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love, in fire and blood

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Lan Wangji had intended to spend the morning of the festival in the library. But quiet, solitary study proved to be impossible. The children were frantic with excitement, and they refused to submit to their lessons. Wen Qionglin couldn't calm them on his own. Lan Wangji found himself drafted into service.

The children wanted to hear stories in honor of the holiday. Lan Wangji couldn't help there. He had always been a poor storyteller. Fortunately, Wen Qionglin could manage that on his own. Lan Wangji held A-Yuan and A-Mei on his lap, striving to keep them still throughout the story of Chang’e. Afterward, Wen Qionglin arranged for games and projects. The children made clumsy paintings of the rabbits on the moon, and A-Yuan gave his to Lan Wangji. Once they finished their paintings, the children rested.

Lan Wangji carried the painting back to his chambers. Over the last few weeks, he had developed quite an art collection. Of course, A-Yuan’s drawings were mostly indistinguishable splotches of ink. But the child was proud of his work, so Lan Wangji was proud on his behalf. The temptation to show off A-Yuan's accomplishments had proved overpowering: Lan Wangji had already sent one of the boy's paintings to his brother.

He enclosed a letter, explaining that the painting belonged to a small child who lived in the Burial Mounds. Lan Wangji added that he helped oversee the child's education. A-Yuan, he added, had already outstripped his own artistic skill. This particular painting represented the boy's efforts to draw a turtle he had found in the lotus ponds.

His brother had been thoroughly amused. With his next letter, he sent a painting of his own. It was exquisite, as all Lan Xichen’s paintings were: a red maple tree with a small bird perched upon the highest branch.

A gift, he explained, for a fellow artist.

Lan Wangji presented the painting to A-Yuan, and the boy joyfully claimed it as his own. It was almost a pity, Lan Wangji thought. A painting by Sect Leader Lan was a valuable gift. It ought to be hung in the main hall, where it could be displayed to visitors. But A-Yuan refused to place the painting anywhere but his bedroom. Wen Qionglin had whispered that the boy was extremely proud that he had received such a special present. He showed it off to all his aunts and uncles, Wen Qionglin said.

Lan Wangji had received many of A-Yuan's masterpieces in return, with requests to pass a few onto his brother. He placed the latest painting beside his desk. As he gazed at it, he couldn't help feeling slightly melancholy.

He had always taken his brother's presence for granted. Since the moment he took his first breath, Lan Xichen had been at his side. He had shared Lan Wangji's burdens, guiding him through each new stage in his life. Lan Wangji had thought their togetherness would continue for eternity. Even after they married and started families of their own, Lan Wangji expected that his brother would continue to guide him.

Surely his brother would help raise his nieces and nephews. He'd teach the children painting, mediation, the art of conversation...all the skills Lan Wangji lacked. They would live together, under the same roof, and his brother would teach him how to be a father.

But now his brother was far away. Perhaps he would never meet A-Yuan, or any of Lan Wangji's new students.

Lan Wangji found that his eyes were suddenly burning. He blinked hard and swallowed the lump that had risen in his throat. There would be time later to dwell on such unpleasant thoughts. Today was a holiday, and Lan Wangji was celebrating with his husband. He must make the most of this opportunity.

He dressed with fastidious care, then arranged his hair. The phoenix hairpins seemed highly auspicious. After some thought, Lan Wangji slipped in the lotus hairpin, too. It didn't harmonize with the red and gold. The small silver pin looked almost shabby beside the polished phoenixes. This pin wasn’t fit part of a splendid, elaborate set of wedding gifts. It was the sort of hairpin that anyone might buy at a village market.

But Lan Wangji hadn't forgotten its origins. Nor had he forgotten the way his husband had placed the pin gently into his hands, as if it were a priceless treasure. This simple hairpin had won a war, so it seemed fitting that he should wear it today. Once the pin was in place, Lan Wangji studied the results in the mirror.

He had half-expected his husband to him to demand the lotus pin's return. The Patriarch had never attempted to retrieve it, so Lan Wangji had kept it. He wore it every day, discreetly tucked into his hair. On a few occasions, his husband had spotted it and a strange expression had crossed his face. But he hadn't instructed Lan Wangji to put the hairpin away.

Lan Wangji reached up, tracing a thumbnail over the lotus design. Then he surveyed himself from head to toe. He thought he looked suitably festive. It might be a wasted effort, though. His husband intended for them to go in disguise. Lan Wangji wasn't sure what form that disguise would take. But surely they would have to hide their face and their elegant clothing.

He sighed as he turned away from the mirror. It might be frivolous and wasteful to spend so much time preparing himself. His husband, however, had finally shown an interest in spending time with him. Lan Wangji didn't wish to look like a pauper.

Outside, he joined the children in the courtyard. A crowd of Wens had formed, laughing and joking. The adults jostled each other playfully while the children scurried underfoot. Lan Wangji watched the group, pleased to note that nearly every face had become familiar to him.

Wen Qing and her brother planned to escort the young children. The disciples would be accompanied by Instructor Zhang. A dozen others would travel in a group, celebrating and making purchases in town. The rest of the Wens had agreed to remain behind. They would host a small celebration for themselves, then prepare for the night's banquet. Lan Wangji saw that they were looking forward to the celebration. Even the faces of the eldest Wens were bright with excitement.

The children, of course, were the most excited of all. As soon as he set foot in the courtyard, A-Yuan seized his hand. He chattered freely, already eager for the treats that awaited. Lan Wangji listened patiently as A-Yuan made a list of his favorite foods. It was a very, very long list.

