Lan Qiren, acting zongzhu of the Gusu Lan clan until Lan Xichen came of age and inherited his late father’s title, has been called many things in his forty-four years.
Inflexible , is one of them. Harsh is another, from those unruly disciples who exhibited neither brightness nor willingness to learn, and bitter from the odd clan elder who thought that taunting him with his failure to marry would persuade Lan Qiren to cede his right as his brother’s heir or his custody of the infant Xichen, and thus allow the council full control over either the sect or its next leader.
Lan Xichen has called him fearful, sometimes: fearful that Wangji’s love for his chosen one would be used against him, as had happened with Qingheng-jun, and that Wangji would end as his father did—more than half mad, shattered by grief, and so heartbroken by the revelation of his clan’s betrayal that he scarcely even recognized his own brother in his last few days alive.
It serves me right, Qingheng-jun wept, during the deathbed visit that permitted him to see his sons for the first time in several years. I walked straight into the pit they dug, and dragged Mingyan down with me.
He begged Lan Qiren to keep Xichen and Wangji safe, knowing only too well how easily a man in love could be taken advantage of, which was why Lan Qiren journeyed to the Burial Mounds to visit Wei Wuxian.
Visit might not be the correct word, however. Visiting would imply that his presence was welcome, or at the least expected, but Lan Qiren came without warning and stood at the border between Luanzung Gang and Yiling for over an hour before someone came up the path to let him in.
“Xiansheng,” Wen Qing greets him, still as proud and straight-backed as she was during her brief visit to the Cloud Recesses. “What brings you here?”
She does not seem afraid of him, and Lan Qiren is grateful for it. “Where is Wei Wuxian?”
“You’re no match for him if you’ve come looking for a fight,” she warns. “He’d just revoke your access to the wards, and you’d be banished back into Yiling.”
Her faith in the Yiling Patriarch speaks volumes about his character, in Lan Qiren’s opinion. Even if it is rather embarrassing with regards to himself.
“I wish to speak with him about Wangji,” he confesses, without any preamble whatsoever. He came to plead with Wei Wuxian to consider his nephew’s suit, demonic cultivation and all, because a happy Lan in love is far more preferable to a heartsick one no matter what the flaws of their chosen beloved might be. “I will take my leave as soon as he has heard me out, and I do not wish harm to him or anyone under his protection.”
Mightily puzzled, Wen Qing nods and shows him to the inside of a dingy cave lit by floating candles, where Lan Qiren finds Wei Wuxian sitting on the floor with a toddler in his lap. The two of them are surrounded by pieces of used parchment, and both Wei Wuxian’s hands and the child’s are splattered with ink; apparently, Lan Qiren interrupted the cultivation world’s new common enemy in the middle of a writing lesson, since the toddler is copying the character er under Wei Wuxian’s careful guidance.
“The top stroke should be a little shorter, A-Yuan,” Wei Wuxian hums, clearly not noticing Lan Qiren’s presence. “Let Xian-gege show you again, and—”
Lan Qiren clears his throat. “Wei Ying.”
Wei Wuxian flips himself backward and meets Lan Qiren’s eyes upside down. “Lan-xiansheng?” he asks, before scrambling up to greet him. “What are you doing here?”
There is little surprise in his pale face, but Lan Qiren can sense a thread of apprehension in him; Wangji visited the place not long ago, and Wei Wuxian must have known that he did not have permission to stay away so long, so perhaps Lan Qiren’s arrival was not wholly unexpected. Or perhaps Wei Wuxian even suspected that Wangji would submit himself for punishment at the discipline pavilion without saying a word, and leave only when a passing disciple happened to inform Lan Qiren that Wangji had been sitting in the snow with a pair of laths over his arms for over three hours without pause.
Wangji has always been eager to offer penance in the hope that it might improve matters somehow. Upon further reflection, Lan Qiren is suddenly very certain that some part of his nephew has not grown up at all, and remains unchanged from the child who knelt before an empty house for days in the hope that showing remorse for some imagined slight towards his mother would cause the jingshi’s doors to open for him.
