Chaos erupts unprompted in the room. Sect Leader Yao is the first to stand, before other minor sect leaders and their disciples rise as well.
“This is unreasonable, Your Excellency!” a man in soft green robes cries. “How can we send our disciples for a purification ritual?! In the Burial Mounds, of all places? Many sects have sought out the purification before, and none of them have succeeded! We are sending them into a death trap.”
“With all due respect, Sect Leader Xiao,” Sect Leader Jiang says, sourly. The Zidian on his wrist crackles and a few Jiang disciples disperse further behind him. “You have been to the Burial Mounds before, with intent to kill. You, as all of us have, barged in, with your disciples, uncaring of the consequences. What is so different this time?” Hanguang-Jun, at the front of the conference, raises an eyebrow, as if surprised at Sect Leader Jiang’s defense.
Sect Leader Yao scowls at him. For all of their quiet animosity, of course, Sect Leader Jiang would support the Chief Cultivator’s ludicrous idea. Both of them, promising talents as they were, were soft and manipulated easily by the demon that was Wei Wuxian. Why else would he suggest such a bizarre project? “Chief Cultivator!” he yells. “That was to save our junior disciples! How can you involve us for such a selfish and self-motivated desire?!”
Hanguang-Jun blinks slower, in lieu of showing his annoyance. “Sect Leader Yao. How is this at all a selfish desire? The resentful energy in the Burial Mounds has significantly reduced since the First Siege. As you have explained, you returned to it to save your Junior Disciples, did you not?” He looks down at him, his face unwavering. Sect Leader Yao clenches his fist.
“Even so, Chief Cultivator –” he bites. “Doesn’t this provide a conflict of interest, for you? Your, partnership,” he spits the word out like it’s poison in his mouth. There are hushed whispers in the room about what he brings up. “With the Yiling Patriarch makes me wonder what your motives are.” A gasp sounds its way through the room.
“Sect Leader Yao!” a young Lan disciple says. “You dare say what I think you are implying!”
“You dare speak to me in that tone? Hanguang-Jun, is this what you teach your disciples? To talk back and disrespect elders?”
“Respect is earned, you foul old ma-!”
“Lan Jingyi.” Hanguang-Jun interrupts. “That is enough.” No need for apologies, then? Tsk. Teaching his disciples to be as arrogant as him. “Sect Leader Yao, if you have concerns with my relationship with Wei Ying, this is not the place to discuss them.” There are snickers amongst the crowd, even if Hanguang-Jun had meant it with utmost sincerity.
Sect Leader Yao fumes. “Hanguang-Jun! This is impertinent. How do we know you are not taking our disciples to establish the long lost Yiling Wei Sect?” The gasps return.
“The Yiling Wei sect never existed, you fool,” says Sect Leader Jin. “At least know what you’re talking about, before howling nonsense in front of all of us,” he glares at him. “What a damn waste of time!” as if in support, his dog, which he brought to the meeting, barks at him. Jin Rulan gives her a satisfied pat on the head.
Sect Leader Yao’s eye twitches. Jin Guangyao was a bastard and an incestuous scoundrel, but his ease and diplomacy clearly did not transfer to his nephew. He almost misses him, between the new Lanling Jin Sect Head Disciple scuffing her paws against the mat, and the new Chief Cultivator being in cahoots with the lecherous Yiling Patriarch.
“How do we know your cultivation partner isn’t affecting your decisions? Why else would you come with an idea as disastrous as this?”
“It was not his idea,” a foreign voice speaks up, and a young man in white robes stands up to bow. Sect Leader Yao tries his best not to scowl, as the Lan Heir speaks for the first time during the cultivation conference. Hanguang-Jun looks at him with the kindness and pride of a doting father. Lan Qiren’s lips purse together in a thin line.
“Sect Leader Yao.” Young Master Lan looks right at him. “It was at my suggestion that Hanguang-Jun brought this up at the cultivation conference. The Yiling Burial Mounds have been a cause of conflict for two generations now, and I believe we have the manpower and strength to finally purify the grounds of any resentful energy.”
“Oh,” Sect Leader Yao spits, “How are you so sure of that?”
Lan Sizhui smiles. “This humble disciple was one of the many who was kidnapped in the Burial Mounds. With the strongest disciples from all the sects, we will have more than enough spiritual energy to cleanse the mountain. It has been seriously weakened, due to the efforts of Senior Wei and Hanguang-Jun,” he says.
“How do we know your Senior Wei is not doing this himself!”
“Senior Wei is not involved.” He shakes his head. “He is not even here. This was my initiative, and I will be leading the charge.” Lan Sizhui is still smiling, but his eyes flash with a coldness Sect Leader Yao has never seen before.
“How can you –“
“Sizhui is very honest and noble!” Ouyang Zizhen, the bratty son of his old friend, interrupts. He glares at Sect Leader Ouyang, whose warning hand is shrugged off his son’s shoulders. “I will be there to join him!” a cacophony of disciples behind him speak in an agreement.
“Young Master Ouyang,” he snarls. “So openly showing support for the Lan Sect’s ideas. You speak to even your father this way? How do we know if this Young Master has the right intentions?”
“With all due respect, Sect Leader Yao,” Lan Qiren’s scruffy voice can be heard across the room. “Lan Sizhui is the Hanguang-Jun’s heir. You cannot be suggesting the representative of the Lan Sect has foul intentions? He has studied under my tutelage. He has the accreditation of both Hanguang-Jun and Sect Leader Lan.” As soon as he says this, he raises his hand to shush the loud agreements of the Lan Sect disciples, led by that same obnoxious Lan Jingyi.
“Thank you, Grandmaster. This humble one appreciates your endorsement,” Lan Sizhui bows. “Sect Leader Yao. I understand your concerns. But Senior We – The Yiling Patriarch’s name has now been cleared. By clearing the resentful energy of the mountains, we can ensure no one else gets thrown in there again, for punishment or otherwise. If we let it sit and stew, it will return to its full power.” The condescension of his words cuts right through Sect Leader Yao. He doesn’t, however, have his own response.
“I think it’s a good idea. The Lanling Jin Sect will send its best disciples to be under your care, Sizhui.” Jin Ling says. The dog wags its tail in endorsement. Hearing the Jin Sect endorse it, many of the other sects jump to agree. Sect Leader Jiang huffs.
“Fine. Hanguang-Jun, Sizhui. You may have the disciples of the Jiang Sect on your side.”
“I’ll do anything you say, Hanguang-Jun,” Sect Leader Nie’s fan flutters in front of his face. “Take whoever you want, but me, Young Master Lan. Since the majority has voted, shall I ask my men to ready the banquet?”
Hanguang-Jun nods, but not before turning personally to Sect Leader Yao. “I hope your concerns have been quelled. Sizhui, you may go ahead.” Sect Leader Yao scowls. What is this madness! The gentry sects put their family ties before anything else!
The disciples from many sects have all flocked to Sizhui’s side to sign up. Hanguang-Jun swallows as chaos engulfs the room again. Sect Leader Yao wants to throw a tantrum, but as he sees the circle of excited young men around Lan Sizhui grow, even from his Sect, he has no choice but to acquiesce.
He grumbles through the banquet in the Unclean Realm’s hall. People are still buzzing about the return to the Burial Mounds, and even the sweet liquor is sour against his tongue. Hanguang-Jun seems pleased, having gotten what he wants, and much to everyone’s horror, the Yiling Patriarch has arrived by his side.
He drinks animatedly next to Hanguang-Jun, having a loud and boisterous conversation with Sect Leader Nie and Jin. The only one showing as much mirth as him is Sect Leader Jiang, who has drunk through three bottles of wine at the mere sight of his sworn brother. Hanguang-Jun, like the other Lan disciples, does not drink, arrogantly sipping his soup like he’d rather be anywhere else.
Sect Leader Jin seems affronted, before huffing and moving back to his seat. Sect Leader Nie remains, but he moves closer to talk to the Yiling Patriarch. It’s only then, that Sect Leader Yao realises there was a fourth member of that little club. Young Master Lan sits next to the Yiling Patriarch, casually drinking his tea as the Yiling Patriarch goads him on. He places his cup down to laugh into his long sleeves in careful synchronisation, and Sect Leader Yao narrows his eyes.
Now that he thinks about it, he has often seen these two together. The three of them had stumbled into his region during a night hunt, and his men had whispered about the presence of the Chief Cultivator in their area. Sect Leader Yao had huffed and puffed over the fact that the Chief Cultivator had not even bothered to show his face, but realising his cultivation partner and son were with him, he had been thankful. He had heard from a flustered Sect Leader Ouyang that the Ghost General had accompanied Ouyang Zizhen and his friends home to Baling once, and recoiled in horror at his friend’s misfortune.
He watches Lan Sizhui closely. The Yiling Patriarch pats his shoulder and smiles, and there is an uncanny resemblance. He’s always heard that the Lan heir was indeed a biological child of Hanguang-Jun, with his careful expressions and unbeatable talent. With the forehead ribbon and ornate white robes, they really did look uncannily similar. However, he thinks, if a random Lan disciple were to stand next to Hanguang-Jun all the time, people were likely to think the same.
The Yiling Patriarch, though. His smiles are free and annoying, unlike Hanguang-Jun. The Lan heir seems to be the same way. He also talks far too much for a Lan. He sees as they engage in deep, personal conversation, and thinks to himself, this can’t be possible. It was odd that the Lan Sect was so interested in taking on the project of cleansing the Burial Mounds all by themselves. He’s heard the Lan heir is one of the youngest disciples to master the Lan Sect Library, so he must have found a set of exclusive Lan cleansing music. He has seen him carry that guqin, after all.
But still, he is so young. Why the attachment to the Burial Mounds in the first place? Who, in good conscience, would ever want to return to a place like that, if not for the glory of eliminating a formidable foe? If like that petulant child says, the Yiling Wei Sect never existed, why would he go so far as to purify to the lair of this monster?
He’s about to beckon a server over for another bottle, as he sees the Lan Heir get up. He excuses himself and walks to the table two seats away from him, and the Yiling Patriarch gives him a small but satisfied smile. He watches as carefully as Wei Wuxian as the Lan heir approaches the Jiang table. He is within earshot. Jiang Wanyin looks up at him.
“Sizhui,” Sect Leader Jiang says, and a few disciples at the back wave at him.
“Jiang-shushu,” Sizhui smiles, and bows down to greet him. Sect Leader Yao’s eyes bug out of his head. Jiang-shushu? Since when are the Lan heir and Sect Leader Jiang related? None of the Jiang Sect disciples seem to react to this at all, and their female Head Disciple stands up to talk to him. They share a short and cordial conversation before Sect Leader Jiang begins talking. His severe, angry expression is somehow lessened, and no one else in the room seems to notice.
Gears begin to turn in Sect Leader Yao’s head. The closeness to the Jiang Sect, the Yiling Patriarch and the Ghost General? The raw talent, the kind, unwavering charisma…could it be? He looks again between Hanguang-Jun and the Lan Heir, calculating the similarities. The same long, straight hair. The same nose. He’s tall too, he thinks, as his eyes narrow in on his body. He gasps, however, as he sees a Jiang Clarity bell hanging at his waist.
It can’t be possible. Why would a Lan Disciple wear a Yunmeng Jiang Sect bell…unless…? Sect Leader Jin stands up, and he sees a similar ornament hanging off of him. He was the son of Madam Jiang, wasn’t he…
He scoffs as he realises what new, exciting information he’s uncovered. He watches as the Lan Heir goes back to sit with his parents. He doesn’t even stop to think how it’s possible. Demonic Cultivation is mysterious, and knows no bounds…there’s no doubt that the Yiling Patriarch has been hiding this secret for so long. Now, he understands why Lan Sizhui was so desperate to cleanse the Burial Mounds. It was his homeland!
He bumbles with excitement as his cup is refilled. Now he knows how he will take this family down, once and for all.
“You were right, old friend,” Sect Leader Ouyang shakes his head. “Now Zizhen will insist on accompanying his friends to the Burial Mounds. That Ghost General also, gods, protect my only son…” he mumbles, as the last few drops of liquor go into his mouth. “What a terrible idea from the Lan Sect. If only Zewu-Jun were here to talk some sense into his maddened cut-sleeve brother,” he shakes his head. “To think we have to take orders from a person who has bedded the Yiling Patriarch.”
“And his son,” Sect Leader Yao shakes his head. “Despicable. What is the point of all these promising friendships if your son will be playing with the Yiling Patriarch’s child?”
Sect Leader Ouyang sways in an attempt to maintain eye-contact. His eyes glaze over. “You mean – hic – Hanguang-Jun’s son…? That boy…”
“That Lan Sizhui. You will not believe what I heard.” His friend’s eyebrows quirk up in interest. “This demonic cultivation, I tell you…to think it made a way for two men to create life.”
“What’re you talking about?” his drunk companion says.
“That Lan Sizhui, the leader of the Burial Mounds cleansing mission,” he leans over. “Is the lovechild of the Hanguang-Jun and the Yiling Patriarch.”
The first time he hears anything about it, Sizhui is in Baling. He had been assessing the candidates for spiritual ability before the Burial Mounds Project before he had gone to relax with Zizhen.
