In the spring of his third year in confinement, Wei Wuxian is stirred from his thoughts by a commotion in the courtyard. He coughs into his sleeve and reaches for the cup of tea on the side table, leaning back against the cushioned armrest to take a sip just as Wen Ning shuffles into the sitting room with a quick bow.
"Wei-zhu'er1," he whispers. "They're unlocking the gates."
Wei Wuxian exhales.
In the last three years, he had dreamed up dozens of similar scenarios. Three years ago, the news would have been met with elation, or even anticipation. Perhaps he would have run out into the courtyard, eager to witness the moment the chains slid away, and the heavy red gates parted to finally, finally allow him access to the world beyond his prison. But now that it is really happening, he finds he cannot muster even a sliver of joy.
He turns to peer through the gap in the window. The handful of servants still attending him are milling in the courtyard, tasks forgotten in the excitement of the occasion. He does not begrudge them this little respite from their duties—it is the least he can do to repay them for the devotion they have shown him these past three years. They could have opted for better prospects with more favoured masters, and yet chose to remain here with him in what may well have been an endless confinement. Such loyalty and devotion is rare in the inner court, and he knows better than to squander it.
Wen Ning hovers behind him attentively.
"Will you not go outside, Wei-zhu'er?" he asks.
Wei Wuxian coughs again, thick and wet, and turns from the window to take another sip of tea.
"Not today," he says, closing his eyes as a wave of fatigue washes over him. "I'm tired. I think I'll just retire for the day. Help me change."
Wen Ning bows.
Wei Wuxian has never wanted to be Empress, has no desire to be restricted by the etiquette and rules of the three palaces and six courtyards within the inner court. Nor has he any desire to rule over a harem of men and women who—thanks to said rules and etiquettes—have little else to occupy the long, empty days of their lives aside from petty schemes and power games. He's only ever wanted to be with the man he loved.
But then Lan Wangji had turned to him with those golden eyes and held out his hand.
"The Emperor stands at the summit of a great mountain, towering over his subjects, watching and guiding his people." His eyes grow dim, clouded by shadows of doubt and uncertainty. "It is terribly lonely here at the summit, Wei Ying. Please, come stand by my side. Don't leave me alone."
And Wei Wuxian had taken his hand, and promised to never leave him alone.
In hindsight, that had probably been his first mistake.
The Emperor is not an ordinary man. He cannot lead an ordinary life, with an ordinary job, ordinary marriage, ordinary concerns. Everything is dictated by rules, by etiquettes, by customs, by politics, by power. He must take a concubine from every allied nation and border tribe as a mark of respect, must show them favour by calling upon them and performing his duties as a husband, bestowing gifts and honours upon them even if he feels nothing for them. He must sire children on them to secure the line of succession.
And Wei Wuxian, as Empress, must stand at his side and support this, even encourage it despite his own misgivings. He cannot bear Lan Wangji's children, so he must ensure that someone does.
He hates it.
He hates sitting alone in his chambers at night with the knowledge that Lan Wangji is spending the night with someone else. Hates getting up every morning and appearing warm and kind and unaffected as those same women pay their respects, hates seeing them grow round and heavy with Lan Wangji's children when he remains unchanged. Logically, he knows it is not their fault, that they are as much a victim of their circumstances as he—he's not even sure it's jealousy that he feels burning a hole in the pit of his stomach day after day after day, but it chips away at him little by little over the years, until there is nothing left but a hollowed husk of himself.
There are days when he looks into the mirror and no longer recognises the reflection that stares back at him. When had he become someone who sits at the window waiting for his husband to grace him with his presence? When had he become so powerless in his own situation, so helpless that he cannot seem to find a way out? When had he become so dependent on Lan Wangji for his own happiness and well-being that he does not feel alive if Lan Wangji is not there?
He hates it.
He hates himself.
He cannot bring himself to hate Lan Wangji.
Li Yu arrives at the newly reopened gates the following morning with an entire retinue of eunuchs, bearing in his arms a tray lined with gold silk, and a sealed wooden box. He does not get even ten steps into the courtyard before Wen Ning is hurrying outside to meet him.
"Li Yu-gonggong2," Wen Ning says with a low bow. Li Yu smiles and returns the greet with an inclination of his head.
"Wen Ning, is the Empress available for an audience?" he asks. "I am here to return the Seal of the Empress to its rightful owner, along with the Imperial decree."
The glance Wen Ning sends towards the closed windows is hesitant; Wei Wuxian had left orders not to be disturbed, had gone to bed early to avoid receiving the consorts and concubines wishing to pay their respects, but this was the Emperor's messenger. Even during their worst disagreements over the years, Wei Wuxian had never refused Lan Wangji's messages. But that was before the Seal—the mark of his status and power, and of Lan Wangji's trust—had been forcibly taken from him, and he had been put under three years of house arrest, without contact from the outside world save the servants who brought food and supplies, and more recently the Imperial Physician. Not once had Lan Wangji sent word or given any indication that he still remembered Wei Wuxian's existence.
Li Yu, sensing his reluctance, gives him a sad smile.
