After five years spent in seclusion, cultivating on his own and cut off from the outside world, taking that first step outside the Hanshi was like taking a breath after years of drowning.
He'd forgotten how much noise there was in the Cloud Recesses.
This was not to say that the disciples were being rowdy, not at all. The elders were not squabbling loudly, and the soft burble of the streams running merrily along wasn't noisy either. It was just … more than he had heard in a very long time.
Lan XiChen stood frozen on his own doorstep, letting all the strange sensations – had the wind always tugged at his robes in such a noticeable fashion? – and noises wash over him. By the time he felt like he wasn't going to jump at every little sound, he looked up and saw his brother standing hesitantly a few paces away.
"WangJi," he said, donning a smile to invite his brother closer. "I didn't see you there. Were you coming to visit me?"
WangJi didn't say anything, but XiChen read the way his brother's eyes flicked to his sandal-clad feet, which were barely touching grass, and back up.
You're outside. Brother, what are you doing outside? Is your seclusion over? Why didn't you warn me?
XiChen felt his smile turn a little wan.
"I'm sorry. I didn't quite know I was really going to go through with it either."
I understand, said his slow blink, like the lazy smile of a tiger. A good sign, but still there was hidden danger. He was happy for now, but it might turn to upset sooner rather than later.
XiChen took a deep breath and reinforced the expression on his face. Keeping up the cheerful smile was like armor. Having it felt like he had just one more layer of protection. It wouldn't fool WangJi, nor would it fool shu-fu, but he wore it less for other people's and more for his own comfort anyway.
"So, what brings you to the Hanshi?"
WangJi's eyes dropped to his hands, where he carried a bundle of scrolls.
"Are those for me?"
WangJi held them out, but then hesitated before XiChen could get a proper hold of them.
But his brother had already retrieved the scrolls and clamped them securely under his arm, looking at XiChen with a look that brooked no argument.
In unison, the both of them selected their usual places to sit and made themselves comfortable. XiChen tried not to show his own anxiety, however. What could be so important that WangJi would all but force him back into seclusion? He was wavering already – he didn't really want to change his decision to come out of seclusion now. If not now, he feared he might never do it.
"WangJi, what is going on?"
His brother carefully arranged the scrolls he had been carrying, sliding one close to XiChen. His manner indicated, however, that he shouldn't open it just yet.
"The discussion conference," WangJi said, finally.
"Yes? Did something happen? Is shu-fu alright?"
WangJi waved his hand. Shu-fu is fine.
"The conference. It's right now."
"I- … Oh, that's right. Shu-fu told me. What about it?"
"It's right now," WangJi repeated, almost imploringly, his eyes intent. "Here. In Gusu."
As the words slowly sank in and the realization came, he felt heat blooming on his cheeks. Imagine! If he'd just walked out of the Hanshi proper, if he'd just barged into the discussion conference with all the major and the most influential minor sect leaders all present?
He cleared his throat.
"Thank you, WangJi, it would not have been appropriate for me to disrupt the conference with my appearance."
Don't worry, I will keep you company. You can still go out later.
XiChen breathed out forcefully, dispelling the brief panic and embarrassment he'd felt.
"Would you like some tea?"
Perhaps it was just because it was his second time leaving the Hanshi, but he almost dared to say it wasn't quite so overwhelming now. Was it perhaps a little quieter? The discussion conference was over for the day, the sect leaders each having already retreated back to the housing they had been allocated. It was shortly before sunset, and all the life in the Cloud Recesses was starting to prepare for the night.
The only one getting ready to come out and embark on something new was XiChen.
WangJi was silent and steadfast by his side, still. He'd asked him whether he shouldn’t perhaps report back to shu-fu or enjoy the company of his husband. Both questions were deflected by an imperceptibly raised eyebrow.
This is more important. Shu-fu and A-Ying will understand.
Now WangJi was a quiet shadow following after XiChen, who hesitantly picked a random path to walk along. He didn't quite want to see shu-fu just yet. He wanted to be out of seclusion, yes; he wanted to feel the wind on his face; he wanted to walk freely and hear the muted sounds of the Cloud Recesses during dusk. He didn't quite want to be Sect Leader Lan just yet. Let shu-fu handle it for a little bit longer, what was the harm in that? Just for the evening, at least.