“It’s a shame that Jingyi and Jin Ling could not join us,” he says, sipping his tea at the inn they had settled on. “There are many fun things to do in Baling. There is the art district, or we could go night-hunting…” Sizhui smiles.
“Jingyi is holding up the fort in Gusu while I complete my travels. We have some time in the morning before I leave, perhaps we could go night-hunting tonight. I have been so busy going from place-to-place, I wanted to exercise a bit. I’m sure Hanguang-Jun would like a report as well.”
“Ai, Lan Sizhui. I said we were going to have fun, and you want to write reports?” at the mention of his name, Lan Sizhui sees a few heads turn in his peripheral vision. There were a few people leering before, but he had imagined it was because he was eating with the Sect Leader’s son…or maybe, there were just not used seeing the white Gusu Lan disciple robes, since the colour of Baling was a deep wine red. Clearly, that was not it, it seems.
“Writing reports is fun,” he smiles. “I’m sure Jin Ling and Jingyi would want to see what we saw as well, right?”
“Sizhui…” he whines. “What a prized student you are. I’m sure your father must be happy.” Sizhui laughs, shaking his head. “My father, on the other hand, was ready to whack me on the head when I said you were coming to do assessments today.”
“Oh,” Sizhui frowns. “I’m sorry. Is he still not on board?”
“Not behind closed doors, you know how he is.” Zizhen twirls a long imaginary moustache. “Zizhen! You must not collude with the Yiling Patriarch! Know your limits! Respect your elders!” Sizhui snorts, though he can’t scold because the impression is rather spot on.
“It’s okay. Most of the disciples are so strong, they will be useful for this project.” Sizhui smiles. There’s a woman on the table behind Zizhen, who stares at them intently. She has a young, pretty face, round, like a full moon. She picks ceaselessly at her food, but her eyes fix on him specifically. While Sizhui does not make eye contact, in order to not scare her, he does notice she has no killing intent. Her other hand rests on her extended stomach, as her friend opposite her chats away, with no intention to stop.
Sizhui raises his eyebrows. He’s not used to seeing a lot of pregnant women in Gusu. He doesn’t get to see many female Lan disciples at all, let alone the ones who are with child. Even on the streets, they remain well rested and cared for, inside the house, to not apply any additional stress to them. Perhaps the conduct in Baling is different. He shrugs and gets back to the food placed in front of him.
As night falls, Zizhen takes him to a forest a short distance away. The forest is home to many woodland monsters, and they take turns capturing the various creatures that come their way. There is nothing big or difficult, but Sizhui enjoys the practice anyway. Zizhen cuts through the last of the monsters and places a talisman to immobilise it’s shaking.
Sizhui plays his guqin until it calms down. Zizhen stretches and looks his way. “Ah! That was fun! I wish there were more. Maybe it’s good Jin Ling didn’t come, he would’ve gotten so bored.” He’s right. While he and Zizhen, and maybe even Jingyi, could enjoy a leisurely fight against forest spirits, Jin Ling would throw a tantrum if there was nothing, in his words, worth his time.
Sizhui snickers as he moves to put his guqin away. Suddenly, behind them, they hear a rustling of some leaves, and both he and Zizhen turn their heads, suddenly alert. Zizhen wields his sword, but Sizhui shakes his head. “It’s not a monster. It feels human.”
Zizhen frowns but puts his sword away. The both approach carefully before Sizhui moves the bush aside.
In front of them, to their utter confusion, stands a woman in light pink robes. When Sizhui notices her very pregnant stomach, he realises she is the same woman from the inn. “Young Masters!” she sputters. “I’m so sorry, I, I thought you wouldn’t find me…” she says, rather sheepishly. Her round face goes as pink as her robes.
“Young Maiden, what are you doing in a place like this? It is past nightfall, and you are alone,” Zizhen furrows his eyebrows. “And you are expecting. It is not safe, there are monsters and snakes.” She gasps.
“Young Master Ouyang is right.” Sizhui nods. “You followed us from the inn, didn’t you? I’m surprised I did not notice.” Zizhen turns to him, even more confused.
She nods, glancing down in shame. “Actually, I am also a cultivator…it was quite easy for me to stay concealed.” She reveals a sheathed dagger in the hand hidden behind her back.
“Is it okay for you to be out like this, though? While you are…” Zizhen starts, his eyes moving to her stomach.
“Oh, I was not night hunting…”
“Then, Young Maiden, let us escort you home.” Sizhui says. She raises her hands in protest.
“Actually, I live nearby, it is not a problem at all…” she says. “Young Master Lan is right. I have been following you both for some time.” Sizhui does not ask her why she knows his name. He assumes the forehead ribbon gives him away. “I crave a boon.”
“Yes. You are Young Master Lan Sizhui, aren’t you? His Excellency’s…ward.” She says the last word with extended difficulty. Sizhui frowns, but nods. The young woman attaches her dagger to her belt and grabs both his hands in hers. Sizhui and Zizhen both turn a similar shade of scarlet. Sizhui glances at him desperately to quell the thoughts emerging in his head, before he jumps to any foreboding conclusion.
“Young Maiden –“
“Young Master Lan! Please bless my child! I want her to be strong and healthy!”
Sizhui gawks at her. He was not expecting that. “Young Maiden…you followed us here so I could bless your unborn daughter?”
“Yes.” She nods furiously. “My husband’s family has a long history of issues in childbirth. I am greatly worried, please bless my daughter! Only you can help!”
Sizhui looks at her, worried. Zizhen’s mouth is still open in stunned silence. “But Young Maiden, I am not a Daoist.” She shakes her head.
“Young Master, that does not matter. If you bless me now, my husband and I will place offerings in your name in our temple. That will be enough. All we need is your blessing! A miracle like you could save us from our misfortune!”
Sizhui’s eyes widen. “I’m, I’m afraid I can’t guarantee anything…I do not know how that will be useful…”
“Young Master Lan,” she gives him the most pitiful expression. “We are so desperate, please give us your blessing.” Sizhui frowns. The sight of such a sad and anxious woman, just at the crest of giving birth, makes his heart clench. She should be excited, shouldn’t she? Babies are a blessing from the heavens. He gives her a weak smile.
“I’m sorry…the most I can do is hope your child is healthy. I wish you my best,” he moves her hands away. Her face immediately brightens.
“Oh, Young Master, from you, that is more than enough. I do not have any money, but please take this as a token of my unyielding gratitude,” she removes an ornate, gem-encrusted pin from her hair. “It was my mother’s. It is worth a lot.” Sizhui immediately shakes his head.
“No, please. Just take care of yourself, I do not need anything from you.” She frowns but respects his request, and the hairpin goes back to where it was.
“Thank you, Young Masters. I will take my leave now,” she bows and turns away, only to disappear into the trees.
They sit in a meditated silence for several moments, before Zizhen speaks again.
“What in the world was that about?”
“I have absolutely no idea.”
Wei Ying yawns loudly into his palm, and his husband, polite and preened as he is, gives him a flash of a dirty look. “We could have slept in, you know.”
“We would reach home quite late, then. A whole day would be wasted.” Lan Zhan holds his hands behind his back. Wei Ying smirks and leans over, even as Lil’ Apple whinnies in response. He runs his finger up the small of Lan Zhan’s back, satisfied as he momentarily reacts to his touch.
“Isn’t that nice? We could go straight to bed, then.” He wiggles his eyebrows. Lan Zhan glances back at him.
“Wei Ying,” it’s a warning, but not a protest. Permission enough to leave his fingers where they are. He begins to trace little circles.
“Hanguang-Jun is cruel.” Wei Ying sighs dramatically. “You tire your poor husband out, and wake him up at the crack of dawn, with no incentive.” He shakes his head.
“Wei Ying needs incentives to wake up in the morning.”
“Of course I do.” Wei Ying pinches him. Hanguang-Jun grasps his hands with the ones behind is back. It’s clearly an uncomfortable position for them to be in, but he lets Lan Zhan hold his fingers, anyway.
“It’s so hot, too. I can’t even look at the sun without squinting.” Hanguang-Jun suddenly stops as they enter the marketplace. It is so early, only a few vendors have opened their stalls. Hanguang-Jun hands him the reins as they stop near one of them. The vendor, who is hanging little trinkets upon his stand, looks towards him. He is young, bright-faced for such an early hour.
“Young Masters! What can I help you with today?”
“We need a hat,” Hanguang-Jun says, and the salesman nods and looks for a neatly woven straw hat.
“Lan-er-gege, what is this. I won’t be able to see your handsome face if you wear a hat. I refuse to undergo this maltreatment.” The salesman glances at him in surprise, just as Hanguang-Jun gives him the money for the hat. The hat is ceremoniously dumped on his head.
“For Wei Ying. Since it is hot.” Wei Ying’s cheeks heat up so quickly, he might as well blame the weather.
“…Hanguang-Jun. Are you worried the blaring sun will ruin my beauty?”
“As if that could happen,” Hanguang-Jun says, far too easily. This man has the audacity to call him shameless when he spouts such nonsense without even a flicker of remorse.
Wei Ying is thankful for the hat since it hides most of his face. “You really are a cruel man, Hanguang-Jun.”
Before Hanguang-Jun can voice his dissatisfaction, and they can move along on their travels, the vendor speaks up. “H-Ha-Hanguang-Jun?” oh dear. Lan Zhan is not privy to being recognised, no matter how often it tends to happen. The vendor turns to Wei Ying. “So you must be…”
Wei Ying sighs and sits up on his elbows. So this, again. “Yes, yes, Yiling Patriarch, risen from the dead, here to torment virgins and wise men - ”
“No! No, no. Of course not, Young Master Wei,” he fumbles after Lan Zhan shoots him a glare. “I am honoured that such dignified Young Masters visited my humble shop. I would be happy to give you many more things, but I would like to request your blessings…”
Wei Ying raises an eyebrow. “Hanguang-Jun looks like a Deity, but he is mortal like all other men, unfortunately.”
“Oh, no – not from Hanguang-Jun…from you, Young Master Wei.”
“Huh?” Wei Ying gives him a puzzled look. “Sorry, but no matter what anyone tells you, I don’t curse people.” He can see Lan Zhan getting tired of this conversation already, from the corner of his eye.
“No! No,” the young man twiddles with his thumbs. “Actually I wanted to ask you if you could make my wife and I a talisman, for fertility…and conception…”
“Huh? Fertility Talismans? From me?” They’re quite easily available, even in this market, he’s sure. They’re common gifts for weddings. He’s a made a handful, during his time in Lotus Pier, and they’re usually placed in the couple’s hands with cheeky remarks and comments as they exit their wedding banquets. He always enjoyed being at the forefront of the teasing, to see the couple turn the colour of their pristine wedding robes.
He and Hanguang-Jun eloped, so he never really got any of that teasing. He would’ve laughed a lot if some well-meaning disciple or family member gave two men a conception talisman, with confused wishes of virility. But he doubts Gusu Lan encourages any such practice, and they hadn’t even received a single gift, apart from some well-wishes for their marriage.
“Of course! My wife and I have had some trouble, actually…” he looks away, suddenly shy. “We have been married for a year, and we are so worried. So if Hanguang-Jun and the Yiling Patriarch, who birthed a child even from two men could give us some help…they say the Lan Heir is strong and promising, like his parents.”
It takes him a moment to realise what this man is saying. When he does, his hand goes to smack Lan Zhan’s shoulder, as he bursts into an obnoxiously loud fit of laughter. “Hahaha!” he gasps, trying to catch his breath. The vendor looks at him in confusion. “Lan Zhan! Can you believe this – hahaha!” Lil’ Apple grunts at his sudden string of movements, as tears move from his eyes, his laughter uncontrollable. “Oh –” he chortles, holding his stomach again. “Oh, kind sir. Did you think we fashioned Lan Sizhui out of stone, or something – oh lord! Hahaha!”
“Oh…but they said,” he says nervously. “You both –”
“You know,” Wei Ying fishes out paper and a brush from his bag. “Since you made me laugh so much, I’m actually going to make you one.” He draws his talisman, fortunately from memory. The vendor's eyes light up.
“Oh! Thank you so much, Young Master!” he smiles, bowing gratuitously. Wei Ying waves him off, still shaking from laughter. “Thank you, please, anything you want from the shop is yours,” Wei Ying leans over to look at all his things.
“There is no need.” His boring, noble husband says, and Wei Ying frowns. Hanguang-Jun! You dare refuse free things!
“Please, at least take another hat,” the hat is unceremoniously shoved into Hanguang-Jun’s hands.
“Ooh, Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying grins. “Now we can match.”
Predictable as he always is, the hat is placed neatly on his husbands head.
For his next assessment, Sizhui requests Ning-shushu’s appearance.
“W-What do you need me t-to do?”
“Meishan Yu has several talented archers. I thought you could help me pick the best ones, for the Burial Mounds Project?” Ning-shushu had nodded, and they had made their way to Meishan.
Finding archers was never going to be an issue. Sizhui also figured, that being around a fierce corpse as kind and gentle as Ning-shushu, would help them quell any lingering fears they had about returning to the Burial Mounds. Ning-shushu’s skill in archery always helped, and having him around was always a pleasant experience.
As they wander the streets, they see an old couple in front of a small cottage, unloading several bags of produce from a cart. “Madam!” Sizhui calls out, running over. “Please put that down. My companion and I will help.”
