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I Started From the Bottom/And Now I’m Rich

Chapter Text

Baby, I got me

Only friend I need

Playing on my team

***

Paralyzed by Wen Qing’s needle, Wei Wuxian drifted between nightmares and an equally awful reality. As soon as he’d regained a splinter of awareness, he’d attempted to use resentful energy to pull the instrument out of his back. Wei Wuxian had discovered that while he could shape and direct his power with a whistle alone, nothing he did could firm its billows into a dextrous gripping-surface. ‘Thick fog’ simply could not extract the fine, slippery little rod that had been jabbed deeply and precisely in his spine. The only time Wei Wuxian had managed to so much as budge the thing he’d knocked it hard, jabbing it sideways—pinching a nerve, and very nearly permanently paralysing himself. Wen Qing hadn’t chosen to apply her needle where she had because the location was unconnected to his fine motor control. Such an accident would leave him no good to anyone, and so Wei Wuxian abandoned the approach entirely. 

Wei Wuxian could hear nothing at all from outside the cave, and no one had come to check on him. Not even A Yuan had toddled in. No longer held at bay by the ritual rhythms of the Wens’ peaceful presence and daily life here, in the eye of the storm, the Burial Mounds’ resentful energy ripped through the forest audibly. Unnatural winds stripped trees that the refugees had spent the last two years coaxing back to fecundity bare once more. 

All of this indicated that the Wen remnants had accompanied their young master and mistress to Jinlin Tai, hoping against hope to show the world they were no threat. No doubt they’d gone to plead for their lives, and for that of their protector, Wei Wuxian. He could have cursed Qing Jie; could have cried. Had cried, trapped here and helpless, until he was parched and numb. What would become of Jiang Yanli now, a widow dependent on kindness in an unkind home? Of fatherless, infant Jin Ling? Of equally blameless A Yuan? Wei Wuxian did not necessarily know that the Wen remnants would be executed en masse, but he knew Jin Guangshan better than to expect mercy from his hand. Wei Wuxian would have given his last breath to prevent the senseless, purposeless killing he feared was coming, perhaps happening even as he lay here. 

What, then, to do?

If he could move the resentful energy—and he could at least do that—then he could use it to trace an array. If he drew on the Burial Mounds to give the magic sufficient power, it would heat the air it occupied, and could thus singe the ground. If he bit his tongue and spit with luck and precision (he’d certainly never expected years of stupid boys’ contests with Jiang Wanyin to prove so useful), he could activate that array with a drop of blood. And if Wei Wuxian might be able to manage that, then he had to try. 

Whether any of this would help free him was apparently another question. During his periods of coherence, Wei Wuxian manipulated the magic to painstakingly trace out every ‘release’ and ‘unbinding’ sigil he knew, and some he simply invented. But liberation spells like these had never been designed to counteract the paralysis of their caster. Wei Wuxian only knew that two days had passed because light had crept in and ebbed out of the cave twice. Layers of ineffective radicals accumulated on top of one another in a messy circle on the ground around him. This was bad practice, and could lead to nasty, unpredictable mistakes, but Wei Wuxian couldn’t exactly tidy up his failed attempts.  

He knew his chances of saving the Wens diminished with every hour. He was only half-cogent. He was desperate. And so when the sigils around him exploded, Wei Wuxian really couldn’t have said what had finally done the trick. 

***

It was proving difficult and painful to move, but Wei Wuxian was pleasantly surprised it was proving possible to do so at all. If it came to that, he was shocked to be alive after that explosion. He wouldn’t have given much for his chances, especially considering that he could now see the night sky above him. Last he checked, he’d been underground. Had he been thrown out of Demon-Slaughtering Cave entirely? Had he managed to blow the roof off? 

Wei Wuxian simultaneously attempted to figure out where he was and to stand. At first, neither effort yielded good results. Still hunched over, he found himself nearly lurching off of a roof. He gave a bleary blink and held himself motionless, waiting for the tiles below him to stop multiplying and spinning in a geometric kaleidoscope. 

Panting, Wei Wuxian looked around him. He knew this place. This was the Unclean Realm. How in hell had he come to be here? In this part of the country? Up on a roof? How much time had passed?

Wei Wuxian’s eyes widened when he saw Jin Guangyao walking on the path below him. Jin Guangyao, dressed in Nie robes. Jin Guangyao, sans Jin zhushazhi, with his hair in inner-clan Nie braids. 

“Meng Yao?” he said, and the other man, startled, looked up at him.

“Wei gongzi?” he asked. His face was so open. He wasn’t surprised to find Wei Wuxian here. He didn’t react as though the name ‘Meng Yao’ were an insult to him. “Do you need something?”

It was impossible. But then that was the motto, wasn’t it? Wei Wuxian felt like laughing hysterically.

He knew very well that he had only spent the night on a rooftop in the Unclean Realm while Meng Yao was still its chief steward, and would have expected to find him on the grounds, on one occasion. It had been the memorable evening on which Lan Wangji had returned to the Cloud Recesses, only to meet with a Wen siege. The night directly after the two of them, with Nie Huaisang and Jiang Wanyin, had captured Xue Yang. In trying to release himself from the physical bonds on his body, Wei Wuxian had apparently managed to slice through more barriers than he’d intended to—to slip back through whole years. He’d been spat out, coreless and older, yet superficially unaltered, in exactly the place he had been in this time.

Which meant that Wen Chao and his raiding party would arrive in the morning. Which meant that Wei Wuxian needed a plan. Which meant that Wei Wuxian had an opportunity. Not just a chance to save the Wen remnants, but possibly to prevent some, or even the vast majority, of the many, many deaths about to occur.

He had no core, no Chenqing, no Stygian tiger amulet and no allies who shared his knowledge. But he did have allies. He knew, now, things he had not known about the people around him when he'd been eighteen. He knew that if he presumed upon the Dafan Wen siblings’ essential decency, he would never be disappointed. He knew that if he properly appealed to Wen Qing’s protective loyalty, he would find in her an intelligent friend whose resilience and determination could be stymied by nothing short of death. Wei Wuxian knew that in Jinlin Tai, there lived a girl so righteous she would rather secede from the entire cultivation world than be a party to injustice and persecution. He knew that he’d somehow been blessed with the abiding trust of Jiang Yanli and Lan Wangji: two of the best people in all the world. One man alone, even with the advantages of foreknowledge and demonic cultivation, could only do so much. But Wei Wuxian might call upon the assistance of an army. It would be difficult and even counter-productive to immediately reveal everything he knew to every friend he had—but he hardly need do that in order to rely on them to be themselves.

Wei Wuxian also had his body and his wits, and he had always been able to use both to his advantage. The rough, broad scheme now taking shape in his mind would make rather unusual use of both, but he was nothing if not adaptable. Besides, this wasn’t the first time he’d had to obfuscate key details about his knowledge and power in the delicate context of a war. He supposed he’d just have to do what he always did: figure out the specifics as he went along. 

The immediate problem was the morning’s siege. He had to stop it before it happened, if he could. That felt manageable. He had something to work with, there. The larger problem was Wen Ruohan, who wanted the two fragments of missing yin iron that he knew about. That felt far, far less manageable, but Wei Wuxian at least had leverage. He could buy himself time to think while he gathered war materiel, and he could ensure that he came to Nightless City better-positioned than he had been the first time he’d helped kill the Chief Cultivator. He could see to it that the cultivation world faced this crisis with Jiang whole, and Lan unbent. The almost equally severe problem of everything that had come after the war would have to wait. One thing at a time.

“Wei gongzi?” Meng Yao asked, and Wei Wuxian realised he’d been standing on a roof with his face scrunched up in thought for like, a full ke, while an increasingly annoyed Meng Yao attempted to get his attention. Embarrassing. 

Wei Wuxian took a deep breath, in and out. Right. Here went nothing.

He jumped down from the roof.

“Dear sir,” he addressed Meng Yao with a very proper bow. “I’m afraid I must trouble you, as steward of the Unclean Realm, with a few urgent requests. First, I must borrow a flute of Nie Huaisang. Second, I must speak to my brother. Third, and this is most urgent, I must see the imprisoned criminal Xue Yang.”

Meng Yao blinked at him. “Can these things not wait until morning, Wei gongzi?” he asked. He was, as ever, polite, but late as it was and bizarrely as Wei Wuxian was behaving, he was clearly reluctant to cater to a guest’s queer whims. 

Wei Wuxian shook his head. “I’m afraid that acting now rather than tomorrow may mean the difference between the Unclean Realm standing and falling.” 

His tone and expression were more serious than Meng Yao would ever have heard or seen an eighteen-year-old Wei Wuxian employ. 

Meng Yao visibly swallowed. He offered Wei Wuxian a quick bow and strode briskly off—towards Nie Huisang’s rooms, presumably.

“This way,” Meng Yao called after himself. Wei Wuxian, still shaky on his legs, followed him.

Chapter Text

Yeah, I’m still in the murder business.

***

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Ah, good,” Wei Wuxian said to Jiang Wanyin, who was marching towards his brother so emphatically that the far shorter-strided Meng Yao was struggling to keep pace with him. “You’re here. We can start.”

“Start what, Wei gongzi?” Meng Yao asked with a somewhat uneasy smile, running a thumb over the keys of his office. “Allow me to fetch the Red-Blade Master. Surely the safety of the Unclean Realm is his affair?”  

“In just a moment,” Wei Wuxian placated him. He twirled his borrowed flute in his fingers and addressed both men. “Lan Wangji left mere hours ago, and Wen Chao’s forces waylaid him on the road not far from here. They spoke of an imminent attack on Cloud Recesses, and also let slip that they were headed towards us to demand Xue Yang as their prisoner, and to make an example of Nie. Lan Wangji escaped them and rushed home to warn his brother. Fortunately he still had one of my papermen, and used it to send me a message.”

Most of that was untrue. Yet it was close enough to the truth that unless taciturn Lan Wangji was questioned minutely about what had ended up being a minor opening salvo in the Sunshot Campaign, the discrepancies wouldn’t be obvious. If any were found, they could easily be explained away as misunderstandings. What’s more, Wei Wuxian trusted Lan Wangji to catch the drift of any inquiry, and to resist answering questions that might implicate Wei Wuxian in anything serious until Lan Wangji had ascertained for himself why Wei Wuxian might have misled anyone as to the sequence of these events. Lan Wangji was clever and stubborn; his words were never unconsidered.

Despite his undeniable utility in a fight, Wei Wuxian was glad Lan Wangji had already left. He was safer on the road than here, and if history was any guide, he was sure to have clever, stubborn, insistent questions regarding everything Wei Wuxian was about to do. Wei Wuxian knew he wouldn’t be able to answer them to the other man’s satisfaction.

“So why are we in the dungeon?” Jiang Wanyin asked. “Where’s your sword? What are you doing with that?” He nodded at Wei Wuxian’s flute. It was the middle of the night. Jiang Wanyin was confused, just-woken and irritable.

Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes. “This got stale enough the first time around,” he muttered to himself. Turning to his brother, he gave a strange, cold smile and tapped his own cheek with the flute. “It’s a surprise tool that will help us later. Meng Yao, the door, if you would.”

Looking between them, visibly hesitant, Meng Yao unlocked the passage leading to the Unclean Realm’s cells.  

His hands tucked behind his back, Wei Wuxian strode down the corridor before them. He stopped half-way along it.

“Xue Yang,” he addressed the occupant of the only tenanted cell, without turning to look at him. “Where have you hidden your yin iron fragment?”

Xue Yang laughed at the question. He threw his head back against the stone wall with an audible thunk, as though he didn’t regard his own comfort as important.

“I didn’t even tell Wen Ruohan,” he smirked, batting his lashes extravagantly at Wei Wuxian. “Do you think I’d tell you?”

“No,” Wei Wuxian said, tapping Huaisang’s flute against his hand and pivoting slowly on his heel, so that he and the prisoner faced one another. “But it seemed only fair to ask. Even you deserve a chance.”

“A chance?” Xue Yang sneered.

Wei Wuxian nodded. “That was it.”

He raised the borrowed flute to his lips, and with a few notes he gathered the ambient resentful energy to him. The flute was no Chenqing, but it was a fine instrument, and a dungeon where criminals had been left to die for centuries was absolutely ripe with stale rage. The idiosyncratic cultivation method of the Nie clan produced an abundance of yin for Wei Wuxian to work with as it was. The last time he’d stayed in Nie’s stronghold, Wei Wuxian had found it hard to stop the ambient energy from using him as a conduit. He was more experienced, now—the battle-hardened master of the Burial Mounds, rather than merely a survivor of the place. He was far more in control of his cultivation.

“What are you doing?” Xue Yang asked. The younger man was sharp enough to fear the rising black mist swirling around them, but cracked enough that his eyes shone with gleeful curiosity as he watched it. His gaze tracked the magic’s movement, like a magpie after something shiny. “What is this?”

Wei Wuxian didn’t bother to explain that it was his death. He pushed the resentful energy towards what it wanted—the concealed scrap of yin iron. Of course Xue Yang had it on his person. Who and what did such a man trust in but himself? Of course the half-feral brat had literally ingested it like a scavenged beast core, both to disguise the energy with his own qi and so that the fragment couldn’t be taken off him. If Xue Yang poisoned his blood and his mind with yin iron, what did he care? The damage was reversible, and the young never truly believe themselves mortal in the first place.

Xue Yang knew that he could slice himself open and recover the yin iron when he truly needed it, and then heal himself with his golden core’s energy afterwards. Counted on it. He was probably planning on doing so now, if Wen Chao failed to rescue him.

The trouble with hiding such artefacts within your body was that you couldn’t actively wield them from such a vantage point. If such a solution could have protected the Stygian tiger amulet from those who would have misused it while preserving its virtue as a deterrent to violence against the Wen remnants, Wei Wuxian would have employed the strategy long ago, despite the risks to himself.

And so, without any such defence to resort to, Xue Yang watched Wei Wuxian’s resentful energy pool over his own stomach. He looked up at the older boy with shock. Then understanding. Then horror. Then rage.

“You can’t,” Xue Yang snarled, making the plea sound like a threat.

Wei Wuxian didn’t waste breath responding. Lan Wangji would be proud, he thought ironically, knowing full well that Lan Wangji would be too horrified and disgusted by this to be anything of the kind. Instead of speaking, Wei Wuxian spent his breath on a rapid arpeggio, flitting his fingers. Resentful energy ripped straight through Xue Yang’s stomach to drag the bloody yin iron up, up, up through his skin. It took, Wei Wuxian thought, such an incongruously light touch to kill a man. Xue Yang screamed. Wei Wuxian heard Jiang Wanyin shout his name.

That’s it, Wei Wuxian thought, flexing his free hand. Come to mother. The resentful energy obediently plopped the wet, flesh-warm chunk of metal in his palm. The yin iron sang to him, humming against his skin—bowing to his experienced handling.

“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian said, giving Xue Yang a slight bow that could only be mocking, given the circumstances.

Meng Yao hastily unlocked the cell door, rushing to staunch the prisoner’s bleeding. Xue Yang looked down at his own shredded intestines, blinked and fainted away. Wei Wuxian tsked. Some people could dish it out but not take it.

“With all the splintered yin iron fragments in that wound, it’d take more transferred energy than we can spare right now to clean it—much less to knit his entrails back together.” Wei Wuxian shook his head, spinning the flute back behind his back. “He’s really not worth it.”

“What the fuck was that?” Jiang Wanyin said, grabbing Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. His eyes were vast. It occurred to Wei Wuxian that Jiang Wanyin had probably not yet watched anyone die, much less seen any death like this. Wei Wuxian blinked. He’d grown so accustomed to these things, and he was used to a Jiang Wanyin whose skin was thicker still—as though his little brother thought it was a competition.

“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian said, cool and firm, “I need you to explain the situation to Nie Mingjue. Nie cultivators will have to dump Xue Yang’s body along the road. If they bandage the wound and put him in a new tunic, they can make it look like he was caught running away. Wen Chao will want to know where the yin iron has gone, and examining the body could delay the Wen. For half a shi, at most, but we may need the time.”

Meng Yao, at least, had swallowed down his fear, and looked as though he was following this. Like he was thinking about why Wei Wuxian was suggesting such a thing, and how to go about doing it. Wei Wuxian knew that in his own timeline, Nie Mingjue had accused Meng Yao of facilitating Xue Yang’s escape. Wei Wuxian had no idea whether the Red Blade Master had been right. He hadn’t seen it himself, and he knew from experience what rumour could be. Nie Mingjue hadn’t lifted a finger to help the Wen Remnants, after all, so Wei Wuxian hardly considered him an infallible judge of people’s deserts.

If the accusation had been at all true, Wei Wuxian hoped he’d provided Meng Yao with a clear demonstration of his own capacity for exacting revenge, when it was due and necessary. In his own time, Jin had feared Wei Wuxian’s power and struck out at him. In this one, he’d show those who might oppose him with violence and treachery that there would be severe consequences for such actions before they attempted them.  

“You killed a man in the Red Blade Master’s own dungeons!” Jiang Wanyin said, righteously indignant. “A prisoner under Qinghe Nie’s jurisdiction, who should have met with their justice!”

He was surprised by how pale Jiang Wanyin looked. Frightened. Wei Wuxian had forgotten quite how young they’d been, when all this had been thrust upon them. Dwelling on it had smacked of self-pity, especially given the collective nature of of their experiences. There’d never been time to reckon with it. Wei Wuxian had never been forced to do so before.

“Xue Yang executed an entire clan,” Wei Wuxian observed. “His bad end was an inevitability of his own making. I took care of a loose end, and got what we needed out of him, besides.” Wei Wuxian bounced the gory yin iron fragment in his hand. A fleck of what might have once been Xue Yang’s small intestine flew off the ingot and splattered on the floor.

“Are you trying to start trouble?” Jiang Wanyin asked. He was attempting a seethe, but his voice cracked with worry. Later, Wei Wuxian knew, a purer anger would come readily to Jiang Wanyin. Easily. Wei Wuxian had forgotten that it hadn’t always come naturally.

“Start?” Wei Wuxian said with an unpleasant smile. “Jiang Cheng. Don’t be naive. Trouble’s already here. Didn’t you hear what I told you? The Wen are marching on Cloud Recesses and the Unclean Realm. Do you think they really care whether we’re sufficiently polite? They ate up small sects while we stood idle, and now they’re moving on us.” He fixed Jiang Wanyin with an inflexible stare. “How can I start trouble, when Lotus Pier already stands to be next?”

Jiang Wanyin moved to deny that emphatically, on pure desperate instinct. “They wouldn’t dare.”

“They already have dared,” Wei Wuxian said, his tone severe—a demand for his brother to think rather than simply feel. “We are the smallest of the great sects. Gusu Lan is thrice our size. Should we defend ourselves with your pride?”

Jiang Wanyin’s jaw shifted, and his hand tightened on the pommel of his sword. He looked away from Wei Wuxian, mulish but clearly accepting the basic truth of the situation.

Wei Wuxian contemplated observing that only the Jin would escape the coming crackdown, and only because they were too well-resourced to attack outright. But overwrought as he was right now, Jiang Wanyin might take it as an insult, and Wei Wuxian suspected Meng Yao perfectly understood the advantages his father’s clan possessed. He’d gone there first, after all, before entering Nie Mingjue’s entourage.

It was only now, confronted with a Jiang Wanyin who had yet to stab him to prove a point, that Wei Wuxian realised how angry he was with his brother. How disappointed he was that when he’d made a list of the people he trusted absolutely, Jiang Wanyin’s name hadn’t been right at the top, where it belonged.

Rebuilding Jiang had been excruciatingly hard on both brothers. Hardest, Wei Wuxian knew, on Jiang Wanyin, who bore the full weight of duty and expectation—heavy, even if he had a hale body with which to shoulder it. While Wei Wuxian had often given himself over to depression and drink, he’d also worked hard at their shared task. Nothing he’d done had been enough for his brother, whose exacting dissatisfaction had made Wei Wuxian feel his own injured inadequacy still more deeply. He’d felt unnecessary to Jiang when he left, even as he’d known Jiang Wanyin spoke out of worry, expecting Wei Wuxian to absorb his frustration and shrug it off like always.

Wei Wuxian was angry that Jiang Wanyin had seemed to feel he could only preserve Jiang as a place if he didn’t fight for Jiang as an ethos—which was more to both of them than its imperfect realisation by the previous generation, even as the Lan elders weren’t the essence of that sect’s virtues. Jiang Wanyin hadn’t spoken up for Jiang Yanli when Jin Guangshan had publicly harassed her. He hadn’t spoken up for the Wen siblings, when he knew they owed the Wens their lives. He hadn’t supported Wei Wuxian regarding the Wen remnants, when Wei Wuxian knew damn well Jiang Wanyin agreed with him. Wei Wuxian agreed that it was important to keep Jiang materially and politically secure, and he was prepared to make unpleasant compromises to ensure that security. But what would that matter if they bowed to what was commonly regarded as sensible and possible rather than acting out of a spirit of radical acceptance, an unbowed ethics? Had Jiang survived the war only for its zongzhu to erode its foundations?

Wei Wuxian knew exactly how difficult Jiang Wanyin’s position was. He hadn’t asked Jiang Wanyin to stand with him against the other great clans and to put Jiang in that vulnerable situation, but he’d expected private understanding and support. Jiang Wanyin’s blatant disappointment made Wei Wuxian, who’d been diligently rationalising away his own, feel betrayed.

As with his closer allies, Wei Wuxian could trust Jiang Wanyin to be himself. It was what that meant that differed. Jiang Wanyin would act out of faultless filial piety, and would move mountains in the service of a definition of Jiang that Wei Wuxian largely shared. That was no small thing. But he couldn’t trust Jiang Wanyin as absolutely as he wanted to, as purely as he had when they had been this age before. Perhaps if the circumstances of his becoming a man proved gentler this time around, Jiang Wanyin would be afforded the opportunity to carefully reconcile the demands on him. He might become someone who, when tested, proved true. Wei Wuxian looked at his brother and wondered whether in a kinder world, they might stand some chance of living up to their expectations of one another.

There was little more for Wei Wuxian to do here, at present. The last thing he wanted was for his shidi to once again face the people he himself was about to go up against. If it went poorly, he didn’t have another core to give his brother. Wei Wuxian didn’t regret having done that for him, and for Jiang—though in this new reality, Wei Wuxian supposed it had been for nothing at all. And that—that did feel so fucking futile. That, he did regret.

The thought threatened to widen into a deep chasm of feeling that would pull him down deep if he so much as looked at it, and so Wei Wuxian fixedly didn’t. He surged onward. Wei Wuxian expected to defeat Wen Chao’s entourage, but if he failed to, the plan with Xue Yang’s body would be useful. He’d at least give Nie Mingjue vital time.

“Where are you going now?” Jiang Wanyin asked as Wei Wuxian headed back out of the corridor.

“I’ve another errand to run,” Wei Wuxian said. “I thought I’d go greet the visitors while you speak to Nie zongzhu. Give them a bit of a surprise.”

Jiang Wanyin caught up to him, harshly tugging his arm. “You are miles beyond your authority,” he said. “Who died and put you in charge? I’m coming with you—”

Wei Wuxian swallowed a bitter laugh, electing not to answer the question with ‘half the people we know.’ He gently prised his brother’s fingers off his forearm.

“I’m your elder brother. And you are the sect heir, Jiang Cheng. If it’s come to this, we need allies like we need air. You must stay and show Nie our support. I will do what I must.”

***

The first time Wei Wuxian had hunted Wen Zhuliu with demonic cultivation, it had been shockingly easy. Wen Zhuliu had caused so much suffering, had wrought such awful changes in the Jiangs’ lives. And yet for all that, a more experienced Wei Wuxian, even without his core, had found himself able to track and bring down Core-Melting Hand like a pheasant.

And though Wei Wuxian cautioned himself against underestimating a formidable opponent, this fight proved even easier. Wen Zhuliu had no reason to suspect anyone was lying in wait for them. He’d never yet so much as heard a strain of the haunting music of demonic cultivation. All Wei Wuxian had to do was saunter up the road, calling every fallen thing he passed along with him as he went. The yin iron ingot in Wei Wuxian’s pocket made his company impossible to refuse. The very rotting trees wrenched up lifeless roots from spent earth for the love of him—for the beauty of his song.

Wen Chao barely had time to look at Wei Wuxian’s shambling, inexorable host and say, “what the hell is that?” Wen Zhuliu barely had time to wheel his white-eyed horse around—to say, “run.” A sharp shriek of the dizi, and corpses were upon them. Wei Wuxian’s rabble-army quite literally ripped the Wen company to shreds. Squirrels’ teeth and human fingernails and the pounding of rough yew branches: every lost thing that answered Wei Wuxian struck out against his foes.

To his credit, Wen Zhuliu identified Wei Wuxian as the source of the threat. When the retainer charged, Wei Wuxian let him through. He even allowed Core-Melting Hand to land his signature blow. He watched horror bloom across the other man’s expression as Wen Zhuliu realised there was nothing left in Wei Wuxian to destroy.

“Nice try,” Wei Wuxian consoled him. He gave a whistle, and corpses dragged the man backwards, away from Wei Wuxian. Wen Zhuliu’s eyes widened as the dead hands then began to pull the limbs they held in opposing directions. Wei Wuxian smiled at Core-Melting Hand, as if inviting him to guess what came next. Wen Chao began outright screaming when the corpses divorced Wen Zhuliu’s limbs from his torso before snapping his spine. Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes—he hadn’t missed Wen Chao’s descent into shrillness at all.

“I’ll do anything—” Wen Chao burbled.

“Yes,” Wei Wuxian agreed, with a mock-serious nod. “You will.” He snapped his fingers. “Drag him,” he said to two of his corpses.

Wei Wuxian began to walk back, playing ‘return and rest’ for the others he’d borrowed as he went. The dead peeled off as the little band neared the Unclean Realm. As the sun rose, the last two bearers dropped a ragged, now-unconscious Wen Chao before the imposing gates. Then they too staggered away.

“Delivery for you,” he sang out to the Nie cultivators guarding the gate, who watched the last corpses amble off with the sort of shock and horror Wei Wuxian had become very familiar with. “Aiyah, don’t mind my friends. They’re not staying. Don’t you see you have second young master Wen here?” Wei Wuxian picked up Wen Chao’s chin and waggled his dirt-smeared face at them. “Show his lordship a proper welcome! Xue Yang’s cell is free.”

Wei Wuxian made his excuses to Nie Mingjue regarding his precipitous action. He received both Nie zongzhu’s wary thanks and his consent to the exchange of prisoners. He convinced Jiang Wanyin to go back to Lotus Pier without him, to warn Uncle that the Wen sect was moving against the other great clans and to await whatever word might come from Nightless City. Wei Wuxian claimed that he had to deliver Xue Yang’s yin iron to Lan Wangji, because he had committed to doing so. Gusu was in present danger, and perhaps the yin iron could be of use to them. He left Suibian in Jiang Wanyin’s room, and hoped to evade his brother’s questions by being gone by the time Jiang Wanyin discovered it.

In fact, Wei Wuxian had no intention of relinquishing the yin iron just yet, or of heading to Gusu at all. Before Wen Chao had lost consciousness, Wei Wuxian had bade him call down his dire owl. Wei Wuxian had used the bird to send a message to its master’s father. Wuxian told Wen zongzhu outright that his second son had been taken as a hostage, and that his deputies Wen Zhuliu and Xue Yang had both been slain. Wei Wuxian claimed that he now held both missing yin iron fragments himself, and said he had a proposition for the Chief Cultivator. Would Wen Ruohan call off the siege on Cloud Recesses in order to hear it? Wei Wuxian could be at Nightless City in one xun; he was willing to walk directly into Wen Ruohan’s den to speak with him.

Wei Wuxian promised that his proposal would be worth even the Chief Cultivator’s valuable time.

***

Lan Xichen read the message in his hand for the third time, and found that the repetition neither changed nor improved its contents. Xichen knew he’d no excuse to delay telling Wangji of them for any longer than he already had. The news was atrocious, and its timing only served to salt the wound. But were these even unconnected misfortunes? Or was the one bound up with the other?

Lan Xichen tapped the scroll against his palm repeatedly as he walked towards the Cloud Recesses’ outermost boundary, as if he could shake the characters off the parchment. The siege had penetrated as far as the wall of the central siheyuan before it had been abruptly called off. Wen Xu’s forces had retreated in the direction of Qishan. Perhaps the Wen had only meant to teach Lan a lesson. They certainly hadn’t been beaten back. Lan had lost almost two score disciples, and many more had been injured. The damage to Cloud Recesses’ infrastructure was extensive, and the damage to Lan’s pride was more severe still. The disciples were all very aware that this might have been worse; that by all rights, it ought to have been.

Lan Xichen mounted a ladder pressed up against the boundary wall. On another day, he’d have carelessly used spiritual energy to scale such a slight obstacle. At present, his magic was too precious a commodity to be wasteful with.

Xichen found his younger brother atop the wall, pouring his energy into a broken protection sigil. These ones needed a Lan of the line; he and Wangji were pinpricked all over from repairing the oldest blood-runes. Uncle was still too ill to help with them.

“Wangji,” he called.

“Mm,” Wangji answered, intent on his delicate work. When Wangji focused like this, his mouth would almost fix itself in a pout. It reminded Xichen of the determined look on Wangji’s still-round face when he’d first learned to heft Bichen—when he’d begun to practice all the drills that were only possible to execute with a spiritual sword. Wangji had been a scholarly, delicate child. Combat had not come instinctually to him, and so he’d worked harder than anyone at the sword, until he was even his older brother’s match.

Xichen privately felt that Wangji was even more talented than Xichen himself, and didn’t actually resent it. A few months ago, Wangji had sparred with Wei Wuxian in a technical demonstration. Over the boys’ heads, Xichen had caught Jiang Yanli’s eye. The two of them had exchanged smiles, and Xichen had thought, it can’t be prideful, to take this almost parental satisfaction in my younger brother’s excellence. Not if Jiang Yanli feels the same. Because Wei Wuxian was right to praise and defend his shijie. Who was more a model of good conduct and earnest, pleasant kindness than Jiang Yanli? Who deserved more respect, on account of her exemplary behaviour? And yet it seemed even she had failed to protect or guide her younger brother, just as Xichen himself was about to fail his.

“Leave that, for a moment,” Xichen said, especially gently. His very gentleness must have told Wangji that something was wrong. He glanced over at Xichen, his brow furrowed.

“Come here,” Xichen said, sitting down himself. Wangji rose, walked over and dropped to his knees beside him. His eyes were curious, yet despite their brightness, Wangji seemed tired. He looked small.

Xichen held out the letter—the ridiculous, impersonal, hateful letter. Wangji bent close, so they could read it together. Xichen, however, did not look at it. He looked instead at his brother, and winced when Wangji’s mouth parted a little as he took in the contents.  

“Do you know what he’s doing?” Xichen asked.

Wangji looked up at him, blinking.

“I,” he began, and stopped. “He has a plan,” Wangji said, sounding certain.

Xichen worried that his brother’s certainty was merely grim determination. Lans loved once. That was the saying, and it would have been a trite one, if there weren’t so much undeniable evidence behind it. Almost all of their many-branched family, their kin, their kind—just once. And Wangji had decided, had been smitten from the first. Of course he would have to believe there was some scheme at work, here. Some explanation. Xichen’s logical younger brother—Wangji, Xichen’s right hand, his conscience, his steady voice of reason against the shifting currents of popular opinion and changing circumstances—simply couldn’t be objective about this.

Even Xichen, less immediately invested, truly struggled to reconcile the news with the Wei Wuxian he knew and had given his confidence to. Perhaps Wei-gongzi was unwilling in the matter? Threatened, or pressured? But why? The boy was charming, certainly: charming enough to capture even Wangji’s bruised, wary, discerning, true heart. But for all that, Wei Wuxian was just a boy. How had he come to be mixed up in all this?

“He does,” Wangji repeated, seeing the indecision on Xichen’s face. There was steel in his voice. He sounded as though he were protecting his—well. His what?

Because they’d been summoned (and even ever-polite Lan Xichen bristled at that piece of high-handedness, coming so soon after this outrageous, unprovoked siege) to the nuptial banquet of the Chief Cultivator, Wen Ruohan, and the first disciple of Yunmeng Jiang, Wei Wuxian.

Lan Xichen truly hoped his brother was right.

***

The day before the Lan delegation was due to set out for Qishan, a Jiang disciple arrived bearing a box. The young man had brought Jiang zongzhu’s acknowledgement of the wedding invitation and compliments to Wei Wuxian in Nightless City. Wei Wuxian had privately instructed his loyal shidi not to return directly to Yunmeng. Instead the boy had been sent to Gusu, with this: a talisman-sealed package that only yielded to Lan Wangji. Inside, the Lan brothers found a yin iron fragment. Its cracked edge notched smoothly into the piece Lan Wangji had brought back with him, which they’d initially found in Lan Yi’s keeping.

“Xue Yang,” Lan Wangji said, after a moment. “We suspected he knew the location of another fragment, but he would tell us nothing. Wei Wuxian must have secured it after I left.”

Xichen was inclined to view Wei Wuxian’s managing to smuggle the yin iron to them as a very good sign of his continued commitment to keeping it out of Wen Ruohan’s hands. Even Uncle called the thing well-done, expressing dry surprise at evidence of prudence from Wei Wuxian. Only Wangji seemed unmollified; Xichen supposed that having believed in Wei Wuxian all along, this course of action came as no special relief to him.

“Wen Ruohan is powerful,” Wangji said, when Xichen inquired into the cause of his deep frown. “I do not know Wei Wuxian’s intentions, but in honouring our vow to Lan Yi and sending the fragment here for what protection we can offer, he has left himself in the tiger’s den without this defence.”

Xichen, still brightened by the gesture of good faith—the manifest proof that Wei Wuxian hadn’t been suddenly, completely consumed by the lure of the yin iron—tried to cheer Wangji.

“Perhaps we’ve misunderstood the situation, somehow?” On the face of it, the announcement was so unlooked for that Lan Xichen could almost believe they had, despite the stark clarity of the Chief Cultivator’s summons. “Hopefully when we arrive in Nightless City everything will make sense.”

***

When Wei Wuxian had offered an alliance, he hadn’t expected Wen Ruohan would look him up and down—at the Stygian tiger seal hovering in Wei Wuxian’s hand, and at the hard grin on Wei Wuxin’s lips—and assume he meant a marital alliance. Wei Wuxian had, however, been quick to take advantage of the political opportunity. Not to mention the role of a lifetime.

(He’d also descended into jibbering panic for a good ke, but only once alone in his rooms, which he felt hardly counted.)

It did not take a xun to travel from Qinghe to Qishan. It had, however, taken Wei Wuxian two days to travel to Yiling. He’d met a rogue cultivator en route, and wheedled the girl into flying him much of the way. Once there, Wei Wuxian had walked a familiar path to a stand of black bamboo, deep in the Burial Mounds. It grew directly out of, in fact straight through, the heart of a general who’d been betrayed by his emperor and lover. The emperor had feared the power and popularity of the one man in the world who would never have hurt him, and had thus ordered his general into an ambush here. This emperor had subsequently been assassinated by that very general’s successor. The bamboo had drunk heart’s-blood, rich with oxygen drawn in by the general’s final, jagged sobs. Wei Wuxian cut a stalk and recreated Chenqing, carving familiar runes on her as he walked back out again.

It had taken another day for Wei Wuxian to reach the cave of the mock Xuanwu of Slaughter, to perch comfortably on a rock outside its mouth, and to begin to play. The cave, as Wei Wuxian remembered vividly, was absolutely crammed with the bodies of the Xuanwu’s victims. None of them had died well, and none of them had been buried with dignity. They teemed in the water, in the animal’s ancient belly, and half-buried in the sediment. At Wei Wuxian’s urging, they all rose up to rip the Xuanwu apart. The fact that he was clutching Xue Yang’s yin iron made him all the more persuasive. The Xuanwu struck his victims’ brittle bodies down easily, but they didn’t need to be whole to carry out Wei Wuxian’s bidding. There were enough of them that he could simply keep going, calling up new soldiers to replenish his diminished forces.

This time, Wei Wuxian was alone. He was, however, uninjured. He had far better weaponry, and far greater experience. Thus it took Wei Wuxian only two days and nights of near-ceaseless playing to bring down the beast. He was somewhat sorry to have deprived Lan Wangji of his share in a hard-earned, glorious accomplishment, but needs must, and Lan Wangji certainly had many more such feats in him.

Wei Wuxian knew that the initial plan to tackle the Xuanwu had been half Lan Wangji’s. Without all the information their first attempt had granted Wei Wuxian, doing this again, alone, would have been absolutely impossible. Demonic cultivation itself was half Lan Wangji. It relied very obviously on the Lan cultivational use of instruments, and less obviously on a meditational discipline Wei Wuxian had found difficult to master even with Lan Wangji’s example before him. The tight control over himself Wei Wuxian had employed upon his return from the Burial Mounds to keep his power leashed and to conceal what had happened to him, the whole performance of the thing, was a borrowed robe. Wei Wuxian had never thought his obsessive attention to and admiration of the Second Jade’s skill would bear such fruit. Lan Wangji himself had never seemed to recognise his own tricks, repurposed. Well, Wei Wuxian thought with a rueful smile, after all, Lan Wangji did wear it better.