"The Emperor had meant to come visit Niangniang3 personally, but he has been called away on court matters," he explains apologetically. "He sent me ahead to deliver the Seal back to Niangniang first."
He raises his voice slightly, loud enough to carry through the papered windows where he knows Wei Wuxian likes to sit in the mornings. When this fails to produce a response, he exchanges concerned looks with Wen Ning, who bows low at the waist.
"Niangniang has taken ill in the past few days and is unable to receive guests," he says. "Li-gonggong, please convey Niangniang's gratitude to the Emperor for his kindness."
"Will Niangniang not even accept the Seal?" Li Yu asks earnestly, holding out the tray. "It will be but a moment. Once the Seal has been passed into Niangniang's hands, we will leave immediately."
Wen Ning shakes his head with another apologetic sigh.
"Begging your pardon, Li-gonggong, but Niangniang is in no condition to receive guests." He bows once again. "It would be best if you left."
And with that, he turns and heads back inside, the woven curtain falling heavily over the door with an air of finality.
Wei Ying had been put forward as a candidate for Lan Xichen's primary consort despite his protestations, and had been forced to participate in the selection ceremony where he had been paraded around with the other candidates while the Empress and Lan Xichen had sat and judged. It hadn't been the most pleasant of experiences—he'd felt a bit like a head of cattle if he was being honest—so when Lan Wangji comes to him the following month and asks him to be present at his own selection ceremony, he initially refuses.
"No way, I'm not going through that again." He shakes his head and waves his hands in front of him vehemently. "Once was enough."
Lan Wangji frowns.
"What?" Wei Wuxian laughs in surprise. "No way! Do you know what I had to do to make sure I wasn't selected?"
A flicker of relief crosses Lan Zhan's face at Wei Ying's words. He decides to humour him by asking him to elaborate. Wei Ying fiddles with the end of his long braid and glances around quickly. They're in a quiet corner of the city walls overlooking the Empress's palace where no one but the sentry out on patrol really go—it's their favourite meeting place for when they want to speak freely, hence why Lan Zhan had chosen to come here in the first place—so there really isn't a reason why he would need to check for eavesdroppers. But he does it anyway with a cheeky grin, before leaning in to whisper secretively in Lan Zhan's ear.
His answer startles a laugh out of the usually composed Second Prince.
"You farted?" he repeats in disbelief as Wei Ying chortles. "In front of Huang-e'niang?"6
"Yes," he says, clutching his stomach. "So you should have pity on me, Er-gege7, I had to eat so many beans that morning. I'll never eat another bean again!"
"Dramatic," Lan Zhan chides, but he's smiling now too. "I would like you to be there tomorrow, nevertheless."
Wei Ying makes a face. "Why do you even need me there?" he complains. "You're the one selecting a fujin, not me. And it's not like you're going to choose me—"
"Would it be so bad?" Lan Zhan interrupts him to ask, frowning.
"Would it be so bad?" Lan Zhan repeats, his eyes suddenly sharper as he turns to hold Wei Ying's gaze. "If I were to choose you."
Heat rises to Wei Ying's cheeks and he laughs awkwardly, reaching up to rub the back of his neck as he looks away.
"Don't joke about that, Lan Zhan," he says. "Why would you choose me when you could have your pick of anyone in the empire?"
"I would choose you." There is no hesitation nor uncertainty in those words. "Because you are Wei Ying. There is no one else but you."
Lan Zhan continues to look at him with that same intensity, his honey-coloured eyes boring into the side of Wei Ying's face with an earnestness that makes his heart skip a beat despite his best attempts to appear unaffected. The scrutiny is nothing new—Lan Zhan has always been quiet and perceptive—but directed at him, in this context…is not something Wei Ying had thought to ever prepare himself for. So he forces another laugh, this one tinged with something that may be panic, and steps away.
"Lan Zhan, they would never accept me as di-fujin8—for you, or Da-a'ge9," he says. "Maybe ce-fujin10 at most. I can't bear children, so you'll have to take a concubine—and I'm not good at sharing, Lan Zhan, I'm really not."
It isn't enough to sway Lan Zhan, the corner of whose lips contains the barest hint of amusement at how flustered this conversation has made him. He advances a step, which sends Wei Ying back one step to preserve the distance between them, and sighs.
"Heirs should not be an issue," he tells him patiently. "With Huangxiong here, there is little chance of me becoming Emperor."
"You can't know that," Wei Ying protests. "The succession is kept secret. And besides, the Emperor is still in his prime. No one knows what could happen in a few years—"
"Wei Ying." He cuts him off before his rambling can go any further, stepping in so he can take both of Wei Ying's hands in his own. His palms are warm and calloused from years of archery and sword practice. "I will not force you if you are truly unwilling."
