#spilled pearls Tumblr posts

  • robininthelabyrinth
    23.07.2021 - 1 day ago

    Spilled Pearls Extra 2

    - ao3 -

    “Jingyi?” Lan Qiren repeated, looking down at the child tucked into his arms. “A good name.”

    “Isn’t it?” Lan Yueheng said, beaming. “A-Xin thought of it!”

    “You don’t say,” Lan Qiren said dryly. “Just the way your wife named all the last six?”

    Lan Yueheng grinned bashfully. “She’s better at it!”

    Lan Qiren shook his head, amused, and tried to offer the child back to his father.

    “No, no, you should hold him longer. Babies are calming, and you’ve been having bad dreams recently, right?”

    “Babies are not calming,” Lan Qiren said. There was a limit to how many times someone could play the same joke on him, and yes, he was mentally glaring at Wen Ruohan, Lao Nie, and Cangse Sanren as well while he thought that. “You’ve had six already, you should know that. Can we at least agree that this is the last one?”

    Lan Yueheng and Zhang Xin had put off having children to help Lan Qiren raise Lan Xichen and then Lan Wangji, once he’d come around, no matter how much Lan Qiren had argued with them to the contrary. They’d laughed him off, saying it was nothing, but he’d been terribly afraid that they’d miss the window for it and end up childless, with no one to sweep their graves on Qingming except his nephews, and that in the end they’d blame him for it.

    Naturally, despite his fears, it turned out in the end that they hadn’t had any trouble at all. Their first had been born when Lan Wangji had been three and Lan Xichen six, and they’d had six more after that, one after another like a bunch of maniacs – a girl, two boys, another girl, and then the twins a few years later, at the very end, just when everyone had thought they were already done. Lan Wangji had already been nearly fifteen, then.

    Of course, the whole bit about ‘just when everyone had thought they were already done’ being about the twins was rather outdated: that was before the arrival of little Jingyi.

    Nearly ten years after all the rest, even the twins; a belated and extremely unexpected child, as if Zhang Xin and Lan Yueheng and the heavens had all conspired to make fun of Lan Qiren for his previous worries. Zhang Xin had already been in her forties, yet she’d gotten through the entire process with a smile and no apparent discomfort, puttering around in her garden and managing her storehouses and scolding her children without any disruption. Not even the pain of labor would bring her down, even if she did have a tendency to mangle Lan Qiren’s hand and shout his ears to deafness in the process.

    Lan Qiren’s ears and hand, because he’d helped oversee the births of his nephews – Han Kexin had resolutely refused the aid of any competent doctor, male or female, mockingly reminding him that she was supposed to be in seclusion, so he’d learned up on the basics himself while retaining the option to call in a proper doctor if something went wrong – and since he’d managed it well enough, naturally Zhang Xin wanted the same, impertinent brat that she was. And of course, she wasn’t going to hurt her husband’s precious hands in the process, never mind that he’d been the one to cause it in the first place.

    At least they’d all been more or less easy births.

    Little Lan Jingyi had been the easiest of the whole lot. Zhang Xin had barely made herself comfortable before he was coming, and before Lan Qiren had even really accepted that he was coming, he was already here.

    Look at the rush to get going, as if he’s afraid to miss out on all the fun if he’s not here! Zhang Xin had laughed. He’s going to want to be part of part of everything!

    “Last one, I swear!” Lan Yueheng promised cheerfully. “Anyway, we needed one around that age – that way he can be friends with Wangji’s boy! You know, the one he’s raising with Wei Wuxian, the one who used to be Wen sect.”

    Lan Qiren snorted. As if he didn’t know the one in question. Wen Ruohan had been altogether too pleased to offer up some of his own blood to join the Lan sect when it turned out that Wei Wuxian had gotten attached to the orphan child of Wen Ruohan’s kinsman – eager as he ever was, really, to entangle himself irrevocably into Lan Qiren’s life, as if he still thought there was a chance, however remote, that Lan Qiren would find some reason to reject him or cut him out of his life once again. And never mind that it’d been years and years since anything like that had even come closer to happening!

    “Yueheng-xiong,” he said patiently. “Mathematics are one of your favorite subjects, so I know you know that that means that your son will be friends with my grandnephew.”

    Lan Yueheng scratched his nose. “Not your grandnephew yet,” he said, grinning; he didn’t look even remotely ashamed of it. “Wei Wuxian’s the one that adopted him, and Wangji’s not married him yet!”

    “He’s working on it.”