Wei Wuxian would rather grapple with circumstances (and people, Lan Qiren might add) that he finds untenable, and outlast them all by sheer stubbornness before he would even consider accepting something that truly disturbed him.
It says a great deal that Wei Wuxian is here, without Wangji, while Wangji remains confused and heart-broken in the safety of the Cloud Recesses.
“There are no Wen cultivators here,” he says, to confirm a suspicion that was always more conviction than theory. “Either you removed true innocents from that work camp, or the Jins were tormenting their captives in a way that even war criminals would not deserve.”
“Wen Qing is the only Wen cultivator here, and you know as well as I do that she’s a doctor,” Wen Wuxian says idly. There are dark bruises under his eyes, and Lan Qiren notices that his face looks almost skeletal—Wen Qing looks the same as she always did, protected by her powerful jindan, and the baby in Wei Wuxian’s arms is not too small for his age, but Wei Wuxian looks like someone whose golden core never learned how to practice inedia: half-starved and gaunt, with a persistent tremor in his shoulders that speaks of endless nights spent without sufficient warmth. “The rest were all ordinary tradesmen—scholars, apothecaries, wine-makers. The Jins know that, though, and so does everyone else.”
“I did not,” Lan Qiren points out. “I only suspected.”
Wei Wuxian snorts. “But you were wise enough to figure it out, weren’t you?”
He inclines his head. “Yes.”
“Jiang Cheng knew, and he didn’t say anything,” Wei Wuxian says, apparently speaking to himself now. “None of us told my—none of us told Jiang-guniang, but she shouldn’t have to hear about things like this. And I hear Nie-zongzhu thinks that Wen Qing doesn’t deserve to live without fear because she didn’t kill Wen Ruohan when she had the chance, so…”
“I do not believe that Xichen knows.”
“Zewu-jun likes to believe in the best of people, and the Jins would have covered their tracks the moment I left Qiongqi Dao. Tell me, Lan-xiansheng—did they find any evidence of the cultivators they were murdering for pleasure there, or only of the dead Jin guards I apparently killed in a fit of rage? And would Zewu-jun rather believe that I went berserk and killed four people out of anger, or that his sworn brother and the rest of his clan sought to torture innocents without censure and then colluded to hide that fact from him? Would he even have the time to think of such a thing when he has a clan and a sect to rebuild?”
Wei Wuxian takes Lan Qiren’s silence for agreement and shakes his head. “The same goes for Jiang Cheng. The Jiang might care, and the Lan might care, but Jiang Cheng—he can’t move against Jin Guangshan now that my shijie is marrying Jin Zixuan, and the sworn brotherhood between Lianfang-zun and Zewu-jun is the only thing supplying your sect with enough money to rebuild the Cloud Recesses.”
He shrugs. “Who can I go to for the sake of righting the Jin sect’s wrongs, Senior Lan? There’s no one, and that’s why I fled to the Burial Mounds.”
“All the same,” Lan Qiren says, looking around at the dank cave and then at the child nodding towards sleep in Wei Wuxian’s lap, “you can hardly stay here, Wei Wuxian. I saw that your people were trying to farm on the slope behind the forest, but I doubt their efforts will bear fruit. What will you eat?”
“When people are hungry enough,” Wei Wuxian says distantly, “they will eat anything.”
With that, he swings the drowsy baby up into his arms and marches off without so much as a by-your-leave, abandoning Lan Qiren in the middle of the cave before coming back with a tray of clean cups and a kettle.
“We don’t have any tea. We can’t afford it,” Wei Wuxian informs him. “But the water’s hot, and it’s always cold in here after dark. Will you have some?”
