The Wen Sect contingent is approaching the Cloud Recesses, and Wen Chao has a smirk on his face that's even stupider than average for a Wen Chao facial expression.
She bows to him.
"If you will but give this one a moment," she says, and turns to the wards. Her eyes narrow, and she chews on her lip. After a moment, her hand comes up and she traces a bright orange talisman in the air, which rushes forwards and impacts the barrier at the gate. It ripples and shatters.
"After you," she says, gesturing.
She nods stiffly.
Once it's only her, Qing-jie and Ning-di, she drops to one knee on the floor and bows deeply.
"This one apologizes for not having been able to restrain Wen-Gongzi. To defy the will of the main house is not safe for oneself or one's loved ones, in the Qishan Wen sect. Myself, Wen Ying, my older sister, Wen Qing, and my younger brother, Wen Ning, have been ordered to attend these lectures by Sect Leader Wen. We swear that during our stay we shall do our best to follow the Lan strictures and redeem ourselves for this failure."
Part of their redemption will be abiding by the protocol of the opening ceremony, as much as they still can after barging in two hours late. Wen Qing motions for A-Ning to hand her their gift, then steps forward to offer the large, polished mahogany box in a bow to Sect Leader Lan. "Please forgive us for the commotion. Wen-er gongzi was not familiar with the rules of Cloud Recesses, but we will learn quickly."
"This one would apologize for the behavior of Wen Chao, but an apology implies the intention to change in the future, which Wen Chao lacks and this one lacks the ability to effect. This one wishes to avoid compounding this failing by inadvertently breaking any further rules." If she was going to break any rules she was going to do it on purpose, dammit. "If the library is not available this one will find another way."
This is SO BORING and Wen Ying can't even flirt with the incredibly pretty girl to break the monotony because the incredibly pretty girl thinks she's lower than dirt. This is so unfair.
Eventually she finishes. She organizes her notes into two piles, rises from her desk, and offers Lan-guniang the book and one of the piles of notes.
"Um, in order to get into Cloud Recesses without an invitation, it was...necessary to break through the wards. These are my notes on how I did it and other ways I would have tried if that one hadn't worked. So you can fix the weaknesses I used." She ducks her head.
What the fuck.
Why is she smart. Why is she so smart she was already pretty and it was already unfair this is TERRIBLE. And she is using her intelligence to BREAK RULES? Using her intelligence for CHAOS?
But then she gave Lan Zhan notes on how to prevent chaos and protect rule-following. After breaking the wards. On her first try.
What the fuck.
Lan Zhan's face is very hot (with Righteous Anger, presumably) and she feels like she's been punched in the stomach. She notices belatedly that her fists are clenched; the notes have become all crumpled. This is also Wen Ying's fault.
She squeezes the crumpled notes tight and storms off to go find her brother.
Siblings: haven't found anything. Wen Ning is practicing sword forms. Wen Qing is sorting her medicine kit, occasionally looking up and correcting her brother.
Keep the arm higher during the -- yes, like that. Good.
Watch your feet. They should be parallel in this stance.
-- I said parallel, A-Ning.
When A-Ying enters, she looks up and smiles tiredly at her. "We didn't find anything, still. Did it go alright?"
"Yep. They have way too many rules. I have notes on the ones that aren't the kind of commonsense 'don't be an asshole' stuff only the likes of Wen Chao would have trouble following." She brandishes the notes. "Alcohol is forbidden, annoyingly; I've heard good things about Gusu's Emperor's Smile and it looks like I'm going to have to wait to snag some on the way out if I want to try it. Also their sleep schedule is mildly insane. And you can't run. Or yell."
She sighs. "I don't honestly think Sect Leader Lan believes our cover. I think they are going to go along with it as long as we don't make trouble or start obviously doing something else. I am not going to make trouble. A-Ning is a little too young to attend the lecture anyway, technically. I can officially be busy looking after him."
She finally tracks down Brother, and restrains herself from tossing the notes at him. She feels uncomfortably immature, like a child about to throw a tantrum. Lan Zhan never even threw tantrums when she was an actual child; she hates feeling this way.
"Wen-er guniang broke the wards," she tells him, brandishing the crumpled notes. Her face warms further with embarrassment.
Why did she agree to attend this lecture. This is the worst thing that's ever happened to her. Lan Zhan struggles to pay attention in class for the first time in her life, which is terrible. She wants to do well in class, and even moreso she wants to hit Wen Ying.
And then she wants Wen Ying to hit her back. And then maybe knock her over and sit on her and pull her hair.
Just. Because challenging duels are fun and rare. This is the only reason.
He would love to!!!
They can sit outside on some rocks on this nice sunny day, and Huaisang can tell Wen-er guniang about birds and Wen-er guniang can tell him about scholarly things! Huaisang really isn't very fussed about learning the scholarly things but this is a fun and friendly way to spend time. He's interested in what education is even like for Wen disciples; it seems even more daunting than the instruction in Gusu or Qinghe.
It varies depending on the situation. She and her siblings have had tutors since their parents died and Wen Ruohan took them in. Disappointing their tutors never seemed...safe. At least in Gusu or Qinghe you know that any unpleasant consequences to failure have your ultimate well-being in mind.
"I'm pretty sure even if I show lots of blatant disrespect the worst Lan Qiren would do is have me beaten, not throw me in a lava pit. Or, like, off a cliff? Whatever the equivalent of lava pits would be here. Or, like, things that are slower or worse than falling off a cliff or into a pit with lava at the bottom without your sword."
