Three hours after Xiao-Yu’s horrible declaration that Wei Ying had taken his own life before being summoned back by a soul-sacrificing rite sixteen years later, Lan Wangji finds himself flying towards Yiling with Lan Sizhui at his side, balancing Xiao-Yu in front of him on Bichen while Sizhui carries the baby in a sling tied to his chest. Their departure had been swift, since the knowledge that his inaction would lead to Wei Ying’s death shook Lan Wangji so much that he began to weep, and then he packed an emergency kit and set off with his children as quickly as he could.
“What must we do to pass the wards at the Burial Mounds?” he asks tersely, his knuckles turning white on Bichen’s scabbard. “I have heard it said that Wei Ying keeps a barrier of corpses to guard the perimeter, so perhaps there might be a way to send a message ahead?”
“We won’t need to,” Lan Sizhui assures him. “I checked the date with bofu before we left, and in my time, A-Die brought me into Yiling to buy potatoes today. With any luck, we’ll get there before he leaves.”
That is an odd stroke of luck, Lan Wangji muses. “So this was the day that you and I first met?”
“I suppose it will be, if everything goes well,” his son replies. “You went to Yiling for a long-distance night-hunt, though I think you were really there to visit A-Die and tell him about his shijie and Jin Zixuan getting married.”
“I had forgotten that,” Lan Wangji frowns. Lanling Jin announced its heir’s engagement a week ago, and Lan Wangji spent the next couple of days wondering if anyone would send word to Wei Ying about it; but then Xiao-Yu stumbled into the jingshi, and Lan Wangji became a father to two tiny children and a boy a few months older than himself, and amid all the chaos of the past twenty-four hours, he had not thought of Jiang Yanli’s betrothal at all. “Does Wei Ying know?”
Sizhui shakes his head. “No, he doesn’t. He never got to go to the wedding, as far as I remember, but he did tell me that his shijie came to visit once to show him her wedding robes.”
Inwardly, Lan Wangji wonders why Jiang-zongzhu and Jiang-guniang would take the chance of tying their sect (already considered the least powerful of the four great clans, though by no means the poorest, due to the spoils Wei Ying claimed for Yunmeng by virtue of his contribution to the war) to one that thrives upon gold and corruption, and only grows richer in both by the day.
During the banquet that marked the end of the Sunshot Campaign, no one had taken Jin Guangshan’s public offer to renew his son’s troth with Jiang Yanli as anything save what it was: a clear attempt to gain the Wen wealth and treasures that his sect had not been allotted, due to the greater involvement of the other three sects in the war. After all, Wei Ying and Jiang Wanyin walked away with a full half, and no one had been able to argue with the distribution because the campaign would never have succeeded without Wei Ying.
Even Xichen remarked upon the tastelessness of Jin-zongzhu's proposal, since speaking of an engagement before the end of the Jiangs’ mourning period was an open insult to their deceased parents. Weddings following a death in a family must be carried out within the first hundred days after the deceased was buried or after the completion of a three-year mourning period, and Jiang Yanli’s mother and father were killed a little over a year ago; any astrologer worth their salt ought to have warned against wedding before the three years were up, because such marriages are said to end in sorrow, and bring forth only a few children if they should prove to be fruitful at all.
“The elders used to say that Father only reaped what he sowed when he married Mother twelve months after his own father died,” his brother told him. “I wonder that Jin-zongzhu is permitting the marriage now, when he must have been warned that doing so might bring bad luck to the couple.”
But Lan Wangji cannot blame Wei Ying’s shijie, or even Jin Zixuan—for would he not do the same if he were in their place? He very much doubts that he could wait three years to marry Wei Ying even if tradition called for him to do so, and certainly he could never blame Wei Ying for accepting him; the only one at fault here is Jin Guangshan, who is clearly taking advantage of his son’s love for his intended to seize power and spoils not rightfully due to him.
“In your time, what happened to Jiang Yanli?” he asks, after a brief pause. “You said Jin Zixuan was murdered, but surely his widow would have posed no threat to Jin Guangyao?”
“She died too, actually,” Sizhui says sheepishly. “It’s why A-Die—well, you know what I mean.”
In his arms, Wei Shuilan squeals and begins butting her face against his soft robes, and the young man shifts her up a little higher before wincing at his sister’s restlessness. “We’d better go down, Hanguang-jun,” he suggests, pointing down at a small village about forty-five minutes north of Yiling. “A-Lan needs to be fed and changed, and Xiao-Yu should have some lunch.”
