The Nightless City burned bright once more, the Sun Palace's main hall host to a celebration of its master's defeat. The war still lingered like a spectre, kept alive by the still-healing wounds hidden beneath fine robes and toasts in the name of those who perished.
Lan Wangji had never had much patience for events like these, never one for peacocking or meaningless niceties, though he took care to be a polite, if distant, guest. When he was approached, he gave acknowledgement, but otherwise he sat silently at his table as the other guests milled about chatting merrily, gorging themselves on delicacies and fine wines.
The idyllic atmosphere was suddenly shattered when the candlelight turned a poisonous green. Startled guests threw up their sleeves to shield their eyes as an the unnatural gust that blew through the hall, throwing the gauzy curtains into a frenzy.
When the wind disappeared and the flames settled back to their original color, a dark figure was standing at the Sun Palace's entrance, wreathed in billowing black fumes.
“My sincerest apologies for intruding,” the man said jovially as he clasped his hands before him and bowed. He wore heavy robes of black and crimson accents, his face hidden by a elaborate silver mask that cast his eyes in shadow. The sight of him drew gasps and mutterings, and one too many hands twitched towards their masters’ weapons.
None of them were drawn, of course. This was a banquet to celebrate the end of the war, and the man before them was the one responsible for its end. No one present could forget that.
“Yiling Patriarch,” Jin Guangshan said as he turned to face the newcomer. “Welcome! We were beginning to think you weren't coming."
The fact they had hoped the elusive Patriarch wouldn't show his face was written across every uneasy shift, every furtive glance, but the Patriarch didn't seem to notice or care.
“I don’t mean to impose for long. I’m just here for business.” The Yiling Patriarch folded his arms behind his back as he began to stride forward, his gait easy, his shoulders loose. He appeared unarmed, though that meant little—Lan Wangji knew all too well that even a mere a whistle from his lips could summon the dead and bend them to his will. “I was given a promise, in exchange for my help defeating Wen Ruohan. Wen Ruohan has been defeated. I’ve come to collect my due.”
More whispers filled the air as the sect leaders present exchanged troubled glances.
“So I see,” Jin Guangshan said, chuckling, though his eyes tightened. He raised his wine cup in a grand gesture, gold robes shimmering. “Well, there’s no need to be hasty. It is a time for celebration! Join us, Patriarch."
The Yiling Patriarch smiled. He had a knife for a smile, his teeth cutting a threatening arc across his face, hardly dulled by the soft curve of his lips.
“There’s no need for that, honorable Sect Leader Jin,” he said mildly. “Just give me Hanguang-jun, and I’ll be on my way.”
Before Lan Wangji could even blink his brother had already moved to stand in front of him.
“I’m sorry, Yiling Patriarch, but my brother was never part of the bargain.” Lan Xichen’s voice was polite, though Lan Wangji could detect the steel hidden beneath its serenity.
“Ah, but Zewu-jun, must I remind you of the terms of our agreement?” the Patriarch said, sounding reproachful. “My help defeating Wen Ruohan, and in return, I may have whatever I want. Whatever I want. And what I want, honorable sect leaders, is him. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Lan Xichen still didn’t move. “And what do you want with my brother?”
The Patriarch tilted his head, a facsimile of consideration. “Does it matter?”
For just a moment the gaps of his mask gleamed with red.
(Red like blood and rent flesh and the soiled robes of fallen cultivators, like the lines that scored Lan Wangji’s fingers as his guqin strings snapped beneath them, like the fire that ate away at the Cloud Recesses, leaving ash in its wake—)
“It doesn’t,” Lan Wangji heard himself saying, distantly even to his own ears.
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen said helplessly. Lan Wangji refused to look at him.
There were footsteps, each quiet footfall like a cymbal crashing through his ears. They ceased when the Patriarch came to a stop before his table, a shadow looming from above.
“It doesn’t, Hanguang-jun?”
“It doesn’t,” Lan Wangji repeated. He shaped each word carefully and deliberately, his head held high. “A bargain was made, and it will be honored.”
“Oh?” The Patriarch sounded amused. He clasped his hands easily behind his back and began to circle Lan Wangji with the loping grace of a dire wolf. Lan Wangji refused to turn his head to follow the Patriarch’s movements. Instead he continued to stare resolutely, unseeingly, ahead, as he tried in vain to tame the rabbit-quick pounding of his heart.
