A few days later, she takes herself to Cloud Recesses.
She does not announce her intention to visit prior to arriving at the gates. She has always enjoyed watching Lan QiRen become flustered when his precious hospitality rules are not being executed to the letter. It has been half a century since she had stepped foot in Cloud Recesses (her bones are no longer forgiving of the cold mountain winds), but she is not surprised to find an additional thousand rules carved into the rock.
Oh, but if the Heavens were only to love irony above all else, they would love the Lan Sect above all the others.
Not much else has changed, except a distinct presence of two fluffy creatures chasing each other across the green lawns, a sight that is both delightful and utterly unexpected. She watches them for some time, her brothers patiently still behind her. There is a soft giggle from one of the serving girls, quickly stifled by her companions, but MeiLing does not find it improper. Rabbits in Cloud Recesses are indeed something to giggle about.
Lan QiRen finds her moments later, two elders at his shoulder. Only someone who knows him well can see his discomfort at her presence, and she does not intend to put him at ease.
He bows deeply, the elders behind him following suit.
“Pets are forbidden at Cloud Recesses,” she says, and watches Lan QiRen twitch.
Lan XiaoChun is not one of the elders sent to receive her. Not that she had expected his presence. He would have doubtlessly voiced his disapproval already, then withdrawn into some horridly stark excuse for living quarters, intent on meditating these unsuitable marriage prospects out of existence. The Lan men might be as strong as the mountains, but just like the mountains, it took an act of Heavens to get them to move.
“Lady Nie, you presence is an unexpected pleasure,” Lan QiRen says.
“It is an honor to welcome you,” the elder on the right intones.
“Truly a delight,” the one on the left adds.
She huffs. They must think her a steamed bun, to blow so much hot air in her direction all at once.
“You must have had a long journey,” Lan QiRen goes on, “May I offer you some tea?”
Tea, she accepts readily. Unless the Gusu Lan cuisine has markedly improved over the last century, tea is likely to be the only palatable nourishment within these walls.
She lets them escort her to a cushion that leaves much to be desired in terms of comfort, and fuss over her until her patience starts wearing thin. The tea is passable, the conversation dull. But in the end, she is rewarded with the sight of the two boys she had come to see.
The eldest Jade of Lan is lovely to be sure, and built properly as all Lan men tend to be; their height and width of shoulder can hardly be matched in the cultivation world, and she had admired many a Lan in her day precisely for these attributes. His voice is gentle, and his smile distressingly genuine. She does not think he is soft, but he gives every appearance of pliability. That will not do.
The younger boy is eerily similar to his brother, but there is a type of stiffness to him that only the righteous youth of the Lan Sect could perceive as an admirable trait. His gaze is pale and cool, impossible to read. There is a dignity to his bearing that many men twice his age do not possess. He might do, she thinks, but neither is precisely what she wanted.
They both appear fragile in different ways. She cannot guess which one would be less likely to shatter under the onslaught of the infamous Nie temper.
After the boys are dismissed, Lan QiRen plucks at his beard, as if composing a long-winded soliloquy on the benefits and downfalls of the marriage union. MeiLing, who had never married herself, has no interest in hearing his thoughts on the subject.
“The younger boy seems suitable,” she says instead, and watches Lan QiRen’s forehead cloud.
“WangJi has received an offer from Jiang FengMian’s adopted son.”
Now, this is an unexpected development, one MeiLing may truly enjoy.
“CangSe SanRen’s boy?” she asks, and has the pleasure of seeing the old goat turn sour at the mere mention of the name.
“Of course,” Lan QiRen goes on, “the Nie Sect Leader takes precedence. An adopted son of the YunMeng Jiang Sect must give way.”
“I would not dare gainsay the Violet Spider,” she says with a smile that does not need to be faked, “After all, they are closer in age, and likely to be better suited. Do not worry yourself, Sect Leader, the older boy will do just as well.”
