In spite of flowery, hopeful words well spoken, Jin Guangyao sooner handed her child over to the washerwoman to clean off than Wen Qing. Who watched this hand-off with bare-faced exasperation before bending over Xiao Deng's shoulder and guiding the apprentice's post-birth examination of Jin Guangyao. The washerwoman quickly returned a clean infant to her madam, bearing him over from the tub with reverence.
"Dare this lowly servant say to you, Madam Nie, that you have borne a beautiful son." She spoke with awe.
Jin Guangyao saw tears in the woman's eyes. Being plucked out of obscurity and so trusted by her masters on this occasion was undoubtedly the highest honor of this mediocre servant's life. "Thank you for helping this night," She told the woman, who burst out in full-blown snotty tears at that. Gratefulness - something she never imagined from her mistress. Ma Miu tasked two assistants to escort the washerwoman out then, taking the liberty of granting her the next few days off for her services. "Once she calms down, give her and her family anything they ask for within reason." Jin Guangyao added, wincing slightly when the washerwoman produced a fresh round of sobs, her mistress' words touching very deeply it seemed.
Her overwrought wails stirred sympathy in Jin Guangyao's son. His little mouth contorted in odd shapes, forming odd, unhappy sounds. Jin Guangyao smiled and adjusted him in her arms, pressing her lips atop his head. Breathed in his freshly-washed, freshly-born, and innocent smell. It was intoxicating. "I know, I know, Mama is tired as well." She cooed sympathetically. "You and I have had a troublesome time of it recently, haven't we?"
The rest of the room heard her true meaning. Don't cause us any more problems for at least a few hours. Or else.
Wen Qing remained closeby for those next few hours to monitor Jin Guangyao's condition and instruct Xiao Deng. She had wordlessly adopted the student as her own in the absence of Master Deng, who showed up only briefly but was bodily removed again by Nie Mingjue. Who the doctor chided for exerting himself, lifting heavy objects so soon. The physicians' attentions were unneeded, however. The baby was deemed an above-average weight and height in stupid irony for past concerns over his development in the womb. His mother had maintained her core well by playing Cleansing the past summer (and occasionally casting minor curses on her guards), so it was a simple matter to jumpstart her own recovery. Numb as Jin Guangyao remained down there long after Lan Xichen departed back to Yiling with Wen Qing.
"So we let her leave, just like that?" Qin Su couldn't help but ask. Jin Guangyao understood that if she had her way, Lan Xichen would be steering the doctor south toward Laoling. She stood, glued by the window in Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue's chamber, though the pair had disappeared into the western sky several minutes ago. Their husbands, real and fake, were presently off informing the Nie Elders of both the heir's healthy birth and some important political developments.
Jin Guangyao felt more at ease missing this meeting after warning her meddling little brother-in-law just how difficult she could make his life with his brother's own permission. Just because they had seemingly welcomed the exiles home didn't mean all was forgiven and Huaisang would lead the life he once did as sect heir. And simply because Mingjue was more amenable to the idea of helping Yiling Wei didn't mean that Jin Guangyao was beyond convincing him otherwise if Huaisang pushed for anything foolish. Jin Guangyao and his brother already agreed that another stunt like they just pulled might land Huaisang and Qin Su in actual exile for a time.
"We have sent our initial invitation to parlay. Mingjue and I trust Lan Xichen to return shortly with whatever their initial terms are. We'll go from there." Jin Guangyao explained patiently as she impatiently attempted to guide her newborn toward her teat. Having woken from their brief nap, both were famished from their long night. But where Jin Guangyao had readily picked up her spoon and slurped down a medicinal soup, her son was at a loss at how to get started feeding. He whined confusedly against her breast and Jin Guangyao felt ridiculous. She was relieved and regretful by turns about sending Aunt Kai away so soon.
"Will you invite Wen Qing to the One Month Celebration, at least?"
