“What,” Lan Qiren kept his tone carefully even as he stared at the two boys, “is that?”
He had headed for the seclusion cottages as soon as he’d received word that Zhan-zhizi had returned, worry and fury filling him in equal measure. His nephew was too injured to be moving and to think that now, of all times, he would continue to flaunt their edicts, to defy their council…. Qingheng-Jun’s blood may have been resting quietly, but now it was becoming apparent just how true his brother’s blood ran through his nephew’s veins.
But he didn’t know what he had expected-
“Shushu-” his older nephew started, before trailing off and glancing at his younger brother and the dirty toddler he held. “He’s sick.”
They would deal with that in a moment. If the child hadn’t succumbed to his illness after being dragged back from Yiling --a three days journey at speed and Lan Qiren knew that his younger nephew had not been moving at speed. He shouldn’t have been moving at all!-- then he would keep for another few minutes.
“Mine,” Zhan-zhízi said, sitting up carefully, staring at him before glancing at the boy. “A Lan.”
“Absolutely not,” Lan Qiren refused instantly. As though he didn’t realize who the boy must be. “He’ll be returning to his mother.” Not that his mother was alive, but he would see what lies his nephew would spin now. “Or if she cannot be found, then he’ll be given to a local woman. Plenty of them have lost sons.”
And he would not have a Wen in his family. Not the child of the sect that had murdered his brother, maimed and kidnapped his nephew, razed his home, and sent his other nephew fleeing for the hills with only what he could carry on his back. No. Some things were asking too much. He was a child, and so Lan Qiren would not insist on execution, but he would not have him in his home.
“He could be given into the larger clan,” Huan-zhizi said after a moment, clearly trying to diffuse the tension. “Our numbers-”
“Are not that low,” Lan Qiren said shortly. “Breaking of the rules does not merit reward. And the child will do better with a family, given the circumstances.” He turned his attention back to Lan Zhan, an ache pulling in his shoulders from the tension he had not been able to release fully in years. “And you are in no position to care for a child, especially one with the amount of trauma this one will have. You are barely in any position to care for yourself as you’ve demonstrated - you have no business assuming yourself capable of ensuring a safe and proper upbringing for another human being.”
“Stay with you,” Zhan-zhizi said after a moment, blinking unclouded eyes despite the pain seeping into his mien.
“You dare-” Lan Qiren took a calming breath. He should not raise his voice. He should not- “I will not.”
Huan-zhizi frowned, anxiety sparking in his eyes. “Shushu, surely-”
“I will not,” he repeated firmly, strangling inappropriately uncontrolled impulses - his composure was wearing thin with the exhaustion and stress, “allow your brother to become your father. This sort of absolutely selfish behavior - do you expect me to put more of my life on hold in order to compensate for his mistakes?” He turned his attention to his younger nephew. “To cater to your whims so that you can do what you like without consequences to yourself? I do not have time - we have just had the funerals of nearly five hundred of our own that were killed by the man that you severely crippled our leadership over! I have my own son, who deserves to have my time, and the duties of the thirty-three elders injured by your hand!”
“Do you feel the need to care for their children?” Lan Qiren asked stridently. “For your cousins, whose parents died because of that child’s relatives?” He pointed at the boy, who was still glassy eyed and feverish - the healers next, before the boy was rehomed. “Or the ones who were killed by the man that you’re obsessed with!”
His nephew’s face was a stone mask, all his brother’s worst stubbornness laid out before Lan Qiren, in the form of the boy he had raised. Huan-zhizi’s eyes had widened slightly, but he said nothing, still looking between his brother and uncle.
“No. I will not. The boy is better off being dissociated from you entirely,” he said, forcing calm back into his voice. “Your reputation will do him no favors.” Traitor, betrayer - different words for the same sin. “Just as it has now done your brother no favors.”
Zhan-zhizi’s head finally cocked to the side at that so at least he cared about someone still besides the dead Wei Wuxian. “Every,” Lan Qiren said icily, because he had not yet managed to speak to Huan-zhizi about this, “marriage proposal that had been set out for you both has been refused. Politely, and with great regret. But you have proven that the blood of your father ran true. No one will risk such selfishness in their own children. We are lucky that I am already married and that I have had a child. That your aunt, who you have shamed as well, is willing to remain.”
Nevermind that she had had little to do with the boys’ raising, having only married him once Huan-zhizi was of age, but the stain was there. “Your cousin too, who now will be watched by all, did you think of his future either?” His child, who would need to now work to overcome the stigma of what his cousin had done on top of his late uncle’s actions, who would need to be incredibly careful of which outside friends he chose to make - for him there would be no Nie Mingjue or Jin Guangyao, for fear of them being a Wei Wuxian in disguise.
Huan-zhizi sucked in a sharp breath, shifting slightly. He hadn’t - of course he hadn’t. They would not have thought of the consequences. Why would they have? They were young, they had spent the last three years thinking they would die by the end of the week. They had too much of their father in them.
