To the Esteemed Clan Leader Jin,
It shames me to be so bold as to even write your name upon this parchment. You, Clan Leader Jin, are so far above my own station, that to address you in any way outside of instruction, I know, is beyond inappropriate. And yet, what motivates me to pen this letter to you, Esteemed Clan Leader, is enough to risk my own life.
Not six months ago, I met Clan Leader Jin in Lanling City. You were clear in what you sought from me and I offered it. Now, I am with child.
They say that women can often tell whether they bear a boy or a girl; there is some preternatural instinct that tells us. And so it is with certainty that I can tell you that I am six months pregnant with your son.
The life of a whore’s son is not fit for an heir of Clan Leader Jin. Blessed with his father’s blood running through his veins, to have that blood muddied by the back streets of Lanling would be a sin. Indeed, it would be wicked of me to allow a son of Jin to be sullied in such a way. And so it is my loyalty to the gentry, and a mother’s love, which urges me to write this plea.
Please, Clan Leader Jin: save your unborn child from a shameful life in a whorehouse. Remove him from my sins and you may have an heir.
At your word, I will deliver my back to be whipped and my neck to be tied by a noose. However, I could not go on with my life without trying to save my son’s.
Your humble servant,
To be delivered to Madam Li’s brothel.
The boy may be of some use to me.
On the day of his tenth birthday, bring him to Koi Tower. An attendant will be waiting for you at the servants’ entrance.
It is said that you are my son. Considering your mother’s occupation, it could be reasoned that you are some other man’s. I will not know for sure until I see you. Until this time, you will learn to be useful to this family.
You are to stay in your quarters and speak only with Zhao Long, who will deliver your meals and make you his apprentice.
No one else will know of your existence, and it must stay this way until I tell you otherwise.
You will find a passageway behind the second panel to the left of the west-facing wall. This will be your way about the palace unseen. You will use it only when Zhao Long directs you to.
Follow your lessons to the letter, and you will be brought into the main palace as one of my sons.
In two weeks, you will turn thirteen. I will visit you then.
Zhao Long tells me that you are a fast learner and that you follow his instruction closely. Truly, you are a son of Jin. I knew this already, having now seen your face; it is a reflection of my own young self.
In three more years, you will bear that name in public, and with a title to match.
Your discretion is impressive.
Today you turn fourteen. Enclosed is a dagger. It is one of the Jin family treasures, and I entrust it to you.
I know that you will learn to use it well.
To Grandmaster Lan,
I write this letter to you in the hope that it finds you in good tidings. Winter has loosened its grip over Lanling and spring is now breathing life back into our district. I trust that Gusu is doing well.
Just last week I rode to Yunmeng and visited Lotus Pier. Jiang Fengmian informed me that he had met with you recently to discuss your position on the latest stirrings in Qinghe. He is a trusted friend and so I consider any ally of his one whom I should also trust. I therefore turn to you, Lan Qiren, to ask whether you should like for all three of us -- or perhaps four, including Unclean Realm -- to convene and share our thoughts. Wen Ruohan surely grows too bold, and his rebellious energy is already beginning to knock against Lanling’s walls. It seems clear to me that a united front is a wise route to consider.
Your famous intellect and strict moral code would provide great guidance for the other three clans during this time. Indeed, it seems quite due that a bond between Jin and Lan be formed. My grandfather was once very close with your own, I believe. Their trust now rests in our hands, ready to be revived -- do you not think?
If you are happy to join, I will host at Koi Tower, where you will be wanting of nothing.
In earnest to hear from you,
To the Esteemed Clan Leader Jin,
Thank you for hosting me last week at Koi Tower. I trust that Lanling has continued to flourish in good health after our session with the Jiang and Nie. You yourself said that you felt you learned a lot from your ally clans that day, and I confess that I have been elucidated. The situation is more dire than I was led to believe.
Wen Ruohan’s rebel forces will not be suppressed by the Unclean Realm for much longer. If I am correct in interpreting your smiles and your tacit agreements that day, you agree with Clan Leader Jiang that the ally clans should assist. However, I must make my stance clear -- I am writing a similar letter to both the Nie and the Jiang -- I do not agree that we should rush to push back Wen Ruohan’s forces. We already have fought at the Uncleam Realm’s borders, with great success. To invade Wen territory without provocation will only cause trouble. A hornets’ nest is best left alone; to fight it before it has broken open will only anger it.
I urge you, Clan Leader Jin, not to give into impulse as I am afraid that my Jiang Fengmian may.
Until we meet again, please consider my words.
To Grandmaster Lan,
Your letter did make me laugh so!
I will adhere to your advice keenly. To act on impulse during such a critical time would be misguided indeed. If I showed my assent with smiles and nods during our meeting, it is because I know my friend at Lotus Pier will always commit to doing what he is told not to. It is therefore simpler to agree.
Have you had the chance to consider my offer in any depth?
Your trusted ally,
Clan Leader Jin,
To read this is some relief. However, I urge you to hold tightly onto the advice that I gave you and our allied clans that day.
Yes, your offer has been on my mind of late.
Clan Leader Lan is a fine leader and already well respected within Gusu. However, he has taken on his responsibilities at a far younger age that I would have planned for him to do so; were it not for my deteriorating health, I would not have laid this role on him when he is still so inexperienced.
I have raised Zewu-Jun to be kind, uncompromising, diligent, unerring. He is mature for his age. Next summer he will be nineteen, and I fear his responsibilities will only increase as I grow older, too. It is therefore not unreasonable to consider an offer of alliance with another clan. That, and for Zewu-Jun to have a confidante who may offer their own advice and support him in his duties could benefit both our clans greatly. Hanguang-Jun is not yet ready to share in his brother’s responsibilities. He still behaves like a child.
It is also as you say: it has been several generations since there was a strong bond between Jin and Lan. In the past, we have made our differences clear. Perhaps, now, it is time to see what bridge we can build between our clans, as disparate as they may seem.
To Grandmaster Lan,
Come, now, we are friends. You needn’t address me with such strained formality. You will offend me if you are much more polite!
How funny. It is no secret that the Jin and Lan are as opposite as night and day. However it is as you say, a bridge could be made with this betrothal.
