounded profoundly amused by the situation. Lan Wangji knew he was only being teased, but he was still thoroughly mortified.

“They are handsome chickens." His voice was slightly strangled. “I apologize once more for my behavior.”

“Ah, no need! Didn’t I just say you were right?” The Patriarch bounded to his feet, a broad grin on his face. “Come on, let’s go introduce them to the rest of the flock. These illustrious chickens will teach the others to straighten up and mend their ways.”

Lan Wangji took one cage while his husband claimed the other. Together, they carried the cages to the pen and loosed the chickens inside. There was quite an assortment of animals in the back hills. The goats, chickens, and pigs took up the largest share of land. The rabbits had claimed the remaining space. But as the weather turned cold, most of the animals had retreated to their pens. The chickens and goats had indeed slowed their production.

The Patriarch took the opportunity to deliver a stern lecture to the animals about the virtues of a proper work ethic.

“Hurry up and lay eggs,” he ordered the new chickens. “Or I’ll chop you into a stew!”

Lan Wangji shook his head.

“You may not,” he rebuked. “If they were a gift, then they belong to me. I won’t have them eaten.”

His husband sighed and threw his arms in the air.

“Chickens!” He poked a stick into the pen, prodding the unlucky hens until they seemed to be paying attention. “You are being defended by Hanguang-Jun himself. I hope you’re grateful. Work hard and make lots of eggs, so you don’t disappoint him!”

Lan Wangji bit back a smile. He schooled his expression to neutrality, just as his husband threw him a pitiful look.

“I can still eat some chickens, can’t I?” he begged. “I know rabbits are off the menu now. But those mangy chickens! You decided they were a disappointment! So I can eat them, right?”

His expression was just like A-Yuan’s when the boy begged for another sweet. Lan Wangji folds his hands together tightly. It was quite necessary. He was sorely tempted to reach out and brush his thumb over his husband’s lower lip, thrust out in an exaggerated pout.

“They may yet improve,” he said gravely. “Please show them clemency this once.”

“Ah, how can I refuse my husband when he asks so nicely?”

The words were spoken lightly as the Patriarch climbed to his feet. He threw the stick away, dusting off his hands. But the idle remark made Lan Wangji’s body burn. He could almost imagine his husband speaking those words in an entirely different context. Ruthlessly, he crushed that thought beneath his heel. He could indulge in such fantasies tonight, when he was alone in his bedchamber. Not when his husband was at his side. Lan Wangji strove to keep his mind clean and blank as they entered the dining hall.

The meal was spent discussing the hunt and anticipating the dishes the kitchen might produce in the days ahead. Lan Wangji took little interest in these topics, listening passively. During the final course, his husband seized upon a brief lull in the conversation.

“I stopped by Yiling for a while,” he remarked. “Just to hear the news, and to buy chickens.”

He flashed Lan Wangji a conspiratorial glance. It made his ears burn once more. Wen Qing raised an eyebrow.

“In disguise, I assume." She took a measured sip of her tea.

“Of course!” The Patriarch fished a piece of meat out of his stew. “Nobody tells me the good gossip unless I go in disguise.”

He spoke quite casually. Still, Lan Wangji heard a hint of some unpleasant emotion lurking beneath. His husband seemed to be attempting a heavy-handed joke, but his jokes never sounded like this. His voice was fraught with deeper meaning. Wen Qing heard it too, and her gaze sharpened.

“Did you hear anything interesting?”

She set her cup aside, leaning subtly forward. Like the Patriarch, she seemed to be striving for nonchalance. The Patriarch shrugged.

“Oh, this and that.” He scraped the last of the stew into his mouth. “Lots of talk about what’s going on in the Jin sect. Have you heard much about that, husband?”

Several pairs of eyes turned his way, Wen Qing's among them. Lan Wangji blinked.

“My brother told me Sect Leader Jin has been unwell,” he admitted.

In his letters, Lan Xichen seldom discussed political matters. He appeared to have taken his cue from Lan Wangji, who never broached such topics. Perhaps he realized that anything they wrote might reach the Patriarch’s eyes. Whatever the reason, Lan Xichen usually wrote about trivial topics: the changing duty roster in Cloud Recesses, a third cousin's marriage, plans to rebuild the dormitories. Lan Wangji took a keen interest in such things, but he felt sure that anyone else who read the letters would be bored to tears.

Lan Xichen's last letter had mentioned Meng Yao, though. He had finally been acknowledged by his father, in light of his espionage efforts during the war. Lan Xichen was pleased for him, and he had devoted two paragraphs to the topic. Meng Yao, he said, was to receive a courtesy name. However, it would mark him as a member of his father’s generation. That decision had provoked a great deal of whispering. Lan Xichen said nothing more on this topic, but Lan Wangji knew his brother must have been displeased. It was a deliberate slight to Meng Yao, and his brother would be pained on Meng Yao's behalf.

It seemed odd that Jin Guangshan would bother to legitimize his son with such halfhearted measures. Lan Wangji had wondered over that. His brother had answered his unspoken question in the very next paragraph.

It is likely rumors have reached Yiling that Jin Guangshan’s health isn't what it once was. I am afraid these rumors are true. I think perhaps this is why Sect Leader Jin wishes to reconcile with Meng Yao. Naturally, we hope Sect Leader Jin's illness will not worsen during the winter. No one can say how such things will turn out, though. In any event, Meng Yao’s legitimization seems fortunate for everyone involved. Due to his father's illness, Jin Zixuan must now take on additional duties. Meng Yao is well equipped to assist him in such matters.

If not for his brother's involvement, the news would have meant little to Lan Wangji. He had settled comfortably into his new home, and the troubles of the cultivation world seemed very distant. It was something of a relief that he no longer had to pay attention to squabbles between the sects or listen to arguments over succession. He had never held any esteem for Jin Guangshan, anyway. Whether Jin Guangshan recovered or succumbed to his illness was not a source of great interest to Lan Wangji.

But Meng Yao was part of the Jin sect now. Lan Xichen was anxious to see him properly established before his father's death. Meng Yao’s espionage—as Lan Xichen often said—had helped prevent a number of causalities during the war. He had also sheltered Lan Xichen after the burning of Cloud Recesses. Lan Wangji must esteem the man for that, if nothing else. He sympathized with the fact that his brother owed the man debt of gratitude, too. But Meng Yao's place in the Jin sect was none of Lan Wangji's concern.

His husband and Wen Qing were waiting raptly for his response. Lan Wangji could only lift his shoulders in a small, indifferent shrug. Wen Qing frowned at him.

“Well, that’s what everyone was saying." The Patriarch drained his cup of wine and poured another. “And they were talking about the wedding, too. They say his son will be married in the spring. Probably he’ll have a son of his own by next year.”

Lan Wangji inclined his head politely. He couldn't pretend to be interested in Jin Zixuan’s domestic affairs, either.

“They say he’s marrying Sect Leader Jiang’s elder sister,” Wen Qing added. She glanced at Lan Wangji as if for confirmation.

“Mm.” He nodded. “They have been promised to one another since childhood.”

He never received the impression the match was based on true affection. When the pair studied at Cloud Recesses, there had been an embarrassingly public quarrel after Jin Zixuan insulted his fiancee in her brother's presence. Lan Wangji had averted his eyes and diligently reminded the Lan disciples that gossiping was forbidden. The matter had been hushed up in the end. The betrothal continued, and Lan Wangji had no doubt it would eventually end in marriage.  They would hardly be the first cultivators to marry for political allegiance rather than affection.

Lan Wangji realized that—in many ways—he had done the same. His own marriage seemed to be proof enough that happiness was possible. He supposed that Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli would find a way to make their marriage work, like so many couples before them.

“Ah, is that so?” The Patriarch tilted his head. “I think I remember her! She was there at the conference, wasn’t she? Sitting next to her brother? She had a kind face.”

Lan Wangji felt a small frown creep onto his face. His husband spotted it at once, and he laughed aloud.

“Don’t get jealous, husband!” He nudged Lan Wangji’s foot teasingly. “I wouldn’t have picked her, even if she wasn’t already betrothed! She looked like a very nice young lady, but she’s not my type.”

The back of Lan Wangji's neck grew hot and he averted his eyes hastily. He hadn’t meant to be jealous. Jealousy in marriage was forbidden, not only by the disciplines of Cloud Recesses but by common laws. Jealousy was one of the few valid grounds for unilateral divorce. It was quite wrong to be jealous. But a small burst of displeased had erupted inside his chest. It was foolish, nonsensical. Lan Wangji knew it.

His husband merely said, She had a kind face. It was a benign and indifferent compliment, hardly a sign that his husband’s heart lay elsewhere. It certainly wasn't proof of past or future infidelity. Sometimes, though, Lan Wangji could not help but wonder if his husband would prefer to be married to a woman like Jiang Yanli.

He smoothed his robes and tried to settle his mind. It was foolish, he told himself sternly, to be jealous over an idle comment. Particularly when the remark seemed to work in his favor. His husband had said that Jiang Yanli wasn't his type. That seemed to imply that the Patriarch had made his choice based—partially, at least—on what he found appealing. Which suggested that Lan Wangji was his husband’s type.

The heat crept higher, reaching his ears. Lan Wangji adjusted his hair discreetly, trying to conceal the rising blush.

“No other gossip besides the Jin sect's line of succession?” Wen Qing remarked. “It must’ve been a dull day.”

“Well, it’s almost winter. What more can we expect? The harvest is over and the first snows are coming. People are running out of interesting things to talk about!”

His husband reached for a cake but paused to chuckle.

“Ah, I did hear some very interesting gossip! But it’s not really fit conversation for the dinner table.” He flashed Lan Wangji a sly, suggestive glance. “Husband. There was some more of that talk we overheard about during Mid-Autumn festival.”

At first, Lan Wangji thought of slanderous remarks: The Patriarch might be building an army in the hills! He couldn’t think why his husband would laugh, hearing another version of those rumors. Then Lan Wangji remembered the other rumors. The ones that speculated about his role in his new household, his place in his husband’s bed.

The blush spread further, covering him from head to toe. Lan Wangji gave up on hiding it, and instead kept his eyes firmly trained on his teacup.

“Gossip is forbidden,” he said curtly.

The Patriarch gasped in mock indignation.

“But I wasn’t gossiping! Husband, how can you blame me? I couldn’t help but overhear.” He swayed forward, propping his elbows on the table. “Talking about such things in broad daylight…I really think you should blame those townspeople and not me!”

“Eavesdropping is also forbidden,” Lan Wangji reminded him.

His husband had teased him so often about his sect rules, Lan Wangji felt sure he must remember some of them. He must remember this one, at least. But his husband only rolled his eyes.

“Ah, but we heard this sort of talk when we were in town together! You listened then!” His husband pointed at him. “So aren’t you guilty of eavesdropping too?”

Lan Wangji sighed. He should have known better than to try and match wits with his husband. He had no qualms about disagreeing with an immortal; a scholarly debate would be perfectly acceptable. But an argument was bound to end in miserable failure. His husband possessed the verbal dexterity Lan Wangji always lacked. He knew how to turn any argument around, find loopholes in any rule. Lan Wangji was helpless against such an assault. He could only fall back on the rules themselves.

“No talk,” he muttered. “Silence during meals.”

His husband laughed loudly, recognizing that he had won. He was gracious in his victory, though. At least he didn't share the lurid details of whatever gossip he had overheard.

Lan Wangji knew he would spend half the night thinking about such things anyway. He spared a moment to mourn the sleep he was destined to lose. Surely he'd spend the night lying awake, wondering exactly what the villagers had said this time. It seemed cruel. Was it not enough that he was plagued with such thoughts? Did the entire town have to speculate on what he and his husband did within their marriage chamber?

Meditation, he knew, wouldn't be enough to clear his mind. Still, it might help a bit. Lan Wangji resolved to devote a full shi to meditation tonight. He intended to excuse himself after the meal and fulfill his promise at once. But before he could rise from the table, his husband laid a hand on his arm.

“Ah, husband! There’s a favor I want to ask you.”

Lan Wangji sank back into his seat and waited. His husband had a strange look on his face.

“There’s something I’d like you to do for me tomorrow. Can you come to my study around wu-shi?”

Lan Wangji blinked. His husband gave a rather forced smile.

“Do you know where it is?” he prompted. “Just go out the door to the back garden, then take the path to the right. Follow it for about a li. You’ll find it.”

After a brief hesitation, Lan Wangji nodded. He expected further instruction, perhaps some hint of what favor his husband had in mind. But his husband turned back to the table, seamlessly inserting himself into the Wens’ meandering conversation.

Wen Qing gave him a sharp, curious glance. She said nothing, though. Lan Wangji returned to his chambers, his mind whirling. He was conscious—as everyone at the table must have been—that he'd been invited into his husband’s inner sanctum. Lan Wangji had long since made a mental list of the individuals permitted into the Patriarch’s study. Wen Qing, Xiao Xingchen, and Song Lan could cross the threshold. But no one else was allowed inside.

Lan Wangji felt a cautious flicker of pleasure. This was, perhaps, an excellent sign. He had been invited into his husband’s most private space. Surely that was a show of trust. Lan Wangji took a moment to savor it. He did wonder, though, why the offer had been extended now. His husband had said he had a favor to ask. Evidently, it was one he didn't wish to ask in front of others. Lan Wangji folded himself down onto the meditation mat. He closed his eyes, considering.

He could think of a few favors he would like his husband to request. But he brushed those thoughts away, saving them for later on. For now, he tried to remain practical. He considered every aspect of their settlement, each task that must be performed as winter approached. Then he considered his husband whims and vagaries, looking for clues.

Over the last few weeks, they had spent a great deal of time together. Yet somehow, Lan Wangji still didn’t feel he understood his husband. They saw each other daily and talked often. His husband was kind, funny, charming. Lan Wangji enjoyed the time they spent together. Whenever they parted, Lan Wangji looked forward to their next meeting. All this was true. But his husband's moods could shift rapidly. He was whimsical and pensive by turns. Sometimes, he seemed to seek nothing more than amusement. On other occasions, his peculiar behavior appeared to be aimed toward some purpose. Lan Wangji couldn’t make sense of it.

He tried to guess the favor his husband intended to ask, and failed miserably. Vexed, he cleared his mind and sank into a light meditation. He hadn't forgotten his most important goal: to strengthen his golden core and cultivate to immortality. Lan Wangji knew it would take a dedicated effort, but he was determined. He must achieve his goal, both for his husband's sake and for his own. He meditated diligently for the allotted time. Then he turned his attention to his desk.

It held an unfinished letter to his brother. Lan Wangji hadn't been able to think of a sufficient closing. His letters had changed over the last month, and his brother must have perceived that. In the early days of his marriage, Lan Wangji's messages had been short and curt. There was so little worth saying. He knew his brother would be anxious to hear that Lan Wangji was healthy and well. So he had written three letters, repeating the same assurances: He was safe in his new home. His health was excellent. He had met with respectful treatment, and the people in his new household were amiable. Each letter had been less than a page in length.

Once he took up his new duties, his letters had become quite different. The children gave him plenty to talk about. Lan Wangji hadn't forgotten his husband's warning: to be discreet in his communications with the outside world. But there seemed no harm in telling his brother about mundane household matters. Surely it wasn't indiscreet to discuss the children’s progress in arithmetic or his pitiful first attempt at cooking beef stew. No one within the cultivation world would take the slightest interest in such things. Lan Xichen, however, would be keenly interested to know how his brother spent his days. Above all, he'd want to know that his younger brother was happy.

Lan Wangji found himself rather anxious to soothe his brother's worries. Lan Xichen's letters still carried a faint echo of anxiety. So Lan Wangji shared every trivial detail of his daily routine, hoping that his brother would somehow perceive the truth: he was happy in his new home, surrounded by kind people who treated him well.

He finished the letter, adding a few details about the children's handicrafts lessons and the recent hunt. Lan Wangji spoke of his music, too. He told his brother that he was composing a new song, and mentioned that he and his husband often spent the evenings playing qi. He had finished the last of the calligraphy scrolls made at his husband’s request. They had already been hung throughout their home. He hoped his brother and uncle were equally well, their home comfortably settled for the winter. After some thought, Lan Wangji added a short postscript.

Your tribute was received. The silk is very fine, and I thank you for it on my husband’s behalf. We have decided that we will use it to make new robes for the children. They are growing quickly, and they seem to need new clothing every fortnight.

Lan Wangji set his brush down and reread the letter. After a moment, he drew his brother’s last letter out of the drawer to review a few passages. Perhaps he ought to say something in his reply about Jin Guangshan’s failing health or Meng Yao’s legitimization? His brother cared deeply about the matter, and it seemed impolite to ignore his concerns. Lan Wangi didn't want his brother to feel ignored or brushed aside. But somehow, the topic made him distinctly uneasy.

The trouble was, he knew his brother well. He could sense that his brother was fond of Meng Yao...fonder, perhaps, than he ought to be.

If it had been someone else—someone of unimpeachable character and abilities—Lan Wangji would have been pleased. He was married and settled now. It was only fitting that his elder brother should marry, too. If he found someone with whom he wished to share his life, Lan Wangji would be glad for him. But there could be no future with Meng Yao. Though Meng Yao had found a place in the Jin sect, he would always be known as a prostitute’s son. His position in the cultivation world was tenuous at best, and his cultivation weak. In the eyes of the sects, he was not a suitable match for Sect Leader Lan. The Lan elders would never permit such a union.

Lan Wangji bit his lip.

He knew that their clan wasn't as populous as the elders might wish. The main bloodline had shrunk to only a handful of members. Lan Xichen had but one brother, and Lan Wangji had married into his spouse's household. The elders would certainly press him to marry a woman, one of high rank and unblemished reputation. They would want him to choose a wife and produce an heir. Lan Wangji’s stomach twisted at the thought.

If not for Meng Yao, he might have hoped for the best. He had found a surprising measure of happiness in his own marriage. His husband had become a friend and a companion, and Lan Wangji hadn't entirely given up the hope of something more. But even if passion and intimacy never came, he felt increasingly sure that he could be happy. He could love his husband, even if the terms of their union remained unchanged. He was more than half in love with his husband already.

Perhaps, in another lifetime, his brother could have met a similar fate. He might have married for duty, then found a way to love his wife. They could have shared a love for their children and found companionship in each other. His brother could have been happy, even if he wasn't able to choose his own spouse. 

Still, Lan Wangji knew he couldn't compare his own situation with his brother's. When he took his bows, Lan Wangji's heart was unoccupied. He hadn't realized it at the time, but he was entirely prepared to love his husband. He only needed a little encouragement. He only needed to see that his husband was kind, funny, and generous. Perhaps he hadn't loved or trusted his husband when they first met. But once he understood his husband's true character, there had been no further obstacles. His husband had no competition; Lan Wangji had no prior attachments. 

For his brother, it might be quite another matter. Lan Xichen might have to marry a respected daughter of a sect leader while his heart longed for someone else. How could he find happiness then? How could he grow to love his wife—find joy and pleasure in her arms—if his heart was already taken?

Lan Wangji let out a long exhale. His own heart suddenly felt very heavy.

He hoped he was mistaken. When they last spoke of Meng Yao, they had both been distracted by the way. Perhaps Lan Wangji had read too much into his brother's wistful gaze. Lan Xichen might only have longed for an end to the war, a return to Cloud Recesses, safety for every operative who put themselves in danger trying to gather information. Perhaps his concern for Meng Yao was rooted in simple gratitude and nothing deeper.

Lan Wangji removed his brother’s letters from his desk drawer. He flipped through the stack, one by one.

It was impossible, he told himself, to judge such sensitive matters through a letter. He and his brother had always understood each other well, but even Lan Wangji couldn't peer into his brother's heart from across thousands of li. He might have imagined a romantic attachment where none existed. His brother might feel nothing more for Meng Yao than affectionate friendship. 

He planned to reread the letters that contained allusions to Meng Yao, searching for clues. But as Lan Wangji sifted through the pile, he noticed something strange. He kept his brother’s letters carefully arranged. He did not, however, arrange them by the date on the letter. Instead, he ordered the letters based on the time they arrived. Two letters had arrived in advance of their predecessor, owing to some delay in transit. As Lan Wangji thumbed through the stack, he discovered that order had been altered. The letters were now tidily arranged in chronological order, according to the date marked.

He stared at the letters for a long time. For a brief moment, Lan Wangji clung to the hope that he had made a mistake. He could have forgotten to account for the discrepancies in dates, the delayed letters. He might have mixed up the order himself. 

But deep down, Lan Wangji knew he had made no such error. Since childhood, he had always arranged his correspondence in the order it arrived. He had reread his brother's letters so many times, whenever he found himself homesick or missing his family. On each occasion, he meticulously placed the letters back in their original order. That meant that someone else had opened his desk. Someone had lifted the lacquer box, opened the lid, and read through his letters.

Lan Wangji lowered the stack of letters into his lap. He felt as though he'd swallowed a stone.

At Cloud Recesses, Lan Wangji had kept his letterbox sealed with a talisman. That hadn't seemed prudent here. During those awkward first weeks of his marriage, Lan Wangji hadn't wanted to give the impression that he was keeping secrets. He had promised his husband that he was only writing to his family, and such letters hardly needed to be kept under lock and key. An excess of caution would seem suspicious. So when the first letter from his brother arrived, Lan Wangji slipped it into the desk. He left it unsealed and unsecured.

Since that moment, he had hardly spared a thought for the unsecured letters. His brother's correspondence was precious to him, but Lan Wangji knew that the contents of their letters were quite banal. If his husband had asked to see the letters, Lan Wangji would have turned them over without the slightest hesitation. There was nothing in the letters that anyone shouldn't see.

But as he tidied the stack of letters, Lan Wangji felt cold inside.

Perhaps it was only the servants. Zhao Lifen might have grown curious, or even the corpse-women. Such things happened often, Lan Wangji knew that. It wasn't permitted in Cloud Recesses, but it still happened from time to time. Servants stole a glance at a private letter or listened at the door. Some curiosity would be natural and expected. Lan Wangji was still a newcomer, and one of the Twin Jades. The people of the Burial Mounds might wonder what he and his brother discussed in their private communications. 

Lan Wangji tucked the letters back into the drawer and slid it shut. Then he folded his hands into his lap. He tried to think.

He might—perhaps he should—discuss the matter with his husband. If their positions were reversed, Lan Wangji would certainly want to know. Had this happened in his own home, he would have conducted a full investigation. He would have determined who had invaded his husband's privacy, and he would have doled out an appropriate punishment for the offender. 

But the thought of an investigation filled Lan Wangji with dread. If it was only a small matter—a servant or one of the children succumbing to momentary curiosity—he didn't wish to make a public display of them. The Patriarch might feel obliged to impose a punishment in order to placate his husband. That would be awkward, too. Lan Wangji didn't want to see a servant dismissed or a child punished over such a trifling matter.

Yet an uncomfortable public confrontation was not the worst possible outcome. As he stared at the polished surface of the desk, Lan Wangji realized he could think of something far worse. It could be Wen Qing, after all. She had always looked at him with some suspicion. If anyone had taken the initiative to read her letters, it seemed like it ought to be her. If he and Wen Qing fell into conflict, what would happen? Whose side would the Patriarch take: that of his husband or his old friend? Lan Wangji didn't know, and that hurt.

But he could bear that. If Wen Qing had snooped through his personal belongings, Lan Wangji could grit his teeth and endure it. It would be unpleasant, and he would resent her for it. It was not, however, the worst possible scenario.

The worst possibility...

That would be the scenario in which Lan Wangji brought this matter to his husband, laid out the circumstances, explained that someone had read his private letters. And his husband merely looked at him and said, Of course, I know all about that. I’m the one who’s been reading them!

Lan Wangji swallowed hard.

His husband was quite kind to him now. He was good-humored, gentle, even affectionate. But now and then, the Patriarch spoke with a crushing sort of careless insolence. What if Lan Wangji told him of this matter and his husband gave him another of those contemptuous looks? Lan Wangji hadn’t seen that expression on his husband's face in so many weeks now. What if he asked his husband about this matter and the Patriarch said, Of course, I read your letters. I am your husband and this is my home. Don’t I have a right to do whatever I like?

Lan Wangji dug his fingernails into his palms. His cheeks felt hot, yet his hands were cold.

He’d have to bear that, too. There was no alternative. Lan Wangji would have to look his husband in the eyes and nod. Then he would have to walk away. But the prospect was wrenching. He wouldn’t even mind his husband reading his letters. It was only the idea that he might have gone behind Lan Wangji’s back that stung. Lan Wangji thought they had progressed past doubt, suspicion, and uncertainly. His husband had shown him the account books and given him the keys to the storehouse. He taught Lan Wangji how to unlock the talismans throughout the Burial Mounds. Perhaps it had been naive, but Lan Wangji had thought this meant something. He thought his husband had determined that he was entirely trustworthy.

It hurt to think that he might have been mistaken.

Still, there was no sense in dwelling on the matter further. He had no proof it was his husband who had rearranged the letters. It might be someone else. Whoever the culprit was, no good could possibly from stirring up a confrontation. So Lan Wangji swallowed again and turned away from the desk.

It was better, he decided, not to trouble himself with such matters. It irked him to think of someone reading his private correspondence, but the letters were not secret. There was nothing shameful concealed within them. He would do better to focus his attention on more important matters. Tomorrow, the children would be fitted for their new robes. The disciples were scheduled to begin studying the more complex methods of cultivation. Those lessons would require Lan Wangji’s full attention. There were a thousand other household tasks, changing the offerings and planning the menus.

He had promised to meet with his husband, too. His husband wanted to discuss some sort of mysterious favor. That was a matter that deserved his full attention.

Lan Wangji could do nothing about the letters. He could dedicate himself wholeheartedly to his duties, to the things firmly under his control. So Lan Wangji drove all other concerns mercilessly out of his mind. He rose from the desk, extinguished the candles, and marched himself off to bed.

Chapter Text

That night, Lan Wangji's dreams were strange. He tumbled through a series of confusing, fragmented images. When he woke, he couldn't remember the specifics. But he felt sure that his husband had played a starring role. Once again, he woke in a state of arousal. He had given up trying to meditate this problem away. Taking himself in hand and trying to finish quickly had become routine. A hurried completion was growing difficult, though. Thoughts teased at the edge of Lan Wangji's mind, sharpening his arousal and stoking the fires.

He tried to make his mind blank and empty, as his instructors had always recommended. They spoke of this act in euphemistic terms, but Lan Wangji had understood their meaning. The body has certain appetites that must be sated, his instructors said. However, overindulgence in physical pleasure is not permitted within our sects. You learned as children that you must control yourselves at mealtimes. You are expected to exercise self-discipline in your private lives, too.

His instructors had emphasized that disciples of Cloud Recesses must not be lascivious. Thinking of another person during the act of self-pleasure violated the precepts against lechery. If disciples must indulge in this act, they ought to empty their minds as they did during meditation.

Lan Wangji tried to follow these teachings. But his husband had been a terrible influence. Whenever Lan Wangji thought of his natal sect's precepts, his husband’s rebuttals echoed in his ears. Lan Wangji had never shared these particular rules with his husband. Even so, he could imagine the Patriarch's response.

No thinking of others while you touch yourself! That doesn’t make any sense! All right, I understand the rules against lechery. But aren’t those meant to prohibit 'indecent behavior'? What’s so ‘indecent’ about thinking of your own husband? Aren’t those thoughts a natural part of marriage? It can’t possibly count as lechery!

Lan Wangji tried to recite the disciplines silently to himself. Once, he had found relief in silent repetition. Now, his husband’s voice intruded upon his meditations. Lan Wangji could hear every vocal inflection, visualize each facial expression. If they ever spoke of such things, his husband would laugh. He would tilt his head, giving that sly smile of his. Then he would tear the disciplines to pieces, pointing out a thousand holes in their logic. 

For now, the debate was wholly invented. It lived only within Lan Wangji's head. Yet he still couldn't think of a counterargument. It didn't seem lecherous to think of your own husband as you pleasured yourself. Such thoughts were a natural part of marriage. At least, they were meant to be. When Lan Wangji touched himself to thoughts of his husband, it felt like a transgression. But he couldn't bring himself to stop thinking of his husband.

Lan Wangji wrestled with his instructor's teachings, as he did every morning. Then he gave up the fight. He pictured his husband frowning over the qi board, harassing the chickens, touching Lan Wangji’s hand in the quiet hallway. Lan Wangji finished very quickly.

Grimly, he tidied himself up in preparation for the day. He dressed in slate gray robes embroidered with mandarin ducks and fixed his hair. The lotus pin slid into its customary place, and he tied on his forehead ribbon. Somehow, both objects seemed an inseparable part of his body. He studied himself in the mirror, another bad habit he had developed since marriage. Once he was satisfied with his appearance, he completed his morning tasks one by one.

The children were measured and fitted for their new clothing. Their school robes were already half-finished. The silk robes would take longer, the Wens said. They might not be complete until the New Year. But there was no hurry, and Lan Wangji urged the seamstresses to take their time.

By the time the fittings were over, the sky had grown heavy with storm clouds. He herded the disciples inside for silent meditation and core-strengthening exercises. Then he went to the kitchens, where Granny Wen helped him prepared roast pheasant. She had already taken care of the most unpleasant tasks: the bird was gutted, plucked, and singed. They still needed to roast the bird and prepare the sauce, so Lan Wangji labored over the meal. Once it was ready, Granny helped him load up a tray for the Patriarch.

“He hasn’t sent for anything this morning." She tutted lightly, shaking her head. “Sometimes he forgets to eat.”

Lan Wangji frowned over that. When he first arrived in the Burial Mounds, Wen Qing told him not to expect his husband to attend meals regularly. Lan Wangji had resigned himself to solitary meals. Over the last few weeks, though, his husband had turned up quite often. Lan Wangji has been surprised, then hopeful. He thought that perhaps his husband might be there for his sake, and the idea was flattering. But he was bothered by the knowledge that his husband—when left to his own devices—often skipped meals. 

The Patriarch wouldn't suffer from hunger. Lan Wangji knew that from his studies. Immortals had cultivated a bottomless well of qi, and they could practice inedia for as long as they wished. There was no risk of starvation. Still, Lan Wangji disliked the idea of his husband missing meals. He was glad for the opportunity to bring something. He balanced the loaded tray carefully, then left the kitchens.

At the rear door, he took the path his husband had described. It led into the hills, winding and twisting. The surrounding trees had shed their leaves, the shrubs shriveled with early winter. Frost crackled beneath his feet as he walked.

The children, Lan Wangji knew, eagerly awaited the first snowfall. He suspected that the children wouldn't have to wait long. Stormclouds loomed overhead, dark and foreboding. But as he walked, thoughts of the children evaporated. Restless flickers of resentful energy teased against his skin. They were stronger now, deeper and more potent. He resisted the urge to shiver.

He had learned to live alongside this strange energy, and it hadn't been as difficult as Lan Wangji had expected. Most days, its presence was easily forgotten. If he stretched out his senses, resentful energy was always lurking nearby. Yet it never harmed him. The energy was under the Patriarch's command, and it had never injured anyone living within the Burial Mounds.

Over the weeks and months, it receded into the back of Lan Wangji's consciousness. Resentful energy melted into the background, like a hum of cicadas. Lan Wangji seldom spared a thought for his husband's cultivation. Even the walking corpses had become an ordinary sight. They were harmless and familiar, no more remarkable than a teapot or folding screen. But as he walked further down the path, his skin itched. He could almost hear voices, whispering from shadowed corners.

Lan Wangji kept his feet on the path. He maintained a steady pace and squashed the impulse to look around. He couldn't ignore the fluctuating energy, though. As he pressed on, the whisper of resentful energy became a pulse. The pulse became a wave. By the time he reached the doorway, he felt as though he were standing beside the ocean. Tall creating waves seemed to roll against the shore. Each felt more powerful than the last.

But when Lan Wangji set foot inside, the energy flattened out. It became a bare whisper, teasing against the edge of his consciousness. Lan Wangji took a deep breath and pushed past the curtain hung across the entryway. Inside, he found a large and sparsely furnished cave. There was a desk, tables, and chairs. There was a qi board, holding an abandoned game. Shelves lined the walls, crowded with texts. Lan Wangji spotted peculiar objects that somehow appeared incomplete.

The faint scent of blood hung in the air. Lan Wangji sniffed cautiously, but he couldn't locate its source. An incense burner smoldered, giving off a sharp medicinal odor. Behind it, a large screen concealed the rear of the cave. He couldn't see what lay beyond the screen.

Lan Wangji set the tray on the desk. Gingerly, he nudged aside a stack of hastily scrawled notes. Then he turned, examining the room. It wasn't an especially pleasant environment for study. Certainly, it didn't look like a proper setting for peaceful cultivation. Lan Wangji wondered what had drawn his husband to build his study here. Perhaps it was only the solitude, the distance from the rest of the settlement.

Somehow, the stillness felt oppressive. He was reluctant to shatter it by calling out. But shouting proved unnecessary. The screen pushed back, and his husband appeared. His hair was disheveled and his clothing badly rumpled. From the way he stared blearily at his surroundings, Lan Wangji suspected that his husband had just woken. Or perhaps he was emerging after a sleepless night of cultivation work.

“Ah! Husband!” The Patriarch’s gaze fell upon Lan Wangji and he smiled.

Lan Wangji inclined his head politely. Then he stole another glance around the cave. He suspected that he was meant to compliment his husband's study, but that proved difficult. The Patriarch's private space had been so shrouded in mystery that Lan Wangji had expected an extravagant library. The damp cave came as something of a disappointment.

The Patriarch seemed to read his expression. His smile turned rueful.

“I know, it’s not much to look at.” He waved a hand at the cave. “But the resentful energy is strongest here, so it’s the best place to work.”

Lan Wangji gave a small, courteous nod. The resentful energy was strong in the back hills. He could feel that for himself. Yet within the cave, the energy had been suppressed. Like a powerful river crashing against a dam, the energy was held in check. Lan Wangji realized that this must be his husband's doing. The Patriarch had hollowed out a space, using the wild energy to fuel his own peculiar brand of cultivation.

“Did you just awaken?” he asked mildly.

His husband gave the question more thought than Lan Wangji thought necessary. He scratched his scalp and a few strands of hair slipped loose.

“Hm. Well. Actually, I might have forgotten to sleep last night.” He glanced at Lan Wangji, then promptly rolled his eyes. “Ah, don’t look at me like that! Immortals don’t have to sleep!”

Lan Wangji gave his husband a disapproving frown. 

“That does not mean that a regular schedule isn’t beneficial."

His husband might not require food or sleep. Even so, Lan Wangji felt sure that it was unhealthy for his husband to rely solely on his powerful qi for sustenance. Using his core to sustain his body might not be dangerous, but it was a strain. Surely the basic principles of cultivation still applied. It was better to sustain the body naturally, rather than senselessly draining one's core.

His husband heaved a sigh.

“Well, you might be right.” He rubbed the back of his neck, his concession rather grudging. “But I asked you here to do me a favor!”

He had. Lan Wangji was undeniably curious to know what his husband planned to ask. When his husband led him deeper into the cave, his curiosity grew.

Lan Wangji passed behind the screen and discovered a small living space. There was a bed, low to the ground and unmade. Beside the bed, a chest had been flung open. Robes were scattered in every direction. Nothing had been folded properly. There was a small washstand, holding a steaming bowl of water. Lan Wangji spotted a cake of soap and a folded towel. When Lan Wangji gave the items a puzzled stare, his husband held up a razor. 

“Shaving is so troublesome!” He glared balefully at the razor. “Really, it's such a waste of time. I tried to invest an automatic shaving talisman once, to see if I could speed things up.”

Lan Wangji quirked a brow. His husband scratched his head, a rueful smile touching his lips.

“Ah, it didn't work out as well as I expected. Let’s just say it’s a good thing I heal quickly. And it was a very good thing that Wen Qing was nearby with some blood-stanching herbs!”

“Reckless,” Lan Wangji sighed.

He admired his husband’s skill with talismans. Most cultivators used talismans merely as a supplement to proper cultivation. But his husband had found a thousand ways to integrate talismans into their daily living. He was astonishingly innovative. There seemed to be nothing his husband couldn't achieve with talismans. He had certainly used them to streamline the work of running a settlement.

Still, some tasks should be performed in a traditional manner. Shaving, Lan Wangji felt, was one of them.

“Entirely so!” His husband nodded cheerfully. “But I was thinking.”

He drifted closer, sidling up to Lan Wangji.

“I’ve already asked my husband to help out with a lot of troublesome chores. Overseeing the lotus harvest, keeping up the account books, wrangling the children…really, having a husband is awfully convenient for a lazy man like me! So shouldn’t I take even greater advantage of my poor husband?”

His smile deepened. He dangled the razor in front of Lan Wangji.

“Maybe he’ll help me shave?”

Lan Wangji blinked several times.

It was hardly the favor he had expected. His husband had brought him to the remotest corner of the Burial Mounds. They were within his inner sanctum, where no one could possibly overhear their conversation. Lan Wangji hadn’t known what favor his husband planned to ask, but he had thought it might be something serious. Perhaps there was a political concern, or something was wrong with one of the Wens. He hadn't expected a request to help with his personal grooming. This request, however, was by no means unwelcome. In fact, it made Lan Wangji’s chest flutter.

As a child, Lan Wangji hadn't spent much time fantasizing about marriage. Idle daydreaming was forbidden in Cloud Recesses, after all. But if he had indulged in daydreams, he might have imagined this. He might have thought about shaving his husband or fixing his hair for the day. He might even have dreamed of his husband returning the favor: tying on his forehead ribbon, pinning his guan into place.

Lan Wangji took the razor with a slight tremor of nervousness. Touching his husband in such a casual, intimate way felt slightly overwhelming. He wanted this, though. He wanted it badly. So he swallowed hard and he nodded to his husband.

“Don’t worry, it’s sharp! I just honed the blade.”

His husband misinterpreted the source of his stage fright. That was undoubtedly for the best: it let Lan Wangji save some face. He nodded again and examined the razor. It was indeed well-honed. The other supplies were prepared, too. Lan Wangji nodded a third time. Then he waited for his husband to drop into the chair beside the washstand, lathering the soap carefully.

But when he tried to apply the lather, Lan Wangji nearly flinched. It would have been easier to manage if his husband wasn’t so handsome. If only his eyes weren't so keen and bright, his expression so amused and sly. It would have been easier if his husband’s body wasn't so warm. If his robes were thicker, if they didn't sag open to reveal a golden expanse of skin.

Lan Wangji kept his eyes firmly averted. He had not been invited here to stare at his husband. The Patriarch had brought him here to perform a task. So he applied the lather in careful strokes. He kept his eyes on his work, but that was little help. His attention focused on his husband’s mouth and jaw. Lan Wangji couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to touch that mouth, to brush his own lips across that jawline.

His mouth grew very dry. They were close, breathing the same air. He couldn't afford to swallow hard, or take a deep ragged breath. He kept his breathing even, as if he were meditating. His throat felt as if he'd swallowed sand, but he ignored that. Then he laid the edge of the razor against his husband’s jaw and set to work.

As soon as the razor touched his skin, his husband went very still. The razor was sharp, so Lan Wangji worked slowly. He kept the pressure light, his strokes careful. The sensation was unfathomably odd. He had never done this before, not even once. He had shaved himself, of course. But he had never shaved another person. No one had ever asked him for something so intimate and personal.

The angle was strange. Yet, gradually, Lan Wangji grew used to it. He felt into a rhythm: applying the lather, rinsing the razor, wiping the skin clean with a dampened cloth.

His husband’s scent filled the room. Their breathing seemed loud at first, but perhaps the silence of the cave was to blame. His husband's stillness felt strange, too. For him, stillness seemed an unnatural state of being. His husband preferred to be talking, moving, gesturing. Even when they sat in silence, his husband's qi fluctuated. It pulsed and fluttered like a wild bird. Nothing about his husband was ever motionless.

But it would be reckless for him to move now. Perhaps the experiment with the shaving talisman had taught him that. He was immortal, and thus protected against illness and old age. Yet even immortals were not entirely impervious to injury. His qi would help him heal, but a sharp razor against his throat could still do significant harm. So he remained still under Lan Wangji’s hands.

His husband was watching him. Lan Wangji could feel it, yet he didn’t dare lift his eyes to meet his husband’s gaze. Somehow, eye contact seemed unbearably intimate. Lan Wangji could manage this task, but only if he kept his eyes averted. If he had to look into his husband’s eyes while touching his husband’s skin…

Lan Wangji wasn't sure what he would do. He was very much afraid that he might embarrass himself. His mouth might open without his permission. He might ask, Why have you never taken me to bed? Is it something I’ve done, or something I've failed to do? Tell me what I must do to make myself desirable to you.

Heat crept along the back of his neck. Stubbornly, he ignored it. He wiped his husband’s face instead with a warm towel. There was a small vial of scented oil nearby. Lan Wangji applied a light coating over the freshly shaved skin. Then he set down the razor and stepped back to survey the results. His husband’s skin was faintly pink, as freshly-shaved skin always was. But that wasn't what caught Lan Wangji’s attention. It was his husband’s eyes, full of burning intensity. The weight of his gaze felt like being doused with boiling water: scalding, shocking, breathtaking.

Lan Wangji took a polite step back. He folded his hands and gave in to the urge to swallow. It was all right: his husband’s eyes drifted toward the razor and he did not seem to notice.

“That’s all?” he asked slowly.

Lan Wangji's brow furrowed. He hesitated.

“That is how it’s done in Cloud Recesses.”

If other shaving rituals were performed in different sects, he didn't know them. He had no notion of his husband's usual routines. But he expected something more—something beyond soap, water, and a blade—he ought to have said so.

“I see!”

His husband tilted his head. He had a strange look on his face. It softened after a moment. Perhaps he realized that Lan Wangji had frowned, confused and dismayed.

“No, I’m not disappointed. Not at all! You did a very nice job!”

He passed a hand over his jaw, inspecting the results. Then he inclined his head toward the folded screen.

“You didn’t look around,” he remarked.

Lan Wangji considered that statement.

“Do you wish to show me?”

His husband gave him another peculiar, intense stare. He looked as if he were peering into a muddied pool, trying to see something at the bottom.

“Maybe not today,” he said, after a long pause.

Lan Wangji nodded politely. His husband studied him some more. 

“Are you angry?” he asked.

Lan Wangji blinked again.

“We’ve been married for months now, and I haven’t invited you here before.” His husband rose to his feet, tossing aside the damp towel. “Now I haven’t even offered to show you around! I wouldn’t be surprised if you were annoyed with me.”

“I am not.” Lan Wangji spoke slowly. “You have a right to your privacy.”

His husband snorted. The sound made Lan Wangji’s stomach tighten. A question slipped between his lips before he could think better of it. 

“Are you angry with me?” 

His husband had tossed the razor into a box, and he was busy shoving aside the vial of oil. But his movements suddenly stopped. He held himself very still for a long moment. 

“Not at all.”

He sounded as though he meant it. Yet his voice was tense, and Lan Wangji didn’t like it. Slowly, his husband turned away from the washstand. His eyes fell on Lan Wangji again. There was a deep crease between his brows as he studied Lan Wangji from head to toe.

“You really aren’t what I expected,” he said quietly, “when I first saw you in that tent.”

“What did you expect?”

That question, too, slipped out without conscious thought. His husband quirked a brow, the smile returning to your face.

“Oh, dear! Are you sure you want to know?” He slouched over to Lan Wangji’s side, swinging his arms. “I’m afraid it’s not very flattering.”

Lan Wangji let out a soft exhale. A few weeks ago, that remark might have been insulting. But Lan Wangji was accustomed to his husband now. He didn't mind his husband's frank responses, and he offered one in return.

“My initial impression of you was also unflattering,” he admitted.

His husband laughed aloud. There was a sharp edge to his voice. His eyes were amused, though. Something in his face had thawed slightly.

“Ah, was it really? Well, I’ll tell you a secret.” He leaned in. “I was trying to be annoying. I wanted to stir those sect leaders up, make them mad at me!”

It was a strange statement. Lan Wangji dissected it word by word. His husband had intended to cause offense and provoke the sect leaders. It seemed like a peculiar thing for an immortal to do. But then, his husband was a peculiar immortal.

“Why?”

His husband hummed to himself. He rubbed a hand over his freshly shaved jaw. Then he herded Lan Wangji over to the rumpled bed and sat down on the edge. He patted the empty space beside him. Lan Wangji felt his pulse quicken, but he lowered himself down to sit beside his husband.

“Why don’t we do it this way: I’ll tell you my first impression of you, and you can return the favor. Then you tell me if we’ve answered your question.”

Lan Wangji gave that some thought. He nodded.

“Let me see!” His husband leaned back on his hands and gazed up at the ceiling. “Well, I'm sure you can guess my very first impression of you!”

He flashed another sly, teasing glance in Lan Wangji's direction. But Lan Wangji shook his head.

His husband said his initial impression was 'not very flattering'. Lan Wangji wasn’t sure what he meant by that. He had his share of flaws, of course. He wasn't skilled at social interaction, and he had never been good at making a favorable first impression. But he'd hardly spoken to his husband during their first meeting. He wasn't sure what unfavorable impression he had given, the first time their eyes met.

The Patriarch made a disparaging sound.

“You can’t guess? My husband is really too modest!”

He leaned over, nudging Lan Wangji’s shoulder with his.

“To be frank, I thought you were the most beautiful person I had ever seen.”

It was deeply unfortunate that they were seated so close together. Heat rushed up Lan Wangji's throat again, creeping toward his ears. He could do nothing to hide it. He wasn't surprised when his husband laughed again, this time with greater sincerity.

“Ah, did you know you blush right here when you get embarrassed?” He reached out and brushed a thumb over the shell of Lan Wangji’s ear. “It’s very cute.”

His touch was feather-light, but it was enough to turn Lan Wangji's body into liquid fire. He had the terrible impression the blush might be spreading. It transformed into a different kind of heat, burning its way to his core. The heat spread dangerously low.

Lan Wangji exerted every cultivation technique he knew of, trying to suppress his body's response. He averted his eyes, and his husband laughed some more.

“My second thought was, ‘My goodness! He really doesn’t like me!’”

His husband’s voice was full of mock offense. Lan Wangji forced himself to lift his eyes, and his husband gave an impudent grin.

“You were glaring at me the whole time, you realize. Your poor brother was trying so hard to be diplomatic, and half the sect leaders looked like they were about to wet themselves. But you just looked at me like I was a naughty disciple who ought to be whipped.”

