"So how do you feel about small children?" Cangse Sanren asked, swooping in without warning and making poor Lan Yueheng jump nearly a chi into the air.
In his defense, he'd been concentrating on his nightmare plants, and she hadn't bothered introducing herself with a greeting like any normal person. In fact, Lan Qiren was willing to bet that Lan Yueheng, characteristically unaware of what was happening in his immediate vicinity despite being startling well informed on gossip happening elsewhere, hadn't even known she'd arrived at the Cloud Recesses.
"He likes them," Lan Qiren said, dryly amused. Lan Yueheng's field remained under Lan Qiren’s window, so he wasn't far away, leaning close to the window from the inside to enjoy a bit of early summer sunshine. "More than I do, I suspect. Were you asking me or him?"
"Don't be silly, Qiren-ge. You like small children plenty, as long as they're your students or your nephews," Zhang Xin said from where she was sitting on the porch just outside the window. She didn't even bother to look up from the clothing she was applying arrays to - what arrays, Lan Qiren didn't dare to contemplate. The usual set applied by the laundry were enough for most people, but apparently not for Lan Yueheng’s wife…something which Lan Qiren completely understood and sympathized with.
It was, after all, Lan Yueheng. Things often exploded in his vicinity, and sometimes it was even on purpose.
“My students aren’t small children,” Lan Qiren objected. “And my nephews…”
Well, they were perfect. That wasn’t his fault.
"Nephews...? Oh, right, there's a second one now! Brand new, right?" Cangse Sanren beamed. "You’ll have to introduce me, Qiren-gege! And I did mean you, in the first instance, though I suppose…say, pretty lady, you didn't answer the question yourself: any thoughts or feelings about small children?"
"Extremely positive," Zhang Xin said, not taking offense at Cangse Sanren very obviously not remembering her name. "I intend to have ten."
"Absolutely not," Lan Qiren said at once.
"I'm willing to compromise with slightly fewer," Zhang Xin conceded, retaining all her dignity, such as it was. "If necessary."
"We're waiting until A-Huan and A-Zhan are a bit older," Lan Yueheng said, that silly smile he always got when the subject was raised on his face. "Then we'll have some of our own! It'll be nice, having a big family."
"Think of A-Xin’s health," Lan Qiren said, disapproving.
"We didn't say they all had to be mine, Qiren-ge!” Zhang Xin protested half-heartedly. “There could be a second wife! Share the burden!"
“Don’t be absurd, Yueheng-xiong would never and you know that perfectly well,” Lan Qiren scolded, ignoring the way Zhang Xin smirked in satisfaction. “Anyway, I wasn't talking about your womb. Children are exhausting! Don't underestimate it!"
"We still have a few more years to go, given A-Zhan," Lan Yueheng said thoughtfully, and Lan Qiren flinched: he'd tried time and time again to convince his friend to start having children already and not to wait for him, worried as he was about them getting too old for it to be easy, but he'd had no luck. Bad enough they were putting their lives on hold to help with A-Huan, but now there was A-Zhan, too... “We’ll be ready by then. In the meantime, I’m putting together an invention that’ll let us move faster to chase after them with less effort.”
“Oh no,” Lan Qiren said, abruptly alarmed. “Yueheng-xiong…”
"You're all wonderful," Cangse Sanren declared, clapping her hands together. "Absolutely wonderful. Qiren-gege, don’t spoil their fun. In the meantime, Yueheng-di, tell me – what are those plants for..?"
"I'm not getting involved with this," Lan Qiren announced, seeing Lan Yueheng's face brighten with anticipation of sharing one of his hobbies with someone. He reached out to pull the window closed - he had a great deal of work to do, being acting sect leader, and he had hope that he might be able to spend some time with Cangse Sanren during her visit if he finished everything currently on his desk. Unfortunately, the only way to do that, however, was to spend time focusing on it right now. She had said something mildly worrying about dragging him out onto a night-hunt. He wasn’t sure if he ought to be excited or scared.
“In the meantime, Zhang Xin,” he said, pointedly enunciating her name so that Cangse Sanren could hear it and, if she had been the sort of person familiar with shame, feel bad about not knowing it. “Keep an eye on your husband, will you?”
“Oh, you’re married,” Cangse Sanren said in a tone that sounded strangely approving, looking between the two of them with an expression that suggested she was thinking of blowing something up. “Oh good, good, I have some questions –”
Lan Qiren closed his window with a snap, and then put several silencing talismans up for good measure. He did not, and to be very clear did not, want to know what Cangse Sanren, fairly newly married herself, wanted to know from a married couple. She’d always had the strangest blind spots when it came to what she so charmingly (and mildly worrisomely) called ‘human customs’…
At any rate, Lan Yueheng was a remarkably steady person, excluding his love affair with mathematics and alchemy, and Zhang Xin was extremely practical most of the time. How much damage could Cangse Sanren do?
