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Fated Meeting

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Lan Wangji had just been married and he was furious about it.

He and Lan Xichen had come to Carp Tower with ten of their disciples to seal an alliance with the Yiling Patriarch, brokered by the Jin sect, and instead he had found himself all but coerced into an arranged marriage.

Since the alternative was war with the undead of the demonic Burial Mounds, he had no choice.

During the ceremony, all Lan Wangji had been able to discern about the Patriarch was that they were about the same height. It was hard to tell under the bulky wedding robe and the veil, but for a monster, he seemed surprisingly slender.

The Jin, who were characteristically enjoying the discomfiture of all concerned, had wanted Lan Wangji to wear a veil too. "Surely the veil is unnecessary," Xichen had said to Jin Zixun before the ceremony.

Jin Zixun had laughed in a way that made Lan Wangji want to ram his sword hilt into his smug face. "We thought you might run screaming if you saw what the monster of the Burial Mounds actually looked like." He added, "Perhaps you need the veil, Hanguang-jun, if you feel you can't keep your composure during the ceremony."

No, the hilt was the wrong end of the sword to ram into Jin Zixun's face. Lan Wangji began, "Perhaps you would like--"

"Wangji!" Xichen said sharply. "No veil will be necessary, Jin Zixun."

Now the ceremony was over. The Yiling Patriarch had already been taken to the guest house where he and Lan Wangji would be ensconced for the night. Lan Wangji had stayed at the banquet for a short while more, hoping Jin Guangshan would drink himself to death, listening to all the other sects present praise the Jin for arranging this and saving the poor Lan from the depredations of the Burial Mounds.

The noise and too rich food of the banquet was almost intolerable. Watching the other sects crawl to the powerful Jin threatened to make Lan Wangji even more homicidal than he already was. When he could stand it no longer, he told Xichen, "I'll go now."

Xichen was trying to conceal his distress and anger with the whole proceeding, but Lan Wangji could read it easily in his furrowed brow. He said, "Take Lan Zhi and Lan Tian with you."

Lan Wangji was puzzled. "Why?"

"I mean, have them wait outside, Wangji," Xichen said in frustration. "I just don't want you completely alone. Just humor me."

Lan Wangji knew Xichen blamed himself for this situation, but they had no choice. The wars of the previous generation and the volcanic eruption in Qishan had left the countryside devastated, cities and sects in ruins, all across the continent. The Lan had been lucky to survive at all, and now they were lucky the powerful Jin had chosen to intercede in order to stop the attack on Cloud Recesses by the Burial Mounds. Lan Wangji said, "I agreed to this, Brother." He didn't add, "It will be fine," because it wouldn't. It would be what it was.

Lan Wangji took Bichen and left the banquet, ignoring the comments of the few who noticed his departure. He was trailed by Lan Zhi and Lan Tian.

The Jin guards led them to a small court with a fish pond and a little garden in the center where a wisteria bloomed brightly under the afternoon sun. One guest house formed the back wall of the court, and a second smaller one stood to the right. There were no fierce corpses, ghosts or demons on guard, which Lan Wangji had thought might be a possibility.

The Jin guard pointed out the larger guest house and said with a grin, "That's yours." Lan Wangji stared at him until the man added belatedly, "Young Master."

"Go," Lan Wangji said.

He waited until the two Jin withdrew out of the court, then he told Lan Zhi and Lan Tian, "Wait here."

They both bowed, and Lan Wangji started toward the guest house.

He had almost reached the steps up to the porch when the door of the smaller house to the right slid open. He stopped warily.

A small young woman stepped out, bowed, and said, "Hanguang-jun. Please, a word."

Behind her, standing back from the doorway, was a grandmother holding a small child. Next to her was a young man, pale with a gray cast to his skin, and the dark veins of corpse poisoning around his neck.

That was concerning, but perhaps to be expected, considering the people of the Burial Mounds were said to be almost all undead. But the young man didn't seem to be mentally affected by it. His eyes were alert and intelligent, his expression worried. The child leaned toward him, trying to get his attention, and the young man absently held up a hand to let the child grasp his fingers. All were dressed in once elegant clothing that had obviously seen better days, with threadbare hems and tears that had been carefully repaired.

