Lan Xichen shivers even under the heavy fall of his best robes, reserved for the most important functions, but at least it’s minute enough no one else should be able to tell. Shufu would already have reprimanded him if that were the case. It’s his first visit to Koi Tower – one of his first official visits to another major sect as future Sect Leader Lan, in fact – and he’s a little mortified to realise he simply doesn’t like the Jin Sect’s ancestral home. The gaudiness of his surroundings doesn’t help, overbearing rather than impressive to a Lan’s sense of aesthetics, but it’s the atmosphere that has his senses tingling unhappily. It’s nothing like the serene peace and quiet of Cloud Recesses, nor even like the hearty strength of the Unclean Realm, the other major sect Lan Xichen has so far visited. It’s cold and tense here, in a way that belies Koi Tower’s golden aura.
Though perhaps it’s the occasion colouring his perception. He isn’t sure why the announcement of an engagement necessitates quite so much pomp, but that in itself would not have soured his mood. It’s the way the two children who are being betrothed, far before they themselves would have put any thought to romance much less marriage, are both clearly uncomfortable in differing ways. Jin Zixuan is standing stiff as a board next to his imposing father, face frozen in a haughty mask that Lan Xichen is certain hides very real unhappiness. He has not looked at his betrothed once since the embassy from the Jiang Clan entered the hall. But it’s Jiang Yanli who Lan Xichen’s gaze keeps straying back to. She looks perfectly placid, perfectly demure, the very picture of a courteous young lady – and Lan Xichen does not doubt that she is – but there’s a pain in her eyes that no one else seem to be reacting to. Her parents, flanking her on either side, look coolly proud (Yu Ziyuan) and warmly calm (Jiang Fengmian), but not inclined to support their daughter further than with their presence. Lan Xichen doesn’t know the reasons behind this engagement, political or otherwise, but they must have agreed to it or they wouldn’t be here now. He seems to recall that the Jiang Clan also houses two young masters, who do not seem to be in attendance. Perhaps Jiang-guniang misses her brothers?
Lan Xichen has only been gone from Cloud Recesses a few days and he already misses his a-Zhan terribly. He worries how his little brother is coping without him there to encourage interaction with other people. Now that Lan Xichen lives in the Hanshi and a-Zhan in the Jingshi, they already have far fewer interactions than he would prefer, though a-Zhan doesn’t complain. He’s still fragile from their mother’s death and their father’s absence. While Lan Xichen was very relieved when he stopped going to her cottage every month, finally accepting that she would not be coming back, there’s still some spark of life missing in his didi even years later that Lan Xichen tries very hard to bring out again. These days it’s usually music that gives his brother happiness, having taken to the guqin like a duck to water and Lan Xichen is happy to indulge him in this. Not even Shufu could argue, after all, that mastery of instruments is not a skill valuable to any Lan.
While he’s been wool-gathering, the ceremony has concluded and Shufu is giving him a narrow-eyed look, as if sensing his inattentiveness, though Lan Xichen is far too well-trained for any of his distraction to reflect on his face or in his posture. As guests all around the hall begin to move and mingle, attention diverting from the betrothed pair, Lan Xichen catches a last glimpse of Jiang Yanli, her lips curving into a gentle smile as she is drawn into conversation by Madam Jin.
Two hours later, the festivities are still going strong and Lan Xichen begs leave from his Uncle to go and catch some fresh air outside. Shufu gives him a curt nod – strict he may be, but he’s not without mercy – returning to his discussion with Jiang Fengmian.
With a sense of undue relief which he’s careful not to show, smiling pleasantly at anyone who catches his eye as he makes his way out of the hall, Lan Xichen heads for a little garden area he remembers from the previous day’s exploration of Koi Tower.
He’s almost in the heart of the garden when he realises he’s not alone.
“My apologies, Jiang-guniang,” he murmurs, bowing. “I did not realise someone else frequents this place.”
He averts his gaze politely as she dabs at her eyes with her sleeves, but when he looks at her again there’s an almost amused twist to her mouth that tells him she knows exactly why he’s here – because it’s the same reason she is.
“It is no matter, Lan-gongzi,” Jiang Yanli returns, composed once more. “This garden is public and your company is not unwelcome.”
Lan Xichen relaxes a little at this overture of friendship. But his worries for her remain, memories of his mother who always smiled gently through her sadness crowding in his mind.
“Forgive me for presuming,” he says, keeping his voice gentle and even as he has been taught, a form of Lan music in itself, “but Jiang-guniang does not seem happy on this auspicious day. This one offers a sympathetic ear, should she wish to unburden herself.”
