The morning he was to be married, Lan Wangji briefly contemplated throwing himself over the railing of the watchtower from which he was observing Koi Tower being slowly pasted over with red.
Bright red. Why red for weddings, he had always wondered. After all, not all brides were war brides, paid for by promises of blood and power. He leaned a little further out of the watchtower, and saw four servants rolling giant barrels of wine towards the main hall. He looked at the long drop down to the ground.
Of course, he would not jump. He had to hope that he could please his husband, and one could not please a husband as a pool of blood on the ground, even if that would contribute towards all the red for the festivities.
Dying was easy. Living was a much harder task. This was a lesson he had learned well.
Lan Wangji wouldn’t actually get to set eyes on his soon-to-be husband until they had completed the ceremony and he was ferried back to his husband’s home and finally had his veil lifted from his face.
But he heard about him – oh, how much he had heard about the Yiling Patriarch this past month, ever since Jin Guangshan had summoned him to the ceremonial hall and announced, before Lan Wangji had even finished bowing, “You will be marrying the Yiling Patriarch.”
While he ran through his sword forms as was his custom every morning, he heard from the servants bearing buckets of fresh water for Jin Guangshan’s morning ablutions bickering over his age: “I heard that the Yiling Patriarch is over one hundred years old, and keeps himself alive through the strength of one virgin sacrifice a night.”
“That’s preposterous, it is known that he is young, and went mad with power, which he gets from desecrating the dead.”
On his way to the meagre Jin library to hunt for a book he had not yet read enough times to have memorized front to back, he heard the servants dusting the back shelves whispering:
“I heard the children in Yiling have been disappearing into the Burial Mounds one by one, and he’s turning them into an army that can help him raise the dead.”
“I heard he used to be a very promising cultivator, but evil was in his blood, and he burned down the clan that took him in while they slept, in order to develop his powers.”
During his daily walk through the Jin flower gardens (filled with white peonies, the sweet scent enough to make him nauseous once he had spent too long there), he heard the servant girls trimming the bushes and weeding whisper with their heads pressed close together:
“I heard he’s got eyes like blood, and can slip into shadows and walk through walls and – ”
“Well I heard he’s very handsome, actually, and more importantly powerful , why else do you think Master Jin agreed to this marriage –”
He heard very little directly from his husband-to-be. His betrothal gifts, he assumed, had been sent directly to the Jin coffers. The only exception was a lovely guqin bequeathed directly to him, a slender elegant beauty with graceful curves and dark wood polished smooth and shining. He had set it to the side of his bedroom and imagined the low, yearning notes he could pluck out of it. Wondered what kind of reaction the Yiling Patriarch had hoped to pluck out of him by gifting it.
Most of what he knew about the Yiling Patriarch had come from Nie Huaisang, who occasionally drifted into Koi Tower with a fan, or a bird cage, or a painting, to visit Jin Guangyao with whom he shared a love of collecting beautiful things. This friendship was something Lan Wangji disdained him for, but he could not turn away from his one source of somewhat-trustworthy outside news.
The Yiling Patriarch had risen, seemingly from the dust, a little over five years ago. He had built a name and a seat of power for himself there in the Yiling Burial Mounds, taking in anyone who sought refuge from the Wens’ increasingly despotic rule. At first he hadn’t been big enough of a threat to garner Wen Ruohan’s attention, and by the time he had amassed enough of a following it was too late – he had built himself a fortress deep in the mountains of the Burial Mounds, and it was widely known he possessed some kind of power that allowed him to counter the soldiers Wen Ruohan raised from the ground.
But he had made no moves to do anything beyond live in the sanctuary he’d built, and this was presumably why Wen Ruohan had yet to launch an all-out campaign to stamp him out, the way he had stamped out Yunmeng Jiang all those years ago when they had dared to challenge the legitimacy of his rule.
Lan Wangji was the last of a fallen dynasty. He did not remember the Cloud Recesses at all, but Lan Xichen used to soothe him to sleep on cold nights by describing what it had been like. The serene Cold Springs. The wild rabbits in the back mountains. The Library Pavilion with stacks and stacks of books, enough books that he could read for a lifetime and not have to re-read unless he wanted to. The soft purple gentians, gently blooming in their mother's garden. The whites and blues that used to be their sect colors, before.
Before Wen Ruohan had discovered how to raise bodies out of the ground, before he raised up an army to march to Cloud Recesses. Before Cloud Recesses had been razed down into rubble, into splinters, into ash. Before he and Lan Xichen had been spirited away to Koi Tower to be hidden deep within the peonies, the last remaining Lans in the world.
“I would like to see my brother,” Lan Wangji said, after the servants had finished putting him into his wedding robes under Jin Guangyao’s close supervision.
The robes were heavy, layers and layers of stiff brocade of different shades of crimson, threaded through with gold flowers. The flowers were gentians, not peonies, the one concession he had managed to win for himself. He felt the fabric weighing down his shoulders, his arms, pinning him down. He supposed he should be grateful that the headpiece was subdued in comparison, delicate pins of jade and gold, translucent peonies (he had not been able to win a second concession here) of white jade with sharp and vicious petals.
Jin Guangyao smiled at him sympathetically, and waved away the servant that had come up with a tray bearing his veil. “Of course, of course, I understand it must be difficult for you that Xichen won’t be able to attend.”
Lan Wangji didn’t respond. He had learned it was much simpler to say to Jin Guangyao only what you needed to convey, and nothing else.
Jin Guangyao peered at him, and sighed a little. “Wangji, I know all these years you’ve held blame in your heart for my failure to keep Xichen safe. I blame myself too. But in the end, I am your brother in law, and I care for you as Xichen does. I do truly hope you can be happy.”
Lan Wangji looked back at him steadily, and offered no visible reaction. Jin Guangyao sighed again, then turned and left to oversee the rest of the preparations with a delicate flick of his sleeves.
Lan Wangji was led by a dour-faced servant into Jin Guangyao’s courtyard. Like he had been for the last seven years, Lan Xichen rested in the largest bedroom nestled into the main suite of rooms. Lan Wangji was escorted in, then left alone, though he knew better than to presume that what he said would remain unheard by a third set of ears.
Lan Xichen was fast asleep, face serene, hair carefully and neatly combed, jawline clean-shaven. He looked like he would blink awake in the next moment, and apologize for waking up late. Lan Wangji would have been glad he was sleeping peacefully, if he hadn’t been asleep like this for years.
The Jins had spared no expense finding him the best healers from all around the world, and had sent people to search for the rarest of medicines, but Lan Xichen did not wake, like he had gone to bed and his body had forgotten it would ever be morning again.
Lan Wangji didn’t approach the bed. He held himself as stiffly as he could.
“Brother, I’m being married off today,” he said. “If you can hear me… now would be a good time to wake up.”
Lan Xichen continued his deep, even breathing. Lan Wangji stood there, just looking at him, until the dour-faced servant returned to escort him back to his rooms to await the wedding ceremony. Before he took the final step out of the room, he looked back one last time at his brother’s motionless, sleeping form.
This would not be the last time he saw him. The Jins may be congratulating themselves on the deal they had managed to strike with the Yiling Patriarch with him as their bargaining chip, but he was a Lan, and he would make them regret ever daring to let him out of the confines of their control.
Nie Huaisang came to see him just as a small, sweet-faced servant with nimble hands who usually did Madam Lan's makeup finished sweeping a fine white powder across his face. Seeing Nie Huaisang, she politely backed out of the room.
For once, Nie Huaisang wasn't holding a fan in his hands. Instead, he came bearing two thin books, one new and neat-cornered, one tattered and yellow-paged, slightly scorched on the edges. He handed both to Lan Wangji.
The first was an illustrated guide on what happens in the bedroom between two men. Lan Wangji felt his ears heating up as he flipped it open to a particularly explicit illustration, and quickly put it to the side. He knew Nie Huaisang had given it to him with good intentions, and not as a tease, and though he felt embarrassed and a little shamed, he was glad to have it.
The second made his breath catch in his throat. He smoothed a finger over the rough, worn edges of the cover. It was a volume of Gusu Lan guqin scores. His embarrassment due to the first book was quickly pushed to the back of his mind.
"How did you get this?" he asked Nie Huaisang, who was observing him with sharp eyes.
"You know our brothers were childhood friends," Nie Huaisang answered carefully. "I believe he accidentally brought it home with him after one of his visits to Gusu when he was younger, and it's been collecting dust in the corner of our library ever since."
"Does he know you took it to give to me?" Lan Wangji questioned, brows furrowing.
Nie Huaisang shrugged at him, and the curve of his lips became mischievous.
"It should be yours anyway," he said. "Can you imagine my brother playing the guqin?"
Lan Wangji had never met Nie Mingjue, but indeed the impression of him Nie Huaisang had imparted over the years didn't paint a picture of one suited towards playing the qin.
"Thank you," he said, with as much genuine gratitude as he could express.
He had always been wary of Nie Huaisang, had wondered at why he never failed to swing by to see him after he'd finished showing off his latest fan or painting acquisition to Jin Guangyao, but this was perhaps the only set of well-meant wedding presents he would be receiving.
Upon thinking this, his gaze flicked back over to the guqin the Yiling Patriarch had gifted him, dark and beautiful, still untouched in the corner of his room. Nie Huaisang followed his glance, then reached out a hand to lightly pat him on the shoulder.
"He really doesn't seem like a bad match," Nie Huaisang said. "He's young, and talented. I've heard he's not bad looking either. You never know. I think he could be good to you."
"Perhaps," Lan Wangji said, and kept his gaze on the guqin as Nie Huaisang took his leave.
Once the veil, a large square of silky crimson, was thrown over his head, Lan Wangji's vision became a haze of red. He could still see well enough to be sure of not walking into other people or things, but not clearly enough to see anything in detail, like faces.
Still, he recognized that it was once again Jin Guangyao standing in front of him, waiting to guide him into the main hall for the ceremonial three bows. He let himself be led to the hall, not unwillingly, but stiff nevertheless.
There was a difference between wanting to marry someone, and accepting marriage to someone because it was preferable to the status quo.
The main hall was already packed with wedding guests, and the murmur of conversation lulled, then rose in intensity, when he entered the hall. Their faces were a blur around him, but through the red he could make out some of the sect colors — large swaths of Jins dressed in gold, a large swath of Qinghe Nies in deep green, and a small patch of void black robes that could only be the Yiling Patriarch's own companions. Lan Wangji kept his gaze straight forward, and didn't try to discern which of the figures in black would become his husband. He would know before the sun next rose in the sky, anyway.
Jin Guangyao guided him up towards the center platform, in front of which two small, square mats were placed. Lan Wangji could vaguely make out the two figures in front of him — a man, tall and solidly built, and a woman, slim and with jewels glinting dimly at her throat — who could only be Jin Guangshan and Madam Jin.
"I'm honored to have guided you here, in place of Xichen," Jin Guangyao said to him. "Wangji, I do truly wish you happiness."
Lan Wangji carefully extracted his arm out of Jin Guangyao's grasp, and knelt down onto the mat in front of him in one smooth motion. He felt Jin Guangyao step away, moving up towards the platform, no doubt to stand at Jin Guangshan's side. In his peripheral vision, he saw a dark red silhouette kneel down on the mat to his left.
So this was the Yiling Patriarch. A man with his own territory, his own powers, his own strength that could fend off even Wen Ruohan. Someone who Jin Guangshan had wanted on his side so badly he had traded Lan Wangji to have it.
Lan Wangji knew Jin Guangshan had hid them all these years, growing up safe and sound within the confines of Koi Tower, because he was greedy for power but not short-sighted. He knew that he didn't have the pure strength to seize the throne back from Wen Ruohan on his own terms. He needed a rallying point. Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji were to be the flags he raised above his head to rally support from those sects that remained loyal in their hearts to the Lan dynasty. They were to lend legitimacy to his rule.
He had already bound Lan Xichen to the Jins. To this day, Lan Wangji wasn't sure what it was about Jin Guangyao that had taken him in. The year Lan Wangji turned thirteen, and Lan Xichen turned nineteen, he had agreed to marry Jin Guangyao. He had been happy about it. Lan Wangji could still remember the way joy had suffused his entire being the morning of his wedding day.
Still, even with Lan Xichen tied to them by marriage, he was currently asleep with no signs of ever waking up. Lan Wangji was the backup plan, a spare chess piece ready to be put to use. To let him go, and marry him off to the Yiling Patriarch — it meant that he wasn't simply powerful. He was someone without whom Jin Guangshan didn't think he could win the throne at all.
He was a glimmer of hope, a promise of power. He had no need for a throne, no wish to rule, but he would need power to get his brother out of Koi Tower and into the care of a healer he could trust. He didn't know what the Yiling Patriarch had pledged to Jin Guangshan for him — to fight for him against the Wens, when the time finally came for Jin Guangshan to launch his campaign? To be loyal, once Jin Guangshan had seized power?
He wondered if the Yiling Patriarch was the kind of man who could do anything for love — who would renege on his deals, or break an oath. He wondered if he could please him enough to walk into his heart, and persuade him to. He thought of his brother lying still and unmoving in his bed, the monthly report Jin Guangyao had sent to him from whichever healer he had found that month, all saying the same thing: that nothing appeared to be wrong, that Lan Xichen for all intents and purposes was truly just asleep, disregarding the fact that he wouldn't wake up.
He felt his resolve tighten in him as he raised himself up from the last of the three bows. For his brother, for a future where he no longer felt like one of Nie Huaisang's pretty songbirds flittering in his cage, he would please his husband, and seize his strength for his own.
He felt a hand at his elbow, helping him stand back up. Followed the hand and the dark red silhouette that was now his husband to the small phalanx of black robes he had noted earlier. The Yiling Patriarch made no motion to sit, and so he remained standing as well, hands folded neatly in front of him as if he really were a demure young bride.
Just as Jin Guangshan rose from his seat with his wine cup in hand, evidently about to give his toast and announce the start of the wedding feast, the small contingent of the Yiling Patriarch stood up as well, a small phalanx of black in the otherwise shining and opulent hall.
The hall hushed into pin-drop silence.
"Having completed the required bows, we'll be taking our leave now," the Yiling Patriarch said. He wasn't asking for permission.
"Patriarch, this isn't according to custom," Jin Guangshan exclaimed, with a small trace of displeasure. "Stay for the feast we've prepared, to help add auspiciousness to your marriage."
Murmurs were beginning to spread throughout the hall.
"Ah, but my new bride is such a beauty, you can't fault me for wanting to get him home as early as I can," the Yiling Patriarch said, without an ounce of conciliation in his tone. He sounded more like he was giving a command. You can't fault me.
Then, amidst murmurs and Jin Guangyao's lilting voice in the background, asking guests to nevertheless stay and celebrate together, the Yiling Patriarch put a hand to his elbow and guided him out of the hall, down the long stretch of Koi Tower's main courtyard, past the little road that led to his own residence, and through the gate which he had once entered as a toddler cradled in Lan Xichen's young arms and had never been able to exit, until now.
"I've already had your things sent on ahead of us," the Yiling Patriarch told him, once they had sat down across from each other in the carriage that was waiting for them, a simple, well-built thing of solid plain wood. The rest of his dark-robed contingent followed the carriage on horseback, and with a jolt Lan Wangji felt the carriage begin to move and pick up speed.
"Mn," Lan Wangji said. All of the words he thought he'd prepared for this moment seemed to be stuck in his throat like fish bones. Prickly, painful, impossible to swallow, yet equally impossible to cough out.
"Did you like the guqin?" the Yiling Patriarch asked.
"Yes, thank you."
Silence fell between them like a stone. Lan Wangji hesitated, then reached into his sleeve for the comb he had prepared for this moment.
He couldn't be seen as someone who came to him easily, a pretty body passed over, wrapped in red silks like a gift. Even more crucially, he couldn't be seen as just an extension of the Jins. He needed to remind the Yiling Patriarch that the person he'd taken as his husband was, first and foremost, the last of the Lans.
Still, it caused a deep ache in him to pull out his mother's comb from his sleeve and offer it with both of his hands outstretched. It was a beautiful comb, ebony wood inlaid with mother of pearl, an uncanny visual match to the guqin he had been gifted. Engraved all around its edges was a mountain range shrouded in wispy clouds. It was the only thing he'd ever had of his parents.