It seemed beyond strange that the Patriarch would have brought servants that included a small child. This looked like a family. Baffled, Lan Wangji returned their bows stiffly and said, "Yes, guniang?"

She said, "I am Wen Qing. The Yiling Patriarch is my brother. We formally adopted him into our family." She made a gesture to the others. "This is my brother, Wen Ning, my grandmother, and our cousin a-Yuan." The child, a-Yuan, looked up at his name and waved.

Lan Wangji felt his ears heat with embarrassment. The Jin had said the Yiling Patriarch had not been accompanied by family. Either the Jin had lied, or the Patriarch had brought them and refused to let them attend the ceremony. Because their clothes were so obviously worn? Did he keep his own family in poverty? Lan Wangji bowed again, this time at the proper depth for meeting his new in-laws. "My apologies," he said.

Wen Qing's grim expression didn't change. She said, "There is no need to apologize. This arrangement the Jin have forced on us has left us at your mercy. But I would ask you to please...be considerate with our brother. His reputation is fearsome, but he is young, and...inexperienced." She eyed Bichen, worry creasing her brow. "We have every intention of fulfilling our part of the bargain and we assure you there is no need for violence. You can see we are unarmed."

Lan Wangji knew he was staring, that his expression or lack thereof would be interpreted as forbidding. Everything he had heard about the Burial Mounds said this was a trick, a way to embarrass the Lan sect. Everything he saw with his own eyes said these were angry, frightened people who felt themselves at a disadvantage, who felt they were in danger. Wen Qing's description of the Patriarch... He would confront the man himself and demand an explanation. He said, "I assure you there will be no violence on my part, Wen-guniang." He bowed again and continued to the guest house.

He felt the Wens' worried gazes on him as he climbed the three steps to the porch and slid the door open.

Inside was a typically lavish Jin interior, with gold trim and peony designs everywhere, lace curtains separating the room sections, lush tassels. A low table stood on a woven floor mat, privacy screens walled off a bathing area with a tub. At the back was a large curtained bed.

There was no sign of the Yiling Patriarch.

Lan Wangji moved forward cautiously. A red wedding robe, veil, and headdress lay on the floor to one side of the mat, as if violently discarded on the way across the room.

Then he saw the splash of red silk across the bed and the waterfall of ink-dark hair. His new husband was sprawled face down in the bed, wearing a red inner robe.

Lan Wangji stepped closer. Was this a trap? A trick?

He couldn't tell if the man was breathing.

The Patriarch had supposedly returned from the dead at least once.

Lan Wangji wanted answers. He gave in to his frustration, stepped up to the bed, and cautiously poked one red-clad shoulder.

A full body flinch brought the Patriarch upright and slammed him back against the wall, crouched on the bed in a defensive position. Wangji fell back a step in pure reflex and almost drew Bichen.

They regarded each other, both startled and wary.

Shocked, Lan Wangji thought, He's young. And he was beautiful. Perfect skin, touched with gold by the sun, dark chestnut eyes, dark brows, high sharp cheekbones.

Glaring at him, the Yiling Patriarch slid down the wall and said, "Oh, it's you." His gaze went to Bichen and his lips shaped a sneer. "Planning to kill me already?"

"No." The Patriarch's lower lip was somehow very distracting. Lan Wangji had never been distracted like this before and it was very odd. Perhaps it was the tiny mole just beneath it. Could this really be... "You are the Yiling Patriarch?"

The expression that crossed his face was both amused and contemptuous. "What, afraid the Jin cheated you?" He held up a hand. A dark translucent curl of resentful energy rose above his fingers.

Then his eyes rolled up in his head and he collapsed on the bed.

Lan Wangji stared, but after a heartbeat it became obvious this wasn't a trick. He set Bichen aside in a sword stand and stepped forward to carefully roll the Patriarch's limp body over. He had to lift the silk-soft tangle of hair out of the way, but managed to avert his eyes from the exposed collarbone and calf now visible where the skirt of the Patriarch's robe had pulled up. Lan Wangji felt the pulse in his wrist. It was light and feathery. None of the energy in his meridians indicated a functioning Golden Core, so that rumor was true at least. This close Lan Wangji could tell that some of the man's slender build was due to being chronically underfed at some point. His bones were far too close to his skin, his wrists too knobby, there were dark shadows under his eyes. His red robe had carefully mended tears along the sleeves.

