Lan Qiren knew his disciples had theories, that they suspected the increment of the rules from 2,000 to 3,000 had been in part due to Wei Wuxian, and then Wangji. There were other theories too, mostly about him. That Lan Qiren was so strict, that he hated to see his disciples having fun to such a degree that every time he saw them following the rules and having fun, he just put up new rules. That Professor Qiren was actually a sadist, he loved dishing out punishments.
There were theories that in another few years, there would be 4,000 and then 5,000 rules. The disciples would be forbidden to even breathe without being punished. Fingers had been pointed at every single person who resided in the Cloud Recesses, had lived there in the past, or had even stepped foot there.
Everyone from Jin Guangyao to Nie Huaisang was a suspect. Even the deceased Jin Guangshan and Nie Mingjue. Although what they may have done remained unclear. And some of the theories, Lan Qiren would rather not listen to.
There were only two exceptions. Two people who the figurative finger had not been pointed at, and those just happened to be the two people most responsible for the addition of an extra thousand rules to the Gusu Lan sect. Sect Leader Jiang and his nephew.
Lan Qiren had known Jiang Wanyin since long before he had begun to attend lectures at the Cloud Recesses. He still remembered a tiny Jiang Cheng toddling towards his father during their meetings held in Lotus Pier. Jiang Cheng had been an adorable child, truly kind and well-mannered. This had been before Wei Wuxian had become a part of their family.
Lan Qiren had been to Lotus Pier only once after Wei Wuxian had begun to stay there. He remembered walking along the docks, hearing the laughs and shouts of threats of two voices in a distance, until one of them had knocked into him.
“Who are you?” the bushy haired kid had asked, with curiosity and a smile that could melt the coldest of hearts.
He had been nudged by his brother, elbowed in the stomach, and that was when Lan Qiren had laid his eyes on Jiang Cheng again. He had grown taller, not a tiny child anymore, but still a kid, and he’d had a hand placed on his mouth, to muffle his laughter and cover up any signs of a smile.
“That’s Sect Leader Lan,” Jiang Cheng had whispered, “You need to bow to him, and you can’t be so rude. You need to be more polite when you ask people that.”
With that explanation, Jiang Cheng had bowed dutifully in front of Lan Qiren, and bushy-haired kid had followed.
“And who might you be?” Lan Qiren had asked the bushy haired kid, although he’d had an inkling of who he might be.
“I am Wei Wuxian, Sect Leader Lan. The son of Wei Changze and Cangse Sanren.” The kid had bowed again respectfully, and Lan Qiren had immediately decided to forgive him for being rude earlier.
Lan Qiren had nodded his head and patted Wei Wuxian’s head. “I used to know your mother.”
Wei Wuxian had blinked, brightened up at that response. “You did?”
Lan Qiren had nodded, but before he’d had a chance to respond, Jiang Fengmian had called out to him. He had turned back to the boys only to notice that the boys had continued to run and chase after each other, their conversation with him already forgotten.
The next time Lan Qiren had met Jiang Cheng had been during the lectures held in the Cloud Recesses. He had been just as polite, kind-hearted, and obedient as he had been during his childhood. But even then, Lan Qiren had spotted the streak of independence in him that was needed to become Sect Leader, as well as an emotional sensitivity that Lan Qiren hadn’t expected to come from the boy.
Most people who had seen the two brothers roaming around had identified Wei Wuxian as the independent soul, as the more emotionally sensitive of the two, but they had been wrong. Lan Qiren had known better, having had to keep an observing eye on the two teens during their time at the Cloud Recesses because he had known that Wei Wuxian tended to get himself into trouble.
Lan Qiren had known even then that it had been Jiang Cheng who had been the more independent one of the two, who had carried the burden of being a future sect leader with ease, as though the title had belonged to him and he could be willing to put in the hard work required to deserve it. He had been the more emotionally sensitive of the two, always wanting and working to keep his family together and out of trouble, always getting into trouble because of it, but also staying happy because of them.
Lan Qiren had always admired the boy. He had achieved the impossible and become the kind of sect leader that Lan Qiren was sure his parents would have been proud of. So when it had finally been time for Sect Leader Jiang’s first visit to the Cloud Recesses after it had been newly built, after the unfortunate deaths of his sister, brother, and brother-in-law, Lan Qiren had only hoped for the same kind of behaviour to carry on then, but he could not have been more wrong.