"My wedding gift to you," Lan Wangji said softly. "It was my mother's. My father presented it to her on their wedding day, as a wish for longevity and prosperity together."
Warm hands enclosed around his, and he felt strong fingers, calloused palms.
"It must be very precious to you," the Yiling Patriarch said.
"Yes," Lan Wangji answered, and pressed the comb firmly into his hands.
He felt the Yiling Patriarch pause, and felt his hands move a little as if he were stroking over the delicate designs on the comb. The engravings were, unmistakably, the mountains of Gusu, and the clouds that gave Cloud Recesses its name. But he didn't comment on it, only said, "Thank you, I will keep it safe," and lifted the comb out of his hands.
Lan Wangji fought the urge to reach out and snatch it back. He had decided what he wanted, and what he was willing to sacrifice. There was no turning back.
He only realized he'd fallen asleep upon blinking awake as the carriage halted into stillness. He straightened up from where he had tilted against the side of the carriage. The light was much dimmer than it had been when they'd set off, his only sign of how much time had passed.
"We're here," the Yiling Patriarch said, and Lan Wangji felt a thin strip of paper placed into his hands. "You must keep this on you in order to enter."
Lan Wangji wordlessly tucked the paper into his sleeve. So it was true. The Yiling Patriarch was one of the few in the world who had managed to cultivate some specialized power, and this was how he was able to build his stronghold in the Burial Mounds, and fend off Wen Ruohan. He burned with curiosity — at the extent of what he could do, how he did it, if it could be taught.
His first sight of the Burial Mounds was, as everything had been since the veil was thrown over his head, a haze of red. Still, he could see that it wasn't nearly as expansive or opulent as Koi Tower. Everything was wood and bare stone and soil, vegetable plots instead of flowers, the faint musty scent of things growing out of decay.
The sun had just about disappeared beneath the horizon, and many people in plain, dark robes of rough cloth had milled out to see them return, each with a lantern in hand. Lan Wangji walked at the Yiling Patriarch's elbow, slowed his pace so he remained one small step behind. He saw the dim glow of the lanterns lining their path, heard their cheers and shouts of well-wishes and congratulations.
The Yiling Patriarch was loved, he thought. Loved and respected in the same way that Jin Guangshan was feared and warily followed. And he must have kindness in his heart, too, to have been able to gather so many people to him, and grant them shelter and security.
It made the thought of needing to please him a little easier to bear.
Upon passing through the crowd that welcomed them into the Burial Mounds, the Yiling Patriarch passed him to a small, slight girl who walked with a cane in her hand.
"Lan Wangji, A-Qing will guide you to your rooms. I will come as soon as I can," he said, before striding off on footsteps so silent Lan Wangji couldn't even discern the general direction he had gone in. He wondered what was so urgent that he had left in such a hurry.
"Follow me," A-Qing said to him, voice laced with some impatience. But her hand was gentle at his elbow, cognizant of the way his vision was obscured even more by the veil now that night was falling. Together they walked up, up, up, the mountain, until at last they'd reached a set of rooms only slightly larger and more polished than the ones below.
Lan Wangji wondered at A-Qing's cane. Was she blind? The tip of her cane tapped in front of her as she walked, a gentle rhythm that fell in line with the beating of his heart. It certainly seemed that she was blind, but she also moved with a quickness and surety of herself that made Lan Wangji question his assumption.
A-Qing left him after guiding him into the house, and through another set of doors that led to the bedroom.
Lan Wangji lifted up his veil slightly to look around. The bedroom was sparsely furnished, with a wide bed against the wall, a tall closet and cabinets, and a circular table in the center with two stools placed next to it. On the table was a set of three long candles, already lit, and an oil lamp hung up on the wall.
There were no festoons of red ribbon, no vermilion silks draped across the room. Only plain cotton, muted tones of grey and blue and black. It wouldn't have looked at all like a bedroom meant for a wedding night were it not for the character for "double happiness" cut out of red paper and pasted on the wall over the bed.
His meagre personal belongings had already been brought to the room — two small trunks, set down in front of the closet, and the guqin, set on top of the cabinets. Lan Wangji considered playing something on it, some gentle lovely tune that would draw in the Yiling Patriarch when he returned, but ultimately decided against it. If he played, he would want to play something from the volume of Gusu Lan guqin scores Nie Huaisang had gifted to him, and those tunes were not something he was willing to tarnish with disingenuity.
He thought of the other book Nie Huaisang had passed to him that morning, and retrieved it out of where he'd packed it away at the bottom of one of the trunks. He flipped through it furtively, flushed. He thought of being kissed, and did not feel like it would be unpleasant. He thought of getting on his knees and placing his mouth on the Yiling Patriarch, and that felt tolerable too. He thought of being stretched open and pushed into, and felt that he could bear it. He had never been afraid of pain.
He tucked the book safely back inside the trunk, and settled down on the bed to wait, adjusting the veil over his head to make sure it was neatly draped again.
He had been waiting long enough that the candles illuminating the room had all melted half way into wax when he heard the doors sliding open and shut, and felt his body tense up as taut as a bow string being drawn to fell a boar.
He heard the Yiling Patriarch moving around in the space just outside the bedroom, which he had not had a chance to observe on his way in, and which he had not thought to look at once A-Qing had left.
Finally, after a series of scraping noises, like furniture being moved around, and a faint ruffling sound like falling leaves, there were footsteps moving towards the bedroom, and then the sound of the door sliding open. Lan Wangji saw him pause in the doorway upon seeing him, as if he had forgotten there would be someone waiting for him.
Finally, the Yiling Patriarch moved towards the bed where Lan Wangji was sitting, stiff as a rock and trembling all at once. He did his best to fight down the pounding of his heart, which seemed to be trying its best to leap out of his throat.
The dark silhouette stopped in front of him, and he saw a pair of hands lift up the edges of his veil. The red silk tumbled down onto the bed, a wound opening up on the muted blue of the bedding. Lan Wangji raised his eyes to finally see who it was he had married.
A faint fissure of surprise ran up his spine. Nie Huaisang had not misled him. The Yiling Patriarch was indeed young — he looked to be the same age as himself, if not a little younger. Lan Wangji had expected him to look solemn, cold, harsh, a cold steel blade he would need to press up against the soft underbelly of himself. But he had not expected the discerning eyes, nor the smile.
"Husband," he said in greeting, and was pleased that his voice held steady and firm.
The smile widened, a quicksilver grin.
"My courtesy name is Wei Wuxian," the Yiling Patriarch said. Then, after a barely noticeable pause, "But you may call me Wei Ying, if you would like."
"Wei Wuxian, Wei Ying," Lan Wangji repeated after him, feeling the shape of the syllables as they passed over his tongue. " Ying as in eagle?"
The Yiling Patriarch, Wei Wuxian, Wei Ying, froze and stared at him. Then he burst into laughter, bright and clear. He answered through his chuckles, "No, unfortunately nothing as grand as that. Ying as in baby."
Lan Wangji stared. He wondered what kind of parents Wei Wuxian must have had, to name him in such an indulgent manner.
"My name is Lan Zhan," he said, feeling the reciprocation pulled out of him, like the peal of Wei Wuxian's laughter had unspooled some tightly knotted thing inside of him.
Wei Wuxian moved to sit beside him on the bed, close enough that he thought he could feel the warmth radiating from his body.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian repeated after him. " Zhan as in battle?"
Lan Wangji blinked. He wondered what it said about Wei Wuxian that the first character he'd thought of was battle. He wondered what it said about him that he wished battle truly was the character he was named with.
"No," he said. " Zhan as in tranquil."
Wei Wuxian hummed in response, and raised a hand to Lan Wangji's cheek, and then higher, grazing past his cheekbones, brow bone, and then higher still to slide the gold and jade pins out of his hair, so that it tumbled down, a smooth waterfall of ink across his shoulders.
Wei Wuxian's smiling face was suddenly very close. Lan Wangji held himself still, and closed his eyes. He felt a soft, warm press of lips against his — chaste and close-lipped. And then, the warmth was gone.
"Lan Zhan, my tranquil husband, you're shaking."
And indeed, despite his best efforts otherwise, he was. He was deathly aware of every inch of space between them, of the knowledge he had gleaned from the illustrated book Nie Huaisang had given him. Wei Wuxian patted his hands, one light touch like a butterfly landing.
"Well, there's no rush," he said, and stood back up.
But there was. There was. If Lan Wangji let him walk out of here tonight, by the time he woke up tomorrow all of the Yiling Patriarch's household would know that his new bride hadn't even been able to keep his interest on their wedding night.
He knew very well from watching Madam Jin fight tooth and nail all these years to be rid of the other women by Jin Guangshan's side that all his potential authority here in the Burial Mounds rested upon how his relationship with Wei Wuxian was perceived.
"Wei Wuxian," he said, and made his hands move, fingers twisting tightly into the corner of Wei Wuxian's sleeve. Thought of how he'd heard Madam Jin placate Jin Guangshan over countless dinners. Gentled his voice. "Wei Ying, wait."
Wei Wuxian turned around again to face him. Lan Wangji stood up to put them back at eye level. "It is, I think, normal to be nervous."
"You're asking me to stay?" Wei Wuxian asked.
"You are my husband now," Lan Wangji said mildly. "Where would you go?"
Then, seeing Wei Wuxian unmoved, he added one last push. "Unless, of course, you have already found me displeasing."
Wei Wuxian's gaze darkened, swept across his face. "I have not."
Lan Wangji let go of his sleeve, sat back down on the bed, and lifted the hem of his robes slightly so Wei Wuxian could see him toeing off his shoes. When he raised his hand to the collar of his robes, Wei Wuxian stopped him with a light grip around his wrists.
"Let me," he said, then reached down with one hand to loosen and pull off the sash around his waist, the other hand already beginning to peel back his outer robe, the heaviest of the layers he'd been wrapped in in the morning.
As one layer after another was peeled off of his shoulders, the weight of the fabric he had been carrying all day disappeared. Yet Lan Wangji felt a different weight pinning him down on the bed with every additional inch of his skin exposed to the air. Wei Wuxian's gaze was heavy and intent, and scorched across his skin like fire. He slanted his head, unconsciously trying to avoid his eyes.
Wei Wuxian stripped the last of his inner robes away— a light, translucent gossamer thing that Jin Guangyao had been especially pleased about when the servants had held it out for his inspection that morning — Lan Wangji lifting his arms obediently out of the sleeves so it could be tossed to the side. Then, a hand cupped at his jaw nudged Lan Wangji into raising his head again to meet Wei Wuxian's eyes.
"Have you been with anyone before?" Wei Wuxian asked.
Lan Wangji lowered his eyes, bit his lower lip.
"That's a no, then," Wei Wuxian said mildly. He sounded neither pleased nor displeased, and Lan Wangji wondered how he would have reacted if the answer had been yes . He wondered if it would have been better or worse if the answer was yes . Better, to have been able to choose someone to love and share these intimacies with. Worse, to have known the pleasure that lay in choosing, and to have to give it up.
Wei Wuxian was still dressed, and when he leaned in and pressed Lan Wangji down to the bed with another close-lipped kiss, he felt the soft cool slide of the brocade against his skin and shivered slightly. He felt soft suction against his lower lips, and Wei Wuxian's hands running down his neck, his arms, and settling on his hips as two arm anchor points. He slowly relaxed against the pillows, and relaxed into the kiss, mouth falling open slightly as he clumsily tried to mirror what Wei Wuxian was doing.
There was a warm press of tongue against the seam of his lips, then in, flicking against the roof of his mouth, the back of his teeth. Lan Wangji felt a slow, unexpected trickle of warmth gathering in the base of his spine, the hairs on the nape of his neck prickling upwards. He twitched, and their teeth clacked clumsily together.
Wei Wuxian chuckled, a low and smooth rumbling laugh, and pulled back a little to brush a thumb soothingly against his jawline, like he was a coltish animal on the verge of bolting. Lan Wangji breathed, and kept his eyes firmly closed. There was something complicated tangling in his stomach. He heard the rustling sound of fabric, and when Wei Wuxian leaned down again, the entire length of their bodies pressing together, he felt a shock of heat from the stretch of bare skin against his own.
In between one kiss and the next, their breaths tangled together, he felt himself being slowly unwound, peeled back layer by layer like his robes had been moments earlier, until he became a raw nerve singing under Wei Wuxian's lips. Wei Wuxian tasted like over-steeped tea, like chilies, like smoke. They kissed until Lan Wangji's mouth felt tender and bruised, like he'd eaten a dish prepared with too much spice and peppercorns.
He felt Wei Wuxian hardening against him, and he was hardening too, and a low groan was punched out of him as Wei Wuxian reached a hand between them and wrapped his fingers around both of their cocks, his grip firm and sure. Lan Wangji twisted his head to the side, away from Wei Wuxian's mouth, and panted open-mouthed into the pillow, feeling wound up and wounded by the influx of sensation pouring into him.
He was rutting up into the motion of Wei Wuxian's hand, the small twitches of his hips beyond his conscious control. Wei Wuxian's fingers were now slick from the fluids leaking out of both of them, making the friction between their cocks go smooth and velvet, and picked up his speed.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian murmured against his throat, and pressed a trail of kisses down the long sweep of his neck, pausing to lick against his pulsepoint, like he could taste the rapid beating of Lan Wangji's heart. "Lan Zhan, look at me."
Lan Wangji, with great effort, turned his head away from the pillow to meet Wei Wuxian's eyes. They were grey, he realized, not the dark black he had thought at first glance. In the flickering candlelight, he thought he could even see flecks of blues and purples.
"How do you feel?" Wei Wuxian asked.
Lan Wangji was already flushed, his body a scorched earth, but he felt more heat rush to his face nevertheless as as Wei Wuxian rubbed a thumb over the slit at the crown of his cock and he answered, with a small shuddery exhale, "Good."
"Say my name," Wei Wuxian demanded lowly, as he picked up speed again.
"Wei Wuxian," Lan Wangji said, voice unsteady. Then when he saw Wei Wuxian's eyes flicker with some unidentified emotion, he added, on the back edge of a sharp inhale, "Wei Ying."
A large wave was building in the pit of his stomach, the taut bowstring of his body quivering and on the edge of snapping, when Wei Wuxian kissed him again, no more close-lipped chasteness but a deep, feverish sweep of his tongue into Lan Wangji's mouth. Then there was a sudden sting on his lower lip when Wei Wuxian pulled back and nipped down at it, and it was this bright starburst of pain that pushed him over the edge, and he spilled over with a drawn out keen in the back of his throat he couldn't hold back.
His release painted both of their stomachs, and left Wei Wuxian's fingers an obscene, sticky mess. Lan Wangji, breathing in sharp, quick gasps, realized Wei Wuxian was still hard as the white noise in his head slowly faded. He was wondering if he should reach between them, and move his fingers over Wei Wuxian as he had done, when Wei Wuxian pulled himself up, knees bracketing Lan Wangji's hips, and fumbled in his discarded robes' sleeves to retrieve a small vial of oil.
"Onto your hands and knees, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian said, and he tensed involuntarily even as he moved sluggishly to follow the directions. He shifted onto his side, and then onto his front, and felt Wei Wuxian's hands on his hips, pulling him upwards into the position he wanted.
His stomach clenched as he heard the vial of oil being unstoppered, and then felt Wei Wuxian's hands between his thighs, coated liberally with oil.
"Press your thighs together for me," Wei Wuxian said, then slid between Lan Wangji's thighs when he did so, and began to move.
He went in a slow, unhurried pace, as if he was luxuriating in the smooth slide between Lan Wangji's legs, his cock a hard, hot brand against him. He hadn't thought that his inner thighs could feel so sensitive until now. And each thrust brought Wei Wuxian's cock against his balls, a soft, faint jolt of pleasure that made his cock twitch slightly with interest but ultimately wasn't enough to get him to harden again.
Lan Wangji pressed his face deeper into the pillow, his feeling of shame at offering his body up to someone he had not known or met before that day warring with how loose-limbed and relaxed he was from his earlier release. His thighs began to tremble a little with the effort of keeping them pressed together for Wei Wuxian to slide into.