At his side, Wen Qing sighed. She seemed to anticipate that she'd be spending the afternoon wrangling overexcited children. But she was smiling, and so was her brother. The entire settlement seemed to be in a festive mood.

When the Patriarch arrived, he was smiling too. Lan Wangji stole a glance from the corner of his eye. His husband wore his customary colors: black and red. Lan Wangji had already observed that his husband had a dozen sets of robes in the same shades. The robes were flattering, and his husband cut a sharp figure. His face was warm and open as he studied the waiting crowd.

"Well, come on! Come on! Hurry up, or they'll start having fun without us!"

He swung A-Yuan onto his shoulders, then ushered the rest down the winding trail. Lan Wangji lifted A-Mei into his arms. Like A-Yuan, she was too small to make the trip on her own. The other children scrambled off, chasing one another. They grew so excited that A-Yuan and A-Mei became restless. Halfway down the mountain, they begged to be set down. The moment their feet touched the ground, they set off.

Lan Wangji watched the children dart joyfully around the Wens. A-Yuan clambered over rocks and fallen branches, while A-Mei dirtied her festival robes within minutes. A-Qing's hair had already fallen out of its braided buns. The Patriarch heaved a sigh.

“They'll be filthy by the end of the day! We’ll have to dunk them in the lotus ponds when we get back."

He smiled as he spoke. Lan Wangji’s heart lifted. He liked the fond way his husband spoke of the children. His husband’s quiet indulgence touched on a tender place inside Lan Wangji's soul.

The Wens were indulgent too. At first, Lan Wangji had found it astonishing: the children were never scolded or punished. Not even when they dirtied their clothes or wandered off to dig in the dirt. No penalties were imposed for running, hollering, or climbing on the furniture. They received remarkably little discipline. In that respect, the Burial Mounds was utterly unlike was Cloud Recesses. Lan Wangji’s own upbringing had been strikingly different.

But he couldn't deny that the children were thriving. They were happy, well-fed, and fond of their caregivers. Aside from the occasional scuffle or quarrel, they got along well with each other. They were impossibly curious, too. Lan Wangji often felt adrift at sea, surrounded by such noise and inquisitiveness. He liked them, though. He liked their lively spirits, their small hands, their cheerful impudence. He particularly liked the way his husband watched them, his eyes soft with affection.

After a moment, the Patriarch turned to study Lan Wangji. His mouth quirked.

“Ah. You look very nice! We won't have to throw you in the lotus pond, I think!"

His husband's voice was teasing. Lan Wangji's ears grew warm.

"I haven’t seen you in red before," his husband added, after a moment. "Not since the wedding.”

There was a strange, heavy note in his voice, but words themselves were idle. Lan Wangji's steps slowed almost unconsciously.

“Ah, but let me guess! There are three thousand rules in your sect, right? You’re forbidden to wear red, is that it?”

Lan Wangji let out a small sigh. His husband had developed a strange interest in the Lan disciplines. He seemed horrified by the sheer number, but when he was in a playful mood, he quizzed Lan Wangji about their contents: Is this forbidden? Or this? How about that?

Lan Wangji had offered to supply his husband with a bound copy of the sect’s rules. His brother would send one, if he asked. Or Lan Wangji could write them out from memory. But his husband hadn't taken him up on his offer. Instead, he'd expressed profound horror at this discovery: You've memorized all three thousand rules?!

“Not forbidden,” Lan Wangji replied. “But wearing red is not customary. Not outside of weddings and festival days.”

Some disciples wore their customary blues and whites even on special occasions. Lan Wangji decided to keep this bit of information to himself. He suspected that it would only horrify his husband further.

“I see, I see.” The Patriarch slipped his hands into his pockets, slouching along the path with a grin. “But they had some rules about clothing, right? Three thousand rules! Some of them had to be about what you’re allowed to wear.”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji admitted.

“Tell me some of them!"

Lan Wangji sighed again. He knew how this conversation would end: his husband would only shake his head, wondering how anyone could live in such a restrictive environment. But his husband was smiling and high-spirited. He seemed to be in a teasing mood, and Lan Wangji found—somewhat to his astonishment—that he wouldn't mind being teased. So he recited a dozen of the rules that dictated proper dress.

His husband interrupted every few seconds.

“No more than three ornaments on your yaopei!” he exclaimed. “Why?”

Lan Wangji considered that question for a moment. It was a surprisingly common question in the Burial Mounds: Why? The children asked it at least a dozen times each day. His husband did too. But this question was seldom asked in Cloud Recesses. Lan Wangji often struggled to find an answer.

“I do not know,” he confessed after a short pause. “I believe that rule was meant to discourage ostentation. The founder of my sect believed we should avoid excessive or lavish spending.”

The Patriarch laughed.

“But you were dressed very lavishly when you came here!” He shook his finger at Lan Wangji. “Your family gave you very nice wedding robes and that fancy gold headpiece. What’s the difference?”

There wasn’t one, not really. Lan Wangji sighed a third time.

“That was a wedding. And I am a member of the main family line.”

His husband laughed louder.

“So that’s how it is!” He folded his arms, shaking his head in mock disapproval. “Husband, doesn’t that strike you as a little hypocritical?”

A few weeks ago, the question might have stung. But a great deal had changed since then. Cloud Recesses felt very far away. Some days, Lan Wangji felt as though his time there belonged to another lifetime.