    Wen Ruohan’s “help” – in the sense of agreeing to let the Lan sect adopt little A-Yuan and not allowing Wei Wuxian to do it on his own – was probably doing more to impede it than anything else.

    Lan Yueheng sniggered. “Should I offer to help?”

    “Most certainly not. Save your fireworks and flares for the actual marriage.” Lan Qiren rubbed his forehead. “Cangse Sanren is being deliberately obnoxious about negotiations over it, I swear.”

    “Cangse Sanren is always obnoxious, Qiren-xiong,” Lan Yueheng reminded him. “Always – and it’s only gotten worse since she had her doom stolen away by Lao Nie.”

    “Don’t remind me,” Lan Qiren grumbled. He didn’t even want to know how the two of them had managed to swap fates, or what the consequences of it would be in the end. For some reason, Wen Ruohan seemed oddly insistent about blaming Lao Nie’s second wife, despite her having been perfectly nice as far as Lan Qiren could tell, if somewhat strangely obsessed with food. Possibly he was just annoyed that poor Wen Zhulio had saved Cangse Sanren’s life a dozen times over so far and yet Lao Nie was getting the credit.

    At any rate, neither of them had died so far, which was all to the good.

    “I’m getting to the point that I think looking for her master and asking her for permission might be the easier course,” he added irritably. “The boys want to get married! What’s the point of tormenting them over the details?”

    “Please don’t go out looking for an immortal mountain, Qiren-xiong,” Lan Yueheng said, laughing, and finally condescended to pluck little Lan Jingyi out of his arms. “I’m going to put him to bed. You should rest, too. No more work today! And only good dreams!”

    Lan Qiren shook his head and watched him walk away.

    For a moment, the image was replaced with another, a remnant from the terrible dream he had been having the past few nights, the one that still lingered: Lan Yueheng, still laughing but walking with a limp, his right foot gone from beneath the knee – the one he’d lost when the Cloud Recesses had burned, and because of the mess that had ensued it hadn’t been treated for far too long, becoming infected; every year thereafter he had gotten sick from a recurrent and worsening illness, driving Lan Qiren and Zhang Xin both crazy with worry.

    Lan Qiren’s chest hurt just thinking about it, his own injuries aching, the remnants of the vicious wounds from the terrible beating Wen Xu had ordered with his eyes curved in a mean smile as he watched them try to break Lan Qiren’s meridians out of sheer spite; one day, in that horrible future foretold by the dream, Zhang Xin would worry too much and fail to pay attention, walking on something she shouldn’t and poisoning her blood, and when she went Lan Yueheng would follow her away, the two of them going side-by-side into the next world as they had gone through this one, leaving Lan Qiren to raise their youngest child the rest of the way himself. No matter how tired he was, he wouldn’t put that burden on their other children, all of them abruptly orphaned, the final belated victims of the desperate war against the Wen sect to stop their tyrannical conquest…

    Lan Qiren shook his head abruptly, clearing it.

    What am I thinking, he wondered. There’s no war against the Wen sect – if da-ge ever got something like a war of conquest into his head, I’d scold him until my face turned blue. Anyway, even if he did do something like that, A-Xu would never dream of ordering someone to beat me! Didn’t I half-raise him and his little brother both, taught them swordsmanship and music and ethics even as Wen Ruohan taught Xichen and Wangji arrays and talismans and how to understand people?

    Anyway, A-Xu’s a sweet boy, underneath his superficial arrogance; he knows better than to put on a face like that in front of me…nor is there anything wrong with Lan Yueheng’s foot, or Zhang Xin’s blood, for that matter. Lan Jingyi’s going to grow up in a large family, loud and screeching and thoroughly inappropriate, and unlike my dream his parents will be at the head of the table to oversee the whole thing.

    It was just a bad dream.

    Lan Qiren shook his head once again.

    Maybe Lan Yueheng was right, he reflect. He ought to get some rest – and not just today. After all, he was already half-retired, with Lan Xichen taking over more and more of the tasks of sect leader and excelling in them; Lan Qiren already spent one month out of every three out of the Cloud Recesses, whether wandering around the cultivation world playing his music or visiting with friends and acquaintances, pretending all the while to ignore the Wen sect and Lan sect and Nie sect guards being too busy socializing with each other to remember that they were supposed to be hidden guards.

    He could go again now, even. Wen Ruohan had said something about Lao Nie visiting the Nightless City, the grin on his face leaving little question as to how he planned to spend the time with him; by now they should have worn each other out and were probably capable of something resembling human speech.

