Mid-Autumn Festival had meant a trip to town and presents, so the children had been giddy. Lan Wangji feared that Double Ninth Festival would bring another fever of excitement that would disrupt his lessons for days. But this holiday only involved a few games, followed by a small banquet. On the morning of the festival, Lan Wangji was relieved to find the children complacent over the coming celebrations.
He had forgotten, however, about Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen's return. Their arrival had created a firestorm of enthusiasm among the children and disciples. Lan Wangji knew better than to try to conduct lessons with the children in such a state. So he turned them over to Wen Qionglin and his aunts. If the children couldn't submit to lessons today, they might as well spend the morning in play. Lan Wangji had his own duties to attend to, anyway.
Once the children were settled, he turned his attention to the banquet. There were still several arrangements to be made. He selected the final dessert course, and Granny Wen helped him choose the wines. Then he checked on the status of the harvest.
After his trip to the villages, the Patriarch had evidently brought back several cartloads of supplies. There was certainly plenty of food, enough to see their settlement through the winter. Lan Wangji helped the Wens update the inventory to record each new cask and barrel. He watched as the Wens carted away the final sacks of rice and grains. Then the supplies were stacked upon shelves and the storehouse securely locked. Lan Wangji turned over the updated inventory to Second Uncle and returned to the kitchens to prepare offerings for his in-laws.
The children had gathered plenty of chrysanthemums. Lan Wangji arranged the blossoms with fastidious care. He stacked persimmons and pomegranates neatly on a platter, trying to make the arrangement artistic. A jug of wine and two cups served as the finishing touch.
Granny Wen had retrieved some of their best incense from storage. She'd arranged for someone to fetch joss money from town, too. Lan Wangji knew she wouldn't fail in her duties. But he checked three times to make sure she had chosen unbroken incense sticks. Then he inspected the joss money before tucking it into his sleeve. Finally, he surveyed the tray with a thoughtful frown. He wondered if the deceased could truly sense offerings made on their behalf.
Spirits knew, of course, when offerings were made. Yet he wasn't sure if the offerings brought any sensory pleasure. Could they taste the fruit? Smell the incense? Consume the essence of the wine? Perhaps they could only sense the feeling behind the offering. Lan Wangji sighed, flicking a tiny fragment of dust off the tray. He hoped his in-laws could sense his esteem.
Lan Xichen would make offerings to their own parents today. He might be in the Lan ancestral hall at this very moment. Lan Wangji's frown deepened. He hoped his parents could sense their offerings, too. He would like to think that the dead found peace in being remembered. But he didn't know for sure. He could never be certain, not until he crossed into the afterlife himself.
He brushed those thoughts away. The tray was prepared, so he set it aside. The banquet preparations were underway and the offerings were ready. Lan Wangji had already dressed for the festival. There was nothing left to tend to. Even so, he studied himself pensively in the polished pans hanging on the kitchen wall.
His husband's wedding gifts had included robes suitable for late autumn. The black silk was embroidered with a golden phoenix and red maple leaves. Lan Wangji had fixed his hair with the phoenix hairpins once more. The lotus pin was tucked discreetly behind. As he peered at his reflection, he felt tolerably sure that his appearance was acceptable. Surely he wouldn't disgrace his in-laws, not dressed in his husband's gifts.
The offerings were prepared, though. His toilette was finished. He had nothing more to do, and he found himself restless. The previous night, he had planned to spend his spare moments tormenting himself with Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen's presence. Today, they were nowhere to be found.
At the midday meal, Wen Qing confided that they were busy. They had spent the morning talking to the Patriarch in his private study, she said. That discovery was its own kind of punishment. Lan Wangji still hadn't been permitted within his husband's study. This news—their guests were allowed entrance into a place Lan Wangji could not go—stung. But Lan Wangji told himself he must endure it.
After lunch, he forced himself to find some occupation. The Wens planned to air out the rooms with zhuyu and fetch the winter clothes out of storage. Lan Wangji helped with that. Then he supervised the disciples' races up the mountain. His husband didn't watch the races, but he reappeared just in time to crown the winner.
The disciples were flushed with exertion. When the Patriarch teased and praised them, they flushed further. The younger children waited at the foot of the mountain, cheering the disciples on. Once the Patriarch appeared, they mobbed him. Lan Wangji watched as his husband ruffled hair, pinched cheeks, and threw a few fortunate children high into the air. But when that was done, the Patriarch gently shooed the children away.
"Husband." He turned to Lan Wangji. "Shall we?"
He inclined his head toward the ancestral hall. Lan Wangji nodded.
The disciples—even the youngest children—drew back politely. The Wens also stepped aside. It wasn't their place to enter the ancestral hall, and they knew it. Lan Wangji was only allowed within because he was the Patriarch's lawful spouse. The Wens hung back as they walked to the hall.
Granny Wen met them outside with the tray of offerings. Lan Wangji took it from her with a nod of gratitude. Then he fought the urge to smooth his robes or fuss with his hair. It had been windy outside. The children's races had stirred up clouds of dirt and bits of grass. He had no time to find a mirror, and he hoped he wasn't too mussed. Of course, it wouldn't matter much if he was. His in-laws were no longer a part of the living realm. Perhaps they couldn't really see him. But Lan Wangji felt a sudden pulse of self-consciousness. He couldn't bear to disgrace himself before his husband's parents.
