By the time Lao Nie wrote to Lan Qiren under personal cover to ask for his assistance, they hadn’t spoken in nearly seven years.
Oh, they’d spoken – it was rather impossible to avoid speaking, acting sect leader to sect leader. They attended the same discussion conferences, and of course the Lan and Nie sects were close allies, insofar as the Great Sects were anything to each other; their alliance, martial and moral, tended to balance out the riches and clever tricks brought to bear by the Jin and Jiang sects, and of course the Wen sect was large and powerful enough that it didn’t need or want any allies that it couldn’t subject to its dominion. An alliance meant constant contact, checking in, and ideally would call for a good relationship between the leaders of the two sects, which they had once had.
They had once been very close, even.
Lan Qiren had idolized Lao Nie from a young age, admiring his fierceness and his passion for life, his ruthless logic and his practicality and his thoughtful sense of judgment, all the more admirable given that he was from a sect known for being a bunch of hotheads. When Lan Qiren’s older brother – older by nearly ten years, with a middle brother that had died before Lan Qiren’s birth and several miscarriages in between as his parents struggled to provide the sect with the requisite spare – had continuously tried to leave his irritating younger sibling at home when going on night-hunts, Lao Nie had cheerfully interjected himself more than once, volunteering that he would be happy to take him along, and at that point Lan Qiren’s brother, who admired the older man nearly as much as Lan Qiren did, would generally yield, even if he grumbled about it.
Unlike Qingheng-jun, who ought to have been more considerate for his own family, Lao Nie had never minded having to slow down the pace of his hunts in order to accommodate a sickly child, a pedantic one that needed to understand things thoroughly before he was comfortable trying something new. He had often allowed Qingheng-jun to rush ahead and win glory that ought in all fairness to have been his, something Lan Qiren only discovered when he reviewed his history in retrospect.
Lao Nie hadn’t minded how clumsy Lan Qiren was, or how picky he was, refusing to eat even common foods if the texture didn’t appeal to him; he had only laughed at his excessive formality, the harshness of his tone, his tendency to repeat himself or to become caught on little details. He’d indulged him, wasting copious amounts of his time listening to Lan Qiren talk enthusiastically about the Lan sect rules, which he’d fallen in love with at an early age and, when young, rarely missed the chance to bring into any given conversation no matter how irrelevant.
He’d always been very kind to him.
If you had asked Lan Qiren ten years ago, he would have confidently asserted that Lao Nie was one of his dearest friends.
And yet – it had been Lan Qiren, who was short on friends, and not Lao Nie, who had many, that had cut off their relationship. Lan Qiren hadn’t truly spoken to Lao Nie in seven years, limiting their conversations to the subject of sect business and keeping their meetings as short as could be allowed by etiquette, ignoring the way Lao Nie looked at him with sadness and regret in his eyes. Even when Lan Qiren’s anger had finally died down from a raging flame to a simmering anger he suspected would never leave him entirely, he had thought to himself that it was too late, that the fire had burnt everything out, that there were only ashes left behind.
And yet – on the seventh year, apparently apropos of nothing, Lao Nie wrote to him, requesting his presence.
As a friend, he wrote. Come as a friend, or not at all. I have no use for a sect leader.
Lan Qiren struggled with the request, which did not obey any of the unwritten rules he had forced himself to learn on top of the many that were written. He did not know if he was still enough of a friend to Lao Nie to answer such a request.
He did not know himself whether he would go until the moment that he went.
Lao Nie met him at the gateway to the Unclean Realm, relief written in every line of him.
“Thank you,” he said, and Lan Qiren shifted uncomfortably from side to side.
“I didn’t even do anything yet,” he said stiffly, instinctively reaching up to stroke his beard. It was a more acceptable social tic than others that he had been discouraged from employing; losing access to it, however temporarily, had been one of the reasons he had been so upset with Cangse Sanren when she’d shaved it off while he was asleep. She’d tracked him down later to apologize when she’d realized how badly he’d taken it, serious for perhaps the only time he’d known her, and they’d ended up as something almost like friends out of the whole debacle. He hadn’t heard from her in years, either, but that was no breach; it was only that she was busy with her husband and the little child she had once shoved into his arms with that deep, echoing laugh of hers. “Don’t thank me until I’ve determined if I can do anything for you, or will.”
Lao Nie nodded and showed him inside, leading him to his private chambers rather than the sect leader’s study. This suggested that the issue was private, although Lan Qiren supposed he’d already known that, based on the letter.
They sat in silence while Lao Nie personally served the tea, his brow still creased in concern, and Lan Qiren stared at him – too intently, as always – and wondered what private issue could have caused such an upset, and moreover what he could possibly need Lan Qiren for. Lao Nie was a private man, in the custom of his clan and sect; Lan Qiren didn’t know his birthdate or even his age, only the approximates, and many of the details of his life escaped him. It made it difficult to guess what the matter might be, if it were personal and not political.