Lan Qiren sits down and drinks the hot water with a tic spasming in his forehead. He had thought Wei Wuxian blind to the ways of politics, but now he can see that the boy is anything but; he rescued the Wens without incurring any risk to Yunmeng Jiang, which is soon to be tied to Lanling by Jiang Yanli’s marriage to its heir, and then he distanced himself from his own sworn zhiji because he knew that the Lan sect would remain in shambles for years if not for the support it receives from Jin Guangyao.
“This cannot stand,” he decides at last, after the kettle is empty. “I will leave what I can here with you now, and return in a month’s time with a better plan.”
Wei Wuxian blinks at him. “What?”
In answer, Lan Qiren removes his spired silver hairpiece and lays it on the table between them, followed by the money pouch dangling at his waist and all the contents of his qiankun bag, which include a few bespelled tents, emergency meal kits, and some night-hunting essentials that mean little to him, but could mean the difference between life and death for Wei Wuxian and the Wens.
“If you run short, write to me,” he instructs, patting over the hidden compartments in his robe and finally coming up empty-handed. “I have much to do at the Cloud Recesses, but I will keep in touch.”
“Did Lan Zhan send you?” Wei Wuxian asks helplessly, trailing after Lan Qiren as he steps onto his sword just outside the cave and rises a few feet into the air. “I know he’s concerned about my taking up the demonic path, but I’m not going to—”
“Wangji is a fool,” Lan Qiren snorts, provoking a gasp of outrage from Wei Wuxian. “I had only to come within ten feet of you before I realized that your jindan is gone. And you did the correct thing by not telling him if you wanted to keep us in Jin Guangshan’s good graces, because Wangji would have rather died than leave you in such a condition if he knew.”
Lan Qiren takes Wei Wuxian’s shocked silence as a chance to make his escape, and the fact that he forgot to plead Wangji’s case does not occur to him until he flies through the warding sigils that surround the Cloud Recesses nearly four hours later.
* * *
After a good night’s sleep and plenty of contemplation, the first thing Lan Qiren does is make his way to the hanshi and ask if any of the gold Jin Guangyao sent them for the reconstruction effort has been spent yet.
“Not that I know of,” Xichen frowns, leading him to the mostly empty treasury. “We’re about halfway through our share of the war spoils from Wen Ruohan’s treasure chambers, and the money A-Yao sent will be used to hire builders for the classrooms and the major meeting halls.”
“Does everyone at least have a roof over their heads?”
His nephew nods. “Yes, uncle. The last essential compound was finished yesterday morning.”
“Good,” Lan Qiren mutters, darkly satisfied. “In that case, send back everything Jin Guangyao gave you. We will not be using it.”
Lan Xichen’s jaw drops. “Shufu?”
“The Lan have no need for blood money from the Jins,” Lan Qiren tells him. “They are wealthier than all of us because they entered the war when it was already won. Knowing that, Jin Guangshan would bind every other sect to him with debt in the hope that we should forget his cowardice and praise his clan as our saviors instead. I will not have you enter into such an alliance, Xichen.”
“But the money was a gift,” Xichen protests. Lan Qiren closes his eyes, suddenly rather forcibly reminded that his nephew is still only twenty-four and as innocent as a child. “A-Yao gave it to us as a gift with no expectations of repayment, and to send it back now—”
“You are not obliged to tell him why. If you must, say that I consulted with a diviner, and the diviner advised against it.”
“...Did you consult a diviner?”
“Of a sort,” he sighs, thinking back to his meeting with Wei Wuxian. “And tell Wangji that he can stop recopying the clan texts. As long as the books are kept safe, we can have that task done by the younger disciples, and everyone strong enough to lift the pertinent tools will work on the reconstruction, including myself. We will hire builders where we can, and labor with our own hands where we cannot.”
“But it will take years to rebuild the Cloud Recesses to its previous strength on our own funds, Uncle.”
“Then let it be so,” Lan Qiren says tartly. “We are all immortal masters, are we not? We have all the time in the world.”
