During the first few weeks of Lan Wangji's marriage, the world still clung to the fading summer. The days were warm, long, and leisurely. But after Mid-Autumn Festival, the weather changed. Autumn had arrived, with winter close on its heels. The changing seasons soon threw Lan Wangji's daily routine into disarray.
In Cloud Recesses, he had lived far away from the fields. He understood that there was a rhythm to farming, but he knew nothing of such matters. The peasants and villagers near Gusu managed their own affairs. It was the duty of cultivators to keep the peace and purge resentful energy, not to farm crops. So the business of agriculture was foreign to Lan Wangji. The harvest itself was almost a mystery.
But it was impossible to avoid the harvest once he joined his husband's household. As soon as autumn arrived, everyone living in the Burial Mounds grew busy. The whole household set to work harvesting food, making tallies, and preparing for winter. These duties came as something of a surprise for Lan Wangji.
Through careful observation, he discovered that only a third of the Dafan Wens had golden cores. Among those who possessed cores, their cultivation was fairly weak. None of the Wens carried a sword or trained as a cultivator. Instead, they devoted themselves to other practices. The Wens were teachers, physicians, and skilled laborers. They traveled between the Patriarch’s villages, sharing their services between each interconnected community.
But in autumn, everyone turned their attention to the harvest. Even Wen Qing, a trained physician, set aside her practice for a few days. Half the household scattered to the outlying villages to help in the fields. Those who remained behind kept busy, too. The rocky mountain soil wouldn't support grain fields or rice patties, but crabapple and persimmon trees took root. Lan Wangji discovered goji and pear trees, too. Meanwhile, the kitchen gardens were heavy with cabbages, radishes, peas. And the lotus ponds must be emptied before the first frost.
The Patriarch expected that everyone would lend a hand. The children must abandon their studies for a few days, he said. Their help was needed.
“They’re so greedy!" He dangled a delighted A-Yuan upside-down by his ankles. “They should know where all the food they gobble up comes from!”
Lan Wangji couldn't object to that, not when his husband offered up his own labor. Once the harvest began, the Patriarch turned up his robes. He slogged into the lotus ponds and worked right alongside the Wens. Lan Wangji blinked, startled. But he was growing used to his husband's strange ways. He understood, too, that he must follow his husband's example.
So he turned up his own robes and joined the others in the muddy water. As he worked, Lan Wangji kept an eye on his husband. The children splashed around, clamoring for his attention. Lan Wangji tried to listen, but he couldn't focus on their chatter. He was too busy watching his husband. It was profoundly strange to watch an immortal perform such a mundane task. Yet the Patriarch seemed to enjoy manual labor. After six weeks of marriage, Lan Wangji had nearly forgotten that his husband was an immortal.
It was surprisingly easy to forget. The walking corpses still lingered in his periphery, and they were an ever-present reminder. But there weren't so many as Lan Wangji had originally believed. During the first week in his new home, he seemed to walk past another corpse every shi. Each glimpse filled him with fresh horror. Slowly, though, his horror had faded. He took the time to count the corpses, to study them. Then Lan Wangji realized the truth: there were only ten in total.
The corpses performed everyday tasks: fetching water, carrying loads, and sweeping the floors. The corpse girls Lan Wangji met on his wedding night were in charge of the laundry. They leered whenever they saw him, but they didn't speak to him again. Nor did any of the others. Not a single corpse had approached him or given him any trouble. They often watched Lan Wangji when he was nearby, though.
Lan Wangji watched them, too. As he conducted his observation, he realized that the people of the Burial Mounds were wholly unbothered by these creatures. The children regarded the corpses with a benevolent disinterest. Meanwhile, the adults worked alongside them without a word of complaint. No one seemed to find their presence shocking or distressing.
The Wens' indifference had, perhaps, rubbed off on Lan Wangji. His horror and disgust were blunted. Sometimes, Lan Wangji forgot about the corpses entirely. As the days passed into weeks, it grew difficult to remember the truth: these were creatures who should not exist. They were a blasphemy against the natural order. Lan Wangji knew this was so. Yet he couldn't make himself believe it. He saw the corpses merely as women who did the laundry, or the men who collected firewood.
One of the corpses lingered next to the lotus ponds, watching the Wens. He waited patiently beside a pile of baskets. If the Wens filled one with harvested lotus, he carried the basket inside. Lan Wangji studied the man's pale face, his eyes tracing the thin black lines that crept along the man's throat. The man watched benignly, smiling as the children shrieked and splashed each other.
It was hard, Lan Wangji admitted to himself, not to think of him as a man. He had seen these corpses speak and seen them smile. They had names. This one was known as Li Honghui.
Lan Wangji wondered whether the man had received this name at birth. Perhaps he had chosen the name himself, after the Patriarch raised him from his grave. Lan Wangji couldn't be sure, and asking seemed terribly discourteous. So he gave the man a polite nod and then turned away. He helped the children pick lotus pods and tried to keep them from splashing each other with mud.
But every now and then, he glanced toward the man curiously. He knew he mustn't ask how the man had become...what he was. Lan Wangji did wonder, though. He wondered about the corpses, and he wondered about his husband. Aside from his walking corpses—and the events that ended the war—the Patriarch never flaunted his power. Lan Wangji felt the pulse of powerful qi every time his husband drew near, but the Patriarch made no showy displays.
