When Lan Wangji drags himself out of bed at mao shi, he carries Xiao-Yu to Lan Sizhui’s bed and finds his oldest son midway through his morning toilet, slowly brushing his hair out in front of the little mirror.
“Your hair is...quite long,” he remarks, for want of anything better to say. The observation is perhaps unwarranted, but most cultivators restrict the growth of their hair to waist-level. Any longer and it proves cumbersome during night-hunts, which is why his elder brother’s hair is so much longer than his; Xichen rarely night-hunted after his ascension save upon invitation by Chifeng-zun, and even Chifeng-zun has little time for night-hunting these days. “It matches mine in color.”
He skirts around the question he truly wants to ask: that is, the manner of blood relation between Sizhui and himself. The boy can’t be much younger than he is now, and Sizhui mentioned that they were from a time at least twenty years into the future; most likely, he guessed the current year by virtue of his own absence in the Cloud Recesses, which means that Sizhui would have been living here in a matter of months.
And that must mean that a young Lan Sizhui is alive somewhere in the world at this very moment, despite the fact that Lan Wangji is decidedly childless and nowhere near powerful enough to bring forth new life with his golden core, either.
Perhaps Wei Ying had cultivated him? It isn’t impossible, Lan Wangji thinks; he gave Wei Ying a tremendous amount of spiritual energy when they were in the Xuanwu’s cave, and the one or two cultivated children that appear every other generation or so are usually born after nine full months absorbing their mothers’ spiritual energy. Wei Ying would have been at Lotus Pier nine months after the Wen indoctrination, so perhaps he had Sizhui in secrecy and left him in his family’s care before traveling to Yiling.
But if that were the case—and that really is the only possible scenario Lan Wangji can think of, since Sizhui looks like a slightly softer-eyed version of himself—then why had Wei Ying not told him about the child?
Lan Yuan must be the reason he gave up the jiandao, Lan Wangji realizes, in a fit of desperation that nearly sends him running out of the jingshi. Individuals who choose to cultivate children rather than bear them have to give up all cultivation until the children grow strong enough to manifest bodies of their own, and Wei Ying developed a form of cultivation that did not rely on his jindan mere weeks after Lan Wangji infused him with as much power as he could spare—had that all been for Lan Yuan’s sake, since he needed to find a way to fight without harming their unborn son?
“It does!” Lan Sizhui says cheerfully, blind to his father’s turmoil at the thought that he might have four children now instead of three. “A-Die always says so.”
Lan Wangji nods and closes his eyes, steeling himself to hear the truth from his son’s own lips. “You have already been born, have you not? You realized you had journeyed no less than twenty years because your young self is not yet living here, but you were not born to me. My golden core is incapable of bearing children, and will remain so for at least the next several years.”
“Ah—yes, I suppose,” the young man admits. “I had not meant to hide anything, but I began living here two years after the Sunshot Campaign, when I was about three. I am twenty-two now, so I decided we must have traveled at least twenty years, given my absence here and your youth.”
“Then how am I related to you?” Lan Wangji asks, giving up all pretense of delicacy. “I have never fathered any children, so how were you born?”
“You and A-Die both raised me as your son, but neither of you have had any children of your own,” Sizhui says. The thought hurts, since Lan Wangji managed to grow attached to the idea of Sizhui being conceived out of his love for Wei Ying in under ten seconds, but he nods and lets the boy go on without interruption. “But we are related, Hanguang-jun. You and I are first cousins by blood, through my father and your mother.”
“You—on my mother’s side?” It shouldn’t surprise him as much as it does, since he and Xichen know nothing about their mother but her name and what she looked like. “Then—you are my biao-di?”
“And you’re my tang-ge,” Sizhui smiles, fastening his forehead ribbon and tucking Xiao-Yu under another blanket to guard against the early morning chill. “But my father never knew your mother, since he was only a baby when she left home to become a rogue cultivator.”
