The Conference takes three days to wind down, despite the fact that the Chief Cultivator is chosen by the end of the first day.
The margin is narrow, but the Elders carry a voice as well, and majority of them, unsurprisingly, side with MeiLing’s preference. MingJue thinks they will not soon forget the sight of her storming down the Nightless City halls with a saber in her hand, looking for something to fight, and would rather agree with her, than find out all the ways in which she means to retaliate.
In the end, it is three votes more in favor of Madam Yu, and she takes the Chief Cultivator seat calmly, as if she had expected nothing less. MingJue would have been happy to leave at that point, not caring much for any other complaints the rest of them may have, but the first issue brought forwards is the issue of the Wen Sect.
Jin GuangShan could not secure the title of His Excellency, and has obviously come prepared to make at least some people as unhappy as he is. He does not say it outright, that the Nie Sect is harboring the Wen remnants, but he talks in circles enough where more than half of the sect leaders turn nervous, and insist on knowing the truth.
MingJue has already made his peace with fighting another battle if needs be, and has no intention of yielding. He stands up, and calmly proclaims that the people currently residing in the Unclean Realm are, in fact, a branch of the Nie Sect from HeJian, seeking refuge from the war.
Jin GuangShan can hardly wait for him to finish speaking, before he is jumping back up,
“See! It is a lie! There is no branch of Nie Sect in HeJian! There never has been!”
Sitting a step below MingJue, MeiLing clears her throat loudly, effectively cutting off the murmurs around the hall.
“Sect Leader Jin is remarkably well-informed. Pity he does not keep track of his own offspring with the same level of concern.”
Hush falls at her words, and Jin GunagShan slowly turns purple, his mouth working, but no words being formed.
“Lady Nie,” Jin ZiHan says, “We had agreed to keep this discussion civil.”
“Was I uncivil?” MeiLing says, her eyes widening, “I only thought I should speak plainly. Jin GuangShan can whore around as much as he pleases, that is for his wife to worry about. But I do believe that I have the right to question the location of his offspring, if he insists on questioning the location of mine.”
Another murmur goes up, now both Jin GuangShan and Jin ZiHan wearing the same shade of purple on their face, and MingJue does not know if he wants to laugh or cry. On the other side of him, XiChen is still cool and collected, although both his hands are tightly clasped in his lap. But on XiChen’s right, HuaiSang’s entire head is hidden by his fan, and he is laughing soundlessly, his shoulders shaking in mirth.
“Lady Nie,” Jiang YuXuan says carefully, “You have never married.”
“I am old, A-Xuan, not feeble,” she says, “A woman has never needed a husband to have a child. Or three.”
"This is preposterous,” Jin ZiHun finally finds his voice, “You expect us to believe that you– that you had–“
“Multiple children out of wedlock?” MeiLing says sweetly, and HuaiSang starts to sound as if he is choking.
“You are saying that the Nie branch from HeJian are your descendants,” Lan XiaoChun says calmly.
MingJue thinks he likes this man well enough, even if he is a Lan Elder. In the entire hall, he is the only one who does not look ready to swallow his tongue.
“Yes,” MeiLing says, “Illegitimate, of course, but I gave my sons the Nie name, as is my right, and they in turn, passed it to their many children and grandchildren.”
“And great-grandchildren,” Wen Qing says softly, from her place at MeiLing’s back.
“Quite correct, my dear,” MeiLing smiles up at her, “And great-grandchildren. How large is the HeJian Nie branch now? Remind me.”
“Fifty-six members,” Wen Qing responds promptly.
“Ridiculous! Ridiculous!” Jin GuangShan exclaims, “This is all nonsense! They are part of the Wen Sect, all of them!”
“Sect Leader Jin,” Jiang YuXuan says, “Do you have any proof?”
“I do not need proof! They are Wen!”
“That is enough,” Madame Yu says firmly, “This discussion has gone on long enough. Nie Qing had arrived at the Nightless City with the rest of the Nie Sect, as their healer. Her skills have saved dozens of men from every Sect. My own son is alive today because of her, and I will not have accusations thrown around without proof. Sect Leader Jin, sit down. We have many other matters to discuss, unless you mean to spend the winter in the Nightless City.”
Jin GuangShan’s color truly does not look healthy any more, and MingJue is afraid that the man means to drop dead in the middle of the hall. It would be no great loss to the cultivation world at large, but it would keep them all here at least another day, and he would very much like to leave the Nightless City for good.
“That is settled then,” Madam Yu says, “The QiShan farmland west of YueYang is next on the list. Sect Leader Yue, what do you propose to do?”
And just like that they are moving on, as if nothing of importance had happened. MingJue glances over to find XiChen smiling at him brightly, and feels his heart skip a beat at the sight. He thinks he will never get used to those smiles, as long as he lives.