His husband unsealed the ancestral hall with a few quick touches. Then he took the tray from Lan Wangji's hands and carried it inside. Lan Wangji followed, glancing surreptitiously around the hall. On his wedding day, there had been no opportunity to study his surroundings. The veil had blocked his vision during the ceremony. After his husband removed it, Lan Wangji had been too vexed and surprised to think of anything else. So he took his time now, examining each corner of the hall.
For an ancestral hall, the room was surprisingly small. The ancestral hall of Cloud Recesses was ten times larger. But then, their hall held many generations of memorial tablets. The Lan ancestral hall even had a separate chamber, which housed the tablets of sect leaders and their spouses.
His husband's hall was nearly empty. There were only two tablets on display, hanging above a small shrine at the front of the room. Lan Wangji couldn't help a sudden burst of curiosity. Yet he knew he must keep his eyes lowered in respect. Cautiously, he helped his husband lay out the fruit, wine, and flowers. Together, they lit the incense and made their bows. Once the ritual was complete, Lan Wangji gave in to temptation. He risked a glance upward.
Much to his astonishment, one of the tablets held a familiar name.
He had not intended to speak aloud. They were within a sacred place, after all. He ought to remain respectfully silent or use his breath for prayer. But the name escaped his lips before he could call it back. His husband made a quiet sound of acknowledgment.
"She was my mother," he said quietly.
Lan Wangji stared at the tablet. He wanted to turn to his husband, but something about his tone kept Lan Wangji still.
The Patriarch's voice was heavy and tense. Lan Wangji's skin prickled, and he knew he must choose his next words carefully. He bit the inside his cheek as he thought the matter over.
"Your mother and Xiao Xingchen shared a master."
This explained a great deal. Lan Wangji had wondered what had drawn Xiao Xingchen from one immortal mountain to another. The Patriarch had hinted that they were related, after some fashion. But this information—the identity of the Patriarch's mother—explained everything.
The Patriarch huffed.
"He's technically my shishu." He sighed, rocking back on his heels. "But I don't call him that. We're close to the same age, after all."
Lan Wangji digested that morsel of information. They were close to the same age, his husband said. Lan Wangji didn't know Xiao Xingchan's age. But he suspected the man wasn't very old. He had heard that Xiao Xingchen descended from the Celestial Mountain as quite a young man. He'd been part of the cultivation world for ten or fifteen years, at most. It wasn't likely that Xiao Xingchen was over thirty.
If he and the Patriarch were of a similar age, then his husband was young. Much younger than Lan Wangji had supposed. Lan Wangji's brow furrowed. He didn't think his husband could possibly be younger than himself, but he might be just a little older.
That was shocking, baffling, nearly unthinkable. How could a man cultivate to immortality at the age of twenty? Twenty-five? Even thirty? According to the ancient texts, this feat often took a century or more. But then, his husband was the grand-disciple of Baoshan Sanren. Perhaps she had taught him special techniques that sped up the process?
"Have you met Baoshan Sanren?" Lan Wangji asked tentatively.
"Once." The Patriarch was silent for a moment. Then he let out a sigh. "Just once."
Lan Wangji considered that as he studied the tablets. They held only names: Cangse Sanren and Wei Changze. He wondered when they had died. He had heard of the death of Cangse Sanren. It occurred many years ago, when Lan Wangji was still a very young child. She was well-known, however, and highly respected. People spoke of her life—and her death—for many years afterward. Lan Wangji wasn't sure when she had passed from the mortal world. But he had heard that she died on a night-hunt, like so many cultivators before her.
There had been other stories, too. Lan Wangji frowned as he remembered them. It was said that she and her husband disappeared. Her friends had wondered what became of her, and rumor suggested that she might have returned to the Celestial Mountain with her husband. Many years had passed before her body and her sword had been found. With that grim discovery, her fate had finally become known.
Lan Wangji had never heard that she produced a child. His stomach turned over, and he wondered what had become of his husband after his parents' death. Perhaps Baoshan Sanren had taken him to the Celestial Mountain and raised him there? He would have liked to believed it was so. But his husband claimed he met his mother's master only once. If she had raised him—if she had been his master, too—surely he would address her differently. And if they shared a master, Xiao Xingchen would be his shixiong, not his shishu.
Lan Wangji felt his brows draw together. Where had his husband passed his childhood, then? Who had taken charge of his education, if his parents died so young?
"I had wondered where the name Wei came from." He kept his eyes on Wei Changze's tablet. "Wen Qing used it when she came to collect me."
He understood it was an alias. But he thought perhaps the surname had been chosen at random. The Patriarch shook his head.
"Some of the people around here use it," he murmured. "The ones who were orphans or servants...they don't always have a family name of their own. The Wens use it too, whenever they have to leave the mountain."
He fell abruptly silent. Lan Wangji stole glances at his husband from the corner of his eye.
"I don't make them use it," his husband added. "They're not my blood relatives, and they're certainly not my chattel. But they can use my name if they want to."
Lan Wangji nodded.
It made sense, of course. Many servants and refugees had no family names of their own. Others, like the Wens, had forsaken their name for the sake of protection. They would undoubtedly be glad to take the Patriarch's name as their own.
"I am sure your father would not object," Lan Wangji ventured.
He wasn't, though. Not really, anyway. Allow another to use your family name was a serious matter. Many cultivators defended their family names fiercely. Some even refused to give their name to illegitimate children, saving it instead for the children of their lawful spouse. Perhaps Wei Changze wouldn't have liked to pass his name to servants and refugees. Perhaps he would have been offended to have his name given to anyone but his descendants.
His husband gave a small, humorless chuckle.
