Lan Qiren was groggy with lack of sleep the next morning, but an evening’s contemplation of the Lan sect’s rules had put him back into the right mindset.
As a disciple of the Lan sect, he was entitled under the rules for his elders to remember do not disrespect your juniors just as he was required to respect and obey your elders. Pursuant to the rules, he should have the protection of his sect and their support, and if what he had was imperfect, it was at least something; for every Lan Ganhui that mocked him, there was a Lan Yueheng that encouraged him, and there were plenty of teachers that preferred him over all the others.
As for his brother – Lan Qiren should not hold his anger against him. He had been acting in the best interest of the sect, seeking to obtain benefits for what had been lost; he had thought throughout the trip that Lan Qiren had given up more than just his word of honor, but had refrained from punishing him accordingly. In the end, even his father had assigned him only to kneel, which was a milder punishment by far than he deserved for all his mistakes and insolence.
More than that, his brother was right: Wen Ruohan would be bound by his own word of honor and public reputation to treat Lan Qiren with dignity, and by endorsing the relationship rather than rejecting it, his sect was indicating that they would hold Wen Ruohan to his word. His father had appropriately expressed concern on Lan Qiren’s behalf, his brother had refuted those concerns with well-reasoned logic; it was inappropriate for Lan Qiren to take such an intellectual discussion to heart.
That he had – and that he had forgotten, even temporarily and in the privacy of his own head, the rule do not argue with family for it does not matter who wins – was merely evidence once again that Lan Qiren was inferior to his brother, who through keeping a cool head had enabled their sect to turn what could have been an embarrassment into a victory.
As for his father…Lan Qiren shouldn’t have been surprised, that’s all. Hadn’t years and years taught him that fathers only gave what they chose to give and no more? He had long ago learned that his father was kind and noble and equitable, concerned with all the Lan sect disciples (but for his dearly beloved eldest) in the same way and the same manner; being disappointed to receive that and nothing more was only his own foolishness.
(He only wondered, in passing, why it had been his father’s glacial voice that had scared him so, compared to the familiar warmth of his brother’s anger.)
So fortified and reassured, Lan Qiren returned to the regular flow of daily life at the Cloud Recesses.
It was not easy. As his brother had predicted, rumors about his sworn brotherhood with Wen Ruohan sprang up at once, and many of his fellow disciples were prone to staring at him when they thought he wouldn’t notice. The teachers handed out many punishments for breaking the prohibition about talking behind people’s backs, although with a certain leniency that made Lan Qiren suspect that they themselves toed the line of that particular rule behind closed doors.
The rumors themselves were split between those that theorized that Wen Ruohan had used nefarious means to entrap Lan Qiren and force him to agree to brotherhood – the Fire Palace was mentioned often, as were various theoretical misapplications of cultivation techniques of dark and unsavory natures – and those that skipped over the how of brotherhood and went straight to speculating as to the why , which typically also involved a variety of references to misapplied cultivation techniques, this time of the sort most often found exclusively in certain types of low-brow spring books.
Someone even suggested that Wen Ruohan intended on taking Lan Qiren to bed as a cauldron, which was the stupidest idea out of the whole lot.
“Of course that can’t be true,” Lan Qiren patiently explained to Lan Yueheng, who had come to collect his geometry book. As a gesture of thanks for his support, Lan Qiren had read the whole thing and sent an annotated list of questions and comments; Lan Yueheng had practically turned pink with excitement when he’d seen it and then secluded himself for two days to write a response. Lan Qiren still didn’t see the appeal of geometry, but he’d managed to coax Lan Yueheng into a discussion of the mathematics of music theory, an area in which their particular interests overlapped, and he had hope of a fruitful dialogue continuing into the future. “At least traditionally, cauldrons are individuals with high cultivation potential that has yet to be developed – raw natural talent, in other words, which can then be refined into strength for another. My inborn talent is only moderate, even low, and my progress is primarily due to good resources and hard work. So even if someone put in the work to make me a cauldron, they wouldn’t get much out of me.”
Lan Yueheng nodded, his brow wrinkled thoughtfully. “So your brother would’ve been a better cauldron than you.”
“…that is correct, but please don’t say it.” Lan Qiren quietly pitied Lan Yueheng’s etiquette teachers, and spared a thought to hope that his cousin’s children, should he have them, would take more after whoever he married than him. Even if only because Lan Qiren hoped to become a teacher himself one day, and he was sure that Lan Yueheng’s particularly brash and un-Lan-like bluntness would make for a terrible future student. “Perhaps it would be more helpful for you to think of it in the sense of energy transfers of heat? I’m already cold, so to speak, so he wouldn’t be able to draw out much heat from me.”