The path he had haphazardly picked lead them downhill, closer to the heart of the Cloud Recesses, near where the Library Pavilion and the Orchid Room were. Despite this, they did not meet anyone on the way. Perhaps the servants and disciples were all busy cleaning up after the conference session. Either way, XiChen was glad for the little bit of privacy for now. He could enjoy being out and about without any of the burden that would usually come with it.
Just when he was about to turn around and tell WangJi that he would be fine on his own, he spotted a dark robed figure up ahead, leaning heavily against the railing of a bridge that arched gently over one of the many brooks. The sight of the figure swaying unsteadily gripped XiChen's heart, and without thinking, he hurried towards whoever it was, unheeding of the strangled noise coming from WangJi behind him.
He couldn't quite make out the details of this person's robes, but the dark fabric indicated they were not one of GusuLan sect's members. They had to be somebody visiting because of the discussion conference.
Before it registered what a bad idea it was, XiChen had already reached the person and gripped their elbow in a steadying fashion.
"Are you alright?" he asked, slowly taking note of more identifying features. It was difficult to make out in the diffuse, dusky light, but the robe's colors should be purple. YunmengJiang sect, then. Yes, there was the silver bell attached at the waist.
The person swayed a little before steading themselves with a firm hand on the bridge's railing.
"I'll be fine in a moment," they said, revealing their deep, smooth voice.
"WangJi," XiChen called out, "go and see if you can find somebody to- …"
Before he could finish his sentence, the man's head shot up, in a manner surely not conductive to his dizzy state.
"Wang- …?" he choked out, before stumbling predictably. XiChen merely tightened his grip and brought the man closer to himself, almost wedging him between his own body and the railing to keep him from fainting on the spot.
He opened his mouth to repeat his order for some water or tea to be brought, when the light finally fell on the man's face, cutting sharply over the bridge of a nose and the severe cut of a jaw.
"S-Sect Leader Jiang?"
The man- … Sect Leader Jiang's eyes finally flicked over to XiChen, blinking a few times, stupefied.
"Lan Xi- …? Sect Leader Lan?" He blinked again, more forcefully. "I'm hallucinating. What kind of medicine did that brat slip me if I'm seeing things …"
"No, it's me." XiChen winced. "I mean, Sect Leader Jiang, you are not hallucinating. I only just exited seclusion, and I was making my way around the Cloud Recesses when I happened to see you."
Sect Leader Jiang did not reply for a while, only continuing to blink at XiChen. He sighed.
"Here, Sect Leader Jiang, why don't we sit down on that bench over there. You look like you might keel over at any moment. WangJi, can you send for the kitchens to bring us some ginseng tea? That should- …"
"No!" Sect Leader Jiang interrupted, wide-eyed. "No ginseng tea. I have medicine back in my rooms, I will be fine."
As if drawing from some heretofore untapped well of strength, Sect Leader Jiang suddenly righted himself, coming to stand more or less steadily beside XiChen with a look of stubborn defiance on his face.
"I thank you," he continued. "Sect Leader Lan. But you should return. Or inform your uncle of the end of your period of seclusion. If anyone else were to see you, it might have consequences you are perhaps not yet ready for."
XiChen opened his mouth to protest, but even before he said anything, he knew Sect Leader Jiang was correct. It was foolish to frolic around the Cloud Recesses like this. He'd been lucky nobody had seen him, apart from Sect Leader Jiang.
But instead of a protest or a polite sentence of acquiescence, what escaped him was this: "I just wanted to walk around undisturbed for a moment."
Sect Leader Jiang, now standing firm and unwavering again, met his gaze with unreadable, unfathomable blue eyes. Then, miraculously, he nodded, and the perpetually downturned shape of his mouth softened a little.
"I see. Still, you should return. I will leave first."
He offered WangJi a nod and XiChen a shallow, perfunctory salute, which he returned dazedly. And then he was gone.
XiChen looked at his brother, who stood a little to the side, with tightly pressed together lips.
That could have gone better, he seemed to say. It could have gone worse too, though.
Silently, XiChen had to agree.
