“What is that,” Lan Qiren asked flatly. This was much worse than Lan Wangi asking himself because surely the venerable Grandmaster Lan Qiren, vaunted pedagogue to the sects’ best and brightest in the time of the greatest generation, the heroes of the Sunshot Campaign, knew a Jiang Sect clarity bell when he saw one.
However. Lan Wangji had not asked. This was a victory. A small victory, maybe, but important nonetheless. Lan Wangji did not anticipate many others occurring in the forthcoming conversation. Perhaps not in any future more immediate than Lan Qiren’s dying breath. He would take what he could get.
Sizhui’s wrong answer to Lan Qiren’s question: “It’s a cursed tea pot.”
“It’s an uncursed tea pot, you’re welcome,” Lan Jingyi corrected him. The ends of Lan Jingyi’s sleeves were both discolored and lightly smoking. His answer was wrong, too.
“Actually, it’s a kettle,” piped up a voice from the cluster of young disciples in audience near the door. One of the disciples held a sect-issued qiankun pouch. Three held signal flares.
Lan Wangji was gratified to see they were being safety conscious.
“I spoke incorrectly,” Sizhui replied with an acknowledging nod toward his junior. “It’s a recently uncursed kettle. Not of local production, from the design.”
“Looks Lanling to me,” Lan Jingyi offered with the thinnest possible veneer of professional, objective evaluation over his obvious disdain for the object’s design.
The kettle was possessed of an ornamentation most typical to Lanling. Lan Jingyi was right, but he couldn’t be so indiscreetly judgmental on an actual night hunt. Not to civilians and definitely not to another cultivator. It strained the cooperative milieu.
Lan Qiren reasserted himself in the conversation. “Not,” he said stiffly, “the kettle.”
Sizhui did not flinch, despite the fact that Lan Qiren’s response to asides as well as the subtle signs of his imminent arrival at capacity for such diversions were both obvious and well known. Lan Wangji did not flinch because Lan Qiren had surpassed that capacity, and Sizhui was right in the focal point of his attention.
Sizhui tilted the hand not holding the kettle in such a way as was sufficient to draw maximum attention to his second, incriminating possession. “Oh, this?” he said.
The clarity bell, absent spiritual energy, declined to bring forth any additional peals.
Wei Ying had not said anything about the bell this morning. He’d said, “Gotta go talk to Jiang Cheng, back soon, probably?” and he’d grabbed the closest to hand clean robes, kissed Lan Wangji to distraction (...deliberate. premeditated?), and left. Lan Wangji appreciated the bell’s silence several orders of magnitude more than Wei Ying’s. Even now he could feel the previous frantic clangs of the bell –the ones that had drawn his uncle and him into the classroom in the first place –ringing in his ears.
“Yes,” Lan Qiren confirmed through gritted teeth, “that.”
“Grandmaster,” Sizhui said with all due respect, “this is a gift from Sect Leader Jiang.”
“What are you doing with it,” Lan Qiren said without any respect due so auspicious a gift.
It was not inconceivable that Lan Qiren’s question was what are you doing here in my classroom, in front of impressionable Lan disciples, at this exact moment, and in the moments directly preceding it, rather than a more fundamental inquiry into why Sizhui had a clarity bell at all, but no one in the room was obtuse enough to offer that misconstruction to Lan Qiren’s face.
Lan Jingyi, ever bold, tendered an answer thus: “Well, we were breaking the curse on the kettle, but then the stupid thing had some kind of booby trap that activated when we got the curse off, who does that, so then there was a fire, but only a small one!”
That did account neatly for the scored and frayed character of the impeccably drawn array lines between Sizhui and Lan Jingyi, on one side of the room, and everyone else far, far on the other.
Sizhui took over further retelling at this point. “The fire was small, but it looked much larger due to an illusory charm. I demonstrated how a spiritual tool might be used to dispel such tricks and maintain a tranquil spirit.”
“The use of silver bells to settle an unstable mind,” Lan Qiren said sharply, with particular emphasis on unstable mind as a concept not to be abided, “is a Yunmeng Jiang practice.”
“Grandmaster,” Sizhui replied with a preemptive bow for correcting their Grandmaster in front of other people, in front of little junior disciples who hadn’t even seen a ghost yet, “Sect Leader Jin also has a clarity bell.”
