Lan Wangji is courting, and Lan Qiren is two heartbeats from qi deviation.
He doesn’t know how this happened.
Well, technically, he understands how the courting happened. It was everything after that point that left him floundering and wrong-footed.
Two months ago, his reserved nephew swept respectfully into his reception chamber, the perfect picture of Lan elegance and discipline. He had dropped into a low, filial bow and laid out his concise but eloquent intent to wed. Lan Qiren will be the first to acknowledge that he was a little surprised, but if his nephew wanted a spouse, then it was his familial pride and duty to provide. He was sure he could find the sweetest, meekest little bride to look after his nephew. When he said as much and offered to start opening the formal political channels, his nephew demurred. Head bowed and hands resting on his knees, he clarified that he already had someone in mind and sought – specifically and exclusively – his uncle’s blessing.
Lan Qiren did not gape, but it was a near thing.
Once he composed himself enough to speak, he spent the next ten minutes lecturing on the privilege and responsibility of elders to establish good marital arrangements for their children, addressing the entire speech to the top of his nephew’s head. Lan Wangji did not so much as twitch during the entirety of his monologue, but the moment Lan Qiren paused for breath, he kowtowed and inserted, quiet and unmoved, “I have already chosen, Uncle.”
It is possible that Lan Qiren may have gaped a little, possibly even sputtered indignantly.
Pulling himself up to his full height, he launched into a gruff rant on filial piety, righteous responsibility, and the recklessness of youth, grousing for nearly half an hour before he allowed a long enough gap to permit a response. He was met with silence that spoke volumes. Lan Wangji had not moved out of his bow, as motionless as carved stone in the pointedly humble, uncomfortable arc of that bow.
Resisting the temptation to rub at the disquieting start of a headache building behind his temples, he huffed a few more perfunctory complaints under his breath, words melting into a disapproving sigh. In the end, his brusque grumbles came down to, “I expect to meet her before the wedding.”
“Thank you, Uncle.” Drawing himself up to his feet, Lan Wanji bowed again and retreated.
One month, three weeks, 6 days, and 23 hours ago, Lan Qiren was struggling to resist the urge to sic a few disciples on the burgeoning situation with his stubborn nephew. In the end, he summoned Lan Xichen after dinner, interrogated him only to feel like he’d somehow given away more than he’d learned, and then set half a dozen disciples on the task of investigating the woman who’d stolen Lan Wangji’s heart.
All of this was, if not anticipated, at least acceptable. After all, he knew his nephew. Lan Wangji had never made a rash decision in his life. He was the picture of measured restraint and meticulous control.
Even so, Lan Qiren felt a little miffed about his nephew’s unprecedented aptitude for avoidance, grudgingly impressed that the boy managed to evade the ever-expanding horde of disciples recruited to moniter the situation. They’d found out precious little about the object of his nephew’s affection.
After a full month, they’d only managed to catch the two of them once, from a distance, horrifyingly unchaperoned. From that one event, the most they’d gleaned was that she appeared tall and willowy, with long, inky hair that stood in stark contrast to her vibrant red robes and fluttering veil. Her attire sounded suspiciously like wedding robes, but Lan Qiren knew he did not raise a child who would elope.
Or, at least, he knew he raised a child with survival instincts.
Though, while they didn’t manage to dig up much on the bride, his disciples had learned a few worrying things about his nephew. By all accounts, Wangji was smitten beyond all logic and reason, hiding fluffy bunnies in his sleeves and composing songs of exquisite longing. He had even gone so far as to procure alcohol, of all things. His nephew. Alcohol.
All for a woman whose clan, name, and even social standing were a complete mystery.
The worst part of this was that Lan Qiren couldn’t even reprimand his nephew for courting her with Emperor’s Smile without giving away that he was trying (and failing) to spy on them, so the breach had to go unpunished. Technically, it hadn’t happened within the boundaries of the Cloud Recesses, so punishment would have been a matter of discretion anyway, but still.
It was the principle of the thing. Obviously.
Who was this woman that swayed his nephew into depravity with her presence and attention?
Despite his best efforts, happenstance and truly remarkably bad luck kept him and his army of spies from obtaining anything even remotely useful. Thus, he was completely blindsided when – four weeks to the day Lan Wangji had asked permission to marry – his nephew casually dropped just before last bell that he’d formally received and accepted an offer of betrothal.
Which was not how it was done! It was the man’s responsibility to submit the betrothal offer! Moreover, such a contract should be overseen by a family member or Clan Elder, which was clearly his job. Especially for a marriage as prestigious and political as this! HIS NEPHEW WAS THE SECOND JADE OF LAN. THIS WAS WILDLY INAPPROPRIATE! HOW WERE THEY SUPPOSED TO FACE THEIR NEW INLAWS?!
