Lan Qiren was running to catch up, because he was always running to catch up.
He’d only been allowed to join this particular night-hunt because of Lao Nie’s interference – his brother hadn’t wanted him there, specifically because Lan Qiren was slow and overly fixated on details and not all that handy with a sword – and he was determined not to fall behind. But he was slow, as always, and tired more easily than the others, and then he got distracted and realized a considerable distance had opened up between him and the rest of the group.
He ran to catch up –
He was going to fall flat on his face, he realized as he pitched forward, throwing his hands up in front of his face to try to blunt the pain since humiliation was already a given. He probably wasn’t far enough behind for them not to see this, and then his brother would turn his face away and sigh, aggravated, his shoulders slumping in disappointment at how Lan Qiren had lost him and their sect face all over again.
Lan Qiren was so bound up in his gloomy thoughts that it took him a moment to realize that he had not, in fact, hit the ground.
Someone had caught him.
Even now, they were holding him by the shoulder, keeping him from falling the rest of the way down with a single hand; the posture was awkward, and must be uncomfortable for them.
Lan Qiren straightened himself up immediately and dropped into a deep salute. “Thank you for your help –”
He looked up.
“…Sect Leader Wen,” he finished weakly.
He stared briefly up into red eyes before averting his gaze. He’d thought it was Lao Nie who’d come back to help him, and out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw the familiar Nie colors turning back to the group – perhaps he had come, and was now leaving, since help wasn’t necessary any longer.
He hadn’t expected it to be Wen Ruohan, an ancient monster two generations his elder despite his deceptively youthful face – he hadn’t even realized that Wen Ruohan had decided to tag along on this night-hunt, though of course once he thought about it, it seemed perfectly reasonable. He, like all the other sect leaders, was here for the discussion conference, and a small forest town in the vicinity of the Cloud Recesses did not offer much in the way of other entertainment for outsiders. Why shouldn’t he come along on the night-hunt?
“It’s no matter,” Wen Ruohan said, and it probably wasn’t, for him. Someone with his level of cultivation could hold a kid like Lan Qiren up for a week without noticing the strain. “Did you get distracted by something back there?”
“Small blue flowers,” Lan Qiren said. “Typically associated with certain healing herbs, none of which are native to this area, and growing under an oak of all things; I was wondering if the placement had been deliberate and, if so, by whom and for what purpose. Not to mention when, since those aren’t perennial herbs; they have a longer growing cycle that requires certain meteorological conditions –”
“Aren’t we hunting serpent demons today?” Wen Ruohan asked, and Lan Qiren flinched.
They were, of course. And serpent demons wouldn’t exactly take the time to go plant healing herbs in a wild patch, so it had been a totally pointless diversion.
“I got distracted,” Lan Qiren mumbled, his earlier enthusiasm squashed. “I’d say it won’t happen again, but it probably will, and do not lie is a rule.”
Wen Ruohan gave an amused huff. “Ah yes, the famous Lan sect rules. Do you often follow them?”
A hum. “I see. Well, the others have gotten rather far ahead, and I hear the sound of fighting – they must have already found the serpent demons, and will no doubt finish them off by the time we catch up.”
So he’d missed it. Lan Qiren’s shoulders drooped in disappointment.
“Why don’t you show me your flowers, instead?”
Lan Qiren looked up. Wen Ruohan was smiling.
“If you’re sure,” he said cautiously, but Wen Ruohan shrugged and nodded, and, well, Lan Qiren was supposed to be making friends with the members of the other sects, wasn’t he? Maybe no one had been thinking about the Wen sect, especially since Wen Ruohan’s last set of children had all died – someone had broken the prohibition on gossip in Lan Qiren’s presence and suggested that Wen Ruohan had something to do with that, rather than it being just bad luck, and that he’d done it because he thought he was a real immortal and therefore could always start anew, but the idea was so appalling that it surely couldn’t be true – but there wasn’t any real reason to exempt his sect or even him, either. Friends were friends, weren’t they? “It’s this way. Follow me.”
Wen Ruohan put his hands behind his back and followed Lan Qiren back towards the tree he’d found, his every motion slow and stately as if he were walking in a garden rather than the forest. Lan Qiren found himself mildly jealous.
To distract himself – envying others was against the rules! – he started explaining about the flowers he’d recognized and the types of herbs he thought the plant might be, citing the treatises he’d read about their usual spread and growing patterns and the uses for each one. Somewhere along the line he got distracted, though, because Wen Ruohan mentioned something about the Lan sect rules again, except he got it wrong; there was no rule against excessive verbosity, only against frivolous speech, and while there was a positive rule that counseled speaking meagerly, that was explicitly meant to avoid words that could bring harm and therefore did not apply to intellectual discussions.
Delighted as always to talk about his favorite subject, Lan Qiren promptly launched into an explanation as to the history of the debate as to whether there should be an affirmative prohibition against excessive speech, the various points on either side, the historical texts on the subject, the storied history of the rules regarding the need for an exchange of ideas in furthering education balanced against the exhortation not to take words lightly…
“Look at me,” Wen Ruohan said, and Lan Qiren obeyed at once. Wen Ruohan was his elder, although not of his sect, and by this point Lan Qiren was used to elders disapproving of how his flickering gaze tended not to settle on people and his preference to look at things through his peripheral vision, and of being ordered to meet their gaze.
Wen Ruohan’s eyes were red, as he’d noticed before, and his gaze was heavy and thoughtful, somehow ponderous. It felt almost like pressure against his skin or maybe his mind.
Maybe I should change subjects or be quiet, Lan Qiren thought to himself, the thought coming to him almost involuntarily, but then he realized that if he did, Wen Ruohan wouldn’t hear about the three-day conference that had been held in his great-grandparents’ generation that specifically focused on the rules that related to speech. And that would be an awful shame, wouldn’t it?
So he kept going.
He kept up the eye contact, though. The elders didn’t always like that, either – when he did hold someone’s gaze, he would stare too directly and too long, not knowing when it was appropriate to turn away, but he figured Wen Ruohan would simply tell him. He’d reminded him about the eye contact earlier, hadn’t he?
“How old are you?” Wen Ruohan suddenly asked, just as Lan Qiren was taking a deep breath, having finished explaining the conference and about to launch into a discourse on the follow-up texts that had been written in the immediate aftermath.
Lan Qiren blinked, distracted by the apparent non sequitur. “Thirteen,” he said.
Wen Ruohan hummed thoughtfully. “Thirteen. Interesting.”
“Is it?” Lan Qiren asked, bemused. “I think it’s a rather boring age. I’m old enough for more chores, but not old enough to have free access to the library or go on night-hunts on my own.”
Wen Ruohan chuckled. His voice was very deep. “I was more commenting on your strength of mind, which is remarkable for your age. I do not recall the age itself,” he said, his tone a little dry. He was ancient, so it was reasonable for him to forget having been thirteen. “Has anyone ever told you about the ways in which cultivation can be used to influence the thoughts and will of others?”
Lan Qiren thought about it. “I think so? There’s a text that says that weak-willed cultivators can be swayed through external pressure wielded by a stronger person’s cultivation, and the larger the power gap between the cultivators, the more effective the influence can be…I don’t remember which text it was, though. I could look up the citation for you when we return –”
“No need. I am not in search of sources.”
Wen Ruohan probably had his own library full of sources, Lan Qiren reflected, and nodded.
“Oh, we’re here,” he said, noticing, and pointed to the flowers. “See, like I told you earlier, it has the characteristic qualities of –”
Lan Qiren flinched.
That was his brother’s voice, and he didn’t sound happy.
“Sect Leader Wen,” his brother said, striding into the clearing where they were standing and saluting in a somewhat perfunctory fashion. “I appreciate you taking the time to watch over my younger brother – please forgive him for any impertinence or insult –”
Lan Qiren’s shoulders were up by his ears and his whole face was red with shame. He hated how his brother apologized for him before he even checked whether Lan Qiren had even done anything; it was embarrassing that his brother always thought so little of him.
Maybe he wasn’t talented the way his brother was, but he wasn’t that bad, he didn’t think.
“Think nothing of it, Qingheng-jun,” Wen Ruohan was saying in return. “We were merely spending some time together. I assume the serpent demons have been taken care of?”
“Yes, they have,” Lan Qiren’s brother said. “There’s some debate regarding the disposition of the corpses, if you’d like to join in – forgive us both, but I have to take my brother back to make sure he doesn’t miss curfew.”
Curfew wasn’t for another two shichen, so Lan Qiren had no idea what his brother was talking about, but he obediently saluted Wen Ruohan and followed his brother away.
The moment they were out of view, his brother reached out and grabbed him by the wrist, squeezing far too tightly, and tugged meaningfully, glaring when Lan Qiren opened his mouth to protest.
Lan Qiren didn’t understand what his brother was trying to convey.
“Xiongzhang,” Lan Qiren started to say, and felt his lips abruptly seal together – it was the muting spell. He could break it, of course, being a member of the Lan sect as well, but his brother was his elder; he should wait patiently until he removed it. Still, he was a little indignant that his brother felt the need to use it on him. He didn’t even know what he’d done wrong!
(The glare, he thought. The glare must have been a secret message to not speak, and he’d missed it.)
His brother didn’t say anything as they got on their swords, and he didn’t let go of Lan Qiren’s wrist, either, tugging him along as if he thought Lan Qiren was stupid enough to get lost on the way home. A feeling of shame, the sensation of having made some terrible error and not having realized it again, settled in Lan Qiren’s belly and steadily got worse and worse as they traveled.
It wasn’t until they were back at the inn that was housing everyone during the night-hunt that his brother released his hand.
“You shouldn’t let yourself be alone with Sect Leader Wen,” he said, which surprised Lan Qiren – he’d expected his brother to jump straight into listing out all the ways Lan Qiren had embarrassed him at the night-hunt. He hadn’t been expecting his brother to say something like that at all.
“Why not?” he asked, and his brother glared at him. “You didn’t want to babysit me, and I was falling behind. He wanted to see the flowers –”
“He was humoring you,” his brother interrupted. “Everyone always humors you, but no one actually ever cares about whatever nonsense you’re rambling on about this week. Don’t you know that especially powerful cultivators can affect the mind of the weak-willed?”
Lan Qiren blinked. What a strange coincidence, both his brother and Sect Leader Wen mentioning the exact same thing. “Yes,” he said. “I know. In fact –”
“I don’t want to hear another one of your stupid citations,” his brother said, cutting him off, and making Lan Qiren feel stupid and resentful again – he hadn’t even been about to cite anything! “Anyone who’s ever met you can figure out that you’re little better than a half-wit, all right? Wen Ruohan is a petty person, capable of anything, even only on a whim. Don’t spend time alone with him. Consider it another rule.”
“You don’t have the authority to make rules!”
“Do not disrespect your elders,” his brother snapped, and Lan Qiren bowed his head, acknowledging the point. “Now do me a favor and stay here until the conference is over – I should be back with the rest of them, acting in Father’s place as the sects divide up the spoils. I can’t believe I’m here taking care of you again instead.”
Lan Qiren wrung his hands together. He hadn’t intended anything like that. “Xiongzhang –”
“Have I made myself clear?”
“Good.” His brother was on his sword and flying back towards the forest before Lan Qiren could even blink. He hadn’t even bothered to say goodbye.
Lan Qiren supposed he didn’t have to. It wasn’t like Lan Qiren was going anywhere.
At least, not yet. He was already thirteen – less than ten years and he’d be advanced enough to go anywhere he liked, to be a traveling musician and cultivator the way he’d always planned. He’d be able to help people and spend time with anyone he liked, or not spend time with anyone at all if he didn’t feel like it, and there would be nothing his brother could do to stop him.
Lan Qiren did some research on the rules about obeying one’s elders even when they made stupid arbitrary decisions that they didn’t explain – his brother had only said that Lan Qiren was not to spend time alone with Wen Ruohan and that Wen Ruohan was a petty person, but had indicated nothing else to explain the reason for the rule, though perhaps Lan Qiren was missing some unspoken assumption again – but sadly his research proved inconclusive on the matter. He was forced to conclude that it was better to err in favor of obedience.
Still, he felt resentful that he obeyed Don’t disrespect your elders while his brother seemed to feel free to ignore Don’t disrespect your juniors. That was the way of things, of course, and of course given the age difference between them – he was a child, his brother an adult, with nearly a ten year gap between them – the exhortation was magnified. Lan Qiren should be obedient and respectful, filial, and yet he couldn’t quite manage not to feel upset about the disparity, even though he knew he should accept the rules with equanimity and grace.
That wasn’t exactly a rule, or at least it wasn’t a written rule, but Lan Qiren had heard it often enough that he understood it to be an unspoken rule. He wasn’t that good at obeying those, even when he tried.
And of course, there were some written rules he had trouble with, too…
Lan Qiren looked up from where he was contemplating the prescribed punishment for breaking Do not be picky with food and whether it was preferable to forcing himself to consume the overcooked mushy greens currently sitting in his bowl.
“Sect Leader Wen,” he said blankly, then remembered Do not sit when an elder stands and attempted to scramble into a standing position, only to remember Do not stand incorrectly and inexpertly tried to force himself into the proper form when he was already halfway up.
Wen Ruohan caught him by both shoulders before he could fall over his own feet and helped straighten him out. “You’re a little clumsy, aren’t you?” he said with a strange smile, and Lan Qiren automatically bowed his head in acknowledgement of his error. “It’s not a physical thing, though; you’re quite graceful. Just too caught in your own head, is it?”
That was exactly it.
Lan Qiren smiled thankfully up at Wen Ruohan, who seemed a little surprised for some reason, but who released his shoulders and allowed Lan Qiren to salute properly. He didn’t stop the bow the way one of the other sect leaders might – Lao Nie, for instance, barely let anyone complete a full salute without pulling them back up, to the point that Lan Qiren sometimes wondered if he would prefer to do away with the gesture entirely – but by the time Lan Qiren had straightened up, he had a thoughtful expression.
“Is there something I can help you with?” Lan Qiren inquired. There was a rule against speaking during mealtimes, but it was one of the lesser rules. The rules of hospitality took precedence, and the Lan sect was hosting this particular night-hunt, even if the small town they were all staying in wasn’t the Cloud Recesses itself.
He was prepared to be sent away on some task – looking forward to it, even, since it meant he wouldn’t have to eat the mush – but instead Wen Ruohan shook his head.
“I could use some company,” he said, and flicked his sleeve, sitting down in the seat across from Lan Qiren. Vacant, of course, since Lan Qiren had settled himself into one of the more distant corners of the inn in an attempt to avoid his brother’s notice, and of course he was also by far the youngest person on this night-hunt, making for very unappealing company to everyone else. “Sit and finish your dinner.”
Lan Qiren sank back down a little reluctantly. The greens remained as unappetizing as before.
Wen Ruohan noticed the direction of his gaze, and the untouched dinner. “Practicing inedia?”
“I’m too young,” Lan Qiren said, which was true. Inedia at his age could stunt his growth.
“Not to your taste, then?”
Lan Qiren shook his head, but reached out and picked up his chopsticks anyway.
“If you don’t like it, why not ask for something else?” Wen Ruohan asked.
“Do not be picky with food,” Lan Qiren recited, glum, and put a bite into his mouth. It was revolting, sticky and glue-like, and he gagged, wanting to spit it out. That would be even more rude, though, so he forced himself to chew and then eventually to swallow.
It took all of his attention to do, and he was almost surprised when he opened his eyes – he’d closed them at some point, probably in order to help summon the willpower required to perform the task – and saw Wen Ruohan staring straight at him, his expression unfathomable.
“Your eyes are red,” he said.
Lan Qiren stared at him. “No? They’re light brown. Yours are red.”
Wen Ruohan’s lips curved up a little. “I didn’t mean the iris,” he clarified. “The sclera. Your eyes filled with tears, aggravating the blood flowing through them, and as a result the rims of your eyes became reddened.”
“Oh,” Lan Qiren said. He wasn’t entirely sure what to do with that observation, or if he was supposed to respond in some way. Apologize, maybe? But it was a physiological reaction…
Maybe Sect Leader Wen was just a little strange, he decided. But he obviously couldn’t comment on that, given that his brother was always saying that he, too, was more than a little strange –
“Oh, no,” Lan Qiren said, chewing on his lip in anxiety, and Sect Leader Wen looked at him in silent question. “I should go.”
Do not tell lies. “My brother said I shouldn’t spend time alone with you.”
Wen Ruohan laughed.
Lan Qiren stared at him, off balance. That wasn’t normally how people responded to him being rude, and he wasn’t stupid – he knew it was rude of him to say that. Rude of his brother to order it, really, but ruder of him to actually say it, even if he wasn’t supposed to lie. He’d never quite worked out where the one rule ended and the other one began; it was a recurring issue.
“Qingheng-jun is wise in identifying the issue and its solution,” Wen Ruohan remarked, seeming unruffled. “But rather foolish in his ham-handed attempts to implement that solution.”
Lan Qiren didn’t understand.
“You don’t need to be concerned, little Lan,” Wen Ruohan said, and he was smiling at him. “Sharing a meal with me won’t mean that you’re disobeying your brother. After all, we’re not really alone, are we?”
Lan Qiren’s eyes flickered around them, and he had to admit that that was true. While the corner he’d chosen was moderately secluded, it was still part of the main dining room, not even hidden by a screen or anything – he could directly see where his brother was sitting around a table with Lao Nie and Jin Guangshan and some of the others, playing some sort of game, and presumably, if his brother wished, he could look at him in return.
“Sect Leader Wen is correct,” he concluded. “The prohibition was against spending time alone with you. We are not alone, and therefore the prohibition does not apply. Forgive my rudeness.”
“Think nothing of it,” Wen Ruohan said, looking pleased. “Such an interesting child you are.”
Lan Qiren looked at him suspiciously, since he didn’t think that was true.
“Shouldn’t you be with the other sect leaders?” he asked, dropping his gaze to his chopsticks. He had taken one bite, but that wasn’t eating; he would need to take another. But it was so awfully mushy…
“I prefer games of strategy to games of chance,” Wen Ruohan said. “Meet my eyes.”
Lan Qiren looked at him.
“Very good,” Wen Ruohan said, and Lan Qiren shifted uncomfortably at the praise. “You don’t hear that often, do you?”
Lan Qiren bristled. “I excel at my studies, and at music. My teachers have never had any cause for complaint.”
“With your devotion to following rules, I would imagine they wouldn’t. Music, hmm? Music and philosophy, I’d wager. Is that how you managed to cultivate such a bright golden core?”
Lan Qiren resisted the urge to put his hand over his belly. His core had only very recently formed, at just the appropriate age – nothing like his prodigy brother who had reached core formation before the age of ten – and he was painfully aware that he was likely never to reach anywhere near his brother’s potential, particularly given the differences in their capacity for swordsmanship.
He’d never heard that his core was unusually bright before, though.
“You won’t be able to remain so untainted by worldly affairs for long, little Lan,” Wen Ruohan said. “Not as a son of a Great Sect.”
“I’m going to be a traveling musician when I’m older,” Lan Qiren told him. “People won’t need to know that I’m from a Great Sect then.”
Another chuckle, and Wen Ruohan reached out and tapped Lan Qiren’s forehead ribbon right in the center of his forehead, ignoring how Lan Qiren recoiled, eyes wide. “People will always know, little Lan, as long as you have this.”
“Fine, then let people know,” Lan Qiren said, trying to maintain his dignity. “What does it matter, as long as I can help them?”
Wen Ruohan’s smile widened. “Help people? You can’t even help yourself. Or are the bruises on your wrist from a door you bumped into?”
Lan Qiren looked down at his wrists, pulling back his sleeves, and, yes, one wrist was still red from where his brother had tugged him along in his wake earlier, the flesh hot and a little swollen when he pressed his fingers against it. He watched, a little fascinated, as the white imprints of his fingerprints faded back into the red, and then remembered he was among company and pulled his sleeve over his wrist again.
“It’s only swollen,” he said, remembering to meet Wen Ruohan’s eyes as he looked up. “Not bruised.”
Not yet, anyway.
Wen Ruohan’s gaze felt heavy again. It was intent and almost penetrating, uncomfortable and weighted, almost as if he could change the air pressure around Lan Qiren simply with his eyes.
“Didn’t you notice it earlier?” he asked.
Lan Qiren shook his head. “The doctor says I have reduced long-term awareness of pain,” he admitted. “Bruises, cuts…once the initial pain has passed, I adjust to it and forget about it.”
“Interesting. And yet, judging from how you sought to protect yourself from the fall earlier, you still fear pain.”
Lan Qiren grimaced. “It’s only in the long term that I don’t notice it. In the short term, my sensitivity to discomfort is heightened.”
“I see. That explains why you cry when you have to eat food you don’t like.”
“I didn’t cry,” Lan Qiren insisted. He was still looking into Wen Ruohan’s eyes – maybe because Wen Ruohan was looking so deeply into his own, his gaze fixed and unblinking, but it didn’t feel quite as unpleasant as it sometimes did with other people. Just intense. “I don’t cry over things like that anymore.”
It was just a physiological reaction to gagging, he wanted to say, but for some reason didn’t. The words felt sticky in his throat, like syrup – even his thoughts seemed a little slow, as if they had to wade through the mud before actually forming. It was almost a little calming, really; normally his thoughts felt like they were whizzing by too fast to catch, like streaks of lightning caught in his skull.
“It hurt when your brother grabbed you like that, didn’t it,” Wen Ruohan said. His voice was deep, and his eyes were very red. “More than it would hurt other people. It hurt a lot.”
Lan Qiren nodded.
“You didn’t like that. It made you feel angry. Resentful.”
“Maybe you should do something about it. How about that? Maybe he wouldn’t do it again if only you showed him how much you don’t like it when he treats you that way.”
That had never worked before…
“You just didn’t try hard enough before. You didn’t get his attention. Why don’t you go show him now? He’s sitting right there with all the other sect leaders. Just go and push him down to the floor when he’s not expecting it. That’ll show him.”
Lan Qiren frowned. “Fighting without permission is forbidden, Sect Leader Wen.”
Wen Ruohan straightened his back suddenly – he’d started leaning forward at some point, bringing their faces closer together; Lan Qiren hadn’t noticed given their steady eye contact. “What?”
“Fighting without permission is forbidden,” Lan Qiren explained, rubbing at his eyes, which suddenly felt overly dry. He’d somehow forgotten to blink for a while. “It’s one of the rules. Plus there’s also Do not sow discord and No improper behavior, which are also really important rules. So even if I want to talk to him, it wouldn’t be appropriate to do it in front of others, would it?”
He shook his head and picked up his chopsticks – he’d put them down at some point without noticing.
“Thank you for your advice and guidance, Sect Leader Wen,” he added, trying to be polite even if he wasn’t being very sincere. He’d tried time and time again to express himself to his brother without success; he’d long ago given it up. “I appreciate your consideration.”
“And I was actually trying that time,” Wen Ruohan remarked, seemingly inexplicably and apropos of nothing, and then for no reason that Lan Qiren could determine, he started chuckling. “You have a very interesting mind, little Lan. Very interesting indeed...and more willpower than one would expect, given your age and position. Perhaps it’s eating all that food you dislike that does it, or maybe it really is those ridiculous rules.”
Lan Qiren frowned at him. The rules weren’t ridiculous. They were important! How else was he supposed to know how to deal with people - how was anyone supposed to know how to deal with people - without the rules to serve as guidance?
He was about to say so, too, when a waiter abruptly came to their table and put down a dish of freshly grilled yams. Lan Qiren hadn’t even realized they had yams available at this inn, or even a proper charcoal grill to use to cook them; it hadn’t been offered, and no other table had them – if he’d known, he would have asked for them much earlier.
“Consider it a gift,” Wen Ruohan said with a faint smirk, waiving the waiter away. He must have ordered the dish at some point when Lan Qiren wasn’t paying attention. “Something you might find a little more palatable than those greens.”
“Thank you, Sect Leader Wen!” This time, Lan Qiren was wholly sincere, and even enthusiastic.
Especially because, since it was a gift, he didn’t have to restrain himself in terms of scarfing down the food. The yams were delicious.
“Such enthusiasm,” Wen Ruohan remarked, clearly amused, but Lan Qiren didn’t object; he was enthusiastic. “I’ll leave you to your meal, little Lan. I wouldn’t want to get you into trouble with your elder brother.”
Lan Qiren nodded, distracted by the food; it was by far better than anything he’d had in the past few days. “I don’t know why he said I had to stay away from you,” he said, meaning it as an apology.
“Oh, I think it’s probably based on one of your rules,” Wen Ruohan said, standing up. He had that strange smile again. “Isn’t there one that goes ‘stay away from bad men’?”
He left before Lan Qiren could correct him – it was do not associate with evil.
The closing ceremony of the discussion conference was dignified and serene, as appropriate for an event hosted by the Lan sect, and after it was done everyone milled around to chat a little more before starting to break off into groups to leave.
The leaders of the Great Sects naturally gathered together.
They were an unusual mix. Wen Ruohan was the eldest by an entire generation, technically hailing from the generation of Lan Qiren’s grandfather even if his extraordinary cultivation made him seem as young as Lan Qiren’s brother; after him there was Lan Qiren’s father and the Jiang sect leader, Jiang Menglin, who themselves were a generation above their younger counterparts from the Nie and Jin clans – Jin Guangshan especially, having only inherited his position in the past year.
Lan Qiren’s brother stood beside them, speaking with them with his head held high. Their father planned to slowly transition sect leadership to him over the next half-decade so that he himself might be allowed to retire from the mundane world to focus on cultivation, as Lan An ultimately did. In accordance with that plan, he had allowed him to take the lead on hosting certain small events at the discussion conference, like the night-hunting.
Lan Qiren was there, too.
He was lurking as far to the back of the platform as he could get, trying simultaneously to perfectly reflect his sect’s expectations for proper behavior while also doing his utmost to remain beneath anyone’s notice – Lao Nie had caught his gaze at one point and winked, a friendly older man’s indulgence of a junior, but that was in large part unavoidable given the man’s gregarious personality – and enjoying the rare moment in which he could see his father at something other than a distance.
He usually only saw his father when he was brought before him to report on his achievements, typically once a month. When he was younger, he had been accompanied by one of his teachers, who would report on him while Lan Qiren anxiously examined his father’s face for signs of approval; now that he was older, he went by himself, dipping into a deep salute as he recited anything of interest, and sometimes if he really exerted himself his father would reward him with a word of praise.
Lan Qiren was only allowed to stand with the rest of them on the basis of a technicality – his father hadn’t officially transferred power to his eldest son and wouldn’t for a while yet, so he had brought along both of them on the transparent excuse that they could provide company for Jin Guangshan and Lao Nie as members of the same generation. It was very much a technicality in Lan Qiren’s case, given his much younger age; he fell on the very tail end of their generation on account of the circumstances of his belated birth.
Lan Qiren’s birth was very late to allow him to be considered a peer to those a decade or more older than him, in fact, but that was the way of things.
He was a child of duty, rather than pleasure.
His parents had been very much in love, as was the Lan sect’s way, and together they had had two sons and a daughter within six years, each one of them deeply beloved. But perhaps their joy had been too complete, because the heavens had not permitted it to last: they lost their younger son and daughter both – one to an unexpected illness, the other to an accident. Their eldest, Lan Qiren’s brother, was still there, but it would have been irresponsible to have only a single heir to a Great Sect. Accordingly, under great pressure from the sect elders, they had sought to have another child, only to fail time and time again, enduring countless miscarriages and stillbirths alike.
There had even been some debate as to whether such a situation permitted the sect leader to take on a concubine, regardless of custom or even his own wishes. Desperate to prevent such a result, Lan Qiren’s mother had inadvisedly taken certain drugs to encourage conception and at last Lan Qiren had been successfully born in a slow and bloody labor that had sapped his mother’s already poor health. She had died a few years later, suffering a recurrence of the infection left behind from his birth. Lan Qiren had been too young to really remember her, but he knew that his brother had blamed him for her loss ever since.
He sometimes wondered if his father did, too.
Of course, unlike his brother, his father had never said as much. As the Lan sect leader, he was graceful and refined, educated and reserved, a venerable and venerated cultivator; it was widely agreed that he would never have planned to retire so early if it hadn’t been for losing his true love all those years ago. Perhaps he might even have been another Wen Ruohan, seemingly ageless, striving for immortality – at any rate, he would never be so petty as to mistreat a person due to the circumstances beyond their control. It was something he had heard that his father had said from one of the other Lan sect juniors, and at any rate it was in the rules, and Lan Qiren believed in the rules.
Besides, it wasn’t a surprise that Lan Qiren would be an afterthought in comparison to his brother, the already famous Qingheng-jun, who his father treasured like a pearl cupped in his palm. His brother was the much-anticipated first child of his father’s happy youth, the reminder of good days gone by, a child who had survived the misfortunes that had taken his siblings, and Lan Qiren’s brother repaid his father’s adoration with strength, intelligence, and endless potential. He was a cultivation maniac, yet good at managing the other juniors; he was cold and aloof, elegant, yet capable of being personable and even charming when needed. He was one of the shining stars of his generation, already a powerful cultivator and a respected gentleman even though he’d only just passed twenty-one. Even the name which he was commonly called, Qingheng-jun, was a rarity, a personal title unusual in this peaceful day and age.
Lan Qiren, in contrast, was slow and clumsy, with only average cultivation skills and positively dire social skills. While his teachers praised his strong academic skills and musical talent, the Lan sect followed first and foremost the orthodox path of swordsmanship; once his weakness in that area had been discovered, many of his sect elders lost interest in him as anything other than the inferior back-up plan that he was.
Undoubtedly that was why, when Wen Ruohan turned to Lan Qiren’s father and said, “Your son is a credit to you,” everyone assumed he was talking about Qingheng-jun.
“Sect Leader Wen does him too much honor,” their father said, clearly pleased despite his deprecating words. After all, Wen Ruohan, Sect Leader Wen, was well known to be extraordinarily sparing with his praise for any who didn’t share his bloodline or surname. “My unworthy son is still young and foolish. His eyes are always fixed upon cultivation, never straying – he doesn’t even spare time for girls, despite his advancing years!”
The other sect leaders were smiling, and Lao Nie already opening his mouth to say something teasing, when Wen Ruohan said, “I meant your other son.”
Lan Qiren wasn’t prepared at all for all the sect leaders to turn to look at him.
He shrunk back.
“Qiren?” his father said, almost as if he were checking to confirm that that was the right name, a trace of doubt in his voice even as Lan Qiren’s brother’s face went white with humiliation. “I didn’t realize you’d had a chance to hear him play.”
“Regrettably I have not yet had that pleasure,” Wen Ruohan said, a slightly strange expression on his face. “We merely exchanged some charming conversation, that’s all. Is that his most notable skill?”
“His accomplishments as a musical cultivator are sufficient to rank him among the adults of his already talented sect,” Lao Nie volunteered when there was a brief pause, and Lan Qiren’s father was quick to smile and nod along. “You missed out, Sect Leader Wen.”
“Perhaps another time,” Wen Ruohan said, his return smile still strange and almost subtly displeased, though Lan Qiren would hardly trust himself to know for sure.
At that point, Jiang Menglin spoke up, changing the subject, and most everyone joined in, all of them evidently relieved – not least of all Lan Qiren himself, who had started wondering if there was some way he could become invisible or else fall into a deep chasm that might conveniently open up beneath his feet.
Nothing more was said on the subject until the ceremony was done and the last of their guests departed, when Lan Qiren’s brother tracked him down and hissed, “What did you do?”
“Nothing!” Lan Qiren cried out. “We only talked!”
“You mean you talked at him the way you always do – ”
Their father cleared his throat, having come up behind them, and they both turned at once and dropped into deep salutes.
“Do not think about it too much,” he said, voice distant as the cold wind on a winter night. “Sect Leader Wen sometimes likes to make trouble for the sake of making trouble, especially if he thinks he has found a weakness. You will need to be on your guard against that when you are sect leader.”
He was talking to Lan Qiren’s brother, of course. Lan Qiren could count, and had, the number of times his father addressed him directly in a given year, but it was only reasonable – he wasn’t the heir, doomed to take on the burden of leadership, and so there was much less his father needed to say to him.
“Yes, Father,” his brother said. “I’ll remember.”
“Do not trouble your younger brother over nonsense.”
Lan Qiren felt his brother’s angry gaze like a flame against his skin, even if it wasn’t anywhere as weighty as Wen Ruohan’s. He did not understand what he had done wrong, whether to Wen Ruohan to decide to make trouble using his name or to his brother now that had made him angry, but that wasn’t so much different from the usual.
“Very well, Father,” his brother said. “I won’t.”
“Qishan Wen has sent the invitations for the discussion conference,” their father said. “They will be holding a competition.”
The elders murmured thoughtfully in response.
Lan Qiren wasn’t sure why, since the Wen sect always held some sort of competition when it was their turn – the other sects tended to vary the main event, feasts and hunts and academic discussions, but the Wen sect loved competitions. Although perhaps it was just Wen Ruohan himself who did; since he’d been the sect leader for so long, it was impossible to tell the difference between his preferences and his sect’s.
“Qingheng-jun can lead the disciples,” one of the sect elders said, and Lan Qiren’s brother stood and saluted respectfully before sitting back down. “As for the rest…what skills should we select for?”
“Equestrianism,” their father said. “And music.”
“Music?” one of Lan Qiren’s teachers – an old man who usually all but slept through these meetings, but respected enough that no one commented on it – asked, blinking awake and rubbing his eyes in a way that suggested he thought he was being discreet. “Since when does Qishan Wen appreciate music?”
Lan Qiren's teacher in music, who'd clearly been about to ask the same question, shut his mouth with a poorly-hidden smile.
“They don’t have to appreciate it,” another teacher, this one of swordsmanship, said, his tone distant and cynical. “They just have to have someone in mind that they think will win. Qishan Wen values victory over all else.”
“And they are crafty," yet another said, nodding. "Including it in the listing might be a stratagem to get us to send more disciples talented in music and fewer in other areas, to reduce our chances of winning the main event –”
“Both riding and music are listed as the main events,” Lan Qiren’s father said, his cold clear tone slashing through the others’ voices and putting an end to the debate. “Let us proceed in selecting disciples to attend.”
The list was quickly settled, and for once Lan Qiren was nominated to go. He hoped it was on account of his musical talents, which he was pretty proud of, although he acknowledged it might very well be due to his heritage. He made plans to go to visit the library pavilion at once, thinking about what scores might be appropriate to study in preparation – based on the description in the invitation, there would be a technical challenge, in which they would all play the same piece, and then an individual selection where each player could show off their personal skills…
“Looking forward to showing off for your lover?”
Lan Qiren slowed to a stop. It was one of the wittier, more personable disciples, a distant cousin of his named Lan Ganhui – one of the ones that thought they were funny, and others seemed to agree.
“Are you talking to me?” he asked, puzzled. It seemed as if he were, but at the same time... “I don’t have a lover.”
“Really?” His cousin was smiling. “But we’ve all heard how highly Sect Leader Wen thinks of you.”
Lan Qiren blinked. “He complimented me once. Three years ago. When I was thirteen.”
With the benefit of hindsight and age, it was clear to him that his father must have been right about Wen Ruohan’s motives: he had only been making trouble deliberately, trying to stir things up. A test of his brother’s mettle as the prospective new leader of the Lan sect, no doubt.
Occasional teasing aside, what were the chances that he'd actually found Lan Qiren to be interesting?
“You’re far too modest, Qiren-xiong. Everyone knows how picky Sect Leader Wen can be – you must have done something to get his attention.”
Lan Qiren was not good at understanding people and their subtleties as a general rule, but he had sufficient practice at childish taunts to understand the implication, and he felt his ears burn.
“Do not speak ill of people,” he said, putting his hands behind his back to hide how his fists clenched. “You should report to the discipline hall for violating the rules.”
“Violation excused,” his brother said from behind him, voice calm – even cold – as always. “Don’t take things so seriously, Qiren; it’s only joking between friends.”
Lan Qiren was not friends with Lan Ganhui, but he probably should be. It was his duty as one of the heirs of the main clan to be magnanimous with the other disciples of the sect.
As irritating a task as that might be.
“Walk with me,” his brother ordered, and naturally Lan Qiren obeyed.
They went in silence for a while, their path the familiar one used to make the rounds of the Cloud Recesses – it was a task they were all assigned once they were old enough, and Lan Qiren recognized the twists and turns of it at once. He wondered what that meant, if anything.
If he were with one of his teachers, he would be able to extrapolate that the subject of imminent discussion was not a serious one; that they felt they could both fulfill their duties and speak with him meant that it was not a subject that required their full attention. But somehow, despite their closer relation, Lan Qiren sometimes felt as if he did not understand his brother anywhere near as well as he understood his teachers: it was possible that in this case the subject was important, but his brother more capable than their teachers of splitting his time and attention, or maybe simply didn’t care about one of the two tasks he was performing.
That was one of the things Lan Qiren had never really understood about his brother. His brother was the great hope of their Lan sect, the bright light of their generation; when he finally became sect leader, it was expected that he would help lead them to an ascendant position in the cultivation world and allow their clan to flourish, one andall. Yet sometimes it seemed as if he saw his duties as merely a burden, to be completed as quickly as possible – he was always trying to do more than one task at a time, trying to finish and put them aside, as if he had compared them to some ideal in his mind and found them wanting, purposeless, and therefore irrelevant, even if the task were key to the well-being of their sect.
Their teacher in swordsmanship – one of the few people his brother seemed to really like, though of course he was properly filial to all his teachers – said that he had the best chance of any in their generation of becoming a true immortal, if only he devoted himself, and Lan Qiren supposed that that was his brother’s goal. After all, hadn’t Wen Ruohan raised his sect higher and higher simply on account of having been there longer than anyone else…?
“This will be your first discussion conference in several years,” his brother said, drawing Lan Qiren’s attention. “Will it not?”
“Since the last time our sect hosted,” Lan Qiren agreed. It had been the Jiang the year after, and at fourteen he was too young to go to an official conference; then the Jin the year after that, and the Lan sect never sent too many people to suffer the rush and bustle of Lanling City. If he had had some extraordinary achievements, they might have sent him, but he didn’t.
This year, though, he was sixteen – just under the official age of eligibility for those not in the main families of the Great Sects, which was seventeen – and known to have some talent in one of the areas in question, so it would be a loss of face for their family not to send him. Otherwise, he suspected they would have waited another year until the discussion conference was held by the Nie sect, who as a close ally to the Lan sect would offer a much safer way to be introduced to the cultivation world.
“I see,” his brother said, and continued walking some distance. “You will need to be mindful of your actions, of course.”
“Of course,” Lan Qiren echoed, and despite his best efforts he felt some dissatisfaction. Beyond the resentment he bore him on account of their mother’s death, his brother had never really paid him all that much attention; Lan Qiren had been assured by several of his teachers that he was merely imagining how much his brother didn’t like him, or at least that the irritation would pass as he got older and more accomplished, less of an embarrassment. Most of the time, his brother’s gaze was turned inside to himself and his own cultivation efforts just like their father before him, so it made sense for him not to know too much about Lan Qiren, but…still. It wasn’t exactly like Lan Qiren was a known troublemaker that needed to be taken aside and especially warned to be on his best behavior.
He idolized his brother, Lan Qiren reminded himself. Just like everyone else. It was only the itchy emotionality of adolescence that was causing him such frustration.
“You understand what you did wrong, then, and will not repeat it.”
“…what I did wrong?” Lan Qiren ground his teeth together, realized he was doing it, and stopped at once. No one else had ever said he had done something wrong during that discussion conference, but perhaps they were only being polite. “Xiongzhang, I am too ignorant, and do not understand. Please tell me what you mean.”
His brother looked at him sidelong. “In connection with Sect Leader Wen.”
“Xiongzhang! I didn’t –”
“You are old enough now to understand how dangerous he is,” his brother said, cutting him off, and Lan Qiren fell silent, because that much was true. When he’d been thirteen and even more single-minded than he was today (and truly, how could he condemn his brother’s disinterest in so many things when he himself was similarly focused on his own interests?), he had been ignorant of the rumors that swirled around Wen Ruohan. It was said that beneath his seemingly composed countenance, he could be violent and moody, impulsive and selfish and cruel – how he had to have the best of everything for himself, and would stop at nothing to obtain whatever it was, no matter who it harmed. And then there were the stories of his mysterious Fire Palace, where he was said to collect implements of torture and to enjoy sating his bloodlust by practicing them upon those unfortunate enough to be his prisoners –
How much of that was true and how much merely rumor, Lan Qiren did not know, but he knew that it was well-accepted enough to be considered news rather than frivolous gossip.
"Yes, xiongzhang," he muttered, and dropped his eyes to the ground. "I know."
"This isn't like last time. We're going to be in the Nightless City, on his ground, not ours - you're not adept at politics, so you might not know it, but Sect Leader Wen's arrogance is beyond belief; he only sometimes considers himself to be bound by the laws and customs of the cultivation world, not like the rest of us. If something happens, I won't be able to protect you."
Lan Qiren nodded. He appreciated his brother's concern for him.
"Try to avoid him entirely," his brother instructed. "And if you do end up seeing him, don't pester him this time! Think beyond yourself: our sect cannot afford to draw his ire, if it turns out that he does not find you as amusing as he did before.”
It hadn’t been Lan Qiren’s fault that Wen Ruohan had found him amusing the first time. It wasn’t like he intended on spending time with the man – it had just happened!
“And what if he approaches me?” Lan Qiren asked, more to be contrary than out of any actual belief it would really happen. Wen Ruohan had seen him as a tool to needle his brother, nothing more, and had probably put him out of his mind long ago - it'd been three years, after all, and Lan Qiren was very young still; if it hadn't been for the Wen sect's selection of music as a main event, he probably wouldn't be going along at all.
“If he starts speaking with you, then you are to respond gracefully, and comply with his wishes until such time as someone can come to collect you.”
Lan Qiren frowned. “Are you sure?"
His brother stopped and frowned at him.
"I just mean, we've met in person before," Lan Qiren explained. "He won't mistake me for a servant; he'll know who I am. And the Great Sects are all equal, so isn't there a chance that we might lose face if one of our main bloodline yields to everything he wants at first request, as if we were some nameless clan beneath his…”
“Are you questioning me?”
Lan Qiren faltered. “No, xiongzhang.”
“I don’t want anything disturbing the discussion conference,” his brother said, his gaze already sliding away and his fists tight at his sides. Lan Qiren thought over his words and was ashamed of himself: he shouldn't have reminded his brother that he was part of the main bloodline, same as him; he knew it was a painful subject for his brother, and to bring it up anyway probably came across as arrogant and tactless. “I am acting as leader for this trip, and the responsibility for everything that happens is mine. Do not make me lose face. Do you understand?”
“Yes, xiongzhang. I won’t lose face for the sect.”
The Nightless City was like nothing Lan Qiren had ever seen before in his life.
It was grand and glorious, everything writ large on a massive scale – the number of people, the number of buildings, the size of the buildings…it was said that Lanling City was more crowded and full of people, but that was because it had a smaller scope, shoving all those people into a small area, while the Nightless City never ran out of space because any time it did it would just expand its borders further.
For someone like Lan Qiren, who longed to travel to the strange parts of the world and see all sorts of things for the first time, it was a dream come true –
Or rather, it would be, if only he had the ability to give it the attention it deserved. Which he didn’t.
The issue had initially arisen in the week leading up to their departure from the Cloud Recesses. Like all the other disciples, especially those nominated for their musical talents, Lan Qiren had spent a great deal of time in the library pavilion, perusing score after score in search of the one that they would present as their own individual selection.
He’d found one he rather liked: an exceedingly complicated piece, composed for the guqin, meant to signify the orderly chaos of nature and winning mastery over the internal chaos within. It had been a challenge to master the complex finger work, not to mention the necessary qi fluctuations required to properly showcase the song even if he had no plans to wield it as a spell – no one actually needed roots to leap up from the earth to try to trap his enemies in the middle of a musical demonstration – but he’d accomplished it, meeting even his own stringent standards for excellence. He’d been very proud, and eager to display it at the discussion conference.
His brother, in conjunction with the teacher that would be accompanying them, had rejected it.
They hadn’t even let him demonstrate that he’d adequately mastered it – their teacher, the swordfighting master that his brother liked so much, had taken a cursory look at the score and deemed it too eccentric; his brother had judged it too flashy, and thus too risky. They had recommended he perform one of the more traditional Lan sect songs that they knew he had mastered perfectly: Inquiry, perhaps, or Evocation.
Lan Qiren had decided to ignore them.
He hadn’t told them that, of course. He’d kept his decision hugged close to his chest, buried beneath a façade of calm that was easy enough to keep in place since most people couldn’t tell his stressed expression from his regular one, and his tone never really got that far from a monotone anyway.
He’d kept that secret, turning it over and over in his head, unable to think of anything else, unable to enjoy the distant travel (well, unable to enjoy it as much as he should), unable to really appreciate the grandiose opening ceremonies, the sect leaders of the Great Sects seated together on their platform, the smaller sects beneath them…
Luckily, the music competition was scheduled for the very first day of the conference, right after the opening ceremony. First there was the technical challenge, in which they all played together – that made it especially difficult, because a single wrong note by your neighbor could knock off your own playing if you weren’t focused, while the judges were all cultivators powerful enough to sharpen their hearing and pick out any discordant sounds even out of the large crowd of them all going at it together – and then the individual performances.
Lan Qiren had the honor of going fourth.
He went out there, saluted the judges, saluted the audience of sect leaders, sat down on the platform and played the song he wanted to play. If perhaps he had his heart in his throat because of a mixture of nervousness and anticipation, if perhaps his gut churned, feeling unusually full of spite and rebelliousness – he put it all aside in favor of the music.
Nothing mattered when he played but the music. Nothing.
When it was done, he stood and saluted again – the judges, then the audience – and retreated back to the area where the Lan sect was standing. As he’d expected, his teacher was waiting for him, hands behind his back and apparently calm on the surface; a small jerk of his head, and Lan Qiren knew to obediently follow him.
They couldn’t leave, of course, since that would be rude, but they went a little ways off to the side to a more secluded corner of the field where they could be safely ignored - everyone’s attention was on the performances.
“Do not tell lies,” the teacher said, a censure, and Lan Qiren dropped into a deep salute.
“I did not lie, honored teacher,” he said, eyes fixed firmly on the ground. “According to the guidelines set out when the event was announced, each disciple has the right to select his own music for the independent portion of the competition, provided that they can perform their selected composition to an adequate degree of mastery. Although you and my brother recommended that I select Inquiry as my performance piece instead, I did not accept your recommendation, and have never said that I would.”
His teacher’s frown deepened. “I would have expected better of you,” he said, and Lan Qiren’s shoulders curled inwards a little, the words cutting as deeply as any knife. “Quibbling over such a technicality with your elders – do not forget, arrogance is forbidden.”
Lan Qiren held the salute in place. “I understand, honored teacher.”
“Have you anything more to say to yourself?”
Lan Qiren thought about simply accepting the punishment that his teacher’s tone warned was inevitable, but – he really, truly did not believe he deserved it. And so, even though it might only make it worse, he opened his mouth and stumbled clumsily through the argument he had written out in advance, citing the rules and prior interpretations of the rules that he believed supported his actions. He was very confident of his grasp on the rules, but less sure of his persuasive powers and altogether despairing of any oratory skill, and yet...he had to try.
His teacher listened in stony silence. When Lan Qiren was done, he said, “I had never supposed you to be born with a lawyer’s tongue,” which was an insult – the Lan sect, like most cultivation sects, were gentry and thus had no need to seek employment in the magistrates’ courts. “Do you intend to continue on this rebellious path?”
“No, honored teacher,” Lan Qiren said emphatically. “In all other respects, I will listen to your orders, and my brother’s, as if they were carved on the Wall of Discipline.”
His teacher huffed disbelievingly, but he flicked his sleeves and went back to the crowd of Lan sect disciples currently spectating the next player in sequence without imposing any immediate punishment. That was an implicit concession to Lan Qiren’s argument: if he had failed to be convincing, a punishment would have been imposed at once.
Lan Qiren straightened himself out of his salute – his teacher had not granted him permission to rise throughout his recitation, and he hadn’t wanted to make his rebelliousness worse by presuming – and allowed himself a brilliant smile.
His teacher’s departure did not mean that he would escape all censure; his brother, sitting up at the sect leader’s pavilion, would undoubtedly have his own views on the subject, and of course simply disrespecting age and authority in public was reason enough for discipline. But Lan Qiren had done it. He had maintained his own position despite adversity and remained true to himself; he had not yielded, even if only in such a small matter, and he had persevered. Truly, it was as the rules said: have a strong will and anything can be achieved.
He looked around to check to make sure that no one had noticed their little interchange, mindful of his promise and his brother’s instruction that he not lose face, but it didn’t seem to be that way. Even on the sect leader’s pavilion, the sect leaders were all watching the performance – Wen Ruohan even had his head tilted to the side as if sharpening his hearing so as to listen more intently, which Lan Qiren supposed was further evidence that he wasn’t as disinterested in musical matters as others had speculated, and also that whoever was playing (he wasn’t paying attention) must be quite good.
It didn’t matter. Lan Qiren hadn’t played his selection because he’d been obsessively determined to win; he had only wanted to display some part of himself sincerely, and he had done so. Whatever else happened, that was sufficient.
He took a moment to find his calm once again, allowing his face to return to an expression of neutrality – gloating was unseemly, and forbidden by the rules, if other lose to you, don’t look down on them, even if the victory here was minor – and then at last returned to his place among the other Lan sect disciples.
He watched the remaining performances calmly, and without incident.
After the competition was done, the judges began to debate their rankings. Musical competitions were generally not favored at discussion conferences because of the need for careful consideration before victory or defeat could be determined – unlike in a contest of martial strength, when the contestants were near to each other in strength there was no immediate understanding of who had won – but Wen Ruohan had apparently planned ahead for that.
He announced that the contestants and audience would be dismissed while the judges’ deliberations were ongoing – in order to allow them to begin enjoying the wonders of the Nightless City, he explained with a supercilious smirk – and that the results of the competition would be announced shortly before the banquet planned for dinner.
Lan Qiren was not surprised when the sect leaders largely stayed behind, at least initially, to continue conversations; he was only relieved that he had a small reprieve before his brother came to scold him. Similarly, he was unsurprised when his fellow disciples immediately split into groups to go out to explore the Nightless City, and when those groups did not include him – even the ones that he would have otherwise expected to invite him, the ones he was more friendly with, cast fearful glances at their stone-faced teacher and apologetic ones at him; no one wanted to be associated with a troublemaker lest they be dragged into the mire alongside them.
It was fine.