Lan QiRen was not impressed when XiChen approached him, walking freely outside the Hanshi. Sect leader or not, the first thing he did was to hit XiChen's fingers with a bamboo stick and condemn him to kneeling in the ancestral hall for two days.
"Don't repeat their mistakes," was all he said, turning around with a flick of his sleeves.
XiChen smiled through all of that, just a little annoyed that his shu-fu was unable to show affection in any other way. He quickly snuffed that feeling, reciting the sect rules that forbid thinking negative thoughts and harboring ill feelings for others. But he was truly happy too. If QiRen had actually been angry, he would not have let him off so lightly.
"Will you join me in kneeling before our parents' epitaphs, didi?" he asked jovially.
WangJi shook his head.
I miss A-Ying.
"Go, brother, find your husband. I won't keep you from each other any longer."
So, XiChen found his way to the ancestral hall himself, still undisturbed, though this time he felt more than saw the curious looks from the periphery of his vision. He had garnered quite a lot of attention by the time he lit some incense and knelt before his parents' epitaphs, and though nobody approached him, he could feel the eyes on his back. The observers were too far away, but he could well imagine their whispering.
"Is that really Sect Leader Lan? He's no longer practicing closed-door cultivation?"
"It is him! I can't believe it."
"Why is he kneeling in the ancestral hall?"
"I bet laoshi has punished him for one thing or another already."
"How? He's the sect leader, he shouldn't be punished like that!"
XiChen took a deep breath, letting the familiar smell of incense cleanse his lungs and thoughts. It was right for shu-fu to punish him, because he was the elder and XiChen his nephew. Sect leader or no, he was a child of the clan of GusuLan, and it was always right to follow one's elders' words of guidance. He should have spoken to shu-fu about his decision to leave the Hanshi. Threatening his image, and that of his clan, running rampant like this, it had been a bit of mischief amidst his fear of re-entering the world of the living. He should not have sought reprieve in such chaotic measures. He should have trusted his shu-fu, their sect rules, and the knowledge that he had a responsibility to his family, to his people.
He bowed to his parents' epitaphs, calming his mind. It was not his place to judge the decisions that his father had made, staying in seclusion his entire life. But XiChen was not his father. His way could be different, and this was why he was here.
Yes. He was taking the matter of his destiny, and the future of his sect into his own hands again.
Sect Leader Jiang, Jiang WanYin,
Accompanying this letter is the official missive sent to all major sect leaders, informing all of my decision to leave secluded cultivation and take up once more the mantle of Sect Leader of GusuLan. However, seeing as we already had an impromptu meeting during your stay in the Cloud Recesses for the discussion conference months ago, I believe this comes as no surprise to you. Therefore, I send this letter along with said missive.
First of all, I would like to humbly inquire as to your health, hoping that this letter finds you well despite the condition I last encountered you in. If GusuLan or the knowledge stored in our vast library may be of any assistance, please do not hesitate to ask.
Secondly, for this issue I have decided to approach you first, for various reasons both obvious and not. These past months I have been trying to catch up to matters regarding the cultivation world, being near drowned underneath scrolls, books and piles of letters that are compiled in goodwill, but I fear do not adequately prepare me for anything at all. Therefore, I have decided that instead of reading secondhand accounts and outdated missives, it would be both more prudent and efficient to pay visit to the most important sects in order to catch up. I apologize profusely for the rudeness of inviting myself to your home. However, I would ask you to consider whether it might be convenient for you to receive me as your guest, so I may be appraised of Yunmeng's situation and see it with my own eyes.
I thank you for your kindness shown and advice given the last time we met, extending my most sincere gratitude. I hope to express it next time we speak, in person.
With deepest regards,
Sect Leader Lan, Lan XiChen
Sect Leader Lan,
Thank you for your letter, and for asking about my health. I am well. That time we met, I was just regaining my strength, but I have long since recuperated. My physicians are quite capable, and more than used to it by now.
Currently, Yunmeng is busy with preparations for the Mid-Autumn festival, as I am sure Gusu is as well. Perhaps it would be better to wait to pass by Lotus Pier until after. Spending this time with family is important.
Lotus Pier is honored to receive you at your convenience.