It matched the obvious poverty of Wen Qing and the others. The obvious poverty of people who were supposedly extracting tribute from Yiling, of people who were ready to attack Gusu with demonic cultivators and an undead army. At least, according to the Jin.

None of this made sense.

Lan Wangji needed answers, but first he had to revive the supposedly undead monster of the Burial Mounds.

Lan Wangji pulled a silk blanket up to cover him, then went to the bathing area and found a pitcher of water. He poured some into a basin, wet a cotton cloth for a compress. When he returned to place it on the Yiling Patriarch's forehead, the man murmured, but didn't wake.

There was no food in the room but there was a tea set. Lan Wangji set water to warm then discovered there was no tea. Fortunately, aware of the Jin's terrible taste in food and drink, he had brought some in his qiankun pouch. He had also brought his clothing in his pouch, and took a moment to step behind the privacy screen, remove the heavy Jin wedding robe, fold it, and replace it with his own white outer robe and sash. It was a relief, and he felt far more ready to face whatever was coming.

By that point the Patriarch was beginning to stir, one arm flailing a little. Lan Wangji approached cautiously and said, "How old are you?"

"Nineteen," the Patriarch said, still mostly unconscious. He rubbed at his face, encountered the compress and pulled it off, staring at it without comprehension. Then he sat up abruptly and flailed away.

Lan Wangji stepped back.

"What are you doing?" the Patriarch demanded suspiciously.

"I am making tea," Lan Wangji said. To show he had no intention of...doing anything, violent or otherwise, he turned and took a seat behind the table. "How can you be the Yiling Patriarch? There are stories about your activities going back generations."

The Patriarch looked annoyed and exasperated. Disturbingly, it just made him seem more attractive. "That's the Xue sect. They occupied the Burial Mounds until they died out."

"But you defended the Burial Mounds from the Jin more than ten years ago," Lan Wangji pointed out. News of that battle had even reached isolated Gusu.

"I've been dead off and on, I don't count the time when I'm not actually aging." The Patriarch relaxed enough from his defensive position to sit down on the bed, but he still looked wary and annoyed. "Look, you must know all about me, you asked for this."

Lan Wangji didn't understand. "I did not ask for anything."

"The Lan, your sect leader, whoever." Obviously skeptical of Lan Wangji's confusion, the Patriarch said, "The deal was that the Lan would leave the Burial Mounds, Yiling, and the Wen alone. Don't think I'll let you renege on that."

That was an interesting way of describing the treaty Lan Wangji had just sealed to protect Cloud Recesses. Obviously, mutual aggression would be prohibited, but the Lan had no ability or inclination to attack anyone. Lan Wangji seized on the one thing that made sense. "The Wen? Your adopted family?"

"Of course them! I'm not talking about the Qishan Wen buried under the volcano!" The Patriarch's glare grew more suspicious.

To give himself time to think, Lan Wangji poured the tea, then stood and took the cup to the Patriarch. The man watched this whole process with blank incomprehension. He stared at the offered cup, then up at Lan Wangji again. Did they not drink tea in the Burial Mounds? Lan Wangji said, "Take it. You are not well."

The Patriarch grimaced. "Stop pretending to be nice."

Lan Wangji had never been accused of pretending to be anything before. He was not accustomed to interacting with anyone outside his sect, and he knew whenever he did he was perceived as cold and stiffly unpleasant, which was the opposite of nice. It was baffling. "I am...not."

"Not pretending or not nice?" But the Patriarch finally took the cup and sketched a talisman over it. It glowed red in the air above the cup, then faded.

"What was that?" Lan Wangji asked. He had felt the power in the air, the drift of resentment energy, but it hadn't been directed at him.

"Reveal poison," the Patriarch said. He tasted the tea and winced. "Is this medicine?"

