As Lao Nie had predicted, Lan Qiren won the music competition.
This by itself would not excuse him from punishment – disobedience was disobedience, regardless of the result – but Lan Qiren’s brother, proud of the glory that had accrued to their sect under his leadership, decided that it mitigated it somewhat, and as a result the imposition of the appropriate penalty was postponed until they returned to the Cloud Recesses. There was a strong implication that any future misbehavior during the trip would be added in when determining the extent of the punishment, but Lan Qiren didn’t care about that: with his brother’s word, however careless, overriding his teacher’s, he was finally allowed to go out to look around the Nightless City.
Of course, by now all the other disciples had settled firmly into their groups, so he was still alone - he opted not to mention that to his brother. Given how cautious his brother was being to make sure that the conference went well and without interruption, he knew it would invariably result in his either being forced into someone else’s group or to not go out, and he didn’t want either of those. Anyway, he could take precautions by himself: since he knew he was traveling alone, he would be careful to stay in the areas that were indicated as safe, although he thought happily to himself that soon he would be old enough to go wherever he wanted without concern – not that he especially longed to go to the districts full of brothels or drug dens, of course.
It was reasonable to be cautious for now, though, given his unfamiliarity with cities. He was as dazzled by the massive night market – as boisterous as any of the daytime markets – as any country yokel, and the items available for purchase were as many and varied as the people who came to the Nightless City to sell them. It was almost a pity to have to return to the Sun Palace the next day for the remaining events of the discussion conferences, largely academic discussions and skill exchanges, or the day after, to spectate on the other competitions, both the minor ones for things like calligraphy and mathematics and, more importantly, the second main event, showcasing skill in riding.
Lan Qiren wasn’t competing, of course, but he obediently showed up to observe – or, rather, to daydream about something more interesting while keeping his face carefully oriented towards the competition stage – and the second he could, he slipped away into the depths of the Sun Palace once the competition itself was over. Actually leaving entirely would be rude, of course, even if it would have been his real preference to return to the wonders of the city. Still, he would much rather walk through the halls than endure the inevitable rounds of mutual congratulations that invariably occurred during the celebration held after the discussion conference’s main competition. All those sect leaders buttering each other up…
There were times, he reflected, when he was very happy to have been born a younger son.
Lan Qiren did his best to avoid any places where people were gathered, turning back at once if he saw the rooms were occupied. There was no formal banquet tonight, to his relief – they’d all eaten while waiting for the competition to finish – but the socializing had started in earnest, and it felt like there were people everywhere. It would go on late into the night, with sect leaders toasting each other from the endless jars of wine that could be found everywhere, and there would be a thousand and one boring retellings of the same old stories everyone always told at these things.
Better to avoid people.
Certainly better to avoid people like Wen Ruohan, Lan Qiren thought, backing away from a room that appeared to be a small library, where the sect leader was standing and gazing out of the window, not far from a small table with two place settings already laid out. Its presence suggested a more private rendezvous was anticipated, and others more inclined to gossip than he might have chosen to stay and try to see if they could figure out who Wen Ruohan would be meeting – probably Lao Nie, if Lan Qiren had to guess, given the whole Hanhan situation – or possibly to try to form a further connection with the aloof and arrogant sect leader, but Lan Qiren kept his brother’s warnings in mind: Wen Ruohan was dangerous.
Anyway, he’d gotten into more than enough trouble for one trip.
After a little more searching, he found a small, secluded garden – quite possibly the very same one from a few days before, now that he thought about it, though he’d long lost any sense of direction he might have had – and settled down on the bench with a relieved sigh. The party was far too loud and too boisterous for his taste, with far too many people. He might long for adventure and new experiences, but it was the lonely road and quiet towns that called to him, and sometimes also the massive and faceless cities, not the full-of-themselves sect leaders, each one in love with their own voice, that seemed to pride themselves on talking at least once to everyone who attended.
At any rate, it wasn’t his problem. His brother had made clear that he didn’t want Lan Qiren to assist him in forming connections for the sect – assuming he even could, with his terrible social skills that mostly made his brother and most of his etiquette teachers want to forget he even existed – and that meant he was completely justified in hiding himself away here where no one would find him.
“I never got a chance to congratulate you on your victory,” a low voice said from behind him, and Lan Qiren started in sudden surprise, having not heard someone enter the room.
Though, he supposed as he rose to salute, he wouldn’t – the difference between his cultivation and Wen Ruohan’s was like night and day.
“Sect Leader Wen,” he said respectfully, keeping his head down. His brother had been especially clear that he wasn’t to cause trouble for this man in particular. Not like last time, even though Lan Qiren still wasn’t entirely clear on what it was that he was supposed to have done wrong previously. He was starting to think he’d never figure it out.
Wen Ruohan walked into the room, his pace as slow and graceful as it had been three years ago – the glide of a very self-assured predator that knew itself to be the unquestioned master of its domain, not only fearless but also smug in its self-evident superiority. The aura of power, his cultivation at a level that could scarcely be dreamed of by most people, draped around him like a gaudy cloak, meant to excite envy and fear in equal measure.