Jin Guangyao is a dutiful boy. He is respectful and his intellect is unparalleled: surely an excellent specimen in a market of possible advisers, let alone suitors. His handsome features have become quite famous within Lanling. They could be said to rival even your nephew’s, which even the people in Qinghe seem to know about! Zewu-Jun, I am sure, will be quite relieved to have the hunt for a suitor brought a close. Compared to any other matches, Jin Guangyao will be exquisite, I am sure.
Jin Guangyao is also eighteen, fast nineteen. If you are amenable, it would be sensible to set the betrothal date soon, before this war becomes too troublesome.
I must also extend my congratulations to you and Hanguang-Jun for his recent marriage to Wei Wuxian of Lotus Pier.
Your trusted ally,
To Clan Leader Jin,
I trust you are well. I have thought over your proposition carefully.
I confess, I had thought the betrothal would be between Zewu-Jun and your younger son, Jin Zixuan. Jin Guangyao sounds like a fine man, however I had heard of his existence for the first time only two years ago.
My concern was quickly assuaged by the news of Jin Guangyao’s eloquence at your recent night hunt with the Nie. In the midst of the hot-headed youths present, it is said that he was fair, firm, and the young Chifeng-Zun rang his praises to Zewu-Jun in a recent letter. His eloquence and sobriety, his diplomacy in particular, have been asserted by our friend in Lotus Pier. Hearing proof of these accolades, I therefore consent to the arrangement of this betrothal.
Zewu-Jun and Lianfang-Zun may, at your approval, be wed by this winter.
It is perhaps not the practised tradition to reach out to a betrothed before meeting them. However, I thought that, given the current circumstances -- and the fact that it has almost been a year since our engagement was arranged -- I might write this letter to you. I hope that it finds you in good health, and I apologise if my attempt to contact you before formal introduction is too forward.
It is my guess that Clan Leader Jin has informed you that Grandmaster Lan and I will not be able to make our visit to Lanling as planned this autumn. It has come as a great disappointment to us both. I have been told by my dear friend, Chifeng-Zun, of your honourable outlook on life and unparalleled discernment; if this is true, then I hope that you will understand that we cannot leave Gusu at this time. For now, our forces have managed to push back Wen Ruohan’s armies as far as Hefei. And yet it is troubling that the Wen’s attempts to stretch out their empire have reached this far at all, having managed to slip between the Lanling and Yunmeng borders.
We are constantly being updated by Clan Leader Jin as to the status of your district. If there is anything that Gusu can do to be of some support, please keep me informed. It is a testament to the tactical strength of the Jin that your defence remains so strong.
Although the threat of invasion looms over us all, I also look forward to what lies ahead. Rumours of your benevolence, your eloquence, and general excellence have spread throughout Gusu. I hope that our alliance may provide a source of hope for the people of Lanling and Gusu.
Enclosed is a drawing of the local landscape at Cloud Recesses. Whilst I do not boast my drawing skills, it seems improper to acknowledge our betrothal without a gift. Rest assured, when we meet in person, you will receive a gift that is more representative of my commitment to our arrangement.
With kind regards,
I write this having just returned from a war meeting with my father, brother, and cousin. The day has been long and to receive this letter was a pleasant surprise. Indeed, the rumours of your kind and thoughtful nature proceeds you, Zewu-Jun.
As I have just finished this first paragraph to you, the ink had barely dried when my father discovered me writing this letter and asked me with whom I was corresponding. When I told him that you sent me this letter, he was delighted by your initiative -- and so, no apology is required, Clan Leader Lan.
The drawing is beautiful -- you are far too modest in your skills. I look forward to visiting Cloud Recesses one day soon, if it is as beautiful as your depiction. In reciprocation, I have enclosed a poem of my own composition. My attempts at a similar sketch were poor, and I found that I could not embarrass myself by sending you any of my drafts. I hope that this poem might please you instead.
What you say is true: you and I will soon be in close alliance, our betrothal symbolic of this. It is for that reason that it feels such a betrayal that I cannot share Lanling’s plans with you in this letter. Having spent several hours discussing strategies with my father and our district general, would that I could share my knowledge with you. And yet letters cannot be trusted to keep their information secret. One day soon, it is my hope that we will meet in person, and Gusu and Lanling will be able to make these plans together.
The expansion of Wen forces to the Gusu borders is indeed troubling. Lanling, as you say, has held its position at the north, although it will be no news to you that Yunmeng suffers. Lanling has long had strong ally-ship with Yunmeng and therefore is doing what it can to supply forces and rout out any invaders. Wen Ruohan’s soldiers slip between cracks and borders and forests like woodlice. Naturally, Lanling will do all it can to redirect its forces to Gusu, also, if required; I trust that either you or Grandmaster Lan will inform us if you need assistance of this type.
Have you heard word from Chifeng-Zun in The Unclean Realm?
How long will this war stretch on for, I wonder? To live in the palace and look out beyond the walls, one could forget there was one going on at all. We gentry live a most fortunate life. And yet to live within the safety of these walls every day without picking up a sword -- my own inactivity makes me restless.
Once again, I must say that it has been a pleasure hearing from you.
With similarly kind regards,
I must start by saying that you live up to and go even beyond your reputation. The poem which you say you have composed is not only articulate, as I have heard that you are from friends and allies, but it is also deeply moving. Thank you. I hope that you will continue to write, for you have such a way with words.
To now address the points of your letter chronologically: it is a relief that you were not offended by my letter introducing myself, although I believe you would be too gracious to say otherwise. It is also a relief to know that your father viewed my reaching out to you as an act of initiative rather than impudence.
I confess that when I told my uncle that I wrote to you, he was afraid that I had given off a poor impression. One of our three thousand five hundred rules warns Lan Clan members to ‘not accept compromise when patience is also an option’. On this occasion, I used my own discretion to determine that whilst patience would indeed be an option -- waiting until we meet personally to speak with you -- it seemed unkind to not contact you when the future is so unclear at present. And, kindness to others is one of the most important teachings of the Lan.
Lianfang-Zun, you are far too generous of my drawing abilities. My brother and I were taught quite strictly from a very young age. I have been informed by my old teacher that whilst I show attention to detail, I express very little feeling in my artwork. I admit that I agree with him. This is partially why I am determined to find a more suitable betrothal gift for you when we meet in person.
Your consideration and integrity are as true as they say. Lianfang-Zun, in no way do you betray our alliance or the symbolism of our betrothal by not sharing confidential information in letters. You are right when you say that we cannot share any real details in our correspondence. Whilst I trust my messenger as much as I am sure you trust yours, one can never be certain what might happen on those dangerous roads between Koi Tower and Cloud Recesses.
