“In the future, you should send your children to the Cloud Recesses for me to teach,” Lan Qiren said. He was sitting with Wen Ruohan on one of the rooftop gardens in the Nightless City, watching the moon and stars from a pavilion placed there for that purpose; their bodies were pressed close together, and it felt as if they were far away from all the things that were familiar. “You and Lao Nie both, and naturally I’ll come visit with you often as well, bringing my nephew. Between the three of us, we might even be able to teach them how to be proper human beings.”
Wen Ruohan laughed in his ear and pressed his lips to his cheek – he had taken to kissing him at random, spontaneous, as if still overwhelmed by the fact that he now had the right to do it.
“I will,” he promised. “I agree, I think they’ll turn out better that way…you would really have me educate your precious little A-Huan?”
“If I’m willing to entrust myself with you, why not him? Anyway, I can teach him music, and with the aid of the other teachers in my sect the sword in the Lan sect style, but you can teach him much more than that. You know how to look at the world and see it for what it is, and then bend it to your will, make it sing to your tune. He’ll be sect leader in the future; he needs to learn that, and you can teach it to him.”
“I can, and I will,” Wen Ruohan said, then thought for a moment and asked, “What does Lao Nie bring to the table?”
Wen Ruohan barked out a laugh. “He certainly has that.”
He didn’t even sound bitter about it any more.
Lan Qiren smiled.
“In the meantime, I will handle the rest of it,” Wen Ruohan added, and Lan Qiren looked at him in silent question. “Come now, Qiren. Did you really think that I would allow you to remain caged in the Cloud Recesses your whole life?”
Lan Qiren paused. That was the sorest part of his heart, his most painful misery, but he didn’t think Wen Ruohan would bring it up casually. If anything, he was a bit more afraid of what Wen Ruohan might get into his head to do about it – there was very little Wen Ruohan wouldn’t dare.
“Da-ge –” he started warily.
“No, no,” Wen Ruohan said, lightly scolding. “Little Lan, be serious! I already rejected the opportunity to cage you here at the Nightless City, playing only for me, despite how much I longed to do so. I refused to do it – me, refusing myself – because I knew it would only make you sad. Do you really think I would allow other people a privilege that I have denied myself?”
Lan Qiren did not laugh, but he dearly wanted to. It might be the first time he’d ever wanted to laugh about his situation – not even Cangse Sanren had managed that. “Has anyone told you that you are extremely self-absorbed?” he asked instead. “Arrogance is forbidden. Do not be haughty and complacent.”
Wen Ruohan smirked back at him. “All true, little Lan, but don’t forget your favorite: Do not tell lies.”
Self-absorbed, narcissistic and arrogant, Lan Qiren concluded, and there was no helping it. It was clearly a terminal case.
He used his sleeve to hide his laughter.
“What are you planning, exactly?” he asked once he had recovered. “If you harm my sect, whether directly or indirectly by denying them my services, I would be even more upset than if you tried to lock me away in here.”
Wen Ruohan waved a hand dismissively. “Do you think me so incapable? I have already begun making arrangements. Discussion conferences may only be once or twice a year, being as they are tremendously irritating to arrange, but there’s no reason that we of the Great Sects should not recognize our greater duty towards the smaller sects, and not to mention our obligations to protect the mortal world –”
“You know that it exists, then?”
Wen Ruohan ignored him. “The resources of cultivation clans are limited, and the world large. There are many places which would benefit from aid that do not see any simply because they are far away or tucked in inconvenient places, and no sect lives nearby – naturally, it is our duty to fight evil no matter where it is encountered. Lao Nie has already agreed that it is critical that the sect leaders demonstrate our sincerity by fulfilling this duty in person, leading by example.”
Lan Qiren’s heart had already felt as if it were overflowing with warmth, and it felt even more so now, almost squeezed to pain by how much joy was there. More than he had known he could contain.
Bad luck in brothers, he thought to himself - but oh, he had such good luck in friends!
“I see,” he said, thankful that his usual neutral tone concealed how happy he felt. “And naturally, where you and Lao Nie go, Sect Leader Jin cannot be far behind in his eagerness not to lose out, and where three of the five Great Sects lead, naturally the rest cannot be far behind. So I, too, will be obligated to...what? Go out on night-hunts in inconvenient places?”