He didn't need to, of course. His home was secure, and his settlements were thriving. The wards around the Burial Mounds were impenetrable. Lan Wangji felt sure that the other villages must be equally well-protected. In any event, the cultivation world regarded the Patriarch with fear and awe. None would dare to threaten him or his people. There was no need for him to show off.
Still, his husband spent a great deal of time in closed-door cultivation. Lan Wangji couldn't help nurturing a fierce curiosity about that. Particularly since he saw no evidence of the results. When the Patriarch left his study, he seemed to leave his studies behind. He joined the rest of the household, joked with the Wens, and told the children outlandish stories. After he finished teasing and laughing, he rolled up his sleeves and helped with the harvest. He never breathed a single mention of his secret cultivation work.
Lan Wangji loaded up another basket and sent it off with Li Honghui. A-Yuan and A-Bao had lost interest in lotus-picking. They were involved in a splashing battle that had grown rather intense. Lan Wangji separated them gently, coaxing them back to work with the promise of sweets. As the words left his mouth, the back of his neck prickled with guilt. He could feel Uncle's disapproval, even across thousands of li. Lan Wangji knew better than to succumb to the shameful practice of bribing children into proper behavior. Yet he had succumbed within his very first month in residence.
His husband had laughed when he learned of this.
"Oh, that can't be helped." He swung A-Mei around, lifting her small feet off the ground. "It's the only way to keep them in line. By all means, bribe them!"
Wen Qionglin sheepishly admitted that he, too, was guilty of bribery. Lan Wangji had been temporarily comforted. But his husband's easy acceptance—his amused indulgence whenever he learned of Lan Wangji's failures—was puzzling.
Lan Wangji still wasn't sure what to make of him. He watched his husband carefully as their settlement finished the day's work: picking fruit, pickling vegetables, and brewing wine. The children and the Wens treated him like an ordinary man. As expected, they respected him as their lord. If he made a suggestion, they obeyed. But they didn't hesitate to smile at him, or to chat as if he were a neighbor in the marketplace. The Patriarch treated his people with unfailing gentleness and kindness.
When he and Lan Wangji were alone, though, his behavior could be quite different. His moods were erratic. Sometimes, he was cheerful and amiable. He teased Lan Wangji, just as he teased the children. They discussed household matters: a slight quarrel between the disciples or arrangements for the children’s lessons. On rare occasions, the Patriarch spent the morning with Lan Wangji in the library. He wrote out his correspondence while Lan Wangji ground ink. Lan Wangji prepared cinnabar paste, too, so his husband could affix his seal. His husband was always in high spirits then, and Lan Wangji treasured these moments.
He had kept his promise. The morning after Mid-Autumn festival, he reminded his husband of the letter to Cloud Recesses. His husband promptly marched over to the desk and wrote to Sect Leader Lan. The letter was written with an exaggerated formality.
A matter of great importance had come to his attention, the Patriarch said. He had discovered that children in Cloud Recesses were not permitted drum toys. He was highly disturbed by the news, and he felt this oversight must be corrected at once. He awaited Sect Leader Lan's assurance that the matter had been dealt with.
His husband beamed as he stamped his seal and folded up the letter. Lan Wangji merely sighed. He shook his head as he dropped the letter into the proper receptacle. Then he went straight to his own chambers to write a letter of his own. He tried to explain to his brother that the original missive was a joke. It was whim on his husband’s part, he said. It must not be taken seriously. His husband was merely perplexed by the Lan sect's rules, and he had a peculiar sense of humor.
But his brother had one too. Lan Wangji had forgotten that, so he was caught off guard by his brother's reply. Sect Leader Lan quickly sent a reply, one equally brimming with formality.
He had taken the matter before the elders, he said. They had seemed unwilling to add the proposed new rule. However, Sect Leader Lan would not dare to carelessly dismiss his brother-in-law's suggestion. Accordingly, he had given the matter profound thought. In spite of the elders' resistance, he decided there was merit in the Patriarch’s suggestion. He had bestowed a toy drum upon his youngest cousin, A-Yi. He would observe the child over the next few months, tracking the results of this case study. Should the toy drum prove beneficial to the child's upbringing, he would gladly take the matter before the elders once more.
In a private letter to Lan Wangji, he described the gift in greater detail. The child, he said, was overjoyed with the present. The child's parents were not. Lan Xichen was not high in their good grace at the moment, and he feared he had created a terrible rift in their family. As he wrote the letter, he claimed he could hear the toy drum echoing from the courtyard. There was no escaping the sound, not even in the most remote hills.
Lan Wangji sighed and shook his head over that letter too. But he read it aloud the next morning, and his husband laughed. Knowing his brother as he did, Lan Wangji felt sure that Lan Xichen had laughed too. In light of his husband and his brother's combined mirth, Lan Wangji couldn't bring himself to complain.
During such moments, Lan Wangji's heart felt light. He could almost pretend that he had an ordinary marriage. There was still no passion, but they were becoming well-acquainted. Their conversations were almost friendly, and he enjoyed discussing mundane household concerns with his husband. The Patriarch smiled often during these interludes, and Lan Wangji had the delightful feeling that his presence was a source of pleasure for his husband.
