It was the middle of winter. In the past hour Wei Wuxian had complained about the cold and the half-frozen rain to Lan Wangji no fewer than four times, just as though his husband was not walking beside him and could not feel both the cold and the rain for himself. Lan Wangji found it amusing that Wei Wuxian, who endured terrible things without a murmur and who often did not ask for help bearing them, moaned freely and even with relish about trifles. True, Wei Wuxian’s new golden core (for it was his now rather than Mo Xuanyu’s, the qi having been reshaped over the course of two years by the body and consciousness now cycling it) was not yet as strong as his first core had been when he’d surrendered it. Even bundled up as Wei Wuxian was, he thus felt the cold more than Lan Wangji, who’d developed his own core over the course of almost two additional decades. But Lan Wangji knew that to ascertain the degree to which such things affected Wei Wuxian, he had only to listen. If his husband grew quiet and withdrawn, or brittle in his cheer, he might truly be in pain. If his husband loudly wondered whether he would still be loved if all his appendages dropped off from frostbite, as he did now, then he was as safe as if he were curled around a brazier back in their Jingshi.
The past three Chief Cultivators had not travelled to sites of supernatural crisis. Lan Wangji, however, contended that giving a particularly powerful cultivator bureaucratic responsibilities so onerous he never again saw the field was an exceptionally foolish form of promotion, and did not abide by these precedents. He need not be eternally held in reserve. If there were urgent business, a messenger butterfly or chain-flare sent via Jin Guangyao’s watchtower network could reach the Chief Cultivator anywhere.
Jin Guangshan had offloaded the responsibilities of his office onto Jin Guangyao, and even during his own successive reign, Jin Guangyao had trusted no one in Koi Tower but himself. In contrast, Lan Wangji was able to make house calls because Lan, with its councils of elders, accredited masters, senior disciples and experienced teachers, was oriented around its doctrines and the shared responsibility of upholding them. A hundred of Lan’s members (of the thousands belonging, in varying degrees, to the zōngzú shèhuì) had been chosen to work on matters pertaining to the Chief Cultivator position, which was after all a great honor for the entire Clan. Almost all decisions related to the role were considered by appropriate experts, vetted in committee, summarized in a careful statement (Lan Wangji diligently attended to such reports, annotating them with any questions) and brought before the Chief Cultivator for a brief final consultation. Particularly difficult matters were decided with the insight of his husband, their son, his brother, his uncle. While Jin Guangyao had concealed his many sins from Lan Xichen for years, he’d held no one closer in his confidence than the Lan sect leader. (That bittersweet truth had made the transition between regimes all the smoother for the cultivation world, and all the harder for Xichen himself). Even so, Jin Guangyao had invited Lan Xichen to offer nothing like this level of open collaboration, whereas Wangji had spent his whole life supporting and in turn relying on Xichen. Lan Wangji found that, except in periods of extraordinary disturbance, he had time to be a far more active, reformist Chief Cultivator than his predecessors and yet also to teach, practice his cultivation and his art, and devote due attention to his family.
Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian had come down from Gusu into the lowlands because of persistent reports of scores of restless ghosts in this part of the country. The region around Huanglongxi was important to the textile trade. Among other things, it produced a great deal of hemp. Hemp liked deep, rich soils, and it seemed some landowners had bought up old graveyards to increase their acreage. They’d been slightly cautious, transferring the stones and bones to worthless ground with light prayers and a modicum of decorum, but the landlords had undoubtedly used flesh-enriched soil to force a quick-growing, luxuriant crop. It was within the letter of the law, but not its spirit, and spirit had become the matter at issue. The indigent farmers hired to work the land reported high degrees of illness and child-death (common, devastating markers of spiritual disturbance), and in the night a sad parade of ghosts wandered old, now-overgrown roads and still-vital arteries, asking travellers where their bones had gone.
The landlords had put the matter to the Chief Cultivator as a random natural disaster and a work order, begging for an expert mass suppression. It had taken Gusu’s own expertise in cloth production to suggest the true reason behind the sudden uprise, and it had taken Gusu’s well-connected bureaucratic personnel, with their carefully-maintained guanxi, to request copies of the relevant land deeds. Only the landlords had the time, money and familiarity with literacy and power to contact the Chief Cultivator, so Gusu had sent junior disciples to fetch the deeds and speak to the people working that land. Thus while Wei Wuxian was here to soothe spirits, Lan Wangji was in Huanglongxi to arrive at some longer-term solution to the practices that had actually caused the problems to begin with.
When they reached Huanglongxi itself, which they had to travel through to reach the well-drained fields beyond it where hemp was grown, Lan Wangji carefully did not look at the most prominent of the merchant houses they passed. It was an old habit, fostered through years of practice. He had had many occasions to pass through Huanglongxi in his life. If Lan Xichen had been with him now, as he often had been on those earlier trips, he would have silently observed the same curious custom.
Unfortunately, it proved to be an important day for another of the city’s great Clans. The widely-dispersed Fan family had gathered to celebrate a feast at their familial ancestral temple. While most of them lodged with relatives in the city, some Fan—less intimately connected, less able to tolerate the over-crowded houses of their relations or more able to afford not to—had completely taken over every decent inn in Huanglongxi.
“It’s all right, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian assured him when the harried mistress of the third full inn they’d tried told them that they weren’t likely to have better luck anywhere else, either. “We can manage a night outdoors. You’re hardy as an ox, and I’ve slept worst places—you’ve seen them.”