"I mean, there's like, walkways over them and stuff, you're not gonna end up in a lava pit without someone putting you there on purpose," she assures him. "They're mostly for people who have to report their own failures in person and the failures are bigger than their position within the sect, or for murders of people who are high enough in rank that you don't wanna get caught with their blood on your hands."
"Well, that depends on who's doing the murdering! And it's sort of hard to tell the difference between lavamurder and other kinds of murder that also don't end up with anyone identifying the body for whatever reason and just running away and not getting caught, you know?"
Lan Zhan doesn't care at all that Nie Huaisang and Wen Ying are spending all this time together today. She barely even notices. And to the extent that she does notice, she's actually definitely glad to see that Wen Ying is doing something other than sabotaging her home. Nothing but good news to be found here.
Even though Nie Huaisang isn't smart or self-disciplined enough to keep up with Wen Ying, let alone rival her, and Lan Zhan has no idea what Wen Ying would even see in him when she is so much brighter than him and also than everyone else here and actually the only person who performed as well as her in class today and answered as many questions correctly was Lan Zhan and so clearly she's a much more fitting and interesting person for Wen Ying to spend time with -- not that she wants to spend time with Wen Ying, but just, if Wen Ying insists on being here and spending time around anyone it should at least be someone with basic competence--
These are uncharitable thoughts. While there is nothing wrong with honest evaluations of a person's academic merit, the Lan sect rules forbid contempt.
The Lan sect rules also forbid pride. Many people assume that Lan Zhan is ever prideful and haughty, but she actually finds the emotion unfamiliar and unpleasant and shameful. She kneels in the courtyard for an hour in penance. The punishment fails to banish either jealousy or Wen Ying from her mind.
The next day after another class in which Wen Ying continues to ace every gotcha question thrown at her and fidget only a small rules-abiding amount, she ends up hanging out with Jiang Yanli. Jiang Yanli is from Yunmeng, which is very exciting because people in Yunmeng have ever heard of spicy food and Jiang Yanli likes to cook.
Jiang Yanli's problems are a lot less actually dangerous than Wen Ying's, but she does have some. Like her fiance who prefers to pretend she doesn't exist. Wen Ying drags her off to go scoop up a girl from the Jin sect to interrogate about said fiance.
Jin sect girl very cheerfully bubbles away about said fiance! He's really shy about the engagement, it's honestly adorable. He's sort of bad at talking in general, even though he's a really good disciple actually! And she thinks he's a good person. He's just -- sort of a little bad at not being obnoxious to people sometimes! She doesn't think he's doing it on purpose!
Actually Mianmian thinks, in a conspiratorial whisper, that Jin Zixuan is a lot nicer than either of his parents. His parents are just a lot better at the outside part of being nice to people, but she thinks he's better at the inside part! He does actually like Jiang Yanli. At least, Mianmian assumes he does? I mean, look at Jiang Yanli. The odds of anyone not wanting to be engaged to her appear incredibly small. Also he was all flustered when they ran into each other in Caiyi Town, she could tell, it was pretty cute.
"Sect Leader Jin isn't - a bad person, really, I think? He's a really good sect leader and he's made a lot of people prosperous and happy. Having a sect leader who can do that is pretty important, I think, in general. But he's -- just -- also. You know. A Way. I think you'll still be happy living in Lanling, Jiang-guniang, it's nice there!"
Ahahahaha Mianmian you were really not supposed to talk about this stuff to other sects oops!!!
But also, like, Jiang Yanli completely has a right to know? She doesn't really regret bringing this up, even if she's a little sheepish about it.
"Ah, well. Like -- when I first went to Koi Tower to continue my studies, my sister told me not to, uh, get alone in a room with him? And that's generally pretty good advice for your reputation?"
"Well, he doesn't randomly kill people, he kills people who displease him. In person he's--uh, I don't know if intimidating is the right word, but it might be for someone who wasn't me? It's like being on a night-hunt, but with different kinds of weapons and you can't actually kill him."
Wen Ying... sounds like she may actually care about being a good person. And may actually choose to be aware of the moral weight of evil actions that she takes, even under duress?
This is objectively a good thing.
This is also objectively terrible. Lan Zhan considers it an important responsibility to monitor Wen Ying and make sure she doesn't go around breaking any more wards, but also - following Wen Ying around is so bad for her health, probably, her head hurts.
Maybe she should check in on other Wens instead. Are the other Wens doing anything interesting or suspicious if she vaguely follows them for the rest of the day?
Nope! She can follow them around on their walk - they go on lots of walks, but never do anything improper or destructive on them.
Lan Zhan can watch Wen Ning practice archery, and then practice his swordwork, and then get scolded for imperfections in his form by Wen Qing. Wen Ning displays talent for his age, but nothing seems menacing about the practice. Wen Qing's scolding sounds a lot more like an exasperated older sister than a commanding officer.
Part of her wants them to start sabotaging her sect already so that they can drive them out and she never has to think about Wen Ying again. (Or about her long fluffy hair, or about her laugh, or about the very cute way she blushed and touched her cheeks when Jiang Yanli complimented her, or about the way her eyes sparkle, or --)
Wen Ying continues to excel in class and to follow the rules even when it makes her physically twitch and to be outgoing and friendly with the rest of their class. Lan Zhan is not the only one who rebuffs her overtures and apologies, and she is politely respectful of their rejection.