(Sect Leader Jin has worn that bell longer than he’s worn his father’s sword.)
Lan Qiren’s jaw clenched. He did not, presumably, have a response polite enough for words.
“We should ask Jin Ling about the kettle,” Lan Jingyi announced because he was the kind of student who, asked if he had something to share with the rest of the class, did. “Even though this came from a night hunt in Xiapi, that’s closer to Lanling than here. Someone may have seen something similar in a nearby town or over the border, too.”
A meritorious idea. They should leave immediately.
There was soil in Sect Leader Jin’s hair. It was rich, dark brown, fragrant with vitamins and recently deposited fertilizer in anticipation of the planting season. It was also on Sect Leader Jin’s face and his clothes. It was probably going to stain.
Lan Wangji told him so. (About the soil in his hair, not the animal byproducts or the staining. Sect Leader Jin could perceive the fresh turned soil on his robes for himself.)
“No one calls me that,” Sect Leader Jin lied immediately. Obviously, the Jin disciples must. Lan Wangji’s own brother did.
After further thought, Sect Leader Jin said, “I mean, you don’t have to call me that.” He looked as affronted as if Lan Wangji had insulted his lineage. In fact, Lan Wangji had no criticisms to voice about Wei Ying’s sister. He refrained from opinions on her husband and had nothing novel regarding the myriad vulgarities of her husband’s father.
“What would you prefer?” Lan Wangji asked in the interest of respect, though without any intention of addressing him otherwise. Lan Wangji was Sect Leader Jin’s senior, but he was not his superior. There was only a small list of appropriate appellations open to him.
Sect Leader Jin made himself busy tying his bell back to his belt. The moment he pulled the securing knot tight, there was a crash and then a rumble of thunder beyond the trees. Then, in case any doubt remained whether Sect Leader Jin had deigned to ask permission to invite himself to Lan Wangji’s training hunt, a furious bellow: “Jin Ling, where are you?! If you tripped and fell into a cave and now you’re bleeding out in a cave, I am going to hang you by your feet–”
Sect Leader Jiang arrived. His attitude preceded him, bringing his displeasure to bear on their group several moments before he emerged into the field himself. He was scowling, as was typical.
(Wei Ying was not with him.)
“You,” Sect Leader Jiang proclaimed, honing in on Sect Leader Jin. Then the scope of his attention expanded, very slightly. He saw Lan Wangji. Propriety demanded a greeting, which Lan Wangji gave and Sect Leader Jiang returned with equal enthusiasm. He turned to Sect Leader Jin again. “Jin Rulan,” Sect Leader Jiang said, “have you finished making a nuisance of yourself, now?”
“I was helping!” Sect Leader Jin protested.
“Helping us get almost eaten by a demon,” Lan Jingyi muttered quietly. This proved he was aware that he shouldn’t talk about two sect leaders right in front of their faces like that.
Lan Wangji looked Lan Jingyi over with disapproval. Lan Jingyi, like Sect Leader Jin, was covered in filthy soil because after Sect Leader Jin had fallen face first into the ground, he had risen and attacked the demon head-on, and Lan Jingyi and Sizhui had followed him.
Lan Wangji looked over his other, less reactionary disciples. The girl with the xiao and the two girls with their swords still out were not covered in dirt. They’d stayed well away from the demon, per training protocols. The last boy, who’d gone to collect the spirit catching net Lan Jingyi and Sizhui had dropped when Sect Leader Jin screeched for their help, also had clean robes.
“I can go on a night hunt if I want!” Sect Leader Jin was screaming.
Sect Leader Jiang was screaming back, “You can not. You faceless, skinless, earless—”
“If my ears don’t work, whose fault is that?” Sect Leader Jin yelled.
“Ungrateful!” Sect Leader Jiang told him.
In the very brief silence that followed, Sizhui said “Jin Ling helped. We defeated the demon. Everyone is okay, shushu.”
Sect Leader Jiang stared at Sizhui.
Lan Wangji stared at Sizhui. (His robes had a brown body print of the demon where he’d tackled it.)
Sizhui stared back.
“We get it, we’re filthy animals,” Lan Jingyi muttered, once again demonstrating his awareness that this was not the time. Lan Jingyi leaned in front of Sizhui to better see Sect Leader Jin. “Young Mistress, tell me you passed an inn…?”