Just last week, one of our disciples was ambushed by Wen soldiers. We quickly rescued him, but only after he was tortured for information. He gave nothing away, and we are indebted to him. I worry for the welfare of our people; it is dangerous for even those who have little to no involvement. Caiyi has become tense and crime is on the rise, with local funds being redirected to weaponry and masonry rather than fair wages. Cloud Recesses have tried to help with what funding we have, but I fear that morale is fragile in our district.
Thank you for your offer of reinforcement. Currently, we are holding strong enough. I believe your assessment is correct, that the Nie and Jiang clans are more needy than us at this moment in time. I would like to reiterate my initial offer, now, in the event that Lanling has need of Gusu’s help in the future. As your future partner, I will do whatever I can to support both of our districts.
I have not heard from Chifeng-Zun. I hope that I will soon.
What you say about inactivity, about futility and restlessness-- I feel much the same. As a Clan Leader, I must stay and organise our resources from home. I am rarely allowed to fight, as my brother is. And as your father’s closest advisor, you must stay at his side and figure out strategy. However, I take little pleasure in it. To wake up in the morning and watch the morning mists settle over Gusu, as if only a few cities away, there is not a war waging in which my own people are dying: it cuts, deeply.
I hope that you will find some peace in the coming weeks.
With warm regards,
I write this now from my chambers having returned from another war meeting. Tensions are rising in Lanling. Unfortunately, that is all I can say.
Your words surrounding my poetry and my alleged articulacy are flattering indeed. It is my instinct to say that such a compliment is undeserved, and yet I do not wish to offend by suggesting that I could be questioning Zewu-Jun’s judgement.
You said that you would address each subject of my letter chronologically, and indeed you did. It made me smile to read, for I have heard that the Lan are methodical in all that they do. It is not always so in Lanling. I am often subjected to friendly teasing by my cousin for the way that I succinctly set out and summarise my views even during informal events, as if I am presenting an argument in court. Do we perhaps share this habit?
And yet, there is also a mischief in the tone of your letters that I find surprising -- pleasantly, I hasten to add, Zewu-Jun. To go against your uncle’s wishes, even as a clan leader, is quite frowned upon within the Lan, is it not? And to be so disparaging of your artistic skills -- do you really feel that you warrant such self-deprecation?
Rereading this, I have thought about redacting my words. I hope I am not too impudent. I do regret the tone of my words a little. I confess that in simply writing to you, a Clan Leader, I feel that I am already speaking a little out of turn. To be engaged to you I think makes me the luckiest man in the world.
I thank you for your reassurances regarding the contents of our letters. Today, in particular, I wished I could have shared our plans with my future allied partner. And yet I feel that I must fill these pages with news that you already know, such as the tighter border security that has left the peripheral towns in Lanling very tense.
I would like to ride out there some time soon. It is my intention to ascertain the situation for myself, as it is impossible to do so from behind these walls. If there is anything that we can supply from Lanling City that we are not aware of, I would be made aware by a short visit to these liminal towns, I am certain. And yet there is a ubiquitous reluctance to leave Koi Tower, one that that I share, despite my conflict.
It is for this reason that I wonder whether our wedding will be able to go on as planned this winter. Our meeting last week was postponed, and so far we have not been able to rearrange to a suitable date. Would it perhaps be more sensible to have a wedding at a later date, rather than in the midst of war -- particularly when money is short? Clan Leader Jin and Grandmaster Lan are generously arranging this on our behalf, and I would never attempt to go against their wishes, however I am keen to know your thoughts.
To watch the mist rolling over the Gusu mountains indeed sounds peaceful, but only if your heart is not elsewhere, as you say that yours is. To know that our people are dying far away makes even the sweetest peony smell bitter.
As you wished me peace, I hope you will find your own.
Warm regards, your betrothed,
It is admirable that you are working so hard to protect your country, engaging in regular meetings. However, your anxiety is clear in your letters. I am glad that my words may ease your worries. Is there anything I can do to further this, Lianfang-Zun? During my most troubling ruminations, I find that a walk through the mountains with its fresh air helps wash many things away. Perspective is very difficult to attain these days, however -- especially, as you say, when we are expected to remain in our homes.
Do you play any instrument? I can recommend music as a source of consolation during times of anxiety. To play music has a particular way of diverting the attention whilst also helping to organise ones thoughts and see things clearly. When we meet, if you would be amenable, I could play you a piece of meditative music from the Lan Clan archives.
It occurs to me as I write that many of these suggestions may seem trivial, and I am sure that you have tried them already. I apologise if any of this has been condescending: I simply hope that you are not making yourself ill with worry.
I can assure you that my compliments surrounding your poetry were not intended to be flattery, but truths. However, your modesty is admirable.
As you find it pleasing -- and perhaps a little amusing -- I will continue to respond to your letters chronologically. It is indeed a Lan Clan habit of mine. I like things to be organised, thought-out, and concise. Often, I find that my thoughts are the opposite. And so, it is perhaps the case that I compensate by writing and speaking with as much clarity as possible. Politeness, stoicism, and articulacy are some of the most highly valued and strictly taught traits within the Lan Clan. You also display all of these traits in your letters alone.
I therefore cannot allow you to degrade yourself in such a way, Lianfang-Zun -- we are equals. Though I am indeed a clan leader, you are also a member of the gentry and our match is both logical and beneficial for our peoples. You are no more lucky in our betrothal than I am. The formalities in your letters are not necessary. I feel that it is important that you feel comfortable enough to challenge me and speak with ease. I hope that you will continue to do so, as I have glimpsed in your recent letter.
Reading that you would like to ride out to the areas of conflict in your district both distresses and pleases me. For, whilst I am anxious that you might become inextricably tangled in the affairs there, it also tells me that you are a man who prefers to take matters into his own hands rather than let others handle it for him. It is an honourable trait. However, if there is a reluctance from your Esteemed father about any of you leaving the safety of your home, then he is valid to feel this way.
I sense that I am labouring the point, but, Lianfang-Zun: if you do make plans to head out, I hope that you do so in safety and without impulse. Instinct -- and here-say -- both tell me that you are not the type to do anything without forethought. Please be careful.
