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What Could Have Been

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The war ends with a sputter.

Jin Zixuan, acting as sect leader in his father’s illness-induced seclusion, sends his personal guard to stop Jin Zixun at Qiongqi Way. Wei Wuxian attends his nephew’s one-month ceremony in chains, the Ghost General in tow. The Yiling Patriarch negotiates the destruction of the Stygian Tiger Amulet for the safety of the Wen Remnants, Wen Qing, and the Ghost General, all of whom are taken under Lan Sect protection at the insistence of Hanguang-Jun.

The ensuing negotiations over custody of Wei Wuxian himself are more complex: he killed Jin cultivators at the prison camp and defied orders; he puppeteered Wen Ning at Qiongqi Way and was responsible for the deaths of cultivators from every major sect.

But he also overcame another demonic cultivator’s control of the Ghost General. He killed the other cultivator, Su Minshan, by turning his own resentful energy back on him; and he surrendered to Zixuan’s personal guard when they arrived with his sister's emblem in hand. To complicate things, he is a hero of the Sunshot Campaign, no matter his unorthodox methods.

Jin Guangyao watches as the famed Yiling Patriarch sacrifices his only power in defense of others — of meaningless, mundane people who are not related to him in any way — and catalogs the tightening of Sect Leader Jiang’s jaw every time his adoptive brother moves into his field of vision. There is history there, he knows, and more since the war. Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian were the pillars of Yunmeng after its destruction, until Wei Wuxian's behavior became unreliable, before he was cast out of the sect and Jiang Wanyin returned from Yiling with a broken arm.

Jin Guangyao watches brand new Sect Leader Jiang Wanyin flinch away from the sight of the Yiling Patriarch, files it away with all his other ammunition, and returns to manipulating Sect Leaders Yao and Ouyang, who are easily led by popular opinion and fear. Too easily led: they also fear Xue Yang and his knowledge of Yin Iron enough to mobilize the other sects. In the end those weapons are removed from Jin Guangyao’s arsenal as well, and Xue Yang himself is handed over to a rogue cultivator to pay for old crimes against a meaningless minor sect.

Over the long days of negotiation, it becomes clear that Wei Wuxian has held nothing back to protect himself. He seems surprised when he is delivered, alive, into the custody of the Nie. When Nie Mingjue promises to cut out his tongue at the first hint of demonic cultivation, and to kill him at the second, Wei Wuxian looks almost relieved. Nie is the logical choice: Jiang and Lan are still too weak in their rebuilding to hold a demonic cultivator. Despite Jin Guangyao's best efforts, Lan Sect would not permit Jin Sect the custody of any prisoners of war after Hanguang-Jun and Wen Ning testified to the conditions of the Wen camps. Where the Yiling Patriarch’s word was insufficient to condemn the Jin guards, the esteemed Hanguang-Jun’s word is known to be good, and the Ghost General could be compelled with Inquiry to speak the truth about his death.

As they negotiate, Jin Guangyao’s palms itch with the desire for such a weapon as the Ghost General. He smiles, and he smiles, and he bows, and he slips honeyed, poisoned words in the proper ears. And it is not enough.

In the end, Jin Sect comes out with nothing to show for the war but Jin Guangshan's appointment as Chief Cultivator, their treasuries and ranks overflowing compared to the other sects, and a newborn sect heir. This would be a victory for anyone else. It is a staggering blow to Jin Guangshan’s pride. His temper, already unstable, flares time and again. When Jin Guangyao attempts to convince his father that the loss of the Yin Iron is not a crippling blow to his plans for Jin ascendance, the man's anger flares. He lashes out in a way even Jin Guangyao had never predicted, striking Jin Guangyao with unexpected physical strength. Perhaps it is accidental that they are at the head of Koi Tower's entry steps when this happens. Perhaps it is not. The fall down the stairs of Koi Tower is long, familiar this second time, and all the more painful for the audience, the shame of it.

Crumpled at the base of Koi Tower’s long stairs, again, Jin Guangyao presses his face into the stone, takes a deep breath despite re-broken ribs, and arranges his features as carefully as he knows how. Then he stands, moving carefully around the pain, and bows deep, arms held straight and true. The walk back up the steps to his father's side is painful enough to wipe the smile from his face; it is not painful enough to prevent him re-taking his place as seneschal, bowing again at the top of the steps. As he straightens, he prioritizes his plans for his father’s demise over all else.

In retaliation for the shame inflicted on him, Jin Guangyao hobbles the implementation of his father’s wartime plans. The Jin Sect is less ascendant than Jin Guangshan had hoped, with the remnants of the Wen alive, their mistreatment made public. Jin Zixuan is more and more obviously softened by his wife, Lady Jiang. The Jin cannot be seen to move against the Nie Sect while the Nie hold the Yiling Patriarch, for fear of suspicion and retaliation. He cannot act personally against Qinghe Nie – against Nie Mingjue – while his sworn brother holds Wei Wuxian, whose eyes are too sharp, whose mind is too keen. Jin Guangyao has rarely felt so threatened by someone else. Wei Wuxian is too resistant to his manipulations, too insightful. Nie Sect is off-limits.

They cannot move against Lan Sect for political reasons, lest Jin Sect be seen to resent the Wen Remnants under their protection. The Jin cannot be seen to condone the actions blamed on Jin Zixun, to hold ill will toward the remaining Wen or their guardian sect. Jin Guangyao feels something akin to relief at the prospect of his second sworn brother's – no, the Lan Sect’s – safety. He shoves the unworthy and weakening emotion into the back of his mind. If it comes with the memory of hands on his arms, straightening him from a bow, the dazzling impression of a kind smile, then that is his own weakness, his own problem to confront. That he does not want to confront it means only that he must be more ruthless with himself, burn the unworthiness out with the flames of anger and resentment that have powered him for so long.

Jiang Sect is rebuilding from its near-destruction. Jiang Wanyin may be the youngest leader in his sect’s history, but he is not rebuilding alone: Zixuan promises aid more extravagant than even his wife thinks appropriate. Only her intervention prevents Yunmeng Jiang falling impossibly deep in debt to Lanling Jin: Jiang Yanli somehow restrains her husband to the bounds of filial obligation and gift-giving. Jiang Wanyin visits his nephew monthly, bringing local delicacies for his sister. As time passes and Lotus Pier rebuilds its dye industry, he begins to bring bolts of purple-dyed cloth so fine that even the Jin tailors blanch at the costliness. He smiles only while holding Jin Ling, and Jin Guangyao, who has yet to be permitted to touch his nephew, watches, and smiles deferentially, and keeps careful count of weaknesses. Jiang Wanyin is a brittle man, softened only by his sister’s obvious care. He is ripe for exploitation, if only he had anything that Jin Guangyao needed for his present aims. He does not: Jiang Sect and its dye monopoly is safe. Jin Guangyao sets his spies among the new disciples, of course, but there is little enough to be done for now.

So Jin Sect is the last remaining major sect to which Jin Guangyao may turn his attention, his carefully-stoked resentment. Jin Guangyao had planned to remove Zixun and Zixuan with the same stroke, to be the only living male relative of age, no matter his name. Now Zixun is dead, but Zixuan lives and thrives, opening up like a peony blossom under his wife’s attention. Worse still, the sect is coming to love Zixuan, not merely to tolerate his arrogance; Luo Qingyang has been persuaded to return, now that Zixuan has spoken for Wei Wuxian, for the Wen. If Jin Guangyao were still actively seeking to remove his half-brother, instead of their father, he would face a nearly insurmountable obstacle.

It is no longer wartime; deaths cannot be covered in the fog of hatred, and Zixuan is not a man for frivolous or solitary night-hunting. Martial or cultivation accidents would be suspicious. Poison is logistically challenging, because he shares his meals with his wife, whom the clan loves even more extravagantly than Jin Guangyao had expected. Her death alongside her husband’s would destabilize Jiang and Jin at once. Unfortunately, it would also strengthen Jin Guangshan’s position by casting him as a bereaved father. Jin Guangyao will not take any action that will benefit his father, even one that would cut the man's heart like a knife. So Jin Guangyao reluctantly moves his half-brother’s death down on his mental list. His own position will be more secure once his half-brother trusts him. He has waited this long; he can wait longer. He smiles, and bows, and settles in for the long game. He has waited longer for less; he is waiting still for news of his mother, whom he has not heard from since he departed the brothel, leaving her ailing in his wake.

Besides, he has another target in his immediate sights. Jin Guangshan was too much of a coward to venture onto the battlefield, and was uninjured in the Sunshot Campaign. Despite all this, he has been increasingly unwell. The servants dare not speak of the symptoms in detail, but Jin Guangyao was raised in a brothel. He knows the signs of steadily advancing venereal disease, and it is obvious that his father has a wasting disease that will take his mind. The disease is bad enough in mundane men. In cultivators, the deterioration affects meridians as well. The only question is how to bring him down without weakening the sect too much in the process: he still holds the position of Chief Cultivator, which gives the Jin authority beyond the other sects. Jin Guangyao will not cripple himself willingly. He has never been so selfless.

One evening, Jin Guangyao remembers the Collection of Turmoil, one of the many books Xichen had carried away from the Cloud Recesses, the many books Jin Guangyao had memorized while Xichen slept. He thinks through the melodies, all of which are bright in his mind’s eye, and allows himself a small, honest smile in the solitude of his rooms.

It is simple enough to learn a stabilizing melody from Zewu-Jun the next time he has reason to see his sworn brother. Zewu-Jun smiles, open, warm, and trusting at his request to learn music that might help his father’s qi stabilize. Then Jin Guangyao bides his time as his father deteriorates under the ministrations of famous, if only moderately skilled, doctors. He does not play, not yet. The progression of the disease is a slower punishment than any music might allow, and his father’s mind is still intact enough to fear his decline. That fear is punishment enough. If his father lashes out, if he yells, if he strikes Jin Guangyao in his fury, it is of no matter: the man’s days are numbered, and his death will be a misery beyond compare. What cost a few slaps, some oft-heard harsh words, for such a prize?

Two years after the end of the war, when Zixuan and Yanli’s twins are born, Jin Guangyao still has not held his nephew. He asked only once, and was publicly denied, and Jin Guangyao knows better than to ask for the impossible. He is not a Jiang, to strive for follies. He knows his limits. If he occasionally wishes for the weight of an infant in his arms, for the familial trust that would imply, he knows better than to indulge himself in such fancies.

Instead, he throws himself into stewardship. By the time the twins are born, he has ingratiated himself with both his father’s head doctor and with his half-brother, who cedes far too much sect paperwork to him. It is an open secret among the inner household that Jin Zixuan is performing all of the tasks of Chief Cultivator, including the audiences, as Jin Guangshan's mind deteriorates under the weight of disease. Managing a sect and the cultivation world is too much for one man: Jin Guangshan was chosen as Chief Cultivator in part because he has an heir of age to manage the sect. Instead, Zixuan manages the cultivation world and Jin Guangyao takes on more and more administration of the Jin. Through it all, Jin Guangyao remembers to always avoid eye contact with Zixuan when he lies obviously, and thrills at how easy the man is to manipulate.

When his father takes an abrupt turn for the worse and seems likely to be too unwell to attend the twins' one-month ceremony, Jin Guangyao prevails upon the doctors for the first time. He brings his qin, a beautiful gift from Zewu-Jun, into the sickroom and plays. His father recovers himself enough to sit calmly for the feast, a silent figurehead beside his wife. It is a miracle, the doctors say. Zixuan looks as if he is on the verge of grateful tears. Jin Guangyao smiles and plans his father’s accelerated demise.

