The morning dawns clear and cold in the Cloud Recesses. Yet more snow has fallen through the night, leaving the grounds swathed in a pristine blanket of white that sparkles faintly in the weak, yellow sunlight. On most such mornings, Lan Qiren would enjoy meditating out in the small courtyard near his quarters, breathing deeply of the crisp, clean air and letting the soft winter tranquility soothe his mind. His mind desperately needs soothing. But he fears he is in no fit state for meditation.
He stirs his porridge for the third time, sets the utensil back in his bowl without eating a bite again. Lan Guihong, wrapped warmly in thick blankets despite the lit braziers in the room and under strict orders to have someone come and escort him back to the healer’s pavilion if he feels tired or starts coughing again, watches him over the rim of his teacup. The man looks entirely too amused for the turmoil that has been churning through Lan Qiren’s heart since yesterday afternoon.
“I can assure you it’s quite dead if that is what you are worried about, old friend,” he says after Lan Qiren goes to stir the porridge for a fourth time. He sets his tea cup down and levels a searching look at Lan Qiren’s face. “And as much as I enjoy your company, I assume you didn’t ask me here to watch you glare your breakfast into submission.”
Lan Qiren goes to stir his bowl again, pauses, and sits back with a sigh. “No,” he admits, stroking his beard. “No, I did not.” He pushes his uneaten breakfast—wasteful, some part of him automatically chides—aside and laces his fingers together on the table, tapping his fingers lightly. “I was…shown something yesterday, my friend. And I find myself unsure what to do about it.”
Slowly, steadily, Lan Qiren recounts the entire story. Finding that the novice disciples have apparently been going to someone other than their regular teachers for extra help with their lessons the past few days. Lan Sizhui’s impassioned plea for Lan Qiren to stay and listen to the impromptu practice session. The success the students seemed to be having—even young Lan Xin. The competence and thoroughness with which the children were taught, evident even in such a short time. By the time he is done, Lan Guihong is smiling and nodding, an excited gleam twinkling in his eyes.
“But this is wonderful news!” he exclaims when Lan Qiren is done speaking. “I agree, Lan Fang is an excellent instructor, but I had some reservations about putting him with such young children…if this disciple is as well-suited as you say, I would like to speak with them immediately.”
“Not so fast. This person—they are not a disciple of the Lan clan. Not as such.”
Lan Guihong deflates somewhat. “A visiting disciple of one of the other clans? A shame. Still, perhaps they might be willing to assist with instruction until a suitable replacement can be found. I will, of course, resume my duties as soon as I can if necessary, but…well. The heart is extremely willing, but I fear it may not be as strong as it once was. The children deserve someone who can keep up with them. Perhaps I could write to this disciple’s sect leader?”
Lan Qiren closes his eyes, and braces himself. “Also unnecessary. It is not a disciple, Lan Guihong. It was Wei Wuxian.”
Lan Guihong does not react with the horror Lan Qiren was half-hoping for—horror and condemnation that would have immediately absolved him of even having to think about the possibility that has been swirling in his mind ever since he left the practice rooms yesterday. He does not react with confusion or denial. His reaction is not any of the half-dozen or so that Lan Qiren has imagined. His old friend, the venerated and respectable teacher that has been a steadfast pillar of their clan and sect for almost a century, leans forward and strokes his chin, a frown further furrowing his wrinkled brow.
“Huh,” he says thoughtfully. “I can’t say I was expecting that. But now I wonder that I didn’t consider it myself.”
For a single, dumbfounded moment, Lan Qiren does a remarkable impression of a fish pulled from the water.
“Should have…should have considered…why would you think of that menace?! Teaching? Here?!”
Lan Guihong has the audacity to chuckle at him. “Drink your tea, Qiren, lest you have our esteemed head healer in here checking your meridians again.”