He missed it sometimes. The quiet, the structure, the predictability...it had been soothing. But distance had its benefits. Lan Wangji found it easier to acknowledge the tiny inconsistencies that had always secretly bothered him.

“Yes,” he said.

The Patriarch laughed again. This time, he sounded sincerely startled. He turned, walking sideways so he could stare at Lan Wangji.

“You answered that so honestly!”

Lan Wangji gave a tiny, incremental shrug.

“It is a fair judgment. My sect believes in austerity, but where politics are concerned…these rules are not always followed strictly. It is hypocrisy.”

There were many such incidences of hypocrisy, and they had always frustrated him. In Cloud Recesses, he hadn't dared to speak of such things aloud. But he'd noticed each inconsistency, and they grated against his skin.

His brother always found it easy to manage the shades of gray. He could bridge the gaps, balancing their sect's strict disciplines with the need for political maneuvering. Lan Wangji had never been good at that. In his mind, a rule worth following should be followed at all times. If his strict disciplines annoyed the other sects, so be it. He frowned to himself, remembering how often his strictness had annoyed his fellow disciples. It was one of many reasons he'd never been fit for sect leadership. It was heaven's mercy that Lan Xichen had been born first.

His husband’s argument was reasonable, though. Lan Wangji couldn't dispute it, even if he had wanted to. But having scored a point, his husband grew indulgent.

“Ah, well. We’re all a little hypocritical, now and then." The Patriarch's smile was almost kind. “We’re humans, after all. It can't be helped!”

Lan Wangji gave his husband a curious glance.

They were humans, of course. Even immortals were technically humans. But somehow, he had supposed that cultivators who reached immortality must be different. Surely immortals had triumphed over their baser inclinations?

His husband noticed the glance. He grinned and lifted his brows.

“Did you think that immortals had managed to purge those faults?” He shrugged. “Sorry to disappoint you! But it’s not true.”

“I am not disappointed." Lan Wangji spoke slowly. “Only curious.”

He couldn’t help feeling curious. Immortality was the ultimate goal of every cultivator, yet few had ever met an immortal. Their powers were obscure, shrouded in myth.

Lan Wangji had shared his husband's home for fifteen days. He still didn't know what powers his husband commanded. His husband had cultivated to immortality, so he must have changed in the process. He must have transmuted himself. Lan Wangji was desperately curious to know what it felt like. But there was no delicate way to broach such a topic. His husband already seemed determined to keep him at arm’s length. They didn't have the sort of relationship that invited personal inquiries.

His husband gave him a crooked smile.

“Maybe we’ll talk about that sort of thing sometime."

For a moment, he sounded almost grim. Then his tone changed, infused with forced levity.

"But not today! It’s a holiday, so we shouldn’t waste our breath on serious topics.”

Lan Wangji understood, and he nodded.

He didn’t mind delaying this conversation. It could wait for weeks, months, years. He only wanted to know that they would discuss such things eventually. If he could be assured of that, it was enough. Lan Wangji could wait a lifetime to learn his husband's secrets.

As they reached the mountain’s base, the path sloped gently. Yiling lay ahead, gleaming with lanterns. The children scrambled forward, but the Patriarch laid a hand on Lan Wangji’s arm.

“Wait here,” he murmured.

He jogged over the Wen Qing. She was already was struggling to restrain A-Yuan and A-Mei. Wen Qionglin was besieged by the other children, A-Qing tugging on his arm. They looked up at the Patriarch's arrival, and he dropped a fat money pouch into Wen Qing’s hands.

“Buy them candy and toys!" He scruffed a hand over A-Yuan’s head. “Feed them until they puke!”

“I will do no such thing,” Wen Qing grumbled.

But she pocketed the money. She took A-Yuan and A-Mei by the hand, and they trooped off into Yiling. The other Wens had already scattered in every direction. Lan Wangji lingered behind the wards surrounding the Burial Mounds. They prickled against his skin, pulsing with quiet power.

The Patriarch said his farewells to the disciples. They bowed in response.

“Everyone, make sure to behave very honorably." His husband's voice was full of false gravity. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”

The disciples appeared to take this instruction seriously. Lan Wangji, however, looked at his husband askance. Once they were alone, the Patriarch started to laugh.

“My husband is giving me such a suspicious look!” He heaved a put-upon sigh. “What is that expression meant to suggest, I wonder?”

Lan Wangji had not intended to assume a ‘suspicious look’. He tried to clear his expression, but he couldn’t smother his response.

“You told them not to do anything you wouldn’t do."

His husband’s eyebrows lifted with amusement.

“Oh? So you’re wondering what I wouldn’t do?” He leaned in. “Well, then, watch me closely. You’ll see what I’m capable of!”

Absurdly, Lan Wangji swallowed hard. His husband was very close and somehow his scent was familiar. He smelled just as he had in the war tent: smoky and dark, like fresh rain against scorched grass. Heat poured off his skin, qi blazing.

If his husband had lingered—his shoulder brushing against Lan Wangji's—matters might have become dire. Lan Wangji might have embarrassed himself. But his husband stepped back and drew out a talisman. He slapped it against Lan Wangji’s chest, then surveyed the effect.

Lan Wangji blinked. A soft pulse of magic trickled over his skin. It felt as if he'd stepped into a cool stream. When he looked down at his chest, he saw no change in his appearance. The Patriarch applied a talisman to himself, and he looked equally unchanged. Lan Wangji stared doubtfully at him doubtfully. His husband rolled his eyes.