Every so often, Wei Wuxian would pop down to check whether the beast was dead yet. To his pleased surprise, after two days he found the Xuanwu’s head hanging limp from its spine. It was only still joined to the body by a tattered flag of flesh. Exhausted, Wei Wuxian smiled.

“Now hurry up and crack open the rib cage,” he told the nearest corpse, who’d trotted up to Wei Wuxian at his signal. “Go on, get your friends. Don’t you want to cut out its black heart?”

He needed the sword lodged deep within the creature, and he really didn’t fancy going back inside himself.

When their work was done, Wei Wuxian pacified the spirits. He treated himself and his bloody yin-iron sword to a long night of rest at a good inn. He spent the whole of the next day, from noon when he woke up (and ravenously inhaled a plate of spicy sesame belt noodles) straight through to midnight, re-fashioning the Stygian tiger amulet. And then he travelled to Nightless City, borne on a wave of resentful energy like a coracle riding the inrush of the tide.

Wei Wuxian had never had much opportunity to observe Wen Ruohan. The man he met now had been hollowed out by his prolonged reliance on the yin iron. The Chief Cultivator was all greed, like a Xue Yang who no longer even enjoyed the savor of that which he coveted and lunged for. Thirst that couldn’t be slaked. A man with the resources to feast, who nevertheless looked like an oncoming famine. Dull, vacant bird’s eyes set in a face that had obviously once been comely, but which was beginning to sink in at the cheeks like a skull. Wei Wuxian thought, ruefully and not for the first time, that Lan Wangji had a point about the virtues of limiting one’s dependence on this uncontrolled form of demonic cultivation.

The focus of Wen Ruohan’s lust almost didn’t seem to matter, even to him. Wen zongzhu demanded flesh and dominion, in any form available to him. He saw the might of the Stygian tiger amulet in Wei Wuxian’s hands, and he desired it. He saw the phalanx of puppets guarding Wei Wuxian: his own experimental corpses, turned instantly to the other man’s side. That, too, he coveted. With hungry eyes that tracked everything, fast as a darting rabbit, Wen Ruohan marked the red of Wei Wuxian’s lips and the curve of his subtle smile. Wen Ruohan said yes, to everything.

Wei Wuxian let him believe that the demonstration of majesty involved in a grand, highly public wedding was entirely his own idea. Both men wanted to show the other clans what they were capable of. Wei Wuxian allowed Wen Ruohan to assume that their reasons for doing so were the same.

And that was how Wei Wuxian came to be perched on the Chief Cultivator’s throne when the Nie contingent entered Wen zongzhu’s hall. They brought with them a still-handcuffed Wen Chao, at once a guest at his father’s wedding and a sort of hostage.

“Father!” Wen Chao shouted immediately. He flinched back when he properly clocked Wei Wuxian, dandled on his father’s lap like a dancing girl. The scent of blood only made Wei Wuxian’s grin sharper and wider.

“You can call me ‘papa’, if you like, Chaochao,” Wei Wuxian cooed, just to be that inch more of a bitch. “So having two daddies doesn’t get too confusing for you.”

Wei Wuxian threaded his hand more firmly through his fiance’s hair. His red-lacquered nails glinted through the heavy black locks. He wiggled himself into a more comfortable position on the Chief Cultivator’s lap, and Wen Ruohan brought a possessive hand up to his betrothed’s shoulder.

Nie Mingjue’s eyes narrowed at Wei Wuxian’s antics. Wen Chao spluttered indignantly before Wei Wuxian turned away from the man’s father to properly look at his new stepson. Just a slow, innocuous blink. Wen Chao gulped hard, and kept his silence.

The Jiang contingent looked, variously, bitten-lip furious (Madam Yu), highly concerned (Jiangs Fengmian and Yanli) and both at once (Jiang Wanyin, wearing his signature fragrance, High Dudgeon). When the Lan delegation was announced, Wei Wuxian noticed that Lan Wangji stumbled upon entering the room. This was so out of character for the most graceful man Wei Wuxian knew that he shifted in swiftly-concealed concern. Had he acted too late, then? Had Wen Xu managed to break Lan Wangji’s leg before the siege on Cloud Recesses had ended?

Lan Wangji glanced at Wen Ruohan’s hand on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder (drifting idly along his collar bone, and up his neck), and then up at Wei Wuxian’s face with a dark, unreadable expression. Wei Wuxian suppressed a wince. Ah. Possibly Lan Wangji’s leg was just fine. It seemed the Second Jade was, in accordance with his character, taking everything very seriously. Wei Wuxian would have to speak with him, and sooner rather than later. Lan Wangji was not the sort of pot you left on the fire to simmer without consequences. Besides, Wei Wuxian might well need his help if this got out of hand—and it was as likely to as not.

“Well, your excellency?” Nie Mingjue barked up at Wen Ruohan, whom the Nie sect leader could barely stand even when he hadn’t been officiously commanded to appear before the man, along with main-line representatives from all of the major clans and half the minor. “What can your subjects do for you?”

“My wedding banquet will be celebrated tomorrow night.” Wen Ruohan neither thanked the assembled cultivators for answering his call nor bothered to take offense at Nie Mingjue’s venomous tone. This only infuriated Nie zongzhu further, as well it might; Wen Ruohan formally introduced Nie Mingjue to his consort as though the sect leader were a plough-horse the Chief Cultivator was showing to the animal’s new stablemaster.

Wen Ruohan ran his thumb over Wei Wuxian’s ribcage as he spoke, and Wei Wuxian shivered at the queer unfamiliarity of the unexpected touch. He hoped it looked like pleasure. He kept his gaze on his intended, rapt. Doing so was easier than looking directly at Shijie, or at Uncle. It was far easier than meeting the bruised expression on Lan Wangji’s face.

He knew he wasn’t a traitor—that he had his reasons for all this. It had been awful enough to push Lan Wangji away over unspeakable secrets once; the tense game Wei Wuxian was playing wasn’t any fun at all, if Lan Wangji was being truly hurt by the unease it engendered. Ultimately, though, Wei Wuxian knew he had to keep his hand in until the round ended, regardless of what Lan Wangji thought of him for doing so. Lives rode on his performance, Lan Wangji’s included.

“Treasure,” Wen Ruohan addressed his intended, loud enough for everyone in the room to hear.

Wei Wuxian gave the man a studied, sultry look in answer.

“Show them all the dowry you’ve brought me,” The Chief Cultivator commanded. “I want the whole cultivation world to see my prize.” He turned his head to address the assembly. “For your own safety, I’d advise you not to move.”

Wei Wuxian slid off his fiancé's lap with a slick swish of robes. Languidly, looking at no one in particular, he strode forward on the dais, pulling the Stygian tiger amulet out of his sleeve and twirling it in his left palm. It hummed in Wei Wuxian’s hand; some of the cultivators present could feel even its quiescent power.

In his right, he twirled Chenqing. Resentful energy began to seep into the throne room’s air, trailing behind Wei Wuxian like the train of a gown. There were gasps. The gentry was truly predictable. At first, the bulk of them had spoken of his demonic cultivation with awe. The bulk of them had praised Wei Wuxian to the skies, so long as they thought he was or might be useful to them. Fear had come after. Loathing had creeped in when they realised he was too powerful a weapon to easily wield, and thus he was disposable.

All of that was fine. Wei Wuxian could use fear and loathing just as well as wonder. Better, even.

Wei Wuxian let his contempt for the vast majority of the people before him—for all the things he knew they would simply allow to happen—bleed into his cold gaze. Power gathered in him, rose around him in thick tendrils. He heard a muffled exclamation, and thus supposed his eyes must have shifted to blood red. His lips curled, and he brought Chenqing to them. He piped a shrill whistle—just two notes. Still more resentful energy ripped into and through the room, racing towards its master. It screamed past cultivators, rustling their robes and glancing against their skin, cool and cutting as an ill-wind. It pooled in Wei Wuxian’s hand. The power swarmed there, coiling over itself like a snake ball, like a rat king. If you were unused to it, it was horrible to see—almost difficult to keep looking at. Wei Wuxian smiled at the energy indulgently, as though it were a pet.

Wen Ruohan rose and stood behind Wei Wuxian, spanning his bride’s waist with a large palm that Wei Wuxian could feel the heat and weight of through his robes. It was a demonstrative gesture of ownership. Docile, Wei Wuxian looked up at Wen zongzhu through his lashes.

“I want them to see everything you can do,” the Chief Cultivator murmured into his ear.

Wei Wuxian nodded. He knew how to make himself agreeable and useful—knew the utility of a smile. “Of course, my lord husband.”

He slid Chenqing back in his belt and raised the amulet—his crowning spiritual weapon. He had wanted to avoid Yanli’s witnessing this. But better she see him defile the corpses of strangers than everything that she would otherwise have witnessed.

A man screamed as the puppets began to shuffle in. They were more advanced than the legion Wen Ruohan had been working on before Wei Wuxian’s arrival, though Wei Wuxian did not take this as any great compliment to himself. Wen Ruohan had probably not been much of a technical innovator even before the yin iron had stretched and pulled his mind from its natural shape over and again, as though his brain were a lump of wet dough the resentful energy was making longevity noodles out of. Wei Wuxian had demonstrated fragments of what he’d learned while saving Wen Ning, and Wen Ruohan had not thought to ask whether these alterations would make the corpses answer Wei Wuxian more readily than they did their creator.

Wen Ning—still whole, alive, and free of the guilt of Jin Zixuan’s murder—stood somewhere in the shadows now, at his sister’s side. Wen Qing was as she had always been, back in these days: tight-lipped, wary and grim. Wen Ning seemed confused, a little afraid. They both were, underneath Qing jie’s habitual show of strength. Wei Wuxian didn’t resent the uncomprehending fear of the people he was doing all this for. He knew that they couldn’t know any better. But the position he’d put himself in was undeniably lonely.

The corpses assembled in battle formations.

“Choose, my lord husband?” Wei Wuxian offered, all politeness. Wei Wuxian needed the assembled cultivators to see not just that these puppets could fight, but that they were fully under his control. Wei Wuxian could make any outcome his lord commanded possible, regardless of the innate strength of the puppet-force in question. Seeking a more impressive show of force, Wen Ruohan indicated the smaller group with a flick of his hand. That host, there. Wei Wuxian bowed, straightened, and set the corpses against one another in accordance with his lord’s wishes as Wen Ruohan resumed his throne. With the amulet, Wei Wuxian gave both groups of soldiers a parody of life and unnatural strength—but Chenqing then drove the chosen force on with unholy ferocity.

Dead men had no cultivation, which was certainly a drawback. Nevertheless, these puppets were more powerful than any the cultivation world had yet seen. An artful display of combat ended in the annihilation of more than half the corpse-soldiers present. Which was no matter: Wei Wuxian could always make more. It was fast, but grotesquely brutal. The puppets fell hard. A little thing like dismemberment didn’t stop them. The winning side had to rip the losers to shreds to prevail.

In avoiding Lan Wangji’s stricken, insistent, beseeching gaze, Wei Wuxian accidentally caught the calculating look on the first Jade’s face. Lan Xichen clearly understood the import of all this. It didn’t matter if the great cultivation clans sent armies against Wen Ruohan. With Wei Wuxian at his side, Wen zongzhu could simply pick up the fallen and turn them against their brethren. Lan had been spared, and the siege on Cloud Recesses had ended before it finished, because independent but abject living cultivators were more useful subjects to Wen Ruohan than corpses. But they were only marginally more useful. Wen Ruohan had cared not a jot for the loss of Xue Yang, or even for that of the Core-Melting Hand, who’d served him with an abiding loyalty that had matched even his considerable skill. Why should he, when the man who had killed both had offered up himself, a far stronger mortal weapon, in exchange? Who would raise a hand against the Qishan Wen now, knowing how little could come of resistance? The Great Sects had lost the war against Qishan Wen before fighting it.

“Clean that up,” Wei Wuxian called over his shoulder as he turned his back on the revenant soldiers and went to stand at his betrothed’s right hand. The corpses silently gathered the tatters of the fallen and lurched away. Jiang Yanli was pale; Jin Zixuan was sick into a vase. Wei Wuxian absently wondered whether Jin Zixun had pissed himself, or whether the wretch was too self-regarding to properly fear death.

With a pout, Wei Wuxian adjusted his fiance’s delicate guan.

“My betrothed has the most potent yin energy of any cultivator living,” Wen Ruohan told the assembled. “Is it not a suitable match?”

“My lord honours me,” Wei Wuxian said, extending delicate fingers to trace the clan emblem emblazoned on the chief cultivator’s chest. “He is a sun king, and this humble one will be proud to nurture his yang.”

The prospect of dual cultivation made for sound insurance. Despite the temptation of learning all Wei Wuxian evidently knew, Wen Ruohan might well have tried to simply kill him for the tiger seal. That had been Wei Wuxian’s greatest fear when he’d proposed an alliance, and he’d been surprised and pleased when Wen Ruohan had suggested marriage, presenting Wei Wuxian with another lever of power. The more Wei Wuxian had considered the proposition, the more he’d seen how it could be key to the next stage of his plan as well. Provided, of course, that he survived this phase.

Wei Wuxian twined an arm around the Chief Cultivator’s neck and twirled a curl of the man’s hair around his finger. Wen Ruohan looked up at him with glassy, wide-blown eyes. The display seemed to have excited him. Wei Wuxian bit his lip, quite precisely.

“It is a privilege to serve as my lord’s cauldron,” Wei Wuxian said, because another man rather like Wei Wuxian might well have been happy to do just that in exchange for the power such an arrangement would provide him. For a cultivator, to call oneself a cauldron—a living device for the carnal qi-enhancement of a partner in search of immortality—was a shameless proclamation of one’s willingness to be used. ‘Slut’ or ‘whore’ would have cut less deeply, would have been less shocking.

Wen Ruohan demonstrated his approval by laying his hand on Wei Wuxian’s hip and squeezing hard. Wei Wuxian gave a sharp gasp. He’d no real interpersonal sexual experience to rely on, but he’d always been an expert flirt. He’d meant so little of it seriously. Flirting was a way of moving through the world, and of making people like you. One had to be quite secure in one’s status to be as self-contained and respectable as Lan Wangji. Vamping was easy. Fun, even—a game Wei Wuxian played well.

This was just another kind of social performance. Subjecting the assembled to such an uncouth exhibition was as much a public display of Wen Ruohan’s power as the demonstration he’d commanded of Wei Wuxian had been, or as the wedding banquet he was forcing these cultivators to attend was.

In the crowd, Wei Wuxian thought he saw a flicker of white cloth in motion, and Lan Xichen’s restraining arm fly up. He did not let his gaze follow the movement.

At a nod from the Chief Cultivator, Wei Wuxian dispersed the lingering resentful energy. A seemingly careless movement of his wrist sent one of the corpses lurching towards Wen Chao’s lover, Wang Lingjiao. Shaking, the woman took a step back. She then broke away entirely from the Wen retinue with a shriek, stepping into the path of dispersing resentful energy as she did so. A shaft of it pierced her torso, ripping through her. Her body juddered and then stilled in the magic’s wake. Wen Chao made a noise of shock.

By accident, Wei Wuxian finally made eye contact with Lan Wangji. He looked horrified—as though he saw precisely what Wei Wuxian had just done. Wei Wuxian smiled bitterly. Of course the one man he’d always had to work to deceive hadn’t been taken in by the seeming accident.

Most people tended to believe what they wanted to, if given any pretext that enabled them to do so. Lan Wangji always acted as though such luxuries as self-deception had been stripped from him early in life. He was uncompromisingly clear-sighted and fair. He’d never failed to see the worst of what Wei Wuxian did, and to hold Wei Wuxian to his own high standards. Wei Wuxian both loved and resented him, for that.

Wei Wuxian turned on his heel towards the man he was to marry with his lips set in a sulky moue.

“I’m sorry, your excellency. You did tell her not to move!”

“Father!” Wen Chao shouted, enraged at this insult to him, this damage to his property and loss of face.

Wen Ruohan ignored his son, smoothing a finger over Wei Wuxian’s lower lip. “The silly girl was warned. It doesn’t matter, kitten. She was of no consequence.”

Wei Wuxian batted his lashes. “I did well then, my lord?”

Wen Ruohan looked at him with very honest lust. “Yingr performed perfectly.”

***

Lan Wangji watched the servants, and then discretely followed the one bearing candles who was not headed towards the guest quarters. Without knowing it, the servant led him down a series of corridors. When he stopped at a door Lan Wangji turned, concealed himself from sight and waited alone in an alcove. Members of the Wen family most likely already had stocks of such necessities in their rooms. Wei Wuxian, however, had but recently arrived in Nightless City, and always ran through candles quickly by working late into the night.

Within the length of time it took an incense stick to burn, Lan Wangji’s efforts were rewarded. Wei Wuxian, retiring to his suite to await the evening’s banquet, passed him. Lan Wangji’s hand shot out to snag the man’s arm. Wei Wuxian automatically shifted to flip his opponent using their point of contact as a fulcrum, but a glance showed him it was only Lan Wangji. He relaxed, and instead used the momentum of the aborted move to spin silently into the alcove where Lan Wangji stood.

“Lan Zhan!” He grinned. “Something to say? You?

Wei Wuxian’s eyes were bright and his tone engaging, but Lan Wangji was in no mood to appreciate any of that.

“Where to begin?” Lan Wangji hissed. Wei Wuxian’s dangerous heretical cultivation? Or perhaps this farce of a marriage? He swallowed hard, struggling to moderate his tone.

“Wei Ying,” he said when he felt he’d controlled himself sufficiently well that his voice wouldn’t crack across the name. “Will you not tell me your plan?”

Lan Wangji had not known what to expect when he arrived in Qishan, but it certainly hadn’t been the sight that had greeted him in the reception chamber of Wen Ruohan’s stronghold. There Wei Wuxian had stood, dazzling as ever in a red under-robe like the one he often wore, but of an obviously finer make. This had been set off by a crisp white outer-robe, heavy with scarlet silk-thread embroidery: Qishan Wen colours, of a style and quality befitting the man chosen to ornament the Chief Cultivator’s court. His bed.

A shining brass guan had caught the red-gold hints in Wei Wuxian’s dark brown hair. He’d never been so finely appointed—had never worn clothing which had shown his immense natural beauty off to such advantage. And Wen Ruohan’s hand had played across the elegant, gold-skinned bones of Wei Wuxian’s neck.

The sight had made Lan Wangji sick with painful lust, with heartache, and with deadly anger. When Wen Ruohan had raised his vile fingers to touch Wei Wuxian’s lips, as though he might carelessly slide them into Wei Wuxian’s mouth, Xichen had reached out on instinct to hold his brother’s arm, keeping Lan Wangji firmly in place. Xichen had dug his fingers in whenever the Chief Cultivator took similar liberties, in response to Wangji’s helpless, jerky, involuntary efforts to break free and surge forward.

Wei Wuxian had revealed the unheard of, awesome magic he’d somehow acquired. He had been perfect in power. Even Wei Wuxian could not have developed a wholly-new course of cultivation so far as this in the time that had elapsed since their last meeting. His having discovered it some time ago and entirely concealed it seemed still more unlikely, given all Lan Wangji knew of Wei Wuxian’s character. Yet there had been undeniable studied skill in the display: mastery in Wei Wuxian’s spellwork.

Lan Wangji was, in equal measure, impressed and horrified. The corpse puppets were obscenities. Wei Wuxian had employed them to kill an unarmed member of the Wen court, some unknown woman, on only the thinnest of pretexts. He had delivered the unfathomed advantages of his new power into enemy hands. What had he done, and how had he done it? How dare Wei Wuxian profane himself—his bright, true heart, and the unbridled promise of his cultivation—and their oath?

For a single moment, Lan Wangji had looked at all Wei Wuxian could do now and had feared him. A breath later, the sentiment had pitched into terror for him. Unorthodox cultivation was a knife that, without exception, turned on its wielder. It looked as though it might already be drawing blood. Why else was Wei Wuxian so changed? His gaze was avoidant and harried. His expression was grim, his smile was a lie, his face was too thin, and his very movement was altered. No one else had mentioned it. Couldn’t they see that under his fine clothes and his practiced simper, Wei Wuxian looked as though he’d been dragged through hell?

After the demonstration, Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen had exchanged a few frantic words in Gusu dialect, knowing that the chances of others understanding them were slight. Lan Wangji had managed to slip away from the crowd in the wake of the Wen delegation’s retiring.

Lan Wangji waited now for Wei Wuxian to say the long-awaited words that would make all this explicable. To hear the part he could play in the plan, and what they would do to mend all this. Embroiled as Wei Wuxian was in the enemy’s camp and his own machinations, and shadowy and precarious as their situation appeared, Lan Wangji dared not move in the dark for fear of slicing through his zhiji in the confusion.

Wei Wuxian—still white and red and bronze, and still painfully beautiful—gave him a strange, sad smile.

“Lan Zhan, don’t worry.”

Lan Wangji blinked at him. For weeks now, he had done nothing but. The yin iron, the siege on Cloud Recesses, now this. Wei Wuxian had placed himself in the open jaws of the beast that threatened to consume their world. The man before him was supremely capable, well-known and well-beloved. Lan Wangji trusted Wei Wuxian as himself. It was a trust founded not on smooth words, but on deep familiarity, and on the rock of Wei Wuxian’s clearly expressed and lived principles. He had sent Lan Wangji the yin iron. He had halted the siege on Cloud Recesses—for it was clear now that Wei Wuxian had been the cause of that reprieve; why else would Wen Ruohan suddenly withdraw after such preparations had met with such success? Again and again, Wei Wuxian had shown Lan Wangji who he was: bold and forthright, and a better man than the world knew what to do with. And yet Lan Wangji knew that Wei Wuxian was mortal, and had a dangerous habit of taking on more than any mortal could handle.

‘Don’t worry,’ with Wei Wuxian here, for this. With Wen Ruohan’s hand spanning the lovely curve of Wei Wuxian’s neck and his thumb hovering over Wei Wuxian’s delicate trachea, as though at any moment he might squeeze down faster than Lan Wangji could move. As though that wouldn’t kill them both. Wei Wuxian might as well ask the sun not to rise.

Wei Ying,” he said, letting himself beg. Allowing the tone of his voice to speak a thousand abject pleas.

“Aiyah,” Wei Wuxian shook his head. “Lan Zhan, you know better than to talk in a place like this.” The walls had ears. Lan Wangji understood the caution. He nodded. Wei Wuxian then gave him a playful, chastising pout.  “Especially to an engaged man! ‘I beg of you, Zhong Zi, don’t climb over my wall! Others’ talking too much is indeed something dreadful.’”

Lan Wangji had never in his life found a joke less amusing. Wei Wuxian noticed, grimaced, and left off trying to lighten the mood between them.

“I just have to do a few more things. Four more things, total.” He stepped back. “It’ll all work out. You’ll see!” He gave a finger-salute. Then he dropped it, and his expression grew serious. “I can’t explain, not here. Not yet. But I need you to hold fast, Lan Zhan. However it looks, you are the one who knows me. I can’t do this without your trust. Do I have it?”

“Always,” Lan Wangji murmured, holding his gaze.

“If it should all go wrong, I’ll signal you,” Wei Wuxian said. He looked, for the first time in their conversation, uncertain. Lan Wangji could not allow Wei Wuxian to entertain any fear of his own answer.

“Never doubt I will be there,” Lan Wangji said.

Wei Wuxian swallowed, nodded, and then assumed a particularly false smile, with the air of a man tying on a mummer’s mask. He strode on blithely towards the rooms that were indeed his, with his hands held behind his back.

Lan Wangji waited a suitable interval of time before departing for his own, thinking on the terrible amulet Wei Wuxian had treated like a toy. About the visceral shudder of discomfort Wei Wuxian had given when Wen Ruohan had touched him. About his own part-burned home, and the haunting, horrible beauty of Wei Wuxian’s fire-red painted lips. He forcibly dismissed all this from his mind. Whatever was happening would doubtless occur before tomorrow’s wedding ceremony, and Lan Wangji had to be alert and ready for it. Brooding was a distraction he might not be able to afford.

***

Wei Wuxian blinked in surprise when Jiang Wanyin slipped into his room after the banquet. Jiang Wanyin hardly looked at him. Instead he made himself busy, drawing an almost comically large length of rope out of his qiankun pouch.

“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian began.

“I don’t want to hear it,” Jiang Wanyin snapped. “I’ve no idea how you got into this position, and right now, I don’t need one.” He huffed a breath. “We can’t just fly off, they’d see us from the air. And there must be some reason you haven’t just run for it. You’re spiritually locked, somehow—" he pointed an accusing finger at Wei Wuxian, "and that must be why you just left Suibian. So, I’ve got grappling hooks in here. You can climb out the window. I’ll go tell Father and Mother, and then we can all get away. They’ll take Shijie home, and I’ll meet you in the woods—”

Wei Wuxian felt his throat tightening. The plan was ridiculous, impractical, and clearly the work of someone who cared about him deeply. Whatever had come between them, this was his brother. That was no small thing. Jiang Wanyin’s love and his loyalty hadn’t been exactly the shape Wei Wuxian had needed during a crisis that had yet to test them. But that didn’t make them frail, as Wei Wuxian had so privately, in the injured depths of his heart, come to think them. Wei Wuxian could trust Jiang Wanyin to be himself: to run and to ride for a week solid to save Wei Wuxian’s life when he’d been trapped in the cave of the Xuanwu, to hunt for Wei Wuxian for months when he’d gone missing, and to bitterly resent Wei Wuxian's desertion, even though he’d said time and again that he’d no use for Wei Wuxian as he was now.

“I can’t go with you,” Wei Wuxian said simply. He watched tears of fear and frustration well in his little brother’s eyes, even as Jiang Wanyin opened his mouth to snarl something awful.

“Shidi,” Wei Wuxian said, interrupting him, “I trust this marriage will be as long as my parents’, and as harmonious as yours’. I need to rest—tomorrow is a busy day. Wish me luck, Jiang Cheng. I might need it.”

Wei Wuxian flicked his own ear, indicating that even here, others might be listening. Jiang Wanyin took all this in, his eyes widening in understanding. What Jiang Wanyin had attempted would carry no consequences for him, so long as it went no further. Only Wei Wuxian’s loyalty was important to the Chief Cultivator.

The stress Wei Wuxian put on his potential need conveyed to Jiang Wanyin that Wei Wuxian might require his help, and that if he did, he’d indicate as much. Jiang Wanyin nodded, slowly.

“You’re going to make such a pretty bride,” Jiang Wanyin said after a moment, with a smirk.

“Not if I don’t get my beauty sleep, I won’t,” Wei Wuxian cooed back, making a shooing motion.

Jiang Wanyin ambled off, with a parting “you’d better know what you’re doing, idiot.” Wei Wuxian could translate a ‘don’t fucking die’ when he heard one.

It was better, Wei Wuxian thought, to have a second man he could rely on here. If not against every eventuality, at least in this. Wei Wuxian had a brother who’d fight to the death at his side. Differences had opened between the two of them like grievous wounds, but beneath and around these lay the whole body of he and Jiang Wanyin’s long relationship—the rich connective tissue of their brotherhood. Even if his sacrifice didn’t matter anymore, it remained an honour to have given his core for his brother. It was the only thing he could have done in the situation, and even so, it was one of the handful of things about himself Wei Wuxian was truly satisfied with. Proud of.

***

“My wedding day, Qing jie!” Wei Wuxian enthused as Wen Qing, rather roughly, brushed his hair.

“Wouldn’t you rather have Jiang guniang here for this?” Wen Qing asked, ripping the fine metal comb—a gift from the Chief Cultivator—through Wei Wuxian’s easily-tangled locks, paying no heed to his resulting winces.

“Oh, no,” Wei Wuxian said airily, examining his freshly-painted nails. “I asked for you specially, Qing jie, as we’re going to be such friends. Besides, my husband is quite a jealous man. He’d probably think Jiang was trying to steal me away. And we wouldn’t want any unpleasant scenes on such an auspicious day as this.”

Wen Qing’s brush stalled in her hand. Wei Wuxian’s insipid grin was fixed, but his eyes were emphatic, serious and kind. She knew better than to speak honestly in this place. Apparently, so did brash, ungovernable Wei Wuxian. When had this silly boy learned such command over his good but hitherto unbridled instincts?

“I’m so glad to be marrying your uncle, Qing jie, because as Wen furen I’ll be in a position to look after you and A Ning. To see what I can do for Granny, and Fourth Uncle, and A Yuan, and everyone else in Dafan who’s been a little overlooked by our busy Chief Cultivator.”

‘Overlooked’ was one way of putting it, considering that Wen Ruohan had crippled Dafan himself—killing his brother, who led the community, poisoning the temple that had nurtured the Dafan Wen for centuries and ripping their chief disciples, his nephew and niece, from their home on the pretext of ensuring their safety. He’s spared the Dafan Wen no aid to redress the agricultural and administrative calamities his self-serving intervention had caused: famine, plague and disorder.

Wei Wuxian had briefly been in Dafan with her. But surely he’d not been there long enough to remember the people he spoke of so well as he seemed to? The surviving Dafan Wen were familiar and dear only to her, her brother and one another.

“I will not let any harm come to you and your brother, Qing jie,” Wei Wuxian said, quiet and intent. Then, in an instant, he brightened up. “Aren’t my wedding robes a sight? I never imagined—”

He prattled on, and Wen Qing recognised it as a distraction, intended to confuse anyone charged with reporting whether anything of import had passed between them.

Wen Qing didn’t know what Wei Wuxian was playing at. She’d no idea whether she could trust him. If she could trust him, she’d no idea why. But Wei Wuxian must have known that she could kill him here in this dressing room and make it look like an accident, or lay the blame on any Sect present. The two of them were alone; she had her poison and her reasons. Instead of avoiding her, Wei Wuxian had chosen to put himself in her hands. Such a display of trust asked for Wen Qing’s trust in return.

Wen Qing was a doctor; she did not take life unless she were truly forced to do so. Wei Wuxian was a young man who loved his own sister to the point of stupidity, who had always treated Wen Qing and her younger brother decently, who had helped her in Dafan and who had once saved A Ning’s life. He was exposing his throat, and because he was giving her a knife and the opportunity to use it, Wen Qing could not countenance taking advantage of that. She did not know whether she was being outplayed, but even if she was, Wen Qing didn’t wish to become a person who would win such a game.

***

Unseen on an upper gallery, dressed to wed and awaiting the sumptuous ten-man litter that would bear him to the ceremony, Wei Wuxian looked down on his betrothed. Wen Ruohan stood amidst his retinue, waiting to enter the great hall. The Chief Cultivator was, objectively, resplendent. He ought to be, considering the vast wealth he was expending on this ceremony. Though what was that to Wen Ruohan? Wen zongzhu expected, with some reason, to soon rule the known world, and thence to have all its resources at his disposal. Surely a man in his position had cause to take his Empress in high style.

Wen zongzhu’s black outer-robes were piped with wedding-red, and his red under-robes were of the same shade. A layer of white was visible beneath these. The colours defined one another sharply. The stark elegance of the ensemble highlighted the impeccable quality of all the material involved. Exquisite black and red embroidered banding outlined the neck, collar, and cuffs of Wen Ruohan’s ensemble. The Chief Cultivator’s guan was particularly fine—much grander than the one he normally wore. Jade dripped down his broad chest: part of a dazzling torque.

What a lucky bride am I, thought Wei Wuxian ironically, to be marrying into wealth like this! Why, I could serve as Shijie’s Lady of Good Fortune!

Wei Wuxian supposed that Wen Ruohan was handsome, for a man of his years. Honestly it was hard to tell when your basis for comparison was the Second Jade, who would have made such robes as this seem an inadequate setting for a peerless gem.

It was rather awkward, Lan Wangji’s being here. Wei Wuxian had known that was inevitable, given the scale of the ceremony and Lan Wangji’s position in Gusu Lan. Wei Wuxian was even relying on his presence. He’d agreed to this wedding believing Lan Wangji’s quick-thinking, capable aid in an escape to be his best hope of survival if the situation truly deteriorated. Nonetheless: it was awkward.

In his own timeline, Wei Wuxian had known very well that he and Lan Wangji had something between them. They shared ideals—was there a better man than Lan Wangji? Wei Wuxian didn’t believe he’d ever known one. They were indisputably friends. But that friendship was laced with sexual interest, and perhaps even a degree of romantic inclination—a mutual affection both had seemed aware of, but which Lan Wangji had never seen fit to hint at the nature of, let alone outright discuss. Lan Wangji had certainly done nothing to actively pursue it. Wei Wuxian had lived for years on paranoid high alert, considering and dismissing gestures and signs like an incompetent fortune teller.

Perhaps it wasn’t yet an issue, on Lan Wangji’s side. That would be a blessing—Wei Wuxian hardly wanted to hurt his zhiji with all this. Wei Wuxian himself had been obsessed with Lan Wangji since the day they’d met, but he had plenty of evidence that this, at least, had not been mutual. The whole thing was lopsided—his inclination towards Lan Wangji was far more serious than mere ‘inclination.’ But it had never had an opportunity to matter.

He knew very well that it would be deeply unfair to Lan Wangji to bring up and to ask him to make good on what potential lay between them. One horrible tragedy after another had consumed Wei Wuxian’s attention and his life. He understood that he could bring nothing of value to Lan Wangji’s well-ordered existence now, like this—in the midst of his own troubles. The time when Wei Wuxian had been lucky and arrogant enough to believe he might had long since passed. So a toad longed to dine on swan meat, and pined for it, and nothing else would satisfy him—it wasn’t surprising. Common sayings were common for a reason. Lan Wangji no doubt had a hundred breathless followers. Wei Wuxian knew that ninety of these at least would be better suited to the Second Jade in their circumstances and characters than he was, and stood a better chance of winning him.

And that had been before he’d slipped back in time, possibly to an era when Lan Wangji hadn’t yet thought of him in such a way at all. Wei Wuxian wondered whether, in his attempt to keep from losing everything else, he’d entirely lost his and Lan Wangji’s delicate, unconsummated affinity. The snuffing-out of some ephemeral possibility that could never have amounted to anything shouldn’t have made Wei Wuxian as tired and sad as it undeniably did.

Wei Wuxian supposed being here might annoy Lan Wangji, for such reasons as these. Worse (for him—better for poor Lan Wangji), it very well might not affect him on such grounds at all. So, on the whole, Wei Wuxian wished this younger version of his zhiji safe: hundreds of miles away in Gusu, free of the irksome prospect of the banquet before them and enjoying an evening as beautiful and tranquil as himself. Lan Wangji had never enjoyed parties.

***

Lan Wangji had never respected himself more than he did in this moment for not screaming, crying, attempting to kill Wen Ruohan, attempting to kill himself, running from the hall, running from the hall with Wei Ying in his arms, or entertaining any of the many other impolitic and socially inappropriate reactions that suggested themselves to him in response to the scene before him. He had also never respected himself less than he did in this moment for not doing any of these things. It was, in general, a confusing and unpleasant emotional period for Lan Wangji.

Last night at the banquet that had been held some hours after their private conference, Wei Wuxian had given Lan Wangji a discreet but unmistakable little hip-check when they’d passed one another. It had been forward, familiar, fond, comfortable—so achingly Wei Ying. It had reassured Lan Wangji that things were going according to plan. It seemed this dire situation was something of a joke to Wei Wuxian: a plan spinning wildly, that Wei Wuxian nonetheless somehow had well in hand. A thing like a potter’s wheel, or a loom, not to be disturbed while it was in motion. They were on one another’s side—how could they be anything else?

The ceremony was to take place the following evening, and Wei Wuxian would have to reveal his hand before it did. Lan Wangji need only wait a day for all this to resolve, one way or another. His zhiji had asked for his patience and his trust, and Lan Wangji could do no less than give Wei Wuxian both. To do otherwise was to risk endangering him and his unknown work here.

The following morning, Lan Wangji nearly paced a hole in the guest-quarters’ rich-woven rugs. When Xichen’s habitual good humour began to be visibly strained, Lan Wangji took pity and himself off. He prowled the halls, exchanging curt, anxious greetings with Nie and Jiang cultivators and distant nods with Jin Zixuan. Everyone wanted to talk; everyone thought better of it and caught themselves before they could say anything worth hearing. The indisputable wisdom of keeping one’s peace in these circumstances seemed to annoy Madam Yu more even than everything else about them. Wei Wuxian had warned Lan Wangji against speaking here even when they were apparently alone, and so Lan Wangji, never verbose, would wait until Wei Wuxian had acted to do so. It wouldn’t be long now.