Lan Xichen, who had looked suspiciously unsurprised by this audacious turn of events, interjected mid-rant that a whirlwind romance was highly unusual but also honorably true to the roots of their clan. He went on to add, with that soothing, mild warmth that he certainly had not inherited from Lan Qiren, that the strength of tradition was second only to the beauty of true love. And wasn’t it wonderful that their sweet Wangji had found someone he treasured so highly? He delivered the killing blow with guileless benevolence and the surgical precision of a master, “It really is good to see my little brother looking so happy, and of course, Uncle, you must be proud to have raised such a righteous and devoted man.”
The silence that followed was deafening, and the Lan men to either side of Lan Xichen abruptly found the table between them uniquely fascinating. Before Lan Qiren could circumvent the compliment to get back to his rant or Lan Wangji could die of over-exposure to compliments, Lan Xichen added, all pleasant, accommodating little smiles, “Wangji, I have some business with Uncle. Please go ahead without me tonight.”
Lan Wangji took that for the dismissal (for the rescue) it was and bowed out. Although that was the end of that particular conversation, Lan Qiren made sure to loudly express his displeasure at every turn for nearly a month. However, Lan Wangji took it so stoically and respectfully that he eventually relented and went back to muttering irritably under his breath instead.
Two days ago, one of his sources came barging into his office, wide-eyed and gasping, robes in wild disarray, “Shufu! Shufu – the bride! She’s been kidnapped! The Yiling Patriarch stole her from Lan Er-gongzi’s secret tryst!”
“Secret tryst?!” The words tore out of his throat in a roaring rush of rage, and the disciple’s eyes bulged, incongruously wide as a child caught out in the admission of a secret.
Hands flapping, the junior almost tripped over her own feet as she wailed, “Shufu – the Yaoguai of the mass graves! The Yiling Patriarch!”
Ah. Yes, he supposed that was perhaps the marginally more important bit of information at the moment.
“What happened?” he snapped, pushing to his feet as he absorbed the unsettling realization and repercussions of his nephew’s beloved being spirited away by a literal demon. There was no time to waste if they were to have even a hope of saving her. The fallen creature of the Mass Grave Mounds was a capricious, nefarious creature that had taken up roost in the mountainous mass graves of Yiling. No one knew how it came to be there or where it came from, but it had spawned enough ill-fated stories in the last two years to earn Lan Qiren’s distrust and ire.
Bowing profusely, the disciple scraped together the bare semblance of an explanation, tripping over herself as she tried to defer and follow simultaneously, “Grandmaster, we were following the Second Young Master, at a distance as you ordered, but we lost him in Caiyi’s Central Market. We caught up to him on the outskirts, where they met, but they stole away into the forest,” Lan Qiren’s face purpled with anger at the thought of his nephew being so derelict in his sensibilities as to be alone in the woods with a woman. When he dragged his tattered, enraged attention back to to the conversation, he came to an abrupt stop and just stared for a moment as she concluded, “-saw the Yiling Patriarch, in the form of a black dragon, slithering through the air, making off with the Second Jade’s fiancé!”
“Are you sure it was her?” Lan Qiren demanded, holding out the dwindling hope that this was some sort of foolish misunderstanding. Now that he thought about it, it was very odd for the Yiling Patriarch to be so far from its territory.
“Yes, sir.” At the crook of an unforgiving brow, the disciple added, “Her red robes are very distinctive, Shufu.”
After a pause, Lan Qiren huffed, worry redoubling as the circumstances really sank in, “Does Wangji know?”
The junior disciple hesitated, before venturing, almost cautiously, “He came back with his head down and his feet dragging, but…”
Lan Qiren waved a dismissive hand. He didn’t need to hear the rest of that statement. That was apparently always what his nephew looked like when he and his beloved parted ways. It was distressing, and this breech of propriety was crossing egregiously sacrosanct lines, but it wasn’t nearly as disturbing as the prospect of Lan Wangji waiting patiently – adoringly, as he had for his mother – for a love who might very well be breathing her last at this exact moment.
“Summon Xichen and direct him to meet me at the Jingshi.” Gathering up his robes and a small wooden box of soothing, exquisite tea, Lan Qiren broke out into the most dignified, decorous scurry to ever grace the Cloud Recesses.
The wrap of his knuckles against the Jingshi door brought his nephew to immediate attendance. On first glance, he looked normal. Unsuspecting and even perhaps a bit happy. There was a lightness to his features that Lan Qiren felt an inappropriately vicious urge to protect. But truth came before comfort, now and always.
“I would speak with you.”
The look Lan Wangji shot him was a little wary, but he stepped aside readily, receiving the tea and settling at the table to prepare it.
Unsure where to start, as he was in most conversations involving either of his nephews, Lan Qiren decided that tact could only delay the inevitable and announced, “Your betrothed has been kidnapped.”