Above him, Wei Wuxian had picked up his pace, and over the soft slapping noises of skin against skin he'd started murmuring a low litany of words. "Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, look at how beautiful you are, look at how good you've been."
Lan Wangji hadn't been called by anything other than his courtesy name since his brother had fallen into his mysterious, unending sleep seven years ago, and something ached inside of him like a careless press onto a bruise to hear it called out now, in this context.
One of Wei Wuxian's hands tangled in his hair at the nape of his neck, surprisingly gentle, and he felt Wei Wuxian's rhythm stutter to a halt. Wei Wuxian pulled back, and moved his hand over himself, fast and rough, and then Lan Wangji felt a long, hot line of come painting the small of his back, and down to the back of his thighs. The hand in his hair gentled even more, and smoothed over where it had been gripping, then patted the back of his neck and traced the curve of his shoulder blades.
"Ah, we've made a mess," Wei Wuxian said, and Lan Wangji felt a silky fabric cleaning up his back, his thighs — one of his many layers of robes that had been discarded and tossed to the side earlier.
He steadied his breathing into one long exhale, and slowly lowered his hips, then flipped himself around to once again meet Wei Wuxian's eyes. Then haltingly, but deliberately, he propped himself up and leaned into Wei Wuxian to press a small, open-mouthed kiss to his smile and said, "Wei Ying."
Wei Wuxian huffed out a small laugh, and pressed a kiss back onto his forehead. Then he finished cleaning them up with — and Lan Wangji felt vindictively pleased by this — Lan Wangji's gauzy innermost robe, probably irreparably destroying the delicate silk Jin Guangyao had sourced with such care. As Wei Wuxian got down from the bed to blow out the candles on the table, which had burned down to nubs, Lan Wangji unrolled the thick blanket at the foot of the bed and curled up beneath it. When Wei Wuxian returned to the bed and crawled under the blanket to join Lan Wangji, he quietly shifted inwards on the bed to make space.
Lan Wangji breathed into the darkness with Wei Wuxian curled up behind him, one arm slung loosely around his waist. He thought of Wei Wuxian's grey eyes, the bright silver-bell peal of his laughter, how he had pushed between his thighs instead of into his body, how his hands gentled in his hair instead of pulling.
He thought that this was enough. Enough for him to settle into the Burial Mounds, into Wei Wuxian's home, into Wei Wuxian's heart. Once settled in, he could ask for more, and dare to long for more: more freedom, more authority, more power. And one day he would be able to take the freedom and authority and power he gathered here, and go back to Koi Tower, and demand for all the things he'd dreamed of in those long, lonely years there existing in his little courtyard with only his music, his sword, and his white plum tree bursting defiantly into bloom even as snow covered everything in ice and silence.
The first morning he woke up as a married man, Lan Wangji woke up alone. From outside the window, he could hear some particularly cheerful birds, greeting the new day with their song. He rolled over to stare at the indentation left on the pillow on Wei Wuxian's side of the bed. There was a slip of paper left on it, with the perfunctory note Gone for two weeks. Let A-Qing or Wen Ning know if you need anything.
Lan Wangji told himself he was grateful for this.
The first week, A-Qing and Wen Ning showed up every day shortly after he woke up, A-Qing rapping on the door with her cane and Wen Ning bearing a tray of simple breakfast foods: porridge kept piping hot by a thick cloth wrapped around the clay pot, steamed buns, salted vegetables. They would quietly retreat, and he was left to his own devices until they brought him lunch, and then dinner.
This state of affairs lasted a week, until after walking around the sprawling complex of small wooden houses and plots of land across the Burial Mounds, Lan Wangji realized that no one else was getting food delivered to them by others, nor were they idle. Everyone he passed by nodded and smiled at him politely, but they were all busy with their daily tasks of building something, repairing something, tending to their little plots of vegetables or their pens of livestock.
Lan Wangji realized the Burial Mounds did not operate in the manner he had been accustomed to at Koi Tower — that there weren't any servants, that instead of stagnant indolence there was constant work, everyone contributing their own little piece to their shared livelihood. Additionally, he realized that the stories of the Yiling Patriarch amassing a whole host of followers were grossly exaggerated; most people he saw didn't seem like they knew how to carry a sword, much less fight. They were just ordinary people, living out their lives hidden away in this mountain.
At the beginning of the second week, when he had almost forgotten the sound of his own voice, as A-Qing and Wen Ning turned to leave after placing down his breakfast tray, he stopped them.
"I can get my own meals," he said, "If I know where to go for them. And, is there anything that needs to be done which I can help with?"
"Oh," A-Qing said, surprised.
Lan Wangji caught the hesitant glance Wen Ning threw towards her, and knew that she was the decision-maker between the two of them.
"I want to live here well, and as myself, not just someone that married in from the Jins," he said to A-Qing, meeting her milky-white eyes. "I don't want or need special treatment like this."
"Well, I can ask around and see if anyone needs help with something," A-Qing said hesitantly. "Young Master Wei asked us to take care of you though."
"I would appreciate being able to help out," Lan Wangji said firmly.
"Alright, Young Master Lan," A-Qing said, and smiled at him slightly before they left.
Lan Wangji was in the living space outside the bedroom, bent over his guqin and slowly working his way through the first of the scores in the book Nie Huaisang had given him — a slow, mournful tune that made him think of dark skies and the flurries of the first snowfall in winter — when A-Qing returned in the evening. Behind her followed an elderly woman, who was white-haired and hunched over with age but walked with strong, steady steps.
"This is Granny Wen," A-Qing introduced to him, as he stood up with his palms pressed down over the guqin strings to silence their lingering reverberations. "Her eyes aren't what they used to be, and she thought you might help with the sewing work she does."
"I would be happy to," Lan Wangji said, and showed her into the bedroom, where it would be more comfortable for her to sit on the soft cushions of the bed. Granny Wen. Wen Ning. He mulled the names over in his head, and wondered how Wei Wuxian had come to take in so many Wens when ostensibly Wen Ruohan posed the largest threat to the steady, simple life they had built here.
Granny Wen was brisk and efficient with her words and manner. She took the sewing basket and bundle of cloth from the crook of A-Qing's arms, and showed him a sample straight, neat row of stitches before teaching him how to emulate them. His hands were unsteady at first, unused to holding the needle, unsure of how taut to pull the thread.
Occasionally from the corner of his eyes, Lan Wangji thought he caught A-Qing staring at him from her seat by the table, her cloudy eyes strangely focused in the direction of his hands. But when he blinked her gaze was unfocused again, only turned towards the general direction of the bed.
When Granny Wen finally nodded with satisfaction at the last row of stitches he produced, his fingertips were littered with tiny pinpricks from stabbing the fabric in the wrong place or with too much force, but he didn't wince at the pain or complain. After all, when he had been younger and first learning how to wield a sword together with the Jin young masters, he had endured much worse in the name of learning.
And so, by the end of the second week, Lan Wangji had settled into a new routine. He took his meals in the large, round wooden house that served as the dining hall in the center of the Burial Mounds, and slowly learned the name of those who came by to greet A-Qing or Wen Ning and stayed to eat and talk with him. In bits and pieces, their words painted a mosaic of Wei Wuxian.
He met a man getting on in age, though not quite as old as Granny Wen, who everyone referred to as Fourth Uncle — though the fourth uncle of who, Lan Wangji wasn't able to figure out. He talked to Lan Wangji very enthusiastically about the new kind of plum wine he was working on perfecting.
"Young Master Wei does prefer his alcohol on the sweet side," he said, "though I personally want to try and reduce the sweetness, because the sugar's what gets your head hurting the next day like it got trampled by a mulish donkey overnight."
He met Wen Qing, sister of Wen Ning, who was nothing like her gentle, soft-spoken brother. Her eyes were sharp and quick, though she smiled at A-Qing and pressed some pieces of candy into her palm. Wen Qing, he learned, studied medicine, and she had fled from Wen Ruohan with Wen Ning in tow when the services he demanded of her began to verge away from healing and into experimentation.
"Wei Wuxian tends to forget about his own health," she told him, "so keep an eye on him, and whether he's remembering to eat."
Finally, he met A-Yuan, a toddler riding joyfully into the dining hall on Wen Ning's shoulders, Granny Wen following behind the two of them with a wrinkled smile that nevertheless took a decade off of her face. A-Yuan was a cheerful, burbling toddler not at all afraid of strangers, and he ran laughing to Lan Wangji and clung to his legs with a bright burst of giggles before he was carried away by an apologetic Wen Ning to be fed his breakfast by Granny Wen.
After breakfast he would walk to the small, cozy little house Granny Wen lived in, and pick up the bundle of cloth and thread from Granny Wen that would be his sewing work for the day. He would return to the little set of rooms he was quickly thinking of as his and sit down to sew, his stitches getting tighter and neater with each passing day. The repetitive work was soothing, almost meditative, a balm on his mind that helped to chase away unwanted thoughts.
In the dusky evenings he returned to practicing his sword forms at the back of the house, the heavy steel of Bichen a calming weight in his palms as he moved his body through the air in familiar patterns, careful to avoid trampling into the carefully-tended pond of elegantly blooming white and pink lotus flowers. These were the only things that he'd seen planted in the Burial Mounds for what appeared to be purely decorative purposes — there weren't enough of them for it to be intended as a source of lotus seeds or lotus roots for eating — and he wondered who had planted them, and why.
The obvious answer would be Wei Wuxian, and as he slashed Bichen through the air, building up a pleasant soreness in his muscles, he mulled over all the reasons Wei Wuxian could have to be fond of lotus flowers. The simplest explanation — that he just liked them, or liked what they represented (purity, rebirth, enlightenment) if he happened to be a spiritual man. But this did not seem likely, for reasons Lan Wangji could not pinpoint beyond a gut feeling. The most outrageous explanation he came up with was: perhaps Wei Wuxian was, in fact, secretly the long-lost heir of the Yunmeng Jiangs. Wen Ruohan had ordered the Yunmeng Jiangs to be wiped out and their base of power, Lotus Pier, razed to the ground like Cloud Recesses ten years prior. After the destruction, no one knew of any survivors — but then again, not many knew that he and his brother had made it out of Cloud Recesses, either.
This was how Wei Wuxian found him when he finally returned to the Burial Mounds: Bichen outstretched in the middle of a long graceful arc down towards the ground, wisps of his hair escaping from his hair ribbon and framing his face, his body a song in motion.
He froze when he saw Wei Wuxian emerge from around the corner of the house, then slowly lowered Bichen to his side, the bare steel glinting in the fading mauve of the sunset.
"You've returned," he said in greeting, and sheathed Bichen entirely.
"You're very fluid with a sword," Wei Wuxian said appreciatively, and walked closer to pull Lan Wangji in by the waist, one of his hands resting lightly on the pommel of Bichen.
Lan Wangji just had enough time to note that Wei Wuxian looked tired before his lips were caught in a kiss. He tilted his head instinctively, no longer as clumsy as he had been their first night together, and let his mouth fall open, shivering when Wei Wuxian licked in immediately. Lan Wangji thought back to the spice-heavy stir fry he'd eaten at lunch and winced a little, but Wei Wuxian didn't seem to mind. They stood there for a long moment, Lan Wangji eventually dropping Bichen to the ground to be able to slide his arms around Wei Wuxian, smoothing his hands over Wei Wuxian's back. He was surprised to realize he was actually just a little taller than Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian sighed against his lips, and pulled away. Lan Wangji searched for something else to say as he followed him back inside the house. Eventually, he landed on, "Have you eaten yet?"
"No," Wei Wuxian answered, "But I asked Wen Ning to bring up dinner for us. I'd like to talk to you while we eat."
Lan Wangji slanted a look over at him, wondering what he had heard from Wen Ning about what he'd been doing this past week, if he had cared enough to ask. He caught a glance of the firm muscles rippling down Wei Wuxian's back as he changed out of his travel-worn robes into a simple set of navy under robes, and felt some heat running up his neck.
Wen Ning arrived with dinner — chicken and mushrooms and potatoes stewed together in a fragrant broth, a stir-fry of tofu and some greens, and two bowls of rice. Simple, hearty fare that Lan Wangji had come to enjoy much more than the delicacies served at Koi Tower.
He ate in silence, and waited for Wei Wuxian to speak. Lan Wangji considered picking up a piece of chicken and placing it into his bowl for him. His chopsticks hovered, undecided, then in the end he just picked up another piece of tofu for himself. Wei Wuxian distractedly picked out the largest piece of chicken from the pot and reached across the table to place it into his bowl, a movement as natural as breathing, in exactly the same way Lan Xichen used to do for him when they were younger.
Just as he was trying to breathe past the sudden tightness in his throat over the thought of Lan Xichen, Wei Wuxian spoke. "Nie Mingjue has been persuaded to cast his lot in with Jin Guangshan."
Lan Wangji's fingers trembled slightly, and the piece of tofu he'd picked up fell to the table in front of his bowl. He placed his chopsticks down neatly across the rim of his bowl. He didn't think he would have the appetite to eat further.
"When?" Lan Wangji asked, when he was sure his voice wouldn't give away his panic.
"In three days," Wei Wuxian said. "Wen Ruohan will have heard of our wedding by now, and he'll have confirmed that you and your brother were raised by the Jins all these years. And he knows of me. He's a tyrant, but he's not inattentive. We'll need to try and take our first objectives by surprise."
Lan Wangji was, of course, fiercely glad at the thought of finally striking back at Wen Ruohan, but he had not expected the Nies to join in. He thought of Nie Huaisang, and his frequent visits to Koi Tower under the veneer of appreciating the beautiful together with Jin Guangyao, and his stomach clenched. He had originally thought to persuade Wei Wuxian to turn against the Jins after Wen Ruohan had fallen, but with the strength of the Qinghe Nies in the mix, he was no longer sure that would be possible.
Wei Wuxian, after all, was a survivor. And like all survivors he knew how to gauge the possible outcomes of any action he took. He would know that Nie Mingjue was known for taking words seriously. Once he swore a vow or made a pledge he never went back on it. In his eyes, to break an oath or renege on a deal was a crime worse than murder, and he held others around him to the same standard.
It was said that when he'd first taken over the sect from his father, he'd learned the nursemaid that had practically raised him and his brother had sold snippets of information about them in order to pay off the gambling debts accrued by her son — small, harmless facts like Nie Huaisang's favorite color being yellow, or their habit of eating century-egg porridge with a fried egg on top in the mornings. Nie Mingjue had ordered her execution without an ounce of hesitation.
In the face of all that, no matter how Lan Wangji pleased him or how deeply he managed to walk into his heart, how could Wei Wuxian ever agree to forever cast the dark mark of being an oathbreaker upon himself, and pit himself against the combined strength of the Jins and the Nies?
And now that Lan Wangji had seen what Wei Wuxian had built for himself here in Yiling — not an army, but a community of people that only wanted to live a modest, straightforward life in peace — he had to decide if it was a risk he could ask of him to take.
"I will join you," Lan Wangji finally responded, and the words tasted like ash in his mouth.
He thought of all that Lan Xichen had been able to describe to him about the Cloud Recesses, a home he had never known. He thought of the books that had burned, the musical instruments that had turned to dust, the gentians in his mother's garden that would never bloom again. And amongst all that destruction, the entire Lan sect being wiped out by soldiers that could keep fighting even with half of their intestines hanging out, even with a dagger pushed into their heart. Mother, Father, Uncle.
Their souls had entered the ground at the hands of Wen Ruohan, and he would fight to be the one to strike the killing blow. Then, whatever came after, he would find another way to get his brother out of the clutches of the Jins.
"The plan is to strike at Langya first. It's the Wen garrison closest to Lanling, and Wen Ruohan's easiest source of information on our movements," Wei Wuxian said.
"This is why you were gone these last two weeks — making these plans?" Lan Wangji asked.
Wei Wuxian nodded. He seemed, perhaps, a little regretful at the reminder that he had left Lan Wangji alone for two full weeks, but didn't offer an apology or further explanations. Instead, he asked softly, "Will you play something on the guqin for me?"