The hour of the ceremony itself crept upon them. Lan Wangji revised his expectations. It seemed whatever was going to take place would actually occur during the rites. For all his heightened nerves, Lan Wangji still gave a soft gasp when Wei Wuxian appeared, borne in on a huge, cumbersome sedan.

No veil protected Lan Wangji from Wei Wuxian’s rouge-red lips and his elaborate coronet. In Wei Wuxian’s dark hair, a phoenix soared up from a symmetrical tangle of gold flowers. The arrangement was embellished with deep red coral beads. Strands of charm-weighted gold framed Wei Wuxian’s face and dropped down before it like a curtain. These swayed as Wei Wuxian dismounted the platform with his customary insouciant agility. The slenderness of Wei Wuxian’s body was only enunciated by the layers and layers of red silk robes he wore. They were deeply embroidered at the hems with black thread and gold, and they trained out behind Wei Wuxian in gaudy, gorgeous excess. An imperial dragon sat couchant on his torso. Wei Wuxian’s narrow waist, which Wen Ruohan’s hand had dared touch before them all, looked all the more delicate in the pocket of inky shadow that the fall of his robes created. Lan Wangji had nothing like the Chief Cultivator’s callow, gambler’s nerve—was not emboldened by such careless bravado. For him, touching Wei Wuxian like that would have been poignant as a soldier’s homecoming.

None of this was done in the Lan manner, and little of it was to Lan Wangji’s personal taste. Neither did any of it seem to be to Wei Wuxian’s. But for all that Lan Wangji had never seen anyone, anything, more overpoweringly sublime than Wei Ying bounding out of his palanquin, drowning in bright, lucky, blatantly carnal red.

Lan Wangji knew that Wei Wuxian truly liked him. He’d spent a confused year blushing under and struggling against the weight of Wei Wuxian’s affectionate attention, as the keen interest in Wei Wuxian that had suffused Lan Wangji since they’d met had worked its way through his body and mind, and made a permanent home for itself in his heart. Love had ripped through Lan Wangji, broadening and maturing him, and he knew himself better for the alteration. He thought that Wei Wuxian, who’d named them zhijis himself, might well come to love him, if such a feeling was not already within the other man. Lan Wangji dared not presume so far as that last-voiced hope, but he felt he had sound grounds for tender expectation.

When all this was resolved, he would seek out Wei Wuxian—would take up the other man’s promise that he would be welcome at Lotus Pier. They would speak further of such things. Within the year, it would surely be appropriate to ask Xichen to open negotiations with Jiang zongzhu. Things were already understood between him and his brother, almost without their having had to speak of it. Xiongzhang was always excellent like that.

And so, despite the danger of this place and the raging jealousy that Wei Wuxian’s dressing like this for another man provoked in him (a hateful man at that, whom neither of them could respect), Lan Wangji was enraptured by the sight before him. It was very probable that soon enough Wei Wuxian would dress in such finery in earnest, for and with Lan Wangji.  

Lan Wangji gripped his sword, prepared for action. But though he watched Wei Wuxian closely, no signal came. Only at the first of the three bows did Lan Wangji realise Wei Wuxian had never specifically said that his plan did not involve actually marrying Wen Ruohan.

Surely even Wei Wuxian wouldn’t take this so far as that?

Lan Wangji remembered their first duel. Wei Wuxian had tried coaxing him, a stern boy infamous for his living embodiment of the principles of Gusu Lan, to drink with him in exchange for laxity regarding those very rules. Wei Wuxian had then let himself be drawn into a sword fight with Lan Wangji, a boy equally infamous for a mastery of the art unparalleled by anyone in his cohort (anyone other, as it turned out, than Wei Wuxian himself). He likewise remembered Wei Wuxian’s starting a fight in defense of his sister’s honor, the resolution of which had ended up involving three sect leaders. It occurred to him, with worrying distinctness, that Wei Wuxian used himself hard, like a cruel man would someone else’s horse. That Wei Wuxian would do almost anything to win, and anything at all to protect people he loved.

...Wei Wuxian was going to marry Wen Ruohan. That was why he’d told Lan Wangji no details before they’d arrived in this palace of spies—because he’d known full well that Lan Wangji would object to the insane danger inherent in such a plan, and would never have allowed him to go through with it. Possibly (and the very idea of it was like a slap to the face) Wei Wuxian had also kept his silence because he knew that Lan Wangji was far too attached to him, and far, far too possessive in his attachments, to countenance any part of this.

Had Lan Wangji simply been in denial? Why hadn’t he seriously considered that this might be the form Wei Wuxian’s intervention took? Did Wei Wuxian intend to live as this creature’s husband, and to influence the Chief Cultivator from that position? Even for the safety of Gusu Lan, which his intervention had already garnered, Lan Wangji couldn’t bear Wei Wuxian’s making such a hideous sacrifice. Lan Wangji was so wholly unprepared for this that he felt he might cry, might make a spectacle of himself before all these unsympathetic people.

How could Wei Ying do this? Force him to watch this? Had he replaced his heart of flesh with a heart of stone? Did he presume Lan Wangji had? Lan Wangji had been asked to hold fast, and he would die before letting go of Wei Wuxian. But it was like being asked to clench red-hot iron in his naked palm.

A second bow, this time to the Wen ancestral tablets and to the visibly uncomfortable living Jiangs. Lan Xichen gave Lan Wangji a concerned glance, and so Lan Wangji knew that the blood had drained from his face. He felt unsteady on his feet. However bad it looked—he’d been warned, but not enough. Could he ever have been warned sufficiently for this?

Wei Wuxian had not met Lan Wangji’s gaze since he’d entered the room. A tyrant’s hand gripped the wrist Lan Wangji had once bound with his sacred ribbon in a frank act of protection that, in another context, would have amounted to a formal betrothal. Wen Ruohan was older and vastly more experienced than teasing, naive Wei Wuxian. He was big enough to break Wei Wuxian—his Wei Ying, the light and aim of Lan Wangji’s life—in half. Lan Wangji was forced to imagine Wen Ruohan’s vile mouth on Wei Wuxian’s smiling lips, sucking the bright laughter from his lungs. Another man’s tongue would flick, wet and thick, over the darling mole on Wei Wuxian’s lower lip.

That should be me beside him, Lan Wangji thought, furious and ashamed and sick with longing. Blind panic rushed in, only to be swiftly overcome by rising rage and screaming heartache. He promised, he’s mine. We’re one another’s, this office is mine, it should be me. If Wen Ruohan touched Wei Wuxian’s waist again, Lan Wangji was going to slice the man’s hand clean off. He made himself still with a great force of effort. Hold fast, hold fast, hold fast.

A third bow—the worst of them, saved for last. To one another. And then the thing was done.

As green as any glass, Lan Wangji dropped into his chair for the ceremonial banquet and stared straight down at the table before him. Dishes came and dishes went, untouched. Meat. Of course. Even if there wasn’t disgusting meat in everything, how could Lan Wangji eat, like this? It was all he could do not to gag at the smell of food.

Lan Wangji did not look up at Wei Wuxian, though he flinched when he recognised the sound of the other man’s voice. The piercing-sweet clarity bell of his laugh, carrying above the din of the crowd. He’d held on with all his strength, and yet Wei Wuxian had slipped through his fingers and fallen before Lan Wangji could so much as blink.

“Wangji,” Xichen tried, all sympathy. His voice was rich with love, aching with and for Wangji. Too raw and good a thing to expose in this place, before these people.

Lan Wangji shook his head, once. He couldn’t. He couldn’t, not now. Perhaps never. He didn’t cry, or break anything. Wei Wuxian had a plan, and he had made this decision—undoubtedly for stupidly noble, probably very intelligent reasons. This was his life, and these were his methods, and he had chosen not to share them with Lan Wangji. That was all there was to say about it.

When the bridal party left to celebrate the wedding night, Wangji squeezed his eyes shut. He staggered back to the rooms prepared for him, and Xichen came to draw the bedclothes over Lan Wangji’s still-dressed body.

“Oh, A Zhan,” Xichen sighed. The touch of his brother’s hand on his cheek—as though he were still a very little boy—unmade Lan Wangji. He sobbed once, thick and ugly and from his chest, and then it poured out of him, soaking the pillow he viciously shoved his face down into, trying to choke the noise. Xichen stroked his back.

“Huan ge,” Lan Wangji said, begging for impossible things—for his brother, older and stronger than him, to still be able to explain everything, able to make his problems disappear.

“I love him,” Lan Wangji gasped, though he knew his brother understood that already. He’d never said it aloud before. He’d believed something so delicate and serious deserved to be discussed at a suitable time. Lan Wangji had believed there would be time. “What is he doing? Why won’t he tell me? I love him, and he—”

“Shhh,” Lan Xichen responded, vacantly soothing him. He had nothing more comforting than that to offer Wangji, and they both knew it. Xichen lay down beside his younger brother and held him as he had when they were small children, still grieving their mother with a wild, consumptive fierceness. As he often had then, Lan Wangji cried himself to sleep.

***

In the middle of the night, Lan Wangji awakened with a start. Lan Xichen, lying next to him, was already awake, and his eyes were sharply focused in the darkness. Lan Wangji realised that Xichen had been listening intently to the noise that had woken him. Running feet, out in the corridor. Distant shouts.

“Something’s wrong,” Lan Xichen said, sitting up and fumbling for the guan he’d taken out of his hair to sleep. He handed Lan Wangji his, which he’d gently pulled from his brother’s stiff coiffure while Lan Wangji shook with weeping.  

Lan Xichen threw on his outer robe as Lan Wangji straightened his own sleep-mussed ones. Lan Wangji wiped his face with a cloth and water from the room’s basin. He could do little about any lingering redness around his eyes. The brothers glanced at one another and nodded—yes, presentable. Their image was Lan’s image, and Lan must look stronger even than it was.

They crossed the threshold and followed the din and rushing servants to the great hall, which rang with voices and confusion. Wei Wuxian strode across the dais, unaccompanied by his new husband. Lan Wangji did a hard double-take at what the other man was wearing. Lan Wangji couldn’t be sure, but he suspected he’d made some form of involuntary Noise.

Wei Wuxian had very obviously just come from his bride-bed. He wore a sheer red silk robe, the shade of tanghulu. The luxuriant folds of material flowing around Wei Wuxian managed to conceal little of the outline of his slender form. The garment’s neckline plunged, and the shining black silk belt tied in a bow at the centre of the thing seemed to barely hold it together. The robe cinched tight around his lithe waist, giving way to great bell sleeves and voluminous skirts. A black fur hem curled on the floor, dragging behind him. The ensemble revealed more of Wei Wuxian than Lan Wangji wished anyone other than physicians to see, and when Jin Guangshan gave Wei Wuxian a frankly appreciative leer, Lan Wangji’s hand came to rest on Bichen; he’d have paid any sum of money to have been able to cover Wei Wuxian with his mantle. When Wei Wuxian had said he’d serve as Wen Ruohan’s cauldron, Lan Wangji hadn’t imagined he’d be specially dressed as the Chief Cultivator’s fuckable little pet while doing so. To his surprise and grim resignation, Lan Wangji discovered it was possible to be killingly furious, achingly aroused and devastatingly heartbroken, all at once.

“Guards!” Wei Wuxian was shouting, cold command in his tone.

Guards! Useless,” Wei Wuxian sneered when none immediately reported themselves to him, the very picture of his foster-mother. He clearly had all the training in running a sect Madam Yu could give her first disciple behind him, and Madam Yu had never been faulted for her competence.

“I can see my husband ran a slack ship, before I came here.” He gave an irritable sigh. “I’ll do it myself, then.”

Wei Wuxian whipped out his shining black flute. He ran elegant fingers over it, piping a sinister melody. In the distance, Lan Wangji heard clanking—and then a human scream. His head whipped towards the source of the sound. In mere moments, Wei Wuxian’s puppets dragged in Wen Ruohan’s heirs, Wen Chao and Wen Xu. Wei Wuxian’s puppets shoved his new step-sons to the ground before him. Both Wen heirs were armed, and bloody-handed.

“To think,” Wei Wuxian said theatrically, falling on the throne of Nightless City as if in a swoon, “that I caught my own sons murdering their father!” He gestured at them. “Red-handed!”

Gasps cascaded through the assembled crowd of cultivators.

“I did no such thing,” Wen Xu seethed. “I heard the sound of struggle and came to check on my father. I found him already bleeding, breathing his last—”

“Are you accusing me?” Wen Chao demanded.

Wen Xu cast a glance at his brother, but instead addressed the crowd. “My brother was doubtless seeking to avenge himself for the loss of his whore. He should never have taken such a low girl as that into his bed to begin with.” It was clearly an old point of contention in the family.

“You lie,” Wen Chao hissed, struggling in the corpses’ grip to try and reach his elder brother. “You were insulted by this peasant slut’s having been given precedence over you! It wasn’t enough for you to be Father’s heir. You wanted to inherit early, I see!” he sneered. “It was I who came to Father’s aid, only to find him—”

Boys, boys,” Wei Wuxian chastised. “Unnatural even in this, hm?” He spun his flute in his fingers, pointing it first at one son and then the other. “Unable even to commit patricide united, as brothers? And such thin excuses! ‘You heard a noise and came’—what should you hear, on a man’s wedding night? Your own father, too!” He tsked. “Shameless!”

Wen Chao opened his mouth to justify himself, but Wei Wuxian interrupted him.

“And do you often carry your swords through Nightless City at midnight, when checking on your honoured father? ‘You found him bloody’—no man living killed Wen zongzhu, if one or the both of you didn’t.”  

No man living, Lan Wangji thought immediately, glancing at Wei Wuxian’s flute. Perhaps both of Wen Ruohan’s unfilial sons, pushed to action by their erratic father’s improvident marriage, had indeed tried to take his life. But had either of them dealt the killing blow? If Wei Wuxian himself had done the deed, Lan Wangji could hardly resent it. Wen Ruohan had commanded Wen Xu to kill nigh-on forty blameless Lan disciples, and Wen Chao to attempt to kill him and his classmates. Whatever this farce of a civil house party might indicate, Qishan Wen had declared war on the cultivation world. Directly or indirectly, Wei Wuxian had cut off the Wen dragon’s head, ending the conflict before it could devastate them all. On a more personal note, Lan Wangji felt both desperate relief and a never-to-be-uttered sentiment along the lines of, “get ‘em, baby”.

“Such violence, on my very wedding night!” Wei Wuxian cried out, playing at over-the-top bereavement, and writhing in the throne as though he were having a fit. “My husband was stolen from me, before we could even consummate our love-match! And Chaochao!” he sulked. “To call me a slut, before all these people!” (Wei Wuxian pronounced the word ‘slut’ with distinct relish. Lan Wangji swallowed.) “Your own mother!”

Wen Xu appeared to gather his thoughts. He looked up at Wei Wuxian with accusation in his eyes, glaring at his new ‘mother’ as Wei Wuxian rose from the throne.

You—” he began.

Watching Wei Wuxian carefully, Lan Wangji noted the tightening of the other man’s eyes. The fear that a few words from Wen Xu, the more competent and respected of the two brothers, might turn the situation against him before Wei Wuxian could claw his way back on top of it. They were, after all, still in the Wens’ stronghold, surrounded by enemy cultivators who knew the place far better than any outsiders. Who might decide their loyalty lay with the new heir, if he were given a chance to ask them for it. In what seemed an involuntary gesture, Wei Wuxian’s gaze flicked for a moment to Lan Wangji. That was all the appeal Lan Wangji needed. Wei Wuxian's methods were highly irregular, but Lan Wangji could see what they would accomplish clearly enough.

He raised a hand and silence-spelled both Wen brothers. Some of the cultivators present recognised the spell, and looked to Lan Wangji for an explanation.

“Shall we hear the words of patricides?” Lan Wangji asked, calmly. “It is a terrible crime. These men have been apprehended, steeped in the Chief Cultivator’s life-blood.” It was a small intervention: hardly something anyone could point at and attribute to Lan. Hardly evidence of a conspiracy, on Wei Wuxian’s part. Done quietly, and all the more effective for it.

Looking directly at him, Wei Wuxian had to suppress a smile. I told you I’d be there, Lan Wangji thought, with a strong upwelling of satisfaction.

“Well!” Wei Wuxian said after an instant, with a severe expression and still-bright eyes. “I am Wen zongzhu, now, and I will execute meet justice in my own home.”

Wei Wuxin whistled, and the stabbed, still-dripping corpse of Wen Ruohan lurched into the room, dragging both what looked like a broken leg and his spiritual sword.

“My poor husband,” Wei Wuxian said. “This humble wife will help you avenge yourself against your murderers.”

With a wail of his flute, Wei Wuxian sent Wen Ruohan lurching towards his sons, who, silenced by Lan Wangji’s spell, could not cry out to what remained of their father for mercy. Then their own father’s blade more permanently quieted them. After he cut down his sons Wen Ruohan turned towards Wei Wuxian, making a grab for his neck. Wei Wuxian did not step back, and Lan Wangji tensed.

“Look, he wants to say farewell to his bereft bride,” Wei Wuxian said sadly, as though he were commenting on the action of a tragic opera. He gave Wen Ruohan a kiss on the cheek.

“Sleep, husband,” he said, and the corpse sagged against Wei Wuxian. This ended Wen Ruohan's ineffectual efforts to strangle the man ultimately responsible for his demise. Wei Wuxian dipped a hand into Wen Ruohan’s pocket and removed the fragments of yin iron. He then stepped back, allowing the man to drop unceremoniously onto the floor. “He’s very heavy, for little old me!” Wei Wuxian said by way of explanation.

“What now, Wen zongzhu?” a hesitant Wen disciple asked.

Wei Wuxian tilted his head, then shook it.

“No, I’m afraid I don’t like the sound of that at all. It is too great a burden for me, in my widower’s grief. Wen Qing,” he called.

The woman stepped forward. “My lord?”

Wei Wuxian pointed his dizi at her. “You are my heiress, are you not, Wen Qing? Chief disciple of the Dafan Wen, who specialise in healing, and are unmatched in those noble arts?”

Blanching, as if her position might expose her to danger, Wen Qing swallowed.

“I am,” she said, her voice and gaze steady.

“You are that Wen guniang who risked her life to help Lan er-gongzhi, Jiang-gongzhi, Nie-gongzhi and myself at Dafan? Who aided Jiang-guniang when she was ill at the Cloud Recesses, simply out of kindness? Wen guniang, who is brave, enduring and true? Famous for her skill, loyal to her brother and her village, but above even that, loyal to her physician’s duty to all people?”

Wen Qing stared at Wei Wuxian, shocked as if she’d been struck.

“If you would call me so,” she muttered.

“Then to you and you alone I will renounce all claim to leadership of the Qishan Wen, before these witnesses,” said Wei Wuxian, “on three conditions.”

Wen Qing, looking as astounded as anyone in the room, blinked at him. “What are these?”

“First,” Wei Wuxian said, “that Wen conducts itself according to the principles of its Quintessence for as long as you live and rule. That would include properly burying these poor wretches, and making no more fierce corpses of their kind.” He gestured to his puppet with his dizi. “Such a soldier may be of help in a crisis, but a standing army is only good for threatening one’s neighbours. And I know that is not Wen guniang’s goal.”

“No,” she answered after a moment, “it is not, Wei Wuxian. Consider it done. What else?”

“Second,” Wei Wuxin said, “that you liberate the lesser sects Wen Ruohan amalgamated to Qishan Wen by force, and support them as they rebuild with all the riches that have been pilfered from their own coffers. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Wen Qing said.

“Third, and last,” Wei Wuxian said, with a solemn nod and an evidently inexhaustible relish for theatrics, “that one day, when I call upon you, you and your brother will help me set off fireworks.”

“...what?” said Wen Qing.

Wei Wuxian smiled at her. “Qing jie, one can hardly throw a proper party without fireworks.”

“...done,” Wen Qing said, glaring at Wei Wuxian as though being subjected to his nonsense was rather a high price to pay for her new position as sect leader.

Wei Wuxian stooped to pluck the guan from Wen Ruohan’s cooling body. He and Wen Qing bowed to one another, and while she was still bent low Wei Wuxian fastened the guan in her hair.

“It suits you,” he said with a wink. “Will Wen zongzhu dismiss her guests? After all, it’s very late, and there’s been a great deal of excitement.”

Wen Qing asked the visitors to retire until the morning, and began directing bleary Wen disciples, who’d drunk their now-former leader’s health rather too enthusiastically, to see to the dead.

Wei Wuxian hopped off the dais and strode over to the Jiang delegation.

“Jiang Cheng,” he murmured low, bumping his brother’s shoulder with his own, “I put you in a room with two beds, so I’ll take the other.” He scratched his nose. “Mine’s all bloody,” he complained.

Jiang Wanyin’s upper lip was doing something extremely complicated, as if he was trying very hard not to burst into a grin. It was hard, Lan Wangji considered, to find the other man loud and exasperating (and not in the adorable ways Wei Wuxian was, admittedly, also both) when Jiang Wanyin looked about as relieved as Lan Wangji felt.

“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Fengmian said, then began to laugh hysterically.

“It’s stress,” Wei Wuxian said loudly. “Poor Uncle, he so wanted my marriage to be a success! Come on Uncle, let’s get you back to bed. It’s very late—”

“Wangji, we should go,” Lan Xichen said. Lan Wangji nodded. Wei Wuxian glanced over at him and winked. He then directed his attention to his sister, who seemed close to frankly crying with relief. (Madam Yu simply looked like she wanted to go back to bed, and to experience any relevant emotions in the morning.)

Xichen was right: Wei Wuxian needed to speak to his family. Lan Wangji would find him in the morning and nail down their betrothal while he and Xichen, Jiang zongzhu and Wei Wuxian were all serendipitously in the same place. Clearly Wei Wuxian could not be trusted not to do brave, dangerous things, with other men, if not explicitly forced to confide in Lan Wangji as his cultivation partner.

And yet, he’d been so right to keep faith with Wei Ying. As dark and ridiculous as everything had seemed, Lan Wangji had known Wei Wuxian. He’d let himself fall, and Wei Wuxian, all ludicrous invention, all strength and integrity, had caught him. How many thousands had been saved tonight by Wei Wuxian’s efforts—his clever, ridiculous contrivance?

“I love him,” Lan Wangji said, flat and dazed, sleep-deprived, stress-frazzled and nonetheless really feeling it, in this moment.

“Yes,” said an equally exhausted Lan Xichen, “I gathered that.”

***

Wen Qing had recovered from the excitement of Wei Wuxian’s unusual idea of a wedding night. She now sat in her room, savouring a cup of truly excellent, smoky tea. She had agreed with her uncle about almost nothing in the world, but after his death she’d discovered that she appreciated his private stash of select blends with a perfect sympathy of taste.

“Come,” she said in response to a rap at the door.

She raised an eyebrow when Wei Wuxian entered and, without asking permission, took a seat in the chair beside her own.

“How are you holding up?” he asked. His eyes showed a little too much concern.

“You’re not convinced you’re in love with me or anything, are you?” she asked point blank, wary. “Aren’t you and Lan Wangji an item?”

She’d only just watched Wei Wuxian spend the better part of a year working to ensure that. She’d never been able to fault his dedication. In fact watching Wei Wuxian tirelessly performing his best courtship displays for months running had convinced Wen Qing that twinks mated for life. Now this! Was romance dead? Besides, the last thing Wen Qing wanted was to fight the Second Jade over Wei Wuxian’s chirpy, scrawny, too-smart-for-his-own-good-or-anyone-else’s, intensely cutsleeve ass. Seriously, so deeply cutsleeve he was essentially shirtless.

“No!” Wei Wuxian spluttered, indignant. Wen Qing grabbed the teapot before his flailing could knock it over. “No to all of that, actually? What the fuck, Qing jie?”

“I should ask you that! What the fuck is all this?” She gestured at her uncle’s ceremonial guan, stuck in her own hair in anticipation of the upcoming formal investiture ceremony.

Wei Wuxian gave her a look that was shifty even for him.

“I owe you more than you can imagine...I can’t explain it, but I do. You deserve to be safe, and happy, and at the head of your community—no one better, Wen Qing.” He avoided looking at her, and instead gave the teapot a sweet, soft smile.

Wen Qing rolled her eyes.

“I don’t know what you’re playing at,” she said, quietly. “But you’re all on your own, and you’re pulling a lot of strings. If Lan Wangji hadn’t stepped in with that spell—”

She exhaled.

Wei Wuxian shook his head. “A wise woman once told me that what really happened and why don’t matter nearly as much as what people with power want. Almost everyone in that room wanted Wen Ruohan dead. Your late, unlamented cousins could have gotten their story together. It still might or might not have mattered. Not only now—that’s how things always are.”

Wen Qing blinked at him. “Gods that’s bleak.”

He shrugged. “You said it.”

“Still,” she pressed, “whatever you’re up to, you shouldn’t be alone. Talk to someone you can trust.”

Wei Wuxian regarded her. “I’m not on my own. Not really. But I trust you with this. I trust you with my life.”

She’d no idea why, but as he’d pointed out, she’d said it. Wen Qing supposed she ought to be prepared to follow through on her own suggestion.

“It’ll be easier to show you,” he said, moving to cast Empathy. “Besides, you of all people have a right to know.”

“What do you—” Wen Qing began, only to find herself plunged into the deepest Empathy connection she’d ever experienced. Wei Wuxian truly was talented. Everyone said it, but in this case at least, everyone was right.

Time moved strangely in the trance. Wen Qing was too unfamiliar with both the technique and Wei Wuxian’s mind to exercise any control over the session. Bodiless, Wen Qing ripped through Wen Chao’s strike on the Unclean Realm, which ought to have succeeded. She was startled to find herself at a Wen indoctrination, where A Ning pilfered her medicine to give to Wei Wuxian. Where Wei Wuxian begged her to contrive to let a crippled Lan Wangji rest, and she tried and failed to prevent Wei Wuxian and the other guest disciples from being left to die at the maw of the Xuanwu.

She was in Wei Wuxian’s body for the burning of Lotus Pier, and tasted its ashes in his mouth. She saw herself sheltering the Jiangs despite the inherent danger of it, because A Ning recalled her to her principles. Saw herself and Wei Wuxian, performing the dangerous surgery she’d only ever theorised in order to save his brother—smelled and felt the blood and reek and pain of it. Wei Wuxian tried to draw her through his ensuing spell alone in the Burial Mounds in an instant, to leave her with only the impression of what had befallen him.

A brutal war. Wei Wuxian’s subsequent coreless misery. Glints and flitters of Lan Wangji, who Wen Qing at first failed even to recognise. He was so differently weighted in Wei Wuxian’s mind. His cold face blossomed into a swelter of profound expressions, his presence in any scene seemed impossible for Wei Wuxian to ignore. She saw Jin using her people as human bait for silly games and night-hunts, as though her blameless, living kinsmen were so much bloody meat. She watched herself find Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian bring the scant survivors of her village out of the camp. So few of them left. To her horror Wen Qing saw A Ning, dead and then alive again—but only in part. Only as alive as she and Wei Wuxian could make him.

She lived through a hard winter before their crops came in. Lan Wangji brought a ridiculous sum of money with him when he visited, and gave it to Wen Qing behind Wei Wuxian’s back. Wei Wuxian had only discovered this days after the other man had left. It had been more than Lan Wangji could possibly have been carrying for any night hunt. It had been more than any discretionary sum that might have gone unmissed. It had meant their survival.

In Wei Wuxian’s memories, he and Wen Qing and A Yuan huddled together under skins in a cave at night, desperately fighting off the cold. A Ning, who no longer needed sleep or heat, tended the fire. Between them all, a chaste, desperate love built. She found another brother in him, and he another sister in her. Hunger and pain and survival—Wei Wuxian streaked with smoke and mud from inventing and planting. Her hefting a larger A Yuan on her hip.

A terrible accident. A Ning’s awful guilt. Her decision to leave the Burial Mounds, to walk to her death. Wei Wuxian’s shame and panic and rage, his grief and his guilt, and then, a flash of light—and the Unclean Realm, years in the past, as though they’d never bled for one another. Because they hadn’t: not yet.

Wen Qing swum up out of Empathy with a gasp, shaking all over and grabbing Wei Wuxian’s arms for leverage.

“Shh,” he said. “It’s all right, I have you. Didn’t I tell you I’d keep you safe?”

He was trying to laugh this off. Instinctually, Wen Qing slapped his chest.

“You nearly paralysed yourself in that fucking cave!” she shouted at Wei Wuxian, before wrapping him in a tight hug.

The light in the room was different. It had been hours. It had been years.

“Nearly!” Wei Wuxian insisted, and she could hear the stupid ‘why not potatoes?’ sulkiness in his voice. “I did stop, Qing jie!”

Ass,” Wen Qing said, squeezing him tighter before releasing him. “What now?” she asked.

“Now,” he stood and stretched, “I start on phase two. With your help.”

Wen Qing gave Wei Wuxian a wary look, founded on the considerable experience she now had of him.

“What do you need?”

Wei Wuxian tapped his lip with—Chenqing. She knew its name, now. He’d used that dizi to kill hundreds of soldiers in the time it took a joss stick to burn, and to lure the dead away from the heart of the Burial Mounds so that she and her kin could have one place in the world where they might safely rest. He’d used it to play A Yuan a ridiculous song he’d composed about the three-legged frog that lived, or that had lived, in their shoddy lotus pond. The pond had dried up when the drought-months came, but the lotuses had, somehow, sustained themselves. Stubbornly persistent, they’d bloomed again when the rain had returned.

When the rain came, Wei Wuxian had dragged her, A Ning and A Yuan out into the drench of it and the puddles, to splash in the mud and greet the season of growth with wild, desperate glee. He’d been careless of his own poor health. Idiot, she’d called him, dizzy with gratitude for the rain and for the opportunity to see it he had given her. Dear friend, dear brother, dear fool Wei Wuxian. Too foolish to know that one ought to stop loving, when they’d been as hurt as Wei Wuxian had been. Too foolish to know better than to love someone as cagey and desperate as Wen Qing, who’d nothing at all to give him but her own blunt, untutored affection in return.

She grabbed his hand and squeezed it hard, and he returned the pressure.

“There are just two last little things left on my to-do list,” Wei Wuxian assured her, with a dismissive flap of his free hand.

“Why,” Wen Qing sighed deeply, “does that not reassure me?”

Chapter Text

The best living or dead, hands-down, huh?

Less talk, more head right now, huh?

And my eyes more red than the devil is,

and I'm ‘bout to take it to another level, bitch.

 

***

 

In his next life, Wei Wuxian wanted to come back as a musician. Or maybe as a painter? He liked these prospects almost as well as that of returning as a farmer: to live some simple life, where his skill with a bow was an assurance of safety rather than a provocation to his enemies. A good hunter never starved. A good cultivator, on the other hand, would never be free of the world, unless they committed to eternal seclusion on the Immortal Baoshan Sanren’s mountain. His mother’s celebrated elder martial brother had left that haven, had been corrupted and had fallen. His mother, called an even greater talent, had died in the field protecting others, and had thus abandoned her son to fate. 

Wei Wuxian did not know what would become of his mother’s younger martial brother. But when Xiao Xingchen had said he preferred to stay aloof from political matters, Wei Wuxian had only just stopped himself from responding rudely. ‘But didn’t you only just stumble across Xue Yang, or he you?’ Wei Wuxian had wanted to ask. He’d thought Xiao Xingchen naïve to believe such abstention possible, or even ultimately desirable.

He himself had been found by Jiang Fengmian when he might well have slipped into total obscurity. But even if he had left the cultivation world entirely, Wei Wuxian understood that he would still have been flotsam, moved by the tides of war. He and the Wen Remnants had slipped away from any place of human habitation to live in peace and till the earth. Trouble had sought them nonetheless. Wei Wuxian knew he had been right to liberate the Dafan Wen, but he also understood that Lan Wangji had been right to remind him that there was no holding the world at a distance. That involvement in what was called politics was equally a matter of ethics and survival. 

It was said it took hundreds of rebirths to bring two people to ride in the same boat, and a thousand eons to bring two people to share the same pillow. He and Lan Wangji knew one another well now. That, at least, spoke of richly-developed yuanfen. Maybe in another dozen lives, if he was terribly good in all of them, Wei Wuxian could be the husband who grew vegetables for Lan Wangji to eat. Or he’d be the wife who made Lan Wangji’s rice, and gave Lan Wangji children. Perhaps they could share a buckwheat-husk pillow, that breathed a huff of its gentle scent whenever they moved to find one another in the dark. 

I’ll do things better, then, Wei Wuxian thought. I’ll love better, with fewer mistakes. I’ll give the people who’ve been kind to me less cause for shame, and none at all for tears.

But in the lives it would surely take him to earn such a thing as that, Wei Wuxian would enjoy giving himself over to the arts. Skill in such things came easily to him, and in a way, so did expression. But Wei Wuxian found a rich challenge in deciding what it was he really wanted to say—in finding out for himself what he meant, and deciding how to convey that to others. He admired Lan Wangji’s diligence in calligraphy and music, the practiced skill that opened up a wider range of expressive capacity for him. Lan Wangji’s words were as economical as a brush stroke painting: a miracle of compressed meaning, not a word or line out of place. When he played, Wei Wuxian trilled and ornamented, so that no one would observe that his breathing wasn’t quite as strong as it ought to be, or that his fingering was less precise and disciplined than Lan Wangji’s. Lan Wangji accepted no such evasions, and disdained such distractions. His music was clean, exact. 

Drained by the technical demands of Empathy, by the emotional weight of all he and Wen Qing had shared and by the long hours of planning that had followed on from that—thinking, once again, of Lan Wangji—Wei Wuxian found spot where he could sit unobserved. This was just where he and Lan Wangji had spoken after the battle of Nightless City, when Wen Ruohan had fallen for the first time. Wei Wuxian played his favourite soothing melody on Chenqing, to and for himself. Alone in the Burial Mounds, he had discovered that the mere idea of the other man could calm him when the world was loud. So much about him was soothing: his steady, well-earned skill; the breathtaking, intentional richness of his music. Music in general had a centring effect on Wei Wuxian, when it was music rather than spellwork. 

Wei Wuxian made it through several measures before he noticed the presence of another person behind him. Tilting his head revealed that it was Lan Wangji himself rather than an opportunist looking to pitch Wei Wuxian off the precipice. Lan Wangji sat down, looking as elegant perched on a rock as he did in a banquet hall. Wei Wuxian finished the piece, then turned to properly face the other man.

“Where did you hear that song?” Lan Wangji asked, observing him carefully. Wei Wuxian supposed that Lan Wangji must have no idea what to make of him, at present. 

Come to think of it, Wei Wuxian wasn’t sure. That was a little odd. Perhaps he’d been drunk, or otherwise befuddled when he’d heard it? He couldn’t even say what the originating instrument had been, which indicated he’d been very incapacitated. 

“A Gusu folk song, isn’t it?” he asked, smiling at Lan Wangji. He wasn’t sure of that, but it sounded like one of theirs. Yet the tune was also studied and elegant—like a more formal, courtly composition. “Not brassy enough for Yunmeng. Not nearly enough weird horns for Qinghe.” Wei Wuxian shrugged. “I suppose I picked it up somewhere. Surely if I’ve heard it, you must have.”

“I know it,” Lan Wangji agreed, still looking at him intently. He inclined his head. “It is structurally based on such melodies.”

“Ah, the Second Jade knows everything, of course,” Wei Wuxian teased, standing and stretching.

“Not everything,” Lan Wangji demurred, standing himself, so that they faced one another. “For that, I must speak to you. I have been trying to find you since this morning.”

Wei Wuxian winced, letting his honest tiredness show on his face. “I’ve been discussing the hand-over with Wen Qing, for hours. And now I have to talk to my shijie about something equally important.” 

He bowed and slipped away from his zhiji, who was frowning after him at this dismissal. His lovely face was marred by an expression of concern. 

Lan Wangji caught Wei Wuxian’s wrist to arrest his movement, and Wei Wuxian was sharply reminded of the last time that had happened, here in this very spot.

“Will you not give me with a full account of this, Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji asked. “I suspect you’ve much to tell me.”

Something about that landed heavily, but there was no way Lan Wangji could guess at any of what was actually going on. Gently, Wei Wuxian disentangled himself. 

“We should speak, and we will. But not just yet. I’ve only two more things to do, Lan Zhan. I need you to wait a little longer, all right?” He took a step back.

Lan Wangji visibly swallowed. “As you wish.”

When everything was said and done, he could tell Lan Wangji some of what had happened. Perhaps treat him to the severely edited highlights. But Wei Wuxian could not afford to stop now—not before he’d seen all this through. He hadn’t even burdened Wen Qing with a full account of the risks he saw ahead of him. He’d given her so much to think on that she hadn’t realised there were still things he hadn’t said. Others’ concern for him was just one more thing he’d have to deal with, and it wouldn’t change what needed done.

Better, Wei Wuxian thought once more as he walked back into the central hall of Nightless City, leaving Lan Wangji behind him. In another lifetime, when I’m not committed to such desperate courses as I am—in a lifetime when Lan Wangji could be with me, I’ll be perfect, for him.