“The world is too large, and the number of cultivators too few – and at any rate, there’s no point in setting up a full night-hunt which draws in every person from a thousand li for a few paltry fierce corpses or a ghost or two. I propose, instead, that we would send cultivators out alone, in pairs or in small groups, to wander for a few months through the remote places in the world and clean them up. Then, at the next discussion conference, the Great Sects could jointly agree that whoever was most enterprising would receive a reward, and naturally, stories of various exploits could be exchanged – ”
“Ah. Another reason for young men and women to gather and boast of improbable exploits.”
“Think of it as giving them more opportunities to win glory,” Wen Ruohan said. “And stop talking down about ‘young men’; you are a young man. Naturally you are also qualified to go out to do such things. Required, even: if our Great Sects do not set a proper example, who will?”
“Mm. A proper example. Even if I coincidentally happen to spend more time playing music than hunting demons?”
Wen Ruohan’s eyes were bright. “Even so. And naturally, you could always bring along someone more powerful to do the demon-hunting for you…”
Wen Ruohan smirked. “Do you doubt that I will be able to make it happen, little Lan?”
“No,” Lan Qiren said, then added, honestly: “I think you could take over the world if you wished.”
“Naturally! But it would be quite irritating, I think, if I had to also ensure that both you and Lao Nie did not disapprove of my methods…” He paused, lips twitching. “By coincidence, while we’re discussing convenience, I was thinking that it would be dangerous to send all those wild and reckless young men out there without proper support. Surely it would be only reasonable to set up a few convenient places here and there, not so far away, to provide them with supplies and a place to rest and recover –”
Convenient places that would fly the Wen sect’s flag and spread its influence, Lan Qiren presumed. Lanling Jin would be furious – using wealth to buy influence was their favorite technique, and they resented other people copying it – and would immediately insist on establishing their own set of “supply stations”, and then the rest of them would have to catch up and make their own. Yet another expense, and the Great Sects would need to do more than most; it would probably wreck havoc with the Lan sect’s annual budget.
On the other hand, well the remote parts of the world really did need the help. One of the Lan sect’s newly recruited guest disciples had been talking about a place not far from his hometown that specialized in making coffin goods; it was, according to him, the most inauspicious place that could possibly be imagined…
Not a place anyone might want to go, unless they truly were intent on traveling.
Lan Qiren smiled once again. He thought he might never stop smiling.
“Indeed,” he said, trying to sound dry and rational. “Very coincidental. No one will doubt that this is nothing but a scheme to expand your reach and power, rather than any personal motive.”
Wen Ruohan did not answer, but instead, matching a smile of his own to Lan Qiren’s, pressed his lips against Lan Qiren’s once more.
After a little while of silence, Lan Qiren cleared his throat and asked, “Do you intend to tell people?”
He was not referring to Wen Ruohan’s plans for the future.
Wen Ruohan understood.
“In time,” he said. “As much as I would love to shout that you are mine and I am yours from the rooftops and perhaps have bulletins be posted to every town -”
Lan Qiren grimaced. It would be one thing if he thought Wen Ruohan was exaggerating for romantic effect, but unfortunately it would be just like him to engage in that level of over-the-top grandstanding.
“– but your position is not yet certain, and my reputation is too questionable. People would make assumptions and spread malicious gossip, and I – I would not harm you to please myself.”
“It’s not sweet-talking when it’s true,” Wen Ruohan protested, although he was chuckling. “When you are more renowned as a teacher than a sect leader, when little A-Huan is old enough to have passed the worst stretches of childhood – then we will announce it, and let the rest of the world choke on it if they like. You, me, Lao Nie…hmm. Jin Guangshan will probably think we’re concealing a conspiracy and ask to join in.”
Lan Qiren gagged. “I refuse,” he said. “I don’t care if I’m not physically involved, neither you nor Lao Nie are allowed to even think about it. That man has visited so many prostitutes that one might be forgiven for thinking he believes that the road to immortality is paved with venereal disease.”
“…thank you, that was an image I did not require.” A pause. “Jiang Fengmian –”
“Remember when he punched me in the face in a fight over a girl I didn’t even want?”
“It wasn’t a serious suggestion.” Wen Ruohan chuckled once more and pressed another kiss to his cheek. “Some years ago now, I swore to your Cangse Sanren that I would do right by you. I ought to invite her here and show her that I’ve made good on it.”
“You haven’t made good on it.”
“No. Such a promise is fulfilled through the keeping – if you want to do right by me, there is no one singular moment that would qualify, but rather a continuing obligation.” Lan Qiren smiled up at him. “I’m sorry, da-ge. You’ll have to continue to do right by me for the rest of our lives.”
“I will,” Wen Ruohan said, and smiled back. “It would be my pleasure.”