"I don't really remember him, so I can't say for sure!" He reached out to rearrange the items on the altar. "But he was a servant too, you know. I don't think he'd believe they were dirtying his name or anything."
Lan Wangji turned to stare at his husband. It was unseemly but help it. His husband had been so reticent about his identity. This was a great deal of information to absorb at once. Lan Wangji stared, but his husband didn't meet his eyes.
Something itched at the back of Lan Wangji's mind. He chased after that flicker of memory until he managed to capture it.
"He was…in service to the Jiang clan?"
His husband turned as well, face full of surprise.
"So I've heard. How did you know that?"
Lan Wangji parted his lips slowly.
"I believe your mother and father visited Cloud Recesses once with the former Sect Leader Jiang. I heard my uncle speak of them. He remembers your mother well."
Uncle had spoken of her before. Not with fondness, perhaps. But uttered her name with respect, and he seemed to regret that such a gifted cultivator had died so young. He hadn't shared any stories of her exploits, however. Some of the other disciples had fulfilled that task for him. Once, Lan Xichen had whispered a story about Cangse Sanren, too. Lan Wangji had never forgotten that tale.
"Your mother shaved my uncle's beard," he confessed.
The Patriarch made a startled noise, halfway between a gasp and a laugh.
"She did what?"
He rocked forward. His gaze was fixed on Lan Wangji's face, his expression caught between mirth and astonishment.
"Husband. Are you serious?"
Lan Wangji nodded.
"Mm. I heard the story from a reliable source. They quarreled over something."
He furrowed his brow. He couldn't remember this part of the story. Perhaps his brother hadn't known the source of the quarrel himself.
"A disagreement during a night hunt, I think. So she shaved his beard."
As a child, he had been quite horrified by this story. His brother, though, had thought it rather funny. At the time, Lan Wangji hadn't seen any humor in such an affront to their uncle's dignity. But the story had a different resonance now. Lan Wangji thought of the mischievous gleam that flickered in the Patriarch's eyes. He remembered how his husband roughhoused with the children and teased Lan Wangji about his sect's rules.
If his mother had a similar spirit, she couldn't possibly have gotten along with Lan Qiren. Lan Wangji considered that, then closed his eyes briefly. It was surprisingly easy to imagine a young woman with his husband's lively spirit. He could almost hear an echo of her laughter, reverberating against the walls.
The Patriarch reached up to cover his mouth. Tears glazed his eyes. For a horrifying moment, Lan Wangji thought he must have caused his husband terrible distress. But his husband was merely fighting against a fit of hilarity. He lost the battle quickly. The Patriarch slumped against the altar and he howled with laughter.
The ancestral hall was not a seemly place for mirth. Yet if his mother had enjoyed pranks and amusement, perhaps it was the right place after all. She might enjoy hearing her son's full-bellied laughter, echoing against the polished floors. If so, she certainly heard her fill. It took a full minute for the Patriarch to regain his composure.
"I don't know what to say to that." He gasped for breath, wiping tears from his eyes. "I hope your uncle deserved it!"
"I had not been born then," Lan Wangji said demurely. "I cannot say."
He was grateful for that. In such a conflict, he couldn't possibly take a side. Uncle raised him, so Lan Wangji owed him a filial duty. But he owed allegiance to his husband's family, too. Lan Wangji studied his mother-in-law's tablet. He wondered what she would think if she had lived to see her son wed Lan Qiren's nephew.
"Did it grow back?" the Patriarch asked, fighting down another chuckle.
"It did." Lan Wangji nodded.
"I see, I see."
The Patriarch passed a hand over his mouth. He was no longer trying to hide his amusement. Still, he bowed deeply before the tablet.
"Mother, I hope you're satisfied with your revenge! Whatever quarrel you had with that man, please don't take it out on my husband!"
Lan Wangji sighed, and he bowed alongside his husband. He had married into his husband's home, after all. Like anyone in his position, he must throw himself upon his mother-in-law's mercy. He certainly hoped she didn't hold a grudge. But if she did, Lan Wangji couldn't do much to appease her. He could make offerings, at least. Lan Wangji recalled his duties and withdrew the stack of joss paper from his sleeve. He set it on the altar and lit the brazier in preparation.
The Patriarch made an impressed noise.
"Ah, you even brought joss paper?" He turned to the tablet, pointing at Lan Wangji. "Mother! See what a filial son-in-law you have?"
Heat rose in his cheeks. But with his husband's help, Lan Wangji finished the ritual. They burned the paper, sheet by sheet. When it was gone, they extinguished the brazier. Lan Wangji changed the incense and lit a fresh stick. There was no need to linger, though. The ritual was complete. Even so, Lan Wangji studied the altar critically. He must return in a few days, he decided, to clear away the wilted flowers and overripe fruit. Afterward, he'd replace the offerings with something else. If his husband allowed it, he'd make fresh offerings every day. It was the least he could do for his in-laws.
After a moment, his husband sighed again.
"You couldn't make offerings to your own parents this time."
His voice was unexpectedly kind. Lan Wangji folded his hands tightly on his lap, a swell of emotion rising in his throat. Double Ninth Festival was the traditional time for men and women who had married out to visit their natal home.
Lan Wangji had long since accepted that he couldn't make such a visit himself. Not now, not when his marriage was still so uncertain. He had known from the moment of his marriage that such a visit was impossible. It was hard to think that he may never see his parents' tablets again, but he didn't wish to sound ungrateful. He tried to measure his words carefully.
"My brother will do it in my place. Uncle will help him."