“Wait, if you’re cold and Sect Leader Wen is hot, would that make him the cauldron? Assuming you ever did dual cultivate.”
Lan Qiren pinched the bridge of his nose. “That’s...not how that works, Yueheng-xiong. At all. I was merely attempting to use a metaphor to clarify the issue. Clearly I failed and only confused things further.”
Lan Yueheng shrugged. “At least you try,” he remarked. “And when you fail, you try again, doing something different. It’s better than the teachers who just do the same thing every time and blame you for being as bemused on the seventh repetition as you were on the first.”
Lan Qiren felt his ears go red at the compliment. “You’ve been here too long,” he reminded his cousin. “Your parents won’t be happy to see you spending too much time with me.”
“My parents don’t care. It’s my aunt and uncle who don’t like it. They say that people might start asking if I cultivate as a cauldron too –”
“Your parents listen to your aunt and uncle, so if they don’t like it, you shouldn’t disobey them. The rules say Be a filial child.”
“They also say Do not form cliques to exclude others, but that isn’t stopping the other disciples from playing favorites, is it?”
That was definitely one of the rules more honored in the breach, Lan Qiren thought with a sigh. But what could be done, when their elders did the same? The sect followed the example of its leader, and his father’s tendency towards favoritism were well known, albeit one that was widely indulged as a quirk rather than condemned as a serious flaw.
“I will remind the teachers of that one,” he said. “Perhaps a refresher would be suitable, to remind people. But the rule are meant for your own discipline, not others, and – ”
“Just because other people aren’t following the rules doesn’t mean I shouldn’t, I know,” Lan Yueheng said with a sigh of his own. “I’ll go…oh! It’s getting late. Weren’t you supposed to go to the guest’s pavilion by the western watchtower already?”
Lan Qiren blinked. “I don’t have that patrol route in my schedule until the end of the week.”
“No, no! I was supposed to tell you! Lao Nie’s come to visit, and –”
There were rules against running in the Cloud Recesses, so Lan Qiren was slightly late despite his best efforts, but true to form Lao Nie didn’t admonish him: he only turned from where he was sitting in the pavilion and smiled, calling out, “Qiren! There you are!”
“Forgiven,” Lao Nie interrupted before Lan Qiren even got the first word out. Lan Qiren was relieved to see that there was neither food nor tea already prepared; he would have been mortified if it had grown cold while Lao Nie was waiting to see him. “And don’t bow, either. How have you been? Tell me people aren’t harassing you over the nonsense with Hanhan.”
Lan Qiren opened his mouth, then hesitated.
“Do not tell lies,” Lao Nie observed, grimacing. “Ah, Qiren! Sometimes your brother’s worse than useless. It’s a pity, really, I hadn’t realized – well. At any rate, I’ve been bothering him for weeks to tell me about you and he wouldn’t say a word.”
“He was angry at me for messing up the conference,” Lan Qiren explained.
Lao Nie’s eyebrows arched. “You mean the conference where the Lan sect got first place in both major events and then extracted serious concessions from the Wen sect in a completely unexpected and nearly inexplicable political coup that got the whole cultivation world talking in awe at your political acumen? That conference?”
“I lost face for him. He thought – well, he’d thought it was worse than it was,” Lan Qiren hesitated. “He’s not the only one.”
Lao Nie huffed. “People are, by and large, stupid,” he declared. “Don’t let them get to you. They’ll change their tune soon enough.”
Lan Qiren wasn’t so sure. “They say a reputation is like a porcelain vase,” he said, unable to conceal his worries in the face of someone actually expressing concern rather than curiosity. His dream was to be a traveling cultivator, and that would be much easier with a good name, which he had always had before – good, or at least boring, which was just fine with him. He preferred to be boring! It had never occurred to him that he might do something that would render him the subject of gossip; it had never happened before. “Once cracked…”
“Right now, there’s only some bored people speculating that there might be a crack,” Lao Nie said. His confidence was contagious; Lan Qiren couldn’t help but relax a little in the face of it. “No one’s actually sure about it, and they’re willing to hear otherwise – things aren’t yet so bad. Don’t worry. I’ve spoken with Hanhan about it already.”
Lan Qiren felt his ears burning in shame. “Lao Nie! You didn’t!”
Especially since that would undoubtedly only make Wen Ruohan even more angry…
Lao Nie laughed and put his hand on his head, rubbing it lightly. “I did. Not in your name, but rather his own – do you think the Wen sect wants to get a reputation for being led by a man with an unhealthy interest in noble-born children? It’s in his interest to get this cleared up as much as you.”
Lan Qiren felt the tension rush out of his shoulders all at once. That hadn’t occurred to him, but now that Lao Nie had pointed it out, it was clear enough.
