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love, in fire and blood

Chapter Text

The following day, Lan Wangji received the long-awaited permission to leave his chambers. Before he set off for the main hall, Wen Qing told him that he mustn't overexert himself. As it turned out, Lan Wangji had no opportunity to do so. Wei Ying stuck close to his side as the Wens converged upon them at breakfast. Everyone wished to see Lan Wangji, to speak to him, to wish him well in his recovery. The children, in particular, flung themselves at Lan Wangji.

They had been told that they must not climb on his lap just yet. None of the children were pleased by this mandate, but they made do by clutching at Lan Wangji's robes and leaning against his side. A-Yuan fastened himself to Lan Wangji's leg and wouldn't allow himself to be removed under any pretense.

Once they were settled, Lan Wangji prodded his husband. Wei Ying cleared his throat and summoned the attention of everyone in the hall. With great ceremony—and smiling eyes—he announced that he intended to adopt. Any children or disciples who wished to join the Wei clan would be accepted. The disciples glowed, radiant with pride. It took the children a little longer to understand the impact of this announcement. But once Lan Wangji explained what 'adoption' meant, the children were deliriously excited.

Wei Ying had evidently found time to speak with Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen the previous night. After breakfast, he pulled A-Qing aside. The two cultivators wanted to adopt her, he said. They wanted to formalize the arrangement and officially become her fathers. Brash as she was, A-Qing was overwhelmed by this news. At once, she buried her face in Lan Wangji's robes. She did not reply. Then she sprinted off to Song Zichen's sickroom. She didn't return for the rest of the day.

The Wens greeted the news of the adoption with warm approval. They seemed eager to arrange the ceremony, and half the morning was given over to planning.

Very few formalities would be required. Wei Ying would begin by bestowing the children's courtesy names. Then the children would troop into the ancestral hall and bow before the altar. They would make offerings to their new grandparents; thus, they would officially join the Wei clan. The ceremony itself would take less than half a shi. But the Wens insisted that there must be a banquet afterward. The children must have new clothes, too.

Lan Wangji discovered that their robes were nearly complete. The Wens had finished most of the children's new clothing during Lan Wangji's convalescence. The rest would be ready within a fortnight. After hearing this, Granny Wen consulted her almanac. She found an auspicious date, five weeks ahead. The date was suitable for beginning a new endeavor or making additions to a family.

Five weeks seemed plenty of time to plan a small celebration, and Lan Wangji was in no hurry to begin choosing dishes or picking out decorations. But the Wens rushed to start their preparations. As he listened to the clamor of voices, Lan Wangji took a moment to savor the peculiarity of the situation. When he woke up that morning, he had no children. Yet within a month, he would have nine.

Ten, perhaps. A-Yuan seemed to take it for granted that his 'gege' would soon become his 'baba.' When A-Yuan began speaking of his own part in the adoption ceremony, Lan Wangji shared an anxious glance with Wei Ying. He would gladly accept A-Yuan, but the boy wasn't like the other children. The rest were orphans, bereft of even the most distant relations. A-Yuan had plenty of aunts, uncles, and cousins. He had a living grandmother, too. Lan Wangji feared they would be reluctant to give him up to another clan.

He joined his husband, hastily drawing aside Wen Qing and Granny Wen. Lan Wangji was surprised to find that the Wens offered no objection to the adoption.

"What's the difference?" Wen Qing huffed. "He'll still live here. We'll see him every day. Auntie Jiao will teach him arithmetic. Granny will cook his meals. A-Ning will try to stop him from dragging his sleeves through his soup during every meal. I'll take care of him when he's sick."

She gave an eloquent shrug.

"He'll still be our family. Changing his last name won't make any difference."

Granny Wen reinforced this statement with an emphatic nod. Lan Wangji received the impression that the two had firmly made up their minds.

An adoption would make a difference, though. It was possible for A-Yuan to honor two sets of parents in this lifetime. There was no need for him to neglect his natal family, and Lan Wangji would never stop him from showing obeisance to the Wens. But if A-Yuan had children, they would honor Wei Ying and Lan Wangji as their grandparents. A-Yuan's birth parents would be set aside, his ties to the Wens dissolved by the next generation.

Yet the Wens didn't seem to mind. Lan Wangji realized—with a certain measure of sorrow—that the Wens wished for their name to die out. Perhaps they were anxious to join another clan and see their children assume a different identity. After all, Wen Ruohan had brought infamy to his own clan. Those who bore the Wen surname were no longer safe in the cultivation world. If the Wens' descendants ever wished to leave the Burial Mounds, they couldn't carry their name with them. They would be infinitely safer if they were known as Weis.

Lan Wangji bowed his head and accepted their decision. If nothing else, he was relieved that A-Yuan wouldn't feel excluded. Lan Wangji chose to focus on the children's joy and forget the rest.

Wei Ying was full of plans for the adoption ceremony. He intended to use the adoption to confer a sword on his third-eldest disciple. Baoshan Sanren had given him a secret manual that explained the secret of changing ordinary blades into spiritual weapons. The process, he said, was not as difficult as it might seem. But it took time, and he would need to begin at once. He promised that Lan Wangji could help with this task.

They agreed to bestow other gifts on the children, too. The storehouse held plenty of books, jewelry, and cultivation tools. Lan Wangji was eager to sift through the shelves and find meaningful presents. Yet this task would have to wait. He promised Wen Qing that he'd sit quietly for a few more days, and he'd made a similar promise to his husband. In the meantime, they must speak to Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen. The time had come to discuss the threat posed by the Jins.

After lunch, Lan Wangji followed his husband down the hall toward the pair's bedchamber. They evicted A-Qing and sent her off to play with the other children. Once they were alone, Wei Ying slapped privacy talismans against the walls to ensure that no one could overhear their conversation. Then they gathered around the table for tea. Lan Wangji studied Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen closely. 

Song Zichen was well enough to roam at will, but Wen Qing had instructed him to proceed slowly. He was still adapting to his altered vision. It would take time for him to navigate the settlement without help. But Lan Wangji saw that he was in surprisingly good health and spirits. He was well-groomed and clean-shaven, and his bandages had been removed. There was a slight cloudiness to his eyes. He could track movement, though. His eyesight had been preserved well enough that he could easily discern objects within arm's reach. He poured their tea without spilling a drop.