He talks some more, as men always do when there is nothing of value left to say. The decision has been made, and she takes her leave sooner than courtesy demands, citing the damp mountain air as the cause. In truth, she wants a meal that does not taste like boiled cabbage, and perhaps some of that famous Emperor’s Smile, none of which is she likely to see at Cloud Recesses.
She had spent very little time in the last few decades among the Sects and Clans, their petty squabbles always tiresome beyond belief. However, she dearly wants to see that stiff Gusu Lan boy navigate a marriage union with CangSe SanRen’s wild brat. She thinks this will surely be a type of entertainment worthy of any exertion.
MingJue takes the news better than she had expected. His temper tantrum only shatters a few stone posts, Baxia whipping over the heads of his cowering advisors. They scurry away as cowards that they are, and she is left to enjoy her tea without their irritating presence. MingJue paces and rants some more, his anger already giving way to complaints at the sheer inconvenience of it all, the ridiculousness of forging alliances through marriage, and the injustice of the system that requires he marry a person he has never met.
Well, fiddle·dee·dee, she thinks to herself. As if every Sect Leader’s daughter in the history of time has not already voiced those same complaints.
Finally, he settles opposite her, fury dissipating for the time being. They drink their tea in silence, a few brave servants shuffling back and forth. He is young still, and if he can only avoid fighting a war in this lifetime, she thinks he may have a few good decades before the inevitable comes.
She does feel for him. No son should ever have to bury his father so young, nor shoulder an entire Sect. But there is no use in crying over things that cannot be changed.
“The eldest Jade of Lan,” he says stiffly, “was to be the next Gusu Lan Sect Leader. Why would Lan QiRen allow this marriage to take place?”
She cannot help but snort at his words,
“You are not stupid, child. If the QiShan Wen raise an army tomorrow, who would stand against them? The world at peace seeks philosophers and poets. The world at war seeks butchers. Take what is offered, and be grateful.”
“You give me two Sects to protect instead of one,” MingJue says bitterly, “and another burden I must carry. You will have to forgive, if gratitude escapes me at the moment.”
“A husband should not be a burden.”
The incredulous gaze he sends her way is more explicit than any words. Perhaps it is a little bold of her to exalt the benefits of marriage. But she is old and can do as she pleases, and he is not brave enough to accuse her of hypocrisy.
Another period of silence follows. The servants, decidedly more confident now, start sweeping up dust and carrying away broken stones.
“He has agreed to this?” MingJue finally says, his gaze not meeting hers.
“The Sect elders have agreed. The Lan Elders have agreed. Lan QiRen has agreed.”
His palm meets the surface of the table with force, rattling the tea cups,
“That is not the question I asked.”
She sighs. Such histrionics over such a small matter. She cannot see what difference it makes; the first Jade of Lan is no temperamental Nie youth that must be beaten into submissions. Those who willingly submit to three thousand idiot rules carved into a rock are unlikely to raise a fuss over an advantageous marriage offer.
“He has agreed to begin the process,” she says diplomatically, “the rest will be of your own doing. You cannot take back the offer made, without insulting the entire Gusu Lan Sect. But I suppose, if you are truly against this marriage, you can find ways to make yourself displeasing to him.”
This is not an option he has considered before, and she immediately regrets planting that thought in his head.
“You must know,” she says, her voice stern, “the first Jade of Lan has a sweet temperament, and an infinitely kind nature. He does not deserve to be mistreated simply because you cannot reconcile to an idea of marriage. If you cannot treat him with courtesy and consideration, tell me now. I will not force that child into a life of hostility and indifference.”
Renewed fury flashes in his eyes,
“Do you take me for a savage?”
“I take you for a man who does not know how to harness his temper.”
“I would not mistreat him,” MingJue growls, all thoughts of breaking the agreement apparently forgotten.
“Good,” she murmurs into her cup.
Perhaps she should sit with the First Jade of Lan before this marriage takes place, and impart some wisdom. He may not be willing to pound his new husband into the dirt, but she could teach him a thing or two about swaying Nie men to his purpose.