It is true what you say -- that, unfortunately, there is little that we can discuss within the realm of politics in these letters that either cannot be used against us or that we do not each already know. And so, I am tempted to initiate in some more frivolous conversation (though I imagine my uncle would be horrified by such extraneous subjects. These letters are already far longer and less concise than I have been so diligently taught to write). I do not want you to feel that all you are allowed to talk about with me are matters of state.
I have been considering, recently, how much of a shame it is that I have not been to Lanling since I was a young boy. It was over a decade ago, to celebrate the birth of your cousin. Hanguang-Jun was still too young to join my uncle and me. I therefore remember little except for how much warmer it was, though this may just be the fallacy of a child’s memory. Since Lanling sits further north, I cannot believe that it would have been warmer than Gusu at all. Aside from that, I remember the fragrance of flowers. They say smell is one of the most memory evoking senses. I wonder what I will recall when I eventually return to Lanling.
Naturally, I have not forgotten the final statement in your letter, and I shall keep to my promise of chronology. As for your concerns surrounding our wedding: I understand and I agree. However, it is my opinion that we should not question our elders’ arrangements for us. Even if, perhaps, it seems right to postpone.
We shall have to see where fate takes us.
I have heard word from our general at the Gusu borders that Lanling soldiers came to assist at the battle at Hefei. He said that it was your word that send reinforcements to us.
I cannot thank you enough.
The Lan Clan will always be available to reciprocate whenever you need us.
Since you value clarity and method as much as I do, I will aim to structure my letters chronologically also. You are right that it does amuse me a little, and I hope you can forgive me for this.
Your suggestions to aid in my relaxation of the mind are both generous and thoughtful. In no way did I view them as condescending.
There are few that notice when I am stressed, as I work hard to keep these things hidden from However I can assure you that my health is quite sound and that I am well. I appreciate your concern enormously, Zewu-Jun.
I would be very happy to listen to you play the guqin when we eventually meet. For you to treat this offer as trivial is less than you deserve. It means a great deal, and I should be delighted to witness your famous musical skills. To answer your question, I’m afraid that I do not play an instrument. I have had a few lessons on the guqin, though my brother and cousin are far superior. My skills tend to lie in rhetoric and writing, something which I value during meetings and resent once I have left them; to be able to hone a creative skill, I feel, would make me a little more distinguished.
And so, despite your kind reassurances, I confess that I do not feel worthy of our arrangement, Zewu-Jun. You are good and true and talented in almost every respect. Just as you say that you compensate your complex thoughts by speaking concisely, I feel that I am compelled to make up in what I lack with politeness and intellect. Formalities have become somewhat of a support for me, and it is a struggle to remove that scaffold when what we are building, I feel, is so important. However, you are right when you suggest that our alliance can only grow stronger if we both share more with one another than discussions of politics.
Perhaps, then, it is sensible for me to address the obvious. I would rather that I laid it out for you myself than you heard from gossip and whisperings.
You will have discovered, I am certain, that I was only reinstated as Clan Leader Jin’s son just over three years ago. I am also certain that a man of your generosity would have ignored the rumours that went around about me. I’m afraid that they are true: I was illegitimate until my sixteenth birthday. My mother worked in a brothel in Yunping until she recently passed away.
I did not have the pleasure of learning the skills that a Young Master is expected to know until I was much older. This is one reason why I do not play a musical instrument, and it is also the reason I speak with as many pretty words as I can. It is my only accolade, having been raised without a gentry education. My politeness is both a strength and a weakness; it is a fine tool in diplomatic situations, and yet I know that I also hide behind it when I am vulnerable.
If we are to be married, I must learn to let down this guard with you. I will therefore endeavour to do so, since it is what you deserve. Given our differences in position, I will do everything that I can to make myself a worthy partner. I do not want to give you or Grandmaster Lan any further reason to be reluctant to form this engagement.
I will admit that it made me smile, how you requested that I let go of formalities -- and yet your letter is so formal, too. Are you aware of this?
You are right that my father has explicitly stated that I do not leave the palace. I therefore will not go to the bordering towns, as I take my duties seriously and would never desire to disobey him. He has shown me great kindness in the years that he discovered me as his son, and to betray him would be a dishonour of the highest order. I had not understood the meaning of filial piety until I found my father. Now that I do, I consider it a gift.
Truly, my restlessness is less that I am a keen fighter and more that I do not like to have situations spiral out of my control. You phrased it as ‘a man who prefers to take matters into his own hands rather than let others handle it for him’. This is a very generous way of putting it -- my younger cousin would call me a meddler.
It also made me smile that you noted the length of your letters. The Lan Clan are quite famous, are they not, for their concise speech and economy of words? And yet I confess that I enjoy reading your letters, all the more for their length.
Your memories of Lanling are not inaccurate. I was raised in Yunmeng, where it is milder further inland. Lanling, meanwhile, is humid and becomes extremely hot in the summers. The heat comes in swathes and settles over the city like layers of thick silk. Flowers blossom and make the air sweet, and there is a breeze that comes from the river that removes anything suffocating about it. The sky turns a lapis blue here, such as I have never seen in Yunmeng; when you turn your head to view it in spring, the cherry blossoms look like they could have been painted against an azure canvas. It holds a very surreal beauty.
Gusu, I have heard, is protected by its sea breezes and mountain mists. However, I have never visited Gusu myself. I very much look forward to it. One of my disciples says that she has been several times as a child and used to find the change in climate quite striking. The air is clearer and cooler there, whilst Lanling is all heat and fragrance. Many visitors find it overwhelming, and I confess that there was some shock to the system when I came to live here for the first time.
Caiyi, I have heard, is charming. Are its loquats as delicious as they say? Cloud Recesses sounds spectacular. To have a palace in the mountains must feel like living in the home of gods.
You mentioned Hanguang-Jun having never visited Lanling. I hope that when you and Grandmaster Lan do visit, you might bring your brother and his husband with him. How do the young couple fare? I have heard of Wei Wuxian’s spirited nature and impressive intellect. I imagine that they challenge and compliment each other in marriage.
I agree with you that we must honour our elders’ wishes regarding our upcoming nuptials. Clan Leader Jin is keen for it to continue as planned; it may symbolise a beacon of hope for our two districts, to see two young leaders form an alliance in the face of war. What is Grandmaster Lan’s position?