Lan Wangji looked at him, and saw that he really was worn-out, a little wan even under the warm cast of the candlelight.
"Of course," he answered, and cleared the remnants of their dinner off of the table, stacking the bowls and plates neatly onto the tray and placing it in front of the main doorway to take back down to the dining hall the next morning.
When he carried his guqin into the bedroom from where he had been playing it in the outer living space, Wei Wuxian was reclining on the bed, looking as if he was half-asleep already. Lan Wangji sat back at the table with his guqin in front of him, and thought briefly of what he wanted to play.
Something soothing, perhaps, to smooth away the slight furrow that lingered between Wei Wuxian's brows even as he relaxed further on their bed. He began playing the second tune he'd learned from his volume of Gusu Lan scores, a softer and sweeter one than the first he'd learned. Under his fingers, the silky strings of the guqin were comfortable and familiar. The notes burst into the air like flower buds opening under the first gentle showers of spring.
He looped the melody over on itself three times, and by the time the reverberations of the final note faded away, Wei Wuxian was asleep, his breathing deep and even. Lan Wangji changed out of his outer robes as quietly as he could, then blew out the candles and gingerly climbed onto the bed and over Wei Wuxian's prone form to his spot on the inside of the bed. As he pulled the blanket over them both, Wei Wuxian curled into him like a cat seeking warmth. By the time Lan Wangji fell into dreams of his own, Wei Wuxian had shifted inwards enough to be plastered fully against his back, a strangely comforting warmth.
In the morning, Lan Wangji wasn't awoken by birdsong as he had become accustomed to. Instead, he squirmed and gasped awake from a hazy, feverish dream of chasing after someone's shadow to his robes pulled wide open and Wei Wuxian's heated mouth already wrapped around his cock, tongue flicking under the head.
He felt a flush instantly suffusing his face and neck once he processed what was happening. Had he already been hard, as sometimes happened as he was sleeping, and had Wei Wuxian woken up and decided to do something about it? Or had Wei Wuxian woken up, and decided to softly coax his soft cock to fullness with his lips and tongue until Lan Wangji had been unable to remain asleep? He couldn't decide which option was more embarrassing, and through a low groan protested, "It's morning."
Wei Wuxian replaced his mouth with his hands to grin up at him from between his thighs, his lips glistening with wetness, already slightly swollen and suggestively red. "A good morning," he said, voice a little raspy. "Consider this some positive reinforcement for whatever spell you cast last night, I don't think I've slept that well in years."
He pressed a kiss against the jut of Lan Wangji's hipbones, then to his inner thighs, then a teasing trail of light kisses from the shaft of his cock to the tip before swallowing him down again. Lan Wangji felt heat enveloping him as Wei Wuxian swallowed until his nose was pressed against the musky smell of Lan Wangji's skin, throat convulsing around him, and Lan Wangji couldn't suppress a keen nor his hips twitching upwards to push deeper into the tight, blistering warmth and suction of Wei Wuxian's mouth.
Wei Wuxian choked a little, and threw an arm across his hips to pin him still against the bed. Lan Wangji gripped tightly onto the bedding beneath him, and his quickening, panting gasps filled the room, mixed in with the birds that had once again begun to sing and the wet, slick noises of Wei Wuxian's mouth as he began to bob his head up and down. Lan Wangji had seen images of this in the book from Nie Huaisang, but he had not expected the intensity of pleasure from a soft, warm heat pulsing around him, nor had he thought that he would be the one receiving it.
Wei Wuxian pulled off to heave some quick, gasping breaths, and Lan Wangji felt a rush of cold morning air against his inflamed and sensitive skin, and then the icy sensation was replaced with heat as Wei Wuxian licked up his shaft and wrapped his mouth around him again, tongue pressing into the slit at the crown. It was too much, all at once, and he felt his stomach clench up, and quickly pushed at Wei Wuxian, his fingers twisting automatically into his hair to try and pull him off. "Wait, wait, I'm—"
Wei Wuxian, if anything, took this as a challenge and swallowed him down to the root again, moaning slightly around him. The vibrations of his throat was a shock that ran through the base of Lan Wangji's spine, and he let out a soft whimper as he spilled down Wei Wuxian's throat. Wei Wuxian swallowed, and softly sucked him through the last aftershocks of his orgasm, until Lan Wangji was squirming again from the increasingly painful overstimulation.
Wei Wuxian licked his lips clean and wiped a hand across the wetness on his chin and cheeks. He grinned at Lan Wangji's still slightly dazed expression and crawled back up his body to lick into his mouth. Lan Wangji closed his eyes against the bitter taste of himself in Wei Wuxian's mouth, feeling somewhat like he'd woken up into a fever dream.
Wei Wuxian was still hard, his cock rubbing against the bare skin of Lan Wangji's stomach, leaving behind a slick trail of his precome. He was bright and smiling and burning against him, and kissed him like he was something precious, and in three days time they would be going to war together to finally topple Wen Ruohan from his stolen throne. Through the slight buzzing in his mind, Lan Wangji said quietly against Wei Wuxian's mouth, "Wen Qing gave me another jar of oil. I put it under the bed."
Then, Lan Wangji shifted underneath him, and ever so slightly spread his legs further apart. Wei Wuxian pulled himself up slightly to evaluate Lan Wangji's expression. Whatever he found there had him rolling to the edge of the bed and leaning downwards to feel around underneath the bed frame until his fingers touched the cold clay jar. He turned back around to Lan Wangji with it in his hands, looking triumphant but also strangely vulnerable.
Wei Wuxian knelt between Lan Wangji's legs, and dipped his fingers into the pot of oil. Then he leaned over to kiss him again, and as Lan Wangji inhaled slightly at the sensation of Wei Wuxian sucking slightly at the tip of his tongue, he felt a finger, cool and slick, circling at his entrance before pressing in.
Unbidden, he tensed up slightly at the strange feeling of intrusion.
"Relax," Wei Wuxian murmured against his jaw. "Breathe."
Lan Wangji inhaled, and relaxed around the first finger, which Wei Wuxian pressed in slowly one knuckle at a time. As Wei Wuxian pushed a second finger into him, he also kissed his way down Lan Wangji's chest and licked at each of his nipples in turn. Lan Wangji trembled at the sensation, and despite himself was distracted and relaxed enough for the second finger to slide into him as Wei Wuxian sucked one of his nipples till it had fully hardened, then ran his teeth across the nub, creating small fissions of heat that rippled through him.
Wei Wuxian poured a little more oil down the crevice between his fingers, and twisted them inside Lan Wangji, stretching the ring of muscle there wider and wider. Then he pushed further inwards, with an upwards crook of his fingers, and Lan Wangji's back arched up off of the bed as he pressed something inside of him that felt like a small explosion of fireworks in the deepest parts of him.
"There we are," Wei Wuxian said, as pleased as a cat who'd gotten the cream and the whole bucket of milk, too. Lan Wangji moaned as he pressed into that spot again, and felt his cock twitching and slowly lengthening and filling back up.
Wei Wuxian added more oil, and a third, slick finger pressed inside of him, and with every clever twist and push of his fingers Wei Wuxian pulled small gasps and longer, higher keens from his throat. He hadn't known until now that he could make such wanton sounds, and Lan Wangji was suddenly, fervently glad that he had put a stop to A-Qing and Wen Ning bringing breakfast up to him the week before.
When at last he had fully relaxed around the third finger, and his cock was once again standing at full hardness against his stomach, Wei Wuxian pulled back and flipped him over onto his hands and knees, pulling his hips up higher into the air. Lan Wangji had a brief flash of their wedding night, but this time Wei Wuxian wasn't sliding between his thighs. He was sliding into him, with a slow, unhurried push of his cock into the hole his fingers had massaged and loosened enough for him to press into.
Lan Wangji inhaled sharply as the head of Wei Wuxian's cock breached him. He was thicker than three fingers, and faint pricks of pain mixed with pleasure as Wei Wuxian continued his steady push inside, his hands petting at Lan Wangji's hips soothingly. When he finally bottomed out, Lan Wangji felt almost unbearably full, stuffed to the brim. Wei Wuxian just stayed like that for a moment, Lan Wangji's hole twitching and adjusting around his cock, and groaned out, "God, Lan Zhan, I wish you could see yourself, so beautiful and tight around me."
Then he started to move, slowly at first, then building up to a faster pace that had the bed creaking dangerously under them. One of his hands stayed at Lan Wangji's hips, a firm, bruising grip, and the other pressed down between his shoulder blades to send his chest down and into the pillow below him. His back arched a little more, and an involuntary groan was pulled out of him as the change in angle let Wei Wuxian sink in deeper, and bump against that spot deep inside of him again.
"Lan Wangji, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian said, a litany of his name as he snapped his hips against him. "Tell me how this feels, let me hear you."
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji said, voice shaky, and this seemed to be the only thing he could get out. "Wei Ying."
Wei Wuxian lifted the hand pressing down between his shoulder blades, and reached around to wrap his fingers around Lan Wangji's cock again. His hand was still covered in oil, and it made for a loose, slick grip for Lan Wangji to rut into even as Wei Wuxian sped up to a slapping pace, as if determined to bear down and carve a space for himself inside of Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji shook, and fell apart again for the second time that morning with the thick, full length of Wei Wuxian's cock inside of him, filling him up in a place that had never even felt empty before, and Wei Wuxian's fingers around him, stroking down the length of his shaft. He clenched down on Wei Wuxian as he came, and Wei Wuxian cursed, teeth pressed against the juncture between his neck and shoulder as he followed him over the edge.
Lan Wangji thought he could feel the hot, wet spill of Wei Wuxian's come inside of him like a flicker of flame spreading into a fire, setting him ablaze. He collapsed, panting, onto the bed, grimacing a little as he felt the wet spot underneath him, and rolled over a little bit to avoid it. Wei Wuxian curled around him, breath hot and heavy against his neck, their legs tangled together. Wei Wuxian licked apologetically at the teeth marks he'd left on Lan Wangji's shoulder, causing him to shiver slightly.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji said, hearing his own voice as if it was being transmitted down a very long tunnel.
Wei Wuxian hummed in response.
"What exactly did you promise to Jin Guangshan, for me?"
Wei Wuxian didn't stiffen, exactly, but he stopped nosing against the nape of Lan Wangji's neck, where strands of hair were matted down with sweat and would be a pain to wash and untangle later. He heard Wei Wuxian sigh, very softly.
"I did wonder when you would ask," he said resignedly. "I suppose you won't be able to just sleep for a little while?"
"You said you'd slept well," Lan Wangji said, a bit reproachfully, before he could think better of it.
Wei Wuxian huffed out a laugh, a burst of breath landing on the sensitive shell of Lan Wangji's ears, and he fought back another full-body shiver.
"Yes, I did say that, and it was indeed a very good sleep," he said, then rolled up and off the bed.
Lan Wangji sat up and looked at him, this man who had been pressed into him moments ago, whose come was still wet deep inside of him, and beginning to leak out and dry, itchy, down between his thighs. He still didn't know how much he could trust him, or how much he was trusted in return, only that he had made his body sing the single word of want in a way that nothing had before.
"I'll go fetch a basin of water for you to clean up with," Wei Wuxian said. "Then we'll go have some food, and then I'll show you what Jin Guangshan wanted from me."
Lan Wangji followed Wei Wuxian past the small wooden houses, the small pens of livestock, the modest fields where turnips and potatoes were being grown, all the way out to the very edge of the Burial Mounds.
"I don't know if we'll catch a live demonstration," Wei Wuxian said, frowning out into the foggy, dense treeline. "They've been growing more frequent in number recently, though."
"They?" Lan Wangji asked. He shifted his footing on the rocky soil beneath him — rough soil, not ideal for planting crops. Not for the first time, he wondered just how much work it had taken to get the Burial Mounds to its current state, with consistent enough harvests to sustain everyone even through the winter.
"How much do you know about the Wens?" Wei Wuxian asked him.
"Not much," Lan Wangji said quietly, following Wei Wuxian's gaze out into the trees. "Only that they destroyed my home and all my family, with soldiers that didn't feel pain."
"I suppose you could call them soldiers that don't feel pain," Wei Wuxian mused. "Though the reason they don't feel pain is that they're dead."
Lan Wangji froze, and stared at the side of Wei Wuxian's face to see if this was an ill thought-out joke. From his sombre expression, it was not.
"You are saying, Wen Ruohan is able to resurrect the dead, and command them to fight for him?" Lan Wangji asked, voice tight.
But before he could get a response, he heard the distinct sound of footsteps approaching them from beyond the trees, and Wei Wuxian put a hand on his forearm to pull him a few steps backwards. After a few, nerve-wracking moments of hearing the stumbling footsteps draw closer and closer, they emerged from between the trees: five tall, male bodies dressed in grey and brown rags, faces rotted and unrecognizable.
They marched towards them on heavy feet. Lan Wangji clutched at the hilt of Bichen at his waist, steadying himself with the feel of the cold metal pommel under his fingers.
"Don't worry," Wei Wuxian said, gaze locked onto the approaching figures. "They can't make it past the border."
And he pointed to the small clusters of rocks that Lan Wangji had at first thought were randomly scattered around. Now that they'd been pointed out to him, however, he could see that they more or less formed a border running alongside the Burial Mounds.
The five figures were walking more or less shoulder-to-shoulder, and so they reached the perimeter at the same time. The moment they stepped across that invisible line running between those clusters of rocks, there was a blinding flare of pale green light across their bodies. Lan Wangji had to squint a little into the light. Emerald tongues of flame spread out from their chests, and rapidly grew into conflagrations that swallowed the bodies whole.
There was no screaming, no struggling to be expected of those being burnt to death, no noise of any kind. There wasn't even the thumps of their bodies toppling down to the ground — instead, they simply burned down into ash, and scattered into oblivion with a quiet gust of wind.
"So you see?" Wei Wuxian said lightly. "This is what Jin Guangshan wanted from me."
Lan Wangji remained silent. He walked up to one of the clusters of rocks, and saw the smooth stone surface was carved with strange, jagged symbols, some of which bore a slight resemblance to the characters for 'fire' and 'earth,' and others which he couldn't place at all.
"Does it require the rocks?" Lan Wangji asked, when it became apparent that Wei Wuxian was waiting for him to say something. While being able to establish a perimeter like this would be invaluable in defending their encampments, it seemed unwieldy and impractical to set up and use in actual battle.
Wei Wuxian reached into his sleeve, and retrieved a thin piece of talisman paper. Lan Wangji took it from him, and saw the symbols on the rocks were replicated on the paper.
"These can be applied onto weapons, and it'll have the same effect as what you just saw when the weapon strikes against them," Wei Wuxian said.
"What about arrowheads?" Lan Wangji asked. It seemed the simplest, easiest long-ranged option.
Wei Wuxian shook his head. "There's a limit to how many I can create at a time, and it's not nearly enough to create a practical amount of arrowheads."
Still, even with that option off the table, Lan Wangji knew why Jin Guangshan had been willing to let him slip out of his grasp, in order to secure the support of Wei Wuxian. It wasn't that, with his help, he had a better chance of winning. It was that, without his help, he had no chance at all.
In the three days prior to their departure for Langya, where they would be meeting up with the combined forces of the Jins and a portion of the Nies, Lan Wangji saw very little of Wei Wuxian during the day. He'd told him he needed to reinforce the boundaries around the Burial Mounds, to put up second and third perimeter lines 'just in case,' and in the mornings when Lan Wangji woke up, he was already gone.
Lan Wangji continued the daily routine he'd established: breakfast, then retrieving a basket of sewing work from Granny Wen, then practicing his sword forms before dinner, and then pouring over the volume of Lan guqin scores after dinner.
Wei Wuxian returned in the evenings, long after dinner. Each time Lan Wangji made to rise from the tea table in order to greet him, he was waved back down. The first day, Wei Wuxian walked over to him and simply smoothed his hand over the gleaming wood of his guqin placed on the table in front of him. The second day, he walked over and smoothed his hand over the loose lock of hair hanging over Lan Wangji's shoulder. The third day, he had his hands full with a thick stack of talisman paper, a red inkstone balanced on top, and a calligraphy brush tucked behind his ear. He could have been some carefree poet or artist, instead of a man about to go to war.
