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Of all things, after years of careful concealment and paranoid precaution, after years in squashed quarters in army encampments and months fastened at the side of a mad tyrant, after swearing a sacred brotherhood , and seducing a woman - of all things, an unlocked door was her undoing. 

“Bastard whoreson!” Qin Cangye roared. He stormed from the doorway, across his daughter’s bed-chamber, fingers itching to ring Jin Guangyao’s neck. 

The two youths had scrambled to opposite sides of the chamber at the first creak of the door. Now, Qin Su clamored back across her bed to throw herself at her father’s back. 

“No! Father, please!” She begged. Her dainty frame was nothing to the seasoned cultivator. He advanced on Jin Guangyao, still raging, driving the smaller cultivator into a corner.

Jin Guangyao restrained the urge to summon Hensheng from the outer robes draped over the chair across the room. Spilling blood would only worsen the situation, which left only words. Words that might soon die in Guangyao’s throat if Qin Cangye had his way. 

“Sect Leader Qin, please allow us to explain.” Jin Guangyao rushed out in an unseemingly manner. “This is no matter of immoral lust, we -” Guangyao was forced to dodge down and scamper between Qin Cangye’s legs like vermin to escape his clutches. 

Cursing, Jin Guangyao twisted around to cast a binding spell. The sect leader would only be more incensed, perhaps less inclined to listen, but at least Jin Guangyao and Qin Su would be given a spare moment to don more than their innermost robes. 

But Qin Cangye was a seasoned cultivator. One skilled enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with a great sect leader as best friends for decades. He struck first. And harder. 

In an instant, the spell on Jin Guangyao’s lips died. She bit back a cry instead. The young cultivator fell to the floor with tremendous force that shook both the surrounding furniture and her teeth. It felt as if Guangyao’s body had been hammered into the floor. 

Qin Cangye turned around fully to loom over Jin Guangyao. His glaring eyes grew wide in confusion. The force of his spell had rumpled Jin Guangyao’s robe further, baring her chest. 

Like her mother, she was not a generously endowed woman. Moreover, her training had cultivated impressive muscles as well as a golden core. Yet her frame was undeniably feminine underneath her unseasonably thick inner robe. 

Qin Su jumped off her father’s back and threw herself down to the floor beside Guangyao. “Father, don’t you see? You - You have it all wrong!” 

Jin Guangyao did not flinch at the words. When Qin Su looked down on her, apologetic, she twitched her lips deliberately in a false reassuring smile. There was nothing Qin Su could do to help her now. No way they could ever marry after this fiasco. The best that Jin Guangyao could do for the girl she loved was let her save face in front of her raging, disappointed, and confused father. 

“A-Yao is a woman, Father!” Qin Su declared. 

After a gobsmacked moment of silence, the Qin Sect Leader’s angry flush turned to horror and embarrassment. He spun on his heel to face the very corner he’d chased Guangyao into. 

He did not think to undo his spell quite yet.

In the distance, a mob of footsteps hurried toward Maiden Qin’s bed-chamber, finally drawn by the commotion. Jin Guangyao leaned her head back and closed her eyes, willing away tears, and bidding farewell to what little regard she had managed to garner at her father’s court. 

Her eyes flew open as warmth overtook her. She found Qin Su’s gently smiling face inches from her own. She felt the other girl’s warm hands smooth over the fabric of the outer robe she’d draped over Jin Guangyao’s body.

In that instant before Madam Qin and a small army of servants burst into the chamber, Jin Guangyao regretted nothing more than not slicing Qin Cangye with Hensheng. Nothing that would kill him - no, Qin Su would never forgive that. The aim would have been to wound him just enough so that he would not chase the couple through the window and across the rooftops to the nearest Guanyin Temple where they might wed somewhat properly. 

It would not have been the gilded Jin Sect wedding that Jin Guangyao had hoped to give Qin Su once she finished cajoling her father. It would not be the wedding Guangyao hoped to receive from her own father. But it would have meant she could marry this sweet, gentle-hearted, gently-bred girl. 

And now, thanks to a damn door and her fucking tits of all things, that was all permanently out of reach.

Chapter Text

Qin Cangye personally escorted Jin Guangyao back to Koi Tower the next morning, two days ahead of schedule. The other Lanling Jin disciples were left behind to enjoy the remaining festivities for Qin Su’s birthday. 

The carriage ride was stifling. The sect leader refused to look at her. His cheeks were flush with a fine, ruddy mix of embarrassment and silent fury. 

After all, even if he was now convinced the two young women had not been rutting in bed - “It was mere girlish pillow play, Father!” - Qin Cangye was still under the impression that Jin Guangyao sought to aid and abet some silly, hitherto unknown dream of his daughter’s to avoid “real marriage”. No, no, surely Jin Guangyao only sought Qin Su’s hand so they might pal around in eternal girlhood, never truly fulfilling either’s filial obligations.  

Qin Cangye shook his head periodically. Jin Guangyao assumed it was at the foolishness of girls these days

She considered - periodically - slitting Sect Leader Qin’s throat, and that of the carriage driver, and the footman, and maybe even the horse for good measure. Make it seem the serendipitous work of bandits, double-back to Laoling to collect Qin Su, and disappear for a bit. But that wouldn’t do. Madam Qin and a dozen nosy servants learned the truth as well last night. Word had likely spread through the whole of Laoling by midday. And Jin Guangyao lacked the resources to raze a city to the ground on such short notice and without her father’s leave. 

And Jin Guangshan would never help her conceal this secret.

No, when Jin Guangyao and Qin Cangye entered the Jin Sect Leader’s private study upon their arrival at Koi Tower, he instead relished in this new knowledge. 

“And so it becomes clear just how you ingratiate yourself to so many of my peers,” Her father’s words were a prod to the ribs. Jin Guangyao remained prostrated on the floor in a thousand apologies for her deception of her noble father, wishing he’d just shut up and kick her damn it . “Like mother, like daughter.” 

Jin Guangyao dared to glance up through her lashes. She saw her father’s eyes glitter with mirth and delight. She was sure her passive mask remained affixed perfectly in place, so much so that Qin Cangye did not look altogether certain that the revelation bothered the young woman despite her intense secrecy. Still, her nails bit into her palms, hidden by her sleeves. Her father did not see her tremble, but she knew that he knew just how much agony she was in. 

Her heart and body ached and throbbed as they had at the bottom of those stairs, all those years ago.

Her father quickly summoned his wife and beloved son to partake in her humiliation under the guise of addressing a sensitive family matter. He relished equally in their incensed and befuddled reactions to it. 

“A woman? How could Guangyao hide something like this throughout the whole Sunshot Campaign?” Jin Zixuan demanded as if it were his right - perhaps not to know Guangyao’s secrets, but at least not be so hopelessly confused in his own home. Her brother turned to her, eyes wide and questioning and puppy-like. 

This fool will run a sect one day. Jin Guangyao averted her gaze, glancing quickly over Madam Jin to assess her reaction to the news. 

The woman regarded her husband’s bastard more grimly than usual. Her blood-red lips puckered sourly. Her sharp, critical eyes assessed Jin Guangyao’s prostrated form, from her toes to the sparks-amidst-snow emblazoned on her back to the vermillion mark kissing her forehead. 

“How, indeed,” Madam Jin echoed her son with none of his baldfaced concern.

“Yes, my lady, I was thinking the very same,” Jin Guangshan nodded sagely. “There’s no telling what impropriety has been committed and will sully Lanling Jin’s contributions to the war. Her gallivanting with Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen is the least of our concerns, what with that time she spent at Wen Ruohan’s beck and call. Those Qin servants will not keep quiet for long. Something must be done.” He declared, narrowing his eyes at Guangyao. 

“Jin Guangshan, my friend, I understand that this is a Lanling Jin matter, but before I take my leave, please allow me a word,” Qin Cangye interjected respectfully. Jin Guangyao allowed herself a modicum of surprise; then again, the man had been somewhat considering her courtship for Qin Su’s hand. Moreover, he’d raised sweet, gentle Qin Su in the first place. “Jin Guangyao - this maiden, though I did not know it till last night, has been a most faithful friend to my daughter, who you have known since birth and acted as uncle to. So I entreat you not to be too harsh. If not the sake of this guileful daughter of yours who only sought your acceptance as best she could, then for my own daughter’s sake. She could not bear it if Jin Guangyao was beaten severely and publicly humiliated because of their little sleepover.”

“She would not be beaten for a sleepover ,” said Madam Jin. “She would be beaten for deceiving her sect leader. She would be beaten for whoring herself out in the name of Lanling Jin without our asking!” 

Guangyao bitterly wondered if that meant they would have asked, had they known. She smiled at the floor tiles, the action hidden by her bowed head. She wasn’t unused to such propositions. Despite what everyone else in the room seemed to think, however, it had been quite some time since someone tried to barter their way between her legs. 

“But, Madam, don’t you feel that such a punishment for such a crime would only reflect poorly on Lanling Jin? Jin Guangshan, you would be giving not yet born rumors teeth,” Qin Cangye entreated his friend. “Please, quietly send the girl away to seclusion so that the name Jin Guangyao can disappear forever. She might even come back to Laoling as a handmaiden to Qin Su once this is all given adequate time to blow over, under a new name. In time, she might even find a respectable marriage to one of the smaller sects. Surely the loss of her position will be punishment enough without inviting ridicule on us all.” 

“He’s right, Father!” Jin Zixuan spoke up, suddenly fierce with conviction upon hearing seemingly sound advice from an elder. Jin Guangyao mourned the opportunity to counsel him in later years. He would have been so amenable to her recommendations. More so than their father, who only had his own ideas and only wanted for her to make them a reality in that scrupulous way of hers. 

It was strange then, to watch Jin Guangshan hum thoughtfully as if he were actually considering what Qin Cangye suggested. Carefully, at that! The gleam of humor and venom left his eyes as he stroked his chin and circled the room - circled Jin Guangyao. 

Guangyao narrowed her eyes at the floor tiles, wondering at just what her father could be turning over in his head. She never thought that Qin Cangye’s naive plea to preserve her reputation might be considered. Just as she had never considered that she would be immediately expelled from Lanling Jin Sect. Her father was too fixated on becoming Chief Cultivator and obtaining the Stygian Tiger Seal. In this new, secret campaign, Jin Guangyao was her father’s chief general and sole footsoldier. He could not dismiss her so easily.

On the journey to Koi Tower, Guangyao had considered many more plausible outcomes and had made peace with each of them. Most involved her continued service to her father in continued hope that he might forgive yet more transgressions of her very existence, if only she served well enough - after she was appropriately chided for her deception by the discipline whip. She would also have to build her reputation in the cultivation world back up, of course. She would be forced to bear new, fresh humiliations in the halls of Koi Tower. But her foundations would not be altogether worse off from where she started as Meng Yao the bookkeeper. After all, this time, she was inside the glittering tower, not at the bottom of the stairs.  

Perhaps it was a mere show of consideration. Yet, Jin Guangyao was not so sure. Anxiety tickled her spine. What if he thought he could do it without her? What if he truly thought to be rid of his bastard, no matter the short-term costs to his reputation or his long-term plans? 

Jin Guangyao dared to look up and look pleadingly at her father, silently begging that he remember just how valuable she could be to him. As good as Jin gold, if only he’d let her stay and prove it. Her father halted in front of her. He smiled, that menacing spark returning to his dark eyes, and gestured for her to rise. 

With another gesture, he silenced the beginnings of Madam Jin’s grumblings about leniency.

“Qin Cangye, A-Xuan,” Her father began. “You’re right. A harsh punishment would only confirm salacious rumors about Guangyao’s behavior during the war. However, I have also come to realize that dismissing her quietly would have much the same effect. Lanling Jin would be humiliated for being duped so long by a single girl. So we must instead give every appearance that we already possessed this knowledge and were complicit at every stage of Guangyao’s activities - which, of course, were always virtuous . In fact, I will have insisted on this false identity in order to preserve my child’s chastity while permitting her the opportunity to serve our sect.”

Jin Guangyao’s eyes widened impossibly at her father’s words. His suggestion amounted to retroactive legitimacy, shaming all those who had - to their knowledge - unknowingly disrespected Maiden Jin throughout the war. She choked on joy and disbelief, “F-father -”

Jin Guangshan’s expression turned incredibly solemn, though that spark remained stubborn in his eyes. “Of course, there is still the matter of Jin Guangyao’s improper relations to Sect Leader Nie and Sect Leader Lan. She has been left with both men without chaperones on numerous occasions. Why, some tales of Lan Xichen’s flight from Cloud Recesses mention the two sharing a bed!”

Madam Jin gasped. “You can’t actually be thinking-?!” 

Jin Guangyao’s stomach dropped out. She grit her teeth. Somehow, her father had soured the sweetest of her memories outside her mother’s perfumed bedroom. She remembered every soft breath and whisper of fabric from those cool nights. There was nothing torrid about them. Yet the whole world would soon think - her eyes stung. I’ve ruined him. I’ve dirtied him. 

Her fingers trembled. She folded them across her chest and hid them in her sleeves. These hands had washed his silken clothes free of dirt and ash. They’d mended horrendous tears and returned silvery clouds to their pristine glory. But now there was nothing she could do to salvage Lan Xichen’s purity in the public eye.

She felt the sweat and grime of a day's travel acutely, down to the nail bed of each finger. 

For once, Jin Zixuan closely mirrored his father - if in that tactless way of his. After a moment of tense silence, an awkward understanding of circumstances settled over the room’s occupants. Jin Zixuan nodded in solemn understanding along with Qin Cangye, though his puppy-dog eyes sparkled with a young man’s eagerness and excitement. This must have seemed the best-case scenario from his perspective. 

“A marriage between great sects would be a happy way to close this dark chapter in our history!” He exclaimed as if determined to plan the whole thing himself, seating arrangements and all. 

Madam Jin marched over to the daybed where her husband liked to entertain chambermaids, took an ornate pillow and proceeded to scream into it.

Chapter Text

Her father dictated two letters to the Nie and Lan sect leaders, with Qin Cangye acting as his scribe. Clearly, he couldn’t trust Jin Guangyao with the task. 

She was dismissed as the dictation began, escorted by Madam Jin with orders to prepare for her outing to society. On such short notice, Jin Guangshan surmised that a banquet could be prepared and an appropriate number of cultivators summoned to witness the affair in a week’s time. Until then, Jin Guangyao would be confined to her chambers in “brief meditative seclusion.” 

Her seclusion was regularly interrupted by visits from Madam Jin and a fleet of chambermaids that had been reassigned to Guangyao in place of her former manservants. The first few visits entailed fittings by a seamstress and etiquette lessons. The decorum she learned at the knee of her courtesan mother was polished to sect heiress standards. After four days, not even Madam Jin could fault her in that regard. Instead, the woman focused on silently seething as she tore apart Guangyao’s chambers looking for evidence of impropriety and drilled the younger woman with questions.

“Did you spread your legs for Wen Ruohan?” 

“He had no idea that this one was a woman. The madman had no real interest in women anyway. Except when torturing them right alongside their fathers, brothers, and husbands, of course.” It was a sound deflection as well as the actual truth. Wen Ruohan might have suspected her true gender, but it never concerned him so he said nothing. He had plenty enough over her without bringing sex into things. The man was strangely egalitarian in that regard.

“How can this be confirmed?” Madam Jin demanded. 

Jin Guangyao thought carefully and answered, “Wen Qing, his favored cousin and personal doctor. She is the last of his inner circle. If he was bedding the daughter of a courtesan, I’m sure he would have had her examined for disease by the greatest doctor of Qishan.” 

Madam Jin went away after that and Guangyao assumed someone was sent out in search of Wen Qing. The madam returned the next day and questioned her relationships with her sworn brothers. 

“This one did share a bed with Sect Leader Lan when he was hiding from the Wen-dogs,” Jin Guangyao decided that being more truthful than not with Madam Jin was her best recourse. An outright lie would only make the matter seem more untoward if Lan Xichen decided to be honest when asked, as Lan principles demanded. “But it was not in a carnal sense. Really, it was all part of this one’s ruse to protect Sect Leader Lan. Along with hiding his more ostentatious clothing and keeping him out of sight as much as possible, this one slept beside him at night so if someone came upon us, this one could lie that they were lovers. No one would assume that the esteemed Lan Xichen took so quickly to the bed of a commoner. So instead, they would believe the man was not the fugitive sect heir and would move on.” Really, the ruse had only been a fleeting excuse to drift to sleep gazing on a fair face, warm under the same blanket as such a warm and kind cultivator. The Wen disciples actually made pretty poor hunting dogs. 

Madam Jin had no need for this information to defend Lanling Jin’s reputation. It would only do more harm than good. 

“And Nie Mingjue?”  

“This one was only his deputy.” Jin Guangyao insisted, remembering the rumors that persisted back then, “People liked to imply things, but if seriously asked, no one from Qinghe Nie would incriminate their sect leader like that. Believe this one when I say that Sect Leader Nie would also never stoop so low as to - as to bed his deputy. In fact, Sect Leader Nie has several other female subordinates who can confirm that he is never untoward to those women below him, out of respect for both them and himself.” 

Madam Jin barked a rare laugh at the subtle jab at her husband. Then she took her leave, abandoning Jin Guangyao to simpering maids who wanted her to sample different cosmetics. She assumed they’d been instructed to make sure she didn’t apply her makeup too whorishly. 

Later, Madam Jin returned with a pot of tea which they did not enjoy as the older woman ran down a physical list she’d acquired somewhere of seemingly every man Jin Guangyao had ever bid good day to. Thanks to her impeccable memory, Jin Guangyao knew the list actually only concerned those whose words might be lent some credibility in the cultivation world. Sect leaders, their heirs, head disciples, army officials, and some mediocre gentry and merchants who did business with cultivation sects. Cringing, Madam Jin even inquired about Jin Zixun. Jin Guangyao could answer honestly that nothing improper had transpired with any of these men. 

At the end of the list, hours after the tea went cold, Madam Jin rolled up the paper. She looked across the table at Jin Guangyao, and for once she didn’t seem so disgusted with her. Not altogether pleased, but not hateful either. 

“We sent men to investigate that brothel in Yunmeng,” said Madam Jin. 

Jin Guangyao did not flinch, figuring such a thing was likely. Still, her insides twisted at the idea of someone at Koi Tower seeing where she’d come from. They were certainly back now, regaling every maid and manservant with tales of scantily-clad whores, boorish clientele, and the pathetic paint-chipped veneer of luxury put on by the women there. 

“The madam and some older workers confirmed - were insistent that you never...worked at that establishment, before or after your mother’s death. That you dressed like a frumpish boy and worked in the kitchen when not attending school.” 

Jin Guangyao nodded, smiling. “My mother refused to sell me. Because I was going to be a great cultivator in my father’s sect one day.” 

Madam Jin said nothing to that. She instead turned to a maid and ordered a fresh pot of tea. 

The last few days before the banquet were a barrage of fine golden fabric, perfume, hairpins, and yet more questions about her virtue. The new theme became whether anyone knew her secret besides Qin Su and the women at the brothel. Essentially, whether she had accomplices more loyal to her than to Jin Guangshan who required punishment and scrutiny. Jin Guangyao offered up a cunning woman in the city who supplied her herbs to stop her monthly flow. She’d already dispatched all the nosy manservants and voyeurs in Koi Tower herself, through word or through deed.

The morning of the banquet, when she stood before Madam Jin, dressed as her own daughter might have been, the older woman was at last satisfied with her. Which was distinctly different from being happy with her, Jin Guangyao reminded herself. The older woman still regarded her with sharp eyes. Though now they lingered on her face rather than cut right through her. 

After evaluating her, Madam Jin left to greet guests in the Glamor Hall with her husband. Jin Guangyao was left with her maidservants throughout the morning, interrupted in their tea and dice games only by Qin Su bursting into the room and throwing her arms around Jin Guangyao. 

“A-Yao!” 

“A-Su!”

The girls embraced for minutes on end. Yao wanted to bury her face in the other girl’s neck and breathe her perfume. But she was afraid of ruining her makeup. Qin Su had no such qualms about Jin Guangyao’s hair. 

“Qin Su,” A soft, maternal voice chided. Jin Guangyao watched the pale, ghostly Madam Qin glide into the room, clapping her delicate hands disapprovingly. “Be aware of your makeup and Maiden Jin’s hair. The maids worked too hard to do it over again.” 

Qin Su and Jin Guangyao untangled themselves but continued clasping their hands between them. Qin Su’s lip wobbled. Tears threatened to go ahead ruin her eye-makeup. 

“I’m so sorry! I was so sure I locked the door, but it turns out it was broken -”

Yao silenced her hushed rambling by pressing a manicured finger against her perfect red lips. “None of this is your fault, A-Su. Besides, this might work out for the better. For one thing, I don’t have to worry about my secret anymore. This gives me time to worry about other things - like finding you the most perfect, kind, and chivalrous husband!” She said, stroking the other girl’s cheek. 

Qin Su blushed so prettily. 

Jin Guangyao pulled the girl over to join her at the tea table and invited Madam Qin to do the same. “Come now, tell me what I’ve been missing this past week!” What she needed most now from Qin Su was not kind platitudes about getting her into this situation or even her affection - it was information from the outside world. 

Thankfully, sweet, blessed Qin Su had kept a keen ear out for word about her lover. Madam Qin assured Jin Guangyao that she had been a particular pest to her father about news from Lanling all week. Qin Su diligently reported that everyone in Laoling had heard the news, and it had spread from there across the cultivation world, helped by Jin Guangshan’s sudden invitations to a banquet. Qin Su herself had been bombarded by correspondence by friends and cousins, asking for confirmation and about her own role in things. 

Madam Qin sternly interjected that it was of course the role of a best friend and close confidant, akin to sworn sisters. Jin Guangyao nodded, tittering with laughter as if to think otherwise was ridiculous. Madam Qin’s smile was more brittle than usual, so it seemed she knew better than her husband what had been going on in her daughter’s bed-chamber. 

Qin Su recounted all the speculation she’d overhead through the door to her father’s study. Naturally, most had to do with marriage, as the banquet made it clear that Jin Guangyao would not be quietly shuffled off into obscurity. 

“I heard father say that Sect Leader Jin opened negotiations with both Qinghe Nie and Gusu Lan,” Qin Su blushed a darker shade than usual. She was agitated. “However, he also mentioned putting forth my older brother as an option should they turn you down...” 

Jin Guangyao’s heart stuttered at the idea. She didn’t know if the prospect of being rejected by Lan Xichen gladdened or terrified her. 

“Which isn’t going to happen, of course!” Qin Su insisted, cradling Yao’s hands and stroking them in a soothing gesture. 

Around the room, the chambermaids smiled indulgently at the display of sisterhood. Across the table from the maidens, Madam Qin’s expression grew ever darker. 

Jin Guangyao tentatively withdrew her hands to pour mother and daughter a cup of tea. Somehow, she was certain that it was not her illegitimacy or sex that drew Madam Qin’s disapproval.

Chapter Text

Qin Su and her mother left for the banquet around sunset. Jin Guangyao stayed behind in her bed-chamber, as she was meant to make a grand entrance just before the first course once all the guests were settled. She did not expect any more visitors until some Jin maiden cousins came to escort her. 

So imagine Jin Guangyao's surprise when she looked up from her book to find Jiang Yanli poking her head around the door. She and Jin Guangyao blinked slowly at one another. 

“Ah!” Jiang Yanli smiled graciously as she slipped into the room and saluted. “Forgive this one for intruding, Maiden Jin. Please also allow this one to say that you look exceedingly lovely this evening.” 

Quickly recovering from her surprise, Jin Guangyao replied, “Still less lovely than you, Maiden Jiang.” 

The two young women settled in with yet more tea. Jin Guangyao looked forward to the banquet wine after this past week. 

“Forgive me if I sound ungrateful, Maiden Jiang, but were you truly so eager to greet me before the banquet?” Asked Jin Guangyao. 

“I really was. Especially away from prying eyes and ears.” 

That piqued Jin Guangyao’s interest. She had no idea that Jiang Yanli had a political bone in her body, though it made a certain sense as the Violet Spider’s daughter and the acting-madam of Yunmeng Jiang. She shooed the chambermaids off to the adjoining antechamber. “Please do go on, My Lady.” 

Jiang Yanli’s eyes sparkled with a strange excitement that reminded her of Jin Zixuan in their father's study. “I have heard from Young Master Jin that your father has spoken to Gusu Lan on the topic of marriage. As you are and Sect Leader Lan are already on such good terms, it feels only natural to assume that you will soon be called Madam Lan.” 

Jin Guangyao blushed genuinely. “Maiden Jiang, such assumptions…”

“I know, I know. Please hear this one out. I briefly spoke to Sect Leader Lan on a particular matter during the Sunshot Campaign. We did not have the ability - or truly the nerve - to act then. However, I think you might be just the person to aid our quest once you relocate to Cloud Recesses and assume certain important duties.” 

Jin Guangyao regarded the other girl critically as she sipped her tea. There was only one matter which came to mind that would concern both Jiang Yanli and Lan Xichen, and soon herself as well if she truly did wed her dearest sworn brother. “I assume you refer to sisterly duties?”

Jiang Yanli nodded in a commiserating manner. 

Jin Guangyao heaved an exasperated sigh. Not her first thanks to two absolute idiots. “They really haven’t budged at all? Does Wei Wuxian still think that Lan Wangji wants to punish him?” 

Jiang Yanli nodded again, this time in despair. “It’s been worse since Phoenix Mountain for some reason. Wei Ying won’t talk about it. I fear he will only become further estranged from other cultivators at this rate. Perhaps if he knew that Hanguang-jun does not hate him, he'd feel better about himself. Then others might follow suit and realize he is not some fiend. As it stands now...” 

This was only good news for Jin Guangyao. She and her father’s plans only benefited from Wei Wuxian’s public conflict with the venerated Hanguang-jun - even if it only appeared to be enmity to those who did not know the lovesick idiots personally. (Jin Guangyao didn’t know either that well, but she knew Lan Xichen, first-hand witness to the couple’s romantic fumbling.) 

“Maiden Jiang,” Jin Guangyao started off apologetically. “Even if I were to become Madam Lan, I do not think it would be appropriate to meddle in Hanguan-jun’s romantic life.” For many reasons, least of all because she didn’t really want to. His brother was beautiful like jade, but Lan Wangji was carved from jade, and every bit as cold and austere as that implied. Jin Guangyao didn’t particularly care for him or to learn the intricacies of his fixation on the demonic troublemaker Jiang Yanli called a baby brother.

“Oh,” She watched the visions of resplendent red robes die in Jiang Yanli’s eyes. 

Just then Jin Guangyao wondered if she’d spoken too soon…

Jin Zixuan had been making overtures toward Jiang Yanli since the war ended. Having carefully observed the girl, Jin Guangyao assumed Jiang Yanli secretly did still care for her half-brother and was merely putting up a front in order to encourage him to meet her standards. She estimated that the both of them would crack sometime in the next few weeks - maybe sooner, depending on what had transpired during Jin Guangyao’s confinement. 

Father’s aim was the title of Chief Cultivator and possession of the Stygian Tiger Seal. The former required the support of the other major sects, while the latter necessitated either somehow taming Wei Wuxian or disposing of him. Lately, it seemed easier and easier to turn the world against him and then pick over his corpse like carrion birds. But perhaps both of Father’s aims could be achieved with a few strategic marriages. 

Once Jiang Yanli married Jin Zixuan, Yunmeng Jiang would be bound in an alliance with Lanling Jin. The couple’s children would seal their partnership in blood. Such a marriage might make Wei Wuxian more amenable towards cooperation, but the manipulation would be too obvious. He'd likely see his sister as a hostage. Moreover, with his character, he’d chafe under the political pressure exerted by his martial brother and brother-in-law. 

If Wei Wuxian wed Lan Wangji, however, it was obvious he’d become clay in the other man’s hand before long. Even when he thought the other man detested him, he sang Lan Wangji's praises and fluttered his eyelashes dreamily at him. Wei Wuxian would devote himself to Lan Wangji, who in turn was always devoted to his sect and his elder brother. 

If Jin Guangyao wed Lan Xichen, she knew that he might never truly love her, but he’d be a devoted husband and value her counsel. She would be able to influence Wei Wuxian to the benefit of Lanling Jin and he would never even see it through the haze of love. If she wed Lan Xichen, she would surely sully his purity forever, but she could also ensure his brother’s happiness, and thus his own happiness. She could ensure everyone’s happiness and success. 

Jin Guangyao smiled mischievously at Jiang Yanli. “It would be most inappropriate. Which is why we will all have to be incredibly subtle!” She winked for good measure. 

Jiang Yanli lit up with pure delight. “Thank you, Maiden Jin! I can already tell that you’ll be a tremendous help!”

“You honestly had me there for a moment, Maiden Jin!” Yanli laughed as they enjoyed another cup of tea. “You’re too cruel, pausing so long before agreeing.” She teased the other young woman. 

Jin Guangyao feigned concern. “Apologies, Maiden Jiang!” 

"No worries! I'm laughing after all!"

They giggled good-naturedly until Jin Guangyao’s cousins arrived to escort her to the banquet. Jiang Yanli eagerly took her arm and walked with them, scandalizing the other Jin maidens. They could not protest it, however. Madam Jin would deny Yanli nothing at Koi Tower, even a bastard’s arm. 

As they drew closer to the Glamor Hall, Jin Guangyao allowed fondness to swell in her chest. In the previous generation, Madam Jin and Madam Yu had been dear friends; their friendship will eventually unite two great sects. Perhaps, in this generation, Jin Guangyao and Jiang Yanli could unite three great sects.

Chapter Text

The Glamor Hall, previously raucous with gossip and liquor, hushed suddenly as Jin Guangyao and Jiang Yanli made their entrance. Every eye bore into the young women as they made their way toward the dais from which Jin Guangshan and Madam Jin presided over the festivities. Jin Guangyao did not dare tear her eyes away from the dais as she walked.

Jin Guangshan actually smiled at his bastard daughter's arrival - his grin seemed to beckon her to walk faster. Madam Jin silently fumed at Jiang Yanli's arm hooked with Jin Guangyao's own. Her crimson lips were pressed into a thin angry line. 

Jin Guangyao, Jiang Yanli, and the Jin cousins sank low before the dais in greeting, gold and violet silk pooling around their waists. An elegant gesture of Jin Guangshan's hand permitted the maidens to rise. Jin Guangyao turned around, flanked by golden maidens on each side as Jiang Yanli excused herself to Sect Leader Jiang's side. He gaped like a fish caught fresh from the waters of Lotus Pier. 

Now forced to face the assembly, Jin Guangyao's eyes could not help but seek out white and azure. She did not have to look hard.

Lan Xichen sat near the dais with his brother. Lan Wangji looked stiffer than usual, but that was not nearly as disconcerting as the soft frown on Lan Xichen's face. Even his perfect posture seemed to be waning somewhat. Jin Guangyao noticed his body was turned ever so slightly toward that of Lan Wangji as if leaning into his brother's crystal-like aura for support. 

This morning, the chambermaids had carefully manicured Jin Guangyao's nails. They felt caked in mud and shit at that moment.

Despite herself, her eyes strayed to Nie Mingjue who sat nearby with his own younger brother and a small contingent of Nie Sect officials. Nie Mingjue looked angry and determined. Yet, like Lan Xichen, he did not look at her. His eyes bore into the air before him, burning with intensity. 

New fears and suspicions nested in Jin Guangyao as Nie Huaisang waved cheerily her way. She subtly returned the gesture. 

At last, her father broke the silence with a booming declaration. "My friends, my ladies, and my esteemed fellow sect leaders, I formally present you Jin Guangyao, First Lady of Lanling Jin." He said it simply and smugly as if he really had been in on the secret the whole time and had only chosen now to let them all in on it.

Murmurs of surprise and confusion mingled with muffled laughter and unabashed outrage. Like a wave hitting the rocks, a thousand questions and accusations crashed over Jin Guangyao and Jin Guangshan at once. 

"Sect Leader Jin, is this some prank?"

"Who is this girl really?"

"You mean to say the rumors from Laoling are true?"

"This is ludicrous! It must be some joke on us and the bastard!"

"Dressing him in such a way - that's cruel even to a bastard, don't you think, Jin Guangshan?"

"Why are any of you all so surprised? If anything, the bastard's antics during the war make more sense!"

"Does this mean Maiden Jin is eligible to marry?" 

Everyone gave Jin Guangyao a brief respite at that to stare down the hopeful little cultivator in the back instead. Su Minshan shrank in his seat, his excitement withering even as his blush grew fiercer. 

Jin Guangshan laughed good-naturedly at the remark, drawing attention back to the dais. "Yes and no, Sect Leader Su. You see, I have summoned you all here today to make two announcements. The first being this: my illegitimate son, who you all came to know as Lianfang-zun after the Sunshot Campaign for great bravery and valor behind enemy-lines, including such acts as beheading Wen Ruohan, is, in fact, my daughter.

"Before any of you voice any unkind accusations against a maiden's honor, know that Lanling Jin knew this fact all along. In fact, I encouraged the ruse as both sect leader and father in order to preserve my daughter's chastity as she entered the battlefield. This was done to allow my illegitimate child the best opportunity to prove herself as a cultivator; I believe we can agree that she has done so, as she has earned the recognition of both the venerable Gusu Lan and the mighty Qinghe Nie.

"Apologies if any of you feel misled. However, please know that the objective was always to reveal this secret to you all when it came time for Jin Guangyao to marry and fulfill her filial obligations, something she has always been most eager to do on behalf of Lanling Jin. Which leads to my second announcement," Jin Guangshan gestured in the direction of Jin Guangyao's sworn brothers. 

She felt faint when Nie Mingjue rose to his feet while Lan Xichen remained seated. She might have swayed a little if her cousin's hand suddenly on her shoulder meant anything.

"Sect Leader Nie, the revered Chifeng-zun, has asked for my daughter's hand, and I have given it to him! On the next auspicious date, they will wed, elevating their friendship to a sacred partnership and uniting Lanling Jin and Qinghe Nie far closer than the alliance of the Sunshot Campaign." Jin Guangshan raised his cup, signaling a toast. "Let us celebrate!"

The gobsmacked assembly could not process so much information given at once. The dullest of them could only react to an order given by a social better; they roared at the good news. Those left unsatisfied by Jin Guangshan's explanation or discontent with either announcement were given no choice but to join in.

Her maiden cousins withdrew to take their own seats. Nie Mingjue strode over and came to her side. Something like resolve rolled off him in waves. 

Jin Guangyao looked over her shoulder, up at the dais, and saw her father smiling to himself. It was never at her. It was never a smile for Meng Shi's daughter. 

Nie Mingjue touched her arm and she managed not to flinch. "We have been invited to take a seat on the dais." He said. She nodded and followed him there, where the wine she so longed for awaited her.

All around the Glamor Hall, servants rushed to refresh the wine for all the guests. All except Gusu Lan. 

She watched Lan Xichen and his brother turn down a servant, then another who worried they hadn't been properly attended to. The Twin Jades were always polite, even if they both looked incredibly uncomfortable. Other guests would assume it was because they were Lans at a Jin banquet with rivers of liquor flowing before the first course had been served. Jin Guangyao knew that Lan Xichen could greatly enjoy large gatherings without the help of wine. Yet now, he looked like he sorely needed it. 

She wanted to climb down the dais and ask him why - ask if he was ill or wanted to leave - if he knew her secret all along and pitied her - if he knew deep down that Nie Mingjue surely planned to kill her - but she feared what he might say.

She sensed that Nie Mingjue, too, was watching their sworn brother. They shared this activity and the wine in silence as the banquet carried on.

Sometime later, they both watched Jin Zixun stalk over to Lan Xichen. 

"Sect Leader Lan, why haven't you drank to your sworn brother and sister's union? What's this disrespect to my cousin and Lanling Jin?" Jin Zixun demanded, slurring. 

Jin Zixun cared nothing for Jin Guangyao. He only wanted to pick a fight with someone who thought a bastard better than him. Nevermind the fact that Jin Guangyao doubted that Lan Xichen knew anything of Jin Zixun besides his behavior at Phoenix Mountain and that was reason enough to esteem an earthworm over him. 

"Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao's union will certainly be a most propitious one," said Lan Xichen, perfectly sincere. "I would definitely toast their union every day for the rest of my life, wishing them health and happiness, if not for my sect's principles. You might be unaware, young master, but alcohol is forbidden in Cloud Recesses." 

Jin Zixun threw his head back and laughed. He flailed his arm around, sloshing wine across the floor. "This is Koi Tower, though!" He held out his cup, insistent. "Here, it is required to drink like a fish when a bastard marries a butcher." 

Lan Wangji lept to his feet and to his brother's defense just as Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao did. They descended the dais and upon the veritable scene unfolding below.

They were already too late to stop Lan Xichen from accepting the cup just to appease a drunken idiot.

"Zewu-jun," She called out. Urgent, but softly as to not be unladylike. "Please, forgive my cousin's pestering. Lanling Jin honors and respects Gusu Lan's commitment to its principles."

He gulped the wine down like poison before Jin Guangyao's slippered feet could across the distance between them. He ignored hers and Mingjue's protests, even staying Mingjue's hand with a soft word.

At the very least, they all three were three to chide Jin Zixun when he turned his attention to Lan Wangji. 

Jin Zixun went ahead and poured another cup, shoving it in Lan Wangji's scowling face. A black sleeve darted out and snatched the cup right from her cousin's hand.

Wei Wuxian knocked back the drink in one gulp, turning the cup over to show not a drop remained to offend Hanguang-jun. 

The whole Glamor Hall fell silent once again. Except for Sect Leader Jiang, who loudly demanded to know just who exactly was overseeing Lotus Pier. 

Wei Wuxian ignored his sect leader and adoptive brother in favor of his own demands. "Where is Wen Qing?" 

Jin Zixun scoffed and grabbed back the cup. "What do you care, Wei Wuxian?"

"I care!" A ragged young man stepped out from behind the demonic cultivator. Wen Ning, Wen Qing's little brother and de facto assistant. Already rather meek and unimpressive, he looked worse off since the war ended. It was not merely the state of his clothes or his thin cheeks; uncharacteristic anger welled in his pitch-black eyes. He looked at Jin Zixun with nothing short of pure hatred. He must have been the one Madam Jin sent to collect Wen Qing for questioning.

"A Wen-dog's opinion does not matter!" spat Jin Zixun. He stabbed an accusing finger at Wei Wuxian's chest; across the room, his martial siblings jumped to their feet. "Nor does that of a demonic cultivator!"

Suddenly, everyone was yelling. Jin Guangyao bit back a growl of frustration and flagged down a senior guardsman. "Fetch Wen Qing from -"  The dungeons? Though with her skills and pretty face, perhaps Father put her up in a proper bed-chamber? "From wherever you put her." She obviously couldn't be released, but seeing her might calm down Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning before a brawl broke out.

The guardsman's eyes darted over to Jin Zixun. "I don't - she's not in Koi Tower -" 

"What do you mean she's not in Koi Tower?" Wen Qing was an important witness to Jin Guangyao's chastity. Why wasn't she in Koi Tower? It was clear by Wen Ning's anger that Jin cultivators had taken his sister. Did the idiots release her? Did she manage to escape? First, Jin Guangyao is sold off the worst possible option. Now, they've started losing track of prisoners? She’s locked in her room for one fucking week and everything goes to hell?

The guard hesitantly opened his mouth - and Jin Zixun screamed.

"Qiongqi Path!" Jin Zixun cried out. In the next breath, Wen Ning let him tumble to the floor. 

"You sent her to Qiongqi Path?" Jin Guangshan fumed atop the dais.

Sweet Mother of Mercy, you trusted Jin Zixun? With anything? Jin Guangyao screamed on the inside at the chaos which had unfolded in her brief absence. She focused the glare she so much wanted to pin on her father on her idiot cousin instead. The nails she so desperately wanted to drag across her father's - Jin Zixun's - Nie Mingjue's - face, bit into her palms to draw blood.

Jin Zixun burned so fiercely that his vermillion mark disappeared. He stubbornly avoided his uncle's piercing gaze and Jin Guangyao's own. His beady eyes followed Wei Wuxian and Nen Ning as the pair marched out of the Glamor Hall. He too stormed off. Then Lan Wangji disappeared. Along with Jiang Yanli and Jiang Wanyin. 

With no acceptable targets of outrage left to glower at, Jin Guangyao turned to Lan Xichen. What roiled her insides, what she felt but did not dare show, she found reflected in his eyes like a mirror.

Helplessness.

Chapter Text

They were awake late into the night - into the small hours of the new day and a new political tribulation. 

"I want squads of twenty or more disciples out there looking for them, branching out in each cardinal direction from each entrance into the pass."

"Of course, Father."

"Contact the families of those guards immediately. Send them a hefty sum in compensation for their sudden losses, then invite them to Koi Tower so that we can present the other sects the grieving families that the Yiling Patriarch just created." 

"I will contact the treasury and consult our records immediately, Father."

"Send an emissary to Yunmeng Jiang. Say it's to ask after Maiden Jiang on my wife's behalf or some such - really, I want to be sure they aren't harboring those Wen-dogs! Gods know that Jiang Cheng's head has gotten big since that bastard brother of his crawled out of the Burial Mounds." 

"You should ask your wife, Father."

Jin Guangshan spun on his heel mid-pace across his study. "What are you on about?" 

Jin Guangyao completed the last ink stroke in the letter she was preparing to send to those cultivators who had not attended her engagement banquet. It must be sent to be copied by the calligraphers once the ink dried. She kept her head bowed as she answered, "If we intend to disguise our reconnaissance at Lotus Pier as a friendly visit, it might be best to ask Madam Jin to go rather than someone unfamiliar to Maiden Jiang and her brother." 

Jin Guangshan scoffed. "And let my wife take measure of things? She's far too soft-hearted in regard to that girl. One simper about how much she cares for that shidi of hers and my wife will be blind to the flea-bitten dogs nipping at her skirts." Her father smiled sardonically. "Jiang Cheng always did have a certain affection for puppies. I wouldn't be surprised if he's opened his doors to the Wens. Ha! His sister is probably already plying their empty bellies with that damned soup of hers." 

"Father, please allow this one to express her doubt that the Wen prisoners have made their way to Lotus Pier." 

"Oh, did her time in Ruohan's lap leave my bastard daughter with special insight into the behaviors of dogs?" He had been in a particularly vicious mood since the banquet concluded. Since he had accidentally expressed his own displeasure with Wen Qing's imprisonment, Jin Guangshan had been forced to publicly stand - however briefly - by Wei Wuxian's decision to collect her, as clearly some type of error had taken place. Though Jin Guangshan could not adequately explain the error to his guests, who were still grappling with his two grand announcements. Only so much could be asked of the cultivation world at once. 

So Jin Guangshan had been forced to wait until word worked its way back to Koi Tower that Wei Wuxian had killed four guards and freed many more Wen prisoners than Wen Qing. Her father had been briefly overjoyed by this colossal blunder on the Yiling Patriarch's part until it boiled his blood since no one has any clue where he or the Wens are. In a short letter, Sect Leader Jiang said he'd escorted his sister home first and arrived at Qionqi Pass only to find the guards' bodies. Hanguang-jun testified upon his return to Koi Tower that he had seen the Wens make their escape on horseback. A dry-season dust storm had since covered their tracks. Her father had every reason to be irritated. 

"Sect Leader Jiang is young, but not politically inept, Father. He understands that Yunmeng Jiang's reputation has been negatively affected by his connection to the Yiling Patriarch since the war ended. Whatever martial power gained by taking on those Wens would be counteracted by the political ramifications. For one, we would of course cut off aid from Lotus Pier. Moreover, Jiang Wanyin despises the Wen-dogs more than anyone. I do not believe any measure of power could entice him to let them into Lotus Pier after they burned it down." 

"You underestimate the power of power," said Jin Guangshan. He collapsed onto the daybed, rubbing his temples. "Pour me something."

"Does Father have a pref-"

"Anything to take this headache away." He barked. Jin Guangyao rushed to her task, hampered somewhat by the heavy eveningwear still weighing her down. 

She knelt beside the daybed after handing him a cup filled to the brim with Emperor's Smile brought by Gusu Lan as an engagement present. She watched her father sip and enjoy the subtle sweetness, satisfaction with the floral taste slowly blooming across his face. She waited patiently for him to relax against the pillows. 

Jin Guangshan finished off the cup and let out a sigh as his head fell back against the fluffiest pillow. "What? What do you want now?" 

"Father," she began quietly. "If you do not mind my asking, why did you pursue negotiations with Qinghe Nie rather than Gusu Lan?"

"I thought my wife said your relationship with Lan Xichen was chaste," Father grumbled. 

"It is!" Jin Guangyao quickly insisted. Quickly enough for her father to visibly doubt her. "I simply wondered what made you consider Qinghe Nie a better option politically-speaking." Truly, she thought her father only picked Qinghe Nie to deny her the prestige of marrying the Number One gentleman of the generation. Why Nie Mingjue would accept, however...

Jin Guangshan tried to take a gulp from his empty cup and sighed again. "Nie Mingjue offered up a generous bride price in his response to my initial letter." 

Jin Guangyao refilled her father's cup. She did not spill a drop. Her heart hammered in her chest. "You have no need for Qinghe Nie's gold." She said, smiling tightly.

"No, but it spoke to their eagerness to have you," Her father's words were laced with double meaning as well as liquor. 

Jin Guangyao did not want to imagine what might happen to her once Nie Mingjue got his hands on her. He had wanted to see her face justice for her crimes for years now. His thirst for justice turned into a ravenous hunger by her past betrayals. Their sworn brotherhood was a feeble poultice on the wound that was their relationship. Lost respect and comradery equated rotted foundations that no houses could be built on.

Some days, she could hardly envision his face without burning up inside. Other days, she thought of almost nothing else but Nie Mingjue and his disapproval. Before she clawed her way into her father's graces, Nie Mingjue was the one who raised her up in the world and esteemed her. Then she had shown her claws while grappling up the steps of Koi Tower, and Nie Mingjue became just another man who rejected her. Worse than her father even, he hated her for good reason. If in that messy tangle of emotions in her gut, there was ever real hope that they could mend things following their betrayals, that was lost now with the discovery of her gender.

Really, their shared love for Lan Xichen was all that bound them together anymore and stayed their respective hands. Lan Xichen could not stand to watch his friends quarrel - but would he intervene in marital affairs? If Mingjue chose to hold his wife accountable for past crimes against his sect - their sect - would Lan Xichen stand between them once again? She loved the man, but just this past evening he gave in to Jin Zixun's demands and broke a rule just to smooth over a made-up slight. 

"Father, I don't think Nie Mingjue will be as easily swayed by a bride as you believe. In fact, I feel he will use these circumstances to -"

"Oh, this again!"

"Father, please listen to this one. Nie Mingjue does not trust me -"

"Yet you did not protest when I opened negotiations with him -"

"Because I assumed he would only take the news of my true nature as yet another betrayal and would be done with me! He will never forgive me now that he knows I lied from the start!" She would never be so intimate with him again and remember - 

"Well, clearly that is not the case!" 

"Because the hypocrite plans to use this all to his advantage and finally punish me!" Jin Guangyao rose to feet, screaming and trembling with fear of what awaited her in just two months' time.  "Father, you have to listen to me, I spoke to Jiang Yanli and -"

Jin Guangshan sat up and snatched Jin Guangyao's arms to shake her roughly. "I. Do. Not. Have. To. Do. Anything. For. You!" He punctuated each word with a violent shake which left Jin Guangyao's arms screaming and her neck sore. One last shove sent her to the floor as her father rose to his feet, wiping his hands down his front. 

He took a step forward. Jin Guangyao flinched, but he only passed her by on the way to his desk. 

"Who cares what you and Maiden Jiang spoke of anyway? Don't go turning into my wife, obsessing over that little girl's whims." 

"We thought of a way to get you everything you want without having to kill Wei Wuxian." Jin Guangyao forced the words out in a rush, one running right into the other, eyes pinned to floor tiles. She nearly swallowed her tongue when she was finished and Jin Guangshan came to loom behind her.

"You told her what I want?" His words were sharp and threatening like a knife against her back. 

"No," Jin Guangyao answered honestly. "But she came to me seeking help for Wei Wuxian and I realized that if I wed Lan Xichen, as she assumed would be announced this evening, then there was a way that I could deliver both the support of Gusu Lan and influence on the Yiling Patriarch to my noble father." This was a better plan than whatever base thing her father had in mind. 

Father circled around her. The trim of his fine golden robes came into view. 

"I already have one and have no desire for the other." 

Jin Guangyao looked up at her father in confusion. 

"You have proven that you already hold significant influence over Lan Xichen. There's no need for you to climb into bed with him a second time. You've said it yourself before that Nie Mingjue is the problem; a problem you could not fix as a sworn brother but seem to have better odds at as a wife. I do not care what you think he plans for you upon your marriage. Make do with your circumstances as you have always done. You do not even necessarily need to bring him under your thrall. Collect intelligence, find blackmail - whatever must be done to neutralize Qinghe Nie, do it. Otherwise, I will not afford you the protection you seem certain that you will so sorely need from your husband.

"As for Wei Wuxian...I'm done seeking influence over that hellion. Tonight only proved that even if I did sway him over to our side from Yunmeng Jiang, he'd never be completely tame. I do not want influence over the holder of the Stygian Tiger Seal. I want the Stygian Tiger Seal.

Jin Guangyao bent forward into a kowtow. "Apologies, Father, this one was not aware of this shift in your desires." 

"Now that you are, I am certain you will make every effort to accommodate these desires." 

She heard her father return to the daybed. "You are dismissed. Carry out my orders. Then go rest. Tomorrow we will breakfast with your future husband and his brother."

"Thank you, Father. May you rest well." Jin Guangyao rose to her feet and turned toward the door, never lifting her head.

"Jin Guangyao,"

She froze. "Yes, Father?"

"Sect Leader Lan rejected our offer outright. This is truly the only way forward." His honesty stung at the corner of her eyes.

She took a breath and turned around to bow to her father. "Thank you, Father. I will act accordingly." 

When she finally collapsed into bed, the sky outside her window was a pale azure. 

Chapter Text

One bow to the Heavens.

One bow to the parents. 

One final bow to each other. 

Like that, in three simple motions, it was done and she was Madam Nie.

Jin Guangyao rose slowly and met her husband's eye through a veil of crimson. All she could think was how strange Nie Mingjue looked in red.

She floated from the altar to the dais in the banquet hall, anchored only to the earth by the hand rested in her husband's. She smiled idly at the sea of faces that they passed along the way, seeing none of them. The wine she'd been sipping all throughout her morning preparations was doing its job nicely.

In any other circumstances, she would have wanted her wits about her, but not for the ceremony. 

During the wedding banquet, following their first proprietary drink as a couple from the nuptial cup, Jin Guangyao declined all further offers to refill her personal cup. She would need to be sober for her forthcoming battle. 

An endless parade of well-wishers approached the newlywed couple at the dais. Of course, Jin Guangyao recognized many of them.

Her former colleagues and subordinates as a Nie Sect secretary. Some who even seemed happy to see her again. Near-mediocres who knew little of the war outside the Unclean Realm's high walls and simply valued Meng Yao's ability to make their own lives easier. 

Qinghe Nie cultivators who disparaged Jin Guangyao behind her back during the Sunshot Campaign, but loved and respected her new husband and his decisions. 

Lanling Jin retainers who were no doubt ecstatic not to have to listen to a bastard anymore. 

Qin Su congratulated Jin Guangyao alongside her parents and siblings, though there was a thick, stormy atmosphere between mother and daughter, crackling with static. 

Ji Zixuan approached the dais with a friendly hand conspicuously placed near the cuff of Jin Zixun's neck. This was a sacred duty that Jin Guangyao had personally trusted him with for the evening after she 'lost' his draft of the banquet seating-arrangements. Her cousin needed to be put in line after he seemed to have single-handedly alienated the Yiling Patriarch from the Four Great Sects. 

It soon became clear that someone had shaken distant branches from each family tree for the occasion. 

Nie Mingjue had an army of aunts from both his mother and his step-mother's sides who crooned at how big and strong he'd grown. So much like his father! Like he was fifteen and not twenty-five. 

Jin Guangshan's sisters also showered him with attention. Jin Guangying, Jin Guanghua, and Jin Guangchen all agreed that Jin Guangyao was a lucky girl. Of course, everyone was lucky next to them and the homely (but rich!) husbands who escorted them.

Delicious food allowed a reprieve from conversation with practical strangers. 

Nie Minghue had hunted a great boar with his closest companions that morning which served their guests well in addition to a veritable flock of chickens and geese. Spice burned the air, as Nie Huaisang had thought to have Yunmeng dishes served to her taste. Jin Guangyao was touched by the gesture, but couldn't help feeling the dishes were wasted without Yunmeng Jiang in attendance. She alone seemed to truly appreciate the chili red noodles and zesty meat skewers. 

Nie Huaisang and Qin Su at least tried, only to end up chugging from jugs of goat's milk a servant had helpfully left on standby. Some Jin cousins and Nie cultivators took it for a game and soon a strange contest broke out in the middle of the banquet hall. 

With laughter and red drapery abound, the Unclean Realm did not seem so dour as Jin Guangyao remembered. It helped her wear a docile smile on her face in the face of the worst of it. 

A server presented the new husband and wife with a "special treat", indicating in soft undertones that it was a gift from the bride's father. Jin Guangyao poked at the Bufo Toad skin and glands bleeding in the golden dish. She was certain this was not how the famed aphrodisiac was meant to be served, but she was also certain she was being watched with hawkish intent. She braved a single bite and turned as green as the toad. Nie Mingjue snatched the bowl away and ordered it tossed out. 

When Jin Guangyao briefly excused herself to the privy to gag, she was beset upon along the way back by blushing maidens with raunchy opinions. "Forgive this one, Madam Nie, but we worry for you!" One giggled. "Sect Leader Nie is so - so large and in charge! And you - you're so tiny!" Jin Guangyao's only recourse was to laugh and hurry along back to the dais.

From the dais, she could see Lan Xichen seated beside his uncle. He no longer frowned softly into the open air. Instead, he smiled up at Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue any time he sensed their gaze on him. He stepped up to the dais and offered his sincere congratulations repeatedly. He teased his sworn brother for being too rigid at his own wedding and consoled his sworn sister that no one truly meant any harm when they teased a bride on her wedding day. The awkwardness of his rejection of her was gone and forgotten, never to be spoken of again it seemed. 

Jin Guangyao smiled behind her veil through it all. Till at last she and Nie Mingjue adjourned to her private chambers, trailed by red silk and Qin Su. 

Typically, the couple adjourned alone. But much was already out of order with this wedding. The nuptial cup drank at the banquet rather than in the bridal chamber - the presence of the bride's aunts - so on. Nothing really mattered to Jin Guangshan or Nie Mingjue it seemed except getting Jin Guangyao onto the Nie family registry and out of Koi Tower. Qin Su was meant only to help carry the veil as far as the bridal chamber, but then she followed inside. 

Jin Guangyao and Qin Su retreated behind a privacy screen. There, they worked together to carefully divest Jin Guangyao of her wedding robes and hair ornaments. It took longer than it needed to. But not long enough either. No matter how Qin Su's hands hesitated, they eventually reached her innermost robe. Thin, white, and so silky that it threatened to slip from Jin Guangyao's shoulders at the slightest movement. 

Qin Su pulled the last golden pin free; long black hair spilled down Jin Guangyao's back.

With a soft cloth dipped in cleansing oil, Qin Su wiped away pale face paint and crimson rouge. She stroked tenderly across Yao's cheeks and down her neck. Dabbed thoughtfully at her eyelids. Lingered on her lips. She soon abandoned the cloth in a water bowl and kissed her lover's lips red again. 

Jin Guangyao gripped the other young woman's sleeves and held fast for as long as she dared with her new husband just on the other side of the painted screen. 

It was not as long as she wished. 

Jin Guangyao withdrew and stroked a stray hair from Qin Su's face. "Go. Be with your parents while you can. I'll be fine." 

With a stiff-upper-lip, Qin Su nodded and stepped out from behind the screen.

Slippered feet shuffled across the floor. The bed-chamber door swung open and shut. 

Jin Guangyao made her way toward the bed with languid strides. She found it empty.

Glancing around the room, she found Nie Mingjue sat stiffly in a chair directly across from the bed, arms folded over his bare chest. His feet were planted firmly on the floor. He still wore his pants and boots. 

She felt like water; he looked like stone.

Jin Guangyao sat down on the edge of the bed and smiled demurely at her husband. "This is the first we've been left alone together since our engagement, Da-ge. We should take advantage." The flirtatious barb tore away that last thin veil of decorum between them.  

Nie Mingjue's lip curled. "As you intended to do with Lan Xichen, I assume." 

The accusation landed like a slap, ringing in Jin Guangyao's ears. Suddenly, this whole arrangement made a sick sense. "You really do think the worst of me, don't you?" She spat, letting her face contort with all the anger she felt. "Despite what my father says, this was never my plan. I never intended to reveal myself!" 

"You really expect me to believe a word out of your mouth?" Nie Mingjue shot back. "You lie and you lie and you lie. You pretend to be weak and delicate to endear yourself to others when you're a bloodthirsty snake. You feign loyalty only to cut down comrades and behead your liege for your father's favor. I come to find out that you conspicuously seek marriage with one of the two of the most eligible gentlemen in the cultivation world! Tell me, Meng Yao, what fool would believe that this was never your plan? You think me a brute, but I am no fool!" 

She wanted to spring across the room and strike him hard across the face. Wanted to summon Hensheng and show him what it truly meant to be at the wrong end of her blade. But it would be a waste to expend energy on such a pointless battle, nor could she afford to completely alienate him tonight. Even if this seemed like the very end of everything. 

"You think I would hurt Lan Xichen?" Jin Guangyao asked, feeling there was no way he could believe such a thing deep in his gut and bones. He thought the worst of her, but he had to see how deeply she cared for their sworn brother. If he thought Jin Guangyao could hurt Lan Xichen, she would never forgive him. 

"I think you wouldn't hesitate to use him." Nie Mingjue answered, swift as a swordsman's swing. "Whether you think that you would not hurt him doesn't matter, because you absolutely would, Meng Yao. Since the Sunshot Campaign, since I saw you for the demonic fox you are, I have worked to protect Lan Huan from you and your damnable influence. First by swearing that oath of brotherhood. Now, by marrying you." 

She barked a heinous laugh at that. "Well, isn't that fucking hilarious then! Because you've gone and made both our lives miserable for no damn reason! Lan Xichen rejected my father's offer outright. He never even considered marrying me and letting me work my feminine wiles on him and his precious pure Gusu Lan Sect!" 

Nie Mingjue gripped the arms of his chair, muscles flexing dangerously in the candlelight. The wood groaned. "Don't insult his feelings like that." He seethed. "Don't insult the pure heart you claim to care so much for. He would have gone against all the Lan Elders for you if I hadn't gone to him first and asked him to step aside on my behalf!" 

As if her bridal veil had been draped over her head a second time, Jin Guangyao saw red. All her aims for this evening were forgotten. "Hypocrite!

"I know!" Nie Mingjue shot to his feet, knocking back his chair. It clattered and she flinched, relaxing some only when a full minute passed in silence and she finally saw that the anger on his face was directed inward. It was the first time she had been able to read Nie Mingjue with any real clarity as she did others. Perhaps it was because the self-disgust was so familiar. Like recognized like. 

"I know what I am! And I will live the rest of my life with the consequences. As will you."

Jin Guangyao dared to laugh. "Of course! You would never shirk your self-assigned duty to keep me in check."

He sneered; she sneered. They finally saw each other. 

He made for the door, all heavy stomps. She let the silk glide off her shoulders and spill to the floor. 

Nie Mingjue stopped, twitching to attention all over even as he scowled her way. He looked livid at his own traitorous reaction.

"Are you going to neglect your other duties?" She asked, reclining on her elbows against the sheets. 

"Really?"

She wanted to laugh at his pissed-off expression. Angry at a woman spreading her legs for him! Angry at this own wife no less! He didn't even want this one pleasurable benefit from being tied to her. He just couldn't help his body's reactions. 

Jin Guangyao wanted to laugh so she did. "Don't act obtuse. You took off your robes for a reason." She let her eyes caress each sinewy muscle of his chest and arms, lingering appreciatively on every silvery scar, big or small. A vicious part of her relished in their violence. "Consummation is just another consequence we both must face." If she couldn't make him want her, she could always appeal to his dutiful nature. 

Nie Mingjue, her darling groom, breathed harshly through his nose and marched toward the bed. Jin Guangyao stopped his advance with a delicate foot pressed against his abdomen. She smiled shamelessly up at his drawn brow as her hand snaked between her legs. 

The great War God of Qinghe Nie Sect, Chifeng-zun, flushed down to his chest at her breathy moans. 

For perhaps the first time in his life, he retreated. 

Jin Guangyao's toes hooked on the waist of his pants, dragging them down enough to reveal a trail of coarse hair. "Prepare yourself." She ordered. 

Angry or impatient, Nie Mingjue shoved his pants down his thighs and did what he did best. Wield his saber. 

Jin Guangyao let her head fall back against the sheets, giggling and moaning. 

When she opened her eyes, she drank in the sight of him as she'd been silently encouraged all day - as she used to secret looks at him during training. His broad shoulders. His thick arms. His tanned skin, glistening with the beginnings of a good sweat. Jin Guangyao took her fill of it all - of anywhere but his face, really. She could have relished how much he hated what he got himself into, that perpetually pinched brow of his, but she didn't want such a hateful look seared into her memory forever. 

When Nie Mingjue stood at full attention and her thighs were slick and both their breathing was labored, Jin Guangyao used her fingers to spread herself and beckoned him forward. He grabbed each of her hands and pinned them beside her head as he sheathed himself fully in her, driving a shuddering gasp past her lips. 

She grimaced - less at their sudden union, tight and stingingly sensitive as it was - and more at the hot breathes mingling between them. She glared at the giant folded awkwardly over her, radiating heat like a volcanic spring. "Off." 

Nie Mingjue obeyed in an instant and started pulling up his pants.

Jin Guangyao rolled her eyes and flipped over onto her hands and knees. "Try it this way." 

She sensed his hesitation. Then the bed creaked as he climbed on behind her. 

He grabbed her hands again, interlocking his fingers with hers as he anchored them both to the bed. She stared down at their joined hands as he thrust into her. There was a moment's adjustment where Nie Mingjue's hips brushed against Jin Guangyao's ass and Jin Guangyao shifted her weight, shivering wordlessly as her core flexed unconsciouslessly around his cock. It was fortunately not the horse cock that Jin Zixun maliciously teased her about the past few months - but it was proportionate.

A few deep breaths let Jin Guangyao get her bearings - which began to slip as Nie Mingjue continued to hesitate, twitching his hips unwillingly forward and tormenting her by extension. "Move," Jin Guangyao bit out - just bearly clenching her teeth against the throaty moan Nie Mingjue thrust out of her. Every breath drawn from then on, came only at the long, sensitive drag of Nie Mingjue's withdrawals, right before he drove that breath out again with shameful wet sounds.

Soon, Jin Guangyao's vision blurred from the sweat dripping into her eyes. 

Nie Mingjue's sweat-slick skin clung to her own. He panted hotly against her neck like a rutting bull. Her own harsh breaths offered little relief. Bought and sold by a clan of butchers - mounted like an animal - bred without tender feelings - she was chattel. 

Jin Guangyao bit back a scoff and grinned, grinding her hips backward. Chased his withdrawals, unwilling to surrender him - gasped as his cock brushed her slit before driving forward in rough strokes - employed tricks she only ever heard about before now, clumsy but effective. Nie Mingjue choked out disgruntled groans at her teasing - then used one thick thigh to knock her knee out from under her and part her legs farther. Jin Guangyao nearly fell face-first into the sheets, but one strong arm tangled with her own crossed her chest and saved her that one humiliation. He fucked her shallowly then, slow and steady.

His motions were still powerful enough to rock her forward; her nipples rubbed against the vice of his arm, rubbing raw and tender. Every harsh breath pumped out of her challenged the hold. But her husband only held her tighter, adjusting his grip and forcing her to palm her own breast seemingly by happenstance. Jin Guangyao squeaked and bucked backward in revenge, interrupting Nie Mingjue's precious pace. He growled at the disruption but stubbornly ignored her bratty behavior. Sex was not his preferred battlefield, but he knew bait when he saw it. 

Near the end, as her husband's war-drum rhythm grew erratic, Jin Guangyao wriggled one hand free from his hold. Nie Mingjue recaptured it immediately and demanded on jagged breaths, "What are you doing?"

She could ask the same, manacling her hands like he did, but instead reversed the grip and guided his calloused fingers between her legs. "I am not a whore," She sighed as she made him touch her there. His hand was slack in hers, even as the rest of him braced over her. So pliant, Jin Guangyao took advantage. "I won't be denied my completion."

Moments later, she fell forward and buried her face in the crook of her arm as both she and Nie Mingjue succumbed to the heat, suffocating hot cries against slick flesh. Jin Guangyao came on Nie Mingjue's cock and hand, still tracing her folds absently out of rhythm with its master's lazily rocking hips. 

After he caught his breath, Nie Mingjue pulled out with a wet sound and tugged up his pants. He collected his remaining robes from the back of a chair. He'd never taken off his boots. 

"I'll have someone draw you a bath." He said quickly on his way out.

Jin Guangyao drew herself upright on shaking arms. She took in the mess of herself in the bronze mirror across the room. Hair stuck to her face - skin mottled with exertion - her nipples red and half-heartedly abused. She looked down and saw the mess left between her thighs by Nie Mingjue. Wasteful.

She picked the silk robe off the floor and covered herself. 

The washed her sweaty hair and soaked in the tub till her aches ebbed away.

The tub was emptied. The sheets were changed. She sent out a burst of qi to extinguish the lights and climbed between the fresh bedsheets.

Not long afterward, her chamber door creaked open. 

"I told you to spend time with your family." Jin Guangyao chided Qin Su even as she lifted the sheet, welcoming her into the bed.

Her lover cuddled against her shoulder. "We only argued. I prefer to be with you anyway." 

Jin Guangyao wrapped one arm around Qin Su, contented by her warmth. No one would blink twice at her new handmaiden coming to keep her company after her new husband chose to return to his own chambers for the night. Qin Cangye would be proud of the show of sisterhood. 

Jin Guangyao drifted off to sleep. One arm wrapped around Qin Su, and one hand leisurely stroking her knuckles across her own flat belly. 

Chapter Text

Jin Guangyao woke to the morning drum, curled against Qin Su's side. The other girl stretched her arms overhead. Groaning, they untangled their legs and climbed out of bed. Jin Guangyao opened the curtains to let in the pale morning light while Qin Su went to the door and collected their breakfast from a servant. She brought the tray to a low table near the window where they could look out over the black rooftops of the Unclean Realm and admire the distant mountain peaks as they ate. Such had become their routine in the last four months. 

After removing the empty bowls and cups back into the hallway, they dressed for the day. Qin Su was meant to help Jin Guangyao with this task, but even now living as a woman, Jin Guangyao's clothing was as simple in the Unclean Realms as it had ever been. Far simpler than her attire at Koi Tower. Gone were her billowy sleeves and the heavy brocades that hampered her every step, replaced by comparatively simple robes with tight sleeves and pants that allowed her to carry out her work effectively. She stubbornly retained the Jin gold and peony motif, as well as the more feminine hair ornaments gifted to her by her father. Qin Su had more experience with fixing a woman's hair, so she helped Jin Guangyao with that. 

Qin Su had also adapted her Laoling Qin style to the Unclean Realm. She too kept her sect's pale yellow and orange colors, while now favoring a less elaborate style in favor of something more practical for the cold, dry Qinghe winters. She still donned her earrings and makeup, as well as her Laoling Qin pendant around her waist.  

The young women parted ways in the central courtyard. Jin Guangyao made her way to Nie Mingjue's office while Qin Su headed toward the treasurer's office. Nie Mingjue took Qin Su at her word that she was freakishly good at numbers - "I was at Langya to do Laoling Qin's wartime accounting, not to roll bandages, Sect Leader Nie!" - and so she spent her days flicking at an abacus because the treasurer insisted she check her math. Even though Qin Cangye bragged that his daughter hadn't made an accounting error since she was twelve.

Occasionally, Qin Su would be sent up to the sect leader's office to deliver a report. Jin Guangyao suspected this was done so that Nie Mingjue could observe the two of them interacting. After Qin Su left, she always leveled Nie Mingjue with the same look and chided him. "She's not like me." 

He never responded with more than a grunt as he returned to his own paperwork. 

He was just getting started when Jin Guangyao entered his office. She could tell by the size of the 'fucking finished' pile as compared to the 'never-fucking-ending' pile. 

"Good morning, husband," She greeted him as she made her way to her own desk. Her assistant, Nie Aibing, was already at work arranging documents in order of priority. Nie Aibing had been assigned to her quite sensibly to alleviate her increased workload, as now Jin Guangyao took on her former secretarial duties in addition to those that encompassed Madam Jin's role at Koi Tower. Among other things.

Of course, Jin Guangyao had been perfectly effective in her role as Madam Nie thus far. So really all Nie Aibing did was shuffle papers and fetch tea and dog Jin Guangyao's every step from the moment she entered Nie Mingjue's office till the moment they adjourned to dinner. And natter on about his husband, hinting at unasked for advice for a young couple. Jin Guangyao suspected he was actually there to double-check her work for subterfuge.

"Do you have the monthly report from the cowherds?" Jin Guangyao asked Aibing as she took her seat. Nie Aibing presented her with a document outlining the conditions of the Nie herds: a headcount of bulls, heifers, and calves, a report on the quality of winter feed stores, a report on environmental conditions out on the plains, and an approximate measurement of how many pounds of manure had been collected and stored for later sale. 

Her tenure as a wartime secretary prepared her to coordinate cultivators in the day-to-day running of a sect and to administer the allocation of supplies and goods in an orderly fashion. Her brief tutelage under Madam Jin entailed the finer points of organizing banquets, festivals, and public charity. No one warned Jin Guangyao that the traditional role of Madam Nie required skills in agricultural management. She had had to learn quickly in the past few months, her and Qin Su taking some interesting field trips with her husband and brother-in-law for a start.

Really, though, dealing with shit was dealing with shit. 

Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue - and Nie Aibing, too, she supposed - worked in relative silence throughout the morning. Interrupted only by the delivery of various documents which added to the 'neverending' pile - and also fights. 

"You approved those new cost expenditures on the disciple barracks?" Jin Guangyao demanded, slapping the offending document down on his desk. 

Nie Mingjue snatched the paper up, scanned it, and then slammed it right back down. "Yeah?" By which he actually meant, 'What of it?' 

Jin Guangyao stabbed a finger at the stupidly high number at the bottom of the page. "I told you that I could get the costs down! Why did you turn around and agree to the carpenters' high-balling estimate? You're supposed to negotiate your way down from their first offer, you know!" 

Nie Mingjue crossed his arms over his chest. "We can afford it and they do good work! Why squabble over money anyway when can get the expansion done in time for next winter?!" 

"It matters because it's basically robbery! Sweet Guanyin, how much money have you let Qinghe Nie lose since you took over?!"

The pen in his hand finally snapped. The office door swung open and shut as Nie Aibing fled for the customary quarter shi. 

"Not everyone is as petty as you!" 

"And not everyone is as thoughtless as you!" 

This carried on until Nie Aibing managed to scrounge up some sect official willing to intervene and distract the pair with some other inane matter that apparently required their attention immediately. The matter was handled quickly, as always, allowing Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue both to return to their real work for a time before the noon drum signaled the hour. The thrill thrummed through Jin Guangyao all morning. She never had the chance to argue with Nie Mingjue while serving as his deputy - and she wasn't afraid to now, either, sensing it annoyed him far less than subtle jabbing or demuring. If Jin Guangyao trusted her judgments of him more, Jin Guangyao might even have thought Nie Mingjue got his own kick out of it.

They took lunch together on a terrace overlooking a smaller training yard. Some novices had apparently finished their lunch early so now they were enjoying some recreational time before their afternoon archery lessons. Little boys and girls played tag and ball games. Their teacher chided the ones who had forgotten their winter gloves inside. Jin Guangyao supposed Nie Mingjue's secret indulgent streak wasn't limited to his brother, after all, because he did not rebuke the children for dragging their feet when the drum thrummed throughout the Unclean Realm again, nor their teacher for allowing their extra playtime to eat into their next lesson. 

The subtle demonstration didn't leave Jin Guangyao feeling the least bit guilty. She refused it.  

She refused it just as he refused to believe one good thing about her. 

After lunch, Nie Mingjue took to the central training yard to run drills with the senior-most disciples. 

Jin Guangyao sat on the sidelines with Nie Aibing, a pot of tea, and a small writing desk. For all his fuming distrust, Nie Mingjue did not lock Jin Guangyao up to collect dust like some trophy. He was too utilitarian - he put his old deputy to work. Only this period, when Nie Mingjue became consumed with training, did he come close to outright leashing Jin Guangyao. He basically demanded that Jin Guangyao sit there and watch him since he was too busy to watch her. 

Her husbands glided through kicks, jumps, and sword thrusts. Attacks and defensive maneuvers. He smiled for the first time all day. Once he could ignore her while safe in the knowledge she was well out of trouble. 

Jin Guangyao reviewed her personal journal and consulted her calendar. Flipped through the text she'd borrowed from the library weeks ago. Hid her own smile in her teacup. 

After sufficiently terrorizing his brother for his lack of skill with his saber, Nie Mingjue growled in frustration and dismissed Nie Huaisang. He ran over to cry on his sister-in-law's shoulder. 

Jin Guangyao laughed good-naturedly at Nie Huaisang's bullied expression. "Too cute,"

He flushed and hid behind his fan, wailing, "You're as mean as Da-ge, Yao-jie!" 

"Alright then," Jin Guangyao agreed, smiling unguardedly. "See if I let you hide in my chamber next time your brother goes hunting for you. Enjoy your impromptu training session then."

Nie Huaisang gaped at her gutwrenching betrayal and renewed his childish wailing - this time begging forgiveness from his dear big sister. Jin Guangyao patted his back and assured him she was only joking. Nie Huaisang cheered immediately and was soon distracted by peeking over his fan at her desk.

"What are you working on, Yao-jie?" 

Jin Guangyao flipped rapidly through her journal with her thumb, as if showing it off, landing on a more innocuous page than where she began. "Oh, it's just a diary. I started keeping it after I first arrived in the Unclean Realm."

"The second time, you mean," 

"Yes," Jin Guangyao agreed stiltedly. "The second time..." 

She tried not to think of those days, except for the obvious importance to her daily work. Jin Guangyao did not linger on those bygone days as Deputy Meng Yao. Those days when being kept close at Nie Mingjue's side was her greatest honor and pleasure, and not a sign of his utter disdain for her. Some fool might call them happy memories. Jin Guangyao disagreed. Meng Yao had been made a lie, a shell that contained Jin Guangyao just waiting to be born. Jin Guangyao had smashed that shell to pieces cutting murderously into the world and left those so-called happy memories of Meng Yao cracked and ugly. 

No wonder Nie Mingjue hated Jin Guangyao so much, 

"And the book?" 

Jin Guangyao blinked back those dark thoughts and smiled at Huaisang, perfectly passive in her response. 

It was a text on medical advice catered specifically toward female cultivators. Everything from cultivating for a fairer appearance to curing gallstones and resolving cysts. "Just brushing up on my cultivation. Tell me, A-Sang, what are you reading right now? You always bring such fascinating novels home from the city." 

Nie Huaisang preened under her positive attention like one of his songbirds. He chirped away happily until dinner time. 

The three of them ate dinner together, joined tonight by Qin Su, as some approximation of a proper family. There was not much chatter over cuts of beef or laughter over the day's antics, though. It felt strange.

As a child, dinner had always been a rowdy affair. Chowing down in the smoky kitchen when not serving plates in the lounge or to rooms upstairs. Sneaking bits off the platters she was handed. The cook screaming orders and abuse. Women clustering in the hall outside the kitchen door, complaining about clients they'd stepped away from momentarily. Music singing through the thin walls, mingling with moans from upstairs. 

Mealtime in the army encampments was always raucous. Even when everyone was bone-tired and sick to death of death, someone was singing songs and getting drunk around a fire.

And, needless to say, just about every meal was a banquet at Koi Tower.

These dinners in the Unclean Realm reminded Jin Guangyao of lonelier days. Of better days, too. 

These dinners were quiet, like the ones she ate alone after her mother died and she left Yunping. Quiet like the dinner she took in her chamber in the Nightless City.

These dinners were quiet, belying a deep melancholy among the table's occupants, but somehow content. Like those dinners that she shared with Lan Xichen when hiding him.

She knew that for all she valued that period in her life, Lan Xichen hadn't been quite happy during his time with her. How could he? His home was in ruins, his father dying, and his brother a prisoner. There was nothing to be happy about, sitting at that table in her dowdy little cottage with scraps to eat. Yet he'd always been so sincere in his gratitude to her for the meal. So genuine when he asked about her day at work, breaking the rule of 'no talking during meals'. 

Jin Guangyao felt nearly the same when Nie Huaisang babbled to her about his newest art project, even in his brother's presence. She nearly felt the same when Qin Su asked eagerly about some project Jin Guangyao was overseeing that she'd heard about during her own day at the treasury office. She felt the same as she did with Lan Xichen back then; that maybe, just maybe, she might be able to go on forever like this if she could do it with this person - with these unbelievably soft and kind people. 

Still, like back then, Jin Guangyao hoped that she would not have to go on like this. With Nie Mingjue looming eternally at her side, chewing far too loudly. 

After finishing his meal, Nie Huaisang ran off to the sanctuary of his private chambers without a proper dismissal as he did every night.

Qin Su only left Jin Guangyao's side after she'd undressed her for the evening behind the privacy screen in her chamber. They kissed before Qin SU took her leave for the next few hours. She'd take a bath in her own disused bed-chamber and read a book till a servant informed her that Madam Nie had finished her own evening bath. 

Jin Guangyao stepped out from behind the privacy screen to find her husband standing next to her bed in his innermost robe. His tense stance read less as 'come hither' and more as 'let's spar'. 

Jin Guangyao sighed at his utter lack of bedroom decorum. She discarded her silk robe and climbed onto the bed.

Nie Mingjue threw off his own robe and climbed on top of her. 

After they finished, untangling limbs and fingers, her husband left the bed. He collected his robe and handed her own back to her before leaving.

"Good night, Meng Yao," He whispered tersely as the door swung shut behind him. He would soon summon her a hot bath and fresh bedsheets. Until they arrived, Jin Guangyao sat on the edge bed, wrapped in fine Lanling silk and heavy winter Qinghe quilts. Such had become their routine in the past four months of marriage. Watched closely all day long at his side, left alone and cold by him just when she needed warmth. 

Even under the thick quilts, Jin Guangyao did not feel warm. Not until another body once again joined her in bed. She wrapped her arms around Qin Su and drifted off to sleep. It was only a bit past nine. 

Jin Guangyao woke with the morning drum, curled against Qin Su's side. The other girl stretched her arms overhead. Groaning, they untangled their legs and climbed out of bed. Jin Guangyao opened the curtains to let in the pale morning light while Qin Su went to the door and collected their breakfast from a servant. She brought the tray to a low table near the window where they could look out over the black rooftops of the Unclean Realm and admire the distant mountain peaks as they ate. 

Qin Su lifted a lid from a tray, releasing a cloud of aromatic steam that wafted right into Jin Guangyao's face. 

Jin Guangyao gagged and scrambled for the window. 

Qin Su gathered up Jin Guangyao's hair and rubbed circles in her back till the dry-heaving passed. "Are you sick, A-Yao? Should I fetch the physician? Here, let me dab your mouth-" She looked so confused at Jin Guangyao's mad grin.

Then, she too smiled from ear to ear. 

Chapter Text

Jin Guangyao dissuaded Qin Su from summoning the physician. "It's too early," She argued. "I've only missed one cycle. And these things can be so delicate."

"All the more reason to inform the physician!" Qin Su was genuinely concerned. 

Jin Guangyao took her hands, smiling grimly. "The physician who will tell his sect leader right away, who in turn will then be expecting a baby in the near future. A-Su, I don't want to be embarrassed if this doesn't turn out..." 

With that said, she had Qin Su's sworn silence on the matter. 

And so life carried on in the Unclean Realm according to their routine. Jin Guangyao did her damnedest to keep it that way without arousing suspicion.

She instructed Qin Su to ask the kitchens for fennel tea to accompany their breakfast from now on. It felt less obvious than ginger, if less effective. Better alternatives were not readily available in winter. 

In order to combat the bouts of nausea that abruptly assaulted her throughout the day, Jin Guangyao carefully regulated her qi as advised by the medical text she'd taken from the library. The green tea that Nie Mingjue favored with lunch and dinner also helped some.

The smell of lunch and dinner was another matter. Jin Guangyao soon found that she had so much paperwork that she needed to work straight through lunch every day. She could not join Nie Mingjue out on the terrace. Instead, she ate her portion at her desk. Nie Aibing looming over her every brushstroke, of course. If the food tray sat on the very edge of her desk, untouched, that was between Jin Guangyao and the spiritual dogs that ate her table scraps. 

To make up for the lunch she so carelessly forgot to eat, Jin Guangyao began to enjoy small snacks as she watched the afternoon saber drills. She kept up with her journal entries and afternoon reading, adding medical texts about qi regulation and historical texts recounting the feats of great female cultivators. 

Each night, she continued to to bed her husband. He was none the wiser that he had already fulfilled his filial duty. That he no longer had to lend his wife his cock every evening. 

To be fair, Jin Guangyao wasn't quite certain either. The library text warned of such delusions.

Yet Jin Guangyao watched the distant mountains turn green from her window and smiled.

Before the year is out, I will be a mother, she thought with conviction. Before the year is out, I will be a widow. 

She pushed down any thought more complicated than that. The man she respected so much as Meng Yao thought so poorly of her that he feared she would hurt Lan Xichen. There was no coming back from that. His respect and kind regard were lost to her now, as Meng Yao was lost to the Sunshot Campaign. Jin Guangyao could only hope to exceed Jin Guangshan's low expectations for her.

He was not like Nie Mingjue at all, and so he would accept Jin Guangyao no matter what means she used to achieve her end, so long as she met the goals set for her. She would deliver Qinghe Nie to him, and he would have no choice but to esteem Meng Shi's daughter as the Dowager Madam Nie, and Meng Shi's grandchild as the Nie Sect Leader. 

Her carefully cultivated routine was happily disrupted by a visit from Lan Xichen. He came on the first official day of spring. It was the first time he'd visited the Unclean Realm since the wedding.

Husband and wife were as excited to see their sworn brother as he was to see them. Truly.

That didn't mean that any of them could completely hide their apprehension.

"Lan Xichen," Nie Mingjue greeted their sworn brother first after he touched down in the central courtyard with Shouyue. "It's been too long." But perhaps not long enough. Jin Guangyao still could not discern her husband perfectly, even after many years of knowing him. But she knew even Nie Mingjue was capable of a warmer greeting when it came to Lan Xichen. His mood must be particularly foul today.

"Da-ge," Lan Xichen saluted. "I feel the same. I just hope that I am not intruding on such short notice. It's just that I remembered how lovely your mother's garden is this time of year. I wished to enjoy my sworn siblings' company there since we have not seen each other very recently." Such an overelaborate response to a simple remark - everything he already said in his letter.

Jin Guangyao did what she did best - smile and smooth things over. "You could never intrude on us, Er-ge. We've missed you these past few months. Letters are no replacement for your company. Come, let us catch up!" She led the way to the garden. 

The late Madam Nie had done marvelous work there. Talismans allowed the Songbird Garden to bloom even as the early spring frost clung to the steps leading into the private courtyard. Flowering vines climbed the walls and lattice structures. Wispy, elegant trees softened the midday light. Manicured shrubs and azaleas flanked the white pebble paths. Nie Huaisang and Qin Su awaited them at a table under the pavilion at the very center of the garden. The five of them sat down to enjoy a floral tea that Nie Huaisang had selected for the occasion.

Jin Guangyao managed a few tentative sips. Her stomach had been particularly rebellious today. 

(Stubbornly, she did not think on her pregnancy more than that while Lan Xichen visited.)

Catch-up mostly concerned sect politics which naturally overlapped with their personal lives.

The rebuilding of Cloud Recesses. Hanguang-jun's growing reputation. New demonic cultivators making a general nuisance of themselves. The original's troubling silence. 

Wei Wuxian had taken the Wen Remnants to the Burial Mounds where he'd erected a wall of fierce corpses to defend the perimeter. Little was known of what had gone on there in the past six months since the engagement banquet. Rumors proliferated like mushrooms sprung from damp darkness. 

"Do you think Wen Qing and Wei Wuxian really are lovers?" Asked Qin Su, dreamy-eyed like she'd eaten a special mushroom. Nie Huaisang nodded wholehearted, fanning the flames of her girlish excitement.

"Don't be too fanciful, A-Su." Jin Guangyao chided her. "Those two are dangerous. What they've done threatens the peace we've established since the Sunshot Campaign." Wei Wuxian had been dangerous before with his Stygian Tiger Seal. But before, he'd lacked the initiative to use it for or against anyone. If he was as intelligent as people claimed, he surely made plans to destroy it eventually. Now, the Yiling Patriarch had more than fifty reasons to wield his dark creation against the whole cultivation world.

"Yes, but, well, it would explain things," Qin Su said quietly - because she did not know the extent of things. She did not know that what Wei Wuxian relayed through Jiang Wanyin was true; that the Qiongqi Path prisoners were too old and infirm to cultivate if they had a golden core at all. They were no threat.

There was a reason that her father was insistent on reminding the other sects that Wen Ning had been spotted with able-bodied Wen cultivators on a night hunt before he headed toward Lotus Pier to pledge allegiance to the Yiling Patriarch. For Wei Wuxian to accept these cultivators' blood oaths, it was said he either needed to be motivated by either power or love. Of course, Qin Su chose to believe in love. 

"Well, it excuses nothing," Nie Mingjue snapped. "Wei Wuxian disgraces the memory of Jiang Fengmian and the Violet Spider by taking up with Wen-dogs. Falling in love with one of them is even more absurd."

"Da-ge, it's not as if Young Master Wei would be able to control it if he did fall in love." Of course, Lan Xichen offered a charitable perspective. "What's good and proper according to history and politics does not command the heart." He smiled sympathetically at Jin Guangyao. "I'm sure Jin Guangyao sympathizes with Young Master Wei's martial siblings right now in that regard."

Jin Guangyao let her genuine exasperation show. "It's really Sect Leader Jiang that I sympathize with. After all, his sister also decided to run off and cause a scandal. Eloping with Jin Zixuan so suddenly...Madam Jin would have arranged them a proper wedding in spite of this business with Wei Wuxian. They just had to wait until Father cooled off." Her father's letters on this matter had been exhausting to read. They frequently read as if berating her for it - all because it started at her engagement banquet.

She might say she was glad for once not to be back at Koi Tower if only to avoid her father's wrath in person. But Jin Guangyao couldn't help agreeing that none of this might have happened if the world still thought she was a man. Thanks to a busted lock and her tits, the world was going to war with the Yiling Patriarch sooner rather than later...

"The matter of a proper wedding will be rectified soon at the very least!" Nie Huaisang exclaimed, which was true.

For all his angry letters, Jin Guangshan had recently relented in allowing his heir to bring his new bride home. The couple returned to Koi Tower just a few weeks ago. Invitations to a mid-spring ceremony had been sent out immediately afterward. Of course, Nie Huaisang was ecstatic at the prospect of escaping the Unclean Realm for a few days.

"A proper wedding would be over and done with by now if Sect Leader Jiang would just confront Wei Wuxian! That would have put Yunmeng Jiang back in good standing with Lanling Jin almost immediately!" Nie Mingjue set his teacup down far too forcefully. Jin Guangyao contemplated how best to change topics. Nie Mingjue's sudden mood soured the sweet garden atmosphere and Lan Xichen's visit. 

Nie Huaisang spoke before Jin Guangyao could remark on a letter she'd received from Jin Zixuan about the wedding planning. 

"Da-ge, why don't you consider it from Jiang Wanyin's perspective? That is, the perspective that he too is uncertain of Wei Wuxian's intentions." Nie Huaisang hid behind his fan, expressing his opinion uncertainly. "Even with Lanling Jin's support, Yunmeng Jiang is still rebuilding and heavily reliant on the Yiling Patriarch's reputation. Why would Jiang Wanyin then alienate such a powerful person who has also set up his lair closeby? The Burial Mounds are closer to Lotus Pier than any other great sect..."

Lan Xichen gaped at Nie Huaisang. "Are you suggesting that Sect Leader Jiang's inaction indicates that Young Master Wei is not to be trusted?" 

Nie Huaisang stammered behind his fan. "I don't know! I was just thinking out loud! I mean - I mean, we can't rebuke Sect Leader Jiang without knowing his reasons! And he probably won't tell us if he is truly uncertain about things! Because Wei Wuxian is his brother and he would not endanger him in case he's wrong, right?"

"Young Master Nie is right," Qin Su piped up. "Sect Leader Lan jumped to the worst conclusion just now and Sect Leader Jiang being worried about Wei Wuxian attacking Lotus Pier was only one suggestion. Maybe Sect Leader Jiang is actually worried about other sects attacking after what the Wens did, so he does not want to seem vulnerable by disavowing Wei Wuxian. It's also possible that Sect Leader Jiang simply does not wish to alienate his dear shixiong.

Lan Xichen's ears burned. "You're right, Maiden Qin. Those conclusions are equally possible. As a sect leader, I should not be so quick to agree with the first explanation that is presented to me." He laughed. "In fact, perhaps I should subject myself to ten ruler strikes when I return to Cloud Recesses, as making assumptions is against the rules." 

Nie Huaisang and Qin Su begged him not to. 

Privately, Jin Guangyao wondered if they were all giving too much credit to Jiang Wanyin's perspective. They seemed to forget it that it was his elder sister who had come for Jin Zixun's throat in the most polite terms after he insulted Wei Wuxian at Phoenix Mountain. 

Nie Mingjue sat seething beside her, but silent on the matter.

The clouds overtook the sun and the wind picked up. The talismans warmed the soil and protected against frost, but could do nothing against the coming rain. Their party adjourned to Nie Huaisang's favorite room in the Unclean Realm: the music room. 

Nie Huaisang banned all further political talk in his domain in favor of pure idle chitchat. Qin Su, Lan Xichen, and Jin Guangyao happily obliged. Nie Mingjue sat in silent meditation off to the side. 

Before long, however, Lan Xichen could no longer ignore his sworn brother's mood. He asked them all to please be quiet while he played a song on the guqin. 

Nie Mingjue's eyes snapped open at the first few notes. "Lan Huan," The name sounded halfway between a question and a warning. 

Lan Xichen's fingers stilled but did not leave the strings. "Please, Da-ge. Let this one soothe your temper." 

Her husband cast his gaze her way. It was more than a passing glance. 

He nodded, and Lan Xichen carried on with a soothing melody. The air began to thrum with qi, concentrating at Lan Xichen's fingertips and resonating deep inside Jin Guangyao. Every breath taken in sync with the song's rhythm felt lighter and cleaner than the last. Her queasy stomach finally settled. Her plans and motives began to slip away, grime washed away by a cool stream.

Jin Guangyao held fast, balling her dirty hands into fists. She could not tear her eyes away from the guqin and her sworn brother's pale hands. If she closed her eyes to enjoy the song as everyone else did, even Lan Xichen, she would be lost. Everything she had worked for would be lost. 

Even as the last note faded into the rafters, Jin Guangyao held on. She burned that cool melody into her memory. 

She applauded the performance alongside Nie Huaisang and Qin Su. Nie Mingjue merely looked grateful. 

" 'Cleansing'," Lan Xichen explained when Nie Huaisang asked the piece's name. "The best remedy for a poor mood on a rainy day." He left it unsaid that it was far more than a pretty song. It was a Gusu Lan cultivation technique, Jin Guangyao realized. One which had an obvious effect on Nie Mingjue's bad mood. It was likely he felt similar stabilizing effects on his qi as Jin Guangyao. 

Jin Guangyao plucked the strings of the guqin, playing an unwritten song. The melody was still in its infancy. No one in the world knew where it would go.

"I love calming music before bed," She remarked idly. "I think that I'd like a guqin in my private chambers." 

Lan Xichen smiled delightedly. "It would be a shame to deprive the music room. How about I send you a guqin from Cloud Recesses as a late wedding present?" 

"Oh, that's too kind, Er-ge!" 

"There is no such thing as too much kindness, in my opinion, A-Yao." 

She could have married this man - should have married him. This kind, foolish man needed someone like her to deal with the harsh realities of life and leadership. How could Nie Mingjue think she could do more harm to him than the rest of the world? 

Jin Guangyao lit up at a sudden idea. "Da-ge, Er-ge, I have a suggestion if you are both open to it." 

Lan Xichen looked immediately amenable to any request but turned to Nie Mingjue for an answer. Her husband crumbled. "We would need to hear it first, My Lady." He bit out.

"Let us visit Cloud Recesses! I have never actually visited and would love to see the home of my dearest friend. Moreover, if we are to receive such a generous wedding gift as a Gusu Lan guqin, let us retrieve it rather than force Lan Xichen to make the journey between Qinghe and Gusu twice-over." 

"A-Yao, do not feel obliged to further disrupt your busy schedules on my account," Lan Xichen protested. "We are still rebuilding as well. I would prefer you to see the Cloud Recesses for the first time in their full glory." 

Jin Guangyao smiled softly at the man who sat opposite of her. The guqin between them reminded her of elementary lessons in a humble cottage. "Er-ge, this one has no concern for your glory. I simply would like to see what is important to you."

With such sweet words, no one could deny her. 

Chapter Text

Jin Guangyao and Nie Huaisang cajoled Lan Xichen into spending the night. They would all depart for Cloud Recesses together tomorrow.

'They' being basically everyone but Nie Huaisang. "Cloud Recesses is not your personal holiday estate!" Nie Mingjue barked. "You're staying here to do paperwork!"

He was under no allusions that his brother would attend afternoon drills in his absence, and hated paperwork as much as Nie Huaisang hated saber drills. Jin Guangyao suspected that Nie Mingjue wanted to enjoy his own brief holiday and not have to return to a taller 'neverending' pile than usual. 

Nie Huaisang sulked in the music room with Lan Xichen until dinner, monopolizing his time since his mean big brother and sister were robbing him of it tomorrow. 

Jin Guangyao couldn't help peeking in from time to time. She brought them tea and snacks from the kitchen. Lingered to listen to Lan Xichen play various instruments, for he was skilled with many. Came and asked Lan Xichen if he had a preference for dinner. If he required any special accommodations for his bed-chamber. Any excuse that came to mind, really. 

It had been so many months. He treated her just the same as he did seven months ago, the last they saw each other before Qin Su's birthday. Gone was the awkwardness which weighed on them in Nie Mingjue's presence. All was well when that grim reminder of circumstances was out of sight. 

Bland food was served at dinner. Bland by Qinghe standards, at least. The meat was too well raised and cured to truly compare to unseasoned Gusu Lan tofu. Jin Guangyao had tasted some at the Gusu Lan camp during the war. She never stayed for dinner again after that. 

Tonight, however, Jin Guangyao found a new reason to be grateful to Lan Xichen. The meal lacked strong odors and agreed with her finicky stomach. It was the best she'd eaten all week. She looked forward to lunch at Cloud Recesses the next day.  

After dinner, she grew queasy again. The five of them stood awkwardly from the table, not quite knowing where to go.

Nie Huaisang flicked open his fan and made himself scarce. He poked his head through the dining hall door and bid Qin Su to come assist him with a very important matter. Qin Su hesitated but took the out. 

She cast one last look Jin Guangyao's way as she made her escape. 

Jin Guangyao looked away, catching Lan Xichen's gaze from the corner of her eye. She felt her husband's eyes on them. Her cheeks burned. 

"Right," She breathed. "Allow me to show you to your chambers, Er-ge." Jin Guangyao affected a confident air as she led the way to the guest-chamber she'd had prepared. Lan Xichen silently followed. Nie Mingjue did not join them.

She opened the door and let Lan Xichen inside. He took in his surroundings with a smile and bowed in thanks. "A-Yao spoils this sworn brother of hers." 

"Happily, of course." She replied. "Sleep well, Er-ge."

"Sleep well, Yao-mei," The title did not sting as much as what followed. "Thank you for letting me into your home once again."

Jin Guangyao entered to her chambers to find Nie Mingjue waiting on the bed. He had disrobed but his pants and boots remained. 

"Get your feet off my bed," She scolded him as she began to undress. There was no need for the privacy screen tonight because Qin Su was not here to sneak kisses from. 

Nie Mingjue shuffled forward awkwardly on his ass so his legs hung over the side of the bed. He sat there looking bored, brows drawn, and cheek resting on a closed fist.

Still, her dark brown eyes followed her movements with vague interest. Yet he also did not look pleased when she finally stood bare before him. It annoyed her. It annoyed her that he did all this to her without truly wanting her. Not even in the basest sense strangers could want each other. Everything was about denying her - denying her the opportunity to hurt Xichen - the opportunity he was so sure she'd take in a heartbeat. 