“All of them?” Huan-zhizi asked, shifting the boy he had just taken from his brother’s exhausted grasp. “Surely-”
He had been creating a tentative friendship with one girl, Lan Qiren knew, anger burning brighter. “All of them,” he repeated harshly. “Her father and uncle are both dead by Wei Wuxian’s hand. Her mother does not want her sharing a roof with the man who protected their murderer from justice and she has entered the three years of mourning. As have many, many more of your peers.”
Lan Qiren took a breath, anger leaving only a bone deep tiredness behind. “No. I will not raise the boy. I will not ask it of any of the sect who have lost family. Better he be given to a farmer and live an ordinary life before dying quietly.” The best and safest outcome. If his nephew was so determined, he could watch the boy’s adopted family from afar, provide for them so that there was food on the table.
Zhan-zhizi stared blankly at him before he managed, “Mine. I promised.”
“You have broken many promises and obligations over the last weeks,” Lan Qiren countered bitterly. “Why should this one be any different?”
His nephew looked like he was struggling, trying to come up with something, before looking to his brother in appeal. Huan-zhizi looked at him and then the boy, before looking at Lan Qiren. “Surely something-”
Huan-zhizi trailed off as Lan Qiren’s jaw clenched. It was his brother, standing before the elders, defiantly telling the world that she would not be punished, that their teacher would go unavenged, that justice would be denied to their teacher’s students, his family. Now again, another generation, standing between someone they loved and justice. Understandable in a boy, inexcusable in a sect leader.
But he had raised Huan-zhizi to protect and look after his brother, to keep him safe and teach him well. Was that the failing? That he had placed too much on his oldest nephew at such a young age? Should he have somehow taken even more of a hand in raising the boys? Was it even truly a fault on Huan-zhizi’s part or was it inexperience? Yet another effect of spending so much of the early days of their adulthood in a war where the consequences were so clear and so devastating and all so much more short-term than life usually presented itself as when other complex decisions must be made?
He didn’t know. But he did know the set of Zhan-zhizi’s jaw, the glint in his eye. If he said no, if he fought this, in three years time Zhan-zhizi would find the boy and bring him back, the boy’s new placement and happiness be damned.
“Very well,” Lan Qiren said finally, tasting the ash of bone-deep disappointment in his mouth. “I will allow you, Huan-dazi, to sponsor the boy’s entry into the family and registers. But he will never inherit and neither will his descendents after him and you will publicly sign forms to that regard. You will find a woman that has not been affected by the atrocity caused by his family or the Yiling Patriarch to rear him, since your brother will not. You will be involved in his upbringing - your brother cannot be trusted to hold true to the rules of the sect or to instill filial loyalty.”
“As for your payment for this, Hánguāng-jūn, given that this is a compromise rather than a reward so you will cease spitting in the family’s face,” he said, emphasizing the title, little as it applied now. “You will also not inherit, nor your children after you, adopted or otherwise, though I suspect this is one more filial duty you will fail to meet, leaving it solely to your brother and I. You will no longer be teaching the younger sect members - that honor and responsibility will be elsewhere.” His gaze went to the boy. “You may see him for a half day, once a month. And you will have no other claim on him - he will be solely the responsibility of the woman who’s care he is placed in. And should she marry, her husband will have first rights to the boy.”
His nephew’s mouth tightened, but while he was not a murderer, he had perhaps done the more heinous crime of protecting one. The punishment should fit the crime and Lan Qiren would not allow anything less. And the child could have had a happy childhood, with a family, a new start in an anonymous hamlet somewhere. But his nephew insisted on keeping him here, forever tying the boy to this stain on his nephew’s honor.
His gaze went to both of them. “And you will both be paying for the child’s upkeep. This is an expense and an effort that she might otherwise not have taken - you have curtailed another sect member’s life plans and goals to keep the boy close and she will be treated with the utmost of courtesy and respect.”
Unlike what they had expected of him.
“Those are the terms,” he said, done with all of this. He wanted to see his wife and son. He wanted a soothing tea and a quiet room. He wanted away from his nephews. “If you don’t agree, the boy will be gone within the hour.” He would have the boy treated, of course, but Lan Qiren would ensure that there was no record of where the boy had gone to. His nephew may search, but he wouldn’t find him.
“Yes, shushu,” Huan-zhizi said, after a moment. “I’ll take him to the infirmary and have him treated for the fever.”
“Before you go, a-Huan,” Lan Qiren said flatly. “Your brother will apologize for the wrongs that he has done you - both in staining your leadership of the sect with this scandal and the ruinations of your chances for marriage.”
Zhan-zhizi’s jaw clenched before he lowered his head. “I apologize for the inconvenience I have caused my elder brother. It was not my intention.”
It was barely an acknowledgement of the wrongs done. There wasn’t an ounce of regret in the boy. But his older nephew needed to know that there was wrong done to him, needed to have that acknowledged.
“You,” Lan Qiren said finally, as he was leaving, “are every bit your father’s son.”
And that pill was the bitterest to swallow, for nephews they were but he had thought of them as his.