Xiao Xingchen, however, had grown pale. Lan Wangji perceived that the man had lost weight since they last met. As Song Zichen served the tea, Xiao Xingchen lingered at his husband's side. He seemed unwilling to take his eyes off Song Zichen for more than a few seconds.

Once the tea had been poured, Xiao Xingchen gradually settled down. He turned his attention to Lan Wangji.

"We're glad to see that you're recovering so well!" He studied Lan Wangji's face with a kind, intent focus. "We were very worried about you."

Lan Wangji inclined his head politely.

"Wen Qing and my husband have worked hard."

Xiao Xingchen gave him a wry smile.

"They have," he agreed.

“Too hard,” Song Zichen added.

He cast a meaningful look in Wei Ying's direction. Though his eyes had been damaged, his gaze was sharp enough. Wei Ying sighed, slouching his shoulders.

"You were right," he stage-whispered to Lan Wangji. "He said no."

Lan Wangji grimaced. It appeared that his husband had found time to discuss more than A-Qing's adoption. He had suggested the eye transplant, too. Song Zichen's expression made his feelings on the matter quite clear.

“I appreciate you asking me.” There was an edge of irony in Song Zichen's voice. "Rather than simply knocking me out and performing the operation on my unconscious body."

Xiao Xingchen made a distressed noise, but Wei Ying huffed a quiet laugh.

"Well, my husband seemed to think that would be a bad idea!" He slanted a glance at Lan Wangji. "I'm trying this new approach. I tell him all my plans, then defer to his wisdom if he tells me I'm headed down the wrong path."

Heat creep up the back of Lan Wangji's neck as Xiao Xingchen's face softened into a smile.

"Good. That's smart." Song Zichen took a measured sip of his tea. "I'm also glad that you concluded he's not likely to throttle you in your sleep."

Wei Ying choked on his tea. Lan Wangji thanked his lucky stars he hadn't taken a sip from his own cup. If he had, he might have choked too. The flush against his throat deepened and spread.

The smile slipped from Xiao Xingchen's lips. He looked toward Lan Wangji, his eyes troubled.

"We didn't understand Wei Wuxian's true reasons for conducting this marriage." He folded his hands on his lap, his brows furrowing. "If we had, we would have advised a different path."

He coupled this remark with a pointed glance toward Wei Ying. Lan Wangji recognized the subtle reproach in Xiao Xingcheng's eyes. He had an older brother of his own, after all.

"You didn't even discuss this with us," Song Zichen grumbled.

Wei Ying groaned.

"We've been over this!" He ducked his head. "I didn't tell you because I knew you'd try to talk me out of it."

Song Zichen responded to this statement with a flat stare. He turned to Lan Wangji.

"He thinks that's a compelling counter-argument" His voice was full of dry incredulity.

Wei Ying gave another agonized moan.

"Yes, yes!" He scratched the back of his neck. "I have been scolded by everybody! I was very stupid, we're all in agreement."

"It isn't that you are stupid." Xiao Xingchen frowned down at the table. "Of course, it's clear that something must be done about this situation. The Jin sect seems to be determined to do you harm. We can't allow that."

A hint of steel entered his gentle voice. Song Zichen reached for his husband's hand under the table.  Xiao Xingchen squeezed it tenderly, and Lan Wangji hastily averted his eyes.

"Naturally, you expected another attack, and you were suspicious of any newcomer," Xiao Xingchen added. "But deliberately marrying someone you thought might be a spy or an assassin…"

He let out a sigh. Then he gave Wei Ying another reproving look. Lan Wangji, however, received a kind smile.

"I'm certainly relieved you were wrong about Hanguang-Jun's character. Though I can't say I'm surprised!"

The embarrassed heat in Lan Wangji's ears softened into a gentle warmth. Somehow, he was desperately relieved to find that the two cultivators had harbored no suspicions against him. During their first visit, they had been polite and respectful. There had been a slight distance in their manner, though. They hardly seemed to know what to make of him.

Now, they seemed determined to look upon him as a friend. Lan Wangji discovered that he enjoyed that a great deal. But the warm, teasing atmosphere didn't last. It was impossible to forget what had drawn them into this room. After a moment, Lan Wangji saw Xiao Xingchen's smile fade. His eyes grew troubled. Song Zichen sat motionless beside him, sipping his tea.

"Do you think the Jins know that Xue Yang is dead yet?" Song Zichen asked, after a delicate pause.

Wei Ying gave one of his knife-edged smiles as he poured out another round of tea.

"Well, I haven't told them!"

He shrugged, glancing thoughtfully toward the window.

"They might be thinking he got distracted or that he decided to cause trouble somewhere else before wandering over here. I guess they'll figure out what happened when he doesn't come back!"

He knocked back a gulp of his tea.

"But it's not likely they do anything right away. Winter is here, and it's hard to get up the mountain. Once they figure out that Xue Yang failed in his mission, they'll expect us to be on guard. So I guess they'll plan their next strike for the spring or summer."

Lan Wangji absorbed that remark in silence.

His husband, he knew, had spoken logically. Once the Jins realized their operative had been captured or killed, they would proceed cautiously. They wouldn't rush into another attack against the Yiling Patriarch, not after putting him on high alert. The Jins probably would wait, delaying their next move until the spring thaw. In the meantime, they would gather strength and refine their plans.

Song Zichen's face clouded over. Lan Wangji saw that he was dissatisfied with the situation. He sympathized with Song Zichen. It was intolerable to wait for an enemy to attack.

"Will they risk sending another assassin here?" Xiao Xingchen wondered aloud.

Wei Ying tipped his head to the side. Then he shook it.

"Probably not. They've tried that a few times now, and it's never worked. I think they'll give up on that strategy." He emptied his cup and thumped it against the table. "I don't think they'll bother sending anyone to the Burial Mounds anymore. But I'm not sure what other plots they might think up."

Lan Wangji stared at the tea set. He reached back into his memory, considering everything knew of the Jins.

"The war against Wen Ruohan exhausted the cultivation world's forces," he began slowly. "Most of the sects are still rebuilding. They don't have the wealth or the manpower to mount a direct offensive. Not even against a lesser enemy."