He joined Lan Wangji at the tea table, and set down the stack of paper in his hands with a soft thump. Lan Wangji glanced at the papers, the ink stone, the brush, and silently moved his guqin off the table to make more space. Wei Wuxian went into the bedroom, and Lan Wangji heard the sounds of drawers sliding open and closed, like he was looking for something. After a moment, Wei Wuxian returned, with a stick of cinnabar ink held in his hands.
"I would've liked to do this when we reach Langya tomorrow, but I wasn't sure how much time I would have," Wei Wuxian said, as he placed down the stick of bright crimson ink onto the ink stone.
"All of the talismans… you'll have to draw by hand?" Lan Wangji asked.
"Yes," Wei Wuxian said. "I've tried teaching it to A-Qing and Wen Ning before, but it seems it's not the type of cultivation that can be taught."
Lan Wangji went to retrieve a cup of water, and wordlessly began grinding the ink stick onto the rough surface of the ink stone, moving it in small circular motions, using his fingers to slowly add in drops of water in order to adjust the consistency of the ink.
Wei Wuxian didn't say much else, either. He simply retrieved the calligraphy brush from behind his ear and began to work, dipping the tip of the brush into the small pool of ink Lan Wangji had already made. His brushstrokes were fast and fluid, those strange yet familiar looking symbols Lan Wangji had seen on the stones lining the Burial Mounds flowing out from his fingertips, the flicks of his wrist. Little smears of ink eventually made their way onto his fingers, a shock of vermilion against his skin like drops of blood.
Lan Wangji sat there with him, grinding the ink stick against the ink stone to provide a continuous supply of the crimson ink, until every slip of talisman paper had been covered with the requisite symbols. When he finally placed down the cinnabar ink stick in his hands and lifted his arms, he was surprised to find his wrists were stiff and sore, and rotated them with a small wince.
Cool fingers caught his wrists, and pressed into the aching joints there. Lan Wangji looked up to see Wei Wuxian gazing down at the wrists caught in his grip, the corners of his lips rising upwards.
It was, perhaps, still too early to push. But Lan Wangji couldn't help himself.
"Do you believe in Jin Guangshan's ability to rule? Is that why you were willing to risk what you've built here?"
Wei Wuxian let go of his wrists with one last firm squeeze of his hands, and met his eyes.
"I don't believe in much, Lan Wangji. But I do believe most anyone would be a better alternative to Wen Ruohan, and the Jins were the first that dared to step forward."
"No belief in loyalty for the throne, then?"
"I'm loyal to those that are mine, and I keep my vows, when I swear them. No more, and no less. And I certainly haven't sworn any vows to the Wens."
"But you've sworn them to the Jins."
"Yes," Wei Wuxian glanced at him. "And to you."
Wei Wuxian stood up, and carried the stack of talismans to the half-filled chest in the corner of the room. Lan Wangji rose, and entered the bedroom. The Yiling Patriarch was a good man, one who took those he could under his protection, one who everyone in the Burial Mounds greeted with love and respect. A better man than he could've hoped for, as his husband; a better man than he had wished for, as his way forward.
He thought of his brother, the only family he'd ever known, still sleeping in the golden cage of Koi Tower. What, he wondered, could get a good man to break his vows?
They ride to Langya, just the two of them, and an extra horse carrying the small amount of things they had taken with them: the chest of talisman papers, and what Wei Wuxian needed to create more; clothing; some dried jerky and steamed buns for the road. And also, Lan Wangji's guqin.
The guqin, Lan Wangji hadn't initially planned on bringing with him. It seemed a frivolous thing to bring to war. But Wei Wuxian had caught him glancing back at it before they departed in the morning, and had gestured for Wen Ning to put it into its case and carry it out to where their horses were waiting alongside the rest of their things. He was grateful for it. The volume of Gusu Lan guqin scores, he'd tucked into his robes, inside the innermost layer over his heart.
Besides one brief stop for a few minutes of rest when they were halfway there, they rode at a pace that pushed the horses to their limits. Lan Wangji, unused to this sort of travel, began to feel soreness creeping up his legs, and wondered with a little dismay if he would have trouble walking the next day.
The designated rendezvous point was a forest on the outskirts of Langya. They had to take a narrow, winding path into the forest, but fortunately the path seemed to have already been cleared of obstructions and overgrown branches by those that had arrived before them. They heard other people before they saw them — a low drone of voices, horses huffing, the grating noise of steel being sharpened.
Finally, they emerged into a small clearing at the end of the path, and a sprawl of people dressed in Jin golds and Nie greens appeared. They were dispersed out amongst the trees, and so it was hard to determine just how strong of a force was gathered there, but Lan Wangji assumed the numbers had been planned in advance.
"Young Master Wei." Nie Mingjue stepped up to greet them. Wei Wuxian descended from his horse in one swift, sharp motion. Lan Wangji had to get off a bit more cautiously, and was relieved to find that his legs remained steady under him when he was standing on solid ground again.
They left their horses in the care of the Nie soldier that had been following behind Nie Mingjue, and strode into the tent at the center of the clearing with him.
There was a large wooden table set up in the center of the tent — broad planks of wood with rough edges, clearly something rapidly thrown together. A large, roughly sketched-out map was spread out on top of it. The lines of the map were messy, but Lan Wangji felt like something in the linework reminded him of Nie Huaisang's painted fans.
"Where's Jin Guangshan?" Wei Wuxian asked, after his eyes made a quick sweep around the tent. Besides them, there were only a few men wearing Nie colors standing at attention in front of Nie Mingjue, and not a single soldier dressed in Jin gold in sight.
"He sent the forces we agreed upon," Nie Mingjue said, with a tilt of his chin towards the outside of the tent, where there were soldiers dressed in gold milling around the edges of the clearing. "But he decided to remain in Lanling, and asked us to pass back through Koi Tower after we've finished here."
Lan Wangji pressed his lips tightly together. In all honesty, he would have been more surprised to see Jin Guangshan here in person than finding out he had not come, but he had at least expected Jin Guangyao's sharp-eyed presence.
Wei Wuxian hummed noncommittally, and then they both bent their heads over the map as Nie Mingjue explained in gruff, broad strokes his plan of attack. In short, they would begin to make their way through the remainder of the forest that separated them from the Wen garrison in Langya at sunset, and then strike at the garrison itself once night fell.
"My scouts have reported that it's defended by only a few living men, and the rest are those undead soldiers. I presume you've brought what we need to deal with them?" Nie Mingjue asked Wei Wuxian, who nodded.
"I'll need to demonstrate how to use the talismans, but it should be fairly straightforward," Wei Wuxian said. He reached into his sleeve, and retrieved one of the talismans to hand to Nie Mingjue. "Everyone just needs to ensure the talisman remains wrapped around the hilt of their weapon, whatever it is. Then, when they strike at the undead, they will simply burn down to ash and return to the dirt, instead of rising to fight again."
Nie Mingjue held the thin slip of talisman paper gingerly between his fingers; he seemed to be closely examining the bloody symbols scrawled across it.
"Don't worry," Wei Wuxian smiled, though to Lan Wangji it looked more like a barring of his teeth. "It's not drawn in blood. And though it looks fragile, it won't tear easily."
The afternoon passed by in a blur. Wei Wuxian demonstrated how to secure the talismans to the hilts of their weapons by twining it in place with a thin length of rope, and distributed the slips of paper they had burned through three candles making the previous night. They had enough, but only just.
When Lan Wangji finished the last knot securing the talisman in place around the hilt of Bichen, he glanced up to see Wei Wuxian's gaze on him, brows slightly furrowed.
"We have no shortage of men," Wei Wuxian said.
Lan Wangji felt himself bristle internally, though Wei Wuxian had left his request that he stay out of the fighting unspoken.
"I would remind you," he said slowly, "that I carry the name Lan."
"That was not my meaning," Wei Wuxian said, but the last rays of afternoon sunlight had scattered through the weathered tree trunks around them, and at a shouted command from Nie Mingjue, the camp descended into the chaos of everyone packing up before he was able to expand on what he had meant.
In the end, their first strike at Wen Ruohan was an easy one. Perhaps because of too many years of going relatively unchallenged, the Langya garrison's defenses were lowered. They were halfway through breaking past the wooden gates with a battering ram before they heard shouts of alarm from inside the walls, and when they finally burst in through the splintered remnants of the front gate, they were met with a slowly congregating phalanx of grey-skinned, undead soldiers. Behind them was a thin, straggly line of Wen soldiers still in the middle of strapping on their armor.
The brief, hushed moment as they each processed the scene in front of them was broken by one of the Wens shouting, "Are you all tired of being alive?"
Then, like a switch had been flipped, all of the undead soldiers rushed towards them, and they flooded past the gates to meet them in the center of the courtyard. Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian were not in the front lines — Wei Wuxian because he was the only one who could produce the talismans, and he could not be risked, Lan Wangji because Wei Wuxian had insisted he remain at his side.
All they could see over the crowd of Nie and Jin men in front of them were flares of green light, casting eerie shadows across their faces. By the time they'd finally made it in through the gates, all that was left in front of them were piles of ash strewn into the dirt of the courtyard, and the pale, terrified faces of the remaining Wen soldiers. There hadn't been a lot of living ones to begin with, and now there were only three left standing. None of them were young men, nor seemed like they were very fierce fighters. One was shaking hard enough that he couldn't keep a firm grasp on the hilt of his sword, and it fell into the dirt with a dull thump.
Lan Wangji closed his eyes.
There was a tight grip on his wrist. He opened his eyes to see Wei Wuxian, who was staring at Nie Mingjue advancing on the remaining Wens. His face was flat, expressionless, smoothed over like a silver mirror, but his fingers were warm against Lan Wangji's skin.
"Keep your eyes open," Wei Wuxian said, not looking at him at all. Nie Mingjue lifted his saber. "This time was easy, but it won't always be this easy. We should bear witness to what we're a part of."
Nie Mingjue raised his saber. Lan Wangji kept his eyes open, and watched the last three Wen soldiers, who seemed to have forgotten how to fight back, close their eyes forever.
Lan Wangji looked up the long flight of stairs leading to the front gates of Koi Tower, kept swept clean of debris and fallen leaves by a rotating army of servants. He hadn't expected he'd be back here quite so soon. They had rested overnight in the Wen garrison they'd hollowed out in Langya, and had departed for Lanling the next morning, taking with them the moderate quantities of grains and weapons that had been stored there.
In reality, it would have been more practical, and more prudent, to head directly towards their next target from Langya, and to have the rest of the Jin forces meet them there instead. But, Nie Mingjue had explained with a slight grimace, he hadn't been able to convince Jin Guangshan of that.
So, instead of continuing their march onto Yingchuan, they were leaving behind most of the men in an encampment just outside of Koi Tower, while they accompanied Nie Mingjue up into Koi Tower for what Jin Guangshan had declared a celebratory feast.
It seemed rather early to celebrate, Lan Wangji thought privately, but he nevertheless climbed up the stairs, half a step behind Wei Wuxian. He'd been right in fearing his body's reactions to the long journey on horseback. His legs were sore and stiff as they carried him up the stairs, as if his body was protesting each step he took back towards those gilded gates.
Jin Guangyao greeted them at the gates, with his usual dimpled smile. "Chifeng-zun, Young Master Wei, Wangji."
Wei Wuxian returned his greeting with light pleasantries, but Nie Mingjue nodded back at him brusquely, and walked past him through the open gates with barely-suppressed rudeness. Lan Wangji's eyes flickered between them, then he dropped his gaze to a spot somewhere around Wei Wuxian's shoulder blades, and followed half a step behind him through the gates.
Jin Guangyao led them to the main hall, which Lan Wangji had last seen through his red veil. Now, his vision was clear of obstruction, and he could see that though it was no longer decorated to suit a wedding, it was just as lavishly outfitted as always. Up on the dais, Madam Jin was seated already, chatting with Jin Zixuan at her side. Jin Guangshan wasn't there yet, but the hall was packed with others — heads of smaller families from around Lanling who, over the years, have implicitly if not explicitly placed themselves under the Jin flag.
"Da-ge!" Nie Huaisang waved at them, and called out a greeting from where he was seated with some other serious-faced men dressed in varying shades of green. As was his usual style, he held an intricately painted fan in his other hand, and he flipped it over to flap at Nie Mingjue when he headed over, revealing the delicate plum blossoms etched out in ink on the other side.
Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji were given the table directly to the right of the dais at the front of the room, and once they were seated as well, a servant announced Jin Guangshan's arrival rather imperiously, like he already sat on the throne they were marching towards.
"My thanks to Chifeng-zun, and Young Master Wei, for their indispensable help in taking down our first great objective," Jin Guangshan said, with a toast to Nie Mingjue to his left, and towards Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji to his right.
There was an echoing answer of cheers throughout the hall. Lan Wangji saw from his peripheral vision that Wei Wuxian's lips were pressed firmly together, like he was holding back laughter.
From there on out, food was served, porcelain plates heaved high with roasted meats, wooden bowls laden with fresh fruit, and golden platters of pastries. As people began to eat, one by one they also called out their praises to Jin Guangshan — praising the food, lauding the many fine vases and statues and glossy fabrics that draped the hall.
Someone complimented the fresh lotus seeds that had been served along with the pastries, and Jin Guangshan said off-handedly, "Well, yes, after the Jiangs fell, Yunmeng has become a lawless, decimated place, so naturally all the trade that used to pass through there now reroutes through Lanling instead."
Lan Wangji saw Wei Wuxian's fingers pause in the middle of reaching out for the plate of lotus seeds that had been placed in front of them. His fingers curled slightly, like they wanted to form fists, but instead he tucked his hands beneath the table and Lan Wangji couldn't see them anymore. From across the hall, he saw Nie Mingjue stand and ask a servant hovering behind his table something. The servant pointed outside the hall and made several hand gestures; it looked like he was giving him directions. Nie Mingjue nodded, patted Nie Huaisang on the shoulder, then slipped out of the hall.
"Yes, and I'm sure the Lans, may they rest easy, are also very grateful for what you routed out of Gusu," Nie Huaisang said cheerfully, and toasted Jin Guangshan with a smile, then nodded in the direction of Lan Wangji. "You really were brave, taking such danger upon yourself to take in the last of the Lans."
He sounded absolutely sincere, but his voice was just loud enough to carry across the room, and there was just enough emphasis placed on last of the Lans to capture attention. There was a hush across the room, and gazes turned upon Lan Wangji, who met Nie Huaisang's curved, smiling eyes, wondering what he had meant by it. His gaze flickered up to the dais, where Jin Guangshan's smile had become a bit forced. "Yes, yes, thank you, Huaisang," he said.
"I know Huaisang is a lover of beautiful things, and romantic stories," Jin Guangyao said lightly. "As it happens, we have some wonderful musicians and dancers for everyone's entertainment."
He clapped, and from the end of the hall emerged three fine-fingered servant girls carrying pipas, and eight slender-ankled dancers dressed in bright yellow robes with long, flowing sleeves that draped to the ground, filed in behind them. The pipa players arranged themselves on the stools carried over for them, and launched into a stirring, lively tune, full of fast trills and bright, strident glissandos. The dancers began their dance, flinging out their sleeves, curving into graceful, impossible shapes through the air. Attention was sufficiently diverted.
Lan Wangji glanced after the direction Nie Mingjue had disappeared in, then took a look at Jin Guangyao, now busy circulating around the room and talking with each table. He placed a careful, light hand on Wei Wuxian's arm to get his attention.
"I want to walk around for a bit," he murmured, meeting Wei Wuxian's surprised gaze.
"Do you want me to come with you?" Wei Wuxian asked.
Lan Wangji shook his head.
"I won't take long," he said, then stood and slipped out of the lively hall, the sounds of the pipa fading behind him as he headed for Jin Guangyao's courtyard, where his brother lay sleeping.
He hadn't been certain where Nie Mingjue had been headed, yet he was unsurprised when he found him inside the room. He was standing near the doorway, like he hadn't dared to step any closer to the bed, gazing at the steady rise and fall of Lan Xichen's chest beneath the covers. Someone had tucked a single white peony into his hair.