    Yes, he should go visit them, he thought, and realized once again that he was happy – truly happy, not just content. He would go visit them, and complain about the prospect of yet another of Lan Yueheng’s brood running rampage through his classrooms for however long it took to educate them.

    It seemed like each one was louder than the next, but at least little Lan Jingyi, whether in a rush or otherwise, and even in conjunction with Wei Wuxian’s little A-Yuan or Jin Zixuan’s little A-Ling, couldn’t possibly be more disruptive than the twins.

    That was simply impossible.


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  • respectfularents
    23.07.2021 - 1 day ago


    #had an awful day which first world problems most so beware #i am feeling caged I have been doing quarantine for 13 days now #almost at the finish line but i havent gotten my covid test results and i cant be free until i do #anxious about vaccine but glad and blessed i can get one #then today i got uber eats #the guy delivered it to the wrong tower #so i had to go on a bubbletea hunt #found it #turns out pearls were included so then i got a half a glass of just pearls #brown sugar pearls.... SO SUGARY #when i went to put the straw in i spilled it on my couch #then had it whatever and then went to take out the trash and my trashbag had slashed #so i got stick subtance on my knew #knee* #then went on this sugar rush where i tried on all my clothes #i was bloated bc of the giant tub of pearls i ate so i had a pretty bad body moment if you know what i mean #then now m laying in bed anxious as FUCK bc of all the sugar i ahd #had* #and m a bit overwhelmed by the whole anniversary content too #just such a bad moment for me tbh #anyways no one is gonna read this anyways dkkss #covid#quarantine#bad day#body talk #anyways happy 11 years of 1D #i went into wedmd and mayo clinic #had a whole mourning period about thinking i had a disease #so yeah LOL
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  • robininthelabyrinth
    21.07.2021 - 3 days ago

    Spilled Pearls Extra 1

    - ao3 -

    Lan Xichen spent a lot of time learning his family’s rules.

    They were important to his uncle, who raised him, and that meant that they were important to him. They were his heritage and his birthright, and anyway he loved his uncle and it made him happy which was good enough for Lan Xichen, but that didn’t make learning them easy or anything. Each rule had to be learned both by itself and in context with others; it wasn’t as simple as memorizing a list and calling it done. You had to learn them and know them and then live up to them to the best of your ability, and that was the work of a lifetime – which Lan Xichen, now six years old, had been informed was an awful long time.

    Moreover, though his uncle had never said so, Lan Xichen had heard from the other people in the sect that learning the rules was important because following the rules would make sure he didn’t turn out like his father, who had let down so many people in their sect. Many of the elders said things like that when his uncle wasn’t around, though his uncle never did – his uncle spoke well of their father, although in abstract tones, but sometimes he looked sad about it, too, and therefore Lan Xichen was determined to listen and learn the rules well so that he would never disappoint his uncle the way his father had.

    Of course, there were other advantages to learning the rules.

    The commentary, for instance.



    Talking behind other people's backs is prohibited.

    “Unless it’s really funny,” Lan Yueheng said, and – as always – seemed not to notice the way Lan Xichen’s uncle glared at him. “Oooh, actually, let me give you an example, I just heard the best story –”


    “If you don’t understand those around you, you will be at their mercy, rather than they at yours,” Wen Ruohan said, perfectly poised and with a sharp smirk, just the way he always was unless he happened to be talking to Lan Xichen’s uncle. “How better to learn to understand people than to know what others say about them when they are not around?” His smirk widened. “Look at what people say about me.”


    “What are you supposed to do if you don’t?” Lao Nie asked, grinning wickedly. “Say mean things about them in front of their faces instead? I can do that!”


    “I mean, if it’s news, it’s not gossip, right?” Cangse Sanren said, tapping her cheek while pretending to be thoughtful as if it would hide her great big smile. “I’m sure that’s how I learned it, and I was a very good student – no, no, don’t listen to what your uncle says!”


    “Well, I wish my mother would do less of it,” Wen Xu said, rolling his eyes. He’d come along to visit with his father again the way he always did – he was always tagging along with his father, really, and his father indulged him more often than he probably should, according to both sects’ elders. Not that Wen Ruohan listened to anyone but Lan Xichen’s uncle. “Sometimes I think that’s all she does! It’s boring!”


    “If you mean what you say and say what you mean, then your friends will never doubt you whether you are in front of them or not,” Nie Mingjue said, then frowned. “I mean, I think?”


    “Listen to A-Jue,” Lan Xichen’s uncle said when Lan Xichen reported on the discussions, throwing up his hands in disgust. “He’s the only one of the lot of them worth anything.”