Ning-shushu and he help the old couple unload their goods into their house. The kind old woman offers them a seat at their table, a pot of tea already in her hand. Sizhui is kind of tired, and it feels wrong to refuse. He beckons Ning-shushu over, and they sit down.
“Such strong cultivators, in our area,” she says, pouring them tea. “How nice of you to help us.” Sizhui smiles and shakes his head, as her husband returns with a plate of sliced watermelon.
“Please, Young Masters. For your kindness to us, please help yourselves.” He gives them a warm smile, and something about it seems vaguely familiar. “What brings you to Meishan?”
“I am recruiting disciples for a project,” he says succinctly.
“Where are you both from?”
“I am from the Gusu Lan Sect. My name is Lan Yuan. This is my uncle, Young Master Qionglin, from Yiling.” He knows that Ning-shushu doesn’t often give his last name to passers-by. Ning-shushu nods quietly.
“Young Master Qionglin, what an interesting name…you have not touched your watermelon.” Sizhui winces. Ning-shushu can’t eat, can he. His long black hair covers the scars on his neck, but neither of the old couple seem to notice his white, pupil-less eyes. The lighting in the house is dim enough to hide it.
“Ah,” Ning-shushu says. “S-sorry, I am not v-very hungry.”
“Could it be,” the old man squints in the candlelight, to discern the expression on Ning-shushu’s sallow, grey face. “You are the Ghost General?”
Both he and Ning-shushu jump slightly. “Ahh…” Ning-shushu says softly. “Yes.”
“Oh wow,” the old woman says. “Such a famous figure, and in our humble town. You will join us for dinner, won’t you?”
“O-oh, t-thank you, but, I do not eat.”
“Oh, yes…” the man says. “You are dead, after all.”
Ning-shushu nods so earnestly, that Sizhui has to swallow a laugh. “Thank you for the offer, Madam. But we will leave soon.”
“Oh, there is no rush,” the old woman gives him a gummy smile. “If your uncle is the Ghost General, you must be the Lan Heir? The ward of the Yiling Patriarch?”
Sizhui smiles and nods. “Yes. My courtesy name is Lan Sizhui.”
“Lan Sizhui!” the old man gawks. “The miracle child?”
“Miracle child?” Sizhui cocks his head to the side. Ning-shushu looks similarly. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, to be in such a presence,” the old man bows, and Sizhui quickly moves to stop him.
“Sir, please!” he says. “I’m not sure what you mean by that…” he looks at Ning-shushu, who shakes his head.
“The miracle child. The one born of two men, correct?” Sizhui’s eyes almost bulge from his head.
“Your story has made its way all the way to Meishan,” the now starry-eyed old man smiles at him. “About the strong Yin and Yang energy of Hanguang-Jun and the Yiling Patriarch, combining to create life! I cannot believe we are so lucky to have you in our home.”
“U-um, sir…” Ning-shushu says once he recognises that Sizhui is too stunned to respond. “Are you suggesting that Young Master Wei and Second Master Lan…created A-Yuan?”
“This granny is quite a romantic,” the old man laughs and gently nudges his wife. “Aren’t you?” Sizhui hopes that means she has made this up.
“But what a beautiful story! To love someone so much, you defy the laws of nature. A child is a gift from the heavens.” She says, a big smile on her face. “To think this handsome young man in front of us was birthed by two men! The Yiling Patriarch was always spoken about as such a loathsome figure…but to give such a miraculous gift to his beloved,” she leans over and gently touches Sizhui’s cheek. “He must be a brilliant man.”
“Um,” Sizhui starts, unable to form a proper response. Suddenly, the woman in the forest in Baling, asking for his blessings, was starting to make a lot more sense. Had this rumour started in Baling? A miracle child? Him? Senior Wei is brilliant, but surely, he couldn’t do that…could he? He wouldn’t put it past him to try.
“Actually, that Wei Wuxian is being spoken of as a Fertility God, in many of our little towns.” Ning-shushu sputters at that, unable to hold back. “All the young couples have begun to pray to him for healthy and strong children. Like you, Young Master!”
Sizhui’s watermelon almost falls out of his hand. Senior Wei? A Fertility God?! Hanguang-Jun often has the appearance of a strong and powerful deity, but Senior Wei?
“Sir, M-madam…” Ning-shushu starts. “May I – ask where y-you heard this?”
“Oh…the market, perhaps? That little A-Ping,” she says like they know this A-Ping, “he and his wife just had a little baby. Very healthy and strong, most likely a cultivator. He made an offering at our temple. Then A-Yang too, she prayed to the Yiling Patriarch, and her mother told everyone at the town meeting that she is finally pregnant again. She was having trouble, and her first is already five. And then that Mai –”
“Li Mai,” the man shakes his head. “She was really struggling. That poor girl always wanted to be a mother. We have known her for many years. Thanks to the Yiling Patriarch, she is finally expecting.” He gives a soft sigh. “The family is just so happy. Thank you so much, Young Miracle.”
“Ah…” Sizhui says. “You’re – welcome, but really, neither I nor Senior Wei really –”
“Oh dear, don’t be so humble. Maybe if my husband and I had found you 60 years ago, we would have many young children, wouldn’t we?” She pats her husband’s shoulder, and he gives them a misty little nod. “We are just happy so many young couples got what we could not have.”
Sizhui suddenly feels his throat go dry, similar to how it had when the pregnant woman approached him. He gives them a smile. “I am happy for them too.” Ning-shushu gives them a wordless smile as well. “We must be on our way. Thank you, though, for your generous hospitality.”
“Ah, it was a pleasure. Oh! Before you go!” the woman fiddles with her pouch and removes a silver piece. While not a lot for Sizhui, considering his stipend, that much silver could feed this old couple generously. She takes his hand and presses it into his palm, closing his fist over it. Sizhui realises and shakes his head violently.
“Madam, this is absolutely not –”
“Shh, shh. It is good luck money. We have no children to make offerings for.”
“Grow well, and prosper, Young Miracle.” The old man gives him a wrinkly smile. I’m almost 20, though, Sizhui wants to say.
“I really can’t…” he says. Do not accept compensation for which you have not earned.
“Shh. Listen to granny, and take it.” A-Yuan, listen to granny and take this. Xian-gege will come home soon.
Suddenly, it’s a lot harder for him to refuse.
As they make their way back onto the main road, Ning-shushu looks at him. “I heard something about this when I was near Dafan Mountain.” Dafan Mountain? This rumour had reached Old Qishan? “Some cultivators were talking about Senior Wei, and saying they were praying so they could conceive…because he gave birth to the Lan Heir.”
“Huh? Really? Something like this happened in Baling, too…Zizhen and I were cornered by a pregnant woman.”
Ning-shushu raises his eyebrows. “R-really? How bold…”
“It was a little strange.” Sizhui gives him a little laugh. “But Senior Wei, saying he’s a Fertility God? Isn’t that, not possible?” Senior Wei had a habit of fabricating many stories. He had very successfully convinced Jingyi, once, that all babies were born in the soil, like turnips. He would often say he gave birth to him, too, as a playful joke. Maybe someone misunderstood that statement?
“It shouldn’t be…” Ning-shushu ponders. “Young Master Wei is very talented, but I was there when you were born…it was surely a woman…”
Sizhui looks towards him. “I know…I do, remember her, a bit. Not a lot, but a little bit.”
“She w-was kind.” Ning-shushu said. “You look like my cousin, but her personality…was similar to yours. Kind, and strong-willed.” Sizhui smiles. Warmth spreads through him like tea on a chilly day. “I g-guess that’s Young Master Wei, as well…”
Sizhui smiles wider, though it’s mostly to himself. Something about that makes him feel even warmer.
When he returns to the Cloud Recesses, Wei Ying is, to everyone’s dismay, left to his own devices. Hanguang-Jun is busy in correspondence with his uncle, and Sizhui will not return until later today. Bored, then, Wei Ying decides to take matters into his own hands.
“Lan Jingyi!” Wei Ying calls, and Lan Jingyi looks at him with sheer panic in his eyes.
“No – Senior Wei! You can’t trick me again! Hanging upside down from the tree won’t make me taller! You lied to me again!” he cries, hugging his chest.
Wei Ying sputters with laughter. He can’t believe he fell for this again. This poor young man. It’s a pity he didn’t live in Lotus Pier when he and Jiang Cheng were teens. Lord knows what they would’ve talked him into, as teenagers themselves. “Hmm?” he taps his chin. “But you look taller to me?”
Jingyi’s eyes light up, despite his previous annoyance. “Really?”
“Yes – do it a few more times, and you’ll be as tall as Hanguang-Jun.”
Jingyi’s suspicions seem to drain after that. “Really?! As tall as Hanguang-Jun?” Wei Ying nods with utmost sincerity. This poor kid.
“Come on, I’ll help you dangle from your feet.” Jingyi glares at him. “What? Sizhui’s returning today, don’t you want him to see how tall you’ve gotten? He’ll be so happy.”
“Hmm…okay…but you better not trick me, or I’ll tell Hanguang-Jun to punish you!”
Wei Ying beckons him towards a strong tree. “Yeah, Jingyi, you should do that.” That sounds like a great way to spend the evening.
“I can see you growing taller already,” Wei Ying yanks a strand of Jingyi’s hair, snickering to himself as the young man struggles to hold his balance. Jingyi clears his throat.
“This better work!” he says, stretching his arms out like Wei Ying instructs.
“Of course it will,” Wei Ying whistles. “You’ve seen how tall Sect Leader Jiang is, right? I used to do this to him all the time when we were younger.”
“Why didn’t you do it yourself, then?” the audacity of this child! Saying this while hanging by his tail like a monkey!
“How dare you, Lan Jingyi?” Wei Ying tickles his sides, and Jingyi moves with so much laughter he falls right to the floor. He gets up, dusting his now dirty robes furiously.
“Senior Wei! How could you do that!” he huffs. “Just because I said you could use this technique.”
Wei Ying looms over him, even standing on his toes for greater effect. “Do you really think I need it?”
“Don’t you want to be as tall as Hanguang-Jun?” Jingyi stubbornly crosses his arms.
“I am nearly as tall as Hanguang-Jun.” We were the same height, once!
“Ha – okay,” Jingyi smirks. Huh? Where did this kid learn to act like this?! “Perhaps Senior Wei is making a big deal because he’s not strong enough to hang upside down from a tree branch!”
“Oh really –” Wei Ying narrows his eyes. “We’ll see about that.”
“Lan Jingyi,” Wei Ying says, gathering his ponytail in his hands so it doesn’t touch the ground. “People give you less credit than you deserve.”
Jingyi turns to him, unbeknownst to how his position has his hair sweeping the soil. “I agree, Senior Wei.” He clearly doesn’t understand that he’s gotten Wei Ying to fall for his own tricks, so they stand there, hanging upside down in peaceful silence, for several minutes.
The tranquillity is interrupted by the shrill sound of Lan Qiren’s voice.
“Wei Ying,” he also hears, and that piques his interest.
“Lan Zhan, come here!” his husband, ever the obedient partner, makes his way over. Lan Qiren looks at him like he’s a succubus here to suck the soul out of his beloved nephew.
Wei Ying, still upside down, grabs the sides of his face and kisses him. Lan Zhan, while surprised, only for a moment, kisses him back. It’s more uncomfortable than he’d intended. “I’ve always wanted to do that. Though it was a little weird. Maybe you should do a handstand.” Lan Zhan nods.
He somersaults and lands on his feet, but Jingyi slides right onto floor in shock, with a loud, loud thud. He stands up, shaking the dust off himself. Lan Qiren grimaces.
“You have not even been home one whole day and you’re already causing trouble!” he yells, clearly too embarrassed (or, enraged) to even start reciting the rules Wei Ying has broken by doing that.
“How nice of you to admit that the Cloud Recesses is my home, Qiren-shushu.”
Lan Qiren’s face grows purple. “Do not call me that!” he says, and his nose is raised so high his thin wiry moustache could get sucked right in.
“Hmm?” Wei Ying crosses his arm. “But I have returned home, haven’t I? To my family…Lan-shushu.”
Lan Zhan watches with subtle amusement, as Lan Jingyi scrambles to greet him. Lan Qiren huffs. “You will call me Grandmaster or nothing else,” he says.
“Haw,” Wei Ying sighs, holding a hand to his chest with dramatic flair. “Should I not call you father-in-law? This one is so heartbroken,” Lan Qiren and Jingyi gawk at him with open admonishment. If, indeed, father-in-law were to turn any more purple, they’d have to ship off to Jiang Cheng. Lan Zhan’s lips quirk, for a fleeting second, into what looks like a smile.
“Wei Wuxian! You insolent, insipid – urgh,” Lan Qiren shakes his head. Wei Ying snorts with laughter. He gets a glare in return. “Since you two enjoy being upside down so much, both of you meditate in a handstand till I return! Wangji! Keep an eye on them!” he leaves in a huff.
Wei Ying crosses his arms like a child denied a toy. “How terrible. I was trying to help Jingyi grow taller!”
“Wei Ying was playing around.”
“Yes! Senior Wei was playing around! I will never believe him again!” Jingyi groans, accepting his punishment in defeat. It takes a few more minutes of him stubbornly staring at Lan Zhan for him to join Jingyi in the position. He glares at his husband, from upside down, and he just stands there, looking pretty as a statue, his hands tucked in his sleeves.
