- 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.
Technically, Lan Qiren had asked if he wanted to know, but he shouldn’t stand on technicalities. Especially not now that he was –
He stopped that thought before completing it.
“Go out and tell them that I will not be taking any questions on my living conditions, quarters or clothing, any of the current rule modification proposals - it’s far too soon - and certainly none that are just about the current situation, and also that anyone who doesn’t have a question is not welcome,” he decided. “If there’s anyone left over, they can come inside and pose their question. If it’s not a good one, I will impose punishment on the basis of Concentrate on cultivation.”
In the end, there were only three people admitted out of the disappointed throngs of disciples outside. The first two questions were appropriate ones, being both purely administrative and critically necessary to the running of their sect; the last, however…
The disciple in question was one of the gate-guards.
He saluted. “There are visitors on the way in,” he reported. “From other sects.”
“Didn’t I already give orders that all access tokens not currently in the Cloud Recesses be revoked, and no new ones issued?” Lan Qiren asked curtly. “We are not currently accepting guests, and will not be until matters have been settled. You may inform them as much.”
The disciple hesitated.
“What is it?”
“The visitors in question…” The disciple hesitated again, and Lan Qiren frowned. “It’s Sect Leader Nie and Sect Leader Wen.”
Lan Qiren had been reaching for his cup of tea again, but his fingers stopped in mid-air.
“They’ve been very stubborn. Neither has agreed to go, no matter what we tell them, and they’ve been there all day, saying that they’ll stay standing at our gate until we let them in. Do – do the same orders apply to them?”
Lan Qiren looked down at his hand, frozen in midair. His fingers were trembling a little. Strain, probably; he’d had a very bad time for quite a while now, and even though he’d taken the time for it, he hadn’t actually slept properly. He’d only lain in bed, staring blankly at the ceiling, trying to absorb whatever little rest he could.
“They do,” he finally said, putting his hands back into his lap as if he could hide his misery from himself. “Dismissed.”
The last disciple left.
“Why won’t you let them in?” Lan Yueheng asked from behind him. “They’re your friends, aren’t you?”
He paused, falling silent for a brief moment.
“You could use friends right now, Qiren-xiong,” he finally said. “You really could.”
“I know,” Lan Qiren said, and felt the bitterness rise up in his throat until it almost choked him. “They are my friends, and one even more, my sworn brother. They are that, but they are not only that – they are also the sect leaders of two of the other Great Sects. Even if they don’t want to cross me or hurt me, their sect obligations must be always in the forefront of their minds, be their primary care and consideration, just as the Lan sect must be mine.”
Now, he added. Must be mine, now.
“The sect comes first, Yueheng-xiong.” Lan Qiren was so tired that it felt like a physical ache. “It has to come first. First and foremost, above everything else. Haven’t we seen what happens if that’s not what’s done?”
Wasn’t everything they were suffering now all because his brother had put himself first, instead of the sect? He had equated his interests with the sect and in doing so harmed the sect so deeply, harmed all their family and all the rest of them, everyone that relied on them...how could Lan Qiren willfully repeat such a mistake, no matter how much he longed sometimes to do so?
“I’ve made my decision.”
“It’s the wrong one,” Zhang Xin said from the door, still holding that club of hers and looking as fierce as a small angry dog. “You’re the rule expert, aren’t you? Stop thinking about your brother for a moment and focus on them. As far as I’ve always heard, the rules say that you can’t just care for the sect, you have to care for yourself, too. Or else who’d be left to care for the sect?”
Lan Qiren flinched and looked down at his hands again.
He supposed she had a point.
“Yueheng-xiong,” he said.
“Go after that disciple. Tell him…tell him that they still can’t enter, but that he should pass along a message to them. Tell him to tell them…” He hesitated. “If they truly wish to remain nearby, I will be available to meet with them in Caiyi Town ten days from now.”
That should be enough time to settle everything if he really exerted himself, Lan Qiren thought. All the preparations that needed to be made before the world could find out what had happened.
