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love, in fire and blood

Chapter Text

Once he was inside his husband's home, Lan Wangji itched to take a look at his surroundings. But he held himself still. There would be time for that later, presumably. There would be a great deal of time to inspect his new home. A lifetime, in fact.

Provided, of course, he was let out of his chambers. Perhaps he wouldn't be allowed to roam at will. The Patriarch might choose to keep him imprisoned in a small suite of rooms. It was the fate that had befallen his mother, after all. It would seem like the bitterest sort of justice if Qingheng-Jun's son met a similar end.

Lan Wangji pushed that thought away and focused on his steps. The veil still obscured his vision, but the floor was smooth and polished. He had his husband's arm, too. At least there was no risk of an embarrassing, inauspicious fall.

The Patriarch guided him into a silent hall, and the doors shut behind them. The hall felt vast and airy, but also strangely empty. Lan Wangji squashed the temptation to lift his veil.

According to tradition, they must make their bows before the Patriarch’s family. But Lan Wangji sensed no living presence nearby. Clearly, the Patriarch hadn't brought him before his parents or relatives. Curiosity prickled at Lan Wangji’s skin.

The first rumors surfaced only seven or eight years ago: another cultivator has attained immortality. Then the years passed, and the rumors turned from a whisper into a shriek. A thousand stories circulated about the Patriarch's origins. But no one seemed to know the truth. 

Before the war, Lan Wangji had never bothered to pay attention to those rumors. He could honestly claim to be uninterested in such matters. Uncle had always discouraged his disciples from speculating on the Patriarch's history, anyway.

It was true: the Patriarch had attained the supreme goal toward which all cultivators strove. But in Uncle’s eyes, the Patriarch was no role model. His methods of cultivation were inherently corrupt. Thus, his origins were unimportant and curiosity about his powers forbidden.

Lan Wangji had accepted these limitations and asked no questions. But now, his ignorance burned.

If his husband were a man—a cultivator—then he once had parents. He had a home, perhaps even a sect. It would not have been so very long ago. But somehow, this knowledge had been lost. The Patriarch had emerged, as if from the aether, as a powerful immortal. No one knew his family name or ancestry.

Slowly, Lan Wangji sank to his knees on the cushion laid before the altar. He started his bows, his husband at his side. When the first bow was complete, Lan Wangji risked a glance upward.

It was difficult to see through the veil. But he could just barely make out two memorial tablets. Perhaps they held the names of the Patriarch's mother and father. Platters of fruit, flowers, and incense had been laid on the altar. Offerings, it seemed, to his deceased parents. Lan Wangji studied them and resisted the temptation to turn in his husband's direction. But his curiosity sharpened.

What woman bore you? What man sired you? Where were you born, and what name did they give you?

He could not ask, though. Lan Wangji could only make his second bow, then his third. Then the ritual was complete, and they were married. Lan Wangji knelt on the pillow and waited.

If his husband had living parents, there would be a tea ceremony. But if they had made their bows before an altar, then his in-laws were dead. Further obeisance was unnecessary. The Patriarch could take him directly to the wedding chamber. He could remove the veil and consummate the marriage. Lan Wangji’s married life would begin within moments.

Every nerve in his body tensed at the thought. Lan Wangji forced his muscles to relax, one by one. He was so occupied by this task, he neglected to duck away when the Patriarch reached out.

His husband tugged off the veil in one smooth movement. Lan Wangji tensed again, his posture rigid.

This was not proper. His veil shouldn't be removed until they were within the wedding chamber. Lan Wangji reached out with his senses, relieved when he perceived no one else in the hall. No servants or attendants were present, and the doors were closed. If anyone was eavesdropping, Lan Wangji felt no sign of their presence. His eyes darted to the altar.

The memorial tablets hung on the wall, but he wasn't close enough to read the names. Incense smoldered beside a platter of gleaming fruit. Lan Wangji kept his gaze locked onto the thin plume of smoke. They were not meant to look upon each other yet. His husband had been precipitous in his removal of the veil, but that did not excuse impropriety on Lan Wangji’s part.