Lan Qiren nodded at them, indicating that he understood, to their evident relief, and turned to look at his teacher in silent question. It was not unthinkable that he could go out alone…
“Perhaps you should stay behind,” his teacher said icily. “You can use the time for contemplation.”
Lan Qiren had promised himself: one rebellion, and nothing more. He raised his hands into a salute.
“As you say, honored teacher.”
Instead of following the others out, as he might have otherwise wanted to do, he turned his feet instead to one of the internal gardens in the Nightless City, brightly lit and shining, with a bench for him to sit and observe the designs, seeking calmness and clarity.
Maybe he could meditate a little. At least that would help pass the time -
“Congratulations on your victory.”
Lan Qiren raised his head, surprised out of the trance he’d settled info.
He had not expected anyone to find him in the garden where he was lurking, least of all Lao Nie.
“What victory?” he asked, and the older man grinned at him.
“Your imminent one, of course,” he said, gesturing for Lan Qiren to move over on the bench and settling down next to him once he complied. “That was a fantastic performance you gave earlier, and it wasn’t like we weren’t all expecting the Lan sect to win the music competition anyway.”
“Expecting the Lan sect to win doesn’t mean that I would be the one to win,” Lan Qiren mumbled, feeling his cheeks and ears go hot. “Arrogance –”
“Forbidden? Big surprise,” Lao Nie teased, and Lan Qiren ducked his head.
Technically, as a junior, he shouldn’t be acting overly familiar with sect leaders from other sects, but Lao Nie – no one ever called him Sect Leader Nie, and it wasn’t disrespect but fondness that drove them – was an exception to most rules. His Nie sect was longstanding allies of the Lan sect, and he himself was effortlessly charismatic, charming and gregarious. Even Lan Qiren’s brother admired him.
Lan Qiren also admired him.
It had been Lao Nie’s occasional intervention that had convinced his brother to take Lan Qiren along on some night-hunts when he’d been younger, and while they weren’t especially close by any means – Lan Qiren suspected he was currently simply too young to interest Lao Nie as an equal, as opposed to a junior in need of mentoring, and he longed to get old enough that that to no longer be an issue – Lao Nie was one of the few people Lan Qiren knew that had never minded indulging his eccentricities.
“I’m surprised to see you here,” Lao Nie remarked. “With all your talk of travel, I would’ve thought you’d be out exploring the city.”
Lan Qiren’s mood, which had been starting to improve, plummeted.
“Hmm. Sore spot?”
Lan Qiren’s shoulders were up by his shoulders. “I shouldn’t complain.”
“That just means you want to,” Lao Nie said wisely, and nudged him a little with his shoulder. “Did you get ordered to stay behind? You? You never break the rules.”
“I didn’t break the rules! My teacher made a strong recommendation that I reconsider my selection for the independent performance portion of the competition…”
“And you didn’t take the suggestion?” Lao Nie was smiling. “What a show of rebellion.”
Lan Qiren flushed red again. He was being teased, he knew.
“Since you’ve already had one rebellion, why not another?”
Lan Qiren frowned, not understanding.
“Go out,” Lao Nie clarified, still smiling. “There’s still at least half a shichen before dinner; you could see some of the city, apologize later – no? Why not?”
Lan Qiren was shaking his head. “I promised I would listen to my brother,” he said simply. “He instructed me to listen to the teacher, and the teacher said to stay, so I’ll stay. Perhaps tomorrow he will yield and allow me to explore by myself.”
“It would trouble the other disciples to be associated with me until there’s been an appropriate opportunity to review my behavior and determine if punishment is required –”
Lao Nie shook his head. Presumably things were different in his Nie sect, as they often were.
“Well, if you really need some company to go out, let me know,” he said.
“I couldn’t presume –”
“I’m offering,” Lao Nie said firmly, and this was why he was Lan Qiren’s favorite sect leader other than his father. Sometimes, secretly, even more than his father. “Really, I don’t understand your sect sometimes. What’s the point of keeping you so restricted? You’re already an adolescent, you’re old enough to join your own night-hunts…you can go night-hunting, right?”
“I can,” Lan Qiren confirmed, because he really was old enough to have gone on his own - old enough to night-hunt and swear oaths, that first formal stage of adulthood - but then conceded, “With company, and permission from the sect. Otherwise, disciples are only permitted to leave the Cloud Recesses to visit family.”
“…your family is the Cloud Recesses, Qiren.”
Lan Qiren shrugged.
“Don’t you feel stifled by it?”
Most of the time, he didn’t. Lan Qiren truly loved his home: he loved the routine of it, the rules; the peacefulness, the predictability, and all the familiar people; he loved the comfort of knowing where everything was and why. There was no place in the world he would rather call home, not even if he had the rest of it placed at his feet.
He shifted a little in his seat, and decided to be a little daring. It was only Lao Nie, after all. “Well, knowing I’ll be able to leave one day helps.”
Lao Nie laughed and reached out to pat Lan Qiren’s head. His hand was large and warm.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t consider a little adventure, earlier on…?” he asked, trailing off.
“No, Sect Leader,” Lan Qiren said, and he wasn’t even that regretful. “I promised my brother. It’s important to him, you know, that I not lose face for him and the sect, and that means it’s important to me. So I won’t. I wouldn’t do that to him.”
Someone cleared their throat.
Lan Qiren looked at the doorway even as Lao Nie pulled back his hand: it was Wen Ruohan, standing there with his hands behind his back, a false smile on his lips and his eyes glittering with some strange and inexplicable emotion. “Several of the other sect leaders are demanding that you come and settle a dispute,” he said to Lao Nie. “Assuming you’re not too busy.”
Lao Nie chuckled. “For my fellow sect leaders? Never. I’ll be along momentarily.”
Wen Ruohan nodded, surveying them both briefly – Lan Qiren felt strangely vulnerable beneath his gaze, and he didn’t know why – before turning away in a swirl of robes.
“He seemed angry,” Lan Qiren observed, wondering why, but Lao Nie was already shaking his head.
“Oh, Hanhan’s more bark than bite,” he said confidently, and Lan Qiren nearly choked. Hanhan? Who would call Wen Ruohan by a diminutive? And anyway, since when did Lao Nie do that – had their relationship changed since the Lan sect conference or something? “Don’t worry, I’ll talk to him. Enjoy your upcoming triumph, Qiren!”
Lan Qiren didn’t bother to remind him once again that he was not sure to win, watching him go after Wen Ruohan with long, loping strides that Lan Qiren could only envy, his own frame gawky and still uncoordinated.
“ – such a fuss!” He could still hear Lao Nie in the distance, the older man’s voice carrying a little too far as always. “Really, Hanhan, haven’t you done enough already, with all those rumors that are always going around since last time…?”
A brief pause, murmurs in lower voices.
“ – more honored in the breach. Even in the Lan sect!”
And then there was laughter.
Lan Qiren wondered what Lao Nie meant by that. Was he talking about Lan Qiren? To Wen Ruohan?
As Lao Nie had predicted, Lan Qiren won the music competition.
This by itself would not excuse him from punishment – disobedience was disobedience, regardless of the result – but Lan Qiren’s brother, proud of the glory that had accrued to their sect under his leadership, decided that it mitigated it somewhat, and as a result the imposition of the appropriate penalty was postponed until they returned to the Cloud Recesses. There was a strong implication that any future misbehavior during the trip would be added in when determining the extent of the punishment, but Lan Qiren didn’t care about that: with his brother’s word, however careless, overriding his teacher’s, he was finally allowed to go out to look around the Nightless City.
Of course, by now all the other disciples had settled firmly into their groups, so he was still alone - he opted not to mention that to his brother. Given how cautious his brother was being to make sure that the conference went well and without interruption, he knew it would invariably result in his either being forced into someone else’s group or to not go out, and he didn’t want either of those. Anyway, he could take precautions by himself: since he knew he was traveling alone, he would be careful to stay in the areas that were indicated as safe, although he thought happily to himself that soon he would be old enough to go wherever he wanted without concern – not that he especially longed to go to the districts full of brothels or drug dens, of course.
It was reasonable to be cautious for now, though, given his unfamiliarity with cities. He was as dazzled by the massive night market – as boisterous as any of the daytime markets – as any country yokel, and the items available for purchase were as many and varied as the people who came to the Nightless City to sell them. It was almost a pity to have to return to the Sun Palace the next day for the remaining events of the discussion conferences, largely academic discussions and skill exchanges, or the day after, to spectate on the other competitions, both the minor ones for things like calligraphy and mathematics and, more importantly, the second main event, showcasing skill in riding.
Lan Qiren wasn’t competing, of course, but he obediently showed up to observe – or, rather, to daydream about something more interesting while keeping his face carefully oriented towards the competition stage – and the second he could, he slipped away into the depths of the Sun Palace once the competition itself was over. Actually leaving entirely would be rude, of course, even if it would have been his real preference to return to the wonders of the city. Still, he would much rather walk through the halls than endure the inevitable rounds of mutual congratulations that invariably occurred during the celebration held after the discussion conference’s main competition. All those sect leaders buttering each other up…
There were times, he reflected, when he was very happy to have been born a younger son.
Lan Qiren did his best to avoid any places where people were gathered, turning back at once if he saw the rooms were occupied. There was no formal banquet tonight, to his relief – they’d all eaten while waiting for the competition to finish – but the socializing had started in earnest, and it felt like there were people everywhere. It would go on late into the night, with sect leaders toasting each other from the endless jars of wine that could be found everywhere, and there would be a thousand and one boring retellings of the same old stories everyone always told at these things.
Better to avoid people.
Certainly better to avoid people like Wen Ruohan, Lan Qiren thought, backing away from a room that appeared to be a small library, where the sect leader was standing and gazing out of the window, not far from a small table with two place settings already laid out. Its presence suggested a more private rendezvous was anticipated, and others more inclined to gossip than he might have chosen to stay and try to see if they could figure out who Wen Ruohan would be meeting – probably Lao Nie, if Lan Qiren had to guess, given the whole Hanhan situation – or possibly to try to form a further connection with the aloof and arrogant sect leader, but Lan Qiren kept his brother’s warnings in mind: Wen Ruohan was dangerous.
Anyway, he’d gotten into more than enough trouble for one trip.
After a little more searching, he found a small, secluded garden – quite possibly the very same one from a few days before, now that he thought about it, though he’d long lost any sense of direction he might have had – and settled down on the bench with a relieved sigh. The party was far too loud and too boisterous for his taste, with far too many people. He might long for adventure and new experiences, but it was the lonely road and quiet towns that called to him, and sometimes also the massive and faceless cities, not the full-of-themselves sect leaders, each one in love with their own voice, that seemed to pride themselves on talking at least once to everyone who attended.
At any rate, it wasn’t his problem. His brother had made clear that he didn’t want Lan Qiren to assist him in forming connections for the sect – assuming he even could, with his terrible social skills that mostly made his brother and most of his etiquette teachers want to forget he even existed – and that meant he was completely justified in hiding himself away here where no one would find him.
“I never got a chance to congratulate you on your victory,” a low voice said from behind him, and Lan Qiren started in sudden surprise, having not heard someone enter the room.
Though, he supposed as he rose to salute, he wouldn’t – the difference between his cultivation and Wen Ruohan’s was like night and day.
“Sect Leader Wen,” he said respectfully, keeping his head down. His brother had been especially clear that he wasn’t to cause trouble for this man in particular. Not like last time, even though Lan Qiren still wasn’t entirely clear on what it was that he was supposed to have done wrong previously. He was starting to think he’d never figure it out.
Wen Ruohan walked into the room, his pace as slow and graceful as it had been three years ago – the glide of a very self-assured predator that knew itself to be the unquestioned master of its domain, not only fearless but also smug in its self-evident superiority. The aura of power, his cultivation at a level that could scarcely be dreamed of by most people, draped around him like a gaudy cloak, meant to excite envy and fear in equal measure.
Lan Qiren had heard rumors that Wen Ruohan would sometimes use the sheer weight of his power to lock people into place, forcing them to their knees or backs on the floor in front of him, humiliating and tormenting them for his own amusement, but he didn’t feel anything like that. It was a display of power, yes, but no more so than the priceless spiritual gem that hung on Wen Ruohan’s forehead or the luxurious quality of his clothing, white and red flame, black belt and gauntlets, the finest fabrics and the best embroidery.
“I thought I saw you earlier,” Wen Ruohan remarked. “Or at least the hem of your robes – were you running away from me?”
Lan Qiren’s face suddenly felt hot with embarrassment. “No, of course not!”
That interpretation hadn’t even occurred to him. Had he really been rude? Should he have stopped to greet him properly? He hadn’t thought so, since he hadn’t even entered the room, but his instincts on such things had always been terrible…
And there was still his brother’s exhortation not to spend time with Wen Ruohan.
“Forgive my rudeness, Sect Leader Wen,” he said, dropping back down into a second low bow before rising again. “No slight was intended. I’m not supposed to be alone with other sect leaders.”
“No? And yet yesterday I recall seeing you sitting here with Sect Leader Nie.”
That was true.
What was he supposed to say to that? ‘Yes, but he’s nice’? ‘But I’ve known him for years’? ‘He’s one of our sect allies, you’re too dangerous’? ‘I was told to avoid you specifically’?
Lan Qiren might not be the best at social niceties, but even he knew he couldn’t say something like that.
His face must be demonstrating some degree of his panic, because Wen Ruohan chuckled.
“You can make it up by spending some time with me now, little Lan,” he said, waving a hand in forgiveness. “Come with me – the study is far more comfortable than this garden, especially at this time of year.”
Lan Qiren didn’t really have any knowledge of what the garden was like at this time as opposed to other times, being that this was his only visit so far to the Nightless City, but he had no reason to question Wen Ruohan’s judgment on the matter.
A quick mental review suggested that he had no choice but to comply. His brother had been emphatic that Lan Qiren wasn’t allowed to draw Wen Ruohan’s ire, even if it meant complying with his instructions as if Wen Ruohan were an elder of his own sect; moreover, refusing now would probably be impolitic, especially given the other man’s misinterpretation of his earlier avoidance. In short, despite his best efforts, Lan Qiren had clearly stumbled into a social trap of what he assumed must be his own making. It usually was, after all.
It’ll be another punishment for this, probably, he thought, resigned. He didn’t think that anyone was going to come get him out of this anytime soon, no matter what his brother had said, and he was bound to trip up and say something embarrassing sooner or later. At least there’s only this evening and then the closing ceremonies in the morning – the sooner we get home, the sooner discipline can be imposed and the entire fiasco put behind us.
“Of course, Sect Leader Wen,” he said, and belatedly noticed that some of his resignation had seeped into his voice. He cleared his throat awkwardly. “I will join you.”
Wen Ruohan chuckled again. “Most people would say that they were pleased to join me,” he remarked, turning and leading the way, his hands clasped loosely behind his back. “But you don’t lie, do you? It’s one of your rules.”
Lan Qiren felt helpless, following a few steps behind him like a small fishing boat caught in the wake of a warship. “It is one of our rules,” he agreed, since saying that he was happy to join Wen Ruohan would in fact be a lie. “I try to obey them whenever possible.”
“You’ve gotten wiser since we last met. I think I recall that last time, you said always obey the rules?”
“Wisdom comes with age.”
“Is that flattery?”
“Respect for one’s elders.” Lan Qiren paused. “Also a rule.”
“Of course,” Wen Ruohan opened the door to the study that he had been in earlier, the small library with its single table and two settings and window showing the outdoors, and swept inside. “Tell me, then, as the expert in your rules – what rule is it that allows the Lan sect to develop such skilled politicians? One would assume that lying was a prerequisite.”
He doesn’t actually care about the rules, Lan Qiren tried to remind himself, his brother’s voice echoing in his ears. And yet what else could he possibly talk about with Wen Ruohan? It was a question the other man had posed directly, and he was supposed to be obedient, or at least try to be…and he really, truly enjoyed talking about the rules.
“There’s some debate on that subject,” he temporized, but Wen Ruohan arched an eyebrow and inclined his head in an invitation for him to continue. “Some posit that the rules regarding the obligations to honor one’s elders and protect one’s family require that the benefit of the sect take priority over other obligations. Others take the view that not lying is an obligation of general good conduct, which cannot be disregarded, but that it is mitigated by other rules – do not speak frivolous words, for instance.”
“I take it that you’re in the latter camp.”
Lan Qiren was, as it happened, but he wasn’t sure he should say so. After all, it was Wen Ruohan’s ancestor who had first raised up his family and started the tradition of the clan as the sect rather than schools as it had once been, and by all accounts the process of doing so had been a bloody one – what was that if not a belief that your family takes priority over the common good?
He couldn’t say that, though.
Speak meagerly, for excess words only bring harm.
“I am,” he finally said, since Wen Ruohan was still waiting for him to respond. “It is a matter of personal opinion.”
He bit his tongue to keep himself from continuing to talk. There were at least fifteen other points of interest that had come to mind at once - the rule against lying was one of the more debated ones, and of course there were all sorts of writings on the subject of balancing worldly concerns with philosophical ideals more generally. And it was so rare for someone to actually express interest in it!
Speak meagerly, he reminded himself desperately. Meagerly! Haven’t you done enough harm already?
“I see,” Wen Ruohan said. “Come, sit.”
“I wouldn’t want to impose on the sect leader’s time,” Lan Qiren protested automatically. “If you’re already expecting company…”
“Who says I am?”
Lan Qiren looked helplessly at the table. There were two place settings, as he’d briefly glimpsed earlier, and a few snacks laid out already, mostly grilled vegetables – it was perfect place for a private meeting to talk business with another sect leader, which Lan Qiren wasn’t, or else to sit and converse with an old friend, which Lan Qiren definitely wasn’t.
“The servants make it up that way preemptively,” Wen Ruohan said, and Lan Qiren twitched as he realized that the other man had come up behind him, standing a little too close. “They do it in all the rooms, in the event someone wishes to use it. There’s no one coming.”
For some reason, that sounded almost ominous.
Presumably just Lan Qiren’s bad social sense again. Such a display was likely nothing more than the Wen sect showing off yet again, this time in terms of their wealth and the number of servants.
And, well, if the table really had just been set out to be used, surely it would be wrong not to use it? There were rules about avoiding waste, too.
“In that case, I thank Sect Leader Wen for the honor of the invitation,” he said, and sat down properly, sweeping his sleeves back and arranging himself. That it got him a little further away from Wen Ruohan was not as much of a secondary consideration as it probably should have been. “Would you like me to serve tea?”
“I was thinking something stronger,” Wen Ruohan said, sitting down as well, and reaching for the jar already there. “Why not a toast to your family’s victory? A double victory, no less, with you taking first in music and your brother the same in riding. Most impressive.”
Lan Qiren hesitated. That was a very appropriate toast, complimentary – exactly within the boundaries of what an elder ought to say to a junior, really. And yet, at the same time…
“Sect Leader Wen,” he said uncomfortably as Wen Ruohan poured out a double helping in each bowl. It was clear liquor, not wine. “This one apologizes, but…I am not accustomed to drinking.”
“No?” Wen Ruohan was smiling, but when Lan Qiren obediently met his eyes, there seemed almost to be something dangerous about his expression.
“It’s not that I question the quality,” Lan Qiren said hastily. “It’s only – you see – alcohol is prohibited –”
It was one of the rules. Unfortunately, it was one of the more controversial ones: it was generally waived outside of the Cloud Recesses, given how often hospitality required some form of drinking, and there were still elders in the Lan sect who simply refused to obey it at all, citing its uncertain lineage.
They were not in the Cloud Recesses now.
Wen Ruohan started laughing. “Little Lan,” he said. “Are you saying you’ve never had wine before? Aren’t you sixteen already?”
Lan Qiren’s shoulders involuntarily rose to his ears. “I’ve had wine!”
But only peach blossom wine, or rose wine, served at weddings as a toast for good fortune – but he couldn’t admit to that, since that was all kid’s stuff, barely classified as alcohol. He’d never even tried Emperor’s Smile, for which Gusu was famed.
Wen Ruohan’s smirk suggested that he’d guessed the truth anyway.
“It’s only a toast,” he said instead of calling him out on it, picking up his own bowl. “Surely you wouldn’t reject my good faith?”
When it was put like that, of course, there was nothing to be done for it.
Do not draw his ire, his brother had counseled him. If he approaches you, respond gracefully and comply with his wishes until someone comes to recover you.
After all, Wen Ruohan was well known for being moody and unpredictable, for having all sorts of strange whims and no inclination to refrain from indulging himself in them. Lan Qiren had no idea why he might suddenly be inclined to desire Lan Qiren’s company, of all people, nor as to why he would insist on him drinking a toast – at most, he could only speculate that it amused Wen Ruohan to force him to do things with which he was visibly uncomfortable.
And yet, as the saying went, it was unwise to refuse a toast only to be forced to drink a forfeit. Wen Ruohan, as the host, as the elder, as the powerful, could very easily press the issue even more than he already was, escalating from an interpersonal discussion to an intersect issue.
And how could Lan Qiren explain that to his brother?
“Of course not,” Lan Qiren said, giving in and lifting the bowl. “Thank you for your toast, Sect Leader Wen.”
He put the bowl to his lips and drank.
The liquor tasted sharp in a way with which he was unfamiliar, he observed, curious despite himself at the new experience, and it burned his throat when he swallowed. The sensation was almost distinctly unpleasant, actually, and he had to force his gag reflex not to activate, tears coming to his eyes.
He wondered, briefly, why people inflicted such a thing on themselves.
And then, just as he was thinking that, the alcohol hit him all at once like a tidal wave, descending in an overwhelming crash that obliterated all his senses.
Lan Qiren woke up with a pounding headache and no memory of having gone to bed.
This would not have been a surprise had he been at home, as his routine was blissfully static and required no thought whatsoever – each item he needed in its proper place, each movement mapped out through years of practice, his entire body trained such that he would automatically begin to go through the necessary acts at the appropriate time and would immediately begin to feel sleepy once he started the sequence – but it was highly notable that such a thing would occur while he was out of the Cloud Recesses, where each day’s sleep would only be the same in terms of the time at which he fell asleep.
In this case in particular, he also felt sore all over – his head, as mentioned, but also his upper arms and, oddly, his right knee. Had he been exercising unwisely? The bed in the room he had been given at the Sun Palace was not that nice, too hard and unyielding, but it wasn’t enough to cause this sort of aching…
“I will see to it that the next bed lives up to your stringent standards.”
Lan Qiren’s eyes shot open and he sat upright at once: that was Wen Ruohan’s voice.
“What are you doing in my –” he started to say, then stopped.
Wen Ruohan was not in his bedroom.
He wasn’t in his bedroom.
He didn’t even recognize this bedroom.
It was massive, for one thing: a full suite, the way the hanshi was back at home, with place for a bed and a table and plenty more besides. The bed was similar in style to the one in the room he had been assigned but larger in scale – made of dark wood and covered in the red sun motif like all the other décor, but over twice as broad and an extra chi in length, and the brocade fabric used to upholster it was considerably more lush and luxurious and, admittedly, more comfortable than what he’d been sleeping on in the Sun Palace’s guest quarters. The room itself was the same, decorated in luxury extending to the point of opulence: there was a painting scroll on one wall that if genuine would be worth more than everything Lan Qiren owned put together, young master of a Great Sect or not, and on the other wall hung six swords, each more glorious than the next, and he suspected if he knew more about weaponry he would be able to recite their names. Even the red sun that was painted on every ceiling here glittered with embedded rubies and spiritual stones, emanating pure qi – a tremendous waste, each one of them sufficient to be a cultivation sect’s precious treasure.
Amidst all this luxury, Wen Ruohan was sitting not far away from the bed, a book held loosely in his hands – it was as if he’d been waiting for Lan Qiren to awaken.
“I think you’ll find, in fact,” Wen Ruohan said, and his eyes were glittering the way they had been the day before when it had been Lao Nie he’d been looking at, full of malice and self-indulgent amusement, “that this is my bedroom.”
This was not a surprise, but rather the only logical conclusion.
Not that it explained why Lan Qiren was here.
“Did I – fall asleep?” he asked uncertainly, though surely that must be the reason. “And you – brought me here?”
“You did, and I did,” Wen Ruohan confirmed, and seemed amused for some reason. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
Lan Qiren wracked his brain, which was hurting and unhelpful and slower even than its usual plodding pace. “…I was thinking that liquor tastes vile.”
Wen Ruohan’s smile broadened. “Mm. It seems that you inherited your grandfather’s head for wine.”
Lan Qiren’s grandfather was one of the elders who refused to obey the rule against alcohol. He had also, in his later years, developed a most un-Lan-like fondness for wine.
He had not at any point developed a tolerance for it.
Lan Qiren closed his eyes in a wince. He must have made a complete fool of himself!
“This foolish junior apologizes to the Sect Leader for his misbehavior,” he said. He wanted to lift his hands to salute, but the movement, when he started it, set off his stomach, and he was forced to wrap his arms around his midsection instead.
There was a rustling sound, robes moving as Wen Ruohan rose to his feet, but Lan Qiren kept his eyes stubbornly closed, fearing that any further input would cause him to bring up everything he’d consumed the night before – only to open them in shock a moment later when he felt a finger press against the acupoint between his eyes, a warm stream of spiritual energy pouring in to cleanse away the nausea and pain of his headache.
Of his hangover.
He had a hangover.
Wen Ruohan, the mighty Sect Leader Wen, was providing him with medical attention to deal with his hangover.
There weren’t going to be words for how much he was going to get punished when he got home.
“Thank you, Sect Leader Wen,” Lan Qiren croaked, feeling hot all over with unending mortification. He had truly been foolish to think that just because there was only one night left in the Nightless City there was little danger of him repeating the mistakes of the past – he had no face left to speak of.
“Oh, no need to be so formal,” Wen Ruohan said, drawing out the words in a drawl. “Not after such a memorable night.”
Lan Qiren did not want to know what he did to make the night get described as memorable. He did not.
Especially not since Wen Ruohan was so obviously enjoying himself over it.
Of course, he wasn’t an idiot: he might be slow and bad at social cues, might find it difficult to understand the unspoken or keep up with sarcasm, but even he knew what was being implied here.
An older man with a younger one, liquor shared, a bedroom…
Yes, he understood the implication.
He just wasn’t stupid enough to believe it.
Lan Qiren folded his hands together and held his head up high.
“It is good that the Sect Leader did not take insult at my foolishness,” he said stiffly. “I thank you for your care and attention, and regret the burden I placed upon you.”
If anything, Wen Ruohan looked even more amused. “Such dignity, little Lan. You’re not even going to ask what happened?”
“This junior is only sixteen,” Lan Qiren said, still stiff and icy. “There is nothing that could have taken place without Sect Leader Wen’s approval, and naturally Sect Leader Wen would not permit this junior to offend his dignity.”
There, he thought with some satisfaction. That neatly turned the situation around: even if something untoward had occurred, which honestly Lan Qiren did not believe past that first initial moment of panic – even putting aside the fact that he wasn't anywhere near sore enough for something like that to have occurred, Wen Ruohan was not known to succumb easily to lust, nor was he so eager for war that he would recklessly try to deflower the son of another Great Sect while the latter was intoxicated for the first time – the blame would fall squarely on Wen Ruohan’s head, not Lan Qiren’s.
Wen Ruohan laughed, understanding perfectly well what Lan Qiren meant.
“You would think so,” he said, sounding almost approving of Lan Qiren’s rule lawyering. “I would have thought so, too, but I find that you Lan have truly remarkable arm strength…especially when trying to keep your conversational partner from escaping while you explain the difference between what the Lan sect consider to be fundamental rules and those considered ancillary.”
Lan Qiren blanched.
That was worse than what he’d thought – because unlike the notion of him making unwanted advances (or receiving them, for that matter), it was plausible. Terribly, painfully plausible.
“Oh, yes. All five iterations of the debate.”
“Four sect discussions. Seventeen separate texts on the subject, not counting later commentaries. Sixty-four subsidiary rulings, all of which you were very enthusiastic in recounting - and here I was thinking that your Wall of Discipline had a surfeit of rules, when in fact it was only the beginning. Apparently, I underestimated you.”
Lan Qiren buried his face in his hands as if that would make it stop.
“Still, I suppose I’ll have to accustom myself to hearing more about the rules in the future,” Wen Ruohan mused. “We’ll be spending far more time together, after all, on account of our sworn brotherhood.”
Lan Qiren looked up and opened his mouth, then stopped.
He had nothing to say.
His mind was absolutely blank, a state which had never before occurred.
“Forgive me,” he finally spat out. “Our – what?”
Wen Ruohan smiled at him with eyes full of poison and a mouth full of teeth.
“Sworn brotherhood,” he said casually, as if it was nothing. “You were saying that you regretted not being able to see more of the Nightless City before you left, and that you could only leave the Cloud Recesses to visit family, so we became sworn brothers.”
“We did not.”
“Oh, but we did,” Wen Ruohan said. “We drank mixed wine and swore all the appropriate oaths – I have the written version here, if you’d like to see.”
The piece of paper he put in front of Lan Qiren was recognizably in Lan Qiren’s own hand, although his normally impeccable calligraphy was rather wobbly. It was still readable, though, and the first few clauses very clearly laid out a sworn brotherhood oath.
Lan Qiren stared at it.
“We – but we can’t be sworn brothers,” he said blankly. “We’re – you’re two generations older than me. Am I supposed to call you da-ge?”
“No one has called me da-ge since my youngest brother died,” Wen Ruohan mused, and Lan Qiren was abruptly reminded of the rumors, never confirmed, that that particular death had come at Wen Ruohan’s own hands following a challenge for the seat of sect leader. “It’ll be very charming, I’m sure.”
Wen Ruohan said nothing, but only smiled at him.
Lan Qiren looked down at the paper.
He didn’t understand what was happening.
He tried to go over it again in his mind: he had left the competition when the celebration had started, he had wandered the halls, he had tried to obey his brother’s instructions in avoiding Wen Ruohan, and when that failed, he had obeyed him in trying to be obedient. He had drunk liquor for the first time, and he had no memory thereafter until he had woken up here and now, in Wen Ruohan’s bedroom, with Wen Ruohan saying that they had –
He didn’t think Wen Ruohan was teasing him over this, though. Not the way he had so obviously been with his implications that they had used the bedroom for purposes other than sleeping.
Not with evidence, written in his own hand.
He didn’t understand.
How could this have happened?
“…did we really?” he whispered, half-hoping against hope that it was still a tease, still a joke, still – something, anything, other than what it was. That Wen Ruohan was just waiting for him to declare that he believed him, to demonstrate dismay, and then he would tell him the truth.
“Yes,” Wen Ruohan said instead, inexorable. “We did.”
Lan Qiren’s mind fell into chaos.
He didn’t understand.
He didn’t understand.
“You’re shaking,” Wen Ruohan observed. “Ah, little Lan – don’t tell me it’s now that you’re scared?”
Lan Qiren’s hands were in fact shaking, he observed, and he put them over his face.
“Why would you do that?” he asked, his whole body starting to rock back and forth in his distress. “Why would you – with me – an oath of brotherhood can’t be taken lightly –”
“It can’t be,” Wen Ruohan said, and for some reason he sounded satisfied. “Certainly not for someone like you, little Lan, who always keeps their word and does not lie.”
“But why?” Lan Qiren asked, his voice rising almost into a plaintive wail. “Our sects aren’t even allies.”
“They are now,” Wen Ruohan said, and put his hand on the back of Lan Qiren’s neck. It felt hot against his skin, like a hot stone used for massage – a little too hot to tolerate for very long. “You know the obligations of a sworn brother oath as well as I. My duty as the elder brother is to guide you and care for you, support you and yours, and in return you are to obey me and be guided by me.”
Did Wen Ruohan want a spy in the Lan sect? Lan Qiren wondered wildly. But surely there were easier ways than this – not only would he make a terrible spy, with his clumsiness and his terrible social skills and his inability not to take everything seriously, but it would be simple enough for his sect to counter such a move. All they would need to do would be to cast him out…
His rocking intensified.
Wen Ruohan brought his other arm around him and pulled him close until Lan Qiren’s forehead, with its forehead ribbon still firmly in place, was pressed against his chest.
“Don’t cry, little brother,” he crooned. “Am I to allow a priceless painting to be kept by those that see it only for its use as spare kindling? A peerless treasure sword left to prop up a door?”
“You have a half-dozen swords hanging on your wall, each more priceless than the next, and all of them rusting away for lack of use!” Lan Qiren cried out. “Even if it’s only a door, at least it’s – it’s my – my brother …”
“Do not worry about your brother, undeserving as he is of your sincerity. Qingheng-jun has been trying to get concessions out of me this entire conference,” Wen Ruohan said. His breath was warm against Lan Qiren’s hair. “I’ve been refusing, but now I’ll grant them. He won’t punish you.”
“That’s not how that works. Punishment isn’t inherently bad; it’s meant to correct and guide the individual – the failure of good conduct will always be my own, no matter the result –”
“What I have taken into my hand, no one yet lives who would dare seek to take away,” Wen Ruohan said. “Anyway, it’s too late to regret now, isn’t it? What’s done is done. Don’t you have a rule like that?”
Lan Qiren sniffed. “No. There are at least four that could potentially qualify as having similar underlying meanings, but none directly on point.”
Wen Ruohan huffed. “Little Lan, if I tore out your heart, would you have time to cite one of your sect rules before you died?”
“…maybe if it was a short one?” Lan Qiren said, blinking at the strange question; his lashes brushed against Wen Ruohan’s lapel. “I mean, there’s a difference between ‘Be loyal and filial’ and ‘Set the wise as your teacher and the moral as your example’, isn’t there? And of course you’d have to consider whether in tearing out the heart you impeded the lungs, and how much time it would take the exsanguination to take effect…”
He was calming down, he realized, and pulled back out of Wen Ruohan’s arms, blushing as he realized that the question must have been meant as a distraction, though how Wen Ruohan had realized that a distraction would be the best way to reduce his distress when even he hadn’t known, he had no idea.
“Thank you for your consideration,” he mumbled, ducking his head in embarrassment.
Wen Ruohan started laughing.
“Truly I have found an unappreciated treasure, unlike any other,” he said amid his chuckles. “Come along, little Lan. Let’s go break the news to your brother.”
Lan Qiren’s brother did not outwardly react when Wen Ruohan announced what happened.
He merely stared, face as impassive as a stone washed clean by the river, his posture and position impeccable from the little glimpses Lan Qiren kept stealing of him – he was trying to keep his head ducked and his gaze firmly on the ground, trying to demonstrate penitence, but he couldn’t quite resist looking. He assumed that his brother’s seeming indifference was a mask for the rage he undoubtedly felt, seeing his little brother screw up what would have otherwise been a perfect discussion conference for the Lan sect.
It seemed like a reasonable conclusion, given that Lao Nie was taking up all the slack of reacting with rage without any such mask whatsoever.
“He’s little more than a child!” Lao Nie shouted.
“Little more, perhaps,” Wen Ruohan said smoothly. He was enjoying himself, Lan Qiren thought. “But regardless of how close or how far he is, he is adult enough.”
“He can’t marry or inherit –”
“He shed blood in a night-hunt, and that means he can swear oaths, which is all that’s relevant here. It isn’t as if I married him.”
“He’s sixteen! If someone removed sixteen years out of your life, Hanhan, you wouldn’t even notice the absence!”
“True, but irrelevant,” Wen Ruohan said. “And don’t call me that, Sect Leader Nie.”
“I’ll call you whatever I damn well please, you little –”
“You are unharmed?” Lan Qiren’s brother asked Lan Qiren.
Lan Qiren, who’d been spectating the increasingly fraught back and forth between the two sect leaders, turned to look at him, surprised to be addressed.
“I’m fine,” he said quickly. “I only had a headache, and Sect Leader Wen took care of that.”
“You call me da-ge now,” Wen Ruohan reminded him, turning briefly away from his argument to do so. “Your oath, remember.”
“Does he even remember swearing the oaths?” Lao Nie hissed. “You know how these Lan drink – you and your damned need for control! Just because you can’t get it one way, you have to try another, is that it, Hanhan?”
“Sect Leader Nie, if you really find it impossible to be civil -”
“If you are unharmed, then we can return to the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Qiren’s brother said, ignoring them both. His voice was as distant and cold as a winter breeze, piercing and lifeless; it reminded Lan Qiren a little of his father, and he shivered. “We will determine the remainder at that time.”
“See?” Wen Ruohan said goadingly to Lao Nie, whose scowl only deepened. “If even his own sect doesn’t object to it –”
“They didn’t not object, they’re refraining from making a statement; it’s not the same thing. ‘Even ten years isn’t too late for a gentleman to get revenge’ – !”
“I should like to see them try.”
Lan Qiren felt a sudden sense of relief, heralded by a bright and abrupt clarity: of course Wen Ruohan hadn’t sworn brotherhood with him on his behalf! He’d only done it because he’d seen Lan Qiren together with Lao Nie, found that the sight offended his vision, and immediately decided to disrupt it. Never mind that Lao Nie didn’t have any intentions beyond the casual mentorship of any older cultivator to a junior – Wen Ruohan was well known for his paranoia, his irritability, his tendency to seize on crazy ideas. And, of course, there was his jealousy, a trait to which he had himself admitted…
A treasure sword used to prop up a table, indeed. It wasn’t about Lan Qiren's merits or the Lan sect’s supposed failings at all. The only table Wen Ruohan was concerned with was Lao Nie’s!
(And that certainly did explain the whole bizarre ‘Hanhan’ thing better than any other hypothesis Lan Qiren had come up with.)
Lan Qiren wasn’t sure it was better, exactly, to be a pawn in a strange game between sect leaders, but it was at least more familiar. As a younger son of a politically minded Great Sect, he was more like a daughter; being used for some scheme by the adults around him had always been his destiny, barring some tragedy or especially indulgent parents – the former was unlikely, the latter he lacked – and so his fate was set.
Of course, it would have been better not to be in a game involving Wen Ruohan at all, but he supposed that there were worse options.
After all, if Wen Ruohan’s primary interest was in tormenting Lao Nie, he probably wouldn’t demand Lan Qiren’s presence in the Nightless City all that often – probably just enough to show that he could – and Lan Qiren would be allowed to continue with his plans for his future. It might even turn out to be something of a benefit. After all, a musician with limited martial skills, traveling all alone, could always use strong friends that were nearby, and the Wen sect’s reach far exceeded that of the Lan sect…
Anyway, comparatively, Lan Qiren disliked far more the idea of being stuck in the Jin sect with its inexplicable devotion to worldly affairs (and when it came to Jin Guangshan, word was that that usually meant literal affairs…), and he would have undoubtedly gone utterly mad in the Jiang sect, with its emphasis on freedom and lack of any rules to explain anything. And of course, regrettably, the Nie sect wouldn't have done such a thing to begin with, secretive as they were...
No, it wouldn’t be so bad, Lan Qiren tried to convince himself. It wouldn’t be so bad at all.
The illusion lasted exactly as long as it took for the leaders of the five Great Sects to retreat to finalize their discussions on business – with Sect Leader Jiang and Jin stepping up to keep Sect Leaders Wen and Nie from each other’s throats, even as Lan Qiren’s brother ignored them all – and Lan Qiren returned to his proper place among the other Lan sect disciples.
“Did he really put you in the Fire Palace until you agreed?” one of them asked, then was promptly elbowed by at least three of his fellows – it was poor Lan Yueheng that had asked, naturally; he was extraordinarily good at mathematics and extraordinarily bad at just about everything else, including both tact and following the Lan sect rules. Lan Qiren had gotten on quite well with him in the past, each one happy to have an audience to listen to their rambling without caring too much if the other side was really listening, but Lan Yueheng was Lan Ganhui’s mother’s sister’s son, the two of them raised together like brothers, and in recent years the latter had a habit of restricting the former from spending too much time with Lan Qiren, the favorite subject of his mockery.
“No,” Lan Qiren said stiffly, and turned his face away in sudden upset. He had almost managed to forget that his new sworn brother was reputed to enjoy spending his free time torturing people, enough so that he had an entire prison devoted to it.
The older brother guided, the younger brother obeyed – what was Lan Qiren supposed to learn from Wen Ruohan? How to be cruel and pitiless, how to hurt people, how to increase his cultivation by doing all manner of dirty things?
Even if he didn’t learn such things, wouldn’t people assume it of him anyway?
“But I heard –” Lan Yueheng persisted, then hissed when someone stepped on his foot.
“No,” Lan Qiren said, stronger this time. “Do not speak behind the backs of others, Yueheng-xiong.”
Someone muttered killjoy under their breath, but that wasn’t exactly new; his brother thought he was one, and he was popular, so others often followed his lead - and anyway, perhaps he was. At any rate, they all stood around in awkward silence for a little while before someone decided to recount one of the incidents in the main event competition once again, their voice a little over-loud in the silence, and a perfectly anodyne conversation about Qingheng-jun’s performance started up in earnest to cover over all the things they did not say.
That, too, was not new.
Truly, life would be easier if everyone would just listen to the rules, Lan Qiren thought wistfully. The nice written-down ones, just those, and never mind about all the unspoken ones, the ones that everyone seemed to intuitively understand except for him – he tried his best to learn those, too, and to extrapolate from one situation to another, but unspoken rules seemed as changeable as a puff of cloud. It was simply impossible.
In the end, the sect leaders finished up their business and each of them took their leave from the Nightless City, just the way that always happened. Before he went, Lao Nie put his hand on Lan Qiren’s shoulder and said, “Write to me if you ever need anything at all” while glaring at Wen Ruohan, who smirked back; Lan Qiren’s brother did not glance at either of them and merely walked off, his hands behind his back and his posture straight and tall as a tree. The other two Great Sect leaders, Jin and Jiang, exchanged glances of their own and headed off their own way without a word, choosing, quite prudently, not to get involved.
Lan Qiren saluted to Lao Nie and, slightly more hesitantly, to Wen Ruohan, then followed after his brother. To his relief, Wen Ruohan didn’t stop him, only watched him go, his eyes glittering malevolently - his gaze a palpable weight. It wasn’t quite like the first few times they’d met, where the pressure almost felt like the other man was exerting power on him; rather, Lan Qiren suspected, the weight he was feeling was only the weight of all the new expectations that had fallen onto his shoulders as a result of his new brotherhood.
The ride home was excruciatingly awkward.
It was not a short journey, and Lan Qiren did not speak to his brother once the entire time by mutual unspoken agreement. He might not have noticed such a thing normally, but his brother’s usually cool aura was positively frigid, driving Lan Qiren to silence even when he might have otherwise spoken on mundane matters such as the weather or travel conditions.
Lan Qiren even suspected that if he had dared to try, his brother might have used the muting spell on him.
Naturally, the other disciples followed his brother’s lead – poor Lan Yueheng looked especially torn up over it, and at one point Lan Qiren found a book on abstruse geometry hidden under his pillow in what was probably a well-meaning gesture of solidarity – and Lan Qiren was stuck in that uncomfortable place where he finally had the peace and solitude he often longed for when stuck in a crowd while also simultaneously feeling awful about it, struck with a sudden desire for the company of his family, however cold it might be.
When at last they returned home in the late afternoon, Lan Qiren knew from experience what to do next: he went straight to the hanshi, where his father was waiting for their report, and knelt in penance outside. If the trip had gone well, he would have helped his brother settle the final matters relating to their trip – putting back anything borrowed from the sect’s stores, registering everyone as having arrived with no one lost on the way, that sort of thing – but since it hadn’t, his duties were limited to…well, this.
It was unpleasant, but then, it was supposed to be.
He waited for over a shichen in unmoving silence. The remainder of the sect tiptoed around him, with the disciples that had remained behind sending him sympathetic looks that suggested that they didn’t know exactly what had happened but were burning with curiosity to find out.
It was already dark by the time his brother arrived.
When he did so, he walked right by Lan Qiren without looking and went inside.
There was no written rule against eavesdropping, although there were several unspoken rules about it that were sometimes but not always applicable, but even when (guiltily) straining his ears to the utmost, Lan Qiren could only hear the vaguest murmur of voices within.
It was only after some time – towards the end of his brother’s report, no doubt – that there was a brief uptick, a surprised exclamation (possibly “what?!”, although Lan Qiren’s father was soft-spoken enough that even an exclamation was too muffled to be properly audible), and Lan Qiren braced himself.
After a little longer, the door to the hanshi opened.
“Qiren,” his father’s voice drifted out. “Enter.”
Lan Qiren got up, a little unsteady from all the kneeling, straightened himself out and walked inside, his hands folded behind his back. He would have knelt again, but his father waved for him to keep standing, frowning thoughtfully at him as his brother drank the tea they had been sharing.
“You swore an oath of brotherhood with Sect Leader Wen?” his father asked, his face frustratingly neutral.
Lan Qiren nodded, then amended: “I do not remember doing so. He offered me a toast, and would not allow me to reject it, and then the next morning, he informed me that we had sworn an oath together and showed me the written version of the oath.”
The paper in question was laid out on the table in front of his father. Lan Qiren’s brother had confiscated it after Wen Ruohan had showed it to him, and Lan Qiren hadn’t figured out a way to ask to see it, though he desperately wanted to know whether they had sworn one of the classical brotherhood oaths or if they’d added their own clauses. It seemed like a thing Wen Ruohan would do, yet the idea had only belatedly occurred to Lan Qiren, which meant he hadn’t properly examined the oath while he’d had the chance.
His father hummed thoughtfully.
“There’s no reason to doubt Sect Leader Wen,” Lan Qiren’s brother opined. “He is meticulous in his schemes. Even if there were, the announcement was public; I would not have our clan be known as oath-breakers.”
“Public and unrefuted,” Lan Qiren’s father said, and Lan Qiren blinked because he almost sounded disapproving – but his father never disapproved of anything his brother did, as far as he knew. “Still, you are not wrong. There are few more decisive than Sect Leader Wen. Once he settled on his course, he would not leave such a gap through which one could retreat, not even for himself…Qiren.”
Lan Qiren straightened.
“You were unharmed?”
He blinked at the unexpected question, the same his brother had posed.
“I only had a headache,” he said hesitantly, vaguely aware from the way his father looked at him and his brother did as well that his answer was not what they were expecting. “From the liquor. Nothing else.”
“Did anything else hurt?” his father pressed. “Your body?”
Lan Qiren thought back. “My upper arms,” he said, remembering. He’d thought it was from the uncomfortable bed. “And my right knee. They were a little bruised, I think, but it went away after Sect Leader Wen shared spiritual energy with me.”
His father frowned and twisted his fingers in a gesture; an array opened beneath Lan Qiren’s feet, and the places he had mentioned, as well as his palms and forehead, began to glow.
The marks on his arms, glowing with the pale echoes of Wen Ruohan’s qi, were in the shape of hands.
(Wen Ruohan had commented on Lan Qiren’s enthusiastic telling of the Lan sect rules while intoxicated, to the point of seeking to hold him down as an unwilling audience. Had Wen Ruohan had to physically restrain him from causing trouble as well?)
“The disgrace was minimal, then,” his brother remarked, and when their father said nothing but dismissed the spell Lan Qiren abruptly realized that they were trying to figure out if he had, in fact, been deflowered, just as Wen Ruohan had teasingly hinted that night. He had not shared with anyone that he had woken up in Wen Ruohan’s bed, too mortified to do so, and now that the suggestion had been seriously raised, he was even more determined never to do so. “Not that that will help the rumors.”
Lan Qiren hadn’t thought – surely people wouldn’t think – wouldn’t assume –
Wen Ruohan had no reputation for liking young boys. He wasn’t even known to cut his sleeve!
(Lan Qiren didn’t know what he himself liked. He’d thought he’d have more time to figure it out.)
“We do not guide our sect according to rumors.”
His brother put down his teacup with a little more force than necessary. “Is it the sale or the price that you object to, Father?” he asked, voice far sharper than it should be when speaking to an elder, least of all their father. “See what I have accomplished for our sect, and without even the official authority of being vested as sect leader! It is just as you taught me! Am I to flinch simply because he shares my blood?”
“It is not what is taken,” their father responded, his voice a little sharper than usual as well, but not by much; he might as well have been commenting disapprovingly on an unfortunate turn in the weather. “But that it is Wen Ruohan who takes. His greed knows no boundaries, his recklessness grows by the year – today Qiren is unharmed and your plans may proceed, but what of tomorrow?”
“Have you thought of any better use to put him to? His role is to serve the sect!”
“As a disciple of the Lan sect,” their father said. His tone was still mild, but his voice was icy enough to make Lan Qiren shiver in a confused sort of fear that he did not quite understand. “Not as a plaything for Wen Ruohan.”
By all rights, Lan Qiren’s brother ought to now kneel and beg forgiveness from his elder, his sect leader, his father, but instead he only shook his head. “An oath of brotherhood goes both ways,” he reminded their father, speaking to him as if they were equals. “Sect Leader Wen announced to the world that he swore an oath with a child – does that not also mean that responsibility for his safety and wellbeing falls equally on his shoulders? Any harm to him stains Sect Leader Wen’s name as much if not more than ours.”
“Are we to let outsiders educate our children, then?”
“One cannot compare a foolish younger son to a brother, voluntarily chosen. He chose it, not us; everyone knows this. Any mistakes Qiren makes will fall heavier on his shoulders.”
Their father frowned deeply enough to carve additional lines into his prematurely aged face. “You plan to use Qiren as a lever, then, and extract concessions for every slight.”
His brother shrugged, almost careless in his arrogance. “If Sect Leader Wen chooses to give me such a handle over him, am I meant to refuse? For all his clever schemes, he is also known to be moody and impulsive, easily lured into rashness…I see an opportunity here, not a trap. You chose to give me responsibility early, to have me help you make our sect stronger, greater; that is what I was born to do. You gave me power and I have done well with it, done exactly what you’ve asked me to do. I’ve made you proud - haven’t I?”
“But what of the risk that Wen Ruohan might ignore public opinion and harm Qiren regardless?” his father pressed, not answering. It wasn’t really necessary, of course; he was always proud of Lan Qiren’s brother, no matter what he did - his eldest son was his treasure, the only thing he cared for; it was as fact as undeniable as the direction in which the sun rose each morning. “The Lan sect does not buy riches with blood.”
“I have thought it over, Father,” his brother said quietly. “It is only a risk that he might be harmed, not a guarantee; it’s not as if I am sending Qiren to the Fire Palace myself. And there is the hope here, not of riches, but of glory for the sect –”
“Glory for the sect?” their father asked, voice rich with meaning Lan Qiren did not understand. “Or for yourself?”
“Are they not one and the same?” Lan Qiren’s brother was unmoved. “In the future, it will be mine, and so there is no difference - whatever you say now, that is what you have always shown me. Besides, Qiren will agree.”
Lan Qiren did not take a step backwards when they turned to look at him, though he dearly wanted to. His hands were still behind his back, gripped tight enough to hurt; he suspected when he looked later on he would find blood beneath his fingernails, dug in deep into his flesh.