Nie Mingjue turned his head at Lan Wangji's approach. He also seemed unsurprised to see him there. The two of them just stood quietly for a moment, listening to Lan Xichen's even inhales and exhales.
"You truly don't know what caused this?" Nie Mingjue finally asked, his tone mild.
"No," Lan Wangji said.
"By rights, the throne should be his. Or, I suppose, yours."
"I have married," Lan Wangji said, as calmly as he could muster.
Nie Mingjue heaved out a sigh.
"I suppose a fool who can be guided is better than an utter madman," he said. And with one last glance at Lan Xichen, he was gone.
War was a curious thing. Lan Wangji, of course, knew nothing of war besides the destruction it had wrought against his family — though even then, it hadn't been war; it had been a massacre. Still, he hadn't expected this particular campaign against the Wens to begin like this, with a celebratory feast for a supposed siege that had barely lasted longer than the amount of time it took for a stick of incense to burn down. In Langya, he hadn't even needed to draw his sword.
He walked over to the bed, and reached out a hand to pluck the flower from behind Lan Xichen's ear. It was very fresh, and must have been picked very recently. The soft white petals were perfectly formed, not a single blemish to be found on their delicate surface. It must have been picked very carefully. Lan Wangji curled his fingers tightly around it, crushing it completely.
He turned to make his way back to the banquet hall. On the way there, he carelessly tossed the now-crumpled peony into the dirt.
The sickly sweet scent of peonies was not one he had missed.
Following their quick destruction of Langya, their next objective was Yingchuan. The Wen garrison there was said to be just as poorly defended as the one in Langya, and Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji hadn't stepped into the fray at all. There was a much greater number of talismans that Wei Wuxian needed to make, to supply the rest of the men that had joined them after the rendezvous at Lanling, and so they had remained in the encampment while the men who had already received talismans from Wei Wuxian at Langya led the siege into Yingchuan.
In the end, it went exactly the same way as Langya — the garrison was sparsely defended by actual living men, and the wall of the undead soldiers that rose to meet them bursting into flame, returning to ash and dust.
They left Yingchuan with another chest full of talisman paper painted with red, wrists sore from the full day they'd spent in the tent, Wei Wuxian creating the talismans, Lan Wangji grinding the cinnabar ink stick into ink for him.
At Bunan, however, their luck ran out.
Inevitably, Wen Ruohan had received word that two of his garrisons had already fallen. The scouts they'd sent out ahead of them to Bunan returned with the report of a large army of men, half living, half dead, marching out towards them from Qishan, and that Bunan itself seemed to have received reinforcements from nearby Wen bases in Yunmeng and the smaller territories surrounding it.
They set up their encampment upwind from where the Wen forces had amassed and set up their dark red tents, their black flags painted with scarlet suns flying high in the air.
In the pale morning light, they receive a message from the Wens in the form of an undead soldier marching up to their camp perimeter with a scroll tucked into his chest plate.
Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji were already awake, having woken up early for Wei Wuxian to create one last batch of talismans to be distributed amongst the Jins that had joined them late. They were eating a simple but warm breakfast of porridge and dried beef jerky in front of their tent, one of the bigger ones at the center of the encampment. Seeing the undead soldier marching towards them on its unsteady feet, Wei Wuxian scrambled up from where he was sitting, knocking his bowl of porridge to the ground.
"Get that scroll from it before he crosses the perimeter, or it'll burn with him!" he shouted. A few Nie men sitting closest to the perimeter line where it looked like the Wen soldier would cross scrambled up at his words, and it took the combined force of the five of them to wrestle the dead man to the ground.
When Wei Wuxian had the scroll safe in his hands, he slid his sword into the Wen soldier's chest in one smooth motion, and it burst into the now-familiar green flames.
The message they'd received was: surrender, and they would be punished with mercy, or continue on this path, and die bloody deaths.
"We might as well have let it cross the perimeter and burn," Nie Mingjue said with a snort, and tossed the scroll into a nearby fire pit.
Lan Wangji watched the paper catch on fire, then slowly blacken and curl inwards on itself, before finally being reduced to grey flakes of ash. In his peripheral vision, he saw Jin Guangyao whispering something into Jin Guangshan's ear, and then saw Jin Guangshan step forward.
"We should take advantage of the flames," he said. "Form a blockade against the frontline of these undead beings, and let the living soldiers pile up from behind them. Then —"
"Then strike, and have the flames spread out amongst their own," Wei Wuxian completed his thought for him. "That's —"
"Necessary," Jin Guangyao said. For once, he wasn't smiling. "Our scouts have told us we are outnumbered by just their living forces alone. And while the talismans allow us to cut through the undead, they are still bodies we need to cut through, with time and strength that we'll run out of."
Nie Mingjue slanted a glance over at the two of them. Jin Guangshan's armor was golden, embossed with peonies. Behind him, Jin Guangyao was in plain steel, more understated, but nevertheless polished to a shine that wasn't present on anyone else around them. Behind them, the contingent of the additional Jin forces they'd brought with them had begun to shout their agreement.
From next to Nie Mingjue, Nie Huaisang snapped his fan open and batted it against his chest.
"Then," Nie Mingjue said. "I have some ideas on how we can achieve that."
The aftermath of it all was: heaps and heaps of ash on the ground, and charred leather, and scorched earth, and the smell of burning flesh hanging bloody in the air. There had been screaming, too, but that had died out in the end. They had wiped out the entire force Wen Ruohan had sent to meet them.
Wei Wuxian had stuck tight to his side throughout the entire battle, his lips pressed into a tight line from the very beginning. He was good with the sword. His movements were not as polished as Lan Wangji's, perhaps, who had spent most of his life willing away the hours by running through the sword forms he'd been taught until they were carved into his bones, but they were nonetheless sharp and effective.
They had followed the thoughts of the Jins, and the orders of the Nies, and in the end it had been done. They had flanked to the right of the Wen forces, and another contingent had flanked to the left. Together, they'd forced the living soldiers in the back of the Wens marching towards them to group closer and closer together. On the front lines, they had arranged a tight defense of men with thick wooden shields to stop the march of the undead in place.
From all sides, the Wen forces piled in together, and then finally they had lifted their shields, and made their move. They struck the undead soldiers with their weapons adorned by Wei Wuxian's talismans, and set them aflame, and careening backwards into the now densely-packed living forces.
Small bursts of green flame, and then an entire wall of it, ran all the way down the frontline of the Wen forces, and then inwards, as Nie Mingjue marched their forces directly forward to force the undead soldiers back into the Wen forces and then fought in after them and set them ablaze. From the side, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had followed their orders, and charged into the back of the Wen forces with the rest of the men, and the battlefield had been washed with fire and blood.
Lan Wangji felt like the flickering green flames would be seared into the back of his eyelids for perhaps the rest of his life. He wondered if this was what the Cloud Recesses had looked like on the day the Wens marched in, if this was what it had sounded like.
It was night now, and they were slowly collecting themselves and preparing to make the slow march back to their encampment. Wei Wuxian was limping slightly. At one point, he had made a sharp pivot to parry a strike at Lan Wangji's back. The strike had slid down from where he'd caught it on his blade, and landed a glancing blow on his thigh instead. He hadn't been able to do much else with the wound beyond roughly tying a piece of cloth over it to stave off bleeding.
"You should not walk on that leg," Lan Wangji said to Wei Wuxian, catching him in the middle of his grimace.
"Well, I can't walk on my arms," Wei Wuxian said lightly, and smiled, wiping away the vestiges of pain on his face as cleanly as washing away a spot of ink with a damp rag.
Lan Wangji looked at him, then looked at the restless horses being led on their reins out of the battlefield.
"Wait here," he said, then walked off in the direction of the horses to requisition one.
They made their way back to their tent with Lan Wangji leading the reins of the horse, Wei Wuxian astride. Wei Wuxian jumped down before Lan Wangji could move to support him, and landed on his good leg, then gingerly made his way into their tent while Lan Wangji went to settle the horse.
When he returned to the tent, also carrying a pail of clean drinking water and some steamed buns, Wei Wuxian had lain down on top of the thin straw pad that served as their bed. He'd stripped down to his last layer of robes, dark grey things of rough cloth. His eyes were open, but it seemed like he was staring out at something far beyond the rough cloth that made up their tent.
"Your wound," Lan Wangji said. He didn't see any water in the wash bin in the corner of the room, nor any discarded rags that suggested Wei Wuxian had cleaned and bandaged the wound on his thigh.
"It'll keep til tomorrow," Wei Wuxian said, not moving. "I'm sure the few medics we have are busy with worse wounds."
Lan Wangji pressed his lips together, then put down the bowl of steamed buns he was holding on the side and poured some of the water into the wash bin. He brought it over to the side of the bed, then fetched from their chest of luggage one of his clean undershirts, which he tore into long strips.
Wei Wuxian's attention snapped back to him at the noise of the cloth tearing, and he blinked once, twice, then smiled resignedly.
"Alright," he said, and sat up, then shrugged off the last layer of his robes.
Lan Wangji dipped a rag into the wash bin to soak it, then squeezed out the excess water, and then hesitated with his hands suspended in the air above Wei Wuxian's thigh. He'd removed the cloth he'd tied over it in the midst of battle, and the wound wasn't bad — the blade hadn't cut into muscle, or bone, and it was no longer bleeding. But still, it was a shock of red across the pale skin of Wei Wuxian's upper thigh.
"I'll do it, you should eat," Wei Wuxian said, and reached out for the rag.
Lan Wangji ignored him, and as gingerly as he could, began to clean the skin around the angry wound. Wei Wuxian was very naked, and very warm underneath his hands, the muscles of his thighs coiling underneath his touch.
He had known he was attracted to men, and he had known Wei Wuxian was attractive, and he had known pleasure with him already. Still, he didn't expect the sharp clench of arousal in his stomach at the sight of him stripped bare, sprawled back on a bare straw mattress, a slash of crimson across his skin from having blocked a blade from striking at Lan Wangji.
Neither of them spoke, and he moved as efficiently as he could, bandaging the wound as neatly as he could. Somewhere in the middle of his ministrations, Wei Wuxian had become half-hard, and Lan Wangji determinedly kept his eyes on the wound on his thigh instead. After he tied the last piece of cloth in place, and went to rinse his hands in the washbasin, he finally lifted his gaze and saw Wei Wuxian looking back at him, his eyes a rising sun.
"You can have me, if you'd like," Wei Wuxian said softly. Heleaned back onto his elbows, his body an open invitation.
Lan Wangji's hands jerked inside the water basin, jolting it and causing some water — now pale pink, from the blood he had rinsed off into it — to spill over the sides.
Wei Wuxian pushed himself up onto his hands so he was sitting up straight, bringing his face up close to where Lan Wangji was still hovering over his thighs. His lips looked a little dry, but very red, and they were parted slightly.
Lan Wangji inhaled deeply. Then, with deliberate slowness, he lifted his hands out of the water basin and dried them on his robes, then pushed the water basin further away from the bed, and leaned back in to kiss Wei Wuxian, his hands sliding up his ribcage and tracing across the jut of his collarbones before curling into his hair at the nape of his neck.
It didn’t take very long for Lan Wangji to also be stripped bare, the two of them pressed together side by side on the bumpy cloth laid over the straw, hard and panting against each other. Lan Wangji was taken aback by the force of his own want. Of course he had wanted before; he had wanted many things, before. But they were slow, aching wants, like the soreness in his legs after riding on the horse for too long, wants that he could suppress and bury with patience. He had never wanted something quite like this before, with urgency, with immediacy, like if he wasn't able to press his marks into Wei Wuxian's skin he would be the one burning alive.
"I packed oil," Wei Wuxian murmured against his lips, and Lan Wangji stumbled away to retrieve the small vial, returning with it clutched tightly in his hand.
Wei Wuxian guided Lan Wangji's hands back onto himself, gently, like he was trying to soothe a spooked animal.
"Lan Zhan," he breathed out at the first press of Lan Wangji's finger into him, and then turned to breathe into the curve of Lan Wangji's neck.
"Those men died like that because of what I created," Wei Wuxian said raggedly into his neck, as Lan Wangji slowly worked a second finger into him. He paused, and Wei Wuxian tilted his hips up, urging him on.
"Don't stop, make me stop thinking about it," Wei Wuxian said. "Whatever you want to do, I don't care, just — make me stop thinking."
"Alright," Lan Wangji said softly, his other hand making its way back onto Wei Wuxian's neck, his thumb briefly digging into the grooves of Wei Wuxian's throat, then smoothing the pads of his fingers over the soft, vulnerable skin there. He noted Wei Wuxian's full-body shiver.
"Press harder," Wei Wuxian said, eyes closed.
When Lan Wangji finally slid into Wei Wuxian, it was with one hand wrapped around his throat, pressing down firmly until Wei Wuxian's eyes went a bit soft and glassy, his faint puffs of breath petering out. He was holding his own breath, he realized, trying to control his knee-jerk reaction to just thrust further into the tight clench of heat around him, trying to be careful of the wound on Wei Wuxian's thigh.
He eased up his press against Wei Wuxian's throat, and heard him draw in a sharp gasp, then felt his ankles dig in harder against his back.
"You can move," Wei Wuxian mumbled, then bit down on his lips as Lan Wangji listened, and rocked into him. "Your hand, can you — "
Lan Wangji hesitated for a moment, then pressed his fingers back to Wei Wuxian's throat, and saw him go boneless, the tension draining out from his shoulders. The soft sounds he made in his throat as Lan Wangji began to thrust into him with more force, chasing his own pleasure, vibrated against the palm of his hand. Wei Wuxian tilted his chin up to bare more of his neck towards him, and the raw trust of the motion made Lan Wangji's breath catch in his throat, like he was the one with someone's hand around his jugular.
Wei Wuxian was stretched out under him, his pulse fluttering against his fingers, and his body a scorching pool he sank into. Lan Wangji felt the familiar clenching in his gut building up, and he began to thrust into Wei Wuxian's tight, feverish heat with more force. This time he had gone a little longer without easing up his pressure against Wei Wuxian's throat, and his eyes had fallen closed, and his face was flushed red, but he wasn't struggling. His hips were rocking upwards, meeting Lan Wangji's thrusts.
Lan Wangji leaned down and kissed Wei Wuxian's breathless lips, biting down perhaps a little too harshly as he snapped his hips forward one final time and then pulled out, his release painting white across the faint trail of hair leading down Wei Wuxian's abdomen. At the same time, he pulled his hand fully away from Wei Wuxian's throat and reached down to take his cock, trying to stroke it in the way he remembered Wei Wuxian doing for him, but it was barely necessary — Wei Wuxian took in one large gulp of air, and then he was coming as well, his whole body tremoring with the force of his release.
Lan Wangji shifted off of him, and reached out for the damp rag still hanging off of the side of that wash bin, then used it to wipe both of them clean. Wei Wuxian's eyes were still closed, his cheeks flushed, but he wrapped an arm around Lan Wangji's back and pulled him in, pressing their foreheads together. Lan Wangji could feel the puffs of Wei Wuxian's breath against his face as he panted, still trying to recover his breath.
"All you did was create the talismans to protect yourself," he said against Wei Wuxian's lips. "The one who gave the order to use them as we did was Jin Guangshan. The blame is not on us."
He was also trying to convince himself.
That night, they fell asleep with Lan Wangji's hand resting lightly on Wei Wuxian's throat, his thumb at the hollow between his collarbones, his fingers wrapped around his neck.
Like an anchor. Like a promise.
The next day they took stock of their losses, their wounded, and their strategy going forward. Jin Guangshan gave a victory speech that aimed at being rousing, and which fell rather flat instead. It was hard to cheer at a victory which had come on the back of the screams of living men burning alive, swallowed up whole by green flames which they couldn't smother.
They set out on their march to Yunmeng in silence, instead of the cheering Jin Guangshan had hoped for. Sitting on the horse behind him, Jin Guangyao's lips were tightened into a vague approximation of his usual smile.
By nightfall, when they finally stopped to make camp, Lan Wangji's eyelids were drooping downwards. Wei Wuxian's face was also drawn and wan as Lan Wangji unwrapped the bandages around his thighs to clean the wound, which thankfully seemed to be healing well. But after they lay down on the bumpy straw mattress, Wei Wuxian couldn't seem to settle down into sleep.