The casual allusion to the Burial Mounds and their time together during the war did not precisely soothe Lan Wangji’s protective instincts. He glanced at his husband, who had stopped mentioning the rain after the first inn had failed to admit them. Who was not twirling his dizi between stiff, cold, awkward fingers. Who was not complaining, and whose lovely smile was coupled with an ever so slightly tight set of his grey eyes. Wei Wuxian was truly cold and tired, then. Probably hungry, too. He ought to rest beside some fire and recover his spirits. And Lan Wangji had connections in Huanglongxi that he had not yet exploited, which might provide his husband with just that.
He and Xichen had never felt able to do this, as younger men. As an adult, travelling to wherever the chaos was, Lan Wangji had never felt able to do this alone. But Wei Wuxian’s presence beside him was the healing of an ancient wound and an impossible miracle. With him here, Lan Wangji thought he might do anything wild and brilliant.
“Come,” he said. He turned back to the house he never looked at, and knocked on the door.
While they waited for someone to answer, Lan Wangji reached out and tightly grasped Wei Wuxian’s hand. Wei Wuxian flashed him a curious look. When Lan Wangji said nothing he kept silent himself, waiting to see what would develop.
A girl opened the door—in a house of this size and quality, he supposed she was probably a servant. Wei Wuxian, who had occupied a shifting and uncertain station in the world since he’d come into it, had learned to read such currents even before he’d begun to get a feel for magic in the air. She looked neat, well-dressed. There were all kinds of service, all sorts of relationships in a home like this. The girl before him stood something like Jinzhu and Yinzhu once had: confident of her place. Though they’d never quite been his friends, Wei Wuxian missed them, for a moment, in their bratty, comfortable self-assurance. Perhaps he simply missed a time when the great worry of his life had been their ratting him out to Madam Yu for some minor misdeed, and fretting over whether Lan Wangji liked him while he carved crude stick figures of the two of them into his bedpost with idle compulsion, like a helpless, primitive little spell to bring the other boy into his bed. Well, and hadn’t it worked, in the end?
“Masters,” the girl greeted them with some confusion, for it was too late in the evening for commercial calls.
Lan Wangji inclined his head to her—Wei Wuxian always found something not just beautiful, but touching in how graceful his husband made small things.
“I must humbly beg shelter for the evening for myself and my husband.”
The servant gave Lan Wangji a worried look.
“This is a family home, sir, not a lodging house.”
They were well-dressed men, but they were also strangers here. No mundane housemaid, provinces away from Gusu, could be expected to recognise the Chief Cultivator and his husband on sight.
“Nevertheless. Please tell the master or mistress of the house that in return, I would like to tell them what became of Zhou Bing.”
The girl blinked at him in confusion for a moment, and then her eyes widened.
“Please wait inside, sirs,” she said, and guided them to a reception room—the sort of place this Clan must use to meet clients and suppliers.
It was a tasteful affair, hung with green silk. When the girl had gone, Wei Wuxian commented on the beauty of the dye.
“It is their trade,” Lan Wangji said stiffly. “The Zhou are a merchant family who primarily deal in fine cloth.”
Perhaps, Wei Wuxian thought to himself, that trade often brought them to Gusu, where Lan specialised in textiles themselves. That could be how Lan Wangji knew of them, though it did not account for his husband’s evident unease.
The servant returned with a lady in dusky orange robes, which were over-run with a rich riot of embroidered autumn leaves. Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian bowed to her.
“Madam Zhou,” Wei Wuxian said, but she laughed at him—just a little huff, coupled with a smile.
“Oh no, that’s grandmother. A-Li found me first, and it’s really my job to see to visitors. Sit, sit,” she invited them, joining them at a low black-laquered table. “A-Li, please bring tea. And a brazier, it’s too cold in here. Perhaps some of the soup?” She looked to Lan Wangji, who nodded, conveying agreement and thanks in one smooth motion.
When Li had left, the woman introduced herself.
“I’m Mistress Zhou, first daughter of the first son, and I manage household matters. My grandmother runs the business. We can of course provide travelling cultivators—” she took them in at a glance, “with lodging, but what is this about Third Aunt? No one’s heard anything of her in so many years! She vanished before I was even born.”
Something about this woman struck Wei Wuxian oddly, again and again. The tilt of her head in question. Something about her laugh. It was not at all the feeling he had when someone was possessed by a spirit or dealing underhandedly with him. It was like meeting Lan Sizhui again, somehow, though more distant than that. It was as if Wei Wuxian knew her, though he really couldn’t see how that might be.
“Mm. I would tell Zhou Bing’s mother all I know of her fate,” Lan Wangji said. Wei Wuxian was surprised by how fixedly his husband—who was a very intense man, but normally disinterested in people he did not know well—was observing Mistress Zhou. Perhaps he too was experiencing that odd sense of familiarity?
Wei Wuxian’s eye caught on the characters laid into the wood floor in parquet.
“Smile, and do not yield,” he read aloud.
“Mm. Family motto,” Mistress Zhou said.
“Is that to protect against bad bargains, Mistress?” Wei Wuxian teased.
“Against bad conduct, Master Cultivator, such as presuming merchants are necessarily mercenary,” she shot back with a tart grin. “Anyway, your clothes are very fine, for simple daozhangs—you’ve hardly forsaken all earthly things if you have whitework embroidery like that,” she gestured to Lan Wangji’s light silk brocade. “Is that Gusu Lan make?”
Lan Wangji made a sound of agreement, and flushed slightly at the ears when the young woman plucked up his outermost hem to examine it with professional interest.