“Well?” their father asked of him, though his gaze settled somewhere above Lan Qiren’s head as it always seemed to, as different as night and day from the tender and forgiving looks he gave his eldest son even in the midst of their argument. His voice was so cold that Lan Qiren could feel it against his skin like the bitter winter wind. “What do you say?”
Is it the sale or the price that you object to?
It’s not what is taken, but that it is Wen Ruohan who takes.
Have you thought of any better use to put him to?
His role is to serve the sect.
“I do not see what choice there is,” he said dully, his eyes focused on his father’s face just as his father’s refused to focus on his, foolishly still looking for the affection he knew he would likely never find. In his father’s mind, he had only one son – even his objections on Lan Qiren’s behalf, however mild, were nothing more than what he would have said on behalf of any Lan sect disciple. Even Lan Qiren, foolish and bad at people as he was, could see that his father’s primary concern over the approach his brother had suggested was its potential impact on the reputation of his brother and his sect. “I swore an oath. Even if I do not remember it, as a matter of personal honor, I will not allow myself to be foresworn.”
“There,” his brother said, his voice rich in satisfaction. “You see? The choice is made. It is only what we do with it now that matters.”
Lan Qiren bit his lower lip to keep himself from doing something stupid, like asking do either of you care about me at all.
“Very well,” their father said indifferently. “Then it will be as you say. Qiren.”
“You will spend the night kneeling in the ancestral hall to consider the consequences of violating the prohibition against alcohol and the injunction to maintain your discipline. In view of the circumstances, no other punishment will be imposed.”
“Thank you, Father.”
As Lan Qiren left, he heard his father ask his brother to tell him about the riding competition.
He did not ask about music.
Lan Qiren was groggy with lack of sleep the next morning, but an evening’s contemplation of the Lan sect’s rules had put him back into the right mindset.
As a disciple of the Lan sect, he was entitled under the rules for his elders to remember do not disrespect your juniors just as he was required to respect and obey your elders. Pursuant to the rules, he should have the protection of his sect and their support, and if what he had was imperfect, it was at least something; for every Lan Ganhui that mocked him, there was a Lan Yueheng that encouraged him, and there were plenty of teachers that preferred him over all the others.
As for his brother – Lan Qiren should not hold his anger against him. He had been acting in the best interest of the sect, seeking to obtain benefits for what had been lost; he had thought throughout the trip that Lan Qiren had given up more than just his word of honor, but had refrained from punishing him accordingly. In the end, even his father had assigned him only to kneel, which was a milder punishment by far than he deserved for all his mistakes and insolence.
More than that, his brother was right: Wen Ruohan would be bound by his own word of honor and public reputation to treat Lan Qiren with dignity, and by endorsing the relationship rather than rejecting it, his sect was indicating that they would hold Wen Ruohan to his word. His father had appropriately expressed concern on Lan Qiren’s behalf, his brother had refuted those concerns with well-reasoned logic; it was inappropriate for Lan Qiren to take such an intellectual discussion to heart.
That he had – and that he had forgotten, even temporarily and in the privacy of his own head, the rule do not argue with family for it does not matter who wins – was merely evidence once again that Lan Qiren was inferior to his brother, who through keeping a cool head had enabled their sect to turn what could have been an embarrassment into a victory.
As for his father…Lan Qiren shouldn’t have been surprised, that’s all. Hadn’t years and years taught him that fathers only gave what they chose to give and no more? He had long ago learned that his father was kind and noble and equitable, concerned with all the Lan sect disciples (but for his dearly beloved eldest) in the same way and the same manner; being disappointed to receive that and nothing more was only his own foolishness.
(He only wondered, in passing, why it had been his father’s glacial voice that had scared him so, compared to the familiar warmth of his brother’s anger.)
So fortified and reassured, Lan Qiren returned to the regular flow of daily life at the Cloud Recesses.
It was not easy. As his brother had predicted, rumors about his sworn brotherhood with Wen Ruohan sprang up at once, and many of his fellow disciples were prone to staring at him when they thought he wouldn’t notice. The teachers handed out many punishments for breaking the prohibition about talking behind people’s backs, although with a certain leniency that made Lan Qiren suspect that they themselves toed the line of that particular rule behind closed doors.
The rumors themselves were split between those that theorized that Wen Ruohan had used nefarious means to entrap Lan Qiren and force him to agree to brotherhood – the Fire Palace was mentioned often, as were various theoretical misapplications of cultivation techniques of dark and unsavory natures – and those that skipped over the how of brotherhood and went straight to speculating as to the why , which typically also involved a variety of references to misapplied cultivation techniques, this time of the sort most often found exclusively in certain types of low-brow spring books.
Someone even suggested that Wen Ruohan intended on taking Lan Qiren to bed as a cauldron, which was the stupidest idea out of the whole lot.
“Of course that can’t be true,” Lan Qiren patiently explained to Lan Yueheng, who had come to collect his geometry book. As a gesture of thanks for his support, Lan Qiren had read the whole thing and sent an annotated list of questions and comments; Lan Yueheng had practically turned pink with excitement when he’d seen it and then secluded himself for two days to write a response. Lan Qiren still didn’t see the appeal of geometry, but he’d managed to coax Lan Yueheng into a discussion of the mathematics of music theory, an area in which their particular interests overlapped, and he had hope of a fruitful dialogue continuing into the future. “At least traditionally, cauldrons are individuals with high cultivation potential that has yet to be developed – raw natural talent, in other words, which can then be refined into strength for another. My inborn talent is only moderate, even low, and my progress is primarily due to good resources and hard work. So even if someone put in the work to make me a cauldron, they wouldn’t get much out of me.”
Lan Yueheng nodded, his brow wrinkled thoughtfully. “So your brother would’ve been a better cauldron than you.”
“…that is correct, but please don’t say it.” Lan Qiren quietly pitied Lan Yueheng’s etiquette teachers, and spared a thought to hope that his cousin’s children, should he have them, would take more after whoever he married than him. Even if only because Lan Qiren hoped to become a teacher himself one day, and he was sure that Lan Yueheng’s particularly brash and un-Lan-like bluntness would make for a terrible future student. “Perhaps it would be more helpful for you to think of it in the sense of energy transfers of heat? I’m already cold, so to speak, so he wouldn’t be able to draw out much heat from me.”
“Wait, if you’re cold and Sect Leader Wen is hot, would that make him the cauldron? Assuming you ever did dual cultivate.”
Lan Qiren pinched the bridge of his nose. “That’s...not how that works, Yueheng-xiong. At all. I was merely attempting to use a metaphor to clarify the issue. Clearly I failed and only confused things further.”
Lan Yueheng shrugged. “At least you try,” he remarked. “And when you fail, you try again, doing something different. It’s better than the teachers who just do the same thing every time and blame you for being as bemused on the seventh repetition as you were on the first.”
Lan Qiren felt his ears go red at the compliment. “You’ve been here too long,” he reminded his cousin. “Your parents won’t be happy to see you spending too much time with me.”
“My parents don’t care. It’s my aunt and uncle who don’t like it. They say that people might start asking if I cultivate as a cauldron too –”
“Your parents listen to your aunt and uncle, so if they don’t like it, you shouldn’t disobey them. The rules say Be a filial child.”
“They also say Do not form cliques to exclude others, but that isn’t stopping the other disciples from playing favorites, is it?”
That was definitely one of the rules more honored in the breach, Lan Qiren thought with a sigh. But what could be done, when their elders did the same? The sect followed the example of its leader, and his father’s tendency towards favoritism were well known, albeit one that was widely indulged as a quirk rather than condemned as a serious flaw.
“I will remind the teachers of that one,” he said. “Perhaps a refresher would be suitable, to remind people. But the rule are meant for your own discipline, not others, and – ”
“Just because other people aren’t following the rules doesn’t mean I shouldn’t, I know,” Lan Yueheng said with a sigh of his own. “I’ll go…oh! It’s getting late. Weren’t you supposed to go to the guest’s pavilion by the western watchtower already?”
Lan Qiren blinked. “I don’t have that patrol route in my schedule until the end of the week.”
“No, no! I was supposed to tell you! Lao Nie’s come to visit, and –”
There were rules against running in the Cloud Recesses, so Lan Qiren was slightly late despite his best efforts, but true to form Lao Nie didn’t admonish him: he only turned from where he was sitting in the pavilion and smiled, calling out, “Qiren! There you are!”
“Forgiven,” Lao Nie interrupted before Lan Qiren even got the first word out. Lan Qiren was relieved to see that there was neither food nor tea already prepared; he would have been mortified if it had grown cold while Lao Nie was waiting to see him. “And don’t bow, either. How have you been? Tell me people aren’t harassing you over the nonsense with Hanhan.”
Lan Qiren opened his mouth, then hesitated.
“Do not tell lies,” Lao Nie observed, grimacing. “Ah, Qiren! Sometimes your brother’s worse than useless. It’s a pity, really, I hadn’t realized – well. At any rate, I’ve been bothering him for weeks to tell me about you and he wouldn’t say a word.”
“He was angry at me for messing up the conference,” Lan Qiren explained.
Lao Nie’s eyebrows arched. “You mean the conference where the Lan sect got first place in both major events and then extracted serious concessions from the Wen sect in a completely unexpected and nearly inexplicable political coup that got the whole cultivation world talking in awe at your political acumen? That conference?”
“I lost face for him. He thought – well, he’d thought it was worse than it was,” Lan Qiren hesitated. “He’s not the only one.”
Lao Nie huffed. “People are, by and large, stupid,” he declared. “Don’t let them get to you. They’ll change their tune soon enough.”
Lan Qiren wasn’t so sure. “They say a reputation is like a porcelain vase,” he said, unable to conceal his worries in the face of someone actually expressing concern rather than curiosity. His dream was to be a traveling cultivator, and that would be much easier with a good name, which he had always had before – good, or at least boring, which was just fine with him. He preferred to be boring! It had never occurred to him that he might do something that would render him the subject of gossip; it had never happened before. “Once cracked…”
“Right now, there’s only some bored people speculating that there might be a crack,” Lao Nie said. His confidence was contagious; Lan Qiren couldn’t help but relax a little in the face of it. “No one’s actually sure about it, and they’re willing to hear otherwise – things aren’t yet so bad. Don’t worry. I’ve spoken with Hanhan about it already.”
Lan Qiren felt his ears burning in shame. “Lao Nie! You didn’t!”
Especially since that would undoubtedly only make Wen Ruohan even more angry…
Lao Nie laughed and put his hand on his head, rubbing it lightly. “I did. Not in your name, but rather his own – do you think the Wen sect wants to get a reputation for being led by a man with an unhealthy interest in noble-born children? It’s in his interest to get this cleared up as much as you.”
Lan Qiren felt the tension rush out of his shoulders all at once. That hadn’t occurred to him, but now that Lao Nie had pointed it out, it was clear enough.
After all, for all the talk going around about Lan Qiren, it was widely agreed that he was clearly the victim in whatever scenario they’d thought up, whether through having his oath extracted under torture or by force; even among those who theorized that Wen Ruohan intended to use him as a cauldron, the reputation Lan Qiren might get would be, at worst, that of a seductive flirt who couldn’t be resisted. Lan Qiren’s brother had scoffed audibly the first time he’d heard that, saying that such a rumor would naturally be dispelled the moment anyone came in contact with Lan Qiren for more than a moment, and in all honesty Lan Qiren agreed with his assessment. He had the classic Lan sect looks, yes, but so did many others, and he had a demeanor as stern as a schoolmaster, giving off the feel of an old man even though he wasn’t even of age.
Meanwhile, for Wen Ruohan, the consequences were undoubtedly more dire – if he was said to have a taste for boys, especially noble-born ones, the other sects might be afraid to send their sons around him. It was a different reputation by far than his taste for torture, or his supposed use of dark and forbidden cultivation; those would make people fear him, while lusting for children would only make people disdain him.
Still, Lan Qiren wasn’t sure how exactly even someone of Wen Ruohan’s cunning would go about fixing such a mistake – and that was putting aside why he would make such a mistake over Lan Qiren in the first place. He hadn’t had a chance to explain to his brother his theory that Wen Ruohan had acted just to irritate Lao Nie, and in the end he’d decided it wasn’t worth drawing his brother’s attention back to the subject.
Besides, if Lan Qiren could figure it out, with his notorious inability to understand interpersonal affairs, then surely his brother was more than able to do the same. It wasn’t as if Lao Nie were being shy about it…
“Hanhan said he had something in mind,” Lao Nie was saying, shaking his head. “He usually does, I find, and each idea’s more awful than the next.”
Lan Qiren shifted a little from one foot to the other. “If you know he’s awful, why do you…” he hesitated. “I mean, you call him – an endearment.”
“Oh, he’s a little awful, no doubt,” Lao Nie said, sounding rather fond. “But as long as it’s not my sect, what do I care? Anyway, Qiren, you shouldn’t worry. If there’s one thing you can trust with Hanhan, it’s that he takes care of anything associated with himself.”
Lan Qiren didn’t really like the fact that he was now counted among that number.
It didn’t seem all that safe.
“Though of course that doesn’t protect him from you,” Lao Nie added, suddenly smirking, and Lan Qiren blinked owlishly at him. “Apparently, you’re a very talkative drunk.”
Lan Qiren’s face burned red.
“And effusive, too! According to Hanhan, even after you forced him down in his seat to keep listening to you, you kept waving your hands around while you were talking and knocking things over; he had to pin you down to keep you from destroying things by accident.”
That would explain the marks on his arms.
“Apparently, you didn’t appreciate him doing that and kneed him right in the –”
“You really think he can make the rumors go away?” Lan Qiren hastily interrupted, rubbing the back of his neck a little as if it would make the heat of hideous embarrassment go away. That tallied up a little too well with the physical evidence to be anything other than accurate. “There’s – a lot of them. And I’d like to have a clean reputation.”
“You will,” Lao Nie said, thankfully distracted from his mortifyingly plausible story. “Anyone who meets you will know at once that you’re a righteous and upstanding person.”
Lan Qiren liked that better than the way his brother had put it.
“It’s just that you haven’t had a chance to make your name in the cultivation world,” Lao Nie said. He sounded sure of himself. “You’ll do wonderful things one day, Qiren. I’ve no doubt.”
“I don’t want to do wonderful things,” Lan Qiren said, scowling. “I just want to travel around and help people.”
“Yes, I know,” Lao Nie said, and he sounded fond again, just the way he did when he was talking about Wen Ruohan, or even Lan Qiren’s brother. Truly, Lan Qiren thought to himself, the Nie sect had no idea how lucky they were to have him as sect leader. “Really, Qiren, it’s like I said: don’t worry about it. Now come, tell me what you’ve been studying recently.”
Lan Qiren had promised himself that he would reduce the amount of time he spent with Lao Nie on his occasional visits to the Lan sect, not wanting to risk inciting Wen Ruohan’s unreasonable anger and jealousy any further.
He would need to assign himself an appropriate punishment for breaking that promise, he thought, and sat down to start telling Lao Nie all about the work he was doing with one of his teachers on comparing the origin points of the various Lan sect rules, as well as his experiments on arrays to enhance open-air acoustics that would, he hoped, eventually be inscribed on all Lan sect instruments to increase the range and impact of their spell songs.
He even mentioned the possibility of a joint project on the mathematics of musical theory, and for whatever reason he thought Lao Nie looked especially pleased about that.
He didn’t think about Wen Ruohan at all.
Lan Qiren was only made aware that Wen Ruohan had fixed things when he realized that two weeks had gone by without anyone saying anything about him personally and had, out of a sense of morbid curiosity, asked one of his teachers about it.
“Oh, didn’t you hear?” his teacher asked, nose deep in one of the musical scores they’d put together for the array project, hunting for the flaws. “The sworn brother business was just part of one of his schemes to gain additional power amongst the Great Sects.”
Having been involved in it, Lan Qiren wasn’t so sure about that. “What do you mean, honored teacher?”
“He’s been finding ways to form new ties with all the Great Sects, not just ours,” his teacher explained. “It’s all come out; some very clever people figured it out. There’s a new trade agreement with the Jiang sect that both sides were keeping hushed up, something going on with the head of the Nie sect that the Nie sect disciples are being especially close-mouthed about, and, of course, his new connection with the Jin sect…it’s really not that surprising that he decided to find a way into our Lan sect by trickery.”
His teacher said it casually, as if of course Lan Qiren's sworn brotherhood had been formed by a slightly underhanded maneuver rather than torture or rape or anything like that, and while of course that was in fact true, Lan Qiren was stunned by the fact that what passed for common knowledge in the cultivation world had been flipped on its head in such a short time.
Truly, Wen Ruohan’s cunning was boundless. It was a little frightening.
“Say,” his teacher added. “As his sworn brother, you’ll be attending the wedding, won’t you? You should bring back some stories!”
Lan Qiren stared blankly. “…what wedding?”
It turned out that Wen Ruohan’s new connection with the Jin sect was through a marriage. The bride wasn't surnamed Jin, that would be too much for most people to tolerate without some sort of excuse; she was instead from a powerful subsidiary sect that swore allegiance to the Wen sect, in keeping with Wen Ruohan’s preference for his own people above anyone else, but her mother was a branch cousin of the Jin sect and everyone said that it was obviously meant as a way to bind the sects together. They said Wen Ruohan had spoken openly of his desire for sons – as usual, no one mentioned the names of those of his descendants already in his sect’s memorial hall – and that there were high hopes associated with the union on both sides. The Jin sect was said to be already parading around the marriage as their newest political victory, trying to use the connection to their best advantage.
“How long has this been planned, do you think?” Lan Qiren asked Lan Yueheng, mostly out of lack of other people to ask; unsurprisingly, Lan Yueheng shrugged.
“It’s an engagement,” he said disinterestedly. “My cousin says the negotiations for an engagement can be as long or as short as everyone wants it. But surely no one would make a lifetime decision like that lightly? Not to mention an alliance between sects, however implicit. It must have been planned a long time ago.”
Lan Qiren wasn’t so sure. There was always the ambiguous situation between Wen Ruohan and Lao Nie to consider, and given the way Lao Nie had spoken during his visit, it sounded as if he had encouraged Wen Ruohan to come up with some clever way out of the situation, rather than suggesting that one already existed.
Moreover, he wasn’t sure that Wen Ruohan considered a marriage to be a lifetime decision. Hadn’t he been married before, had sons before? It was only that they had all died…
“Lan-er-gongzi!” A runner came up to him, saluting. “The Sect Leader asks that you report to the hanshi at once.”
“That’s probably your invitation,” Lan Yueheng said, sounding mildly disapproving – undoubtedly he thought weddings were a waste of time compared with doing experiments. Taking inspiration from his work with Lan Qiren in merging math and music, he’d recently expanded his interests from mathematics to alchemy, and Lan Qiren grimly foresaw many exploding furnaces in the Lan sect’s immediate future. At least they had some out-of-the-way places for him to work, or else there'd also be a lot of punishments for violating the rules about too much noise in Lan Yueheng's personal future. “It’ll probably make you miss the first week of this season’s classes, too…well, try not to be too bored.”
Sadly, Lan Qiren did not think being bored would be an option.
Sure enough, when he arrived at the hanshi where his father and brother were waiting alongside several sect elders, the subject of discussion was the invitation he had received to attend the wedding.
“As Sect Leader Wen’s sworn brother, naturally you must attend,” his brother told him. “We will also be sending a delegation from the Lan sect, but your position is different. You must be careful not to offend anyone.”
Lan Qiren saluted. “I will do my best.”
“Sect Leader Wen will not be kind if you lose face for him, especially at his wedding, even if it is inadvertent - or even if what you do is perfectly correct by our standards,” one of the other elders, one of the older teachers, the well-respected if sleepy one, said. He sounded concerned on Lan Qiren's behalf, which Lan Qiren appreciated. “You must especially take care not to offend his new bride. Even where the marriage is made for the purpose of power and there is no expectation of love, a man does not like to have disturbances in his back courtyard.”
“Especially if the stories are true and Sect Leader Wen hopes for sons,” the teacher in swordsmanship responded, his voice a little acidic. He was still unhappy with Lan Qiren over what had happened during their visit to the Nightless City; Lan Qiren did his best to avoid him whenever possible. “I doubt Sect Leader Wen will persist in trying to raise one of our children once he has one of his own.”
That explained the sour expressions on the faces of his brother and some of the elders, Lan Qiren thought. They had hoped to use him to manipulate Wen Ruohan, though the exact method of how they would have done so escaped him no matter how he analyzed the words he had overheard that night in the hanshi, and Wen Ruohan had neatly evaded their snare with a countermove of his own – as with weiqi, so with politics, he assumed. A disappointment, as always.
“A brotherhood is for life,” Lan Qiren’s father said, voice distant as always, neutral as always. “There are ten months at minimum before any son is born, and all the years after; even if Sect Leader Wen forgets about his obligations, that does not mean that we must. There will be other opportunities.”
“Provided Qiren does not provide grounds for Sect Leader Wen to abjure the relationship,” his brother interjected.
“I will try my best not to do so,” Lan Qiren said again, stiff as always, though he suspected his brother was simply stating a fact rather than casting doubt on him. “When should I prepare myself to depart?”
“The delegation leaves tomorrow morning,” his brother said. “You will need to give a personal gift to your sworn brother in addition to the sect’s gift. I have selected several options; come with me to pick the one you prefer.”
Lan Qiren saluted the elders and wordlessly followed his brother to the treasury. He liked none of the gifts his brother had selected, thinking that they all seemed a bit too gaudy even for a recipient whose tastes tended toward the luxurious – a bit more Lanling Jin than Qishan Wen, and not at all something he would select for himself – but eventually he chose a heavy golden crown that seemed to be not too far from the ones that he’d seen Wen Ruohan wear in the past.
“Not the dagger?” his brother asked, his voice thick with irony that Lan Qiren did not understand, nodding towards another of the options, a golden-hilt blade so purely polished that one could see their reflection in it.
“Sect Leader Wen has a rich collection which we cannot hope to match,” Lan Qiren said, thinking of those peerless treasure swords rusting away as wall decorations in Wen Ruohan’s bedroom. “Moreover, it’s a wedding, which represents two parts joining together into a single whole, while a gift of a knife implies severing. It is therefore inappropriate for such an occasion.”
“Brothers who have shared blood cannot be separated. It is a suitable gift from a sworn brother.”
Lan Qiren looked down at the options, feeling a little helpless. “If you would like me to change my selection…”
“The guan is fine,” his brother said, and shook his head, seeming almost a little pitying. “You are very good to be concerned with your sworn brother’s feelings, no matter how your relationship came about. Too much goodness can be seen as weakness, you know.”
I thought I wasn’t supposed to be making trouble? Lan Qiren thought to himself. Still, since his brother did not seem inclined to elaborate, he handed the gift to one of the servants to be put into an appropriate box.
In actuality, he had already selected a personal gift of his own, shortly after he had first heard about the impending wedding – it had seemed reasonable that he would need to send a gift, even if he didn't expect to actually be invited, and it had not occurred to him that he would be allowed to utilize the sect treasury for such a thing. He’d gone to Caiyi Town and purchased a small set of drinking bowls, applying the glaze himself as the artisan spun the pots; they had gone into the kiln immediately thereafter, and he was expecting the delivery today – in fact, it was probably already waiting in his room.
He would pack the set up with his personal items and give it to Wen Ruohan anyway, he decided. After all, he’d opted to do the design in Wen sect red rather than Lan sect blue, rendering it useless for his own purposes, and it would be worse to simply throw it away or to let it sit and gather dust. Being frugal is a virtue, after all.
Of course, if he were truly being frugal, he would have told his brother that he did not need an additional gift and left the guan alone, but he didn’t want to reject his brother’s kindness, either, rare as it was. Better to just eat the loss of the funds and have Wen Ruohan think him a spendthrift…
“Sect Leader Wen will undoubtedly have you stay in the Sun Palace during your visit,” his brother said abruptly, and Lan Qiren looked at him: his brother wasn’t looking at him, but into the distance, and his fingers twitched at his side in an uncharacteristic display of nervousness. “As his sworn brother, it would be inappropriate for him to put you in the guest quarters, or to fail to allow you free mobility through the Nightless City.”
“That seems likely,” Lan Qiren agreed hesitantly, not sure why his brother was mentioning it.
“He is fortunate that you are not naturally observant,” his brother said. “Otherwise one might fear that you would use the opportunity to learn more about how the Wen sect works – its treasures, its secrets. Its plans for the future.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” Lan Qiren said quickly. “ Have courtesy and integrity, after all. Even if I were to discover something incidentally, naturally I would be honor-bound not to share it without informing Sect Leader Wen that I had done so.”
His brother sighed, his fingers abruptly unclenching. “Of course you would. How could anyone doubt it…I don’t suppose you’ve ever given any thought to Do not forget the grace of your forefathers?”
“Of course I have. That’s one of the fundamental rules,” Lan Qiren said, now absolutely bewildered. “That we should live up to the expectations of our ancestors, both in our good conduct and discipline, and in supporting our sect so that our descendants may honor them equally.”
His brother shook his head. “Sometimes I really don’t understand you. You were tricked into an oath like a virgin maiden into a sweet-talker’s bed, weren't you?” he said. Lan Qiren really didn’t understand how his brother’s mind worked that he kept changing subjects like this. “I just wonder that you aren’t more resentful of the one that did it, the way anyone else would be. The way you act, you’d think Sect Leader Wen had done you a favor; you’re so considerate of him.”
Lan Qiren thought his brother might be being sarcastic, but he wasn’t very good at determining such things. “Even if the manner in which we became sworn brothers was unorthodox, the oaths have still been sworn,” he said, a little haltingly. “I cannot control his actions, only my own. Just because he might not be a good brother doesn’t mean I can’t be – isn’t that right?”
His brother glared at him. “If you have something to say, Qiren, you can say it directly.”
Lan Qiren was at an utter loss. “I – was?”
“Your teachers say that you’re brilliant,” his brother said, voice suddenly very cold. “I often wonder whether they’re not growing too old for their work.”
“I don’t –”
“Never mind. You’re dismissed.”
Lan Qiren saluted and returned to his quarters, puzzling over the conversation as he packed away his things for the trip. Was his brother trying to warn him against anyone encouraging him to act as a spy? Or was he trying to convince him to act as a spy himself? But if it was the latter, why wouldn’t he just say so? If it were truly necessary for some reason, for the good of the sect…
Was he supposed to volunteer?
But that would be truly breaking the oath of brotherhood – of which he still didn’t know the contents…
Lan Qiren supposed that, at least, was one thing he would be able to fix: very soon, he would be seeing his sworn brother again for the first time since they’d sworn their oaths.
Maybe he’d find a way to ask.
The Nightless City was somehow even more overwhelming than it had been the previous time.
Maybe it was the fact that Lan Qiren wasn’t distracted by having a secret rebellious streak that he now thoroughly regretted – he didn’t regret having played his own choice in song, of course, but simply thought gloomily to himself that maybe if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have ended up with Lao Nie and thus wouldn’t have caught Wen Ruohan’s attention, and wouldn’t be in the situation he was in now.
Maybe it was just that he was in the situation he was in now, and entering the Nightless City as Wen Ruohan’s sworn brother wasn’t anything at all like entering it as a young master of the Lan sect.
The first time he’d arrived, the servants had been much like any others, whether in his sect or otherwise – polite, appropriate, and nearly invisible, providing service while maintaining the dignity of their sect. Their only concern was to ensure that their guests were comfortable enough that they could report to their superiors that they had accomplished their work well, and no more. This time…
“Stop acting like the servants want to break open your bones to drink the marrow,” the teacher acting as the leader of the Lan sect’s delegation – his music teacher this time, luckily, rather than the teacher for swordsmanship – murmured in his ear. “They wouldn’t do that…unless they thought it would win them points with Sect Leader Wen.”
Lan Qiren had somehow forgotten that his music teacher had a bizarre sense of humor.
“I can’t help them curry favor,” he said, feeling a little helpless and clutching his last qiankun bag to his chest like a child – the others had been plucked clean the instant he’d set foot inside the Sun Palace, each one taken by a servant with hungry eyes, and he was seriously worried that he’d never see any of them again. He wouldn’t put it past Wen Ruohan to take advantage of a ‘mistake’ to force him to wear Wen sect robes to the ceremony or something crazy like that. “I don’t even think he actually likes me.”
“That may be true. But they don’t know that,” his teacher pointed out.
Lan Qiren didn’t know what to say about that.
Just as he didn’t know what to say when, invariably, he was asked to separate from the remainder of the Lan sect delegation: “I’m afraid you’ll have to part ways here,” the servant leading them interjected with a toothy smile. “Only members of the Wen clan are permitted in the family quarters – and Lan-er-gongzi, of course, as the Sect Leader’s sworn brother. I’m sure you understand.”
The quarters Lan Qiren was taken to were, to his relief, not the ones he had seen last time, although they were similarly massive and garishly over-decorated with treasures. He eyed the teapot sitting on the table, made of an extremely rare type of porcelain that probably cost more than his absurdly expensive formal clothing, and sighed at his foolishness in thinking he could prepare his own gift: his brother was surely right to pick something more formal and impersonal after all.
In fact, he didn’t know where the gifts he had brought had gone – they’d been in one of the bags that he hadn’t managed to retain…
He poked his head out of his room, wondering if he could find a servant to ask about it.
Lan Qiren spun around at once, shocked to see Lao Nie striding down the hallway, waving jauntily as if he had every right to be there in the familial quarters reserved for the Wen clan.
“Lao Nie,” he said blankly, automatically raising his hands in a salute, and then he caught sight of Wen Ruohan, gliding along in Lao Nie’s walk, stately and monstrous as always. He opened his mouth to greet him, his mouth starting to shape the words ‘Sect Leader Wen’, only he belatedly remembered in the last moment that that was wrong. Given their oath, he was supposed to call him – “…da-ge.”
His voice squeaked a little as he forced out the unusual appellation, and then he immediately regretted it. Yes, Wen Ruohan had suggested it last time, but he called his own brother xiongzhang; surely that would have been equally appropriate in these circumstances?
Unfortunately, before he could amend his error, Wen Ruohan was standing in front of him. “Very good,” he said, his red eyes boring into Lan Qiren’s own. “Well met - didi .”
Lan Qiren gulped, and averted his eyes.
Luckily, Lao Nie was right there.
“Are you supposed to be here?” Lan Qiren asked him. “The servant said that these quarters were reserved…”
He trailed off, realizing that it was stupid to rely on a servant when the master of the entire city was right there in front of him.
“I invited him,” Wen Ruohan said, looking amused. “I thought to have a nice dinner with friends.”
“You’ll join us, won’t you?” Lao Nie asked Lan Qiren, not even bothering to check with Wen Ruohan.
Lan Qiren checked for him, glancing over, but Wen Ruohan looked indulgent rather than annoyed that his date was developing a spare wheel – he continued down the hallway, not even bothering to wait for Lan Qiren to assent, leaving nothing for him to do but follow. By the time they reached the small garden that appeared to be their destination, the table in the pavilion was set for three as if it had always been the intention.
“I don’t mean to intrude,” Lan Qiren said, dithering a little. He was well aware that any time spent with Wen Ruohan was like walking over hot coals – tricky, and likely to be painful if he made a misstep. And especially with Lao Nie being there… “I’m not especially hungry –”
“You just had a long trip, you have to eat,” Lao Nie said briskly. “You’re too young not to need to replenish your energy right away.”
“Sit,” Wen Ruohan instructed, the pressure of his cultivation suddenly heavy on Lan Qiren’s shoulders.
Lan Qiren firmed up his feet, ignoring the pressure, and gracefully sat down, shaking his sleeves casually as if he didn’t feel anything. He had his pride, if nothing else.
When he looked up, Lao Nie was doing his best to hide a smile and Wen Ruohan wasn’t bothering trying to hide his own, which meant he hadn’t pulled off nonchalant as well as he’d hoped.
“I trust your journey here was pleasant?” Wen Ruohan said, gesturing for Lan Qiren to serve the tea.
“It was fine.”
There was a bit of silence while Lan Qiren prepared the tea.
Feeling uneasy, and possibly like it was his turn to speak, Lan Qiren coughed. “Congratulations and best wishes on your marriage.”
Wen Ruohan nodded, gracefully accepting the well-wishes.
Lao Nie rolled his eyes at them both, clearly unimpressed with their pathetic attempts at small talk. “Excited for the wedding, Qiren?” he asked. “They’re a bit more boisterous at the Nightless City than in the Cloud Recesses – it’ll be an interesting experience for you.”
Lan Qiren had to admit that he was looking forward to that part of it. Ever since the match had been announced, some of the other disciples had been speculating as to what would be involved; there hadn’t been a major wedding for the leader of a Great Sect in their lifetimes, and everyone had expected Sect Leader Jin to be the first instead…
“Will it?” Wen Ruohan asked Lao Nie. “I was under the impression that he disliked loud noises, and crowds.”
“He does, but it’s something he needs to get over if he’s going to be a traveling musician,” Lao Nie said. “Also, why are you asking me? He’s right here. Ask him!”
Wen Ruohan glanced at Lan Qiren, who ducked his head and fiddled with his fingers. He wasn’t sure he wanted to answer questions for Wen Ruohan. It was easier, he supposed, with Lao Nie present to help grease the wheels of their conversation, but at the same time…
“Oh, really now,” Lao Nie said, sighing gustily. “This is a disgrace. You two have to get to know each other better already. You’re sworn brothers!”
“Do we?” Lan Qiren asked, uncertain, stealing a glimpse at the thoughtful-looking Wen Ruohan even as he offered Lao Nie a teacup. “I don’t – really know what sworn brothers do.”
“Oh, well, you know, it’s not that different from regular brothers,” Lao Nie said absent-mindedly, reaching over to take the cup, and then he abruptly blanched. “Uh, I mean…I didn’t mean it that way.”
Lan Qiren blinked. “In what way?”
“I mean…that is…” Lao Nie grimaced, glanced at Wen Ruohan – who was looking at him with an expression that suggested he had no intention of helping – and then back at Lan Qiren. “Ah, I’m sticking my nose in where it’s not wanted again.” Observing Lan Qiren’s bewildered expression, he coughed. “All I meant was…well. You’re not close with your brother, right? Your biological brother, that is.”
Lan Qiren considered the question. “Well, no,” he said. “But he’s the sect heir; he has too many responsibilities to be close to anyone.”
Lao Nie now looked even more awkward. He’d been a sect heir, too, so Lan Qiren wasn’t sure what the issue was – of course, Lao Nie was the sort of people who prioritized friendships, and even as sect leader he tended to insist on being close to people; there was a reason everyone called him Lao Nie. He might not understand.
(Wen Ruohan’s eyebrows had gone up for some reason. He’d also stopped smiling, and was even lightly frowning; perhaps he didn’t like to see Lao Nie discomforted in such a manner.)
“Ah,” Lao Nie said, his voice a little strangled. “That is. Your brother said…I hadn’t…I was under the impression you weren’t on good terms with each other.”
“Oh,” Lan Qiren said, relieved to finally understand what the normally quite straightforward Lao Nie was trying to say. “You mean the fact that he doesn’t like me?”
Lao Nie turned his eyes briefly towards the heavens. “…I suppose I do. I’d assumed it was a bit more – I mean, do you like him?”
“Of course I do. He’s my elder brother.” Lao Nie had started rubbing at the space between his brows as if he’d developed a spontaneous stress headache, and Wen Ruohan was frowning in earnest now. It was the first time Lan Qiren had seen that sort of expression on the older sect leader’s face; he was normally very smooth and pleasant in his expressions, even when he was being frightening. Sometimes especially when he was being frightening. “He’s smart and talented and he does lots of great things for the sect –”
“I didn’t mean as a sect matter,” Lao Nie interrupted. Now he just looked pained. “Do you like him as a person?”
“He’s my brother,” Lan Qiren said, but he felt the prickly, stabbing feeling of guilt that he always did when he skirted the boundary of do not tell lies. “He’s the idol of half the sect or more. I ought to like him best of all.”
Ought to was not did, and he knew it. He really did idolize his older brother, who was dashing and a fine cultivator and good with handling people, with all the skills Lan Qiren had always secretly wished he had; it was only that sometimes…
“I try very hard not to let him down,” he added helplessly, not quite able to bring himself to say sometimes I think I don’t like him very much at all .
“It’s not a sin not to like someone who doesn’t like you,” Wen Ruohan said, a little abruptly. “No matter what you might have been taught. Why doesn’t the so-honorable Qingheng-jun like you, anyway?”
“I don’t live up to –”
“You may not be a martial cultivator, but your cultivation in music and the scholarly arts is excellent,” Lao Nie said, and now he was frowning, equally thoughtful. “Your sect has always valued the two equally, or at least it used to. In your preferred fields of expertise, you are little short of brilliant, and your brother is a perfect gentleman, learned in all the Six Arts; it’s impossible for him not to recognize that your talent there exceeds his own – yet he’s not the sort of person to dislike a person out of envy. That can’t be the reason.”
“There’s my personality, too,” Lan Qiren said, feeling his face go hot at the unexpected compliment. “I’m stiff and awkward and overly stern –”
“Your brother is as distant and cool as a gust of wind from the north,” Wen Ruohan said, and Lao Nie nodded. “When you’re not speaking, the impression is very similar. That seems improbable as well.”
“Siblings can irritate each other, especially with an age gap,” Lao Nie said, stroking his trimmed beard thoughtfully. Lan Qiren eyed it with a bit of jealousy, as always – Lao Nie seemed to decide whether or not to have one based on the season, and appeared equally distinguished either way - if only because a beard seemed like such a convenient physical tic, and one that no one ever seemed to question. Perhaps he ought to try to grow one. “It’d be one thing if it was a mutual dislike, but if it’s not, then surely there has to be more to it?”
Lan Qiren shrugged, ducking his head to look down at his teacup, feeling uncomfortable with the way they were staring at him. “Well, I mean, I did kill his mother. It’s natural for him not to like me.”
“…explain that,” Wen Ruohan ordered after a few moments of silence.
Lan Qiren looked up, frowning when he realized they were both staring at him as if he’d said something out of the ordinary. “Surely you know that our mother died?”
“Of an illness,” Lao Nie said. “When you were three.”
“Not even three. How could it possibly have been your fault?”
“The illness was actually a recurrence of an infection that she incurred at the time I was born,” Lan Qiren explained. “Her health never recovered from having to bear another child so late in life.”
“And you think that’s your fault?!”
“It’s a fairly straightforward cause and effect,” Lan Qiren said, wondering why Lao Nie’s face was turning purple. “I don’t hold it against him or anything. It’s a perfectly reasonable reason to bear a grudge.”
“Hold it – bear a – and they just let you go on thinking that - !”
“At times, I question your taste in friends,” Wen Ruohan said to Lao Nie, and lifted his sleeve to drink the tea. “Well made, little Lan.”
Lan Qiren straightened a little in pride. Wen Ruohan’s cool indifference was a relief in comparison to Lao Nie’s bizarre explosion of seemingly misplaced emotionality, strange as the thought might be, and his comment also served as a very effective distraction: Lao Nie cocked his head to the side and gave him a look, saying, “You’re my friend, too, Hanhan.”
“Mm,” Wen Ruohan said. “As I said, I have questions…and I told you already, don’t call me that.”
“All right, all right…A-Han.”
“Sect Leader Nie…”
Wen Ruohan grimaced in what might be genuine disgust, probably at the sickly sweet tone Lao Nie had adopted, and Lan Qiren tried to hide his sudden need to laugh behind a cough and his sleeve.
“If you teach my little Lan your bad habits, I will hurt you,” Wen Ruohan informed Lao Nie, who grinned as if he’d been complimented – crazy man that he was – and shook his head, his usual smirk curving his lips as he gave Lao Nie a look full of ambiguous meaning that Lan Qiren couldn’t even begin to fathom the meaning of. “Aren’t you forgetting your etiquette, Sect Leader Nie? I’m getting married in the morning; you ought to be toasting my good fortune.”
That set Lao Nie off, as anyone might have expected, and Lan Qiren breathed a sigh of relief that the subject had changed away from him.
He wondered briefly if Wen Ruohan had done it deliberately, and then dismissed the thought.
The dinner lasted until late, late enough that Lan Qiren had to make his excuses and even then only just barely got back to his room in time to fall asleep at the appropriate hour; he didn’t even have enough time to do more than remove his shoes and outer layer before his eyes had closed.
Surprisingly, unlike most social dinners in Lan Qiren’s memory, it hadn’t been awful. Most of that had been thanks to Lao Nie, whose exuberance, as he’d suspected, could carry just about any social interaction to victory. After exhausting himself in thinking of ever more increasingly ridiculous toasts and forcing Wen Ruohan to drink them – they’d switched to wine at some point, although to Lan Qiren’s relief neither offered him any – Lao Nie had turned the subject to the type of music appropriate to be played at a wedding feast, and his opinions on music were, as always, so horrifically wrong that even Lan Qiren had been lured into arguing with him.
At some point, the conversation had shifted to the subject of marriage and weddings more generally, though to Lan Qiren’s relief both men clearly considered him too young to have thoughts about his own future in that regard the way his teachers might have. Instead, they’d spoken about the origins of various wedding traditions – there were some that Lan Qiren had thought were set in stone and handed down from ancient times which Wen Ruohan could recall having seen invented within his lifetime, which was a fascinating advantage of age that Lan Qiren had not previously considered.
It was equally interesting to see Wen Ruohan at his most charming. It was not a mask that the sect leader bothered putting on very often, as far as Lan Qiren knew, and it was a mask, one that was a little loose around the edges – even Lan Qiren could tell. Wen Ruohan would say the right words a beat too late, with his eyes a little too focused and his smile a little too sharp to be believed; his quips were a little too cutting and his suggestions just a little beyond the boundaries of common decency, his cruelty and indifference leaking out around the edges of even a casual chat with people he considered friends.
But at the same time, it was difficult to deny that he was brilliant. Regardless of whether he’d obtained his superior cultivation through dark and dirty means or not, he’d been the master of his sect and about a third of the cultivation world for at least a generation already, and no one managed that without being extremely clever and more than a little ruthless.
It made for interesting conversation, if one beset with a constant feeling of danger…
“I hope you enjoyed the bed.”
Lan Qiren nearly jumped out of his skin in fright, spinning around to stare at Wen Ruohan standing just within the doorway to Lan Qiren's room – he hadn’t heard him open the door, nor close it behind him. The other man was in his wedding finery, the brilliant fiery red of his sect turned to joyous purpose, and yet there was something sinister in his self-assured smile.
“The – bed?” Lan Qiren repeated blankly, and glanced at it. “It was…fine?”
“You complained, last time,” Wen Ruohan said, continuing to stroll into the room with his hands clasped behind his back. “Too hard, I believe you said…I wouldn’t want you to be uncomfortable.”
Lan Qiren vaguely recalled having said something along those lines and blushed in shame. “It’s fine,” he said. “I slept deeply and well. Thank you for your concern.”
“It’s the least I can do,” Wen Ruohan said. “You and I are brothers, are we not? My every thought should be of you.”
That didn’t sound quite right.
Before he could say anything, though, Wen Ruohan clicked his tongue lightly and stood in front of him, looking him up and down. “Your Lan sect’s formal clothing is truly a masterpiece of the embroidered arts,” he said. “A brilliant sight – especially all in white.”
Lan Qiren lowered his head, embarrassed again. If pressed, he would argue that his clothing was a little more silver than pure white, so he wasn’t actually dressed in mourning colors, but it couldn’t be denied that he was much closer than most, making it a little inappropriate for a wedding. Unfortunately, he only owned the one set of formal clothes, and there hadn’t been time to commission another; there was nothing for it.
“I like it,” Wen Ruohan said unexpectedly, his hands settling on Lan Qiren’s shoulders, smoothing out the fabric. Lan Qiren looked up and was caught by that intense red gaze. “My sect colors are red and white, after all – just like the two of us. A matched set.”
His hands burned too hot on Lan Qiren’s shoulders.
“White is a traditional color for the Lan sect as well,” Lan Qiren said, and his voice only quavered a little bit. “Anyway, it’s…mostly grey.”
“White,” Wen Ruohan disagreed. “As pristine as a pearl resting in the palm of your hand.”
His thumbs pressed lightly just by Lan Qiren’s collarbone. There were acupoints there, he thought, although he was having trouble recalling which ones or what they did.
“Yes, a pearl is truly the most apt comparison,” Wen Ruohan mused. “Simple and natural, yet shining with its own luster – I’d thought rubies, to make you fit to my taste, but perhaps pearls will suit you better.”
“I have no need for jewels,” Lan Qiren said, a little alarmed. Had Wen Ruohan really drunk so much the night before that he was still intoxicated, confusing his new sworn brother and his new bride?
“And yet I may wish to give them to you,” Wen Ruohan said. “Surely you won’t deny me – after all, I need to repay you for the charming gift you gave to me.”
Lan Qiren had a sinking feeling.
“Uh,” he said. “You saw it? Already?”
He’d searched the room briefly earlier that morning for the personal gift he’d bought for Wen Ruohan, intending on packaging the bowls away in his return clothing – why hadn’t it occurred to him to simply give it away to one of his fellow disciples, or even to trade or sell it? That way he wouldn’t have embarrassed himself by giving such a simple gift amidst all the opulent luxury of the Nightless City.
It seemed, however, that it was too late for that.
“Oh yes,” Wen Ruohan said, looking amused. “A set of drinking bowls, painted with a flowing border reminiscent of vermilion birds – made by your own hand?”
“I only applied the glaze,” Lan Qiren said hastily. “There was another gift, too –”
“I have dozens of golden crowns of better make and greater utility,” Wen Ruohan said dismissively. “Such a heavy thing. If you told me that you’d picked it yourself, I wouldn’t believe you.”
“No, I did pick –”
“Without constraint? Or from a selection of predetermined choices, each one deemed ‘appropriate’?”
Lan Qiren fell silent.
“Do not tell lies,” Wen Ruohan said, rolling the familiar rule in his mouth as if tasting a wine of fine vintage. “Yes, the guan is a very appropriate gift, neither too distant nor too familiar, too rich or too restrained, perfectly reasonable yet conveying nothing, giving nothing away...I’m quite certain your brother picked it out. But you were the one who picked the bowls, weren’t you? Did you pay for them yourself?”
Lan Qiren felt certain that the conversation was leading to some sort of trap, but he didn’t know what, or how, or how to evade it. “I did,” he admitted. “With my sect allowance.”
“How many months’ worth did it cost you?”
Lan Qiren thought back, calculating. “About three?”
He’d thought to get something nice enough that he wouldn’t lose face in giving it, though naturally he’d underestimated the luxury of the Nightless City. Still, it wasn’t as though he needed the money for much, anyway. The sect supplied him with basic clothing and gear, equipment to tend to his sword and musical instruments, and even access to books; he did not buy himself too many luxuries beyond that. Other than the fees he paid for various sect purposes, it was really only the occasional trinket that caught his eye or rare books on foreign musical techniques that he purchased with his own money.
It wasn’t anything like a sacrifice, not really, but Wen Ruohan still looked pleased about it, smug and satisfied as a cat right after the hunt.
“Three months’ worth,” he murmured, and his hands which were somehow still on Lan Qiren’s shoulders slid inexorably inwards to rest on the sides of his throat. “Even assuming you were extraordinarily parsimonious, little Lan, you could only save a third of that allowance at a time; that’s nine months of your life that you spent for me. Nearly a twentieth of all the months you’ve lived so far.”
What a strange way to calculate time.
It wasn’t even right, since Lan Qiren had turned seventeen in the interval and that made the calculation resulting something closer to a twenty-fifth than a twentieth, but also – who thought like that, treating time like a percentage, as if it could be measured and spent like coin? Perhaps it was simply that Wen Ruohan was so old already…and perhaps that, in turn, was why he looked at him so strangely, so unnervingly –
Lan Qiren swallowed, decided he didn’t need his pride more than he needed to get away, and ducked out of Wen Ruohan’s loose grip.
“Shouldn’t you be getting ready or something?” he asked, turning and pretending to fuss with his robes to avoid making eye contact. “It’s the morning of your wedding.”
“Indeed it is,” Wen Ruohan said from behind him. He was standing too close: Lan Qiren could feel his breath on the back of his head. “Tell me, little Lan – little brother. What do you think of my marriage?”
Lan Qiren hesitated.
“The truth, if you will,” Wen Ruohan added. “I would hate for the purity of our relationship to be tainted by misdirection, even if you wouldn’t go so far as to lie.”
His voice was mild and even, almost sweet, and Lan Qiren was abruptly convinced that it was far more threatening than any of Lao Nie’s rages or his brother’s ice-cold sarcasms.
“I think you made it up to distract people from swearing brotherhood with me,” he said, turning back to face his fears and sworn brother, and felt his face go red as he realized how self-involved that made him sound. But it was what he thought, and Wen Ruohan had asked him not to lie. “You made a mistake, underestimated people’s reactions, and Lao Nie yelled at you because it was affecting your reputation and mine, so you came up with a better story and made everyone else believe it.”
Wen Ruohan hummed. “What an interesting theory. You don’t think the engagement was merely kept private before being revealed at an appropriate time?”
“No.” Lan Qiren shrugged. “If I’m wrong, of course, I’m wrong. But you asked what I thought.”
“Is that why you got me a gift?” Lan Qiren, surprised, glanced at Wen Ruohan, who was still smiling. “To thank me for clearing up the mess I made of your reputation?”
“I got you a gift because you’re my sworn brother, and you’re getting married,” Lan Qiren said, bemused. “What does my reputation have to do with anything? You’re not the one making everyone gossip, and even if you were, you cleaning up something you did is only what you should do. I don’t see what one has to do with the other.”
This time, Wen Ruohan gave a little huff of amusement, and he sounded almost surprised. “Charmingly blunt.”
“You told me not to lie or misdirect!” Lan Qiren exclaimed, feeling betrayed.
Now Wen Ruohan was chuckling in earnest. “Ah, little Lan,” he said. “Someone is going to get you into trouble one day, and it may very well be me…you’re right, you know.”
“About the wedding,” he said lazily, and put a hand on top of Lan Qiren’s head. “Both in terms of motivation and timing. You’re entirely right, except for one part.”
His fingers tightened, the too-sharp nails digging into Lan Qiren’s scalp and pulling at his hair until his head was forced back to look up at Wen Ruohan.
“I didn’t make a mistake,” Wen Ruohan said. His eyes were boring into Lan Qiren’s own, the pressure of his will strong, as insistent as his voice. “You were not a mistake, little Lan. You’re mine.”
“Of course I am,” Lan Qiren said, suddenly irritated for no reason he could tell. “Your sworn brother. Doesn’t the whole world know it by now?”
“Mm. I suppose they do.”