Lan Qiren sputters. There is no other word for it. He sputters and hisses like an over-boiling tea kettle, and Lan Guihong just smiles at him serenely. Lan Qiren is not fooled. He has the distinct impression that were excessive displays not forbidden in dozens and dozens of forms, Lan Guihong would be cackling at him like a hen. When he calms, the old man’s face turns serious, and he focuses contemplative eyes on his tea.
“You said Lan Xin was successful in the candle exercise, with Young Master Wei?” he says. His voice quiet and paper thin, some emotion Lan Qiren cannot name running through it.
“Yes,” he replies, and Lan Guihong’s shoulders drop.
“I’d nearly given up on the boy,” he says, turning the tea cup round and round on the table. “My most tried and true methods, my best lectures, nothing seemed to help. I had begun to wonder if I was wrong about his potential.”
Lan Qiren frowns, though not without sympathy. “From what you and Lan Fang have said, that was the consensus from all of the instructors.”
“And yet, he has apparently gained something approaching proficiency in just a few days under Young Master Wei’s tutelage. Which tells me it’s not a question of potential, it is a question of instruction. There was a time when I would not have missed that.” He looks up at Lan Qiren, a sad smile on his weathered face.
“Your service and dedication to the youth of this sect is beyond reproach,” Lan Qiren says fervently.
“And part of that service and dedication is acknowledging that I can no longer do so to the best of my ability.” He smiles again. “I am an old man, dear friend, and I am ready to retire to an old man’s life. I look forward to it.”
Silence falls over the table as Lan Guihong takes a few bites of his own meal. Lan Qiren pours them yet more tea and stares into the steam gently wafting from the cups as though it holds the answers to the universe. After a time, Lan Guihong tilts his head, his sharp eyes catching Lan Qiren’s with a knowing glint.
“Why did you wish to speak to me this morning? Were you truly so hopeful that I would immediately forbid you from entrusting my students to Young Master Wei?”
Lan Qiren shifts, uncomfortable under the old teacher’s amused gaze, but finally nods. “It would make my life easier,” he mutters, shaking his head. “I realize I am not the most…objective…when it comes to him.”
Lan Guihong’s expression gentles. “You have reason. We all do, in truth. Make no mistake, I am not ignoring the young man’s past misdeeds.”
“And yet, you are not immediately forbidding me from entrusting your students to him.”
Lan Guihong nods thoughtfully, tapping his chin with one finger. “If you truly believed Wei Wuxian was a danger to anyone in the Cloud Recesses he would not be here, Qiren. Regardless of your nephew’s wants and wishes. Your service and dedication to our sect is beyond reproach as well. I know that.”
“Just because I do not believe he will start raising an army of the dead in the Orchid Room does not mean I think him a virtuous person.”
“And yet, you are considering allowing him to teach our novice classes—a position that requires virtue, as well as skill and knowledge.” Lan Guihong does not bother to hide his chuckle. “Forgive me, my friend, but your face. No one ever speaks of how burdensome honor and practicality can be, do they? You know you have an answer to our dilemma and yet it is not an answer you wish to have.”
“It is Wei Wuxian,” Lan Qiren grits out. “How can he be the answer to anything? A man who spurned the righteous path, who is antithetical to everything the disciplines of Gusu Lan stand for!”
Lan Guihong’s face grows solemn again. “Qiren…a man who never strays from righteousness is deserving of praise and admiration. As is a man who knows the temptation of evil, and resisted. Yet, I would argue that a man who gave in to those temptations, and yet found the strength to turn back is no less worthy.” He pauses, staring off into a point somewhere over Lan Qiren’s shoulder. “Your nephews’ generation had their youth stolen from them…whatever choices were made in the throes of war, I have no way of knowing if I would have chosen differently. And with what we’ve since learned about Jin Guangyao—” He trails off, shaking his head. For a moment, he looks even older than he is, his skin as thin and translucent as paper, his eyes sad. “These last decades have seen rivers of innocent blood soak our lands, Qiren. And the hands of the Yiling Patriarch are not the only ones stained with it. Perhaps it is time we were all allowed to move on.”
They finish their meal in quiet, thoughtful silence.