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Spilled Pearls

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Lan Qiren’s brother did not outwardly react when Wen Ruohan announced what happened.

He merely stared, face as impassive as a stone washed clean by the river, his posture and position impeccable from the little glimpses Lan Qiren kept stealing of him – he was trying to keep his head ducked and his gaze firmly on the ground, trying to demonstrate penitence, but he couldn’t quite resist looking. He assumed that his brother’s seeming indifference was a mask for the rage he undoubtedly felt, seeing his little brother screw up what would have otherwise been a perfect discussion conference for the Lan sect.

It seemed like a reasonable conclusion, given that Lao Nie was taking up all the slack of reacting with rage without any such mask whatsoever.

“He’s little more than a child!” Lao Nie shouted.

“Little more, perhaps,” Wen Ruohan said smoothly. He was enjoying himself, Lan Qiren thought. “But regardless of how close or how far he is, he is adult enough.”

“He can’t marry or inherit –”

“He shed blood in a night-hunt, and that means he can swear oaths, which is all that’s relevant here. It isn’t as if I married him.”

“He’s sixteen! If someone removed sixteen years out of your life, Hanhan, you wouldn’t even notice the absence!”

“True, but irrelevant,” Wen Ruohan said. “And don’t call me that, Sect Leader Nie.”

“I’ll call you whatever I damn well please, you little –”

“You are unharmed?” Lan Qiren’s brother asked Lan Qiren.

Lan Qiren, who’d been spectating the increasingly fraught back and forth between the two sect leaders, turned to look at him, surprised to be addressed.

“I’m fine,” he said quickly. “I only had a headache, and Sect Leader Wen took care of that.”

“You call me da-ge now,” Wen Ruohan reminded him, turning briefly away from his argument to do so. “Your oath, remember.”

“Does he even remember swearing the oaths?” Lao Nie hissed. “You know how these Lan drink – you and your damned need for control! Just because you can’t get it one way, you have to try another, is that it, Hanhan?”

Sect Leader Nie, if you really find it impossible to be civil -” 

“If you are unharmed, then we can return to the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Qiren’s brother said, ignoring them both. His voice was as distant and cold as a winter breeze, piercing and lifeless; it reminded Lan Qiren a little of his father, and he shivered. “We will determine the remainder at that time.”

“See?” Wen Ruohan said goadingly to Lao Nie, whose scowl only deepened. “If even his own sect doesn’t object to it –”

“They didn’t not object, they’re refraining from making a statement; it’s not the same thing. ‘Even ten years isn’t too late for a gentleman to get revenge’ – !”

“I should like to see them try.”

Lan Qiren felt a sudden sense of relief, heralded by a bright and abrupt clarity: of course Wen Ruohan hadn’t sworn brotherhood with him on his behalf! He’d only done it because he’d seen Lan Qiren together with Lao Nie, found that the sight offended his vision, and immediately decided to disrupt it. Never mind that Lao Nie didn’t have any intentions beyond the casual mentorship of any older cultivator to a junior – Wen Ruohan was well known for his paranoia, his irritability, his tendency to seize on crazy ideas. And, of course, there was his jealousy, a trait to which he had himself admitted…

A treasure sword used to prop up a table, indeed. It wasn’t about Lan Qiren's merits or the Lan sect’s supposed failings at all. The only table Wen Ruohan was concerned with was Lao Nie’s!

(And that certainly did explain the whole bizarre ‘Hanhan’ thing better than any other hypothesis Lan Qiren had come up with.)

Lan Qiren wasn’t sure it was better, exactly, to be a pawn in a strange game between sect leaders, but it was at least more familiar. As a younger son of a politically minded Great Sect, he was more like a daughter; being used for some scheme by the adults around him had always been his destiny, barring some tragedy or especially indulgent parents – the former was unlikely, the latter he lacked – and so his fate was set.

Of course, it would have been better not to be in a game involving Wen Ruohan at all, but he supposed that there were worse options.

After all, if Wen Ruohan’s primary interest was in tormenting Lao Nie, he probably wouldn’t demand Lan Qiren’s presence in the Nightless City all that often – probably just enough to show that he could – and Lan Qiren would be allowed to continue with his plans for his future. It might even turn out to be something of a benefit. After all, a musician with limited martial skills, traveling all alone, could always use strong friends that were nearby, and the Wen sect’s reach far exceeded that of the Lan sect…

Anyway, comparatively, Lan Qiren disliked far more the idea of being stuck in the Jin sect with its inexplicable devotion to worldly affairs (and when it came to Jin Guangshan, word was that that usually meant literal affairs…), and he would have undoubtedly gone utterly mad in the Jiang sect, with its emphasis on freedom and lack of any rules to explain anything. And of course, regrettably, the Nie sect wouldn't have done such a thing to begin with, secretive as they were...

