Lan Qiren was only made aware that Wen Ruohan had fixed things when he realized that two weeks had gone by without anyone saying anything about him personally and had, out of a sense of morbid curiosity, asked one of his teachers about it.
“Oh, didn’t you hear?” his teacher asked, nose deep in one of the musical scores they’d put together for the array project, hunting for the flaws. “The sworn brother business was just part of one of his schemes to gain additional power amongst the Great Sects.”
Having been involved in it, Lan Qiren wasn’t so sure about that. “What do you mean, honored teacher?”
“He’s been finding ways to form new ties with all the Great Sects, not just ours,” his teacher explained. “It’s all come out; some very clever people figured it out. There’s a new trade agreement with the Jiang sect that both sides were keeping hushed up, something going on with the head of the Nie sect that the Nie sect disciples are being especially close-mouthed about, and, of course, his new connection with the Jin sect…it’s really not that surprising that he decided to find a way into our Lan sect by trickery.”
His teacher said it casually, as if of course Lan Qiren's sworn brotherhood had been formed by a slightly underhanded maneuver rather than torture or rape or anything like that, and while of course that was in fact true, Lan Qiren was stunned by the fact that what passed for common knowledge in the cultivation world had been flipped on its head in such a short time.
Truly, Wen Ruohan’s cunning was boundless. It was a little frightening.
“Say,” his teacher added. “As his sworn brother, you’ll be attending the wedding, won’t you? You should bring back some stories!”
Lan Qiren stared blankly. “…what wedding?”
It turned out that Wen Ruohan’s new connection with the Jin sect was through a marriage. The bride wasn't surnamed Jin, that would be too much for most people to tolerate without some sort of excuse; she was instead from a powerful subsidiary sect that swore allegiance to the Wen sect, in keeping with Wen Ruohan’s preference for his own people above anyone else, but her mother was a branch cousin of the Jin sect and everyone said that it was obviously meant as a way to bind the sects together. They said Wen Ruohan had spoken openly of his desire for sons – as usual, no one mentioned the names of those of his descendants already in his sect’s memorial hall – and that there were high hopes associated with the union on both sides. The Jin sect was said to be already parading around the marriage as their newest political victory, trying to use the connection to their best advantage.
“How long has this been planned, do you think?” Lan Qiren asked Lan Yueheng, mostly out of lack of other people to ask; unsurprisingly, Lan Yueheng shrugged.
“It’s an engagement,” he said disinterestedly. “My cousin says the negotiations for an engagement can be as long or as short as everyone wants it. But surely no one would make a lifetime decision like that lightly? Not to mention an alliance between sects, however implicit. It must have been planned a long time ago.”
Lan Qiren wasn’t so sure. There was always the ambiguous situation between Wen Ruohan and Lao Nie to consider, and given the way Lao Nie had spoken during his visit, it sounded as if he had encouraged Wen Ruohan to come up with some clever way out of the situation, rather than suggesting that one already existed.
Moreover, he wasn’t sure that Wen Ruohan considered a marriage to be a lifetime decision. Hadn’t he been married before, had sons before? It was only that they had all died…
“Lan-er-gongzi!” A runner came up to him, saluting. “The Sect Leader asks that you report to the hanshi at once.”
“That’s probably your invitation,” Lan Yueheng said, sounding mildly disapproving – undoubtedly he thought weddings were a waste of time compared with doing experiments. Taking inspiration from his work with Lan Qiren in merging math and music, he’d recently expanded his interests from mathematics to alchemy, and Lan Qiren grimly foresaw many exploding furnaces in the Lan sect’s immediate future. At least they had some out-of-the-way places for him to work, or else there'd also be a lot of punishments for violating the rules about too much noise in Lan Yueheng's personal future. “It’ll probably make you miss the first week of this season’s classes, too…well, try not to be too bored.”
Sadly, Lan Qiren did not think being bored would be an option.