“NaiNai,” he hears Wen Qing say softly, “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“I would love some,” MeiLing sighs, “Fetch one for yourself as well.”
It is only as they are traveling back to QingHe that MingJue starts to wonder if perhaps, it had all gone off a bit too smoothly.
They are riding back, taking their time, as XiChen should not exert himself by flying yet. Approximately a third of the Nie Sect is riding with them, making a grand post-war procession across YueYang and YingChuan. Wen Qing had warned them to limit the riding as well, no more that six hours at a time, and although at this rate, it will take many days to reach QingHe, MingJue does not mind.
It feels very much like the trip they never got to take after their wedding, the one that was to take them back to Cloud Recesses. Although postponed once due to the war, Lan WangJi’s own wedding is to take place within a month, and MingJue supposes another trip must be planned, almost as soon as they arrive home. In the meantime, he enjoys having XiChen all to himself, for the first time since their wedding day. Their nights are spent in small inns, eating questionable spices and sharing cramped beds, and MingJue thinks he has never been happier in his life.
But he cannot help circling back to the events at the Conference, although he tries his hardest to put them out of his mind.
“Do you not think Madam Yu was too lenient?” he says, out of the blue one day, as they are half-way across YingChuan.
XiChen, who had been riding silently by his side, looks startled by the question.
“I am glad, of course, that it was all so easily settled,” MingJue adds, “But for her not to question MeiLing’s story seems… unlike her.”
It is the nicest way he can refer to a woman that he still wants to grab by the neck, and shake her vigorously for the entire Wen Chao incident, but he is trying. Heavens help him, he is trying.
“Ah,” XiChen says, smiling, “This has been bothering you for some time. I had wondered.”
“Was it obvious I was bothered by it? You did not ask.”
XiChen looks down at his hands, smile slipping away, and MingJue immediately regrets his words.
“You are always entitled to ask for my thoughts,” MingJue says, “but never obligated to do so. That was not a chastisement, do not take it as such.”
“I know,” XiChen says, “It– it does not come naturally, this. I have learned long ago not to question unspoken things, and must unlearn it now. It will take time.”
He lifts his head, and smiles, something mischievous in the curve of his lips,
“My husband should indulge me, and say things more often, without having to be asked.”
“You–“ MingJue says, spluttering, “I offer understanding, and get chastised in turn.”
“My husband is very understanding,” XiChen says, his meek tone at odds with the smile, “I am eternally grateful.”
MingJue wants to pull him from the horse, toss him on the grass, and kiss him until they are both breathless.
“Madam Yu has her own secret to hide from the other sects,” XiChen goes on, “A much smaller one than ours, but one she would dearly like to protect.”
MingJue perks up, then immediately feels ridiculous. He is no HuaiSang to get excited about other people’s secrets.
“I thought gossip was forbidden,” he says, and XiChen laughs.
“If you do not wish to know–“
“I do. I do wish to know. Tell me.”
“As it happens, the Jiang Sect has also found a long-lost member of the clan. A cousin of one of the Elders had an illegitimate son, who had a son, who– well, you are familiar with the method of these things.”
MingJue grunts. He still cannot believe that was the route MeiLing had chosen to take. She is lucky that he is shameless, otherwise he would have never been able to show his face in the cultivation world again.
“This long-lost member of the Jiang clan has a very rare, very particular skill. There has only been one other cultivator in the history with this particular skill, but this man was unfortunately killed by the Violet Spider, when the Nightless City fell.”
“She is hiding the Core-Melting Hand?” MingJue exclaims, and XiChen’s eyes widen.
MingJue can hear the men some distance behind him liven up at hearing the title, and shrinks down, feeling foolish.
“It is a secret,” XiChen hisses, and MingJue rolls his eyes.
Now it all makes sense. She probably did not have a plan when she had decided to spare the man’s life, and MeiLing’s bold strategy must have given her an idea on how to proceed. Still, he is dumbfounded by the revelation, and does not understand why she would risk so much for one man.
“Why?” MingJue says, but XiChen only shrugs.
“I suppose he is a useful weapon to have, for a Chief Cultivator. But MeiLing claims that both Madam Yu and Jiang FengMian seem fond of the man, for whatever reason.”
They are both fond of the man? MingJue does not need to know that. He does not want to think about the Violet Spider and Jiang FengMian both being fond of someone. MingJue does not know what crimes the Core-Melting Hand might have committed in his service to Wen Chao, but in his opinion, spending his life between the Violet Spider and Jiang FengMian is too cruel of a punishment for anyone.
“Would my husband think less of me if I insist that we stop for the day? I am very tired, and my back is sore. Perhaps my husband could find an inn with a large bath? One we could both share for a change?”
MingJue nearly swallows his tongue, and covers it up with a slight cough.
“Yes,” he says, “I believe that can be managed.”
“Good,” XiChen smiles sweetly, and rides ahead.