Much as he did yesterday, Lan Sizhui attends to Shuilan’s needs without any help from Lan Wangji. After their little party lands in the village, Lan Wangji hires a room in a tiny inn for half-price (since they only expect to be there for about two hours, by his reckoning) and Sizhui changes the baby’s smallclothes and feeds her from a bottle of transformed goats’ milk before singing her to sleep. Meanwhile, Lan Wangji orders lunch for himself and his sons, and stares at the innkeeper’s greasy meat and mantou for less than five seconds before replacing Xiao-Yu’s food with the packed lunch he brought along from Gusu.
“But I want the beef,” Xiao-Yu protests, eyeing the steaming bowl like a small, half-starved animal faced with a succulent bone. “We never get beef, Papa, please— ”
“Pack it in your qiankun bag for A-Die,” Sizhui offers, suddenly sounding so much like Lan Xichen that Lan Wangji’s jaw drops open. “You know where we are, don’t you?”
“We’re in the before time,” the child says obediently. “Yuan-gege is little here, and I’m not born yet, and A-Niang and Papa aren’t married.”
“That’s right,” his brother praises him, tying baby A-Lan back into her sling. “But A-Niang is very poor, so he doesn’t have enough to eat sometimes—and he can’t buy beef at all, so we should save this for him and Uncle Ning.”
Xiao-Yu looks rightfully flabbergasted. “A-Niang has lots of money!” he cries. “He bought Ling-gege a new jade brush last week. And Ling-gege said that was enough silver for—for a hundred beefs! Xiongzhang is tricking me!”
“Lying is forbidden,” Lan Sizhui reminds him. “And we have to follow that rule always, not just when we’re in the Cloud Recesses. A-Niang isn’t rich yet, so listen to fuqin and let him pack the meat.”
Puzzled, Xiao-Yu chews on his lip and glances up at Lan Wangji. “Why doesn’t Papa give A-Niang money?” he asks, his high-pitched voice quivering a little as he picks up the vegetable jiaozi with his chubby little hands. “Isn’t Papa supposed to look after A-Niang? Everything is shared half when A-Niangs and Papas get married, right? Jingyi-ge said it was the rules.”
“But they’re not married yet, Xiaohui,” Sizhui says—very patiently, while Lan Wangji debates the merits of dying of shame before they can even reach Yiling. “Father and A-Die are younger than xiongzhang is, just now. So let Hanguang-jun put the meat away, and eat your jiaozi like a good boy. They’re better for you anyway, remember?”
The little boy puts a dumpling in his mouth and chews on it, grinding the carrot filling into mush with his small white teeth before swallowing it down. “So A-Die doesn’t get meat ever?” he says, when Lan Wangji offers him a drink of cool water. “But doesn’t he like it, Papa?”
“A-Yu will help Papa pack,” Xiao-Yu declares, pushing his tiny plate away and standing straight up in Lan Wangji’s lap. “Bobo always says that A-Die needs to eat properly ‘cause he doesn’t have a jindan like you, so—”
For the second time that day, Lan Wangji feels his world fall out from under him. “What did you say, Xiao-Yu?”
Across the table, Lan Sizhui puts his head in his hands.
“No more talking until we get to the Burial Mounds,” he scolds, plopping another dumpling into Xiao-Yu’s open mouth and following it up with a dab of chili sauce. “In fact, Xiao-Yu, I think you’d better not speak at all until I say you can.”
“What did Xiao-Yu do wrong?” Xiao-Yu asks, bewildered. “I was only being good, like Yuan-gege said!”
“Sizhui,” Lan Wangji chokes, barely refraining from reaching out and grasping his son by the arm. “Is it true? Is Wei Ying—did the huadan shou take his golden core?”
“I think that’s a story best left to him,” Sizhui says quietly. “And I won’t say anything about it if he doesn’t tell you himself, so—”
“But A-Niang gave his golden core to Jiang-jiujiu,” A-Yu pipes up, more confused than ever. “Everyone knows that, even A-Ying! Did Papa forget?”
Lan Sizhui drops his chopsticks and shrieks . “Xiao- Yu!”
* * *
When Xiao-Yu finally finishes his lunch (without any more dreadful revelations, though that probably means that Lan Wangji will find himself learning even worse things about his beloved’s suffering later on) the four of them pack their things and travel on towards Yiling, though it is all that Lan Wangji can do to keep himself and Xiao-Yu balanced on his jian without dropping his sleepy son. According to Sizhui, Xiao-Yu usually naps after lunch, and by the time they come within sight of the Burial Mounds, the child is as deeply asleep as his six-month-old baby sister.