Together, they would observe all the necessary rituals. His brother was the eldest child, anyway. By rights, it was his duty to prepare the offerings. Lan Xichen would never fail to perform his duties. Lan Wangji knew that. So his parents would receive a visit from their eldest son, along with generous offerings. It had to be enough.
But his heart ached when he thought of the celebrations he was missing. He and his brother always collected gentians for their mother and laid them before her altar. When he shut his eyes, Lan Wangji could almost smell their subtle perfume. He swallowed hard.
"I also do not remember my father," he added softly. "But I have not forgotten my mother."
After his father's death, Lan Wangji had merely observed the necessary rituals. He knelt before the gravesite and burned offerings. He wore mourning clothes for the prescribed period. In every respect, Lan Wangji did what he was expected to do. Yet he had hardly known his father. They met only a handful of times during his childhood. During these rare visits, they seldom spoke. Lan Wangji always felt that these visits were a source of grief to his father, a reminder of the wife he'd lost.
He wouldn't dare to speak such unfilial thoughts aloud. But in his deepest heart, Lan Wangji couldn't bring himself to love his father. He had always suspected that his father never loved him.
His mother had been so different. Mourning his father had been a simple matter: Lan Wangji needed only to observe the prescribed rites before carrying on with his life. His mother, though, could not be forgotten after burning incense or bowing before the coffin. His grief for her was still etched on the surface of his heart. In some ways, his mourning would never end.
His husband was very quiet. Then he lifted his head.
"You can make offerings to them in private." He spoke haltingly. "That's not forbidden or anything. And if you want, we could set up a little shrine here. It's too much space for just my parents, and they wouldn't mind sharing."
Lan Wangji turned from the altar and stared at his husband again. He didn't know what to say.
It was hardly traditional. In fact, it would not be appropriate or seemly. Combining family shrines was not customary. But if the gesture was unorthodox, it was also startlingly generous. And the ancestral hall did seem empty. Lan Wangji gazed at the bare walls and spotless floors. It was too quiet, too desolate, too empty.
Someday, other tablets might dot the walls. His own tablet would hang here, too. If he and his husband adopted children, their tablets would join the walls. Within a few generations, the hall might be transformed. The thought made Lan Wangji bite his lip.
If he and their children failed to reach immortality, the Patriarch would watch them die. They would age and sicken before his eyes. Then he would bury them and he would live on, ageless and eternal. Lan Wangji couldn't bear to think of that. Immortality was considered the most exalted of achievements. But if one was condemned to spend eternity alone, immortality seemed like a punishment.
At once, he felt a sharp stab of guilt. The first six weeks of his marriage had been difficult, and he hadn't worked diligently upon his own cultivation. Perhaps his distraction was excusable. Even in Cloud Recesses, newly married couples were excused from their duties for a month or two. But now that he had settled into his new household, he must adjust his priorities. He ought to spend more time refining his cultivation, strengthening his core. He could hardly expect to achieve immortality overnight.
Yet if he worked diligently, he might find success. Then his husband would be assured of a companion. The Patriarch would always have someone to help him make offerings to his parents. And to the Wens, who would gradually sicken and die in the decades ahead. He shouldn't have to shoulder such burdens alone.
Lan Wangji carved that goal onto the surface of his soul. Then he nodded briskly.
"I would appreciate that."
In the coming years, they could expand the hall. But for now, a second altar would fit along the northwestern wall. There, Lan Wangji could make offerings to both his parents and in-laws. He didn't know what his father would think of such an unconventional arrangement. He felt sure, though, that his mother would be like his husband's parents. She wouldn't mind sharing.
After the last stick of incense was gone, Lan Wangji followed his husband from the hall. He waited as the Patriarch sealed the doors, because it seemed polite to wait. But he expected that his husband would quickly find an excuse to leave. Instead, he shifted restlessly from foot to foot. Then he gave a crooked, uncertain smile.
"I have something," he said. "A few somethings. I got them in the eastern village. There were lots of them, so I took four. Do you want to see?"
"Yes," Lan Wangji said, after a bewildered pause.
He could hardly make sense of his husband's disorganized statement. Evidently, his husband had brought something home. Now he wanted to show it to Lan Wangji. That did sound like proper marital behavior. They ought to examine new purchases together, especially if his husband had acquired something for the household. Lan Wangji nodded dutifully, and his husband seized his wrist.
He expected the Patriarch to take him into the storeroom or the library. But instead, his husband led him outside. They passed through the back garden behind the kitchens, threading their way down a narrow path. Once they were beyond the vegetable plots, they reached a smooth grassy area. The space was lined with large boulders, and the Patriarch had somehow shifted the boulders to make a ring. A thick patch of grass lay the center.
Lan Wangji didn't understand what had brought them there. But then he spotted a flicker of movement. The Patriarch pointed triumphantly.
Lan Wangji's breath caught. Within the grassy ring, two small rabbits scurried about. Soon, they were joined by a third rabbit, then a fourth. The rabbits were very young. They were barely big enough to be away from their mother. But they looked very soft. They scrambled around their enclosure, inspecting the foliage. One particularly bold rabbit placed its small paws on the rocks and lifted its head to take a look at its visitors.
"They're not for eating, I promise!"
The Patriarch vaulted over a boulder and snatched the curious rabbit up before it could escape.
"Their mother just had her last litter of the year. The farmer said there were six, and these four are big enough to live by themselves. The others are runts, so they have to stay with her."
Lan Wangji bent down. Gingerly, he lifted a small rabbit into his hands and cupped it in his palms.
