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love, in fire and blood

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After waking for the first time, Lan Wangji spent a full day muddled and half-asleep. But gradually, his mind cleared enough to piece together the whole story. He swam in and out of consciousness for more than a week, slowly discovering what happened after his fight with Xue Yang.

It was surprisingly difficult to gather the information he needed. Wei Ying and Wen Qing were willing to answer any question he posed, but Lan Wangji had developed an unfortunate habit of falling asleep halfway through their narrative. Wen Qing refused to reduce his pain medication, so he was left groggy and disoriented. He always seemed to fall asleep during the most intriguing part of any given conversation.

Still, whenever he woke, Wei Ying was seated at his bedside. Wen Qing came and went, and they managed to share the full story. Lan Wangji learned what had happened after the pair had left the Burial Mounds. 

They found Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen quickly. Song Zichen had been in terrible pain, and Xiao Xingchen was frantic. At first, Wen Qing and Wei Ying had focused on tending to their injuries. Wen Qing tried to salvage Song Zichen's eyesight; meanwhile, Wei Ying set up wards to secure their location. Once Song Zichen was stable, they sat down to discuss the matter. They had suspected at once that this wasn't an isolated attack. A deeper plot might be underway, and they had feared what might come next. 

Lan Wangji's signal flare seemed to confirm their worst fears. Wen Qing and Wei Ying had argued as they struggled to decide their next step. Wen Qing worried they might be walking into a trap. She thought they should make a slow, cautious approach. Wei Ying had wanted to rush back, swords drawn, to protect the children. 

In the end, their fear for the Wens had won out. They hurried back to the Burial Mounds and sprinted into the courtyard. There, they had found Xue Yang's corpse. Lan Wangji was bleeding out in the snow. 

Wen Qing and Wei Ying skimmed over that portion of the story. Lan Wangji couldn't bring himself to demand further details. Wei Ying turned pale whenever he spoke of it. Deep lines of tension had etched themselves around Wen Qing's eyes. Though they both had strong golden cores, they seemed to have aged a decade within a matter of days. 

Their experience couldn't have been pleasant. During a single afternoon,  one of their oldest friends had suffered a vicious attack. They couldn't locate the perpetrator, and they didn't know if Xue Yang had confederates. They had been terrified for the Wens, for the children under their care. Then, when they returned home, they found the household in an uproar and Lan Wangji clinging to life. 

It must have been a gruesome evening. He wasn't surprised they had no wish to relive it.

Wen Qing explained that she had kept him unconscious for three days. She hoped that a forced coma—combined with regular infusions of Wei Ying's spiritual energy—might give his body a chance to heal. But on the second day, Lan Wangji had developed a fever. Once the fever appeared, Wen Qing confessed that she'd braced herself for his inevitable death. Blood-poisoning was almost incurable. If the infection spread throughout his body, she thought he couldn't possibly survive.

Yet he had. On the third day, Lan Wangji's fever broke. He woke shortly thereafter. He was lucid; his core was intact; his meridians weren't permanently scarred. Wen Qing had finally dared to hope that he might make a full recovery. 

His recovery wasn't swift, though. Lan Wangji spent most of the week asleep. He woke for short periods, barely long enough to drink medicinal teas or choke down a bowl of congee. Whenever he was awake, Wei Ying hovered over his bed. He helped Lan Wangji eat his meals. Then he combed out Lan Wangji's hair and washed his face. 

Lan Wangji would have liked to savor those moments. Wei Ying was so patient and tender, and he seemed desperately relieved each time Lan Wangji opened his eyes. It would have been nice to stay awake, to share a proper conversation with his husband. But fatigue always dragged him down. Lan Wangji barely managed to stay awake for a full incense stick.  Inevitably, he succumbed to his body's need for sleep. 

While he slept, Wei Ying gave him regular infusions of spiritual energy. Wen Qing promised that these infusions would help speed up his recovery and heal the damage to his meridians. She told him he had narrowly escaped a fatal qi deviation.

"I realize you didn't exactly have many options," she added.

It was the third day after he woke. Lan Wangji had mustered enough energy to remain awake while she changed his bandages. He watched as her work-roughened hands cleaned the wound.

"Don't misunderstand me. I understand that this was a life or death situation." 

She opened a jar of sharp-smelling salve, dabbing some against his torn flesh. It burned, and Lan Wangji grimaced. He said nothing, though. He knew the pain was necessary.

"But you'd better not think about trying that maneuver again." Wen Qing sighed and gave him a reproachful stare. "You nearly blew out your meridians."

Lan Wangji nodded. He certainly didn't intend to repeat his actions. Breaking the seal had been a final act of desperation. It was miraculous that his body hadn't suffered permanent damage. 

Wen Qing didn't seem satisfied by his passive agreement. Her frown deepened as she wrapped his stomach in clean bandages.

"I had to deal with a patient with a gaping abdominal wound and severe qi deviation." She tucked the bandages briskly in place, then scowled at the wound as if it had personally offended her. "It was not enjoyable. I don't want a repeat performance."

"I believed that I was going to die," Lan Wangji said. "If this maneuver failed, I believed that the children would be killed."

His voice was slightly sharper than he'd intended. He couldn't help that, though. 

To a physician, his actions must seem shockingly reckless. He could hardly blame Wen Qing for feeling dismayed. She had been required to repair a terrible amount of damage.

But when Lan Wangji had forced open the seal and unleashed his qi, that had been the last thing on his mind. He hadn't expected to find himself under a physician's care. He had considered his own life forfeit. All that mattered was staying alive long enough to take Xue Yang with him.

Wen Qing's let out a heavy sigh.

"I understand that." 

She lowered her head. For a moment, her hands lay almost helplessly in her lap. Then she busied herself with packing away the salve and antiseptics. 

"You've dealt with this very calmly," she remarked, as she bundled the soiled bandages into a basket. "I'm surprised you haven't been hurling everything you can lay hands on directly at our heads." 

She nodded toward the nightstand, which held several glass jars and cups. If Lan Wangji wished to throw something, he certainly had a generous selection to choose from. Yet he wasn't inclined to indulge in a fit of rage. 

He shook his head. Wen Qing's mouth quirked.