Three shichen later, when the fire had been put out and the illicit gambling den that she’d managed to lure poor Lan Yueheng into thoroughly dispersed, Lan Qiren decided he had only himself to blame for the disaster.
“What do you mean Yueheng-xiong is gone?” Lan Qiren asked when he found out. “He normally logs all his travel well in advance of leaving the sect, and he hasn’t registered anything like that for this time. The Cloud Recesses is only so large, surely he’s just hidden himself somewhere you haven’t checked?”
“No, Sect Leader, he left,” the disciple said stubbornly. “I checked with the gate guards and everything. They said he looked like he was following some sort of compass.”
That…sounded like Lan Yueheng.
Lan Qiren did not need this.
He pinched his brow. “Someone go ask his wife where he might have gone,” he instructed. “And then go find him.”
He didn’t actually need Lan Yueheng for anything that important, but that wasn’t the point, the point was that Lan Yueheng was generally there. Rumors had been going around the cultivation world claiming that Cangse Sanren had died, rumors with enough truth to them that Lan Qiren regretfully actually believed it, and damnit he wanted his friend around – or more correctly, he wanted to know that his friend was somewhere nice and safe. Not outside of the Cloud Recesses’ borders without the slightest bit of protection or guards to keep an eye out for him when he inevitably forgot where he was going, and certainly not aimlessly following some new invention of his that was undoubtedly going to blow them all sky-high sooner or later!
Unfortunately, no one knew where he’d gone, and a sweep of the immediate vicinity of the Cloud Recesses didn’t turn out anything.
Even Zhang Xin had no idea where he might be.
“I’m sure he’ll be back sooner or later,” she said, looking undisturbed and above it all. “Don’t worry, Qiren-ge. It’ll be fine. He won’t be gone long, and nothing bad will happen to him.”
Lan Qiren looked at her suspiciously. “Are you pregnant again? You always get especially tranquil when you’re pregnant.”
Zhang Xin scowled at him. “You can’t extrapolate based on two instances, Qiren-ge.”
She’d had her first child, a little girl, when Lan Wangji was three, and then her second, a boy, just this past year. She was still nursing him, so all reason suggested that she was not pregnant again – and yet…
He arched his eyebrows at her.
She made a rude gesture at him. “We were going to surprise you with it,” she complained. “Why do you have to be smart and perceptive? It’s just rude!”
Lan Qiren shook his head at her – she wasn’t going to use compliments to get out of this – but he did feel his mood improve a little. Lan Yueheng was terribly unaware of his surroundings as a general rule, and his skill with a sword were positively horrific, but he was exceptionally stubborn, handy with an explosive, and remarkably lucky, as could be determined by the success he and Zhang Xin were in having in having children. More to the point, he was also an exceptionally devoted husband and father and would not, if there was any way he could prevent it, miss any key moment in his little family’s lives, such as a birth.
He would find a way to come back.
“Do you have any idea where he might be?” Lan Qiren asked, though he was rapidly giving up hope. “I could at least send someone to watch over him…”
Sure enough, Zhang Xin shook her head.
“Don’t worry,” she said again. “How much trouble could he really be in?”
Lan Qiren stared at her speechlessly.
“…maybe I shouldn’t have said that,” she allowed. “He has a history.”
“So I’m bad with faces, and actually I don’t think we’ve seen each other in a few years when you were much, much smaller,” the man in the white robes said, blinking owlishly down at Wei Ying. “So I’m probably completely off, but in the event that I’m not, is there any chance that you’re Cangse Sanren’s Wei Ying?”
Wei Ying stared at him without blinking, lest the man disappear if he did. “Gongzi,” he said. “You just blew up a building!”
“That’s true, but also a remarkably unhelpful answer,” the man said, and pulled something that looked like a compass out of his pocket. “Hmm, it’s spinning in circles again. I must be close by…if you’re not Wei Ying, could you help me find him? His mother asked me to look for him.”
Wei Ying squinted at the man. “No she didn’t,” he said. “She’s dead.”
The man at the inn had said so when he’d kicked Wei Ying out of the room he’d been staying in and taken all of his family’s belongings that had been left with Wei Ying while he waited for his parents to finish their night-hunt. Normally, Wei Ying wouldn’t believe it, but it’d been a few weeks of sleeping out in the streets and feeling very hungry because he couldn’t get enough food from what the merchants gave out or threw away and he was pretty sure if his parents were alive they would’ve come back to get him already.
At least it was still summer, or at least fall. The other street kids said that in the winter there was even less food, and they might even need to fight for it with the dogs –
“I know that! That’s why I’m here,” the man said. Was he pouting? “You see, I won her son in a betting game.”
Wei Ying blinked and stared at the man even harder. “How do you know that?” he demanded. “That was my mom’s special joke with me!”