The Patriarch's rabbit struggled. After a moment, it managed to free itself and hide in the grass. But Lan Wangji's rabbit only gave a tremulous quiver. Then it settled on its haunches and stared at him with dark, liquid eyes.
"Are they weaned?" Lan Wangji asked softly.
The rabbit in his hands felt unbearably fragile. It wasn't a newborn, though. Like its siblings, nosing their way through the grass, it seemed able to move freely. Lan Wangji lowered the rabbit into his lap. Slowly, he reached out to the others and let them sniff his fingers.
"The farmer said they started eating vegetables." The Patriarch tromped over, making far too much noise. "But we'll have to keep them over here for now. We don't have a pen yet. If we let them run wild, they'll eat everything up. The little vermin!"
He reached for another rabbit, but it bolted. The rabbit scrambled away from the Patriarch and dove beneath the sweeping fabric of Lan Wangji's sleeve. Lan Wangji moved his hand, shielding the rabbit. He felt its body tremble beneath his palm. The quivering stopped after a moment, as the rabbit realized it was safe.
The Patriarch heaved a sigh.
"Ah, why are they so obedient with you? They bit me twice when I picked them up!"
He sounded as sullen as a child. Lan Wangji felt an involuntary smile touch his lips.
"You startled them," he murmured. "Don't move so quickly."
He sat in perfect stillness to let the rabbits acclimate to his presence. His husband, of course, was never entirely motionless. But the Patriarch seemed to understand, and he tried to mimic Lan Wangji. After a few minutes, the rabbits ventured closer. One sidled up to Lan Wangji's thigh, while another sniffed curiously at his left knee. The rabbit on his lap nibbled at his yaopei.
In time, Lan Wangji managed to lift a rabbit and transfer it into his husband's lap. He showed his husband how to hold the rabbit gently, yet firmly. How to support the legs and belly, so the rabbit felt safe.
The rabbit twitched. But this time, it didn't bite. The Patriarch's face brightened.
"Do you like them?" he asked, once the silence had stretched to the breaking point.
His eyes were warm, and Lan Wangji knew that his own quiet delight must be obvious.
The rabbits were lovely. He had always wished he could keep some of his own. But pets were forbidden in Cloud Recesses, so he had given up on that dream long ago. These rabbits were wonderful, an unexpected gift. The gift was especially precious because it came from his husband. His husband, who had remembered their idle conversation from the festival.
He remembered that Lan Wangji liked rabbits. Then he took the trouble to find some and offer them as a gift. He had presented the rabbits, his face soft and hopeful, and asked, Do you like them? As if the answer mattered to him. As if he cared whether Lan Wangji's idle wishes and childhood dreams were fulfilled.
Lan Wangji nodded and kept his eyes on his lap. If he looked at his husband, he feared he might embarrass himself. They were not in Cloud Recesses, of course. Still, Lan Wangji still felt that excessive displays of emotion ought to remain forbidden. But his heart was full to bursting. His husband had given him expensive wedding gifts: silk robes, gold hairpins, jade bracelet. Lan Wangji has been duly grateful for those. They acknowledged his status as a cultivator, and the respect he was to be accorded in his husband's home.
Gold and silks, though, could not compare to this gift. The lavish jewelry had only been for Hanguang-Jun, younger brother of Sect Leader Lan. The rabbits were a gift for Lan Wangji, a gift for a husband.
"Yes," he whispered. "Thank you."
It was an inadequate response, yet he could think of nothing better to say. His throat was too tight. In one afternoon, his husband had obliterated every doubt that had troubled him last night. Lan Wangji had lain awake, fearing he could never be happy in this marriage. Then his husband had placed a rabbit into his arms. He had said, We can set up a shrine for your parents. Lan Wangji couldn't even remember why he'd felt so slighted and pushed-aside last night. The memory had crumbled to dust.
"I would have gotten them for you sooner if I knew you liked them!" His husband bumped against his shoulder. "I gave you koi fish instead. Wen Qing said those are very proper and auspicious. But I realized they've probably started spending their days napping. So they can't keep you company anymore."
It was another blow against Lan Wangji's battered heart. The koi pond was not merely an ornamentation, then. His husband had chosen it as a gift, to keep Lan Wangji company in his new home. When he realized Lan Wangji was deprived of company—the fish hibernating in the cold weather—he had fetched rabbits instead. Lan Wangji swallowed hard against the painful lump in his throat. He didn't trust himself to speak. So he kept his eyes on the small brown rabbit curled up in his lap.
His husband reached out to scratch its head.
"So, when you get tired of wrangling the wild children, you can come here and wrangle some wild rabbits." He laughed. "Isn't that generous of me?"
He sounded as if he were joking. But it was generous. Lan Wangji hardly knew what to say.
"It is very generous." He spoke quietly. "But I don't have a gift for you."
His husband laughed again. This time, it held a ring of surprise.
Lan Wangji shook his head.
"It is not." He met his husband's eyes. "I will think of something."
It occurred to Lan Wangji had he had done little for his husband since their wedding. In terms of household duties, perhaps he had acquitted himself well enough. He helped to train the disciples and he looked after the children. On festival days, he arranged banquets and procured offerings. Sometimes he helped his husband with menial tasks, too. When his husband had letters to write, Lan Wangji ground ink and prepared sealing paste.
But anyone could perform those tasks. Lan Wangji had done nothing more than any well-trained servant might do. He felt he ought to do something that only a husband could do. Yet he couldn't think of anything suitable.
The Patriarch's mouth quirked.