The truth of the matter is: Wei Ying has always had feelings for Lan Zhan. But Wei Ying also knows there is a very real chance of Lan Zhan succeeding the Dragon Throne once the Emperor passes, even with Lan Xichen being the elder of the two, and if he does, he will need an Empress with strong political connections—and the ability to birth heirs. Not to mention the various concubines and consorts he will be expected to take into the inner court to forge new alliances and strengthen existing ones. Wei Ying is the foster-son of the Minister for Finance, whose family is not even within the Upper Three Banners; he has otherwise no political backing of his own, he cannot give birth to an heir, and he certainly does not have the right temperament to rule over Three Palaces and Six Courtyards' worth of consorts and concubines.
"I can't," he says weakly. "Lan Zhan, I only went to Da-a'ge's selection ceremony because I was forced to make up the numbers in the line-up—they would never seriously consider me for the position of fujin. Surely you know this—"
"You do not need to worry," Lan Zhan assures him, giving his hands a gentle squeeze. "They asked you to participate once, so they have already deemed you a suitable candidate. They cannot protest if I choose you. That is, if you are willing."
Wei Ying gnaws on his lower lip, deep in thought as he considers his options. He sighs.
"I'll think about it," he says, adding quickly: "That's not a promise!"
Lan Zhan smiles.
"What else did he say?" Lan Wangji asks heavily.
Li Yu bows his head.
"Nothing, Huangshang11," he replies. "Only to thank you for your kindness."
Lan Wangji rests a hand over the box containing the Seal of the Empress, running over its smooth surface with his fingers, tracing the metal clasp on the side. He had hoped—a foolish hope, perhaps—that returning the Seal would be a good first step towards a reconciliation. That, once the Seal had been returned to its rightful owner, they could begin salvaging their tattered relationship.
The last three years have been agonising and frustrating all at once, compounded by the knowledge that he had had to forcibly confine Wei Wuxian to the Palace of Earthly Honour, lest the target on his back grew any larger. Their political rivals had been growing greedier than ever, eager for the chance to replace the childless Empress with one of their own, each of their schemes growing bolder and deadlier than the last. If he had not removed Wei Wuxian from the picture and kept him locked away, he would have likely been dead within the next year.
He is, at the very least, alive. And yet.
"Perhaps the Empress is merely tired," Li Yu suggests. "Huangshang could try again in a few more days, after Niangniang has had time to rest and recover."
He is right, of course. With the tension of the past few years suddenly lifted from his shoulders, Lan Wangji too feels exhausted, drained; he is still constantly watching over his shoulder, keeping his eyes and ears open for any movement on the side of his enemies, always calculating his next move, and counter-move. There are nights where he wakes in the darkness, drenched in cold sweat and sick with fear, the weight of Wei Wuxian's cold body still heavy in his arms, and it is only the warmth of the body asleep in the bed beside him that prevents him from running straight to the Palace of Earthly Honour.
"Wait a few more days and deliver the Seal again," he says finally.
"Yes, Huangshang," Li Yu murmurs.
But as his hand slides off the box, the foreboding curling in the pit of his stomach only grows.
It was never going to be easy.
From the moment he had decided to show up to the selection ceremony, Wei Ying had known he will have to fight tooth and nail to stay by Lan Zhan's side, weather all sorts of ugly comments and harsh judgments from those who believed him unworthy to be the consort to a prince, and who would use his poor birth against him. But when Lan Zhan hands him the jade staff in front of the Emperor, the Empress, his uncle and dozens upon dozens of candidates, his honey-coloured eyes warm and bright and filled with breathless anticipation, he had known then—he would endure any torment if it meant he could be with Lan Zhan.
It starts almost as soon as he steps away, clutching the staff in his hands.
"Wangji, you cannot be serious," Lan Qiren interjects from where he's seated beside the Emperor. "You cannot have a fujin who cannot produce an heir."
"Really, Qiren, must you speak of such matters in public?" the Empress asks mildly, covering her mouth with her handkerchief. "The purpose of this ceremony is for Wangji to choose his spouse."
"Huangsao12, you cannot deny how important Wangji's choice of fujin is for the future of the Imperial Family," Lan Qiren replies. He gives Wei Ying a once-over, the corner of his lips curling in distaste. "The Wei clan is of the Lower Five Banners—by all rights, Wei Ying should not have been a part of the pool of candidates at all."
"But he is fostered by the Jiang Clan," the Empress returns, still in that same mild tone. "The Jiang Clan is of the Upper Three Banners. And I have watched him grow up with my own eyes—he is both talented and intelligent. I am certain he will be able to support Wangji well."
"Be that as it may, Huangsao, he still cannot provide an heir—"
"Huangshu13," Lan Zhan says, stepping in front of Wei Ying to address his uncle directly. "Wangji dares to say that, as Huangxiong has chosen a fujin and will produce an heir, there is no need for me to—"
"Ridiculous," Lan Qiren splutters. "Will you be so unfilial towards your parents and ancestors, Wangji? It is your duty as the Emperor's di-zi14, to continue the family line—"
Lan Zhan bristles, drawing himself up to his full height.
"Then perhaps I should not—"
Wei Ying grabs his elbow from behind with a strangled gasp as a shocked hush falls over the entire hall. Both Lan Qiren and the Empress have paled significantly at Lan Zhan's words—even Lan Zhan himself has gone completely still; his eyes are wide with apprehension and a hint of fear as he stares at his father. The Emperor rises to his feet slowly and looks between Lan Zhan and Wei Ying with a grave expression.