Lan Wangji ignored the question, as most people did not have the palate to fully appreciate the subtlety of Cloud Recesses tea. "The Jin have tried to poison you?"

The Patriarch snorted derisively. "You'd think they'd try, but they haven't brought us anything to eat since we got here yesterday." He drank more of the tea and winced again. "Granny brought snacks for a-Yuan but they're going to run out soon, that's why I just want to get this over with so we can go home."

That was outrageous. Lan Wangji said, "I will be back in a moment."

He turned and walked out of the house. Lan Tian and Lan Zhi still waited in the garden, sitting on a bench to watch the fish in the pool. Both jumped up as Lan Wangji approached. He spotted a flicker of movement at the window of the Wens' guesthouse, where someone must be keeping anxious watch. He told his disciples, "The Patriarch and his family have not eaten. Please bring food for them." He thought of the comment about poison, and said, "Get it directly from the kitchens, food that was already prepared for the Jin. Be discreet and tell no one who it is for. And please tell my brother I need to speak to him urgently, and that he should let no one know he is coming here."

The two disciples looked increasingly worried. "Is there danger, Hanguang-jun?" Lan Tian asked.

That was a question Lan Wangji couldn't answer yet, though his suspicions were growing. "Not at this moment, but caution is warranted."

As the two disciples hurried off, Lan Wangji returned to the guest house.

The Patriarch hadn't moved from the bed. Possibly he was still too unsteady to stand. Watching Lan Wangji with suspicious confusion, he said, "What did you do?"

"I sent my disciples for food for you and the Wens." He took a seat at the table again and poured more tea. "Why are you unwell? Is it the lack of food?"

"You have to know why." The Patriarch frowned. "I know this is a trick, and it's not going to work. You're not getting it, it wasn't part of the deal." He added with more urgency, "We just want to be left alone."

"The Lan sect also want to be left alone. We have no interest in the Burial Mounds." The place was the realm of ghosts and the dead, defended by the monstrous Yiling Patriarch, a nineteen year old demonic cultivator with no golden core and apparently chronic health problems. But the Wens also lived there. "And how could it be attacked, protected as it is by demonic cultivation?"

The Patriarch's eyes narrowed. "Jin Guangshan has his own demonic cultivators. You had to know that. And if you want to be left alone, why did you ask for this marriage alliance?"

It was against the rules to swear. Lan Wangji badly wanted to swear. "The Jin employ demonic cultivation?"

The Patriarch groaned and buried his face in his hands. "Oh, come on! Of course they do!"

Lan Wangji said deliberately, "The Jin told you the Lan sect insisted on a marriage alliance, or we would attack the Burial Mounds. The Jin told the Lan sect that you insisted on a marriage alliance or you would attack Cloud Recesses."

The Patriarch lifted his head, frowning, and watched him for a long moment. Doubt and skepticism were etched on his fine features. "I don't believe you. And if I did--" He lifted his hands in a gesture of confusion. "How exactly am I supposed to attack Cloud Recesses?"

Lan Wangji said, "We were told you had an army of the undead, and many demonic cultivators."

With exasperation, the Patriarch said, "The Wen are farmers and medical cultivators. The Jin drove them off Dafan Mountain and they took refuge with me. I'm the only undead demonic cultivator on the Burial Mounds. Well, there's Wen Ning, but he's not actually dead."

If Lan Wangji had not seen the Wen, he might have had trouble believing this. But many sects, clans, families, entire towns worth of people had been displaced since the Qishan eruption had turned the skies gray for years and rained ash on farmlands. And the Jin were well known for amassing wealth by attacking those unable to defend themselves.

The Patriarch waved his arms in frustration and continued, "None of this is a secret! We keep the ghosts out of Yiling and the villages. They pay us in loquats and tea. People come to the Wens for medical advice!"

Lan Wangji explained, "Cloud Recesses has been isolated for many years. It was burned during the last war, and many of my sect were killed in the Qishan eruption." It was all the Lan could do now to protect Gusu from the onslaught of disturbed corpses, ghosts, and night creatures. "All our energies have been devoted to the rebuilding and defense of our sect and the towns and villages of Gusu. We do not travel beyond our boundaries, and have been reluctant to maintain relations with other sects. We have no wish to be involved in their squabbles with each other."