"Don't put yourself out!" He scratched his chin and lifted a brow. "Ah, I know what! You should do some calligraphy for me! Some of the walls are too bare. I've been meaning to buy something to hang on them, but I never seem to get around to it. Make some scrolls and we'll put them up."
Lan Wangji frowned. That, too, seemed unsatisfactory. Scrolls were no substitute for four beautiful pets. But if that was what his husband wished for, then it must be done. Lan Wangji considered the matter and gave a firm nod.
He smoothed a hand over the rabbit's fur and tried to think of some way to make the gift special. Generic scrolls wouldn't do. He couldn't copy mundane blessings, common lines of poetry. He must think of something his husband would like. There must be a way to personalize the scrolls to suit his husband's preferences. Lan Wangji considered asking his husband what he'd like best, but he swallowed the question. His gift had been a surprise, after all. He must surprise his husband too.
Perhaps he could ask Wen Qing and Wen Qionglin for their advice. They might know what his husband would like. Lan Wangji could seek guidance from Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen too? There was no reason to spurn their help.
The jealousy of last night felt increasingly far away. The longer he thought of it, the more absurd Lan Wangji felt. What did it matter, after all, if his husband considered the two cultivators close friends? Shouldn't Lan Wangji rejoice in their presence? They made his husband happy, after all. Perhaps they could teach Lan Wangji how to do the same.
Lan Wangji was so lost in his plans, he didn't notice when the Patriarch cleared his throat meaningfully. His husband had to tap him on the shoulder to get his attention. Lan Wangji turned, and found his husband looking at him with an odd expression.
"Did you know that belonged to my mother?"
His fingers lifted from Lan Wangji's shoulder, brushing against something in his hair. It took Lan Wangji a moment to realize that he was reaching for the lotus pin. The touch felt staggeringly intimate. His fingers grazed Lan Wangji's ear, brushing the space just below the forehead ribbon. Lan Wangji's throat went dry. He had to swallow several times before he could manage a reply.
The Patriarch huffed a quiet laugh.
"Ah, of course not. How could you?"
His hand lingered, tracing over the pin. Lan Wangji watched his husband's face, transfixed. He must be touching every petal. Perhaps he was rubbing his thumbnail along the small nick Lan Wangji had already noticed, the one at the center of the bloom. The pin was battered and worn. It had been so, even when Lan Wangji received it. But he wished now he had done something to restore the pin to its full glory. If he had known it belonged to his mother-in-law, he would have tried to polish it.
"They were just rogue cultivators, so they didn't have much money." His husband's voice was strangely detached. "No fancy jewelry or extravagant wedding for them! That's the only thing I have that was theirs."
Lan Wangji drew a slow breath.
His husband's eyes dropped from the pin, moving to this mouth. Lan Wangji almost became distracted, but he forced himself to continue.
"Would you like me to return it?"
There was hardly breath behind the words. But his husband heard him anyway. He shook his head with a sad smile.
"No. You should keep it." He touched the pin once more. This time, his fingers grazed over the forehead ribbon. "But look after it properly, okay?"
Lan Wangji fought down a blush as he nodded.
He could honestly say that he had taken good care of the pin. He was glad of that now. It was fortunate that he'd always treated the pin with special reverence. It had felt wrong to do anything less: the pin was the instrument through which a war had been won. It was the symbol of their marriage, even more than the red wedding robes or the golden headpiece. It would have been wrong to trifle with such an important object.
But if it belonged to his mother-in-law—if it was her only remaining heirloom—then he must treasure it above all else. The pin, too, was a precious gift. His husband had given him many of those. Far more than Lan Wangji had realized. He frowned at his lap and decided he must try to even the score.
His husband seemed satisfied with their current arrangement. He took Lan Wangji's arm, pulling him to his feet. Then he paced around the ring of rocks, making plans for the rabbit pen. They would need a large one, he said. The farmer had given him a pair of males and a pair of females, so they must expect at least one litter in the spring. There was room to spare, though. They had plenty of open space, and enough food to waste on pets.
The Patriarch anticipated that the children would be eager to meet the rabbits. But he said that they wouldn't be allowed to play with the rabbits until Lan Wangji gave permission. Lan Wangji must decide when they were responsible enough for pets.
As they walk back inside, Lan Wangji felt as if his chest was glowing. He was briefly tempted to look down, to make sure that his golden core wasn't trying to escape his body. But he knew this feeling had nothing to do with his cultivation. It had everything to do with his husband, brushing their hands together as they walked. It was the way his husband talked, cheerful and easy, sharing whatever whimsical thought that enters his head. It was how his husband asked him to help judge what was best for the children, when they were ready for new responsibilities.
The warm feeling only intensified when they returned to the hall. The children crowded around, kites and flower-cakes in hand. A-Yuan attached himself to Lan Wangji's leg, while A-Mei swung delightedly at the Patriarch's side. The rest of the afternoon passed in a golden haze. Lan Wangji didn't even mind when Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen joined their party.
Xiao Xingchen played with the children, while Song Zichen sat with Lan Wangji. They drank chrysanthemum tea in peaceful silence. Song Zichen was gracious and didn't force a conversation. Lan Wangji discovered that he didn't mind sitting quietly at his side, watching the children play.
Most of the Wens were still off paying respects to their own ancestors. There were tombs in the back hills, Wen Qionglin said. They belonged to the Wens who died after arriving in the Burial Mounds. Some, Lan Wangji understood, were old or sick when they fled Wen Ruohan's territories. Even with the Patriarch's powerful cultivation and Wen Qing's medical skill, they didn't last long. But they were entombed properly, at least. They died surrounded by family and they received full funeral rites. Lan Wangji gathered that was some comfort to the surviving Wens.