“And on that note,” Lan Qiren said, “what are the terms, anyway? I never got to see them.”
“The – terms?”
“Of our brotherhood! My brother confiscated the paper you gave me before I could look it over, and naturally I don’t remember, so you have to give me another copy. I think I’m entitled to one, since I’m a part of it, and presumably you did the drafting. Was it one of the classical oaths? Which clauses were included? Provisions? Curses? Was there any consideration of – stop laughing!”
Wen Ruohan had released Lan Qiren’s hair in order to brace himself on the wall, he was laughing so hard. Laughing with big laughs that came up from his belly and stuck in his throat, and no matter what Lan Qiren said he didn’t say one single thing in response. Lan Qiren eventually gave up with a huff and stormed out.
Let the irritating bastard be late to his own wedding, for all he cared.
The wedding of a sect leader with the stature of Wen Ruohan was, as Lao Nie had predicted, an experience unlike any Lan Qiren had ever had before.
It was also, as Wen Ruohan had predicted, loud and full of crowds, things that Lan Qiren didn’t especially like. Luckily, despite being the groom’s ‘brother’, Wen Ruohan wasn’t requiring Lan Qiren to actually participate in any way, and he was just able to watch from a distance.
He tried not to think of Wen Ruohan’s casual admission that he had, in fact, devised the marriage just to deal with the issues with Lan Qiren’s reputation – and Lao Nie’s concern thereof, no doubt – and reassured himself that the bride was undoubtedly well prepared for her new life and would soon find her footing as the mistress of the Wen sect, where she would more than likely be happy in time.
That was how such things went, wasn’t it? Even with his sect’s notorious tendency towards love-madness, the people like his father, who married for love, were the exception and not the rule…
(He also tried not to think about the fact that Wen Ruohan accepted all the toasts for his wedding using a drinking bowl in Gusu style, painted with a border of vermilion birds, or the fact that, despite Lan Qiren having gifted a set, it was the only one of its kind on the table, leaving Wen Ruohan's new bride to drink from a much fancier gold-gilded bowl – but that was more because he didn’t understand what it meant, and wasn’t sure he wanted to.)
“Did you even get a chance to see him?” his brother asked when they returned, looking coldly disapproving.
“I did,” Lan Qiren said, thinking to himself less of the dinner that they’d shared with Lao Nie and more of the brief moment when the Lan sect delegation been about to leave, a servant appearing and whisking him off briefly back to the family quarters where Wen Ruohan, looking as composed as ever, pressed a too-familiar hand to his head and told him that he was sure he’d be seeing him again soon. “He didn’t say much.”
Nothing his brother would care about, anyway.
His brother nodded, looking unsurprised, and dismissed him, remarking unnecessarily, “You missed the first few days of classes,” as if Lan Qiren wasn’t aware of when each season of classes started for the disciples better than him. After all, Lan Qiren hoped to become a teacher one day, when he tired of traveling, and to do for future generations of the Lan sect what his teachers had done for him, and he took it as seriously as he did anything else.
The seasonal classes were his favorite, largely because such classes were open not only to the Lan sect disciples but to certain guest disciples – typically the children of rogue cultivators that the Lan sect wanted to encourage to join the sect, which meant that they had to pass through the same rigorous standards applicable to the usual sect disciples. Lan Qiren had always thought it was a shame that their classes were so limited in scope, although he acknowledged there wasn’t much to be done about it; after all, how many sects would be willing to send their children to be taught by outsiders?
A puzzle for another day.
For now, Lan Qiren made his way to the classroom, taking advantage of the lunch break to settle his things in his familiar seat at the side of the room. He hoped that coming in during the middle of the day would reduce the number of whispers that seemed to invariably greet him these days – luckily much more inclined to see him as a source of information rather than a victim or, worse, a perpetrator – but he didn’t have much faith in it.
“Hey, you’re in my seat.”
Lan Qiren looked up: it was a female disciple. Her face was unfamiliar to him, which suggested she was a rogue cultivator – while men and women lived separately in the Cloud Recesses, they came together for meals and other such events, and despite his introversion, Lan Qiren knew most if not all of his peer group by now.
“Sanren,” he said politely, rising and saluting. “Forgive me, but this has always been my seat.”
She frowned at him. “You didn’t claim it at the start of classes.”
“I missed the start of classes due to an unavoidable conflict.”
“I’ve been using it all week,” she said, and looked at him expectantly, as if anticipating an answer.
Lan Qiren wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say here. “I’ve been using it all my life. What’s your point?”
“So you’re not going to give it up for me?”
Lan Qiren stared at her. “Obviously not.”
She grinned toothily at him. “All the boys give up their seats for me. I understand that it’s a matter of etiquette.”
“Whoever told you that was lying,” he said flatly.
“Oh, I like you,” she said, and crossed her arms – an aggressive posture, although her tone, like Wen Ruohan’s, seemed more amused than anything else. How strange to see a sudden resemblance, when they very clearly had nothing else in common. “How would you know? Maybe it’s in the rules.”
Well, that was a mistake.
“Really,” Lan Qiren said, and smiled. “Why don’t we examine that supposition?”
She blinked at him, suddenly wary, but it was too late: if there was one thing Lan Qiren knew, it was his sect’s rules. Learning how to beat people over the head with them on purpose was a more recent development, and he was still working on fine-tuning that – most people started begging for mercy while he still felt irritated, but when they continued listening with apparent interest, as the rogue cultivator girl did, he swiftly forgot that he was trying to make a point and shifted over to actual enthusiasm for the subject.
Lan Qiren’s listener started and very nearly fell over – she’d put her chin on her hands at some point during the discussion of the origin of the rules regarding interactions between men and women, and hadn’t accounted for that when twisting to see who was calling her.
It was a mixed group of sect disciples, with some of Lan Qiren’s cousins and disciples of other surnames that he recognized, plus a few more that were likely rogue cultivators’ children as well.
“Oh,” she said. “You. What is it?”
“I see you got caught up in one of Lan-er-gongzi’s boring rule lectures,” one of the disciples said – one of Lan Ganhui’s friends, with Lan Ganhui himself nearby, grimacing at him in an attempt to make him stop. Lan Ganhui had gotten a lot more likely to leave Lan Qiren alone ever since Lan Yueheng had decided to befriend him, even intervening to make his friends leave off, but this time the other disciple ignored him, his eyes too focused on those ahead of him to pay him any mind; he was smiling intently at the rogue cultivator girl in a way that was clearly attempting to seem charming. “Don’t feel like you have to listen to him just because he’s main branch, you know! No one else does.”
“You shouldn’t say that,” one of the others muttered, glancing warily at Lan Qiren. It wasn’t apparent whether he was concerned about Lan Qiren’s rank, personality, or family connection.
For his part, Lan Qiren just felt tired. He would like to think that they were all part of the same sect, learning the same things, but he knew that wasn’t how the world worked. There were good people and bad in every sect, and the undercurrents that came with any community were inescapable.
“You’re joking, right?” the girl – who had the title of Cangse Sanren, apparently – said unexpectedly. “His explanation is three times more interesting than the stupid learning by rote we’ve been doing so far.”
“Learning by repetition has a long history of being the most effective way of learning something,” Lan Qiren objected. “Even the most unrepentant scoundrel would learn the rules by heart if he had to copy them down for a month, and then when that was done and the foundation built, you could get started on explaining the why of them.”
“But repetition’s not as interesting,” Cangse Sanren said. “I really liked that story about Lan Yi.”
Lan Qiren looked at her suspiciously. He’d never outgrown his tendency to speak in a dull monotone – one of his peers had once compared it to the thudding of grinding stones in a mill – and it was the rare person who actually appreciated the rules the way he did. His teachers, of course, and some of the other more studious disciples did, but even with them he’d be hard pressed to say they actually liked his rambling.
She held up her hands. “Really! I feel like I understand why she put the rule in place now, whereas before it felt like I was just learning the rule for the sake of learning the rule.”
“That’s because you need to learn the rules before you learn the background,” he said. “The rules are a house built without nails, each piece in its place doing its part to maintain the whole - one rule backs another, while being supported in turn. Only once you know what the rules are can you move to understanding the reasons behind them.”
And from understanding to accepting, allowing our ancestors’ wisdom to act as a guiding light that clears the fog from your path, he wanted to say, because he loved the rules, truly and sincerely.
People made fun of him sometimes, thinking him boring or stuffy or overly strict, with no flexibility and too little empathy, saying he was obsessed with the rules for no beneficial purpose, but to him the rules were a gift from the past to the future. The Wall of Discipline represented the accumulated life experience of dozens if not hundreds of Lan sect disciples before him, turned through debate and contemplation into advice they thought would be able to help guide those that came after them to living a good, clean, happy life. As their descendant, how could he fail to honor that which those people, who had loved him without knowing him, had strained themselves to give him?
In just the same way, it was his duty to love the future generations that had yet to be born, to act as the bridge to that unknown future, entrusted by his ancestors to carry to them the rules that would be both his inheritance and his legacy. Those nameless faces dressed in Lan white, unborn children with his brother’s face or even his own, of his cousins and fellow disciples alike, all those souls that had yet to enter this world but who he loved so much already – if he could spare them a single iota of pain through his own experience, how could he not do so, and gladly? How could he not do everything he could to give them everything he had received from the rules, that sense of pride of their history, the strength and wisdom that could be passed down no other way? How could that be a burden?
Lan Qiren had never really had the chance to explain any of that to anyone, his tongue too stiff and clumsy to convey what sometimes he felt could only be expressed in song or poetry, and he did not have such a chance now: as usual, the other disciples were already laughing, dismissing him as a teacher’s pet, overly rule-bound, obsessed with homework and test-taking, a boring old fart whose soul was prematurely aged.
“What’s wrong with being old?” Cangse Sanren asked, her voice flatter than it was before, and the boys in front of her suddenly scrambled to start apologizing so fast that Lan Qiren was left wondering what exactly he’d missed.
“Class is starting soon,” he said instead of asking, though he promised himself he’d ask around later. Surely someone would know. “Everyone should take your seat – no, Cangse Sanren, as I’ve said, that one is mine.”
She grinned unrepentantly at him and stepped back over where he’d kicked his foot out to block her. “You win, this time,” she said, and took the seat next to him with absolutely no remorse for whoever might have been sitting there before. “Watch yourself, stick-in-the-mud.”
Lan Qiren glared, though somehow Cangse Sanren’s teasing didn’t feel as annoying as the other disciples’ usually did. Even if she did make several more attempts on his seat over the course of the day, causing him to have to fend her off or think ahead to evade her latest attempt.
He initially thought that she might try to come to class early the next day to try to claim it before he did, but instead she dragged herself in only moments before class was due to start, face haggard as if waking up at the very tail end of mao hour was the equivalent to rising at yin, although she was back to her regular form soon enough, bright and clever enough to make any teacher fond of her.
This became something of a pattern, in fact – sluggish wakening, intellectual jousting during class and an unspoken competition over the seat that had formerly been reserved for him outside of it. In the afternoons she usually went off with the more martially minded disciples, while he spent his time in the library or musical halls, though at some point she started dropping off random foodstuffs by his door in the early evening as if she thought he was too thin.
“Maybe she has a crush on you!” Lan Yueheng said enthusiastically; bizarrely enough, he seemed to like romance as much as his explosions or his math.
“I think it’s a little closer to treating me like a stray cat that she found and took a shine to,” Lan Qiren said, shaking his head. All the boys in the sect would have paid in gold and jewels for Cangse Sanren to give them a second look, and she didn’t care one whit for the best of them; there was no need for her to go courting when she could get three serious offers of marriage just by winking. “Give them here, I’ll redistribute them to the younger children.”
“You can’t do that!” Lan Yueheng looked offended. “It’s her sincere offering! From the heart!”
“It’s food she purchased in town,” Lan Qiren said doubtfully. “It’s not as if she baked them herself. Anyway, I can’t eat this many sweets without getting a stomachache. What else am I supposed to do with it? Let it rot?”
“Qiren-xiong, you’re the most unromantic person I’ve ever met.”
“I’m going to assume that’s a bad thing,” Lan Qiren said, not taking offense. “Do you want some? Last offer before they’re gone.”
“…well, I mean, if you’re going to give them away anyway…”
He told Cangse Sanren what he was doing the next day, as a matter of politeness in the event that she wanted to stop once she knew what he was doing, and she just laughed – she always laughed at just about everything, he’d found. She didn’t stop delivering food, either, which he might have expected, though she did shift over into items that were easier to distribute.
Their entire mode of interacting was simultaneously very annoying and also not, and Lan Qiren didn’t have the slightest idea about what to do with it.
And then he got his first letter from Wen Ruohan.
If Lan Qiren hadn’t had any idea on what to do with Cangse Sanren to begin with, he had even less of an idea of what to do when he received a letter from his sworn brother which, after some deciphering of the small talk and insincerely meant pleasantries that could just as easily be read as implicit threats, seemed to boil down to so I hear you have a lover now? and also come to the Nightless City at once.
I do not have a lover, Lan Qiren wrote back crossly. You should send whatever spies you have packing because they are clearly completely useless to you. Also, I have classes that I have no intention of missing. If you want company, recall that you have a wife.
That won him a few weeks of blissful silence, possibly due to Wen Ruohan’s shock but more likely due to Lan Qiren having spitefully chosen to send his reply by usual post rather than by special post, which was more expensive and also generally reserved for important sect matters and not for obvious fishing attempts for gossip about the personal lives of juniors.
Which Wen Ruohan should be above, anyway. What did it matter to him?
The response, not long after that, went something along the lines of so what you’re saying is that you haven’t won the immortal mountain’s disciple yet? if you come to Qishan, I can advise you and that irritated Lan Qiren most of all, because right up until that point he hadn’t known that Cangse Sanren was a disciple of the famous Baoshan Sanren, the best-known immortal still in contact with the mortal world.
Mostly because Cangse Sanren hadn’t ever bothered to introduce herself.
It bothered him, a little. More than a little. She knew how much he valued people acting according to the rules; even if she didn’t care for them, shouldn’t she respect his inclination?
(It turned out that she didn’t introduce herself because she didn’t have a proper name, just the title that everyone used for her. Baoshan Sanren let everyone keep the name they came to the mountain with, but Cangse Sanren had come too young for any name at all, and so she’d never gotten one in all the suspiciously unspecified years she had spent on the timeless mountain. It was a pretty good reason not to introduce yourself, as such things went, and it also belatedly explained why she took offense to people calling anyone old.)
I am not trying to win anyone, he wrote back to Wen Ruohan. And even if I was, which I am not, I would still have classes and am not currently at liberty to travel. Has there been some sort of terrible tragedy such that your Wen sect is so desperate for additional people in the Nightless City?
You are not just any person but my sworn brother, Wen Ruohan responded. Am I not entitled to see you? Maybe I want to see this beard you’re reputedly growing.
Lan Qiren rolled his eyes and threw the letter into the box he was keeping all the others. He was trying to grow a beard, as it happened, though being a newly-turned eighteen it was a slow and frustrating process. He wasn’t entirely sure he liked the itchy feeling of it growing, either, but stroking his chin as if in thought was nearly as cathartic as waving his hands, only more socially acceptable; he liked that part very much.
He’d always had a tendency towards strange motions – moving his hands or arms, tapping on things, or rocking back and forth when he was especially distressed – but his brother had always hated it especially, always quoting Do not move arbitrarily at him even though he knew that that wasn’t the fundamental meaning of that rule. That wouldn’t have been so much of an issue, except most other people seemed to agree with him, citing the importance of acting in a dignified and restrained manner, limiting unnecessary movement and remaining still and calm as a placid pool of water no matter what the circumstance.
The beard was an acceptable compromise. Given how common beards were in the sect, it would be hard to criticize Lan Qiren without accidentally insulting an elder – and it felt so good to be able to move freely, the action serving as an aid for emotional regulation that he desperately needed.
Of course, Cangse Sanren thought it was ugly.
Lan Qiren didn’t agree, but he also didn’t think it was any of her business what he did with his face. Even if it was ugly, so what? He wasn’t particularly egotistical.
Accordingly, he thanked her stiffly for her opinion and then proceeded to ignore it.
Apparently, that didn’t sit well with her, a fact Lan Qiren only discovered when he woke up one day, groggy and unclear as to what had happened the night before, to find himself shaven clean and Cangse Sanren beaming at him from within his own room, to which he had never invited her.
He did not react well.
Stories of your shouting have reached even Qishan, Wen Ruohan’s next letter said. Was what your little lover did really so bad? I hadn’t known you were so sensitive. It’s not as if it won’t grow back.
This is your fault, Lan Qiren wrote back, irrational and upset, his calligraphy rough from the way his hand shook – though whether in rage or something else he couldn’t quite tell. I don’t want to hear from you.
Truly his reaction had been out of proportion with Cangse Sanren’s offense. Shaving a beard, especially a half-grown thing like that, was little more than a childish prank, even if it had taken him several months to get as far as he had; in the end, it was really only a blow to his vanity, and perhaps the loss of a convenient emotional crutch.
And yet, when he’d woken up and seen her there where she wasn’t welcome – when he’d realized that he couldn’t remember the evening before, just the way he couldn’t remember what had happened in the Nightless City that day, waking up to Wen Ruohan smiling at him and an oath he didn’t know nor want – when he’d tasted the sour taste of day-old liquor on his tongue –
She’d realized it, he thought in retrospect; the ever-present smile had slowly dripped off her mouth as he stared at her blankly for the first few moments, frozen, and had morphed into an expression of shock when he had broken through his paralysis to start screaming at her to go, get out, leave – he’d even picked up some of his own things to throw at her, just to make her leave faster.
He continued smashing his things after she’d gone, unthinking in his frenzy and unsure why he was so upset, and in the end when clarity had returned and he realized what he’d done he’d been so ashamed that he’d grabbed his guqin and slunk away, retreating to the rooms where the Lan sect entered into seclusion. He couldn’t go into real seclusion with so little preparation, of course, but he was practiced enough at inedia that he could skip meals for a few days and not need to see the world for at least a week.
Part of the feeling of shame was that he didn’t know why he had reacted so badly. Wasn’t it normal for peers his age to play that sort of trick on each other? It hadn’t been meant as a real insult.
He had no right to feel so betrayed.
And yet, he did.
Cangse Sanren had visited later that day, her hand tapping lightly on the door bound by wards and her normally brash voice murmuring explanations and not-quite apologies – saying that she hadn’t realized what it had meant to him, that she wouldn’t have done it if she’d known, asking if he wouldn’t come out to talk to her about it and let her apologize properly.
He ignored her.
He ignored her the next day and the day after, too. His hands were unsteady when he tried to play calming songs for himself, his music tangled and knotted up like the feelings in his chest.
On the fourth day, she came and sat by his door in the evening, late and near to curfew.
“I didn’t know, you know,” she finally said after sitting there for nearly a shichen. “About what happened to you in the Nightless City.”
His hands froze over the guqin.
“Drinking liquor comes as easily to me as breathing,” she continued. “No one’s ever been able to play a trick on me because I got drunk – it’s everyone else who falls over in the end, not me. Maybe what why, when someone told me how badly your family handles its liquor, I thought only of how funny it would be…and not how it would feel, waking up and realizing that you didn’t know what happened. What someone could have done to you.” She was silent for a moment. “What I did do.”
Lan Qiren shut his eyes tightly.
Yes, he thought to himself. She was right. That was why he was so upset.
It wasn’t about the beard at all.
“An oath made when you didn’t know it doesn’t count, you know.”
He laughed harshly, the sound catching in his throat like thick mud. “It does,” he said, and his voice was hoarse from the lack of speech. “Of course it counts. It’s my honor, in the end…anyway, there’s no reason for me to lose my head over it. Sect Leader Wen’s powerful and influential; there are those who would cut off their right hands for a connection with him, much less an oath of brotherhood.”
He wasn’t even all that angry at Wen Ruohan for doing it, either, not really. There wasn’t much point – his few experiences with the other man so far showed that that was just what he was like, always taking instead of asking, and scheming was as innate to inter-sect politics as fighting. Might as well be angry at his grandfather for the ancestral weakness to liquor in the Lan lineage.
It had only been the shock of Cangse Sanren’s unexpected actions that had made it feel like a knife stabbed into his back, a scabbed-over wound suddenly ripped open again.
“You didn’t trust him,” Cangse Sanren pointed out. “You trusted me. And I scared you.”
Perhaps that was true.
“You’re still you, you know. Even while drunk.” She chuckled. “You talk more, care less what people think of you; you’re a little more willing to stand up for yourself, a little more bitter, a little less consciously kind. You told me all about music, something that went over my head, then went to sleep in just the right and proper way, albeit right on the floor. I had to wait until you were asleep to shave you.”
That was a relief to hear. Lan Qiren hated the idea of being so vulnerable.
Although – perhaps he wasn’t. According to Lao Nie, he’d apparently kneed Wen Ruohan in the balls that night for bothering him with nonsense or possibly for trying to leave before he finished explaining something, sometime either before or after their oath.
(After, he assumed. If it had been before, it seemed more likely that he would’ve ended up dead.)
“Anyway, I wouldn’t have done anything serious,” she added. “You wouldn’t have woken up married or anything.”
“It’s not you,” he assured her hastily, alarmed by the thought. “I didn’t mean to imply anything about your character, which I know is good; I know you wouldn’t have done anything like that. It’s only – you don’t always know what people think is enough, coming from the immortal mountain as you do. If someone really wanted to push the issue, or if you didn’t have the background you did, just you being in my room unattended might’ve served as an excuse. And then where would we be?”
She was silent for a while.
“You really don’t want to be married to me,” she finally said. “You’re not playing games or anything; you really don’t.”
Lan Qiren felt something lurch in his chest.
“No,” he said, painfully honest. “Did – did you?”
“Maybe a little,” she said, and Lan Qiren winced. The possibility hadn’t even occurred to him, not even when others had suggested it.
“I didn’t mean…”
“I know,” she said, and her voice was warm. “Don’t worry about me, Qiren; I’ll get over it soon enough. There’s no pain I won’t forget a day later, never learning anything, it’s just the way I am.”
He gnawed on his lower lip. “…can I ask why?”
“Why you, you mean?” He could hear her shrugging through the door, the fabric of her clothing rustling against the wall she was leaning against. “You care about things, deeply and truly. Rules, honor, the right path…I like the way you think, the way you care. You have a good heart and a good brain. Why not you?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, and felt rather a wretch over the whole thing. “I didn’t mean to…to…”
She laughed. “You didn’t lead me on, Qiren! You only ever treated me as a friend, and I was, I think. Maybe still am?”
“You are,” he said, and looked down as his guqin, then sighed, picking it up and going to the door. There was no point in pretending to be in seclusion now that the knot in his heart had loosened, and he was starting to get hungry. “Come on, let’s go. I feel a need to graze on the kitchen’s leftover vegetables, as if I were a wild rabbit.”
She beamed up at him, round face shining like the moon.
The next day, after he finished doing penance for missing classes without advance notice – two dozen strikes, but no more – Lan Qiren went down the mountain and purchased some tea said to have especially strong stimulant properties, and gave it to Cangse Sanren.
She blinked at it, then looked at him.
“If you brew this in the morning, you won’t be so tired all the time,” he told her, and shrugged. “Since we’re friends and all.”
He didn’t have that many friends – so few as to not even have recognized her as being one. He was determined to cherish them.
The next day after that, there was surprising news in the Cloud Recesses, the gossip reaching the classroom faster than the messenger sent there specifically for that purpose.
Wen Ruohan had come to pay a visit.
“I thought Sect Leader Wen was above visiting other sects,” Lan Qiren said sullenly, leading Wen Ruohan on a tour through the Cloud Recesses. He had nothing better to do: classes had been temporarily dismissed on account of sect business, what with the teachers all being recruited to receive the Wen sect’s retinue; at this rate, this year’s rogue cultivators wouldn’t learn anything of value, and Lan Qiren had the sneaking suspicion that it was somehow all his fault.
“I can’t imagine why you think that. Don’t I attend every discussion conference without fail?” Wen Ruohan said smoothly even though that wasn’t what Lan Qiren had meant and he knew it.
Wen Ruohan normally treated himself and his clan like the imperium, preferring to summon visitors rather than go to visit. Presumably, in this instance, it was only that his desire to bother Lan Qiren had overcome his vanity, or else perhaps he’d reminded himself that even the Emperor would sometimes summer at the homes of his lackeys, allowing them an unasked-for opportunity to pay homage to him.
Truly a very irritating man. Lan Qiren was almost entirely sure that it wasn’t his adolescent brain speaking, either, though he supposed he couldn’t discount the possibility entirely – he’d been very irritated by Cangse Sanren, too, and they were friends now.
Actually, he was still pretty irritated with her sometimes. Maybe it was just a symptom of adolescence. Or perhaps it was that strange similarity he sometimes found himself observing between them, whether it was their seeming timelessness or their overweening arrogance...
Well, when in doubt, there were always the rules: Do not disrespect your elders.
Also possibly Have affection and gratefulness, though that one had always been hard.
Lan Qiren took a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, and then released it, taking stock of himself: his walking pace was steady, his hands were clasped together so that they didn’t flail, and his appearance was calm. It was just a matter of getting his emotions under control, and he had plenty of experience with that.
“You’re right,” he finally said, releasing his irritation with an effort of willpower. “You do. I was being rude, and it was uncalled for. Is there any particular part of the Cloud Recesses that da-ge would like to see? I doubt the Library Pavilion or the main buildings have varied much since your last visit, but the gardens and wild forest are beautiful this time of year.”
Wen Ruohan was quiet for a while, the two of them walking side by side in silence, and then unexpectedly he said, “Does the Lan sect use well-water or river-water as your main source of drinking water?”
Lan Qiren stared at him in disbelief. “I’m not telling you that. That’s private!”
“Not everyone’s like the Nightless City, telling everyone that they rely on a half-dozen imported sources for their food and drink and challenging them to try to do something about it,” Lan Qiren said crossly, and tried to remind himself Sneering for no reason is prohibited. “I’m not actually a half-wit, you know.”
“You misunderstand me,” Wen Ruohan said, though his eyes, narrow with satisfaction like a cat, suggested that he would have been more than happy to take advantage of the situation if Lan Qiren had been so foolish. “I only wished to know whether it was the source of water they are drinking that has rendered them all blind to the treasure they hold in their hands.”
“…I’m not showing you our treasury, either.”
Wen Ruohan barked a laugh. “That’s not what I meant, either. Why don’t you show me your Wall of Discipline? I’m sure there are a few new rules since last time.”
There probably were – the rules were like water, both eternal and in a constant state of flux – so Lan Qiren obediently turned his feet in that direction.
“It’s not a work-day,” he warned. “So you’ll miss out on any carving. But the rules are there, and I can answer any questions you have about them, if you like.”
“Any question? A bold claim.”
“Any question I know the answer to,” Lan Qiren clarified. “If I don’t, I can ask one of my teachers, or look at the books in the library.”
They walked in silence a little longer, although a surprisingly comfortable one given their age difference and Wen Ruohan’s general aura of barely restrained bloodthirst. Perhaps Lan Qiren was just getting used to it.
“Have I disturbed your afternoon plans with my visit?” Wen Ruohan eventually asked, gazing at the Wall contemplatively.
“I was going to meditate in the Cold Spring,” Lan Qiren said. “But it’s nothing I can’t do another time.”
“A Cold Spring?” A faint smirk flickered on Wen Ruohan’s face. “That’s useful for the suppression of yang energy.”
“And for cultivation, and for healing, and for encouraging clarity of thought,” Lan Qiren said, and managed to keep from rolling his eyes. “Of course, if da-ge is having some trouble controlling his lascivious thoughts, he is welcome to try it out. Such requests are not uncommon among newlyweds.”
Wen Ruohan was smirking outright now. “Tell me, little Lan, has that sharp tongue of yours ever cut the inside of your mouth? Or is that something you reserve for me?”
Lan Qiren pretended not to hear him and instead pointed out one of the rules on the Wall. “I always rather liked that one.”
Wen Ruohan glanced over and saw Have wins and losses - otherwise known, colloquially, as don’t be a sore loser - and grinned. “Oh, really? I find I’m rather partial to Honor the aged and wise, myself.”
“Really? And here I would have thought someone as humble as da-ge would opt for Do not say one thing and mean another, or maybe the prohibition against praising yourself.”
“Are you saying I do not count as aged, little Lan?”
“I would never question your years,” Lan Qiren said. “But the rule does include two clauses.”
Wen Ruohan was surprised into a snicker. “Sharp and sharper! Is this more of your vaunted Do not tell lies?”
“Be of one mind,” Lan Qiren retorted. “Anyway, you enjoy it, or else you would’ve just pointed out Do not argue with your family.”
“Indeed, I am not Qingheng-jun,” Wen Ruohan said, his smile poisonous, and Lan Qiren, struck dead on by the accurate blow, could only glare at him. “My little brother can argue with me any time he pleases…and does, I find. I told you to come to the Nightless City, and you disobeyed.”
“Learning comes first,” Lan Qiren said. “I had classes. Like I told you!”
“And your father and brother agreed with your prioritization?”
Lan Qiren winced, having not told them of Wen Ruohan’s request for exactly that reason.
Wen Ruohan only smirked, though, and did not call him out on it further. “Perhaps I will take you up on your offer,” he remarked instead, and for a moment Lan Qiren had no idea what he was talking about. “Travel is always so wearying, and I’ve heard fine things about the quality of the Cold Spring in Gusu.”
Lan Qiren was pretty sure he was allowed to make that offer.
“Unless of course you planned to have other company there…?” Wen Ruohan glanced at him and saw his confusion. “Your little immortal’s disciple lover?”
“Certainly not!” Lan Qiren exclaimed. “Men and women do not mix like that. Anyway, she’s not my lover. We’re only friends. She’s agreed.”
Wen Ruohan’s eyebrows went up as if Lan Qiren had revealed more than he’d intended.
“Very well,” he said, sounding almost agreeable. “I’ll take your word for it.”
Lan Qiren eyed him suspiciously.
“I’d still like to meet her.”
Of course he would.
“She might not like you,” Lan Qiren warned, shaking his head. Cangse Sanren was a warm and generous person, but her views were unshakable once set, and she feared nothing; he could only guess at the monstrous clash of egos that was about to take place. “But she should be by the training field at this time of day; we can go there next.”
Wen Ruohan reached out and ran his fingers along the Wall – seemingly at random, hitting Change clothes after taking a bath and No adornments that make sound as he did – and then turned to follow Lan Qiren with a look in his eyes that Lan Qiren did not understand.
“Then let us go,” he said.
As he’d thought, Cangse Sanren was practicing alone in the training field, looking especially fierce with her hair flowing freely in the wind as she danced with blade and horsetail whisk. Lan Qiren waited until she was done with her current set before clearing his throat to announce their presence; when she turned, he pulled out a ribbon from his sleeve – he’d taken to carrying spares – and offered it to her.
“I don’t know how many times I have to tell you,” he said to her. “It doesn’t matter how high your cultivation is, it’s still not going to help you in a fight if the wind changes mid-move and you get smacked in the face with your own hair.”
“Maybe,” she sniffed. “But I look amazing.”
Lan Qiren rolled his eyes.
“This is Cangse Sanren, a disciple of Baoshan Sanren,” he told Wen Ruohan. “She has no personal name, so don’t ask for one. Cangse Sanren, this is Sect Leader Wen.”
Lan Qiren had heard rumors that Wen Ruohan had once had a personal title, but that he hadn’t liked it, and that he’d ensured that no one ever dared to use it to his face. At any rate, Lan Qiren didn’t know it now and could not use it as an introduction.
Not that Cangse Sanren would have cared, of course. She raised her hands in a salute, boldly keeping her head raised and the bow shallow enough to be insolent.
“I’ve heard of you,” she said, her eyes slightly narrowed.
“And I of you,” Wen Ruohan responded. “It’s been a long time since a disciple has descended from the immortal mountain. Tell me, are you planning on joining the Lan sect?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” she said. “Are you planning on proposing some alternative you think I might like better?”
“Perhaps I will. You never know what the future might bring.”
“Knowing the present and the past would seem a sufficient guide to me.”
Lan Qiren looked between them in growing alarm as they exchanged seemingly pleasant words in cutting tones. It wasn’t that he hadn’t expected this, but perhaps not quite so quickly...
“Could the two of you maybe not do this?” he asked, feeling a little plaintive. He didn’t want to have to explain how a casual tour designed to kill time had escalated into an inter-sect issue. “Cangse Sanren, if my da-ge’s presence bothers you, we can just leave.”
Cangse Sanren broke away from the staring match she’d started with Wen Ruohan to frown at him. “You call him da-ge?”
“Is there any reason he shouldn’t?” Wen Ruohan’s voice was as smooth as the silk used to execute empresses. “He’s my sworn brother, after all.”
“Oh, I know that ,” she said. “It’s only that he calls Qingheng-jun ‘xiongzhang’.”
Wen Ruohan seemed a little surprised by that. He glanced at Lan Qiren, who scowled back at him. “So what?” he said, feeling oddly defensive. “You asked to be called ‘da-ge’.”
“I suppose I did,” Wen Ruohan said, and his lips curled upwards in satisfaction.
“Hey, Lan-xiao-gege,” Cangse Sanren suddenly said, and Lan Qiren automatically glared: he didn’t like her calling him that. “Could you get me a ribbon from my room?”
“What? I just gave you –”
“There’s one in particular inside a qiankun pouch on my desk,” she said, barreling on. “You can just bring the whole thing. I need it rather urgently, and for various reasons cannot go myself.”
“You shouldn’t deny a lady in need, little Lan,” Wen Ruohan interjected. “Don’t forget that chivalry is one of your rules. Go and return; I will wait for you here.”
“And I’ll keep an eye on him to make sure he does,” Cangse Sanren said, which was horribly rude even if he did somewhat need that reassurance. “Please, Qiren-gege? Would you?”
“…all right,” Lan Qiren said, having the distinct feeling that he was being ganged up on. “I’ll be back right away.”
There was a rule against running, but he’d long ago mastered the art of walking as quickly as he could without breaking any of the rules against haste; he was able to retrieve the pouch and return to the training field within a single ke, which he thought might have broken some sort of record. Even so, by the time he returned with the pouch, Cangse Sanren and Wen Ruohan were standing side-by-side with identical expressions of smug satisfaction that suggested that they’d accomplished whatever it was that they’d so obviously wanted him out of the way for.
Hopefully not a recruitment into the Wen sect. His brother would kill him.
“Ah, Qiren-gege!” Cangse Sanren said, and accepted the pouch. As if purposefully adding insult to injury, she tied it to her waist without even bothering to pretend to root around inside for the ribbon or whatever thing she had so ‘urgently’ needed from it. “You’re the best.”
“And you’re a pest ,” he told her, but she only looked pleased with herself. He wasn’t going to get any answers out of her, and he didn’t even bother to hope for one from Wen Ruohan, who was exactly the same. He looked at him regardless: “Da-ge, are you done here? Even though they haven’t sent word, I’m sure the elders have finished preparing to receive you properly, so you can finally do whatever it is that you came to the Cloud Recesses to do.”
Get out of my way maybe, he meant, and not especially subtly, either.
“Uh, Qiren-gege,” Cangse Sanren said, grinning at him. “I’m pretty sure he’s already doing that.”
Lan Qiren refrained from rolling his eyes at her yet again – nobody would gather up their entire retinue to travel halfway across the cultivation world to see him – and turned expectantly to Wen Ruohan.
“I gave my lieutenants orders to begin negotiations without me,” he said, looking disinterested. “Your sect elders will not want me to disturb them until they have reached preliminary agreement on the main points, so as to avoid losing face for either sect in the event we can’t reach an appropriate resolution.”
Lan Qiren hadn’t thought of that. He supposed it made sense.
Irritating, irritating sense.
“We’ve already seen quite a lot of the Cloud Recesses,” Wen Ruohan added. “Why don’t we take some tea in your rooms?”
Lan Qiren thought about his rooms, which were still in a terrible state, and tensed – he’d neatened up as best as he could after his tantrum in the little time he’d had to himself, but removing all the broken things had left the space bare and uninviting. He wasn’t even sure he even had a matching tea set left.
“You should go down to Caiyi Town,” Cangse Sanren announced. “It has a thriving market full of unique goods, and from what I hear you have a new bride, Sect Leader Wen. If you don’t get her something from your trip, she’ll never forgive you.”
Wen Ruohan hummed thoughtfully, and Lan Qiren seized on the excuse to nod fervently and usher Wen Ruohan towards the gates instead of his rooms.
“I’m sure you’ll be able to find something to her taste,” he told Wen Ruohan, and for some reason remembered how the man’s long-nailed hand, capable of crushing mountains, had so delicately held the bowl Lan Qiren had painted as he had drunk his wedding toasts, as if he’d been afraid of causing the slightest damage to it. “There’s plenty there.”
“I’m sure there is,” Wen Ruohan said, and to Lan Qiren’s relief they were able to spend the next two shichen wandering slowly through the market. Wen Ruohan seemed to be particularly interested in stalls or shops selling household goods, whether vases or inkstones or paperweights, or else in paintings and other decorations; he solicited Lan Qiren’s thoughts on them all, and insisted on hearing them no matter how much Lan Qiren tried to demur.
“I really don’t know how much it’ll help you to know that I personally prefer my décor to have neutral colors with abstract designs,” he said, rubbing his forehead after one particularly extended discussion with a very enthusiastic shop manager in which they, again, did not make any purchase. “I doubt your new bride shares my excessively particular tastes.”
“What makes them excessive, rather than simply a preference?” Wen Ruohan asked, strolling over to where Lan Qiren was standing and running a finger along the blanket Lan Qiren had been absent-mindedly kneading with his hands out of lack of anything better to do. It was made of multilayer silk, airy as a cloud but trapping enough heat to allow for some warmth, and some clever designer had introduced some sort of subtle pattern to the embroidery that made it feel almost fuzzy. Lan Qiren had liked it at once, although regrettably it was the sort of expensive that was beyond the reach of even his generous allowance, especially since he’d so recently depleted it; it would have required him to rely on sect credit to obtain it.
He was technically entitled to do so, especially as one of the main branch family, but it wasn’t worth the snippy comments about Do not wallow in luxury that he’d invariably get for it. When he was younger, his brother had, in a rare moment of sympathy, told him that he’d be able to do much more and allow himself far more freedom while still avoiding such criticism if only he weren’t so insistent on talking about the rules all the time, but at that age Lan Qiren had struggled tremendously with focusing on other subjects and it had seemed easier to simply give up a few privileges. Later, of course, he’d realized that he didn’t have to give up those rights at all – the rule against luxury was intended to forestall dissipation and waste, the prioritizing of self-indulgence over duty, not occasional purchases designed to make life more comfortable – but his austere habits had remained. It was easier to pretend to have a preference towards asceticism and restraint than to admit that he was just being picky again, that he’d rather no blanket than a scratchy one or that loud colors or busy designs hurt his eyes and distracted him from his studies no matter how beautiful the art.
“I don’t suppose you remember those greens they were serving, the first time we met?” Lan Qiren asked dryly. “The ones I didn’t eat? It’s a bit like that.”
“Mm, I recall,” Wen Ruohan said, which surprised Lan Qiren: the other man’s memory must be prodigious to recall such a small event in such a long life. “You cried when you tried to force yourself.”
“It was a physical reaction,” Lan Qiren said through gritted teeth. How did Wen Ruohan always manage to find the most irritating take on any subject? “I gagged, that’s all. Anyway, all I meant was that I’m picky and particular, set in my ways and preferences, and what I like doesn’t necessarily transfer to other people.”
He wanted to ask Are you planning on getting something here already, but that would be crossing the line from blunt to intolerably rude, given that Wen Ruohan was his guest and his elder. Instead, he waited until it seemed like Wen Ruohan was done talking, and then edged pointedly towards the exit in the hope that the older man would get the hint.
In the end, they returned to the Cloud Recesses just in time for dinner, in which Lan Qiren was seated next to Wen Ruohan but which, per Lan sect rules, was silent, and was happily sidelined for most of the discussions that took place afterwards, which were mostly about sect affairs. The next two days Wen Ruohan spent fully ensconced in negotiations with Lan Qiren’s father and brother, and the day after that he was scheduled to leave – he had made plans to visit the Jin sect next before returning to Qishan, a route that ever so coincidentally would make it convenient for him to unofficially swing by Qinghe on his return as well – and in the end they only had time to take tea a few more times, almost always in the company of others.
Lan Qiren breathed a sigh of relief at having managed at least one successful one-on-one interaction with Wen Ruohan that hadn’t blown up in his face. He obtained belated permission for his invitation to the Cold Spring and mentioned to Wen Ruohan that he could take advantage of it during his next visit, whenever that might be – Wen Ruohan had seemed pleased by the offer – and obediently watched the visitors depart before returning, at long last, to his classes.
There were whispers, of course, but he ignored them with the ease of long practice. His sworn brotherhood was unusual, inevitably drawing attention; that would not change, just as it would not change the existence of it, and so other people would simply have to grow bored of their gossip first.
It wasn’t until later, when classes broke for the day, that he finally went back to his rooms.
His rooms, which –
Did not look like his rooms.
Lan Qiren stared.
What should have been bare walls and a cracked table and a bed with a single sheet had been transformed: there were paintings and vases, each with the subtle designs he favored, the latter filled with flowers emitting a cool and subtle scent; the incense burner had been replaced with one of delicate and intricate copperwork, a perfect match to the copper accents that adorned the new table, made of dark wood, that had replaced the one he’d broken. Even the pillows and blanket had been replaced – and he recognized that blanket, expensive and unnecessary, with clever embroidery and multiple layers of silk –
“His taste’s a bit much, I think,” Cangse Sanren said from behind him, having apparently followed him in at some point when he hadn’t noticed. “But I suppose you can’t fault him for efficiency.”
Lan Qiren turned to stare at her. “You – you knew about this?”
She grinned at him.
“You didn’t say – you didn’t tell – !” Lan Qiren looked around. “He was shopping for me?”
“All your fault,” she said cheerfully. “Apparently you were the one who started it all, giving him a gift –”
“He was getting married!”
“Some men are unreasonably competitive, Qiren-gege. Your sworn brother is one of them.”
“I – a competition – ?!”
“Possibly he also felt bad about getting you drunk and taking advantage of you,” she said. “And wanted to make up for it somehow. Just a thought.”
Lan Qiren flapped his hands in the air, unable to form words for a while – not least because he was pretty sure Wen Ruohan didn’t do emotions like felt bad, and probably maxed out at this made you have feelings which are inconvenient for me – and then finally settled on some: “What did the two of you talk about?!”
Cangse Sanren poked at the new guqin stand in the corner, dark wood and copper as well, embedded with a few dimly glowing night-pearls, and nodded to herself in satisfaction at its balance. “Blind people with no judgment or appreciation, mostly.”
“I may have also mentioned that your room was looking a bit too ascetic recently…”
She laughed her peculiar laugh, the deep one that came from her belly and made everyone around her want to join in, and took to her heels as if afraid that he might chase her. Lan Qiren seriously considered it for a moment, wanting to scold her and also to extract every detail about how she had almost certainly tried to scold one of the most terrifying men currently living, but he found himself drifting over to the bed instead, putting his hands into the comfortable blanket and already imagining how well he would sleep with it tucked tightly around him.
Fine, he thought, scowling down at it with a glare that was for no one’s benefit, not even himself. Maybe next time he writes inviting me, I’ll even go.
Of course, Wen Ruohan wasn’t the sort of person to leave things to chance: the next time he sent an invitation for Lan Qiren to visit the Nightless City, he sent it straight to Lan Qiren’s father, instead.
“Naturally Qiren will go,” Lan Qiren’s brother said.
Lan Qiren mentally cursed Wen Ruohan’s name, even as he raised his hands and saluted to signify his agreement.
“Very well,” their father agreed, disinterested and toneless. His gaze was more and more distant these days; Lan Qiren suspected that the day his brother became sect leader was growing ever closer.
“I’ll select an appropriate escort, and a gift –”
“No,” Lan Qiren blurted out involuntarily, horrified at the idea of what another gift might trigger in Wen Ruohan’s purportedly competitive soul. “I – that is – I’m not going on behalf of the Lan sect, am I? I’m going in my personal status as his sworn brother. Taking too many people with me or bringing gifts might give the impression that I’m holding myself distant.”
Or something like that.
His brother looked at him for a long moment. “Very well,” he finally said. “Some servants as attendants, rather than a delegation of disciples, and no gift. You’re right; we don’t want to appear sycophantic.”
That hadn’t been what Lan Qiren had said or meant, but he’d take it.
His travel to the Nightless City was uneventful after that, as was his arrival: he made it to the main gate with relatively little fanfare and asked one of the guardsmen which way he should go, having never arrived on his own before. Instructions obtained, he made his way towards one of the side entrances to the Sun Palace. The main entrance was crammed full with petitioners, as always – Wen Ruohan rarely entertained them himself, but he had built up a decent bureaucracy to manage the work of it, which Lan Qiren supposed was necessary given the much higher number of people that were sworn to the Wen sect in comparison with the other sects.
It didn’t occur to him to question the instructions he’d been given until he was shown into one of the sitting rooms – not the one he’d been in before, and the hallways leading up to it were all unfamiliar – and he saw a woman sitting there, waiting for him, instead of Wen Ruohan.
The woman’s face was unfamiliar to him, but her luxurious robes, bone white and heartsblood red, patterned in the particular stylization of the red sun reserved for the highest rank within the Wen sect, as well as a glittering golden tiara dripping with rubies, announced her identity.
As did the pronounced curve of her pregnant belly.
Lan Qiren raised his hands and bowed. “Greetings to Madame Wen.”
He felt strangely uncomfortable, although he could not identify why. He had plenty of experience with pregnant women, so he didn’t think it was that, but there was something distinctly off-putting and surprising about this pregnancy, which Wen Ruohan must have known of but not mentioned during his visit to the Cloud Recesses.
Madame Wen watched indifferently as Lan Qiren saluted her, not stopping him even as he held the bow, and she was a few beats late in waving for him to stand up – her status as the mistress of a Great Sect was well above his as a second son, but it was still a little rude.
“So you’re Lan-er-gongzi,” she said, her eyes scanning him from top to bottom. “My husband’s sworn brother, of which he is so fond.”
Lan Qiren opened his mouth to deny it, but all the usual excuses he’s concocted for himself choked in his throat and dried up on his tongue: every time he’d told himself that Wen Ruohan only meant to irritate Lao Nie or his brother, that it was a political move or a quickly-regretted moment of impulse, that their supposed ‘brotherhood’ was little more than a word –
It was difficult to weigh that against an afternoon wandering through a market, and a room done up in all the ways Lan Qiren liked best.
Be generous. Be grateful. Be loyal.
However it had started, Wen Ruohan had lived up to the brotherhood to which they had sworn.
Do not make assumptions about others.
Lan Qiren had not.
“Sect Leader Wen is forgiving of my faults,” Lan Qiren said, deciding that he would need to do better in the future. No matter the rumors about him, Wen Ruohan had never wronged him personally, and he ought to behave accordingly. “Allow me to express my best wishes for your child.”
It was an ugly and un-poetically blunt sort of well-wishing, and he regretted it the instant he said it; if he hadn’t been so distracted by unwelcome self-revelations, he would have thought of something better.
“A son, they say,” Madame Wen said, watching him as if to see his reaction. Whatever it was she was looking for, she didn’t seem to be getting it; her eyes narrowed in dissatisfaction. “Well, you've got a pretty face, I’ll give you that much.”
Lan Qiren was unperturbed by the comment – his ancestors had always had a taste for beauty – and he didn’t quite understand why she made it sound like an insult. Still, he’d learned from prior mistakes that when someone was complimenting you in a mean tone of voice, it was impolite to respond by saying “you, too”, so instead he just waited patiently for her to get around to making whatever point she had brought him here to make.
“They say that you’re a mediocre swordsman,” she said, and Lan Qiren frowned – he wasn’t talented, no, but mediocre seemed a little harsh. Average would be a better way to describe it. “A good musician, but also stern and aloof. I wonder, what aspects you have to recommend yourself to someone like my husband?”
“Your husband was the one who proposed brotherhood,” Lan Qiren said. He was pretty sure that was the case, though of course he couldn’t be entirely sure; still, he was going to stand on that ground until he heard otherwise. Feeling uncomfortable, he added, “I didn’t think I needed to recommend myself. Has he said something to you about me?”
Madame Wen’s lip curled up in a faint sneer. “He’s barely mentioned you at all.”
That was about as Lan Qiren would have expected, and he nodded in satisfaction.
“At least the rumors regarding your disposition were correct,” she remarked, her expression of dissatisfaction unchanging. “You don’t speak much, do you?”
Do not use frivolous words beat at the inside of Lan Qiren’s mouth, but he’d learned about not sharing the rules every time he thought of them, too, even if it had taken many years to do so. He inclined his head in confirmation instead.
“So cold and distant, like the frost on a distant evening – with a temperament like that, you seem untouchable. One could scarcely bear to lay hands upon you...I do wonder how well someone like you can really play.”
Was he supposed to start boasting about his skills in music? It was well known that personality could affect musical talent, and he was better at the more intellectual and reserved songs, although to his own disquiet he found that he could quite adequately pull of some of the more disturbed songs, the passionate and unrestrained pieces, as well; nevertheless, the type of music did not correlate with quality.
Confused by the line of questioning, Lan Qiren found himself blurting out the first thing that came to mind, which in this case was, “I’m best at guqin and xiao.”
He was pretty sure that wasn’t what she meant, though. He thought he detected dissatisfaction about her, possibly at his inferior answers, and he had the vague sense of what he might call hostility or resentment if she had been some evil creature, but he was, as his fellow disciples liked to remind him, notoriously terrible at understanding emotions.
“Your talents must be prodigious.” Madame Wen smiled at him, face tight; he must have said something wrong. “You must forgive me my ignorance on the subject. I have no doubt that when you are in the field, it is terribly difficult to compete against you.”
“…I took first place at the music competition at the last discussion conference,” he said. Even if he suspected that she might not be talking about music, he was truly at sea in terms of what she was talking about. “But naturally that was only against my peers.”
Madame Wen’s eyes narrowed in a glare.
Lan Qiren had only meant that there were teachers far more skilled than he, but he had the distinct feeling that he might have accidentally insulted her.
He really wanted to stop having this conversation. Why couldn’t some of the rumors she heard about him have been about how bad he was at picking up subtext? Or, if he was indulging in futile wishes, something about how his cold and monotone voice was simply a characteristic, not a measure of how he felt about someone?
“Prodigious indeed,” she said through gritted teeth. “It seems I should ask for a demonstration of your talents.”