Lan Wangji hadn't realized how accustomed he'd become to falling asleep to Wei Wuxian's deep, even breathing next to him until it wasn't there anymore.
"Shall I play something on the guqin?" he asked into the darkness. "We did bring my guqin with us, and I haven't even had a chance to touch it yet."
He felt Wei Wuxian stiffen besides him, then a brush of cool fingertips against the back of his hand.
"Alright, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian said, voice raspy.
Lan Wangji lit a small candle, and went to retrieve his guqin from its case, which was now dusty and chipped from days of travel. Thankfully, the guqin itself was undamaged, its wood dark and softly gleaming, just as beautiful as the day he'd received it.
He placed it on the floor of the tent, and knelt down in front of it. He thought for a moment, then began to pluck out the first soft, soothing notes of the second piece he'd learned from the volume of Gusu Lan guqin scores Nie Huaisang had gifted him what felt like a lifetime ago. It had been able to soothe Wei Wuxian to sleep once before, and he hoped it could do so again.
It was a short piece, and he remembered the first time he'd played it for Wei Wuxian, it had taken three loops before he'd fallen asleep. As he plucked the final low and ringing note out of the guqin and prepared to loop back to the beginning, however, he heard a series of thumps and clatters from outside the tent.
Wei Wuxian's eyes, which had just begun to go half-lidded, snapped wide open again.
"There are people standing guard," Lan Wangji said uncertainly, getting up from beside his guqin. "We should've heard shouts if something had happened."
They pushed their way out of the flap of their tent, and were faced with the collapsed forms of all of the sentries that had been on guard near their tent. After a brief beat of panic, Lan Wangji realized their chests were still rising and falling — they were fast asleep. One of them was even snoring. And no one from the tents set up all around them had emerged to take a look.
No one, except Nie Mingjue, who was striding over, Nie Huaisang trailing behind him with a sleepy yawn, twirling his fan in his hand.
"They're asleep," Lan Wangji said when they got closer.
"They all fell asleep at their posts, at the same time?" Nie Mingjue said, frowning, as Nie Huaisang went around and started shaking the guards awake.
"It was the music," all of the guards collectively agreed.
The one who had been snoring emphasized, "I wasn't sleepy at all until I heard the music! And then I was knocked out! I haven't fallen asleep that quickly since I was a baby, it was like magic."
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian said quietly. "Bring your guqin out here, and play that piece again."
Lan Wangji did as he was asked. Halfway through the piece, the guards were starting to yawn, and Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang were also beginning to look droopier. And just like the first time, when he plucked the final note out of his guqin, the guards thumped down onto the ground one by one, fast asleep.
Nie Huaisang let out a wide yawn. Nie Mingjue also looked like he was fighting back yawns, and Wei Wuxian's eyelids were drifting down as well. Only Lan Wangji remained unaffected.
Nie Huaisang rapped his fan against his forehead, and seemed to wake back up.
"I think," he said, "We should talk about this very interesting development in private."
They followed Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang back to their tent. Lan Wangji's head was spinning. He couldn't shake off the impression that this was an outcome Nie Huaisang had been expecting — or had planned for.
The tent Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang shared wasn't furnished much better than theirs, but at the very least they had some stools, and a table. They arranged themselves around the table, and Lan Wangji met Nie Mingjue's cool gaze.
"So!" Nie Huaisang said brightly. "What do you know about the Lans' cultivation?"
Slowly, like the words were being plucked out of him one by one, notes from the seven threads of his guqin, Lan Wangji said, "My brother used to tell me stories about our ancestors, how they could move the mountains and the sea with the xiao, and open the heavens and the earth with the guqin. But I thought of it as just stories, something he told me to encourage me to focus on practicing the qin."
"It is something I've heard vague mutterings of," Nie Mingjue said. "It is said that this was how they established their rule in the first place — with music that brought peace and harmony to the land."
"It's interesting that none of us were put to sleep," Wei Wuxian said, frowning.
"For you, it would have taken two more repetitions," Lan Wangji said.
"How do you know?" Wei Wuxian asked.
"It's what I played for you last time, when you asked," Lan Wangji said, very aware of Nie Huaisang's gaze sweeping between the two of them like a cat tracking a fluttering bird.
They slowly hammered out what this meant for their approach to taking Yunmeng. Tomorrow, they would have Lan Wangji test the range of what he could affect, and what he could do with the other pieces he could play.
Something in Lan Wangji's gut twisted a little at the thought of revealing this to Jin Guangyao and Jin Guangshan, but he knew it couldn't be helped. They had to know more about what he could do before they could plan on using it.
When he and Wei Wuxian returned to their tent, and had lain down again, Wei Wuxian took his hand and said, "You've never talked about your brother before."
Lan Wangji felt his chest tighten. Here it was. A perfect moment lined up for him to set the stage for the one great impossible thing he wanted to ask of this man he had married.
"I don't want to put you in a difficult position," Lan Wangji answered.
"A difficult position?"
"With the Jins," Lan Wangji said carefully.
"Tell me," Wei Wuxian said, and though it was phrased as one, it didn't sound like a command.
And into the darkness, Lan Wangji let everything spill out of him: Lan Xichen's mysterious, endless sleep, how he distrusted the reports from supposed healers the Jins had brought in for him, how far back Jin Guangshan's ambitions stretched, how Jin Guangyao's smiles concealed knives. How he'd grown up cold and alone, encased in the golden splendor of Koi Tower, allowed to visit Lan Xichen only once a month.
Wei Wuxian's hand tightened on his as he listened. When the last words petered out of Lan Wangji, all he said was, "Thank you."
They arrived at Lotus Pier in the dead of night. The lotus flowers were beautiful, blooming pale and gentle out of the water, but long reeds were interspersed between them, and the water was murky and filled with debris.
With the combination of Lan Wangji's guqin and Wei Wuxian's talismans, they took Yunmeng with an ease similar to Langya, and Yingchuan, though it was much more tightly defended. The undead defending here had been outfitted with much better armor, and longer weapons like spears, meant to keep them out of range. Yet still, since they burst to flame the instant a cut landed on them, even if it was just on a finger, these changes yielded little effect. Their own men had been given wads of cotton to stuff into their ears, and so they were unaffected when Lan Wangji, surrounded by a phalanx of men to defend him, began to play. The music wove through the air, the notes resonant and juxtaposed against the sounds of steel clashing together.
It was hard to fight effectively when your eyelids were drooping down of their own accord, and one by one the living Wen soldiers were struck down and remained down, like they'd fallen asleep.
Bunan had ended with fire, and screaming. Yunmeng was quietly washed by blood.
They took over the Wen barracks set up inside Lotus Pier, and Jin Guangshan called for a celebratory meal to be served in the main hall, which he'd already had stripped of its Wen banners and replaced with his own.
Lan Wangji saw Wei Wuxian look at the golden banners with a strange look in his eyes, then turn to Jin Guangshan and say, "My leg is still recuperating, so I'll have to sit out of this meal."
Lan Wangji made to follow him out of the hall, but Nie Huaisang stopped him. "Wangji-xiong, how can you leave? You're the one who made this victory possible!"
"Stay," Wei Wuxian said to him with a faint smile, then strode away as Nie Huaisang pulled Lan Wangji over to sit with the rest of the Nies.
Lan Wangji sat through the toasts to his name, and raised his own cup in response, but didn't drink. He couldn't stop thinking about how quietly the Wens had died today. It seemed, in a way, more haunting than screams.
He was thrown out of his thoughts from the cheering when Nie Huaisang lifted his cup and said, "Thanks to the music of the Lans!"
His eyes instinctively flicked over to Jin Guangshan on the upper dais, and Jin Guangyao behind him. Jin Guangyao's expression didn't change, but Jin Guangshan's teeth seemed to have gritted a little at the cheering for the Lans.
"Huaisang," Nie Mingjue said flatly.
"I just said the truth," Nie Huaisang shrugged his shoulders artlessly.
Nie Mingjue sighed and shook his head. Lan Wangji gathered a plate of food together to bring back for Wei Wuxian, and stood from his seat.
"I think I'll retire early as well," he said to Nie Mingjue, then nodded at Nie Huaisang.
When Lan Wangji made it back to the room that had been allocated to them — where, blessedly, there was an actual bed to crawl into — he found Wei Wuxian standing in front of the window, tracing some stick-figure drawings carved into the windowsill. He had made noise as he entered the room, but Wei Wuxian didn't turn to face him.
"You should eat something," Lan Wangji said, and put down the plate on the table in the center of the room.
"It used to be beautiful here," Wei Wuxian said, still looking out the window, and the wistfulness in his tone was unmistakable.
"You… used to live in Yunmeng?" Lan Wangji asked.
He heard Wei Wuxian sigh, and then the soft, tired response. "I was taken in by the Jiangs, when I was little. Before."
Before the Lans had fallen. Before the Jiangs had also been stamped out for daring to challenge the rule of Wen Ruohan.
The little lotus pond in the back of their quarters in the Burial Mounds clicked into place. Before he could think of how to respond, Wei Wuxian turned around and saw the plate of food on the table, then smiled.
"Thank you for the peppers," he said as he sat down and picked up the chopsticks.
Lan Wangji had noticed, with growing concern and some amusement, the amount of peppers Wei Wuxian consumed at every meal.
"I learned that peppers produce the essence which makes them spicy to the tongue as a way of warding off predators," Lan Wangji said, thinking he might as well try to lighten the mood. "It is said to be toxic to most animals that would want to eat it."
Wei Wuxian regarded him with some humor. "Well, maybe one of these days I'll be felled by too many chili peppers with my dinner, but that day is not today. Where did you learn facts like this, anyway?"
Lan Wangji pressed his lips together, trying to think of a way to phrase it.
"I did not make friends very easily, growing up," he finally settled on. "And the Jins did not have a very extensive library, so the books they did have, I learned them well. There was one volume I particularly liked about things encountered in the natural world."
"You could not request them to purchase more books for you?" Wei Wuxian asked, frowning.
Lan Wangji simply shrugged. Wei Wuxian looked at him, then lowered his head and continued eating. Lan Wangji turned to change out of his outer robes, shaking them out and leaving them neatly folded at the foot of the bed before rejoining Wei Wuxian at the table, dressed only in his thin inner robes.
"What did Jin Guangshan tell you about me, when you agreed to marry me?" Wei Wuxian asked suddenly, lifting his head to meet his gaze again. "Or was it my portrait that convinced you? I spent a very long time drawing it, you know."
Lan Wangji froze. He had not, in fact, been asked anything — only told. He hadn't even known Wei Wuxian had sent a portrait. He wondered what had become of it — if it had been tossed into a dusty shelf in the library, or thrown out entirely along with the rest of the things Jin Guangshan deemed as unnecessary to keep. He opened his mouth to speak, but didn't know what to say.
“You didn’t get a choice in marrying me, did you?” Wei Wuxian asked wearily.
“No,” Lan Wangji admitted. “But I do not regret it.”
“Our wedding night… or thereafter, if you hadn’t thought you needed to, would you have let me touch you?” Wei Wuxian asked, his gaze steady but resigned.
Lan Wangji paused, hesitated. The hesitation was enough to put something approaching devastation into Wei Wuxian's eyes, and an ache into his own chest.
He reached out slowly, deliberately, to grasp onto Wei Wuxian's hands. He was surprised to notice for the first time that they were smaller than his own.
"You have been good to me," he finally summoned his words to him.
Good , Wei Wuxian mouthed to himself, the corners of his mouth twisted up into something not quite a smile. Then he said, "Tell me honestly, what are your thoughts on Jin Guangshan as a ruler?"
"He would be better than Wen Ruohan," Lan Wangji said. "And if he's smart enough to keep Jin Guangyao as his adviser, perhaps even a effective one."
"If you could have your brother returned to your side, would you?" Perhaps due to the late hour of the night, Wei Wuxian's questions jumped from one topic to another with no discernable thread between them.
"Of course," Lan Wangji said.
"But you do not ask."
"Because it is pointless to ask it of him," Lan Wangji stated simply. He trusted that he didn't need to say out loud that as long as Jin Guangshan's ambitions included sitting comfortably on the throne, he would never let the eldest heir of the Lans out of his control.
"Would it be pointless to ask it of me?"
Lan Wangji's eyes snapped up to meet Wei Wuxian's serious gaze. He could say no, he realized. He could say, no, it would not be pointless, help me get my brother back. This was what he had been hoping for, striving for — to get Wei Wuxian to break the vows he had made to the Jins for him.
Before, he had wondered: what could get a good man to break his vows? But now that he'd found his answer, he realized the true question was: could he let a good man break his vows?
"Perhaps not," Lan Wangji said. "But I do not ask."
Then, he turned and went to fetch a wash bin and some water to clean the wound and change the bandages on Wei Wuxian's thigh.
Wei Wuxian let him care for the wound on his leg, and carded a hand through his hair when he bent his head down to tie in place the last of the strips of cloth. Yet still, when they fell asleep that night, he didn't reach out to curl his arm over his waist, as was his usual habit.
Lan Wangji felt like he slept less soundly than usual.
When they rode out of Lotus Pier, Wei Wuxian couldn't help but turn his head around for one last look. The Wen flags had been torn down before their departure, and Wei Wuxian had watched them come down with fierce satisfaction.
He could not resurrect Lotus Pier's rightful owners to take it back, but he had at least done this, and removed the Wens inside of it. Kindly Jiang Fengmian, sharp-tongued Madam Yu, sweet Jiang Yanli, and fierce Jiang Cheng — in his heart, he silently bid them a final goodbye as he turned his eyes back to the road ahead.
Lan Wangji rode in front of him, dressed in his last set of clean robes — dull blue ones, accented with grey. He was probably just as weary and worn-down as anyone else, but he still looked just as beautiful as he'd been the first time Wei Wuxian had seen him, all those years ago.
Back when he wasn't the Yiling Patriarch, when he hadn't yet figured out what to do with the book of symbols Jiang Fengmian had pressed into his hands before telling him to run, when he was just another scruffy street urchin wandering through Lanling, who'd accepted some coin from a Jin servant to help them carry the things they'd bought at the market back up that long flight of stairs to Koi Tower.
The servant, a gentle girl whose smile reminded him of Jiang Yanli and put a lump in his throat, patted his head after he dropped off the last of the heavy boxes he was carrying and told him he could go to the kitchens and ask for a drink of water and some sweets as well.
On his way there, he'd heard mournful notes tremoring through the air, and had followed the sorrowful tune like his feet had grown a mind of their own. It led him in front of a small courtyard, where a slender figure in robes of light blue was sitting beneath the white plum tree at the center of it, eyes closed, slim fingers plucking listlessly at the guqin in his lap.
A guard stationed nearby had caught sight of him, and roughly ushered him out of Koi Tower, a hand fisted into the collar of his robes. He didn't get a drink of water, nor the sweets he'd been promised, but he hadn't regretted the peek he'd stolen. He'd never forgotten it, either, nor the haunting melody he'd heard.
The youth had been very beautiful, and his music had sounded very sad. Sad enough that it could've matched Wei Wuxian's own sorry heart.
Enough that he'd carried the memory with him all these years, until fate had led him back into Koi Tower, no longer a scruffy urchin being paid to help carry packages, but the Yiling Patriarch. As the Yiling Patriarch, he'd sat across from Jin Guangshan and heard him say, "Set your terms for your support."
When they entered Nightless City, there were no ranks of undead soldiers lying in wait for them. Perhaps Wen Ruohan had realized they no longer posed a threat, or perhaps he'd learned of what they had done at Bunan.
Instead, what awaited them was what looked like an endless block of Wen soldiers, their swords drawn and at the ready, a sea of black robes painted with red suns that stretched from the gates of Nightless City all the way back to the innermost flight of stairs which led up to the throne room.
Wen Ruohan was nowhere to be seen, though this was no surprise — they had not expected him to personally lead his men.
They'd put Lan Wangji in a horse-drawn carriage, and surrounded by two rings of men armed with spears and shields. Wei Wuxian and Nie Mingjue led at the very front, Jin Guangshan at the very back.