He didn’t flinch when two warm hands settled on his shoulders, didn’t flinch when the Patriarch’s voice brushed over his ear, his unbound hair spilling around them like a heavy curtain.
“What if what I wanted from you was your pretty head, hmm?” The Patriarch’s tone was almost mockingly pensive, his voice low and dangerously sweet. “Your lovely corpse, added to my undead retinue?” He leaned closer, so close Lan Wangji wasn’t sure if he imagined the caress of soft skin against his ear. “You could be my crown jewel, Second Jade of Lan.”
His words incited a din of horrified whispers and mutterings from their captive audience, the noises sounding cottoned to Lan Wangji’s ears. But his brother’s stricken gasp, muffled as it was, rang clear, driving home like a dagger through his heart.
The Patriarch chuckled, and that unnamed, hopeless feeling in Lan Wangji’s chest hardened, sharpened. His fingers curled beneath the sleeves of his robes, nails biting into the palm of his hand.
“If that is your price,” Lan Wangji said coldly, the words frostbitten. The Yiling Patriarch laughed with delight, releasing his hold on Lan Wangji’s shoulders. Still Lan Wangji felt the ghost of his touch, an unnatural warmth that clung to his skin long after the Patriarch’s fingers had retreated.
“You really do live up to your reputation, Hanguang-jun!” the Patriarch declared, sounding infuriatingly pleased, as if Lan Wangji’s display was everything he had wanted and more. The thought made Lan Wangji want to gnash his teeth together. “But contrary to popular belief, I dislike unnecessary death. And besides,” his voice shifted with the rustle of his robes as he began to move again. ”It’d be such a waste to just kill you—you’re very handsome, you know. No, I want many things from you, but your death isn’t one of them.”
The Patriarch had finished his orbit now, standing before Lan Wangji once more. It was with an unpleasant jolt of surprise Lan Wangji realized the Patriarch was no longer empty-handed, something white draped over his open palm.
Lan Wangji swallowed, then slowly tore his eyes away from the tailends of his forehead ribbon to meet the Patriarch’s mercury gaze.
“I want you to marry me,” the Patriarch said, his long fingers curling closed. Lan Wangji's heart stuttered in his chest, the traitorous thing.
“I’m afraid such a union isn’t possible, Yiling Patriarch. Lan Wangji is already engaged to my nephew." Jin Guangshan sounded quite contrite. "Their betrothal was to be announced tonight."
It was meant to be a spectacle, a ray of light in the settling dusts of the war. A cause for celebration. Proof of the strength of the alliances between the sects. At Jin Guangshan’s words murmurs started up again. But neither the Patriarch nor Lan Wangji moved to acknowledge him. It seemed as if the sect leader and his objections were hardly worth the Patriarch’s notice, his attention fixated on the man before him. And Lan Wangji was trapped, drowned in depths of quicksilver and shadow; he couldn’t have turned away even if he wanted to.
“That’s a pity,” the Patriarch said flatly.
“Indeed,” Jin Guangshan agreed magnanimously. “But if the Yiling Patriarch is searching for a spouse, there are a great many beauties throughout the land. I’m sure—"
“You misunderstand, Sect Leader Jin,” the Patriarch cut in, his voice low and dangerously smooth. “My sincerest apologies to your nephew, but he will have to find someone new to marry. Hanguang-jun is mine.”
He raised the forehead ribbon to his lips, pressing the lovely, mocking curve of his mouth against it, a peony’s blush against snow. “Understood?”
The Patriarch left in his wake a silence like that of a grave. In his periphery Lan Wangji saw many a glance sent his way, each as furtive and fleeting as an agitated bird.
The first whisper was quickly followed by another, murmurs quickly filling the hall like water spilling forth from a crack in a dam as the guests gathered debated a choice that was never theirs to make. In the corner of his eye Lan Wangji saw the shimmer of gold robes.
“You don’t seem at all opposed,” Jin Zixun said. Lan Wangji didn’t need to see his face to see his scowl, the way his forehead pinched around the vermillion mark on his brow. “In fact, I didn’t hear you protest once. One would think you want to marry the Yiling Patriarch, Lan Wangji.”