Now that musical cultivation is in play, he will be able to move his pieces forward with more haste. Once he has better learned how to destabilize qi in Jin Guangshan, he will know how to affect Nie Mingjue’s qi even more discreetly. Xichen trusts him; Xichen will allow him to play Clarity for their sworn brother, even if Nie Mingjue has not forgotten Jin Guangyao’s actions in the Nightless City, in the Unclean Realm before that.

The day after the one-month ceremony banquet, Jiang Yanli invites him to her rooms and asks him if he would like to hold one of the twins. The rooms are empty of all but a discreet and scarred maidservant, one Jiang Yanli brought with her from Yunmeng, a woman without a golden core whom Jin Guangyao has never so much as considered attempting to influence or bribe. Jin Guangyao is too shocked to protest, and then there is an infant in his grasp, and Jiang Yanli is arranging his arms and instructing him in how to support her daughter’s head properly. She appears to believe he has never held an infant before. Her trust in him, given that assumption, is staggering.

Jin Qing is tiny and red-faced, fragile in his arms. Jin Guangyao could crush her skull with one hand. He would not even need spiritual energy to do so. A-Qing raises a small fist and opens dark eyes while she manages, somehow, to fit her entire hand in her mouth. Jiang Yanli laughs, open and carefree like the ringing of bells in a breeze, and he glances up, startled. His brother’s wife gives him a wide, honest smile.

“She does that,” she says. “A-Xue seems to prefer fabric.” It is too early for them to have such preferences, but she looks at the baby in her own arms, gnawing on a loose fold of fabric hanging over her mother’s shoulder, as if this is a clear sign. Jiang Yanli gives Jin Guangyao another smile. “I thought you might prefer not to have to change out of chewed-upon robes before your meetings,” she offers.

That consideration is a small kindness, and he wonders what is expected in return. Jin Guangyao has come to know his sister-in-law barely at all, except by her public face. He knows enough to doubt that is all there is to her, and he knows little enough to be afraid of this lack of knowledge. She has been managing the family household and the nursery, two areas in which Jin Guangyao has been made to feel unnecessary, unwelcome. It has been made abundantly clear to him by his father and his father’s wife that he is unworthy of Lady Jiang's exalted company other than at public events. As with Jin Ling, he has not pushed the issue. He knows where his influence is best spent, and has judged this too heavy a weight to lift on his own, for too little concrete gain.

“A-Yao,” Jiang Yanli says. “Thank you for your care for my husband and father-in-law.”

Her smile is open and guileless, and reminds him of nothing so much as Zewu-Jun. They both trust too easily, he suspects. It is a clear sign of his own weakness that he has not moved against either of them yet. There will come a time when there is profit in their disadvantage, and he will have to make that choice. He knows himself well enough to believe that moving against Xichen will be all but impossible. He begins to suspect that Jiang Yanli may be equally as hard to betray, if he continues to make her acquaintance. Perhaps allowing Madam Jin and his father to force him to keep his distance has been wise, after all.

“It is only my duty,” he says, playing for time. “I would be a poor son and brother not to aid them in recompense for their kindness in acknowledging me.”

The words burn in his throat like acid. He swallows back bitterness. This is the world he lives in, cruel and unequal as it is. He will break it to his will, but he cannot do that if his brother’s wife distrusts him. He must gain her trust to have his revenge, no matter how slow the process. He lived with the Nie Clan for longer than this, working to his own ends. He gained Nie Mingjue's trust. He gained Wen Ruohan's trust. He can do this, too. He makes his expression go a little softer, a little sadder, the picture of a dutiful bastard.

Her smile in response is, confusingly, also a little bit sad.

“Mm,” she says. “Perhaps you could join me here again in three days? A-Ling is a little tired of his mother’s attention being so divided, and his grandmother will be visiting Lotus Pier for trade negotiations.”

At the unexpected invitation, Jin Guangyao’s face falls into his most practiced smile, deferential and blank. She must want something, to offer him a boon his father has so comprehensively denied him. He will have to renew his study of her reputation, to be prepared for what she will ask in return. He must be sure he can accept her favor and also be able to turn events to his advantage. Jin Guangyao did not get where he is today by being unprepared to bargain, even if the rules are different among the gentry.

“Of course, Lady Jiang,” he says. “I would be honored.”

She does not mention Jin Guangshan’s renewed confinement. He relapsed after the ceremony, and Jin Guangyao estimates that he will not recover for several days. The bastardized music he played this morning will make sure of at least one day of mental relapse, perhaps two. His plan to weaken his father’s moral standing by sending him obviously and unmistakably mad is going tolerably well so far. In his arms, A-Qing makes a small noise around her fist, and he looks down at her, small and vulnerable and soft in his arms.

She will have everything you did not, he reminds himself, trying to stoke the old, familiar resentment. It flares slower than usual, stubborn coals instead of a rousing blaze. She will have everything you did not, he tells himself, and it is not fair.

“I won’t keep you, then,” Jiang Yanli says, and the scarred maidservant takes the baby from his arms. He does not resist, does not protest, does not miss the soft weight of an infant in his arms, the sweet baby smell. He does not. This is not something that has been offered to him before: he cannot count on it. He will not rely on something so uncertain as trust, as family feeling, as the warmth of a defenseless child.

But Madam Jin does not go to Lotus Pier for diplomatic negotiations as planned. She appears to have heard of his interaction with Jiang Yanli and the twins and to have taken offense. Over the next weeks, Jin Guangyao does not see his nieces or nephew except in passing. Koi Tower is a large place, and Jin Guangyao’s rooms are at the far end of the family pavilions from his brother and sister-in-law’s suite. The placement is an obvious reminder of his status, his position, the disrespect with which his father regards him even as he works his bastard son to the bone.

Jin Guangyao redoubles his efforts on behalf of the sect while Jin Zixuan learns to be Chief Cultivator, and bides his time. He is not yet trusted; there are still too many whispers. He dares not act openly. He plays music, alternating the true tune with the altered one, and takes a grim, dark satisfaction in his father’s deterioration.

Jin Guangshan retreats to his sickbed more and more over the following year, attended by only the most trusted servants, his wife and heir, and Jin Guangyao himself. The doctor’s mercury treatments may be curing his disease. They may be killing him. They may be sending him mad. Jin Guangyao takes no chances: he allows his father fewer and fewer days clear of mind, less and less time free of qi unbalances. Recovery is not an acceptable outcome.

When his father dies, raving and spittle-flecked, he is tied to his bed frame with fine silken ropes to prevent self-harm. Jin Guangyao feels only a cold satisfaction in a job well-done when a servant coincidentally new to the household witnesses the appalling state of the Sect Leader’s corpse. The servant will gossip and be dismissed, cementing Jin Guangyao’s power over the household staff.

Then Zixuan, the man who will become Chief Cultivator in their father's stead, turns to him for words of comfort, and that demonstration of implicit trust is the headiest drug Jin Guangyao has felt in years.

 

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The birth of a fourth child is always watched carefully for ill omens. Jin Guangyao was prepared to have to manage his plans around rumors of bad fortune; he was not prepared for Jiang Yanli to be forced to bed rest only four unlucky months into her pregnancy. He was most certainly not prepared for how hard Jin Zixuan would take his wife’s ill health, how many responsibilities he would cede to his seneschal. The responsibilities of a sect leader are varied, and many take one’s full attention. And Jin Guangyao has apparently succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, because his brother hands him the various seals and tokens of authority without pause or hesitation.

Jin Guangyao moves to accelerate his schemes where possible. Jin Zixuan’s reputation is such that if Jin Zixuan trusts him so implicitly, acting under his aegis will build public faith in Jin Guangyao’s judgment. Jin Guangyao holds audiences and looks downwards when he lies poorly about his brother’s state of mind. He delays giving answers he knows and gradually, subtly creates an impression of his brother as a man drawn to the edge of his ability, relying on his seneschal nearly as much as he actually does.

“I must consult my honored sect leader,” he says sometimes, creating delays where there need be none, looking down and away. “I’m sure you understand, he is a very busy man.”

The implication that anything might be more important than sect business is a thin line to walk: the people adore Jiang Yanli and see Jin Zixuan’s care for her in a positive light. Jin Guangyao never speaks against his brother’s distress overtly. He is supportive, he is calm. He is a port in a storm, and only barely hints at his own overwork. Isn’t it a pity his brother is so distressed and distracted. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he could bring such an issue to his sect leader’s attention without disturbing him. He is sure the petitioners understand, they are such compassionate men.

And so Jin Guangyao brings the smaller sect leaders further under his wing, nurturing their faith in his goodwill. He thankfully does not have to deal with the representatives of the major sects until the Cultivation Seminar in six months time. After the first week of Lady Jiang’s bed rest, he stops squashing rumors of the unborn infant being ill luck: it looks increasingly likely that he will need a scapegoat for Jiang Yanli’s ill health. After four weeks, he tacitly encourages the fear that has begun to poison the household from within. Jiang Yanli is on her deathbed, some begin to say. No, Jiang Yanli is a fierce corpse, animated by the Yiling Patriarch for long enough to birth a hoped-for second male heir in repayment of his debts. No, Jiang Yanli is dead, and Sect Leader Jin has gone mad like his father before him. The infant is a fierce corpse, draining its mother’s qi in an attempt to be born, yet another evil, vengeful curse by the Yiling Patriarch against the family that took him in so generously.

Jin Guangyao is particularly proud of the last one, which he expected to fail. Animosity toward the Yiling Patriarch is stronger than he had hoped, even though Wei Wuxian has by all accounts been a model prisoner in the Unclean Realm. Through it all, Madam Jin watches him like a bird of prey, and Jin Guangyao gives her his best subservient smiles, holds his shoulders just a little too rounded, bows a little too deeply, as he always has with her. She is a deeply accomplished woman, and the more dangerous for how many overlook her skills and determination. But Jin Guangyao grew up in a brothel among women whose survival depended on their craft in ways these wealthy cultivators would never understand. Madam Jin may not trust him, but she has not yet realized what he is capable of.

Sometimes, in the dark of night, he thinks of what it would be like to tell her, to reveal himself. Would she regret her husband’s death, he wonders, or regret only that he allowed her no hand in it? Madam Jin is a strong woman, by his standards, but not a flexible one. He thinks she would break, in the end. It is an idle dream. He cannot kill her to keep her silence, and so he cannot tell her. But he lays the plans nonetheless, because all options must be considered, and because it is a small enjoyment, imagining her face as she learns the truth.

Finally, six weeks before the earliest auspicious date, the infant comes into the world. Jin Guangyao is mediating a petty land dispute, the kind of small task that Jin Guangshan despised, and at which his bastard son excels. He has gained no little trust this way. He even encourages rumors among the people of Lanling that he understands the common people, so long as they do not mention his mother. No one is permitted to mention his mother. If he cannot find her, or news of her, cannot at the very least locate her body for burial, he will at least protect her reputation from harm.

The household buzzes, but none of his staff approach, and Jin Guangyao concludes the audience without incident. He does not find out that Jiang Yanli has delivered a son until the announcement is made formally a full day later; he has to rely on gossip to learn that it was a footling breech, a long and difficult labor, and that she nearly died. Madam Jin does not bother to inform him directly, and Zixuan is too distracted.

He is called to his brother’s rooms the next day, to the private antechamber. There are layers of privacy screens set up, and the air smells stale, of sweat and pain and fear, and even, very faintly, of blood. There is a wet nurse sitting in the corner with an infant in her arms, and Madam Jin beside her son at his desk, where Lady Jiang ought to sit. This is a formal meeting, then, for all that it is happening in his brother’s private suite.