We won’t be able to see a difference,” he explained. “But nobody else will recognize us. Come on!”

The Patriarch was correct. They stepped into the crowded streets of Yiling, and no one even glanced their way. The town was busy, the streets teeming with people. Every man, woman, and child had thronged to the marketplace. But despite the crowds, they slipped through the streets unnoticed.

For a while, they walked in comfortable silence. Then the Patriarch remembered his favorite amusement, and he demanded to know which of the activities in the marketplace were forbidden by the Lan sect.

Drinking juice, as Lan Wangji demonstrated, was not forbidden. Buying a stuffed goldfish for good luck was also acceptable. But when his husband paused to wager a few coins on a game of chance, Lan Wangji couldn’t repress his frown. His husband laughed at him.

“Such a stern face!” he teased. “I take it gambling is forbidden by the rules?”

“Absolutely forbidden.”

Uncle had very strong views on gambling. Children in Cloud Recesses weren't permitted to even play at gambling. If Uncle saw a child placing a mock-wager, he was sure to dole out a punishment. Gambling, Uncle always said, is a sure path to moral depravity.

Lan Wangji repeated this axiom. His husband’s eyes lit with a mischievous gleam.

“What if you made a tiny wager? Just a single copper piece?”

When Lan Wangji frowned, the Patriarch dug another coin out of his pocket.

“Here, I’ll even give it to you. That way you’re not losing your own money. What’s the harm?”

Lan Wangji felt his frown deepen.

“’One small misstep paves the way for larger failures.’"

His husband blinked.

“A quote by Lan An,” Lan Wangji added.

The Patriarch sighed. He flipped the coin high in the air, then caught it in his hand. He pressed the coin into Lan Wangji’s palm.

“’Gambling with a single copper coin is entirely harmless, and even encouraged.'" A smile teased at the edge of his mouth. “A quote by the Yiling Patriarch.”

Lan Wangji knew he ought to refuse. But his husband's eyes danced and he was clearly enjoying himself. Slowly, Lan Wangji took the coin.

Just this once, he told himself. Just to humor my husband.

Uncle wouldn't approve, but Uncle wasn't here. So Lan Wangji put the coin down on the bench. He chose a number at random and pointed to it. The man behind the stall rolled the dice. When he lifted the cup, the dice showed Lan Wangji’s number. His husband threw his head back in laughed.

“See!” he cried. “Look, you didn’t even lose money! You won a prize. I told you it was harmless.”

Lan Wangji took his prize grimly. He had won a spun-sugar sculpture in the shape of a chrysanthemum, attached to a bamboo stick. The stall-keeper grinned amiably, but Lan Wangji couldn't return the smile.

Somehow, he felt that that fate was working against him these days. Mysterious forces seemed determined to chip away at his morals. Perhaps it was destiny, or perhaps it was just his husband.

“The profits of sin." Lan Wangji grimaced at the sugar sculpture, then pushed it into his husband's hands.

“Oh? You don’t want it?” The Patriarch took the stick and waggled the flower. “You’re giving it to me because I am already so sinful?”

“Because it was your coin,” Lan Wangji corrected.

His husband brightened.

“All right, I’ll accept.” He took a large bite, crunching the sugar between his teeth as they walked.

Lan Wangji hoped to escape the evening without committing any further violations against his sect's principles. But within minutes, his husband pulled him to a stop before another stall. This one sold a variety of wines. His husband’s eyes gleamed.

“Well, I already know drinking is forbidden by the rules." He flicked a silver piece at the merchant as he chose a bottle. “But is it forbidden to keep your husband company while he drinks?”

Lan Wangji gave that question due consideration. Technically, it was forbidden to keep company with individuals who were prone to drunkenness. The exact phrasing of the rule, however, referred to friends and business associates. It didn’t say anything about husbands. Lan Wangji knew he was splitting hairs, but his husband was waiting raptly for the answer. So he shook his head.

“Not forbidden,” he decided.

His husband gave an exaggerated sigh of relief.

“Ah, that’s nice. I’d hate to have to hide behind the stables to drink this.”

He uncorked the jug and took a large swig as they walked. Lan Wangji watched him drink with a certain measure of horror.

In some ways, he'd grown accustomed to this. His husband—and the rest of the Wens—often took wine with their meals. After two weeks of marriage, Lan Wangji no longer grimaced when he saw wine on the table. Yet he still wasn't used to his husband's peculiar habits. The Patriarch drank straight from the bottle, and he often ate with his fingers.

Lan Wangji resisted the urge to wrinkle his nose. He could, perhaps, find excuses for drinking alcohol. But poor table manners were quite clearly forbidden by the Lan disciplines.

The Patriarch drained half the bottle in two gulps. Then he wiped his mouth and grinned.

“Tell me something." He swayed forward, lowering his voice. “I am your husband, so I expect absolute honesty.”

Lan Wangji slowed his steps. Naturally, he was prepared to offer his husband complete honesty. His lawful spouse—the man with whom he’d bowed before heaven and earth—deserved nothing less. Even so, Lan Wangji felt a nervous, uncertain thrill. The feeling intensified as his husband leaned in close.

The Patriarch's voice was grave and solemn.

“Have you ever had alcohol?”

Lan Wangji realized that his heart rate had—for no apparent reason—sped up. He frowned at his husband and tried to slow his pulse.

“I wouldn’t judge you!” The Patriarch waved his hands, his face the picture of innocence. “I’m sure most of the disciples in your sect have tried a little sip!”