    “It’s his mother’s contribution,” Lao Nie opined.

    “It’s certainly not yours,” Wen Ruohan said. “Anyway, what was wrong with A-Xu’s answer? It was accurate.”

    “It has nothing to do with the rule!”

    “That’s because I’ve already mastered it years ago,” Wen Xu said cheerfully. Surprisingly cheerfully, given that Nie Mingjue was sitting on him again; maybe he’d gotten used to Nie Mingjue always winning.

    Lan Xichen’s uncle rubbed his forehead. “A-Xu, if you really want to go copy the rules on humility a few more times, you don’t have to wait for me to instruct you to do so –”

    “He’s right, though,” Cangse Sanren cackled from her husband’s lap. “Madame Wen is an amazing source of gossip, but it does get a bit boring sometimes. You can’t punish him for being right!”



    Do not succumb to rage.

    “Unless there’s a very good reason,” Lao Nie said, picking Lan Xichen up in one arm as if he weighed as little as a feather, and Nie Mingjue in the other just as easily, even though he was much bigger. “In the world there are many injustices, and it is your duty to fight against them with everything that you have – if you are wholly above the feeling of rage, then you have forgotten your empathy, and soon will follow the crooked path into indifference.”


    “The issue is succumbing to rage,” Wen Ruohan said. “You can be angry, or even furious, but you should always maintain your self-control. Once you’ve mastered yourself, you can master others.”


    “He means get revenge,” Wen Xu said knowledgably. “You get angry, then you get even.”


    “Oh, rage?” Cangse Sanren asked, rolling up her sleeves. “Well, as it happens, I’m going to go have a chat with your mother, I’ll give you a good demonstration of –”

    “You are doing no such thing,” Lan Xichen’s uncle said, exasperated. “Get back here.”


    “It’s a waste of time,” Lan Yueheng said. “Getting angry takes time and energy. Why not be happy instead?” He thought about it. “Well, I mean, sometimes cursing a little bit when something goes wrong is nice. Even the calmest concoction needs to blow off steam sometimes to retain its equilibrium!”



    Do not disrespect your elders.

    “And I,” Wen Ruohan said, looking positively gleeful, “am the eldest.”

    “Don’t listen to him,” Lan Xichen’s uncle said at once. “Xichen, you hear me? Don’t listen to him.”


    “There’s a difference between disrespect and disobedience,” Cangse Sanren said. “Being old doesn’t mean being right, it means that there’s a greater probability that they’ve encountered something in their lifetime that will give them an insight you lack. You should honor and respect their insight, but always make your own decisions in the end.”


    “I mean, you could always listen to me, instead,” Lao Nie said. “I’m your elder too, aren’t I?”


    “Don’t listen to either Uncle Wen or my father,” Nie Mingjue said, looking long-suffering. “They both like to play tricks.”


    “Wait,” Lan Yueheng said. “I’m an elder? Since when? That’s a terrible idea!”



    Do not take advantage of your position to oppress others.

    “Don’t listen to Wen Ruohan,” Cangse Sanren said.


    “Don’t listen to Sect Leader Wen,” Lan Yueheng said.


    “Definitely do not listen to Hanhan,” Lao Nie said. “At all. In any way.”


    “Probably best not to listen to A-Xu’s dad,” Nie Mingjue said, and glanced over apologetically.

    “No, no, you’re right,” Wen Xu said, nodding furiously. “He’s kind of awful about these sorts of things.”


    “They’re all being absolutely ridiculous,” Wen Ruohan said. “I’m perfectly reliable on such matters. After all, what’s the point of working so hard to obtain and maintain power if you don’t oppress those that deserve it? If you don’t take advantage, who will?”



    Do not make assumptions about others.

    “I used to assume that Cangse Sanren was  a normal human being,” Lan Yueheng said. “Goes to show what I know, right?”


    “I used to assume that Wen Ruohan was a perfectly normal self-absorbed murderer that would keep his greedy hands to his own people,” Cangse Sanren said, sounding irritable. “And not have perfectly ordinary rogue cultivators followed around by complete weirdos because he’s secretly worried about them like a mother hen!”


    “I used to assume that people would be grateful when someone rescued them and their husband from near certain death,” Wen Ruohan said.


    “I used to assume that the funniest thing in the world was watching Hanhan argue with your uncle,” Lao Nie said, chin on his hands. “Little did I know that adding Cangse Sanren to the mix made it even funnier.”