After that, he leaves Lan Xichen in a state of abject confusion (though he notices that his good nephew has already gone to his desk to begin a letter to Jin Guangyao) and goes to see Wangji, whom he discovers in the secret chamber of the library. Wangji seems to be copying a volume on musical cultivation, presumably intended for Wei Wuxian, and Lan Qiren takes a moment to pinch the bridge of his nose in frustration before touching Wangji’s shoulder.
“Enough of that,” he scolds. “None of this is going to help Wei Wuxian. You have new duties now, Wangji. Go meet with your brother after lunch, and we will have a sect meeting to discuss our way forward this evening.”
“New duties?” Wangji wonders. “What are they, shufu?”
“If you want to marry your beloved, you will have to provide a proper home for him. And for his Wens, since he will not leave them even under pain of death,” Lan Qiren lectures. “You cannot fit all fifty of them in your jingshi.”
Wangji blanches and drops his writing brush. “I—”
“There is no time for that, Wangji. How well can you wield a saw?”
* * *
Five weeks later, Lan Qiren attends Jiang Yanli’s wedding to Jin Zixuan and tries not to look smug at the displeasure in Jin Guangshan’s eyes when he spots Wei Wuxian standing at Wangji’s side, resplendent in a new gown of dark blue sateen and restored to full health by a month’s worth of nourishing meals, supplied first by the money and silver Lan Qiren left him and then by the Lan sect coffers, now raking in gold by the cartload from the sales of Wei Ying’s new talismans.
“Why isn’t Wei Wuxian rejoining the Jiang sect?” Jin Guangshan asks after the wedding feast, when Wei Ying takes A-Yuan out into the gardens for a walk and tugs a blushing Wangji along behind him. “He owes his loyalty and labor to my new son-in-law, does he not? The Jiang gave him everything, and saved him from dying on the streets when he was a child. Do you not have anything to say about your shixiong joining the Lans, Jiang-zongzhu?”
“He will be returning to his natal sect next week, but only for a short visit,” Lan Qiren says peacefully, before Jiang-zongzhu has time to open his mouth. “The auspicious date I calculated for his wedding is less than a month away, Jin-zongzhu, for it does not do to part loving hearts for too long.”
“Wedding?” Jin Zixun sneers, entering the scene with a cup of wine in his hand and an ugly grin on his face. “Who would marry that no-good son of a—”
Lan Qiren swallows the last of his tea and puts the silencing charm on him. Unsurprisingly, it is the most satisfying silencing charm he has ever cast in his life.
“My nephew,” he announces, making everyone still left in the Glamour Hall gasp. “Wei Ying is to marry Wangji twenty-seven days from now, and once the wedding has taken place, he will live in the Cloud Recesses with his husband.”
And with that, Lan Qiren strolls off to the other side of the room to join Xichen and Chifeng-zun, and watches Wangji and Wei Wuxian walk through the gardens together with all the satisfaction of a job well done.
Now, if only I could find someone for Xichen, he thinks. He does not have to choose anytime soon, but…
“It’s getting stuffy in here, Xichen. Let’s go stretch our legs,” Nie Mingjue says presently, taking Xichen’s hand. “I have something to say to you, remember?”
Lan Xichen’s face turns crimson.
“If you like, Mingjue-xiong. Should we go sit by the fountains?”
Nie Mingjue agrees, and they bow to Lan Qiren and hurry off arm-in-arm, disappearing from the Glamour Hall so quickly that he almost shouts a warning not to run within the Cloud Recesses; but Xichen and Nie Mingjue slip out of earshot like whispering shadows fleeing from the sun, and when Lan Qiren sees his nephew next, his cheeks and lips are stained pinker than the lotus blossoms embroidered on Jiang Yanli’s wedding dress.
Ah, Lan Qiren realizes, trying to conceal his glee. I suppose we will have to find some way to pay for two weddings, after all.
(It will have to be a double wedding, he decides. And preferably soon.)