But sometimes, his husband pulled away and turned cold. He would disappear for days at a time, without warning. Upon his return, he assumed a sarcastic manner. He seemed to be spoiling for a fight, ready to take offense at any perceived slight. Lan Wangji wasn't sure what to make of this. After a few weeks, he swallowed his pride long enough to ask Wen Qing's opinion. She clearly knew his husband best, and she would know if something was truly amiss. She treated the matter lightly, though.
"The Patriarch has low moods sometimes," she said. "They'll pass. It's nothing for you to concern yourself with."
Her tone was nonchalant. But she, too, could be evasive. Her shifts in mood were subtler, harder to detect. Sometimes, Lan Wangji caught her watching him with something like suspicion. As they brought in the lotus harvest, Lan Wangji caught her at it again. She studied him as he waded into the muddy water, her face inscrutable.
Neither she nor the Patriarch had been forthcoming about the lands beyond the Burial Mounds. After a month and a half of marriage, Lan Wangji still knew almost nothing about how the settlement or the villages were run. He couldn't help feeling slightly resentful. As the Patriarch’s husband, it was his duty to help keep the accounts. He ought to know how many crops this field yielded and how many people were housed by that village. But no one seemed to trust Lan Wangji with such tasks.
As the harvest wore on, though, he gathered several scraps of information. In time, he stitched them into a cohesive whole. He quickly discovered that the Patriarch’s domain was run like a sect. No one referred to it in such terms. But there were disciples of all ages. There were teachers and physicians. There were non-cultivators who did the cleaning, cooking, laundry. There were peasants in the fields, crops bought and sold.
Slowly, Lan Wangji collected enough information to make an educated guess about the population. Once the last of the Wen refugees arrived—sent by Nie Mingjue, as promised—there were perhaps three or four hundred people living in the Patriarch’s domain. Yiling held an additional five hundred citizens. The Wens did not seem to count Yiling in their tally, though. The Patriarch ruled the town in name only.
This discovery was somewhat discomfiting. As bathed that evening, Lan Wangji dwelled on the matter. He had spent another day in the lotus ponds, and there was a great deal of mud to remove. His mind wandered, drifting once more to his mysterious husband. He was still vexed by how little he knew. The Patriarch seemed determined to shut him out from tasks that rightfully belonged to Lan Wangji. He should be keeping up the accounts, managing the villages, hiring servants and laborers. But when Lan Wangji offered to do these things, his husband grew secretive and evasive. It grated against Lan Wangji's nerves.
Even so, he could bear it. If he was only trusted to help with the children's education and the disciples' training, he could be content. That was enough, and Lan Wangji would never demand more. He was troubled, though, when he thought of his husband's powers. They were married, and yet Lan Wangji knew little of his husband's abilities.
Upon this topic, Lan Xichen's letters did nothing to set his mind at rest. Lan Wangji felt sure that his brother intended his correspondence to be a comfort. And it was...for the most part. He told Lan Wangji of the lectures at Cloud Recesses, the new disciples, the night-hunts and competitions. In turn, Lan Wangji told his brother about the children's lessons and his cultivation practice. It eased his mind to know that everything seemed well at Cloud Recesses. He hoped to offer his brother equal peace of mind: the knowledge that Lan Wangji was safe, provided for, working with young disciples once again.
But Lan Xichen's last two letters had been full of coded allusions. The sects were restless, he hinted. The Patriarch's decision to claim the Wen refugees and spare them further punishment had no been a popular decision. Moreover, the Patriarch's territories now held over a thousand people. Having so many men and women under the Patriarch's command made many sects uneasy. Most of the Patriarch's people weren't cultivators. As far as Lan Wangji could tell, only a few dozen had golden cores and the majority had no combat ability whatsoever. But the sheer numbers left a bitter taste in the mouths of some sect leaders.
The sects also disliked the fact that the Patriarch had claimed several villages and fields. Lan Xichen intimated that they felt immortals ought to sequester themselves in some remote place, accepting a handful of disciples. They ought not to style themselves as feudal lords, governing people and accumulating wealth. The immortal in question had terrifying powers, too. He possessed the ability when he ended a war in a single afternoon. The sects were wondering what he might do next.
Lan Wangji couldn't pretend to be surprised. After Wen Ruohan, it was natural for the sect leaders to be on their guard. They must remain vigilant against future tyrants. That was justifiable and understandable. And some sect leaders had always cast a jealous eye upon anyone who appeared to have greater power. But this prospect—his husband, loathed and mistrusted by the cultivation word—made Lan Wangji's stomach twist.
After he climbed from the bath and dried off, he sat behind his desk. Lan Xichen's most recent letter arrived that very afternoon, yet Lan Wangji had already read it thrice. He picked it up again, his eyes scanning over the familiar lines.
In the letter, Lan Xichen quoted two lines from an obscure poem. The verses spoke of changing seasons, the approaching winter. His brother claimed that Mid-Autumn Festival always reminded him of this verse. To a casual reader, this remark might seem entirely straightforward. But Lan Wangji knew the truth.
