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Spilled Pearls

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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 tripped.

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.

As usual.

“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?”

“Always!”

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 –”

“Qiren!”

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?”

“…yes, xiongzhang.”

“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.