"This is the famous Lan equilibrium, I take it? Your sect was always known for producing tranquil, well-behaved cultivators."

Lan Wangji tilted his head thoughtfully, studying the blanket spread over his knees. His sect was indeed known for such things. Lan disciples were meant to be a model of discipline and proper conduct. Excessive displays of emotion were forbidden, after all. But it wasn't the Lan disciplines that had helped Lan Wangji maintain his equilibrium. 

"I am not particularly angry," he began, carefully. "However, I regret the circumstances of this situation."

There seemed to be no purpose in raging against the unfairness of his own position. Wei Ying and Wen Qing had suffered, too. Their suffering had, perhaps, exceeded his own. As a very young woman, Wen Qing had been faced with a terrible choice: to watch her family murdered by her uncle or to flee the cultivation world altogether.

The other sects had offered her no refuge. Only the Yiling Patriarch had offered to take her in. But once she made a home in the Burial Mounds, she had found herself persecuted yet again. Wei Ying had been maligned and mistreated by the sects. As a cultivator living under the Yiling Patriarch's protection, Wen Qing's reputation had also suffered. 

At first, Lan Wangji had tried to resent her for her suspicion and mistrust. He tried to blame her for his injuries, for supporting Wei Ying's plan to arrange the marriage. Yet he couldn't. It seemed profoundly unfair to blame her for resorting to desperate stratagems to protect her family. 

Perhaps it would have been easier to be angry with her if she hadn't looked so bitterly exhausted. As Wen Qing packed away the last of her medical supplies, her face was lined with fatigue.

"So do I."  

She spoke heavily. Her bag lay on her lap, and her shoulders were bowed. For a while, she didn't speak. Then she lifted her eyes to Lan Wangji's face. 

"Please don't think we were enjoying this little scheme. It was a stupid plan, from start to finish, and we both hated it. But we didn't see many alternatives." 

She shook her head slowly. 

"We knew the sects were trying to infiltrate our settlement. It wasn't a matter of if they'd send another spy or assassin. It was a matter of when."

"I understand that," Lan Wangji said softly.

It was surprisingly easy to understand their motives. Xue Yang's casual references to the Jin's schemes made Lan Wangji's blood burn with impotent rage. Wei Ying had already suffered through countless attempts at espionage and assassination. Naturally, he and Wen Qing had expected another.  

He smoothed a hand over the embroidered quilt. His mind was still foggy from the herbs Wen Qing had given him, but he was growing more clearheaded. He was beginning to think the matter through. 

Lan Wangji darted a glance toward the door. Wei Ying wasn't often away from his bedside. But just now, he was across the hall, visiting Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen. If Lan Wangji wanted a private conversation with Wen Qing, now was the time. 

"I still have questions," he told her.

Wen Qing nodded and set her bag aside. She sat back against the chair with a heavy sigh. 

"Go ahead. I'll answer them." She gave a wry smile. "You've probably saved the life of every single person I care about. So I'd say you've earned the right to ask as many questions as you like."

Lan Wangji took a moment to arrange his thoughts. He had many questions about what would happen next. But it seemed best to reserve those questions for his husband. He turned away from the future, shifting backward in time.

"I would like to know what suspicions you held," he began, "and when you ceased to hold them."

Perhaps it shouldn't matter. He was willing to leave the past where it belonged. Yet somehow, he felt that he couldn't move forward until he settled this question within his own mind. He needed to know what she had thought of him, during the first few months of their acquaintance.

Wen Qing heaved another sigh. She reached out and poured herself a cup of tea.

"Before the marriage," she admitted, "I thought you had to be a spy."

 She sipped her tea, then shook her head.

"Your rank was too high. You were Hanguang-Jun, the brother of Sect Leader Lan. I thought there was no possible way you could be unaware of the plots against the Yiling Patriarch. After all, I knew there were plenty of rumors and gossip. We were fairly sure that several sect leaders were working together. How could Hanguang-Jun be ignorant of such things?"

She gave Lan Wangji a sharp look. Somehow, her expression mingled annoyance with amusement.

"I still don't understand how you didn't know anything about this. Did your sect keep locked up in a cave deep inside the mountains?" She leaned forward. "Did you have to take a vow of silence? Were you not allowed to attend a single discussion conference?"

Lan Wangji shifted awkwardly against the pillows. His husband had seemed equally confused by this matter, and Lan Wangji was left feeling slightly foolish. He wondered if he had missed clear signs or overlooked obvious clues. 

"I do not enjoy politics," he murmured. "I didn't attend meetings often, and I always left quickly." 

His brows drew together. A bubble of frustration swelled inside his chest. Lan Xichen had tried often to persuade his brother to stay and socialize. But Lan Wangji always despised sect gatherings. Every hunt, party, and banquet was a miserable experience. The discussion meetings themselves were tedious in the extreme. Lan Wangji had no patience with bloviating politicians, and he always escaped as quickly as possible.

Uncle had helped. It was unlike him to aid and abet his nephew's dereliction of duty. Yet he loathed social obligations as much as Lan Wangji. Uncle always found excuses to avoid mingling with sect leaders, and he supported Lan Wangji's attempts to do the same. Lan Xichen was Sect Leader, so his presence was required. But Uncle never expected Lan Wangji to shoulder those duties. 

Lan Wangji sensed that his uncle had been secretly pleased by his disinterest in politics. Uncle had always valued quiet study and solitary pursuits. If his nephew had similar tastes, Uncle sympathized and approved.

Of course, Uncle hadn't realized that their early departures had resulted in such a glaring blind spot. If he knew the sect leaders might be discussing secret plots, perhaps he would have judged differently.

Lan Wangji sighed. For the first time in his life, he wondered if there might be drawbacks to his sect's traditions. The ban on gossip and hearsay was truly a double-edged sword. Strict adherence to these rules seemed to have left his whole family painfully ignorant of a serious matter.

"No one spoke openly about such schemes," he added.

Wen Qing waved a hand.

"No, I never supposed they did. I hardly thought that sect leaders stood up in the middle of a banquet to discuss their next plot to assassinate the Yiling Patriarch." 

She frowned, tapping a finger against her cup.

"Even so, I figured there must be plenty of rumors. There weren't any whispers within your sect?"