Jiang Yanli’s surprise at the offer quickly morphs into a truer smile than he has seen from her so far and it lightens his heart.
“Lan-gongzi,” she says, hands now clasped in front of her body, “you are as kind as the rumours say. I wouldn’t wish to burden you with other people’s problems.”
“It would not be an imposition,” Lan Xichen assures her and winks. “It would be a further excuse not to return to the festivities just yet, would it not?”
That coaxes a giggle out of her, and for the first time she sounds like the young girl she is, maybe a year or so younger than Lan Xichen.
“It is a bit dreadful, isn’t it?”
Lan Xichen nods solemnly. “Is that he cause of your worries?”
She sighs, eyes downcast again. “Not truly, Lan-gongzi. It is… Jin-gongzi.”
“You do not like him?” Lan Xichen asks, a little surprised at her candidness. He does not know Jin Zixuan personally, so cannot judge the matter for himself, but he certainly hasn’t appeared very agreeable so far.
“I do!” Jiang Yanli quickly corrects, honest earnestness shading her voice. “But he does not like me. He has made it quite clear. It is years yet until we are to be officially married, but I worry he will not be happy with me.”
Lan Xichen frowns. “He has made it clear? That does not sound like behaviour befitting a young master, towards a proper young lady such as yourself.”
A faint hint of red dusts Jiang Yanli’s cheeks as she bows her appreciation of his compliment.
“Are your parents aware of this?” Lan Xichen asks quietly, hoping her answer will be negative. There’s little to be done if they do and have taken no steps to correct Young Master Jin’s stance.
“I do not know,” Jiang Yanli replies, fingers worrying at her sleeve for a moment before she remembers herself. “My brothers were there for one of the… incidents. It’s why they did not accompany Mother and Father to Koi Tower. They do not approve of Jin-gongzi.”
Lan Xichen smiles, heartened at this sign that the Young Lady Jiang has family firmly supporting her. “As is only right, for them to defend their Shijie. Tell me of them?”
The way Jiang Yanli lights up is subtle, but when Shufu comes many minutes later to find him, disappointed with his prolonged absence, Lan Xichen does not regret the punishment in his future. He had enjoyed listening to Jiang Yanli’s stories of Yunmeng, of her a-Cheng and a-Xian – had told some stories of him and Lan Zhan in return – and they had parted with the promise of letters to be exchanged in future.
Shufu had grumbled a little about the impropriety involved in two young people of opposite genders exchanging letters, but had caved in the face of Jiang Yanli’s courtesy and Lan Xichen’s sincerity.
(If, privately, he rather thought that if Jin Zixuan wasn’t going to make an effort with his future wife – and rather disapproved, being subtly possessed of the rumoured Lan sense of romanticism – he could stand to be upstaged by his rather excellent nephew, he did not voice this thought aloud. He would keep an eye on Xichen to make sure the boy doesn’t do anything so unwise as fall in love with a girl promised to someone else, but his nephew generally has a good head on his shoulders, if he does say so himself, so Lan Qiren has little worry of such an eventuality.)
It does not resolve her problem concerning her engagement with Jin Zixuan, but Lan Xichen hopes that continuing to provide an unbiased ear for her to confide in will at least alleviate her worries a little.
...How are your brothers? I’m certain they’re both glad your back from Lanling. Have the lotus blossomed yet this year? The Yunmeng you described sounds beautiful…
… Congratulations on your title, Zewu-jun. It truly suits you, I believe, though others would make better judges. I do know that few cultivators earn a title so early in their lives and hope you are proud…
… Sometimes I wonder what growing up in a place like Lotus Pier would have been like. You make it sound so free – or at least your stories about your brothers’ activities do…
… A-Xian is here right now, asking me to make him soup. He finds letter writing boring, or so he says, but I enjoy it (and perhaps he would too if he had someone interesting to write to). There is something meditative to simply writing down my thoughts like this – I hope you do not mind. My letter to Jin Zixuan was never answered, so I shall not attempt another when it is not received gladly…
… My a-Zhan is insisting I call him ‘Wangji’ from now on – it is the Gusu Lan way, to use courtesy names, but I must admit I will dearly miss being able to call him such, though I would never deny him this wish. Shufu is pleased – more proof that Wangji is a model student. He will be the best of us soon; I simply worry, as an older brother does…
… Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian are doing well. A-Xian still drags a-Cheng into all sorts of trouble and I cannot find it within myself to truly try and curb their fun. Just yesterday they went swimming by the nearest waterfall, despite it being forbidden. It is a good thing a-Niang is visiting her Die and her Niang in Meishan at the moment, or they would surely have been punished had they been caught…
…Wangji still does not have any friends and seems to avoid other disciples his age where possible. I know it’s partly because they don’t understand him well, but I fear he has given up trying. Perhaps matters will change when your brothers come to Cloud Recesses to study in a few years’ time. There are no pets allowed in Cloud Recesses, so Wei Wuxian would be safe from dogs here…
Lan Xichen halts his xiao-playing when he feels another presence outside the Hanshi. He looks up to find Wangji in the doorway, looking as composed as ever save for the slight narrowing of his eyes that speaks of worry.