Jin Guangyao climbed into Nie Mingjue's lap in vengeance, anchoring herself by the hair at the back of his neck. Large hands gripped her hips. Calloused fingers dug into the last bits of softness left to her being. 

That bored expression was gone. Nie Mingjue looked at her with wide, burning eyes. 

Just as those eyes began to narrow with annoyance or perhaps suspicion, she rocked her hips forward. She grinned at her husband's sharp intake of breath. He sounded like he'd received an unexpectedly fierce blow during a friendly spar.

She liked it, so she did it again - and again - and again. She soon set an eager pace, drawing more amusing gasps like blood with a blade, and then angry grunts through merciless assault. Every attempt to lift his hips to meet hers was thwarted by a scolding tug of his hair and her brief retreat out of reach. Even as he squeezed her tight, begging. Jin Guangyao almost cooed at her husband's flustered expression, but she didn't want to get bucked off to the cold floor. Nie Mingjue looked pissed as it was by her grinning face inches from his. He set his jaw and sat beneath her, throbbing and bewildered. 

Look at you, Da-ge, try and tell yourself this is only marital duty. She dared him to think himself so righteous after tonight.

This close, Jin Guangyao could watch the sweat bead on his forehead. Followed it down the little crease between his eyebrows. Cold droplets raced across hot flesh down Nie Mingjue's neck. His chest began to glisten in the candlelight. Jin Guangyao let her right hand's grip on his hair slip. Her fingertips ghosted across her husband's shoulder.

Nie Mingjue snatched the hand. Quick as a counterstrike from Baxia, he trapped the offending hand between his own and her right hip. Suddenly, her husband had a lot more control over the situation. All her leverage slipped right between her fingers. 

Her husband lifted his hips up, pulling her down to meet him each time. He ground her roughly against the throbbing heat tucked in his pants. His pace shamed hers. 

His hot breath in her face. The burn of sensitive skin against the rough fabric. A knot formed low in her belly. Tugged lower and lower, tighter and tighter by each long drag downward. 

Jin Guangyao fell forward against Nie Mingjue's chest with a sharp cry. Her chin found a cradle against his sweaty shoulder. Whatever brief comfort she found there was upended when Nie Mingjue rolled over so she was on her back and he was grinding down against her. Her face remained pressed against his neck. Her remaining grip on his hair tightened as she cried out. Louder and louder and louder. Pitched wanton moans that she had only ever heard faked through thin walls before. Nie Mingjue huffed a surprised laugh next to her ear and palmed her ass to get a better grip on her before endeavoring to make her louder

Fleetingly, Jin Guangyao wondered how loud she could get without anyone hearing. Then again, who would care that their sect leader and his madam were fucking? No one. No one but tonight's guest maybe. 

Jin Guangyao almost bit her tongue stifling a veritable squeal.

It was ridiculous. He was too far away. Even if she screamed herself hoarse, he wouldn't hear. Couldn't hear. 

Her stomach roiled. Her next cry sounded sick to her own ears. Like she was coughing up bile rather than choking on ecstasy. Nie Mingjue stilled immediately. Panting, he looked down on her, bleary eyes searching. 

Jin Guangyao untangled her fingers from her husband's hair. Her hand fell limp beside her on the bed. "I do not want this right now," She croaked on a sore throat. 

Nie Mingjue's hands slipped from her hips. He grabbed the corner of bedclothes and folded them overtop her. Leaning over her, he asked, "Do you need anything? Should I call someone?" 

"A bath. Fresh sheets." These ones were not soiled yet, but Jin Guangyao had grown used drifting off to a freshly laundered smell. 

Nie Mingjue nodded. He would summon a servant as usual and no more. He gathered his robes in a big bundle under one arm - held them strategically in front of the large wet spot on his pants - and took his leave. He seemed rushed. "Rest well, Meng Yao," He whispered through the crack in the door.

She was about to climb into the tub when Qin Su slipped into the chamber earlier than usual.

Jin Guangyao froze with one foot in the tub. Qin Su stared. It was nothing she hadn't seen before, yet she looked ready to turn tail and run. 

Jin Guangyao looked down at herself. In the water's reflection, she looked no different than usual. In the flesh, she saw the beginnings of bruises at her hips. 

"It's nothing to worry about," She assured her lover. Qin Su did not seem convinced. Jin Guangyao decided to distract her. "You're early. That's good. I was actually hoping to talk to you before bed." She said, stepping out of the tub.

Qin Su remained fixed by the door. "About?" 

"About what was said over tea." Said Jin Guangyao. "I admire the insightful statements you made today, truly, but I think it's better if you don't voice any opinions that conflict with Lanling Jin or Qinghe Nie's stance. The Yiling Patriarch is a rogue element that threatens us all. His personal affairs should not influence our reactions to him." 

Qin Su looked uncomfortable. With great effort, she met Jin Guangyao's eye and said, "Personal affairs and politics don't mix very well, I've noticed. That's actually what I wanted to talk to you about." 

"Oh?" Jin Guangyao grabbed her silk robe. She no longer felt comfortable carrying on this conversation in the nude.

"You really care for your sworn brother," Qin Su remarked. 

"Of course I do." Jin Guangyao narrowed her eyes at her lover's keen insight

"You looked really happy when you spoke to him. Happier than you've looked in months. If a bit nervous."

"It's the first time I've seen him since the wedding. The new dynamic among my sworn brothers still needs to settle." 

Qin Su winced at that. "The three of you really are like your own little world unto yourselves. Even with me and Young Master Nie around, taking part in the same conversation, it felt like there were three other silent conversations carrying on between you all," said Qin Su. "I really can't compare."

"A-Su, don't say that!" 

"I will if it's the truth!" Qin Su shot back. "I sometimes wonder why I'm even here. We don't even really talk anymore."

Jin Guangyao crossed the room. "I'm working on it, A-Su! You just have to be patient!"

Qin Su stepped back, shaking her head. "You say that like a good thing, but things like that are exactly what's been driving me crazy! I always felt like there was so much you chose not to share with me, but now that feeling is worse than ever. You say you're working on something but you haven't mentioned it to me at all till now. So it's either a lie or you just didn't think to include me for some reason."

"It's not a lie! I just didn't want to distress you because there wasn't much I could do at the start. Soon, I will-"

"I don't care about 'soon', A-Yao. I care about what I've realized these past few months." Qin Su took a deep breath. Jin Guangyao braced herself for a harsh blow. "I can't be with you, A-Yao. In any sense. It all became clear to me, watching you in the garden today. Not only are you married now and pregnant with one man's baby, but you're in love with another man altogether! It's unfair to live in constant competition like this!"

Jin Guangyao bit back harsh words. What did a pretty little doll like Qin Su know of real competition? Of the harsh reality of life outside her father's sect? She had only been to war to count coins and shuffle her daddy's paperwork. Any trouble she came across - the trouble that Jin Guangyao saved her from - had been but one bout of bad luck in a lifetime of privilege. 

"So what? Do you plan to leave then?" Jin Guangyao asked. She made herself comfortable in a chair, affecting a cool air. 

Qin Su shook her head. "No. I can't. Because believe me, A-Yao, I still care for you." She smiled grimly. "But also, I won't lie. My mother was so angry at my decision to join you here. She said terrible things that I can't quite forgive her for just yet." 

Jin Guangyao nodded in understanding. "I will not send you home to familial discord, A-Su." 

"Thank you, Jin Guangyao." Qin Su bowed. The formality was scathing. 

"Stay behind with Nie Huaisang," Jin Guangyao added. "I think it's best that we not see each other for a few days." 

Qin Su quietly agreed. She took her leave after a moment's hesitation, back to her own quarters. She would sleep in her own bed for the first time since she came to the Unclean Realm. 

Jin Guangyao sat slumped in that chair long after she left. When she climbed into the tub, the bathwater was cold. 

Chapter Text

Lan An had named the Cloud Recesses well. Approaching by flying sword, one could not distinguish the steep mountains under the heavy cloud cover. So thick was the white mist, Lan Xichen insisted they fly low. The three sworn siblings followed a crystal blue river toward the sea until untamed streams became well-maintained canals. Tiny farmsteads gave way to multistory shops, inns, restaurants, and temples. The people of Gusu waved to the passing cultivators. They did not answer entreaties to sample goods, lest they be sidetracked all afternoon. Lan Xichen led them across the city's breadth into the southwestern foothills. They soon came upon a steep incline where stone stairs began to climb into the clouds. 

They landed at the foot of the stairs. "Please do not hesitate to say anything if the ascent is too tiresome." Said Lan Xichen. "I thought perhaps this would be the best way to experience the Cloud Recesses for the first time." 

Jin Guangyao had climbed a thousand stairs before. At least these stairs were not so steep; in fact, the climb looked rather gentle, each stair hugging the mountain naturally. The calm mountain scenery softened the daunting implication of stone steps disappearing into white mist. At Koi Tower, one could see every arduous step ahead when not blinded by golden pillars glinting in the sunlight. She and Nie Mingjue followed Lan Xichen without complaint. 

Their ascent into the clouds was simply beautiful. This far south of Qinghe, spring had already taken hold. Delicate wildflowers peeked through the mist, waving at their ankles along the path. Winter ice had melted into babbling streams fed by roaring waterfalls pouring from the mountainside. Dark green moss made its home in the grooves of the Cloud Recesses' great wall of rules.

Junior disciples were hard at work scrubbing it clean when they came upon the gate. The youths greeted their sect leader and his guests diligently. 

"Has Lan Wangji returned from his night hunt?" Lan Xichen inquired. 

The girls shook their heads. "Lan Wangji sent word ahead that he would be delayed a few days more, Sect Leader."

Lan Xichen was disappointed but accepted the news gracefully. They had discussed over tea just how little time Hanguang-jun had spent at the Cloud Recesses since the war ended. A few said his blood still ran hot and hungry for battle. Lan Xichen and most others believed that the young man had fully embraced the most sacred principle of Gusu Lan: seek and destroy all evil. 

Jin Guangyao wondered if 'evil' now included the Yiling Patriarch. The pair's reputations were now totally antithetical to one another. Hanguang-jun was light incarnate, untouchable perfection. The Yiling Patriarch was said to bathe in blood and seduce maidens, dead or alive. Perhaps Lan Wangji's love for Wei Wuxian had been challenged by rumors of his evergrowing harem. Every runaway daughter in the land was said to have been kidnapped to the Burial Mounds, but there were some women whose presence there was definitively known. Lanling Jin had bemoaned Luo Qingyang's seduction. When the scandal of her elopement was at its height, there had been whispers about Jiang Yanli visiting Yiling alone and staying at disreputable inns. But many believed the Yiling Patriach's true love was the witch, Wen Qing. It mattered little if these rumors were true; they could break a young man's heart all the same.

Jin Guangyao wished to know more of the circumstances between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji. Unfortunately, considering present politics and his brother's frequent night-hunting, Jin Guangyao imagined that Lan Xichen might be hesitant to speak on the matter even to her. 

She made peace with the fact that this abrupt trip could only be so productive. 

Lan Xichen escorted Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue through the central gate. It was immediately obvious that Gusu Lan put Lanling Jin's money to good use. 

The main hall greeted them with high, pristine white walls that seemed to glow. Elegant cloud motifs emerged in the woodwork as they approached. Black roofs exuded an austere beauty that tastefully contrasted the lightness of other architectural features. The stone tiles of the central courtyard were supernaturally smooth, shining in the pale mountain light. White pebbles and young, well-groomed plants made for tasteful landscaping. 

"This was the first communal building we restored after the attack by Wen Xu," Lan Xichen explained, leading them inside. The interior was ascetic in comparison to Koi Tower and even the Unclean Realm but did not lack in prestige. Lan Xichen pointed out both great heirlooms and impressive structural features that had been salvaged from the ashes as well as subtle scars to the very framework of the building which could not be remedied without rebuilding from the foundation. 

A similar theme emerged as Lan Xichen continued their tour throughout the Cloud Recesses. The frameworks of larger buildings like banquet halls, lesson rooms, dormitories, and shrines survived the attack. However, centuries of minute detail and smaller buildings were entirely lost. Disciples still carefully combed through the soil around build-sites with shovels, rakes, and brushes, searching for lost artifacts. The very heart of the Cloud Recesses was made up of wooden skeletons. 

"Fortunately, the attack was concentrated in a centralized area. Our residential areas and the outskirts of our compound were left intact." Lan Xichen explained as he led them to his private residence. They passed several dozen similar homes clustered on the same mountain slope. All were in fairly good condition, if rather humble by a great sect's standards. The elevation of the Hanshi was the only indication of its role as the sect leader's home. Some cottages were larger than the Hanshi, likely to accommodate families rather than bachelors. Each home, regardless of its size, bore a placard at its entrance naming the building.

"You've done good work, Lan Xichen." Said Nie Mingjue as they sat down to lunch in the Hanshi. "What's complete is exactly as I remember it." He took a bite of tofu and barked a laugh. "Even the food has not changed, unfortunately!" 

"At least now you will actually eat the food," Lan Xichen retorted. "After you studied at Cloud Recesses, the big game didn't return to the mountain for a full two years."

"What can I say? I was a growing boy!" 

"Grow you did, Da-ge." 

Jin Guangyao watched them swap boyhood tales they both already knew by heart. Conferences where each gamely won competitions, sometimes against each other. Joint night-hunts where things went awry thanks to teenaged shenanigans. Sneaked alcohol and sweets at birthday banquets. Nie Mingjue's pudgy years. Lan Xichen's pimply forehead that left him 'looking like a Jin' ages eleven to fifteen. There were many things Jin Guangyao hadn't heard of until today. 

She laughed where appropriate. Even jokingly chided the men when they resurrected childhood squabbles. Jin Guangyao did not dare contribute any of her own girlhood tales. Her sworn brothers had no stake in such stories, and she had no desire to share them. They were not as amusing as their stories anyway. 

She sat there instead, envious and mournful. In another life, could she have been so light with either man? 

After lunch, Lan Xichen pulled a guqin out of storage in the floorboards. Despite its disuse, it was in excellent condition. Jin Guangyao recognized it from years ago, from another cottage.

"Oh, Er-ge," She wanted to throw her arms around Lan Xichen. Instead, she asked, "Will you please teach this one the song that you played for Da-ge? It was so soothing. I want it to be the first song that I play with your gift."

Lan Xichen agreed without hesitation. Over the next few hours, she mastered the tune using her superior memory and the fundamentals that Lan Xichen taught her years ago. Soon she began to channel qi into the different notes. Not as adeptly as Lan Xichen, of course, but sufficiently enough. Nie Mingjue mediated all throughout the lesson.

With the act of playing to focus on and her own qi channeled through the instrument, Jin Guangyao found it much easier to keep her bearings. As she played, she planned. 

In all the months of her marriage, Jin Guangyao had silently searched for the means to dispose of her husband. Sought to pay him back for arrogantly inviting a viper into his bed, so sure it would poison a Bodhiswatta and not him. The task had proven near impossible. Nie Mingjue did not allow his bride to bring her own small household into his as was the custom. Qin Su alone had joined her because she'd pestered her father. Who then pestered Jin Guangshan. Who only then insisted that his daughter needed at least one companion from home. So much for the protection her father promised - like Nie Mingjue, he thought too little of her. 

But, just as Jin Guangyao always insisted to her husband, Qin Su was no agent. Worse yet, it was well-known in the Unclean Realm that their new madam had not only previously abandoned her position within their sect, but had later killed Nie cultivators. In short, her only hope to recruit agents were the lowliest servants bitter toward their master. Unfortunately, despite her role in domestic affairs, Jin Guangyao could not find an opportunity to ingratiate herself to the staff without arousing suspicion. Nie Aibing dogged her every step and was fiercely loyal to his younger cousin, his sect, and his husband of twenty-five years. There was no bribing that man with power, prestige, money, or women. 

In under five months, it became clear that there could be no courtly subterfuge in the Unclean Realm. No training accidents. No dinnertime poisonings. No hunting mishaps or tramplings by loosed horses. Not even a stubborn cough that never abated. Jin Guangyao had been confined to a strict routine of paperwork and sex. Her enjoyment quickly waned as rotten emotions stewed within her. 

Rationally, she knew that better options would present themselves if she played the long game. After several years and a few heirs, Nie Mingjue would drop his guard. But several years of dawdling did not suit her father's plans. It was downright unrealistic thanks to present politics. The situation with the Yiling Patriarch presented the perfect opportunity for Jin Guangshan to become the leader of the cultivation world. But for that, he still needed the unquestioned support of the other great sects. It could not be a partnership or alliance - Qinghe Nie must become deferential to Lanling Jin. Most of all, her father could not risk Nie Mingjue acting first as he did with the Qishan Wen. 

No, it was Jin Guangyao who had to act first. At the very least, she must put a plan into motion before her pregnancy is revealed. If her husband was truly no fool as he claimed, then he too would see that Jin Guangyao would become infinitely more dangerous once an heir is produced. Nie Aibing might be joined by new assistants. Qin Su might be dismissed and replaced with Nie cousins. A doctor and nurses might be enlisted to constantly monitor the madam and heir's health. Her sphere of influence in the Unclean Realm would shrink to the size of an egg for years to come. 

That's what she would become: a hen laying eggs for a strutting rooster. Her father might actually be more amused by her failure than angry. Either way, if she failed in Qinghe Nie, he would ridicule Meng Shi's daughter.  

Jin Guangyao strummed the guqin strings until her fingertips stung with the beginnings of blisters. She smiled at her quickly developing mastery. Across from her, Lan Xichen smiled encouragingly. Nie Mingjue sat nearby, mollified. She was not quite certain how she would use this new skill, but she hoped to know by the end of her stay. 

At nightfall, Lan Xichen led his sworn siblings to their guest quarters.

From the high window, Jin Guangyao could see the skeleton of a great pavilion loom over the black rooftops of Cloud Recesses. Its prestige ran bone-deep. She could tell already that it would be the greatest building in Cloud Recesses once completed. There was only one answer to its identity. "The library remains unfinished after so many months?" She asked Lan Xichen. 

"There was some debate on the rebuilding," He explained sheepishly. "Many elders favored a restoration to the exact specifications of Lan An's original design. Others wanted to take this opportunity to make modifications. It took quite some time to reach a compromise." 

"That compromise being that Lan Qiren wants everything the same down to the boogers wiped under the tables, am I right?" Asked Nie Mingjue.

Lan Xichen was too dignified to snort...but it was a near thing. "Da-ge knows Uncle so well. Perhaps you should contribute something to the restoration - for the sake of authenticity."

"Such a shame," Jin Guangyao interrupted the playfight before it could start. "I had hoped to visit the famous library tomorrow to read more about Lan Yi. I recently came across a book in the Nie library which summarized her exploits." Lan Yi was a controversial figure in history. Nie Mingjue would not blink twice at her interest in the Lan ancestress, for it was genuine. Lan Xichen might be hesitant but nonetheless indulgent of her whims. Wherever there was truly interesting information about Lan Yi, there were sure to be other Lan secrets. Secrets such as those to do with musical cultivation.

She did not dare ask about sacred clan techniques directly. Not with her husband always around.

"The books are still here, A-Yao," Lan Xichen consoled her, as expected. "They're simply in storage. I can show you tomorrow." 

Promises made, he left Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue alone. There was one bed in the chamber, and he had never once looked at it. 

The married couple pulled their night robes from qiankun bags. Their swords were stored side-by-side on stands at the foot of the bed. As she undressed, Jin Guangyao wondered if she should try and make a go of things tonight, per usual. In the end, she pulled her robe on, deciding that she really was in no mood. Her husband seemed to agree, slipping on his own robe and climbing right into bed, putting three layers of fabric between them. Jin Guangyao joined him in bed, reducing it to two. 

That night, Jin Guangyao wished to learn a different Lan technique to deal with Nie Mingjue. The Silencing Spell. As it turned out, her husband snored

Because she never quite fell asleep, it was easy to slip away to the privy in the early hours to empty her guts without Nie Mingjue noticing. She scurried across the cold floor back into bed, disappointed to find her sheets gone cold as well. She huddled close to Nie Mingjue without thinking - and stubbornly stayed once she realized, pretending for a moment just as she used to do with Lan Xichen when they shared a bed long ago. She pretended to be asleep when Nie Mingjue finally stirred awake. 

Lan Xichen came to recollect his sworn siblings shortly after they finished their breakfast. He looked tired, under-eyes slightly bruised, but eager to show them more of his home. "I finished my duties for this morning, so I will be at your disposal until after lunch when I meet with the Elders. Though, if you'd be so inclined," He turned to Nie Mingjue and saluted. "Da-ge, the Elders would be honored to have you and your wife attend today's meeting."

Nie Mingjue clapped Lan Xichen on the shoulder. "Qinghe Nie would be honored to attend." He seemed to remember her suddenly and asked, "Isn't that right, Meng Yao?" 

Jin Guangyao nodded her assent. Truly, this visit was proving immensely productive. 

Lan Xichen led them once again toward the residential district. Jin Guangyao wondered if the knowledge she sought had been beneath her feet the whole time yesterday, but they passed the Hanshi without a word. Instead, Lan Xichen proceeded down a lonely path that diverged from the neat stone walkways between the respective cottages. 

The path wound around the mountain into half-tamed wilderness of pine trees. In the thicket off the path, Jin Guangyao glimpsed unadored huts likely meant for meditative seclusion. The path briefly passed a pleasant meadow surrounded by fences engraved with talismans. Black and white rabbits frolicked there in a bunny's paradise safe from predators. Lan Wangji's wards, his brother chuckled. 

Eventually, they came upon a cottage not unlike the Hanshi. Except, rather than bamboo, gentians sheltered the cottage from view from the path. The cottage bore no placard.

No one lived there. The interior was coated in dust. Jin Guangyao's eyes tracked dozens of footprints from the front door into the sitting room. There, a hundred towers and large crates awaited them. 

"This house is not well-known even within the Cloud Recesses. The wards are also exceptionally strong." Lan Xichen walked over to a crate covered in talismans. The talismans reacted positively to his presence and allowed him to open the crate and begin digging through its contents. Nie Mingjue picked through a tower of tomes, glancing over the titles before setting them aside, inadvertently stacking a whole new tower. 

Somehow, Jin Guangyao found the little trinkets collecting dust on shelves and tables more interesting than Gusu Lan's surviving archives. The shelves here were more cluttered than those in the Hanshi. Really, there was none of the Gusu Lan asceticism here. Under layers of grey dust, wealth still gleamed in porcelain vases and jade statuettes. Ornate hairpins sat abandoned on a table. Jin Guangyao could still make out elaborate embroidery in nearly every stitch of fine fabric. The shelves were crammed with books and scrolls that clearly had not belonged to the Library Pavilion. Jin Guangyao's eyes widened at familiar romance titles she recognized both from Nie Huaisang's contraband collection and her childhood at the brothel. Just what kind of Lan lived here?

Jin Guangyao briefly considered the idea that the reason the cottage was so far from the others was because the inhabitant was just so - un-Lan-like.

Isolation in order to prevent further infection of the herd. 

She turned to Lan Xichen, but her question died on her tongue. A morose air had settled over her sworn brother as he dug through the crate. Even she could not construe a gentle way to pry an answer from him. So instead she asked if she could assist in his search. 

"Thank you, A-Yao, but I'm afraid our storage system might be a bit more convoluted than initially thought..." He looked a bit helpless with the two books in his hand. "A-Yao should relax while I search for the texts on Lan Yi." 

"Er-ge should let this one help. I am a quick study, after all." And so they ended up totally reorganizing the contents of the crate. It felt as if for once in her life the gods were smiling down upon her; the opportunity she'd been seeking all this time had fallen right into her lap. 

Lan Xichen did not say a word on the matter, but Jin Guangyao concluded that this crate contained the most sacred and secret knowledge of Gusu Lan. The talismans were one clue. The intriguing titles were another. Encyclopedias of unique curses and other maledictions. Historical accounts of Gusu Lan's own worst deeds. Heretical theories. They soon came across Lan Yi's personal journals, but Jin Guangyao dug deeper into the crate until she came across a deceptively innocent title. 

"A songbook?" She looked to Lan Xichen for permission before flipping the book open. Her eyes scanned each page quickly but carefully till she found what she was searching for. " 'The Song of Cleansing'," She read aloud. Her fingers brushed the musical notations, ancient ink seeped into brittle paper. "Gusu Lan really is incredible. A whole book of cultivation music...Ah! It says here that this song represses negative energy and can promote overall improvement in the listener's health. That's so amazing, Er-ge! What other feats can musical cultivation accomplish?" 

Lan Xichen reached over and tapped the book. "Keep reading and A-Yao will learn. You are a quick study, after all." 

Jin Guangyao bowed to Lan Xichen in gratitude and shuffled off to read in a corner. Indeed, she was a quick study. Her eyes scanned page after page in search of keywords and familiar notes. Anything that might of some assistance in her quest. She did not need the answer she sought now - a clue to where she might turn next would suffice. She found it in a small note in the description of another healing song. 

If played by a skilled-enough cultivator, this melody might even be able to counteract the malevolent intentions of songs from the Collection of Turmoil. 

Jin Guangyao had always been a quick study, but midday rapidly approached. Briefly - a moment - hardly a second - she considered returning in search of the tome another time. There was no guarantee that the text was even in Gusu Lan's possession. Yet her queasy stomach reminded her that she could not conceal her pregnancy forever. Who knew when Nie Mingjue would allow her outside the Unclean Realm again when he found out...how he would treat her after he found out. He already thought the worst without knowing what Jin Guangshan had tasked her to do - she loathed to have him treat her as a bad influence on her own child, to disrespect her as her own mother was disrespected. She would not suffer that fate. Jin Guangyao had little choice but to search out the text at that very moment, in the very same room as the husband she intended to kill. 

She feigned growing disinterest in the songbook until Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue seemed sufficiently distracted by texts they had unearthed. She shuffled through the crate's contents, pretending to rearrange things so the tome was put in its proper place as she and Lan Xichen decided with their new system. The Collection of Turmoil sat near the bottom of the crate. Discreetly, she began to flip through pages, as if simply curious about the contents. It was not exactly a lie. 

Jin Guangyao committed every page to memory. She did not know exactly what might useful to her later. However, she did know that she would be returning to the Unclean Realm with a guqin and knowledge of a song her husband apparently trusted to soothe his temper even in her hands. She perused the forbidden text with feigned nonchalance until she came across a strikingly familiar page. 

Her fingers brushed the musical notations, ancient power seeped into brittle paper. The notes were not identical, but eerily familiar. Siblings, perhaps, born of different mothers but sired by the same father. 

Jin Guangyao pulled the page taunt and ever so slowly began to tear it away from the book's binding. The harsh whisper of paper made her cringe. She did not dare look to see if her companions noticed the sound. She extended her senses, feeling for sudden tension or intent focused in her direction. She felt nothing but her own anxiety nestled deep in the pit of her stomach. 

Behind her, pages flipped. Lan Xichen murmured softly to Nie Mingjue about his own reading. Her husband grunted in reply. 

Jin Guangyao took a silent breath and slowly pulled the page down along the seam. The subtle pop of each incremental tear mimicked the sound of turning pages closely enough. Jin Guangyao pulled and pulled until the damning page came away in its entirety. The hard part was now over. 

She channeled qi into her fingertips. The torn page crumbled to bits. 

Chapter Text

Dry discourse over domestic matters dominated the meeting with the Lan Elders. Most concerned the rebuilding efforts and disciple education. Lan Qiren presented two motions to do with the novices and juniors respectively. He thought the seniors assigned to the creche were much too lenient. He named an actual toddler by the name of Jingyi as an example of unchecked havoc in their midst. Likewise, he felt the juniors needed to night-hunt less in order to focus on meditation and self-discipline.

"The Sunshot Campaign has left too many youths convinced that all they need to make their way in this world is a sword to hack at what is in front of them." Lan Qiren's statement was final. The motions were passed.

Jin Guangyao thought it was a rather skillful transition into the last topic on the agenda: the Yiling Patriarch. 

"It is expected that the four great cultivation sects soon take formal stances in regard to the Yiling Patriarch and the Wens at the Burial Mounds," Lan Xichen introduced the subject solemnly. Somehow the Lan Elders looked grimmer. "I understand that many elders are suspicious of Wei Wuxian's intentions due to the bad impression he left during his studies here and his chosen path of cultivation. You all have been most patient with this young sect leader of yours and my decision to monitor the situation. Today, due to the presence of my dearest friends, Sect Leader Nie and Madam Nie, I reopen the floor to discussion on this matter."

The closest thing to what could be called an uproar in the Cloud Recesses ensued. 

"Sect Leader, this one proposes that we join Lanling Jin in their continued surveillance of the Burial Mounds," Elder Haiqi stated in a voice so resolute that it carried like a shout despite her low pitch. "I suggest positioning teams of senior Lan cultivators in Yiling to observe the Burial Mounds on three-month rotations." 

"Sect Leader, this one advises against such action. Gusu Lan should instead consider withdrawing from this matter. We have yet to fully recover from the Sunshot Campaign and cannot afford another major engagement for the foreseeable future. The Yiling Patriarch is primarily the concern of Lanling Jin and Yunmeng Jiang." Elder Junwei countered in a perfectly peaceable tone which contradicted the stink-eye he was shooting Elder Haiqi. 

Lan Xichen turned to Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue. "Since it seems the Elders are concerned about Gusu Lan's involvement with other sects, I will politely ask for Qinghe Nie's input." 

A beat of silence followed before Jin Guangyao realized that Nie Mingjue was waiting for her to speak on their behalf. She was so baffled by the strange display of trust that she stumbled over the beginning of her response. "Yes, well, this matter concerns all sects from the point of view of Lanling Jin, and Qinghe Nie concurs. The Yiling Patriarch does not respect any sect or the core principles of our world. He has already offended his own sect and the most powerful cultivation sect. What is to stop him should he turn his sights on Gusu Lan? Preparedness averts misfortune." 

"This one agrees with Sect Leader Nie and his wife," said Elder Songlian. "There is also the matter of gratitude. We are in Lanling Jin's debt as Jin Guangshan continues to fund our recovery from Wen Xu's attack."

"Sect Leader Jin has issued a request that we relinquish our right to hold this summer's discussion conference to Lanling Jin," Elder Bingyan interjected. "We have yet to send him a formal response." The implication hung heavily in the air. Jin Guangyao wondered why they would cling to such a privilege anyway when it was more of a financial and logistical burden in their present circumstances. 

"Is Gusu Lan to acquiesce to all of Jin Guangshan's demands?" Asked Elder Haiqi. "It would be one thing if he came out and said he expected us to pay back every ounce of gold Jin gold spent on our behalf. If it took a thousand years, I would see it done. But how does one quantify the worth of unconditional political and military support? When will our debt be repaid?" 

When my father is Chief Cultivator and you all owe him fealty regardless of any monetary debt. Jin Guangyao refused to offer any answer on Lanling Jin's behalf. Throughout the rest of the meeting, she supported the stance of Lan Bingyan. She decided that Elder Haiqi was one to watch.

No decisions were made in regard to Wei Wuxian, but a response would be sent to Koi Tower before nightfall. 

"I have a headache," Nie Mingjue declared as they exited the meeting hall. "Lan Huan, I know this visit was meant for us all to enjoy more time together, but I feel compelled to go meditate for a while." 

"Are you sure you don't want me to play Cleansing for you?" 

"I'm feeling nostalgic. If you need me, I will be on the back mountain." 

Jin Guangyao's eyes darted between her husband and their sworn brother. Is he-? 

"You and Meng Yao should carry on without me." He is!? 

Jin Guangyao scrambled to think of an explanation for this strange behavior. Was Nie Mingjue suffering from qi deviation? Did he want to torture her? Was this some bizarre test of their marriage?

No, Nie Mingjue had to realize that she would never tarnish Lan Xichen like that. Marrying him was one thing; seducing him into an adulterous affair was another. His own sect might beat him with the discipline whip if he was discovered being too cozy with another sect leader's wife within their own compound. Mandated seclusion at the very least! 

No, for once, Jin Guangyao decided to interpret her husband's intentions charitably. Already, he had let her speak for Qinghe Nie...He likely wanted her and Lan Xichen to reconcile from the awkwardness of the past several months. She watched Nie Mingjue march off to the back mountain, leaving his wife and friend to steep in that awkwardness.

Lan Xichen broke the silence by asking her to tea. Due to propriety, they could not be alone in the Hanshi, so instead, they sat down in a public tea room. 

"This blend is rather refreshing," Jin Guangyao remarked between sips.

"Ah, yes, it is. I thought you might appreciate it."

"Me?" Jin Guangyao repeated, sizing up the dark circles under Lan Xichen's eyes. 

"Apologies, Yao-mei. Of course, you are still lovely! This one simply meant that, like myself, it seems traveling has left you a bit fatigued. These things happen when one undertakes sudden journeys without mental preparation. I find that I especially enjoy this blend when such fatigue strikes. It is not advisable under Lan precepts, but I also enjoy the occasional nap." He chuckled at his own dirty little secret. 

Truly, Jin Guangyao had been tired since before they left the Unclean Realm and she'd been subjected to her husband's damn snoring. Pregnancy itself was tiring, but without Qin Su, her old sleep troubles had resumed. Tossing and turning throughout the night. Constant vigilance at the slightest creak out in the hall. She blew out the braiser in the corner, despising its red heat out of the corner of her eye. Revolted at the burning smell. For the first time in months, Jin Guangyao slept with her sword up her sleeve. 

She sincerely preferred to talk about anything else. "We have not spoken privately in almost half a year and you wish to discuss sleeping habits? Er-ge..."

She almost married this man. That's how Nie Mingjue made it sound on their wedding night. Now, Jin Guangyao needed to know if he hadn't just been paranoid. That Lan Xichen wanted to marry her so badly that he would defy the likes of Lan Haiqi, Lan Junwei, and his own uncle was unfathomable. The elders' political stances were variable, but no elder of any sect would ever agree to their leader marrying a whore's daughter. Nie Mingjue only got away with it because the Nie Sect Leader's authority was unhampered by such formalized councils. 

If Lan Xichen was really so intent on marrying her that he spooked Nie Mingjue, he must truly have thought he needed to do it. The impropriety of their bed-sharing was a stain on both their virtues. He should have been relieved then by Nie Mingjue's intervention. An attempt had been made to right the wrongs of the past. No one could then blame him for lack of trying. Yet, he had been so distant from both his sworn siblings since the engagement banquet. 

At that moment, Lan Xichen looked like his favorite tea had gone bitter on his tongue. He set aside his cup and asked, "A-Yao...Did you really not trust me?" 

Jin Guangyao's gut stirred unpleasantly. "I should have known that was what was bothering you, Er-ge. This one is so sorry for deceiving you." She dipped into a full kowtow across the tea room floor. 

Strong hands urged her to sit up. "Do not be sorry. Really, I understand the reasons for the ruse, and that it must have been difficult to reveal the truth the longer it went on. It's just, I've been wondering why you did not tell me after you told Da-ge."

Since she had not eased up on her kowtow in the slightest, Jin Guangyao's jaw quite literally hit the floor. "I...He...tell...you..." For the first time, Jin Guangyao lost all composure in front of Lan Xichen. Confusion jumbled her vocabulary. Anger ate up her cautious instincts. The most intelligible thing she managed to spit out was, "He said what?"

She bolted upright and watched Lan Xichen wince with wide eyes. "It seems our sworn brother kept his own secret. Yes, Mingjue came to me right after your father's letter arrived. Soon after his own arrived at Qinghe, I'm sure. He came and begged forgiveness from me. When I asked why, he explained that he needed me to reject your father's offer to open marriage negotiations. When I pressed for a reason, he professed to have received his own offer and declared his absolute conviction to marry you." Lan Xichen actually smiled at that, in that sincere way where he was proud of the people he held dearest. Jin Guangyao felt heartsick. "When I questioned when he developed such strong feelings for you, he confessed that he had known your secret for quite some time. That he had cared for you since your days as his deputy. 

"His conviction was so strong. How he rushed right over to ask me to stand aside for him was so uncharacteristic of A-Jue...Who was I to question things further? Yet I still wondered all these past months..." Lan Xichen looked guilty. Too guilty for the only innocent party among them. 

"I never told Nie Mingjue my secret," said Jin Guangyao. Her tone was even, somehow. At Lan Xichen's shocked expression, she elaborated, "He found out by accident. I...He...He saw me in compromising circumstances." The lie was a good one. Nie Mingjue had indeed caught Jin Guangyao with her sword still wet with the blood of allies. More than once actually. She made herself flush.

Where she was chrysanthemum pink, Lan Xichen was tomato red. All he managed to spit out in response was, "Oh." 

Jin Guangyao reached for her teacup. She kept her hands steady through sheer force of will.

She wished to hunt Nie Mingjue down right at that moment and beat his head in with the dainty little cup. Maybe she could excuse herself to the privy and head to the back mountain to scream herself hoarse in his face at his hypocrisy before she did it. Maybe she could take back what she just said and tell Lan Xichen the truth. Let him know that his precious older brother is the worst kind of hypocrite. 

Jin Guangyao sipped her tea in nauseating silence with Lan Xichen. Why did she protect him and his lie? Had that small show of respect during the meeting really softened her heart to baby mash? Horrified, she wondered if this bout of insanity was the beginnings of hormones

"The tea also helps with nausea," Lan Xichen remarked. His furious blush had not abated in the least, yet he met her eye and said in a near whisper, "A servant was quite concerned to find that someone had taken ill in the privy near your quarters this morning." 

"Er-ge...I am not with child." Jin Guangyao lied with an amused smile. She giggled at how Lan Xichen's blush climbed down his neck and he apologized profusely - little did he know, for being right. 

All these lies are necessary, she thought. Jin Guangyao was not going soft.

No, to tell Lan Xichen to the truth of their Da-ge's lies would mean him finding out just how much Nie Mingjue still distrusted her. To remind Lan Xichen of all the terrible, untrustworthy things she had done was dangerous...especially considering what she planned to do next. Plans she could not let Lan Xichen potentially tip off Nie Mingjue to by congratulating him on fatherhood.

No, Jin Guangyao couldn't stand to imagine how Lan Xichen would gush over his sworn siblings and their impending parenthood. She didn't want to see that masculine pride and parental giddiness ruin Nie Mingjue's stern face. She wasn't ready to play the glowing expectant mother. Not until her plans were in motion and too late to stop. 

No...there was only so much Jin Guangyao could deal with in one day. Just this morning she had found the means to be rid of her husband. That afternoon, she had helped secure a discussion conference on her father's terms and swayed Gusu Lan ever further away from neutrality. In the past few moments, she came to know for a fact that Lan Xichen only saw her as a sworn sister, had been happy to step aside in the name of love, and had merely felt betrayed by her secrecy all these past months. He did not love her like a wife. He would only step into Nie Mingjue's shoes out of obligation. 

Still - always - Jin Guangyao wanted to sit and enjoy her limited time alone with Lan Xichen. She did not want to talk about babies and idyllic family scenes that never had and never would materialize for her. 

Chapter Text

There was no opportunity to confront Nie Mingjue in the Cloud Recesses. He returned from the back mountain in a foul mood that survived Cleansing as a brusque attitude. Jin Guangyao and Lan Xichen carried the conversation throughout dinner while he seethed at his tofu. That night, he stayed out late, down the mountain in the city. He came to bed smelling of strongly of meat and faintly of liquor, his raw anger still unsatisfied. Jin Guangyao feigned heavy slumber. She had no interest in picking a fight with him in such a mood. 

They left the Cloud Recesses the next morning.

At the main gate, Lan Xichen gave Jin Guangyao a qiankun bag containing the guqin. He gave Nie Mingjue some advice. "Take care, Da-ge. These are trying times and people are relying on you. But you need not look far for answers anymore. There are always those you can rely on closeby." He said, sharing a significant look with Jin Guangyao.

It felt blasphemous to ask Guanyin to bless this man for unknowingly serving her machinations, but it indeed at times feel like the gods had sent her Lan Xichen. Ever since that day he collapsed practically on her doorstep, somehow his every word and action seemed to work in her favor. Strengthening her cultivation foundations. Introducing her to the conflict with the Qishan Wen. Spurring Nie Mingjue on to write her a recommendation. Proposing the oath of brotherhood. Now, he was handing her Nie Mingjue's head on a platter.

She and Nie Mingjue bowed in thanks. As they prepared to mount their swords, a sword glare cut through the clouds. 

Lan Wangji dismounted Bichen and greeted them politely. "Sect Leader Nie, Madam Nie, Brother." He looked unfairly unruffled by his journey. 

"Welcome home, Wangji. How fortunate! You have arrived just in time to see off Da-ge and A-Yao. " 

It could not be said that the three of them did not at least try to seem excited to see each other for Lan Xichen's sake. Jin Guangyao was an old hand by now at smiling convincingly at people she was totally ambivalent toward. Nie Mingjue gruffly asked after Lan Wangji's night hunt. Lan Wangji did not look disgusted with either of them as he responded with more than one sentence, so Jin Guangyao counted the terse exchange as a victory. 

"Brother," Lan Wangji turned and bowed. "If it does not inconvenience you, please join me in the Jingshi later." 

"Is this about your night hunt? Did you not just say that things went accordingly?" 

"Personal matter." For the first time, Jin Guangyao glimpsed vulnerability in the Second Jade of Gusu Lan. It flashed in his golden eyes like a stray ember off a bonfire. 

Lan Xichen nodded understandingly. Jin Guangyao wanted badly to find an excuse to stay behind and listen in. The full scope of Lan Wangji's personal life encompassed his older brother and Wei Wuxian by Lan Xichen's own omission. Both were subjects that Jin Guangyao also had a keen interest in. Alas, she knew that Lan Xichen would never relent. His little brother was an intensely insular person. 

The sworn siblings bid farewell to one another, tender and awkward and impatient. Baxia and Hensheng lifted into the air, cutting through the thin clouds as they made for the sea. Behind them, the Twin Jades disappeared into white mist. 

The flight back to Qinghe felt longer than it was. Despite his mediation among mountain tranquility, Nie Mingjue was surlier than usual. He and Jin Guangyao did not speak. Her husband glared at the horizon. Jin Guangyao was occupied regulating her qi; she had to both manage her flight and soothe her stomach. She had succeeded in not vomiting so far that morning, not wanting to leave behind any more evidence of her condition. She didn't want to fail now by losing her breakfast on some poor farmer's head. 

Arriving at the Unclean Realm was such a relief that Jin Guangyao took a rare moment to appreciate its beauty. The beauty only birds and cultivators could see. 

The giant gates of the Unclean Realm loomed where great waves green plains stretching from the eastern seashore crashed into steep, rocky mountains. Pine trees crowded the foot of the mountains and climbed their backs, clinging perilously to jagged cliffs and springing forth from the grey rock. Behind the tall stone walls rose tall grey guard towers, two for each terrace of stone and lumber buildings rising into the mountains, jutting from the corners of the terraces like bull horns. The architecture was all sharp angles and harsh beauty; the Unclean Realm challenged those who entered it to be strong and climb high. 

They descended into the central courtyard near the base of the mountain. 

Nie Mingjue marched off without a word. Not in the direction of his office. 

"Where are you going?" She called. 

It might have been his bad mood, or it might have been that her own temper had laced the question. Whatever it was, it made Nie Mingjue tremble. "Training!" He snarled over his shoulder. He marched off. Not in the direction of any training field she knew of. 

Jin Guangyao wisely retreated to the office. Like her husband, she preferred to be useful while she stewed in her fury. To her, that meant paperwork, budgets and logistics, and wordsmithing letters to important people. To her husband, that meant honing his saber skills, using ceaseless training as a whetstone for both his cultivation and his state of mind. She heard him, off in the distance, wherever he was that day, slicing the world to ribbons. Nie Aibing's eyes kept traveling out the window; he could not keep focused on any task she assigned him. Jin Guangyao shivered in terrible fright at her desk when he looked away. 

"Oh no!" Nie Aibing yelped. 

Jin Guangyao flew over to the window, certain that she'd see Nie Mingjue chopping away at one of the great towers like a pine tree with Baxia for an ax. But her husband was nowhere in sight and the towers were each accounted for. No, the sight that met her was somehow more shocking.

"He can't be serious!" Nie Huaisang looked dead serious - if downright terrified - as he crossed the courtyard, slinking ever further in the direction of his brother's ruckus. And dead he would be if he approached his brother in this terrible mood! "Send the guards," Jin Guangyao ordered Nie Aibing. When he hesitated, she shouted, "Send the guards! Have you no care for your young master's life?!" 

Nie Aibing bolted out of the office, shouting for the guards - disciples - household staff - anyone with the speed to get to Nie Huaisang before he got to his brother and the arm strength to drag his foolish self to safety. Jin Guangyao watched from the window as Nie Aibing and two disciples stormed outside, calling for their young master. Nie Huaisang startled slightly, looked between the cavalry sent to rescue him and the direction that small animals were fleeing from - and took off toward his brother with ridiculous speed for a layabout! 

"Shit - fuck - dammit - shit!" Nie Aibing crowed loud enough to be heard clear across the courtyard. It was a grave mistake. His secretarial lungs gave out on him - he stumbled on thin air and tumbled to the ground. Sprawled across the paving stones, he coughed for the disciples to press on. 

One disciple burst ahead of her companion, gaining on Nie Huaisang at the very edge of the courtyard. She dove low for his knees - and Nie Huaisang jumped high.

The maneuver might have worked against less expert opponents. The disciple rolled under him in a ball and landed back on her feet, now in front of Nie Huaisang. Behind them, the second disciple loomed. Nie Huaisang looked like a cornered mouse between two tigers. Jin Guangyao almost felt bad, punishing this rare bout of bravery, but really it was for the boy's own good. 

Words were exchanged that she couldn't hear. The disciples were likely cajoling their young master to one of his usual indoor pursuits. Jin Guangyao returned to her desk, hoping to get some work done without Nie Aibing breathing down her neck for once. Things were peaceful. Even her husband's temper tantrum seemed to die away in the distance. 

When the office door creaked open, Jin Guangyao half-expected it to be Nie Mingjue. A second shock drew her to her feet that day. 

"What happened to you?" She demanded of the pathetic sights in front of her. Nie Aibing with a busted nose from his fall. One disciple cradling her right arm. The other nursing a busted lip and a blackening eye with a cut of raw meat. 

Clearly mortified by what had just transpired, the disciples mumbled, "The young master...happened." 

Gobsmacked, Jin Guangyao returned to the window. The Unclean Realm had fallen deathly silent. She did not have any words - for her concern, nor for her utter confusion.

She sent proper Nie guards to seek out their sect leader and young master. Only one reported back, skittish and traumatized; he reported that Sect Leader Nie and Young Master Nie had asked for privacy. Reluctantly, Jin Guangyao did not press the matter, though curiosity nagged her. She did not truly expect her husband to harm his little brother, after all, and Nie Huaisang could never keep a secret. She would ask him about this incident later... 

When she did not see either brother at dinner, however, Jin Guangyao grew genuinely concerned that Nie Mingjue had killed his little brother in the throes of a qi deviation. Still, she did not dare seek her husband out. Not when his temper remained unknown.

So, she and Qin Su ate like Lans. Only one question passed between them at the very end of the meal as the servants collected their empty dishes. 

"Nie Huaisang...Did he act strangely while we were away?" Jin Guangyao asked. 

Perhaps it was a trick of the light - Jin Guangyao wished it was so - but it appeared that Qin Su's cheeks flushed with guilt. She did not meet Jin Guangyao's eye as she answered. "We had tea in the Songbird Garden and played music mostly. Nothing seems strange about that to me." It pained Jin Guangyao to see Qin Su lie to her. 

She adjourned to her chambers, completely alone, pondering what exactly had passed between the two in her absence. And so soon...

Jin Guangyao wondered if perhaps something had been simmering beneath surface with Nie Huaisang since long before her trip to the Cloud Recesses. She thought back to all those hours Qin Su spent away from her each day of the past several months. Hours where Nie Huaisang was also unaccounted for. And when she had arrived in the Songbird Garden with Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue, they had found the two perfectly cozy in each other's company. Perhaps more than loneliness drove Qin Su's decision to end their relationship. Perhaps it had also been due to more promising prospects found elsewhere. 

Not so far away, of course. Jin Guangyao laughed caustically, thinking it was little wonder that Qin Su did not wish to leave the Unclean Realm just yet. And Nie Huaisang's strange bout of foolhardy bravery in seeking out his raging brother? Only love could do such things to a boy like Nie Huaisang. Asking for her hand already? So soon, like in one of his novels?

Jin Guangyao opened her qiankun bag and retrieved her new weapon. She set to practicing near the window on the table where she and Qin Su once took their breakfast together. Her fingers plucked Cleansing into the air, one tender note after the other.

Harsh knocks hammered at her door, ruining the melody and her concentration. "A moment!" She called, readying herself to stand.

A burly shadow crashed into her chambers as if summoned by her voice. Wood splintered from the doorframe. The bits of a busted lock bounced across the floor. In an instant, Nie Mingjue was upon her. His eyes were wild. His aura, oppressive. 

Qi deviation, Jin Guangyao's mind screamed. Play! Play like Xichen showed you!

"Sect Leader, let me help -" A familiar calloused hand seized her wrist. Nie Mingjue dragged Jin Guangyao away from the guqin, twisting her arm behind her back. She bit back a cry and spoke through gritted teeth, "I can play Cleansing for you! Why're you -"

Why are you here, if not for that? What do you know

Her husband's wild eyes shone with something worse than anger. They did not leave her own as his free hand dug into his robes. 

Nie Mingjue withdrew a white-knuckled fist - she flinched - and held it before her eyes, unblinking. 

Bits of ancient paper danced to the floor like plum blossoms. 

Chapter Text

The brittle fragments of paper were entirely illegible. One might mistake the mess on her floor for pale confetti or rubbish. Jin Guangyao knew that such a mistake would not be accepted from her. 

"What is this about? Love letters? A paperwork error?" Jin Guangyao forced herself to bark a caustic laugh. "Have you come to accuse me of something? How can I defend myself even when you've gone ahead and ripped up the so-called evidence in your fit?" 

Nie Mingjue did not say a word. He marched her forward, his iron-grip on her wrist unrelenting. Outside her door, four senior disciples stepped out of the shadows to flank their sect leader. One stripped her of Hensheng and disappeared in the opposite direction as the others escorted Jin Guangyao downstairs. She might as well have been a manacled prisoner on her way to the dungeons. Shivering, she acknowledged that she likely was...

At the bottom of the staircase, five Nie cultivators that Jin Guangyao recognized as Nie Mingjue's wartime commanders awaited them. They did not hide their antipathy for her after months of neutral masks. Yet none said a word. 

Fear set into Jin Guangyao's bones. Her free hands seized her husband's wrist. She dug her nails in and demanded answers, "Where are you taking me? What is the meaning of this?"

Nie Mingjue dragged her forward on the tips of her toes, snarling under his breath, "Stay that evil tongue of yours!"

"I'll scream!" She threatened. "I'll scream so loud that they'll hear me all the way back in Lanling, one way or the other! There will be trouble for Qinghe Nie if you punish me without even telling me what crime I am accused of! What righteousness is that anyway?" 

Nie Mingjue stepped forward and loomed over her; Jin Guangyao shrank back as far as she could with her wrist in a vice. Spiritual energy tickled her meridians there and she yanked hard like a doe caught in a wire trap. It was just as futile. Her husband's gleaming eyes drifted from her face to the ochre sash at her waist. "It's true then," He croaked. "You're with child." 

"Yes!" Jin Guangyao admitted hastily because Nie Mingjue would never physically harm an expectant mother - the mother of his child. "Is this how such news is received in the Unclean Realm, husband?" She gestured to the mob of armed cultivators encircling them. 

Nie Mingjue yanked her hard enough that her shoulder screamed with her. His men parted like a curtain. Not one protested at her screaming, following wordlessly as their sect leader dragged his wife through dark corridors, down narrow stairs, descending into the belly of the Unclean Realm. Eventually, she could not be trusted to keep pace, always digging her heels into the floor and clawing at walls. Nie Mingjue released her to the custody of his men; they seized each arm and held her aloft so her feet did not touch the floor. 

A thick iron door engraved with a beast's roaring visage opened to Nie Mingjue's qi. Brick tunnels leading to the dungeon and old storage rooms gave way to a rugged passage in the earth. The lamplight of man-made corridors disappeared; Nie Mingjue led the way with a single light talisman. The height and width of the passage varied drastically, from tight crevices that Nie Mingjue barely managed to veritable caves dripping with condensation. Yet their path did not diverge wildly from a singular direction. Through the haze of her terror and dark reminiscence of her time in Qishan, Jin Guangyao realized that the passage cut directly through the mountain.

They emerged from the passage into another damp cave with a wide, gaping maw. Black beams reinforced by metal rods caged them in. Artisans had carved Nie warriors and ferocious beasts into the mineral pillars supporting the fanged ceiling. Cultivators had carved talismans into the sparkling cave walls. A small shrine had been built into the rock next to a pitch-black pool fed only by the rhythmic dripping from above. 

Nie Mingjue knelt before the shrine and lit three incense sticks. His men knelt respectfully behind him, forcing Jin Guangyao to do the same.

They sat in prayer until the incense sticks burned away. She was not sure which gods Nie Mingjue favored, but Jin Guangyao begged Guanyin for her intervention. It was half-hearted. She could not bring herself to believe that the Goddess of Mercy would see her as an innocent in need of saving. Those days were long past her and Guanyin had not helped her then.

Nie Mingjue deactivated a locking array and a door built into the cave's caged mouth, previously unseen, swung open. Their march continued, out of the cave and into a grey landscape. A half dozen light talismans burst to life. The glow turned the thick fog surrounding them golden but revealed little hiding behind it. The men carried on, undeterred. 

Jin Guangyao was almost relieved to be carried as the journey dragged on longer and longer. This feeling was feeble and short-lived. Her surroundings beyond the fog were unknown, but the night sky allowed her to track the time. Their passage through the cave had already eaten away hours. They'd emerged into the valley in the earliest hours of the new day. As they walked through the fog, the dark sky paled and stars faded into nothingness. Yet Nie Mingjue kept marching and his men kept following. 

She began to wonder if this was just the start of a long journey. But then, why go on foot rather than by sword? Where were they taking her exactly? The stars told her this was not the direction of any major sect. They'd taken Hensheng from her, so perhaps her husband thought to discard her far away - so far away that she would be hopeless without her sword. But that did not answer the question of not using their own swords to travel there...Not unless they feared witnesses spotting them in flight to and from the location. Unlikely, considering cultivators looked much like birds once they rose to a certain height...

This line of thinking of pure foolishness. Nie Mingjue would never loose her into the wilderness like an exotic pet that had grown too dangerous. He wanted her tame.

Jin Guangyao reached the conclusion that their destination must be located somewhere in the grey valley. She recalled that the mountains at Qinghe's back were sparsely populated due to their steep and rocky nature. One small valley was outright forbidden to those outside the Nie Sect, for reasons which were not publicly disclosed. For years, Jin Guangyao had assumed the valley might be a private game preserve or home to a sacred site. The cave had looked fairly sacred, that was certain. However, the fact that there was an array accessed from the inside rather than outside implied something of greater importance hidden in the fog. The preternaturally thick fog was itself an indicator of something valuable nearby. If she concentrated, Jin Guangyao could sense a powerful spell at work in the air. 

Sunlight peeked over the mountains. The world glowed in shades of white and grey. Still, nothing could be seen through the fog.

Not until Nie Mingjue came to an abrupt stop. With a wave of his arm, as if clearing the air, a burst of qi lifted the white veil before them. A cold gust of air chilled Jin Guangyao's bones. Her eyes widened at the sight revealed to her; mounds of white stone embedded in the earth like half-buried skulls. Dozens and dozens, staring each other in the face for eternity, mouths groaning. Pale pillars and paving stones cast an intricate web of paths. They looked like chips of bone washed up in a graveyard following a flood.

Tombs, Jin Guangyao realized.

Dangling centimeters above the ground, she wondered if Nie Mingjue sought to bury her. She still did not know what he knew, but she had seen him angry enough to kill her before. This time felt worse than their reunion in the Nightless City. 

Nie Mingjue walked amongst the tombs, each resolute step against the paving stones echoing throughout the valley. Finally, he came to a tomb which looked less weathered than the others. Another array answered his qi. Two heavy metal doors swung open. 

At their sect leader's nod, the men dropped Jin Guangyao to the ground. Before she could stand - before she could run - her husband seized her arm and dragged her into darkness. The doors slammed shut behind them. 

Nie Mingjue left Jin Guangyao to hammer uselessly at the metal. Another burst of qi cast the chamber in dim light. 

"Sit." 

She dragged her nails uselessly against the metal. They came away black with grime. 

She turned around and joined her husband in sitting before a large stone coffin. Jin Guangyao stared straight ahead as Nie Mingjue dug more incense sticks and funerary offerings from a qiankun bag. The process was familiar to her but his whole demeanor made her uneasy. 

His anger was still there, Jin Guangyao could sense it burning beneath his skin, like fire in a brazier. But it was smothered now under heavy fatigue caused by worse than one night's march. She fully expected it to eventually catch fire like a blanket.

The plaques mounted on the side of the stone coffin were well-tended to. The names shone in the lamplight. This tomb belonged to Nie Taiyan and his consorts: his wife, Nie Ruofei, and his concubine, Ma Liuyang. Jin Guangyao knew little of her in-laws, save that they died in quick succession almost a decade ago. The last Nie Sect Leader's murder had become an essential chapter in the young epic that was the Sunshot Campaign. Some might even call it the prologue. The fate of his widows was less well known. Jin Guangyao had only learned it from Nie Huaisang during a night of drinking shortly after the war ended.

His mothers went into secluded cultivation following their husband's death. There was an accident on their journey. What kind, when, or where - he had no idea. All the eleven-year-old Nie Huaisang had known was that he had truly become an orphan in the span of a few short weeks. 

Jin Guangyao could not fathom why Nie Mingjue brought her to his parents' shared tomb. 

"I did not go to meditate that afternoon," Nie Mingjue spoke at last in a shuddering breath. Jin Guangyao resisted the urge to snort at the obviousness of that fact. "The privy reeked of sick that morning. You never ate well or looked after yourself properly as my aide, so I overlooked your behavior these past few weeks. But becoming sick in the morning was just too obvious. How you batted your eyelashes at Lan Huan and all but begged to be shown the library...I knew even before I found those bits of paper hidden in the dust that it wasn't the first morning you'd woken in such a state. That entire visit was just you taking advantage of Lan Xichen's trust," Somehow, he yelled without raising his voice. A good filial son would not shout in the presence of his parents.

Jin Guangyao did not wonder how he entered the gentian cottage without Lan Xichen's help. Their sworn brother trusted them wholeheartedly - the arrays had likely been modified to permit select individuals that Lan Xichen felt he might call upon to protect the Lan archives in the case of another emergency. Jin Guangyao bit back a jab about his own opportunism in regards to Lan Xichen's trust. Nie Mingjue was too volatile to insult right now. Death was too close by. 

She gritted her teeth and let him carry on through his own clenched ones. "They were good women, my mothers."

Nothing like you went mercifully unsaid, but was heard. "Ma Liuyang did not birth me, but she passed along her fierceness all the same. She hunted with me and my father. She taught me to sit a horse and shoot a bow. Nie Ruofei preferred to stay back home with Huaisang in her lap, teaching him calligraphy and trying her best to instill him with some of her talent for spellwork. They ruled beside Nie Taiyan for thirty years, equals in spite of their differing titles. More than that, they loved each other with their whole souls. When my father died, my mothers kept to tradition and followed him." 

Tradition, he said. Something passed from generation to generation. Practices sealed in time and blood. 

Jin Guangyao flew to her feet and began to claw at the metal door as if she could tear her way through. She punched and kicked and screamed - screamed until she began to gag on tears and terror. She grew louder when she felt Nie Mingjue approach behind her - through her hysteria, she fought to concentrate her qi in her hands - to break through the door or attack, she wasn't quite certain. Whichever would save her life - prolong it a few more short moments -

The doors gave way to her next shove as Nie Mingjue unlocked it. Jin Guangyao tumbled into the daylight, half-blind and throat burning. Vomit burst past her lips in awful little acidic spurts that left her breath ragged. "What the hell!? What the hell is wrong with you?!" She coughed. 

Two disciples pulled Jin Guangyao to her feet. She was as limp as a ragdoll in their arms. Lightheaded as she felt, the pleas spilled past her lips much like her sick. They left her mouth foul and afire. "Da-ge, believe me just this once! I only meant to be cautious in case I was mistaken or this pregnancy didn't last! I would be humiliated otherwise! I had no nefarious intent in hiding this! Those bits of paper are nothing!"

Nie Mingjue slammed the tomb doors shut again and sealed them behind him. "Will you quit with the lies already? It disgusts me! It makes my skin crawl to see you put up such a false front - I won't tolerate it anymore! Not with me! Not now! Accept that your reliance on deceit is your own undoing." She had never seen Nie Mingjue so furious. He was weeping unabashedly, even. That look in his eye - the sheer force of it assaulted Jin Guangyao. Her hands flew to her throat, certain in that instant that his own had shot out to choke the life from her. She cowered before his man who was prepared to kill her. Her sworn brother, her husband, her former-

"If you had only been honest about trying to become pregnant - about being pregnant - then I never would have suspected that you would go this far! Murdering my subordinates. Murdering your captain. You can cry to Lan Xichen all you like about the requirements of espionage," The word flew from his lips with a spray of spittle. Nie Mingjue had worked himself into a froth. "But nothing can change the fact that you planned to murder your own husband in order to claim his seat as sect leader!"

Quit with the lies. Suicidal madness washed over Jin Guangyao. She grinned like a feral fox and spoke the truth her husband so longed for. "You think so highly of yourself! You think I let you fuck me every night for five months straight because you're just so strong and handsome and righteous? Of course, I was trying to get pregnant! Gods, you're an arrogant son of a bitch! I wasn't going to cow to your standards the moment you brought me back here!'

"So you admit it?" Jin Guangyao did not miss how his fingers twitched. For Baxia? For my little neck? Where would he decide her lies were born, she wondered. My heart? My tongue? My very lungs? Would he bury them separate from the rest of her? Jin Guangyao doubted he wanted to share a tomb with her worst bits. 

"Our union was always political," She replied. "You should have expected politics to come in the way of whatever fantasy you had of setting me on a righteous path. Even if you hadn't gone out of your way to be in my way, this would not be a unique betrayal, Nie Mingjue. I am not the first wife to want out of a loveless marriage."

He looked at her as if she were mad. Perhaps she was, heeding his order to be honest. "How you betrayed me no longer matters," He seethed. "You fully intended to take advantage of Xichen's trust in you. You planned to use his clan's techniques against his oldest friend!" 

At last, with a word, Nie Mingjue landed the blow he had been itching to since he stormed her chambers. 

"You're the one who made this all necessary!" Jin Guangyao raged. "You're the one who got in the way of a marriage that would have fixed everything!  You truly gave me no choice when you forced me into a situation where the only end in sight is one of our deaths!" 

Nie Mingjue was a beast made of iron and stone like so many of the engravings they had passed on their journey into this valley of death. He did not blink. He did not waver. He would see her put in a coffin and sealed away for eternity. "And then what, Meng Yao?" He challenged her. "What did you expect to do next after you killed me? Mourn with Lan Xichen as a sworn sister, play the part of the tragic widow? Were you going to marry him next just to kill him when he became inconvenient?" 

"Never!" Jin Guangyao, eloquent as she usually was, had no other words. She shouted it again and again and again until Nie Mingjue got it through his thick skull. Of all the terrible deeds she had been forced to do, had contemplated doing at some point or another, she had never even thought to harm Lan Xichen. 

Never Never Never

The word echoed throughout the grey valley, disbelieved by all but her. 

"There is no need for introductions," Nie Mingjue spoke as the last truth faded away. He gestured to the cultivators encircling her like a hunted beast. "You recognize these men and the fact they have no love for you. They know what you did to our men, their comrades. They know what you meant to do to me." Cold eyes bore into her from every angle. It felt as if all the hate in the world was upon her. Only loyalty to Nie Mingjue kept any one of them from striking her down then and there. "From this day forth, they will guard you day and night. I dare you to plot with them around.

"But if you do manage it and I do die," Nie Mingjue warned darkly. "Then no matter where or when it happens, these men will know. They will know exactly whose doing it was. And when justice is done, you and I will pay for our all folies and rest in the same tomb." He took Baxia and pointed it to a neighboring tomb. This one was only half-constructed. Domed ceiling unfinished, doors absent, stonework unpolished - only the basic skeleton of the structure was there. Likely construction had been put on hold during the Sunshot Campaign as funds and manpower were tied up elsewhere. 

Piles of stone fresh from a quarry and tools nearby indicted that work would resume in the near future. Jin Guangyao doubted that the laborers were using the same mountain passage that the cultivators had used. No, there were likely more expeditious ways to the ancestral burial grounds of Qinghe Nie. What her husband intended was to demonstrate how no one would see her body moved to the tomb. Their confidence in abducting her from her chambers and taking her away without anyone investigating her screams was unquestionable. Jin Guangyao almost marveled at Nie Mingjue's uncharacteristic actions. Instead, she flew into a fresh rage at his seemingly endless hypocrisy. He really did let her down at every turn. 

"You call me evil?" Jin Guangyao screamed. "You would kill your own child just to kill their mother? Who is truly the foul one here, Nie Mingjue?!"

"The one who conceived a child as an accomplice to murder!" Baxia cut through the air. Jin Guangyao's mouth snapped shut as the saber crashed against the earth next to Nie Mingjue's feet. Even his men took a step back, taking her with them. When the dust settled, her husband growled, "You want our child to live? Don't try to murder anyone for nine fucking months." 

There was nothing more to be said after that. Nothing to be done; Jin Guangyao could not yet begin to fathom what she would do next. Not now that she lived with a saber hanging over her head.

They were all tired and in no mood for hours more of hiking. The cultivators mounted their swords. 

Mercifully, someone besides her husband gestured for her to climb on with him. 

As they rose above the fog, Jin Guangyao sent one last fleeting look over her shoulder at the half-built tomb - her ultimate fate.

Chapter Text

Jin Guangyao woke to the morning drum, curled into herself under the heaviest quilt in the Unclean Realm. She peeled her eyes open slowly - hesitantly. Nie Han sat at her bedside, his saber balanced across his lap. She felt Nie Zhong looming behind her in the same posture. Two reflections of her husband across the waters of time that were startling to wake to some weeks ago. Now, she had grown used to the dreadful sight.

Across the room, her door clicked open and shut as Nie Lin and Zhou Zhi arrived to deliver her breakfast and relieve their comrades. Jin Guangyao sat alone at the table by the window - Qin Su and the guqin both gone. Her guards carefully observed her each bite as she observed the green mountains. Ginger tea soothed her rebellious stomach. She had two cups with very plain congee. Such had become her routine in the last month. 

The only thing that had shifted was Zhou Zhi in his seat. Nie Lin was as quiet and stern as the statues who watched Jin Guangyao at night. Zhou Zhi was of different stock, itching uncomfortably at the long silences and shifting in his seat constantly. Nie Lin and Jin Guangyao diligently ignored it like it was their own personal shared duty. 

After Nie Lin removed the empty bowls and cups back into the hallway, she dressed for the day. Behind the screen, she received her first small ration of privacy for the day. As her attire was simplistic, Jin Guangyao dressed easily without any assistance - it was even easier now than in the past, as she had reduced her layers to accommodate the rising spring temperatures. Her hair was truly the issue. None of her guards had any experience with women's hair, nor the desire to assist her more than what was asked of them. Jin Guangyao had taken to simply brushing it out and tying it off at the nape with string. Aside from the vermillion mark on her forehead and the evident quality of her clothing, she did not look much different from her days as Meng Yao. 

Flanked by her guards, Jin Guangyao made her way to the Songbird Garden where Qin Su awaited her as usual. Both women had been relieved of their administrative duties in the Unclean Realm. Their days instead passed in supposed leisure, interrupted by the occasional visit to the physician. All of this was for the sake of Madam Nie's health and that of the unborn heir, of course.

After a month, Qin Su had still not once managed to greet Jin Guangyao without a guilty expression. 

Jin Guangyao had realized that much had been left out of Nie Mingjue's explanation. He smelled her sick, he found the bits, he was already suspicious of her - fine, she could accept that she miscalculated her own subtlety thinking everyone else idiots. But her little brother-in-law's strange behavior and Qin Su's guilt nagged her. The two didn't have a drop of cunning between them, yet they had somehow ruined everything. When she had finally reunited with Qin Su after several days of confinement - legitimately prescribed by the physician due to concern for stress - it became more or less clear what had transpired behind her back. 

"I told Nie Huaisang about the baby," Qin Su had confessed almost immediately, uncaring of the watching guards. Guards she only knew were there to protect the Madam and the heir. "We have become good friends, and he - I thought I could trust him to not tell Sect Leader Nie before you felt ready." Jin Guangyao forgave her immediately. Qin Su had no idea that Nie Huaisang had seen Jin Guangyao's journal and the medical text she'd been reading - both of which had disappeared from her chambers since her trip to the Cloud Recesses. Qin Su had no idea that Nie Huaisang would rush to his brother with this knowledge, gifting him the means to confirm that her pregnancy had been strongly suspected for several weeks. 

Jin Guangyao had yet to forgive Nie Huaisang. She still felt unsure of his role in things. She had not seen him since his tussle in the courtyard to take the measure of his guilt or lack thereof. 

Qin Su waved a letter at Jin Guangyao with that sheepish smile of hers. "Look, A-Yao. Nie Huaisang sent me a letter from the Cloud Recesses." She was obviously hesitant to sound too enthusiastic about this communication to Jin Guangyao. 

Jin Guangyao settled into her seat and asked after her brother-in-law's studies with a placid smile. Qin Su cheerily launched into a detailed account of Nie Huaisang's earnest attempts to master the guqin, intermixed with escapades down the mountain and harrowing encounters with Lan Qiren after curfew. He diligently reported that several buildings had been completed in just the past month alone, as Gusu Lan no longer diverted resources towards preparations for the summer Discussion Conference. Lan Xichen had disappointingly obeyed Nie Mingjue's request not to spoil his brother too much, thanks in part to the fact he was wrapped up in continuous meetings with clan elders. Nie Huaisang noted that Lan Wangji was the same poor playmate he'd been since childhood - he had left the Cloud Recesses again on another prolonged night-hunt to the west just after Nie Huaisang arrived. 

" 'If I didn't know better, I'd think he was avoiding me!' " Qin Su read aloud with a giggle. 

Jin Guangyao longed to know what those clan meetings were about - what personal matter plagued Lan Wangji - if Lan Haiqi's request to place a garrison in Yiling had been granted - where Gusu Lan stood on the issue of the Yiling Patriarch - where Lan Xichen stood on the issue. It burned her up inside that even if she did learn such things, there was nothing she could do with such information. Nie Mingjue had banned her from all administrative matters. Her incoming and outgoing letters were carefully monitored; she'd even been asked to rewrite a particularly suspicious reply to Jin Zixuan's inquiry about her rumored visit to the Cloud Recesses. Her and Qin Su's visits to the library had been restricted to the section on romance novels and folktales curated by the late Nie Ruofei, and later Nie Huaisang. Jin Guangyao had scarcely picked up a pen for anything besides calligraphy in the past month. 

Zhou Zhi permitted a servant to enter the garden pavilion, merrily greeting the familiar servant. The boy set down a tray containing osmanthus cakes and green tea. Scarcely half a shi had passed since breakfast. Jin Guangyao wondered if Nie Mingjue was hoping she'd get too fat and indolent to make trouble. She wished he were here, rather than hiding from her in his office - so she could throw the scalding hot tea in his stupid face. 

Qin Su recited poetry throughout the rest of the morning, asking for honest criticism. Jin Guangyao thought it good enough to publish, given a few tweaks to the line lengths. There was then some debate about the merits of fixed line-length poems versus those of variable line-length poems where Jin Guangyao had no real opinion - she just wanted to fight. Qin Su called her out on it and soundly won on the behalf of variable line-lengths. 

They took lunch in Qin Su's chambers. She had brought a number of games and small luxuries from Laoling which - did not entertain Jin Guangyao necessarily, but at least passed the time. The bored stupid faces on her guards as they watched Qin Su manicure Jin Guangyao's nails were her true afternoon treat. 

"Your nails have almost recovered," Qin Su remarked as she filed Jin Guangyao's nails to rounded edges. She had been very careful in her treatment of them the past few weeks; an accident during her confinement had left Jin Guangyao's nails cracked and sensitive. Qin Su need not know of the splinters the physician plucked from Jin Guangyao's fingertips or the bloody claw marks likely left behind in her in-law's tomb. 

In the afternoon, Wang Qiao and Li Weiyi arrived to relieve Nie Lin and Zhou Zhi. Jin Guangyao liked them best of her guards - not that this fact meant much. Simply put, in addition to not looking eerily similar to Nie Mingjue like the other guards, the men kept the maximum distance from their charge whilst still fulfilling their duty. They saw her through the evening - by essentially seeing as little of her as possible.

During dinner, the men took their own meal at an adjacent table, quietly enough that Jin Guangyao could pretend they were fellow patrons at a restaurant. Nosy ones, of course, who clearly eavesdropped on her conversations and followed her out in a way she'd been taught to watch for as a young girl in Yunping. But the senior disciples had been so discomfited about the prospect of being in the same room as a bathing woman - offended by the very notion they'd be replaced by their comrades for such a task - that they'd strong-armed her husband into coming to oversee that particular chore himself. They favored standing guard outside her door while this was done to chatter amongst themselves, as it turned out Wang Qiao and Li Weiyi were best friends.

What a pair they made, one short and rugged, and the other tall and slender, both handsome and mercifully quiet. Another reason Jin Guangyao liked them slightly better than the rest. Their aesthetics were vastly underrepresented in the Unclean Realm. Young disciples they passed in the halls turned to puddles needing to be stepped over at one polite greeting from Li Weiyi, or a brusque one from Wang Qiao. 

Jin Guangyao soaked in the tub. Her husband sat with Baxia across his lap. A privacy screen separated them. No words passed between them - everything that needed to be said was passed along through guards or the physician. The last time they truly spoke had been when Nie Mingjue released Jin Guangyao from her initial confinement. She'd pleaded Qin Su's innocence, which she'd professed throughout her confinement, in-person; Nie Mingjue said he'd spoken to the other young woman and believed her. Just this once. 

That exchange changed nothing and so it meant nothing. Qin Su need not be told that she was under suspicion in order to be subjected to scrutiny. Her duties had still been stripped from her. The guards watched her closely. She had not yet been shipped back to Laoling for a reason. 

Jin Guangyao left the bath when the water grew too cold for her liking. She wrapped herself in her silk robe and took a seat before her bronze mirror. Nie Mingjue left without a word, her next set of guards entering thereafter. Younger, closer cousins, Ma Chao and Nie Puyi, were tasked with seeing Jin Guangyao through her beauty routine and then off to bed until the small hours of the morning when Nie Han and Nie Zhong would return.

Jin Guangyao took her sweet time applying different lotions and tonics to her hair and skin. She never used to do much besides clean her face and apply herbal treatment to minor sunburns or wind-chaffing. Qin Su had gifted her half her own stock, insistent that having a nightly routine would help keep her sane - "Until the baby is born, of course!" Then, Qin Su fully expected the heir to be passed off to a trusted wetnurse so the madam could help her husband run the sect. 

Madam Nie fell asleep under the weight of a heavy quilt and two sets of hard eyes. 

Her rest was fitful - interrupted at every stray noise. Both she and her guards stiffened at the slightest creak in the hall. Sometimes, Ma Chao whispered some crass attempt at a joke about his twin sister to Nie Puyi, whose dutiful ssshh was somehow more obnoxious. Nie Puyi was an absolute crybaby who couldn't handle a small spring chill; he'd whined enough that Jin Guangyao let the braiser burn all night, even though the red light seared through her eyelids and the smoky smell made her queasy. For this reason, she kept the chamber pot she puked in on Puyi's side of the bed. 

Just when she might be about to slip away into a deep slumber, Nie Han and Nie Zhong came to relieve their comrades. 

The next morning, Jin Guangyao woke to the morning gong, curled into herself under the heaviest quilt in the Unclean Realm. She peeled her eyes open slowly - hesitantly. Nie Han sat at her bedside, his saber balanced across his lap. She felt Nie Zhong looming behind her in the same posture. Across the room, her door clicked open and shut as Nie Lin and Zhou Zhi arrived to deliver her breakfast and relieve their comrades. Jin Guangyao sat alone at the table by the window. Her guards carefully observed her each bite as she observed the green mountains. Ginger tea soothed her rebellious stomach. She had two cups with very plain congee. Such had become her routine in the last month. 

Her mind-numbing, soul-crushing routine persisted right up until just before lunchtime when Nie Mingjue arrived in the Songbird Garden with a golden-clad guest in tow. 

"A-Yao!" Jin Zixuan called. He actually ran up to the pavilion and threw his arms around Jin Guangyao. The gesture was a bit stilted, a bit too determined, very audacious - like he was trying to make a point. Yet, she could not quite doubt its sincerity. Jin Zixuan did seem just the type to have no experience with physical affection, let alone any confidence about doling it out to the bastard half-sister he'd known all of a few scant years. Something had motivated this sudden visit, Jin Guangyao knew, but nothing nefarious on her half-brother's part, at least.

Jin Guangyao wrapped her arms around her brother in turn, craning her head awkwardly to the side to send her husband a questioning look. She was not tall enough to shoot one over her brother's shoulder. In a word, Nie Mingjue looked displeased. 

Yet he said not a word as he sat down for green tea and osmanthus cakes with the rest of them. Jin Zixuan did most of the talking, chattering away with enthusiasm about his new wife and the upcoming 'official' ceremony. He spoke like a long-time devotee to a goddess about to be formally inducted into her temple priesthood. He did not focus on the politics of the union, but rather the sentimental feelings it nurtured in him. Such as the urge to have his only sister there to celebrate the occasion. 

"A-Li and I are already married, it's true, so it's really just a ceremony for my mother, and...My mother has not always been kind to you," Jin Zixuan looked shame-faced on her behalf. "So I understand that she's likely the reason you said you weren't coming to the ceremony with Chifeng-zun. But I spoke to her! She promised to be kind and courteous to you as her peer! And A-Li! She wants so badly to see you again because she couldn't attend your own wedding! Father was also really upset by that response you sent! So, you see, A-Yao, people at Koi Tower want to see you there! I - I demand - I want to -"

Nie Mingjue saved them all the embarrassment - he agreed.

"We will both be attending the ceremony, Young Master Jin." 

He did not look the least bit happy about it, but Jin Guangyao's conspicuous absence at such an important event had all the makings of a political incident. She had been wed to him under the assumption it would build goodwill with Lanling Jin. To then deny her even public access to her family, after rebuffing attempts to install a proper household of Jin retainers in the Unclean Realm...Nie Mingjue might lose support - or at the very least, accidentally garner sympathy for the likes of Jin Guangshan.

Likely, he had also been having second thoughts about leaving her alone in the Unclean Realm as the nominal leader in his absence, per her title as Madam Nie. Not everyone in the Unclean Realm was aware of her underhanded actions. To publicly accuse his wife of such things would spark a whole host of personal and political issues for them both. Precautions could and would be taken to assure Jin Guangyao's continued good behavior at Koi Tower...

After such a journey, courtesy dictated that Nie Mingjue offer Jin Zixuan a meal, a bath, and a bed for the night. Her half-brother politely refused, eager to rush back to his bride's side. 

The moment Jin Zixuan disappeared into the clouds, Jin Guangyao turned to her husband and spoke to him for the first time in weeks.

"I need female guards."

Chapter Text

"Why?" Nie Mingjue demanded, radiating a miasma of suspicion. 

"Because most husbands do not care for other men spending the night in their wife's chamber." Jin Guangyao responded without any hesitation or fear. Nie Mingjue was never one to turn down a sound idea, even if he absolutely loathed who it came from. He'd supported her watchtowers even when the wounds from the Nightless City were still healing. "Replace my evening guards at the very least." She insisted. She refused to finally escape the Unclean Realm only to become a greater subject of scandal within her father's sect. 

Her husband understood this and, per his character, looked angry at the implication that his men would ever be so improper or disloyal - angry at the fact that Jin Guangyao was right and something would need to be done in order for them all to save face - angry at her for pointing it out with an unabashedly smug expression.

"It shouldn't be a problem to find capable female cultivators," Jin Guangyao remarked. In the doubtful scenario where she was asked for such input, she could provide several names she had come to know during her time with Qinghe Nie. Nie Mingjue should know of them as well, as he valued merit above things like name, gender, and class. It was well-known enough that an outside disciple could do well in Qinghe Nie that it was the very reason Meng Yao had joined. That and their young leader made no secret of his desire to go to war.

That desire was now focused entirely on Jin Guangyao, it seemed. Yet even Nie Mingjue knew to pick his battles. 

"Fine..." He growled, wiping a hand down his face. 

For the sake of propriety, husband and wife reached a compromise. Nie Mingjue assigned four additional guards to watch Jin Guangyao. The male guards remained on the same night-time rotations, except they now stood guard in the hallway; only the women were permitted within the bed-chamber itself, except in the case of emergencies. 

Jin Guangyao slept somewhat better during the weeks between this rearrangement and their departure for Lanling. It had been many years since she slept in the company of women, but it felt safer than sleeping among men. Nie Luan, Zhou Zhi's wife who he introduced in adoring terms, and Nie Lingling, a closer Nie cousin, also stood guard with sabers balanced across their laps, true. However, a woman's silhouette in the dark did not startle Jin Guangyao so badly as a man's did when stirred to wakefulness by a creak in the rafters. Moreover, Nie Luan and Lingling had the good sense to wrap up in cloaks to fend against the cold night air. Jin Guangyao slept much better without the brazier burning in the corner of her eye.

Ma Kun and Tao Minghao were also infinitely more pleasant to wake to than their predecessors - they stayed until Jin Guangyao dressed for the day, and actually spoke rather than just stare like statues. Tao Minghao was an intellectual even, always trying to interest young Ma Kun in cultivation theory and history. 

Ma Kun was especially lively - chattering a li a minute about whatever struck her mind, while never losing focus of the task at hand. She often brought a chunk of wood and a carving knife on her rotation. She would carve each chunk into an intricate piece of art while Jin Guangyao ate breakfast, her eyes never once straying from her ward to the sharp blade in her hand. Her project would invariably be completed by the time the dishes were cleared away - rearing horses, horned monsters, little warriors that little children would love to play with. Ma Kun frequently forgot the little figurines in Jin Guangyao's chamber, so she soon had a collection arranged on various shelves and tables. In their ample free time, Jin Guangyao and Qin Su started painting them. 

The day they set out for Lanling, Ma Kun pranced around the main gate on horseback, juggling five qiankun pouches, all while nattering on to her brother about a lake along their mapped journey which held white bream the size of kites. She bet her twin brother that she could land a bigger catch than him; Ma Chao took that bet. 

"This is not a holiday!" Nie Luan rebuked them both, brandishing a fist. 

Nie Lui, the young auxiliary guard who stepped in occasionally for his seniors' rotations, scurried away in the background with a sun parasol under one arm and a fishing pole under the other. He hastily stuffed them away in a carriage at the end of their wagon-train. His father, Nie Han, immediately shoved them out again. Next to that same wagon, Nie Aibing ladened Nie Lin with so-called necessities like a pack-mule, bidding him safe travels. The guard was stone-faced as ever as he accepted his husband's parting gifts. 

"This will certainly be a lively trip," Qin Su remarked uneasily as she and Jin Guangyao watched Nie Lui flee back inside to put away his frivolous luggage. "I don't know whether to be glad or sad that I will be staying behind." Troubled was the obvious answer, splashed across Qin Su's face like cold water. Nie Mingjue had asked her to stay behind to assist the treasurer in a critical matter.

This was one of the precautions taken to keep Jin Guangyao in-line; her closest companion was to essentially remain a hostage in the Unclean Realm in order to ensure that Jin Guangyao would return from Koi Tower after the wedding. Qin Su need not know this - but it was clear she had begun to understand that something was deeply wrong around her.

Jin Guangyao knew she would become certain of this fact once she reviewed the paperwork from the treasury; she would see that there was no grave issue that required her presence in the Unclean Realm. At least, not one pertaining to finances. 

Jin Guangyao squeezed her friend's hand tight between her own. "I will pass your love along to your parents," She promised. 

Qin Su grimaced. "Only my father will be there...Mother is ill again. I wish that I could go see her in Laoling...but our last conversation..." 

Jin Guangyao stroked her rosy cheek and made Qin Su meet her eye. "It's just an expression, A-Su. Your mother already knows your heart." 

The young women shared a close embrace as Nie Mingjue and Nie Zhong called for the great iron gates of the Unclean Realm to be opened. They had quite a bit of time, as this process took several minutes even with the efforts of fifteen mules and ancient spells. The iron doors themselves had been spelled so as not to make their opening an easy task even for their masters. 

When at last one door opened enough to allow the first wagon onto the grassy plain beyond, Jin Guangyao released Qin Su and climbed into her personal carriage. Qin Su followed the carriage, holding Jin Guangyao's hand through the window right up until her carriage passed through the iron gates. She slipped away then, held back by Nie disciples. 

Jin Guangyao settled in with a deep sigh. Four days stretched between her and Koi Tower by horse. It would have been a bit over five hours by sword, but Jin Guangyao had not seen Hensheng since the night she returned from the Cloud Recesses. Truly, the reasons for traveling like mediocres was two-fold.

First and foremost, the union of two great sects was a grand affair that demanded processions of horses entering Lanling, as well as hunts and riding competitions. Jin Guangyao's own wedding guests had trampled the great plains outside the Unclean Realm to mud due to their great numbers. For her brother's wedding, her husband rode his own black stallion and invited two aunts to accompany them. Ma Miu, the long-respected Mistress of Horse in the Unclean Realm, rode beside her nephew at the head of the pack. She was to monitor the care of the two dozen horses in their company - essentially, she liked to yell a lot at riders and stablehands. Ma Kai, Chao and Kun's mother, drew up the rear of the wagon-train with two snow-white steads, a stallion and a mare. Gifts to the bride and groom that she had hand-reared the past five years. Gifts she loudly proclaimed she'd take away if unsatisfied with the state of Koi Tower's stables. 

The secondary reason for such slow travel made the need for horses at the wedding seem divinely convenient. Master Deng cautioned any pregnant cultivator against mounting a sword. Unpredictable dizzy spells and shifts in equilibrium made flying terribly dangerous. He forbade even flying on another cultivator's sword because the life of the Nie heir was not to be gambled on another's abilities. The physician accompanied their party, glaring at any cultivator with a sword as if he'd shoot them out of the sky himself if they took off with his charge. 

Jin Guangyao tried her best to meditate despite the rickety roads and Nie Luan's eyes boring into her from the other side of the carriage (it was much more annoying in the light of day). Failed meditation did nothing to quell her boredom or her eternally upset stomach. So, she opened the curtain and watched the scenery. 

For the first few hours, it was nothing but grassy plains and the occasional herd of livestock. Then it was grassy plains, the occasional herd of livestock, and little peasant villages. Sometimes not even villages, but rather nomadic encampments set up near watering holes and streams. Peasant children ran beside their wagon-train for as long as they dared, shouting questions and begging to see magic. Children of these plains recognized the Qinghe Nie banners almost from birth. 

Jin Guangyao tossed little candies out the window. The sort she coveted at their age. It had the added benefit of distracting them long enough for the wagon-train to move along. Just far enough away that if the children took one step further, their parents' ears would prick up and a chill would run down their young spines.

Near sunset, their party finally came upon their first planned stop. A proper town near a forest's edge, home to an inn with a large stable and a capable chef. Word had been sent ahead to prepare to feed eighteen people and the old chef had delivered. The innkeeper greeted them with low bows and a hot meal ready in the dining hall. 

Having nibbled on candy all day, Jin Guangyao ate her dinner with ravenous appreciation. The kind that disgusted Wang Qiao and Li Weiyi who sat across from her. 

"Did you - did you dip peach slices into that pork broth?"

"It needed something sweet," Jin Guangyao stated matter-of-factly, stirring her concoction. She did not think twice about the fact that her stomach calmed down just when her guards started turning greener than their sect uniforms. 

That night, however, Jin Guangyao did not sleep a wink. No matter how soft the mattress or fluffed the pillows, no matter the assurances of her guards - she could not bring herself to lay down and sleep in a strange place. It was an old inn - the creaks were louder and odder. 

She summoned a teapot to her room a bit after midnight so she wouldn't have to keep bothering to kitchen workers. She played qi with Ma Kun and Tao Minghao by turns, wearing down even Ma Kun's boundless energy before long and exhausting Tao Minghao's intellectual interest in strategy games. The next morning, Ma Kun did not bait her brother with challenges and Tao Minghao slept in the back of a wagon, the books she'd packed for the journey forgotten in favor of needed shut-eye. 

Jin Guangyao managed a few minutes of sleep in the carriage the next day - but was knocked awake by pot-holes and rough turns. When she switched out with Nie Luan at lunch, Nie Lingling called Master Deng to take her pulse. Master Deng ordered Nie Mingjue to stop a few hours more than planned so that Jin Guangyao could properly rest. 

A temporary camp was set up near a farmstead just off the main road. The farmers graciously offered Madam Nie their own bed, but Jin Guangyao asked instead to lay out a blanket and pillow under a shady tree on their property. She felt better in nature than in a stranger's home. 

She still tossed and turned a bit in the grass before sitting up and demanding that Nie Lin go and get her husband. Nie Mingjue stomped up to the tree and loomed over her. Somehow, he looked less intimidating cast in dappled sunlight seeping through the canopy. "What's the issue now?" He demanded with crossed arms. 

Jin Guangyao gestured to the two guards lurking at the very edge of the tree's shadow. "Them. I can't be expected to obey Master Deng's orders and rest with armed men staring at me." Zhou Zhi had the gall to look offended - like he figured they'd grown closer in the past several weeks of staring? Nie Lin wore an expression that begrudgingly conceded the point. 

"I'm not leaving you unguarded out in the middle of nowhere," said Nie Mingjue, not even angry - just unimpressed by the attempt. 

"I'd prefer armed women," said Jin Guangyao. 

"They've been pulling double-duty, watching you both at night and in your carriage during the day. They need to rest as well." 

"This wouldn't be an issue if there were as many female guards as male ones," She reminded him. 

He took a deep breath and said, "There is no one else. Bear with it, Meng Yao." 

Her eyes and heart felt so heavy. She did not want to continue if this is how she would feel the rest of the way. But she also did not want to turn around. "There's you," She said, shocking them both. "You would not harm me in my sleep." She explained, and she believed it. Another man would have slit her throat in her sleep after learning of her plans and told the world she'd perished in an accident. Instead, her husband had issued a formal warning and stuffed her with osmanthus cakes to keep her busy. She trusted him enough to lay down her head for a few hours under his hard gaze. 

Nie Mingjue sent the guards away by way of agreement. He sat with Baxia across his lap at the very edge of the tree's shadow. 

Jin Guangyao dozed off minutes later, lulled by a spring breeze rolling over the hills. 

She woke to wet and sticky tongue dragging across her whole face, chin to forehead. Jin Guangyao rubbed furiously at her eyes, gagging. When her eyelashes were free of goop, she blinked up at a cow. Big watery eyes blinked back at her; the cow mooed right in her face before swinging its ass around for a turn. 

"Shit!" Jin Guangyao yelped, rolling away as if dodging enemy fire. But the cow only meandered away, back to the farmer's barn. Jin Guangyao blinked in surprise as a little calf trotted after the heifer, having been curled up right next to where she'd been laying the moment before. She watched the brown calf reunite with their mother, receiving a long lick across the forehead.

Jin Guangyao's fingers wandered to the space between her eyebrows. She huffed; no doubt the cow had licked away her vermillion mark. 

She turned her head to find her husband sat in the same spot, though the shadow had moved some. "Really?" 

Nie Mingjue actually snorted. "It's the least of what you deserve." 

Chapter Text

Their wagon-train arrived at the next town later than expected. The food awaiting them was lukewarm. The innkeeper offered to have it all remade as soon as possible, but they were all too hungry and far from picky. That night, Jin Guangyao horrified Li Weiyi and Wang Qiao by mixing honey into her fish soup. 

Gagging, Wang Qiao begged Master Deng to examine the Madam once more. "Such a recipe is surely poisonous!"

While the innkeeper and chef hugged Nie Mingjue's thighs and cried, having only heard the word 'poison' bellowed out in accusation at their food, Master Deng took one look at Jin Guangyao's bowl and clicked his tongue. "This is indeed something to keep an eye on. Too many sweets during pregnancy can cause ailments that outlast pregnancy and affect the kidneys for a lifetime." He said gravely. 

"A strong craving for sweets is also said to predict a baby girl," Ma Kai butted in, plopping down between Jin Guangyao and Master Deng. "Though for the Nie Clan, it seems to predict just the opposite. My elder sister and Nie Ruofei both gobbled down candy and fruit right up until they took to the childbed." 

Jin Guangyao stirred her fish and honey soup, smiling sheepishly. "My mother craved spicy food. Everyone thought that I was going to be a boy with a red-hot personality." 

Mai Kai patted her on the back and spooned an extra dollop honey into her bowl. "Don't be shy now. Your body knows what it needs for you and your baby. Eat up." 

Her coaxing was well-intentioned. But it reminded Jin Guangyao too much of how Ma Kai tended the white stallion and mare. Brushing their backs. Soothing their animal anxieties with gentle words. Offering up carrots and leafy treats.

Jin Guangyao stood and saluted politely to her elder. "Thank you for your kind advice, Aunt Kai, but I'm afraid that I am still fatigued by the journey. I think that I will head up to my room for the evening." She demurred all protests - even Nie Lingling and Ma Kun's that they hadn't finished their soup yet. 

"Hurry then and get to bed as soon as you're done," Nie Mingjue interrupted the youngest guards' whinging. He shoved past the whimpering innkeeper and chef over to Jin Guangyao's side. "Last door on the left." He said, pressing a hand against the small of her back. 

He trailed after her up the narrow staircase to the second floor and down the hall. Jin Guangyao lingered nervously outside the aforementioned door at the left. Her husband impatiently reached over her shoulder and shoved the door open, revealing a spacious room with a single bed and a steaming tub. 

She stepped inside, eyeing the familiar luggage stacked in the corner. The larger ornate trunk was her own, filled with Qin Su's gifted cosmetics and finery too precious to be left in the wagons all night. Nie Mingjue used the same old wooden chest as he did during the Sunshot Campaign. In the past, it contained ceremonial robes that required more tender storage than qiankun pouches.

Jin Guangyao turned to Nie Mingjue with a raised eyebrow. "Was it so troublesome to ask me if I'd like to share a room from now on?" 

Nie Mingjue rolled her eyes. He marched over to the bed and sat down to kick off his boots. "The bags under your eyes are answer enough." 

Jin Guangyao sucked in a scandalized gasp, hands flying to her wounded heart. "My husband is cruel!" She let the act fall away with her hands, which went to work on untying her belt. Her husband did not deign to look up from his boots; he did toss them into the corner with unneeded force, though.

Husband and wife continued undressing without a word or glance between them. They were far past false modesty or genuine embarrassment. The only tension over their equal nakedness manifested when the two of them looked at the single waiting tub and then at each other. 

"I rode on horseback from dawn till dusk in the hot sun," Nie Mingjue said with crossed arms. 

"A cow licked my face," said Jin Guangyao. 

"So it's already clean then," Nie Mingjue shot back, stepping into the tub and right over Jin Guangyao's protests. He sank down to his shoulders and let out an overly satisfied sigh. Jin Guangyao sat on the edge of the bed, glaring at the stupidly large bull who had squeezed himself into a bucket as she waited on her turn. 

Even after Nie Mingjue finished scrubbing down and stepped out, Jin Guangyao had to wait under the bedclothes while an inn worker swapped out her husband's murky bathwater for a batch fresh off the fire. The moment Nie Mingjue bolted the door closed, she scurried across the cold floor over to the tub. 

She had just finished scrubbing a layer of skin off her face when Nie Mingjue began to speak. 

"Nie Zhong and I have reconfigured the guard rotations for the rest of the journey. The women will be given the night off and resume their day-time rotations tomorrow. The others will rotate through several positions throughout the night. I will take over guarding you while you sleep." 

Jin Guangyao combed oil through her wet hair with her fingers. "When do you plan to sleep? It seems undignified for a sect leader to nap in a wagon all day with his subordinates." 

Her husband sat on the edge of the bed like it was a throne. Baxia set behind him, taking up almost the entire length of the mattress. 

"You are not stupid, Meng Yao," said Nie Mingjue. "It's the most frustrating thing about everything you've done." 

Jin Guangyao took a soundless breath and sank beneath the water's surface to rinse her hair one last time. 