“Wei Ying, close your eyes, you are meant to be meditating.” He glances at Jingyi, whose eyes are closed painfully tight.
“Lan Zhan, if I close my eyes, I’ll fall asleep.” He shimmies, and his outer robe pools towards his collar.
“If Wei Ying meditates properly, he will not fall asleep.” He says, in a soft, consistent tone. Wei Ying rolls his eyes before closing them.
Since meditation is near impossible for him, he does not maintain a clear mind, and he does not release himself from his senses. He doubts Jingyi does either, but he breathes deeply and with a rhythm, and does not react when Wei Ying shoves his foot against his, clumsy enough to be an accident. He hears shuffling opposite him, and suddenly, a pair of lips touch his, softly – only to disappear a moment later. It’s quick enough that he barely has a chance to respond, or make a noise, and even Jingyi doesn’t stir.
He opens his eyes to see the inverted image of his husband, standing shamelessly innocent, like he didn’t just do that. “Perhaps you should be doing a handstand, too, Lan Zhan.” He says, and Lan Zhan’s gaze averts to the trees in the distance.
“Close your eyes,” is all he says.
For what feels like a very long time, he remains there, occasionally taking a peek at his husband, who neither paces nor fidgets, just standing in place. He looks at Jingyi, who is clearly moments away from nodding off. As much as he fights it, he has to laugh.
When he hears footsteps approaching, he wonders if Lan Qiren had returned. He has, clearly, but behind him, there’s a younger man, who leans to his side to see who the punished disciples are.
“A-Yuan!” he calls out and rolls onto his feet. “You’ve returned!” He’s been gone for three weeks, but Wei Ying’s reaction will make him feel like he’s been gone far longer. Jingyi’s eyes burst open at the mention of his friend, and he falls flat on his face once again.
“Jingyi!” Sizhui calls and rushes over to help his friend. “Senior Wei!” Wei Ying smiles, even as Lan Qiren’s grumbles travel all the way to his ears. “Hanguang-Jun,” he bows at Lan Zhan, and Lan Zhan smiles softly at him.
“How was your assignment?” Sizhui smiles at his father.
“It went well. Only a few more sects and we will be on our way.”
They chat and catch up before Lan Qiren clears his throat.
“All of you are late for dinner,” he says, and Wei Ying has to focus on the ache in his forearms to suppress the urge to roll his eyes. “Go, now. And Wei Wuxian,” he pulls out a stack of about 50 letters from his sleeves. “These accumulated for you during your travels.”
“…huh.” Wei Ying says and retrieves the twine-wrapped bundle from him. The only person who ever writes him is Wen Ning, and none of these letters seem to use the envelopes he sends them in. Once in a blue moon, Jiang Cheng will write him, but none of them have a Yunmeng Jiang Sect seal on them either, from what he can see.
“I don’t know.” Lan Qiren scoffs. “What have you done that so many letters have arrived in your name?”
“Wei Ying did not do anything.” Lan Zhan says, and Lan Qiren does not retort, verbally at least. He finger-combs through his goatee and shrugs.
“Go open them after dinner.”
After dinner, Sizhui and Jingyi join them in the Jingshi. The invitation had been for Sizhui alone, but there sits Jingyi, looking intently at all of Hanguang-Jun’s materials, as Sizhui brings them a pot of tea. It’s about time that he and Lan Zhan realise, that they are but a package deal. Lan Zhan responds to his own, admittedly more modest, stack of letters on the other side of the room.
“We can help,” Sizhui says, bringing an inkstone. “It will take you forever to open those letters. We can sort them by priority.” He looks hopeful, as he opens up the twine. Wei Ying can’t deny him this when he looks so excited. He also really doesn’t want to write that many letters.
“You are too good, A-Yuan,” Wei Ying shakes his head. He tears through the first, and hands the pile to the children, so they can do the same.
“Dear Yiling Patriarch,” Wei Ying reads out, and that’s already a bad sign. “I heard rumours from Lanling that you are giving talismans for conception for couples who are infertile.” He gawks, too stunned to continue. “Huh?”
Sizhui looks concerned, and reads out his own, “To Wei Wuxian, I am a secret cutsleeve from Yunping. If you may give me advice on how my male partner and I can procreate, his family will stop putting pressure on him to find a suitable wife to have interc…” he trails off, completely scarlet, unable to do the rest. Jingyi and Wei Ying stare at him completely blankly.
“What? That’s not possible! Why are they asking me!” hearing his commotion, Hanguang-Jun saunters over. Jingyi opens a wobbly mouth to read what is in his letter, and his eyes widen comically. Lan Zhan gently plucks the letter from his hands.
“To Wei Wuxian, God of Fertility,” he reads out, without a single quiver, in that stupidly monotone voice of his. “I will be birthing my first child in the span of a week, and I seek your blessings. I do hope it will be strong and successful, like the Lan Heir.”
“Huh,” Wei Ying gawks. “What the hell are these even talking about?” he rips through a few other ones.
I am using this talisman above my bed.
Next week my sister is giving birth and we made an offering at your temple.
I prayed to the Miracle Child for my baby to grow healthy. I pray to you, Fertility God, so that our child will be handsome like yours and Hanguang-Jun’s.
My mistress is holding her birth over my head and I need you to reverse your fertility charms, they worked too well.
“What are all of these?!” he says, pushing them all of the table. “Fertility God? Me? Why are people praying to me? I have never sired any children! Or conceived any!”
Jingyi narrows his eyes like he’s said something ridiculous. Lan Zhan cuts him off. “Wei Ying. You gave that man a conception talisman during our travels.”
“Yes, because he made a funny joke. He thought I fashioned Sizhui out of stone and gave him life through demonic cultivation.” Sizhui’s eyes widen, and Jingyi bursts out laughing.
“Out of stone!” he giggles. “How ridiculous. Babies aren’t made from stone…right, Senior Wei?” Jingyi says but clearly looks to them for affirmation. Before Sizhui can correctly inform his friend, he waves him off.
“Sure,” he says flippantly and turns back to his husband. “Lan Zhan! It was a joke! And he was a simple salesman, how could he have told so many people? Some of these are from across the country. We told him yesterday.”
“Yesterday…?” Sizhui says. “That’s not possible, then. People found me in Baling and Meishan. Those are in the opposite direction.”
“Baling? Meishan?” Wei Ying cries. These nonsense rumours have spread to Madam Yu’s birthplace? She’s probably cursing him, even in her grave.
“What did you hear in Baling and Meishan, Sizhui?” Lan Zhan says, still unafflicted.
“There was this pregnant woman who followed Zizhen and me to ask me to bless her son…” he mumbles. “And in Meishan, an old couple made Ning-shushu and I take good luck money to grow well as this Miracle Child…since you gave birth to me.” he looks even more embarrassed, now. Wei Ying has to crack a smile.
“Sizhui, you sure are a miracle.” He says, and Sizhui sputters. “But I don’t think my memory is so bad that I’d forget giving birth.” Lan Zhan snorts, as if in disagreement. He ignores that, for now.
“No! no, I know…” he says, mostly into his teacup. “I don’t know where they started to hear these things.”
“You know, now that you say it.” Jingyi rubs his chin, almost as an imitation of Lan Qiren. “When I was in Caiyi Town, last week, this man asked me I was the Lan Heir and shoved money into my hands. When I asked why, he said it was because he wanted his wife to have a son. I didn’t understand, but maybe they thought I was you, Sizhui!” Sizhui twists his lips, unlike the smile that creeps its way into Jingyi’s face.
“I hope you did not keep the money,” Hanguang-Jun says.
Wei Ying laughs when Jingyi shakes his head violently and remains uncharacteristically quiet as they continue to look through each letter. He confesses to his lie in less than three minutes.
A few hours and forty letters later, the two juniors are long gone. There is only one of value, an invitation from Lanling Jin, for a certain Jin Rulan’s birthday celebration, in the next month. Most were similar, with requests, gratitude, and a few random complaints. Wei Ying, newly anointed Fertility God, is largely at a loss for words. Lan Zhan folds the discarded robes from the floor, before blowing out the last of the candles and getting into bed.
“Wei Ying,” he says, as Wei Ying immediately buries his nose into his shoulder. “You are preoccupied.”
“Hmm?” Wei Ying lets the blanket be pulled over him. “I’m just tired. You have exhausted me yet again, Hanguang-Jun.”
His husband looks smug. “Even then, you are preoccupied.”
“How astute you are,” he mumbles, already half asleep. Lan Zhan wraps his arms around him.
“Are you thinking about the letters?” he says, stroking Wei Ying’s hair.
“You have to admit, that’s something new.” He shrugs. “Though I guess anything’s better than being called a bloodthirsty murderer.”
“They should not be so demanding,” Lan Zhan says, and traces a long, delicate pattern, down to his shoulders.
“Who can you be demanding with, if not a God?” Wei Ying wiggles his eyebrows. His cruel husband snorts at him. “Actually…” he starts, “I was thinking about A-Yuan.”
“What about him?”
“He’s the Miracle Child, isn’t he. That child doesn’t like that much attention.”
Lan Zhan tilts his head. “Sizhui does not covet fame or glory. He will be alright.”
“Oh, I know. Just, to say he was created by two men, isn’t that excessive? I don’t want him to receive any negative attention because of his perceived relation to me.” Wei Ying’s lips quirk downwards. It’s an ongoing fear, he knows. It’s been there for a long time. You hear what they say about the adopted child of the Jiang Clan, don’t you? To think a man as noble as Jiang Fengmian could have a bastard. “As cute as it may be,” he mumbles. “I don’t want him to be accused for my mistakes. Some of those letters suggested he was created from demonic cultivation, didn’t they? What if they turn against him later in life?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, the air of casualness leaving his voice. Wei Ying turns his head to face him. “He is the best of everything you are.”
Wei Ying snorts. “Okay, Lan Zhan. You raised him. Shouldn’t he be the best of you?”
“The best of my life is only you, Wei Ying.”
Suddenly, Lan Zhan’s gaze is too much for him. He drags the blanket and pulls it over his husband’s head. “I told you to warn me, before saying things like that.” Almost through the woven material, he can see the ghost of a smile.
“I will try my best.” He says, and Wei Ying raises his eyebrows.
“Lying is forbidden, Lan Zhan.”
“I know,” his husband has the audacity to say. He pulls his veil off and lies down.
“Still,” Wei Ying grumbles into his pillow. “The world doesn’t see me that way.”
Lan Zhan manoeuvres them, so he’s facing the back of his husband’s head. Wei Ying realises, after, that he’s doing as a wordless warning for what he says next.
“I will work tirelessly until my world does.”
“Paintings and talismans from the Fertility God! Blessed trinkets for conception! Hang it above your bed for a son! Created by the Yiling Patriarch himself!” Wei Ying snaps his head up when he hears the seller yell out his former title.
He scoffs, crossing his arms before he heads up to approach. He had been waiting for Hanguang-Jun as he finished a diplomatic meeting, and he really had some time to kill. He wanders to the front, only for the man to call at him.
“Young Master! What would you like! Surely you and your wife must be in want of a child!” He beckons him over, and Wei Ying skips to the stand.
“Oh yes, of course, we’ve just had so much trouble,” he sighs and shakes his head. “It has cost me my pride as a man.”
“Well, don’t I have a solution! Precious leaves for virility, from the Yiling Patriarch himself!” he dangles a small bag in front of him. “Only five silver pieces. Have your wife drink it as tea before nightfall, and you will have many little young masters in no time!”
“Five silver pieces? What a shrewd man you are!” Wei Ying holds a hand to his chest in accusation. “So much for just a small bag of tea!”
“Young Master, these are from a plantation blessed by the God of Fertility himself. They are guaranteed to work, so they are expensive.” The man nods in earnest. Wei Ying scoffs. As if he’d ever bless a tree.
“And how do I know you are not swindling me? Has the Yiling Patriarch really blessed this bag of tea?” he raises his eyebrows.
The man frowns at him. “What kind of practice do you think I am running here, Young Master. I am but an honest man. The Yiling Patriarch is an illustrious and powerful figure, and I can do nothing but trust his ministrations.” Wei Ying wants to roll his eyes but maintains his bit in a test of patience. “And to be frank,” the vendor says in a low whisper. “My wife has tried this tea herself. We just found out we are having our fourth child!”
More children to join the family business, I’m sure. “Oh wow, sir, congratulations. But I must tell you,” Wei Ying says, in an equally hushed voice. He leans closer. “I think my problem has nothing to do with my wife. I got into a scuffle some years ago, and I think I might have been cursed with,” he shudders visibly. “Impotency.”
The man looks to him with a pained expression. “Oh, you poor man, I feel so badly for you. But I have the solution. These self-portraits from the Yiling Patriarch. They will repel curses and cure your inadequacy. Only one silver piece each, I recommend one for every room of the home. Your robes suggest you are well-off, so seven should be enough?”
Wei Ying looks at the pictures he shows him. What appears in front of him is the image of a terrifying man with blackened skin, claws for limbs and seven tongues. One for each room in the house. “What is this! The Yiling Patriarch does not look like this! He is not so – God, what Fertility God is so hideous!”