After a few seconds, his husband tsked.

“What happened? You glared at me so fiercely in that tent! Now you’re too shy to look at me?”

His voice was honeyed, smooth. He sounded thoroughly amused. But then, he had often sounded amused during the wretched meeting that had sealed their betrothal. His amusement had been lined with contempt. His husband didn't sound contemptuous now, yet there was a mocking undertone to his voice. Lan Wangji didn't like it.

And his husband was wrong, of course. Lan Wangji was not too shy to look. He had merely been brought up with a strong sense of propriety. A married couple was not meant to look upon each other's faces until the moment of consummation.

He fixed his attention firmly on the fruit, the incense, the altar. But his husband took his chin, turning his face. Lan Wangji found himself looking into the Patriarch’s dark eyes.

“There you are!” The Patriarch hummed. “Ah, look! You’re even glaring again. What have I done wrong this time, I wonder?”

The amusement in his voice deepened. Lan Wangji hadn't intended to show his displeasure, but he felt himself scowling anyway.

He dropped his eyes to his husband's robes. They were a deep scarlet, the exact shade of arterial blood. The color was sickeningly familiar. Lan Wangji had seen a great deal of it on the battlefield.

“You were not supposed to remove the veil yet."

The Patriarch laughed, shifting on his knees. Though his wedding robes were loose-cut, Lan Wangji could make out the lines of his husband’s body. The Patriarch rested his hands on his lap. The strange dark flute was still stuck through his belt-loop.

“I wasn’t?” His husband’s voice was full of affected surprise. “But how are you supposed to eat with it on?”

Lan Wangji meant to keep his eyes lowered. But they lifted in surprise.

“I am not.”

He had married out, and so he was meant to fast for three days. That was the custom, and Lan Wangji had followed it diligently. Tomorrow, he would be permitted to eat. But the wedding banquet was not for him. It seemed peculiar that the Patriarch did not know this.

His husband made a disparaging sound.

“I don’t intend to starve you, you know. Everybody’s worked so hard preparing the wedding banquet. They’ll be disappointed if we don’t eat it.”

Lan Wangji remained silent, thinking hard.

He could practice inedia for a long time. It was no true hardship to go a few weeks without food. Still, he had never truly starved before. He was not eager to experience such a thing.

His husband's remarks were reassuring, then. Lan Wangji had anticipated that he would be fed in his new home. But he did not know for sure. He knew nothing for sure, and that knowledge grated his nerves raw. Lan Wangji clenched his jaw and held his tongue.

His husband heaved a sigh and reached out, helping Lan Wangji to his feet. It would have been impolite to shake off his hands, so he allowed his husband to guide him from the hall.

“Well, come on. The food will get cold.”

Lan Wangji followed grimly. But he felt strangely naked without the veil. The absence of his forehead ribbon was like a brand.

Every day since his third birthday, Lan Wangji had tied on the ribbon before leaving his chambers. The prospect of being seen without his ribbon—by strangers, no less—made his skin crawl. Yet he could do nothing to stop it. He curled his hands into fists inside his sleeves, and he trailed his husband a dining hall.

At least three dozen guests were waiting. Upon the Patriarch's entrance, the guests rose and bowed to him. Then they bowed to Lan Wangji.

His husband smiled as he guided Lan Wangji to their table. He addressed a few remarks to the assemblage, and Lan Wangji absorbed not a single word. He was suffocated by the sudden fear that he would be expected to say something to the guests. It was not customary for a married-in spouse to speak publicly at their wedding. But nothing about this day had been customary.

Mercifully, no one asked him to speak. Lan Wangji took the chair beside his husband, and they sat. A few musicians, positioned near the rear, began playing. Servants streamed into the hall with steaming plates and quiet chatter began.

Several guests studied Lan Wangji with undisguised curiosity. He was accustomed to that, and he kept his eyes on his own plate. An assortment of dishes was set before him, chiefly braised meats.

He couldn't eat those. But it didn't matter. Lan Wangji found he had no appetite. He let the servants lay out the meal and focused his attention on the guests.