She crawled into bed still damp under her sleeping robe. Nie Mingjue rose to let two workers come in and fetch the tub before bolting the door one last time for the night. He then leaned Baxia against the wall closest to his side of the bed, snuffed out the lights, and slipped under the blankets.

The two of them squirmed and twisted in the sheets, searching for comfort on opposite sides of the bed. 

Jin Guangyao settled on her side, one arm curled under the pillow, the other crossed over her chest. She and Nie Mingjue tugged the blanket back and forth as he attempted to put his back to her - till finally, he conceded defeat and flopped onto his back instead. Jin Guangyao soon regretted her victory, however. 

Her eyes snapped open at the first drawn-out, nasally gulp of air.

Jin Guangyao hoped and prayed in the intervening silence. 

The gargling roar that left her husband's throat had her burying her face in her pillow, praying to Guanyin for salvation. 

The Goddess of Mercy had none for her - Nie Mingjue's snoring carried on in a terribly steady rhythm. It was as if he sucked in every drop of air in the room and breathed it back out again. Jin Guangyao had half a mind to smack him awake with a pillow but feared how her husband might instinctually react to a surprise attack. How she had forgotten such a heaven-forsaken racket was unfathomable - she must truly be exhausted for her infamous memory to fail her so miserably!

She considered asking for her own room but did not dare for fear of wagging-tongues. With the female guards all asleep, the male guards were her only option for the night. Jin Guangyao refused to suffer accusations of adultery from the mouths of nosy innkeepers. Nosy innkeepers who spoke to hundreds of travelers every month, including esteemed cultivators.

Jin Guangyao resolved to suffer another sleepless night. Tomorrow, she would ask that Nie Mingjue rearrange the guard rotations yet again. If that failed, she would wheedle a sleep remedy from Master Deng despite his protests about prescribing such things in her state. She willed the insufferable snoring to be sufferable - if just for one night.

She laid on her side, futilely pressing the corners of her pillow against her ears. When downy fabric failed her, she opted for distance. Jin Guangyao scooted to the very edge of the bed, taking her pillow and the blanket with her. Sadly, though the bed was large, it was not the continent she needed between her and Nie Mingjue's slack jaw. 

Jin Guangyao wondered if one of her female guards would be the one to do her in if she had them woken in the middle of the night...Groaning, she pulled the blanket over her head. 

An odd, piggish snort followed the rustle of fabric, interrupting her husband's rhythm. Any relief Jin Guangyao felt at the snoring's sudden death itself died away as the bedframe creaked under Nie Mingjue's weight. The blanket was tugged right out of her hands - and before she could protest that or the sudden cold, a warm wall of muscle pressed against her side and a thick arm flopped across her waist. Nie Mingjue breathed hotly in Jin Guangyao's ear, now truly sound asleep. 

Unable to dislodge her husband's heavy arm - and unwilling to deal with his snoring in its stead - Jin Guangyao forced herself to relax.

She drifted off with disconcerting ease.

Jin Guangyao woke the next morning to Nie Luan shaking her shoulder. "Madam - Madam, you must wake up now. Everyone else has already had their breakfast." 

She sat up with a soft groan. Nie Luan asked if she should call for Master Deng. "You slept in much later than usual. Do you feel ill?" Luan wasn't the type to assume good things right of out the gate - like that her charge had actually slept well for once. 

Jin Guangyao stretched her arms over her head and cracked away small kink in her neck. That done, she could answer honestly that she felt less like a fierce corpse than usual. 

Since she woke so late, Jin Guangyao took her breakfast alone (if under the watchful and reinvigorated gazes of Nie Luan and Nie Lingling could be called 'alone'). The rest of the traveling party focused on preparing the horses and wagons. Jin Guangyao was the last thing packed away - her guards ushered her straight from the inn's front door into her carriage. A moment later, the carriage lurched forward and the next leg in their journey began. 

Jin Guangyao briefly glimpsed her husband from her carriage window as he led the wagon-train around bends in the road. She sat almost directly across the campfire from him when they stopped for lunch. But they did not speak until that evening when their party set up camp next to a lake - one that Ma Kun insisted was absolutely pathetic compared to one which lay just twenty-six li to the west...Despite the inferior game, she still took great joy in spearing fish for everyone's dinner. Even though they had packed more than enough rations for this exact occasion. 

"I can see the resemblance between her and Huaisang," Jin Guangyao leaned over and whispered to Nie Mingjue. "Besides the identical faces, of course."

"They're both pains in the ass?" He asked, glowering at his cousin who spanked her brother with a fish she'd caught with her bare hands. 

"Well, yes - but also, they both know exactly what they want." 

"My brother does know some things," Nie Mingjue tentatively agreed. 

She kept the peace with him all day, so there was no reason for him to rethink their new arrangement. 

They went to bed in the same tent that night without question. Jin Guangyao waited in the darkness until her husband's even breaths turned to steady snores. She then took his arm and fished it around her waist until they both laid on their sides in harmonious silence.

Woodland animals crept through the forest underbrush. Crickets sang in the tall grass surrounding the lake. Fish and toads splashed nearby. And Jin Guangyao slept on, thankful for her husband's silence. 

Chapter Text

Jin Guangyao exchanged a few short sentences with her husband throughout the remainder of their journey. Mostly idle remarks on the antics of his youngest relatives. 

The Ma Twins, Nie Lingling, and Nie Lui were the same age as Jin Guangyao or younger. None of them had participated in the Sunshot Campaign but had distinguished themselves in the near two years since as capable cultivators. Yet the oldest among them was just twenty-two and had not lived such a life as Jin Guangyao. Nie Lingling belted out traveling songs meant to distract children from the long road ahead and sighed romantically at beautiful vistas they passed through. Nie Lui's posture and mannerisms were still piss-poor imitations of his father's gruff demeanor, still guffawing at his peers' blunders whereas his father yelled about slacking off. The Ma Twins were experts at horseplay - they managed it even on horseback, never once breaking pace with the rest of the party. 

Watching them, Jin Guangyao felt old. 

She looked at Nie Mingjue, just four years her senior, who stood among these children's parents as if he belonged to their generation. She wanted to ask if he felt old, too. Instead, she griped about how noisy Ma Chao was and listened to her Nie Mingjue readily agree. 

At the end of the fourth day, they passed through Lanling's northern city gates. Nie Lui rode ahead to Koi Tower to send word that their retinue had finally arrived and would join the grand procession the next day. He was not the only rider at sunset for Lanling was overrun with newly arrived cultivation sects. The smallest sects packed humble inns and brothels to the rafters. The weakest sects set up camp outside the city walls. As representatives of a great sect, their party boarded at the finest inn with the largest stable. 

As the sky grew dark, Jin Guangyao watched lanterns come alive in the bustling street below their window. Across a thousand rooftops, Koi Tower climbed toward the moon and stars. At night in Lanling, rivers of gold all flowed in the direction of glittering towers. 

My mother used to send me to bed with stories of a city made of solid gold where immortals lived and loved eternally. She looked from the window over to her husband polishing Baxia with tender love and care. She had suddenly wanted to share this useless little memory of hers, but quickly realized he would find a way to turn it around on her and brandish it as a weapon.

Still, she wondered what he would have said in turn - what stories his own mothers put him to bed with - what bedtime stories his father told him, if any. What stories he wanted to share with his own child, that fluttering energy beneath her folded hands. Jin Guangyao had only seen Nie Mingjue act as an older brother, and though he took his duties seriously, that was worlds apart from acting as a father. She knew he would be good to his child, regardless of her blood in their veins, but she didn't think she would ever see that herself. 

She envisioned a child shuffled off between opposite sides of the Unclean Realm to receive their father's and mother's affections and tutelage by turns. That was the best case scenario as things stood. Part of Jin Guangyao feared that her newborn would be bundled up and taken far far away from her sinister influence. Jin Guangyao sincerely hesitated to test Nie Mingjue's mercy here at Koi Tower. She had tried and failed, and that would be humiliating enough to report to her father. To be caught again and suffer permanent consequences for that man's sake...Jin Guangyao turned from the window and collapsed into bed, the very best of all the inns they'd stayed at thus far. 

The next morning, Nie Mingjue roused Jin Guangyao himself rather than leaving it to Nie Luan. He stood over the bed, but when Jin Guangyao rolled onto her back, the sheets directly next to her were still pleasantly warm. 

"Up," said her husband.

Jin Guangyao hummed and burrowed deep into the warm spot he left behind for her. "I am up," She flagrantly lied. 

Nie Mingjue punished her lies by dragging her out of the blankets by the ankles - hefting her over his shoulder like a sack of rice - and depositing her at the table. Stubbornly ignoring her moans and groans. He stood over her again like a disappointed parent and said, "This Huaisang act doesn't suit you at all." 

Servants brought congee to their room, followed shortly by washbasins and towels.

Nie Mingjue dressed first in deep green robes taken from his wooden chest. He required little assistance with the ties, belts, and bronze gauntlets. Nie Lin and Jin Guangyao stepped in only to help fasten his ornate epaulets. Jin Guangyao was tasked with tying her husband's hair and securing his preferred hair ornament. The accompanying pin was the sharpest object she had been trusted with in quite some time.

He thinks me so tame now. That was what rankled Jin Guangyao most. She had begrudgingly accepted that Nie Mingjue's reaction to her plotting was...at least fairer than him dragging her into this marriage, utterly convinced that she'd hurt Lan Xichen. She could even respect how he counteracted a unique foe and ensured her compliance, even if it equally pissed her off in its magnitude of hypocrisy. The girl in her - the one warped by circumstances to be totally unlike others her age - looked at him sparing her life and her reputation, and saw remnants of positive feelings toward the demon born from his trusted deputy. But his arrogance about the whole nasty affair, reaching all the way back to the Sunshot Campaign - that fucking vexed her.

She pricked the prick in quiet rebellion. Nie Mingjue flinched, scalp as sensitive as a babe's as she learned these past months. "Oops," She smiled and properly affixed the hair ornament. 

Nie Mingjue and Nie Lin took their leave then to oversee the preparations in the stableyard. Nie Luan and Lingling took their place, already dressed in their finest - yet still quite utilitarian - robes for the occasion. The women wore matching storm cloud grey robes with pine tree patterns tangling around the hems. Their sleeves were fitted and thick leather straps crossed their chests to accommodate the sabers on their backs. Their rounder, more delicate features as compared to other Nies suited their handmaiden guises. 

Her guards were fully transformed into proper handmaidens by helping Jin Guangyao into the many more ornate layers of her own Madam Nie costume. Five layers of silk and chiffon in total, secured with bronze and leather fittings. Jin gold was put aside in favor of the same deep pine green and coppery tones the Sect Leader Nie favored that day. Though accents of white softened his madam's overall visage. White silk caressed her bare neck and chiffon poured out of her sleeves like mist. Pearl earrings framed her painted face. Pale jade hairpins fixed her hair in place atop her head.

Nie Luan and Lingling both wore the thinnest layers of rouge on their lips and cheeks. Jin Guangyao dusted her own eyes and cheekbones pink and painted her lips a crimson. A vermillion mark between her brows satisfied her efforts; she smiled at her reflection in the bronze mirror. 

The women arrived in the inn's stableyard to find that stablehands had washed the carriages clean of four days' mud and grime. The wood gleamed wetly in the morning sun. The Ma Twins worked diligently to adjust the horses' regalia alongside their mother and aunt. Special attention was paid toward the white steads to be gifted to the bride and groom. Nie Han and Nie Zhong flanked Nie Mingjue, Qinghe Nie banners in hand. For the most part, everyone meandered around, waiting - until finally, a senior Lanling Jin disciple descended from the sky and announced that it was time that Nie Qinghe take its position in the procession. 

The disciple cut a path through the crowded street, shouting and shoving, aggressively clearing the way for their retinue toward Lanling's main thoroughfare. Mediocres in these narrow side streets scrambled out of the way, clamoring for the safety of alcoves and alleyways. On the main thoroughfare, thousands clamored for the spectacle of one hundred cultivation sects parading toward Koi Tower.

Their party slotted into place near the front of the procession, second only to Yunmeng Jiang's purple banners. There, everything paused as Jin disciples worked to get everyone into position behind them. Of course, since there were so many guests and the thoroughfare was only so long, the parade commenced in a timely manner to make room for the lesser sects at the tail-end. 

Sect Leader Jiang led the parade, setting a brisk pace for the whole procession. If he seemed in a hurry to see his sister properly married, no one could blame him. Throngs of spectating mediorces soon gave way to murals and reliefs depicting the glory of Lanling Jin. Koi Tower loomed ever larger up ahead until those glittering rooftops eclipsed the sun. 

A long shadow fell over Jin Guangyao as she climbed out of her carriage, helped by her husband and Nie Luan. She mounted Baxia alongside Nie Mingjue - because, between a thousand stairs and two minutes in the air, there was no making Master Deng happy - because no one honestly expected a sect leader or his retinue to actually climb their way up like mediocres. 

At the top of a thousand stairs, Jin Guangyao's family welcomed their guests.

"Sect Leader Jiang. Jiang Cheng, welcome back to Koi Tower," Her father greeted Jiang Wanyin first. He wore an especially fatherly smile on this face -  one usually reserved for Jin Zixuan. Jin Guangyao supposed that it was an obvious strategy to endear himself Jiang Wanyin. He had known the young man since he was a baby - knew his fraught relationship with Jiang Fengmian - and now they were supposed to be in the same position, shamed by the unfilial behavior of their kin which brought them to this day.

Jiang Wanyin saluted Jin Guangshan with tepid civility, then greeted his elder sister with visible restraint. He grimaced at the effort not to be happy to see Jiang Yanli, but it wouldn't do to behave too warmly towards her in public so soon after her scandal. Only those who knew the young sect leader - or observed as closely as Jin Guangyao did -would realize that the grimace was not directed at his unfilial sister, but rather at their circumstances.

The Wens had killed their parents and set their home ablaze - Jiang Wanyin would need to be pushed much farther in order to abandon the last bit of family he had left in the world. In the end, the benefits of the marriage really outweighed the shame of the elopement for the young sect leader. Jin Guangshan had greater reason to be cross with the young couple, and yet here he was, hosting a proper wedding for them. More than proper - it was set to be a week-long affair on par with a Discussion Conference.

Jin Guangshan turned to Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao. That fatherly smile remained in place and he exclaimed, "Sect Leader Nie, my dear son-in-law!"

"A-Yao. Or Madam Nie, I should say," He added, reaching out and stroking her flushed cheek with one knuckle. "Ah, still a blushing bride. Nie Mingjue, you've been treating her well, I can tell!" Her father ushered Jin Guangyao quickly down the line, keeping Nie Mingjue back a moment longer for a good fatherly chat. One to be witnessed by all the other arriving guests lining up behind the Nie Sect Leader. 

Madam Jin greeted Madam Nie with all the respect her title demanded. Jin Zixuan did not allow her to bow - he took her arms and reeled her in for another hug. This one was less stiff than the first if no less purposeful. Jin Guangyao had half a mind to think he'd been practicing hugging sisters. She hoped not on Jiang Yanli - that would be rather awkward.

Though perhaps no more awkward than the first meeting between the two women since the engagement banquet. The one where both their lives and plans were torn to pieces in men's hands. Jin Guangyao and Jiang Yanli exchanged salutes and pained, commiserating smiles.

"So nice to see you again, Yao-mei," Jiang Yanli cast a meaningful look in her father-in-law and brother-in-law's direction. Eyes spoke when propriety demanded only demure speech. 

Nie Mingjue finished his greetings and took Jin Guangyao's arm. Jin Guangshan motioned for them to follow him inside where he would receive further guests from the comfort of his throne. Jin Guangyao entered the Fragrant Palace for the first time in nearly half a year - and felt sick to her stomach at the smell.

Chapter Text

Drinking and social posturing dominated the first day of festivities. Over the course of several hours, Jin Guangshan received hundreds of guests from his gilded throne, welcoming them to take a seat in his Fragrant Palace and relax after a long journey. Food, wine, and coquettish women circulated the hall, served up on golden platters. Musicians plucked and trilled elegant notes into the air to accompany the low din of greetings and chatter. Heavy perfume and incense wafted up into the high ceilings.

It was not a formal banquet. Guests were silently encouraged to excuse themselves to their quarters or to socialize elsewhere after a socially appropriate amount of time. Only the continued presence of the main family was required in the Fragrant Palace. 

Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli sat directly adjacent to Father's throne, flanked by Madam Jin and Sect Leader Jiang respectively like chaperoned teenagers. It was a laughable show of propriety all things considered. Jiang Yanli, at least, looked rather amused. She kept sneaking glances at Jin Guangyao, dark eyes twinkling like lakewater in the hot summer.

Jiang Yanli once claimed to have essentially raised her younger martial brother and the rest of the world had bemoaned the fact that she hadn't been more influential. Jin Guangyao now wondered how the Jiang siblings could ever be so offended that people thought Wei Wuxian a bastard. The resemblance between him and his martial sister was uncanny. 

As close kin to the groom, Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue sat closeby, attended by Nie Han, Nie Zhong, Nie Luan, and Nie Lingling. The rest of their retinue excused themselves from the proceedings to oversee the unpacking and rest for tomorrow's competitions. Likely, they were off getting drunk in their private quarters while they had the chance. As they were technically on duty, the present guards declined all offers of alcohol beyond the first customary cup - though Lingling had no trouble getting drunk off the atmosphere by the way her mouth ran away with her.

Nie Mingjue showed solidarity with his subordinates, preferring to refill his cup and toast with green tea. Jin Guangyao nursed a cup of herbal tea from the same pot as Jiang Yanli. Mostly, she held the cup under her nose to fend against the humid cloud of floral scent bearing down on them. It helped her focus on circulating her qi. It worked better than it had in the past two months, likely thanks to her improved sleep the past few nights. 

A bone-deep will to avoid humiliation disciplined her stomach more than anything. Jin Guangyao had no intention of announcing her pregnancy to the cultivation world by vomiting on it. That would just be poor taste.

Jin Guangyao watched a thousand guests pay respect to her father, scandal burning the back of her throat all the while. Lan Xichen was not among them. Gusu Lan sent Lan Haiqi to salute Jin Guangshan, accompanied by her granddaughter, Lan Shufen. "This one brings Sect Leader Lan's sincere regrets that he is unable to attend this momentous occasion." Haiqi amended the customary greeting while explaining nothing. 

Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao adjourned to their quarters late in the evening - guest quarters, not Jin Guangyao's old chambers. 

"Er-ge didn't mention his change of plans," Jin Guangyao remarked as she wiped away her makeup. The servants had provided a silken cloth with the washbasin and cleansing oil. The woman in the bronze mirror hesitated to mar such delicate whiteness with violent red. Yet the cloth touched her lips like a kiss. Her vermillion mark disappeared under a gentle caress. 

Across the room, Nie Mingjue shucked off his formal robes and yanked the pin free from his hair. He stood bare in moments, satisfied in his nakedness like a beast. One who at least had the good breeding to pick up the robes and properly fold them, but still.

Her husband sighed and made himself comfortable in bed. His sleeping robe was an afterthought. "You saw his circumstances at that meeting just as I did." Nie Mingjue said enough then. It was possible that something important that required Lan Xichen's attention had suddenly come up. More likely, however, he'd lost some battle with the Lan Elders.

Lan Haiqi's attendance was no coincidence; the woman represented a crossroads in Lan Sect politics. She had no interest in withdrawing from inter-sect politics to lick their wounds and perhaps was even eager to reassert Gusu Lan's prestige. That same eagerness made her contrarian to Lanling Jin's attempts to assert itself as the dominant sect. In a way, she was the perfect delegate for the occasion. She would not allow Gusu Lan to lose face one way or the other. 

Jin Guangyao resolved to keep an eye on the Lan Elder. Her husband could take her sword. He could pin a thousand loyal eyes on her till her last breath. But unless he worked up the nerve to come at her with a skewer - Jin Guangyao would always have her greatest weapons. 

Once her face was clean, the silken cloth stained pink, she pulled the jade pins from her hair. One by one. Black hair tumbled down her back and into her face. She felt her husband's eyes on her - following every movement - lingering on each sharp pin held between her fingers. 

Jin Guangyao craned a look over her shoulder. Her husband leaned against the lattice headboard, observing her with a dumb, bored expression. All except his eyes. His dark brown eyes simmered with vague hunger. Not quite lust - not quite wanting - more like passing appreciation that angered her. She remembered the last time she saw that expression on his face - how it pissed her off more than usual - how she sought petty revenge for it. The night before they visited Gusu. 

Jin Guangyao stood and loosened her belt with a careless tug. Leather snaked down from a slender waist to the floor. Layers more of green silk and white chiffon followed, caressing her legs, pooling around her ankles. She turned and faced her husband clad only in slippers and pearl earrings. She stepped out of the silken puddle at her feet - dark eyes traced up her leg - glided over her hips - and snagged abruptly on her stomach. 

Nie Mingjue's face wore no pleasure at her nakedness. For the first time, he looked truly uncomfortable. 

"You're showing," He said dumbly. 

Jin Guangyao cradled the small bump under her ribcage, smiling sardonically. "Why so surprised? You saw me naked just last night." In fact, he'd seen her naked the past three nights. 

Her husband's eyes flickered with annoyance at how she made it sound. "It's not like I was looking before."

Jin Guangyao pulled on her sleeping robe. "I noticed." He focused on her face or looked away all those other nights. Only twice before had she caught his eyes roaming so indulgently over her body. A bare second on their wedding night when the silk robe spilled to the floor. Then again the night of Lan Xichen's visit. Before, he denied his base desires for someone so morally repugnant, as transfixed by delicate things as his little brother after all. Now, his eyes forbade him to look upon the evidence of his own moral faults. 

She kicked off her slippers and tucked away her earrings before joining her husband in bed. The chamber went pitch black with a single burst of qi. Not a word more passed between them. Soon, Nie Mingjue breathed his first - and his last - jagged snore of the night. Jin Guangyao pulled his arm around her waist, right across the subtle curve there. 

Nie Mingjue had his indulgences; she had her own. 

The next day began much like the one before. Her husband woke her just as the servants arrived with breakfast.

Nie Mingjue dressed first - though less extravagantly this time, as he planned to participate in that day's archery competitions. He left in the company of his senior guards and Ma aunts. Jin Guangyao dressed in equal extravagance as she did yesterday and would tomorrow, and the day after - every day until they started on their journey back home. Qinghe Nie would lose face if their madam did not look her absolute best.

Nie Luan and Nie Lingling again dressed more akin to handmaidens to complete the allusion. As cultivators, they were permitted and encouraged to still carry their sabers. But Nie Lin and Zhou Zhi were allowed to dress in their normal senior disciple uniforms. The four accompanied Jin Guangyao throughout the morning and early afternoon, shadowing her through various social engagements. 

Tea in Madam Jin's private pavilion. Garden viewings. Musical performances. Poetry readings. All thin veneers of elegance for the brokerage of information. 

"This one feels that Koi Tower was due for such a grand occasion! Things have been much too quiet these past few months." 

"It helps that that loud-mouth Jin Zixun flies off every other week or so. A mistress seems likely. His wife is with child, after all." 

"Suppose he learned a lesson from his uncle and there is no mistress. My sister hosted him for a night not two weeks ago. She lives to the far west, near Meishan. Around that same time, there were reports of disappearing maidens in the area."

"The Yiling Patriarch...Do you suppose the Young Madam Jin will distance herself from her bastard brother now that she is wed?"

"What choice does she have? Not if she wants to save face. People already wondered about their relationship before he absconded with those Wen-Dogs." 

"Lanling Jin should be on guard. The Yiling Patriarch has made his enmity toward Young Master Jin clear time and time again. He may curse Young Master Jin in order to steal his bride!"

"Perhaps it's a good thing for Young Madam Jin, though...Young Master Jin will not dare take any concubines or public mistresses as the Yiling Patriarch will see it as disrespect to his sister. Ironic, seeing as he keeps his own harem by all accounts."

"Concubines. Not even Sect Leader Jin has ever taken a concubine, so why would his son? If anyone should fear for their line being put aside in favor of a concubine's whelp, it's that bastard crossdresser." 

They only shut up during the ladies' luncheon hosted by Jiang Yanli in what was to become her own personal manse. They did not dare risk such disrespect being overheard by the woman who had the Yiling Patriarch's ear in her own home. Not when the young madam cultivated such a calm and serene atmosphere in her tea room which made a single word boom like an exploding talisman. The women sat in silence, listening to the dizi player that Jiang Yanli had handpicked for the occasion and knowing what it meant. Even if each of their interpretations was probably wildly different from their neighbor's. 

Is she threatening us? Does this mean that the Yiling Patriarch plays for her amusement? Should we be afraid of Young Madam Jin?

Is this purely sentimental? Does JYL simply miss her martial - bastard brother - whatever he is - and want to have him here in spirit? Does this mean that Lanling Jin has severed ties between JYL and WWX?

Or is this a gesture of goodwill? Is this a subtle signal that bridges are being mended between the Yiling Patriarch and the rest of the cultivation world? That we should be unafraid and simply enjoy Chenqing's music from now on?

Is it really just supposed to be a good dizi performance?!

Their thoughts were all rather plain on their faces, but Jiang Yanli did not seem to notice the tension and treated everyone graciously.

Jin Guangyao sat in silence through all these occasions. As good as, anyway. She did not know exactly how her guards might react to her asking leading questions or offering her own opinions on public discourse. She went ahead and assumed it would be embarrassing and lead to their early departure from Koi Tower. So she stuck to tried and true pleasantries - and listened carefully. 

In the mid-afternoon, the ladies adjourned from the luncheon and immediately headed toward the training fields to watch the first competitions. Rumormongering soon turned into boasting and betting. Several dozen young ladies hopped on their swords to race ahead and change their clothes to something more appropriate for their participation in the coming events. 

Luxurious tents which furnished competitors and spectators some privacy flanked the massive archery range. A high wall defined the eastern end; disciples mounted a myriad of targets on and along it. All stationary objects for the start of the Junior brackets. Targets imbued with spiritual energy - ones that could move faster and farther than kites - would be saved for Seniors and Junior finalists. 

Qinghe Nie had their own tent, of course, but Jin Guangyao had no desire to be left alone with all her guards at once. Least of all while they play-acted for Aunt Kai and Aunt Miu's sakes. So she humbly accepted Jiang Yanli's offer to join her in the Yunmeng Jiang tent. Nie Luan and Nie Lingling followed. 

They lingered in the shadows at the back of Sect Leader Jiang's tent. Jin Guangyao sat toward the light alongside Jiang Yanli. The women both spoke freely for the first time all day. Each word was an arrow shot. 

"I'm grateful to Madam Jin for all her meticulous preparations, truly," Jiang Yanli did not need to add the 'but'. 

"There's a reason that I am here and not with my own in-laws," Jin Guangyao chuckled drily. "Rest assured, Madam Jin will always respect your attachment to your maternal family. It's common ground for all women to miss home once wed." 

"So you miss Yungmeng as well, Yao-mei?" Jiang Yanli asked.

Jin Guangyao hesitated to answer. "Young Madam Jin asks this one about Yunmeng rather than Koi Tower..." Jin Guangyao took a breath. "I suppose that makes sense. My mother is six years dead; there's no returning to her. Not like my father and Koi Tower. Please, do not take offense, Madam, but to answer your question: no, I do not miss Yunmeng proper. Just...some things, some times." 

Jiang Yanli's smile did not falter. Her dark eyes glimmered like the river that ran through Yunping. The one Meng Shi taught Meng Yao to swim in. The one that bore her toward Lanling the day Meng Yao left home. "I've been thinking a lot about legacies as of late," said Yanli. "I'd like to pass on certain memories to my child. So A-Xuan and I have talked about splitting our time between Lotus Pier and Koi Tower. Jiang Cheng is very excited by the idea. He says he's going to set up a nursery at Lotus Pier." 

Jin Guangyao could not imagine Jin Guangshan setting up a nursery in Koi Tower for her child. He didn't even put her and Nie Mingjue up in her old bed-chamber or anywhere near the family wing. They were mixed in with a thousand other guests on the opposite side of the estate. "What a lovely idea!" She told Yanli - but her sister-in-law was not finished. 

"Some things should be the same. Like eating lotus seeds and shooting kites over the lake. But other things will definitely be different for this next generation." Jiang Yanli's words were firm. Her expression, adamant. Jin Guangyao wondered if she was glimpsing the renowned Violet Spider in her daughter. "My children will have parents who love one another." Jiang Yanli declared. 

Some things should be the same, she said. Like learning to swim in the river, and chili red noodles on rainy days, and reading old cultivation manuals together before bed. Other things will definitely be different. My child will have two parents. They will have a father who loves them - even if he has no love for their mother. Their mother will at least not perish waiting for that acknowledgment. 

"Well spoken, Li-jie." 

The field roared with applause. Lan Shufen had won the first bracket; she would move on to tomorrow's finals. If she won the whole competition, she would then be given a chance to compete against her seniors. The girl breezed off the field past all her beaten opponents, making way for the next bracket of Junior competitors. 

Eleven youths traipsed unto the field. A green blur on horseback choked them on a cloud of dust. Across the field, Ma Chao howled. His sister paid him and the gasping crowd no mind - she loosed three arrows into the first three targets at once. Right on the marks! The audience was awash with awe and outrage.

Ma Kun threw her head back in laughter, eyes creasing with pure delight. Her hair streamed wildly behind her. Her face was Huaisang's face, covered in dust and dripping in sweat. Jin Guangyao looked at her and glimpsed Ma Liuyang. The concubine who stood as an equal to the late Madam Nie. 

Chapter Text

Jin Guangshan disqualified Ma Kun from the Junior archery competition for her impudence, leaving her bracket uneven. Ma Chao stepped in for his twin sister and lost miserably. There was a reason the boy had only signed up for the horseriding and swordsmanship competitions.

After such a shameful display by their Juniors, it became imperative that the Qinghe Nie Seniors do well in their respective brackets. Nie Mingjue placed second in his bracket alongside other sect leaders and heirs. Nie Puyi and Tao Minghao won their own, earning spots in tomorrow's finals. Nie Lui did not win his bracket, but as it was his first year in the Senior categories he could be forgiven falling short of his competitors. Nie Han at least seemed happy with his son's performance for once, patting him on the back at dinner and shoving cups of liquor into his hands. 

In the end, Lan Shufen won the Junior Finals and placed eleventh in the Senior brackets when she chose to participate. Nie Puyi placed ninth, while Tao Minghao tied a Yunmeng Jiang disciple for fourth. The groom himself won the first of the wedding competitions. Jin Zixuan held his golden bow aloft in glory in one hand and a flower tossed to him by his wife in the other. 

The third day hosted the horseback competitions on the plains outside Lanling's city walls. There, the Ma Twins were allowed to regain their honor. Ma Kun and her beloved mare outpaced every competitor in their races. They pranced around every obstacle. Ma Kun laughed and smiled all the while like she was out for a frolic on the plains of Qinghe. Ma Chao took his events far more seriously - right up until the victory lap when he and his stallion stomped up a duststorm, braying with delight. As a rule, Qinghe Nie dominated the top ten of every competition that day, as all disciples born to Qinghe Nie were born to the saddle. They rode the wind by horseback long before they learned to fly on swords. 

At that evening's banquet, the young gentlemen of the cultivation world peacocked before the ladies of Qinghe Nie. There were no hurt feelings over lost competitions - only eyes for beautiful and capable cultivators of a great sect. 

Jin Guangyao had been aware from the outset that her guard was composed of the most elite disciples of Qinghe Nie. The strongest - the most talented - the ones with blood ties and deep history with the sect and its leader. She had expected that eventually, the politics of their positions would come into play. They were all favorable matches in their own ways. It was no wonder that the minor sects and distant branches of major sects were tripping over themselves seeking their attention.

However, aside from Ma Chao and Nie Lui, her male guards were all older men. Companions and cousins to the late Nie Taiyan. Those men had watched Nie Mingjue grow up, shaped him as a sect leader, and seen him through the Sunshot Campaign with fierce loyalty. But they were all long-married with children and did not have quite enough status within the sect to warrant concubines. Who would even want to be the concubine of the fifth man down on the ladder? 

The elder generation had more or less settled into their lifetime positions. The younger lot was the real concern.

Ma Chao was a blood cousin to the sect's young master and still unmarried at just nineteen. He was his aunt's heir and would become the sect's Master of Horse someday. Qinghe Nie had no proper clan elders, instead investing all authority in the sect leader - but that sect leader relied on the council and services of various administrators. The treasurer, the Master of Horse, his head disciple, and so on. One day, Ma Chao would be able to bend the ear of a great sect leader - and who would not want their daughter to bend his ear in private?

Nie Lui was the only child of Nie Han, Nie Mingjue's oldest and most trusted advisor. Nie Lingling was the closest female relation to Nie Mingjue who bore the clan name as his second-cousin. And Ma Kun...

She was the closest available female relation to the Nie Sect Leader, period. It was only in a legal sense, her aunt being the concubine of his father - but their family ties were still ironclad. Especially when considering the continued esteem of Ma Liuyang's sisters within the sect long after her death. It helped that Ma Kun was a capable cultivator in her own right. The past few days of competitions had solidified the reputation she'd built up on night-hunts since the war. A bold young lady of energetic character and playful disposition who - despite many scoldings - was afforded much of the same leniency as the young master by Sect Leader Nie. The fact that she'd been allowed to participate in the riding competitions after that stunt during the Junior archery brackets...It spoke volumes.

Jin Guangyao wondered what would be done with her. Nie Mingjue had not even arranged his own brother's marriage yet, so she sincerely doubted that he would pressure his young cousin into a political match...But perhaps his father's companions who so despised Jin Guangyao - perhaps aunts who had no every reason to support Ma Kun over a stranger - perhaps her husband would be the one pressured to make a match for Ma Kun. A match with himself. 

There is also the small matter of love...

Jin Guangyao watched her half-brother and his wife throughout that evening's banquet. They were not disgustingly amorous, nor physical before the eyes of others. But how Jin Zixuan looked at Jiang Yanli - like a blind man who had learned to see - a villain spared by a goddess - he was truly locked in love's clutches. He had to be, to marry Jiang Yanli. He'd spoken the truth of it himself. She was an average-looking girl with low-cultivation. Since the time of their first engagement, her family's reputation had quite literally been razed to the ground and then built up again with the corpses her martial brother defiled with his heretical cultivation. Then that brother killed Jin Sect disciples and made off with fifty Wen-Dogs. Yet, Jiang Yanli's support of her brother did not waver and Jin Zixuan seemed to love her more for it. He broke before she bent, and he risked his position as heir to be with her. 

Jin Guangyao joined Jiang Yanli again to watch the following days' competitions. She instead watched Jiang Yanli shower her husband with flowers at the end of every event, regardless of his performance. She kept treats in her tent that Jin Zixuan came over to enjoy while Jiang Yanli wiped the sweat from his brow and fanned him like a servant girl. 

Jin Guangyao saw little of her own husband on those following days between when they left the bed in the morning and when she next wrapped herself in his arms at night. She watched him from afar, just another member of the audience in awe of his skills. Even in mock duels, his strikes were powerful - precise - vicious and unrepentant. The way he bared his teeth in triumph struck the gut harsher than any blow from Baxia. Nie Mingjue did not break a sweat in competition. There was no need for him to come to his wife and have her wipe his brow. He was not a man who sought comfort; he only modeled strength for others. Nie Mingjue was an unparalleled beast of a man - even comparing him to the likes of a mountain tiger felt unfair.

He always performed well and received enthusiastic applause. No one showered him in flowers, though. 

Not until the day of the hunt, the last day before the wedding ceremony. That evening, he rode through the gates of Koi Tower hauling a sled weighed down by the head of an absolutely monstrous boar. One fit to develop a beast core within the next few years - had Nie Mingjue not gotten to it first. The beast was so large it had been beheaded and quartered for easier transport. Each of the five guards who had accompanied him on the hunt hauled a bleeding limb behind them.

The size of the boar far surpassed that of the one he'd killed on their wedding day. Perhaps for that reason, one bold maiden - one with a keen sense of politics and image - finally made a move. A little beauty clad in blue and yellow elbowed to the front of the watching crowd and flung a blushing rose at her husband's chest. Nie Mingjue caught it on instinct and held it - when he should have just let it fall to the dirt and get trampled underfoot. He stared dumbly at in his hand all the way back to the stables where Jin Guangyao went to meet him. Only then did he feed it to his horse. But it was too late. No one was around to see such sound rejection. The maiden had only seen him catch her stupid flower. 

"Why is my husband only political when it comes to me?" Jin Guangyao fumed and stomped off to their chambers. She was not Madam Jin; she would not cultivate a reputation for castigating her husband in public when castrating would've felt so much better. 

She paced the chamber like a caged animal. The sensible women they were, Nie Luan and Tao Minghao kept their distance and didn't attempt any of the naive platitudes that Lingling might have tried, or the distracting games that Ma Kun favored. Nie Luan and Tao Minghao were married women. They knew better. 

They fled pretty much immediately when Nie Mingjue arrived with a serving tray in hand. 

"We will be withdrawing three li, Sect Leader. Best of luck to you." Tao Minghao said on the way out. 

Her husband watched them go with a furrowed brow. He and Jin Guangyao eyed each other warily as he made his way further into the chamber and set the tray down. He brought plain rice and tofu - for her finicky stomach - along with a plate of tanghulu and a bowl of sliced fruit - for her burgeoning sweet tooth. Jin Guangyao crossed her arms and turned up her nose at the offering. 

"You missed the dinner banquet," Nie Mingjue began. "Should I summon Master Deng?" 

"If I was on my deathbed in here, I still would be perfectly capable of sending Nie Luan or Tao Minghao to fetch him without your help." 

Nie Mingjue did not have the patience for more than one cryptic statement at a time. He crossed his own arms and demanded an explanation in the most infuriating way possible. "What's gotten into you? Is this the start of mood swings?" 

"This is not a mood swing," Jin Guangyao kept her voice level just to prove the point. "This is about your complete obliviousness to any political matter that doesn't involve war or me. Though in this one's humble opinion, I am at the very center of this matter." 

Anger shuttered Nie Mingjue's expression. "Exactly what dishonesty have you been getting up to when I'm not looking now? In front of the guards? Can nothing stop you?" He loomed over her. As if she was the one in the wrong here. 

"It's nothing that I have done!" Jin Guangyao snapped. "It's you. It's you catching that girl's silly flower in front of everyone and inviting dishonorable speculation on our marriage." 

Befuddlement jumbled that ferocious expression of his. "A flower? You're sulking and hissing like a feral cat over a flower?" He threw his hands up, looking angry and as close to helpless as she had ever seen him. "Maidens throw flowers at everyone!" 

"Everyone but you, you oblivious ass!" That harsh yell startled them both. It took a moment for her to gather herself - she knew that if she sounded too shrill, she would not be taken seriously. "You are an intimidating man. Maidens don't shower you with the same attention as other eligible gentlemen. But today, some bold young lady took a chance and tossed you a flower. And you kept it. All through the rest of the procession back to the stables, you kept it and everyone saw. It's humiliating." 

Nie Mingjue huffed, "I am no longer an eligible gentleman, nor am I your father." 

Jin Guangyao shook her head at his stupidity. "Have you forgotten your own father? He had a wife and a concubine. Even my father never dared take a concubine since it would upset Madam Jin."

"My parents all loved each other. Nie Ruofei was not upset when my father married Ma Liuyang." Her husband shot back. 

"The rest of the world does not know their hearts and they are too dead to tell anyone otherwise!" Her fingers rubbed at her temples, wishing she could get it through his head why his actions were detrimental to them both. "You don't take my position at all seriously, do you? People already whisper about you taking a concubine like your father. Displacing me and our child in favor of someone with better blood. If it looks like you're open to the attentions of maidens, then we will be besieged by courtship and proposals. It will intensify after my pregnancy is announced and the world thinks you'll need a new bedwarmer. And gods forbid if I lose the baby or something is wrong with them at birth..."

"Don't speak such things!" Her husband rebuked her. Warm hands gripped her shoulders; dark brown eyes searched hers for the source of her sudden madness. Nie Mingjue almost looked worried for Jin Guangyao. 

"Maidens and their families already pray for me to catch plague without knowing my condition," She told him truthfully - swallowed hard - because it was hard to be honest - and said, "You only understand politics when it comes to me, so you should know not to give them the vaguest hope their vilest prayers will be answered. Not unless you truly plan to follow through and fall in love with one of them someday." 

Nie Mingjue's fingers dug into her robes. That heavy brow of his pinched with terrible confusion. "Why would I -? Meng Yao, that will never happen."

Laughter bubbled at the back of Jin Guangyao's throat. Perhaps her husband wasn't as dense as she feared. She should know better by now really. "Of course not. Don't worry, I only fear for our reputations, not that you'd actually do such a foolish thing. After all, if you took a concubine, Er-ge would realize what a tremendous liar you are saying you love me and that would be bad for both of us." Lan Xichen would not relent until he knew exactly why his oldest friend felt so strongly about marrying Jin Guangyao and preventing his own marriage to her - if not for the sake of love. Nie Mingjue would break under the weight of his own guilt and confess both his sins and Jin Guangyao's; they would both lose him then, and it would not be undeserved. 

Nie Mingjue stiffened - his eyes went cold - his expression, unreadable. Jin Guangyao felt as if she were in the grips of a stone statue. 

"Da-ge?" 

The fingers twisted in her robes anchored him to her. His head bowed forward. 

"Xichen told you after all," He whispered harshly. Was he angry at their sworn brother? Jin Guangyao attempted to step away, furious. What right does he have to be angry at Er-ge? Nie Mingjue held fast - even as he refused to look her in the eye until he spoke in the next instant. "What he told you...wasn't a lie." 

The memory set upon Jin Guangyao with bestial ferocity, knocking her off balance - nearly taking her to her knees if not for Nie Mingjue's arms around her. Its poisonous fangs sank into her nape, sending shivers down her spine.

Mingjue came to me right after your father's letter arrived...He came and begged forgiveness from me. When I asked why, he explained that he needed me to reject your father's offer to open marriage negotiations. When I pressed for a reason, he professed to have received his own offer and declared his absolute conviction to marry you...he confessed that he had known your secret for quite some time. That he had cared for you since your days as his deputy. 

"How?" Jin Guangyao demanded before realizing it didn't matter at all - before her fist reared back and smashed into Nie Mingjue's jaw with the force of three years of resentment and a burst of qi. "How dare you?!" She roared. 

He stumbled back and released her - one hand flying to his injured jaw - the other of course going for Baxia's hilt. Jin Guangyao might have rolled her eyes if they didn't sting with humiliation. She had to focus in order to glare at her husband - to force him to look her in the eye - to face her and the consequences of her actions. She took no pleasure in his guilt-ridden eyes staring back at her. Now that vexing arrogance is knocked out of him? 

"I have no words." She bit out. "See you what you have done to me? I, with the silver tongue you so detest, have no words for what I'm hearing! I could have accepted you lying for Lan Xichen's sake. But to...I don't even know what this is but it -" Shocked her? Disgusted her? Scared her? She stared at the man before her - the man she could never discern as she did others - her husband - and could not fathom what his intentions were in this whole mess. It was all so at odds with his damnably rigorous morals. 

Is this what love does to a man? She wondered, and could not bear the thought. She fled from it.

Jin Guangyao turned on her heel and threw herself through the chamber doors. She picked up her robes and took off down the hall, pursued by thunderous footfalls. 

Chapter Text

"Madam Nie!" Nie Zhong hissed. 

"Get back here!" Nie Han shouted. 

She was as deaf to their pleas as they were to hers. Jin Guangyao carried on down the hall and took the stairs two at a time. She flew past faceless disciples and wedding guests, heedless of their scandalized gasps. At the bottom of the staircase, she came upon a throng of drunken cultivators and dove right into the chaos. She disappeared into a flurry of color and movement. She could not hear her guards shouting for her over the merrymaking.

She elbowed her way to freedom on the other side of the throng and slipped down another crowded corridor. She worked her way around the opulent maze that was Koi Tower in circles and odd detours - including through a ground-floor window - hoping to confuse her pursuers. They were not as familiar with the terrain as her; they had not had their fingers in the very guts and marrow of this place as Jin Guangyao had.

Eventually, she came upon one of the more central gardens where many guests were taking evening strolls. Jin Guangyao smoothed her robes and fixed her hair by the reflection in a pond, then made to blend in with the meandering guests as best she could as a hunted fox among lovebirds. People steered clear.

Jin Guangyao thought at first to use these first few moments of reprieve to contemplate her next move for the evening - where to sleep, who to approach about making such arrangements, what excuse to make - anything to distract herself. But her mind went blank.

She walked aimlessly - until the last rays of sunlight gave way to golden lantern light - until the other guests adjourned for the evening - until the air grew cold and she shivered.  

"Return to your chamber." Nie Han coldly demanded of Jin Guangyao as he stepped out of the shadows and into her path. Behind her, leaves rustled. She sensed the presence of two other combatants. Nie Zhong and perhaps Wang Qiao or Nie Puyi. Someone who hadn't grown too complacent in the last few weeks. 

"Let me have a few hours more," She said tiredly. "You overestimate my skills. Who could arrange a successful assassination in such a short period of time? What idiot would in my circumstances?" 

"Our orders are to not let Madam Nie out of our sights unless she is accompanied by Sect Leader Nie." Nie Han's tone was cool. His visage was iron. He was unmoved. 

"I need different arrangements for this evening," Jin Guangyao nonetheless insisted. "Things are -" Nie Han darted forward. Jin Guangyao dodged to right, narrowly evading his clutches. She spun around in the same motion to face down her three pursuers - the air between the three flashed violet-red. Stars dancing in her vision, Jin Guangyao smiled thinly at the three dizzy guards swatting at burning-red gnats of spiritual energy. The spell that Wen Ruohan himself had demonstrated to her had done nicely. The little sparks would 'sting' and 'bite' and otherwise harass the men while she disappeared into the garden shadows and - she would figure out what next later. 

She picked up her robes and ran for the darkest depths of the garden - a dense tangle of magnolia trees meant for sultry mischief. She had just crossed the little bridge marrying two halves of the garden when a wave of qi angrily rippled through the air, rustling foliage like an incoming storm. "Dammit!" She spat. One of the guards had countered her spell sooner than expected. She felt three shadows snapping at her heels, sabers hissing from their scabbards. Jin Guangyao flung herself into the dark grove, clamoring for a hiding spot. 

The little wooden bridge wailed under a sudden rough impact. Her three merciless shadows let out a collective gasp. Jin Guangyao peeked around the trunk of a great magnolia tree to see Nie Mingjue stood between her and the guards. Like the gods themselves had dropped him down from the sky. More likely, he had leaped from a roof or high window. 

"Mingjue -" 

"You're making a scene, Senior Han." Her husband spoke over his subordinate.

"Sect Leader, she -"

"This sect leader understands that his senior disciples are simply being mindful of the role that he assigned them. However, Madam Nie has denied your request to return to her rooms. She seeks arrangements elsewhere. Hearing that, your best recourse would have been to escort her to whoever she would need to see about new sleeping arrangements on such short notice." When Nie Han said nothing, Nie Mingjue continued, "Thank you for your loyal service, Uncle Han. But you are dismissed for this evening. Nie Zhong and Nie Lin as well. You are all dismissed." 

Jin Guangyao watched as the guards slowly retreated from the garden. Nie Han's gaze did not stray from the blackness of the magnolia grove until he at last disappear back inside. 

She did not venture out from her hiding place. After a still moment, Nie Mingjue stepped off the bridge - onto the opposite side of the stream from the magnolia grove. "Good night, My Lady." He spoke into the cool evening air, leaving her truly alone for the first time in months. 

Jin Guangyao sat on a stone bench tucked away in the grove for some time, unsure what to do with herself. 

New sleeping arrangements. She needed those before it night wore on too late. But then what? What would she do once she had adjourned for the night? Sleep away her precious hours of freedom? No. She should do something. Something that would outlast the night. I could write a letter. I could even send it. But to who? And why? 

She was alone, but all she could think of was being with someone else. Qin Su was hundreds of li to the north; Lan Xichen was hundreds of li to the south. Even if either was right next to her in the magnolia grove, there was little she could say to them. Not without either further entangling them in her misery or utterly repulsing them. She could not yet bear for either to know of her lies. 

Neither was a political animal despite their breeding. They'd never understand how Jin Guangyao had stumbled head-first into such a mess...

There was one person who might understand some of it, she realized. One who was present within Koi Tower, and who few would question her visiting at such a late hour. Even if it would be a bit rude considering tomorrow was their wedding day.

Jin Guangyao crept out of the magnolia grove and made her way through the brightly-lit halls of Koi Tower, her head held high as if nothing was amiss. She strode toward Young Madam Jin's private manse and the guards did not stop her approach because she gave every appearance that she had a right to be there at that late hour. 

The maids put up a proper fuss at the entrance about decorum and privacy but complied easily enough once Jin Guangyao spouted some charming words and veiled threats to their positions. Two of the women stepped aside and bowed deeply - the third rushed ahead. Jin Guangyao followed her at a leisurely enough pace - until she noticed just how frantic the maid's pace was. Too frantic for a servant merely anxious about interrupting their mistress' slumber. 

Jin Guangyao tested her, picking up her own pace to a wide stride. She made noise when she could have moved soundlessly across the floorboards. 

The maid took off like a spooked deer. She ran down the hallway at a full-tilt, the ends of her robes clenched in her fists, a cry on her lips - and crumbled into a pile of golden silk on the floor with a few choice pressure points administered by Jin Guangyao. She scowled down at the puddle at her feet and proceeded in the direction the maid had been fleeing. Her strides were long, her footsteps were silent. 

She came upon the ornate doors to Jiang Yanli's tearoom at the end of the hall. She pressed her ear to the cool wood and listened. 

"Young Madam Jin, please do not play the fool." Jin Guangyao nearly drew back as if the sound had burned her ears. Lan Xichen, she mouthed in disbelief. It couldn't be - not at Koi Tower - not alone with Jiang Yanli at such an hour - not so perilously close to sounding cross with Jiang Yanli of all people. "Not for Wei Wuxian's sake. I have done so enough for my own younger brother. The senior disciples are out searching the whole of the western countryside for Lan Wangji, but we both know exactly where he is." 

"Forgive this one's ignorance, Sect Leader Lan, but why intrude so suddenly the night before my wedding to hear an answer you are already so sure of. You have certainly not been convinced otherwise by my denials." Jiang Yanli maintained a more rigorous veneer of courtesy. It verged on icy coldness, fit to burn a recipient in its own way. 

These were the kindest, most serene souls that Jin Guangyao had ever come across, now at odds on the other side of this door. Only their little brothers could do this to them. Such was the nature of love.

"This one humbly asks that Young Madam Jin reason with Wei Wuxian and convince him to banish Lan Wangji from the Burial Mounds immediately." 

A tense silence passed. It was unnatural, even for the serenity of Koi Tower's innermost quarters. The silencing charms at work on the manse's exterior walls must be extraordinarily strong. 

"If Sect Leader Lan seeks to undermine his dear brother's wishes to remain by Wei Wuxian's side, then Sect Leader Lan must have a good reason. This one would like to hear it." Jiang Yanli spoke at last in a dangerous, warning manner. A glimpse of the Violet Spider, indeed.  

"Jiang Yanli," Lan Xichen pleaded. "Do not use my little brother to shield your own." 

"I take this to mean that Gusu Lan will not stand with my brothers to protect the Wen Remnants." Jiang Yanli sounded disappointed. As if they had spoken on this matter before and Lan Xichen had given her some vain hope. 

"The notion that they deserve protection is a contentious issue, My Lady." The admission brimmed with regret. "After my initial visit, I informed the Elders of all that I had observed at the Burial Mounds. It was not as straight-forward as my brother hoped. No resolution has been reached, but the majority favor tribunals as a minimum requirement of extending any measure of support." 

"Sect Leader Lan is complicating a matter which this one still believes is rather straight forward. The Wen Remnants are innocent and should be left alone." Jiang Yanli sounded disgusted that someone should ever think otherwise. Jin Guangyao also marveled at the fact that Lan Xichen would passively support such a tough stance in regards to old people and cripples. Had her father really succeeded so well in casting the escaped Wens as explosive talismans in the Yiling Patriarch's hands?

"That reasoning will not hold under scrutiny." Lan Xichen responded tiredly - as if he'd argued this all once before already. "Not when Wen Qing, Wen Ning, and four other capable Wen cultivators reside among them. Furthermore, there is the question of the logistical roles the non-combatants played. War is not fought by warriors alone. Wen Qing's medical expertise alone likely extended the fighting by months." Worse than tired, he sounded like a brow-beaten child returning from lessons. He was repeating the words of others. Resigned to the harsh truth of his teacher's wisdom. 

"That is an unfair judgment." Jiang Yanli asserted, full of righteous hope still. "Sect Leader Lan should consider what choice those people had in the matter. Qishan Wen was not like our own clans where a leader's decision might be questioned - for better or worse. If I had opposed the torture of Wen Chao and his accomplices, my brothers would have at least taken a moment to consider my opinion and would not have punished me for it when they disagreed. If Wen Qing had opposed Wen Ruohan's war, she would have died on the rack and left her entire branch defenseless against a tyrant."

"We cannot apply blanket amnesty to the Wen Remnants. If they were as helpless as claimed, then they should be willing to submit to a formal investigation." 

"And who does Sect Leader Lan propose to carry out this investigation? Who would ensure the fairness of the proceedings?" 

"That can be decided in time." A purely unsatisfactory answer for either side in Jin Guangyao's opinion. 

It was a tense, silent, and unending standoff. Much like the standoff at the Burial Mounds that their own argument stemmed from. 

Jiang Yanli recognized the futility of the debate and seized upon another festering issue laid between them. "Sect Leader Lan speaks only of his own brother. He no longer pleads for Wei Wuxian to see what he calls reason and abandon the Wens. Are you finally convinced of my brother's conviction? Or do you now stand alongside those who seek to convict him on slanderous charges?" 

"My Lady..." A raw, wet sound tore softly from Lan Xichen's throat. Half apologetic, half furious - contained by a lifetime of Gusu Lan restraint. "Eleven missing girls from the region. How can I defend Wei Wuxian when I find six of those girls at the Burial Mounds?" 

Jin Guangyao could only imagine that her own stunned expression matched that of Jiang Yanli. "If you visited the Burial Mounds, you know that those girls are all there by choice!" Yanli had worked herself up into a near shout. Not even Jin Zixun had driven her to this brink, and yet Lan Xichen had.

"I cannot be sure of that!" Lan Xichen burst out as if that fact plagued him - as if it left him itching outside and burning up inside and nightmaring about terrible ends. "Not with the black arts your brother is accused of. He convinced Wen Chao to tear strips of flesh from his own legs and eat them. My Lady, what is that horror next to the seduction of young women and girls away from their homes?" 

"How is A-Xian meant to defend himself against such an accusation without betraying those he swore to protect?" Asked Jiang Yanli, sounding helpless and angry - a spiral feeding into itself. "If he turns these girls away from the Burial Mounds, they will end up dead or worse. If he lets them stay, you will all continue to misinterpret things and use it as a reason to further defame him. You ask my brother to sacrifice human lives to save face!"

"What of the five girls still missing then, My Lady? What of their safety? What of the four found dead in the same areas those girls from the Burial Mounds came from?" 

"My brother cannot be the blame for every missing maiden in the land!"

But people will believe he is, thought Jin Guangyao. Even long after Wei Wuxian is dead, his memory will haunt the world unlike any vengeful spirit before. It still shocked her to find that the rumors her own father had encouraged against the Yiling Patriarch were somewhat true. The fool had taken in runaways? How could his martial siblings or the sensible Wen Qing let such a thing happen? Wei Wuxian cared too little for how others thought of him, and it would soon be both his undoing and the doom of dozens. 

"It is not just the maidens, My Lady." Lan Xichen sounded tired beyond the late hour. "It's the Ghost General and the Wen cultivators patrolling the mountain foot. Maiden Luo wandering around dressed in blood red. The appearance of unorthodox devices in the possession of rogue cultivators. It's all too much at once, and I fear that not even my brother's righteous reputation will protect him should the world learn that he has taken up with Wei Wuxian." 

"Who has been in your ear, Lan Xichen?" Jiang Yanli asked quietly.

Lan Xichen did not answer. The silence stretched into infinity - but tomorrow hosted the wedding and Jin Guangyao needed a bed. She sensed a timid presence creeping up behind her. She turned and found the maid cowering, wielding a chastity dagger with shaking hands. Her eyes darted between Jin Guangyao and the door. 

Jin Guangyao stepped away from the door and gestured the maid forward with a grave nod. 

The maid fumbled with the dagger, stowing it away in her sleeve, and knocked on the door. Jin Guangyao felt Lan Xichen's presence disappear from the tearoom as Jiang Yanli's soft footsteps brushed across the floor. The doors clicked open. 

"A-Mi, I asked not to be disturbed." 

Before A-Mi could stutter an apology, protest, or otherwise indicate that anything was amiss, Jin Guangyao stepped into view. "Pardon my intrusion, Li-jie, but I require your assistance in arranging a room for the night." She put on a sheepish smile. "Sect Leader Nie snores terribly when he's been drinking." 

Jiang Yanli blinked - once, twice - processing this surprise - before smiling thinly and nodding. "Of course, Yao-mei. I will have my maids prepare a chamber right away."

She personally escorted Jin Guangyao to her room within her private manse after they shared a cup of herbal tea. Jin Guangyao elaborated on her little lie, spinning a tale of weeks of troubled sleep and thunderous snoring. Jiang Yanli nodded sympathetically and confided her own troubles with fatigue in the last few weeks. Nothing was said of what caused that fatigue. Jiang Yanli was an impressive woman. She did not let on at all about the impropriety she'd been getting up to behind-closed-doors. Being alone with a man in the middle of the night was the least of it...

Jin Guangyao stayed up long after she laid down her head in Jiang Yanli's guest-chamber, consumed by how drastically the political landscape had shifted under her feet. She trembled in the aftershocks of an earthquake. 

Chapter Text

Jin Guangyao woke to the exact reception she expected. If the timid little maid was worth her salt as a confidant she informed her mistress of what had transpired in the hall as soon as Jin Guangyao laid her head down. If Koi Tower was as she remembered it, news of last night's chase should have made the rounds by breakfast.

Jiang Yanli visited her guest-chamber in the early hours of the morning. She asked if Jin Guangyao slept well, if her breakfast was satisfactory, small niceties that did not conceal her obvious suspicion whatsoever. Jin Guangyao answered all questions in the affirmative and thanked her sister-in-law for such hospitality in the dead of night, never letting on just how much she had heard of last night's clandestine dispute. The two women parted ways to prepare for the day without a single admission of guilt uttered on either's part.

Servants arrived with Jin Guangyao's ornate traveling trunk and stayed to help her dress. She chose rich ochre robes embroidered with deep blue leaves and a matching sheer overcoat for the occasion. Pearls dripped from ears and coiled around her neck and wrists. Once dressed, she waited on the porch for her guards to arrive and escort her back to her husband's side.

They never came. Eventually, Jin Guangyao took the maidservants' hinting that she was unwanted in Young Madam Jin's manse and left to wander the gardens.

Despite all good sense, she returned to the magnolia grove. As a married woman, she ought not to be seen in spitting distance of such an infamous lovenest. However, it was one of the few places where she could not easily be spotted from the walking paths, windows, or even by other visitors to the grove as each bench within was carefully tucked away in the foliage. If someone glimpsed the corner of a skirt upon peeking into her natural alcove, grove decorum dictated that they move along quickly and not ask questions they themselves weren't prepared to answer.

Jin Guangyao cared little for her reputation at the moment. The house was already on fire, no need to worry about a mouse in the kitchen. She sat on the cold stone bench, flushing furiously as she thought back on how her emotions had run away with her yesterday. 

Missing the banquet had been her first mistake. The mystery tantalized the senses and loosened the lips better than any wine served during the festivities. 

Raising her voice at her husband and then bolting from the room was her next, far worse mistake. Even if the guards hadn't given chase, it would only have taken one passing guest or nosy servant to spread the word of marital discord in Qinghe. Now hundreds had seen and heard Nie Han and Nie Zhong chasing after Madam Nie after she fled the chambers shared with her husband. The other guests had not even bothered to contain their whispers as she had passed by that morning.

Spending the night away from her husband was likely the worst mistake. She gave no hint of reconciliation between her and Nie Mingjue. The hearts of maidens like the beauty in blue and yellow were certainly atwitter with hope and excitement. Every minute she spent moping in the magnolia grove truly worked against Jin Guangyao, yet she could not bring herself to relinquish the freedom she'd been granted. 

She almost wondered why, but it was fairly obvious. He feels guilty, Jin Guangyao thought, bewildered. Nie Mingjue was a resolute man. His spine was iron, his head held high by nature, shoulders squared at all times as he was always fully prepared to fight the world for the sake of righteous convictions. It was odd to imagine him being regretful of his actions. Particularly those against her. 

Jin Guangyao cradled her face in her hands. That unreadable man...Everything he had done in the past year confused her. He swore an oath of brotherhood with her and Lan Xichen. He told their sworn brother that it was to put her back on a righteous path, but he tells her that it's to protect Lan Xichen from her influence. He married her, ostensibly for the same goal, but he wove a tale of secret-keeping and longing from afar for Lan Xichen which had to be a lie. Yet he now claimed what Lan Xichen told her was the truth. Jin Guangyao might have thought him mistaken about what exactly she was told, but Lan Xichen was no liar and it seemed difficult to misconstrue what he'd said.

Not impossible, however. 

Her hands brushed against warm cheeks. She thought back on Lan Xichen's words, searching for gaps and fallacy. 

He declared his absolute conviction to marry you...he confessed that he had known your secret for quite some time. That he had cared for you since your days as his deputy.

'Cared for'. Such an ambiguous term. It might just as easily referred to their budding relationship as leader and trusted subordinate as it might to romantic pining. Yet, how Nie Mingjue had reacted when she brought up his perceived lie. There was really no mistaking it - he'd fumbled worse than Jin Zixuan at Pheonix Mountain! Jin Guangyao hid her face in her hands all over again, cringing. 

'Cared for'. Jin Guangyao looked up, staring into a tangle of magnolia blooms. It occurred to her that Lan Xichen had spoken in the past tense. Had Nie Mingjue done so as well when he came to their sworn brother and asked him to stand aside? Had he so cleverly hidden a lie within the truth? Manicured nails dug into Jin Guangyao's palms. It made a certain cruel sense. Nie Mingjue had told Lan Xichen enough gentle lies already. Meanwhile, her husband only ever told her the truth, no matter how bitter and hurtful. He knew that she had taken worse and survived. 

That he loved her once, and she had fucked it all up by being evil - that was exactly the sort of brutal truth he would tell her. 

Jin Guangyao slipped from the magnolia grove. She could no longer bear the overwhelming scent of womanly beauty and gentleness that magnolias symbolized.

She wandered the intricate garden paths of Koi Tower. She smiled softly at passersby and scented delicate spring blossoms, projecting a peaceable air. She gave no indication that whatever argument had driven her from her chambers still plagued her - that she hadn't yet seen her husband and made peace. She hoped that this whole mess could be swept aside in the coming weeks after her pregnancy was announced. Jin Guangyao welcomed the world to misinterpret her rightful fury as 'mood swings'. 

On a lonelier path, deep in the lush greenery, Jin Guangyao came upon a small scene that required her put-on serenity. Jin Zixun accosted Su Minshan, whose flushed face made for an ugly contrast with his white robes. 

"An upstart like you thinks he can lead a sect when he can't even find his way out of the bushes?" Jin Zixun scoffed. 

Su Minshan's tongue stumbled over his anger. "Y-you -" 

"Cousin," Jin Guangyao called in a silky smooth voice meant to soothe tempers. She stepped between her sneering cousin and Su Minshan, cutting through the tension with a smile. "How good to see you finally. It's been so long. Have you been hiding from me in the bushes all this time?" She giggled into her sleeve goodnaturedly. 

Jin Zixun's vermillion mark disappeared into a furious flush across his whole face. He was not so oafish as to not recognize the jab, but he had to hold his breath to restrain himself. She was now Madam Nie and he was still just a branch clan member, soon to be displaced further down the line of succession by Jiang Yanli's squalling babes. 

"I have been preoccupied with sect matters!" He blurted in protest. "Highly important issues personally assigned to me by Uncle! Things I should not be distracted by thanks to wannabes who can't even find their own assholes!" He paired that last verbal jab with an attempted shove at Su Minshan's chest. Jin Guangyao smacked his arm away and stepped fully between the two men. 

Jin Zixun said nothing more. He stomped off, leaving Jin Guangyao and Su Minshan alone. 

She hurried off back in the direction she came from, gesturing for Su Minshan to follow. 

"Ah, thank you, My Lady." Su Minshan bowed lowly to her once they found a sufficiently populated area of the garden with lots of witnesses to their proprietary distance from one another. They sat on separate benches around a foundation amidst a sea of peonies. "This one is humbled by your intervention. Truly, I am in your debt. You likely do not remember me, but -"

"You are Su She, courtesy name Minshan. Sect Leader of the fledgling Moling Su. You came to my father seeking financial backing for your new sect at the end of the war. I remember you perfectly." Jin Guangyao assured him. Su Minshan's ugly red blush turned embarrassed - a boyish smile softened his face. 

"This one is honored by your recognition, My Lady," 

Jin Guangyao smiled sympathetically and did not mention her perfect memory. This wasn't even their first meeting since he first came to Koi Tower seeking patronage. He had attended several banquets since then, and they had last exchanged pleasantries at Qin Su's birthday banquet as they both built networks among the other guests. They were in the same position, outsiders of the cultivation world who had to grapple for every foothold in order to rise up. Jin Guangyao had advised her father to invest in Moling Su as a part of his campaign for Chief Cultivator; it was wise to install a sect in Moling. Moreover, she liked the idea that there would be a new sect that would really have no choice but to welcome young mediocres into its tutelage. Su Minshan had even seemed eager to take on those who the great sects would likely turn down due to low potential. Truly, he had stuck out somewhat in her memory.

Su Minshan bowed to her again. "Congratulations on your marriage, My Lady!" He said very seriously. "I did not attend the ceremony for you and Sect Leader Nie. I did send a letter, but that is no substitute for words delivered in person."

Jin Guangyao waved off his fuss. "Do not be troubled, Sect Leader Su. I am certain of your sincerity." 

"This one is grateful for your aid, My Lady. The least that I owe you is congratulations on your momentous and honorable marriage." Su Minshan persisted. It seemed that he remembered her just as well as she did him. 

"That is true, Sect Leader Su," Jin Guangyao nodded sagely in agreement. "You owe it my father and Lanling Jin to bring up your disciples as righteous cultivators who will make a name for Moling Su. How goes this endeavor? I'm afraid that I hear very little news from this corner of the world since my marriage." 

Su Minshan grimaced. "My disciples recently put a rather powerful vengeful spirit to rest. A merchant's dead wife terrorized the brothel he frequented whilst she was on her deathbed. Moling Su is now in good standing with an influential merchant and the brothel madame. We now receive discounts in the marketplace and - such. Our reputation is growing within the city." The regard of prostitutes and mediocre merchants would not bring his young sect acclaim, however. He was clearly ashamed that he did not have grander deeds to report to her. 

"And how many disciples do you have now? Last we spoke, you mentioned recruiting a rogue cultivator as a senior disciple."

"Well, you see, My Lady..." Su Minshan trailed off oddly. His fists clenched the fabric over his knees. "We have actually been forced to turn away several youths seeking tutelage due to a lack of resources. Too few beds in the barracks is just the start of the issue."

"My father promised funding in proportion to the number of disciples you took charge of," Jin Guangyao said in surprise. Jin Guangshan had no excuse to neglect the agreement he made with Su Minshan; Lanling Jin had plenty enough gold to feed and clothe a thousand Moling Su disciples before it would ever affect expenditures at Koi Tower. The only explanation was that her father no longer cared to keep up the act. He had shown the cultivation world his willingness to support the most minor of sects and further contribute to the rebuilding of the cultivation world. Now he moved on to his next great show - magnanimously forgiving his son's unfilial behavior and mending ties with Yunmeng Jiang. 

She sighed in real disappointment. "I would offer you the patronage of Qinghe Nie, but I'm afraid that I hold even less influence in my husband's sect than I did in my father's. My apologies, Sect Leader Su."

Somehow, her contrite words struck Su Minshan like a slap. His eyes went wide, his lips parted. "My Lady..." 

"My Lady!" The whole of the garden turned at that harsh bark. Jin Guangyao bit back a growl of frustration at Nie Han's sudden appearance. The old cultivator marched through a sea of flowers like he was off to battle the Wen-Dogs all over again. "My Lady," He addressed her - just as brusquely, but quieter at least. His salute was purely perfunctory. "Please return with me to Sect Leader Nie's chambers."

"Is that an order from Sect Leader Nie?" She asked in turn. 

"It is best you come with me now, My Lady," Nie Han said rather than answer her. His tone was utterly bereft of respect for his sect leader's wife. 'Whoreson', he'd once called her in a dark cave. 'Whoreson', he'd said again and again in that same dead tone even as his lips addressed her as 'Deputy Meng Yao'. He loomed too closely, casting her seated form in a dark shadow. On the next bench, Su Minshan sat stiffly. His knuckles were as pale as his robes. 

It was lucky that Su Minshan was there. Otherwise, Jin Guangyao did not doubt that Nie Han would act rather than advise. 

"I would prefer to sit here awhile longer," said Jin Guangyao. "Please inform my husband of that." 

Nie Han did not budge. He stared down at her, impatient and menacing. Jin Guangyao stubbornly turned her head to observe the birds in the fountain. She did not dare show any signs of fright or anxiety when she felt his meaty hand reach for her. 

"Cousin," Jin Zixun crowed with too much enthusiasm as he strutted onto the scene. He stood before her bench and looked between Nie Han and Su Minshan with unveiled disgust before plastering on a smile for Jin Guangyao. "Uncle sent me to collect you. It seems that I'm not the only one who's been 'hiding in the bushes'." His eyes shone with cruel laughter as he offered her his hand. "Uncle wants to speak with his daughter. A private family discussion." The presence of two senior Jin disciples at her cousin's back emphasized the order. 

Jin Guangyao glanced over her shoulder at Nie Han. She took grim satisfaction in his stony expression as she took Jin Zixun's hand and rose to her feet.

She saluted Su Minshan alone before they took their leave. "I enjoyed our discussion, Sect Leader Su. I sincerely hope that we can speak again in the near future and broach the issue of patronage in further detail." 

Su Minshan heartily thanked her as he bowed yet a third time to her. Jin Guangyao hoped that Nie Han would simply leave him be after she left the garden. There was little to worry about, really; the guard was more likely to rush off immediately and report her meeting with Jin Guangshan to her husband than bother with little Su Minshan.

Chapter Text

Jin Zixun and the disciples escorted Jin Guangyao to her father's private study. At Jin Zixun's knock, the heavy golden doors swung open. Jin Guangshan sat enthroned at his desk, Madam Jin ensconced in a yoke-back chair at his side. They regarded Jin Guangyao as a prisoner brought forth for judgment. She knelt low before them.

Their only mercy was the harsh dismissal of Jin Zixun along with the disciples. He audibly choked on his disappointment but did not dare protest at his aunt's sharp look. Jin Guangyao's relief was short-lived, struck dead when Madam Jin's dark eyes cut back her way. 

The golden doors shut with a cold, metallic click behind her. 

Jin Guangshan let out a deep sigh through his nose. He rubbed his brow as if he was nursing a headache. He regarded Jin Guangyao as if she was the headache. 

"What is this I hear about Sect Leader Nie chasing his wife down every corridor of Koi Tower? And later creeping out of the magnolia grove like a fiend?" He asked with deceptive calm. It was almost conversational. 

Jin Guanyao bowed her head and answered, "My husband and I had a heated discussion last night. I chose to sleep elsewhere. The guards took their assignment to watch and protect their madam very seriously and followed me even after I asked to be alone. Eventually, my husband caught up with us and dismissed his men, leaving me to cool off for the evening. This daughter regrets that she could not handle such a matter with greater discretion. I accept any punishment Sect Leader Jin deems appropriate for besmirching her brother and future sect leader's wedding festivities."

Her father let out another irritable sigh. 

"Guangyao," Madam Jin spoke, "has Sect Leader Nie mistreated you?"

That cool tone of voice - she breathed like a drawn blade, steel whispering a threat against a scabbard. It nearly galled Jin Guangyao to tell the whole truth, but Madam Jin was not meant to know the particulars of her husband's ambitions and his plans to fulfill them. 

"No, My Lady," She answered first, cushioning her lies with the basic truth of the matter. A viper could not scorn the mongoose for its injury, after all. "It is just that things are fraught between us. Our marriage caused a major shift in our dynamics that we still struggle to adjust to even months later." 

The hand rubbing Jin Guangshan's temple dropped heavily against his desk. "There! Do you hear that? Are you satisfied now?" He said to Madam Jin. "Now, if my wife would please leave me to discipline my daughter." 

His wife curled her lip at him and rose to her feet. Jin Guangshan shrank back in his chair, watching his wife cautiously as she marched out of the room. The golden doors slammed shut again behind her. 

Jin Guangshan sat up in his chair, settling back into his prestige and power. "Now," He began again. "What is this I hear about Sect Leader Nie chasing his wife down every corridor of Koi Tower?" He repeated. His hard tone warned he would not repeat himself a third time. 

"Nie Mingjue does not trust me," Jin Guangyao admitted. Just as I warned you months ago. "Those guards have been assigned to watch me and prevent me from meddling in political affairs without his knowledge. Last night, we argued and I did indeed leave to spend the night elsewhere. The guards were under the impression that their sect leader would not allow this, so they gave chase despite my pleas, attempting to return me to the guest chambers that I share with my husband. As I said before, Nie Mingjue eventually dismissed the guards. I believe this was a peace offering on his part." 

Her father's face twisted up in disbelief. "He assigned guards to protect himself from you? " He laughed without mirth. "The great Chifeng-zun, scared of his little wife! Heavens, I'm disappointed in you both. Explain, Guangyao, how you came to hide from your beloved sworn brother in a magnolia grove. As well as how you plan to remedy this situation."

"Father," The words sat bitter on Jin Guangyao's tongue before she spoke them. "The current circumstances are not ideal, but I assure you that they are the best we can hope for at this time. Not unless Sect Leader Jin would kindly intercede on this loyal daughter's behalf and allow her to stay to Koi Tower after the wedding." She spoke the suggestion with half-dead hope.

"You know very well that is not what I want to hear," Her father scolded her. "That does not even begin to answer my first question." Jin Guangyao kept her eyes trained on familiar floor tiles. She could envision her father holding out one hand, dark eyes imploring her to cough up a satisfactory explanation for her inadequacy. A parent demanding a child turn over a switch picked for their own beating. As close to a father as this man ever acted.

She willed away a scornful smile from her lips as she, at last, answered her father. "We quarreled over amorous maidens who might seek to become Nie concubines. I did not appreciate him keeping a flower that a maiden tossed him. He failed to see how such action so obviously shamed me and I punched him in the face. It seemed best to spend the night apart after that." 

Jin Guangshan blinked at her. His fists came down on hard on his desk and he shot to his feet in the same incredulous motion. 

"You punched Nie Mingjue in the face over a flower?" 

No, thought Jin Guangyao, I punched him because he loved me once upon a time and used it against me. There was no need to speak that truth aloud. Jin Guangshan's fury at war with his befuddlement was entertaining enough without adding to the latter. 

"What etiquette did my wife teach you exactly?" Jin Guangshan demanded, shaking his head in horror of women's nerve. "Forget whatever she told you and listen closely to your father: the affairs of your husband's bed chamber do not concern you unless you are in that bed-chamber. Least of all when your husband is your sect leader." 

"Yes, Father," Jin Guangyao bowed her head. "This daughter understands. However, in light of the circumstances and our aims, I thought it best to assert myself as Madam Nie." 

Jin Guangshan settled back into his seat. " 'Our aims'...Yes, I suppose that the rule can be bent in consideration of that. You do not need a concubine to compete with at the moment, it's true. Not unless you can still guarantee his favor, but by the sound of it you are not in Nie Mingjue's good graces even now." He tapped his fingers against his desk, contemplating the dark wood - contemplating Jin Guangyao - contemplating troublesome in-laws all over. "That brother of his is so much more agreeable. Tell me, Guangyao, are you at all attached to your husband? More importantly, is he at all attached to you?" 

Jin Guangyao swallowed hard on the fear bubbling like acid from her gut. She hoped to dissuade her father from such a dangerous course of action without revealing the full extent of her failures. "Father, this one believes that there is still hope to unite the great sects as a single powerful family with you as patriarch. Despite our past quarrels, Sect Leader Nie and I have been able to reach a truce on practical matters. We both maintain strong relationships with our sworn brother, Sect Leader Lan, who I have reason to believe will stand against the Yiling Patriarch's tyranny. As we were during the war, we are united in the destruction of evil. Soon, we will be united by the birth of a new generation. Your first grandchild will arrive before the year is out!" She exclaimed. 

"Yes, yes, I heard about Yanli." Jin Guangshan waved a dismissive hand. "Believe me, if she wasn't carrying my grandson then this shameful marriage would have been annulled weeks ago." 

The aftertaste of her announcement burned Jin Guangyao's tongue. "What?" She spat, confused. 

Jin Guangshan's eyebrows climbed high on his forehead in understanding. "Oh, you're with child as well then. I supposed that more or less puts us on the right path to securing Qinghe Nie's allegiance. I was a reed in the wind for my own father's whims when he spoiled little A-Xuan. Nie Mingjue might be just the same if you bear a son." He chuckled nostalgically. 

Jin Guangyao folded her arms across her middle. No one could see the gentle swell there under all her flowing robes - but she could feel it easily all the time. "You are pleased, Father?" She asked, smiling and hopeful. 

"It's a good prospect," Jin Guangshan nodded. "But let's temper our expectations for now. There's still a chance that you might birth a girl, after all." 

"A girl is-" She bit back her indignant words and swallowed them down. At her father's warning look, she spoke more evenly, "That is true, Father. But surely the announcement of a future grandchild is still pleasing to hear regardless of the lingering mystery."

"You expect praise," Jin Guangshan chuckled again - nostalgic and bitter and hateful. "I don't know what that mother of yours taught you, but getting pregnant isn't actually an accomplishment." He said. "It's what is expected of a woman."

Meng Shi called Meng Yao her pride and joy - her reason for living - the best thing to come from a life of subjugation and debasement - the reason that if she were reincarnated a thousand times into the same life, she would not make a single different choice, for fear of being separated eternally from her daughter - the beloved pearl token left to her by a great noble cultivator. 

Meng Shi did not have to birth Meng Yao - she did not need to raise her after she did - she did not have to teach her daughter to read or send her to school or buy cultivation manuals - she did not have to make her own unfortunate life that much more difficult for anyone else's sake. Meng Shi only ever had one selfish wish in the whole world.

"Why are you so cruel?" Jin Guangyao asked her father. His confusion mirrored her own and she detested it. "I don't understand it. I've never understood. She only wanted your acceptance, your kind regard in any form you might give it." Because if someone like you looked kindly upon her, then the rest of the world did not matter.

"Why is that deserving of your disdain?" The scorned daughter demanded - and in the next breath, she sneered, "You were so much more deserving of hers!"

"Insolent bastard!" Jin Guangshan shot to his feet - his ornate chair fell back with a menacing clatter that clashed - and lost - against the crash of golden doors flying open. 

Nie Mingjue pushed through four Jin disciples and the golden doors without pause. He stepped into Jin Guangshan's private study and took in the sight before him with a thunderous expression. Jin Guangyao flinched as his dark eyes passed over her - then marveled at how the cold fury on her husband's face focused beyond her - on her father. Her husband brushed past her in an instant and seized the Lanling Jin Sect Leader by the collar. 

Nie Mingjue reeled Jin Guangshan in with one clenched fist - then drove the other into his teeth - knocking the elder sect leader right back into his chair on the tiled floor. He stayed there. 

The Jin disciples immediately abandoned their futile struggle against the Qinghe Nie Sect Leader and rushed to their own leader's aid. Jin Guangyao watched a flurry of gold behind her father's desk. A warm, calloused hand slipped into her own and pulled her away from the scene.

Her thumb brushed over bloodied knuckles as they passed through the golden doors. 

Chapter Text

Nie Mingjue pulled Jin Guangyao back to their guest chambers against a frantic current of Jin disciples and wedding guests rushing in the direction of Jin Guangshan's howling. Heedless of whispers and shouts and shoving around them, her husband pressed on. Yet his grip on her hand was gentle. It was completely unlike the last time he burst through a door and dragged Jin Guangyao off. He hardly dragged her - rather, he led her along as she numbly followed. She clung to his sleeve with her free hand to keep pace. 

The guards clustered inside their sect leader's chamber, just as rowdy as any guest in the halls. Nie Mingjue snapped at them to return to their rooms and start packing. Immediately.

"Do you plan to stay at Koi Tower forever?" He barked at Nie Han and Wang Qiao when they did not budge from their positions flanking the doors. The men marched off dutifully, leaving Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao alone at last. The chamber fell silent after the doors closed, shutting out the rest of Koi Tower and its mayhem. 

Nie Mingjue swung Jin Guangyao around, tossing her toward the bed where she landed with a soft bounce. She laid there a moment, splayed across rumbled sheets, blood thrumming in her ears, fingers tangled in her pearl necklace, watching her husband prowl from one end of the chamber to the other. He seethed, baring his teeth like a caged tiger. Her eyes strayed to his bloodied knuckles. She followed the motion of his calloused hands and strong arms with every stride - the agitated flex of corded muscle. 

She sat up in bed, beckoning her husband's attention. He rounded on her - stepped over to the bed and loomed. The shadow of his broad shoulders fell over her like a shroud. Jin Guangyao watched his lips move, his teeth flashing in anger with each unheard word, and climbed to her knees on the bed - brought herself eye to eye with her husband for the first time. She wrapped her arms around his neck - anchored herself by his long dark hair - and pressed a kiss to his slack mouth. 

His lips were warm and dry against her own. Her lips brushed over his in brief, feather-light touches that left them redder and redder - that clouded her husband's dark eyes with brazen want - that satisfied her wants. A firm kiss hid a triumphant smile.

She breathed in his hot breath as his lips parted further - brushed her tongue against his - let out a long sigh, back arching - pressing intimately against her husband's solid chest as heat trilled down her spine like a rough-struck musical note. That heat coiled low in her belly - urging her to pull Nie Mingjue closer - to give the dark tresses laced between her fingers a sharp yank. Her husband let out a rumbling growl - his calloused hands gripped her waist - the heat felt through many layers of cool fabric. He surged forward, driving her down into the sleep-rumpled sheets. 

He invaded without mercy or gentleness. The scent of Qinghe pine and a morning spar enveloped her wholly. The press of lips turned bruising - teeth bit and clacked violently - dragging out each kiss before colliding into the next with searing force and jagged exhales. She tasted copper tang on his swollen lips - whined when he pulled away and reeled him in again with another sharp tug of his hair and a hand cradled under his jaw. She thrilled at his wince when her thumb pressed against the bruise there - already yellowing thanks to her husband's strong golden core. 

Jin Guangyao pressed a gentle kiss to her mark in mock apology. 

Nie Mingjue lunged forward and dragged his teeth down her neck in vengeance. He relished her shocked, appreciative cries, mouthing rough kisses behind her ear - under her jaw - down her neck. He wedged a hand between them and tugged forcefully at her robes, baring her shoulders to his attentions. Jin Guangyao shivered as strings of cold pearls kissed her unprepared flesh. 

Warm hands caressed her hips, gliding down - down - down. Calloused fingers pressed unmistakably into her thighs through layers of chiffon and silk, prying them apart in a single confident motion. Jin Guangyao cradled her husband between her legs and - though many pesky layers of fabric still separated them - felt his cock stir with more than a passing appreciation. She twined her legs around his waist and used the leverage to rock against him, humming her own appreciation for a change.  

Nie Mingjue rolled his hips against hers - meeting her blow for blow - his mapping of her shoulders temporarily forgotten as he breathed heavily into the crook of her neck. Hot breath blew rhythmic kisses across fresh lovebites; Jin Guangyao craned her neck and combed her fingers through his hair, encouraging where nothing but pants passed her bruised tender lips. Heat and friction between them left her face flush. 

His hands brushed up her thighs and along her waist - purposeful and searching - rough fingers twisted in the fabric bunched below her shoulders. 

In one violent tear, he parted the robes and bared her breasts to the cool air and his attentions. Nie Mingjue sank his teeth into her.

"Da-ge!" Jin Guangyao cried out. She bit back a litany of more wanton pleas as she grappled for purchase - raking manicured nails down her husband's back over too many layers of fabric and tugging absently at his sweat-dampened hair as he ravaged her breast. He hissed and groaned throatily against her breast, sensitive to her ministrations. 

Jin Guangyao managed to lift her head from the sheets - she took in the carnage through bleary eyes, smirking faintly. 

A dozen red wounds blossomed across her collarbone and shoulders. White pearl necklaces snaked around each brutal kiss, outlining savagery with elegance. They stung rawly in the cool air - still glistened from her husband's attention. Tender breasts swelled under the bruising force of Nie Mingjue's mouth. He dragged his teeth across dark nipples - then soothed her wounded cries with long flat drags of his tongue. An endless assault that stole Jin Guangyao's breath.

She smiled with trembling lips. Jin Guangyao watched - she felt his battle-roughened hand caress her side, brushing up and down her flank before palming her unattended breast. Her cheeks burned painfully at the noise he squeezed from her. Really, she consoled herself, Nie Mingjue is the one who should be embarrassed. Abandoning all his principles, led astray and between Jin Guangyao's legs by his cock like any common man - like a beast.

Jin Guangyao watched him, smile growing wider, remembering how he had any a word of retort against Jin Guangshan. He went directly for righteous violence and likely knocked the man's teeth out. 

His knuckles still gleamed with fresh blood. The topmost layer of skin on his three foremost digits frayed - but it was clear that the blood mostly belonged to someone else. 

Jin Guangyao reached down and took her husband's calloused hand in her own. Nie Mingjue abandoned his mauling - went deadly still. His clouded eyes watched her tongue tease his calloused fingertips. She smiled impishly - all teeth - against the digits, feeling his cock twitch against her inner thigh. Like a dog jumping for a treat. She ran her tongue on the underside of his index and middle fingers - tasted the salt of him - closed her mouth around the thick fingers and hummed thoughtfully as if tasting a new dish. Jin Guangyao sucked his fingers well, like she used to with Qin Su, knowing they would be crooked inside her soon, beckoning her to come. 

Her husband's free hand tugged absently at her belt - he growled at its lack of cooperation. But Nie Mingjue did not dare tear his eyes away from Jin Guangyao's sinful red mouth - not until it became clear how well the maids had cinched his wife's waist anyway. Nie Mingjue cursed and pulled his fingers free -

Jin Guangyao caught his retreating hand between her own and brought his frayed knuckles to her bruised lips. She kissed away her father's blood with a reverence. 

Nie Mingjue was off her in an instant - and Jin Guangyao was left cold and debased. 

She watched Nie Mingjue prowl from one end of the chamber to the other. He rubbed at his face like someone had splashed him with a pail of cold water. Jin Guangyao sat up on her elbow and did her best to right her robes. It felt hopeless without shucking off everything and starting over again. But suddenly the very thought of baring herself completely to her husband stung with horrible vulnerability. 

His breath still ragged - no longer with want, but with temper - Nie Mingjue rounded on Jin Guangyao a second time. He did not dare step so close to the bed as he did the first time. Like she was the beast - the one who would swipe her claws through the bars of her cage at the first invitation. 

"That? That is what you planned to kill me for?" He demanded, pointing at the wall - at her father's bleeding, howling maw on the other side of Koi Tower. "You have killed for that man. And yet you can - ?" Nie Mingjue stared at his frayed knuckles, kissed red with blood and rouge. He looked as if he wanted to drive that fist through a wall. 

"I don't understand you," He confessed through gritted teeth.

Yet he claimed to have loved me once. Jin Guangyao smiled bitterly upon the rumpled bedclothes. 

She could not begrudge her husband for his reaction. Nie Mingjue once loved a deputy called Meng Yao and Meng Yao's face was her own. The sole distinction between them was a vermillion dot between their brows. However, Jin Guangyao repulsed Nie Mingjue to his core with her every action. Short-lived embers of lust were the best that she could hope for from her husband. Even those embers would die away to cold ash if she didn't just lay there and let herself be mindlessly ravished. As he no doubt thought of the dead subordinate he truly wanted, Meng Yao. 

Nie Mingjue stuffed qiankun pouches and trunks with clothes and odds-and-ends. There was no order to his packing. Only misdirected irritation. Jin Guangyao situated herself in front of the bronze mirror to make herself presentable. She pulled pins from her disheveled hair and tucked them away in her jewelry box, then tied her hair at the ends with a ribbon. She managed to close her robes without completely redressing, though it looked sloppy for Madam Nie. Though she severely doubted the other guests expected much from her anymore. Still, she coated her neck and jaw with so much powder that she looked sick before packing away her makeup. 

Nie Mingjue slammed his wooden trunk closed - she did not flinch at the harsh, familiar sound. She only hid her pale face in her hands and prayed that her father would let them leave quietly. Or as close to quiet as they could manage in this mess. 

The ruckus out in the hall pitched suddenly - Nie Mingjue took a resolute stance before the door, waiting - Jin Guangyao braced herself for the worst. 

Crimson spilled angrily through the chamber doors in furious strides. Jin Zixuan brandished Suihua as if clearing a path. Jiang Yanli clung to his arm, a flurry of matching red wedding robes and a tinkling of blood-red gems, like wind chimes in a storm.  "Where is my sister?" Jin Zixuan demanded of Nie Mingjue.

Nie Mingjue stepped aside without a word.

"A-Yao!" Jin Zixuan crossed the chamber in two long strides and took Jin Guangyao by the shoulders. "Are you okay?" Over his own shoulder, Jiang Yanli regarded her anxiously. 

Jin Guangyao covered the hands on her shoulders with her own and smiled reassuringly at her half-brother. "I'm fine, Zixuan. Why wouldn't I be? Shouldn't Father warrant greater concern?" She knew it would do no good to feign innocence in the matter. Not when Jin Guangshan was likely missing a few teeth. 

Annoyance pinched her brother's expression. "Father is with the physician and Mother. You, on the other hand, disappeared with the man who attacked our father and yesterday drove you from your own chambers in distress!" His eyes swept over her, head to toe, searching for harm. Jin Guangyao was glad that she let her hair down - it concealed her bruised neck better than the powder. Whatever Jin Zixuan did see still managed to dissatisfy him. "If this is how he felt all those times - I'll go the Burial Mounds and let Wei Wuxian have another shot at me!" He solemnly vowed. 

"Please don't." Jiang Yanli and Jin Guangyao pleaded in unison. 

Jin Zixuan, still worked up on wounded pride and filial duty, spun on his heel and leveled Suihua at his stone-faced brother-in-law. Nie Mingjue made no move to defend himself against blade, nor accusation. 

"Nie Mingjue, A-Yao may have started out as your subordinate, but you still owe her respect as your sworn sister and wife!" He admonished the sect leader. "Lanling Jin will not stand for our lady to be dishonored by her husband. My sister will not be driven from her own bed at night. She should not be harassed by guards who by all rights should heed her orders just as well as your own. On that matter, how dare you assume that the Lanling Jin Sect Leader's daughter would be unsafe at Koi Tower! And you do all this at mine and A-Li's wedding?" Her brother seemed genuinely bewildered beneath his outrage. 

"Nie Mingjue, we fought side by side. This behavior does not suit you at all." He said, quieter, shaking his head. "If you cannot rectify this, then I will have no choice but to intercede on my sister's behalf."

"No," Jin Guangyao cut in. She stepped around Jin Zixuan, grabbing his arm, bidding him to stand down. "No, that is unnecessary, Zixuan. You misunderstand things."

"Please explain then," Jin Zixuan demanded, not unkindly. 

Jin Guangyao shared a lingering look with her husband before answering. Real embarrassment helped her flush on command. "It's true, Mingjue and I argued last night. Because we severely misunderstood each other, things devolved quickly and I am sorry to say we made a scene. For that, I deeply apologize to you and Yanli. Father summoned me to discuss the issue of decorum in private. In the process, however, the subject shifted dramatically and...Sect Leader Jin and I said very unkind things to each other. He...He called me an insolent bastard when I asked that he not speak so cruelly of my mother."

The admission struck Jin Zixuan like a blow to the chest. "Father-?" He breathed, words catching in his throat on the realization that this was not so unbelievable as he wished. His wife wrapped her arms around him in comfort. Her brother looked like a let-down little boy. 

"My husband arrived at the wrong moment. Father's words angered him and..." Jin Guangyao assumed that Jin Zixuan had seen the damage done. 

"Let me speak to Father and Mother," said Jin Zixuan. "There's still a chance that amends can be made."

"A-Xuan," Jin Guangyao pleaded quietly. "I am no longer welcome here. I won't be for a long, long time. Sect Leader Jin will not simply accept an apology. He will expect far more than anyone of us is willing to deliver at the moment. As a consequence, I fear that he will act vindictively against myself or my husband. So I need you to keep a close eye on Father and make certain he doesn't do anything foolish. For my sake...and for my child's sake." 

"You?" Her brother asked with wide, suddenly joyful eyes. At Jin Guangyao's shy nod, Jin Zixuan opened his arms in an awkward welcome to an embrace. Jin Guangyao indulged him. "Both of us at the same time." He whispered excitedly before blurting out his and Jiang Yanli's so-called secret.

Jin Guangyao heartily congratulated them - thanked them - apologized to them - every word spoken against her brother's shoulder accompanied by a side-long glance Jiang Yanli's way. Her sister-in-law remained silent, save for the tinkling of blood-red gems about her person. 

Both the bride and groom saw the Qinghe Nie party off through a more discreet visitors' gate. Many lingered obviously around the area - or gawked outright. No secret was made of their early departure, for that would have made it all the more shameful.

Through her carriage window, Jin Guangyao watched Nie Mingjue salute Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli before mounting his horse. He galloped by - a gust of wind beside the carriage - commands on his kiss-bitten lips. 

Jin Guangyao drew the curtain closed as the carriage lurched forward on her husband's command. She sat in the dark, fingers tangled in strings of cold pearls. 

Chapter Text

Since they had left a full two days ahead of schedule, Ma Kun managed to convince Nie Mingjue and her aunt to add two days to their journey by detouring to her mythical kite-sized-bream lake. A day and a half after they left Koi Tower, their wagon train surmounted a hill that overlooked a sparkling lake surrounded by fruit-laden trees. Smoke wisped above the northern shore where fishing boats clustered around a small pier. Ma Kun said that the village had no inns or even a proper tavern, but her brother and Nie Lui rode off to see the village elder about her famous fruit wine. They had apparently arrived just in time for the first batch of the season. 

Ma Kun preempted any orders to help set up camp by immediately diving into the shallows to hunt their dinner. No one reprimanded her or complained. It was needed this time around as they had not restocked their provisions before their sudden departure. The men set up the tents while Ma Kai, Ma Miu, and Nie Lingling tended the horses. Nie Luan and Tao Minghao dug a trench for a latrine. Jin Guangyao swept the ground and built the firepits, lighting them with fire talismans. Master Deng just stood there and rebuked her for raising a finger until she politely snapped at him to make himself somewhat useful and go forage for local herbs. 

By the time four fires crackled, her hands were covered in dirt and the knees of her traveling robes were filthy. It contrasted poorly against the Madam Nie costume she donned that morning when they departed from the inn. Smoke from her fires settled quickly into her clothes. But she was too tired to budge from the pillow she'd dropped next to one of the fires. Jin Guangyao hadn't slept well the night before, nor managed a nap in the carriage. It felt like she was slipping backward downhill in all matters, great and small.

Jin Guangyao sat by the fire, resting her eyes. She might have dozed a moment or two - and legitimately startled a bit when she cracked open one eye and found Nie Puyi setting kite-sized fish over the fires. 

"She wasn't exaggerating..." Jin Guangyao muttered to herself. It was a passing remark on youthful tendencies, yet her guard sent her a withering look as if she'd publicly questioned Ma Kun's honor. Of course, she knew Nie Puyi's attitude had nothing to do with Ma Kun or her honor.

Nie Puyi hunkered down on the opposite side of the fire from Jin Guangyao. He cast her suspicious glances across the flames as if he expected her to poison their lunch if he let down his guard. Jin Guangyao wanted to roll her eyes - instead, she rested them again and tried to meditate. Her nausea had gradually abated in the past few weeks, but she felt like shit the past few days. 

The smell of fish became distracting, however. The scent wafted through the camp, drawing hungry and tired guards to the firepit. They plopped down and started chattering amongst themselves, tossing old jokes and traveling gripes whichever way across the flames. It might have seemed that they were deliberately ignoring her, but Jin Guangyao felt the spiteful looks they shot across the flames amidst brotherly laughter. 