Lan Wangji kept his expression carefully blank. He was painfully aware of all the eyes that were suddenly pointed their way. “What I want is irrelevant.”
Just as it had been irrelevant when I was promised to you, Jin Zixun, was left unspoken.
He had never liked his fiance. Jin Zixun was an odious, self-centered man who found it hard to see past the shadows of his easily wounded pride. Lan Wangji had long known that Jin Zixun harbored no real affection or desire for him, only a possessiveness born of his jealous nature and the pride that came with humbling one of the Twin Jades of Lan and claiming him as a spouse.
That’s all their betrothal was to Jin Zixun, really. A demonstration of power and a cannibalization of dignity. To Jin Guangshan there was the added purpose of cementing the alliance between Lanling Jin and Gusu Lan.
He thought of how Jin Guangshan had heralded him and his brother at the final gathering following the fall of Nightless City, how he had suggested the betrothal between Jin Zixun and Lan Wangji as a supposed act of good faith and camaraderie between their sects. How he had trapped them with social niceties, the approving glances of the watching sect leaders and cultivators his knives against their backs, the promise of aid and shared resources the guillotine above their heads. Lanling Jin had escaped the war essentially unscathed while all the other great sects had suffered considerable losses. The Cloud Recesses still had to be rebuilt, and the Lan Sect could not afford to turn away aid. Lan Wangji had never had a choice.
Lan Wangji spared his former fiance no further attention. With that he stood up and took his leave with a final flick of his sleeve, indifferent to the growing din.
Later his brother, too, retired, and joined him in their guest chambers. Lan Xichen looked at him with tired, sad eyes, too old and jaded for his years. They stared at each other, an argument in silence. Lan Xichen knew him better than anyone else, and knew how he would not be swayed if he mind was made up. If his brother was water then Lan Wangji was stone, softened and smoothed by Lan Xichen's influence but still ultimately immovable.
"I'm sorry, Wangji," Lan Xichen said softly. "This burden should never have been yours to bear."
Lan Wangji wished it didn't sound so much like a goodbye.
The Slumbering Demon Palace was hidden in the mists of the Burial Mounds, nestled in the cradle of mountains that overlooked Yiling. Once the site of a great siege, the Burial Mounds was known to be a haunted place no living or dead could escape. People whispered of the corpses and vengeful spirits wandered its foggy grounds, warned of the air steeped in lingering resentment that could poison the human body and mind.
But then the Yiling Patriarch rose, and in the heart of the Burial Mounds forged his demonic path. He conquered the Burial Grounds and made it his home, building his palace on its bone-ridden soil. It was said his court was made up of those who escaped death and fates worse than it, for the only people who would dare venture into the Yiling Patriarch’s realm were those with nothing left to lose. Indeed, few made it to the Slumbering Demon Palace and returned to tell the tale.
But the murky fog that shrouded the Burial Grounds was quelled for the first time in living memory. The Slumbering Demon Palace was alight, festooned in red and gold, its denizens alive with excitement.
For the Yiling Patriarch was to be married.
Dignitaries from every cultivation sect had converged, lavish gifts in tow. Few came out of genuine goodwill or happiness for the Patriarch and his to-be-spouse; most came compelled by curiosity, social obligation, fear of retribution, or a combination of all three. The air wasn’t one of true celebration, but some pale imitation of it, with guests sitting around and gossiping beneath their artificial smiles and carefully crafted words while beautiful maidens silently glided through the din to serve them food and wine. Many looked at the Palace’s magnificent furnishings and speculated the origins of the his riches; others looked to their host with calculating eyes, some with jealousy in their hearts, others with fear.
And the Patriarch sat above them all on his throne, a smirk on his lips and his promised one by his side.
“You don’t seem like you’re having fun at all, Hanguang-jun,” he drawled, touching his wine jar to his lips.
Lan Wangji said nothing. His head felt heavy from all the gilded pins and twinkling ornaments that adorned it. It felt like he had been trapped in this revelry for an eternity, a statue swathed in red, silent and unmoving. He hadn’t moved a muscle since taking his place by the Patriarch’s side at the start of the wedding banquet, not touching any of the food, nor acknowledging the guests that would come up to offer their empty congratulations.