His husband sat in a careless sprawl, quite unlike Lan Wangji’s stiff posture. Wei Qing was seated at his side. She was accompanied by a young man, perhaps a few years younger than herself, and four others. Lan Wangji didn't know their names, and his husband made no introductions. The Patriarch kept up a mindless chatter, exclaiming over the food and the wine. Most of his remarks were directed at Wei Qing and her companion. She rolled her eyes at his jokes while the others chuckled.

They stole glances at Lan Wangji every few seconds. Lan Wangji pretended not to notice.

When the wine appeared, his husband poured a generous measure for himself. He tried to fill Lan Wangji’s cup, too. But Wei Qing stopped him, turning the cup over.

“The Lan sect forbids the consumption of alcohol.” She waved away the wine jar. “Your husband does not drink.”

A quiet dread twisted in Lan Wangji's stomach. He was grateful for her intervention, but he wondered if she had wasted her breath. His husband could easily ignore her. The  Lan sect may forbid alcohol, he might say, but you do not belong to that sect any longer. You belong to me, and I say you will drink.

Lan Wangji knew he was in no position to refuse. His fingers twitched and he missed his sword like a lost limb.

But his husband only stared in shock for a moment. Then he shrugged.

“Ah, what a waste!” He drained his cup and refilled it in the next breath. “Well, more for me!”

Lan Wangji inclined his head politely and sipped his tea. It was fragrant and mellow, the leaves of high quality. Somewhat unwillingly, he tasted the vegetables too. But they were seasoned with something that made his mouth burn. He contented himself with plain rice after that.

As the eighth and final course was laid on the table, Lan Wangji felt the weight of his husband’s gaze. He had turned away from Wei Qing, glancing between Lan Wangji and his untouched dish of abalone.

“Husband, is the food not to your liking?”

He didn't sound angry. There was a slight edge to his voice, though, which made an honest answer impossible.

“The food is fine.” Lan Wangji took a measured sip of his tea.

The Patriarch made another amused, contemptuous sound.

“Is it? You’ve eaten about three bites. Are you sick? I’m sure our trusted physician has her needles handy, if you need treatment.”

He smiled at Wei Qing, and she rolled her eyes again. There was a marked fondness and familiarity between the two. It set Lan Wangji’s teeth on edge. He didn't know how to interpret their behavior.

Wei Qing had been part of the wedding party, the attendant charged with collecting Lan Wangji from his natal home. That suggested that she was the Patriarch’s kin, perhaps a sister or a cousin. But might she be something more to his husband?

Lan Wangji set down his cup and folded his hands on his lap. He was well-aware that he might have to tolerate a disagreeable presence in his husband's home.

According to the strictest etiquette, he shouldn't notice or care about concubines. They performed a base role in the household, and they could not threaten Lan Wangji’s position. Under normal circumstances—a political marriage to a sect leader, perhaps— he might not have minded at all. If he had no wish to serve his spouse in bed, it would have been easy to bite his tongue and look the other way.

In such a marriage, Lan Wangji's position would have been entirely secure. He was the brother of Sect Leader Lan, one of the Twin Jades of Gusu. Concubines were nothing compared to him. Their presence in his home—even in his husband’s bed—would have been meaningless.

But his position here was so unstable. Concubines seemed to present a far greater threat than Lan Wangji had ever imagined. Especially concubines who had won his husband’s trust, even helped to negotiate his marriage.

He took a deep breath. This time, he couldn't remain silent. His husband was waiting expectantly and Wei Qing was watching, too. Everyone at the table was watching. Lan Wangji clenched his fists beneath the table.

“The Lan sect does not eat meat,” he said simply.

It was not forbidden, exactly. When visiting another sect, the custom was relaxed. If their host served meat or seafood, Lan disciples could indulge without violating their principles. The laws governing hospitality and respectful conduct as a guest took precedence.

But Lan Wangji found himself stubbornly unwilling to touch the dishes laid before him. They looked well-prepared and the food was clearly of the highest quality. Yet he seethed with inward resentment. Surely he had made enough allowances for one day.