And in regards to your supplementary letter: you are welcome, and there is never need for thanks. We are allies. I am happy to assist, betrothed.
Warmest regards, also,
I am happy that my letters please you. There is nothing to forgive. And I am even more pleased that you are well. These times are troubling, and we must take care of our minds and hearts. My daily meditations have become more and more essential as this war rages on. Peace of mind has become increasingly difficult to attain.
Yesterday, I was searching for a particular manuscript in our musical archives, and I discovered a new piece which I have never heard before. Whilst the date of our meeting is still uncertain, I have begun practising it. Perhaps, if you would like to hear it, I might play it for you when you visit Cloud Recesses? Similarly, I could even teach you to play it, if you would like to learn.
It was hard to write this letter with the chronological format which so amuses you. Having read your own opinion of yourself and ‘our differences in position’, I was tempted to begin this letter by begging you to be kinder to yourself. Now that we are at the allotted point in this letter to address the matter: my uncle had attempted to find a suitable partner for me for almost a year, until he found that the only person appropriate for that position was you. I cannot stress this enough: you and I are equals.
This alone may not be enough to assuage your concerns, so I hope you will allow me to continue. You are quite wise in your metaphor: we are ‘building’ an alliance. And you are astute to have noticed that I too use politeness as a scaffold. Making close acquaintances is not a simple task for me, as it is for my brother-in-law or even my friend, Chifeng-Zun. I abhor tension, and the more open one is the more difficult it is to avoid that sort of vulnerability. And so I also dress myself in formality to avoid it. However, I feel that you and I have been more honest in these letters than I could have predicted, and for us to admit these things to each other (and ourselves) can only be a positive thing. What we are building can only be made stronger by that.
Your wisdom continues to strike me, Lianfang-Zun. You describe politeness as both a strength and a weakness, and I must agree that it is a sharp blade with which to cut, but which can also cut ones’ own hand if poorly used. I have found that the kindness that people say of me is quite similar. To be kind to those who do not deserve it can be a cruelty to those whom they have hurt, and to oneself. I have found myself inadvertently undermining my own strength by using formality instead of confidence.
And so, I hope that we may both feel more confident as we continue our correspondence. Lianfang-Zun, your honesty is appreciated and admirable. Nothing that you have told me makes me any less honoured to share in this alliance with you. (I truly hope that I have not made you self-conscious with my talk of playing musical instruments, having admitted why you have not learned to play. If so, I deeply and sincerely apologise.) In no way am I reluctant in our engagement, nor do I believe that this is the case with my uncle.
Therefore, I will attempt to release my own formalities, too.
However, please do not take this as an order for you to open up to me, Lianfang-Zun: we may be marrying one another soon, however, I would never force someone to make themselves feel vulnerable. Share with me what you would like to in your own time. I will do the same.
Yes, I am aware that I write very formally. And you are right to tease me about it.
What you say about filial piety is interesting. I have always been dedicated to my uncle, since I knew my father little as a child. I did not know my mother well, since she died when my brother and I were still quite young. However, I would venture to say that this dedication towards Grandmaster Lan is as close to filial piety as I will ever know. He has always returned his dedication through his teachings; if my brother and I are as moral and good as they say we are, then it is only because of my uncle. He is strict and fair.
If you are a meddler, as your cousin puts it, then that is just as well. My fear of confrontation makes intervention difficult for me, unless there is no clear alternative. I believe that you and I will work well together.
And so you continue to tease me for the inappropriate length of my letters. Do you not think that it is better this way, Lianfang-Zun? There are not many people who are able to tease me like this. My brother would not dare and my uncle is too stern. Anyone else would be afraid to speak to Clan Leader Lan in such a way -- except for Chifeng-Zun, who relentlessly mocks me. You have mentioned that I am surprisingly mischievous in my letters, and I confess that it surprises me also, but perhaps this is why. Perhaps I am looking for an equal with which to share this alliance, who might witness these aspects of my personality that no one else can.
I loved reading your poetry about Lanling. You describe the landscape in a way that makes me yearn for a place I have never visited. You describe the heat as overwhelming and yet also quite magical. I wish that I could describe Cloud Recesses with the same lyricism as you. I am looking at the view as I write, and I will attempt to replicate it through words. Currently, it is autumn, and so the clouds are quite low, and it turns the mountains into little floating worlds. Having rained last night, the forests are dark green and the sky has not quite cleared yet. I have lived here all my life, and yet the magic of this place has never left my consciousness; these mountains have a meditative stillness to them that have always felt somewhat divine to me.
There, I am clearly not a poet like you. Perhaps when you visit, you will be able to tell me what you think of Gusu in your own, superior language.
I consider Caiyi a charming town. Currently, as I have previously mentioned, it is struggling economically and so it has lost some of its light-heartedness. However, Wei-fujun enjoys it enormously and often ventures in to do his part in supporting the community. And so to address your penultimate paragraph about my brother and Wei Wuxian-- I extended your invitation to them, and they would both be pleased to join. Wei Wuxian in particular showed great interest, as he is keen to have someone to share memories of Yunmeng with.
And yes, the loquats here are excellent. My brother pretends that he is not partial to them, as he believes he must be too rigorous to enjoy small treats like this. I will buy both you and Hanguang-Jun some loquats when you are able to visit. I hope that it might gently irritate him, and please you.
You are right when you say that they challenge and compliment each other. Truly, I could never have imagined a more surprising and yet more perfect match for my brother. Hanguang-Jun is the epitome of Lan values, and Wei Wuxian, I believe, suffered quite a culture shock when they first met at lectures last year. My younger brother’s happiness with his arrangement warms my heart.
And so, to finally address the subject of our marriage arrangements. It is very true that our alliance may offer hope to our districts. I sense that Clan Leader Jin is very keen for us to go ahead with the wedding. I am not sure of my uncle’s position. I hope that all will be clarified soon.
With warmest regards,
No matter how much I enjoy our jests about writing chronologically, I must ignore this for now in favour of something more important. The matter of our wedding: Clan Leader Jin told me today that it must be postponed until further notice, having received a letter from your uncle. I feel that I must let you know that he is quite down-heartened about it. I am sure that your uncle feels similarly.
I know that, in the past, there has been some tension between the Jin and Lan. People have often noted the contrast in our cultures: Lanling’s opulence versus Gusu’s modesty; indulgence versus restraint; emotion versus stoicism. Naturally, I believe that these comparisons are reductionist. However it cannot be denied that the differences in our clans have sometimes caused a certain type of tension. I am worried that the delays in our wedding will exacerbate them.