“Young Master, looks are deceiving.” The man has the utter arrogance to patronise him. Wei Ying grabs the painting and holds it next to his face.
“Do you see this!” Wei Ying cries. “What do this hideous creature and I have in common!”
The man looks at him, confused, before realisation washes over him. “You are…”
“Wei Ying,” Wei Ying turns once he hears Lan Zhan’s voice. “I was looking for you at the gates.”
“Ah, sorry, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying waves him off, before holding the picture in his hand up. “This man is telling me I look like this!”
Lan Zhan turns to the man and glares. The vendor gulps. “You are…from the Lan Sect…so it’s true?” he looks at Wei Ying.
“Yep,” Wei Ying shoves the painting back into his hands. “Now be more honourable! I did not bless any of this garbage! Come on, Lan Zhan, let’s leave.” He huffs and turns around to leave, Lan Zhan in tow.
“Yiling Patriarch!” the vendor calls in the distance. “Please give me a talisman for my daughter’s birth!” The audacity of this man!
“Use one of your own!” Wei Ying spits and runs to catch up with his husband.
After Jin Ling’s birthday banquet, oddly short and succinct for the style of Lanling Jin, Jiang Cheng wanders to the Lotus Pavilion. It is currently unoccupied, understandably, but still, it’s the only place in the god-awful hellish Koi Tower, where Jiang Cheng is comfortable.
He wanders near the Lotus pond, watching them sway gently in the breeze. He stands still, watching the door – wishing, silently, that it will open. He sighs and closes his eyes before he hears.
He opens his eyes, to see his brother, standing ten feet away from him. He’d avoid him at the banquet, still too raw to hold a conversation with him, especially with all the people around. He looks underdressed, compared to everyone else at the banquet. Can’t that Lan Wangji buy you better robes? He thinks but keeps his chiding to himself.
“I thought you might be here, so I got two,” Wei Wuxian says, holding up two jars of wine. “Let’s have a drink?”
After several beats of silence, he responds. “You changed your hair,” is all he can process.
Wei Wuxian looks surprised but seems to take that as permission to move over and sit down. “Yes,” he says. “Do you like it?”
“…No.” he says and sits down. Wei Wuxian smacks him on the shoulder.
“How horrible, Jiang Cheng. Why even point it out if you hate it?” His face twists in a playfully offended way, and he can see the ghost of his brother even with his new face.
“What, are you a woman?” you certainly act like one. “Are you going to ask me what I think of your robes -” they’re too modest, especially for you. “And your jewellery, too?” that headpiece is new.
“Okay, Sect Leader Jiang,” his brother scoffs. Don’t call me that. “You’ve made your point.” He opens his bottle and drinks right from it.
“…it makes you look like you’re from Gusu Lan.” He says, finally, adjusting one of the leaves till it floats further away.
“Jiang Cheng, I married into Gusu –”
“That’s enough,” he snaps and grabs the bottle from his side. “You don’t need to say it again.”
Wei Wuxian’s sigh is easy-going enough, that Jiang Cheng’s fears slightly dissipate. Perhaps it’s the fact that having their feet on the edge of a Lotus Pond in a house lingering with their sister’s energy – is normal for them, or at least was, at one point. Perhaps it’s the fact that Lan Wangji isn’t around, for once. He doesn’t even bother asking why. They drink the golden liquor and make small talk, for longer than they have in years.
It’s really a pity when they’re interrupted.
A large, heavy-set Jin disciple strides over, and Zidian crackles like she’s anticipating a fight. Wei Wuxian too seems to think no good can come from this, since the guard he’d disabled is effortlessly up again.
“Wei Wuxian!” the large disciple says, and the comes right up to them. He smells like the liquor from the banquet, and Wei Wuxian seems unimpressed.
“What?” he goads, and Jiang Cheng almost smacks his forehead. “Do you have something you wanna say to me?”
“You…” he starts, and Jiang Cheng stands up, in anticipation for a fight. “Why don’t I have a son yet?!”
Well. He wasn’t expecting that.
“Huh?” Wei Wuxian says. “Who is this? Jiang Cheng, do you know him?” Jiang Cheng, still stunned, shakes his head no.
“Don’t be like this!” he says, huffing and clenching his fists. “Some God they say you are!”
“Listen, I have no idea who you are –” Wei Wuxian blinks, and the man reaches for his sword. “Oh? You call me a God, and then reach to attack me? Some arrogance, you have.” Why did he even call you a God? Jiang Cheng thinks.
“But…” he says, and his eyebrows knit over the vermillion spot on his head. “Why did I have a daughter then! I specifically prayed for a son! I did everything right!”
“First of all,” Wei Wuxian says, narrowing his eyes. “Be grateful for the child you have. Also, I’m not your Fertility God. Go pray to a real one, it’s not my fault.” Huh?!
“If you, a man, could have a son with Hanguang-Jun, why couldn’t I?!” he booms, though he looks like a disgruntled child. “What did you do? Tell me in detail!”
“What are you trying to ask here?” Jiang Cheng says, finally. “That is none of your business!”
“I have nothing to hear from an heirless Sect Leader,” he says, and Jiang Cheng sees red. “Now tell me, Wei Wuxian. What did he do? Did he –” he punctuates his statement with a series of painted words and gestures too vulgar to describe. Even someone as carelessly shameless as Wei Wuxian looked disgusted. Jiang Cheng’s anger fades for a few moments as he observes the man in shock.
He keeps going, with his clothed depiction of his obscene actions, and Jiang Cheng briefly feels terrible for the poor woman this man has married. He stops, finally, when Wei Wuxian gags.
“Oh god,” he grimaces. “Your poor wife! Who does that!” he waves his hands. “Stop this, and leave us alone.”
The man turns a fuming red. “How dare you question me! Your talismans did nothing!”
“Sorry to break it to you. I’m not selling any talismans, you got swindled.”
The aggrieved man draws his weapon, and before Wei Wuxian can reach for Chenqing, Zidian knocks it away. “That’s enough,” Jiang Cheng says. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but no one’s here looking for a fight.”
“I just want him to tell me how he had a son!” the man growls. “I need an heir!”
Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. “Well, you aren’t going to get there doing any of –” he motions to himself, repeating one of the man’s crude gestures. “Any of that.”
The man grows redder by the minute. “You! You cutsleeve! You dare accuse me of obscenity when you made a child with your body! That’s disgusting!”
“I said that’s enough,” Jiang Cheng doesn’t even hit him but goes close enough for the man to cower, and fall to the floor.
“Don’t hit me!” he cries, and Jiang Cheng snarls.
“Call him disgusting again, and see what I fucking do to you.”
Wei Wuxian raises his eyebrows, somewhat in surprise, before the man inches away. “Fine…I’m sorry, Yiling Patriarch…” he grumbles. “I guess the rumours about,” he looks at Jiang Cheng with cowardly eyes. “Are true.”
“What rumours,” Jiang Cheng scoffs. “He certainly didn’t give birth to a son, if that’s what you’re talking about.”
“N-no,” he says, to the looming figure about him. “I was talking about you.”
“Jiang Cheng?” Wei Wuxian reaches to his side. “What are they saying about him, now?”
The man looks confused. “That he sold Lotus Pier to Lan Wangji, and you came with it.”
After a few minutes of stunned, painted silence, Wei Wuxian drops to his knees in a fit of endless laughter. “Pfft – Jiang Cheng – oh my god, Jiang Cheng sold Lotus Pier? With me in it? Pfft! Hahaha! Oh my god, you have to be joking, oh my god – as what? A dowry? Hahahaha!”
The Jin disciple gets his arrogant look back. He looks at Wei Wuxian with a smug smile on his face. “Anything to get you out of Yunmeng.” The smile is slapped right off his face. He looks, with wide eyes, at Jiang Cheng. A red bruise begins to colour his cheek.
“Say that again,” is all he says. The man grows weaker with every lingering second, and scrambles to his knees and apologises.
“I guess that’s not true! I’m sorry!” the spineless animal says, before hurriedly taking his leave.
“Aiya, Jiang Cheng.” Wei Wuxian says, patting him on the shoulder. “He was spouting nonsense, but there was no need to slap him. I’m sure no one actually believes you sold Lotus Pier. To Lan Zhan, nonetheless.”
“That’s not why I said it, you idiot!” he snaps, and Wei Wuxian seems unafflicted.
“Oh?” Of course not. I wouldn’t sell you to Lan Wangji even if he bought the whole city.
“No one believes this nonsense,” he scoffs and sits back down. He gets back to his wine, but Wei Wuxian doesn’t.
“They believe I gave birth. Really, they’ll believe anything.”
“What’s that even about?” Jiang Cheng grumbles, as his brother finally sits back next to him.
“They think Sizhui is Miracle Child, born of the eternal love of two men. Or demonic cultivation depends on who you ask.” He says, as casually as he can. Jiang Cheng gapes at him, before his face twists.
“Of course they do.”
“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says. “Of course they do.” They drink peacefully for several minutes before he speaks again. “Thanks for defending me,” he says, and Jiang Cheng shrinks.
“I wasn’t defending you,” he says. Wei Wuxian looks at him like he doesn’t believe him, but doesn’t push it any further.
Wei Ying slides the door to the room open, to find Lan Zhan fast asleep. He’s been asleep since the banquet ended, and Wei Ying tiptoes across the room to take a seat next to him. Lan Zhan doesn’t stir even as he plays with a few strands of his hair and leans over to pluck a fallen eyelash from his cheeks.
He sighs and turns around to strip to his inner robes. He’s grabbed back to his husband’s side, and below the blanket. “Lan Zhan.” He gasps. “You were pretending to be asleep.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan says, and buries them underneath the covers. “I woke up when you came in.”
“Ah, Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying huddles closer. “Sorry. I didn’t want to wake you.”
“S’okay,” Lan Zhan mumbles, far too adorable for him to handle. He’s released momentarily to strip out of his outer robes, and then he crawls back into the space between Lan Zhan’s arms. “What were you doing?” he asks, even as he stifles a yawn.
“I had a drink with Jiang Cheng,” Lan Zhan doesn’t express any discontent, but Wei Ying can feel him stiffen slightly. “It was nice,” he says quickly. “Friendly, even. Though some guy interrupted us to show us how he got his wife pregnant.”
“…what.” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Ying laughs into his chest. “For the Fertility God?”
“Yeah,” Wei Ying snorts. “Fertility God. I’ve never seen anything so shameless, Lan Zhan. The things he did were so obscene, an innocent like me couldn’t handle it.” Lan Zhan snorts at that, and Wei Ying pinches him lightly in response.
“What did he do?” Hanguang-Jun says, and Wei Ying laughs. He leans over to his ear and whispers in shallow, obnoxious detail, and Lan Zhan makes a face.
“He told you and Jiang Wanyin he did that,” Lan Zhan says. It’s not a question, but Wei Ying nods anyway.
“It was really a little much. I mean, who wants to do something like that?” he shakes his head. “Terrible.”
Lan Zhan hums and they sit in lazy, comfortable silence, the dim light in the luxurious room showing him the silhouette of Lan Zhan’s handsome face. “Hey, Lan Zhan,” he murmurs. “Do you want to try something like that?” he’s immediately pushed onto his back.
The lone candle in the room is extinguished even faster than he can laugh.
A few hours earlier, Sizhui is summoned to a room Koi Tower, shortly after the banquet has finished. His friends are inside watching Jin Ling place several large bottles of wine on the table. Servants come with glasses and various snacks, even though they have finished dinner.
“Now that you’re all here,” Jin Ling clears his throat. “and none of your parents are around,” he shoots a look at him and Zizhen. “I refuse to take no for an answer. Everyone is drinking.”
“Jin Ling,” Sizhui sighs. He had spent his entire day assessing the Jin Disciples. They had been particularly sour and gaudy, and only the comfort of the food at the banquet and the large bathtubs of Koi Tower had motivated him throughout the day. He’s not ready to have a whole other party now, even if it’s just with his friends.
“I am not taking no for an answer!” Jin Ling instructs the servants to leave. “This is not the Cloud Recesses, and it’s my birthday. No excuses! All of you have to drink with me!”
Sizhui glances at Jingyi. He’s nervously munching on a bowl of candied nuts, waiting for him to respond. Sizhui thinks carefully. Maybe drinking isn’t a terrible idea. Jin Ling is right, Koi Tower isn’t the Cloud Recesses…no one would know better if they drank liquor here. But it is against the rules, even if Zewu-Jun taught him how to burn the alcohol with his golden core. He looks at Jingyi, who looks longingly at the cup of wine, which is already being filled in front of him. They are only footsteps away from the guest disciple rooms. Some wine would help take the edge off. There is one thing, though. Jingyi voices it for him.
“But…Hanguang-Jun.” he says, picking through his snacks. “What if he finds out?” Zizhen nods, in solidarity, though Hanguang-Jun has no jurisdiction on his drinking habits.
“Hanguang-Jun has already retired to his quarters. There is a servant keeping watch so he can warn us if he leaves. Though, once Wei Wuxian reaches his room, they’re not going to leave. You all know that.” Sizhui shudders. He’d rather not think about how well they all know that. The liquor is fragrant in his cup, and Jin Ling’s plan is admirably foolproof. He’d be proud if he weren’t being pressured to drink despite his protests…
Jingyi and he share a look. Sizhui nods, and shrugs with the smallest of smiles. “Okay, Jin Ling. Since it’s your birthday.” He glances at Jingyi once more. “But just one drink, okay?”