During the early days of his marriage, he had wondered if any of the walking corpses were Wens. He hadn't dared to ask such an indelicate question. But Wen Qing seemed to guess his thoughts.
"They're nobody we know," she told him bluntly, while sorting out her medical supplies in the late afternoon sunlight. "They're old bodies. They were thrown into the Burial Mounds a long time ago. They had a lot of resentful energy, so the Patriarch was able to raise them and stabilize their minds."
Lan Wangji nodded politely and asked no further questions. He was curious, though, and Wen Qing clearly knew that. She pinned him with a stare.
"We don't ask him to raise our dead," she added gruffly. "It wouldn't work anyway. We don't have anything to be resentful over. None of us have been murdered, or murdered someone else. If someone in my family dies, it's just because they're too old to carry on."
Lan Wangji tried to bite his tongue. The question escaped anyway.
Wen Qing's face clouded over. She busied herself with the herbs for some time. When she spoke, her voice was very low.
"That was an accident. They went hiking in the hills, and there was a rockslide. The rains had been heavy that spring and..."
She broke off. Lan Wangji averted his eyes, so she didn't have to suffer through the discomfort of someone witnessing her grief.
"We got to them as fast as we could," she said, after a long silence. "But it was too late for me to do anything."
She grew quiet again and spent some time stacking the jars. Lan Wangji thought the story might be finished. He intended to excuse himself with an apology. But before he could hurry off, Wen Qing spoke.
"They were good people." She rolled a jar between her hands. "They didn't have any resentment or any reason to look for revenge. Maybe he could've brought them back anyway, but I asked him not to try. We all did. We wanted them to move on and be reincarnated quickly."
She stuffed the last of her supplies into the crate and marched away. Brief as it was, Lan Wangji spent a great deal of time thinking over that conversation. It was, perhaps, a relief to know that his husband didn't disturb or corrupt peaceful spirits. But that meant that every one of the walking corpses had been raised through the use of resentful energy. They had clung to this world in bitterness, grief, and a desire for revenge. For a few days afterward, Lan Wangji studied the walking corpses with added caution.
He had to admit, though, that his husband had brought them under his control. He had calmed their spirits, cleared their minds. They weren't lurching creatures like Wen Ruohan's, fixated on revenge and mutilation. Whatever resentments had kept them tethered to this existence, it no longer appeared to dominate their thoughts.
As he sat in the sun on Double Ninth Festival, Lan Wangji glimpsed the corpse-women who attended him on his wedding night. They stood apart from the Wens, whispering to each other. But they were smiling at A-Mei, who was weaving flowers into A-Qing's hair. Lan Wangji watched them thoughtfully.
They were once prostitutes, Wen Qing said. The women had served in a flower-house for a time. Then they had become concubines of a rich lord. After his death, his wife and son had killed the women out of spite. Their bodies were thrown into the hills. By the time the Patriarch found the remains, their murderers were long since dead. But the women had willingly risen under his command. He repaired their bodies, and they took up residence in his halls.
If they happened to pass by Lan Wangji in the halls, they winked and grinned. They caught him watching now, and they leered again. Lan Wangji averted his eyes quickly. He was almost—but not quite—accustomed to such forward behavior. Yet for a brief moment, Lan Wangji wondered whether he should speak to them. Like the other walking corpses in his husband's domain, they seemed remarkably human. Lan Wangji sensed that these women remembered what it was to be alive. If that was true and if they had indeed been concubines, then perhaps...
Perhaps they understood certain things. Perhaps they could advise him. Such women must know how to entice a reluctant husband to complete the last of the marriage rites. Perhaps they could tell Lan Wangji what he ought to do.
A guilty heat flickered over his skin. Lan Wangji finished his tea briskly, tucking that thought away. He wanted to show gratitude toward his husband and turn their awkward marriage of convenience into a proper union. But this wasn't the proper moment for such thoughts.
The Wens had returned from the tombs; the gong had been struck. The children were on their feet, scurrying toward the hall. Lan Wangji let the crowd carry him inside, and the banquet began. Granny Wen's hours of preparation had not been in vain. There were noodles and river crabs, a rich beef stew and mung beans. There were chongyang cakes and osmanthus jelly. There was a vast quantity of wine.
Lan Wangji served himself a modest portion. It was difficult to eat in such a clamor. The hall echoed with voices, and children darted between tables. But Lan Wangji found he didn't mind. His husband's eyes were bright as he looked around the room, and he smiled at Lan Wangji often. Lan Wangji was so delighted by that, he succumbed willingly to his husband's demands that he try a spoonful of radish soup. Even the oily red sheen of the broth failed to dissuade him.
The spice, however, scalded his tongue and throat. When he couldn't quite hide his grimace, the Patriarch gave a triumphant cry.
"You see?" he demanded of Wen Qing. "Radishes are so awful, even delicious spices can't make them taste good! Look at how disgusted my husband is! This is all your fault!"
Lan Wangji took a discreet sip of tea to cleanse his palate. He was profoundly grateful when his husband and Wen Qing fell to arguing over the crop rotation for next spring. No one inflicted any spicy soup upon him after that.
Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen disappeared shortly after the final course arrived. Lan Wangji had expected them to remain, as they had the previous night. He had thought that they might be drinking companions for his husband, and he had almost regretted his inability to provide that sort of companionship. But tonight, they didn't linger. As soon as the final dishes were served, they rose and made their bows.