    “Grown-ups are stupid sometimes,” Wen Xu said. “That’s why you have to verify everything they say for yourself.”



    Embrace the entirety of the world.

    “By being righteous,” Nie Mingjue said.


    “By taking it all over, as far as I can tell from my father,” Wen Xu said.


    “Depends on what you define as the world, doesn’t it?” Lao Nie said.


    “Be ambitious,” Wen Ruohan said. “Define it broadly.”


    “I mean, I don’t think your arms are quite long enough yet, the world’s pretty big,” Lan Yueheng said. “But I pick you up and swing you around, maybe they’ll stretch a little. Want to try?”



    Do not associate with evil.

    “I mean, it’s true, but you have to think carefully about what you categorize as evil,” Lao Nie said. “Just being a man-eating nation-destroying inhuman amoral nine-tailed fox isn’t automatically enough to qualify, right?”


    “That’s, uh, a really weirdly specific example,” Lan Yueheng said. “I feel like at least three of the things on that list probably rise to the level of evil? Or have I missed something?”


    “Lao Nie said – oh no, not again,” Wen Ruohan said, and patted Lan Xichen on the head before he stalked out the door. “I’m the only evil you should associate with, you hear me?”


    “I bet she’s got teeth in interesting places,” Cangse Sanren said. “I’ve got to meet her…hmm? Evil? Does that really matter? It’s going to be funny.”


    “She’s not evil,” Nie Mingjue said. “She’s pretty nice, actually. She calls me ‘meatball’ and ‘pork bun’ and says I’m so cute that she wants to eat me right up.”


    “I’m pretty sure she means it literally,” Wen Xu said. “Gear up, Xichen! We’ve got to go save Mingjue!”



    Do not tell lies.

    “People don’t believe the truth, so why not tell it?” Cangse Sanren said.


    “Using the truth makes your misdirections more believable and your critiques more devastating,” Wen Ruohan said.


    “Why would you even want to lie?” Nie Mingjue asked, puzzled.


    “There’s a difference between not telling lies and not having the slightest bit of tact,” Lao Nie said, rubbing his face. “Maybe you can help A-Jue figure that out.”


    “Silence is always a good alternative when you don’t want to admit to stuff you’ve done that maybe, just maybe, might annoy some people,” Lan Yueheng said, looking over his collapsed laboratory with a wince. “Not that I’d know anything about that, of course.”


    “Telling a lie will only get you into more trouble later when they figure it out,” Wen Xu said. “Because then they’re angry at you for what you did and for lying about it. It’s just not worth it!”



    Do not disregard the rules.

    “Unless they’re really stupid,” Lao Nie said.


    “I mean,” Nie Mingjue said, wrinkling his nose. “As a general rule, yes. But it’s different if following the rules would permit injustice to happen, that’s for sure.”


    “It’s a matter of picking what rule is the relevant one,” Wen Ruohan said. “Be thoughtful, and you can have the moral high ground in any situation…your uncle is irritatingly good at that.”


    “You’ve got to know what the rule is before you break it,” Wen Xu said. “That way you can decide if it’s worth the cost of breaking it or not.”


    “If there’s any you think are wrong, you should say something,” Lan Yueheng said. “The rules are a gift handed down from our ancestors and ought to be respected, but each of us has a duty to put in our own thoughts as well – our contribution to the next generation down. Anyway, your uncle will probably be able to put together a reasonable argument as to why changing the rule is appropriate and truer to our sect’s principles than the version carved on the wall. He’s good at that!”



    “I want the rules to be a foundation under your feet,” Lan Xichen’s uncle said. “They should give you confidence in your actions and pride in your family and sect; they should not feel like they are binding you. If they are, you’d tell me, wouldn’t you?”

    Maybe if it was just Lan Xichen and his uncle, the two of them and maybe also little baby Lan Wangji and the rather unreliable Lan Yueheng and the even more unreliable Lao Nie, Lan Xichen would immediately and unhesitatingly agree, and then never say anything anyway no matter what he felt. He loved his uncle so much, and every one in a while his uncle seemed so sad; he couldn’t bear to be the one to add more pain and burden to his uncle’s shoulders, already weighed down with the expectations of the sect that should have been his father’s responsibility and would one day be Lan Xichen’s.

    But it wasn’t just them, and Lan Xichen frowned a little, really thinking about it. “Maybe,” he said after a while. “Or maybe I’d tell Uncle Wen about it, and then he’d find a way to fix it, or to tell you about it in a way that didn’t make you sad. Does that work, too?”

    His uncle looked amused.