"Wei-shi15 will be fujin," he says. When Lan Zhan visibly sags with relief and moves to bow in thanks, he holds up a hand. "And you will also take Jin-shi and Su-shi as ce-fujin and ge-ge16 respectively. This is my final decision on the matter."
And then he sweeps past them without another word, leaving them scrambling to pay their respects. When he is out of sight, Lan Zhan turns immediately to grasp Wei Ying by the arm and help him up, his jaw clenched and eyes apologetic. Wei Ying smiles up at him and shakes his head.
"It's fine," he tells him under his breath. "It's to be expected. But at least he agreed, right?"
"Mm," Lan Wangji agrees, but his mouth remains set in an unhappy line until the ceremony finishes.
The supplies allocated to the Palace of Earthly Honour had been reduced to the equivalent to that of a First Rank Attendant, barely half of what he used to receive as Empress. Even though Lan Wangji had not issued an Imperial decree to formally depose him of his title, Wei Wuxian knows that, without the Seal, the eunuchs in the Imperial Household Department will not recognise him as such in fear of offending more powerful parties. So he grits his teeth and makes do throughout the long, harsh winters without coal to light the braziers or new quilts to cover the bed, covering the windows and doors with what little blankets they could spare to ward off the chill.
His cough worsens steadily during his time in confinement. It had started out as a mere tickle in the throat, negligible at best, easily assuaged by honeyed teas and put out of mind by more pressing concerns. Until one day, more than two years into his punishment, he is racked by a coughing fit that has him doubled over in agony and his handkerchief comes away speckled with blood.
"Niangniang." the Imperial Physician slides off his seat and onto his knees, pressing his forehead to the floor. "Please forgive my incompetence."
"It's serious, isn't it?" Wei Wuxian rasps. His chest feels thick and clogged, much like his mind. When the Imperial Physician hesitates, he assures him: "You have my permission to speak frankly."
The man exhales shakily and does not raise his head from the floor.
"Niangniang has contracted consumption," he says. "A disease of the lungs that often shows no visible symptoms for many years until it is too late. In your case, Niangniang, the disease already appears to be quite advanced. We can try to stymie its progression with different medicines, but the prognosis is—"
Wei Wuxian withdraws his hand from where it is still resting on the table and holds it to his chest.
"How long?" he asks. He clears his throat and tries again: "How long do I have left?"
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Wen Ning hovering anxiously by the doorway. The Imperial Physician takes a deep breath.
"Four months," he says. "Six, if we are very careful."
Wei Wuxian closes his eyes and sighs.
"That's enough," he murmurs. "That's more than enough."
"Wei Ying is not a suitable name for a fujin," Lan Qiren tells him, the day after his wedding. "The Emperor has bestowed upon you a new name: Wuxian."
Wei Ying—now Wei Wuxian—stares at the characters on the sheet of paper in his hands.
"Wuxian," he echoes.
"It is the Emperor's wish for your future," Lan Qiren tells him curtly. "I trust you understand his intentions."
Wuxian. Without envy. He swallows past the lump in his throat and bows.
"Wuxian gives thanks to the Emperor for his generosity." He smiles. "I will do my best not to fail the Emperor's faith in me."
Lan Qiren grunts. "See that you do not."
The politics of the inner court had always been a game of subtlety, crueller and infinitely deadlier than the ones played out on a much larger stage.
During his reign as Empress, Wei Wuxian witnesses concubines and consorts come into and fall out of favour—not, perhaps, due to Lan Wangji's own personal preference, but definitely due to political necessity—and the constant bickering and petty schemes to curry that same favour. Lan Wangji has never been particularly susceptible to the charms and wiles of women, so he merely performs his duty as husband and Emperor, and trusts Wei Wuxian to keep them in line.
He sees numerous pregnancies and almost as many miscarriages, holds each child in his arms as they are presented to him, and tries not to dwell on the bitterness in the back of his throat as they bow and call him Imperial Mother, knowing that none will ever be truly his.
Wuxian, as the Emperor had intended for him, all those years ago. Without envy.
He does not approach Lan Wangji with these matters, thinking them trifle and not of concern compared to the matters of state. But Lan Wangji had known, in his own way, and suggests that he be the one to foster the children of the lesser concubines, rather than giving them into the care of other consorts of noble birth as is customary. Wei Wuxian gently, but firmly, refuses.
He does not say: If I grow attached to them, I fear my heart will truly break.
"They will do better with mothers to nurture them," he says instead.
And for a while, it works. He presides over the gathering of concubines and consorts and calls them his sisters, pats the heads of their children and calls him his, all the while careful to maintain his distance. They call him kind and fair, but cold and unapproachable, and leave him largely to his own devices outside of official business. It is lonely, but it is safe.