The lines his brother quoted referred to the first snowfall. Yet he had taken the lines out of context; the poem itself was quite different. It told the story of a man of wealth and power who grew proud and domineering. His fellows resented him for his advantages, and their resentment was sharpened by his haughty demeanor. Soon, they began to plot against him. In the end, they murdered him in his sleep.
The man's dwindling power was represented by the changing season. His death was the sudden winter. It wasn't a well-known verse. Perhaps most cultivators wouldn't have recognized it. As a young disciple, though, Lan Wangji had written an essay on this poem. He had argued that power was often corrosive to the spirit. Those who attained high rank, he said, must take care not to overreach themselves.
Lan Xichen knew this, of course. He had graded his brother's essay himself.
Lan Wangji read the letter a fourth time, then a fifth. Then he slipped the letter into his sleeve and paced restlessly around his chambers. He wasted half a shi brooding in his small garden. The koi had grown sluggish, he observed, as the weather turned colder. They seemed to be preparing to hibernate. Lan Wangji studied the fish for a while. Then he drew the letter from his sleeve and read it again.
He saw no signs that the Patriarch planned to take action against the sects. His husband rarely spoke of the cultivation world. Very few people in the Burial Mounds took an interest in sect politics. If the subject happened to come up, his husband responded with subtle contempt. He expressed no interest in the sects' doings. Not once had he asked Lan Wangji for his opinion of the political situation.
At present, the Patriarch was thoroughly occupied with the harvest. He kept busy helping the refugees to settle in, too. If he spoke of anything, it was his plans for the spring. He intended to build new houses, dig new wells, and expand the fields. They would need to made adjustments, he said, to feed and house the growing populace. There was no avarice in his eyes when he spoke of such things. Lan Wangji couldn't believe that his husband sought to build up his settlements to seize power. The implications in Lan Xichen's letters seemed wholly misguided.
...Yet his husband spent a great deal of time by himself. During these periods of solitude, he tended to secret matters. Lan Wangji knew nothing of what his husband did while alone in his study.
He had assumed it was merely closed-door cultivation. Such activities were common enough in Cloud Recesses. From time to time, disciples retreated to a remote cottage and meditated in solitude. They studied ancient manuals and perfected their techniques through exhaustive practice. There was nothing dishonorable about private cultivation work. And perhaps there was a specialized form of training, one that immortals must perform on a regular basis to sustain their qi.
Lan Wangji had considered that, and he had been curious over his husband's absence. He hadn't been perturbed, though. He took his husband's explanations at face value and did not insult him with intrusive questions. But as he stared down at his brother's letter, Lan Wangji realized how little he knew of his husband's private life. He hadn't the faintest idea what his husband thought, dreamed, or planned. His husband's secret wishes and hopes were a mystery to Lan Wangji. He was beginning to despair that he would ever solve the puzzle.
He folded up his brother’s letter and put it away. He tried to forget it. But before he went to bed, he changed his mind. Lan Wangji slid the letter out of his desk and slipped it into the brazier. It hurt to destroy any of his brother's letters. His heart ached as he watched the paper catch fire. Still, he set his jaw and told himself it was for the best. There were, after all, only two possibilities.
Perhaps his husband was innocent of any dark ambitions. He might wish only to rule the people he already had, living peacefully in solitude. This theory had merit: the Patriarch had claimed several groups of Wen refugees, but only because they had nowhere else to go. They wouldn't meet with fair treatment elsewhere in the cultivation world. No matter where they went, they would be persecuted for their association with Wen Ruohan.
So the Patriarch had brought them here and hidden them behind his wards. The others—the servants, the disciples, the young children—were orphans too. Lan Wangji had learned that already. They had been found by the Patriarch or his people during their travels. There was no one to look after them, so the Patriarch brought them into his own household. That was just and reasonable. No one could blame a man who offered a home to the lonely and forsaken.
Lan Wangji gazed unhappily at the dying flames. The letter was gone, turned to smoke and ash. But Lan Wangji couldn't destroy his own fears as easily. It was possible, after all, that he had been deceived. Demonic cultivation was said to corrupt the spirit. His husband's strange absences might be proof of that. He might spend his time not in peaceful cultivation, but nurturing some deep plot. In short, it was possible that the Patriarch planned to do what the sects feared.
Perhaps he did plan to conquer them and rule as an ageless emperor. After all, he had married the scion of an old and respected clan. Such a marriage might further legitimize his claim, smoothing his path toward power.
Lan Wangji waited until the brazier went dark. Then he climbed into bed and shut his eyes. He tried to empty his mind. But sleep didn't come. He realized that his position in the Patriarch's household might be extremely precarious. If his husband meant to conquer the cultivation world, surely he wouldn't hesitate to dispose of a spouse who seemed disloyal. By making himself appear suspicious or untrustworthy, Lan Wangji might sign his own death warrant.
If that was how matters stood, then Lan Wangji must burn any letters which seemed to contain malicious rumors. He could do little to protect himself, but he must be cautious, prudent, ever-watchful. He must not breathe a word of these rumors or indicate any suspicion toward his husband.
