Back then, there were many different independent states in the Celestial Empire – large and small. They tried to live in peace, but sometimes there were clashes, and the stronger states absorbed the weaker, multiplying their territories.
One day, the Lan clan from the Gusu state suffered a crushing defeat. The peaceful area, surrounded by a green riot of colors, blazed in a fiery haze. It was as if scarlet ink poured into the crystal waterfalls, and the mountain ranges were blackened with soot. The air was filled with the stench of burning, blood and death, the crossing blades and the groans of the wounded rang in ears.
Ashes circled in the air to the camp, set up at a distance from the battlefield. It settled on hair and clothes, and it could be mistaken for snow, if you did not know the true reason for its appearance. Two men, one in black and purple hanfu, the other in black and red, stood and watched from afar as one small state disappeared in front of their eyes. They were not the instigators of the battle – they just paid back the old debt.
- Leader of the Jiang clan!
A middle-aged man in armor approached the young people, he was not old yet, but numerous battles left scars on his face, which greatly aged his face.
- Thank you for sharing your military power! – he bowed, folding his hands in gratitude. – Let's go to the tent and celebrate the glorious victory! I would like to reward you for your help.
- This doesn't compare with your help a few years ago, Leader of the Shang clan, – Jiang Cheng replied. – We did what we had to do. You don't have to thank us.
- But still I would like to give you something as a token of my deep respect. You will not refuse to accept from me a modest gift?
Leader Jiang had to abide the rule of good manners and gave way. Leader Shang nodded to his men, and soon two tied prisoners were brought into the camp. They were led into a tent and rudely thrown on their knees at the feet of Jiang Cheng and his named brother and right-hand man Wei Wuxian.
The prisoners were alive, but badly wounded. However, even though their clan fell, and their bodies were streaked with numerous wounds, their gazes remained unbroken.
- This is the Leader of the Lan clan and his younger brother, – said Leader Shang. – They fought to the last, but could not surpass our numerical superiority. Therefore, I would like to present both of them as a gift to the two Heroes of Yunmeng.
- The outstanding Twin Jades of the Gusu state? – Jiang Cheng clarified and chuckled. – Now they are indistinguishable from stray dogs.
He looked at both brothers with disdain. Their long hair was loose and tangled, their faces and clothes were smeared with blood and dirt, and yet even so, their features betrayed nobility and likeness.
- Raise your heads.
The elder, the defeated Leader Lan Xichen, had eyes like the moon delineated by night clouds. Meeting his gaze, Jiang Cheng was momentarily taken aback, and his Adam's apple flinched. He was used to seeing fear and supplication on the faces of the losers, but the expression of Leader Lan was strikingly different. He accepted defeat, but continued to maintain dignity and an inexplicable calm. He wasn't going to beg for anything. He took the blame for the fall of the state, because he could not properly protect his home. Jiang Cheng didn’t dare to call him a stray dog anymore, and a comparison with the face of Buddha himself flashed through his thoughts.
The younger, his brother Lan Wangji, had lighter eyes, they resembled amber on frosty snow and exuded icy coldness. He fixed his gaze on Wei Wuxian, and he felt as if he had been pierced through and someone looked into his soul. The warriors he met along the way were skilled swordsmen, but none of them had the ability to hurt with a glance. This impressed Wuxian so much that he pointed his finger at the younger Lan and addressed the Leader of the Jiang clan:
- Hey, brother A-Cheng. I liked this one. Can you give it to me?
Jiang Cheng took another look at the Lan brothers. Wei Wuxian chose the youngest. Everything is correct. The defeated Leader must serve the victorious Leader, and his brother must serve the right hand of the Leader Jiang.
- Thank you, Leader Shang. My brother and me accept your generous gifts with deep gratitude, – Jiang Cheng said, and then addressed Wuxian condescendingly: – From now on, they are our slaves. You can take him and do whatever you want with him.
- Thank you very much, brother! – Wei Wuxian folded his hands respectfully and bowed briefly, then smiled broadly. – Well, Second Jade, now you're mine! I promise we will have a lot of fun together! Let's go and heal your wounds.
Senior and junior Lan looked at each other, but did not utter a sound. It seemed that they could communicate in a special silent language and understood each other from half a glance. One of them now had to serve to a perky and carefree deputy, while the other got the Leader of Jiang himself, according to rumors – restrained, strict and merciless to the one who incurre his anger on him.
Wei Wuxian took Lan Wangji from the tent. Leader Shang, satisfied with Leader Jiang's disposition, also left. The battle was won and both clans prepared to return home.
- Well, and you… – Jiang Cheng drawled, squinting at Lan Xichen when they stay alone in the tent, – you will serve me.
Slaves had to be cured and put in proper condition so that they would be able to serve their masters. When both Lan brothers' wounds were treated, they were branded on the left side of their chest – henceforth, the nine-petal lotus mark was burned on their skin, and the men were considered the property of the Jiang clan. Both brothers withstood the torture and remained silent, not uttering a single groan, only tense muscles and beads of sweat on their bodies betrayed their condition.
«What a proud men», – Jiang Cheng thought, feeling respect for people with dignity and honor. His gaze unconsciously lingered on Lan Xichen's muscles. He was slightly taller than the Leader Jiang, and his features were so noble that he did not in any way resemble a slave even in a shapeless hanfu, who managed to fit around the relief of the body and still gave him a person of a noble family. Jiang Cheng pulled himself down.
Soon, after all the preparations were ready, the Leader Jiang, Wei Wuxian, and their people equipped for the return journey to the residence of Lotus Pier in Yunmeng – the new home for the Lan brothers.