Until Lan Yuan is born to Noble Lady Wen. He is present at the birth, waiting in the wings while the midwives and maids worked, with Lan Wangji by his side. She is a slip of a girl whose clan hails from a border tribe on the western front, far from the capital; her clan holds military power, but she is unfamiliar with their customs and her position in the harem is too low for her to raise her own child. He intends to give the child to Consort Chun of the Nie clan to raise, a smart, reliable woman who poses no political threat—the Nie clan had always been fiercely loyal to the Imperial Family—and who he trusts to treat the child well.
He does not take into account how his own heart would respond to the child. The first time he takes Lan Yuan into his arms, freshly bathed and cleaned of the birthing fluids and wrapped in soft blankets, he falls completely and irrevocably in love. It is as if his entire world has shrunk down into this tiny bundle nestled in the cradle of his elbow, still red and wrinkled and screaming at the top of his tiny little lungs; his heart feels full to bursting and he cannot hold back the sob that bubbles up through the back of his throat.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says, startled by his reaction. He takes a step towards him, but Wei Wuxian only shakes his head and smiles.
"He's beautiful," he whispers. "Lan Zhan, he's perfect."
Lan Wangji watches him, watching Lan Yuan with infinite wonder and love, and smiles.
"Then he will be in your care from now on," he says. "He will be our son."
Wei Wuxian is sitting at the table with a far-off expression when Wen Ning returns from collecting their monthly allowance from the Privy Purse. There is a box lying open before him, its contents spilling out over the table: a collection of papers, pictures and trinkets, as well as a familiar handheld rattle-drum that has his heart sinking.
"Wei-zhu'er," he murmurs.
The sound of his voice jerks Wei Wuxian from his daze. His fingers instinctively curl around the handle of the rattle-drum in his surprise, before he recognises Wen Ning standing beside him and the tension in his shoulders ease.
"Wen Ning, you're back," he says. "I was just—sorting through some old things."
He trails off, that distant look coming over his face again like a cloud descending over him as he stares unseeingly at the rattle-drum in his hand. Wen Ning worries at the inside of his cheek in concern. These strange moods have been happening with increasing frequency over the last three years—often short-lived, but sometimes lasting several days at a time—with no signs of improving. They always seem to drain him of what little energy he can muster that hasn't been leeched away by illness, and there is little Wen Ning is able to do to help him.
An illness of the heart requires medicine of the heart to heal, the Imperial Physician had said.
"Wei-zhu'er," he says carefully, pitching his voice low. "Why don't I put those away for you—"
"No." The word is blurted out in a panic as Wei Wuxian throws an arm over the box to shield it from view. He seems to realise what he's doing after a moment and rights himself with a cough. "No, thank you, Wen Ning. I'll…put it away myself."
Wen Ning sighs.
"Wei-zhu'er," he tries again. "Why don't we go sit outside in the sun for a while? It's a very nice day outside, some fresh air will be good for you."
Wei Wuxian runs his fingers over the rattle-drum and smiles as though he hadn't heard him.
"Wen Ning," he says absently. "What do you think Yuan-er would be like if he were here today? He'd probably be the smartest of all the princes—he was only just starting to learn how to write, but you could already tell he was going to be skilled with a pen. A scholar, just like his father."
His voice breaks on the last word, and Wen Ning's heart breaks with it. He watches Wei Wuxian bow his head as the grief overcomes him, his shoulders shaking with suppressed sobs.
"Four years," Wei Wuxian continues in a whisper. "Four years next month."
"Yes, Wei-zhu'er," Wen Ning agrees, coming forward to put an arm around his shoulders. Wei Wuxian turns into his embrace; his next words are muffled in the folds of Wen Ning's robes.
"I wonder if he still remembers."
Wen Ning squeezes his eyes shut and strokes Wei Wuxian's hair. He doesn't need to ask who 'he' is.
"I'm sure he does, Zhu'er," he tells him with a quiet confidence he does not feel.
Every autumn, the Imperial Court migrates north for the Imperial hunt, spending a month at the hunting grounds in Mulan. It is both a ritual and a military exercise, a chance for the members of the court to return to their nomadic roots after generations of city dwelling, and also for soldiers to hone their skills in the traditional martial arts of archery, swordsmanship and horseback riding. It is also a rare chance for the Emperor to also participate without restraint, to demonstrate his own prowess to his people.
Wei Wuxian has always enjoyed the hunt, even more so after becoming the Empress. It is a whole month outside the confines of the Forbidden City where he can savour the wind in his hair and enjoy the thrill of the hunt; it is the only time, the only place where he feels truly free to be himself. And Lan Wangji makes sure to indulge him whenever he can. They would often ride out alone together, away from the rest of the court, leaving behind even their guards as they race through the forests and the hills—often not even hunting, but simply basking in the sunshine and in each other's presence.
This year, however, he is too on edge to fully enjoy the experience. They had received numerous reports over the years that the powerful Jin clan had been colluding with the leaders of other clans to gain support for their own Noble Consort Jia, the highest-ranking consort in the inner court second only to Wei Wuxian, to replace him as Empress. The reasoning was the same as it has always been: that he is of a family with no powerful connections, not to mention male and unable to produce a legitimate heir. Only this time, they had the additional advantage in the two sons borne by Noble Consort Jia, both of whom were nearing their majority. If she were to become Empress, then Lan Wangji would have a legitimate heir born of his legal spouse, rather than the fostered son of a low-ranking consort from a border tribe.