“You must be important,” she said quite frankly. “Cross-weft spelled and embroidery-runed, that takes an age. I’ve never seen better work.” But something about it struck her as strange, because she tapped the hem with a finger and gave Lan Wangji an odd look as she dropped the cloth.
A-Li returned with the tea and the soup. The latter was evidently what the household had eaten for dinner, warmed through again nicely and streaked with greens with medical properties that warded off the cold. Lan Wangji would eat meat so as not to offend whoever had provided him with dinner, but even outside Cloud Recesses he preferred not to. While Wei Wuxian was sure the broth wasn’t vegetarian, he could at least surreptitiously trade some of Lan Wangji’s beef for some of his own bowl’s greens while Mistress Zhou’s head was turned towards the tea she was pouring for them. They ate quickly, Mistress Zhou picking up some embroidery work she’d evidently left beside her seat at some earlier point and efficiently filling in a few leaves on a pattern of twining roses as they did so.
“Zhou Bing would have last written home forty years ago,” Lan Wangji said when he had finished and put down his bowl with thanks.
“Forty-one,” said a new voice.
Wei Wuxian looked up to see a very striking silver-haired woman. She walked unbent, with a delicately ornamented cane. Her robe was fine, with silk-thread embroidery so minutely executed that the design seemed to have been painted on the fabric. The neck of the robe was almost white, while the hem was a deep red. A white bird fluttered over both her heart and a black branch on a field of pale pink silk, which grew darker and darker as the robe dropped to pool at her feet and train slightly behind her. Across the whole of the robe, branches twisted. In little ventricles of the great tree, small surprises revealed themselves to a careful, appreciative eye—a delicate whorl in bark, a red-bellied tree-squirrel, and even a silk-worm’s cocoon, like a dry joke in the face of the naturalism of the piece.
Wei Wuxian couldn’t help himself—he sucked in his breath.
“Gorgeous,” he muttered, with a flicker of the wonder he had always felt in the presence of beauty, and the frisson of surprise he felt these days at being alive and free again, able to see the world’s bright gifts. This work reminded him almost of Zewu-jun’s eye for colour, his landscape paintings’ sense of scale.
The woman marked his appreciation and fanned the dress out to its advantage as she sat on a high chair, making a throne of it with her presence.
“It is my husband’s work,” said the woman who had to be Madam Zhou, sounding quietly proud. “A present for our fiftieth year of marriage.”
“Perhaps I meant to compliment the wearer!” Wei Wuxian said with a bright grin.
The woman’s mouth quirked, and something about her manner of pretending annoyance when amused struck Wei Wuxian as forcefully as her granddaughter’s laughter had. A great many people did that; Jiang Cheng had never known what to do with any feeling but anger, and so consolidated everything else into various expressions of that state. Madam Zhou certainly didn’t remind him of his shidi, but Wei Wuxian was almost certain he’d seen just that warm glare before.
“A young bridegroom like you has no business flirting with old grandmothers,” Madam Zhou said severely.
“A handsome tree graced with winter’s frost is still a thing of beauty,” Wei Wuxian said with an affected lovelorn sigh, wanting a grin out of her.
Mistress Zhou snorted into her tea, and her grandmother tsked.
“A-Yun, pay no attention to this little head-turner.” Madam Zhou regarded Lan Wangji more seriously. “I am certain both these men are too young to have known your aunt.”
Lan Wangji bowed to Madam Zhou.
“Lady, signs of age come slowly to master cultivators. I am almost forty. I heard from Zhou Bing’s own mouth that she was your third daughter, and that this was her city. She told me that when she was young, she showed great proficiency with embroidery runes. You took her to a cultivational physician, who said she had a naturally vigorous core. She sought your permission to train as a cultivator, and so you arranged for her to apprentice with several small sects. Her training complete, she chose to spend a period travelling and practicing her art.”
Madam Zhou snorted at him. “No one accused you of lying, boy. Don’t draw legs on a snake.”* She rapped her fingernails against the arm of her chair.
“Dowries looked daunting, in those days,” she said after a moment. “I’d brought my husband into the Clan, and he’d brought only himself. We welcomed a-Bing’s choice because cultivators aren’t expected to provide what a merchant’s daughter is when they marry, and with her we had three girls already. I was still young enough then that we expected there would be more children, and there were. I’ve often wished we’d never agreed, but a-Bing was so determined.” She regarded Lan Wangji carefully. “If you are indeed nearly forty, that still leaves several years between a-Bing’s last letter home and the age at which you could have understood a conversation, young Master.”
Lan Wangji inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Would you like me to present my account, my Lady?”
She shook her head. “Not until my husband joins us. A-Li’s fetching him from the workshop now. After so long, I know the news cannot be good. We’ll hear it together.”
In another moment a tall, spare man strode in silently. He held his arms behind his back, but unbent to brush a palm over his granddaughter’s hair as he passed. Wei Wuxian caught a glimpse of the worn, skilled fingers of a master embroiderer. The man took the hand his wife offered him as he came to sit in the chair beside her.
“My love,” Madam Zhou said with a very gentle gaze, “this man has come to tell us what happened to our girl.”
Master Zhou (for he’d have taken her name, on marrying in) nodded, then turned his somewhat severe look on Lan Wangji.
“Go on,” he said, with surprising traces of an old, thick accent—something that might have been Mongolian or borderlands, decades ago.