The Patriarch was still watching him with disbelief, but he said, "The Jin said the Lan were coming to wipe us out because we weren't orthodox, because of the demonic cultivation. They said it was in their interest to make the alliance because they were afraid you'd come after them, too. Not that I trust them, but we're caught between them and you and we didn't have a choice except to play along and hope..." He hesitated, then added, "They didn't spring the marriage thing on me until we got here. But they'd insisted Granny and a-Yuan come along as hostages or there'd be no deal, so it wasn't like I had a choice."

Lan Wangji shook his head. Jin Guangshan was a devious, corrupt individual. Lan Wangji and Xichen should have expected something like this, but this sort of scheming was outside the realm of their experience. "We do not attack anyone without provocation. Even if we had the means, that sort of aggression is against our clan rules and values."

The Patriarch studied him intently. His doubt was the kind that came from a lifetime of struggling for survival. It was the same expression Lan Wangji saw on the faces of the people of Gusu. "I don't know if I believe you."

"Lying is against the Lan sect rules," Lan Wangji said, though he was aware that meant nothing to someone with no experience of his sect. "And why would I lie, at this time?"

The Patriarch smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "Because you think I'm an evil undead monster, so your rules don't apply to me. That's how it works for everybody else."

An evil undead monster with an adopted family of farmers and medical cultivator refugees. Lan Wangji asked, "The Wen encountered you in the Burial Mounds, and you gave them refuge?"

"At Demon Slaughtering Palace." The Patriarch laughed with a bitter humor. "And if you think the 'palace' part means we're rich, you're hilariously wrong. It's a big house attached to a cave. Well, it was bigger before part of it fell down. Seriously, that incense burner over there, I could sell it for goats. Or new clothes for the kids--"

The Patriarch had said the Xue had been gone for more than a generation. Something made Lan Wangji ask, "Were you alone, before the Wen came?"

His face gone still, the Patriarch looked at him for a long moment. Then his gaze shifted away. "Yes. After the Xue died. Not that I wasn't glad to see them go, they were terrible-- It's a long story."

He seemed more comfortable speaking of the Wen, so Lan Wangji asked, "How did the Wen know to come to you for help?"

The Patriarch tugged at the blanket, smoothed a hand over the yellow silk. "I found Wen Ning first. He was running from the Jin, and they caught him at the edge of the Mounds. They stabbed him with a spirit attraction flag to see what they could catch." His expression went briefly feral. "They caught me, but it didn't exactly go like they were expecting." He let out his breath. "It took a while but I finally got Wen Ning's spiritual consciousness back into his body. Then he went home. Then a month later he turns up again with what was left of his clan and shoves a baby in my arms, and--" He shrugged. "Here we are."

Lan Wangji was imagining a boy, living alone on a mountain of mass graves in a place called Demon Slaughtering Palace, part of which had fallen down, suddenly descended upon by a small clan of desperate farmers and doctors. Despite the damage and terrible losses of the past generation, Lan Wangji had always had his brother and uncle, and the security of his clan. If he had been in the Patriarch's place, alone and isolated, then suddenly gifted with a ready-made family, he would have done anything to protect them, used every power available to him, even if it involved unorthodoxy and demonic cultivation. He said, "That was not the story the Jin told."

The Patriarch nodded grimly, still looking at the blanket. "Yeah, I'm beginning to get that."

There was a soft tap on the door, and the Patriarch flinched. Then Lan Tian's voice said, "Hanguang-jun, Zewu-jun is here."

Lan Wangji got to his feet. He hesitated. "I am twenty-four."

The Patriarch blinked up at him. "What?"

"Our ages are not that dissimilar," Lan Wangji said. He turned and left the guesthouse again.

His brother stood in the garden by the pool, his brow furrowed in concern. As Lan Wangji reached him, he said, "Wangji, what's wrong? Are you all right?"

"I am well," Lan Wangji said. "We have been deceived by the Jin and we are in danger."