Before they had left the capital, Lan Wangji had told him to prepare to hunt much bigger prey, and Wei Wuxian had grinned.
So when a messenger arrives from the capital, not even two weeks into the hunt, bearing urgent news about Lan Yuan, the world all but shatters beneath his feet.
"We have to go back," he tells Lan Wangji desperately.
"I know," Lan Wangji replies, taking hold of his shoulders in an attempt to calm him. "But we cannot be reckless. I have already instructed Li Yu to return ahead to personally understand the situation. Once he reports his findings, we will be in a better position to decide what to do from there."
"Wait?" Wei Wuxian echoes. "You want to wait? Lan Zhan, if we wait any longer, it may be too late!"
"Wei Ying!" Lan Wangji says sharply, interrupting him in his rapidly rising panic. Once he has his attention, he softens his voice. "I understand you are concerned for Yuan-er's wellbeing—I am the same. But this may be a decoy, a trap to lure us back to the capital. We must verify the information."
Logically, he knows Lan Wangji is right to be cautious. They had come here with a plan to smoke out their enemies once and for all, and to ensure Wei Wuxian and Lan Yuan's safety. If indeed this was a trap, then they would be playing right into enemy hands.
"Yuan-er's life may be in danger," Wei Wuxian says, shrugging Lan Wangji's hands from his shoulders and backing away. "That is a risk I am not prepared to take."
Lan Wangji looks pained.
"Wei Ying," he pleads. "Trust me. He will be alright."
Wei Wuxian stands frozen in the middle of the tent, torn between wanting to jump on the first horse and ride all the way back to the capital, and trusting his husband has their best interests at heart despite his inaction.
Three days pass before another visitor walks through the gate.
Wei Wuxian, in a rare burst of energy, is tending to the potted plants in the courtyard and enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun when he hears familiar footsteps approaching him from behind. He pauses in his work, his heart hammering in his chest, fingers hovering over the bare branches of the plum blossom cutting in front of him. His feet are rooted to the ground.
He cannot stop the way his hands tremble at hearing Lan Wangji's voice after so many years; he curls them into fists and tucks them against his side before he turns around. He keeps his eyes lowered as he sinks to his knees.
"Your concubine greets you, Huangshang," he says. The ritualistic greeting falls from his lips with ease, safe in their familiarity.
From this position, he can see the way Lan Wangji's hands twitch as if to reach for him, before they too clench into fists and remain fixed at his side. He lowers his eyes to the ground again.
Lan Wangji exhales.
"You may rise," he says.
Only then does Wei Wuxian rise to his feet; his movements are measured, controlled, honed by years of etiquette training and the relentless weight of his position, where one wrong move could cost him his life—and the life of his loved ones. In his youth, he had neglected the lesson, laughed off the warnings with the confidence borne from an arrogant sense of invincibility; he remembers the lesson now, keenly, with his every waking breath. Silence falls between them.
It is Lan Wangji who breaks it.
"How are you?" he asks tentatively, carefully, as if treading on broken glass. "I heard you were unwell, so I came to see you."
Wei Wuxian inclines his head.
"Thank you, Huangshang, for you concern," he says. "I am well."
When it is clear he will offer no further comment, Lan Wangji releases the breath he is holding. The corners of his mouth tighten, tilt downward just slightly, in disappointment.
"That is…good to hear," he says.
In the past three years, confined to his palace with only a handful of servants for company, Wei Wuxian has learned that silence can be deafening. It had been painful at first, a constant, overbearing weight closing in around him, thick and suffocating, robbing him of his senses one by one. Then he had learned to embrace it, welcome it, shroud himself in it and wear it like armour; silence became his greatest protection, his greatest weapon—his greatest, truest friend.
And now, standing before Lan Wangji after three long years of separation, even his heart is silent.
"Do you have any further instructions for me, Huangshang?" he asks.
Lan Wangji breathes out harshly through his nose.
"No," he says. "No instructions. Only—Wei Ying, please look at me."
Wei Wuxian raises his eyes obediently and meets Lan Wangji's gaze. The pain he had been expecting does not come, the once ever-present ache in his heart has faded; he sees the anguish, the fear in Lan Wangji's eyes and feels…nothing.
"Back then…" Lan Wangji begins haltingly. "The things I said, the things I did—"
"Huangshang only did what he believed to be right," Wei Wuxian says. "I understand."
The aborted noise that leaves Lan Wangji's throat is one of frustration.
"Be that as it may, I should have heeded your concerns," he says. "If I had, then perhaps our Yuan-er—"
He cuts himself off mid-sentence, pained. Wei Wuxian lowers his head and laughs without humour.
"Huangshang is wise," he says. "But even you would not have been able to predict that Wen-pin17 would ally herself with Jin-guifei18 and cause the death of her own child, however unwittingly. The culprits were caught and punished for their crimes in the end. You should not blame yourself."