Wait, was that was she was hinting at? It was a little rude to make such a request on their first acquaintance – it made him feel a bit like a hired musician, rather than her husband’s sworn brother – but thinking on it further he didn’t mind. He did intend to be a musician one day, a traveling musical cultivator, and he had never minded playing for people. It was easier than talking to them.
“Is there anything in particular Madame Wen would like to hear?” he asked.
She named a song, fairly common and romantic in nature – at least one variation of the lyrics was crude enough that it saw regular use in brothels, but the tune itself was perfectly ordinary, and he supposed the sort of thing a young woman might enjoy. And after all, Madame Wen couldn’t be more than a half-dozen years older than he was, even if her poise and stature suggested an older woman.
Lan Qiren obediently settled in the spot that Madame Wen directed him to, taking out his guqin and checking it over meticulously to make sure it had made it through the travel without issue.
He had just started to play when there was a sound outside, the door opening; Lan Qiren looked up and saw Wen Ruohan enter the room in with a swirl of white-and-red robes.
He did not look pleased.
Lan Qiren began to stand, intending on saluting, but Wen Ruohan waved a hand at him before he could even start to rise up.
“What is the meaning of this?” he asked his wife instead.
She smiled back at him, her expression seemingly full of meaning: “What do you mean, husband? I heard by chance that your sworn brother had arrived, and I thought to greet him, as any good wife ought to do.”
“Greet,” he said, his lips turned down. “Is that what you call it, when you have your guest play brothel songs for you?”
Technically, the song had been originated in a play –
“He agreed,” Madame Wen said. “But naturally my husband’s happiness is what I care for most. If my husband dislikes it, or think that I have insulted his sworn brother by permitting him to behave like a pretty flower selling favors in the red-light district –”
“Accompanist,” Lan Qiren corrected, and they both turned to stare at him. Their expressions were both quite intense, as if he’d said something wrong. He hesitated, but continued, “My understanding may be flawed, but I thought most brothel singers hired professional musicians to accompany them, so as to better reflect their beauty and increase – ”
“What are you implying?” Madame Wen snapped, and Lan Qiren recoiled a little.
“I didn’t mean – I only – it’s just that I heard –” he stuttered, and Wen Ruohan laughed.
“Perhaps I was too quick to dismiss the comparison,” she said coldly. “The flower appears beautiful from afar, but its thorns still cut deep.”
“My sworn brother is no flower,” Wen Ruohan said, and his eyes were curved; he seemed much calmer now, making the room less fraught. “But rather a pearl unlike any other.”
“Oh yes,” Madame Wen said, and she was sneering outright now. “Naturally you would think so. Who does not know of your – great friendship?”
Lan Qiren wouldn’t go that far. Not even half as far, really. He was just opening his mouth to point out that they barely knew each other, really, but he never got the chance; Madame Wen tossed her head, her tiara of gold and rubies making bell-like sounds, and placed her hand on her belly.
“I will retire,” she announced. “I would not dream of intruding in the time that you two wish to share. Perhaps he can play for us at dinner, if it is not too much of an imposition on his time.”
Wen Ruohan merely stepped aside and allowed her to go, saying nothing.
Truly, Lan Qiren thought to himself, the rumors must have misjudged Wen Ruohan – surely if he were as cruel and ruthless as all that, he wouldn’t have taken such insolence without raising a response.
“Forgive me,” he said, and Wen Ruohan looked at him.
“For what?” he asked, his habitual equanimity returned to him. “You did nothing.”
“She doesn’t seem to like me,” Lan Qiren said, bowing his head. “I’m not sure what it was that I did to cause it, but it was not my intent to cause trouble.”
Especially the sort of trouble he’d been specifically instructed to avoid, he thought, a little miserably; he remembered now all the admonitions of how, brothers or no brothers, oath or no oath, no man would want to anger the woman who bore him sons.
“Think nothing of it,” Wen Ruohan said, and when Lan Qiren stole a glance he did not in fact seem upset. “It is the early growing pains of marriage, little more, and worsened by her current condition. I was clear enough when we started out, promising her respect, power, sons, and even freedom, yet she can’t stop herself from scheming for more...truly well-suited to be my wife, provided she learns not to go too far.”
Lan Qiren did not understand.
Wen Ruohan noticed, and chuckled. “Do not concern yourself with it. You are not the object of her grudge, merely a convenient target.”
“She seemed to be fairly deliberately aimed to me,” Lan Qiren said doubtfully.
“Mm. Which of us has experience being married, again..?”
Lan Qiren ducked his head back down, conceding the point, and then, with an effort, shook his head to clear it of cobwebs and smiled at his sworn brother. “Well, you wanted me to come to visit you, da-ge, and here I am,” he said. “I look forward to the opportunity to spend more time with you.”
Wen Ruohan seemed oddly taken aback, almost more surprised by Lan Qiren’s sincerity than by his wife’s tricks and sarcasm, and it took several moments of staring before he finally responded with a simple nod. “I look forward as well.”
“I find we have not had time to get to know each other without a third party acting as a medium,” Lan Qiren continued. “Would you like to play a game or two of weiqi? I’m not…especially good at social interaction, getting to know people, but I’m sure I can manage to lose a game with some grace.”
Wen Ruohan had started smiling. “You assume you’ll lose?”
“I assume you have slightly more experience than me, yes. I’m decently skilled, but I prefer to spend my time on music…I really am happy to play for you and Madame Wen after dinner, if you’d like. A good life requires a happy home, and I can’t even imagine how difficult bearing children must be; I’m happy to accede to her request. Anyway, I enjoy playing.”
“I would be happy to hear that piece you played at the discussion conference once more,” Wen Ruohan said. “Though if you’re acceding to her request, I note – after dinner?”
“Well, naturally,” Lan Qiren said, puzzled. “I assumed she had misspoken. I mean, I’m your guest, aren’t I? Only hired musicians play at dinner instead of eating. If she really wanted music with her dinner, she would need to pay me.”
Wait, that sounded wrong.
“Not that I’d accept,” he added quickly. “I wouldn’t disrespect your hospitality in such a way.”
Wen Ruohan was grinning. “Indeed,” he drawled. “Undoubtedly she misspoke…it’s been rather a long while since I’ve played weiqi, but I think I’ll still be able to manage to trounce you. Let’s go find out.”
Lan Qiren gathered up his guqin and followed Wen Ruohan to the door.
“Oh, and little Lan?” Wen Ruohan said as they walked out into the hallway, his voice casual and indolent. “There’s no need for you to spend much time with my wife while you’re here. I wouldn’t want her to suffer too much stress, given the child.”
Lan Qiren didn’t entirely understand the request, but he nodded gamely. “I’ll avoid her when she’s not with you,” he offered, and felt pleased when Wen Ruohan nodded in satisfied acknowledgement. “I don’t want to cause her any more concern.”
“Good,” Wen Ruohan said, opening the door to another room – his bedroom, Lan Qiren thought as he spotted the familiar set of six treasure swords on the wall. There was a table there that would work well for a game of weiqi, and Lan Qiren supposed it made sense for Wen Ruohan to want to be comfortable while at home. They were brothers, after all… “I’ll have the servants set out the game. Shall we walk in the garden in the meantime?”
“That sounds good,” Lan Qiren agreed, then looked down at his guqin. “I should put away my things, if the room I’m in is not too far? I really didn’t have an opportunity…”
“Your room is just down the hall,” Wen Ruohan said. “You’re family now, aren’t you?”
Lan Qiren smiled.
Maybe this will work out after all, he thought.
The next week was far more enjoyable than Lan Qiren had thought it would be.
He wasn’t really sure, in retrospect, what he had anticipated a visit with Wen Ruohan to consist of – more awkward conversations or being forced to drink liquor, perhaps, although the apology of the blanket had largely assuaged his fears in that regard – but he hadn’t actually expected it to be fun.
Wen Ruohan took him around the Sun Palace and the Nightless City, allowing him to point out whatever caught his interest and casually narrating some interesting history of whatever it was, whether person, place, or thing. The Nightless City was full of treasures, some their own or won through acts of heroism, others looted from other sects; Wen Ruohan was not especially shy about describing how his sect had grown rich with subordinate sects, telling the stories of how his sect had defeated and devoured the others with relish, but it wasn’t as if such ruthless growth wasn’t echoed in every other Great Sect’s history as well. And Wen Ruohan himself was ancient, his involvement in the history of his sect personal, and above all else he was proud – endlessly proud.
He was proud of his city, of his sect, of his personal accomplishments. It was said of him that he thought every good thing under the sun rightfully belonged to him, and hearing him speak Lan Qiren could see why people thought so. Wen Ruohan thought other people were wasting their time with such treasures, leaving them to waste away half-used; he thought that he himself was the only one that could value them as he believed they deserved.
It wasn’t just items, though, whether valuable spiritual weapons or devices that any sect would keep as an heirloom. Wen Ruohan valued people, too: he had subordinates drawn from all over the cultivation world, those with special talents or high potential. Even when Lan Qiren hadn’t asked, Wen Ruohan made a special point of pointing them out, telling the story of how he’d saved this one and earned a life-debt, how he’d lured that one in with promises of riches and power, how he’d given his surname to a third who had in the end only wanted a place to belong.
It took a while for Lan Qiren to understand the message, unspoken as it was, but eventually he got it.
Like a treasured sword left to prop open a door, Wen Ruohan had said about Lan Qiren, way back when he’d sworn brotherhood with him in a drunken evening and reconfirmed it in the morning. Lan Qiren hadn’t believed him then, and he’d gone on not believing him for ages, but he was starting to suspect, to his bemusement, that Wen Ruohan actually meant it – that he thought Lan Qiren was something special, like his powerful subordinates or his talented artists and artisans, like the geniuses and scholars he added to his sect like adding flowers to a vase.
That their brotherhood wasn’t mostly a farce the way Lan Qiren had always assumed it was, whether a tease to Lao Nie or a mockery of the Lan sect, but rather something…genuine.
Lan Qiren wasn’t sure what to do about that, so he opted not to do anything at all, throwing it all in the back of his mind to be considered at length later. But he had to admit – he liked it.
He liked the attention Wen Ruohan paid him, the fact that an older man, powerful and respected and renowned throughout the cultivation world, thought he was worth spending time with even without anyone else there to mediate. He liked the way that Wen Ruohan indulged him, the way that Lan Qiren’s bed in the Nightless Palace was even more comfortably textured than his treasured blanket back home, the way the design of the furniture and even plateware was, although in red and white, in the styles he liked most; he liked the way Wen Ruohan would add things as he figured out more of Lan Qiren’s preferences, beautiful paintings making their way onto his walls and fresh cut flowers beside his table. He liked the way Wen Ruohan remembered that he liked grilled foods over stewed ones, even years later, and how he didn’t serve him meat even when he ate it himself, although he made clear that it was available if Lan Qiren wished to try it; he liked how if there was something he didn’t like, it wasn’t served again.
Best of all, though, he liked how Wen Ruohan listened to him, even when he talked too long or on a subject that he (usually belatedly) realized other people would likely find boring. Not just nodding along, either, but actually paying attention enough to ask questions and interject comments, offering new perspectives on old subjects – how sometimes it seemed as though something Lan Qiren had said had sparked some new insight for Wen Ruohan, even though that seemed improbable. Wen Ruohan would sometimes interrupt their conversation to wave over a servant, ordering them to get this or that book related to their conversation, and if his memory for remembering exact citations was not as good as Lan Qiren’s then the vastness of the library available at his fingertips more than made up for it. Their conversation flowed easily and well, despite their age difference; it was helped along by Wen Ruohan’s charm, that mask Lan Qiren had noticed with Lao Nie, but it was easy enough to ignore the dangerous aura that lingered behind the façade when Lan Qiren felt certain that he, at least, would not be the target of that danger.
It felt – easy.
That was the strangest part, really. Lan Qiren was the son of a Great Sect, privileged even among the privileged; he had never lacked for food or drink or even knowledge. And yet it felt as if he had been struggling alone up the side of a mountain, the burdens forced onto his shoulders weighing him down; even if he had been able to manage it just fine, the fact that there was now someone walking alongside him, sharing it with him, supporting him, made it feel so much easier. He felt safe, he felt secure. He felt happy.
He felt –
Well, he felt a little guilty for thinking it, but he felt as though he finally had a brother.
Lan Qiren had always been a little skeptical of the description of brothers in all the tales he’d heard, the idea of an elder brother caring for and guiding the younger one utterly foreign to him; he tried to emulate the younger siblings, who idolized and loved their elders with a passion that rivaled that which they shared with their lovers, carrying within them a bond that would never be broken, but he knew in his heart that he could not do so in truth. Lan Qiren did idolize his brother, who was perfect in nearly every way except that he didn’t much like Lan Qiren, yet that deficiency was enough to make it difficult to like him back; Lan Qiren could love him better in theory than he could in practice.
With Wen Ruohan, it was different.
Lan Qiren wasn’t quite sure it was exactly like being a brother, either – for one thing, all the attention made him feel strangely shy, made his heart beat too fast and his stomach feel tense, and it wasn’t anything at all like the cheerful and casual camaraderie he shared with his nicer cousins like Lan Yueheng or even with someone he thought might be a friend, like Lao Nie – but whatever it was, he knew that he liked it.
He liked it enough to try to be flexible on some of his own relatively strict standards: to agree to try some local specialties that Wen Ruohan especially wished to share, to take the time to help Wen Ruohan with matters relating to his sect when there was no objection, to make an effort to stay up later than his usual bedtime in order to complete a conversation.
He even allowed Wen Ruohan to buy him things he would normally have rejected out of hand – for example, Wen Ruohan seemed to have a particular fascination for selecting clothing, which Lan Qiren didn’t understand in the slightest, but after having been so indulged, it seemed like it was the least he could do to return the favor.
“I really don’t know the difference between the two cuts,” he confessed, frowning down at the sketches presented by the tailor. “It seems – fairly minimal?”
“They are for completely different body types, Master Lan, and flatter the body in very different ways,” the tailor told him. “What appear to be small choices, such as whether to wear wide sleeves or tight gauntlets, robes or trousers, the style of the shoulders, the cut and angle of the collar, can make the difference between a cold demeanor and a warm one, a mature man and a childish one, a passionate earthy beauty and a icy fairy who stands above the earth.”
Lan Qiren nodded gamely, happy to concede the point – he had always enjoyed hearing other people expound about their interests, even if he didn’t share them, and it was clear the tailor enjoyed his work – but felt obliged to add, “Even if that’s true, how can I know which one I prefer? Anyway, I really don’t need any more clothing…”
“You should have several options in each style already ready-made for sect disciples, do you not?” Wen Ruohan asked the tailor, cutting Lan Qiren off, just as he had the last few times Lan Qiren had tried to suggest that he didn’t actually need to be bought more things. Competitive, as Cangse Sanren had said, only she’d forgotten to add stubborn! “Bring out a few and let him try them.”
“I don’t think –”
“That’s the best way to see what fits best,” the tailor agreed, nodding. “I’ll bring them at once, Sect Leader.”
Lan Qiren gave up his clearly futile protests, reminded himself that he’d decided to make an effort to cooperate, and followed the tailor to another room to change his clothing. It felt strange and almost inappropriate, putting on the colors of another sect – at least the base color was still white, which was comforting, but the vivid reds, entirely dissimilar from the usual cool blue accents of the Lan sect, were certainly unlike anything he’d ever worn before.
And the style itself was very different, too. Both sects preferred tight sleeves, but the Wen sect didn’t add an overlay with wide sleeves the way the Lan sect did, and they had a sharp cut at the shoulders and collars that the Lan sect disfavored. Lan Qiren’s usual pick of clothing was even more simple – less layered, fewer cuts – than most in his sect, and the Wen sect outfit, though far from excessive, was almost flamboyant by his standards.
“It fits surprisingly well,” he remarked to the tailor, who smiled vacuously. “I’m lucky that you happened to have something so close to my size at hand.”
“You are very lucky, Lan-er-gongzi,” the tailor said, and although his face was blurred in the copper mirror, Lan Qiren briefly thought he almost looked nervous. “Please wait where you are, there’s one more thing I think would be a perfect fit.”
Lan Qiren nodded absently, looking down at his sleeves and tugging on them even though they fit just right. Truly it was a marvel, he thought to himself; most of his clothing was tailored for him personally, painstakingly made in the Lan sect style with embroidered arrays woven into the clothing, and yet some of those had fit less well than this…
He started in shock when he unexpectedly felt hands fall onto his head, loosening his crown, but when he looked up, ready to scold the tailor for his presumptuousness in daring to touch another man’s hair without permission, he saw Wen Ruohan standing behind him instead, a faint smile on his face.
Lan Qiren’s complaint froze in his throat.
Wen Ruohan, at least, did not violate the prohibition against touching another person’s forehead ribbon, avoiding it entirely as he skillfully wove out the guan Lan Qiren was wearing and replaced it with another in his own preferred style – silver instead of gold, and with a string of pearls that were woven into his hair and a single one that fell down to rest between his brows, just above his forehead ribbon.
That complete, Wen Ruohan put his hands on Lan Qiren’s shoulders and studied him in the mirror, his red eyes intent and thoughtful as he surveyed his handiwork.
“Very good,” he said, and his voice was thick with satisfaction.
Lan Qiren swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry for no reason he could explain.
“I knew pearls would suit you,” Wen Ruohan added, and Lan Qiren shook his head. “No? I think they do.”
“The rules –”
“Allow no more than three adornments on your waist, which this is not,” Wen Ruohan said smoothly. “And the rule against adorned beads and chains with bells is targeted at adornments that make unnecessary noise. You would not deny a member of your sect the right to wear a Jiang sect bell with its tongue removed, would you?”
“The Jiang sect only give their clarity bells to those who are in their sect, related by blood, or plan to marry in,” Lan Qiren objected, although he realized a moment later that he was quibbling over nonsense instead of getting to the key point. “I don’t need anything like this. It’s far too much.”
Wen Ruohan didn’t say anything; he only smiled.
“I should change back,” Lan Qiren said, uncomfortable. “I wouldn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea.”
“We wouldn’t want that, no,” Wen Ruohan murmured, and Lan Qiren quickly gathered up his clothing and retreated from the room. It was only when he had mostly changed that he realized that he hadn’t taken his original guan back from Wen Ruohan. Without much choice – going with his hair down would be far more inappropriate than being over-dressed – he left the pearls in place.
“You’re doing this just to embarrass me,” he accused Wen Ruohan as they returned to the Sun Palace.
“Perhaps,” Wen Ruohan hummed. “Who’s to say what my motives may be?”
“You! You can say!” Lan Qiren huffed, but he supposed this, too, was part of being brothers. “You’ll give me a new copy of our oath, right? Don’t forget again.”
“It’ll be in your quarters by evening,” Wen Ruohan promised, looking amused, and in the end he did better than that, a servant delivering the message while Lan Qiren was still putting away the odds and ends Wen Ruohan had bought for him during the day.
It occurred to Lan Qiren later that the move might have been calculated – he’d promptly forgotten anything else in favor of looking over the terms, which to his relief were mostly the classic ones, the elder guiding the younger, the younger obeying the elder, dire consequences for betraying their oath and bond, the usual.
There was an additional clause about loyalty and fidelity that seemed a little over-emphatic, almost as if it’d been cribbed from some marriage vow or subordinate’s oath – he supposed Wen Ruohan would have more reason to be paranoid about betrayal than most – and one about good faith and patience and education, which he suspected might have been his drunken self’s attempt to accommodate Wen Ruohan’s complaints about his excess enthusiasm, though he supposed it could alternatively be interpreted as an obligation for each of them to explain themselves to each other. Or maybe it was an obligation for Lan Qiren to educate other people at Wen Ruohan’s request - perhaps to step up and teach his sons one day? It was really very unclear, but then, such oaths usually were.
Alcohol was clearly prohibited for a reason, he thought to himself, and then shook his head, at this point more amused by it than anything else.
He only noticed that he was still wearing the stupid over-fancy guan when he started to head out to start the afternoon routine he had already started to turn into a habit: a walk through the gardens, physical training with the sword, and then musical training to conclude shortly before dinner, which he would share with Wen Ruohan, followed by another walk, this time in his sworn brother’s company. The routine gave him the time he needed to devote to his responsibilities as a cultivator, as well as some blissful time to himself; Wen Ruohan, he presumed, used the time for much the same purposes.
Lan Qiren scowled at his reflection in the tranquil lakewater in one of the garden pools, torn between wanting to go back to change the thing out – it would be ridiculous to expect him to do his usual training wearing something that probably cost more than his yearly allowance – and the knowledge that if he did so, he would have to miss out on some part of his routine, which he hated to do. Yet if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have another opportunity to remove it until after dinner…
Lan Qiren turned, surprised: it was Madame Wen, who he had not seen since his arrival. He raised his hands in salute, but to his surprise she waved it off. “Lan-er-gongzi,” she said. “Could I ask you for a favor?”
“Of course,” he said, and felt a frisson of fear when she put her hand on her belly. Surely it couldn’t have to do with…?
“Could you find my husband and ask him to visit the doctors?” she asked, biting her lower lip. “The servants can be indiscreet, and I don’t think I can go myself…”
“I’ll tell him at once,” Lan Qiren assured her, now truly alarmed by the implicit suggestion. “Do you know where he is?”
“At this time in the afternoon?” she said vaguely. “Oh, I’m not quite sure…probably in the third palace.”
She nodded towards one of the buildings, a little distant from the Sun Palace but not far.
Lan Qiren nodded. “Do you need anything – somewhere to sit, or…?”
Madame Wen shook her head. “I’ll go sit down. Don’t concern yourself for me.”
Lan Qiren nodded a second time – sitting seemed like a good idea – and headed towards the third palace at a brisk pace. As much as he usually hated breaking his afternoon routine, any risk to human life would always take preeminent status.
It occurred to him as he approached it that he hadn’t been to the third palace before, despite the tours he’d been on, although he supposed that it wasn’t so surprising, with him having only been there a week. The Wen sect’s domain, like its city, was vast and sprawling, teeming with people and buildings alike; it would take many visits, he expected, before he would learn it all. Still, Wen Ruohan had promised him the freedom to wander where he willed, and no one stopped him as he headed into the palace, seeking his sworn brother through the usual signs of his presence: the overwhelming concentration of qi, and the usual disarray of guards and servants that invariably had to rearrange themselves to account for the presence of their sect leader.
He found him, too.
Wen Ruohan was smiling the same smile he had given Lan Qiren earlier that day, full of satisfaction and pleasure and amusement, a bowl of wine dangling between his fingers as he leaned back in his seat, his entire posture suggesting that he was enjoying himself as he watched a good show – only what was in front of him was terror and blood and bile, men and women strapped to horrific devices as they screamed and bled and begged for mercy that they would not receive.
Lan Qiren must have made a sound, though he did not realize it, because Wen Ruohan turned to look at him, his eyebrows arching in surprise. “What are you doing in the Fire Palace, little Lan…?”
The Fire Palace, Lan Qiren thought, feeling strangely numb. Yes, that sounded right.
He’d heard all the rumors about it: how Wen Ruohan was violent and bloodthirsty, how he craved power and control, that he enjoyed torturing his enemies unmercifully until even death was a blessing.
He’d just…disregarded it. Thought it was false, perhaps, or maybe he’d just lied to himself and pretended that because Wen Ruohan was kind to him that he was kind to everyone else.
“Who sent you here, little Lan?” Wen Ruohan asked, his brows coming together in a frown. “Tell me.”
He wasn’t happy. Of course he wasn’t; Lan Qiren wasn’t supposed to be here – he hadn’t been taken to this place, probably purposefully, and he was a creature of habit and routine, which he rarely if ever broke without warning. If he hadn’t feared for Madame Wen’s life, he would never have gone himself, much less in such a rush.
Madame Wen…she must have known what he would find here.
He should have known.
An elder brother was meant to guide and educate the younger. Was this what he was supposed to let Wen Ruohan guide him towards?
Lan Qiren flinched violently at the sound of his name, but it spurred him into motion – he staggered back a few steps, unable to get his bearings for a moment, and then he grabbed blindly at some terrible-looking sharp objects lying on a nearby table waiting for their turn to be used. A flick of his wrist sent them into the throats of the victims, ending their suffering in a gout of blood, and then he turned on his heel and fled, tearing off the too-expensive guan as he did, the pearls falling on the ground behind him.
“I thought he liked you,” Cangse Sanren said, her hands warm on Lan Qiren’s back as he buried his face into his hands. He didn’t even scold her for it, ignoring all the strictures against too-close interactions between men and women in his misery. “I really did, or else I wouldn’t have encouraged him. I’m sorry.”
Words of apology like that came easily to her lips, unbound as she was by the usual complicated human emotions behind them. It was one of the many traits of hers that Lan Qiren envied.
Having finished her tenure at the Cloud Recesses, Cangse Sanren had been living at the Lotus Pier as a guest of the Jiang sect the past few months, and seemed to be quite happy there. Rumors had already gone around about how she’d been night-hunting with Jiang Fengmian and his retinue, much to the frustration of the third daughter of Meishan Yu, who’d had her heart set on him for ages.
Despite this, Cangse Sanren had still written cheerful letters to Lan Qiren, and he’d written back faithfully, although he’d tried not to bother her too much. He hadn’t actually asked her to return to the Cloud Recesses for his sake – after what had happened in the Nightless City, he’d written up some letters trying to explain that he would be very happy to have her company should it not be an imposition, his hand shaky and his calligraphy ugly in a way it hadn’t been since he was a small child, but he’d thrown them all away. He suspected someone had recovered a discarded draft and sent the message for him, probably Lan Yueheng or something like that, but he wasn’t sure; he hadn’t accepted any visitors since his frenzied flight from the Nightless City, locking himself away in his rooms and refusing to see anyone, even his brother.
Especially his brother.
“He does,” Lan Qiren said, his voice hoarse even though he hadn’t really been using it for much in the past few weeks, brooding over what had happened. “I think – he does.”
That was the worst of it, too. Lan Qiren could no longer deceive himself into thinking that Wen Ruohan saw him as a pawn to manipulate, a piece to play as part of a larger game. Their brotherhood might have started out that way, but at some point Wen Ruohan had actually taken an interest in him – a half-immortal like him, powerful beyond reckoning, thinking that Lan Qiren of all people was as precious as the pearls he’d draped him in.
He’d probably had those supposedly spare Wen sect robes made especially for him, too, just as an excuse to see him wearing them; Lan Qiren hadn’t put it together at the time, blinded as he was by the new and exciting feeling of closeness and affection, but in retrospect it had been obvious. Wen Ruohan himself admitted that he longed to possess things that he liked, that his instincts tended towards domination, and even based on their limited acquaintance, Lan Qiren knew that it would be just like Wen Ruohan to manufacture a situation just to see what Lan Qiren looked like wearing his colors.
No: Wen Ruohan sincerely liked Lan Qiren. He liked him a lot.
And he was, without a doubt, a terrible person.
Lan Qiren lived his life by the Lan sect rules. He might only be nineteen years old, two generations junior to Wen Ruohan, but he had at his disposal the wisdom of generations.
There were dozens of rules about what you were supposed to do, how you were supposed to conduct yourself – you were supposed to love the world and strive to fill it with good deeds, to uphold justice and shoulder morality, to be chivalrous and filial and virtuous, to live a life with integrity.
Do not associate with evil.
Wen Ruohan had told him, all that time ago, hadn’t he? It had been one of the first things he’d said to Lan Qiren, stay away from bad men. He’d meant himself then, and he’d been right, too.
It had been Lan Qiren who hadn’t listened.
“I liked him, too,” he said nonsensically, and put his head back down.
“I know,” she said. Cangse Sanren’s voice was not given to gentleness – he’d once scathingly compared it to a horn’s blast, loud and blaring, and she had laughed in delight – but for all her loudness she was also capable of great kindness. “I know, Qiren-gege, I know. You wouldn’t care so much if you didn’t.”
“…I don’t have many friends.”
“I don’t – I don’t need – he’s supposed to be my brother –”
“You have bad luck with brothers, I think,” she said, trying to be a little tactful and largely failing, and Lan Qiren felt himself awash with misery once more. She wasn’t wrong. Lan Qiren clearly had the ability to make friends – Cangse Sanren, for one, or Lan Yueheng and some others like him, even Lao Nie – but clearly he’d no luck when it came to anything more than that.
His blood brother despised him, and his sworn brother, who cared for him, was an evil man who by all rights he ought to avoid. What else could that be but the worst of luck?
“At least you found out early on,” Cangse Sanren said, moving straight back into the practical. She’d long ago admitted that she wasn’t very good with feelings of sadness, preferring to spend her life in joy no matter how difficult. “It would have been worse if it was later.”
“Would it?” Lan Qiren asked. He wasn’t so sure. “I’d have had more grounds to argue with him if I’d known him better.”
“Of course you’d think first of reforming him,” she sighed.
Lan Qiren shrugged. “Liberate, then suppress, and only as a last resort eliminate.”
“That’s for ghosts, Qiren-gege.”
“Most types of resentful energy, actually.” He tried to scrub at his eyes, which were tearing up again. “Most types of evil. And he – he is, isn’t he?”
“I mean, I’d have to do some digging before reaching a firm conclusion, I try not to judge these things second-hand, but based on what you described as seeing in the Fire Palace…probably.” She shook her head. “Even if they were wrongdoers, they ought to be punished according to their crime, or even executed. There’s no call for something on the order of what you described.”
“Maybe it’s different in the Wen sect,” Lan Qiren said, not really meaning it. “They might have different standards – there are punishments we enact that other sects might consider torturous, I suppose. The Jiang sect, for instance, punishes minor offenses only with kneeling, and disapproves of using the discipline rod… Anyway, it’s not - it’s not like it was hidden or anything, like it would be if they thought it shameful. The rumors all said that he was bloodthirsty and fond of torture; everyone knows, and for some reason I’m the only one who seems to mind.”
“Most people didn’t have to see Sect Leader Wen watching it like a particularly good dance routine at a brothel,” Cangse Sanren retorted, and Lan Qiren gagged at the thought. “Anyway, I still think it’s good that you figured out that he was trash before you got in too deep.”
“He’s not trash,” Lan Qiren objected, and she gave him an incredulous look. “He’s not! He’s not – he doesn’t have to stop. He’s a sect leader; he has complete dominion within his territory. His territory is the most expansive of all the Great Sects, he’s the most personally powerful of all the sect leaders…he can do as he likes, and I can’t do anything about it. If anything, I was in the wrong for profaning his hospitality by – by –”
“By putting those people out of their misery?”
“…that,” Lan Qiren said, and felt sick again.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You were entirely in the right! You should always stand up for morality, no matter the circumstance…” Cangse Sanren scowled. “Hold up, are you saying you’d considering making up with him?”
Lan Qiren sighed and scrubbed at his face.
“He’s my sworn brother,” Lan Qiren said. “I swore an oath.”
Loyalty and fidelity - all those clauses about not being betrayed. He’d promised.
“That’s ridiculous,” Cangse Sanren argued. “So what if you swore an oath? So did he!”
“He swore to guide me, I swore to follow; it’s not the same.”
“He still has to be a good role model –”
“Maybe in his view he is.”
“Absurd. What utter trash!”
“It’s still an oath, Cangse Sanren!”
“Marriage is an oath, too, and they still invented divorce,” she said, scowling. Cangse Sanren had never met the word ‘no’ and liked it; it wasn’t in her character. “You can’t just let him go on like that, breaking your heart!”
“I wouldn’t call it –”
Cangse Sanren gave him a look, and Lan Qiren closed his mouth.
He supposed it was a bit like that.
“I thought it would work out, that’s all,” he said finally, somehow managing to talk around the lump of misery in his chest. “As something more than – what I have already.”
He’d spent years in denial and privately blaming himself, his awkwardness and his failures and his poor potential, for the poor state of his relationship with his brother, but then it turned out that who he was was enough to make someone like Sect Leader Wen, who had no pity and no sympathy and no natural fondness of other people, like him, so maybe in the end it wasn’t him.
Maybe it was only as Cangse Sanren had said: that he had poor luck in brothers.
“Just that?” she asked, and sounded curious. He looked at her in question, not understanding what she meant. “I mean, I don’t know. You were in the Nightless City for a whole week, unsupervised and clearly getting your feet swept out from under you by the charming and dashing Sect Leader Wen – did he really not try anything?”
“Try anything – Cangse Sanren! I already told you, it’s Lao Nie he likes like that.” He frowned. “At least, I think he does? No, I’m sure of it. Lao Nie calls him Hanhan, and Sect Leader Wen lets him; they must be – close. And Lao Nie’s proud of how undiscriminating he is.”
“Yes, I’m pretty sure Lao Nie lost half his interest in me when he realized I didn’t have a spare set of teeth somewhere awkward,” Cangse Sanren agreed, rolling her eyes. She’d spent a short time at the Unclean Realm, too. “Are you sure? I would’ve sworn…well, anyway, who cares about him? What about you? Did you like Wen Ruohan like that?”
Lan Qiren grimaced. “I’ve never been good at that,” he demurred, and it was true.
At nineteen, by the standards of the Great Sects, he was generally considered a little too young to marry, and wouldn’t have been expected to – but plenty of young men his age and much younger were mooning over women left and right, and he’d never done that. He wanted a wife, of course, the way that he wanted to be an adult and to go traveling and to be a teacher, a sort of distant far-off future plan; he’d always been attracted by the idea of having a companion to share joys and sorrows with, but he’d never seen the appeal of soft curves or a pretty face the way all his peers seemed to instinctively understand. He hadn’t worried, thinking that desire was something that would come with time, although as he got older he started to worry that he’d perhaps missed the optimal period for it to happen. Even Cangse Sanren, who he liked a great deal – he didn’t think of her that way, not even when she’d admitted that she liked him.
“I know that,” she said, nudging him playfully. “I just thought you might be a cutsleeve, that’s all.”
“I don’t think so? I mean, I don’t know,” he said, and sighed. “I thought about it for a while, you know, after our last discussion on the subject. It’s not that it’s not accepted – I mean, it’s not popular, but it’s not forbidden, either, and there’s plenty of precedent for people in the Lan sect with those sorts of interests. But when I went to look at the spring books in the library –”
“You snuck a peek? Qiren-gege! How daring!”
“Be quiet. It’s a time-honored Lan sect tradition; if peeking weren’t encouraged, the books would be locked away in the forbidden section rather than just placed on an awkwardly high shelf.”
She giggled, and her endless good humor cheered him up a little.
“Anyway,” he said. “I looked it over, but it still just seemed like – I don’t know. Too much trouble.”
Cangse Sanren found that hilarious for some reason.
“Maybe it’s just the bedding you think is stupid?” she finally asked after getting the laughter out of her system and making a completely unnecessary hand gesture in case he didn’t understand that she meant sex instead of actual bedding. “It’s pretty stupid, I’m not going to lie.”
Lan Qiren gave her a sharp look. “You’re not married.”
“Don’t change the subject! Would you like a wife – or a husband, I suppose – if you didn’t have to sleep with them?”
“I wouldn’t ask that of someone,” Lan Qiren objected. “It’s a fundamental aspect of it, isn’t it? Anyway, I don’t – it’s not that – there’s nothing wrong with it in principle, I don’t mean to judge others – only – listen, it’s just troublesome, that’s all, and I don’t especially want to – Why are we even talking about this, anyway?”
Cangse Sanren laughed at him again.
“Regarding Sect Leader Wen, I have no grounds to object to his actions, so I won’t,” Lan Qiren decided, returning to their original subject, which although miserable was far less humiliating. “But I don’t have to pretend like I like it, either. Don’t associate with evil.”
“He’s your sworn brother,” Cangse Sanren reminded him, as if he’d somehow managed to forget. “If you’re not willing to be forsworn, how can you avoid him?”
“I’ll figure it out,” he said with a sigh. “It’s just a disappointment, that’s all. I’ll accept it, the way I’ve accepted all the others.”
She pressed her lips together, clearly unhappy. “One day that’s not going to be enough,” she finally said. “One day, you’ll run into a disappointment that’s so great that it’ll swallow you up.”
Lan Qiren opened his mouth to argue, then closed it. It was said that those who left Baoshan Sanren’s mountain were doomed, their longing to join humanity bringing down a sad fate onto their heads, though it was unclear if they would all go mad and evil the way her first disciple had all those years ago or if they would just die unhappily. What could he say against that?
“I’ll deal with that when it comes, I suppose,” he said, and felt uncomfortably like he had seen some trace of the heavens’ design that he shouldn’t have. “I don’t want to think about it anymore. Tell me about you.”
“How are you enjoying the Lotus Pier? And how do you – uh – that is –”
“Know enough to have an opinion about what people do in bed?” she said, her eyes curving into crescents as she grinned. “Well. Let me tell you all about that, since the two answers are the same. There’s this absolutely darling man in the Lotus Pier, very funny, by the name of Wei Changze –”
“Wei Changze? Not Jiang Fengmian?”
Cangse Sanren winked at him. “Rules against gossip, Qiren-gege!”
“It’s not gossip if it’s news!” he defended himself, though in all honesty it was probably mostly just gossip. “I wanted to know how you were doing!”
“And I’m glad of it! Let me tell you all about the ridiculous love triangle I’ve found myself in –”
It’s not gossip if it’s news, Lan Qiren reminded himself even as he settled in to listen. He put away all thoughts of Wen Ruohan for the moment, and thought that it was all for the best. There was nothing he could do about it, after all.
The facts were what they were: Wen Ruohan was his sworn brother; Wen Ruohan liked Lan Qiren, and Lan Qiren liked him in return; Wen Ruohan was an evil man who enjoyed causing pain.
Lan Qiren would just have to find a way to live with that.
Time passed, as it had a tendency to do.
After Cangse Sanren left, Lan Qiren remained in seclusion for the next two months, reviewing texts on the Lan sect rules regarding reciprocation, filial respect, and loyalty, and occasionally playing some new pieces – he’d started composing music as well as simply learning it, and that was a finicky business. Not only did he need to worry about the musical composition itself, like any normal musician, but there was also interweaving the spiritual energies and figuring out the way the song could be used as a spell, which was a completely different and often completely contradictory set of rules.
Moreover, the most powerful song-spells, he knew, were the ones that incorporated and drew on emotion, and he’d always had difficulty with those. Like most of his clan, Lan Qiren cleaved towards the more intellectual melodies, difficult but cold and distant, yet if he wanted to be truly innovative, he would need to find melodies in his heart.
Not long before he went to the Nightless City he had been inspired in a dream with a half-snippet of sound, which he had been painstakingly building up into a song in fits and starts, but recently he had found that whenever he played it the only image that came to mind was that of pearls scattered amidst blood-red mud.
The song was good, though, although it felt unfinished and incomplete. After he emerged from seclusion, he played it for his music teacher, first without qi and then with, demonstrating the suffocating and asphyxiating feeling of it – a heavy stone sitting in the midst of his chest, all his misery and anxieties wrapped up into musical notes – and his music teacher had been thrilled.
“You were born to write tragedies, child,” he said, examining the score proudly. “This is not only good but innovative, a new style with unexpected effects. I look forward to seeing you refine this further, and to your future works.”
Lan Qiren saluted deeply.
Music was just about the only thing that was going right for him at the moment.
The other disciples had been lured back into gossip by his presence, consumed by curiosity, and the teachers had come down on it hard, breeding resentment; even his few friends had been made tired by the whole fuss and only wanted it to die down. The rumors went by swiftly and quickly, anything to do with the Wen sect or the Nightless City almost immediately spread around everywhere, reaching his ears almost immediately upon his exit from seclusion.
One in particular caused him alarm, suggesting that Madame Wen had been discarded or even killed immediately after successfully bearing a son to her husband, but Lan Yueheng had convinced Lan Ganhui, always good at making friends, to write to the Wen sect disciples he’d become friendly with in the Nightless City to find out the truth. In the end, it turned out that Wen Ruohan had merely grown more distant from her, instructing her to go into seclusion for the birth a little early, and had perhaps sarcastically sent her a few treatises on the subject of a wife’s duty to support her husband. In the end, Wen Ruohan was an ambitious and ruthless man who encouraged his sect to take him as his model - as he himself had remarked, Madame Wen’s viciousness in fact demonstrated how she was an excellent match for him.
Lan Qiren hated that he was relieved that Wen Ruohan had not taken out his rage at what had happened on his wife, who had instigated the incident. He hated even more his suspicions that Wen Ruohan might have refrained from doing so not out of morality but out of the thought that Lan Qiren himself might disapprove - he wasn’t sure if that thought made him happy or sad.
At any rate, he soon didn’t have time to worry about things like that.
Lan Qiren’s refusal to explain in any detail what had happened at the Nightless City that had sent him fleeing and retreating into seclusion was largely not accepted by his curious peers, especially when someone had jeeringly pointed out that he’d probably told Cangse Sanren the whole thing already, and he refused to go to his teachers to complain, as he had in his youth.
His brother hadn’t accepted it, either.
He’d given Lan Qiren ten days after exiting seclusion, clearly expecting him to come and report on what had happened. When Lan Qiren had not done so, he had finally grown impatient and found him, demanding to know what it was that he had done that had caused such a fuss.
Lan Qiren had knelt and declared that he was unfilial and disobedient, that he had broken the rules, and requested that his brother punish him for his wrongdoing.
His brother had stared at him for a long time before realizing that Lan Qiren was serious – that he would rather be punished for intentionally breaking the rules against honoring and obeying his elders than tell what he had done or what had happened. Even when he was dragged to the hanshI, his collar pulled tight in his brother’s fist until he was thrown down to kneel in front of their father the sect leader, Lan Qiren did not object; he knelt without complaint, and even pressed his forehead to the ground in deference, but he did not speak.
The punishment his father decided upon for him was harsh, but Lan Qiren accepted it willingly. By the rules of his sect, an accepted punishment expiated a breach of the rules; once punished, he could no longer be persecuted for what he had done to earn the punishment. It would be over and done with.
Of course, there were always ways around that.
Technically, Lan Qiren’s breach was not in refusing to tell what had happened, but in disrespecting his elders by so refusing. A few days after he recovered from his initial punishment, his brother, still furious at having been denied, asked him the same question, with the same result. Their father looked disapprovingly at his eldest son – deliberately exploiting loopholes was not good etiquette – but again imposed a punishment.
Lan Qiren gritted his teeth and endured.
Lan Qiren’s brother did not bother him a third time, but by then it was too late; their relationship continued to deteriorate. Lan Qiren sought to avoid his brother whenever possible, and his brother’s disappointment in him grew; although he did not explicitly complain or impose punishments directly, he made his views clear. Those disciples and teachers that most admired him were, as always, more than willing to follow his lead and fill in the gaps, and for one reason or another Lan Qiren spent more time in the discipline hall than ever before.
Eventually, noticing the division, others in the sect sought to reconcile them – their teachers, in the most part – but Lan Qiren rebuffed them, having noticed that their requests to be more considerate and free-minded were always aimed at him and never to his brother.
After poor Lan Yueheng, who never cared about anything but his alchemy and his mathematics and, possibly, the particularly indulgent outer-sect female disciple that guarded the stockroom of the ingredients he used to make things explode and regularly looked the other way when he came to get an extra helping, got roped into trying to tell Lan Qiren to be more forgiving, citing rules about fighting within families leading to nothing with a miserable and bemused expression on his face, Lan Qiren went to the teacher in question and rather acidly pointed out the discrepancy.
“He’s your elder,” the teacher said.
“Do not disrespect the younger,” Lan Qiren retorted.
“He’s your family –”
“Am I not his?”
The teacher sighed. “It’s not the same, with him. You know how he is – how he’s always been.”
Lan Qiren knew. Still, he said, “If you can identify where my conduct does not live up to the rules, please do so, and I will consider if my conduct requires modification. At the moment, I do not.”
“Why must I always be the one to yield?” Lan Qiren demanded. “I didn’t answer one question, and I took the punishment for it, as was my right. He is the one who is insisting on making a fuss, not me – why come to me? I don’t want anything from him.”
“That’s the problem. You shouldn’t fight so – why this, why now? You’ve always yielded to him before.”
Lan Qiren said nothing.
“He’s still your elder brother, Qiren. Soon, he’ll be your sect leader.”
“Do not fear the strong; do not bully the weak,” Lan Qiren said. “Being sect leader makes him more responsible, not less.”
“I have been a good brother to him for nearly twenty years, honored teacher. Perhaps not the most promising, perhaps somewhat embarrassing, but devoted in my own way. I have not changed so much. I am still loyal, still filial; I still do all that I am asked…the only thing that changed is that I expect nothing from him.”
Not even his love.
Lan Qiren knew better, now. He’d seen what a brother could be, what it should be - he’d experienced, however fleetingly, having someone genuinely care for him, listen to him and indulge him and take joy in his company; no longer would he accept his brother’s barely concealed disdain as an adequate substitute.
“Has my father said anything?”
His teacher fell silent.
Lan Qiren bowed his head, having expected nothing better. His father was growing more and more distant from the world, less and less interested in the minutiae of everyday life; he could still stir himself to care for his precious eldest son, the child of his heart, but his oft-forgotten and overlooked second?
Unless Lan Qiren’s brother had complained about him, his father was unlikely to remember that such a person as Lan Qiren even existed.
“Does father hate me?” he asked, emboldened by his misery. It was the question he had always wanted to ask and had never dared to, and his teacher flinched as if struck. “Is that why he never saw me?”
“No,” his teacher said. “No – it wasn’t…”
“Does he blame me for my mother’s death?”
“He blames himself,” his teacher said, and sounded tired unto death. “From the very first. He thought that if he had not been sect leader, they might not have lost their children; if he was not sect leader, it wouldn’t have mattered if they’d had only one child left. But he couldn’t blame the sect, so he blamed himself – you don’t know how bad it was, Qiren; you don’t know what we all went through back then. When your mother died, he even lost his mind for a time.”
“What does that have to do with me?” Lan Qiren demanded. His hands had clenched into fists at some point, his knuckles pale and white. “If he blames himself and not me, then why did he – he never –”
He barely even saw me, he wanted to say. I am his son, just like my brother, yet it’s as if I don’t exist.
Why couldn’t he love me, too?
“You were very young,” his teacher said, his voice suddenly very distant as if he were remembering something. Lan Qiren looked at him in surprise. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but...she had just died, and he had lost his mind; none of us had realized the extent to it, thinking it merely grief. You were young, you didn’t understand. You ran to him, seeking comfort, and he nearly – he couldn’t risk having such a sin on his conscience, Qiren. You should not blame him.”
“What are you saying? That he neglected me and held me at arms’ length to console himself for nearly murdering me?” Lan Qiren asked, and thought back to all the times he had found himself afraid of his father’s glacial voice, terrified for no reason. If his father had tried to kill him in a rage, as his teacher suggested, shouldn’t he have been more scared of the heat than of cold?
Unless - his brilliant and accomplished father, who always acted as the rules said he should but who had lost his heart along with his wife - unless he had knowingly -
Perhaps it had been the sect that had ordered their separation, not his father. Perhaps his father, who had spent years going through the motions of leadership and caring only about the son that reminded him of his wife’s joy and not the one who reminded him only of her death - his father, who led their sect and raised his eldest son and in so doing taught them all to be like him, overly partial to favorites and overly harsh to those that did not meet expectations - perhaps he had not objected to that arrangements. Perhaps it had been the elders that had set the rule of meeting only once a month, rather than not at all.
Perhaps they had thought that it had been for Lan Qiren’s own good that they had done so.
Perhaps they thought it was for his own good that they encouraged him to yield now to his brother’s temper, to humble himself despite having done nothing wrong, and all for the sake of familial peace.
That was not the conduct mandated by his family’s rules. Not the ones he followed, anyway.
It’s his fault, Lan Qiren thought suddenly. He saw the path we were walking down, my brother and I, and he did nothing to stop it; he loved my brother too much and me too little, and ruined us both through his negligence and indifference. He made my brother think he deserved the world that he then had to hold up on his own, while he made me think I deserved nothing...he could have done better by us. He should have done better by us.
Finding that his teacher had run out of things to say, Lan Qiren saluted him once again.
“I will be filial and loyal, as the rules require,” he said simply. “I will respect and honor my father and brother. Do not doubt that.”
He said no more. Instead, he returned to his quarters, wondering if they thought he was happy about how things stood between him and his brother, who he still loved.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
He thought miserably to himself that he had been happier living in denial, pretending to himself that there was brotherly affection between them, that his brother’s coldness was only because Lan Qiren had spoiled things somehow by being inferior than his brother would have preferred. When he could love his brother whole-heartedly and think to himself that his brother secretly loved him back, when he suspected but did not know that that had only ever been a lie he had concocted for himself. He had been far happier back then than the way it was now, when even the paper-thin one-sided façade of love was gone.
The saddest part of it all was that Lan Qiren still loved his brother, his stupid Lan heart as inexorable as a mountain avalanche already set in motion. He just didn’t much like him.
He did like Wen Ruohan, the brother that liked him back and might even have loved him if a man such as him could recognize such a tender emotion, but that wasn’t really relevant.
Lan Qiren knew his duty, whether to his sect, to his brothers, or to morality. He knew what he had to do.
For his part, Wen Ruohan waited over a month and a half after Lan Qiren’s exit from seclusion before trying to reach out again by mail. No doubt conscious of his dignity and ego, the powerful sect leader that no one ever really denied, his letter talked around the subject in Wen Ruohan’s usual high-handed manner and evaded either apologies or explanations; from his tone, it was likely that he expected Lan Qiren to respond in anger and denial, or even not to respond at all. Instead, Lan Qiren wrote back obediently, reporting dully on his daily life. When pressed, he even wrote a short summary of his ongoing projects, copying the words precisely from the submissions he made for his teachers to avoid excessive enthusiasm.
Wen Ruohan’s letters developed a certain level of concern after that, which Lan Qiren ignored in favor of continuing to respond politely but unenthusiastically; a filial younger brother, just as he was to his own blood brother, and nothing more. At the next discussion conference, he saluted Wen Ruohan to the exact degree required by their relationship and called him xiongzhang as a respectful younger brother ought; Wen Ruohan had an expression on his face that suggested he had bitten into a sour lemon and stepped in dog shit at the same time, and his eyes followed Lan Qiren around for the remainder of the afternoon.
Lan Qiren was concerned for a while that Wen Ruohan would try to summon him once night fell, forcing the issue, but he was saved through an unexpected twist of fate – namely, that Jiang Fengmian had, like all the others, completely misinterpreted Lan Qiren’s relationship with Cangse Sanren. The Jiang sect heir marched up to him not long after the opening ceremonies had been completed and asked him, stiffly, to swear that he had no interest in the lady and would not communicate with her in the future. Lan Qiren, thinking primarily of their friendship, refused, and then Jiang Fengmian punched him right in the face.
