The Thousand Streams of the River Country
Peng An-lan was born a child of privilege in Nexus. His family, both immediate and extended, were all ranking members in the Guild. Specifically, they handled large portions of the Guild’s trade of First Age artifacts and other antiquities both into and out of Nexus. The second son of the de facto patriarch, Peng Ai-lang, he was always destined for the most money, power, and prestige ever afforded a mortal.
Nonetheless, while a position in the family was guaranteed, where that position was in the overall hierarchy was more in question. He was taught from a young age by his father that he should be the one giving orders to other family members, not taking orders from them, and that he could achieve this position only through hard work, study, and leverage over his competitors. To that end, at age 11 he was sent to study at a private academy across town. At age 13 he received word that his father had met with a tragic accident and would not be visiting him again.
During the sojourn to Sijan, his uncle, Peng Tai-man, the new family patriarch, offered his condolences. He reassured An-lan that he would not be abandoned or overlooked, and made it clear to him that he was expected to continue his studies. Then he walked off toward An-lan’s mother’s tent.
An-lan, who had a reputation for being a quiet, observant child, quietly observed. The people around his uncle were nervous, respectful. As they had been around his father. As a small child, he had assumed everyone saw his father as he did: a great man, knowledgeable about the world, skilled at negotiation, powerful and charming. Now that great man was gone, and An-lan missed him with a keen, almost physical pain that he had never felt before. Watching his uncle, this ugly, conniving usurper, he now thought he understood: people respected the position, not the man. How one achieves that position is irrelevant.
An-lan studied, and later, worked. His older brother Rui-shi was his mentor, and they made a good team. Rui-shi was the face, deftly handling negotiations, working contacts, and getting deals. An-lan was forever at his side with a ledger, crunching numbers, researching histories, and allocating resources. Their uncle came to rely on them as a source of income. An-lan, always given a comfortable allowance, now earned himself great wealth. But he had never stopped observing, and when the opportunity came, he made his move.
Rui-shi had sent away his guards, as usual, when he arrived at the brothel catering to his “special” tastes. He was asleep and sated when the small boy’s hand clutched the hilt of a fine dagger with an expensive poison on it. When his body was found a day later and several blacks away, his eyes still held their look of fury and surprise. An-lan had been busy at his desk, as any number of aides could swear to. Naturally, he was the best choice to take over his brother’s business holdings. He was 21.
During the second trip to Sijan An-lan had ever taken, his uncle came to speak with him again. He told An-lan that he knew who had killed Rui-shi, and who had paid him. He assured An-lan that he was not opposed, in principle, to this sort of “initiative,” and yet, he had to make clear a few things. Peng Tai-man was the leader of this family, and always would be until his son took over. Peng An-lan may work, and achieve, in his uncle’s name, but is never to cross him, or take such a drastic step without consulting him again. An-lan would have power and priviledge, but authority was forever barred from him.
To drive home his point, Tai-man publicly made an impassioned speech about the tragedy of Rui-shi’s death, and assured the Guild that he would not allow a similar tragedy to befall An-lan. He would take his nephew under his wing, directly overseeing his business interests, while protecting him as thoroughly as possible. His uncle’s bodyguards surrounding him, An-lan found himself in a position of great influence, but little freedom.
And so, years passed. An-lan earned even greater wealth, and some measure of respect, but only as his uncle’s bookkeeper, much as he had been his brother’s. He engaged in none of the networking, contact-making, plotting, and scheming of his peers, for he knew the moment his uncle saw him step out of line, he would be killed. He played it safe, and bided his time.
When An-lan was 29, his uncle died, from apparently natural causes. He was finally ready to make his move, and start gathering the resources needed to take a leading role in the family. Yet before he knew it, the family and the Guild were rallying behind his cousin Peng Li-wo, Tai-man’s son, who maintained his uncle’s vigil over him. He realized that if he were to regain any sort of control he should have been gathering contacts and allies this whole time, pushing the boundaries of his uncle’s control. By playing it safe for years, he had gotten nowhere.
And so, on the way to Sijan to bury his uncle, An-lan is starting to think about the concept of “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” He believes strongly in the hierarchical nature of society: in order for a group to be effective, there must be leaders, and there must be followers. And after years of being brilliant but powerless, having no freedom other than to study and expand his own mind, and no drive but to gain more power for himself, he’s starting to wonder what the purpose of achieving that mythical position of authority could be. After all, it is always the position, not the man, which is important.