“I have not,” Lan Wangji said firmly. “They have not.”

His husband gave a doubtful hum.

“You’re so sure of that?”

Lan Wangji slowed to a stop.

“It is forbidden." He spoke slowly but emphatically. “We take our commitment to the disciplines seriously.”

He couldn't help feeling a sharp prickle of irritation. His husband seemed to think the rules were merely quaint customs. But they were the structure around which Lan disciples built their lives. Naturally, Lan Wangji had never ‘tried a little sip’. Nor had the other disciples.

But a memory suddenly surfaced. Two years prior, Lan Wangji remembered that half a dozen disciples were punished for sneaking alcohol into Cloud Recesses. Uncle had been furious, and it had been a minor scandal at the time.

Lan Wangji pushed that memory away. Such things did happen every now and then. A few disciples always fell prey to temptation. Lan Wangji shifted uneasily, an uncomfortable sensation of doubt pulsing through his veins. His husband's assertion must be incorrect. He hadn't suggested that 'a few' disciples had transgressed. He claimed that 'most' disciples had done so. Lan Wangji felt sure that couldn't be true.

But his husband looked unconvinced. He wore a dark, sardonic smile. Lan Wangji had seen that expression often during the first days of their marriage, and he disliked it. The Patriarch tipped his wine jug thoughtfully, taking a sip.

“If you expect everyone else to be as virtuous as yourself,” he said, “I think you’re going to meet with a lot of disappointment in this world.”

Lan Wangji had nothing to say to that. Fortunately, his husband didn't seem inclined to pursue the matter. His face cleared, and he bounded over to another stall.

“Now! What about mooncakes?” He scooped up a box. “Are those forbidden by the disciplines?”

“They are not,” Lan Wangji said.

His husband nodded triumphantly and bought the box. They ate them together as they walked.

“Melon? Taro? Dumplings?” His husband spoke through a mouthful of food.

Lan Wangji shook his head patiently.

“Not forbidden.”

“Toys?” His husband paused before a stall, admiring the display.

Lan Wangji started to reply, then hesitated. His husband whirled around, his eyes full of horror.

Toys are forbidden?”

Only half of his affront seemed affected. Lan Wangji grimaced.

“Excessive noise is forbidden."

Naturally, the children of his sect were permitted toys. But their play was meant to be educational. Parents and teachers encouraged paint supplies, counting games, and memory exercises. The elders generally approved of toys that helped improve coordination and balance, too. But his husband had stopped before a stall selling toy drums. In his heart, Lan Wangji knew that these wouldn't be allowed within Cloud Recesses.

His husband scowled, folding his arms.

“What is ‘excessive’?” he demanded. “By whose standards?”

“A drum would be considered excessive." Lan Wangji nodded to the display.

His husband’s face darkened further.

“Do you mean to tell me,” he spoke slowly, “that you lived your whole childhood without a toy drum?”

Lan Wangji nodded cautiously. He hadn’t realized that this declaration would prove controversial. His family had given him plenty of other gifts. Lan Wangji knew that his childhood had been highly privileged. He had never been deprived of the things he needed.

But his husband shook his head in disgust. Then he bought the drum and deposited it into Lan Wangji’s hands.

“Unacceptable. Deeply unacceptable!” He shook his finger emphatically. “I will write a strongly worded letter to Sect Leader Lan. Who's in charge of compiling the rules? The elders? I’m going to tell them they need to create a new rule. ‘All children must be given a toy drum, so they can annoy their teachers and parents!’”

For a moment, Lan Wangji was almost startled into smiling. He was surprised by how much effort it took to control his expression. That had never been a problem before. But his husband stomped his way down the street. He seemed truly indignant.

Lan Wangji turned the drum over in his hands. He was a grown man, a married man. Surely he was much too old for this sort of toy. Yet his husband had insisted on purchasing it, as compensation for the fact that Lan Wangji had never received one as a child. It was…quite funny. Lan Wangji schooled his expression, but he felt a smile flicker at the edge of his lips.

“Remind me once we get home!" His husband chewed vigorously on a roasted lotus seed. “I’ll send off the letters tomorrow.”

“Very well.”

Lan Wangji ducked his head until he was confident that his expression was neutral.

His husband glanced at him sideways. Then he groaned.

“Ah, you’re lying!” He squinted at Lan Wangji. “You won’t remind me! You’ll let me forget!”

“I have promised to remind you.” Lan Wangji folded his hands primly. “Lying is also forbidden.”

He wouldn't dare to omit the promised reminder. Not if his husband truly considered the matter important.

The Patriarch eyed him skeptically for a moment. At last, he seemed convinced. He turned his attention to the children, who had just filed past. They trailed after Wen Qionglin like ducklings. Their small party didn't glance toward the Patriarch or Lan Wangji. Their talisman must be working well. But the children were clearly distracted. Each one clutched a spun-sugar stick of their own. They ate voraciously, and their hands looked very sticky.

“Look at them!” His husband groaned and shook his head. “At least one of those kids is going to throw up all over Wen Qionglin’s shoes before the day is through. Mark my words.”

Lan Wangji hoped it wouldn't come to that. But the children rushed toward a sweetshop, and Wen Qionglin dug out the money pouch. So perhaps it was a vain hope, after all.

The children's faces were bright with joy and wonder as they looked around the market. Lan Wangji watched them scurry off. He felt the urge to smile again, stronger this time. His husband tugged on his sleeve.