All of it clicked for Wei Wuxian, then. The particular intonation with which Madam Zhou had said ‘my love’—gods, of course he knew these people. He knew their smiles and their irritation and he knew why Lan Wangji had knocked on this door with hesitant yearning, and why his unflappable husband seemed nervous now.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian murmured low enough that only his husband could hear it, casting a look at his husband’s face and catching his hand once more—squeezing his fingers with reassurance.
Lan Wangji looked at him, swallowed and nodded.
“Xiangyun,” said Madam Zhou to her grandaughter, “let us speak to them alone. We’ll tell everyone together in the morning.”
Mistress Zhou ducked her head to mutter something close to her grandmother’s ear, then grabbed the soup bowls and tureen but left the tea. A-Li had brought enough cups that—
Well, he supposed he’d missed his first opportunity. Wei Wuxian poured tea for the elders and offered them it, then refilled his husband’s cup.
Beside him, Lan Wangji assumed the kneeling position of someone giving a formal report on the floor-cushion before the Zhous.
“I beg your patience,” Lan Wangji began. “This story is not a slight affair. Forty-one years ago, Zhou Bing found herself in rural Gusu. A trader she met on the road told her he’d heard of trouble in the direction he’d just come from. A village which did not enjoy good relations with Gusu Lan was haunted by the spirit of a grass widow who had ended her own life. Zhou Bing had studied for a term in Meishan, and she knew to cage the spirit with the currents of energy that hum in the air. Zhou Bing had studied for a term with the Ouyang, and she knew the poems that lull a spirit into soft memories and enable it to make its peace. Zhou Bing was prepared for spirits, and unprepared for the cruelty of living men.
When she had set the ghost to rest, Maiden Zhou turned from the village and walked on. When she had been gone half an hour, a boy caught up with her. He said that a representative of Gusu Lan had come to the farmers she had just left, demanding what they could not give. The boy knew this was no cultivational matter, but perhaps the Master would listen to her. She was well-dressed, well-spoken. She was a cultivator, like them. The villagers had no better hope.”
Lan Wangji’s hand clenched on his thigh, and Wei Wuxian, kneeling in parallel beside him, reached out to stroke it with his own. Wei Wuxian had never heard so much of this story before, and had not even known Lan Wangji knew it. Zewu-jun had not liked to dwell on these details.
“Gusu Lan owned the land the villagers worked. The rent was considered fair, and paid in kind. For some years in succession, the harvest had been poor. The villagers had been unable to send their tithe. They had been granted extensions at what were considered reasonable rates of interest, but at last the Lan Council of Elders decided that the land was being mismanaged, and that the people living on it had been given their chance. A Master was sent to remove the farmers, by force if necessary.
The young heir of Gusu Lan, already renowned for his skill in otherworldly matters and already chided for his ignorance in worldly ones, had argued against the clearances. His contention was that Lan had money enough to eat, and that no loss to Lan could justify taking sustenance from those who lacked it. He suggested it was easier to manage land on a map than with a plow, and that the esteemed Elders should not so easily conclude that the villagers wallowed in idleness. Where would they find new tenants to bring in the year’s meagre harvest? The crops would rot in the fields, and lean, displaced children would die starving for them. Lan Shouye called the evictions a theatre of pointless cruelty, an insult to the Clan’s founding ideals. His Master said Lan Shouye needed to learn to protect his Clan’s prerogatives, to show his elders respect and to place his loyalty with his people. And so the Master ordered Lan Shouye to accompany him, and to help him execute the order. It was an act of control, and a test.
When Zhou Bing returned to the village, she saw the Elder and Lan Shouye facing unarmed peasants with their weapons drawn. She drew her own sword, a first-class spiritual tool she had helped to make while she studied with Qin blade-masters. The Elder explained the legality of his actions. She smiled at him,” Lan Wangji’s breath caught, and it took him a moment to continue, “but—she did not yield. She told the Elder that before defenceless people lost their homes and the product of a year’s labour for his legal right to land he had not worked himself, either he or she would be dead. Lan Shouye dropped his sword in the dirt. He had fallen irrevocably in love with her. For a Lan, such things are instant, absolute and ever-lasting. Still, he was too much of a child to defy his Master. He had noble ideals, but he had not made living up to them habitual with practice.
Zhou Bing should not have been able to defeat an Elder of Lan. For all her assiduous training, his experience made her seem the child she too still was. But Zhou Bing was intelligent, and Zhou Bing’s core burnt like fire in her. She slid in the sodden, fruitless earth, and so she sliced the tendons of her opponent’s ankles from the ground. She flipped her blade and jabbed the pommel of her sword up into a point of vulnerability a decorous Master of Lan would never mention, let alone think to properly defend. The Elder flung her into the air and across the clearing with spiritual energy, and she broke her arm on a tiled roof when she landed. When he descended on her, Zhou Bing used her unbroken limb to fling jagged shards of tile into his eyes. She told him to yield, and when he did not, she used the trailing ends of his headband to pull his head back and slit his throat.
Lan Shouye told her to run, because his Master had sent a signal flare requesting assistance when the villagers had resisted. Zhou Bing tried, but by misfortune chose exactly the wrong direction. Cultivators emerged from the forest, and in seconds she was ringed by swords. The punishment for murdering an Elder of Lan was execution. Zhou Bing said her sword was unsullied, and that when she found cause to draw it on another, she was always prepared to die in that cause. It was Lan Shouye who removed his sacred ribbon, bound their hands in marriage, and reminded the other cultivators that it was forbidden to execute a member of the inner Clan.”
Lan Wangji drew Bichen and presented it to the Zhous with a bow. Madam Zhou observed it closely.
