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Tempered Will

Chapter Text

Cao Ren crept through the wilds of Pei in pursuit of the quarry awaiting him. A cool breeze touched his face, swishing through the towering pines and the shrubbery that served as his cover. Distant mountains rose craggy and mist-shrouded against the pewter sky. Rain had fallen the night before, and the earth smelled fresh and green and new.

A rustle shook the scrub grown thick at clearing's edge. Ren notched an arrow and raised his bow, well ahead of the pheasant ambling out to peck for stray seed. His pull was taut, his aim true -

- and a scrubbing brush sailed out of the clouds and thumped him square in the chest. The desolate splendor of wilderness became an austere hall in the Confucian academy where Ren had been cooped up all morning. Rather than a bow, he held a brush with a penchant for blotting. His quiver was a stack of bamboo sheets marked with utilitarian calligraphy. And the pheasant - Master Pan, his thin and pointed face even more pinched than usual.

"So what were we dreaming of today? Troublemaking? Lollygagging? A lovely young lady, perhaps?"

"The field, master."

"How is it that you have such patience for the hunt and so little for the classroom?"

"When game appears, I shoot it. Doing the same to master would be unthinkable."

Giggles escaped from students around the room, who swallowed their amusement before Master Pan turned his hawk eye upon them.

"Order! How unsurprising that your mouth is flighty as your mind. Remind us all of a better example."

Ren straightened up, brushing the dust mark from his robes. "Gen is signified by two mountains standing together. It means to stay still when called for and go forward when necessary. Take consideration before moving. Keep thoughts and words in order." Ren failed to add a remark about his deficiency at the last part. No sense in flouting wisdom with a wisecrack.

"How does the Book of Changes instruct the superior man to achieve this?"

"In terms of control over his body." Ren took a breath. "The first six divided shows him keeping his calves - his toes at rest. He cannot help him who he follows."

The line made sense - people used their feet to walk, after all - but it seemed off. Master Pan shook his head, confirming that Ren had misspoken.

"The first six divided shows him keeping his toes at rest."

Ren's face turned red as his clothing. Copied countless times during detention, the wisdom of gen had once been a freshly inked text within his mind. The phrases now lay scattered in a mess of unbound slats that he scrambled to put back in order.

Ren flicked his eyes left where his twin brother knelt with the unmoving poise of the lion statues guarding their family estate. Perhaps Chun, who could retell the entire Book of Changes backwards while standing on his head, would take pity and prompt him.

Perhaps not. Chun kept his stony silence, leaving Ren to flail as Master Pan eyed him.

The teacher waved a dismissive hand. "It is irrelevant. Even if you did know the text, you certainly have not learned it. Stay after class."

With that, Master Pan returned to his dry and droning monologue. Ren put brush to bamboo as if his strokes were fishnets to capture the words, reins to keep his attention from drifting back out the open window.

The first six divided shows him keeping his toes at rest. There will be no error.
The second six divided shows him keeping his calves at rest. He cannot help him who he follows.
The third nine undivided shows him keeping his loins at rest. The heart glows with suppressed passion.
The fourth six divided shows him keeping his trunk at rest. There will be no error.
The fifth six divided shows him keeping his jawbones at rest. His words are all orderly. There will be no call to repent.
The sixth nine undivided shows him maintaining his devoted restfulness. There will be good fortune.

Character after character, line after line, stroke after tedious brush stroke. Master Pan wandered by now and then to glance at the growing stack of copies beside Cao Ren’s desk, offering no feedback apart from an occasional sniff of satisfaction.

When the teacher left momentarily, Ren set his pen down for a break. He unfolded his legs and stretched his hands as the terse wisdom of ancient philosophers marched in imagined columns across his bleary eyes. A small voice reminded him that success at school came down to this brute force, that he could copy at home instead of being trapped here as the clouds broke and afternoon sun beamed through the open windows. But forests and fellows were out there and waiting for him, whereas his academic toil brought minimal results. Chun soaked up verses as a parched plant absorbed water. Ren had a head full of rocks upon which knowledge had to be engraved - stroke after tedious brush stroke.

A sharp tug on the topknot reminded Ren that Master Pan was one step ahead as usual. "Dawdling merely delays the inevitable."