She also attracts a handful of would-be cronies who want to get in with the Wen sect, but after the third time she makes it clear she's not interested in that
("Wow, if everyone in your sect is like you, Wen-er-guniang, it's no wonder they're considered the highest!"
"No, I'm a fluke, Wen Ruohan is a madman, don't you have anything better to be doing?")
most of them learn to be at least a little bit subtle about it. She consistently prefers the company of people who actually just like her, anyway.
She goes on walks too, sometimes with her siblings and sometimes by herself. Jiang Wanyin asks her about it at one point, in a clumsy attempt to change the subject from her interrogating him about his intentions towards Wen Qing, and she says that Cloud Recesses is beautiful and completely unlike Qishan and who knows when or if they'll ever get a chance to visit again, after classes are over.
This ward is significantly more complex than the other one but not, like, enough to keep her out. If the outer ward had taken this long Wen Chao would probably have lost his patience and gone back to setting people on fire but fortunately she does not actually have that incompetent hindering her this time.
Time to go see what they don't want her to see. She strolls along and starts writing down her notes on that one.
And here she is in the water, undressed but turned away, hair unbound and clouding in the water around her. She is singing quietly, eyes closed, trying to center herself. Meditation has never been as difficult for her as it has become this week of lectures, but the Cold Spring always helps.
--Oh. Pretty girl who justifiably hates her. Naked pretty girl who justifiably hates her. Eep.
Fortunately (no, unfortunately) (down, libido) she's turned away and Wen Ying hasn't actually seen anything she shouldn't. Wen Ying can just shut her eyes and throw an arm over them and back away slowly.
-- she's going to die. She's going to die. Either Wen Ying is about to assassinate her in the Cold Springs -- fuck, that means she broke through the wards AGAIN, that's -- way more distracting from the imminent murder than it has any right to be -- and infuriating --
or Wei Ying is not here to kill her and Lan Zhan will instead die of EMBARRASSMENT and PANIC because oh god she's naked and Wen Ying is right there and they're ALONE and Wen Ying broke through powerful Lan Sect wards AGAIN and now Lan Zhan has accidentally envisioned Wen Ying pouncing on her (for EVIL ASSASSIN REASONS that would be BAD AND NOT GOOD) and the Cold Springs don't feel cold at all anymore oh NO --
This is the exact opposite of the outcome she wanted in coming here this is terrible --
She lunges for her clothes because that will make sword fighting a lot more comfortable and because dying naked would be very embarrassing and undesirable and because AAAAAAAAAAAAAA
"I have dressed," she snaps, before Wen Ying can do something like drop the notes into the water. She yanks her robes tight and glowers at Wen Ying.
"The wards are there for a reason. You should understand the spirit of the rules and not create disorder. What did you design your walk to accomplish?"
She lowers her arm and opens her eyes but looks down at her feet.
"I didn't. Design it, I mean. I was wandering around and I found the wards and I wondered if I could get through them and it wasn't against the rules and I was curious and they were interesting and I--I had no idea they would be hiding bathing people but you're right, I have no excuse, wards are obviously meant to hide something."
She steps forward, ankle-deep in the water to hand over the notes.
"I," she starts. She sounds unsteady; she doesn't like it. Doesn't like trying to speak when she's this - destabilized. Lan Zhan feels very destabilized. There are -- too many feelings, about everything Wen Ying just said (she promised to keep the rules, that mattered to her, she meant it) but one of the feelings is -- something like pain, that Wen Ying could think that Lan Zhan doesn't know that she is the most terrifyingly brilliant person in the world, that Lan Zhan could think of her like dirt. This must be fixed right away, even if words are difficult.
"I - do not think. That you are --"
There's a lot to look at! Icicles glitter from the roof of the cave and the cold blue water glitters up beneath it. The pool appears to grow more shallow towards the guqin's platform, lowering to Lan Zhan's knees and then her ankles as she moves forward. Layers of pale, frosted rock build up like rough steps to the guqin and its pedestal - in fact, this shelf of rock reaches the back of the cave and wraps around its edges.
On the rock shelf against one side of the cave shuffle at least a dozen snow-white bunnies, each adorned in their own tiny silk Lan ribbons.
A lot is happening!!!
Firstly, one mystery has been at least partially solved. Lan Zhan is still very confused about what the Yin Iron is, and what it has to do with this unexpected cave, and why it has anything to do with Cloud Recess, and why, given that it does have anything to do with Cloud Recesses, Lan Zhan knew nothing about it but Wen Ying — Wen Ruohan — did.
Secondly, Lan Yi is just here, this is — this is all a lot to take in.
Lan Zhan pushes aside the revelations about Wen Ying for now and kneels, bows. “Great Master Lan Yi,” she murmurs reverently. “This one would benefit from your explanation.”
"The Yin Iron was a horrible artifact, created hundreds of years ago by Xue Chonghai, the most powerful cultivator of his time. Why he chose to pursue such a dark path when he already had so much power from benign sources is unknown, but he killed many to infuse a piece of powerful metal with their resentful energy. So much blood was spilled that what was once a highly spiritual place became the Yiling Burial Mounds. It took all the great sects banding together to defeat him, and when they did, they divided the Yin Iron into pieces, each one hidden away separately."
"My brother and sister know my ultimate goals and they're on board with it. Jiejie is more cautious about not taking risks in the meantime than I am, because she has two little siblings to look after instead of one. A-Ning will do what Jiejie says but he's very good. Jiejie won't be happy that I've decided to abort the mission but she won't tell or sabotage me or anything."
Lan Yi places a hand under her chin and gazes deeply into her eyes.