He means it kindly, but the words sting nevertheless. They are the same words he has repeated to himself countless times over the years while scrabbling blindly in the dark for something to hold onto, something to keep him afloat lest he drown in the grief and resentment raging within him in the direct aftermath of Lan Yuan's passing.
Lan Wangji takes a step towards him, eyes beseeching.
"And you, Wei Ying?" he asks quietly. "Do you still blame me?"
He had, at first. But not anymore. Now, he feels nothing.
Silence falls between them once again. They are standing only a handful of steps apart, in this courtyard has come to be equal parts a home and a prison over the years, but the gulf between them feels infinitely wider. Wei Wuxian has been standing on the precipice of that void, teetering precariously on the edge for so long, he no longer remembers why he still clings to it. But when he raises his eyes again to meet Lan Wangji's, everything slides into place with a quiet click.
Wei Wuxian smiles and shakes his head.
"No, Huangshang," he replies with all sincerity. "I don't blame you."
Lan Wangji returns the smile cautiously, as one may to a caged beast.
"Thank you," he says. Wei Wuxian quirks an eyebrow in question, so he clarifies: "For not blaming me. Thank you."
Wei Wuxian looks down at his hands, still clasped in front of him. They were once calloused from years of sword practice and archery, now they're red and stiff and sore from the cold. He coughs once, to clear his throat, but it quickly turns into a coughing fit that has him doubling over and wheezing into his handkerchief. He throws up a hand to halt Lan Wangji in his steps and struggles to get his breathing under control.
"You're not well," Lan Wangji says. "I will call a physician."
"No, no that won't be necessary," Wei Wuxian says hoarsely. He clears his throat and tries again. "I have seen the physician. He says it's of no concern and will pass with some rest."
Lan Wangji opens his mouth to protest before closing it again; the arm he has hovering in the air between them falls back to his side like a dead weight.
"Then you must rest," he agrees. A muscle in his jaw twitches as he considers his next words. "Next week, we will be leaving for the hunt. I would like—if your health allows it, of course—I would very much like it if you could join me."
The look on his face is uncharacteristically open, vulnerable, in a way Wei Wuxian has not seen since they were children. The edges of his mouth are soft as he waits with bated breath for Wei Wuxian's answer, fragile hope glimmering beneath the weary shadows in his eyes. For a moment, it is as if they had been transported back twenty years, and it is Lan Zhan standing before him, asking Wei Ying to come stand by his side.
"I'm afraid the strain of the journey will not be good for my health," he says, as gently as he can manage.
Lan Wangji inhales; the light in his eyes dims, and his breath comes unsteadily through his nose.
"Of course," he replies. His voice wavers, just slightly. "You're right. You need the rest. But after—after my return…" He gazes searchingly into Wei Wuxian's eyes. "If I offer you the Seal again…will you accept it?"
Wei Wuxian smiles and inclines his head.
Lan Wangji inhales sharply as he pulls the knife from his sleeve in an almost casual manner.
"Wei Ying," he says, startled. "What are you doing?"
Wei Wuxian looks around at the hut they're in, with its sparse furnishings and dilapidated windows, and laughs. They are barely a day's ride away from the hunting grounds, not even halfway to the capital, and he'd already been caught. He knows the punishment for leaving without permission, has meted it out himself to unruly concubines and servants alike in his time. He's prepared for this.
He points the blade at Lan Wangji.
"I have to go," he says, hand steady despite the waver in his voice. "I have to save Yuan-er."
Lan Wangji holds up a hand to placate him, palms up to show he is not armed.
"Wei Ying," he says again. "Put down the knife so we can talk."
Wei Wuxian shakes his head.
"I need to go," he repeats. "Lan Zhan, please."
"It is not safe," Lan Wangji tells him firmly.
"All the more reason for me to go!" he cries. "Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan—our son, our Yuan-er is in danger. Will you not let me go to him?"
Lan Wangji grits his teeth and forces himself to stand firm.
"Give me the knife, Wei Ying."
There are guards standing just outside the hut, ready to burst in at his signal. He cannot let them see Wei Wuxian like this, with a knife in his hand, pointed at the Emperor's throat. With or without the intention to harm, the very act of pointing a weapon at the Emperor is a death sentence.
Wei Wuxian glares.
"And if I don't?" he demands to know. "What will you do? Have me killed?"
Lan Wangji frowns.
"This is not a joking matter," he says. "Give me the knife, Wei Ying. I promise you, Yuan-er will be safe. He is with Wen-pin, and I have stationed extra guards within the palace to protect them."
But Wei Wuxian does not look convinced.
"Please, Lan Zhan," he begs in a whisper. "Just one look. I just need to see him. Please—"
Outside, the sound of hooves thundering down a dirt path cuts off with a loud whinny. It is followed by a quick commotion as the guards greet the newcomer, and then Li Yu's voice comes through the door, breathless and panicked.
"Huangshang," he cries. "Niangniang!"
"What is it?" Lan Wangji calls over his shoulder, his eyes not once leaving Wei Wuxian. "What news from the palace?"