***

Wei Wuxian had not been backhanded across the face for some years. He took this hit in silence, turning his head back towards Madam Yu when he’d absorbed it. His blank expression only incensed her further. She wanted reaction, when she was like this. She needed everyone to be as emotionally involved as she herself was in the moment.

Jiang Wanyin winced at the strike. “Mother!” he tried, only to be ignored. 

Beside him Jiang Yanli bit her lip, probably to keep herself from speaking. Often a display of support from her only made the situation worse. Jiang Wanyin watched his admittedly mad brother accept the blow, dead-eyed, and felt restless and useless. Nursed an itch in his clenched hands to block the strike, or soothe the hit; to do anything that might help.

“My lady,” Jiang Fengmian said firmly, catching his wife’s wrist. He kept his voice low to calm her, rather than because he feared detection. They were alone in the Jiangs’ guest suite. Wen Ruohan’s spies no longer had an interested master to report to.

Madam Yu wrenched her arm free, balling her hands into fists at her sides. “Where in hell have you been all day?” she snapped.

Jiang Wanyin watched Wei Wuxian work his jaw, and waited out the pause of Wei Wuxian’s feeling out the ache in his cheek with his tongue. “Occupied.”

This curt answer mollified their training-master not at all.

“What were you thinking, Wei Wuxian?” she asked. “Are you sect leader now, to take decisions such as this at your pleasure? Where is your fealty to Jiang?”

“He’s saved Jiang, Mother,” Jiang Wanyin insisted. 

Father gave him an instant’s grateful glance, then seconded him. “A Cheng is right. This was a war we might well not have won. My lady, this is the sword over our heads, lifted!”

Madam Yu scoffed. “You take things very lightly, my lord. What about this new Wen zongzhu your ward chose to elevate? In a few years she could be just as dangerous as her uncle.”

Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes. “There’s not much chance of that.”

Yu Ziyuan’s jaw dropped. “You dare disrespect me to my face? Haven’t you already done enough?” 

“He didn’t mean it,” Jiang Wanyin said, feeling helpless. He needed to talk to Wei Wuxian alone. They hadn’t been able to speak properly when he’d tried to rescue his idiot brother, and they’d been too tired to get into it last night. By the time he’d woken up, Wei Wuxian had hared off on some errand, and thus Jiang Wanyin still hadn’t been able to finally shake Wei Wuxian until he explained what had possessed him to charge in here, without back-up, to settle the Wen crisis by himself. 

Wei Wuxian had left Suibian with Jiang Wanyin in Qinghe, and had taken it back last night as though it were a cumbersome accessory rather than a part of him. He’d left it in their room again this morning. Every part of that was as unfathomable to Jiang Wanyin as his brother’s sinister new cultivation method. Wei Wuxian had seldom, if ever, kept secrets from him, and Jiang Wanyin was bewildered and hurt by, and thus angry about, the strange changes in the other boy. Wei Wuxian had asked him to have his back if it came to a fight, which went without saying. But he hadn’t volunteered his plans. What had Jiang Wanyin ever done to indicate that Wei Wuxian couldn’t trust him?

“What do you know?” Madam Yu continued, addressing Wei Wuxian. “You’re a child!”

His mother was far from stupid. Jiang Wanyin knew she understood perfectly well what the attempted raid on the Nie and the siege on Cloud Recesses had portended. But sometimes in her anger Mother struck out with whatever weapon would do the most damage, hardly caring whether what she said was strictly accurate so long as the blow landed.

“Do you think the other sects will simply forget the strain you put on all our alliances?” Madam Yu seethed. “The shame you heaped on Jiang with your stupid games, just because your little gambit paid off?”

“I don’t think you ever forget any slight, real or imagined.” Wei Wuxian answered her, maddeningly calm. 

Jiang Wanyin goggled at his brother’s boldness. What in hell had gotten into Wei Wuxian? Usually he was—well, as good as he had to be at deflecting the brunt of Mother’s wrath to maintain his place in the Jiang household: chief disciple, bearing only a reasonable amount of energy-whip lacerations. It was as if Wei Wuxian was either out of practice or out of patience. Jiang Wanyin watched the way Wei Wuxian swung his arms behind his back to grasp his hands together with no little worry. It was a tell of his brother’s: a sign he was anxious, and thus likely on the edge of saying or doing something horribly stupid.  

“We’re all tired,” Jiang Fengmian tried. “There’s nothing to be said that won’t keep until morning.”

“Mother,” Jiang Yanli helped him, “why don’t we—”

“Tired?” Mother raised an eyebrow, her tone poison. “You can be tired, my lord, with all this excitement about you? With so many questions for our first disciple still unanswered?” 

“Madam Yu,” Wei Wuxian addressed his training master formally.

Jiang Wanyin relaxed at the reprieve the gesture of a de-escalation implied. Here, then, was the explanation and apology. They could finally have dinner. Maybe when they were alone, Wei Wuxian would tell him the whole story. It’d be like his brother to pull a wild, complete explanation out of the air.

Wei Wuxian tilted his head, regarding Yu Ziyuan. Something about the glint that had crept into his exhausted eyes warned Jiang Wanyin that this wasn’t going to go as well as he’d hoped.

“If you were ever to perish,” Wei Wuxian said, with sedate consideration, “I would sincerely regret it for the rest of my days. Truly, I would. But it would also haunt me, for years, that I never once just hauled off and punched you.”

Jiang Fengmian sucked in air through his teeth.

“Excuse me?” Madam Yu said after a moment. 

“No,” Wei Wuxian answered her, pleasantly enough. “You know, you’re the only mother I remember. A really terrible mother, who pushes all the actual work off onto her own daughter, but be that as it may, you’re what I have. Isn’t that hilarious?”

“Repeat that,” Madam Yu hissed.

“Terrible mother,” Wei Wuxian said with slow precision. “Deep, burning regret I never returned any of your many compliments. And I like to live without regrets.”

Without more warning that that, Wei Wuxian raised his hand and slapped Madam Yu right back. 

Jiang Yanli made a sound like a cat that had been stepped on. “A Xian!”

“Sorry, Shijie,” Wei Wuxian said absently. After a second, he corrected himself. “No, I’m not. Sorry that I’m not, though.”

Mother wiped her mouth with her sleeve and slowly turned her head back towards Wei Wuxian. 

“Right,” she said. “Right.” She extended a finger, shaking with rage, and emphatically pointed towards the private courtyard: suitable grounds for a duel.

“I thought you’d never ask,” Wei Wuxian said, striding out. 

Jiang Fengmian opened his mouth to mediate. 

“Don’t help,” Madam Yu said, sweeping out after Wei Wuxian. Jiang Fengmian, Yanli and Wanyin all rushed out behind them.

He attempted to catch his brother, but to his surprise, Jiang Yanli held him back. She shook her head. 

“If they’re doing this, then they are,” she said. “Maybe it’s been a long time coming.”

“We can’t let them actually hurt one another,” Father said under his breath. “If it gets worse than a training spar, I’ll—”

Unfortunately, Mother heard him. 

“So help me Fengmian, if you interrupt me before I’m through teaching this little ingrate manners, I will raze this building to the ground with you in it.”

Father swallowed. 

Wei Wuxian had his flute out, and was twirling it indolently. 

“Where’s your sword?” Madam Yu jeered. 

“I don’t need it to beat you,” Wei Wuxian said sweetly. “I’ll even forego my amulet, to make the thing fair.”

“You’ll be lucky to be alive after this,” Madam Yu said. Zidian crackled on her hand. 

“Who isn’t?” Wei Wuxian said with affected piety. “Every day is a gift! Ready?”

She nodded. 

With ringing clarity, Wei Wuxian called the count. “Three! Two! One!”

No sooner had he finished than Zidian lashed out from Madam Yu’s hand. She sneered at Wei Wuxian’s unguarded stance. She had the drop on him already. 

Jiang Wanyin winced. This was going to be brutal.

But Wei Wuxian caught the lash in his left hand, grinning hard through the screaming electric vibrations ripping at his bones. A flick of his wrist sent resentful energy coiling from the hand clutching Zidian to the earth, grounding the current. Wei Wuxian used the leverage his grip on Zidian afforded him to tug Madam Yu closer, winding the coil of the lash around his blistering hand. 

“My pain tolerance is higher than it used to be,” he commented. “Good effort, though.”

Madam Yu’s eyes widened. She tried to flip the cord, to dislodge Wei Wuxian’s hold as though he were a cat, too committed to holding onto the dangling end of a piece of string, arresting it and spoiling his own play. Wei Wuxian jumped with the motion, spinning in the air and wrenching Zidian back. Madam Yu had to choose, in an instant, to let it spin off her wrist or risk breaking the bone by holding onto it, trying to snap it back. Zidian sailed off her hand and clattered on the ground at Jiang Wanyin’s feet. He bent to pick it up, not sure what he intended to do with it.

“Out of bounds!” Wei Wuxian told a furious Madam Yu. “Unless you’d like me to bend the rules for you? As a favour.” His mocking look of sympathy was so perfectly awful that Jiang Wanyin winced. The showy move had clearly been dearly bought. It had been effective, but Wei Wuxian’s hand was still smoking, and he was even bleeding a little at the mouth. He’d sacrificed a deal of his stamina and the full use of his non-dominant hand for the whole fight to come, in order to get in this massive first blow.

Mother outright snarled at him. “I don’t need a second spiritual weapon to beat you,” she said, drawing her sword. She swiped at Wei Wuxian, testing him. He snapped his black flute up to meet her, swirling back and away in a dance of turns. 

Jiang Wanyin had watched Wei Wuxian fight almost every day of their lives for over ten years. Before the night Qishan Wen had attacked the Unclean Realm, he would have said, with confidence, that he’d seen every move in his brother’s arsenal—often from the business end. But Wei Wuxian wasn’t employing any of his signature audacious pushes to claim an opponent’s space today. He wasn’t relying on his considerable strength at all. He was wielding a spiritual weapon rather than a sword. He was leaning into his agility and speed and pain tolerance, like a canny female cultivator fighting a male opponent with reach on her. 

Wei Wuxian had resorted almost immediately to emotional manipulation to destabilize his opponent. The strategic aloofness, the musical cultivation and the focus were all reminiscent of Lan Wangji. (Was Wei Wuxian meditating, after a lifetime’s resistance to the practice, to suddenly have this kind of discipline?) Wei Wuxian’s cultivation had changed in bizarre ways, and when Jiang Wanyin had started to make sense of the confusing barrage of fresh information in the Wen throne room, he’d initially seen Gusu in his brother’s new tactics. But Meishan shot through Wei Wuxian like veins. 

Wei Wuxian was using resentful energy like Madam Yu used ambient electrical charges, but the borrowing went much deeper than that technical similarity might have suggested. Jiang Wanyin knew that perfectly mundane resentful energy was the chief source of his mother’s commanding presence, her awful power. She daily reforged her hurt and her pride into her anger. Jiang Wanyin, his sister and his brother had spent their lives dodging, navigating, and manipulating resentment in order to survive in Lotus Pier—just like Madam Yu wielded her own temper, while simultaneously being a hostage to it.

Mother wasn’t likely to miss the source of Wei Wuxian’s power, expertise and technique. Mother seldom missed anything.

“Aren’t you ashamed to fight me with my own moves?” Madam Yu called. 

“Why should I be,” Wei Wuxian asked easily, “when I am so much better at them?”

Something, Jiang Wanyin realised, deeply uneasy, had happened to his brother. Maybe it wasn’t a spiritual injury, like Jiang Wanyin had thought at first, but it must have been something like one. He must have felt backed into a corner. And in his desperation, Wei Wuxian must have turned to two people who even his glittering brother saw as strong: nigh invulnerable. 

Wei Wuxian jumped over Madam Yu’s head, throwing a series of talismans as he did so. Mother didn’t manage to jump out of the resultant array in time. With a whistle, Wei Wuxian pulled resentment straight from Madam Yu’s living body, making her scream in rage. 

“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Fengmian yelled, only for wife’s dagger sharp eyes to pin him, offering a clear warning against interference. She coughed blood, but stood again. 

“Planning to leech off me once more, A Ying?” she spat.

“With you around,” Wei Wuxian said, pulling a thick black, angry cloud out of his chest with a twist of his nimble fingers, as though it hardly hurt to do it, “believe me, I make plenty of my own.” But it must have done, because Wei Wuxian's whole body jerked with the effort. His injured hand trembled. He was beggaring himself, just to land a solid hit on the woman who’d trained him. 

A movement of Wei Wuxian’s hands, and the cloud surged forward at speed. Mother tried to jump above it, but the energy caught her ankle and slammed her down against the courtyard’s stone pavement. She released her sword, taking advantage of the cloud’s effects on Wei Wuxian’s own visibility, and got in a good, deep cut on Wei Wuxian’s arm before calling the weapon back into her hand. She'd let out a guttural hiss at the blow, but Wei Wuxian staggered at the strike. 

Jiang Wanyin bit the inside of his cheek to keep from making a noise at how severe both hits had looked—at the sheer amount of blood trickling its way down Wei Wuxian’s arm.

Wei Wuxian seemed unbothered by that. In fact he pulled more resentment out of the wound, as though it had given him a boost. He did, however, wince when he brought up his flute, needing to use his non-dominant hand to support it. He piped a command, and the resentful energy in the air clung to Yu Ziyuan, crackling. Mother was pale and trembling, but didn’t give him a scream. 

Leech,” Wei Wuxian sneered. “You don’t even mean half the nonsense you say. You won’t forget others’ words, but you never remember your own.” He shook his head. “I’m not so blithe as you, Auntie. Each insult sits in me for days.” He gave her a sweet, nasty smile. “I’ll probably die remembering every terrible thing you’ve said to me.”

She looked troubled, but only for an instant. 

“It’s not my fault you’re too weak to bear the world, Wei Wuxian,” she said, spinning out of the energy’s hold and slicing at his fingers on the flute. 

“Isn’t it?” Wei Wuxian asked, using his instrument to direct a lash of energy that nearly caught Madam Yu around the throat. “What have you ever done to strengthen me? And what did I ever do to you? Did I make you difficult to love?”

“Haven’t you made your point yet?” Jiang Wanyin shouted above the noise of the fray, not sure which of them he was asking to call an end to this. He knew neither of them was in any mood to listen, but he couldn't help himself. Jiang Wanyin ached to tell them to stop it, just stop.

“Your shige is still standing,” Mother said. “What do you think?” 

“Shige,” Wei Wuxian sneered. “Of course. Because you wouldn’t even let me love them,” Wei Wuxian continued, advancing on his now-panting Sect-mother, hemming her in with wailing gusts of magic. “You know perfectly well I’d die to protect this family, and still!” He gave a ragged laugh. It was almost a sob. 

“Do you expect thanks?” she spat, sliding under and around the power to hack at Wei Wuxian’s unshielded spine. He only narrowly turned in time, bringing his flute up and knocking her back with resentful energy.

“From you?” he scoffed. “Never. I don’t think I’d care even if you gave me it on your knees. I would do whatever I had to do for Jiang regardless. Just like I did with Wen Ruohan.”

“You dare vaunt yourself on that?” she asked. “You arrogant brat—”

“I learned from the best,” Wei Wuxian snapped, stepping back and gathering a thick coil of power. 

“What,” he sneered (and when he did that he looked just like her, more like Mother even than jiejie did), “aren’t you going to challenge that? Go on, Auntie, tell me I’m a bastard again. No child of yours. I never get tired of hearing that one!”

Madam Yu gathered her own qi, forcing it to surge like the lightning she was more familiar with. Madam Yu had considerable experience on Wei Wuxian, but for all that, her generation had been blessed with peace. Wei Wuxian was moving like a creature that hadn’t any such bone-deep confidence in the world. Like a rat, fighting to live. Jiang Wanyin had never seen a duel like this—a drag-out that left both of them bloody, left their fine clothes wrecked.

“Of course you’re mine,” she said, twisting more and more qi around her hands. Seeming not to feel the spark herself, now. Seeming to have picked up the trick of it from watching him. “Do you think I’d bother with you if you weren’t?”

Wei Wuxian looked struck, but he was still so strangely, terribly cold. “I could use less of your kind attention.”

Madam Yu’s lip curled. “But it’s made you so strong, hasn’t it, A Ying?” 

She lashed out with her qi. Wei Wuxian braced, using his power to form a protective canopy over himself. The structure of his canopy bent, and Madam Yu’s power pooled in the middle. 

“I had to be,” he said. 

“Yes,” Madam Yu agreed, gathering energy to herself more weakly now—seeming spent from her late efforts. She must know, Jiang Wanyin realised, that if she rushed Wei Wuxian with her sword, Wei Wuxian would split a hole in the centre of his parachute and sluice her with their combined magics. It’d hit them both, but she’d take the brunt of it. Wei Wuxian was evidently prepared to incapacitate himself to annihilate her. It seemed that was what it would take to end this.

“It’s not a good world,” Mother said. “I needed all of you to be prepared for that.”

“Maybe it isn’t,” Wei Wuxian said, stalking towards her, carrying power above his head like the canopied roof of an emperor’s elegant sedan. “But you didn’t always have to make it worse.”

“Perhaps,” Yu Ziyuan said, sounding noncommittal. Exhausted. “I never knew how to make it better.” 

Bitch,” Wei Wuxian said with feeling, but also with finality.

Madam Yu shifted her shoulders, as though to say, that is fair. As though to say that if she was, then what did that make him? 

“I yield,” she said aloud. No member of the family other than Wei Wuxian himself could help the exhalations of shock that escaped them. Jiang Wanyin blinked. Never once, in all his life, had he heard Mother say such a thing.

“Accepted,” Wei Wuxian said, bowing to his trainer and letting the magic gathered around him spill into the ground, blackening it in a circle around him. 

The two combatants panted at one another. Jiang Fengmian rushed in and supported his staggering wife, asking Jiang Wanyin to give her some energy. Jiang Yanli tried pouring her own into Wei Wuxian, who only waved her off. 

“No, no, I’m all right,” he muttered. 

“Water, then, and salve for your hand,” Yanli said, gliding off to get it at a curt nod from her mother.

“Good talk,” Wei Wuxian said to Mother. 

Madam Yu gave him a look that would have killed a lesser man. Jiang Wanyin felt at least one of his testicles shrivel away to nothing on the spot. Even as injured as he was, Wei Wuxian still spared her glare a responsive wince.

“I can promise you that I know what I’m doing,” Wei Wuxian soldiered on regardless, “and that all I do is done with Jiang’s interests in mind.” 

He’d been willing to nearly kill himself to prove as much—to win Madam Yu’s respect.

“Ridiculous boy,” she said, instead of actually disagreeing with him. “I’ve always known that.” 

And perhaps she had. But Jiang Wanyin didn’t know that Mother had always known she knew it, before this.

After jiejie had patched up Wei Wuxian’s hand, Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian adjourned to their temporary bedroom. When Jiang Wanyin closed the door behind them, Wei Wuxian sagged against him like a puppet who’d had his strings cut.

Ow,” he whined. “Jiang Cheng, she could have gone easy on me!”

Jiang Wanyin rolled his eyes. “Did you expect her to? After all you said to provoke her? I should let you slide to the floor—”

“You wouldn’t do that to your elder brother,” Wei Wuxian said, with a confidence Jiang Wanyin felt was decidedly unearned. Then a light Jiang Wanyin knew well enough to be wary of came into his brother’s eyes. The warmth of it evaporated some of Jiang Wanyin’s enfeebling concern.

“Now that your mother likes me, you should call me gege, Cheng di.”

Jiang Wanyin moved to shove him away, but Wei Wuxian clung like a limpet. “I’m not unreasonable! I’d also accept xiongzhang—”

“I will call you a great many things before I ever call you xiongzhang, like some Lan ,” Jiang Wanyin promised darkly, trying to shake his brother off so that he could stomp over to his bed. “You’re only a week older than me! A week!

Wei Wuxian sighed, not releasing him—forcing a dubiously consensual cuddle. Jiang Wanyin could have thrown him off, but didn’t fight quite hard enough to. 

“You’d be surprised,” Wei Wuxian said, “by how much you can learn about the world in a very short time.”

***

When Jiang Yanli heard steps creeping down the hall, she rose, cracked open the door of her room and stuck her head out. 

“A Xian,” she called, softly. 

He turned towards her, wearing a fairly comic expression of caught-in-the-act guilt.  Despite everything, Wei Wuxian was still the silly boy she’d helped raise. He’d become powerful—she’d seen it with her own eyes. But Jiang Yanli knew his heart. She knew his loyalty to her, and to her family; she knew his moral core. And so however bad things had looked, Jiang Yanli had known better than to ever truly doubt her little brother. She always would.

“Shijie,” he replied, coming over to her. 

She wondered whether just ‘jiejie’ would finally be all right between them, now. Whether he’d won that of her mother, after so many years of trying his hardest to be worthy of Jiang. No one could try like A Xian. But ‘shijie’ had its own weight. They’d layered love on it since childhood, had made it their own. A Xian said it like filial men said ‘mother’, like devout men said ‘bodhisattva’. Ever since it had kindled in him, Jiang Yanli had tried to be someone worthy of the immensity of Wei Wuxian’s devotion. 

She wondered if Lan Wangji ever felt like that—bowled over, determined to rip himself apart if necessary to be everything Wei Wuxian saw in him, and more. To be someone who could keep Wei Wuxian safe from cruelty. Jiang Yanli had not been surprised by how quickly, openly, and abjectly her little brother had fallen in love with the Lan boy. Half-measures, shame, circumspection and the little death of cowardice were not in Wei Wuxian—not when it came to such an important thing as this. Her brother had a struck-dog’s instant, hard-won instinct regarding who he could trust, and he had more serious determination and loyalty in him than most people, distracted by his restless cleverness, ever credited him with.

“Who are you meeting, this late?” Jiang Yanli asked. Perhaps Lan Wangji? It was past time for that. The poor boy must have been as confused by the wedding invitation as they themselves had been. Mother had thrown a teapot from her pavilion into the lake in rage. She’d sent someone diving in after it, and when she had it back in her hands she’d marched straight to the great hall and hurled it again against a stone pillar, so it broke with a satisfying crash. The gods alone knew what form quiet, intense Lan Wangji’s distress had taken. Jiang Yanli wondered whether Lan Xichen would appreciate some gesture of commiseration, one long-suffering older sibling to another. Perhaps a fruit basket?

Instead of answering her question, A Xian gave Jiang Yanli a level look.

“Remember when I told your mother I knew what I was doing, and I had your interests in mind?”

She nodded, not liking where this was headed. For one thing, that did not sound like a romantic rendezvous. Perhaps she and Lan Xichen ought to share that fruit basket, their woes and a strategy session.

“Some very strange things are about to happen, but believe me, Shijie—everything will work out.”

Jiang Yanli shook her head. “You can’t promise that, A Xian, not even with the best intentions. I can’t trust to fate, which will do what it likes with me. I can trust you, and I do. I know that whatever comes of it, you always act out of love.”

Wei Wuxian gave her an odd, weak smile, as if she'd touched him. He could be so easily moved.

“Shijie, why do you have to be so good?”

What did one say to that? Jiang Yanli was good because he and A Cheng needed her to be; because A Xian was, and he called it out of her. Besides, no one ‘was good,’ in some isolated way. Good was a relation between people. Good was a thing you did.

“To make little boys ask questions,” she said instead, with faux-prim amusement.  She shut her door and let A Xian get on with whatever he was up to, heading back to bed.

The next morning everyone was busy packing up to depart. Lan Wangji strode over to her, looking especially purposeful, and opened his mouth. Jiang Yanli decided to spare him.

“I haven’t seen A Xian all morning,” she said. 

Lan Wangji blinked at her, as if it had never before occurred to him that he might be obvious. Jiang Yanli resisted the urge to make a facial expression like Jiang Wanyin’s ‘really?’, and another, contradictory urge to pat the stern younger boy on the shoulder.

Jin Guangshan ascended the dais of Wen Ruohan’s throne and cleared his throat. At an unimpressed look from Wen Qing, he descended two steps and tried again. 

“Esteemed company,” Jin zongzhu began, “I must take advantage of your presence here to make an announcement. Though this wedding may have ended in tears—”

Whose tears, exactly? Jiang Yanli wondered. It was hard to name a single person who’d miss Wen Ruohan. Even purveyors of luxury tasteless home furnishings still had a loyal customer in Jin Guangshan.

Yanli frowned at herself. That wasn’t a very polite thing to think, even if it was accurate.

“—the poor widower is still young. It is, of course, unseemly to move forward with a new marriage so quickly. Yet it is assuredly more agreeable for all parties than waiting out the entire mourning period!”

Jiang Yanli knew very well that one must either marry within the first hundred days following a death in the family or wait a full three years to wed. This was one of several reasons she felt that she and Lan Xichen were overdue a frank conversation; her little brother was, if only technically, down a husband. What Yanli didn’t know was:

  1. why the terminally unlikable father of her own former betrothed was sticking his oar in regarding her baby brother’s marital state, and 
  2. how to politely tell him to, instead, see himself to the nearest volcano. Considering the unique geography of Nightless City, the journey would be swift and convenient.

Lan Wangji was trying to catch her gaze, as though to divine what she knew about this through highly focused eye-contact. Doggedly, Jiang Yanli stared straight ahead. She couldn’t help him, and even if she could, her loyalty (in this admittedly bizarre situation) was ultimately with A Xian.

“And on that note—” 

Jiang Yanli suspected that Jin Guangshan believed he had a sense of theatrical timing. He probably imagined he would have done well for himself even if he’d been born common, and been forced to take to the stage to support himself. He was the sort of man who thought that sort of thing. Jiang Yanli sometimes further suspected that if Jin Guangshan ever annoyed her so thoroughly that she forgot herself, he might discover he still had the makings of a fine career in puppetry when she shoved her fist up his cossetted ass.

Jiang Yanli was kind in word and deed. This did not mean she was absolutely pure in thought. Self-control was only impressive if you had to do any work at all to maintain it. She wagered that the seemingly-saintly Lans had their own unspeakable opinions, and similarly chose to refrain from sharing them. 

Jiang Yanli had come to an accommodation within herself regarding her mother’s part in their complicated home life. She did love her complicated mother, despite the challenges doing so at times presented. But Jiang Yanli extended no such private leniency to the man who’d shamed her sworn-Aunt more times than anyone could count; the man whose callowness and expectations had transformed Zixuan from her sweet, considerate childhood playmate into a suspicious, haughty young man; the man who had goosed her no fewer than three times at cultivation conferences and inter-sect visits, knowing very well that she wouldn’t start serious trouble over something so minor as her own comfort. The first time had been when she was 13; it had been at a party to celebrate her engagement to his own son. Jiang Yanli had been afraid even to complain to her brothers, for fear of what they’d do, and ashamed to tell Zixuan. 

“—I would like to invite you all to my wedding ceremony in Lanling next week.”

Jin Guangshan held out his hand. With a demure simper, A Xian stepped from the shadows of the hall to join him and take it. Jiang Yanli hadn’t even seen him back there—one of the perks, she supposed, of wearing all-black clothing.

Jiang Yanli blinked, too confused to even emotionally process this. 

‘I suppose A Xian did warn me it was about to get weird,’ she thought, feeling more tired than anything. 

Next to her, Lan Wangji said her brother’s name in—well, it wasn’t a pleased tone. Without considering it, Yanli shot her hand out to restrain him by the arm. Across the room Lan Xichen, who’d been discreetly crab-shuffling in their general direction, caught sight of this and gave her an enthusiastic nod of thanks.

“You’re having a full wedding ceremony to take a concubine?” Nie Mingjue asked, obviously perplexed by this sudden announcement and irritated at being asked to further suspend his return to normal sect business for yet another social obligation. The steward beside him, who Jiang Yanli knew to be Jin Guangshan’s natural child, looked even less pleased about his father readily accepting a boy younger than him into his family as a bed-warmer, when he himself hadn’t even been welcomed as blood-kin.

“Oh no,” Wei Wuxian said with a sharp, cool smile that Yanli did not like a bit. “I’ll be taking the primary wife’s role. That’s our arrangement, isn’t it, Jin zongzhu?” A Xian ran his hand up and down the lip of Jin Guangshan’s robe where it closed over his chest.

“Of course, poppet.” He slid his own hand over Wei Wuxian’s hip, giving it a snug squeeze. 

By now Lan Xichen, had arrived at Jiang Yanli’s side. This was a blessing, as he would probably be able to talk Lan Wangji down if the situation somehow got any worse. No doubt her brother could find a way. Attempt the impossible, right?

“Terrible luck to marry a widow, of course,” Jin Guangshan sighed, self-indulgently, “but it can’t be helped.”

Wei Wuxian tapped Jin zongzhu’s mouth with a teasing finger. “Oh, husband. We won’t need luck.”

Yes, there it was, he’d made it worse. Well done, A Xian. Next to Yanli, Lan Wangji made a very small, very distressed noise. Her Grandmother Yu’s ancient cat made a similar sound when it was not fed at the hour and in the manner to which it had become accustomed. But however peculiar he sounded, Lan Wangji looked like a murder. 

Jiang Yanli thought of her sworn-Auntie. Wen Ruohan hadn’t specifically commanded her to attend this feast held by her enemy, and so she hadn’t deigned to. Madam Jin would thus hear of her dismissal from third parties before her husband even told her himself—her greedy lech of a husband, who’d never been good to her, and who now looked at A Xian, a boy barely out of childhood, and saw corpses dancing to Jin’s tune.

“Perhaps we can discuss the successor to the Chief Cultivator position at my marriage banquet,” Jin Guangshan said, conversationally. 

Oh, of course he thought it must be him. Second-largest sect, richest, and with Lan rebuilding as it was—what was A Xian to Jin zongzhu but a sceptre of office? Or perhaps he was insurance: Jin Guangshan’s means of assuring his own immortality, provided he could draw enough power from Wei Wuxian’s strong core and mysterious, potent cultivation. Then they’d all be blessed with Jin Guangshan, his careless use of his own power and his bad habit of accumulating wealth he had not personally worked for forever. Happy days indeed.

Wei Wuxian surveyed the crowd, and Jiang Yanli wondered whether this was what her brother wanted: for everyone to have to look directly at the man they’d tolerated for Jiang Yanli’s entire life, who had never conducted himself all that much better than he was doing right now. For everyone to see what Jin Guangshan was willing to do, if he thought he could get away with it. How nakedly he went after Wen Ruohan’s power. How readily he’d shame and demote his own blameless wife for an amulet and a bit of fresh meat. Mother kept her silence, though, which was remarkable. Jiang Yanli knew that Wei Wuxian had bought her patience with yesterday’s unusual demonstration of his loyalty and grit. She was willing, for the time being, to follow her foster-son's lead. 

Now that the self-aggrandising announcement had reached its end, Wei Wuxian stepped out of Jin Guangshan’s reach. Jiang Yanli turned to Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen. 

“Let me speak to A Xian,” she said with a bow, counting on Lan Xichen to keep his brother from haring off after hers. Lan Wangji flustered Wei Wuxian even at the best of times. At present, Lan Wangji looked like he might either inarticulately cry on Wei Wuxian or strangle Jin Guangshan and cause a diplomatic incident. Neither was conducive to a forthcoming and productive conversation.

Jiang Yanli supposed she ought to have been angry with Wei Wuxian for further worsening relations between Jiang and Jin. Theoretically, this would make her own marriage-contract still more unlikely to ever be reinstated. But a broken betrothal couldn’t break further, and Zixuan had done that himself. He’d publicly insulted her, and then refused to apologise for a lack of civility that would have been inappropriate had it been directed towards anyone at all, let alone the daughter of another great sect—not to mention his own friend and intended. If her fiancé couldn’t care even half as much as Yanli’s younger brother did about what was due to her, then he was no fiancé at all. A contract, or the lack of one, had no bearing on the issue.

Yanli did not find Wei Wuxian. Instead she was followed into the library, which she’d been scanning for her brother, by Jin Guangshan and Jin Zixuan. They were so absorbed in their whispered argument that they didn’t notice her presence. Unfortunately, they were also standing between her and the door. 

“You can’t do this to Mother,” Zixuan said. Yanli could tell he was trying to sound firm, as a grown sect heir ought to be. But he was desperate, simply pleading with his father not to do this, and you could tell.

Jin Guangshan snorted. “For that kind of power, I’d do far worse to your mother, boy.”

“He’s younger than I am!” Jin Zixuan said. “This is ludicrous! You don’t even incline to men—”

His father barked a nasty laugh. “Only a fool doesn’t accept a free bolt of good silk just because it’s not his favourite colour. Xuanr, I see you’re still too young to know that any whore’s hole does the job in the dark. Besides, who’s to say our union will last long? Not everyone is so blessed.”

Zixuan, to his credit, looked appalled by every word of that. So horribly disappointed in his father. 

“Excuse me,” Jiang Yanli said, startling them both. “I was just looking for my brother.” She swept past them with her head held high. “I shall give your fiancé your love,” she said to Jin Guangshan as she went.

Jin zongzhu gave her a tight grin, no doubt wondering whether she intended to make trouble for him. Probably hoping she’d not heard much of what he’d said. Yanli would, of course, instantly report to Wei Wuxian that his would-be betrothed wasn’t trustworthy, but she expected he already knew.

“Jiang guniang—” Zixuan began, seeming distressed that she’d seen this. She bowed to him and left, without waiting for him to find his words.

She still cared for Zixuan, but what did that matter if he didn’t remember how well he’d once liked her? How she’d taught him to swim in the lakes on a visit to Yunmeng, and he’d taught her the fine calligraphy he’d learned at Jinlin Tai. He’d used to show her every cultivation achievement he’d made since his last visit. He’d been careful in it, proud of her praise. He hadn’t been competing with her brothers. He’d been content to be good in his own right—just for her. 

Zixuan acted as though he no longer recalled the shy but steady way he’d told her, “Mother says we’re to be married, and that I’m to be a good husband to you. I will try and be the best.” He’d used to look at Jiang Yanli’s brothers, and at the siblings’ easy closeness, with a little envy. Zixuan had once said to her—just to her—that he wished his father would acknowledge his own half-siblings, because it was lonely, sometimes. And even if they were as money-grubbing his father said, didn’t they deserve something? Didn’t father have enough for them, too? Even poor peasants gave their sons and daughters what rice they had. Meanwhile his own father lived in a palace made of gold, and would grant not a scrap of it to the frail women who came calling with his token in hand. 

But Jin Guangshan had stripped layers of sincerity off his son in the intervening years. Becoming an adult had meant becoming a man, and to become a man in the court of the Lanling Jin involved becoming a creature patterned after its sovereign. Jin zongzhu had called Zixuan weak and unsophisticated. Zixuan was naïve; everyone would use him. Jin Guangshan had told Jin Zixuan all this a thousand times, and had thus made Zixuan believe it. He told his son what people were with all the authority of a man who’d spent a long life among them rather than years in decadent courts, surrounded by sycophants he himself had chosen, who reflected his own flaws back at him like a hundred human mirrors. 

Jiang Yanli understood all this, and knew well the pressure that had bent Jin Zixuan’s spine. But she was nonetheless weary of waiting for Zixuan to admit what she knew he understood about his father. It would be worth something, if A Xian’s machinations finally set Zixuan free of his father’s authoritative slow poison.

For all his air of worldliness, Jiang Yanli knew it was Jin Guangshan who was the fool. He thought that if he were hard enough, no one could ever take advantage of him. He believed himself cleverer than his son, who was by nature a wiser man. Zixuan had been content, once, in her companionship. Guangshan, whose greed was fathomless, had probably never known such peace as that. Jin Guangshan likewise thought himself cannier than Wei Wuxian, though A Xian had always seen things more clearly than Guangshan ever could. He saw goodness and treachery, and other people in their complexity, where Guangshan saw only infinite vectors for the pursuit of his own advantage. 

Jin Guangshan evidently believed he could wed and then, when convenient, murder Wei Wuxian for his strength. He believed he could do it, and not be seen coming from miles away. Even directly after they had all witnessed what had become of Wen Ruohan, Jin Guangshan somehow thought this, because men like him usually did. And since that was the case, Jiang Yanli thought Jin zongzhu deserved everything he was going to get. 

***

By the time her young master returned to Jinlin Tai, Luo Qingyang, first disciple, personal attendant and confidante of Jin Zixuan, the heir to Lanling Jin, had been fed to bursting-point with rumours. The bulk of these centered around her schoolmate Wei Wuxian. 

She’d long considered Wei gongzi an impish but harmless sort of boy. He’d impressed her with his care for his sister on several occasions. He’d teased her, but gently, with none of the unwanted touches, lewd comments or sneering dismissals the worst Jin boys tried to get away with behind Zixuan’s back. It was one thing for Wei Wuxian to call her pretty, and to make light word-play with her nickname and a famous poem. It was another for a fellow Jin disciple to drunkenly ask how well she could ride a spiritual sword, laughing at her before their colleagues. Zixuan had demoted the man, and made sound points about upholding standards of conduct, the unpleasantness of such uncouth behaviour, and his chosen second meriting the respect of her subordinates. His father had only chided him for taking these things too seriously. 