His husband gave Wei Qing a sharp look. She heaved a sigh.

“They didn’t tell me that." She sent an annoyed glance in Lan Wangji’s direction. “I wrote to Sect Leader Lan. I asked if there were any particular customs or health concerns we should be aware of.”

She spoke with exaggerated deliberateness, like a child reciting lessons.

“He told me about the ban on alcohol,” she continued. “He did not tell me that the Lans abstain from eating meat.”

Lan Wangji stared at the table. He supposed his brother had made a calculated decision to omit that rule. Perhaps he didn't want to risk annoying the Patriarch with too many restrictions. The rules against eating meat were not so rigid, after all. Lan Wangji was not required to follow them in someone else’s home. Perhaps his brother had decided to let that restriction go, in hopes of smoothing the way for a peaceful marriage.

The Patriarch gave Wei Qing another beady-eyed stare, but he let the matter rest. He helped himself to Lan Wangji’s portion of abalone and finished it in two bites.

“No alcohol!” He dragged a finger through the sauce. “No meat! My dear, just what does your sect do for fun?”

He licked his fingers clean. It was an appalling display of table manners. Wei Qing slapped at his hand and gave him a napkin, but the Patriarch blithely ignored her.

“Fun is not a priority in my sect.” Lan Wangji kept his voice dignified, controlled. “’Diligence is the root.’”

There were activities that Lan Wangji enjoyed, of course. But he had not been taught to prioritize fun, nor self-indulgence of any kind. He anticipated, though, that his husband would fail to appreciate this sort of discipline.

Sure enough, his husband's nose wrinkled.

“How very dull."

He drew Lan Wangji’s shark-fin soup over to his side of the table. Perhaps he planned to say something more. He looked as if he were about to argue the matter further. But they were interrupted by a small child.

It was a boy, Lan Wangji saw. He was three or four, well-dressed with round cheeks. The child darted up to the table and leaned against Wei Qing’s companion. But she made a grab for him, so he scurried away. He circled the table and clung to the Patriarch’s robes.

The Patriarch swung the child into his lap without hesitation.

“Aiyah, look at you!” His voice warmed as he pinched the boy’s cheeks. “What happened? You ate up all the pork on the other tables? You had to come sniffing around here?”

The boy gave an unrepentant grin. He settled comfortably into the Patriarch’s lap, beaming.

Lan Wangji felt his breathing stop. But after a moment, he forced it to restart. He had prepared for this too. Men of high rank often had illegitimate children.

He wondered if the child’s mother was Wei Qing, or another woman sitting in the hall. His palms itched, and he suppressed the temptation to look around. Perhaps some nameless, faceless woman was watching him even now.

Lan Wangji felt a reluctant stab of pity. If the mother was watching, she must be writhing with jealousy. It could not be pleasant for her to watch her lord marry another. But perhaps she felt secure enough in her position. The Patriarch had married a man, after all. His new husband could hardly give him a child.

He took a careful breath. Naturally, he had considered this matter already. Marriages between men or between women might be rare among peasants. But they were common enough among cultivators. With a strong golden core, a cultivator's lifespan was long. There was no urgent need to produce an heir. Nearly every cultivator of rank had siblings and cousins to carry on the bloodline. In the eyes of most sects, it was best to marry for economic and political gain. Heirs could be acquired elsewhere.

For one such as the Patriarch, there was no need whatsoever to marry a woman. He was immortal; an heir was pointless. So Lan Wangji hadn't been surprised when the Patriarch failed to single out the female cultivators inside the meeting tent. He didn't require a wife who could provide him with a child. A husband could serve his purposes just as well.

But Lan Wangji had wondered if the Patriarch might have created children out of pleasure rather than duty. Now it seemed that he had an answer.

The boy, curled in his father’s lap, regarded Lan Wangji with shy curiosity. He seemed to be inspecting Lan Wangji, so Lan Wangji allowed himself to inspect the child in turn. He was an attractive child, certainly. The boy had fine features and thick dark hair. His small limbs were sturdy, his face open and cheerful.