The smell - the voices - the burn of an unkind gaze. It was all too familiar. The guards drove Jin Guangyao from the firepit despite her fatigue. She felt their eyes on her back as she trudged off to lakeshore. She settled on a rock well within sight but far enough away that she could not hear whatever venom they were about to spew in her absence.

Jin Guangyao could only imagine what horrors they imagined she had gotten up to in their absence. A whole night and morning without supervision - surely she'd orchestrated a great calamity to befall them. Steeping their righteous sect leader in a huge public scandal was just step one in a larger scheme. One imaginary step that she would never be forgiven for. Not by these men. 

She sat on that rock, failing to meditate, imagining just what exactly the guards were laughing about around the fire each time their voices climbed in a sudden uproar. They had more to disparage her for than in the old days. Things she had actually done along with things that had unfortunately happened to her. Born to a whore - thrown down the stairs - killed their comrades - tried to kill their sect leader - and now whatever they could dream happened a few nights ago. 

Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue had spoken of the matter before adjourning to their rooms last night. They conferred in a private tearoom of the inn where Jin Guangyao explained that she had spent the night at Jiang Yanli's private manse and she welcomed him to confirm the matter independently. He asked what she had told Jiang Yanli, clearly thinking back on Jin Zixuan's anger and his bride's anxious silence; Jin Guangyao assured him that his snoring made for an adequate cover. Nie Mingjue took the jab without a word - except, of course, bidding her goodnight. 

She did not tell him about Lan Xichen's clandestine visit. Their sworn brother had the right to his own secrets, and his in-action seemed unlikely to affect them regardless. As for the new information she gained from her eavesdropping - it only seemed more likely that the cultivation world would come down on the Burial Mounds with a vengeance sooner rather than later. Jin Guangyao did not see how Hanguang-jun's reputation could save any of them...Lan Xichen would need his sworn siblings' support afterward, of course, when his little brother was either dead or severely punished for his associations. 

But for now, Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue had their own concerns to attend to... 

Jin Guangyao looked up from the water when the smell of cooked fish tickled her nose especially strongly. Aunt Kai and Aunt Miu approached, armed with a skewer of fish and a bowl of rice. 

"Thank you, Aunties," She saluted the older women gratefully. Jin Guangyao had not looked forward to slinking back over to the firepits to collect her food. 

"Why are you sitting over here by yourself?" Aunt Kai asked her outright. Jin Guangyao plastered on a smile in the face of the two women settling onto neighboring rocks. 

"My husband is an overbearing brute," She replied with a laugh. The aunts had eyes and ears and good sense by all accounts - they knew damn well why Jin Guangyao wanted to be alone. Even if their children still hadn't blabbed about the real reason Madam Nie was under constant guard, they knew things were tense between their nephew and his wife. Though 'My husband is an overbearing brute' summarized both issues pretty concisely...

"If it's any consolation," said Aunt Miu in that curt manner of hers. "His parents fucking hated each other to start with. So you're already off to a better start than them."

"Really?" Nie Mingjue made it sound as if Sect Lecter Nie, his wife, and his concubine all lived in wedded bliss before their shared untimely and morbid end. 

Ma Miu nodded sagely. "Oh yeah, Yang-jie thought it was the funniest damn thing in the world because they had their whole lives to make peace with the fact they were destined to marry. An arranged thing, of course. And then they got married and spent the first three years ready to rip each other's throats out over expense reports when not single-mindedly pouring themselves into saber practice and spellwork."

Jin Guangyao thought back to the Songbird Garden, the heart and soul and time poured into it. The woman behind such effective talismans. She wondered if the garden came to be before or after Nie Ruofei's marriage improved. "What changed?" She asked instead. 

Ma Miu shrugged. "I came home from the Cloud Recesses lectures and suddenly everything was a lot quieter than before I left. I imagine it was the typical story you hear."

"Yang-jie locked them in a pantry until they talked about their feelings," Ma Kai chimed in. "Took four whole days. Though it wouldn't have worked for more than a minute if she hadn't used Feifei's own talismans against her." 

"They talked about their feelings and that changed everything?" Jin Guangyao did not conceal her skepticism. 

Ma Miu shrugged again. "Never married. Never will marry. Wouldn't know."

She turned to her younger sister, who smiled and said, "Yang-jie told me that one well-placed rock could change the course of a stream. But one must continue to monitor that stream, for great storms and strong currents can undo the rock's work in short order. More rocks might be required to bring the stream to the fields where it can nourish the crops. Or, at the very least, divert it away from where it might wreak terrible destruction." 

That first coerced conversation was the first rock. The stream was Nie Taiyan and Nie Ruofei's marriage. The field was likely their sect. 

"Your elder sister was very wise," said Jin Guangyao. The sisters smiled appreciatively at the light praise. Jin Guangyao wondered if they knew the truth of their sister's end or had been misled as Huaisang had been. She wondered if they knew the truth - if her predecessors really did choose a dead man over their living children.

It would not be so shocking if they had. Jin Guangyao was now thoroughly intimate with the forces of grief and love - how they defied logic and morals both and drove people to previously unfathomable actions.  

Still, Jin Guangyao sat curled up on that rock, watching the lakewater ripple. What did one rock do when your marriage was a still lake, all mud and beasts under a calm surface?

"I'm afraid there is nothing we can say on the matter of your father," Aunt Kai admitted. "Feifei was born a Nie and the Ma family has served the Nie clan for five generations. None of us have ever been torn away from our homes by marriage. If we fought with our family members, we were always forced to face them the next day in the halls as we went about our business. Guangyao, I can only imagine what you are going through right now." 

"Ming-er thinks he's in the right so he won't apologize on his own," said Aunt Miu. "If it's truly important to you, however, we can strongarm the boy on your behalf and have a formal letter sent out upon our return to the Unclean Realm. Though I'm sure something more sincere would feel better."

"An apology will do nothing but invite Sect Leader Jin to take advantage of Qinghe Nie," said Jin Guangyao. "And he is not the one who deserves an apology. Except for perhaps the violence of my husband's rebuke. As for the matter of disturbing the wedding, my brother and Young Madam Jin already accepted our apologies before we departed." She refused to apologize to that man. Just as she said, there was no point to it except to come timidly licking at his hand like a kicked dog. 

"Well, then I feel all the better about taking back Snowflake and Sweetfeet!" Aunt Kai laughed. The white horses drinking from the lake down-shore looked up in confusion at hearing their names suddenly called so enthusiastically. Sweetfeet startled particularly badly at the sharp noise, still skittish from his brief time in the Koi Tower stables. He tried to bolt over to Aunt Kai, seeming eager for the excuse to be near her, but was stopped by a well-knotted tether. 

Aunt Kai cooed and excused herself to go soothe her younger twins. Aunt Miu went off to chide the older pair for overfishing in the lake in the name of petty competition while their lunch went cold. Jin Guangyao sat on the rock, chewing on her own portion, stewing on the conversation she would have to have with Nie Mingjue in the near future.

Their relationship was not as stagnant as a lake, she determined. It moved and cut with a violent force that wore down everything around them, splashing those who ventured too close. It was like the river that cut through Yunping - beautiful, but rife with dangerous undertows. Mediocres had bested such rivers time and time again and then built great cities next to their conquests. Meng Shi had taught Meng Yao how to navigate such a river when she was just a child - how to keep her head above water, at the very least. 

A familiar shadow brushed the edge of her skirts but did not dare venture any closer. Jin Guangyao looked up from her fish and was struck by overwhelming nostalgia. Nie Mingjue stood over her while she sat, hands and knees dirty, cheeks bulging with campsite fare. 

"Why are you eating by yourself?" He asked. 

She swallowed hard. "You're joking?" 

"Nie Luan and Tao Minghao are more understanding than the others," 

They know it's not some elaborate ruse that our argument started over a fucking flower. Jin Guangyao fought off a mortified flush every time the origins of this debacle crept up on her. She almost couldn't blame the other guards for being so suspicious of her. It sounded absolutely ridiculous...The women had watched her for weeks now, though, and could perceive certain things men couldn't, like subtler shades of color.

These men really did not give a damn about Jin Guangyao, or about how bad optics impacted her. They would welcome their sect leader to take a concubine, even one outside their ranks. If they knew what drove her fist into Nie Mingjue's jaw, they would only take it as a slight against their sect leader that she wasn't elated by the revelation he once cared for a lowly wretch like Meng Yao. They had no sympathy for her under any circumstances.

"I appreciate my alone time these days," she told Nie Mingjue honestly. Then added, "Even if every minute only drives your guards to hate me more. Heavens above only know what they think I do on the privy." 

"I can speak to them,"

"Don't," 

"I'll leave you then," Nie Mingjue said after a moment, turning around. 

"No, stay," said Jin Guangyao. He stopped and stared, looking a half-step away from running off to find Master Deng in the weeds to check her head. "We must discuss the fallout of what happened at Koi Tower. Sooner rather than later, so that we can take action immediately once we arrive back at the Unclean Realm." 

Nie Mingjue settled onto a neighboring rock with the same posture he used during his war councils. He looked at her like she was Meng Yao again, come to suggest an unorthodox strategy. This was familiar territory between them - but painful in the way returning to any former battlefield was. 

"You are aware that my father wants influence over every great sect," Jin Guangyao began. "More than that, he wants control through whatever means he can achieve it. Funding the reconstruction of Lotus Pier and the Cloud Recesses worked for Yunmeng Jiang and Gusu Lan, but Qinghe Nie was better prepared for the Wens than anyone else."

"Hence our marriage," Mingjue then corrected himself. "His offer, that is." 

Jin Guangyao nodded. "Sect Leader Jin instructed me to use my new position to 'neutralize Qinghe Nie'. Intelligence, blackmail, whatever I could do to deliver the Nie Sect into his hands..." The past sat silent and ugly between them. She pressed through it. "He knows that I am with child now. After that punch of yours, he will seek to install his own grandchild as the next Nie Sect Leader as both a benefit to his ambitions and to avenge his lost teeth." 

"You don't sound pleased," 

"Don't sound so surprised,"

Nie Mingjue grimaced at the slip and apologized under his breath. 

Jin Guangyao pressed through it.

"Hearing what fate will befall me should you die under suspicious circumstances will not dissuade Jin Guangshan. He might favor such a drastic course of action more due to that fact. I insulted him, too, after all." Her hand brushed down her front, feeling the little bump, trying to imagine the little person she might bring into this mess - if she was that lucky. Jin Guangyao sounded apologetic as she continued, "Even if I warned him that acting too rashly could get his grandchild killed right alongside his 'insolent bastard', I don't think that would stop him. In his own words, Nie Huaisang is 'so much more agreeable.' " 

Anger flickered in Nie Mingjue's eyes, the likes of which she had only seen on his face when discussing Wen Ruohan. His lips thinned - he was clearly holding something back, maybe some callous question for her about how. She remembered his furious gesticulating back in the guest-chamber. He never understood how she could serve monsters.

"I won't risk my life again," Jin Guangyao said, solemn as a vow. "Not like I did at the Nightless City." 

The great Chifeng-zun flinched at that - at the subtle comparison between himself and his greatest enemy. 

She smiled meanly and elaborated, "Jin Guangshan will not accept me back unless I pull something similarly perilous in the name of pleasing him. As of now, however, I've proven myself as nothing but a liability to Lanling Jin's reputation. My deeds during the war, already poorly received by some like yourself, have now been overwritten by my gender and all the associated drama." The sad truth of it called for a huge sigh. "This damn wedding will follow me right to the grave no matter when I die." 

"I am the one who foolishly kept that girl's flower," Mingjue interjected, his brow furrowed in confusion - as if he only just barely understood his error, let alone why people would scorn her for it. "I am the one who knocked Jin Guangshan's teeth out. Why does it sound like all this will fall down on your head alone?" 

"Because it will," Jin Guangyao answered simply. "Because they will find some grievous flaw in me and make an excuse for why you are unhappy. A reason why I should simply make do with the situation." They blamed Madam Jin for Jin Guangshan's philandering, whispering how cold and frightening she was. Jin Guangyao had heard similar things about the Violet Spider while growing up in Yunping; too harsh and domineering, no wonder her husband still longed for Cangse-Sanren. And the women at the brothel used to whisper excuses to their most guilt-ridden clients like sweet nothings. 

Just one breed of scorn among many that Jin Guangyao had known. "It's one of the things that hasn't changed between now and the past, Meng Yao and Jin Guangyao. My scant good traits and contributions will always be willfully forgotten in favor of holding up my faults for scrutiny and kicking me down into the dirt." 

"So it's just that simple," Nie Mingjue's knuckles paled - not one sign of that fateful punch remained. "After everything that you did for him, he casts you aside because your reputation isn't shiny enough for Koi Tower? Just like that, you give up on the favor you strove for all this time?"

"You don't sound pleased," Jin Guangyao teased. Mingjue didn't look it, either. How strange. 

Jin Guangyao smoothed her hands over her growing child. Right now, the baby was still abstract. A largely theoretical bargaining chip to start with that made her nauseous over normal smells but enticed her to devour the strangest concoctions. As her stomach grew - as her baby grew - the reality began to set in that her child was on the way. Alittle somebody who depended entirely on her in this cruel, uncaring world. Someone who asked to be there as much as she did - who deserved better than she got - a new extension of herself that was yet untarnished. 

Jin Guangyao imagined it was the same for her mother. Considering her profession, Meng Shi's pregnancy by a great sect leader was no accident. Meng Yao had likely been conceived as a means to an end - that end being her mother's freedom from the brothel and a better, more respectable existence. Maybe not as Jin Guangshan's concubine or mistress, but - as the owner of a good plot of land? An innkeeper? A maid for a good mediocre family? Something that would enable her to provide well for the sect leader's child...Problem was, Jin Guangshan never wanted to provide for Meng Yao. That left Meng Shi alone with the task of bringing up her daughter, of putting her on a better path against all odds. Even though she did not strictly have to do it all, she did.

Meng Shi only ever had one selfish wish left in the whole world after she brought Meng Yao into it.

"I can't risk my life to make him accept me again," The admission was raw and shameful. Jin Guangyao's throat felt tight like her necklace was strangling her - constricted tight enough to snap her neck. "I can't make myself shiny enough for him. I can't even afford to try anymore."

Before it had only been her own pathetic life at risk, the one given to her by her mother - so if she was going to risk it all, she had to do it for a good reason - for the sake of one selfish wish that Jin Guangshan would accept and even love an extension of Meng Shi. Before, there had been some small pearl of hope that this was possible.

That pearl of hope should have been cast aside long ago - it had been, she had just been fooling herself. Jin Guangshan would never accept or love Meng Shi - or Meng Yao - and Jin Guangyao was only half-heartedly wielded like a sharp blade with a hideous pommel. She could not risk being broken or discarded like any old tool if her blade ever dulled. Not when an unblemished extension of herself relied on her to put them on a better path than her own. 

"Jin Guangshan is either going to get my baby killed or use them to his own advantage. Even putting aside sect politics, he will never put his grandchild's welfare before his own, and that will lead our child to ruin." She spat the words, furious. "We both have to stay alive to protect them from that." 

"You're proposing an alliance then," said Nie Mingjue, still not sounding at all pleased.

"That's what marriage is," Jin Guangyao replied. "It's just this alliance will now be - not for Lanling Jin's benefit." 

"Does that mean you will work in favor of Qinghe Nie's interests instead?" That sounded like a challenge.

"We both know how you feel about my methods, Da-ge," She chuckled humorlessly. "But yes, in short, the interests of Qinghe Nie are my child's interests and therefore my own."

Her husband sat in the aftermath of that statement, far too silent, still too far from pleased. She looked into his eyes - tried to discern something of his thoughts for the thousandth time - saw nothing through the usual wall of everpresent fury at everyone and everything for the thousandth time - wondered desperately how he could still be so dissatisfied with her and what gave him the right. 

"What?" She snapped. "Are you expecting an apology?" She was well aware that everything had come down to a vicious, painful circle - how in the end she wound right back under Qinghe Nie and estranged from her father - how everything she had done since Nie Mingjue wrote her that recommendation had been all for naught. "Fine, on behalf of those I let down so severely, please accept this one's humblest apology for wasting everyone's time! " 

Jin Guangyao stood from the rock and marched into the lake, stirring up clouds of mud and staining her golden robes. Each step through the muck was a battle - her feet sank to her ankles - chills ran through her as the water soaked her clothes - still, she splashed forward until she stood knee-deep in the water. She cupped the water with dirty hands. 

I'm sorry, She mouthed the words to the woman staring back at her from her palms. 

She splashed the cold, murky water into her face - shivered violently at the sudden chill - scrubbed her palms across her mouth and cheeks - rubbed furiously at her brow with the back of her fist until it came away red. She saw nothing of herself in the disturbed water but a hunched-over shadow. But she knew the vermillion mark was nothing but a violent smudge of red - a fresh bruise if anything at all. 

"Are you happy now?" She asked with a shuddering breath. 

Baxia's hiss answered her - a great weight hit the earth in a small explosion of sand -  the guards let out startled shouts and called for their leader.

She twisted around in the water, nearly slipping in the mud, and found Nie Mingjue kneeling on the shore. Baxia laid before him in an act of supplication. 

"No," Nie Mingjue said, head bowed low. "No, I...I'm sorry." 

Chapter Text

Since this fic is going to be a long one and there's already a bunch of OCs to keep track of, I've decided to take a note from GRRM (author of the book series Game of Thrones is based on) and put out a character index before heading into Part 2 of my outline. This way, we can all get our heads straight about the state of things before moving forward and you can double-back to consult this appendix if you're confused about the OCs. 

I will also be stating ROUGH ages for some characters as of Chapter 25

***

Qinghe Nie:

Jin Guangyao - 22 years old - has renounced Lanling Jin, 4-5 months pregnant

Nie Mingjue - 26 years old - feeling guilty

Nie Huaisang - 21 years old - Currently studying guqin at the Cloud Recesses

Nie Taiyan - Died 10 years ago - Previous Nie Sect Leader, grievously wounded by Wen Ruohan's sabotage and died of qi deviation six months later

Nie Ruofei - Died 10 years ago - Wife of Taiyan and Birth-Mother of Mingjue, talented in spellwork and very elegant

Ma Liuyang - Died 10 years ago - Concubine of Taiyan and Birth-Mother of Huaisang, former Mistress of Horse, mischievous tomboy with low cultivation 

Ma Miu - Middle Ma Sister, Mistress of Horse, a curt woman who generally hates people and loves horses

Ma Kai - Youngest Ma Sister, Mother of the Ma Twins, a lot like her eldest sister

The Guards:

Ma Chao - 19 years old - Ma Kai's son and Ma Kun's older twin, kinda a Sokka-type?

Ma Kun - 19 years old - Ma Kai's daughter and Ma Chao's younger twin, a mischievous tomboy like her mom and aunt

Nie Han - Sunshot Campaign veteran, hardass dad of Nie Lui, Taiyan's friend and cousin, Mingjue's oldest and most trusted advisor

Nie Lui - 20 years old - Nie Han's son, trying desperately to impress his dad but usually failing, an auxiliary guard who fills in for others' shifts

Nie Zhong - Sunshot Campaign veteran, manages the guard rotations, about on par with Nie Han authority-wise 

Nie Lin - Sunshot Campaign veteran, lower on the ladder than Nie Zhong

Nie Puyi - Sunshot Campaign veteran, even lower than Nie Lin

Wang Qiao - Sunshot Campaign veteran, a promoted guest disciple, besties with Li Weiyi

Li Weiyi - Sunshot Campaign veteran, a promoted guest disciple, besties with Wang Qiao

Zhou Zhi - Sunshot Campaign veteran, a promoted guest disciple, secret sap, married to Nie Luan

Nie Luan - Sunshot Campaign veteran, no-nonsense lady, married to Zhou Zhi, best friends with Minghao

Tao Minghao - Sunshot Campaign veteran, will be a librarian in her next life I swear, best friends with Nie Luan, promoted guest disciple

Nie Lingling - 22 years old - a young romantic type, NMJ and Huaisang's second-cousin

Retainers: 

Qin Su - 21 years old - Back at the Unclean Realm, Handmaiden/Hostage

Nie Aibing - JGY's secretary and initial minder, happily married to his husband for 25 years

Master Deng - Nie Sect physician, JGY's new worst enemy

***

Lanling Jin:

Jin Guangshan - missing a few teeth and pissed

Madam Jin - doing major damage control

Jin Zixuan - 22 years old - at that sad stage in life when he's starting to realize how fucking terrible his parent is

Jiang Yanli - 24 years old - plotting, 2-3 months pregnant

Jin Zixun - disappearing regularly from Koi Tower off to the area around Yiling-Yunmeng

Jin Zixun's wife - pregnant and happily avoiding her shitty husband

Luo "Mianmian" Qing yang - defected, rumored to be running around the western countryside in blood-red robes

Laoling Qin:

Qin Cangye - really sad tbh

Madam Qin - in very poor health since Qin Su went to the Unclean Realm

Moling Su:

Su She - dealing with a lack of funding since JGS reneged on their deal

***

Yunmeng Jiang:

Jiang Cheng - 21 years old - dealing with A LOT between WWX and JYL

The Burial Mounds:

Wei Wuxian - 21 years old - bogeyman/turnip farmer-who-wants-to-plant-potatoes

Wen Qing - wicked witch of the west/pusher of turnip propaganda

Wen Ning - 20 years old - Ghost General

Wen Yuan - 3 years old? I wanna say three years old and an adorable turnip

Like 6 Runaways from the surrounding region

And about 50 freed Wen Prisoners + 4 able-bodied Wen cultivators

***

Gusu Lan: 

Lan Xichen - 24 years old - in the midst of a personal/political crisis back at the Cloud Recesses

Lan Wangji - 21 years old -the only one genuinely seduced to Burial Mounds by those damn demonic cultivator wiles

Lan Qiren - probably on the brink of a major qi deviation between Huaisang and his nephews' shit??

Elders:

Lan Junwei - wants to withdraw Gusu Lan from sect politics until they recover from the war

Lan Songlian - believes that the Yiling Patriarch is a major threat and that Gusu Lan owes Lanling Jin

Lan Bingyan - allied with Songlian

Lan Haiqi - believes that the Yiling Patriarch is a threat but wants Gusu Lan to assert itself as powerful in its own right rather than submitting to Lanling Jin

--- Lan Shufen - 16 years old - Lan Haiqi's granddaughter, a very promising Lan Junior

***

Okay, I think that's everyone

Chapter Text

Before Jin Guangyao could question Nie Mingjue's sudden contrition - before the guards could cry witchcraft and manipulation - Master Deng parted the tall reeds along the shore like a curtain and gasped, utterly scandalized at Madam Nie's soggy state. "Get changed!" He shrilled, then tacked on a proprietary, "My Lady!"

Jin Guangyao trudged out of the water, shivering at the sudden exposure to the afternoon air. Master Deng hustled her off without a glance at his kneeling sect leader. She changed her clothes and put her feet up by the fire to warm up as ordered. An extra bowl of rice and one of many excess skewers of fish were pushed into her hands. Jin Guangyao nibbled quietly, diligently ignoring Master Deng's hovering presence and watching Nie Mingjue circle the campsite. 

He spoke periodically with Nie Han and Nie Zhong as well as his aunts. It seemed right after a guard approached him to whisper in one ear, an aunt stepped out from behind a tent or bush to whisper in the other. Nie Mingjue did not say much in turn, but his brow furrowed like he found their words equally disagreeable. The cycle carried on as the sun sank closer to the horizon. 

Ma Kai dragged her daughter from the dark water and confiscated her spear. They had plenty enough fish for dinner as well as tomorrow's breakfast. To round out their diets, Master Deng threw some wild herbs into a pot with mushrooms and called it a "medicinal soup." Nie Lui and Ma Chao passed out the fruit wine to those who had escaped that night's guard rotations. before collapsing into a heap together by one firepit, flushed with alcohol and laughing over the crackle of fire. Zhou Zhi, too, was already drunk somehow and toasted their sect leader's strong fist from where he shamelessly cuddled Nie Luan. 

"Here, here," She flatly agreed as she petted her husband's head like a dog. 

Nie Mingjue didn't seem to hear any of this. He tore into a skewered fish and threw back a bowl of soup like a cup of liquor - grimaced as if it burned like liquor, too. He then excused himself to bed early, reminding Wang Qiao and Li Weiyi not to drink too much again. Nie Han left the firepit he shared with his comrades and posted himself outside Nie Mingjue's tent without a word. 

Jin Guangyao left her own firepit, shared with Tao Minghao and her books, and went to her husband's tent. 

Nie Han stood deliberately in her way. 

"Senior Han," Jin Guangyao glanced him over, unimpressed. "Strange how you demand that I not leave my husband's chamber one night, then forbidden me access to his tent on another night." 

The usual insults sat on his curled lip, just waiting to spill over her. It satisfied her to watch Nie Han swallow those insults when Nie Mingjue called for him to let her in already. 

Jin Guangyao slipped into the tent and found Nie Mingjue sat on his bedroll. The fact that he was still dressed spoke to the idea that he had been awaiting her arrival. She took a seat on a dusty pillow conspicuously left across from the bedroll it usually called home. It was the humblest of all battlefield war councils. 

"What are you sorry for exactly?" Jin Guangyao demanded outright. 

Nie Mingjue grimaced and bowed his head a second time. "I should have never sent you off to Jin Guangshan. Not as I did anyway. I should have known better than to think my words alone could undo the malice of a man who would throw his own mourning child down the stairs of Koi Tower. That was arrogance. Worse yet, I sent you off knowing your secret. That was sheer recklessness."

Jin Guangyao stared at him in disbelief - then scoffed bitterly at her own secret expectations. "Oh! The great Chifeng-zun is so very regretful that he didn't do right by his self-assigned charge! That he indulged her foolish wish to do exactly as she had done under him under her own father! Because she so clearly needed protection! As if he didn't say it himself that all her weakness and delicate nature is feigned!" She glared at his disbelieving expression. "Of all things, that is what you apologize for?" 

For all his professed regret, Nie Mingjue had no qualms answering her with a heavy-browed glower and saber-sharp words. "You criticize my apology, Meng Yao? You wove together such pretty words about how necessary your betrayal was. How those deaths were all for the greater good of ending the war. Then you turn around and call it a waste of time because Jin Guangshan is still a repugnant snake. If you meant to apologize for anything, why not start with putting the esteem of a man who threw you down the stairs before those who already proved to care about you?" 

"Only if you apologize for being a hypocritical prick!" Jin Guangyao loosed the retort like an arrow meant to wound. "You made me your responsibility and then made an ass of yourself to keep me in check. Apologize for your own disrespect before reprimanding me for mine." 

Nie Mingjue took the accusation as he might have an arrow in real life - he did not flinch but did grimace in great discomfort. 

"With your memory, you recall that I owned up to my hypocrisy on our wedding night," He spoke with restraint. "But if this is what's required in order for us to move forward, fine. This sect leader, sworn brother, and husband apologizes to this Meng Yao for not thoroughly considering the reasons behind your actions beyond their offense to me. In the past several weeks, the infuriating nature of your particular circumstances has become clearer to me. I see how you were driven down an unrighteous path. This is why I also apologize for sending you to Jin Guangshan; I see now that I exasperated matters by not exercising more caution as your superior - and as your friend, Meng Yao." 

Meng Yao. That name again and again. Jin Guangyao wondered if Nie Mingjue thought that Meng Yao had finally returned to him, the curse lifted when the vermillion mark washed away. 

"You say that," She observed skeptically. "But what proof do I have of your remorse. You said that you understood your hypocrisy on our wedding night, that's true, but that did not stop you from taking advantage of my 'infuriating' circumstances in the first place. Even if it was done unknowingly, you have enacted a great deal of hypocrisy on me since our marriage. You do not name any of those incidents in your apology, so how am I to believe that you understand my position?" He didn't understand. He only pitied her because she looked like pathetic little Meng Yao again, sat alone while his peers ridiculed him in a cave. 

Nie Mingjue lifted his head and squared his shoulders. "I will demonstrate my contrition then."

"Oh?" That he would try was not all that surprising. Nie Mingjue poured all his dexterity and skill into physical action. His wordsmithing worked best in regard to stirring speeches to his troops. His actions were bettered suit toward force and harm and retribution, so Jin Guangyao wondered what his idea of recompense would be. Cut his hair? Stab himself for her viewing pleasure? Offer a severed finger? Would he let her decide which digit?

"There must be some limitations," He warned, perhaps sensing a malevolent aura. "I will not withdraw the guards on your word alone that Jin Guangshan is now your enemy, as you will require their protection regardless. From what you have said, there are those besides Jin Guangshan who might seek to do you and our child harm." A strategic move that Jin Guangyao had to agree with, though she hoped that with time she would be allowed more privacy. If not that, then the removal of Nie Han and Nie Puyi, who radiated such malice that it stunk up the air and made her ill. Their dismissals alone would make a pleasing peace-offering. 

"And the tomb?" She asked - not for any hope that the threat would be withdrawn so easily, but rather to remind him of the blade he had pressed against her neck the past two months. If there was any hope that he would ever truly understand how he had taken advantage of her so ruthlessly, then he must be reminded constantly of the worst examples. 

"That - remains to be seen," Nie Mingjue answered stiffly. It was a perfectly noncommital response, suited for negotiations - but the hesitation gave away too much out-of-character anxiety on his part. Jin Guangyao observed his grimacing expression more closely, marveling at the vulnerability that softened his dark eyes. He pressed his lips into a thin line as if holding back a flood. 

He wants to withdraw the threat, she realized, horrified. How could he even consider such a thing when all she had done was dunk herself in a lake? 

The only thing that kept Jin Guangyao from berating Nie Mingjue was the fact that he refrained. It relieved her slightly that he might have developed some political acumen by proximity to her over so many years. At the very least, she suspected that he had developed enough to wait until he could consult others on the matter.

If he involved Nie Han or Nie Zhong in the matter, then Jin Guangyao gave up any hope that the threat would be withdrawn anytime in the next fifty years. If he involved someone else in order to avert such bias - Jin Guangyao wondered just who he trusted more than his senior-most advisors. 

The list was short and full of unlikely suspects. Just his little half-brother and his younger sworn-brother. 

Nie Huaisang, who ran to his side the day they returned from the Cloud Recesses - who plied a heartbroken Qin Su for information - who handed Nie Mingjue the needed evidence against her - who disappeared off to learn the guqin before Jin Guangyao could speak to him... 

And Lan Xichen, who would never forgive either Nie Mingjue or Jin Guangyao for the past year's sins. 

"I will send a letter to the Cloud Recesses," Nie Mingjue declared. The next breath was an eternity. "I will confess my arrogance and hypocrisy to Lan Xichen. I used him as an excuse throughout all of this, so it's only right that I face his judgment." 

That first rock that Ma Kai spoke of - it felt as if it dropped into Jin Guangyao's stomach. She sat across from Nie Mingjue's dour expression, doing her best to keep her own neutral, swallowing back bile and pleas at once. It felt as if a pit sat between them, covered by leaves and forest brush - a trap laid by a hunter. She was once again the hunted fox and Nie Mingjue's declaration was his bait. 

Nie Mingjue's actions would not make any sense on their own - he was a brute, not a monster. Lan Xichen would demand further explanation. He would seek the truth of his oldest friend's motivations and uncover Jin Guangyao's many misdeeds as a result. Nie Mingjue proposed to alienate them both from Lan Xichen as punishment for their sins against him and each other. The pain the very idea evoked spoke to its effectiveness.

Jin Guangyao wanted to protest the underhandedness of making such a suggestion as if it only affected him. Yet, if she denied this act of mutual contrition, she would be denying her own remorse and might renew Nie Mingjue's suspicions. 

It was too masterful a move. The tomb made sense - it was brutal and final and effective. This declaration rang out too sincerely. Nie Mingjue looked too sorry for himself under that tough soldier's facade to be basking in her suffering. But if he did not realize the implications that her truth had on her relationship with Lan Xichen - if he thought this information would only destroy his own relationship with their sworn brother - that would mean -

Jin Guangyao's jaw dropped. 

"Sloppy, self-flagellating ass!" The oaf blinked at her in dumb shock. As if she should be pleased! Subtle confirmation of her worst fears snapped something in her - likely her last nerve. "You left me alone with Lan Xichen, you left us alone with no guarantee that I wouldn't tell him exactly how you manipulated the circumstances to arrange our marriage? That you still treated me like a traitorous viper behind closed doors? You claim not to be a fool, but then you act so recklessly!" So reckless with Lan Xichen's kind regard - all for the sake of his own heavy heart! Did Nie Mingjue think nothing of their sworn brother's broken heart should he learn the worst of his closest friends?

Irritation hardened Nie Mingjue's features - a thick armor shielded him from her sharp words. He met her with blunt instruments in kind. "It's not as if the truth would have undone the plan. Even if you met all seven criteria for a husband to divorce a wife, that decision is mine alone." Madam Jin had thoroughly schooled Jin Guangyao in the limited ways a marriage could be ended - warned her gravely that in the cultivation world it was all up to her husband, unlike in the mediocre world where the state might intercede from time to time. Not even the Emperor of the mediocres could annul a great sect leader's marriage if that sect leader did not want to be rid of that wife. 

"Then what exactly did you think would happen when you left us alone that day?" Jin Guangyao demanded. He could have slipped away to the Gentian Cottage at any other time, but instead, he left Jin Guangyao and Lan Xichen alone. At first, it seemed like a test - then an inexplicable act of trust - later, a cruel ruse for her own undoing. But none of those impressions quite made sense on their own for such a tremendously stupid act. 

Nie Mingjue answered harshly, eyes flashing with familiar rage, "It was before I learned that you planned to kill me of all things. I thought that I owed you both the whole truth." 

"No," Jin Guangyao shot back - she refused such pretty words from him of all people. "You felt guilty and didn't care how much it would hurt Lan Xichen to alleviate that guilt! We cannot tell him all that has gone on. It would break his heart, he would never recover, he -" Would never forgive either of them. 

"True selfishness would be to go on concealing the truth," Nie Mingjue's tone brooked no further argument. "Are you at all sorry for your own misdeeds? Can you really live like this?" He challenged. 

"Perhaps we're all just sorry for ourselves..."

Disgust twisted her husband's features. It was strangely comforting in its familiarity. 

"I will send a letter to the Cloud Recesses," Nie Mingjue repeated forcefully. "I will confess all my wrongdoings to Lan Xichen and accept whatever rebuke he sees fit for my deception." 

"And my wrongdoings? What will you do if he asks questions? Not answer him and complete your transformation into a brick wall?" 

Nie Mingjue did a fair impression then, his thoughts becoming totally indiscernible behind dark eyes. "I will cover for as long as I can," He promised. "I owe you the favor." 

Much ado made about remorse, he still limited her options to suit his sensibilities. 

"Thank you," Her words were crisp. 

Despite his recent forays into subterfuge and manipulation, Nie Mingjue was not half the liar that Jin Guangyao was. Jin Zixuan would have seen through him an instant had he tried to explain away their scandalous fight, and then slashed him with Suihan as comeupance. Nie Mingjue would never convince Lan Xichen that there was nothing more to know about his sworn sibling's marriage than Nie Mingjue's own wrongdoings. 

Despite her secret hope for a good night's sleep, Jin Guangyao excused herself from her husband's tent and adjourned to her own for the evening. She tucked herself in and resisted the urge to scream into her pillow like a frustrated teenager. He thinks that he's being fair. That man's presumption would never cease to amaze or infuriate her. 

If Nie Mingjue told Lan Xichen of his wrongdoings, Jin Guangyao knew that he would soon expect her to follow suit. Nevermind the fact that he wouldn't be able to cover for her very long! Their alliance required a show of good faith. She needed Nie Mingjue to trust her again. If he didn't trust her - this fool would get them both killed. 

Lan Xichen's kind regard or Nie Mingjue's trust. 

In another life, Jin Guangyao had both - but not in this one. 

Chapter Text

In the grey hours of the morning, Jin Guangyao left her tent and took a sack from a wagon. She trod over to the campsite's edge, Nie Lingling and Ma Kun trudging after her. Keen eyes searched for a branch heavy with ripe fruit. Once found, she tugged Lingling's sleeve and pointed. The young guard mounted her saber and lifted herself within arm's reach of the red-brown jujube fruit. Below, Jin Guangyao held open the sack and caught each one Lingling plucked from the branch. 

When the branch was barren, Nie Lingling hopped off her saber and yawned for leave to go to bed. 

Jin Guangyao dismissed her, then started off in the direction of the village with Ma Kun. Of course, they ran into Nie Mingjue coming from the latrine. 

Many obvious questions flashed in his sleep-muddled eyes, bringing him into a new day's awareness. Why are you up so early? Where are you going? What's in the bag? He asked Jin Guangyao none of these questions, instead turning to Ma Kun and demanding that she get some shut-eye before they pack up camp. His cousin's formerly endless fountain of energy gave one last spurt - she shot across the campsite and bodily threw herself through the flaps of her brother's tent.

"GAH!"

Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue ignored Ma Chao's first Ma-Kun-induced yelp of the day. Jin Guangyao carried on down-shore, toward the village, Nie Mingjue at her side.

"Lingling helped me pick some jujube fruit for the journey," She explained without prompt. "I'm going to ask the villagers how much they want for the amount she picked. Come to think of it, I should also ask about all that fish Ma Kun caught." The young guard had been overzealous - their party could subsist off rice and mushroom water for an evening, they would move along in a few hours, but the village sat on old foundations. The villagers relied on the lake and the fruit trees for their survival.

Nie Mingjue nodded in agreement. "Come to think of it," He echoed. "I ought to turn around and drag her from bed - make her apologize." 

"You've become a fan of apologies lately," Jin Guangyao noted drily. Nie Mingjue merely grunted in reply. 

The lakeshore was so peaceful at this early hour - the morning dew softened everything, birdsong and dripping water drifted over the couple - Jin Guangyao sighed. Such a shame to ruin it.

"We'll have to issue a more formal apology to Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli once we arrive back at the Unclean Realm," She reminded him. They had been sidetracked by guilt yesterday and neglected the disaster they were fleeing from. The flames would soon be licking at their heels if they did not move quickly to douse the fire with sand. "We should also issue a more general apology to other guests for disrupting the festivities, and a statement on our departure as well - something sufficiently vague and incriminating against Jin Guangshan. All these things should accompany a formal announcement of my pregnancy. It might explain away the worst of the scandal as -" She took a bracing breath. "Mood swings."

Jin Guangyao caught Nie Mingjue's lip twisting into a grimace from the corner of her eye. "Is there any way to avoid that?" 

Apologies - spoken, written, or done - her husband had a clear preference. "It's not something we should avoid. We must do it, no matter how unpleasant. It looks better for us if our very public fight is seen as nothing beyond a hormonal squabble between newlyweds. What we need really to consider is timing. If the announcement is issued too closely to our apologies, we look like we are sidestepping responsibility. If we wait too long, then it ceases to do its job to repair our reputations." Jin Guangyao spoke authoritatively. 

"So we hit them with apologies immediately after we get back home, then the pregnancy announcement sometime in the following week or two before they have a chance to badmouth us too badly?" Nie Mingjue spoke thoughtfully. She thought the words rang with a certain appreciation for strategic thinking. "And your father?" He followed up, never one to ignore a great adversary's role in a coming battle. 

"We apologize for nothing. We do not even mention the argument in his study or the punch. But we lace the text of all the letters with the implication that Jin Guangshan gravely insulted us in some fashion." 

Nie Mingjue turned and raised an eyebrow at her. "You mean the truth?"

"Well - yes, the truth," Jin Guangyao hurriedly agreed, then picked up her pace. 

The village elder was a hunch-backed old woman too brittle and achy to sleep through the night. She was up at the early hour, sat on the porch of her little cottage, mending a net with blind eyes, fingers moved by a near-century of experience. She gladly accepted five silver taels on the behalf of her village and tested their veracity by biting down on the silver pieces with her last two good teeth. Though pleased to find the money was real, she sent them on their way with a milky stink-eye. 

On the way back, Jin Guangyao chuckled at how unabashedly miffed Nie Mingjue was by it. 

"You don't get to be that age by being too trusting," She chided him. 

"Did you grow up around women like that?" He asked, startling her - because it wasn't a jab. His tone was too genuinely curious.

Jin Guangyao conceded that it made a sad sense - Nie cultivators were hot-blooded and tended to die young in battle. And then apparently their spouses were buried with them...Most elderly people in the Unclean Realm were mediorces; wrinkled washerwomen and weary manservants beneath the notice of a young master or sect leader. They all either died or retired before they were half as ancient as that village elder. Qinghe Nie started issuing pensions after forty years of service, so most retired aged fifty to sixty.  

"No," Jin Guangyao answered honestly. "Mediocres rarely live as long as that woman. Whores less often. They make up for it by becoming cynical hags on the inside whilst they're still young and pretty." The oldest woman at the brothel was the cook, a former whore kept around after her looks faded thanks to her skilled hands. Even then, she still saw the occasional client, loyal regulars from her heyday - her hands were just that skilled. Truly, the worst woman Jin Guangyao ever met after the Madam herself, embittered by decades of her vocation. 

"Perhaps living so long isn't worth it to become like that," Nie Mingjue muttered - because only he could express muted anger at the reality of aging like it morally offended him. Of course, growing old in cultivation sects demonstrated a fundamental failure in one's training. Fortunately for her husband, with his strong golden core and battle skills, he'd be centuries-old before he looked like the village elder.

I will be an old crone and he will look exactly the same. The thought struck Jin Guangyao like a slap. Her golden core was weak, cultivated late in life. Worse yet, she hadn't trained in months beyond basic meditation. Who knew when she would be allowed to wield Hensheng again...Would Nie Mingjue ever allow it again - even if she proved her loyalty to their alliance? Would that be their last act of mutual contrition; her cultivation gone to waste and him married to a bitter hag like the village elder?

Jin Guangyao pulled a jujube fruit from the sack and sank her teeth into it. It gave her another moment to consider how best to broach the topic again. 

It wouldn't do to outright contest Nie Mingjue's idea a second time - she would only give him a greater reason to distrust her conviction. Lying awake last night, Jin Guangyao came to the conclusion that it was impossible that Nie Mingjue could truly be so eager to alienate himself from Lan Xichen. Her best recourse to prevent disaster was to convince Nie Mingjue that there was a better way to demonstrate his remorse.

The public letters were her best chance at that. Certain goals must still be met, of course...but there was also a slight chance that Jin Guangyao could balance her words on the knife's edge - let them both lose just enough face to appease each other without crippling themselves going forward. She'd alienate herself further from Jin Guangshan as to cement her new allegiance in Nie Mingjue's eyes and give Nie Mingjue an excuse to put aside this destructive idea of his to tell Lan Xichen the truth. Or part of it, though Jin Guangyao still could not fathom where Nie Mingjue would make the distinction between his truth and hers. She hoped never to find out. 

"We have three and a half days until we reach Qinghe," Jin Guangyao remarked idly enough. It was like the long creak of a slowly opening door. "We should use that time to draft the letters." 

"Consider it our first strike," She elaborated at Nie Mingjue's weary look. "You know well enough that a single move can decide a battle." 

That convinced him. He nodded, eyes focused on some distant goal; shoulders squared, he marched alongside her as if the battle lay just ahead, a bit beyond those bushes. Just as she contemplated asking to review his drafts, Nie Mingjue glanced her way and said, "You always carried on correspondence better than me." His intent nearly made Jin Guangyao stumble. "I would have to review it and run it past some others before it's sent out, but I'll leave the drafts to you." 

Jin Guangyao wasn't sure whether to smack him or kiss him for such a stupidly generous offer. It made sense, of course - she had an infinitely better understanding of what needed to be done than Nie Mingjue or any of his advisors - but to assign her that task expressed an uncomfortable degree of trust...Or rather, she supposed, it spoke to his guilt. 

A deep and worrisome sense of wrong settled over Jin Guangyao throughout the rest of the morning. They ate breakfast, packed up, and headed north - all the while, Jin Guangyao feared approaching Nie Mingjue again about the letters. She sat in her carriage with the paper and ink he had given her, unable to form a single character. Master Deng, who had bullied his way into her already overcrowded carriage, kept replacing her pen with jujube fruit - and she couldn't really argue. It was not as if she was using it for anything except as a chew toy. 

Jin Guangyao ate jujube fruit mindlessly all day and into the evening. 

Healthy snack, Master Deng repeated each time he replaced her pen with one. Good for anxiety.

That night, at the inn, Jin Guangyao went to Nie Mingjue's room for another war council with sparse notes on what needed to be said. Her husband glanced the pages over and passed them to Nie Zhong, who nodded agreeably after a moment's scrutiny.

She probed experimentally, "My pregnancy will explain my 'irrational jealousy', but we must not encourage any female suitors. Particularly since they might be agents of my father. You will have to sound ashamed of your actions during the procession so that they are sufficiently dissuaded." She waited for some protest about honor or how it was just a stupid flower. 

"If that's what's necessary to keep aggressive maidens out of our hair," Nie Mingjue conceded the point without a fight. 

Jin Guangyao went to bed that night sick with anxiety. She could not even leave the bed to entertain herself through her sleeplessness as usual with books and board games. How far would he let me go? she wondered fretfully. 

The next two days, Jin Guangyao lingered close to Nie Mingjue's side and shoved amendments to the letters under his nose for inspection. Mostly, she wrote the letters with the full intention that they would reflect her and Nie Mingjue's stated shared goals - but she also hid different ploys and tests within each new draft. Nothing that would risk her neck - but rebellious shoves against set boundaries. Boundaries that ought to exist, at least. Boundaries she'd yet to hit upon...Jin Guangyao watched Nie Mingjue and Nie Zhong closely, gauging just how closely they examined her work in turn.

She made the open apology letter sound particularly remorseful and shame-faced in a few drafts, worse and worse until she risked losing more face for Qinghe Nie rather than regaining it. Her husband only protested the parts which made Jin Guangyao out to be 'a wilting flower' and the rest of their retinue seem more culpable than they were. Nie Zhong had more sense - he protested the use of the word 'uncouth' to describe their sect leader in particular. Jin Guangyao's next draft was several times more neutral. 

Master Deng checked her meridians several times a day as Jin Guangyao worked on the drafts. At each stop, he plied her with calming tea and shoved more jujube fruit at her - she was beginning to regret picking them by the end of the third day. 

When her husband nodded approvingly at a draft which subtly implied that he let Jin Zixuan - a lesser warrior if a better archer - put him on his ass the day they fled Koi Tower, Jin Guangyao snatched the sack of fruit from Master Deng and hit him with it. She used all her drafts as kindling that evening, then finally wrote out the letters that had been sitting in her head the past three days. She was not at all surprised when Nie Mingjue approved these 'final drafts' in short order.

That last morning of their journey, Jin Guangyao sat in the carriage, arms wrapped around herself under a thick quilt. She hoped the fabric and the bumpy road hid how she trembled - she couldn't bear anymore pestering from Master Deng. 

Nie Mingjue was intent on atonement - like it was a war he meant to wage and win at all costs to himself. Jin Guangyao could not gamble on the wordplay of their letters - not when that would absolutely not change Nie Mingjue's mind. Nie Mingjue's guilt-ridden mind...It frightened Jin Guangyao to think just what he would say to Lan Xichen in that blunt manner of his. He'd bludgeon their sworn brother and himself to death with his words if she failed to intervene. 

The wagon train pulled through the great gates of the Unclean Realm, passing from dirt road to smooth stone in one rough thump. Jin Guangyao's stomach lurched. 

She slowly climbed from the carriage, shooing away Master Deng's helping hand. Taking deep breaths, her eyes combed the yard for her husband. Her gaze snagged on him and she crossed the yard in an instant as if pulled by a lure. He - and all his men - looked at Jin Guangyao in surprise when she wrapped both her hands around one of his. 

His lips parted questioningly. 

"Don't send a letter," Jin Guangyao blurted out. "Invite Er-ge here to tell him in person...We'll tell him about the baby first, to soften the blow."

Nie Mingjue's eyes narrowed - as if to say that's not the point - and began to pull away from her. Jin Guangyao held fast and whispered, "For him. Please, Da-ge." 

For the first time in almost four days, hesitation flickered across Nie Mingjue's face at her suggestion - before he assented like always. She allowed him to step away then, accompanied by his senior guards. Jin Guangyao watched them go - heart hammering in her chest, throat tight - thinking of what she had just suggested, of all things

What had come over her...what had come over him. 

Jin Guangyao turned back toward her carriage to collect her things - and found herself face to face with Qin Su, pale-faced and impatient. 

Chapter Text

Nie Lui, Nie Lingling, and Zhou Zhi posted themselves at the respective entryways to the Songbird Garden. They were not so far away that they couldn't overhear whatever conversations their charges were partaking in. Qin Su evidently did not care. 

"Three weeks!" She shrilled loud enough to startle birds from the brush. "Three weeks, not a word of explanation from you. Because I know that you know something is terribly wrong here, Guangyao! That you knew what would happen once you left!" 

Jin Guangyao cringed internally - steeled herself - and asked, "What happened after I left, Qin Su?" 

Qin Su flushed a furious shade of red - and burst into tears. "There was no accounting issue!" She cried out, hands grasping at air, helpless and frustrated as someone less talented with numbers would be in the face of a major accounting issue. "They couldn't explain why I had to stay - I wanted to leave and see my mother - and for two weeks they locked me in my chamber! They called it meditative seclusion! And you explained nothing."

Jin Guangyao stepped forward on instinct, wanting to wrap her arms around this girl and whisper any reassurance her mind could conjure up into her ear. Some pretty lie to soothe her nerves before she sent herself into a qi deviation. Qin Su jerked out of reach - eyes sharp, stabbing her with painful familiarity. Jin Guangyao retreated, showing her hands in a show of peace - then bowed her head to the noble girl's anger, donning the submissive posture like old armor. 

"This one did not know that Maiden Qin would be so mistreated in their absence," She intoned the words with real remorse. "This lady owes her companion much better and will seek immediate remediation for this offense. If Maiden Qin so wishes, this one will make arrangements for her return to Laoling." 

" 'Maiden Qin' this, 'Maiden Qin' that! Remediation is not an answer, A-Yao!"

Jin Guangyao dared to raise her head. Her former lover crouched in front of her - stared up into her eyes - beseeching and small and scared for weeks on end because of Jin Guangyao. Her lips moved without her meaning to, "A-Su, I -" 

She swallowed back that sudden bout of madness - shook her head free of such foolish thoughts. 

"Things have changed, A-Su," She assured her instead. "What happened...won't ever happen again. Many unfortunate events transpired at Koi Tower and as a result, I have renounced Lanling Jin in favor of my husband's sect. I will be devoting myself to Qinghe Nie from here on out." With a shuddering breath, she added, "I understand that this a drastic change of circumstances and your loyalties remain with your own sect. You did not agree to any of this, so I will release you from your service and send you home to Laoling if that is what you desire." 

Qin Su gaped at her - turned around and marched around the garden in circles, pale hands cradling her dumbstruck face. Eventually, she stopped in front of Jin Guangyao and shrilled in disbelief, "Your husband sics guards on us for months! He locks me up in a room for two weeks! Now you want to send me away to avoid explaining yourself?" Qin Su shook her head. "A heaven-made match, indeed!" 

Jin Guangyao grit her teeth against the accusation. It stung to be compared to Nie Mingjue even when Qin Su ought to be largely ignorant - like an arrow slipped through the slots in her armor. "Qin Su," She pleaded reasonably as she could manage. "This isn't cruelty. It's politics - it's necessary!" 

Qin Su flailed her arms angrily as if swiping the offending words from the air, away from her ears. "Why is it necessary to lie to me? How is that not cruel? To leave me fearful and confused - to leave me at the mercy of forces that I'm not allowed to understand - to deny me any real say in the matter of my involvement! How am I meant to decide if I want to stay or leave you when I do not know what is going on, A-Yao?!" 

Because if you know, you will definitely leave and you will definitely never come back. Qin Su would not just be saddened or disappointed by the truth - the truth would erase her from Jin Guangyao's world, leaving it a much smaller, colder place. Reality would contract, and every potentiality where she could have kept Qin Su close to some degree or another - could have counted her as a friend and supporter - could have been able to turn and speak to her and share genuine kind words - all those possibilities would disappear, annihilated by antipathy and distrust. 

"You can trust me," Jin Guangyao pleaded - begged - lied vilely. "Trust that I will handle everything. I always do, don't I?" The smile she put on ached. 

"Who are you protecting?" Qin Su demanded. She gripped Jin Guangyao's sleeves and stared intently into her eyes. Her dark eyes - sharp and horribly familiar one instant, softened the next into dark pools that reflected ominously. "Is it Sect Leader Nie? What does he have over you to turn you against your father and lie to me?" She whispered - begged

Jin Guangyao could lie, she realized. The circumstances looked horrible for Nie Mingjue, really - from Qin Su's perspective, he was nothing but a brute who only ever scorned Jin Guangyao as his sworn brother, only to marry her seemingly without real motive. Jin Guangyao could assign him any motive she pleased and would sooner be believed than her husband because she was the one who had been guarded like a prisoner in what was supposed to be her own sect and her companion had been treated like a hostage the past month in her absence. Jin Guangyao could lie so easily, paint Nie Mingjue as the only villain in these circumstances and omit all her own misdeeds and so keep Qin Su firmly on her side. 

Jin Guangyao could also tell the truth, she realized. She could tell Qin Su her truth - just as Nie Mingjue meant to tell Lan Xichen his truth and protect her. Jin Guangyao could tell Qin Su her truth and let all ties between them be severed by it. And so she would demonstrate her own contrition to Nie Mingjue and might be able to keep Lan Xichen in her world. 

But she could not stand for her world to grow small again. She could not stand for either one to disappear. 

She saw herself reflected in Qin Su's eyes - alone in the darkness - and hated it. 

"Qin Su," She whispered back. "I want to keep you by my side still." 

Her friend - her lover - her supposed confidant in Qinghe - her lips thinned unhappily. 

"Who are you protecting, A-Yao?" Qin Su repeated. "Because it is certainly not me." She stepped away from Jin Guangyao - turned away from her and paced off to the western garden entryway as if contemplating leaving without an answer - likely not expecting one. "You think so little of me," She wept into her hands. "You saved my life. I loved you - I still love you. I loved you even when it would have been safer and easier for me not to. I risked disownment to be with you twice now. And you think so little of me...that I wouldn't even try to understand what you're going through right now, that I would flee at the first sign of trouble." 

She looked over her shoulder at Jin Guangyao, eyes red and hurt - then strode resolutely toward the western exit. "I'm going back into 'meditative seclusion'. I'll leave once I achieve a moment of clarity. Please, do not hesitate to contribute to this endeavor, My Lady." 

Qin Su left without another word - without another glance - taking Jin Gunagyao's breath with her. She crumpled onto the stairs of the garden pavilion like discarded robes. Her limbs felt like lead - her chest squeezed - she fought for breath but could only wheeze outward, wet and painful. The guards came running from the three entryways, converging on her at once.

Zhou Zhi carried her off to Master Deng. 

The physician stuck Jin Guangyao with needles first off, bringing her ragged breath under control and easing her distressed heart. Still, she wept. So the physician next shoved a pill into her mouth and washed it down with a bitter concoction from his stores. Her already dead limbs weighed her down in the cot - the pills sank her mind into blissful blackness. 

Jin Guangyao woke in her chambers sometime later. Nie Luan and Zhou Zhi sat at her bedside - beside each other, rather than flanking the bed. 

"How long?" She asked, parched. 

Nie Luan handed her a cup of water and answered, "Only one day, My Lady." 

Jin Guangyao drank greedily, but could not be relieved. "What has happened since I've been asleep?" If things were really as Nie Mingjue made them seem, she should be allowed an answer to such a simple question. No matter how capable he or his guards had thought her in regard to subterfuge - she was not a demon who could wreak havoc with only a word. If they had one grain of trust invested in her now, the guards would answer her question.

Zhou Zhi answered readily as his wife refilled the cup. "Sect Leader Nie sent a letter to Sect Leader Lan, asking that he visit the Unclean Realm tomorrow." He looked uncomfortable - perhaps reacting to his charge's discomfort - and, upon sharing a significant look with his wife, elaborated, "Sect Leader Lan replied back immediately. He said that tomorrow is not possible. Sect Leader Nie has just sent out another letter asking about the day after tomorrow." 

Jin Guangyao nearly rolled over and screamed into her pillow in frustration - such questions might be okay between old friends like her sworn brothers but would sound incredibly discourteous to anyone else who came across the correspondence. Worse yet, the pestering requests would raise the hairs on Lan Xichen's neck. He would come to them uneasy and on guard and altogether in the worst position to hear what Nie Mingjue had to say. Something Jin Guangyao had yet to discuss with him in real detail.

Suddenly, a bell rang out. Jin Guangyao looked up and found a single bronze bell hanging from her bed's canopy. It rang out without a touch or breeze, vibrating with anxious spiritual energy. Just a moment later, Master Deng arrived with a tray of tools and an assistant in tow, answering the question of the bell's purpose. 

"You linked this bell to my qi?" Jin Guangyao asked the physician, not at all liking the idea that she'd been bound to a bell in her sleep - like some pet with a fancy collar. 

"No, no, of course not!" Master Deng assured her. "This bell reacts to anxious energies in general and alerts its twin inside my office so that I might react quickly. I specially ordered them while we were in Lanling once I saw how bad your nerves were becoming. Thankfully, the bells arrived here just as we did." 

"So I must always carry it from now on?" 

"No," said Master Deng, far too gravely to be good news. "Because you will be staying in bed for the foreseeable future, My Lady." 

Jin Guangyao sat up abruptly - too quickly for her own good or her case, for she felt faint. Nie Luan steadied her, but the grips of a guard were no comfort. Punishment, that was Jin Guangyao's first instinct. She demanded to know why she was being punished this way. "There must be alternatives! Do you want to drive me insane?" 

Master Deng looked at her like she was a hysteric. All paternalistic pity. Jin Guangyao suddenly hated him. "Until such time as those bags under your eyes disappear, you will stay abed." He said as if chiding his daughter for not eating her steamed vegetables by forbidding her from playtime. He set a tray beside the bed - a pot of tea, a flask of bitter concoction, a bottle of pills, and incense sticks. He poured a cup of tea, drowning out her protests with the hot pour. 

Jin Guangyao ignored the offered cup, threw back the bedclothes, and made for the door. She shoved past the little assistant with ease and went to rip open the door - to see Nie Mingjue about important matters - to seize control of this mess and put the world right

"If you carry on like this, you and your child might very well die." 

Jin Guangyao gripped the door handle roughly. She and her child might very well die for many reasons. Especially if she did not act - did not leave this room and take action. The hinges whined as she pulled -

"This is not just some nonspecific fear, My Lady!" Master Deng shouted. "You are at risk of developing hypertension! Such a condition will damage your liver and kidneys, cause seizures - we might be forced to terminate the pregnancy to save your life should toxemia set in too early for safe delivery!"

The bronze bell rang furiously. Jin Guangyao whipped around and shouted, "Stop trying to scare me! Your solution is no solution at all!" 

"It is the only solution," said Master Deng. He marched over to her and slammed the door shut. "Bed rest until further notice. Daily walks in the garden and meditation are permitted exceptions in order to promote good blood circulation." 

Jin Guangyao let Master Deng administer his treatment, seething in quiet meditative breaths as she circulated her qi. She drank the calming tea. She swallowed the bitter medicine. She lit the incense herself and climbed into bed.

She glared Master Deng out the door - then the very moment he was gone, she asked Nie Luan to fetch Nie Mingjue. 

He came to her and they argued. It soothed her nerves better than tea or bitter medicine. 

"You can't send letter after letter, asking about the day after the day after tomorrow," Jin Guangyao scolded her husband. "The next letter, if he says that the proposed date is unsuitable, simply ask which day would work best. You must also not sound so urgent and alarming. You'll frighten him."

And Lan Xichen has enough to worry about right now. Jin Guangyao did not tell Nie Mingjue about Lan Xichen's troubles with Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian. He might intervene just for their sworn brother's sake. Nevermind if he found out the true innocence of the Wen prisoners by speaking with the Twin Jades. 

Nie Mingjue gruffly conceded the point, but then asked, "What if Xichen cannot visit in the near future? Then he will hear about the pregnancy from the public announcement. We have to move swiftly, you said it yourself." There was an alliance between them to solidify. Jin Guangshan was surely already planning his next move against Qinghe Nie and his insolent bastard. They could not afford to be locked in a standstill over this lingering issue of apologies.

"Er-Ge won't turn down our invitation if we must truly be persistent." Jin Guangyao assured Nie Mingjue - and warned herself. 

She thought about Qin Su, locked away in meditative seclusion. She thought of the handful of days left to her with both Qin Su and Lan Xichen in her world. The limited number of days she had to convince Nie Mingjue of her contrition. Because soon enough, Lan Xichen would be upon them. She would have to look him in the eye and make a choice... The very choice she'd already failed so miserably to make in the Songbird Garden. 

The bell chimed lightly as Nie Mingjue left the room and Master Deng arrived shortly to check her meridians. 

The next day, Lan Xichen's response arrived - and Nie Mingjue extended an open invitation - and Lan Xichen gave no direct reply, hedging around the issue - so another letter was sent to ask their sworn brother to visit as soon as possible - and the next reply asked for details on the nature of this visit that were very hesitantly given. Letters flew in and out of the Unclean Realm by sword despite Jin Guangyao's hopes to make it a succinct exchange. The bell chimed endlessly - incessant as if stirred by a coming storm.

Nie Mingjue came to Jin Guangyao each day, the bell chiming with his arrival and departure. He trudged in with papers, drafts of letters - invitations turned to entreaties of please come to the Unclean Realm. He asked for her input, which Jin Guangyao reluctantly gave - because what choice did she have since she still lacked any real equivalent to the act of remorse Nie Mingjue was attempting.

She feared what might happen when Lan Xichen arrived - if he arrived, her mind began to whisper traitorously - and the damned bell chimed at that, too. 

Nie Mingjue passed through her chambers like a shadow of himself. He carried off every new letter like a death warrant. Jin Guangyao watched him go, unsure what to hope for. 

A week passed. The formal apologies and official announcements were growing too tardy to do their work. Yet Lan Xichen still refused to visit the Unclean Realm, pleading that the rebuilding of the Cloud Recesses and other Gusu Lan sect matters required his close attention. 

A week passed. Qin Su remained in 'secluded meditation'. 

Nie Mingjue arrived in Jin Guangyao's chamber one morning with a terrible chime. He seated himself by her bed and gently warned her, "I plan to send out one last personal letter to Lan Huan. It will go out alongside the formal apologies for the events at Koi Tower. The pregnancy announcement will follow shortly afterward as we discussed." 

The vision blurred her tired eyes. Lan Xichen, all alone in the Cloud Recesses. His brother lost to the Burial Mounds. His sworn siblings lost to their own bitterness and betrayal. Lan Xichen, fearful and confused - left to the mercy of forces he was not allowed to fully understand - any say he might have in the matter, silenced by his most trusted companions. Lan Xichen, sequestered away from the whole world - from all worlds - including her own. 

He is not like Qin Su yet, Jin Guangyao thought, frantic. This damnable letter has not yet been sent. I just have to - 

The bell trembled terribly enough to fall from the canopy - she curled into herself - her husband hesitated to lay a hand on her shoulder but he did so. Jin Guangyao squeezed that hand, anchoring herself to the moment as her world shook apart.

"Qin Su," She called out. "Someone, please, send for Qin Su." 

Chapter Text

Qin Su crept hesitantly into the room, taking in the chaos with wide eyes. Jin Guangyao batted away Master Deng's damned tea - Master Deng sighed and brandished a needle instead - Jin Guangyao darted behind Nie Mingjue, flinging curses as she fled - Nie Mingjue tensed up, looking between his wife and physician, seemingly unsure who to yell at. Nie Luan and Zhou Zhi hugged the walls - Nie Luan held out an arm, bidding Qin Su to do the same.

Jin Guangyao darted an apprehensive look Qin Su's way. It was returned, possibly tenfold. 

She peered around her husband and snapped at the overbearing physician, "Qin Su is here now. You can leave."

"Maiden Qin is not a doctor, My Lady." That condescending tone! 

"And yet this doctor does not help matters at all," Jin Guangyao said wonderingly. "You only make everything worse. Leave."

"My Lady -"

"Leave," ordered Nie Mingjue, and Master Deng did not question that. Jin Guangyao ground her teeth, eyes stabbing into the physician's back as he slunk from the room. He left his tray of torture devices - surely an excuse to return in short order. "You two as well." Nie Mingjue then said to Nie Luan and Zhou Zhi. 

Jin Guangyao watched the guards disappear after Master Deng and for the first time felt as if she was losing their protection with their departure. She stiffened behind Nie Mingjue's back, the only barrier left between her and Qin Su - the only barrier left between truth and lies and different worlds. Jin Guangyao released her hold on her husband's dark green robes and forced herself to step out from behind her shield. 

Nie Mingjue made for the door then. Jin Guangyao gripped his sleeve again - bid him to stay and witness this. 

She plastered on a properly contrite and remorseful face, hiding her fear behind guilt - Qin Su regarded her skeptically. Then shifted that gaze toward Nie Mingjue, where it turned hateful. The familiarity of those sharp, dark eyes roiled Jin Guangyao's gut. The heat of bubbling fear nearly cracked her porcelain mask. 

Jin Guangyao sank to her knees into a penitent kowtow. If she was lucky, she need not look up again until Qin Su stormed from the chamber in anger - stormed out of Jin Guangyao's world once and for all. She need never see such hateful dark eyes directed her way by anyone other than Jin Guangshan. 

"Qin Su," Not Maiden Qin, nor A-Su. It tasted as bitter on her tongue as Master Deng's damned medicine. "This one has considered your grievances against her and seeks to demonstrate her true contrition. This one will finally explain herself to her dearest companion and allow you to pass judgment on her actions. This one will accept any punishment for her deception, including the severance of ties...as friends and former lovers." It was what she fully expected - what had to happen here, right before Nie Mingjue's eyes. 

Time passed - Master Deng's useless incense sticks burned - no more words left Jin Guangyao's lips. 

Time passed - the bronze bell rolled across the floor, ringing coldly. 

Time passed, and Qin Su spoke. 

"A-Yao," Not Madam Nie, nor Jin Guangyao. "A-Yao, please stop assuming things of me. Just explain yourself for once!" 

The plea struck hard, stinging like a slap. Jin Guangyao stared down at the cold floor, at manicured nails, vision blurring. Lies caught in her throat. Truths tangled her tongue. She could not speak - her greatest weapon was lost to her. 

So many times before, she had willed herself to speak against all fear or even common sense. She spoke and weaved her way through war and hardship, back up the stairs of Koi Tower that she'd been so ruthlessly thrown down when she spoke earnestly. Speaking for gain - it was simple, if not always easy. Yet now, the fear of loss overwhelmed Jin Guangyao. 

She thought of her mother - she thought of her father - she thought of her sworn brothers - she thought of Qin Su - she thought of a shrinking world. 

"It's my fault."

Jin Guangyao shot up. She and Qin Su stared at Nie Mingjue in equal surprise and different measures of horror. 

"Sect Leader Nie, you -" Qin Su still looked to Jin Guangyao for an explanation, now with concern welling in those dark eyes of hers. Jin Guangyao climbed to her feet, protesting. 

Nie Mingjue ignored her, the arrogant son of a bitch. "I said that it's my fault, Maiden Qin. Everything up to this point has been the result of my arrogance and hypocrisy." The familiar words incensed Jin Guangyao; she cursed him all over again, pleaded with him to shut up. Nie Mingjue carried on, speaking over her. "I sent Meng Yao off to Lanling Jin assuming that hard work and my regard alone would earn her everything she sought from Jin Guangshan. Because of me, she suffered again at the hands of her father. She was surrounded by resentment and felt compelled to carry out misdeeds to please a monster since I had sent her away and added onto already great expectations set for her. I then scorned her for the results of my own follies as both her friend and superior." 

Jin Guangyao beat her fists against his chest, tried to shove him back, declared that this was her confession, how dare he take it from her, how dare he say all this now-

"I became her sworn brother under false pretenses, seeking to shepherd her toward a righteous path without ever considering the reasons she followed the path that she did. At the same time, I still treated her as a threat to our sworn brother. So I doomed that endeavor to failure from the outset. I then married her and in doing so behaved hypocritically, as I took advantage of others' trust. The trust of the person who might very well trust me most in this world, in fact. Our sworn brother, Sect Leader Lan. I let him believe what suited my aims, that the sole reason I pursued the match was due to old hope for something more between me and Meng Yao...I did not inform Sect Leader Lan of my continued wish to correct Meng Yao, for fear he would interfere."

He was ruining everything. Again, he was ruining everything for her. He was ripping her away from both Lan Xichen and Qin Su a second time through his arrogant presumption of what is best. He was making her sound so pathetic - he was forcing her to confess to them both or else risk his mistrust - why? Why was he so intent on ruining everything for her? Jin Guangyao asked him and he did not answer. 

"In marrying my sworn sister, I repeated the arrogance that led our sworn brotherhood to failure. I continued to treat her as an enemy. I remained willfully ignorant of the reasons that she followed the path she did and disbelieved her intentions. Despite all that, I thought bringing her back to the Unclean Realm under my direct influence would be enough to right things. I drove her into a corner, and when she lashed out, I threatened her life. Once again, I behaved hypocritically. I became a tyrant to her like Jin Guangshan and Wen Ruohan. For that, I-" 

A slap cracked across Nie Mingjue's face, silencing him at last. 

The air hummed with the force of it. 

Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao stood in stunned silence. 

Qin Su cursed in an unladylike fashion and cradled her dainty hand. Her palm burned a blistering red to match the handprint across the Nie Sect Leader's cheek. 

Jin Guangyao sensed the wisps of spiritual energy radiating from the twin marks. It seemed that Qin Su had not simply languished in her confinement - she had cultivated a slightly higher degree of cultivation as well as fierce anger. Anger which she just set loose at once on the great Chifeng-zun. Her perfectly manicured nail had even caught his lip - she'd drawn blood. This was more than Wen Xu could have ever claimed. 

"That was deserved," Nie Mingjue conceded, bowing his head. A bewildering sight that was becoming too familiar and ever infuriating. 

"Yes! It is! It is the least of what you deserve!" Qin Su agreed heartily. "Sect Leader Nie, your arrogance knows no bounds! You stand here and apologize for it while ignoring A-Yao's protests? Threats and oppression abound in your behavior! Your apology and actions are ridden with contradictions and answer none of my questions! Questions you have no knowledge of to my understanding, yet you presume to answer? It seems to me that Sect Leader Nie has learned nothing from his mistakes and only seeks to assuage his own guilt with pretty words! Which, if I know anything of your past quarrels with A-Yao, is perhaps the greatest of your many hypocrisies!" 

Qin Su breathed heavily from the exertion of the blow and her rebuke. "This answers nothing..." She rounded on Jin Guangyao and said, "I want answers from you, A-Yao." 

Jin Guangyao stood beside Nie Mingjue, met Qin Su's eye, and answered the plea which so suddenly felt like a boon. 

"You already know my perspective on mine and Sect Leader Nie's fraught relationship after the war." Yet Jin Guangyao spoke the truth of the matter, perhaps for her audience's sake, perhaps for the simple pleasure of hearing it. "Nie Mingjue judged me when I felt he had no right to. He sought to control and chastise me when he was no longer my superior. I never felt equal to him as a sworn brother. He did not allow me to. When he married me, I was convinced that he saw the reveal of my gender as another great personal betrayal and he planned to punish me for it. I was frightened - and when he told me of his hypocrisy and his arrogance toward me continued, that fear transformed into terrible anger. I cultivated that anger for months...I ignored all the ways he was right to malign me. That willful ignorance honed my resentment to a knife's edge.

"Qin Su, my father did not simply offer my hand in marriage to my sworn brothers to save face. He expected me to manipulate my relationships with his fellow sect leaders in order to benefit Lanling Jin." At Qin Su's confused expression, Jin Guangyao quickly elaborated, "This manipulation would have gone much farther than the typical fare of arranged marriages if things had gone according to plan. My father does not simply seek alliances with the other great sects, Qin Su. That would require respect for the other sects. Jin Guangshan wants submission to his authority alone. And I meant to deliver him the submission of my sworn brother's beloved sects at any cost for the sake of my pride. I married Nie Mingjue and despite the fact that there were opportunities to influence Qinghe Nie more subtly, due to my anger I chose the most vicious and immediate solution. I wielded that knife against him."

She watched that longed for clarity well in Qin Su's dark eyes. Her dearest companion brought her injured palm to her mouth as if she felt ill. 

"Sect Leader Nie threatened my life, it is true." Jin Guangyao conceded. "But only after it came to light that I not only sought to assassinate him but also had conceived a child and manipulated our sworn brother toward that very end - his end. I took advantage of Sect Leader Lan's trust just as my husband did - just as he always accused me of doing. I validated Nie Mingjue's every fear out of pure spite. And so he put me under guard these past months in order to prevent further manipulation on my part. He withdrew all trust in me and I admit this was an appropriate reaction. Until very recently, there was no reason for him to trust me at all.

"The means and opportunity of betrayal vanished, so I was forced to be sensible again, to contemplate my forward course without destroying any obstacle in my way. Yet my motives had not yet shifted and who is to say what I would have done in the past few months had the golden opportunity shown itself to me? Sect Leader Nie was right not to trust me, for I would have sooner killed someone like me than let them lounge and eat osmanthus cakes in my home." 

Jin Guangyao silently acknowledged that it strangely tempered her anger toward her unwanted husband, his bewildering contradictions. She had always admired Nie Mingjue's brutality and efficiency, his ability to be frank and to quite literally cut straight to the heart of an issue. He settled matters with his saber and she envied that to this very day. Yet he did not take her head that night and dump her body in a half-finished tomb; he defied his nature. Perhaps due to some secret modicum of political intelligence. Perhaps due to that ill-hidden indulgent streak of his. Either explanation would please her greatly. Even as the enforced leisure rankled her, some secret, surprisingly girlish part of Jin Guangyao saw the mercy as leftover, misplaced affection.

"While at Koi Tower, circumstances changed drastically," Jin Guangyao repeated to Qin Su, more honestly this time. "My father insulted me - he insulted my mother and my child in one fell swoop. Nie Mingjue avenged that dishonor then and there. He made an enemy with one punch. I knew instantly that, just as I did, Jin Guangshan would ignore all subtler or more long-term avenues toward his goals. Nie Mingjue's death became the only desirable option. And in that same instant, I realized that Jin Guangshan would only endanger my life and my child's life going forward in the ruthless pursuit of his goals. I could not take the same risks I once did to reingratiate myself to that man. I became his enemy as well, aligning myself fully with Qinghe Nie, my child's sect." Her hand found the swell of life under her ribs, far more visible in her sleeping robes than it had been in her Madam Nie costume and her traveling clothes. 

"I say it again, Qin Su, I realize that none of this is what you consented to in becoming my handmaiden." Jin Guangyao spoke softly - slowly and steadily - beating back regret with every word. "Letting you leave after all this is not wise, but I trust you. I will do everything in my power so that you will be able to return to your mother at Laoling. You will never be a prisoner on my behalf again. That it happened at all - I will never finish apologizing for that." She bowed low all over again, sinking to her knees. 

Jin Guangyao hid her surprise when Nie Mingjue sank down beside her, turning her gaze back onto the cold floor tiles and Qin Su's delicate little slippers. 

"A heaven-made match," Qin Su sounded disbelieving. "You both are just so - messy!" 

Jin Guangyao bowed deeper, curling into herself as if bracing for the whip. 

"Maiden Qin -" Nie Mingjue tried to interject because of course he did. 

Maiden Qin bulled past the Nie Sect Leader's protest. Qin Su, she was relentless in her outrage. "Everything between you two has been nothing but a mess. I feel as if I'm walking through the aftermath of a war. This is worse than the battlefield of Langya even! And why? Because of pride? Did the two of you not learn from the downfall of Qishan Wen that you so devoted yourselves to? Did you both have to behave so drastically at every turn? Did either of you ever give the other the benefit of the doubt? If you two could never trust each other again after the Nightless City, why did either of you agree to become sworn brothers?" 

In the following silence, the oppressive tension made it clear that Qin Su sincerely expected an answer. 

There were many. Like blasted stubbornness, burning resentment, and foolish hope. 

Jin Guangyao coughed one answer out, shame-faced. "For Lan Xichen." 

"And yet you two tell all of this to me and not Sect Leader Lan? Pure selfishness!" 

"I meant to tell him my truth in the coming days," Nie Mingjue quickly confessed. "I truly mean to demonstrate my contrition for my misdeeds, Maiden Qin." 

"Excuse me, Sect Leader," Qin Su did not sound at all allayed by this revelation. It angered her like all the rest. "But your truth? Do you mean to say A-Yao does not intend to tell Sect Leader Lan the truth?"

Jin Guangyao really wanted to punch her husband again. Instead, she clenched her fists in her sleeves and accepted Qin Su's ire.

She sensed Nie Mingjue tense at her side, his growing irritation bearly contained by his defensive posturing. "It is only right that I demonstrate my contrition as soon as possible. I used Lan Xichen as an excuse for so many of my actions and he should know that. He will know nothing of Meng Yao's part until she is ready." 

"So you intend to step over her for the sake of your own guilt like you did earlier? You truly have learned nothing, Sect Leader. Neither of you has learned anything if this is how you choose to move forward. A-Yao, look at me," The command was abrupt if not harsh. Jin Guangyao obeyed with extreme reluctance and found Qin crouched before her a second time, begging at she meet her eye. Disappointment brimmed there like tears - Jin Guangyao fought herself not to look away. "I do not understand how either of you plans to move forward like this. Sect Leader Nie wanting to apologize for everything, you wanting to apologize for nothing, neither of you truly learning from your mistakes. This right here has been a mess. I can hardly follow what's gone on - except countless follies of pride, it seems. But I can tell you this much: if you both don't tell the truth to Lan Xichen, at the same time, there will be no hope for a future for any of us. Your sworn brother must know everything you just told me, or else it's just not fair to him." 

She reached out and squeezed Jin Guangyao's hand - squeezed the fear and anger from her, leaving nothing behind but grief. 

She watched Qin Su drift toward the door.

"Wait," Jin Guangyao croaked. "Please stay. Watch." 

Qin Su simply nodded and crossed the room. She seated herself at the low table by the window. 

Nie Mingjue helped Jin Guangyao to her feet. They joined her there with ink and paper.

Time passed - the incense sticks burned to ash and a spring breeze swept the aroma from the chamber. Jin Guangyao penned her confession twice over. Tears smeared the ink of the first draft. 

When the ink of the second letter dried, Jin Guangyao handed it to Qin Su to read, then to Nie Mingjue. He did not immediately accept it despite Qin Su's disapproving scowl. 

"The fact you wrote it," He stated gruffly. "That could be enough. You protected me several times already, I can do the same now." 

Jin Guangyao shook her head and shoved the letter his way, wanting to be rid of it as soon as possible. "No," She said. "All those times, I only sought to protect myself." Not Nie Mingjue, and certainly never Lan Xichen. Her lies were completely selfish. 

His truth - her truth - it was all inextricably connected. To know one without the other was incomplete and dishonest and defeated the very purpose of this exercise. There would be no moving forward if there was any lingering question of their damned contrition. If Jin Guangyao did not truly feel it yet, she would soon. This letter was her promise, soon to be sealed by the emblem of Qinghe Nie.

Qin Su watched alongside her as Nie Mingjue took the two letters away. 

She stayed for a heartbeat longer, then excused herself.

Jin Guangyao nodded in understanding and perhaps looked too downtrodden. 

"It's not that - I mean, I do need more time, but also," Qin Su stumbled out. "I have my own letter to write to the Cloud Recesses." 

Jin Guangyao blinked in surprise. 

"I'm not stupid," Qin Su huffed defensively and marched off to the door. "Nie Huaisang still owes me his own explanation." 

The door slammed shut behind her without a proper goodbye. Jin Guangyao was left alone - truly alone, no guards or husband in sight. She sat there, stewing in renewed anxiety, remembering the last time she had been left alone. Still, the bell did not chime until Master Deng crept back into the chamber like a fiend. 

Jin Guangyao flung the bell at his head and barred him from the chamber - there was no longer a lock on her door but she had strength enough to shove furniture in front of it. 

The next morning, Nie Lui and Ma Chao delivered all her meals, including Master Deng's vile teas, via the window. Lingling and Ma Kun clamored through with wood carving tools and games. Tao Minghao brought books. Nie Lin and Nie Zhong griped to her about the rising humidity and seasonal allergies but never asked that the window be closed. They each took turns watching her pace her nights away. From barricaded door to gaping window. 

Her world was reduced to a single room that dozens of petty distractions passed through, never quite fulfilling their goal. 

Day after day, neither Nie Mingjue nor Qin Su returned to Jin Guangyao's chamber. Day after day, she expected Lan Xichen to come storming into the Unclean Realm on a southron wind. None of them came - not one word came. 

A week following the apologies, Qinghe Nie formally announced their madam's pregnancy as planned. 

Four more days passed in silence before Zhou Zhi arrived with a letter in hand, wrinkled at the edges and damp. 

The missive read as concise and cordial. 

Gusu Lan extends its sincerest congratulations to Sect Leader Nie and Madam Nie on behalf of Sect Leader Lan who has recently entered secluded cultivation. 

Rest assured that Sect Leader Lan will be informed of this joyous news from his sworn siblings when he returns from seclusion. 

May the Heavens bless you with a healthy and robust heir to honor your clan.

She crumpled the letter - drew jagged breaths and squeezed her tired eyes shut. She sat by the open window, fanning humid air into her face to little avail. The sky over the mountains grew dark. The Unclean Realm glowed with low lantern light. Night fell and the walls closed in. 

Zhou Zhi helped Jin Guangyao move the furniture from her chamber door and saw her to another door several paces down the hall. Nie Han and Nie Puyi flanked it.

"Da-ge," She called when the guards stepped in her way. 

The silence stretched on until finally broken by a reprimand growled through the door. 

Jin Guangyao tip-toed into the chamber on bare feet. She crossed the cool floor over to the large canopy bed. It was as she remembered it from her days as a deputy. Surprisingly elegant and serene, carved from dark wood, curtained by pale chiffon, piled with pillows, and utterly lonesome. 

She hesitated the bearest instant at the bedside, peering through the sheer curtains, seeing her husband sat up in bed, returning her cautious gaze. Jin Guangyao pulled back the curtains and climbed over to him on her knees - until she loomed over him in the dim cavern of his bed. His dark eyes shone wetly, looking between her and the letter crushed in her hand. She smiled grimly at his blotchy face and tears. 

"You can't sleep either," She whispered. "Not knowing, that is."

What had been Xichen's reaction? Had he even read their letters? Would they ever know for certain, one way or the other?

Nie Mingjue sank back into his pillows and whispered, "It's driving me insane." 

Jin Guangyao laid down her head beside his. They stared up into the canopy, a blank canvas for their future. It reminded her of nights on far-off battlefields, nights spent staring at the roughspun fabric of tents, tracing tactical strategies against the faint blue outlines of stars. Her waking dreams of earning yet more of her superior's praise and recognition. 

Just like on those half-forgotten nights, between one exhale and the next, Jin Guangyao drifted off to oblivion. 

Chapter Text

Her husband's bed was objectively more comfortable than her own, but Jin Guangyao could bear to lounge in it no longer than Nie Mingjue could. Which is to say, she crawled out just as the sheets beside her began to cool and Nie Mingjue fastened his inner robes closed. He watched her patter across the chamber to the chests and drawers which had recently been moved from her chamber into his. She contemplated a pale yellow robe - he sighed as if it offended him. 

"Why make more work for the maids?" Nie Mingjue asked. "You'll do the same as you've done every day before; play qi and read my brother's novels." 

Jin Guangyao raised an eyebrow, folding the robe over one arm and reaching for a pale green inner robe with the other. "Since when do you care about the maids' workload?"

"Since Master Deng's been complaining that you aren't 'committed to your bed rest'."

Jin Guangyao almost appreciated the eye-rolling disgust that laced her husband's words. It mimicked her usual tone toward Master Deng's advice rather closely. "Choosing my clothes is about the extent of mental stimulation I get most mornings. I won't have it stolen away by that hen you call a physician." She waved one of two delicate springtime shawls at him as if seeking his opinion.

Nie Mingjue regarded it warily. "You're living Huaisang's dream right now and treat it like how he treats saber drills. I fear for Qinghe Nie if our child takes after your contrarian natures." 

"You should be so lucky if our child takes after their mother," said Jin Guangyao, breezing past him and over to the bed to lay out her outfit. "Idleness chafes. I spend these days wanting to crawl out of my skin because certainly, no one will let me do anything worthwhile in this one!" Her sleep robe slipped from her shoulders, leaving a silken puddle at her ankles. 

"Master Deng says you need to relax." Her husband grumbled, stuffing his arms into sleeves. 

"Sleep, board games, and romance novels do not relax me," Really, her little brother-in-law's novels only gave her ideas. Hiding a smirk, Jin Guangyao dropped the pale green robe back onto the bed and seated herself primly in the rumpled sheets beside it. Nie Mingjue glanced her way - but it was only a glance. "Doing something with myself would relax me." She hinted strongly. 

"Like?" Nie Mingjue asked, wrapping a leather belt about his waist. She had married a brick wall. 

"Something more gratifying than winning pocket money off her guards," She toyed with the sleeve of one of her robes, stroking the soft fabric, appreciating it, feeling it against the skin atop her thighs. 

Her husband stared blankly at her, now fully dressed - a beat - and he threw up his hands. "Like?

She dropped the sleeve, sighing when on the inside she was screaming. Like fucking. If I have to stay in bed, I'd rather be fucking than sleeping. It would at the very least break up the monotony of the past weeks since they arrived back at the Unclean Realm. Honestly, some uncouth part of her that sounded a lot like Sisi complained, what was the use of a handsome, living husband you were on half-way decent terms with if those terms didn't include the occasional roll in the sheets? The past few days that Jin Guangyao had been settling in her husband's chamber had been particularly frustrating in that regard, as before sex was not really an option so she could easily put it out of mind. Now, she first stirred awake each morning to the laughable sensation of Nie Mingjue trying to disentangle from his pregnant wife without accidentally stabbing her backside with his 'saber'. It aroused a feral instinct in her, one eager to bare teeth and claw and tussle - one eager to burn off weeks of excess energy and volatile emotions - one not unlike the urge to spar. Another thing she was now forbidden. Nie Mingjue still forbid her so many things...

She half-heartedly reasoned with herself that sex was hardly the solution to her painstaking boredom. It was an hour's distraction at most, maybe two non-concurrent bouts if she managed to pull Nie Mingjue away from his office. But he was surely busier than ever with paperwork since her dismissal and their cause wouldn't be helped by him falling behind. 

Jin Guangyao stood and threw on the robe in her hands. "Like some of that never-ending paperwork of yours! Surely I can't bring about the downfall of Qinghe Nie through - bread donations and manure sales!" It was the most ridiculous thing that came to mind - a battle she never planned to win. Nie Mingjue had plenty enough time to confer with his brother - if Nie Huaisang was actually as capable as she had begun to suspect, then Jin Guangyao doubted that she would hold the Qinghe Nie seal anytime soon. She turned away from Nie Mingjue and worked to fasten her robe. 

"Bread donations and manure sales would gratify you?"

Jin Guangyao nearly tore the strings between her fingers. She remained turned away and answered, properly miffed, "That's just how maddening this whole bed rest ordeal is." 

She fully expected Nie Mingjue to parrot Master Deng's advice - to grumble that she was more resourceful than to ever grow bored - to scoff at the idea that she of all people wouldn't find a way to make manure into a weapon. Instead, her husband surprised her and said, "I'll speak to Aibing and my aunts." 

Jin Guangyao looked over her shoulder - chanced it really, made overly cautious by Nie Mingjue's words. She tamped down on any hope his words might have stirred in her and narrowed her eyes suspiciously at him. "About?" She asked. 

Nie Mingjue narrowed his gaze right back at her. "You've long neglected your charitable duties as Madam Nie," He said accusingly. "You left it all to Nie Runhua and Nie Ruilin."

"They are more well-versed in the needs of Qinghe's poorest citizens than I." Jin Guangyao felt the need to defend herself, though she suspected the needs of Qinghe's poor were much the same as those of Yunmeng.

Jin Guangyao had never been a street urchin or gone hungry - the closest had been during her travels following her first visit to Lanling, after her small savings ran out.  But she had found work soon enough as a bookkeeper so that was one misfortunate she'd avoided. She had known many unfortunate young girls over the years, though. Girls who were sold to the brothel by traffickers through the backdoor if they survived the streets long enough to become somewhat distinguishable from the boys who were sold off to estate farmers in the countryside or mines in the mountains. They were all skeletons to start with- albeit, skeletons with 'good bones' as the Madam put it - lacking in many practical skills. They knew how to scavenge, of course. Had charm aplenty if they survived as long as they did. Guile was also required. Some even knew how to fish with their hands and dry straw for sale. But who knew how to cook when there was no food? Who knew how to sew without clothes? How to read characters when the only things worth reading were the faces of strangers, deciphering who would help and who would harm? 

The brothel added the price of such practical lessons - in addition to tutelage in finer arts and general 'upkeep' - onto the price paid for the girl at the backdoor. That total investment became the ransom that every whore must repay before being set free to use her skills as she pleased. If the girls had such skills before they entered the brothel - well, they might never have entered the brothel at all, having instead found respectable apprenticeships before the traffickers came around their dank little alleyway. Though that was an optimistic thought...

Jin Guangyao had not concerned herself with the charitable work usually left in the hands of a clan madam during her first five months of marriage. She'd been busy plotting her husband's murder and haggling with swindling carpenters. So, of course, she left that work to the aunts who handled it fine the past decade. 

"My aunts won't live forever," Nie Mingjue said grimly. "Meanwhile, you plan to live a long time still. Maybe will become immortal just to spite the world. So you should learn from them now. Though I don't doubt that you'll seize the reigns long before they're gone, just as you did with the civilian refugees during the war." He scoffed - yet sounded half-way wistful. 

Jin Guangyao felt a twinge of the usual annoyance - though not as bad as if he had tacked another maudlin 'Meng Yao' onto his reminiscence. However small that twinge - it called for her to stretch a sore muscle. "So you trust me with the welfare of Qinghe's citizens, but not with the manure sales?" She snarked. "Makes me curious just how important shit is to Qinghe Nie." 

"If you're so eager to be helpful, maybe I'll send you into hiding out on the plains to live in a yurt with the herdsmen until you give birth." Nie Mingjue threatened - but in the same way he threatened to burn all Huaisang's fans and never followed through. Then grumbled, "Would help solve our security problem. Your damned father would never think to look out there." 

Jin Guangyao tilted her head in thought and smiled viciously. "Still an improvement over 'bed rest'." 

He actually chuckled at that. Harried by persistent advice and orders and that damned bell - they were both sick to death of the physician at this point. 

Perhaps that was why Nie Mingjue gave in so easily to Jin Guangyao's request. Perhaps the sect leader had developed yet more sympathy for his wife. Perhaps he would be amenable to her perspective on other matters. 

Clad only in her pale green robe, Jin Guangyao breezed over to where Nie Mingjue sat, securing his boots and gauntlets. He peered up at her - not through his eyelashes - rather, his eyes were cast in shadow by his heavy brow. "You won't be able to arrange anything until tomorrow at the earliest," She remarked, fiddling with the ties at her waist. Her husband's dark eyes traced over her fingers - up her green sleeve - over her shoulder and across her collarbone. At last, his gaze met hers. 

Her fingers stilled. I don't understand you at all those dark eyes said. 

She crossed her arms and refused to blush - instead focused on cursing Nie Mingjue for picking up the hint after her clothes were on. Shouldn't a brute like him be more eager to rut around in the mornings? Any time really? His father married two women - had only Huaisang inherited an appreciation for carnal pastimes? Did Mingjue channel such things into Baxia? How unfair of her husband when he had taken Hensheng from her months ago!

Nie Mingjue cleared his throat and stood up. Not looking at her, he asked, "Don't you have Maiden Qin to - keep you company like that?" 

Jin Guangyao stared at him, aghast. "Don't be ridiculous. What if the guards or servants found out? The whole cultivation world would know in a week: you would be a cuckolded disgrace to your sect, Qin Su would be disowned and socially ruined, and I will still be a crossdressing whoreson. Don't even think of granting permission for such a disastrous idea. There's a reason Qin Su and I haven't touched each other beyond a few kisses since we entered the Unclean Realm," She shook her head in disbelief at her husband's foolishness.

"So when you said 'former lover', you mean to say that things ended more recently?" Nie Mingjue's brow furrowed in confusion. 

"Not so recently anymore," Jin Guangyao admitted. "We ended things right before the trip to the Cloud Recesses. Are you really not angry?"

Nie Mingjue shook his head. "No, just surprised. I never expected you and that girl...But it makes sense in hindsight." That said, her husband collected Baxia and headed toward the chamber door. "If you truly think it's too dangerous, so be it. But I won't interfere if you two renew your relationship. Especially if it keeps you from climbing the walls and stacking furniture. As for your work, she can resume duties alongside you. This afternoon.

The challenge issued, Nie Mingjue left the chamber and Jin Guangyao to arrange for her new duties. 

In the bear moments between his departure and her guards' arrival, she sat in the chair he'd vacated, unsure whether to be grateful or worried for her husband's increasingly unwise behavior.

The door creaked open and Master Deng stepped inside with his tray of torture devices. 

No one was happy when the bronze bell on his belt immediately jangled. 

Chapter Text

Jin Guangyao stormed into her husband's office, trailed by a half dozen pleading retainers, and the first thing she noticed is that the 'never-fucking-ending' pile had multiplied. She quickly noted this development - compartmentalized it - and focused on Nie Mingjue, who seemed to have smoke pouring out of his ears as he hunched over a report. He looked up at her and dared to look relieved before common sense washed over him. 

"What now?" He asked. 

Jin Guangyao marched over to his desk and answered, "I don't trust your aunts." 

Nie Mingjue's eyebrow twitched. "Do you trust anyone?" 

"The untrustworthy to be untrustworthy, but that's beside the point. Look at this." She unceremoniously dropped a woefully thin logbook onto her husband's desk. The poor old thing still groaned under the additional weight. Jin Guangyao glared at the 'never-fucking-ending' piles as Nie Mingjue flipped through the logbook. She was almost tempted to ask to be reassigned back to her old desk on the other side of the room so that she could handle piles #3 and #4 while Nie Mingjue tackled #2. The first pile was an eternal lost cause - a foe to be beaten back each day but never defeated, even with Meng Yao and Nie Mingjue's joint efforts. 

She shook her head - in exasperation and to rid herself of such longing. Nie Han had looked ready to lob off Jin Guangyao's head when he'd glimpsed her in the hall outside the sect leader's office. Behind her, he now berated his son and subordinates for letting their charge get so far. 

"Notice anything?"

"It all seems fairly consistent," said Nie Mingjue, flipping a page. He glanced between it and her, silently asking what razor blade he was meant to find tucked in the pages. 

"Exactly," said Jin Guangyao. "Your aunts have not adjusted any of the monthly food donations in the past three years. They are still allocating money to charity as if the war is still on. And before that, they did not adjust the budget or the proportion of food donations for over five years. Lastly, there is nothing in this logbook which accounts for clothing, medicine, or services rendered." 

The offending book snapped shut in her husband's hands. He leveled her with a hard gaze. "Do you accuse my aunts of fraud? Are these accounts not in line with the treasury reports?" 

"They are, Sect Leader," Qin Su piped up from the door, before flushing red under Nie Mingjue's gaze and bowing in the overpolite fashion of somebody who had slapped Chifeng-zun across the face and gotten away with it. Qin Su did not dare push her luck. 

Nie Mingjue looked between her and his wife, expectant. 

"Negligence," said Jin Guangyao. "Perhaps not maliciously so. They seemed confused at my confusion upon seeing this log, saying that they believed all the numbers were in order. But neglect is neglect. I request leave to visit the city and see the extent of it myself so that I can adjust things accordingly." 

Nie Han let out a strangled sound - and about expired then and there when Nie Mingjue agreed. There was no arguing with their sect leader; Nie Mingjue shouted the whole lot of them out of the room, letting out a veritable howl when a disciple passed through the door with another armful of papers right after them. 

Within the week, Jin Guangyao donned a disciple uniform and accompanied Nie Ruilin into the city, along with half her guards and the usual junior disciples responsible for monthly donation deliveries. A single cart carried the bulk of it. A dozen heavy bags of dry rice - to be prepared by monks at the city's main temple throughout the following month. Dried meat preserves - that would either go to the first few fortunate unfortunates to arrive or would be divided into unsatisfying morsels for many more people. Pots of steaming congee - to be distributed by the Nie clan in a very public fashion. 

Jin Guangyao spent that morning ladling meager portions of congee into chipped bowls that the poor brought themselves to the city's main square outside the Sanxing Temple. Despite the bare spoonfuls she delivered, each man, woman, and child treated her graciously, never daring to complain. They did not know that she was Madam Nie, just that she was with the sect that fed them that day. They saved the skirt kissing for the familiar Nie Ruilin, who dismissed the gesture, saying this was all duty. 