Sure enough, when he arrived at the hanshi where his father and brother were waiting alongside several sect elders, the subject of discussion was the invitation he had received to attend the wedding.
“As Sect Leader Wen’s sworn brother, naturally you must attend,” his brother told him. “We will also be sending a delegation from the Lan sect, but your position is different. You must be careful not to offend anyone.”
Lan Qiren saluted. “I will do my best.”
“Sect Leader Wen will not be kind if you lose face for him, especially at his wedding, even if it is inadvertent - or even if what you do is perfectly correct by our standards,” one of the other elders, one of the older teachers, the well-respected if sleepy one, said. He sounded concerned on Lan Qiren's behalf, which Lan Qiren appreciated. “You must especially take care not to offend his new bride. Even where the marriage is made for the purpose of power and there is no expectation of love, a man does not like to have disturbances in his back courtyard.”
“Especially if the stories are true and Sect Leader Wen hopes for sons,” the teacher in swordsmanship responded, his voice a little acidic. He was still unhappy with Lan Qiren over what had happened during their visit to the Nightless City; Lan Qiren did his best to avoid him whenever possible. “I doubt Sect Leader Wen will persist in trying to raise one of our children once he has one of his own.”
That explained the sour expressions on the faces of his brother and some of the elders, Lan Qiren thought. They had hoped to use him to manipulate Wen Ruohan, though the exact method of how they would have done so escaped him no matter how he analyzed the words he had overheard that night in the hanshi, and Wen Ruohan had neatly evaded their snare with a countermove of his own – as with weiqi, so with politics, he assumed. A disappointment, as always.
“A brotherhood is for life,” Lan Qiren’s father said, voice distant as always, neutral as always. “There are ten months at minimum before any son is born, and all the years after; even if Sect Leader Wen forgets about his obligations, that does not mean that we must. There will be other opportunities.”
“Provided Qiren does not provide grounds for Sect Leader Wen to abjure the relationship,” his brother interjected.
“I will try my best not to do so,” Lan Qiren said again, stiff as always, though he suspected his brother was simply stating a fact rather than casting doubt on him. “When should I prepare myself to depart?”
“The delegation leaves tomorrow morning,” his brother said. “You will need to give a personal gift to your sworn brother in addition to the sect’s gift. I have selected several options; come with me to pick the one you prefer.”
Lan Qiren saluted the elders and wordlessly followed his brother to the treasury. He liked none of the gifts his brother had selected, thinking that they all seemed a bit too gaudy even for a recipient whose tastes tended toward the luxurious – a bit more Lanling Jin than Qishan Wen, and not at all something he would select for himself – but eventually he chose a heavy golden crown that seemed to be not too far from the ones that he’d seen Wen Ruohan wear in the past.
“Not the dagger?” his brother asked, his voice thick with irony that Lan Qiren did not understand, nodding towards another of the options, a golden-hilt blade so purely polished that one could see their reflection in it.
“Sect Leader Wen has a rich collection which we cannot hope to match,” Lan Qiren said, thinking of those peerless treasure swords rusting away as wall decorations in Wen Ruohan’s bedroom. “Moreover, it’s a wedding, which represents two parts joining together into a single whole, while a gift of a knife implies severing. It is therefore inappropriate for such an occasion.”
“Brothers who have shared blood cannot be separated. It is a suitable gift from a sworn brother.”
Lan Qiren looked down at the options, feeling a little helpless. “If you would like me to change my selection…”
“The guan is fine,” his brother said, and shook his head, seeming almost a little pitying. “You are very good to be concerned with your sworn brother’s feelings, no matter how your relationship came about. Too much goodness can be seen as weakness, you know.”
I thought I wasn’t supposed to be making trouble? Lan Qiren thought to himself. Still, since his brother did not seem inclined to elaborate, he handed the gift to one of the servants to be put into an appropriate box.