They hear a dull thud as Li Yu falls to his knees.
"Shi-si-a'ge19 is dead!"
Wei Wuxian stumbles backwards, all colour drained from his face, and catches himself on the table behind him before he can fall onto the floor. Lan Wangji rushes forward with a cry of his name, arms outstretched and ready to draw him into an embrace—only for Wei Wuxian to push him away.
"Don't touch me!" he snarls, before his expression crumples and he covers his face with his hands. "Yuan-er…Yuan-er…"
The blade is dangerously close to his neck, its sharp edge just grazing the shell of his ear. Wei Wuxian freezes.
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says, voice rising rapidly in panic as Wei Wuxian's grip tightens on the knife. "Wei Ying, what are you doing—"
His shout alerts the guards and Li Yu still standing outside, and a moment later the door bursts open. Wei Wuxian takes one look at his face and laughs almost manically, unseeing—or perhaps uncaring—of the shocked looks on the faces of those around him. His other hand goes to his hair and tears at it until a lock of it comes free of the long braid down his back. He takes a deep breath and, without once breaking eye contact, slices through in one smooth motion.
Time slows to a standstill as the lock of hair falls. Around them, Li Yu and the soldiers fall to their knees and press their foreheads to the ground in fear, but Lan Wangji is frozen where he stands, his eyes fixed on the lock of hair lying in a small pile on the dirty floor of the hut. Wei Wuxian's legs buckle and give way beneath him and he slumps against the table, sliding down until his knees hit the floor, his breath coming in harsh, ragged pants as the weight of his actions hits him.
"What will you do now?" he asks with a broken laugh. "Huangshang, I've just cursed you and the entire Imperial family. Will you have me tried for treason? Or executed where I stand? You won't be able to keep this quiet for very long, Huangshang, there are too many witnesses. So what will it be?"
Lan Wangji stares at him on the ground, dirty and dishevelled and half out of his mind with grief.
"The Empress is unwell," he says finally, raising his voice above Wei Wuxian's laughter. "He will be escorted back to the Forbidden City and confined to the Palace of Earthly Honour until further notice. No one is to enter or leave the premises without my permission."
Li Yu rises to his feet reluctantly and waves to the soldiers. Two of them march forward and take Wei Wuxian by the arms, dragging him to his feet; he stumbles as he passes Lan Wangji—sees the way his hand twitches in an aborted attempt to steady him before returning to his side again—and lets himself be led into the waiting carriage without a backward glance.
He's woken by a sharp stab of dread in the pit of his stomach. It spreads like ice into his chest as he lays in bed, staring up at the roof of the spacious tent above him, soaking in his flesh and breaking out all over his skin as cold sweat. His heartbeat rings in his ears, deafeningly loud in the otherwise tranquil night, drowning out the rustling of the breeze in the treetops that had soothed him to sleep.
There's a rustle of movement behind the partition, followed by Li Yu's voice.
"Huangshang." A pause. "A messenger has arrived from the capital."
Lan Wangji sits up, letting the blankets pool at his waist as he dabs the sweat from his face.
"What is it?" he asks, voice still thick with sleep. He clears his throat. "What do they say?"
He hears the rustle of fabric and a soft thud.
"The Empress…" The quiver in Li Yu's voice sends fear racing through his veins. "The Empress has passed away."
An iron vice clamps across his chest, choking the air from his lungs as he stares out into the darkness of the tent. His body feels foreign, unfamiliar—he can't seem to move from where he's sitting on the bed, can't hear anything beyond the blood pounding in his head.
"Huangshang?" Li Yu's voice filters through the haze, soft and concerned. "Huangshang, are you alright?"
He's not. He's not alright.
"How?" he manages to ask.
He knows Wei Wuxian was feeling poorly before he'd left, had even tasked the Imperial Physicians to give him round-the-clock care in his absence. But it had not seemed too serious. Nothing that a few days of rest wouldn't cure—that's what he had said.
"It was consumption," Li Yu answers. "Niangniang must have contracted it some time during his…in the last three years. The Imperial Physician says he refused treatment in the past month, so his condition deteriorated rapidly until…"
"Enough," Lan Wangji says, cutting him off abruptly with one harsh word. He can't breathe. "Leave me."
He falls back on the bed and stares up at the roof of the tent.
"It is terribly lonely here at the summit, Wei Ying. Please, come stand by my side. Don't leave me alone."
Wei Ying stares at his outstretched hand, cheeks a fetching shade of pink. His grey eyes are alight with joy, and happiness, and life. But they are also tinged with an inexplicable sadness as he searches his face for the answer to a question he does not know.
And then it's Wei Wuxian standing before him, with his sunken cheeks and haunted eyes, pale and brittle as frosted glass. He smiles but does not take the proffered hand.
"Flowers blossom and wither in their own time," he says. He reaches a hand towards him. "I'm sorry I could not fulfill my promise."
He fades from sight before his fingers make contact.
Lan Wangji opens his eyes and finds them hot and stinging with tears.
"Wei Ying," he whispers in the darkness. "Wei Ying."
The silence is deafening.