I would like to reiterate that if there is any hesitance on the Lan Clan’s part regarding this arrangement, I am happy to offer whatever I can to soothe Grandmaster Lan’s concerns -- should he have any. Despite my insecurities, I strongly believe that our alliance will be a strong one that will benefit both districts, and I will do what I can to put the Grandmaster’s mind at ease. I am deeply sorry if anything I have done has caused a tension between him and Clan Leader Jin.
I am also sorry to hear that your daily meditations have been more of a struggle of late. I wish that I could offer some advice, however, I find that I am struggling to relax my mind, too. The world feels as if it is about to topple into something irrevocable. My days are spent holding my breath and waiting.
It would be a pleasure to be taught the guqin by you, Zewu-Jun (and you have at no point made me self-conscious. I do not believe it is within your capabilities). It is a beautiful instrument and one that I have always admired. To be taught to play by one of the best would be quite an honour. You may have to be patient with me, however, since I have had next to no practise. Despite this, you will find that I am quick to learn. If you prefer, I would be happy to simply listen to you play. Instinct tells me that the music of Cloud Recesses will be different to that which plays in Koi Tower. Clan Leader Jin is partial to a banquet and often there is lively music and dancing in the Great Hall. I’m looking forward to hearing something that could be considered a little more meditative.
Similarly to you, I found it hard to write this chronologically -- to the point that I broke the rules of our strange little game at the start of this letter. However, I have stayed true to my word in so far as I have waited until now to address your words surrounding the suitability of our match.
Zewu-Jun, there are very few words that can express how your letter made me feel, and there are no words that can convey my full gratitude. Even having admitted what I have, you still accept this betrothal with grace and generosity. Indeed, if you heard the things that some of the people in Koi Tower whisper behind my back, you might be more ashamed to be associated with me. And yet you continue to write these letters and make assertions that we are equals. Your kindness is unerring and unparalleled.
I think you are right, that what we share now will help to create a strong foundation for our future alliance.
The way you talk about kindness is quite fascinating. I have never heard anyone speak about it in such a way. Like it is a fault -- a weakness. Selfish, even. Your self-deprecation is unwarranted, Clan Leader Lan. You are right that showing mercy to the wrong people can be a detriment to others. And yet, I have never heard word of you ever being guilty of such a thing. Similarly, I have never been told that you are afraid of confrontation or tension, at least not to a point that it is significant. Indeed, there are stories about your prowess on the battlefield, when Wen Ruohan first encroached The Unclean Realm’s borders. You fought bravely and you did so alongside your soldiers. From what I can tell, you are not a man who sits back and allows events to take a turn for the worst.
If it is true that I am unkind to myself, then you are similarly guilty of this. Are you able to show yourself the same generosity that you extend to others? (You have admitted that you like that I challenge you. Perhaps this goes too far?)
I find it very hard to believe that you do not make acquaintances easily.
… At your request, I will continue to tease you.
Grandmaster Lan lives up to his reputation, also. You are a dutiful nephew and your love for him is very clear.
Compared to the upbringing I received in Yunping, the strict moral code of the Lan Clan could not be more different. Perhaps, had I been raised within similar circumstances, I would have appreciated it. It must be a difficult life for a child to understand, however. Do you ever wonder what you would have been like if you had been raised differently? I do, regularly. I wonder what it would have been like if I had been raised within the Jin clan from birth. What friendships might I have made, what skills might I have acquired? Would I have the same personality? Would I be less afraid to drop formalities?
Truly, Zewu-Jun, you are the first person I have articulated these thoughts to. In some ways, it is easier to talk about them in a letter; there is no one watching and listening as I fumble through my musings. And yet, there is something about writing all of this down that makes these letters all the more intimate. I have not shared these ruminations aloud to anyone before. What I mean to say is this: you are not the only one pleased to find a confidante.
I would not describe any of my letters as poetry, Zewu-Jun -- once again you overestimate my abilities. And, once again, you are far too unkind about your own. You make Cloud Recesses sound exquisite. I can imagine the kinds of mountains you describe easily; with clouds hanging low, so that the tops of the trees poke through the mists. Is there not also a fabled healing spring there? It sounds quite surreal. Divine indeed.
It reminds me of a place I once visited with my mother, as a young child. She was unwell at this point already, and yet she was determined to see her life through for as long as she could. I could not quite understand at the time, but I think that she wanted to leave Yunping for the day so that we could spend time together. Now that she is gone, I realise just how important it was for us to savour those moments. She took us to a forest not far out of Yunping, on the way to Lotus Pier. The trees are tall and thick, and it makes the wood seem almost black with how dense it is. We walked and foraged for the whole day. I maintain that woodlands are some of the most serene and otherworldly places available to us humans.
‘Superior language’ -- I thought we had agreed to be less formal with one another?
I look forward to meeting Wei-fujun. It is my understanding that we both shared a very similar early childhood in Yunmeng. Perhaps he will be able to share his own thoughts on joining the gentry at a later age.
I very much look forward to the loquats.
With warmest regards,
I must add as a post-script that I had no idea my letter had grown so long until I began to roll it up to be sent. I am very sorry for how much you have been forced to respond to. Please feel free to abandon our rule of chronology in favour of ignoring some of my paragraphs entirely.
In addition to my last letter:-
I have heard about Chifeng-Zun’s injury at the recent battle in Qinghe. You know him far better than I. Do you know how he is? I hope that you are in good health, considering, since I know that you are close friends and that this news must hurt you greatly.
I have enclosed a small tassel pendant which I saw in Lanling City yesterday. It is only a small gift, and nothing so personal or thoughtful as the drawing which you first sent me. However, the old wives tales say that malachite can offer healing properties of both body and mind, as well as wisdom. And so perhaps this little green peony can provide of some comfort, as silly as it seems now in retrospect.
You are both in my thoughts.
Please accept my apologies for receiving my letter later than you are probably accustomed to. The Grandmaster, my brother and I were hosting a meeting with the local minor clans discussing our upcoming steps in the war. It left me very little time to give your letter the proper response it deserves. You may have found that typically I will reply immediately so as not to delay our correspondence and cause undue concern at your end. However, this time, political affairs kept me tied. Apologies, Lianfang-Zun.