Lan Wangji shook his head.

"Gossip is forbidden within the Lan sect," he reminded her. "My uncle always discouraged disciples from speaking of the Yiling Patriarch, in particular." 

Wen Qing finished her tea in silence. Her eyes were skeptical. She didn't seem to understand, and Lan Wangji let out another sigh.

"If disciples do not obey Grandmaster Lan," he explained, "they receive a punishment."

He gave her a meaningful stare. 

She had once belonged to a Great Sect herself. Her sect would have had its own punishments and strictly enforced rules. If a respected elder gave instructions to the disciples, there must be a penalty for disobedience.

"I see." Wen Qing grimaced. 

She didn't press the matter. Instead, she grew quiet. Then she took a deep breath and lifted her chin. 

"How much does your brother know?"

Lan Wangji's injuries were still fresh. Wen Qing had told him to remain still and relax his muscles. But this question sent a shockwave of tension through his body. 

"He did not know of this." His voice was sharp, curt. 

It did no good. Wen Qing pursed her lips doubtfully. Lan Wangji knotted his hands in the bedsheets and stared at the quilt. 

"Physician Wen." He sounded tense and hard, even to his own ears. "Please understand this. I know my brother's character. He would not have agreed to anything resembling an assassination."

Wen Qing had a brother of her own. As his sister, she must know what he would do and what he would not do. They had spent their childhood together, enduring hardships in Wen Ruohan's court before building new lives at the Burial Mounds. After such an ordeal, she couldn't possibly harbor doubts about her brother's character. 

Lan Wangji was equally certain that his brother would never agree to such a scheme. Lan Xichen had agreed to espionage during the war, but it was a war. Wen Ruohan had publicly declared his intention to conquer the cultivation world. He had burned Cloud Recesses and razed Lotus Pier. He made himself into a devastating threat, then announced his intention to harm innocent people. Along with the other sect leaders, Lan Xichen had agreed that espionage was necessary. 

But he wouldn't agree to send spies into the Burial Mounds based on mere rumors. He wouldn't infiltrate the Yiling Patriarch's court simply because he might someday pose a threat. Lan Xichen certainly wouldn't send assassins, not under any circumstances. Lan Wangji knew his brother. He knew Lan Xichen would be repulsed by the very idea. 

If Lan Xichen had known of such plans, he would have found a way to warn his brother. He would have told Uncle and the elders, too. So Lan Xichen must not know what the Jins had planned. Lan Wangji and his brother must have been equally ignorant. 

 Wen Qing only grimaced.

"Maybe he didn't know of these plots before your marriage." She spoke in a low mutter, her eyes averted. "But he might have gotten involved afterward."

Lan Wangji wasn't sure what expression he wore then. Whatever it was, Wen Qing instantly held up a placating hand.

"Never mind," she said swiftly. "We don't have to argue about that. Of course, you trust your brother, just as I would trust A-Ning."

Lan Wangji forced himself to relax against the pillow.

"The point is," Wen Qing rocked forward, "when you arrived, I thought you must be a spy. But you didn't exactly act like one." 

She leaned back. Her expression grew meditative.

"You were quiet and reserved. Very keen to learn how the settlements worked. I thought that was suspicious at first. So we kept a close eye on you, especially when you started spending time with the children."

Lan Wangji inclined his head. 

He had known that already. Wen Qing's eyes were always on him, during those early days. The walking corpses had watched him too. Lan Wangji had thought it was mere curiosity. He was a newcomer and the Patriarch's husband. A certain measure of scrutiny was to be expected. It had taken him several weeks to realize that he was being watched with some purpose.

"You didn't do anything much, though." 

Wen Qing made a face. She sounded just as Wei Ying had when he lamented his early suspicions.  

I tried to drop little crumbs of intelligence, Wei Ying had said. Then I waited to see what you did with it. Mostly you just taught the kids calligraphy and made offerings to my parents.

Wei Ying had winced when he spoke of that. Wen Qing winced, too.

"You didn't try to sneak into places you weren't supposed to be." She folded her arms across her chest. "You weren't writing any clandestine messages."

She took a deep breath, and Lan Wangji knew what would come next.

"We read your letters." Her nails scratched uneasily over the fabric of her robes. "We knew when your letters arrived, so we'd have the laundresses sneak into your room and make copies. Then we read them over." 

She seemed to be waiting for a reply. Lan Wangji merely nodded. 

He hadn't guessed at the laundresses' involvement. But it made sense. If he had seen the corpse women leaving his chambers, he wouldn't have thought anything of it. They often entered his chambers to gather up soiled garments and bedding. 

They must have been the ones who disordered the letters, he realized. Wen Qing was too methodical for such a clumsy error.

Wen Qing's nails continued to work over the embroidery on her sleeve.

"I did not enjoy that particular job," she said tensely. "For a number of reasons."

Lan Wangji inclined his head again. He understood that she must feel ashamed of her actions now. Invading another person's private correspondence was a terrible offense. Yet she had truly believed that he posed a dire threat to her family. Lan Wangji could hardly blame her for that. 

In his heart, he knew he would have done the same thing. If he had believed that someone was plotting to invade Cloud Recesses and murder Lan Xichen, he would have resorted to anything to stop it. It would not have been difficult to overcome his own scruples long enough to confiscate a few letters. He would be a hypocrite if he lectured Wen Qing over her conduct.  

Wen Qing stopped picking at her sleeve. She unfolded her arms, resting her hands on her knees.

"Frankly, the letters were excruciatingly dull. You spent a lot of time talking about the children's arithmetic lessons and your meditation practice." 

She tipped her head back, staring at the ceiling.

"Your brother would write back about his paintings and the sect duty rosters. Lots of talk about the weather. We tried to figure out if there was some kind of code there, but we couldn't crack it."

Lan Wangji said nothing. Their conversation about the weather had, indeed, been coded messages. But there was no point in saying so now. He nodded at her to continue.

"Well, the weeks dragged on." She waved a hand. "You didn't ask any prying questions about your husband's origins or powers. You weren't transparently scheming to win his trust or uncover his weaknesses. You weren't poisoning or drugging his food. There were definitely no attempts at seduction."