Eight drinks later, Sizhui has long stopped burning the liquor with his core. He lets the short spans of headiness hit him as he sinks further into the comfortable cushions. Zizhen’s skin has a rosy hue, and Jin Ling has laughed far easier than he ever has before. Jingyi lays flat on the ground, with his legs up the wall, all the way across the room.
Sizhui’s been checking his meridians once every hour. He’s fine. Possibly asleep with his eyes wide open, but fine nonetheless.
“Just one drink and he’s gone, huh?” Zizhen looks over. “I guess what they say about the Lans is true.” Sizhui laughs. Jingyi did stick to the one drink rule far better than he did. He was also asleep, though. “I guess you take after Wei Wuxian.”
Sizhui coughs, and is about to ask him what he means by that, since now he has to before Zizhen speaks again.
“Maybe I should,” Zizhen hiccups, “show you your gift now, Jin Ling.”
“I already saw the brush set.” Jin Ling mumbles.
“Oh, no. That’s the gift from the Baling Ouyang Sect. This,” he pulls out a series of four inconspicuous looking books, clearly wrapped to cover pornography. Oh no. “Is my gift to you.”
Jingyi, apparently now awake, scrambles over to see. “Is that…”
“Mhmm,” he fans the books out. “I did some shopping in Qinghe.” He starts distributing the books to each one of them. “I got you a cutsleeve one too, Jin Ling,” he hands it over. “Don’t worry.”
“Why would I wor – wait – why did you get me a cutsleeve one?”
Zizhen shrugs. “I thought, since all of your uncles.” Jin Ling gawks at him.
“So!” not even denying it, huh, Jin Ling. “It doesn’t get passed on!”
“It doesn’t?” Zizhen blinks. Jin Ling seems unsure. All three of them turn to Sizhui for an answer.
“H-huh?” Sizhui downs another cup. “I don’t know…I don’t think so…?”
Jin Ling’s face washes with terrifying realisation. Zizhen pats his shoulder. “Well, even if it doesn’t. All four are yours, do what you want.” It’s warm and supportive, and even Jin Ling seems to soften. He’s still talking about pornography, though, Sizhui can’t help but notice.
He’s too flustered at all of them being around to look through the book in his lap, so he slides it over to Jin Ling. He realises he can’t help it, though, as his eyes trail over to see the pages Jingyi is rapidly leafing through.
A few terribly uncomfortable moments later, Jingyi says, “This is wrong.” All three of their heads snap to him. Jingyi skims through the book with dedicated scrutiny. “This is all wrong.”
Zizhen leans over to see. “Huh? Is the painting incorrect?” he looks confused. “They shouldn’t be…this artist is well known.”
Jingyi blinks at him. “There are no forehead ribbons,” he says, and all three of them gawk at him. “Senior Wei told me touching forehead ribbons is how you make a child.”
Jin Ling smacks his forehead. “And you believed him? How many times do we have to tell you, everything he tells you is a lie.”
“I mean, not everything.” Sizhui pats his shoulder. He will try his very best to keep his innocence intact, even if his friend is so hopelessly misguided. “Just…some things.”
“Everything!” Jin Ling says. “God, Jingyi that’s not how babies are made.” He shakes his head.
“Jin Ling, as if you know anything,” Jingyi narrows his eyes. Jin Ling’s skin grows more and more inflamed.
“I know everything!” he yells, but his eyes go straight down to his book as if looking for an answer within. Ah, Jin Ling. Sizhui cringes. That’s the cutsleeve one. You’re not going to find any answers in there. Jingyi fishes the book from his hands.
“Ah, see, he has a ribbon,” Jingyi points at a strip of cloth in the cutsleeve book, and Zizhen snorts a loud laugh into his hands.
“Jingyi. That’s a rope!” he laughs. Jingyi’s eyes widen, and the book is thrown back at Jin Ling. Zizhen gives him an affectionate pat on the head. “Did you really think touching forehead ribbons is how people made children? What about all of the people who don’t wear forehead ribbons?”
“I thought they’d get it after marriage.” Jingyi shrugs. Sizhui tries his hardest not to laugh. Jin Ling glares at him. “I thought maybe Senior Wei was the exception,” Jingyi sighs. “Since he is so brilliant.”
“Exception for what?” Sizhui raised an eyebrow. The last few rounds of conversation have been sobering, in the least.
“Don’t you remember what Ning-shushu told us?” Jingyi frowns. “That when he met Senior Wei, Senior Wei pulled off Hanguang-Jun’s ribbon…” Yikes. He remembers that.
“What a scandal,” Jin Ling rolls his eyes.
Jingyi eyes him carefully. “It is, to the Gusu Lan Clan…luckily, Sizhui came out of it, so…” Sizhui blinks.
“Um, Jingyi…what?” he says. For some reason, only Jin Ling looks surprised.
“Right.” Zizhen nods. “You were born during the Sunshot Campaign, right, Sizhui?” Sizhui nods slowly. “I guess Senior Wei must have had you before he made the Stygian Tiger Amulet…at least, that’s what my shimeis were saying.”
“Your shimeis were saying what?!” Jin Ling says in his stead. “They were saying that that Wei Wuxian had,” he makes a circular gesture. “Sizhui?!”
“Obviously,” Jingyi says. “Where else do you think he came from? He looks just like them…” Jin Ling’s mouth drops open. “He’s strong like Hanguang-Jun, clever and solution-oriented like Senior Wei,” Jingyi leans over and ruffles his hair aggressively. “He’s had so many drinks and he’s fine! Just like Senior Wei!”
“Bullshit.” Jin Ling shakes his head. At least one of his friends has his sanity left. “Why is everyone saying this?”
Sizhui’s eyes widen. “You’ve heard it too? Jin Ling.”
“Yeah!” Jin Ling huffs. “A bunch of disciples were gossiping about it during practice! Miracle kid, whatever!” In Lanling too? What the hell!
“Oh my…” Sizhui shakes his head. “I don’t know where all this is coming from! Even Senior Wei has been getting all these letters.”
“Because you’re a Miracle Child, Sizhui,” Jingyi has drunkenly draped himself onto him in a hug. “The greatest miracle ever!”
“I was wondering why that pregnant woman followed us that day…” Zizhen says, and Jin Ling is so astounded, he starts drinking straight from the bottle. “But to think it was for such a sweet reason! It’s so romantic! Hanguang-Jun and Senior Wei have a story for the ages. I’ll drink to that!”
Sizhui has his head in his hand. They’re too far gone in this fantasy to listen to him now. He just slides his cup across for his cousin to refill. “So romantic,” Jingyi mumbles. “Very nice…I wonder why…” he gets his hand on another cup. “Why haven’t they made another heir?”
Jin Ling rolls his eyes. “Maybe they forgot how.” It’s clearly sarcastic, but Jingyi’s eyes light up.
“Maybe! He has such a terrible memory, it’s possible!” Jin Ling stares at him like he can’t believe Jingyi is being completely earnest. Sizhui hates to admit it, but that could be entirely possible. “Maybe we should help! Sizhui deserves siblings!” he materialises talisman paper and a brush. “I, Lan Jingyi,” he slurs. “Will bring myself up to task.” He slams his fist on the table with extended conviction. “I will make them have another baby.”
Sizhui stares at him. “Jingyi…that sounds very…ominous…” Zizhen nods with worried eyes. Jin Ling, who is done with this, just shakes his head.
“Oh, oh no.” Jingyi raises his hands. “I was just gonna make them a conception talisman, in case they forgot how to make it.” Sizhui lets out a sigh of relief.
“Lan Jingyi,” Jin Ling snarls. “I hate to break it to you, but both of them cannot make children. I may not know a lot…” he admits, rather sheepishly. “But I know that for sure.”
Jingyi raises one accusatory eyebrow. “Jin Ling, is that a challenge?”
“It’s really not,” Sizhui holds his shoulder.
“Do not doubt Hanguang-Jun!” Jingyi glares. “And do not doubt me. I’ll prove it.” Oh god, what is he trying to suggest? “I’ll make us a trial,” he says and gets engrossed into drawing the characters in wobbly red ink. They stay silent until he finishes. Jin Ling, still, looks bored.
Jingyi holds the completed, albeit messy, talisman with two fingers. He has a certain look in his eyes which Sizhui has only seen with Senior Wei, and that is unequivocally a bad sign. “So…” Jingyi starts.
“Who wants to get pregnant?”
Sizhui realises, belatedly, that jumping away from Jingyi suggesting using a conception talisman, in unison, may have been a wrong idea. In the throes of his rejection, he had finished three more glasses.
And here they are, all three of them at the Koi Tower steps, trying to grab him back inside.
“Buh it’s so confy,” he mumbles into the carpet. Jin ling has his head and shoulders, and Sizhui has his legs. Zizhen returns, three minutes later, having vomited right into a pot of peonies at the entrance. This was all a terrible idea. “I slheep here,” Jingyi declares, and tucks his arms under himself.
“Jingyi,” Sizhui pleads. “You can’t sleep on the Koi Tower steps! Come on, get up!”
“No!” Jingyi cries. “I sleep herreee,” he whines, pressing himself back onto the steps.
“Stop kissing the mat, damn it, that’s gross.” Jin Ling snaps and lifts his head up. “Why is he such a deadweight?!” he looks at Sizhui, who desperately sighs.
“Jingyi, come on. Let’s go sleep in the bed, it’s way nicer.” Sizhui tries to lift his legs in succession with Jin Ling. Zizhen holds him under the stomach.
“There’s shpace for Sizhuuui,” Jingyi flails. He rolls off them, and falls right on the steps. “space foor everybordy,” he pats the steps next to him. “all friends. One bedf,” he mumbles and stretches his arms with a loud yawn. “Big b-ed,” he hiccups and lays back down.
“Sizhui,” Jin Ling groans. “I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry. I’ll never force you guys to drink again. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, now you see my point,” Sizhui tries to coax him up again, with no avail. “He can’t handle his alcohol at all. He’s never had so much to drink at once.” Jin Ling holds up his limp arms to try and drag him that way, but he’s too inebriated to handle it on his own.
“Lan Jingyi,” he sighs. “Please get up.” Jin Ling looks at him desperately. “We’re gonna wake up the whole of Koi Tower at this rate. You don’t want Hanguang-Jun to catch you, do you?”
“Hanung-gajun,” he stirs and blinks up at Jin Ling. “He’s...he’s here?”
“No,” Jin Ling shakes his head. His voice is softer and gentler than he’s heard before. Maybe he’s mature enough in times of need? “But come on. Let me help you up, and none of us will get in trouble. I’ll take you to your room.”
The gentle coaxing seems to work. Jingyi’s lip wobbles, and he lifts himself off the steps. “Jin Rulan! You’re a true friend after all!” He stands upon his knees to give Jin Ling a hug. Jin Ling looks annoyed, when Jingyi can’t see him during their long embrace. “Such a good friend!” he cries as he moves away, before losing his balance and smacking Jin Ling right on the lips.
Jingyi seems to have not even realised, but Sizhui’s the only one who doesn’t drop him right then and there. Zizhen covers his mouth in shock – or for protection, who knows, and Jin Ling’s entire face glows bright red. He moves back so quickly, Jingyi, who was leaning on his face, falls right flat on the stairs again.
Back to square one, then.
“Y-you! You pervert!” Jin Ling cries, scrambling even further backwards. “You can’t trick me into using one of your weird baby talismans! I will not fall for it!”
“Bervert?” Jingyi says and lifts himself back before immediately falling into Sizhui’s arms. “Whafs this Young Misstresss Jin sayin? Zishui,” he butchers the entire sentence.
“Jin Ling, he can’t even stand upright, I don’t think he meant to ki -” Zizhen squeaks and Jin Ling slaps a hand over his mouth. His round eyes are ablaze.
“Don’t even think of saying it,” he glares, and Sizhui nods furiously behind his palm.
“What is all the hollering about?” he hears, and all three of the conscious juniors share a desperate look. A man in a large white inner robe approaches, and a taller silhouette is behind him. Senior Wei’s loud and ruffled yawn alerts all three of them to who he is. Behind him, in a blood-red robe that clearly does not belong to him, stands his husband. The venerable Hanguang-Jun.
Jingyi is dropped entirely, and Sizhui scrambles to his feet. “Senior Wei! Hanguang-Hanguang-Jun! I can explain!”
Senior Wei hums, and looks down at Jingyi, who is now mostly asleep where they left him. Jin Ling and Zizhen stay candid as if they are in half as much trouble as he is right now. “Here Lan Zhan and I thought you four were all tucked into bed by now…oh how naïve we were…” he shakes his head in a playful, coy manner. He clearly looks delighted at the scene they’ve caused. Hanguang-Jun does not.
“Lan Yuan,” he starts, and Sizhui winces. Wei Ying nudges him and whispers, though easily audible.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” he tsks, “they’re just kids, they do stuff like this.” Hanguang-Jun’s eyebrows knit closer together. “We did the same.” Sizhui’s eyes widen at that accusation, as do Hanguang-Jun’s.