“Let’s do a lantern,” he suggested. “For luck!”

Lan Wangji nodded and followed his husband to a nearby stall.

They had passed two or three such stands already. Merchants had set out supplies: premade lantern frames, fine paper, ink, brushes, candles. For a fee, patrons could quickly assemble their own lanterns. Lan Wangji paid the fee this time. His husband had spent enough money for one day.

The Patriarch chuckled as Lan Wangji took out his money pouch.

“I forget I haven’t married a pauper!” He picked out out a sheet of paper. “Your family sent you money?”

Lan Wangji nodded again. He felt a small twinge of guilt over that now. According to tradition, his family had been freed from their financial obligations toward him. Lan Wangji had married into his husband’s home, and it was now his husband's duty to provide for his needs. But before he left Cloud Recesses, his brother and uncle had taken him aside. They had given Lan Wangji quite a bit of money and urged him to write if he needed more. Lan Wangji couldn't bring himself to refuse. He knew they worried his husband wouldn't offer the proper financial support. At the time, Lan Wangji had shared their fears.

But he saw now these fears were unfounded. The Patriarch’s lands brought in enough money to support the settlement. Whatever flaws his husband might have—he had claimed to be an imperfect being—he certainly wasn't miserly. The Patriarch bought the children whatever they wished, and he hadn't hesitated to open his purse for Lan Wangji.

It was pleasant, though, to treat his husband. So Lan Wangji paid the merchant and helped select the lantern frame. Once their paper was spread out on the bench, the Patriarch took up the brush. He tapped it thoughtfully against his chin.

“Hm. What should we write on it? A riddle? A wish?” He nodded to himself and loaded the brush with ink. “I’ll wish that all our radish plots magically turn into potatoes.”

Lan Wangji sighed. He still didn't know much about his husband or his new home. But he knew that the kitchen gardens produced a generous crop of radishes. Lan Wangji also knew that his husband wished to have them torn up in favor of potato plots. Wen Qing had overruled him, and it was a frequent source of contention between the two. Lan Wangji had the impression it was merely an old joke, one neither of them had bothered to explain.

“There!” The Patriarch waved the paper to dry it. “It might even come true. There must be a spell or a talisman I could invent.”

He frowned, as if considering the matter. Lan Wangji glanced down at the talisman on his own chest. His husband did appear to be very skilled at finding creative uses for talismans. Lan Wangji was curious to know how far this capacity for innovation went.

“What do you want to write?” His husband dipped his brush in ink once more.

Lan Wangji frowned at the blank portion of the paper.

“Traditionally, the lantern should include a blessing. For safety and prosperity.”

His voice sounded unenthusiastic, even to his own ears. The Patriarch made a disparaging sound.

“How boring! Haven’t you had enough of tradition? Anyway, why do you need to wish on lanterns for those things?”

It was true. Lan Wangji was married to an immortal. He lived behind powerful protection wards, and he had as much safety and earthly wealth as anyone could desire. Wishing for further prosperity seemed shamefully greedy.

“Come on, think of something else!” His husband prodded him with the end of the brush. “How about a picture?”

“I am not very good at drawing,” Lan Wangji admitted.

That was shameful, too. After all, drawing was one of the Four Scholarly Arts.

Lan Wangji felt sure that he had mastered the others. He was skilled with both the guqin and the calligraphy brush. He held his own playing qi, too. But his paintings had always been rather amateurish. He certainly couldn't compare to his brother. Lan Xichen's paintings were renowned for their beauty and composition, while Lan Wangji's were merely...passable.

He smoothed his thumb over Bichen's hilt. For a moment, he thought his husband might be disappointed to discover this flaw. But the Patriarch's face brightened.

“Oh? We’ve finally found something Hanguang-Jun doesn’t excel at?”

He leaned forward, a wide grin on his face. Lan Wangji thought he sounded perversely delighted at the prospect. He gave his husband a sharp, disapproving look. But the implication was rather flattering. His husband implied that Lan Wangji excelled in so many things, it was difficult to find any shortcomings. A pleased glow lit inside Lan Wangji's chest.

“Fortunately for you,” the Patriarch tapped his own chest proudly, “your husband is an accomplished artist. Now, tell me what to draw.”

Lan Wangji hesitated.

“A rabbit."

“Why a rabbit?”

The Patriarch did not wait for an answer before sketching out his drawing. But when Lan Wangji failed to respond, he glanced up. Whatever he saw on Lan Wangji’s face filled his eyes with unholy glee.

“Husband! Are you secretly fond of rabbits?”

Lan Wangji couldn’t muster a response, and the Patriarch laughed aloud.

“You are!” he cried.

Lan Wangji tried to resume his disapproving expression. He didn't think he succeeded. His husband snickered to himself as he turned back to his sketch.

“I’m fond of rabbits too. It’s true!” he added, when Lan Wangji gazed at him doubtfully. “They’re very tasty.”

Lan Wangji managed a properly annoyed look then, but his husband only laughed harder.

“You’re too easy to rile up!” The Patriarch wiped away tears of mirth as he set the brush down. “Look, I’ll make it up to you. Here’s a very nice rabbit!”

Lan Wangji examined the drawing. He was forced to admit that his husband spoken truthfully. The Patriarch had made a surprisingly detailed sketch: a plump rabbit, crouched on a flat stone, surrounded by grass. It did look like a very nice rabbit.

“It is well-drawn,” he allowed.

His husband looked self-satisfied.

