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Youth Is Sweet and They Are Growing

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Spring swirls through the Cloud Recesses, carried on the trilling notes of birdsong, the bubbling rush of water in the many mountain streams, and the soft warmth of clear sunlight. The snows give up their grip, the blankets of pristine white receding to reveal new shoots of green grass. The air seems filled with promise, with life, with possibility.

It has always been so in the Cloud Recesses, Lan Sizhui reflects, but this year it seems…more.

Last year, he’d felt as though he hardly ever saw his parents—between his own travels with Wen Ning, and Master Wei’s seemingly insatiable need to explore the world, experience everything he had missed in his previous life…well. Oftentimes, it had seemed as though they only saw each other coming or going. He’d understood, of course. His parents had not begrudged him his need to learn about his past, to reconnect with the last remaining member of his blood family, and reconcile himself to the memories that Master Wei’s return had shaken loose in him. He certainly could not begrudge them that same period of reconciliation, the chance to figure out who and what they were now.

This year, however? This year everything feels…right. Solid. Strong.

Not that they were wrong, or shaky, or weak before. The events of the past year have put some things into context for him, and some things that confused him when he was younger make a lot more sense now—but Lan Sizhui has always had a good life in Gusu. Father, Uncle, and Great Uncle all loved him dearly, even if Father and Great Uncle weren’t always effusive in their affection. He never had cause to question his place in his family or his sect.

It is more like…Master Wei’s return has swept aside a veil that Lan Sizhui never even realized was there. Father has always been solemn and quiet, but Lan Sizhui never saw how much of that solemnity was the crush of grief. Of mourning. It pains Lan Sizhui—even as it warms him—to know how carefully his father shielded him from that burden. How much he did not want Lan Sizhui to be pulled down by the weight of the past, even as his very name acknowledged it. Master Wei has taken that weight from Father’s shoulders, and Lan Sizhui never knew how much warmer, brighter, softer Father could be. Father wears his happiness like a cloak, like a crown, radiates his joy and contentment to any who know enough to look.

And Lan Sizhui? Somewhere within his heart, the last remnants of a small, scared child basks in the return of his best and fiercest protector. The part of him that had recognized his Xian-gege in Coffin Town, had known that no matter what, he was safe with this man rests safe in the knowledge that all is right with his world, now. It is a feeling Lan Sizhui has decided he quite likes. It is a feeling he has decided he wants to get used to.

And now he has the chance.

There is no more talk of Father and Master Wei leaving the Cloud Recesses, other than the trips Father must make in his position as Chief Cultivator. Master Wei no longer seems as though he has one foot on the road already, no longer looks as though parts of his attention are miles and miles away even as he focuses on you. The jingshi feels more like a home than it has since Lan Sizhui was small. Lan Sizhui’s whole world changed the day he and the other junior disciples walked into Mo village, and it has not stopped changing since. Monumental changes, sweeping, crashing changes…but also slow, incremental, creeping changes. Lan Sizhui cannot wait to see where it all ends up.

The cheerful, piping notes of a flute reach his ears as he rounds a bend in the path he is following, the tune familiar somehow, though he cannot place the song. He smiles and quickens his steps, following the music to one of the smaller practice fields on the edges of the compound.

In the weeks since Master Wei has taken over the novice class, this field has mostly become his domain. Hardly any of the other classes used it with any regularity before—it really is too small for much beyond basic sword drills and forms—and the others have seemed happy enough to cede it to Master Wei. Lan Sizhui knows that not everyone has done so out of genuine goodwill (more to make sure they don’t have to cross paths with Master Wei), but no one has been cruel about it within his hearing, and so he is content to follow Master Wei’s lead and ignore the eyes that narrow in disapproval and the mouths that slant in unhappiness.

There are fewer and fewer of them every day, anyway.

The flute trills again, the music looping back to the beginning of the song as Lan Sizhui finally leaves the path and steps onto the practice field. For a moment, he stands and just watches a sight that, a year ago, he never would have thought he’d see.

Slow, incremental, creeping changes, yes, changes that add up and add up until the picture is something completely different.

The novices stand in the center of the practice field, in textbook formation, each holding a carefully wrapped and padded wooden practice sword that Lan Sizhui remembers well from his own classes. Their eyes are riveted on Master Wei, who twirls a plain flute of green bamboo in his fingers as he paces back and forth in front of them, lecturing in his animated, excitable fashion. From time to time he pauses to answer questions from the novices, or call one of them up to demonstrate a motion or stance. Lan Sizhui hides a laugh behind his sleeve at the way the novices almost fall over themselves to be the one Master Wei picks to answer, the way they almost glow with pride when Master Wei praises them. It’s a feeling Lan Sizhui is well familiar with.

Finally, Master Wei puts the flute to his lips again, and excitement visibly ripples through the novices. At the first notes, all of them shift into the first stance of the most basic of the Lan sword forms. Lan Sizhui watches, his smile just growing and growing. The children shift from one stance to the next, executing each motion almost perfectly…and Lan Sizhui knows for a fact that they have only recently started training with the practice swords in earnest. Lan Guihong’s health hadn’t allowed it before, and Lan Fang just hadn’t had the time to conduct beginners classes when he was already working with he older junior disciples. He and Jingyi had been pulled in a few times to at least start teaching the novices the basics.

It hadn’t gone…badly, per se. But it had certainly never gone as well as this.