Lan Qiren had heard rumors that Wen Ruohan would sometimes use the sheer weight of his power to lock people into place, forcing them to their knees or backs on the floor in front of him, humiliating and tormenting them for his own amusement, but he didn’t feel anything like that. It was a display of power, yes, but no more so than the priceless spiritual gem that hung on Wen Ruohan’s forehead or the luxurious quality of his clothing, white and red flame, black belt and gauntlets, the finest fabrics and the best embroidery.
“I thought I saw you earlier,” Wen Ruohan remarked. “Or at least the hem of your robes – were you running away from me?”
Lan Qiren’s face suddenly felt hot with embarrassment. “No, of course not!”
That interpretation hadn’t even occurred to him. Had he really been rude? Should he have stopped to greet him properly? He hadn’t thought so, since he hadn’t even entered the room, but his instincts on such things had always been terrible…
And there was still his brother’s exhortation not to spend time with Wen Ruohan.
“Forgive my rudeness, Sect Leader Wen,” he said, dropping back down into a second low bow before rising again. “No slight was intended. I’m not supposed to be alone with other sect leaders.”
“No? And yet yesterday I recall seeing you sitting here with Sect Leader Nie.”
That was true.
What was he supposed to say to that? ‘Yes, but he’s nice’? ‘But I’ve known him for years’? ‘He’s one of our sect allies, you’re too dangerous’? ‘I was told to avoid you specifically’?
Lan Qiren might not be the best at social niceties, but even he knew he couldn’t say something like that.
His face must be demonstrating some degree of his panic, because Wen Ruohan chuckled.
“You can make it up by spending some time with me now, little Lan,” he said, waving a hand in forgiveness. “Come with me – the study is far more comfortable than this garden, especially at this time of year.”
Lan Qiren didn’t really have any knowledge of what the garden was like at this time as opposed to other times, being that this was his only visit so far to the Nightless City, but he had no reason to question Wen Ruohan’s judgment on the matter.
A quick mental review suggested that he had no choice but to comply. His brother had been emphatic that Lan Qiren wasn’t allowed to draw Wen Ruohan’s ire, even if it meant complying with his instructions as if Wen Ruohan were an elder of his own sect; moreover, refusing now would probably be impolitic, especially given the other man’s misinterpretation of his earlier avoidance. In short, despite his best efforts, Lan Qiren had clearly stumbled into a social trap of what he assumed must be his own making. It usually was, after all.
It’ll be another punishment for this, probably, he thought, resigned. He didn’t think that anyone was going to come get him out of this anytime soon, no matter what his brother had said, and he was bound to trip up and say something embarrassing sooner or later. At least there’s only this evening and then the closing ceremonies in the morning – the sooner we get home, the sooner discipline can be imposed and the entire fiasco put behind us.
“Of course, Sect Leader Wen,” he said, and belatedly noticed that some of his resignation had seeped into his voice. He cleared his throat awkwardly. “I will join you.”
Wen Ruohan chuckled again. “Most people would say that they were pleased to join me,” he remarked, turning and leading the way, his hands clasped loosely behind his back. “But you don’t lie, do you? It’s one of your rules.”
Lan Qiren felt helpless, following a few steps behind him like a small fishing boat caught in the wake of a warship. “It is one of our rules,” he agreed, since saying that he was happy to join Wen Ruohan would in fact be a lie. “I try to obey them whenever possible.”
“You’ve gotten wiser since we last met. I think I recall that last time, you said always obey the rules?”
“Wisdom comes with age.”
“Is that flattery?”
“Respect for one’s elders.” Lan Qiren paused. “Also a rule.”
“Of course,” Wen Ruohan opened the door to the study that he had been in earlier, the small library with its single table and two settings and window showing the outdoors, and swept inside. “Tell me, then, as the expert in your rules – what rule is it that allows the Lan sect to develop such skilled politicians? One would assume that lying was a prerequisite.”
He doesn’t actually care about the rules, Lan Qiren tried to remind himself, his brother’s voice echoing in his ears. And yet what else could he possibly talk about with Wen Ruohan? It was a question the other man had posed directly, and he was supposed to be obedient, or at least try to be…and he really, truly enjoyed talking about the rules.
“There’s some debate on that subject,” he temporized, but Wen Ruohan arched an eyebrow and inclined his head in an invitation for him to continue. “Some posit that the rules regarding the obligations to honor one’s elders and protect one’s family require that the benefit of the sect take priority over other obligations. Others take the view that not lying is an obligation of general good conduct, which cannot be disregarded, but that it is mitigated by other rules – do not speak frivolous words, for instance.”
“I take it that you’re in the latter camp.”
Lan Qiren was, as it happened, but he wasn’t sure he should say so. After all, it was Wen Ruohan’s ancestor who had first raised up his family and started the tradition of the clan as the sect rather than schools as it had once been, and by all accounts the process of doing so had been a bloody one – what was that if not a belief that your family takes priority over the common good?
He couldn’t say that, though.
Speak meagerly, for excess words only bring harm.