“Sect Leader Jin,” Jin Guangyao says, and bows exactly deeply enough to suit his needs. “Madam Jin,” and he bows to her as well. He looks back at his brother. “Congratulations to you and Lady Jiang on the birth of your son.”

Zixuan has circles under his eyes. Madam Jin looks visibly pinched. Jin Guangyao raises his estimate of how much danger Lady Jiang has faced, how much she still, perhaps, is facing.

“A-Yao,” his brother says, and it is a gift to hear such implicit trust from someone so powerful. Jin Guangyao allows a small smile that his brother will think is motivated by relief for the baby, rather than satisfaction at a plan progressing apace. “Yanli is —” he pauses and swallows, and looks suddenly, devastatingly young. “She is very ill,” he says, after spending a moment visibly collecting himself. “I know you are so busy,” Zixuan says. “But there is no one we trust more. Yanli was so involved with the children, and the nurse is —” he pauses.

“She’s run off with her young man,” Madam Jin snaps. “Ungrateful wretch.”

From what Jin Guangyao has heard, the nurse, a woman in her late twenties with no aspirations of marriage at all, had suffered Madam Jin’s hands-on management of the nursery and sharp tongue for these last months, twice as long as anyone might be expected to, and finally left to work for a merchant family with six children under the age of ten, and for less pay. He supposes the version Madam Jin presents is more palatable to the Jin and saves them face.

“I will of course conduct interviews—” Jin Guangyao begins, and Zixuan shakes his head.

“Yanli will do that,” he says, and Madam Jin’s face makes an aborted flinch.

Jin Guangyao realizes that she does not think Jiang Yanli will survive. She is convinced her daughter-in-law is on her deathbed. She has almost certainly told her son the same: she is not a woman to mince her words. Perhaps the famous and perfectly mediocre doctors of Lanling Jin have said so as well. Zixuan is not a man looking for temporary aid; he is one in denial of his incipient grief.

Jin Guangyao runs calculations swiftly, riffles through plans, looking down at his hands so they will not see his eyes shifting left and right as he cues his memory with the smallest gestures he can manage. His most immediate plans will not survive the tragic death of Jiang Yanli and the rallying of support around Zixuan and his several heirs, not at this stage, not if she has survived childbirth. He must be seen to exert extraordinary efforts to save her. That those efforts may well be successful is acceptable. If she lives, he will be credited with assisting in her recovery. If she dies, he will have done everything in the sect’s power, and will be seen to grieve as appropriately as custom demands.

“I will send a paper butterfly to the Cloud Recesses,” he says. “Lady Wen is reputed to be the best doctor in the world. If I ask it of my sworn brother, Zewu-Jun, he will send cultivators with her, to speed her flight. She might be here within the day. I will have rooms prepared.”

The cultivators will be guards, Jin Guangyao knows, to protect Wen Qing from retribution at the hands of any disgruntled Jin survivors. They will also be jailers, to prevent her escape, though he suspects her brother’s being held hostage is more effective a form of chain than anything the entire rest of the cultivation world might accomplish. Her care for Wen Ning has so easily and so often been used as a shackle. He cannot imagine allowing himself to care so much for anyone, that they might be used as a knife to his heart.

Jin Zixuan’s face crumples in something like relief; Madam Jin’s expression of surprise flickers so quickly another man might have missed it.

“Thank you,” Zixuan says. “In the meantime, if you might —”

The door slides open, and Jin Ling runs in.

“Papa,” he says, and stops and bows very, very awkwardly. Jin Guangyao wonders who has been in charge of teaching this child manners. Jin Ling will be a sect leader someday, if he survives childhood accidents. Even as a puppet sect leader, as his uncle's pawn, perhaps especially as a puppet, the gestures of courtesy must be in his blood, in his bones. The muscle memory may be too late to ingrain fully, even now.

“A-Ling,” Zixuan starts, and Jin Ling ignores him, clearly spoiled and accustomed to getting his own way. He climbs into his grandmother’s lap, disarranging her robes in the process, and Madam Jin softens almost imperceptibly.

Jin Guangyao sees that the children are a weak spot for her. He adds that to his list of her weaknesses, which is alarmingly short. Madam Jin is a difficult woman to read, and she avoids him more often than their respective roles in running the household and the day to day life of Koi Tower might suggest. She delegates far more than he does, finding hands-on involvement beneath her dignity.

“You see the difficulty,” she says, as a servant bows silently at the door. “Zixuan, we need a temporary nurse. Let Guangyao hire someone for the interim. Let Lady Luo handle it.”

Zixuan looks at her, and takes a deep breath.

“I have another idea,” he says. “A-Yao, would you coordinate their care yourself? I can take more meetings for the sect,” he says. “And if you bring me paperwork, I can do it at A-Li's sickbed.” He sounds almost desperate. He was working to capacity as the newly appointed Chief Cultivator already, and there have been stirrings in Yiling of late, and rumors of unrest in Lanling.

The hungry part of Jin Guangyao stretches, relishes his brother’s fear, his obvious need. Yes, it says. You, too, should know what it feels like to be so helpless. Jin Guangyao smiles gently.

He cannot understand why Madam Jin is not objecting more strenuously: surely she would prefer to watch over the children herself? But she was never involved with the nursery until Jiang Yanli's illness, seeming glad to let Jiang Yanli run it as she saw fit. He has heard faint rumors that she finds Young Madam Jin's involvement with the infants unbecoming, a sign of how classless the Jiang sect really is. Madam Jin is always concerned with her own status, her own reputation. Perhaps it is because she was born to a minor sect. Perhaps it is only a reaction to the things she could control in face of her late husband's behavior. Jiang Yanli, in her unconcern over gossip, is a far truer daughter of the major gentry.

“A-Ling,” Zixuan says, leaning over, and taking his son’s hand. “This is your shushu, Jin Guangyao. How do you feel about him taking care of you and A-Qing and A-Xue for a little while, like we talked about?”

Jin Ling looks across the table with a very serious expression on his face. He looks almost like his uncle, Sect Leader Jiang, in that moment. Little Jin Ling looks at Jin Guangyao, and frowns, deep in thought.

“Shushu,” he says, as if trying it out. “Yao-shushu?” Jin Guangyao’s heart does not tighten in his chest at the form of address he has been so long denied. That would be absurd, and utterly useless.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Madam Jin snaps, tightening her arm around her grandson’s chest as if to haul him away by force. “I will conduct interviews. Your seneschal,” she spits the title, avoiding Jin Guangyao's name as she so often does, “has other things to do. He wouldn’t know the first thing about —“

It is the last phrase that is her undoing. Jin Guangyao has never taken being underestimated well, in any area of competence, no matter how obscure. Besides, he grew up in a brothel: he knew how to change diapers before he was old enough to be allowed to use the pins to hold the cloth in place. He helped the few older children look after the younger while their mothers worked. Three children are not so difficult. Even if they are difficult, they will not be beyond him. He will not allow them to be, to spite her.

“Sect Leader Jin,” Jin Guangyao says, and bows formally. “I would be honored.”

“Well,” Madam Jin says, and her eyes spark fire, the challenge set. “You won’t need to hire a temporary nurse in that case.”

Jiang Yanli, her maidservant, and the head nurse have run the children's lives with help from lower servants in issues of dress, food, and cleaning. Madam Jin's reaction is a threat, in some ways. It is an avenue of assistance cut off before he can consider all of his options. It is a gauntlet thrown, and Jin Guangyao has always been bad at resisting a challenge to his abilities. He is only one man, to fill the roles of three people, but the children have been well enough behaved, when he has seen them, if somewhat spoiled.  

“Of course not,” he says. Then he twists the knife. “I would not deny the children their shushu’s full attention.”

He holds out a hand to Jin Ling, who looks to his father, then takes it without hesitation. This child is far too trusting, Jin Guangyao thinks, and leads him from the room, down long halls he has not seen in years, toward the nursery and the twins.

 

<hr>

 

The children are exhausting. Madam Jin does not dare strip the nursery of the lower staff, but Jiang Yanli, her maidservant, and the nurse must have been goddesses, and their absence distresses the children. On top of that, Jin Guangyao is only one man, and one with other duties besides. Zixuan is capable of fewer audiences than he had planned, and does not have the attention for detailed paperwork. After the first day’s paperwork for Chief Cultivator matters is revealed to be an utter mess, Jin Guangyao takes to waking a shichen before dawn to sort forms, letters, and scrolls into three piles. There are the ones Zixuan’s distraction will not harm, the ones his inattention can be allowed to do wrong, and the ones Jin Guangyao must see to himself. The third pile is too large to complete before the children wake, so after a few days, Jin Guangyao creates a fourth pile, of items the staff can be permitted to see him working on, and brings a desk to the nursery.

There is still a wet nurse seeing to A-Hua, so for the first couple of days Jin Guangyao focuses on the older children, supervising their table manners with subtle criticisms masked in praise. They are initially calm in his presence, and for the first two days he thinks he may have judged correctly. A-Ling is easily manipulated, he comes to see, and eager to please the adults in his life. A-Qing is endlessly curious about people. A-Xue is endlessly interested in the natural world.

That ends up having been a false hope: as soon as the children realize he is there to stay, their behavior changes. Both of the twins are utterly fearless, it appears, and A-Ling has spent the better part of the morning sulking about his breakfast being prepared wrong instead of playing with his sisters. He takes them into the lotus garden in hopes of breaking the bad mood that makes him want to snap at the children, and A-Xue nearly drowns reaching for a frog when Jin Guangyao looks away to answer a junior sect minister’s question about minor sect politics.

Clearly, he thinks, holding a sopping child in golden robes, this is going to be more work than he expected. The children in the brothel knew to be quiet and obedient. They knew that being noticed was dangerous, even if they did not always understand why. At five and three, the children Meng Yao looked after had been subdued, easily cowed. His nephew and nieces, now that they are coming out of their shells, are nothing like those children at all. They are exhausting.

On the fifth day, Jin Guangyao sleeps a scant four hours, lights a lamp, accomplishes his paperwork, then supervises breakfast and takes the children to the kennels to tire them out. Sooner than Jin Guangyao would have thought possible, A-Xue is covered in mud and A-Ling is worried about them losing face from the mess. Jin Guangyao tacitly encourages this by allowing them to return to the nursery much earlier than planned. If A-Ling grows up as conceited as his father, it will be harder for him to make close friends and isolating his nephew socially will make him easier to control.

When they walk into the main room A-Hua is wailing in a basket, fists tangled in a loose swathe of cloth. The wet nurse is nowhere to be seen. Jin Guangyao looks between his filthy, muddy niece and his squalling newborn nephew and keeps a pleasant smile on his face through sheer force of will.

“A-Xue,” he says, bending to pick up A-Hua and unwind him from a length of fabric that might well have stifled or choked him. He checks automatically to see — yes, A-Hua is wet. “No, wait,” he says, correcting himself. “A-Ling, get clean robes for your sister, please, and a new diaper for your brother. They’re in the wardrobe. A-Qing, if you help your sister with her outer robes and prevent tracking in mud, I will answer two questions.”

A-Qing looks at him, looking old and canny for her age.

“Three questions,” she says, bargaining poorly but determinedly. She should have asked for five, to negotiate down to three. He is momentarily tempted to tell her this, in a way he is rarely tempted to teach anyone how to bargain better. Any poor bargainer is an advantage for him, after all. These children have all the advantages he did not: they need no help from the likes of him.