Lan Wangji supposed it was true. He had not liked the Patriarch’s demeanor. The Patriarch seemed to violate a dozen of his sect's disciplines with every movement. Lan Wangji hadn't intended to glare, but he'd never been good at concealing his disapproval. His brother could skillfully modulate his responses, smoothing away his irritation when he spoke to someone disagreeable. Lan Wangji was too much like their uncle. If he disapproved of someone's behavior, he couldn't help letting his disapproval show.

The Patriarch stretched out his legs, studying his shoes.

“My third thought was, ‘Ah. Now here's a very righteous man, just as serious and upstanding as all the rumors claimed!’” His husband's mouth formed another odd, humorless smile. “’Probably he’s very strict and regimented, with no flexibility whatsoever. I bet he’s never done anything frivolous or immoral in his whole life!”

Lan Wangji listened in silence. He hardly knew what to say. Of course, he knew that rumor had painted him in such a light. The rumors were not wrong, either. He had always tried to be serious, righteous, and upstanding. He was strict, as his husband had said. Regimented. Inflexible. It was true enough.

But since his marriage, such rumors were significantly less true. He couldn't be strict or regimented in a foreign place, nor could he be inflexible in his husband’s home. Lan Wangji hoped he was still righteous and upstanding. Yet he sensed he was far less serious than he once was. It was difficult to be serious, with children clamoring for his attention every moment. The Wens laughed and joked, as the people of Cloud Recesses seldom did. His husband devoted at least an hour each day to merciless teasing. It had eroded Lan Wangji's dignity, perhaps. He could not afford to scorn frivolousness any longer. Somewhat to his surprise, Lan Wangji found he didn’t mind the change.

“I thought,” his husband continued, “'This man probably has very rigid ideas about orthodox cultivation. He probably thinks what I’m doing is terribly sinful.’”

The words hung oddly in the air. Lan Wangji knew he couldn’t refute them. They were also quite true. Cloud Recesses had very strict ideas about the correct cultivation path. No one in Cloud Recesses approved of the Patriarch's cultivation methods. Naturally, his sect hadn't wished to offend an immortal. They had kept their disapproval—their horror—to themselves. But Lan Wangji had certainly been raised to believe that his husband’s method of cultivation was sinful.

It was difficult to remember that now. His husband wasn't the sadistic, monstrous creature Lan Wangji had supposed. His temperament hadn't been corrupted by the use of resentful energy. He was gentle with the children, affectionate toward the Wens, patient with the servants. Even the walking corpses that prowled the Burial Mounds didn't seem unhappy with their lot.

Wen Ruohan had treated his puppets like meat. He threw them onto the battlefield, not caring what became of them. The walking corpses of the Burial Mounds were treated much like human servants. They had clothing, bedding, houses. No one beat them or used them as a weapon. They were allowed to roam at will, never asked to perform any task that living servants would scorn.

Of course, it was still inherently sinful to raise dead bodies. To harness restless spirits and to push them back into their flesh...it wasn't right. Lan Wangji knew this. Intellectually, he knew what his husband was doing was wrong. His sect’s teachings had always said so, anyway. But it was hard to feel that his husband had done wrong. Especially when the walking corpses smiled at the children or turned their face to the sky, enjoying the warm sunlight.

Lan Wangji remained silent. He couldn't find a way to bridge the gap between what he felt and what his sect believed. His husband gave him a rather flat smile, as if to say that the lack of objections hadn't gone unnoticed. Then he tapped Lan Wangji’s knee.

“Now it’s your turn!"

Lan Wangji struggled to arrange his thoughts. Now that he reflected on the matter, he could hardly remember what he thought or felt in the first moment he laid eyes on his husband. It hadn't been so long ago. Only three months had passed since that day. But it seemed like a memory from another lifetime. Lan Wangji felt he had been a different person then. It was difficult to remember what that person had believed. He remembered one of his reactions, at least.

“I also thought you were handsome,” he said softly.

His husband laughed aloud.

“My! Did you really! The most handsome person you’d ever seen?”

He batted his eyes theatrically, like a coy maiden. Lan Wangji resisted the temptation to shove him.

“Mm,” he admitted.

It was true, after all. His husband was startlingly handsome. Lan Wangji could hardly help but notice it. There had been other thoughts on his mind. The war, for one. The danger of inviting the notorious Yiling Patriarch to discuss battle plans. When the Patriarch arrived, Lan Wangji’s mind had been crowded with dozens of other concerns. But he couldn't help noticing that his husband was extraordinarily handsome.

“Husband!” The Patriarch’s smile relaxed. He gave Lan Wangji’s shoulder another nudge. “I’m teasing! You don’t have to give me the same compliment I gave you.”

“It is true. You are very handsome.”

There was no earthy reason why the words should be embarrassing. Yet they were. Lan Wangji's face heated and he hurried on.

“I was also struck by your qi. I had never felt anything like it.”

Lan Wangji felt sure that no one present had felt anything like it. For anyone who could sense spiritual energy, the Patriarch's qi was astonishing. They had all felt it the moment he stepped into the tent. His power was jarring and disquieting. It was one thing to know that the Patriarch was an immortal. It was quite another thing to feel it.

“Then I thought you were very rude.” He inclined his head gently, to soften the blow. “You didn't carry yourself respectably. You slouched and sat improperly. You were drinking at midday.”

“Horrifying.” The Patriarch grinned. “Shameful behavior, I know!”

Lan Wangji hesitated over the next words. They were not diplomatic, but somehow he felt they need to be said.

“I thought, 'He knows we are at his mercy and he likes it.'” His voice grew quiet. "I thought perhaps you intended to mock us or taunt us, and I felt angry. And I didn't like that you were trying to extract payment in return for your help.”

His husband didn't respond right away. Lan Wangji studied his face, but his expression was unreadable.

“You thought I should offer my help for free, as a noble and generous immortal.” His husband spread his hands as if making an offering.

Lan Wangji gave a slight nod.

Immortals were said to be above earthly matters. Lan Wangji saw now that this was a foolish notion. Even if they sought to cut themselves off from the cultivation world, immortals had earthly concerns. They may not need food for themselves, but they needed other things. Clothing, perhaps, and housing. If they took disciples, they had to feed, clothe, and house them too. They needed soap, ink, and thread. Sometimes they might need medicinal herbs or tinctures. They couldn't live off of air and sunlight.

At the time, Lan Wangji had been deeply offended by the Patriarch's demands for payment. But he understood now that he had considerably less moral high ground than he might have liked. Lan Wangji would never have accepted direct payment from peasants while night-hunting. That meant little, though. The common-folk paid taxes to the sects, and the funds helped to feed and shelter the cultivators who dedicated their lives to eliminating evil.

Strictly speaking, none of the sects worked for free. They received payment for their efforts, and they engaged in mercenary business. The sects owned land, grew crops, hired laborers, and mined silver. The common-folk bought their crops, mined their ore, and served at their tables. In a thousand small ways, peasants paid for the protection they received from the cultivation world. It wasn't unreasonable, then, for the Patriarch to place a price on his own labors.

“But I was also annoyed with the other sect leaders,” Lan Wangji added, after an awkward pause. “They were cowering or trying to ingratiate themselves to you. That was disgraceful.”

His husband snorted again. 

“Ah, yes. You looked very disgusted when they were talking about giving me concubines!”

The Patriarch looked disgusted himself. But there was a thin trace of amusement, edging at the corners of his mouth.

“It was not virtuous behavior,” Lan Wangji said tersely. “Those were not honorable offers. They should not have made them.”

Offering the Patriarch silver, salt, and silks in exchange for human lives was mercenary. But those were respectable and honest prices. To offer young men and women to serve him in bed…that was a disgraceful offer. The sect leaders should have been too ashamed to utter such words. Lan Wangji had never been so disgusted in his life, listening to a dozen sect leaders offering up their favorite prostitutes.

“Then I said I'd take a spouse instead,” the Patriarch finished. He wrinkled his nose. “That one man—I don't remember his name—he got very offended that I'd dragged everyone there to review my options!”

The Patriarch laughed softly to himself. But the laugh evaporated quickly, and he turned to Lan Wangji.

“Then I picked you. What was your impression of me then?”

His tone was uncharacteristically grave. Lan Wangji considered his words carefully.

“I was unable to make one,” he concluded. “I didn't understand your choice.”

He had been too stunned—too horrified—to think of anything at that moment. Later, dread had crowded out all other thoughts. He couldn't understand the Patriarch’s actions, and his confusion had only deepened his fear and horror.

His husband heaved a sigh.

“There's such a thing as being too modest, you know.” He gave Lan Wangji’s knee a reproving prod.

Lan Wangji shook his head, folding his hands tighter upon his lap.

“No. It is not modesty. If you wished for a powerful cultivator or a skilled swordsman. If you...” his voice faltered briefly, “wished for someone beautiful. Then I understood why you chose me. But I didn't understand why you had need of those things. I didn't understand why you wished for a spouse.”

Modesty was a virtue. Failing to acknowledge the truth was not. When questioned about his choice, the Patriarch had been blunt to the point of crudity: Second Young Master Lan is the most beautiful, the most talented, the strongest cultivator.

His brother, of course, exceeded Lan Wangji in every respect. But the Patriarch had seemed unwilling to disrupt the cultivation world by removing a sect leader from power. And if the sect leaders were excluded from the selection—if his criteria were what he'd stated in the tent—then Lan Wangji knew the choice was simple enough. It wasn't likely that anyone present had wondered why Lan Wangji was chosen. Yet why did the Patriarch need a spouse? The question had teased at him for weeks, flaring up like a stubborn itch.

His husband gave a careless shrug.

“Some people find it pleasant,” he said lightly. “Being married.”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji allowed. “But I didn't understand why an immortal would wish to marry.”

The Patriarch made a thoughtful sound. He stared at the cave wall.

“The same reasons as anyone, I suppose. It's not all that different, you know.” He sounded almost rueful. “Being mortal, being immortal. It's the same kind of existence. There's just...more of it.”

Lan Wangji thought that over. It was disappointing somehow. Immortality had always been held up as the ultimate goal. Cultivators were led to believe that immortality brought wisdom, peace, oneness. Lan Wangji was rather horrified to learn that immortality only meant a stronger core and an endless youth. Power and youth were meaningless if unaccompanied by wisdom or peace. If immortals were merely flawed beings, blundering their way through eternity…

Lan Wangji felt that he might pity his husband for such a fate.

His husband let out a long breath.

“But you didn't understand why I wanted a spouse,” he said slowly. “Maybe you still don't understand?”

Lan Wangji shook his head. He kept his eyes trained on his husband’s face.

Perhaps this would be the moment when his husband finally enlightened him. Lan Wangji felt he was willing to accept almost any answer to his questions: Why did you choose to marry at all? Why did you choose me? Why haven’t you ever touched me?

He could accept any answer, as long as it was the truth. But his husband studied the screen with hooded eyes. Then he sighed.

“I didn’t answer your question, did I?” He gave Lan Wangji a brief glance. “You asked me why I wanted to provoke all those sect leaders.”

Lan Wangji shook his head. His husband had given no answer. Not one that Lan Wangji could understand, anyway. He felt that perhaps his husband had given him some kind of clue during this meandering conversation. But it was like sifting an endless mound of soil, search for a fragment of gold. Lan Wangji didn’t even know where to begin.

His husband sighed again.

“Lan Wangji.” He turned on the bed, drawing himself into the lotus position. “May I call you that?”

Lan Wangji nodded. His husband wrinkled his nose.

“Hm. It’s so formal, though! How about I call you by your given name?”

Lan Wangji nodded again, quickly. They were married, after all. It was entirely proper for his husband to use his given name. He thought he'd rather like to hear his name in his husband’s mouth. It had been so long since anyone had called him 'A-Zhan'. It would be nice if his husband did.

His husband’s mouth twitched as he reached out to take Lan Wangji’s hand.

“Ah, I'm sorry. But 'Lan Wangji' was the only name on the betrothal contract! You'll have to remind me what your given name is.”

His hand was very warm, his fingers strong as they curled around Lan Wangji’s.

“Lan Zhan,” he said softly.

“Lan Zhan. That's nice.”

It was nice. His husband’s touch—his hushed voice—was extremely nice. It was so nice that Lan Wangji couldn’t help but wish for something more. But he held himself very still. He focused on the gentle pressure of his husband’s fingers. After a moment, his husband placed Lan Wangji’s hand between both of his.

“Okay. Lan Zhan.”

His husband’s voice was very even. When Lan Wangji lifted his eyes, his face was difficult to read. He spoke in a measured tone, as if carefully weighing each word.

“Lan Zhan. I'm not actually sure what's happening right now.” His husband smiled rather tensely at Lan Wangji’s bewilderment. “It's true! There's something going on, and I still don't understand it yet. I'm working on it, though. And I think I'm making progress.”

Lan Wangji absorbed the words in silence. He stared into his husband’s eyes. But his husband dropped his gaze, studying at their joined hands. He smoothed Lan Wangji’s palm, his thumb resting lightly against Lan Wangji’s knuckles.

“If things work out the way I hope, then I'll tell you someday soon why I married you.” His husband drew in a slow, deep breath. “I'll explain everything. Any questions you have about anything, I'll answer them. Soon.”

He darted a look at Lan Wangji’s face, perhaps to judge his reaction. But Lan Wangji couldn’t put his own thoughts in order, much less transfer them to his face. He didn’t understand. He had begun to chafe with frustration and impatience. His husband danced up against this topic several times but still refused to give a frank answer. Now, he promised to give Lan Wangji his answers ‘soon’. But only if a certain sequence of events occurred. Lan Wangji sat in mystified, frustrated silence.

“And if things…” he caught his breath, “do not work out the way you hope?”

The phrase carried an odd, unpleasant weight. His husband smiled tensely at the question. Somehow, Lan Wangji felt that he didn't want to know what would happen if his husband’s hopes were disappointed.

“In that case,” the Patriarch said very quietly, “I don't think the answers will matter much. I don't think you'll have any questions that you need me to answer.”

The resentful energy within the cave strengthened for a moment. It flickered and pulsed, like a horse straining at the bit. But the energy didn’t lash out. It left Lan Wangji untouched, as it always had.

Lan Wangji felt that he was frowning. He couldn’t quite remove the expression from his face. His husband sighed, releasing Lan Wangji’s hand. He didn’t drop it carelessly. Instead, he lowered the hand gently onto Lan Wangji’s knee. Then he gave Lan Wangji's hand a small pat.

“I'm sorry.” His face was troubled. “But can you bear with it a little bit longer?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji said.

He didn’t need to meditate on the question. Not really, anyway. He was married, and so he would have to bear anything. Whatever behavior his husband displayed, whatever treatment he bestowed, Lan Wangji would have to bear it. He had known that from the moment he left Cloud Recesses.

This was something quite different. Lan Wangji felt as though his husband was asking for his patience, for his support. His husband hadn’t dismissed his concerns or ignored his questions. He had promised to give Lan Wangji answers in due time. Then he had apologized and asked—kindly, almost humbly—if Lan Wangji could bear it.

Lan Wangji found that he could. He could bear anything for his husband’s sake. If his husband needed his help, then he could bear any frustration or hardship. He wished he could play a more active role and help his husband solve whatever problems plagued him. But if the best Lan Wangji could do was offer patience and forbearance, then he would offer it very willingly.

His husband studied him in silence. Then he smiled. Somehow, his eyes seemed sad.

“You're a very nice husband,” he remarked. “I wasn't expecting that at all.”

“Neither was I,” Lan Wangji admitted.

His husband gave a startled, bemused laugh.

“You weren't expecting that you would be a nice husband?” He drew up a knee and propped an elbow against it. “Or you weren't expecting that I would be a nice husband?”

Lan Wangji's brows drew together.

“Either,” he said. “Both.”

He hadn't dared to hope that the Patriarch would be a 'nice husband'. That had come as a very pleasant surprise. But Lan Wangji also hadn't been sure whether he himself would prove to be a ‘nice husband’. He knew his duties, of course. He was prepared to do his best for the sake of his family and the marriage alliance. He could never forget that his marriage had ended a war. He had a duty to be faithful, hardworking, and virtuous.

He hadn't known whether he could be nice, though. Lan Wangji hadn't been sure that he could make his husband smile or bring him comfort during moments of tension. So it was pleasant to see his husband smile now. To feel the echo of his husband’s warmth against his hand, to be told that he was a 'very nice husband'.

His husband’s face relaxed into a deeper smile.

“Ah. You’re cute!”

He spoke idly, heedless of the blush creeping its way up Lan Wangji’s neck. Then he reached out and laid a hand against Lan Wangji’s arm.

“Well, if we can both be nice husbands to each other, that would make me happy. How about it?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji whispered. “I would…also be happy.”

Nothing would make him happier. He wished to spend the rest of his days striving toward this one goal. He wanted to try to make this man happy, and he wanted to know that his husband was doing the same for him.

Surely they were off to a good start. They had kept each other company, even exchanged gifts. They spent their evenings together. His husband had expressed a willingness to confide in Lan Wangji someday. Lan Wangji could be patient. He could prove himself worthy of confidence. He mustn't be greedy, demanding confessions that his husband wasn't prepared to give. A nice husband didn't make selfish demands. He waited patiently until his spouse felt ready for deeper intimacy. Lan Wangji must be nice for his husband.

The Patriarch sighed and released his arm.

“I’ve kept you for too long.” He dropped both feet onto the floor, straightening and stretching his back. “You shouldn’t let me take advantage of your goodwill! Start glaring at me again, the way you did in the tent. The next time I ask you for a favor, tell me ‘Husband, how dare you treat me like your slave! Don’t be so lazy! Do it yourself!’”

He gave a mock scowl, like a nagging fishwife. But his eyes were dancing.

“That would not be the response of a nice husband,” Lan Wangji reminded him gravely.

His husband dropped the scowl and collapsed into laughter.

“Well, don’t be too nice!” he insisted. “You can bully me a little if you want. I’ll bully you, too. Just every now and then! It’ll keep things interesting.”

Lan Wangji was not intimidated by this threat. His husband had a mischievous look. It was the precise expression he wore when he tried to pester Lan Wangji into gambling in the marketplace. 'Bullying’ clearly meant ‘teasing’, and Lan Wangji didn’t mind that at all. The teasing did keep things interesting, in fact.

“Very well.” He gave a solemn nod. “If that is what my husband wishes.”

A thought suddenly occurred to him, and he rose to his feet.

“I brought you food,” he added.

His husband’s laughter followed him beyond the screen.

“Ah, you’re no good at this bullying thing,” he called out. “You're absolutely hopeless! Oh, well. My husband is skilled in so many areas, it’s good to know he has a few shortcomings.”

The blush was back, burning the edges of his ears. It had never left, really. Lan Wangji ignored it. He fetched the tray and brought it back to the small sleeping area. By the time he returned, his husband had stopped pretending to complain. He received the tray happily and settled it across his lap.

“Well, I’m hungry, so this works out nicely.” He rubbed his hands together. “Give me my lunch! You can start bullying me tomorrow.”

Lan Wangji removed the coverings and set them aside. His husband snatched up the chopsticks and poked around the dishes with eager interest.

“Ah! Is this the pheasant I brought back?”

He broke off a bit of meat, dipping it into the sauce.

“Yes,” Lan Wangji said. “It was cooked with rice wine and chili sauce.”

His husband laughed.

“Did Granny tell you that?”

Lan Wangji inclined his head slightly.

“She helped me,” he admitted.

His husband’s chopsticks, halfway to his mouth, paused. Lan Wangji felt a curious impulse to avert his eyes. Suddenly, he was too embarrassed to look his husband in the face.

“You cooked it?”

His husband’s voice was soft again. Lan Wangji nodded, and his husband was silent for a long moment.

“Ah, I didn’t know my husband knew how to cook! Truly, he’s skilled at almost everything. Everything except gambling and bullying!”

He was trying to make a joke, Lan Wangji knew that. But somehow, the joke didn’t land. There was a tremulous edge in his husband’s voice. He sounded astonished, or perhaps uncertain. Lan Wangji wasn't sure whether that was a good sign.

“I did not know much about cooking when I came,” he explained slowly. “But I am trying to learn.”

Perhaps it was foolish that this was so important to him. It wasn't expected of him. His husband had never given the slightest indication that he expected Lan Wangji to cook for him. Why should he? The Wens and the servants had been overseeing his kitchens for years. They managed perfectly well on their own.

But something drove Lan Wangji to prepare a meal for his husband with his own two hands. He had several fragmented childhood memories of his mother's cooking. She had always prepared a meal for her sons when they came to visit. Lan Wangji could hardly remember how her cooking tasted. He only remembered sitting at the table, full of pride: his mother had taken the trouble to fix his meal herself. It had mattered to him then, and it mattered to him now.

His husband stared for a long moment. Lan Wangji had the uncanny feeling that his memories were visible on his face. But his husband caught himself, and he scooped up a larger piece of meat.

“I shouldn’t let it go cold, then!” He took an enormous bite.

Lan Wangji waited patiently as he chewed. His husband smiled broadly.

“It’s very good!” He tore off another strip of meat and dunked it eagerly into the sauce. “You put extra chilies in, didn’t you?”

“I know my husband likes them,” Lan Wangji said quietly.

His husband’s eyes cut toward him again.

“I do,” he murmured.

He said no more. Instead, he finished the meal quickly, eating with a hearty appetite.

As he'd filled the tray, Lan Wangji had suspected that he brought too much food. He'd worked hard to master red bean dumplings and eight-treasure rice, though. Granny told him he'd done well. But Lan Wangji couldn't be satisfied without hearing his husband's judgment. In the end, he'd he loaded the tray with enough food for three people. His husband devoured every morsel, down to the last grain of rice. Then he stacked the empty plates with an air of contentment that made Lan Wangji’s heart swell.

“Well, now that I know you can cook so well, I’m curious to find out what you’ll make next!”

His husband smiled at him. Lan Wangji felt his heart give another treacherous thump.

“What would you like?” he asked.

He was willing to make anything at all. If his husband wished for a certain dish, Lan Wangji would work tirelessly to learn how to prepare it. His husband gave a considering hum.

“They make a pork rib and lotus root soup in Yunmeng, near Lotus Pier.” He tilted his head. “I tried it once when I was traveling around there. Nobody seems to make it around Yiling, though! I guess we’re too far from the lotus lakes. The lotus roots are better when they're fresh.”

“There are some in the cellar,” Lan Wangji said promptly. “I will find a recipe and learn to make it.”

He wasn't entirely sure where to find such a recipe. But that did was a trivial concern, easily forgotten when his husband beamed at him. Perhaps one of the Wens might know where to find the recipe. If all else failed, Lan Wangji could write to his brother and ask him to search for it. Meat was forbidden in Cloud Recesses, so it was unlikely he would find it at home. Lan Xichen could travel freely, though. His letters had mentioned an upcoming conference with Sect Leader Jiang. If this soup was a Yunmeng dish, perhaps he would know of it.

Suddenly, Lan Wangji noticed a faint metallic odor. He had caught a hint of it when he entered the cave, but the roast meat and the soap had concealed the scent. With the food gone, the odor had grown stronger. He resisted the urge to sniff around like a dog. Slowly, he parted his lips and tasted the scent on his tongue. It smelled like a battlefield, like a fresh wound.

“Did you injure yourself?”

He tried to keep his voice neutral, tactful. There was no polite way to ask, Husband, why does your private study smell of blood? Lan Wangji was suddenly afraid that he might not like the answer.

His husband gave him a puzzled stare. Then, after a moment, his expression cleared.

“Ah, no. You can smell that?”

Lan Wangji nodded. His husband set the tray aside.

“Here. I’ll show you.”

He took Lan Wangji into the farthest recesses of a cave, through a narrow passage. The opening had been shielded by a folded section of the screen, and Lan Wangji hadn't noticed it. The Patriarch pushed the screen aside and stepped through. With some misgivings, Lan Wangji followed. The scent of blood intensified, growing thick and heavy. His husband led him to a small grotto, with a pool at the far edge.

At first, Lan Wangji thought it was merely a pool of stagnant water. They were within a cave, after all. Rainwater must filter through the soil and collect somewhere inside. But the Patriarch stepped up to the edge and nodded for Lan Wangji to take a look. When Lan Wangji did so, he saw the source of the odor. The liquid in the pool was a deep, vivid crimson.

It wasn't pure blood, he realized. Lan Wangji had seen enough bloodshed during the war to know what a pool of blood looked like. The contents of the pool were mainly rainwater. Yet the water was tainted with something. Near the edge, the pulse of resentful energy was so strong it burned.

“There’s a lot of resentful energy concentrated right here.” His husband scuffed a toe along the perimeter. “At some point, people died here. Their spirits have stuck around.”

Lan Wangji absorbed that in silence. His husband had spoken idly. He sounded as if he didn't know what had ended the spirits' lives, and that was reassuring. The resentful energy of the Burial Mounds was old. Its origins must stretch back centuries, long before his husband's time. That didn't make his choice to live here—to cultivate using this energy—less shocking. But it was a relief to know that he couldn't possibly be the one who created this place. The Patriarch had not tainted this pool with blood and resentful energy.

After a moment, Lan Wangji realized he was gripping Bichen. His knuckles had turned white, and his husband gave a wry smile.

“It won’t hurt you.” He roamed around the small cavern, not looking in Lan Wangji’s direction. “I can control everything within my borders. It knows better than to touch the people living here.”

Lan Wangji knew that was true. He also felt sure that he ought to nod politely and excuse himself. His husband had made it clear that he wasn't ready to answer questions yet. Lan Wangji had agreed to keep his questions to himself for the time being. But he opened his mouth anyway. Words escaped.

“You can also control things beyond your borders."

The Patriarch nodded, almost absently. His eyes drifted over the stalactites.

“Dead things. Yes. That’s very easy, you know.” He made a soft, contemptuous sound. “Wen Ruohan thought he was so smart, playing with a few corpses! Like a child playing on the beach, picking up dead fish that have washed in.” “

There was no humor in his eyes now. He was wreathed in shadows. They both were. Even so, Lan Wangji could see his husband’s face well enough. He wasn't smiling, and his expression was very cold. After a brief silence, he turned his attention away from the cave walls. He pinned Lan Wangji with a sharp stare.

“What did it look like?”

Lan Wangji didn't need to ask what his husband meant.

“Don’t you know?” he murmured. 

His husband had vanquished Wen Ruohan so easily. At the time, Lan Wangji thought that he must have had some method of watching the battlefield. Perhaps the resentful energy of the dead carried whispers to him, or perhaps he could see through the eyes of the corpses. Either way, Lan Wangji couldn't imagine that his husband was ignorant about the events of that final battle.

“Oh, I can imagine.” His husband gave a languorous shrug. “I have a pretty good imagination. But I’d like to hear it from someone who was there.”

Lan Wangji took a slow, deep breath. He understood. His husband didn't want a military debriefing. He merely wished to know what it had looked like through Lan Wangji’s eyes. What the cultivators present had thought as they witnessed Wen Ruohan’s gruesome end. Lan Wangji had never been good at storytelling. But he thought hard, letting his mind drift back to that final battle.

“At first, the corpses turned to ash. They seemed…drawn to me. To the pin.”

His fingers twitched at his sides. He was tempted to reach up toward the lotus pin, tucked within the intricate knot of his hair. It felt like such an innocuous object nowadays. Lan Wangji settled the pin into his hair each morning and removed it each night. In his mind, the pin was linked only to his husband and his late mother-in-law. It was the symbol of his marriage, which had brought him a surprising measure of happiness. But as he reflected on the fall of Nightless City, the pin burned against his scalp like an iron.

“They approached,” Lan Wangji said, “and they crumbled into dust.”

His husband must know this. He waited in silence, his face unreadable. Evidently, he wanted Lan Wangji to finish his narrative.

“Then they turned savage, and began attacking Wen soldiers.” Lan Wangji paused. “It was brutal.”

His husband gave another shrug. The gesture was sharp, dismissive.

“What Wen Ruohan was doing was brutal,” he said curtly. “There was a lot of anger. A lot of resentful energy. That’s his fault.”

Lan Wangji nodded slowly. He couldn't argue. No one would dare to dispute such a thing. In the days after the war ended, every cultivator present had murmured something similar: Wen Ruohan has reaped the fruits of his corrupt method of cultivation! The heavens have decreed his fate! So may it be for all who stray from the orthodox path!

No one had mentioned the Patriarch. No one dared to whisper that the war was won by a man whose cultivation was far from orthodox. Perhaps no one had wanted to consider that. The Patriarch hadn't shown his face after their conference, and Lan Wangji had disappeared too. It was likely very easy for the cultivation world to forget their bargain.

“We made our way to the Nightless City,” Lan Wangji continued. “We found it overrun. His sons were already dead. Then we found Wen Ruohan. He seemed half-mad. As if he was seeing something that wasn’t there.”

His voice had grown tense, slightly breathless, and he tried to steady it. Lan Wangji refused to shrink back from his memories. They were horrific, but they were part of the war. He could bear the memories of the Wen soldiers he had killed, the disciples who had fought and died at his side.

His husband’s gaze was heavy and dark, though. Somehow, that made it hard to speak.

“Oh, it was there."

His husband gave a flat smile.

“He forgot about it, that’s all. He thought he could ignore it. All the vengeful spirits he was responsible for. All the lives he destroyed. He thought he could kill his enemies, and they’d be gone for good.”

There was bitterness in his voice. Bitterness, and a terrible weight. Lan Wangji bit the inside of his cheek. He wished to ask: What did he try to forget? What did you make him see? But perhaps he didn’t truly wish to know.

Wen Ruohan had destroyed countless lives. Thousands upon thousands of people lay dead because of his actions. They had suffered and perished, their bodies mutilated beyond description. If their spirits had found a way to return, seeking retribution…

It was a form of justice. Lan Wangji couldn't deny that. His own sect might not approve of such methods. Marshaling resentful spirits to guide them in their quest for vengeance was not part of the orthodox path. Yet Lan Wangji couldn't truthfully claim that it was unjust. Wen Ruohan’s victims had a right to hold their tormentor accountable.

“I could’ve told him that approach wouldn’t work,” the Patriarch added. His eyes were hooded. “But he didn’t come around here asking for my advice.”

Lan Wangji nodded. Of course, he hadn’t. Wen Ruohan had been a sadist and megalomaniac, obsessed with seeking power. He lacked the humility needed to seek counsel from an immortal. He certainly lacked the humility to heed advice when it was given.

The words kindled Lan Wangji's curiosity. He hadn't supposed that Wen Ruohan ever approached the Patriarch, as a petitioner or a disciple. But they had both meddled with forbidden forms of cultivation. Lan Wangji had wondered—he sensed the whole world had wondered—about the exact nature of their relationship.

“You said…” Lan Wangji paused. He drew a shallow breath of the musty, blood-soaked air. "You said that he’d become very annoying.”

The Patriarch smiled. It was almost a grimace. He tilted his head in Lan Wangji’s direction.

“That must’ve sounded like a very strange word to use during a time of war.”

“He was more than an annoyance to us," Lan Wangji said cautiously. “But perhaps not to you.”

To the cultivation world, Wen Ruohan had meant certain destruction. He represented the obliteration of their sects and their families. The Patriarch, however, was shielded by his wards. He was powerful enough to destroy Wen Ruohan with a gesture. Perhaps, to him, the man had only been an irritating gnat.

His husband was silent for a moment. Then he walked over to Lan Wangji with long, slow steps. He paused once he was within arm's reach.

“Do you want to know a secret?”

His husband’s face was beautiful and merciless. He looked exalted, transcendent, an immortal trapped in the moment of their ascension.

“He only made me stronger.” His husband’s lips curved. “He added a lot of resentful energy to this world. He unleashed a whole wave of it. He might as well have handed me the finest sword in the world.”

Lan Wangji remained silent. After a moment, his husband exhaled heavily. His face changed and the ice melted away from his eyes. Suddenly, he looked tired.

“But I don’t actually approve of mindless killing.” He shrugged. “Contrary to popular belief, I don’t much like the idea of raising an army of corpses or slaughtering everyone who gets in my way.”

He returned to the outer room and dropped onto the bed. Lan Wangji followed him, like a puppet on a string.

“Waking up a willing corpse—someone who doesn’t want to move on—and letting them do the laundry?” His husband tilted his head. “That’s one thing. Dragging souls around, kicking and screaming, so they can fight in your wars? That’s something else.”

Lan Wangji absorbed that. A willing corpse, his husband said. Someone who doesn’t want to move on. Lan Wangji had wondered how the walking corpses in the Burial Mounds had been awakened. But he hadn’t dared to ask. The act itself was a blasphemy. Spirits should be laid to rest or banished from the mortal realm. Under no circumstances should they be reawakened, guided back into corpses held together with powerful spellwork. But if the corpses in the Burial Mounds had wished to remain in this world…

It made a difference. To Lan Wangji, at least. If their spirits had flocked to the Patriarch, asking for a chance to linger in the world of the living…

His uncle, Lan Wangji knew, would still consider it blasphemy. Lan Wangji was uncomfortably aware that he didn't share that opinion. He could understand his husband’s point of view. It wasn’t the same as what Wen Ruohan had done. There was a tremendous difference.

“So I didn’t like him,” his husband finished.

He spoke offhandedly, as if referring to a quarrelsome neighbor.

“I didn’t like what he was doing. I didn't think he was going to stop on his own. And I didn’t think you’d be able to stop him, either.”

“We weren’t,” Lan Wangji said.

There was no doubt in his mind that he spoke the truth. With his corpse puppets, Wen Ruohan’s forces were limitless. The puppets could fight continuously, without rest. The cultivators who tried to oppose them were slowly ground down. They fought valiantly, every man and woman that had joined the Sunshot Campaign. But they were living beings, and they eventually grew tired. The puppets only needed to wait until fatigue hit and the cultivator dropped their guard.

The war had already dragged on for nearly two years. Without the Patriarch, they might have eked out another year. If they were lucky, perhaps he could have kept going a bit longer. Eventually, though, their forces would be spent. The survivors would have knelt at Wen Ruohan’s gates and pleaded for mercy, on any terms. Lan Wangji knew better than to hope Wen Ruohan would have proved a just or merciful overlord. The moment he won the war, Wen Ruohan would have slaughtered every sect leader and installed his own deputies. Then he would have ruled the survivors with an iron fist. Life under his reign would have been a living death.

“The people of this world owe you a great debt,” Lan Wangji said softly.

His husband wrinkled his nose.

“Oh, I don’t like debts.” He gave a small shudder. “Not owing them, or owning them. Let’s just forget about all that. He’s dead now, and he got the end he deserved. That’s all there is to it.”

Lan Wangji nodded, but unease prickled at the back of his neck. Wen Ruohan was dead, true. Yet the cultivation world wasn't at peace. Lan Wangji was cut off from that world now, and it had been easy to forget about the political maneuvering that must be taking place outside his husband's domain. But Lan Wangji realized suddenly that the cultivation world must be experiencing considerable unrest.

Wen Ruohan’s death had left a terrible power vacuum. The most powerful cultivators would be clawing each other out of the way, striving to fill it. His brother's carefully edited letters had made little mention of such things. Lan Xichen would be reluctant to disclose such information in a letter, though. A letter might fall into anyone's hands. His letters had fallen into someone else's hands. 

Lan Wangji shifted his weight. A sudden stab of unease pierced his stomach. He was tempted to question his husband on the topic, but he wasn't sure if that was wise. He had promised to withhold questions for the time being, and his husband showed little interest in politics anyway. He had only stepped in to defeat Wen Ruohan because the man would have conquered the world if left unchecked. Perhaps it didn't matter to his husband which sects were currently scrambling for power.

Still, he must have heard something. Lan Wangji had little communication with the outside world, but the Patriarch had Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan. He went out by himself in disguise. He must have heard something. He had spoken of Jin Guangshan's illness only last night. Even if he didn't care for politics, he knew more of the current goings-on than Lan Wangji. If there was trouble brewing, he must be conscious of it. 

There's something going on, his husband had said. I still don't understand it yet. I'm working on it, though. And I think I'm making progress.

The pieces were starting to settle into place inside Lan Wangji's mind. But he couldn't quite decipher the full picture. Before he could think what to say, his husband interrupted his thoughts by lifting a sword off the nearby shelf.

“Ah, you haven’t taken a look at this lovely lady yet, have you?” He held out the blade. “Isn’t she pretty?”

Lan Wangji stepped forward. His immediate curiosity drove the question of politics out of his mind. He had only glimpsed his husband’s sword once, from a distance. His husband had been working with the disciples, and Lan Wangji had seen a flash of the bare blade. But he'd been occupied with the younger children, and he couldn't rush over to watch the sparring match. Lan Wangji couldn't resist the temptation to take a closer look at the sword now.

“It is a fine blade.” The sword was handsome and expertly wrought. Lan Wangji studied it carefully. “Where was it made?”

He kept his hands politely in his lap as he spoke. Much to his surprise, his husband offered him the blade. Startled, Lan Wangji lifted it with both hands. He held it lightly, testing the balance.

“Baoshan Sanren helped me make her."

His husband's tone was remarkably nonchalant, yet Lan Wangji held the sword with even greater reverence. He wouldn't dare to trifle with a blade made by an immortal. But then, he wouldn't dare to trifle with any cultivator's sword. Particularly if it was offered up, handed to him for his inspection. Most cultivators guarded their swords jealously. Aside from his brother's, Lan Wangji had never handled another cultivator's weapon. Even in families, such things were not commonly done. It was a show of deep trust to offer another your sword.

Between cultivation partners, it was surely a different matter. Lan Wangji ran his fingers carefully along the hilt of his husband's sword. The scabbard was deceptive in its simplicity. He felt the power of the blade within. It was an agile blade, with surprising heft. It would surely take a strong core to draw out the weapon's full power.

“She wouldn’t help me name her, though!” His husband sighed. “She said that was my job and my job alone. Ah, did you figure out her name yet? Are you ready to try another guess?”

Lan Wangji shook his head. When he lifted his eyes, his husband was smiling as if at a secret joke.

“Try to make another guess sometime!” he said. “I don’t think you’ll get it right, but if you do…I’ll give you a prize, how about that?”

Lan Wangji was intrigued, in spite of himself. He would like to know what his husband would consider a ‘prize’. He couldn't hope to win it, though. He was poor at guessing games. In lieu of making another guess, he offered his husband his own blade.

“This is Bichen."

His husband lifted the sword, turning it over and examining it from every angle.

“Bichen is very pretty, too,” he remarked. “As expected! Handsome swords and handsome cultivators go together, isn’t that how the saying goes?”

He grinned, and heat rose again to Lan Wangji’s ears.

“I have never heard that saying.”

His husband groaned as he handed the sword back.

“You also never owned a toy drum until a month ago! You'd never played any dice games, or owned any bunnies either!” He reclaimed his own sword, setting it on the shelf with a huff. “I have serious concerns about your upbringing. I don't think your teachers gave you a proper education!”

“My husband must assist me,” Lan Wangji said mildly.

His husband’s smile widened.

“Well, why not?” He leaned back on his hands. “Isn’t that what marriage is all about?”

Marriage was certainly intended to be a partnership. After so many weeks of doubt, Lan Wangji felt confident that he and his husband were striving in the right direction. But as he left the cave, carrying the empty dishes back to the kitchen, he found himself dwelling on everything his husband hadn’t said.

The matters concerning Wen Ruohan’s defeat—the restful energy that resided within the cave—were troubling. Still, Lan Wangji could set those to one side. His elders certainly wouldn't treat the matter so lightly, but Lan Wangji had come to know his husband. His husband’s chosen cultivation methods were unorthodox, yet Lan Wangji felt sure that his husband’s morals were what they ought to be.

The Patriarch wasn't cruel or corrupt. He didn't impose his will unjustly upon others. Even his walking corpses were treated with respect and humanity. Lan Wangji couldn't bring himself to feel outraged or scandalized by his husband's use of resentful energy. His methods were not ideal, perhaps, but they were excusable.

But Lan Wangji was greatly bothered by what his husband had refused to discuss. As he moved restlessly through his chambers that night, he stewed on the matter further. He had intended to spend the evening in meditation. When he returned from dinner, however, he found another letter from his brother. It was full of subtle poetic allusions. Once Lan Wangji had read it, peaceful meditation was entirely out of the question.

His brother spoke of the coming winter. It was expected to be a harsh one, and his brother lamented the late autumn frost. The gardens had shriveled in the cold. Even so, he assured Lan Wangji that preparations had been made to ensure a burst of color in the spring. New peony bushes would be planted, and his brother anticipated that their fragrance would overshadow all others. Lan Wangji dwelt upon that phrase for some time.

He could read between the lines easily enough. It went without saying that the Jins would try to seize as much power as they could. Under Jin Guangshan's leadership, they had always been grasping and power-hungry. Lan Wangji had supposed that the man's illness would alter their plans, but he had forgotten that Jin Zixuan would marry very soon. As the Patriarch had said, Jin Zixuan would likely have a child of his own by next year. Even if his father sickened further, their sect's leadership would be secure.

Lan Wangji took up the letter again, rereading the final passage. His brother mentioned seeing a flock of birds, returning to their roosts for winter. That meant that Meng Yao—Jin Guangyao, as he would soon be known—had found a place Koi Tower. Between Meng Yao and Jin Zixuan, the Jins were well-positioned to continue their bid for power. The final line was a verse from the same poem Lan Xichen had quoted before. On the surface, it spoke of the first winter snowfall. Within the context of the poem, Lan Wangji knew it referred to conspiracy and conflict.

His brother’s letters were usually a comfort. But this one left a heavy, sick feeling in Lan Wangji’s stomach. He burned the letter, but he couldn't erase it from his mind. His husband's words echoed in his ears.

There's something going on. I still don't understand it yet. I'm working on it, though. And I think I'm making progress.

Lan Wangji didn't like to think about what that meant. He tapped his fingers anxiously, watching the letter turn to ash.

When he first noticed his husband's secretive behavior, Lan Wangji thought he was merely practicing solitary cultivation. Now it seemed clear the secrets ran deeper than mere cultivation techniques. His husband had refused to answer certain questions: Why did you marry me? Why did you seem to be deliberately taunting the other sect leaders?

Whatever his motivations, his actions had fueled the unrest within the cultivation world. The Patriarch’s power—the ease with which he shattered Wen Ruohan’s forces—would have struck terror into every cultivator present at the final battle. It was no surprise that rumors were circulating that he meant to step into Wen Ruohan’s shoes. Lan Wangji believed that his husband had no interest in such doings. But even if that was true, would it matter to the sects? Whether or not his husband sought to rule over the cultivation world, he was capable of seizing power. That knowledge left a sharp, unpleasant sword hanging over the heads of every sect leader.

His husband had certainly stirred the pot. First, he had taunted the sect leaders, showing flagrant disregard for their position. His behavior was warranted, under the circumstances, but it had won him no allies. Then he had doused oil on the fire by claiming Lan Wangji as a husband. Such a marriage only served to further legitimize his position. He had formed an alliance with one of the oldest and most powerful sects, something no immortal had done before. It was no wonder that his actions had stirred up gossip, speculation, and resentment.

Lan Wangji realized, with a dull sense of shame, that he should have reflected on these matters before. He had allowed himself to become distracted with domestic concerns. Being newly married—having a household to manage and children to look after—had been surprisingly pleasurable. Within the Burial Mounds, the concerns of the cultivation world had faded away. Lan Wangji had allowed himself to forget such unpleasant business, passively accepting that sect politics were no longer any of his concern. But that had been a mistake. Such things were his concern, and he couldn't ignore matters any longer.

He stared at the brazier for a long time, watching the glowing embers fade. He considered the matter backwards and forwards. He reread his brother's letter. Then, after half a shi, he came to an unhappy realization: there was little he could do.

Lan Wangji had long since ceased to feel like a prisoner in his new home. After the first fortnight of marriage, the sensation of being trapped had evaporated. He enjoyed living in the Burial Mounds and he valued the people in his new household. Remaining within the borders of his husband's lands was hardly onerous or unpleasant. Lan Wangji missed night-hunting, of course. But he wasn't sorry to give up attending discussion conferences or political meetings. In fact, he had been quite relieved to leave such unpleasantness behind. Life within the Burial Mounds offered more than enough to keep him satisfied.

But all at once, the ground had shifted beneath his feet. Lan Wangji recalled how he had hinted that he'd like more trips to Yiling, or to the outer villages. His husband bad been vague, promising the trips but declining to name a date. Evidently, he wished to keep Lan Wangji behind the wards of the Burial Mounds and far away from the rest of the cultivation world.

In the meantime, Lan Wangji had no correspondents except his brother. His letters were monitored; he knew that. There was no way to seek out further information or conduct his own investigation. He might feel uneasy or restless. He might suspect a conflict within the cultivation world, plots which threatened his husband. Yet there was nothing Lan Wangji could do. Even if he found a way to gather more information, he could make no use of it. His hands had been tied, and he was not permitted to play a role in this matter. It was a difficult pill to swallow.

By the time he woke the next morning, Lan Wangji still hadn’t managed to choke it down. The weather seemed determined to reflect his troubled mood. When he peered outside, the view was bleak. The sky had darkened to the deep blue of a fresh bruise. The temperature had dropped overnight, and the entire world seemed empty and desolate.

But spending time with the children cheered him. They were beginning to learn how to sew, the Wen aunts providing expert instruction. Lan Wangji sat in on their lessons. Granny Wen would celebrate her 60th birthday next week, and the aunts hoped to prepare a set of sachets as a gift. They had already prepared the filling: medicinal herbs designed to ward off winter’s chill. Squares of silk lay across the craft table. The children only needed to sew straight seams to finish the sachets.

They were still quite inexperienced with a needle and thread. The lessons quickly deteriorated into a mess of knotted threads and snarled fabrics. A-Mei managed to sew her own robes to her sachet, and it took several minutes to free her. Once A-Mei was untangled, Lan Wangji tried to help A-Bao with his sachet. It had been many years, though, since his own sewing lessons. He was hardly any better at sewing than the children. 

By the time he turned eight, he had been removed from the handicrafts classes. It would be a waste, the elders said, to have a promising young cultivator spending his time on such frivolities. So Lan Wangji spent extra hours on the guqin. He received individualized instruction in strengthening his golden core. When he finished his lessons, he was encouraged to pass his remaining hours in the library. The less gifted disciples were permitted to spend time on embroidery, cooking, and gardening.

At the time, Lan Wangji hadn't envied them. His mother had already taught him the basics of sewing. His early efforts had been as comical as the children’s, full of crooked stitches, gaping seams, and dangling threads. He had improved under her tutelage, though. She had progressed to embroidery lessons, but died before they could move on to complex techniques.