“Will you not explain?” Lan Wangji asks, after Xiao-Yu’s big eyes are safely closed. “How could a golden core possibly be given away?”
At last, Sizhui relents with a sigh, and stares out over the shadowy trees slipping by beneath them.
“Wen Zhuliu melted Jiang-zongzhu’s golden core after Lotus Pier fell,” he admits, wrapping his arms more tightly around Shuilan. “Wen Qing—my aunt—she wrote a treatise suggesting the possibility of transferring golden cores from one cultivator to another, and A-Die found it while he and Jiang-zongzhu were hiding from Wen Chao with her. Jiang-zongzhu was wasting away without his jindan, and A-Die thought he would just let himself die that way, so....so he lied, and said that Baoshan Sanren could restore Jiang-zongzhu’s core for him, but then he just knocked Jiang-zongzhu out and had my gugu take his core instead.
“The transfer worked, so Jiang-zongzhu went to the front, and A-Die…”
“Wen Chao caught him when the transfer was complete, and threw him into the Burial Mounds,” Lan Wangji says hoarsely. “So all this time—he was in the Burial Mounds with nothing to eat, and no jindan to warm him or heal his wounds, and in that place—”
A horrible thought strikes him so forcefully that he nearly falls off his sword, and Lan Wangji nearly claws out his own eyes with the need to wipe it away from his brain. “What—if he was truly thrown into the Burial Mounds, what did he eat?” Rumor says that the Burial Mounds are filled with the rotting remains of dead cultivators, so if Wei Ying could no longer perform inedia, than perhaps—perhaps, out of desperation, Wei Ying would have had to—
“He didn’t eat the corpses, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Sizhui soothes him. “The demonic energy in Luanzung Gang did strange things to his body while he was in there. It should have killed him, but he was already exposed to it by the sword from the false Xuanwu’s cave, and he didn’t eat or drink at all until he found his way out. He doesn’t even need to eat now, technically, since he can do inedia with resentment if he tries. But it’s not very pleasant, and he still gets sick if he skips his meals.”
Immediately, Lan Wangji swears to himself that Wei Ying will never skip another meal again while he still draws breath. “Is there anything else I should know?”
Lan Sizhui shakes his head. “No, there isn’t. That’s why A-Die gave up the jiandao, and why he couldn’t go to anyone for help—but you’ll help him now that we’re here, and he can find a way to send us home again.”
“I will not let him down again,” Lan Wangji murmurs, so quietly that none of his children seem to hear it. “Never again, never.”
In the end, they land in Yiling about two hours after noon, and Sizhui begins asking directions to the farmer’s marketplace the second he jumps off his sword. “We have to find Xian-gege as quickly as we can,” he explains. “I got lost while he was buying food, and you were the one who found me—but I don’t remember where that was, and we might not be in the right place this time.”
“Your young self is here?” Lan Wangji asks, his heart beating fast at the thought of it. “How old are you now?”
“I’m almost two in this time, I think,” Sizhui frowns. “I’m a few months older than I grew up thinking I was, since you never knew my real birthday until A-Die had a chance to tell you. But I was old enough to escape on my own two feet, so...too old, probably.”
A small smile twitches at the corner of Lan Wangji’s mouth. “Then if your young self escapes from Wei Ying again, where will you go?”
“My father always said I ran into him in front of a toy stall, so perhaps one of us can go search for the toy-vendors,” muses his son. “And one of us should go to the farmers’ quarter to look for A-Die. Oh, look over there!”
Lan Wangji turns around and spots a particularly large toy-stall, which seems to have everything from wooden swords and miniature lanterns to plush dolls and bins of straw butterflies. “Is that the place?”
“Yes, it is!” Sizhui laughs, swinging A-Lan onto his hip. “I could never forget that, at least, even if I was just a baby!”
He hurries towards the stall, looking so much like a young father with a baby that the laoban begins showing him infant toys without waiting for an introduction. Relieved that something seems to be going right today, Lan Wangji holds out his hand and waits for Xiao-Yu to take it—but no tiny fingers reach up for his, and Lan Wangji glances down in surprise to find the space beside him empty.
“No,” he hears himself whisper, suddenly even more terrified than he was when hearing of Wei Ying’s missing jindan. “Xiao-Yu—Lan Xiaohui! Come back this instant!”
But no one answers him, and Lan Wangji nearly faints on the spot—because his six-year-old son is lost and alone in an unfamiliar marketplace, and Lan Wangji has no idea where he could have gone. He screams out for the child again, and again, and his heart sinks into his stomach when he receives no reply.