“Two,” he says, and she frowns. “One may be a ‘why’ question,” he offers, because A-Hua is wailing next to his ear, and he needs to wash both him and A-Xue before anyone comes in and sees the children in such obvious disarray. The children he grew up with were usually grubby at the end of the day, but the Jin sect heirs are impeccably dressed each morning and re-dressed by a servant each evening to visit their father and grandmother. In between, they are capable of shocking amounts of mess, and the unthinking near-daily destruction of robes that would feed a laborer’s family for half a week.

“All right,” A-Qing concedes, and the twins manage to untie A-Xue's wet and muddy robes with stubborn determination that Jin Guangyao definitely does not find adorable.

A-Ling returns with new robes for his sister, and Jin Guangyao has him place them next to the child-sized tub, then sends him to sit in the next room.

“I will teach you a new way to bow if you sit quietly and write your numbers until we come back,” he says. “Surely a future sect leader like A-Ling wants to have more beautiful calligraphy and manners.”

A-Ling flushes, because his handwriting is abysmal and he is ashamed of it, and rushes to go to his little desk without another word. The child is so easily led, just like his father. Jin Guangyao smiles privately and herds the other children to a rudimentary washing up. A-Hua has a diaper rash severe enough that it is clear he has not been adequately looked after for more than just a single day. He is tiny and fragile in Jin Guangyao’s hands, alarmingly small and floppy, even for a premature infant of his age. His wailing is less robust than might be expected. The nurse has been shirking, at best: it is likely that she has been actively harmful to the baby, perhaps motivated by the rumors Jin Guangyao himself allowed to flourish.

Jin Guangyao had initially contemplated allowing A-Hua to die. The death of his second son might go a long way towards breaking Zixuan. But he cannot allow it to happen due to negligence under his care. He will not give Madam Jin the satisfaction of his failure, and so A-Hua must live, at least a few more months.

The diaper rash is angry and sore. Jin Guangyao soothes him as best he can, commenting on how much it must hurt, how uncomfortable he must be, how shameful his nurse’s behavior has been, all in a low voice he knows the girls will overhear. Then he swaddles A-Hua in cloth softer and finer than any he had ever touched until he arrived in Lanling Jin, and holds him close while he supervises the girls’ bath to mitigate splashing. It is almost certainly improper for him to do this, but the staffing of the nursery has become a war zone between himself and Madam Jin, and he is unwilling to negotiate a servant’s help and spend influence for something so trivial. At the brothel he would have helped wash and dry the younger children as a matter of course; here he does not touch them.

When they emerge into the main room, the girls’ robes are not tied quite properly, but well enough for their afternoon nap. A-Ling has written two pages of shaky numbers and is sitting with posture that is almost, but not quite adequate.

“Shoulders,” Jin Guangyao says, and A-Ling adjusts very slightly, and in absolutely the wrong direction. Jin Guangyao sighs very slightly, and smiles internally as A-Ling flushes and adjusts his posture again. So easily manipulated, he thinks. “Acceptable,” he allows, and A-Ling nods and gets to his feet.

Jin Guangyao pats A-Hua’s back and reviews the household staff roster in his mind while the girls choose toys and coax their brother into an incomprehensible game that A-Xue narrates for them. The current wet nurse will have to be fired for gross negligence. The children can be relied upon to comment if asked (frankly, they will probably comment even if no one asks: these children are nearly inconceivably talkative and trusting around servants). Finding another may be a challenge, but he can send to the pleasure district if need be and purchase the freedom of a woman who is nursing.

It occurs to him again, like prodding a bruise, that there is no longer anyone to prevent him purchasing his mother’s freedom. If only he could find her — which he still cannot. He thought he had made his peace with this lack of information, but it strikes him again, a knife to his back, a breath-stealing blow to his sternum. A-Hua grumbles, then sobs, and Jin Guangyao realizes he has tightened his grip on the infant, has lost control of himself. The children look up, and he smiles at them, adjusting his hold on A-Hua, whose neck is far too limp for a healthy infant even of his age.

Later, he tells himself, pushing the question of his mother’s freedom away. You will solve that problem later.

But it flutters in the back of his mind for the remainder of the day, impossible to fully ignore even when the children are finally, finally all napping. He puts A-Hua in a cradle and sets himself to the paperwork that the household staff may be allowed to see him working on.

The plans for a replacement wet nurse are set in motion first: he will allow a lower member of the household to do an initial screening. The current wet nurse is to be let go immediately for her failure to care for A-Hua properly. She will be ushered out of the household without notice or any recommendation to future employers. It is intentionally harsh. She may find another post. She may starve. Either is acceptable, so long as his defense of the children is seen to be absolute and unswerving. He will not dignify her dismissal with any more of his time. A paper butterfly suffices to tell the head of the household staff what is to be done and why. That settled, Jin Guangyao pulls a folder and scrolls from his qiankun pouch and settles into taking care of business that he cannot trust his brother to complete competently or with full attention to detail.

The upcoming Cultivation Conference is far too soon, and as complicated as ever to plan. Jin Guangyao is currently looking at seating charts. Jiang will have pride of place for the marriage alliance, of course, Nie and Lan will be seated immediately below Jiang as befits the alliance marked by their sworn brotherhood. It might be preferable to place Jiang next to Lan, given their roles in the war and their sects’ comparative weakness. Both are rebuilding after the Wen attacks. Balancing Nie’s strength against Lan and Jiang would be ideal. But that is patently impossible, because Lan Wangji will be attending the conference this year.

Jin Guangyao, frustratingly, does not know exactly what the origin of the deep and abiding ill will between Sandu Sengshou and Hanguang-Jun is. They searched for Wei Wuxian together for months while he was in Qishan, and the rumors he heard told of a terrifying unified front between the two men. But what little he knows will be enough to arrange seating to prevent major inter-Sect disputes over banquets. Xichen, ever trusting, tells Jin Guangyao enough to know there is ill will, but guards his brother's secrets more avidly than his own. And for all Jin Guangyao's spies in the lower ranks of the Jiang disciples, their loyalty to Jiang Wanyin appears to be more solid than mere fear might account for.

Tapping his finger on the desk, Jin Guangyao decides that Sect Leader Yao will go next to Lan and across from Nie, because Xichen will tolerate his yammering and that will give Sect Leader Yao a false sense of prestige and certainty. Ouyang will sit below Nie, to cow him whenever either Nie Mingjue or Jiang Wanyin glares. Jiang Wanyin glares very often when Lan Wangji is in sight. Sect Leader Ouyang has an intolerably moral heart, but a rewardingly weak spine. He will succumb to pressure if Sect Leader Yao is loud enough and Jiang Wanyin and Chifeng-Zun so nearby.

The other smaller sects are slightly more complex, with marital ties and minor feuds to consider, but Jin Guangyao has it most of the way sorted out by the time Jin Ling stumbles back into the room, hair mussed and robes askew, scrubbing at his eyes with chubby fists. It is not adorable. It is not.

Jin Guangyao sighs audibly, shuffles the papers just enough to show that he is very definitely being disturbed, then sets them aside with a magnanimous smile.

“Let me,” he says, and gestures his nephew over, straightening his robes with deft hands, patting the boy’s hair back into place with the ease of practice, of childhood observation. “You can’t be so untidy, A-Ling,” he chides, keeping his voice gentle, caring, knowing that soft words can strike as deep as harsh ones, that they are all the more difficult to shrug off. “What will people think, mm?”

Jin Ling looks down and mumbles something incoherent.

“Don’t mumble,” Jin Guangyao tells him, but before Jin Ling can reply, the girls tumble out of their room arguing and wake A-Hua, who begins sobbing, small and miserable. There is the sound of footsteps in the corridor. He has time to sweep the papers into a neat stack and lift A-Hua into his arms before a servant appears carrying a tray. There is a bowl of goat’s milk alongside the children’s meals. Jin Guangyao sees no adult portion for the meal.

“Thank you,” he says, and nods his gratitude.

The servant, a pretty girl whose demeanor indicates she would prefer to do anything in the world rather than receive the attention of a Jin man ever again, bows deeply, sets the tray down in silence, and leaves. Her steps are slightly uneven, louder than they should be; he suspects she has an old leg injury. He will have to learn how she obtained it. She will likely be afraid of its cause, and fear is always leverage.

The children tidy up, sit down properly, and Jin Guangyao readies himself to feed A-Hua while Jin Ling and A-Xue eat. A-Qing watches him carefully as he checks the temperature of the milk, drapes a cloth over his shoulder, and settles the baby in the crook of his arm while he soaks the corner of a soft cloth in the bowl.

“You’re careful,” she says, with a sharp nod. It seems she’s come to a decision.

Then she goes back to her meal, dividing the food with unnerving precision and dexterity for a child as young as she is. He very strongly suspects she will be the strongest cultivator of the three of them. She has the will to form a golden core a dozen times over.

A-Hua latches onto the cloth with something very much like desperation, suckling with little gasping sounds, and Jin Ling looks up at the noise, little face creased in concern.

“He’s just hungry,” Jin Guangyao tells him, and dips the cloth again. It is a tedious, drippy process, and the other children have long since finished their meals and been excused to play quietly before A-Hua refuses to open his mouth. He has not eaten enough to sustain him for long, but Jin Guangyao will try again later. He cannot leave the children unsupervised overnight without the wet nurse.

He calls a servant in to oversee the children’s evening routine and sends a second servant for a meal for himself and another bowl of goat’s milk. Then he swiftly carries A-Hua to his own rooms, where he changes into simpler robes and picks up more publicly visible paperwork, places a few other scrolls in a qiankun bag where they will not be disturbed, and mentally moves game pieces across the never-ending board of his plans. He will need to postpone certain actions until his victory with the children has been secured. He sits and writes several letters, seals one with his personal seal and two with the seal of the Jin Sect Leader, and seals the fourth only with an unmarked blob of wax infused with spiritual energy.

A-Hua fusses from his position on the bed, wedged between two bolsters. Jin Guangyao places the letters where they will be picked up and sent, adjusts his hat on his head, ties the qiankun bags to his sash, and bends to pick the baby up again. The dangling straps of his hat bang into the baby's face, and he starts to cry, moving a weak hand to bat at the beads.

“Aiya, A-Hua,” Jin Guangyao, and disentangles the baby’s skinny fingers. A-Hua gestures at it again, and Jin Guangyao sighs and removes the hat, placing it on his desk. If A-Hua is focused on it, he won’t eat, and survival trumps proper dress, at least for now. His hair is too plain: he sets A-Hua back between the bolsters and braids his hair back, hands moving automatically into a secure weave on which he can sleep. He carefully does not think about who taught him those braids, or why: there is no benefit in dwelling on such things, when they are in the past. Then he picks up A-Hua and heads into the hall, where a young male clerk does a visible double-take before bowing low.

Jin Guangyao must look absurd, dressed in the plainest robes he still owns, carrying several qiankun bags and a tiny grizzling infant. He pointedly ignores the clerk and returns to the nursery, where the children are already a mess after their visit to their parents, and appear to be protesting a servant's attempts at bedtime.

“Thank you for your efforts,” Jin Guangyao says, and smiles in a way that conveys how little he minds her incompetence, really. The woman flees.

“Shushu,” A-Ling says. “Your hat is gone!”

“Was that polite?” Jin Guangyao counters, because A-Ling still says whatever comes into his head, and he must be trained out of that lest he embarrass the sect in public. “Or was it a personal observation?”

A-Qing and A-Xue look up from a muttered conversation over blocks. Jin Guangyao still is unsure whether they have their own private language or whether they just speak too swiftly and with too many words omitted for it to be comprehensible. It might be a formidable tool in the future, if they keep it up, so he disapproves of it as hard as he can. Unlike A-Ling, A-Qing and A-Xue are surely independent enough for that to be a better incentive than any praise he might deliver. 