Lan Qiren might be cold and standoffish as a rule, but he did have a temper, and that temper did not hold with being assaulted over things that weren’t even his fault – neither of them were even involved with Cangse Sanren! – and having been so thoroughly goaded he had no choice but to hit back.
In the end, Cangse Sanren had slapped Jiang Fengmian silly and Lan Qiren’s brother had sent him to kneel in disgrace all night, reminding him no fighting without permission and with his eyes silently promised additional punishment when they returned home.
Wen Ruohan didn’t disturb him that night, and Lan Qiren was able to persevere. Indeed, Wen Ruohan troubled him much less than he’d feared, opting in his hurt pride to instead turn to Lao Nie and stay remarkably close by his side – Lao Nie was the one who looked apologetically at Lan Qiren and tried to find time for him, whether to invite him on outings or to scold his brother for the apparent breakdown in domestic tranquility. For his part, Lan Qiren ignored Lao Nie and didn’t hold it against him even when he started showing up to the discussion meetings with distinctive red marks on his throat.
All right, he held it against him a little.
How Lao Nie had such bad taste, Lan Qiren had no idea. Surely he, unlike Lan Qiren, had known enough to realize that Wen Ruohan was an evil man…?
Probably he had; it was only that he didn’t much care. Lan Qiren had promised to try to stop lying to himself about people he liked, and that meant he couldn’t pretend that Lao Nie wasn’t a remarkably callous man at times, ruthless and careless with anything that was outside his sect – even his friends. There could be no doubt that he loved them, sincerely and honestly, and yet…
Lan Qiren was a little disappointed, but not much, knowing that he, too, was irrevocably bound to such a man as Wen Ruohan. He couldn’t blame Lao Nie for the same thing he himself had done.
Mostly he was just pleased that his suspicion regarding their relationship had been confirmed, even if somehow – unbelievably – no one else seemed to notice it.
In fact, he thought it might mark the very first time in his life that he’d figured out something interpersonal before other people had. Normally he would report it to someone at his sect as soon as he noticed that they’d overlooked it, wanting to do his best for them, but the sensation was too novel and his relations with his sect a little too cold at the moment; he hugged the knowledge to his chest instead, enjoying the brief warm feeling of knowing something other people didn’t.
He intended to tell them, of course, once they returned back to the Cloud Recesses, only they had barely brushed the dust of their journey off their shoulders when they were summoned to the gathering hall for what everyone had now expected for years: Lan Qiren’s father, eyes blank, made the announcement that he was officially setting the date for which he would be retiring as sect leader and retreating from the world, going into seclusion to try to break through the boundaries of cultivation and reach the heavens in a single bound or else die in the attempt.
Lan Qiren’s brother, naturally, would inherit.
He was as fresh from the road as the rest of them, but with his hands behind his back, standing beside their father, he looked as fresh and untouched as a new-bloomed orchid, as beautiful as a polished piece of jade. His eyes reflected the dichotomy that Lan Qiren had learned governed his brother’s life: pride, for the power that he was going to inherit and the accomplishments that everyone agreed made him worthy of that inheritance, and envy, looking at his own father with jealousy, longing also to withdraw from the weight the world had placed on him and do what he could on his own, unburdened by others.
Lan Qiren’s brother, Lan Qiren had learned, saw everything in his life through the prism of himself – did others have something he wanted, did he have something that they didn’t, how did he compare, was he being compared…when he got something into his mind, he cared for nothing else but how to achieve it, no matter the cost, and most of the time he was successful, too. He was fundamentally self-sufficient, requiring nothing and no one but himself, and so was capable of performing miracles – if he was motivated to do so.
Lan Qiren was much less capable. He was lacking in cultivation, lacking in social skills, lacking even in a similar degree of independence, longing as he did for the company and acceptance of his peers even as his introversion demanded sufficient time to himself. There was no way in which he was superior to his brother; in every respect, he was inferior.
And yet, sometimes, he thought that his brother was jealous of him, too.
(Their father retreating into seclusion meant that they would both be losing him – but it was really only Lan Qiren’s brother that lost something. For Lan Qiren, what he mourned was only the absence of what had never been there, and he had finished mourning for that already.)
In the end, the main change occasioned by the impending change in leadership was that Lan Qiren’s brother grew too busy to pay much attention to Lan Qiren, much to his relief. Relations between them grew…not warmer, no, but less fraught, and although Lan Qiren knew he ought to celebrate, he mostly mourned that the cause of it was not a real mending of fences but rather his brother simply forgetting that he existed, just as their father always had.
Lan Qiren took the first opportunity he had to get out of the Cloud Recesses, even attending a party to celebrate sworn brother’s new son with relatively little issue. During the visit, Wen Ruohan ignored him in favor of sticking ever closer to a strangely distracted Lao Nie, almost as if he were deliberately slighting Lan Qiren for having been cold in their last interaction and for not answering his letters the way he wanted. Lan Qiren briefly felt hurt at having been put aside and forgotten so quickly - assuming that he had been forgotten, which he wasn’t sure of, as Wen Ruohan ignoring him sometimes seemed almost performative - but then reminded himself that this, like his poor relationship with his blood brother, was only the results of his own actions, and those of others.
He didn’t – regret it, not really. He’d lived his life by the Lan sect rules, and he didn’t regret doing so now, no matter how lonely the results might make him feel.
Instead, he returned to the Cloud Recesses and began to plan out in earnest his plans for departing the Cloud Recesses to travel the world as a musician, the goal he had set since he was young and was finally, impossibly, on the verge of satisfying. He would need to stay for his brother’s ascension to sect leader the next year, he thought, and perhaps for a year after that – just because their relationship wasn’t good didn’t mean he was entitled to do things that would let other people talk about it – but after that…
After that, he would go.
He would make new friends, or not. He would learn new things. He would see what the world was like.
Sooner than he thought, Lan Qiren turned twenty, thereby finally becoming an adult. The event took place with little fanfare, and Lan Qiren sent back the gifts he received from both Wen Ruohan and Lao Nie unopened with a polite note indicating that he was unworthy of such attention, and Cangse Sanren’s with a much more emphatic note reminding her that he was largely uninterested in sexual matters and therefore had no need for these sorts of implements.
His brother got him new guqin strings, the same gift he always gave – Lan Qiren had once been very happy to receive it before he realized that it was the storeroom distributing the gift in his brother’s name – and Lan Qiren returned that as well. Lan Yueheng was the only one who successfully managed to give him a gift by virtue of sneaking the fancy brush he’d bought for him into his table in such a way that Lan Qiren utilized it before realizing it was new, and then refused to take it back on the basis that it had already been used. He looked so pleased with himself over his little trick that Lan Qiren didn’t have the heart to scold him.
Time continued to pass: day by day, night by night, season by season.
And then she arrived.
“Your brother has been acting strange,” Lan Yueheng said, his voice drifting in through the open door.
He was crouched down in the dirt, happily gathering a small harvest from the plants he’d grown outside Lan Qiren’s window. Most of the materials he used for his alchemy experiments he obtained from the specialized fields in the Cloud Recesses, but there were some variants that the sect members in charge of those fields disfavored on account of certain pharmacological side effects associated with them. Lan Yueheng had prevailed on his friendship with Lan Qiren to beg, at some considerable length, that he be allowed to grow those variants in the area near Lan Qiren’s rooms – he’d argued that no one would ever think to check there on account of Lan Qiren’s rule-abiding reputation.
Lan Qiren had pointed out that there were no actual rules against growing those plants - they were only disfavored, not disallowed - thereby rendering the entire issue with people checking for it moot, but Lan Yueheng had insisted and eventually he’d yielded.
Let Lan Yueheng grow his nightmare plants wherever he liked. what did he care? He wasn’t using that patch of land for anything in particular, and it was nice to have a reason to see Lan Yueheng on a regular basis.
“Strange how?” Lan Qiren asked, finishing off the final stroke of a painting. He didn’t like it, but then again, he never liked any of the paintings he did for himself – they were too stiff and unfeeling, in his view, lacking spirit and movement no matter what he tried. His favorite painting was still the antique Wen Ruohan had left on his wall all that time ago, a lively little landscape with burnt edges suggesting that it had been hastily recovered from a fire at some point; he’d never replaced any of the things his sworn brother had gotten for him.
“I’m not sure how to describe it. Just strange,” Lan Yueheng said. “I don’t know how many people have noticed yet, him being pretty standoffish and above-it-all at the best of times, but it’s not the usual sort of thing for him.”
Lan Yueheng was like Lan Qiren; they were good at noticing patterns, however bad they were at figuring out the meanings behind it. If Lan Yueheng said it wasn’t normal, it probably wasn’t.
Lan Qiren rubbed at his forehead, suppressing the desire to go figure out the problem right away. “I don’t think I can help,” he said instead. “He doesn’t like to see me, remember?”
“He’s important to the sect,” Lan Yueheng said peaceably, and Lan Qiren loved him all over again for not saying he’s still your brother. “You might not like him, but you like the sect. So you have to help figure it out.”
Lan Qiren did not like it when Lan Yueheng was right about things. It gave him a strange itchy feeling of dissatisfaction.
“Someone else could figure it out,” he argued. “He’s sect leader now, remember? His well-being is everyone’s responsibility.”
“But you’re the one who’s good at figuring out weird stuff.”
“Do not tell lies,” Lan Qiren grumbled, but he still put away his things and went to see his brother – who wasn’t where he was supposed to be. Any of the places he was supposed to be.
That was strange.
Lan Qiren’s brother was talented and powerful, skilled and meticulous; he was too proud of his status and accomplishments to shirk work. Whatever had drawn him away must have been very compelling indeed – or so Lan Qiren thought.
He wasn’t expecting, when he finally tracked down his brother through a tracker spell utilized on an old comb, to find him walking through the forest alongside a young woman, sword at his side as if he were night-hunting.
“I am night-hunting,” he said when Lan Qiren asked him. “I’m escorting Mistress He.”
Lan Qiren turned to look at the girl.
She smiled at him in a perfunctory sort of fashion. She was beautiful in a way that reminded Lan Qiren a little of Cangse Sanren, though her looks were very different – more refined and elegant, more delicate and less down-to-earth, thoroughly lacking the vaguely unsettling undertones so characteristic of Baoshan Sanren’s disciple, but no less lovely in her own way.
“Qingheng-jun was just showing me the lay of the land,” she said coolly. “If you need him to return, of course, I won’t keep him.”
“There’s nothing else I need to do,” he said at once, which was such a blatant lie that Lan Qiren’s jaw dropped.
The girl glanced over at him and looked amused, saluting briefly: “He Kexin, a rogue cultivator,” she introduced herself. She shouldn’t have needed to; per etiquette, Lan Qiren’s brother should have introduced them, but he was clearly too far into his own world to care for such niceties. “And you are…?”
“Gusu Lan sect’s Lan Qiren,” Lan Qiren said on automatic, returning the salute. “I’m – his brother.”
“Oh?” she said. “In that case, you must have plenty to talk about. Anyway, there doesn’t seem to be much night-hunting here, so I’ll be leaving.”
Lan Qiren’s brother saluted deeply. “I hope to see you again soon, Mistress He.” His voice was gentler than Lan Qiren had ever heard it.
She waved a careless hand in half-hearted agreement as she went, but Lan Qiren’s brother stared after her departing figure until she was out of sight. Only when she was fully gone did he turn away, and when he did, he turned only in order to glare at Lan Qiren.
“Why did you interrupt us?” he asked, and his voice had gone back to its usual cold remove. “We were finally spending some time together alone, without those friends of hers crowding in and bothering us.”
Lan Qiren glanced in the direction that He Kexin had gone. “I don’t think it’ll make much of a difference,” he said hesitantly. “If you’re alone or with her friends, I mean. I don’t think – I don’t think that she likes you all that much.”
Lan Qiren had no natural social skills, not like his brother, who was charming enough to draw most people in despite or perhaps because of his cool and distant demeanor, but in sheer self-defense he had worked very hard to categorize and identify a variety of unspoken signals utilized by people in order to try to figure out logically what he couldn’t do intuitively. While he was still terrible at identifying indications of positive interest of any sort, as Cangse Sanren was always teasing him, he had gotten much better at detecting negative signs that indicated disinterest, indifference, or boredom.
“She likes me well enough,” his brother said, his tone oddly defensive. “She’s reserved, that’s all – you really can’t tell who she secretly likes or doesn’t. She’s a brilliant cultivator, sharp as a blade and clever as anything; it’s no wonder that she’s kind to others in equal measure as well…”
“She makes me feel free,” his brother said, cutting him off. “She’s just - she’s smart and she’s talented and she’s fearless, unrestrained and untamed. There’s nothing weighing her down or holding her back. She bears no expectations and no pressure, and nothing has ever forced her, molded her development in this way or that; she lives her life just drifting on the breeze, complete untethered, and when I’m with her I feel the same, and I’ve never felt that way…”
He trailed off, eyes oddly dreamy, and then suddenly he seemed to come back to himself and remember to whom he was speaking. “Anyway, what do you know about women, Qiren? You’re as frigid as an icicle hanging in the window or a mountain lake in midwinter.”
Lan Qiren acknowledged the point, but he didn’t see its relevance. “If she doesn’t like you, she doesn’t like you,” he pointed out. “There’s nothing you can do about it –”
“Are you saying there’s nothing you actually wanted from me?” his brother interrupted, voice sharp now, almost angry. “Your presence is neither wanted nor needed here. Leave at once.”
“No, it’s just – you weren’t at the hanshi, and there’s work to be done.”
“So what? I’ll do it later.”
“You’re sect leader now. You have duties,” Lan Qiren said. “You can’t just go out night-hunting whenever you wish –”
“You said it yourself, I’m sect leader - me, and me alone!” his brother snapped. “From what I recall, that makes me the one who gives the orders, not you. Now get lost!”
Lan Qiren blinked, shocked at the fierceness of the rebuke, and watched as his brother strode away – in the direction He Kexin had gone, rather than back towards the Cloud Recesses.
This, he thought to himself, is a problem.
It was, too. His brother abandoned his duties more and more often, avid in his pursuit of He Kexin, who he had invited to stay for a while at the Cloud Recesses with the friends she was travelling with. She did, as he’d said, seem to like him well enough, but it seemed clear that her regard was far more cursory than his own - and not just to Lan Qiren, either.
Lan Qiren was roped in by the elders to help do some of the work his brother was neglecting, at first a little and then more. It got in the way of his own preparations, and started getting on his nerves, too.
“You don’t understand,” one of his teachers told him when he tried to resist the notion of spending a large chunk of his time on sect paperwork instead of practicing music. “Love, for our sect, is a powerful thing. When it comes unexpectedly, it is wild and irresistible, like a river bursting through a dam and overflowing its banks. It’s no surprise that your brother is so focused on winning his bride – and all for the best, too. He has to have heirs to inherit one day.”
Lan Qiren didn’t disagree with that, naturally. He certainly didn’t want to be stuck being his brother’s heir any longer than he had to. It was only…
“Just because he’s in love with her doesn’t mean she’s going to be his bride,” he said, and wondered a little spitefully why it was just assumed that he didn’t understand what it meant to love someone. Just because he didn’t feel it the same way as they did didn’t make his heart any less a Lan. “I don’t know why you’re all being so stubborn about this. A woman knows her own mind - just because he offers himself doesn’t mean she has to accept.”
“Stop saying such inauspicious things,” his teacher scolded. “You should be wishing your brother luck, instead.”
“He doesn’t need luck,” another teacher, the one for swordsmanship, put in. “He needs more of a backbone. Doesn’t she have a father he can talk to?”
That started up another debate on the relevance of the opinion of the young in setting their own marriages, an old classic, and Lan Qiren sighed and took his leave. He winced when he realized that his brother was not far away, standing with He Kexin in one of the nearby gardens – at his brother’s cultivation level, there was little chance he hadn’t heard the subject of their conversation, and indeed his glare indicated that he had. He Kexin wasn’t looking his way, but Lan Qiren suspected she might’ve heard some as well.
His suspicions were borne out the next day, much to his misfortune.
“Mistress He!” he exclaimed, groping around wildly for his clothing. He’d been humming his way through a new stanza while taking a bath, having taken a day off to wash his hair, only to turn around and see her standing there in the middle of his quarters. “What are you – I’m not dressed – these are my rooms!”
“I know,” she said, not moving.
Lan Qiren decided his dignity was more important than his health and reached out to yank his clothing into the bath with him, ignoring how they got heavy and soaked with water; he pulled on his inner robes and, once attired, he clambered out, rather annoyed. Just because He Kexin was a rogue cultivator didn’t excuse her from knowing manners, and just because she was his brother’s favorite, granted the freedom to wander wherever she would within the Cloud Recesses, didn’t give her the right to violate his privacy. “Mistress He –”
“You’re cute,” she said, and he stared at her, aghast. “Not quite as handsome as your brother, nowhere near as charming, and the way you drone on is rather annoying, but at least you have some respect for a woman’s wishes, and that face of yours isn’t bad. You’re not courting anyone at present, is that right?”
“I’m not,” he said, taken aback. “But what –”
“Good,” she said, and the next thing he knew she was in his arms, trying to kiss him. It was only through his quick reaction that he was able to turn his face away and avoid it.
“Mistress – Mistress He!”
“Keep your voice down,” she said, sounding amused even as she groped him in an intimate place. “It’s part of the plan, eventually, but it’d still be a pity for us to get caught before we get to the fun part.”
“I don’t – I’m not – I don’t want – let go of me!”
“Are you a virgin?” she laughed. “For shame, a man of your age. Just relax, you’ll like it soon enough –”
Lan Qiren’s brother had described He Kexin as a brilliant cultivator, and he’d been right; for all that she was a rogue cultivator, lacking the resources of a Great Sect, she was talented and promising, a powerful sword cultivator in her own right, and her grip on Lan Qiren’s body was relentless.
Lan Qiren tried first to get away from her without harming her, but she wouldn’t let go of him, pulling open his robes and even burying her teeth into his throat – that was the straw too far for him; he whistled a series of notes, short and sharp, the burst of qi shocking her grip loose, and then he threw her as far away from him as he could, knocking her into the opposite wall.
Lan Qiren turned: it was his brother rushing in through his door, falling down to his knees in front of her to examine her to make sure she wasn’t injured, and then turning to look at Lan Qiren, his eyes aflame with rage.
Lan Qiren glanced down at himself: robes askew and sopping wet, scratches on his chest and a bite on his neck.
“No,” he said, abruptly realizing how he must look, how they must look. Part of the plan, He Kexin had said; she must have known that his brother wouldn’t leave her alone for very long, and she’d clearly intended on using Lan Qiren as a means to get his brother to give up on his pursuit. Very few men would continue to chase a woman that spurned them for their own younger brother, especially one they didn’t much like. “It’s not – I didn’t –” Denial wasn’t going to help. “Do not succumb to rage!”
“Do not engage in debauchery,” his brother snapped back, rising to his feet. “Do not break faith!”
Lan Qiren took a step back, and then another. “Do not make assumptions about others.”
His brother wasn’t listening, though, and Lan Qiren found himself slammed against his own wall, held up and strangled by his own collar, his favorite painting falling to the ground from the force of it.
“How dare you,” his brother hissed, his eyes red. “How dare you touch her –”
“I didn’t! She was the one who –”
The next slam of Lan Qiren’s body against the wall jarred his teeth so hard that he bit his tongue to bleeding, and knocked his brain all around his skull. His brother was still talking, he thought, but he couldn’t hear him over the ringing in his ears. It belatedly occurred to him that using the same excuse as every rapist in history – she was asking for it, she was the one who initiated, it was all her – was probably not a good idea, even if in his case it was actually true.
He opened his mouth to try to defend himself, but his brother’s fist hit his stomach before he could speak, all the air knocking out of him.
“And then you – you hurt her –”
“Qingheng-jun, leave him be! It wasn’t him at all, you’re misunderstanding. I only wanted – ”
His brother threw him away, all his attention drawn away by his love, and Lan Qiren stumbled inelegantly on his way down, his feet slipping on the wet floor and tripping him up, and his head slammed hard against the corner of his bathtub as he fell down. As he sank to the floor, his vision going black, he thought blearily that the concussion he was undoubtedly going to have might even be worth it if only it meant that his brother would finally give up on his mad and hopeless pursuit of He Kexin already.
He did not.
When he woke, Lan Qiren expected to find everyone talking about what had happened.
He might have even preferred that, despite the cost it would undoubtedly do to his personal reputation; instead, he found that the entire incident had been largely covered up, with even Lan Yueheng uncertain as to what had caused Lan Qiren’s injury other than that it involved some sort of dispute with his brother. That a mangled version of the story had not spread was as sure a sign as anything that He Kexin, whatever her faults or reckless willingness to act on assumptions with little base in reality, had in fact explained what had really happened, and that his brother had decided that he wouldn’t permit her reputation to be tainted by her actions.
Anyone might have expected the honorable Qingheng-jun to have apologized to Lan Qiren at that point for his own reckless assumptions, but his brother had not. On the contrary, he had left orders for Lan Qiren to be punished for breaching the rules of hospitality in striking an honored guest, and for violating several other rules not publicly specified.
Lan Qiren could imagine which ones his brother had in mind.
“But I didn’t do anything wrong,” Lan Qiren said to his teachers, blankly staring down at the punishment order, written in his brother’s hand. He hadn’t even been given the courtesy of being told about it to his face, as anyone might have expected, nor allowed the opportunity to defend or justify himself; he had been summarily sentenced in a note. “I really didn’t.”
His music teacher and his swordsmanship teacher both looked uncomfortable and awkward, each one clearly aware of the breach of protocol taking place – and, given their position as sect elders and honored teachers, very likely the actual facts of what had occurred. They knew that the only thing he was being punished over was for having the misfortune of being selected as the tool for He Kexin’s scheme, and his brother’s order – vastly excessive for a breach of the sort listed as the reason, given the usual standard of punishments – was due only to his own embarrassment and chagrin, and maybe his jealousy that Lan Qiren had unwillingly gotten even a little of the attention he so greatly desired and could not have. And yet, despite that…
“He is your sect leader,” one of them, the latter, said, and if his voice was a little regretful, it was also cold and passionless. “He has issued punishment. Are you defying his order?”
Lan Qiren’s hands were like fists on his knees. “Where is my brother?” he asked. He didn’t think an appeal would be a good idea, even if he were technically entitled to it – it’d be futile, unless his brother abruptly realized how foolish he was being – but he would be fine with it if only the answer wasn’t…
“With Rogue Cultivator He. She has agreed to give him another chance.”
Lan Qiren bit his lip and looked down. He did not like He Kexin, and not only because she had so grossly transgressed against him in an obvious attempt to convince his brother not to like her any longer – an attempt that, given the extent of his brother’s love-madness, probably wouldn’t have worked even if Lan Qiren hadn’t been utterly repulsed by the idea of bedding his brother’s prospective bride – and the idea of her giving his brother another chance at this point, even after having done so much to try to make him go away…
Perhaps she liked men that fought over her, he thought bitterly. Or perhaps it was only that she appreciated how much of his love she had for him to treat his younger brother as nothing on her behalf - though if that was what she was thinking, she was sorely mistaken.
“Something will need to be done about my brother’s behavior,” he said, looking up at them desperately. “You must know that this is not sustainable, honored teachers.”
“That is not your concern,” his swordsmanship teacher said, while his music teacher merely looked sad and helpless, as if what was happening was a force of nature that could not be quelled or diverted, and not merely a single man’s inappropriate behavior. “Will you accept the punishment? Or do you intend to defy the sect leader’s order?”
Lan Qiren shook his head mutely, and went to the discipline hall.
Afterwards, Lan Yueheng scurried in after him, shoving a healing pill into Lan Qiren’s mouth and holding his mouth shut until he swallowed it. “You should go,” he said, glancing around anxiously. “You don’t want to be here any longer than you have to.”
“You assume I don’t have to,” Lan Qiren said, still shaking from the pain. He’d never gotten that many strikes all at once, not in his life; he could barely stand unaided, and leaned on Lan Yueheng gratefully. “I’m supposed to kneel and meditate on my actions for three days –”
“You can do that somewhere else!”
Lan Qiren shook his head.
But for once Lan Yueheng was right and he was wrong. On the first two days of his punishment, he saw his brother pass by the discipline hall in an excellent mood, his ‘second chance’ with He Kexin going better than he had hoped – according to the gossip Lan Qiren overheard, apparently she did like it when handsome men fought for her and believed in her, and moreover apparently one of her friends had intervened on his behalf – but on the third day, just as he was about to complete his penance for crimes he had not committed, his brother returned suddenly in a fury over some setback. In a bout of bad luck and bad timing, he saw Lan Qiren just as he was making his way out of the hall, and in a fit of temper he had extended his order from one set of strikes to two, even though such a retrospective revision of punishment was contrary to both the letter and spirit of the rules.
He was the sect leader, though. According to the rules Lan Yi had set down so many years ago, as sect leader, he was entitled to vary the rules if he felt the need to do so.
This time, when the punishment was done, Lan Qiren hauled himself out of there, using the wall and sheer willpower to force his shaking legs to carry him, and stiffly announced to the teacher supervising punishments that he planned to meditate in penance in the Cold Spring instead of the discipline hall.
It was technically against the stricter interpretations of discipline, since he’d been punished to kneel, not meditate, but the Cold Spring was known to have recuperative and pain-easing properties as well as acting as an aid to cultivation; his teachers, which had overseen his punishment for the second time with tightly pressed lips signifying disapproval that meant nothing if they were unwilling to take any action to stop it, did not dispute him, and with a nod his freedom was assured.
Lan Qiren had a brief moment of disquiet when he got there and realized that he would have to strip off his clothing in order to bathe – he’d only had enough time to wash himself since the incident with He Kexin, and a quick scrub in the cold air did not leave time to worry about who might try to find him while he lacked a protective layer of clothing – but with a deep breath he reminded himself that he, unlike his brother, would not allow his life to be governed by He Kexin’s whims. Anyway, it would be unhealthy to wade in with all his clothing on; the wet cloth would serve only to make him feel colder and get less benefit out of the water’s healing properties. Even if his golden core was strong enough to resist most of the negative effects of catching cold, there was no need to tempt fate.
He put his clothing somewhere he could easily see it, tucking his access token into the clothing in such a way that summoning the token would drag along the robe as well, and then unsteadily entered the water, wincing at the bracing chill as he sank down until he was neck-deep in the water, settling himself in the proper position to meditate. Or, well, to sit blankly and wait for there to be a little less pain: even putting aside the severity, it was also the first time he’d ever been subject to back-to-back punishments in such a reckless fashion. Lack of treatment after a punishment was fairly standard if the sentence also included kneeling – technically, Lan Yueheng shouldn’t have given him a pill to encourage healing, and Lan Qiren shouldn’t have accepted it, although doing so was not a major breach. Moreover, given that the teachers had ignored it rather than adding on any additional punishment, it might even be seen as having been subtly countenanced.
Lan Qiren rather wished he had one now.
Or Lan Yueheng, for that matter. Or even Cangse Sanren, far away in Yunmeng, or Lao Nie, or someone, anyone, who would be friendly and take his side, even –
Lan Qiren blinked, surprised to note that the angle of the light had changed considerably; he must have fallen asleep or otherwise drifted off. Or perhaps he was still asleep, because why else would he be hearing Wen Ruohan’s slow drawling tone saying his name in the middle of the Cloud Recesses?
“Ah, little Lan,” the man himself said, gliding out of the mist that surrounded the Cold Spring like a wraith. “There you are.”
Lan Qiren stared at him mutely. “You’re – here.”
It didn’t feel real. How could Wen Ruohan be here?
“I am,” Wen Ruohan said, his lips curved in his usual arrogant expression, the one that said I don’t care what you think of me. “Or am I expected to await your invitation in the future?”
“No,” Lan Qiren said, because he felt even less in control of anything to do with his sect than he had been when he’d been its second young master, even though he was now the presumptive heir. His vision of Wen Ruohan blurred and briefly doubled; he blinked to clear it. “I’m glad you’re here.”
He hadn’t meant to say that. Even if it was true.
Wen Ruohan’s eyes briefly widened, and then he smirked, looking delighted by the admission. “So you missed me after all,” he said, his voice low and intimate; one might almost call it a purr. “Ah, my stubborn little brother…”
Lan Qiren briefly closed his eyes. Had his brother ever referred to him directly like that? He couldn’t remember if he had.
He wished that it had been some single moment in time, some rash act, that had driven his blood brother, born of the same father and mother, so far away from him. He even wished that it was something that he had done so that it could be something he might fix, might repair with apologies and penance, but he knew that it wasn’t.
When he opened his eyes again, he found that Wen Ruohan had come closer, prowling along the edge of the Cold Spring with his red eyes fixed on Lan Qiren. His pace, as always, was slow and steady – it felt inexorable, unstoppable, and Lan Qiren did nothing to stop him, watching blankly as he came forward, crouching down right beside the place where Lan Qiren was sitting beneath the water.
“Little Lan,” Wen Ruohan purred. “My little Lan…”
He reached out, his long-nailed fingers tracing down along Lan Qiren’s cheek, as light as snowflakes, and down to his chin, catching it in a strong grip and turning his face to look up at Wen Ruohan. His thumb brushed against Lan Qiren’s lips.
Lan Qiren swallowed. It had been, he thought, too long since he had felt the touch of someone who wished him well, or indeed anyone at all; he had missed it more than he had realized.
Wen Ruohan noticed, and his smirk widened.
“I heard a rumor that you had been caught in attempted adultery,” he remarked. “I didn’t believe it, of course, and no one else did, either – but I had to come see for myself.”
“I didn’t,” Lan Qiren croaked. His voice felt strangled and inexplicably hoarse, and he found himself absently calculating distances in the back of his mind: Wen Ruohan must have left the Nightless City for the Cloud Recesses the very moment he received the report from his spies on what had happened in order to be here now. “I really – didn’t.”
“I believe you,” Wen Ruohan said, sounding cool and amused. “It didn’t really seem like something that my little Lan would do. My little Lan, who missed me so…”
Lan Qiren tried to turn his head away, not wanting to see the smug satisfaction in Wen Ruohan’s voice and face and manner – Wen Ruohan hadn’t won, he thought stubbornly to himself. Lan Qiren hadn’t given up on his conviction that such torture was wrong or that Wen Ruohan was wrong in engaging in it. It was only that Lan Qiren was tired and in pain, and willing to accept comfort from just about anyone.
Wen Ruohan wouldn’t let him turn away, though, and overpowered his weak movement easily.
“Don’t fret,” he said coaxingly. “I missed you, too.”
That sounded nice.
“I must admit, I tried not to. I thought to myself that if you were so foolish as to turn away from me, the consequences should be on your own head, nothing to do with me. But despite my best efforts, you were never far from my thoughts…”
Wen Ruohan’s hand released Lan Qiren’s chin and drifted down to his throat, lightly pressing his nails against his skin as if examining how the color changed when he did. He moved closer, too close for Lan Qiren to see him clearly given the mist and the angle; his second hand fell upon Lan Qiren’s shoulder, while his first continued to drift down, skating along his collarbone, drifting over to his side –
His touch slid across one of the stray bruises left over from his punishment.
Lan Qiren flinched.
That was a bad idea, of course. The involuntary reflex moved his body too quickly, straining all his other cuts and bruises, and the spike of pain from that made him gasp and instinctively curl up. His vision briefly whited out, and he struggled to control his breathing, keeping it slow and shallow to let the pain pass over him.
After a moment that felt overly long, his vision cleared. When it did, he became aware that Wen Ruohan’s fingers were pressed to his brow in the place between his eyes, transferring warm qi to him in such a torrent that it almost hurt; Lan Qiren lifted up a hand to stop him.
Wen Ruohan was faster than him, though, and he pulled away his hand and caught Lan Qiren’s, pulling it up to examine the bruising that was already appearing on the back of his arm – stray marks, in the main part, since the majority were on his back, between his neck and thighs. “What happened?” he asked, voice sharp. “How did you get these wounds?”
Lan Qiren looked at him in bewilderment: was this not the same man he had seen twist human beings into shapes their bodies could not bear, burn them with fire and slice them into bits? Why would he care so much over a few bruises and cuts, the marks left behind by unyielding wood when it struck flesh, instruments of discipline used a thousand times over in every single sect?
“You know already,” he said, unable to keep the slight tone of plaintive accusation out of his voice. “You said you believed me…”
Wen Ruohan stared at him, expression strangely blank, and then in a single gesture he pulled Lan Qiren up to a standing position, waist-deep in the water and choking on the pain of it, back bent forward like a bow, the worst of the marks now visible to Wen Ruohan’s burning gaze.
“What is this?” he demanded.
It wasn’t really a question that needed answering, and he wasn’t really asking, not anymore, but Lan Qiren responded regardless: “Punishment.”
Wen Ruohan’s hand was tight on his wrist.
“For what?” he snarled, and he sounded furious. Lan Qiren didn’t know if he’d ever heard Wen Ruohan sound this angry - he didn’t know if anyone alive had heard him be this angry, and if they had whether they’d survived the experience. “It is impossible that you actually bedded your brother’s lover. So what possible reason could they have for punishing you?”
“He’s my sect leader,” Lan Qiren said groggily. His head was starting to hurt; he had exited the cold water too quickly. “Does he need a reason?”
The hand on his wrist tightened still further. Lan Qiren would probably have bruises there in the morning as well, equally undeserved - but he minded these far less.
At least Wen Ruohan was angry on his behalf.
“Qingheng-jun is daring indeed,” Wen Ruohan said, his voice as smooth as silk and as dark as a moonless night. “To think he can act with impunity to anyone he wishes, even going so far as to harm one with whom I share an oath –”
Wen Ruohan stopped. “Share an oath with you?”
“No,” Lan Qiren said. His head lolled a little, and he found that somewhere along the line he had been drawn into Wen Ruohan’s arms, making it easy to rest his head on the other man’s shoulder. Wen Ruohan was overly warm, as always; his sect always preferred cultivation techniques involving yang energy and fire – it wasn’t a surprise, not really, but it was unexpected how pleasant it was. “Need a reason.” He shook his head a little. “You hurt people, too.”
“You are not just any person,” Wen Ruohan said. “You’re my little brother.”
“I’m his little brother, too.”
He felt Wen Ruohan’s hand, blazingly hot against his water-chilled body, come to rest on his hair.
“You were born with poor luck in brothers, little Lan,” he said, his breath warm against Lan Qiren’s ear. It was as if all the heat in the world was contained in his body, and Lan Qiren capable only of leeching off of it. “Not just him, but me as well; we each fail you in turn. I will not apologize for having bound you to me, for I do not regret it – but I will endeavor to make it up to you.”
Surrounded by all that warmth, Lan Qiren drifted off to sleep.
Lan Qiren woke in a bed, which was not a surprise. His favorite blanket – the one Wen Ruohan had bought for him – was tucked in around him, and this was also not a surprise.
He was in the Nightless City, which was.
“Your brother gave permission,” Wen Ruohan said, and Lan Qiren twisted his head in surprise, not having seen him sitting there at the desk beside the bed. Wen Ruohan was writing something, his brush movement steady and unhurried; it was a distinct contrast to the seething rage lingering in his voice. “Since I know you care about that.”
“Of course I care,” Lan Qiren said blankly. “He really gave permission?”
Wen Ruohan’s brush paused. “Are you suggesting that I’m lying?”
Lan Qiren considered it for a moment, then said, a little helplessly, “It seems more likely than him agreeing to cut my punishment short.”
Wen Ruohan snorted, and put his brush down. “I insisted,” he said, and the smug curl of his smile suggested it had been more than a casual conversation. “Anyway, he didn’t want a fuss.”
Naturally not, as He Kexin might object, Lan Qiren thought to himself, and shook his head at his own bitterness. He realized a moment later that it didn’t hurt to do that.
“How long did I sleep?” he asked, alarmed. The transit to the Nightless City was long, unless someone decided to waste vast amounts of qi flying by sword – which he could see Wen Ruohan doing – but the staves used for the Lan sect’s more severe discipline were not like those used for more mundane offenses. While they weren’t on par with a discipline whip, they were still made of spiritual wood, infused with qi; the injuries they left would not heal so quickly.
“I applied medicine,” Wen Ruohan said, rising to his feet and coming over to sit by Lan Qiren’s side on the bed, helping him sit up. “You’re not healed, only numb…I understand you’ve been having difficulties in your sect for some time, and that was even before the lady attacked you in an effort to frame you for her own rape.”
“I’m fairly sure she just wanted to show my brother that she wasn’t interested in him,” Lan Qiren said, wincing. He would not have phrased it quite like that, although thinking it over, it did seem to be a fair way to describe it, if an uncomplimentary one. “It’s not a stretch to think that picking his less impressive brother over him would do it.”
Wen Ruohan’s lips curled into a sneer. “Truly, an ingenious mind. Did she think herself so attractive that no man would ever deny her?”
That, or else she’d been truly desperate. Lan Qiren could sympathize with her to that extent. After all, do not take advantage of your position to oppress others was a rule for a reason, and the power and influence a Great Sect could bring to bear against a rogue cultivator was not nothing. But his sympathy ended at the point where she’d decided it was acceptable to harm him in order to achieve her goal – even looking at her actions in the best possible light and assuming that she sincerely thought he would participate willingly in her plan, she’d made all sorts of assumptions and hadn’t bothered to verify anything before acting on them.
He Kexin might be free and unrestrained, as his brother had described her, but she was also perilously reckless, and selfish, too.
Still, at the same time Lan Qiren thought about Wen Ruohan’s smirk when he mentioned his ‘insistence’ with his brother – he wasn’t sure if it involved physical violence or not, although the mental image of such a confrontation was oddly satisfying – and grimaced at the thought of the same sort of pressure being brought to bear on someone without a Great Sect’s protection. “About - He Kexin…”
“You needn’t concern yourself for the lady’s sake,” Wen Ruohan said, and his tone was a little unpleasant. “Even after all that, she permitted herself to be convinced by one of her friends that the advantages of receiving Qingheng-jun’s affections outweighed the disadvantages, despite her own better instincts; that seems punishment enough for the moment. Someone who does not hesitate to blind themselves at the say-so of another will reap the reward they deserve in the end…”
He shook his head, and smiled once more, displaying a glint of teeth.
“You may take comfort that I took no action against her. However, I did suggest that the lady in question consider avoiding Qishan on her future travels.”
Lan Qiren felt something warm pricking his heart. “The thought is appreciated, although unnecessary. The one whose conduct is in the wrong is my brother.”
He’d appreciate an apology from He Kexin, whether for misjudging him or ignoring his refusals, but he wouldn’t hold out hope for it.
“I can be angry at more than one person at once,” Wen Ruohan said. A strange expression flitted over his features. “I admit, I would have thought Lao Nie would have done something about the entire situation sooner. Even if you weren’t writing to me, why didn’t you write to him?”
“I did,” Lan Qiren said. “His initial reply was – unsatisfactory.”
Lao Nie had responded rather casually to Lan Qiren’s message laying out the situation with his brother and He Kexin, speaking light-heartedly of the burning ardor of first love; he had assured Lan Qiren that it was normal to feel troubled by the thought of being left behind, even when the relationship was not good, and that his brother would probably resurface from his infatuation a happier person in the end. It was fairly evident that he hadn’t read all of Lan Qiren’s carefully composed letter.
“I asked him to come by the Lan sect,” he added. “But he was otherwise occupied.”
Wen Ruohan pressed his lips together in irritation. “He’s been otherwise occupied for some time now. You’re not the only one whose letters he’s disregarded.”
“Even you?” Lan Qiren said wonderingly. “But he likes you so much.”
The tightness in Wen Ruohan’s face eased a little. “I’ve asked him to visit here on account of your health,” he said. “I expect to see him arrive in his usual ridiculous flurry of temper and hen-like concern soon enough – once he reads the letter, anyway.”
Lan Qiren nodded, then hesitated. “The last time I was here…”
Wen Ruohan gazed at him sidelong.
Lan Qiren bit his lip. “I understand that I overstepped –”
Lan Qiren stopped.
Wen Ruohan looked irritated again. “Don’t apologize,” he said again. “Are you not my little brother? If you cannot scold me, who is there that lives who can? I am not Qingheng-jun.”
Lan Qiren wasn’t entirely sure how the two were connected.
“If you want to make it up to me, go back to the way you addressed me before,” Wen Ruohan added.
Lan Qiren frowned, confused. “How do you mean?”
“Call me da-ge. Not xiongzhang.”
“…the latter is more polite.”
“So is listening to your elders,” Wen Ruohan said haughtily. “As you’re so fond of saying, it’s what I asked.”
“All right, da-ge,” Lan Qiren said obediently, and Wen Ruohan looked pleased.
“Rest,” he ordered, rising to his feet. “There will be dinner soon, and perhaps we can play weiqi once again…is there anything else you need for your room?”
Lan Qiren’s room in the Nightless City was very similar to the room Wen Ruohan had prepared for him in the Cloud Recesses; he couldn’t think of anything else he might need. Except only…
“I don’t suppose you could ask your spies to check in on my rooms back home,” Lan Qiren said, even as he settled back down to rest as instructed. “There was a painting there that you gifted to me that I liked a lot. It fell during the fight, and I haven’t been back since. I don’t want it thrown away.”
“Which one? I got you several…the mountain pass? The flowering tree?”
“No, the landscape with the rolling hills,” Lan Qiren said, and Wen Ruohan, who had been about to leave, stopped abruptly by the door. “It’s a little burned at the edges; you can’t really mistake it for anything else.”
“You liked that one?” Wen Ruohan’s voice was strange, full of some emotion that Lan Qiren was too tired to even try to decipher. “Above the others? The quality is much less, and the skill with the brush inferior.”
“The person who painted it was happy,” Lan Qiren explained. “There’s an echo of the painter’s residual qi trapped in the ink, you can tell a little bit about who they were from that. Whoever it was, they were brash and bold, arrogant and carefree – full of potential, like a phoenix about to alight to a higher branch. Their soul was like a falcon’s, tied down by nothing. Looking at it is an inspiration, and a comfort. I use it sometimes as a focus for meditation.”
“…I’ll have my spies check,” Wen Ruohan said, and he must be truly perturbed by Lan Qiren’s punishment-induced injuries if he had actually just admitted to having spies in the Cloud Recesses. “In the meantime, I have several other works by the same…artist. If you’d like.”
“Oh, very much!” Lan Qiren said enthusiastically; he tried to struggle up to sit again, but he started to feel pain even through the numbness of the anesthetic he’d been dosed with. Wen Ruohan glared him back down, and he yielded meekly, knowing that he was in no state to be really protesting. “Thank you, da-ge. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.”
Wen Ruohan huffed and put a hand behind his back, sweeping out the door like a gust of wind.
Lan Qiren lay back down, staring up at the ceiling.
Are you really going to do this? he wondered. Will you really forgive him for what he has done, for what he is, just because you desperately need support? What happened to your principles? Your rules?
He exhaled hard, almost a sigh. He still wasn’t all right with the torture, still thought it was wrong for a man to exult in the pain of others in such a grotesque fashion, but he’d gone back to his standby, the rules, and he was reminded brutally that they were designed to function as guides for the self, not for the world. You were supposed to embrace the entirety of the world, to shoulder the burden of morality, to refuse to tolerate evil – and yet the rules of hospitality, of host and guest, of neighbors, were ranked just as high.
He could choose to continue to hold back, to express his disdain of Wen Ruohan’s ways with distance and reserve, but it wouldn’t stop Wen Ruohan from doing what he wanted anyway, and it would leave Lan Qiren even more isolated and friendless than he was already.
It would be better to compromise.
And yet – it was hard, perilously hard, to force himself to do so. It was one of his flaws, he knew: how uncompromising he was, how unyielding, how bitterly he held onto his opinions, refusing to change, especially when he thought he was right.
For his own sake, he needed to try to do so. But he also needed to at least try to salvage his conscience, too.
He’d have to find a way to do both.
So decided, Lan Qiren reserved the issue of how he would do that in the back of his mind, returning to sleep. It would be easier, he thought, to resolve the issue in the morning, once he’d healed up a little more.
It wasn’t, but that was mostly because he was horrified to discover that he had no proper clothing.
“You have clothing that fits,” Wen Ruohan replied, the mildness of his voice failing to conceal the glint of amusement in his eyes. “It’s even in your clan’s colors. What’s the problem?”
“It’s too much,” Lan Qiren insisted, shaking the clothing at him. He had at least been left his inner robes, though he felt naked without the extra layer. “My formal clothing is less excessive than this!”
“That is surely a matter for your sect, isn’t it? I don’t think it’s excessive.”
“You have no sense of proportion!”
Wen Ruohan shrugged. “I can send for something else,” he said. “Even from your home, if you like. By regular post, it should only take a week or so to arrive.”
Lan Qiren scowled.
“If you really prefer, you’re welcome to walk around naked until then –”
Lan Qiren was so aggravated that he actually hissed at him, surprising Wen Ruohan into a laugh that interrupted his words, and returned to his room to begrudgingly put on the robes. They were white and silver, his usual preference – not interwoven with blue, but that wasn’t a surprise, given that white was a secondary color for the Wen sect as well as the Lan – but they were also ridiculously overwrought: embroidered brocade, silks so fine that they had to be layered in order to not be translucent, studded with shining pearls and what might be actual silver…
“Absurd,” he grumbled, but put on the clothing and came back out. “Do you enjoy tormenting me? Is that it?”
“At times,” Wen Ruohan said, his eyes curved and merry. “Come, sit. It’s your move.”
Lan Qiren permitted himself to succumb to his sworn brother’s atrocious taste for the evening, then stole away to the laundry room the first chance he could, determined to beg for a set of clothing that was somewhat more normal – even mourning clothing would be acceptable, as long as it was neither Wen sect nor horribly garish.
Wen Ruohan found him there, arguing spiritedly with the tailor, and whisked him back to his rooms on account of Lan Qiren’s injuries, arguing, correctly, that Lan Qiren was on the verge of collapsing and coughing up blood from having been a bit too enthusiastic.
Eventually, after some of what Lan Qiren called reasoned debate and what Wen Ruohan called flagrant sulking, Wen Ruohan agreed to get him something a little more normal to wear on the condition that he wear at least one adornment of Wen Ruohan’s choosing along with it.
“You secretly wanted to play with dolls as a child,” Lan Qiren said accusingly, even though the initial adornment – a belt loop made from moonstone and jade – was entirely appropriate, even by Lan sect standards. “You were denied the chance then, and now you make it everyone else’s problem. Is that it?”
“Perhaps,” Wen Ruohan said. “It’s been so long, how would I remember?”
Lan Qiren rolled his eyes and gamely lost to him at weiqi a few more times.
It was perilously easy to slip back into the comfortable camaraderie that they’d developed on his last visit, he reflected as he prepared for bed that evening. It was something he enjoyed - something they both enjoyed - and if Lan Qiren only kept his opinions to himself, convinced himself to actually bend for once, he might be able to actually keep it, this time.
The next morning, he went to the extensive library kept by the Wen sect and took down several books on anatomy, carefully copying out the goriest parts of it in his best calligraphy; he wasn’t an inspired painter like the nameless ancient that had done the pictures that now hung in his room here, but he excelled at dry and lifeless copies, which was about what you wanted from an anatomy text.
He finished the small booklet within a few days, and gave it to Wen Ruohan one evening before dinner.
“What’s this?” Wen Ruohan asked, flipping through it with a slightly bemused expression. “Medicine?”
“Anatomy,” Lan Qiren corrected. “Since you – like that sort of thing. It’s a gift.”
Wen Ruohan blinked very deliberately. “Little Lan,” he said, staring down at one of the more explicit illustrations. “Did you get me a gift to help me torture people better?”
“I got you a gift because you’re my sworn brother, and you’re taking care of me,” Lan Qiren said with as much dignity as he could muster in light of the patheticness of his abject surrender. “I got you this gift because it seemed relevant to your interests. Anyway, it’s not something I can share, or even really countenance – and in all honesty I would prefer that you not do it while I’m around, or at minimum try not to mention it to me, to make it easier to look the other way – I mean, it’s not going to be easy, but easier – well, my scruples aren’t important. It’s something that matters to you, so I’ll just –”
Wen Ruohan cleared his throat, interrupting him. “You don’t need to worry about that,” he said, looking at the space above Lan Qiren’s head for some reason. “The Fire Palace has had trouble keeping my interest recently; the entertainment has gone stale. I have moved on.”
Lan Qiren had not expected that, and he smiled happily, his pricked conscience unexpectedly granted a reprieve. For some reason, it made Wen Ruohan stare at him.
“Well, I’m happy to hear that you’re not torturing people for sport any longer,” Lan Qiren told him, in case it wasn’t clear. “As for the booklet, even if it’s not quite right for your interests right now, I still hope you enjoy the work...I’ll get you a better gift next time.”
“No need to strain yourself,” Wen Ruohan said. “I will be pleased no matter what it is, I’m sure.”
He gestured for Lan Qiren to enter the dining room first, which Lan Qiren did. Oddly enough, despite his cliché and rather condescending reassurances, Wen Ruohan looked especially pleased throughout dinner, almost as if he really meant what he’d said.
It was nice, Lan Qiren thought, to be liked. One could get used to it.
His injuries were healing very well, between the medicines Wen Ruohan’s doctors plied him with – Lan Qiren attempted not to calculate the value of them, certain that they were probably worth more than a small sect’s heirloom treasure – and the rich spiritual energy Wen Ruohan insisted on infusing him with, morning and night. Lan Qiren tried to protest that the latter was unnecessary, but Wen Ruohan had stood on his rights as the host, and at any rate he simply had so much qi that the effort seemed not to wear on him at all. So Lan Qiren let him keep doing it, Wen Ruohan’s warm hands conveying warm qi as he spoke to him of various matters, important and trifling, and Lan Qiren – liked it.
“In the Nightless City, we release lanterns several times a year, not just on the Lantern Festival,” Wen Ruohan murmured into Lan Qiren’s ear as he sat there, eyes growing heavy as his rules-mandated bedtime approached. “It’s a celebration of the sun as our sect’s sigil. The lanterns come in all shapes and sizes and colors, and we light the flames with spiritual energy. There’s a day not far from now where we will do it; people are making preparations already. Your body is still stiff and unbending, your wounds still healing – you’ll be here to see it.”
Lan Qiren nodded.
“Good,” Wen Ruohan said. “Very good…ah, little Lan, what a strange thing you are. When you were gone, I thought of you often no matter what I wished. I thought that I could cure it by having you here, but now you are here before me, every day, and yet I think of you no less. It seems that seeing you every day does not cause me to tire of you.”
“Yes, you’re very easily amused,” Lan Qiren said, his eyes sliding shut as the warm qi circulated through his body. “I think we long ago established that.”
“Is there any feature of yours that you actually like, little Lan? Or is it all self-depreciation?”