It was the one joke that his father never laughed at, only rolled his eyes, so it had been his mother and his special joke, just for the two of them – she loved to tell him about how she’d infiltrated a gambling den (set it up, his father would interject; incited, she would correct) and how she’d put a bet down wagering her first-born son with the nicest person there, a sweetheart mark who was losing the robes off his back. And then Wei Ying, giggling, would get to say his part: If you bet me away, why haven’t you paid up?
His mother would kiss the tip of his nose. I won the lifetime rights right back off of him, she would say. Sorry, monkey, you’re mine for as long as I live.
And then she’d laugh.
Wei Ying didn’t really get the joke, but he hadn’t thought much of it. His mother laughed, so he laughed; that’s all that mattered.
The man blinked down at him. “Your mom? Are you Wei Ying, then?”
Caught, Wei Ying nodded.
“Wonderful! What do I do with you, then?”
Wei Ying blinked. “What do you mean?”
“Your mother told me ‘when I’m dead, use this compass to find my son’,” the man explained. He looked very earnest. “She didn’t say what I was supposed to do when I found you. Other than you, who else can I ask? So, little Wei-gongzi…”
Wei Ying started giggling. This man was very silly. He could very easily see his mother tricking him into agreeing to take care of Wei Ying after she died – she was very good at tricking people into things. Had been very good, anyway.
Of course, that didn’t take away from the most important fact.
“You should buy me something to eat,” Wei Ying said, deciding to make that clear up front. “But – you blew up the restaurant!”
The man glanced back at the ruined building and looked sheepish.
“In my defense,” he said, scratching his head, “it was full of bandits that wanted to rob me. I think.”
“…I’m pretty sure…”
Wei Ying liked this man, he decided. He liked this man a lot.
“So A-Ying, based on ages, you’re going to be the oldest,” Lan Yueheng was explaining when Lan Qiren finally found him, right back at his very own workshop table and carefree as if he hadn’t been gone nearly half a month. “See, there’s little Yanyu – say hello! – and baby Zhijin – yes, you can hold him, careful, he’s breakable – and there’s going to be another one soon, we’re thinking on naming –”
“You don’t even know if it’s a boy or a girl,” Lan Qiren interrupted, even though it was rude, and swept in to help the young boy he didn’t recognize stabilize little Zhijin’s head properly. One year old or not, he was a wobbly child. “Don’t invite bad luck by naming too early. Where have you been? And who is this?”
“This one’s name is Wei Ying,” the boy said promptly, and Lan Qiren nodded in approval at his manners, then did a double take once the words actually reached his brain.
“Wei Ying?” he croaked, and had to sit down quickly. “Cangse Sanren’s Wei Ying?”
“Mine now,” Lan Yueheng said. “I won him fair and square, and the lifetime rights expired.”
“…this is about that gambling den,” Lan Qiren concluded, knowing enough about everyone involved to be able to follow that ridiculous logic. “Yueheng-xiong, you didn’t win anything. She was cheating you from the moment you sat down at the table.”
“Really?” Lan Yanyu said. She was nearly four, and precious with it – she had a marvelous talent for identifying the precise part of anything anyone said around her that they didn’t want her to hear and immediately starting to repeat it.
“My mom is the best,” Wei Ying said. He looked very proud.
“Even if she cheated me into it, I still won him, that’s how the game works,” Lan Yueheng pointed out. “Anyway, now that she’s dead, what else am I supposed to do with him?”
Lan Qiren felt that there were some flaws to this argument. He was certain that once he had recovered from the emotional blow he’d just taken, he would even be able to point them out.
Though…he really had no idea what the alternative might be. It wasn’t as if he could write Baoshan Sanren a letter – he’d been tempted to in the past, just on principle, but sadly one could not deliver one’s complaints to an unfindable immortal mountain – and as far as he knew, Wei Changze had no living family. He’d been a servant in the Jiang sect and close to their sect leader, so Lan Qiren supposed that Jiang Fengmian might be willing to take in the boy…
On the other hand, a nice normal family in the Cloud Recesses seemed like a better option than being a servant in the Jiang sect, or maybe a guest disciple if Jiang Fengmian were feeling especially generous. The boy couldn’t be any older than seven or eight, he still needed a mother and father, and given how jealous Madame Yu was said to be (especially as related to Cangse Sanren), it was highly improbable that Jiang Fengmian would dare her anger by taking the boy into his own family in any serious respect; that would be showing blatant disregard for his wife’s feelings and his own reputation besides. Very likely best Wei Ying would be able to hope for was a placement in one of the side families, with someone who didn’t even know his mother…
“Well, I suppose,” he finally conceded, and Lan Yueheng cheered.
“It’s official now,” he told Wei Ying. “We’re definitely keeping you. Qiren-xiong here is our sect leader, so if he says it’s all right, then it’s all right.”
