Pace Out the Foundations
Lan Zhan was settling Wei Ying in his rooms when his uncle arrived to speak with him. Lan Zhan was not surprised.
His uncle had never hidden his disapproval of Wei Ying.
“Wangji.” His uncle stood in the open screens, looking still and strong as a house pillar. “We must speak. Come along.”
“Oh, don’t mind me,” Wei Ying said immediately, turning from his very minimal unpacking with a bright smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “You can talk here.”
“Some matters,” his uncle’s tone was frosty, “are not the business of outsiders.”
Lan Zhan folded his hands at the small of his back and drew in calm with a slow breath. This would be the next step on the path he’d chosen, it seemed. “My cultivation partner cannot be considered an outsider.”
His uncle sputtered. “Your cultivation—!”
Wei Ying propped an elbow on Lan Zhan’s shoulder, still beaming, at least with his mouth. “There you are. All the more reason not to hold back!”
Lan Zhan glanced sidelong at him and quirked a brow. Wei Ying had never seemed particularly eager to listen to Lan Qiren when they were younger.
The smile fell away as Wei Ying straightened and turned to face him, leaving only the hardness in his eyes. “From what your brother said, the last time you went to ‘talk’ with him about me, he nearly killed you.” The words were quiet but fierce in a way that Wei Ying rarely left uncovered for the world to see, and Lan Zhan couldn’t help a tiny smile that Wei Ying would show it for him.
“Have no fear. We will only speak.”
Wei Ying’s mouth tightened for a moment before he blew out a breath and shook a mock-admonishing finger at him. “You’d better.” On its way back down, Wei Ying’s hand slid briefly over the line of his flute, the ‘or else’ unspoken but clear. That startled him a little, at least until he placed the memory of where he’d seen this before—the absolute dedication with which Wei Ying had protected his sister and, before Jiang Cheng kicked away that protection, his brother. Then it woke again the aching warmth of knowing Wei Ying truly knew and returned the measure of his love.
Lan Zhan inclined his head, accepting Wei Ying’s terms, and turned to his uncle, ignoring the warring of anger and shame in his expression with as much grace as possible. He held a hand toward the steps. “Shall we?”
They walked in silence all the way to his uncle’s rooms. Lan Zhan noted the cold tea set, as he sat; this had not been a planned invitation, then, but spur of the moment.
“Wangji,” his uncle began, “when you accepted the position of Chief Cultivator, you also accepted a responsibility to the cultivation world.”
“Indeed,” Lan Zhan interjected, with careful timing, into his uncle’s pause for breath. “I have been thinking on that.” His uncle sat back with a faint frown, looking more puzzled than displeased, and Lan Zhan relaxed a bit. He wasn’t terribly good at this, not the way his brother or even a-Yuan were. This next part, for instance, he couldn’t think of any way to say but bluntly. “Senseless pride and petty rivalries have weakened the sects. If we are not to invite another cycle of catastrophe, we must change.”
His uncle’s eyes immediately narrowed, and Lan Zhan stifled a sigh—just as he’d thought. “True enough, perhaps, but that change must not be influenced by the morals of one who has abandoned the correct way.”
It had been a long time since Lan Zhan had assumed that his uncle’s interpretation of the Lan discipline was the most correct one. And, of course, in the wake of that understanding had come other thoughts. “Is it not the nature of cultivation to find one’s own way? Our clan’s writings speak of the importance of this, as do many others. Learning comes first,” he quoted.
“Reject the crooked path,” his uncle snapped back.
Lan Zhan folded his hands carefully, looking down at them as he reached for the words that he’d turned over in the silence of his own thoughts, for years. Now, he thought, was the time to set those words free. The first time, at least. “At each turn, Wei Ying has acted, not to aggrandize himself or rule over others, but to shelter the weak, to preserve life. At the cost of his peace, even his life, he has never faltered on that way. If his path is a dangerous one, one inviting harm, he has drawn that harm upon himself alone. He has borne the weight of his own morality—a sterner weight than I have witnessed any other bear.” He lifted his head to look his uncle in the eye, and his uncle rocked back a little, scowl turning startled and perhaps wary. “It is for this he draws so many to his side, against the outcry of the powerful—to shelter under his hand until they gather the strength to walk their own paths. Perhaps it is for this that the powerful decry him.”
He laid no particular emphasis on his last words, but his uncle’s shoulders jerked taut, all the same.
“What, then?” his uncle asked, in clear disbelief, “you would have the cultivation world acknowledge any path, including that demonic one, as legitimate?”
Lan Zhan took another breath against an upsurge of the slow, deep anger that had gathered in him over the years. “I would have us recall the purpose of cultivation—not selfish hoarding of power, but the benevolent use of it.” Because that was really the core of it, that so few valued what it was that Wei Ying did, the compassionate use he made of the power he had and pursued.
His uncle ran a hand over his face and sighed. “Wangji. This is not a dream world we live in, nor the Heavenly realm. Our rules exist because because we are only human, and human desire requires some curbs to it. They are the reflection of hundreds of years of experience. And that experience tells us that some things simply cannot be turned to good ends.”