Lan Wangji colored. He couldn't help it. Perhaps someday he'd be able to speak of such things without a blush. But that day hadn't come yet. He was particularly mortified to imagine Wen Qing marching his husband into a quiet corner, demanding in whispers whether the marriage had been consummated.

"By the time Double Ninth Festival rolled around..." Wen Qing shook her head. Her face settled back into tired lines. "I started to consider that you might actually be as oblivious as you seemed." 

She drummed her fingers against her knee. 

"The Patriarch and I talked it over. It was not a very pleasant conversation." Her mouth twisted into a rueful smile. "We admitted to each other that we'd probably misjudged the situation badly. He said he was convinced you were exactly as upstanding as you looked. I couldn't argue."

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. 

"So when we got the message from Xiao Xingcheng, we didn't hesitate to leave you here alone." 

Her eyes grew clouded, and Lan Wangji saw that she was slipping into an unpleasant memory. He waited in silence as she took deliberately even breaths.

"By then, we didn't think you posed any danger to anyone here." Wen Qing turned and stared out the window. "So we thought it was best to leave you behind. If you weren't involved in any secret plots, then you'd protect the others if something happened while we were gone." 

She shut her eyes.

"Then we found out what happened to Song Zichen, and we saw your flare."

The words hung awkwardly in the air. Lan Wangji said nothing, staring at his own hands. Wei Ying had already confessed that he'd had second thoughts when they saw the flare. He had admitted that their suspicions against Lan Wangji had flooded back, and their doubts had returned. 

Lan Wangji felt a tiny flicker of irritation toward Wen Qing, but he forced himself to smother it. He had forgiven Wei Ying already. It would be deeply unjust to blame Wen Qing for her doubts when he'd already forgiven his husband for his.  And it was difficult to nurture resentment when Wen Qing looked so worn out, exhausted from worrying over her family and laboring over her patients. 

 "At that point, we panicked a bit." Wen Qing's jaw tightened. She gave a small, tense shrug. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't hold that against us. But I wouldn't blame you if you did."

Lan Wangji nodded. He hardly knew what to say, so he remained silent. Wen Qing smoothed her hands over her robes, adjusting her sleeves with deliberate care. 

"We didn't rush to your aid as quickly as we should have," she admitted. "We started to consider that maybe we were right the first time, and you actually were a spy or an assassin."

"I lack the necessary skills for those professions."

The words were too blunt, but they escaped anyway. Then there was nothing for Lan Wangji to do but meet Wen Qing's gaze. He had spoken truthfully, after all. He couldn't retract the statement or add qualifiers. Lan Wangji was poorly suited to espionage and assassination. 

Wen Qing huffed a quiet laugh. 

"I can see that," she said dryly. "As it turns out, you're embarrassingly bad at this sort of thing!"

Her tone was good-humored, and Lan Wangji understood that he was being invited to share the joke. It was a grim sort of humor, but perhaps there wasn't any other kind available. 

Lan Wangji inclined his head in agreement and let his shoulders relax. Something had softened between them, and tension bled from Wen Qing's face.

"We should've talked things over with you sooner," she added. "We didn't suspect you as long as you might think. By Double Ninth Festival, we were pretty much done with all that."

Lan Wangji took a deep breath. He held those words against his heart. 

It was something, at least. He had felt that Wei Ying had drawn closer to him around Double Ninth Festival. Wei Ying had started to bring him gifts. He spent his evenings in Lan Wangji's company. He gave Lan Wangji the rabbits and held his hand in a quiet hallway. 

If that closeness hadn't been feigned, then Lan Wangji could find peace with the situation. If his husband and Wen Qing had sheepishly let go of their suspicions and decided to trust Lan Wangji, the rest could be forgotten. Their small lapse, during the panicked moments after Song Zichen's attack, could be forgiven. 

Wen Qing's words soothed the sore places in his heart. Lan Wangji took another breath and felt his heart begin to heal.

"But then the situation became awkward." Wen Qing rubbed a hand over her face. "If you really didn't know anything, how were we supposed to explain?"

Her shoulders slumped again. Her face was lined with fatigue, and Lan Wangji wondered how much sleep she'd had since the attack. She looked like the medics he'd seen during the Sunshot Campaign. They often wore the same haggard look after spending days laboring over patients they didn't expect to survive.

 "We talked it over," Wen Qing continued slowly, "but we couldn't figure out a way to break the news to you. How were we supposed to tell you that we brought you here, thinking you were a spy? Or that practically everyone you knew was probably scheming against your husband? That's a bitter pill to swallow. It seemed kinder to leave you in ignorance a bit longer."

Lan Wangji gave her a sharp, reproving look. Wen Qing sighed and shrugged. She made no further attempts at justifying herself.

"That was a mistake. I acknowledge it." She lifted her chin. "I won't apologize for suspecting you at first. I won't even apologize for arranging the marriage. We were doing the best we could with limited information, and we were running out of options. We had to be careful and trust no one."

She swallowed hard and took another sip of her tea.

"But I do apologize for leaving you in the dark for so long. I certainly wouldn't appreciate being treated that way myself. We were wrong."

Lan Wangji gave her a small, respectful nod.

"Your apology is accepted." He paused. "For future reference. I prefer to know the truth, even when it is unpleasant."

She nodded grimly.

"That's fair enough. We won't try to hide things any longer." A humorless smile touched her lips. "When the next problem appears, you'll hear about it."

When the next problem appears. Not if. Lan Wangji felt a pulse of unease at such pessimistic phrasing. But he could hardly argue. 

 The Jins wouldn't abandon their plots after a single failure. Wen Qing and Wei Ying said there had been several attempts over the years. The Jins and their confederates had sent a dozen spies and several assassins. When those attempts failed, they spread countless rumors smearing his husband's character. 

Now they had tipped their hand. They must have realized by now that Xue Yang's assault had failed. They would realize, too, that the Patriarch knew they were plotting against him. The Jins couldn't back down. They must try harder than ever to win the rest of the cultivation world to their side, to deepen the mistrust against the Yiling Patriarch. Wen Qing was correct: more problems would come.

But if Lan Wangji knew of these problems—if he was permitted to help solve them—then he didn't mind. If they could work together, any hardship seemed bearable. 