So all things considered, Luo Qingyang had trouble believing that smiling Wei Wuxian had vamped his way onto Wen Ruohan’s lap and, from that perch, commanded a dread army of the fallen. Surely it had all been some sort of poorly executed prank that everyone had failed to understand? Certainly that sounded ridiculous, but then Wei Wuxian was, in general, a ridiculous person. 

Now Wei Wuxian was supposedly coming here, within the week, even, to become Jin furen, displacing the current Madam Jin. Madam Jin had laughed, and then, when she'd understood it wasn’t a joke, raged. But to whom could she appeal? Meishan Yu was a notable sect, but smaller than Jin. Jin could afford to offend them, provided the rewards of doing so outweighed the costs. And apparently, in wedding Wei Wuxian, Jin would come into such potent magical advantages as to need fear no one at all.

Thus Luo Qingyang was dispatched all around town to buy sweetmeats and fabric for some extravaganza of a wedding, while the Mistress of Jinlin Tai raged at being prised out of her rooms—or rather Wei Wuxian’s rooms. In every shop, Luo Qingyang caught the tail end of whispers. These died abruptly when people took stock of her Jin cloth-of-gold robes. 

“They say he’s eager to re-enter the gentry on good terms, after what happened in Nightless City,” the lantern maker murmured to another customer while Luo Qingyang waited to place her order for a hundred gold-painted lanterns. 

The cloth-seller who dealt in expensive talisman-embroidered fabric was, of necessity, close to the cultivation world, and concerned with its personalities and goings-on. To emphasize this, he spoke loudly to favoured customers in the back room of his shop in a most worldly fashion. Meanwhile, a scrawny attendant showed Luo Qingyang what fabric they had in stock. Ordinarily, for such a great house as Jin and such a grand personage as its master himself, wedding robes might well be specially commissioned, even down to the fabric. But this was a rush-job, and needs must. 

“Everyone says Jiang furen despises the boy. Even a Lan knows that!” 

The expression stood for general information: Gusu Lan famously did not gossip. 

“She’d beat him like a dog if she could, and run him out of Jiang with no more compunction, despite his prowess in tournaments. And who in Lanling does not know Madam Yu is sworn sister to our Madam Jin? What better way to see his foster-mother set down, while winning a rich prize for himself? Wei Wuxian is certainly a shrewd little ingrate. Fourth on the list of eligible bachelors—I hear he’s bedded half of Yunmeng.” 

The attendant looked embarrassed by his master’s self-important crowing, and Luo Qingyang found herself scowling fiercely. That was not the Wei Wuxian she knew at all. He was, if anything, too lenient regarding slights to himself, even as he was unforgiving regarding slights to his family. He was not interested in petty cruelty for longer than an instant’s game, or in any greater dose than a pert remark might contain. If you flirted back, Wei Wuxian laughed like it was a game you and he were playing. If you kept at it, he stuttered and flushed. Luo Qingyang wanted to defend him, but what did she really know? She had not been in Nightless City. She had not seen how it was. 

Misgivings rolled in Luo Qingyang, and her lips quirked into a frown every time she heard Wei Wuxian’s name in strangers’ mouths. 

She had thought—she had been almost certain—that Wei Wuxian’s attentions were spoken for, and very much not by Jin Guangshan. There had been a time when the handsome boy’s gentle teasing had piqued her own interest. But then Luo Qingyang had seen him clamber after Lan er gongzi and thought ‘ah, so that’s how it is. Wei Wuxian is one of those who flirts to be kind, or because they’re good at it. Because it’s fun, or to make others like them.’ Many women living in Jinlin Tai flirted with Jin zongzhu to get by. Many women living anywhere flirted to ease a rough path—to get what they needed and could not simply ask for, because they hadn’t the power to, whatever their deserts. Some men did the same. 

When Wei Wuxian liked someone, he was not smooth. He did not glide in with bits of classic poetry at the ready. He was a stumbling mess, a burbling creek, a dervish, a rush of attention-seeking nonsense. She’d spent a year listening to him calling for ‘Lan Zhan’ and watching him indefatigably sending notes and papermen to his target, every day. By the end of the year, it seemed Wei Wuxian was at last ‘Wei Ying’. The two boys had made a Qixi lantern together while Lan er gongzi blushed, just a little. 

Luo Qingyang had accidentally started trouble by teasingly alluding to Wei Wuxian sister’s betrothal, mocking the pair of sweethearts before her in a round-about fashion. Wei Wuxian hadn’t seemed to notice, but Lan Wangji had briefly shot Luo Qingyang a mortified, absolutely betrayed look. Because it was Lan Wangji, this had consisted of a very slight, panicked widening of his eyes. The whole thing had been terribly funny because it was so obviously a mutual affection, an arrangement easily sorted: the Second Jade and the first disciple of Jiang. Nothing could be more suitable, more welcome or more readily managed. 

And now, Jin Guangshan? Had Wei Wuxian lost interest in his prize just as soon as he’d finally gained it, and made such a mercenary exchange of his affections? It seemed an awful thing to think of him. 

When Jin Zixuan arrived back at Jinlin Tai, he lost no time in reporting to his mother. He caught her hands in his and knelt on the ground as she wept indignant, furious tears. When Luo Qingyang spoke to Jin gongzi in his rooms, he was distracted. He seemed angrier at his own father than with their classmate. 

“A man who behaves like that—” Zixuan began, then stopped. “Qingyang, to be cruel like that, to no end—to be the sort of man he is—”

Jin gongzi sat down on his bed, taking a deep breath. Controlling himself.

“Sometimes I think I deserved the hit Wei Wuxian gave me,” he told her, in a quiet voice. “I’d hit father, if I could.”

“You’re not the sort of man he is,” Luo Qingyang said honestly. “You have your faults, but you’re nothing like him.”

“Sometimes I’ve let myself be,” Zixuan insisted, mulish and dogged.

 Luo Qingyang sighed and dropped down to sit on the bed beside him. “So don’t let yourself, any more.”

He gave her a tired smile. “You say it like it’s easily done.”

She rolled her shoulders, considering it. “Not easily, no. But learning anything worthwhile isn’t. You’ve mastered the six arts more thoroughly than any other young master here. Isn’t being a gentleman in your conduct as well as your bearing worthy of such effort?”

He took that in. Qingyang bit her lip, released it and continued. “I’ve always thought that though it might seem easier to do something you knew was wrong in the moment, it’d end up being harder. There’s no running away from regret. It’s a debt to yourself that you can’t ever pay.”

Zixuan regarded her. 

“No one else tells me off, you know,” he said. “You’re gentle about it, but you do. You’re a good friend.” 

Qingyang flushed a little at the compliment. “You’ve always been enough my friend to listen.” Even when no one else took her seriously, Zixuan did. He was faultlessly civil and professional towards her in public, as if to model how everyone in the sect ought to treat Luo Qingyang, and to behave in general.

“There are so few people I trust, in my father's court.” Zixuan huffed an unhappy laugh. “Really, just—mother and you. What kind of a home is that?”

Luo Qingyang had no helpful answer for him.

Wei Wuxian arrived days before the marriage ceremony was due to take place, and settled into Madam Jin’s rooms with pomp. Luo Qingyang was assigned to help him with bridal preparations, and in assuming the office of Jin furen; Madam Jin’s ladies, fearing their mistress’s wrath, wanted nothing to do with the task. 

Luo Qingyang knelt and looked at the floor when greeting her new furen, as was proper. She was startled by Wei Wuxian’s hysterical laughter. 

“The little sheep bows to the sweet grasses! Are you planning to eat me?” He’d splayed a dramatic hand across his chest.

She squinted at him. “Should I be?”

“No snacking between meals.” He grinned at her, quoting a Cloud Recesses rule they’d both fallen afoul of in his best Lan Qiren tone. 

Seated at Madam Jin’s dressing table, Wei Wuxian looked just as he always did. It was harder than ever for Luo Qingyang to reconcile the boy before her with all she’d heard of the drama of Nightless City, and with all she knew of the displacement of Madam Jin.

“Help me paint my nails?” he asked, scooting a plush stool towards him and patting it, inviting her to be seated. 

Luo Qingyang took a pot of gold lacquer polish from the table. She wondered for a moment whether Madam Jin might have poisoned it, and decided that she probably had not. Jin zongzhu would, after all, likely seize on any pretext to execute her, and Wei Wuxian’s death might well be what Jin Guangshan actually wanted. Madam Jin would be damned if she did her husband a favour. 

Qingyang plopped onto the low stool and began painting. 

“Mianmian,” Wei Wuxian half sang, his voice low and pulling. “Let’s play a guessing game, shall we?”

“Whatever my furen wishes,” she said, not knowing what the changeable man was after.

“Hm,” Wei Wuxian pretended to consider. “Now, let me see. I think you are the sort of person who does not sit idly by when they see unrighteous acts committed. From all I know and all I have heard of you, I think,” he flexed his hand under hers, “that you are tired of hearing, ‘that is the way things are’, when it is not the way things ought to be.”

She stared at Wei Wuxian’s nails. She carefully removed the Wen-red lacquer before applying the first coat of Jin gold. 

“I didn’t take you for a flatterer,” she said. “A flirt, maybe, but not a toady.”

“No,” Wei Wuxian agreed, cheerfully enough. “No, I’m not very good at it. Say, Mianmian, how many women do you think Jin zongzhu has coerced into bedding him, when they would rather not have done? Do you think it’s, what, about a score of girls?” he asked idly. “More? Servants, sometimes? A girl like that might say yes because saying no means starving.” He flicked his eyes up to meet hers: a startlingly direct gaze. “And that’s not ‘yes’ at all, is it Mianmian?”

Qingyang stopped moving. A drop of paint fell from the brush she held onto his thumbnail. It spread.

“It’s more, isn’t it?” Wei Wuxian nodded, still casual. “Yes, that was naïve of me, of course there’ve been more girls. Now, does he take no for an answer gracefully, if they’re not too afraid to say it?”

Luo Qingyang flicked her brush over the spreading, thick drop of polish, coaxing it to the edges of the nail.

“What about when he’s drunk?” Wei Wuxian pretended to ponder. “I wonder whether anyone could tell me more about that? About the women he’s hurt, and the people who looked the other way while he did it. Hm. What do you think would happen, if he could never do it again?” 

Luo Qingyang’s eyes met Wei Wuxian's. She was startled by the hardness in them. 

“That Peacock,” Wei Wuxian mused, rapping his still-dry nails. “He’s said some things he didn’t mean; he’s made a few mistakes. He’s a silly boy when he’s ruffled, and he let himself get ruffled too easily. But he’s never used his station to do anything like that. You wouldn’t have it.”

“No,” Luo Qingyang said sharply. “I wouldn’t serve him if he did such things.” 

Others’ safety and her own self-respect were worth more to Luo Qingyang than her place here. 

“In your capacity as my guide to my new office,” Wei Wuxian said, “I would be very interested in your arranging meetings between me and anyone you think I ought to speak to regarding how things have been run around here. I'd be truly grateful, Mianmian. You see, I really can’t do this without you.” And there it was again: that piercing look.

Luo Qingyang nodded, her mind turning to every crying female disciple she’d had to comfort or seen bundled away by her fellows. To the hushed, angry conversations of the housekeepers whose under-maids had abruptly left, and to Madam Jin’s regular but often ineffectual efforts to stem the worst of these abuses in her own home—efforts that had made her something of a laughing-stock among her male peers. ‘That’s Yu for you! They make for jealous, shrewish wives, their women are all harridans.’

Luo Qingyang realised that there was little she would like to do more than to make such arrangements to such ends.

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian said, absently, as if suddenly remembering it, “and order paper money, if you would?” He gave her a smile. It was soft, but not very kind. “I’ve a strange intuition that we’re going to need some soon.”

It might all be some elaborate trick or test. But why bother? Wei Wuxian had the throne, and he surely wasn’t so invested in Jin Guangshan that he was fool enough to believe the man would repay good service (such as informing Jin Guangshan that Luo Qingyang had directed Wei Wuxian to people who could concretely state things everyone essentially already knew, but had not yet been forced to care about) with any material gratitude. 

In fact, Luo Qingyang thought as she blew on Wei Wuxian’s fresh-gilded fingernails to dry them, this conversation had made much more sense than the rumours.

***

Jiang Yanli wondered how her brother managed to keep a straight face—a regal, severe expression, in fact—while wearing enough gold to buy a city outright. This was exactly the sort of grotesque extravagance he and A Cheng had always mocked the Jin clan for. Privately, Jiang Yanli was absolutely confident in the aesthetic superiority of her own home’s style. Jiang did far more with far less. Wei Wuxian looked gorgeous as a Jin bride, he just also looked like a parody of wealth (to the extent that Jiang Yanli wondered whether A Xian was playing it up as a joke). 

They hadn’t had much of a chance to speak since the announcement of his second wedding. Wei Wuxian was avoiding the whole family, almost certainly in an effort to dodge inconvenient questions regarding ‘what the hell he thought he was doing’ from Jiang Wanyin and their mother. Cheated of a suitable audience, both of them simply voiced their questions to Jiang Yanli and Fengmian instead. Both of them had grown quite tired of pointing out that they did not, in fact, know ‘what the hell Wei Wuxian thought he was doing’, and that no amount of asking was likely to provoke any relevant epiphany. 

So, here they all were in Jinlin Tai. The tanned skin of A Xian’s face and exposed neck had been powdered snow white, and his lips had been painted as red as fresh blood. Mianmian had told Yanli that she’d tried to give A Xian a red lotus huadian, for Jiang (the simple Jin day-wear zhushazhi dot was apparently not considered fine enough for a wedding), but Wei Wuxian had asked for the Jin peony instead. His long hair was spun high on his head, pierced and held together with jeweled zan, an elaborate gold bi, red Nanjing Ronghua velvet flowers, and dangling, spinning buyao.

The low square neckline of Wei Wuxian’s gold silk chaidianlifu exposed an expanse of his chest. His neck was framed by layers of gold silk collar, richly embroidered with colourful flowers. A thick, decorative red yaodai framed A Xian’s waist. His sleeves pooled long and low, almost to the ground, and layers of cuffs fell down around his arms. Enveloped as he was by fabric, his wrists looked dangerously frail. When A Xian entered the room and ascended the dais of Fragrance Hall, the densely-embroidered train behind him stretched almost to the door. Attendants had to follow him to rearrange it, which they did with much fanfare. For a moment, lifted above the ground and buoyant in the air, the grand design on Wei Wuxian’s train truly resembled a dragon in flight.

The wedding had been rushed: the couple did not entirely match. Both precedence and what must have been all the gold silk in Lanling had been given to draping and showing off Jin Guangshan’s prize. The background of Jin Guangshan’s robes might have been a funeral white, but given all the red and gold-thread embroidery encrusting them, one could hardly tell. Jiang Yanli supposed this, too, was a glorious robe, but she rather hoped Jin Guangshan would trip over it and break his neck.

She frowned at herself. There she went, being uncharitable again. That was true, yes, but unkind. She really ought to do better. 

Speaking of inadequate emotional control, poor Lan Wangji spent the ceremony seeming, in his very still way, to absolutely vibrate with misery. Jiang Yanli wished she had something reassuring to say to the boy. ‘Cheer up, my brother is trying something he’s not seen fit to explain to me—besides, the man he’s marrying wants to use and then discard him, so you don’t have any romantic competition there!’ hardly seemed as though it would soothe Lan Wangji’s overwrought youthful feelings. 

After the ceremony (Jiang Yanli could have sworn she'd heard Lan Wangji crack a tooth, grinding them like that) came a banquet that was elaborate even by Jin standards. Jiang Wanyin, having met with no luck asking Jiang Yanli what was going on, used the cover of clanking cutlery to brusquely demand that Lan Wangji reveal the method to Wei Wuxian’s madness. Jiang Yanli thought about attempting to stop A Cheng. For the most part, however, trying to prevent her youngest brother from expressing his anxiety as irritation had, in Yanli’s experience, little result. And A Cheng wasn’t wrong—the man their brother called his zhiji might well have privileged information that Wei Wuxian had thought it best for Jiang to remain ignorant of.

“I know no more than you,” Lan Wangji nearly snapped at A Cheng. Unusually rude! Jiang Yanli supposed that he was having a truly awful day. Week. Month? At any rate: Lan Wangji was not at his best. At several points during the ceremony, Wei Wuxian had given him quelling glances. These clearly communicated a wish to get on with the proceedings uninterrupted. With every such look, Lan Wangji’s golden eyes had grown a shade darker and the killing intent in them a shade clearer. 

“Unfortunately,” Lan Wangji continued, waspish. “But I suspect that this will not prove a happy union.” 

You wouldn’t have augured as much from the quality of the party. Laughing, charming Wei Wuxian held court. He retired with his husband for a quarter of a shi before he returned, sitting on his dais and beaming at insincere well-wishers (Sect Leader Yao was particularly effusive). A Xian tipped the musicians well with Jin Guangshan’s money, and they answered his requests with skillful zest. He winked at Jiang Wanyin, whom the gesture only further annoyed. During course five of twelve, A Xian retired. The servants’ effort to clear up said course was interrupted by a loud, lush wail of a scream.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said, darting up in an instant. And he was right—that had undoubtedly been her brother’s voice.

“Oh no,” Jiang Wanyin muttered in a flat tone. “What could possibly have happened.” He too stood (tossing his napkin down on the table with a flick of his wrist), but only in a desultory way. 

In the corner of the banquet hall, Jiang Yanli noticed that Nie Huaisang was torn between the lure of fresh gossip and the lure of the fresh, wine-soused oysters, abandoned on a trolley (course six, if anyone could be found to serve it). Nie Mingjue seemed to have no such compunction. He was doggedly still working on course five, a festive red bird’s nest soup, and looked as though he’d no intention of hearing about any politics, murders, weddings, or political murders at weddings until he had finished cleaning his plate. 

You never wondered what Nie Mingjue was up to, Jiang Yanli thought, with a moment’s envy of Nie Huaisang. Huaisang probably never had to question what he ought to do because his brother, in a misguided effort to protect those he loved, had put himself at risk by marrying a murderer or two within a week of one another. Mingjue just sat there and finished his soup. Good man.

It wasn’t that she herself didn’t care, Jiang Yanli thought as she rose at a sedate pace. That scream had certainly sounded too baroque to be real, but she couldn’t be absolutely sure of that until she saw her brother for herself. It was more that nothing seemed particularly real, at present. She thought she must have passed into a kind of detached hysteria. Didn’t everyone say weddings were stressful? For all A Xian and A Cheng had a million plans between them for her own celebration, after all this, Jiang Yanli wondered whether, when the time came, she might not prefer to just elope.

***

It had been a difficult week for Lan Xichen. Given how his last few weeks had gone, this was truly saying something. 

Wangji hadn’t had the opportunity to speak to Wei Wuxian since the announcement of his second engagement to a wholly unsuitable sect leader. Xichen’s younger brother had thus sulked his way through the subsequent days. These had been occupied by: a quick flight back to Gusu to fetch a suitable marriage gift for Jin zongzhu from the Lan treasure room and fresh robes (and to update an increasingly incredulous Uncle); an awkward waiting period in which almost nothing of consequence was accomplished; and another hasty journey, this time to Lanling. 

Lan Wangji brooded like a great chicken—even his silence was startlingly loud. Lan Xichen had attempted to use humour to defuse the tension. This had not worked.

“I must admit, I’m curious to see how Jin Guangshan’s going to die,” Lan Xichen had tried over tea. (Was it, perhaps, too soon? For company, certainly, but it wasn’t as though either Lan brother regretted the loss of would-be tyrant Wen Ruohan.)

“If Wei Ying does not manage it, I will,” Wangji had said. He’d sounded calm. Xichen suspected that in fact, he was not.

Xichen’s answering smile had been awkward. “Lying is forbidden,” he’d reminded his little brother hopefully, in a ‘good joke’ sort of way.

“Yes,” Wangji had agreed, in an ‘I don’t tell many jokes even when Wei Wuxian hasn’t just publicly as good as cuckolded me twice inside a fortnight, with utter bastards’ sort of way.

Xichen had elected to change the subject. 

During the banquet, Lan Wangji accidentally crushed two tea cups in his hand. He apologised insincerely for damaging Jin Guangshan’s over-fine things, leaving his older brother and sect leader to babble apologies about the side-effects of Lan cultivation training. Something-something arm strength. The servant hadn’t seemed much more interested in or convinced by the excuses than Lan Xichen himself was. 

Lan Xichen had half a mind to bill Wei Wuxian for all the guqin strings Wangji had over-tightened and snapped in the past week, playing some love song over and again. Lan Xichen had opted not to ask whether this was a composition of Wangji’s own making. For one thing, the answer was far too evident, and far too sad. For another, he was feeling very, very tired. 

When Lan Wangji positively scrambled up from his seat in the banquet hall and rushed off towards the source of the scream that interrupted the lavish banquet, Lan Xichen followed him. Wangji, however, stopped abruptly just inside what seemed to be the wedding chamber. Xichen glanced down slightly, caught sight of the cherry-red of his brother’s ears, and surmised that Wei Wuxian was debuting yet another scandalous marital costume. (Wei Wuxian had gone all in with that last ensemble—well, Xichen thought wryly, at least someone was enjoying himself.) 

Stuck behind Wangji, Xichen couldn’t see Wei Wuxian en deshabille. This was clearly Wangji’s preference, even if he could only exercise it over his own kin. Fair enough, Lan Xichen thought. He could participate as much as necessary in whatever was about to happen from behind an inflexible wall of angry little brother. 

This design was thwarted by Wei Wuxian’s throwing himself onto the bed in a kind of swoon, moving into Xichen’s line of sight as he did so.

“Dead by his own hand, on our wedding night!” Wei Wuxian sobbed. “Was ever a bride so cruelly used as this?”

He rolled around on the red sheets, displaying himself (apologies to Wangji) to advantage. Wei Wuxian’s sheer gold robe was trimmed with half-translucent teal and gold peacock feather embroidery at the hem and cuffs. His tossing had shrugged the robe off his bare, supple shoulders, and revealed a long gold gown with matching trim and the same embroidery over the low plunge of its neckline. The only thing preventing the ensemble from being transparent was layering, and even that was only partly effective. Wei Wuxian’s back seemed to be bare, save for the decorative strings that held up the garment’s front. He used the voluminous sleeve of his robe to wipe away crocodile tears, giving the guests trickling in a wide-eyed, helpless look. (He was so obviously waiting for his audience to assemble before starting the show that Lan Xichen felt like grabbing the nearest ancient sect leader and shaking him until he admitted what was happening right in front of them.)

Lan Xichen glanced over to the rich-robed figure of Jin Guangshan. Jin zongzhu held a dagger in his hand, and his neck had been hacked open. There were scratches on his face. The fine embroidery of his wedding clothes had been spoiled, possibly forever, by the spreading pool of blood. Shame about the fabric, Xichen thought. A second later, he chastised himself for his overly-franky private valuation of what had been lost this evening.

“Shouldn’t we,” Wei Wuxian’s lip wobbled, “perform Inquiry, to find out what became of my poor, poor husband?” 

At his side, Wen Qing set the box she was carrying down on a night table to awkwardly pat his shoulder. 

Wangji was of course heartbroken by this whole mess, but Xichen had come to view Wei Wuxian’s misadventures as something of a lucky escape. It could have been Wangji lying on the floor! If Wei Wuxian was going to go from a rambunctious teen to a serial murderer, rather Wen Ruohan and Jin Guangshan than his brother. At least now they knew better than to welcome the boy into Lan!

“What if it wasn’t suicide?” Sect Leader Yao said, a little hysterically. 

The most self-regarding man Lan Xichen had ever met would never have chosen to destroy himself unless subjected to a powerful external influence. Yao zongzhu’s suggestion was, to Lan Xichen’s thinking, a foregone conclusion. Lan Xichen was equally certain that Wei Wuxian would not have done this, in the fashion he had, thoughtlessly. He was probably as sure as he could be that he wouldn’t be caught. Not in any way the likes of Sect Leader Yao could prove, at least. And Wei Wuxian could certainly never be apprehended by means he himself had suggested. 

Murder was murder. While undoubtedly an unpleasant man who’d coveted the dark power of the Stygian tiger amulet, Jin zongzhu hadn’t necessarily deserved execution as Wen Ruohan had. 

Still, Wei Wuxian wanted Inquiry played. They’d better hear what he wanted them to, then decide what to do. As the chief representative of Lan present, an important performance of Inquiry was indisputably his own office. Equally inarguably, protocol demanded that Wangji would have to interpret the session for everyone present. Lan Xichen addressed the assembled. 

“If everyone is in agreement, then Lan would be happy to assist.”

Others, implicitly trusting Lan’s vaunted probity, murmured agreement. 

The new-made widow gave a feeble nod. Nie Huaisang fanned his friend in a comforting fashion. “You look fabulous,” he offered, by way of consolation.

Lan Xichen winced at Wei Wuxian’s highly inappropriate, sotto voce “thanks, I know.”

“Go on, then,” the newly-arrived Nie zongzhu said gruffly. A wide-eyed Meng Yao stood on tiptoe, whispering in his ear to catch him up. 

Lan Xichen spared Meng Yao a sympathetic glance. No matter how awful the man had been, this was Meng Yao's father’s body cooling on the floor. Even Lan Xichen, who sometimes struggled to remember his father’s birth name, had not been wholly unmoved by the man’s death. Xichen caught Jin Zixuan and Meng Yao exchanging a complicated look. 

Lan Xichen took out Liebing. He played the opening call of Inquiry, only to stagger back under the volume of responses. 

“Brother?” Wangji asked, concerned. 

“I’m fine,” Xichen said, shaking his head. “It is only that a great many spirits are clamouring to speak.”

Xichen began again. It came as no surprise to anyone that Jin Guangshan did not honour his wife, and that he used partners lightly. After all, the ceremony they had just borne witness to attested to Jin zongzhu’s propensity to such behaviour. But the stories the ghosts told provided evidence of far worse issues than marital disharmony. 

A young kitchenmaid—too young, really, for such dalliances—had caught Jin zongzhu’s eye. He’d taken her by force. When she’d complained to her supervisor of her ill treatment she’d been severely beaten and thrown, untreated, out into the street to starve at her master’s instructions. 

A servant girl had succumbed to Guangshan’s seductions, despite having a fiancé back home. She’d been dazzled by Jin zongzhu’s wealth, his power, his pretty words and his empty promises. When he’d tired of her, she’d hanged herself in shame. A lithe young male cultivator, who, in life, had been praised for his great limpid eyes, had been similarly toyed with. When he’d spurned his sect leader’s further advances, he’d been sent on hunts too dangerous for his fledgling abilities, and there perished. Jin Guangshan had personally killed none of his victims; he had not had to. He could blight their lives and silence them with so much less effort than that would have taken. 

Jin Guangshan had at least remunerated many of the spirits for their trouble. Several such women were present, and a few men men in similar circumstances. They were mostly young, and ranged from refined courtesans to destitute girls who’d turned tricks when pulled away from their regular work—anything to earn their crust. But what they began to tell Lan Xichen chilled his blood. 

Everyone had known that Jin Guangshan was a strong cultivator. He had been remarkable for it; some had even wondered whether he would achieve immortality. Everyone had likewise known that Jin zongzhu was curiously undisciplined, for a man of such spiritual power. He was famously greedy and careless in his pleasures. But the spirits of dead women hinted at darker lapses than a slack disposition. These women had grown weak under Jin Guangshan’s patronage. They’d withered. He’d selected young, friendless lovers, for preference. And then, he’d selected Wei Wuxian: a powerful cultivator of yin energy. He’d chosen him after what the man had publicly, enticingly said about cauldrons. 

Plucking yin to nurture yang—draining a female partner, unskilled in cultivation, of her very life force—made the near-sacred partnership of dual cultivation into systemic rape. The women’s testimonies made it clear that Jin Guangshan had been using his position and power to augment his own strength at his partners’ expense. What, after all, was the one thing even Jin zongzhu could not simply buy? Immortality.

He’d treated them like so much livestock. Had Jin Guangshan chosen servant girls and prostitutes, when a man like him might have had free and willing paramours from within his own circles, because he sought partners he would never have to be accountable to the cultivation world for the health of? Had he specifically chosen victims who’d never guess what he was doing, or be strong enough to stop him? It occurred to Lan Xichen with a rush of sick indignation that Meng Yao’s own mother had sickened and died when he was still quite a boy. Had that been merely a coincidence? Could it have been?

Such violations had been perpetrated by members of great cultivation sects on a few occasions in the last centuries, and had been prosecuted as assaults and murders. Jin Guangshan had expended significant resources and his already-considerable natural spiritual power on this scheme. Never before, to Xichen’s knowledge, had qi-theft been attempted on this nearly industrial scale. Who had known about this? How many people had been partly or deeply complicit in it, to enable Jin Guangshan’s years, perhaps decades of accumulation?

As Wangji spoke, Xichen noticed that his translation was scrupulously fair: fair in a way few people would have been, given the difference of status between victim and perpetrator. Scrupulously moral and unswayed by questions of favour, as Wangji always was. Blunt, and at times graphic. All the more emotionally appealing for Wangji’s famed, poetically eloquent concision. It occurred to Lan Xichen that Wei Wuxian had studied in Gusu for a year, that he had copied the Lan sect’s rules again and again, and that he had thus very probably known that, according to custom, Xichen would play, while Wangji would address the company. Wei Wuxian might even have been relying on exactly this. 

Liebing shook in Lan Xichen’s trembling hand when he lowered it. 

What a shock,” Wei Wuxian said in a steady voice. “Indeed, I wondered why Jin zongzhu avoided his lady wife. It seems the esteemed Madam Jin could not give him what he wanted.”

“Nor should she have,” Jin Zixuan said sharply, clearly ready to defend his mother against any charge that she had driven his father to this by being an inadequate harpy of a wife.

Wei Wuxian inclined his head to his former schoolmate. It looked, to Lan Xichen, surprisingly like a gesture of respectful acknowledgement.

“I have also wondered why a man who was never ashamed of his own moral lapses refused to recognise the products of his adventures,” Wei Wuxian continued, not looking at Meng Yao. Lan Xichen did, though, and saw the strange light of fury in the other man’s eyes. Xichen felt his mouth parting with the wish to say something to him, at this awful time. Yet he could find no words for private devastation fit for such a public setting as this. 

“No,” Wei Wuxian said with a shake of his head. “Jin Guangshan was not at all ashamed to have been unregulated and promiscuous. He was deeply ashamed because his power was not his own, and he detested any reminder of what he had done, and of what he continued to do, to acquire it. And perhaps,” here Wei Wuxian did raise his eyes to Meng Yao’s, “he feared just retribution.”

“He never bought out my mother’s contract,” Meng Yao said suddenly, as though the words had been shocked out of him. Nie Mingjue placed a bracing hand on the smaller man’s shoulder. 

“She could read, you know,” Meng Yao said, with half a wild laugh caught in his throat. “Mother was so clever. If he had brought her here as another of his play-things, she would have tried to learn something of his work, the better to please him. She liked him. She never had to, but she did. She thought him kind.” He swallowed. “And if she had come here, she’d have read the sort of books that would have told her what he’d done to her—and she would have learned why she coughed blood after his visits.” 

Meng Yao gave his father’s body a deeply vicious look, as if he wanted to kick the corpse. Jin Zixuan took a step back from the body, silently but publicly declaring his loyalties in this. It’d be easy to assume he was following the mood of the room and disassociating himself from the man accordingly, but Xichen thought the shock and disgust on Jin gongzi’s face were likely genuine. Zixuan hated things being poorly done, being dirty or unseemly. He liked everything to be comfortable and well-ordered. Pleasant and correct. Nothing about this suited Jin gongzi’s habits of mind at all.

“But who let all these spirits into such a well-protected place as Jinlin Tai?” Sect Leader Ouyang asked. “And how did they come to cause this man’s death? He may have deserved his end, but this we still don’t know.”

Nie Mingjue’s hand tightened on Meng Yao’s shoulder, as though he thought his steward might be accused and wanted to convey that anyone who tried it would have to go through him. 

“There’s certainly no shortage of people who wanted Jin Guangshan dead,” Mingjue snapped. 

“Vajrayogini is chief among the Jin sect’s patrons,” Wangji observed, as though the relevance of his statement should be immediately obvious. Lan Xichen respected his brother’s intelligence, but sometimes wished he’d put a bit more effort into connecting the dots for his audience. From the bemused looks on the faces of the company, it seemed that no one had understood the purpose of this utterance. Xichen, who didn’t see it himself, braced himself to try and pull this weed out of the stubborn earth of his younger brother’s mind.

“Of course!” Wei Wuxian said, lighting up. 

Naturally he gets it, Xichen thought. If he were Jiang Wanyin, he’d have rolled his eyes. He knew this for certain because Jiang Wanyin, standing behind Wei Wuxian, was doing exactly that. His mother stood directly behind him, wearing a disturbingly identical expression.

“The first bow of the marriage!” Wei Wuxian clarified for everyone else. “We paid respects to the family’s patron family buddhas and bodhisattvas—including Vajrayogini, the wrathful protector of wronged women! To bow to her in falseness is to let her in.” 

Vajrayogini was associated with transforming transcendent passion into enlightened virtue, and she despised selfishness and illusion. Ghosts with great grievances could certainly use her invocation as a channel to enter the home and right wrongs therein—especially during such a ritually charged occasion as a marriage. 

Lan Xichen wondered what excuse Wei Wuxian had planned to offer up to explain the spirits’ presence if Wangji hadn’t conveniently suggested the involvement of a patron.

“Let us settle all doubt and hear how my father died from the man himself,” Jin Zixuan said. 

Lan Xichen glanced at Wei Wuxian, who seemed admirably unruffled by the proposal. Having given everyone in the clamouring horde their chance to speak their piece, Lan Xichen now sought the single voice of Jin Guangshan, in order that they might hear his final testimony before giving him a proper burial and setting him to rest. 

Jin Guangshan proved difficult to understand. He raged through Inquiry, seemingly still whipped and harried by the other spirits present—all of whom blamed him for their ends. When he’d been left to prepare himself for his marriage bed, dead courtesans had scratched his face with the memory of their long, painted nails. Servant girls had crawled across the floor to him on cracked limbs, trying to bite through his body to reclaim the heat he’d stolen from their cold bones. Jin Guangshan was still tied to them all by his own core—the very source of the abilities he relied on to defend himself against spiritual threats. In striking out at them, Jin Guangshan had been tricked into cutting his own throat. He’d slashed at his own neck again and again, believing all the while that he was desperately defending himself against their onslaught.  

The sequence of events was plausible, and much of it was probably even correct. But where, Lan Xichen silently wondered, had Jin Guangshan’s spiritual sword gone? Even at Jin Guangshan’s wedding, it ought to have been within the reach of its master’s call. Unless it had been hidden from him, leaving Jin zongzhu only a mundane dagger from the banquet hall with which to defend himself—a weapon vulnerable to magical feedback loops, and spirits’ tricks. Had the ghosts all been ready to swarm at the slight opening the invocation of Vajrayogini had provided them? Or had someone skilled with resentful spirits called them here, and left them lying in wait? Why had the spirits been so strong? Why hadn’t Jin Guangshan been able to escape the room before he’d been run down in a corner? Why had no one heard his calls for help, or his dying cries?

If Wei Wuxian had used talismans to silence and seal the room, he could easily have burned them upon entering it again. He’d have set the plan in motion during his quarter-shi absence from the banquet hall, then returned to the party. After a good interval, Wei Wuxian would have strolled back to ‘retire’ for the night, changed into nightclothes in the dressing-room given over to Jin furen, checked on his victim, then dismissed his spells and screamed fit to bring down the house. Now was the time for Lan Xichen to say something to this effect, if he planned to say anything at all. 

Lan Xichen looked at Jin Zixuan and Meng Yao. They seemed more concerned with one another, in a shy sort of way, than with the loss of their shared father. If the sons who might reasonably feel themselves wronged by Guangshan’s death instead felt avenged by it on their mothers’ behalves, then it was not Lan Xichen’s place to dispute that. Lan Xichen again lowered Liebing, and stowed her away in his qiankun bag.

Despite Guangshan’s death, Wei Wuxian was still both Jin furen and the nominal host of this gathering. As such, Wei Wuxian asked the servants to prepare the body of his husband for burial and to set the room to rights. Jin Zixuan asked one of them to fetch his mother. 

Wei Wuxian then invited the guests to return to the banquet hall, where he took Jin Guangshan’s throne with an ease that made everyone realise he was not only Jin furen—in the wake of his husband’s death, he was now also the presumptive Jin zongzhu. The terms of his recent marriage had been public, clear, and evidently under-considered by his departed husband. Jin Guangshan had greedily tried to drink the well of Wei Wuxian’s power down to the dregs, and had ended up drowning himself in that well instead.