"If Yiling Wei doesn't ask for a virgin sacrifice, maybe," Jin Guangyao growled in frustration.
"What?" She snapped.
Qin Su finally stepped away from the window. She bowed low. "I am truly sorry for using your child's birth to my own advantage. Regardless of how things turned out, that was wrong of me."
Jin Guangyao sighed at Qin Su's display. She wasn't angry with Qin Su for what she had done, only disappointed...and a bit disgusted at how true Nie Huaisang's idle remark had been. "Sisters, truly," She repeated in a scoff. Qin Su looked sick in response.
Her eyes fell from Jin Guangyao's face to her fussy newborn. "My nephew..." She smiled thinly. "By marriage anyway, everyone still believing that I am Huaisang's wife and all."
Jin Guangyao rocked her son in arms, trying to quell his frustration enough that he wasn't just screaming at her nipples. She shot Qin Su a considering look and observed, "You have made a habit of calling him familiarly."
Qin Su did not blush or fluster, surprisingly. She sat on the edge of the bed with a sad sort of sigh. "He is my friend. One I don't mind being married to for however long it takes to put down Jin Guangshan. That rabid dog."
Jin Guangyao frowned at her conviction. "Being married to a friend was always your bare minimum. You do still seek a love match, right? The longer this goes on, the more muddled perceptions of you become and the pool of bachelors dries up. There's already a shortage of available grooms thanks to the war."
"My parents are traditionalists like most sects affiliated with Lanling Jin. That hasn't changed just because they want to see Jin Zixuan as sect leader sooner rather than later," said Qin Su. "They'd be horrified if they learned this was a total charade. That I shared a bed with a man that's not my real husband. Then there's the fact that my mother is elated that I settled down with a man from a powerful sect. And my father thinks Huaisang is the perfect husband since he dropped to his knees before me at the crossroads. Called him an 'inspiration.'
"But after being horrified at my impropriety and heartbroken over Huaisang being a dud, they would just push me harder than ever to get properly married. Likely, they'd just harass Huaisang to marry me for real. And if that didn't work, they would find some senior disciple in our sect to preserve my honor. It would all be such a hassle, I'd much rather things stay the same with Huaisang and I than overcomplicate things with my parents."
Friends pretending a marriage sounded like many arranged marriages to Jin Guangyao. She said nothing of it to Qin Su. Her mother mattered more to her now than her dream of a love match. Jin Guangyao could only selfishly hope that the idea she once scoffed jealously at would come to fruition - that Qin Su would fall for Nie Huaisang and legitimize the whole act, and then never leave the Unclean Realm for some perfectly upright and wellborn man of her parents' choosing. "You should be prepared to be pestered about having children rather than finding a husband then." Jin Guangyao teased.
Qin Su hummed, cheeks burning red, and poked at her nephew's cheek. "I mean, this little guy is very cute...The Nie blood, I wonder?"
"Or my mother's influence," said Jin Guangyao. "I refuse to owe anything to Jin Guangshan."
Qin Su frowned deeply, eyes straying back to the window. "We should have had her check our hearts. What if our mothers' shared ailment was passed along to us?"
"We don't need Wen Qing for that," Jin Guangyao reminded her. She cradled her son close to her breast again, now that he was calmer, and coaxed his mouth open. He looked at the world through bleary eyes but honed in at long last on a large, brown nipple. Finally, he latched and drank greedily from her, drawing life from his mother. Jin Guangyao grimaced at the strange pulling sensation even as she was satisfied to see him feeding. "We do not know if it was the same ailment, anyway. Growing up in the brothel, I never heard of such a disease that afflicted the heart as you describe. You already mentioned your mother, no need to make Wen Qing think she has greater leverage on us."