As they left the hall, Lan Wangji observed that they mirrored each other's movements. When one turned, so did the other. When one stopped to listen to a conversation, the other did too. His gaze lingered on the men, perhaps too long. The Patriarch noticed, and he nudged Lan Wangji's foot beneath the table.
"What's wrong?" he asked. "You had such a serious look just now! Are you still angry about the radish soup?"
There was a teasing hint in his voice. Lan Wangji knew it wasn't a serious question, but he shook his head anyway.
"They did not stay long." He let his eyes drift toward the pair, just as they passed through the doorway.
"Oh! Song Lan doesn't really like crowds." The Patriarch sat back against his chair, polishing off his chongyang cake. "They put up with it yesterday because it was their first evening back. But they usually don't stay too long. Not when it's like this!"
He waved his hand around the room. Though the final course had been served, the banquet was still lively. The children were gorging themselves on desserts and the adults were deep in their cups. The hall rang with cheerful conversation.
Lan Wangji could understand Song Zichen's aversion. After a month and a half of marriage, he had almost grown used to noisy meals. But some days, the clamor was exhausting. He was the Patriarch's husband, though, so he couldn't excuse himself too early. He must wait until the final course had been consumed.
"You sat with him for quite a while today!" His husband picked up a fallen chestnut from his plate and ate it. "Did you like him?"
"Yes," Lan Wangji said.
He was surprised to discover that it was true. Often, he evaded such questions: Did you like that person? Lying was forbidden, yet so was discourtesy. There seemed to be no proper response. But Song Zichen's presence had been entirely agreeable. He seemed content to watch his cultivation partner play with the children. Beyond one or two questions, he asked nothing of Lan Wangji. They merely sat in comfortable silence.
The Patriarch laughed.
"Let me guess." He pushed aside his empty dish and pointed a finger at Lan Wangji. "You probably said three words to each other, then sat in complete silence for half a shi!"
"Yes," Lan Wangji admitted. "But it was pleasant."
The weather was fine, and the children were enjoying themselves. The chrysanthemum tea was exceptionally good, too. The afternoon had passed without any cares or burdens. Lan Wangji had wanted nothing more than to savor it in silence.
His husband seemed to realize this, and he laughed even louder.
"I bet you two would get along well." He tilted his head. "You should spend more time with him."
It was a peculiar suggestion. Lan Wangji hadn't expected his husband to suggest that he spend time with another man, not when he and Song Zichen were both married. For a moment, Lan Wangji did not know how to respond.
"And with his cultivation partner?" he asked, slowly.
The Patriarch waved a careless hand.
"Well, yes. They're practically fused at the hip!" He took another swig of his wine. "But they aren't together every minute of the day. You can spend time with just Song Zichen. Trust me, Xiao Xingchen isn't the jealous type!"
He chuckled to himself as if the very idea was humorous.
Lan Wangji took a sip of his tea. He hadn't received the impression that either Xiao Xingchen or Song Zichen were jealous individuals. They clearly had a strong bond, and they spent half the meal making eyes at each other. Under such circumstances, it would be absurd for them to doubt the other's fidelity. And Lan Wangji was married, too. He could socialize with other married individuals without any fear of impropriety or gossip.
But something about the suggestion bothered him. Perhaps it was only his husband's careless tone that grated against Lan Wangji's nerves. Xiao Xingcheng, he said, was not the jealous type. Evidently, his husband wasn't the jealous type either. Somehow, Lan Wangji was faintly disappointed. There was no use dwelling on that, however. He tried to redirect the conversation.
"They have been together for a long time?"
The Patriarch made a noise of affirmation.
"Ages and ages. They met right after Xiao Xingchen came down from the Celestial Mountain. They've been traveling together ever since."
He gave a thoughtful hum.
"I don't remember when they got married. It happened before I met them. They married pretty young, I think."
Lan Wangji gave that some thought. He tried to create a mental timeline and failed miserably. If he knew his husband's age—or that of the others—it might be easier. But Lan Wangji didn't, so he was forced to accept defeat. He supposed, though, that the pair had been together for ten years. Ten years of living together, traveling together, sharing a life. Ten years, and they didn't seem to have grown tired of each other yet.
"They are very fortunate," Lan Wangji said softly.
"Ah. They are!" The Patriarch's voice grew serious. "I've always thought so, anyway."
Lan Wangji could hope for nothing better. If his husband looked at him the way the pair looked at each other—after a full decade of marriage—then Lan Wangji would have nothing left to wish for.
His husband drummed his fingers against the table.
"But I can see they don't want to spend time with me today. What faithless friends!"
He made a face at the empty doorway.
"Husband, you'll have to make it up to me. Let's go to the library for a while, and you can keep me entertained."
Lan Wangji blinked. The request was astonishing, but he was in no mood to refuse.
"I will do my utmost," he said.
His husband laughed again.
Sometimes when he laughed, his eyes crinkled in amusement. They did so now. Lan Wangji felt a quiet burst of pleasure. During the last few weeks of his marriage, he had discovered that he enjoyed that expression. He particularly enjoyed being the one to provoke it.
"You say things so seriously sometimes!" His husband chuckled to himself. "Even when I'm talking nonsense, you reply in such a serious tone. It's very funny."
Lan Wangji hadn't intended to be humorous. But if he could please his husband, it was all right. His husband had asked to be entertained, after all. Lan Wangji was fortunate that his husband wasn't difficult to amuse.
The Patriarch waved him over, and they rose from the table together. They passed through the doorway, down the hall, and into the dark quiet of the library.