He nodded at Wen Qing. She reached for her bag, and Lan Wangji knew she planned to end the conversation there. Yet before she could leave, there was something more he needed to say.  

"No apology is required for the marriage itself."

Wen Qing looked up sharply. Her face was surprised, but Lan Wangji met her gaze steadily. 

He did not require an apology for the marriage. Not from Wen Qing, and not from his husband. The political situation was quite unfortunate, and he would have preferred to understand the truth before they took their bows. But in spite of everything, he wasn't sorry to have married Wei Ying. 

Wen Qing studied him in silence for some time. 

"He said he offered to annul the marriage," she remarked. "He told me he offered to send you home, and you said no."

"He did." Lan Wangji paused. "I did."

He dipped his chin. The rest was not Wen Qing's business, so he kept his lips closed. She made a face.

"For the sake of complete honesty, let me confess that I scolded at him for making that offer." She gave a brisk shake of her head. "It wouldn't be smart to send you back. You know too much. It's not safe for you to return to your sect."

She paused, and her eyes narrowed.

"Let me be clear: I'm not just talking about our safety. It's not safe for you either. The sects would call you into a meeting and try to find out what information you gathered on the Yiling Patriarch during the course of your marriage." 

She paused delicately. 

"I'm not suggesting that they'd sit you down and politely ask you to share the details over a cup of tea, either. And they wouldn't just shrug their shoulders and walk away if you refused to answer."

Lan Wangji absorbed that for a moment.

"You may be correct," he murmured.

His hands fisted against the bedding. He didn't like to think of that possibility.

His brother would certainly object. He wouldn't allow the sects to interrogate Lan Wangji about the private details of his marriage. If the sects attempted such an interrogation, the entire Lan sect would be outraged. But what did their objections matter? If the Jins were corrupt enough to send spies and assassins to the Burial Mounds, what weren't they capable of? 

They would surely find ways to spy on Lan Wangji, too. If he refused to speak openly or help them in their plots against his husband, they wouldn't passively accept his decision. They might resort to poisons, curses, or truth spells. At the very least, they would install spies at Cloud Recesses and bribe guest disciples to gather intelligence.

Lan Wangji realized that Wen Qing was entirely correct. He would not be safe if he returned to Cloud Recesses. His silence would not be respected. Nor would his refusal to help their schemes. 

Of course, that didn't matter. He hadn't the slightest intention of returning to his natal sect or placing himself under the Jins' control. He met Wen Qing's gaze steadily, and she gave him an unreadable look in return. 

"Is that why you refused to annul the marriage?" She tapped her forefinger against her medical bag. "You think you're safer with the infamous Yiling Patriarch than with the sects?"

She knew the answer already. Lan Wangji could hear it in her voice. But he shook his head anyway. 

"That is not why."

She must know the truth. There weren't so many reasons for Lan Wangji to stay. He didn't fear the sects, and he wasn't influenced by political concerns. He wasn't staying because he was intimidated by the Jins. He needed no protection from his enemies.

He did wish to honor his marriage vows by remaining at his husband's side. But it wasn't merely a matter of duty, either. Wen Qing had seen him with his husband. She had watched them together for months. By now, she must have seen that Lan Wangji was attached to Wei Ying.

He couldn't bring himself to speak of that aloud. So he folded his hands on his lap and said no more. Wen Qing was quiet for a long time. Then she heaved a sigh and rose to her feet. 

"Well. I won't pretend I'm not grateful you're staying." She hefted her bag over a shoulder. "We could use another trained cultivator around here."

She paused, lingering beside the chair.

"Besides, if you left now, he'd mope for the rest of eternity." Her voice was low. She darted a meaningful glance in Lan Wangji's direction. "And I'd be the one stuck dealing with it!" 

Lan Wangji said nothing. His chest warmed with pleased embarrassment. He would like to think that his husband might be grieved by his departure. Perhaps it was selfish, but he hoped that his husband would 'mope' if he left. 

Wen Qing studied him. Then she shook her head with a sort of amused exasperation. 

"If you're staying here, then I turn him over to you." 

She gestured broadly in the direction of Song Zichen's room, where Wei Ying was surely speaking with his friends. 

"He's your responsibility from now on. Getting him to eat and sleep on a regular basis is officially your problem."

Lan Wangji's wounds still burned. His head ached, and he was brutally exhausted even after their short conversation. But that was nothing compared to the delight of knowing that his husband was now his responsibility. That was a great comfort, perhaps greater than Wen Qing even realized. He nodded at once.

"I accept."

Wen Qing snorted as she mixed up another batch of medicine. Lan Wangji frowned at the cup, knowing it would leave him asleep for the rest of the afternoon. 

"Then don't be shy about hectoring him from now on." 

Wen Qing stirred the powers briskly before adding hot water. 

"Go and pester him when he's been working for too long. Tell him he'd better stop fooling around with experimental talismans that tend to blow up in his face. Exert your authority as his husband." 

She arched a pointed brow and handed over the cup of medicinal tea. As he drank it, Lan Wangji gave her suggestions some thought. 

It would be very pleasant to have authority over his husband. At the very least, he liked the idea of shared authority. It would be nice to look after his husband and be looked after in turn. He bit back a smile and drained the cup without complaint.

Wen Qing cleared away the last of the supplies and rinsed out the cups. Lan Wangji lay back against the pillows and watched her work. The tea was already taking effect, and he felt drowsy. But there was a speculative gleam in Wen Qing's eye. He couldn't help but wonder what it portended.

Before she left, Wen Qing reached into a hidden pocket. She drew out a set of acupuncture needles and held one up for Lan Wangji's inspection. 

"If he gets stubborn," she said, "then come and find me. I'll teach you how to use these." 

She rotated the needle. It gleamed in the pale winter sunlight, sharp and deadly. 

"If you aim for the right spot, you can paralyze him." She shook her head almost fondly. "He's learning to shake off the effects pretty quickly. But you can make him sit still long enough that he'll have to listen to your lectures."

Lan Wangji blinked. The affection in her voice was unmistakable. It was curiously at odds with her blunt speech about paralyzing Wei Ying. 