He kicked his feet idly for a moment. Then he glanced toward the untouched dishes before Lan Wangji. The Patriarch rubbed the child’s head, his eyes warm.

“Well, you're in luck. My husband doesn’t eat meat. So I bet he’ll give you some of his food. Won’t you?”

Lan Wangji knew this was a command rather than a request. But he didn't mind. The child had been staring openly at his pork, and Lan Wangji was glad to turn it over.

The boy gave him a frank smile in return. He ate clumsily, the Patriarch helping to break apart the larger chunks of meat. His face was fond as he scolded the child for eating too quickly.

“Don’t eat so greedily!” The Patriarch ruffled the boy’s hair. “You’ll turn into a pig yourself!”

He made soft, piglike snuffling sounds in the boy’s ear. The child laughed around a mouthful of food. Against his will, Lan Wangji felt himself soften.

It was…heartening, somehow. At the very least, it was a relief to discover that his husband was capable of showing kindness to his child. Perhaps he would never warm to Lan Wangji, but that was unimportant. Lan Wangji could tolerate marriage to a man who disliked him. What he couldn't endure was a husband who treated his children unkindly.

The child stole more glances at Lan Wangji as he ate. When he was done, he turned to his father and whispered something in his ear. The Patriarch laughed roughly, as if surprised. He took a gulp of wine before he answered.

“Go ahead and tell him, then!”

He poked the child in his side. But the boy squirmed and hid his face against his father’s robes. The Patriarch heaved a sigh.

“Oh, we’re shy now?” He scooped the boy up so they were face to face. “Where was this shyness when you were running over here like a little beggar, stealing all his pork?”

The child smiled again, ducking his head. But he did not respond. The Patriarch tried to cajole him into speaking, to no avail. Finally, the Patriarch gave up and turned to Lan Wangji.

“A-Yuan thinks you're very pretty,” he said frankly.

“Thank you,” Lan Wangji said, thoroughly startled. “A-Yuan is also a handsome child.”

The boy beamed at him. The Patriarch’s expression thawed slightly, and Lan Wangji felt a small sliver of hope rise in his chest.

Perhaps his husband had expected him to receive the child coldly. Most new husbands and wives would undoubtedly be displeased to discover an illegitimate child in their courts. But Lan Wangji didn't want to scorn his husband’s children. He would never have any of his own, after all. The only children in their household would be those borne by his husband's concubines.

Lan Wangji realized he would like to know such children. In Cloud Recesses, he had often worked with the young disciples. It had been pleasant to help them with their lessons. He would enjoy teaching his husband's children calligraphy or how to play the guqin. He hoped he would be permitted some involvement in their upbringing.

Wei Qing gave him an odd look. Lan Wangji couldn't quite decipher it, and he puzzled over that look for the rest of the meal. If she were the child’s mother, perhaps she meant to warn him off. Or perhaps she was merely surprised that he hadn't reacted to the child's presence with open distaste. Lan Wangji couldn't be sure.

But soon, there was no time left to consider the matter. The desserts were cleared away—Lan Wangji’s meager appetite had waned long before their appearance—and the banquet came to a close.

His husband’s smile became rather artificial. As he waved over a trio of female attendants, his face shuttered. Sincere pleasure had lit up his eyes when A-Yuan crawling into his lap. But that was gone now. The Patriarch's voice grew sardonic again.

“These ladies will show you to your chambers."

He gestured to the women, who smiled widely at Lan Wangji. Their lips were painted red, and their faces very pale. Lan Wangji rose from the table and followed them.

It was not until later—halfway down the hallway—that Lan Wangji realized the women were dead. They were startlingly lifelike. Wen Ruohan’s corpse puppets had been so different. Their milky eyes and cracked skin stood out like a beacon.

They were crude, Lan Wangji realized. His puppets were rabid animals. They lurched, they bit, they attacked. They served their purpose as cannon fodder.