“I am,” he finally said, since Wen Ruohan was still waiting for him to respond. “It is a matter of personal opinion.”
He bit his tongue to keep himself from continuing to talk. There were at least fifteen other points of interest that had come to mind at once - the rule against lying was one of the more debated ones, and of course there were all sorts of writings on the subject of balancing worldly concerns with philosophical ideals more generally. And it was so rare for someone to actually express interest in it!
Speak meagerly, he reminded himself desperately. Meagerly! Haven’t you done enough harm already?
“I see,” Wen Ruohan said. “Come, sit.”
“I wouldn’t want to impose on the sect leader’s time,” Lan Qiren protested automatically. “If you’re already expecting company…”
“Who says I am?”
Lan Qiren looked helplessly at the table. There were two place settings, as he’d briefly glimpsed earlier, and a few snacks laid out already, mostly grilled vegetables – it was perfect place for a private meeting to talk business with another sect leader, which Lan Qiren wasn’t, or else to sit and converse with an old friend, which Lan Qiren definitely wasn’t.
“The servants make it up that way preemptively,” Wen Ruohan said, and Lan Qiren twitched as he realized that the other man had come up behind him, standing a little too close. “They do it in all the rooms, in the event someone wishes to use it. There’s no one coming.”
For some reason, that sounded almost ominous.
Presumably just Lan Qiren’s bad social sense again. Such a display was likely nothing more than the Wen sect showing off yet again, this time in terms of their wealth and the number of servants.
And, well, if the table really had just been set out to be used, surely it would be wrong not to use it? There were rules about avoiding waste, too.
“In that case, I thank Sect Leader Wen for the honor of the invitation,” he said, and sat down properly, sweeping his sleeves back and arranging himself. That it got him a little further away from Wen Ruohan was not as much of a secondary consideration as it probably should have been. “Would you like me to serve tea?”
“I was thinking something stronger,” Wen Ruohan said, sitting down as well, and reaching for the jar already there. “Why not a toast to your family’s victory? A double victory, no less, with you taking first in music and your brother the same in riding. Most impressive.”
Lan Qiren hesitated. That was a very appropriate toast, complimentary – exactly within the boundaries of what an elder ought to say to a junior, really. And yet, at the same time…
“Sect Leader Wen,” he said uncomfortably as Wen Ruohan poured out a double helping in each bowl. It was clear liquor, not wine. “This one apologizes, but…I am not accustomed to drinking.”
“No?” Wen Ruohan was smiling, but when Lan Qiren obediently met his eyes, there seemed almost to be something dangerous about his expression.
“It’s not that I question the quality,” Lan Qiren said hastily. “It’s only – you see – alcohol is prohibited –”
It was one of the rules. Unfortunately, it was one of the more controversial ones: it was generally waived outside of the Cloud Recesses, given how often hospitality required some form of drinking, and there were still elders in the Lan sect who simply refused to obey it at all, citing its uncertain lineage.
They were not in the Cloud Recesses now.
Wen Ruohan started laughing. “Little Lan,” he said. “Are you saying you’ve never had wine before? Aren’t you sixteen already?”
Lan Qiren’s shoulders involuntarily rose to his ears. “I’ve had wine!”
But only peach blossom wine, or rose wine, served at weddings as a toast for good fortune – but he couldn’t admit to that, since that was all kid’s stuff, barely classified as alcohol. He’d never even tried Emperor’s Smile, for which Gusu was famed.
Wen Ruohan’s smirk suggested that he’d guessed the truth anyway.
“It’s only a toast,” he said instead of calling him out on it, picking up his own bowl. “Surely you wouldn’t reject my good faith?”
When it was put like that, of course, there was nothing to be done for it.
Do not draw his ire, his brother had counseled him. If he approaches you, respond gracefully and comply with his wishes until someone comes to recover you.
After all, Wen Ruohan was well known for being moody and unpredictable, for having all sorts of strange whims and no inclination to refrain from indulging himself in them. Lan Qiren had no idea why he might suddenly be inclined to desire Lan Qiren’s company, of all people, nor as to why he would insist on him drinking a toast – at most, he could only speculate that it amused Wen Ruohan to force him to do things with which he was visibly uncomfortable.
And yet, as the saying went, it was unwise to refuse a toast only to be forced to drink a forfeit. Wen Ruohan, as the host, as the elder, as the powerful, could very easily press the issue even more than he already was, escalating from an interpersonal discussion to an intersect issue.
And how could Lan Qiren explain that to his brother?
“Of course not,” Lan Qiren said, giving in and lifting the bowl. “Thank you for your toast, Sect Leader Wen.”
He put the bowl to his lips and drank.
The liquor tasted sharp in a way with which he was unfamiliar, he observed, curious despite himself at the new experience, and it burned his throat when he swallowed. The sensation was almost distinctly unpleasant, actually, and he had to force his gag reflex not to activate, tears coming to his eyes.
He wondered, briefly, why people inflicted such a thing on themselves.
And then, just as he was thinking that, the alcohol hit him all at once like a tidal wave, descending in an overwhelming crash that obliterated all his senses.