The Jiang sect had lost a quarter of its cultivators. They still had quite a bit of wealth left from their silk trade and their dyes. But much of that wealth was needed to restore burned buildings and recruit new cultivators. They had no resources left for another war.

Lan Wangji's natal sect had also suffered significant losses, and so had the Nie sect. Many of their most gifted cultivators were lost during the war. Each strike against Wen Ruohan had nibbled away at their treasuries, leaving them with a fraction of their previous wealth. Several smaller cultivation sects had been demolished altogether. Their forces had been wiped out, the few survivors finding a new home in one of the Great Sects.

The war had truly taken a grievous toll upon everyone. But throughout their years of suffering, the Jins had maintained their position. Lan Wangji knew that most of their forces had survived unscathed, primarily because Jin Guangshan hadn't sent many of his disciples to the front lines.

During the war, Nie Mingjue complained bitterly of their cowardice and selfishness. Compared to the other sects, the Jins' losses had been few: their abundant wealth remained, and they had surely used it to gain control over impoverished sects struggling to rebuild. Even the Jins had lost something, though. A few of their most gifted cultivators had perished on the battlefield, and after a disappointing harvest last spring, they had been forced to dip into their coffers. Their wealth and influence were great, but their assets weren't limitless. The Jins couldn't hope to stand alone in a war against the Yiling Patriarch.

"' A lesser enemy'! Why, thank you, husband." Wei Ying dipped a playful bow in Lan Wangji's direction. "May I take it I qualify as a greater enemy?"

Lan Wangji sighed. His husband was joking, but this was no laughing matter.

"You destroyed Wen Ruohan's entire army in half a shi," he pointed out. "The Jins know this. They witnessed it. They may fear or resent your power, but they know they can't match it in direct combat. Especially not now."

He shifted uneasily at the thought. In truth, he was surprised that the Jins had chosen to stir up conflict with his husband. It hardly seemed like an opportune time. The cultivation world was struggling to rebuild after one war, and surely nobody wanted to rush into another.

But perhaps the Jins had perceived a brief window of opportunity. The cultivation world had witnessed Wei Ying's immense power, and the memory of his casual annihilation of Wen Ruohan's forces was fresh. If the Jins hoped to turn the tide of public opinion—if they wanted to position themselves as the unquestioned leaders of the cultivation world—the time was now. The sects were vulnerable, and the common-folk were afraid. It wouldn't be difficult to whip them into a frenzy of fear and suspicion.

Without their intervention, the cultivation world might have warmed to Wei Ying. He might have become their savior, the benevolent immortal who had single-handedly ended a bloody war. Lan Wangji knew that Wen Ruohan's death had left a power vacuum. In time, someone would step forward to fill his shoes. If Jin Guangshan wanted to seize power for himself, he couldn't afford to wait.

Wei Ying tapped a finger against the table.

"Suppose Jin Guangshan dies," he began.

Xiao Xingchen twitched, and Song Lan set his cup down. Wei Ying held up his hands, his face the picture of innocence.

"Just suppose!" he cried. "I'm not planning anything. But they say he's been sick. Do you think it's true?"

He turned to Lan Wangji, raising a brow.

"I am not sure," Lan Wangji murmured.

He hadn't seen Jin Guangshan often during the war. When asked to appear at the front, Jin Guangshan always had an excuse. Nie Mingjue stormed and fumed over each delay. He growled that the man was clearly a craven, afraid of risking his own safety on the battlefield.

But if Jin Guangshan had been concealing a debilitating sickness, that would explain his behavior. Lan Wangji frowned. He had taken it for granted that Jin Guangshan was indeed a coward. The man had always been quick to look out for his own interests and slow to help others. His unwillingness to risk his safety was wholly in character. Yet perhaps his health wasn't as robust as Lan Wangji had supposed.

"His golden core was never exceptionally strong." Lan Wangji studied the surface of his tea. "He secured the position of Chief Cultivator after Wen Ruohan's defeat, yet everyone understood this was due to his wealth and prestige, not his cultivation abilities."

He paused.

"Jin Guangshan is also the type to indulge in pleasure to excess. It may have weakened his constitution."

His husband snorted, and Lan Wangji couldn't blame him. Jin Guangshan's hedonism was an open secret. He enjoyed wine and women, and he indulged in vast quantities of both. From the time he was a young disciple, Jin Guangshan had been a true libertine. He was in his fifties now, having overindulged for decades. If his dissipation had damaged his health, Lan Wangji couldn't claim to be surprised.

Wei Ying scratched his chin.

"What about this son of his? Nobody seems to talk about him much." He gestured vaguely. "How much do you think he knows about these schemes?"

Lan Wangji furrowed his brow.

"I cannot say. I do not know Jin Zixuan well."

During the guest lectures at Cloud Recesses, Lan Wangji hadn't shared more than ten words with Jin Zixuan. He saw the Jin sect heir often during hunts and discussion conferences, but they did not socialize. Jin Zixuan was as aloof and standoffish as Lan Wangji himself. He seemed to find as much pleasure in parties as Lan Wangji did…which was to say, he found no pleasure in them at all.

Once the war started, Jin Guangshan had tried to keep his heir away from the front. Even so, Jin Zixuan had joined in several battles. Lan Wangji thought he had acquitted himself well. When the time came to draw his sword, Jin Zixuan didn't shrink back from the fighting. Unlike his father, he never made excuses to withdraw. He remained on the field until the battle was done. Afterward, he helped tend the wounded and arranged for fresh supplies.

As he worked, Jin Zixuan often seemed embarrassed. Lan Wangji had wondered if the young man was ashamed that his sect contributed so little to the war. If Jin Zixuan felt shamed by his sect's selfishness, then he was truly nothing like his father.

"I never received the impression that he and his father are close. Jin Zixuan doesn't have a reputation for deceitfulness or viciousness." Lan Wangji paused. "His cousin does."

"Jin Zixun?" Song Zichen prompted.

Lan Wangji nodded. He couldn't keep a frown from settling onto his face.

Jin Zixun had been equally willing to join in the fighting. But Lan Wangji thought the young man took a disturbing pleasure in the war. He seemed to enjoy causing his enemies pain, and he found excuses to brutalize vanquished Wen soldiers. Lan Wangji had heard that Jin Zixun and his uncle shared several interests: like his uncle, Jin Zixun delighted in wine, women, and gambling.