He wondered if he'd ever understand her relationship with his husband, or what had forged them into such steadfast companions. If he had won their trust, perhaps he would hear the full story sometime. At any rate, it was some consolation to know that Wen Qing had taken him into her circle of friends.

 "Unnecessary." Lan Wangji dipped his chin respectfully. "But I appreciate the offer. I will remind him to take care of himself."

He certainly intended to do just that. Wen Qing didn't need to exhort him to look after his husband. She didn't need to give her permission or blessing. Lan Wangji was determined to watch over his husband, just as his husband had watched over him. 

Wen Qing groaned aloud.

"You have no idea how terrible he is at that." She swung her bag at her side as she turned toward the door. "I don't think you know what you're getting yourself into. But it's too late. Looks like you're stuck with us."

She sounded almost cheerful as she strode away. Lan Wangji blinked at her retreating back, bemused. But he didn't have much time to think about her remarks. Sleep swallowed him, and he didn't wake for many hours.

When he surfaced, he found his bedroom room quiet and dark. Night had fallen, but a cheerful fire crackled in the brazier beside his bed. Wei Ying was hunched beside it, scrawling at a sheaf of papers. They looked to be talismans of some kind.

Lan Wangji watched his husband for a while, enjoying the firelight against Wei Ying's intent face. Yet he didn't have much time to watch his husband unobserved. Wei Ying looked over and caught him. Then he rushed to the bed to help Lan Wangji sit up and eat his congee. 

Wei Ying made a face over the bowl. 

"Wen Qing says you're not allowed to have anything good yet." He sighed, stirring the congee with a spoon. "Look at this slop! There aren't even any spices! Doesn't it look like some kind of punishment? You deserve something nicer." 

"The food is fine." 

Lan Wangji hardly paid attention to what he was eating. The bland congee was immaterial. His husband's presence alone was worth savoring. 

Wei Ying kept refilling his teacup, talking mindlessly about the children's desperate desire to see Lan Wangji. Half the Wens, he said, had been lurking outside his door, waiting for news. Wei Ying was afraid that if Wen Qing didn't allow visitors soon, the Wens would stage an insurrection and force their way into Lan Wangji's sickroom.

"They're really worried about you," Wei Ying added.

That was worth savoring, too. Lan Wangji couldn't quite conceal his smile. 

Wei Ying helped wash his hands and face with a warm cloth. Then he plumped up Lan Wangji's pillows and build up the fire. When that was done, Wei Ying slouched into the chair beside Lan Wangji's bed. He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. 

"Wen Qing's been pestering me," he murmured. "She wanted me to ask you about the attack. She wants to know if Xue Yang dropped any useful information before you..."

Wei Ying drew a finger across his throat. 

Lan Wangji nodded. He had expected this. During his brief periods of wakefulness, he had wracked his brains, trying to gather up every possible clue. But there wasn't much to tell. 

Xue Yang had been the hired assassin, the blunt instrument the Jins had wielded. He wasn't the mastermind behind the attack. Even if there had been time for a full interrogation, Lan Wangji wasn't optimistic that the man could provide much intelligence.

"Xue Yang said he'd been paid for the attack. I guessed that it was the Jins who had hired him, and he confirmed it." Lan Wangji paused, thinking back. "He spoke of a 'little rat.' I believe someone within the Jin sect who helped to hire him."

Wei Ying's brows drew together.

"I don't think anybody would call Jin Guangshan a 'little rat.'" He scratched his chin. "A big rat, maybe! Do you know who he was talking about?"

Lan Wangji wanted to shake his head. It wouldn't be a lie, necessarily. He didn't know with any degree of certainty to whom Xue Yang had referred. But he had his suspicions. They were difficult to voice, and Lan Wangji bit the inside of his cheek. Then he forced himself to speak.

"There is a man. Meng Yao. Have you heard of him?"

Wei Ying scrunched up his face.

"Vaguely. He's the illegitimate son, right?"

Lan Wangji inclined his head.

"Yes. He has recently joined his father's sect." He paused, then added, "I don't consider him trustworthy."

It was hardly a scathing commendation, but it hurt even to say that much. Lan Wangji's opinions had rarely differed from his brother's. Their views and beliefs had always dovetailed perfectly. Lan Xichen tended to be more forgiving, more inclined to see the good in people. Yet Lan Wangji had seldom thought his brother's perception of someone was mistaken. 

Sometimes, he felt that his brother had been slightly too generous in his dealings with certain individuals. He had never thought his brother was wrong, though. He'd never believed that his brother had placed faith in someone who had criminal tendencies. He feared, however, that Meng Yao might prove to be just that sort of person. 

Distress must have crept across his face. Wei Ying hurriedly waved his hands, pouring Lan Wangji another cup of tea.

"All right." He spoke soothingly as he placed the cup in Lan Wangji's hands. "We'll think about that later on. Don't worry about it right now."

Lan Wangji ignored the tea, frowning at his husband. 

"Action must be taken," he insisted.

They couldn't sit back and do nothing. As Wen Qing has insinuated, the Jins were sure to launch another assault. Whether it would take the form of an assassination or a campaign of vicious rumors remained to be seen. But they would do something. If Wei Ying didn't plan a counterattack, they would be exposed to the next plot. 

"I know." Wei Ying placed a reassuring hand on Lan Wangji's arm. "We will take action, I promise. But not right now."

Lan Wangji couldn't quite hide his surprise. He had expected greater urgency from his husband after Xue Yang's dramatic attack. It was not merely Lan Wangji who had been placed in danger. Song Zichen and Xiao Xingchen had been threatened too. The children had been put in jeopardy. Lan Wangji stared in astonishment, and Wei Ying heaved a sigh.

"Ah, the rest of us went through all this while you were asleep." 

He rubbed the back of his neck ruefully. 

"There was a big argument between me and Wen Qing and Xiao Xingchen. They pretty much had to pin me down on the floor to keep me from running off to Koi Tower. Believe me, I wanted to do exactly that."

Wei Ying frowned at the bedding, tucking the quilt securely over Lan Wangji's lap.

"But they said it would be stupid to rush off to confront Jin Guangshan. Who knows? That might even be what he wants me to do. It might be playing right into his hands."