Lan Wangji set his jaw and resolved to remain vigilant. But as the days passed, he found it hard to hold onto his suspicions. The Patriarch was playful with the children and the Wens. He helped to bring in the harvest with his own two hands, and the crops were plentiful. When they spoke in private, Lan Wangji found his husband's good mood had been restored. The Patriarch joyfully anticipated the hawthorn wine and rice wine to come. He discussed the merits of each wine in detail.
Lan Wangji had politely reminded his husband that he didn't drink. Surely he was a poor audience for this impromptu lecture? But his husband waved off these protests.
"It's because you don't drink that I'm explaining these things!" he gasped indignantly. "I'm trying to help a poor benighted soul! Weren't you the one who said the children should learn things, even if they never have to use them? Take your own advice!"
Lan Wangji sighed. Then he listened patiently as his husband enumerated the many ways in which rice wine was superior to hawthorn wine. It was a tedious discourse, but Lan Wangji found himself concealing a smile. His husband had been pleased as a child over the foods and trinkets at Mid-Autumn Festival. He delighted in wine, sweets, toys. And as Double Ninth Festival approached, he seemed as eager for a holiday as the children.
The day before the festival, the Patriarch was in especially high spirits. He planned to visit the villages today, he said. He hadn't left the Burial Mounds since their marriage—not the Lan Wangji knew of, anyway—but he intended to make a trip now.
“I want to make sure everyone is settling in,” he explained.
Lan Wangji nodded.
He would have liked his husband to invite him along. But he didn’t, and Lan Wangji told himself he must accept that. He tried to keep his disappointment off his face, even as a shard of ice settled in his chest.
His husband studied him, his gaze thoughtful.
“Maybe next time you can come with me?” He spoke almost tentatively.
The shard of ice thawed, splintered, dissolved. Lan Wangji lifted his eyes.
“I would like that,” he said softly.
His husband smiled, and Lan Wangji's heart gave a traitorous thump. He found himself trailing after the Patriarch as he prepared for his departure. It was quite unnecessary to follow his husband to the barrier. But Lan Wangji did so anyway. He wanted to see his husband off properly.
“You stay busy while I’m gone." The Patriarch swung a cloak around his shoulders and grinned. “Make the kids work hard! There are still some lotuses to bring in, so crack the whip! They can slack off tomorrow.”
He spoke with such gentle fondness, Lan Wangji couldn't take his talk of whips seriously. He nodded at his husband obediently. Then he hesitated.
“About that,” he said.
His husband turned and blinked. Lan Wangji hesitated some more.
It was, perhaps, not the right time to broach this topic. His husband had business to attend to. He was trying to leave, and Lan Wangji was delaying him. Besides, they had already discussed the preparations for the festival. They would not go into Yiling this time. For this holiday, everyone would remain within the Burial Mounds.
It’s tradition, his husband had said. You’re supposed to climb a mountain, so we can do that here!
The sloping peaks of the Burial Mounds would indeed make a good place for races and games. Afterward, there would be a banquet with chrysanthemum wine. Wen Qing had acquired plenty of zhuyu, too. They could make wreaths and air out the buildings. All this had been decided weeks ago.
But there was something they hadn't planned for, and it troubled Lan Wangji's conscience.
“Will we light incense tomorrow?” he asked, delicately. “Or burn offerings?”
That was tradition, too, the most vital tradition. They should visit their ancestors' graves, light incense, and burn paper offerings.
Lan Wangji couldn't journey to his parents' tomb. He understood that already. Cloud Recesses was too far away, and it was unseemly to leave his husband's home so early in their marriage. But he could still demonstrate filial piety by honoring his husband’s ancestors.
Yet he didn't know how. He didn't even know where their graves were located. There were two memorial tablets in the hall, and those were Lan Wangji's only clue. He had concluded that the tablets most likely belonged to his husband’s parents. If that was so, then Lan Wangji should set out offerings and burn incense to them. He had married into his husband's home, and this was one of his duties. But the hall had been sealed since their wedding day. Lan Wangji hadn't known how to request entrance without causing offense.
The Patriarch grew very still. For a long moment, he did not answer. When he finally spoke, his voice held a strange echo of shame.
“I’m pretty lax about that.” He flexed his hands, tugging on the edge of his cloak. “I try to burn some incense on festival days, when I remember. But sometimes I forget.”
Lan Wangji could not pretend to be surprised. He already knew that his husband could be forgetful. The Patriarch didn't always recall what day it was, or even what month. He didn't observe the small courtesies or the daily rituals that had always been a part of Lan Wangji’s life. His husband’s schedule was irregular, governed largely by his whims.
Perhaps this was to be expected in an immortal being. The days must bleed together for him. Every season must seem like the last. Still, it wasn't right to neglect one’s filial duties. If his husband struggled to remember what he owed his parents, Lan Wangji must help him.
“May I assist?”
His husband studied him in silence. Then he gave a slow, lopsided smile.
“Sure. You’ll arrange some offerings?”
Lan Wangji bowed his head, thinking rapidly. If the offerings had been neglected recently, they ought to be especially generous this time. There must be incense, fruit, and wine. Flowers too, perhaps. The children could gather them this afternoon. They could burn joss paper as well. No courtesies should not be neglected, no ritual omitted. Lan Wangji would never meet his in-laws in this lifetime, but he could still show them respect.