He had always been a bully, too. Lan Wangji remembered that from the man's time at Cloud Recesses. Uncle had punished Jin Zixun several times for picking fights with other disciples.

Wei Ying drummed his fingers on the table. His face was pensive.

"How about Jin Zixuan's half-brother?" Wei Ying prompted. "This Meng Yao? I've heard that Jin Guangshan plans to acknowledge him and give him a place in the sect. Has that happened yet?"

Lan Wangji shook his head.

"I do not know. My brother told me that Meng Yao has gone to Koi Tower. Jin Guanshang promised to legitimize him, but I'm not sure if it has occurred yet."

Lan Wangji's stomach turned over. It would be like Jin Guangshan to dangle the promise over legitimacy over Meng Yao's head but delay the official rites. Jin Guangshan had little to gain from legitimizing his second son. He had a great deal to gain from an eager assistant, desperate to persuade his father to honor his promise.

"You told me you don't trust Meng Yao," Wei Ying added softly.

Lan Wangji hesitated. It was difficult to give an honest answer. But he couldn't hide the truth any longer, not even for Lan Xichen's sake.

“I don’t."

Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan exchanged a glance. Wei Ying tilted his head.

"Your brother seems to," he remarked neutrally. "That's what I've heard, anyway. Isn't he friendly with this man?"

"I have heard that Sect Leader Lan may even swear brotherhood with Jin Guangshan's second son." Xiao Xingchen spoke slowly, watching Lan Wangji's face with some anxiety.

Lan Wangji felt another sick twist in his stomach.

He had heard that, too. His brother had mentioned it in his letters. It was something of a scandal: the First Jade of Lan proposing a sworn brotherhood with Jin Guangshan's son by a lowly prostitute. The Lan elders weren't pleased with the proposition, and they had offered some objections. But Lan Xichen wanted it so much, for reasons Lan Wangji didn't like to consider.

"He is inclined to trust people." Lan Wangji drew in a deep breath. "And Meng Yao made a strong impression on him from the first."

"How so?" Wei Ying shifted, facing Lan Wangji fully.

Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan were also paying close attention. Lan Wangji resisted the urge to squirm. He had never enjoyed being the center of attention. Receiving the group's undivided focus during such a delicate conversation was highly unpleasant. He curled his hands tightly on his lap.

"Meng Yao is clever and resourceful." Lan Wangji chose his words carefully. "He was the son of a prostitute, and his father did not acknowledge him until recently. He did not receive proper training as a child, and his golden core is weak. As a result, he was often scorned or bullied by other cultivators."

Lan Xichen was so kind. He had always been anxious to ensure that others were treated with courtesy and respect. When he learned that Meng Yao was the target of cruelty due to his background, Lan Xichen had been troubled. His distress had deepened when he discovered that Meng Yao was intelligent and capable.

In their private conversations, Lan Xichen had spoken of the matter rather heatedly. He told Lan Wangji that it was a great pity. Such a talented young man should not be overlooked due to his background, which was no fault of his own.

Lan Wangji knew that his brother was anxious to see Meng Yao reach his full potential. He didn't want a promising young man to suffer ruined prospects due to vile rumors or gossip. Before the war, Lan Wangji couldn't bring himself to object. He valued his brother's compassion and sense of justice. Lan Xichen wanted to help those who had been born into an unfortunate situation. That was admirable, and Lan Wangji had approved. He had been proud of his brother's kind, generous spirit.

But during the war, Lan Wangji saw more of Meng Yao. He heard of the man's secretiveness and duplicity, his eagerness to climb the social ladder. Lan Wangji developed a creeping suspicion that his brother valued a man who didn't deserve his good opinion.

"Brother sympathized with him," Lan Wangji admitted.

Wei Ying sighed, pushing his teacup aside.

"Clever and resourceful, and eager to win his father's approval." He tapped his hands against the table's surface. "That's not such a good combination!"

It was a very poor combination. Lan Wangji knew that already. A clever man who felt he had something to prove was apt to follow the wrong path. Lan Wangji couldn't claim to know Meng Yao very well, and if he expressed doubts about Meng Yao's character, Lan Xichen would surely point that out: Lan Wangji didn't know the man, so he ought not pass judgment upon a near-stranger. But Lan Wangji sensed that Meng Yao would gladly dirty his hands in the pursuit of his goals.

Xiao Xingchen’s face had grown troubled.

"This is all conjecture," he reminded Wei Ying gently.

Wei Ying waved an airy hand.

"Of course," he murmured. "I'm only thinking out loud! But if I was a clever, resourceful young man with a chip on my shoulder, what might I do?"

He rose from the table and wandered aimlessly around the room. Idly, he opened cupboards and toyed with items on the desk.

"If I wanted my father to acknowledge me, and he never did." Wei Ying rolled a paperweight between his hands. "If he only reluctantly agreed to legitimize me. If he was careful to keep me out of the line of succession and to limit my influence in his court."

He tossed the stone paperweight into the air and caught it. Lan Wangji watched his husband's long fingers flex and curl.

"I'd probably help him with as many murders as he wanted," Wei Ying concluded. "I'd probably do anything to climb my way to the top!"

Lan Wangji had a sinking feeling in his chest.

There was no evidence to support his husband's words. If Lan Xichen were here, he would quote a few pertinent Lan disciplines, beginning with, Do not make reckless assumptions. But Lan Wangji felt in his bones that Wei Ying had hit upon the truth. They'd already found evidence of Jin Guangshan's attempts to smear Wei Ying's reputation. Jin Guangshan had indeed sent spies and assassins. Yet even a sect leader couldn't work alone. He must have others helping with his plots.

Meng Yao had nothing to gain by opposing his father. He had everything to lose. Wei Ying made an accurate sketch of the man's character, too: he was clever, ambitious, and undoubtedly tired of being overlooked. If his father wished to have someone assassinated—or to spread false rumors and propaganda—then Meng Yao would likely be eager to assist.

He certainly hadn't balked at murder before. During the war, Meng Yao was quite willing to act as a spy. He had killed a commander of their own forces on a paper-thin pretense. Lan Wangji remembered that incident quite well. Nie Mingjue had certainly never forgotten it.

"Jin Zixuan had better watch his back," Song Lan remarked.