As he struggled to help A-Bao, Lan Wangji found himself wishing to reminisce over those long-ago lessons. He commandeered some silk and thread, in the hopes of making a pouch of his own for Granny Wen. The Wen aunts loaned him a pattern for chrysanthemums, and he tucked the supplies away. With the pattern in hand, Granny Wen's birthday continued to weigh on his mind throughout the morning.

At lunch, he asked his husband's permission to choose a few lengths of silk from the storehouse. The annual tribute had brought a bolt woven with bamboo and plum blossoms, highly suitable for an elderly woman. She could use the fabric to make a fine new set of robes, Lan Wangji suggested. His husband seemed to like the idea.

“That would be nice! Ah, but we should give her something else besides just silk. Something extra nice!” He scratched his chin. “Will you look through the storehouse? Find something good. Sixty is an important birthday, after all!”

After the meal, Lan Wangji went straight to the storehouse and sorted through the supplies. He settled on a jade pendant carved with a lotus blossom. It was an auspicious gift, and it seemed fitting for the matriarch of a clan. Granny Wen had shown him so much kindness. Lan Wangji wished to please her, to provide her with a pleasant birthday celebration. He felt confident that she would like the pendant and the silk, at least. As a doting grandmother, she would also appreciate the children’s sachets. They were crudely made, but that wouldn't matter to a grandmother. She would treasure them nonetheless.

Lan Wangji had greater doubts about how his own sachet would be received. He worked on it diligently every night thereafter, struggling to remember his mother's instructions. She had shown him how to make his stitches small, and how to conceal the places where the thread was changed out. He could only remember parts of those lessons. But he remembered the way her hands had patiently guided his. As he worked, he could almost smell her perfume.

The days settled into a rhythm once more. Lan Wangji thought often of the conversation he and his husband had shared in the cave. At first, he couldn't help but worry. His husband's behavior was unchanged, though. He seemed in good humor as the days wore on. No danger troubled their small settlement, and Lan Xichen's next letter made no mention of political unrest. In the end, Lan Wangji found it difficult to hold onto his anxieties and suspicions with nothing to fuel them.

The children and disciples needed his attention, so he focused his energies upon them. The first snowfall came, and Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen did not return. When Lan Wangji dared to ask his husband if the pair had chosen a date for their return, the Patriarch brushed the matter off.

“They’re busy,” he said. “That's all! They’ll be back as soon as they can, but they have other things to take care of right now.”

His tone was calm, without a trace of annoyance or impatience. He did not, however, invite any further questions. Lan Wangji let the matter be. He hadn't forgotten his promise to his husband: to bear with the secrecy and to remain patient.

Even if he wished to investigate the matter, he had no opportunity to do so. The cold weather limited outdoor lessons, and Lan Wangji was kept busy with the children's indoor studies. Their reading had progressed far enough that Lan Wangji thought they were ready to start on the Four Books. As for the disciples, their rhetorical skills had been neglected in favor of cultivation work. He set them to work in the library, performing research projects and composing essays. Once they finished, he and his husband reviewed their work together.

Lan Wangji focused on correcting their grammar and structural organization. But his husband paid no attention to sloppy handwriting. He didn't care that Liu Deshi had terrible penmanship, or that Zhou Qiaohui often used the wrong radical. Instead, he focused on what the disciples had to say.

“Ha!” he cried one evening. “Listen to what this shameless boy says!”

They were in the library, and Lan Wangji was carefully marking Zhou Qiaohui latest essay. He looked up and saw that his husband was enraptured by Huang Mingyu’s paper. He read it aloud with evident delight, and Lan Wangji set aside his brush to listen.

Lan Wangji had instructed the disciples to read The Commentary of Zuo. Huang Mingyu’s paper focused on his disagreement with certain didactic lessons. He felt that the text supported the idea that failing to uphold social order was wrong and must be punished. But Huang Mingyu felt that transgressing upon ceremony and ritual was sometimes the correct response. It was not, he argued, invariably deserving of punishment.

His interpretation of the text was certainly not one that would be supported by established scholarship. But Lan Wangji listened closely as his husband read aloud. When he was finished, his husband tossed the paper onto the table with a flourish.

“Tell me,” he demanded, “what would happen to a disciple who turned in that sort of paper in Cloud Recesses?”

His husband smiled broadly, as if the essay had delighted him. Even so, Lan Wangji was forced to answer honestly.

“The disciple would be instructed to copy out half the texts in the library.”

“To improve his virtue?” The Patriarch grinned as he leaned forward, propping his elbows recklessly on the table. “To remind him that his ancestors are smarter than he'll ever be, and he's a snot-nosed brat who shouldn't dare to disagree with his elders?”

Lan Wangji sighed. He objected to the phrasing, but the sentiment was not far off the mark. 

“Yes," he admitted.

Lan Wangji set down the brush in his hand. He moved Zhou Qiaohui’s essay aside and took up Huang Mingyu’s paper. The ideas expressed were, indeed, shameless. If the paper was placed before his uncle, Lan Wangji knew what his response would be: sputtering indignation that a young disciple dared to challenge the value of li. The paper was well-written, though. Lan Wangji could find no fault in its organization or use of grammar. It was written with passion and enthusiasm, and he could see that Huang Mingyu had ideas he wanted to express. But the boy was only thirteen, and not yet well-read enough to produce a convincing argument.

“Is that what you think we should have him do?” his husband asked.

His voice was teasing, but his eyes were serious. Lan Wangji shook his head. He rose to his feet and circled the library. He was accustomed to the library now, and he knew where to find the books he had in mind. Once he had selected three texts from the shelves, he stacked them in front of his husband in a tidy pile.

“He should copy and annotate these,” Lan Wangji said.

His husband cocked his head as he reached out to examine the pile.

“Why?”

Lan Wangji studied his husband’s hand. It rested palm-down on the top text, his thumb moving idly along the spine.

“His thesis is not sound,” Lan Wangji said slowly. “He disputes the author's argument, but does not offer a substantial counterargument. If he wishes to take this position, then he must support his argument more thoroughly.”

Proper academic studied required lively, well-reasoned debate. Lan Wangji knew this. He also knew how the elders of Cloud Recesses treated any deviation from the standard curriculum. For so many years, Lan Wangji hadn't questioned their approach. The cultivation world recognized the Lan sect as a bastion of orthodoxy and traditionalism. Lan disciples were taught to take pride in such things.

Generations ago, Cloud Recesses had been a thriving hub of academic debate. Many different views were discussed and debated within their walls. Lan Wangji had read about such things, and he knew that the debates had been fully sanctioned by previous leaders of his sect. So it could not be shameful to offer an opinion that challenged the accepted theory. It was only shameful to fail to defend your point with persuasive counterarguments.

Such debates no longer found a home in Cloud Recesses. But as his husband so often reminded him, the Burial Mounds were not Cloud Recesses. His husband clearly didn't object to controversial viewpoints. When Lan Wangji looked into his own heart, he discovered that he didn’t mind it either. He would not tolerate sloppy scholarship, however. He told his husband so, and his husband laughed long and loud.

He helped Lan Wangji create a reading list for the disciples. Afterward, they discussed plans for Granny Wen’s birthday dinner. His husband seemed content, but when the evening ended, Lan Wangji felt a slight twist in his heart.

If his husband preferred to keep his thoughts and his troubles to himself, Lan Wangji could tolerate that. Yet he wished to be his husband’s confidant. He would have liked to share his husband’s burdens. He had promised his husband that he’d bear with it for now, and he intended to keep his promise. But it was very hard to return to his empty chambers every night. Lan Wangji couldn't help wishing for his husband's presence. He had begun to think that he could endure his husband’s secrecy far better, if he only had the comfort of waking up in his husband’s arms each morning.

These were selfish thoughts, of course. Lan Wangji forced them down. He imposed no further punishment on himself, though. He had entirely given up on copying lines or adding extra hours of meditations. After nearly three months of marriage, he was forced to accept that such punishments were useless. He could spend the entire evening in solemn meditation, reminding himself of the virtues of chastity and forbearance. He could copy lines over and over: My husband is under no obligation to touch me, and he clearly has no interest in doing so. Longing for unwanted intimacy is unseemly. If I continue upon this path, I will disgrace myself and my husband by such misplaced affections.

Such activities were pointless. Lan Wangji could spend hours trying to improve his mindset, but then his husband would smile at him the next morning. Their hands would brush as they reached for the same dish. Within a heartbeat, Lan Wangji would be right back where he started. Thoughts of his husband consumed his every moment, and he could not erase them.

It hadn't seemed so shameful during the first few weeks of their marriage. They were newly married, and such thoughts were unavoidable. But Lan Wangji had hoped these thoughts would disappear once he filled his time with his new duties. His hopes had been disappointed: the Patriarch found his way into every corner of Lan Wangji's heart.

Lan Wangji meditated grimly as he finished Granny Wen's sachet. Once it was finished, he wrapped it carefully. Her banquet was the next day and the gifts must be laid out before breakfast. He set aside the wrapped package and stared at the sewing supplies. Then he bowed to the inevitable and chose another piece of silk. He would make a sachet for his husband, he decided. If he must be consumed with such overpowering affection for his husband, he might as well transmute his feelings into gifts. Gifts could be useful, even if feelings weren’t.

He hesitated, sorting through a stack of patterns. In the end, he chose the one with a pair of mandarin ducks. It was rather shameless, the symbolism transparent. But they were married. He may as well choose an emblem of marriage.

Lan Wangji cleared his mind, threaded his needle, and set to work.

Chapter Text

During the night, snow fell heavily. When Lan Wangji woke, he found the world outside covered in a thick blanket of white. He frowned as he peered out his bedroom window. Snow was often considered an auspicious omen, but Lan Wangji wasn’t sure it was right for an elderly woman’s birthday. The Wens didn’t seem to mind, though. A month had passed since Double Ninth festival. They were ready for another celebration, and Granny Wen’s birthday provided the perfect excuse.

No one would permit her to work upon such an occasion. Granny Wen spent the day ensconced in the main hall, surrounded by tea and snacks. The children were excused from their lessons and they crowded around the table, clamoring for her attention. Granny Wen beamed at them and Lan Wangji took her place in the kitchen. He was determined to do credit to her instruction as he helped the others prepare the banquet. But before he finished with the chestnut and pork rib soup, his husband entered the kitchen unexpectedly.

His presence caused something of a stir. The servants blinked and the Wens stared. Lan Wangji sensed that his husband had never intruded on their domain before. They didn’t seem to know what to make of his behavior.

One of the kitchen maids scurried over to ask if he wanted tea. The Patriarch waved her off, and he shooed the others away with a friendly grin.

“No, no, don’t mind me! Go back to whatever you were doing. I just need to borrow my husband for a moment.”

Lan Wangji wiped his hands and took off his apron. There was a smile on his husband’s lips, but it didn’t touch his eyes. Somehow, Lan Wangji thought his husband seemed anxious. He joined the Patriarch in the hall as quickly as possible. His husband drew him to a quiet corner, positioning them where Granny Wen or the children couldn't see. 

“I’m sorry," he said, "but I need to leave for a while.”

His voice was perfectly even. He didn’t sound distressed. There was no hint of teasing humor in his voice, though. Lan Wangji’s stomach twisted.

“The villages?” he asked.

He wanted to believe that his husband had been called away over a simple matter. Perhaps there was a minor problem in one of the villages. A roof might have been damaged by the snow, or some of the livestock could be sick.

But it was only a trivial problem in the village, his husband wouldn’t look so grave. He'd made several trips to the villages already, and he always left with a smile. Husband, he might call out, don’t miss me too much! Then he'd throw the children up in the air, promising to bring back presents. The Patriarch would speculate on what he’d find once he got to the village: perhaps Madam Wu’s troublesome goat would have knocked down another fence, or Wen Guoliang’s wife would be expecting yet another child. He always laughed as he departed, a lazy swing in his walk.

There was no indolent slouch in his husband’s body now. He seemed tense, his muscles rigid. When Lan Wangji spoke, the Patriarch gave a sharp shake of his head.

“No, everything is fine there.” He hesitated, glancing over his shoulder. Then he added, “Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan seem to have run into some trouble.”

“I see.”

Lan Wangji dug his nails into his palm.

He didn’t like to think about what might trouble two such powerful cultivators. The offer was instantly upon his lips: Let me accompany you. But he swallowed the words down. It was a foolish offer, anyway. His husband was an immortal. Whatever trouble had occurred, he could settle it himself. He didn’t need Lan Wangji’s aid, and he might not trust Lan Wangji to fight at his back. He still hadn’t given Lan Wangji his promised spar. So Lan Wangji took a deep breath instead.

“When will you return?” he asked.

A thread of tension left the Patriarch’s shoulders. He seemed to have braced himself for an argument, and he looked relieved it hadn’t occurred.

“I’m not sure. As soon as we can.” His eyes flickered toward the hall and he grimaced. “But we’ll probably miss the banquet. I’ll have to think of a way to make it up to Granny!”

“Never mind,” Lan Wangji said quietly. “I can manage that.”

They were only hosting a simple birthday dinner, followed by a few presents. Lan Wangji had been married for months now. He knew how to arrange household events without his husband’s help.

“Ah, of course you can.” The Patriarch gave a tense smile. “My husband is so capable!”

Another time, the remark might have provoked a wash of pleased embarrassment. But his husband’s eyes were still tense. Lan Wangji felt distinctly uneasy.

“I’ll try to send you a message soon,” his husband murmured. Then he stepped closer, lowering his voice. “Keep everyone inside the wards for now. Nobody goes in or out. Nobody. Do you understand?”

The tension in his stomach solidified into a boulder. Lan Wangji kept his face blank as he nodded.

“Yes. Of course.”

His husband pushed something into his hand. Lan Wangji looked down and discovered a talisman: a signal flare.

“Just in case.” His husband whispered. “Activate it, and I’ll come right away. The distance won’t matter. I’ll see it.”

Lan Wangji slipped into his sleeve and nodded again. His husband gave him another forced smile.

“It’s only for emergencies, of course!” he added.

“Understood.” Lan Wangji wrestled with himself. But he couldn’t help adding a quiet request. “Please be careful.”

Surely it was all right to say something like that. His husband was undertaking a potentially dangerous mission. It wasn’t too forward to ask him to take care. Under such circumstances, Lan Wangji might have said the same to any Lan disciple.

...He might have. But deep down, he knew he wouldn’t. He had cared for the safety of his fellow disciples, yet he had never felt desperately anxious for their safety. If they had ventured out on a secret mission, he wouldn’t have lain awake at night, consumed by worry. Lan Wangji knew he would be doing just that tonight. He tried to keep the worry out of his eyes.

“Ah, well.” His husband sighed, nodding behind Lan Wangji. “Wen Qing is going along, so she won’t let me get involved in any nonsense! Will you?”

Lan Wangji turned. He found Wen Qing standing in the hall, jamming medical supplies into a qiankun bag.

“Not if I can stop you,” she said gruffly. “Let’s go.”

The Patriarch touched his hand. The brief touch burned against Lan Wangji’s skin. It lingered long after his husband had left, but it couldn't keep him distracted from his dark thoughts. He strove to keep his face neutral as he finished with the cooking. He helped the Wens arrange the flowers and decorations in the main hall. When that was done, he corralled the children and saw that they were dressed in their best robes. He made sure they had their gifts in hand, and that the disciples had scrubbed their faces and combed their hair.

By evening, word of the Patriarch’s absence had spread throughout the settlement. But no one seemed unduly worried over his sudden departure. They were curious to know why he’d been called away and why Wen Qing had gone with him. The general assumption, though, was that someone must have taken sick in the villages.

Lan Wangji sensed that the Wens hadn’t noticed the speed and urgency of the pair’s departure. Nor were they aware that the Patriarch had gone off in search of Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen. Lan Wangji chose not to enlighten them. If the Wens started worrying, it would only spoil Granny's celebration. There was nothing anyone at the Burial Mounds could do, anyway.

Further action on Lan Wangji’s part was unnecessary. He reminded himself of that a dozen times as he prepared for the banquet. His husband was powerful beyond all reason, and Wen Qing was an exceptionally skilled physician. They could sort out any difficulty. If Xiao Xingchen or Song Zichen became injured—or if they found themselves trapped somewhere—help was on the way. They didn’t need Lan Wangji’s assistance. His husband could rescue his friends. Any sort of tragedy would be unthinkable.

But of course, it wasn’t unthinkable. Lan Wangji had fought in a war for two years. During that time, he had seen more cultivators slaughtered than he cared to count. His marriage had proved a pleasant respite from the battlefields, but he hadn’t forgotten the war. He knew that even a momentary distraction could spell irreparable tragedy. Even skilled physicians—even immortals—could not heal every injury.

Once the children were prepared, Lan Wangji took himself off to his chambers. He combed his hair rather more vigorously than was necessary, and strapped himself into his robes so tightly he could hardly breathe. He couldn’t find any other way to vent his anxiety, so that would have to do.

He wished desperately that he could have accompanied his husband. His skills might be superfluous beside an immortal’s. But it would have been a relief to go out, to do something. His husband had wished for him to stay here, though. Lan Wangji had been asked to remain behind, guarding the settlement and caring for their people. He tried to find solace in that.

When Lan Wangji returned to the main hall, he was reminded again that their numbers had swelled. The last of the Wen refugees had been surrendered to the Patriarch’s custody, and they had arrived two days prior. Most of the refugees had settled into the villages, but a dozen or so had come to the Burial Mounds. Their new residents were chiefly elderly men and women, too old or feeble for farm-work.

They could still offer something, though. Lan Wangji had found that most of the newcomers knew how to sew, whittle, or mend furniture. They seemed relieved to have found a safe home, one where they could share their humble skills and live without persecution. Those who carried the Wen surname were quickly adopted by the Dafan Wens. As Lan Wangji looked around, he saw many of the newcomers smiling over their wine or bouncing one of the children on their lap. The rest were offering obeisance to Granny Wen, just as if she were their own mother or elder sister.

Not everyone had crowded around the front hall. Lan Wangji spotted a young man with a misshaped leg, lurking shyly in the doorway. Whenever anyone urged him to draw closer, he stammered out demurrals. Lan Wangji had noticed this man before. He was by far the youngest of the refugees who had just arrived. Most of the young men and women had gone to the villages. But, of course, this man's ruined leg and trembling hands made him ineligible for farm labor. He seemed to have few skills to his name and he grew nervous when others approached.

Lan Wangji let his eyes pass over the man. If his husband had been present, he would have swept over and tried to help the man feel more at home. Lan Wangji did not feel up to playing that role tonight. Tomorrow, perhaps, he would speak to the man. He would find out what skills the man possessed. There must be some role for him to play in their community. He couldn’t tend crops or build houses, not with that leg. Cooking would require long periods of standing, so that was also out of the question. But there must be something he could do. Lan Wangji had yet to find a single person at the Burial Mounds with no special talent. If nothing else, perhaps the young man could help with the children’s lessons.

Lan Wangji turned away, refocusing his attention on the Wens. He had already taken aside the eldest members—the unofficial leaders of the clan—and explained that no one was permitted to leave the grounds during the Patriarch’s absence. They had accepted this mandate without argument. The Wens hadn’t behaved as if the Patriarch’s request was cause for alarm, so Lan Wangji tried to imitate them. He pushed aside the creeping anxiety beneath his skin.

He was being foolish. Perhaps it was understandable, though. He and his husband had yet to be separated for more than a few hours. That must explain his strange anxiety. Their marriage wasn’t a traditional one, but it seemed natural enough for newlyweds to become uneasy during a separation. They simply weren’t used to spending long periods apart. But surely his husband would sort everything out before long. He would return quickly, perhaps with Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen in tow. A-Qing would be delighted, and the Wens would rejoice in their return. Then everything would be all right.

Lan Wangji took a deep breath and smoothed his robes. Then he crossed the room to pay his own respects to Granny Wen.

She was delighted with her gifts. Even the children’s crude sachets received extravagant praise. Lan Wangji offered up his own sachet with some embarrassment. His efforts were only marginally better than the children's. The sewing was barely respectable for a grown man. Granny Wen beamed at him anyway, and she patted his hand. She hung her jade pendant around her neck at once. The Wens admired the pendant, along with the silk. Then there was food, wine, music.

Lan Wangji forced himself to stay at the banquet until very late. His husband wasn’t there, so Lan Wangji must act in his place. But by zi-shi, he was growing tired. The children had long since been carried off to bed, the disciples sent back to their quarters. The celebration was winding down. Half the guests were nodding off over their fourth cup of wine, and many had already retired for the evening. When two-thirds of the guests were gone, Lan Wangji gave himself permission to leave. He offered Granny Wen his final compliments, then rose from his chair.

His feet turned toward the eastern hall, where his own chambers lay. But somehow, he found himself slipping through the side door, into the dark chilly night. The disciples lived in a squat building south of the chicken coop. Instructor Zhang slept there, too. Lan Wangji paced briefly before the door, his senses straining. He heard nothing; he felt nothing. After a moment, he moved on.

A-Yuan and A-Mei slept in Granny Wen’s home, with three or four other adults. Lan Wangji paused by their doorway too. The house was quiet and still. A lamp burned in the window, waiting for Granny and the remaining revelers. The children were doubtless asleep. Lan Wangji listened, then moved on.

A small bunkhouse lay just behind the schoolrooms. The rest of the children slept there, and Wen Qionglin often stayed with them overnight. When he couldn’t be there, the Wens or the servants took turns watching over the children. They slept in the bunkhouse and helped the children rise in the morning. When he approached the bunkhouse, Lan Wangji found the building dark. The children must be asleep here, too. Half the children had fallen asleep at the banquet itself. Wen Qionglin had only just herded off A-Qing, the last holdout. They both must be sleeping now.

He tried to turn, to walk back to his own bedchamber. But something kept his feet fixed in place. A twig snapped, shockingly loud in the cold silence of the night.

“Shh. Don’t be so noisy, little bird. Do you want to wake up the others? That would make me very angry, you know!”

The voice—a dark, honeyed drawl—was unfamiliar. Without conscious thought, Lan Wangji turned. He strode forward, and his thumb slid Bichen from the scabbard. But as he rounded the corner, he still wasn’t prepared for what he found.

A man, dressed in black, stood in the small clearing. Lan Wangji didn’t recognize his face. His robes, though, were jarringly familiar. Lan Wangji had seen them at the banquet, on the shy young man with the twisted leg. But the young man had changed. His plain face and nervous manner had evaporated. The man standing in the clearing held himself proudly, like a trained warrior.

He had a knife in his hand, and the blade was pressed to A-Qing’s throat. Her eyes were wide and terrified. Lan Wangji came to a sharp halt.

Bichen sang to him. He wanted nothing more than to rip his sword from its scabbard. But the man lifted his eyes lazily. He smiled at Lan Wangji. No trace of guilt or nervousness marred his face. His grip on the knife never wavered. Lan Wangji marked that. He held himself utterly still.

“Oh, look. You did wake someone!” The man tilted his head. “Or maybe he wasn’t asleep yet? Hanguang-Jun, how naughty. Aren’t the Lans supposed to be early sleepers?”

His eyes roved over Lan Wangji’s body. The proprietary gesture made Lan Wangji’s skin crawl, yet he paid it no mind. There was a bare blade at A-Qing’s neck, bright and shining in the moonlight.

Lan Wangji knew already that the man was adept at wielding it. He didn’t hold the knife like a clumsy, blustering thug. The edge of the blade was positioned neatly over a major artery. If he dug the blade in, even half a cun, he would open that artery. Her blood would spill across the snow-covered ground.

“Release her,” Lan Wangji said.

He tried to throw authority into his voice. But what man capable of threatening a child listened to such commands? This one didn’t. He only tilted his head, his face amused.

“Now, why would I do that?”

His arm was slung across A-Qing’s chest, and he held her securely against his body. The knife was poised and ready.

Lan Wangji performed several rapid calculations. He knew the answer, even before he'd finished thinking the situation through.

There was no way for him to strike this man without risking A-Qing’s safety. The world constricted, narrowed. Lan Wangji found it hard to remove his eyes from the knife. Still, he forced himself to meet the man’s cruel, dead eyes.

“Why would you do otherwise?”

There was no reason for him to harm her, to harm any child. There was no reason for this strange man to be here. The world was full of snow. He was behind the wards. It was the one night his husband happened to be away. There was no reason for the man to be here.

Lan Wangji’s mind thrashed desperately. For a moment, he struggled to unsnarl a dozen different thoughts. Then he forced them away, clearing his mind once more. It didn’t matter who the man was, or what he wanted. The only thing that mattered was the knife at A-Qing’s neck. The only thing that mattered was the whites of A-Qing’s eyes, wide with fear. Nothing else was of any consequence.

“What a good question!” The man’s voice was mocking. He lifted A-Qing’s chin with his thumb, then tsked. “Look at this scrawny thing. She doesn’t even have a core. What does the Patriarch want with her? She’s pathetic. She’ll never be a disciple.”

Lan Wangji forced himself to remain calm and impassive.

“Her abilities are not your concern.”

He spoke very evenly. Bichen’s hilt bit into his palm, but he didn’t loosen his grip. The man snorted.

“Isn’t it?”

He surveyed A-Qing. The man didn’t even bother to keep his eyes on Lan Wangji, much less the sword in his hand. Lan Wangji felt a cold chill of fear. He sensed little spiritual energy from the man. But the man had a sword strapped to his back, and he didn’t seem concerned that he’d been caught red-handed by Hanguang-Jun. So the man must have absolute confidence in his combat skills…or in the value of his hostage.

“He rejected me once, you know.” The man gave a dark, conspiratorial smile. “Don’t think that’s why I’m doing this! It’s not just sour grapes. But I wanted to show him how much I’ve learned, and now...”

The man let out a loud, theatrical sigh.

“Now, he doesn’t even have the good grace to be here to greet me! Isn’t that rude?”

A-Qing wasn’t struggling against the man’s grip. She was too smart for that. Lan Wangji knew that the girl was a fighter, but she was also something better than a fighter. She knew when to fight and when to conserve her strength. She knew how to wait for an opportune moment.

The man was wrong. A-Qing would be a gifted disciple one day. Lan Wangji would not let her talents—her life—be wasted. Not now, not here, not by this wretched man. Lan Wangji spoke slowly and kept his voice even.

“If you bear a grudge against my husband, it has nothing to do with A-Qing. Release her.”

The man laughed. The harsh, grating sound clashed against the gentle backdrop of trees and snow.

“Your husband.” He sneered. “I guess I should thank you, Hanguang-Jun. I really thought you were going to take my revenge away! Everybody was halfway-convinced that you’d strangle your husband in his sleep on the wedding night.”

The cruel smile danced across his face once more.

“Too honorable for that?” He leaned in, lowering his voice. “Or you didn’t know how it’s done?”

Lan Wangji let the words—the crude implication they carried—pass over him. The knife had raised a thin line of blood against A-Qing’s throat. Crude remarks didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except getting the blade away from her body.

“It’s too bad he didn’t have a taste for the concubines!” The man rolled his shoulders. “They knew how it was done! The seducing, the fucking, and the killing. But I should’ve guessed that someone like you would be too frigid to seduce anybody, even your own husband.”

Lan Wangji was only half-listening. He knew that tone of voice; he had encountered it before. Some opponents struck quickly with their blades and spiritual weapons. Others taunted with mocking remarks and foolish insults. This man evidently belonged to the latter category. Nothing he could say was of any consequence to Lan Wangji. But he couldn’t help a small grimace of displeasure. His eyes dropped to A-Qing, then rose to the man’s face.

The man rolled his eyes.

“Oh, what? You’re worried about soiling her ears?” He gave A-Qing a little shake. “This one’s a street rat, I can tell. She’s heard worse than that.”

“I have,” A-Qing said.

There was a tremor in her voice, but it was hot with indignation. Lan Wangji sucked in a deep breath. He knew she was proud, stubborn, and quick to defend herself. Privately, he valued those qualities in her. But just now, he wished desperately that she would be meek and humble. He wanted her to do nothing that might draw the man’s notice.

The man laughed. The hand across her shoulders raised and settled firmly across her mouth. The knife tucked closer against her neck.

“Shh, shh,” he crooned. “You’re very funny, but the grown-ups are talking now. Be a good girl, or I’ll cut your throat.”

“You will not,” Lan Wangji snarled.

The man’s voice was full of casual cruelty. It wasn’t an idle, blustering threat. The man sounded as though he could cut a child’s throat and never lose a night’s sleep. He didn’t shout his threats. He murmured them. Then he shrugged and smiled as if the threat was nothing.

“You’re way over there,” the man said sweetly. “And I’m good with a knife. I’ve heard you’re good with a blade too. But how much do you want to bet I could gut her before you had a chance to reach me?”

If his husband was here, perhaps he’d make a joke. He would tell the stranger that placing bets was forbidden by the Lan disciplines, and trying to lure Hanguang-Jun into gambling was a foolish endeavor. Yet this was no laughing matter. Lan Wangji knew—with a sick twist of horror—that the man was correct.

Lan Wangji could send Bichen flying across the clearing with a flick of his wrist. He could summon his guqin and use Chord Assassination. He could use a dozen different techniques. But each one would take precious seconds. It would take the man less than a heartbeat to cut A-Qing’s throat. She would lie bleeding on the ground before Lan Wangji could reach her. Slaughtering this man would be pointless if it cost A-Qing her life.

Lan Wangji took another deep breath. He ignored the way the man watched him, his eyes full of quiet triumph.

“You have come for revenge against my husband.” He gripped Bichen tighter. “He is not here. Do you intend to wait for him?”

The man hummed thoughtfully.

“Well, yes. I intended to take her as bait,” he jerked his head toward A-Qing, “and then wait. But you caught me! So now things just got interesting.”

His voice deepened. There was a vile sort of curiosity in his manner. As if he wondered how much blood he could spill, how much pain he could cause. As if he hardly cared that Lan Wangji was a threat. As if the outcome of their fight meant almost nothing.

Lan Wangji let himself swallow. He despised showing anxiety, but he had to moisten his throat enough to speak.

“When you meet him. You intend to kill him?” He shook his head. “You could not.”

He hadn't seen his husband use his sword. But he knew what his husband could do with talismans and resentful energy. He had seen the corpses crumple to dust on the battlefield. He had felt his husband’s overpowering qi. This man with the knife and the sharp-edged smile was no match for his husband.

The man scoffed, casually indignant.

“Don’t sell me short. You might like to advertise your impressive spiritual energy, but I don’t. You have no idea what I’m capable of.”

Lan Wangji didn’t. He had confidence in his husband’s abilities, though, and confidence in his own. If he had met this man across the field of battle, he would have felt no trace of fear. But there was A-Qing, and there was the knife. Lan Wangji’s hands were skillfully tied by their presence.

“If you are wrong, you will die.” He narrowed his eyes. “If you are right…then what?”

Don’t think that why I’m doing this, the man said.

He had infiltrated their settlement in disguise. He had taken a hostage. He said he’d been refused a position as a disciple of the Yiling Patriarch. He intended to prove his skills to the Patriarch. But he claimed it wasn’t just revenge that had brought him here. He must want something more than the chance to prove himself to a master who had rejected him.

“Then I enjoy the fruits of my revenge. And my money, of course.” The man grinned. “I’m not stupid enough to work for free. I was a street rat too. Obviously, I’m being paid for my troubles.”

“The Jins?”

The name escaped Lan Wangji’s mouth. Then he felt a stab of doubt. Perhaps it wasn’t wise to tip his hand in that manner. The man’s grin only widened.

“Aren’t you clever.” He let out a theatrical sigh. “It’s not really a secret, I guess. That little rat isn’t as subtle as he thinks he is.”

Lan Wangji wondered who the ‘little rat’ was, but he had no time to spare for ruminations. The man continued his story, a tragic lilt in his voice.

“Hanguang-Jun.” He pouted. “Don’t be heartbroken, but I’m afraid nobody likes your husband very much.”

Lan Wangji had nothing to say to that. The man chose to interpret his silence according to his own fancies.

“Don’t worry, they still like you. They think you’re an innocent hostage.” He laughed aloud. “They think he’s got you chained to his bed, and he forces you to pleasure him day and night.”

Another time, Lan Wangji might have felt shocked or embarrassed. The village gossip had been bad enough. This version of rumors was far worse. But the knife against A-Qing’s throat hollowed him of all emotion except fear. Lan Wangji strove to keep it off his face.

“Personally, I don’t think you’re capable of that sort of thing. But feel free to prove me wrong!”

The man leered. Lan Wangji suddenly found he had no more patience for games.

“Let her go.”

As he enunciated each word, he let Bichen creep from its sheath. The man sighed and tapped the blade against A-Qing’s skin.

“How boring.” His voice darkened. “If you ask me that one more time, I’m going to slit her throat. Just on principle!”

Had another man uttered the same threat, Lan Wangji might have doubted his resolve. But this man’s eyes were dark and flat like a mindless beast.

He would do it, Lan Wangji realized. He would cut her throat because Lan Wangji bored him with endless demands for her release. Bile rose in his throat, and Lan Wangji he swallowed it down.

“Oh, I know.” The man’s eyes brightened. “Let’s make a trade. You seal your spiritual power and toss your sword away, and I’ll let her go.”

A-Qing made a muffled sound against the man’s hand. Lan Wangji didn’t allow himself to look at her, and the man paid her no more attention than a buzzing gnat. Silence stretched for two or three heartbeats.

“I have no proof you will hold up your end of the bargain,” Lan Wangji said, slowly.

It would be easy—terrifyingly easy—for the man to kill her afterward. Once he neutralized the threat that Lan Wangji presented, he could turn on the others. There was a houseful of children at his back. Lan Wangji had no idea where Instructor Zhang was or what help she could provide. He didn’t know where Wen Qionglin was either. Perhaps this man had already spilled blood in their settlement.

Or perhaps whether having Lan Wangji in his power would persuade him to spare others. Lan Wangji couldn’t be sure. No matter how hard he looked, he could find no proof anywhere.

“You have no proof I won’t.” The man gave another careless shrug, nudging A-Qing’s ankle with his boot. “I wanted to do something to catch the Patriarch’s attention, but the kid makes a lousy bargaining chip. Who cares what happens a street rat? But I’m sure the Patriarch cares what happens to his husband.”

Lan Wangji realized that A-Qing wasn’t wearing any shoes. She stood barefoot in the snow, a knife at her throat, a man’s hand across her mouth. The man didn’t care about her life, and he would discard it in a heartbeat. But if her life meant nothing to him, then he had no need to threaten her. If he found a better way to strike at the Patriarch, he would toss her aside.

The children of the Burial Mounds were nothing to this man. But they were everything to Lan Wangji. He lifted his hand and sealed his spiritual power without a second thought. He felt Bichen seal, too. Even so, it was painful to toss his blade to the side.

“There we go!” The man whooped with delight. Then jabbed his thumb against a pressure point in A-Qing’s neck. “Night-night, kid.”

Her body crumpled. Lan Wangji started forward, and the man waved him back. The knife flashed in the moonlight.

“Relax, she’ll be fine. Worry about yourself instead.”

Lan Wangji disliked the thought of taking advice from such a terrible man. Yet he knew there was indeed cause for worry. The signal talisman was still in his sleeve. Lan Wangji didn’t dare reach for it. He could activate it without spiritual power, but he wasn’t sure whether he could activate it discreetly. The man had sharp eyes. He would wonder why Lan Wangji started rummaging in his sleeves. If he learned of the signal flare, he would see an opportunity to lure the Patriarch back to the Burial Mounds. Doubtless he would take it.

But what then? Lan Wangji felt cold horror at the idea. The man would likely put the knife against his own throat as he bartered with the Patriarch. Lan Wangji didn’t want to imagine what his husband would do under such provocation. It was better not to think of it, and he had no time to spare for frivolous musing.

The man wandered over to Lan Wangji. His pace was casual, unconcerned. He switched the knife back and forth between his hands. Once he drew closer, he laid the tip beneath Lan Wangji’s chin. The point pressed into his skin. It was almost—but not quite—enough to draw blood.

“Why don’t you tell me when your husband is expected back?”

Lan Wangji said nothing. The man sneered.

“Tch. Don’t be boring and refuse to talk. I’m sure I can torture something out of you.” He gave Lan Wangji a speculative glance, like a butcher eying a fattened pig. “But that would take such a long time! You’d lose a few body parts in the process, too. Why don’t you just hurry up and tell me?”

Lan Wangji weighed the risks and merits of silence. In all likelihood, the man wouldn’t hesitate the carry out his threats. Torture would be pointless, though. Lan Wangji couldn’t answer the question, even if he wanted to.

“I don’t know.”

The man studied him closely. Doubtless he was searching for a tell, some sign that Lan Wangji was lying.

“Really?” he drawled. “Where is he, then? One of the villages?”

Lan Wangji almost shook his head. The knife was as sharp as it looked, though. He didn’t wish to cut his own throat on the man’s blade. So he remained still.

“I do not know where he is.”

It was the truth. And after studying him closely, the man seemed to sense it. He huffed a quiet, contemptuous laugh.

“Doesn’t tell you much, does he. Well, I’m sure he doesn’t keep you around for your conversational skills!”

The vulgar tone—the leering expression—returned. Lan Wangji could ignore those easily. But it was impossible to ignore the knife as it traced over his jaw, his cheek, the dip beneath his eye.

“It’d be too bad to wreck such a pretty face,” the man mused. “But we have to do something to keep ourselves occupied while we wait for him!”

Lan Wangji’s eyes cut toward A-Qing. He couldn’t help it. She was unconscious, yet every fiber in his body rebelled against her presence. He didn’t want her to be here for whatever came next. He didn’t want her to wake halfway through and witness this: the man, his knife, his professed desire to keep himself occupied while they waited for the Patriarch’s return. Lan Wangji’s body, a canvas for this man’s vile arts.

The man snapped his fingers in front of Lan Wangji’s face. Only long training in stillness and self-discipline kept Lan Wangji from flinching.

“Don’t look at her.” The man’s voice was indolent, scolding. “Don’t you know that it’s rude to let your attention wander when you’re alone with a handsome man?”

The dark, vicious smile returned to his mouth.

“I hope you pay more attention to your husband when you’re in bed with him! If you don’t, he’s probably off having a naughty little get-together with his favorite sweetheart right now.”

“Crass,” Lan Wangji hissed.

He couldn’t help that, either. He could reconcile himself to the man’s knife and the thought of his own blood spilled across the snow. Somehow, it was harder to tolerate vulgar remarks and innuendo about his husband.

The man threw his head back and laughed.

“Oh, absolutely.” His grin was wild and faintly manic. “And doesn’t that just disgust you? You highborn cultivators! You can overlook any crime but low breeding.”

“Low breeding does not concern me.” Lan Wangji spoke tersely, forcing each word out. “You are inferior, but your birth has nothing to do with it.”

It was, perhaps, not a wise thing to say. Lan Wangji knew his brother would have said something very different under similar circumstances. His brother would certainly be horrified to hear Lan Wangji provoking the man who held him at knifepoint while his spiritual energy was sealed.

But Lan Wangji couldn’t bear to think of his family now. He didn’t want to think beyond this moment. If he thought any further, he would only find himself wondering if he’d live long enough to write another letter to his brother. If his brother would hear of his death, from thousands of li away. He shoved those thoughts away, and focused his attention on the man.

His eyes had gone wide, and they were surprisingly delighted.

“Oh, you’re mouthy! That’s fun!” He stepped closer, teasing Lan Wangji’s jaw with the tip of the knife. “Insulting me when I’ve got a knife against your throat! You really do have a thick face.”

He hummed to himself as he surveyed Lan Wangji’s body. He seemed to be deciding where he’d like to put the first cut.

“Why don’t you tell me all the ways I’m inferior to the great Hanguang-Jun?”

He smiled up into Lan Wangji’s eyes.

It would be wiser to remain silent. Lan Wangji knew that. Refusing to engage in petty quarrels had never been difficult for him. He’d always found it easy to turn away and ignore the taunts of others. But something about this man made bile rise in his throat. He was soulless. Lan Wangji could feel it. His lips parted without permission.

“You have no morals, no ethics, no allegiances.”

He saw the man’s face twist with contempt, and he knew what the man would say in reply. He knew such men placed no value on morals and ethics. They had nothing but contempt for the practice of swearing allegiance to a sect. Even so, Lan Wangji pressed on.

“You embarked on this mission for money, and because you were offended that my husband refused you to take you as a disciple.” He narrowed his eyes. “The children here are young, and even they are not so sensitive to rejection. You have less self-mastery than a four year old child.”

That pricked the man’s pride. Lan Wangji saw heat flare up in his eyes. The man stepped closer and his breath was hot against Lan Wangji’s cheek.

“So I’m a child, am I? Let me show you something.”

He made a sharp gesture with his hand. The muted spiritual energy, which Lan Wangji had sensed only dimly, increased by a factor of ten. If Lan Wangji had doubted that this man was a cultivator, those doubts would have been torn to pieces. Still, Lan Wangji gave him a flat, unimpressed stare.

The man’s spiritual energy was strong, but it was nothing compared to the Patriarch’s. It wasn't even equal to Lan Wangji's own qi. Lan Wangji felt nothing but quiet contempt, and he let the man see it.

“You have a golden core,” he acknowledged mildly. “I cultivated mine when I was six years old. I ceased to take pride in its existence within a month. Childish.”

The knife bit against the delicate skin beneath his jaw. Lan Wangji felt blood well up, then trickle down. But the pain was nothing. Lan Wangji had felt a thousand times worse.

The man was angry, and Lan Wangji rejoiced to see it. An angry man was likely to lash out and attack blindly. His rage was apt to make him disordered, unfocused. Lan Wangji didn’t want to see this man toying with his knife, smiling with cold reptilian eyes. He wanted to see him careless, so full of rage he couldn’t think straight, so angry he couldn’t think of harming anyone but Lan Wangji.

After a moment, the man laughed. The sound was jagged, like broken glass.

“You know, I wondered.” He pressed the knife a little harder, and Lan Wangji felt the blood spill freely. “Of course, all the rumors say your husband keeps you as a slave. But I know where those rumors are coming from! So I wondered if they were really true.”

He surveyed Lan Wangji with a smirk.

“Obviously not! If you’re this mouthy three months after the marriage, your husband has really been too easy on you. He hasn’t broken you in, has he?”

Lan Wangji didn’t let himself think about his husband. He didn’t allow himself to wonder when his husband would return, or whether the Patriarch find Lan Wangji alive or dead. He let the man smirk and leer. Then he focused himself wholly on one question: How can I make him careless, sloppy, unfocused?

The man sighed. The pressure on the knife eased.

“Be honest with me.” His voice turned sly, coaxing, speculative. “How is he in the bedroom? I figured he’d like to show you who’s boss. That what I’d do.”

Lan Wangji let the words run over him like water. A light snowfall had begun, and a full moon peered through the clouds. He focused on the gentle snow and the bright moon. He emptied his mind of fear.

“But maybe his tastes run in another direction? Maybe he likes you to take charge?” The man laughed louder, his gaze hungry. “Hanguang-Jun, are you able to keep up?”

He reached for Lan Wangji’s sash and tried to tug it open.

“Show me what you’re working with, and I’ll give you some tips. I know my way around whorehouses, so I’m an expert in these matters.”

Lan Wangji slapped his hand away on pure instinct.

He was willing to do a great deal to keep this man’s attention. He would submit to torture, to death, to the trading of vulgar insults. Every moment when he still drew breath—every moment his husband might be drawing nearer to home—was precious. Lan Wangji would do very nearly anything to keep the people of the Burial Mounds safe in the meantime.

But he would not do that. He wouldn’t allow this vile man to be the first to undress him, to touch him. So he slapped the man’s hands away. He half-expected the man to slap his face in return. Instead, he only sighed, as if Lan Wangji had proved disappointing.

“No? You’re going to be difficult again?” He shrugged. “Suit yourself. Keep your famous virtue. I can take something else instead.”

The knife was back, flashing in the moonlight. It danced across Lan Wangji’s face and neck.

“Any requests? Fingers, toes, ears?” The man tapped the blade against Lan Wangji’s lips. “Your eyes, your tongue?”

“Do you intend for me to beg?” Lan Wangji asked.

It was gratifying to hear his own voice, low and neutral. He sounded almost bored. Lan Wangji could see that it amused and annoyed the man in equal measure. The man laughed again.

“Not at all! That’s so boring!” He took Lan Wangji’s wrist and turned it over, as if wondering which finger to remove. “I appreciate the chance to work on someone like you. Begging and crying is dull.”

“You are often bored,” Lan Wangji observed.

Afterward, he wasn’t what had prompted him to speak those words. But they rose up in his mind, as clearly as if the man had drawn the words in the snow.

This man caused trouble and pain because he was bored. He was childish enough that he could think of no better way to keep himself occupied. He had no morals, ethics, or allegiances; those things didn’t keep him amused. Like a small child, amusement was all he sought.

“Oh, very often.”

The man nodded, almost cheerfully. He dropped Lan Wangji’s hand and made a few playful nicks against Lan Wangji’s collarbone.

“The cultivation world is so boring. Never mind!” He smiled broadly. “I find ways to liven up the party.”

Lan Wangji ignored the trickle of blood down his chest.

With his spiritual power sealed, the wounds wouldn’t heal as quickly as they should. If he had access to his spiritual energy, Lan Wangji could heal them at once. He felt strangely helpless without it. His golden core pulsed within his body. But when he reached for his qi, a thick wall blocked him. Lan Wangji picked at it like a scab, yet the wall didn’t budge.

“If you find life so dull,” he said, “why did you seek immortality?”

It was an odd thing for a man bored by mortal life to seek training from an immortal. Had the man supposed that his selfishness, pettiness, and immaturity would be erased if he cultivated to immortality? Did he think life would be better worth living if he reached that summit?

The man’s lips turned in a childish expression of puzzled disgust.

“Who says I did?” He sounded almost offended. Then his face cleared with understanding. “Oh, that. I wanted power. Not immortality.”

“For what purpose?”

The man rolled his eyes, as if Lan Wangji had asked a profoundly foolish question.

“Why does anyone want power?”

“I wouldn’t know.” Lan Wangji sought to keep his voice neutral, indifferent. “I have never sought power in the way you have.”

His indifference had just the effect he might have hoped. The man flared up, his hand seizing Lan Wangji’s throat.

“So high and mighty! That attitude is really tiresome.” He leaned in closer than ever. The man was close enough that Lan Wangji could have counted his eyelashes. “You want to know a secret? You never sought power because you always had it. Heir to one of the Great Sects! Rich and titled and admired by everyone!”

His thumb pressed hard on the artery in Lan Wangji’s throat. Lan Wangji saw stars for a moment.

“Why should you seek what you already had?”

Lan Wangji held himself very still.