Jin Guangyao observed each face that stood across the steaming pot from her, awaiting their meal. She did not doubt their hunger - but she noticed that these folk were not marked by a hard life the way the poor of Yunmeng were. Their clothes were a bit threadbare, their faces a touch wane - but she spotted few cripples on the line, very few lone children, and fewer adults as opposed to the elderly. She watched many leave the line and immediately walk away as if they had someplace to go and eat in peace when a homeless person seemed more likely to plop down immediately on the temple steps to gobble down their portion and then hang around for a slim chance of leftovers. 

She hazarded to ask a few people about their situations, feigning true concern for how they found themselves in such dire straits and in need of charity. The elderly were often retired from their trades or servant positions, unable to work due to bad eyes and shaking hands - their pensions were meager or nonexistent, and they did not have any (living) children to care for them. The few adults were mostly widowed mothers of many children - they could not feed so many mouths on a washerwoman's wages alone. Some adults were men crippled from the war, their lives as cultivators cut short by Wen blades - having been disciples since youth, most had a hard time making their way on their family's generational trades even with two arms and two legs. The children - well, they were the starving children of washerwomen and cripples, just waiting to be old enough to earn money on their family's behalf. One asked Jin Guangyao straight out if she could come back with them and scrub chamberpots for the Nie Sect. She was all of five years old and Jin Guangyao was sorely tempted to reward her initiative. Her portion was slightly less meager than the others. 

All these people were truly in need of assistance - but all also seemed to have lodgings somewhere in the area. And there were too few of them for a city as large as Qinghe. The idea that there would ever be leftovers at the end of a free meal for the poor was a fantasy! 

Yet at the end of the morning, Jin Guangyao stared at the bottom of the pot and saw enough for at least two more full ladles of congee. She looked around the square and saw no more people seeking food.

Nie Ruilin was not at all concerned. "That's typical, My Lady. There's always a bit leftover. Not enough to fuss over though." She nodded to a disciple, who took the unfinished pots around the back of the temple, trotting to the rhythm of routine. Jin Guangyao followed and watched in horror as a temple novice helped the disciple slop the temple pigs. 

She returned to Nie Ruilin, eyeing her warily, and was astonished to see no malice in the woman's eyes. She watched the older woman help carry bags of rice into the temple, speak genially with the monks, and realized that Nie Ruilin was not lazy - just naive. 

To leave right after the deliveries would be a waste, so Nie Ruilin steered the wagon into the city's most affluent neighborhood, not too far from the Sanxing Temple. They soon entered the manor of the city's most powerful merchant, a secondary honor to being the husband of Nie Riluo. The lady of the house and her many daughters hosted a humble lunch that was fabulous compared to the fare they just finished serving. Nie Runhua soon arrived from her own private manor elsewhere in the city, bringing along her three small children. The toddler boys climbed all over the Ma Twins, while their elder sister systematically pestered every senior disciple in the room about entering her mother's sect a whole year early at just eight years old. Again, Jin Guangyao was tempted to reward a little girl's ambition, but she didn't want to piss off Nie Runhua when there was a sensitive topic to broach still. 

"Aunt Runhua, Aunt Riluo," She spoke softly, imbuing her tone with curiosity. "You two have both chosen to live in the city with your husbands rather than with the sect. This one has never been able to spend much time in Qinghe despite my dearest wishes. Could you please share some of your insights into the city and its people? This one believes it would only help her to assist you in your charitable duties." 

The sisters shared a too familiar, furrow-browed look. 

"It's a beautiful, orderly place. The city's mediocre gentry and imperial officials do well in its administration in conjunction with our clan," said Runhua. Her husband was one such mediocre official to Jin Guangyao's knowledge. 

"More cultured than the other great sects give us credit," said Riluo with barely contained ire. Her home was tastefully decorated and spoke to a high social class. "I patronize several prominent music halls, theaters, and artisans. Madam Nie will be most impressed with our autumn festivals. If you would like, I could introduce you to Madams Li and Mu who help plan the festivities."  

Jin Guangyao asked about the different neighborhoods - the woman mostly spoke of commercial districts and the city center, and their strategic relevance to the city and the Nie clan. Jin Guangyao dared to ask about 'rough' areas that required their attention, and the women could only answer for the cells under the justice building where criminals were held before their sentencing - usually fiery branding of their crime followed by public humiliation, heavy fines, or death. As for where criminals lived between offenses...the women supposed it had to be the East Bend. Nie Runhua claimed that the neighborhood had been raided by city guards thrice a year for as long as she had lived in the city. Usually in search of wanted criminals, but sometimes to snuff out minor gang wars or to shake down the pickpocket rings for a noble's stolen purse. 

She heard no pity in the aunts' tones, so Jin Guangyao did not press her line of questioning. She doubted the women knew much more anyways about the city they had called home for twenty years. Tall and strong Nie cultivators under their rich finery, the aunts were born and bred nobles. Nie Ruilin was no different though she dressed in the tough leather and bronze of a disciple. 

It had become clear to Jin Guangyao that Qinghe Nie was not above raising certain clutches of its children as marriage pawns outside the cultivation world. Interacting with Nie Ruofei's sisters, Jin Guangyao deduced that the whole lot had been raised to marry strategically. Nie Riluo to a wealthy mediocre merchant; Nie Runhua to an influential Qinghe city official. Meanwhile, their eldest sister Nie Ruofei wed their cousin, a great sect leader. Nie Ruilin, who still resided at the Unclean Realm, had taken another powerful Nie cultivator as her cultivation partner, essentially consolidating her wife's power with that of her own branch. Perhaps it really was a love match, as so many cut-sleeve cultivation partnerships were, but the fact that it was an advantageous marriage and Ruilin had plenty of heirs in her nieces and nephews certainly did not hurt anything. 

Suffice to say, the Nie Aunts were politically short-sighted like their nephew, unthinking of anything that did not explicitly threaten the Nie clan. They attended their most obvious duties unfailingly and seemed to pride themselves in what help they did provide. But they did not think of the sources of squalor and hardship in Qinghe. In fact, it appeared to Jin Guangyao that the women did not at all correlate the criminal East Bend with the unfortunate citizens they were tasked with assisting each month. They did not see how bad luck could take any of those thankful citizens at the Sanxing Temple and put them in a cell under the justice building by next month's donation. 

Jin Guangyao ventured away to the privy, escorted by Nie Luan and Ma Kun despite Nie Riluo's injured comments on the safety of her household. Jin Guangyao walked right past the privy and proceeded through a backdoor that opened onto a narrow alley. As expected, dogs and children dug through the household refuse. At the sight of her, most fled - all except one who sat against the wall instead, trying to make himself smaller and unnoticed between the fly-infested barrels. 

"Young man," She called. The child pretended he was invisible a moment longer - then slunk forward cautiously like a smart kid ought to in the face of a stranger they had no choice but to obey. Jin Guangyao wore Nie disciple robes, after all. His eyes sparkled when she pulled out a treat from Nie Riluo's tea service and offered it to him. "You look hungry. It's lunchtime, you know." 

The kid wasn't that smart - he gobbled down the stranger's treat far too eagerly, never asking what it would cost. Jin Guangyao did not frown, only smiled benevolently. 

"You are not a servant boy, are you?" The boy shook his head. "Do you live nearby?" 

He had the good sense to hesitate then, looking between this strange disciple questioning a nobody like him and the two cultivators standing behind her. Jin Guangyao smiled down at him, beatific and harmless, patient for his answer - for his words - eager to listen to him. Children liked to be listened to. 

"No, Senior. This one lives on the Hook in the river." He said it so shamefully.

"Across the river from the East Bend?" Jin Guangyao guessed. 

The little boy's downcast eyes lit up with offense. "No!" He burst out, then fizzled. "I mean - no, Senior, not across from that place. But...closeby, yes." 

"Ah, such a long way for such a young child to journey for food. A hard worker, I see," Jin Guangyao patted his head, soothing his nerves. She really had no idea how far away the Hook or the East Bend was from the affluent manors at the city center. Perhaps near the city walls...The boy leaned into her touch like a kitten. Jin Guangyao began to suspect he wasn't that much worse off than those who came to the Sanxing Temple. Too trusting to be a street kid for very long. 

"Come, come, tell this senior and her companions all about the city. You must know it well," Jin Guangyao said. For any poor child who lived near the East Bend but found his way into the manor of Sect Leader Nie's aunt surely knew the city better than that aunt. Jin Guangyao brought the child back to the tearoom and the tearoom to a deathly standstill as she seated the child beside her. It took some coaxing - some cakes and honeyed words and pointed questions - but eventually, Jin Guangyao found herself commiserating with the Nie Aunts over the boy's frightful reports on the conditions in the eastern quarter of the city. 

Jin Guangyao and Nie Ruilin returned to Qinghe mere days later, weeks ahead of schedule. They met Nie Riluo at the gate, who turned over custody of the boy named A-Shang. He greeted Senior Yao cheerily, showing off his second-hand robes and shoes, donations from Riluo's daughters who were so moved by his tale in the tearoom. Riluo's youngest had also given him an old hairpin shaped like a lotus blossom to keep his hair out of his face. The little boy picking through trash now looked like a proper little lady at Nie Riluo's side, not minding it at all. 

A-Shang hesitated a little as they neared the Hook - perhaps because someone he actually knew might recognize him in the lady's garb - perhaps because of some distant relation who'd have his hide for disappearing for days at a time - perhaps because his neighborhood made him uneasy on the best days. A-Shang climbed into Nie Aibing's arms when offered, ostensibly to protect his new shoes from the muddy streets. 

A wide, peculiar-shaped bend in the small river that wound through Qinghe, fed by the mountains, constituted what A-Shang called the Hook. It was not a completely destitute area according to Nie Runhua's report taken from the city records - taxes from the local marketplace were fair and crime was relatively low as compared to those neighborhoods right across the bridge. But the locals were mostly laborers by profession, a few shop-owners scattered among them. Living quarters were squat and crowded, and it smelled terrible. The whole river reeked to the heavens - the gods wept! 

Jin Guangyao looked over the rickety railing and saw how shallow the waters were for such an already narrow river. The waters could not adequately carry away or dilute the filth the locals emptied into it. So it had become a trickle of stagnant shit. Jin Guangyao looked upstream, to the western center of the city, and saw ornate towers and lush garden greenery peering over humble rooftops. She did not dare sigh for fear of tasting the foul air. 

They made their way to the Hook's marketplace. As the child had described, many beggars wandered there - of all ages, genders, and conditions - who lived in the alleys just off the market street and walked around almost naked, their clothes were so tattered. The beggars pleaded for money, desperate as fierce corpses and just as frightening to cultivators seeing such behavior in the living for the first time.

However, there was little reason for Nie Lui to flinch away so violently. The beggars steered clear of their cringing party, just as they did the shop stalls with their teenagers bearing clubs. There were no well-trained city guards on this end of town to defend shops against theft and harassment, so shopkeepers had younger kin defend their livelihoods. The youths were zealous in their work. 

Their party was severely out of place in this neighborhood - even the simplest disciple robes were too rich for the Hook, let alone the tickling jade earrings of Lady Riluo. It was up to them to approach the citizens of the Hook first. Jin Guangyao started by offering some of her candies to the youngest beggars. 

"Thank you, Sister!" The children sing-songed in unison. 

A-Shang hopped down from Nie Aibing's arms with a muddy splash and bounced over. "A-Yu, A-Yi!" He exclaimed. "This is my new friend, Senior Yao! She's a real-life cultivator!" 

One child's eyes sparkled like Koi Tower; the other regarded Jin Guangyao with proper suspicion, particularly her visible belly. 

"Cultivators aren't fat!" The beggar child declared as if she'd seen the great crack in Jin Guangyao's facade. 

Acting - years and years of acting - unflinching in the face of madmen and ridicule - this was the sole reason the kid survived that little blunder. Jin Guangyao smiled amusedly at the three children, cradling her bump. 

"It's a baby, silly child," She said, patting the child's head with a touch too much force - like she was about to softly hammer them feet-first into the muddy street 

Bribing the dirty street children with the opportunity to feel Madam Nie's bump did not sit well with Nie Ruilin, but it was tolerated in order to not ruin such a tender moment. The children pouted that the baby didn't move at all. Still, the honorable little urchins paid up accordingly with children's honest insight into the ongoings of the Hook. 

"No one is real mean around here except those big kids with the big sticks," said A-Yu when asked. "They say everybody is tryin' to steal when A-Yu and A-Yi only ever tried to steal the one t-oof!" A-Yi continued to show slightly more sense than her twin. 

"A-Yi and A-Yu sleep in the alley over there with Mama," said A-Yi when asked. Inspection revealed ramshackle huts and mats enough for dozens and dozens of people crammed into a narrow gap between buildings - hardly an alley. The why of the location was clear when Jin Guangyao felt the heat of kitchens on the exterior walls.

"Mama sits outside the Guanyin Temple down the road to get food and money during the day. A-Yi and A-Yu guard the 'house' for her." A-Yu explained when asked where Mama was.  

"Don't go there," said A-Yu when asked why their family didn't visit the Sanxing Temple. "Too far. Not enough food. Waste of time. Guards mean if you don't belong around the nice shops around there." The child diligently repeated the words of Mama. A sad little mantra. 

Jin Guangyao, Nie Ruilin, Nie Aibing, and the guards spoke with several dozen others in the neighborhood throughout that day. The children were not made out to be liars - though some wept when they learned what they had been missing out on at the Sanxing Temple each month. Only more layers of truth were added to the children's simplistic tale of poverty.

Jin Guangyao and Nie Ruilin resolved to review the charity budget with the Treasurer and to establish contact with the small Guanyin Temple in the area to start. For the time being, they distributed small amounts of money to the beggars. 

They left A-Shang to splash in the mud with his friends while they did so - but were summoned to the children's aide by a piercing scream. 

Nie Luan grabbed a man dragging poor A-Shang through the mud - pried his hands off the child - and flipped him into the street with a tremendous splash. 

A-Shang scrambled up, slathered in muck and snot across his whole front. Nie Aibing rushed over and hefted the child into his arms, uncaring of the filth. 

The man writhed in the puddle, cursing and begging and cradling his injured back. "Beg pardon, noble cultivators! Beg pardon! This lowly one is no deviant, I only meant to discipline my nephew!" 

Jin Guangyao caught Nie Luan's eye - a flash of understanding - the guard crossed her arms and loomed over the man. "Explain." 

The man jabbed a finger at the weeping child in Aibing's arms. "My nephew, My Lady! That child may appear to be a girl, but they are my nephew who ran away several days ago after I thrashed them for stealing! Now he appears again, dressed as if he has been taken in by a brothel to play toward the fantasies of true wretches! Of course, I sought to immediately drag the boy home and cleanse him such degeneracy before it besmirches the character of our whole family!" The beast in the mud looked at the child with such disdain and disgust. Under all that muck, it was clear that he meant to do more than cleanse the child.

"A-Shang," Jin Guangyao spoke softly, leaning over and stroking the child's cheek. She gave him a significant look. "Do you recognize this strange man?" 

A-Shang shook his head with such force that it sent his hairpin flying. Jin Guangyao caught the silver flash and tucked it back in the child's muddy hair. It served as a good distraction from Nie Luan and Zhou Zhi chasing a limping shit-stain out of sight. 

Nie Ruilin pulled a talisman from her person which, when plastered to the top of A-Shang's head and activated, gushed water like a fountain, leaving the child soggy but cleaner. A-Shang clung fiercely to Nie Aibing's neck all the way back to Lady Riluo's estate, forcing Jin Guangyao to walk behind her assistant to speak to the child. 

"Why did you run away, A-Shang?" The child stubbornly refused to answer at first. "Did you really steal from your uncle? Well, I bet her deserved it," She whispered the question conspiratorially. 

Shame-faced, A-Shang nodded. "But it was to buy a cultivation manual!" He burst out in the next breath, all red and sniffly from the day's trials and his impromptu bath. "Cultivators are all rich and powerful and amazing and I will be one, I promise! I told Uncle that I'd pay 'em back when that happens, but - but Uncle said I was stupid and the manual was fake! He burned it because it was only good for kindlin', he said! And - and then I ran away because he said my punishment wasn't done - and I vowed never to go back, but then you all were so nice and - and you gave me pretty clothes! And now they're ruined~!" 

Jin Guangyao patted A-Shang's soggy little head while Nie Aibing bounced him comfortingly the rest of the way back to the manor. They both swore solemn oaths to visit in a few days' time after distributing food from the Guanyin Temple in the Hook - and deliberately made no promises in regard to cultivation. Too much serendipity in one day was bad for a child's development. 

Their party returned to the Unclean Realm and were warned against reporting immediately to Nie Mingjue due to a bad temper. Rumor had it there was now a fifth 'never-fucking-ending' pile.

And so, Jin Guangyao and Nie Ruilin met the Treasurer and Qin Su in Ruilin's private office to discuss the day's observations. The Treasurer agreed to readjust the budget to its pre-war total by diverting some excess resources from various departments within the sect. Further increases would need to be signed off by Sect Leader Nie. With the Treasurer's leave, Jin Guangyao tasked Qin Su to review some basic household accounts to make room for this theoretical budget increase. Nie Ruilin began to draft missives to the granary, kitchens, and Guanyin Temple about the newly planned food donation to the Hook. 

Before she could be dismissed, Jin Guangyao spoke up. "A-Shang mentioned another terrible misfortune to Aibing and I. Someone sold him a fake cultivation manual." 

"That is unfortunate," Nie Ruilin agreed, eyes never leaving her desk. 

"It's a familiar plight to me," Jin Guangyao admitted quietly. "And I feel something should be done about it so that this does not carry on another generation. These fraudulent manuals are an offense toward cultivation. It is Qinghe Nie's duty to regulate this material and put a stop to these dishonest business practices which target the naive." 

At last, Nie Ruilin put aside her pen and met Jin Guangyao's eye. 

"These manuals are not our error to address, My Lady," She declared. "They are the misdeeds of the rogue cultivators who produce them for a quick profit. And if we should find such rogues, we will punish them. But as it stands we cannot waste resources reading through every so-called manual that appears in a shop stall. Besides, mediocres ought not to learn cultivation independently anyway. It would be dangerous even with a decent manual, for one. Rather, they should approach a sect to determine their worthiness of tutelage. Moreover, if mediocres somehow managed to independently form golden cores without qi deviating first, there would then be an influx of rogue cultivators to compete with. No sect should encourage more of those - those leaves in the breeze." A poor euphemism. Incomplete. 

Dead leaves...come to muck up your fancy water-stealing gardens, thought Jin Guangyao. 

"This lady understands her aunt's concerns," said Jin Guangyao - the picture of understanding and patience, permitting herself only the faintest air of disappointment. "Though I will continue to consider ways to remediate this great danger to the welfare of aspiring young cultivators like A-Shang, for now, I will focus on assisting my aunts' mission to aid the people of Qinghe." 

"You already helped immensely, My Lady," said Nie Ruilin, placatingly. "Perhaps your next step could be to recommend that A-Shang become a novice? Should he lack potential, he might also make a good, loyal servant after all this." 

"Yes, indeed, I feel A-Shang has great potential with Qinghe Nie." She would not spite that child's hopes by arguing further with Nie Ruilin this evening. "If Aunt Ruilin will support the recommendation, I will speak to Sect Leader Nie and the novice instructors tomorrow." 

Nie Ruilin agreed. Jin Guangyao and Qin Su excused themselves from the office - only to immediately sit down to work in Nie Mingjue's bed-chamber. The women and the guards sat in peaceable silence for a long while, finally at ease with each other. Together, they ignored Master Deng's persistent hammering on the bed-chamber door and his demands to assess the madam's health after such a dangerous excursion. 

"It's good work that you're doing, A-Yao," said Qin Su during a lull in the ruckus, overly tentative. "But you said Jin Guangshan is your enemy now. Is this really what you should be focusing on?"

"It's a distraction," Jin Guangyao readily agreed, never tearing her eyes away from the documents before her. "A much-needed one." 

Her father. Her husband. Her sworn-brother. The lot of them would drive her mad - but work well done would keep her sane. 

Chapter Text

Nie Mingjue jostled Jin Guangyao awake, climbing over her and out of bed with rough movements. She glared at his back before burying her face in a pillow. Her dear husband had disturbed the sheets, however, so sleep evaded her. They dressed with a few yawned and grumbled words between them. Breakfast arrived and they ate in silence - but where Jin Guangyao nibbled on sweet fruit, Nie Mingjue shoveled his congee down in a few spoonfuls and charged out of the room like the morning gong warned of an enemy attack. Jin Guangyao paid the slamming door little mind beyond a deserved eye roll - her husband's temper had been very poor for days, and frankly, she was glad to see him go.

Nie Luan and Nie Lingling escorted Jin Guangyao to Nie Ruilin's office. The women sat down to review reports sent over by Nie Runhua's husband on the Hook - or as it was referred to in the documents, City Districts 8 and 9. The documents included the names of city officials relevant to the area - tax collectors, mostly, and other small-time bureaucrats who dealt with the shop-owners. 

The city records themselves were only useful in so far as they revealed how neglected the neighborhood was. The local Guanyin Temple offered greater insight into the community, as the one monk living there had much to say in his response to Nie Ruilin's missive. He spoke of widespread illness every autumn - the very same illness which orphaned A-Shang and widowed his friends' mother - an illness caused by the miasma of the river and which reoccurred annually the past fifteen years. The people of the Hook were too weak and sickly to work as heavy laborers as was tradition. Too weak and sickly even to resort to crime as those on the East Bend did upriver. The monk included rough estimates of how many people he fed each month and treatments he administered to the sick in addition to his fervent prayers to the Goddess of Mercy. He concluded the letter with heartful thanks to Guanyin and Lady Ruilin both - for answering his prayers at long last.

A small Guanyin charm meant for Lady Ruilin accompanied the thanks. 

"We must include medicine in our donations if we are to make an impact," said Jin Guangyao, copying the monk's description of the illness and his more effective treatments onto two other papers. She would send the lists to Master Deng and the sect herbalists for review. Summer was still a few weeks off, so there was plenty of time to prepare poultices for distribution. 

Nie Ruilin nodded, handing her brother-in-law's reports to a disciple for copying and filing. "Though with our limited budget, we will have to cut back on food donations to accommodate the need."

Jin Guangyao did not contest that statement - though she had fundamental problems with the idea that Qinghe Nie truly lacked the funds to deliver both plenty of food and medicine to the Hook - but did make an idle suggestion to her aunt. "Perhaps your sisters could influence their husbands to donate privately to the cause."

Nie Ruilin furrowed her brow at her. "They pay taxes to the Nie sect and donate to the Sanxing Temple already," She replied, sounding annoyed that her nephew's wife would suggest that they ask mediocres for help. Taxes paid to the cultivation sect for military and spiritual protection were one thing - those were a service - an ancient contract sealed in blood between Nie butchers and Qinghe villagers. Expecting the political backing of distant mediocre relations in civic affairs - a filial matter - favor long ago bought and paid for with Nie dowries. Asking the in-laws for money? Nie Ruilin would sooner rip her own face off. 

Jin Guangyao smiled innocently, waving her hands as if to clear the air of misunderstanding. "Of course, of course! This one merely meant to suggest that her uncles might be interested in investing in the area." A healthy community - a healthy market - a hefty purse for the tax collectors. Her reasoning did not personally appeal to Nie Ruilin, but duty dictated that the woman at least inform her sisters and their husbands of such potential. 

On Jin Guangyao's way out of her office, Nie Ruilin tossed her the Guanyin charm. 

"He meant it for the Nie lady who took an interest in his people's plight," She answered Jin Guangyao's questioning gaze. 

Jin Guangyao cradled the plain wooden figurine in her hands along the way to the Songbird Garden. She could not help but smile upon the goddess' serene expression. Its humble quality reminded her of days long past, but she could not hate it or feel offended that perhaps Nie Ruilin thought such a quaint thing suited her. Embarrassingly enough, the little amulet filled Jin Guangyao with pride to be recognized for her efforts on the Hook. Even if the monk had the wrong Nie in his letter, at least Nie Ruilin did not reap all the credit...Jin Guangyao supposed that was more than she was used to. 

She and her guards arrived at the Songbird Garden to find Qin Su and her own guards waiting with a tray of hot lunch. 

The women settled down, greetings still terse and uncomfortable between them three weeks after the confessions and two weeks into their new duties. Qin Su smiled stiffly at Jin Guangyao as she poured her tea - Jin Guangyao complimented Qin Su's choice of blend. Qin Su mumbled under her that it was a suggestion from Nie Huaisang...Evidently, Jin Guangyao was not the only one eager to regain Qin Su's favor. 

Jin Guangyao had just asked after Qin Su's morning with the Treasurer when a chill ran down her spine in spite of the mid-day heat. Heads turned toward a coming commotion. A familiar figure stormed the Songbird Garden, saber drawn.

Nie Han - that was all Jin Guangyao registered before the clash of blades thundered through her and the garden air. Qin Su screamed - Jin Guangyao grabbed her hand and pulled the other woman into her arms - neither one of them ever tearing their eyes from Nie Han and Nie Luan, locked in a furious and quaking struggle on the pavilion steps.

The women backed away from the scene, hoping to flee - startling terribly when they collided with a breathing wall. Li Weiyi wrapped an arm around Jin Guangyao's shoulders - but it was not a vice. He wielded his saber but made no move toward Nie Luan's undefended back. Jin Guangyao gaped as Nie Lingling and Tao Minghao advanced on their superior as one and leveled their sabers at Nie Han's throat and femoral artery.

Nie Han did not relent, however - he pushed against Nie Luan as if daring the whole lot to strike him down in his path. His eyes and his saber glinted madly in the sun. 

"Senior Han," Nie Luan barked harshly, baring her teeth as if to tear through her superior's haze. "Senior Han, there was no signal! Stand down!" 

"I watched him collapse - that was signal enough!" It was a war cry. Nie Han swung back his saber to strike - the air whipped with the force of it - three other blades flashed in the light, cutting toward one man without fear of them. A clash of thunder preempted the clash of blades - seismic force tore through the walkway behind Nie Han, spraying the air with gravel and the packed earth beneath - a landslide of qi slammed into the pavilion, throwing the four cultivators apart in a storm of dust, shredded flowers, and crushed wood. 

Jin Guangyao's world flipped as the pavilion ceiling caved in - she could hardly gasp when thrown over Li Weiyi's shoulder likes sack of rice, too frightened and then shocked to draw breath the last few minutes. Her guard sprung from the collapsing pavilion at the last possible instant, cushioning their landing with bright azalea bushes.

The pavilion fell apart in a cloud of dust and debris - but shadows quickly emerged from the wreckage. 

Qin Su wept openly - Jin Guangyao clung mutely to the Guanyin in her hands - Li Weiyi jumped to his feet - Nie Lin and Zhou Zhi dropped down from the sky, between Li Weiyi and Nie Han, leveling sabers at the both of them. 

"ENOUGH!" Nie Lin bellowed out over the echoing destruction of the garden pavilion. "You will all stand down! That is a direct order!" 

Nie Han prowled over the broken beams and roof tiles, cutting away a path with the tip of his saber, undeterred. "Our orders were to kill -" 

"Mingjue still lives!" Nie Lin shouted, stepping in front of Nie Han. The dust-covered female guards completed the encirclement.

Nie Han visibly ground his teeth as his advance ground to a halt. His half-mad gaze stabbed at Jin Guangyao as Nie Lin spoke, "I will not save you a second time, old friend."

The old senior's eyes flashed over his comrade's face, disbelieving and angry - then burned into Jin Guangyao, full of blame and hatred. Nie Han sheathed his saber and it was no relief to her fears. He merely needed two hands to seize the reigns of control. "Take her to her chambers!" Nie Han ordered, and those who opposed him the moment before obeyed him at once. 

The guards separated Jin Guangyao and Qin Su, escorting them through separate exits of the garden. Nie Luan and Nie Lingling took Jin Guangyao to her original chamber. Down the hall, she spotted Nie Mingjue's door opening and closing in rapid succession - she caught mere glimpses of the chaos beyond the threshold before her own chamber door closed on her. 

Nie Luan posted herself by the door; Lingling stood by the windows. The silence weighed on Jin Guangyao's shoulders, forcing her to sit down on her bed. 

Her husband still lived - but came close enough to death that Nie Han came for her head. No alarm had sounded - meaning that there were no signs of an intruder - any assassins sent by Jin Guangshan besides herself, that is. That ruled out a violent attack, as Jin Guangyao had been well away from Nie Mingjue since breakfast. So...poison? She thought back to the lunch tray crushed under the pavilion roof - the tea that she and Qin Su had shared. 

Jin Guangyao turned to Nie Luan and said something alarming. "Please call a physician!"

The guard left at once and returned with someone besides Master Deng - which might have been a relief any other time except his absence spoke to his current preoccupation saving her husband's life. The physician jingled ominously as she approached the bed and Jin Guangyao recognized the damn bell at once. 

It was secured to the bed canopy with a red cord before she could protest. "Master Deng needs to closely monitor Sect Leader Nie and Madam Nie both. This bell's twin is in the Sect Leader's bed chamber and it will be immediately known if this string is severed and the bell removed." The junior physician explained, stern despite their adolescent acne. Probably Master Deng's own annoying progeny. 

Jin Guangyao spared the damned jingling bell a glare before launching into a speedy explanation of her fears. Xiao Deng checked Jin Guangyao's meridians and stated that Madam Nie should be more concerned about being poisoned by stress than by tea. Jin Guangyao was tempted to strike the youth for that smart-aleck remark but relief washed away her annoyance - only to be subsumed by disconcertion. If not poison, then what had harmed Mingjue so grievously as to threaten both their lives?

Xiao Deng had no answers - only the usual remedies prescribed by their master for anxiety. Nie Luan and Nie Lingling had been with Jin Guangyao all day and were thus just as ignorant as Jin Guangyao. They all left her eventually. Fresh guards arrived for their rotation, per usual, and said nothing to Jin Guangyao about her husband or the world beyond her chamber in general. She sat numbly on her bed, transported back to the first days of her confinement after Nie Mingjue showed her their tomb. 

Has it been completed? She wondered. Is it ready for us?

Jin Guangyao lit Master Deng's incense sticks. She clutched the Guanyin to her chest and bowed her head in prayer. Mother of Mercy, please. I'm innocent this time.

She prayed fervently as a monk on aching knees, head swimming with fear and heavy pine aroma. She prayed and made half-hearted plans for escape. She cursed her guards and their undeniable skills as cultivators. Cursed the Unclean Realm's thick, high walls. Cursed Qinghe's treacherous mountains and endless plains. Cursed herself for being reckless in her quest for vengeance on her new husband - for relinquishing Hensheng so easily when caught - for not running sooner after Nie Mingjue made his threat - for not telling her father - for not telling Lan Xichen. Cursed Fate for its cruelty, punishing her all over again for her old path just when she began on a new one. Cursed her own heart for letting her believe that things could be better between her and Nie Mingjue. 

Was this retribution for being so changeable? For her disloyalty to unworthy men? For her disloyalty to her mother's one wish? For her loyalty only ever to herself? But no - that was wrong! This was all so fucking unfair! Why her? Why now? Nie Mingjue in all his righteousness could let her live and try again, but not the Heavens? Jin Guangyao had fought her entire life to prove that she was deserving - that she deserved to live - what right did any man or god have to take her life from her? Her sworn brothers the only ones who ever dared to believe she was worth something. She had lost one and was soon to lose the other. 

She clutched that Guanyin between her hands and resolved to fight for her life to the last breath - and with that last breath, she'd take her own life before she'd let anyone else have it. Her child would not suffer the world's wrath against their mother - she'd make it quick for both their sakes. Then all three of them - mother, father, and child - could finally rest and leave the cultivation world to burn itself to the ground in their wake. 

Jin Guangyao clutched that Guanyin and prayed that she would not have to do such a thing. 

The incense burned away - the bell chimed away, stirred by the endless circulation of uneasy energies. Yet, Master Deng never came - so the bell chimed on and on into the evening. 

Nie Lui and Nie Puyi arrived to relieve Wang Qiao and Li Weiyi. It was a rainy night, so Nie Lui brought noodles for her dinner and osmanthus cakes for dessert. She was forbidden the spicy noodles that she preferred by Master Deng, but it hardly mattered. She couldn't eat one bite. 

Nie Lui edged toward the door. "Can this one get you something else to eat, Lady Guangyao?"

"How is Mingjue?" She bluntly asked, ignoring his question. 

The boy - because he was still a boy despite only being two years younger than her - swallowed whatever answer he might have given her at Nie Puyi's sharp look. The elder guard finished shutting the windows. First, he complains about the cold and keeps her brazier alight all night, now he shuts out cold mountain breezes in the midst of sticky humidity. It was warm in her chamber - yet, the hair at the back of her neck stood on end. 

All three of their heads snapped at the whine of door hinges. Nie Han stepped into Jin Guangyao's chamber - unarmed, Jin Guangyao noted, but that did not stop the bell from jangling violently above her head, as if yanked by her seizing her heart. 

She steeled herself - stood and saluted the senior disciple and distant kinsman politely - as if he hadn't brandished his saber at her mere hours ago. "Senior Han," She said calmly. "What news do you bring of my husband?" 

Nie Han acted calmly in his own right - he reached over and dragged a shelf across the floor, placing it in front of the door - it screamed quietly the whole way. 

Jin Guangyao turned on her heel and flew toward the windows - circulated qi through her arms - fully prepared to launch herself through the shutters and to the rooftops below. Nie Puyi grabbed her hair and yanked - but she was still agile enough to twist seamlessly into a self-defense move. She turned - not fighting the motion of the pull - and slammed her hands into Puyi's face. The blow was enforced by fear and spiritual energy both - her attacker's face exploded with blood. 

Yet the bastard's searing grip didn't give! Only tightened - she swung back her left leg, preparing another strike - when green blurred between her and Puyi. 

Nie Lui stepped between Jin Guangyao and her attacker - his superior - his kinsman and lifelong teacher. His fingers wrapped around Nie Puyi's arm, the bones quaking under the threatening force of spiritual energy. "Senior Puyi, there was no signal!" 

"Child, I am sick to death of waiting for a viper to strike!" Nie Han seethed, marching over. The son paled before the father - and Puyi struck. He released Jin Guangyao and instead put Nie Lui in a headlock, backing away toward the far wall - giving Nie Han a wide berth as one would a beast come to feed. Wen Ruohan kept exotic monsters in the Fire Palace, Jin Guangyao remembered. He fed his failed generals to them and called it mercy because Wei Wuxian would have had their family members' corpses do it instead. He threatened to feed me to the saber-toothed demon boars if I betrayed him, she remembered it vividly.

Nie Han bore down on her - drove her into a corner - and once there, reached his meaty fingers toward her throat. 

The air between him and her flashed red-violet. A cloud of angry red sparks danced among the spots in Jin Guangyao's vision. She smiled and savored the image eternally seared into her memory: Nie Han, ravaged by burning-red gnats of spiritual energy as angry and painful as giant hornets. She held nothing back - used the spell as Wen Ruohan intended it - and loosed her displeasure upon this lout, letting him be stung and bitten and eaten up alive by her manifested rage. 

Nie Han swatted futilely at the gnats - threw a punch at her when that obviously didn't work - Jin Guangyao ducked out the way and directed some of the storm toward Nie Puyi. The sparks went for his most vulnerable parts - he screamed when the first one wriggled up his broken nose. Nie Lui flew out of his arms - across the room, over to the bed - saber drawn. He cut through the red cord in one smooth stroke and the shivering bronze bell fell to the floor. 

It continued ringing there - metallic and dainty amongst the furor of injured men. The young man stared at it and then Jin Guangyao - he bolted for the door and she followed. Nie Lui threw the shelf out of the way and tore open the door to reveal Xiao Deng, fist raised and a fresh tray balanced on one hip. The young physician took in the scene - dropped the tray and ran, like a sensible person. 

Jin Guangyao had every intention of following suit - only to find herself knocked forward by a harsh blow to the back. She went to her knees - and any attempt to scramble to her feet was circumvented by a hand on her ankle, dragging her backward and away from that open door. That stupid fucking open door where Nie Lui stood, staring at her. That stupid, helpless boy looked between her and the hall - between his father attacking his charge and the rest of the world it seemed. Where was everyone else? She wondered frantically. Was Master Deng now deaf to that damn bell when it counted most? Did no one hear this life-or-death struggle? Was her life forfeit now even when Mingjue still lived? Was the only thing between her and death really a little boy who could never quite please his father?! 

Jin Guangyao clawed at the floor as Nie Han dragged her backward - she tried to kick at him - her spell was still at work, yet the man persisted - in seconds, he held her close enough that she was engulfed in the red flurry of her own angry storm. Through the crimson haze, she saw Nie Lui disappear from the threshold. A good son, leaving his father to his work. 

She let out one last ferocious, guttural scream before those meaty hands closed around her throat, silencing her. 

"You do not deserve my saber or even a silk scarf!" 

Blood beat a steady rhythm in her ears - her nails dug into her murderer's hands - concentrated qi in her fingertips - draw streams of blood from her attacker - her lungs burned - tears sprung to her eyes - everything became a black and crimson haze.

Nie Puyi finally collapsed under her spell's assault - the angry sparks began to fade away then, one after another - her eyes grew heavy and tired, but Jin Guangyao dared not blink. She would not be gone in a blink. 

The room grew dark - the open door the only light before her - until a great shadow barrelled through it.

"UNCLE HAN!"

She blinked and red rained down upon her. 

Warmth slicked down her back - the hands around her neck fell away - the floor on either side of her was sprayed with blood. Gasping desperately for breath, Jin Guangyao looked up and met Nie Mingjue's bloodshot eyes. His breath was as ragged as hers. His arms and Baxia limp at his sides. He collapsed to his knees before her, head bowed as if he meant to apologize again. He gathered her into his arms instead.

Guards and physicians spilled through the open door into the chamber, all a dizzying flurry of motion. Gasps and shouts, accusations and questions - they followed shortly. Someone screamed and cried like a child in the throes of a nightmare. 

Jin Guangyao clung to Nie Mingjue, head rested against his shoulder. She stared at the red mess of the floor. The spray spread around her like wings - the quickly growing puddle wetting her toes - the bronze bell and the severed cord - gleaming Baxia laid at her husband's side - the Guanyin amulet lost sometime in the fray...

It was all a bloody mess. 

Chapter Text

Nie Luan and Zhou Zhi hauled Nie Puyi off. Ma Kun and Ma Chao escorted a wailing Nie Lui out after him. Nie Lin took the bedclothes and spread them over Nie Han's body. The would-be assassin's head had rolled far enough away that Nie Lin tore down a curtain to cover it as well.

It took some cajoling, but Master Deng pried Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue apart to examine the madam's wounds. She craned her bruised neck at the physician's request - and Nie Mingjue spat blood across her front. 

Master Deng passed Jin Guangyao off to Xiao Deng, flinging himself at his sect leader - hands flying to that leader's wrists where they pumped spiritual energy through his system. Jin Guangyao watched Nie Mingjue shiver and tremble so much like that damned bell. He quaked from the aggressive treatment - he quaked with visible restraint of his own furious being - he quaked like a mountain turning to dust. Unimaginable and terrifying. 

Jin Guangyao realized that her husband had suffered a qi deviation - and now he suffered another, brought on by the stress of having murdered one of his own. She watched helplessly as Master Deng channeled energy through Nie Mingjue, hoping to realign his meridians and heal whatever internal damage had been wreaked by the disruption. She sensed Xiao Deng gripping her wrist to perform their own examination. 

Some silent conversation passed between master and student in a glance. "Bed. Now. Both of them." Master Deng ordered.

Nie Lin and Wang Qiao lifted Nie Mingjue by his armpits; Li Weiyi carried Jin Guangyao after she flinched away from Nie Zhong's touch. He resembled his cousin too much for her comfort. There was some hesitation outside Nie Mingjue's bed-chamber, the guards sharing apprehensive and agitated looks - until Nie Mingjue lifted his head and coughed out a single order: "She goes where...safest for her..." 

Li Weiyi stepped toward the chamber door - hesitated again - and finally moved forward when his charge inclined her head. 

The two were settled in bed, which was wide enough to situate them both at the very edge with their pads of their feet touching for Master Deng's convenience. The guards placed Nie Mingjue flat on his back while Xiao Deng piled pillows behind Jin Guangyao. She needed to be elevated as the young doctor tended to her neck. 

"Did you ever lose consciousness during the assault?" 

Jin Guangyao tried to speak - but it hurt, so she shook her head. Student and Master were both relieved. 

"That's good - or well, better than it could have turned out," Said Master Deng. "It's dark, but also a lucky thing that Senior Han used his hands. Choking actually takes quite a bit of time to kill someone despite how the plays and novels make it out."

Not unless he planned to snap my neck, thought Jin Guangyao, remembering the ever-growing squeeze around her windpipe. He never even should have come so far as to lay a finger on her. Her guarded gaze drifted over the room and many guards still clustered around. Did none of them truly hear the commotion down the hall? Why did Master Deng only send his little student when Madam Nie was obviously in severe distress? Xiao Deng didn't seem particularly pressed until the moment Nie Lui threw open the door...Help only came after Lui fled. 

Jin Guangyao did not know if the twin bell also reacted to distressed energy - she certainly did not hear it react to her fretful thoughts. She cast her eyes about the room, half-pretending a stupor, and saw no sign of the twin bell. Not on Master Deng's belt - not hanging from the canopy - not anywhere.

Across the bed, Nie Mingjue jolted out of Master Deng's grasp and wretched into a chamberpot. It was more blood than bile. Master Deng patted the sect leader's back encouragingly - then sneaked two needles into the exposed skin of his neck. Nie Mingjue went limp, his head and left arm lolling off the mattress until the physician adjusted him. 

"Sect Leader Nie needs to relax," He sternly advised - and it briefly felt like justice to Jin Guangyao. But that feeling quickly turned bitter from a lack of understanding. "I know that seems difficult right now, considering all that just transpired, but it is imperative that you do so, lest you suffer qi deviations for nothing and this damned curse takes hold!" 

"A curse?" Jin Guangyao croaked in disbelief. Her voice was hoarse and the question as painful as it was bewildering. "How can any petty curse affect my husband? His cultivation is too high!" Only someone of equal or greater cultivation could hope to cast a curse and have it work. True, Jin Guangshan was the only cultivator strong enough for such a foolhardy thing with a feasible motive, but he would never risk the backlash of a deadly curse on himself. Not unless he had some guarantee that he himself would be unharmed - and the odds of harm would never be zero when it came to curses. 

The qi deviations begged the question of what kind of curse had even been cast. Though by the sound of it, qi deviations were not the intention, but rather a side-effect of the casting. Nie Mingjue's core must have been fighting the curse - for who knew how long - and the prolonged struggle caused qi deviations. But Jin Guangyao had never heard of such a thing - curses either worked or they didn't based on the respective cultivation of the castor and the target. There were no half-measures when it came to malevolent curses!

Her confusion was met by Master Deng's own. He opened his mouth to speak, to explain - only to be silenced by Nie Zhong's heavy hand falling on his shoulder. The guard scowled the physician into submission. Jin Guangyao searched the guard's face - and those of all his comrades - and the physicians, too. They knew how this had happened to Nie Mingjue - and that reason was something they did not trust her to know if she did not already. 

Nie Mingjue's cultivation was strong - Jin Guangyao knew this for a fact and it could not be faked. An illness could perhaps compromise his golden core, but throughout all her years at his side - as his deputy, his sworn brother, his wife - there had never been any indication that Nie Mingjue suffered from any ailment besides a chip on his shoulder. No, thought Jin Guangyao, it was worse than a bad temper. It was negative energy eating away at his mood each and every day. On the bad days, during the war, he had turned vicious and feral and gone into brief seclusions away from the main encampments. She had seen him at his calmest during Lan Xichen's visit - and that was still true after the war, as each time the Venerated Triad assembled, Nie Mingjue enjoyed a good mood. The last time Jin Guangyao remembered Nie Mingjue being visibly happy had been during their visit to the Cloud Recesses. 

After he listened to Cleansing several times over a short period.

Her own words echoed in her ears. 

This song represses negative energy and can promote overall improvement in the listener's health. That's so amazing, Er-ge! 

Nie Mingjue must have truly required the song since he sent Nie Huaisang off to learn the guqin at the Cloud Recesses. He was not an ill man - not in the traditional sense. So only one explanation remained. 

Jin Guangyao had never considered the root causes of Nie Mingjue's abundance of negative energy. She had only been concerned with how to use it and his apparent reliance on musical cultivation to kill him. Perhaps she had assumed that it was Nie Mingjue's own personal issue - the deadly result of his infuriating, short-tempered character. But now she looked at the tense expressions of the other Nie cultivators in the room - now, she remembered Qinghe Nie's infamy for battle-hungry cultivators who frequently died young in pursuit of larger prey and greater glory. So many Nie cultivators died zealously under her command during the war, she never really questioned this narrative. Until today, when the truth of it stared her in the face. 

Nie Mingjue breathed harshly against his pillow - too harshly for slumber. Passed out, rather. His chin still wet with blood. 

"Qinghe Nie's cultivation path causes instability," Jin Guangyao observed. The saber-wielders around her stiffened - practically turned to stone - put on their guards by her words more than by Nie Han's attack. She pushed past their defenses and thought aloud on their dire circumstances. "Whoever cast the curse must be aware of this instability and how it makes even high-level cultivators susceptible to curses. Such a glaring weakness is likely to be well-known by the leadership of other great sects, if not suspected widely in the cultivation world. For the sake of simplicity, however, let us assume the most obvious suspect is, in fact, the culprit. Nie Mingjue attacked Jin Guangshan's vanity; it makes sense that he would then retaliate against Qinghe Nie by prodding at the greatest blemish on its pride. The problem is that my father would never risk himself casting a curse of any kind. The Yiling Patriarch might be so reckless, sure, but he has no real motive to attack."

She did not dare consider who else now had a motive to attack her husband - who knew his weakness intimately and helped him manage it for so long - who knew exactly what fate would befall Jin Guangyao if her husband died. No. Lan Xichen, he would never do such a thing even when so heinously betrayed. 

The guards stubbornly ignored her - refused to respond like petulant children - until Tao Minghao stepped forward and said, "Forgive me, Lady Guangyao, but perhaps you are narrowing your focus too greatly." 

"Can you think of other viable suspects, Senior Minghao?" Jin Guangyao asked, sincerely interested. 

"It's somewhat complicated, My Lady. But essentially I believe that Jin Guangshan is the culprit and has employed a proxy to cast the curse on Sect Leader Nie." 

"The only one powerful enough in the Jin sect to cast such a curse besides Jin Guangshan would be his own son," said Wang Qiao, casting suspicion once again on Jin Guangyao. It was known that Jin Zixuan had stormed their sect leader and his wife's chambers the day they fled Koi Tower. 

Jin Guangyao did not flinch under their reproachful stares. "My brother would not risk himself for Jin Guangshan's sake. Not when he is wrapped so tightly around Jiang Yanli's finger like a red thread. Jiang Yanli is still firmly allied with Wei Wuxian and currently seeks allies for her brother among the great sects. She would never allow her husband to alienate us, let alone risk provoking another war." 

"Can you prove this?" Asked Nie Lin. 

"Call my brother here and examine him yourself for proof of backlash. Send correspondence to Jiang Yanli via her husband when he returns to Koi Tower. Whatever needs to be done, do it. I am unafraid because my brother and I are innocent." Said Jin Guangyao. Her voice felt stronger with each breath as Xiao Deng fed her a steady stream of spiritual energy. 

Nie Lin considered her words - then accepted her offer, warning a letter would be sent to Koi Tower immediately. 

"We will need to craft a cover for the events that just transpired and the abrupt summons," Jin Guangyao warned. But before she could suggest a lure for Jin Zixuan that might save face, Li Weiyi bulled over her in his hurry to make his fears known. 

"Who did cast the curse then? Only Sect Leader Jin and his son are strong enough in Lanling Jin, so it must be someone else. We cannot invite outsiders into the Unclean Realm from any sect until we have an idea who might be responsible!"

Tao Minghao stepped forward once again, emitting a scholarly air. "I feel confident in agreeing with Lady Guangyao's assertion. Jin Guangshan and a proxy are the most likely culprits. Though the proxy is likely weaker than Sect Leader Nie, it's possible that Jin Guangshan provided a spiritual artifact of some sort to augment their cultivation and help cast the curse. I'd go a step further and suggest that the proxy is much weaker than Sect Leader Nie since the curse still has not taken hold."

"That doesn't really help matters," remarked Nie Zhong. "Almost every cultivator in Lanling Jin is significantly weaker than Mingjue." 

"But consider what it would take to risk the backlash," It must be tenfold worse than it might have been if cast on a target with equal or weaker cultivation. Factor in the persistent battle with Nie Mingjue's golden core and any number of side-effects from using a dangerous spiritual object... "This person must truly be desperate for Jin Guangshan's favor." Jin Guangyao decided, and something deep down inside her twinged painfully.

"The baby is in good health?" She asked Xiao Deng.

The young physician nodded and muttered, "Good relative to the situation." 

At Jin Guangyao's sharp look, Xiao Deng elaborated. "Heartbeat is strong, all physical and spiritual connections between mother and child are intact...The baby is small, though. Smaller than they should be at this stage."

"How small?" 

Xiao Deng chewed their bottom lip. "They're, um...like a fruit - a plump and juicy one, granted - when they should be a nice head of cabbage. I could be off by a few weeks though!" The young physician looked as sick and frightened as Jin Guangyao felt and she fought to hide it - to tamp down on that stress Master Deng always warned her about. Her child had been poisoned and attacked enough for one day. 

"This is all your fault," Master Deng seethed, his accusatory finger cast at the guards rather than at his charge for once. "Every single one of you has fed into this problem. Guards meant to keep the peace have instead stirred discontent for months and now look at your sect leader and his wife! Listen to the condition of their heir! Are you all really so eager to see Nie Huaisang as sect leader?" 

Nie Mingjue spat up a fresh gout of blood - choked on the black ichor - his whole body trembling again despite the pacifying needles in his neck. Master Deng rushed to withdraw them and commanded Xiao Deng to help him turn the convulsing sect leader onto his back. Bloody red eyes stared up at the canopy, unseeing. 

"Someone get a guqin!" Jin Guangyao ordered the room at large. Li Weiyi stepped toward the door - but that damned ever-present hesitation to do anything she asked without her husband's permission struck at the worst time. "Please!" She pleaded and Li Weiyi bolted out the door. 

Wang Qiao screamed after him to stop - rounded on her and demanded to know, "Why should we let you at Mingjue when he's so vulnerable? Why must you always push for more than you deserve!?"

Jin Guangyao kept her breath measured - for her sake, for her child's sake, for her husband's sake. 

"Take my head as your comrade tried if he dies then. If you are correct about me, he dies tonight with or without my help", She said. "Worry more about tomorrow. Go, fetch Huaisang from the Cloud Recesses. Now!"

Watching Nie Lin obey, however hesitantly, left her with a heady feeling - but perhaps that was the exhaustion of the day finally catching up to her. Jin Guangyao laid back against the pillows and let Xiao Deng finish tending to her neck. She tried to rest the best she could before playing Cleansing for Nie Mingjue, all while he thrashed and groaned like a dying animal across from her. 

Chapter Text

Nie Lin returned to the Unclean Realm with Huaisang as the night sky paled to morning. The pair burst into the bed-chamber, mingling chaos with the hard-fought harmony of Cleansing. Jin Guangyao sighed in exhausted relief and finally lifted her tender fingers from the guqin. 

She shifted the instrument out of her lap and settled into bed. "Please, take over." 

Nie Huaisang took the guqin and set it on the floor directly next to his brother's end of the bed. Bandaged fingers itched for the strings - but the young man was distracted by checking on his elder brother's state. Huaisang brushed the loose hair from Mingjue's pale face - pressed an ear to his back - touched his wrist - before finally looking to Jin Guangyao. 

"Uncle Lin explained everything," He said cautiously. "Including that you helped Da-ge."

"You're surprised?" This, from the man that she suspected had first suggested threatening her with the tomb. 

"No," Huaisang answered. "I only wonder why. Because you're still afraid or because you wanted to?" 

"Does it matter?"

"It does in the long run. Especially if your suspicions prove correct about Jin Guangshan having it out for my brother and Qinghe Nie now." 

"You confirm some of my suspicions already," Jin Guangyao laughed drily. "And so freely as well. Tell me, Huaisang, did you suddenly grow up when you learned I threatened your brother's life? Or have you always been so cunning as to play the fool?" 

Huaisang opened his fan and giggled daintily behind it. "Why would I ever answer such a question, Yao-jie? Besides, it's more entertaining to keep you guessing!" He then set about playing Cleansing - not so adeptly as Jin Guangyao, though the raw musical ability was fine enough - the problem being that clever as he was, Nie Huaisang's cultivation was still rather low and musical cultivation was not quite the same as casting spells. As a result, mingling spiritual energy with each note was more difficult for Huaisang and so Nie Mingjue began to stir awake. 

Jin Guangyao's eyes fluttered shut just as the first sob racked through her husband. The song stumbled as Huaisang reached out a hand to grip his brother's. 

She woke again sometime in the afternoon to a bowl of congee shoved under her nose. Jin Guangyao gratefully took the bowl from Nie Huaisang, who sat on the very edge of the bed between her and Mingjue. She was glad to see her husband sat upright across from her, tentatively spooning congee into his face of his own accord. He had also cleaned his face of blood and his eyes weren't so red, though some burst blood vessels lingered and his face was puffy from crying. His brother's, too. 

She would give no condolences for the man who tried to murder her - who before that belittled and harassed her on numerous occasions. But she could recognize that Nie Han was not the same tormentor to Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang as he was to her. 'Uncle Han', her husband called the man who grew up alongside his father, who accompanied him into war to avenge that murdered father. Yet due to complex politics and personal dynamics, her husband came to kill that man he called Uncle Han. His emotions about the man's death were more complicated than her own, that much was clear. 

Jin Guangyao tried to imagine what she would do if Sisi tried to kill Nie Mingjue - but first off, could not properly contrive such circumstances where they'd even meet - second off, she came to the uncomfortable realization that this was the first she'd thought of Sisi in years. Not since she joined Qinghe Nie as a guest disciple and she had to give a name for someone to be notified in the case of her death. She'd claimed Sisi for an aunt in Yunping - then forced herself never to think of the woman again. 

I could pay her ransom, she realized. I could have paid a thousand times by now. But no, all she had considered since then was razing the whole brothel to the ground and building something prestigious and truly opulent over it. That is what she had wanted to put her Jin gold toward. 

The Ma Twins escorted Nie Lui into the room. The young man, shivering and pale, attempted to salute his sect leader - only to be stopped by Mingjue's command - his plea, really. The boy watched numbly at Nie Mingjue struggled to his feet with Huaisang's help, and then the two brothers kowtowed before him. 

"This sect leader apologizes for having deprived a young man of his father," said Nie Mingjue.

"This young master apologizes for having contributed to these unfortunate circumstances," said Nie Huaisang. 

"Nie Han did not merely meet his end at my saber. Your father's death is the result of my own errors over the course of many months. Arrogance and cruelty only bred resentment, which in turn led to violence and the events of last night. In simple terms, I put Nie Han on the path to destruction by thinking in absolute terms. If this sect leader had acted more wisely, with greater compassion and less pride, your father would still live." 

"This young master also accepts responsibility for the events leading to Senior Han's demise. I made suggestions more out of a desire for revenge and self-satisfaction than I did out of a sincere wish to rectify the situation for everyone's sake. I played into the very causes of discontent, cultivating such within Nie Han that essentially spurned him on to the very actions which caused his death. My brother would never have suggested these things without my input."

"In penance for our faults and misdeeds, this sect leader and young master will redouble our efforts to cleanse the resentment which so plagues the Unclean Realm. Not only will I see to it that no one else dies as Nie Han did, but I will work hard to mend the fractured relationships among us. We do not expect absolution for this. But there will be trust and brotherhood in the Unclean Realm once again, this sorry sect leader of yours swear it, Lui-shidi." 

The oath rocked the young man to his core. He might have collapsed if not for Ma Chao's arms around him. Nie Lui turned and cried into his friend's shoulder. 

"This one also apologizes," Jin Guangyao spoke up, drawing stares from around the room - even from Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang. She persevered and continued with perfect decorum and contrition, "This one helped build Nie Han's path to destruction. Like my husband and brother-in-law, I was too caught up in politics and my own personal issues to realize the negative impact I would leave on innocent bystanders like you, Nie Lui. If I had never tried to kill Mingjue out of spite for his arrogance, then your father never would have become my guard or likely ever thought of attacking me. So I must also apologize and promise to help cleanse Qinghe Nie's resentment." 

"My Lady," Lui hiccuped. "My father tried to kill you - you and your baby. You and Sect Leader can really blame yourselves when he's the one who disobeyed orders? I - I don't -" He was a young, well-behaved disciple confronted for the first time by the complexity of adulthood. Nie Lui broke down in a fresh round of sobs. 

Nie Huaisang stood and handed him a handkerchief to wipe his face. Then, he asked, "Cousin Lui, there are still some questions that need answered about last night." 

Lui looked sick. "Like?" 

"Like Puyi's involvement. I am told that he was unconscious when the others arrived to save Yao-jie. She said that he attacked her as well and you defended her against him. Is that true?" At Lui's nod, Huaisang made a commiserating noise. "Ah, you must have been taken by surprise when they acted like that. Your father just assumed you would go along with it, I suppose?"

"He acted strangely all afternoon," Lui said quietly. "But he never alluded to such a terrible thing...He left me and Mother for a bit. That must have been when he spoke to Senior Puyi." 

"Neither one really implied anything was amiss until your guard rotation began? Are you absolutely certain?" Asked Huaisang as if this idea was mystifying. "You would think that they might give something away. I don't know how anyone could hide such intentions so well!" 

"I didn't even realize that Father followed us to Lady Guangyao's room," said Lui. "He was told to stay away from her and he did so all day until it was just me and Senior Puyi on duty. He must have thought I wouldn't interfere, at the very least - but I really did try to help! I got between Her Ladyship and Senior Puyi - I cut the cord on the bell hoping to alert you all!" The young man's face scrunched up in anguish. "Why did no one come sooner? If you had all come along sooner, then..." 

As Ma Chao comforted Nie Lui, Huaisang turned to Jin Guangyao. The two shared a significant look. 

"Response was rather delayed by the sound of it. Did no one really hear the attack just down the hall?" Asked Huaisang. The other guards shifted awkwardly. 

"Things were hectic," Wang Qiao spoke up. "There was some - heated debate over how to proceed after Sect Leader Nie's condition initially stabilized."

So they claimed to be too busy arguing amongst themselves about killing her to notice someone trying to do so just a few rooms away. Jin Guangyao did not believe it. There was also the absence of the twin bell from her husband's chamber. She began to suspect that someone had removed it - had instigated the 'debate' - in short, she suspected a larger conspiracy against her than just Nie Han and Nie Puyi.

"What of the bell? Why did no one react to my distress? Or to Nie Lui cutting the cord?" She interrogated the guards. Mingjue straightened up. Huaisang fanned himself expectantly. Lui looked to his comrades, desperate for answers.

Finally, Li Weiyi stepped forward. 

"The bell - it was so annoying," He spoke haltingly. "Nothing nefarious was meant by it, I'm certain, but -" He shot a regretful look at his dear friend. "Wang Qiao chucked it out the window when we came to Sect Leader's chamber after our rotation." 

All eyes pierced the named guard, but no gaze was as fierce and betrayed as Wang Qiao's own directed at Li Weiyi. 

"You also got in between Mingjue and the door when he went to help Meng Yao," said Nie Lin, stepping between Li Weiyi and Wang Qiao. Other guards conspicuously moved to the mentioned door as well as the windows and Jin Guangyao. Nie Mingjue climbed to his feet with his brother's help and stood directly in front of his wife - so she had to crane her head awkwardly around him to see the inquisition unfold. 

"If I recall correctly, Wang Qiao was also the one to propose sending Qin Su to the dungeons for questioning." 

"How foolish! Did you really think you could get away with this?"

"You and Puyi abetting this madness - you're more guilty than anyone for Nie Han's death!" 

"Did you not expect him to be executed for such flagrant disobedience? What do you think will happen to you now?" 

Caught, a flush climbed up Wang Qiao's neck and he bared his teeth - like a cornered animal, he started lashing out. 

"What choice did any of us have when that whore was so obviously seducing Mingjue!" 

"Excuse me?" Jin Guangyao did not dare step out completely from behind her shield, but she let her fury be known. 

"Everything changed for the worse after you two started sharing a bed!" Wang Qiao shouted. "Mingjue began to let down his guard - told us to not treat you like the traitorous snake you are! It was the Sunshot Campaign all over again, watching him turn to putty in your dirty hands! Always giving you chance after chance and you fucking things up and still getting another chance! Qinghe Nie lost face thanks to you at Koi Tower - and everything is forgiven and Mingjue kneels in the dirt for you! All because you two came out of that chamber utterly debauched and shameless! You're nothing but a whore paying for good favor with -" 

Nie Mingjue gripped Wang Qiao's collar threateningly - it was as good as seizing him by the throat. Wang Qiao fell deathly silent - cutting himself off so abruptly Jin Guangyao wondered if he bit off his tongue. 

Nie Mingjue shoved the wayward guard into Nie Lin and Nie Zhong's custody. 

"Take him to the dungeons for questioning." He ordered. 

"And then what?" Asked Jin Guangyao. 

Nie Mingjue looked at her in surprise. "Then he will stand trial for his crimes and punishment will be doled out. Likely exile at a minimum." Wang Qiao, a promoted guest disciple who had been known nothing but the Unclean Realm for over twenty years, looked like a frightened child in Nie Lin and Nie Zhong's grasp. 

"That would be unwise," said Jin Guangyao. She looked at Wang Qiao and permitted herself some sympathy for him. They had been in similar positions now - guest disciples to a great sect, traitors subject to trial and potentially grievous punishment. "Interrogate him, yes, but do not punish or remove him for attempting to do right by you and the greater sect. Let him return to duty as a guard and represent those interests. Removing him might only encourage resentment against me - even if his allegations are purely false." 

"He plotted your assassination," said Nie Mingjue.

"And I plotted yours, Da-ge. Yet, here I stand." She smiled. "Trust me, I'm not forgiving this, and I will remain on my guard forevermore. This is a matter of politics and fairness, pure and simple. I want to prove my trustworthiness to you all and avoid such drama in the future. Toward that end, I must allow some opposition against me to persist even though I frankly hate it. There is also the matter of reputation. With Nie Han dead and Nie Puyi incapacitated, it would look even worse for us when word gets out about an imprisoned senior disciple."

"What about Wang Qiao's trustworthiness?" Asked Nie Zhong. He sent his comrade a withering look - but Wang Qiao was already small and pale with shock. 

"Give me back Hensheng and I will never have to worry about any guard's trustworthiness." Said Jin Guangyao. "That should even things out."

"You're kidding?!" Ma Chao burst out. "You can hardly see your toes anymore, I bet!"

"That's your issue?!" Wang Qiao crowed, suddenly alive with a fresh round of ire. "Imagine the damage she can do with a sword! Did you see what she did to Puyi without one?" 

"You all have higher cultivation than me," Jin Guangyao pointed out. She imagined they had all forgotten the advantage of raw strength and numbers they had over her in their paranoia over her silver tongue and feminine wiles. "The intention is not that I would win against you, but rather that I can circumvent any more attempts on my life until help arrives. I am expressing my trust that at least some of you would never go against Mingjue's orders and kill me while he's alive and my innocence is likely. If I die, then it's because you have all turned against me and it must be fairly obvious that I had a hand in my husband's demise." 

She did not truly trust any of them to that extent, but that truth was counterproductive to her current goal - just like the truth that she surely could beat some of the guards, without ever needing to see her toes. Jin Guangyao and Hensheng had cut many strong cultivators to bits during the war - and their swords, too. 

"Lui-shidi," Nie Mingjue said to the weepy young man. "Go get Hensheng from where you hid it."

"No," Jin Guangyao interjected. "Your guards must agree first." 

She was no whore and the guards needed to see that - she had not paid for her privileges with sex - she was a stateswoman, someone sensible who they all ought to listen to and maybe - just maybe - trust a little. Still, not one of them gave their consent until Nie Huaisang remarked in awe on the power of gesture from behind his fan.

Nie Lui left the room to fetch Hensheng as Nie Zhong and Nie Lin moved to haul Wang Qiao off for interrogation. 

Lui returned with Hensheng - wrapped in talismans hilt to tip. He made to present it to her - Jin Guangyao touched his arm, giving him pause. 

"Your father died of a series of sudden qi deviations," Lui's eyes widened in surprise at her words. "He thought he was back in the war. He mistook me and Nie Puyi as enemy combatants. He attacked and unfortunately was killed to protect others from his frenzy. Nonetheless, he will be remembered as a fiercely loyal Nie cultivator who died believing that he was defending his sect and comrades."

Fresh tears sprung to Nie Lui's eyes. He knelt on the floor and bowed his head low, presenting Hensheng to her as one would an offering to a goddess. 

Jin Guangyao gently took her sword in hand and cradled it close - her sword, her missing limb - returned to her at long last by the very disciple who carried it away from her months ago.

Chapter Text

Ma Chao took Nie Lui into his arms again and then took his friend away to the Ma family's private quarters. "You and your mother will eat with us tonight. Mama and I will make our special blood sausages - and cheese curds and fresh yogurt!" Ma Chao whispered, patting Nie Lui's back. 

Jin Guangyao waited until the door swung shut behind the boys - alone as they ever could be with Master Deng and various lingering guards, she turned to Nie Mingjue and asked, "Please, spare Nie Lui's mother from the tombs or any hole in the ground for that matter." Her husband grimaced as if in pain at her words. She pressed the old wound a bit more, hoping for results. "Even if it is her choice, rash decisions are in grief. But a child needs their remaining parent more than ever when one dies." 

"Mu Qiang will join her husband in her own time," said Nie Mingjue. His words were a comfort, yet he did not meet her eye. For an instant, Jin Guangyao believed this was because he felt so guilty over sparing one woman whilst still passively threatening his wife. Then he explained, "Mutual entombment is not traditionally expected of First Wives." 

Careful of her anger, Jin Guangyao consciously took a moment to set Hensheng aside and fold her hands in her lap. There would be no stabbing or slapping. Not today, at least. "You are usually not so flagrant in your lies, Husband."

"I did not lie," said Nie Mingjue, but even he sounded deeply dissatisfied with his answer. They were both sick to death of technicalities and omissions on his part. Hopefully, this would be the last one. "I only spoke of my mothers' fate. They did follow tradition - just, augmented to a degree." 

Jin Guangyao glared at Nie Huaisang. "You were at the heart of this as well. Even though you alleged that you had no idea how your mothers died." 

"I did not know how when I was eleven," Nie Huaisang deflected, expression mostly hidden by his fan. "I set about finding out on my own when I was twelve and knew the truth before Da-ge sat me down at thirteen. Mutual entombment with the husband is the fate of Nie concubines. The First Wife is allowed to live on and act as a regent over the surviving children." 

Jin Guangyao dug her fingers into the bedclothes across her lap. "What would compel Nie Ruofei to choose such a fate when she was spared?" She asked. It sounded so ungrateful and stupid. To choose to die young - to choose death over living - to leave behind all the power over Qinghe Nie - to leave behind her sons and sisters - and why? Because she loved a dead man and a condemned woman so much? 

Nie Huaisang had the nerve to shrug his shoulders and shake his head. "I don't know. I really don't know...It was an answer that I searched high and low for, in sealed diaries and in the recollections of others. But both our mothers were so quiet after Father died. I have no reason to believe that Ruofei chose to die for any other reason than to be with Liuyang and Taiyan." Something dark and hurt flashed in Huaisang's eyes before being shuttered away by false confusion. "Except, I don't know, maybe Liuyang was frightened of her fate and Ruofei thought it was only fair that she share that burden with her." 

Her hand shot out - snatched that damn fan away - and struck Huaisang hard across the face with it. He stumbled away, cradling his cheek as the fan tumbled out of Jin Guangyao's hand and the guards shifted into defensive positions. Except for Nie Lingling, who smiled devilishly. 

"You dare condemn me to a practice that you so obviously disdain! What disrespect towards your mothers to inflict that on another woman!" Jin Guangyao rebuked Huaisang. 

"My Lady, your blood pressure -"

"Hitting him is a relief to that pressure!" She snarled at the physician.

Huaisang slunk out of reach then - snatched up his fan and snapped it open - only to find the ribs and one guard broken clean in half. He pouted and tucked it away in his sleeve. "This younger brother simply suggested that his older brother employ an old, unpleasant, but practical solution to an old problem for Qinghe Nie." He said cooly. 

Jin Guangyao looked between the brothers, but both refused to meet her eye - arrogant cowards, the both of them! She looked to the guards next and demanded one of them explain in a fashion that wouldn't send her into a qi deviation of her own. Lingling stepped forward - devilish smile now tucked away under the stern guardsman facade she'd been cultivating the past several weeks. 

"Members of the Nie clan began taking capable female cultivators as concubines with increasing frequency throughout our history," She started off. "This practice peaked with mine and your husband's great-grandfather, who had six consorts in total by the time of his death. Most of today's clan members descend from him and one of those consorts. Dynastic politics became very complicated very quickly thanks to this practice. So, the tradition of burying concubines with the husband began to minimize conflict. The First Wife became the regent of all surviving children, and naturally, her children were always favored, but there has always been a strong filial tradition of siblings respecting the sect leader as the absolute head of both the family and the sect. The First Wife's children were also frequently the most powerful cultivators. Loyalty and martial prowess are the great virtues that kept the Unclean Realm standing throughout the generations. It's also not as if female Nie cultivators outlived their husbands very long, so that helped stem some resentment between siblings." 

"Nie Taiyan only kept two consorts, however, and I am unaware of any other concubines in the Unclean Realm," Jin Guangyao observed. "So the overall practice has tapered off in recent generations." 

Lingling bowed her head to hide a smile. "At the time of his death, Nie Haoming had twenty-two children." That was explanation enough. Two virtues alone, however great, could never circumvent conflict among so many heirs. But the cost alone of such numerous progeny would have dissuaded future generations from emulating Nie Haoming. 

Jin Guangyao laughed, more than a bit bewildered. "So brutal and efficient of your ancestors...I'm horrified, honestly, and a little impressed."

Nie Mingjue groaned like a dying man into his hands. "Contain your admiration, I'm withdrawing the threat." He said, doing his best to sound resolute and authoritative while laid up in bed and pale as his sheets. Jin Guangyao smiled pityingly over at him.

"You can't do that, Da-ge. Not just yet," She gently chided him. He never thought ahead of his own emotions and morals it seemed. Not unless it involved war - but he had yet to see politics as his war, too, not just hers. "Contingencies must stay in place, otherwise Wang Qiao or the other guards have no reason not to just go ahead and murder me. They must have a reason to believe that I am on your side that they can trust. Fear of violence has done well enough so far."

"Aside from the fact that Uncle Han disobeyed orders and tried to kill you." Said Nie Mingjue. "Twice, Meng Yao. And I'm not even dead yet."

Jin Guangyao hated how he refused to meet her eye. It felt unnatural. "You are not dying." She told him. "We will find the caster and kill them. That will dispel the curse. It's just a matter of stabilizing your condition until we find my father's proxy. I will play Cleansing for you while Huaisang investigates." 

Nie Mingjue's red eyes widened. "You are not sending my brother to Koi Tower!" He shouted.

Huaisang, ever rebellious, said at the very same time, "I will go. On the condition that you do not allow my brother to withdraw his threat until after this situation is resolved. Only then will I trust you to treat my brother effectively. If he withdraws the threat before then, I expect the guards to retrieve me immediately." 

"HUAISANG!"

"You have my word," said Jin Guangyao. "As much as that is worth to you." 

Without that fan, Huaisang could not hide that little smirk on his face. He quickly faced a wall and tapped his chin as if deep in thought. "Ah, but how to infiltrate Koi Tower without rousing suspicion?" He wondered aloud, effortlessly ignoring his brother's fuming. 

"You are infiltrating nowhere!"  Nie Mingjue looked on the verge of another qi deviation, so Jin Guangyao climbed across the bed and took his hand. 

"I know that you are not fond of espionage," She said soberly. "But someone has declared a silent war on Qinghe Nie and we must scout out our enemies. Huaisang is no warrior, but he's smarter than you-" Her husband frowned unhappily at that, "-and he won't be alone. It's simply a matter of constructing a cover story which will allow him and trusted accomplices to enter Koi Tower and investigate."

Mingjue gritted his teeth and squeezed her hand tight. "Ma Kun and Ma Chao." He finally spat. "They will go with him. As his blood relatives, they would be the least conspicuous accompanying him into exile."

"Exile?!" Huaisang yelped. 

Jin Guangyao grinned - resisted the urge to ruffle her husband's hair and caress that big brain of his like a well-behaved dog. "Excellent idea! Now to contrive a reason for the sudden exile - and why go to Koi Tower specifically?" True, Lanling was a capital of culture and Koi Tower perfectly to Huaisang's tastes, but how could frivolous little Huaisang, utterly oblivious to Jin Guangshan's designs on him, go there and be so sure of a warm welcome? 

Huaisang volunteered a suggestion. "People outside the Unclean Realm might believe any excuse for my brother kicking me out. But perhaps Qin Su could furnish me with an excuse to visit Koi Tower? Her father is a dear companion of Jin Guangshan and frequently visits there. Perhaps I could visit Koi Tower looking for Qin Cangye since it's a bit closer than Laoling."

"But why would you look for Qin Cangye?" Asked Jin Guangyao. "We cannot pull a flimsy excuse from the thin air. Qin Su might know of something that would immediately endear a visitor to her father, though." 

The guards brought Qin Su to the chamber - she threw herself into Jin Guangyao's arms and rooted herself to the spot next to the bed. "Ma Kun told me you were attacked again! Then not a word more from anyone all day - if I wasn't so happy to see you, I'd be furious, A-Yao!" Her words were muffled by Guangyao's hair. She patted her former lover's back and whispered assurances into her ear until she was calm enough to lend it to her and Huaisang. 

At the end of the long explanation, Qin Su volunteered her own suggestion. "I could just go along with Nie Huaisang," She said. "Even if Father isn't at Koi Tower, Sect Leader Jin has always indulged me as his niece. In fact, I could also introduce Huaisang to various officials and courtiers at Koi Tower who might very well be the proxy you speak of!"

"Qin Su," Jin Guangyao spoke hesitantly. She hated to brutally remind her of their circumstances. "You, too, are a hostage for Qinghe Nie now."

"Can't I remain a hostage at Koi Tower under the watch of the guards? You went to the wedding there with guards while I was here. Now I will go and you will stay." 

"I went to Koi Tower, yes. And look what happened..." 

"I'm not like you, A-Yao" said Qin Su, resolute and unshamed and even proud. "I'm not your father, either. I would never risk your life or your baby's life by moving against Qinghe Nie. All I want to do is help you and your baby." She turned to Nie Mingjue and pleaded, "Assign that frightening fellow, Nie Zhong! He's the most like Nie Han from what I've seen, so he won't hesitate to take my head if I break my word!" 

Jin Guangyao seized Qin Su's arm as if to reel her back from such madness. "What are you doing? None of this is feasible even! There's no excuse for you to run off to Koi Tower with Huaisang and a small fleet of guards!" 

Lingling lit up like a light talisman. "They will have eloped! That's why!" She exclaimed. "Two young noble lovers on the run - just like in a novel!" 

Qin Su did not balk - rather, she clapped her hands in delight. "Exactly so!"

And then Huaisang had the nerve to joke about how they would make a fashionable pair. 

Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue looked at each other - slack-jawed and stupefied into silence.

But despite the absurdity of the suggestion, Jin Guangyao could not help but recognize the genius of it. Their absences from the wedding - Huaisang shipped off to the ascetic Cloud Recesses for months - Qin Su locked away in the Unclean Realm - Huaisang's reputation - her father's desire for a more malleable Nie Sect Leader - Qin Su's status as an adoptive niece. It was all too perfect! No one, least of all Jin Guangshan, would question the elopement story or suspect the pair of ulterior motives. More importantly, Jin Guangshan would enable their prolonged stay at Koi Tower - even against his old friend's wishes to see his daughter home again - because the pair were a more desirable ruling couple to deal with. He would indulge them greatly at every turn and it would be his own undoing. 

"Before this all gets underway, there is something that Qin Su ought to know about Nie wives," Jin Guangyao interjected sternly over the befuddlement of her husband and the other guards, and the childish excitement of Lingling, Huaisang, and Qin Su. "Even fake wives."

Qin Su's smile faded into apprehension - disappeared completely at Jin Guangyao's explanation - and at the end, she slapped both Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang across the face, practically spinning on her toes. The guards hissed sympathetically at the impacts - one pulled Qin Su away from the bed. Master Deng reacted more than the guards, rushing to Mingjue's side. Like the crack of the slap was the crack of a whip at his rear. Mingjue resigned himself to treatment with a sigh. Huaisang went to a corner to mope about his violent bride and broken fan. 

Her face and hand bright red - shaking out that smarting hand with a pinched expression - Qin Su still agreed to become a Qinghe Nie 'wife'. "For the sake of the woman that I wished to be a wife to in the first place." She said, smiling. 

Those words spurred Jin Guangyao to get up, throw her arms around Qin Su, and not let go for some time. 

Chapter Text

Jin Zixuan arrived at the Unclean Realm on a harsh wind, his sword blinding in the setting sun - Jin Guangyao watched him circle in the burnt sky for a bit before he realized that the wards had not only been strengthened tenfold but would not be lifted for him. His qi flared furiously at the slight and Jin Guangyao feared her brother might do something stupid like launch an attack against the barrier - until a disciple signaled him to land outside the gate, where they finally showed him through a secure single-man door in the great iron gate. From there, he stormed into her and Nie Mingjue's chambers, cutting a path with his glare as someone had confiscated Suihua as a condition of his visitation. 

Jin Zixuan gave a perfunctory salute before balancing balled fists on his hips and demanding an explanation for the reported attack on his sister. It was a bit of a tirade.  

"-no respect, nor any care! Is this truly how Qinghe Nie treats a recognized child of Lanling Jin? Attacked by her own guard! While with child! How could he get so close? Just what kind of people are you keeping around, Nie Mingjue?! This is your second offense in a short period and this brother is tempted to send Jin disciples to guard his sister since her husband seems derelict in his responsibilities toward her!" 

He shut up then, sensing the spike in tension in the room. He eyed the guards with a mix of vigilance and distaste. 

Jin Guangyao put aside the candied fruit she'd been enjoying with a regretful sigh. "That would be most unwise at this time, A-Xuan...Not when it seems that Father has made an attempt on my husband's life." 

"What?" Zixuan paled. "Your attack, was that-"

"No, that was a guard as reported. But...the reason he attacked was not a qi deviation, but out of real fear that I was Father's knife in the dark, so to speak," Jin Guangyao explained. On the bed, she shifted closer to Nie Mingjue, leaning her head against his shoulder as if terribly tired. She really was, playing the guqin for hours on end and discussing various issues at length with Nie Mingjue in between Cleansing sessions. Still, she had a mountain of pillows to rest on - her purpose was to soften Jin Zixuan's perception of her and Nie Mingjue, in hopes of circumventing yet a third murder attempt. "He was not altogether wrong to fear such a thing, but also acted rashly. If he waited a bit longer, we all would have been able to work together and mend the fissures between us to dispel this curse." 

"A-Yao, what are you talking about?" The frustration in his voice - Jin Guangyao suspected he had been in this position too often lately.

She sighed and began, "This all traces back to Father's purposes in arranging my marriage..."

One of their lengthy discussions had been about how much Jin Zixuan 'needed' to know. Jin Guangyao spent most of an hour browbeating Nie Mingjue into silence on the worst bits. Neither one of them owed Jin Zixuan the same honesty they gave Qin Su and Lan Xichen - just enough to ensure his assistance. It was decided that Jin Zixuan would know these four things and only these four things. 

  1. That Jin Guangyao horribly betrayed the trust of her sworn brothers to gain undue influence in their sects for Jin Guangshan.
  2. That Nie Mingjue retaliated against Jin Guangyao's attempted subterfuge by essentially keeping her prisoner the past few months.
  3. That Jin Guangshan now had several reasons to want Nie Mingjue dead, but that if Nie Mingjue died, her life was in danger as well due to her past nefarious actions. 
  4. That they suspected Jin Guangshan was behind an attempted curse on Nie Mingjue, using a proxy, and now both their lives were in danger as a result. 

The finer details were overlooked - the whole debacle was overwhelming enough in the broad strokes. 

Jin Zixuan reacted as well as expected. He denied it all as impossible - accused them of a twisted joke, of misunderstanding their own circumstances. Next, he raged at Nie Mingjue - focused on the misconduct of an outsider, deflected expertly from those of his sister and father. Then he asked questions - were there really no other suspects? Wouldn't Father abandon such a scheme if he knew that A-Yao's life was in danger? How could they be so certain unless they spoke to him? Finally, he grew sullen and slouched next to the bed like a kicked puppy.

"It lately feels as if I am always the last to know the important things," He said quietly. "Everyone always comes to me with their minds made up on a matter, and then they expect me to follow along without arguing. And then I do - I did and I was always treated as in the wrong - and maybe I was all those times before, but I wanted to figure that out on my own. I should be allowed to do that still. A-Yao," He turned to her, pleading. "You cannot expect me to turn on Father just like that." 

Jin Guangyao laid a hand on his shoulder. "Of course not," She said. "We believe in your honor. I trust you to do what is right, A-Xuan. So we have two things to ask of you." 

After a moment's hesitation, Jin Zixuan inclined his head.

Good. If he had refused, then Jin Guangyao had been prepared to insinuate some things about his wife's nighttime activities. And she truly did not want to do that. 

"First, the guards would like to be certain that you are not Father's proxy in casting this curse," said Jin Guangyao. "I understand if you find this request offensive. It's a matter of security." Though the fact he seemed in good health should have been indication enough that he was not suffering from the severe spiritual backlash expected in the caster. 

Jin Zixuan submitted right away, as he had nothing to hide. Master Deng looked her brother over alongside Tao Minghao and Nie Lin, who both had more expertise in spellwork and curses than the average cultivator. It was quickly declared that Jin Zixuan was not the proxy, which permitted Jin Guangyao to make her second request. 

"You wish to get to the bottom of this as I do, A-Xuan, I can tell," She said. "You want to see justice. So I ask you to aid our own investigation into the matter of the proxy."

"How so?" Jin Zixuan met this request with justified caution. 

"We will be sending Nie Zhong to Koi Tower as an envoy. He will bring yours and A-Li's wedding presents as a pretense, but really we hope that you will enable him to stay at Koi Tower as a prolonged guest so that he might investigate any individuals who might have cause to harm Nie Mingjue. Please, once he arrives, invite him to stay and assist in preparations for this summer's Discussion Conference." 

Whereas the Ma Twins had plenty of excuses to accompany their dearest cousin into exile, Nie Zhong was too obvious a representative of Nie Mingjue's interests. Jin Zixuan would furnish an excuse for the more senior disciple to be at Koi Tower at the same time as the exiled young master and his scandalous entourage. Though it was likely that Jin Guangshan would still suspect him for a spy, this mattered little as Nie Zhong would then distract the sect leader from Huaisang and Qin Su's part of the investigation. This cover would also enable the two parties to operate independently of each other; Nie Zhong, seeming alienated from Jin Guangshan's favored ruling couple, would be able to better perceive open hostility toward Qinghe Nie and its interests among her father's numerous courtiers. In essence, they sought Jin Zixuan's assistance in planting a functional decoy. 

"What happens if the culprit is not at Koi Tower?" Asked Jin Zixuan. "What if you are wasting your time?" 

"We are still looking into other means of resolving this matter, don't worry." Jin Guangyao assured him. "Master Deng is a capable physician and Qinghe Nie has a wealth of resources at its disposal. But I feel that the culprit has some link to Koi Tower, even if Father is not involved. He has been hosting hundreds of guests continuously over the past two years. Your wedding was practically a rehearsal for the Discussion Conference. Someone who knows something is bound to pass through those gilded halls. Koi Tower is truly the best place to be if one is seeking information and alliances." 

Jin Zixuan preened and wilted simultaneously at her words, unsure exactly how to take the remark on his home. His upbringing suggested that such words should be heard as praise of Koi Tower's political eminence. But Jin Guangyao imagined that recent events and his wife's influence had pulverized those foundations so carefully laid by Jin Guangshan, so as to make room for more complex structures. She felt a pang of sympathy for her brother not unlike what she felt for Nie Lui and her husband in regard to Nie Han. To be disappointed so late in life was both a blessing and a curse. 

"Stay the night." She insisted. "You flew all this way and digested a lot of difficult information. Exhaustion and stress are a terrible combination." 

Master Deng's eyes bugged out at her words, but Jin Guangyao continued to smile at her brother, cajoling him if need be. And need there was. 

Jin Zixuan agreed readily enough, eying everyone else in the room as if he meant to stand vigil over Jin Guangyao all night. But apparently, Jiang Yanli had gone home to Lotus Pier for a few weeks, so he saw little difference between a lonesome bed at Koi Tower and one in the Unclean Realm. He helped Jin Guangyao stand from the bed and she showed him the way to a guest-chamber close to Huaisang's own quarters. 

He asked about the baby - her baby was fine, all things considered - she asked about his - and he gushed about preparations being made 'back home.' 

The next morning, their guest was not woken by the morning gong - but rather by Huaisang's blubbering wails.

"DA-GE!!!!!!! NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!" 

Jin Zixuan tumbled out of his guest chamber and skid across the hallway floor, bunching up a rug underfoot, brandishing - his fist, since Suihua was still in the Nie armory. His clothes were a mess and his hair, untied. He furrowed his brows at the drama unfolding before him; it was the first time Jin Guangyao had ever seen him without his vermillion mark. 

Her brother watched in confusion, sword-arm limp at his side, as servants carted boxes and boxes of belongings out of Nie Huaisang's chambers. The distraught owner of these possessions clung to his brother's thighs, weeping dramatically. Qin Su kowtowed repeatedly and begged pardon from both Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao. It was a scene. 

"As punishment for your unfilial behavior, these fans and baubles will be sold off! The money will be given to those you truly deserve it!" Nie Mingjue boomed in a timely fashion. Though his delivery was somewhat stiff, it suited an irate sect leader and disappointed brother fighting to contain the sheer force of his outrage. "You have no right to dispute this punishment since these items are the possessions of Qinghe Nie! You, on the other hand, are exiled until such time as my wife and I forgive this offense!" He shoved Huaisang off then and stomped away.

The offense in question? Jin Zixuan's eyes asked Jin Guangyao.

Huaisang let out a long keen and threw himself into Qin Su's arms. She patted his back and pleaded in - perhaps too sickly sweet a voice, "A-Yao, please have mercy! A-Sang and I acted out of love, we meant no harm!"

Jin Guangyao turned her head - donned a hurt expression and pretended as if she meant to hide it from Qin Su - but Jin Zixuan saw, of course. 

"My husband and I on death's door, dealing with murderous conspiracies, doing our best to protect our sect...And you two take advantage to run off in the night and shame us all by eloping. Qin Su, you know how delicate this situation is. How could you do this? Now we must deal with your father's ire as well - and after he intervened on my behalf!" Her voice pitched high, peaking in its incredulity and betrayal. 

She exited the scene, but kept up her mournful act until she was well away from their stage. She met Nie Ruilin outside Nie Mingjue's chamber and confirmed that the proceeds of Huaisang's 'donation' would go to their summer campaign on the Hook. This way, they would not need to reduce the normal charitable budget allocated toward those who lived close to the Sanxing Temple. Nie Ruilin smiled grimly at her nephew's echoing cries and commended Jin Guangyao for her quick thinking.

Nie Ruilin did not know that Huaisang had been strong-armed into giving up his possessions as part of their ruse shortly after the elopement scheme was conceived. Losing those dozens of fans was his personal apology to Jin Guangyao and Qin Su for hiding his true intentions for so long. Though, perhaps this time his pathetic reaction was more genuine - Jin Guangyao mirrored Ruilin's thin smile at the echoing cries. 

Jin Zixuan came to Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue shortly - interrupting another bout of Cleansing - pleading for mercy on the young couple's behalf. Sympathy shone in his eyes - he had been in their position not so long ago. Nie Mingjue played the hardass - unbending and unrelenting that it had been decided - eventually becoming a stone wall to Jin Zixuan's words. He rolled over and Master Deng shooed their guest out, worried for the sect leader's nerves if he - or the young master, for that matter - stayed any longer. 

Jin Guangyao stepped out of the room with her brother. 

"Things are stressful here," She whispered. It was no lie. "It's better that Qin Su and Huaisang go away for a while."

"They asked to come to Koi Tower," said Jin Zixuan. "I didn't know what to say. It seems dangerous for them to leave here if someone truly has it out for Qinghe Nie."

"We believe that Huaisang is safe wherever he goes," said Jin Guangyao. "The objective of this curse seems to be to eliminate the sect's strong leadership. No matter where Huaisang goes, as long as someone there is looking out for him and Qin Su, they should be all right. Maybe the Cloud Recesses, but Er-ge is in seclusion and Huaisang doesn't have the best relationship with the Elders..." She trailed off thoughtfully. "The terrible thing is that in exile, we can't control where they go." 

Jin Zixuan frowned determinedly, suddenly resolved on a decision where she remained outwardly indecisive. "That's true, but Nie Huaisang has certain tastes. So if he does not go to Laoling to be with Qin Su's family, then they will show up in Lanling before long. When they do, I will look out for them on your behalf. Better under the close watch of someone who understands the situation than wandering around unsupervised."

She reached out and squeezed his hand in gratitude. "Even so, let us hope that he is not so foolish as to think Lanling is the only place in the world with theaters and teahouses." 

The Ma Twins later made a production of their self-exile alongside their dearest cousin. Ma Kun was all boisterous dramatics, thumbing her nose at Nie Mingjue for not understanding true love. Ma Chao looked heartbroken as he loaded up the wagon and prepared the horses in the background. Duty - Family - Retribution; that was his forlorn mantra, whimpered into his horse's neck. The stead looked incredibly discomfited by his rider's behavior. 

Huaisang helped Qin Su into the wagon with gentlemanly decorum - even as he blew his nose obnoxiously into her loaned handkerchief. 

Jin Guangyao watched the little wagon wheel out of the Unclean Realm's gates from a nearby terrace. Xiao Deng and Jin Zixuan stood at her back like the shadows she was so used to now. 

"Nie Zhong will depart for Koi Tower tomorrow," She said lowly. "You and A-Li should be there to greet him when he arrives with your wedding gifts." 

"Will you be all right?" Her brother asked. By which he meant, Will you be safe here? 

Jin Guangyao pulled Hensheng from her sleeve and replied, "I survived the Nightless City, did I not?" 

Her brother frowned at her words like she was Wei Wuxian and she had made a stupid, shameless joke. Still, he embraced her tightly - like Sect Leader Jiang might embrace Wei Wuxian in vulnerable moments - and bid her to stay safe before mounting his sword and flying off through the open gates. Not as quickly as he could, she noted. She imagined he planned to watch over the wagon as it is trundled across the pale green plains southward, a protective hawk rather than a haughty peacock. 

Xiao Deng herded Jin Guangyao back to her and Mingjue's chamber, where her husband laid in bed staring at one of Ma Kun's little figurines. 

"Displeased with your cousin's parting gift?" She asked as she settled into bed beside him. 

Mingjue rubbed his thumb over the rudimentary oxen's dull horns. "I hated every moment of that," He grumbled. 

"Deception is not an enjoyable thing," Jin Guangyao agreed. "Just necessary sometimes."

She held out her hand and Mingjue passed the figurine over. This was the fifty-first carving that Ma Kun had left behind - and still no answers as to why. "What does Ma Kun expect us to do with all these?" She asked Mingjue, trotting the wooden oxen up his chest to his chin. 

He rolled his eyes at her, but answered, "Liuyang carved toys like this for me and Huaisang when we were children. For her sister's litter as well." 

Jin Guangyao turned the figurine - the toy - over in her hand and examined it with fresh eyes. A tradition, she thought fondly - and then thought of other traditions she hoped to carry on. She envisioned her child playing with this toy oxen, the emblem of her sect - plucking that little girl off the floor and cradling her close - bearing her daughter off to bed and reading her to sleep as Meng Shi had done for Meng Yao. She could see it so clearly, her own miniature curled against her side each night, teething on her wooden toys in her sleep. 

This oxen's dull horns will be worn down to nubs. More a milk cow than a Nie beast. 

If only it were so easy to make certain that my child will not be gored. The dark thought clenched Jin Guangyao's heart as she drew a fist around the toy in turn. 

Chapter Text

Calloused hands traced up and down her back - thick fingers pressed into slick and taut flesh - hard knuckles dug in and broke up knots of tension. Jin Guangyao moaned into a pillow. She wished that she could roll over and give Nie Mingjue better access, but her belly was too large to lay on her front. Instead, she curled up on her side with her husband working her from behind. Nie Mingjue was good with his hands - shockingly gentle, running warm palms along her flank and exposed arm - satisfyingly rough when need be, mercilessly grounding appreciative, half-pained grunts and moans out of her by turns. 

His thumbs rubbed tight circles on either side of her spine - Jin Guangyao arched her back.

"Lower," She sighed. And Nie Mingjue complied, pressing down - down - down. 

"Okay!" Zhou Zhi bolted out his seat across the chamber. He threw up his hands and made for the door. "This has ceased to be a back massage. That is ass-rubbing, Sect Leader, and I will not stand for it!" 

"Or sit for it," Nie Luan snarked. She closed the book that Tao Minghao had loaned her and followed after her husband. "Not in here anyway. We're not into that sort of thing. So we'll be in the hall, Sect Leader. My Lady," She nodded to Jin Guangyao and the door swung shut after her and her husband. 

Jin Guangyao watched them leave through the canopy curtains, then looked over her shoulder and said, "I didn't say stop, husband." 

Nie Mingjue grunted and got back to work massaging his pregnant wife's back so that they could both get some damn sleep. It had been a very trying few days and poor posture while playing the guqin had not helped matters. Jin Guangyao allowed herself a smile at how sleepy Nie Mingjue was - he worked on her with both eyes closed, like he did this all the time. 

It certainly feels like he's had ample practice, Jin Guangyao thought, laying her head back down. Now - and back then at Koi Tower - and all those times before. He was no novice when it came to the physical. And sensual skills were not necessarily something that could be carried over the martial arts. All her times with Nie Mingjue felt different from her first times with Qin Su, and she was certain it had to do with more than one being a woman and one being a man. Qin Su was a maiden before she and Jin Guangyao went to bed; Nie Mingjue was...not. Their time in bed had always been awkward, but she got the sense that it was very much because of who they were to each other - the fact they were intimately aware of who the other was already in many terrible ways - and not the fact that either was a stranger to sex that made things tense. 

The thing was, in all her years as his deputy - and even during her time alienated from Nie Mingjue, when knowledge of such a weakness would have been a great advantage - Jin Guangyao had never known Nie Mingjue to have had a lover. Past or present. He never even made use of the camp followers during the war. Sometimes it felt like she and Nie Mingjue were the only ones in the Qinghe Nie camp who didn't. So Jin Guangyao had long wondered just where her husband gained all his experience before her. 

Who did he fuck? Who did he massage? Who did he kiss? Who did he hold at night? 

Since it was a humiliating question to ask and she didn't want to leave the faintest impression of Madam Jin's jealousy, Jin Guangyao instead remarked on their sudden seclusion. "Senior Luan and Senior Zhou are very trusting to leave us alone like this. Even with that damn bell hung up again and all sorts of security arrays in place. I would scold them for recklessness if I were you." 

"You're the madam, do it yourself," Her husband grumbled and then decided he was done rubbing her back. Nie Mingjue pulled the bedclothes from their knees up to their shoulders. Just when Jin Guangyao found her words, he shocked her again by throwing his arm across her middle and resting his chin on the top of her head. 

Jin Guangyao's brow twitched. "All this time..."

"You are truly not as sly as you think you are," He said. "At least not when it comes to me." 

Jin Guangyao sat in the dim light, flushing with red hot horror at the fact that all this time Nie Mingjue had known that she'd been pulling his arm around her each night - or at least on those nights he didn't do it for her and let her act put upon and resigned. This realization - this feeling - was her personal hell. 

She rolled over and smacked him in the chest. "Meanwhile you hypocritically keep many crucial things to yourself," She snapped. 

Nie Mingjue peeled his eyes open. Burst blood vessels still lingered from his qi deviations - dark circles like bruises emphasized how hard-fought the last few days of living were for him. Jin Guangyao felt a pang of regret not letting him rest, but it was brief as a heartbeat. She herself had slogged through shit for years to survive to this point. Fair was fair. He threatened her life as surely she had threatened his - she saved his life as surely as he had saved hers. They could both bear a few more moments awake. 