You will be pleased to hear that Chifeng-Zun fares well. I received a letter from him just before yours arrived detailing exactly what happened and the state of his health. My friend is no stranger to warfare and his battle scars are extensive. I believe he considers recently being stabbed in the stomach just another scar. He is typically belligerent in his attitude towards Wen Ruohan and lackadaisical about his brush with death. There are very few who are as honourable as him when it comes to these things.
I appreciate your thought in this matter, however. You are right that I was very worried when word arrived that he had been injured. I have known Nie Mingjue since we were boys.
Indeed, he sent me a letter recently asking more about our betrothal. I feel that I should warn you now that my friend can be somewhat protective. If he appears stern or even cold when you meet him again, it is no reflection on you. I have tried to convey that there is no need for him to assess you -- and I have given him no information about our correspondence despite his persistent questioning -- but he is quite stubborn in nature.
I must confess, Lianfang-Zun, that when you mentioned that our wedding was to be postponed, this was the first I had heard about the news. My uncle had elected not to share this decision with me, choosing to wait until a later date as he did not realise that you and I were still in direct correspondence.
It troubles me that you seem to believe that there is something on your part that has caused this delay. Please know that this is not the case. There is nothing in your actions or your character that has caused this. You have caused no reluctance. I have spoken to my uncle and it is clear that the postponement is due to all that we have already discussed -- the current political climate, the economic crash. That Clan Leader Jin is so despondent about the delay a great shame indeed. Please convey to Clan Leader Jin that the Lan Clan are keen for this alliance to go ahead as planned. Our clans are friends and I would not wish for him to think of it any other way.
I sincerely hope that this will not cause tension between our clans, as you have insinuated. I am certain that the reason for the delay is simply because of the war and nothing more. Perhaps you and I should assure our respective elders that we are still in correspondence and happy for the betrothal to go forward.
You have mentioned our cultures’ differences. I recall my uncle mentioning that banquets are one of them. I fear that when you visit Cloud Recesses, you may experience quite a culture shock as Wei Wuxian did. The Lan Clan are exclusively vegetarian and we do not drink alcohol. (This is still a subject of enormous trauma for Wei-fujun.) I hope that we are not so strict that you will not be happy when you visit. As you say, our music is also rather more solemn, though I find it keeps my mind at peace. I am eager to discover your honest thoughts on this.
I am glad that my words surrounding the worthiness of our match has made you feel somewhat better. I am sincere when I say that we are equals. To lie is a great sin within the Lan sect, even if it is simply flattery. And so, you can trust that anything I say to compliment you is only true.
I am sorry that you experience whisperings and gossip, even in Koi Tower. It shocks me that there are those bold enough to spread rumours about their Young Master. Perhaps I am simply naive, but I cannot understand the motivations behind these people’s actions. Your mother’s profession does not make you any less of a fine ruler, or any less worthy of your position. And, from the way you describe her, she sounded like a good woman. I am very sorry for your loss.
Perhaps you are right that I am not generous with myself. It is not my instinct to be so. I am not sure whether it is because it conflicts with the Lan sect’s guidelines, or whether I am innately unable to be kind to myself. Either way, I encourage you to continue to point these things out to me. You make me view myself in ways that I have never realised that I could.
I am afraid that I have misled you, Lianfang-Zun, if I have given you the impression that I am good at making friends. It is not that I’m not polite to those I meet; it is actually precisely because of this that I find it difficult to form bonds. People assume that, when I try to initiate friendship, I am simply being a benevolent and kind leader. In some respects this is true. And so, there are times when I even doubt myself. It is also the case that there are many people who are unnerved by the idea of being friends with a Clan Leader, especially since I took on my responsibilities at quite a young age. Unlike Hanguang-Jun, I did not have many contemporaries within the gentry growing up, apart from Nie Mingjue.
I am sure that if you ask him, he will share plenty of stories about how awkward I can be.
You ask if I have ever considered what life would have been like, being raised in different circumstances. My answer is: regularly.
As I sat and wrote this paragraph, it occurred to me also that as a child, I never had much opportunity to play or behave in the way that people describe children: breaking the rules was never something I felt tempted to do. You may be surprised to hear that Chifeng-Zun was quite similar. If I were to have had peers, I am not sure that they would have found me all that entertaining.
And yet, as you have said, there is a part of me that evidently enjoys writing these long letters, forgetting my teachings of writing concisely. I think that perhaps I find it easier to reveal this aspect of my personality on paper than in person. When we meet, you may find that I am somewhat more sobre than I might appear in writing, and I hope that this doesn’t disappoint you.
It was quite striking, reading your story about your walk in Yunmeng’s forests with your mother. My relationship with my mother was quite limited; Wangji does not remember much of her. And yet I was old enough that I remember some things. One of my strongest memories is how she taught me to skim pebbles at one of the rock pools at the base of the mountain. There, the waterfall pours itself into the pool silently -- the currents don’t roar like they should do. I felt, at the young age of seven, that the place was magic. She told me that it was. That is the last that I really remember of her, before she died.
And so you see, Lianfang-Zun -- we both share things with one another that we have not told anyone else.
I feel that it is only right to end this letter by saying that I have been enjoying our correspondences enormously. Lianfang-Zun, I was quite nervous about this betrothal, as I think that any person is when their marriage is arranged. Your letters put me quite at ease. I feel extraordinarily lucky to be betrothed to someone as impressive and compelling as you.
Thank you for the pendant. I will tie it to my sash.
Until we meet.
Zewu-Jun Lan Xichen
Post-script: I wouldn’t dream of ignoring anything that you say.
I had just sent my letter when I discovered the riots at Lanling’s borders. They say that you were there as a mediator, and routed out Wen spies. Is it true that you are injured?
I have enclosed a tassel pendant which I purchased in response to the one you have gifted me. It is a jade moon. It seems too small a token, given what you are suffering.
An expedient response to let me know you are safe would be appreciated.
Dear Lan Xichen,
How difficult it is to write your courtesy name without feeling subordinate.
Before I leave you in a state of concern for any longer -- I am well. You are right that I suffered injury, but it was only small. The Wen spies have indeed been revealed, and it was by their hand that I was stabbed. I was brought back by my disciples through rough terrain in a delirious state. I was incapacitated for two days with a fever, but it has now passed. Today, I have eaten, and I am now able to sit up and write this letter.