Instinct told him that the man didn’t intend to throttle him into unconsciousness. He wished for amusement, and Lan Wangji had not yet provided that. So he would want Lan Wangji alert. He wanted Lan Wangji to respond to his taunts, to scream in pain when the torture began in earnest. So he didn’t give the man the satisfaction of watching him struggle. When the man lifted his hand, Lan Wangji drew a deep breath. The crisp winter air brought a fresh burst of clarity.

“Ah,” he said.

The man’s eyebrows lifted.

Ah?” he echoed. “That was an interesting sound! Hanguang-Jun, please share your wisdom with the poor, ignorant masses. What epiphany did you just reach?”

The tip of the knife was just beneath his eye now. Lan Wangji was conscious with every heartbeat how little effort it would take for the man to blind him. But there was no use in thinking that way. He understood something now, and he might as well answer the man’s question.

“You grew up poor.” He met the man’s gaze. “You were mistreated. You think your crimes are justified on those grounds.”

Lan Wangji had met men like this before. Men who had suffered at the hands of others, who thought that suffering excused any offense on their part. Men who had endured hardships and felt their only recourse was to cause others equal pain. It was disappointing to know this man’s motives were so unoriginal. If he had to die, Lan Wangji would have liked to die for a less trite reason.

The man groaned. He sounded as disappointed in Lan Wangji as Lan Wangji was in him.

“Of course they are! Everyone does what they have to, to survive! But you, tucked away in your fancy sect.” His eyes roved contemptuously over Lan Wangji’s body. “What would you know about that?”

Of poverty, Lan Wangji knew little. Of abuse and starvation as a vulnerable child, he knew nothing. But of pain and hardship, he knew a great deal. He also knew what must be done to break the cycle of suffering. It couldn’t be achieved through vengeance and cruelty.

This man had, perhaps, once been a suffering orphan. That was pitiable indeed. Yet all the man had done was create a dozen children just like him. His cruelty had doubtless torn apart families; he had left children orphaned. He had helped ensure that other boys and girls would grow up in deprivation. His attempts at revenge were fruitless and foolish, and they only dragged a flawed world further into the muck.

Lan Wangji felt an awkward mixture of disgust and pity. The man was so lost he couldn’t even understand this simple truth.

“You think the cultivation world is unjust and fundamentally unequal,” he observed calmly. “I do not disagree. But you didn’t wish to improve it or correct the injustices you saw. You had been made to suffer, so you wish to make others suffer in turn.”

He let out a slow, measured exhale.

“Even children know better. Even beasts. You are not a child. You are less than a dog.”

Even dogs, even insects, had more capacity for rational thought. The man was truly pathetic. Lan Wangji didn’t wonder why his husband had turned the man away. But his remark had somehow struck home. The man’s eyes darkened with fury. He gripped Lan Wangji’s jaw with one hand, and raised the knife with the other.

“Let’s start with that tongue of yours,” he murmured. This voice was sickly-sweet.

There was nothing left to lose. Somehow, Lan Wangji felt he had laid his hand upon a sore place inside the man’s soul. He parted his lips and let himself speak.

“Why? You are afraid of it?”

The retaliatory slap had been deferred, but the man gave it now. The force of the blow snapped Lan Wangji’s head to the side. He tasted blood in his mouth.

“Afraid!” he snarled. “You highborn cultivators are all the same!”

He was afraid. Lan Wangji could feel it. The man was angry, and that meant he was afraid of something. It hardly mattered what. It only mattered that the man knew this: Lan Wangji saw his fear, and he was properly contemptuous of it.

“Your ravings have grown repetitious.” He met the man’s eyes tranquilly. “Boring.”

The knife slashed at his chest, just as the man kicked his legs out from under him. Lan Wangji crumpled to his knees in the snow, and the blade opened a gash across his robes. It wasn’t deep enough to kill. But Lan Wangji sensed that the next strike would be. That was the gamble he had made: provoking the man into giving him a quick death rather than a drawn-out torture.

Yet it wasn’t easy to give up the fight. Lan Wangji had never trained himself to accept death. He had trained himself to fight, to resist, to purge evil from the world. It was easier, perhaps, with a weapon in his hand. Still, Bichen’s absence—the inability to summon his guqin—didn’t matter. He had other tools at his disposal. As Lan Wangji fell, he struck the man hard in the groin. He had the pleasure of listening as the man made a choked sound of pain. But he recovered quickly. He knotted his fingers in Lan Wangji’s hair and yanked his head back.

“Oh, not so high and mighty now!” He leaned in close, his breath hot and rank. “You see? Everyone does what they have to do to survive!”

He held Lan Wangji’s hair with one hand. The other gripped the knife. When Lan Wangji reached out and clawed at the man’s eyes, the man couldn’t block his hand quickly enough. The man slashed blindly with the knife, opening a wide gash against Lan Wangji’s forearm.

Lan Wangji knew he was losing blood quickly now. So he didn’t hesitate to try and wrest the knife from the man’s hands. There was nothing left to lose, after all. Death seemed perilously near, closer than it had been even during the long years of war.

His fingernails had laid a deep scratch against man’s right eye, and the man’s eyes streamed. But he still fought, like a starving dog with a choice bit of meat. Lan Wangji knew that the man would not hesitate to fight dirty, so he held nothing back. They wrestled inelegantly in the snow, aiming strikes at the eyes and throat and groin.

Lan Wangji was taller, his reach longer. For that reason alone, he succeeded in wrenching the knife from the man’s hand. He pushed himself up, bloody and out of breath. The man laughed, wiping tears from his eyes as he slid back a few paces. Lan Wangji’s nails had wrought a certain amount of damage. The man’s eyes were still bright with interest, though.

“Take it!” he cried. “Why not? Go ahead and take it. Let’s make this interesting.”

He drew his sword in one smooth movement. It was a large blade, and Lan Wangji knew that a knife would be no match for it. But he would prefer to die with a blade in his hand. So he nodded, and they began to circle each other.

The man struck first, and Lan Wangji dodged. The man struck again. Lan Wangji spun away, the blade catching his sleeve and nicking his arm. The man struck a third time, and Lan Wan could not dodge this blow. He caught it with the knife and deflected it, taking the skin off his knuckles in the process.

“Getting tired?” The man laughed. “Why, Hanguang-Jun, you look pale!”

Lan Wangji was certain he did. He was tired, achingly so. The fight had been short enough. But without spiritual energy, every movement was a strain. He was losing blood steadily, leaving a trail across the clearing. He wouldn’t last long, Lan Wangji knew that. He might dodge or block a few more blows. Then his strength would falter and the man’s sword would slice him in two.

He wished—suddenly and desperately—that he had finished the letter to brother, currently lying on his desk. Lan Wangji wished he had time to write out his goodbyes: to his brother, his uncle, his husband. To the children and the people of the Burial Mounds. His core pulsed furiously at that thought. Lan Wangji probed at it, considering.

His energy was still locked away. But he thought the barrier may have thinned a little. Desperation, perhaps, had worn down the seal. His body knew it would die without help, and his core was fighting hard to restore the flow of qi. Lan Wangji prodded at the barrier, the man circling him lazily.

For once, Lan Wangji let himself look exhausted as he felt. Perhaps the man would pause to savor his triumph. It might buy Lan Wangji a few moments more.

He wondered if he could force open the seal through brute force. Such a maneuver was incredibly unwise. He might burn out his meridians or induce a qi deviation. Under any other circumstances, Lan Wangji wouldn’t have considered such a reckless course of action. But death from qi deviation didn’t seem so intimidating now. Not when the alternative was being gutted by this man.

I must throw the knife, Lan Wangji realized.

The man would pause for a split second to deflect the blade. Lan Wangji must shatter the barrier in the same instant, loosing his qi and summoning Bichen. He believed he could do it. His core was strong, and his spiritual energy was like water trapped behind a dam. Lan Wangji could wield that force, and it would be stronger than ever at the moment of its release.

It wasn’t wise. It wasn’t safe. It was decidedly not orthodox. But he had no alternative. He only hated to let the knife—feeble defense though it was—leave his hand. If he had something sharp in his hand, somehow he would feel safer in this mad attempt.

In a sudden, splintering moment of clarity, Lan Wangji remembered the lotus pin. It was small and sharp, a gift from his husband. An item worn by Cangse Sanren, an artifact that had won a war. Whether he lived or died, Lan Wangji thought he would like to hold it during the next few moments. He had always worn it as if it were a lucky talisman. It might be one, at that.

He reached up slowly. The man’s eyes tracked his hand. His gaze was sharp and he held his sword out. But he didn’t strike. He seemed curious to discover what Lan Wangji would do.

The pin slipped easily into his palm. Lan Wangji knew how to hold it to keep it hidden from sight. The man would wonder why he had reached up in such a fashion. So Lan Wangji loosed his forehead ribbon and let it fall to the bloodied snow.

“It symbolizes self-restraint,” he said, when the man gave him a bemused look.

He was rewarded with another dark, mocking laugh.

“Don’t need any more of that, do you?” The man straightened, resting his blade casually upon his shoulder. “Come on. Why don’t you come at me with that? Give it your best shot!”

Lan Wangji nodded grimly. His best shot.

He thought of the children, sleeping in the dwelling behind him. He thought of A-Qing, lying in the snow. He thought of the Wens, defenseless against a man like this. He thought of his husband, and how desperately Lan Wangji wanted to see him again.

Then he balanced the knife in his palm, and he threw it.

He didn’t wait to see the result. Instead, he reached deep into himself. He plunged down into his core and pushed with all his might. Distantly, he heard a clang. The man had swatted the knife aside with his sword.

But there came a roaring in Lan Wangji’s ears, and he could hear nothing else. His heartbeat pulsed inside his throat, his temples, his fingertips. He tasted blood, and felt a trickle escape from his nose. Then he felt everything else.

Bichen sang to him from across the clearing. Qi poured through his limbs. Lan Wangji was dimly aware of the man’s furious shouts. Perhaps he understood what Lan Wangji had done, or perhaps he didn’t. It hardly mattered. He knew Lan Wangji had done something, and he was angry.

The man raised his sword. He was before Lan Wangji between one heartbeat and the next. His sword gleamed and Lan Wangji pulled Bichen toward him with a sharp breath.

He didn’t know who struck first, in the end. Bichen lopped off the man’s sword arm, but the blade had already sunk into Lan Wangji’s stomach. The man—deranged, fearless, soulless as he was—hardly reacted to his own injuries. He caught his sword with his remaining hand and he pushed it deeper into Lan Wangji’s body.

The pain was terrible. But somehow, it hardly registered. His qi was wild, unbalanced, lapping furiously around their bodies. Lan Wangji reacted on blind instinct and stabbed the man’s hand with the lotus pin.

Had he been thinking rationally, he would have called upon Bichen again. He would have taken off the man’s head with his next strike, before he had a chance to wield his blade again. But Lan Wangji wasn’t thinking, and the lotus pin suddenly burned against his palm. It burned the man, too. He hissed in pain and dropped his hand from the sword. His hand was smoldering, smoking, blackening. He stared at it with a perverse curiosity, a feral sort of wonder.

His reaction brought Lan Wangji back into his own body. The sword fell away, and Lan Wangji clutched his bleeding abdomen. Then he summoned Bichen one last time, and watched his sword spear the man through the heart.

The man died laughing, choking on his own blood.

Lan Wangji sank to his knees. He spared a moment to regret that he must die so near this man’s corpse. He would die. He understood that with a strange sort of resignation. Blood poured from beneath his palm. It was sickening to touch the wound. It went deep, and he was losing too much blood. His qi was still reeling, rebounding, struggling to find balance. It wouldn’t heal the damage quickly enough to preserve his life.

Lan Wangji heard footsteps in the distance, the sound of someone running. But he ignored those. He reached a bloodied hand inside his sleeve and found the signal talisman, activating it by touch alone. Then he lay on the snow-covered ground and shut his eyes.

If the person running was a member of their settlement, then all was well. If they were one of this man's accomplices, his husband would soon return. He would deal with the problem. Lan Wangji’s duty—his part in this conflict—was done.

He shut his eyes. It seemed that he must think of something in his final moments, so he chose to think of his husband: turning up his robes for the lotus harvest, tossing the children into the pond, and smiling brighter than the sun.

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji swam back to consciousness in slow, halting stages. His entire body ached. A bright, hot pulse of pain swallowed his midsection. For a long time, he could neither move nor speak. Merely opening his eyes felt like an impossible task. It took effort to shift even his smallest finger.

He was dimly aware that he wasn’t alone. People moved about the room, speaking in quiet voices. One of them was very nearby. Every now and then, they touched his hand. But Lan Wangji felt as though he were trapped beneath a sheet of ice. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t break through. The harder he struggled, the faster he sank. Again and again, he came close to waking. Then he slipped down into deep, echoing darkness.

After a while, the weight lifted. The world around him drifted into sharper focus. Everything was quiet, but small sounds grew more acute. He heard a cup placed against a table, then the creak of a door. His breathing grew easier, and the pain receded. He was nearly sure he was within his own chambers. There was a bright, clean odor: incense was burning. It was the kind he'd brought from Cloud Recesses. The scent was both familiar and restorative.

Lan Wangji pried his eyes open and blinked at the canopy above his bed. Then he looked down. Soft red sheets covered his body. A vivid quilt had been laid over his feet.

“You’re awake.”

That voice was familiar, too. Lan Wangji shifted and turned. He found his husband sitting on a chair beside his bed.

The Patriarch looked dreadful. Lan Wangji felt an immediate surge of alarm. His husband’s face was pale and haggard. Clearly, several days had passed since his last shave. His clothing was rumpled and creased, stained by long wearing. But his husband didn’t seem conscious of his bedraggled appearance. He stared fixedly at Lan Wangji. An indecipherable expression was etched onto his face. He seemed halfway between relief and horror.

Lan Wangji tried to push himself up, and pain exploded against his belly. His husband lurched forward, guiding Lan Wangji back against the bedding.

“No. Don’t.” His voice was hoarse. But his hands, pressing against Lan Wangji’s shoulders, were gentle. “Don’t try to sit up, you’ll rip out your stitches.”

Lan Wangji absorbed that bit of information in silence. He had stitches, then. It had been a long time since he needed those. He had a dim memory of a childhood injury that had required a line of stitches across his arm. After he formed his golden core, he healed so quickly that stitches became unnecessary. But now, he had taken a sword through his stomach. It was no surprise that such an injury had warranted stitches. In fact, it was a miracle that was all he’d required. It was a miracle he was alive.

He twitched his toes experimentally. To his relief, they responded at once. His fingers twitched too, and Lan Wangji stared at his hands. He wanted to peel back the bedding and bandages. He wanted to see the wound, to understand how severe his injuries had been. He couldn't, though. His husband kept a firm grip on his arm.

“Here.” His husband reached out of sight, then lifted a cup. “Do you think you can drink some water?”

Lan Wangji’s throat was parched beyond all reason. He didn’t even try to speak until he had emptied two cups. But he was mortified how much effort it took. The simple task of drinking water was almost impossible. He couldn’t even sit up to drink properly.

His husband helped him. He propped Lan Wangji up carefully, then tilted the cup. Afterward, he brushed a bit of spilled water away from Lan Wangji’s face and set the cup aside. The Patriarch could use some water himself, Lan Wangji noted. He needed a meal and a bath, too. Then a shave, and fresh robes. Lan Wangji opened his mouth to scold his husband for neglecting his own needs.

But fear suddenly crowded up in his throat. It drove out all other concerns.

“A-Qing,” he rasped.

His husband's shoulders relaxed. He shook his head and tried to smile.

“She’s okay. She’s…everyone’s okay. More or less.” He passed a hand over his face. “You and Song Lan were the only ones who got hurt.”

The sour taste of fear receded. Lan Wangji clung desperately to those words: She’s okay. In his most recent memory, he watched the light vanish from the man’s eyes. Lan Wangji had known, even before he lost consciousness, that the man must be dying. He could have had accomplices, though. They could have struck after Lan Wangji passed out and carried off the children before his husband managed to return.

If he had known the children were safe, Lan Wangji could have resigned himself to death. He hadn’t known that, though. So he had hung on, clinging to life, waiting. Now Lan Wangji took a slow, deep breath of relief. He tried not to think of A-Qing’s crumpled body lying in the snow. It didn't matter anymore. She was all right. His husband had said so.

It took a moment for his husband’s final sentence to sink in.

“’Song Lan?’” he echoed.

His voice was rusty with disuse, and Lan Wangji wondered how long he had been unconscious. His husband gave him another cup of water. His brows were drawn together, and Lan Wangji suspected the water was only partially for his benefit. The Patriarch seemed to be choosing his words carefully.

“That guy.” He set aside the cup once more. Then he met Lan Wangji’s eyes. “Do you know who he was?”

“No.”

The man was a skilled cultivator. He intended to harm the people of the Burial Mounds. But he had not given his name, and Lan Wangji hadn’t bothered to ask for it. There was no time to exchange pleasantries. From the moment their eyes met, they had been engaged in a fight to the death.

His husband’s mouth was tense, twisted with something like regret. He stared at the bedding for a long time.

“His name was Xue Yang. Courtesy name Xue Chengmei.”

The name was strangely familiar. At first, Lan Wangji could not place it. His attention was caught by another word.

“’Was’?”

His husband gave a grim, humorless smile.

“Oh, you definitely killed him.” He lifted his eyes to stare at the wall. “Gutted him like a pig.”

Lan Wangji let out a quiet sigh. He had been nearly sure he killed the man. But he could take nothing for granted. He had lost consciousness, and anything might have happened in the interim. But the man was dead. Lan Wangji found he was glad to hear it. Perhaps it was unseemly to gloat over the death of an enemy. In this case, however, it couldn’t be helped.

If the man were not dead—if he had somehow escaped—Lan Wangji would have hunted him to the ends of the earth. He could never forget the sight of the knife, raising a thin line of blood against A-Qing’s throat. A man who struck at night and launched a cowardly attack against a child deserved to die. He deserved to be—as his husband put it—gutted like a pig. Such a man was nothing more than a rabid animal.

But a memory stirred. Lan Wangji blinked as he chased after it. His thoughts were sluggish, and it took a while before he trapped the memory. Xue Yang. He had indeed heard that name before, three or four years ago.

“He was a murderer,” Lan Wangji said slowly. “He slaughtered a clan.”

His husband inclined his head.

“He did. Yes.”

He didn’t elaborate. Lan Wangji stared, and his husband gave a heavy sigh. He rubbed both hands over his unshaven jaw, then sat back in his chair.

“Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan caught him,” he said dully. “They delivered him to the sects for justice.”

As soon as the words left his husband’s mouth, Lan Wangji remembered.

Who could forget the murder of the Chang clan, or the political squabbling that followed? It had been Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen who apprehended the perpetrator. Lan Wangji remembered that much. He also recalled a disagreement over the appropriate punishment. The Nie sect—along with the Lans and the Jiangs—had approved the execution order. But Jin sect had balked. Eventually, they commuted the punishment to life imprisonment.

Nie Mingjue had been furious. Lan Wangji remembered that part of the story well. He remembered, too, that his brother had tried to soothe him. Lan Xichen was never fond of executing criminals. He told Nie Mingjue that a life sentence was a suitable punishment too. Xue Yang would be behind bars, unable to harm anyone else. Justice, he insisted, had been served.

But how can we trust the Jins to carry the sentence out? Nie Mingjue growled.

His brother waved off this remark. He insisted that the Jins would not fail to uphold the punishment. The man’s crimes were grave, and the trial had been public. He said the Jins would surely do as they had promised.

Lan Wangji gritted his teeth. His brother’s faith in the sects had been misplaced, then. He didn’t know what the Jins had done to Xue Yang after the trial concluded. But they certainly hadn’t kept him imprisoned in a dark cell. Xue Yang had arrived in the Burial Mounds healthy and well-fed. Clearly, he was accustomed to walking freely under the open sky.

Disgust simmered in Lan Wangji’s blood. He had never respected or valued Jin Guangshan. The man was a hedonist and a libertine; he cared for nothing beyond his own power and prestige. Justice was merely an abstract concept to him. Lan Wangji had known that for years. But he could hardly believe that Jin Guangshan was so lost to morality as this. He had lied to the sects and pardoned a mass murderer. Xue Yang had spoken of payment, too. Jin Guangshan must have employed this criminal to carry out attacks on his political enemies.

“He was working for the Jins,” Lan Wangji murmured. “He told me so.”

His husband met his gaze steadily.

“I know.”

There was no trace of surprise in his husband’s voice. Lan Wangji’s stomach twisted again.

His husband knew. He knew that Jin Guangshan had done this disgraceful thing. He knew that Sect Leader Jin had abandoned his duty to keep the peace and protect the innocent. He knew that Sect Leader Jin had employed murderers and criminals, had sought to infiltrate the Patriarch’s territory without just cause. He knew that this man—a leader of one of the Great Sects—had done such a thing.

“Xue Yang wanted to get revenge on Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan, I guess.”

His husband tipped his head back. He stared at the ceiling, his hand absently smoothing the bedding.

“A week ago, he tried to attack the temple where Song Lan grew up. But I put up wards there ages ago, and he couldn’t get in. So he set a trap and waited for them to take the bait.”

Lan Wangji listened, mute with horror.

“He got them to split up,” his husband continued tonelessly, “and he blinded Song Lan. That was why I rushed off. Xiao Xingchen managed to get Song Lan somewhere safe. Then he sent word to me and begged Wen Qing to come help him.”

Lan Wangji drew in a sharp breath. Reflexively, he tried to sit up again. His husband guided him back against the pillows, his face gentle.

“Don’t get upset,” he murmured. “We think we can fix it. Wen Qing has some good ideas. If all else fails…”

His husband’s mouth tightened again. But he patted Lan Wangji’s arm soothingly, as if he were a child.

“I can fix this,” he said. “I promise.”

Lan Wangji felt faintly sick. Nausea rose in his throat at the words, He blinded Song Lan.

This man—Xue Yang—had slaughtered an entire clan. Then he attacked a peaceful temple and destroyed the eyes of the cultivator who had brought him to justice. Suddenly, Lan Wangji felt that he hadn’t made Xue Yang suffer enough.

He shouldn’t think that way. As a disciple of Cloud Recesses, he was supposed to mete out justice dispassionately. If a violent criminal refused to surrender, Lan Wangji was permitted to kill. But he was not permitted to torture, or to glory in causing pain. The Lan disciplines—and the laws of every other upstanding sect—forbade it. Yet if Song Zichen's vision couldn’t be restored, Lan Wangji felt the man’s quick death was poor recompense.

“Are they here?” His voice cracked with disuse and anxiety. “They are safe?”

His husband patted his arm again. Then he laid his hand over Lan Wangji’s. His hands were very warm, or perhaps Lan Wangji’s were very cold.

“They’re here,” he soothed. “They’ll be okay.”

He paused, staring at their joined hands.

“You’ll be okay too. Not the Xue Yang didn’t try his damnedest to kill you. But apparently he was no match for Hanguang-Jun!”

His husband sounded grimly proud. Yet Lan Wangji found no pleasure in the thought. There wasn’t any honor in proving himself superior to such a man. He was fortunate, though. He had been deeply fortunate to survive. He hadn’t expected to live. In his final moment—before blood loss dragged him into unconsciousness—he thought his wounds must be fatal. During the war, he had seen cultivators die from injuries that were far less severe.

“Zhang Huizhong got to you pretty quickly.” He squeezed Lan Wangji’s hand. “She knows a lot about field medicine, so she managed to…hold you together until Wen Qing and I got here.”

Lan Wangji nodded. His eyes locked onto his husband’s hand, resting over his own. He knew that his husband must be speaking literally. Instructor Zhang must have clutched at his torn flesh and fought desperately to hold his body together. As he pictured it, Lan Wangji felt sick. During the war, he had often done the same thing. Sometimes, he managed to keep the stricken cultivator alive until help arrived. Sometimes, he had not. But he knew the desperation and helplessness she must have felt, watching him die in her arms. He swallowed hard.

He owed her a great debt, one he couldn’t hope to repay. A gift seemed like a feeble gesture of gratitude. Even so, perhaps there was something Instructor Zhang would like. There must be some token he could offer as a sign of his thanks.

Lan Wangji lifted his gaze. He intended to ask the Patriarch what might sort of gift might be appropriate. But when he met his husband’s eyes, his face had crumpled. The Patriarch was paler than ever, and there were tears in his red-rimmed eyes. Lan Wangji squeezed his husband’s hand tightly. His husband’s face sagged further.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

His voice was as hoarse and cracked as Lan Wangji’s. There was such misery in his eyes. Lan Wangji couldn’t understand it. His mouth worked soundlessly as he tried to draw moisture into his dry throat.

“Why are you apologizing?”

His husband did not respond. Lan Wangji gave his hand another squeeze. The Patriarch shut his eyes and let out a long, slow sigh.

“He was looking for me.” His throat worked, swallowing hard. “Did you not understand that?”

Lan Wangji stared, bewildered, at his husband’s pale face. After an uncertain pause, he dredged up a response.

“I understood. He said you rejected him as a disciple, so he wanted revenge. That’s why he tried to take A-Qing.”

Xue Yang had been a spy and an assassin. He had been sent by the Jins. Lan Wangji understood that. He also understood that a personal vendetta was involved. But he couldn’t understand why his husband felt the need to apologize. He could hardly be held responsible for the crimes of a vicious, monstrous stranger.

The Patriarch shut his eyes.

“That was…so long ago.” He exhaled heavily, his shoulders slumping. “I was too young then. I messed up. If I’d been smarter, I would’ve said yes. I would've kept Xue Yang close, kept him under my supervision. But all I could see…”

His husband fell silent for a long time. Lan Wangji waited patiently. His body burned with pain. It was barely kept in check by whatever medicines they had given him. The ache in his stomach sharpened with every breath. That was nothing, though. He could bear the pain. Physical discomfort was meaningless when his husband looked so distraught.

The Patriarch swallowed again. He took another deep breath.

“He was already like that by the time he came looking for me.” His hand tightened around Lan Wangji’s. “Xue Yang wanted to hurt people. He wanted to kill. He hadn’t done it yet, but he wanted to. I could see that. He wanted me to teach him all kinds of tricks, so he could torture anybody who crossed him. So I told him no, and I kicked him out.”

Lan Wangji felt his brow furrow.

“That is not your fault,” he said firmly. “Any master would have done the same.”

No respectable teacher would knowingly prepare their student for a life of crime. If a disciple had the wrong temperament—if they showed a propensity for sadism or lawlessness—they were turned away. So it was in Cloud Recesses. So it was the Unclean Realm. So it was Lotus Pier. So it was in every respectable sect. If his husband thought he had made a mistake in rejecting Xue Yang, he was quite wrong. But his husband only grimaced and shook his head.

“Saying no wasn’t going to knock any sense into him.” He gave Lan Wangji a tense, humorless smile. “I just threw him back out into the world to make his own way. And look what happened! He found other ways to learn what he wanted. He hurt, he tortured, he killed.”

“He made his own choices.” Lan Wangji spoke swiftly. “The responsibility lies with him. Not with you.”

Fatigue tried to drag him down into the soothing relief of unconsciousness. Lan Wangji fought against it. He had slept—he knew he must have slept—for too long already. He must have been asleep for days, perhaps even a week. While he wasted his time sleeping, his husband had sat here blaming himself. Lan Wangji couldn’t sleep until his husband understood that he was grossly mistaken.

“You do not need to apologize,” he added.

He hadn’t the breath to say anything more. The medicine had dulled his wits, and he couldn’t construct a proper rebuttal. His thoughts felt thick and slow. He blinked, trying to clear his mind. But his husband only shook his head.

Lan Wangji had failed to soothe him. That much was clear. His eyes were sad and guilty. Lan Wangji’s fingers twitched, seized by the urge to touch his husband’s face. He wanted to trace the lines of tension around his husband's eyes, rub them with his thumb and smooth them away.

“You really don’t know…”

His husband took a deep breath, and then he stopped. He was silent for so long that Lan Wangji’s eyes threatened to close. He forced them open and kept his focus trained on his husband’s face. His husband stroked the back of Lan Wangji’s hand with his thumb: once, twice, three times.

“You asked me why I picked you,” he said, abruptly. “Why I married you. You asked me a couple of times, actually. And I wouldn’t tell you. Do you still want to know?”

There was a sharp edge in his husband’s voice. It wasn’t vicious; Lan Wangji sensed that the sharpness wasn’t wielded against him. Even so, its presence made him uneasy. He chose his words carefully.

“I told you that I could be patient,” he whispered. “That I could bear with it.”

He had promised his husband that he would wait patiently. He vowed to endure the silence, the secrecy, the unanswered questions. His husband had promised to answer his questions someday, and Lan Wangji had tried to make his peace with that. He swore that he could wait, and he refused to renege on his promise.

His husband’s lips twisted bitterly. He gave a sharp shake of his head.

“You bore with it so long, you got a sword through your stomach.” He gripped Lan Wangji’s hands tightly. “I think you’ve been patient long enough.”

Lan Wangji couldn’t think of a response to that. Before he could draw breath, his husband spoke again.

“People have been trying to kill me for quite some time.”

He lifted his eyes and smiled. It was a terrible smile, grim and cold and empty. The few words Lan Wangji had scraped together crumbled to dust.

“By people,” he added, “I mean the leaders of various sects.”

He shrugged, as though he spoke of an idle disagreement over politics, rather than attempted assassination. Lan Wangji’s stomach roiled. Nausea blotted out the sharp pain in his belly.

“To be fair, not all of them were trying to kill me. Some were just trying to send spies.” He shifted his weight on the chair, studying a thin crack in the bedframe. “They would try to smuggle in a few agents every now and then. They mixed their people in with the refugees and orphans. But they weren’t as skilled as Xue Yang, so I caught them right away. Xue Yang really slipped past me.”

His husband spoke quietly, as if to himself. His face grew tense again. Then he smoothed his expression out, as if by conscious effort. He gave Lan Wangji another flat smile.

“Those concubines! That’s what they were. Spies.” He rocked forward. “Some of them were assassins, too. Did you know that?”

Lan Wangji shook his head. He had guessed, of course. Xue Yang had implied as much during their fight. But Lan Wangji hadn’t wanted to credit the words of a murderer. In his heart, he hadn’t wanted to believe that any sect leader would resort to such tactics.

He felt sure that his own sect couldn't have been involved. His brother would never agree to such a thing. And Nie Mingjue would never allow his people to participate in any assassination schemes, either. But for all Lan Wangji knew, every other sect might have been involved. Each sect leader might have banded together and agreed to send an assassin in the guise of a concubine. 

Lan Wangji's opinion of the sect leaders had never been especially high. Now, he felt his opinion of the sects plummet, sinking straight into the soil. His husband nodded grimly.

“I thought you did,” he admitted. “At first, I thought you knew all about it. The famous Hanguang-Jun! Everybody knows how dedicated he is to the orthodox path.”

Lan Wangji wanted to object, but the words wouldn’t come. He was known for his dedication to the orthodox path. For years, he had been held up as an example and a role model. Disciples were taught to emulate his conduct. Lan Wangji knew this. Yet he hadn’t considered the consequences of this reputation, or how he might be perceived by the various sect leaders.

He had viewed his unblemished reputation with some gratification. His family was proud of him, and that was what mattered most. If Lan Wangji maintained a record of impeccable conduct, he could bring credit to his uncle and his brother. He could uphold the reputation of his sect. This, Lan Wangji thought, was surely a noble goal. So he had worked diligently to achieve it.

But if anyone thought he'd consent to this—the coldblooded assassination of those who strayed from the orthodox path—then Lan Wangji felt sick. He didn’t want such a reputation. It was deeply shameful that anyone believed he’d condone such activities.

“The sects didn’t like me,” his husband continued.

His tone was idle. He seemed to have no idea how deep his words had struck. Lan Wangji swallowed down his horror and disgust. He kept his eyes trained on his husband’s face.

“Even before the war, they saw me as a threat. Some of them would have slept a lot more soundly if I was dead, or if I cut myself off from the world entirely. But if they couldn’t get rid of me, then they wanted a spy in my household. Someone who could report to them on everything I did and planned. Everything I was capable of.”

His husband shrugged, a deceptively careless gesture.

“By the time I realized I was going to have to do something about Wen Ruohan…” He tilted his head and winced. “I knew what their reaction would be. If they saw me as a threat before…once they knew what I could do, they’d really want me gone.”

Lan Wangji couldn’t bring himself to nod. But it made sense. He'd never forget the final battle of the war. No one present could ever hope to forget such a staggering display of power. Perhaps the sect leaders could ignore the Patriarch for a time. If he kept himself hidden in the Burial Mounds, they could ignore the rumors of his power. It was only gossip, myth, and speculation.

Once the world saw the depths of the Patriarch’s power, the tide would have turned. The change wouldn’t have happened overnight. At first, the sects would've been relieved: they escaped near-certain doom at the hands of Wen Ruohan. But as the weeks stretched on, they would've spent time considering the tremendous power they had witnessed. It was no surprise that their joy and relief withered. Fear had taken its place, followed swiftly by resentment and jealousy.

For sect leaders who nurtured greedy, ambitious desires, the Patriarch's powers would've seemed a terrible threat. It wouldn't have been difficult for those leaders to sway others to their point of view. The rest of the cultivation world was vulnerable to propaganda. They had all lived through a terrible war and many disciples had perished at Wen Ruohan's hands. Every cultivator would naturally be frightened of anyone who seemed able to wield the same sort of dreadful power. If a few sect leaders whipped their fears into a frenzy, who would oppose a plot against the Yiling Patriarch? An assassination would seem like the most prudent way to deal with Wen Ruohan's successor.

His husband’s eyes were resigned, and Lan Wangji’s heart twisted. The Patriarch didn’t even seem surprised. Public opinion had swung against him mere weeks after he’d saved thousands of lives. Yet his husband looked as though he’d expected this all along. 

The pieces of the puzzle settled within Lan Wangji’s mind. But as he studied the full picture, he found himself recoiling in horror.

“So Wen Qing and I came up with a plan.” His husband scratched his nose. “I was going to help with the war either way. I had to. Wen Ruohan was getting too powerful, and the other sects couldn’t stop him. There was no alternative.”

He spoke rapidly, carelessly. As if his own involvement was of no consequence. As if he had sacrificed nothing by making his abilities public. As if the alternative—hiding in the shadows to avoid painting a target on his own back—was so unthinkable, it deserved no consideration. Lan Wangji’s heart twisted further.

“But we knew that after the war was over, the sects would turn against me for good. Some of them would get scared, and some of them would try to seize power for themselves. So they’d send even more spies and assassins. Unless we sealed the borders completely, one of them would probably slip past our nets eventually.”

His husband shifted, propping an elbow on the bedding. His hand still curled around Lan Wangji’s fingers.

“So I thought, ‘Well, what if we try to turn this to our advantage? What if we set them up? What if we give them the right opening?’”

The Patriarch took a deep, shaky breath.

“’What if I tell them I want to get married?’”

He spoke slowly, as if tasting each syllable on his tongue. Lan Wangji watched his husband’s mouth shape the words, but they hardly made sense. His head filled with a dull buzzing.

“We thought they’d definitely seize on that opportunity.” His husband gave a tiny, economical shrug. “You were the obvious choice in their eyes. Strong golden core. Excellent with a sword. An expert in all sorts of cultivation techniques. You'd have the best chance of pulling off a successful attack. And your reputation! Hanguang-Jun doesn’t approve of any deviations from the orthodox path!”

He graced Lan Wangji with another of those tense, awful smiles.

“You’re very beautiful, too. And you’re from a respectable clan.”

He scratched a fingernail against the bedding. Suddenly, he seemed to be having trouble meeting Lan Wangji’s eyes.

“We figured that no one would wonder why I chose you. But they’d definitely get you involved in their plans. In fact, we thought you might be involved already.”

The air had been driven from Lan Wangji’s lungs. His body felt very cold, and he struggled to draw enough breath to speak. A faint tremor had seized his fingertips. He wondered if his husband could feel it.

It didn’t occur to Lan Wangji that he could take his hands away to hide their shaking. His husband’s hands were so warm. Lan Wangji wanted to feel them curled around his own every day. Every day, for the rest of his life. But the words echoed inside his head: What if we give them the right opening? We thought they’d definitely seize that opportunity. They’d definitely get you involved in their plans. We thought you might be involved already.

“I wasn’t,” he rasped. “They didn’t.”

The idea rocked him to his core. He had understood that his husband had enemies. Yet it had never occurred to Lan Wangji that he might appear to be one of them. His blood felt as though it had been turned to ice.

His husband stroked the back of his hand.

“Well. I figured that out eventually.” His voice was wry, bitter. “Took me a while, though.”

He made a tiny adjustment to the bedding, drawing the blankets further around Lan Wangji’s body. As he spoke, he seemed to be seeking something to do with his hands.

“I tried to provoke them at the discussion conference. Then when you came into my home, I tried to provoke you too.” His husband huffed a hollow laugh. “I waved my walking corpses in front of your face! I got you drunk! I put a blade in your hand, and let you touch it to my throat!”

The memories came, rapid and unrelenting. Lan Wangji blinked against the assault.

“I was trying to drive the whole scheme out into the open.” His husband smiled, his eyes bleak. “I was trying to get you to act. I figured that once you made a move, I'd catch you in the act. Then we could interrogate you. I could find out how much you knew and who was planning what.”

His voice grew soft.

"Wen Qing and I had a few plans for what we'd do after we exposed you. We thought we might use you to feed false information back to the sects." His mouth tightened. "We talked about using you as a hostage too. Neither of us liked that idea very much, but we decided we'd go through with it if we had to."

Lan Wangji parted his lips. Then he discovered that he had nothing to say. A heavy, sick feeling spread pressed against his chest. He felt utterly foolish. The rational part of his mind whispered that he had no reason to feel ashamed. He had taken part in no conspiracy. He had fulfilled his duties to his husband. Aside from whatever had occurred the night he became drunk, he had conducted himself honorably. There was no cause for embarrassment.

But shame flooded his body. They had been married for weeks, for months. His husband had spent their entire marriage believing that Lan Wangji was some sort of spy. He thought that Lan Wangji had been recruited to gather information on his husband for malicious purposes. Every moment they had spent together—including the ones Lan Wangji had secretly treasured—was suddenly tainted with this knowledge. His husband had thought he was deceitful and untrustworthy. He had tried to bait Lan Wangji into revealing his wicked schemes.

There was a profoundly awkward pause. Lan Wangji couldn’t begin to imagine how to shatter it.

“But no matter how much I provoked you, you didn’t do anything.” His husband sniffed and shrugged his shoulders. “At first, I thought you were just trying to gather intelligence. I thought, ‘All right, so they didn’t want him as an assassin. They wanted him as a spy.’”

He tapped a finger against the bedding.

“So I started giving you more information. I let you find out how my territories operated. I showed you into the storehouses and introduced you around. I tried to drop little crumbs of intelligence. Then I waited to see what you did with it.”

Lan Wangji stared mutely. His husband’s face crumpled a little. After a moment, he smoothed his expression out.

“Mostly, you just taught the kids calligraphy and made offerings to my parents.” He grimaced and tried to smile. “So I thought, ‘All right! He’s a really good spy, then! He’s lulling me into a false sense of security!’”

Lan Wangji realized that his husband was ashamed. He was trying to make a joke of this wretched situation, but he wasn’t succeeding. Shame echoed in every word. Lan Wangji squeezed his husband’s hand tighter. His husband’s smile faltered again. He started down at their hands.

“We were reading your letters,” he said, abruptly.

Lan Wangji inclined his head.

“I know.” When his husband blinked in surprise, he added, “Someone put them back in the wrong order.”

His husband winced. The shame etched around his eyes deepened.

“Ah. That was careless.” He sighed. His thumb resumed stroking Lan Wangji’s wrist. “You destroyed a couple of letters. Or hid them.”

He spoke idly, as if he didn’t care about the response. Lan Wangji’s throat tightened with understanding, swiftly followed by dismay. Of course, that would have seemed suspicious. He had destroyed the letters to avoid keeping any questionable correspondence. But of course, their absence had only drawn further scrutiny. He felt profoundly, sickening stupid. How could he not have realized this?

“My brother…” Lan Wangji caught his breath and spoke haltingly. “He made certain allusions. I understood that the sects were…opposed to you. He let me know that public opinion was turning against you. That someone might be plotting something.”

His husband tilted his head, as if in polite acknowledgment of a recognized fact. Lan Wangji licked his lips.

“I didn’t think you’d understand his allusions. But if someone found the letters…” He hardly knew how to finish that thought. “I thought they might misunderstand. I did not want to seem disloyal.”

At first, he had worried for his sect. If the Patriarch became angry, perhaps he would punish the entire Lan clan. Yet that fear had disappeared quickly. Before a month had passed, Lan Wangji felt sure that his husband was an honorable man. He would not punish innocent people for repeating an unfavorable rumor, much less punish an entire sect for their leader’s remarks. Lan Wangji hadn’t supposed that his natal sect was in any true danger.

But he hadn’t wanted his husband to see him as disloyal. He wanted his husband’s trust. He wanted intimacy, friendship, every form of deep attachment. Their marriage was fragile, yet infinitely precious. Lan Wangji hadn’t wanted to risk rupturing it through political gossip or divided allegiances.

By destroying the letter, though, he had only deepened his husband’s suspicions. He could see it in his husband’s eyes. The Patriarch grimaced with something like sympathy.

“I see.” He sighed again. “Unfortunately, that’s not how we interpreted it. We saw the missing letters and thought, ‘Aha! We were right! He is hiding something after all! He’s passing information to somebody, maybe in code!’”

He rubbed his eyes. Suddenly, he looked very tired.

“But after a while, you’d passed up so many opportunities.” His husband stared blankly at the wall. “You had so many chances to try to hurt me, or hurt somebody else here. You had lots of chances to find things out and smuggle information to your family. But you weren't taking them. Even if you were writing letters in code, there was no sign that your information was reaching anybody who mattered.”

His shoulders slumped.

“One day, I just looked at you and thought…”

His eyes fell on Lan Wangji, heavy and sad, as his lips formed a rueful smile.

“’Well. Either he’s the best spy in the entire world, or he really isn't involved in their conspiracy.’”

Lan Wangji felt as though he were standing on quicksand. Everything he thought he knew about his marriage had changed in an instant. He floundered for purchase. His husband’s hand was the only lifeline available, so Lan Wangji held it tightly. His husband squeezed back, his face unhappy.

“I started to think maybe it was the latter,” he admitted. “But I hoped I was wrong.”

“You hoped?” Lan Wangji echoed.

His husband hoped he was part of a conspiracy? He hoped that Lan Wangji was a spy, an assassin, someone with neither honor nor decency? He had hoped their marriage was founded on mutual deceit?

“Of course.” His husband slouched in the chair. “Think about it. If you really didn’t know anything? That meant I forced you into this marriage and I trapped you here. It meant you were just a good person who was trying to be a faithful husband. I was lying to you, trying to bait you, refusing to tell you anything. And you were cooking me lunch, out of the kindness of your heart!”

The Patriarch’s voice was bitter enough to sting. His mouth pressed into a thin, unhappy line.

“That was such an awful possibility,” he muttered. “I was really hoping you were a secret assassin!”

“I am not a skilled liar,” Lan Wangji said dully.

He never had been. After all, lying was forbidden. And even if lying had been permitted in Cloud Recesses, Lan Wangji still wouldn’t know where to begin. His brother could phrase things in a discreet, diplomatic fashion. He knew how to give a certain impression without outright lying. Lan Wangji couldn’t even manage that. He spoke little, but when he did speak, his speech was blunt and frank. He knew nothing else.

The notion that he was capable of carrying on an extended charade—acting as an assassin, winning his husband’s trust through deceit—was thoroughly absurd. Lan Wangji almost wanted to laugh aloud. Yet there was no humor to be found here. If his husband spent their entire marriage thinking he was a liar, that was not amusing. Lan Wangji felt sick.

“Well. I started to figure that out.”

His husband's voice was heavy with irony and self-reproach.

“I knew Xue Yang was still running around, killing people.” He frowned. “I even knew he was working for the Jins. Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen had gathered intelligence on that, and they were trying to track him down. I knew the Jins would send him after me if they thought they could get away with it. If they approached him for an assassination, I knew he’d take the job. I was keeping an eye out for him.”

His face tensed with anger and disgust.

“Ah, but he was sneakier than I thought. That was a good disguise.” He shook his head. “He even sealed his spiritual power until I was gone. I couldn’t sense anything.”

“Neither could I,” Lan Wangji said softly. “Until late that night.”

Something had been wrong. He had known that much. But he couldn’t determine what was amiss. A sense of wrongness nagged at him like a stubborn itch. It drove him to circle the settlement, checking on the children. He kept looking for the source of the trouble. Eventually, he found it. The discovery resulted in a sword through his body.

Lan Wangji resisted the temptation to touch his stomach. He was thickly swathed in bandages, and his husband said there were stitches. He felt a reassuring pulse of qi within his lower dantian. His core hadn’t been damaged, then. His reserves were very low, though. Recovery wouldn’t be swift and he would carry the scars for the rest of his life. If scars were the worst of it, Lan Wangji knew he was fortunate. The strike Xue Yang gave him would have killed most cultivators. Anyone without a golden core would have died within seconds.

He touched his husband’s hand. He intended to say something, though he hardly knew what. But his husband cut him off.

“I have to tell you something else.”

His face was very pale as Lan Wangji blinked up at him. He stared fixedly at Lan Wangji’s hand, covering his own.

“When I first saw your signal flare…” His husband took in a sharp breath. His voice wavered, hushed. “I almost didn’t come back.”

The words hung in the air. His husband’s head was bowed, as if he expected angry retribution. Yet the words hardly made sense. Lan Wangji didn't know what to say.

“I thought it might be a trick,” his husband added softly. “We’d just found Song Lan, and we learned that it was Xue Yang who blinded him."

His shoulders hunched even further.

"By then, I was sure you couldn't be involved in any of this. But I started having second thoughts when I saw the signal flare. I thought, 'What if it's a trap after all? What if he was in cahoots with Xue Yang all along? Maybe he's trying to lure me away from Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan. Maybe it's all part of some plot, weeks in the making.'”

He did not raise his eyes. Not even when Lan Wangji gently nudged his hand.

“But you did come,” Lan Wangji said, after a wrenching silence.

His husband made a soft, agonized noise. He sounded like a wounded animal.

“But I didn’t come for you.” His voice rose, as if he were angry. Then it cracked with pain. “I didn’t really think you could be in danger. I came because I was worried about the children and the Wens.”