“No hat!” A-Xue says, and bounces to her feet.

“No hat,” Jin Guangyao agrees, giving up on that lesson. “A-Hua didn't like it.”

There is a tray on the table, a simple servants’ meal and a bowl of goat’s milk with another cloth next to it. Undoubtedly there will be an apology for the ‘mistaken’ food. He will be told the kitchens expected to be feeding the nurse, not the young master. Jin Guangyao is certain it is intentional. He is equally certain no one here knows that he likes the simpler fare equally as well as the Jin’s elaborate dishes, and sometimes better.

He kneels beside the table, and adjusts A-Hua in his arms.

“I am going to feed A-Hua again,” he explains. “If you get ready for bed on your own, I will answer two questions each before you go to sleep.”

Jin Guangyao starts feeding A-Hua while the kids run off. They manage their sleeping clothes with minimal fuss, for which he is grateful, and then cluster at the table.

A-Qing has managed to bargain with her siblings to get one of each of their questions, and asks what will happen to the old nurse, where they will find a new nurse, how she will be chosen, and then demands information on the kennels. A-Xue wants to know everything about slugs. A-Ling, who waits until last, asks only: Will A-Hua be all right?

Jin Guangyao, who has been wondering that himself, watching A-Hua suckle more and more feebly, nods.

“We’ll do our best,” he says.

A-Hua hiccups, so Jin Guangyao burps him instinctively, remembering too late that he didn’t put a cloth over his shoulder. Well. His robes are plain, and it will wash out.

A-Qing is watching him with the odd gravity she displays sometimes, and he looks back at her, wondering what she sees, what she has been told about him, what she remembers. He has so little sense memory of being the childrens’ age beyond the knowledge that he had to behave, to be quiet, to be obedient and not attract notice. Their boldness is sometimes almost unnerving.

“Sleep,” he says to all of them. A-Ling obeys immediately. It only takes a small glare for the twins to retreat into their room. If previous nights’ reports are any indication, they will not sleep immediately. He is unwilling to deal with that tonight.

Once he has changed A-Hua and settled him in a cradle, Jin Guangyao sends a paper butterfly for his secretary and retreats into the paperwork he brought with him. The man appears flustered when he arrives, and visibly does a double-take at Jin Guangyao’s appearance. He will never be a capable liar: it makes him a very unlikely choice for a successful, knowing, conspirator.

“Yes, I know,” Jin Guangyao says, tone dry, as if inviting Li Maozhen into a private joke. “I trust you see now why finding a replacement wet nurse is urgent.”

Li Maozhen nods, and pulls out a list to read from: his memory is poor, but he keeps impeccable notes.

“I cannot interview any of them alone,” he finishes. “It would be improper.”

Jin Guangyao nods. He has already thought of that.

“Take Lady Luo,” he says. “Tell her it is for the good of the sect leader’s children, and she will cooperate gladly.”

Luo Qingyang’s loyalty to Jin Zixuan since her return to the sect is inexplicable but unwavering. She clearly dislikes Jin Guangyao, just as clearly worries about Wei Wuxian’s wellbeing in Qinghe, and has become fast friends with Jiang Yanli. Taking her from her lady’s deathbed will be unkind, but she is a keen judge of character and unswervingly faithful. She will not choose a nurse who might neglect A-Hua, even by mistake.

Li Maozhen nods, and Jin Guangyao hands him several scrolls and a pile of paperwork for Jin Zixuan.

“Bring these to him in the morning,” he orders. “And bring the wet nurse tomorrow, without fail. She may bring her own child with her, if she insists.”

It is a concession many gentry families do not make, and one that Madam Jin will resent. Jin Guangyao feels a tiny frisson of pleasure imagining her discontent.

Li Maozhen leaves in a flurry of embroidered robes, and Jin Guangyao finds himself distracted yet again by thoughts of the wider world. But he cannot leave the children, and he has no spies he trusts enough to send after rumors of his mother. He takes a breath and begins to meditate to center himself. He cannot accomplish anything else on that front tonight, and he needs a clear mind for the sect’s more delicate paperwork.

He manages several hours of oft-interrupted sleep, as A-Hua wakes and sleeps and wakes again. His secretary brings the morning’s unsorted scrolls to him in the nursery without being asked, and Jin Guangyao triages the pile ruthlessly, sending several extra items to Jin Zixuan. Zixuan will almost certainly make mistakes, but they will have only short-term impact. Jin Guangyao has finalized seating charts and meal planning for the Cultivation Conference and sent his secretary away before the children wake. When a servant arrives to supervise their morning baths, clothing, and meal, Jin Guangyao instructs her to feed A-Hua and escapes to his own rooms to dress more appropriately. A look in a mirror reveals that his hair is still braided elaborately in a style more appropriate for Qinghe than Lanling. He quirks a bitter half-smile, puts on his hat to conceal it, and returns to the children.

The wet nurse arrives with Lady Luo in the midafternoon. She is a quiet, stout woman with a fat baby of her own, dressed in fine, slightly-ill-fitting servant's robes, and bows to Jin Guangyao only somewhat awkwardly.

“Lianfang-Zun,” she says. “This one is honored to be able to be of service to the Jin Sect.”

The appropriate formalities roll off his lips in response with little conscious thought. A-Qing watches avidly, and A-Ling keeps A-Xue from wandering off. A-Hua wakes and hiccups, and the woman startles and reaches out for him, cutting the gesture off with a look for permission.

Jin Guangyao nods assent, and she all but flies to the crib.

“Oh, you poor dear thing,” she says, and sets her baby down to pick up A-Hua with gentle, deft hands.

Li Maozhen chokes when she begins pulling her robes aside, right there before them all, and Jin Guangyao shoots him and Lady Luo a look. Had they not explained gentry expectations properly? But the woman — Zhai Hui — pauses and cradles A-Hua to her half-exposed chest, then turns aside to sit behind a screen, cooing at him the whole time, little nonsense words in an unfailingly gentle tone.

“Thank you,” he says to the two of them. He allows relief to tinge his tone just a bit more than might be proper or expected.

Lady Luo gives him an appraising look, then nods and leaves. His secretary takes the completed papers, a distressingly small stack, and also leaves. Jin Guangyao watches the nurse's demeanor for a few moments, then takes the older children into the garden to run in circles and chase each other. Despite all existing evidence to the contrary, he still has hope that he will be able to figure out what patterns of exercise and sleep mean they will be tired, but not too tired, when he delivers them to the servant who will take them to their father and grandmother each evening. Tonight they are too excited when he sends them to an attendant to be washed and dressed.

The wet nurse sends him a strange look when he settles to his desk and eats absently while forging his way through the paperwork that keeps piling up. The seating plans may be set, but the Cultivation Conference will not plan itself, and Jin Guangyao will not allow the first conference they have hosted since his father’s death to be less than perfect.

Some time later, the children are bundled into the room by a servant who instructs the wet nurse in the details of the children’s clothing.

“Questions,” A-Qing demands, and settles before his desk. “Yao-shushu, question time?”

“Were you good for your a-die and nainai?” He asks. She nods, and A-Xue nods, and A-Ling beams.

“Nainai said we sit well,” he announces. He looks immeasurably proud of himself, and Jin Guangyao allows his smile to warm slightly.

“Very well,” he says. “One each.”

A-Xue wants to know more about the lifecycle of frogs, and Jin Guangyao has never been so glad for the sharpness of his mind as he is now, because it means he is able to pull up old books that would surely have faded from anyone else’s memory. A-Qing asks how one becomes a doctor, which is easy enough to turn to a focus on studiousness and good behavior. A-Ling asks if he can have a puppy.

“Your parents will decide,” Jin Guangyao says. “No, don’t ask your father tomorrow. We can visit the kennels again soon.”

Through it all Zhai Hui rocks A-Hua, who is still fractious, sobbing quietly in her arms as he has been all evening long.

Jin Guangyao sends them all to bed with a wave of his arm. They scamper off, and he watches them go before blinking to clear his mind, and looking back down at the papers. The dietary requirements and preferences of each clan are complex, but not impossible to manage. He needs only a little focus. He would have finished this long since, if only he were not so tired.

“You are good with them,” Zhai Hui says. Her tone is carefully devoid of judgment, but he can hear the suppressed question.

“They are good children,” he says, and allows his smile to frost over slightly, going chill and very subtly threatening.

“They are,” she agrees. “But that wasn’t what I said.” She looks at his papers, spread across the nursery’s makeshift desk, and shakes her head. “I’m putting A-Hua down. I won’t tell you to sleep, Lianfang-Zun,” she continues, in a tone that makes it very clear that is exactly what she is doing. “But I’m sure your own desk is better situated for such tasks, and I do know how to watch a nursery overnight.”

She walks out and Jin Guangyao watches her go, feeling vaguely impressed with her daring despite himself.

Over the next three weeks it becomes clear that Zhai Hui was well hired. A-Hua begins to almost thrive under her care, four weeks old, and still two weeks early. Still, one woman cannot be expected to manage a colicky, frail infant and three gentry children alone, and Madam Jin has made it clear that if Jin Guangyao intends to care for the children, he can either admit defeat by hiring aid, or he can continue to juggle his other duties. Surely it can wait until her daughter-in-law recovers, she says, the one time it comes up. Jiang Yanli’s recovery looks more and more certain, now that she is under Wen Qing's care, which at least puts Madam Jin, Jin Zixuan, and Jiang Yanli in Jin Guangyao’s debt. As Yanli recovers, her silent handmaiden begins to come to the nursery from time to time.

The children are finally taken in to see their mother one afternoon late that week and Jin Guangyao finds himself answering three questions each that evening, because they all look so sad and worried. Distraction seems the only way to prevent A-Qing and A-Xue from crying themselves to sleep, as they have done too often recently. It is only rational to prevent such displays of sadness, Jin Guangyao tells himself. They are always fractious the next day after such nights.

That evening Jin Guangyao leaves the nursery suite after fending off another request for a puppy and seemingly unending questions about lotus ponds and how to eat lotus pods. In his rooms, he removes the Jin mark from his forehead, dresses in his plainest robes, and lets himself out of Koi Tower through the servants’ halls. All of these things he has done before, since before his father's death, and more often in the years since. His trip to his city spymaster for news from the pleasure district in Yunping is short. His questions find no more answer than they have on the last trip, or the ones before. Either everyone here is too frightened of his retribution to say a single word about Meng Shi, or they simply don't care about a whore who disappeared years and years ago. He returns to Koi Tower in a foul mood, where sleep evades him. His letters to his Yunmeng spies have received no answer; his other spies have turned up no news. His mother has vanished into thin air. She is almost certainly dead; she may be at risk of becoming an unquiet ghost without the proper rites.

Jin Guangyao rises early the next morning in an ill temper. He sits at his desk a shichen before sunrise, as is his habit now, and sorts paperwork. In a fit of pique, he sends several scrolls to Zixuan that will almost certainly have negative consequences for Jin Sect if they are handled poorly. When breakfast arrives, he scolds the servant who brings his tea for nearly spilling it. Then he pulls himself together, finalizes his sorting, and goes to the nursery.

It is a morning like any other. A-Ling works on his writing and the twins play with each other, chattering away in their private language. A-Hua keeps up the unsteady crying that Zhai Hui tells him is perfectly ordinary colic. There is no reason for the wailing to grate on his nerves like the sound of Chenqing raising the dead, no reason for the happy unity of the twins’ chatter to grip his heart, for A-Ling’s poor posture and bad handwriting to itch at the backs of his eyes like a personal offense.

He works through it. He has worked through worse, on less sleep. The Conference begins in two days and Koi Tower will be ready.