“Swords look like swords, to me,” she murmured, “but I know that’s hers. It’s what she asked for, instead of a dowry. Just the money for training and materials—substantial, but less. She wanted—she wanted to make it herself. To do it properly. She showed it to us. She was proud of it.”
Wei Wuxian thought of Jin Ling’s infant fascination with his father’s Suihua. Like a reincarnated Buddhist saint, Jiang Yanli had written to her brothers that her a-Ling was drawn to the sword above all other toys. Bichen must have been stripped from Zhou Bing when she’d been incarcerated. Having been sundered from Suibian more than once in his life, Wei Wuxian felt an uncomfortable pang of empathy for her. When Lan Zhan had become Lan Wangji, he must have sought this blade and claimed it in the teeth of the general distaste for Zhou Bing’s memory.
Master Zhou blinked hard, and Wei Wuxian thought there might be tears in his eyes. “Xiao-Bing was always stubborn,” he murmured. “Mind, she was usually right. So this boy married her?”
Lan Wangji nodded. “A member of the inner Clan, even by marriage, has many rights. But in saving her from death, Lan Shouye gave his beloved over to imprisonment. For his part in the affair he entered a lifelong seclusion, which he broke only with visits to his wife. I do not know what was said between them—whether she cared for him, or whether she objected to his method of salvation. I do know that the village was left in peace. The cost of its clearance had already proved disproportionately high. I know that it fares well now, and that children survived that winter who would not have survived exile. I know that the village was given cooperative title to its own land when Zhou Bing’s son ascended as Sect Leader, and that this Lan Huan, also called Xichen, ended Lan’s practice of tenant farming in an effort to re-centre the Clan’s monastic roots.”
“Did she die bearing him?” Madam Zhou asked. “I thought cultivators—” she touched a cloth to her eyes and did not speak for a moment, then continued. “I believed cultivators did not die in child-bed.”
“As a rule, they do not.” Lan Wangji agreed. “She did not. She lived to bear a second son, and died of a fever when the boy was five years old.”
Master Zhou frowned at him. “And should a cultivator die of that? ”
Lan Wangji looked him directly in the eye. “No. A death may be natural, and yet its causes may be more than physical. She was not deprived of sustenance, but her life was deprived of its scope and its joy. A thing may be legal, yet wrong.”
Master Zhou, whose blue-black hair was spiked with silver at the temples, and who still looked strong despite his years, clenched his fist on his leg. Madam Zhou held out her hand, and without looking at her, he took it gently in his own.
“Would they not let her write?” Madam Zhou asked. “Not even that?”
Lan Wangji looked to the floor. “I believe she might have written. I have wondered why she chose not to. Perhaps she was ashamed to tell you of what she’d done, or of what had been done to her. Perhaps I have done wrong to tell you a secret she wanted kept.”
Master Zhou shook his head. “No, son. You did well. If she was ashamed of it, she oughtn’t to have been. Shame never stuck to that girl, anyway. She was above it. Stainless.”
Madam Zhou breathed out, then said, “she knew we would fight for her. She must have known.”
“Against that, we couldn’t win,” Master Zhou finished the thought. “Perhaps we might have defended her even against a charge of murder, but not against such a Clan as that. That’s money and time wasted, despair to no purpose.”
“It was our right to back her,” Madam Zhou snapped.
“It was Xiao-Bing’s right to keep counsel,” her husband said, firm and stern and gentle.
“From me?” Madam Zhou whispered, looking down at their hands. She seemed not to expect an answer.
She gathered herself and looked at Lan Wangji.
“So this was why you never came up to us.”
To Wei Wuxian’s expert eye, Lan Wangji looked surprised and a little alarmed.
“Everyone in our household knows that two striking cultivator boys in white robes, like little mourners, have sometimes come through Huanglongxi,” Madam Zhou said. “One is a year or two older than the other, and something about them is like a song you once knew. They glance at you, and pretend they don’t. They linger, and pretend they don’t. If you bid them good day, they nod and hurry on. Wary little creatures. Years passed between these occasions, and the children grew up. They walked faster past Zhou Clan Mansion but never seemed to avoid the town entirely, when they might easily have taken other trade routes that bypassed it. I am not an idiot, child. And I am famously not forgetful—ask any merchant in the district.”
“I apologize, Madam,” Lan Wangji murmured.
“Not for the right thing, I bet,” she huffed. “You ought to call me grandmother. I don’t even know your name.”
Lan Wangji swallowed, and seemed to struggle to speak. Luckily, Wei Wuxian knew this one.
“Lan er-gongzi, born Lan Zhan. Courtesy name Lan Wangji, titled the Second Jade, or Hanguang-jun, and currently his Excellency, the Chief Cultivator.”
Master Zhou raised an eyebrow. “And his husband?”
“Oh, I’m just Wei Ying.”
Lan Wangji huffed a touch derisively at that, and Wei Wuxian pouted at him.
“You could always have come in,” Master Zhou said.
“Thank you,” Lan Wangji said softly.
Madam Zhou tsked. “It’s not something that merits thanks. Now let me see your hem. Your cousin Xiangyun said there was something odd about it.”
Obedient, but almost cautious, Lan Wangji rose with the fluid elegance (like his grandfather’s embroidery, like his brother’s painting; as if every movement was a manifest decision, a commitment) Wei Wuxian always admired and approached her.
“It’s the hem stitch,” she said after a moment. “Uniquely ornamented, double-sided—no one does that to finish a garment but us. It’s time-consuming and takes skill, but it’s best for preserving the fabric. It makes things last.”
