Han Jian restrained the urge to put his head into his hands as Yu stomped away from the table of their shared abode, a glower on his face.
Why had he volunteered to be sent to the Sect again? He had promised himself that he would be more dedicated in the future of course, but couldn’t he have done that at the training yards and meditation halls of his home? Surely coming out here where his only points of familiarity were a boy who regularly got on his nerves and a girl who he really, really should have been keeping his distance from.
He knew perfectly well that the situation between the three of them was untenable, even if Yu was outwardly oblivious to it. Xiulan… he still remembered their first meeting, and the mutual childish affection that had bloomed there. They were past the point of putting such things aside though. He just wished she could see that. He doubted Yu was so dull that he would miss the way Xiulan looked at him forever. Their families had made the arrangement and that was that. Han Jian was still unengaged, but that was only because Father bucked tradition a bit, and saw no reason to finalize arrangements that wouldn’t be resolved for decades yet. Han Jian would probably end up betrothed to a nice woman a few decades his senior when the time came, or perhaps someone with a good political connection or two at a younger age if they could be found.
Of course, that wasn’t even the only problem anymore. Fan Yu had failed Elder Zhou’s test, and it felt like oil had been poured on the fire. Xiulan had never exactly been… friendly, toward her fiance, but the fit of self pity Fan Yu had sunk into afterward, with his arm crippled by a confrontation with a Bai of all things, had magnified her dislike into outright contempt.
Then of course there was Ling Qi. She was a nice enough girl, in her own odd way, but something about her irked him. He didn’t regret his kindness, not the least because an excuse to spend a few precious hours away from Yu were welcome in those early weeks. Yet… she had asked after him less and less. In the wake of Elder Zhou’s test, he saw her only at training, she was apparently in the sphere of that Bai. He was a scion of the Han family, marquess’ of the Ashen Wastens. He was not as far below the great ducal families as most… but it left him feeling useless, knowing that even his charity could be one upped so effortlessly.
Han Jian blinked as a calloused hand fell on his shoulder, shaking him from his thoughts. He looked up, and met the steady gaze of his ‘cousin’ Han Fang. The taller boy offered him a crooked smile, and made a few signs.
Han Jian let out a short bark of laughter, straightening up his shoulders. “You’re not wrong, beating up some targets on the training field might help.”
Han Fang just nodded amiably, stepping back to give Han Jian room to push out his chair and stand up. He made another sign.
“It’s nothing you need to worry about,” Han Jian assured him. Han Fang was the one person from home who he could rely on implicitly. The good feeling soured as Han Jian’s eyes traced the scar on his cousins throat. Of course, he didn’t deserve even that.
Han Fang gave him a curious look, and Han Jian shook his head. “Sorry, woolgathering again. It’s just one of those days.” He deliberately turned his thoughts away from the memory of the boy lying still in a pool of blood, and the screams of the assassin as his father tore apart the room and scoured the flesh from the man’s bones in a howling dervish of sand and ash.
Even if it seemed useless, with all these talents standing above him, he couldn’t let himself backslide. He’d made a promise to himself that he’d pay back that devotion by being someone worthy of it. He was putting everything he had into improving and cultivating. He was behind, that was true, but surely that effort had to count for something?
“Why don’t we go hunting afterward?” He suggested as he headed for the door, not betraying his thoughts on his face with the ease of long practice. A consequence of his lacklustre efforts in past meant that his allowance was… less than optimal. It stung that his Father didn’t trust him to wisely use more expensive resources. He would have to supplement it in these last few weeks before the mail opened back up.
Han Fang nodded enthusiastically as they left the house, signing animatedly.
“...What is with you and bears,” Han Jian laughed. “I know we don’t have them at home, but you’re being a little silly now,” he knew the other boy was mostly trying to lighten the mood, but he didn’t see any reason not to play along.
As they walked toward the exit though, Han Jian found his smile once again becoming strained as he saw what lay ahead of them in the street. There was a small crowd around the entrance, at the center of which stood Kang Zihao. Who stood chatting with several other boys, with a smile on his handsome face.
Han Jian felt a stab of envy, Kang Zihao was in a lot of ways everything he wanted to be. A dedicated and talented cultivator, and a leader who attracted followers easily. Something about the other boy pissed him off though, even if he couldn’t quite put the finger on why. It wasn’t purely a matter of envy, or so he hoped.
Kang Zihao, looking over the heads of the other boys met his eyes then. “Sect Brother Han, I hope the day finds you well. Did you catch word of the gathering I was planning?”
“I’m afraid not, Sect Brother Kang,” Han Jian replied back smoothly as the group around Kang parted seamlessly to allow him to step forward. “I have been focusing on my cultivation, I was just about to go on a little hunting trip with my cousin is all.”
“Admirable dedication Sect Brother,” Kang replied, a slight patronizing edge to his tone that set Han Jian’s teeth on edge. “I was just instructing some of our less well off brothers, before we took a trip of our own. It is important that everyone remain on guard for the ne'er do wells in our midst after all. You are welcome to join us.”
“Thank you for your offer,” Han Jian replied evenly. “It is admirable that Sect Brother Kang would take the time to help our other brothers so,” it was a fairly standard tactic, find the somewhat talented commoners, offer them scraps and build a sense of loyalty. Not too dissimilar from what he had done, now that he thought about it.
...That was different though, he hadn’t helped Ling Qi for that reason. No one wanted to come back to Golden Fields anyway.
“I will have to decline however, my cousin and I are looking into more dangerous game,” the lie came easily. Han Jian just didn’t want to deal with other people right now, and Kang Zihao even less.
“A shame, Brother Han,” Kang Zihao comisserated, though it didn’t sound very genuine to Han Jian’s ear. “Perhaps another time then.”
“Perhaps,” Han Jian replied, offering a small bow before resuming his walk. Han Fang remained behind him like a silent shadow. Han Jian envied his cousins ability to fade into the background during social situations sometimes.
Though that wasn’t really an option for him, Han Jian supposed. In any case, they would soon be away from people and their troubles. Han Jian looked forward to the more straightforward challenges the wilderness brought.
Who knew, perhaps Han Fang really would get to wrestle a bear this time.