“They don’t have to,” he added, bitterness curling in his gut even as he tried to make it clear that he was speaking in earnest. “If they don’t want to. I won’t be offended if they don’t.”
After all, it would be asking rather a lot, forcing them to stay outside doing nothing for such a long time. Wen Ruohan and Lao Nie: they were sect leaders both, Great Sects at their command, and not possessed of a great deal of spare time. More than that, neither of them were especially patient people in the best of times, and much less so now that they were currently at odds with each other – though perhaps the fact that they’d put up with each other’s company long enough to yell at his gate-guard suggested that their recently frozen-over relationship had perhaps at last started to thaw.
Anyway, Lan Qiren wasn’t even doing them the courtesy of offering them accommodations within the Cloud Recesses, as anyone might reasonably expect. They’d have to stay in Caiyi Town instead, take a room at an inn like any ordinary mortal…truly, it would not be a surprise if they did not choose to stay.
It would be fine if they didn’t stay. It would be.
“I’ll pass it along,” Lan Yueheng promised, and ran out the door. Zhang Xin sniffed, but said no more. It was clear she would have preferred he do more, perhaps go and speak to them immediately, but she also knew that she’d pushed her insolence about as far as she could take it.
She was very brave.
“You should marry him,” Lan Qiren told her, thinking to himself that someone ought to be happy even if it wasn’t him, and she blinked at him. “Yueheng-xiong. He looks at you like you hung the moon in the sky.”
Zhang Xin blinked again, and then flushed. “Well…”
“You like romances, don’t you? Why not take the next step on this one?”
She waved her hands at him. “We’ll get there! Don’t rush us.”
“You don’t have parents, right?” Lan Qiren pressed. “If you like, I can act for them in making the arrangements –”
“I’ll consider that,” she hissed, her face now bright red. She pointed the club at him, and Lan Qiren hastily raised his hands in surrender; he knew what Lan Yueheng’s explosives were like. “Go back to moping. I’m starting to think I liked you better that way.”
Lan Qiren didn’t think she did.
“I need more ink,” he said instead. If he was going to have to make up for all of his brother’s failings and get the Lan sect into the state it needed to in order to be ready to face the storm that awaited them outside their gates within ten days, he would need to work hard, and that meant starting now. “Please fetch some for me. I promise not to bring it up again.”
She eyed him suspiciously, but bustled off, and Lan Qiren turned to apply himself to work.
Work was – he could do the work.
As long as he didn’t have to think about why he was doing it, or how long he would need to do it, not think about how this work wouldn’t just be for now but for the rest of his life, he could do it.
It took the full ten days and several sleepless nights, interspersed with sleep borne of pure exhaustion, but in the end Lan Qiren managed to make all the preparations he thought were necessary to minimize or at least endure the loss of face that the Lan sect would subject to once the world heard of rumors of what had happened. Even with the sanitized, filtered, cleaned-up version of it that they intended to spread, it would still hurt their reputation.
“You should take several days to yourself,” his music teacher advised, looking genuinely concerned, and his swordsmanship teacher nodded in agreement. “There will be more work to come, but none so soon.”
Lan Qiren nodded, being too tired to care about them worrying about him now, and went to the gate.
“Zhu Dawei,” he called, recognizing the disciple there. It was the same one who had brought him the news, ten days back; the one he’d sent back with the message. “Was there…”
He trailed off, not sure how to ask the question without seeming overly pathetic – by chance, do you know if my sworn brother and best friend abandoned me and returned to their sects, as any reasonable person would, or did they decide to wait an unreasonably long time in order to talk to me?
Zhu Dawei saluted adroitly. “Sect Leader Wen and Sect Leader Nie said to tell you that they will be waiting for you at the inn along the main waterway in Caiyi Town, the one with the red awning. They’re planning on dining at you hour if you would like to join them.”
He had good friends, Lan Qiren thought, feeling stabbing pains of emotions in his chest that he thought might even be a good thing. He nodded. “My thanks,” he said, and headed down the mountain.