Didi, Lan Xichen almost says, xiao lowering, but catches himself in time.
“Wangji. What is the matter?”
Wangji steps further into the room, noiseless, and indicates the music sheets on the low table in front of Lan Xichen.
“What are you playing?”
Lan Xichen almost frowns, surprised that the music had upset Wangji – or perhaps someone else, who had then sent Wangji to investigate.
“Jiang-guniang sent me music pieces from Yunmeng with her latest letter. They are not spiritual, but still rather pleasing to the ear, don’t you think?”
“Mn,” Wangji agrees, but he looks no less concerned.
Silence falls. Lan Xichen, who has learned when he has to simply wait his taciturn brother out, sets aside his xiao and settles himself in front of the dining table. The tea he had made earlier wouldn’t be hot anymore, but still drinkable. He glances at Wangji and lifts the teapot in invitation. His brother nods and settles himself on the cushion opposite him with that fluid grace he has always possessed, even as a child.
Lan Xichen pours and lets his didi drink a cup before letting his silence shade more towards inquisitive.
Wangji doesn’t look up from his cup, but eventually he speaks, abrupt. “Jiang-guniang is to be wed to Jin Zixuan.”
“Yes,” Lan Xichen agrees, puzzled why Wangji would repeat something they both already know.
Wangji’s grip tightens minutely around the delicate tea cup, the only sign of his distress, baffling as it is. Wangji is usually so phlegmatic.
“I would ask Xiongzhang to remember this.”
There’s such a wealth of sincere pleading in Wangji’s gaze that Lan Xichen finally understands that his didi is worried for him and the penny drops.
“Oh Wangji, I do not have feelings for Jiang Yanli beyond friendship, I promise.” He can’t quite help himself this time. “But I sincerely thank my didi for his concern for my welfare.”
Wangji’s ears go red, but he also relaxes, the strict line of his shoulders easing a fraction.
They pass an enjoyable hour drinking tea in silence, occasionally conversing on one matter or another. Later in the day Lan Xichen seeks out Shufu.
He bows, Liebing in hand. “This one apologises for making Shufu worry. There is no danger of improper love between me and Jiang-guniang.”
Shufu doesn’t do anything so base as visible sigh in relief, but the marks around his eyes ease a little as he nods. “I am pleased to hear it, Xichen, and there is no error in cultivating friendships outside our sect.” He strokes along his beard, an absent-minded gesture Lan Xichen used to find amusing – still does, occasionally, but now he is bereft of the excuse that he is a child and thus can’t be held responsible. “Perhaps it is time to arrange a visit to Yunmeng, now that you have been to both Qinghe and Lanling.”
Lan Xichen bows once more, smiling to himself.
… a-Die tells me that the Lan Sect is planning an official stay at Lotus Pier some time this year. Did you raise it with your uncle? It would be lovely to see you here – you would meet a-Xian and a-Cheng!...
… Shufu tells me the visit is set for late summer. I look forward to seeing you in person once more and to meet your brothers…
Lotus Pier is as beautiful as Jiang Yanli had described, water glimmering in the sun and elegant wooden structures rising above a sea of lotus blooms.
They are greeted on arrival by Sect Leader Jiang Fengmian himself, his three children clustered off to the side waiting their turn. The Sect Leader’s wife, Yu Ziyuan, is nowhere in evidence. Lan Xichen shouldn’t be relieved about that, but going by some of the rumours that have made their way even to Cloud Recesses, about her sharp mind, sharper temper and sharpest tongue, he had been a bit worried about meeting Yu-furen.