“I have a good brain,” Lan Qiren said. “I’m creative and analytical, and I explain things well; I make for a decent or even accomplished teacher. My musical ability is good, both in terms of playing and composition. Also, I’m informed that my face is first rate.”
Wen Ruohan laughed behind his shoulder. “I stand corrected.”
When they parted that night, all was well.
The peace did not last until morning.
Lan Qiren woke with a start at the sound of something slamming to the point of cracking – a door thrown too hard, perhaps, or the shattering of a piece of furniture under the strength of a powerful cultivator.
Dazed at having been woken so abruptly at such a late hour, he at first thought that the sound was an aberration of some sort, someone making too much noise by mistake, even some cultivation maniac doing exercises in the middle of the night that had briefly lost control, but then the sounds continued, crashing and slamming and even indistinct shouting.
Indistinct, and unfamiliar, but still recognizable – that was Wen Ruohan’s voice.
Lan Qiren had never heard him shout before.
He stood up, instinctively checking over his clothing and fixing his forehead ribbon, and padded out towards the door to the hallway. The array used to create enough silence to let him sleep was glowing faintly, doing its work against overwhelming odds, but Lan Qiren didn’t hesitate to dismiss it and pull open the door, poking his head out to see what was going on.
“ – what use are you?” Wen Ruohan was shouting, some distance down the hall. “Good-for-nothing bitch! What do you think I got you for in the first place?”
He was standing outside his wife’s door.
Lan Qiren had not seen Madame Wen on this visit, other than in passing. He’d been relieved to discover that he had heard accurately and that she had not suffered on account of what she had done, except perhaps as a result of her husband making clear that he would give her exactly what he had promised her out of their marriage and nothing more. Despite that, every time she saw him, she generally had an expression that resembled smelling something bad, and he didn’t especially want to deal with her irrational jealousy.
(Lan Qiren could understand and even appreciate the truth that she had shown him, but it didn’t mean he appreciated the reasoning behind her actions - just as Wen Ruohan might appreciate the cunning and ambition demonstrated by her actions, and begrudgingly acknowledge that the real fault for their divide was his own actions, but not feel any more inclined to her as a result.)
Lan Qiren thought he might have to deal with her more, particularly on the few times he had visited little Wen Xu, who was already a size or two larger than he’d started out – it was simply shocking in terms of how much time had passed since he’d had his argument with Wen Ruohan – but he found that the child was largely being watched by servants, not the Madame, who was busy ruling the social scene of the Nightless City. Whether that was true or merely an excuse, by now it was clear that they were in mutual agreement that they did not want to spend any time in each other’s presence.
She was also, very clearly, refusing to let Wen Ruohan into her bedroom.
Lan Qiren couldn’t blame her: he’d never seen Wen Ruohan in a state like this. His clothing was mussed up, his hands clenched, his face red, his aura frighteningly strong and overwhelming, his monstrously powerful qi roiling the air in the hallway into an incipient storm – and even from the distance he was standing, Lan Qiren could smell the distinct odor of strong liquor, suggesting that Wen Ruohan had overindulged in alcohol at some point after Lan Qiren had gone to sleep. Based on casual mentions in prior conversation, Lan Qiren knew that Wen Ruohan’s cultivation level was so high as to render him largely unaffected even by significant drinking, but the fact that he had bothered to try to seek solace in the wine jar suggested that there was something incredibly wrong with his mental state.
It wasn’t a qi deviation - the violent emanations were unsettled, but not distorted - but it wasn’t good, either.
Wisdom would counsel that Lan Qiren keep back and not get in Wen Ruohan’s way.
Righteousness, on the other hand…
Anyway, Wen Ruohan was his sworn brother. What sort of brother would Lan Qiren be if he took only the good and not the bad?
“Da-ge?” he called, stepping out into the hallway. “Da-ge, come away from there.”
Wen Ruohan turned to him, and his expression was frightening. “Fine. You’ll do,” he growled, and it was only because Lan Qiren had grown wiser and stronger that he realized what was about to happen and dodged before Wen Ruohan could grab him, darting back into his room.
Wen Ruohan followed him in.
“What happened?” Lan Qiren asked, still backing away. “You were fine at dinner – what happened since then?”
For some reason, that set Wen Ruohan off again, turning his attention away from Lan Qiren, and he grabbed the table and threw it into the wall, smashing it all to pieces.
“That fucker,” he snarled, his eyes blank and distant. He wasn’t angry at Lan Qiren, that much was clear, but he was filled with ceaseless rage, and he was taking it out on everything around him. “That fucker got married! He’s got a son!”
Lan Qiren blinked. “…what?”
Smash went the cabinet, and all the various things on it. At least Wen Ruohan hadn’t started in on the paintings, which were the only aspect of the room Lan Qiren actually cared or worried about.
“Who got married and had a son?” Lan Qiren asked, even though he knew it would only inflame Wen Ruohan further. At this point, it was clear that Wen Ruohan’s had gotten stuck in his chest, like black blood that needed to be coughed; he needed to vent his anger or else it would curdle within him and he would suffer. “Normally that’s a good thing, a cause for celebration. Why is it bad here?”
“Because it’s Lao Nie!” Wen Ruohan burst out, and Lan Qiren rocked back on his heels in shock.
It wasn’t that he hadn’t known that Lao Nie had been unusually distracted these past few months, even most of a year – the way he’d ignored or disregarded Lan Qiren’s letters about the situation with He Kexin, the breezy and almost manic tone of his replies to Lan Qiren’s brother, which Lan Qiren had seen, it all spoke of distraction and carelessness, all typical of Lao Nie, albeit of far greater severity than usual.
Nor was it truly a surprise that none of them had been informed: the Qinghe Nie had always been idiosyncratic about their personal details, unusually secretive and fiercely proud of it. They did not share their birth date or even year, other than for arranging a marriage. If Lan Qiren had thought about it, he wouldn’t have been at all surprised to find out that Lao Nie would have married and had a child all without having shared any information on the subject until afterwards.
“But aren’t you – with him?” he asked, and knew immediately that he had asked the wrong question.
Wen Ruohan roared and smashed yet another thing, sending a palm strike through a dresser and denting the stone wall with the power of it. “He’s mine,” he spat. His eyes were even redder than usual, the sclera becoming red alongside the iris; it made him look almost possessed, almost as if he really were having some sort of qi deviation. “He’s mine, damn it! Who is he to give himself to another? And he didn’t even tell me…!”
They were definitely in a relationship, Lan Qiren confirmed to himself. His guess had been right. There could be no doubt about it. And yet, despite it all, Lao Nie had –
No, he couldn’t even express surprise. Lan Qiren knew Lao Nie, knew what he valued and how he valued it: Lao Nie had always been passionate and powerful, strong and superior, friendly and often kind, and yet at his core he was ruthless, careless, and selfish, just like Wen Ruohan was so often selfish. He did not concern himself overmuch with questions of righteousness, other than to the degree necessary to win glory to his sect as one on the righteous path. After his sect, which he valued most of all, he was an indolent pleasure-seeker, with terrible taste in partners, the more dangerous the better; Lan Qiren had seen him flirting with people left and right long after he’d concluded that he’d entered into a relationship with Wen Ruohan.
In the past, Wen Ruohan hadn’t seemed to mind. If anything, he’d even encouraged him, looking smug and amused by the flirtations, taking the other man’s victories as his own; during one incident that Lan Qiren could recall, he’d all but applauded when Lao Nie had successfully wooed some rogue cultivator and taken her back to his bed, turning instead to his own separate amusements after.
Then again, that wasn’t a marriage.
(Of course, Wen Ruohan himself had also gotten married…)
“How dare he,” Wen Ruohan said, panting a little from his own exertion, clearly more moved by the feelings raging within him than any type of physical exhaustion. “How dare he – does he think I’m desperate? Pathetic? Does he think I’d run after him, begging and humiliating myself..? I don’t need him at all!”
He turned once more, and this time his gaze focused on Lan Qiren.
“I have something of my own already,” he murmured, and this time Lan Qiren wasn’t fast enough to stop him as he caught him up in his arms, slamming his back against the wall.
Lan Qiren tensed, suddenly for a moment back in his rooms in the Cloud Recesses, looking up at a different brother who wanted to hurt him – but no, Wen Ruohan wasn’t the same, Wen Ruohan liked him. He was acting out of fury, not malice; there was no He Kexin here to goad him on, nothing like that.
Even the force of being pushed against the wall hadn’t actually hurt – Wen Ruohan had been careful even in his mindless rage, making sure that any impact was cushioned by his own arms rather than Lan Qiren’s back; Lan Qiren hadn’t even had the breath knocked out of him.
Wen Ruohan didn’t want to hear him. He put his hand on Lan Qiren’s mouth and pressed down, cutting off speech at once. They were pressed together so closely that the movement inadvertently dragged his sleeve onto Lan Qiren’s throat, almost making him gag, and he instinctively tried futilely to kick his way out – it didn’t work, of course.
Wen Ruohan pressed up against him, the front of his body burning like flame against Lan Qiren.
“You’re mine,” he said, reaching in to nuzzle the side of Lan Qiren’s head with his cheek. “My blood brother, bound by oath and blood; my shining pearl, untouched by the world. All good things should belong to me.”
Lan Qiren reached up to try to push away the hand at this mouth, wanting to speak even though he did not know what he would say, and at first he thought he’d done it. But then suddenly he was in motion, his back landing hard on the bed he’d been given, the impact softened by the blanket Wen Ruohan had wrapped around him when he’d brought him back to the Nightless City from the Cloud Recesses. Shocked by the unexpectedness of the abrupt movement, he gasped, a wordless inhale rather than any coherent words.
Less than a heartbeat, and Wen Ruohan was on top of him, pressing him down. His body seemed even hotter than usual, as if his whole spirit were aflame, his qi boiling in the air around them until Lan Qiren had the impression as though he ought to be able to see steam; his hands were hot where they pressed down on Lan Qiren’s shoulders, his lips burning as they pressed against his collarbone, and between his legs there was something hot pressing against him, too.
And still, Lan Qiren – was not afraid.
He wasn’t sure why. He’d been terrified when it had been his brother who had stood against him, disgusted when it had been He Kexin pawing at him in ways he did not and had never wanted, but Wen Ruohan, who was bound to him through nothing but a tricked oath…
“Da-ge,” he whispered. “Please stop.”
Wen Ruohan stilled. He didn’t get up or pull away, but he didn’t make any further movements.
“Please let me go.”
Wen Ruohan’s breathing was harsh in his ear. “You, too, little Lan?” he asked. “Just like him, making me think – don’t you like me?”
“I do,” Lan Qiren admitted. He might be stupid when it came to social interactions, might be slow and miss things that were obvious, but even he could figure out what Wen Ruohan meant, with his confession of how Lan Qiren lingered in his thoughts and in pressing him down on the bed like this while mourning the loss of Lao Nie, his lover. And maybe sometimes he needed Cangse Sanren to point things out to him, but most of the time he knew himself. This past week had made clear enough that he enjoyed Wen Ruohan’s endless indulgences in a spirit that was more than just pure brotherhood. “I do like you. But I don’t like – this.”
Wen Ruohan was silent for a long moment.
“Not this, with me,” he finally said. “Or not – at all?”
“At all,” Lan Qiren said. He had thought when he was younger that he might change, but he was increasingly sure that he wouldn’t, that this was just what he was like. “I was never like the others my age. Even Yueheng-xiong, who I would’ve thought loved nothing but mathematics and explosions, has found himself distracted by the shape of the one he likes. But not me. I don’t yearn the way they do. I can love a person’s spirit, but I never much cared for the flesh.”
“Love,” Wen Ruohan echoed, his voice oddly uneven. “You speak of - love?”
“…isn’t that what we’re talking about?”
Wen Ruohan laughed, a jagged and choked up thing, and then he pulled away, letting Lan Qiren go, sitting up on the bed and burying his face in his hands. The qi around him was still too-hot, overwhelming, pulsing with his feelings, even as his shoulders shook and he stared blankly at the wall; any other man, and Lan Qiren might think he was crying, but he could see Wen Ruohan’s face through his fingers, and there were no tears there.
Perhaps he’d forgotten how.
Lan Qiren slowly sat up himself.
He could still feel the mild stiffness of old healing injuries, but he ignored them and got up off the bed, going to the one side table that had yet to be destroyed – the one where he’d laid his guqin to rest. It turned out that Wen Ruohan had only destroyed the things he himself had put into the room; he hadn’t touched anything of Lan Qiren’s.
Lan Qiren settled in front of his guqin and began to play.
Out of all the compositions he had created, his favorite was the one he had first created at the Nightless City, that strange hypnotic melody that brought to mind spilled pearls, but unlike some of the others he’d worked on, it had never felt fully completed. The music wrapped itself around the listener, at first intimate and then oppressive, a heavy stone in their chest and pressure on their skull, growing darker and darker, just as he’d written it – but now he played onwards, elaborating on the theme in ways he hadn’t planned or expected, letting the solemn notes brighten, the overwhelming pressure turning from suffocating into safe as it became clear that it would cause no harm, the storm passing by overhead and leaving things clean and clear and better, the lingering euphoria of finding oneself supported, rather than alone.
When his fingers finally stilled, Lan Qiren looked up and saw Wen Ruohan sitting there with his back straight again, hands resting gently in his lap, eyes closed as if in meditation and face calm once more. His qi no longer coiled around him, lashing out; it had settled once more.
“You will,” Wen Ruohan said without opening his eyes, “be an excellent traveling musician, little Lan. People will fight for the right to hear you, and you will never go without an audience.”
Lan Qiren hesitated, not sure what to make of such a compliment, or what Wen Ruohan meant by it. He’d only intended to play something to help him settle his qi and soothe his rage, which he’d clearly accomplished. He hadn’t even meant to play that particular song, other than in the way that he tended to default to it when he had nothing else specific in mind. It had always been unsatisfying, like an itch, but now it finally felt complete.
“Da-ge –” he started to say, not knowing what he would say next, but at any rate he never had the chance to continue.
“When you do finally go to fulfill your dreams, leaving the dust of the world behind you, I hope that you visit the Nightless City often,” Wen Ruohan said. His tone was still calm, settled, but not, Lan Qiren observed, peaceful: there were all sorts of seething emotions underneath it. “But for the moment, I think it is better if you return to the Cloud Recesses.”
Lan Qiren hesitated once again, this time feeling a little hurt. “You don’t want me here?”
“I do,” Wen Ruohan said, and his lips curved into something that was not a smile; it seemed almost painful a shape to contort into, and his eyes reflected no humor at all when he opened them. “Very much. Ah, little Lan, if only you knew…despite that, I would still have you go. Having made my views on you clear to your brother, it should be safe, and I do not want you to see what beast I make of myself when I am denied.”
Lan Qiren bowed his head a little. “About Lao Nie…”
“I know what he’s like,” Wen Ruohan said. “I’ve always known, from the start. If you had asked me a few days ago, I would have said that I did not have any illusions…”
He smiled bitterly.
“It seems that I misjudged myself.”
“I’ll go,” Lan Qiren said. He didn’t especially want to, but Wen Ruohan wasn’t in a rage, nor lashing out unthinkingly. To refuse him would be to deny him, to treat him as if he could not make his own decisions, and that, he thought, would be worse. “If you want me to, I’ll go, and later, I’ll return.”
Wen Ruohan said nothing, but he watched as Lan Qiren pulled on some more clothing, not caring which one it was, and did his hair back up in the simplest style, favoring speed over substance; he packed away his guqin and his sword and one of the paintings that he had liked best, but took nothing else – after all, it wasn’t as if he were going away for good.
He made it to the door before hesitating, then turned back to look at Wen Ruohan, who was still watching him.
“Is there anything…?” he asked haltingly. “Something I can get you…?”
“Send one of the maids to me,” Wen Ruohan said. “Any of them, it doesn’t matter which. If they’re still hanging around in the family quarters after an eruption like that, it can be seen that their ambition has overcome their good sense, making them a perfect match for me. It would be a shame to deny them the fruits of their victory.”
Lan Qiren didn’t quite understand, but he knew enough to get the gist; he felt his cheeks and ears go hot. Still, he had offered, and it wasn’t something he was willing to do himself, so there was really no basis for refusing to pass along the request. He nodded and slipped out – as Wen Ruohan predicted, there was one of the maids lingering at the far corner, looking around in blatant curiosity. She was pretty enough, Lan Qiren supposed, with an upturned nose and a slightly arrogant air, her clothing carefully arranged to be just a little mussed in a way that Lan Qiren understood most men to find attractive.
“Your sect leader is in my room,” he told her, and she blinked at him. “If you go to him now, he’d probably accept. Up to you, though.”
She stared at him for a moment, then nodded. He left, his head held high; when he glanced back anyway, he saw her going into his room, hair patted down and clothing even more carefully arranged – Wen Ruohan hadn’t been wrong when he speculated as to her ambitions. The life of a powerful sect leader, Lan Qiren supposed: desired but never known, as distant from those around him as Lan Qiren but as a consequence of his position rather than his inclination.
He would definitely return, Lan Qiren decided. Perhaps he would even make the Nightless City the first destination on his travels. After all, why should he not? Was Wen Ruohan not his sworn brother, too?
Yes, Lan Qiren thought. That was right.
Wen Ruohan deserved to have someone possess him as he longed to possess others.
The Cloud Recesses was calm and serene, tranquil and undisturbed. But unlike its usual tranquility, Lan Qiren felt that it was the calm of the moment before a firework exploded, the air thick and heavy with the impending eruption of an oncoming storm.
Lan Qiren’s brother continued to neglect his work to court He Kexin, who seemed to have improved her opinion of him somewhat during the time that Lan Qiren was gone, though whether it was the earnestness of his passionate pursuit, flattery at the idea of a man gone mad for her, or just that she’d become resigned to the idea for the moment, it wasn’t clear. What was clear to anyone with eyes was that her regard for him, although apparently now genuine, was nowhere near as fanatical as his. Lan Qiren suspected that they had started sleeping together, which seemed like a mistake on her part.
Still, brother or no, this was not a matter in which he was qualified to intervene.
Lan Qiren returned to his usual life, although he again temporarily delayed his planned departure in order to assist with sect matters – whatever his relationship with his brother, Lan Qiren loved his sect very much, and he, at least, would not so easily allow it to slip into disarray through neglect. No one asked him about the matter of He Kexin; his teachers pretended his unjust punishment had not happened but avoided his eyes for several weeks, and his peers had mostly moved on with their lives.
(His brother pretended he didn’t exist, but Lan Qiren didn’t hold it against him. Rumor had it that Wen Ruohan had either threatened or actually hit him or both to make clear how much he disapproved of what happened to Lan Qiren, and whether or not that was true, Lan Qiren enjoyed the thought too much to quibble over how his brother wanted to salvage his dignity.)
Lan Yueheng passed along news – not gossip, he said self-righteously, just news, as if Lan Qiren would somehow miss the fact that ever since he’d paired up with that pretty storehouse clerk of his, Lan Yueheng had belatedly discovered the joys of gossip and taken to it like a fish to water – but there wasn’t much of it, not even with his beloved Zhang Xin’s prodigious capacity for romantic stories and ability to embroider just about any situation into something resembling one. Cangse Sanren wrote Lan Qiren several letters, but once she’d been assured of his health and wellbeing, they largely shifted over to complaining about the Jin sect, where she was now residing, and occasionally included lurid descriptions of Wei Changze specifically meant to shock his conscience.
How are you even seeing him, Lan Qiren wrote back. Aren’t you in Lanling? He’s a servant in Yunmeng. Doesn’t he have a job?
Jiang Fengmian has ascended to the position of sect leader, she wrote back. He has to visit the other sects relatively often, and the Jiang sect has always been close to the Jin sect. Why shouldn’t they visit?
Lan Qiren thought about his brother and shook his head. Was irresponsibility in the rainwater this year?
I trust you’ve made your view on the matter clear to Jiang Fengmian.
Of course, she replied. He seems to live in hope that one day I’ll change my mind.
You’ve never changed your mind about anything.
So I’ve told him. Really, the fact that he doesn’t realize that is yet another reason why we wouldn’t be a good pair – putting aside his role, which I don’t want to share. Can you imagine me as mistress of the Lotus Pier? I’d be awful at it.
Lan Qiren imagined it, and shuddered.
Anyway, I’m like you – I want to travel! There’s so much to see out there. What a pity it would be to be trapped inside all day, like a caged lark singing only for a select few.
You could always invite others to come share their stories with you instead, he replied, thinking of Wen Ruohan sitting alone in the room he had designed for Lan Qiren like a dollhouse, waiting for a maid to help him vent his emotions over Lao Nie and Lan Qiren both. The rumors from Qishan said he’d recently taken on a concubine and that she was pregnant; Madame Wen was apparently furious over it. Bring the world to you, if you can’t go to them. That’s what sect leaders generally do, to my understanding: feathering their nest to make it bright and pleasing to their eyes because they cannot leave lest it fall apart. That’s a way of living, too.
I suppose, she replied, fearless and carefree as ever. But not for me!
There was Lao Nie, too.
He visited the Cloud Recesses a month or so after Lan Qiren’s visit to the Nightless City, belatedly concerned about Lan Qiren’s well-being – “I didn’t hear about it,” he said, looking shamefaced. “I had other matters on my mind…I’ll talk to your brother, though. I can’t believe he would order something so disproportionate. Is he here?”
“He is not,” Lan Qiren said with a sigh. Those who said you couldn’t change a man’s essential nature were not wrong, he thought, already forgiving Lao Nie despite his lack of actual apology.
Lan Qiren had always liked people whose spirits were bold and relentless, uncompromising and unbending just like him; there was really no other way to explain his truly inexplicable fondness for Cangse Sanren and Lan Yueheng and even Wen Ruohan, except maybe to say that he found himself compelled to love where he was loved in return. Lao Nie was like two drops of water with the rest of them, forging his own path in the world, wholly and truly himself – even if he left chaos in his wake, why should Lan Qiren expect more of him than to be exactly what he was?
“He’s out night-hunting,” he added. “Down in the south. There were tales of some very unusual beasts roaming there.”
He Kexin had expressed a mild interest in response to a storyteller’s tale, and naturally Lan Qiren’s brother whisked her away at once, her and all her friends that he always seemed to be paying for. Lan Qiren had thought that she kept them around her as a means of holding his brother off, but Zhang Xin had opined over a shared cup of tea that she thought He Kexin was treating the great and powerful Qingheng-jun as a convenient purse, that treating her friends to his largesse was the point and not the defense.
Zhang Xin liked to hold forth on her views, forthright and unstoppable and loud, and Lan Qiren could see why Lan Yueheng constantly looked so infatuated whenever he gazed upon her – she was not dissimilar to one of the explosions he created in his alchemy laboratory. They were very well matched, and Lan Qiren deeply pitied whichever teacher got stuck with their eventual offspring, which he foresaw as being the least Lan sect juniors to have ever graced their ranks.
“Gone? I’ll see him when he comes back, then,” Lao Nie said, entirely unperturbed by such concerns. “Let me tell you about my son instead! He’s wonderful – a big, fat baby.”
Lan Qiren crossed his arms. “We can talk about your baby later. What about your wife?”
Perhaps he was going about this the wrong way, Lan Qiren mused. “Lao Nie,” he said. “What about Wen da-ge?”
Lao Nie blinked at him. “Hanhan? He’s doing well, too.”
Lan Qiren resisted the urge to strangle Lao Nie.
“Oh,” Lao Nie said, apparently figuring something out based on Lan Qiren’s sour expression. “You mean the fact that he’s angry at me?”
“Yes,” Lan Qiren said patiently. “He’s very angry at you. Do you know why?”
“I’ve tried talking with him about it,” Lao Nie complained. “I don’t know why he’s being so stiff all of a sudden…it’s not like he doesn’t know what I’m like.”
This, Lan Qiren supposed, was definitely true.
“He thought of you as his,” Lan Qiren said. “Didn’t you know?”
Lao Nie shrugged, careless as a boar in full charge, heedless of the damage wrought around him as he moved through the world, none of which could penetrate his thick hide. “Of course. But being his doesn’t make me any less my own, and I can belong to others, too. Who’s he to tell me not to give myself where I will? Does he have dominion over me?”
“He doesn’t want dominion over you,” Lan Qiren said, and Lao Nie looked at him skeptically – which was fair enough. Wen Ruohan was possessed of a strong desire for domination, whether of people, places, or things; he truly believed all good things in the world ought to belong to him, and Lan Qiren only hoped that he never shifted over to thinking that he was actually the rightful owner of all things, for that path led inexorably to the reign of the tyrant. “Truly! Not over you, or any of the people close to his heart. If he wanted merely to possess you, he might as well try to snatch you off to his sect and give you his surname.”
“Not with the sort of relationship we have,” Lao Nie said, a smug smirk curling his lips. “If you know what I mean.”
Lan Qiren sighed. Truly, it was a pity to have reached the age in which everyone around him seemed to think of nothing but sex; he couldn’t wait until they were all too old for such things. Surely it couldn’t be that long…?
“You know what I mean,” he said patiently. “He’s not after Sect Leader Nie, not making some powerplay or attempting to seduce you in order to win your talents over. He likes you, Lao Nie, and all he expects from you is that you like him back.”
“I do!” Lao Nie protested. “I really do. He’s my darling Hanhan, isn’t he? He’s the one setting up walls between us, all because he’s gotten his feathers in a twist over something that’s really nothing. If it’s my time that he’s worried about splitting, what’s the surprise? My sect will always come first, as will his for him. I don’t even have a wife anymore!”
“You – don’t?” Lan Qiren stared, expression blanking out in his shock: this was not a piece of news that had reached his ears. He put down his teacup. “Lao Nie, if something happened –”
“Oh, no, it’s not like that,” Lao Nie said dismissively. “She’s a goddess, like I told you! She’s off and around, coming and going, everywhere and nowhere at once – how could my Nie sect hope to contain such a creature?”
“But…you married her?”
“So? Does that mean I need to live with her?”
Lan Qiren was truly taken aback. He had never heard of such an unorthodox arrangement. “You have a son together! Who is raising him?”
“Me, of course! With the aid of plenty of servants, naturally. I wouldn’t dream of tying her down…ah, Qiren, don’t look so shocked. We’re all our own people, with our own wants and desires. Sometimes those desires pair well, and you can live together happily and well for the rest of your lives; sometimes they don’t. If you fall for someone whose desires don’t line up to your own, you can still pursue something with them. That you wouldn’t match well in what’s considered the orothodox fashion is no reason not to match at all, not if there can be an unorthodox arrangement that causes no one any harm.”
“Are we still talking about your ‘goddess’ wife?” Lan Qiren asked. “Or Wen da-ge?”
Lao Nie smiled ruefully. That sharp cleverness that was always with him lingered in his eyes, having been hidden beneath his distraction and his infatuation and his deliberately careless manner. “I tried to tell him,” he said. “From the very beginning…I was the one doing the pursuing, you know. He didn’t even want me at the start. The stupid fool, he thought he’d be better off alone, alone with the cold delights of political power and the miserable fascinations of that Fire Palace of his, leaving no room in his heart for any human warmth at all. You know what they all say about him: that he lost something when he passed the boundaries of his first human lifetime, his cultivation so high as to make him closer to a god than a man.”
Lan Qiren had heard that, too. At the beginning, he’d seen what people meant, but later, once he got closer, he didn’t see it at all.
“Before I convinced him to have me, he was far worse,” Lao Nie said bluntly. “If you think he was bad when you were younger, you have no idea – forget putting you in a dollhouse and dressing you up to suit his whims over your complaints; if he’d wanted you alongside him back then, he wouldn’t have hesitated to carve out your soul and turn you into a heartless puppet instead. It wouldn’t have satisfied him, of course, and eventually he would have discarded you, never knowing why he couldn’t get what he wanted from you.”
“Know your own mind,” Lan Qiren quoted. “What he would have wanted was the heart, sincerely given, and yet that was the first part thrown away…but such a realization would be too late and too bad for the victim, even if he later regretted.”
“He didn’t regret much, when I first got to know him,” Lao Nie said. “Nothing but trouble, down to his bones; that’s what he was, and what he still is, really. Lucky for him, I like a bit of trouble.”
That was an understatement. Lao Nie liked a lot of trouble, the more the better; it was really no wonder that he’d attached himself to Wen Ruohan.
“I pursued him,” Lao Nie said, picking up the thread from where he’d left off. “I dug out all the human parts of him that I could from underneath that stiff and stern human mask of his, and in the end he wanted me, too. But throughout it all I told him, I told him, that I wasn’t free for the keeping – that I knew myself, with my nose for trouble and wickedness, that I’d never be satisfied with just the one. That the only one who’d ever have all of me was my saber, and only because she doesn’t want anything in return but blood. He liked that, once. He thought it was a good thing.”
Yes, Lan Qiren could see that. Especially in the beginning, Wen Ruohan would not have wanted someone who gave him everything; he was like a wild cat, standoffish with those that longed for him and close to those that rejected him. One of the most powerful cultivators, sect leader of the most powerful sect – if he wanted someone who would simper and flirt and yield for him, he could have a dozen at the blink of an eye.
Someone like Lao Nie, who had a firm sense of identity and neither needed nor wanted anything from the outside world, who was always truly fundamentally himself, was far more his style.
So was someone like Lan Qiren, for that matter. Uncompromising and strict, mind preoccupied with his idiosyncratic obsessions – Wen Ruohan had thought him interesting, for whatever reason, and in time had grown jealous of those other thoughts, longing to be counted among them.
Lan Qiren rubbed at his temples. “He always seemed to enjoy you going off with others,” he noted, wondering if Lao Nie had more insight into the matter. “Why is this different? He got married, too.”
“Hanhan’s tastes are changing as he remembers more of what it means to be human,” Lao Nie said thoughtfully, accepting more tea when Lan Qiren poured it out for him. “I only excavated the surface, the rough parts of him that suited my interests, and he was content with our relationship being friendly and casual. But for you he brought out his soft underbelly and the hint of civilization that he used to have, remembering what he used to be and the things he used to want…I see he even gave you some of his paintings.”
Lan Qiren looked where Lao Nie was looking and saw the two paintings on his wall by the mysterious artist. “His paintings..? He painted these? It doesn’t feel anything like him!”
“Trust me, his qi is unmistakable to one who’s known it as intimately as I have. It’s definitely him – though I’d say these paintings are nearly a century old. Can we say that we are the same people we were between yesterday and today? Even the course of the mighty river can shift over time.”
Lan Qiren was stuck looking at the paintings. Free, he’d said to Wen Ruohan, all unknowing. The person who painted these was free and happy. Their soul is like a falcon’s, tied down by nothing.
For all the power and might that Wen Ruohan could bring to bear these days, Lan Qiren wouldn’t use any of those terms to describe him as he was now.
“He’ll forgive me,” Lao Nie said confidently, putting his cup down. “Give him time to remember why he liked me so much, remember all the warnings I gave him, and he’ll get over it. Maybe we’ll be a little less close than before, maybe there’ll be more anger and jealousy between us - at any rate, I haven’t pushed him so far to the brink that he would try to kill me to keep anyone else from having me, at least not yet. He’s just disappointed, that’s all. He’d only just realized that he wanted more when he realized he couldn’t get it.”
Lan Qiren nodded slowly. He thought that Lao Nie was right, although he also thought it was stupid of him to knowingly play with fire in such a brazen manner – Wen Ruohan really wouldn’t hesitate to murder a fellow sect leader, even one in another Great Sect, if he was determined enough, and he was smart and twisted enough to think of a way to get away with it, too.
Still, just as Lan Qiren had gotten over his feelings about Wen Ruohan’s inclination towards seeing torture and pain as entertainment, realizing that if he wanted him then he had to accept him as he was rather than rejecting him for it, Wen Ruohan would do the same for Lao Nie. He would remember what Lao Nie was like, what he’d always been like, and he would teach himself to appreciate those traits that he had once thought preferable, even as he resented them.
They’d get over this. Lan Qiren was sure of it.
What would come of it in the future, though...
“Anyway, I’ve dithered for long enough,” Lao Nie said. “I really only swung by briefly to say hello. I’m due at the Jin sect before the week’s out, and that means I have to go at once. Anything you want me to pass along to your lady-love rogue cultivator?”
“Leave Cangse Sanren alone, that’s what you can do for me,” Lan Qiren said. “Also, we’re still not lovers, nor will we ever be. Not everyone’s you!”
“No, they’re not,” Lao Nie said, grinning at him. “And that’s the way I like it – the richer the variety of the world, the more interesting people I can meet and be friends with, just like you.”
Lan Qiren was so overwhelmed by the compliment – he of course considered Lao Nie a friend of his, having as he did so many acquaintances and so few true friends, but he hadn’t realized that Lao Nie saw him as a genuine friend in return – that it didn’t even occur to him until it was too late that he hadn’t brought up the matter of his brother and He Kexin, nor told Lao Nie that he needed to stop his reckless encouragement of that relationship.
He’d tried to put that whole thing out of mind, Lan Qiren thought to himself with a sigh, and he’d succeeded – too well.
Whatever. His brother wouldn’t listen to their own sect elders, even as their exhortations shifted from encouragement to censure and their suggestions to leave it alone got more and more pointed, their interventions less and less subtle. Why would he listen to Lao Nie?
He’d just go his own way and do what he wanted, no matter what.
Lan Qiren ought to learn from his example and put the whole thing aside, accepting the facts just as they were. He’d finally given up on the idea that he could help his sect through this moment of disaster - there would simply be nothing for it; they would have to stumble along without him or else force his brother to actually do his job, but in any event, it wasn’t his problem.
He was going to go - he was going to finally make his way out of the sect for his long-planned travel, and when he did, he wouldn’t need to worry about his brother, or He Kexin, or any of it.
Only a few more months from the date he’d informed the sect elders of, he thought, and this time he would stick to it, not delay. A few more months...he could even count the time in days, if he wished.
His brother (and He Kexin) would return from their night-hunt in a few days, likely straight into the various elders’ less-than-subtle plans to find them and scold them over the whole thing.
Lan Qiren would give his brother ten days after he returned - the same ten days his brother had given him - before he formally informed him that he was leaving.
It wouldn’t be long now.
Lan Qiren opened his eyes, disoriented and confused at being so abruptly disturbed in such an unexpected fashion. This sort of shouting and running around were not permitted in the Cloud Recesses, lest they disturb the cultivation or quiet contemplation of others, and anyway he had never heard such panic in Lan Yueheng’s voice before. Not even with his first explosion, back when he’d still been afraid of fire.
“Yueheng-xiong?” he asked, unfolding his legs from his meditation posture. Taking that as permission, Lan Yueheng burst through his door. “What’s happened?”
“Something terrible,” Lan Yueheng said. His cheeks were pale, his eyes wild; Lan Qiren had never seen him like that. “Qiren-xiong…it’s your brother – no. It’s He Kexin.”
“Say one, say the other,” Lan Qiren said dryly, trying to lighten the mood a little without any success. “What about her?”
“She’s killed someone.”
“What?” Lan Qiren stood up almost too fast, and his head spun. “Who? Not one of ours?”
“A teacher!” Lan Yueheng wailed. “I don’t know which one, but one of them – an honored teacher – she killed him – ”
Lan Qiren rushed out the door, a horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach. There were teachers he liked and teachers he didn’t like, teachers that were good at teaching and teachers that were poor, but they were all his teachers – teacher for a day, father for a lifetime, as the saying went.
Even the ones he didn’t get along with so well, he’d made up with in time, and he was on good enough terms with all of them now. So was his brother, for that matter…
A horrible thought occurred to Lan Qiren: would this be the thing that finally broke his brother’s madness? Was blood truly necessary to wash away his obsession – or would he persist onwards, ignoring even this?
Surely that was impossible.
Surely not even their family’s love-madness –
Lan Qiren felt even sicker, and hurried his pace still further.
He knew the histories of the Lan sect better than many others. After all, it was his personal family history as well as the sect's history, and there had been a period in his life when he had briefly focused in on that history to the exclusion of everything else as a subset of his interest in the Lan sect rules; in retrospect, it had probably been in part a misguided subconscious attempt to make himself fit in with the rest of them through study and sheer force of will.
Unfortunately, that knowledge meant that he knew enough not to be able to even finish that thought. His family’s tendency towards love-madness was truly terrible, a panacea in small doses and poison in large: his ancestors had achieved miracles that no one had anticipated on behalf of their loved ones, but they’d done terrible things for love, too. When it was good, there was nothing better; when it went bad, there was no limit to what they might do. There was a reason everyone had been just waiting around hoping for his brother to get over it by himself…
Lan Qiren made it to the hanshi and saw several of his elders there, including a few teachers. Each one he saw and recognized made his heart relieved, and yet also tighten in terror: what about the rest?
Which one had been lost? Which familiar face would he never see again?
He didn’t doubt Lan Yueheng for a second. If he said that someone had died, it must be true - and even if he had harbored any such hopes, the grim expressions on everyone’s faces made clear that there was nothing good to be found here.
It was all happening too quickly. He didn’t have time to think.
(Who would be gone from their holiday feasts, their seat left empty or taken up by someone new? Whose voice would go missing from their debates, their wisdom and insight lost forever? His swordfighting teacher, who he’d butted heads with more often than not? His music teacher, who had praised him and defended him as a child? Who?)
“Qiren, good, you’re here,” one of the elders said upon seeing him, waving him forward and glaring at the other disciples milling around until they scattered. “You’re needed – there must be a trial.”
“Of course,” Lan Qiren said, suddenly alarmed at the suggestion that there might not be one. If there was a death, there would need to be a trial; their sect valued the rules, and would never condone an outright execution without appropriate judgment. “Yueheng-xiong said – a murder?”
“A killing,” the elder confirmed. “It looks to be murder, but there’s been no investigation yet – but she’s admitted committing the act.”
There was no need to specify who. In the last month or so, there had been only one person on everyone’s lips.
Lan Qiren swallowed, braced himself. “Who was the victim?”
Hearing the name was like receiving a blow, making him stagger and want to sit down.
Neither his teacher in the sword, with whom Lan Qiren shared a small enmity and who his brother adored, nor his music teacher, who Lan Qiren held dearest of all and his brother was indifferent towards - but the old one, the one that spoke up only rarely, preferring to spend most of his time sleeping, but which always put in a good word for everyone whenever he did so.
He was one of their oldest, well-meaning if perhaps too strict, a respected teacher for years and years. He had been their father’s teacher, once, and Lan Qiren remembered how he used to keep sweets in his pockets and distribute them to the juniors - in some cases, long after they were too old for such things. Lan Qiren remembered his brother’s long-suffering expression when he was “snuck” such a treat well into his adolescence; he remembered, too, how his brother had eaten the candy anyway and how it had improved his mood - he had even smiled in amusement at Lan Qiren when he had gobbled his own down without any grace at all.
He had praised Lan Qiren’s academic skills and encouraged him - had been one of the ones who took him to see his father every month as a child, had been one of the few who had scolded Lan Qiren’s brother for not being kind because not even Lan Qiren’s father could prevent him. He had a reputation for being a little overbearing, a little nosy, a little tactless with the carelessness of age, but that had mostly come from how much he wanted everyone to get along.
He was someone who was greatly respected and admired by everyone.
“Why?” Lan Qiren choked out.
It made no sense for He Kexin to kill him. If anything, she should have seen him as a natural ally: he was one of the ones who most vociferously opposed the match.
In fairness, by this point, most of the teachers had settled on that position, reluctant as they were to reach that conclusion when it was something that Lan Qiren’s brother so obviously wanted. It was simply too clear to everyone that He Kexin, whatever her somewhat improved opinion of ‘her’ Qingheng-jun was, was not interested in becoming Madame Lan, either now or later.
If Lan Qiren’s brother had had any notion of true filial piety, if he had been strictly taught the rules and taught to keep to the rules, he would have dropped the suit long ago, knowing that his sect demanded more from him than what he was giving to it. But he wasn’t, and he hadn’t, and Lan Qiren recalled with great bitterness all the times when his brother had equated the well-being of the sect with his own interests and no one had opposed him, least of all their father.
Here was where it all ended up.
“Why did she kill him?” he asked.
“We don’t know.”
“Worse than that,” one of the others said, hands gripped so tightly behind his back that his shoulders bent backwards. “We don’t know...the sect leader has been informed, but he has not yet issued a judgment.”
He meant that he didn’t know if Lan Qiren’s brother even would.
Lan Qiren shook his head. “Uphold the value of justice,” he said, and looked at his teachers and elders sidelong. “Take the straight path, reject the crooked path. Do not take a life within the premises. The rules are quite clear: a murder within the Cloud Recesses calls for a trial, and for a harsh response, no matter the personal cost. Do you agree?”
The elders looked back at him, surprised: Lan Qiren had never cited the rules as a warning before. He had never made clear that he, at least, would have no intention of stepping aside this time – brother or no brother, sect leader or no sect leader, this was simply a step too far. There were rules that could be bent and rules that could be broken, ones that could be responded to with punishments and others that had to be dealt with harshly, living up to the demands of justice no matter how bitter.
If they bent the rules on something like this – there would be no point in having the rules at all. They would only be making a mockery of them, paying lip service when whole-hearted adherence was what was required; they might as well throw them out entirely rather than let themselves become hypocrites of the worst sort. Lan Qiren knew that he tended towards inflexibility, that he was too stern and too unforgiving, but this was the sort of thing that simply could not be forgiven; they could not find a loophole, they could not be moved by mercy, they could not simply bow their heads and shrug their shoulders and look away this time, the way they had so many times before.
If they allowed for power and influence, the protection of the sect leader, to overcome their principles – if they punished only those who were weak and had no backing, and refrained when it was the sect leader’s beloved – then they ought to lose the right to call themselves Gusu Lan.
“You’re right,” his teacher finally said. “The rules are clear. We must do what is right.”
“Yes,” Lan Qiren said, and braced himself. “No matter the cost, we must.”
This was going to hurt.
Not just his brother. Lan Qiren didn’t know what his lovesick brother would do in response to this fiasco, but he was certain it wouldn’t be good, not for him and not for her and not for any of them, the sect and all. This was going to hurt everyone.
But then again – hadn’t all this hurt them all already?
A feeling of deep foreboding settled deep in his gut, Lan Qiren entered the hanshi, where his brother was waiting, eyes narrow and features set and defiant, standing in front of He Kexin, her own features equally defiant and yet also strangely confused, as if despite the fact that her sleeve was still splattered with blood she had not yet absorbed what she had done.
When all the present elders and members of the main Lan clan had gathered – all the ones who, when all together and speaking in a single voice, were entitled to override the orders of the sect leader – the argument began in earnest.
Everything happened very quickly after that.
After, when it was all over, Lan Qiren didn’t remember the exact words said or the arguments made. He didn’t remember the rules he cited or the positions he took – he barely even remembered that he had for the first time in his life spoke out in earnest, acting as a full adult of the Lan clan with all the rights and privileges he had never felt truly entitled to claim, standing in actual opposition to his brother and refusing to yield and insisting that for once, for once, the rest of the sect refuse to yield alongside him.
He didn’t remember much of anything else, either.
He didn’t remember the details of He Kexin’s defense, didn’t remember the stupid reasons she’d spouted for what she had done – her story only made sense if you assumed the worst in people, and then acted upon it without bothering to check. Thanks to Lan Qiren’s brother’s endless persistence, He Kexin had a terrible impression of the Lan sect; it had made it easy for her to believe it when her friend abruptly claimed that the teacher had engaged in misconduct, when in fact he had only correctly identified that He Kexin’s beloved ‘sister’ was using Qingheng-jun’s love-madness and indulgence to try to benefit her own sect, and had scolded her for it.
He barely remembered the way He Kexin’s story had collapsed in the face of even the most basic of questioning, all of her assumptions falling apart one right after the other, and then falling apart even further in the face of actual presented evidence. The way that it became increasingly obvious that one of her friends had lied to her in order to manipulate her, had been lying for weeks on end and encouraging her to carry on the relationship just to take advantage of her.
He scarcely recalled the exact words that were spoken when even He Kexin’s friend, already captured by Lan sect disciples on account of the crime and dragged in to give account, denounced He Kexin’s actions. If only she had been less arrogant, her friend complained, less overenthusiastic - she hadn’t mean to push He Kexin to go so far as to kill the man, had meant only for her to use her influence with Qingheng-jun to immunize them against the teacher’s criticism. Only in her excess disdain for the Lan sect, He Kexin had jumped straight to the worst conclusions and gone too far, and now she had now ruined everything…
The details didn’t matter.
What Lan Qiren did remember was the look of horror on He Kexin’s face when it all fell into place. He remembered how she stared down at her hands that had killed a man for so little purpose, for no purpose at all, on the basis of false accusations because of her blind trust and unwillingness to question, her refusal to communicate and her unwavering belief that she knew best. He remembered the alarm and very real fear that appeared when the first elder proposed a sentence of death, pointing out that the only appropriate resolution for such a pointless murder was the most severe, that it would be a life for a life in the traditions of the cultivation world –
Remembered the expression on her face when his brother proposed a different solution.
Remembered the expression on his brother’s face, fanatical and determined, the whites showing all around his eyes, the reckless madness of love writ all over his face – it had consumed him wholly. He had given himself away in full, and there was nothing left, nothing binding him back other than the duty that had always weighed him down.
Remembered how he had responded – what he had offered –
“This cannot be,” Lan Qiren said numbly, walking out into the light of dawn – they had argued the whole night through before reaching the end. “What are we going to do?”
“Qingheng-jun is entitled to resign his position and enter permanent seclusion if he so wishes,” his music teacher said heavily, his voice nearly as dull and shocked as Lan Qiren’s. “His wife, whoever she may be, is entitled to do the same, matching her actions to his. It is our sect’s way: that those who travel the same path as Dao companions be allowed to continue down that same path, never being parted in life. The precedent was set years ago…”
“As was the one that dictates that those who are in permanent seclusion cannot be removed against their will for any reason,” his swordsmanship teacher said, his voice equally solemn. “Not even for trial, should a crime later be discovered. As their seclusion is permanent, they are removed from the world – they are considered as if already dead, never showing their face under the heavens.”
Lan Qiren knew all of this. He knew all the stories, all the rules, all the precedent – not that it had ever been used this way, but his brother had always been one to find loopholes in the rules, to bend their letter to his will rather than bend his neck to honor their spirit. If He Kexin was his wife, she could accompany him anywhere, including into seclusion; if they were both in seclusion, she could not be tried; if she could not be tried, she could not be found guilty and sentenced to die.
“He condemns her instead to a living death, then,” he said woodenly. “She doesn’t even – like him.”
“She is not the one who chose seclusion. She is welcome to leave at any time,” his swordsmanship teacher said bitterly. “Provided, of course, that she is willing to bear the cost and lose her life to pay for her crime.”
He Kexin wouldn’t do that, Lan Qiren knew. She was vivacious and bright, full of life and humor and hope; she feared death, as any regular person did, and she was not part of the Lan sect – she didn’t know how strict their seclusion was. She didn’t know how taxing it would be on her, how little she would see of the world, how disconnected and isolated she would be.
There would be servants to care for her in her seclusion, but they would seek to minimize their presence as much as possible to avoid disturbing her, speaking to her only when necessary. She would be able to speak with her husband, to meet with him on occasion – their seclusion was technically shared, and therefore meetings between them were not counted as a breach of that seclusion, but they would not be permitted to meet too often, lest they be distracted from the higher purpose of cultivation by bodily affairs.
Permanent seclusion was rarely chosen by those young enough to allow for the possibility, but should there be any children born into her seclusion, they would be taken from her and allowed to visit only rarely – the exact frequency had not been recorded, and would probably be a matter of debate should the issue ever come up. Their father would likely see them even less often, only on holidays involving filial piety, and whether he would speak to them would be entirely up to him; there was no obligation on his part.
“How could this be worth it?” Lan Qiren whispered. “How could he…?”
“He is in love,” his music teacher said, as if it were a death sentence.
It was a death sentence.
“We must send word to the former sect leader,” his swordsmanship teacher said, shaking his head. “He, too, is in permanent seclusion and cannot be forced out, but he retreated from the world in honor, not on account of a crime; he could break his seclusion voluntarily. He has always cared deeply for the affairs of the sect – surely he would…”
He trailed off, shaking his head a second time. A motion was taken among the elders and members of the Lan clan, each one of them deeply subdued – He Kexin had already been taken away by her bridegroom to perform the marriage ceremony in the memorial hall, without any of the usual trappings of such a festive event – and a runner was soon sent to the rooms that Lan Qiren’s father had selected for seclusion.
Each of them anticipated a long wait, expecting the former sect leader to demand a full explanation of all that had occurred before emerging, yet to their surprise the runner returned within half a shichen, scarcely enough time to get to the rooms and to return.
“Seniors,” the runner cried, throwing himself down on his knees and touching his head to the floor. “I sought to alert the sect leader of what passed here this night. I called his name time and again, rang the bell to alert him of an emergency…”
“And what?” one of the elders demanded. “What happened then? Why have you returned so quickly?”
“He did not respond,” the runner said. “No matter what I did…I thought the situation was desperate, and so acted rashly. I bypassed the prohibitions and looked through the window – seniors, honored teachers, the former sect leader is dead!”
Lan Qiren started violently.
“What?” his swordfighting teacher demanded, rising to his feet – they were all rising up, all but Lan Qiren who only sat there, stiff in shock. “What do you mean? Even if his cultivation failed, it would not be so soon!”
“It cannot be doubted. After what I saw, I went inside to confirm it. He is dead.”
“When,” Lan Qiren said dully, barely bothering to make it a question.
Everyone turned to look at him.
“It has been an entire night,” he said, staring down at his hands. “Bad news flies on swift wings, and spreads as quickly and inexorably as ink in water. Tell me - did my father die by his own hand before or after he found out what his beloved eldest son has done?”
Nobody answered him.
“Qiren-xiong, would you like me to keep them back a little longer?” Lan Yueheng asked anxiously. He’d been biting his lip and wringing his hands and pacing hard enough to leave a mark on the floor. Lan Qiren really ought to let him go back to his mathematics and his alchemy, to abandon this sad sorry world of politics that the rest of them were mired in for the purer joys of academic discovery. “It’s just, they’re getting really insistent on talking with you…”
Lan Qiren sighed and put down the cup of tea that had already cooled without him taking a single sip.
“No,” he finally said. “It’s fine. I’m amazed you managed to keep them back this long.”
He had been working very hard these past few days. He’d just wanted a short break. An afternoon of silence, or even just a few shichen...
Apparently, he couldn’t even get that now.
Lan Yueheng beamed. “I got Zhang Xin to help! She’s keeping them all back – elders and teachers and fellow disciples and all.”