After a long, intense moment, she blinks and the weight of her stare dissipates.
"Swear," she says, "to me, and to your friend here, that you will never willingly allow the Yin Iron to come into the hands of those who would misuse it."
She's not going to swear something the instant someone tells her to, she has to think about it for a moment first, she does not give her word lightly--
But, really, it doesn't sound like letting the Yin Iron fall into the hands of Wen Ruohan or anyone like him would be...at all okay. Ever.
She bows to Lan Yi and then to Lan Zhan.
"I swear," she says, "that--as long as I have not been lied to, about it, up until now--I won't allow Wen Ruohan or anyone else like that to get their hands on the Yin Iron if I can stop it. I take my word seriously, I won't pledge it only to find out that this is all some kind of deception and I've been cornered into something I didn't intend."
"Our branch of the clan lives somewhere called Dafan Mountain. I mean, me'n Qing-jie and A-Ning mostly don't, Wen Ruohan mostly keeps us at Nightless City, but before our parents died--anyway, there's this goddess statue thing and then one day it went berserk for some reason and a bunch of people including our parents died dealing with it and Wen Ruohan sent people to investigate and--there was a chunk of metal like that one."
Is she really allowed -- supposed to --
Is Master Lan Yi going to officiate --
Lan Zhan spreads her arms and glides through the air, descending back into the freezing water beside Wen Ying. She gives Lan Yi plenty of time to leave, or to change her mind and order Lan Zhan to stop, or to -- start instructing them through marriage rights --
She isn't thinking straight. This is inappropriate on so many levels. Lan Zhan isn't dressed appropriately at all in only her sopping wet inner robe. (Wen Ying's robes are also wet, and also white, and Lan Zhan is very very very carefully not looking anywhere near her chest but she can feel her ears burn all the same.)
(She doesn't avoid looking at Wen Ying's face, which is a mistake. There's snow on her eyelashes and her lips are dark from cold. Lan Zhan can't breathe.)
Master Lan Yi isn't stopping her. Lan Zhan pulls her headband loose and loops it around her wrist, once, twice, three loops.
Three loops of the other end around Wen Ying's wrist.
(Oh no she isn't supposed to unwind it yet! What about -- Lan Zhan is really unsure about when and how the deflowering is supposed to transpire under these circumstances but the ribbon is definitely supposed to still be on --
-- what is she thinking, there isn't going to be any deflowering, Wen Ying is either clueless about the ribbon or she doesn't care at all, but either way -- they didn't even do their bows, is this a real marriage, why didn't Lan Zhan ASK MASTER LAN YI FOR CLARIFICATION --
-- is this what being drunk is like, this must be what it's like, Lan Zhan has never felt so stupid and dizzy at once in her entire life --
-- Focus --
Wen Ying's breasts were just right on top of hers and her body was warm --)
"Huh, really? I didn't even know Cloud Recesses had caves, that's -- really weird, actually, that nobody's mentioned that?? Especially if it's dangerous enough that people could get stuck there overnight - unless no one knows about it yet? You should tell Sect Leader Lan. If he already knows about it then you should tell him to put signs up, honestly."
"That sounds great, then."
They make their way back to the main house. Wen Ying briefly considers the tradeoff between getting there slightly later but in dry clothes and decides it's not worth it.
They part with Mianmian at the door and go inside. Wen Ying manages to prod Lan Zhan into bringing her to where, apparently, Sect Leader Lan and Lan Qiren are apparently having tea and discussing something, concerned. They both look up when the two girls enter.
Wen Ying falls to her knees and presses her forehead against the floor.
"Teacher Lan. Zewu-jun. This one must apologize for the deception. This one does not think it qualifies as lying, since this one has never stated any outright falsehoods, and you were of course aware that there is no way Sect Leader Wen would actually send even branch relatives for innocuous purposes, and if he did, he definitely wouldn't send his son with them. The fact of the matter is that I have now learned that the Yin Iron, which he sent us to steal, is enormously important and must never fall into his hands."
Qiren chokes on his tea. "Pffwh -- WHAT.
Sent - sent you to steal the Yin Iron?"
Deep breaths. D e e p breaths. He tugs at his beard.
"Wen Ying -- you may rise. Clearly you have described a severe breech of trust between our sects. However, you are correct. We surmised this upon your arrival, despite not understanding its full extent. If your confession proves to be completely honest -
We appreciate that course of action, without pardoning your intrusion or allowing it to continue. We would prefer assisting you and your siblings to safely defect and counter Wen Ruohan, if that is indeed your intention. A-Zhan. Is what she says true?"
"That is our intention, but--I mean, if you took in A-Ning, that would be great, but--letting him know that I've defected seems like a bad idea. He thinks I'm loyal to him, he at least sorta trusts me--I can get close to him. I can take him out without anyone else having to get hurt. I mean, probably something would also have to be done about Wen Xu and Wen Chao, but they're not as powerful as he is, and--"
"And he already has a piece of Yin Iron. I didn't know that's what it was called, but--it killed our parents. And a lot of other people in our village."
"I'm fine, I'm fine! I was accidentally sucked into a weird magic cave with some kind of weird time effect. Speaking of the cave, there's good news and bad news. The good news is I know where the Yin Iron is now. The bad news is it's another piece of the same thing that made the goddess statue go berserk and Wen Ruohan definitely cannot be allowed to get his hands on it," she says in front of all assembled Lans like it's not even a secret anymore.
So many levels of WHAT THE HELL are happening right here at once.