 

<hr>

 

The meeting begins acceptably. The tea is only moments late, and Jin Guangyao makes a mental note to censure the servants in charge of the kitchens. Acceptable is not nearly good enough. They will know better when he is done speaking with them.

Jin Zixuan gives the opening speech he has memorized, short and to the point, and settles back to let the formalities proceed. Jin Guangyao watches the smaller sect leaders, then switches his attention to the staring contest going on between Lan and Jiang. It is extremely undignified for a sect leader to glare at another sect's heir so openly, but Jiang Wanyin does not seem to care at all.

Jin Guangyao makes mental notes about the timing of the next event, the ways the kitchen will have to rearrange its staffing, and drags his attention back to the banquet hall time and again. It feels like keeping A-Xue from wandering to the nearest open patch of dirt: an endless, thankless task, doomed to eventual failure but mandatory nonetheless. He never has this kind of trouble focusing on those around him. He would have died a dozen times over without his attention to detail. It would frighten him, if he allowed himself to be frightened.

Finally the opening formalities are over. Jiang Wanyin skirted the line of propriety to a tee in his greetings, which is nothing new; Lan Wangji said nothing to anyone, which is not unexpected. Jin Guangyao stays in the hall for exactly the right amount of time to allow himself to be approached, and then departs for one of the smaller public courtyards, where he will be accessible to those who are willing to disturb Lianfang-Zun.

Of course the person who finds him is Lan Xichen, who takes one look at him and skips all formality to ask if he is all right.

Jin Guangyao intends to explain that he is fine, and thank Esteemed Sect Leader Lan for his concern, hoping the unaccustomed formality will put the other man off, will keep him at arm’s length for the duration of the visit. Lan Xichen’s simple kindness has always been a drug, a temptation, and it is one that Jin Guangyao knows himself to be desperately weak to. Better if he removes the opportunity, cuts off the path to weakness, openness, to hope, before he can begin to walk down it and away from his careful plans, his long-term goals. He needs a will of iron to do what must be done: being around Lan Xichen softens him.

He is opening his mouth when little Jin Ling runs up to them and grabs his uncle’s robes in sticky fists.

“Shushu,” he exclaims, beaming up with the kind of unreserved joy that Jin Guangyao has never seen directed at him on any other face. His mother had smiled at him, to be sure, but she had never looked so purely happy. “The lotuses are blooming. Come see!”

The servant who was watching the children for the duration of the meeting runs up after the little sect heir. She is carrying the twins one in each arm, with A-Hua strapped to her chest grizzling in discontent. Zhai Hui has been ill for two days now, the timing impossibly bad. The old servant woman bows as low as she can while holding the three youngest Jin children.

Jin Guangyao knows he ought to enforce discipline, to punish her for losing track of A-Ling, especially in front of another sect leader. But he was up all night correcting Zixuan's last-minute changes to seating arrangements, and he spent the last two nights in the nursery when the twins had nightmares, feeding A-Hua as the majority of the household's staff were kept busy with arrangements for the Conference. To his horror, he finds he is too tired to dance around the words needed to seem strict but fair, to elide blame, to seem to be doing the old woman a kindness while he strengthens his rule of fear over the lower servants.

“I am so sorry, Lianfang-Zun,” the servant is saying, and little infant A-Hua is waking up all the way, about to cry again. Jin Qing is bobbing away from the servant’s arms as if she hopes to fall and crack her head on the pavement right here before Sect Leader Lan and half the visiting dignitaries.

Jin Guangyao cannot allow harm to come to the children, no matter what else happens; Madam Jin would have his hide. It would be a failure. He does not fail. He cannot fail.

“It’s no trouble,” Jin Guangyao hears himself say, with his softest smile, the one without any knives in its edges. “I trust that you did your best.”

He cannot blame the children. He cannot politely blame the servant at the moment. Right now, seeing A-Ling smiling at him, his mind escapes him and all his clever words slip away like silver fish in a clear mountain stream, swift and fractured and impossible to judge properly.

And then too many things happen at once. The servant begins to straighten up from her bow. A-Qing lunges for Jin Guangyao just as her twin, A-Xue, wriggles in the woman’s other arm, and A-Hua wakes and wails. His little lungs are getting stronger by the day, so the sound is shockingly loud in the gilt courtyard.

Only Lan Xichen’s quick reflexes save the older daughter of the Jin Clan from a bad fall. He catches A-Qing under the armpits with unerring grace, sweeping her up into the air in a half-circular movement and settling her on his hip with a smile.

“Careful, young mistress,” he says, and Jin Guangyao waits for her to protest, starts planning how to defuse inter-sect tensions politely, how to defend his care-taking from another sect leader without losing too much face. Everyone knows the Lan have nearly four thousand rules, surely one of them has been broken here. “You’ll alarm your shushu,” Xichen says. “We don’t want that, do we?”

A-Qing looks at him with wide eyes, and shakes her head.

“Shushu makes didi happy,” she says, as if it’s a secret.

Xichen smiles, one of his devastating, quiet smiles, the ones that seem private, like they’re meant only for you, and Jin Guangyao reminds himself not to be jealous of his three-year-old niece. That smile is not for him. That smile has never been exclusively for him, and there’s no profit in wanting what you cannot have. Even sworn brotherhood with someone like Lan Xichen is already more than he deserves.

His traitorous heart turns over in his chest, and he takes his infant nephew away from the servant as a distraction, bouncing him gently and running a hand over his thin cap of hair. A-Hua wails louder, voicing his hunger and discontent for all the world to hear. In a moment someone will notice, someone will scold Jin Guangyao. Madam Jin will take the children away from him. He will have failed. He is so tired.

Jin Guangyao looks at his other niece, the quiet little girl still perched on the servant’s hip, and A-Hua lets out another piercing wail.

“Master,” the servant says, and sets A-Xue on her feet, fixing her hand into his sleeves. “Hold on tight,” she says, and then looks up. “Master, I —”  

She stops, seemingly unable to find the words. She cannot with any propriety stay here, he knows. Servants of her rank are not permitted in these courtyards, even to clean. He would be well within his rights to dismiss her for following A-Ling here at all, for letting the boy run so wild in the first place.

“Go on,” he says, and gentles his smile still further. “I will return the children to the nursery soon enough, you may wait for us there.”

She makes a deep bow, and flees just as A-Hua hiccups, preparing for another round of agonized, agonizing sobbing.

“Shhh,” he soothes, feeling helpless in the face of such pure, infant grief. He feels a tug on his robes as he is settling A-Hua more comfortably.

“Shushu,” A-Ling insists, now holding his little sister’s hand. “The lotus ponds!”

A-Ling has his grandmother’s iron will, his mother’s quiet determination. Once set on a path, he will not easily be turned aside. Jin Guangyao can do it, has done it, will continue to do it, but sometimes it is easier to allow the boy his way.

But there are also sect leader meetings all afternoon. Zixuan will cede too much ground if left to his own devices, will lead with kindness rather than the iron hand Jin Guangyao has been trying to instill in him. (No one other than himself will take advantage of Zixuan’s kind heart under his watch. It would weaken the sect’s standing.)

A-Hua hiccups and takes another deep breath, and Nie Mingjue appears over Xichen’s shoulder, expression more astonished than Jin Guangyao thinks he has seen since Nie Huisang talked a much younger Meng Yao, newly arrived in Qinghe, into helping him sneak a canary into his older brother’s rooms. They had been much too old for such a prank, but Nie Mingjue had taken it in stride, extending kindness to his brother's accomplice as a matter of course.

The memory is bittersweet, and Jin Guangyao brushes it aside firmly. He does not dwell on the past in such a way: there is no profit in it. A-Hua wails, and A-Ling tugs again, and in his peripheral vision, Jin Guangyao can see A-Qing talking seriously with Lan Xichen, propped comfortably on his hip as if the Lan Sect Leader holds small children every day.

In that moment of distraction, Nie Mingjue reaches out with his strong warrior’s hands, imperious as only Chifeng-Zun could ever be. And oh, Jin Guangyao must be more tired than he knew, because something in him instinctively remembers being Meng Yao, and does not protest as A-Hua is plucked from his arms. The boy looks even smaller against Mingjue’s patterned silver and green robes, is dwarfed by the man’s broad shoulders.

“He’s got colic,” Jin Guangyao offers, when the unexpected and blessed silence stretches for an impossible moment.

“Mm,” Nie Mingjue says. “Huaisang did too, at this age.”

He offers this information as if it’s utterly normal, as if there is not a weight of betrayal and deceit between them, as if a single unhappy infant trumps all of that history. Perhaps, Jin Guangyao thinks, it does. Perhaps this infant will receive more grace, more understanding, than he himself has ever merited. It is hard not to feel bitter about the possibility.

A-Ling saves him from having to find a response.

“Shushu,” he demands. “The lotuses! You have to see.”

Jin Guangyao looks down at Jin Ling, who is holding his little sister’s hand carefully to keep her from squatting down to try to inspect the cobblestones: A-Xue is unendingly curious about the world around her, and digs into the gardens for worms when given the faintest chance.

“A-Ling,” he says, trying to keep his tone light. “Where are your manners? Greet Sect Leader Lan and Sect Leader Nie properly.”

A-Ling’s face scrunches up, but he nods in fierce concentration, steps aside and frees his hands. He makes a passable formal bow and recites the appropriate greetings from a sect heir to a sect leader. His robes are a mess and his hair looks as if it hasn’t been combed yet this morning, though Jin Guangyao knows it was — he did it himself. But Jin Ling’s expression is serious and earnest, and Jin Guangyao feels no small amount of pride. He taught A-Ling those formulas only a few days ago, after all, when he learned that the boy had not yet been instructed in the appropriate rules. He will not allow A-Ling to make a poor showing, no matter his age. It would reflect poorly on his care, wouldn't it?

Lan Xichen nods down at him seriously, and returns the greeting, and Nie Mingjue does the same, treating the boy with the kind of grave concern and attention that a much younger Meng Yao had craved like peonies crave sunlight.

“Shushu,” A-Ling insists — he has always been a stubborn child, Jin Guangyao knows that from personal experience these last weeks and from carefully monitored servants’ gossip — “the lotuses!”

He will achieve nothing by attempting to distract the boy from something his heart is so clearly set upon.

“Very well,” he says, looking at the children and wondering how to get A-Qing back from Lan Xichen. “Take A-Xue’s hands, please. And walk carefully.”

He can hear his own words clearly: A-Hua has stopped wailing. Jin Guangyao wants to weep from the relief of it, but that would be unseemly.

He bows instead, formal and just a little too deep.

“Sect Leader Lan,” he says, choosing to embrace an unaccustomed level of formality in the hopes of chasing them away. “Sect Leader Nie. Thank you for your attention and assistance. I’m afraid I must attend to the children, but the noon banquet will be served shortly in the grand pavilion.”

Zixuan will have to fend for himself. At least nothing can be formally promised over a meal, and any damage will be a problem Jin Guangyao can sort out in the future, perhaps when he is better rested.

He expects Xichen to put A-Qing down, and holds out his hands to Nie Mingjue for A-Hua. To his surprise, neither of them hand over the children they are holding. To his impending horror, Jin Guangyao sees that A-Qing is playing with Xichen’s perfect hair, tugging gently.

“Don’t touch his forehead ribbon,” he hears himself say, as A-Qing reaches for it. It’s out of his mouth before he can consider the words. “It’s not allowed.”

A-Qing cocks her head and looks at him seriously.

“Why not?” She asks. She asks that about nearly everything. It has become exhausting.