Lan Qiren frowned a little, thinking of the lady in question, who was fierce and fiery but definitely not fearsome or well-respected enough to hold back the teeming tide of Lan sect members desperate for Lan Qiren to stop ignoring them. “…do I want to know how?”
“With a club!”
Lan Qiren did not want to know how.
“I put explosives in the –”
“Please stop explaining,” Lan Qiren begged.
Technically, Lan Qiren had asked if he wanted to know, but he shouldn’t stand on technicalities. Especially not now that he was –
He stopped that thought before completing it.
“Go out and tell them that I will not be taking any questions on my living conditions, quarters or clothing, any of the current rule modification proposals - it’s far too soon - and certainly none that are just about the current situation, and also that anyone who doesn’t have a question is not welcome,” he decided. “If there’s anyone left over, they can come inside and pose their question. If it’s not a good one, I will impose punishment on the basis of Concentrate on cultivation.”
In the end, there were only three people admitted out of the disappointed throngs of disciples outside. The first two questions were appropriate ones, being both purely administrative and critically necessary to the running of their sect; the last, however…
The disciple in question was one of the gate-guards.
He saluted. “There are visitors on the way in,” he reported. “From other sects.”
“Didn’t I already give orders that all access tokens not currently in the Cloud Recesses be revoked, and no new ones issued?” Lan Qiren asked curtly. “We are not currently accepting guests, and will not be until matters have been settled. You may inform them as much.”
The disciple hesitated.
“What is it?”
“The visitors in question…” The disciple hesitated again, and Lan Qiren frowned. “It’s Sect Leader Nie and Sect Leader Wen.”
Lan Qiren had been reaching for his cup of tea again, but his fingers stopped in mid-air.
“They’ve been very stubborn. Neither has agreed to go, no matter what we tell them, and they’ve been there all day, saying that they’ll stay standing at our gate until we let them in. Do – do the same orders apply to them?”
Lan Qiren looked down at his hand, frozen in midair. His fingers were trembling a little. Strain, probably; he’d had a very bad time for quite a while now, and even though he’d taken the time for it, he hadn’t actually slept properly. He’d only lain in bed, staring blankly at the ceiling, trying to absorb whatever little rest he could.
“They do,” he finally said, putting his hands back into his lap as if he could hide his misery from himself. “Dismissed.”
The last disciple left.
“Why won’t you let them in?” Lan Yueheng asked from behind him. “They’re your friends, aren’t you?”
He paused, falling silent for a brief moment.
“You could use friends right now, Qiren-xiong,” he finally said. “You really could.”
“I know,” Lan Qiren said, and felt the bitterness rise up in his throat until it almost choked him. “They are my friends, and one even more, my sworn brother. They are that, but they are not only that – they are also the sect leaders of two of the other Great Sects. Even if they don’t want to cross me or hurt me, their sect obligations must be always in the forefront of their minds, be their primary care and consideration, just as the Lan sect must be mine.”
Now, he added. Must be mine, now.
“The sect comes first, Yueheng-xiong.” Lan Qiren was so tired that it felt like a physical ache. “It has to come first. First and foremost, above everything else. Haven’t we seen what happens if that’s not what’s done?”
Wasn’t everything they were suffering now all because his brother had put himself first, instead of the sect? He had equated his interests with the sect and in doing so harmed the sect so deeply, harmed all their family and all the rest of them, everyone that relied on them...how could Lan Qiren willfully repeat such a mistake, no matter how much he longed sometimes to do so?
“I’ve made my decision.”
“It’s the wrong one,” Zhang Xin said from the door, still holding that club of hers and looking as fierce as a small angry dog. “You’re the rule expert, aren’t you? Stop thinking about your brother for a moment and focus on them. As far as I’ve always heard, the rules say that you can’t just care for the sect, you have to care for yourself, too. Or else who’d be left to care for the sect?”
Lan Qiren flinched and looked down at his hands again.
He supposed she had a point.
“Yueheng-xiong,” he said.
“Go after that disciple. Tell him…tell him that they still can’t enter, but that he should pass along a message to them. Tell him to tell them…” He hesitated. “If they truly wish to remain nearby, I will be available to meet with them in Caiyi Town ten days from now.”
That should be enough time to settle everything if he really exerted himself, Lan Qiren thought. All the preparations that needed to be made before the world could find out what had happened.
“They don’t have to,” he added, bitterness curling in his gut even as he tried to make it clear that he was speaking in earnest. “If they don’t want to. I won’t be offended if they don’t.”
After all, it would be asking rather a lot, forcing them to stay outside doing nothing for such a long time. Wen Ruohan and Lao Nie: they were sect leaders both, Great Sects at their command, and not possessed of a great deal of spare time. More than that, neither of them were especially patient people in the best of times, and much less so now that they were currently at odds with each other – though perhaps the fact that they’d put up with each other’s company long enough to yell at his gate-guard suggested that their recently frozen-over relationship had perhaps at last started to thaw.
Anyway, Lan Qiren wasn’t even doing them the courtesy of offering them accommodations within the Cloud Recesses, as anyone might reasonably expect. They’d have to stay in Caiyi Town instead, take a room at an inn like any ordinary mortal…truly, it would not be a surprise if they did not choose to stay.
It would be fine if they didn’t stay. It would be.
“I’ll pass it along,” Lan Yueheng promised, and ran out the door. Zhang Xin sniffed, but said no more. It was clear she would have preferred he do more, perhaps go and speak to them immediately, but she also knew that she’d pushed her insolence about as far as she could take it.
She was very brave.
“You should marry him,” Lan Qiren told her, thinking to himself that someone ought to be happy even if it wasn’t him, and she blinked at him. “Yueheng-xiong. He looks at you like you hung the moon in the sky.”
Zhang Xin blinked again, and then flushed. “Well…”
“You like romances, don’t you? Why not take the next step on this one?”
She waved her hands at him. “We’ll get there! Don’t rush us.”
“You don’t have parents, right?” Lan Qiren pressed. “If you like, I can act for them in making the arrangements –”
“I’ll consider that,” she hissed, her face now bright red. She pointed the club at him, and Lan Qiren hastily raised his hands in surrender; he knew what Lan Yueheng’s explosives were like. “Go back to moping. I’m starting to think I liked you better that way.”
Lan Qiren didn’t think she did.
“I need more ink,” he said instead. If he was going to have to make up for all of his brother’s failings and get the Lan sect into the state it needed to in order to be ready to face the storm that awaited them outside their gates within ten days, he would need to work hard, and that meant starting now. “Please fetch some for me. I promise not to bring it up again.”
She eyed him suspiciously, but bustled off, and Lan Qiren turned to apply himself to work.
Work was – he could do the work.
As long as he didn’t have to think about why he was doing it, or how long he would need to do it, not think about how this work wouldn’t just be for now but for the rest of his life, he could do it.
It took the full ten days and several sleepless nights, interspersed with sleep borne of pure exhaustion, but in the end Lan Qiren managed to make all the preparations he thought were necessary to minimize or at least endure the loss of face that the Lan sect would subject to once the world heard of rumors of what had happened. Even with the sanitized, filtered, cleaned-up version of it that they intended to spread, it would still hurt their reputation.
“You should take several days to yourself,” his music teacher advised, looking genuinely concerned, and his swordsmanship teacher nodded in agreement. “There will be more work to come, but none so soon.”
Lan Qiren nodded, being too tired to care about them worrying about him now, and went to the gate.
“Zhu Dawei,” he called, recognizing the disciple there. It was the same one who had brought him the news, ten days back; the one he’d sent back with the message. “Was there…”
He trailed off, not sure how to ask the question without seeming overly pathetic – by chance, do you know if my sworn brother and best friend abandoned me and returned to their sects, as any reasonable person would, or did they decide to wait an unreasonably long time in order to talk to me?
Zhu Dawei saluted adroitly. “Sect Leader Wen and Sect Leader Nie said to tell you that they will be waiting for you at the inn along the main waterway in Caiyi Town, the one with the red awning. They’re planning on dining at you hour if you would like to join them.”
He had good friends, Lan Qiren thought, feeling stabbing pains of emotions in his chest that he thought might even be a good thing. He nodded. “My thanks,” he said, and headed down the mountain.
Wen Ruohan and Lao Nie were there in the inn in one of the private suites that were available for rich guests, sitting at a table laid out with all the local specialties: six different dishes and tea and wine. They were bickering over something or another – Lan Qiren didn’t strain himself to listen, only paused a little outside the door, watching them both for a moment.
Having been forced to spend ten days’ time in close proximity had clearly been good for them: they were practically back to the way they had been before they’d fallen out, each one clearly genuinely at ease - Wen Ruohan with his smirks and his haughty sneers, Lao Nie with his booming laugh and expressive scowls. Perhaps they had even had the opportunity to actually talk to each other, to clear the air between them and make plain their respective positions, which Lan Qiren had been starting to think they never would - that Wen Ruohan would grow so resentful that he’d shut off his heart again and take Lao Nie back on the condition that he never speak of it again, and so let it fester as an unhealed wound. Lan Qiren had worried about the terrible things that might come of such lingering rage. He had not liked it, but had felt helpless to change it: after all, who on earth could force these two men to stay near to each other when they did not want to?
They looked good together, suited each other, he thought, watching them both. They were both tall and strong, fine men that exuded power and fierceness and determination in equal measure; it was a real pity that they weren’t quite the right match for each other.
Lao Nie caught sight of Lan Qiren standing at the door first. The moment he did, he turned away and rose to his feet. “Qiren! There you are – come in – sit! Sit, sit – have you eaten?”
“Earlier,” Lan Qiren said, coming in and trying to raise his hands in a salute that got quickly knocked aside. “I could eat again.”
“We insist on it,” Wen Ruohan said, looking him over with a judgmental frown. “I think you’ve gotten thinner…he’s gotten thinner, hasn’t he, Lao Nie?”
Lao Nie held Lan Qiren at arms length and looked him over critically. “Normally, Hanhan, I’d accuse you of being a mother hen and never let you live it down ever again,” he remarked, “but in this case I really think you’re right. His face is thinner than it was before, definitely a sign of losing weight too rapidly…tell us what happened, Qiren. There’s been no news at all from the Lan sect, only that there was some sort of crisis – some violence – and then all the gates to the Cloud Recesses were shut.”
“Yes,” Lan Qiren said, rubbing at his temples. He didn’t really want to think about it, but there was no avoiding it. “They were. The full details will be announced at the next discussion conference, which is coming up rapidly.”
“It is,” Lao Nie said. “I should know; I’m hosting. Will you tell us in advance what the news is?”
“Food first,” Wen Ruohan interjected. “No talking during meals, remember?”
Lao Nie made a face at him, but Lan Qiren smiled thinly at his sworn brother’s poorly concealed kindness and sat down. He ate quickly, the food largely tasteless on his tongue even though it was finely made and featured many of his favorites. They must have ordered them especially, knowing that he was coming tonight.
The quiet was a welcome reprieve, and allowed him to think over what he was going to say a little more thoroughly. He’d known, of course, that he’d have to tell them, but he hadn’t yet settled on exactly how to force the words from between his teeth…
When dinner was done and the dishes cleared, the only thing left on the table being the tea and the wine, he cleared his throat. “Did you rent the room?” he asked, and they nodded. “For how long?”
“We booked the whole month,” Wen Ruohan said carelessly. “It didn’t cost as much as all that.”
Caiyi Town was the nearest town to the Cloud Recesses, which was full of very rich cultivators. The prices here were far higher than a comparable inn in another place, and were nowhere near cheap even for a night - much less a month. More than that, Lan Qiren hadn’t seen any other guests, which made him suspect that Wen Ruohan had rented not only the room but the entire inn, making it the sort of expenditure more commonly seen among the scions of Lanling Jin.
Still, Lan Qiren did not complain or point out the inaccuracy. Not when he had hoped for something exactly like that.
“Good,” he said, and reached up to his forehead ribbon.
Both Wen Ruohan and Lao Nie gaped at him in stunned disbelief as he removed it, carefully folding it up like the precious thing that it was and tucking it away into his sleeve for safekeeping – even though the process took some time to accomplish, they had not yet recovered by the time he was done. They looked a bit like gawping fish.
“The forehead ribbon reminds you of your self-restraint,” Lan Qiren quoted. “I do not intend to maintain it tonight.”
More gawking. He ignored it.
“I’m intending on getting drunk,” he clarified, nodding at the jars of wine on the table. “I’ll drink as much as you allow me to. Could you keep an eye on me and make sure I don’t leave the premises? I can’t lose face for the sect right now, but both of you are considerably stronger than me, and faster, too. You can keep an eye on me and restrain my behavior, if necessary, and I would appreciate it if you would.”
“…of course,” Wen Ruohan said, exchanging glances with Lao Nie. “If that’s what you want, little Lan. We’ll care for you.”
“Can we ask why?” Lao Nie asked, always the blunt one.
Lan Qiren looked down at the table, gathered his courage, and looked back up at them. “I’m going to be attending the next discussion conference,” he said, and even he could hear how dull and depressed his already monotonous voice was. “At that time, you will need to call me Sect Leader Lan.”
“Sect - Sect Leader…? You?” Lao Nie was gaping again. “But – you –”
“What happened to Qingheng-jun?” Wen Ruohan asked, his eyes already narrowed as his mind rapidly churned over the information.
“He has entered permanent seclusion,” Lan Qiren said. His fingers had tightened into fists again, and his knuckles were white from the strain. “Along with his wife.”
“His – wife?”
“He Kexin?” Wen Ruohan asked. “He’s married – no, she married him?”
“Yes,” Lan Qiren said, because friends or no, brother or no, they were still sect leaders, still outsiders. He could not share with them the full story, at least not yet, not until he’d made sure they couldn’t use it against his sect. Not until there was a story that the whole world would accept as the truth. “They are married, and secluded. I am the next in line, and have therefore taken on the position.”
“But you wanted to travel,” Lao Nie said. “To play music, to go see new places. You had all those plans –”
Lan Qiren flinched.
“Be silent,” Wen Ruohan told Lao Nie. “Can’t you see you’re just making it worse? He knows.”
Yes, Lan Qiren knew. No one knew better than him the dreams he’d had, the plans he’d made, how much it had been a fixed part of his life – stronger than mere hope, it had been an expectation. He had never imagined that his life wouldn’t be what he planned to make of it.
He never imagined his life would be…like this.
“It is temporary,” he added, the rotten feeling of disappointment coating his tongue like a swallow of bitter medicine. “An examination has revealed that He Kexin is pregnant with my brother’s child. Although it is far too early for any medical indications, divination suggests that it will be a boy.”
And even if it wasn’t, well, Lan Yi had set a precedent for women to be allowed to be sect leaders, too.
The sect elders had compared the exceptional qualities of Lan Qiren’s brother against Lan Qiren’s own, compared their respective talents for cultivation and temperaments and their ways with people. That analysis complete, they had suddenly changed their tune: no more did they try to comfort Lan Qiren for his crushed dreams by painting pictures of the power he would obtain, of his children inheriting after him – as if Lan Qiren had ever cared about power, he who had never coveted the position of sect leader even once in his life, and had on account of his inclinations, or lack thereof, had already given up hope of children – and instead they spoke instead of Lan Qiren’s duty to his brother’s legitimate bloodline, his duty to the sect overall.
Lan Qiren had listened in silence for a while, barely restraining from sneering at their shallow and obvious hypocrisy, before striking a deal with them: he would take on the role of acting sect leader, as he had already known he had no choice but to do, and in time he would willingly step aside for his brother’s heir or heirs, if there was more than one, but he insisted on being the one to raise them.
He didn’t especially want to raise children, having no idea if he would be any good at it, but he didn’t trust anyone else in his sect to prioritize raising the children as children – as people of their own, rather than extensions of their father, as another chance to correct the mistakes of the past. To raise them with the rules as guidance, as support in times of weakness and pride in times of strength, not as an obstacle to be overcome; to try to do whatever he could to help them avoid the faults of the prior generation without crushing their souls the way his brother had tried to crush his.
He would give this unborn nephew or nephews everything he could. He would give them the rules, and he would protect them from them; he would spend the rest of his life exerting himself to clean up the sect until it was something worth inheriting, and then he’d give them that, too.
“Congratulations,” Lao Nie said blankly, and Wen Ruohan elbowed him sharply in the ribs.
Lan Qiren chuckled humorlessly. “He’ll be only a few years younger than yours,” he said to Lao Nie. “And about of age with your second when he’s born, da-ge.”
“You don’t deserve this,” Wen Ruohan said, his mouth twisted with bitterness that for once had nothing to do with his own desires. “You deserve better.”
Lan Qiren appreciated the thought.
He appreciated them both being angry on his behalf, which they so clearly were. Lao Nie’s face had grown black with rage, his brows tight as if pulled taut with a string, and while Wen Ruohan’s face was calm and sedate as always, his qi seethed and hissed and coiled around them all as if he could keep away Lan Qiren’s duties by sheer force of will. He might even try, if it was something Lan Qiren would consider letting him do.
It wasn’t, though.
“The sect’s needs come first,” he said simply. “You both put your sects above yourselves; you know how it is. It’s the same for me.”
“You still deserve better,” Lao Nie said, and shook his head. “Hanhan’s right. You really do. I’m so sorry, Qiren. I should’ve been there to help more – shouldn’t have been so distracted –”
“Nothing could have been done to change it,” Lan Qiren said. He didn’t disagree, knowing as he did how careless Lao Nie had been over it all, but if he were to blame Lao Nie, he might as well blame Wen Ruohan, who he knew for a fact did know about it and didn’t bother to try to intervene – but he didn’t want to blame his sworn brother, who had no responsibility here, and he didn’t much want to blame Lao Nie, either, even if he’d said some very stupid things from a distance. It had only ever been his brother’s fault; there was nothing else for it. “It’s…”
He trailed off, not able to say it was fine, because it wasn’t. It just wasn’t true.
Do not tell lies.
“I’ll live,” he said instead, because that was. No matter what, he had to live. His sect depended on him, his not-yet-born nephew depended on him. “I’m going to become a teacher, instead. It’ll give me something to do.”
He would have more than enough to do as the sect leader, of course, acting or otherwise, and with him just barely into his early twenties he was very young to be a teacher. But he desperately wanted something that wasn’t just the sect’s, something all his own, and he had planned on being a teacher, too. Much later in life, of course, but – it was still something.
Something of his own.
Maybe he’d push the elders for permission to have children from other sects come for lessons, just to mimic the variety of the world that he was no longer permitted to go see. Sect leaders feather their own nests with the stories of others, he’d once told Cangse Sanren, that’s a way of living, too…
He had to think of it that way. If he didn’t, he’d think instead of what she said, a caged lark singing only for a select few, and that would be worse.
“Do you have any more questions?” he added, not wanting to think of anything at all any longer. “If not, I would very much like to get drunk on your wine, if you don’t mind.”
Wen Ruohan and Lao Nie exchanged glances again, some secret communication that Lan Qiren didn’t bother to try and fail to decipher – truly, if there was one good part to the entire disaster it was that they had overcome their distance in truth rather merely on the surface – but then Wen Ruohan nodded firmly and Lao Nie began to set out the drinking bowls.
“For once, I’m almost looking forward to hearing about your sect rules,” Wen Ruohan remarked. “As long as you just tell me about them, this time, and don’t knee me in the –”
Lan Qiren grabbed at the drinking bowl, glaring at him, and Lao Nie laughed. “Let’s see how much you can tolerate,” he said cheerfully. “The liquor here is pretty mild, so start with one bowl and tell me how you’re feeling after –”
Lan Qiren drank the bowl, grimacing a little at the taste, and remembered nothing more.
Matters settled, eventually, and just as eventually, it started getting better.
At first, Lan Qiren wasn’t sure if matters were actually better, or if he’d just grown numb and accustomed, but after the past year and more he thought that there was a serious possibility of it being the former rather than the latter.
Probably the biggest difference was the birth of little Lan Huan, who’d joined the world as a fat and squalling infant that Lan Qiren had loved at first sight and sleepless night – he was still too young to be separated from his mother, or at minimum his wetnurse, but Lan Qiren made a practice of visiting every few days to try to prepare himself for caring for him. The women were generally happy to shove the baby into his arms and let him play guqin or xiao for him until he fell asleep. Apparently Lan Huan was actually a very peaceable baby, an assertion which Lan Qiren had initially doubted on account of the circles under everyone’s eyes, but when he’d said so, the wetnurse had glared at him and pronounced that saying such things meant that the next child would be a true wild terror, and probably a biter to boot.
The frequency of Lan Qiren’s visits was actually less about Lan Huan, although he liked his nephew very much, and more about trying to establish a precedent for visitation. He hoped, eventually, to be able to bring Lan Huan to see his mother on such a frequent basis, once or even twice a week, knowing as he did that He Kexin lacked the temperament for seclusion. To his regret, she’d ended up spoiling that plan not long after she’d recovered from her pregnancy, misinterpreting his frequent visits as an interest in her, and he’d been forced to cut back for a while out of sheer disgust at the mere concept. He bitterly scolded her in his mind for being seemingly incapable of seeing any other reason that he would visit so often, especially during the times that Lan Huan was already asleep, although he suspected in his heart that the real reason was simply likely a longing for a connection with the only other person she regularly saw.
He still had hope of negotiating regular visits with his sect elders, eventually, but now he knew he’d probably be lucky if he managed to make it once every fortnight, when originally he’d hoped for twice a week.
Disturbing female disciples is prohibited, after all. Lan Qiren had a very good reputation, being widely known to be frigid as a stick of ice, using his brother’s terms, but there was only so much he could do when there was known to be an expressed interest on the other side, especially an interest of adulterous nature. And couple that with what had happened between them before…
At least she’d restrained herself to only making a verbal offer, this time.
Lan Qiren did not know how to explain to He Kexin in a way that she would understand that although he visited her regularly as a matter of duty, and although he was the only person other than his brother with whom she regularly conversed, he did not enjoy his time with her – that he blamed her in part for the destruction of his dreams, the shattering of his heart in a way that would likely never heal, even though he did not blame her for his brother’s obsession with her. It was not her fault that his brother had fallen in love with her, or that he had taken such extreme measures for her, and yet…
“She’s still a bitch,” Cangse Sanren announced, and her new husband smothered a snicker in his sleeve. “What? She is.”
Lan Qiren sighed, and Wei Changze, smiling, made an excuse to depart and let them talk between themselves. He was a good man, with an irrepressible sense of humor that regularly made Cangse Sanren laugh without any shame at all, howling and hooting like a monkey. He had courted her assiduously even after she’d departed the Lotus Pier, headed off to complete her education regarding the mortal world in the various Great Sects, and yet had been oblivious to the fact that she treated their liaison as a serious one – perhaps he had only truly believed that she would give herself to him when they actually married, their interminably long courtship finally ending the way any blind man would have guessed it would from the very beginning.
“I asked you to come here so that you could meet A-Huan,” Lan Qiren said. “Not to relitigate the matter of He Kexin, who at any rate is already suffering the punishment for her unwise actions.”
“Unwise is an understatement. She killed a man! On no basis, and without even a formal challenge! If she’d just kept her sword in her sheath and not jumped ahead three steps –”
Cangse Sanren made a rude noise, but settled back, grumbling. “The baby’s cute, though,” she added begrudgingly. “Looks like you.”
Lan Qiren rolled his eyes. “Yes, thank you, he is my nephew. To the extent you can identify any traits whatsoever in a roly-poly puppy like A-Huan, they’re family features.”
“Of which you’re the finest representative!”
Lan Qiren gave her a look, and she grinned unrepentantly at him. “Heartbreaker,” she teased, but a moment later her smile faded. “Have you spoken with your brother?”
Lan Qiren’s gaze dropped to the table. “There’s no need,” he said. “He has always been torn between pride in his capability and the admiration of others on one hand, and a yearning to retreat from the world and its annoyances in order to focus fully on his cultivation on the other. Other than occasionally meeting with his wife, he is now able to wholly focus on the latter, and unlike He Kexin, his temperament is suited to the strictness of our seclusion practices.”
“There might not be a need,” Cangse Sanren agreed. “Did you speak with him anyway?”
“Once,” Lan Qiren said, voice short. After a few long moments, he added, a little painfully: “He said that our father had always seen seclusion as a means to reunite with his wife.”
Cangse Sanren hissed in a manner not unlike a very angry cat, or possibly an agitated snake, her eyes very nearly turning red from rage: naturally she knew about the whole awful background, the many years of age between Lan Qiren and his brother and the way his brother had always blamed Lan Qiren’s belated birth for the death of their mother, and by extension the shattering of their father’s heart when she left him behind, gone too early.
Lan Qiren’s brother had also said other things, mad things, things that Lan Qiren sought to forget as soon as he’d heard them but which he knew would likely haunt him in the dark of sleepless nights for the rest of his life. The worst of it was that Lan Qiren still loved his brother, who he’d idolized for so long: his brother who was the perfect gentleman when he wanted to be, capable of being kind and charming and generous, of excellent cultivation and who excelled in each talent, who was thoughtful and reserved and in his own way a very good sect leader – the Qingheng-jun that the rest of the world had seen, the one that Lao Nie had befriended, the one so much of his sect had pinned their hopes on.
Lan Qiren felt, as always, like an inferior substitute.
No one had made his brother fall in love, nor to take such terrible actions to protect his love from her own foolishness, and yet, if Lan Qiren could have found another way out that the sect would have accepted, he would have. It would have been better, in his view, to lash them both with the discipline whip until they lacked flesh if it meant that they would stay free. A human could live with pain, but he wasn’t so sure they could do without freedom or hope…
Aren’t you just the same as me, his brother had sneered at him through the door that would part them for the rest of their lives, lashing out like a rabid dog that sought to hurt others in order to ease its own hurt, or else would you snap yourself into a thousand pieces begging for a scrap of my approval, which you will never receive, or whoring your vaunted righteousness out for a smile from your ‘sworn brother’?
Lan Qiren hadn’t done that, and wouldn’t. Unbelievable as it seemed, his stubbornness had stood up against Wen Ruohan’s and won; it had been Wen Ruohan who had changed to match him, rather than the other way around. He had vowed that the Fire Palace remained useless, and Lan Qiren believed him, especially when even Lao Nie confirmed it to be true. They had taken to exchanging letters this past year, since Lan Qiren could not visit the Nightless City until he had stabilized the Cloud Recesses and – sworn brotherhood or no – a visit by Wen Ruohan to the Cloud Recesses would be taken as a formal exchange, sect leader visiting sect leader.
Perhaps now, after a year, when he had more fully settled into his role…
“Did the trash say anything else?”
For a moment Lan Qiren was unsure whether Cangse Sanren had somehow managed to follow his thoughts and was now referring to Wen Ruohan, against whom she still bore something of a grudge, but then he realized that she meant his brother.
“Anything of value, anyway,” she huffed, tossing her hair and baring her teeth in the way she used to do before she realized that human beings didn’t use threat displays in that manner.
“He picked a courtesy name for A-Huan,” Lan Qiren said. “As is his right, of course.”
That had been Lan Qiren’s true motive in going to see his brother, in fact. He had refused to go see his brother for months, even if etiquette suggested he should go to pay his respects; it was only after A-Huan was born that he had finally yielded. It was only upon seeing the round and innocent face of little A-Huan starting to smile that he felt compelled to bend his stubborn back and compromise himself to reach out - there was very little, he found, that he wouldn’t do for his little nephew, who had no one else in the world.
His brother had been largely disinterested, though, even when Lan Qiren had inappropriately brought the child over for him to see – it had been too early for propriety, before the first month ceremony which marked the moment when the child could be exhibited more broadly, but Lan Qiren’s heart had hurt at the idea of his brother not seeing his son before the rest of the world had had a chance. It was not a large distance between the seclusion house his brother had chosen for himself, the same one that their father had planned to use before his suicide, and the house set aside for He Kexin, which Lan Qiren had taken to privately calling the Gentian House on account of the flowers that crowded around it.
Everyone had turned a blind eye to Lan Qiren’s little excursion – but his brother hadn’t cared.
It was He Kexin that he loved, that he was mad for, and in his selfishness he could not see extending that love to anyone beyond her. Lan Qiren was resolved to teach A-Huan to do better, to think of others first, to care for other people and think not only of them but of the people beyond them, just as he looked at He Kexin and thought to teach him to make his own judgments of people, to listen to their side of the story and analyze it carefully based on what he knew.
He could only hope that it would help.
When his brother had told him to leave, that he didn’t care to see the child, Lan Qiren had left, returning Lan Huan to his mother’s care, and returned himself to his brother’s door, boiling over with rage, to give him a piece of his mind.
It had backfired on him, of course. He would have been better off not going back at all – the rules said Do not succumb to rage, and they were right. All he had managed to obtain was a sore throat from all the yelling and a fresh set of nightmares.
And a name.
At least he had gotten Lan Huan a name bestowed upon him by his father, as he deserved.
“He selected ‘Xichen’,” Lan Qiren said, drawing out the characters and passing it over for Cangse Sanren to see. “It’s a good name.”
“Lan Xichen,” Cangse Sanren said, sounding it out and thinking over the meaning of the characters. “Yes, that’s a good name. Full of ambition and well-wishes…I bet the rotten trash-heap sees A-Huan as another incarnation of himself.”
Lan Qiren didn’t exactly disagree. Still, it would be rude to say so; he coughed and shook his head. “What about you?” he asked instead. “Are you and Wei Changze planning on giving A-Huan a playmate?”
And himself a student, in a dozen years or so. He’d started accepting students from rogue cultivators and other sects, just the way he’d planned; it was still in the early stages. He was still writing to small sects with fewer resources and offering to take their problem children because he knew that that was all they’d be willing to send to him, an outsider – there had always been lectures offered by the Great Sects, but they were one-off things, often accompaniments to discussion conferences or else excuses for the sects’ adults to gather and socialize while the children learned a few days’ worth of material. Taking another sect’s child for a full season, the way he planned to, was a much bigger ask. Much less to teach them his Lan sect rules, which weren’t even seen as applicable by the rest of the world…
Still, Lan Qiren had hope that eventually he would be able to demonstrate his merit; if his teaching worked with this first set of children, he hoped that it would work in the future for more of them. He hoped he’d be able to help them learn something, but even if he didn’t, they would at least have the experience of traveling – of visiting another place all on their own – so that if something happened in their lives to rob them of their freedom, they would at least have that much to remember. And in return, he would have them, his students, the feathers to brighten and color his dull nest and let him experience a little of what the world was still available to him.
Cangse Sanren laughed. “Not for a few years yet,” she said, eyes dancing. “You’re still safe! We want to have some time for ourselves, first – we’re going to travel around as rogue cultivators. I’ll write to you from every city, and send you things!”
Lan Qiren smiled.
“But only,” she said primly, “only if you promise me you’re not actually going to go through with growing that awful beard of yours again –”
“I’m a teacher now. I’m entitled!”
“You’re too young! You have to wait until you’re at least thirty for a beard.”
“By what rule?”
“My rule! Also my aesthetics; you’re so pretty –”
“I explained to you my reasoning already,” Lan Qiren complained. “What do you have against it, other than an aesthetic preference which is completely irrelevant to me?”
“I’m a rogue cultivator from Baoshan Sanren’s immortal mountain,” she proclaimed. “I seek to improve the world wherever it may be, fight evil and promote good, and keeping you clean-shaven is such a clear and vast improvement to the beauty of the world that it must be fiercely fought for –”
She burst out laughing. “How about this?” she giggled. “You can grow it after you’re thirty, or else whenever I’m not here, so that you can have it when you’re teaching your classes.”
“Thank you for your generous permission,” he drawled.
“No, no, it’ll be good!” she beamed at him. “That means that when I’m gone for good, you’ll have something to remember me by.”
Lan Qiren’s smile disappeared. “Cangse Sanren –”
“I told you long ago that I was doomed,” she reminded him. “Anyway, I’ve kept a low profile, haven’t I? I’m not dead yet, and you never know what might happen. And anyway, like I always said, a short life in exchange for a good life is a bargain I’m willing to strike…anyway, enough about me. Tell me about your children! The students, I mean; are they really all terrible bear children, without a single good trait between them?”
“They’re fine,” Lan Qiren said, distracted by what was quickly proving to be a new favorite subject. “I don’t know what everyone complains about with them. So what if they’re mischievous at first? In the end they all learn, you just have to give them attention and figure out what it is that they like, what will work to give them a basis to use in the future…”
“Surely some of them have to be disasters.”
“Don’t worry, I’m certain that your future child will be a fiend in human flesh born for the sole purpose of wreaking havoc on the serenity of my classroom,” Lan Qiren said dryly. “To be matched only by the inevitable offspring of Lan Yueheng and Zhang Xin, should they ever choose to put aside their furnaces and chemicals long enough to have them.”
Cangse Sanren giggled. “Just you wait,” she warned. “They’ll have a whole host of children, just like the common folk do; none of this two-and-done that you noble scions of the Lan sect prefer. They’ll have an entire horde for the next generation, and just when you think that you’re finally done with them, they’ll have an ‘accident’ twenty years too late, a child of their old age, and you’ll have to teach them alongside children young enough to be A-Huan’s heirs…”
“Why must you curse me?” Lan Qiren complained. “What have I ever done to you?”
It had been a good visit.
Yes, Lan Qiren thought, he was starting to adjust, little by little. The life he had now was not what he wanted, not what he’d dreamed of, but he could live with it – he had to, of course, but he thought that he also could. He would play for his nephew instead of a nameless crowd in a distant city, he would teach students a generation too early, he would only leave the Cloud Recesses on short excursions – night-hunting, or discussion conferences, or visits to his friends, to play with little A-Jue over in the Unclean Realm or the slightly older A-Xu in the Nightless City, whose would-be sibling had not made it despite Wen Ruohan’s concubine’s best effort. Wen Ruohan had written in his letter that he had promised her another as compensation, but only in a few years, once her body had fully recovered and A-Xu was old enough that another child wouldn’t be seen as a threat, which seemed fair to Lan Qiren.
He would live.
He might even enjoy it.
He only wondered a little, about Wen Ruohan – his sworn brother had, he thought, expressed some mangled version of feelings towards him, feelings that well exceeded the ordinary course for sworn brothers and which he thought he had made clear were not unwelcome, but amidst the hubbub that had later ensued Wen Ruohan had not spoken of it again. Lan Qiren could understand that he had been distracted, first by Lao Nie’s marriage – now ended, according to Lao Nie, who seemed as unperturbed by his announcement that his wife had disappeared permanently and would likely never be returning as he had by anything else about this mysterious woman that Lan Qiren had never had the chance to meet and now never would – and then by Lan Qiren’s brother’s situation.
And yet, he would have thought that there would be something…
Wen Ruohan has lived for generations, he reminded himself. He is an ancient monster of the old sort, unmatched by any other living being, excepting only perhaps those that long ago retreated into seclusion or the mountains. Waiting a year or even a few is for him little more than a brief pause. He may yet reach out again – and, of course, you could do the reaching out yourself, if you weren’t such a coward.
It wasn’t cowardice that stopped him, of course, no matter what names he called himself. It was uncertainty, and also, in his own way, a form of care – it was the Lan sect’s curse to love too strongly, to prioritize their hearts above all common sense. Lan Qiren did not want to burden Wen Ruohan with an offer that would not satisfy him, to hang around his neck an obligation of unwanted feelings the way his brother had done to He Kexin.
Lan Qiren could not see a way in which he could offer Wen Ruohan his heart and not his body, yet he knew himself well enough to know that he would be unhappy if he tried to offer both. He could exert himself if he really had to, force himself to go through the motions that seemed so dull and unpleasant, all squelching amidst bodily fluids and inelegant grunting and none of the attraction that other people had to compensate for it. But he couldn’t do so sincerely, and he wouldn’t be able to do it for very long without developing resentment at being forced to endure such a task routinely – and it did seem that regular people wanted it all the time.
Such a feeling, if ignored, would breed disorder between them, poisoning their hearts…no, Lan Qiren could not make the first move, to take the step that would breach the paper between them, change them from their current status as brothers and nothing more.
He had made his position clear.
The only question was – what would Wen Ruohan do about it?
The answer, it turned out, was paint.
It wasn’t an answer that Lan Qiren would have anticipated in any way, shape, or form. He had been under the impression, as had Lao Nie, that Wen Ruohan had stopped painting long ago. After some teasing by Lao Nie, the man had even off-handedly confirmed it at a private dinner they’d shared at a discussion conference – there had been more than usual planned in this past year, accounting for the fact that all of the Great Sect sect leaders (except Wen Ruohan) were unusually young, and therefore active. And although no one acknowledged it as a reason, everyone knew that it was also meant to help calm the concerns of the smaller sects regarding the chaos in their Great Sect leaders’ personal lives, between Jiang Fengmian losing his servant to his beloved or possibly the other way around, Lao Nie’s extremely bizarre marriage situation, and Lan Qiren stepping up unexpectedly to the position of sect leader on account of his brother’s retreat from the world.
According to Wen Ruohan, it hadn’t been anything in particular that had made him stop painting, only a lack of time and then of interest; there had been a severe crisis some time ago, long before either of them were born, and he had been obligated to devote himself exclusively to those affairs for an extended period of time. When he had finally resurfaced, years later, he had returned and found an old painting sitting there half-finished, and staring at it, realized that he was no longer the same man who had begun it.
He had never painted again.
Lan Qiren was unsure if this was a real story or not – Wen Ruohan, he had learned, seemed to consider the truth about his past to be little more than a gentleman’s agreement between friends – as it seemed to be an especially pointed reminder aimed at Lan Qiren’s situation in particular.
Lao Nie had certainly taken it as such, throwing in his own concerns about Lan Qiren’s work schedule, and when even Cangse Sanren had joined the growing mob of all the rest of his friends, Lan Qiren had finally, if reluctantly, agreed to defer to their concern. He’d finally taken a step back and reorganized his duties as sect leader, standing his ground against the elders and insisting on having more time to devote to his own interests, including those outside of his work as a teacher – music, study, quiet contemplation, even maintaining his training with the sword, despite the fact that he would never match his brother as a sword cultivator.
It had, in fact, made him a better sect leader, less prone to working until he burned out, and he was grateful to his friends for their wisdom and steadfastness in the face of his stubborn grief.
At any rate, though, Wen Ruohan was no longer the painter he had been in his youth, and the hints of burning that marked all such paintings that Lan Qiren had seen suggested that the transition had been an unpleasant one for him. It was a surprise, therefore, to receive, as a gift from the Nightless City, a painting in that immediately recognizable hand which was so freshly made that Lan Qiren imagined he could still smell the grinding ink.
The painting depicted a dragon amidst a misty bamboo forest, its massive coils interwoven throughout the bamboo until it appeared almost part of the earth from which they sprung, or alternatively that speared through from above by a rain of spears; in its claw it held a beauteous dragon pearl, shining bright against the dark haze that surrounded the rest of the painting, and its eyes were fixed upon it as if it had forgotten all else.
The pearl, Lan Qiren presumed, was himself, given Wen Ruohan’s fondness for comparing him to one, which Lan Qiren still did not entirely understand – while he knew it was a sign of Wen Ruohan’s appreciation for him, and an indication that he treasured him, he thought that the particular choice in the type of precious stone was likely to be due to the fact Lan Qiren largely preferred white and grey and silver for his clothing.
(Privately, he had determined that one day, out of sheer spite, he would wear an outfit primarily composed of blue for no other reason than to give the other man a shock; he just hadn’t found a reason yet to justify the expense of having such clothing made when he would only use it the once.)
Similarly, the dragon was the symbol of imperial might, of overweening power and influence and even arrogance; naturally that would be Wen Ruohan himself. But as for the rest of it – the lonely but beautiful bamboo forest, often associated with moral integrity and loyalty, yet juxtaposed in this painting as piercing spears, penetrating the dragon’s hide as if attacking him – the dark mist that seemed to envelop the dragon, held at abeyance only through the light of its pearl –
Lan Qiren did not understand.
There were too many meanings possible, and he did not know how to differentiate between those that were there and those he only wanted to read into it. There was nothing for it, but that he would need to ask the artist himself what was meant.
When, as expected, an invitation came a few days later, requesting that Lan Qiren visit the Nightless City in his capacity as Wen Ruohan’s sworn brother, Lan Qiren accepted.
There were all the necessary pleasantries when he arrived, of course. No longer could he just slip in through the back door, a younger brother come to leech off some resources from an elder; he was the Lan sect leader, and that came with certain obligations even on a casual visit. There were a few formal procedures, and then dinner with Wen Ruohan and his wives, with whom his dynamics had completely reversed – Madame Wen had thawed towards Lan Qiren on account of his new position as sect leader, which guaranteed that he would never be able to move to the Nightless City and thereby obstruct her personal power, while the new concubine, former maid, seemed to think that his involvement in her ascension to the position she now held was a matter of embarrassment, resulting in her wanting to snub him whenever possible.
Wen Ruohan largely ignored their antics, his eyes fixed on Lan Qiren throughout their meal, and afterwards, he had finally dismissed them all and taken Lan Qiren back to the small study he preferred to use for their time together.
“The painting you sent was lovely,” Lan Qiren said, playing a little with the cup of tea that was warm and aromatic in his hands. “You have lost none of your skill.”
“I rebuilt it,” Wen Ruohan corrected, looking amused. “You ought to have seen the first few efforts; I think I wasted enough paper to feed a small family for a year.”
Lan Qiren smiled at the thought. He could scarcely imagine Wen Ruohan struggling the way he described, making an effort and finding his ability wanting; still less could he have once imagined Wen Ruohan having admitted to that fact in front of another.
It was a little like what Lao Nie had said, that between the two of them they were excavating the residual humanity left in Wen Ruohan, slowly and methodically moving aside stone and dirt in order to find the treasures lurking beneath.
“I like it even more, then,” he said, and decided to be a little bit bold. “I like knowing that you thought of me for as long as it took you to make it.”
Wen Ruohan’s eyes curved in delight. “You need not be concerned on that score,” he said, his voice still calm and unhurried as always. “You are not so easily expelled from my thoughts, now that you have entered them…ah, little Lan, little Lan, you make me impatient! I had made plans on how to broach the subject with you, and yet now that you are here, I find myself rushing forward, intent to get to the point like some savage Nie.”
A savage Nie of whom he was exceedingly fond, he did not say, and Lan Qiren managed not to roll his eyes at him.
Instead, Lan Qiren put down his cup and folded his hands in his lap. “Don’t hesitate on my behalf,” he said, then added, a little dryly, “I’ve had enough indirect statements to last a lifetime.”
“Welcome to politics,” Wen Ruohan responded, just as dry, but his smile faded and his expression grew more intense; he stood and came closer to Lan Qiren, looking down at him for a long moment before taking a seat beside him. “Qiren, why are you here?”
Lan Qiren blinked, a little confused by the question, but before he could put together an answer, Wen Ruohan continued. “You are sincere and true to yourself; you follow your sect’s rules because you believe in them whole-heartedly and wish to live up to their strictures. Yet do they not say Do not associate with evil?”
“I don’t think you’re evil,” Lan Qiren said. “I think we disagree on what actions constitute evil, on what divides good from evil, and that you are more comfortable walking closely along that line than I. I think that there will be many times in the future where we disagree once again on what is or is not the straight path, and what is the crooked, but – fundamentally, I don’t think you’re evil.”
He considered the question for another moment longer, then added: “And if you were, what is there to do about it? You’re still my sworn brother, bound by oath and blood, and that makes you my responsibility whether I like it or not. Even if you were evil, the only thing that would be left for me to do would be to try my best to lead you out of the dark and back to the light.”
Wen Ruohan was watching him again. His red eyes were narrowed a little, his gaze as intense as it had been when Lan Qiren had been little more than a child, although experience had made it a little less overwhelming.
“You know that I see you as a pearl in the palm of my hand,” Wen Ruohan finally said. His voice was low and intimate, and Lan Qiren shivered to hear it. “A treasure I never expected to find, a gem of such surpassing purity that I fear it will burn me to dare profane it with my touch. Time is eternal; the pearl flows, the jade turns, and yet I remain, walking my crooked path and you your straight broad bridge, shining with righteousness. I see you and yearn for you both day and night, and even in my dreams…”
He reached out and put his hand on Lan Qiren’s. “I would have you be mine, if you would have the same.”
No hollowed-out puppets soon to be discarded here, Lan Qiren thought nonsensically, and swallowed.
“I am yours,” he said carefully, pronouncing each syllable at a time. He had to get this right, he thought, and he would only ever have this one singular chance to do so, or else he’d lose something as bright and shining as the pearl Wen Ruohan was always comparing him to. “I am your sworn brother, as you are mine; I will always be yours.”
“I know,” Wen Ruohan said, and it seemed for once that Lan Qiren had expressed himself clearly rather than muddling it up: he hadn’t misunderstood him into thinking that what Lan Qiren had said was a rejection. “If I were not one of those evil men that your rules warn you against, I would find it in myself to be content with that. But I am, and I am not.”
Lan Qiren wet his lips with his tongue. “You know what I told you,” he reminded him. “About how I – I could compromise myself if I had to, if it made you happy, but I don’t want to have to. That is not who I am, what I am. I don’t want to have to bend and yield. I don’t want to break under the weight of love the way my brother did.”
Wen Ruohan was watching him, patient and waiting.
“I’m not comfortable with that type of intimacy, the type shared between lovers since the start of time,” Lan Qiren finally said. “I don’t want it intrinsically, and I don’t think I want it logically, either. More than that, I don’t think, having never wanted it before and not wanting it now, that I will ever want it. My brother once compared me to a block of ice or a mountain lake frozen over in winter, frigid, and there was something true to what he said. There is no heat that will make me melt as others do…and yet.”
“And yet you are not the only one who wishes to possess.” He met Wen Ruohan’s eyes. “I, too, would have you be mine.”
His stupid Lan sect heart, burning a hole in his chest; it should have been enough to make him forget his own wishes and be willing to give in, to want to give everything to his beloved no matter the cost to himself, but it wasn’t – he wasn’t. And yet, at the same time, he judged his own affections to be no less than his brother’s for all that they were quieter and less flamboyant, understated rather than loudly proclaimed
Wen Ruohan leaned forward, bringing their faces closer together. “Then why don’t you claim me?”
“Because I cannot offer you what I should,” Lan Qiren said truthfully. “What you would expect –”
“And when,” Wen Ruohan cut him off, “have I ever cared for the expectations set out by the rest of the world? Would I have done half the things I did if I cared for the world’s conventions and determined my aims through their lens?”
Lan Qiren had to admit that he had a point.
“I know what you are,” Wen Ruohan said. “To taint you would be to ruin my own pleasure, to force you would be to deny myself – and I never deny myself. I am greedy, little Lan; I am not content with what the world would have me want, not when I can have what I really want.”
“And what is it that you want?”
“Lao Nie told me that he told you about his wife,” Wen Ruohan said. “How he stayed and she went, and they were still happy…I want that, with you.”
Lan Qiren frowned, not understanding.
“I want you,” Wen Ruohan told him, and his long-fingered hand traced over Lan Qiren’s cheekbone. “I want to have you, to own you, to keep you. I want to possess you down to the marrow of your bones; I want every inch of you in every way that I can have you. I want you to be mine – and I don’t need to fuck you to have it.”
Lan Qiren stared at him.
Wen Ruohan smile was like his smirk, triumphant and arrogant, certain of his impending victory. “If I want sex, I have my wives or Lao Nie for that, don’t I? To my wives I have only promised power, which I have given them. As for Lao Nie, I know now that he cannot promise me his heart: he is too facile, too free, too easy with others – he is compelled to share not only his body, which I wouldn’t mind, but also his heart, and I find that I am as unwilling to share in matters of the heart as you are to share your body.”
He shifted closer yet again, until their eyes were level with each other and their breath intermingled in the air between them.
“You will not be like him,” he said, voice dark and certain. “You’re barely willing to divide your attention to things you consider less important than your particular interests. Your heart is your clan’s curse and its treasure, taking you to the heavens and casting you down to the hells – if you give me your heart, full and entire, it will be as if you have removed it from your chest and put it in my hand. No one else will have any part of it, not like this, not in this way. It will only be me.”
“That is true,” Lan Qiren said. “I love no less deeply than my brother. My heart is a placid lake with a surface as clear as glass – you can see everything therein. Within it, there are only my interests, my nephew, my few friends, and you.”
Wen Ruohan’s smile widened.
“What exactly are you thinking?” Lan Qiren asked. His heart was beating in his chest so fast that it hurt. “If you want the assurance, you have it already: I am yours, and you are mine, and it would shatter me to let you go now. Is that what you want?”
“It is.” Wen Ruohan laughed, and it was full of pleasure. “Ah, little Lan! It is, it is.”
“What does it change?” Lan Qiren asked. “How is it different from what we have already?”
“It changes everything,” Wen Ruohan said simply, and Lan Qiren thought about and felt that he was right. “Knowing that you are mine makes it easier to release you into the world, to watch you shine and others see it; let them all look and know that it will never be theirs. All good things in the world are mine, and you are the best among them.”
“Pretty words,” Lan Qiren said, aiming for dry but probably just coming off as short of breath. “I’m a little more interested in the practical.”
“I would have you share my pillow while you are here,” Wen Ruohan said. “I do not need you to share your body with me, but I would have your company as a husband has his wife’s…and there are things that can be done without involving your body, depending on your tolerance.”
“Oh? Like what?”
Wen Ruohan grinned. “As it happens, that’s a matter I’ve given some considerable thought to…”
Lan Qiren rolled his eyes, and felt the heat in his ears fade a little; he appreciated the small reprieve from the emotional intensity, the humor breaking the tenseness of the moment.
“You know I find you beautiful,” Wen Ruohan said, and this time his hand came to rest on Lan Qiren’s cheek, his thumb brushing over his lips, and as quickly as that the reprieve was gone. “Perhaps you would permit me to find my own pleasure beside you, gazing upon you, or even invite another to share the bed while you busy yourself with your work – you are never as beautiful as when you are focused, your soul and mind wholly absorbed in your passion for the subject. Perhaps I would invite you to read a spring book for me, spilling out dirty words in that cool tone of yours that you use regardless of the circumstance, so that I might torment myself with hearing you at any time and think of that…I have a thousand and one ideas, little Lan, and I would try them all to see which ones you like and which ones you don’t, to yield to your preference and glory in so yielding.”
None of that sounded like something Lan Qiren would dislike, he thought to himself; it really was only his own personal involvement in the act that he truly objected to. And if Wen Ruohan had Lan Qiren’s heart and Lao Nie’s body, and both their friendship besides, perhaps even he in his ceaseless ambition could find a way to be satisfied with what he had for a time.
“I would like that,” he said honestly.
“Then having gained a cun, I will take a chi,” Wen Ruohan said. “I would like to kiss you.”
Lan Qiren swallowed.
“…all right,” he said. “You may.”
And he did.
“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.”