"A-Ying -- what are you talking about?" she hisses, eyes darting to Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren. Wen Qing drops to her knees, holding her arms out in a bow. "Sect Leader, Teacher Lan -- I take responsibility for my sister. She has never been in favor of causing the Lan Sect harm. Please do not punish her before I have a chance to explain."
Wen Qing can't yell at A-Ying in front of Lan Xichen for these Decisions, but she stares at her furiously.
Why would A-Ying tell them? Why would she tell them without asking Wen Qing first??? This is the exact sort of thing that Wen Qing is always saying A-Ying needs to tell her about first, ask her about first -- how could she jeopardize the entire mission and their safety so thoughtlessly! What if the Lans had gone and caught her or A-Ning in a lie afterward before they knew? Why is she LIKE THIS.
She grits her teeth. Looks cautiously at Zewu-Jun. "You... offered us sanctuary?"
"I did. As Wens, you are spies and thieves and a threat to my sect. As defectors, you would be valuable to ensuring the safety of countless innocent lives. We find the latter preferable to executing or imprisoning you."
Not that they would execute children anyway, they aren't monsters. But they will suffer more as pawns of Wen Ruohan whether or not the Lan punish them.
"Because if I accept Wen Ruohan will know I'm not loyal to him and I'll never get close enough to kill him and then he'll keep on being Wen Ruohan at everybody else! It's no good for me to be safe if it means everyone else isn't! Even if he weren't being really aggressive at all the other sects, I won't leave the rest of the Wen sect to deal with him. Not everyone is Wen Chao or Wen Xu, there are plenty of people just trying to keep their heads down and survive and they don't deserve to have to deal with him!"
She covers her face with her hands. "A-Ying, I know you're sensitive about other people like this, but you can't -- this family's safety has to come first, A-Ning's safety has to come first, you can't make these decisions by yourself. What can we do to stop him? If he tell him we failed, he will send someone else -- if he doesn't attack Cloud Recesses right away!"
"They know now. They can prepare, now. They can--jie, I won't let what happened on the mountain happen again, A-Ning could have died then, do you think toeing the line is safe? It's not, you and I both know that, and when you're up against the wall with fire in front of you pressing against the wall isn't the right choice, you have to go through the fire to the other side. I know I need to prepare more before I can take Wen Ruohan on but if he just gets stronger in the meantime that won't help, and letting him go on forever isn't an option, it's not safe for any of us!"
"You need to tell me first. A-Ying, how can I be responsible for both of you when you do whatever you feel is right the moment you feel it's right? I -- I. You have a point, but -- I can't do what's best for all three of us if I don't know what the hell you're doing, do you understand? Just because countering Uncle might be the best thing to doesn't mean that the first opportunity that appears is the best one to take."
"I couldn't tell you first! I was just looking for it like we'd agreed on and then I stumbled across Lan-guniang and we both got dragged into a cave where there was loads of water and bunnies in Lan headbands and a guqin that attacked me and, also, previous Sect Leader Lan Yi guarding the Yin Iron! That's not the kind of thing I can anticipate to discuss with you first!"
"I assume Lan Yi put them there to keep her company or something. Uh, in retrospect 'say nothing' would probably have been a good idea if I could pull it off but I...freaked out when I saw what the Yin Iron was and they asked me direct questions and lying is against the rules here and I promised to follow the rules here and I sort of wasn't handling the situation with the most grace I have ever had." Sigh. "I'm sorry, Jie."
"I didn't say that." Sigh. "I'll see what I can do about suppressing the piece we have now, and we can see if any of the books in the forbidden chamber have anything to say on the subject, and...we're going to have to do something about those Wen siblings. It would be easier if they would accept sanctuary, but..."
"If they do not... we need to know everything we can about their plans, about Wen Ruohan's plans. Perhaps we can still aid their sabotage of him in ways that will not be traced." He grimaces. "I don't like it. We are absolutely in our rights to imprison them there, but that would be an escalation."
Lan Zhan shakes her head fervently, turning pink. "Said she didn't look. Accident."
Wen Ying hadn't taken advantage of her at all. Not when Lan Zhan was naked in the springs and not even when Wen Ying landed directly on top of her (and their breasts touched), which -- shouldn't be disappointing or surprising. Why would another girl ever want her, no matter how compromising a position she found herself in?
"I would never suggest you do anything you weren't perfectly comfortable with and ready for, but--there are perfectly reasonable interpretations of the rules other than Uncle's," he says carefully. "The rule against promiscuity, for example--there are things in-between promiscuity and perfect absolute monogamy where you never touch your spouse before your wedding day. I wouldn't repeat that to Uncle, because Uncle--is wrong about many things as an extension of the way he's wrong about Mother."
"To a certain extent, that's something everyone has to figure out for themselves. But...I think the key is to ask yourself what something you're considering means. If it doesn't mean anything but fun, if it's just--like things you can do by yourself but with another person--I think that's the kind of thing the rule warns against. If what you're doing is more like a duet, or a sparring match, a good one, something where the other person matters and something beautiful happens, then that's fine."
In the end it won't really matter, because Wen Ying is not going to care for duets or sparring matches or - anything else, with Lan Zhan. Wen Ying needs to care. Lan Zhan definitely shouldn't be picturing anything that would require Wen Ying to care, because it is never going to happen.
She's blushing anyway.
Wen Ying continues excelling in class and hanging out with classmates who definitely don't hate her and taking walks, although now more of the walks are with people.