“Then we’ll go in there together.” The Patriarch murmured. “Tomorrow, before the banquet.”
His mind suddenly seemed far away. But he smiled at Lan Wangji before he left, and gave a casual wave.
He didn’t mount his sword, which he seldom carried. Lan Wangji had seen the blade only twice. His husband still refused to tell him its name and Lan Wangji had failed miserably in guessing. His husband had laughed uproariously at his feeble attempts. But the sword was nowhere to be found today. His husband he didn’t take out a transportation talisman, and he certainly didn't mount a horse. He was simply gone, between one breath and the next.
Lan Wangji stared at the space his husband had occupied moments before. His idle displays of power were still startling, and a little unnerving. But Lan Wangji was determined not to think of his husband's powers or the contents of his brother's last letter. Instead, he supervised the children as they picked the last of the lotus.
Afterward, Wen Qionglin took most of the group to gather wild chrysanthemum. Lan Wangji decided not to join them. He sat on a small bench beside one of the lotus ponds, A-Yuan on his lap. A-Qing stayed behind with them. She was enjoying the muddy pond too much to give it up. She brought in the last few lotus pods and cracked them open. Then she waited impatiently for Lan Wangji to shell the seeds for her.
She was old enough, Lan Wangji, knew to perform this task herself. And she had eaten a full meal scarcely an hour before. She couldn't possibly be hungry again. But A-Qing liked to eat often. She liked to have others prepare her food, too. Lan Wangji hadn't approved of this trait at first. He thought it might be pure idleness, the sort of behavior that should be trained out of her.
Wen Qionglin had been the one to share her backstory. One afternoon, while the children were napping, he whispered that A-Qing had spent time on the streets. After her parents died, she had been homeless. She sheltered where she could and wandered freely. She ate, Wen Qionglin said, whatever she could find. Often, that wasn't much. She had only come to the Burial Mounds—only found a home, with regular meals—a year ago.
After hearing that, Lan Wangji found it impossible to reprimand her. He peeled the seeds without complaint, and both children glutted themselves. There were pears, too. He cut and peeled one for A-Yuan, and intended to do the same for A-Qing. But she didn't have the patience to wait her turn. While he was carefully quartering A-Yuan's pear, she devoured hers, skin and all.
Lan Wangji watched as she ate it down to the core. He opened his mouth to remind her that she mustn't eat the seeds. She always tried to eat every scrap of her food, and he felt they must break that habit.
But suddenly, A-Qing dropped the pear. She leaped to her feet and tore across the yard.
“Daozhang!” she shrieked joyfully. “Daozhang!”
Lan Wangji turned, just in time to watch A-Qing hurl herself—muddy clothes and all—against a cultivator dressed in white. A man in black stood at his side. He grimaced a bit at the filthy child. But he greeted her with a quiet smile. When she took his hand and pulled him toward the bench, he did not draw away.
“Look!” A-Qing’s face was bright with joy as she towed the men along. “Daozhang is here!”
Lan Wangji lifted A-Yuan off his lap so he could rise.
There was only one ‘daozhang’ in A-Qing’s life. So there could be no doubt as to the pair's identity. A-Qing spoke often of Xiao Xingchen, who had found her in the slums of Yi City. She spoke, too, of his cultivation partner Song Zichen. Lan Wangji had heard a great deal about both of them, and he'd been looking forward to this meeting. He felt rather vexed that the introduction must take place here, in a muddy field, without anyone to mediate. It was a terrible place to receive guests, the first guests in his married life.
Of course, the men weren't exactly guests. Lan Wangji already understood that the Burial Mounds was the closest thing they had to a home. But he shifted to his feet uneasily, distressed that he had no chance to make the proper preparations.
If the pair found anything lacking in their welcome, they didn't say so. Perhaps it was hard for them to notice much, with A-Yuan and A-Qing clinging to their robes. Once they fought their way free of the children, they bowed to Lan Wangji. He returned the bow, and A-Qing took care of the introductions.
The two men shared a look then, one that Lan Wangji couldn't decipher. Song Zichen’s face was impenetrable. Xiao Xingchen, however, had a ready smile.
“We’ve heard of you, of course! We were so disappointed not to attend the wedding.” His smile deepened. “We didn’t even hear of it until after the fact. I wonder why the Patriarch was in such a hurry to marry. He didn’t even wait for his old friends!”
Song Zichen gave him a small nudge. Xiao Xingchen fell silent, but he kept his mischievous smile.
Lan Wangji parted his lips, but he wasn’t sure how to reply. The marriage had been conducted in extreme haste. He knew that better than anyone. He, too, wondered why the Patriarch had been in such a hurry. He had no explanation to offer.
Fortunately, A-Qing had much to tell her beloved daozhang. She insisted on taking him around the settlement, showing him the results of the harvest. That gave Lan Wangji time to escape inside and arrange for tea. Once that was done, he slipped inside an empty room and smoothed his creased robes. He tried to prepare himself for the always-grueling task of entertaining company. Now more than ever, he missed his brother.