Wei Ying cheered, and then Lan Yanyu joined in, cheerful as anything, and Lan Qiren put his hands over his ears in pain.
“It’s not official yet,” he insisted. “You still need to go through all the proper procedures if you’re going to adopt him or take him in as your ward. There are rules, Yueheng –”
It turned out Jiang Fengmian would, in fact, have been willing to take Wei Ying into his own family.
He was also extremely upset to discover that Lan Qiren had ‘stolen’ him away.
“You would have to have a claim on the boy for it to be theft,” Lan Qiren said testily. He didn’t appreciate the accusation in the slightest. “Are you saying you have one? Do you own his father’s life-bond contract?”
Jiang Fengmian looked offended. “Wei Changze was a servant, not a slave!”
“A servant who you released from service to your sect upon the occasion of his marriage, if I recall correctly. Did you not do that?”
“Well, yes, I did, but –”
“Do you have any other relationship to the boy beyond a friendship with his father?”
“What exactly are you implying?” Jiang Fengmian said, glaring death, and for a moment Lan Qiren was surprised at the extremity of the response to a perfectly reasonable question.
Except then a moment later Lao Nie swept in and, pretending not to see Jiang Fengmian standing right there, said, “Hey, Qiren! What’s this I hear about you letting someone in your sect adopt Sect Leader Jiang’s bastard?”
Which – explained Jiang Fengmian’s ire, although not why it was aimed at Lan Qiren. It was like everyone forgot that his sect had rules against engaging in unnecessary gossip…
“He’s not my bastard,” Jiang Fengmian said stiffly.
Lan Qiren nodded. “Cangse Sanren would not be unfaithful to her chosen husband,” he agreed, not going out of his way to opine on whether Jiang Fengmian might’ve been willing on his end if she had been willing on hers, “having gone to such lengths to select him in the first place. As a result, when she died, there was no one else with any claim on him at all, and so I permitted my cousin to adopt him. I do not see the issue.”
“No issue, no issue at all,” Lao Nie said, having very clearly only brought up the matter at all in order to needle Jiang Fengmian. “I hope you know what a headache you’re getting yourself into, that’s all, taking in an offspring of Cangse Sanren – or of Wei Changze, for that matter. I recall him having a sense of humor for the ages.”
Lan Qiren had already braced himself.
“I’m not satisfied that the matter is settled,” Jiang Fengmian objected. “Sect Leader Lan, why are you so insistent about this?”
Lan Qiren stared at him in disbelief – was the man still trying to claim poor Wei Ying?
“Maybe Sect Leader Lan had a fondness for the beautiful Cangse Sanren as well,” someone said, but looking around Lan Qiren could not see who it was; they had attracted an audience of sect leaders from the smaller sects.
Lao Nie was starting to scowl, though, and it was best not to let him get into it on Lan Qiren’s behalf – he was far too temperamental in defense of his loved ones for Lan Qiren’s taste, and it would only irritate Wen Ruohan to hear about Lao Nie getting into a fight when he wasn’t around to spectate. The only result would be all three of them getting annoyed.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Lan Qiren said instead, letting his own irritation slip out. “If I’d been in love with her, I’d have proposed marriage to her and been rejected like all her other suitors. My concern here is with Wei Ying – he has already settled in quite happily, and I see no benefit to disturbing him, or indeed in disturbing the order and tranquility of how things have been arranged within my sect. Even my nephews have befriended him!”
“You have befriended Wei Ying, have you not?” Lan Qiren asked Lan Xichen during one of their lessons, feeling a little anxious. “He’s settling in well?”
“Oh yes,” Lan Xichen said cheerfully. “I like A-Ying a great deal – though maybe not as much as Wangji does.”
Lan Qiren arched his eyebrows. Lan Wangji was an introverted boy, much the same way Lan Qiren had been. Lan Qiren had never doubted his young nephew’s affection for his family, but he knew that Lan Wangji usually didn’t go much beyond that. He certainly didn’t like strangers very much – or at least, he usually didn’t.
“He’s following him around like a duckling,” Lan Xichen confided. “It’s adorable! I haven’t seen Wangji this happy since – since – ”
Since their mother had died, no doubt.
It had been less than two years ago, and remained a shadow on Lan Qiren’s mind. Lan Wangji had taken it terribly, which was to be expected, and had only very slowly emerged from the gloom it had cast over him. Now that Lan Qiren thought about it, Lan Wangji had started doing better after the visit from the Nie sect heirs – perhaps what he really needed was friends, and if Wei Ying could be that friend for him, that would be good.
Still, while worrying, Lan Wangji’s reaction was not outside the realm of what was to be expected; if anything, Lan Qiren worried more about Lan Xichen, who had soldiered through his mother’s death with almost too much equanimity. He had gotten into a fight with He Kexin a year or so before her death – Lan Qiren did not know on what subject, having not attended that particular visit on account of Lan Wangji being sick with a fever and needing tending – and their relationship had never been the same after that.