"But what if your son-"
"A-Su," Jin Guangyao softly warned. Her son had latched and fed greedily from his mother, the only woman allowed to do so, for Jin Guangyao would accept no wetnurses. She did not want to sully this moment fearing that she had unwittingly poisoned him well before his very birth, growing and protecting him inside her. She had no doubts in Wen Qing's medical prowess; if they confirmed that Jin Guangshan had been killing their mothers and was now killing them, too, then Jin Guangyao would use any means to extract a cure from the greatest doctor of their generation. "Our mothers lived for many years, and we survived our adolescence with little to no cultivation. This is something that can wait."
Qin Su conceded. "Right...My apologies. You should be at ease now, not fretting over things that we've done all we can for at the moment."
The two sat together for a while on the bed, simply watching the baby nurse. Qin Su rested her head against Jin Guangyao's shoulder, but was careful not to obstruct Jin Guangyao's view. Her son no longer squirmed or radiated a beet-red color; no, he was much cuter this way, properly swaddled in his mother's arms, a tiny hand-sewn hat protecting his little ears.
"I am so thirsty," Jin Guangyao rasped, parched. Honestly, it felt like her son had sucked her dry, but just. Kept. Going.
Nie Mingjue crept in at that very moment with a scroll in hand. Using his free hand, he poured a cup from the pitcher along his way over to the bed, where he replaced Qin Su at his wife's side. Jin Guangyao sent him a withering look as he made himself comfortable, so cozy and close beside her without asking. "Your son is ravenous." She accepted her drink primly.
"You say that like it's my fault," Nie Mingjue furrowed his brow in genuine confusion.
"Look how huge you are, Da-ge," She shook her head at him. "At least he will be weaned in a year. But then what are we to do when he devours the whole Nie herd?"
Mingjue scrunched up his nose before leaning over and wiping his thumb across their son's chin after he finally unlatched. "Your mother is jealous and wants you to be small and angry about it like her. That's why you must only listen to her most of the time, understood?"
Jin Guangyao swatted his arm. "Don't tell him that!"
"He's a baby," Mingjue gave her a flat look. "He won't remember."
"Unless he's like me," Jin Guangyao shot back.
"Now I know that's a lie, there's no way you remember being a baby!"
"Who are you to say what I remember? What proof is there that I can't?"
"The fact that no one remembers being a baby, Meng Yao."
"No one but me."
Their back and forth carried on at an unreasonable length before her husband made to silence her, presenting her an important scroll like a bone for a dog. At some before that, Qin Su had shown herself out.
"Notes on the meeting?"
"Consider it my first-anniversary gift to you," Said Nie Mingjue. "It's paper, after all." He watched her as she skimmed through the scroll, baby cradled in her lap. Sensing his attention, Jin Guangyao temporarily set the notes aside to show him how to properly hold his son. Mingjue grinned widely as he fully grasped the art, his son content in his large hands.
Jin Guangyao took in the sight. Their son felt so big in her arms, tiny as she knew he was in the scheme of things. He looked undeniably small in Nie Mingjue's two hands. Totally secure as one hand cradled his head while the other seated his rear. The thought her son would indeed grow as tall and broad as his father, or close to it, flitted through her mind. She shooed it off, not wanting to think so far ahead for once.
"What will my gift be to you?" Jin Guangyao asked, tearing her husband from his own enamored haze.
Nie Mingjue looked back down at their son as quickly as he looked away. Unable to be distracted for long. "He is enough, you said it yourself."
"But he is not paper," Jin Guangyao japed weakly.
"He is also not a girl," Mingjue retorted. His pure delight soured with seriousness. "You really wanted a girl."
"He must never know that," Jin Guangyao said immediately.
"What?" It wasn't an objection, but a somewhat startled response.
She couldn't move so well, barely half a day out of labor, so she leaned heavily on Nie Mingjue's side to look upon their son. Jin Guangyao found the babe dozing, readying for his third or fourth nap since entering the world. "He should never know that his parents wanted him to be any other way than how he is. My mother, I know she wanted a boy...perhaps her life would have been better with a boy. Less stressful, at the very least, not having to worry about my virtue and keeping my sex a secret for my own good. I felt bad, sometimes, for not being the boy that I was acting as each day. But it was also one of those things that I couldn't help being angry with my mother about. And then I would feel bad about being angry with my mother. It's a terrible feeling all around. I don't want that for my son."