“D-die,” it slips out before he can stop himself. Perhaps the alcohol has affected him more than he let on. If Hanguang-Jun is shocked at the term of endearment, after all these years, he does not react. “We were careless!” he bows. “We will accept whatever punishment you give us.” Jin Ling is about to protest, but Zizhen hangs over him and lowers his head.
Hanguang-Jun sighs. “We will deal with this tomorrow.” Wei Ying scrunches his nose in a way that communicates I’ll get him to calm down.
“Die,” Lan Jingyi mumbles. “Sizhui’s…die,” he says. Hanguang-Jun, almighty as he is, picks up Jingyi with no difficultly at all. Zizhen almost begins clapping, before he realises that’s a very bad idea.
“Wei Wuxian, H-hanguang-Jun,” Jin Ling suddenly says. “I pressured them…it is my fault,” he says, looking at his shoes. Hanguang-Jun blinks at him, and Senior Wei raises his eyebrows in pleasant surprise. Sizhui is keen to do the same. Perhaps your age has made you wise, Jin Ling.
“…then I will inform Sect Leader Jiang tomorrow,” Hanguang-Jun says, blankly. Senior Wei cringes. Jin Ling’s face fills with panic, but he’s too intimidated to respond. “I am sure your peers appreciate your honesty.” He says, before turning his back to him. As miserable as Jin Ling looks, he seems vindicated by this statement.
Sizhui gives him the briefest of nods.
“Hanguang-Jun,” Jingyi cracks an eye open. That’s the most coherent he’s been all evening. “Zishui’s papa.” Senior Wei laughs into his hands. Hanguang-Jun sighs.
“Lan Jingyi.” Hanguang-Jun says. “Yes…it is me. Sizhui’s…papa.” Senior Wei lets out a muffled cackle, so as to not cause even more disturbance. Sizhui sighs, his eyes closing. Yes. Papa.
“Hanguang-Jun, put me down!” he suddenly calls, and Hanguang-Jun is startled. He does, regardless, and Jingyi immediately falls to his knees. “Hanguang-Jun, Senior Wei!” he cries, and everyone is shocked at his sudden weariness. “Please have another child!”
Silence befalls them, for several moments. They soak in the request, and Jingyi, all snotty, wiping his face with his sleeves, speaks again. “It is my only wish! Sizhui deserves a sibling! The Gusu Lan Sect deserves another heir!”
Sizhui is so embarrassed, he almost sinks to the ground himself. Senior Wei blinks at him, and the rest of them, before it becomes increasingly more obvious that he’s trying his absolute hardest not to fall to the ground in laughter. What Hanguang-Jun says next, though, is easy enough to snap him out of it.
Everyone, including Senior Wei, looks up at him in utter disbelief. Even Jingyi, who put forth this outrageous demand, seems stunned that it wasn’t coldly rejected.
“Uh, Lan-er-gege,” Senior Wei says. “He’s completely out of it, you don’t have to play along…”
“Since it is Lan Jingyi’s heartfelt wish, we will try,” Hanguang-Jun says. Senior Wei looks at him incredulously. Lan Jingyi stands up, wobbly, completely delighted. He launches himself at them, and wraps them in a tight hug. Senior Wei blinks, but lets Jingyi hug them, and Hanguang-Jun seems to freeze in surprise. “Well, well,” Senior Wei shakes his. “Get in on this, now, come on,” he beckons Sizhui over, and calls him to let him join. Sizhui smiles lightly and joins.
Jin Ling is the last to join, but is dragged in by Jingyi, when he realises he’s the last man standing. He groans through it, but it feels nice, regardless. Senior Wei shimmies them away at some point, sighing to himself.
“All of you drink water and go to bed. Apparently, Lan Zhan and I have to go find a way to make a baby now.” Jingyi nods with gusto, finally able to stand up straight, with the three of his friends supporting him.
Sizhui smiles and wishes them good night, and tries his very best to not think about that he means.
“The guard said the Lan Heir called Hanguang-Jun papa.”
“Is Wei Wuxian Mama, then? Isn’t he too old to call them that…”
“Sect Leader Jiang basically confirmed that he sold Wei Wuxian to the Gusu Lan Sect.”
“You heard? The Yiling Patriarch was never actually dead. He was raising the Lan Heir in the Gusu Lan Sect.”
“No, he definitely carried him. My wife said his face is too soft for someone who doesn’t understand the perils of childbirth.”
“The Yiling Patriarch sure is amazing…I wish I could gift my wife a child, she is so distressed…”
“I heard he cured infertility across a small town during his travels.”
“He and the Lan Heir are treated like Gods, in the Gusu Lan Sect…They get offerings and are worshipped, Hanguang-Jun is so holy as well…”
“The Lan Heir said my son was eligible for the Burial Mounds Project. I am so blessed.”
“What a brilliant family…The Lans are always so beautiful.”
Sect Leader Yao clenches his fist as more of the rumours skew towards the positive. The Yiling Patriarch is not a figure to be revered as a Fertility God! Fertility Gods are meant to be wholesome and domestic, not blood-soaked demonic cultivators responsible for the downfall of their own family!
As usual, the public decides what they want. Lan Sizhui has only a few sects to go before the Burial Mounds project begins, and he’s sitting here gorging himself on breakfast, while Koi Tower is abuzz with the brilliance of Hanguang-Jun’s precious little family.
When he sees Lan Sizhui walk into the dining hall, he is far more dishevelled than usual, with his hair slightly messy and a sallow, yellow tinge to his skin. His friend, the obnoxious Lan Jingyi, follows him, far greener than the man before him.
As they sit down, the Yiling Patriarch hands them both a concoction he has been holding in his hands. There are four goblets in front of him, all filled with some mysterious substance, and the Lan children thank him profusely before sitting down. The Yiling Patriarch even has the audacity to hand a glass to even the Jin Sect Leader.
Sect Leader Jin gulps it down so fast, Sect Leader Yao wonders if there is alcohol in there. Or perhaps, some dangerous potion he is feeding to their children…one he may even decide to give them as they go to the Burial Mounds!
He panics slightly, and finally, an opportunity arises. The last glass is handed to Ouyang Zizhen, who walks slowly and carefully to take a seat next to his father, at the table next to him.
“What’d he hand you there, boy?” he looks to his friend’s son. Ouyang Zizhen, with loud, greyish dark circles under his eyes, looks at him like he’s shouted.
“Urgh,” he says, almost too loudly, and few of the disciples behind him laugh.
“Zizhen!” his father scolds, albeit softly, and his son covers his ears like he hears screaming. “Apologise.”
“Sorry,” the boy mumbles half-heartedly.
“All buddy-buddy with the Yiling Patriarch…why do you look so tired? Has he been training you for the Burial Mounds Project?”
Ouyang Zizhen blinks at him, slowly comprehending what he’s saying. “No.” is all he says, and downs the rest of the mysterious substance.
“You dare speak to me this way!” he yells, and most eyes turn to him. “What is the Yiling Patriarch and his child teaching you, that you have learned such disrespect? What mysterious hallucinogens has he been handing you this early! Corrupting the youth right in front of our eyes!”
“Is there a problem, Sect Leader Yao,” Sect Leader Jin asks. The damn brat. He looks even more annoyed than usual.
“You heard me!” he snaps. “Hanging around with the son Wei Wuxian created, and see what he’s like now! A shallow husk of the bright young man he once was!” Ouyang Zizhen looks at him in utter confusion. His father is desperately trying to avoid the attention that falls on them.
“Sect Leader Yao, what are you saying?” Ouyang Zizhen says. “Fine, I was a little rude, but what does that have to do with Sizhui and Senior Wei?”
Sect Leader Yao fumes. “You tell me for yourself! Look at the state of you! Look at the state of all of you!” he points his fingers at the four children. “Has the Lan Heir been teaching you demonic cultivation? Is that what is making these young men so tired -”
“Sect Leader Yao,” Wei Wuxian says, staring straight at him. “If you have something to say, do not use children as scapegoats for your grievances. That’s beneath you, isn’t it?” he raises an eyebrow like it’s a challenge. Sect Leader Yao scowls.
“How must I sit in silence while you and your spawn corrupt the youth! Do you plan to trap them in the Burial Mounds, once more?”
“He didn’t do it the first time,” Sect Leader Jiang says, and his glare is enough to subdue many voices. “The vote was clear. Hanguang-Jun will not veto the cleansing order.”
“Can we truly trust a plan created by the lovechild of Wei Wuxian? Hanguang-Jun’s blood is not enough to eliminate the demonic energy that lies within the child! We cannot know for su -”
“Enough!” an unfamiliar voice sounds through the room. All eyes turn to Lan Sizhui. The young man, today, with deep, sunken eyes, glares right at him. “I have made myself clear, Sect Leader Yao. The Burial Mounds Project was my idea and has nothing to do with Senior Wei. And as for my birth, I have given no one in this room a reason to believe that it was under any undiscovered circumstances. And even if it was, it is none of your concern.”
The coldness of his voice slice cuts through as it would with the sharp edge of Bichen’s blade. At that moment, there was really no difference between Hanguang-Jun and the one they called his ward.
Sect Leader Yao narrows his eyes. “You look tired, Lan Sizhui. Almost as if something has been chipping away at you. You are young, and I am also a father,” he says. “And I can’t help but notice certain similarities between your state of mind and the way your father’s once was.”
“Sure,” The Yiling Patriarch says, smugly, interlacing his fingers and resting his chin on the bridge. “You can say that. Sizhui has been working thanklessly and tirelessly on this project. And he has an ailment only demonic cultivation can explain.” He says, and his voice drips with mirth. “His friends too. Jingyi, Jin Ling, Young Master Ouyang…what evils have you four been brewing? It’s almost like you four are,” he winces in false presentation. “Hungover!”
His gasp sends a small shot of laughter throughout the room. Even Hanguang-Jun, who has remained uncharacteristically quiet throughout, looks bemused at best. Jin Ling, the worst Sect Leader to ever grace Koi Tower, smirks at him. “And as for the mysterious hallucinogens I have brewed for them, specially,” he continues. “It is an old recipe for a hangover cure from Yunmeng. I do carry the ingredients with me, often, since my husband likes to rise early.”
“He’s right,” The head disciple of the Jiang Sect says. If Sect Leader Yao did not like her before, he is close to hating her now. “It’s a mixture of bone marrow powder and coconut husks…mixed into white tea, it’s almost an instant solution for nausea and headaches that come with the effects of alcohol.”
“You can try it for yourself, Sect Leader Yao,” Sect Leader Jiang raises his cup. “It works like a charm.” There’s a cruel and vicious undertone to his deep voice.
Wei Wuxian snickers, and Sect Leader Yao scowls. Hanguang-Jun finally speaks up. “Are you done?” he says, as the patronizing tone of his voice whips him like the sharpest of guqin strings. He immediately sits down in a flourish of sleeves.
The meal continues uninterrupted.
“I cannot believe his insolence!” Sect Leader Yao cries as he makes his way back to the guest quarters. “We were here for a banquet of celebration! And these gentry sects have turned it into a family affair! There is no room for objectivity!”
“I understand…” his son says, slowly following him inside. “But still, die, they were just hungover…to accuse them of a crime such as demonic cultivation?”
“You dare question me as well, son?” Sect Leader Yao scowls. His son looks at him, dejected.
“I’m just saying – what a conclusion to jump to. They are only children, and they probably just had too much to drink. As children usually do.”
“What influence have they had on you?” he narrows his eyes. “Do not tell me you have also been beguiled by the glamour of the Lan Heir?”
“I attended his assessments…he is quite fair and talented. He is very skilled, and he is so much younger than I am.”
Sect Leader Yao is so close to rolling his eyes. “Certainly he is. But to be enchanted by a child born from demonic cultivation? How low you have stooped,” he chides, and sits on the pillow on the ground.
“He is kind, die. I was actually thinking to…” he trails off, and Sect Leader Yao glares at him.
“Just what were you thinking?” he narrows his eyes, and his son shifts nervously. Just what is this fool about to say now?”
“Since he is so brilliant…and the Miracle Child…I thought maybe I could ask him to bless my child…he is to be born in only a few months. I wish for him to be as strong and noble, as the Lan Heir himself…” The heir to the Yao Sect? Asking Lan Sizhui for help?!
Sect Leader Yao slams his head on the table so hard, it cracks right under him.
“Hanguang-Jun, Senior Wei!” Sizhui chases after them, and Wei Ying turns to let him catch up.
“Ah, Sizhui,” he says. “We thought you might have moved to the assessments already. Lan Zhan and I were going to go shopping before his meeting begins.”
Sizhui heaves as he runs to catch up with them. His skin is still slightly grey from the hangover. God, these kids are not used to drinking at all, are they? “I’m sorry for my outburst!” he scrambles into a bow.
“Eh...? What happened at breakfast? No, it’s okay, someone needs to put Sect Leader Yao in his place. I have a feeling this whole Fertility God stint started with him.”
Sizhui sighs softly and nods. “Hanguang-Jun, I’m sorry to you, as well. For last night, and for the thing at breakfast.”
Hanguang-Jun sighs. “Rule 15, alcohol is forbidden. Rule 367, excessive noise is forbidden. Rule 879, overindulgence of any kind is not permitted.” Sizhui grows smaller and smaller with every recitation.