Lan Wangji digested that. It was a valid argument. The Jins were clearly playing a very deep game. Perhaps they had wanted to draw Wei Ying out of the Burial Mounds and into a trap. A public confrontation might be exactly what they were hoping for. They had certainly been hard at work destroying Wei Ying's credibility. 

If he marched to Koi Tower and accused Jin Guangshan of sending assassins, would anyone believe him? There was Xue Yang's corpse, but that proved little. Jin Guangshan could claim that his prisoner had escaped and was acting alone. He'd lose face for having let Xue Yang escape, but no one could prove he had been guilty of anything worse than carelessness.

Lan Wangji could give his own testimony. So could Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen. But he had a sinking feeling that their statements might not be enough to sway the sect leaders. Someone, no doubt, would suggest that they were only speaking under duress. Perhaps the sect leaders would believe that Lan Wangji had been forced to say whatever his husband commanded. Xue Yang had insinuated that the cultivation world believed Lan Wangji was kept as a slave. It didn't seem an unreasonable leap.

Wei Ying heaved another sigh.

"We need more information." He thumped a fist against his knee. "That's always been our biggest weakness. We're mostly cut off from the cultivation world, so it's hard to know what the sects are planning. I need to fix that."

Lan Wangji digested that, too.

"You are considering espionage?" he ventured.

Wei Ying slumped in his seat.

"Well, I don't really see the alternative." He rubbed a hand over his face. "I have a few ideas for how I can try to get someone into Koi Tower to snoop around. Turnabout is fair play, after all!"

Lan Wangji's frown deepened. He despised the idea of lowering himself to Jin Guanghsan's level. But he didn't see a viable alternative. 

The Jins had arranged matters carefully. They had ensured that a public accusation would be ignored. Wei Ying's credibility—and Lan Wangji's, by extension—had been destroyed. Most of the sect leaders didn't consider Jin Guangshan a friend, but he was a known entity. If they were forced to choose between placing faith in Jin Guangshan or Yiling Patriarch, Lan Wangji knew what choice they'd make.

Wei Ying was correct, then. They needed additional intelligence. If they hoped to counter the Jin's schemes, they had to discover what those schemes were. It would be reckless to rush in blindly. 

Wei Ying growled softly. His face had darkened, his eyes cold and faraway.

"The Jin sect... I can't let them get away with this." He spoke in soft, even tones. "But I don't want to involve innocent people. I don't want to storm the next discussion conference and start cracking skulls. Not innocent skulls, anyway."

Lan Wangji nodded. 

He understood. If it came to a direct confrontation, he knew his husband could prevail. Wei Ying could kill Jin Guangshan easily. Yet that would serve no purpose. It would only deepen the sects' fear and resentment. Worse, innocent people might be caught in the crossfire. That was unacceptable to Lan Wangji. He was relieved to see it was equally unacceptable to his husband. 

"So I need to figure out who's directly involved." Wei Ying's face cleared, and he nodded to himself. "I need to know who's actually plotting murder and who's just been listening to the wrong sort of gossip."

Lan Wangji stared into the brazier, watching the flames dance. It would not be easy to gather the sort of information Wei Ying wanted. Not in the middle of winter, from half a world away. He couldn't begin to imagine how it might be achieved. 

Wei Ying laid a hand on his arm.

"I don't want you to worry about that right now, though!" He squeezed Lan Wangji's wrist. "You should just focus on getting better."

"I would like to know what is happening," Lan Wangji insisted.

His recovery was the first priority. He'd be no good to anyone until he healed and regained his full strength. He ought to focus his attention on meditation to help speed the healing process. But Lan Wangji couldn't peacefully meditate if he was kept in ignorance. 

Wei Ying seemed to understand this. He lowered his head and squeezed Lan Wangji's arm again.

"Fair enough! I'll keep you informed, I promise." He sat back with a sigh. "Wen Qing and Xiao Xingchen talked me down, so we're not going to take any action right away. We're going to bide our time for a while and gather our forces. Then we'll decide what to do, once you and Song Lan are better."

He studied Lan Wangji with grave, gentle eyes. 

"This is your business too," he added softly. "You'll be involved in those discussions. I swear it."

Lan Wangji allowed himself to relax against the pillows once more. His breaths came more easily, and the tension that had crept into his muscles dissipated.

"I appreciate it," he murmured.

Wei Ying huffed a quiet, humorless laugh.

"It's really the very least I can do!" He groaned and rubbed his eyes. "Ah, Shishu is really mad at me for what I did to you!"

Lan Wangji tilted his head, puzzled. Wei Ying lowered his hand into his lap and gave another wry smile. 

"He didn't know about any of this. About why I married you." Wei Ying tried to laugh, but his eyes were pained. "He's such a romantic. He really thought it must have been love at first sight between us! I think Song Lan was a little more skeptical about my motivations. But he thought I was just trying to solidify my position after the war."

Wei Ying seemed unhappy at the thought of having to deceive his friends. Lan Wangji felt a stab of sympathy, but it was followed by a rush of relief. 

He had supposed that Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen were equally involved in the marriage plot. They were Wei Ying's oldest friends, after all. Xiao Xingchen was almost family. 

Lan Wangji supposed he ought to be horrified that Wei Ying had deceived them, too. But instead, he found himself desperately relieved. He'd wondered if Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen had also been watching him with suspicion, skeptical of his true character. If their friendly treatment had been sincere—if they believed that he and Wei Ying had married for love—that was far more bearable. 

"They're not too happy about what I did!" 

Wei Ying reached out, moving items restlessly around the nightstand. Lan Wangji watched him work. He had already discovered that his husband liked to meddle with nearby objects, even those that didn't belong to him. But Lan Wangji didn't mind. His husband had graceful, long-fingered hands. It was a pleasure to watch him toy with a teacup or roll a brush between his fingers. 

"They're not happy that I kept them in the dark afterward," Wei Ying continued. "But they were running all over the cultivation world, so we couldn't talk the plan over with them anyway. By the time they got back..." 

He made a face.

"We figured that the fewer people who knew about this, the better. At that point, Wen Qing and I were already starting to realize that we'd made a mistake. So we were too embarrassed to tell them the truth."

Lan Wangji nodded. He felt sure that the pair would forgive Wei Ying. He intended to say so, but Wei Ying interrupted.