Besides, it was best to strike Nie Mingjue whilst he was still vulnerable - after she and Cleansing did their work. 

"You seem more foolish all the time, Da-ge," She whispered. "Wives are not entombed by tradition. So if you died young like so many other Nie cultivators, did you really plan to leave me behind unchecked to rule Qinghe Nie? Before I tried to kill you, that is. Wouldn't that have defeated the entire point of your scheme in marrying me?" 

She felt his fingers tangle in her hair. His eyes were so tired, dreamy even as he lingered in wakefulness against his will. 

"Must I say it again? I was arrogant," His voice was rough. "I thought...I hoped that bringing you back here, back to me, would be enough." 

"You wanted Meng Yao back," This was not a revelation. "You do realize though..." Meng Yao is dead, killed long ago by Jin Guangyao. A garden snake swallowed whole by a greater venomous serpent slithering through the tall grass.

"Yes," said Nie Mingjue. "You are both Meng Yao and Jin Guangyao." 

She swallowed a surprised noise at that. "Even though you trusted - Meng Yao that much...Have you truly resigned yourself to being overtaken by your clan's curse? Is that why you wanted Meng Yao back? So that someone you trusted would be left to take care of things when you're gone?" She asked. 

Nie Mingjue fell silent - so silent that for a horrible instant she feared not that he fell asleep, but that he died in her arms. She only breathed again when her husband drew a deep, shuddering breath. She curled her fingers in his robes and resisted the urge to lean forward. 

"I vowed to find a solution to the saber spirits that plague my clan," Nie Mingjue whispered. "I promised that I would conqueror them so that no one else would inherit this burden. But I failed. I fell into the same arrogant trap as all my ancestors. There is no becoming so strong that the balance can be tipped in one's favor against the spirit. The saber spirit will always be stronger - will corrupt your golden core and kill you faster. I knew this was not the solution, but I pursued it anyway out of a desire to be strong - because I could not be weak and hope to defeat Wen Ruohan. And so I convinced myself that I would be the exception, that I could prove that there was a level of strength where one became untouchable if only one was strong enough. Rigorous enough. Righteous enough. But I failed. I failed and now I leave this burden not just to Huaisang, but to a baby." 

Something in her rebelled at his words. But not the usual something...

"Your father was known as a powerful cultivator," said Jin Guangyao. "Yet he took Ma Liuyang as a concubine knowing what fate awaited them both, long after that practice began to die off. Why did Nie Taiyan not spare Ma Liuyang?" 

Her husband spoke of his parents with such ferocity and assurance in their love for each other. Yet the start of their story was so murky, and the end so dark; so what did a happy middle matter? Jin Guangyao looked at Mingjue with wide, wondering eyes, trying to understand how he did not hate his father when he had every reason to and no reasons to set such feelings aside. 

His fingers brushed through her hair, stroking her back. His tired eyes became unfocused, lost to the past. 

"Ma Liuyang was the Unclean Realm's Mistress of Horse. She was responsible for teaching all disciples how to ride and tend horses, as well as many logistical matters having to do with war. She even worked with Ruofei's brother-in-law to put together siege protocols for the city and its guards. My father loved her as one of his closest advisors and dear friends first. And then he loved her as a woman. By then, however, he was already married to Nie Ruofei. So Taiyan refused to take Liuyang as a concubine in order to protect her from Nie tradition. 

"My father was a fierce warrior, but my mother - my birth mother - she warned me that he was never a happy youth. He wanted to live a long, happy life and he was bitter that he could not have it. At first because of his saber spirit, and then because of an arranged marriage. He resigned himself to being the strong leader his sect needed, even if it meant shortening his life and marrying someone he didn't care for at the beginning. But then he and Ruofei sorted their differences and fell in love. I was born shortly afterward, and according to my mother, he set about enjoying his family life for a long as possible, though that life would still be cut short because of how strong his saber spirit was already."

A happy life with his family, lived as long as possible. A woman left alone since he could not ensure her safety. "What changed?" How did his father fail so miserably?

"He and Ruofei both fell in love with Ma Liuyang," Her husband answered. "Ruofei told me, right before - the end, that it was all her own idea. That they could all be together since it was something that they all equally wanted. And so they were, for a few years, in secret. I have vague memories of that time when Liuyang was still Auntie Liuyang. Ruofei instructed me to start calling her Mother Liuyang when I was four years old after she had fallen pregnant with Huaisang. Though that quickly became Mama Ma. She and Father, they were not married yet at that time."

"Huaisang was nearly a bastard?" Jin Guangyao ground her teeth at that. "Taiyan and Liuyang...they sound exceedingly honorable, choosing to uphold the virtue of the Ma and Nie families over her life." 

"My father...Ruofei told me that my father wanted to repeal the tradition before he took Liuyang as a concubine. He didn't want her or Huaisang or Ruofei - he didn't want any of them to suffer in his absence, from either tradition or shame. However, when he spoke to Liuyang, she - she refused." 

Bullshit. Jin Guangyao's instincts screamed and raged at so obvious a lie on - not Mingjue's part, but certainly Nie Ruofei's. What sort of terrible mother would endanger her unborn child's welfare like that - and for what? Some convoluted suicide pact? 

"Why the hell would you believe that?" She demanded. 

"It's just the type of person she was," Mingjue seethed - not at her, but at the unchangeable past, she sensed. "I believed how Ruofei explained it, at least. Liuyang said that she would only become a concubine if Taiyan did not repeal the tradition - because she wanted to leverage her life as motivation. Her husband would be the one to finally overcome the saber spirits or not her husband at all. Liuyang refused to acknowledge, let alone marry a man who gave up on life so easily. Especially a life as happy as theirs."

"...And was it happy?" It was a whisper, hardly dared. 

Nie Mingjue smiled in his pained, dreamy haze. "I like to think it was. Huaisang and I, we felt like the luckiest boys alive sometimes, to have three parents when everyone else we knew had two, one, or none." That smile faltered. "I became aware of the strain, though, as I grew older. I was sent off to the Cloud Recesses each summer, starting at age thirteen. It was obviously to foster relations between our sects through me and A-Huan. But in hindsight, I believe that Ruofei wanted me to befriend the sect specifically in hopes that we might be granted greater access to their famous musical cultivation techniques. I remember my parents exploring many different methods to combat the saber spirits throughout my childhood. Sometimes the three of them would go away on an expedition together for months on end, leaving me and Huaisang behind. They always came back disappointed, and I won't say that my parents did not quarrel after these difficult journies proved fruitless." 

"No method showed any promise?" Jin Guangyao could not help but hope that while curating her library of romance novels and poetry, Nie Ruofei also kept diligent notes on her and her partners' excursions and experiments. The woman was a genius in regard to spellwork; surely she left journals behind somewhere, even on the failures. Especially on the failures. 

Nie Mingjue shook his head. "Nothing that my mothers thought to inform me of before they - before they went to the tomb. Their last excursion before that night-hunt was a failure like all the rest. Father took me with him to hunt in the mountains - to work his frustration out on the monster, to really teach me how to be a strong Nie cultivator. And - and then his saber shattered to pieces thanks to Wen Ruohan's sabotage, and that beast gored my father so badly that none of other than the Qishan Wen healers themselves could hope to do anything for him. My father did linger for six months afterward, stubbornly trying to channel qi and speed his own recovery. He was still desperate to conqueror his saber spirit. He denied that he was dying...He could have lived a few more years, I think. Pushing himself so far in that state is probably what triggered his last qi deviation." 

Six months. It seemed such a long time, but also so short when she thought of her own past year. Jin Guangyao could bring herself to understand how fighting the saber spirit in the future had been put aside in order to focus on saving the sect leader's life at that very moment. But in six months, even in deep denial, did no one truly think to make contingencies for Ma Liuyang's sake. "What of your mothers at that time? At the end?" 

"Ma Liuyang was ever optimistic. I remember her scolding Mother Ruofei for bringing Huaisang in to say his goodbyes to Father, saying she was scaring him for no good reason. She was hopeful for Father's recovery - and then he didn't recover and she wailed for days. Her final days, no one could even speak to her." 

A shiver ran through Jin Guangyao. Nie Mingjue held her closer in response.

"And Ruofei?" Her predecessor certainly did not sound hopeful. 

Mingjue grimaced. His eyes burned with so much hurt - Jin Guangyao felt ugly - as if the very sight of her hurt him deeply. But neither one could seem to look away from the other. "After my Father passed, Mother Ruofei took me aside and made me promise to take no concubines. If I loved someone that could never be my wife, I would instead see them safe and happy elsewhere. After that, it was all the business of running the sect in their absence." 

"Da-ge," Her hands cradled his face - her fingers brushed over prickly stubble and caressed clammy skin. "What a mess they left you." Foolhardy love, reckless hope, unbound arrogance and naivety all resulting in terrible heartbreak and tragedy for a family that was meant to be happy together. For as long as they could manage - and so brief that time together proved. All that remained of that family were two orphaned little boys, one with the weight of his sect, his little brother's wellbeing, and his parents' broken dreams bearing down on his shoulders. 

"Nie Taiyan was supremely arrogant though," She said honestly. "If he truly loved Ma Liuyang so much, he should have set aside all promises and blustering ego to save her with his dying breath. Forgive me, but it's true." 

Her husband sighed. His eyes slid closed and he said, "Like father, like son, I suppose." 

His breath did not even out - he did not fall asleep - he sat there, stiff and restless. Rather than waiting, Jin Guangyao rested her forehead against his chest and felt his breath - his hammering, broken heart. As she dozed, lulled by the slowing rhythm, her treacherous, hypocritical soul whispered, There must be a solution. 

Chapter Text

Master Deng barged in just as Jin Guangyao rolled out of bed after Nie Mingjue, their usual breakfast in hand. He crossed the chamber in a blink and - with one pressure point - shoved Jin Guangyao back into bed where she laid limp and furious. Master Deng sighed in satisfaction at his work and gestured for his sect leader to please join your wife back in bed. Nie Mingjue discarded the clothes he had been rummaging for and climbed back into bed next Jin Guangyao. She fumed at how he got to sit upright and look somewhat dignified in his nightclothes while she languished with her feet hanging off the mattress. 

Master Deng sat down their breakfast like a polite servant - but at the foot on the bed, not at their usual table. 

"You will take your meals in bed from now on," The physician said, his servile posturing at war with his comfort with his own authority. "You will not leave this bed at all except to stretch and use the privy. That goes for both Sect Leader Nie and the madam." 

The bronze bell cried out on the couple's behalf, jingling menacingly right in Master Deng's ear. He nearly batted the thing away in fright - but cooly retracted his hand back behind his back and stepped away from the bedside to don a more imperious bearing. "This one has been most indulgent the past few days in light of recent events. I have allowed Madam Nie greater freedom in order to accomplish certain goals for the sake of herself, her husband, and the whole sect. Even before Senior Han's treason, I permitted Madam Nie to go as far as Qinghe's slums in order to do her important work."

And complained every second of it, Jin Guangyao thought sourly. After he found out about her trip to the Hook, he laced her bathwater with tonics which burned her nose and left her hair much too dry for her liking, all to cleanse her of the slum's foulness. 

"But that important work is done now. Or at least can be carried out from bed," Master Deng carried on, ignoring her glare with practiced ease. "Both of you are now on strict bed rest. Sect Leader Nie is still under assault from that curse. There's no telling when another qi deviation might strike so I'd prefer that he stay in bed, under close observation and away from key stressors.

"As for you, Madam Nie," He narrowed his eyes at his mortal enemy. "We have discussed already my concerns about hypertension and toxemia. True, a fair amount of time has passed that I can now gladly say the heir would not necessarily be doomed if we were forced to induce labor early. But I still do not like those odds. The baby is still very small, and the earlier they are born, the worse their outcomes later in life. Just look at Young Master Nie - just three weeks premature and it set him up for life as a coddled layabout! It's unseemly for Qinghe Nie! Therefore, our goal is now to prolong your pregnancy week by week in hopes the baby achieves a higher birth weight." 

Her feelings on this matter were no secret - the bell just made it more obvious. 

"So you mean to say that I'm stuck in this room until the baby is born?" Asked Jin Guangyao. "In three months?" 

Master Deng set his jaw and unhappily replied, "Lady Ruilin floated the idea that you could be allowed visits to her office and out in the garden again after one month's strict bed rest. One whole month. And only if the baby's growth is satisfactory." He added quickly, like a parent trying not to let a child get carried away with excitement. 

Jin Guangyao was not excited, but the bell fell quiet at last. She also regained control of her limbs and managed to sit up in bed with Nie Mingjue's assistance. "A month's strict bed rest...And I can have my work brought to me here?" 

"Since it paradoxically relaxes you, it appears. If it causes you any trouble, however, I will not hesitate to intervene," said Master Deng. 

"You never do," Jin Guangyao's tone was desert dry.

Nie Mingjue handed her a cup of tea from the serving tray in a timely fashion. He distracted Master Deng from his offended sputtering by asking the physician to go ahead and get his morning check-up out of the way while Jin Guangyao ate. Master Deng examined both Mingjue and Jin Guangyao in quick succession and determined that all members of the family were in good health. Which was to say, they were no worse off than the day before, but still far below Master Deng's normal standards of health. 

The couple was satisfied though and dismissed Master Deng. As he left, the morning guard rotation entered the chamber and took their posts. That day, a new member joined them. 

Though Jin Guangyao had never met the woman before, Mu Qiang was unmistakable in her white mourning robes. She haunted the paths of her green-clad comrades, a vision of matronly sorrow and duty. It struck Jin Guangyao immediately how unlike all the other Nie cultivators the older woman was. First and foremost - and perhaps most inappropriately - Mu Qiang had to be the most beautiful woman that Jin Guangyao had ever seen! A shapely older woman with features that were more than pleasant to look at - Jin Guangyao felt a flush climb up her face as she realized the woman's face might have stolen her breath, but left behind a strange sense of fulfillment in its place. The kind that filled her lungs like a fragrant breeze off a beautiful landscape.

Horror turned that pleasant air into a poisonous gas in Jin Guangyao's lungs as her flowery thoughts on her attacker's widow caught up to her. She quickly focused on the more practical of Mu Qiang's differences from her comrades. Mu Qiang did not carry a saber, but rather the sword of outer-disciples and typical cultivators. It made sense, as Jin Guangyao first heard of the woman not as Nie Han's wife, but as the head swordmaster for outer disciples not yet privileged to learn the Nie saber style. Meng Yao never learned under the woman directly, instead being taught swordplay by her underlings while actively on campaign early on in the war. Mu Qiang was first mentioned to her as someone who would have choice words about her progress - then later, the swordmaster was in correspondence with Nie Mingjue as one of the senior disciples left to defend the Unclean Realm in the sect leader's absence. 

Now she met her would-be master as lady and retainer, under the worst possible circumstances. 

Mu Qiang saluted her sect leader and his wife - she did not kowtow, likely because she did not feel that she had wronged them. Jin Guangyao circulated her qi carefully so as to not set off the bronze bell. 

"Mingjue," The widow greeted her husband's murderer at last. "Wipe that hangdog look off your face." She rebuked him, then grinned sorrowfully. "Laugh as I did upon learning my husband lost his head like usual and, well, lost his head as a result." She laughed - and when no one joined in, scoffed and set her hands on her hips. "No sense of humor, just like your father. You Nies..." She shook her head, and in her eyes, Jin Guangyao caught the shadow of real disappointment. Real sadness and heartache. 

"Aunt Qiang," Mingjue croaked, keeling over slightly like he meant to tumble out of bed and kowtow. Jin Guangyao squeezed his arm, sensing that Mu Qiang would not appreciate such an overt gesture. She did not appear a woman who appreciated shows of weakness - she looked incredibly uncomfortable in her mourning attire, and gripped her sword continuously as a source of strength. 

"Your aunts went ahead and procured the fierce corpses for my husband's saber tomb," Mu Qiang dithered on without acknowledging her sect leader's pained expression. Though what she said piqued Jin Guangyao's personal interest. "Three men were recently executed in Qinghe for murdering a co-conspirator in other crimes. Two others are set to be executed for similar crimes in the coming days, and then we will be able to proceed with the burial rites. Ruilin and Runhua already paid the families for the bodies, but I insist on reimbursing the sect with my personal funds in light of the nature of my husband's death." 

"Aunt Qiang -"

"I have already sold off any finery ever gifted to me by A-Han," Mu Qiang rushed out the words, yet remained perfectly, deceptively composed. As if this was all light subject matter to discuss over tea. "The money will go to those families to pay for the corpses. Any leftover will go toward Madam Nie's upcoming project in districts eight and nine that Ruilin and I spoke about." She looked at Jin Guangyao for the first time, totally without malice. "This one grew up in Qinghe, and when I was a girl that area wasn't so bad as how those reports from that monk make it sound. I would like to help it heal. Even if this is a minuscule gesture in the grand scheme of things."

"It is immensely appreciated all the same," said Jin Guangyao. Mu Qiang was truly the most beautiful woman in the world, even when she smiled sadly. 

She couldn't help but wonder...How could Nie Han be such a prick with such a woman at his side?

"However, this lady regrets to say that I will not be able to oversee the project due to my condition. Master Deng has confined me to bed rest. Paperwork will be my only access to the outside world for the foreseeable future," Jin Guangyao confessed to quickly move the conversation along. She turned to the other present guards and said, "As a result, Mingjue and I will need to rely on all your assistance now more than ever before." 

Aside from Mu Qiang, who while charming remained untested, Jin Guangyao felt fairly confident in the trustworthiness of her active guards. As confident as she ever could be in the loyalty of others, at least. With Nie Han dead - Nie Zhong at Koi Tower - Nie Puyi incapacitated - really, Wang Qiao was their only cause for concern within the inner circle, but his stint in the dungeon would continue another week at least before he returned to duty on probation. The other guards - Nie Lin, Li Weiyi, Zhou Zhi, Nie Luan, Tao Minghao, Nie Lingling, and Nie Lui - were all now somewhat sympathetic toward Jin Guangyao and exceedingly competent when it came to the welfare of Qinghe Nie. She could delegate to them easily enough in the coming months. 

Mu Qiang saluted Jin Guangyao - and the other guards mirrored her closely in the same obedient and respectful manner they once jumped at her husband's orders. "We await your orders, My Lady." 

Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue started by calling the other guards and Nie Aibing in for an impromptu meeting. The next few hours were spent in deep discussion about the divvying up of duties and the reformulation of guard rotations in accordance with these additional duties. There were frequent interruptions from servants bringing Jin Guangyao fresh snacks to quell her voracious appetite. Also, the less welcome interruption of Master Deng, who barged in at one point, summoned by the damn bell and debate over the fate of the 'never-fucking-ending' piles - and then he never really left, because he had opinions on medical research. 

Tao Minghao and Nie Lin, as Qinghe Nie's foremost experts in spellwork, were tasked with scouring the Nie library for leads on any artifacts that might be in possession of the proxy or known to be in the possession of Lanling Jin. This information would be immensely helpful in their comrades' investigation. Primarily, however, Jin Guangyao wanted them to study Nie Ruofei's journals alongside Nie Lingling. The young woman had been a close apprentice to her elder cousin - she knew better than anyone else where and how the woman organized her work in the library, old chambers, and long-abandoned workshops. 

Master Deng insisted that his own prized apprentice - whose name was apparently not Xiao Deng, but Jin Guangyao pettily chose to continue calling them such in her head - join the guards in the library. Xiao Deng would contribute valuable medical insight to the search for a cure while their master attended to their ailing sect leader and madam. 

Jin Guangyao tasked Nie Luan and Nie Aibing with liaising between said sect leader and madam and the aunts. It was determined that none of the (living) guards besides Nie Zhong had the necessary experience with paperwork to completely take over on Mingjue's behalf and beat back the 'never-fucking-ending' pile on the daily. So it was decided that the Ma Aunts and Nie Ruilin would take over three-fifths of the growing piles, with Luan and Aibing acting as Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue's formal representatives outside their bed-chamber. It would be a lot of running back and forth, hefting piles of paperwork for proper signage and stamping, but it would keep the stuttering wheels of the Unclean Realm greased. 

Nie Mingjue charged Zhou Zhi with the task of managing the other disciples outside his guard rotations - he was one of the most personable seniors and could keep most everyone calm in the face of this new uncertainty. Li Weiyi and Mu Qiang would assist in this task - helped additionally by the more complex and efficient infrastructure of martial matters at the Unclean Realm as compared to the piles and piles of petty domestic issues that resulted in the crushed and demoralized legs of the sect leader's desk. 

Nie Lui, still in deep mourning, would return in his own time, unladen by additional duties. Wang Qiao, when he returned, would be given appropriate duties in order to avoid further resentment against Jin Guangyao's apparent and growing influence. Likely, external security for the wider estate and preparations for potential martial conflict with Lanling Jin. 

After dismissing the meeting, Li Weiyi and Tao Minghao settled into their midday rotations. Like Nie Luan and Zhou Zhi, they settled outside the chamber - though Jin Guangyao was only playing Cleansing for Nie Mingjue, and that did not seem uncomfortably intimate to her. In fact, she found it incredibly pure and relaxing and thought the guards might also benefit after such a tense meeting. 

"We must still wait two more days until my brother and Maiden Qin arrive at Koi Tower," Her husband griped. 

"You're meant to be relaxing," Jin Guangyao chided him gently. Her fingers never strayed from the strings. "And it's two more days until they arrive at Lanling. Then they must wait a few more days for word to get back to Jin Guangshan and my brother that they're in the city. Really, it will be a week before they infiltrate successfully."

Her husband reached over and mussed her hair like she was an annoying kid. "You're meant to be relaxing," Mingjue snarked. 

Jin Guangyao's answering jab flew right out of her as a fluttering sensation nested low in belly. She gasped and Mingjue bolted upright in bed, eyes wide in alarm as the bell rang out. "Calm down, calm down," Jin Guangyao chided him, smiling and laughing. "Before that pest comes along and makes her shy again." 

" 'her'?" Her husband repeated dumbly as his wife took his hand and pressed it against her belly. 

"The baby," Jin Guangyao clarified excitedly. "It must be her, this is different from indigestion. Do you feel her?" 

Her excitement wilted somewhat at her husband's furrowed brow. He felt insistently at that spot, but couldn't seem to sense the little life moving beneath her skin. "There's energy there, but it feels like yours." He looked so disappointed. 

Jin Guangyao reached out and cradled his head, pressing his ear close to her belly. "Say something annoying again," She softly implored him. "I think she has a mean sense of humor toward her poor mother." If Master Deng was to be believed, she supposed that she could not blame her daughter for that. Though she hoped against hope this wasn't some sort of omen. 

Still, she caught the barest hint of a smile on Nie Mingjue's face as he began to ramble to the baby about the dos and don'ts of living with Jin Guangyao - and she smiled secretly to herself as she watched. 

Chapter Text

Qin Su never quite got on with the other maidens who frequented Koi Tower. Her mother didn't let her accompany Father to court until she was nine; by then, all the children of Sect Leader Jin's other friends and allies were well-acquainted and Qin Su quickly found herself the odd one out. Quite literally sometimes, as games were rigged so that she could not join any team without it being deemed 'unfair'. By the end of that first summer, the other girls had decided that Qin Su must be a cootie-covered leper to have been forbidden from Koi Tower so long by such prestigious parents.

They never did anything to her, of course, but that was just the problem - no one at Koi Tower wanted anything to do with Qin Su but her own elder siblings and her father. Sect Leader Jin was always good and kind to her when he visited her father's apartments, but he certainly never sought Qin Su out personally. The girl was ignored and placated by dolls, finery, and later indulgences as her father's unofficial secretary. It kept her busy and dignified at Koi Tower while her siblings were off properly socializing with those who still sniffed at her, still trying to gauge what exactly was wrong with her

By the time she was seventeen and the war was underway, though, Qin Su began to climb in prestige as one of the youths already fairly involved in the adult politics - someone almost on par with the Jin Sect heir! Most of her peers were instead thrown headfirst into the business of bloodshed, armed with swords and youthful vigor. Imagined cooties were no longer an issue - because everyone got lice on the war campaign. So, Qin Su briefly felt herself become an object of envy and revere among young Laoling Qin and Lanling Jin cultivators. And she enjoyed it - and then a young man named Meng Yao saved her life at Langya - and she became determined to marry him because he was everything she admired and understood - and everyone at Koi Tower laughed - and everyone secretly agreed it was appropriate, because who else would have her? And when it seemed Qin Cangye might actually agree to - if not a betrothal, a formal courtship between the two? Well, that just about confirmed everything her peers ever whispered about her. 

The revelation of Jin Guangyao's true gender did not mend Qin Su's reputation much. She went from some unfortunate girl caught up in a potentially scandalous and licentious affair to - well, a naive child, far behind her peers, as usual, taken up with another outcast and prepared to avoid her real adult responsibilities of marriage and childbearing. Nevermind all the paperwork she had been doing throughout her teens...Qin Su ran off to Qinghe despite her mother's protests for various reasons.

Walking through the halls of Koi Tower months later, arm in arm with her alleged husband, Qin Su was struck by the familiarity of the questioning gazes. A late bloomer - a little wannabe secretary - a whoreson-chaser - an unfilial daughter - a bastard's devoted attendant - and now the exiled Second Lady Nie. Just what was the matter with Qin Cangye's youngest child, those eyes wondered unabashedly. 

Qin Su did not quail under their attention, just as she did not waver under her family's many rebukes when she first chased after Jin Guangyao. She smiled demurely and carried on down the hall with a breezy gait, listening to Nie Huaisang prattle on with Sect Leader Jin about all the amusements Koi Tower offered in the summer. 

"The weather is always so fair in Lanling, but the summer heat especially lends itself to boat competitions in the Yi River," Sect Leader Jin described the decadent celebrations hosted by onlookers along the riversides. Silk pavilions, sumptuous feasts, lively music, and beautiful maidens cooling themselves in the shallows. "It gets quite humid in Lanling this time of year," Jin Guangshan explained, then smiled indulgently - flashing large, pearly white teeth - and added, "You will, of course, need a fashionable fan. Not just for the boat competitions, but for many occasions. Many occasions deserve many fans!" 

By the time they reached their new apartments, Nie Huaisang blubbered openly and kissed the hems of Sect Leader Jin's skirts. 

"Thank you, Sect Leader! Thank you~! My wife's uncle is truly a kind, kind man!" 

Sect Leader Jin left them with a humbled expression and an insistent invitation that they join him for a private dinner on a later date. As he left, servants arrived with gifts for the newlyweds and their pitiably small retinue on behalf of Lanling Jin. All the necessary things to start a new life at Koi Tower. Clothes, jewelry, perfumes, literature and poetry books, instruments, paints and paintings, and tea sets and tea leaves. 

The fresh clothes were the most welcome gift after nearly a week rotating between the same two sets of robes while riding through rough and muddy terrain. Qin Su noticed that the new robes were saturated in spring green, which nicely matched the lighter yellow and orange accents paying hommage to her own sect. She wondered how long Sect Leader Jin knew they were in Lanling before Jin Zixuan came to their inn. It must have taken a bit of time to assemble such a wardrobe...

There were even robes for the Ma Twins. 

"Too bad there's nothing white in here," remarked Ma Kun, eyeing her brother and the sunset orange inner-robe in her hands.  "It would match that woe-is-me look on you face, Gege." 

Ma Chao spared his twin a sour look over his shoulder before gazing mournfully out the window again. He'd likely stay posted there until the moon lifted into the sky when he'd finally let out a longing sigh - like he had done every night since their departure. 

Qin Su leaned over to Ma Kun and asked, "Um, but didn't someone actually die recently?"

The orange robe slipped from between Ma Kun's fingers as she cringed, "I mean, that is technically true..." She looked at her brother, then leaned over the trunk conspiratorially. She beckoned Qin Su closer with a crooked finger. "Ma Chao really wanted to be someone's shoulder to cry on, if you know what I mean."

Qin Su did not. But she smiled and nodded like she understood anyway - there was enough to worry about right now. "Let's not torture Ma Chao over something that already hurts him. We have greater concerns. Ma Kun, let's all work together to see serenity return to the Unclean Realm." She spoke vaguely, for fear of spies in the walls as warned by A-Yao; it was decided that nothing could be directly said about their mission, even in private. They'd spent the last few days learning how to talk around the issue. Hopefully, to an eavesdropper, it would sound as if Qin Su merely hoped to make peace with her in-laws. 

Ma Kun pouted and wrapped herself up in a chiffon robe like a hug. "Hmph! Whatever happened to that free spirit who ran off to Qinghe under the cover of night to get hitched? She was more focused on enjoyment than what is appropriate at the time!" 

"Forgive me, my lady," Her heart stumbled in her chest - half in a joyful leap, half stricken with shameful fear. "But look at where that attitude has gotten my daughter." 

Qin Su - the guards - Huaisang - the servants still coming and going - the whole room clamored to attention at Sect Leader Qin's arrival. Qin Su took in the sight of her father, stood just beyond the doorway, having slipped in alongside the servants delivering yet more parcels. She bowed deeply - and then had to stop herself from rushing into his arms. 

"Father," She breathed. 

"A-Su," He greeted her - not without warmth, but with a silent plea to keep back. He looked as afraid of breaking as she was. Qin Su's confidence finally faltered when confronted by her father's disappointed expression. "I came as soon as I heard what I hoped to be a baseless rumor. I came here to defend your honor - our honor. Instead, I find you moving into your new chambers with a man you never once asked my opinion of! What is the meaning of all this?!" 

Qin Su stuttered - bit her tongue and swallowed the wrong words - bit down her desperateness to wipe that look off her father's face. She willed herself into guilt-ridden silence. No matter how much she loved and trusted her father, A-Yao and her baby were relying on Qin Su to ferret out this proxy. And she knew her father would never work against Jin Guangshan and risk their sect. He would never allow her to work against Jin Guangshan and risk her life; he'd sooner out them all to his old friend. 

Qin Su wasn't sure that she could convince her father against his friend. She didn't completely understand why Guangyao was so certain Sect Leader Jin was behind all this trouble or why he wouldn't care that he risked her life and his grandchild's life. She simply trusted Guangyao's judgment, remembering how Jin Guangshan cruelly ignored Meng Yao's efforts at Langya and then the faint praise given to Jin Guangyao after the war. Qin Su imagined that Qin Cangye never noticed such things - would understand less than she did - and would trust Jin Guangshan as Qin Su trusted Jin Guangyao.

Nie Huaisang scrambled forward on his knees before Qin Cangye. "Sect Leader Qin, do not be cross with your daughter! It is all this stupid one's fault for confusing life with novels~!" He took his supposed father-in-law's bewildered face as cue to bowl over the man with insane, grandiose details of the epic love story they'd merrily contrived during their journey. Love at first sight at his brother's wedding banquet! Drunk off love and fermented goat's milk after scalding their virgin lips on Yunmeng cuisine! Months of courtship, sweet and subtle as the first spring blossoms...A beautiful garden as the backdrop of a budding romance - shared love of tea and music and art! A true kindred spirit found at long-last! Hope dashed by a brother's sound refusal - too many ties to Lanling already, he proclaimed before shipping off his poor brother to live like a monk in Gusu. Qin Su stubbornly pleading to stay at the Unclean Realm in hopes of reunion - kept well away from Koi Tower for fear she'd cajole her dearest father and uncle into pushing the matter with Qinghe Nie. Then, Nie Jiaoxing's qi deviation and attack on Madam Nie! The Young Master called home in a time of need - emotions running high, relief all abound as mother and child proved healthy - his brother and his wife serving as an inspiration to triumphant love - one foolish thought led to another - and the next thing either knew, they were at a tiny Guanyin temple in the eighth district of the city! 

"We meant no harm, Sect Leader Qin!" Huaisang wailed at the conclusion of his tale. Their tale. 

Qin Su watched her father digest the information like an already too-sweet dessert drenched in syrup. But it was one prepared and served by his very own little girl, so he ate it up and kept it down despite how it so obviously pained him. It only made Qin Su's own pain worse. 

"Your mother and I were hurt that you ran off without so much as a hint," said Father, and Qin Su about keeled over thinking about her poor mother's reaction to the news. "But your mother also convinced me of the fortune in this."

"Huh?!" The whole room chorused, including some gawking servants. The superior among them flushed red and swept her cohorts out the door - smacking a broom against the last one out's bum for good measure when she thought no one was paying attention. 

Qin Cangye smiled wistfully and explained, "Your mother is happy to see you wed to a suitable man before she passes."

"Before she-" Qin Su did not want to repeat it. "Is she really so ill?" She had never imagined, and no one had told her otherwise in all the months she had been away. 

Qin Cangye did not answer her directly. "She would like to see you. You and your husband both." 

Qin Su felt as if her mother's wish had been dropped in her lap - and before she could properly come to grips with it, her father was carrying on about travel logistics. "I understand that like you, Young Master Nie does not travel by sword. Your horses are likely still worn from your journey, so I will go to Jin Guangshan about organizing comfortable transport to Laoling. Traveling lightly, if we leave midmorning tomorrow, we can arrive back home in the late afternoon. Your mother has been in better condition since word broke about your departure from Qinghe, so she plans to greet us at the main gate. Your companions are also welcome, of course, and -"

"No," Qin Su burst out, shocking herself and her father both. "I - we -" Tears sprung to her eyes as she lied profusely, "Mother said horrible things to me in anger when I left home. I won't see her again, even on her deathbed, unless she apologizes!" Her tears began to fall in earnest as she added, "And you just said that her condition is improved somewhat, so really this is all just a ploy to have me back! I won't be tricked under her thumb again! I will stay at Koi Tower and stay married to A-Sang!" 

Father balked at her blatant disrespect - sputtered at her accusation - and began to beg her to come home in short order. Qin Su, mortified by what she had said, could only turn her back on her father as if he disgusted her - when really she felt unclean and wanted nothing more than to apologize and then ask the servants to draw her a bath. Huaisang played the flustered groom attempting to play mediator between his wife and father-in-law, before ultimately breaking down at his own so-called impotence. In a fit of frustration, Qin Su declared that she wished Sect Leader Jin would just throw him out already and Ma Kun took that as her signal to run off in search of their benefactor. 

Jin Guangshan arrived back at their apartments shortly; he had his senior disciples escort Sect Leader Qin from Koi Tower, effectively throwing him and his friendship out simultaneously.

"My daughter must know she is welcome to celebrate her birthday with us," Qin Cangye said to Jin Guangshan at the door - as if he meant for the sect leader to pass along the word. As if Qin Su were not in the very same room anymore. 

Qin Su watched her father leave with his head held high despite the hurt heavy on his face; she cried into Huaisang's shoulder under the burden of it all. 

Once alone, without Jin Guangshan's flattery placation or nosy servants, Qin Su smacked Nie Huaisang's hands away and fled to sulk by the window with Ma Chao. 

"This is all your fault," She muttered darkly. "You and your insane ideas." A spy would believe she spoke of this elopement, now faced by its consequences. Really, she meant everything from the day she confided in him about A-Yao's pregnancy. It was Nie Huaisang's idea to threaten her friend's life like that. He had escalated things when he should have tempered the conflict between the two spouses that he was so much more aware of than Qin Su. 

"Some of it is certainly my fault," Huaisang admitted. He sounded sincere enough, but Qin Su had seen him act plenty at this point. She could not trust a word from him

Really, though, everyone had escalated things. Everytime Qin Su tried to pin down who was ultimately at fault for what had gone wrong, she found herself tracing back further in time - to the mistakes of people now long dead - or those who just seemed too easy of targets. Qin Su supposed she could always blame Wen Ruohan and Jin Guangshan, but that felt like letting A-Yao and Nie Mingjue off too easy...

"Father knew that we were here, but we only arrived at Koi Tower some hours ago..." She remarked tiredly, resting her face on the windowsill with folded arms. "Laoling is close, but not that close. Heavens, we must have set tongues wagging all across the continent the second we set off from the Unclean Realm." 

Jin Zixuan was not a gossip, but his father would have asked him to say something of his abrupt trip to the Unclean Realm. Jin Guangshan would not have kept their shame a secret if it served him as A-Yao presumed. And then there were all those cultivators they ran into along their journey, at inns and watering holes. They traveled by sword, twenty-times faster than horses and wagons. They brought back word of the exiles to their own sects, who in turn spread the scandal to friends and allies. It was similar to how the whole of Laoling knew about A-Yao's secret thanks to her household servants running their errands in the compound and around the city all morning. 

Nie Huaisang took a seat between Qin Su and his cousin. He wrapped her up in his arms, the very picture of a loving husband to anyone looking up at their window. "No one will hate us here. Have faith. We will make friends starting tomorrow." He reminded her of their plan: they will mingle and pick up on courtly gossip. They would weed out the useless flowery words and find the snake in the grass who poisoned their loved ones. The proxy would be someone very suddenly thrust into Jin Guangshan's good graces. Hopefully, they would flaunt that status and make Qin Su and Nie Huaisang's job easier...

"I hope we find these friends quickly," said Qin Su, blinking tiredly at Lanling's golden streets. 

The Ma Twins soon adjourned to their own individual bedrooms for the night. Qin Su and Nie Huaisang were left to negotiate their shared bed. At inns, they had learned to set aside their sheepishness sharing a bedroom for the sake of their mission. Now, there was the real trouble that anyone might be watching them at any time...Qin Su couldn't help blushing as she and Huaisang crawled under the covers of the same bed, inching close enough to wrap their arms around each other. No need for kisses necessarily. Sharing a bed like this was already highly inappropriate between a young man and woman that everyone at Koi Tower would pray that they were truly married, if only for the sake of their reputations. After all, Maiden Qin and Young Master Nie would have to be absolute dunderheads to only act married after such a scandalous display! 

Love makes fools of us all, Qin Su chuckled humorlessly. Jin Guangyao had warned her a thousand times before their little show for Jin Zixuan. This won't be easily forgotten later, she warned, even a fake annulment or divorce comes with social repercussions. You might never truly marry after this! Think hard, A-Su! The thing was, Qin Su did not want to marry someone who would not understand her reasons for doing all this. Someone who understands, that was all she wanted...

"I know this is not how you envisioned your marriage," Huaisang whispered so softly - Qin Su read his lips by candlelight more than anything. 

She leaned forward and replied, "I realized some time ago it would be scandalous. Just not this way." Jin Guangyao always used to rebuff her advances - not for lack of interest, but out of a desire to build a sufficient reputation first so there would be no scandal. But Qin Su never cared - she was not dissuaded when A-Yao told her her secret - she was prepared for any consequences in order to live a happy life with the one she cared about. She never wanted to waste away in an arranged marriage as her mother seemed to...

Nie Huaisang's dark eyes gleamed like obsidian in the candlelight. Those eyes searched her down to her core, mining her for insight. Despite all other appearances, he was truly of the mountains he called home. "If tomorrow all our marriages were put aside by the Heavens above, tell me, would you marry Jin Guangyao? Would you runaway with her, far from all these politics and social rules?" 

Qin Su thought about it - and shook her head. "No. Not after everything that happened before we left. I saw a new side to A-Yao that I did not know before...I love her dearly, still, which is why it hurt so much. But things have irrevocably changed." She paused thoughtfully and mouthed back, "What about you?" 

Her fake husband blinked in surprise. "Me? Marrying her?" He gaped. 

Qin Su giggled, hiding her face in her pillow for a moment. "No, no - I mean...Was it new to you as well? I mean, you had an idea before me, but did you always know A-Yao had that in her?" 

"Da-ge warned me first," Huaisang confessed. "And the thing is, I didn't believe him at the time. Isn't that strange? But, of course, he was being grouchy at the time about the war still. I thought he was just being a grump about A-Yao spoiling me with birthday gifts." 

"Hm, A-Yao told me that your brother was a temperamental brute who always saw the worst in her," said Qin Su. "But watching them both the past year, I think they see each other completely and just choose to focus on the bad parts of each other so they feel justified behaving badly in turn." They observed closely, as artful politicians and skilled warriors should; but neither was one for asking important questions directly - or at all - it seemed.

Qin Su heaved a tremendous sigh. What to do with those two? She almost envied Sect Leader Lan, who seemed to have yet to read his sworn siblings' letters. 

No wonder Huaisang always carried a fan. His lips were far more telling than his tongue. She understood him before he even spoke. "They're equally insufferable at their cores, it's true." He said, smirking. 

Qin Su let out another giggle, more sardonic than the first. But, surely, anyone listening in on the exiled newlyweds would be convinced of their youthful affair...

Chapter Text

The days following their arrival cemented their positions as Jin Guangshan's honored guests and the most tantalizing gossip served at tables across Koi Tower - breakfast, lunch, teatime, dinner, and every snack in-between. The Jin Sect Leader paraded Nie Huaisang and Qin Su about - showing them various entertainments, personally introducing them to people, and spreading their romantic little tale all around like a pox. Qin Su blushed continuously under the intense attention.

The suspicion and sneering she was used to! She was odd! She was somehow deficient! Of course, she would do something so shameful, it's what her family must always have worried about! But suddenly Qin Su found herself bombarded for details on her romance, looked at with awe by younger girls and unhappily married folk. Then there was the embarrassment of people's unasked for sympathies - how could Nie Mingjue be so cruel to his little brother? How could Jin Guangyao do such a thing to her dearest, most loyal companion?! Who would stand up for these youths!

A cynical voice in her head that sounded an awful lot like A-Yao told her that these sympathies were Sect Leader Jin's doing. If he hadn't directly ordered that everyone treat his guests kindly, then at the very least the savvy ones would follow his lead. But the sheer interest in her private life now - it was too sincere and entirely uncomfortable for Qin Su.

Qin Su did her best to behave graciously and tactfully - but also still frivolous and naive - and, of course, terribly wronged by Qinghe Nie and thankful toward Lanling Jin - and it was a lot, quite honestly. At the end of the week, Qin Su was exhausted - and annoyed with Jin Guangyao all over again - and then also somewhat worried for her. She wondered how her friend kept up with such elaborate acts all the time. Wasn't it tiring? Didn't it hurt? 

The memory of her father's too-brief visit weighed heavily on Qin Su, and suddenly she could not keep up with the other ladies on her garden walk. She excused herself to rest a bit on her own while the others carried on, simpering over her health and jibing it was a bit early for her to claim pregnancy - unless! They left her in a giggling cloud. That was another thing...Much of everyone's sudden keen interest was focused on Qin Su's health - her habits - her stomach. They wondered if this elopement was due to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Nevermind the fact that Nie Huaisang had been supposedly trapped at the Cloud Recesses for months now...

She watched her new friends disappear behind some topiaries - honestly rested a bit - and then walked off in the opposite direction. 

It was so rare that she or Huaisang or the Ma Twins was afforded a moment alone outside their apartments. Much of their investigation so far had been left up to chance. She and Huaisang mouthed accounts of suspicious activity and interesting observations to each other in bed each night. But so far, that had only led to a handful of leads they had no real means to pursue this early on their stay. Not when so much attention was on them. Then there was the information they just had no idea what to do with...

He Su, head of the Tingshan He Sect, was an opponent of Jin Guangshan who had rather suddenly shifted into a more cordial stance toward him after Jin Zixuan's wedding. Rumor had it this was because his daughter's betrothed died during the Sunshot Campaign and had recently come out of mourning. Tingshan was husband-hunting for their daughter. But that had been before Nie Huaisang and Qin Su showed up - Sect Leader Jin introduced the two to He Niu in passing that first day after their arrival, without enthusiasm. She was a beauty in blue and yellow who greeted the couple with thinly-veiled disdain. A week later, Qin Su had not seen her particular shades of blue and yellow anywhere in Koi Tower, even at a distance. And as grand and huge as the estate was, word had it that the He Sect suddenly departed from Koi Tower, told they would find no husband's there. 

Then there were all sorts of speculation about Jiang Yanli's renovations to her private manse. The koi ponds were one thing. The new additions, some overzealous nesting instinct for an expectant mother. But what really startled people was how she seemed to adopt the opulence of Lanling Jin, spending thousands of tael on frivolity and, frankly speaking, ugly interior design. Qin Su glimpsed some of the inner rooms during a brief introduction to Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan by Sect Leader Jin. After so many weeks working for the Nie Sect treasury, she silently bemoaned the waste of money - though she knew Lanling Jin would never run out. But really, couldn't Young Madam Jin at least spend the money on better craftsmanship! Qin Su had never seen such shoddy, slap-dash work for such a price! 

Tearoom gossip and simple observation confirmed the darker rumors that A-Yao told them about before they departed. Jin Zixun was frequently absent from Koi Tower. Out west, was whispered - followed closely by the latest rumors about the Yiling Patriarch and his Ghost General snatching girls up across the countryside. Over twenty missing girls now. And seven found dead. 

A frightening pattern was emerging in that regard. A girl would disappear from a village - every family would lock up their daughters like precious jewels and hire rogue cultivators and local sects to guard their tiny fiefdoms all hours of the day and night. Weeks would pass - the towns would run out of money to pay for protection - they would lower their guard, for there was little other choice but to move on with life. And then, one dark, moonless night, a second girl would be snatched away from her village - right from the very bed she shared with her whole family! Only this one would always be found - and in grisly condition. 

Qin Su could hardly stomach these rumors - and she dreaded what new terror Jin Zixun would bring home with him. 

She came upon another cluster of courtiers in the gardens. These, however, were not giggling youths or venerable elders trading political acumen. Qin Su smiled in true delight at coming across a creative circle meeting in the garden. Almost every single person sat on the cushions around the low tables bore an instrument. Messy stacks of paper and inspiration mingled with scattered teacups and pots. One young woman stood above the others, reading what sounded like the early drafts of a great masterwork. 

Qin Su was not the only person to linger on the edges of the scene, listening. It was truly a captivating piece. 

She only came on the scene about half-way through, but she soon understood that the ballad concerned two lovers caught up in a war obviously inspired by the Sunshot Campaign. But the story was far more mystical than the reality. For one, the clever heroine was cursed into 'an ill-fitting body' from birth by a jealous demon and later captured by a Qiongqi. This was the true bestial form of the mountain warlord, who sought to make her his concubine and would only change her back to her true form if she agreed. Her lover was a prince of the northern plains, a barbarian born of wolves, who now begrudged his lover as a traitor who deceived him in every way and now served his enemy. He did not understand that his lover only sought to defeat the Qiongqi and return themselves to their true state. There was also a traveling monk who was permitted to travel between the warring states, who delivered secret messages between the lovers about the war and other troubles, though the two never realized that they were communicating with their lost loves. But then, of course, came along a hostage prince from the coast who immediately took a liking to the heroine...

At the end of the brief volume, everyone in the vicinity applauded the poetess and her work. 

Qin Su approached her as another creative stepped up to perform a jaunty little tune he learned on his latest cultural excursion among the mediocre folk. 

"Poetess, what a marvelous work you have underway. Please, tell me your name so that this one can patronize you," Or at least urge Jin Guangshan to. Technically, she and Huaisang had no money of their own at the moment. 

The poetess saluted, smiling proudly, and said, "This one is called Caibin-Sanren, My Lady." 

"A rogue cultivator!" Qin Su exclaimed. She met so few in her life. To meet a rogue also so skilled in the art of literature was a delight. "Is that how you came across the inspiration for your work?" 

Caibin-Sanren nodded and explained how her tale was a transcription and adaptation of many mediocre folktales emerging from the recent war. "Of course, I have also added some cultivation world gossip for flavor," She teased. 

A sinking feeling dragged Qin Su's gut down to her feet. "Oh?" 

Caibin-Sanren took a silk fan from her belt - something unexpectedly luxurious for a rogue cultivator - and used it to demure her wickedly amused expression. "Was the lady not present for the scandal at Young Master Jin's wedding? Do not fret, this one will tell you. Sect Leader Nie and Madam Nie had a very public fight all over He Niu throwing a flower to Nie Mingjue. They spent the night apart, only to come back together again when Sect Leader Jin offended his pregnant daughter somehow. Those two would have come back together without him, though. Everyone knows they have been hot-and-cold since before the war."

"Huh?!" 

Caibin-Sanren carried on - as if she enjoyed tugging a young lady's braids, "It's so obvious if you look back on it all. There's different tellings, but most have it that Meng Yao seduced Nie Mingjue. More specifically, she baited him in the long run so that he would not lose interest too quickly. Her close relationship with Sect Leader Lan was a real tease that finally riled him up to ask for her hand so only he could have her and not lose out to a little brother. Now, no one can agree if her getting angry over that flower was just another play to keep his interest, or if she genuinely could not bear a taste of her own medicine." 

Qin Su felt faint and stupid and had to take a seat in the grass. Caibin-Sanren blinked down at her and asked if she needed a drink of water. It was rather hot out. 

It took a few days for Qin Su to work up the nerve to tell the others what everyone thought of Nie Mingjue and A-Yao. The whole chamber cracked up with laughter, and Qin Su had half a mind to kick them all out. "Think of their reputations!" She rebuked them. Then, frantically wondered if that went against their cover.

She was in exile, shouldn't she be laughing at her oppressor's shame? Or would A-Yao prefer that she propagate this rumor since it was several hundred li from the truth? 

Huaisang wiped a stray tear and waved his fan as if waving off her worries. She had more than half a mind to snatch that darn fan from his hand. Instead, she scowled at him, hands on her hips and unimpressed. "They deserve it," He said mirthfully. 

Qin Su let out a breath and deflated. She supposed that much was true...

Soon after that, Jin Zixun finally returned to Koi Tower. Qin Su swallowed all taste and good sense and approached him alongside Huaisang and the Ma Twins. 

"Jin Zixun, so nice to see you back at Koi Tower," She greeted him, then feigned an abrupt realization. "Ah, much as transpired since our last meeting! Please, allow me to formally introduce my husband, Nie Huaisang," Her fake husband saluted Jin Zixun with a guileless smile and too much submission for someone who ranked above everyone else present. "And these two are his cousins on his mother's side, Ma Feifu and Ma Xueyong." Ma Chao and Ma Kun saluted at their respective introductions. 

Jin Zixun regarded them all with dead eyes. He had been home almost two days at that point, but still looked drained from his journey. His skin had a strange pallor to it for someone who had apparently been traveling for some time. During the war, many cultivators tanned very darkly from how much time they spent flying battle to battle under the harsh sun. Yet, Jin Zixun was pale as a ghost. 

"I heard you got kicked out of the Unclean Realm," He said. "Good for you." Then he trudged off. 

They spent some time trying to ascertain where, but it seemed he spent a lot of time in his chambers by himself since his wife went away to her family's home for the duration of her pregnancy. If not to his chamber, he went out into the city near nightfall and none of their party could yet leave Koi Tower to follow him without arousing suspicion. But Qin Su noticed that several other men seemed to head off in the same direction every few nights. Through the same discreet merchant's gate, eventually turning down the same road and out of sight from the battlements...Qin Su soon realized she grew up at these men's knees. They were her father's friends and allies. 

She wondered if her father used to disappear with them.

Qin Su and Nie Huaisang next spoke to Jin Zixun when finally invited to a private dinner with the main Jin family. He bluntly asked them about the old-as-dirt Nie cultivator that had been butting in on his and Jin Zixuan's plans for the upcoming Discussion Conference. Before either half of the couple could respond, Jin Zixuan sternly interjected. 

"I have told you twice already. His name is Nie Yuozhong. He brought wedding gifts from Qinghe Nie - those two fine snow-white horses - and I invited him to stay and help organize the conference in order to return the gesture of goodwill," Jin Zixuan spoke around gritted teeth, obviously trying to keep up his decorum in front of his guests and dear wife. For once, Madam Jin looked like she would gladly forgive her son's poor manners - so long as he managed to shut up his cousin. "He has been immensely helpful to that end. Unlike some people.

"He's rude, A-Xuan," Jin Zixun shot back. "He won't talk to anyone besides the sect heir! What kind of guest is that?"

"Guests should be comfortable, and Nie Yuozhong is not an extroverted person, he -"

Jiang Yanli placed a tempering hand over her husband's. "Nie Yuozhong really has helped my husband carry the burden of this new responsibility," She said. "We should be grateful to him."

Qin Su supposed it was a tremendous responsibility - not only Jin Zixuan's first time planning such a grand affair, though under his father's directives, but also on such short notice. Gusu Lan had relinquished their right to host the next conference rather suddenly just a few short months ago. Jin Zixuan, like his cousin, looked fatigued even early on in the evening.

Qin Su couldn't help thinking about how put-together A-Yao always seemed even while juggling dozens of Sect Leader Jin's projects...

"We should thank him for his assistance," Jiang Yanli remarked. And the whole table hummed at various levels of commitment. Qin Su felt Jin Guangshan's eyes on her and Huaisang, assessing their reactions. She avoided his gaze and let her discomfort show, hoping he would think it had something to do with her purported exile and Jin Zixuan's sudden favoring of a Nie cultivator. 

"Qinghe Nie is very reliable," Huaisang declared with a sad pride. She looked at him and saw real conviction on his face, true faith in his clan's ideals. He even looked truly saddened to be parted from the Unclean Realm, though he had treated their stay at Koi Tower thus far as nothing short of a holiday by all outward appearances. 

"Huaisang," She whispered - and then convinced herself to grasp his hand in a blatant show of comfort and familiarity. She didn't look his way, but she sensed that Jin Guangshan was satisfied with them. But with her gaze fixed on Huaisang, she also noticed how his eyes darted over to Jiang Yanli. She wondered what he saw there...

After dinner, Qin Su and Huaisang headed in the opposite direction as Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan - but then they took some odd twists and turns through the halls. After a few weeks at Koi Tower, she was not surprised that Nie Huaisang had learned his way around the place. She herself knew where they were heading before they arrived outside Jiang Yanli's manse. 

Jiang Yanli spotted them before she passed through the gate, and approached. 

"Is something the matter?" She worriedly inquired. 

Nie Huaisang demurred, waving his silk fan. "No, no, of course not! Qin Su and I simply got the idea that the night is still too young to go to bed! Let's all drink together and have a proper evening without annoying cousins and talks of politics! Forgive me, but Jin Zixun really did ruin the whole evening by bringing up Nie Zhong!" 

Jiang Yanli shifted uneasily, hands cradling her growing belly. Likely, she knew already about Nie Zhong's reasons for being at Koi Tower and didn't want to get tangled up in that mess. Moreover, in her condition, she probably really did want to go to bed at the early hour. Her husband, however, gave her a soft look and so they were invited inside. 

In Jiang Yanli's ruined tearoom - a mess of poorly done gilding and shoddy artisan work that would surely make all Jin ancestors rise as vengeful spirits - the four sat down to tea. Despite his excuse, Huaisang did not press for alcohol. 

He complimented the tea blend, then got straight down to business. 

"Jiang Yanli, during my stay at the Cloud Recesses, I heard a rumor about you and the reason that Sect Leader Lan is in seclusion," He began. 

Jiang Yanli tensed. Jin Zixuan's eyes widened in pure shock - he then gritted his teeth and glared pure accusation their way. He had been tricked, and he knew that now. 

Huaisang bulled right over Jin Zixuan's protests. "The Lan Elders were scandalized that he would risk the sect's reputation, meeting you under such clandestine circumstances to discuss the Yiling Patriarch. The fact you risked it as well, I think, speaks to your position," He said, all friendly demeanor and ominous words. Qin Su felt the knife's edge as surely at Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan must have, and she was obstinately meant to be on Nie Huaisang's side. "I will speak plainly. Tell me everything you two know about Jin Zixun and anyone else Jin Guangshan has been in close contact with since the wedding. Do so, and I will deliver you and your brother Qinghe Nie's support." 

Jaws dropped and teacups clinked loudly. Jiang Yanli looked like a beggar if a rich man dangled a necklace worth seven fortunes right before his nose. So tempted, yet rightfully disbelieving. She looked across the table at Huaisang - then locked eyes with Qin Su, however briefly. Finally, she turned to her husband and they shared a glance that contained multitudes of conversations. Only when Jin Zixuan nodded, did Jiang Yanli speak. 

"Knowing what you are seeking out, I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty that Jin Zixun is not your culprit," She said, delivering every word slowly and cautiously. Ready to renege this deal at the first sign of betrayal. "Jin Zixun is not necessarily in Jin Guangshan's good graces. He is sent away again and again on these investigations. At first, he took the task as an honor, but now he returns in worse and worse tempers. He sleeps away most of his days, and spends his nights drinking, gambling, and visiting brothels. Then he is gone again on his mission."

"And his mission is?" 

Jiang Yanli refused to answer; she must not think it is pertinent to their deal then, Qin Su realized. 

Qin Su swallowed her pride and manners, turned to Jin Zixuan and asked, "Is it 'brothels' or a brothel?"

Jin Zixuan balked. "Why would I know?!" 

Qin Su flushed furiously and explained, "We have been watching your cousin's coming and goings. He goes off in the same direction as other men close to your father. I am not accusing Young Master Jin of infidelity, I simply mean...Your father has probably at least hinted at an establishment that is favored by the men of Koi Tower." 

Jin Zixuan's cheeks matched hers in intensity. Twins in embarrassment. "Y-Yes," The sect heir admitted. "He did...still does want me to visit. But how is that important?"

"Well," said Qin Su. "A-Yao once told me that she got her start as a spy growing up in a brothel. She knew a lot about the inner-workings of Yunping just from listening to clients chatter with the women. Surely a brothel frequented by Sect Leader Jin's inner circle will give us some inkling of who the proxy is. Perhaps it would be a new client even."

Huaisang nodded approvingly at the idea. "It might take more delicate probing, but I might also be able to find out if Jin Zixun's body shows any signs of backlash. Or anybody else's for that matter." 

"We will be able to find out," Qin Su corrected him, shocking everyone all over again. Shoving down her embarrassment, she argued, "It was my idea, I should see it through. And I won't be made out as Madam Jin's reincarnation! Fake husband or not!" 

Nie Huaisang's stunned expression gave way to an awed smile. "But of course, My Lady!" He said, bowing his head in submission to her. 

Qin Su rather liked it. 

Chapter Text

It took some time because to move too quickly after their evening with Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan would be suspicious. Instead, for two terrible weeks, Qin Su and Nie Huaisang let themselves drift further into Jin Guangshan's orbit as naturally as possible. They took to drinking with the man and an ever-shuffling array of courtiers in private.

It was classy and elegant to start with, with shallow and simplistic politics that Qin Su remembered her father baiting her and her brother with. Saying that he wanted their advice, he tested their knowledge, and let them feel important and intelligent. Jin Guangshan treated the exiles like children to start with, up to and including calling her A-Su at every turn. It made her uncomfortable, knowing now that his own children distrusted him and how her father's lifelong friend cast him aside so easily. But she persevered. 

She let Sect Leader Jin act familiarly toward her and Huaisang. She balked a little when he started to trade ribald jokes behind closed doors with them - the kind he never dared before with her, for fear of incensing Madam Jin. They were crass wordplay that made her feel dirty for having listened to them. But Qin Su and Nie Huaisang laughed - more and more as they grew truly used to it, even if she was sure neither one of them was truly amused.

Ma Kun was, a little - and that drew Jin Guangshan's eye. 

The Jin Sect Leader remarked more than once on Ma Xueyong's resemblance to her aunt, the late Concubine Ma. And then he started to call her A-Yong. One evening, three bottles deep into their nightly festivities, the older man leaned over and flashed Ma Kun a charming smile marred by alarmingly false teeth. Rumor had it his new dentures were made of marble and whalebone. That or teeth pulled from Wen Ruohan's skull. Jin Guangshan leered at Ma Kun, baring those ghastly teeth - reached out - and stroked the underside of her chin as if she were an animal. 

Ma Chao bolted to his feet - swayed drunkenly - and contested the over-familiarity of the sect leader with his sister. "We all know that you don't have the grace to make her a concubine!" Jin Guangshan grimaced at that statement - but could not risk offending Nie Huaisang, so he retreated. But it was up to Ma Kun to awkwardly laugh it all off as a joke her brother took too seriously. 

"Chaochao, please! Don't be jealous!" She teased her twin right out of the room. 

Qin Su watched this tense moment unfold and knew that it was the moment to strike. 

"Sect Leader Jin shows good taste," She blurted out before the acrid words could sear her tongue. "Our A-Yong is a fine cultivator and a blossoming beauty. A true flower on the plains of Qinghe. But..." She trailed off meaningfully. Everyone waited on her words with bated breath. "Surely it is wiser to pluck flowers from other gardens than to despoil one's own." 

Jin Guangshan sat back in his divan and observed her. "Indeed," 

The next night, a new 'friend' of his joined their little party - obstinately as entertainment. Qin Su did her best to tamp down her disappointment when Caibin-Sanren entered the room, pipa in hand. She held onto a vain hope that it was not as it seemed right up until the moment Caibin-Sanren concluded The Pearl of Turmoil, Volume One. In the next moment after proudly receiving her rightful praise, the rogue cultivator set aside her instrument and plopped down in Sect Leader Jin's lap. Caibin-Sanren batted the last dust motes of Qin Su's expectations for her when she unfurled her silken fan - so similar to Nie Huaisang's newest one, Qin Su realized with a start. 

She then recalled the cheap pearl buttons that Jin Guangshan bought in bulk - the one that Meng Shi tethered all her own hopes and dreams to - and Qin Su realized that for the richest man in the world, Jin Guangshan was a cheap bastard. 

The miser pouted up at his mistress childishly. "You didn't take any of my suggestions for this latest draft." 

Caibin-Sanren stroked his chin as if he was the beloved pet. "Aye, but I at least considered them." And she consoled her lover with a salacious kiss. 

It was a bittersweet moment. 

Qin Su hated to see such a bright woman as Caibin-Sanren cozied up to the likes of Jin Guangshan - and hoped dearly that the woman and all her potential would not be ruined by that man. But she and Nie Huaisang shared a significant look as a maid poured their next round of wine. This shameless display of infidelity - in front of guests who ought to see the very best sides of him - it could only mean one thing. Jin Guangshan trusted that they would not judge him. 

"Aw, twins!" Huaisang exclaimed, brandishing his matching fan in Caibin-Sanren's face and smiling guilelessly. 

A few days later, Nie Huaisang came to Qin Su and announced, "He wants me to visit his favorite brothel. To try his favorite girls. I told him that you would like to join." 

Qin Su felt so ill, she could hardly blush at the implication. But reminded herself this was her own idea. She was still unsure that she could trust Nie Huaisang to act in A-Yao's best interest, and she was learning all the time how much he still kept from her. For example, she was certain that Huaisang knew more about the ongoings with the Yiling Patriarch than the fact Jiang Yanli and Sect Leader Lan had a secret argument about it. Nonetheless...

"Do you think that he will expect us to...do anything?" She asked.

Huaisang shrugged, of all things, and hid behind that new fan of his. 

She silently fumed along the way to the brothel the next night. Of course, Nie Huaisang was so nonchalant - she had read his book collection, same as A-Yao! The little pervert was likely looking forward to the chance to visit a brothel without his brother finding out and dragging him home by the ear.

As they hustled through narrow side streets, led by a Jin retainer, Qin Su could not help but envy Ma Chao. Huaisang had realized the benefit of their guard's outburst. He was now obviously on the outs with Jin Guangshan, but also supposedly with the rest of their little household. So this evening was the time for him to slip off and talk to Nie Zhong about his own time at Koi Tower. Commiseration by the looks of it to spies - but reconnaissance in reality. More than Ma Chao, however, she envied Ma Kun who had been given the night off to scrub off Jin Guangshan's molesting gaze and spiritually recover from it. More than likely, she would spend that time in the stable with the horses Nie Zhong brought to Koi Tower from her mother's loving custody. 

When they stepped into the brothel through a backdoor, Qin Su did her best to channel her nervous energy into the appearance of excitement. Their first introduction to the establishment was a woman garbed like a noblewoman; she held out an expectant hand and received a bulging coin purse from the Jin retainer. She smiled graciously and welcomed them to the House of Clouds and Rain. 

"Where we make clouds with one turn of the hand, and rain with the other," She explained needlessly. Qin Su blushed at the euphemism for love-making and thought it rather sad and misplaced for a brothel. Soft clouds and gentle rains, hanging floral sachets, and incense could not completely conceal what already tickled Qin Su's nose. 

When the woman pulled open a door, the force of the place hit them full in the face like a typhoon wind. Rose-colored lanterns cast the hall ahead in soft pink light. Silk drapery twisted and flowed across the walls and ceilings, giving Qin Su the impression of a spider's nest. Ornate rugs deafened every step they took toward - and so they did not disturb the occupants of the various rooms they passed, though Qin Su glimpsed many happenings. Delicious feasts attended by many men, entertained by dancing girls - lounges where clients had their feet rubbed and nails manicured by doting women, one acting as a footstool - raucous gatherings of spilled drink and bawdy music, men and women competing to see who knew the dirtiest limericks. Qin Su watched clients slip out of these rooms, sometimes led by the hand themselves, but other times pulling women along down the hall and upstairs. 

The woman - perhaps the madam, or perhaps a procuress, if Qin Su remembered A-Yao's stories correctly - led them to an unoccupied tearoom. That was where the Jin retainer finally left them completely in her experienced hands. She got them comfortable on some plush cushions and with some dark tea. The woman snapped her fingers, and music drifted from behind a screen in the corner. Then, the woman clapped her hands twice, and a line of girls entered the room in flimsy patterned robes. 

Qin Su's grip on her teacup tightened. 

Huaisang fluttered his fan, eyes growing wide with interest at seeing a scene from his novels unfold in-person. 

"These are our most beautiful, most skilled women. They are exclusively reserved for the patronage of Lanling's most elite and will treat the young master and his lady accordingly. Please, take your time selecting tonight's companion, and do not be afraid to ask questions about their various expertise." Said the madam. 

Qin Su looked over the line of faces. She saw fewer women than near girls, possibly younger than Qin Su herself. Recalling yet more of A-Yao's hushed stories, Qin Su forced herself to be thankful that none of them looked so young as twelve or thirteen. She marveled at how none of them looked uncomfortable or afraid when she knew from A-Yao how they must have really felt inside - but they all smiled at her, charming and demure and with just a hint of enticing shyness...But there was also an insistent quality, too, she noticed. Like Qin Su noticed in A-Yao's smiles, too, sometimes...

Huaisang turned to Qin Su and asked, "What do you think, My Lady?" 

Qin Su was not totally surprised he left it up to her. This was all her idea, after all. She looked back at the line of girls - then turned to the madam and asked, "Do you have anyone...anyone good with beginners?" The proxy was someone newly in Jin Guangshan's favor, after all. Perhaps they were also new to brothels until recently.

The madam smiled and inclined her head. "Yes, My Lady," She answered - then barked at the line, "Butterfly! Little Love!" 

A girl in a butterfly and lily patterned robe stepped forward. She wore her hair in twin knots and braids - girlish and nonthreatening in every way that made Qin Su highly uncomfortable. At the other end of the line, a girl in peach-colored robes and long-unadorned hair stepped up with the barest hint of hesitation, though she was obviously a few years older than Butterfly. There was something achingly familiar about the young woman overall. Something in her high forehead - the shape of her mouth - her large, dark eyes.

Qin Su chose her, sensing that this was the right path.

The young woman, Little Love, led her and Huaisang upstairs without hesitation, all comforting smiles at their inexperience. But Qin Su saw how her dainty little feet dragged each step forward. She brought her clients to a room that appeared somewhat personal, with little trinkets nestled along the barred windowsill and a pincushion for sewing sat on a chest of drawers. Little Love brushed it aside so quickly though Qin Su wondered if it was ever truly there - or her own innocent mind begging this girl to have something outside of lustful men.

"Young Master, My Lady," She greeted them in sweet tones. Her delicate fingers teased silk sash of her robe. "This one is at your service. Please, tell me what this humble servant can do for you." 

Huaisang gestured to the little table shoved off to the side. "Let us sit and talk first. Get to know each other," He smiled at Little Love as if asking her to indulge them. 

Little Love moved cautiously to prepare their seats. She summoned wine for them at Nie Huaisang's request - it must have been a familiar enough order that it set her at ease with them again. 

"The young master and his lady must have truly interesting stories to share. This one would be honored to listen," She said after pouring their drinks. 

"Ah, you must listen to clients boast and brag every night!" Huaisang waved her words off with his fan. "My wife and I are more curious about you, Little Love. You are the first of your kind that we have ever met personally, and we are such big fans of romantic literature! Please, tell us some interesting stories!"

Little Love regarded them with sudden clarity in her large, dark eyes - as if seeing them now for exactly the types of deviants they were. She took a breath, donning a new, more confident bearing, and launched into a tale of a besotted merchant's son who she made a man of - who then thought she was the love of his life and began to shower her with gifts - how this was an affair which carried on for ages and ended dramatically in her lover becoming a monk since his father would not pay her ransom. Qin Su listened in awe - reminding herself constantly that it was likely far from the truth of things, if not an outright lie - but Little Love truly did have a gift for storytelling much like Caibin-Sanren!

This realization left Qin Su mournful for the other woman's circumstances. This feeling weighed heavier on her heart with every salacious tale Little Love shared, sinking Qin Su into a gloom that gave Nie Huaisang ample opportunity to take advantage as usual. 

"Hmm, your stories are most enjoyable, Little Love, but my wife grows bored," He leaned forward and implored the young woman, "Tell us something we haven't read in the novels. Something dark, debased, and real. Something that would get you whipped if it left this room." 

Little Love gaped, dark eyes wide with sudden terror - Qin Su shoved Huaisang on her behalf. "What are you doing?!" She whispered through gritted teeth. They had agreed to be gentle with these women! 

Huaisang held up his hands defensively and floundered like a caught fish. "Ah! My Lady, I meant no offense! I only thought that you looked unamused - our benefactor paid good money for this experience and I thought it would offend him if we did not take full advantage! And, as you know, I do not have the appetite as to actually act out my favorite literary works - and it was you who said that the first night was much too soon for you yourself to act -" 

Qin Su covered his fat, lying mouth with her hands, rightfully smothering him. "I-I know what I said!" She lied, too. The problem with the constant threat of spies was that they hadn't had the chance to discuss their exact excuse for not taking full advantage of this evening. Only now did Huaisang spring his idea on her - and in front of the person that they needed to put at ease and trick at once. Little Love was a whore, beholden to the wishes of her client. If she could not make up for any mistakes made this evening with her body, she would need to satisfy her clients as best she could other ways - or risk punishment more severe than a whipping. 

"Young Master, My Lady, please do not quarrel on this lowly one's account," She beseeched them. "I have a tale perfectly suited to your requests. I simply hesitated to sully your ears with such an indelicate tale as compared to your beloved literary works." 

"No, no," Huaisang said eagerly. "Sully away!" 

Little Love plastered on a smile and began, quite conspiratorially, "A few months ago, I was visited by a Lan cultivator!" 

"What?!" Her present patrons yelped.

The whore bobbed her head affirmatively. She looked relieved to have shocked them. "Yes, a cultivator dressed all in white came to the House of Clouds and Rain - and he chose me of all women to keep him company! I was both terribly flattered and shocked, and many were jealous of me...But then," Little Love hesitated the barest instance, as she had all evening. "I noticed the smell first. We sat together and drank and talked about his night hunts. He even played me some music, and I felt like a seduced maiden. It was a scene from the novels you describe, but it was as if a putrid flower was pressed between those pages. It burned my eyes as I leaned on his shoulder and he embraced me, and he wiped away my tears so gently. I could almost put it out of my mind as one of the sachets in my room going bad. But...When he disrobed, I saw that he had terrible, festering wounds across his chest. Blackened holes of rot the size of soybeans. I got sick." She admitted shamefully. Qin Su watched her assess Huaisang and her own face - their reactions to her sordid tale. 

With a shuddering breath, she pressed on. "I went to the madam straight away and asked that he be turned out. He was obviously diseased and we do not allow that here - at least, we never allowed that before. The Madam told me that he was a sect leader and a friend of an important patron. He could not be turned down. So...I serviced him, wounds and all. He was most apologetic and very gentle with me and left me extra money for my troubles. He promised it was not a disease that I could contract, and our physician confirmed it later. Before he left, he tucked me into bed and played me another song. It was all very strange...To be with a gentleman so visibly marked by iniquity." 

"A Lan cultivator. And a sect leader, you say?" Qin Su glimpsed Huaisang's tight-lipped expression hidden behind his fan from the corner of her eye.

Little Love blinked out of her haze as if realizing what he meant. "Oh, I suppose that would make him Sect Leader Lan...if the Madam was being truthful..." 

"Not many sects wear all white as part of their uniforms. Even if this person was not really a sect leader, it sounds like a Lan," Huaisang remarked. He hummed thoughtfully; Qin Su shuddered at the wondering look in his eyes. There was a dark plan there, harsh decisions being made too hastily all over again in the name of revenge. 

"Not necessarily," She interjected too sharply. Huaisang and Little Love looked at her in surprise. Qin Su let out an awkward titter and asked Little Love, "I mean, we shouldn't get our hopes up. Did this person wear a forehead ribbon? Gusu Lan cultivators tend to wear forehead ribbons."

"Not outer disciples," said Huaisang. "And if he was visiting a brothel, it makes sense that he would forgo a symbol of restraint." 

"Yes, well," Qin Su lit up pleasantly at a sudden realization - at her own unappreciated brilliance. "Moling Su cultivators wear all white robes without forehead ribbons to emulate Gusu Lan! And Moling is much closer to Lanling than Gusu! They visit Koi Tower and attend other functions in the region all the time. Some even came to my birthday banquet last year! But Lan cultivators hardly leave Gusu for any reason besides night hunts." She asserted confidently. 

However, Nie Huaisang fluttered his fan, staring at his fake wife with a blank expression. Little Love tilted her confusedly like a puppy. "Moling Su? Never heard of 'em." 

Qin Su sagged in defeat and remembered viscerally how she had said basically the same thing when first introduced to Su Minshan last year. 

"They're new..." She squeaked - just the same as Su Minshan did. 

Little Love hummed thoughtfully. "He must have been one of them, though. You're right, My Lady. He wore no ribbon." 

After that, Huaisang declared Little Love's story boring~ if it only concerned a no-name sect in whatever-ling; he demanded something better for their benefactor's good money like a true brat. Little Love told them some other stories - some more gruesome than others, and some actually quite funny. But she seemed to catch on that they interested her clients less than her initial tale. Late into the night, bordering on the morning, she fiddled with her sash and scooted closer to Qin Su. "Some of my patrons have been women," The words were hot breath against Qin Su's ear. "Would the lady like to hear those tales as well?" 

Qin Su turned to Little Love in surprise - and a warm kiss was pressed to her parted lips - she yanked away in an instant and saw Huaisang bugged eyed and unabashedly interested behind his fan. Qin Su clamored to her feet, dragging Huaisang up with her. "Another time!" She shrilled on the way out. 

Then yanked open the door again to shove her expensive new hairpins into Little Love's hands. "For your troubles!" 

Qin Su found the Jin retainer waiting for them at the bottom of the stairs, conversing with a gaggle of too familiar figures. She hid her face in her hands and shoved Huaisang in front of her to handle the matter. "Yes, we're ready to head home." Her fake husband yawned with too much nonchalance. Qin Su was keenly aware of her messy hair as they headed down the hall past so many watchful eyes and out the back door. 

The next morning, at breakfast, everyone in the Nie apartments was terribly quiet.

Qin Su was running a fever from her unabating flush. 

Huaisang munched quietly on his food - totally unaffected somehow. Still, Qin Su truly wondered if something was wrong with him. 

Then, around a bite of specially-made yogurt, he idly remarked, "That whore, she looked a bit like Yao-jie. Don't you think, A-Su?" 

He took Qin Su's inelegant, gaping mouth as an adequate reply and continued, "I thought for sure you chose her for exactly that reason. Don't worry, I understand those complex feelings, My Lady. Perhaps Koi Tower was the wrong place to run away from our dear sister-in-law. Some time away might do us well..." 

Qin Su sighed, catching his meaning. "The city is too crowded. I long for the countryside."

At that, Ma Kun grinned and mentioned that the younger twins felt the same.

And by the end of that morning, she and her brother had the twin steads, Snowball and Sweetfeet, liberated from their stalls and saddled up alongside their own mounts. The four horses stormed out of the stableyard in a black and white blur, racing for the southern gates of Koi Tower. Jumping beds of peonies, circling clusters of courtiers like cattle, prancing up and down stairs, and galloping down glittery walkways - Qin Su laughed truthfully all the while as she steered Sweetfeet toward freedom. At the gates, at their final hurdles, a violet goddess blessed their departure with a wave and a smile. 

Four horses burst out the southern gates of Koi Tower, leaving behind a cloud of dust and scandal. 

Chapter Text

Humid summer air left everything feeling thick and moist. Rough hands worked soothing oil down her flanks, warming up her bare skin and leaving a pleasant chill in the next stroke - thick fingers cradled her hips and swept upward across the expanse of her growing belly and over spidering red striations etched deep into her skin like tattoos. Jin Guangyao let out a long sigh - the itching finally abated! The damned prickling and tickling that worsened every day as her stomach swelled grotesquely and cracks appeared in her - as if she might burst open like a pot in the kiln and leave behind a kicking, punching Nie heir - that terrible burning sensation across her midsection cooled thanks to the ointment delivered by Xiao Deng with the couple's dinner. 

Still...Her husband missed a spot directly below her protruding belly button. 

"Hmm, a little scratch would be much appreciated," She suggested - tested how far she could push him into servitude today. Jin Guangyao was not an invalid - she was perfectly capable of oiling her own itchy belly - massaging her own aching hands after playing the guqin for hours - braiding her own hair before bed - or climbing into her own bath unassisted. It was just interesting to see Nie Mingjue's heinous amounts of guilt play out in ways that weren't potentially catastrophic - when it wasn't totally infuriating and utterly bewildering, that is. At the moment though, it was strictly interesting, and her own hands were busy working mindlessly with a needle and thread. It was poor decorum to interrupt another cultivator's mediation. 

The large hands reaching around her did not falter in their ministrations, massaging oil across her stretchmarks. But a huff of hot breath tickled her ear. 

"You would know where it itches better than me," Mingjue pointed out. "With your memory, you should recall how frustrated you got with me last time." Yesterday, he meant.

She huffed in return. "I was busy with paperwork. Despite what you may believe, it's not just magically completed the moment you drop it in my lap." That first-ever pile had disappeared within a few hours though - and Nie Mingjue had looked at her the way Meng Yao had at the first cultivator she ever met. Like she was some Heavens-sent salvation or bodhisattva. Mingjue washed that look off his face in an instant - it being overcome by a tall wave of high expectations - and handed down new orders regarding their advance forces to the west. She had eagerly hopped to - that mayfly expression seared into her memory forevermore, his trust in her capabilities burning brighter than all the memories of nasty looks shot her way that particular day.

"Somehow, you still have too much free time on your hands..." One warm paw strayed from her belly to thumb the fabric occupying her lap now in paperwork's stead. Simple, undyed cotton. Baby clothes should not be overly elaborate, with embroidery or vibrant dyes, since they will be quickly outgrown. They need only be sewn together with love and care to keep the child safe against the elements. Jin Guangyao lightly smacked the intruding hand away from her work. 

"What? Now you take offense to me performing perfectly domestic tasks? My husband will never be satisfied with me! I am only making clothes for our daughter,"

"She arrives in late summer!" As if it wasn't already early summer!

"When autumn is nigh and those damned mountain winds will come nipping at her little ears. She will need a hat!"

After a pause, "What is it with you and hats?"

"You say that as if hats and I are conducting some illicit affair under your nose," Jin Guangyao reached back blindly and tugged the scraggly hairs of her husband's supposed mustache. She sewed baby clothes - he sprouted ugly facial hair. Jin Guangyao knew whose confinement was better spent. 

Mingjue loomed massively over her to properly shoot her an absolutely vexing smirk. She flushed deeply - her whole face became a vermillion dot.

Putting on her most unaffected airs, she lifted her chin and said, "That hat - it made me look taller. It was an essential element of my disguise!" 

Mingjue snorted and mussed her hair. "Just admit it. You miss your ugly hat. You miss looking taller - or, less short, that is." The brute sat back against his mountain of pillows with a sigh, abandoning his marital duties - leaving her belly and his child to the cold air. "At least I know what you gift you for our anniversary." 

"Don't you dare, Da-ge," She pricked him with her little needle for good measure and reveled in his little wince. "Besides, the traditional first-anniversary gift is paper. In which case, more paperwork is fine by me. It's what you've always given when you were most happy with me." What Jin Guangyao truly wanted was Nie Ruofei's journals, but those had to yet to be uncovered. There had been a brief ruckus over some booklets found shuffled in with some texts on old talisman drafts - but the graphic personal contents had merely blinded the poor guards and left them too horrified to continue their search for several hours. It was a brief setback - but Jin Guangyao still prayed fervently with her Guanyin pendant each evening to find the journals long before her wedding anniversary. 

Already, Qin Su's twenty-second birthday had passed. Like a little riverboat bobbing across turbulent waters in thick fog, just narrowly avoiding jagged rocks and low hanging tree branches. Nie Zhong had yet to send a report on this past week at Koi Tower. "What marvelous gifts Jin Guangshan must have showered upon Qin Su at her birthday celebration," She wondered aloud. 

Mingjue's legs shifted restlessly beneath the blanket, as sure as a sign as the pinch in his brow that something weighed heavily on his mind. Jin Guangyao finished her latest stitch and set the undyed cloth in her lap. She looked at her husband expectantly. "Don't flatten your brains, Da-ge. Please, speak." 

"Maiden Su," He gruffly began. "You know that I was serious when I said that you could carry on with her again. That could be my anniversary gift to you and my birthday gift to her. Who cares about tradition anymore," 

She laughed at the insane idea - at the irony of his remark - at the hint of embarrassment burning his cheeks, so much more noticeable now with how pale he had gotten - and then scoffed mercilessly, "An interesting gift, I'd say. But unwelcome."

Mingjue regarded her fiercely. "You loved her-"

"Yes," said Jin Guangyao. "Loved. But not anymore - not that way. And you forget her feelings on this. Qin Su does not look at me that way anymore since she saw every part of me. Things have irrevocably changed between us. The same as they did between you and I," The best she could hope for with Qin Su, the girl she had wanted to marry, was friendship and sisterhood. It was a step above whatever would come of her marriage to her sworn brother. the friend she betrayed, the man she once - this tentative alliance on which both their lives now relied, embodied by the child resting under her hand who never asked to be born into such a mess. 

Jin Guangyao could tease and prod favors from Nie Mingjue easily enough now, true - but it did not really satisfy her or put her at ease. Something had been wrong with Nie Mingjue since the lake. He acted out of character and too softly toward her - she acted too softly toward him in turn, she supposed - and so she wondered if she was as secretly dissatisfied as her. He claimed to have cared deeply for Meng Yao once - and he somehow recognized Meng Yao in Jin Guangyao. But his treatment of her - it was not motivated by love or respect. Only pity and selfish guilt. 

She stabbed in a needle to start the next stitch - 

"There's still a chance then," And about skewered her thumb. 

Her forlorn posture snapped to attention - her awed gaze fastened to his determined eyes - his words, so infrequently used to their fullest ability, drew her breath away as surely as a saber. Jin Guangyao felt like he came up behind her and ran her through while wrapping her up in a tender embrace. 

"What," She said flatly. 

Her husband's flush climbed up his face like a pot turning red over a fire. Who would explode first, she or him?

"I mean that, if the time comes, I won't stand in the way again-" 

"What?" 

He actually flinched at her volume - shut his eyes tight like he could shut out her annoyance and his both - seethed a meditative breath. "You can yell at me all you like for piss poor apologies, and not properly considering all this in the first place, or whatever you have to do. I also don't just mean Maiden Su. You can take however many lovers you please since there will be an heir. I trust you to keep things discreet for your own sake." 

She slapped her hands over his cheeks; his eyes snapped open and went wide as hers, finding the two of them nearly nose to nose. 

"What madness are you on about now! Lovers? Qin Su? Me - me and you?" 

Confusion pinched Nie Mingjue's brow. Large hands circled her wrists. 

"We are married?" He said, stupidly helpless.  

"Because you didn't trust me! Rightfully so, but - all this started because of pragmatism, then it became about guilt and survival and the baby!" 

Nie Mingjue, her husband, sat up on his knees. Qi tickled her meridians in one cradled wrist while calloused fingers brushed across a fluttering pulse in her neck. The bell tinkled above their heads - just once. 

Jin Guangyao shook her head and pulled away. Nie Mingjue let her go. 

She did not clamor away like the frightened little animal she felt like. She kept her dignity and merely turned her head, focusing on the pale chiffon veil around them. It reminded her of the clouds shrouding the mountains of Gusu. The Cloud Recesses were meant to be a peaceful place, if not especially tender and loving. Shouldn't their marital bed be the same? Why did he have to say such stupid things all the time? 

"I told you," Nie Mingjue persisted. "Xichen told you." 

"No," She shook her head, wanting to loose the memory from the cage of her mind, let it fall out her ear, and never recall it again. But the sole blessing of her birth was also her curse. She remembered every word, the very motion of Lan Xichen's lips. 

He declared his absolute conviction to marry you...he confessed that he had known your secret for quite some time. That he had cared for you since your days as his deputy.

"You just wanted your trusted deputy back," She shook her head at the foolishness of it all, desperate. "You wanted Meng Yao." 

"And I eventually saw that you are not just Meng Yao or Jin Guangyao!" The nerve of him to sound so offended. The nerve of him to declare such things as this - "And despite every shard of my sanity you have mended these past weeks, I still - you were and are my family! Damn it, does everything piss you off!" 

Jin Guangyao rolled her eyes and scrubbed her face. To say such things...and somehow still make it sound like an insult! Her heart ached terribly as she faced him, smiling meanly. Swelled to bursting in her chest something painful.  

"So you did fall out of love," 

Nie Mingjue faced the accusation unflinchingly. "I don't know that," He confessed. "But I see you completely now, I'm certain. It feels more like loving you in a new way." 

"Not an evolution," Jin Guangyao remarked. "More a shift over rather than forward or backward." She snuffed out that half-hopeful spark in his eyes with one brutal truth - since he so craved the stuff and doled it out generously. "But you do not see me completely, Da-ge. Even if you did, you would only be steeped in further pity and misplaced guilt and become more pathetic. And that is not the man that I respected as Meng Yao." 

"Stop assuming things of me when you hate to have it done to you," Nie Mingjue bit back savagely. "Tell me what I do not know. Or don't and bear the obvious agony it is for you that knowing what little I apparently do, I could never stand to have you out of my life." 

Jin Guangyao was still bare naked before him, as he was before her, her sleeping robes discarded at the foot of the expansive bed, half a world away. Her stomach bulged out, bowing her spine and weighing her down. As much weight as she had gained in months of idleness and gorging on sweets, she was still a scrawny fox penned in with a prized bull. Small and skittish, hissing and ready to wile her way through the larger beast's stomping hooves and sink her teeth into his soft parts on her way to escape. 

"I grew up in a brothel dressed as a boy, but cotton robes are flimsy armor," She spat. "Upscale as the establishment supposedly was, I saw and heard a great many terrible, licentious things every single day of my life even before I even left my mother's teat. Every moan heard through the thin walls, every debased transaction spilled out into the halls and main rooms, every fluid and stench seeped into the very bones of the building - those lurid details are all trapped in that ironclad mind you valued so highly in your deputy." 

Already, Nie Mingjue looked sick with a fresh dose of poisonous guilt. 

Jin Guangyao would give him another - and another - and another, until he either gave up on her or died.

She described everything in the minute detail he always appreciated in her wartime briefings, sparing nothing for the sake of decorum or rank. Going rates and special requests. The whores and their repeat customers. The Madam and procuresses and guards. The starved street urchins who came through the back door - how they were trained - how they grew up right alongside Meng Yao in the worst of ways, and how they lived through that and afterward. How her surroundings silently threatened Meng Yao every day of her life.

"Even dressed as a boy and most everyone thinking I was such, that didn't stop one man," She remembered his face. He came to the brothel many times before that day, and many times after. "He stopped me in the hall and opened his robes. Told me to touch him and he would give me a whole silver tael." She smiled, just barely. "Sisi came along and distracted him. Took him away and sent me off to my mother, and then gave me that silver tael later. I spent it on a counterfeit cultivation manual...

"Sight, sound, smell, even the taste of the air. Mother and Sisi could protect me from none of it. And when I was sixteen, they failed to protect me from touch."

"Meng Ya-"

"Mother was dying, so I really shouldn't blame her," said Jin Guangyao. But thinking back, despite everything her mother did for her, she couldn't help the acidic burning working up her throat from her very core. She couldn't help but blame Meng Shi just as she couldn't stop being angry at her own weakness or that vile bitch who so humiliated them both. Who saw a dying woman and ripped her child from her side to do something long-feared and forever aching. "Mother was bedridden and couldn't work. The Madam, she thought it was time I learn a thing or two. So I could make my way in a world so harsh on girls after Meng Shi was gone. She wanted to trap me, make so mistake, and she nearly did. But my mother died a few days later and on my way out of that hellhole, I set the records of my lessons on fire." The heat of brazier, piles of paper smothering licks of flame, the sting of smoke in her eyes; Jin Guangyao remembered it vividly and felt it all over again - the burn and the victory. "The Madam thought she broke me, had me weeping and cowering and under her thumb like so many others, but I showed her! I proved myself far too much trouble ever to fuck with again!" 

Nie Mingjue looked at her, ashen face full of horror given way to something unreadable. "And that is what I am meant to pity you more so for?" He asked. "For surviving? Is that not worthy of respect?"  

The gall of this man. "Bullshit!" Jin Guangyao snapped. "If you don't look down on me for this, it's only because I'm not your poor, delicate Meng Yao anymore!" 

"I don't know what to call you now," Nie Mingjue confessed, striking her with sharp and sudden confusion at his words. "Meng Yao is someone I don't think you want to be anymore, but Jin Guangyao is the mold you tried to fill for the sake of Jin Guangshan's approval. You are everything I loathed and admired about each of those people. Including the parts you hate." 

This galling, maddening, vexing son of a bitch. Jin Guangyao laughed. "So you must love me and hate me. What do you plan to do with that?" 

"I told you," said Mingjue. "I only plan to stay out of the way of whatever happiness you can achieve in this mess I've made. So don't just assume things of Qin Su like you have with me it seems. But since you know her far better than me..." He looked awkward and a light flush livened his pale visage. "Take whatever other lovers you please. It doesn't have to be her."

Jin Guangyao stared at her husband - and shook her head in exasperation. "The way you worded that. So you mean to say you would even permit me to take other men into my bed? You are a fool. At least if I only took women, any rumors that got out would surmise it's something that interests you as well. Instead, you want to risk being labeled a cuckold? The Qinghe Nie symbol may be a horned beast, but you take things too far, Da-ge!" 

Mingjue's flush intensified - perhaps in embarrassment, perhaps in anger at her insult. Either way, he spoke slowly as if to contain himself. "I was unsure - whether circumstances pressured you farther outside your preferences in a partner than I initially realized..." Speaking cryptically did not suit her husband at all.

Jin Guangyao had started to wonder, what with his own relationship to Lan Xichen and the lack of women in his life in relation to his rather adequate bedroom skills...

"Da-ge, that seems a bit narrow-minded of you of all people," Her tone tried for teasing. "I like both men and women plenty." 

"And I am the same!" Her husband blurted out defensively. "But your relationship with Maiden Su seemed to confirm one of the suspicions I held back during the war."

The knotted puzzle pieces finally began to come undone. "Ah, when you realized that I didn't have a cock," Jin Guangyao thought back and back, and forward again. Still, she could not pinpoint when he would have made such a discovery.  "So that you don't overburden yourself further to all our detriments, know that I see myself as a woman, not a man. Pretending to be one under threat, being told to act like one, is not something I miss at all. I did not love Qin Su because I liked women exclusively as most men do. In fact, I think, even if I was born a man, I would still like both...But it's true that I was only ever with girls until, well..." 

She and Nie Mingjue shared an uncomfortable silence. The bump her hands rested on like a table spoke loudly enough. 

"I can't imagine there were many, what with your disguise," Nie Mingjue coughed. 

"No, only girls I kissed back in Yunping, and then Qin Su. I never pursued her, and told her my secret only to dissuade her, but instead she accepted me immediately," Nie Mingjue and Qin Su, they had both made the same assumption about how Meng Yao felt inside. And had not questioned it all. What a strange overlap. "She...it felt so good to be loved by someone like QIn Su. And she was a safer option, so I finally accepted her advances."

"Safer?" 

Jin Guangyao smirked. "Neither one of us could get pregnant. Trust me, if either one of us had a cock, we would not have been caught abed together before Qin Cangye at least agreed to a betrothal. That was still many months off when this whole debacle kicked off." 

Nie Mingjue hummed - but it sounded much like a grumpy growl. "You found your relationships so convenient." 

They were not, really. They had their own dangers, especially among mediocres and traditionalists like the Qins. Still, Jin Guangyao teased him.

"Is that jealousy I sense? I imagine then that you didn't feel the same about yours," She figured from his expertise he had had someone before. If they were troublesome, that explained their absence now. Why Nie Mingjue seemed utterly bereft of romantic company throughout all the years that Jin Guangyao had known him. "It must be difficult carrying on any affair as a sect leader. One wonders how my father and Jiang Fengmian managed it so shamelessly." 

Nie Mingjue did not react to the half-hearted joke. "We both had filial responsibilities," He stated matter-of-factly. "As teenagers, it was all fun and games and our elders were willing to turn a blind eye since it was better than siring bastards." He did not flinch, and neither did she. There was only the briefest glance, an acknowledgment of reality. "But it was understood that we both had roles to fill within our respective clans. Wives to take, children to make. Reputations to uphold."

Jin Guangyao nodded at his words. Cutsleeves were lucky to be born to cultivation sects, and blessed to be born as younger children to those sects. Her husband's aunt, Nie Ruilin, would have been married off long before she met her wife if she hadn't been born the coddled youngest daughter. 

"I suppose Lan Xichen said that he looked forward to your children growing up together. He fully intended to spoil your sons and daughters rotten before I came along and ruined things."

No shock or awe passed between them. There was no thunderbolt of realization. Of course, Nie Mingjue loved Lan Xichen. 

"Now who is steeping themselves in guilt and pity," A large hand reached out - hesitated in the space of a breath between them - and ruffled her hair all over again. Jin Guangyao swatted him away, but without claws. "I was fine with that arrangement. And I've made peace with things as they stand now," Mingjue said. 

Take no concubines. If you love someone that can never be your wife, instead see them safe and happy elsewhere. Jin Guangyao could not help but wonder about Meng Yao and the discovery of her secret. An affair with a deputy was a much different thing from one with a fellow sect leader. The former could always be kept closeby, for one. 

"Da-ge, how did you discover my secret during the war?" Jin Guangyao asked at last. 

Nie Mingjue looked at her and did not deny her. "I always doubted you were a man, but I thought at first that meant you were just a boy. Fifteen, sixteen at most. Younger than Huaisang. You're just so damn short," 

"Don't tell me you fell for a mere boy," She jabbed back. 

Mingjue pulled a disgusted face and rolled his eyes. "Of course not," He scoffed. "With how mature you proved, over time I leaned more toward the idea that you were just malnourished or sickly...Until I followed you once. To see the refugees. I wanted to see you at work with them," 

The mediocre civilians - helping them is what drew Sect Leader Nie's attention to Meng Yao in the first place. That they also led to this...

"You saw me with a medicine woman," It seemed obvious in hindsight. Meng Yao had taken every precaution to conceal their gender, which was only helped by their overwhelming isolation among the Nie camp. Who cared if he bathed apart from the others or dug his own latrine deep in the woods. If his voice was funny and he snubbed others with frequent silences as a result - all the more reason to laugh at little wretch behind his back. Playing at cultivation and still looks like a twiggy little boy! Meng Yao heard it all and bore it well. But the blood - if anyone saw the blood, that was a one-way trip kicking and screaming to the infirmary.

It was so much harder to hide and keep track of on the warpath as compared to living quietly as a bookkeeper in a little town. So, Meng Yao sought help from the medicine women of the villages their war destroyed. They taught a curious young cultivator, who they thought was an apprentice physician, how to brew medicines. Elixirs to circumvent pregnancy and ease menstruation. Each one had varying effectiveness and side-effects, as well as levels of difficulty in procuring ingredients and brewing. It took many months and many destroyed villages to find the brew that suited Meng Yao, whose nauseating effects she was willing to endure. 

"You distrusted me, even then," She did not hide her hurt, quiet and resigned as it was. 

"No," Mingjue said immediately. "Not like that. I only worried that you were ill and hiding it. What with your mother's illness, I feared whatever took her was in the blood,"

"It was. But the blood of her clients, not her own to start with,"

Jin Guangyao wondered which medicine woman had betrayed her oath to protect others by telling Sect Leader Nie just what his disciple hoped to learn. Even if they were intimidated by Nie Mingjue's sheer presence, that was no excuse. "You put together my motive quite reasonably," She remarked. "How embarrassing if you had assumed I had a lover in the camp that I was looking out for. With my reputation back then, my deflowering one of your maiden cultivators would have been disastrous for Qinghe Nie," 

"I put together a few things back then," Nie Mingjue pressed on, in that way that promised more brutal truths and further hurt. "First, I realized that you did not trust me either. Not enough to return my feelings anyway. And second, that even if you did, with those parts - we could never risk repeating Nie Taiyan and Ma Liuyang's mistakes by being together." 