Pale and wary, but poised, Madam Jin entered. She was accompanied by a small retinue of servants, and wore both elegant clothes fit for company and her spiritual sword at her side. Wei Wuxian nodded to her with a respectful delicacy Lan Xichen had only ever seen the younger man employ minutes ago, when Jin Zixuan had defended his mother. It was a stark contrast to Wei Wuxian’s ostentatious reveling in his new position at the banquet. 

With a gesture, Wei Wuxian invited Madam Jin to take the seat beside him—her own customary throne. With suspicious, narrow eyes, she strode forward to claim it.

Wei Wuxian crossed one leg over the other and began. (Standing beside his brother, Xichen could hear his Wangji’s probably-involuntary hitch of breath at this display of pale calf. He felt briefly and keenly embarrassed for Wangji.)

“To think I’ve discovered such awful things about my late husband!” He shuddered. “No doubt he intended to use me to breaking point, just as he did all those women!” 

Wei Wuxian heaved a huge sigh. “I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me, given that he was willing to treat Madam Jin with such disrespect—a true insult to her status as a lady of Meishan Yu, and to her many years of good service as Jin furen.” He shook his head sorrowfully.

“Perhaps our husband did not kill himself trying to destroy his attackers, but out of belated shame for his own foul misdeeds,” Madam Jin suggested coolly. Her tone indicated that loyal servants had apprised her of all that had been publically unearthed. It further indicated that Madam Jin believed Jin Guangshan would have done well to adopt such a convenient course. Xichen supposed she’d probably been aware of the general outlines of what her husband was doing, if not the depths he’d sunk to. But who would have supported her if she’d called him to account? No one had even supported her when she'd been shockingly stripped of her rights as Jin furen.

“We can only hope he did just that, for the sake of his soul.” Wei Wuxian gave Madam Jin a sympathetic look, but then turned his seeming-idle glance on the wedding guests. “And yet—was all of this wholly new information?” 

Wei Wuxian blinked slowly at the cultivators, like a calculating cat. 

“Of course it was,” Sect Leader Yao said. “What did we know of Jin Guangshan’s outrages, ere tonight?”

Well,” Wei Wuxian said, his voice hardening, “you all knew that he played away. An unhappy marriage was, perhaps, not the business of the man’s peers. But,” Wei Wuxian smiled, “you did know he always chose partners substantially less powerful than himself. You knew he was more powerful than his habits of cultivation ought to have rendered him—truly, did none of you suspect such things as this?”

“Suspicion is not enough to condemn a man,” Lan Xichen offered, genuinely troubled by the accusation. Ought they to have done more?

“No, it isn’t.” Wei Wuxian conceded from his dais. “And after all, the cultivation world was deeply occupied with the threat the Wen presented. But who among us sought out the truth of this matter? Jin Guangshan was ever tolerated, even welcome in good company. Cultivators flocked to his leadership. And did we not all convene here to make Jin Guangshan Chief Cultivator?” Wei Wuxian gestured to the lot of them with his dizi. “To elevate, as our leader, and without due investigation, a man whose character we did not respect? Whose actions were obscure, rather than clearly righteous?” 

He tapped his dread flute against his chin, lounging indolently in the throne. “Was he not the preferred choice, simply because he was already powerful, and his influence thus worth courting?”

“What are you implying?” Sect Leader Ouyang asked. 

“I’m implying nothing, Ouyang zonghu!” Wei Wuxian said with a smile. “I’m stating my grievances outright, quite plainly!”

Jiang Fengmian stood, gave the others a sharp bow, and spoke.

“We have failed in this,” Jiang Fengmian said. “I was willing to marry his son to my daughter, out of respect for his wife and her long friendship with my own lady. But I confess I broke the engagement readily, fearing that my daughter might not be safe and happy under Jin zongzhu’s roof. A sect where one might well require the special protection of a patron, just to be treated decently—” He shook his head. “What if she should lose her patron’s favour, or the patron their influence?”

Jin Zixuan, standing beside his mother, flushed with embarrassment at all this implied. Jiang Fengmian gave him a sympathetic look before turning to Lan Xichen. 

“You and Nie Mingjue were Jin zongzhu’s juniors by a generation. What could you have said to Guangshan? The new cares of your sects were heavy on you, and I wonder now whether we, your elders, did enough to make the burdens of shouldering them easy to you.”

“We ought to expect righteous conduct of our peers, however powerful,” Wangji said. He was never willing to overlook slackness where it stood to harm innocent parties. It was one of the foundational pillars of Xichen’s deep-moored trust in his brother.

“It is no single problem,” Wei Wuxian conceded, “but, as Hanguangjun suggests, a whole pattern of them. The Xue fell, and the Wen rose in their place. Jin Guangshan sought to steal Wen’s preeminence in order to furnish himself with a legacy. The Wen amalgamated all the smaller sects in Qishan, as well as some in Yiling and beyond. Because they were powerful we said nothing against it, which only abetted Wen Ruohan’s ambitions.”

“What would you have us do?” Jiang Fengmian asked, sounding earnestly curious.  

Wen Qing, who had been standing at the side of Wei Wuxian’s throne, stepped forward. She slid the box in her hand into her sleeve, and bowed. 

“Qishan Wen will show its commitment to reform, and to earning back its good standing in the cultivation world, by honouring a mutual agreement governing the conduct of Great and Lesser sects. The terms of this would be generally agreed upon. Such an agreement would also commit all parties to mutual accountability and action when significant trespasses occur, be the culprits poor individuals or wealthy sects.”

“An excellent notion, Wen zongzhu. But what constitutes a crime must be clearly agreed on by all parties in a time of peace,” Wei Wuxian observed, “to prevent such an agreement being made a mere noble justification for mob rule.”

“Indeed, Jin zongzhu,” Wen Qing replied. "Standards regarding the fair treatment of refugees, prisoners and non-combatants, for example, must be scrupulously set out, and the right execution of these standards ideally confirmed by neutral parties."

This sounded scripted because they’d thoroughly planned this, Lan Xichen realised. He looked quickly between Wen Qing, who Wei Wuxian had given a throne, and the kingmaker himself. The proposal seemed a fine conceit, but Lan Xichen was almost suspicious of it simply because the thing had been so smoothly premeditated, not to mention launched off the back of a murder. People would be able to tell this was a considered, united action. But then if Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing lost momentum, if they were not thoroughly prepared to announce their scheme in its fullness, then they risked not driving it through. They’d calculated all of this, and made their decision.

“Jin,” Wei Wuxian said coolly, “also consents, and declares this settlement the central matter of the coming discussion conference, by virtue of its right as host. I will set the seal on it.” Even if Wei Wuxian were no longer Jin zongzhu by the time of the conference, the seal itself was a heavy magical commitment, not easily evaded.

“Pending the agreement of terms, Jiang would be proud to support such a measure,” Jiang Fengmian assented. Nie Mingjue followed him, saying it was a sound enough idea that prevented quibbling and self-serving nonsense from being snuck in through back doors. 

“Of course,” Wei Wuxian said, casting Mingjue a sharp glance Lan Xichen did not know the meaning of. “So often men are cut down by inches, and talked out of their better impulses by degrees. A strong system makes it easier for us to be good.”

Wangji was looking at Xichen very intently—publically deferring to his brother’s authority, but very obviously in favour of their committing to this.

“Lan, of course, concours with the proposal,” Lan Xichen said, because Lan of all sects wasn’t going to sneer at an opportunity to better the machinery of the cultivation world and hold it to a higher standard. (And because Wangji would never let him hear the end of it if he didn’t agree. In dead silence. Like a brooding chicken.)

With that, what could all the minor sects do but fall in line? 

“I regret that my grief over these terrible events prevents me from discharging my duties as a sect leader at this time,” Wei Wuxian said with a gusty sigh. Madam Jin’s look of deep relief was unmistakable. 

“To ensure a peaceful, orderly transfer of power to Madam Jin and her heir, Jin Zixuan, I must ask three things of Jin, in addition to honouring this compact.” Wei Wuxian smiled, as though this were not a threat. 

“Name them, then,” Madam Jin said.

“First, that you would clean house, enquiring into and dismissing those cultivators and servants who enabled our late husband’s abuse of their subordinates, and who covered up his lapses.”

“Done,” Madam Jin snapped. “For my own part, I would not have such people here. They have proven disloyal to me, the clan itself and their fellows.”

“Second,” Wei Wuxian stood, vacating Jin Guangshan’s throne, “I would have Lanling Jin send a gift of money towards Gusu Lan’s rebuilding efforts.”

“Why not Qishan Wen, who caused the damage to begin with?” Jin Zixuan asked. 

“Wen is, regrettably, financially tied up in liberating all the client sects that my Uncle subordinated and restoring their independence,” Wen Qing said shortly.

“Whereas Jin could spare such funds easily, and never miss them,” Wei Wuxian observed. “The aid would contribute to the friendship between your clans, and shore up the health of the whole cultivation world.”

“Lan is, after all, the whole cultivation world’s school-room, library and conscience,” Meng Yao ventured, with a polite bow to his half-brother. “What is good for Lan is good for us all.”

Madam Jin bristled at Meng Yao’s intercession, but Jin Zixuan nodded as though he welcomed it.

“Mother?” At a nod from her, Jin Zixuan bowed to Lan Xichen, who returned the salutation. “We commit to this,” he said.

Lan Xichen offered his thanks.

“Lastly,” Wei Wuxian said, “I would correct a mistake of my own, by asking Jin Zixuan to reconsider his broken troth. I have a feeling that my dear son,” Wei Wuxian quirked his lip, and Jin Zixuan shuddered, “is, underneath his peacock feathers, quite a serviceable young man, really. I suspect he struggles to express his real sentiments on account of being a tragic idiot.” 

Jin Zixuan opened his mouth to protest this, but his mother smacked him with her fan, which effectually shut him up.

Wei Wuxian examined a painting on Fragrance Hall's wall quite intently. “If Jin Zixuan has anything to say to my sister, he has either a hundred days or three years to find the words. Of course he must speak his mind in his own good time. But three years is a long time for a young lady to wait, and such a true heart as Jiang Yanli’s is unlikely to go unnoticed and unadmired for so long as that.” 

Jiang Yanli blushed furiously and looked at the floor. Jiang Wanyin glared daggers at an embarrassed Jin Zixuan. Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes at the prospect of having to attend yet another damned wedding this year.

“And that’s it for me!” Wei Wuxian said cheerfully, adjusting his gold silk robe and hopping off the dais. “I’ll just leave the seal of office on the dressing table when I’ve finished with it,” he told Madam Jin.

“While we’re correcting mistakes,” Jin Zixuan said abruptly, “I’d like to—” 

He swallowed. 

“You might want to speak to Jiang Yanli privately, first?” Wei Wuxian hissed.

“No! Not that! Well, not right now, I—” Jin Zixuan coughed. “Meng Yao,” he said, turning towards the other man. 

“Jin gongzi?” Meng Yao replied, after a moment’s hesitation. 

“I know you probably won’t want to bear the name, after all he did to your mother. But it was our father who was shameful. You did nothing but be born. If you would like to be my brother—to either help me here, or to be acknowledged as such while continuing with Qinghe Nie—I. Xiong, I’d be honoured.” Jin Zixuan bowed to his half brother, who blinked at him.

“A Xuan,” Madam Jin hissed, flushing. 

“It’s the proper thing to do,” Jin Zixuan said stubbornly, still bent in a bow. “It’s right, mother. It’s shameful not to do the right thing, where we can.” He rose and looked at Meng Yao, almost shy. “They say we even share the same birthday.”

After a moment, Meng Yao ducked his head as if to hide the softness of his eyes. “I—believe we do. Yes.” He shook his head. “I’d like to keep my mother’s name, Jin gongzi. She was very dear to me, at a time when I had no one else to love.”

Jin Zixuan nodded. “You could be Meng Ziyao, if you wanted to be. You’ve always deserved courtesy.” 

Meng Yao smiled. The little hollows in his cheeks were pronounced, in the gesture. Lan Xichen thought him hardy and sweet as a dandelion. Proof good things grew anywhere, even in ungentle climates—like finding a delicate wildflower halfway up the stone face of a mountain. 

“I’d like that,” Meng Ziyao said. Nie Mingjue looked on as though he’d just gained a brand-new degree of time for the whole Jin clan.

“...huh,” Wei Wuxian said. “Not what I was expecting, but actually—full marks. Well,” he twirled his flute, “if anyone needs me—”

“Yes,” said Lan Wangji abruptly. 

Oh no, Lan Xichen had time to think.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said, glancing around nervously, “ah—perhaps this, too, is a conversation better suited for privacy?”

“No,” Wangji replied with smooth certainty. “I intend a public declaration. No more ‘things to do’. Terrible events occur whenever I allow you out of my sight.”

Wangji might well have meant ‘murders’. Xichen knew, however, that he meant ‘your unions with murderers, whom you subsequently murder.’

“I do not know who else you plan to marry, but I now realise I must get in before the rush.” 

Lan Wangji’s tone contained acid pettiness, and Wei Wuxian raised an eyebrow at him.

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen began, seeing where this was going and trying very hard to head it off. 

Wangji simply ignored his brother and dropped to the floor before Wei Wuxian. He bent his head, as though undergoing discipline, and stared straight forward, unflinching.

“I have held fast though every change: you are once more yourself, and free. Wei Ying, I would win you. Do me the honour of becoming my husband and cultivation partner,” Wangji said, his voice unwavering. “Please,” he added, dipping his head still lower, in supplication. 

Jiang Yanli and Nie Huaisang both gasped (one with astonishment, the other with glee). Jiang Wanyin’s “oh for fuck’s sake—” was shushed by his mother. In the pin-drop silence that followed, everyone heard Jiang Wanyin's sullen grumbled apology. 

Wei Wuxian had staggered back. He stared at Lan Wangji with wide-blown eyes.

Lan Xichen gave an incredibly awkward laugh. “Just a moment, everyone, if you would!” 

“Wangji. Wangji—” Lan Xichen, whispering, tried to tug his brother upright for a moment’s conference. Failing to budge the other man, he knelt down beside him.

“Wangji, are you actually insane?” he hissed in his younger brother’s ear. 

“Not to my knowledge,” Wangji murmured. “But then I suppose one probably does not know such things.”

“You know I’ve always supported you in this—”

“Mm. Thank you, brother.”

“And I know you like him,” Xichen continued.

“Love,” Wangji corrected. He then considered. “Esteem, adore. Continue.”

“Yes, yes, I know you deeply appreciate Wei gongzi—”

“Mm.”

“But Wangji, he has married and killed two husbands inside a fortnight. He’s practicing heretical cultivation and wielding a weapon of unheard of magical power. He seems unbalanced. This is not the Wei Wuxian you supervised through detention! This is a—a vixen, Wangji! He’s going to use you for your yang like a praying mantis, and then when he’s done with you he’s going to leave your poor little drained body in the pond outside the Jingshi—” 

“What a way to depart this life,” Wangji interjected, seemingly lost in contemplating the first half of that last sentence.

“Wangji!” Lan Xichen frantically smacked his little brother’s arm. “Stop thinking with your libido, just because a pretty boy made noises about a law code!”

“He also quoted the Shijing at me,” Lan Wangji said, dazed but accurate. “It was highly apposite.”

“Be serious! Do you want to end up like Father?”

“Alone? Miserable, due to having tried to split the difference and bowed to others’ wills rather than fully respecting my own judgement?” Lan Wangji shook his head, minutely. “No, xiongzhang. Anything but that.” Wangji, who rarely initiated touch, coveered Lan Xichen’s hand on his arm with his own, gripped it tight for a moment, and then lifted the hand off him. “I am absolutely committed to my course.” He turned his head to look up at Wei Wuxian. Lan Xichen could only rock back on his heels, standing once more.

“Well, Wei Ying?” Wangji asked. 

Wei Wuxian swallowed. 

“There are things you must know, first,” he said.

“Tell me them after you’ve given me an answer,” Wangji replied.

“They might change the question!” Wei Wuxian said, sounding a little hysterical.

“They will not,” Wangji said, definitive and immovable. 

“Nie Huaisang,” Wei Wuxian said after a moment, not looking at his friend. He was still staring fixedly at Lan Wangji. “When is the next properly auspicious day?”

“A fortnight, plus two days,” Huaisang said without thinking. Huaisang always was, Xichen thought wryly, immensely knowledgeable about anything he actually cared to know about.

Wei Wuxian nodded. For the first time since Lan Wangji’s declaration, Wei Wuxian met Lan Wangji’s eyes. Slowly, a nearly manic cast came over Wei Wuxian’s expression. Before everyone, he too dropped into a kneeling posture. 

“Two weeks. Gusu. It’s a deal,” Wei Wuxian said, as though marrying Lan Xichen’s precious younger brother was some kind of silly children’s dare, or an invitation to a duel.  

Later, when Lan Xichen was eyeing the banquet’s wine selection with morose wistfulness, Jiang Yanli approached him. She gently touched his arm, and asked, seemingly out of nowhere, whether he might appreciate such a thing as a fruit basket. 

Chapter Text

Ass rules everything around me.

— Freud, probably

 

***

 

The seamstresses of Lan had seen their second young master coming a long way off. Lan Wangji was surprised to learn that while he’d grown up, discussions had occurred regarding him. Plans had been debated on, and decisions made. Carmine-red wedding robes wouldn’t suit skin as pale as his, and so a bolt of rich, earthy fired-clay red silk had been ordered when he came of age, against this day. The fabric gently warmed the mutton-fat jade white of Lan Wangji’s skin just as well as the Aunties who’d known him from infancy had hoped it would. If Xichen and Wangji had always been something like the communal property of Lan, then they were also the hope and expectation of their generation. Motherless and fatherless, A Huan and A Zhan had been cradled in a hundred arms, given lessons at a thousand expert hands. Had been taught to paint and dance and play with exquisite care, for this: the adult lives that they should someday lead.

Beneath his red silk, Lan Wangji wore a black robe. Beneath that, he wore a white one. His sleeves, cuffed with embroidery, trailed almost to the floor. All the cloth looked plain from a distance, but up close one could see that it was richly textured. In fact, it was finer than anything Lan Wangji had hitherto worn in his life: this was a garment intended for the now-grown son of a great clan. Jade ornaments rested at his waist. A ceremonial golden guan that matched the Lan main line’s hereditary eye colouring had been brought out of the treasure rooms and secured in the blue-black stream of his hair, which had been brushed to shine like the surface of the river.

“Acceptable,” declared the matron who’d nursed he and A Huan as infants when she examined her work. Her voice was crisp, and she left quickly—valiantly pretending she wasn’t crying, not a bit of it.

Lan Wangji awaited the bridal party. His brother, their kin and his Lan former schoolmates would accompany him to the central hall, where important ceremonies such as these were held. Lan Wangji had few truly intimate friends, but his skill and courtesy had caused his peers to esteem him highly. Lan was not the sort of sect where flattering the clan heirs on account of their status would have met with good results, but many of them had approached him to wish him well, and to promise to make up the numbers of the groom’s retinue. Lan Wangji had not quite realised that the shimeis he’d taught sword drills and the shiges who’s taught him, the cousins he’d survived a harrowing First Hunt with and disciples who’d struggled through Advanced Arrays with him would want to make this small, important journey with him now. Gusu Lan had its weaknesses and its peculiarities, but sometimes the warp and weft of it caught Lan Wangji in the chest, and he felt held, precisely where he stood: between the history and future of his people.

Somewhat uncharacteristically, Lan Wangji stopped to admire himself in the mirror beside the door. Lan Wangji usually looked unimpeachable. It was expected of him, and Lan Wangji tried never to fail Lan’s expectations, or others’ expectations of Lan.

Today, he thought, ‘I look quite handsome, actually. I have never looked so well as I do now. Wei Ying,’ he thought (with a strange confidence bubbling up in his chest, like a spring from the earth), ‘will enjoy that.’ Perhaps Wei Wuxian would babble and fluster, or possibly he’d look Lan Wangji up and down with confident, frank appreciation. He might soften tenderly at his eyes and at his mouth, or maybe he’d tease Lan Wangji in that way of his, which let Lan Wangji know that Wei Wuxian liked nothing in the world so well as whatever he was supposedly mocking Lan Wangji about.

Lan Wangji knew the whole range of Wei Wuxian’s expressions and responses, and predictively pinning him down to just one of these possibilities was often difficult. But the core of them—the core of Wei Wuxian himself—remained stubborn and steady. His fiance was a thousand variations on a strong, beloved theme.

‘He will find me handsome on our wedding day,’ Lan Wangji concluded with satisfaction, glancing down at the swing of his robes over his tip-turned red-piped boots. At the sway of the pleated black robe’s hem. ‘Is there anything so welcome as that?’

It was as if this was what Lan Wangji’s comeliness had been for, all along—the purpose of his body, realised in this as it was in battle, or music. He was handsome for this moment, for the apotheosis of Wei Wuxian’s appreciation and pleasure. He’d been born to be Wei Ying’s husband, and here it was: the making of him.

When they came to the main hall (the party a fluttering flock of bright-blue wedding robes, gentle laughter, holiday chatter, tapped drums and ringing bells), Lan Wangji stopped short. At Wei Wuxian’s previous weddings, Lan Wangji (among his many other less generous feelings) had been able to admit the bride’s maddening, incandescent beauty. The sight before Lan Wangji now eclipsed those memories easily. Lan Wangji felt his mouth part slightly with wonder. No Jin face-paint contorted Wei Wuxian’s features. No pounds and pounds of golden Phoenix crown bowed his slender neck. Wei Wuxian looked, in his present finery, as free and easy as his manner. As he ought always to look. Wei Ying looked perfectly like Wei Ying, and all the lovelier for it.

How unprepared Lan Wangji found himself for Wei Wuxian in a sheer red veil, beneath which Lan Wangji would still see the brightness of his eyes and the breadth of his smile. For the silver guan of Lan furen, just the colour of Wei Wuxian’s eyes, worn as a crown. Tucked in the back of Wei Wuxian’s coiffure, sitting in a bun braided with Wei Wuxian’s customary red ribbon, was Lan Wangji’s mother’s favourite silver comb, which Lan Wangji had presented to his fiance as a private betrothal gift.

According to Lan custom, the two men had not spoken since the night of the proposal, or had any opportunity to meet. Lan Wangji had conveyed the comb via Jiang Yanli; Wei Wuxian had asked her to bring Lan Wangji a hairstick of his own mother’s from his bedroom in Lotus Pier. It was one of very few momentos of his parents that Wei Wuxian possessed.

This was the first time Jiang had made its presence felt in Wei Wuxian’s wedding attire. Now that Lan Wangji was properly looking at them, with Wei Wuxian kneeling beside him, he could see a lotus motif on the bodice and in the embroidery of his bride’s robes. There were shades of rich Lan blue, of blue-green, and of Jiang violet in Wei Wuxian's layers. The Jiang-patterned elements must have been made well in advance, in anticipation of some grand occasion, and been given over to Wei Wuxian’s use now. For once in her life, it seemed Madam Yu had done well by him. Wei Wuxian looked like what he always was, but had not always been recognised as: the celebrated second son of a great sect, marrying the second son of another.

But that was too dryly-put, and did the thing no justice. Wei Wuxian looked like spring in a person. Lan white was thought too dour for a wedding, but Lan blue inner robes fanned out behind Wei Wuxian in a great fish tail of train. The embroidery on the body of the fabric itself was picked out in complimentary colours. The sky-blue innermost layer of trailing robes, enhanced by a deep blue robe above it, was chased with silver-thread mountains, clouds, and the rivers that connected Yunmeng to Gusu. The design was no doubt a swift alteration to Wei Wuxian’s formal bride-gift of Gusu fabric, the execution of which had been prioritised over the last fortnight. A layer of costly aubergine silk—a bride-gift from Jiang—complimented the thick lilac sash at Wei Wuxian’s waist. Each band of trim-embroidery on the layers of fabric struck a lovely contrast: the rich jungle green silk of the topmost layer was set off by embroidery and cuffs in the pale green of tender shoots.

As they knelt before the Lan altar, Wei Wuxian bumped his shoulder against Lan Wangji’s.

“It’s like we’ve come dressed as each other,” he whispered, grinning under his veil. “I’m in your blue—you know, I’ve never seen you in red before! Lan Zhan looks so very—”

Lan Qiren, waiting to be bowed to, glared at Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji’s fiance assumed a pious, serious expression, which was only a little mocking. His words (‘in your blue’) twisted through Lan Wangji pleasurably. Lan Wangji extended his hand between them, so that his fingertips touched Wei Wuxian’s, and his ears flushed when Wei Wuxian took this opportunity to hook their fingers together.

Both men were clear-eyed and definite throughout the ceremony. Wei Wuxian was unusually serious. But when they had taken their seats at the banqueting table, before the meal began, Lan Wangji said “Wei Ying, also.”

“Hm?” Wei Wuxian—his husband—asked.

“I have never seen you in such colours, either.” Lan Wangji clarified. “And though it is ever the case, Wei Ying also looks so handsome.”

Lan Wangji felt himself colouring a little. He’d never said that, before. For all his boldness in asking for this union, he’d never said such things to Wei Wuxian’s face. But Wei Wuxian deserved to be told on his wedding day, in his wedding robes, that he was beautiful by the man who’d taken him. That he was the most beautiful thing Lan Wangji would ever see.

His expression only partly visible under the translucent red veil, Wei Wuxian stared at him.

Emboldened, Lan Wangji continued. “I am blessed to call you my own.” An instant’s survey of the room revealed that everyone was still filing in, and that the eyes of the crowd were not yet fixed on the bridal couple. Quick as a striking snake, Lan Wangji placed a daring kiss on Wei Wuxian’s parted lips through the fabric of the veil. It was untutored, quick and chaste. And yet it was enough to make Wei Wuxian gasp sharply, and lean after Lan Wangji when Lan Wangji forced himself to draw back.

“Unfair,” Wei Wuxian grumbled, before turning to accept the first congratulations.

For the whole banquet, during which Wei Wuxian delicately maneuvered around the fabric to eat, Lan Wangji caught glimpses of the slightly-wrinkled spot where he’d marred the perfect fall of Wei Wuxian’s veil with his lips. Each such glimpse stoked the low, keening need in Lan Wangji to do it again.

The inclusion of Jiang elements was not all that Wei Wuxian had asked for when Lan Xichen (much against his will) had negotiated the marriage contract with Jiang Fengmian. In that he was coming into Lan, in legal and ritual terms Wei Wuxian was the ‘bride’ of the marriage, as he had been in both of his previous unions. Given that Wangji was Xichen’s only direct heir, he could hardly go to Jiang. This meant that Jiang was entitled to a bride-price in recompense for the loss of their Chief Disciple, and that Wei Wuxian was entitled to spousal guarantees and accommodations (no bride had yet married into Lan without negotiating leniency regarding sect rules). Accordingly, Jiang Fengmian had come with notes from his foster-son.  

“There is a boy who Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji both met briefly in Dafan,” Jiang Fengmian had begun.

“Yes,” Lan Wangji had agreed with a frown of recollection on his face, locating a bundle of swaddling, with tiny fingers poking out of it, in his memory. “A babe in arms.”

Jiang Fengmian had nodded. “It seems that Wen Ruohan was no good steward of his brother’s village. The boy’s parents were weakened by hunger, and then lost to disease. Blessedly, the child is healthy. He has a deep, strong qi.”

No one had said, but all present had realised, that if food had been limited, then the boys’ parents and their kin had likely chosen to prioritise the child’s health over their own. His survival had been purchased at a dear cost.

“The new Wen zongzhu asked Wei Wuxian to accompany her to Dafan on a relief mission. It seems that Dafan will require significant aid. Meanwhile, Wen zongzhu’s situation in Qinghe is still precarious. Not everyone has accepted her new leadership with grace.”

Lan Qiren had snorted at this. “They ought to count themselves blessed. Wen guniang has more diligence and respect in her than either of her Uncle’s direct heirs ever showed. Her medical cultivation marks her as a great talent—what did her cousins ever do that looked likely to merit a title?”

Lan Qiren might well be complacent about such things; both of the boys he’d raised were already renowned, at a phenomenally young age.

Jiang Fengmian had nodded with half a shrug, as if to acknowledge that they did not live in a world marked by the uninterrupted and universal display of good sense.

“Orphaned as he himself was, it seems Wei Wuxian was quite taken with the child. The boy is truthfully too young to have been weaned, but no one left in Dafan can provide for him thus. Wei Wuxian suggested that this Wen Yuan might accompany him in his marriage, as a ward or son, to be protected, raised and educated by he and his new husband. The Dafan Wen were very grateful for the advantages a Gusu Lan upbringing would bring, provided that the boy might still often see and know them as his extended family. There was some talk of the boy’s grandmother coming along with him, to convalesce under the eyes of healers and to help look after the boy.”

“Wangji and Wei Wuxian are full young to think of sons,” Lan Xichen had protested.

Lan Qiren had frowned at him. “They are young men, certainly, but not boys,” he said. “In another lifetime, we’d have sent them to war, which is still less suitable to their age. If this marriage is to occur,” and he’d given Jiang Fengmian a dark look, which Fengmian only met with some amusement (Wangji himself had not escaped his Uncle’s displeasure so lightly, or responded with such aplomb), “then heirs will almost certainly be a concern. A problem dealt with early is a crisis averted. And what is one more elder to care for to the healers?” Lan Qiren snorted. “Another pair of experienced hands in the creche would leave us the beneficiaries of the exchange.”

It was not unheard of for talented male cultivators to bear heirs or for golden orchid women to experience similar good fortune, but neither were such children as common as those born of male and female unions. In the course of its long history, Gusu Lan had accepted appropriate candidates of all backgrounds as disciples. Foster arrangements of various kinds were common, and Lan was well-equipped with a communal nursery, wetnurses and educational programmes for even the very young. Lan considered the vital point a child’s being reared in the culture of Cloud Recesses, under the eyes of Lan kin. An adopted infant was traditionally welcome as a legitimate heir—the main-line blood would also live on in scores of cousins. The most surprising element of the proposal was thus that Wei Wuxian, a heretical cultivator now infamous for having slain two husbands in murky circumstances and with paper-thin plausible deniability, wanted to bring a child into his third marriage.

“This is the most sensible, responsible thing ever to have come out of Wei Wuxian’s mouth,” Lan Qiren had observed. “It would honorably tie us to the new leadership of Wen. We must cultivate a new relationship with that sect to avoid the resentment of the past year dooming us to decades of poor relations with them.” He had glanced at Xichen. “After an appropriate interval, we should invite their disciples to Indoctrinations.”

Lan Xichen had frowned. “Certainly, Uncle. But in smoothing the path, let us not forget the welfare of the stones. Wangji, do you want this?” His gaze was concerned, beseeching even.

Did Lan Wangji want to raise a child with Wei Wuxian? A child who needed help, whom his zhiji had been charmed by, and whom Wei Wuxian looked to entrust to he and Lan Wangji’s joint care? Did Lan Wangji welcome this sign that their marriage was something far, far different to Wei Wuxian than his last two unions?

“Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji had said, with a note of chastisement. It was no question at all.

Lan Xichen, not happy about any of this, had huffed.

Certainly Lan Wangji was intimidated by the proposed responsibility. But Wei Wuxian always challenged him, and he’d found nothing in his life more rewarding than rising to meet those challenges. Besides, in this case, the whole host of Lan would help at every turn. Thus Wen Yuan and his grandmother were formally taken into Lan’s protection, and were due to be fetched a fortnight after the marriage by Wei Wuxian himself. This would give the Dafan Wen time to say temporary farewells, and Lan time to absorb the changes wrought by the marriage of their second young master.

At the wedding feast, both newly-married men poked distractedly at their food. Wei Wuxian had lorded over both his previous marriage banquets as though the whole thing was a hilarious joke. Despite being nervous himself, Lan Wangji found the idea that he could make charming, confident Wei Wuxian discomposed enough to pick at his dinner, anticipating what was to come, very sweet, and terribly attractive.

For his own part, Lan Wangji was not anxious regarding what was to come. Wei Wuxian had once embarrassed him with pornography, but while Lan Wangji had never before seen material quite like that before (and never seen lovely Wei Wuxian offering it, like it was a suggestion), Lans were great believers in accurate and ample education regarding all aspects of the body. Tantric meditation was a serious component of cultivation. Lan premarital counselling was mandatory, extensive, and overseen by an ancient golden orchid woman who by all accounts had been married since roughly the beginning of recorded history. These tutorials normally took place over the course of months; there were exams. Lan Wangji had spent almost the entirety of the weeks since his betrothal in conference with this grandmaster, cramming the material and scoring ‘tolerably well’ (near-perfectly) on his tests. The act of love would likely go something like all the other aspects of cultivation and physical training he’d studied extensively and then performed well at in the field.

And of course, every lecture-generation of Lan youths was required to watch a very formal, decorous, respectful display of conjugal relations between married couples of various gender orientations (who were not immediately related to any of said youths) in a lecture hall setting. The grandmaster had observed that in their own day, Lan Yi and her cultivation partner Baoshan Sanren had participated in the educational exercise, and had thus inspired quite an engaging poem about longing for the perfume of the orchid from a young lady in attendance. The grandmaster’s pointed look had suggested that these ladies’ descendents would very soon be fielding questions regarding not-so-volun-teering. Lan Wangji refused to dwell on how to get out of that for at least the full first year of his marriage. He and Xichen were not above hiding from Lan elders in bushes, if the threat was dire enough.

For now, Lan Wangji caressed Wei Wuxian’s knuckle with his own, and watched his new husband’s elegant neck as he swallowed in response. Followed the bird-like jerk of it, as Wei Wuxian twisted to look at him with wide eyes.

“I am greatly looking forward to the arrival of Wen Yuan,” he told Wei Wuxian. “It was good of you to propose it.”

Wei Wuxian gave him a big, genuine smile, distracted from his nerves by Lan Wangji’s warm affection.

“It’ll be strange at first, I know. But you’ll take to him right away, like a duck to water,” he promised. “I know you will.”

“I will be proud to act as a father, with you.” Lan Wangji agreed. He didn’t know that grace in this would come so easily to him as Wei Wuxian hoped, but he appreciated the sentiment nonetheless, and would prepare and work to make it true. Truly, it didn’t matter if he had to struggle in pursuit of new skills well worth the having. He would have done much for Wei Wuxian. Loving a child who needed it, whom they would raise together, would be no hardship at all.

Nie Mingjue strode up and, by way of congratulations, made a joke about how disappointed he was to have been overlooked in Wei Wuxian’s amorous progress through sect leaders and their heirs. Wei Wuxian laughed and apologised profusely. Lan Wangji glowered, finding this in very poor taste. Meng Ziyao smiled, but elbowed Nie Mingjue so hard that even that sturdy mountain of a man was winded, and complained about his steward’s bizarrely angular bones—seriously, did he sharpen them to points?

During the bridal procession back to the Jingshi, Lan Wangji noticed that Jiang Yanli had disappeared. Odd, he thought. He craned his head, frowning. If it came to that, where were Wen Qing and her younger brother? Was Wei Wuxian not suddenly, strangely close to both of the Wen siblings? Wouldn’t his friends stick close to his side, on this of all nights?

When Jiang Fengmian had come to Lan to discuss terms, he’d brought Jiang Yanli with him. She’d met with her younger brother’s intended privately. At the end of their conference, she had startled Lan Wangji by asking for, of all things, the Lan and Xue fragments of yin iron.

“Did Wei Ying say why he wanted them?” Lan Wangji had asked his would-be sister-in-law. Wei Wuxian already had Wen Ruohan’s two fragments. Judging by the nature of the Stygian tiger amulet’s power, he also possessed a hitherto-unsuspected fifth and final piece. Only the two outstanding pieces were in Lan Wangji’s keeping, and uniting them all would create a weapon of terrible power. This was the very thing they’d been attempting to prevent Wen Ruohan from doing.

Jiang Yanli had shaken her head.

“He only said that it was very important he have them, and to ask you when you and I were alone.”

Jiang Yanli had not appeared to understand the scale of the errand entrusted to her. That made sense. Lan Wangji only fully grasped it himself because of all Lan Yi had told him. He had then considered the scope of Wei Wuxian’s request.

In one thing, Xiongzhang was correct: Wei Wuxian was no longer simply the boy whose teasing provocations Lan Wangji had endured for a year. Wei Wuxian had grown and changed. He was capable, now, of exercising his considerable potential with immense skill, and even with ruthlessness. He’d not chosen to share several important facts with Lan Wangji, and was actively concealing still further information.

And yet if Wei Wuxian had sought to rule the cultivation world, he might have done so twice over, now. If he’d wished to use the yin fragments in more than self-defense, he’d never have sent Lan Wangji Xue Yang’s piece for safekeeping. If his idealism were so untested and ultimately disposable as that, he wouldn’t have risked his life to save Wen Qionglin from the Waterborne Abyss. He’d have let Lan Wangji die when they’d been attacked by fierce corpses, or the dire owl, and taken the yin iron from him then. He wouldn’t have tried to take Lan Wangji’s punishment for him, the night they shared Emperor’s Smile. In small actions as in great ones, Wei Wuxian was consistently noble. However dark Wei Wuxian’s heretical cultivation seemed, he’d used it to bring down tyrants, to give justice to wronged innocents and to make Jiang Yanli happy. His actions spoke for him, and his ends for his means.