No, it wouldn’t be so bad, Lan Qiren tried to convince himself. It wouldn’t be so bad at all.

The illusion lasted exactly as long as it took for the leaders of the five Great Sects to retreat to finalize their discussions on business – with Sect Leader Jiang and Jin stepping up to keep Sect Leaders Wen and Nie from each other’s throats, even as Lan Qiren’s brother ignored them all – and Lan Qiren returned to his proper place among the other Lan sect disciples.

“Did he really put you in the Fire Palace until you agreed?” one of them asked, then was promptly elbowed by at least three of his fellows – it was poor Lan Yueheng that had asked, naturally; he was extraordinarily good at mathematics and extraordinarily bad at just about everything else, including both tact and following the Lan sect rules. Lan Qiren had gotten on quite well with him in the past, each one happy to have an audience to listen to their rambling without caring too much if the other side was really listening, but Lan Yueheng was Lan Ganhui’s mother’s sister’s son, the two of them raised together like brothers, and in recent years the latter had a habit of restricting the former from spending too much time with Lan Qiren, the favorite subject of his mockery.

“No,” Lan Qiren said stiffly, and turned his face away in sudden upset. He had almost managed to forget that his new sworn brother was reputed to enjoy spending his free time torturing people, enough so that he had an entire prison devoted to it.

The older brother guided, the younger brother obeyed – what was Lan Qiren supposed to learn from Wen Ruohan? How to be cruel and pitiless, how to hurt people, how to increase his cultivation by doing all manner of dirty things?

Even if he didn’t learn such things, wouldn’t people assume it of him anyway?

“But I heard –” Lan Yueheng persisted, then hissed when someone stepped on his foot.

No,” Lan Qiren said, stronger this time. “Do not speak behind the backs of others, Yueheng-xiong.”

“Oh. Right.”

Someone muttered killjoy under their breath, but that wasn’t exactly new; his brother thought he was one, and he was popular, so others often followed his lead - and anyway, perhaps he was. At any rate, they all stood around in awkward silence for a little while before someone decided to recount one of the incidents in the main event competition once again, their voice a little over-loud in the silence, and a perfectly anodyne conversation about Qingheng-jun’s performance started up in earnest to cover over all the things they did not say.

That, too, was not new.

Truly, life would be easier if everyone would just listen to the rules, Lan Qiren thought wistfully. The nice written-down ones, just those, and never mind about all the unspoken ones, the ones that everyone seemed to intuitively understand except for him – he tried his best to learn those, too, and to extrapolate from one situation to another, but unspoken rules seemed as changeable as a puff of cloud. It was simply impossible.

In the end, the sect leaders finished up their business and each of them took their leave from the Nightless City, just the way that always happened. Before he went, Lao Nie put his hand on Lan Qiren’s shoulder and said, “Write to me if you ever need anything at all” while glaring at Wen Ruohan, who smirked back; Lan Qiren’s brother did not glance at either of them and merely walked off, his hands behind his back and his posture straight and tall as a tree. The other two Great Sect leaders, Jin and Jiang, exchanged glances of their own and headed off their own way without a word, choosing, quite prudently, not to get involved.

Lan Qiren saluted to Lao Nie and, slightly more hesitantly, to Wen Ruohan, then followed after his brother. To his relief, Wen Ruohan didn’t stop him, only watched him go, his eyes glittering malevolently - his gaze a palpable weight. It wasn’t quite like the first few times they’d met, where the pressure almost felt like the other man was exerting power on him; rather, Lan Qiren suspected, the weight he was feeling was only the weight of all the new expectations that had fallen onto his shoulders as a result of his new brotherhood. 

The ride home was excruciatingly awkward.

It was not a short journey, and Lan Qiren did not speak to his brother once the entire time by mutual unspoken agreement. He might not have noticed such a thing normally, but his brother’s usually cool aura was positively frigid, driving Lan Qiren to silence even when he might have otherwise spoken on mundane matters such as the weather or travel conditions.

Lan Qiren even suspected that if he had dared to try, his brother might have used the muting spell on him.

Naturally, the other disciples followed his brother’s lead – poor Lan Yueheng looked especially torn up over it, and at one point Lan Qiren found a book on abstruse geometry hidden under his pillow in what was probably a well-meaning gesture of solidarity – and Lan Qiren was stuck in that uncomfortable place where he finally had the peace and solitude he often longed for when stuck in a crowd while also simultaneously feeling awful about it, struck with a sudden desire for the company of his family, however cold it might be.

When at last they returned home in the late afternoon, Lan Qiren knew from experience what to do next: he went straight to the hanshi, where his father was waiting for their report, and knelt in penance outside. If the trip had gone well, he would have helped his brother settle the final matters relating to their trip – putting back anything borrowed from the sect’s stores, registering everyone as having arrived with no one lost on the way, that sort of thing – but since it hadn’t, his duties were limited to…well, this.