Lan Wangji’s head shot up, amber eyes widening as the teapot in his hands clattered, forgotten, against the table. There was a heart-stopping moment where time slowed and Lan Qiren had the eerie, somber recollection of the small, stubborn boy kneeling at his mother’s door, eyes bright with determination and unshed tears. Bichen flew across the room, striking Lan Wangji’s palm with a resounding slap as he shoved to his feet, and suddenly, that little boy was this young man. Lan Wangji was already two steps from the door by the time Lan Qiren realized that, maybe, in retrospect, he shouldn’t have started with that.
“She has been taken by the Yiling Patriarch,” he interjected over the rustle of sudden, panicked movement. Lan Wangji froze, clearly aware of the magnitude of the situation as he managed a glacially slow turn to stare at his uncle with something that might have held a note of horror along with copious amounts of worry. “We will be organizing a rescue party, but we cannot make a rash move here. The Patriarch is too powerful for a full-frontal assault in his own home, and I forbid you from risking your life in a duel with a Yaoguai.”
His nephew blinked at him, shoulders sinking by fractions of degrees as the words hung heavy between them. Though, that response could have been anything from grief to relief to defeat. This was one of those moments where he dearly wished he could read his nephew even just a little bit better; he had no idea what was going on behind those impassive eyes.
Still, he was a clan leader, and he could handle this much at least. So, he went on, “We will decide on a course of action tonight, make preparations, and rescue your betrothed from the clutches of the Yiling Patriarch. We will kill it in its nest if we must.”
Lan Wangji twitched, fingers tightening to a white-knuckled grip on his sword. He looked like he might well be ready for combat right then and there, which was a little sudden, but he supposed that, under the circumstances, his nephew was holding himself back admirably.
And Lan Qiren felt bad for him, he really did – to know one’s love was in the clutches of a monster was an agony he didn’t know how to address. So he didn’t. Instead, he gestured to the seat across the table, encompassing the sloshed tea pot and spilled leaves in the gesture. After a moment’s hesitation (reluctance, maybe?), Lan Wangji returned to the table and resumed preparing his uncle’s tea.
The silence was somehow almost oppressive with its weight, and Lan Qiren let it sit there, wholly unprepared for what to do with the odd cast to his nephew’s features. Fortunately, he was saved from having to communicate (or heaven forbid, ask a question about feelings) by Lan Xichen bursting through the door, gaze searching his uncle and then brother in quick succession. Whatever he had hoped or expected to see, Lan Qiren couldn’t divine it from his face as he bowed to his uncle and nodded to his brother. If Wangji’s gaze was a little beseeching and Xichen’s was a little reassuring, he did not notice. Neither did he pick up on the near imperceptible nod that answered whatever unspoken question was written on his younger nephew’s face.
He did, uncharacteristically, notice the two of them having a moment and huffed, disapproving. They did not have time for emotions, an attitude that came with it’s own very particular sort of scowl.
Inserting himself into the unspoken conversation, he grumbled, “Strategy before sentiment.”
One day, 23 hours, and 42 minutes ago, Lan Qiren said, “We will put together a contingent of skilled cultivators, first of our own, but we will also send word to the Yunmeng Jiang, Lanling Jin, and Qinghe Nie and arrange for them to meet us there with skilled contingents. Preferably warriors who have fought this kind of-“
“I will challenge the Yiling Patriarch to a duel,” Lan Wangji interrupted, voice low and determined.
“WHAT?” Lan Qiren was reaching new decibels as that word screeched out of his throat. “You will not!”
Lan Wangji’s hand tightened on Bichen, and he said nothing, staring straight ahead.
Lan Qiren felt his blood pressure soring. “You will not take on a cursed beast alone! I forbid it!”
Before he could really get himself going, Lan Xichen inserted himself with the soothing grace for which he was well-known, “Perhaps we do not have to kill the creature.” Lan Qiren met his younger nephew’s stubborn stare with a quelling glower that seemed to have no effect. “Perhaps we could solicit the help of an expert to steal into it’s tower and steal Wangji’s fiancé back.” There was a pause as both uncle and nephew continued their stare-down, undeterred. “I hear that Wei Wuxian has snuck into the Yiling tower before and lived to return.”
Both heads swiveled to stare at him with remarkably similar looks of shock.
He continued, “On such short notice, it wouldn’t be feasible to amass an army large enough to accost a mythical beast. Particularly one of whom so little is known. Therefore, in the interest of speed, I move to recruit the particular talents of the Yungmeng Jiang’s first disciple. You remember him from his time here, don’t you, Uncle?”
“I do,” Lan Qiren ground out.