Wei Ying's eyes lighted with interest. He dropped into his seat once more.

"Now there's an interesting thought!" He leaned forward and propped his elbows on the table. "When Meng Yao takes his new name, he won't be first in the line of succession. But he'll be somewhere along that line. Won't he?"

He glanced at Lan Wangji for confirmation. Lan Wangji nodded, and his husband hummed.

"Let's say Jin Guangshan dies." He spread his hands. "Of natural causes or otherwise. Let's say Jin Zixuan dies, too."

"That would not be of natural causes," Lan Wangji interjected.

Wei Ying gave him a toothy grin.

"You don't think a healthy young man of twenty would naturally drop dead? A young man with a strong golden core who's probably never been sick a day in his life? You would suspect foul play?” He clutched his chest in mock horror. "My husband has such a suspicious mind!"

Lan Wangji sighed at his husband's theatrics.

"Many people would suspect foul play," he pointed out.

His husband was correct: Jin Zixuan had always enjoyed good health. He was a capable cultivator, his core considerably stronger than his father's. Unlike Jin Guangshan, Jin Zixuan wasn't given to debauchery. He ought to be impervious to sickness or fever. An assassin couldn't hope to pass his death off as a sudden illness.

They might, Lan Wangji realized, stage an accident. But that would be difficult, too. Jin Zixuan wasn't foolish or reckless. As the future Sect Leader, he knew better than to carelessly risk his safety. Besides, the war had ended. Wen Ruohan was vanquished, and the battlefield presented no further threat to Jin Zixuan. If he continued to night-hunt, he would take along plenty of disciples as his guards. Nothing could plausibly threaten his safety. If some misfortune befell Jin Zixuan, it must be foul play.

Wei Ying gave a careless shrug.

"In that case," he said, "the Jins would have to find someone to blame for the murder."

He gestured to himself with a flourish. Song Zichen's brows lifted with interest, but Xiao Xingchen frowned.

"How could you possibly be involved?"

Wei Ying sighed, helping himself to another cup of tea.

"The dreaded Yiling Patriarch?" He examined his teacup. "The immortal who can raise the dead and destroy armies in an instant? Who knows what he's capable of? Of course, he can kill over great distances! Didn't he prove that at the end of the war?"

Xiao Xingchen continued to frown. Yet Lan Wangji saw that Song Zichen was giving the matter serious thought.

The suggestion wasn't as unreasonable as it might seem. If Jin Zixuan was murdered, someone would have to take the blame. Meng Yao would have to find a scapegoat. If his father had already whipped the cultivation world into a frenzy against the Yiling Patriarch, then Wei Ying presented the obvious choice.

"We've heard those kinds of rumors," Song Zichen confessed, with a sideways look at Xiao Xingchen. "While we were traveling, we heard people talking about that sort of thing."

Lan Wangji clenched his fists under the table. But Wei Ying shrugged as if unsurprised. His grim acceptance cut Lan Wangji to his core.

"Who's in the line of succession after Jin Zixuan?" Wei Ying asked.

"His cousin, Jin Zixun." Lan Wangji spoke promptly. "His own children. His cousin's children, if he produces any."

"But neither are married yet? Neither of them has confessed to fathering any bastards?"

Wei Ying's eyes were speculative. Lan Wangji shook his head.

He hadn't heard that Jin Zixuan or his cousin had produced any illegitimate children. Jin Zixuan's wedding was planned for the spring, and the date had been set. Five of the six etiquettes had been completed. The match was settled.

Once his cousin had married, Jin Zixun would probably follow suit. Legitimate heirs would take some time to arrive, though. A year or two might pass before either of their wives bore a child. But a year offered plenty of time for Meng Yao to take action. He could cut off the line of succession with a few well-timed 'accidents.'

"Let's say the news comes out next summer. We hear that Jin Guangshan, his son, and his nephew have been tragically murdered by the Yiling Patriarch." Wei Ying pulled an expression of exaggerated sorrow. "What then? Would Meng Yao try to claim the position of sect leader?"

Once more, Lan Wangji felt the weight of three pairs of eyes.

"There are no other direct heirs." He grimaced. "Meng Yao's birth was illegitimate, but Jin Guangshan has recognized him. He will likely receive his courtesy name soon. It is possible."

There was precedent for such a step. Illegitimate children seldom inherited the sect leadership, but such things were permissible. If there were no other legitimate heirs, a child by a concubine or mistress might inherit. Lan Wangji could recall reading of three or four similar cases.

Jin Guangshan wasn't in any particular hurry to legitimize his Meng Yao. Yet Lan Xichen's letters suggested that he expected the ceremony to take place. Perhaps the other sect leaders were pressuring Jin Guangshan to keep his word and follow through with his decree. If that was the case, then Meng Yao's destiny was already sealed. From the moment 'Jin Guangyao' was entered into the Jin clan register, he would have a place in the line of succession.

"Would he be able to gather the support he needs?" Song Lan wondered.

Lan Wangji frowned.

This, he knew, would be the most difficult part of the scheme. There was a precedent for an illegitimate child to inherit, but such things usually occurred under different circumstances. If a sect leader was unable to have children with their legal spouse, they might produce an illegitimate child and raise them from birth. They would groom the child for leadership, offering the child plenty of time to establish their authority as the sect heir. From a young age, the child would be known as the future sect leader.

Meng Yao's situation was quite different. His father had only recently acknowledged him, and Meng Yao hadn't lived in Koi Tower very long. His opportunities to build a faction or recruit supporters were limited. Worst of all, he wasn't respected by other sect leaders. With one notable exception.

"My brother would support him," Lan Wangji said softly.

His husband groaned.

"The famous Zewu-Jun makes quite an ally." He sighed. "How about Sect Leader Nie?"

Lan Wangji considered, then shook his head.

"He does not like or trust Meng Yao."

Wei Ying quirked a brow.

"But I've heard the three of them are thinking about swearing brotherhood! Isn't that the rumor? Or was the gossip wrong?"

Lan Wangji shook his head again.

"They are considering it," he allowed.

His brother was anxious to hold a formal ceremony, swearing brotherhood to Nie Mingjue and Meng Yao in one fell swoop. Lan Wangji knew his brother believed that a sworn brotherhood would benefit everyone involved. A strong alliance between three of the Great Sects would balance power within the cultivation world. It would strengthen ties between the sects, and Lan Xichen believed this arrangement would help prevent further conflicts.