But these women were quite different. They moved smoothly, with a fluid gait. Their skin was a creamy whine, their eyes black as ink. At first glance, they might pass for ordinary courtesans. Only the faint black veins near their temples revealed the truth. And they could speak. This knowledge chilled Lan Wangji to the bone.

As they walked, the women glanced toward him. Then they put their heads together, whispering and giggling. The sound was deeply disturbing.

Of course, reanimated corpses weren't meant to exist at all. It was blasphemy, a corruption of proper cultivation. Such things could only be achieved by wielding resentful energy, which should never be done. Not under any circumstances. On this matter, the Lan teachings were perfectly clear.

But if it was done, it should result in mere puppets. The corpses should be walking dolls, vessels for hunger and hatred. They should not smile. They should not speak. They should not look so knowing, as if they understood what was happening better than Lan Wangji.

His skin prickled with gooseflesh. The sensation only worsened when the women followed him into his chambers.

The rooms were pleasant, at least. Lan Wangji took a quick glance around. It was a reassuring sight. He had not been sent into a barren cell, devoid of comforts. The Patriarch had given him a suite: a sitting room, a study, a bedroom, and a private bath.

There was a desk in the study. The sitting room held a table, chairs, cushions. Scrolls hung on the wall, and thick woven rugs lined the floors. It was not Cloud Recesses—not home—but it was comfortable. A sliding door at the right lead to a small garden. Lan Wangji couldn't see what was out there. Night had fallen, plunging the world outside into the darkness. But the glimpse of a shadowed tree was soothing.

There was a large bed, too, shrouded by gauzy red curtains. He had no time to examine it. One of the women shut the garden door. Another closed the door to the hall. They led him into the bedchamber. His baggage had already been brought in. The cases that had held his wedding finery lay open, waiting. Lan Wangji hesitated inside the room, unsure what to do next.

But the women swarmed him like hornets, and he understood. They meant to help him. They meant to undress him. Lan Wangji held himself very still and bit the inside of his cheek.

It was, perhaps, proper. He hadn't brought any servants from Cloud Recesses. The Patriarch hadn't allowed it and at the time, Lan Wangji had thought that was a blessing. There was no one at Cloud Recesses he wished to bring with him. No one there deserved to share his fate. He didn't need body servants anyway. Lan Wangji could dress himself and fix his own hair. He had done it all his life.

But the wedding attire was another matter. He wasn't sure how to deconstruct the headpiece or what to do with the dozens of jeweled pins. The robes were heavy, with two more layers than usual. Lan Wangji hadn't the faintest idea where to begin.

His brother had helped him dress this morning. But his brother wasn't here now, and the robes must be removed. So Lan Wangji gritted his teeth and sat at the small vanity. He let the corpse-women touch him with their cold hands, plucking away the pins and taking down his hair.

When it lay loose around his shoulders, Lan Wangji found himself glancing into the mirror. Some of his hair was still drawn back in its customary half-knot. The women had loosened the ties, but they left the knot intact with a single hairpin speared through. When Lan Wangji took a closer look, he saw that it was the lotus pin. Somehow, the women seemed aware of its purpose. They were conscious that this was not to be touched.

Lan Wangji studied the pin in the mirror as they packed away the headpiece and dropped the jewelry into its case. The pin was grounding. It reminded Lan Wangji that he had made a bargain, one he must carry through. Just now, the cost seemed very high. But it was not an unreasonable price. An end to the war. An end to death, savagery, purposeless suffering. Peace for the cultivation world and for helpless peasants. The Patriarch had given them victory with a snap of his fingers.

It was a worthwhile bargain, Lan Wangji reminded himself. He could not place such a high price on his own freedom. This marriage—and what must happen next—wasn't too high a price. Not in exchange for so many lives.

At the women’s prompting, Lan Wangji stood. They removed the heavy outer robes, then the inner robes made of red silk. Then they stripped off the next layer, made of scarlet lace. Bit by bit, they stripped him down. Soon he wore nothing but his inner robes, the thin layer of white silk from Caiyi Town. They tried to remove that too. But Lan Wangji clutched the robes shut and stepped away from their hands.