“Obviously,” Sect Leader Jin scoffed. He stepped forward and tugged Sect Leader Jiang’s pristine purple sleeve with his grubby hands. “Come on, jiujiu, I want a long bath.”
“You need one,” Lan Jingyi said.
“You need one,” Sect Leader Jin retorted. He pulled Sect Leader Jiang away.
“Why can’t you lose your bell somewhere nice for once?” Lan Jingyi asked. “Like a tea house. Or a nice field of flowers. A field of chrysanthemums.”
“Shut up,” Sect Leader Jin snapped. “Who told you to wear white on a night hunt?”
“It’s a noble color!”
— Day 5
Sect Leader Jin crashed into an empty spot across from Sizhui and slumped gracelessly over the table. This had no disruptive effect, as none of the breakfast dishes had been served yet, but was extremely unbecoming of a sect leader.
“Morning, or whatever,” Sect Leader Jin griped around a yawn. “It’s too dark to be awake, this is intolerable.”
“Good morning,” Sizhui replied. “I think I made Sect Leader Jiang uncomfortable.”
“Yeah, probably,” Sect Leader Jin agreed without the slightest hint of self-preservation. “No one calls him shushu. I think—I mean, even in town, people don’t. I’ve never heard anyone.”
Sect Leader Jiang’s brusque nature failed to inspire the kind of solemn filial piety Lan Wangji associated with his own uncle, so this was not surprising. The thing was, though:
Lan Yuan, courtesy Sizhui, brightest and best and first disciple of Lan, is Wei Ying’s son. Wei Ying says that Jiang Wanyin is his brother. Thus, if Sizhui wanted to call Sect Leader Jiang “father’s brother”, he was entitled to it. That Sizhui had not indicated he might perhaps like to at any point in the past 13 years was entirely immaterial. Anyone brave enough to challenge Sizhui’s right to do so now was presumably at peace with the prospect of meeting the right (pointy) end of Bichen face first.
“I see,” Sizhui said thoughtfully in response to Sect Leader Jin.
He should not have to. Sizhui was a good boy with a disquieting tendency toward pacification at his own expense. Lan Wangji knew it was a fault, but it was not one Sizhui had learned from him, and so he’d had less defense against it taking root and blooming in Sizhui than, to Lan Wangji’s embarrassment, little 6 year old A-Yuan’s sharp memory for trivial slights.
“He’s just pissed you implied he was Wei Wuxian’s younger brother,” Sect Leader Jin insisted.
“Well, he is, isn’t he?” Lan Jingyi asked.
“Not anymore, according to jiujiu,” Sect Leader Jin said, but before Lan Wangji could point out that Sizhui hadn’t sent himself a powerful, exclusive spiritual tool, he continued. “Jiujiu says he’s oldest, on account of not being dead through his birthday. For several years.”
Sizhui’s “father’s older brother” was Lan Xichen. If called upon, Xichen would be gracious in sharing his title, even if Wei Ying told him he shouldn’t (he would). It would simply be one more on the list (Sizhui, the Middle Kingdom) of things proximity required he share with Sect Leader Jiang. Xichen had always better at the diplomacy thing than Wangji. It was good he’d been born first.
The breakfast dishes arrived, and they served themselves. Someone had ordered chili oil. The odd thing, Lan Wangji reflected, about the little saucer of chili oil on the table was that Wei Ying was not at the table.
Lan Wangji was at the table. Sizhui was there, because he’d been invited, along with Lan Jingyi and the other Lan sect disciples. Sect Leader Jin was there, because it was his gold from his gaudy golden tower paying for the food. Eventually Sect Leader Jiang came in to join them, because he was always forcing himself in where he felt like it. He’d chosen awareness over timeliness, so half the food was gone when he took a spot at the table, but he was wide awake. Not sleepwalking. Fully conscious of his own words.
“Favorite nephew,” Sect Leader Jiang began only to be interrupted by Sect Leader Jin blustering beside him, “How is he the favorite?! He just got here!”
Sizhui took a quiet bite of his noodles. Lan Jingyi said nothing, because it was meal time and Lan Wangji was sitting right there, but his face said he desperately wanted to.
“He did not, he’s older than you,” Sect Leader Jiang pointed out reasonably, which was highly suspicious.