There was nothing less that he wanted to do in life than go begging to Wei Wuxian, of all people, for anything. However, as he turned to snap at his nephew and prohibit him from anything so foolish as a duel, he caught the tail end of the faintly hopeful look Wangji shot his brother. And that…well, that was the moment he realized that going to Wei Wuxian was the second-to-last thing he wanted to do. The last thing he wanted to do was see his nephew’s heart broken. Again. The very last thing he wanted to do was hold a funeral for a body they could never recover and watch his nephew bowed and broken beneath the grief of another loss.
He would do everything in his power to avoid that. Even if it meant talking to the chaos gremlin that was Wei Wuxian.
“Uncle?” Lan Xichen turned that hopeful look on him, but Wangji dropped his gaze to his lap, like he anticipated refusal and couldn’t lift his head to receive it. His hand was still fisted tightly around his sword, reckless, youthful determination in that white-knuckled grip.
Teeth clenched, Lan Qiren gritted out deeply grudging acquiescence, “…In the interest of time.”
Lan Xichen’s response was immediate and almost chipper as he pushed elegantly to his feet and swept out of the room, “I’ll have rations and an entourage prepared for your journey. They’ll be ready to fly in half an hour.”
The last couple weeks have not been good for Lan Qiren.
First his nephew defied him, then he accepted marriage terms without consult, then the bride was stolen by the local nightmare, then he was talked into asking a boon of Wei Wuxian, and finally, today, he found himself standing in the center of a tasteful, if rustic, reception room in front of his audience with a request that he had no idea how to make.
Lan Wangji stood a few steps behind and to the right, unimpeachable despite the drain of rushed travel. The rest of their contingent looked ragged, for lack of a better word, but Lan Qiren held his back ramrod straight as he surveyed the room.
Receiving them with a warm, curious smile, the Jiang Sect Leader looked amicable enough, and his gremlin of a ward was regrettably in attendance, hovering to his sister’s right and twitching and grinning like the delinquent he was. The brat had the audacity to wave. Lan Qiren wanted to wipe that grin off his face, but he schooled his features to neutral and refused to be ruffled by the flagrant show of familiarity.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” he begins, speaking with the authority of one – ruffled, exhausted – leader to another. “I regret to inform that my nephew’s betrothed was kidnapped yesterday by the Yiling Patriarch.” The room went dead silent, and Lan Qiren barreled forward in the most decorous and courteous way he could manage, considering the circumstances, “And I come seeking Wei Wuxian’s skills to retrieve her from its lair.”
If he’d thought it was silent before, it was as ominously quiet as a graveyard now.
“We understand the unconventional nature of our request and come with tools to aid in the completion of this task and thank the generosity of the Yungmeng Jiang, but time is of the essence, and we hope to continue on to the Mass Grave Mounds within the hour.”
Visibly unruffled by the urgent circumstances, the Sect Leader turned to his ward, affection inexplicably warm in his voice, “Wei Wuxian?”
All eyes turned to him, where he stood gaping and useless. To Lan Qiren’s horror, he looked very much like he was on the verge of laughter, even as his comically wide grey eyes shot a pleading look past him. Disgusted by the attempt to wriggle out of an answer by putting the onus on Lan Wangji to give him an out and release him from the request, Lan Qiren stepped protectively between them.
At that, Wei Wuxian burst out laughing, giggles flooding the horrified silence with a wash of mirth that grated on Lan Qiren’s very last nerve. Temper picking up in a rush of qi, he wrestled down the urge to throttle this belligerent, cocky disciple. Lan Qiren did not cope well with shock, but if standing in the lotus-carved reception hall, humbly asking Wei Wuxian to rescue his beloved nephew’s ill-fated fiancé while the disaster gremlin laughed in his face didn’t force qi deviation, then he felt confident the bastard couldn’t say anything that would.
He took a deep, fortifying breath, mouth opening on a new volley of cutting, persuasive argument.
Before he could get a word out, Lan Wangji stepped around him to position himself between the gremlin and his uncle. Turning to face Lan Qiren, Lan Wangji raised both hands in a formal, respectful bow as he said, measured and calm, “Shufu, I would like to introduce you to Wei Ying, my betrothed.” The thud of Lan Qiren’s sword hitting the floor reverberated as all the air was suddenly sucked out of the room. His vision blurred red at the edges, and as he dragged in a ragged, furious breath to bellow his adamant negation, Lan Wangji added “He is also the Yiling Patriarch.”
Whatever air he’d clawed into his lungs evacuated on a rage-induced gasp, eyes unseeing and qi barreling out in all directions in an eruption of fury. The entire room throbbed red and warped into harsh streaks of violent energy, words reverberating in his head and sending him into white-knuckled rage.
Distantly, the bane of his existence murmured, quiet and far too amused, “Well, this is going well.”
It was the last thing he heard before he passed out.