Slightly less than a week later, she approaches Lan Zhan again.
"This one was--wondering if you would be willing to provide library supervision again," she says. "Since supervision is required."
She smiles shyly. "Thank you."
This time she seems to want to do research on the history of the other sects in a way 0% informed by Wen Ruohan being terrible. Especially the Lan Sect. Since she already had that faux pas about Lan Yi. Definitely that reason and not any others.
Lots of historical Lan Sect information exists in the Lan library! Most of the information is about the history of rules, and arguments over the rules, and events that served as the inspiration for introducing new rules.
There are also books with stories of Lan heroes: scholars, warriors, philosophers. Characters of legend who sacrificed and suffered greatly to uphold their rules and values, etc. There are several books dedicated to Lan Yi and her time as Sect Leader. Her teachings, music, and innovations. Nothing to do with the Yin Iron is contained in this section of the library.
This one scroll on the sixth Sect Leader of the Gusu Lan has an illustration of his wedding.
Iiiiiiis that a forehead ribbon wrapped around his and the bride's wrists. WOW OKAY that's. That's something to bring up absolutely never.
The obsession with rules makes her want to giggle but she does not, that would be rude and she doesn't want to be rude. Not when Lan Zhan already has such good reason to dislike her, not when her infractions carry the shadow of Wen Chao's arrogance.
"Lan Yi really is amazing, Lan Zh--Lan-guniang. I had no idea," she says softly.
"Thank you so much!"
She has questions! Some of them have to do with rules--some of them she doesn't understand the purpose of and would like to--some of them have to do with perspectives on this or that historical event--some of them have to do with interpretations of unclear passages in the books.
They are all intelligent and many of them are insightful. (She's so earnest.)
She continues to address her as Lan-guniang. Sometimes she slips and almost calls her Lan Zhan before correcting herself.
Is this the duet? Is this the sparring match?
Lan Zhan wants -- more. Than this. She wants the duet to turn fiercer and closer and more tangible. She wants to touch.
She still doesn't know how to ask, or how to not-ask, and if she gets any more than this it might simply kill her. Maybe this is ideal.
Over the rest of the term, Wen Ying continues making careful, respectful overtures. Occasionally she requests an escort to the library; on several occasions she has a sheaf of talismans she invented that Wen Ruohan doesn't know about (they're quite good) or further thoughts on the wards, or similar practical items.
Explaining the situation to dajie would be awkward and she can't confront Lan Zhan about her feelings. But she can scream into a pillow in Jiang Yanli and Mianmian's company about it. It turns out that Jiang Yanli's soup is the BEST COMFORT FOOD EVER, WOW.
"Mianmian you're a genius."
Disguising her handwriting is tricky but doable. Composing the letter itself is harder. It ends up with a lot of flowery language, comparing her beauty to the moon, something something Chang'e the moon goddess, something something Tuyu the jade rabbit who helps her create the elixir of immortality, something something Twin Jades, something something strong cultivation immortality etcetera.
Sneaking it into the Jingshi without actually breaking any rules is the hardest part for sure though.
Lan Zhan is completely flustered by the note! It -- irritates her, to receive something so touching and flattering and nicely written in not Wen Ying's handwriting. It infuriates her that anyone else -- no, that anyone might have crept into the Jingshi to leave the letter there. This is not what she wanted from the universe.
But she must appreciate well-crafted poetry. The words of that letter could be woven into a gorgeous song, Lan Zhan decides, but only in Wen Ying's voice. She has no interest in hearing from any other admirers.
Still, she can't bring herself to discard the silly note. She tucks it neatly inside the wooden box beneath her bed and lays above it to swoon and mope over the actual object of her desires.
Fighting is prohibited in the Cloud Recesses. Sparring is not, and in fact sometimes is actively required in training students; they're supposed to be learning to be cultivators, after all, and cultivators night-hunt.
Not long before the end of term, Xichen arranges for Wen Ying and A-Zhan to be assigned as sparring partners.
Aaaaaaaa the betrayals never END.
Okay. That's fine. Lan Zhan is excellent at sparring. All she needs to do is beat Wen Ying very quickly and then she can go dunk her head under cold water and be fine.
She bows neatly to Wen Ying and then dives at her with Bichen, graceful and lightning-quick.
That's worse. Lan Zhan is burning, burning, burning --
This is good, is the problem, this is the most she's ever enjoyed or hated a sparring match in her life and it is perfect, Wen Ying is perfect and that is the problem. This makes her want too much.
The way they match each other and move so perfectly against each other. The perfect slender angle of Wen Ying's wrist as she wields the sword. The fire consuming Lan Zhan's body to its core, burning hotter every time their eyes touch. It is too much and it is too little and it is going to kill her. She wants, she wants, she wants.
The match goes on for a long time.
Eventually, though, Wen Ying pulls a trick involving reflecting the setting sun off the shiny edge of her blade, and in the fraction of a second that Lan Zhan is blinded, Wen Ying has her disarmed and on her butt.
"Yield," she says, breathing hard enough to do interesting things to her breasts, robes plastered to her body with sweat, the tip of her blade millimeters from Lan Zhan's nose.
That night there is a lanterns event. Students construct and paint lanterns in pairs. Wen Ying successfully schemes with Mianmian to pair up Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan and is about to suggest that they do theirs together when Mianmian almost physically throws her at Lan Zhan, who doesn't have a partner yet.
Lan Zhan focuses wholly on the lantern making and does not look at Wen Ying at all. She takes the precision of this lantern structure Very Seriously and will allow No Distractions.