The Patriarch frowned, setting his wine jar down with a soft clink. Lan Wangji carefully averted his gaze when the Patriarch leaned onto their shared table to peer up at him.
While Lan Wangji’s face was mostly hidden by the delicate veil draped over his head, the Patriarch’s own veil was pushed off his face and dangling irreverently from his elaborate topknot. He still wore his heavy silver mask despite the festivities, his clever eyes gleaming like volcanic glass in its shadows.
From what he could see of the Patriarch he didn’t look much older than Lan Wangji himself, though Lan Wangji knew that physical appearance was hardly an effective way to date the age of cultivators. He had a boyish grin and youthful energy, and his mannerisms—at times they leaned towards infuriatingly immature. And yet this was a man who had the entire cultivation world at his feet.
“Han. Guang. Jun .” Each syllable was drawn out petulantly, and Lan Wangji was sure if he deigned to look he would find an accompanying pout on the Patriarch’s pretty mouth.
Still Lan Wangji said nothing. The Patriarch sighed, sounding put out, before he was clambering upright.
“Well, I’m getting bored,” he said, as if they were at some casual activity and not their own wedding, with the cultivation world’s most powerful and influential in attendance. “Shall we?”
He held out his hand expectantly; after a moment’s hesitation Lan Wangji took it and let himself get drawn to his feet.
The Patriarch led Lan Wangji away from the festivities, down hallways and past courtyards. The entire Palace had been appropriately decked out, the darkness of the night momentarily held at bay by tasseled red lanterns. Soon enough they came upon a set of doors flanked by two lovely maidens who tittered at the sight of them, their eyes unnaturally bright and their smiles sharp. Lan Wangji suddenly became hyperaware of the Patriarch’s hand in his and the realization that he was being drawn into their bridal chamber.
Then the doors were closing behind them. The Patriarch turned to him, and Lan Wangji didn’t move as the veil was lifted gently from his head. The red fabric fluttered to the floor like a wayward petal, followed moments after by the clang of metal against wood as the Patriarch's mask joined it on the ground.
Lan Wangji had once been curious about what lay beneath that mask, he now fervently wished the Patriarch had continued to hide his face away. Even with half his face hidden he had exuded an inexplicable aura that never failed to draw the eye, and with the entirety of him on display—it was rather like looking face first into the sun. The Patriarch was handsome, dreadfully so, with youthful features, sharp cheekbones, and a deceptively bright smile beneath his thundercloud eyes. It was a dangerous kind of beauty, like lightning in a storm.
Lan Wangji looked at him, then pointedly looked away. Fingers grasped his chin, turning him back so he met the Patriarch’s cloudburst gaze.
“You won’t even allow me the honor of getting one little glimpse from you?” the Patriarch sighed, his tone almost childish in its exaggerated despondency. “You’re so cold to your husband. So cruel!”
“Not my husband yet,” Lan Wangji said shortly. It was a mere technicality, and a trifling one at that--he was the Patriarch’s in all ways that mattered, with or without the marriage binding them. But Lan Wangji had always been too stubborn for his own good. And if the Patriarch wanted him, he would have him in his entirety, petty obstinance and all.
“I suppose not,” the Patriarch agreed thoughtfully. He released his hold on Lan Wangji’s chin, moving to the low table to pour wine into the two gilded cups that sat waiting. He offered one to Lan Wangji.
“Wei Ying, courtesy name Wei Wuxian,” the Patriarch said as their eyes met over the cup’s golden rim. Lan Wangji accepted it with carefully steady hands.
“Lan Zhan, courtesy name Lan Wangji,” he offered in return, keeping his voice devoid of any inflection or emotion.
“Lan Zhan,” the Patriarch—Wei Wuxian—said, a satisfied curl to his mouth. Lan Wangji resented the way his name rolled so naturally off his tongue, like he enjoyed the taste of Lan Wangji’s birth name on his lips.
Their cups clinked, then parted. Their arms curled together, interlocking at the elbows, and Lan Wangji tipped the cup back and downed the wine. It burned its way down his throat and an uncomfortable heat suffused his skin.
They drew apart. Then Lan Wangji swayed, his head spinning, and fell.