    “Yes,” he said. “That works. Just remember –”

    “Don’t listen to him about ‘oppressing others’?”


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  • robininthelabyrinth
    19.07.2021 - 5 days ago

    Spilled Pearls

    - Chapter 29 - ao3 -

    “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?”

    “Flexibility, mostly.”

    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…”

    “How convenient.”

    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.”

    “I haven’t?”

    “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.”


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  • smallblueandloud
    19.07.2021 - 5 days ago

    i'm rereading saih (when am i not rereading saih) and once again LOSING it about the phrase "rube goldberg homoeroticism machine". i am BEGGING y'all, if you enjoy dc comics (or you wish to enjoy dc comics) please go read unpretty's sorrowful and immaculate hearts series. there is comedy! there is angst! there is stellar characterization! there are better takes than i have ever seen in comics, ever! all fics are standalone so just like. go read AUX and laugh harder than you ever have in your life

    #dc comics#fic rec#unpretty #sb and l rambles #sb and l reads fic #we've been watching the batman movies in the andloud household and i just. christmas in kansas. what other batman content do you need #any batman movie ever: ''and as she died martha's pearls spilled across the sidewalk--'' #me in a chorus of three voices: ''she would never dignify a thing as low as death with dishevelment'' #JUST. READ SAIH. BEST SERIES OF FICS I HAVE EVER READ
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  • robininthelabyrinth
    18.07.2021 - 6 days ago

    Spilled Pearls

    - Chapter 28 - ao3 -

    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?”

    “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.

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  • robininthelabyrinth
    16.07.2021 - 1 week ago

    Spilled Pearls

    - Chapter 27 - ao3 -

    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 –”

    “I’m aware.”

    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 –”

    “Cangse Sanren!”

    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?

    View Full
  • robininthelabyrinth
    14.07.2021 - 1 week ago

    Spilled Pearls

    - Chapter 26 - ao3 -

    “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.

    “You asked.”

    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?

    “But -!”

    “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?

    Him, apparently.

    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?”

    “I will.”

    “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.

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  • robininthelabyrinth
    12.07.2021 - 1 week ago

    Spilled Pearls

    - Chapter 25 - ao3 -

    “Qiren-xiong! Qiren-xiong!”

    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.

    #mdzs#lan qiren#my fic#my fics#spilled pearls #mind the ao3 tags #you all knew it was coming
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  • robininthelabyrinth
    11.07.2021 - 1 week ago

    Spilled Pearls

    - Chapter 24 - ao3 -

    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?”

    “A goddess!”

    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.

    View Full
  • robininthelabyrinth
    09.07.2021 - 2 weeks ago

    Spilled Pearls

    - Chapter 23 - ao3 -

    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.

    View Full
  • robininthelabyrinth
    07.07.2021 - 2 weeks ago

    Spilled Pearls

    - Chapter 22 - ao3 -

    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 –”

    “Don’t apologize.”

    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.

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  • robininthelabyrinth
    05.07.2021 - 2 weeks ago

    Spilled Pearls

    - Chapter 21 - ao3 -

    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?”

    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 –”

    “…do you?”

    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.

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  • robininthelabyrinth
    04.07.2021 - 2 weeks ago

    Spilled Pearls

    - Chapter 20 - ao3 -

    “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…”

    “But -”

    “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 her 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.

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  • wedarkacademia
    03.07.2021 - 3 weeks ago
    I know someday you'll have a beautiful life
    I know you'll be a star
    In somebody else's sky
    But why
    Why can't it be
    Oh can't it be mine 

    Pearl Jam ~ Black

    View Full
  • robininthelabyrinth
    02.07.2021 - 3 weeks ago

    Spilled Pearls

    - Chapter 19 - ao3 -

    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.”

    “Qiren –”

    “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.  

    “Qiren –”

    “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.

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  • robininthelabyrinth
    30.06.2021 - 3 weeks ago

    Spilled Pearls

    - Chapter 18 - ao3 -

    “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 know.”

    “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 youlike 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.”

    “About me?”

    “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.

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  • robininthelabyrinth
    28.06.2021 - 3 weeks ago

    Spilled Pearls

    - Chapter 17 - ao3 -

    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.”

    “But –”

    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 heard.

    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.

    She’d known.

    He should have known.

    “Little Lan?”

    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?”

    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.

    “Lan Qiren!”

    View Full
  • robininthelabyrinth
    27.06.2021 - 3 weeks ago

    Spilled Pearls

    - Chapter 16 - ao3 -

    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.

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