Neither had ever explained what had happened, and by now, with He Kexin gone and Lan Xichen still steadfastly refusing any offers to talk, Lan Qiren suspected he would never learn.
Still, since he was unwilling to force the issue, there was nothing to be done about it, and no reason to dwell on it. He could focus on connecting with his nephew in other ways, instead.
“A duckling,” Lan Qiren said. “Wangji? Really?”
Lan Xichen grinned so widely that Lan Qiren almost wanted to quote do not exult in excess at him.
“Oh yes,” he said, looking positively mischievous. “Come see!”
Lan Qiren had to admit that there was a distinct familiarity to the sight of Wei Ying, trotting along the paths of the Cloud Recesses, talking at top speed with one hand moving every which way and the other firmly grasping Lan Wangji’s sleeve, dragging him along. Not that that was necessary, what with Lan Wangji trotting right beside him, watching him with an intent look and nodding along with whatever it was he was saying. Moreover, completing the picture was little Lan Yanyu, right behind them, chiming in at random intervals, and she was pulling the even littler Lan Zhijin behind her in a little cart, since the boy had only barely started walking.
“…I see,” Lan Qiren said, making a mental note to start teaching Wei Ying the Lan sect rules as soon as possible.
He was very fond of Lan Yueheng, strange as the man could sometimes be, but Lan Yueheng was an adult, capable of living by the rules in the manner that fit him best, and his idiosyncratic interpretations weren’t necessarily the ideal ones for children to learn. A proper orthodox education was better for children, serving them as a firm foundation – it would be unfortunate if Wei Ying got the wrong idea about how members of the Lan sect were supposed to behave.
Of course, for that Wei Ying would need a courtesy name. Perhaps they could allow Jiang Fengmian to opine on that, in the interest of smoothing over ruffled feathers…?
“I’m glad they’re happy,” Lan Xichen said, watching them.
Lan Qiren glanced at his obedient nephew.
“Indeed,” he said. “They are, however, going the wrong way – perhaps you would like to join them? We can continue the lesson we were doing tomorrow.”
Lan Xichen was gone almost before he finished saying his thanks.
The number of ducklings had multiplied, but the sight of them trotting through the Cloud Recesses in a bunch had not changed.
It was usually a pretty good way to tell that some trouble was on its way, too.
At this point, Lan Qiren was starting to wonder if Lan Yueheng and Zhang Xin had determined that the best and possibly only way to keep Wei Wuxian from making too much trouble was to have another child and then to graciously allow him to help out with the babysitting. If so, it was a brilliant ploy – Wei Wuxian loved having younger siblings to take care of, and any attempts to chase him away so that he could focus on playing with other children his age resulted only in increasingly dramatic moping and behavior not unlike that of an extremely small child himself. At least he always had Lan Wangji to listen to him, his steadfast companion through thick and thin and even an endless interest in carting around small children.
It did wonders for their arm strength, if nothing else.
Of course, Wei Wuxian was charming enough that even his penchant for bringing his younger siblings everywhere wasn’t enough to drive away the other children in the sect, and he remained exceptionally popular. At least part of that was his penchant for mischief – at this point, he had so much copying to do that he had just made it part of his schedule, and Lan Qiren thought he’d actually looked somewhat lost and confused on the rare occasions that he didn’t have something to be working on – and the rest of it was simply his manner, light-hearted and easy-going in a way the Lan sect rarely was.
Perhaps he really should have been raised a Jiang.
Well, it was far too late for such concerns now.
Although sometimes, the temptation…
Lan Qiren raised his teacup to avoid the now-predictable vibrations stemming from an explosion, counted to four, then put it back down.
“Why do we keep letting them do that?” he complained, and thought wistfully again of sending certain people off for a visit to the Lotus Pier even though he knew perfectly well that Wei Wuxian’s penchant for explosives had more than likely come from Lan Yueheng himself rather than any external source.
“Because it’s better if they do it in a controlled manner at a predictable time than at random,” Lan Wangji answered obediently – he’d done the same thing with his own teacup. “And because creativity is to be commended. Wei Ying has made great contributions to the sect through his inventions in talismans, arrays, and alchemy.”
A brief pause.
"And Uncle and his children too, of course.”
Lan Qiren did not roll his eyes, but it was close – he was by now perfectly aware of his younger nephew’s extreme partiality towards Wei Wuxian. He decided to change the subject: “What do you think of your peers in the classroom this year, Wangji? It’s an interesting group.”
They’d gotten virtually all the sect heirs, in fact: Jin Zixuan and Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang, and the only reason they hadn’t gotten Wen Chao was because Lan Qiren had personally expelled him the year before last for disrupting the education of other students and cited that as a reason not to accept him again. He’d expelled Jin Zixun for the same reason the year before that, so Wen Ruohan couldn’t even complain about it.