Lan Wangji frowned at her. “Lan robes are often finished this way.”
She scrutinised the fabric closely, as though it were easier to look at than her lost daughter’s expression in her grandson’s face. “How long have they been?”
“For as long as I can remember.”
“Since you were a child, a-Zhan? And who made your robes then?”
Lan Wangji blinked at his grandmother, and took a harsh breath.
“Some laundress or seamstress saw how the young masters’ robes were made, and copied that when they grew. Perhaps the technique spread through the Clan. People with time for sigil embroidery have time for this.” Madam Zhou smiled at the hem—a material memory of a little way in which her daughter’s life had changed the world—and released it. “And you knew enough to notice, when most wouldn’t. Zhou Bing didn’t forget where she came from. She did not have time to teach you everything, but the time she had, she used. You can name every stitch on this robe, can’t you a-Zhan?”
Lan Wangji nodded, as though his head were heavy. Madam Zhou lifted her palm to his cheek. He turned into it, as if his body remembered this sort of love.
“You’re as much ours as theirs, and you are never again to walk through Sichuan without coming through this door.”
The next day the Zhou Clan held a small feast. No fewer than thirty people who looked vaguely like Wangji and Xichen, most of whom lived in the Manor itself, ate dumplings and argued about silk suppliers and poetry and ran around playing cuju and insisting the newcomers admire their exquisitely-attired dolls. The last two activities were primarily engaged in by children, though the cuju sucked in more than one Auntie and Uncle. There were a great many Zhou babies, more than Wei Wuxian could reliably count. Knowing Lan Wangji’s own commitment to marital duty, Wei Wuxian found that somewhat unsurprising.
Lan Wangji used his excellent calligraphy to ink Lan Xichen and himself into the zupu. He wrote Wei Wuxian’s name beside his own as his spouse, but then he paused and addressed his grandfather.
“You should find out before this book does that Wei Ying and I have a son, Lan Sizhui. A-Yuan.”
“You might have mentioned this a-Yuan earlier,” Master Zhou commented, dryly.
“Yes, I’ve sometimes thought that too,” Wei Wuxian put in (he’d yet to entirely forgive Lan Wangji for taking weeks after his own miraculous resurrection to tell him that their son was, in fact, also unexpectedly alive).
“A son?” Madam Zhou said, sounding somehow simultaneously put out, very interested indeed, and enviably controlled.
Wei Wuxian grabbed Lan Wangji’s arm. “Is this a real, legitimate excuse to talk up a-Yuan for ages? To a willing audience? Oh Lan Zhan, I am the happiest man in the Middle Kingdom.”
He whirled on his in-laws. “Madam Zhou, my little radish is the best-mannered, the cleverest, the sweetest, the handsomest little boy—”
“He is nineteen,” Lan Wangji observed.
“Yes, yes, an infant,” Wei Wuxian waved him off. “Practically still teething on my flute. I birthed him myself, you know.”
“Cultivators can do that, can they?” asked a straight-faced Master Zhou, who Wei Wuxian was 90% sure was fucking with him. In fact Wei Wuxian had a strong suspicion this was directly where Lan Wangji’s sometimes devastating blink-and-miss-it humour came from—it wasn’t as though Lan Qiren was funny.
“Wei Ying did not birth him,” Lan Wangji said seriously, seeming unprepared to countenance the strong possibility that his grandfather was, like him, a massive bitch. “He merely rescued him from a prisoner of war camp and reared him in a haunted battleground.”
“Not for preference,” Wei Wuxian defended himself. “You know what, Lan Zhan? Just for trying to spoil this for me, I’m going to tell them,” he said ominously.
Lan Wangji gave him a look of genuine fear: Wei Wuxian might be prepared to say a great many things, very few of which were suitable for a family dinner with people still unaccustomed to the full force of his husband’s exuberance.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian crowed, “my beautiful, perfect husband, the product of your excellent ancestral contributions—thank you very much for that, by the way—was considered the second most eligible bachelor in the cultivation world when we were young.”
“Oh was he?” Cousin Xiangyun crowed.
“There was an official list,” Wei Wuxian said with a pious nod.
“Xiongzhang was first,” Lan Wangji said in his own defence.
“Throw your poor brother under the cart, why don’t you?” Wei Wuxian tsked. “Besides, that’s no defense. You and Xichen-ge look very alike—except he smiles more and you yield less.”
“And what were you, Master Wei?” Cousin Xiangyun’s wife asked. Wei Wuxian abruptly decided that even though she’d given him some truly excellent punch earlier, he did not like her.
“That’s not important,” Wei Wuxian said hastily.
“Fourth,” Lan Wangji said cooly, finishing Lan Sizhui’s inscription and and handing the calligraphy brush back to his grandfather. “Despite having no dowry but himself. Even so, I thought it too low at the time.”
“No one has adequately explained why my great-grandson is not being presented to me at this moment,” Madam Zhou said quellingly. “Bad enough that a-Huan has yet to see fit to introduce himself—”
“I’ll write them, I’ll write them,” Wei Wuxian agreed.
Years of comfort, crammed into days. Lan Wangji’s cousins’ fingers tripping across the threads of their looms, dextrous as his own on a guqin, the rhythm of the shuttles kept even by their working songs. None of the Zhou played instruments, and when Wei Wuxian mentioned Lan Wangji could (what an understatement) they begged for a recital. Winter had been long, and there had been no bands in the public gardens for months. Imagine, thought Wei Wuxian (thoroughly spoilt by Lan), not hearing a concert for months!