"We should limit his burdens in life, I agree." Said Nie Mingjue. He heaved a terrible sigh. "I suppose that includes his own name."
"Oh," Jin Guangyao had hoped for a better outcome, but it seemed her secret predictions had come true. "No luck coming up with one?"
Nie Mingjue looked down at their son, utterly forlorn. "The best that I could come up with for a girl was Hua, or Chun, or maybe Zhu. But I didn't consider boy names at all."
Hua, Chun, or Zhu. Jin Guangyao smiled politely at each suggestion. Flower, spring, and...pearl? That was at least somewhat thoughtful. Her husband might have cracked a book for that one. A pearl to match the silvery mother-of-pearl often associated with Jin Guangyao's personal name.
"Not quite strong boy names, true. But lovely girl names!" Jin Guangyao placated the man's honest efforts. She hummed thoughtfully, imagining a formidable Nie cultivator of Nie Mingjue's stature named Spring. No one would dare mock him to his face, but behind his back...It would be difficult enough for her son to have Jin Guangyao for a mother. A scandalous cross-dressing spy, bastard daughter of a whore. Best not to saddle him with anything less than a good, sturdy name to make his teenage years a bit easier.
Nie Mingjue raised an eyebrow at her.
"Well, what?" Jin Guangyao shot back. She didn't like that look on his face. It was too close to those days after the Sunshot Campaign to when he even looked at her holding chopsticks with suspicion.
"I know you've been sitting on your own idea this whole time," He answered. "Don't pretend that you haven't."
Jin Guangyao barked a laugh, spooking a distressed coo from their nameless son. Mingjue's eyes went wide as he desperately rocked his son back and forth into the pits of slumber. Sheepish, Jin Guangyao stage-whispered, "You know me too well, Da-ge.
"Song," She told him. "With the character for pine trees. For those that cling to the steep mountains at the Unclean Realm's back...as well as for those which help conceal the Cloud Recesses."
"It's...a good name," Nie Mingjue agreed.
"Do you think we should ask Er-ge first?" Jin Guangyao asked, concerned by his strange reluctance.
"No," He shook his head, more resolute. "Just...what of his courtesy name? People will ask about it at the One Month Celebration."
That...actually did stump Jin Guangyao. Obviously, the 'ru' generational character that she once envisioned was now out of the question. But aside from that one forbidden character, it was a free-for-all. She admitted as much to Nie Mingjue who seemed disappointed. "I suppose we can do what my parents did with Huaisang and I. Like yours, too. A courtesy name as an extension of a personal name."
Jin Guangyao smiled at a small mystery solved. "Ah, so Huaisang has always been A-Sang, then?"
"Yeah. Same character for 'mulberries' and everything. It's how he's listed in the family registry."
"So you would be-" Jin Guangyao's perfect memory struck her then with a beautiful reminder. Something she hadn't quite registered then came back with a vengeance. The memory of Ma Miu on that lakeshore, months and months ago, lamenting the behavior of - "Ming-er?"
Her husband, Nie Mingjue - Nie Ming - Ming-er - he looked like just stepped in a cow paddy. "Stop."
" 'Brilliant child'," Jin Guangyao giggled into her hand. "What high expectations your parents set for you with such a cute-sounding name." It was too cute - too perfect. Jin Guangyao could see it clear as one of her own memories. His army of aunts doting on chubby, teenaged Ming-er. Perhaps a tender 'Mingming' thrown in as a treat.
"Quit it!" Ming-er growled lowly, careful of the sleeping babe. Then, a horribly arrogant smirk and a wicked gleam silenced Jin Guangyao, who eyed him cautiously. Despite her silence, he urged, "Cut it out, Yao-meimei."