Xiao-Yu has disappeared, and it’s all Lan Wangji’s fault.
* * *
Despite Wen Qing’s efforts to the contrary, Wei Wuxian detests radishes. He never had a strong preference either for or against them before relocating to the Burial Mounds (if fleeing from Qiongqi Road in the dead of night could really be called relocation ) but eating the wretched vegetables at every meal for two months straight does terrible things to a young man’s will to survive, so he took an extra copper piece from the communal money-box that morning and decided to buy some potatoes as well.
“We can have at least a few potatoes,” he tells A-Yuan, as the two of them wander through the streets in search of someone selling potatoes cheap enough for the leader of a refugee settlement with no fixed income to buy. “Surely your guma can’t kill me if I buy a few. Maybe ten.”
Wen Yuan squeezes his hand, but otherwise ignores him. Wei Wuxian takes it as encouragement, though, so he keeps strolling up and down the street until something bright catches his eye near a stand of fresh-looking cabbages.
A second glance proves that the something is actually a someone: a very small someone dressed in pure white, clearly trying to haggle with the cabbage seller before making a purchase. Amused, Wei Wuxian lifts Wen Yuan into his arms and edges a little further up the lane, watching as the child buys fifteen beautiful cabbages and puts them into a qiankun bag as fast as the vendor can pass them to him.
“The Lan clan will remember your kindness,” the little boy declares, and Wei Wuxian blinks in surprise—he hadn’t known of any children this young within the main Lan clan when he was studying in the Cloud Recesses, save for a few that were newborns or just learning to walk. “Thank you, kind sir. I must take these cabbages to my father now, because Gege said he’s very hungry.”
“And who should I remember when I need such good business again?” the vendor jokes, tickled half to death. “This one is called Cao Xi, if the little master wants more cabbages tomorrow.”
“This humble disciple is called Lan Yu, courtesy Xiaohui!”
For some reason, Wei Wuxian feels his stomach clench at the sight of the small boy’s grin. He can’t be more than five or six, or seven at the oldest, but he moves with all the assurance of a little prince as he makes his purchases: buying dried-meat snacks at one stall, more fresh produce at the next, and even stopping at a butcher’s table before he asks for a few pounds of sausages.
“Go fetch your parents,” the butcher urges him, clearly reluctant to give such a heavy package to a wealthy young master whose head barely reaches the counter. “You won’t be able to carry it, xiao-gongzi. ”
“I have a magic bag,” Lan Yu says proudly, holding up the expensive-looking qiankun pouch at his waist, which contains at least fifteen cabbages, four bags of apples and tomatoes, and about a dozen eggs wrapped in paper, by Wei Wuxian’s tally so far. “I can even fit a person in here. A-Niang told me so.”
Wei Wuxian laughs out loud, suddenly very curious about what Lan mother could have borne such a sprightly son. He had seen a couple of jovial Lan cousins from afar during the lectures, and they were both too young to have a child this big—but then the little boy turns around, and Wei Wuxian freezes with A-Yuan clutched tightly to his chest at the sight of the silver cloud ornament sparkling on the child’s forehead.
He’s not just part of the inner clan, Wei Wuxian realizes dizzily. He’s part of the main family.
But how could that be possible? Lan Zhan isn’t married, and he’s too young to have a six-year-old, even if he had been married—and Lan Xichen isn’t married either, though Lan Yu looks too old to be his son, too. In theory, Lan Yu could be Lan Qiren’s child, but Lan Zhan never mentioned a first cousin, and that seems like the kind of thing his friend would have told him about.
Wei Wuxian stops wondering when he notices that Lan Yu is looking at him.
“Oh!” the child cries, smiling from ear to ear as his eyes meet Wei Wuxian’s—and oh, his heart aches at the warmth in that smile, even though Wei Wuxian could bet his nonexistent jindan that he’s never laid eyes on Lan Yu before. “Excuse me for a minute, gongzi! Xiao-Yu has something to do!”
And then he rushes across the street and leaps up into Wei Wuxian’s arms, working his little fists into his shabby black robes before bursting into tears.
“A-Niang!” Lan Yu cries, almost knocking A-Yuan to the ground as he wails at the top of his lungs. “Xiao-Yu is back, A-Niang! You found me!”
Wei Wuxian stares at the child in sheer befuddlement.
The child gulps down another sob, and stares back.
“Never let it be said, A-Yuan” Wei Wuxian sighs, looking between the two small boys with a burgeoning headache at his temple, “that my life has ever been boring.”