“They’re interesting,” Lan Wangji allowed. “Jiang-gongzi has become fast friends with Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang, and they make even more trouble together than Wei Ying did with Nie Huaisang alone last year.”
“I see,” Lan Qiren said. “And have you resolved your argument with Nie Huaisang?”
That would be a ‘no’, then. Sometimes Lan Qiren wished his boys were still young enough that he could personally intervene in their friendships to try to fix their problems.
Although there were still some things he could do.
“Wuxian has still not noticed that you’re arguing, has he?” he asked mildly, and Lan Wangji gave him an alarmed look. “Perhaps I should ask him to be an intermediary.”
“That is unnecessary, shufu,” Lan Wangji said quickly. “We will resolve it ourselves.”
“If you’re sure.”
A firm nod.
Lan Qiren picked up his teacup once more – another boom sounded in the distance – and took a sip, then said, “Wuxian has an exception grasp on the Lan sect rules. Although he often uses it as a means to argue his way out of trouble, I would not have made you two the joint heads of the discipline hall if I did not believe him equally capable of enforcing them. He would not appreciate you acting alone in his defense.”
Lan Wangji only looked stubborn.
Lan Qiren decided to drop the matter for now. He’d bring it up again tomorrow, and the day after as well if necessary. There simply was no reason for the two boys who had been friends with each other for even longer than they’d been friends with Wei Wuxian to fight over something as ridiculous as a fleeting infatuation.
…well, he hoped it was a fleeting infatuation on at least one of their parts. Ideally Lan Wangi, but he was starting to lose hope in that.
At least he was pretty sure that Lan Yueheng would consent whole-heartedly to the marriage.
Lan Qiren took another sip of tea, and tried to ignore the smell of smoke.
It usually wasn’t anything serious.
There was smoke in the air, thick and choking, and the heat made it difficult even to see.
The Cloud Recesses were burning.
Lan Qiren coughed into his sleeve, and thought to himself that it was good that the laundry had long ago updated the arrays to include ones designed for fireproofing as part of the regular set. He’d initially only asked for it for his own robes, but they’d taken it as an update to the general set and he’d never bothered to stop them.
“Shufu?” Lan Wangji asked, looking concerned, but Lan Qiren waved him away. He wished he could send Lan Wangji out from this horrible situation through one of the hidden paths, but he had already sent Lan Xichen that way – one man fleeing might be overlooked, but no more, not with how well his nephews were known as the Twin Jades.
Not that Lan Wangji would agree to leave. Not leave his home, not leave his uncle, and certainly not leave his beloved, with whom he had been fighting back-to-back with for the past shichen.
“Do not mind me,” Lan Qiren said, since saying ‘I am fine’ would breach the prohibition against lying. He was very far from fine. “Where is Wuxian?”
“Looking for Third Uncle. They got separated when they started setting off explosives in defense of the sect, and we have not been able to find him.”
Lan Qiren grimaced, and spared a moment to hope that Lan Yueheng and his family were all right. Zhang Xin would be in the women’s area, at least, with the twins and little Zixi, and that would have been locked down as much as they could manage as soon as possible, but the older children…Lan Yanyu was very nearly fifteen, old enough to think that she could pick up a sword and go out to fight, and both Lan Zhijin and Lan Wanli had probably been in the classrooms when the attack had come, making them unwilling participants whether they wanted it or no.
Lan Qiren had been there, too, but he couldn’t remember whether they had listened when he had ordered all the students to evacuate; he had had no time for anything else, rushing over to activate the sect defenses using his own blood before taking his sword and guqin to defend his home as best he could.
It had been a relief when the explosions had started. He’d known that it must be Wei Wuxian and Lan Yueheng behind them, them and their little group of alchemy enthusiasts, using whatever means at their disposal to fight back.
It had been a relief…
Not so much now.
Wei Wuxian, at least, could be trusted to defend himself properly, with his sword and his dizi and a dazzling array of deadly talismans, while Lan Yueheng…years and years of neglecting the sword in favor of his mathematics and alchemical experiments meant that he would never be a good fighter, no matter how fearsome the talismans and arrays and elixirs he wielded. He simply lacked a good sense of his surroundings, and had no notion whatsoever as to where an enemy might be or what they might do.
Wei Wuxian was better, much better, but what could win a duel would not win a war.
And Wei Wuxian was – too talented.
He’d unexpectedly won third place in the archery competition, locking in the entire thing as a Lan sect sweep while knocking out Wen Chao and making the Wen sect lose face, and with his sense of humor he’d gotten more attention for that feat than the calmer and quieter Lan Wangji had for his second-place finish or Lan Xichen for finishing first.
The Wen sect had a tendency to hold grudges. If they got hold of him…
“Call him here instead,” Lan Qiren said, making a decision. “I have a task for him.”