The Zhous loved anything well-done, loved anything beautiful, and they seemed to understand Lan Wangji best when he played. When he executed his gorgeous calligraphy. When he helped make dumplings, with his customary care. He’d hands for making: the same long, elegant fingers and calloused palms as his grandfather—who was similarly economic with his words, but who seemed to think the vast wall-hangings he was executing for a nobleman worth discussing with xiao-Ying. Wei Wuxian enthusiastically agreed. Always ‘xiao’, with Grandfather Zhou, who still sneered at an ‘a’-diminutive as a Southern affectation.
Wei Wuxian was accustomed to considering the gentlemanly arts less central to who he and his husband and his brother-in-law were than the grand drama of cultivation, but granted this context, he could see the ways Lan Wangji was as Zhou as he was Lan. Art was more to all of them than a series of stiffly-executed prerequisites attendant on their status. Wei Wuxian remembered the large, beautiful canvases of the four seasons Lan Xichen had given Jin Guangyao when he’d still loved him without regret. When Wei Wuxian had returned to the world, Lan Wangji’s restless hands had taken Wei Wuxian’s rough bamboo flute from his own and cleaned up the apertures on instinct. How I missed you, in the flick of his wrist. How I’ve waited for you, in the professional attention of his eye. Wei Wuxian drew love-tokens and talismans. His husband made excellent sautéed lotus root, and music that slayed demons, and still more direct love-songs. Lan Wangji’s mother had helped make Bichen with her own hands.
Cloud Recesses was defined by its stillnesses, and Zhou Manor by its rhythms. The fast, competitive clack of the childrens’ abacuses as they learned to be little cloth-traders in the less formal, sprawling parlour the family used in the evenings. Those bright-eyed children soaked up every chengyu that dropped from their Second Uncle Lan’s lips. When she and he told the children old folk tales, assuming ridiculous voices for all the characters, Wei Wuxian decided he did like Cousin Xiangyun’s wife after all.
Everyone’s horror that Lan Wangji couldn’t handle so much as a hint of mala. Was he even half-Sichuan? What a scandal! Everyone’s polite embarrassment when they realised they’d been trying to feed a vegetarian meat for two days, now. The Zhou wanted to know anything Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian could tell them about rune embroidery, which they had long accomplished without more particular understanding of how what they were doing worked. As it happened the two cultivators knew a great deal about the subject, and Wei Wuxian found a few new ideas for projects in the telling. Was Lan enough changed now, that they should consider sending xiao-She to them, if he had such a core as his Second Uncle said? So many little gifts, pressed on the couple. Better chilli oil, for Wei Wuxian—not that stuff you buy, anyone could make that. We ferment this for a year and a half in the barrels we’ve used since we built the house ten generations ago. It’s ours, it’s special (the ‘like you are’ left unsaid). This qiankun bag had been of Lan Wangji’s mother’s making, perhaps a-Yuan could use it? Thank you. Oh don’t thank me, goodness.
“We’ll come back,” Wei Wuxian said to his husband in bed in the dark of the last night, because in the tilt of his husband’s head he could feel Lan Wangji’s unreasonable but undismissable fear that if he left, there would be nothing to come back to. And was his fear truly unreasonable? Wei Wuxian remembered the first day they’d spent with their son, and how there had not been another such day for sixteen years.
“Your grandmother will have our heads if we miss the Zhou temple days.” Wei Wuxian said it lightly, the ‘our’ a promise to be with Lan Wangji both on those days and until they came—home in a bottle, a portable miracle.
“Mm,” murmured Lan Wangji, tightening his arms around him.
“You know your cousin Xiangyun does that too?” Wei Wuxian laughed to himself. “‘Mm’, I mean. You really do fit in.”
“And you,” Lan Wangji said after a moment.
“Hm?” Wei Wuxian asked, sleepy.
“It’s remarkable that in being righteous above all things, you are more than deserving of Lan. In being smiling and unyielding, you are an ideal Zhou. You were always an exemplary Jiang. The most dedicated Wei, the most just and free Sanren. You were born to be the truest part of a family, Wei Ying. To be loved.”
“Your family,” Wei Wuxian said after a moment. “Because it’s yours. To be loved by you.”
“Mm. We seem quite different,” Lan Wangji said, his voice hazed rough with tiredness, “but we are like double-sided Suzhou embroidery. We have always been the same cloth. One design. All I have or am is by its nature yours.”
It hurt, sometimes, how much Wei Wuxian loved him. The sweetest pain he’d ever known.
“Zhiji,” he whispered, “how do you always know what I need to hear? How do you know to keep saying it, even when I’m too stubborn to listen?”
More asleep than not now, Lan Wangji only kissed the back of his husband’s head in answer.
The meeting with the landlords of the greater Huanglongxi region began to go poorly when Lan Wangji ignored their questions about the mass suppression and instead placed a series of land deeds on the table.
“When did it become the practice in Sichuan to issue contracts of indefinite tenancy rather than the customary land-acquisition term of seven years, honoured grandmother?”
Madam Zhou cast a cool eye over the pile of documents. “When the refugees from the successive Qishan floods started coming in twenty-some years ago, and landlords realised they were desperate, and accustomed to little, and would take still less.”
“Your Excellency,” one of the landlords said, “the legality of the tenancy is not in question.”
“Is it not?” Wei Wuxian asked with a too-polite smile. (The men across the table, who knew his reputation, winced as if there was blood on Wei Wuxian’s teeth.) “How strange! I was under the impression that for the last year, refugees have have been entitled to plead for compensation under the Dafan accord. Yet few requests have come to us from Sichuan, despite the composition of its labour force. I wonder how such letters could go astray?”