After all, for all the talk going around about Lan Qiren, it was widely agreed that he was clearly the victim in whatever scenario they’d thought up, whether through having his oath extracted under torture or by force; even among those who theorized that Wen Ruohan intended to use him as a cauldron, the reputation Lan Qiren might get would be, at worst, that of a seductive flirt who couldn’t be resisted. Lan Qiren’s brother had scoffed audibly the first time he’d heard that, saying that such a rumor would naturally be dispelled the moment anyone came in contact with Lan Qiren for more than a moment, and in all honesty Lan Qiren agreed with his assessment. He had the classic Lan sect looks, yes, but so did many others, and he had a demeanor as stern as a schoolmaster, giving off the feel of an old man even though he wasn’t even of age.
Meanwhile, for Wen Ruohan, the consequences were undoubtedly more dire – if he was said to have a taste for boys, especially noble-born ones, the other sects might be afraid to send their sons around him. It was a different reputation by far than his taste for torture, or his supposed use of dark and forbidden cultivation; those would make people fear him, while lusting for children would only make people disdain him.
Still, Lan Qiren wasn’t sure how exactly even someone of Wen Ruohan’s cunning would go about fixing such a mistake – and that was putting aside why he would make such a mistake over Lan Qiren in the first place. He hadn’t had a chance to explain to his brother his theory that Wen Ruohan had acted just to irritate Lao Nie, and in the end he’d decided it wasn’t worth drawing his brother’s attention back to the subject.
Besides, if Lan Qiren could figure it out, with his notorious inability to understand interpersonal affairs, then surely his brother was more than able to do the same. It wasn’t as if Lao Nie were being shy about it…
“Hanhan said he had something in mind,” Lao Nie was saying, shaking his head. “He usually does, I find, and each idea’s more awful than the next.”
Lan Qiren shifted a little from one foot to the other. “If you know he’s awful, why do you…” he hesitated. “I mean, you call him – an endearment.”
“Oh, he’s a little awful, no doubt,” Lao Nie said, sounding rather fond. “But as long as it’s not my sect, what do I care? Anyway, Qiren, you shouldn’t worry. If there’s one thing you can trust with Hanhan, it’s that he takes care of anything associated with himself.”
Lan Qiren didn’t really like the fact that he was now counted among that number.
It didn’t seem all that safe.
“Though of course that doesn’t protect him from you,” Lao Nie added, suddenly smirking, and Lan Qiren blinked owlishly at him. “Apparently, you’re a very talkative drunk.”
Lan Qiren’s face burned red.
“And effusive, too! According to Hanhan, even after you forced him down in his seat to keep listening to you, you kept waving your hands around while you were talking and knocking things over; he had to pin you down to keep you from destroying things by accident.”
That would explain the marks on his arms.
“Apparently, you didn’t appreciate him doing that and kneed him right in the –”
“You really think he can make the rumors go away?” Lan Qiren hastily interrupted, rubbing the back of his neck a little as if it would make the heat of hideous embarrassment go away. That tallied up a little too well with the physical evidence to be anything other than accurate. “There’s – a lot of them. And I’d like to have a clean reputation.”
“You will,” Lao Nie said, thankfully distracted from his mortifyingly plausible story. “Anyone who meets you will know at once that you’re a righteous and upstanding person.”
Lan Qiren liked that better than the way his brother had put it.
“It’s just that you haven’t had a chance to make your name in the cultivation world,” Lao Nie said. He sounded sure of himself. “You’ll do wonderful things one day, Qiren. I’ve no doubt.”
“I don’t want to do wonderful things,” Lan Qiren said, scowling. “I just want to travel around and help people.”
“Yes, I know,” Lao Nie said, and he sounded fond again, just the way he did when he was talking about Wen Ruohan, or even Lan Qiren’s brother. Truly, Lan Qiren thought to himself, the Nie sect had no idea how lucky they were to have him as sect leader. “Really, Qiren, it’s like I said: don’t worry about it. Now come, tell me what you’ve been studying recently.”
Lan Qiren had promised himself that he would reduce the amount of time he spent with Lao Nie on his occasional visits to the Lan sect, not wanting to risk inciting Wen Ruohan’s unreasonable anger and jealousy any further.
He would need to assign himself an appropriate punishment for breaking that promise, he thought, and sat down to start telling Lao Nie all about the work he was doing with one of his teachers on comparing the origin points of the various Lan sect rules, as well as his experiments on arrays to enhance open-air acoustics that would, he hoped, eventually be inscribed on all Lan sect instruments to increase the range and impact of their spell songs.
He even mentioned the possibility of a joint project on the mathematics of musical theory, and for whatever reason he thought Lao Nie looked especially pleased about that.
He didn’t think about Wen Ruohan at all.