Lan Wangji swallowed hard. But he didn’t draw his hand away. His husband wiped his face, and his voice splinted further.

“I thought it was worth walking into a trap to help them. If you were by yourself, if there was nobody else at risk…I might not have come.”

“That is understandable,” Lan Wangji said, very quietly.

His husband made a sound that was very nearly inhuman. His head snapped up, and Lan Wangji realized that his husband was crying.

“No, it’s not.”

He leaned in close. His hair was wild, his face unshaven, his eyes rimmed with red. Lan Wangji wanted to get up from the bed. He wanted to go to the door, to summon hot water and fresh robes. He wanted to push his husband into the bathtub and shave him with his own two hands. He wanted to help his husband dress in clean clothes, then sit and eat a proper meal.

He wondered, suddenly, when his husband last ate or slept. Lan Wangji had the unpleasant feeling that he’d taken neither food nor rest since his return. Perhaps he would claim that an immortal didn’t require either. He would say he could survive without such things. But surviving was not the same thing as living. Lan Wangji knew that well. In any case, he couldn’t get up and fetch the things his husband needed. He could do nothing but lie against the pillows as his husband took hold of Lan Wangji’s jaw.

“I came back and I found Xue Yang’s corpse,” he whispered.

His hand was shaking. Lan Wangji could feel the tremors against his skin.

“I found you, bleeding out in the snow. Zhang Huizhong was trying to keep you alive, but she couldn’t have done it by herself. The Wens couldn’t have done it either. You needed constant infusions of spiritual energy for a day and a half to keep your organs from shutting down. It took Wen Qing three hours to sew you back up. When she first saw you, she just shook her head. She said she’d try her best, but she couldn’t promise you’d make it.”

His husband’s voice choked. For a moment, he couldn’t speak. Lan Wangji reached out blindly until he found the half-full cup of water. He pushed it into his husband’s hand, and his husband made a sound halfway between a laugh and sob. He had helped Lan Wangji drink the water. So it didn’t seem wrong for Lan Wangji to help his husband now. He folded his husband’s hands around the cup. Then he lifted the cup until his husband drank. When the cup was empty, Lan Wangji flashed a meaningful glance at the pitcher beside the bed. He waited until his husband refilled it.

Lan Wangji was greatly indebted to Wen Qing. He knew that already. Few physicians could repair a severe abdominal wound. She must be very skilled indeed. But he knew who had provided the spiritual energy that kept his body alive. He knew there must have been moments when his heart failed, when his lungs seized up. Someone must have stayed at his bedside day and night, pouring spiritual energy into his body. They must have suffused his body with qi until his organs stabilized and his flesh knit together.

His husband looked like someone who had spend days beside a sickbed, neglecting food and rest. So it was impossible to begrudge him for his doubt or distrust. Lan Wangji had needed him, and he had come. He had kept Lan Wangji alive through sheer willpower. It was enough.

“She did do her best,” he said. “As did you.”

His husband put the cup aside and buried his face in his hands. He didn’t speak for a long time. Finally, he dropped his hands into his lap. His shoulders were slumped and he wiped his face with the edge of his robes.

“You’re taking this far too calmly. You’re allowed to hit me, you know. Look, I’ll even come closer so you don’t pull your stitches.”

He shifted out of the chair and knelt by the bed. Lan Wangji stared down at him. His husband was wretchedly pale, but beautiful and alive. His face was full of feeling. It always was, even when he tried to hide it. That was the part that had hurt most in the early days of their marriage. Lan Wangji had seen that his husband was keeping something from him. He saw sincere joy on his husband’s face. He saw tenderness, amusement, mischievousness. Then he saw his husband try to lock those feelings away. He saw his husband's lovely face shutter and go blank. 

Lan Wangji would sooner cut off his own arm than strike that face. So he shook his head. His husband’s expression crumpled.

“Come on!” he murmured. “Your husband just told you he tricked you into marriage. He forced you to marry him against your will. He thought you were a spy and an assassin. He almost didn’t come to your aid, and you almost died because he made a bad gamble. That’s worth at least one good slap.”

He nudged Lan Wangji’s hand. He was still trying to make a joke out of the situation, but he wasn’t succeeding. Lan Wangji couldn’t help with that task. There was nothing amusing about the mess they had found themselves in. He knew his husband needed something to alleviate his guilt, yet Lan Wangji wasn’t any good at making jokes. He certainly wasn’t any good at striking the man he loved.

He lifted his hand instead and touched his husband’s face. He brushed his thumb along the unshaven jaw, over the hollows beneath his husband’s eyes.

“The Lan disciplines do forbid gambling,” he murmured. “But they also forbid violence against your spouse.”

His husband ducked his head again. He buried his face against the quilt and his shoulders shook. Lan Wangji thought he might be crying again, and he wished his husband didn’t feel the need to hide such things. Lan Wangji had never liked to cry before others, though. So he must be patient with his husband. They would have to be patient with each other.

He waited while his husband composed himself. When he had finished crying, his husband took his hand and kissed it. For the first time since he awoke, warmth flooded Lan Wangji’s body.

“Well. I figured it out once I saw Xue Yang’s corpse lying there. Once I saw you lying there.”

His husband’s voice was thick with grief and sharp with self-deprecation.

“I thought, ‘Hm. I don’t think they’d try to kill one of their own operatives. I think perhaps my husband really didn’t know much about this scheme.’”

He let out a long sigh.

“After that, I was mostly concerned with the part where you were dying. So I stopped worrying about you being a spy.”

“I am glad,” Lan Wangji murmured.

Perhaps it was a strange thing to say. His husband certainly gave that remark a puzzled, incredulous stare. But Lan Wangji could bear the pain of his wounds and the scars they would leave behind. He could endure the miserable recovery period. He could even endure whatever lay ahead. He wasn’t entirely naïve, after all. One assassin had been slain, yet a single failure wouldn’t cause Jin Guangshan to abandon his plans. He would try to use this failed assassination attempt to his advantage, further smear the Patriarch’s name. Their trouble might just be beginning.

If Lan Wangji had his husband’s trust, though, then he felt he could endure anything. His husband stared into his eyes. There was something strangely vulnerable in his expression.

“You really didn’t know anything?” he asked.

He hardly seemed to know what answer he hoped for. Lan Wangji shook his head.

“Aside from what my brother said in his letters, I knew nothing.”

Speaking was slightly painful. Every breath tugged on his stitches. But there was so much he wanted to say. He took a shallow breath and tried again.

“My brother implied that the sect resented you…the Jins most of all. That’s all I knew, and I didn’t know that much until after our marriage.”

His husband grimaced.

“I outsmarted myself.” He let out a soft groan. “Wen Qing and I decided to rush the wedding. We didn’t want to give them too much time to plan. The whole idea was that we’d create an opportunity for them to strike, but make sure everything happened on our territory and our terms.”

He sighed.

“Still, we thought we’d left enough time for someone to make contact with you. We thought they’d bring you into their scheme, if you weren’t already a part of it.”

Lan Wangji's hand had slipped from his husband's face. But the Patriarch kept it in his lap, trapped between both of his palms. Lan Wangji stared at their joined hands.

“I’m sure someone would have tried to involve you,” his husband murmured. “I didn’t give them enough time, I guess.”

Lan Wangji nodded absently. He hardly cared what plans his husband had made during the weeks and months before they met. Lan Wangji didn’t even care what plans he’d made after the marriage. Yet his heart rebelled at this remark. He hated that his husband had believed—even for a short time, even before they knew each other well—that Lan Wangji would agree to join a conspiracy. He couldn't allow such a misunderstanding to continue, so he took another carefully measured breath.

“If they had tried to involve me, I would have refused. And I would have publicly exposed their plan.” He frowned. “Such dealings are disgraceful.”

Political espionage and assassination were vile tasks. No respectable cultivator would tarnish their honor by accepting such an assignment. Lan Wangji had never felt more disgusted with the Jins. Jin Guangshan’s schemes had tainted his entire sect, perhaps for generations to come.

His husband sighed.

“That was another bad gamble.” He turned Lan Wangji’s hand, stroking the palm with his thumb. “You had such a reputation for honesty and honor! But with the right motivation, I thought you might bend those rules. If you believed it was the right thing to do, if it would defeat a budding tyrant...”

Lan Wangji’s frown deepened. He gripped his husband’s hand, slowing the gentle movement of his thumb.

“If I believed you were a tyrant,” he said deliberately, “I would have challenged you directly. We would have crossed blades in a formal duel. I would not have spied upon you, or slipped poison into your food, or cut your throat while shaving you.”

The Patriarch was no tyrant. Lan Wangji felt utterly certain of that. His husband didn’t deserve the scorn or distrust he had suffered. But even if the Patriarch had been evil, as power-hungry as the rumors claimed…

Lan Wangji let out a quiet sigh. In his heart, he knew the truth. Even if his husband had evil tendencies, Lan Wangji would have found it difficult to harm him. Marriage vows were sacred in the Lan sect. Raising a hand against your sworn partner—the person with whom you had bowed before heaven and earth—was a heinous offense, worthy of ten strikes with the disciple whip. So even if Lan Wangji had believed it necessary to challenge his husband to a duel, he would struggle to deliver vicious blows.

If the Patriarch had indeed been an evil man, perhaps Lan Wangji would have had no choice. He would have been forced to make a terrible decision: to betray his marriage vows or to betray his principals. If there was no alternative, Lan Wangji believed he was strong enough to challenge his husband. He could leave the marriage and return to his sect. He could demand that his husband account for his crimes and face justice. But he could not kill his own husband. Lan Wangji knew he couldn’t bring himself to desecrate their marriage bond, even if his husband had proved vicious.

The Patriarch wasn’t vicious, though. He was a good man. His husband was kind, gentle, and funny. He knew that the sects had plotted against him, yet he still won their war. They had sent spies and assassins to his doorstep, but he had still interceded against Wen Ruohan and saved their lives. He had done this for the sake of the common people, the children, the cultivators who knew nothing of their leader’s plots. His husband’s soul was so free of hatred, he hadn’t even punished the sects for their perfidy. When the moment came—when his enemies begged for his aid—he had given it without hesitation.

Lan Wangji felt as if he’d swallowed broken glass. How could he harm such a person? How could he dare to betray a husband who was good, kind, and just? How could he offer such a husband anything less than absolute fidelity?

Foolishly, he wished that he could offer his husband protection. He wished that he could stand against every cultivator in the Jin sect, along with every other sect who supported these plots. He wished to challenge them in his husband’s name, for his husband’s honor. His husband was immortal, and he didn’t need another to fight his battles. But Lan Wangji wished he could do it. He felt almost resentful over the matter. It was galling that he couldn’t leap from the bed, fly to Koi Tower, and make Jin Guangshan account for his crimes.

The Patriarch ran his fingers along Lan Wangji’s hand. Lan Wangji watched the movement. The fury drained out of him, along with the persistent chill that gripped his body when he awoke. He felt like he had thawed, like spring had come all at once. He wasn’t sure he’d ever feel cold again.

“I’ve told you almost everything,” his husband murmured. “But I’m going to tell you the rest. Just for the sake of a clean slate, and because you deserve to know.”

Lan Wangji nodded. His husband’s face was still troubled. 

“You’re still allowed to slap me if you want to,” he added wryly.

“I don’t.”

Lan Wangji felt completely, utterly certain of that. There were many things he’d like to do to his husband, many ways he’d like to touch his husband’s face. But slapping didn’t feature in any of his guilty daydreams.

“Ah.” His husband shifted on his heels. “Well, you might want to after you hear this bit.”

Lan Wangji waited expectantly. His husband cleared his throat three times. He seemed to be stalling. Lan Wangji repressed a frown and continued to wait.

“Well. After the sects sent those concubines, we figured they had a particular plot in mind. We figured their next assassin might try to spring an attack while I was…” His husband trailed off and cleared his throat a fourth time. “You know.

Lan Wangji didn’t know. But his husband gave him a rather pointed look, both rueful and embarrassed. Slowly, Lan Wangji caught on. Heat crept up the back of his neck.

So the Jins were depraved enough even for that. They planned to send assassins that would strike during intimate activities. Lan Wangji could hardly bear to think of it, and he tried to purge his mind of the matter. There was no use dwelling on such dishonorable schemes. Yet an image crept into his mind: his husband’s face, in the throes of pleasure.

Lan Wangji nudged that image away. He shouldn't think of that either. He kept his eyes locked on his husband's face. The Patriarch cleared his throat yet again.

“So Wen Qing and I agreed.” He gave a small, helpless shrug. “When you came, we’d host the wedding. We’d take our bows and eat our banquet. Then I’d take you to bed and…give you an opportunity.”

Heat spread from Lan Wangji’s neck to his ears. The blush had probably migrated to his face, but there was nothing Lan Wangji could do about that. He was tempted to pull the blankets over his head. That would hardly protect his dignity, though. Besides, reckless movement would only tear open his wounds. His husband and Wen Qing had worked tirelessly to heal him. It would be poor repayment to ruin their efforts. So Lan Wangji kept his hands loose against the bedding and battled back his embarrassment.

His husband continued. He was slightly red-faced and speaking very rapidly.

“If you didn’t take your shot the first night, then I’d keep bedding you.” He squirmed on the chair. “I’d keep giving you chances. I’d make you think I was relaxed and sleepy and sated, and then wait to catch you in the act.”

He paused. Neither of them were quite looking each other in the eye. Lan Wangji had devoted himself to an intensive study of the embroidered bed-cover. His husband was busy tracing every crack in the floorboards.

“You might have noticed,” his husband added slowly, “that I didn’t do that.”

“I did notice. I wondered…”

Lan Wangji’s voice died in his throat. He couldn’t bear to confess all the things he had wondered during the first weeks of his marriage. He couldn’t bring himself to voice the thoughts that had arisen later on, either.

After a time, he had developed true affection for his husband. His husband became a friend and a companion, and Lan Wangji had started to nurse tender feelings toward his husband. He had fallen in love. He had wanted to share everything with his husband. Yet his husband didn’t seem to want to share his bed. Lan Wangji had spent a frankly humiliating amount of time wondering why.

“I had expected,” he continued delicately, “that you would want that.”

His voice was admirably steady, almost dispassionate. Lan Wangji took a moment to feel proud of himself. He certainly didn’t sound like a man who had lain awake at night, wishing desperately that his husband would join him. He didn’t sound like a man who often woke hard and aching, who took himself in hand while thinking of his husband’s devious smile.

But his husband wasn’t smiling now. When Lan Wangji mustered up the courage to meet his eyes, he found his husband’s face tense. The Patriarch ran his fingers through his disheveled hair.

“Ah. When Wen Qing and I were making our plans, I thought I could manage it. But when the time came, I just couldn’t go through with it.” He sighed. “You looked so uncomfortable that first night.”

Humiliation burned in Lan Wangji’s gut, as hot and sharp at the healing sword wound.

“That wasn’t what I was expecting. I thought you’d try to seduce me!” His husband winced and drew back as if he expected the promised slap. “That sounds insane, I realize that now. Please keep in mind that I didn’t actually know you at the time!”

The blush had certainly spread to his cheeks. Lan Wangji's face burned like a wood stove. His husband still hadn't managed to look him in the eye, so he couldn’t possibly notice. Lan Wangji tried to draw some comfort from that. There wasn’t much consolation to be found elsewhere.

When he recalled how he’d acted on his wedding night—cold, indifferent, uncongenial—he was mortified. But the thought of acting in a lascivious manner and seducing his husband was even more humiliating. Lan Wangji wasn’t sure what was most humiliating: the fact that his husband had expected seduction, or that Lan Wangji had proved so utterly incapable of it. 

“I thought you’d try to seduce me,” his husband finished awkwardly, “but you didn’t. You looked like you really didn’t want me to touch you. I got the impression that if anything was going to be consummated, I’d have to force you. I don’t have the stomach for that sort of thing, so I just left.”

He spoke hurriedly, evidently trying to rush the words out all at once.

“Later on, it was different. After we spent some more time together, I thought maybe you'd agree. Maybe if I asked for it, you would say yes. But...”

His husband trailed off. He drew back, his mouth tightening as he winced.

“Ah. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t use you like that. I didn’t want it to be like that between us. I didn’t know whether or not you were a spy. But even if you were, I didn’t want…”

He didn’t seem to know how to finish that thought. Lan Wangji decided to take pity on him.

“I understand,” he murmured.

Somehow, he understood perfectly. His husband misunderstood Lan Wangji’s character and motivations. But his assumptions were made based on the treatment he had already received. The Jins—and several other sects, perhaps—had already sent spies and assassins. If the Patriarch expected his new spouse to be one of them, he could hardly be blamed for harboring such suspicions.

His plan wasn’t even poorly arranged. He believed the sects would send another assailant, so he wished to set a trap to draw them out. He didn’t know Lan Wangji, so he had no way of knowing his new husband’s true character. If the Patriarch had chosen another in that tent…perhaps the plan would have gone as expected. Perhaps his new spouse would have arrived in the Burial Mounds, already recruited and paid off by the Jins. Perhaps his new spouse would have tried to seduce him using brothel tricks.

Lan Wangji found himself suddenly, desperately grateful that he had been chosen. To be married to the Patriarch had been a privilege, in so many ways. It was a privilege, too, to know that their marriage had spared his husband from encountering another of the Jins’ lackeys. He hoped his husband felt something similar. He hoped their marriage wasn’t a source of regret for the Patriarch. He clung to his husband’s words: I didn’t want it to be like that between us.

Lan Wangji didn’t want it to be like that, either. He didn’t want tricks, manipulations, deceit. He respected his husband—he loved his husband—too much for that. If his husband returned that respect, it was a relief and a source of joy. Lan Wangji forced away the last of the blush and nodded to himself.

“Is that every offense you wish to confess?” he asked.

His husband’s brow crinkled.

“Uh. I think I covered everything? Let me think.”

His mouth moved soundlessly, like a child practicing his lessons. Lan Wangji fought the urge to smile.

“Yes,” his husband decided, after a short pause. “That’s about all of it.”

Lan Wangji waited until his husband looked up. When he lifted his dark eyes, Lan Wangji stroked his hand.

“You are forgiven,” he said simply.

The Patriarch drew back.

“No, I’m not.” His hand spasmed around Lan Wangji’s. But he didn’t pull away. “That’s not allowed.”

He sounded stubbornly determined. Yet Lan Wangji could be stubborn too, and he shook his head.

“It is not your decision,” he said gently. “If you believe you have wronged me, then it is my right to decide whether I wish to offer forgiveness.”

His husband’s lips parted and he looked away.

“I understand now why you acted as you did.” Lan Wangji took another shallow breath, trying not to pull his stitches. “You did not know me, so I understand why you believed I might be involved in this conspiracy. I am not offended.”

His husband gave him a flat, skeptical look. Lan Wangji let out a quiet sigh.

“I am slightly offended,” he admitted. “But it is hypocritical.”

His husband’s gaze turned quizzical. Lan Wangji gave another small sigh and moistened his lips.

“When I came here, I also didn’t know you.”

It was shameful to admit the next part, but Lan Wangji forced the words out.

“I didn’t believe you were a good person. I believed that you would do…certain things. I understand now that you are not capable of such cruelty. But I cannot fault you for making similar assumptions about me.”

He flinched back from the memory of those early days. His opinion of his husband had been inexcusably low. But at the time, Lan Wangji had no idea what to expect. He wondered if his husband would beat him, force him into bed, shut him up like a prisoner. Such scenarios seemed entirely plausible at the time.

His fears seemed absurd now. They were as absurd as the notion that Lan Wangji was a secret assassin, planning to seduce and murder his husband. So they had both erred. They had harbored vile, unjust suspicions. It was best, then, that such suspicions were forgotten. They could start fresh, without any trace of blame or mistrust. Lan Wangji was willing—he was eager—to rebuild their marriage from scratch. But his husband’s frown deepened.

“Well.” He spoke haltingly. “We never actually consummated the marriage.”

Lan Wangji drew in a sharp breath. For half a second, he suffered through a confused mix of emotions. Hope warred with embarrassment, astonishment clashed with curiosity. Then his husband finished his sentence.

“So technically…” He hesitated. “Technically, the marriage can still be dissolved.”

Lan Wangji stared, mute with shock. His husband avoided his eyes.

“I can send you back to your family,” he added softly. “Not now. Wen Qing says it’s not safe for you to travel yet, even using my shortcuts. But once you’re better….you can go home, if you want.”

Lan Wangji nearly said, I am home. The words formed on his tongue, but he forced himself to swallow them. He wasn’t sure when it had happened. Somehow, the Burial Mounds had become his home. He didn’t want to return to Cloud Recesses. It would be nice to visit, someday. He’d like to see his brother and his uncle, to walk the familiar paths of his childhood.

But once he finished his visit, he wanted to return to Demon-Subdue Palace. He wanted to sit beside his husband at mealtimes, listening as he chatted with the Wens. He wanted to teach the children during the day, then spend the evenings playing qi with his husband. He didn’t want to go 'home' to Cloud Recesses. He wished to live out the rest of his days in the Burial Mounds. He wanted to remain here, in his true home, even if their marriage remained eternally unconsummated.

Yet perhaps that wasn’t what his husband wished to hear. Lan Wangji bit his tongue and stared at the bedcoverings.

“I can’t force you to stay.” His husband let out a long, unhappy sigh. “I should never have dragged you into this mess. It was a terrible thing to do. So if you don’t want to be here, you can leave. We’ll dissolve the union, by mutual agreement. I’ll tell the sects the failed marriage is all my fault, and you bear no blame whatsoever.”

It was a respectable solution. Lan Wangji knew that. If a marriage became untenable, both parties could agree to dissolve it. Of course, a failed marriage would damage both parties' reputations. But his husband must not care about that. Perhaps, in the eyes of the cultivation world, his reputation was already blackened beyond repair. An annulment would still cast a slight patina of tarnish over Lan Wangji's reputation, though. 

Then again, perhaps it wouldn’t. Under normal circumstances, he might have had difficulty making a second match. But the entire cultivation world knew that he had been forced into this marriage for the sake of ending the war. If he found a way to escape the marriage, no one would think poorly of him. If the Second Jade of Lan was once again available for courtship, there would be others who wished to marry him.

Lan Wangji gritted his teeth and swallowed hard. He could dissolve the marriage, then. He could walk away from his husband, return to Cloud Recesses, and marry someone else. It was possible. Yet even if the union was dissolved, nothing would change. Lan Wangji would not be free.

He would leave, if his husband asked him to do so. He’d return to his natal home and formally rejoin the Lan sect. There would be no alternative. If he couldn’t please his husband—if the Patriarch would be happier without him—then Lan Wangji would leave. But he would never remarry. His husband already held his heart. If his husband cast him aside, Lan Wangji would have to bear the pain. Yet the Patriarch would be his husband—his one and only spouse—for the rest of his life.

“Is that what you wish?” Lan Wangji asked dully.

His stomach churned, and he felt foolish and ashamed. His husband had confessed his suspicions and disclosed his motivations. Naively, Lan Wangji supposed that they were making a fresh start. He had delighted in the way his husband held his hand, even kissed it. He thought his husband intended to offer his heart, to build a marriage of true affection.

But his husband was a kind man. He felt personally responsible for everyone living within the Burial Mounds. Lan Wangji knew this already. Naturally, the Patriarch was guilt-stricken that his husband had come to harm. He worried for Lan Wangji’s health, and he felt sorry for the trouble he had inadvertently caused. His gentle touches might be a manifestation of his guilt and concern, nothing more.

His husband was silent for a moment. Lan Wangji heard him swallow.

“Everything that’s happened so far…it happened because of my plans.” He spoke very quietly. “And because of the Jins keep trying to eliminate everyone who threatens their superiority.”

He hadn’t yet released Lan Wangji’s hand. Lan Wangji drew some comfort from that. He forced himself to raise his eyes, and he found his husband staring at their hands.

“I made my choices so far based on what I wanted.” His voice was tense and hard. “But what I want doesn’t matter right now. We should make this decision based on what you want. It’s your turn.”

Lan Wangji weighted his words.

“It will be disruptive to the children if I leave,” he ventured. “The disciples, too. I need to oversee their lessons.”

His husband shrugged and tried to smile.

“We can hire another teacher."

Lan Wangji shook his head.

“Their education was neglected before I arrived.” He shifted slightly against the pillow. “You cannot be trusted to manage it yourself. I must remain.”

He strove for a light tone. But he wasn’t practiced in the art of teasing, or perhaps his husband simply wasn’t ready to be teased. His face crumpled and he let out a soft, hollow laugh.

“I guess I’m not very trustworthy after all, am I?”

Lan Wangji couldn’t allow his husband to speak such nonsense. He gathered his courage and squeezed the Patriarch’s hand.

“You are trustworthy,” he whispered. “But you have a great deal to manage, and you cannot do it alone. You should rely on your husband more.”

He would leave, he told himself, if his husband requested it. Lan Wangji had always promised that he wouldn’t follow in his father’s footsteps. He wouldn’t force his affection on someone who couldn’t return it. If his husband didn’t love him—if he refused to make Lan Wangji his husband in truth—then Lan Wangji would accept that. But his husband hadn’t asked him to leave. He hadn’t claimed that he found Lan Wangji’s presence troublesome, unwelcome, or disruptive. He had only said that Lan Wangji could return home. The Patriarch offered to let his husband make his own decision, based on his deepest wishes.

Lan Wangji's deepest wish was to remain at his husband’s side. He wished to help his husband shoulder his burdens. He didn’t want his husband to bear his troubles alone, not any longer.

His husband slumped against the bedding and buried his face in his arms once more. Lan Wangji wasn’t sure whether that was a good sign. His husband clung to his hand like a vise, and that seemed promising. Lan Wangji stroked his thumb over his husband’s, and decided to press his luck.

“May I ask something?” 

His husband kept his face buried against the quilt for some time. Then he lifted his head and wiped his face with his sleeve.

“Oh, what’s this?” His voice was rather thick. “My husband has a request? Now is a good time to ask.”

He cleared his throat and smiled at Lan Wangji.

“I’m feeling very guilty,” he said, “so I’ll definitely give you whatever you want. Hurry up and take advantage!”

Lan Wangji felt his heart crack in two. But it was a sweet pain and easily remedied. He took three careful, shallow breaths before speaking.

“I do not wish to capitalize on your unfounded guilt.” He placed delicate emphasis on that word. “But if you would like to tell me…I would like to know your name.”

It wasn’t so important, perhaps. His husband was his husband. He could refer to the Patriarch as such for the rest of his days. Even so, he would like to know his husband’s name.

His husband shut his eyes, as if pained. But he didn’t hesitate in his response.

“The name my parents gave me,” he said, “is Wei Ying.”

Lan Wangji rolled the syllables around on his tongue.

“When I got older, I met Baoshan Sanren,” his husband added. “She gave me my courtesy name. It’s Wei Wuxian.”

Lan Wangji nodded. He wished to know more. There were so many questions he wanted to ask. But lead weights seemed to have attached themselves to his eyelids. Exhaustion pulled at his bones and sleep lapped at the edges of his mind. He wasn’t entirely sure he had the strength to ask his questions or to hear the answers.

His husband patted his hand. He folded Lan Wangji’s hands carefully over his chest and drew the blankets around him.

“I’ll tell you the whole story soon,” he murmured. “You’re curious, aren’t you? How I became an immortal, why I started using demonic cultivation.”

Lan Wangji managed only an incremental nod. But his husband saw it and smiled.

“Then I’ll tell you very soon. But you should rest now. The kids really want to see you, but Wen Qing won’t allow any visitors yet. Get better quickly, or A-Yuan will cry!”

Lan Wangji’s eyes were closing. His husband rose to his feet and moved away from the bed. Lan Wangji didn’t have the strength to stop him, but he found the energy for three more words.

“Will you stay?” he mumbled.

His husband went still. Then he sank back into the chair and reached for Lan Wangji’s hand once more.

“Yes.” His voice was very low. “Of course. I’ll stay with my husband as long as he wants me.”

Something deep inside Lan Wangji’s chest unfurled in satisfaction. He shut his eyes, and sleep claimed him.

Chapter Text

After waking for the first time, Lan Wangji spent a full day muddled and half-asleep. But gradually, his mind cleared enough to piece together the whole story. He swam in and out of consciousness for more than a week, slowly discovering what happened after his fight with Xue Yang.

It was surprisingly difficult to gather the information he needed. Wei Ying and Wen Qing were willing to answer any question he posed, but Lan Wangji had developed an unfortunate habit of falling asleep halfway through their narrative. Wen Qing refused to reduce his pain medication, so he was left groggy and disoriented. He always seemed to fall asleep during the most intriguing part of any given conversation.

Still, whenever he woke, Wei Ying was seated at his bedside. Wen Qing came and went, and they managed to share the full story. Lan Wangji learned what had happened after the pair had left the Burial Mounds. 

They found Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen quickly. Song Zichen had been in terrible pain, and Xiao Xingchen was frantic. At first, Wen Qing and Wei Ying had focused on tending to their injuries. Wen Qing tried to salvage Song Zichen's eyesight; meanwhile, Wei Ying set up wards to secure their location. Once Song Zichen was stable, they sat down to discuss the matter. They had suspected at once that this wasn't an isolated attack. A deeper plot might be underway, and they had feared what might come next. 

Lan Wangji's signal flare seemed to confirm their worst fears. Wen Qing and Wei Ying had argued as they struggled to decide their next step. Wen Qing worried they might be walking into a trap. She thought they should make a slow, cautious approach. Wei Ying had wanted to rush back, swords drawn, to protect the children. 

In the end, their fear for the Wens had won out. They hurried back to the Burial Mounds and sprinted into the courtyard. There, they had found Xue Yang's corpse. Lan Wangji was bleeding out in the snow. 

Wen Qing and Wei Ying skimmed over that portion of the story. Lan Wangji couldn't bring himself to demand further details. Wei Ying turned pale whenever he spoke of it. Deep lines of tension had etched themselves around Wen Qing's eyes. Though they both had strong golden cores, they seemed to have aged a decade within a matter of days. 

Their experience couldn't have been pleasant. During a single afternoon,  one of their oldest friends had suffered a vicious attack. They couldn't locate the perpetrator, and they didn't know if Xue Yang had confederates. They had been terrified for the Wens, for the children under their care. Then, when they returned home, they found the household in an uproar and Lan Wangji clinging to life. 

It must have been a gruesome evening. He wasn't surprised they had no wish to relive it.

Wen Qing explained that she had kept him unconscious for three days. She hoped that a forced coma—combined with regular infusions of Wei Ying's spiritual energy—might give his body a chance to heal. But on the second day, Lan Wangji had developed a fever. Once the fever appeared, Wen Qing confessed that she'd braced herself for his inevitable death. Blood-poisoning was almost incurable. If the infection spread throughout his body, she thought he couldn't possibly survive.

Yet he had. On the third day, Lan Wangji's fever broke. He woke shortly thereafter. He was lucid; his core was intact; his meridians weren't permanently scarred. Wen Qing had finally dared to hope that he might make a full recovery. 

His recovery wasn't swift, though. Lan Wangji spent most of the week asleep. He woke for short periods, barely long enough to drink medicinal teas or choke down a bowl of congee. Whenever he was awake, Wei Ying hovered over his bed. He helped Lan Wangji eat his meals. Then he combed out Lan Wangji's hair and washed his face. 

Lan Wangji would have liked to savor those moments. Wei Ying was so patient and tender, and he seemed desperately relieved each time Lan Wangji opened his eyes. It would have been nice to stay awake, to share a proper conversation with his husband. But fatigue always dragged him down. Lan Wangji barely managed to stay awake for a full incense stick.  Inevitably, he succumbed to his body's need for sleep. 

While he slept, Wei Ying gave him regular infusions of spiritual energy. Wen Qing promised that these infusions would help speed up his recovery and heal the damage to his meridians. She told him he had narrowly escaped a fatal qi deviation.

"I realize you didn't exactly have many options," she added.

It was the third day after he woke. Lan Wangji had mustered enough energy to remain awake while she changed his bandages. He watched as her work-roughened hands cleaned the wound.

"Don't misunderstand me. I understand that this was a life or death situation." 

She opened a jar of sharp-smelling salve, dabbing some against his torn flesh. It burned, and Lan Wangji grimaced. He said nothing, though. He knew the pain was necessary.

"But you'd better not think about trying that maneuver again." Wen Qing sighed and gave him a reproachful stare. "You nearly blew out your meridians."

Lan Wangji nodded. He certainly didn't intend to repeat his actions. Breaking the seal had been a final act of desperation. It was miraculous that his body hadn't suffered permanent damage. 

Wen Qing didn't seem satisfied by his passive agreement. Her frown deepened as she wrapped his stomach in clean bandages.

"I had to deal with a patient with a gaping abdominal wound and severe qi deviation." She tucked the bandages briskly in place, then scowled at the wound as if it had personally offended her. "It was not enjoyable. I don't want a repeat performance."

"I believed that I was going to die," Lan Wangji said. "If this maneuver failed, I believed that the children would be killed."

His voice was slightly sharper than he'd intended. He couldn't help that, though. 

To a physician, his actions must seem shockingly reckless. He could hardly blame Wen Qing for feeling dismayed. She had been required to repair a terrible amount of damage.

But when Lan Wangji had forced open the seal and unleashed his qi, that had been the last thing on his mind. He hadn't expected to find himself under a physician's care. He had considered his own life forfeit. All that mattered was staying alive long enough to take Xue Yang with him.

Wen Qing's let out a heavy sigh.

"I understand that." 

She lowered her head. For a moment, her hands lay almost helplessly in her lap. Then she busied herself with packing away the salve and antiseptics. 

"You've dealt with this very calmly," she remarked, as she bundled the soiled bandages into a basket. "I'm surprised you haven't been hurling everything you can lay hands on directly at our heads." 

She nodded toward the nightstand, which held several glass jars and cups. If Lan Wangji wished to throw something, he certainly had a generous selection to choose from. Yet he wasn't inclined to indulge in a fit of rage. 

He shook his head. Wen Qing's mouth quirked.

"This is the famous Lan equilibrium, I take it? Your sect was always known for producing tranquil, well-behaved cultivators."

Lan Wangji tilted his head thoughtfully, studying the blanket spread over his knees. His sect was indeed known for such things. Lan disciples were meant to be a model of discipline and proper conduct. Excessive displays of emotion were forbidden, after all. But it wasn't the Lan disciplines that had helped Lan Wangji maintain his equilibrium. 

"I am not particularly angry," he began, carefully. "However, I regret the circumstances of this situation."

There seemed to be no purpose in raging against the unfairness of his own position. Wei Ying and Wen Qing had suffered, too. Their suffering had, perhaps, exceeded his own. As a very young woman, Wen Qing had been faced with a terrible choice: to watch her family murdered by her uncle or to flee the cultivation world altogether.

The other sects had offered her no refuge. Only the Yiling Patriarch had offered to take her in. But once she made a home in the Burial Mounds, she had found herself persecuted yet again. Wei Ying had been maligned and mistreated by the sects. As a cultivator living under the Yiling Patriarch's protection, Wen Qing's reputation had also suffered. 

At first, Lan Wangji had tried to resent her for her suspicion and mistrust. He tried to blame her for his injuries, for supporting Wei Ying's plan to arrange the marriage. Yet he couldn't. It seemed profoundly unfair to blame her for resorting to desperate stratagems to protect her family. 

Perhaps it would have been easier to be angry with her if she hadn't looked so bitterly exhausted. As Wen Qing packed away the last of her medical supplies, her face was lined with fatigue.

"So do I."  

She spoke heavily. Her bag lay on her lap, and her shoulders were bowed. For a while, she didn't speak. Then she lifted her eyes to Lan Wangji's face. 

"Please don't think we were enjoying this little scheme. It was a stupid plan, from start to finish, and we both hated it. But we didn't see many alternatives." 

She shook her head slowly. 

"We knew the sects were trying to infiltrate our settlement. It wasn't a matter of if they'd send another spy or assassin. It was a matter of when."

"I understand that," Lan Wangji said softly.

It was surprisingly easy to understand their motives. Xue Yang's casual references to the Jin's schemes made Lan Wangji's blood burn with impotent rage. Wei Ying had already suffered through countless attempts at espionage and assassination. Naturally, he and Wen Qing had expected another.  

He smoothed a hand over the embroidered quilt. His mind was still foggy from the herbs Wen Qing had given him, but he was growing more clearheaded. He was beginning to think the matter through. 

Lan Wangji darted a glance toward the door. Wei Ying wasn't often away from his bedside. But just now, he was across the hall, visiting Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen. If Lan Wangji wanted a private conversation with Wen Qing, now was the time. 

"I still have questions," he told her.

Wen Qing nodded and set her bag aside. She sat back against the chair with a heavy sigh. 

"Go ahead. I'll answer them." She gave a wry smile. "You've probably saved the life of every single person I care about. So I'd say you've earned the right to ask as many questions as you like."

Lan Wangji took a moment to arrange his thoughts. He had many questions about what would happen next. But it seemed best to reserve those questions for his husband. He turned away from the future, shifting backward in time.

"I would like to know what suspicions you held," he began, "and when you ceased to hold them."

Perhaps it shouldn't matter. He was willing to leave the past where it belonged. Yet somehow, he felt that he couldn't move forward until he settled this question within his own mind. He needed to know what she had thought of him, during the first few months of their acquaintance.

Wen Qing heaved another sigh. She reached out and poured herself a cup of tea.

"Before the marriage," she admitted, "I thought you had to be a spy."

 She sipped her tea, then shook her head.

"Your rank was too high. You were Hanguang-Jun, the brother of Sect Leader Lan. I thought there was no possible way you could be unaware of the plots against the Yiling Patriarch. After all, I knew there were plenty of rumors and gossip. We were fairly sure that several sect leaders were working together. How could Hanguang-Jun be ignorant of such things?"

She gave Lan Wangji a sharp look. Somehow, her expression mingled annoyance with amusement.

"I still don't understand how you didn't know anything about this. Did your sect keep locked up in a cave deep inside the mountains?" She leaned forward. "Did you have to take a vow of silence? Were you not allowed to attend a single discussion conference?"

Lan Wangji shifted awkwardly against the pillows. His husband had seemed equally confused by this matter, and Lan Wangji was left feeling slightly foolish. He wondered if he had missed clear signs or overlooked obvious clues. 

"I do not enjoy politics," he murmured. "I didn't attend meetings often, and I always left quickly." 

His brows drew together. A bubble of frustration swelled inside his chest. Lan Xichen had tried often to persuade his brother to stay and socialize. But Lan Wangji always despised sect gatherings. Every hunt, party, and banquet was a miserable experience. The discussion meetings themselves were tedious in the extreme. Lan Wangji had no patience with bloviating politicians, and he always escaped as quickly as possible.

Uncle had helped. It was unlike him to aid and abet his nephew's dereliction of duty. Yet he loathed social obligations as much as Lan Wangji. Uncle always found excuses to avoid mingling with sect leaders, and he supported Lan Wangji's attempts to do the same. Lan Xichen was Sect Leader, so his presence was required. But Uncle never expected Lan Wangji to shoulder those duties. 

Lan Wangji sensed that his uncle had been secretly pleased by his disinterest in politics. Uncle had always valued quiet study and solitary pursuits. If his nephew had similar tastes, Uncle sympathized and approved.

Of course, Uncle hadn't realized that their early departures had resulted in such a glaring blind spot. If he knew the sect leaders might be discussing secret plots, perhaps he would have judged differently.

Lan Wangji sighed. For the first time in his life, he wondered if there might be drawbacks to his sect's traditions. The ban on gossip and hearsay was truly a double-edged sword. Strict adherence to these rules seemed to have left his whole family painfully ignorant of a serious matter.

"No one spoke openly about such schemes," he added.

Wen Qing waved a hand.

"No, I never supposed they did. I hardly thought that sect leaders stood up in the middle of a banquet to discuss their next plot to assassinate the Yiling Patriarch." 

She frowned, tapping a finger against her cup.

"Even so, I figured there must be plenty of rumors. There weren't any whispers within your sect?"

Lan Wangji shook his head.

"Gossip is forbidden within the Lan sect," he reminded her. "My uncle always discouraged disciples from speaking of the Yiling Patriarch, in particular." 

Wen Qing finished her tea in silence. Her eyes were skeptical. She didn't seem to understand, and Lan Wangji let out another sigh.

"If disciples do not obey Grandmaster Lan," he explained, "they receive a punishment."

He gave her a meaningful stare. 

She had once belonged to a Great Sect herself. Her sect would have had its own punishments and strictly enforced rules. If a respected elder gave instructions to the disciples, there must be a penalty for disobedience.

"I see." Wen Qing grimaced. 

She didn't press the matter. Instead, she grew quiet. Then she took a deep breath and lifted her chin. 

"How much does your brother know?"

Lan Wangji's injuries were still fresh. Wen Qing had told him to remain still and relax his muscles. But this question sent a shockwave of tension through his body. 

"He did not know of this." His voice was sharp, curt. 

It did no good. Wen Qing pursed her lips doubtfully. Lan Wangji knotted his hands in the bedsheets and stared at the quilt. 

"Physician Wen." He sounded tense and hard, even to his own ears. "Please understand this. I know my brother's character. He would not have agreed to anything resembling an assassination."

Wen Qing had a brother of her own. As his sister, she must know what he would do and what he would not do. They had spent their childhood together, enduring hardships in Wen Ruohan's court before building new lives at the Burial Mounds. After such an ordeal, she couldn't possibly harbor doubts about her brother's character. 

Lan Wangji was equally certain that his brother would never agree to such a scheme. Lan Xichen had agreed to espionage during the war, but it was a war. Wen Ruohan had publicly declared his intention to conquer the cultivation world. He had burned Cloud Recesses and razed Lotus Pier. He made himself into a devastating threat, then announced his intention to harm innocent people. Along with the other sect leaders, Lan Xichen had agreed that espionage was necessary. 

But he wouldn't agree to send spies into the Burial Mounds based on mere rumors. He wouldn't infiltrate the Yiling Patriarch's court simply because he might someday pose a threat. Lan Xichen certainly wouldn't send assassins, not under any circumstances. Lan Wangji knew his brother. He knew Lan Xichen would be repulsed by the very idea. 

If Lan Xichen had known of such plans, he would have found a way to warn his brother. He would have told Uncle and the elders, too. So Lan Xichen must not know what the Jins had planned. Lan Wangji and his brother must have been equally ignorant. 

 Wen Qing only grimaced.

"Maybe he didn't know of these plots before your marriage." She spoke in a low mutter, her eyes averted. "But he might have gotten involved afterward."

Lan Wangji wasn't sure what expression he wore then. Whatever it was, Wen Qing instantly held up a placating hand.

"Never mind," she said swiftly. "We don't have to argue about that. Of course, you trust your brother, just as I would trust A-Ning."

Lan Wangji forced himself to relax against the pillow.

"The point is," Wen Qing rocked forward, "when you arrived, I thought you must be a spy. But you didn't exactly act like one." 

She leaned back. Her expression grew meditative.

"You were quiet and reserved. Very keen to learn how the settlements worked. I thought that was suspicious at first. So we kept a close eye on you, especially when you started spending time with the children."

Lan Wangji inclined his head. 

He had known that already. Wen Qing's eyes were always on him, during those early days. The walking corpses had watched him too. Lan Wangji had thought it was mere curiosity. He was a newcomer and the Patriarch's husband. A certain measure of scrutiny was to be expected. It had taken him several weeks to realize that he was being watched with some purpose.

"You didn't do anything much, though." 

Wen Qing made a face. She sounded just as Wei Ying had when he lamented his early suspicions.  

I tried to drop little crumbs of intelligence, Wei Ying had said. Then I waited to see what you did with it. Mostly you just taught the kids calligraphy and made offerings to my parents.

Wei Ying had winced when he spoke of that. Wen Qing winced, too.

"You didn't try to sneak into places you weren't supposed to be." She folded her arms across her chest. "You weren't writing any clandestine messages."

She took a deep breath, and Lan Wangji knew what would come next.

"We read your letters." Her nails scratched uneasily over the fabric of her robes. "We knew when your letters arrived, so we'd have the laundresses sneak into your room and make copies. Then we read them over." 

She seemed to be waiting for a reply. Lan Wangji merely nodded. 

He hadn't guessed at the laundresses' involvement. But it made sense. If he had seen the corpse women leaving his chambers, he wouldn't have thought anything of it. They often entered his chambers to gather up soiled garments and bedding. 

They must have been the ones who disordered the letters, he realized. Wen Qing was too methodical for such a clumsy error.

Wen Qing's nails continued to work over the embroidery on her sleeve.

"I did not enjoy that particular job," she said tensely. "For a number of reasons."

Lan Wangji inclined his head again. He understood that she must feel ashamed of her actions now. Invading another person's private correspondence was a terrible offense. Yet she had truly believed that he posed a dire threat to her family. Lan Wangji could hardly blame her for that. 

In his heart, he knew he would have done the same thing. If he had believed that someone was plotting to invade Cloud Recesses and murder Lan Xichen, he would have resorted to anything to stop it. It would not have been difficult to overcome his own scruples long enough to confiscate a few letters. He would be a hypocrite if he lectured Wen Qing over her conduct.  

Wen Qing stopped picking at her sleeve. She unfolded her arms, resting her hands on her knees.

"Frankly, the letters were excruciatingly dull. You spent a lot of time talking about the children's arithmetic lessons and your meditation practice." 

She tipped her head back, staring at the ceiling.

"Your brother would write back about his paintings and the sect duty rosters. Lots of talk about the weather. We tried to figure out if there was some kind of code there, but we couldn't crack it."

Lan Wangji said nothing. Their conversation about the weather had, indeed, been coded messages. But there was no point in saying so now. He nodded at her to continue.

"Well, the weeks dragged on." She waved a hand. "You didn't ask any prying questions about your husband's origins or powers. You weren't transparently scheming to win his trust or uncover his weaknesses. You weren't poisoning or drugging his food. There were definitely no attempts at seduction."

Lan Wangji colored. He couldn't help it. Perhaps someday he'd be able to speak of such things without a blush. But that day hadn't come yet. He was particularly mortified to imagine Wen Qing marching his husband into a quiet corner, demanding in whispers whether the marriage had been consummated.

"By the time Double Ninth Festival rolled around..." Wen Qing shook her head. Her face settled back into tired lines. "I started to consider that you might actually be as oblivious as you seemed." 

She drummed her fingers against her knee. 

"The Patriarch and I talked it over. It was not a very pleasant conversation." Her mouth twisted into a rueful smile. "We admitted to each other that we'd probably misjudged the situation badly. He said he was convinced you were exactly as upstanding as you looked. I couldn't argue."