One of the women pouted, and the second frowned. The third only gave a fluid, melodic laugh.

“Leave the master something to remove,” she whispered.

This time, the others laughed too. Lan Wangji felt his cheeks burn, but the women retreated after that. The door closed behind them and Lan Wangji was alone. There was nothing left to do but wait.

He was meant to wait on the bed. Lan Wangji knew that much. If the Patriarch had handled matters properly, Lan Wangji would have sat on the bed fully dressed. Then his husband would have removed his veil—and everything else—with his own two hands. He had not done this, though. Lan Wangji was left standing alone in his thinnest robes.

There was tea, so Lan Wangji drank. He wasn't especially thirsty. Drinking tea was infinitely easier than eating, so he had emptied several cups during the banquet. But it gave his hands something to do.

After a moment, he rummaged through the vanity drawers and wardrobe shelves. He discovered that his belongings had been unpacked. The women had taken away the wedding finery, perhaps to put it in storage for future generations. Lan Wangji wouldn't need those robes or that headpiece again. But his own clothing was tucked into drawers and lined up on shelves.

Inside the vanity, Lan Wangji found jewelry he didn't recognize. He touched the items cautiously, wondering if they were meant to be gifts. Perhaps he was meant to wear this jewelry in his married life. There were unfamiliar robes in the wardrobe, too. He might be expected to retire his white and blue Gusu robes in favor of his husband's colors. Perhaps he wasn't meant to wear anything, save what his husband gave him.

It was just another puzzle, one he would have to solve tomorrow.

A faint headache pulsed in his temples, but Lan Wangji ignored it. He pushed aside the items that had been laid inside the drawer—his hair oil, his soaps, his combs—until he found the pot of salve. Then he stepped behind the privacy screen and freshened his preparations.

It had been a long day, after all. The place between his legs was still disconcertingly slick, but Lan Wangji wasn't sure it would be enough. So he did what he could, then cleaned his hands and put the salve away. He wondered, with a dull sort of horror, if he would require more salve soon. Perhaps not. If his husband had concubines—even children—he might prefer to spend his evenings with them. The Patriarch might perform his marital duties just once, to seal their union. Afterward, he might return to his women.

But back in the tent, the sect leaders had asked the Patriarch why he wished for this marriage. Why he had chosen Lan Wangji. The Patriarch had said it was because of Lan Wangji's beauty. So perhaps he wouldn't be satisfied with one night, after all. If Lan Wangji’s appearance had enticed him, he might wish to bed his husband often.

Lan Wangji tried not to think about that. It was not an altogether pleasant thought.

Yet...

The prospect wasn't as horrifying as it might have been. Lan Wangji sat on the edge of the bed. He tried not to think on this, but thoughts crowded in. The Patriarch was a handsome man, with dark eyes and a wicked grin. His body was young and firm. He wasn't repulsive, not in matters of appearance. It wouldn't necessarily be a hardship for Lan Wangji to perform his marital duties with a young and handsome man.

But resentful energy flickered throughout the Patriarch’s halls. Every time Lan Wangji felt a trace of it, he felt queasy. And when he glimpsed the corpse women—their bodies still intact and supple—his skin crawled.

Does he take them to bed? Lan Wangji wondered. Do they serve him in that manner? Is he so depraved that even bedding corpses seems acceptable?

The little food Lan Wangji had managed to choke down churned in his stomach. Thoughts of his husband’s trim waist—his warm smile as he held his son—turned to ash. Lan Wangji was sickened once more by the thought of sharing his bed. But there was nothing to be done. He was here, in his husband’s home. The betrothal contract was signed, the bows performed. He had been undressed, and he was waiting for his husband to complete the final marriage rite.

There was no sense feeling either excited or repulsed, so Lan Wangji tried to feel neither. Instead, he sought to empty his mind. He succeeded just enough that he didn't flinch when his husband entered the chambers.

When the Patriarch saw Lan Wangji sitting on the bed, he did a double-take. Then he sighed.