“Shushu,” A-Ling insists, and grabs his hand to start trying to tow him toward the back gardens. “You promised.”

Jin Guangyao does not think he promised to see lotus blossoms that he did not know existed. He is reasonably sure he made no such promise. Surely he would remember such a promise. He needs to get the children back to the nursery, though, and then attend the lunch, and speak with the staff about the timing of the tea. And something else: there was something else, wasn't there?

“Well. If A-Yao promised,” Xichen says, and his voice is gentle. “Perhaps we might accompany you?”

A-Ling considers this seriously, exchanging wordless communication with A-Qing and A-Xue before nodding his assent.

“You can see,” he concedes imperiously. “We like you. And tall-gege -- I mean Nie-zongzhu" he corrects himself, with a glance at Jin Guangyao who is frowning at him, "-- can come too, because he made didi quiet.”

Jin Guangyao stares at them all in abject horror.

“But the banquet,” he protests.

The sect leaders will not formally meet during the banquet, but the gossip over meals is some of the most valuable for long-term planning. It should not surprise him that Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen do not hoard gossip as he does, Jin Guangyao tells himself. They are well-born paragons of their generation. They have no need of such underhanded tricks.

“Huaisang will be there,” Nie Mingjue says, and looks down at A-Ling, who barely comes up past his knees. “Will you show us, Young Master Jin?”

Xichen nods assent, and fends off A-Qing’s hands from his forehead ribbon again as A-Ling drags Jin Guangyao and his sister toward the private family gardens, the miniature Lotus Pier that Zixuan has been building for a half dozen years now. Jin Guangyao knows that Zixuan has done all the work himself. Only his wife’s childbed fever forced him to allow gardeners to take over in his stead these last months.

“Don’t touch the ribbon,” Jin Guangyao tells A-Qing again, when she grabs a third time. His voice is perhaps too sharp, but he feels hopelessly adrift, uncertain what is going on. He hates this feeling. He builds plans within plans precisely to prevent himself from feeling like this.

“But why?” A-Qing demands. “It’s pretty. I want one.”

“It’s only for inner Lan disciples,” Jin Guangyao tells her. “You can’t touch it. Those are the rules.”

A-Ling would accept this answer. For all his stubbornness, he understands how to follow rules. A-Qing does not, unless she understands and respects the reasoning behind them. It is endearing, when it is not exhausting.  

“But why?” she asks, and reaches out again.

Xichen smiles at her, and bounces her lightly on his hip while walking, seemingly completely at ease with the act of carrying a small child. He has no children of his own, but a stray rumor some years ago said that Hanguang-Jun had adopted a Wen orphan. Jin Guangyao had dismissed it as absurdity, but perhaps there is more merit to the idea than he had believed. Xichen is unmarried and has no children of his own, and surely a leader rebuilding his sect does not have the time to attend the Lan nurseries often enough to look this at ease with a curious child.

“They are very special for my clan,” he explains. “And only family can touch them.” He smiles at her. "We have a lot of rules," he adds. "That is just one of them."

They are for children, parents, and spouses, Jin Guangyao knows. His fingers have itched to touch Zewu-Jun’s ribbon more than once. He has never allowed himself the luxury of reaching out.

A-Qing considers that for a moment, then nods.

“Can I be family?” She asks. “Then I could have one too.”

“Ah,” Xichen says, and he is smiling openly now. “But I think your brothers and sister would miss you, if you left them all behind, wouldn’t they? And there are no lotus flowers in the Cloud Recesses.”

A-Qing accepts this, and goes back to determinedly combing handfuls of his long, smooth hair, hopelessly tangling it with her little fingers.

Jin Guangyao looks away before he can do something terrible like throw himself at Sect Leader Lan’s feet and confess his undying love and admiration. Nie Mingjue is watching him, he realizes, and so he schools his features into a pleasant, slightly subservient smile and looks down at his nephew, who is still dragging him along as fast as his little legs will allow.

They walk the remaining courtyards and bridges while Jin Ling chatters with A-Xue and A-Qing. He appears to be learning their language, somehow. Jin Guangyao keeps half an eye on them and attempts to recover himself. He has been tired before. He rarely slept when he was keeping watch over Xichen after the burning of the Cloud Recesses. He thought himself tired when he served Wen Ruohan, all too aware of the stakes of the gambits he was planning. He thinks he has never been as exhausted as he is now, just from looking after four small children.

They step into the family courtyard and Jin Guangyao takes in a shocked breath. Jiang Yanli is propped up on a wide couch. She is pale and clearly exhausted, but upright. She has recovered enough to leave her sickbed for the first time since months before the birth.

No one told me, he thinks, and it feels like betrayal, sick and heavy in his gut. He shoves that aside. He is accustomed to the feeling, and it does no good to indulge it when he has other things to do. A-Ling is pulling on his hand, waving at his mother with obvious happiness.

Behind him, he can hear Xichen and Nie Mingjue pause, their steps falter. The thought slams into him: I have brought Sect Leaders into the family garden to impose on a desperately ill woman. Zixuan will never forgive me.

This one misstep may well set his plans to gain his half-brother’s trust back by months, if not years.

“A-Ling,” he says to his nephew. “The lotuses are not blooming.”

It is an inane comment, of no consequence. He has accused his future sect leader of lying in the process. Jin Guangyao smiles, and keeps his eyes calm, and berates himself internally. You are better than this, he reminds himself. You are more skilled. You must be.

“Oh, A-Yao,” Jiang Yanli says, and her voice is soft but hale, her tone fond. “Don’t scold A-Ling too much. I asked him to find you.” Her gaze rests on the men behind him, eyes going softer than usual. She nods, gracious to a fault even without making a formal gesture of greeting. “Sect Leader Lan, Sect Leader Nie,” she says. “I beg your forgiveness for not rising to greet you properly. I am still recovering.”

Xichen regains his poise first, setting A-Qing on the ground so she can run over to her mother’s couch, where she hovers uneasily, uncharacteristically restrained. He makes a formal bow, deeper than is strictly required for a Sect Leader to an heir’s wife, but perhaps more than appropriate given their intrusion on her sickbed. He has known about her illness, he has to have known, to have sent Wen Qing and her guards.

“Careful,” Jin Guangyao tells A-Xue as she dashes to the couch. He resists the urge to pull both of the girls back, to keep them from their own mother. A-Ling has clearly missed Jiang Yanli but been too stubborn to cry. A-Qing and A-Xue have wept themselves to sleep for the lack of their a-niang’s lullabies.

A-Ling, A-Qing, and A-Xue cluster by her side, and Jiang Yanli looks over at Nie Mingjue, at the infant drowsing in his strong arms.

“Sect Leader Nie,” she says, and her tone is almost hesitant. “If you would be so kind —?”

She has not yet held her son, Jin Guangyao realizes, and it takes all his self-control to keep from snatching the baby away from the most imposing sect leader of their generation. He cannot present the infant to Jiang Yanli like a trophy, like a prize, like proof that he has not failed in his duties. It would be unseemly, improper, rude.

“Of course, Lady Jiang,” Nie Mingjue says, and kneels to place A-Hua in her arms without so much as waking him.

“Thank you,” she says, and meets all of their eyes. “A-Ling, A-Qing, A-Xue, thank your uncle and his sworn brothers for bringing you here to me. And thank your uncle for taking such good care of you.”

Jin Guangyao’s heart constricts in his chest. She is well again, he thinks, dazedly. She will resume being their caregiver, the one who coordinates the nursery. Madam Jin will do her best to keep him away from them again, no matter his success, his efforts, his time these last months. He will have to comply, to nod and smile and play his part. It will come to nothing, in the end, unless he can be sure that Jiang Yanli will recall his work and be in his debt. He smiles, wide and easy, and bows to his sister-in-law. He has worked himself to a knife’s edge of exhaustion for the children, but that will not matter.

“Lady Jiang,” he says, and his voice is even and clear. He learned to hide his heartbreak young. What is one more disappointment in the scheme of things? It cannot matter. He will not allow it to hurt. “It was my honor and my privilege to look after your children.”

She looks at him for a moment, and nods to her scarred handmaiden, who has appeared from the recesses of the family rooms like a ghost.

“Enjoy the banquet,” she says. And then, surprising him, she continues. “A-Yao, if you will come see us after the afternoon meeting? I know you are very busy. Zixuan has been telling me all about the work you are doing. Thank you for your efforts.” She looks down at the children, then back up at the sect leaders standing before her. “Gentlemen,” she says, and nods again, holding her son like the most precious of treasures.

Xichen and Nie Mingjue take this for the dismissal it is, and Jin Guangyao follows them out of the courtyard in a daze. It is instinct to walk several steps behind Nie Mingjue, to follow where the older man leads, and he only comes back to himself when he sees they are in a smaller public courtyard, one of the plain ones that is off the beaten track, good for private conversations. He has to hope they were not seen, that no one noted his instinctive deference to the Nie sect leader. Jin Guangyao’s position in the Jin clan is more secure than it once was, but he cannot afford mistakes like that. The rumors are so tiresome to quash.

He is so tired, all of a sudden. He has been tired before, he tells himself. He will be tired again. He does not have the luxury of rest, not yet. Perhaps not ever, a voice whispers to him, and he shuts it away as well, along with all of his doubts and fears, his conscience and his better instincts. He cannot afford to rest. There is too much to be done.

He should be glad to have the children’s care removed from his roster of responsibilities. He should be. He allows himself a single blink to regret, then steels himself to pick up the threads of his plans, to go back to the banquet and defend his sect’s position against all interlopers.

Someone has spoken. Xichen has asked him a question. Jin Guangyao must not have responded properly, because Xichen takes him by the arms and pushes him to sit on a bench, then sits beside him. Nie Mingjue stands looking down at the two of them. His expression is unreadable, and Jin Guangyao feels a flutter of dread. He must not stand up. He will not win a battle of the wills with Nie Mingjue in this state, under these conditions.

“You are exhausted,” Nie Mingjue says. “You were the one who planned this meeting, not Jin Zixuan.” There is no question in his voice. He knows Jin Guangyao’s attention to detail better than anyone. “And —” he pauses. “If Lady Jiang has been so long unwell. You have done it while caring for the children.”

It is not a question, but he sounds almost surprised, as if this is unexpected.

Jin Guangyao bristles. He is not unfilial. He knows his obligations, and he meets them. He exceeds them. He must exceed them, to keep his place, and so he does. He cannot say any of that. It would be unseemly.

“They are good children,” he says instead, and smiles. “It was no trouble.”

He ought to protest more eloquently, but it feels like his fatigue is weighing down his bones, dragging his words down into muddy waters.

“A-Yao,” Xichen says, and his voice is chiding and soft at once. “It is kind of you. They clearly love you very much.”

Jin Guangyao keeps a smile on his face as the words stab him in the gut, a wound that will fester if he allows it. The children do care for him by now. And he will most likely not be allowed to so much as see them for months, if ever. Madam Jin will poison them against him with honeyed words. Months of work will unravel before his eyes. It is only the wasted effort that he minds, Jin Guangyao tells himself. He does not think about the sound of childish laughter, the open joy on A-Ling’s features just now. He has not lost those things, he tells himself. You cannot lose something you never had in the first place. He should be grateful to have been allowed to steal so much of their time, to prove his worth to his brother, to his sect leader. He has certainly made Zixuan trust him more deeply: that was the goal, wasn't it?

“The nurse is unwell,” he says, and it sounds insufficient. Why would a seneschal take over a nursery instead of hiring another servant? Why would a single nurse's illness be enough to tire him so badly? It all seems absurd.