Lan Wangji looked at him in silent question, but long-term habits of obedience kicked in; he nodded and swept off to find his beloved.
Lan Qiren hoped that they would both forgive him.
Wei Wuxian wanted to destroy the Wen sect more than anything, but he was starting to have some unwilling sympathy for Wen Ruohan’s desire to dominate other sects and force them to do what he wanted.
Jiang Fengmian just wasn’t listening to him.
Oh, the man had been kind enough, offering Wei Wuxian shelter with his sect after what had happened with the Cloud Recesses, but it was as if all of Wei Wuxian’s warnings about it meant about the threat of the Wen sect fell on deaf ears. The Jiang sect believed in living freely and doing as you liked, and Jiang Fengmian did not want to go to war; therefore he would not, and certainly not for another sect’s sake no matter how much he liked the person doing the requesting.
Wei Wuxian felt obscurely betrayed by it. Jiang Fengmian had always been very kind to him whenever he was visiting the Lan sect or if they ever encountered each other outside – he’d been friends with Wei Wuxian’s father, and was always full of stories about him and some small knick-knack or gift from the Lotus Pier that his father had liked back when he’d lived there. He’d even allowed Wei Wuxian to call him Uncle Jiang.
But now, now when Wei Wuxian really needed him…
Wei Wuxian had only agreed to leave the Cloud Recesses in its time of need because Lan Qiren had insisted that he was the only one who might convince Jiang Fengmian to help them.
Wei Wuxian had believed him at the time, but he was starting to think that Lan Qiren hadn’t actually thought he could do it, but rather had done it just to get him out of the way.
It wasn’t that Wei Wuxian didn’t know that Jiang Fengmian and Lan Qiren were on moderately bad terms, insofar as sect leaders with as much influence as they had could be on bad terms – they had the usual set of alliances, but they didn’t like each other, and Wei Wuxian had always secretly suspected that the fact that Lan Qiren had taken him into the Cloud Recesses was at least part of the reason why. Jiang Fengmian had always spoken so highly of the Lotus Pier to him, encouraging him to come and visit – Lan Qiren had never allowed it – and Wei Wuxian had known from a young age that Jiang Fengmian had wished he’d been allowed to raise him instead of Lan Yueheng.
Indeed, even now, he had the feeling that Jiang Fengmian secretly hoped he’d find a reason to marry into the Jiang sect and therefore stay with them for good.
Not that there’d be anywhere to stay if the Wen sect did to the Lotus Pier what they’d done to the Cloud Recesses.
Not that Wei Wuxian would want to marry anyone other than Lan Wangji anyway.
“No offense meant,” he said to Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli, who both looked amused.
“None taken,” Jiang Cheng said. “I don’t want to marry you either, and Jiang Yanli’s engaged.”
“And also doesn’t want to marry you,” Jiang Yanli said. “Sorry, A-Xian. I see you only as a cute little brother.”
Wei Wuxian had in turn always seen Jiang Yanli as a friendly older sister, but he still put his hands on his heart and said, “Ouch. Leave me some dignity, all right? Just because I’m taken doesn’t mean that I don’t like to flatter myself about being attractive to women.”
“Flatter yourself another time,” Madame Yu interjected from the door, making them all jump. Her expression was grim. “The Wen sect has sent word that they are summoning one direct disciple from each sect to the Nightless City.”
“A direct disciple?” Wei Wuxian asked, looking alarmed. “You’re not going to send them Jiang Cheng, are you? And you can’t send Jiang Yanli!”
“I’m certainly not sending A-Li, but I don’t see that we have any choice about A-Cheng,” Madame Yu said. She gave Wei Wuxian that strange look that she always had for him, the one where she wasn’t sure if she ought to be angry at him for being the other person’s child in her husband’s heart or grateful that he had stayed in the Lan sect where he belonged, far away where he wouldn’t impact her own son’s position. It seemed a little more the latter than usual, perhaps because he’d shouted at Jiang Fengmian earlier in the hall of the Lotus Pier that he had only one father, Wei Changze, and only one adopted father, Lan Yueheng, and that he had no availability for any others. “I’m going to send you, too.”
Wei Wuxian blinked.
“There’s no point in your staying here as long as my husband refuses to take up arms,” she said, and Wei Wuxian grimaced in agreement. “You resemble some of our servants. If we change your hair and put you in Jiang sect colors – you will need to remove that forehead ribbon of yours – if we do all that, you’d pass well enough. If they’re collecting sect heirs, I’d assume your Lan Wanji would be there, too.”
“Teacher Lan sent Wei-xiong here to avoid him getting captured,” Jiang Cheng protested. “How can we send him to the Nightless City?”
“The safest place is the most dangerous place. Sect Leader Lan didn’t want him to get captured by those with a grudge against him, but Wen Chao is far less dangerous, and less observant, than Wen Xu. If he keeps his mouth shut, it’s possible they’ll overlook him entirely…that’s assuming you want to go, Wei-gongzi. I won’t force you.”