“Oh, they took off everything, did they? Those girls!” He spoke with fond exasperation, as if the women were nieces or daughters.

Lan Wangji wasn't sure if that tone made the situation more disturbing, or less so. His head was whirling. He opted to stay silent and watched dully as his husband poured the wine.

“I know you don’t drink,” his husband muttered, bringing over the cups. “But humor me and pretend, and we’ll finish the rite.”

Lan Wangji was entirely prepared to humor his husband—to pretend—in many respects tonight. He took the cup and they crossed arms. Lan Wangji touched the wine to his lips, hardly swallowing more than a drop. It tingled on his tongue and a slight warmth spread through his blood.

His husband was very near. He smelled like soap and osmanthus oil. They weren't touching, not quite. But his husband sat on the bed, and Lan Wangji felt the heat radiating from his body. The Patriarch seemed warmer than most.

Perhaps it was only the blazing qi of an immortal. Power curled around his every limb. Lan Wangji could have sensed him from across a great hall, even with his eyes closed. The Patriarch seemed to exist in the eye of a storm. His shape was that of an ordinary man. A handsome man, perhaps, but an ordinary one. Yet he was not an ordinary man. To be near him was to face a wall of qi, and it struck with the force of a tsunami.

Lan Wangji resisted the urge to swallow. His husband was watching him, so he kept his eyes trained on the wardrobe and tried to give nothing away. He did not intend to make a fool of himself tonight.

Perhaps the Patriarch expected tears or pleas for mercy. Or perhaps he expected his new husband to give in gratefully, to moan like a whore and praise his virility. Lan Wangji didn't intend to do either. He would fulfill his duty and no more. The Patriarch would have to be content with that. He must take what Lan Wangji was willing to surrender.

His husband reached out, toying lightly with his hair. As Lan Wangji stared at the dark wood of the wardrobe, he tracked his husband’s hand. First, it brushed a strand of his hair away from his face. Then it drifted up. Lan Wangji felt his husband adjust the lotus pin. But he didn't speak or remove his own clothing. Nor did he push aside the thin underrobe, baring Lan Wangji’s body.

“Tell me something,” his husband began.

Lan Wangji waited in silence. His husband sighed.

“I’ve heard that Cloud Recesses has very strict rules.” His hand withdrew from the lotus pin to rest on his knees.

Lan Wangji’s own hands were folded nearly on his lap.

“Three thousand disciplines,” he affirmed. “Yes.”

The Patriarch made a sound of mingled horror and surprise.

“Three thousand,” he echoed. “Really?”

Lan Wangji nodded.

He thought it strange that the Patriarch did not know this. Most sects had heard of the Lan disciplines. They sent their disciples to study in Cloud Recesses and gain an education in these matters. But the Patriarch had never been a guest disciple, and surely he had never visited Lan Wangji’s home. He was ensconced in the Burial Mounds. Perhaps rumors of the Lan disciplines had never reached him.

His husband scoffed.

“No alcohol, no meat, and three thousand rules!” He shook his head. “And I’m told that they require you to wake at dawn and go to bed by hai-shi every night. Is that true?”

“It is.”

Lan Wangji inclined his head.

His internal clock told him it was nearly that hour now. But during the war, he had learned to stay awake later than usual. Maintaining a regular schedule was a luxury few could afford on the battlefield.

“What a place! Needless to say, you won’t have to follow those rules here.”

His husband spoke with a casual reassurance, as if he expected his words to be a comfort.

But hearing that the disciplines Lan Wangji had always known wouldn't be found in his new home…it was no comfort, really. This place doubtless had its own rules. Lan Wangji did not know what they were. He would have to learn them, and he did not look forward to that process.

His husband scratched his own head.

“But if you’ve been awake since dawn, you must be exhausted. Husband, you should get some sleep.”

He rose to his feet and dropped the wine cups on the tray. Then he was gone, without a backward glance.

Lan Wangji was left alone, stunned, sitting on the edge of the bed in his thin shift. He did not know whether to feel relieved or insulted.