“Cousin,” Lan Wangji murmurs; and yes, he can see his mother’s features in Lan Sizhui’s face, including some that neither he nor Lan Xichen inherited from her. “Then your original family name must have been Chen, with the Chen for candor.”
“Our grandmother’s family name was Chen,” the boy corrects him. “Da-guma took her name when she became a rogue cultivator, since she didn’t want to be associated with any of the major sects.”
Lan Wangji blinks. He hadn’t known that, and it feels very strange to hear someone he met only yesterday tell him so. “Then what were you called before Wei Ying and I adopted you?”
Sizhui looks away, glancing at the floor for a moment before meeting Lan Wangji’s eyes again. “I was called Wen Yuan. And da-guma was called Wen Mingyan before she began her travels.”
The pieces fall together so quickly that Lan Wangji staggers back to the foot of the bed and sits down beside Xiao-Yu’s sleeping figure. “You were at the Qiongqi camp,” he gasps, gazing up at Lan Sizhui until he replies with a hesitant nod. “And your young self is in Yiling now with Wei Ying. Is it not so?”
Lan Sizhui nods again. “Yes, but—”
“Then we must go at once,” Lan Wangji vows. He spent the last night stewing in guilt, so humiliated by Xiao-Yu’s boundless faith in his Papa’s love for his A-Die that he dreamed of walking into the Burial Mounds at Wei Ying’s side, ready to defend the Wen prisoners at his side for no reason save that he could do nothing less for his sworn zhiji. “We can be there in two hours if we fly.”
“We must speak to Lan-xiansheng and Zewu-jun first,” Lan Sizhui says soberly. “There is more at stake than my welfare and A-Die’s, and neither of us are in any danger just now.”
Lan Wangji feels his blood run cold. “At stake? What do you mean?”
But Sizhui refuses to say anything more until Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen arrive half an hour later with breakfast: a pot of sweet congee topped with dragonfruit and youtiao sticks and soymilk on the side, which Lan Wangji quickly supplements with cups of hot tea for everyone but A-Lan. Xiao-Yu climbs into Lan Wangji’s lap to eat, lolling against his chest and begging to be fed every few mouthfuls, and Sizhui feeds the baby while eating his own meal left-handed.
While they eat, Lan Sizhui informs them (in no uncertain terms, and without any concern for what his presence here might change) that the Lan clan must limit its ties with Lanling Jin in every way possible, since Jin Guangshan will eventually succeed in claiming the title of Chief Cultivator and slaughtering all of the Wens in the Burial Mounds except for Sizhui himself. After that, he goes on to explain that Jin Guangyao is not to be trusted either, and Lan Xichen takes it so badly that he weeps into his hands for a full five minutes before drying his eyes.
“I must ask for proof,” he beseeches, while Lan Wangji and Lan Qiren try to come to terms with the revelation on either side of him. “I know you believe it must be so, but—”
“Bofu,” Sizhui says softly. “He assassinated Chifeng-zun upon his father’s request. You nearly died of grief after falling into a qi deviation, twice.”
Lan Xichen buries his head in his arms and sobs, but he seems to believe it; especially when Sizhui explains how Chifeng-zun was killed, and how Jin Guangyao fooled Xichen into easing the way for his crimes, and then what the Jin clan was doing with the prisoners in the first place.
And then Lan Wangji’s own turn to cry arrives, because Xiao-Yu throws himself into the conversation and tells them that his father had raised Lan Sizhui alone.
“A-Niang was dead,” he declares, before his brother can clap a hand over his mouth. “The mean man told everyone that A-Niang killed someone, but A-Niang didn’t hurt anyone! But then there was a big battle and everyone wanted to kill him, so A-Niang’s jiejie tried to save him—”
“—and she died too, so A-Niang jumped off a mountain, and Papa couldn’t find him anymore,” Lan Yu says, his little lips trembling like crimson maple leaves as Lan Wangji’s chopsticks clatter to the floor. “And Yuan-gege cried and cried, but A-Niang never came back. He couldn’t, ‘cause he died.”
Lan Wangji feels his heart stop beating.