There was a single, breathless moment as both sides stared across the small stretch of no-man's land between them. From within the carriage, Lan Wangji plucked the first slow, lingering note from his guqin.
It was a bloody, grueling battle. It was not like Lotus Pier, where they had been able to sneak up in the night, and where Lan Wangji's music had been able to reach all corners of the courtyard they'd fought in. Now they were fighting in a wider field of space, and Lan Wangji's music could not reach everywhere. Every ten men they struck down were replaced by another ten.
The wound on Wei Wuxian's thigh made its presence known to him, a dull throb of pain on his leg that blended into the strain building up in his arms and shoulders as he sliced and cut and parried blows to clear the way for Lan Wangji's carriage.
Nightless City was one straight stretch down from the gates to the throne room, and there were no maneuvers they could make, nowhere to go but straight forward. Lan Wangji's music couldn't reach across the entire field of battle, but it could reach far enough. Enough to slow down reflexes, enough to cause vision to blur from sleepiness, enough to give them an edge to keep pressing forward.
By the time they finally made their way up to the throne room, the Jin soldiers led by Jin Guangshan engaging the remaining Wens left behind them, Wei Wuxian's thigh was being stabbed with pain, as acute as it had been when he'd first received the wound. He gritted his teeth against it, and stuck close to Lan Wangji's side as he descended from the carriage, his guqin in his arms. Up on the stairs, Nie Mingjue cut down the last of the guards defending the entrance to the throne room.
Together, Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian ascended the stairs to join Nie Mingjue and the other Nie men by his side, and then they entered the throne room.
It was a large, lavish room. The floor was tiled with black marble stone, and the walls draped with Wen banners of black silk. They rippled in the slight breeze sweeping through the room from the open doors, and the red suns embroidered onto them shined like rubies.
At the very front of the room, Wen Ruohan reclined on his throne, an ugly, twisted thing of steel. He was dressed in sweeping red robes — ceremonial robes, the brocade stiff and heavy, not meant for fighting. Standing besides him were ten men with their swords already drawn, his final line of defense.
"It is not too late to surrender," Nie Mingjue called out to him.
Wen Ruohan didn't react, like he hadn't heard him. His eyes were locked onto Wei Wuxian instead.
"So you're the one who made the talismans," he said. His voice was soft and raspy, but it carried across the echoey room. Then his gaze shifted over to Lan Wangji. "And you, you look like a Lan."
By this time Nie Mingjue had lost his patience, and he led his men charging across the room towards Wen Ruohan. The ten men who had been standing guard besides Wen Ruohan met them in the middle of the throne room, blades clashing together.
Still, over the strident, grating sounds of steel scraping against steel, Wen Ruohan continued talking peacefully, like there was nothing else happening in front of him. "I see I missed a few mongrels when I stamped out the Lans and Jiangs, and they've come back to bite me."
Wei Wuxian clenched his fingers around the hilt of his sword, but didn't respond. More of their own men were pouring into the throne room, their footsteps loud and clear on the marble tiles as they filed in, spectators to an ending scene.
The last of Wen Ruohan's guards fell at Nie Mingjue's feet, and he kicked the body aside, then advanced upon Wen Ruohan, who at last stood up from his throne. He walked down from the dais, and brushed some invisible dust off the sleeves of his robes.
"You come rushing in to kill me, without stopping to think about who will come after me." he said softly, and began to chuckle. It was a low, rumbling laugh, that steadily grew in volume and higher in pitch, until he was cackling, like he'd been told the world's funnies joke.
"He's gone completely mad, hasn't he," Wei Wuxian heard someone whisper.
"Whoever comes after you will be better than a madman," Nie Mingjue said coldly, and with one decisive swing of his saber, cut down at Wen Ruohan where he stood.
In the instant his blade met Wen Ruohan's neck, bared and exposed by his head thrown backwards in laughter, he burst into a column of bright emerald flame, dispersing a wave of scorching air throughout the room. Nie Mingjue cursed and jumped backwards, and Wei Wuxian heard other shouts of alarm.
The green fire burned for much longer than the undead soldiers they'd faced up til now. When it finally subsided, all that was left behind was a small pile of red ash.
Wei Wuxian pulled his gaze away from it to look behind him, just in time to see Jin Guangshan striding in, Jin Guangyao behind him. The men crowded in front split to the two sides of the room, clearing a path in the middle.
"Come," Wei Wuxian murmured to Lan Wangji, and took him by the hand to lead him up the side of the room. His hand was very warm in Wei Wuxian's grasp.
They reached the dais at the front where the throne was before Jin Guangshan, and so Wei Wuxian saw Jin Guangshan's self-satisfied smile as he walked up to stand before the throne, taking it in, before he turned to sit down.
In the split second that he turned, before he could take his seat, Wei Wuxian took one large step forward, and slid his blade through the back of his neck. He struck with enough force that Jin Guangshan was pushed forwards, and so when Wei Wuxian withdrew his blade he toppled, and rolled down the short flight of stairs leading up to the dais. Within the span of his next exhale, Wei Wuxian turned onto Jin Guangyao, who'd reacted fast enough to draw his sword, but not fast enough to bring it up to parry Wei Wuxian's strike, which pierced cleanly through his heart.
The absolute silence in the room was broken only by the soft thump of Jin Guangyao's body down onto the floor as Wei Wuxian pulled his blade back, and Wei Wuxian's own heavy breathing.
Then, with outraged cries, the Jins who'd followed Jin Guangshan and Jin Guangyao into the room drew their blades and rushed towards Wei Wuxian. The Nie men, as if they'd gotten too used to fighting, met their blades reflexively, and blocked their approach. Nie Mingjue was stuck behind the throng of fighting, and growled in outrage as he tried to push his way back up to the throne.
Wei Wuxian bent down to wipe his sword clean on Jin Guangyao's robes, then stood up straight again, and turned towards the throne. It really was an ugly piece of steel, he thought. Not nearly as elegant as it needed to be, to be a seat for Lan Wangji.
Nie Mingjue finally broke free through the fighting, and watched Wei Wuxian approach the throne. Just as he thought Wei Wuxian would sit, and claim the throne for himself, he pivoted to the side and advanced towards Lan Wangji instead. Nie Mingjue rushed forward, praying he would be in time to block any blow Wei Wuxian attempted to land on Lan Wangji, and then —
Wei Wuxian went down on one knee, wincing slightly as the wound on his thigh protested more sharply than ever. He balanced his sword flat across his palms, and lifted his arms to offer it up to Lan Wangji, lifting his gaze to steal one final look at him. Lan Wangji looked pale with shock, and confused, like he truly hadn't expected this. His eyes flicked away from Wei Wuxian's gaze and down to the sword proffered in front of him.
"The throne is yours, Your Grace," Wei Wuxian said, and was proud that his voice held firm. Lan Wangji's fingers brushed against his as he took the sword out of his hands, one last whisper of warmth that Wei Wuxian held onto as he lowered himself to both knees, then bowed all the way down all the way to the floor, pressing his forehead against the cool marble tile.
He hoped that if Nie Mingjue demanded his death, Lan Wangji would have the kindness to swing the sword himself.
He heard footsteps from behind him, and then Lan Wangji saying, "Stop."
"He is an oathbreaker," Nie Mingjue said. "No matter that he did it to put you on the throne —"
"Do you recognize my right to the throne, Nie Mingjue?" Lan Wangji asked. He didn't raise his voice, but it rang out firm and clear regardless.
"I — yes. Your Grace."
"Then, you will act according to my wishes. We will not act hastily. We will decide on the subject of oathbreaking, and appropriate punishment, at a later date."
"Yes, Your Grace."
Wei Wuxian breathed out into the marble tiles.
"You'll be pleased to hear, the Jins are still calling for your head, and my brother too, for the principle of the thing, but other than that the Lan you seized the throne for is sitting very firmly on top of it, given his name and my brother's support behind him."
Wei Wuxian opened his eyes to see the smiling face of Nie Huaisang at his door.
“I didn’t seize the throne for him because he’s a Lan,” he replied, and sat up on his cot.
"No? Then what did you do it for? Love?" Nie Huaisang walked in, and placed down the small basket of food he was carrying, then snapped open his fan. Today, it was one painted with plum blossoms.
"I am impressed with you, Huaisang," Wei Wuxian said, choosing to ignore his questions.
"But I've done nothing impressive."
"It was quite impressive to be able to talk your brother's men into listening to you, and to have foreseen I would do this in time to tell them to subdue the Jins," Wei Wuxian said. "I suppose I should say thank you. Otherwise, I think my head would have decorated those nice marble tiles of the throne room in Nightless City."
"I'm sure I don't understand what you're saying," Nie Huaisang said.
Wei Wuxian smiled, and didn't say anything more.
"I hope you can be understanding of our poor accommodations here," Nie Huaisang said. "I promise Qinghe is usually quite beautiful, and quite fun, when my brother isn't leading a campaign to have you executed."
"I was pleasantly surprised I wasn't thrown into a cell, actually," Wei Wuxian responded dryly.
"Well," Nie Huaisang said, conspiratorial. "Da-ge doesn't want to admit it, but underneath his lofty principles, he doesn't exactly think your judgement call was wrong."
Wei Wuxian huffed out a laugh.
"I've heard the stories about your brother's unyielding moral compass, Huaisang," he said. "And I knew I would be running up against it when I made my decision. I'm not afraid to die. I just — "
"Just?" Nie Huaisang asked, after it became clear Wei Wuxian wasn't going to complete his thought.
"No word from Lan Zhan?" Wei Wuxian asked him.
Nie Huaisang shook his head. "I'm afraid you'll have to wait a bit longer for that."
And so, Wei Wuxian waited.
He heard bits and pieces of what was happening outside of his courtyard, from inadvertent slips of the tongue from the servants that came to clean or to bring him food and water when Nie Huaisang did not.
For one, he knew that Lan Wangji had brought everyone out of the Burial Mounds and established them in Koi Tower, and was working with Wen Qing to try and bring Lan Xichen out of his mysterious sleep.
For another, he knew that Lan Wangji was swamped with actual work, trying to wade through the mire of what Wen Ruohan had left behind and establish some sort of fair governance.
He learned that Nie Mingjue had begged a private audience with Lan Wangji, and been granted one. (This, he literally learned from a little bird: one of Nie Huaisang's pretty little things, fluttering onto his window sill with a small slip of paper gripped in its claws.)
He hoped that he would at least get to die by his hand, to see him one last time.
But he had also decided if a servant showed up one morning to offer him the choice of a knife, a long white sash, or a poisoned cup of sweet wine, he would go easily. He wanted to offer the second Lan dynasty a smooth and auspicious beginning.
One morning, during the third month of his confinement in the small room in Qinghe, Wei Wuxian heard footsteps approaching his door.
"You're here early today, Huaisang," he said in greeting, without lifting his brush from the painting he was working on. When he didn't get a response, he raised his head, and ended up dropping his brush in shock, leaving a smear of black paint across the trunk of the plum blossom tree on the page.
Lan Wangji, in robes of light blue, and a white headband with a silver cloud insignia in the middle bound across his forehead, was standing at his door. He was bearing a platter in his hands, on top of which was a white ceramic teapot and two small teacups.
"Lan Zhan," he said reflexively, then corrected himself. "Your Grace."
"To my husband," Lan Wangji said softly, softer than Wei Wuxian had ever heard him, "I hope I will always be Lan Zhan. And anyway, Your Grace should be my brother."
He walked in, then looked around and frowned at the sparsely furnished room.
"I was told you were being well-accommodated," he said.
Wei Wuxian, who was still not entirely convinced it wasn't just a hallucination standing in front of him, brought on from too many days of wishful thinking, answered quickly, "This is fine! I've been fine. I've been given everything I've asked for."
Then his brain processed what Lan Wangji had just said, and stuttered to a halt again.
"Your brother?" he asked hesitantly.
"Yes," Lan Wangji said, and motioned for Wei Wuxian to sit back down. "He has woken up, and has brought to light certain matters which finally swayed Nie Mingjue."
Slowly, over the pot of tea, which Lan Wangji let Wei Wuxian pour, and pointedly took the first sip of, Wei Wuxian listened to him explain.
As a result of a combination of Wen Qing's medical skills, and a piece Lan Wangji had composed on the guqin based upon reversing the score that lulled people to sleep, Lan Xichen had woken up, and he had woken up crying.
The last thing he'd remembered was trying to find a particular book he'd misplaced, and in his hunt for it, accidentally stumbling across a hidden room tucked behind the bookcase in Jin Guangyao's study. He'd been curious, had dug through the documents he'd found in it, and the more he read, the more horrified he'd become.
There had been a series of missives in Jin Guangyao's hand, outlining to Jin Guangshan how to persuade Wen Ruohan to focus on Lotus Pier as the threat to his rule, rather than Koi Tower. He'd heard Jiang Fengmian had found something which might be able to counter Wen Ruohan's undead soldiers.
More, outlining to Jin Guangshan how to take advantage of Yunmeng's fall to absorb its flow of trade into Lanling, and how to later use Yunmeng as a rallying point to convince other families to join them in their campaign to seize the throne from Wen Ruohan.
Another, dated during their courtship, on how as long as Jin Guangyao persuaded Lan Xichen to marry him, Jin Guangshan would provide legitimacy to their claim to the throne.
In the end, Jin Guangyao must have discovered what Lan Xichen had found out. He'd gone to sleep after drinking a cup of water a servant had brought to him, and hadn't woken up again.
When Lan Wangji finished speaking, and took a sip of his tea, Wei Wuxian's hands were shaking. He had already made his peace with what he'd done, purely for the sake of giving Lan Wangji what he wanted, what he'd married him to obtain. He hadn't expected to be suddenly, fiercely glad of what he'd done, for himself.
"So, Wei Ying, Nie Mingjue has withdrawn his complaints against the character of my husband," Lan Wangji said, and took his hands. His fingers were still warm from the teacup he'd just put down, and they felt scalding against Wei Wuxian's skin.
Wei Wuxian inhaled sharply. "Husband?"
Lan Wangji met his gaze steadily. "If you still wish, Wei Ying."
"Of course I still wish," Wei Wuxian said exasperatedly. "But, Lan Zhan, I know what you married me for, and you have it now."
"You know what I married you for, but I still don't know what you married me for," Lan Wangji responded, then looked at Wei Wuxian expectantly.
Wei Wuxian swallowed, and glanced down at the half-finished painting of the plum blossom tree on the table between them, with the errant smear of paint across its trunk.
“Because I wanted to be selfish for once,” Wei Wuxian murmured, and chuckled a little bitterly. “Because I couldn’t help myself. A long, long time ago, I heard the sound of your guqin. I'd never heard music that desolate before. I followed it and saw you under that white plum tree, and spent an entire winter dreaming of you. I wanted to know what made you so sad, and if we could be less sad together. So later, when Jin Guangshan asked me what I wanted, I asked for you. I knew better, but I asked for you.”
Lan Wangji made a soft noise in his throat, and that was the only warning Wei Wuxian got before he was swept up into a kiss like a hurricane, Lan Wangji's hands at the small of his back, the nape of his neck, then curled into his hair.
When they finally parted for breath, Lan Wangji pressed his lips to Wei Wuxian's throat, then murmured into sensitive skin at the underside of his jaw, "You gave me something I told you I wouldn't ask for, knowing the judgement you would face for it. You don't need to ask anyone for me anymore."
Wei Wuxian exhaled shakily, then said, "Alright."
Later, the revival of the Lan dynasty would inspire countless children's bedtime stories. A beautiful prince, locked in a tower, his brother trapped in a sleep like death. The vallant lord who saved him. The monster they'd defeated together with a magical sword and a magical guqin, his brother revived, the start of centuries of prosperity, a happily ever after for everyone.
There would be no mentions of the blood, the screaming, all the indelicate, gruesome things wiped out. These were, after all, bedtime stories for children. But also lost in the retellings were any mentions of the two scared, lonely boys at the root of the story, who sought out power not for the sake of it, but for what it allowed them to have without asking.
In the heart of the Cloud Recesses, a white plum tree still blooms its delicate bouquets over a lotus pond.