Lan Zhan spread his hands against his uncle’s table as if he might hold the truth he felt between them. “And yet, our rules are insufficient.” Across his uncle’s incensed inhalation, he added, “Why else would they need be added to?”
He expected the moment of silence that followed, given that his uncle had added nearly a thousand. He took no joy in arguing with his uncle like this, but he could not allow such intolerance to go unchallenged here in his own clan. He had to start here.
“If it’s self-aggrandizing power you would do away with, then start with the one you call your partner!” his uncle finally snapped, resettling his sleeves with short, sharp movements.
Lan Zhan held very still, breathing through another surge of anger that was still more than half at himself for ever suspecting such a thing, for not trusting Wei Ying’s reasons. And into his own silence fell the notes of a flute. Lan Zhan recognized the mellowness of the tone at once; it was Chenqing.
The melody was Clarity.
“Why that—!” His uncle pushed to his feet and stormed out of his rooms. Lan Zhan followed after, swallowing laughter. It was so very like Wei Ying to tweak Lan Qiren in the same breath he used to soothe Lan Zhan, to be thumbing his nose at society and sharing a soft memory in private, all at the same moment.
Wei Ying was perched on the railing of the courtyard outside, playing, and his eyes danced as they met Lan Zhan’s. Lan Zhan smiled helplessly back and stepped past his uncle to hold out his hands to Wei Ying, even as his uncle started to scold, “Eavesdropping…!”
On reflection, perhaps his uncle did have some cause to think Wei Ying a bad influence on Lan Zhan’s manners, but Lan Zhan had spent most of the past sixteen years coming to the repeated conclusion that this was not as weighty a problem as Lan Qiren wished to claim.
Wei Ying brought Clarity around to a close and spun his flute lightly between his fingers, returning it to his belt and reaching out free hands to take Lan Zhan’s. “Oh, I wasn’t listening,” he assured Lan Qiren, widening his eyes and looking earnest, if one didn’t attend to the way one corner of his mouth tucked up. “At least not until you shouted loud enough. I didn’t hear much, but you sounded like you could use a little clarity.” He hopped lightly down from the railing, not leaning on Lan Zhan’s hands but not letting go either. “Lan Zhan, where are the rabbits? I was going to visit them, but I think one of the juniors moved them.”
His uncle threw up his hands and rounded on Lan Zhan. “And for this you would overturn all the traditions of the cultivation world?”
Lan Zhan regarded his uncle evenly and did not protest the exaggeration, calm with the certainty his heart gave back to that question. “I would.”
His uncle’s shoulders jerked back, and he stared at Lan Zhan for a long, silent moment before he turned without a word and stalked back into his rooms.
He turned back to find Wei Ying also staring at him, eyes wide. “He… he just means you want to consolidate a few of the rules to save words, or something, right?” Wei Ying asked with an uncertain smile.
Lan Zhan shook his head. “We fear the unknown, but the known is smaller each generation. This must not continue.” He tightened his hands on Wei Ying’s. “The sects have chosen me to guide them. So be it. I will not let our world remain one that denies a true heart.”
Wei Ying opened his mouth and closed it again before finally managing, “But that’s not… I didn’t…” He looked so thoroughly at a loss that Lan Zhan had to smile, though there was a bright thread of anger running through his amusement. He understood better, now, what it was to raise a child, and how Wei Ying must have been raised that he so earnestly denied his own worth. He stroked his thumbs over the backs of Wei Ying’s hands, seeking to gentle his uncertainty. “Actions in crisis tell of one’s character. Crisis never diverts you, rather it cuts away your teasing and distractions. What is left shines true without fail.”
“Lan Zhan…” Wei Ying couldn’t seem to meet his eyes, staring down at their clasped hands. His weight was in his toes, like he might turn and run at any moment, but when Lan Zhan tightened his hold, Wei Ying gripped back hard.
Quiet and sure, he repeated, “I will not let our world remain one that denies you.”
“You’re serious,” Wei Yin whispered, finally looking back up at him, eyes wide and wondering. “You… but… for me?”
Lan Zhan lifted a hand to touch Wei Ying’s cheek. “Your lineage flows from the only one in living memory to truly succeed in her cultivation. Knowing you, I am no longer surprised.”
Wei Ying turned his head into Lan Zhan’s hand, breath quick and unsteady against his palm. But when Wei Ying finally moved, it was to take a step closer, free hand coming up to wind tight into Lan Zhan’s robes.
Lan Zhan looked over Wei Ying’s bent head to where his uncle stood in the shadows of his rooms, watching them with folded arms. Lan Zhan tipped his chin up in silent question: Where is this self-aggrandizing power you think you saw? Their locked gazes held for a long moment before his uncle finally shrugged, sharp and irritable, and looked away, turning toward his sitting room. Satisfaction settled over Lan Zhan. His uncle might not ever approve of Wei Ying, but at least he would not interfere. That would do, for now. He gathered Wei Ying closer and murmured, “Shall I ask what larger sets of rooms are untaken, at the moment?”
Wei Ying looked up, a little flushed, blinking back wetness from his eyes, but laughing again. “Yes. All right.” It was agreement to more than a new set of rooms, and Lan Zhan smiled, satisfaction deepening.
Wei Ying was with him, again. He no longer had any fears.