Sect Leader Jin was unmollified. “That doesn’t matter! Who was first or last, what does that have to do with who’s favorite?”
“It doesn’t,” Sect Leader Jiang replied, “but his existence isn’t predicated on anyone related to me being defiled.”
Sect Leader Jin spluttered. “If anyone is defiling anyone—”
Sizhui chose that moment exactly to set his utensils on the table beside his bowl. Coincidentally, Sect Leader Jin grunted in pain and bent double. His hands disappeared out of sight below the table.
So Sizhui had struck before he’d said out loud where they can all hear it that Wei Ying fucks. Further implication, Wei Ying fucks-—
Sect Leader Jiang cut his eyes at Sect Leader Jin without turning his head. “Like I said. Favorite nephew.”
Sect Leader Jin grumbled.
“Lan Sizhui, pass me the chili oil, won’t you? Don’t be greedy,” Sect Leader Jiang demanded, imperious as anything.
Sizhui reached over his own saucer of chili oil to pass along the pot.
“What greedy? Is he even using it?” Sect Leader Jin pointedly tipped more of the viscous orange oil into his noodles.
Lan Jingyi flinched as if Sect Leader Jin had poured it into his own nose. Sect Leader Jin’s round noodles were now much darker than Sizhui’s. Sect Leader Jiang’s soon matched.
“Oh, right,” Sect Leader Jiang said after several moments passed where no one who could talk did, “I’m supposed to give you a letter.”
Jiang Cheng, wrote Wei Ying, is a horse’s ass, and I’m not patting it.
Wei Ying truly had a way with words.
His letter continued, He would be angry if he knew I wrote that, but he doesn’t know because the stupid egg rolled away and left me with all his mail. So I’m going to write whatever I want. He can’t stop me!
Jiang Cheng is making me sort his post! Lan Zhan, can you believe him? Forcing me to do such a boring, troublesome thing –see how thick Jiang Cheng’s face is! This will definitely take weeks, he said no one else is allowed to help me! Ah, Lan Zhan, come save me, ok?
Save me, and I’ll show you all the best lotus ponds with all the best lotuses. And you can stop making your “stealing is wrong” face now . I know you’re making it! We won’t be stealing. I’ll make Jiang Cheng pay for them. As many lotus seeds as you can eat, I promise. Come to Yunmeng!
Thus summoned, Lan Wangji went. He had been obligated to return the Lan disciples he’d borrowed, first, though, so despite Lan Wangji’s haste in leaving Gusu again before his uncle realized he’d ever returned, Sect Leader Jiang could certainly have rolled back by the time Lan Wangji and Sizhui were in sight of Lotus Pier.
They landed on the end of a long dock, two foreign cultivators in a bustling market at the height of the day. This drew the predictable amount of attention. Then an unpredictable amount. Lan Wangji was accustomed to being recognized in public. In Caiyi, by people who saw his clan ribbon and stepped aside. Other cultivators, crossing his path, saw his sword and forgot their own names. He has been recognized as Master Lan, the second Twin Jade, Hanguang-Jun, and (most recently and most satisfying, objectively) the Yiling Patriarch’s cultivation partner.
Lan Wangji wasn’t accustomed to Sizhui being recognized. Yet as they walked up the pier into Yunmeng Jiang’s stronghold, the vendors in their boats and behind their stalls all looked over Lan Wangji’s clan ribbon and then locked on to Sizhui by his side. They plied Sizhui with food, calling “Young Master Lan!” incessantly with wide smiles. When Sizhui tried to decline, they insisted. They only found business elsewhere when Lan Wangji tried to take out his purse. By the time they reached Lotus Pier’s front gates, Sizhui had accumulated enough for a small feast.
Sect Leader Jiang was at the front gates to meet them.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Wangji bowed to him, high-ranking cultivator to a sect leader. Sizhui, who he could always count on to behave as befit his station, bowed as well as he could with his arms filled with snacks.
“Hanguang-jun,” Sect Leader Jiang returned his bow, then turned to Sizui. “Sizhui. You’re here.”
“I am. Hanguang-jun received a letter,” Sizhui explained over the top of his acquired loot, lest Sect Leader Jiang get the wrong idea about them showing up uninvited. Wei Ying had not asked Lan Wangji to bring Sizhui, but it went without saying he’d want him here. Lan Wangji wanted him here, too, as impartial witness to any actions it may evolve were necessary.