“That edict,” another landlord said, “is not suitable to the local economy of Sichuan, and is not binding here. As such it was not highly publicised.”
“I was under the further impression that you removed all doubt on the point of jurisdiction in calling on the Chief Cultivator for aid,” Wei Wuxian said.
Lan Wangji knew that his not even needing to speak to the landlords himself made him seem all the more intimidating, which was sometimes useful. It probably didn’t hurt to have the Yiling Patriarch act as his envoy, either.
“Honoured grandmother,” Lan Wangji said, “how were land contracts customarily enforced in a manner ‘suitable to the local economy of Sichuan’, before these recent innovations?”
“Regional collectives automatically owned disused land, and it was given to a family after they worked it for seven years. Great agricultural projects were undertaken in common, and in concert. They still are, but if you hold fifty farms because you bought out your neighbours and your tenants cannot voice opinions, the harmony of the chorus is somewhat distorted. A seven-year tenancy is how the Zhou came, ten generations ago, to hold our manor’s ground.” Madam Zhou’s lip curled. “We never, that I recall, saw fit to scrape any bones out of the earth for fast-cash hemp crops.”
A landlord who evidently knew Lan Wangji’s grandmother well, coughed. “No one would ever contest your memory, Madam Zhou.”
“Certainly not your father, who still owes me a palm-weight of silver for three bolts of best green watered silk. You’ve cut it wrong, incidentally.” Madam Zhou cast a glance at his robe and took a sip of tea. “Decidedly against the bias. It oughtn’t to be done, with watered cloth. A pity.”
“Perhaps,” said Wei Wuxian, who seemed to be trying to stifle a laugh, “such problems as these ghost-risings would not reoccur if the contract terms reverted to custom?”
“Your Excellency,” a landlord addressed Lan Wangji directly, “I am afraid your famous expertise in cultivation matters has left you with too little time to understand our humble affairs, and has left you overly-reliant on unfamiliar council. Let us circumscribe our discussion and focus solely on the spirit infestation making the shipping routes impassable, that we might be more productive.”
“Very true,” Lan Wangji said. “I am, sadly, quite ignorant of textile production.”
“Absolutely clueless,” Wei Wuxian added, shaking his head mock-tragically. “We’re simple men. We just play with swords all day.”
“That is why I have asked a senior figure in the Sichuan textile industry, the current guild-leader, to assist me here today. I likewise asked the textile guild, the counsel of farmers and the elders from among the refugees what they desired done on their behalf. Incidentally, I have not been using ‘grandmother’ as an honorific,” Lan Wangji said. “Thus my council is quite familiar to me.”
A landlord blinked at him. Another murmured, “Zhou Bing cultivated, didn’t she?”, and more quietly, “fuck”.
“Aren’t you going to address the hordes of spectres?” an elderly landlord—Lan Wangji was just calling him ‘Merchant Leader Yao’ in his mind, because it seemed some personalities cropped up in any circle—protested hotly.
“I am doing so now,” Lan Wangji said serenely, holding out a hand for a calligraphy brush with which to sign the Land Edict he and the textile guild had agreed to at the previous night’s regular meeting. The best use of his semi-sacred status in domestic disputes was in such interventions as these, which enabled people without resources to enact their will on the governance of their lives via his leverage, with an eye to making further such reliance unnecessary. Wei Wuxian more concisely (for once) referred to it as inconveniencing people with too little experience of same, on the part of those with too much.
“Mind you,” Grandmother said after the fact, when they were walking back to Zhou Manor to collect their belongings, “I don’t expect that to solve all of it. If people can take an easy route, some will. Even if it hurts others, who’ve done them no harm.”
“Mm,” Lan Wangji said, thinking that being and doing good in the world was a difficult, ongoing process, even honestly undertaken—the work of lifetimes, and best accomplished with interlocutors whose integrity he trusted to check his courses. It was clumsy to say, and so he didn’t. He suspected Grandmother understood regardless—she did when Grandfather thought more than he could speak to his satisfaction.
“Did you see them goggling like frogs at a-Ying the whole time?” She looked at Wei Wuxian, who was supporting her on his arm as they walked. “Imagine being scared of you!”
“I’m terrifying!” Wei Wuxian protested. “Haven’t you seen all those street vendors’ drawings of the Yiling Patriarch? Can’t you see my six eyes, Grandmother? Do I not loom over you, at nine feet tall?”
“Yes, I imagine the rumours about your exploits are roughly as accurate,” Madam Zhou snorted. “I could take you.”
“That is not a fair contest. You are very formidable, Grandmother,” Wei Wuxian said gravely.
“Of course I am,” she said with dignity. “And you are too slow.”
Everyone was waiting for them at the hemp fields—the tenant farmers and the Zhou family and the other members of the textile guild. Wei Wuxian had surveyed the area thoroughly while Lan Wangji met with the guilds, and the going-expert in restless spirits had suggested the gentlest, surest means of laying a crowd of displaced but temperate ghosts to rest: a communal celebration in their honour, to show them they were neither disrespected nor forgotten. The Zhou children had never seen a Cultivator’s Requiem played before, and were half incredulous. Surely Uncle Wei was teasing them, and there wouldn’t be even one ghost out in the daytime?
“You’ll see,” was all Second Uncle Lan would tell them, because he still enjoyed watching others fall under Wei Wuxian’s spell, just as though it was his own first time doing so.