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. 

"So when we got the message from Xiao Xingcheng, we didn't hesitate to leave you here alone." 

Her eyes grew clouded, and Lan Wangji saw that she was slipping into an unpleasant memory. He waited in silence as she took deliberately even breaths.

"By then, we didn't think you posed any danger to anyone here." Wen Qing turned and stared out the window. "So we thought it was best to leave you behind. If you weren't involved in any secret plots, then you'd protect the others if something happened while we were gone." 

She shut her eyes.

"Then we found out what happened to Song Zichen, and we saw your flare."

The words hung awkwardly in the air. Lan Wangji said nothing, staring at his own hands. Wei Ying had already confessed that he'd had second thoughts when they saw the flare. He had admitted that their suspicions against Lan Wangji had flooded back, and their doubts had returned. 

Lan Wangji felt a tiny flicker of irritation toward Wen Qing, but he forced himself to smother it. He had forgiven Wei Ying already. It would be deeply unjust to blame Wen Qing for her doubts when he'd already forgiven his husband for his.  And it was difficult to nurture resentment when Wen Qing looked so worn out, exhausted from worrying over her family and laboring over her patients. 

 "At that point, we panicked a bit." Wen Qing's jaw tightened. She gave a small, tense shrug. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't hold that against us. But I wouldn't blame you if you did."

Lan Wangji nodded. He hardly knew what to say, so he remained silent. Wen Qing smoothed her hands over her robes, adjusting her sleeves with deliberate care. 

"We didn't rush to your aid as quickly as we should have," she admitted. "We started to consider that maybe we were right the first time, and you actually were a spy or an assassin."

"I lack the necessary skills for those professions."

The words were too blunt, but they escaped anyway. Then there was nothing for Lan Wangji to do but meet Wen Qing's gaze. He had spoken truthfully, after all. He couldn't retract the statement or add qualifiers. Lan Wangji was poorly suited to espionage and assassination. 

Wen Qing huffed a quiet laugh. 

"I can see that," she said dryly. "As it turns out, you're embarrassingly bad at this sort of thing!"

Her tone was good-humored, and Lan Wangji understood that he was being invited to share the joke. It was a grim sort of humor, but perhaps there wasn't any other kind available. 

Lan Wangji inclined his head in agreement and let his shoulders relax. Something had softened between them, and tension bled from Wen Qing's face.

"We should've talked things over with you sooner," she added. "We didn't suspect you as long as you might think. By Double Ninth Festival, we were pretty much done with all that."

Lan Wangji took a deep breath. He held those words against his heart. 

It was something, at least. He had felt that Wei Ying had drawn closer to him around Double Ninth Festival. Wei Ying had started to bring him gifts. He spent his evenings in Lan Wangji's company. He gave Lan Wangji the rabbits and held his hand in a quiet hallway. 

If that closeness hadn't been feigned, then Lan Wangji could find peace with the situation. If his husband and Wen Qing had sheepishly let go of their suspicions and decided to trust Lan Wangji, the rest could be forgotten. Their small lapse, during the panicked moments after Song Zichen's attack, could be forgiven. 

Wen Qing's words soothed the sore places in his heart. Lan Wangji took another breath and felt his heart begin to heal.

"But then the situation became awkward." Wen Qing rubbed a hand over her face. "If you really didn't know anything, how were we supposed to explain?"

Her shoulders slumped again. Her face was lined with fatigue, and Lan Wangji wondered how much sleep she'd had since the attack. She looked like the medics he'd seen during the Sunshot Campaign. They often wore the same haggard look after spending days laboring over patients they didn't expect to survive.

 "We talked it over," Wen Qing continued slowly, "but we couldn't figure out a way to break the news to you. How were we supposed to tell you that we brought you here, thinking you were a spy? Or that practically everyone you knew was probably scheming against your husband? That's a bitter pill to swallow. It seemed kinder to leave you in ignorance a bit longer."

Lan Wangji gave her a sharp, reproving look. Wen Qing sighed and shrugged. She made no further attempts at justifying herself.

"That was a mistake. I acknowledge it." She lifted her chin. "I won't apologize for suspecting you at first. I won't even apologize for arranging the marriage. We were doing the best we could with limited information, and we were running out of options. We had to be careful and trust no one."

She swallowed hard and took another sip of her tea.

"But I do apologize for leaving you in the dark for so long. I certainly wouldn't appreciate being treated that way myself. We were wrong."

Lan Wangji gave her a small, respectful nod.

"Your apology is accepted." He paused. "For future reference. I prefer to know the truth, even when it is unpleasant."

She nodded grimly.

"That's fair enough. We won't try to hide things any longer." A humorless smile touched her lips. "When the next problem appears, you'll hear about it."

When the next problem appears. Not if. Lan Wangji felt a pulse of unease at such pessimistic phrasing. But he could hardly argue. 

 The Jins wouldn't abandon their plots after a single failure. Wen Qing and Wei Ying said there had been several attempts over the years. The Jins and their confederates had sent a dozen spies and several assassins. When those attempts failed, they spread countless rumors smearing his husband's character. 

Now they had tipped their hand. They must have realized by now that Xue Yang's assault had failed. They would realize, too, that the Patriarch knew they were plotting against him. The Jins couldn't back down. They must try harder than ever to win the rest of the cultivation world to their side, to deepen the mistrust against the Yiling Patriarch. Wen Qing was correct: more problems would come.

But if Lan Wangji knew of these problems—if he was permitted to help solve them—then he didn't mind. If they could work together, any hardship seemed bearable. 

He nodded at Wen Qing. She reached for her bag, and Lan Wangji knew she planned to end the conversation there. Yet before she could leave, there was something more he needed to say.  

"No apology is required for the marriage itself."

Wen Qing looked up sharply. Her face was surprised, but Lan Wangji met her gaze steadily. 

He did not require an apology for the marriage. Not from Wen Qing, and not from his husband. The political situation was quite unfortunate, and he would have preferred to understand the truth before they took their bows. But in spite of everything, he wasn't sorry to have married Wei Ying. 

Wen Qing studied him in silence for some time. 

"He said he offered to annul the marriage," she remarked. "He told me he offered to send you home, and you said no."

"He did." Lan Wangji paused. "I did."

He dipped his chin. The rest was not Wen Qing's business, so he kept his lips closed. She made a face.

"For the sake of complete honesty, let me confess that I scolded at him for making that offer." She gave a brisk shake of her head. "It wouldn't be smart to send you back. You know too much. It's not safe for you to return to your sect."

She paused, and her eyes narrowed.

"Let me be clear: I'm not just talking about our safety. It's not safe for you either. The sects would call you into a meeting and try to find out what information you gathered on the Yiling Patriarch during the course of your marriage." 

She paused delicately. 

"I'm not suggesting that they'd sit you down and politely ask you to share the details over a cup of tea, either. And they wouldn't just shrug their shoulders and walk away if you refused to answer."

Lan Wangji absorbed that for a moment.

"You may be correct," he murmured.

His hands fisted against the bedding. He didn't like to think of that possibility.

His brother would certainly object. He wouldn't allow the sects to interrogate Lan Wangji about the private details of his marriage. If the sects attempted such an interrogation, the entire Lan sect would be outraged. But what did their objections matter? If the Jins were corrupt enough to send spies and assassins to the Burial Mounds, what weren't they capable of? 

They would surely find ways to spy on Lan Wangji, too. If he refused to speak openly or help them in their plots against his husband, they wouldn't passively accept his decision. They might resort to poisons, curses, or truth spells. At the very least, they would install spies at Cloud Recesses and bribe guest disciples to gather intelligence.

Lan Wangji realized that Wen Qing was entirely correct. He would not be safe if he returned to Cloud Recesses. His silence would not be respected. Nor would his refusal to help their schemes. 

Of course, that didn't matter. He hadn't the slightest intention of returning to his natal sect or placing himself under the Jins' control. He met Wen Qing's gaze steadily, and she gave him an unreadable look in return. 

"Is that why you refused to annul the marriage?" She tapped her forefinger against her medical bag. "You think you're safer with the infamous Yiling Patriarch than with the sects?"

She knew the answer already. Lan Wangji could hear it in her voice. But he shook his head anyway. 

"That is not why."

She must know the truth. There weren't so many reasons for Lan Wangji to stay. He didn't fear the sects, and he wasn't influenced by political concerns. He wasn't staying because he was intimidated by the Jins. He needed no protection from his enemies.

He did wish to honor his marriage vows by remaining at his husband's side. But it wasn't merely a matter of duty, either. Wen Qing had seen him with his husband. She had watched them together for months. By now, she must have seen that Lan Wangji was attached to Wei Ying.

He couldn't bring himself to speak of that aloud. So he folded his hands on his lap and said no more. Wen Qing was quiet for a long time. Then she heaved a sigh and rose to her feet. 

"Well. I won't pretend I'm not grateful you're staying." She hefted her bag over a shoulder. "We could use another trained cultivator around here."

She paused, lingering beside the chair.

"Besides, if you left now, he'd mope for the rest of eternity." Her voice was low. She darted a meaningful glance in Lan Wangji's direction. "And I'd be the one stuck dealing with it!" 

Lan Wangji said nothing. His chest warmed with pleased embarrassment. He would like to think that his husband might be grieved by his departure. Perhaps it was selfish, but he hoped that his husband would 'mope' if he left. 

Wen Qing studied him. Then she shook her head with a sort of amused exasperation. 

"If you're staying here, then I turn him over to you." 

She gestured broadly in the direction of Song Zichen's room, where Wei Ying was surely speaking with his friends. 

"He's your responsibility from now on. Getting him to eat and sleep on a regular basis is officially your problem."

Lan Wangji's wounds still burned. His head ached, and he was brutally exhausted even after their short conversation. But that was nothing compared to the delight of knowing that his husband was now his responsibility. That was a great comfort, perhaps greater than Wen Qing even realized. He nodded at once.

"I accept."

Wen Qing snorted as she mixed up another batch of medicine. Lan Wangji frowned at the cup, knowing it would leave him asleep for the rest of the afternoon. 

"Then don't be shy about hectoring him from now on." 

Wen Qing stirred the powers briskly before adding hot water. 

"Go and pester him when he's been working for too long. Tell him he'd better stop fooling around with experimental talismans that tend to blow up in his face. Exert your authority as his husband." 

She arched a pointed brow and handed over the cup of medicinal tea. As he drank it, Lan Wangji gave her suggestions some thought. 

It would be very pleasant to have authority over his husband. At the very least, he liked the idea of shared authority. It would be nice to look after his husband and be looked after in turn. He bit back a smile and drained the cup without complaint.

Wen Qing cleared away the last of the supplies and rinsed out the cups. Lan Wangji lay back against the pillows and watched her work. The tea was already taking effect, and he felt drowsy. But there was a speculative gleam in Wen Qing's eye. He couldn't help but wonder what it portended.

Before she left, Wen Qing reached into a hidden pocket. She drew out a set of acupuncture needles and held one up for Lan Wangji's inspection. 

"If he gets stubborn," she said, "then come and find me. I'll teach you how to use these." 

She rotated the needle. It gleamed in the pale winter sunlight, sharp and deadly. 

"If you aim for the right spot, you can paralyze him." She shook her head almost fondly. "He's learning to shake off the effects pretty quickly. But you can make him sit still long enough that he'll have to listen to your lectures."

Lan Wangji blinked. The affection in her voice was unmistakable. It was curiously at odds with her blunt speech about paralyzing Wei Ying. 

He wondered if he'd ever understand her relationship with his husband, or what had forged them into such steadfast companions. If he had won their trust, perhaps he would hear the full story sometime. At any rate, it was some consolation to know that Wen Qing had taken him into her circle of friends.

 "Unnecessary." Lan Wangji dipped his chin respectfully. "But I appreciate the offer. I will remind him to take care of himself."

He certainly intended to do just that. Wen Qing didn't need to exhort him to look after his husband. She didn't need to give her permission or blessing. Lan Wangji was determined to watch over his husband, just as his husband had watched over him. 

Wen Qing groaned aloud.

"You have no idea how terrible he is at that." She swung her bag at her side as she turned toward the door. "I don't think you know what you're getting yourself into. But it's too late. Looks like you're stuck with us."

She sounded almost cheerful as she strode away. Lan Wangji blinked at her retreating back, bemused. But he didn't have much time to think about her remarks. Sleep swallowed him, and he didn't wake for many hours.

When he surfaced, he found his bedroom room quiet and dark. Night had fallen, but a cheerful fire crackled in the brazier beside his bed. Wei Ying was hunched beside it, scrawling at a sheaf of papers. They looked to be talismans of some kind.

Lan Wangji watched his husband for a while, enjoying the firelight against Wei Ying's intent face. Yet he didn't have much time to watch his husband unobserved. Wei Ying looked over and caught him. Then he rushed to the bed to help Lan Wangji sit up and eat his congee. 

Wei Ying made a face over the bowl. 

"Wen Qing says you're not allowed to have anything good yet." He sighed, stirring the congee with a spoon. "Look at this slop! There aren't even any spices! Doesn't it look like some kind of punishment? You deserve something nicer." 

"The food is fine." 

Lan Wangji hardly paid attention to what he was eating. The bland congee was immaterial. His husband's presence alone was worth savoring. 

Wei Ying kept refilling his teacup, talking mindlessly about the children's desperate desire to see Lan Wangji. Half the Wens, he said, had been lurking outside his door, waiting for news. Wei Ying was afraid that if Wen Qing didn't allow visitors soon, the Wens would stage an insurrection and force their way into Lan Wangji's sickroom.

"They're really worried about you," Wei Ying added.

That was worth savoring, too. Lan Wangji couldn't quite conceal his smile. 

Wei Ying helped wash his hands and face with a warm cloth. Then he plumped up Lan Wangji's pillows and build up the fire. When that was done, Wei Ying slouched into the chair beside Lan Wangji's bed. He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. 

"Wen Qing's been pestering me," he murmured. "She wanted me to ask you about the attack. She wants to know if Xue Yang dropped any useful information before you..."

Wei Ying drew a finger across his throat. 

Lan Wangji nodded. He had expected this. During his brief periods of wakefulness, he had wracked his brains, trying to gather up every possible clue. But there wasn't much to tell. 

Xue Yang had been the hired assassin, the blunt instrument the Jins had wielded. He wasn't the mastermind behind the attack. Even if there had been time for a full interrogation, Lan Wangji wasn't optimistic that the man could provide much intelligence.

"Xue Yang said he'd been paid for the attack. I guessed that it was the Jins who had hired him, and he confirmed it." Lan Wangji paused, thinking back. "He spoke of a 'little rat.' I believe someone within the Jin sect who helped to hire him."

Wei Ying's brows drew together.

"I don't think anybody would call Jin Guangshan a 'little rat.'" He scratched his chin. "A big rat, maybe! Do you know who he was talking about?"

Lan Wangji wanted to shake his head. It wouldn't be a lie, necessarily. He didn't know with any degree of certainty to whom Xue Yang had referred. But he had his suspicions. They were difficult to voice, and Lan Wangji bit the inside of his cheek. Then he forced himself to speak.

"There is a man. Meng Yao. Have you heard of him?"

Wei Ying scrunched up his face.

"Vaguely. He's the illegitimate son, right?"

Lan Wangji inclined his head.

"Yes. He has recently joined his father's sect." He paused, then added, "I don't consider him trustworthy."

It was hardly a scathing commendation, but it hurt even to say that much. Lan Wangji's opinions had rarely differed from his brother's. Their views and beliefs had always dovetailed perfectly. Lan Xichen tended to be more forgiving, more inclined to see the good in people. Yet Lan Wangji had seldom thought his brother's perception of someone was mistaken. 

Sometimes, he felt that his brother had been slightly too generous in his dealings with certain individuals. He had never thought his brother was wrong, though. He'd never believed that his brother had placed faith in someone who had criminal tendencies. He feared, however, that Meng Yao might prove to be just that sort of person. 

Distress must have crept across his face. Wei Ying hurriedly waved his hands, pouring Lan Wangji another cup of tea.

"All right." He spoke soothingly as he placed the cup in Lan Wangji's hands. "We'll think about that later on. Don't worry about it right now."

Lan Wangji ignored the tea, frowning at his husband. 

"Action must be taken," he insisted.

They couldn't sit back and do nothing. As Wen Qing has insinuated, the Jins were sure to launch another assault. Whether it would take the form of an assassination or a campaign of vicious rumors remained to be seen. But they would do something. If Wei Ying didn't plan a counterattack, they would be exposed to the next plot. 

"I know." Wei Ying placed a reassuring hand on Lan Wangji's arm. "We will take action, I promise. But not right now."

Lan Wangji couldn't quite hide his surprise. He had expected greater urgency from his husband after Xue Yang's dramatic attack. It was not merely Lan Wangji who had been placed in danger. Song Zichen and Xiao Xingchen had been threatened too. The children had been put in jeopardy. Lan Wangji stared in astonishment, and Wei Ying heaved a sigh.

"Ah, the rest of us went through all this while you were asleep." 

He rubbed the back of his neck ruefully. 

"There was a big argument between me and Wen Qing and Xiao Xingchen. They pretty much had to pin me down on the floor to keep me from running off to Koi Tower. Believe me, I wanted to do exactly that."

Wei Ying frowned at the bedding, tucking the quilt securely over Lan Wangji's lap.

"But they said it would be stupid to rush off to confront Jin Guangshan. Who knows? That might even be what he wants me to do. It might be playing right into his hands."

Lan Wangji digested that. It was a valid argument. The Jins were clearly playing a very deep game. Perhaps they had wanted to draw Wei Ying out of the Burial Mounds and into a trap. A public confrontation might be exactly what they were hoping for. They had certainly been hard at work destroying Wei Ying's credibility. 

If he marched to Koi Tower and accused Jin Guangshan of sending assassins, would anyone believe him? There was Xue Yang's corpse, but that proved little. Jin Guangshan could claim that his prisoner had escaped and was acting alone. He'd lose face for having let Xue Yang escape, but no one could prove he had been guilty of anything worse than carelessness.

Lan Wangji could give his own testimony. So could Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen. But he had a sinking feeling that their statements might not be enough to sway the sect leaders. Someone, no doubt, would suggest that they were only speaking under duress. Perhaps the sect leaders would believe that Lan Wangji had been forced to say whatever his husband commanded. Xue Yang had insinuated that the cultivation world believed Lan Wangji was kept as a slave. It didn't seem an unreasonable leap.

Wei Ying heaved another sigh.

"We need more information." He thumped a fist against his knee. "That's always been our biggest weakness. We're mostly cut off from the cultivation world, so it's hard to know what the sects are planning. I need to fix that."

Lan Wangji digested that, too.

"You are considering espionage?" he ventured.

Wei Ying slumped in his seat.

"Well, I don't really see the alternative." He rubbed a hand over his face. "I have a few ideas for how I can try to get someone into Koi Tower to snoop around. Turnabout is fair play, after all!"

Lan Wangji's frown deepened. He despised the idea of lowering himself to Jin Guanghsan's level. But he didn't see a viable alternative. 

The Jins had arranged matters carefully. They had ensured that a public accusation would be ignored. Wei Ying's credibility—and Lan Wangji's, by extension—had been destroyed. Most of the sect leaders didn't consider Jin Guangshan a friend, but he was a known entity. If they were forced to choose between placing faith in Jin Guangshan or Yiling Patriarch, Lan Wangji knew what choice they'd make.

Wei Ying was correct, then. They needed additional intelligence. If they hoped to counter the Jin's schemes, they had to discover what those schemes were. It would be reckless to rush in blindly. 

Wei Ying growled softly. His face had darkened, his eyes cold and faraway.

"The Jin sect... I can't let them get away with this." He spoke in soft, even tones. "But I don't want to involve innocent people. I don't want to storm the next discussion conference and start cracking skulls. Not innocent skulls, anyway."

Lan Wangji nodded. 

He understood. If it came to a direct confrontation, he knew his husband could prevail. Wei Ying could kill Jin Guangshan easily. Yet that would serve no purpose. It would only deepen the sects' fear and resentment. Worse, innocent people might be caught in the crossfire. That was unacceptable to Lan Wangji. He was relieved to see it was equally unacceptable to his husband. 

"So I need to figure out who's directly involved." Wei Ying's face cleared, and he nodded to himself. "I need to know who's actually plotting murder and who's just been listening to the wrong sort of gossip."

Lan Wangji stared into the brazier, watching the flames dance. It would not be easy to gather the sort of information Wei Ying wanted. Not in the middle of winter, from half a world away. He couldn't begin to imagine how it might be achieved. 

Wei Ying laid a hand on his arm.

"I don't want you to worry about that right now, though!" He squeezed Lan Wangji's wrist. "You should just focus on getting better."

"I would like to know what is happening," Lan Wangji insisted.

His recovery was the first priority. He'd be no good to anyone until he healed and regained his full strength. He ought to focus his attention on meditation to help speed the healing process. But Lan Wangji couldn't peacefully meditate if he was kept in ignorance. 

Wei Ying seemed to understand this. He lowered his head and squeezed Lan Wangji's arm again.

"Fair enough! I'll keep you informed, I promise." He sat back with a sigh. "Wen Qing and Xiao Xingchen talked me down, so we're not going to take any action right away. We're going to bide our time for a while and gather our forces. Then we'll decide what to do, once you and Song Lan are better."

He studied Lan Wangji with grave, gentle eyes. 

"This is your business too," he added softly. "You'll be involved in those discussions. I swear it."

Lan Wangji allowed himself to relax against the pillows once more. His breaths came more easily, and the tension that had crept into his muscles dissipated.

"I appreciate it," he murmured.

Wei Ying huffed a quiet, humorless laugh.

"It's really the very least I can do!" He groaned and rubbed his eyes. "Ah, Shishu is really mad at me for what I did to you!"

Lan Wangji tilted his head, puzzled. Wei Ying lowered his hand into his lap and gave another wry smile. 

"He didn't know about any of this. About why I married you." Wei Ying tried to laugh, but his eyes were pained. "He's such a romantic. He really thought it must have been love at first sight between us! I think Song Lan was a little more skeptical about my motivations. But he thought I was just trying to solidify my position after the war."

Wei Ying seemed unhappy at the thought of having to deceive his friends. Lan Wangji felt a stab of sympathy, but it was followed by a rush of relief. 

He had supposed that Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen were equally involved in the marriage plot. They were Wei Ying's oldest friends, after all. Xiao Xingchen was almost family. 

Lan Wangji supposed he ought to be horrified that Wei Ying had deceived them, too. But instead, he found himself desperately relieved. He'd wondered if Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen had also been watching him with suspicion, skeptical of his true character. If their friendly treatment had been sincere—if they believed that he and Wei Ying had married for love—that was far more bearable. 

"They're not too happy about what I did!" 

Wei Ying reached out, moving items restlessly around the nightstand. Lan Wangji watched him work. He had already discovered that his husband liked to meddle with nearby objects, even those that didn't belong to him. But Lan Wangji didn't mind. His husband had graceful, long-fingered hands. It was a pleasure to watch him toy with a teacup or roll a brush between his fingers. 

"They're not happy that I kept them in the dark afterward," Wei Ying continued. "But they were running all over the cultivation world, so we couldn't talk the plan over with them anyway. By the time they got back..." 

He made a face.

"We figured that the fewer people who knew about this, the better. At that point, Wen Qing and I were already starting to realize that we'd made a mistake. So we were too embarrassed to tell them the truth."

Lan Wangji nodded. He felt sure that the pair would forgive Wei Ying. He intended to say so, but Wei Ying interrupted.

"Speaking of keeping family informed!" He set aside the teacup in his hands and leaned forward, his expression grim. "I didn't write to your family after the attack. I didn't know what to tell them, or if I should tell them anything."

Wei Ying hesitated, his empty fingers twitching restlessly on his lap. 

"What do you want to do?"

He asked that question often, now: What do you want? It had only been a few days since Lan Wangji had first awoken, but he'd already heard that question from Wei Ying's lips a dozen times. 

Wei Ying asked if he wanted this or that tea. He asked if Lan Wangji wanted his help changing clothes, or if he wanted Wen Qing to provide assistance. He asked what Lan Wangji desired in terms of meals, baths, and incense. 

It was as if Wei Ying sought to make amends for his previous mistrust by honoring Lan Wangji's preference in every small matter. Lan Wangji found it touching. But this was a question he didn't particularly want to answer. He was quiet for a moment.

"I have been considering that," he said, after an awkward pause. "I decided I would prefer not to discuss the attack with my family."

Wei Ying's eyebrows shot up.

"Are you sure?"

Lan Wangji nodded. His heart was heavy, but he felt sure of his decision.

"Meng Yao is...someone my brother trusts." Lan Wangji folded his hands, digging his nails into his palms. "If I wrote to my brother and told him of my injuries, I am not sure what my brother would tell Meng Yao. And I am not sure what he would say to my brother in turn."

He wanted nothing more than to tell his brother the truth. He wanted to write to his brother at once and beg him to come to the Burial Mounds. He wanted to dump the entire mess at his brother's feet and ask him to help find a solution.

But Lan Wangji knew he could not. If he asked Lan Xichen to come, he would. He'd rush to the Burial Mounds at once. He would be distraught to hear of Lan Wangji's attack and anxious to solve the matter. He would do everything he could to help his younger brother.

He didn't trust Wei Ying, though. He would be horrified and suspicious to hear that Lan Wangji had been injured under his husband's care. Any accusations against the Jins would be viewed with extreme suspicion. At worst, Lan Xichen might think that Wei Ying was trying to shift blame. He might think that Wei Ying was trying to conceal his own involvement in Lan Wangji's injuries.

At best, Lan Xichen would consider that Wei Ying might be telling the truth. But even if they persuaded his brother, Lan Wangji knew how he would respond. Lan Xichen would insist upon handling the matter through the proper channels. He would want to speak directly with Jin Guangshan and Meng Yao. He would consult with other sect leaders and handle the conflict following an official consensus. 

It was, of course, the correct method for resolving most conflicts. Lan Wangji understood that. His brother was the leader of one of the Great Sects; he was obliged to handle political conflicts in a forthright and diplomatic manner. If another sect was accused of committing a crime, he must confront them and handle the matter publicly. He must listen to his fellow sect leaders and determine the punishment as part of a group. 

But Lan Wangji saw the flaws in that approach. His brother would be constrained by laws, rules, and customs. He would be limited by diplomacy, hampered by his own attempts at morality. The Jins would have no such handicaps. 

Wei Ying heaved a sigh. 

"I can see how the Jins might try to spin that." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Who's to say I didn't attack you myself? Who's to say I didn't force you to lie to your brother and claim someone else did it? Where's the proof it was really Xue Yang, or that he was paid off by the Jins?"

Lan Wangji nodded grimly. There was no proof. They could make their accusations before the sects, but the Jins could deny everything. It would be Wei Ying's word against theirs, and they had already been hard at work destroying the Yiling Patriarch's credibility.

"There is the body," Lan Wangji allowed. "But there is no other proof. My brother always seeks to consider both sides. It makes him a skilled diplomat. However..."

"It leaves him open to persuasion." Wei Ying sighed again.

Lan Wangji lowered his head. His heart twisted. He could persuade his brother to recognize—or at least consider—the truth. But if his brother was determined to put his faith in Meng Yao, it would not be easy to persuade him that the Jins were guilty of a series of terrible crimes. 

His brother would hope that there had been some misunderstanding, or that Meng Yao was innocent in the matter. If Lan Xichen would hesitate to take swift, decisive action against the Jins, it might be best not to inform him of this matter. Not until they had irrefutable proof. 

Wei Ying gazed unhappily at his own hands.

"Should he come to visit?" he asked softly.

He lifted his face, meeting Lan Wangji's gaze.

"I didn't offer to invite him before because I wasn't sure which of the sect leaders we could trust. I'm still not sure, to be honest." He winced. "Don't be offended, but I'm not convinced that your brother doesn't know more about this than you think. But if you want him to come here, I'll bring him here."

Lan Wangji swallowed hard. His homesickness had largely vanished over the last few weeks. He still missed his family, but he had settled comfortably into his new home. The separation was bearable. Yet, suddenly, he felt a desperate wish to have his brother at his side. Even if Lan Xichen couldn't solve their problems, it would be a comfort to have his brother nearby. 

But Lan Wangji shut his eyes and considered the matter. Then he shook his head. 

"I would like to see him," he admitted.

Wei Ying opened his mouth, but Lan Wangji shook his head again.

"Even so, I am not sure a visit would be wise." He stared at Wei Ying's hands. "My brother would listen carefully to our words, and he would consider everything we told him. Then he would go to the Jins. He would confront Jin Guangshan and ask for his account."

Wei Ying made a frustrated noise. 

"Which is not what we want," he groaned, "because Jin Guangshan is not interested in telling the truth!"

Lan Wangji nodded miserably. Wei Ying's eyes were full of dismay but also full of sympathy. He reached out to squeeze Lan Wangji's hands. 

"All right," he sighed. "All right. You write to your brother and tell him whatever you think is best."

Lan Wangji braced himself for what he knew must come. Until they knew more, they couldn't afford to let anyone outside their settlement know of this attack. They couldn't publicly accuse the Jins, either. So he would have to write his brother a perfectly ordinary letter, making no mention of his injuries. Such deception burned a hole through Lan Wangji's heart, but he knew there was no alternative.

He must have looked unhappy. Wei Ying squeezed his hands again, and he looked unhappy too.

"I'm sorry," he murmured.

Lan Wangji could only sigh.

"As am I," he replied. "As am I."

Chapter Text

A full week after the attack, Lan Wangji woke to find himself in an empty room. It came as something of a surprise. Whenever he awakened before, Wei Ying was always at his side. If he couldn't be there—if he needed to visit the others or secure the perimeter of the settlement—Wen Qing remained, watching over Lan Wangji in his absence. But Wen Qing wasn't there either. 

Lan Wangji blinked at the vacant room. He decided to take their absence as a good sign. Wen Qing had assured him that he was out of danger. Song Zichen was stable, too. He had regained some of his sight, and Wen Qing was optimistic that he would improve further. Their recovery was merely a matter of time, she said. In the meantime, Lan Wangji should rest. He must let his flesh heal, let his qi replenish itself.

With his recovery well underway, he didn't need a nursemaid. Wei Ying didn't have to hover anxiously over his bed every moment of the day. Even so, Lan Wangji found himself restless in his solitude. Fortunately, he didn't have to wait long for his husband's return. Wei Ying had lit a fresh stick of incense before his departure. Before it could burn halfway down, he sidled into the room.

He wore a sheepish expression. Lan Wangji had often seen that expression on the children's faces when they were caught doing something forbidden. Wei Ying held a basket in his hands, and he hastened to shut the door behind him.

"Don't tell Wen Qing!" he whispered. "She said you can't have visitors until tomorrow. But these visitors are so small! I don't think they can possibly count."

Wei Ying opened the basket, tipping the contents onto Lan Wangji's lap. Two rabbits tumbled out. Lan Wangji caught them before they could escape from the bed.

He couldn't hide his smile. Wei Ying beamed in reply, dropping into his customary place at Lan Wangji's bedside. He had brought a small pail of vegetable scraps. Together, they placated the rabbits with food. The rabbits seemed perplexed by their unfamiliar surroundings, but they didn't bother to investigate the room. They huddled on Lan Wangji's lap, furiously chewing their meal.

Lan Wangji smoothed a hand over their soft fur. They had become quite plump, he noticed. Someone had certainly been feeding them well during his absence. As the rabbits ate, Wei Ying tickled and harassed them. He remarked that they were growing nice and fat.

"If Lan Zhan doesn't hurry and get better soon," he teased, "he won't be able to protect them. Then I'll eat them up!"

The rabbits, devouring their greens, responded to this threat with a blank stare. Lan Wangji sighed. He assured his husband that he would recover in time to prevent such a catastrophe.

Wei Ying grinned, and Lan Wangji's heart lifted. He wanted to continue this foolish, nonsensical teasing. But there were so many things they still needed to discuss. A thousand questions crowded up on his tongue.

"I have a question," he began, haltingly.

He regretted the words at once. The smile slipped from Wei Ying's face, and Lan Wangji mourned its absence. Wei Ying nodded and ducked his head. He scratched the rabbits behind their ears.

"I bet you have more than one." His tone was rueful.

Lan Wangji brushed a strand of hair away from his face. He was acutely conscious that his hair had hung loose for several days now. The ribbon and the lotus pin were nowhere to be found. At first, he hadn't bothered to ask for them. There were more pressing matters, and he didn't need to wear either item while lying in bed. But he wanted to know what had become of the pin, at least.

"Where is..." he began.

He didn't have time to finish the thought. Wei Ying lurched forward, pushing the rabbits aside.

"Your ribbon? Ah, don't worry, don't worry! I put it in here!"

He opened the bedside drawer and retrieved the pouch, presenting it to Lan Wangji with a flourish. Lan Wangji shook his head.

"No," he murmured. "Not the ribbon."

Of course, he hoped that his ribbon survived the ordeal. But if it hadn't, Lan Wangji could make his peace with that. He had left the Lan sect, and the ribbon could be set aside if necessary. The fate of the pin was more pressing.

Fortunately, there was a comforting weight to the pouch. Lan Wangji opened it and slipped a hand inside. His heart stuttered with relief when his fingers closed around the pin. He drew the pin out of the pouch and examined it. The pin was still in one piece. It looked much as it always had, apart from a blackened spot at the tip. That was the place where the pin had pierced Xue Yang's skin. Lan Wangji rubbed a thumb over the pin, but the tarnish didn't budge.

"I struck Xue Yang with this," he said, softly. "And something happened."

Wei Ying went very still.

"Ah. That."

The rabbits nosed hopefully at Wei Ying's arm, evidently searching for more treats. He nudged them away and took the pin from Lan Wangji's hand.

"I put a spell on this before I gave it to you."

He rubbed his own thumb over the blacked spot. His brows drew together, and his voice was heavy. For a moment, he didn't speak. Then he took a deep breath.

"You know there are some kinds of spells that work better on precious objects. This is the most precious thing I own."

He closed his fingers around the pin, his eyes unhappy.

"I didn't really want to risk losing it. But I needed something to carry the spell that would break Wen Ruohan's control over his corpse puppets."

Lan Wangji stared at his husband's fist. Slowly, Wei Ying loosened his fingers. He opened his hand, revealing the lotus pin once more. Lan Wangji reached out and touched the pin.

He had wondered about this, too. He'd been curious to know how Wei Ying had gained control over the corpse puppets. During their conversation in the cave, Wei Ying hinted that his expertise in such matters far outstripped Wen Ruohan's. He implied that Wen Ruohan had made his puppets using brute force, and Wei Ying only needed to turn that force against him.

It made sense. But Lan Wangji had wondered what sort of spell had been responsible. The lotus pin had clearly been the fulcrum.

Wei Ying's decision to use the pin was perfectly logical. Lan Wangji had learned long ago that many spells worked best when used upon objects precious to their owner. Objects that had been well-loved—objects carried by a cultivator for many years—were ideal tools for complex spellwork. It was no surprise, then, that Wei Ying had been forced to use the pin. His mother's only surviving heirloom was ideally suited for this task.

"But I got worried that someone would try to take it away from you."

Wei Ying frowned at the pin. He held it between his thumb and forefinger, studying it thoughtfully.

"I didn't want the other sect leaders to take it apart and try to use this kind of spell for their own purposes. The last thing I wanted to do was show them how to weaponize walking corpses." He sighed. "So I put another spell on it."

Gently, he placed the pin into Lan Wangji's palm. For just a moment, both their fingers rested against the pin.

"If anyone but us touches the pin, it'll hurt." Wei Ying shrugged, drawing his own hand back. "Just a little at first! Just enough to make them drop it and back away. If they keep hanging onto it, the effects start to strengthen. Their hands start to burn and blacken. Even if someone was awfully determined to take the pin away from you, I figured that would probably convince them to give it back."

He scratched his scalp.

"I didn't think about what would happen if you used it as a dagger! But it did something, didn't it?"

His eyes were curious as he studied Lan Wangji, who nodded.

"It helped," he agreed.

He hadn't known the pin carried any dangerous spellwork. Yet something had always drawn him to the pin. He had felt tied to it. From the moment Wei Ying placed the pin into his hand, Lan Wangji had guarded it jealously. He had worn it every day, kept it within arm's reach while he was asleep. He hadn't allowed anyone else to touch it. Back in Cloud Recesses, he had sometimes been tempted to throw the pin away. He hadn't done that, though. It had felt like sacrilege. So Lan Wangji had kept the pin, tucked deep within his hair.

At first, he thought his behavior was foolish and superstitious: he was ascribing special meaning to the pin, just because it had helped win the war. But if Wei Ying had woven spellwork into the pin, that explained his uncanny feeling. It explained, too, why the pin had blackened Xue Yang's flesh.

Wei Ying gave a weary smile.

"Then I'm glad. Ah, but I wrecked it a little!" He studied the pin and scrunched up his forehead. "I tried to fix it, but this black spot is stubborn."

Lan Wangji shook his head, curling his fingers around the pin.

"Leave it," he said.

He didn't mind the spots of tarnish. Nor did he mind the small dent in the lotus flower. They were signs that the pin had lived a long life, passing from hand to hand. He liked to think that his mother-in-law had made the dent. Perhaps she had dropped the pin while night-hunting, in the midst of a furious battle. The dent seemed to be an echo of her memory.

The tarnished spot would become an echo of Lan Wangji's. Someday, perhaps, he would pass the pin to another. He and his husband would offer it to A-Qing, or to another of the children. The recipient would like know the story of the pin, and the source of each small imperfection. Lan Wangji didn't want to have those imperfections removed. Restoring the pin would erase their history: his own, his husband's, and his mother-in-law's. It was better to keep the tarnished, battered pin as it was.

Wei Ying was quiet. Then his face relaxed into a smile.

"I have another question," Lan Wangji said.

Wei Ying gave a small nod.

"Go ahead."

The rabbits had lost patience. In the absence of other food, they started gnawing on Lan Wangji's sleeve. Wei Ying scrounged the last few scraps out of the pail, and Lan Wangji tried to persuade the rabbits to accept radish greens in lieu of his clothing. He arranged his thoughts, choosing his words with care.

"Wen Qing told me that you suspected me until Double Ninth Festival." He spoke slowly. "Then you decided I was innocent. Is that true?"

Wei Ying shook his head at once.

"No. No, it was before then, really." He passed a hand over his jaw. "I was just too stubborn and paranoid to admit it myself."

He prodded the rabbits' round bellies glumly.

"You spent so much time with the kids. You seemed to like them a lot. That caught my attention early on. I figured it could be a plot, but it didn't seem like one." He laughed to himself. "There were easier ways to try and win my trust. You didn't have to spend hours teaching a bunch of unruly children how to pour tea!"

Lan Wangji couldn't argue with that. The children's lessons were a source of great pleasure to him, but he couldn't honestly claim they were easy. A spy would certainly have sought a less troublesome method of winning the Patriarch's trust.

Wei Ying corralled the rabbits, shooing them to the far side of the bed. Lan Wangji helped by building a border of pillows, trapping them against the wall. The rabbits gazed at him reproachfully, and he felt a twinge of guilt. He had missed his rabbits greatly. But this conversation was important, and he needed to focus on every word that left Wei Ying's lips.

He finished securing the rabbits and turned to his husband. Wei Ying stared at the bedcover, picking at a loose thread.

"And during Mid-Autumn Festival..." He lifted his eyes and gave Lan Wangji a sad smile. "We had fun, didn't we?"

Lan Wangji's throat suddenly felt very tight. He nodded and Wei Ying ducked his head.

"It's so embarrassing, but I kept forgetting what I was doing!"

Wei Ying's shoulders were hunched, as if he found the words unspeakable mortifying. 

"I was having a nice time! It was fun to tease you and pester you. So I forgot about the part where you might be a secret assassin. I got distracted, and I just enjoyed myself."

He groaned and rubbed his eyes.

"Then at the end of the night, we overheard those people gossiping. I remembered my plan, and I felt stupid for forgetting. I wondered if I was doing exactly what you'd hoped. If you'd lured me straight into your web!"

He gave Lan Wangji a wry, mischievous smile. Lan Wangji wanted to return it, but he couldn't seem to force his body to move. He felt frozen, transfixed. His heart had been scraped raw, but the pain was sweet.

He was prepared to resign himself to the possibility that everything before Double Ninth Festival was a protracted charade. Wen Qing had suggested that their suspicions hadn't faltered until then, and Lan Wangji had made his peace with that. It was all right. His most precious memories—the rabbits, the altar for his parents, the evenings they spent together—took place afterward. If the other memories were tainted by Wei Ying's suspicions, Lan Wangji could accept it.

Yet their time in the village during Mid-Autumn Festival was precious to him, too. If Wei Ying's behavior during that evening hadn't been an act—if Wei Ying had enjoyed himself so much he forgot about his plans—then Lan Wangji had nothing left to wish for. He lowered his eyes. Wei Ying reached out and took his hand.

"So I thought maybe I was making a fool of myself, and playing right into your hands. But that didn't seem right. You kept doing all these things you didn't need to do."

Wei Ying squeezed his fingers, and Lan Wangji squeezed back.

"You helped with the harvest and you worked so hard keeping the inventories up to date. You helped Granny and A-Ning with their work. You wanted to make offerings to my parents and everything!"

His thumb stroked over Lan Wangji's.

"I don't know when I figured things out. But I was sure I'd made a mistake by Double Ninth Festival. I just..."

He blew out a heavy sigh.

"By then, I felt like I was in too deep to back out. Besides, what if I was wrong?"

Lan Wangji lifted his eyes again. Wei Ying's shoulders had hunched once more, and he grimaced.

"So I kept doing stupid things. I'd bring you presents, just because you were cute when you scolded me for spending too much money on you. Then I'd turn around and try to bait you into cutting my throat."

Wei Ying looked exasperated with himself, but Lan Wangji couldn't share in his husband's annoyance. His cheeks warmed at the epithet: you were cute.

"That was the end of it," Wei Ying added.

He sounded faintly disgusted with himself, and Lan Wangji forced himself to pay attention. His memories stirred, and he tried to pick them apart. At the time, their conversation in the cave had been unfathomably strange. Wei Ying had run hot and cold. He was on edge while Lan Wangji had shaved him, but afterward, he seemed frustrated and almost dismayed. Lan Wangji hadn't understood at the time. He understood now.

"I was getting desperate." Wei Ying shrugged. "I thought, 'All right. If he doesn't take his shot now, I guess I'll know for sure that I made a mistake.'"

Once Lan Wangji had finished the shaving and handed over the razor, Wei Ying seemed to have given up on something. Lan Wangji remembered the bewildered, almost helpless note in Wei Ying's voice: You really aren't what I expected when I first saw you in that tent.

"And I did!" Wei Ying made a face.

Lan Wangji nodded, almost absently. Somehow, Wei Ying's mistakes mattered little. What Wei Ying had thought and felt inside that tent—before they married, before they knew each other—was of no consequence. Lan Wangji didn't care about such things. He only cared about what his husband had felt later on, as they had slowly grown closer.

"You brought me rabbits," he said softly.

Wei Ying groaned and swayed forward. He buried his face in his hands, evidently too mortified to look Lan Wangji in the eye.

"I brought you rabbits and chickens!" he cried. "Wasn't that stupid? You said you wanted them. So I thought, 'Well, if my husband wants rabbits and chickens, he should have them! He's so nice to the kids, so hardworking. I should make sure to get him whatever he wants!'"

Lan Wangji's throat and ears grew hot.

"Then I'd remember that you might be a spy and an assassin, and I'd feel so dumb. I'd think, 'If he's a spy, I'm falling right into his trap! Why on earth did I think I'd be able to trick him so easily?'"

Wei Ying moaned the last few words into his palms. Lan Wangji bit back a smile.

"We are both very poor at subterfuge," he murmured.

Wei Ying dropped his hands helplessly into his lap.

"We are! Ah, that doesn't seem fair." He pouted. His cheeks were rather pink. "We're both very smart and powerful and talented! Why are we so bad at this?"

Lan Wangji's fingers twitched in his lap, but he knotted them together. He wished to reach out and touch Wei Ying's face. But things between them were still so new. Lan Wangji couldn't be sure what his husband truly felt, or if either of them were ready for such overtures.

Perhaps another opportunity would arise? Lan Wangji wasn't without hope. His husband had confessed that he'd grown fond of Lan Wangji. He'd enjoyed the time they spent together, enjoyed it so much he often forgot his suspicions. The rabbits and chickens had been genuine gifts, not part of an extended plan to win Lan Wangji's trust. Wei Ying's sincere embarrassment soothed Lan Wangji, and he settled back against the pillows contentedly.

There was hope that they could transform their marriage into something deeper, something better. He could afford to nurture those hopes in private for a while.

"It was an observation, not a complaint." The rabbits broke free of their enclosure and Lan Wangji drew them into his lap. "I do not aspire to be skilled in such things."

He didn't aspire to have a husband who was skilled at subterfuge either. If his husband was honest to a fault—if his husband was terrible at maintaining any kind of deception—Lan Wangji wasn't inclined to complain. But Wei Ying made a face.

"I feel like we'd all be better off if I were more skilled at politics and subterfuge." He rocked forward in his chair. "But I'm not sorry that I'm so bad at tricking my husband!"

He took Lan Wangji's hand again, and that was enough. It was more than enough. Lan Wangji's mind emptied, his worries and concerns vanishing. His husband's hand was warm in his. The rabbits pawed restlessly at the bedding, optimistically searching for food beneath the silken quilt. Lan Wangji needed nothing more in this life, or the next.

It didn't last, of course. Wen Qing entered without knocking, and Wei Ying frantically scooped up the rabbits and stuffed them into the basket. He pushed it beneath the bed, then whirled around to give Wen Qing an innocent smile. Lan Wangji also strove to look like someone who hadn't been disobeying his physician's orders.

But he and his husband were, indeed, poor at subterfuge. Wen Qing's eyes narrowed in suspicion. Then she sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose.

"Don't tell me what's in that basket," she muttered, setting her bag on the table. "I don't want to know."

 

***

 

As the next few days wore on, Lan Wangji found himself deeply frustrated. Wen Qing weaned him off the heavier remedies, and his head cleared. His mind gradually sharpened, and he stopped falling asleep every few minutes. But his body didn't recover as quickly as he'd hoped. Even after several days, he hardly had enough strength to sit up in bed. Lan Wangji's fingers itched for his sword. He wanted to return to the practice fields, to the disciples' lessons. At the very least, he wanted to sit with his husband in the library. He wanted to walk with Wei Ying around the settlement, watching the Wens work and the children play. He didn't enjoy being trapped in bed, too weak to look after himself.