All cups, and most of the rest of the utensils kept in the Cloud Recesses were glass, and hence, quite easily breakable. If Lan Qiren had been able to see the future, or atleast sense it, then he most certainly would have carved the rule out on stone a lot earlier.
After greeting all of the rest of the sect leaders who had arrived for the discussion conference in the Cloud Recesses, as well as Lan Qiren himself, and Xichen, Sect Leader Jiang, who would always be Jiang Cheng to Lan Qiren, sat down in his assigned seat for the conference. Lan Qiren shouldn’t blame himself, it wasn’t his fault, nobody could have foreseen it, and yet, Lan Qiren thought to himself that he really should have known better. He truly should have known better than to give Sect Leader Jiang the most delicate and pristine glass-made cutlery.
He had heard of Jiang Wanyin’s reputation as Sect Leader Jiang and the Sandu Shengshou. He was known to have a short temper and to use his whip on the daily. Lan Qiren had thought nothing of it, and he still thought nothing of it until 25 minutes into the conference. Sect Leader Jiang and his disciples sat next to Nie Huaisang, who had just newly been appointed as sect leader, with his disciples.
Sect Leader Jiang was holding a porcelain cup when it happened. Exactly 25 minutes into the discussion conference, Sect Leader Yao opened his mouth and spout out an incomprehensible amount of trash. Before anyone could even hope to react to Sect Leader Yao and his words, a clear ‘crack’ing sound was heard, and echoed throughout the silence of the discussion hall.
As the sound slowly tapered off, Lan Qiren registered that the crack had sounded suspiciously like the breaking of one of the cups from his favourite porcelain cup set. His eyes surveyed the hall and came to rest on the person responsible for the cracking noise. Sect Leader Jiang held the broken shard of the remainder of the porcelain cup, glaring at Sect Leader Yao hard, with Zidian unfurling and flaring up at his side, a pure purple colour that matched his robes perfectly.
All eyes were on Sect Leader Jiang, as though expecting an outburst, but all Lan Qiren could think of was how his porcelain cup set would now be incomplete. Turning to one of his disciples, he ushered them in closer and told them to get Sect Leader Jiang another porcelain cup.
Sect Leader Nie blew his fan into his face as he looked at Sect Leader Jiang with amusement in his eyes. If they had still been teens, Lan Qiren would have taken that as a sure sign than Nie Huaisang was up to his usual mischief. A Lan disciple bowed down to Sect Leader Jiang and replaced his broken cup with a second one.
It was another hour into the conference, when Wangji, who had recently come out of seclusion, and been persuaded by his brother to attend the conference, spoke that it happened again. Another crack.
Wangji had spoken out against a point that Sect Leader Jiang had made, one that Lan Qiren had personally agreed with and hadn’t known any solid reason for Wangji to speak up against. Lan Qiren hoped he was hallucinating, seeing, and hearing things that were not really happening. He wished that the cup in Sect Leader Jiang’s hand, his second porcelain cup, was not really broken, into precious porcelain shards. Again.
“Bring him another one,” Lan Qiren demanded from another disciple. Break another one, Lan Qiren dared Jiang Wanyin internally. Break another one and I’ll make this into a rule and carve it into the stone with my own hands.
Everything had been going well. Lan Qiren had been happy that the conference was about to end. The conference was about to end, when Sect Leader Ouyang called out to Sect Leader Jiang and asked him about the marriage proposals. The marriage proposals Sect Leader Jiang stopped receiving because he had been blacklisted by all matchmakers. Everyone knew about this.
Lan Qiren’s heart stopped beating. Cold sweat broke out across his forehead. He was only seconds away from thrashing Sect Leader Ouyang with his flute. He was milliseconds away from qi-deviating on the spot. Jiang Wanyin was holding Lan Qiren’s third and last replaceable cup. His favourite, most precious—
The crack that resounded through the halls was one that Lan Qiren felt in his chest as his heart broke. Along with his last and only porcelain cup.
Lan Qiren clenched his fists around his flute before he roared. “That is it! All of you, out!”
Everyone’s attention shifted from Jiang Wanyin to Lan Qiren, startled by the fury and rage they saw on his face and the tenseness in his posture. Even Xichen and Wangji blinked.
“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Qiren’s voice lowered and softened only slightly. “You stay.”
Jiang Wanyin looked like a deer in the headlights as he nodded and was forced to stay. Lan Qiren spotten Nie Huaisang mouthing a ‘good luck’ to Sect Leader Jiang, but when he realised that Lan Qiren had seen him say it, he sheepishly smiled at him, hiding his face behind his fan, and quickly walking away.