* * *
After returning to Yunmeng, nothing much changed in Jiang Cheng's life, as he thought at first. However, since Xichen began to serve him, it has brought fuss into the Leader's routine.
Lan Xichen seemed perfect from any angle. The maids glanced at him plethorically, and the servants followed him with envy and jealousy in their eyes. Usually, Jiang Cheng only needed to look a little askance in their direction, so that they would stop staring at his slave. For some reason, the increased attention to Xichen annoyed him. The former Leader Lan had only one drawback… He absolutely did not know how to cope with housework, because he was not trained to do it.
Since then, Jiang Cheng's clothes have often been torn, because Xichen has not always been able to control the strength of his hands and how hard he need to wash it. When trying to sew it up, it all ended with Xichen's fingers dotted with needle pricks, and the clothes themselves became unusable.
- What is that? – Jiang Cheng blinked frequently, examining the crookedly patched clothes, which now had sleeves of different lengths, and then glanced to the slave's injured fingers.
- I'm sorry. – Xichen lowered his head apologetically and hid his hands behind his back.
- Run to debride a wound! I don't need an armless slave! – Leader Jiang tossed aside his tainted clothes and rolled his eyes.
Sometimes, when Xichen served food, he would accidentally spill soup or tea on Jiang Cheng, again not controlled his strength, which caused the Leader to kick up and break loose:
- You are taking revenge on me because I made you a slave?!
- I'm sorry.
- Handless, and also so clumsy… First Jade of Gusu Lan, how rumors spread all over the Celestial Empire! If they knew… Are you scalded?! Run to handle the burn!!!
Of course, all this was not on purpose, but simply because Lan Xichen and household are incompatible things.
Lan Wangji did better, but he was more fortunate because Wei Wuxian did not take ordinary household chores seriously. He didn’t need to deal with clan affairs (unless Jiang Cheng asked for his help), and he spent his leisure time swimming and collecting lotus seeds, hunting pheasants and flying kites, and now found the perfect companion for these activities.
At first, Jiang Cheng's eyes twitched from every mistake of Xichen, and he wanted to send him to work in another place (certainly not to the kitchen and certainly not to the laundry, but the Leader Jiang has not yet come up with other options), but seeing each time as a man sincerely apologizes, and his eyes become like of a guilty puppy, for some reason Jiang Cheng did not have the courage to drive him out of sight.
- For what purpose you have big hands? – the Leader sermonized. – To swing a sword? I believe that you are a worthy swordsman, but, of course, I will not check it. Channel your energy in a different direction! Now you must learn how to do household chores, become better than any maidservant in Lotus Pier if you don’t want me to send you away.
- I'm sorry.
- Stretch out your arms, I will punish you.
Lan Xichen nodded obediently. All Jiang Cheng's hand went up to when it came to punishing a man was a couple of blows with a ferula. Previously, if the servants made a mistake or annoyed Jiang Cheng, he usually did not stand on ceremony with them – he could punish more seriously or immediately kick them out, but with Xichen everything was different. Although the Leader Jiang identified him as his slave, he reckoned with his former position in society.
- A-Cheeeng, – Wei Wuxian once drawled, watching his brother even try not to beat with full force, – don't you think that you are demanding from Lan Xichen the level of the mistress of the Lotus Pier, and not a slave?
- Shut up! – Leader Jiang snapped, increasing the degree of the blow with the ferula and feeling the blood rush to his cheeks from the sudden irritation. – Wei Wuxian, your jokes are not funny at all! Go better watch your slave!
- Excellent advice, so I will do it! – Wuxian smiled slyly.
Time to time Jiang Cheng found himself doing something that he must don't do. Despite the mistakes in work, Lan Xichen was still the epitome of grace. Leader Jiang kept his eyes on Xichen’s notorious hands, which for some reason haunted him, on the long musical fingers, on the movements, even at a simple turn of the head – he had never seen anyone more sophisticated. Rather, no one had ever been able to capture his attention with such trifles.
It was not about servants – they were not an issue at all, but even among equals from neighboring states, for example the daughters of noble clans, there was not a single person whom Jiang Cheng could compare with Lan Xichen. Yes, they were sophisticated in their own way, but they lacked something, and the Leader Jiang was never interested in them.
When Jiang Cheng came back from his thoughts, he shook his head and pulled himself back. He shouldn't have treated a slave like that! And, in general, why on earth did a slave occupy so many thoughts in his head?! He was so clumsy!
Still, there was something that Lan Xichen did very well.
- Why is the taste different today?.. – Jiang Cheng muttered thoughtfully to himself as he sipped his tea while working on important documents. The Lotus Pier, surrounded by numerous lakes, was the center of trade, and the Leader always had a lot of work.
- You don’t like it? – Xichen asked.
Leader Jiang flinched and turned his head towards him. He was so absorbed in documents, and the slave was usually so silent and quiet that Jiang Chen completely forgot that he was not alone in the workroom. Actually, except for "excuse me" from Xichen, he really did not hear anything.
- Who made this tea?
- Your slave.
Unconcealed surprise flashed across Jiang Cheng's face.
- You by yourself?..
- If you don't like it, I won't brew it anymore.
Xichen reached out to grab the cup and carry it along with the tray, but Jiang Cheng stopped him by the hand.
- No. I didn’t say I didn’t like it, – he said, catching himself thinking that touching someone else’s skin was unusually agitated. The Leader pulled his hand and coughed, then added: – Brew it from now on.
Now it was Xichen's turn to be surprised, but he only nodded obediently. For the first time, although not directly, the Leader Jiang did not scold him, but, one might say, praised him. Сonsidering the Jiang Cheng's captiousness and exactingness, this was a certain progress in the performance of Xichen's duties.