This, then, was the sort of question maidens were asked in folk-stories. Don’t turn back to look at your lover; don’t light a candle to see them. Don’t open the box, don’t be unkind to the beggar-lady. Know your own true love by his milk-white steed, and never let him go. Lan Wangji was an excellent cultivator, an avid reader and an unrepentant romantic. His was a love tested, built on all his sound judgement. Lan Wangji had trained all his life to pass such a test as this.

Better to trust one’s beloved and to be failed than to fail to trust. Though he acknowledged the considerable risk, Lan Wangji sincerely believed that he was safe in Wei Wuxian’s hands. That the whole world was. If Lan Wangji could not believe in his fiance, his ridiculously brave zhiji, the most fiercely righteous of men, then who could he believe in? What would be left for him, in such a world as that?  

So Lan Wangji had wrapped the yin iron fragments in separate cloths. He’d packed each in its own qi-dampening pouch to conceal it, and he had, in secret, given the world’s most powerful weapons to Jiang Yanli, who was true as gold, and who no one ever suspected of anything.

“Be very careful,” he’d said to her. “The yin iron may still draw danger to you. If it should, tell your father what you carry. He knows the importance of its not falling into the wrong hands.”

When he’d passed the pouches to her, Jiang Yanli had held onto him for a moment, supporting his knuckles with her soft palms.

“Thank you for trusting that A Xian’s hands are the right ones,” she’d said, observing him with care.

Lan Wangji had nodded.

“You’ll be good to him,” Jiang Yanli had said firmly, at once asking him, assuring herself and telling him to do exactly that. It was a curious thing to ask on behalf of someone so evidently capable of taking care of himself—but then Lan Wangji wondered whether that stock phrase quite captured the nature of Wei Wuxian’s extraordinary competence? Wei Wuxian could survive anything; he did not always nurture himself.

And so Lan Wangji had nodded, quite serious. This was, after all, the most important personal responsibility he’d ever pledged himself to.

“To the best of my ability, Jiang guniang.”

Jiang Yanli had smiled at him, and let go of his hands. Lan Wangji had thought to ask her whether she, too, was now once more engaged, but he didn’t like to embarrass the girl. Doubtless he’d hear of it from Wei Wuxian.

And now the bridal party conducted them homewards. Wei Wuxian, who was, as of half a shi ago, Lan Wangji’s husband, said “look there.” He pointed at the sky, an instant before anything happened.

“Lan Wangji,” Wei Wuxian said in his ear while staring up at the blank canvas of the night with him, his voice suddenly intent, “wish very hard, right now, for peace, and prosperity, and all the good things that may come of a wedding. Think of all you’ve ever hoped for, and believe in it, all right?”

Lan Wangji clenched their palms together. He wove his fingers through Wei Wuxian’s, and surrendered to the perilous beauty of his husband’s command. Under his veil, Wei Wuxian closed his own eyes. It struck at Lan Wangji’s heart to know that his beloved was at his side, fervently wishing that their life together would be a good one.

Then, dead silent against the black night, a vast pillar of green light billowed up to the heavens. It was encased in a twisting cage of gold, purple and red. Lan Wangji felt a tug: felt something in him surging towards and joining in that strange riot of colour. At the top of the column the ghost-light green energy spread, like the boughs of a tree. Then, like a cherry tree in bloom, it burst into a thousand and a thousand blossoms of light. The clusters of illumination drifted away and dissipated slowly, glowing still, like fireflies. The sound came a moment after: a roaring rush, like the hungry ocean.

The whole lantern-bearing wedding procession stopped to stare, wide-eyed with wonder and some fear.

“What is that?” he heard Jiang Wanyin ask his father.

“I don’t know. A Li?” Jiang Fengmian said, turning about to look for his daughter.

“She’s fine,” Wei Wuxian assured them, his voice soft and steady. “Just busy. I asked her to help me with something for the wedding.”

Wei Wuxian was smiling, with what Lan Wangji realised was relief.

Lan Wangji turned to fully face his husband with a silent question in his expression. Wei Wuxian dropped Lan Wangji’s hand to tap the side of his own nose.

“I said Wen Qing owed me some help with a firework display weeks ago, in Qishan,” he said, a little sulky. Wei Wuxian then heaved a great sigh, shaking his still-veiled head. “Honestly, Lan Zhan, your memory—”

“And the rest of you act like bumpkins who’ve never seen wedding fireworks before!” Wei Wuxian addressed the party, making his brother frown mutinously.

“They’re very impressive,” Nie Huaisang said. “Such an unusual shade of green!”

“Ah, yes,” Wei Wuxian nodded sagely. “Just like ghost-fire, isn’t it? Well, I thought, what colour could be more appropriate for a wedding between cultivators?”

His smirk was somewhat unsettling.

Please don’t die,” Xichen, who’d managed to sidle up to Lan Wangji, muttered very earnestly to his brother. Xichen was staring at Wei Wuxian. Half-hidden under his red veil in the night, he looked almost sinister.

Lan Wangji only rolled his eyes.

“I daily endeavour not to, Xiongzhang.”

***

Before passing the Jin seal to its rightful custodians, Wei Wuxian had put in some work orders with the sect’s seamstresses. Rush-jobs, at that. Madam Jin, to her credit, had not said a word about the outrageously expensive clothing he’d commissioned. After all, it was a mere drop in the bucket of Jin’s finances—and think how much he’d saved them by cutting Jin Guangshan’s prodigious outlay on sex workers from the budget! The fact was, Wei Wuxian was leaving willingly, and would have been bought off cheaply at thrice the price.

Yet Wei Wuxian now found himself slightly nervous about the whole affair. He’d given instructions, and these had been admirably fulfilled. That didn’t make him less tense, because it couldn’t make dressing himself for Lan Wangji’s bed less of an exposure. The clothes were certainly revealing, but the intent they conveyed was far more so. Wei Wuxian’s previous husbands had gifted him trouseaux in their own taste, after the style of their Sect. He’d been shown off as a war prize, he'd been prepared for use. But tonight Wei Wuxian had, for the first time, undertaken to anticipate and cater to Lan Wangji’s preferences in his own right: to make a gift of himself. And it seemed it was much, to think so highly of yourself as to make such an offer. It was taking all Wei Wuxian’s nerve.

Since Lan Wangji had been given leave to cast off his adolescent disciple’s robes, Wei Wuxian had noticed that he favoured blue. So here Wei Wuxian was, trying to be something Lan Wangji might favour. Each layer of the sky-blue silk covering him was gossamer-thin. Only their layering, coupled with the silver embroidery and deep-blue silk ribbons that framed the piece and accentuated it, made Wei Wuxian decent.

On Lan Wangji, blue looked sacred, crisp and authoritative. Deeply attractive, Wei Wuxian had always thought. On Wei Wuxian, a blue so light lay differently. He hadn’t expected the effect would be quite so embarrassingly virginal. He didn’t know whether Lan Wangji would like it—didn’t know what Lan Wangji liked, or wanted of him. That much had become obvious in Fragrance Hall, when Lan Wangji had asked for this marriage. Wei Wuxian had gone years now thinking that he adored Lan Wangji painfully, and that Lan Wangji was nice enough, somewhat-interested enough, and enough his friend to let him do it. To entertain the impossible possibility with pleasant permissiveness, as a thing never to be acted on.

Marriage—and such a public declaration of intent as theirs had been—was nowhere in the realm of bittersweet unreality Wei Wuxian had consigned the entire possibility of them to. Lan Wangji’s proposal might have been an effort to control the amulet, and, by doing so, to settle an unstable political situation. That wouldn’t have been as outright-insane as a love-match. But Wei Wuxian had watched Lan Xichen beg his brother not to do this. Lan Wangji had shaken off the person he respected most in the world, and had steadfastly asked Wei Wuxian for his hand.

Wei Wuxian almost couldn’t hold that knowledge. His whole body felt too small for it. He’d avoided thinking of it as much as possible, until he could ask Lan Wangji what he’d meant by it. Until he could at last reveal his whole hand—regardless of Lan Wangji’s claims that such things would not matter. (Lan Wangji didn’t even know what manner of secrets Wei Wuxian was keeping! How could he possibly be held to judgments and declarations he made without knowing all that?) And when he’d told Lan Wangji everything, Wei Wuxian thought he’d ask, breathless, do you still, though? Would you still? Do you want this? Am I a thing you could want?

Against that possibility, Wei Wuxian had daydreamed. He was too used to thinking in terms of logistics, and too accustomed to putting aside his own feelings, to process such a turn as this through any other means. He’d been as practical as he could. He’d gone with Wen Qing to Dafan, and held A Yuan in his arms again. He’d sent the only father he could remember to ask Lan Wangji for space and safety for the child. Wen Qing had spent the whole sword-flight to Dafan, and much of the coming days, tempering Wei Wuxian’s vast carnal knowledge (obtained almost exclusively through Nie Huaisang’s spring book collection, acres of gossip and watching livestock breed) with a doctor’s pragmatic advice. (No Jiang or Dafan Wen auntie or uncle had not caught Wei Wuxian to share their experience; he now knew some very surprising things about Uncles Four and Five’s very lively marriage.) He commissioned night-robes for a wedding. He made preparations. And he’d both feared and wanted the conversations he and Lan Wangji were about to have, and all that might and must come after them.

And now Wei Wuxian’s nervous hands fluttered around his hair—ought he to take it down? But no, perhaps Lan Wangji would want to pull the pins from it himself. Wei Wuxian bit his lip to think of it. He slid his hand across his own waist, adjusting the fall of the ruched pleating, and over the skirts of his robes. The silk sash at his waist, that would give under another’s hand. The collar of the over-robe at his throat, the embroidery of which flowed down to trim the edges of the cinched robes. Wei Wuxian’s fingers twisted anxiously in the material of his wide sleeves, thick with embroidered bands. Blue and blue and blue against his skin: blue as light as yielding, breathable air and there, where the ribbons traced their paths, blue as dark as blood in the veins seen through the skin. Blue as pronounced as a bruise. This was a thing he could be to Lan Wangji, if Lan Wangji liked.

For as much of his life as Wei Wuxian could remember, his body had been serviceable to him. It had survived everything it had been subjected to: the streets, training, whipping, and then war and the Burial Mounds in alternating succession. Wei Wuxian’s guardians had been pleased when his body had been made effective, for Jiang—when he’d proven a credit to them, a serviceable tool. Even Wei Wuxian’s favourite food was served liberally scattered with goji berries, to promote qi flow.

It wasn’t that Wei Wuxian felt alienated from his own active, playful, useful body. He knew it very well, but only in quite limited capacities. Flirting was physical: a somewhat-calculated cultivation of others’ good will, via suggestions neither party would ever follow through on. Flirting with his first two prospective husbands—offering them the use of his body, to enhance their power—had thus come easily to Wei Wuxian. But he’d never thought of his body as a site of his own or another’s pleasure, before. It was muscle and endurance, strain and pain, performance and capability—conversational, at its best. He’d never tried to see himself in a sensual way, or to give that to anyone. To enjoy himself.

Wei Wuxian knew that across the Jingshi, behind a screen of his own very like the one Wei Wuxian had readied himself behind, Lan Wangji was kneeling and making his own final preparations. He couldn’t hear Lan Wangji breathing, but it was a queer, nerve-wracking comfort to know he was there.

Wei Wuxian thought of saying something—‘I’m ready, husband’, bright and easy, as though this were nothing. But it was so much. He swallowed with the pressure of it, heavy in his throat. He stepped out from behind the screen and knelt in the Jingshi’s central reception chamber, before the table where Wangji rested. He touched light, soundless, fond fingers to its strings. He waited.

In another moment, Lan Wangji emerged. He took a few confident steps forward and then stopped, gazing at Wei Wuxian from across the room.

Lan Wangji’s mouth parted. His hair was down, a curtain of blue-black spilling across his back. The fall of it was so startlingly intimate that Wei Wuxian felt his own eyes widen.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji spoke, with a voice like his eyes, heavy-dark and smother-soft. “How beautiful you look,” he said. It might have been polite, or stilted, but in Lan Wangji’s mouth each word was a discovery, thick with wonder. “For me?” he said, at once statement and question.

Cheeks burning, Wei Wuxian nodded.

“Who else?” he said, light as he could, before remembering that actually, he’d dressed a little like this before, and Lan Wangji had seen him. He shook his head, emphatic, wanting to explain. “I’ve worn costumes when I needed to, but—” he took a breath, letting himself feel the vulnerability in saying it, “this, I did for you. But Lan Zhan, you—” Wei Wuxian shook his head again, struck with wonder.

Perhaps the most arresting element of Lan Wangji’s garment was the stiff, high embroidered collar. It left just the very fore of his throat visible—a slice of skin only just wide enough to bite. A thickly-embroidered semi-circle of brocade then scooped down to cover Lan Wangji’s chest. The long flow of gathered black silk stretched from the collar at Lan Wangji’s elegant neck to the floor, and even a little along it, training slightly behind him. The robe flattered his already impressive height like a fawning courtier. The ensemble presented a gorgeous interplay of structure and drape. Firm shoulders came to belled sleeves, which were gathered in at the elbows where shining black ribbons encased his forearms in an echo of Wei Wuxian’s own customary bracers. The tight line of the wrist made Lan Wangji’s large hands look still bigger, starkly pale and nigh obscene.

Wei Wuxian didn’t see how the garment could part—how it might yield him up his husband. This only made his fingers twitch with physically-manifested curiosity. Lan Wangji brought a large hand up to smooth the drape of the fabric at his stomach, and Wei Wuxian swallowed hard.

“Neither of your previous husbands dressed for you,” Lan Wangji said. What ought to have been a question sat flatter and more satisfied in his mouth. Objectively it was an observation, and actually it was a self-contented remark that other men hadn’t been able to give Wei Wuxian this, and had failed even to try. There was, after all, no mistaking the intended recipient of Lan Wangji’s costume, or his care.

Wei Wuxian laughed at the very idea, short and sharp.

“Lan Zhan,” he said, dragging, sultry and fond. “The idea that you’d need to compete with anyone, when the sun shines through dripping honey to try and catch the shade of your eyes—when, the moon, if she’s lucky and she works for it, can make the night sky gleam just a little like your hair. When even jade envies your lustre.”

Lan Wangji’s mouth curved, just slightly, at the excessive praise, and he ducked his head.

“If I do any of that, then it is done for you. Like all that I do, Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian looked at him, stunned.

“Who else?” Lan Wangji repeated back to him, shaking his head.

The enormity of that was too much for Wei Wuxian to bear, let alone respond to. Wei Wuxian held up a hand to him, and Lan Wangji crossed the room and knelt before him to take it.

Wei Wuxian gave him a slantwise, teasing look. “But aren’t you frightened, Lan Wangji?” He leaned in to whisper a salacious secret. “I’ve been the death of my last two husbands, you know.”

“I am not frightened in the slightest,” Lan Wangji said, holding Wei Wuxian’s eyes and bringing his knuckles to his mouth for a light kiss that had Wei Wuxian biting his lip. “But if death was the price, either for helping you or having you, I’d willingly pay it.”

Wei Wuxian felt a pressing need to lower his husband’s expectations. He smiled, a touch awkwardly.

“It may shock you to learn this, Lan er gege, but I’ve never actually,” he made a slight hand gesture, “consummated a marriage, before.”

“No,” Lan Wangji said, running his thumb over Wei Wuxian’s knuckles. “It doesn’t shock me in the slightest,” he clarified. “Then you and I weren’t yet together, in the future you came from?”

Wei Wuxian blinked at him for several moments, then threw his head back and laughed, delighted.

“Of course you figured it out. Lan Zhan. Who would even think to guess such a ridiculous thing? Only you.” He shook his head, smiling. “No, we weren’t. Though I’m afraid that was only one of many problems facing me. But how? How could you know?”

Lan Wangji shrugged, his free hand finding Wei Wuxian’s. “I knew your actions, however incomprehensible they seemed, must have sound motivation behind them even if I didn’t agree with the courses you adopted. That is always the case. When I found you playing a song I was still composing, in a more finished form, I suspected thought transference, a temporal anomaly and even my own sanity. I definitively settled on temporal distortion when you went out of your way to be kind to Jin Zixuan, and to even encourage his pursuit of your sister. That was nothing you could have taken from my mind. It showed both a recognition on your part of qualities the man has yet to demonstrate and a mature acceptance of his relationship with Jiang Yanli, which—forgive me, dearest—you are not yet capable of.”

Wei Wuxian wrenched a hand from Lan Wangji’s grip and tried to irritably smack his chest with it. Lan Wangji caught the wrist mid-flight. He brought the pulse-point to his mouth to suck a bruise onto.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian gasped, squirming and flexing the hand Lan Wangji was merely holding, “I can’t think when you do that.”

Lan Wangji gave him an unrepentant look that suggested Wei Wuxian had done far too much plotting of late, and could stand to endure a period of thoughtlessness. He continued suckling at Wei Wuxian’s skin.

“You’ve said it won’t change anything,” Wei Wuxian began.

Without setting Wei Wuxian’s hand at liberty, Lan Wangji lowered it from his mouth.

“It will not,” he affirmed.

“Nevertheless, before we go any further in this, I need you to know—” Wei Wuxian let out a shaking breath, nodding firmly to himself, “everything. My husband should know all my secrets.”

Lan Wangji’s hands curled around his. “I have waited for your confidence, these past weeks,” he admitted. “Sought it, and been wounded by its absence.”

Wei Wuxian ducked his head, in recognition of that. “Never again, zhiji. Forgive me for not having known I could wound you. But when I show you, you’ll understand why I kept what I did to myself.”

“If that is the case,” Lan Wangji said, looking at him directly and intently, “then it is knowledge you should not bear alone.”

Wei Wuxian took a deep breath. He tightened his grip on Lan Wangji’s hands and dropped them down into Empathy.

The two of them endured the Wen Indoctrination together. It was not like a painting, or like a book: Lan Wangji experienced whole totalities of time and feeling, days in minutes. In Wei Wuxian’s memories, every moment in Lan Wangji’s company was bright with emotion. Wei Wuxian’s eyes tracked Lan Wangji as he stumbled on a path in Qishan, burdened with an untreated wound. Lan Wangji sang to him as they lay dying together. Even losing consciousness, Wei Wuxian attended to the tune well enough to remember it later.

Wei Wuxian had not seen the initial siege on Cloud Recesses. His knowledge of its gravity came via Lan Wangji himself. But there was no sparing Lan Wangji, in this state, from Wei Wuxian’s own memories of the destruction of Lotus Pier. Of everything he’d subsequently done to save Jiang Wanyin. Of his unlucky meeting with Wen Chao, and of his time in the Burial Mounds. Wei Wuxian had been able to push Wen Qing through these memories lightly and swiftly, but Lan Wangji had his own grip on Wei Wuxian’s familiar mind, and Lan Wangji resisted. He’d had enough of being cosseted, enough of not knowing the bitter, awful things Wei Wuxian had been forced to do to survive, and to ensure the survival of his loved ones. They were here, and half-truths would provide no relief from what had befallen his husband. Wei Wuxian had already endured this alone once before.

You’ll see me, Wei Wuxian hissed in his mind, trying to keep Lan Wangji from tasting the bone marrow he’d consumed in the Burial Mounds along with him.

Then let me see you, Lan Wangji responded, dead flesh between their teeth, fat coating a shared mouth, sticking, sticking. It was what it was, and all Lan Wangji felt was pity that it should have happened to anyone—great sorrow that it should have happened to Wei Ying. Life included grotesquerie and tragedy, and a love that could not accommodate both was too frail for a commitment such as the one they’d made before heaven.

Strange, to watch yourself fight a war, which now would never come to pass. Stranger still for Lan Wangji to feel Wei Wuxian’s ambivalence towards him, while watching himself through Wei Wuxian’s eyes—Wei Wuxian’s shame and anger, Wei Wuxian’s unslakable yearning. In forests and in banquet halls, in drenched, miserable prison camps—Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan.

Lan Wangji saw himself clean and bright in Yiling, when little else was either of those things—felt, as his own, the clench of Wei Wuxian’s heart at the sight. Lan Wangji didn’t know if he’d ever looked so content in his whole life as he did in Wei Wuxian’s memory of him, peacefully holding a boy whom Wei Wuxian was rearing like a son. The image was cut out and well-handled as a picture, and drenched with suppressed want.

And all the while, Wei Wuxian was conscious of how bitterly unfair the situation was: what had happened to the Wen remnants, what had happened to his own body, the fact that he couldn’t ask Lan Wangji to stay, and couldn’t even let him stay if, out of a sense of duty, Lan Wangji were to offer to, uninvited. There was no sense in ruining both their lives. What for? In his memories, Wei Wuxian found it unfair that he should love Lan Wangji so much and be met with only a flicker of fondness in return—something, certainly, but no match for his own wild, pitching infatuation. Wei Wuxian had spent his life protectively trying to ensure people found him useful and amusing, and only now that he felt like a polite amusement to Lan Wangji did the full awfulness of such a position strike him.

But Wei Wuxian had snuffed even this trace of wistful disquiet out like a candle at bed time—had told himself he was being ungenerous, unfair to Lan Wangji, ungrateful. Hadn’t Madam Yu always said he was ungrateful? Didn’t Lan Wangji still respect and care for him, when others listened to convenient lies? Wasn’t it his rice they’d eaten through the winter? Wasn’t it the memory of his rare, precious smile Wei Wuxian lived on even after, like it was meat and drink? He’d hated himself a little for it—here he was, back in the Burial Mounds again, once more sustaining himself on stolen bits of people. Leech, Madam Yu had said once, years before she’d died. A beggar, before that—a thing that lived off kindness, more even than children were by nature. Maybe he’d always been a cannibal. Maybe he didn’t know how to be anything else. But survival was survival, and so Wei Wuxian had dragged himself on, and on.

How wrong it had gone: the dull grey of Wei Wuxian’s life suddenly pitching to unrelieved black. His terror for the Wen siblings, for A Yuan. His brutal grief for his sister. How hard Wei Wuxian had fought that end, the dying of their light. Everything he’d done since returning to his own past.

Wei Wuxian’s bewildered wonder at this final, true proposal. His shocked incapacity to understand it aright.

Wei Wuxian in Yunmeng, then, gathering duckweed and kudzu for his wedding rites with all the Jiang shimeis and shijies. The work-songs for harvest, for weaving, for weddings. His sister’s hands, winding the kudzu into long ropes. His sister’s voice, asking if he was sure, A Xian? And he was.

Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing in Yunmeng, testing the ropes on the dancing statue, finding a configuration that would hold. A Yuan in his arms the whole time, as he walked, as he worked—he almost couldn’t put A Yuan down, couldn’t let him go. Wei Wuxian had cried over the sleeping child and nothing, ugly and frantic, until Qing jie had found him and sat down next to him, silently pressing the line of her body against his side.

“I thought I lost him,” Wei Wuxian said through gulping, tearing breaths as he wound down. “I woke up, and you were gone.”

Wen Qing regarded him steadily. Took his hand in hers and let him feel that she was here, alive.

Then she was shooing Wei Wuxian away for the best part of a week while she tested the enchanted kudzu rope with a scientific commitment to reproducible results. She told Wei Wuxian to play with his talisman cages; they weren’t strong enough yet, and besides, she needed quiet to think about something.

Wei Wuxian taking the re-constructed yin seal and placing it in Cold Pond Cave this very morning, cocooned in a woven duckweed basket that closed around it like a clam shell. Placing talismans. Setting barriers. Trailing braided, oiled kudzu rope out with him, unspooling it from a heavy loop around his arm and whistling as he went. Placing the end of the fuse in Wen Ning’s hand as he explained the sequence of events to Wen Qing and Jiang Yanli. They’d need to come when the wedding procession set out, and light it with a taper from the bridal lanterns.

Everything together should just be enough: all the ritual energy of the wedding and its trappings (hundreds of cultivators bearing witness, participating, lending their energies to the ceremony in spectation); the heady magic of the new-married couple’s potent good wishes; the sacred Cold Pond that had successfully contained a fragment for many years; Wei Wuxian’s talismans; the cultivational energies of this small, trusted bridal party, each member of which Wei Wuxian knew to be free from the kind of ambition the yin iron could work its will on, and wise to its tricks. They would also serve as witnesses to the amulet’s destruction before the cultivation world. These elements would, together, in accordance with Lan Yi’s wishes, safely eliminate a weapon Wei Wuxian was no longer desperately dependent on.

Then Madam Yu was tying Wei Wuxian’s sash for his wedding with brusque hands, coughing so that her voice would come out even when she said he looked well enough. Years of weight between them, but some of that weight was the heaviness of love. It wouldn’t have hurt so badly, if there hadn’t been any.

Then Yanli’s comb through Wei Wuxian’s hair. Wei Wuxian had never wanted her with him before, not for the travesties of Wen Ruohan and Jin Guangshan’s unions, but now he needed it. A wedding to Lan Wangji, impossible as it seemed, deserved to be handled with care. Treated as something serious and precious.

Wen Qing catching Wei Wuxian in his dressing room before the rites began, taking her turn with the comb. And pulling, from the pocket of her robes, the box Lan Wangji had seen her carrying in Jinlin Tai.

“I’ve given it a lot of thought,” Wen Qing said in Wei Wuxian’s fresh memory, “and I believe I can do it. The risk was in getting it out of him in the first place and stabilizing it, and that I’ve managed. I didn’t want to get your hopes up, in case I couldn’t.”

What she was saying began to cut through the buzzing anticipation in Wei Wuxian’s mind. Wen Qing opened the box, and there it was: shining bright. Deceptively small. Familiar. Few people had ever seen a golden core outside a human body. But Wei Wuxian had.

“I’ve warded it as we do when preserving a body for a funeral, or an organ for transplantation,” Wen Qing said. “So much of Jin Guangshan’s core was stolen from others, so it wasn’t fixed in his body as yours was. I was able to slip it from him.” She snorted. “He was in danger of overload and qi deviation as it was, if he did that trick many more times. And I don’t think he could have stopped himself. Trust Jin Guangshan to believe that only he was clever enough to have come up with the idea, rather than wondering whether others tried before him and found out the limits of predatory cultivation hard way.”

Wei Wuxian knew (and thus Lan Wangji now knew) that Wen Qing must have managed this while slipping in to confirm that Jin Guangshan’s suicide looked legitimate. While Jin Guangshan had still been in the process of expiration, Wen Qing had sliced him open, roughly pulled core out of his body sealed him with qi so that he didn’t bleed through his robes. By that point he’d been too delirious to identify her in Inquiry. Anyone who’d seen the wound while preparing his body for burial would have blamed the same angry ghosts that had rent his face with their nails. Wei Wuxian’s core transplant had taken days, but both the nature of his core’s unstable attachment and Wen Qing’s willingness to cause Jin Guangshan suffering, her carelessness with his life, had made this extraction just an hour’s work. Wen Qing subsequently seemed to have arrived first in response to Wei Wuxian’s performative scream.

Wei Wuxian stared at the box, stunned.

“You know how to fix me, Qing jie?” he asked, not daring yet to believe her.

“Not yet,” Wen Qing said, matter of fact. “Not exactly. But I’ve thought about it all this week, and now—I know I can. It’s a matter of tests. Refinements. You remembered everything I needed to know about how the transplant worked, which was a boon. Not everyone could control the spirit fragments this core’s made up of—but if anyone has the necessary experience, it’s you.”

Wei Wuxian looked at her, almost afraid.

“But those spirits—”

“You’ve pacified them,” she said, her voice deliberate. Calm. “We heard their testimonies. We gave them justice. They have peace. All that’s left is this, which no one’s using. Someone ought to, and I owe you a wedding present. I owe you everything, Wei Wuxian.”

He gave a bark of a laugh, which turned almost hysterical with incredulity.

“But I’ve resigned myself to it, Qing jie,” he said. “I’ve given that up.”

Wen Qing closed the box, slipped it back into her sleeve and fixed him with a glare.

“You’re allowed hope, idiot. You’re allowed justice rather than exile. How is it you care more about whether the spirits are comfortable than whether you are? They’re dead. You aren’t.” She put her hand on his heart, where a brand he’d never earned in this life nonetheless sat. “I would pay my debt to you.”

“There’s no debt between family,” Wei Wuxian said, drawing her to him, into an embrace.

She snorted into his hair.

“I don’t think that’s either of our experience of family. Say that the debts are vast. Always being repaid, yet always being forgiven.”

“All right,” Wei Wuxian said, blinking back tears. “All right. We’ll—I’ll talk to Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji felt, with a sense of shock, how much Wei Wuxian had relied on him at every step of this. Wei Wuxian had needed his family, and Luo Qingyang, and Wen Qing to practically accomplish everything he’d done, but each step he’d taken had been built on things he and Lan Wangji had done together in the past, on Lan Wangji’s interventions in the present, and on the knowledge that he could risk much because if he miscalculated and faltered, Lan Wangji might well be able to save him. Wei Wuxian believed absolutely that Lan Wangji would try to do so, whatever the odds against them.

“You’ll tell him everything, this time?” Wen Qing said sharply, pulling back. “No more ‘hide the missing core’?” At Wei Wuxian’s nod, she rolled her eyes. “Good. I never thought I’d see the day you learned something.”

Wei Wuxian scoffed. “Whereas I know I’ll never see the day when either you or Jiang Cheng can say anything sweet without salting the life out of it, just in case anyone should suspect you have feelings.”

And then, in Wei Wuxian’s memory, the marriage celebrations began. Wei Wuxian cut the cord of his recollection with an abrupt snap and a sense of apology. It’d be, he intimated, too embarrassing to subject Lan Wangji to a barrage of effusions on his own loveliness, regarding memories not yet a day old.

A feeling, then, of swimming up to the surface after too long underwater—of gasping for air. A moment’s confusion as to whose body was whose.

In the present and their own minds, Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian blinked at one another. The oil lamps had burnt low, and needed trimming. The procession had brought them to bed at a Lannish hour, which Wei Wuxian considered incompatible with the best-practice celebration of a marriage (and he ought to know!). It was now well past midnight.

Lan Wangji regarded him. Wei Wuxian realised with a jolt that the hint of redness he could see in Lan Wangji’s eyes was from tears his husband had wept during their reverie.

“You weren’t going to survive whatever came next,” Lan Wangji said, sounding numb with horror.

Wei Wuxian winced. It was typical of Lan Wangji to spring straight for the jugular. He himself hadn’t thought about the question in any detail, or considered it clearly. The Wen remnants had sacrificed themselves for him, but what could he have done with such a gift of blood in a world that manifestly didn’t want him alive?

“I stayed behind to engineer some reconciliation between you and the cultivation world,” Lan Wangji said slowly, piecing his decisions together from Wei Wuxian’s experience of their outcomes, “but I couldn’t protect you. Wei Ying, I failed you.”

“Oh, Lan Zhan, no,” Wei Wuxian said hastily, leaning forward to thumb the tear-tracks off Lan Wangji’s cheek. “No, you tried so hard to be there for me, even at my lowest. I always saw it—darling, I didn’t mean for you to take it like that.”

Wei Wuxian shook his head, trying to smile. “I knew you’d be upset but I’m fine, see? I’ve fixed it. It never happened, not really!”

“It did,” Lan Wangji said, grave and insistent. “It happened to you, Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian nodded, looking away from him.

“And as far as that goes, I’ll take responsibility for all I did. If you want me to leave, for tonight or forever, I’ll understand. I won’t blame you, Lan Wangji. I’d never blame you. If you want to only be friends, or—or to never see me again, then I—”

Lan Wangji surged forward, stopping Wei Wuxian’s mouth with his own. It was a hot, awkward, forceful kiss, driven by an instinct to pin Wei Wuxian and keep him close. Wei Wuxian melted under it, and that very yielding seemed to teach Lan Wangji where he ought to push. Wei Wuxian made room, and he took it. It was like fighting together, Wei Wuxian thought. Shockingly natural.

“How can you think I’d love you less for this?” Lan Wangji whispered when they broke apart. “For being so—Wei Ying.” He gripped his husband’s shoulders hard, then looked at his face. “You’ve been the making of me—I have come into myself, with you. Can you, who have filled me in, broadened me and altered me forever, not know what it is you’ve done? Can you know both me and yourself so slenderly?”

Wei Wuxian was speechless. He’d never thought he might be constituently vital to the man Lan Wangji had become. Never once been arrogant enough to imagine he could hold such centrality in Lan Wangji’s life.

“You promised you’d confide everything in me,” Lan Wangji reminded him. “And give me all of yourself. In return, I promised to take all you gave. But what I will not, cannot take, is any talk of separation. If my husband loves me, he will never taunt me with that.”

Lan Wangji pressed Wei Wuxian closer to him, sliding a palm from Wei Wuxian’s shoulder to his back. “In your memories, you didn’t know how I loved you. Before your very eyes I ached and wept and smiled for you. Yet for all that, you didn’t see it. What must I do to make you see me?”

“Oh Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian laughed, the sound half-broken, “when do I ever look away, my love? Not once since the hour we met, I’m sure.”

It was only that it was difficult to believe Lan Wangji properly loved him back because Wei Wuxian wanted it so much. It was too good a thing to use; too dazzling a light to see by. It was going to take, Wei Wuxian thought, a lot of practice. But they would have time: Wei Wuxian had bought them time with his own blood.  

Lan Wangji was so drained by what had been, to him, fresh revelations of awful events rather than well-handled memories and old nightmares. Wei Wuxian could see how frightened his husband still was for him and the surfeit of aching pity in his expression.

Lan Wangji wanted reassurance; this was their wedding night.

Another time, Wei Wuxian would be teasing, or brash and bold. Coy, or forceful. But right now, he thought that what Lan Wangji needed was a sweet, thorough fuck. A reminder that they were both very much alive, and here together, and, evidently, outright mad about one another.

Wei Wuxian stood up from the floor, pulling Lan Wangji up with him. He led Lan Wangji to their red-silk covered bed, and pushed him down on it with a hand at his chest. Lan Wangji allowed all this, regarding him with quiet curiosity and some evident anticipation. Wei Wuxian followed his husband, straddling his waist—his knees framing Lan Wangji’s narrow hips. So lovely, blinking up at Wei Wuxian. Who could look at him, so perfectly put together, and not want to rip him apart?

“Hush,” Wei Wuxian said in response to the noise of question from his lover. “If you’ll have me, then have me. Let me be good to you.” He tucked a strand of Lan Wangji’s hair behind his ear with a fond smile.

“My Lan Zhan—you did so much for me. Let your husband reward your patience and your trust.” Lan Wangji deserved his devoted service, and he was going to get it.

Wei Wuxian bent to bring their mouths together with a dry, chaste press. This second kiss between them was less impulsive and desperate than the first. A more deliberate, sensual thing.

“Oh,” said Lan Wangji softly, as if startled. Lan Wangji reached up and grabbed Wei Wuxian’s forearms, clutching them tight. He wet his lips and pressed up into a third kiss, this time catching Wei Wuxian’s lower lip between his own. A tilt of Lan Wangji’s head, and they were breathing one another’s hot, wet air. A sudden impulsive movement on Wei Wuxian’s part, and his tongue was sliding into Lan Wangji’s mouth, making him gasp.

“Mm,” Lan Wangji said, quiet and satisfied. Returning the favour. Raising a hand, as he did so, to delicately pull out the pins of Wei Wuxian’s coiffure. Loosening him up, making him soft and ready.

“I left those in because I thought you might want to undo me,” Wei Wuxian muttered into his husband’s mouth, very gratified when Lan Wangji trembled in response and grabbed a loose fistful of his hair. Lan Wangji managed to place his mother’s comb respectfully on the night table. Stray silver pins he let fall, let drop to the bed and tumble off it, let roll across the floor.

“What a mess you’re making of me, er gege,” Wei Wuxian chid breathlessly. He gave Lan Wangji a considering glance. “It seems I’m not too bad at guessing the sort of thing you might like, after all. Isn’t that lucky?”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said, already sounding wrecked beneath him. “You are the sort of thing I like. You ought to know that.”

Leaning back to sit upright, Wei Wuxian traced his slender fingers down over the silk of Lan Wangji’s robe.

“Keep showing me,” Wei Wuxian said. He found where the robe parted at the front via an overlap hidden in its pleated folds. Having sated his curiosity on the point, Wei Wuxian kept his hands above the fabric. He used them to map Lan Wangji’s chest; Wei Wuxian petted his nipples through the cloth.

Lan Wangji wriggled and bit his lip. His eyes were huge in his face. The queer, new alchemy of sex had transmuted their teary glimmer into this strange pitch of brightness.

Only I, thought Wei Wuxian with a moment’s awe, have ever seen Lan Wangji quite like this. There are whole parts of this wonderful, discrete other person that are mine alone.