Master Wei bounces on his toes and grins around the flute as they reach the end of the first set of sword forms, and even from the other side of the field, Lan Sizhui imagines he sees the glint of delighted mischief enter his father’s eyes. The song picks up speed and Master Wei weaves in between the novices, almost dancing as he leaps and twirls among them. The novices shift back to the first of the sword stances and begin the set again, faster this time, their movements keeping time with Master Wei’s song. As Lan Sizhui circles closer to them, he sees a few of them mouthing along with the notes, counting carefully as they step-thrust-parry-step.

From time to time, Master Wei pauses in the melody, reaching down with gentle fingers to tap an elbow, nudge a knee into place with the toe of his boot. He always picks up the tune exactly where it should be (and seriously, Lan Sizhui knows he has heard this song before, but it’s not any melody of Gusu) and the novices hardly miss a beat. In fact, he may try to arrange to have Master Lan Fang come and observe the next time Master Wei is doing this—the novices’ footwork already looks more solid than the two classes above them, even the ones that are making mistakes, and he has never seen disciples look so delighted to be doing sword drills.

 

“Sizhui!” His thoughts are interrupted when Master Wei calls his name, the flute song coming to an end as the students shift into the final sword stance before lowering their practice weapons. Master Wei waves him over as he turns back to the class, tapping his flute in the palm of one hand. “What did this young master think of these disciples, hmm? Is this sword work worthy of the Lan sect?” he asks as Lan Sizhui comes to stand beside him. The novices bow to him in greeting, a few sneaking proud, excited grins as they straighten.

“Hmm,” Lan Sizhui says, tucking his hands neatly behind his back and looking over the novices with as calm and serious an expression as he can muster. “I can honestly say I am very impressed. Very smooth, and excellent footwork!”

Master Wei’s grin widens, and he knocks his shoulder against Lan Sizhui’s affectionately. “My thoughts exactly. I’m very pleased with your progress! All right, everyone close your eyes!” Obediently, the students shut their eyes, a few going to far as to reach up and cover them with one hand. “Now, who feels like the first forms are easy?” Several hands shoot up, all students that Lan Sizhui would agree definitely have the set memorized. “Good, good…who feels like they’re getting it, but they still need some more practice?” A few more hands go up, and Master Wei nods. “Is there anyone who feels like we’re going too fast and they need me to go over the stances with them again?” The last few hands go up. “All right, hands down and eyes open. Good job everyone! I’m going to have a few of you come and see me here during your study period the next few days…remember, we’re building the foundations for our skills here, and we want those foundations to be….?”

“Strong, Teacher!” the novices chorus.

“And that means everyone, right?”

“Yes, Teacher!”

Master Wei smiles. “You all did very well today. I’m so proud of how hard you’re working. Now go put your practice swords away, and you’re dismissed for lunch. I’ll see you in the classroom this afternoon.”

Lan Sizhui and Master Wei watch the novices hurry to follow instructions, and then file off the practice field. As they walk, Lan Sizhui notes that several of the children who had indicated they found the sword drills easy are already pairing up with some of the ones that had said they needed more help, talking animatedly as they swing their arms in demonstration of the skills they’ve just been practicing. Master Wei chuckles as he tucks the bamboo flute into his belt.

“They are doing very well,” Lan Sizhui says warmly, and is rewarded when his father wraps his arm around his shoulders.

“Ah, they’re so smart, it would be hard for them not to be doing well! But I’m glad you can see their progress. They’ve been working so hard.”

“Progress” is a bit of an understatement. Lan Sizhui is not privy to all of the inner workings of the Cloud Recesses, of course, but as the de facto sect heir and their head junior disciple, he has access to a lot more information (he won’t say gossip, though that’s what it is, really) than most. And a great deal of that information has centered on the rather astonishing pace at which the novice class is reaching rather astonishing levels of proficiency. At least two more of the novices have managed to form a solid golden core since Master Wei took over the class, and there is every expectation that all of them will have done so before very much longer. Their basic talisman work is excellent, and Lan Sizhui knows Master Wei has introduced one or two low level charms to his older students.

And even with all that progress, all the hard work Lan Sizhui knows his father expects from the novices, they are not overburdened. They are still as excited to be taught by Master Wei as they were on the day Grandmaster Lan announced he would be taking over their class. It is not unusual for the practice field Master Wei has basically taken over to echo with laughter and cheers as they take to each task Master Wei sets before them. Lan Sizhui was never unhappy in his classes. But he does not think he was always as…joyful…as Master Wei’s students clearly are.

Changes, Lan Sizhui reflects wryly. Changes upon changes.

“Are they going to be ready for the discussion conference competitions then?” he asks as they make their way up the same path the students had taken.

“Hmm? Oh…oh! That’s coming up soon isn’t it?” Master Wei shakes his head, and Lan Sizhui has to laugh. As though the upcoming discussion conference hasn’t been the main topic of conversation in the Cloud Recesses for the last month.

“Two weeks,” he confirms, “with Jin Ling’s festival to follow.”

As he always does, Master Wei smiles a little wistfully at the mention of his nephew. “I suppose so,” he says. “Ah, my little rabbits are more than ready for a few skill demonstrations…I should be asking you if you’ll be ready. Zizhen seemed pretty determined to take top honors when we talked last.” Master Wei tosses him a sly wink and Lan Sizhui grins.

“I look forward to testing my skills against my friends,” he says easily, and Master Wei bursts into laughter.

“So diplomatic! Ah, my little peacemaker.” He links his arm through Lan Sizhui’s, and starts humming the tune he had played on the flute earlier, just as maddeningly familiar as it was before. He knows he’s never heard it in Gusu…maybe Lanling? Or no…no, it was Yunmeng…that little town that had been plagued by fierce corpses after a mudslide…he’d heard it in that inn—

“Master Wei! Are you teaching your students to memorize sword forms to a drinking song?”