By the time the sixth small clan folds under the QiShan Wen pressure, the Sect Elders acknowledge that something must be done. They do not panic; these revered old cultivators, who had fought many wars in their youth, are much too dignified for such a base emotion. But most admit to feeling uneasy. Unease is acceptable. Unease is not fear, or dread, or that fluttering feeling in the pit of their stomachs, the one that senses the disaster on the horizon before their eyes can perceive its shadow.
They gather deep in the bowels of the Koi Tower on a calm, fragrant evening in the early summer, to discuss the matter. The Koi Tower is an obvious gathering place; the eldest among them, Jin ZiHan, has seen three wars, a dozen deadly floods, and more idiot Sect Leaders than he can shake his golden cap at, Jin GuangShan among them. The others show him little deference, but it is enough to make the Jin Sect base a natural gathering place. Nie MeiLing, only a decade younger, could reasonably argue for an equal ground between them, but she cares little where they meet. The Jin Sect lavish cushions suit her old bones well, and the black dragon tea only found in LanLing makes the presence of these old, patronizing windbags almost bearable in comparison. Lan XiaoChun, the youngest among the eldest, but the least prone to tedious verbal outbursts, settles near her. She prefers his company, for no other reason than the silence it brings. Jiang YuXuan settles on the other side of her with a polite greeting. There are others, each sect boasting of at least three cultivators who, by rights, should have been bones and dust decades ago. MeiLing has her two younger brothers with her, but unlike the others, they sit behind her in silence. She still remembers that lovely winter day, nearly two centuries ago, when she beat NianZu with her saber until he cried. The Nie men had always possessed more hair on their chests than brains in their heads, but they could learn respect if one beat it into them.
It is her opinion that Jin ZiHan should have been beaten until he cried as well. All of the Jin Sect could stand a little less embroidery, and a little more beating. Watching the old windbag flutter about with his practiced smile that never reaches his eyes, she takes a calming sip of her tea. Riches without dignity, smiles without compassion. The Jin Sect has little to recommend them except material comforts. But compared to the QiShan Wen, they are the lesser of the two plagues, and certainly not her problem to worry about. It was the Jiang Sect Leader’s formidable wife who had decided to marry her offspring into that bejeweled snake pit, and all the more fool her.
Jiang YuXuan inquires after the current Nie Sect Leader and his brother, and MeiLing gives an equally polite but superficial response. The question is only a courtesy, one she does not return. Jiang FengMian’s health holds little interest, and the Violet Spider probably chews steel and spits out arrowheads for breakfast. Their children are equally as uninteresting, although she supposes CangSe SanRen’s brat is close to coming of age these days. She would not mind knowing how this child is getting on, but this would invite more conversation than her constitution is prepared to handle.
It takes an abominably long time for all the pompous elders to settle their creaking bones, and to finish their pretentious clucking before getting to the job at hand. By then, MeiLing’s tea is no longer hot, and her patience is growing thin. She lets them fuss a while longer, but she is not the only impatient one. Lan XiaoChun is silent as always, but there is tension around his oddly-colored eyes, and the line of his jaw seems slightly more pronounced.
MeiLing sighs into her cup. Jiang YuXuan had courted her once, so many lifetimes ago, that she can no longer find the pretty youth he had been in the heavily lined face by her side. The Jiang men, with their established reputation for soft-spoken steadiness, were never of any interest to her. She had not wanted a man who bent his spine to the world like a willow in high wind.
But Lan XiaoChun had been another matter. Had he ever offered, she would have likely agreed to that match without opposition. Her spine might be steel, but his is a rocky mountain side, unlikely to bend unless the Heavens themselves upended the earth. But he had never asked, and she had long ago stopped feeling slighted. No man in the world ever knew a woman’s true worth, and the Lan men are no different.
“Lady Nie, you have said very little,” Jin ZiHan simpers, bringing her back to the present.
She takes a sip of her rapidly cooling tea. She had said nothing because they had said nothing. Oh, they had spoken at length, as all men do, loving the sound of their tongues flapping. But their plans are no more than farts in the wind, and her hip is beginning to ache despite the plush Jin Sect cushions.
“Marriage,” she barks at them, and watches their brains turn the word over for an excruciatingly long moment before tongues begin to flap again.
“My tea is cold,” she says to the air, and hears NianZu scramble up behind her.
He will find a servant, or if he must, he will brew it himself. In the meantime, she can feel her hair growing more gray with each useless string of words leaving Jin ZiHan’s mouth. A nap in a secluded garden, thick with the scent of peonies, is exactly what she needs right now.
“The arrangements can be settled between the concerned parties at leisure,” she says loudly.
Her voice, long schooled to cut across the din of useless flapping of self-important men, leaves silence in its wake. She uses this silence to turn to Lan XiaoChun, and bow her head slightly.
“I offer the hand of the Nie Sect Leader to either of the Jades of Lan. I will let you decide which one is more… suitable to the task. Now, if you will excuse me, these old bones must rest.”
The shocked silence follows her out of the meeting hall, but her thoughts are already elsewhere. She is looking forward to Lan XiaoChun’s attempts to wriggle out of the offer very much, but this is a battle for another day, one she will win with little effort. Now however, a long nap under the plum blossoms is infinitely more appealing.