“No, you’re right,” he said. “I want to go. If Lan Zhan is there…I can’t leave him alone.”
Jiang Cheng sighed, but nodded.
“Good,” Madame Yu said. “If you find a way, get out of there and come back here. And don’t be subtle about it, either.”
When they looked at her, she smiled grimly.
“If burning the Lan sect isn’t enough to cow the whole cultivation world – and it’s not going to be – then they will need to bring down a second great sect to make the point. Wei-gongzi is right: we’re the obvious next target, and they won’t hesitate to do to the Lotus Pier what they did to the Cloud Recesses as soon as they have an excuse. ‘Harboring Lan sect fugitives’ would do the trick quite nicely.”
“You want to lure the Wen sect into attacking?”
“I want to lure them into attack at the time of my choosing,” she said, and swept her thumb across Zidian, letting it crackle a little. “Will you do it?”
Wei Wuxian smiled.
Losing a leg had done absolutely nothing to stymie Lan Yueheng’s enthusiasm, and – if anything – seemed only to encourage Wei Wuxian, who had already invented four different types of prosthetics that mixed arrays and metal in innovative new ways, each of them far better than anything they’d had previously.
“Are you certain I can’t convince you to take them more permanently?” Lan Qiren asked Nie Mingjue while rubbing his temples to try to make the headache go away. He didn’t exactly expect tranquility in a war, but the constant explosions, however useful, were starting to get to him – he was starting to hear them in his sleep. “Surely the Hejian front could use some heavy artillery.”
Nie Mingjue was visiting to check in on Nie Huaisang, who had been sent to the Cloud Recesses for his own safety. He smiled.
“You’d miss them if they were gone,” he said, and he was right. “Anyway, I’m quite happy with their inventions keeping the Cloud Recesses safe – and isn’t Wei-gongzi usually with the Jiang sect front these days?”
“He travels, like Xichen and Wangji, but yes, he goes to ground there more often than not.” Lan Qiren sighed. “I suspect that he still feels guilty for not having managed to get as much help out of them in the early days as he thought he’d be able to. Wangji goes with him when he can, of course.”
“Of course…why is he here, anyway? Huaisang said in his letters that they’d thought up some idea that I wouldn’t like, so naturally I came as soon as possible.”
That was a very Nie Mingjue thing to do, and also a very Nie Huaisang way of getting him to do it. Lan Qiren suspected Wei Wuxian to be behind it all.
“He’s probably invented something new,” he said, though he started frowning. Usually he was the first one to receive word of a new invention through Lan Yueheng, who couldn’t resist boasting about his adopted son’s genius, and he hadn’t heard anything recently.
Also, something Nie Mingjue wouldn’t like was very likely something Lan Qiren wouldn’t like, and by and large Lan Yueheng was typically pretty good at figuring what those things were in advance and squashing them before they turned into full on “ideas”.
“In all honesty, I’m not sure what would constitute something I dislike at this point,” Nie Mingjue said, rubbing his forehead. “Provided it helps us do better in this war, I’m willing to be flexible.”
Lan Qiren doubted that very much – Nie Mingjue was many things, but flexible about ethics was not one of them – but he didn’t say as much.
“Have something to eat,” he said instead. “You look too thin.”
Everyone looked too thin to his eyes these days. It was worry, that was all. He worried about his nephews, and his cousin’s children, and all the others, too.
Nie Mingjue accepted his concern with grace and a touch of humor, and then they went to go find the others.
The others, in this case, were Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji, Nie Huaisang, and Lan Yanyu, as well as Lan Yueheng balancing little Lan Guanling in one arm and Lan Yuhui in the other – how the twins had managed to get here from where they were supposed to be, only they knew.
“I’m just the babysitter,” Lan Yueheng said at once upon seeing Lan Qiren. “They said I wasn’t allowed to know what it was because then I’d blurt it out to you.”
That seemed – very in character, yes, and explained a great deal.
“Dare I ask what it is?” Lan Qiren asked Wei Wuxian, arching his eyebrows and giving the children a look that made them all squirm in their seats. “Now that you’ve managed to lure Chifeng-zun here to hear it out as well?”
Looks were shared – no, to be clear, looks were being very pointedly directed at Wei Wuxian, who cleared his throat.
“All right,” he said. “We think we’ve come up with something that can help change the course of the war.”
“That’s the good part,” Nie Mingjue said dryly. “Can we skip ahead to what the bad part is?”
Lan Qiren nodded. “Specifically the part that will make us hate the concept and want to refuse it without hearing anymore about it.”
“Well,” Wei Wuxian said, and coughed again, not denying that that part was coming. “Before we get there, how familiar are you with the Yiling Burial Mounds…? Because I got stuck there for a tiny little bit and it gave me this idea…”