It was unpleasant, but then, it was supposed to be.

He waited for over a shichen in unmoving silence. The remainder of the sect tiptoed around him, with the disciples that had remained behind sending him sympathetic looks that suggested that they didn’t know exactly what had happened but were burning with curiosity to find out.

It was already dark by the time his brother arrived.

When he did so, he walked right by Lan Qiren without looking and went inside.

There was no written rule against eavesdropping, although there were several unspoken rules about it that were sometimes but not always applicable, but even when (guiltily) straining his ears to the utmost, Lan Qiren could only hear the vaguest murmur of voices within.

It was only after some time – towards the end of his brother’s report, no doubt – that there was a brief uptick, a surprised exclamation (possibly “what?!”, although Lan Qiren’s father was soft-spoken enough that even an exclamation was too muffled to be properly audible), and Lan Qiren braced himself.

After a little longer, the door to the hanshi opened.

“Qiren,” his father’s voice drifted out. “Enter.”

Lan Qiren got up, a little unsteady from all the kneeling, straightened himself out and walked inside, his hands folded behind his back. He would have knelt again, but his father waved for him to keep standing, frowning thoughtfully at him as his brother drank the tea they had been sharing.

“You swore an oath of brotherhood with Sect Leader Wen?” his father asked, his face frustratingly neutral.

Lan Qiren nodded, then amended: “I do not remember doing so. He offered me a toast, and would not allow me to reject it, and then the next morning, he informed me that we had sworn an oath together and showed me the written version of the oath.”

The paper in question was laid out on the table in front of his father. Lan Qiren’s brother had confiscated it after Wen Ruohan had showed it to him, and Lan Qiren hadn’t figured out a way to ask to see it, though he desperately wanted to know whether they had sworn one of the classical brotherhood oaths or if they’d added their own clauses. It seemed like a thing Wen Ruohan would do, yet the idea had only belatedly occurred to Lan Qiren, which meant he hadn’t properly examined the oath while he’d had the chance.

His father hummed thoughtfully.

“There’s no reason to doubt Sect Leader Wen,” Lan Qiren’s brother opined. “He is meticulous in his schemes. Even if there were, the announcement was public; I would not have our clan be known as oath-breakers.”

“Public and unrefuted,” Lan Qiren’s father said, and Lan Qiren blinked because he almost sounded disapproving – but his father never disapproved of anything his brother did, as far as he knew. “Still, you are not wrong. There are few more decisive than Sect Leader Wen. Once he settled on his course, he would not leave such a gap through which one could retreat, not even for himself…Qiren.”

Lan Qiren straightened.

“You were unharmed?”

He blinked at the unexpected question, the same his brother had posed.

“I only had a headache,” he said hesitantly, vaguely aware from the way his father looked at him and his brother did as well that his answer was not what they were expecting. “From the liquor. Nothing else.”

“Did anything else hurt?” his father pressed. “Your body?”

Lan Qiren thought back. “My upper arms,” he said, remembering. He’d thought it was from the uncomfortable bed. “And my right knee. They were a little bruised, I think, but it went away after Sect Leader Wen shared spiritual energy with me.”

His father frowned and twisted his fingers in a gesture; an array opened beneath Lan Qiren’s feet, and the places he had mentioned, as well as his palms and forehead, began to glow.

The marks on his arms, glowing with the pale echoes of Wen Ruohan’s qi, were in the shape of hands.

(Wen Ruohan had commented on Lan Qiren’s enthusiastic telling of the Lan sect rules while intoxicated, to the point of seeking to hold him down as an unwilling audience. Had Wen Ruohan had to physically restrain him from causing trouble as well?)

“The disgrace was minimal, then,” his brother remarked, and when their father said nothing but dismissed the spell Lan Qiren abruptly realized that they were trying to figure out if he had, in fact, been deflowered, just as Wen Ruohan had teasingly hinted that night. He had not shared with anyone that he had woken up in Wen Ruohan’s bed, too mortified to do so, and now that the suggestion had been seriously raised, he was even more determined never to do so. “Not that that will help the rumors.”

Lan Qiren hadn’t thought – surely people wouldn’t think – wouldn’t assume

Wen Ruohan had no reputation for liking young boys. He wasn’t even known to cut his sleeve!

(Lan Qiren didn’t know what he himself liked. He’d thought he’d have more time to figure it out.)

“We do not guide our sect according to rumors.”

His brother put down his teacup with a little more force than necessary. “Is it the sale or the price that you object to, Father?” he asked, voice far sharper than it should be when speaking to an elder, least of all their father. “See what I have accomplished for our sect, and without even the official authority of being vested as sect leader! It is just as you taught me! Am I to flinch simply because he shares my blood?”