A little behind Lan Qiren as is proper, Lan Xichen watches his uncle greet the other Sect Leader, a hint of warmth in his voice that Lan Xichen has rarely heard applied to anyone other than him or Wangji – he can only conclude that they’re friends of a sort. Once upon a time a young Lan Huan had thought that Shufu Qiren couldn’t possibly have anyone else in the world he cares for, not with how dour and lonely he always seemed. It’s unexpectedly heartening to find that he does get along with at least one other person, even if he only sees Jiang Fengmian rarely.
Before they leave to take tea, Shufu turns and gives him a nod.
“There will be an official dinner you are required to attend, Xichen. Have them show you the way when it is time.”
Finally allowed, Lan Xichen makes his way over to where the three young heirs of Lotus Pier stand. Jiang Yanli is smiling brightly, but her two brothers seem more reserved. Not glaring, or outright suspicious, but not exuding warmth either.
Lan Xichen bows to each in turn, receiving bows in return, Jiang Wanyin’s correct to the millimetre while Wei Wuxian’s is a little sloppy. He smiles when they’re officially introduced, eliciting a startled blink from Jiang Wanyin and an answering smile from Wei Wuxian.
“It is a pleasure to meet all of you,” Lan Xichen says. “Lotus Pier is as beautiful as you promised, Jiang-guniang.”
“We were going to give you a tour, weren’t we?” Jiang Yanli looks at her two brothers, something almost pointed in her gaze if Lan Xichen is any judge. The hurried way in which they agree bears his theory out and he represses a smile that probably wouldn’t be well-received.
He had determined beforehand he would be as polite as he possibly could be, not wanting to make a bad impression, so Lan Xichen bows again. “I would very much enjoy seeing more of your home.”
Jiang Wanyin goes a little red, but his nod is stately enough to mimic any Sect Leader, belying his age. Lan Xichen knows from Jiang Yanli that they’re both a little younger than her, but they already carry the confidence of cultivators.
“Follow me,” Jiang Wanyin says, heading off down one of the many piers. Lan Xichen follows, flanked by Jiang Yanli and Wei Wuxian, who starts chattering almost immediately.
What follows seems to Lan Xichen like perhaps the most thorough – and most charmingly narrated, all three siblings chiming in with different points of enthusiasm about their home – tour of a place there has ever been. He is showed their favourite lotus pond, the best pavilion which has the most beautiful sunset view and secret hide-outs that the heirs have found while playing hide and seek. They even start a little game over who can spot the largest carved lotus.
By the end Lan Xichen feels like he knows Lotus Pier better than some of the people who live here, and somewhere around the time Jiang Wanyin had told a story about shoving Wei Wuxian into one of the ponds in revenge for some prank that remains unnamed, Lan Xichen lost the fight to keep his smile decorous and contained as is proper.
It feels… good, to be so free with other people near his age. He has never resented the Cloud Recesses or its many rules, but he’s starting to see why other people, who aren’t used to it from childhood, might.
For lunch, he is led to the room Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian share, spacious and light, and is presented with a bowl of soup that Jiang Yanli herself cooked this morning in preparation for his visit.
He takes it, inhaling the gentle steam that wafts upwards before he spoons a mouthful.
Three expectant faces are turned towards him.
Lan Xichen chews, taste exploding all over his tongue, unfamiliar but warm.
He smiles as soon as he has swallowed, inclining his head towards Jiang Yanli. “It is very delicious, Jiang-guniang. You are a masterful cook.”
“Thank you, Lan-gongzi.” Jiang Yanli dips her own head in reply, clearly pleased. Some of the tense alertness that had briefly returned to her brothers’ bearing also fades, and Lan Xichen becomes aware that he has just passed a test more crucial than was immediately apparent.
Following word with action, he doesn’t hesitate to finish his bowl, the others also bending over their food now that he has proven sensible in liking the food. Lan Xichen is quietly impressed by the speed with which Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian shovel soup into their mouths, catching up with him in no time. Maybe savouring your food is impolite in Yunmeng? His studies hadn’t indicated such a thing.
As his spoon finally scrapes the bottom of his bowl, out of the corner of his eye Lan Xichen sees Jiang Wanyin elbow Wei Wuxian, but before he can observe the two’s interactions further, Jiang Yanli distracts him with an offer of more.
Not wanting to be rude – and the soup is delicious – he accepts, though he already feels rather full. He’s used to smaller portions of what outsiders routinely term ‘bland’ food at Cloud Recesses.
None of the food at the banquet dinner that evening is as good as Jiang Yanli’s soup. On the way there from Jiang Wanyin’s room, he trails behind a little, having been distracted by a growth of particularly beautiful lotuses.