A pained groan, surely leftover from labor, ripped through Jin Guangyao. "Da-ge!"
His eyes only lit up in response. "There!" He exclaimed.
"I already stopped, no need to press things or gloat..."
"I mean his courtesy name," Mingjue explained. "Dasong!"
Da-ge...Dasong...Jin Guangyao contained another groan. "As in 'great pine tree', I presume. Not supremely elegant, but it reflects a sincere effort as Er-ge suggested." And wasn't terribly obvious to those outside their immediate circle. Jin Guangyao could protest the choice, but she could not claim any better ideas.
And in this case, she comforted herself that there was nothing backhanded in a father naming a child for himself. Jin Guangyao...She ought to have been Ziyao, but had been craftily denied Jin Zixuan's brotherhood by her father naming her Jin Guangyao. A generational name shared by her father with his younger siblings, who all sat behind Jin Zixuan in succession, and who Jin Guangyao was likely meant to sit behind in turn.
Da-ge...Dasong. It was almost rather cute, how Nie Mingjue claimed his son so bluntly.
"Do you dislike it?" He asked her. Jin Guangyao realized suddenly that she had sat silent for minutes on end. Just staring at her son in her husband's arms. Her A-Song.
"I like it a lot, actually," Jin Guangyao paused, sensing some tension. "But you are angry with me."
"You kept what you knew about the Qiongqi Path to yourself for months," Nie Mingjue spoke lowly, still careful of their sleeping son in his temper. "You had the chance to tell me earlier when Huaisang came home, talking about alliances. But you didn't. After everything, you didn't say anything until pushed into a corner."
"Haven't I been chided already? Did I not concede defeat?" Jin Guangyao felt heavy all over. She wanted to rest some more.
"Because it feels so horrible," Nie Mingjue trailed off. "I feel like a piece of shit, part of me still not wanting to help. Ever since we agreed to entertain this idea, there's been a part of me viciously hoping that this alliance doesn't pan out. All so I don't have to help Wen-Dogs."
Jin Guangyao craned her head to look at her husband then. She had been thinking pragmatically all this time, distancing herself and turning cold. But for Nie Mingjue, his reservations were sourced in a fiery rage and intimate blood feuds. She wondered if one was worse than the other.
"Do you resent me for not saying anything earlier? Or for not talking you out of it once everything came to the surface?"
"It's Xichen who's messing with my qi right now."
"Er-ge?" Jin Guangyao sat up, as uncomfortable as that was.
Nie Mingjue grimaced painfully at his words. "Him, keeping secrets during the war, and now doing it again. You...I understand more now. But I'm afraid that I don't know what Xichen's doing anymore. I never realized until now how he..." He shook his head. "I don't even know. I tell him everything, and he - doesn't lie." But he did not always tell the whole truth until much later.
"Perhaps he didn't want to trouble us," Jin Guangyao suggested. She owed Xichen more than a token defense. But she, too, was bewildered by what he had become entangled with in his sworn siblings' absence. How he still had yet to confess the reason for his seclusion, and whatever other dealings he had had with Yiling Wei.
"If he won't trouble us to help him, then what must he think of us?" Asked Mingjue, to which Jin Guangyao had an answer. Having been in that position before. It was overwhelming and she was so very tired.
"Er-ge will surely explain when we see him again." She whispered. "Come now, put A-Song down and rest. You're not much better off than I am, remember?"
Nie Mingjue huffed and grumbled - tiredly, that was clear. He shucked off his boots and levitated Baxia over to her holder beside Hensheng. They tucked A-Song into a basket next to their bed. All the ornate cradles the aunts gifted temporarily forgone in favor of what Jin Guangyao was most familiar with from her own upbringing. And instead of sleeping, they sat together on the edge of the bed, watching their son breathe. Enraptured and terrified at once.