“My condolences regarding your second wife,” he said, watching, and Lao Nie jerked his head in a tight nod, acknowledging the loss. Lao Nie’s first wife had been a mysterious figure, appearing and disappearing as suddenly as an unexpected burst of rain on a sunny day – the stories in Qinghe enthusiastically claimed she was a goddess that descended from the heavens to dally with moral race, who’d ended up marrying Lao Nie to legitimize the child he’d unexpectedly planted in her belly, only to be summoned back to the heavens on important duties, although of course it was commonly understood that she was more than likely just some powerful rogue cultivator who had decided after a short interval that being married was not for her. Lan Qiren had never met her, although he had had the fortune to meet Lao Nie’s second wife, who had been much more down-to-earth, an innkeeper’s daughter.
(Lan Qiren had rather liked her the few times they’d met. She was a little self-absorbed, in a harmless sort of way. She liked beautiful things and good food and talking about them, and was happy to carry on entire conversations while he responded only with nods and grunts; to his relief, she had never expected anything more from him. She was very beautiful herself, both delicate and seductive with her fox’s face and long and narrow eyes; some cruel people spread rumors that she was a demon or a yao in disguise, sent to wreak havoc through the seduction of men. She had never tried anything like that on Lan Qiren, unless her attempt at seduction consisted of sharing a plate of snacks and occupying him enough to prevent him from having to listen to the more boring parts of the social parts of certain discussion conference meetings. At any rate, he’d been truly saddened to hear that she had died.)
Still, Lao Nie had not yet begun to speak.
That meant that the problem was not in relation to that aspect of his life, which in all honesty was a relief. Lan Qiren could not imagine a world in which Lao Nie confided his marital problems in a prematurely old bachelor like him.
“Your sons?” he asked, and this time Lao Nie flinched, so he’d guessed right. “Ah. The younger one?”
The younger one would be about A-Zhan’s age, surely, or even younger. Little more than a toddler, not yet quite old enough to be taken away from the mother – or nurse, in the case of Lao Nie’s second son – and they were so terribly fragile at that age…
“No,” Lao Nie said, and sighed, a long exhale. “Forgive me, it’s a difficult subject. A-Sang is fine. The issue is with A-Jue.”
Nie Mingjue would now be around eight or nine years old, Lan Qiren thought, or perhaps even older – it was so hard to tell with these secretive Nie, and he only knew enough to make the guess at all because of their former friendship. Most sects were only vaguely aware that there were heirs to the Nie sect, and had certainly never seen hide nor hair of Nie Mingjue, during discussion conferences or otherwise.
He’d been a toddler the last time Lan Qiren had seen him, young and energetic, running around anywhere, but he had something of his father’s kindness – he’d actually listened to Lan Qiren telling him about rules that didn’t apply to him, and even proudly repeated some of them back to his father, much to Lan Qiren’s embarrassment – without having yet grown into his father’s occasional callous ruthlessness.
Perhaps it made a certain amount of sense that Lao Nie would ask for help with his children. Since his life plans had been irrevocably altered, Lan Qiren had taken over teaching at the Cloud Recesses, and to his surprise, was apparently making something of a name for himself.
It hadn’t been intentional: he’d been desperate for something to do with himself that wasn’t just for the sect, so much of his time consumed by the business of sect leadership, and he’d always planned to become a teacher eventually, although he’d always assumed it would be much later in life. He’d volunteered to teach, only to look at the small handful of obedient, well-trained Lan sect disciples that he would be in charge of instructing and quickly realized that such ‘teaching’ wouldn’t occupy his time at all.
Accordingly, he had demanded that the sect elders allow him to accept disciples from other sects as well. The request was highly irregular, but strictly abided by all Lan sect rules on the subject – it was Lan Qiren putting together the proposal, after all – and the elders had granted it with surprisingly little debate. To this day, Lan Qiren wasn’t sure if it was pity for his circumstances or simply an assumption that no outside students would bother attending, but he would not let the approval, once granted, be so easily retracted: he had sent out letters asking for students at once, and to everyone’s surprise but his own they actually came.
(He’d been clever about it, at the start. He’d reached out first to those smaller sects that would not have access to resources even a quarter as good as the Cloud Recesses, asking specifically for those children that seemed troublesome – the ones it took time and attention to teach, the ones who didn’t seem to be getting what they were supposed to learn. The slow, the stupid, the angry, the ones who disappointed their parents most of all. Lan Qiren might not have answers for those children, but at least he could give them his time and attention and he found, for most of them, that was all they wanted.)
Recently, though, they’d started getting more requests to join from the slightly larger subsidiary sects, more people, even murmurs about sending him their sect heirs rather than their burdens – people were saying that his teaching could make a gentleman even out of a waste, which Lan Qiren didn’t really understand. After all, putting aside a few students that were too arrogant to be willing to learn anything, he hadn’t encountered a single one he’d characterize as a waste.