Moreover, it would soften the blow for the elders who objected to Sect Leader Lan's sworn brotherhood with a prostitute's son. If he swore brotherhood with Sect Leader Nie at the same time, Meng Yao's involvement could be treated as an afterthought. He could be forgotten by anyone who wished to forget him.

It was, Lan Wangji acknowledged, a sensible plan. But he knew that it wasn't merely a political arrangement for his brother. Lan Xichen was deeply fond of both men. He was motivated by his heart, as well as his head.

"Even so, Sect Leader Nie does not trust Meng Yao."

Lan Wangji bit the inside of his cheek. The truth was painful to admit, but he forced the words out.

"Sect Leader Nie is only considering the arrangement because my brother begged him to think it over."

Wei Ying let out a low whistle.

"Well, well. Meng Yao has really got his claws into your brother, hasn't he."

His husband's voice was not unkind, yet Lan Wangji felt a sharp twist of guilt.

It seemed now that he should have foreseen this problem. He should have shared his concerns with his brother and found a way to make him listen. Of course, Lan Xichen was his elder brother and his sect leader. Lan Wangji had no right to interfere with his brother's political decisions. Nor did he have a right to preach to his brother about the company he kept. Lan Xichen was older, so Lan Wangji ought to defer to his wisdom. Yet he felt now as if he'd been careless. As if he'd let his brother stray into a trap without lifting a finger to stop it.

If the sworn brotherhood was established, Lan Wangji knew it would be a tremendous coup for Meng Yao. It would offer him the legitimacy and credibility that he badly needed. The sworn brotherhood didn't depend on Meng Yao, though. It depended on Lan Xichen and his ability to persuade others to accept the arrangement. If the ceremony took place, it would signify that Meng Yao had won Lan Xichen's complete trust. Lan Wangji swallowed hard.

"So, Meng Yao doesn't have as many allies as he might like." Wei Ying toyed with his teacup. "But he has one very powerful ally. And theoretically speaking, if he managed to eliminate all the other heirs, he could name himself Sect Leader Jin."

Xiao Xingchen sighed again.

“This is all conjecture, though.” He folded his hands neatly on his lap. "We don't know that he's planning any such thing, and we can't accuse him without proof. Jin Guangshan is clearly culpable, but we can't be sure anyone else is involved."

"It doesn't explain how he intends to get you out of the way," Song Lan broke in, studying Wei Ying. "If he plans to pin these murders on you, he'll have to accuse you publicly. By now, he must know that his assassination attempt failed. He knows you'll be on your guard. He can't beat you in a fight or win a war if it comes to that. If he tries to blame you, what does he expect you to do in response?"

Song Lan's voice was slow and even, but his words were potent. The room fell silent. After a moment, Wei Ying let out a gusty sigh.

“Well. Let's think it over for a while." He rose again to his feet. "I don't think the Jins will take any direct action yet. If Meng Yao is involved, he must be trying to consolidate his position. He'll have his hands full for a while."

The assumption was logical. Lan Wangji nodded, somewhat reluctantly

"In any event, Jin Guangshan is probably sick. He's definitely busy planning his son's wedding." Wei Ying shrugged his shoulders. "I doubt either of them will rush into their next strike. We have some time to make our plans."

He reached out to help Lan Wangji to his feet. Lan Wangji accepted his hand readily, though he felt a slight prickle of guilt.

His injuries were half-healed, and he could rise and sit without help. Wei Ying's assistance was no longer needed. Yet Lan Wangji hadn't managed to share this fact with his husband. He liked the sensation of Wei Ying's hands resting on his arm or curving around his side. Best of all, he liked that Wei Ying wanted to help him. The knowledge that his husband wished to care for him was very pleasant. Lan Wangji was reluctant to confess that he no longer required such solicitous attention.

"I have some ideas, but I want to think on them a little while longer," Wei Ying remarked. "For now, let's focus on getting through the winter."

He ensured that Lan Wangji was steady on his feet. Then he nodded toward Song Zichen.

"You two are still recovering, so don't waste your energy worrying about this. We're safe for now. Let's just make sure everybody stays healthy."

Lan Wangji bowed his head.

His husband's argument was reasonable. The Jins wouldn't rush into a fresh scheme, not when their last strike had failed so disastrously. With Jin Zixuan's wedding approaching—and Jin Guangshan possibly unwell—the sect would turn their attention to domestic matters. It would be best if their settlement did the same.

Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen murmured their agreement. But before they left, Song Zichen extracted a promise that Lan Wangji would return for a game the following evening.

"I gave you my word we'd play xiangqi," Song Zichen added. "I won't break it."

Lan Wangji was quick to agree, and Xiao Xingchen gave him a friendly smile as he departed.

Outside their door, Lan Wangji cast a thoughtful glance toward the ancestral hall. That morning, Wen Qing had dropped rather strenuous hints. She had suggested that he ought to rest during the afternoon. But Lan Wangji hadn't made offerings or knelt before the altar in weeks. The ritual had become part of his daily routine, and he felt its absence keenly.

Lan Wangji edged toward the ancestral hall, wondering if he might be able to escape Wei Ying's supervision. It was no use, though. Wei Ying noticed his absence at once, and he chased after Lan Wangji.

"Lan Zhan!" His voice was full of playful reproach as he caught Lan Wangji's elbow. "Just where do you think you're going? Are you sneaking off to practice your sword forms? You'll get in trouble with Wen Qing! She'll catch you and tie you to the bed. You won't enjoy it!"

Lan Wangji blinked. At first, he wondered why his husband felt the need to clarify his statement. Who would enjoy being tied to a bed?

Without warning, Lan Wangji thought of his husband tying him to the bed. Lan Wangji's face flamed. He hurried to clear his mind, trying to wipe the slate clean. It was broad daylight, after all. Daylight was a wholly inappropriate time for such vulgar thoughts.

Lan Wangji tucked the image away, nestling it into a corner of his mind. He shouldn't think of such things now. Yet perhaps he might like to examine the concept in greater detail that night? It was certainly an intriguing idea. His ears grew hot, and he prayed that his husband wouldn't notice. He cleared his throat and steadied his voice.