"From the Patriarch? What is--" Xichen's gaze went past Lan Wangji and sharpened. "Is that one of the Yiling Patriarch's servants?"

Lan Wangji turned. Still in his red inner robe, with disheveled hair, his husband had stepped out onto the porch. He looked around, wincing at the sunlight and scratching his head in confusion. "That is the Yiling Patriarch," Lan Wangji said.

Xichen let out his startled breath. "How old is he?"

"Nineteen."

Xichen tried, "Perhaps it's a disguise or illusion--"

"He behaves as if he's nineteen." His husband had spotted them and now lifted his arms in a baffled gesture. Wangji pitched his voice to carry and said, "I'll be there in a moment. Go back inside."

His husband shrugged broadly and wandered back into the house.

He continued, "Brother, he was told the Lan sect would attack the Burial Mounds without this alliance. I believe we have both been lured here by the Jin."

Xichens stared. "Attack? But...if this is true, the story the Jin told us..."

It was urgent that Xichen understand the full deception and the possible danger of their current situation. "There is no undead army. His people are a small community of refugees."

Xichen's expression was still dubious. "Jin Guangshan said there was a young woman among his attendants, his concubine and a powerful cultivator. And a fierce corpse as a bodyguard."

"Lies, distortions," Wangji said. Perhaps this was how people ventured into demonic cultivation: a very sincere desire to kill someone with the power of their rage alone. Lan Wangji preferred orthodoxy but he could see why the existence of men like Jin Guangshan was a constant temptation. "She is a medical cultivator, and his adopted sister. The 'fierce corpse' is their brother, who appears to be badly affected by corpse poisoning but has all his faculties. Their grandmother is with them, and a small child, forcibly brought here by the Jin as hostages." He hesitated. "The sister, Wen Qing. Begged me not to hurt the Yiling Patriarch."

Xichen's expression did something complicated, settled on grim. "We must leave as soon as possible."

"Exactly." Lan Wangji was relieved Xichen understood. "The Jin cannot be trusted. Once the other sects leave, they will make some move against us."

Lan Hou appeared, trailed by Lan Tian and Lan Zhi, all three carrying loaded trays. Xichen said, "You sent for food?"

"My husband and his family have not been given anything since they arrived here yesterday. My husband is not well, and whether we flee or fight, the food should help."

Xichen's brows quirked, and Lan Wangji realized he had called the Patriarch "husband." For some reason, he felt a blush creeping up his skin. Xichen said, "I'll tell the rest of the disciples and we'll slip out of the banquet discreetly as soon as possible." He squeezed Lan Wangji's shoulder. "I'll speak to the Patriarch's family now to reassure them and tell them to make ready to leave." He hesitated. "You don't seem upset by the...marriage. Did he agree to dissolve the contract?"

Lan Wangji hadn't thought about that yet. "No. We have not discussed that yet."

"Oh," Xichen said, and looked a little disturbed. "He may not be our enemy, but he is still a demonic cultivator, Wangji."

Both those things were true, so Lan Wangji said nothing and regarded his brother in silence.

"Oh, Wangji." Xichen sighed. "Time enough for those discussions later, I suppose."

As Xichen followed Lan Hou and Lan Tian toward the other guest house, Lan Wangji gestured for Lan Zhi to follow him.

Inside their guest house, his husband was seated at the table. He had restored his hair to order with a red ribbon and tightened the lacings on his robe. Lan Wangji thought the tea had helped a little. He looked more steady. Watching Lan Wangji's approach with confusion, he said, "What are you doing?"

Lan Wangji kneeled to take his seat. "I've had food brought to your family, and my brother has told them to prepare to leave as soon as possible."

Lan Zhi leaned down to set the tray on the table and the Yiling Patriarch flicked a quick smile at her. The disciple blushed and almost fumbled the tray. Lan Zhi straightened up and said, "Is there anything else, Hanguang-jun?"

Lan Wangji told her, "Go next door and ask for the Yiling Patriarch's clothes to be brought."

The disciple bowed to both of them and left.

His husband was obviously still suspicious. He sketched the "reveal poison" talisman in the air again. The result appeared satisfactory. Lan Wangji said, "I directed them to take only food that the kitchens had already prepared for the banquet, and not to say who it was for."