“How can I help A-Jue?” he asked, expecting Lao Nie to finally give in and explain.
But Lao Nie shook his head.
“There’s some background I need to tell you first,” he said. “Without which the problem won’t make much sense. You have one of the finest analytical minds I’ve ever met, Qiren, and a way of thinking that doesn’t match up to conventional wisdom – I’m hoping you can help me where expertise has failed.”
Lan Qiren frowned, embarrassed. “I can try,” he said, already mentally rearranging his plans to account for a longer stay. He disliked sudden changes and had planned out three possible lengths of time for his visit – one short, one medium, one long – so that he would be able to select whichever one would be most appropriate. He hoped that the issue would not require any more time than the longest period he had allotted. “What is the subject?”
“Saber,” Lao Nie said, and smiled at Lan Qiren’s confusion. “My sect’s cultivation style. Let me explain…”
Lao Nie’s explanation was fascinating.
The cultivation style of the Nie sect – and the Nie clan in particular, especially the main branch – was unlike anything Lan Qiren had ever heard before, completely different in both substance and philosophy. It was a rough trade, a difficult road, heartbreaking in its sacrifice, impressive in its results…
It wasn’t the road for everybody, but one couldn’t help but admire those that walked it.
“Doesn’t it get close to demonic cultivation, using resentful energy like that?” he asked at one point, and Lao Nie had explained to him how they had drawn the distinction – using beasts, never humans, and channeling the worst of the effects into their sabers rather than themselves. How much they strived to cultivate morality into their sabers as well as power.
Lan Qiren thought that it was a fine line, but after some thought concluded that they fell on the right side of it, if just barely. The primary dangers of demonic cultivation were in the way it increased the amount of evil in the world, whether through the inevitable madness and violent rampages of its wielders or through the simple side effects of using other people’s corpses as your playthings, increasing their own resentment, breaking the hearts of their loved ones, and causing their ancestors to curse you; that sort of vile conduct was an offense to the Heavens. The Nie sect’s cultivation avoided that, and if through their sabers they added a little bit of evil to the world then it could not be denied that they took much, much more of it out.
“I think I understand now,” he said, brushing his fingers along his beard. “But…why tell me? Isn’t it one of your clan secrets?”
“It is,” Lao Nie agreed. “As a general principle, we do not tell outsiders unless we must.”
The Nie sect preferred principles over rules, which Lan Qiren begrudgingly accepted even if he himself preferred having rules, clear and precise and equal even if they sometimes weren’t quite fair. But situation-dependent or not, the Nie held to those principles just as tightly as any Lan did to their sect rules, and that was worthy of respect.
“So you felt that you must,” Lan Qiren observed. “But why? And what does it have to do with A-Jue? Is he not taking to your sect’s teachings…?”
“I would almost prefer that,” Lao Nie said, and rubbed his eyes. “We’ve always had those that didn’t follow our ways – those that refused to train the saber, or refused to cultivate a spirit despite all their training. No. It’s actually…A-Jue’s very good.”
Lan Qiren had been a teacher for seven years. He was accustomed to parents who needed to praise their child before getting to the point, though he wouldn’t have expected it of Lao Nie. He waited.
“He’s too good,” Lao Nie said, and abruptly covered his face with his hands. “He’s already cultivated a spirit in Baxia.”
Lan Qiren’s whole body jerked. “Lao Nie!” he exclaimed. “You’ve already given him a saber? He’s too young!”
Under the age of ten, Nie Mingjue should still be building his strength, shaping the muscles that would serve him in the future; he should be wielding only a practice saber made of wood, heavy and slow as he etched the forms of his sect style into his bones. Even if he was a true prodigy, a once-in-a-generation genius, he should at most bear a weapon of dulled steel, and never an actual spiritual weapon, much less the one that would be the companion of his future life.
“He took it himself,” Lao Nie said. “A little over a year ago – we had a surprise attack, right in the middle of the summer hunts. Supposedly bandits, but actually mercenaries, supported by traitors from the inside; they had a map to lead them straight inside our home, and attacked at the moment when most of us were gone. When everyone else ran for cover, A-Jue went to the armory and picked up a saber, freshly forged, and he took his first blood the same day. What was I supposed to do? Take it away from him?”
Lan Qiren felt a stab of sympathy for Lao Nie’s impossible dilemma.
Taking the saber away just when A-Jue had started bonding with it, right after he’d shed blood with it for the first time – yes, that would have been far worse. It might have crippled his confidence, introduced hesitation that would damage his cultivation forever, hinder his future growth…
“And he already developed a saber spirit?” he said instead. “Within a year?”
That wasn’t genius. That was insane.