"I wanted to visit the ancestral hall," he admitted.

His husband sighed, but he offered no objections. He turned his own steps in the direction of the ancestral hall. Lan Wangji realized that his husband meant to accompany him for this, too. Pleasure glowed in his chest, and he savored the chance to observe the ritual together.

"I remembered to make offerings while you were recovering." Wei Ying released the seal on the doors. Then he turned, beaming at Lan Wangji. “One offering, anyway. All by myself!"

He sounded tremendously proud. Lan Wangji barely managed to repress a smile.

“Most admirable. Congratulations.”

Wei Ying made a rude noise.

"Aiyah! My husband is so sarcastic to me. What insolence!" He poked out his tongue playfully as he pushed the door open. "In front of his revered in-laws, too!"

He bounded into the hall before Lan Wangji could think of a reply. The hall was as clean and empty as ever. But a dish lay upon the altar, and Wei Ying pointed it out.

“See? I put out some dried fruit for everybody. Wine for my parents, too."

Wei Ying nodded at the cups resting upon his parents' altar. He peered curiously at the altar dedicated to Lan Wangji's parents.

"I thought about giving my in-laws some wine. But since they're Lans, they probably don't drink. Ah, but do you think the rules are lifted in the afterlife? Or do you suppose they have to follow all three thousand rules for the rest of eternity?"

He gave Lan Wangji a conspiratorial grin. Lan Wangji found himself uncharacteristically tempted to roll his eyes. But the fond warmth in his chest burned brighter.

"I do not know. But fruit is a sufficient offering. Thank you."

Wei Ying nudged him toward the cushions.

"Quick, quick!" He tugged Lan Wangji's sleeve until he knelt down. "They were probably worried about you. Hurry up and sit here so they can see you're all right."

Lan Wangji knelt obediently. He hoped his in-laws weren't troubled by his absence. From their vantage point in the afterlife, they must have observed the attack. They would understand why their son-in-law had failed to make his obeisance over the last few weeks. Still, Lan Wangji didn't want to appear negligent. He resolved to prepare additional offerings tomorrow. He would burn an extra stick of incense, too, as compensation for two weeks of substandard offerings.

His husband lit the incense today. They sat together in silence for a few moments, watching the thin plume of smoke.

"I came here after you woke up," Wei Ying said abruptly. "I thought they'd probably gotten used to nice, fresh offerings every day. They might've wondered why their special treatment stopped! I didn't want them to blame you."

Lan Wangji glanced toward his husband. His words were lighthearted enough, but his voice was heavy as a stone. A taut thread of tension was strung through Wei Ying's body. There was tension in his face, too. He stared at his mother's tablet, then at his father's.

"I explained that you got hurt protecting a little girl," he added. "I told them they'd have to be patient for a little while. As soon as you got better, you'd definitely come back and make offerings again."

Wei Ying's mouth compressed into a thin line. His voice grew soft and fractured.

"I said, 'If you can help him get better, then please do that. Please make sure he recovers well.'" He took a deep breath, blinking at the tablets. "I don't really know if they can hear me. But I figured it couldn't hurt to ask."

Lan Wangji gave that statement the quiet consideration it deserved.

"I believe they can hear," he murmured, "in some fashion. I believed they are still concerned about your welfare and your happiness."

He couldn't imagine otherwise. Wei Ying's parents must have loved their son dearly. Their spirits must remain, watching over him each day. If he spoke to them, they would listen.

Lan Wangji had heard that nothing ran deeper than a mother's love for her child. Such love couldn't be forgotten after death. If Cangse Sanren's son made a request—if he asked his mother to intercede for his injured spouse—how could she ignore his pleas?

Wei Ying hummed as he reached out, flicking ash off the incense stick.

"Ah, we should tell them they're going to have grandchildren." His voice warmed. "Lots of them, too! I hope they're proud."

Lan Wangji believed they would be. He studied his father-in-law's table.

Wei Changze had been a servant, and perhaps his family had no other descendants. Perhaps Wei Ying was the only surviving member of the Wei clan. If that was true, then his father would surely be pleased by the adoption. He'd be glad to have his surname carried on, borne into the world by young disciples and budding cultivators.

Lan Wangji would ensure sure that the Wei name produced an honorable legacy. Together with Wei Ying, he would teach the children and raise them well. They would make sure their children grew up to be just and kindhearted. Their children would honor the Wei name and carry it on to future generations.

"Liu Deshi and Zhou Qiaohui told me they'd rather not to take my name." Wei Ying shifted on his knees. "They have their own surnames, you know. They're old enough to remember their parents, at least a little. So they don't want to give up their names. But they still want to be adopted officially."

Lan Wangji turned his attention back to his husband, and he nodded.

"I understand." He hesitated briefly. "Does Huang Mingyu feel the same?"

The three eldest disciples had arrived at the Burial Mounds with surnames, and Lan Wangji had expected that they might be reluctant to give them up. The younger children had been orphaned or abandoned in infancy, and their family history was lost. By the time they arrived at the Burial Mounds, they had nothing to call their own. The eldest were lucky to have kept a few fragments of personal history. Lan Wangji wouldn't dare to rob them of their only tie to their natal family.

Wei Ying shook his head. His expression tightened.

"His family was…not so nice." He dusted a bit of ash from his fingertips. "A-Yu ran away because his dad used to beat him. His dad starved him, worked him like a dog. So A-Yu doesn't want to remember his dad. He says he'd like to take another surname instead."

Lan Wangji felt a familiar surge of fury.

"That is best." He spoke thinly, digging his nails into his palm. "His father does not deserve to have his name carried on."

He tried to smother his anger. They couldn't rescue all the forsaken children in the world. Lan Wangji knew that such a feat would be impossible, and he tried to remind himself of this. Wei Ying had already taken care of so many children. He had done all that justice and benevolence demanded of him. Even so, a stubborn part of Lan Wangji's mind shifted restlessly.

Surely they had room for a few more orphans? After the adoption ceremony, they would have ten children, and that was a very generous number. Yet they had the means to provide for dozens more. The world held countless children who had been abandoned or mistreated. Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan could continue to find such children and bring them to the Burial Mounds. Lan Wangji could adopt those children and give them a home. The children could have parents, along with plenty of brothers and sisters. With Wei Ying's help, Lan Wangji could give them a good life.