So instead, they repeated the early misfortunes of Nie Taiyan and Nie Ruofei?

Jin Guangyao was tempted to laugh at the wild and turbulent turns of fate - but she too keenly recognized her own unwitting role in things. It was more akin to an arrogant spider getting caught in a weaver goddess' loom. Even as a trusted and efficient deputy, without pedigree, wealth or fame, Meng Yao would never qualify as more than a concubine. Every eligible maiden within and without the Nie clan would violently rebel against a fully legitimate marriage. It'd mark the sect's reputation for a generation and affect the marriageability of all Nie heirs. Meng Yao's pride would have roiled enough at being denied entry into the Nie family registry - to sign her own death warrant instead in the form of the cursed concubine contracts? She might sooner have considered raising a bastard as her mother did. 

But Nie Mingjue never would have let it go so far - she met her husband's eye and knew that he would have been the one to formally abolish that horrid tradition for Meng Yao's sake. It was his promise to Nie Ruofei that mattered most here.

Take no concubines. If you love someone that can never be your wife, instead see them safe and happy elsewhere.

Nie Mingjue did the same with Meng Yao as he did with Xichen.

"Da-ge," There was something tender and raw there, brimming over parched lips. What a horrid, hot night. "If you, too, would like to take lovers..." 

Jin Guangyao drew up short - watched Nie Mingjue snort piggishly and wipe a hand down his sweaty face. "I get it now. What a horrible gift. I'll stick with paperwork like you suggested."

She turned her head, looking anywhere but at her darkly chuckling husband. "Or a hat," She whispered. 

They both laughed - laughed as they had not in years or maybe ever - things feeling undone and half-finished, but also well accomplished - like that never fucking ending pile of paperwork which followed them from Qinghe to Henan to Duji to Heijan. It was dark, heavy laughter to match the humid summer night around them. But bare before one another, shielded by pale white chiffon from the worst bloodsuckers and anguishes of the season, it was almost made bearable. 

Chapter Text

The calendar month came to a close on a rainy day which perfectly matched Master Deng's sullen mood at having to keep his word. Jin Guangyao was released from bed rest and permitted to return to active duty as Madam Nie. In fact, her condition had improved by such leaps and bounds that she managed to recruit Nie Ruilin, among others, onto a campaign of terror on the Head Physician. So, that first damp, sunny day following her release, Jin Guangyao dressed for more than just a visit to her aunt's office and a stroll in the gardens. 

Walking on air despite her size - a whale in the sky - Jin Guangyao flitted around the bed chamber that morning, practically dancing with silky summer robes and dangly ornaments. She felt like a little girl digging through her mother's wardrobe again! But now the shoes fit her - tightly - and the only one to look on exasperatedly was Nie Mingjue, who was more concerned that she should sleep in a bit beside him than at the mess she was making. Breakfast soon arrived with Nie Luan, however, and decisions were made on loose green robes with a light yellow skirt that suited her condition and the thick humidity. Pearl earrings were worn for the occasion. 

Madam Nie left her chambers after dutifully playing the guqin for her husband - and then practically ran all the way to his office. Pushing open the heavy doors, she met the stuffy atmosphere like a breath of fresh air and took in the chaos before her with a smile. Nie Ruilin bent over her nephew's desk - nose a single cun from a page, eyes bleary and brow furrowed familiarly. Her wife, Nie Dandan, sat on the floor beside the desk, blinking sluggishly at one page in her right hand, then at another in her left. Nie Aibing was the best off of the lot, forced to sit upright at Jin Guangyao's old desk by his husband, Nie Lin, who kept stealing away his pen and replacing it with chopsticks to eat his breakfast. 

"How goes the search?" Jin Guangyao greeted the stoic guard cheerily. 

Nie Lin physically picked his husband up by his armpits and dragged him out of Jin Guangyao's chair for her - a perfect excuse to plop him at a separate table with a tray of lukewarm food. "It goes," He said, stiff with stress. 

Further cheerful teeth-pulling pried out that Nie Lin and Tao Minghao had finished scouring Nie Ruofei's past workshops scattered throughout the Unclean Realm. Including her former private chamber as Madam Nie and her girlhood quarters shared with her sisters. Floorboards to rafters, inside the walls. Most findings were interesting in their own right - extensive notes on talismans, spellwork, brewing, and pill alchemy. But none pertained to the saber spirits. The first perusal of the library only turned up basic foundational knowledge that all adult Nie clan members were aware of. 

"That is highly unusual," said Jin Guangyao, and Nie Lin and Aunt Ruilin agreed. 

"My sister was fastidious," Ruilin sighed irritably. "She took notes on her gardening techniques. When we were little, she kept a journal on her haircare routine! One-hundred strokes! Fermented rice water! Every night! But to leave nothing behind on her research with Taiyan and Liuyang-!" 

Ruilin had no idea where her eldest sister would have hidden such journals - or why - so they sent Nie Aibing into Qinghe to speak to Nie Runhua and Nie Riluo. He would question the middle sisters about any hideyholes or some such that Ruofei favored in life besides the obvious. In the meantime, the ladies had been brought up to be gracious hosts and would see their guest well-fed and well-rested before returning him. Aibing left with a dutiful bow - and a little parcel tucked in his robes, brought to him by his husband from their private apartments. 

Jin Guangyao added that detail to her own fastidious notes - and then dug into the piles of paperwork Nie Aibing left behind with the same eagerness that he ought to have with his breakfast. The rest of that first day was spent reviewing summer reports on the Nie agricultural ventures - springtime manure sales and calf births, and early projections for the late autumn slaughter. There were also various correspondences with Qinghe butchers and private estates to sort through - prices to negotiate. It was the stuff that only Sect Leader Nie and Madam Nie had been trained in - the stuff that made Nie Ruilin's lip curl and her wife laugh at her. 

"Cossetted little gem," Dandan teased. Painted red lips cooed at her wife's grumpy face - she reached up and pinched the taller woman's flushed cheek condescendingly. 

The next day, Jin Guangyao took pleasure in meeting with the swindling carpenters who were behind schedule on the barrack renovations. They quibbled and bargained over tea and osmanthus cakes - on a terrace overlooking the hormonal teenagers who would be spending winter double-bunked if the renovations weren't complete. The clash of Nie sabers and young tempers cut the price down to the number Jin Guangyao originally favored. 

She regaled Nie Mingjue with tales of her victory after she played Cleansing for him at lunch. 

"But no promises delivered on the renovation actually being finished by winter," Mingjue bluntly pointed out. He still diligently reviewed every document submitted to him for signage and was obviously confused at her happiness with a draw rather than a total victory. 

Jin Guangyao shrugged. "What are teenaged years without adversity? Those brats can learn to share a bed, or what use will they be in a war against Lanling Jin?" 

The coming days addressed this looming threat. Wang Qiao, released from the dungeons some two weeks ago, summoned his courage and stormed the sect leader's office to call for external reinforcements. "Call upon our subsidiary sects," He said, specifically. "They have had no chance to be beguiled by this wily fox, knowing Jin Guangyao only by rumor and brief encounters at war. Ask that senior disciples from these sects come here for summer training exercises and festivities in the city to reinforce traditional bonds. Call it something similar to the Gusu Lan lectures, if you must!" He addressed everyone in the office except Jin Guangyao. 

This request - demand was met with some days of lengthy debate on the wisdom of admitting outsiders at this critical time. 

"We cannot be certain who the proxy is - they could even be from one of our subsidiaries!" Zhou Zhi pointed out the obvious. Though Jin Guangyao knew it in her bones that her father plucked his proxy from one of Koi Tower's many gardens. 

"Yes, but Senior Wang won't care because he is still convinced that this is Jin Guangyao's doing," said Li Weiyi. He spoke of his former best friend in a distant manner. "He would never accuse our subsidiaries of disloyalty when he is certain that it must be a Jin or Jin retainer. And...well, I know how he thinks...Senior Wang wants to have people around that he can convince to stand behind him if Sect Leader Nie..." He dare not finish that thought. 

"He forgets, however, that I am the one in charge of guest disciples," Mu Qiang looked suitably vexed that her junior would forget such a thing. Dressed all in mourning robes, silver hair tumbling free, she resembled a vengeful spirit. "I trained him for Heavens' sake! Invite the Yanguan Wu, the Ganquan Duan, and even those fucking Heijan Yi ratbags. Go ahead, see if I don't batter some sense into them long before Wang Qiao can whisper suicidal nonsense in their ears!" 

No decision was made, just like the past three days since Wang Qiao made his demand. 

Jin Guangyao meditated on Mu Qiang's trustworthiness in private. Nie Mingjue counseled her - with as little bias as he could manage. 

"So you are certain that she doesn't want to kill me?" 

"I said that if she did, she wouldn't act on it out of respect," Mingjue said, staring up at the bed canopy. Pen clenched in one hand and yet another scroll gripped in the other. Dripping ink all over the place. He was sloppy in his afternoon stupor. 

"Respect," Jin Guangyao repeated dubiously.

"Don't," Nie Mingjue sighed. "Don't project that pity bullshit onto her as well. Ask her out to a spar sometime after the baby is born, and see how little she pities anyone," 

That next morning, Jin Guangyao asked Mu Qiang out to one of the more secluded training yards.

Nie Aibing balked - then just about fainted when Mu Qiang accepted. 

He later caught up with the women and burst onto the scene with a full troop of senior disciples - interrupting the women's stretches on the exhale and upsetting the tranquil mood. Mu Qiang slid out of the beginner's pose she had been demonstrating and leveled her sheathed sword at Nie Aibing's nose. 

"Do you think me as insane as my husband, Aibing? Hm?" She asked. The whole lot turned tail and ran after fervently bowing and pleading innocence. Mu Qiang's menacing teacher mask slipped as she tilted her head and grinned at the retreat. 

She quickly turned her attention back to Jin Guangyao, adjusting her pose. Jin Guangyao held Hensheng outwards - arms straight, shoulders squared, legs bent particularly to adjust for her shifted center of gravity. The cycle continued: Mu Qiang standing directly across from Jin Guangyao, demonstrating the perfect pose - next adjusting Jin Guangyao and her grip on Hensheng - then shifting into the next pose on the next breath - finally repeating the whole process. Teacher and student at long last. 

Nie Luan sat on a bench off to the side, grimacing. 

Mu Qiang caught her and teased, "Care to learn a few positions? It's excellent for keeping a cultivator in form while pregnant!" 

"Don't want any ankle-biters," said Nie Luan. "You know that." 

"How is your son, Senior Mu?" Jin Guangyao cut in, carefully maneuvering herself onto the bench next to Nie Luan. She needed a break since the baby seemed to be copying her mother's poses. Jin Guangyao felt like a child's bouncy ball stuffed with flopping carp. 

Mu Qiang stopped spinning her sword in needless flourishes over her hand. "He misses the Ma Twins," The mother replied. "And his father, but that goes without saying." 

"Yet you say it,"  

Mu Qiang no longer smiled, teasing or pained or any way at all. "I miss him as well," She said. "Since you seem so curious. Or nosy, rather." 

Nie Luan nudged Jin Guangyao hard, urging her to silence. But she was Madam Nie, and this woman's husband had tried to kill her, and she was nosy. 

"You put on a brave face, Senior Mu, but this one wonders how you truly fare at present," 

Mu Qiang laughed and shook her head at a child's naivety. "How would you fare if the man you respected since you were barely more than a girl did something so terrible to a girl? Even if A-Han thought it was all worth it in the end, the fact he would just go ahead and do such a thing! Without so much as a word to me - bidding me goodnight like nothing was amiss - making our son an accomplice!" Mu Qiang flourished her sword in a needless show of skill - cutting down an imaginary opponent - her grief concealed with flashes of anger and spirit. 

Jin Guangyao felt a pang of guilt - for her role in things, for exposing another so cruelly. But she said nothing - because guilt was the last thing the other woman wanted from her. 

That day, Jin Guangyao and Nie Luan drafted letters to Qinghe Nie's subsidiaries. Mu Qiang, Zhou Zhi, Li Weiyi joined Wang Qiao in cobbling together these impromptu senior lectures on such short notice. Nie Runhua and Nie Riluo were drafted later that evening with letters carried by Nie Aibing. The two women would add greater splendor to the city's summer festivities in order to leave good impressions on their guests and properly conceal the more anxious on-goings of the sect. 

Nie Aibing returned the next day with letters from the husbands and several other Qinghe elite. Promises of contributions to this cause, in exchange for some assistance in marrying their eligible children into these visiting sects and fostering business relations through banquets held in the Unclean Realm's own halls. Jin Guangyao longed for Qin Su's company more than ever - her friend would have seen all the different ways to cut costs on such expenditures and funnel the money toward charity. Instantly! As it stood, Jin Guangyao contacted the Treasurer and tasked him with addressing these new demands at the lowest costs. 

Nie Aibing returned to the Unclean Realm with missives in one hand and a child in the other. 

A-Shang's wane little face had filled out since Jin Guangyao last saw the street urchin. Though he still wore little girl clothes despite Nie Riluo and Nie Runhua having amble time to clothe him, he grinned and skipped alongside Nie Aibing - three skips for every one of Aibing's long strides. The child about threw himself at Jin Guangyao when they met - but drew up short, turned to Aibing, and saluted Madam Nie respectfully. His and Aibing's faces both glowed at the child's accomplishment. 

Jin Guangyao showed the child to the Songbird Garden - which, besides the sad foundations left behind when the pavilion rubble was cleared, was still the most beautiful setting for a conversation in the Unclean Realm. While A-Shang flitted around, a flurry of pink skirts, sniffing flowers he had never seen before, the adults spoke. 

"A-Shang cannot read," Aibing explained gravely. Though Jin Guangyao always assumed. This confirmed that the counterfeit nature of that cultivation manual was not the only reason A-Shang's uncle had to be angry with the child. 

"But he is teachable?" Jin Guangyao asked a question rarely ever leveled at common-born mediocres. 

Aibing nodded eagerly. "Yes, yes. A-Shang is so curious and eager, and already can recognize his name on paper! But...Novices are expected to be literate upon admittance. It's the most basic requirement of discipleship." 

"Ah," So it appeared A-Shang still held aspirations of becoming a cultivator. "Well, certainly Lady Riluo or Lady Runhua could take charge of A-Shang's education. A-Shang isn't even old enough to enter as a novice. He has a two whole years to learn," 

"Their husbands are totally against fostering a 'common street rat'," Aibing whispered fiercely - but carefully, a paternal gaze tethered to little A-Shang's back. "Lady Riluo has already given in to her husband's hounding, so A-Shang currently resides at Lady Runhua's estate. But I am told his status as a guest is perilous. If something is not done about the child's status soon, A-Shang might be made a servant as a means of charity and then never learn to read,"

Jin Guangyao was not shocked, nor did she disagree with this notion. She nonetheless looked at Nie Aibing with wide eyes. "Forgive me, but you are strangely aware of A-Shang's circumstances. I think your peers would be more prone to seeing A-Shang's servitude as an honor for a child without background." The aunts certainly seemed the type to pat themselves on the back for a job well done while forgetting where their tea server came from. 

Nie Aibing ducked his head. "This one must speak frankly and say that Madam Nie's meteoric rise looked like a rather shitty slog from my point of view," He said sheepishly. "As much as one admires it, one would not wish it on another." 

Jin Guangyao quickly tamped down on the emotions bubbling up her throat - a wave of strange, pleasant nausea. Instead, she let those emotions stew into a deep well of inspiration - a potion to cure the inefficiency which cursed Qinghe Nie. She turned and watched A-Shang sniff at Madam Nie's azaleas, hands tucked close to his chest lest they dare to touch such treasures. Jin Guangyao approached the child, plucked a stem of magenta blooms, and handed it to A-Shang. She smiled at the hint of hesitation in his little fingers, now clean of dirt. 

It took a few days more to settle this new issue on top of everything else, but Jin Guangyao was nothing if not ruthlessly effective even in mundane tasks. She struck each guard, retainer, and relative in a particular order. Gathering allies - neutralizing opposition before it could even emerge - reinforcing her position. With Nie Aibing and Nie Lin as her chief allies, it was child's play close to how A-Shang spent those intermittent days. 

Finally, the four took the papers to her husband for signage. 

"A petition to formally enter this boy into the Nie family registry," Nie Mingjue looked at the petitioners. Nie Aibing and Nie Lin, older men with stout figures and salted beards, looked especially fatherly with A-Shang clutching at their sleeves. Her husband reached for his stamp - and stalled when his eyes landed on the two dozen or so stamps and signatures at the bottom of the page. Leaving no room for the Sect Leader's approval. "What the -"

"A-Shang is not just from a mediocre family," said Jin Guangyao. "He is an orphaned street urchin, and illiterate. I figured that the best way to defend this adoption was to have basically every authority figure in the Unclean Realm approve it."

"Everyone but the Sect Leader?" Nie Mingjue asked, raising a thick brow. 

"Just overlap it with mine," Jin Guangyao pointed to the place on the page. "But pay attention, this goes beyond A-Shang."

"Hey!" The new parents hushed their child whilst their superiors conferred. 

"Look at all these names, Da-ge," Jin Guangyao urged. "We have already begun to delegate work to these trusted individuals; but it is not enough for us all to simply weed out the useless things to send your way for review and approval. Look around," Though she was well aware that Mingjue was well aware of the stacks of paper and scrolls piling on and around the bed - the ink smudging his fingers and the pristine sheets like blood - the heavy bags under his eyes. "You are overburdened by both the enormous and the trivial thanks to your clan's longstanding fears of usurping branch relatives. But a better system can be installed, starting with a formalization of a class of Nie Elders." 

"And you want to use our circumstances and this adoption to set the precedent for these Elders holding authority on par with my own," Nie Mingjue's tired eyes scanned the petition. "The Treasurer is included here, and also those administering domestic staff. These clan members are all mediocre." 

"They are the oldest people in the Unclean Realm," Jin Guangyao explained. "Even if they never cultivated, they have valuable input. People just don't sit on shelves and collect dust, Da-ge." 

Her husband turned to his relatives and asked if they were all right with being used like this. Nie Aibing held A-Shang in his arms and called it a fair transaction. Nie Lin simply nodded but interjected just as Nie Mingjue was about to give his stamp of approval.

"There is one thing," He said, then nudged A-Shang. 

"Oh," The child hopped down and saluted Sect Leader Nie. "Ah, this one must humbly correct Sect Leader Nie. A-Shang is not a boy! A-Shang is a girl!" The child practically cheered. 

"Oh," Jin Guangyao mimicked the child. She took the petition from Nie Mingjue and reviewed it for any specific language. Thankfully for all her efforts, the document only ever referred to A-Shang by name or as 'the child'. Still - she shrugged, "If you say so." It was no business of hers, really. Who cared if her observations were off this one time? 

Growing families parted ways. The new family left to settle A-Shang into her permanent home, leaving husband and wife to their evening. 

Nie Mingjue helped Jin Guangyao remove her shoes and chided her for being on her feet too much. "You know that Master Deng will take any excuse to chain you up in here with me," His thumbs pressed into the tender swelling around her ankles. 

Jin Guangyao hissed a laugh. "If it isn't my feet, then it will be my ass covered in hemorrhoids from sitting too much. Don't be jealous. Let me enjoy my freedom, Da-ge." She was unconcerned about her ankles since Master Deng had started the humiliating routine of examining her chamberpot contents each morning. The physician seemed caught between satisfaction and disappointment at every check-up when her health continuously improved and the baby grew ever larger. Despite the indeterminate causes of this turnaround, there was now a real expectation that the baby would arrive in late summer at full-term. 

Though the way her daughter kicked against her hand presently, Jin Guangyao still wondered if she'd fight her way out early. Just to start off on the right foot as a contrarian little heiress. 

"Speaking of freedom," Nie Mingjue's large hands manacled her ankles - then released her with a harsh breath. "There is no longer any reason to keep the entombment threat in place if you truly plan to formally decentralize authority from the sect leader and madam."

"No," Jin Guangyao snapped, sick to death of this fight already. "I am not breaking my word to Huaisang. Or the others for that matter. Not when keeping the threat in place after this point will be the ultimate expression of my trustworthiness!"

"And you get on me about guilt!" Mingjue snapped back. "This can't be pure pragmatism, otherwise you would have wiled away any other means to prove your trustworthiness...You can't bet your life and the baby's on mine." He insisted gravely. 

Jin Guangyao shook her head and stroked his prickly chin. "This is your own sorry state talking, Da-ge. We will find the proxy and lift this curse. Don't think the worst, or else that energy will only weaken you further," She spoke generally. They had no idea what the curse was exactly since it had yet to take hold, which hindered any attempts to pinpoint the artifact used by the proxy or outright cure Nie Mingjue. 

It was hard to tell, though, what was the result of his body's constant battle against the curse and what was the result of this morose attitude. His skin was pale and desert-dry when not clammy with summer heat; his eyes brimmed red enough at all times for Master Deng to fret over blood tears. Nie Mingjue grew up under Nie Han's wing and had been Meng Yao's friend for some years, but he hid his turmoil so poorly.

Suddenly, Jin Guangyao was reminded of Mu Qiang's words. 

"Da-ge, you were one of the people I respected most in world," Her words struck Nie Mingjue dumb and confused, and she smiled as she stroked that stupid, hideous beard of his. "I admired you greatly, right alongside Lan Xichen. So when you looked down on me, and said that I would definitely hurt Lan Xichen, I couldn't stand it. I was so angry and hurt, and I still think I was right to feel so." Nie Mingjue seemed to accept that - began to retreat - she gave his short-hairs a playful tug, drawing back his attention that was so rightfully hers. "But I also now recognize how much it must have genuinely hurt and angered you to see me doing so many things you disagreed with. Without so much as a word to you about any of it. So..." She took a deep, confirming breath. "I have resolved to forgive you, and I would hope that you would do the same." 

Nie Mingjue digested her words, then said, "Admiration, though...That is in the past." 

Jin Guangyao laughed at the irony. "Well, the ideal attraction between men and women is allegedly the admiration of men by women, and pity of women by men. Like savior and the saved. But all this nonsense with dashed perceptions the past few years has been a pain, so let us try something...more equal," She suggested, diplomatic and more hopeful than she would ever have dreamed a year ago when Jin Guangshan announced their engagement. 

Nie Mingjue looked at Jin Guangyao, more resolute and hale and healthy in an inhale than he had looked in weeks - swelling to his former great size even - dark eyes, burning red around the edges still, reflecting the tentative feelings she knew brimmed in her own. "Something like respect, plain and simple," He said. "We can rebuild something better on old foundations." 

"Exactly," Jin Guangyao breathed, relieved. 

Chapter Text

Relief was short-lived, smothered to death under a heavy cover of humidity, and poisoned by the putrid odor that began emanating from Nie Mingjue's chest. Blackened holes of rot pocked her husband's pectorals and abdomen overnight, ruining the sculpture of his physique. For now, they were the size of rice grains, but they would only grow in size as time wore on. The exact curse became known at last: the One-Hundred Hole Curse. 

This was no help to them. The second Jin Guangyao peeled open her eyes and saw the infernal rot, the bell let out a menacing alarm. A meeting was called among the newly instated Nie Elders, where Nie Lin and Tao Minghao confirmed that their options were as limited as ever. 

"The proxy must lift the curse themself, or die," Nie Lin spoke frankly. 

"Perhaps if we could take or destroy whatever spiritual tool they are using, that might break the curse," Tao Minghao spoke rather intellectually, without real hope this could ever be the case. "However, our research has turned up nothing specific. If such a tool is in Lanling Jin's possession, they have either never bragged or threatened with it, or it is a recent acquisition." 

"The sack of the Nightless City," Jin Guangyao remembered how the victorious alliance forces had torn the city apart. Even clan insignias carved out of humble kitchen doors were taken as war trophies. "Wen Ruohan might have had such a tool, but those records were likely lost in the destruction. It's best at this point to entirely redirect your research toward cures for the saber spirit. If we can mend Mingjue's golden core, then he can fight off the curse by himself." 

Though this suggestion was met with general approval, Li Weiyi stepped forward and spoke humbly. "My Lady, if we are now focusing entirely on Sect Leader Nie's core, perhaps we should recall the Young Master and his party back to the Unclean Realm." 

Nie Mingjue groaned irritably beside Jin Guangyao and shouted, "I would if we knew where those brats were!" 

This sudden downturn in health was no surprise, considering the overdue letter that arrived yesterday. Nie Zhong reported that Nie Huaisang, Qin Su, and the Ma Twins took off very suddenly a bit over a week ago. As a result, Lanling Jin subjected Nie Zhong to further intense scrutiny - right up until Jin Guangshan found some frivolous reason to boot him from Koi Tower altogether. This permitted the senior to finally chase after the youngsters and rumors of their gallivanting down the coast, spending every night at a different brothel...Little wonder that Nie Mingjue's core cracked under the added stress and let the curse begin to take root in the crevices left behind. 

"Weiyi, we can't do that now!" Zhou Zhi hotly interjected. "It sounds to me that Huaisang and Maiden Su are getting closer to our culprit!"

"But the stress that Mingjue is under! There's too much uncertainty. We don't even know who they're chasing and it could be dangerous."

"Senior Li is right," Master Deng butted in. "The Sect Leader's health is paramount and this all seems like a wild goose chase to me." 

The first official quarrel among the sect elders broke out then, ending in accusations leveled at Li Weiyi that he was colluding with Wang Qiao somehow. 

"You just want Huaisang back so he can enforce Jin Guangyao's entombment!" Lingling shouted, jabbing her finger into the man's chest hard enough to bruise. She was no elder but hated the tradition that killed her teacher more than she respected seniority. 

Li Weiyi denied it all - and Wang Qiao did nothing to help his former friend's case by jumping to his defense. Nie Mingjue ordered the men out to sort their shit, effectively ending the meeting with no resolution. The others followed in time, no one eager to stick around and smell Nie Mingjue rotting alive in bed. So, the sect leader and his madam were left abed, languishing in sweat-dampened sheets and their new ugliness. 

Jin Guangyao cradled her rotund stomach, watching in gross fascination as her child poked and prodded her from the inside out. "Nies are so violent," She whispered. 

Nie Mingjue snorted as he piled his hair into a bun atop his head. He then collapsed back into the sheets, his underrobe untied and fanned out around him. His marred, diseased-looking chest bare to the world. 

Nothing was said between them as they waited for the next irregular cool spell to bless them. Jin Guangyao even took the Guanyin charm she tied to the lattice headboard and prayed with it in hand before playing that day's first bout of Cleansing. Jin Guangyao decided to forgo the cool relief of the sect leader's office that day to double the usual regime. She suffered sore fingers; Nie Mingjue suffered his curse. They both suffered the humidity. 

Salvation from the heat came in Nie Lingling's hands later that day, word having worked its way to her down in the library thanks to Xiao Deng. The apprentice physician was equally miserable with the continued unhealthy conditions of the sect leader's chamber, as it turned out, and said so after bringing the couple a fresh batch of incense sticks for their stress. 

Lingling crouched down next to the windows and peeled away some paneling to reveal a mess of old talismans. She checked them over and declared that a little over a decade after her death, Nie Ruofei's Perfect Climatization talismans had finally fizzled out. "Lucky for you, I've studied this one all on my own. Combined with all these new - well, old notes we found, I should be able to fix this in no time."

In spite of this boast, Lingling spent most of a shi shuffling Nie Ruofei's old notes and drafts of this particular talisman. The young woman periodically wiped away a nervous sweat - but that also could have been the awful heat getting to her, Jin Guangyao thought charitably as she watched on.

Poor girl, she couldn't help thinking of the woman who was the same age as her. Nie Lingling had been deprived of her teacher very suddenly, and so her whole education in spellwork had been disrupted. Such a promising student, she had been demoted to just one of dozens of junior disciples taught together. Another potential genius lost in the crowds.

Still, she had done well for herself to work this high up - though certainly, her pedigree within the clan had helped - and soon enough proved herself by activating a new array in the chamber. 

Lingling grinned widely, clutching an old talisman to her chest so fiercely it crumbled to bits. 

She gasped, horrified, and hurried to sweep up the mess, along with her piles of notes. Jin Guangyao rose from bed to help. 

"Calm down," said Mingjue. "A maid can clean it up."

"No, no, no - it's not the mess, it's my shizun's-" Lingling clamped up, eyes hooked on the booklet in Jin Guangyao's hands.

She went to snatch it - Jin Guangyao demurely held up a staying hand and declared, "This lady would like to view this disciple's notes." 

"Those aren't my notes!" Lingling burst out, positively dripping despite the rapidly cooling chamber. "They are Madam Nie's -"

"Then it is my right," Jin Guangyao stepped on her protest cheerily, then ground in her heel by thanking the disciple for her cooperation. She flipped open the booklet without mercy and instantly regretted it - snapped shut the booklet again and felt the urge to fan herself. She felt so flushed!

"Told you!" Lingling crowed, reaching for the booklet again. Jin Guangyao smacked her hand away with the very thing. 

"What are you even doing with this?!" 

"I can explain-!" 

"Then do it!" Mingjue demanded. "What is even going on? What does she have?" 

Jin Guangyao tossed the booklet over Lingling's head and flailing arms. Her husband caught it, tore it open, and went bugged eyed at whatever page he landed on. If he didn't look ill before, now his sickly pallor mingled with a green shade to rival his sect robes. Only a familiar angry red climbing up his neck could wash it away. "What the hell are you doing with - with - such -"

How did one respectfully describe pornographic images penned by one's own birth mother, accompanied by lurid text descriptions of the depicted acts? 

Jin Guangyao had only caught a glimpse - a glimpse now eternally burned behind her eyeballs, into her skull - and recognized at once the findings that Nie Lin coughed through his explanation of a few weeks back. Had Lingling had the booklet for so long? Why? What had she been doing with it? 

"It's not pleasure reading or anything!" Nie Lingling vowed - swore on her father's grave - attested to all the gods and goddesses - and promised to take a blood oath of honesty, lest she be stricken down by the heavens that very instant. Before the girl could draw her saber to do just that, Nie Mingjue rolled up the booklet and knocked her on the head chidingly. 

"Explain," He ordered. 

Lingling bowed her head and explained in a small voice, "It's not something I thought anyone would miss. I wanted something of Lady Ruofei. Everything else that we already knew of, and then all that we found, Tao Minghao insisted that it be organized in the library so everyone could access it. Which I understand, but...I've never had anything of my master before. Nothing just for myself. No one thought of her little student when everything happened...not even Lady Ruofei." 

Nie Mingjue's anger dissipated easily. Short-lived as it was in his poor health, it stood a ghost of a chance against the ghost of his mothers. He looked down at his cousin and shook his head. He flopped the book around in his hand and said, "But this of all things?" 

Lingling looked just as displeased. "Senior Tao refused to put it in the library. I actually dug it out of the refuse pile by the pig pens." 

Mingjue pulled a face and held the booklet away just a bit farther from himself, and with two fewer fingers. He may have smelled like death, but who wanted to touch porn of their parents dug out of the compost? 

Jin Guangyao covered her hand with a handkerchief and took the booklet from her husband. She placed a gentle hand on Lingling's shoulder, encouraging her to rise. "Go to Nie Ruilin after you leave here. Ask her about any mementos she or her sisters might be willing to part with. If that path fails you, tell Tao Minghao that Sect Leader Nie would like you to have the pick of the library. Take any one work of Nie Ruofei's that you wish, as long as it does not unduly deprive others of the late Madam's knowledge." 

Lingling sank low once again - this time in gratitude. "Thank you, My Lady." 

She left without the booklet, which Jin Guangyao kept on her person throughout that afternoon's work. She was unsure what to do with it. Since Lingling suddenly attached such emotional value to thing, it felt disrespectful to discard - but where to keep such a thing where it couldn't be rediscovered and shame them all? Jin Guangyao did not want to deal with this on top of this curse, renovations, and these damned summer lectures. But she also wouldn't wish it on her own great-grandchildren down the line...

In the evening, after playing Cleansing, she and Nie Mingjue settled into bed. As best they could in their conditions. Neither was entirely comfortable, even after hot baths left them glistening cleanly rather than sticky with sweat. Nie Mingjue laid flat on his back, eyes squeezed shut, caught somewhere between sleep and mediation. Jin Guangyao sat up against a mountain of pillows, a fresh backlog of paperwork overflowing in her lap. Tentatively, she pulled the booklet out of her robe and peeked the contents - just to see how bad it was. If she knew that much, she'd know how much security its new hiding spot required!

The very first page detailed a very personal encounter between Nie Ruofei and Nie Taiyan - one of the first times, going by Nie Ruofei's lack of enthusiasm in her description...That piqued Jin Guangyao's interest enough that she continued turning through the booklet beyond that first peek into its contents. Why keep an erotic journal if one's descriptions were to be so clinical? Why keep a detailed journal about an encounter with a man she held no love for at that point?

Jin Guangyao read on in search of answers, diligently keeping a professional distance from the text. She never knew Nie Ruofei or Nie Taiyan or Ma Liuyang - they just happened to be her husband's parents - there was no reason for her to get twisted up inside knowing that they did certain acrobatic, bendy things together in this very room. She just about chucked the booklet away several times and flipped quickly to satisfy that flight instinct. But her suffering was rewarded, as it sometimes was. 

This journal was never kept for personal pleasure. The notes accompanying the illustrations made that perfectly clear. Nie Ruofei's detailed descriptions were not in service of carnal pleasure, but scientific notes on dual cultivation techniques used to soothe both her and her husband's saber spirits. 

"Dual cultivation, of course!" Jin Guangyao exclaimed victoriously. 

Nie Mingjue's eyes snapped open at that - and caught her holding the cursed booklet aloft like a sacred text. 

"No," He said at once, and Jin Guangyao balked. 

"Are you putting embarrassment ahead of your life?" She demanded. "You cannot actually die of shame, you realize that, correct? It eating you from the inside out is purely metaphorical, while this-" She pointed at the black rot speckling his chiseled chest. "-will only continue to eat inward if nothing is done about your core." 

"No," Nie Mingjue said again, sounding close to his old self enough that Jin Guangyao might have been pleased if it wasn't so damn frustrating. "It won't work. It has never worked. Not for long."  

Jin Guangyao looked at her husband wonderingly - at his sullen anger, so familiar as of late. So many revelations had washed over her recently, like waves beating against the shore. The sand of her previous, furious and naive assumptions gave out under her so many times as she came to understand more of Qinghe Nie than its self-righteous and brutal exterior. For all the ways she had felt rejected as a disciple, she felt more at home among these old, torrid politics and buried shames - felt she could better navigate the dark tunnels in the mountains and might even be able to show her sworn brother the way - might even be needed by him. Jin Guangyao thought back on what she had learned of concubines and curses in recent months most of all. 

"Ah, your great-grandfather, he took six consorts in total," A display of lust and avarice that did not at all suit the culture of Qinghe Nie. "I bet he still died young by cultivator standards. If keeping so many women as cauldrons couldn't help him, and caused such a financial and moral burden on the sect, then ultimately there was no viable reason to continue the practice." 

"Six consorts, but he only lived six years longer than the longest-lived Nie sect leader before him," Nie Mingjue spoke of the man with such spite. The same venom laced his tongue and teeth as when he spoke of Wen Ruohan, and recently Jin Guangshan. "He was forty-six." 

Mediocres subjected to backbreaking labor lived longer than the strongest Nie cultivators. 

"And your father, with just his two consorts?" 

"Forty-four," Nie Mingjue answered reluctantly. The pressure that his parents must have felt in those final days, even before Wen Ruohan lashed out pettily against Nie Taiyan. 

"So that only proves that it's not a matter of quantity, but quality," Jin Guangyao stated firmly, sitting up and reaching for the ties of her husband's belt. "My successor was obviously onto something since she kept her husband and herself alive so long." 

Large hands grasped her small ones, gripped tightly around a crimson red sash - holding on for dear life, the both of them. Jin Guangyao fastened her gaze to the knot she hoped to untie, not daring to meet Nie Mingjue's gaze. 

"You do not have to do anything like this on my account," He spoke in soft, shuddering tones - gently like she was the one in a tender state right now. She suddenly felt that way, under his heavy gaze. Its oppressiveness was worse than the humidity, without any of the heat, and she was humiliated. 

Jin Guangyao held fast to that crimson sash and met his gaze determinedly. "Why are you always making things hard for me?" She asked. "Why don't you just shut up and get hard when a beautiful woman comes onto you? Is it because I'm so evil? Is it because I'm fat now? Hm?!" 

Nie Mingjue's jaw dropped, then snapped shut again - teeth ground with a force that left the man trembling - his brow furrowed and he looked in pain. "You-" He tore his hands away from hers to tear his robe from his shoulders. "What is it with you wanting to even share the same bed chamber as me in this state?!" He bared his wounded torso completely, dragon-print sleeves pooling around his waist with the crimson sash still gripped between Jin Guangyao's fingers. He bared the black specks of rot across his slick flesh - the resentful energy radiating from the wounds - the depth and darkness of each hole, as if the curse had already eaten away into the very essence of him.

His eyes were perpetually red these days. Jin Guangyao could finally discern Nie Mingjue well enough to tell his sadness from his anger. She released the crimson sash and sat back on her heels with her hands in lap. 

"Apologies," She said primly, portraying little of her embarrassment. 

"Don't-agh," Her husband pinched his brow. "Not too long ago, you told me how you saw men and women both use the bodies of others for their own gain. Making a mess and then leaving those who didn't have a choice to lie in it while the taker just up and fled their shame. It can't have escaped you how similar that seems to you and me." 

Jin Guangyao pulled Nie Mingjue's hand from his face, forcing him to look at her. She was distinctly unimpressed and let it show. "Did I not say that I would not be your whore on our wedding night? Wasn't my own pleasure always my priority?"

Nie Mingjue stammered, knowing full well that she never let him dare finish before her. "It's still-"

"Wasn't I the one to insist on consummation?"

"In order to conc-" 

Jin Guangyao sandwiched Nie Mingjue's cheeks between her hands, silencing him. Nose to nose, she asked him, "Did you or did you not stop immediately whenever I said I didn't want it anymore?" 

Pouting grouchily, Nie Mingjue nodded his head. Jin Guangyao smiled and stroked her thumb across his dragon fruit red cheek. She kissed away that pout and bit those lips red to match the rest of his face. He met her blow for blow, noses brushing, forehead pressed against hers. 

Her arms snaked around his neck - his hands found her hips - they held each other closer - and for an instant, Jin Guangyao nearly felt as wanted as she wanted to be.

Then all too familiar rejection chilled the skin she wanted to burn. Nie Mingjue tore away from her again. Left her feeling wanton and unwanted. Jin Guangyao stared at him, betrayed, as he panted hot breath in her face. 

"It was all routine before," Nie Mingjue said between labored breaths. "You wanted to get pregnant, you didn't want it. And then it was all about keeping your secret, and then - reward or whatever you got in your head exactly at Koi Tower."

Jin Guangyao pulled away just like he wanted - sick of dangling herself before his eye time and time again - like a rotten fish rejected by a caged tiger. When really the roles ought to have been reversed right now with the way he smelled! "I liked that routine. I could have just gambled more strategically on my cycle - I did not have to play the odds fucking you every night. I want this. There! It's clear where I stand on the matter! Just say you don't want me so I can shelve this whole stupid idea and get back to finding other ways to save your life!" 

Rough hands caught her wrists, fishing her back in and piercing through her with a look. "I want you. That isn't the issue," Mingjue's breath was hot and harsh against her mouth, and his kiss-bitten lips so tempting.

Jin Guangyao looked up at him through her lashes, demurring. "I bet the issue is me somehow."

She giggled when he grimaced and flushed at once, so unhappy to be caught out.

Her cuffs disappeared at once - and she was wrapped up in muscular arms like iron vices in retaliation. Nie Mingjue gathered Jin Guangyao close, into his lap, seating her in her place of honor. Gasp surmounted gasp - mirth bubbled over freely, mingling with surprise as Jin Guangyao squirmed to best situate herself over her husband's stirring cock. 

"It's you all right," Mingjue rumbled in Jin Guangyao's ear - but then his wandering hands stilled disappointingly on her back and his expression sobered again. "I thought you wanted it the last time - the last night before we visited the Cloud Recesses. Wanted it just for the sake of it. I thought it was different, but I was wrong then, too." 

Outside his parents' tomb, Nie Mingjue had accused Jin Guangyao of going to bed with the express purpose of conceiving, as if it was a betrayal. That explains it, thought Jin Guangyao, remembering that last near romp before everything went truly to hell. Jin Guangyao had planned to ride Nie Mingjue until he screamed her name with nothing short of ecstasy - had been perfectly amenable to Nie Mingjue fucking her into the mattress. Anything to prove he wasn't so righteous that he was above wanting her. Right up until thoughts of Lan Xichen intruded on their intimacy. Even if Jin Guangyao had the ability to get off after that, it would have left a bitter aftertaste. Nie Mingjue took the truth of her plot as thorough rejection, consequently never seeing that night as the plea for attention it was. Jin Guangyao rejected him when really she feared the rejection of their guest. An unwelcome mess made of their marital bed that evening. 

Jin Guangyao seized the hair at the back of Nie Mingjue's neck and reined his attention away from his sorry conscience. She grinned, nipping at his lips and relishing his brow, pinched with the slightest sting of pain. It pleased Jin Guangyao in vicious ways. In ways that she did not yet fully understand. There were things she was already certain of, however. "It doesn't have to be like that time or any of other time before," She punctuated the point with a sharp tug. "It can be the start of a new, better routine."

Nie Mingjue's red eyes clouded with hunger - he bared his teeth as delicate fingers tugged at his nape, tugged him right out of reach of his savage desire. Jin Guangyao cradled his jaw in one hand, running her fingers through the coarse hairs of his beard. She pressed another kiss to his lips and giggled girlishly when it tickled. In that blissed moment of weakness, her husband seized upon her as she wanted.

Strong arms lifted Jin Guangyao up with ease, letting her feel light at a feather for the first time in many months. She gasped and found herself sitting astride her husband. Nie Mingjue's blown eyes met hers, and they took each other and themselves in with apprehension and too ragged breaths for cultivators of their tier. 

Jin Guangyao, a breath ago so light and dainty, felt round and overbearing straddling Nie Mingjue's waist in this state. Her belly bulged awkwardly between them. Beneath her robes, ugly stretchmarks spidered across her taut skin. Brown saucer-sized nipples perked up thanks to overactive climatization talismans. Milk engorged her breasts. Muscles she cultivated so carefully over the years had been softened by numerous sweet treats and whole days in bed the past several months. Even her ankles were swollen from what little walking she managed! 

Nie Mingjue's thumbs rubbed circles into her hips. He swallowed hard, his gaze drifting between her face and his bare chest. Jin Guangyao fanned her fingers across the firm muscles under her hand and felt the disruption of cursed wounds. Something foul tickled her nose - it must have shown, by the way that Nie Mingjue's fingers hesitated and his gaze diverted. Suddenly, Jin Guangyao was struck with the conviction to cover up that stench - with something spicy and tangy that hung heavy in the air, sat on the tongue, and soaked pristine sheets. 

Jin Guangyao rocked her hips forward - shot Nie Mingjue a look and dared him to go soft on her. She thrilled when he met her challenge. His grip turned bruising and he ground up against her, smirking at the sharp cries she let out. Jin Guangyao bit her lip and leaned forward to wipe that arrogant look off her husband's face. 

Roughened hands had not lost their coarseness in confinement. Nie Mingjue pressed tender reminders of this night into her hips as he moved her to his liking, pulling her closer - closer - closer. Those same hands traced over up the slender arms wrapped around his neck and stroked down her back. Their hands worked in tandem to pull loose that crimson sash around his waist and to unwrap her soft cotton robes. Their hands ventured to tender, sore, and ugly places next - unflinching and covetous. 

Soft hands gripped Nie Mingjue's leaking cock, and rung groans and curses from him with great relish. 

Jin Guangyao ran her thumb over the head, smirking at the embarrassing noise Nie Mingjue whined in response.

His eyes flashed as he pushed Jin Guangyao onto her back and set about ravaging her thighs red and sensitive and hot to the touch thanks to his beard. She squealed, undignified, and Nie Mingjue laughed against her - right before his tongue found that sensitive little pearl her hands guided his to so many times before. He threw her legs over his shoulders - gripped her the undersides of her thighs - let her kick his back and rip his hair from its bun as she pressed him closer - closer - closer. Nie Mingjue seemed to pride himself in Jin Guangyao's apparent helplessness against him, lavishing her with long licks and lances of pleasure. But he was not deaf with her thighs pressed against his ears. He listened to her gasped instructions - until her voice trembled so badly Jin Guangyao could hardly speak. She keened silently as she came on her husband's face.  

Nie Mingjue pulled off and wiped his mouth. The back of his hand took none of the smugness off his face. 

Jin Guangyao rolled her eyes - and rolled over onto her hands and knees. She did not want her belly between them during all this. "Let's try it this way. It will be easier," She said. The words tasted familiar, just like the position was familiar, but this time was different. From that first time and all the others. 

"Have you ever dual cultivated before?" Mingjue panted next to her ear as he cradled her hips and rocked tentatively against her soaking heat. Jin Guangyao moaned at the unintended teasing, reaching back to guide him in as best she could. 

"Ah-I -no, but-" Jin Guangyao didn't dare mention the booklet. How she had already memorized some tips and tricks. That would kill the mood entirely; she resolved to study it more ahead of time before bed tomorrow night. Find a better position for one. For now, Jin Guangyao silently urged Nie Mingjue on - he answered her, driving a soft "fuck" out of her with their long-awaited reunion. "Just -" Jin Guangyao panted hard as Mingjue set a steady, ambitious pace for his condition and hers. "Fuck, we'll feel it out!" Jin Guangyao just barely managed. 

That spurred Mingjue on to buck roughly against her in hearty agreement. Jin Guangyao reached out blindly and found a grip in the lattice bedframe. A wet rhythm soon lulled her into a hot daze, a humid fog, unlike the sweltering oppression which so plagued their chamber previously. No, this was a comforting blanket cast over her. A cleansing bath to relax months of tension. 

Her eyes felt heavy, her vision of a Guanyin charm tied to the headboard grew hazy. Her grip on the same lattice grew slick and weak. Just when that grip nearly slipped - a warm hand caught hers and covered it, anchoring the two of them together to the quaking bedframe. 

"Da-ge," Jin Guangyao sighed, closing her eyes. 

Ragged breaths turned even and tranquil - the sticky heat, however comforting, turned to a superior warmth radiating from deep within. Qi circulated throughout Jin Guangyao's whole body, curling her toes and mingling at her fingertips as it flowed into Nie Mingjue and he flowed into her. Their forces, once totally discordant and near-disastrous, reached an equilibrium. 

Jin Guangyao took her remaining hand and guided Nie Mingjue's own to her lips. She pressed a kiss to his palm, smothering her final pitched cry. He pressed open mouth kisses against her neck and shoulder as his hips stuttered against hers. He dragged his teeth over her shoulder as he spilled inside her and onto her thighs. 

Afterward, Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao laid closely in bed, practically stuck together.

His arm pillowed Jin Guangyao's head. His presence warmed her right side. 

Jin Guangyao tilted her head back to meet her husband's eye, and teased, smiling faintly, "We're all sweaty again, Da-ge."

Nie Mingjue mussed her soaked and tangled hair and grunted that baths could wait till morning, before turning them both onto their sides to sleep. 

This relief, too, was short-lived. 

Another letter from Nie Zhong arrived the next morning - and though Jin Guangyao was in the very middle of playing him Cleansing, the contents drew bloody tears from Nie Mingjue and sent him into convulsions. The bell trembled so terribly it fell to the floor, where it was trampled flat by friends and family rushing to the sect leader's aid. 

"Da-ge!" Jin Guangyao screamed, scrambling up onto the bed beside him as Master Deng, Nie Lin, and Zhou Zhi fought to pin his rebellious limbs. His bloody eyes found her face and he gargled out a bestial noise. A beast that seemed to die with a pained howl as Master Deng began to circulate spiritual energy through him. Nie Mingjue's sudden silence pierced her like an icy blade. 

Jin Guangyao seized his contorted, bleeding face and felt the slick of it against her hands. She fought to catch his gaze as his eyes darted everywhere madly. Furious, frightened tears clouded her own vision, but she dared not tear her touch from him. "Don't you dare - don't you dare die -" 

Nie Mingjue coughed, splattering her face and their sweat-stained sheets red. He sputtered and gagged on garbled words, from which only two words rang out clearly, "Yao! Spare!" 

"NO!" Jin Guangyao shrieked. "No, don't you dare! Don't you dare leave me, Nie Mingjue! Not after all the shit we've been through!"  

Seized by desperation, Jin Guangyao seized Nie Mingjue's wrists from Master Deng's grasp and pumped her spiritual energy through him in the physician's place. She felt the venomous curse eating away at his meridians more keenly than she had the night before, now attuned to his being in a way she hadn't been before. The resentful energy burned away in her fury. She chased the poison to his very core - and she was welcomed there as if it were her own - so she coiled herself around Nie Mingjue's golden core and smothered the parasitic wisps of infection which nested in the cracks. Her fire could not reach as deeply as it needed to - not to cure anyway - but slowly, she quelled the qi deviation.

Nie Mingjue's limbs and head fell against the bed like lead weights as the attack and fight for life abated. 

Jin Guangyao continued fighting to catch her breath, Xiao Deng hovering nearby as Master Deng checked over her husband. When she looked up, she found the entirety of the Nie Elders staring at her. 

She swallowed thickly and turned to Nie Luan. "Send a response to Nie Zhong immediately. Nie Huaisang and Qin Su must leave Gusu posthaste. This cannot be a coincidence; the proxy suspects that we are onto them and is now retaliating." 

"So we're just giving up? What about lifting the curse?" Asked Zhou Zhi, looming fretfully over Master Deng's shoulder. The physician's rag came away from the young sect leader's face saturated with blood. 

"No, no," Jin Guangyao drew a meditative breath. She looked at her husband's state - despite all their strides forward - and nearly wept. But someone had to remain calm, had to lead. And he once trusted that task to her above all others. "We are not giving up. But they shouldn't chase the proxy down if this is what happens when they're spooked. Senior Luan, tell Huaisang and Qin Su to return to Koi Tower under whatever pretense they can muster and let the proxy come to them. As for Nie Zhong...he draws too much attention now. He must return to the Unclean Realm." 

Wang Qiao protested vocally, but was out-voted in short order. What other options did they have, really?

The impromptu meeting came to a close, but husband and wife were not left alone. Jin Guangyao laid close to Nie Mingjue's sleeping form in bed as the physicians looked them both over. She stared at his deathly pale face and shuddered to think she ever strove for this image to be made a reality. 

She wanted this man, in so many ways, she realized. She wanted to be wanted by him. She had that now and felt it profoundly. And the thought that anyone might take him away from her roiled deep within Jin Guangyao. The removal of the curse by whatever means - the healing of Nie Mingjue's core, the destruction of the proxy's spiritual artifact, the proxy's own goodwill - none of that would cut it. 

Jin Guangyao wanted the proxy's head. 

The problem being - the fear that twinged her heart when Nie Aibing read Nie Zhong's letter aloud, his letter from Gusu - she feared exactly who she would come face to face with at the end of her revenge. 

Chapter Text

Attendees descended upon Lanling in the weeks leading up to the Discussion Conference. Like heavy rains slowly flooding a river, so too were the city streets a chaotic and near dangerous current of activity when Qin Su and Nie Huaisang arrived back from their southern excursion. The fight through Koi Tower's gates was long and hard-fought, and the four youths dripped with sweat from the sun beating down on them all afternoon. The line to personally greet Jin Guangshan was longer somehow. By the blessing of Guanyin, a steward recognized the Qinghe Nie exiles under their grime coatings and ushered them to the front of the line. 

Jin Guangshan welcomed his guests back more readily than Qin Su expected, and that left her feeling unsteady. She couldn't hide it completely but passed it off as traveling exhaustion. So the maids prepared her luxurious bath and hung mint sachets around their apartments.

It struck Qin Su how the apartments looked as if their occupants had never left. Had the servants just worked that quickly to dust everything, or had Jin Guangshan been so confident in their return? 

Huaisang stayed behind to speak to Sect Leader Jin longer, kowtowing and babbling drunkenly about their troubles for full effect.

The young couple was deeply apologetic for their rash behavior when they should have learned their lesson by now! It's just that Koi Tower felt so lonesome without family - but they had no families to return to! So they went to visit Lan Xichen at the Cloud Recesses, only to be foiled by Nie Yuozhong, come to spoil their good time just as they always suspected! The Nie Senior harassed the exiles to return to the Unclean Realm, apologize to Sect Leader and Madam Nie, and divorce immediately. As a dear friend to the departed Concubine Ma, of course the man felt a particular duty to put her wayward son in line. The couple just couldn't fathom how he could be so cruel when Sect Leader Jin was so kind and understanding of young love. Thankfully, they learned from their very own hunter that he had been put out from Koi Tower, and so they rushed back, knowing that Sect Leader Jin would protect them. And, they wanted to attend the Discussion Conference, of course! Somehow that had slipped their minds entirely in their adventurous high...Silly them!

Huaisang joined Qin Su in bed after sunset. She pillowed her head in his lap, as she had grown used to over many nights camped out on roadsides. He stroked her hair and drones on about how good and kind and understanding Sect Leader Jin was, even smiling at their tale as if it entertained him rather than angered him, like it definitely would have Nie Mingjue.

"Ah, such a benefactor we have!" Huaisang sighed. "He takes good care of everyone at Koi Tower, especially loving couples. He mentioned that Jiang Yanli is in confinement, sitting in the lap of luxury until the baby is born. If this is how he treats us, I can only imagine how heavenly her experience is." 

The spies had been able to speak freely outside Lanling. Between the southern city gates and Caiyi Town, much ground had been covered.

Since that night they spoke to Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan in private, Qin Su had suspected there was a murky tangle of roots under that beautiful lotus blossom of their marriage. The ugly renovations to her personal manse were the most dangerously obvious example. "She is skimming money from the budget," Qin Su determined that very first evening on the road, camped out in an abandoned farmer's hut after the Ma Twins exorcised the farmer's spirit. "And getting it to the Yiling Patriarch somehow." 

The fraud was obvious enough; what perplexed Qin Su was just how reckless it was once someone so much as suspected Jiang Yanli of allying with Wei Wuxian. Huaisang had later explained that Lan Xichen and Jiang Yanli likely had a tentative alliance at some point which fell apart around the time of her wedding. The breakdown of that alliance must have made Jiang Yanli act rashly on several counts. It was difficult to say what particular scheme she had been caught out on. 

Huaisang knew from years of study that Gusu Lan disciples did not respect the rule against gossip at all, and took ruthless advantage while studying there the past few months. He still did not know much, however, since the Lan Elders knew the most and gossiped amongst themselves - not with Huaisang or the youths he kept company with. That's where classic romance novel eavesdropping came into play. 

"I do know that the Elders forced Er-ge's seclusion. Punishment for the impropriety of his actions at 'such a critical time'. He was caught at Koi Tower visiting Jiang Yanli by an elder, Lan Haiqi. She has since then parlayed that into greater influence over the sect," Huaisang had hoped that Lan Xichen would be released in preparation for the Discussion Conference, and would come to their aid in catching Su Minshan. Especially as they tracked the man's movements from Lanling closer and closer to Gusu.

Then they lost his trail at Caiyi Town, and Nie Zhong caught up to theirs. They would only know if his seclusion was at an end if he attended the conference. However, Gusu Lan had an unfortunate tendency to send Lan Qiren and other elders to such talks. No one would necessarily bat an eye if Sect Leader Lan did not attend. 

It seemed that Jiang Yanli suffered a similar punishment to Lan Xichen. Qin Su wondered what for exactly, and the speculation haunted her dreams that night. She feared Sect Leader Jin storming their chamber at any moment and throwing them into the dungeon, so Qin Su didn't sleep well. 

The next day - while rotating through dozens of social circles and functions around Koi Tower - reingratiating herself to the growing masses and regaling them with a fresh romantic tale - Qin Su found something close to an answer. Young Madam Jin's manse sat empty, abandoned mid-construction though surely an expectant mother would have wanted everything completed before her baby's arrival. Rather, the new wing to the structure sat largely unprotected from the elements; a bad storm could ruin everything and not a stitch of care was present in any of the tarps haphazardly thrown around. Jiang Yanli was not confined in her manse either but instead sequestered somewhere else. Somewhere that the other women of Koi Tower that Qin Su spoke to had no clue about.

Having been witness to many petty behaviors the past year, Qin Su could only assume that the manse was abandoned because Jin Guangshan learned what Jiang Yanli really put his gold toward. 

Qin Su sat on the edge of her seat at every tea party and luncheon and so forth from then on. Jiang Yanli seemed like such a sweet, kind, and noble person. Yet she was so forgiving of the Yiling Patriarch and his dark arts, even helping him and the Wen Dogs. And now she was caged somewhere like A-Yao and Qin Su herself had been. And Jiang Yanli knew that the Qinghe Nie exiles were up to something.

If Qin Su sat on the edge of her seat now. She didn't believe that she could have sat on such valuable information during her own imprisonment for long. Not if she could have bartered for her freedom with it and gone to see her mother. 

As the anticipation for the conference climbed higher and higher - grand prizes advertised in bellowing tones - pushy merchants and colorful entertainers crowding the streets alongside cultivators - tents and contest stages erected on the plains outside the city walls - so too did the bubbles in Qin Su's stomach. The exiles mingled every day and thus learned new, terrible things every day.

Jin Zixun had disappeared from Koi Tower again - but this time Jin Zixuan was missing too. Now people wondered if he went with his cousin. Which meant that people also wondered about Jiang Yanli's relationship with the Yiling Patriarch more than usual, since her husband might be off working against the man's dastardly schemes. It frightened Qin Su to think what Jiang Yanli might do if untoward speculations got back to her - what she might say

No one had seen hide nor hair of Qinghe Nie on the way to Lanling for the conference. When attendees showed up and saw that the great sect was not waiting for them, wild speculation broke out in relation to Young Master Jin's wedding and the eloping exiles' presence at Koi Tower. Then, a small northern sect arrived and threw everyone into a tizzy. According to this insect-sized sect, all the northern sects had suddenly flocked toward the Unclean Realm like geese right around the time they should have been preparing for Lanling. Tragically, this sect was completely unaffiliated with any great sect, so they had no clue why. Meaning speculation about the mass absences worsened. 

Jin Guangshan had paid to have his latest mistress' literary work published and sold by vendors in the city. Meaning that hundreds of cultivators suddenly had access to The Pearl of Turmoil Volume One. The only explanation for this bizarre action was that he knew just how much his daughter would hate it. The way his false teeth gleamed, smiling at the copy he gifted to Qin Su basically confirmed her suspicions.

The only mercy was that Volume Two sat incomplete in the rogue cultivator's chambers. Caibin-Sanren instead ran herself ragged through Koi Tower, recruiting unsuspecting servants and cultivators into her elaborate stage production - also something funded by Jin Guangshan. Something she penned last minute in a flurry of inspiration, purportedly. Something highly, highly secretive according to all those new, gushing actors. Qin Su prayed that she and Huaisang were not that 'inspiration', while also living in fear of A-Yao loosing fiery rage unto the playhouse and the whole wrangled cast. 

Laoling Qin arrived for the conference. No one spoke of it to Qin Su, but the faint whispers and speculative looks reignited as she drifted here and there. Praying not to see him. Praying to see him. All jumbled up inside and unable to say a word herself. 

The last day before the conference, Ma Kun trudged into the apartment with a hangover and fresh horrors vomiting out her mouth.

"Gusu Lan just arrived! Sect Leader Lan just landed with his uncle! And that scary elder A-Sang mentioned!" 

The exiles abandoned their breakfast for the Fragrant Palace and caught the tail-end of informal greetings between Sect Leader Jin and Sect Leader Lan. 

"Sincerest thanks to Gusu Lan for the privilege of hosting this occasion." Jin Guangshan said to Lan Xichen. "Though we meet as equals, please allow this sect leader to seat you and your kin as guests of great esteem at all Koi Tower banquets in this coming week." 

Lan Xichen swallowed visibly and smiled as he accepted the offer. His uncle stood close behind him, but Qin Su felt Lan Haiqi's presence from clear across the room. 

The Elder certainly had a strong, elegant bearing, but looked less like an Elder and more like an elder sister. But even this was a testament to her cultivation. Her heart-shaped face was not soft and lovely at all, beautiful as she naturally was as a Lan, instead giving the impression of a sculpture. Her visage was not suited toward sneering, instead predisposed to stoicism like most Lans, but she definitely reminded Qin Su of Yu Ziyuan in sheer presence. 

She was a beautiful woman, so of course, Jin Guangshan paid her some special attention before inviting the whole Lan retinue to tea. 

"Lan Haiqi, this sect leader is honored to meet you again. Ah, the mountain air must be refreshing, you look very well," Qin Su might be paranoid now, because she sensed a jab at Lan Xichen in those words. The younger sect leader's face was distinctly pale and drawn despite his serene smile. Perhaps his seclusion would be blamed on illness.

"Tell us, will that granddaughter of yours be competing? Or is she attending summer lectures at the Cloud Recesses?" 

Lan Haiqi smiled with thin lips and answered that Lan Shufen was off with the other competing disciples. 

"She will make a good showing," Jin Guangshan said with certainty.

"Indeed," Haiqi breezed on past the man, leading the men out of the hall like she owned the place. 

Qin Su about jumped out of her skin when she next saw Jin Guangshan a short while later. He came and found her personally. 

"For your birthday, dear," He wore a kind, fatherly demeanor that irked Qin Su. Like if someone wandered up to you with a fake beard and acted completely normal. She kept calm, however, and accepted the offered coin purse. She almost dropped it, surprised by the weight. 

Jin Guangshan encouraged her to spend the money however she pleased and ushered her out of Koi Tower with some senior disciples for bodyguards. It was the first bit of spending money Qin Su had been given since first arriving at Koi Tower, everything else being gifts supernaturally accurate to the exiles' tastes. Their assets on their excursion had been these items that they sold and traded along the way. This was also the first time Qin Su had been completely separated from any of her fellows not by her own choice. 

She walked through the crowded streets of Lanling, the eyes of three senior disciples pinned to her back. She wondered fretfully where Jin Guangshan had Huaisang pinned down at that moment. 

Qin Su examined the many stalls, old and new, lining the narrow streets. She clutched the purse close to her uneasy heart. Her actual birthday was spent camped outside Moling, determining if the sect leader had been home recently. Which was not the case, sadly. The Ma Twins had treated the birthday girl to a feast of forest game. Nie Huaisang had traded that cheap fan given by Jin Guangshan for a veiled hat to fend against the sun and bugs while traveling and had left himself to suffer the summer heat.

Qin Su browsed the stalls, wondering if she should put Jin Guangshan's money toward a truly thoughtful gift for Huaisang. A unique fan. 

Curiosity drew her to a distinctly popular stall essentially stuffed into an alleyway near the western city gates. Qin Su worked her way to the front on the throng and found an array of interesting talismans and spiritual tools, with intriguing names. Spirit-Attraction Flags, however, were the hottest good on display. Deft merchant hands snatched new orders off the stacks every second, while also snatching payment from eager cultivators. 

Qin Su's eyes blew wide when she followed a more hesitant hand up the maroon-sleeved arm and recognized the owner. 

"Luo Qingyang!" 

The papers slipped from between the rogue's fingers. "Qin Su!" 

"Oi! Slow girl, gimme my flags already!" 

Qingyang shut up that demanding patron with a look to make Madam Jin proud. "Just for that, you're paying extra!" And what choice did the cultivator have but to comply, seeing how popular the unique product was with the lesser sects. He couldn't stand to be left out, not with his Lanling Jin pride telling him to buy out the whole stall.

Which he proceeded to do, then slink away to procure a cart. Not realizing who she was, he barked orders at Qin Su and her guards to keep an eye on this skeezy merchant. 

"Did he really not recognize you?" Qin Su asked in a low voice. The disciples guarding her didn't seem to either, though Luo Qingyang hadn't changed much in the past year. Maybe it was because they expected her to wear the brilliant red robes the rumors whispered of. The sensible outfit she wore was closer to pink than red, save for the reddish-brown sleeves. Working with merchants rather than cavorting with the Yiling Patriarch as part of his growing harem was equally unexpected. 

Luo Qingyang and the merchant worked to put aside their last patron's order. They replaced the cultivation tools with more typical goods - bolts of fabric, bags of lotus seed, medicinal sachets, and jugs of fruit wine. Qingyang scoffed and said, "Even the lowest branches think themselves quite high and lofty when it comes to the Jin clan. A servant's daughter is beneath their notice." 

Qin Su gasped at the glittering tray Qingyang next set out. "Oh heavens! What beautiful jewelry!" The tray contained a whole set - golden necklaces, dangly earrings with lustrous red gems, large hair ornaments shaped like peonies, and dazzling bracelets. A set fit for a princess, it reminded her of past dreams of a Koi Tower wedding day of her own. Qin Su knew her eyes sparkled as surely as the jewelry reflected the afternoon sun. 

Luo Qingyang's merchant companion immediately noticed and offered a discount. When Qingyang elbowed him, he protested, "Ai-yah! We've been trying to move these items for ages! We need to be shed this excess weight and make some money off it before-" Qingyang pinched his cheek. 

"Changbi," She said through gritted teeth. "Go in the back and do the books."

When he obeyed, Luo Qingyang sighed and said, "I'm afraid my partner was mistaken. These items aren't for sale." 

"You put them out, though," Qin Su pointed out. 

Luo Qingyang kept a straight face rather nobly, even as her cheeks burned that fabled crimson color of hers. "Right, my mistake then." She snatched up the tray and marched into the back of the stall. 

Qin Su waited for her to return. A disciple behind her coughed awkwardly as that wait stretched on...She decided to crane her head for a peek behind the stall curtain - and glimpsed a man who was definitely not the merchant exchanging animated gestures with Luo Qingyang. 

The man wore Lanling Jin gold. At the end of their exchange, he gathered Luo Qingyang into his arms like a fragile teacup. The rogue patted his back, soothing him like a baby. When the two parted, leaving an awkward air between them, Qin Su glimpsed the man's face - and recognized him. 

She tore off down the street, the disciples tramping on her heels. 

"Young Madam Nie-"

"-just wait, what-"

"-was that about?"

"Mianmian is fucking the merchant!" Qin Su burst out a hasty excuse loud enough that the whole street seemed to fall silent around her. Including the disciples.

They all stared at each other, and then carried on with shopping. Because what else was there to do? 

Qin Su bought a random assortment of trinkets and pocketed the rest of Jin Guangshan's gift. Then rushed around Koi Tower, looking for her companions with the flimsiest veneer of dignity. Many times, she skid to a stop on her heels and struggled to tame her breath when other guests turned a corner into the hall she was running down. She found Ma Chao first, staring lovelorn from a balcony as expected. 

He thankfully had an idea where Ma Kun was - practicing for the archery competition. They would have pounced on her right away, but instead had to pace afar, waiting for Madam Jin of all people to vacate the range. Qin Su gnashed her teeth, watching the two women converse and trade pointers and laugh while hellfire licked at their heels. 

Finally, Madam Jin left and Qin Su snatched Ma Kun up. 

"Something bad is going to happen!" She told the twins straight out. "I feel it in my bones. I saw Jin Zixuan in the market with Luo Qingyang! Arguing! Then, hugging! She was acting strangely before then, too, refusing to sell me some jewelry! And now I keep thinking about all the weird things we have picked up on since coming here - and all the things we have no clue about! Like Qinghe Nie! Why aren't they coming to the conference? What are we meant to do then if Moling Su shows up?! We can't handle this on our own! Heavens, what were we thinking running off on our own in the first place! We're not prepared for any of this! We - we - where is Nie Huaisang?" She looked desperately to her companions for answers. 

The Ma Twins looked back at her like she was a feral animal ready to bite. Qin Su collapsed back onto her and Huaisang's bed and wept. 

"Uh, who is Luo Qingyang?"

She wept harder. 

Nie Huaisang did not return that evening, and Qin Su did not sleep. 

Of all the things she drove herself mad over, one thought stuck out that night. Would Father help us flee Koi Tower if it came down to it? 

The next morning, the Lanling Discussion Conference officially opened. 

Qin Su and Nie Huaisang reunited at the opening ceremonies taking place outside the city walls. Jin Guangshan graciously set up a private tent in Qinghe Nie colors for their party, making them easy to find. Huaisang burst through the flaps still dressed in yesterday's clothes, smiling broadly in a way that would have put Qin Su on edge weeks ago, but now eased all her worries. Huaisang swept Qin Su off her feet with surprising strength - then nearly dropped her and fell back on his rear, laughing. 

Qin Su knelt beside him, laughing just as tiredly. "Where were you? What's going on?" She asked. 

Huaisang took her hands in his and explained in a rush, "I was up all last night partying with Jin Guangshan and his companions! Seduced by debauchery and sumptuous luxury!" 

Qin Su threw her arms around him. "Thank goodness!" 

Huaisang pried her off - only to look her in the eye, his own twinkling delightfully. "I learned something pivotal from Caibin-Sanren when discussing her play opening tonight. Su Minshan - he was the inspiration for it! His feelings for Jin Guangyao are! It's not just carnal lust for a woman or her father's favor. Su Minshan is in love with her!" 

His words rolled over Qin Su as she grappled with what this information truly meant. As it sank in, the tent grew darker. As if stormclouds had overtaken the clear blue sky outside. The din of the festivities beyond their tent turned from anticipatory and jolly to anxious and fretful. Horses whined - spectators gasped - and warriors bayed for blood. Qin Su, Nie Huaisang, and the twins burst out of their tent and into utter chaos as the whole conference drifted toward one point. Spiraling chaos feeding into itself. 

At the center of it all, a woman in blood-red robes stood over four dispatched Lanling Jin disciples before the shared dais of three great sect leaders. 

Luo Qingyang leveled her naked blade at Jin Guangshan, challenging. Her eyes shone red as the jewels she denied Qin Su the day before. 

Her voice boomed supernaturally through the chilled air. "This Head Disciple has proven herself, has she not? Will Sect Leader Jin continue to deny her Yiling Wei sect participation in this conference?" 

Chapter Text

Her voice boomed supernaturally through the chilled air. "This Head Disciple has proven herself, has she not? Will Sect Leader Jin continue to deny her Yiling Wei sect participation in this conference?" 

Wreaths of resentful energy like smoke poured off Luo Qingyang's blade. Xiangqi was like a blade reforged in her hands, bathed in darkness and steaming hotly. Her eyes burned like coals and never once left Sect Leader Jin's face even as thousands of cultivators drew their blades around her. 

The five disciples strewn at her feet stirred with pained groans. Qin Su feared they had been made into fierce corpses until visible chills ran through them and they crawled to safety like bugs. Luo Qingyang glanced after one that brushed Qin Su's skirts. A glacier might as well-formed have around them for how badly Qin Su and Huaisang froze up. But the new demonic cultivator's attention only lasted an instant. 

Then, Luo Qingyang let down her blade and addressed the whole of the conference very politely. "This one let her pride run away from her. But really, who among you would not be offended if your sect was overlooked, and then treated harshly when all you did was prove your worthiness? Sect Leader Jin asked this Head Disciple to test her mettle against his cultivators, and so she did, and she won without a single drop of blood!" The crowd pitched in sudden outrage at these lies, so Luo Qingyang turned back to the dais. "Sect Leader Lan, Sect Leader Jiang, is that not a fact?" She asked, and the whole plain hushed up. 

They all watched and gasped as the two great sect leaders on either side of Jin Guangshan reluctantly nodded their heads. Jin Guangshan set his jaw in displeasure at their betrayal. But could he really have expected Lan Xichen to lie? Regardless, this was bad for him. If the Number One gentleman, the elder Twin Jade of Gusu Lan, said it happened like that, then it muddied the waters in Luo Qingyang's favor. 

Qin Su looked between Lan Xichen and Luo Qingyang and Sect Leader Jiang - tried to decipher just what was passing between them all. She glanced frantically among the crowd, wondering where Jin Zixuan was in all this mess. At her side, Huaisang fanned himself frantically with his hand and swooned. 

"Noble cultivators, do not forget who this traitor professes loyalty to!" Jin Guangshan entreated the conference. "Luo Qingyang's own martial brothers were slain by the Yiling Patriarch, and instead of standing against him, she became his concubine alongside that witch, Wen Qing! She is a criminal!"

"Isn't that something that should be decided by the conference?" Luo Qingyang's eyes flared suddenly. "You are not the lone arbiter of justice. Quarrels between sects should be settled through civil arbitration, not through rumormongering. If these fine cultivators knew just what transpired at Qiongqi Pass before Wei Wuxian arrived-"

"Enough! Seize this traitor!" Jin Guangshan bellowed. "Luo Qingyang, you are under the thrall of a demon! I won't let you inflict the same onto my honored guests!"

Golden jin disciples shot out of the surrounding crowds like arrows, converging on the bright red target that was Luo Qingyang. She smiled and threw down a single talisman. 

Ka-boom!

A pillar of crimson red smoke climbed toward the clouds. A chilling breeze toppled it, but not before three figures emerged as one united front. 

Luo Qingyang in all her new demonic glory. Dressed in the same brilliant red as Luo Qingyang but in a less martial style, a woman with a veiled straw hat. Between them, none other than the Yiling Patriarch.

Half the crowd fled then, certain a massacre would ensue. Qin Su and Nie Huaisang fought the Ma Twins' grips to stay at the forefront of the remaining crowd. 

Wei Wuxian smiled up at the dais - and saluted. "Great Sect Leaders, this Yiling Patriarch answers his Head Disciple's call. Did you not believe Mianmian when she said that we had formed Yiling Wei? Aiyah, don't worry, the Yiling Patriarch is here to confirm she isn't just one of those loons out there falsely claiming me for a master!" 

The cheek, Qin Su thought fretfully.

Jin Guangshan's sword flew to his hand to slice those cheeks off. "You dare show your face here after what you've done? Your sect is nothing but a nest of escaped criminals and traitors!" 

Wei Wuxian threw up his hands and blinked wide grey eyes at the Jin Sect Leader. "Ah, but none of us have ever pled a case before our fellows at a Discussion Conference! That's part of the reason we formed the sect. So we could properly talk these things out. Isn't that what a Discussion Conference is for?" He looked around as if expecting someone to either back him or correct him. Some poor bystanders fainted when his eyes landed on them. 

He deflated. "I suppose this was rude of us to announce ourselves publicly like this. It's our mistake really, expecting an invitation when you didn't even know we existed until now. Well, there's always next year! For now, I'll settle for visiting my shijie, and then we'll take our leave." 

Qin Su glimpsed a flash of understanding in Jin Guangshan's eyes, as if his eyes reflected the warning glare of Wei Wuxian's withdrawn blade. She, too, realized suddenly that this appearance had less to do with announcing Yiling Wei, and everything to do with Jiang Yanli's forced confinement. Wei Wuxian was about to carry out another jailbreak!

Jin Guangshan acted cooly, terse with Wei Wuxian but overall very calm. It put his audience at ease as well, believing that things wouldn't resort to bloodshed. Jin Guangshan likely wanted the Yiling Patriarch deader than his corpses, but a battle breaking out just outside Lanling's city walls would be catastrophic. He needed Wei Wuxian gone without seemingly giving in to any of the upstart's demands. He explained that Jiang Yanli was in maternity confinement and was not taking any visitors but pure women to protect her and the Jin heir from impurities. Clearly a jab the female companions flanking Wei Wuxian. 

Wei Wuxian took Chenqing from his belt - everyone flinched - and he used it to scratch his head. "Really? But it's so early! The baby isn't due for another four months. Wen Qing here is the best doctor in the world and she says coddling like that is bad for mother and child. Right, Wen Qing?"

The veiled figure finally spoke, with unmistakable authority in her words." Such prolonged confinement can actually cause very bad blood clots, as well as other maladies."

"There you have it! Straight from the greatest doctor of our generation. Eh, Sect Leader Jin, is it true that even your own son and her brother have been blocked from seeing my shijie? That even her favorite maids were all switched out? Loneliness is bad for health as well, I'm told! And then I hear that not even her pretty little manse is finished in preparation for my nephew's arrival because Lanling Jin got stingy with its mountains of gold...Ah, Sect Leader Jin, I know what it's like to have horrible rumors floating around about you, but I must admit it really sounds like my shijie is being punished. You should really clear that up or else you'll end up like me!" He laughed. 

Murmurs of speculation broke out behind summer fans and silk sleeves. Some bolder individuals yelled out accusingly at Wei Wuxian and Jin Guangshan both. Questions flooded the air, adding to the oppressive humidity. How did Wei Wuxian know such things about the ongoings of Koi Tower? Was there any truth to his words? Had Jiang Yanli done something to be punished? To what end did Wei Wuxian make these accusations if not for her sake? Except, perhaps, they were witnessing a kidnapping in progress?

Jin Guangshan stiffened and said not a word in response to anything flung his way. But Qin Su sensed the distance between him and Sect Leader Jiang increase on the dais despite the two not moving at all.

Wei Wuxian snapped his fingers. "I have an idea! Just bring my shijie out here so everyone can see her and she can say her piece about all this. I won't come near her at all, nor will Mianmian or Wen Qing if that's a concern. We'll hear and see that she is content with her arrangements, and then leave." 

"This is a ploy!" Jin Guangshan accused. 

"You can ask someone you trust immensely to escort her out," Wei Wuxian said plainly. "Like her husband and my shidi? I would never hurt them. Even if you all think I'm a heartless monster, at least realize I'm not stupid enough to purposefully instigate a war." 

Sect Leader Jiang stepped forward. "He's an idiot, but he's not stupid." He said to Jin Guangshan and a fretful Lan Xichen. 

The Jin Sect Leader grit his teeth. Without hearing his words, Qin Su knew he hissed that they had no idea where his son even was -  only for the son to step up onto the dais behind him and spook the daylights out of his father in front of everyone. "Father, allow us to fetch A-Li," Jin Zixuan greeted his father as if he hadn't disappeared from Koi Tower for weeks. Obviously, Jin Guangshan could not acknowledge that and let his household appear out of hand before the whole cultivation world.  

Jin Guangshan adjusted his robes, redonning his composure. He flicked his sleeve, dismissing them as if he was acting graciously on their behalf. 

Sometime later, the crowds parted to make way for Jiang Yanli's waddling form. She did not glow with pregnancy. The winds changed as the crowds took in Jiang Yanli's pale face and miserable aura. She gripped her husband and brother's hands for support, but only brightened when she saw her shidi. She looked ready to throw herself into his arms, but both had close companions to keep them in check. Instead, they greeted each other from a distance. 

"Shijie," 

"A-Xian," Yanli's voice cracked, and all eyes flew to Jin Guangshan. This was not the state of a pampered expectant mother. 

"Shijie, don't cry. Unless those are happy tears? Everything is all right here, yeah?" Wei Wuxian's words were laced with concern that softened his intimidating presence. Jin Zixuan and Jiang Wanyin hovered close to Jiang Yanli as well, fretting over her. 

Jiang Yanli clung to her husband and brother both. "A-Xian, I'm so glad to see my shidi and everyone else. Thank you for coming to check on me. But I am so worried that this will only make things worse."

"What do you mean, Jiejie?" asked Jiang Wanyin.

"I don't want to be hypocritical and cause undue trouble..." Jiang Yanli trailed off so strangely. Qin Su only knew her in passing, but Jiang Yanli was always rather straightforward in things. Everyone remembered Pheonix Mountain, after all. Had this forced confinement really crushed such a strong quiet spirit into timidity?

In occurred to Qin Su again that this was all for Jiang Yanli's sake. Everything here was staged in her favor, so appearing weak and downtrodden - this really was a scene! And some performances fed off the reactions of the audience, like how she and Huaisang had played to Jin Zixuan's reactions, so - 

"If someone is bullying you, you should say so!" Qin Su shouted. "You are surrounded by righteous cultivators after all, and we should hear cases like this at a Discussion Conference, right?" She turned to the remaining crowd and swelled with pride at how a fair number thought themselves great potential saviors for Jiang Yanli. Especially if it meant potentially getting one over on the haughty Lanling Jin Sect. 

Jiang Yanli's resolute nature returned, and she confronted her father-in-law with the same polite ferocity she exhibited toward his nephew at Pheonix Mountain. "It is appropriate that Young Madam Nie speaks on this matter. Her words remind me that I did nothing to warrant this mistreatment. This one only graciously lent Sect Leader Jin's honored guests her and her husband's very own horses for a ride. I had no idea that they would take them on a month-long journey, nor was I necessarily against it. But Sect Leader Jin accused me of somehow plotting against him to have his guests gone. I really have no idea what he meant, even now, because I assumed we were only being benefactors to a lovely young couple and their entourage. 

"Still, I don't hold it against Sect Leader Jin. Because I understand his position is complicated, and such political matters are beyond me. But I know something of courtesy! To blame me for my shidi's actions only because I wish to hear his case formally presented before casting judgment, it's just not fair behavior from such a venerable sect leader. Moreover, his actions have left me feeling quite ill and I now worry about my child." 

At the mention of an endangered baby as a result of such a petty misunderstanding, there was an uproar solidly against Jin Guangshan. Punishing his daughter-in-law over some horses and risking his own grandchild's wellbeing! Was the man really so paranoid? As if such an innocent and noble lady could skillfully arrange the triumph of the Yiling Patriarch through some horses and thick-faced Nie exiles! It was so ridiculous that right away people sought to make things right. 

Jiang Yanli had a ready answer for what would improve her circumstances. "I would have liked to go into confinement in my own private manse. If renovations could be completed in short order and I could be allowed to stay there again, in the company of my former staff, then I think that would help. I also would greatly appreciate the chance to assistant Madam Jin in her charity work again." 

Such simple requests. Ones that did not even require Jiang Yanli to leave Lanling Jin's sphere of influence at Koi Tower. How could Jin Guangshan deny her before the whole cultivation world? Right in front of the Yiling Patriarch? 

He agreed, and Wei Wuxian kept his word. He bid his marital siblings goodbye and respectfully indicated that Yiling Wei would present their case at the next Discussion Conference. Until then, "It would be appreciated if Lanling Jin disciples would quit snooping around Yiling. That constitutes poaching of another sect's night hunting territory now, and we would be within our rights to retaliate." He said it sternly, but as if disciplining a child. 

It was an odd image to leave off on before disappearing in another pop of red smoke. 

Qin Su blinked at the empty space uneasily along with hundreds of others. Until a force like a harsh wind tore her and Huaisang backward. It practically dragged the pair through the crowd, stumbling and colliding with obstacles. Qin Su screamed, Huaisang cried, but people must have thought their nerves finally gave out on them after such an ordeal. The Ma Twins did not follow for some reason, which was all the more terrifying. Finally, they were physically tossed back into their Nie green tent. 

A strong metallic scent mingled with floral undertones, filling the tent like a perfume vial. Her sword steaming black, eyes glowing red, Luo Qingyang stood over the spies. 

"H-how -" 

"I'm the one asking questions here," Qingyang barked. But she sheathed her blade and the resentful energy faded, leaving her eyes a soft brown. The strange odor disappeared from the tent entirely too quickly to be natural. It evaporated the very instant that Xiangqi's sheath clicked closed. 

Qin Su's eyes flew on Luo Qingyang's sword, Xiangqi. She remembered how it wafted resentful energy so profusely just then, and then earlier before she cast that apparent transportation talisman. But to use talismans twice in a row, transporting more than one person each time. That was a lot of spiritual energy. And then, there was the invisible force dragging Qin Su and Nie Huaisang back to their tent. The strange obliviousness of the twins. It was said that Wei Wuxian invoked heinous hallucinations in Wen Chao and his mistress while torturing them to death. Had he taught his Head Disciple to cast that same art through her sword? Had Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing truly ever been there? 

Qin Su swallowed hard and huddled close to Nie Huaisang. 

Luo Qingyang sighed and looked like she genuinely felt bad for scaring them. She crouched down and said, "Sorry, it's just that Jin Zixuan told me how you left Jiang Yanli pretty high and dry after making some big promises about much-needed support."

"We didn't mean to," Huaisang quickly said. "We just had to chase a sudden lead. Time was of the essence." 

"And now?" Asked Qingyang with crossed arms. "Will you go back to the Unclean Realm and keep your word now?" 

"Well, we have to now," Huaisang said sheepishly. "The Yiling Patriarch just showed up at Lanling Jin's door, making veiled threats. Jin Guangshan will likely hasten his plans to see my brother and his wife dead and install Qin Su and me as his new allies." 

Luo Qingyang understood perfectly. "People say that Qinghe Nie is hosting its own conference with its vassals, as well as its own summer lectures. All to shun Lanling Jin and Gusu Lan specifically. Not having the military power which led the war against the Wens on their side is making everyone uneasy. I suggest you head out tonight before you get locked up in a tower for safekeeping like Jiang Yanli was." 

"Wait," Qin Su burst out. "I know you said no questions, but does Wei Wuxian know what you and Jin Zixuan just pulled?" 

Luo Qingyang's eyes widened, her hands flying to her sword. "You saw through it?" She calmed down immediately, seeming confident enough in her new abilities to know that was impossible. "Never mind how...Glad it was you and not Jin Guangshan. But to answer your question, this was a group effort. Obviously even with every cultivator gathered at a place well away from Yiling, we weren't going to risk actually leaving the Burial Mounds with weakened defenses. So I infiltrated and acted with Jin Zixuan and Jiang Wanyin's assistance. By coincidence, it was a good time to introduce our new sect and puff ourselves up as a legitimate entity." 

Huaisang hid his mouth behind his sleeve. "Was it really such a good idea though to appear alongside Wen Qing and Sect Leader Wei like that? Beautiful symmetry aside, that really doesn't help rumors about you and his har-" 

Luo Qingyang's eyes flashed red and Huaisang's mouth snapped shut. "Find a way out of Lanling. Since you escaped once, it won't be as easy as raiding the stables like last time. And no one's flying out of here without Jin Guangshan's say so. I can't help you either...sorry. Really, I hope you get out safely. And thank you for helping out back there," She said, looking at Qin Su with warm brown eyes. Under her new scary harsh demonic cultivator veneer, Mianmian was still a fluffy-hearted girl who wove herbal sachets for her friends. 

Qin Su blushed. "It was the least we could do after Jiang Yanli helped out our investigation...as for our escape," She frowned. "I know that at least one person here is willing to defy Sect Leader Jin for my sake. Could you help me contact him at least?" 

"Of course." 

Luo Qingyang used her illusions to escort Qin Su to the Laoling Qin tents. There, she found her father shooing off Jin disciples. 

"He thinks I'll get mixed up in this mess on his behalf? Not until he apologizes, and we all know that will never happen!" Qin Su followed him back into his tent, and the illusion fell away as Qingyang pulled from her side and disappeared entirely. Qin Cangye whipped around, ready to curse out that pesky Jin disciple. He saw his daughter instead and yanked her into a hug. 

"A-Su, you're okay," He said before realizing how they'd last left things. He made to pull away, but Qin Su kept him close. 

"Baba," She whispered into his chest. 

It didn't take much convincing. 

He smuggled her, Huaisang, and the Ma Twins out of the conference that evening. Hidden in traveling trunks, their true contents dumped in Lanling alleyways and descended upon by ragged beggars. Once a safe distance away at an inn located at a crossroads, Qin disciples threw open the trunks to let the occupants breathe.

Right as they were all stretching their legs, Ma Chao cried out and shoved Qin Su and Huaisang into some bushes. Through the tree canopy, though, Qin Su spotted cultivators soaring high overhead. They wore all white, and Qin Su's blood ran cold thinking that Su Minshan found them before they found him. But the flock of cultivators passed by without incident. 

While the Ma Twins helped untangle their charges from the bushes, Qin Cangye approached, looking grim. He did not know their situation entirely, but he knew things were dangerous.

"Those were Lan cultivators...but they're heading west. Does that have anything to do with you?" Her father asked her. 

"Potentially," Qin Su admitted, glancing at Huaisang. "It's something that must be discussed with A-Yao and Sect Leader Nie."

Qin Cangye nodded understandingly but grimaced as if acceptance left a foul taste in his mouth. "A-Su, I realize now that you are doing something you feel very strongly about. It makes a father proud to see his child act courageously, but it also frightens this old man. A-Su, won't you consider coming home for a little while at least?" He did not mention her mother, perhaps not wanting to provoke his daughter's anger. But it only upset Qin Su more to think that her parents seriously feared she hated them now. 

It was true that Qin Su and her mother always had a fraught relationship. Qin Su, the smothered youngest, struggled eternally against an overbearing mother. A mother who shunned her father for some reason, even ignored her elder siblings much of the time, and had been withering away in her own misery Qin Su's whole life. She caused all Qin Su's troubles by keeping her back at Laoling too long, and inspired her dreams of a love match with how unhappy she was in her own arranged marriage. Basically dying of it in the long run after a brief bout of prosperity that Qin Su never knew, for it ended before she was even born. Even in smothering her, her mother always kept Qin Su at arm's length. They alienated each other their whole lives, and it hurt immensely. But Qin Su never came close to hating her mother until she left home nearly a year ago. They quarreled terribly then - over A-Yao, over the past, over everything. It had been ugly, and Qin Su desperately did not want her last memory of her mother to be ugly. 

But - "We need to handle things back at the Unclean Realm still," She said regretfully. 

"Qin Su," Huaisang cut in softly. "I actually already have an idea of how to lure Su Minshan out of hiding. So you are free to go home to Laoling if you like," 

"But what about -"

"We can handle things. You don't have to bear the consequences of our actions anymore," Huaisang smiled thinly. "You never should have. I sincerely apologize for everything you went through this past year, and for keeping you away from your mother so long." He dropped down to his knees then and bent low before her right in the middle of the crossroads.  

"A-Sang," Qin Su breathed, awed that she recognized his sincerity - that she believed him for the first time in so long. 

"My own father was sick for many months before he died. I didn't want to see him all that time because it felt like my father wasn't there anymore. I wasn't there when he finally died. I also wasn't there when my mothers died. I can't really describe how it felt to be elsewhere when they died. How they were just gone. Qin Su, I can only imagine how difficult it would be for you who truly wants to be there with your parents." Huaisang lifted his head, and tears dripped down his chin. "Please go! I promise I'll keep Meng Yao and her baby safe. I swear on my life." 

Qin Su bent down before him. She stuck out her pinky quite seriously and sniffled, "Swear on the fingers you hold a paintbrush with, instead. No more dying." 

"A Dongying promise?" Huaisang laughed and clasped her pinky with his. "No more dying." 

It was decided that Ma Chao would fly Huaisang back to the Unclean Realm, while Ma Kun would fly Qin Su back from Laoling when - or if - she was ready. 

"What happens after?" Qin Su whispered to Huaisang before they parted ways. After they catch Su Minshan - after her mother...

"I don't know," Huaisang said honestly. 

Chapter Text

Laoling sat nestled in a sea of tall trees, an island marked by the sect rooftops and temples climbing high over the leafy canopy. Passing between the forest and the city gates was passing between ancient wilderness and human civilization. Bird song replaced by the hustle and bustle of summer markets. Qin Su peeked her head out the carriage window like she did as a girl, watching her mother's personal tower grow closer and closer. 

That first autumn that Qin Su, her siblings, and her father returned home to Laoling from Koi Tower, Mother stood waiting for them at the compound's central gate. Qin Su never saw her mother look so happy before, and had had such a terrible first summer away from home, she let her mother bundle her into her arms like a baby and steal her away into her private chambers. 

Madam Qin had no forewarning that her husband would, at last, bring their wayward daughter home that day. Madam Qin had no reason to believe her husband would be home from the conference so early and word of his arrival in the city should have just bearly reached her when the carriage was already put away in the stables. Qin Su's eyes widened in shock when the central gate appeared out of the chaotic street and her mother stood there waiting like a pale shadow of the past. Her mother stared at Qin Su like she was a ghost, too, when her daughter climbed out of the carriage with her husband. 

Her lips moved without words.

Bicao, her maid, stepped in to aid her mistress. Bicao greeted Sect Leader Qin, welcoming him home a hundred times and telling him what pleasures awaited him in his chambers after a long journey. She hustled off her mistress, and her daughter too, pleading that they would help Qin Su get settled back at home while Sect Leader Qin rested. 

The three women climbed up to Madam Qin's private tower, which had everything a person could need without ever troubling the rest of the household. Bicao went to the private kitchen and brought back tea and snacks she made herself. Snacks she knew Qin Su loved as a little girl and seemed to have at the ready. 

Qin Su sat across from her mother, being stared in uncomfortable silence. This was not the heartfelt reunion she hoped for. 

"Your husband-" Mother finally burst out. 

"He went home to Qinghe," "Does he treat you well?" 

The women's mouths snapped shut and they stared at each other all over again.

Qin Su bowed her head respectfully and answered her mother's question, "Huaisang and I are good friends before anything else." She did not want to lie to her mother, and she thought it something a woman like Ye Meixiu would like to hear. Ye Meixiu did not like Qin Cangye enough to talk to him directly; everything said to Qin Cangye since Qin Su was born was said through Bicao, or the tower guards if Bicao was preoccupied. 

Her mother nodded, seemingly pleased - but not that pleased. Qin Su frowned. This woman was so difficult. 

"Father said you were happy about my marriage," said Qin Su when the silence lingered too long. "But this daughter still deeply apologizes for not seeking her parents' blessing." 

Ye Meixiu's frown, like her whole face, mirrored Qin Su's. "Yes, that would have been preferred. However, this mother was not about to overlook a good fortune just to push her daughter farther away. Nie Huaisang is a fine young master. Highly cultured, comes from a powerful sect, harmless-"

"Not a woman," Qin Su bit her lip and winced regretfully. 

Her mother was staring again. Bicao slowly backed out of the room with a fresh tray of snacks. Qin Su knew she would just stand out in the hall, waiting to comfort her mistress when Qin Su took a tone perilously close to harsh and sent her into tears again. Home less than a day, and already settled back into routine. 

Qin Su watched her mother begin to fret, avoiding her daughter's eye. "I told you, that wasn't it - it's other things and - and besides, a daughter shouldn't be so snappish with her mother-" 

"A-Yao is more cultured and skilled than most sect heirs, without the benefit of being raised in one. A-Yao was deputy to Sect Leader Nie, then esteemed by Wen Ruohan, and finally accepted publicly by Jin Guangshan when we were caught. A-Yao - she is far from harmless, but she can and will choose to be gentle as long as someone isn't cruel to her first. Lying is unbecoming, Mother, you always told me that. So just say it's because you don't want a cutsleeve for a daughter!" Qin Su braced herself, this being around the point her mother started to reach for a handkerchief. They would exchange about two more sentences or less before she was fully in tears and Bicao swept in. 

But Qin Su's mother said nothing, mouth sealed shut in a thin red line like a scar on her face. She stared at Qin Su, breathing harshly through her nose. Qin Su had seen her mother in fits of anger before - the type where she flung books, scrolls, and fans at servants who abruptly intruded on their mistress' privacy or vicious browbeatings of her son for cavorting with servant girls or silent tears where preparations for a banquet were imperfect, so she destroyed decorations and ripped her own clothes and had everything done over again. Qin Su tensed up, not recognizing whatever this expression was on her mother's face. 

Bicao must have sensed the shift and understood. She slipped into the room and hinted, "Perhaps Madam Qin requires a nap after the excitement of the day."

The tension in Qin Su snapped - so she snapped at the older women, "We are not done here! I did come here just to be stared at. Mother, you and Father are both so unreasonable! I'm a fourth daughter of a cultivation sect, not some mediocre subject to provincial moralizing. If I was an heir who needed to have children that would be one thing, but this far down the line of succession and with my sisters married off the sect's sake, it's not out of social bounds that I become cultivation partners with another woman. And even if we couldn't have children, would it not have been wonderful to bind our sect to Lanling Jin through marriage?"

Ye Meixiu's lip curled in disgust at the idea. 

In that instant, Qin Su recognized some of A-Yao's hatred in her own mother's eyes. 

Her mother hid her mouth behind her sleeve, avoiding Qin Su's eye like always. Bicao hovered over her mistress as she spoke haltingly, "Jin Guangyao...She was only a bastard of - of Lanling Jin, so of course, this mother disapproved. A poisoned field cannot prosper under even the most enviable cultivation partnership. It's better you have a proper marriage and children with someone like Young Master Nie." 

Qin Su did not believe a word of this vileness. Her mother was not as adept a liar as A-Yao, having preferred to hide from others altogether the past twenty-three years. 

"Mother, I now know that Jin Guangshan is a terrible person," 

Her mother's sleeve dropped away, revealing a truly horrified expression. As if a mangled corpse had fallen tumbled past her daughter's lips alongside her words. "He hurt you." She breathed, so certain of it. "He hurt you, I'll kill him myself, he hurt you-"

"My Lady-"

"He didn't," said Qin Su, climbing around the table to her mother's side. Her mother gripped her tight, eyes begging that she spoke the truth. "He didn't, Mama, I promise. But he's trying to hurt A-Yao now, along with her husband and many others it seems. Mama, why would you immediately think he hurt his friend's daughter when I'm sure Father told you that Huaisang and I were favored at Koi Tower. Mama, what do you know of Jin Guangshan's evil?" 