“Of course it is.” He dusted off his hands and folded the paper around the lantern. “It’s almost too good to send off into the sky! But we’ll send it up as a blessing. A wish for many rabbits, and lots of rabbit stew.”

Lan Wangji refused to wish for any such thing. But they lit the candle and lifted the lantern, and it floated up in the dark sky. As he turned to watch the lantern's progress, Lan Wangji caught a glimpse of the Wens gathering near the town gate.

The Patriarch spotted them too.

“Everybody’s heading back home, I suppose.” He shifted off the counter and gathered up the rest of his mooncakes. “Well, let’s go see if everyone made it back in one piece. Do you think Fourth Uncle is drunk underneath a stall somewhere?”

Lan Wangji didn't bother to reply. But his chest felt warm, and he was happier than he's been since his the moment of his betrothal. His husband, he realized, had a sense of humor. He had a childlike spirit, too. He was much friendlier than Lan Wangji had anticipated. Perhaps this discovery shouldn't have come as a surprise. The children were fond of him, and so were the Wens. He couldn't have won their affection and loyalty if he had a cruel nature.

But Lan Wangji’s expectations had been abysmally low. He hardly even dared to hope for civility from his husband. Yet the Patriarch had teased him and talked with him. He bought Lan Wangji toys and helped him make a lantern. That was a great blessing.

Something fragile and hopeful unfurled in Lan Wangji's heart. He had taken it for granted that theirs would never be a true marriage. But perhaps things weren't as hopeless as he imagined. Someday, they might have a marriage of affection and mutual respect. The evening had passed so pleasantly that winning his husband's affection no longer seemed like an impossible dream.

They threaded their way through the crowds, moving slowly toward the gates. The Patriarch’s body brushed against his. Lan Wangji felt every brief touch like an emblem of fire. But the crowds thinned as they reached the edge of town, and the Patriarch stepped aside to inspect a display of tanghulu.

Lan Wangji waited patiently. He wondered whether he should advise his husband to leave the tanghulu behind. He’d spoil his appetite for the banquet if he ate any more sweets. Before Lan Wangji could speak, a snatch of conversation from a tiny wine stall caught his attention.

“No, I saw the wedding procession myself! Of course, nobody’s seen Hanguang-Jun since. But they say he’s up there.”

Lan Wangji tried not to turn. But the temptation was overpowering. He glanced to the side, his eyes searching for the speaker. A few young men clustered around the stall. The owner, a potbellied man with a mustache, was listening to their chatter. One of the men frowned as he emptied his cup.

“Didn’t the marriage happen very suddenly?”

His husband stiffened slightly. Then he turned, elaborately careless, toward the man who has spoken. Lan Wangji's hands twitched at his sides.

Gossip, Lan Wangji reminded himself sternly, was forbidden. He couldn’t stop the men from whispering, not without revealing his identity and causing a scene. But what he could do—what he should do—was urge his husband away. They ought to return home quickly and finish celebrating the holiday. Eavesdropping was also forbidden. If they remained, they would be guilty of just that.

Lan Wangji tried to force his feet to move. The owner’s voice rang out before he could manage it.

“Of course it did! We can’t understand why.” The man swabbed his counter with a filthy rag. “If Hanguang-Jun was a woman, I’d think there must be a child on the way!”

The Patriarch choked. Lan Wangji felt a flush spread along the back of his neck. The men didn't seem to notice their eavesdroppers. They continued to whisper, trading rumors and secondhand gossip.

“They say Hanguang-Jun is very talented and a powerful cultivator.” One of the young men scratched his chin. “It’s not such a strange choice.”

The owner snorted.

“I’ve heard he’s very beautiful, too. The Patriarch might have wanted a beauty in his bed.”

His husband’s hand closed around his arm and steered him away. When Lan Wangji found the courage to turn, he was surprised to find that Patriarch looking as embarrassed as he felt.

“Goodness!” The Patriarch cleared his throat. “Don’t people have vulgar minds!”

“Mm.”

Lan Wangji busied himself, adjusting the packages in his arms. He had somehow taken possession of the mooncakes. The stuffed goldfish and the drum had been shoved into the crook of his elbow. Lan Wangji rearranged them, trying to spare himself the humiliation of looking at his husband.

Of course, people were talking. Lan Wangji had understood that already. He tried to use that thought to will the blush away: People will gossip about the marriage. You knew this long before your wedding day.

The men hadn't uttered a single word that hadn't already crossed Lan Wangji's mind. He, too, had wondered if the Patriarch married because he wanted a lover, a bedwarmer, a pleasure-companion. When they met inside that tent, the Patriarch had implied that he found Lan Wangji attractive. Lan Wangji had wondered if he arranged the marriage for that reason alone.

But it was one thing for Lan Wangji to make private assumptions about his own husband. It was quite another to know that others were speculating upon the most intimate details of his marriage. Lan Wangji's face burned. He was nearly tempted to go back, to reprimand the men personally. But that would only throw oil on the fire. He would humiliate himself, as well as his husband.

So Lan Wangji kept a firm grasp on the packages. As they walked, he studied the town gates as if they were the most fascinating things he’d ever seen. They approached the gates in awkward silence. After a moment, the Patriarch gave a smothered laugh.

“Husband."

Lan Wangji turned involuntarily. He dragged his gaze up and met his husband’s eyes. They were dancing, but the Patriarch had assumed a solemn expression.