Wei Ying caught his eye. He smiled as if he knew what Lan Wangji was thinking.

"The other little ones don't have any family names of their own. So they can be Weis." He rocked back on his heels, studying his parents' tablet. "That's hard for their ancestors, I know. But if they're still keeping an eye on the kids, I'm sure they understand."

"Children deserve a name," Lan Wangji agreed softly.

It was too cruel for children to face the world without a living family. Lan Wangji understood that adoption must not be undertaken lightly. To remove a child from their natal family and place them into another lineage…that was a serious matter. But if a child was orphaned, surely such an arrangement was best. Adoption was far better than leaving abandoned children to struggle on their own.

The children under their care deserved a surname. They deserved a family, a permanent home, a place in a formal record. They deserved to know that they would never be forsaken, that their place in the world was secure. Lan Wangji must make sure they never doubted that.

He recalled his musings from the previous night, and he turned to his husband.

"Do you have a family registry?"

Wei Ying blinked and scratched at his cheek.

"A registry? No, I never bothered to make one up." He shrugged. "It was just me, you know. Me and my parents. I didn't see any point. They've already got their tablets."

He nodded to the altar. It was a logical argument, but Lan Wangji frowned.

"We should create one," he insisted.

Wei Ying laughed and ducked his head.

"Well, now that you mention it, I guess so! With ten kids to keep track of, we'll need some kind of record."

He rubbed a hand over his jaw. A distressed look crept onto his face.

"Ah, what will we do if they all get married and have lots of babies?" He rocked back in horror. "We'll have so many grandchildren, we'll never remember their names!"

Wei Ying looked almost appalled at the prospect. But Lan Wangji was flooded with a delightful warmth.

Someday, far into the future, he might have grandchildren on his knee. He and Wei Ying might be kept busy arranging wedding banquets and first-month parties. They might sit together in the hall, watching the Wei clan grow and flourish and create new branches. He smiled to himself.

"We will remember," he murmured.

It wouldn't matter if they adopted dozens of children or if their children produced hundreds of grandchildren. Lan Wangji was viscerally certain that he'd remember each one.

Wei Ying sighed, but his eyes were soft.

"My husband is correct!" He nodded firmly. "We need a proper registry. We'll write down their birthdays and their courtesy names. Their sword names, too. If they get married, we'll write down their spouse's name. We'll definitely have to write down all their children's names."

He stared at the empty ancestral hall with a puzzled sort of wonder.

"There might be a whole Wei clan someday."

Lan Wangji frowned at the bare walls. He knew that his husband must be imagining the hall as it would look centuries from now.

Ancestral tablets would dot the walls, representing their children. Perhaps there would be tablets even for A-Yuan and A-Mei, even for their grandchildren. The thought was rather painful, and Lan Wangji swallowed. He didn't like to think of the children aging and dying. The thought must be infinitely worse for his husband. He was immortal, destined to watch his loved ones wither around him.

Even so, the pain held a sharp-edged sweetness. They couldn't expect every last child to cultivate to immortality. Most of them—perhaps all of them—would grow old and pass away. Yet they might marry. They might welcome children and grandchildren of their own. They could live rich lives, finding happiness with a beloved spouse and treasured children.

Then, once they passed into the afterlife, they could look after their descendants. They could join Wei Ying's parents and take comfort from the presence of their ancestors. It wasn't an unbearable pain to live and die under such circumstances. Lan Wangji felt he could endure it. 

Lan Wangji wanted to reach out and take his husband's hand. But Wei Ying's face had clouded over again. He stared down at his lap and let out a short, troubled laugh.

"I know I'm called the Yiling Patriarch." He grimaced. "But I don't actually know how to be the patriarch of a clan! How do you oversee a bunch of children and grandchildren? How am I supposed to arrange marriages and apprenticeships? I can't even remember to create a registry or make offerings!"

He gave Lan Wangji a tiny smile. It was sad, yet devastatingly hopeful.

"I'm glad I have a husband to help me."

Lan Wangji succumbed to temptation. He reached for Wei Ying's hand and threaded their fingers together. His husband squeezed his hand tightly.

“I am also glad.”

Lan Wangji had never spoken truer words in his life. He was deeply, infinitely, bewilderingly glad. If he had never met Wei Ying in that tent on the battlefield, he would never have thought to seek out the Yiling Patriarch. They would never have met, and that seemed an incalculable loss.

If the war hadn't forced his hand, Lan Wangji would have lived out his life in Cloud Recesses. Perhaps he would have taken a vow of chastity and remained unmarried. He would never have adopted children. Nothing short of war could have compelled him to visit the Burial Mounds or seek out the Yiling Patriarch. The Dafan Wens would remain strangers, as would Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen.

The very idea made Lan Wangji's stomach churn. He had come so close to missing this. Worst of all, he would never have known what he'd lost. Lan Wangji realized that he owed Wen Ruohan a peculiar debt. Nothing could excuse the man's crimes or his senseless war. But if not for that war, Lan Wangji would have lived his life without ever knowing Wei Ying. It was a strange and terrible thought.

"Come on." Wei Ying rose to his feet and reached for Lan Wangji. "You should go back to your room and rest. Otherwise, Wen Qing really will yell at us both."

Lan Wangji let his husband help him up. Together, they walked to the door.

"I will resume lessons tomorrow in the library," Lan Wangji warned. His voice brooked no argument. "I will remain seated throughout the day, and I will not overtax myself."

Wei Ying rolled his eyes and tried to look put-upon.

"If you get scolded by Wen Qing, I won't save you!"

He shook his finger under Lan Wangji's nose. But outside the hall, he let the act slip.

"Maybe I should join you. I can try to keep the kids from climbing all over you."

Lan Wangji's heart stuttered joyfully.

"That would be helpful."

It would be better than helpful. They had yet to deliver any lessons together, and Lan Wangji would like to share the teaching experience with his husband. If they planned to adopt children, it was only right that they share these duties.

Wei Ying sealed the door with a talisman and turned to Lan Wangji. His smile was almost anxious.

"I'll get the hang of this fatherhood business," he insisted. "You'll see!"

Lan Wangji reached for his husband's hand again, folding it between his own.

"I never doubted that," he said.

He meant every word.