Qin Su searched her mother's face - tried to catch her eye and see the truth there. Jin Guangshan locked up Jiang Yanli for helping her brother's new sect and letting the Nie exiles leave Koi Tower. That was one thing. He was behind the plot to murder Nie Mingjue, which was more damning, and Jin Guangyao was certain that her father planned to kill her as well. In the process of these plots, he risked the health and safety of his own unborn grandchildren. Now, Qin Su learned he had done something to her mother as well.

When? Qin Su wondered frantically. What? How? 

Ye Meixiu had never concerned herself with politics, instead devoting herself to running the perfect household. Her husband was Jin Guangshan's best friend and closest ally for close to forty years. What political quarrel would have ever put her mother in the sect leader's sights like Jin Guangyao and Jiang Yanli?

Her mother held Qin Su tight. It reminded Qin Su how she so impatiently gathered her daughter into her arms every time she returned home from Koi Tower. 

"Mama?" Qin Su whispered at the faraway look in Ye Meixiu's eyes. 

She came back to herself then and brushed a hair from Qin Su's face. "I was always so afraid he would hurt you or your sisters. You most of all, because you look so much like me. Except your eyes. I always feared his eyes would recognize themselves in you. That he would remember his crime, and then he would seek to see the evidence destroyed." 

Qin Su pulled away, those damned eyes growing wide. "Recognize themselves in me?" She repeated numbly. "Crime? Evidence?" 

She stood and staggered under the weight of her mother's words. Ye Meixiu reached for her, following her daughter on her knees. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, A-Su, please," She rambled. 

Whatever Qin Su might have responded with, she choked on. An acidic ball lodged itself in her throat and she gagged violently - and just when she was able to swallow it down, she remembered swallowing A-Yao's panting breaths as she worked her fingers into her lover's -

Qin Su spilled veritable buckets of sick across the floor, splattering her and her mother's skirts. 

"My sister?!" Qin Su screamed when she could breathe again. "Y-you have an affair and then turn around and let me fuck my sister because you're so ashamed!" The outrage tasted so foul, another few strings of vomit poured past Qin Su's lips. 

Ye Meixiu trembled as much as Qin Su did. "I- it wasn't -" She hid her face in her hands and whimpered, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, it's my fault, I should have tried harder-" 

"Tried harder to tell me? You didn't try at all! You just pleaded 'anyone but Jin Guangyao' and then shook your head in denials when I demanded to know why!" 

Bicao knelt beside her mistress and pleaded that Qin Su be kinder. "Your mother has a fragile heart, you know that, Little Mistress!" 

"Fragile? What of my father's heart? They say he loved you when you were young, and you turn around and commit adultery, and - and..." Qin Su trailed off, breathing hard. She watched her mother knelt before her in contrition, apologies running into one another. That makes no sense, she realized, her own heart sinking. 

A loving marriage everyone said of her parents before Qin Su was born. Then, to turn around and have an affair with his best friend - not just dangerous for everyone's reputations, but nonsensical if Ye Meixiu and Qin Cangye were so happy together. And after that, to live in fear of Jin Guangshan, being so certain that he would one day, out of nowhere, 'remember his crime' and destroy the 'evidence' that was his bastard. Jin Guangshan was certainly ruthless, but to go so far to hide an ancient affair when Ye Meixiu would bear the brunt of the consequences? It would be Laoling Qin that lost face for their adulterous madam and the cuckolding of their sect leader, never Sect Leader Jin. No, to hurt a little girl because of her familiar eyes, those eyes must surely be the evidence of a terrible moral crime. Something superseding all Jin Guangshan's other known offenses.

"Mama," Qin Su pleaded. "Mama, do not apologize anymore. This daughter is sorry, I wasn't thinking clearly at first. This cannot be your fault. Please, I am the one who is sorry, please, look at me." 

Her mother's breathing would not even out, however. A sheen of sweat covered her pale face - a pale hand fisted the fabric across her chest. Bicao gasped and went to fetch her mistress's medicine. Qin Su accepted the bottle of pills and helped feed two past her mother's trembling lips while Bicao poured water to wash them down. This was a familiar routine the past few years as Madam Qin's heart weakened. This was not the first confrontation between mother and daughter to end in pills and water. 

Qin Su and Bicao helped Ye Meixiu to bed, where she fought to regain her breath. 

"Become a strong cultivator," She huffed out, peering up at her daughter with bleary eyes. "When he...when he raped me, you were not all he left behind." She spat the words so bitterly, Qin Su flinched at the acid and pulled her hands into her lap, away from her mother. 

But then, Ye Meixiu hesitantly reached out, asking for them back. Qin Su saw nothing bitter in her mother's gaze, and so took that offered hand in hers. Ye Meixiu squeezed with surprising strength. 

"That monster left me a pearl button like he does his whores, called it his token. I chucked it in a chamberpot and wanted to forget everything. It was not as if I could ever tell anyone. But seeing his face everywhere, your father calling him a friend, always fearing that he would turn on me like a rabid dog again. Long before you were born and the gods shit on my prayers that you be Qin Cangye's double, I knew forgetting was futile. All I could do was protect myself better from then now," Ye Meixiu looked Qin Su in the eye, pleading for her child to believe her. "And protect you as well. I could not allow that man to take anything else from me or Cangye. Anything else, but never you."

Qin Su knew from having experienced this fierce and maddening love while growing up, that it was imperfect and hurtful in its own ways. Ye Meixiu had not always succeeded in acting as the shield she wanted to be for her daughter. Often instead smothering Qin Su under good intentions while keeping her at a distance through prickling coldness. Now hearing her mother's reasons for everything was a salve on some leftover wounds. After a lifetime wrapped up in her mother's arms, Qin Su finally felt close to the woman. Not warmly embraced, but very solidly touching hands. 

"That's why you must train your core more," Ye Meixiu carried on, stern in her instruction like a good mother. "Do not grow complacent just because Nie Huaisang has a family of warriors to protect you. Though it is partially my fault for not pushing you and your sisters to all to train more, I did not realize until you were already a teenager what other insults that monster left me." She gripped the fabric over her chest as she often did during her attacks. "The Head Physician doesn't have any reason to suspect a venereal disease. He thinks it poor luck. I know in this broken heart of mine that Jin Guangshan gave me some affliction he picked up in a brothel. Something his core protects him from."

Pearl buttons exchanged for death. Qin Su's free hand wandered to her own heart as she looked upon her mother's ailing form. Was this her fate? To languish in bed, her heart giving out any time she felt her pain too keenly? The pain Jin Guangshan had inflicted on Ye Meixiu was immense and totaling, that she could not even speak her mind without fearing rebuke not just from the world, but her own body.

Qin Su felt her soft heart harden against Jin Guangshan, her trust in A-Yao and her own mother turning to hatred for that demon in human skin. 

"Don't look so frightened," said Ye Meixiu. "It is not a guarantee, and you are healthy so far. The precaution would simply put your mother's nerves at ease." 

Her mother's health took a turn for a worse thanks to all the stress Qin Su caused her. Her father - Qin Cangye didn't think her long for the world because of it. 

"I made things worse," Qin Su realized sadly. "Not just when I left home, but...I'll make this right, I swear! Qinghe Nie will soon have the best doctor in the world to help us. She will make you better! And A-Yao, she's going to put Jin Guangshan in his place, don't worry! You won't have to live your life in fear anymore, Mama, I promise!" 

Ye Meixiu laid in bed, so stunned that her grip on her daughter's hand went slack. "A-Su," It was clear she did not - could not believe Qin Su's words.

Because when had Qin Su ever done anything except worry her mother sick and make things so much more unbearable. Her legs carried her from the room and from her mother's tower without thinking. Qin Su hurried past servants and old friends alike - brushed past her own older brother without a word, snubbing his hearty welcome - and barricaded herself in her old room. 

She couldn't stand to throw herself on the bed, sick to think about the things she and A-Yao had done there. Qin Su collapsed before her writing desk, unable to even lift a pen. 

Night fell, and Qin Cangye took advantage of the busted lock to creep in. He tried to ply her with tea and treats, but did not succeed in getting a single word out of her. Qin Su avoided his eye and rejected any touch. She acted toward him as his wife did, and sensing the familiarity, knowing the battle was lost, Qin Cangye retreated. 

It is a poor visit home. Qin Su did not leave her chambers the next day, or the day after, or the two days after that either. Qin Cangye brought her food like a servant. He offered invitations to the theater in town, flower-viewings, and firework shows. One time, he helplessly brought her a doll he spotted in the market, remarking that it's so very much like the one she cherished as a little girl. The one she lost at Koi Tower someplace and never found again and cried rivers over. Qin Su flung it at the wall in anger and it landed on the floor without any satisfying sound. 

Qin Cangye sent his son in his stead in the following days and then invited his older daughters home to see their sister. Qin Su could not bear to look at them without seeing how much they resembled their father. She chased them out, essentially begging them to leave her be.

Ma Kun was just bearly tolerated for a time, but then she started asking questions. Qin Su told her to fuck off and Ma Kun respected the foul language enough to do just that. 

All this time alone, Qin Su could still not bear to pick up a pen and write A-Yao. It did not feel like her place to talk about what she learned. To write about everything as if it was fine felt dishonest. At the same time, no word from A-Yao came to satisfy Qin Su's cravings for any real exchange. Not until Qin Cangye whispered ill-tidings from the Unclean Realm through her unlocked door. 

"They say Sect Leader Nie is dying. His wife is dying, too, of a broken heart. She is begging that those who know who they are come to her bedside and say their piece." 

Qin Su wailed. No one could comfort her, even Ma Kun's fervent reminders that "Huaisang has a plan! This is all part of the plan! Don't you think Jin Guangyao would have sent you a letter directly! Ahhhhh, please calm down or you might lose your voice!" 

She forced herself to be coherent eventually. "Go home and check," Qin Su asked Ma Kun. 

"You aren't coming along?" 

"I," Qin Su hesitated. "I can't leave my mother." 

"But you, you're not with her?" 

"Just go!" Qin Su barked and curled up in the pile on the floor she'd been nesting in like a dog. 

Ma Kun left immediately. In her absence, Bicao brought Qin Su her next meal. The maidservant took one look at the young mistress' state and fled. 

Qin Su waited for Bicao to come back with Qin Cangye or a physician. As time stretched on and the door remained gaping open, Qin Su's unease asserted itself two-fold over her. She crept out of her chamber and down the hall, drawing closer and closer to her mother's tower. 

She came as far as her mother's receiving room before seriously considering turning and fleeing. Qin Su took in an astonishing sight, one only fabled to her while growing up. Ye Meixiu allowed Qin Cangye into her tower, if only by a few paces, and though it was clearly a struggle, spoke to him. 

"-never meant to shame you-" Qin Su caught the quiet words falling from her mother's lips. Ye Meixiu spoke so that only Qin Cangye could hear her clearly. Her daughter could only catch snatches of pain and misplaced apology."-he was-is a great sect leader and this one did not know how to...I tried but...Please do not blame A-Su for this one's failures."

"Mama, no!" Qin Su ran forward, pushing past Qin Cangye. 

Her mother caught her by the arms and held her at arm's length. "I will not let this tear you apart as it did me," Ye Meixiu said, putting herself between her daughter and husband. She met that husband's eyes for the first time in over twenty years. "Divorce me with any excuse and take a young, healthy woman for a wife. Someone you can lie with without fear of contamination and can bear more children who do not risk deadly illness. This treasonous wife will return to her natal home-"

"You will go with me, at least!" Qin Su cut in.

Ye Meixiu bowed her head and pressed on, "I only ask, for the sake of an innocent child, that Sect Leader Qin does not let the world know A-Su is a bastard. It is her mother's fault alone that Sect Leader Qin was made to bring up a bastard under his roof like his own. I will pay for that misdeed however Sect Leader Qin wishes before I depart," She swallowed hard. "Or with my life, if Sect Leader Qin prefers." 

"No! I won't allow it!" Qin Su grappled with her mother, wanting to shake sense into the woman. "What has gotten into you! You cannot do that! I do not wish to lose you either, you know!" 

"I do not-" Qin Su's cursed eyes flew to Qin Cangye, who spoke for the first time since her arrival. This was also the first she saw of his face; the sight nearly sent Qin Su to her knees. Qin Cangye was not livid at his wife's professed betrayal. He did not meet her or Qin Su with coldness. Qin Cangye looked nearly as pained as Qin Su felt all these past days. "You only just returned. Why would I want to lose you either?" He asked Ye Meixiu. 

"Don't-" Ye Meixiu shook her head and turned away. 

Despite her protests, Qin Cangye sank to his knees. He never stopped looking at her. "Don't you apologize," He said, distressed. "I am the poor excuse for a husband who did not see your suffering for so long. I was so oblivious - I was blind to Jin Guangshan's despicableness all this time! If I lose face, it's because I have been a fool and trusted him!" 

"Jin Guangshan is an important person," Ye Meixiu protested. "You had every reason to be his ally and stick close to him. I could never ruin that, I had to - don't bow like you have done anything wrong here!" 

Qin Cangye shuffled forward on his knees and clung to his wife's skirts. This was the very closest Qin Su had ever seen them, and as if on instinct, their hands found each other. Qin Cangye looked up at Ye Meixiu like the starry sky had finally emerged from a grey shroud of clouds and he was a lost man. "Love is more solid than gold. All these years, I thought that I worked alongside my friend to build my sect on solid foundations. Jin Guangshan deceived me at every turn and threw our friendship away without a thought. All this time, I should have been building up my sect alongside you, A-Xiu." 

Ye Meixiu's bottom lip trembled incredibly. "I'm sorry for making you raise...." She whispered - because she could still not help but apologize. Her eyes flickered over to Qin Su and she did not finish the sentence. 

Qin Cangye rose to his feet and Ye Meixiu let him hold her. 

"A-Su is our daughter," He said. "It was only natural that I raise her." 

Ye Meixiu's head fell against her husband's shoulder. Qin Cangye rested his chin atop her head. 

Qin Su looked on and wept happily as Bicao gently guided her away to permit the sect leader and madam their privacy. 

Chapter Text

After three weeks hovering close to death under heavy sedation, Master Deng and Jin Guangyao succeeded in stabilizing Nie Mingjue enough to bring him out of his induced coma. He woke slowly and irritably. Took in the sight of many concerned faces and immediately asked for a report whilst scratching his horrible beard. Jin Guangyao breathed a sigh of relief. If he was not well, at least he was himself enough to itch for action. 

Jin Guangyao and Nie Huaisang explained the happenings of the past few weeks. The retaliation - the Discussion Conference - Yiling Wei - Jiang Yanli's imprisonment - Luo Qingyang's bid for an alliance - Qin Su's parting and Huaisang's plan. Nie Mingjue took in this overwhelming amount of information and did not immediately qi deviate again.

Despite his obvious continued pain - which he now was unfortunately awakened to - her husband looked at Jin Guangyao and asked, "You and the baby?" 

Jin Guangyao had grown heavy since he had been unconscious. She carried their child low in her belly, hidden under pale, billowy robes for the summer heat. It was easy to see how big she and their daughter had gotten. How their little undersized fruit had miraculously turned into a robust, summer watermelon. Something Jin Guangyao ate a lot of the past few weeks and the baby kicked furiously at, as if protesting Cannibalism, Mother!

"Due at the end of the month," Jin Guangyao answered, smiling. "Huaisang plans the one-month celebration atop his schemes for Su Minshan." 

"Ah, you should make it really memorable," Nie Aibing butted in, mournful. "Or else your closest confidants and family will up and forget your child even exists!" 

Where Nie Mingjue stared at the secretary, trying to decipher the legitimacy of this advice, Nie Zhong's sullen face flushed. He looked willing to bear the joke and everyone else's trembling smiles biting back laughter - but then the senior-most guard caught stoic Nie Lin slowly and deliberately smirking at him. He left the chamber without a word, hiding his face in large hands, still mortified at how long everyone had him convinced when he came back that A-Shang had always been there and he had even attended her one-month celebration years back. Poor man only caught on when during a spar that wasn't going his way, Nie Lin, straight-faced, mourned how A-Shang ruined his hips. 

Nie Mingjue watched him go, turned to Jin Guangyao, and asked, "Will we be able to host a celebration?"

By which he meant, would Su Minshan be drawn out of hiding before then? Jin Guangyao was honestly uncertain. Huaisang was so sure of what he reported, but Jin Guangyao could not fathom Su Minshan going this far for a person he barely he knew. At least when Nie Mingjue claimed he loved her - called her his family then and now - he knew Meng Yao for years. Su Minshan, by contrast, had only a few brief encounters with Jin Guangyao since the war ended. 

Jin Guangyao and Huaisang bickered over his strategy before Nie Mingjue woke. Jin Guangyao, certain that Su Minshan was more concerned with garnering favor with Jin Guangshan to fund Moling Su, did not believe the man would come to the Unclean Realm for some deathbed confession. However, since Huaisang at least had an idea on how to proceed, they went ahead with issuing heartbroken Madam Nie's open letter to the cultivation world.

It was humiliating, and Jin Guangyao had demanded compensation by sending Wang Qiao and Zhou Zhi out with some visiting subsidiary disciples down south to stake out Moling. She had also readily agreed with Wang Qiao that security should not be lowered at all in anticipation of those answering Madam Nie's pleas. Since she did not believe Su Minshan would come, Jin Guangyao instead implemented a slow and thorough vetting system outside the sect gates in addition to the heavy patrols by Nie disciples and guest vassal disciples. 

In the two days since the open letter was issued, only a handful of minor sects looking to take advantage and curry favor had shown up at Qinghe Nie's gates. Vetting indicated they were all thoroughly spooked by the Yiling Patriarch's appearance in Lanling, and Qinghe Nie looked infinitely safer to cozy up to for protection than Lanling Jin. 

Jin Guangyao told Nie Mingjue all this quite frankly. He chided Huaisang for getting mixed up in all this - not just politically, but morally. 

"You made promises on our behalf for the sake of Wen Dogs?" Mingjue looked at Huaisang like he had run afoul like Wei Wuxian. Back then, the morning after their engagement banquet, he had been shaken up by Wei Wuxian's actions and Jin Guangyao had sat there silently, thinking of the labor camp in the Qiongqi Path. 

She sat there now, just as silent. 

Huaisang's eyes glinted as they darted her way and found no support. "Da-ge, Sect Leader Wei and I studied together -"

"For a summer!"

"-we were friends," Huaisang insisted stubbornly. Gave a stomp of his little foot. "He changed a bit, I know, becoming the Yiling Patriarch. I really have tried to think of everything he did rationally as if he really was just a scary, awful villain. I even tried to make myself believe Sect Leader Jiang did not disown him only because Yiling is so close to Yunmeng. I knew he was capable of stupid, awful things and I thought perhaps everything was just going downhill for him finally with no war as an outlet. However, none of that sat right with me. Yao-jie's betrayal on Lanling's behalf made me trust my own experience with Wei Wuxian again, rather than just the popular opinions of court. Then the things I learned at the Cloud Recesses and of Jiang Yanli's actions, and what I saw at the conference all convinced me that Wei Wuxian would not lose his way completely. Not so long as people like Jiang Yanli stubbornly cling to his side and guide him. We should help guide him, Da-ge." 

Huaisang's face fell when that snarl remained on his brother's face following his pretty speech. 

"I refuse to help Wen Dogs rebuild Qishan Wen under new banners!" 

Jin Guangyao turned her head away as the brothers devolved into a battle of wills. With frequent input from the gathered Elders and younger guards. They each sorely remembered the loss of their leader and his wives - stewed in unavenged fury for nearly a decade - had then lost more friends and family to Qishan Wen during the war - and seen those fallen loved ones disgraced by Wei Wuxian's heretical cultivation. The younger guards took notes from their elders. Especially Nie Lingling, who first lost her teacher to Wen Ruohan's pettiness and then her father at Langya. 

Jin Guangyao did not have an idyllic summer of schooling in Gusu to cloud her judgment.

She was at Langya - she saw the Stygian Tiger Seal at work - she served the Wens he once massacred - she knew what horrors Wei Wuxian was capable of. 

Even if what Huaisang said was true, Wei Wuxian had surrounded himself with those willing to take great risks for his sake. Moreover, he had taken up with Wens who had survived Wen Ruohan's reign and then internment under Lanling Jin. They would be more pragmatic in order to protect themselves.

Any deal with this newborn Yiling Wei risked being tremendously one-sided against Qinghe Nie. Jin Guangyao's first thought when informed of Huaisang's dealings with Yiling Wei was Wei Wuxian's expertise in resentful energy - how it might help them deal with the saber spirits. However, such a deal would require turning over information for him to research. Information that Jin Guangyao did not trust him - or Wen Qing - or whoever else he had lurking around the Burial Mounds - to not leverage for unconditional military support. Wei Wuxian might not even deliver results - he could just contrive a way to bring Qinghe Nie under his yoke rather than cure their sect leader. Huaisang would say this is unlikely, but Jin Guangyao would prefer not to risk it. 

So she said nothing of the freed Wens being doctors and old people, mostly mediocres who had no choice but to make meager contributions to the war. So that Nie Mingjue would retain his distrust and hatred for them. So that he would deny Nie Huaisang and chastise him for making decisions on his sect leader's behalf. 

Nie Mingjue sent Huaisang off to his room. Empty of all his luxuries since Jin Zixuan's visit. 

With his little brother gone, Nie Mingjue breathed harshly to calm himself and asked the room for advice. The Elders all agreed that they wanted nothing to do with Wen Dogs unless it meant bringing them to justice. Assuaged, Nie Mingjue thanked and dismissed them.

The young guards were the first out the door. Nie Lingling stormed off, cursing Huaisang's name and spoiled nature. She did not particularly like her cousin very much, and Jin Guangyao supposed his defense of the Yiling Patriarch was a fresh mark against him. Ma Chao and Nie Lui followed their friend out, hand-in-hand, and serene. As they had been since Ma Chao returned earlier in the week. Ma Chao couldn't be assed to defend his cousin, so absorbed was he in whatever whispered conversation he and Nie Lui were having. 

Jin Guangyao watched Ma Chao and Nie Lui go, a stocky youth with a pathetic beard dressed in Nie green and a tall ghost in mourning robes smiling brightly. Soon, they would don matching red robes. 

Once the door swung shut after all the guards, she turned to her attention to her husband and helped Master Deng rewrap the wounds across his chest and arms. Some pockmarks had also appeared on his neck and under his chin, and others across his thighs, which required their attention. 

"Stable" only meant that Nie Mingjue was less immediately at risk of qi deviation. The curse was still active and continued to eat away at him. If Huaisang's plan did not work - if Wang Qiao and Zhou Zhi did not catch Su Minshan slinking back to Moling - then Nie Mingjue would simply die of organ failure rather than the major qi deviation he always expected.  

The wraps were meant more to manage the worsening smell than anything. To shield the sect leader from the shame and horror of his condition. 

It couldn't be helped while changing the bandages, unfortunately. Nie Mingjue looked disgusted and frustrated and furious - Jin Guangyao truly felt for him. 

After Master Deng left, she sat beside Nie Mingjue in bed and decided to catch him up on all the preparations made for the baby while he was unconscious. Piles of clothes hand-sewn by Jin Guangyao during her limited free time - bolts of fabric for when the baby grew, gifted by his aunts - the war of cradles between said aunts as the three sisters each commissioned different cradles to gift their nephew - and so on.

"You might have just woken up, but it's high time you start thinking of a name." Jin Guangyao playfully warned Nie Mingjue. "I cannot do everything around here, and traditionally this is your job. Though, I still expect to review your ideas. Lest my child be named after Baxia." 

Nie Mingjue's expression pinched with thought. Jin Guangyao expected him to lob out some suggestions, but instead, he trampled over the mood she was setting like a clumsy bull. "If I am gone before I can decide, what will you name her?" He asked. 

Jin Guangyao shook her head. "You are not getting out this hard work so easily. You do not need to have an answer now, just before her one-month celebration."

Nie Mingjue, the stubborn ass he was, pressed. "If I am gone before then, we should have everything in place. Not just our child's name, but issuing a formal pardon for your actions during the war. As well as sealing my decision to spare you from the tombs. We can repurpose the concubinal contract spells to ensure that no one goes against my word after I am gone. We must also formalize how you and these new Nie Elders will cooperate in the child's regency so that some civil war won't break out once I am -"

"Stop it already!" Jin Guangyao bit his idiotic words from the air, rending that sentence unfinished and ugly. Less ugly than what Nie Mingjue had been about to say. "I told you that you are not escaping all this hard work so easily, Nie Mingjue!" 

"You like responsibility," said Nie Mingjue. "You want nothing more than to be trusted and to have the power to do what you wish without having to wile away for others to give their permission. I am giving you that so you can stop fighting tooth and nail for it, and can instead focus on fighting Jin Guangshan."

She hated how even when he tried being kind to her, to raise her up and pay her her dues, Nie Mingjue had this terrible way of making her vulnerable. Jin Guangyao looked down at Nie Mingjue, laid up in bed, bandaged head to toe, surrendered to his weakness, and wanted him to be strong again. "This is not fair at all, Da-ge," She said. "What does all this power and authority mean if it comes at the cost of you being too dead to keep an eye on me. I want more than that, you know."

Jin Guangyao placed Nie Mingjue's hand on her belly, hoping their daughter would kick some sense into him. "I want my child to have a father. I want that father to be alive and well to trust their child's mother. I want my self-appointed minder to surrender his duties for any other reason than being dead. I want him to trust his brother's plans and help me fight another war." And because she felt ridiculous, speaking so earnestly, Jin Guangyao punctuated the point by pinching Mingjue's cheek. "Really, what a shameful older brother you are, not believing in Huaisang's plan."

Nie Mingjue shook her off and huffed, "Some sister you are," He snapped back without bite. "You yourself expressed doubts that this proxy would just walk into this trap. You made it sound like he barely knew you enough to cast the curse out of love, let alone lift it for the sake of your broken heart." 

Caught in her hypocrisy, Jin Guangyao laughed dryly and agreed. "I must admit, I would feel much better just hunting the culprit down and seeing Su Minshan too dead to cause trouble again. Sadly, his retaliations are too risky to do anything but stake out Moling or lay traps as Huaisang suggested." 

"Killing Jin Guangshan's stooge really is our best option," said Nie Mingjue. 

Neither remarked on how Jin Guangyao lived and breathed. It was different, for a myriad of reasons. 

A familiar arm - thinner from weeks of bedrest but nonetheless familiar - wrapped around Jin Guangyao's shoulders and held her close. She rested her head against a bandaged chest and heard the depth of Nie Mingjue's breath. "Let's believe in Huaisang's plan then, and serve Su Minshan's head up at our child's one-month celebration. As a warning to all those who might dare cross us next." 

Jin Guangyao curled up close, smiling at the promise. 

The couple drifted off to sleep, lulled by the distant din of Nie disciples defending their sect's honor, wrestling guest disciples into the mud. Jin Guangyao had grown used to all the noise since their informal summer lectures kicked off - and Nie Mingjue was too weak still to kept awake by rowdy disciples. 

It was that commotion charging their way, rattling the halls and window frames, and busting through the door that roused husband and wife. Jin Guangyao bolted up in bed, only to be pressed down again as Nie Mingjue sat up and folded himself protectively over her. The blinding glare of lamplight faded, revealing Nie Luan. 

"Ma Kun is home. She let someone through the barriers with her." Nie Luan reported concisely. "It is Sect Leader Lan. We do not know how to proceed." 

Jin Guangyao slowly pushed Nie Mingjue off. He went easily. They looked at each other - looked to each other for guidance, and could only remember those letters. 

Jin Guangyao climbed from bed and stood on shaky legs. "I will speak to him," She said. Because there was no way. 

It made no sense. Nie Huaisang and Qin Su said it themselves, the whore had mistaken the sect uniforms. Lan Xichen had possibly been confined before the letters ever reached him - and without those letters, there was no motive. Not that Lan Xichen even had such a loathsome character! 

Nie Mingjue made to follow her. Jin Guangyao pressed him down into the bed this time. "Stay, rest," She sent him a firm look. "Collapsing at his feet will not help anything, even if that's what you feel you need to do. Wait here, and I will - bring him here." 

She still left her husband reluctantly, feeling as if she was being marched off to face a tribunal. Jin Guangyao followed Nie Luan to the throne room. Lan Xichen stood there, surrounded by guards who barely pretended to just be greeting their leader's dearest friend. Lan Xichen must have sensed their unease and distrust, as uncomfortable and anxious as he himself appeared. The First Jade of Gusu Lan was several shades paler than Jin Guangyao remembered him. 

When he spoke to greet her, he sounded as torn as he had behind Jiang Yanli's door months ago. "A-Yao, you are well," He was suitably shocked. "You are..." His eyes trailed down. 

Jin Guangyao folded her hands over her stomach self-consciously, so that her long sleeves concealed her state somewhat. It was no secret, sure, but this was their first meeting in too long. 

"Word spread that you were dying of grief," said Lan Xichen. "That Mingjue was - how is he? If you are well, then why are these frightening rumors coming out of Qinghe?" 

He took a step forward - and did not dare another, sensing the killing intent radiating off the Nie disciples crowding the hall. Lan Xichen stepped back and composed his posture to that befitting a sect leader - befitting someone who meant no harm whatsoever. Yet his eyes portrayed his fear and confusion. "A-Yao, please tell this Lan Xichen what troubles you and Da-ge. This is all very strange behavior. From all corners. The Elders did not want me coming here at all. They told me that my sworn siblings were untrustworthy and poor influences."

Jin Guangyao forced herself to speak. "It is difficult to explain. We tried to once already, and things have changed drastically since then." She remembered every word of her letter to Lan Xichen, of course, but could not speak a word of it. He looked at her, pleading. 

"Does this have to do with these quarrels with Lanling Jin? Huaisang's elopement? Why did Mingjue and his disciples not attend the conference? You are - you cannot travel, but what of Da-ge?" 

Jin Guangyao turned her back on him and felt his hurt like a sword.

"Please follow this sworn sister, Er-ge." 

The relief of hearing his approaching footsteps was brief. The journey upstairs to her and Nie Mingjue's chamber, a blink of the eye that not even Jin Guangyao could recall. She stalled outside the door, but impatience pouring off Lan Xichen like mountain mist urged her forth. They stepped inside; Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue stilled like caught animals, wide eyes pinning each other in place. Jin Guangyao stood between them, ignored like a tree in the woods. 

Lan Xichen crept cautiously toward Nie Mingjue's side. His pale hand reached out and caressed the bandages across Mingjue's chest. He flinched away, feeling the resentful energy pouring out of the wounds beneath. Nie Mingjue's hand captured Lan Xichen's, anchoring him close. Then, with a look, he reeled Jin Guangyao in close. 

She sat on the bed beside Lan Xichen, looking mournfully upon Nie Mingjue's sorry state. 

"I am sorry," said Mingjue. 

"You have been cursed," Lan Xichen stated, simply horrified. He gripped Nie Mingjue's hand tight, lips pressed into a thin line as he quaked with anger. "I have so many questions." 

"We will answer all of them," said Jin Guangyao. Threatened herself a thousand times over if she broke this promise. "Now, or once this is all resolved. We already have a plan in place. A trap to lure the true culprit." 

As expected, Lan Xichen agreed to later. So that he could stay by their sides in good conscience. He immediately volunteered the play for Nie Mingjue and his mastery of musical cultivation, far superior to Jin Guangyao's skills, was welcome. 

"The summons to your bedside," Lan Xichen spoke softly under the deep, purifying tones. "You believe it will work? Da-ge will alright?" 

Jin Guangyao sat between the men and nodded with a tight smile. They had nothing else to believe in at the moment.

Mingjue's head in her lap, his hand gripped in hers, Lan Xichen's concern and care washing over them in a beautiful rhythm - Jin Guangyao thought of her husband's parents. She was so used to easily discerning the thoughts of others. It was strangely painful to understand so intimately how those she never met must have suffered. Jin Guangyao allowed Lan Xichen to cleanse her of whatever fear those feelings instilled in her and was left only with unfamiliar appreciation. 

Lan Xichen played until the starry sky faded to a dark azure. Nie Mingjue drifted in and out of consciousness, lulled by the guqin and his sworn sibling's stilted conversation. Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao talked around the former's lingering questions as well as the unmissable curve of Jin Guangyao's belly. 

At one point, it was too unbearable, and Lan Xichen began to apologize. "I never did send proper congratu-" 

A piercing spiritual alarm, accompanied by hammered gongs across the Unclean Realm, snapped Lan Xichen's mouth shut as well as all the critical passages and doorways in the compound. The lockdown's force reverberated through the buildings as each and every spiritual lamp or lighting talisman lit up in response to the alarm triggers. The grand guard towers on each terrace lit up like burning effigies - light poured out of every window like sunbeams from heaven, casting pale, intricate shadows - the small fires typically lining the walls and iron gates sputtered violently and extended, creating an additional fiery field atop the wall. The sky above was cast in a golden net that would slice anyone on a sword or saber to pieces. The Unclean Realm had woken, a beast with six molten horns and a thousand burnings eyes. 

Within its now impenetrable walls, Nie disciples scurried across the grounds like ants, hunting down the intruder. 

Lan Xichen flew to the window alongside Jin Guangyao to view the chaos. "This security array was not even activated during the war."

"If the caster did show up, we were taking no chances of him escaping. No matter the cost of reinstating the array afterward," said Jin Guangyao. "If it is him. Perhaps one of the visitors at the gate became impatient." She had to temper her own expectations - even as she paced the chamber and waited for word. 

She startled terribly when Nie Zhong and Tao Minghao entered the chamber. Lan Xichen reached out for her - but did not touch her. With Nie Mingjue unconscious again, the two of them heard the report. 

"Su Minshan was caught slinking just a few floors down," Jin Guangyao felt faint, and Lan Xichen finally did touch her, to steady her.

The Nie Elders waited a moment before continuing, "We believe he slipped in when our primary defenses were lowered by Ma Kun to permit Sect Leader Lan entry." At that, Lan Xichen apologized profusely. Though Jin Guangyao insisted that things had worked out, she also demanded to know what took so long to raise the alarm. 

Tao Minghao darted her eyes at Lan Xichen and said, "At a distance, Su Minshan's robes resemble Lan robes. Most servants and disciples do not question the presence of Lan cultivators in the Unclean Realm. It was not until Ma Kun got up close to gush to Sect Leader Lan about her twin's engagement that Su Minshan's infiltration was discovered, as she knew Sect Leader Lan brought no entourage." 

Jin Guangyao trembled. Again and again, Su Minshan's pale imitations tangled up Lan Xichen in his scheme. To think a wretch like him called for Qinghe Nie's greatest defenses and nearly cost their leader his life. 

Lan Xichen did not seem to care about the gross imitator, however. He was more concerned with Nie Mingjue's meridians. "The curse is still active. I thought the caster was meant to lift it if he ever came here." 

Jin Guangyao looked to their spellwork experts for answers. 

"He refuses to lift it. And we cannot simply kill him since we still do not know what spiritual artifact he used to cast the curse. Su Minshan made threats that killing him without the artifact in our possession will not lift the curse. It is likely still on his person since the curse is active, but the most expeditious way to deduce its identity is not torture or even systematically stripping him in search of it. He could have swallowed it for all we know. Su Minshan is very aware of all this," Nie Zhong explained apologetically. 

"In short," said Tao Minghao. "Su Minshan demands an audience with Jin Guangyao before he lifts the curse." 

Chapter Text

The Ma Twins threw Su Minshan in a random room right before they raised the alarm. With the siege-grade arrays activated, the room was as good as any cell in the bowels of the Unclean Realm. If not better.

Nie Zhong and Tao Minghao escorted Jin Guangyao downstairs to the makeshift cell. Lan Xichen wanted to accompany her, but Jin Guangyao insisted that he watch over Nie Mingjue and keep playing Cleansing for him, in case anything went wrong when lifting the curse. Nie Zhong was the second strongest Nie cultivator, and Tao Minghao was an expert in spellwork. They outclassed Su Minshan significantly - as did Jin Guangyao, she reminded her sworn brother as she let him glimpse Hensheng wrapped around her arm under her billowy sleeve. 

The door opened for Nie Zhong, sensing his blood ties to the sect. Whatever Jin Guangyao expected - perhaps Su Minshan imperiously awaiting her arrival so that they might negotiate - him making a futile go for the open door behind her - a piss poor attempt at taking a pregnant woman hostage - whatever she expected, it was not what she found. 

Su Minshan knelt on the floor, drowning in an unseasonable white cloak. The hood was pulled back, revealing a leper's face. 

Jin Guangyao pulled a face as she stepped further into the room and hit a wall of foul odor. She took in the sight of Su Minshan as she prowled the edges of the room, circling him, taking a more advantageous position. She enjoyed a full view of the variously-sized, blackened holes eating into Su Minshan's face. How he could stand the smell of himself rotting was not a question - his nose was a hole in his face. His cheeks were nothing - Jin Guangyao could see his teeth. Bloodshot eyes watched Jin Guangyao. Su Minshan trembled as if his cloak failed to defend him from the nonexistent cold; Jin Guangyao thought he looked ready to shake apart. 

"You did not mention this," She remarked to Tao Minghao. 

The Nie Elder shrugged, "I will prepare a report later to add to our library. I have never seen curse backlash so severe, which begs certain questions about whatever artifact he used to attack Sect Leader. Though it could just be because he is so much weaker." 

"I am not an experiment," Su Minshan spat, speaking for the first time. Blood spilled past his bottom lip, dripping onto his white robes. However, they were clearly spelled much like Lan ceremonial robes, so that little bit of filth evaporated in seconds. 

Whatever luxury cloth Jin Guangshan paid Su Minshan in exchange for his services, clearly there was nothing to be done about the man's physical appearance. No wonder he had disappeared from the cultivation world, including his own sect. 

"You are a rat," said Tao Minghao - as if stating a fact and not lobbing a furious insult. "I will write whatever I please, so long as it is accurate. Let it serve as a warning to future generations not to repeat your mistakes." 

Su Minshan quaked with greater severity. Jin Guangyao wondered if he might just qi deviate and put all this to an abrupt end. "I did not ask to speak to you, or be spoken about as if I am not there." Said Su Minshan. "I only wish to speak with Jin - with Her Ladyship." 

"Not alone," said Nie Zhong, crossing his arms. 

"Yes, alone," Jin Guangyao sighed. At Nie Zhong's incredulous face, she said, "He is only becoming agitated and some important questions must be answered before he qi deviates. Besides, look at him," Su Minshan was nothing but a pile of pristine fabric and ruined flesh. "He is so weakened that two juniors managed him just fine. Should anything go wrong, I can at least handle him until you come in from the hall."

Reluctantly, the Nie Elders went, leaving Jin Guangyao and Su Minshan alone. The door remained open. With Nie Zhong and Tao Minghao right outside, Su Minshan would have to be crazy to try something. 

Then again... 

"Su Minshan, what on earth were you thinking?" Jin Guangyao asked. 

He did the strangest thing then. Su Minshan smiled up at her. Shyly like a boy. "I wanted to be certain you were all right after all I had done." 

Jin Guangyao circled around him so she need only look at the back of his head, not at his rotting, smiling face. "I do not mean this obvious trap of ours. I meant why would you do this to yourself? Was Sect Leader Jin's gold really so important to you that you would ruin your body like this? Especially since you obviously do not have the stomach for it, as you came to apologize,"

Su Minshan craned his head, coughing roughly. "I, I have the stomach! I'm not weak! I will-" He watched her circle back around to face him again, dark eyes blown wide as he hacked into his hands. Each finger was ringed in dark iron and blackened to the knuckles, absent any fingernails. Those spell-maimed hands left his festering face bloody. "Trap?" He croaked. 

"Do I look unwell?" Asked Jin Guangyao. 

"Pale..." Su Minshan managed. "You are completely all right then? Not ill, or - no one is threatening you?" 

Jin Guangyao set her shoulders defensively, projecting confidence in her position. She looked down on Su Minshan and wondered just how much he - and by extension, her father - knew of her circumstances up until very recently. How much, and how so made up her foremost concerns that very moment. "Not now," She answered cautiously. "No thanks to you and Sect Leader Jin trying to kill my husband. Tell this lady why you would suspect such a thing,"

Su Minshan's stunned expression crumbled with sudden despair. "This one has been worried for you since Young Master Jin's wedding. I thought - I thought I was helping," He threw himself down at her feet, groveling. "I truly believed - but I was mistaken again. Jin Guangyao, please - please forgive this one!" 

Jin Guangyao shuffled backward from the display, blinking rapidly as she saw its genuineness. She remembered Huaisang's assertions - a flush climbed up her neck and cheeks. She looked to the door, suddenly regretting Nie Zhong and Tao Minghao's absences. 

Right as her lips parted to call them back, Su Minshan's words echoed through her mind more meaningfully. 

"You were mistaken again, you say," Jin Guangyao's whole body thrummed as her mind worked forward and backward, trying to decipher those words. Not just Su Minshan's words. She recalled every word of Huaisang's report - even the ramblings of the Ma Twins. She relived every fleeting moment she ever spent in the Moling Su Sect Leader's company. Every plot she organized on Jin Guangshan's behalf - every deed she ever suspected him of then and since - time immortalized in her memory, engraved forever, lit up with fiery clarity. Yet Jin Guangyao could divine no answers from within herself.

She wondered, What other havoc has Su Minshan been wreaking on my father's orders - or even just on his own! And for what purpose, because surely some asinine infatuation on someone he hardly knows could not drive a man to such self-destruction. Not unless he's an utter lunatic! 

Jin Guangyao spoke soft and low, sensing that this was the best approach with a madman. "You want forgiveness, tell me that much, Su Minshan. Tell me what you did - tell me how - and tell me why you have done all this." She demanded of him. 

Su Minshan remained bowed low at Jin Guangyao's feet. "You seemed so unhappy when we last met. How that Nie cultivator spoke to you, his sect leader's wife, was unforgivable. I saw it in his eyes, how he saw you as lesser than him. And then Chifeng-zun attacked your father. Dragged you off in front of everyone, and got you kicked out of Koi Tower after how hard you worked to be there in the first place."

You were not necessarily mistaken then, thought Jin Guangayo. She let Su Minshan speak. There had to be more - this was just one skewed observation of Heavens knew how many. She had to know why to watch for in the future. 

"I blamed myself for your unhappiness and the disrespect you suffered," Su Minshan sounded truly, bizarrely apologetic. "You did not deserve that at all. Not after how kind and generous you had always been. I wanted to make things right for putting you in that situation, so I went to Sect Leader Jin, begging for the opportunity. I confessed my first mistake and he promised to help make things right by you this time. I should have gone to you instead, right from the start - but then you were suddenly engaged and no one could get close to you as your father and husband blew through all the premarital rites and traditions. 

"Back then, I should have tried harder to confess..." Su Minshan struggled against himself and his bleeding tongue. "That I was the one who broke the lock on Maiden Qin's door." 

"What," Jin Guangyao stared at Su Minshan. Soft tones were forgotten in favor of fevered demands. "The lock it was - that was sabotage? Why? Who put you up to that? How did you find out that I was a woman in the first place?" She made so many enemies during her climb to power - but she had always handled them so expertly, she never thought any of them could be behind that damned door, waiting to expose her secret. Had her father conspired against her so long? Or was there some other hidden opponent she now needed to account for? 

Su Minshan shook his head. Too roughly for his condition - he looked dizzied. His explanation poured past his lips like sick, "I, I only meant for Sect Leader Qin to catch you with his daughter. I had no idea of your gender. The only secret I knew of - was you sneaking off with Maiden Qin once before. So, I only hoped to - to expedite your marriage to a nice girl of good background!

"It was obvious to everyone that her father and mother were reluctant to agree. They're snobs Ina dead fish marriage of their own! However, they would have had to agree to their daughter's marriage straight away if you two were caught in a compromising state.

"So I broke her door lock, hoping that is where you two would go when no one was looking. And then I pointed out your absences to Sect Leader Qin and then informed Madam Qin and some household staff for good measure. Everything worked out by the sounds of yelling, I thought. Then the next morning the servants spread the word that - that Jin Guangyao was secretly a woman all along.

"My attempt to show you my - to repay your kindness to me failed. I thought, at least you would have an advantageous marriage to your sworn brother. I resolved to eventually repay you some other way, and began to focus on my sect. But then the troubles with funding began, and we met again at the wedding..." 

Jin Guangyao could throttle Su Minshan to death - could wring his neck and squish it to a pulp for how soft and decayed the man was. She just barely reined herself in, wanting him to hear every word of her rebuke. "You saw I cared for Qin Su, I am sure. Yet you chose to repay me by flagrantly throwing her reputation and her relationship to her family to the wolves of society." Su Minshan had the nerve to look surprised. His reddened lips parted, soundless. "You are so concerned with how my marriage affects me, but you never thought about the dark shadow you would have happily cast over mine and Qin Su's marriage. Making it not a triumph of love over class, but rather an unpleasant matter of upholding moral decency. Then you turn around and act rashly a second time, thinking-"

Not just of Jin Guangyao's happiness, but her safety.

Jin Guangyao bit her lip, feeling a horrible pang in her chest. She changed tactics. "You tried to help me, yes, but I am one person. What about your sect? Look at you! You are dying! Who will lead Moling Su with you in this state? What has become of it in your absence? What will become of it once you are gone forever? Who will take in those that other sects will turn their noses up at?" 

Bloody tears welled in Su Minshan's eyes. "I thought I was doing all this for my sect. Regaining Sect Leader Jin's favor...I wanted to do right by the sect you had such high hopes for." Those tears fell, staining the floor panels beside his decaying hands and their bloody handprints. 

He lifted those hands up and, like an old man with arthritis, slowly and carefully tugged one ring free. "These rings are spelled to keep my finger from falling off. Tell that bitch I wasn't lying about none of them being her precious artifact," He rasped. 

The black iron left the blackened finger, and both immediately plopped to the floor with unpleasant sounds. Followed shortly by the crumbling ashes of Su Minshan's entire hand. His sword hand. 

Jin Guangyao watched through wide eyes - like she wasn't quite there for a moment - as Su Minshan reached down into the grey dust with his remaining hand and plucked out a single string, as fine as hair. It gleamed red in the lamplight. "This is it," He said simply. 

Suddenly, the reason for the artifact's limited use, whatever its origins, became clear. Face the continual, debilitating backlash of a curse one had no business casting on someone stronger than oneself, or lose one's sword hand in removing the thread on one's finger. Yet it was not immune to petty loopholes - like the backlash rotting off one's finger and that counting as removing the thread.

It was exactly the type of cruel trade-off that one of Wen Ruohan's ancestors - if not the man himself - might have cast on such a powerful tool to prevent rebellion by weaker cultivators. Perhaps even daring them to give it a try and suffer the consequences. Losing one's ability to wield a sword. 

Su Minshan took Jin Guangyao's kind, polite words so seriously, he bet his life as a cultivator on repaying her. 

No, Jin Guangyao realized, he bet his whole life on it.

He had overshot with his target with Nie Mingjue. Then damaged himself further by reinforcing the curse to kill Nie Mingjue faster. The backlash was so severe on his body, there would be no recovery for Su Minshan.

The one benefit of lifting the curse: he would not succomb to his wounds soon.

Not if Nie Huaisang had his way. 

Su Minshan discarded the thread - a thread of damnation, rather than fate. It sat between him and her, tied in a single loop at one end.

"This one apologizes for failing you at every turn," Su Minshan grit out, bowing his head, wrist bleeding freely in his lap. Not even the spelled cloth could fend off the stain. 

Jin Guangyao stepped forward and - slowly and clumsily considering her state - knelt down on the floor before him. Su Minshan looked at her, dripping blood and snot all down his face. Jin Guangyao braced herself - and embraced him. 

He stiffened in her arms like a corpse. 

"Thank you for thinking so highly of me," Jin Guangyao said, truly meaning it. "Thank you for trying to help me, and for building a sect for people like us."

A shiver ran through the ruinous man, proving he still lived another stubborn, painful moment. 

"And I am sorry," She said, eyes pinned to the wall beyond. He stirred confusedly in her arms, but she held fast. "I am sorry for how things have turned out. For how they must end. I cannot say that I forgive you. That, I am unsure of. Just know that this is mercy." 

Hensheng unfurled from her arm under her sleeve. Her blade snaked between the two, sliding between Su Minshan's ribs.

The man's breath - all of it - left him in a jagged gasp. In that exhale, he was stunned, and then while failing to breathe in again, he weakly flailed like a dying fish. Jin Guangyao held him close, cradling the back of his head like an infant. Hensheng had entered at a fatal angle and punctured a major artery. It was now just a matter of holding Su She until he went still, and then, until he died. 

It was surprisingly quick, yet also terribly prolonged. Soundless words muttered against Jin Guangyao's neck. Those words dying away. Su She turned cold and limp in Jin Guangyao's arms. And heavy. 

She sighed and turned her head to call Nie Zhong and Tao Minghao to help her to her feet. 

Lan Xichen stood in the open door, watching Jin Guangyao and the festering corpse in her lap. 

Chapter Text

"Da-ge is alright," He said, sensing Jin Guangyao's most immediate fear. 

Jin Guangyao did not relax. Nor did she panic. This was not the first time Jin Guangyao had been caught with a bloody sword and a corpse. She was numb to it at this point. 

Lan Xichen stepped into the room, followed by Nie Zhong and Tao Minghao. He looked at Su Minshan's bloody, rotting body in Jin Guangyao's arms, his dark eyes stewing pools of pity and disgust and disconcertion. Cautiously, Lan Xichen checked Su Minshan's vitals and, determining he was nothing but dead weight now, began to help Jin Guangyao to her feet. 

"You killed him," Nie Zhong prodded roughly at the corpse with his foot, turning Su Minshan over and revealing the red waterfall stain pouring from the fatal wound. Hensheng hang bloody at Jin Guangyao's side, dripping a tell-tale trail from that wound. "What did he say? What did he want?" Nie Zhong asked Jin Guangyao.

She blinked at him in surprise from Lan Xichen's arms. Surely they had been carefully listening in the whole time. If not out of rightful distrust for her being alone with Jin Guangshan's goon, then out of obligation to Madam Nie's safety. She perceived suspicion in Nie Zhong's eyes, much like his cousin Nie Han's eyes in his final days. Ah , she thought, you chose to trust me and my abilities. Right up until this moment.

He never expected her to kill Su Minshan. Fair. Jin Guangyao never expected to kill him herself either. 

A few hours ago, she looked forward to mounting his head over the gates and have it greet the guests of her child's one-month celebration. However, she always thought a zealous Elder or Mingjue would be the one separating the proxy's head from his shoulders.

Jin Guangyao tilted her head and smiled serenely. Blood beat a war drum in her ears. "He lifted the curse without asking for anything in return. Su Minshan only wanted to help me. So I killed him before any of you could, as an act of mercy." She spoke truthfully. 

Nie Zhong proved more different from his cousin than his dour, plainer face. His shoulders relaxed minutely as if he actually believed her. Some knot in Jin Guangyao loosened, leaving her with an ill-fitting feeling. 

Nie Zhong grimaced anxiously at her and Tao Minghao, who shrugged. He sighed and marched off. 

"I'm afraid this seems like a matter for these new 'Nie Elders' to hear about," said Nie Zhong. "They might skin me in Su Minshan’s place if they find out any other way. Let's gather and get it all over with."  

Jin Guangyao was unfazed. This was the expected result of her actions, more or less.

Tao Minghao deigned to stay behind, supremely uninterested in her shiny new Elder title and greatly concerned about Su Minshan's body. Lan Xichen followed Jin Guangyao as she followed Nie Zhong, hovering at her back and whispering concerns close to her ear. " 'Nie Elders'?" He parroted. 

"I’m sure Er-ge is aware that authority and pressure were too heavily centralized in the Nie Sect Leader and Madam," Jin Guangyao explained. "Da-ge and I were in no shape to run a sect for a time, and preemptive measures needed to be taken in case the worst happened. It was for the best. I personally suspect so many Nie Sect Leaders qi deviated into an early grave exactly because so much responsibility bore down on their shoulders in combination with the saber spirits." 

"So you know about everything now," said Lan Xichen, realizing. 

Jin Guangyao waddled down the stairs, thankful for the excuse to duck her head. Though Lan Xichen's helping hand was deeply unwelcome at this moment. She always knew more of various happenings than Lan Xichen, even in regard to Nie Mingjue. Especially in regard to Mingjue these days. This fact no longer felt like a kindness, protecting Xichen from the worst of the cultivation world and his own friends. Jin Guangyao long recognized her betrayal of Lan Xichen, in concealing both her actions and Nie Mingjue's actions against her. They sought to make things right by confessing from afar, but fate had conspired against the pair to make them face their mistakes in the flesh after preventing it in the first place. How cruel and fickle. 

"Da-ge and I have been trying to make things right," She whispered in answer. 

Jin Guangyao gripped the banister tight, and when they reached the ground floor, balled her hand into a fist in her blood-stained sleeve. 

"A-Yao," Lan Xichen hesitated. "The atmosphere has shifted vastly since I arrived just hours ago. Just what exactly have you and Mingjue been up to all this time?"

"Is Da-ge truly all right now?" Jin Guangyao looked over her shoulder at him. 

Lan Xichen's anxious expression shuttered. He pressed his mouth in a firm line and pushed past her half-hearted deferral. "I would not have gone against your wishes and left his side otherwise. The malevolent energy disappeared from his wounds. Master Deng was finally able to begin closing them. Da-ge even woke briefly and gave me permission to seek you out." 

Of course, Nie Mingjue thought first of his sworn siblings whilst drifting in and out of consciousness. No mention of any relief on his own part. 

At the very same time her husband resurfaced into the waking world, his would-be killer slipped away. Su Minshan had taken a fair bit of time to bleed out in her arms. Longer and shorter than the warm, spurting stream had felt.

Jin Guangyao nodded once and followed Nie Zhong into the throne room. "I suppose now is as good a time as any for you to know then." She had no fear that Lan Xichen would flee in anger before hearing it all, in vivid detail, and begging Nie Mingjue to say it was all a lie. A bad joke. Nie Mingjue would be less at risk for complications should - when  that conversation became stressful.

Lan Xichen followed Jin Guangyao as surely as she did Nie Zhong. The Nie Elder used the active security array to summon his specific comrades to this specific location. This measure was typically meant to direct forces strategically in an active attack on the sect. In this scenario, Nie Zhong called for an impromptu trial on Jin Guangyao's suspicious actions. 

The day Nie Mingjue and his people longed for had finally come. 

Immediate outrage met Nie Zhong's brief report and Jin Guangyao's very existence.   

In Wang Qiao and Nie Puyi's absences, it came primarily from Nie Ruilin, Ma Miu, Nie Luan, and Nie Huaisang. 

Nie Mingjue's closest relatives revolted at the idea they would be denied retribution. His aunts, usually quite composed women, bayed for blood. 

"Su Minshan ought to have been trampled to paste by a thousand horses in front of every attendee at your child's one-month celebration," Nie Ruilin growled. The Mistress of Horse nodded eagerly at her side, fully amenable to this idea. "After all that I have learned these past few weeks - after all that you have done, Guangyao, you believe you have any right to deprive us of that?" Fire burned in the aunts' eyes, fit to smith a thousand daggers to hurl Jin Guangyao's way. Months of worry over their departed sisters' ill and missing children had given way to rage. 

"He lifts the curse and you make the unilateral decision to kill him before he can be questioned by anyone else?" For her part, Nie Luan did not raise her voice or take on a hostile tone. Her accusations were cool and tempered as a ready blade. "You must realize how suspicious that is considering your position, Jin Guangyao. Especially these tender excuses. This is no novel. Pregnancy and motherhood do not warp a person's whole character. I have put aside my resentment for many months for the sect's sake and out of fairness to your unique situation. I chose to believe in your pragmatism as a fine excuse for your good behavior and sympathized with you as a woman. But to claim you acted mercifully toward the man who tried to kill Nie Mingjue, without once ever apologizing for killing all our comrades..." That cool-tone grew colder, frosting her trailing breaths like a harsh winter. 

Finally, there was Nie Huaisang. He regarded Jin Guangyao icily without any fan to mask his critical assessment of her. The set of his jaw brought out his resemblance to his brother. "Yao-jie, I decided to trust you again," He addressed her. That whiny, helpless tone of his was completely absent. 

Lan Xichen balanced on the razor edge of the atmosphere. He looked between Jin Guangyao and Huaisang, looking lost as he attempted to maneuver himself into the middle ground to mediate. Such was his natural instinct. Jin Guangyao stepped around him, bidding him to stand down with a touch. 

"You are only a witness to this," Jin Guangyao told him. "Hiding behind you, knowing your defense and good faith, has made me feel safe these past few years." She said because she wanted him to know she was grateful. Always grateful. Then, she admitted, "Perhaps you would not have afforded me such kind regard had you known each situation better. You do not know enough of what is going on to help me here, Er-ge. So I will not accept your protection. You need us to explain everything to you, or else this will only count as me taking advantage for my own sake. " 

"Tell me then," Lan Xichen entreated her. "A-Yao, please explain. No one explains. What they are implying - these attitudes. There is far more to all this than the Sunshot Campaign." 

"Exactly so," Jin Guangyao folded her trembling hands under her long sleeves. She fought for composure. Her baby kicked, as if sensing the brewing battle. "You see, since then, I have only given Qinghe Nie greater reason to distrust me. To loathe me. However, Nie Mingjue and I formed an alliance prior to him being cursed. To both work together against a new common enemy, and because - due to complicated emotions. In an effort to prove myself as an ally, I made many concessions, such as leveraging my own life and forming the Nie Elders as a counterbalance to my own potential authority. All that might be for naught if I fail to convince these Nie Elders that I am not secretly in league with Jin Guangshan." 

"The proxy," Lan Xichen breathed. "You believe that Jin Guangshan is the enemy who used a proxy to curse Mingjue." Aside from the realization, Jin Guangyao noted Lan Xichen was not altogether surprised. His following questions did not defend the other sect leader's honor or any such fabled thing. Lan Xichen asked, "Surely the Nie clan knows better than to accuse you based on blood relation? A-Yao would never stand by such dishonorable and malevolent action, except to work against Jin Guangshan from the inside as she did with Wen Ruohan. A scenario which is entirely implausible now. You and Da-ge have reaffirmed your bond twice over at this point and very publicly." His eyes darted down and away again - avoiding looking at her belly too long. 

Jin Guangyao looked at Lan Xichen, frowning. He looked at her and the Nie Elders standing around him. Who looked at him like a fool - who looked at Jin Guangyao with varying degrees of contempt and distrust. Like Mingjue did, they did not trust her with this old friend of theirs. 

Fair enough. A begrudging and painful thought. For all her work these past months - granting these judges their elevated status included - and throughout the haphazard rebuilding of her relationship with their sect leader, Jin Guangyao had yet to apologize for her initial betrayal. Without scathing sarcasm, at least. 

Nie Han’s oldest remaining friends.

Beloved sect siblings of Wang Qiao, Zhou Zhi, and Li Weiyi. 

Several Nie cousins shared between them all. 

Those who survived the war only to die with it. 

Meng Yao had spilled their collective blood in the Nightless City and made Nie Mingjue wallow in it as a show for Wen Ruohan. A distraction to take the terrifying man’s turned head. A cruel rebuke of Mingjue’s rebuke of Meng Yao at Langya. 

She never apologized really - Jin Guangyao made excuses about the necessity of it. She was protected from any real scrutiny by her fame and new position at Koi Tower. The only protection her father ever afforded her. Then, officially at any rate, Nie Mingjue accepted her excuse and became her sworn brother. 

This trial was about more than the death of Su Minshan in her custody. This was an issue of Jin Guangyao's birth at the Nightless City. The issue was always her birth. One way or the other. 

"A-Yao," Lan Xichen began - and was abruptly interrupted by heated exchange among the Nie Elders. Not just the former guards, but also the Head Disciple, the Treasurer, venerable instructors, and the like. Trust in Lan Xichen warred against distrust of Jin Guangyao.

“Sect Leader is always on her side. He knew about her spying on the Wens and never said anything to Sect Leader Nie. Now, he comes to us from Lanling with the assassin on his heels?” 

“Do not be foolish. We cannot sling accusations like that against a great sect leader. Do you suggest we question him in Su Minshan’s place and make an enemy of the Lans on top of Lanling Jin?”

“Foolish indeed. Besides, it’s out of character for Lan Xichen to behave underhandedly. If anything is amiss, it’s because he was manipulated!”

“But didn't Sect Leader Lan want to marry her until Mingjue intervened? Lans have a certain reputation-”

“Enough!” There were earnest attempts to bring the room to order. To set firm parameters for this meeting. But the Nies were still new to these open forums on decision-making and investigation. Assessments and assertions grew more extreme and polarizing. Proposed solutions turned harsher and more definitive, edging toward political incidents. Words were not winning debates and Nie cultivators with frayed nerves itched for their sabers. Things were getting ugly.

Nie Zhong sighed beneath the havoc and scrubbed his face with his hands. "If I had been more attentive, Lady Guangyao's innocence in this particular matter wouldn't be a question." Jin Guangyao barely heard the lament. Yet it set off a debate about just how clever and cunning Jin Guangyao could be. Enough to manufacture circumstances where Jin Guangyao was somehow certain, Nie Zhong and Tao Minghao weren’t paying attention? Even with the door wide-open? 

Definitely, several Elders concluded.  

Jin Guangyao might have been flattered by their belief in her capabilities under any other circumstances. 

Lan Xichen stood beside her the whole while, less resigned and more helpless. His peacemaking tendencies were outraged by this affair. Alas, no one would listen to him. 

Even Jin Guangyao was more or less deaf to his fretting. That war-drum in her ears had only grown louder since they left Su Minshan’s rotting body in Tao Minghao’s dispassionate care. 

The doors swung open. The throne room fell silent. The blood beat steadily in her ears as Nie Mingjue hobbled in, gripping Master Deng and Baxia like walking canes. Nonetheless, Jin Guangyao's heart did something funny at the sight of her husband, up and walking. It was a good thing Master Deng was close by. 

That thought, fluttering in one ear and out the other, left Jin Guangyao mildly concerned she was suffering some mild qi deviation. 

“Sect Leader-”

“Mingjue-”

“Da-ge-”

“You let your new authority go to your head,” Nie Mingjue boomed. His physical state did not hamper his authority and how it instinctually cowed his subordinates. It really only emphasized the gravity of his appearance. The life-threatening curse had not been lifted even an hour ago. His wounds were still open and required visible bandaging. Yet he appeared before then to assert himself as Sect Leader. 

Nie Mingjue looked to his sworn siblings as he passed along the way to his throne. He seated himself there heavily, with obvious relief. Then he grimaced - partly at his weakened state, Jin Guangyao was sure, and also at the mess he had walked in on. 

“Tao Minghao told me that a meeting had been called about how Jin Guangyao dealt with Su Minshan,” He started off. 

Jin Guangyao stepped forward, ready to ask Mingjue to stand down with Lan Xichen. If he shoved this all off, nothing would be solved. Wang Qiao’s accusations of “whore” would run rampant even with her critic far away in Moling. Another problem would fester under their roof like the curse, needing to be dealt with. 

“This feels like our first official meeting under this new system, as compared to the smaller war councils hosted in mine and my wife’s bed-chamber. Since none of you have ever attended a real clan elder meeting before, I will do my best to model Lan Xichen’s role among the Lans. I will moderate and keep things fair.”

Jin Guangyao looked at Nie Mingjue with wide eyes. She once feared his judgment over her, but this moment was a relief. These days, she trusted him more than she ever did her father to give her a fair trial. 

“First off, everyone is going to keep their mouths shut and let me hear Jin Guangyao’s testimony. Then Nie Zhong and Lan Xichen, and Tao Minghao later since she is occupied presently,” Nie Mingjue looked over the room, looking for any disagreement. He blew a breath through his nose. Then nodded to his wife. 

Jin Guangyao swallowed strong emotions, to plead her case nonchalantly. Since her being sentimental was so unbelievable, apparently. “Knowing my father and seeing how he allowed Su Minshan to suffer such grievous bodily harm, I concluded nothing valuable could be tortured out of the proxy. Best to end this terrible chapter in our lives quickly.”

"Permission to speak, Sect Leader?" Nie Luan cut in. 

"Granted," 

“What about the proxy’s motives?” Nie Luan asked Jim Guangyao. “Why not back out once the backlash kicked in? Shouldn’t we be allowed to interrogate Su Minshan so we can track down other conspirators in the future?” 

Something in Jin Guangyao flinched at the idea - that someone would make the same fatal mistakes as Su Minshan - that someone else would suffer willingly for her sake. She shook her head. 

“Su Minshan was misguided,” said Jin Guangyao. “He thought he was helping me, since he witnessed Nie Han’s harassment of me at Koi Tower and misinterpreted the nature of Qinghe Nie’s early departure. He had no way - absolutely none - of knowing that things were already improving by the time we returned to the Unclean Realm, so he sought out Jin Guangshan who used him viciously. Wielded him like a blade against me, and Nie Mingjue. Like he once used myself - so we do not need Su Minshan. We have me to make such comparisons.” 

“And what of punishment?” Nie Huaisang demanded. He sought no permission from his brother and sect leader. 

"Brat," That brother merely grumbled. 

Lan Xichen was the only one continuously surprised by the young man's demeanor at this meeting. "Huaisang..."

“Su Minshan’s own intentions were not vicious,” Jin Guangyao was vehement. “And his state - just go ask Tao Minghao. It was atrocious. He had suffered already and it felt cruel to give him the slow, humiliating death that Jin Guangshan sought to give my husband. Do you want me to stop acting like my father or not? Or would you rather emulate him yourself to better get back at me, Huaisang?” 

Her incendiary works sparked off another heated exchange. A fire that Nie Mingjue struggled to snuff out on his own. Many defended their young master, others miraculously saw Jin Guangyao’s point and defended it diligently. The Nie Elders were not all cultivators under the influence of vicious saber spirits - animals that once settled scores through violence and vallicilated between extremes of trust and distrust in those outside their pack. Some were mediocres responsible for the household and domestic matters, who had less against Jin Guangyao to start with and had little taste for the ugly displays like what Nie Ruilin and Ma Miu suggested. 

Jin Guangyao stood in the thick of it, unseen despite being the obstinate center of attention. She caught herself wiping her eye a second too late. 

Lan Xichen set a hand on her shoulder. Nie Mingjue looked down on the two from his throne - sat on the edge of it, leaning Jin Guangyao’s direction. Like he wanted to be beside Guangyao like Xichen. 

It was such a contrast from what Su Minshan had seen. From what had damned him for her sake. 

“That fool I hardly knew-” Jin Guangyao covered her eyes, frustrated. “He should have focused on building up his sect and repaying my so-called kindness that way. Instead he - he remembered me. And that got him killed.” A flash of anger burned her eyes; she looked up at Nie Mingjue with stinging eyes. “Nie Han and Su Minshan thought they were protecting us,” said Jin Guangyao. “And we killed them for it. Da-ge, we are the reason they’re dead. If we had realized our errors sooner, then they would both still be alive.” 

“A-Yao -”

Jin Guangyao stepped away from Lan Xichen’s comforting touch. She was undeserving. She would always be undeserving - but especially right now. 

She trembled, holding clenched fists over her eyes, gritting her teeth. Aimless anger ate her up inside like a fresh curse. Jin Guangyao kept her distance from Xichen, certain she would slap his hand away if he reached for her again. She couldn’t go to Mingjue, though, afraid she would be overcome by old grudges and pommel him in his weakened state. All Jin Guangyao wanted - all that she wished at that moment was to know the Silencing Spell - to shut up all these Nie Elders she had made. 

Yet, as the ruckus died, all Jin Guangyao felt was dread. Of course, when was the death of her enemy ever a relief to her? 

She looked around and found a gawking audience to her distress. A new want consumed her - the want to scream. 

Jin Guangyao contained herself as Nie Luan stepped forward. The older woman asked, seemingly on behalf of everyone else, “Jin Guangyao, have you felt remorse for what you did during the war?” Jin Guangyao kept her stubborn silence, daring them to think their worst. Nie Luan did not fall for such a childish tactic. “We have all conferred in private, time and time again. We have tried to figure you out. Your relationship with Nie Mingjue is...confusing, to say the least. At the very least, we could always believe that you would act pragmatically for your own good. 

“Lately, we noticed that you are not the coldblooded snake we thought after the Sunshot Campaign. Far from sadistic. Yet that only made your actions more bewildering. So, tell us this much. I am not asking for you to regret it. I ask only to know how it made you feel.” 

Jin Guangyao’s hot anger found a target. “It felt terrible. Of course it did. How could it feel any other way?” She answered in a Are you stupid? fashion. “If it felt good for an instant, whatever - I hated that momentary sensation as I hated every moment after it. The fact any of you entertained the idea that I enjoyed anything I have done - it just shows how skewed your perceptions of me and my station are! To hell with you all!” 

“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen looked at her, nonplussed. “I have never seen you act this way before.” 

She had never let these emotions show before. Not like this. 

Jin Guangyao loved him, but she could throttle Lan Xichen then. 

“I hated it! I hated doing it, and the rewards for doing it were always bitter. You mention regret like it’s something I am childishly withholding, but I was never allowed to bear it in the first place. Some of you speak like I am some guileful demon out of a folktale, capable of inhuman feats of manipulation. Did it ever occur to you that I could turn all my intelligence and all my charm inward and convince myself of something untrue? That I thoroughly convinced myself that I had to do all those terrible things? Not just for the war effort, but for my own foolish pursuit of - of everything my father represented?” 

Power - authority - safety - acceptance. Things far-flung out of reach these days. 

Jin Guangyao laughed, feeling light-headed. She turned from the Elders and found herself face to face with Nie Mingjue. He had come down from his throne to her. “I thought I had to do it. But it was all for nothing. Those men, Nie Han, Su Minshan - they all died for nothing. I feel horrendous. Is that what you always wanted to hear?” She asked him. 

Nie Mingjue gripped Jin Guangyao’s hand.

She looked into her husband's eyes and discerned no satisfaction. No righteous victory. No arrogance. No pity. That did not satisfy her either - but it was a relief to the pressure in her chest. Relief that the elimination of her enemies never brought. Jin Guangyao squeezed Nie Mingjue's hand with a wet breath. 

"Ahem!" 

Husband and wife turned away from each other - to gawking and flustered clan elders and brothers by blood and oath. Despite the pointed huff, no one spoke a word. 

They left it to reserved old Nie Zhong to speak up. "I have been saying that this was mine and Tao Minghao's error. Jin Guangyao had no reason to think we did not know what Su Minshan told her and what she did afterward. So...she's probably innocent? Just this once?" He asked, a placation to those few who were obviously unhappy by the intimate posture of their sect leader and his wife. 

"Just this once," Huaisang agreed - strangely smiling. 

Jin Guangyao did not conceal her eye roll. But she did take her hand from Nie Mingjue and primly fold it over her belly. 

The trial is called in Jin Guangyao's favor and the meeting adjourned. Though Jin Guangyao fully expected that this is far from the end. She did, after all, just admit that the deaths of their comrades at the Nightless City were not as necessary as she always maintained. 

Nie Luan did not conclude on that note, however, instead remarking that they still need to do something about Su Minshan's body. A matter for the next meeting. For now, the security arrays needed to be lifted - and then painstakingly reinstated in each and every wall, ceiling, corner, nook, and cranny of the Unclean Realm. 

Huaisang was dragged off to contribute since he was actually quite good with spells. 

It took some glares and growls, but eventually, Master Deng was run out of the throne room. 

The Venerated Triad was, at last, left to themselves. 

Chapter Text

The Venerated Triad was, at last, left to themselves. Anxious expectation persisted in all three of their expressions. 

Lan Xichen broke the silence left in the wake of Master Deng's ejection. 

"I know that you wrote to me directly about the baby," He smiled with effort. "I was overjoyed. Sadly, I could not respond directly in return. The happy news was delivered to me second-hand by my uncle who opened the letter with the Lan Elders. You see, I was punished for my own impropriety at Young Master Jin's wedding. Speaking to Jiang Yanli without a chaperone about her martial brother when the Elders were under the impression I was with Wangji. As a result of my seclusion, the Elders put me on a strict diet of information, exactly to keep me from overstepping again. Da-ge, Yao-mei, imagine my concern when the Elders warned me that my sworn siblings were untrustworthy and negative influences." 

A question of why the Elders would say such extreme things hung heavy in the air. Nie Mingjue learned his lesson from Qin Su's slap - he did not jump to bear all the blame and explain things away on both their behalf. Though Jin Guangyao supposed he would do a better job of it now...No, it was her place to plead her case first. He looks at his wife, assessing her state. Jin Guangyao did still tremble from her outburst, and she could easily make an excuse of it to delay this drama until morning. Mingjue knew this and said nothing, acknowledging her determination to see this through. She simply had to scrounge up the stamina to surf another high wave of emotions. 

It had been such a long night, and Jin Guangyao was so tired lately as the birth drew near. She spent almost enough time abed willingly while Mingjue was comatose to please that damned physician.

Lan Xichen seemed to itch unnaturally as his sworn siblings remained silent. It was not like the First Jade to twitch restlessly. 

"What were Sect Leader Su's reasons for attacking Da-ge that made A-Yao act mercifully?" He burst out, as close to a blurt as Jin Guangyao had ever heard from an eloquent Lan. The dam meticulously carved with Lan precepts on etiquette broke, letting a river of concern and confusion flow freely past Xichen's lips. "Why did he become Sect Leader Jin's proxy? Furthermore, why are you so certain that Sect Leader Jin is the one who wants Mingjue dead? What has all transpired since the Sunshot Campaign to break down our sects' alliances and these Nie Elders' trust in A-Yao?" A beat of silence. He looked between his friends - narrowed his eyes. "Please, answer in plain terms. I am rather sick of obfuscation these days." 

Jin Guangyao's lips moved without sound at first, but slowly and agonizingly, she worked the truth out of her gut and past her lips. It was hard work - enough to make her sweat and shoulders sag exhaustedly. She watched Lan Xichen's face shift wildly through emotions that pained her, a mere observer, to process. Before long, Jin Guangyao came to lean on her husband. Not just toward his side, still rock solid in his weakened state, but on his words - his regret and empathy - which soothed her enough not to flee Xichen's obvious hurt. 

It was more than what they wrote in their letters. It was better - at least for them. A lingering thread of their selfishness, perhaps. 

Like they always feared, Lan Xichen was quietly devastated. 

There was a certain sense of defeat when he focused his distress first on Mingjue, overlooking Jin Guangyao's wrongs. She wanted to speak out - draw fire - and be wounded, feel some measure of pain, and be absolved of the worse pain of guilt. She did not expect Lan Xichen's seething accusation at her husband to strike her like a blow as well. "You know what happened to my parents, Mingjue."  

Nie Mingjue bore the brunt of it, understanding Lan Xichen's words better than Jin Guangyao. Her husband bowed his head in apology. "It didn't occur to me at the time, but that is no excuse." He conceded easily. "I am sorry, Xichen." 

Jin Guangyao looked between the men. One seething, pale face blotching in anger, the other prepared to do anything to make peace. Such a reversal.

"What do Qingheng-jun and Madam Lan have to do with anything?" Jin Guangyao asked, uneasy seeming out of the marrow of her bones to chill her blood. Her whole body tensed, on guard for whatever fresh hell her sworn brothers were about to deliver unto her. 

Lan Xichen looked at her finally and she flinched - not at the anger there, but the abominable pity. 

"A-Yao," He choked on the petname. The furiousness nested deep in Jin Guangyao's being relished that. May that name stick in his throat forevermore if he dares look at her like that. "There are circumstances that I never informed you of, as it is deeply personal as well as an unfortunate chapter in Gusu Lan's history. Few outside the clan elders know the truth of my parents' marriage and what followed after. I might have told you another time under happier circumstances, to simply express my trust in you as I once did with Nie Mingjue. Now, I feel compelled by the awful parallels between your situation and that of my mother." 

He wove a tragic, sordid tale then. Of a woman from nowhere murdering a beloved teacher and respected clan elder with an unknown motive, save a quarrel gone awry. Of a young clan leader torn between filial piety and what he thought to be fated love. A rash decision to marry a murderer to save her from punishment by the elders - only to punish himself and his murderous bride both with eternal seclusion. Yet, somehow, two sons were born of that arrangement. Two sons who only saw that murderous mother once a month until one day, the stain on the Lan clan's honor - a threat to their reputation and authority so long as she lived - perished in her prison, the house surrounded by gentian flowers. 

Jin Guangyao had been inside that prison once as well, right before Nie Mingjue found out about her plans and showed her the tombs. A cozy prison, same as the enforced leisure she was once subjected to. Porcelain vases and jade statuettes, ornate hairpins and elaborate embroidery in nearly every stitch of fine fabric. Shelves crammed with uncouth books and impure scrolls. Madam Lan was permitted to buck Lan asceticism, but never to leave the mountain. Not even in death, likely. Jin Guangyao remembered that while hiding Lan Xichen, he had mourned not being home to inter his father beside his mother. A plaque in the Ancestral Hall - a house abandoned on the half-wild side of the mountain - a fuzzy memory for two jades they all helped painstakingly shape. Madam Lan could do Gusu Lan no more harm in these forms. 

Those Lan Elders, Jin Guangyao thought. After they came from the Gentian Cottage, Jin Guangyao had sat at that meeting with her sworn brothers and thought them all easily handled for the most part. Lan Haiqi had stuck out as someone stubborn and prideful in her opinions, but back then, it never occurred to Jin Guangyao that the Lan sect could be so - capable. 

She thought back on that meeting and also Huaisang's reports on the Discussion Conference. Jin Guangyao had never naively assumed the Lan Sect was completely apolitical, but the situation with Madam Lan made it clear that they were not beyond cruelty and underhandedness. If they were, they would have gone ahead and executed Lan Xichen's mother despite Qingheng-jun marrying her. Not waited for such an obviously strong cultivator to give them two heirs surviving past infancy and then transparently either arrange her death or let her die. Illness was rare enough among strong cultivators - that a great sect lacked the resources and skill to cure such an illness was laughable. 

That Jin Guangyao ever thought manipulating the Lan Sect would be easy was now an equally laughable idea. A laughably naive idea. 

Jin Guangyao stared at Lan Xichen, who anxiously expected a reaction from her - any reaction from her - thought only of Lan Haiqi at Koi Tower, during the wedding and then the conference. Of the Lan cultivators flying west out of Lanling. 

She covered her mouth with her hand, feeling sick at all the possibilities. Then and now. 

Regardless of her ability to successfully out-maneuver the Lan Elders, even in a fictitious world of perfect postwar peace without Wie Wuxian's meddling, Jin Guangyao had proven her ability to hurt Lan Xichen a thousand times without intending to. She would have done so when combatting the Lan Elders. She might have ended up trying to kill Nie Mingjue anyway if she had married Xichen because he would have been so critical of her even at a distance. Mingjue had been right on their wedding night; he saw their sworn brother's sect more clearly where Jin Guangyao had defanged the Lan Sect in her mind as she had idolized their sect leader. 

Lan Xichen must have seen her mortification. His mouth moved but Jin Guangyao heard nothing - nothing could soothe her in this moment. She wanted to be hurt, but she never expected to be hurt this way, to sting with such vulnerability. She had first resolved to bear any pain she felt from this and pay it toward debts owed - an animal part of her not much different from the Nie cultivators lashed out instinctually. 

She attacked the first offense summoned from her perfect memory. 

"Don't attack Mingjue over this mess with your parents! Er-ge, you are the one who handed me off to him without ever asking my opinion one way or the other!" 

The blow landed. Lan Xichen recoiled, mouth snapping shut - Nie Mingjue protested on his behalf. "I was the one who was manipulative -" He caught himself in his trip-up, catching the warning look Jin Guangyao volleyed over her shoulder. They had thoroughly discussed Mingjue's half of this particular issue. 

"My sect is still rebuilding," Lan Xichen said meekly. "You and Da-ge already did so well for Qinghe Nie together. I thought that I was making way for you to be loved and respected as you always wished." His words were sweet and genuine. She was almost deterred. 

"Did you respect me less than Da-ge?" Jin Guangyao demanded. "Back when you left hiding and entered the war, I wanted to go with you. Er-ge, you said no then because your sect was in shambles. Remember, however, that you only suggested heading in Qinghe Nie's direction then as a better option for me and my quest for glory. You left me to make that choice for myself. When Jin Guangshan approached you and Mingjue, you had the standing with our sworn-brother to convince him to let me make my choice. Together, you would have been able to pressure Jin Guangshan into letting me choose between you. If you hadn't bent so easily to Da-ge's one-sided demand for my hand, even oblivious of his true motives, none of this would have happened. If you just respected me more then -"

Jin Guangyao shook her head. "It never occurred to you, did it? That marrying either of my sworn brothers wouldn't be an immense honor to me."

"I never imagined Nie Mingjue would do such a thing to you!" 

"So you shuffled me off to him because you're so afraid of becoming your father?" 

"A-Yao, you speak in such hot defense of your husband after all he has done," Lan Xichen looked concerned for Jin Guangyao. Cool as his tone was, it did not temper her. "I will make a thousand apologies for my own offenses. I just do not understand how you can be content after all that has transpired." 

Jin Guangyao smiled, swallowing a sardonic laugh. "I have always treasured your opinion of me, Er-ge," She answered him. "But I can't stand it anymore if you seeing the best of A-Yao means you casting me in the role of your mother. So that you won't see or hear me when I decide to meet your expectations and be truthful about my sins. The wronged woman who never had a better choice than the poor decisions she made and was unjustly punished for." Her words dripped with sarcasm. 

"Meng Yao," Her husband warned her, hand landing on her shoulder. 

Anger got the best of Gusu Lan manners. "The ambiguity is the issue-"

"Mingjue and I did our best to be unambiguous in our equal faults," Jin Guangyao squashed that protest underfoot. "Madam Lan is not me, Lan Xichen. You will not disparage our sworn brother more than me. Especially when you are the one who seemingly acted like Qinghen-jun, not taking a woman's opinion into account when deciding her marriage!" 

The cracks were there, now the First Jade's face crumbled. "Da-ge, A-Yao," He collapsed like his legs turned to dust beneath him. "This sworn brother is sorry." 

Jin Guangyao had never been so harsh with Xichen before - the results were like holding the shards of a broken vase in chubby, helpless child's hands. That sense of Oh, Fuck was overwhelming. 

"Er-ge, no!" 

"Xichen, don't-" Mingjue tried to stoop down - grimaced and crumbled down to his knees next to his friend. 

Jin Guangyao stood over them, awkwardly trying to get on their level while negotiating her hugely pregnant belly. Pacing between them, unsure who to help up - if she even could in her state. 

"I did not mean for you to apologize! I only meant for you to recognize that I'm at fault as well!" Jin Guangyao brought her hands to her chest over and over. "Come at me! Not at yourself!"

"Oh quit!" Mingjue snapped - then nudged Xichen's shoulder, urging him, "Ignore her! She's on this kick about not wanting me to wallow in guilt. Let me have it already! I deserve it more since I knew about your parents!"

"You!" Jin Guangyao swatted his shoulder. "You didn't just make him cry over the mess with his parents! Wait your turn!" 

Husband and wife clamored over each other for blame. Pulled excuses from the air about which one of them most deserved to be subjected to Lan Xichen's disapproval. Bickered like children in the most unbecoming fashion.

Yet, somehow, they were both surprised when Lan Xichen's laughter bubbled to the surface. They turned from each other - nearly nose to nose since Mingjue was on his knees - and found Xichen hiccuping, half-hysterical. 

He wiped his eye and said, "What a relief! This is so different..."

"Different?" Asked Jin Guangyao.

"I never saw my parents speak once in my life for one," Xichen answered. "The atmosphere is lighter as well. Not just compared to my parents and how Elders spoke of them, but also compared to how you two interacted just a year ago. This argument is far from malicious."

"We would have learned nothing if it was," said Mingjue. He summoned Baxia from his throne and used her for a crutch to stand up. Xichen rose as well, unassisted. 

"You both seem to understand very well what you have done wrong," Xichen remarked, smiling tiredly. Despite these words, he did not quite meet either of his sworn sibling's eyes. "Still, I confess that it will take me time to come to terms with these newly discovered sides of you both. That you have been capable of these things the whole time..."

It stung Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue both, fair as it was. They shared a glance, both understanding they never could have expected things to go as well as they had. Not in good conscience. 

"I would still like to make good on A-Yao's rebuke," said Xichen, drawing fresh protests from his sworn siblings. He silenced them with a small gesture before continuing, "I know Mingjue did not lie about loving A-Yao, but what matters is her feelings. So I ask this," He looked at Jin Guangyao finally, right into her eyes. "How does A-Yao truly feel about her present arrangement? No matter the answer, know that I will do everything in my power to help right this situation between us three." 

Jin Guangyao blushed - but this embarrassment was half a world away from the furious mortification she felt earlier in this meeting. Though it irritated her a bit that Xichen would ask such a pointless question that would make no difference, no matter his promises. Divorce would be a humiliation for her in cultivation society - leaving the Unclean Realm unthinkable and dangerous thanks to her father - taking refuge in the Cloud Recesses terribly scandalous. 

She caught Nie Mingjue grimacing beside her at the question. He understood. 

Jin Guangyao looked away and spoke - almost wonderingly, thinking aloud, "He sees me wholly and still loves me. Not only does he need me - especially if he insists on being so stubbornly foolish - but Da-ge wants me at his side. And I think that I like standing at his side. I have, since the start."

"So you are content?" Xichen pressed, concern showing. 

Jin Guangyao bobbed her head in a quick, sheepish nod. "Of course, I am. I plan to see him through another war here soon. And afterward, well, it will be interesting to stand beside each other in peace finally, raise a family, and see how that goes." Her hands smoothed the wrinkles down the front of her blood-stained robes - over her belly and her growing child who would be with them as soon as next week. 

Mingjue's hand returned to her shoulder. Jin Guangyao looked at him - and back away again, rolling her eyes at the dumb, proud look on his face. 

Xichen stood before the two, smiling with satisfaction despite his melancholy eyes. 

Jin Guangyao's gaze did not linger on him. She waddled awkwardly to find a seat, as her feet were getting sore.

"Too much standing around and talking," Mingjue agreed with a beleaguered breath. He hobbled over with Baxia and Xichen's help. "Need to sit down just to get the energy to go back up to bed. Can't wait to train again." He griped, making his sworn siblings chuckle. 

Jin Guangyao was not much one for reprieves, however, so soon pressing questions interrupted their exhausted silence together. 

"Moling Su has been left leaderless," She said to Lan Xichen. "Perhaps Gusu Lan can absorb or begin sponsoring it. Su Minshan acted partially to remedy Jin Guangshan's neglect; his suffering shouldn't be all for naught and those disciples shouldn't suffer in his stead now." 

Xichen frowned and confessed, "I am afraid my power to make such decisions is limited lately. The Elders are not looking to sponsor smaller sects at the moment, and I will only be further hampered lobbying for such action once I return home." 

The Elders are not looking to sponsor smaller sects at the moment. Jin Guangyao wondered if this was a veiled reference to Yiling Wei and his dealings with Jiang Yanli. A lousy one - a deceptive one. In all her and Mingjue's own confessions, written and spoken, they never once called out Xichen's covert conversation with Jiang Yanli or what Huaisang reported about his seclusion. Nothing beyond what he already owned up to, at least. Lan Xichen, therefore, had no reason to believe his sworn siblings had any clue about him formerly being allied with Jiang Yanli to help the fledgling Yiling Wei. 

I was punished for my own impropriety at Young Master Jin's wedding. Speaking to Jiang Yanli without a chaperone about her martial brother when the Elders were under the impression I was with Wangji. Xichen had left holes in his story, not expecting to be questioned. Months of forced seclusion was an overly harsh punishment for miscommunication and being without a chaperone. Even with his father's mistakes, what did the Lan Elders expect? Xichen to run off with an already married woman whose wedding was all for show? No, the Elders were likely more concerned with the Second Jade's twisted romantic obsessions than that of his permitting elder brother. 

Jin Guangyao deigned to give Xichen time to tell her and Nie Mingjue these things.

It was a difficult subject, after all, and this night had been without any rest. 

"Moling Su isn't up for grabs," The Triad turned in tandem to see Huaisang traipsing into the throne room with papers stuffed under one arm and a hand bloodied to his wrist. He tore open a panel in the wall and the room fell dark. His elder brother sighed and relit some lamps with his qi so they could see Huaisang painstakingly redoing the security talisman in his own blood. "There's this former rogue cultivator named Caibin-Sanren at Koi Tower. Moling Su's Head Disciple and a rare live-in mistress to Jin Guangshan who writes these really beautifully inaccurate love ballads about Yao-jie and Da-ge."

"What."

"Something for later," Huaisang hummed dismissively. "Anyway, Jin Guangshan seems like he wants to keep her around just to spite you. So he will likely let her take over Moling Su after word breaks about Su Minshan's death." 

Jin Guangyao grit her teeth. The rogue cultivator that Su Minshan bragged about convincing to teach within his sect just a year ago, was now her father's creature. The man really had taken Su Minshan for all he had. He would keep it, too. 

Until it was no longer useful to him. Until he grew tired of it and this Caibin-Sanren - like he did all his mistresses. 

"Su Minshan was so proud of his sect," She seethed. "He was thankful enough toward me for it to die so horribly. My father took this great thing and ruins it completely. He's ruining mine and Su Minshan's legacy." Moling Su was a little sect in a little city caught between Lanling and Gusu. It was a sect revered by one mediocre merchant and a brothel of women, thankful for their services. It was not gilded in gold - didn't even have enough beds and texts for students. But it was born of pure intentions in a time when Jin Guangyao felt like she had none left. After the war left her feeling filthy under her pristine, golden robes. After her father asked her to calculate how many Wens were permitted to die before it impaired productivity in Qiongqi Path.

"A-Yao," Lan Xichen looked at her and called her that after everything he had learned this night. After how she lashed out against him about his parents. He still looked at her as the bookkeeper who risked their life hiding an injured fugitive from the Wens. A bookkeeper who had no idea the filthy person they helped was so important, so kind, and so malleable. 

Jin Guangyao turned to Nie Mingjue and it was no relief to her welling emotions. He, too, had come to love and respect her, not because she was powerful, but because she was kind to others. Meng Yao had not been a fierce warrior that Qinghe Nie naturally admired. Meng Yao had felt a kinship for those mediocres whose homes were destroyed by Qinghe Nie cultivators and Wen Dogs alike, and Meng Yao sought to help them move along to build themselves up again after being kicked down and trodden upon. 

Meng Yao left Qinghe Nie seeking recognition at the top of golden stairs once again, but instead found someone else on an ugly battlefield who valued them first for their kindness. Someone who didn't need to find a vermillion dot under all the mud and blood on Meng Yao's face to recognize worth. Qin Su defied her parents and risked her own reputation time and time again for Jin Guangyao, who was beneath her in everyone's eyes even after he cleaned off the war and got that damned dot. 

Meng Yao had climbed high in the world by the sides of good people. Meng Yao had done good in this ugly, harsh world, showing kindness where the world did not. Meng Yao had done horrible things to climb as high as Koi Tower, because kindness had not taken her high enough. Jin Guangyao had done yet more horrible things to dig in her nails and retain her position at the top of those stairs, never wanting to be kicked down again. She hated doing those things but hated the idea of humiliation more. 

None of it had not been worth it at all, in the end. Because of how easily she was discarded anyways. And she still hated it. 

"I'm fine," She shooed away her sworn brothers' hands. "Just rightfully pissed. Don't fuss like Master Deng. I'll never forgive you."

Questions lingered in Xichen and Mingjue's eyes, but they conceded. Turned their attention to Huaisang and questions about this Caibin-Sanren's character - and these beautifully inaccurate love ballads of hers?

Jin Guangyao kept these feckless thoughts to herself. Because fighting Lanling Jin was a foreboding task, second only to overthrowing Qishan Wen, and Qinghe Nie was better off staying neutral while it still could. Jin Guangshan was now distracted by a greater threat to his authority and his bid to become Chief Cultivator: the Yiling Patriarch and Yiling Wei. Another war brewed, but Jin Guangyao sought no alliances. She only intended to engage with the weakened survivor. Jin Guangyao resolved to focus on the saber spirits and readying her sect for after Yiling Wei's obliteration.

She shoved down the horrible, traitorous feelings that thought left her. 

Chapter Text

Jin Guangyao roused in the late afternoon to soft golden light and warm breath against her ear. A heavy arm draped over her waist like a blanket, a large hand resting on her belly button. Her soft hand traced over the veins in his hand, up his forearm, and across fresh scars deeply pocking her husband's skin. Jin Guangyao sighed and nudged Nie Mingjue off with her elbow. 

Her husband rolled onto his back and let out a jagged snore of groan. 

Jin Guangyao got both arms behind her and leveraged herself upright to grab a cord in the canopy. She got onto her knees next and crawled out of bed to look out the window. 

She chuckled, seeing a line of guest disciples trickle in from the city, across the courtyard, toward the dorms. Clearly just barely recovered from their hangovers by their sloppy gaits and cradled heads. Mu Qiang brought up the rear of the march, arms crossed and pristine in mourning white, barking reprimands for wasting Qinghe Nie's goodwill. Wang Qiao stood at the end of the courtyard, shouting about recklessness. Both Nie Elders punished the disciples through sheer volume.

Their guests didn't really deserve it.

Nie Runhua and Nie Riluo had been hosting smaller festivities in the city all summer. After spooking their guests from the minor sects with the security array, it felt best to bust out the biggest and loudest events to distract them. The guest disciples didn't know they had been covertly conscripted as Wang Qiao's private army against the proxy or Jin Guangyao - whoever attacked first. In the end, they had mostly taken up space and detracted from numbers at the Lanling Discussion Conference. Which wasn't a loss, but it was time to truly profit off this whole mess a little. 

Li Weiyi, who hailed from a prominent mediocre family in Qinghe, reported budding courtships between guest disciples and mediocre elites in the city. Nie Mingjue's aunts similarly celebrated advantageous transactions between their husbands and the representatives of these minor sects. These relationships ultimately bound these minor sects closer to Qinghe, the Nie Sect's base of power, which would be important in the far-off future when they took on Lanling Jin and its large sphere of influence. The city of Qinghe had also made a fair bit of revenue entertaining the disciples just this past week, of which a portion would be paid to the Nie Sect to repay the cost of housing and feeding over a hundred extra guest disciples the past few months.

Things had gone so well that Jin Guangyao considered first letting the guest disciples stay on until her child's one-month celebration as extra security. Then, if no one died and they squeezed a bit more revenue and good relations from their guests, she, her husband, and the Elders could discuss hosting a similar event next summer. A smaller, cheaper alternative that would put them less at odds with Gusu Lan and their lectures as Huaisang said was speculated about during the Lanling Discussion Conference. 

So it seemed, despite how Mu Qiang and Wang Qiao treated them, these hungover guest disciples had done quite well by their hosts. 

The baby, on the other hand, acted like a rude guest. She could come tonight, tomorrow, or the day after. All anyone could do was wait.

Jin Guangyao sat by the window, watching disciples trod to and fro across the courtyard. Hungover guests and bled-dry clansmen alike. She ran her hand over her stomach, appreciating this hardwon peace for however long it lasted. 

She knew Nie Mingjue was awake when he cut off mid-snore. How different things were from his coma, just a week ago, when sudden silences like that left Jin Guangyao's heart hammering as she crept from her guqin to check on him. Jin Guangyao could let her gaze linger on the disciples hefting paint brushes fit to mop floors and tubs of inky blood to the center of the courtyard. 

Her husband sat heavily on the cushioned bench beside her.

"They're almost done reinstalling the security array, it looks like," He remarked on the busy courtyard.

His arm wrapped around her waist - and at her nod - he petted her belly with a warm hand.

"Hmm," A disappointed sound that reminded her that he and Huaisang were brothers. "No kicks or punches. Lazy like his uncle!" Jin Guangyao felt Nie Mingjue's breath tickle against her cheek. 

She nudged him back a second time, instructing him to brush his teeth. Just as he rinsed his mouth in the washbasin, Lan Xichen entered their chambers with a knock. He bore a serving tray. "Right on schedule." He congratulated himself, smiling. 

He set the tray at the table while Mingjue helped Jin Guangyao seat herself. They sincerely thanked their sworn brother for bringing their breakfast but chided him about doing it a fourth evening in a row. He was their guest, not their servant! 

Lan Xichen waved them off. "I would like to spend time with you both. Believe me, I have plenty of idle time during the day while you two sleep." His tone turned teasing. "One would think the way your schedule works that Da-ge and A-Yao join the guest disciples in the city festivities! They're certainly all eager to see you both in person, elusive as you have been. And with such interesting rumors surrounding your absences."

Jin Guangyao plastered on a smile. "Oh, Caibin-Sanren's works have wor