But Lan Wangji was spared the worst of the hosting duties. Once the Wens heard that Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen had returned, they streamed into the hall. The children pushed each other aside in their rush to greet the pair. Meanwhile, the disciples waited—with poorly concealed eagerness—for their turn. Yet again, Lan Wangji was overwhelmed by the chaos of his new home. In Cloud Recesses, greetings were performed in an orderly manner. But in the Burial Mounds, Lan Wangji seemed the only one who conformed to the strictest etiquettes.
He had tried to teach the children some of these courtesies. The results, however, were inconsistent. They certainly didn't bother to wait their turn, delaying their greetings until their elders had performed theirs. But he had progressed far enough that A-Qing no longer gulped down her tea. Lan Wangji supposed that was something, at least.
Xiao Xingchen took notice, and he laughed.
“Such good manners!” he teased. “I’m sure the Patriarch didn’t teach you that. Has someone else been instructing you?”
She nodded. Her mouth was full of sesame cake, so she pointed at Lan Wangji. Pointing was, of course, another breach of etiquette. But Lan Wangji was trying to tackle these things one step at a time. She had stopped gulping her tea, and she had nearly stopped talking with her mouth full. Teaching her not to point would have to wait.
Xiao Xingcheng’s mouth twitched with amusement. Song Zichen merely shook his head over A-Qing's antics.
The hall had emptied by then. The Wens returned to their work, drying fruit and smoking fish. The disciples also returned to their lessons, somewhat unwillingly. They exacted a promise from Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen to review their progress. The pair were interested to hear that Lan Wangji had been helping with their sword lessons. They wanted to discuss the current curriculum, and such topics carried the conversation for half a shi. The frequent interruptions from the children helped fill the silences, too.
“You’ve worked very hard,” Xiao Xingchen remarked, during a lull. “I’m sure the Patriarch is grateful for your assistance. We’re often traveling, so we aren’t much help with the children’s education.”
“We just keep bringing him more orphans,” Song Zichen added ruefully.
“It is no trouble,” Lan Wangji murmured.
It wasn’t, or at least it was no burden. The children certainly required a great deal of attention. But he was grateful to have a role to perform in his new household.
He was grateful, too, that the children helped conceal his meager social skills. A-Qing chattered freely with the men, keeping them occupied. After a while, A-Mei and A-Yuan burst in, sobbing over some small quarrel, and Lan Wangji had an excuse to leave the table for a few minutes. By the time he had smoothed the matter over—they had fought over a toy and broken it in the struggle—the Patriarch returned.
He swept into the room. When he saw the two cultivators, his face lit up.
“Of course, you came on the one day I was away!”
He gripped Xiao Xingchen’s arm affectionately. To Song Zichen, he merely gave a respectful nod. But he surveyed the two with evident fondness. Lan Wangji felt an absurd pulse of jealousy.
“You couldn’t have come yesterday, or tomorrow.” The Patriarch heaved a sigh. “You must have done this on purpose. You waited outside the barrier until I was gone, isn’t that right?”
“We chose an unlucky hour,” Xiao Xingchen admitted. “But we wanted to be here for the festival. We were also eager to meet your husband.”
He flashed a meaningful glance in Lan Wangji’s direction, while Song Zichen gave the Patriarch a flat look. The Patriarch let out another sigh, this one heavier than the last. He grimaced at Lan Wangji.
“They’re angry with me because I didn’t stall the wedding until they returned.” He spoke in a loud stage-whisper. “Husband, please protect me!”
It was a joke. Lan Wangji was sure of that. It would be absurd to suggest that these men presented any true threat to the Patriarch, or that Lan Wangji could offer protection. But he had never been good with jokes, always slow to find a proper response. He stood, uncomfortably silent, and eventually the conversation continued without him.
“We’re not angry,” Xiao Xingchen replied. “When you have strong feelings for someone, sometimes you can’t bring yourself to wait. We understand this.”
He and Song Zichen exchanged a long look. Lan Wangji found himself averting his eyes in embarrassment.
They were cultivation partners, after all. Naturally, they must have deep affection for one another. But sharing such tender glances in public—nearly in public, anyway—was really quite shameless.
Lan Wangji pushed down another flicker of irrational jealousy. Such feelings were foolish, petty, and nonsensical. If the two men were happy together, that was a fine thing. Their happiness certainly took nothing away from Lan Wangji. Yet something about the way they looked at each other—the way they moved in tandem and picked up one another’s conversations— made him burn with envy.
It must be very pleasant to have that sort of bond. Navigating any journey or hardship would be effortless with such a partnership. Lan Wangji wished…
But he stamped down on that thought. He turned his attention to the conversation before him. The two men were chiding the Patriarch for not giving them notice of his marriage. His husband made feeble excuses.
“Well, there’s been a lot to think of.” He scratched his head. “The wedding, the war, the harvest…”
“I see. That’s why you forgot to write and tell us you were married?”
Xiao Xingchen's tone was deliberately pleasant. It was just the voice Lan Xichen used when he was displeased with someone. Lan Wangji winced.
“We had to hear the news from Wen Qing,” Song Zichen put in.
The Patriarch groaned.
“If you weren’t running around the ends of the earth, I would have remembered!” He jabbed an accusing finger in their direction. “If you were living next door, I would’ve told you right away.”
They shared another of those embarrassingly intimate looks. Lan Wangji turned his eyes away again.