Wen Ruohan and Lao Nie were there in the inn in one of the private suites that were available for rich guests, sitting at a table laid out with all the local specialties: six different dishes and tea and wine. They were bickering over something or another – Lan Qiren didn’t strain himself to listen, only paused a little outside the door, watching them both for a moment.
Having been forced to spend ten days’ time in close proximity had clearly been good for them: they were practically back to the way they had been before they’d fallen out, each one clearly genuinely at ease - Wen Ruohan with his smirks and his haughty sneers, Lao Nie with his booming laugh and expressive scowls. Perhaps they had even had the opportunity to actually talk to each other, to clear the air between them and make plain their respective positions, which Lan Qiren had been starting to think they never would - that Wen Ruohan would grow so resentful that he’d shut off his heart again and take Lao Nie back on the condition that he never speak of it again, and so let it fester as an unhealed wound. Lan Qiren had worried about the terrible things that might come of such lingering rage. He had not liked it, but had felt helpless to change it: after all, who on earth could force these two men to stay near to each other when they did not want to?
They looked good together, suited each other, he thought, watching them both. They were both tall and strong, fine men that exuded power and fierceness and determination in equal measure; it was a real pity that they weren’t quite the right match for each other.
Lao Nie caught sight of Lan Qiren standing at the door first. The moment he did, he turned away and rose to his feet. “Qiren! There you are – come in – sit! Sit, sit – have you eaten?”
“Earlier,” Lan Qiren said, coming in and trying to raise his hands in a salute that got quickly knocked aside. “I could eat again.”
“We insist on it,” Wen Ruohan said, looking him over with a judgmental frown. “I think you’ve gotten thinner…he’s gotten thinner, hasn’t he, Lao Nie?”
Lao Nie held Lan Qiren at arms length and looked him over critically. “Normally, Hanhan, I’d accuse you of being a mother hen and never let you live it down ever again,” he remarked, “but in this case I really think you’re right. His face is thinner than it was before, definitely a sign of losing weight too rapidly…tell us what happened, Qiren. There’s been no news at all from the Lan sect, only that there was some sort of crisis – some violence – and then all the gates to the Cloud Recesses were shut.”
“Yes,” Lan Qiren said, rubbing at his temples. He didn’t really want to think about it, but there was no avoiding it. “They were. The full details will be announced at the next discussion conference, which is coming up rapidly.”
“It is,” Lao Nie said. “I should know; I’m hosting. Will you tell us in advance what the news is?”
“Food first,” Wen Ruohan interjected. “No talking during meals, remember?”
Lao Nie made a face at him, but Lan Qiren smiled thinly at his sworn brother’s poorly concealed kindness and sat down. He ate quickly, the food largely tasteless on his tongue even though it was finely made and featured many of his favorites. They must have ordered them especially, knowing that he was coming tonight.
The quiet was a welcome reprieve, and allowed him to think over what he was going to say a little more thoroughly. He’d known, of course, that he’d have to tell them, but he hadn’t yet settled on exactly how to force the words from between his teeth…
When dinner was done and the dishes cleared, the only thing left on the table being the tea and the wine, he cleared his throat. “Did you rent the room?” he asked, and they nodded. “For how long?”
“We booked the whole month,” Wen Ruohan said carelessly. “It didn’t cost as much as all that.”
Caiyi Town was the nearest town to the Cloud Recesses, which was full of very rich cultivators. The prices here were far higher than a comparable inn in another place, and were nowhere near cheap even for a night - much less a month. More than that, Lan Qiren hadn’t seen any other guests, which made him suspect that Wen Ruohan had rented not only the room but the entire inn, making it the sort of expenditure more commonly seen among the scions of Lanling Jin.
Still, Lan Qiren did not complain or point out the inaccuracy. Not when he had hoped for something exactly like that.
“Good,” he said, and reached up to his forehead ribbon.