Wen Qing wasn't sympathetic to his plight.

"Hanguang-Jun." She spoke sharply as she changed his bandages. "I don't think you fully appreciate that you came within a hairs-breadth of dying. Look at this!"

Her voice cut like a blade, but her hands were careful. She uncovered the wound and pointed emphatically.

It was, Lan Wangji admitted, a rather gruesome sight. Wen Qing had removed the stitches two days prior. She said the wound had healed with remarkable speed. They were past any risk of infection. Still, the wound was red and jagged. His flesh had scabbed over, but it hadn't fully knitted together. If he moved abruptly, he might tear the wound open again.

Wen Qing had told him he must remain in bed for at least four more days. Afterward, he must spend another week resting within his chambers. She grudgingly conceded that Lan Wangji would probably be able to resume light duties by Winter Solstice. But she wouldn't permit him to resume his full duties—cultivation and swordwork included—work until after the New Year. His full recovery period would span two and a half months.

Lan Wangji felt that this was a truly excessive length of time. He had never been forced to recuperate for more than a week. Two weeks, at most. When he protested, Wen Qing rolled her eyes.

"During your previous injuries," she grumbled, "you weren't gutted with a sword."

She wrapped fresh bandages around his torso, tucking the edges in.

"If the blow had gone a little lower, you would have lost your core. If you threw a little more qi into that last attack, you might have permanently damaged your meridians. And if we'd arrived even one moment later, we'd be arranging your funeral right now. Please, have some patience with yourself."

Lan Wangji felt a prickle of remorse. He had been lucky to escape with his life and his cultivation abilities intact. He knew that. Wen Qing had provided dedicated care, and he must be grateful to her. So he tried to be a compliant patient. It was difficult, but the children helped.

Wen Qing delayed their visit for several days. She feared that the children would climb all over Lan Wangji and tear open his wounds. It was for the best, perhaps. Even if visitors were permitted, Lan Wangji wouldn't have been lucid enough to receive them for the first few days. Wen Qing told the children he was too tired for visitors, so they must keep away from his rooms and let him rest.

In spite of Wen Qing's orders, one visitor still found their way into his chambers. One afternoon, Lan Wangji woke from a light sleep. When he looked down, he found A-Qing curled up on the edge of his bed. She was shaking all over. Lan Wangji frowned.

At first, he thought she must be cold. Wen Qing kept the braziers burning, and Wei Ying had papered the walls with warming talismans. But A-Qing was thin. She was very small, and it was winter. The cold must have affected her.

Lan Wangji shifted awkwardly. He couldn't sit up and draw a blanket over her shoulders. Even brief periods of sitting were painful, and he required Wei Ying's help to rise. Yet he couldn't leave her to suffer. His eyes moved restlessly toward the door.

Wei Ying must have returned to the room across the hall. Song Zichen was recovering there, with Xiao Xingchen at his bedside. The two patients had been placed nearby so Wen Qing could easily tend to both of them. Wei Ying couldn't be far away. If Lan Wangji called out, he felt sure that his husband would come. Wei Ying would rush across the hall and he could fetch a blanket for A-Qing.

He didn't have a chance to call for Wei Ying, though. Before he could speak, A-Qing lifted her head. Her face was red and splotchy. Lan Wangji saw that she wasn't shaking with cold. She was crying, and his heart twisted.

He reached for her at once, the prospect of tearing open his wounds forgotten. Heedless of the risk, he tried to lift her into his lap. Wen Qing's hard work might have been destroyed in a matter of minutes, but A-Qing saw that he was awake and she crawled over to his side. She was mindful of his wounds, shifting carefully around his stomach. Then she curled up against his chest and sobbed into his robes. Lan Wangji stroked her hair and tried to soothe her. In the meantime, she poured out an incoherent stream of apologies.

"A-Qing," he broke in, as she paused to draw breath. "You must not apologize to me. You have done nothing wrong."

She lifted a tear-stained face and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.

"You got hurt because of me!"

"That is false." Lan Wangji put a careful arm around her shoulders, trying not to jostle either of them. "I was injured because a depraved man chose to hurt me. You are not responsible."

A-Qing's mouth trembled. More tears spilled forth.

"But if it wasn't for me…"

Lan Wangji frowned.

"Then it must be Xiao Xingchen's fault that his husband is injured." He wiped her face with the edge of the bedding. "After all, if Song Zichen never met Xiao Xingchen, they might never had crossed paths with Xue Yang. The temple would not have been attacked, and perhaps Song Zichen's eyes would not have been hurt."

A-Qing flared up at once. Her spine stiffened with indignation, and her mouth quivered.

"That's not true!" she cried. "It's not Daozhang's fault!"

Lan Wangji smoothed a hand over her back.

"It is not," he affirmed. "Nor is it yours. Xue Yang chose to harm others. The fault lies with him alone."

A-Qing stared at him. For a moment, he thought she might argue. If she felt she was right about something, she could be tenacious. But the fight seemed to go out of her. She crumpled against his chest and sobbed into the blankets. Lan Wangji stroked her back, his heart aching.

She was too young to have endured such hardships. Children her age should never witness brutal violence. They should never see their parents or teachers assaulted. He felt sick to think of what she had already suffered. A-Qing truly believed she was somehow culpable for Xue Yang's crimes, and Lan Wangji's stomach churned. He clenched his jaw. Yet again, he felt that he hadn't made Xue Yang suffer enough in his final moments.

"He's evil!" A-Qing wailed, once her tears slowed.

"He was," Lan Wangji agreed quietly. "He is not anything now. Not a man, anyway. Perhaps he has already reincarnated."

If Xue Yang was very fortunate, he would enter the cycle of reincarnation. He would face justice for his sins in the afterworld. Then he'd pass into his next lifetime and become something different. If he were unlucky, he'd become a restless spirit. He'd face centuries of agony, lingering in the hollow space between life and death.

Lan Wangji knew he shouldn't wish that sort of fate upon anyone. It wasn't right for any cultivator to hope for a murderer to become a restless spirit. Such spirits were a danger to innocent people. For their sake, Lan Wangji ought to pray for Xue Yang's peaceful death and swift reincarnation. But A-Qing hadn't finished weeping. The longer he looked upon her stricken face, the harder it was to wish Xue Yang any kind of peace.

Little by little, A-Qing's tears slowed. She wiped her face with the hem of her shirt and looked up. The word 'reincarnation' seemed to have captured her interest.

"He's going to reincarnate?" she asked curiously. "Into a person?"

Lan Wangji shifted her weight against his side. His mind worked rapidly. He had yet to discuss such matters with the children. They were very young, after all. A discussion of what awaited after death would be more appropriate for older disciples. A-Qing was nearly eight, though. She had already witnessed terrible violence. Lan Wangji weighed his words and decided she was old enough to understand the fundamentals.

"He committed grave sins in this lifetime," Lan Wangji explained slowly. "If he reincarnates, it will probably not be as a human. He may become a lower life form, as a punishment. If he atones, perhaps someday he will reincarnate as a higher life form. If he not, he may remain a beast of burden for many cycles."

A-Qing perked up, her eyes brightening.

"How about a spider? Or a cockroach!" She nodded vigorously to herself. "I'll stomp on every cockroach I see, just in case it's him!"

Lan Wangji sighed, but he couldn't bring himself to dissuade her.

"Spare the spiders," he advised. "They are important for pest control."

A-Qing found that remark equally intriguing. She wanted to know what spiders ate and why the world needed such creatures. Lan Wangji tried to provide an impromptu lecture, but Wen Qing caught them. She chased the girl out and A-Qing fled without an apology. Lan Wangji made a mental note to cover this topic—the diet of insects—in detail during future lessons.

When the rest of the children arrived, it was clear they had been hard at work during his absence. They brought drawings and samples of their calligraphy work. The children had even made him perfume sachets—just like Granny Wen's—as a get-well gift. Wen Qionglin lingered behind after the children were herded out, and he shyly added his own well wishes.

"They miss you a lot," he said. "They're looking forward to your return. The disciples, too."

He laughed, his voice gentle.

"Everybody is looking forward to your return, actually!"

Lan Wangji's heart warmed. He had already been told that the Wens were concerned over his health. But it was pleasant to hear it again.

Wei Ying had explained that the Wens knew nothing of the sects' schemes. He and Wen Qing had decided that discussing such things would only inspire panic and suspicion among the people of the Burial Mounds. Whenever one of the Jin's agents arrived, Wei Ying routed them quickly. He sent the concubines back to their masters and found ways to get rid of the others. If the Wens asked what had become of the strangers who had tried to enter their settlement, Wei Ying made some excuse. Wen Qing knew the truth, as did Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen. But the others knew nothing, and Wei Ying had wanted to keep it that way.

After Xue Yang's attack, the truth couldn't be concealed any longer. The commotion—their duel and the sudden explosion of Lan Wangji's qi—had roused the entire settlement. Every single inhabitant had been drawn from their bed. The Wens had rushed outside, and the children had tried to follow.

Zhang Huizhong had managed to call out to the others to keep the children away. They, at least, had not seen Lan Wangji's bloodied body. But at least a dozen Wens had taken a good look at the gruesome scene. The rumors had spread quickly, after that. Wei Ying couldn't hope to hush the matter up. Finally, he confessed that an assailant had crept inside their settlement. His intention was to harm the Yiling Patriarch and his people.

He had promised Lan Wangji—and the rest of the Wens—that he'd tightened the wards. Each of the newcomers had been subjected to thorough scrutiny. Once Lan Wangji was out of danger, Wei Ying made trips to the outlying villages for further interrogations. Lan Wangji gave his husband an apprehensive look when he mentioned these investigations.

"I didn't hurt anybody," Wei Ying vowed. "I just used these. See?"

He produced a sheaf of talismans. Lan Wangji sifted through them, and his husband pointed to each talisman in turn.

"If someone's wearing that one, they can't lie to me. If they're wearing this one, it shatters any disguise they might be wearing. That one glows purple if the person is planning to harm anyone nearby."

Lan Wangji studied the talismans. They were most impressive, and he told his husband so. He had never heard of talismans that could be used for such purposes.

"Of course you haven't," Wei Ying said lightly. "I just invented them! But I triple-checked all the newcomers. Xue Yang was the only one who slipped through my net."

He sighed, stuffing the talismans back into his sleeve.

"I should've used these talismans to begin with. I was careless, that's all. I was paying too much attention to you!"

Lan Wangji ignored the now-familiar flush creeping up the back of his neck.

"If someone had sent a dangerous assassin that I needed to watch closely," his husband added ruefully, "I thought it must be my husband. So when the refugees turned up, I didn't bother to look too closely at a pitiful young man with a damaged leg. That was stupid."

Lan Wangji chose to ignore that remark. He had already sorted the matter out within his own mind: there was no point dwelling on what had already occurred. Past mistakes were unimportant. They must focus on deciding what to do next.

For several days, Lan Wangji struggled to stay awake long enough to discuss the future. But he and Wei Ying had already agreed that no one outside the Burial Mounds should hear of the attack. The Wens were sworn to secrecy, and Lan Wangji felt sure their discretion could be trusted. Even if someone had been inclined to gossip with outsiders, they had no opportunity to do so. Winter had come, and the snows were heavier each day. No one could leave the mountain on foot. Wen Qing and Wei Ying were the only ones permitted to make trips into Yiling or to the villages. There was no need for travel, anyway, when their storehouses were full. Gossip could be smothered, at least for a while.

As soon as he could hold a brush, Lan Wangji penned a short letter to his brother. His brother was accustomed to receiving weekly letters. If there was a lapse in their correspondence, he would worry. Lan Wangji was careful to omit any mention of the attack. He made no reference to his injuries or Xue Yang's appearance. He strove to give the appearance of normalcy, and he was particularly careful not to disclose any information about their settlement.

The longer he considered the matter, the surer Lan Wangji felt: his letters to his brother could not be considered 'private'. Meng Yao had wormed his way into his brother's confidence. If Lan Xichen trusted the man, he wouldn't hesitate to share information from his brother's most recent letter. There was no way for Lan Wangji to put his brother on guard, not without tipping his own hand. So he withheld the news of the attack, then felt bitterly guilty over his silence.

If their positions were reversed, Lan Wangji would have been crushed to discover that his brother had kept such a devastating injury from him. He would have been desperately hurt to learn that his brother hadn't trusted his ability to keep a secret. But there was no alternative. Lan Wangji had faith in his brother's character and virtue. Yet if his brother trusted Meng Yao, Lan Wangji knew he must withhold a great deal of information.

As he sealed up the letter, Lan Wangji was flooded by a deep wash of grief. He had always trusted his brother implicitly. It seemed he could no longer do so, and that stung. There was some consolation, though: he trusted his husband, and he saw that his trust was returned.

During their conversations, Wei Ying provided a detailed explanation of his plans to tighten security. The wards were impenetrable, unbreakable. No one could hope to break in by force. The Wens were only exposed to danger when they left the Burial Mounds, or when they invited others inside.

For now, Wei Ying was determined to do neither. He was taking no risks, though. The road up the mountain was treacherously icy, and it was unlikely anyone would approach on foot. Even so, Wei Ying had asked the walking corpses to patrol the settlement at night, to check for scouts lurking near the borders. He had instructed them to watch the skies as well, in case anyone tried to spy from above.

Lan Wangji knew without being told that his husband often joined such patrols. Wei Ying seemed to labor day and night, seeking new methods to ensure their safety. Two weeks after the attack, Lan Wangji had had enough.

"You need to sleep," he told his husband.

Wen Qing had finally allowed him to leave the bed, so he was celebrating his freedom from a chair in the sitting room. The brazier was burning, and it was quite warm. Even so, Wei Ying had piled two blankets over Lan Wangji's lap. He eyed the bedroom as if he planned to fetch a third. Lan Wangji reached out and laid a hand over his husband's.

They touched often and freely now. It couldn't be helped. Lan Wangji had recovered enough to stand on his own and change most of his clothing without assistance. The wound had sealed fully, and no more bandages were required. But the internal tissues were still healing. If he raised his arms above his head, his stomach ached.

His husband had taken to helping him with his grooming. He tied Lan Wangji's forehead ribbon and fixed the lotus pin in place each morning. At night, he removed both items and tucked them away. Then he combed out Lan Wangji's hair. Sometimes, he rested his hands on Lan Wangji's shoulders as he talked. When he finished, he tucked Lan Wangji chastely into bed. Wei Ying never claimed so much as a brief kiss in return. He didn't seem to mind casual touches, though. It was no longer difficult or embarrassing to take his hand. Lan Wangji did so now.

"Wei Ying," he said firmly. "We are all safe. You must rest."

His husband smiled. He liked being referred to by his given name; Lan Wangji had discovered that already. He had also discovered that he liked the way Wei Ying's name felt in his mouth.

"I told you already." He gave Lan Wangji's hand a squeeze. "I don't actually have to sleep."

"That does not mean it isn't beneficial." Lan Wangji's brows drew together. "You have used up a great deal of qi in the last two weeks. It must be replenished."

His recovery was going well, and he no longer needed transfers of spiritual energy. Wen Qing insisted that his own golden core could repair the remaining damage. Once he healed, he would have to spend some time rebuilding his stamina. But within a few months, his strength would be restored. Wei Ying had seemed particularly pleased to hear this.

Yet the fact remained that Wei Ying had spent weeks pouring spiritual energy into his husband's body. Lan Wangji knew that Wei Ying's core was unfathomably powerful, but he had spent so much qi. His stores must be diminished. Sleep and food would help replenish them.

"Are you eating?" he pressed.

Wei Ying burst out laughing.

"Aiyah. You sound like Granny!" He rolled his eyes fondly. "And yes, she's been feeding me. She says she misses her top pupil, though."

Lan Wangji had missed her, too. He'd seen her only once since his injury. After he first woke from his induced coma, she demanded to see the patient with her own two eyes. Wen Qing had forbidden visitors, but even she was temporarily cowed by her grandmother's demands. She allowed Granny Wen to sit by his bedside for a while. Granny patted his hair and gazed at him with anxious, maternal eyes. It had been a long time since anyone looked at Lan Wangji that way. He found he liked it.

"I will return to my lessons as soon as I can," he promised.

Wei Ying sighed as he rose to his feet.

"You don't have to!" He reached across the table for the comb and hair oil. "There are other people who can do the cooking. It doesn't have to be you."

Lan Wangji chose to ignore this remark.

"I will resume my lessons," he insisted. "As soon as Wen Qing gives her permission."

He enjoyed the time he spent with Granny Wen and her kitchen staff. There was a strong camaraderie among the Wens who worked in the kitchens. They had taken Lan Wangji under their wing, brought him into their jokes and their playful rivalries. Lan Wangji had been somewhat surprised to discover that he liked it. Still, preparing meals for his husband was his favorite kitchen activity. Wei Ying insisted that he didn't need to trouble himself with such things, but Lan Wangji was unwilling to surrender this particular task.

Wei Ying didn't argue. As he took down Lan Wangji's hair—his movements slow and steady—he hummed to himself.

"Wen Qing said you're doing a lot better." He uncorked the vial of oil and spread some across his palms. "But she thinks you should stay off your feet for a couple more weeks."

Lan Wangji frowned over that as his husband patiently worked the oil through his hair.

"I can resume the children's indoor lessons," Lan Wangji decided. "And I can grade the disciples' papers. I will not need to be on my feet to accomplish that."

He disliked giving up his sword exercises, yet he couldn't argue with Wen Qing's admonitions. She was correct: there was no sense straining his golden core. His qi was still stabilizing and his body needed more time to repair the damaged tissues. If he rushed back into sword practice, he would only slow his recovery. It would be foolish and counterproductive to overtax himself.

But he couldn't lie around his chambers for the next several weeks. He must find something to do, and the children needed him. They required help with their calligraphy and history lessons. The disciples' compositions had piled up, waiting to be graded. Lan Wangji could tend to those tasks during his recovery. Surely Wen Qing would agree that grading papers wasn't unduly strenuous.

He said so, and his husband laughed.

"Yes, yes. You can do that!" He heaved a theatrical sigh. "If you absolutely insist, you can go back to giving lessons."

Wei Ying worked the comb through his hair, then tugged playfully on a stray lock.

"Ah, I don't know what's wrong with you. You should milk this, you know. Lounge around on your bed! Demand that we wait on you hand and foot! Keep us busy delivering your meals and brewing your tea!"

"I have had enough of that."

He'd spent enough time lying against the sheets while others scurried, bringing him congee and airing out the quilts. After two weeks of recuperation, Lan Wangji was heartily sick of his bed. If he never saw that particular piece of furniture again, he'd be quite satisfied.

As for being waited upon…

It was nice, Lan Wangji admitted privately. It was nice to have his husband lingering in his rooms. Wei Ying sat with him as he ate his meals. He helped Lan Wangji comb and fasten back his hair. He read aloud from books and talked with Lan Wangji about his favorite poems. Wei Ying was always close at hand, always rushing to fetch anything he needed.

Perhaps it was selfish, but Lan Wangji had enjoyed being the object of his husband's undivided attention. He didn't particularly want to give it up. Yet he wanted to recover, so he could wait on his husband in turn. He wanted to cook for Wei Ying, to help him with his shaving. He wanted to play the guqin for his husband, sing for him, read to him. He'd promised Wen Qing that he would look after his husband. Lan Wangji was impatient to assume those duties. He hoped she would restore his privileges soon.

"How is Song Zichen?" he asked, after a brief silence.

Wei Ying sighed again as he sectioned off Lan Wangji's hair.

"He's better. Wen Qing managed to restore some of his vision, but not all of it." A thread of tension crept into Wei Ying's voice. "He says he can live with what's left, but I have a plan."

Lan Wangji turned in his chair. It wasn't comfortable: the movement tugged upon his healing injuries. He winced, and Wei Ying hurried to circle the chair so they were face to face.

"Wei Ying. Please share it."

Lan Wangji took care to speak calmly. There was something about husband's expression that made him decidedly nervous, but it wouldn't do to say so. Nowadays, even his gentlest reproaches made Wei Ying wince. His husband grimaced at the comb in his hands before laughing humorlessly.

"Well. I guess I can't really refuse that request."

Lan Wangji took a deep, careful breath.

"You can," he insisted. "But I would prefer if you told me what you were planning."

Wei Ying still felt guilty about keeping secrets. Lan Wangji knew that. But he didn't want to wrest further secrets out of Wei Ying by leveraging his guilt. He didn't require unconditional honesty as a form of reparation. Lan Wangji simply wanted his husband's trust, his husband's confidence. Wei Ying tried to take too much responsibility onto his own shoulders, and that wasn't right. Not when Wei Ying had a husband who wished to share his burdens.

Wei Ying turned the comb over in his hands. He traced the design—a lotus carved into soft wood—with his thumbnail.

"The part of his eyes that got damaged… it's the outer part." He waved a hand under his own dark, clear eyes. "Just the thin surface of the eye. Wen Qing has found a way to replace it. It's experimental, but she's sure it would work."

Lan Wangji digested that.

"Replace it with what?"

"An undamaged lens." Wei Ying paused. He glanced up at Lan Wangji. "From a dead body."

Lan Wangji had survived a war against Wen Ruohan, then married Yiling Patriarch. For the last two years, he had seen walking corpses on a daily basis. It would be foolish to shrink back from this particular suggestion, so Lan Wangji didn't. But his stomach clenched anyway. He kept his face carefully blank.

"Wouldn't that part of the body deteriorate quickly?"

Wei Ying shook his head.

"I can keep it from deteriorating."

He sounded utterly certain of his abilities, and Lan Wangji had no reason to doubt him. The walking corpses of the Burial Mounds were old, yet perfectly preserved. Clearly there was a way to prevent bodies from rotting. His husband must be capable of doing exactly what he proposed. Lan Wangji weighed his words and strove to keep his voice neutral.

"Where would you find a donor body?"

"I already have one."

Wei Ying rose to his feet abruptly. He tried to resume the hair-combing, but Lan Wangji touched his husband's arm. Gently, he guided Wei Ying back into his chair. He knew of one particular corpse that must be residing in the Burial Mounds. If Wei Ying proposed to use that body, they must speak of this further. Lan Wangji refused to sweep the matter beneath the rug. He stared into his husband's eyes. Wei Ying surveyed his expression and let out a sigh.

"I kept it safe," he murmured. "Just in case. What if things went wrong with Wen Qing's treatments? What if you needed something, or Song Lan needed something? If that happened, I thought he should be the one to give it."

His brow furrowed, his eyes darkening.

"That's only fair, isn't it?" There was a cold, forbidding edge to his voice. "It's only justice. Fixing what he's broken."

Lan Wangji considered the matter. But an honest response was out of the question. Their situation was a truly exceptional one, and Lan Wangji wasn't even sure what 'justice' might look like in this case. He tried another approach.

"You must ask Song Zichen if this is what he wants,."

Wei Ying made a soft, irritated sound. His shoulders slouched and he rubbed his nose.

"I think he'd say no."

"Then that would be his choice." Lan Wangji took another deep breath. "For my part, I would rather Xue Yang's body was laid to rest permanently."

He wanted the man's body destroyed, purged from the world. He didn't want Wei Ying to raise the corpse for further interrogations, or as part of a counterplot against the Jins. He didn't want to look upon the corpse ever again. Above all, he never wanted to carry part of Xue Yang within his own body. Song Zichen would surely feel the same way.

Wei Ying claimed that Wen Qing had restored some of the man's vision. The rest, Lan Wangji knew, might return in time. A strong golden core could heal most injuries, and Song Zichen surely possessed a healthy, robust core. He had Wen Qing's skill at his disposal. Wei Ying could contribute spiritual energy. With medical care and spiritual infusions, his vision might return.

If it didn't, Song Zichen could learn to live with partial blindness. Lan Wangji had heard that cultivators sometimes gained new abilities after losing one of their senses. Their hearing sharpened, their qi blossomed, or their sensitivity to spiritual creatures increased. The body found ways to acclimate. Wei Ying didn't need to resort to drastic measures, not when Song Zichen could enjoy a long life without them.

Wei Ying's mouth tightened. He set aside the comb, curling his hands around the arms of the chair.

"Are you horrified to discover that his body isn't at rest?" He tilted his head. "That I've been keeping it warm and fresh, ready to carve it open so Wen Qing can perform a transplant?"

His voice was cool and detached. But after months of marriage, Lan Wangji finally understood his husband's sudden shifts in moods. When Wei Ying felt vulnerable, he pulled away. If he anticipated criticism or expected a counterattack, he found refuge in cold detachment. Perhaps it had spared him the pain of rejection, when he was young. Lan Wangji had similar mannerisms that he deployed when he felt uncomfortable or ill at ease. He refused to take offense to such behavior now. So he merely shook his head.

"No."

Wei Ying lifted his brows.

"No?" he echoed.

Lan Wangji shook his head again.

"I understand your logic," he admitted. "Xue Yang caused my injuries, along with Song Zichen's. He should be held responsible for his crimes. If he wished to keep his own body intact, he should not have damaged the bodies of others. He has forfeited his rights."

Lan Wangji could almost hear his uncle muttering protests in his ear. But he banished Uncle's grumbling disagreements. According to the laws of Cloud Recesses, what Lan Wangji proposed was incorrect. Even convicted criminals were meant to receive proper burial rites. Yet they were not in Cloud Recesses. This was his husband's domain. Here in the Burial Mounds, the Yiling Patriarch had the right to punish criminals as he saw fit.

When he looked into his own heart, Lan Wangji found that he cared little about the sanctity of Xue Yang's corpse. The man had slaughtered hundreds. He blinded Song Lan, attacked Lan Wangji, held a knife to A-Qing's throat. Lan Wangji had no mercy left for that man. Perhaps he would manage to rest peacefully in the afterworld, or perhaps he'd endure centuries of torment as a restless ghost. Either way, Xue Yang must face the consequences of his own actions. The fate of his soul wasn't Lan Wangji's concern.

"But I want nothing from him," he added softly. "If Song Zichen feels as I do, then we should dispose of the body quickly. Let it be cremated and the ashes scattered."

It would be better that way, Lan Wangji thought. The man's corpse would be destroyed. His short, vicious life would be forgotten. There seemed no worse punishment for a man like Xue Yang. If he knew that his victims had moved on and forgotten him, he would surely gnash his teeth. He would be outraged to know that his victims took nothing from him—wanted nothing from him—even after his death.

Bit by bit, Wei Ying's hands relaxed around the chair. He was silent for a long moment, his face tense. Then he nodded and his expression smoothed out.

"I'll ask him, then."

He didn't sound enthused at the prospect. Still, his voice was calm and honest. Lan Wangji knew his husband would keep his word. Wei Ying took up the comb once more. He circled the chair and resumed his work. Lan Wangji let him work in silence for a while. Then he spoke again.

"It is only Xue Yang who bears responsibility." He kept his voice soft. "Do you understand that?"

The comb slowed its strokes. Wei Ying was very quiet.

"If I'd handled things better," he spoke roughly, "when he first came to me…"

"He bears the responsibility for his choices," Lan Wangji broke in. "He alone bears the blame. No one else."

He wanted to turn and look into his husband's eyes, but he sensed that it might be better this way. Wei Ying was still restless and miserable when they spoke of such things. He wouldn't like to have this conversation face to face. So Lan Wangji let his husband work, focusing on each stroke of the comb.

"A-Qing also tried to take responsibility for what happened," he added. "I told her what I am telling you. No one but Xue Yang is at fault."

Wei Ying made an exasperated sound as he applied another dash of oil.

"That kid!"

He smoothed a hand over Lan Wangji's hair with a sigh. Lan Wangji felt that he was shaking his head ruefully.

"You told me once that she reminded you of someone," Lan Wangji remarked.

He let his curiosity show in his voice, and Wei Ying groaned.

"Yes, yes. I was talking about myself!"

Wei Ying set the comb aside again. He ran his fingers through Lan Wangji's hair, and his thumb brushed carelessly against Lan Wangji's neck. It took effort for Lan Wangji to slow his breaths.

"I don't have too many memories from when I was her age." Wei Ying's voice grew low. "But I'm pretty sure I was a lot like her."

"Have you considered adopting her?"

He had itched to ask this question for months, but he'd never found an auspicious time. The longer Lan Wangji dwelt on the question, the more absurd it felt. His husband didn't need to adopt any of the children in the Burial Mounds. He was their guardian and patron; they were his wards and students; they belonged to him already. Now they belonged to Lan Wangji in the same way. It ought to be enough.

But as the weeks passed, Lan Wangji found himself wishing for a formalized arrangement. It was pleasant to have students, yet he would rather have sons and daughters.

"I've considered it." Wei Ying spoke with careful deliberation. "She's more Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan's kid than mine, though. They found her, and she's closest to them. Come to think of it, I should bully them into a formal adoption!"

He rounded the chair again and sat down. Lan Wangji watched as Wei Ying busied himself with changing the incense and freshening their cups of tea.

"What about the others?" he tried. "They are also orphans. Of course, A-Yuan has his extended family…"

Wei Ying shook his head, pushing a teacup in Lan Wangji's direction.

"It's not that." He shrugged and took a sip from his own cup. "Like you said, he's an orphan too. The Wen name can be a burden nowadays. They all know that. It's why they don't use their name anywhere but here."

Wei Ying fell silent.

"I don't think the Wens would object if I wanted to adopt A-Yuan." He peered morosely into his teacup. "It's not like I'd be taking him away from his family."

Lan Wangji left his own tea untouched. He wasn't thirsty, and it was far more interesting to watch the ripple of emotion across his husband's face. Wei Ying seemed to sense his scrutiny. He lowered his teacup and looked away. For a moment, he seemed to have no intention of saying anything more. Then he spoke quickly, the words tumbling out.

"I haven't adopted any of the kids," he said, "because I didn't feel like I'd be a good father."

Lan Wangji frowned.

"Why?"

Wei Ying blinked and gave him an indecipherable look. He seemed almost bewildered. Then his eyes softened.

"Sometimes you ask me questions I don't know how to answer," Wei Ying grumbled, toeing at the floor. "I'm not even keeping secrets anymore, and it's still hard to come up with an answer!"

He turned away and finished his tea. Wei Ying was deliberately taking his time, emptying the cup in small sips. Lan Wangji could be patient, though. Perhaps his patience was even greater than that of the Immortal Yiling Patriarch. So he waited, and his husband finally sighed.

"I don't remember my parents well," he said tersely. "They died when I was very young. Afterward, I didn't have anybody to look after me."

Wei Ying looked away. His jaw tightened.

"I was alone for a long time." His hands flexed on his lap. "Then Xiao Xingchen found me, and he took me to Baoshan Sanren."

He was still holding something back. Lan Wangji waited some more. His husband shifted restlessly and stared at the wall. Then he let out a heavy sigh.

"I was already an immortal by then." His voice was very quiet. "It sort of happened by accident."

Lan Wangji stared. His breath caught in his chest as he tried to do the arithmetic. He wasn't entirely sure of his husband's age, but he gathered that Wei Ying was Xiao Xingchen's junior by just a few years. Xiao Xingchen was hardly six years older than Lan Wangji.

Wei Ying had become an immortal very young, then. He must have been astonishingly young. He might be the youngest cultivator to ever achieve immortality. Perhaps most would consider it a praiseworthy feat, but something itched against Lan Wangji's mind. He wondered what his husband meant by It sort of happened by accident.

"You must have been very young," he said, carefully.

Wei Ying tilted his head.

"I would have been…" He trailed off with a wince. "Gods, I don't know. I'm bad at keeping track of my age. And I don't even have the excuse of being a forgetful old man!"

He was striving for levity. Lan Wangji would have liked to help his husband break the tension, but it was impossible to joke about such a grave topic. He curled his hands around the teacup and watched the play of emotions across his husband's face. Wei Ying shifted in his seat. 

"I was twelve." Wei Ying stared down at his knees. "I think I was about twelve."

Lan Wangji's breath caught again. The air had suddenly vanished from his lungs.

Twelve. Wei Ying wouldn't even have reached his adult height by that age. He would have been far more of a child than a man. His golden core would likely have been only a few years old. To cultivate to immortality that quickly…

Lan Wangji held the teacup so tightly, he nearly shattered it in his hands. When the porcelain threatened to crack, he set the cup aside. He laid his hands upon his knees and tried to take deep, even breaths.

Wei Ying must have developed his core very young. Perhaps he had been like Lan Wangji, a prodigy who formed his core at the age of six. But that was not a satisfactory explanation. Natural talent only went so far, and even the most gifted young disciple couldn't be expected to cultivate to immortality as an adolescent. There must be a story behind Wei Ying's ascension, and Lan Wangji was suddenly afraid to ask for it.

"Did you remain with Baoshan Sanren afterward?"

Lan Wangji swallowed hard as the question left his mouth. He hoped the answer would be 'yes', and he knew the answer would be 'no'. His husband claimed he'd met his mother's master only once. Lan Wangji had received the impression that theirs was not a lengthy acquaintance. In that case, he couldn't have found shelter under the care of another immortal.

Wei Ying shook his head.

"Not for long." He picked at a loose thread near his sleeve. "She didn't want me to stay."

Lan Wangji's expression must have grown thunderous. Wei Ying glanced up, and he saw it. He waved his hands and spoke hurriedly.

"It was nothing personal! She wasn't trying to get rid of me, but our energies clashed. Our cultivation methods were just too different. She couldn't teach me much of anything. If I tried to stay with her, it would have been dangerous for both of us."

Lan Wangji clenched his fists, but he gave that some thought. After due consideration, he accepted the statement with a grudging nod. During the war, he had fought alongside many different cultivators. Some partnerships had been tolerably successful, while others had been disastrous. It was no easy thing, to endure cultivation methods at odds with one's own. If both cultivators were both immortal, the clash must be entirely overpowering. Perhaps Baoshan Sanren had no choice but to send Wei Ying away.

Even so, Lan Wangji's heart ached for his husband. Wei Ying's parents were dead and he had no living family. He had no home, no one to turn to except his mother's master. If she rejected him, where was he meant to go? He had been a child.

"She tried to help me as much as she could." Wei Ying's voice was calm and blank. "She taught me some methods for controlling my qi, and she made my sword. She gave me my courtesy name. But after that, I had to leave."

Lan Wangji swallowed hard and listened.

"I went back to the Burial Mounds. I didn't really know where else to go. Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan stayed with me for a while. They weren't much older than I was."

Wei Ying took an absentminded sip from an empty cup, and Lan Wangji hurried to refill it. His husband met his eyes and smiled. It was a sad smile, but Lan Wangji held it against his heart.

"They tried their best, though." Wei Ying shrugged. "They taught me sword fighting, and they brought me lots of books. I'd managed alone for a long time, so I could look after myself pretty well while they traveled. Once I got older, I had more control over my powers. So I traveled with them for a while."

Again, Lan Wangji tried to perform the necessary calculations. Again, he failed.

His husband must have been very young when he was left to fend for himself. Lan Wangji felt a prickle of resentment toward Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan. Had they really left to roam the world, leaving Wei Ying behind?

They would have been young too, Lan Wangji allowed. If they were only sixteen or seventeen, they would have found it difficult to raise any child. Caring for a young immortal would've been entirely beyond their abilities. They could hardly be expected to act as parents to an immensely powerful child, only slightly younger than themselves. Yet Lan Wangji felt hot and desperate and angry. He hated the thought of his husband 'managing' by himself.

"I sort of raised myself." Wei Ying gave another economical shrug. "What do I know about fatherhood, anyway?"

"You love the children," Lan Wangji said swiftly. "You provide for their needs. You teach them what you can, and you ask others to teach what you can't. You want what is best for them. In the ways that matter, you are already their father."

He spoke rather heatedly, but he felt sure that he had spoken truthfully. The children adored Wei Ying. They trusted him, admired him, and sought out his attention.

They didn't call him 'father.' Lan Wangji had observed that already. They didn't even call him 'master,' as the older disciples did. Wei Ying had evidently taught the young children to call him 'gege.' He walked a careful line, spoiling and playing with them like an elder brother.

But he took a keen interest in their health. He knew everything about their abilities, and he was anxious to ensure that they received a proper education. When Wei Ying spoke of the children or the disciples, his conversation was inexhaustible. He could talk for hours, telling stories of their past and planning for their future. The children and the disciples were clearly precious to him. Wei Ying knew something about fatherhood, even if he believed otherwise.

Wei Ying studied his face. Lan Wangji fought the urge to flush under such scrutiny. His husband looked as though he'd just realized something.

"Do you want to adopt some of them?" His voice was cautious.

Lan Wangji hesitated for a split-second. The answer—yes—leaped onto his tongue at once, but it seemed terribly blunt.

He wanted to have complete honesty in his marriage, though. Wei Ying had tried so hard to be forthright over the last two weeks. He even shared painful information about his childhood. If Lan Wangji tried to dodge the question, it would be a poor repayment.

"Yes," he admitted.

"Which ones?" Wei Ying asked slowly.

Lan Wangji did not respond, and Wei Ying's brows rose.

"All of them?" He blinked.

"It is not right to exclude anyone," Lan Wangji murmured.

His husband gave a soft, startled laugh.

"If they preferred to retain their family names," Lan Wangji added, "I would understand. I would not force them to disown their natal families. But I would accept any of the children or disciples who wished to be adopted."

Most of the children had been orphaned or abandoned in infancy. Aside from A-Yuan, they had no ties to their natal family. Several lacked a surname. In his heart, Lan Wangji felt sure that they would be eager to take the Wei name. They would jump at the chance to have parents and siblings, an official family of their very own. But if they hesitated to break ties with their natal family, Lan Wangji was prepared to respect their decision.

Wei Ying's lips parted. He stared at the teapot with a furrowed brow.

"With me?"

There was an uncharacteristic hesitance in his voice, and it was Lan Wangji's turn to blink.

"You think we should adopt them together?" Wei Ying prompted. "Formally? As a married couple?"

Lan Wangji knotted his fingers in his lap.

"I would prefer that arrangement," he allowed. "However, it is your decision."

The thought of being excluded from the proceedings made his stomach churn. It wasn't right: a married man always adopted children with his spouse. For Wei Ying to adopt the children but deny Lan Wangji the same rites…such an arrangement was unheard of. If his husband adopted children, they should become Lan Wangji's children too.

Yet Lan Wangji didn't want to force his husband's hand. He had only lived at the Burial Mounds for a few months. The children had grown close to him during that time, but he didn't want to force an adoption. No matter how much he wished to take the children on his lap and hear them call him 'Father.'

Wei Ying stared at his hands. He ran a thumb absently over his knuckles.

"You're really going to stick around, aren't you."

He sounded faintly bewildered. Lan Wangji couldn't understand why. He thought this matter had been decided days ago. Wei Ying had offered to let him return to his natal sect, and Lan Wangji had refused. He told his husband he intended to honor the terms of his marriage and remain in his new home. So naturally, he wished to claim his husband's adopted children. Naturally, he wanted to raise their children together. Any other arrangement would be absurd, unthinkable.

"We are married," Lan Wangji reminded his husband. "Regardless of the circumstances of our betrothal, we took our bows together. That means something to me."

He would have honored his vows even if he felt no affection for his husband. When Lan Wangji left Cloud Recesses, he had prepared himself for just such a future. He was prepared to do his duty and strive to be a faithful husband. Marriage was sacred, and it would be shameful to do anything less.

But Wei Ying wasn't just the man with whom Lan Wangji had bowed before heaven and earth. He was so much more. Wei Ying was the husband Lan Wangji would have chosen, had he been given the opportunity to make an independent choice. If they'd met before the war, Wei Ying would have captured his heart. He would have married Wei Ying willingly and taken joy in fulfilling his marriage vows. So he couldn't turn his back on Wei Ying now. It was quite impossible. He might as well try to split his soul in two.

Wei Ying didn't raise his eyes from his lap. Lan Wangji shifted anxiously. He thought Wei Ying seemed distressed, but he didn't know how to comfort his husband.

"You have offered to let me return to Cloud Recesses, without blame or dishonor." He reached out and touched Wei Ying's hand. "I appreciate that offer. But it is not what I want. That place is no longer my home."

It wasn't painful to utter the words: they were a simple truth. Part of Lan Wangji's life had belonged to Cloud Recesses. But that part had ended, and a new chapter had begun. Lan Wangji couldn't go back to his natal sect. He didn't want to.

Wei Ying's eyes fixed on Lan Wangji's hand. On his arm, his feet, his blanket-covered lap. He couldn't seem to force his eyes toward Lan Wangji's face.

"I will always care for my brother and my uncle." Lan Wangji took a deep breath. "They will always be my kin. Yet I am not a part of the Lan clan anymore, and I don't wish to be. My first allegiance is not to them. It is to my husband and his family."

He didn't know if his husband had a family registry. Wei Ying was an orphan with no surviving blood relatives. He had yet to adopt any children. Lan Wangji suspected that his husband had seen no need for a registry. But every respectable household ought to have one. Every marriage, birth, and adoption must be formally recorded. There had already been a marriage. They should create a registry and place their names within.

Lan Wangji realized that he'd like to see his name in the Wei registry. He wanted to trace the lines of ink connecting his name to his husband and to their children. He wanted the comfortable knowledge that his name would remain within that registry for eternity. He wanted to be remembered not only as Hanguang-Jun, but as the Yiling Patriarch's husband.

Wei Ying shut his eyes and swallowed hard. He turned his hand over, clasping Lan Wangji's, and swallowed again.

"The kids will need courtesy names, then." His voice was rather thick. "I'm bad at naming things, so you'll have to help!"

"I have thought of some names already," Lan Wangji confessed.

That wrung a laugh out of Wei Ying, even as he swiped a hand over his eyes.

"Oh, have you? My husband has such wisdom and foresight! Do you have a list? Show it to me!"

Lan Wangji did have a list. It was tucked carefully into his desk, hidden beneath a sheaf of blank papers. His husband fetched it, and they reviewed the names together. They chose a courtesy name for each child, then discussed plans for an adoption ceremony. It was the most pleasant evening Lan Wangji had ever spent.

But hai-shi drew near and Wei Ying insisted that he must get some rest. He helped Lan Wangji over the bed, and he watched as Lan Wangji tucked the forehead ribbon and lotus pin into their pouch. He waited—as he always did—until Lan Wangji was beneath the covers. Once the ritual was complete, Wei Ying hesitated in the doorway.

"It means something to me, too," he whispered.

Then he extinguished the lamps with a gesture and ducked away. Lan Wangji was left alone in the darkened room. But there was a flame burning in his chest, and it kept him company throughout the long winter's night.

Chapter Text

The following day, Lan Wangji received the long-awaited permission to leave his chambers. Before he set off for the main hall, Wen Qing told him that he mustn't overexert himself. As it turned out, Lan Wangji had no opportunity to do so. Wei Ying stuck close to his side as the Wens converged upon them at breakfast. Everyone wished to see Lan Wangji, to speak to him, to wish him well in his recovery. The children, in particular, flung themselves at Lan Wangji.

They had been told that they must not climb on his lap just yet. None of the children were pleased by this mandate, but they made do by clutching at Lan Wangji's robes and leaning against his side. A-Yuan fastened himself to Lan Wangji's leg and wouldn't allow himself to be removed under any pretense.

Once they were settled, Lan Wangji prodded his husband. Wei Ying cleared his throat and summoned the attention of everyone in the hall. With great ceremony—and smiling eyes—he announced that he intended to adopt. Any children or disciples who wished to join the Wei clan would be accepted. The disciples glowed, radiant with pride. It took the children a little longer to understand the impact of this announcement. But once Lan Wangji explained what 'adoption' meant, the children were deliriously excited.

Wei Ying had evidently found time to speak with Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen the previous night. After breakfast, he pulled A-Qing aside. The two cultivators wanted to adopt her, he said. They wanted to formalize the arrangement and officially become her fathers. Brash as she was, A-Qing was overwhelmed by this news. At once, she buried her face in Lan Wangji's robes. She did not reply. Then she sprinted off to Song Zichen's sickroom. She didn't return for the rest of the day.

The Wens greeted the news of the adoption with warm approval. They seemed eager to arrange the ceremony, and half the morning was given over to planning.

Very few formalities would be required. Wei Ying would begin by bestowing the children's courtesy names. Then the children would troop into the ancestral hall and bow before the altar. They would make offerings to their new grandparents; thus, they would officially join the Wei clan. The ceremony itself would take less than half a shi. But the Wens insisted that there must be a banquet afterward. The children must have new clothes, too.

Lan Wangji discovered that their robes were nearly complete. The Wens had finished most of the children's new clothing during Lan Wangji's convalescence. The rest would be ready within a fortnight. After hearing this, Granny Wen consulted her almanac. She found an auspicious date, five weeks ahead. The date was suitable for beginning a new endeavor or making additions to a family.

Five weeks seemed plenty of time to plan a small celebration, and Lan Wangji was in no hurry to begin choosing dishes or picking out decorations. But the Wens rushed to start their preparations. As he listened to the clamor of voices, Lan Wangji took a moment to savor the peculiarity of the situation. When he woke up that morning, he had no children. Yet within a month, he would have nine.

Ten, perhaps. A-Yuan seemed to take it for granted that his 'gege' would soon become his 'baba.' When A-Yuan began speaking of his own part in the adoption ceremony, Lan Wangji shared an anxious glance with Wei Ying. He would gladly accept A-Yuan, but the boy wasn't like the other children. The rest were orphans, bereft of even the most distant relations. A-Yuan had plenty of aunts, uncles, and cousins. He had a living grandmother, too. Lan Wangji feared they would be reluctant to give him up to another clan.

He joined his husband, hastily drawing aside Wen Qing and Granny Wen. Lan Wangji was surprised to find that the Wens offered no objection to the adoption.

"What's the difference?" Wen Qing huffed. "He'll still live here. We'll see him every day. Auntie Jiao will teach him arithmetic. Granny will cook his meals. A-Ning will try to stop him from dragging his sleeves through his soup during every meal. I'll take care of him when he's sick."

She gave an eloquent shrug.

"He'll still be our family. Changing his last name won't make any difference."

Granny Wen reinforced this statement with an emphatic nod. Lan Wangji received the impression that the two had firmly made up their minds.

An adoption would make a difference, though. It was possible for A-Yuan to honor two sets of parents in this lifetime. There was no need for him to neglect his natal family, and Lan Wangji would never stop him from showing obeisance to the Wens. But if A-Yuan had children, they would honor Wei Ying and Lan Wangji as their grandparents. A-Yuan's birth parents would be set aside, his ties to the Wens dissolved by the next generation.