"Wen Qing and Wen Ning know how to check for poison." The Patriarch hesitated, then grabbed chopsticks and a bowl and started to fill it, expediting the process by popping every other selection directly into his mouth. Lan Wangji knew that he should fill his husband's bowl but getting his hands anywhere near the food just now might result in being stabbed.

When his husband started to slow down a little and he judged it safe, Lan Wangji poured more tea. He would prefer to obey the rule about talking while eating but time was of the essence. "Do the Wens have swords?"

"Grandmother never cultivated. Wen Qing and Wen Ning had swords but lost them when the Jin attacked their village on Dafan." The Patriarch was wary again. "Why do you ask?"

"We will have to fly, to avoid any attempt at pursuit. But we brought enough disciples to carry them." Lan Wangji was distracted by the logistics of their escape. "Lan Zhi can carry Wen-guniang, and if your grandmother does not mind riding with a male disciple, Lan Hou can carry a-Yuan. She teaches the children of our sect." His husband was watching him with an expression he couldn't parse. It seemed to be dawning amazement, which didn't make sense. "Calligraphy and numbers."

The Patriarch set down his chopsticks. "You're serious." He sounded incredulous. "You're taking us out of here with you."

"Of course. This is a trap for both of us. To escape it, we must become allies in truth." Lan Wangji thought it was obvious. He found himself adding, "And as we are married now, your family is now my family."

The Patriarch's brow quirked. "You want to be married to me."

Lan Wangji pointed out, "We are married."

"We were tricked into getting married, so the Jin could trap us here," the Patriarch protested. "Once the other sects leave, they were planning to kill us all and say we did it to each other."

"That's why we should leave as soon as possible," Lan Wangji agreed. He didn't see the problem. "Should we go to the Burial Mounds first? I believe it is closer. Once there we can discuss our situation and decide what our next course of action should be."

The Patriarch watched him, half-frowning and half-smiling, something that made his eyes crinkle in a very distracting way. He said, "I think I like you."

Lan Wangji felt his whole body go warm.

There was a cough at the door, and Lan Wangji looked to see the "fierce corpse" peering in. Wen Ning said, "Master Wei, I have your clothes."

The Patriarch shoved the last bun up his sleeve and pushed to his feet. The food had obviously helped, his color was better and he wasn't stumbling anymore. "It's okay, Wen Ning, we're getting out of here."

"That's what we were told." Wen Ning advanced, eyeing Lan Wangji with sharp caution. "You're really all right, Xian-ge?"

"Sure, it's fine." He took the folded black robe from Wen Ning. "We need to go to the Burial Mounds. There's something there... The Jin want it. I didn't bring it, that's why I was..."

"Why you were unwell," Lan Wangji guessed. He added, "Has it to do with the fact you have been...previously dead?"

"Sort of." The Patriarch scratched his head. "The first time the Xue drowned me in the Blood Pool--"

Wen Ning cleared his throat anxiously. "Xian-ge."

The Patriarch made a placating gesture. "Right, right, it's a long story."

Obviously they would have a great deal to talk about at some point. Now Lan Wangji thought it was better to leave Carp Tower as soon as possible. "I will wait outside," he said, and headed for the door.

He paused when he heard the Patriarch say, "No, take the wedding robes, Wen Ning, we can sell them."

"Stealing is forbidden." Lan Wangji turned back.

The Patriarch demanded, "By who? And the Jin gave us these! We didn't even plan to get married."

He had a point. "Just...do not take the incense burner."

The Patriarch laughed, a bright sound like the first glimpse of sun between the clouds. "You know me so well on such short acquaintance, husband!"

It was meant jokingly, their situation was still uncertain, but somehow it still caused Lan Wangji's heart to beat faster. Then he stepped outside to see they were already in trouble.

Jin Zixun stood in the court with a dozen Jin, facing off against Xichen and the rest of the Lan disciples, swords drawn. Wen Qing had come out of the other guest house and stood in front of her grandmother and a-Yuan, protecting them with her body.