Lan Qiren gave him a two-hours lecture where he told Sect Leader Jiang exactly how he had come across the porcelain cups and how he had acquired them, how they had been so precious to Lan Qiren because they had been one of a kind, how Jiang Wanyin had broken three of the those cups in a span of just a few hours, and how now, Lan Qiren had three less porcelain cups than he'd had before their conference had started.
After his lecture ended, Jiang Wanyin profusely apologized for what he had done, and maybe Lan Qiren might have a bit of a soft spot for the boy because his heart immediately melted at the sincerity he saw in the Sect Leader’s features. Still, he wasn’t going to let it go so easily. He had made a promise to himself, and he intended to keep it.
Accepting Jiang Wanyin’s apology and resisting the urge to pat him lightly on the back as he had done often in the past, Lan Qiren let the Sect Leader go. He had no doubts that Sect Leader Nie would hear about all of this in great detail.
The next day, all of the disciples of the Cloud Recesses, and Lan Qiren’s own nephews, watched as Lan Qiren stood near the large block of stone where all of their rules were written, and began carving another one. It had been decades, hundreds of years since rules had been added to the stone, but there Lan Qiren was, carving out a new one.
‘No breaking of any cups or utensils shall take place in the Cloud Recesses, porcelain, glass or otherwise. It is forbidden!’
The next time Sect Leader Jiang visited the Cloud Recesses, he came with his nephew. Jin Ling was a little toddler, barely out of the crib, and he had clearly just learned how to walk. His tiny hand tightly clasped onto Jiang Wanyin’s fingers, walking unstably towards Lan Qiren, and Lan Qiren mused on how similar he looked to the tiny Jiang Cheng he had seen during his visits to Lotus Pier. He’d had that same expression of determination and a slight frown set into his features as Jin Ling did now, as if all of the kid’s concentration was going into putting one step in front of the other.
Jin Ling toddled around the room where the meeting was taking place, blubbering, and chattering nonsensical syllables with his mouth as he did so. Jiang Wanyin looked as though he wanted to pay attention to the meeting, and he was, but Lan Qiren found his eyes wandering over to his nephew every few minutes.
The meeting seemed to be commencing smoothly, there was not a single breakable cup or any other utensil in Lan Qiren’s sight, when suddenly there was a slight knocking sound. Lan Qiren didn’t pay any attention to it and neither did Jiang Wanyin, but his head whipped around sharply as Jin Ling’s cry cut through the air.
“Jiujiu!” The toddler cried. He was sitting on the floor, his hands holding a bleeding knee. Jiang Wanyin reached his nephew before Lan Qiren could even blink.
“What happened, A-Ling? Who did this to you?” Jiang Wanyin roughly pulled Jin Ling into a hug, glaring at everybody present in the room with them.
Jin Ling sniffled and pointed to somewhere in the room. Within the span of another one of Lan Qiren’s blinks, Jiang Wanyin stood in front of the offending object with Zidian slowly unfurling from the ring on his finger. Lan Qiren stopped breathing for a moment. The object Jiang Wanyin stood in front of was an enormous flower vase that had been gifted to Lan Qiren by a close friend from another sect. A friend who was now dead, of course.
Lan Qiren knew what was about to happen, but he still thought not the vase, not that vase, please not the—
Jiang Wanyin whipped Zidian and the beautiful vase shattered into numerous pieces, almost unrecognizable now. Lan Qiren willed himself to take deep breaths. It was fine. Everything was—
“There you go, A-Ling,” Jiang Wanyin spoke. “Your jiujiu destroyed the vase, okay? Are you alright now?”
Jin Ling made grabby hands at his jiujiu and the Sect Leader walked over and scooped Jin Ling into his arms in one smooth motion.
“Don’t worry, A-Ling. Your jiujiu will always protect you and never let any harm come to you. He will whip anyone who tries to hurt you with Zidian,” Jiang Wanyin added, and let his threat hang and spread in the silence of the room.
Lan Qiren felt the start of a headache creep up on the edges of his consciousness.
Two more rules were carved in after that incident.
‘The use of Zidian or any similar weapons is prohibited in the Cloud Recesses.’
‘Breaking of any object or damages to any object is strictly prohibited and will lead to severe punishments and consequences.’
Nobody needed to know that Lan Qiren had let Jiang Wanyin get away with it, and the Sect Leader had visited Lan Qiren again the next day with an exact replica of the vase. The only difference was the words etched on the inside of the vase, at the top.