“I know,” Lao Nie said. “The faster we cultivate, the sooner we die, but how am I supposed to say that to a child? And there’s how fast he’s picked up our cultivation style, how fast he’s going – what if he introduces some flaw into it and it sinks in before anyone notices? Even a minor disruption to his qi, at this age –”
Lan Qiren scowled. “Stop panicking,” he ordered. “That won’t help anyone at all, least of all him.”
Unexpectedly, Lao Nie smiled at him, although the smile was full of regret.
“It’s easy to say and hard to do,” he said. “Don’t you know I always lose my head when it comes to love?”
Lan Qiren knew.
Lao Nie had always been reckless in matters of the heart, as seen by his decision to marry some stranger for his first wife and a nobody for his second, and to thereafter refuse a third, more sensible arrangement with some sect leader’s daughter or sister that could care for the children as a mother while acting as a useful political tool, even if no other children were forthcoming. Even though his life had been beset with later tragedy, he had been happy with his wives – happy and in love, and unwilling to trade a single moment with them for anything.
Lan Qiren knew this. He even understood it.
He just had trouble excusing it.
Lao Nie had been friend to Lan Qiren’s brother long before he’d been friend to him, and so when Qingheng-jun had fallen in love in that sudden, shocking, irrevocable manner that the Lan sect had, Lao Nie had been the first to support him in it, delighted to think that his friend would find the same happiness he had himself found. He’d encouraged him not to be shy in presenting his courtship, in presenting himself as a possible match; he’d reassured him that some disinterest to begin with was reasonable, given that they were still strangers, and advised him to enjoy the feeling of falling in love, to be reckless and bold and daring with it…and he did it all in writing, from a distance.
Lao Nie had been occupied at the time with issues in his own sect – probably the scandals relating to his first wife, in retrospect, though of course he said nothing of it back then – and had unwisely trusted in Qingheng-jun’s description of the events, rather than seeing the circumstances for himself. It was understandable that he would not comprehend how fiercely his friend’s heart had been gripped by love, or how truly disinterested He Kexin was in her ardent suitor, not when Qingheng-jun described her resistance as mere coquetry. It was impossible for Lao Nie to have predicted that his well-meant advice that love was worth anything, even defiance of sect rules and the counsels of the elders, would be interpreted in such a terrible way.
Still less, of course, could he have predicted what happened next, the tragedy of He Kexin and the friend that deceived her, that tried to use her and Qingheng-jun through her through false rumors and twisted stories, and in so doing underestimated how unbridled He Kexin could be when pressed. It was all part and parcel of the same underlying calamity: if Qingheng-jun had not been so persistent in his courtship, He Kexin wouldn’t have had such a bad impression of the Lan sect; if she hadn’t had such a bad impression of the Lan sect, she might not have been so ready to believe her friend’s lies about their teacher’s conduct, to allow herself to be indirectly used in an attempt to use Qingheng-jun’s love-madness to the advantage of another sect; if He Kexin had been a little less arrogant or a little less blindly trusting or had bothered to ask a single question before taking upon herself the duty of executioner as well as judge, if she’d only held back her sword and not gone so far as to kill a man over baseless rumor – if only – if only – if, if, if –
If Qingheng-jun had not decided that his love mattered more to him than his sect.
There was no way Lao Nie could have known what would happen.
It was understandable.
One might even say that it was forgivable, except Lan Qiren had not yet gotten around to forgiving him.
Lan Qiren had dreamed of travel, not teaching; he’d wanted to play music in all the forgotten places, to learn all the things that could not be simply deduced from inside the safety of the Cloud Recesses. He’d wanted to help people, to use that vast store of knowledge that seemed irrevocably stuck in his brain to solve problems and suggest solutions. But the Lan sect needed a leader, and with Qingheng-jun in permanent seclusion, disinterested in sect matters, choosing instead to obsess endlessly over his broken heart…
The duty had fallen to Lan Qiren instead.
(He Kexin had eventually grown rather fond of her husband, even if love wasn’t the word for it. Lan Qiren didn’t know if she was simply salvaging what she could out of an unsalvageable situation or if she just enjoyed the exercise, but he had two nephews now, to raise as if they were his own. Because that was just what he needed, another chain binding him to his home, another duty that shouldn’t have been his – he loved his nephews more than anything, so he couldn’t be angry at them, couldn’t blame them for being born, and so he had to be angry at everyone else instead.)
Lan Qiren lowered his head and pursed his lips. He knew Lao Nie wanted his forgiveness. He even knew, according to the sect rules he valued so highly, that he should grant it. Seven years was surely long enough to pay for any innocent mistake, wasn’t it?
Come as a friend, or not at all.
That was the invitation Lao Nie had extended, and Lan Qiren had come. That was very nearly a decision, if he wanted it to be.
“Let me see him,” Lan Qiren proposed, and Lao Nie’s smile warmed at once.