“That’s fine,” Sect Leader Jiang told him. “I mean, I know. I gave it to him.”
Lan Wangji took the moment of tense silence that followed to glance past the open gates. No Wei Ying in sight.
There was the slightest hesitation in Sizhui’s voice before he forged ahead. “Is Senior Wei not around?”
Sect Leader Jiang rolled his eyes indecorously. “Your dad’s busy. Come inside.” He led them both through the gate.
They’d barely entered before there was a loud cry of, “Lan Sizhui!” A youth in Baling Ouyang robes stood on a walkway on the edge of the main courtyard. “Lan Sizhui, we’re going shooting on Toad Ridge! Are you coming? Ouyang Zizhen is here!”
Lan Sizhui looked to Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji looked to Sect Leader Jiang. Sect Leader Jiang rolled his eyes again. “Lunch is in two hours.”
Sizhui passed his food to Lan Wangji, who stored it in a pouch. Sizhui bowed to Sect Leader Jiang. “Thank you, jiujiu,” Sizhui grinned and left Lan Wangji with an alarmingly unfazed Sect Leader Jiang to go shoot animals, possibly, because Yunmeng was a lawless sort of place.
Sect Leader Jiang led Lan Wangji to a reception hall. It was not the one he was used to from visits accompanying Lan Xichen. This one opened to the courtyard on one side and a lotus pond on the other. It had one single, large table. Sect Leader Jiang sat on one side, gestured for Lan Wangji to take the other, and folded down into a formal seat.
There was a tea service on the table. Sect Leader Jiang, rudely, gave no indication he intended to pour tea. “Second…Master Lan,” he said, filling a place he normally left empty with a conspicuous pause. “Welcome to Yunmeng.”
“Yunmeng has been most hospitable,” Lan Wangji said, politely pretending the tea was not there.
“I’m satisfied you think so,” Sect Leader Jiang said with his back suddenly up, “as you have already enjoyed so much of it.”
If this was about the food from the dock vendors, Lan Wangji would pay for it. Whatever lotus plants Wei Ying wanted to yank up, too—
“Lan Zhan!” Lan Wangji heard a moment before Wei Ying appeared at the door. He was wearing black robes. There was nothing special about them, just the closest pair of clean robes at hand when he’d left the Jingshi. The sense of relief that swept through Lang Wangji at the sight could not be overstated.
“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji rose to meet him as Wei Ying entered the room. Sect Leader Jiang was unfortunately also still in the room, so Lan Wangji, typically demonstrative only in the privacy of his own home, swallowed back his first impulse and reached out to take Wei Ying’s hands.
“Wei Wuxian,” Sect Leader Jiang scolded, coming to his feet. Now they were all standing together awkwardly in the reception room.
Wei Ying laughed, “Me!” and it was the most beautiful sound, better than any music, “Jiang Cheng, you’ll make yourself spit blood. Calm down!”
“Has the mud in your ears grown lotuses in your brain?” Wei Ying asked in Sect Leader Jiang’s voice, except sharper than the way he teased Sizhui. That was deeply disconcerting. Doubly disconcerting as Lan Wangji was looking right at Wei Ying’s face when he said it, and Wei Ying’s mouth hadn’t moved at all.
...ah. Not Wei Ying speaking at all, then.
“Sit down, you shameless pig,” Sect Leader Jiang ordered.
Wei Ying sat. Lan Wangji was still holding his hands, so he sat with him. The back of his hand brushed over the jade token tied to Wei Ying’s belt and the bell tied beside it. Lan Wangji met Sect Leader Jiang’s gaze brazenly.
“What do you have to be grumpy about now, Jiang Cheng?” Wei Ying asked with great delight. As if there was a joke and he was the only one in the room in on it. “If you’re going to complain about the way I organized your mail again, I already told you—”
“Shut up about that,” Sect Leader Jiang interrupted him. He crossed his arms over his chest. “You’re so rude. Continuing to talk while I just keep waiting to drink.”
Wei Ying abruptly stopped talking. Wei Ying stopped smiling. “Oh,” he said at last. His voice wobbled the way it did sometimes before he was going to cry.
“Are you going to pour or not,” Sect Leader Jiang asked, flinty eyed and insolent.