There are brushes and ink set out for the disciples to use for decorating. Lan Zhan passes a brush to Wen Ying without looking at her.
All around, disciples clasp their hands together and make wishes.
Wen Qing closes her eyes. “I wish that my little brother could be safe and sound and my little sister could stay out of trouble more than she does and never be hurt. I wish I could look after them well their whole lives.”
"How dare you! Where are the manners in you inserting yourself into the Jiang Sect and Jin Sect's private affairs?" He scoffs and yanks his sleeves indignantly. "I have no interest in you speaking to me ever again!"
He storms off, Mianmian frowning and fluttering after him.
She follows him. "There's nothing unmannerly about defending my friend when someone is rude to her! Whatever issues you have with your parents arranging your marriage without consulting you, Jiang Yanli is a fine young lady and does not deserve your misplaced scorn!"
"Leave me alone!!! I don't care!!!"
He DOES care, but he hates this conversation so much and he hates having it in front of all these people even more and he hates tripping over his own tongue in front of Jiang-guniang like this and he wants it to be OVER. Zixuan turns on his heel and runs away from the group as fast as he can.
The talk is...more productive than it isn't. Everyone agrees that Someone Should Do Something about the Yin Iron, and maybe the Wens, but nobody except Nie Mingjue is all that enthusiastic about doing anything proactive about the latter, although everyone agrees to be on alert for Wen misbehavior. The Lans are given blanket permission to do whatever is necessary with the Yin Iron, which is...nice?
After having to deal with Sect Leader Jiang and Sect Leader Jin, (who are, in Nie Mingjue's words, "a spineless, conflict avoidant twit" and [swearwords redacted for lack of compliance with the rules of Cloud recesses] respectively) the two younger sect leaders/secret boyfriends/open friends retire to the Hanshi for tea and unofficial diplomacy (which, unlike its close counterpart, gossip, is not forbidden in the Cloud Recesses) and makeouts.
Lan Xichen tells Nie Mingjue about the three probably-not-evil Wens, and Nie Mingjue is skeptical until Lan Xichen fills him in on the details, at which point he agrees that there is at least a reasonable chance that they are non-evil as opposed to good actors, and also if so he likes the balls on Wen Ying (breaking through the wards and then handing over notes on it how to prevent that! Nice!)
Then makeouts go farther and there is much less discussion.
The next morning Nie Mingjue goes off to see if Baxia has any opinions on the Wens and Lan Xichen goes off to find his little sister and tell her she's going questing for Yin Iron apparently.
The vibe he gets from the Wen siblings is that you can trust or distrust them as a group but Wen Ying is the most proactive of them; if Lan Zhan wants to ask all three of them to come she's welcome to but Wen Qing might say no, whereas he's confident that if she approaches Wen Ying alone she'll say yes.
"I have been very assiduously preparing excuses. A couple of them involve murdering particularly loathsome retainers and hiding the bodies before we see Uncle. A different bunch involve me acquiring a handful of injuries for plausible deniability but I figured you would probably veto those."
Hmmm. All three of them are together, which makes plan: ask Wen Ying by herself somewhat more difficult. And if he tries to get her alone to ask her without her siblings around on purpose, she might figure it out and get suspicious of why.
Oh well. He approaches the three of them. "Wen-guniang. Wen-er-guniang. Wen-gongxi."
Headshake. "Thank you," he says, and leaves.
He informs A-Zhan that Wen Ying's siblings will be coming along after all and then goes to do sect leader things in his office.
That evening Wen Chao shows up to be an absolute creep, deliberately wiping his muddy boots on Lan Xichen's floor, and making various ominous threats if the Lan Sect doesn't turn over their piece of Yin Iron. It's very upsetting but while Xichen doesn't have his little sister's omnipresent poker face he can do a good one when he needs to.
On the plus side, nothing he says indicates that he knows any of the MANY things Wen Ying would probably have told him if she was untrustworthy, and while Wen Ying is plausibly smart enough to be a good actor, Wen Chao is not.
Wen Ying has to get up in the middle of the night and go outside when she senses something wrong so that Wen Chao will only be a creep at her and not her siblings. He questions her loyalty; she questions his intelligence and threatens to blame him for the failure of the whole operation if he blows her cover. He departs.
She doesn't sleep well for the remainder of the night.
And when they pass through the gates Wen Ying grins and rolls her shoulders and does a cartwheel and yells whatever the ancient Chinese equivalent of "OLLY-OLLY-ENFREE!" is.
"No more rules," she says, bouncing on her toes and grinning at Lan Zhan. "I tell you, it's a lot less obnoxious to have to obey way too many rules than to have to step lightly around Wen Ruohan's idiot ego but it was still starting to chafe."
Nod. It's good to be careful, although Lan Zhan is indignant that Wen Ying thinks she would just allow the Yin Iron to compel her towards its bidding.
It not a very long walk downhill from Cloud Recesses to Caiyi Town. As they move through the cheery town streets towards Biling Lake, they will pass many vendors selling food, trinkets, and alcohol.
It is pretty sad that the bunnies aren't supposed to be kept as pets.
Although. Lan Zhan doesn't thing there was anything wrong with moving the bunnies to a nice warm forrest. That isn't keeping them as pets, necessarily, when there are no rules against animals living in Cloud Recesses by themselves.
And maybe she feeds them sometimes but they aren't dependent on her for food, which a real pet might be.
And they are really really cute and good.