Both Wen Ruohan and Lao Nie gaped at him in stunned disbelief as he removed it, carefully folding it up like the precious thing that it was and tucking it away into his sleeve for safekeeping – even though the process took some time to accomplish, they had not yet recovered by the time he was done. They looked a bit like gawping fish.
“The forehead ribbon reminds you of your self-restraint,” Lan Qiren quoted. “I do not intend to maintain it tonight.”
More gawking. He ignored it.
“I’m intending on getting drunk,” he clarified, nodding at the jars of wine on the table. “I’ll drink as much as you allow me to. Could you keep an eye on me and make sure I don’t leave the premises? I can’t lose face for the sect right now, but both of you are considerably stronger than me, and faster, too. You can keep an eye on me and restrain my behavior, if necessary, and I would appreciate it if you would.”
“…of course,” Wen Ruohan said, exchanging glances with Lao Nie. “If that’s what you want, little Lan. We’ll care for you.”
“Can we ask why?” Lao Nie asked, always the blunt one.
Lan Qiren looked down at the table, gathered his courage, and looked back up at them. “I’m going to be attending the next discussion conference,” he said, and even he could hear how dull and depressed his already monotonous voice was. “At that time, you will need to call me Sect Leader Lan.”
“Sect - Sect Leader…? You?” Lao Nie was gaping again. “But – you –”
“What happened to Qingheng-jun?” Wen Ruohan asked, his eyes already narrowed as his mind rapidly churned over the information.
“He has entered permanent seclusion,” Lan Qiren said. His fingers had tightened into fists again, and his knuckles were white from the strain. “Along with his wife.”
“His – wife?”
“He Kexin?” Wen Ruohan asked. “He’s married – no, she married him?”
“Yes,” Lan Qiren said, because friends or no, brother or no, they were still sect leaders, still outsiders. He could not share with them the full story, at least not yet, not until he’d made sure they couldn’t use it against his sect. Not until there was a story that the whole world would accept as the truth. “They are married, and secluded. I am the next in line, and have therefore taken on the position.”
“But you wanted to travel,” Lao Nie said. “To play music, to go see new places. You had all those plans –”
Lan Qiren flinched.
“Be silent,” Wen Ruohan told Lao Nie. “Can’t you see you’re just making it worse? He knows.”
Yes, Lan Qiren knew. No one knew better than him the dreams he’d had, the plans he’d made, how much it had been a fixed part of his life – stronger than mere hope, it had been an expectation. He had never imagined that his life wouldn’t be what he planned to make of it.
He never imagined his life would be…like this.
“It is temporary,” he added, the rotten feeling of disappointment coating his tongue like a swallow of bitter medicine. “An examination has revealed that He Kexin is pregnant with my brother’s child. Although it is far too early for any medical indications, divination suggests that it will be a boy.”
And even if it wasn’t, well, Lan Yi had set a precedent for women to be allowed to be sect leaders, too.
The sect elders had compared the exceptional qualities of Lan Qiren’s brother against Lan Qiren’s own, compared their respective talents for cultivation and temperaments and their ways with people. That analysis complete, they had suddenly changed their tune: no more did they try to comfort Lan Qiren for his crushed dreams by painting pictures of the power he would obtain, of his children inheriting after him – as if Lan Qiren had ever cared about power, he who had never coveted the position of sect leader even once in his life, and had on account of his inclinations, or lack thereof, had already given up hope of children – and instead they spoke instead of Lan Qiren’s duty to his brother’s legitimate bloodline, his duty to the sect overall.
Lan Qiren had listened in silence for a while, barely restraining from sneering at their shallow and obvious hypocrisy, before striking a deal with them: he would take on the role of acting sect leader, as he had already known he had no choice but to do, and in time he would willingly step aside for his brother’s heir or heirs, if there was more than one, but he insisted on being the one to raise them.
He didn’t especially want to raise children, having no idea if he would be any good at it, but he didn’t trust anyone else in his sect to prioritize raising the children as children – as people of their own, rather than extensions of their father, as another chance to correct the mistakes of the past. To raise them with the rules as guidance, as support in times of weakness and pride in times of strength, not as an obstacle to be overcome; to try to do whatever he could to help them avoid the faults of the prior generation without crushing their souls the way his brother had tried to crush his.