“We will forgive you,” Xiao Xingchen decided. “This time.”
“Yes, yes.” The Patriarch dropped into a chair, helping himself to the few snacks A-Qing had left untouched. “I won’t have any more clandestine weddings. On my honor!”
“I should hope not,” Song Zichen said mildly. “Your husband might have something to say about that.”
It was merely a lighthearted joke, but it left a sour taste in Lan Wangji’s mouth. He tried to dismiss it from his thoughts. Even so, it stuck to him like a burr all through dinner.
His husband’s attention was entirely focused on his guests. If he thought Lan Wangji was unusually quiet during the meal, he gave no sign of it. He didn’t tease Lan Wangji or try to draw him out. Instead, he was busy with his friends. He wanted to know everything the pair had seen and done on their travels.
Xiao Xingchen was courteous, and he made some attempts to include Lan Wangji in their conversation. But Lan Wangji found he had little to say. The three men were speaking of places he had never been, people he did not know. The general topic—night-hunting—was familiar enough. But their conversation was full of private jokes and references that Lan Wangji did not understand.
The jealousy returned again, kindled into a burning fire inside his chest. Lan Wangji tried to douse it without success.
If circumstances were different—if he were married by choice, for love—this sort of talk would be nothing. Lan Wangji could listen with perfect equanimity. He would rest secure in the knowledge that he and his husband had their own private jokes. They could trade soft looks and subtle touches, like Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen. They might even grow bold enough to hold hands under the table. Lan Wangji would have no cause for jealousy, and his heart would be at peace.
But he didn't have that sort of marriage. He and his husband had no private jokes, no secret references. His husband gave him no gentle touches or lingering looks. Lan Wangji couldn't even answer the simplest questions from the Patriarch’s friends: Why did you marry? Why did the wedding happen so suddenly? He knew nothing of his husband. Not his name, not his history, not the reason for their marriage. He knew nothing; he had nothing. There was nothing to hold onto, nothing to bolster his spirits.
Lan Wangji excused himself after dinner. His husband scarcely paused in his conversation as Lan Wangji left the table. Xiao Xingchen seemed faintly surprised by his early departure, but he did not press Lan Wangji to stay.
As he left the hall, Lan Wangji heard his husband explain that the Lan sect rules required an absurdly early bedtime. He laughed, and the sound turned Lan Wangji’s stomach. He hadn’t minded such teasing before. His husband often sighed over the restrictiveness of the Lan disciplines. But when he said such things in private, it felt like a lighthearted joke. To hear him mock the rules in front of others was painful. Lan Wangji felt as though all his careful attempts at intimacy had been shredded to pieces, disintegrated in the course of a single evening.
Once he was alone in his chambers, Lan Wangji allowed himself to feel wretchedly unhappy. He thought about writing to his brother. Lan Xichen would comfort him if he could. If Lan Wangji found his marriage an unhappy one, he knew his brother would try to offer consolation.
But when he took out a sheet of paper, he couldn't bring himself to write a single character. It would be shameful to confess such petty, self-centered thoughts. He was safe in his new home, treated well. He had no right to ask for anything more. Besides, a letter of complaint would only worry his brother. Lan Xichen already had the cares of an entire sect on his shoulders. He did not need any further burdens.
In his heart, Lan Wangji knew that his brother was already scrutinizing his letters, searching for any clue that Lan Wangji had been mistreated. If he complained openly, it would only reinforce Lan Xichen's deepest fears. His brother would become upset, and there would be no way for Lan Wangji to soothe his anxieties from afar.
He couldn't trouble his brother. He couldn't be so selfish, so unfilial.
Lan Wangji sat in the small garden for a while. He watched the waxing moon, reflected in the pond's surface. The water was misty, gently steaming. He had placed a warming talisman near the pond to keep the fish comfortable. But with the changing weather, their activity had ceased. They ate very little and seldom swam to the surface. Lan Wangji found himself envying the fish. He wished he could sleep through the next several months too.
Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen sometimes stayed through the winter. His husband had told him that already. The first snows would arrive soon, and the two cultivators must know that. Perhaps they had timed their visit before the first frost. They might be planning to settle down, to stay for several months.
If it was true, Lan Wangji knew he ought to be grateful. His husband clearly enjoyed their company, and so did the Wens. The disciples, too, would benefit from their guidance. It would be a fine thing for the settlement if they remained all winter. Lan Wangji knew this. He told himself sternly that he must not be selfish. But he felt bitter, somehow.
He didn't even have the comfort of knowing that his resentment was justified. The pair were skilled cultivators, renowned for their righteousness and benevolence. They had treated Lan Wangji with perfect respect and courtesy. It was unforgivably childish to resent their presence. But Lan Wangji couldn’t seem to root the feeling out of his own heart.
He undressed and took down his hair. As always, he removed the lotus pin and his forehead ribbon. Carefully, he tucked them away. In the morning, he knew he'd have to do penance for tonight’s childishness. Yet copying lines seemed to have no effect. As he lay in bed, Lan Wangji tried to think what punishment would be best. He could imagine no greater punishment than spending further time in the pair’s presence, trying to be sociable. So he decided that was just what he ought to do.
With that, he blew out the last candle and shut his eyes.