He only realises that the Jiang siblings aren’t aware of his better than average hearing, honed by years of musical study, when Jiang Wanyin elbows his brother – a form of affection, perhaps, between the two? – yet again and turns towards Jiang Yanli.
“Why can’t you marry him, a-Jie? He’s much nicer than that peacock, and prettier too.”
Lan Xichen is suddenly very glad no one’s paying enough attention to him to notice his ears flaming.
Wei Wuxian, meanwhile, is nodding vigorously, bangs flying. “Yeah, Shijie, he’s a much better match for you!”
Somewhat to Lan Xichen’s relief, Jiang Yanli only smiles gently. “We are friends, not anything more. I am already betrothed, you know that.”
Wei Wuxian looks mulish. “I don’t know why you even like that Zixuan.”
Lan Xichen would like to hear the answer to that himself, truth be told, but Jiang Yanli only shakes her head silently, looking as close to exasperated as he’s ever seen her. It seems to be a recurring topic, not that he can fault Jiang Wanyin or Wei Wuxian. It’s oh so easy to feel protective of Jiang Yanli.
But they’ve arrived at the Swords Hall and even Wei Wuxian stows his grumbling in the face of Jiang Fengmian and Shufu waiting for them.
On his fourth day in Yunmeng, the Jiang siblings take him to the big market in Yunping City. It’s a riotous affair, full of the smells of food and every colour under the rainbow. Jiang Yanli buys sweets for them all, that stick to his teeth and leaves him trying to wash them with his tongue. Wei Wuxian somehow manages to get some of the substance stuck to his cheek, where it stays until Jiang Yanli wipes it off while Jiang Wanyin rolls his eyes off to the side.
Lan Xichen thinks that the siblings must have noticed that he doesn’t feel entirely comfortable in the crowd, the press of bodies and sheer number of people around him apt to overwhelm his senses even as he enjoys the happy atmosphere – Cloud Recesses is quiet and calm and nothing like this – for at least one of them always sticks close to his side, steering him around the worst crowds.
It’s Wei Wuxian who’s walking next to him, chattering away as Jiang Yanli and Jiang Wanyin examine the richly-coloured cloth a merchant is displaying in heavy rolls – Lan Xichen would not have thought Jiang Wanyin to be someone to appreciate such things, serious child that he is, but the way he’s haggling with the seller over quality and price tells its own story – when a dog barks in the distance, just audible over the din of the crowd.
Before he can so much as turn his head, Lan Xichen suddenly has an armful of whimpering Wei Wuxian, hiding his face in Lan Xichen’s robes as he babbles something panicked about dogs. Without thinking, Lan Xichen pulls him closer, more secure, draping his long sleeves around the younger boy until he’s almost obscured under the light blue fabric.
“Shh, it’s all right,” he soothes. “I won’t let any dog near you. I have my sword and xiao, no dog will get past me.”
Wei Wuxian shifts a little so one scared eye can peek up at Lan Xichen’s face. “Promise?” he asks, quietly pleading in a way that twists Lan Xichen’s heart, it’s so far removed from his earlier playful whining.
“Promise,” he says firmly. “Between me and your Shijie and your Didi, we’ll keep every dog in the world away.”
For even as he was speaking, Jiang Yanli and Jiang Wanyin had hurried over, placing themselves between Wei Wuxian and the rest of the world. He emerges from under Lan Xichen’s sleeve to be fussed over by Jiang Yanli and berated by Jiang Wanyin, but the way the latter stands strongly, looking outward with one hand on his sword sends a completely different message from his words.
A few minutes pass without any more barks or an actual dog appearing, and Wei Wuxian recovers his good cheer quickly.
“Thanks, Xichen-ge,” he beams.
Lan Xichen blinks at the familiarity, but finds he doesn’t mind the address from him. Four days has been more than enough to discover that any perceived outward rudeness doesn’t reflect Wei Wuxian’s character.
“Shameless,” Jiang Wanyin mutters, but the look he throws Lan Xichen is full of a quiet gratitude for looking after his brother while he was distracted.
Lan Xichen nods at him in recognition of the sentiment, even gets a sliver of a smile in response.
Suddenly, he wishes Wangji were here so fiercely that it arrests his breath. He never feels quite complete without his brother, but it’s more than that. It would do his didi so good to experience the warmth between these siblings, be a part of a group that’s outside his clan.
One day, Lan Xichen silently vows to himself. One day.
In the meantime he’ll just have to tell him all about his visit to Yunmeng.