He would give this unborn nephew or nephews everything he could. He would give them the rules, and he would protect them from them; he would spend the rest of his life exerting himself to clean up the sect until it was something worth inheriting, and then he’d give them that, too.
“Congratulations,” Lao Nie said blankly, and Wen Ruohan elbowed him sharply in the ribs.
Lan Qiren chuckled humorlessly. “He’ll be only a few years younger than yours,” he said to Lao Nie. “And about of age with your second when he’s born, da-ge.”
“You don’t deserve this,” Wen Ruohan said, his mouth twisted with bitterness that for once had nothing to do with his own desires. “You deserve better.”
Lan Qiren appreciated the thought.
He appreciated them both being angry on his behalf, which they so clearly were. Lao Nie’s face had grown black with rage, his brows tight as if pulled taut with a string, and while Wen Ruohan’s face was calm and sedate as always, his qi seethed and hissed and coiled around them all as if he could keep away Lan Qiren’s duties by sheer force of will. He might even try, if it was something Lan Qiren would consider letting him do.
It wasn’t, though.
“The sect’s needs come first,” he said simply. “You both put your sects above yourselves; you know how it is. It’s the same for me.”
“You still deserve better,” Lao Nie said, and shook his head. “Hanhan’s right. You really do. I’m so sorry, Qiren. I should’ve been there to help more – shouldn’t have been so distracted –”
“Nothing could have been done to change it,” Lan Qiren said. He didn’t disagree, knowing as he did how careless Lao Nie had been over it all, but if he were to blame Lao Nie, he might as well blame Wen Ruohan, who he knew for a fact did know about it and didn’t bother to try to intervene – but he didn’t want to blame his sworn brother, who had no responsibility here, and he didn’t much want to blame Lao Nie, either, even if he’d said some very stupid things from a distance. It had only ever been his brother’s fault; there was nothing else for it. “It’s…”
He trailed off, not able to say it was fine, because it wasn’t. It just wasn’t true.
Do not tell lies.
“I’ll live,” he said instead, because that was. No matter what, he had to live. His sect depended on him, his not-yet-born nephew depended on him. “I’m going to become a teacher, instead. It’ll give me something to do.”
He would have more than enough to do as the sect leader, of course, acting or otherwise, and with him just barely into his early twenties he was very young to be a teacher. But he desperately wanted something that wasn’t just the sect’s, something all his own, and he had planned on being a teacher, too. Much later in life, of course, but – it was still something.
Something of his own.
Maybe he’d push the elders for permission to have children from other sects come for lessons, just to mimic the variety of the world that he was no longer permitted to go see. Sect leaders feather their own nests with the stories of others, he’d once told Cangse Sanren, that’s a way of living, too…
He had to think of it that way. If he didn’t, he’d think instead of what she said, a caged lark singing only for a select few, and that would be worse.
“Do you have any more questions?” he added, not wanting to think of anything at all any longer. “If not, I would very much like to get drunk on your wine, if you don’t mind.”
Wen Ruohan and Lao Nie exchanged glances again, some secret communication that Lan Qiren didn’t bother to try and fail to decipher – truly, if there was one good part to the entire disaster it was that they had overcome their distance in truth rather merely on the surface – but then Wen Ruohan nodded firmly and Lao Nie began to set out the drinking bowls.
“For once, I’m almost looking forward to hearing about your sect rules,” Wen Ruohan remarked. “As long as you just tell me about them, this time, and don’t knee me in the –”
Lan Qiren grabbed at the drinking bowl, glaring at him, and Lao Nie laughed. “Let’s see how much you can tolerate,” he said cheerfully. “The liquor here is pretty mild, so start with one bowl and tell me how you’re feeling after –”
Lan Qiren drank the bowl, grimacing a little at the taste, and remembered nothing more.