‘To Professor Qiren,
I’m sorry for breaking your vase. Thank you for making an exception and deciding not to punish me. You always were my favourite professor while we were studying at the Cloud Recesses. I promise to not cause you any more trouble.
From Jiang Wanyin.’
Lan Qiren still sometimes stopped to look at those words and smiled. After all, Jiang Wanyin had been Lan Qiren’s favourite student as well.
The third time Jiang Wanyin arrived was not for a meeting or any such formalities. He had been called for the anniversary of the fall of Cloud Reccesses. Again, his nephew had come with him. This event was a sobering one, so Lan Qiren knew that nothing would go wrong this time, and no more new rules would be carved out, right?
It happened after the ceremony had taken place. Sect Leader Jiang and his nephew had disappeared, and Lan Qiren found them an hour later, cuddling up against rabbits. Lan Qiren felt a soft smile growing on his face as he watched Jiang Wanyin gently caressing and holding a rabbit in his hands. He sat close to Jin Ling, whose brows were furrowed as he tried to copy his uncle’s movements.
“Jiujiu, they’re so cute and cuddly!” Jin Ling exclaimed, and Jiang Wanyin warmly pulled Jin Ling closer to him, gently keeping a rabbit on his lap. Jiang Wanyin had a few on his own lap. “Oh, it tickles, Jiujiu,” Jin Ling giggled and Lan Qiren found a familiar warmth spreading through his chest as he watched them.
He watched the young sect leader gently push the rabbits off of his own lap as he pulled Jin Ling onto it. “It tickles, does it, A-Ling?” Jiang Wanyin asked with a tone of mischief and mirth in his eyes.
“Yes, Jiujiu,” Jin Ling said, smooshing a rabbit’s face against his cheek.
“Does it tickle like this?” Jiang Wanyin asked, his fingers creeping around Jin Ling’s waist as they tickled him.
Jin Ling squealed, almost dropping the rabbit in his arms. “Aaah, Jiujiu. No, no! Stop, that tickles. Jiujiu!”
The Sect Leader laughed uninhibitedly. “What was that, A-Ling? I couldn’t hear you?”
“Jiujiu!” The child screamed with laughter, and although it was louder than was allowed in the Cloud Recesses, Lan Qiren found that he didn’t mind it, just this once. Jin Ling wiggled in Jiang Wanyin’s grasp and Jiang Wanyin finally stopped tickling his nephew.
Lan Qiren watched as Jin Ling slowly relaxed into his uncle, his chest rising and falling rapidly as he took quick breaths. Jiang Wanyin’s fingers brushed through his nephew’s messy hair as Jin Ling’s eyes drooped.
“Jiujiu?” Jin Ling called out.
“Hmmm?” Jiang Wanyin responded.
“Can we play catch with the rabbits?” Jin Ling asked. Lan Qiren’s eyes widened, but he forced himself to relax. Jiang Wanyin was an adult and a Sect leader now, he was a responsible, mature individual with common sense, surely he would not—
“Sure, A-Ling.” Jiang Wanyin said, and Lan Qiren looked on with his heart in his throat as Jiang Wanyin walked away to increase the distance between himself and his nephew. Jin Ling stood up.
Lan Qiren saw Jiang Wanyin gesturing to Jin Ling to throw the rabbit, and Jin Ling prepared himself for the throw, before he actually threw it. Lan Qiren was sure that the screech he had emitted could be heard throughout the Cloud Recesses.
‘Throwing of rabbits around the Cloud Recesses is forbidden. They are not objects or your personal playthings. They are animals. They are delicate. Treat them as such.’
The next time Sect Leader Jiang came to the Cloud Recesses, he had a more grown up child trailing behind him. A miniature version of himself. Lan Qiren had already picked the space where he would be writing the new rules, and he was ready when it happened.
‘Threatening to break a child’s legs or to feed anyone who hurts them to a dog or any kind of animal is forbidden.’
‘Screaming at a child or chasing them through the Cloud Recesses and disrupting the lessons is also forbidden.’
With each visit to the Cloud Recesses, the rules only grew, but Lan Qiren was the only person who knew why, and he refused to tell anyone else (gossip was forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, after all) or to punish the uncle or his nephew for their wrong doings. They had faced enough hardships in their young lives and been punished for faults that had not been theirs, perhaps they deserved for their mistakes to be overlooked once in a while.