"Yes, Master." Ren's first order to copy texts had become a futile attempt to outlast the teacher's patience. He had sat cross-armed at the low desk with a fresh sheet of bamboo in front of him and the ink left unprepared nearby. Master Pan had waited without comment, taking no action other than fetching an oil lamp for each of them at sundown. Only then had Ren picked up his brush. After all was said and done, he had arrived home well past his usual sleeping hour to a dark house and a box of leftover barley and vegetables congealed into an unappetizing brick.

"As does distraction." Master Pan inspected the pile of copies with an impressed harrumph. "Yet that did not get the better of you just now. It appears that some inkling of gen sank into your skull."

Naturally the teacher's rare compliment was wrapped in condescension.

"Continue this study on your own time if you are up to the responsibility. And if you are not?" Master Pan brandished the scrubbing brush. "The walkways around here could use a thorough cleaning."

Ren hid a smile. Scrubbing was no more hand-numbing than writing. It gave him some fresh air among the greenery of the courtyards. None of it had to be repeated word for word later on.

The teacher's eyes seared into Ren like embers. "Every last one of them."

His relief faded. Brick paths sprawled throughout the academy grounds, connecting pavilions and winding among intricate gardens. Washing every chi thereof would have Ren eating his evening meal cold for most of next month. By the time he finished, the walkways he had first cleaned would be dirty again, and still his responsibility.

"You may leave now. I trust you will consider your choices."

"Yes, master."

Ren bowed, collected his belongings, and hurried out of the classroom. He hit the road running with an unsaid prayer of making it back for dinner.

The lions at the front gate bore sole witness to Cao Ren's mad dash home. Ren veered right and cut through a deserted garden, darting across rock formations sunk into the earth when the estate was built. A rarely traveled path behind the east wing led him to an even less used door blended into the building's outer wall. Ren sneaked inside and down the hall to his chambers, where the clock’s water level floated a sliver beneath dinner hour.

Perhaps Heaven smiled upon him after all.

Ren shed his sweaty clothing into the laundry basket. He wiped off, changed, and smoothed the flyaway hair into his topknot. A survey of results had the broad face in the mirror grinning back at him. By all appearances, Ren had gone straight home at the usual time. If brother kept matters to himself, no one would be the wiser.

There was no chance to talk Chun into staying quiet. Chimes rang throughout the house, summoning Ren to the evening meal.

Dinner was served in Mother’s apartments as usual. She reserved the cavernous dining hall for guests, considering it to be too formal for their small family.

As did Cao Ren. Amid the imposing polish of the dining room, he seemed to be slouching or shoveling food or about to drop his chopsticks in some messy spectacle. Mother’s chambers were serene and friendly. The three of them sat around a square table lacquered with exotic birds soaring among swirls of cloud. Sheer silk window panels caught the sunlight, rich with elegant brushwork of bamboo and flowers.

Maidservants brought in vegetable soup, steamed fish over millet, and jars of pickled sides. Once the food had been distributed, the tea poured, and the standard pleasantries exchanged, Mother asked about the day's classwork. She alternated her address each evening, giving both brothers their fair chance to speak first. Luckily it happened to be Ren's turn.

“We learned about the order that rites are supposed to follow. The earth supports all sorts of plants and animals because Heaven meant for it to be productive. We base our rules on nature so they’ll do the same for the people. Our ceremonies change with the seasons, as does the government. We maintain dams and ditches just before the rainy season. We plan out the crops in the winter so there’s time to prepare for planting. And so on, as Master explained.”

Chun smirked. "You forgot to mention your private tutoring."

Ren clenched his chopsticks, stabbing his brother with a glare instead. Mother's gaze fell on him like weight.

"Please elaborate."

Flushing under that patient stare, Ren dropped his eyes to dinner. "I had to stay late to copy the wisdom of gen."


Ren poked at a slice of fish, which picked the perfect time to elude his attempts at grabbing it.

"What would your father say?"

The question was a punch in the gut. Cao Chi had served the Empire with distinction, both as a palace attendant and a highly ranked leader of cavalry. As the elder twin, Ren had once taken Chi’s titles for granted. He had since realized with dismay that Chun - savant, scholar, snitch - was fast earning the birthright instead.

A small and bitter part of him wanted to point its finger down the hall, to demand that Mother go ask him herself. To dig its claws into a woman who had mourned three years and still visited the family shrine with tears in her stoic eyes. Who stood by her husband's tablet with bowed head and a brazier of incense, offering ashes to the earth and sacred scent to the heavens above. Who regarded Ren with honest concern and deserved better than a cheap retort.