Your gift was the first thing to make me smile in days. Thank you.
As for the time of arrival for your letter: no apologies are needed. Of course I understand that you could not reply quickly. I hope the meetings went well?
I must confess that I too try to reply to your letters as soon as I receive them. Indeed there is very little trying involved. As soon as the letter is passed over to me, I find myself thinking of all of the things I have wanted to tell you all week; my answer crowds my mind and pours onto the page as if I am compelled to talk to you.
It is a great relief to hear about Chifeng-Zun. He is one of the very few gentry -- as well as you, of course -- who treats me with respect despite knowledge of my background. I met him only once at a night hunt, and yet he was generous and fair. To hear that you have both known each other since boyhood explains a lot; you talk about him with a certain weary affection that can only be associated with a lifelong friend. I look forward to when you may introduce me to him within the context of your friendship. It seems strange, that I have met Chifeng-Zun and not yet you.
… And to hear that he is protective further solidifies the image in my head of two sworn brothers. Do not worry, Lan Xichen. I am not easily threatened.
I am surprised to hear that I was the first person to have told you about the postponement. Given that it was your uncle who suggested it to my father first, I assumed that he must have told you himself before anyone. Indeed, this was part of the reason that I wondered if I had done something wrong -- or perhaps if Grandmaster Lan had decided that the details of my upbringing were too unsavoury after all. However, if you tell me now that the reason for the delay is not because of any real reluctance to be associated with the Jin (or me) but rather the political situation, then, of course, I believe you. I hope that my asking about it has not caused any tension.
I passed on your assurances to Clan Leader Jin, as you requested. He was very pleased to hear that the Lan are still enthusiastic about the alliance. He asserted just how honourable a clan leader you are, Lan Xichen, and how much he looks forward to meeting you. He did also say that he planned to raise a glass to you and share in a toast, at which point I explained that the Lan do not drink alcohol. I will make sure that he remembers it for when you arrive.
The quiet of Cloud Recesses indeed sounds quite different to the busy streets of Yunping, or the ubiquitous banquets of Koi Tower. It sounds far more peaceful, and I am sure that I will come to love it, even if it is not a world I am accustomed to. I think I would like to learn to relax. You may find me restless at first. Perhaps you can guide me in how to meditate effectively; I feel that I have never learned to do it well.
I am more concerned about your opinion of Lanling… our district focuses on showing its hospitality through lavish displays of welcome, via food and drink and dancing. According to old accounts of visitors from other clans (for I have been reading Koi Towers’ records) our customs appear quite brazen. I am fairly immune to such things considering the circumstances of my upbringing. Little surprises or offends me. And so you will have nothing to worry about on my part, in terms of absorbing the ways of a new culture.
I have had to absorb a lot over the
I have heard that to lie is a greater sin within the Lan sect than within any other culture. And so, am I to believe that I can trust anything that you say, if you assert that it is the truth? I have never met an honest man who is also a good politician, Zewu-Jun. Perhaps you are the exception.
Regarding the rumours: that is very good of you to say. You are too kind to know these people’s motivations. It is a good thing that you do not understand them.
However, there will always be whisperings about me and my mother. They will follow me wherever I go. Whether I am dressed in the old rags that I wore as a child, or the fine embroidered silk sewn by the Jin family seamstress -- I will always bear the brand of my upbringing. As if it has been stitched across my belt.
Yes, she was a good woman. A kind one, too. She made me dream. I miss her often.
you are kinder than I wish I could express how much I I can’t I do not know if I I am so glad that we have kept this correspondence.
Apologies for the messiness of my writing today. I am still recovering, it seems.
Once again, you are very unkind to yourself. You describe yourself as awkward and stolid. And yet, there has never been any word of you being like this. And whilst you are benevolent to all that you meet, making you an excellent leader, this does not mean that people may not also wish to make you their good acquaintance.
However, I can understand how a lonely childhood can make it hard to gain perspective in this area. Will you forgive me for phrasing it as ‘lonely’? I know that you took on your responsibilities as a younger teenager. And, as you say, there are not many Young Masters our age. To grow up within the strict confines of a gentry family without other children to play with aside from your brother must have been strange for both of you.
Our childhoods could not have been more different, and yet, in this respect, I believe we are quite similar. To put it bluntly, there are not meant to be children living in brothels. I was the only one, and the other children on my street were not allowed to be associated with me. I received education from my mother (I gather that in Gusu, most towns offer education to all children from all families, regardless of social class. It is not so in Yunmeng or Lanling). And so I also did not have much opportunity to form deep bonds. It is also because of this, I imagine, that I use formality as armour.
I feel that you should know, Lan Xichen, that I have shared more in these letters to you than I have shared with anyone.
Your final paragraph -- yes, I will say it -- made me blush.
Jesting aside: I feel similarly. I had imagined that my father would want me to marry because I am not a direct heir. And yet, to be betrothed to the great Zewu-Jun was quite dazzling and, to put it lightly, intimidating. I have already said that I am not intimidated easily, and so this should tell you how great your reputation is. However, your letters have betrayed a humanity, humour, and genuine kindness that I could not have anticipated -- and that I do not feel I deserve.
When we meet, I know that I will not be disappointed (as you suggested that I might be, quite cruelly to yourself). However, I too may be quite severe in my nervousness. Please do not interpret this as coldness. I am simply determined to be as worthy as you seem to see me.
Until we meet.
Post-script: Nor I you.
Dear Lan Xichen,
I write to you once again in lieu of my last letter -- or rather, to supplement it -- to inform you that we recently pushed back the Wen rebels at our borders and won back at least five hundred stades. (You will be pleased to hear that Clan Leader Jin ordered me to remain at Koi Tower, considering my last venture to the borders.)
We predict, because of this victory, a bout of peace for both Lanling and Gusu. This news seemed to be worth mentioning not only for the purpose of our political alliance, but also because the opportunity for us to meet may be opened again.
Clan Leader Jin would therefore like to cordially invite you, Grandmaster Lan, Hanguang-Jun and Wei-fujun to Koi Tower next week.
I keenly await your response.
Dear Jin Guangyao,
For once, I will adhere to the Lan teachings of economy of words. The contents of your letter are embedded in my mind and I will address them when we meet in person next week. Thank you for the invitation: we accept.
Until we meet.