“It is not what is taken,” their father responded, his voice a little sharper than usual as well, but not by much; he might as well have been commenting disapprovingly on an unfortunate turn in the weather. “But that it is Wen Ruohan who takes. His greed knows no boundaries, his recklessness grows by the year – today Qiren is unharmed and your plans may proceed, but what of tomorrow?”

“Have you thought of any better use to put him to? His role is to serve the sect!”

“As a disciple of the Lan sect,” their father said. His tone was still mild, but his voice was icy enough to make Lan Qiren shiver in a confused sort of fear that he did not quite understand. “Not as a plaything for Wen Ruohan.”

By all rights, Lan Qiren’s brother ought to now kneel and beg forgiveness from his elder, his sect leader, his father, but instead he only shook his head. “An oath of brotherhood goes both ways,” he reminded their father, speaking to him as if they were equals. “Sect Leader Wen announced to the world that he swore an oath with a child – does that not also mean that responsibility for his safety and wellbeing falls equally on his shoulders? Any harm to him stains Sect Leader Wen’s name as much if not more than ours.”

“Are we to let outsiders educate our children, then?”

“One cannot compare a foolish younger son to a brother, voluntarily chosen. He chose it, not us; everyone knows this. Any mistakes Qiren makes will fall heavier on his shoulders.”

Their father frowned deeply enough to carve additional lines into his prematurely aged face. “You plan to use Qiren as a lever, then, and extract concessions for every slight.”

His brother shrugged, almost careless in his arrogance. “If Sect Leader Wen chooses to give me such a handle over him, am I meant to refuse? For all his clever schemes, he is also known to be moody and impulsive, easily lured into rashness…I see an opportunity here, not a trap. You chose to give me responsibility early, to have me help you make our sect stronger, greater; that is what I was born to do. You gave me power and I have done well with it, done exactly what you’ve asked me to do. I’ve made you proud - haven’t I?”

“But what of the risk that Wen Ruohan might ignore public opinion and harm Qiren regardless?” his father pressed, not answering. It wasn’t really necessary, of course; he was always proud of Lan Qiren’s brother, no matter what he did - his eldest son was his treasure, the only thing he cared for; it was as fact as undeniable as the direction in which the sun rose each morning. “The Lan sect does not buy riches with blood.”

“I have thought it over, Father,” his brother said quietly. “It is only a risk that he might be harmed, not a guarantee; it’s not as if I am sending Qiren to the Fire Palace myself. And there is the hope here, not of riches, but of glory for the sect –”

“Glory for the sect?” their father asked, voice rich with meaning Lan Qiren did not understand. “Or for yourself?”

“Are they not one and the same?” Lan Qiren’s brother was unmoved. “In the future, it will be mine, and so there is no difference - whatever you say now, that is what you have always shown me. Besides, Qiren will agree.”

Lan Qiren did not take a step backwards when they turned to look at him, though he dearly wanted to. His hands were still behind his back, gripped tight enough to hurt; he suspected when he looked later on he would find blood beneath his fingernails, dug in deep into his flesh.

“Well?” their father asked of him, though his gaze settled somewhere above Lan Qiren’s head as it always seemed to, as different as night and day from the tender and forgiving looks he gave his eldest son even in the midst of their argument. His voice was so cold that Lan Qiren could feel it against his skin like the bitter winter wind. “What do you say?”

Is it the sale or the price that you object to?

It’s not what is taken, but that it is Wen Ruohan who takes.

Have you thought of any better use to put him to?

His role is to serve the sect.

“I do not see what choice there is,” he said dully, his eyes focused on his father’s face just as his father’s refused to focus on his, foolishly still looking for the affection he knew he would likely never find. In his father’s mind, he had only one son – even his objections on Lan Qiren’s behalf, however mild, were nothing more than what he would have said on behalf of any Lan sect disciple. Even Lan Qiren, foolish and bad at people as he was, could see that his father’s primary concern over the approach his brother had suggested was its potential impact on the reputation of his brother and his sect. “I swore an oath. Even if I do not remember it, as a matter of personal honor, I will not allow myself to be foresworn.”

“There,” his brother said, his voice rich in satisfaction. “You see? The choice is made. It is only what we do with it now that matters.”

Lan Qiren bit his lower lip to keep himself from doing something stupid, like asking do either of you care about me at all.

“Very well,” their father said indifferently. “Then it will be as you say. Qiren.”

“Father.”

“You will spend the night kneeling in the ancestral hall to consider the consequences of violating the prohibition against alcohol and the injunction to maintain your discipline. In view of the circumstances, no other punishment will be imposed.”

“Thank you, Father.”

“Dismissed.”

As Lan Qiren left, he heard his father ask his brother to tell him about the riding competition.

He did not ask about music.