"When I fell from the horse, he would pick me up and tell me to try again." Ren suppressed the quaver rising into his words. "He would say the same about school. I might fall, but I'm not about to quit."

"Will you have that choice if you can’t stay on at all?"

“I am staying on! I told you what we learned today. I can tell you what we learned the month before. When's the last time I had no answer when you asked about my classwork?”

"A while ago, but there’s more to it than that. Education is about self-improvement, not simple familiarity with the classics. Memorize the wisdom, yes, but apply it toward your own thoughts and behavior."

Chun drew himself up primly until Mother shot him a look. “That goes for you as well. Practice being an example instead of preaching.

“As to you.” Mother turned to Ren. “Come straight home each day, and stay there until I receive word of improvement. Your time will be spent with your books. No riding. No shooting. No further distractions.”

Ren's stomach sank into the floor. "Yes, Mother."

Dinner had lost its flavor, and a few shakes of soy sauce and spice failed to improve it. Ren slogged through his meal with mechanical tedium as his musty texts trudged before him into the interminable future.

By the shores of that lagoon,
Where the water-lily lies,
Where the tall valerians rise
Slender as the crescent moon,
Goes her grace, ah, her grace,
Sleep brings me no relief:
My heart is full of grief.

By the shores of that lagoon,
Where the drowsy lotus lies,
Where the tall valerians rise
Brighter than the orbèd moon,
Shines her grace, ah, her grace,
I turn and turn all night,
And dawn brings no respite.

Cao Chun relaxed on his bed, a pile of pillows at his back and a tome of odes in hand. The verses took wing in the night air wafting through his window, spiriting him away beneath an indigo sky. Flowers bloomed wild and fragrant among tall grass at the water's edge. The lady herself, an ethereal vision in robes of rich silk, knelt by the lake as if to touch the mirrored moon.

A kick to the mattress jumbled the moon's reflection and sent the landscape scattering along with it. The source of interruption was Ren, who had slipped into the room without a whisper of stocking foot on floor mat.

"Thanks for nothing."

"You'll thank me later."

"For what?" Ren plopped down on the foot of the bed. "Being shut up in here whenever I'm not in school?"

"If that's what it takes."

The brothers sat in a span of silence wide as the distance between planets. They shared aquiline features and the slender, contemplative eyes of their mother. Yet Ren was drawn in thicker strokes, from the arch of his brows to the breadth of his nose and jaw. Strong of body and stubborn of will - if only he would harness such obstinance instead of letting it interfere with his schoolwork.

"How did it go today?"

"Master seemed happy with my copying. Then he threatened me with scrubbing duty if I don't learn my wisdom well enough." Ren sighed. "As in all of the walkways. Myself."

"That's more than a punishment. It's a point."

"That school is drudgery no matter what? I knew that."

Chun shook his head. "The point is that scholarship is an ongoing process, something you need to work at every day. If you bathe once, will you stay clean for the next month?"

"No." Ren winced. "I'd smell like the garbage heap."

"Then why do you think classwork is any different?"

"It looks easy for you."

"It can be. Yet it's not always that simple."

Chun had displayed literary talent since childhood. He acted out the hero’s part during Mother’s bedtime tales, memorized stories and poems without trying. Academy coursework introduced more advanced subjects, which he found means of noting for review - still a far cry from stuffing each passage into his head one word at a time. Perhaps Chun would care less for scholarship if it required such tedium.

He might see it like archery. Whether grounded or mounted, Ren shot with lethal accuracy. Chun was lucky to count an afternoon's worth of perfect marks on both hands. Sometimes he drew and fired fluidly. On other days, he surrounded the target with a bristled halo of missed shots and an arrow or two hanging off as a consolation prize. Ren had coached him on occasion, providing tips and correcting his form. When had Chun last returned the favor?

“I can help if you'd like."

"You mean you can stand over my shoulder and wonder what’s taking so long?"

Chun flushed, remembering that exercise in frustration for them both. Small wonder they had not discussed schoolwork since. "I mean I can teach you how to study."

“If you say so.” Ren gave Chun a poke. “You’re the brains. I’m the brawn. Remember?”

Chun did, hoping that Ren took it lightly. His downcast gaze said otherwise.

“That’s not true.”

Ren said nothing.

“It isn’t. I’ll prove it to you.”

Ren had gotten up to leave while Chun was still speaking. He paused at the door, casting a glance back over his shoulder.