"Speaking of keeping family informed!" He set aside the teacup in his hands and leaned forward, his expression grim. "I didn't write to your family after the attack. I didn't know what to tell them, or if I should tell them anything."

Wei Ying hesitated, his empty fingers twitching restlessly on his lap. 

"What do you want to do?"

He asked that question often, now: What do you want? It had only been a few days since Lan Wangji had first awoken, but he'd already heard that question from Wei Ying's lips a dozen times. 

Wei Ying asked if he wanted this or that tea. He asked if Lan Wangji wanted his help changing clothes, or if he wanted Wen Qing to provide assistance. He asked what Lan Wangji desired in terms of meals, baths, and incense. 

It was as if Wei Ying sought to make amends for his previous mistrust by honoring Lan Wangji's preference in every small matter. Lan Wangji found it touching. But this was a question he didn't particularly want to answer. He was quiet for a moment.

"I have been considering that," he said, after an awkward pause. "I decided I would prefer not to discuss the attack with my family."

Wei Ying's eyebrows shot up.

"Are you sure?"

Lan Wangji nodded. His heart was heavy, but he felt sure of his decision.

"Meng Yao is...someone my brother trusts." Lan Wangji folded his hands, digging his nails into his palms. "If I wrote to my brother and told him of my injuries, I am not sure what my brother would tell Meng Yao. And I am not sure what he would say to my brother in turn."

He wanted nothing more than to tell his brother the truth. He wanted to write to his brother at once and beg him to come to the Burial Mounds. He wanted to dump the entire mess at his brother's feet and ask him to help find a solution.

But Lan Wangji knew he could not. If he asked Lan Xichen to come, he would. He'd rush to the Burial Mounds at once. He would be distraught to hear of Lan Wangji's attack and anxious to solve the matter. He would do everything he could to help his younger brother.

He didn't trust Wei Ying, though. He would be horrified and suspicious to hear that Lan Wangji had been injured under his husband's care. Any accusations against the Jins would be viewed with extreme suspicion. At worst, Lan Xichen might think that Wei Ying was trying to shift blame. He might think that Wei Ying was trying to conceal his own involvement in Lan Wangji's injuries.

At best, Lan Xichen would consider that Wei Ying might be telling the truth. But even if they persuaded his brother, Lan Wangji knew how he would respond. Lan Xichen would insist upon handling the matter through the proper channels. He would want to speak directly with Jin Guangshan and Meng Yao. He would consult with other sect leaders and handle the conflict following an official consensus. 

It was, of course, the correct method for resolving most conflicts. Lan Wangji understood that. His brother was the leader of one of the Great Sects; he was obliged to handle political conflicts in a forthright and diplomatic manner. If another sect was accused of committing a crime, he must confront them and handle the matter publicly. He must listen to his fellow sect leaders and determine the punishment as part of a group. 

But Lan Wangji saw the flaws in that approach. His brother would be constrained by laws, rules, and customs. He would be limited by diplomacy, hampered by his own attempts at morality. The Jins would have no such handicaps. 

Wei Ying heaved a sigh. 

"I can see how the Jins might try to spin that." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Who's to say I didn't attack you myself? Who's to say I didn't force you to lie to your brother and claim someone else did it? Where's the proof it was really Xue Yang, or that he was paid off by the Jins?"

Lan Wangji nodded grimly. There was no proof. They could make their accusations before the sects, but the Jins could deny everything. It would be Wei Ying's word against theirs, and they had already been hard at work destroying the Yiling Patriarch's credibility.

"There is the body," Lan Wangji allowed. "But there is no other proof. My brother always seeks to consider both sides. It makes him a skilled diplomat. However..."

"It leaves him open to persuasion." Wei Ying sighed again.

Lan Wangji lowered his head. His heart twisted. He could persuade his brother to recognize—or at least consider—the truth. But if his brother was determined to put his faith in Meng Yao, it would not be easy to persuade him that the Jins were guilty of a series of terrible crimes. 

His brother would hope that there had been some misunderstanding, or that Meng Yao was innocent in the matter. If Lan Xichen would hesitate to take swift, decisive action against the Jins, it might be best not to inform him of this matter. Not until they had irrefutable proof. 

Wei Ying gazed unhappily at his own hands.

"Should he come to visit?" he asked softly.

He lifted his face, meeting Lan Wangji's gaze.

"I didn't offer to invite him before because I wasn't sure which of the sect leaders we could trust. I'm still not sure, to be honest." He winced. "Don't be offended, but I'm not convinced that your brother doesn't know more about this than you think. But if you want him to come here, I'll bring him here."

Lan Wangji swallowed hard. His homesickness had largely vanished over the last few weeks. He still missed his family, but he had settled comfortably into his new home. The separation was bearable. Yet, suddenly, he felt a desperate wish to have his brother at his side. Even if Lan Xichen couldn't solve their problems, it would be a comfort to have his brother nearby. 

But Lan Wangji shut his eyes and considered the matter. Then he shook his head. 

"I would like to see him," he admitted.

Wei Ying opened his mouth, but Lan Wangji shook his head again.

"Even so, I am not sure a visit would be wise." He stared at Wei Ying's hands. "My brother would listen carefully to our words, and he would consider everything we told him. Then he would go to the Jins. He would confront Jin Guangshan and ask for his account."

Wei Ying made a frustrated noise. 

"Which is not what we want," he groaned, "because Jin Guangshan is not interested in telling the truth!"

Lan Wangji nodded miserably. Wei Ying's eyes were full of dismay but also full of sympathy. He reached out to squeeze Lan Wangji's hands. 

"All right," he sighed. "All right. You write to your brother and tell him whatever you think is best."

Lan Wangji braced himself for what he knew must come. Until they knew more, they couldn't afford to let anyone outside their settlement know of this attack. They couldn't publicly accuse the Jins, either. So he would have to write his brother a perfectly ordinary letter, making no mention of his injuries. Such deception burned a hole through Lan Wangji's heart, but he knew there was no alternative.

He must have looked unhappy. Wei Ying squeezed his hands again, and he looked unhappy too.

"I'm sorry," he murmured.

Lan Wangji could only sigh.

"As am I," he replied. "As am I."