Wei Wuxian then tilted his head to the side and grinned, performing swagger for Lan Wangji and letting himself feel the things he played at. Making himself as big and brave and brilliant as Lan Wangji’s eyes, for Lan Wangji. If Lan Wangji felt Wei Wuxian had broadened him, Wei Wuxian knew that Lan Wangji had given his own native energy purpose, direction and intent. He wanted to be the man Lan Wangji took him for: that best and kindest version of himself, his every action read by the light of Lan Wangji’s kind acuity.

“So sensitive, Lan Zhan!” He didn’t dare pinch the tightening flesh even lightly; not when this refracted touch alone had Lan Wangji squirming.

“Will you let me be gentle with you?” Wei Wuxian asked as he stroked a silk-covered nipple with the fingers of his left hand, pushing Lan Wangji’s robe open with his right. He dragged his fingertips down the pale skin of Lan Wangji’s chest as he exposed it—the bare stripe of Lan Wangji’s stomach. “Let me take my time, hm?”

He cast his eyes down at the body he’d revealed. Lan Wangji was supine and beautiful beneath him. The white line of his torso, the dark flow of his hair. The sweet jut of a large, firming, blood-flushed cock. One bare hip bone, coyly framed by a curl of his black silk robe. Lan Wangji, looked up at him with dark-eyed solemn trust and shaking, nervous anticipation. Gorgeous and unashamedly vulnerable.

Wei Wuxian swallowed hard.

“I want to cherish you.” He cupped that tempting hip with his hand, and let his whole body slope down so that he could close his teeth around the delicate knob of bone. Lan Wangji’s breath hitched in response, and Wei Wuxian lay his head down on Lan Wangji’s thigh. He ran his knuckles, and then his fingertips, as lightly as he could along Lan Wangji’s twitching cock.

“Treat my Lan Zhan like a prince,” he promised, giving the thigh he was resting on a small, sweet kiss.

Wei Wuxian knew that both before the wedding ceremony and after, when dressing, Lan Wangji would have performed the most thorough ritual ablutions for his marriage. Which suggested he’d be well-prepared for something Wei Wuxian had first thought about doing to him when they’d been at school together here, years ago now, with access to Nie Huaisang’s both wide-ranging and inspiring spring book collection. At the time, Wei Wuxian would have done anything to crack the other boy’s icy composure. Now that he knew he had managed it, Wei Wuxian couldn’t help wanting to push: to spread Lan Wangji open wider—to bury himself in the other’s thoughts and heart, too deeply and fundamentally to be excised.

Wei Wuxian bent and touched the tip of his tongue to Lan Wangji’s entrance. Lan Wangji curved up under him with a startled gasp, his spine a crescent moon. Wei Wuxian gentled him down to the bed with the palm of his hand. He brought the flat of his tongue to the rim of Lan Wangji in a long lick, and then lathed at him with the sharper blade of its side.

Lan Wangji shoved his fingers into Wei Wuxian’s hair, gripping. He then removed them immediately, as if in apology. Wei Wuxian butted his head back under Lan Wangji’s hand.

“Whatever you need, darling,” he said, loving the feel of him and wanting so much to be good to Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji’s hand hesitantly wove back through the hair at Wei Wuxian’s scalp, then clenched in the thick tresses when Wei Wuxian sucked at him—with gusto now, noisy-slick and lewd. Lan Wangji’s entrance was quivering and responsive under him. He tightened and opened on Wei Wuxian’s tongue, his body as hesitant and resistant as he had been when they’d met, and then as giving and wholly enraptured with Wei Wuxian as he was now that he’d given himself over to love. He was warm, and hitched towards Wei Wuxian, into his touch, with helpless twitches. Lan Wangji leaned and pushed down into it, each burrowing shift of his hips a soundless appeal for more, a testament to how much he liked this.

Wei Wuxian licked and sucked and fucked into him, flicking the edge of him with a tongue-tip over and again. This wasn’t so hard—or Lan Wangji was very generous in his reactions. All Wei Wuxian had to do was play, and explore, and work his lover like a new instrument he was feeling out. All he had to be was eager and attentive: all he had to do was want it, and he’d spent whole cold nights alone in Gusu and Yiling and Yunmeng, thinking and thinking about how much he did.

He lost track of time, but he knew he’d been at this for a while because Lan Wangji was so very gone, writhing for it. His breathy, barely-vocalised ‘ah, ah, ah, ah’ hit Wei Wuxian so hard he thought he’d swoon.

“Fuck, fuck, you—”

He drew back, and Lan Wangji’s disappointed moan could have killed him. He hadn’t words for what Lan Wangji was.

“Gods, you’re so fucking delightful like this. You’re doing so well for me. Lan Zhan, I’m going to finger you open now. Have you ever done that for yourself?”

Lan Wangji gave a slight, single nod. With an unsteady hand, he reached over and passed Wei Wuxian a jar of ungent from atop the night table. Uncorking it, Wei Wuxian was met with a gently herbal smell. Trust the Lans.

“Someday I want to see that,” Wei Wuxian said, unfastening his robes so they fell around him and oiling up his fingers.

Lan Wangji nodded once more, staring at his now-exposed husband.

“You’d do that for me?” Wei Wuxian asked, delighted. He really hadn’t expected that, but then his zhiji often surprised him. Lan Wangji, fucking himself pliant and wide—that would truly be something to see. Even distracted as he was by the banquet spread before him, Wei Wuxian would endeavour to remember to add that prospect to his list of ideas.

“I learned for you,” Lan Wangji said, blunt and wholly unabashed. “Because I wanted you terribly. I learned so that I could take my husband, when the time came, and so that I could bide my time until it did.”

“Fuck,” Wei Wuxian gasped at that. His own cock was achingly ready, and Lan Wangji was swollen hard. When Wei Wuxian bent to give the tempting length of him a clumsy lick, from base to tip, Lan Wangji instinctively attempted to buck up into his mouth. Wei Wuxian liked Lan Wangji’s greed for him. He thought he could easily become smitten with it.

Wei Wuxian pressed a solitary digit into the slick, fluttering warmth of his husband.

“Even though I tongued you, I think this is going to take a lot of fingering,” he remarked, dragging in and out of his husband while trying to steady his own breath.

“My cock’s not so massive as this brute here,” he cupped Lan Wangji’s member, then rolled his thumb over the head to spread the drop of moisture beading at the tip, “but it’ll fill you up nicely.”

Wei Wuxian brought his hand back to his own cock. He gave it a stroke, spreading the slick of Lan Wangji’s precome over himself and meeting Lan Wangji’s black eyes.

“I’m going to take such good care of you with this. You’ll see.”

He rocked fingers into Lan Wangji. Push and pull, like the swing-step of sword drills. The familiar, enjoyable strain in his muscles. The pain of not yet having come like the pain of pushing through another set. And ever so much better, because delectable Lan Wangji jerked on his fingers. His whole body followed Wei Wuxian’s movement, drawing down with the drag of Wei Wuxian’s hand when he pulled away and meeting Wei Wuxian with a hard squirming smack when he pushed up again.

And all the while his body surged in accordance with Wei Wuxian’s will, Lan Wangji watched him: intent as a bird of prey was on the movement of an animal in long grasses beneath him; gentle and habitual as the breath of wind across that field.

“What is it, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asked.

“I didn’t imagine you would have me quite like this,” Lan Wangji admitted, his voice low. “Everything was vaguer, in my mind. Rougher. I thought you’d always tease.” He looked up at Wei Wuxian with stark, undeniable enchantment. “I forgot how gentle you could be. How well you can take care of people.” He shook his head, bringing his right hand to cup Wei Wuxian’s cheek. “You so surpass even the idea of you, Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian removed his fingers from Lan Wangji and held the tip of his cock at the entrance of Lan Wangji’s slick, worked-open hole.

“Well,” Wei Wuxian said lightly and easily (just as though his heart wasn’t being forced, like any other exercised muscle might be, to grow and strengthen under Lan Wangji’s patient tutelage), twining their free hands together and pushing in slow, just as slow as he could bear. “I love you so, Lan Zhan. And I want you every way they ever invented, and then to come up with some new ones.”

He bit his lip, closed his eyes and steadied himself as he rested entirely inside Lan Wangji, who gripped his hand like a lifeline.

“But just now,” Wei Wuxian continued, “I want you to feel safe, and adored. To know that I’m here. That you’re here. And that having taken you, I’ll never let you go.”

“Don’t,” Lan Wangji said, hard and automatic and visceral. His gaze turned harried, as though this were some old wound Wei Wuxian had unknowingly cut deeper into. “Don’t ever leave me alone.”

“How could I?” Wei Wuxian said, surging forward with reassurance, eager to give Lan Wangji anything he needed of him, all of himself he could.

“How could I?” He repeated. “You peerless, perfect thing—”

He rocked into Lan Wangji, knowing that he wouldn’t last long, this first time, and having made Lan Wangji very, very ready with that caveat in mind. Wanting to speak his delight. Knowing he needed to bring Lan Wangji with him, and knowing also that nothing in the world unspun Lan Wangji so well as his chatter.

“You’re bottled glory,” Wei Wuxian said by way of description, rolling his hips harder, giving them a snap that made Lan Wangji gasp. “Beautiful as fallen snow, resolute as mountains, sweet-mouthed, responsive as an instrument, so fucking tight, and mine, my husband, my Lan Zhan—”

Lan Wangji seemed to choke on his own breath, in time with Wei Wuxian’s thrusts. His eyes went glassy; his head rolled on the pillow.

“You like it?” Wei Wuxian asked him.

“Uh huh,” Lan Wangji said, voice small—working his hips in tight circles, the better to really feel Wei Wuxian in him.

Wei Wuxian couldn’t help bending down to lick the metal diadem of Lan Wangji’s still-tied ribbon. Gods, that perfect little noise! And then Lan Wangji wrapped a leg around his hip to pull him in at a deeper angle, and who was Wei Wuxian to say no to such a clear, polite request?

“I really have to thank you for your virginity,” Wei Wuxian said with a grin, releasing Lan Wangji’s left hand to lift and grip his thick, well-developed thighs. “Lan er gege could have had anyone in the world, but he reserved himself just for my enjoyment.”

Lan Wangji flushed and made a stifled sound at the prospect of being enjoyed. This only egged Wei Wuxian on further.

“Do you know how lovely you are?” Wei Wuxian asked, properly crashing into Lan Wangji now in a way that left Lan Wangji scrambling at the sheets and had his fingers twisting into, clutching at the material.

“How I’ve wanted you as I’ve never wanted anything in my life?” Wei Wuxian continued, punctuating that with a deep thrust that punched the breath out of Lan Wangji. “Do you know how good you feel, what a rush and a delight it is to make your perfect mouth drop open, to make your breath come faster—”

Lan Wangji was panting now, staring up at Wei Wuxian more like he was the moon than like he’d hung the thing.

“Gods I love getting you off,” Wei Wuxian said, “being of use to you—tell me more about how you thought it would be. You learned, for me—I love that. Did er gege get off to me?”

Lan Wangji was struggling to speak, but so clearly wanted to do well for him.

“Yes, I—I imagined anything, with Wei Ying. Everything. Fucking you, and this, you doing just this. Riding you, or you making me—you catching me pleasuring myself, moaning your name, and your telling me you’d let the whole thing go if I—if I just—”

Wei Wuxian shuddered, his cock throbbing in the grip of his husband’s body. This had been an astounding miscalculation on his part. There was no way he could last another five minutes with Lan Wangji saying things like that. This called for desperate measures. He seized Lan Wangji’s hips and held him in place. Lan Wangji made a noise of protest.

“Shhh,” Wei Wuxian said. “There, there. You can take it. You can make your husband come in you, can’t you, Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji gave a shaky, desperate nod and twined his arms around Wei Wuxian’s neck. Wei Wuxian turned his head to give Lan Wangji’s right hand a kiss, then unpeeled it from his neck and brought it down to Lan Wangji’s own cock.

“Show me how to do it right, er gege. Show me how my husband likes it.” Lan Wangji bit his lip and wrapped his hand around himself. Wei Wuxian watched how his husband took himself in hand, with such a surprisingly delicate touch, and fucked him all the while.

“That’s it,” he praised, “such a good boy for me, Lan Zhan. I want you to come for me. You’re going to tighten up for me—fuck, er gege, you’re going to make me feel so good.”

Lan Wangji surged up to demand a kiss as he spent, spilling onto his stomach and Wei Wuxian’s and his own silk robes. Wei Wuxian held him through it. When Lan Wangji slid, boneless, back down to the bed, Wei Wuxian pressed once more into him. The careful, deep, magisterially sedate thrust served as a question.

“Tell me you want it,” Wei Wuxian demanded, so close but trying to gauge whether Lan Wangji, sensitive as he was in this regard, would be overwhelmed by his continuing.

“Come in me,” Lan Wangji said decisively, flushed but plain. “I want you to do it. Wei Ying, husband, please.”

The demand brought Wei Wuxian right to the edge. He scrambled to ride and relish it, fucking through his orgasm, fucking Lan Wangji almost to the point of pain. Lan Wangji jerked like a doll or a puppet on his cock, mewling “Wei Ying, Wei Ying” as he was thoroughly used.

“That’s it, sweetheart,” Wei Wuxian muttered nonsense as he collapsed over him. “My good, good boy, you took it so well.”

When he’d caught his breath, Wei Wuxian propped himself up on an elbow. He understood he’d have to pull out of his snug position inside his husband, and clean them up, and be responsible. (His instruction regarding marriage had been quite clear on these points, and Wen Qing was professionally shameless enough to grill him on his successful execution of her teachings.) But not, he thought, for another few minutes.

“Did your bride fuck you well?” he asked, placing a possessive hand on Lan Wangji’s chest.

Lan Wangji nodded. “My Wei Ying was perfect,” he said with smug contentment, giving a satisfied stretch-and-squirm. “It was more overwhelming than I imagined it would be,” Lan Wangji confided quietly after a moment, as though he were a little miffed to have been so wrecked by his own first time—as though Wei Wuxian hadn’t been rendered equally a mess in the face of him.

Adorable, Wei Wuxian thought, wondering if he could get away with calling Lan Wangji this thing he inarguably was outside of sex. Wei Wuxian was getting the impression that there was relatively little Lan Wangji wouldn’t let him get away with. Between that and the sex, he really was going to get spoiled!

***

Unexpectedly awoken at five in the morning, Wei Wuxian was decidedly less sanguine about his marital future.

“I’m not going to adopt the Lan sleep schedule,” Wei Wuxian said, his eyes still closed. “That was in my contract.”

“Mm,” his husband agreed, pleasantly enough. But he didn’t stop fussing with Wei Wuxian—toying with his pretty lingerie, his hair. Stroking his arms and his belly. Teasing Wei Wuxian until he was shivery and half-hard.

Wei Wuxian cracked an eye, giving Lan Wangji a sullen look. Lan Wangji seemed as satisfied with himself as a child who’d bullied his mother out of bed.

“Oh, you’re awake,” Lan Wangji said. The sheer cheek of him. Absolutely shameless. Jiang Wanyin had been right, he’d married an asshole.

“What happened to my good boy?” Wei Wuxian demanded. “What have you done with him?”

“It was you who did much with him,” Lan Wangji said primly. “Now it is your turn to be good for me.” That tone was decidedly less prim.

Lan Wangji echoed Wei Wuxian’s opening gambit from the previous night, straddling his husband. He looked down at Wei Wuxian, considering him with scholastic focus—as though Wei Wuxian were a particularly complex curse he was figuring out how to break.

Wei Wuxian didn’t know that he’d mind being broken. Not if it were by Lan Wangji. “Are you going to be gentle, Hanguangjun?”

“I always believed I would be, this first time,” Lan Wangji said, regarding him seriously. Stroking a thumb over Wei Wuxian’s lip. “And I am certain that eventually, I shall be. But my Wei Ying,” he pushed his thumb into Wei Wuxian’s mouth, “made me watch him marry another man. Twice.” As if to emphasize this fact, he gave Wei Wuxian two more fingers to suck. “Each of them infinitely beneath him. My Wei Ying made me watch these mockeries touch him. And as a result, I find I am not yet inclined to gentleness. You will have to win that of me.”

Lan Wangji removed his fingers from Wei Wuxian’s mouth, bringing the wet digits to Wei Wuxian’s nipple to give it an experimental twist. Wei Wuxian shivered, and Lan Wangji noted the results of his exploration with some interest and satisfaction.

“Don’t you know the saying? ‘The louder the bride cries on her wedding day, the better the marriage.’” Wei Wuxian canted his hips, pressing his erection up against Lan Wangji’s. (Who’d probably woken up with one and decided to put it to practical use. That would be very Lan Wangji.)

“You want to make me happy, don’t you, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian goaded him. “Make me weep.”

Lan Wangji tilted his head to the side. “I’m still somewhat sore from how well my pretty wife fucked me.” He idly palmed Wei Wuxian’s cock, gripping it harder than Wei Wuxian ever had his. “But I think I can manage.”

How had he figured out the sort of touch Wei Wuxian liked best? Wei Wuxian sulked about it, even as he bucked up into Lan Wangji’s unrelentingly firm hand. “Hanguangjun, you truly learn everything so quickly!”

“I have had a great deal of opportunity to consider these matters,” Lan Wangji admitted calmly, giving Wei Wuxian’s cock a steady, sliding pull. “Especially while I watched you try to offer others something you know very well is mine.”

“You thought about me,” Wei Wuxian sing-songed, as though it were wholly novel rather than something Lan Wangji had confessed before they’d slept. As though Wei Wuxian were winning some concession from his husband—as though he hadn’t carved a stick figure of Lan Wangji into his bedpost in another life, and the characters of the other boy’s name into his heart in both.

He poked Lan Wangji in the chest. In response Lan Wangji used one hand to pin Wei Wuxian’s wrists above his head, grinding their erections together with slow deliberation. It was a silent command for Wei Wuxian to pay attention.

“I did,” said Lan Wangji, sliding his hips across his husband’s in an indolent rhythm. “I thought of you at the gate when we met, when you were pert and insolent. I thought of you on the roof, when you were so much more so. I thought about you in the library, and in my rooms, and in this bed. I thought about you in the lecture hall, and in the Cold Pond, and in every single roadside inn we spent the night in while we travelled. In Qinghe and Qishan and Lanling, I thought only of you, and of when you would cast off your pretenders and ask me to fight at your side. You were never out of my thoughts. I have wanted you in ways that even you have never imagined, Wei Ying. Of that, I am certain.”

Wei Wuxian stared up at him, looking almost frightened. “I,” he said, “am going to die if you don’t fuck me. You are so much. I knew you would be, and I need it. I need you. Fuck.”

He outright wriggled under Lan Wangji, frustratedly trying to expedite matters any way he could.

“What an impatient little slut,” Lan Wangji tsked, sounding glacial—putting on his own manner. Tilting his head in his most dismissive way. Still rocking his hips against Wei Wuxian’s. “I haven’t even fingered you yet.”

The aspersion knifed through Wei Wuxin. Lan Wangji had watched him savour the word in Qishan, when he hadn’t even meant to do it, and had remembered to deploy it against him now. Lan Wangji was going to be the fucking death of him.

“Please?” he begged with wide-blown eyes. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, you know how much I like your attention—and besides,” he mustered, recovering himself a degree, “given the transmigration, technically I might just be your gege right now! You really ought to do what your elders tell you!”

Lan Wangji snorted, giving Wei Wuxian the tiniest hint of a smile.

“Absolutely not, A di.”

Wei Wuxian made a strangled sound. The combination of Lan Wangji’s soft expression and that regional endearment, which turned his own teasing ‘gege’ on its head, had slain him.

Lan Wangji leaned back, breaking the contact between them—much to Wei Wuxian’s distress—only to come to lie at his husband’s side. He then abruptly turned his husband in his arms, rolling Wei Wuxian over on the mattress, so that his face was buried in the pillow. He jerked Wei Wuxian’s open robe off one of his arms as he did so.

This allowed Lan Wangji to run his hand down Wei Wuxian’s back, and over the curve of his ass. He squeezed the flesh hard with his hand and dipped his head down to carefully bite the juncture of Wei Wuxian’s neck and collar bone. While Wei Wuxian gasped, Lan Wangji coated his fingers in oil and shoved two at once into his husband.

“How do you know I can take that?” Wei Wuxian demanded, kicking his foot up in the air only for Lan Wangji to press it back down against the mattress.

“You were very assured in doing it to me,” Lan Wangji pointed out. “Your skill spoke of experience, and you have known no other. Be good, Wei Ying.”

Lan Wangji fucked Wei Wuxian with long, efficient plunges and drags of his fingers, flexing and twisting them inside his husband. He was careful enough in it that Wei Wuxian recognised a hint of his composed husband’s sight-reading.

“You can,” Wei Wuxian huffed after a minute, “go faster.”

“I will go exactly as fast as I wish to,” Lan Wangji said. “I warned you I wouldn’t be gentle with you. And you said you wanted it.” He went no faster, but he added another finger.

“I do,” Wei Wuxian said, as he gripped the bed frame with his hands to brace himself. “I want it, you know how much I’ve wanted you. Mm, Lan Zhan, you’ve such a pretty cock. Do you have any idea how big you are?”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji said simply, pushing in a fourth finger, as if to demonstrate that he was aware of the precautions his natural endowment rendered necessary.

Wei Wuxian hissed in breath. “Speak of attempting the impossible—it’s fortunate you married the first disciple of Jiang, you know.”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji said, sounding amused and fond. “It is.”

“You’re going to give it to me soon, right er gege? You’ve made me ready enough, surely. Such a brutish thing, to be attached to the elegant Hanguangjun! But I want you to ruin me with it.” Wei Wuxian shifted to fuck himself on those relentless fingers. Indulgent play-acting spilled into truth. “Even if I think I can’t handle it, you should make me take it. I want you to.”

Wei Wuxian choked in surprise when a forceful smack hit his ass. Another followed, and then another. Lan Wangji had a strong arm, and a grip Wei Wuxian couldn’t wrench himself away from.

“Don’t be a brat,” Lan Wangji said. “Don’t tease me about wanting what I’m going to make you beg for in earnest.”

“I’m not!” Wei Wuxian insisted as Lan Wangji struck the firm mound of his ass, again and again. “I’m not, I—”

You aren’t a tease?” Lan Wangji quirked an eyebrow, stroking and kneading Wei Wuxian’s red, stinging ass with his large hands, each of which covered the whole of a cheek with ease. “But I think you liked everyone looking at how pretty you were in your finery and your déshabillé. Didn’t you, Wei Ying?” He curled his fingers in Wei Wuxian, making him twitch and twist between poles of sensation.

“Did you like driving me insane?” Lan Wangji whispered, his voice low and intent. He dropped down to just three fingers, opting for a clean piston over sheer fullness, and fucked Wei Wuxian hard. “Did you even think of me, Wei Ying, for all I thought of you? Did you factor it into your plans that I wanted to rip that lingerie off you with my teeth, and take you in front of everyone? I wanted to make you tell me you were sorry. I wanted to make you beg for it.”

Lan Wangji worked with a punishing speed now, his words coming more raw. His tone deepening to something fast and rough. If play was to be real enough to sate otherwise unspeakable hungers, then it had to encompass sharp edges, and to let the resultant blood show through.

“The men you gave yourself to didn’t even appreciate having what was mine,” Lan Wangji said. “You were supposed to marry me, Wei Ying. I was going to ask, so seriously, for you. You deserved that, and you threw yourself away. And if you cannot value yourself in your own right, then think what you denied me.”

Lan Wangji was breathing hard. Wei Wuxian understood that this was as much about Lan Wangji’s having seen Wei Wuxian’s suffering in Empathy as having his borne witness to Wei Wuxian’s dangerous, loveless marriages with his own eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian gasped, pleasure buried inside him, fire licking up his skin and an ache in his heart. “I’m sorry.”

Swift as a sword-strike, Lan Wangji pulled out of Wei Wuxian and flipped him over on his back, leaving him reeling. He cradled Wei Wuxian’s head in his clean left hand, his fingers catching in Wei Wuxian’s long hair, and kissed him emphatically. He deliberately flicked his tongue over the pronounced dot of the beauty mark directly under Wei Wuxian’s lower lip.

“You’ll try to guard all of yourself from harm for me?” Lan Wangji murmured when the rush of passion had found this partial release. “For us?”

Wei Wuxian nodded and pulled him back into another desperate kiss.

“That’s all I need,” Lan Wangji said, tilting their foreheads together when they broke from one another’s mouths. “No one could try harder than you, Wei Ying. I only ask to be something you value enough to try for.”

“Oh sweetheart,” Wei Wuxian said, kissing his face and trying to work himself down on his husband cock, his hole sliding against the thick head. Needing to show Lan Wangji how very wanted he was, needing this for himself. “Zhiji, anything for you. Anything. Please, please—”

Lan Wangji obliged him, sheathing himself in Wei Wuxian fully with a few firm jabs. Wei Wuxian found that he couldn’t keep still for this. He was a flurry of desirous motion. His hips flexed to work for another inch of his husband. His body fluttered around and gripped at Lan Wangji’s cock. His hands flexed and his fingers gripped the muscles of Lan Wangji’s arms.

Seated in his husband, Lan Wangji couldn’t keep his eyes open.  Couldn’t help throwing back his head, showing off the column of his neck in the frail dawn light. Couldn’t help gasping, “oh, Wei Ying”, undone, and pushing in deeper.

Mastering himself to a degree, Lan Wangji avoided the sort of punishing thrusts his husband wasn’t yet accustomed to taking. Instead he opted to grind himself in, letting Wei Wuxian adjust to and appreciate the length and girth of him. Wei Wuxian was glassy-eyed as it was, and needed the opportunity to to get used to him. Wei Wuxian gulped when he saw Lan Wangji’s hand twist over his abdomen in the form of a swift qi suppression that would delay his orgasm. (What did they teach these Lans? Wei Wuxian only learned about that this week!)

When Lan Wangji then began to establish a rhythm of thrusts, Wei Wuxian found himself making desperate, humiliating non-volitional noises. When Lan Wangji began to properly fuck him hard, Wei Wuxian started to babble.

“Er gege,” Wei Wuxian panted, “forget whether those others wanted me. No one could ever fuck me like you, er gege.”

“No one’s going to,” Lan Wangji growled into his ear, “because you’re mine, Wei Ying.” When Wei Wuxian only made a lost sound in response, Lan Wangji frowned. “Say it,” he demanded, coldly.

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian breathed, “yes, of course I am, anything you want Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan.”

Pleased with himself, Lan Wangji licked Wei Wuxian’s throat and once more bit deep into the muscle at the base, making Wei Wuxian shriek. This didn’t move Lan Wangji to shame—in fact he seemed still more determined to suck his mark onto his husband.

“Hanguangjun,” Wei Wuxian gasped, “stop, everyone will see—”

Even as he said it, he wrapped his leg around Lan Wangji’s waist, canting his hips up to force Lan Wangji’s cock deeper into him—a copy of the move Lan Wangji had tried the previous night. Even here, they learned from one another.

“So clever, even when you’re this far gone,” Lan Wangji praised as he tilted back and pulled Wei Wuxian’s legs up, spreading him wider. Making room for himself, as though he belonged exactly where he was.

“No, but listen, everyone will see me marked up,” Wei Wuxian said. “It’ll be so embarrassing, my lord husband.”

“You’d be embarrassed?” Lan Wangji sneered, fucking him harder and deeper. “You? By this? But Wei Ying, everyone knows you’re mine. I claimed you before the world.” He put his hand on Wei Wuxian’s collarbone for leverage, rubbing his thumb into the softened flesh where a bruise would form. “Everyone will know what I do to you.”

Fuck, you’re so much,” Wei Wuxian said, his whole body jerking now with the force of Lan Wangji’s efforts, but pinned in place by his grip.

“My Wei Ying loves this,” Lan Wangji scoffed. “My pretty bride gags for it. Throws a fit if he doesn’t get me, like a little brat.” At last he shifted to the brutal rhythm his fingers had at once presaged and prepared Wei Wuxian for. “You can take it, can’t you beloved? Didn’t you ask me to make you?”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian begged him, “let me make you come, please. I’m sorry, I’m sorry I taunted you. You know I’m just for you. I know I act like such a slut, but it’s only because I wanted you so badly. I couldn’t help it, Lan Zhan. Come on, give me what I’ve been asking for. Come in me, Lan Zhan—you’re the only one I really married.”

“Of course I am. And you are still far too articulate for my tastes,” Lan Wangji observed. He then did his damnedest to fuck his husband stupid. Wei Wuxian was so clever that this was a particular challenge, but one it seemed Lan Wangji believed he was up for.

When Wei Wuxian was appropriately incoherent, he felt a wrenching, climbing sensation in him. Words, for the most part, deserted him, for once in his life. He could only slur out ‘please, please, please’. He came digging his nails into Lan Wangji’s shoulders.

Lan Wangji came only a moment after, as though he’d been desperately holding on and had barely outlasted his husband. Lan Wangji held Wei Wuxian close, shaking as he poured himself into Wei Wuxian, making him take it all and kissing Wei Wuxian until he was struggling to breathe.

Lan Wangji then slid to the bed at his side, falling flat on his back. Wei Wuxian managed to turn onto his stomach, throwing his arm and leg over his husband like a starfish. With some annoyance, Wei Wuxian considered that Lan Wangji was probably counting it as a personal victory that Wei Wuxian was too winded to speak.

“You know,” Wei Wuxian managed to croak after a few minutes’ recovery, “I still have the lingerie Wen zongzhu and Jin zongzhu gifted me. And I never did get to use it.” He drew his hand up Lan Wangji’s chest. “Would it make you feel better to interrupt my weddings, er gege?” His voice turned musing, and his eyes sparkled. “You could steal the bride and ruin her. Keep her for yourself.”

“I hear she’s a menace,” Lan Wangji observed, giving Wei Wuxian’s ass a fond squeeze. Which absolutely wasn’t a no.

“Well, it’s like I said. You’re lucky I’m your menace.” Wei Wuxian rested his head on his husband’s chest. They’d have to get up soon. But it was so lovely and warm in the bed, and Lan Wangji had ravished him to the point where standing seemed as though it’d be as difficult as it was unwise.

“I am lucky,” Lan Wangji said. “I wished very hard to continue thus, as my husband instructed me.”

His tone was terribly earnest and fervent for someone who was shamelessly playing with Wei Wuxian’s butt. But then Wei Wuxian supposed Lan Wangji was earnest and fervent about his ass, as well. His husband was generally very consistent in his character, and in his application of his principles.

***

Lan Xichen barely slept. He was terrified that at any moment he’d be awoken by some insultingly theatrical announcement of his beloved younger brother’s demise. Lan Wangji was, at least, the swordsman and cultivator Lan Xichen himself was. Thus he might well prevail even in a fight with a talented swordsman like Wei Wuxian—though he’d surely break his heart in the process. Lan Xichen wasn’t certain his brother’s guarded affections would ever recover from such a betrayal.

Morning came, and Lan Xichen dressed. He caught sight of himself in the mirror, dark-circled and mussed, and smoothed his hair as best he could. The anxious hours wore on. Xichen found that sect correspondence could not distract him, nor even hold his attention.

At last the hour of the newlyweds’ formal reception breakfast neared. Lan Xichen braced himself and walked to the main hall. If anything had happened to Wangji, he didn’t know what he’d do. He wondered, almost hysterically, how effectively the wedding preparations could be converted into funerary trappings.

When the new couple did not enter at the appointed time, Xichen felt a swoop of dread in his heart. He gripped the edges of the table before him, white-knuckled. His uncle frowned, clearly beginning (belatedly, Xichen thought!) to worry.

Only a minute or so later, a great clatter sounded from the door.

“Sorry we’re late,” Wei Wuxian said, bounding in, with a miraculously hale-looking Lan Wangji at his heels. “My fault, my fault, I couldn’t tie this right.”

Over his delicate light blue sleep-robes Wei Wuxian wore a midnight blue, rough-silk robe, which he gestured to now. It transformed intimate apparel suitable for a wedding night into a respectable, mature and comely ensemble suitable for Lan furen to serve his new in-laws tea in.  

Wei Wuxian gave the Lan sect leader and grandmaster quite a passable bow, knelt before them and poured still-steaming tea into their cups. Even Lan Qiren looked mollified.

“Did you sleep well, Xiongzhang?” Wangji had the absolute nerve to ask, sitting down beside his husband. “Forgive me, but you look tired.”

“I—did you, Wangji? Are you well?” Xichen searched his brother’s face for signs of mind-control, poisoning, gods only knew what.

“I hardly slept at all,” Wangji said, entirely without shame. “But I am none the worse for that.”

Lan Qiren snorted into his tea-cup.

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian said, flushing. Xichen now noticed the chain of bruises at his brother-in-law’s neckline. It was as pronounced as a necklace. Really, Wangji? he thought, exasperated. It was so obvious—Xichen had a terrible suspicion that, for the rest of their lives, Wangji would be glacially furious if anyone so much as alluded to Wei Wuxian’s having had prior husbands.

Wei Wuxian cleared his throat and bowed once more.

“There will be an official announcement at the banquet today, with testimony from witnesses from the Jiang and Wen clans. But my honoured in-laws should know beforehand that I’ve destroyed the yin iron seal in its entirety, in accordance with Lan Yi’s wishes. Anyone may check the Cold Pond cave to confirm this.”

There was a pause. “The green flash, last night,” Qiren said. “Of course. Well done, Wuxian.”

“Thank you, grandmaster,” Wei Wuxian said. Wangji placed an affectionate hand on his husband’s back.

Xichen sat stunned, and Lan Qiren took up the thread of the conversation in his stead.

“Given that we’re all here, everyone will want to discuss the Chief Cultivator role. Lan ought to have a position on the matter. Wei Wuxian, give us your opinion.”

The young man nodded.

“You’ll think I’m biased in favour of my parents’ house, but why not Jiang Fengmian? Jin Zixuan is young, and far too busy at present. Lan Xichen has the temperament,” Wei Wuxian gave him a respectful nod, “and my Lan Zhan to advise him, but he’s not much older. So too Nie Mingjue, who does not have the temperament.”

Lan Qiren gave his troublesome but talented pupil a school-room nod. “Good. You know Jiang best. We must look to you, now, to advise us on our relations with your mother sect. What else should we consider?”

“Well,” Wei Wuxian thought, “the post would allow Jiang Fengmian to be diplomatic, which is one of his strengths. His occupation would give Madam Yu greater dominion over Jiang’s affairs, so might add to their marital harmony.” He would not speak ill of his family, even in a small company that already knew its members well, but he could allude that far. Only Lan Wangji, Xichen now suspected, might receive his full confidence.

Wei Wuxian looked directly at Lan Qiren. “Now that Lan Zhan is of age and married, you haven’t the claims of children on your time. Thus the other obvious choice is, of course, you.”

Lan Qiren gave him a look of infinite distaste. Wei Wuxian cackled.

“Don’t laugh for no reason,” Qiren muttered.

“Grandmaster’s face gave me reason enough,” Wei Wuxian said, and Wangji actually had to hide the smile at the corner of his mouth.

“Maybe the office should open to minor sect leaders,” Xichen found himself saying.

“But who among them?” Wangji said, elegantly summing up the whole situation: the idea was better than the pool of candidates.

“Lord, anyone but Sect Leader Yao,” Wei Wuxian answered with a roll of his eyes.

“Ouyang, then?” Wangji suggested innocently. Wei Wuxian gave him a look of deep betrayal.

“Whose side are you on, Hanguangjun?”

“Always yours, beloved,” Lan Wangji assured him, refilling their elders’ tea in his stead. The looks on their faces ought to have been illegal. It was painfully obvious even to Lan Xichen that Wei Wuxian was not, in fact, a murderous vixen, but rather a stupidly besotted young bride.

Eventually, Lan Xichen and Wei Wuxian would become great friends. Wei Wuxian would never stop taunting Lan Xichen for his absolute conviction that his younger brother wouldn’t survive his wedding night, but eventually, Lan Xichen would find the misapprehension almost as funny as Wei Wuxian did. At present, however, the couple’s devout ardour and radiating smugness could hardly be quenched even by the restraining presence of Uncle. In such a case as that, what chance had Lan Xichen? The prospect of enduring the first weeks of the couple’s honeymoon period made Lan Xichen feel lonely, and more importantly, as though he might well die of second-hand embarrassment. Someone had to feel such things, if the couple themselves wouldn’t.

Nothing could have been more welcome to Lan Xichen than the invitation he received from Sect Leader Nie and his steward Meng Ziyao the next day to spend some weeks in Qinghe. Meng Ziyao suggested that he might like to give his new brother a little space in which to settle in. It only added another layer to Lan Xichen’s considerable chagrin that he indirectly had Wei Wuxian to thank for a most interesting visit, which led to many fruitful and lasting developments in his own personal life.

Lan Xichen did not mark any stage of these developments with a gaudy public ceremonial, nor did he parade around in any revealing intimate attire. Someone in this family had to keep up standards.