“You’d tell me if you were with child, wouldn’t you?” His voice quivered with amusement, but he sought to maintain an air of gravity. “You wouldn’t keep such a thing secret?”

Lan Wangji was vexed to find his blush deepening. It spread from his brows to his chest.

“Nonsense,” he said gruffly.

He quickened his pace, and his husband scampered alongside.

“Hm, does that mean you’re not pregnant?”

His voice was blithe. He didn't seem troubled that there were strangers nearby who could hear such absurdities. Lan Wangji walked faster.

“I suppose that’s for the best." His husband gave a theatrical sigh. "We have too many children already. Oh, look, it was A-Bao who threw up!”

This last remark was added as they drew within sight of the Wens. Based on the state of his robes, Lan Wangji guessed that A-Bao had indeed been sick. He had obviously recovered, though. He played happily with a toy horse, chasing after A-Yuan. Lan Wangji felt his heartbeat settle. He allowed his steps to slow. They were nearly there, nearly at the gates. Nearly home.

He marveled at how easy it was to think of the Burial Mounds as home. When he left Cloud Recesses behind, he had thought he was walking into a demon's lair. But his new home was no such thing. It might be known as Demon-Subdue Palace, but it was a homelike place. If he was destined to spend the rest of his days there, Lan Wangji found the prospect surprisingly agreeable.

But as they turned the final corner, they passed another cluster of people. They were evidently deep in their cups, whispering furiously. The Patriarch paused to listen.

“Well, no one knows for sure what he does up there!” A man leaned against the counter, slurring his words. “But everyone’s heard how the war ended.”

The group nodded grimly to one another. Lan Wangji's stomach sank. He tried to quicken his pace again, but his husband caught his arm.

“You don’t see so many of the walking corpses these days, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t up there.”

The group turned to stare at the mountain looming overhead.

“The mountain is large,” an old man murmured. “He could have an entire army, even larger than Wen Ruohan’s.”

Lan Wangji felt his husband’s fingers tighten around his wrist.

“The other Wens are his now, too.”

The woman’s voice was hushed, but she had been drinking too. Her voice carried, perhaps farther than she might have expected.

“I heard it from my sister-in-law," she hissed. "The Patriarch claimed them at the end of the war. All the Wen soldiers are dead, but he claimed the servants and peasants who survived.”

“Now what would he want with all that riffraff?” the old man grumbled.

“Ah, that’s the question!” The drunk man swayed in. “Why would he get involved with the war at all?”

Lan Wangji felt every line of tension in his husband’s body. His own throat was tight. He had asked himself each of these questions, at one time or another. But it was dreadful to hear them spoken so plainly. The grim, bleak look in his husband’s eyes was worse. Lan Wangji didn't know what to make of it. He twisted his wrist, brushing their fingers together.

“Husband,” he murmured. “The banquet.”

The Patriarch nodded, and they walked away. But the evening was spoiled for his husband. Lan Wangji knew it. They took off their disguise talismans, and his husband put on a show for the children and for the Wens. He swung the children into his arms, joking loudly as they walked back up the mountain. He ate every dish at the banquet and drank deeply of the chrysanthemum wine. He was noisier and merrier than anyone present. But somehow, it felt hollow.

Wen Qing glanced shrewdly at the Patriarch as he refilled his wine cup for the fifth time. She didn’t stop him, though. Lan Wangji didn’t dare to intercede. The fragile, tremulous connection forged during the evening had shriveled and died.

His husband didn't look his way during the banquet. He didn’t speak to Lan Wangji at all. When Lan Wangji excused himself at hai-shi, his husband didn’t even bid him goodnight. He certainly didn’t indicate that he planned to join Lan Wangji in bed that night.

As he removed his red robes, Lan Wangji felt empty inside. His marriage seemed to be built on quicksand. At every turn, Lan Wangji faced the sharp, vicious reminder that he didn't truly know his husband. He didn’t even know why his husband had chosen him as a spouse, or what he hoped from their marriage. Lan Wangji certainly didn’t know whether the gossip—the Patriarch could be building an army!—was vile slander or rooted in truth. His husband would not confide in him.

He didn’t even know his husband’s name.

Lan Wangji set aside the robes for cleaning. He took down his hair and combed it. Then he laid the lotus hairpin beside his forehead ribbon and placed both into a pouch beside his bed. The two seemed to go together. He couldn’t possibly explain why, but he couldn't imagine forgoing either. Somehow, though, he had an uncomfortable suspicion that someday he'd have to surrender one. Lan Wangji frowned at the pouch, his spirits sinking further.

Such decisions, he told himself, need not be made tonight.

He finished undressing and prepared himself for bed. Afterward, he paused to arrange his new items. The stuffed goldfish would be hung on the northern wall. He tucked the drum into the desk drawer, on top of A-Yuan's old drawings. The most recent masterpiece—the drawing of the harvest moon and the rabbits—he pinned above the desk. Lan Wangji tucked the disguise talisman into the drawer, too. He still wished to examine it later and understand how the Patriarch managed it. He would get no answers from his husband’s mouth, it seemed. So he must look for clues elsewhere.

As he climbed into bed, he felt thoroughly disheartened. But he touched the pouch containing the hairpin and tried to revive his hopes. There was so much he didn't understand yet. Perhaps it would come in time. He wasn't willing to give up yet. Not after seeing so many glimpses of the Patriarch’s lively spirit.

He thought of his husband’s smile and the way he laughed when drew the rabbit. Then he shut his eyes and blew out the last candle.