Wei Ying glares and nudges him. “Lan Zhan!” he says. “He feels bad enough already! Stop.”
“…Rule 2,064. Always stand for righteousness, no matter the obstacle or audience.” He says, and Wei Ying takes back his earlier remark. Pride is a vice as well, isn’t it, Lan Zhan? He gives him a small smile. Sizhui blinks in surprise.
“You will be punished for the alcohol, and nothing else. Do not apologise for standing your ground, Sizhui.” Lan Zhan says. Wei Ying gives him a small laugh, before standing his ground and nodding in solidarity like a strict parent. Sizhui’s face breaks into the most relieved of smiles.
“Thank you, Hanguang-Jun, Senior Wei! You are so gracious.” Wei Ying waves him off. “And I think you may be right about Sect Leader Yao…Jin Ling traced down the start of the rumour with Sect Leader Nie. It seems like it did indeed start from the Yao Sect.”
“Ugh, that menace. He probably did it to discredit you.” Wei Ying shakes his head. “Sorry, A-Yuan. I hope this one didn’t make things too difficult for you.” It’s an underlying fear that gnaws at him. You destroy everything you touch. He holds it back, and fumbles when Lan Zhan reaches for his hand. He lets him hold it anyway.
“Actually,” Sizhui starts. “I think it’s kind of nice…” his face heats up, and he looks down at his soft white shoes.
“Oh..?” Wei Ying asks. Lan Zhan seems to mirror his slight confusion.
“I mean – I’m not exactly happy with all the unwarranted praise as the – uh, Miracle Child,” he says. Unwarranted praise is forbidden too, isn’t it? He’s so hard on himself. “But to be compared to Senior Wei and Hanguang-Jun…it feels good.” He gives them a small smile. When Wei Ying and his husband blink at him.
“I mean – not only because of that!” he backtracks. Wei Ying tries to hold back his laughter and fails. “Senior Wei and Hanguang-Jun are brilliant and…they mean a lot to me…so, to be considered close to them…it’s good! It’s good!” he says, and his skin turns pinker with every word. “Ah -” he scrambles. “I’m sorry.”
“No apology necessary,” Hanguang-Jun says, though his ears are as flushed. “Sizhui also means a lot to us.”
“Yeah,” Wei Ying curses his voice for cracking over one word. “A lot.” The entire world. He means the entire world to us.
He doesn’t say it out loud, of course, in fear that Sizhui’s cheeks would stay warm forever. His reaction makes him think he heard him anyway.
When Jingyi informs him that Jiang Cheng had screamed at Jin Ling about the alcohol for over an hour, Wei Ying is very grateful to leave for the Cloud Recesses that very evening.
Lan Qiren again greets them solemnly, with a far larger stack of letters, that had accumulated over the two days they were in Lanling. Sizhui stayed back to place the final touches on his upcoming project, so Lan Zhan and he ate dinner alone.
“That child will be the death of me, Lan Zhan,” he says, thinking of their conversation earlier. “He makes everything he touches better.” That should be proof enough that I didn’t give birth to him.
“He is very good,” Lan Zhan says, and that pride comes back. The soft smile on his face is the Lan equivalent of boasting to the world that his son is the most brilliant child to every grace their world. He’s right!
Wei Ying rips into the first letter, only for the pleasant expression on his face to sour. To the Yiling Patriarch, you are a FRAUD! He opens another, and then another, and then another before he’s ripped halfway through the pile.
Yiling Patriarch, you are no God. You absolute cheat, you fraud, you vile fiend. I curse you to the depths of hell! My wife had a daughter instead of a son! I fear my children will walk down the demonic path with your influence on their birth. Your talisman worked too well and my wife had twins – how am I supposed to support two children with my measly income? You owe me compensation.
Freak of nature.
To think you will befall Hanguang-Jun’s family as well. As if yours and mine weren’t enough?
I’m pulling my son and daughter out of the Burial Mounds Project. The Lan Heir probably has terrible intentions, like you.
The Lan Heir is a pathetic, worthless freak. To be born of two men? Disgusting.
Evil runs through his veins, just like yours.
Wei Ying rips the parchment in half and storms into the bedroom, Lan Zhan calling out for him.
He punches the pillow before burying his face in it. He stays for what feels like an entire minute before Hanguang-Jun sits on the bed next to him.
“Hmph,” he says, into the pillow.
“You are upset about the letters.”
Thanks, Lan Zhan, for pointing out the obvious. “No.”
“Wei Ying,” he says, and a hand is between his shoulder blades. He shrugs it off.
“Lan Zhan, I’m used to people saying bad things about me. I’m not upset.” He feels Lan Zhan tense up beside him. He is suddenly wriggled towards his side of the bed, and Lan Zhan slides up next to him. He’s kind enough to maintain the position of his face on the pillow.
“But you are upset about people saying bad things about Sizhui,” he guesses correctly. Take your damn intuition somewhere else, Lan Zhan. He says that all muffled into the pillows. “Sizhui is strong, and knows better than to allow rumours to sully his self-worth.”
Wei Ying turns in a way where one eye is poking out. “He doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment.”
“And you do?”
The question annoys him so much, that he turns to face the wall. “I am not answering that,” he mumbles. He hears Lan Zhan sigh and he wraps his arms around his waist. He tries to wriggle out of his grasp, but Hanguang-Jun has bested him yet again. So he stays, fighting and struggling, until it’s no longer worth it.
“I will tell you the answer if you would like,” he says, just as Wei Ying stops flailing.
Wei Ying scoffs, “The great Hanguang-Jun, helping me cheat? Perhaps I am really a terrible influe -”
“The answer is no,” Lan Zhan says. “You are undeserving of any of the torment people still put you through, Wei Ying.” Wei Ying wriggles again, but Lan Zhan holds him in place.
Wei Ying sighs and gives up. He turns towards him, finally, and presses the space between his eyebrows. Hanguang-Jun doesn’t flinch.
“I told you I don’t want him to co-opt my reputation.” He grumbles. He moves his finger away, only for Lan Zhan to grab his hands. “He’s already suffering for it, and everyone will just find ways to make it worse. He’s only a child.”
“He will handle it,” Lan Zhan persists, and Wei Ying frowns.
“But I won’t.”
Hanguang-Jun sighs and his eyes do not wander. He simply waits for Wei Ying to continue. “I am – they can throw whatever they want at me, okay? Whether it’s a joke or not – I’ll shake it off. But accusing Sizhui, and you. It makes me –” I don’t want to say it. He braces himself. “It makes me remember why I distanced myself from Jiang Cheng and shijie in my first life. Oh – no, Lan Zhan, don’t look at me like that.”
Hanguang-Jun turns his head away, though his grip around him only tightens. “I’d never do that again, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying moves closer. “I’d never do that to you.”
He looks for a response, and it takes several moments before Lan Zhan turns to him again. His face is still downcast, but he nods. “I know.”
“I hope you do,” Wei Ying whispers. “And I don’t know, I’m ruminating for nothing. This Fertility God nonsense isn’t a big deal, and it’ll blow over once they find something else to focus on. I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m just annoyed.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan sighs. “Wei Ying, you have a right to be. But Sizhui…he will risk anything to keep you in his life, after all this time,” his hand interlaces with his. “And so will I.”
“What a reckless lot,” Wei Ying mumbles. “He’s truly your son.”
“He is every bit yours as he is mine.”
“Yeah, apparently I gave birth to him.” Wei Ying snorts. “How much pain and effort that took, Lan Zhan! You have no idea…” he shakes his head.
“Of course,” Lan Zhan indulges him. “But I am grateful for it every day.” Wei Ying knees him in the shin.
“Warning!” he commands, as Lan Zhan huddles closer.
“Warning,” he repeats.
“Well, since he’s our lovechild, I hope he inherits your reputation.”
“He has everything he needs. He is generous, noble and resilient. Like Wei Ying.” He says and grabs Wei Ying’s free limbs before he’s attacked again. “He does not live every day in fear. He is friendly and likeable, and he invokes fondness in everyone he meets. He is creative and intelligent.”
“Lan Zhan, that warning was not enough for all of that.”
“But I am praising Sizhui, not you,” his husband says dryly. A loophole, Lan Zhan! You sly fox!
“Ha-ha,” he sticks his tongue. “Then Sizhui is smart and handsome, as well, like Hanguang-Jun.”
“Fair,” Lan Zhan says, clearly triumphant. Wei Ying manages to poke him in the ribs as revenge. They sit comfortably for a while, quiet enough to hear Hanguang-Jun’s slow, consistent heartbeat. He sticks close even though his husband's grip has long loosened, and lets his eyes wander to scan every beautiful feature on his face.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, just as Wei Ying is on the brink of falling into a very comfortable nap. “I meant what I said. Sizhui’s position in this family is not contingent on blood. And neither is yours, on reputation.”
Wei Ying turns his face onto Hanguang-Jun arm and presses his forehead down on his arm. If he opens his mouth to form any snarky retort, he will make nothing but unintelligible squeak. So he takes a page out of Lan Zhan’s book and simply nods.
I am thankful you are a man of few words, Hanguang-Jun. He thinks. Or else, they would truly be the death of me.
The following week has many, many interactions with the followers, well-wishers, and aggrieved once-believers of the Yiling Patriarch, God of Fertility. Wei Ying listens to them all before gently, or at times, aggressively, turning them away. If he fails to do so, Hanguang-Jun’s scary face is enough to drive many of them away.
After an interaction with a particularly nasty one, Wei Ying sprawls over the empty table of the inn, awaiting their food. He’d chased them down to curse them out, over his own impotency, and his words about Sizhui were so vile, Wei Ying had to stop Hanguang-Jun from pulling out Bichen.
“I’m starting to think it was better when they thought I was the devil,” Wei Ying grumbles. “Even your sweet words can’t cure my anguish, Lan Zhan!” he places his forehead straight on the table. “How can they ask they ask innocent old me for bedroom tricks? As if I’d know anything.”
Hanguang-Jun, the audacious man he is, looks at him and scoffs.
“Fine, fine.” He shakes his head. “But if I gave such a pretty young maiden tips for bedding, Hanguang-Jun would not be happy.”
Lan Zhan hums in agreement and sips his tea. A cruel man! He has married a cruel man! “It is only a shame that I have so much advice to give, since I am so good at it.”
“Lan Zhan! You aren’t supposed to agree with me! You’re supposed to call me shameless and blush!”
Lan Zhan gives him a deadpan look, and Wei Ying sighs in defeat. “You really are cruel, Hanguang-Jun.”
They eat their meal with several instances of Lan Zhan telling him to stop talking, and they speak intently about Sizhui’s upcoming return to the Burial Mounds. They enjoy their casual conversation, before alas, they are interrupted, yet again.
“I-I’m sorry,” the middle-aged man said. “But I couldn’t help overhear you are -”
“Which do you want? The evil demonic cultivator, or the Fertility God?” Wei Ying almost feels bad about his sarcasm, because the kind-faced man almost steps back at the aggression.
“I’m so sorry to interrupt, Young Master Wei…Hanguang-Jun. I just – I just wanted to thank you.”
“Oh?” Wei Ying says, sounding far more annoyed that he’s trying to be.
“Actually, my wife and I…we have lost many,” he begins to get a little choked up, and Wei Ying panics briefly, glancing at Lan Zhan. “We have lost many children before we have even had the chance to meet them…” Wei Ying frowns at him. That’s horrible. “We even…got to the end of a pregnancy only for the child to be…” Oh.
“I – I am sorry for your loss,” Wei Ying says. Lan Zhan nods at the man in concern.
“As you can imagine,” the man begins to wipe a few tears that begin to sprout near his face. “That was a lot for us to take. We had nearly given up when she began showing complications for her latest pregnancy – but then I made an offering for you at my temple, and, and…” he immediately kneels and bows down.
“Master Wei!” he cries. “I am just so thankful that my mother got to meet my daughter before she departed. My wife and I owe you everything we have. Thank you so much, we will always be in your debt!”
Seeing the man’s teary smile, Wei Ying himself starts to get misty. That’s not so bad, is it? To be thought of as a harbinger of life, and not death, for once. He sees Lan Zhan crack a smile from the corner of his eye, and finds himself doing the same.
“I hope your child grows up healthy,” Wei Ying smiles. “I hope you can have as many children as you want.” The kind man bows again, and Wei Ying beckons him to get up. “And you owe me nothing. Your child is lucky, to have such dedicated parents.”
The man’s smile grows even wider, as Hanguang-Jun wishes him his best. As he exits with well-wishes, he looks back at his husband. Hanguang-Jun still wears the most satisfied smile. Wei Ying lets out an extended, dramatic sigh, noticing his eyes are still a little wet.
“Well, fine.” He acquiesces. “I guess that wasn’t so bad…”
“It was not?” Lan Zhan eggs on. Cruel, cruel! “I think so as well. It is nice that people see Wei Ying as I see him.”
“As a Holy Deity of Fertility?” Wei Ying raises an eyebrow.
“As someone worthy of positive regard.”
“I see.” Wei Ying scratches his chin, as if in thought. “Well, since you’ve said your piece…shall we go make Sizhui that sibling he was promised?”
He is escorted to their room long before he can finish laughing.