Yet the Wens didn't seem to mind. Lan Wangji realized—with a certain measure of sorrow—that the Wens wished for their name to die out. Perhaps they were anxious to join another clan and see their children assume a different identity. After all, Wen Ruohan had brought infamy to his own clan. Those who bore the Wen surname were no longer safe in the cultivation world. If the Wens' descendants ever wished to leave the Burial Mounds, they couldn't carry their name with them. They would be infinitely safer if they were known as Weis.

Lan Wangji bowed his head and accepted their decision. If nothing else, he was relieved that A-Yuan wouldn't feel excluded. Lan Wangji chose to focus on the children's joy and forget the rest.

Wei Ying was full of plans for the adoption ceremony. He intended to use the adoption to confer a sword on his third-eldest disciple. Baoshan Sanren had given him a secret manual that explained the secret of changing ordinary blades into spiritual weapons. The process, he said, was not as difficult as it might seem. But it took time, and he would need to begin at once. He promised that Lan Wangji could help with this task.

They agreed to bestow other gifts on the children, too. The storehouse held plenty of books, jewelry, and cultivation tools. Lan Wangji was eager to sift through the shelves and find meaningful presents. Yet this task would have to wait. He promised Wen Qing that he'd sit quietly for a few more days, and he'd made a similar promise to his husband. In the meantime, they must speak to Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen. The time had come to discuss the threat posed by the Jins.

After lunch, Lan Wangji followed his husband down the hall toward the pair's bedchamber. They evicted A-Qing and sent her off to play with the other children. Once they were alone, Wei Ying slapped privacy talismans against the walls to ensure that no one could overhear their conversation. Then they gathered around the table for tea. Lan Wangji studied Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen closely. 

Song Zichen was well enough to roam at will, but Wen Qing had instructed him to proceed slowly. He was still adapting to his altered vision. It would take time for him to navigate the settlement without help. But Lan Wangji saw that he was in surprisingly good health and spirits. He was well-groomed and clean-shaven, and his bandages had been removed. There was a slight cloudiness to his eyes. He could track movement, though. His eyesight had been preserved well enough that he could easily discern objects within arm's reach. He poured their tea without spilling a drop.

Xiao Xingchen, however, had grown pale. Lan Wangji perceived that the man had lost weight since they last met. As Song Zichen served the tea, Xiao Xingchen lingered at his husband's side. He seemed unwilling to take his eyes off Song Zichen for more than a few seconds.

Once the tea had been poured, Xiao Xingchen gradually settled down. He turned his attention to Lan Wangji.

"We're glad to see that you're recovering so well!" He studied Lan Wangji's face with a kind, intent focus. "We were very worried about you."

Lan Wangji inclined his head politely.

"Wen Qing and my husband have worked hard."

Xiao Xingchen gave him a wry smile.

"They have," he agreed.

“Too hard,” Song Zichen added.

He cast a meaningful look in Wei Ying's direction. Though his eyes had been damaged, his gaze was sharp enough. Wei Ying sighed, slouching his shoulders.

"You were right," he stage-whispered to Lan Wangji. "He said no."

Lan Wangji grimaced. It appeared that his husband had found time to discuss more than A-Qing's adoption. He had suggested the eye transplant, too. Song Zichen's expression made his feelings on the matter quite clear.

“I appreciate you asking me.” There was an edge of irony in Song Zichen's voice. "Rather than simply knocking me out and performing the operation on my unconscious body."

Xiao Xingchen made a distressed noise, but Wei Ying huffed a quiet laugh.

"Well, my husband seemed to think that would be a bad idea!" He slanted a glance at Lan Wangji. "I'm trying this new approach. I tell him all my plans, then defer to his wisdom if he tells me I'm headed down the wrong path."

Heat creep up the back of Lan Wangji's neck as Xiao Xingchen's face softened into a smile.

"Good. That's smart." Song Zichen took a measured sip of his tea. "I'm also glad that you concluded he's not likely to throttle you in your sleep."

Wei Ying choked on his tea. Lan Wangji thanked his lucky stars he hadn't taken a sip from his own cup. If he had, he might have choked too. The flush against his throat deepened and spread.

The smile slipped from Xiao Xingchen's lips. He looked toward Lan Wangji, his eyes troubled.

"We didn't understand Wei Wuxian's true reasons for conducting this marriage." He folded his hands on his lap, his brows furrowing. "If we had, we would have advised a different path."

He coupled this remark with a pointed glance toward Wei Ying. Lan Wangji recognized the subtle reproach in Xiao Xingcheng's eyes. He had an older brother of his own, after all.

"You didn't even discuss this with us," Song Zichen grumbled.

Wei Ying groaned.

"We've been over this!" He ducked his head. "I didn't tell you because I knew you'd try to talk me out of it."

Song Zichen responded to this statement with a flat stare. He turned to Lan Wangji.

"He thinks that's a compelling counter-argument" His voice was full of dry incredulity.

Wei Ying gave another agonized moan.

"Yes, yes!" He scratched the back of his neck. "I have been scolded by everybody! I was very stupid, we're all in agreement."

"It isn't that you are stupid." Xiao Xingchen frowned down at the table. "Of course, it's clear that something must be done about this situation. The Jin sect seems to be determined to do you harm. We can't allow that."

A hint of steel entered his gentle voice. Song Zichen reached for his husband's hand under the table.  Xiao Xingchen squeezed it tenderly, and Lan Wangji hastily averted his eyes.

"Naturally, you expected another attack, and you were suspicious of any newcomer," Xiao Xingchen added. "But deliberately marrying someone you thought might be a spy or an assassin…"

He let out a sigh. Then he gave Wei Ying another reproving look. Lan Wangji, however, received a kind smile.

"I'm certainly relieved you were wrong about Hanguang-Jun's character. Though I can't say I'm surprised!"

The embarrassed heat in Lan Wangji's ears softened into a gentle warmth. Somehow, he was desperately relieved to find that the two cultivators had harbored no suspicions against him. During their first visit, they had been polite and respectful. There had been a slight distance in their manner, though. They hardly seemed to know what to make of him.

Now, they seemed determined to look upon him as a friend. Lan Wangji discovered that he enjoyed that a great deal. But the warm, teasing atmosphere didn't last. It was impossible to forget what had drawn them into this room. After a moment, Lan Wangji saw Xiao Xingchen's smile fade. His eyes grew troubled. Song Zichen sat motionless beside him, sipping his tea.

"Do you think the Jins know that Xue Yang is dead yet?" Song Zichen asked, after a delicate pause.

Wei Ying gave one of his knife-edged smiles as he poured out another round of tea.

"Well, I haven't told them!"

He shrugged, glancing thoughtfully toward the window.

"They might be thinking he got distracted or that he decided to cause trouble somewhere else before wandering over here. I guess they'll figure out what happened when he doesn't come back!"

He knocked back a gulp of his tea.

"But it's not likely they do anything right away. Winter is here, and it's hard to get up the mountain. Once they figure out that Xue Yang failed in his mission, they'll expect us to be on guard. So I guess they'll plan their next strike for the spring or summer."

Lan Wangji absorbed that remark in silence.

His husband, he knew, had spoken logically. Once the Jins realized their operative had been captured or killed, they would proceed cautiously. They wouldn't rush into another attack against the Yiling Patriarch, not after putting him on high alert. The Jins probably would wait, delaying their next move until the spring thaw. In the meantime, they would gather strength and refine their plans.

Song Zichen's face clouded over. Lan Wangji saw that he was dissatisfied with the situation. He sympathized with Song Zichen. It was intolerable to wait for an enemy to attack.

"Will they risk sending another assassin here?" Xiao Xingchen wondered aloud.

Wei Ying tipped his head to the side. Then he shook it.

"Probably not. They've tried that a few times now, and it's never worked. I think they'll give up on that strategy." He emptied his cup and thumped it against the table. "I don't think they'll bother sending anyone to the Burial Mounds anymore. But I'm not sure what other plots they might think up."

Lan Wangji stared at the tea set. He reached back into his memory, considering everything knew of the Jins.

"The war against Wen Ruohan exhausted the cultivation world's forces," he began slowly. "Most of the sects are still rebuilding. They don't have the wealth or the manpower to mount a direct offensive. Not even against a lesser enemy."

The Jiang sect had lost a quarter of its cultivators. They still had quite a bit of wealth left from their silk trade and their dyes. But much of that wealth was needed to restore burned buildings and recruit new cultivators. They had no resources left for another war.

Lan Wangji's natal sect had also suffered significant losses, and so had the Nie sect. Many of their most gifted cultivators were lost during the war. Each strike against Wen Ruohan had nibbled away at their treasuries, leaving them with a fraction of their previous wealth. Several smaller cultivation sects had been demolished altogether. Their forces had been wiped out, the few survivors finding a new home in one of the Great Sects.

The war had truly taken a grievous toll upon everyone. But throughout their years of suffering, the Jins had maintained their position. Lan Wangji knew that most of their forces had survived unscathed, primarily because Jin Guangshan hadn't sent many of his disciples to the front lines.

During the war, Nie Mingjue complained bitterly of their cowardice and selfishness. Compared to the other sects, the Jins' losses had been few: their abundant wealth remained, and they had surely used it to gain control over impoverished sects struggling to rebuild. Even the Jins had lost something, though. A few of their most gifted cultivators had perished on the battlefield, and after a disappointing harvest last spring, they had been forced to dip into their coffers. Their wealth and influence were great, but their assets weren't limitless. The Jins couldn't hope to stand alone in a war against the Yiling Patriarch.

"' A lesser enemy'! Why, thank you, husband." Wei Ying dipped a playful bow in Lan Wangji's direction. "May I take it I qualify as a greater enemy?"

Lan Wangji sighed. His husband was joking, but this was no laughing matter.

"You destroyed Wen Ruohan's entire army in half a shi," he pointed out. "The Jins know this. They witnessed it. They may fear or resent your power, but they know they can't match it in direct combat. Especially not now."

He shifted uneasily at the thought. In truth, he was surprised that the Jins had chosen to stir up conflict with his husband. It hardly seemed like an opportune time. The cultivation world was struggling to rebuild after one war, and surely nobody wanted to rush into another.

But perhaps the Jins had perceived a brief window of opportunity. The cultivation world had witnessed Wei Ying's immense power, and the memory of his casual annihilation of Wen Ruohan's forces was fresh. If the Jins hoped to turn the tide of public opinion—if they wanted to position themselves as the unquestioned leaders of the cultivation world—the time was now. The sects were vulnerable, and the common-folk were afraid. It wouldn't be difficult to whip them into a frenzy of fear and suspicion.

Without their intervention, the cultivation world might have warmed to Wei Ying. He might have become their savior, the benevolent immortal who had single-handedly ended a bloody war. Lan Wangji knew that Wen Ruohan's death had left a power vacuum. In time, someone would step forward to fill his shoes. If Jin Guangshan wanted to seize power for himself, he couldn't afford to wait.

Wei Ying tapped a finger against the table.

"Suppose Jin Guangshan dies," he began.

Xiao Xingchen twitched, and Song Lan set his cup down. Wei Ying held up his hands, his face the picture of innocence.

"Just suppose!" he cried. "I'm not planning anything. But they say he's been sick. Do you think it's true?"

He turned to Lan Wangji, raising a brow.

"I am not sure," Lan Wangji murmured.

He hadn't seen Jin Guangshan often during the war. When asked to appear at the front, Jin Guangshan always had an excuse. Nie Mingjue stormed and fumed over each delay. He growled that the man was clearly a craven, afraid of risking his own safety on the battlefield.

But if Jin Guangshan had been concealing a debilitating sickness, that would explain his behavior. Lan Wangji frowned. He had taken it for granted that Jin Guangshan was indeed a coward. The man had always been quick to look out for his own interests and slow to help others. His unwillingness to risk his safety was wholly in character. Yet perhaps his health wasn't as robust as Lan Wangji had supposed.

"His golden core was never exceptionally strong." Lan Wangji studied the surface of his tea. "He secured the position of Chief Cultivator after Wen Ruohan's defeat, yet everyone understood this was due to his wealth and prestige, not his cultivation abilities."

He paused.

"Jin Guangshan is also the type to indulge in pleasure to excess. It may have weakened his constitution."

His husband snorted, and Lan Wangji couldn't blame him. Jin Guangshan's hedonism was an open secret. He enjoyed wine and women, and he indulged in vast quantities of both. From the time he was a young disciple, Jin Guangshan had been a true libertine. He was in his fifties now, having overindulged for decades. If his dissipation had damaged his health, Lan Wangji couldn't claim to be surprised.

Wei Ying scratched his chin.

"What about this son of his? Nobody seems to talk about him much." He gestured vaguely. "How much do you think he knows about these schemes?"

Lan Wangji furrowed his brow.

"I cannot say. I do not know Jin Zixuan well."

During the guest lectures at Cloud Recesses, Lan Wangji hadn't shared more than ten words with Jin Zixuan. He saw the Jin sect heir often during hunts and discussion conferences, but they did not socialize. Jin Zixuan was as aloof and standoffish as Lan Wangji himself. He seemed to find as much pleasure in parties as Lan Wangji did…which was to say, he found no pleasure in them at all.

Once the war started, Jin Guangshan had tried to keep his heir away from the front. Even so, Jin Zixuan had joined in several battles. Lan Wangji thought he had acquitted himself well. When the time came to draw his sword, Jin Zixuan didn't shrink back from the fighting. Unlike his father, he never made excuses to withdraw. He remained on the field until the battle was done. Afterward, he helped tend the wounded and arranged for fresh supplies.

As he worked, Jin Zixuan often seemed embarrassed. Lan Wangji had wondered if the young man was ashamed that his sect contributed so little to the war. If Jin Zixuan felt shamed by his sect's selfishness, then he was truly nothing like his father.

"I never received the impression that he and his father are close. Jin Zixuan doesn't have a reputation for deceitfulness or viciousness." Lan Wangji paused. "His cousin does."

"Jin Zixun?" Song Zichen prompted.

Lan Wangji nodded. He couldn't keep a frown from settling onto his face.

Jin Zixun had been equally willing to join in the fighting. But Lan Wangji thought the young man took a disturbing pleasure in the war. He seemed to enjoy causing his enemies pain, and he found excuses to brutalize vanquished Wen soldiers. Lan Wangji had heard that Jin Zixun and his uncle shared several interests: like his uncle, Jin Zixun delighted in wine, women, and gambling.

He had always been a bully, too. Lan Wangji remembered that from the man's time at Cloud Recesses. Uncle had punished Jin Zixun several times for picking fights with other disciples.

Wei Ying drummed his fingers on the table. His face was pensive.

"How about Jin Zixuan's half-brother?" Wei Ying prompted. "This Meng Yao? I've heard that Jin Guangshan plans to acknowledge him and give him a place in the sect. Has that happened yet?"

Lan Wangji shook his head.

"I do not know. My brother told me that Meng Yao has gone to Koi Tower. Jin Guanshang promised to legitimize him, but I'm not sure if it has occurred yet."

Lan Wangji's stomach turned over. It would be like Jin Guangshan to dangle the promise over legitimacy over Meng Yao's head but delay the official rites. Jin Guangshan had little to gain from legitimizing his second son. He had a great deal to gain from an eager assistant, desperate to persuade his father to honor his promise.

"You told me you don't trust Meng Yao," Wei Ying added softly.

Lan Wangji hesitated. It was difficult to give an honest answer. But he couldn't hide the truth any longer, not even for Lan Xichen's sake.

“I don’t."

Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan exchanged a glance. Wei Ying tilted his head.

"Your brother seems to," he remarked neutrally. "That's what I've heard, anyway. Isn't he friendly with this man?"

"I have heard that Sect Leader Lan may even swear brotherhood with Jin Guangshan's second son." Xiao Xingchen spoke slowly, watching Lan Wangji's face with some anxiety.

Lan Wangji felt another sick twist in his stomach.

He had heard that, too. His brother had mentioned it in his letters. It was something of a scandal: the First Jade of Lan proposing a sworn brotherhood with Jin Guangshan's son by a lowly prostitute. The Lan elders weren't pleased with the proposition, and they had offered some objections. But Lan Xichen wanted it so much, for reasons Lan Wangji didn't like to consider.

"He is inclined to trust people." Lan Wangji drew in a deep breath. "And Meng Yao made a strong impression on him from the first."

"How so?" Wei Ying shifted, facing Lan Wangji fully.

Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan were also paying close attention. Lan Wangji resisted the urge to squirm. He had never enjoyed being the center of attention. Receiving the group's undivided focus during such a delicate conversation was highly unpleasant. He curled his hands tightly on his lap.

"Meng Yao is clever and resourceful." Lan Wangji chose his words carefully. "He was the son of a prostitute, and his father did not acknowledge him until recently. He did not receive proper training as a child, and his golden core is weak. As a result, he was often scorned or bullied by other cultivators."

Lan Xichen was so kind. He had always been anxious to ensure that others were treated with courtesy and respect. When he learned that Meng Yao was the target of cruelty due to his background, Lan Xichen had been troubled. His distress had deepened when he discovered that Meng Yao was intelligent and capable.

In their private conversations, Lan Xichen had spoken of the matter rather heatedly. He told Lan Wangji that it was a great pity. Such a talented young man should not be overlooked due to his background, which was no fault of his own.

Lan Wangji knew that his brother was anxious to see Meng Yao reach his full potential. He didn't want a promising young man to suffer ruined prospects due to vile rumors or gossip. Before the war, Lan Wangji couldn't bring himself to object. He valued his brother's compassion and sense of justice. Lan Xichen wanted to help those who had been born into an unfortunate situation. That was admirable, and Lan Wangji had approved. He had been proud of his brother's kind, generous spirit.

But during the war, Lan Wangji saw more of Meng Yao. He heard of the man's secretiveness and duplicity, his eagerness to climb the social ladder. Lan Wangji developed a creeping suspicion that his brother valued a man who didn't deserve his good opinion.

"Brother sympathized with him," Lan Wangji admitted.

Wei Ying sighed, pushing his teacup aside.

"Clever and resourceful, and eager to win his father's approval." He tapped his hands against the table's surface. "That's not such a good combination!"

It was a very poor combination. Lan Wangji knew that already. A clever man who felt he had something to prove was apt to follow the wrong path. Lan Wangji couldn't claim to know Meng Yao very well, and if he expressed doubts about Meng Yao's character, Lan Xichen would surely point that out: Lan Wangji didn't know the man, so he ought not pass judgment upon a near-stranger. But Lan Wangji sensed that Meng Yao would gladly dirty his hands in the pursuit of his goals.

Xiao Xingchen’s face had grown troubled.

"This is all conjecture," he reminded Wei Ying gently.

Wei Ying waved an airy hand.

"Of course," he murmured. "I'm only thinking out loud! But if I was a clever, resourceful young man with a chip on my shoulder, what might I do?"

He rose from the table and wandered aimlessly around the room. Idly, he opened cupboards and toyed with items on the desk.

"If I wanted my father to acknowledge me, and he never did." Wei Ying rolled a paperweight between his hands. "If he only reluctantly agreed to legitimize me. If he was careful to keep me out of the line of succession and to limit my influence in his court."

He tossed the stone paperweight into the air and caught it. Lan Wangji watched his husband's long fingers flex and curl.

"I'd probably help him with as many murders as he wanted," Wei Ying concluded. "I'd probably do anything to climb my way to the top!"

Lan Wangji had a sinking feeling in his chest.

There was no evidence to support his husband's words. If Lan Xichen were here, he would quote a few pertinent Lan disciplines, beginning with, Do not make reckless assumptions. But Lan Wangji felt in his bones that Wei Ying had hit upon the truth. They'd already found evidence of Jin Guangshan's attempts to smear Wei Ying's reputation. Jin Guangshan had indeed sent spies and assassins. Yet even a sect leader couldn't work alone. He must have others helping with his plots.

Meng Yao had nothing to gain by opposing his father. He had everything to lose. Wei Ying made an accurate sketch of the man's character, too: he was clever, ambitious, and undoubtedly tired of being overlooked. If his father wished to have someone assassinated—or to spread false rumors and propaganda—then Meng Yao would likely be eager to assist.

He certainly hadn't balked at murder before. During the war, Meng Yao was quite willing to act as a spy. He had killed a commander of their own forces on a paper-thin pretense. Lan Wangji remembered that incident quite well. Nie Mingjue had certainly never forgotten it.

"Jin Zixuan had better watch his back," Song Lan remarked.

Wei Ying's eyes lighted with interest. He dropped into his seat once more.

"Now there's an interesting thought!" He leaned forward and propped his elbows on the table. "When Meng Yao takes his new name, he won't be first in the line of succession. But he'll be somewhere along that line. Won't he?"

He glanced at Lan Wangji for confirmation. Lan Wangji nodded, and his husband hummed.

"Let's say Jin Guangshan dies." He spread his hands. "Of natural causes or otherwise. Let's say Jin Zixuan dies, too."

"That would not be of natural causes," Lan Wangji interjected.

Wei Ying gave him a toothy grin.

"You don't think a healthy young man of twenty would naturally drop dead? A young man with a strong golden core who's probably never been sick a day in his life? You would suspect foul play?” He clutched his chest in mock horror. "My husband has such a suspicious mind!"

Lan Wangji sighed at his husband's theatrics.

"Many people would suspect foul play," he pointed out.

His husband was correct: Jin Zixuan had always enjoyed good health. He was a capable cultivator, his core considerably stronger than his father's. Unlike Jin Guangshan, Jin Zixuan wasn't given to debauchery. He ought to be impervious to sickness or fever. An assassin couldn't hope to pass his death off as a sudden illness.

They might, Lan Wangji realized, stage an accident. But that would be difficult, too. Jin Zixuan wasn't foolish or reckless. As the future Sect Leader, he knew better than to carelessly risk his safety. Besides, the war had ended. Wen Ruohan was vanquished, and the battlefield presented no further threat to Jin Zixuan. If he continued to night-hunt, he would take along plenty of disciples as his guards. Nothing could plausibly threaten his safety. If some misfortune befell Jin Zixuan, it must be foul play.

Wei Ying gave a careless shrug.

"In that case," he said, "the Jins would have to find someone to blame for the murder."

He gestured to himself with a flourish. Song Zichen's brows lifted with interest, but Xiao Xingchen frowned.

"How could you possibly be involved?"

Wei Ying sighed, helping himself to another cup of tea.

"The dreaded Yiling Patriarch?" He examined his teacup. "The immortal who can raise the dead and destroy armies in an instant? Who knows what he's capable of? Of course, he can kill over great distances! Didn't he prove that at the end of the war?"

Xiao Xingchen continued to frown. Yet Lan Wangji saw that Song Zichen was giving the matter serious thought.

The suggestion wasn't as unreasonable as it might seem. If Jin Zixuan was murdered, someone would have to take the blame. Meng Yao would have to find a scapegoat. If his father had already whipped the cultivation world into a frenzy against the Yiling Patriarch, then Wei Ying presented the obvious choice.

"We've heard those kinds of rumors," Song Zichen confessed, with a sideways look at Xiao Xingchen. "While we were traveling, we heard people talking about that sort of thing."

Lan Wangji clenched his fists under the table. But Wei Ying shrugged as if unsurprised. His grim acceptance cut Lan Wangji to his core.

"Who's in the line of succession after Jin Zixuan?" Wei Ying asked.

"His cousin, Jin Zixun." Lan Wangji spoke promptly. "His own children. His cousin's children, if he produces any."

"But neither are married yet? Neither of them has confessed to fathering any bastards?"

Wei Ying's eyes were speculative. Lan Wangji shook his head.

He hadn't heard that Jin Zixuan or his cousin had produced any illegitimate children. Jin Zixuan's wedding was planned for the spring, and the date had been set. Five of the six etiquettes had been completed. The match was settled.

Once his cousin had married, Jin Zixun would probably follow suit. Legitimate heirs would take some time to arrive, though. A year or two might pass before either of their wives bore a child. But a year offered plenty of time for Meng Yao to take action. He could cut off the line of succession with a few well-timed 'accidents.'

"Let's say the news comes out next summer. We hear that Jin Guangshan, his son, and his nephew have been tragically murdered by the Yiling Patriarch." Wei Ying pulled an expression of exaggerated sorrow. "What then? Would Meng Yao try to claim the position of sect leader?"

Once more, Lan Wangji felt the weight of three pairs of eyes.

"There are no other direct heirs." He grimaced. "Meng Yao's birth was illegitimate, but Jin Guangshan has recognized him. He will likely receive his courtesy name soon. It is possible."

There was precedent for such a step. Illegitimate children seldom inherited the sect leadership, but such things were permissible. If there were no other legitimate heirs, a child by a concubine or mistress might inherit. Lan Wangji could recall reading of three or four similar cases.

Jin Guangshan wasn't in any particular hurry to legitimize his Meng Yao. Yet Lan Xichen's letters suggested that he expected the ceremony to take place. Perhaps the other sect leaders were pressuring Jin Guangshan to keep his word and follow through with his decree. If that was the case, then Meng Yao's destiny was already sealed. From the moment 'Jin Guangyao' was entered into the Jin clan register, he would have a place in the line of succession.

"Would he be able to gather the support he needs?" Song Lan wondered.

Lan Wangji frowned.

This, he knew, would be the most difficult part of the scheme. There was a precedent for an illegitimate child to inherit, but such things usually occurred under different circumstances. If a sect leader was unable to have children with their legal spouse, they might produce an illegitimate child and raise them from birth. They would groom the child for leadership, offering the child plenty of time to establish their authority as the sect heir. From a young age, the child would be known as the future sect leader.

Meng Yao's situation was quite different. His father had only recently acknowledged him, and Meng Yao hadn't lived in Koi Tower very long. His opportunities to build a faction or recruit supporters were limited. Worst of all, he wasn't respected by other sect leaders. With one notable exception.

"My brother would support him," Lan Wangji said softly.

His husband groaned.

"The famous Zewu-Jun makes quite an ally." He sighed. "How about Sect Leader Nie?"

Lan Wangji considered, then shook his head.

"He does not like or trust Meng Yao."

Wei Ying quirked a brow.

"But I've heard the three of them are thinking about swearing brotherhood! Isn't that the rumor? Or was the gossip wrong?"

Lan Wangji shook his head again.

"They are considering it," he allowed.

His brother was anxious to hold a formal ceremony, swearing brotherhood to Nie Mingjue and Meng Yao in one fell swoop. Lan Wangji knew his brother believed that a sworn brotherhood would benefit everyone involved. A strong alliance between three of the Great Sects would balance power within the cultivation world. It would strengthen ties between the sects, and Lan Xichen believed this arrangement would help prevent further conflicts.

Moreover, it would soften the blow for the elders who objected to Sect Leader Lan's sworn brotherhood with a prostitute's son. If he swore brotherhood with Sect Leader Nie at the same time, Meng Yao's involvement could be treated as an afterthought. He could be forgotten by anyone who wished to forget him.

It was, Lan Wangji acknowledged, a sensible plan. But he knew that it wasn't merely a political arrangement for his brother. Lan Xichen was deeply fond of both men. He was motivated by his heart, as well as his head.

"Even so, Sect Leader Nie does not trust Meng Yao."

Lan Wangji bit the inside of his cheek. The truth was painful to admit, but he forced the words out.

"Sect Leader Nie is only considering the arrangement because my brother begged him to think it over."

Wei Ying let out a low whistle.

"Well, well. Meng Yao has really got his claws into your brother, hasn't he."

His husband's voice was not unkind, yet Lan Wangji felt a sharp twist of guilt.

It seemed now that he should have foreseen this problem. He should have shared his concerns with his brother and found a way to make him listen. Of course, Lan Xichen was his elder brother and his sect leader. Lan Wangji had no right to interfere with his brother's political decisions. Nor did he have a right to preach to his brother about the company he kept. Lan Xichen was older, so Lan Wangji ought to defer to his wisdom. Yet he felt now as if he'd been careless. As if he'd let his brother stray into a trap without lifting a finger to stop it.

If the sworn brotherhood was established, Lan Wangji knew it would be a tremendous coup for Meng Yao. It would offer him the legitimacy and credibility that he badly needed. The sworn brotherhood didn't depend on Meng Yao, though. It depended on Lan Xichen and his ability to persuade others to accept the arrangement. If the ceremony took place, it would signify that Meng Yao had won Lan Xichen's complete trust. Lan Wangji swallowed hard.

"So, Meng Yao doesn't have as many allies as he might like." Wei Ying toyed with his teacup. "But he has one very powerful ally. And theoretically speaking, if he managed to eliminate all the other heirs, he could name himself Sect Leader Jin."

Xiao Xingchen sighed again.

“This is all conjecture, though.” He folded his hands neatly on his lap. "We don't know that he's planning any such thing, and we can't accuse him without proof. Jin Guangshan is clearly culpable, but we can't be sure anyone else is involved."

"It doesn't explain how he intends to get you out of the way," Song Lan broke in, studying Wei Ying. "If he plans to pin these murders on you, he'll have to accuse you publicly. By now, he must know that his assassination attempt failed. He knows you'll be on your guard. He can't beat you in a fight or win a war if it comes to that. If he tries to blame you, what does he expect you to do in response?"

Song Lan's voice was slow and even, but his words were potent. The room fell silent. After a moment, Wei Ying let out a gusty sigh.

“Well. Let's think it over for a while." He rose again to his feet. "I don't think the Jins will take any direct action yet. If Meng Yao is involved, he must be trying to consolidate his position. He'll have his hands full for a while."

The assumption was logical. Lan Wangji nodded, somewhat reluctantly

"In any event, Jin Guangshan is probably sick. He's definitely busy planning his son's wedding." Wei Ying shrugged his shoulders. "I doubt either of them will rush into their next strike. We have some time to make our plans."

He reached out to help Lan Wangji to his feet. Lan Wangji accepted his hand readily, though he felt a slight prickle of guilt.

His injuries were half-healed, and he could rise and sit without help. Wei Ying's assistance was no longer needed. Yet Lan Wangji hadn't managed to share this fact with his husband. He liked the sensation of Wei Ying's hands resting on his arm or curving around his side. Best of all, he liked that Wei Ying wanted to help him. The knowledge that his husband wished to care for him was very pleasant. Lan Wangji was reluctant to confess that he no longer required such solicitous attention.

"I have some ideas, but I want to think on them a little while longer," Wei Ying remarked. "For now, let's focus on getting through the winter."

He ensured that Lan Wangji was steady on his feet. Then he nodded toward Song Zichen.

"You two are still recovering, so don't waste your energy worrying about this. We're safe for now. Let's just make sure everybody stays healthy."

Lan Wangji bowed his head.

His husband's argument was reasonable. The Jins wouldn't rush into a fresh scheme, not when their last strike had failed so disastrously. With Jin Zixuan's wedding approaching—and Jin Guangshan possibly unwell—the sect would turn their attention to domestic matters. It would be best if their settlement did the same.

Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen murmured their agreement. But before they left, Song Zichen extracted a promise that Lan Wangji would return for a game the following evening.

"I gave you my word we'd play xiangqi," Song Zichen added. "I won't break it."

Lan Wangji was quick to agree, and Xiao Xingchen gave him a friendly smile as he departed.

Outside their door, Lan Wangji cast a thoughtful glance toward the ancestral hall. That morning, Wen Qing had dropped rather strenuous hints. She had suggested that he ought to rest during the afternoon. But Lan Wangji hadn't made offerings or knelt before the altar in weeks. The ritual had become part of his daily routine, and he felt its absence keenly.

Lan Wangji edged toward the ancestral hall, wondering if he might be able to escape Wei Ying's supervision. It was no use, though. Wei Ying noticed his absence at once, and he chased after Lan Wangji.

"Lan Zhan!" His voice was full of playful reproach as he caught Lan Wangji's elbow. "Just where do you think you're going? Are you sneaking off to practice your sword forms? You'll get in trouble with Wen Qing! She'll catch you and tie you to the bed. You won't enjoy it!"

Lan Wangji blinked. At first, he wondered why his husband felt the need to clarify his statement. Who would enjoy being tied to a bed?

Without warning, Lan Wangji thought of his husband tying him to the bed. Lan Wangji's face flamed. He hurried to clear his mind, trying to wipe the slate clean. It was broad daylight, after all. Daylight was a wholly inappropriate time for such vulgar thoughts.

Lan Wangji tucked the image away, nestling it into a corner of his mind. He shouldn't think of such things now. Yet perhaps he might like to examine the concept in greater detail that night? It was certainly an intriguing idea. His ears grew hot, and he prayed that his husband wouldn't notice. He cleared his throat and steadied his voice.

"I wanted to visit the ancestral hall," he admitted.

His husband sighed, but he offered no objections. He turned his own steps in the direction of the ancestral hall. Lan Wangji realized that his husband meant to accompany him for this, too. Pleasure glowed in his chest, and he savored the chance to observe the ritual together.

"I remembered to make offerings while you were recovering." Wei Ying released the seal on the doors. Then he turned, beaming at Lan Wangji. “One offering, anyway. All by myself!"

He sounded tremendously proud. Lan Wangji barely managed to repress a smile.

“Most admirable. Congratulations.”

Wei Ying made a rude noise.

"Aiyah! My husband is so sarcastic to me. What insolence!" He poked out his tongue playfully as he pushed the door open. "In front of his revered in-laws, too!"

He bounded into the hall before Lan Wangji could think of a reply. The hall was as clean and empty as ever. But a dish lay upon the altar, and Wei Ying pointed it out.

“See? I put out some dried fruit for everybody. Wine for my parents, too."

Wei Ying nodded at the cups resting upon his parents' altar. He peered curiously at the altar dedicated to Lan Wangji's parents.

"I thought about giving my in-laws some wine. But since they're Lans, they probably don't drink. Ah, but do you think the rules are lifted in the afterlife? Or do you suppose they have to follow all three thousand rules for the rest of eternity?"

He gave Lan Wangji a conspiratorial grin. Lan Wangji found himself uncharacteristically tempted to roll his eyes. But the fond warmth in his chest burned brighter.

"I do not know. But fruit is a sufficient offering. Thank you."

Wei Ying nudged him toward the cushions.

"Quick, quick!" He tugged Lan Wangji's sleeve until he knelt down. "They were probably worried about you. Hurry up and sit here so they can see you're all right."

Lan Wangji knelt obediently. He hoped his in-laws weren't troubled by his absence. From their vantage point in the afterlife, they must have observed the attack. They would understand why their son-in-law had failed to make his obeisance over the last few weeks. Still, Lan Wangji didn't want to appear negligent. He resolved to prepare additional offerings tomorrow. He would burn an extra stick of incense, too, as compensation for two weeks of substandard offerings.

His husband lit the incense today. They sat together in silence for a few moments, watching the thin plume of smoke.

"I came here after you woke up," Wei Ying said abruptly. "I thought they'd probably gotten used to nice, fresh offerings every day. They might've wondered why their special treatment stopped! I didn't want them to blame you."

Lan Wangji glanced toward his husband. His words were lighthearted enough, but his voice was heavy as a stone. A taut thread of tension was strung through Wei Ying's body. There was tension in his face, too. He stared at his mother's tablet, then at his father's.

"I explained that you got hurt protecting a little girl," he added. "I told them they'd have to be patient for a little while. As soon as you got better, you'd definitely come back and make offerings again."

Wei Ying's mouth compressed into a thin line. His voice grew soft and fractured.

"I said, 'If you can help him get better, then please do that. Please make sure he recovers well.'" He took a deep breath, blinking at the tablets. "I don't really know if they can hear me. But I figured it couldn't hurt to ask."

Lan Wangji gave that statement the quiet consideration it deserved.

"I believe they can hear," he murmured, "in some fashion. I believed they are still concerned about your welfare and your happiness."

He couldn't imagine otherwise. Wei Ying's parents must have loved their son dearly. Their spirits must remain, watching over him each day. If he spoke to them, they would listen.

Lan Wangji had heard that nothing ran deeper than a mother's love for her child. Such love couldn't be forgotten after death. If Cangse Sanren's son made a request—if he asked his mother to intercede for his injured spouse—how could she ignore his pleas?

Wei Ying hummed as he reached out, flicking ash off the incense stick.

"Ah, we should tell them they're going to have grandchildren." His voice warmed. "Lots of them, too! I hope they're proud."

Lan Wangji believed they would be. He studied his father-in-law's table.

Wei Changze had been a servant, and perhaps his family had no other descendants. Perhaps Wei Ying was the only surviving member of the Wei clan. If that was true, then his father would surely be pleased by the adoption. He'd be glad to have his surname carried on, borne into the world by young disciples and budding cultivators.

Lan Wangji would ensure sure that the Wei name produced an honorable legacy. Together with Wei Ying, he would teach the children and raise them well. They would make sure their children grew up to be just and kindhearted. Their children would honor the Wei name and carry it on to future generations.

"Liu Deshi and Zhou Qiaohui told me they'd rather not to take my name." Wei Ying shifted on his knees. "They have their own surnames, you know. They're old enough to remember their parents, at least a little. So they don't want to give up their names. But they still want to be adopted officially."

Lan Wangji turned his attention back to his husband, and he nodded.

"I understand." He hesitated briefly. "Does Huang Mingyu feel the same?"

The three eldest disciples had arrived at the Burial Mounds with surnames, and Lan Wangji had expected that they might be reluctant to give them up. The younger children had been orphaned or abandoned in infancy, and their family history was lost. By the time they arrived at the Burial Mounds, they had nothing to call their own. The eldest were lucky to have kept a few fragments of personal history. Lan Wangji wouldn't dare to rob them of their only tie to their natal family.

Wei Ying shook his head. His expression tightened.

"His family was…not so nice." He dusted a bit of ash from his fingertips. "A-Yu ran away because his dad used to beat him. His dad starved him, worked him like a dog. So A-Yu doesn't want to remember his dad. He says he'd like to take another surname instead."

Lan Wangji felt a familiar surge of fury.

"That is best." He spoke thinly, digging his nails into his palm. "His father does not deserve to have his name carried on."

He tried to smother his anger. They couldn't rescue all the forsaken children in the world. Lan Wangji knew that such a feat would be impossible, and he tried to remind himself of this. Wei Ying had already taken care of so many children. He had done all that justice and benevolence demanded of him. Even so, a stubborn part of Lan Wangji's mind shifted restlessly.

Surely they had room for a few more orphans? After the adoption ceremony, they would have ten children, and that was a very generous number. Yet they had the means to provide for dozens more. The world held countless children who had been abandoned or mistreated. Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan could continue to find such children and bring them to the Burial Mounds. Lan Wangji could adopt those children and give them a home. The children could have parents, along with plenty of brothers and sisters. With Wei Ying's help, Lan Wangji could give them a good life.

Wei Ying caught his eye. He smiled as if he knew what Lan Wangji was thinking.

"The other little ones don't have any family names of their own. So they can be Weis." He rocked back on his heels, studying his parents' tablet. "That's hard for their ancestors, I know. But if they're still keeping an eye on the kids, I'm sure they understand."

"Children deserve a name," Lan Wangji agreed softly.

It was too cruel for children to face the world without a living family. Lan Wangji understood that adoption must not be undertaken lightly. To remove a child from their natal family and place them into another lineage…that was a serious matter. But if a child was orphaned, surely such an arrangement was best. Adoption was far better than leaving abandoned children to struggle on their own.

The children under their care deserved a surname. They deserved a family, a permanent home, a place in a formal record. They deserved to know that they would never be forsaken, that their place in the world was secure. Lan Wangji must make sure they never doubted that.

He recalled his musings from the previous night, and he turned to his husband.

"Do you have a family registry?"

Wei Ying blinked and scratched at his cheek.

"A registry? No, I never bothered to make one up." He shrugged. "It was just me, you know. Me and my parents. I didn't see any point. They've already got their tablets."

He nodded to the altar. It was a logical argument, but Lan Wangji frowned.

"We should create one," he insisted.

Wei Ying laughed and ducked his head.

"Well, now that you mention it, I guess so! With ten kids to keep track of, we'll need some kind of record."

He rubbed a hand over his jaw. A distressed look crept onto his face.

"Ah, what will we do if they all get married and have lots of babies?" He rocked back in horror. "We'll have so many grandchildren, we'll never remember their names!"

Wei Ying looked almost appalled at the prospect. But Lan Wangji was flooded with a delightful warmth.

Someday, far into the future, he might have grandchildren on his knee. He and Wei Ying might be kept busy arranging wedding banquets and first-month parties. They might sit together in the hall, watching the Wei clan grow and flourish and create new branches. He smiled to himself.

"We will remember," he murmured.

It wouldn't matter if they adopted dozens of children or if their children produced hundreds of grandchildren. Lan Wangji was viscerally certain that he'd remember each one.

Wei Ying sighed, but his eyes were soft.

"My husband is correct!" He nodded firmly. "We need a proper registry. We'll write down their birthdays and their courtesy names. Their sword names, too. If they get married, we'll write down their spouse's name. We'll definitely have to write down all their children's names."

He stared at the empty ancestral hall with a puzzled sort of wonder.

"There might be a whole Wei clan someday."

Lan Wangji frowned at the bare walls. He knew that his husband must be imagining the hall as it would look centuries from now.

Ancestral tablets would dot the walls, representing their children. Perhaps there would be tablets even for A-Yuan and A-Mei, even for their grandchildren. The thought was rather painful, and Lan Wangji swallowed. He didn't like to think of the children aging and dying. The thought must be infinitely worse for his husband. He was immortal, destined to watch his loved ones wither around him.

Even so, the pain held a sharp-edged sweetness. They couldn't expect every last child to cultivate to immortality. Most of them—perhaps all of them—would grow old and pass away. Yet they might marry. They might welcome children and grandchildren of their own. They could live rich lives, finding happiness with a beloved spouse and treasured children.

Then, once they passed into the afterlife, they could look after their descendants. They could join Wei Ying's parents and take comfort from the presence of their ancestors. It wasn't an unbearable pain to live and die under such circumstances. Lan Wangji felt he could endure it. 

Lan Wangji wanted to reach out and take his husband's hand. But Wei Ying's face had clouded over again. He stared down at his lap and let out a short, troubled laugh.

"I know I'm called the Yiling Patriarch." He grimaced. "But I don't actually know how to be the patriarch of a clan! How do you oversee a bunch of children and grandchildren? How am I supposed to arrange marriages and apprenticeships? I can't even remember to create a registry or make offerings!"

He gave Lan Wangji a tiny smile. It was sad, yet devastatingly hopeful.

"I'm glad I have a husband to help me."

Lan Wangji succumbed to temptation. He reached for Wei Ying's hand and threaded their fingers together. His husband squeezed his hand tightly.

“I am also glad.”

Lan Wangji had never spoken truer words in his life. He was deeply, infinitely, bewilderingly glad. If he had never met Wei Ying in that tent on the battlefield, he would never have thought to seek out the Yiling Patriarch. They would never have met, and that seemed an incalculable loss.

If the war hadn't forced his hand, Lan Wangji would have lived out his life in Cloud Recesses. Perhaps he would have taken a vow of chastity and remained unmarried. He would never have adopted children. Nothing short of war could have compelled him to visit the Burial Mounds or seek out the Yiling Patriarch. The Dafan Wens would remain strangers, as would Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen.

The very idea made Lan Wangji's stomach churn. He had come so close to missing this. Worst of all, he would never have known what he'd lost. Lan Wangji realized that he owed Wen Ruohan a peculiar debt. Nothing could excuse the man's crimes or his senseless war. But if not for that war, Lan Wangji would have lived his life without ever knowing Wei Ying. It was a strange and terrible thought.

"Come on." Wei Ying rose to his feet and reached for Lan Wangji. "You should go back to your room and rest. Otherwise, Wen Qing really will yell at us both."

Lan Wangji let his husband help him up. Together, they walked to the door.

"I will resume lessons tomorrow in the library," Lan Wangji warned. His voice brooked no argument. "I will remain seated throughout the day, and I will not overtax myself."

Wei Ying rolled his eyes and tried to look put-upon.

"If you get scolded by Wen Qing, I won't save you!"

He shook his finger under Lan Wangji's nose. But outside the hall, he let the act slip.

"Maybe I should join you. I can try to keep the kids from climbing all over you."

Lan Wangji's heart stuttered joyfully.

"That would be helpful."

It would be better than helpful. They had yet to deliver any lessons together, and Lan Wangji would like to share the teaching experience with his husband. If they planned to adopt children, it was only right that they share these duties.

Wei Ying sealed the door with a talisman and turned to Lan Wangji. His smile was almost anxious.

"I'll get the hang of this fatherhood business," he insisted. "You'll see!"

Lan Wangji reached for his husband's hand again, folding it between his own.

"I never doubted that," he said.

He meant every word.

Chapter Text

Once Lan Wangji had recovered enough to resume the children's lessons, he realized that the solstice was drawing near. In fact, the festival was scarcely a week away. The Wens had made arrangements for the celebration during his convalesce, and there were few tasks left for Lan Wangji. He wasn't permitted to enter the kitchen or join in the decorating. Wen Qing allowed him to do nothing except sit in the library and listen to the children recite their lessons.

"Be grateful I'm letting you do that much," she added darkly.

Somewhat to his surprise, Lan Wangji discovered he had grown rather fond of her. He didn't mind the way she scowled at him or scolded him for overextending himself. Her reprimands were clearly rooted in sincere concern and a desire for his wellbeing.

During her visits, they often spoke of Wei Ying. Together, they shook their heads over his propensity for skipping meals and stinting on sleep. Wen Qing seemed relieved to finally have an ally in the household. The rest of the Wens never presumed to scold Wei Ying about his health. Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen were willing to chastise him if need be. But they were apt to agree that an immortal required neither food nor sleep, so they refused to scold him on that account.

Fortunately for Wen Qing, Lan Wangji took her side in this particular argument. He hadn't forgotten her request to look after Wei Ying's health. There wasn't much Lan Wangji could do for his husband during his recovery, but he could add his voice to Wen Qing's scolding. He could nag Wei Ying to eat and sleep regularly, at least.

Wei Ying protested, and he declared that his husband should focus on his own health. But Lan Wangji was unmoved. He pointed out that he could comfortably scold his husband from a seated position. There was no risk of overtaxing himself here. Wei Ying whined and moaned in reply. He complained bitterly that he was ill-treated, that a treacherous alliance had developed within his own household.

In spite of his mutterings, Lan Wangji noticed that his husband appeared secretly pleased. He was always careful to give some token opposition at first. Yet, after a while, Wei Ying would give in. He'd eat the lunch Lan Wangji had requested from the kitchens. Then he would vow—on his honor!—to sleep for at least a few hours each night. Gradually, Wei Ying began to take greater care with his attire. Lan Wangji made scrupulously certain that his husband's clothing had been properly laundered and mended. Once Wen Qing told him it was safe to move freely, he helped his husband shave and fix his hair, too.

They spent