"Uh, Wen Chao broke into Cloud Recesses last night to creep on me and your older brother about the Yin Iron, and I'm pretty sure that thing is his." She shifts uncomfortably, having hoped to leave her siblings in the dark about why she hadn't slept well the night before.
"We were busy getting ready to leave in the morning! Uh, he said he'd warned Zewu-jun that he'd better hand over the Yin Iron or...something unpleasant might happen to Lan Zhan. And, uh, that I had better be willing to do what he said if he decided to follow through on that threat. I said I had the situation in hand and what was the point of having undercover agents if you were just going to blow their covers when you felt like it and that if my mission failed because he was clumsy at it I was going to put the whole thing at his feet in front of his father."
The bird appears several more times over a period of hours, but never causes them any trouble directly.
It gets dark before the Yin Iron is satisfied with their progress. After the first dozen stars become visible, Lan Zhan steers over to the riverbank to set up camp.
Everyone helps set up camp.
When everything is set up and they're all seated around a merrily crackling fire, Wen Ying draws a jar of alcohol and a set of cups out of her sleeves and starts pouring, handing a cup to each of her siblings.
She hesitates over a fourth cup.
"Do you want some, Lan Zhan? We're not in Cloud Recesses right now, and it seems like a shame to grow up your whole life so close to such a famous specialty without ever trying it."
She pats Lan Zhan's cheek and puts the wine away in her sleeve.
"No more alcohol tonight, though, if something else does manage to go horribly wrong it's the most likely and if I do manage to get drunk jiejie will be disappointed with me." She attempts to tug Lan Zhan back up into a sitting position. "Maybe I won't tease you, it's not like you could anticipate this either. Probably. I will have some questions for Zewu-jun later."
Lan Zhan does not notice any obnoxious birds. She is floating in Wen Ying's lap, the world light and easy all around her. This is the most comfortable she's ever been, probably. Wen Ying is beautiful like the sun and moon, and hairpets are excellent.
oh no why has the hairpetting stopped oh NO. UNACCEPTABLE.
Lan Zhan nudges against Wen Ying's hands like a needy cat.
She wakes at dawn with her face tucked against something soft and warm.
Lan Zhan stiffens in shock. She backs away slowly, staring at -- skin, and then someone's neck, and then -- Wen Ying's sleeping face.
She releases her and scoots three feet away across the tent in a single instant, gasping. What happened??? How -- she doesn't remember. She doesn't remember last night at all, not after -- the fire, and Wei Ying's lips, and wine.
Oh god how did this happen what did she do? What does she do. Wen Ying's hair smells so nice she cannot survive it.
Okay. Okay. She will just - meditate, until Wen Ying awakes, as she often does in mornings. Whether Wen Ying is snuggling her and making endearing noises or not is Completely Immaterial.
"You got drunk in seconds on one cup of wine. Qing-jie is the best doctor ever and she was baffled. You were completely out of it, you couldn't sit up straight and when nine o'clock came and you decided it was time for bed you walked off in a random direction. I had to grab you and pull you to your tent and then you wouldn't let go of me."
It's fine. They don't need to discuss it.
Working all together, the campsite gets packed up quite quickly. They set off downriver again as the sun crests bright over the hills.
Hours later, they reach a sharp bend in the river. The Yin Iron still wants to travel onward straight ahead, southwest. Lan Zhan guides the boat to dock, and they can continue through grassy meadows on foot.
Wen Ying starts walking to follow her, not so suddenly that Nie-gongxi will have to exert himself to catch up. "Lan Zhan has sect stuff. I'm tagging along, and then Qing-jie didn't super want me unsupervised and of course we couldn't send A-Ning back to Qishan alone."
She hesitates, assessing, and shakes her head. “Close.”
She doesn’t believe the Yin Iron fragment is close enough to be in this square, but possibly whatever phenomenon the crowd has gathered around could be related. Brother said that the fragments would be stored in places of great positive spiritual power to keep them contained.
"You don't know? The seclusive Lady Florist has put up an invitation, welcoming all cultivators to her mansion up in the hills for a poetry competition. Any cultivator who is worthy -- who is especially elegant and versed in poetry, has the opportunity to be greeted by the Lady Florist in person!"
"Hmm, I remember that I read about her in 'Lady Florist and the Flower Phantom'," he muses, fanning himself. "In a beautiful garden in Tanzhou lives a lady florist, who often recites poems by moonlight. Anyone whose poems move her will be granted a magical flower. The flower lasts three years, and its aroma lasts forever..."
"Oh, it's, you know, something to pass the time. Nobody needs to know as much about flowers as I've figured out," she laughs softly.
She leads them to a receiving room with a table and pours everyone tea. The tea is very fragrant and might smell just a little bit like some of the flowers.
"Now. Tell me everything that's happened so far."
Wen Ying considers that she and Lan Zhan are the ones who were around for most of what happened at Cloud Recesses, and considers Lan Zhan's taciturn nature, and the fact that she was around for the incident on the mountain all those years ago, and launches into an expository narrative that catches the Flower Lady up with everything anyone who's reading this thread would know.
"Alright. Follow me. You can bring your tea if you haven't finished it."
She leads them to a garden at the center of the complex.
Walking up to the single largest bloom in the place, she extends her hand, and the piece of Yin Iron materializes above the flower and then floats over to hover above her hand.
"If you've lied to me--about anything important, I won't care if I somehow learn that there weren't actually bunnies in that cave--I will hunt you down and make you regret it," she says levelly. "Clear?"