In actuality, he had already selected a personal gift of his own, shortly after he had first heard about the impending wedding – it had seemed reasonable that he would need to send a gift, even if he didn't expect to actually be invited, and it had not occurred to him that he would be allowed to utilize the sect treasury for such a thing. He’d gone to Caiyi Town and purchased a small set of drinking bowls, applying the glaze himself as the artisan spun the pots; they had gone into the kiln immediately thereafter, and he was expecting the delivery today – in fact, it was probably already waiting in his room.
He would pack the set up with his personal items and give it to Wen Ruohan anyway, he decided. After all, he’d opted to do the design in Wen sect red rather than Lan sect blue, rendering it useless for his own purposes, and it would be worse to simply throw it away or to let it sit and gather dust. Being frugal is a virtue, after all.
Of course, if he were truly being frugal, he would have told his brother that he did not need an additional gift and left the guan alone, but he didn’t want to reject his brother’s kindness, either, rare as it was. Better to just eat the loss of the funds and have Wen Ruohan think him a spendthrift…
“Sect Leader Wen will undoubtedly have you stay in the Sun Palace during your visit,” his brother said abruptly, and Lan Qiren looked at him: his brother wasn’t looking at him, but into the distance, and his fingers twitched at his side in an uncharacteristic display of nervousness. “As his sworn brother, it would be inappropriate for him to put you in the guest quarters, or to fail to allow you free mobility through the Nightless City.”
“That seems likely,” Lan Qiren agreed hesitantly, not sure why his brother was mentioning it.
“He is fortunate that you are not naturally observant,” his brother said. “Otherwise one might fear that you would use the opportunity to learn more about how the Wen sect works – its treasures, its secrets. Its plans for the future.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” Lan Qiren said quickly. “ Have courtesy and integrity, after all. Even if I were to discover something incidentally, naturally I would be honor-bound not to share it without informing Sect Leader Wen that I had done so.”
His brother sighed, his fingers abruptly unclenching. “Of course you would. How could anyone doubt it…I don’t suppose you’ve ever given any thought to Do not forget the grace of your forefathers?”
“Of course I have. That’s one of the fundamental rules,” Lan Qiren said, now absolutely bewildered. “That we should live up to the expectations of our ancestors, both in our good conduct and discipline, and in supporting our sect so that our descendants may honor them equally.”
His brother shook his head. “Sometimes I really don’t understand you. You were tricked into an oath like a virgin maiden into a sweet-talker’s bed, weren't you?” he said. Lan Qiren really didn’t understand how his brother’s mind worked that he kept changing subjects like this. “I just wonder that you aren’t more resentful of the one that did it, the way anyone else would be. The way you act, you’d think Sect Leader Wen had done you a favor; you’re so considerate of him.”
Lan Qiren thought his brother might be being sarcastic, but he wasn’t very good at determining such things. “Even if the manner in which we became sworn brothers was unorthodox, the oaths have still been sworn,” he said, a little haltingly. “I cannot control his actions, only my own. Just because he might not be a good brother doesn’t mean I can’t be – isn’t that right?”
His brother glared at him. “If you have something to say, Qiren, you can say it directly.”
Lan Qiren was at an utter loss. “I – was?”
“Your teachers say that you’re brilliant,” his brother said, voice suddenly very cold. “I often wonder whether they’re not growing too old for their work.”
“I don’t –”
“Never mind. You’re dismissed.”
Lan Qiren saluted and returned to his quarters, puzzling over the conversation as he packed away his things for the trip. Was his brother trying to warn him against anyone encouraging him to act as a spy? Or was he trying to convince him to act as a spy himself? But if it was the latter, why wouldn’t he just say so? If it were truly necessary for some reason, for the good of the sect…
Was he supposed to volunteer?
But that would be truly breaking the oath of brotherhood – of which he still didn’t know the contents…
Lan Qiren supposed that, at least, was one thing he would be able to fix: very soon, he would be seeing his sworn brother again for the first time since they’d sworn their oaths.
Maybe he’d find a way to ask.