Lan Wangji did a quick headcount, making sure everyone was here. He exchanged a look with Xichen as he strode forward. He was aware of Xichen shifting to the side to cover his flank, of Lan Hou and two other disciples moving to shield Wen Qing and her family, but most of his focus was on the Jin.

"You care nothing for our hospitality, then?" Jin Zixun said loudly and aggressively, the way he said everything. "You are disrespecting Sect Leader Jin Guangshan, who has gone to so much trouble to help you!"

"Yes," Lan Wangji said.

"Yes?"

He clarified, "Yes, I care nothing for your hospitality and yes, I have no respect for Jin Guangshan."

Xichen's voice cut across Jin Zixun's sputtering growl. "Wangji, if we can avoid violence, it would be best." He added, "Jin Zixun, we are leaving. Do not try to stop us and this incident can end here."

Jin Zixun sneered. "Oh, it will end here. Did you kill the demon, Lan Wangji? Did you fuck him first?"

Crass, shameless. But before Lan Wangji could decide to reply or just start killing Jin Zixun, he realized the Yiling Patriarch was now standing next to him.

He was fully dressed now in a black robe trimmed with red, holding a black dizi. Predatory and amused, he said, "Who the hell are you? What do you care what we were doing? What is it with the Jin, are you all sex-mad like your creepy sect leader?"

Jin Zixun's face suffused with red. "You-- You know who I am!"

"I've never seen you before in my life!" the Patriarch replied, apparently serious.

"He was at the wedding," Lan Wangji felt compelled to point out.

"We have fought many times before, Wei Wuxian!" Jin Zixun added in outrage.

The Patriarch shrugged. "Whatever." He asked Lan Wangji, "So are we fighting them? Can we just go ahead and start killing them?"

Lan Wangji, who had spotted Wen Ning making his way over the small guest house's rooftop to get behind the Jin while the Patriarch held their attention, said, "Yes, we can start now."

"Good," the Patriarch said, then spun toward Jin Zixun. He blocked the Jin's sword with his dizi and slammed into him, driving an elbow into Jin Zixun's face with enough force to crack bone. The blow knocked Jin Zixun back across the court.

Jin charged toward the Wen and the Lan disciples. Wen Qing threw a talisman to knock the first two flat as Lan Hou and the others drove them back with their swords. Wen Ning leapt down into the court and flung Jin disciples around like they were rag dolls.

They didn't have a lot of time, so Lan Wangji cut the battle short by fighting his way over to the recovered Jin Zixun and slicing his sword arm off. Jin Zixun staggered, screamed, and ran out of the court.

As the remaining Jin fled after him, Lan Wangji found himself standing next to Lan Xichen. He said, "Brother, sometimes violence is called for."

"Perhaps you're right, Wangji," Xichen said, using a talisman to clean the blood off Shuoyue before he sheathed it. "We had best leave immediately."

"We're going with them?" Wen Qing asked the Patriarch. She seemed unruffled by the fight. The Patriarch had taken a-Yuan into his arms, calming the boy's tears by swinging him around and making swooshing noises.

"To the Burial Mounds. Right?" The Patriarch turned to Lan Wangji.

"Yes," Lan Wangji confirmed.

Xichen said, "Uncle is not going to like this," but he sounded resigned to the inevitable.

Quickly the Lan disciples mounted their swords, with Lan Zhi taking Wen Qing, Lan Hou coaxing a-Yuan into her arms, and Grandmother Wen graciously accepting Xichen's offer to carry her. Lan Wangji had thought they might have trouble finding a disciple to carry someone who looked like a fierce corpse, but Lan Tian, who would have been spitted on a Jin sword without Wen Ning's timely intervention, volunteered readily.

As the others made ready, Lan Wangji set Bichen in the air, stepped onto it, and offered his hand to the Yiling Patriarch. The Patriarch eyed the sword, and said, "So, I think I should know your name."

"Lan Zhan, courtesy name Wangji." He asked, "Jin Zixun called you Wei Wuxian?"

The Patriarch took his hand and swung up behind him. He slid an arm around Lan Wangji's waist. Lan Wangji wasn't used to that much physical contact, but this was not unpleasant at all. "You can call me Wei Ying."