Lan Qiren stared in mute horror at the letter in his hands.
The ink had become blurry from the mounting tension behind his eyes and he could distantly feel his fingers trembling from how tightly he was holding the thrice damned piece of paper.
"What is it, uncle?" Lan Xichen asked, a look of honest concern on his young face.
Lan Qiren took a shaky breath to steady himself. As an elder it was his duty to help his oldest nephew deal with the administrative minutiae of the Gusu Lan Sect but, as much as he wanted to shield Lan Xichen against the hardships of leadership whenever it was possible, there was no hiding the terrible fate that the letter brought to them.
He passed the crumpled letter to his nephew and dropped his head into his hands in a moment of weakness. A tense silence followed suit as Lan Xichen read and realized the implications.
The Yiling Patriarch had sent them an official missive requesting Lan Wangji's hand in marriage.
The world's most dangerous demonic cultivator and immortal leader of the great Yiling Wei Sect wanted Lan Wangji's hand in marriage. Lan Zhan, his youngest nephew, his most promising disciple, a quiet boy of barely twelve.
"Maybe," Lan Xichen offered tentatively as he slowly placed the letter far away on the desk as if that would make the situation less real, "Is it possible that there's been a mistake and the request was for, ah, me?"
Lan Qiren shook his head. That would not be better in any shape or form. There was a second of madness during which Lan Qiren seriously considered offering himself for the unspeakable honor, or really any of the hundreds of adult Lan bachelors who would willingly volunteer when the dreadful news spread.
The thing was, they couldn't afford to refuse.
Gusu Lan was one of the major sects of the cultivation world, which normally gave them leave to pick and select the best matches for their people. Lan Qiren himself had been going through petitions of such political unions since Lan Xichen was a child, and doubly so after Lan Wangji was born. Their clan's standing and reputation was such that he could safely reject even the heir of Lanling Jin if their proposal did not meet his high expectations.
However, Yiling Wei was not Lanling Jin. Yiling Wei was the yin to the yang that was the sum of all the other sects combined together, and their leader, the immortal called Wei Wuxian, had once been the sole reason for the downfall of the corrupted Qishan Wen Sect centuries ago, when the Wen had dared to try and conquer the world. All other sects owned Wei Wuxian a life debt for that fact alone and neither Lan Qiren nor any other Lan before him had managed to settle their sect's debt just yet.
"We can't refuse." Lan Qiren stated wretchedly, "In fact, we are honor bound to accept and be grateful for it."
"Uncle." Lan Xichen implored.
Lan Qiren raised a hand to interrupt him, "We can, however, ask for time."
Lan Xichen sighed in relief and nodded forlornly, "Surely, at least until Wangji is of age."
Lan Qiren did not have the heart to remind his nephew that should the Wei sect leader refuse their request for a decade long engagement they would be unable to do anything to stop him. He was a realist. However, even someone as jaded as him wanted to believe fate would be kind to his loved ones.
"We need to tell Wangji," Lan Xichen said, closing his eyes in painful resignation, "Before the Wei force the issue and Wangji learns about it from hearsay."
Lan Qiren agreed and, as he sent word for his youngest nephew to join them, he also understood that Lan Wangji was going to hate him. As ever dutiful as Lan Wangji had grew up to become, a young man that was praised by all his instructors as mature beyond his age, there was no doubt in Lan Qiren's mind that even he would feel some kind of resentment at the family that was supposed to shield him against the world forsaking him in such a manner. It hurt Lan Qiren's heart to think of the fear and desperation that would paint Lan Wangji's eyes when he understood what was expected of him.
But there was time still and Lan Qiren quietly composed himself. Gusu Lan couldn't refuse but Lan Qiren could be as difficult as possible during the negotiations in order to give his nephew the highest chance to be treated well by his future husband should the engagement proceed. And he will be sure to have Lan Xichen give his brother a lecture on the many brides and grooms that have successfully escaped their unwanted engagements and future spouses, and how they had each done it.
For educational purposes, of course.
"Uncle, brother." Lan Wangji greeted them with a bow when he arrived, quiet and formal even though he must be aware of the somber mood that they couldn't help but project, "Has something happened?"
"I'm afraid we have worrying news." Lan Qiren began then stopped himself. Lan Xichen had taken a hesitant step forward and had put a comforting hand on Lan Wangji's shoulder. It was obvious to Lan Qiren that, had he not been present, his oldest nephew would have forgone all decorum and would have hugged Lan Wangji instead. Lan Qiren wouldn't have faulted him for it.
As it was, he saw Lan Wangji's eyes widen in concern at the gesture. He looked so young in that moment that Lan Qiren didn't have the heart to say more, instead he took the letter from his desk and passed it to him, feeling like he had just delivered a death sentence.
They both fell silent as they watched Lan Wangji read, expecting horror and fear to cloud his expression, or at the very least some kind of confused denial. But he just blinked in that slow way of his and then, to Lan Qiren's utter surprise, he let out a tender sigh of exasperation. Lan Qiren had never in all twelve years seen Lan Wangji make such a fond expression, let alone during such serious circumstances.
"It is not a trick, Wangji." Lan Xichen said, sounding vaguely unsettled.
"I know." Lan Wangji replied. Before either of them could stop him, he approached the desk and wrote a few short words at the end of the letter with no hint of hesitation. "Please send this back in my stead."
"Wangji." Lan Xichen frowned and shook his head, "We can't refuse. It's not as simple as that."
Lan Wangji folded the letter carefully and placed it back with care on the desk before bowing at them again, this time in departure, "Not refusing. But it is simple, please trust me."
Lan Qiren was too confused to stop Lan Wangji from leaving. He exchanged a look with Lan Xichen but not even his oldest nephew had words to explain what just happened, even though he was generally the best source to inquire about Lan Wangji's feelings and thoughts.
They stayed in contemplative silence for an uneasy minute and then Lan Qiren finally couldn't help but act impulsively for once in his life. He consciously broke rule number two thousand and seventy-four when he snatched the letter, unfolded the piece of paper and read the one sentence his nephew had deemed an adequate response to an outrageous marriage proposal. He ignored Lan Xichen's gasp at his truly shameless breach of privacy and frowned, stroking his beard in even deeper confusion.
'Wei Ying, you've got your dates wrong again. Love, Lan Zhan.'
Lan Qiren did not understand.