But he cannot admit that he initially took over managing childcare to spite his father’s widow. It is unworthy. It would disappoint Xichen. It would confirm Nie Mingjue’s opinion of him as nothing more than a snake in the grass.

“How long?” Xichen asks. His tone is undemanding, his expression purely concerned.

“Not long,” Jin Guangyao says. The wet nurse has only been sick a short time. The days have been blurring together recently.

Nie Mingjue crouches before him and takes his wrist, feeling his pulse, his qi.

“Long enough,” he says. He and Xichen share a look, and Jin Guangyao resists the urge to close his eyes. He wants desperately to lean against Xichen’s strong shoulder as they did in hiding, years ago. He remembers it being the right height to rest his head. He wants to seek the simple comfort of touch. He does not move. He has not earned it.

“Skip the banquet,” Xichen suggests. “Your brother will be there to manage things.” He crooks a small smile at Nie Mingjue, who nods. “If Da-ge sends a message, Huaisang will tell us what happened afterwards. He is a very perceptive young man when he pays attention.”

Jin Guangyao has long suspected that Nie Huaisang is more perceptive than he lets on. The boy — the young man, now — has always been his brother’s opposite, flighty, equivocating, weak. They might have shared an interest in the lighter arts, once, before Meng Yao learned to fight, to wield a sword in addition to his words, to defend his body with steel in addition to stealth.

“I cannot,” he says, and begins to stand. “Sect Leader Jin asked me to help —”

But he cannot rise. Nie Mingjue’s hands are firm on his shoulders, holding him in place. Even kneeling, he is eye to eye with Jin Guangyao.

“You are in no shape to help,” he says. “Rest.” His eyes go dark for a moment, and Jin Guangyao sees Xichen nod encouragement in his peripheral vision. “Guangyao,” Nie Mingjue says, the first time he has used that form of address. “Rest. You need not do everything alone.”

Jin Guangyao smiles, and inclines his head. These words are a strike to the ribs, a bruising blow that will linger and ache every time he thinks of them too closely. Nie Mingjue is entirely wrong, of course. Jin Guangyao has always worked alone, the more so since leaving the Unclean Realm, since leaving the Nightless City. He always will. Who in the esteemed cultivation world would willingly ally themselves with the backstabbing son of a whore, after all? Certainly the two men before him swore brotherhood, but that was only political necessity. He has seen often enough, here in Koi Tower, what oaths really mean.

“Of course not,” he agrees, because arguing with Chifeng-Zun would be beyond foolish for too many reasons to list. “But I really must —”

Nie Mingjue’s hands tighten on his shoulders, and he subsides. Sect Leader Nie’s temper has never been stable, a side-effect of his cultivation style. Jin Guangyao knows the warning signs of anger well enough. He has not infrequently considered how to worsen the fits of rage with music from the Collection of Turmoil, in the dark hours of the night, before he knew of Jin Guangshan's illness. He would have started laying the groundwork for a qi deviation long ago if Lan Wangji had not started traveling to Qinghe himself to play with all his fabled skill.

“Of course I will rest,” he lies, and arranges his features into one of his more earnest smiles. “But you should attend the banquet. I cannot detain two sect leaders from their peers.”

He wants to hold them here. Oh, how he wants to. Jin Guangyao wants their regard, and their attention, and to avail himself of their time as he has wanted few things in his life. But they are sect leaders, well-regarded and important men, and he is a useful bastard, a skilled seneschal at best. He has been reminded of this often enough, hasn't he? The gulf between them has always been too wide, too deep to be crossed. He knows this. He cannot forget it. He cannot allow himself to forget it. They might forget it, left to their own devices, so he remembers for them.

“No,” Nie Mingjue disagrees. “You will not rest.” He shakes his head. “You never rest,” he says, and he sounds almost fond, which is clearly impossible.

Jin Guangyao must be more fatigued than he had thought, to be imagining such inconceivable things.

“How long has Lady Jiang been unwell?” Xichen asks.

From any other sect leader it would be a search for weakness. From Lan Xichen it is merely honest concern.

“Since well before the birth,” Jin Guangyao admits. “A-Hua was early, you know.”

A doctor brought from Yunmeng had been overheard admitting that even as a child the young mistress’s health had never been good. Even after Wen Qing’s arrival, and her dismissal of the Jin doctors are charlatans and fools, they came close to losing her twice that Jin Guangyao knows of, and his brother has scarcely left her side.

“But that was a month ago,” Xichen says. “Surely that was not the first time—” he pauses, and the expression on his face speaks volumes. He noticed Jiang Yanli's desperation to hold her son, then.

Jin Guangyao knows that the Twin Jades of Lan were raised largely by their uncle, by the clan elders, by a communal system of child-rearing that seems to be normal for the Lan, and all the more so after the war. He remembers fevered words explaining Lan seclusion, Xichen’s mother’s death, his father’s retreat from the world. If anyone knows what it is to be kept from one’s parents, it is this man before him. He might try to explain that Zixuan has been doing his best, distracted by his beloved wife's illness, but still seeing the children daily. He's not sure why he wants to say that, though, or what benefit it would accrue, so he stays silent.

Jin Guangyao wants to insist that it was Zixuan himself who asked him to look after the children, that he had the right to take such liberties. But he is not entirely convinced Zixuan remembers doing so, addled as he had been in those first days. Perhaps he does: perhaps he would trust Jin Guangyao's word, even if he does not remember. But it is not a certainty, and Jin Guangyao knows better than to make boastful claims he cannot prove. His word will never be good in Lanling, not on its own. Better not to put himself in such a position, better not to make such a claim.

“Madam Jin allowed me to coordinate the children’s care,” he says instead, trying to walk a knife's edge between too much and too little information. “My brother has been concerned for his wife’s health.”

He has been a man distracted, barely able to sign the papers put before him at the side of her sickbed. If Jin Guangyao’s plans were a little more advanced, he could have taken control of the sect in the last month. But then, the children, and the Conference, and the children, and so the last weeks have been more lost ground for his wider political plans.

“You are not only coordinating,” Xichen prompts.

Jin Guangyao smiles.

“I was,” he says, because he knows better than to take credit he has not earned under such easily disproved circumstances. “But there has been a minor change in plans. The wet nurse is unwell, and the head nurse quit some time ago.” He makes a small dismissive gesture. “It is nothing,” he says, though his heart aches to reduce his nephews and niece in such a way. He shoves aside the uselessly sentimental feeling. “They are sweet children.”

Nie Mingjue’s fingers are still rough on his wrist.

“You have not been sleeping,” he says. “You have been relying on your cultivation instead.” He pauses, and again Xichen nods. “You are running to the end of your endurance.”

Jin Guangyao represses a flush, resists the urge to look away in shame. His cheeks never ache from smiling, not anymore, but he can feel the beginnings of a faint tremor as he forces the expression to hold. His cultivation has always been shamefully weak. He cannot rely on it to replace food and sleep in the ways his betters take for granted.

Nie Mingjue presses down, his touch almost gentle, and then removes his hands, standing and looking away. His shoulders are tense, and Jin Guangyao keeps his expression inoffensive, waiting for the next blow. It does not come from the angle he expected.

“I did the same thing with Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue says. “Xichen did as well, with his nephew.” He does not name the child, but that confirms the rumors. Lan Wangji adopted an orphan, and Lan Xichen has cared for him. If he were not so tired, Jin Guangyao would be sneaking more information out of them on this front. Any leverage is useful, after all. Children are nearly always leverage. He will have to re-check the servants who have access to the nursery, he thinks, absently, following the thought where it leads. They are almost certainly far too vulnerable to the schemes of people like himself.

“You do no one any good by forgetting yourself,” Xichen says, picking up where his sworn brother left off. They share so much, Jin Guangyao thinks, and it is a bitter thought, one he holds close to prick at his heart before he discards it as unhelpful. Xichen is still talking.

“I had no idea how tiring a child could be,” Xichen is saying. “I thought I understood, but even the sweetest children need more than I knew.” He shifts beside Jin Guangyao. “It is harder when their parents are unwell,” he adds, and that is more information, slotting into place with other rumors.

Jin Guangyao does not allow his expression to change. So perhaps the Second Jade was whipped within an inch of his life after all. The Cloud Recesses are so hard to get solid information out of without a reliable asset, and Xichen has been writing less of late as he focuses on rebuilding his sect. His letters are open and free, but he doesn't see things the way a kitchen maid might, or a gardener.

“I am well,” Jin Guangyao says. “They are good children, and I am honored to care for them.” It is all true. Well, the last bit of it is true, though he has found himself wanting to strangle A-Qing for her unending questions from time to time, and despaired of ever getting A-Xue to stop dirtying her robes, or A-Hua to stop wailing.

“They are sweet children,” Xichen agrees. “But you are exhausted, A-Yao.”

Jin Guangyao does not take in a sharp, pleased breath. He does not close his eyes to savor the feeling of his name on Xichen’s lips. He only smiles and nods.

“You are very kind, to be concerned for me, er-ge,” he says, allowing himself the familiarity, rather than a title. “But truly, I am well.”

Nie Mingjue huffs out a breath.

“You allowed three slights to go unanswered this morning,” he says. “You are not well.”

Jin Guangyao thinks back. Sect Leader Yao and Sect Leader Ouyang were more vocally disagreeable than usual before the start of the meeting, but he had been catching up on other arrangements and had not paid them his full attention. It seems that had been a mistake.

“Zixuan is more than capable,” he offers. It is a feeble attempt, unworthy of the years he has spent honing himself into a tool, into a weapon.

“Guangyao,” Nie Mingjue says, and he is still facing away. He sounds angry. He sounds almost tired. “Why do you allow the Jin Clan to work you to death? What have they done to deserve that of you?”

Jin Guangyao takes in a small, sharp breath before he can stop himself. He might as well have shouted his distress, to these two men. He might as well have let go a paper lantern on a dark night, fired off a beacon for aid. He blinks away his frustration.

“They are my family,” he says, tone light, deflecting. “Where else in this world should I place my loyalty, Sect Leader Nie?”

The title is a jab, the question an unkindness after all that lies between them. Jin Guangyao once pledged his life to the Nie Clan. He might once have given them his death, but for a plan that went awry, a moment of unwise anger, a witnessed death. He has learned to be more circumspect, but reminding Nie Mingjue of his past is unwise in the extreme, with his temper, with all that lies between them.

Jin Guangyao bites his tongue, because he has already said too much. He is, at this moment, not sure he cares. It is a heady feeling, and an alarming one.

All at once, Jin Guangyao remembers a winter in his childhood, a fox in a snare that had snapped out desperately when he tried to free it. He had been beaten for interfering with the snare, and the bite had gone bad. The healer's bills had been more than they could afford and his mother had gone hungry for weeks to pay for his mistake. He had hated the fox as a child, hated that it had not been sensible, had not seen he was trying to help.

Now he thinks he understands the fox. He is too bone-weary to approach this sensibly. He misses his nephews and niece, not ten minutes gone, and he hates the world for giving them to him for this stretch of time, and for taking away their small smiling faces, their unswerving trust. He does not want his care for them to go unnoticed, to be erased, to be forgotten or questioned. He does not know how to prevent that, much less to keep their trust, their presence in his life. His position has always been too precarious to want frivolous things: he knows this. And now? He is too exhausted to be kind when he feels cornered, no matter how unequal his opponent.

“Where else would you have me go, da-ge?” He asks, and his honeyed tone might as well be a knife in Nie Mingjue’s throat.

He has been made softer by his time with the children, he knows. He has been losing his edge, and he should resent that. Instead he wants, desperately and fiercely, to use his skill to protect them. He would burn the world down for them, to keep them safe from anyone who might offer them harm. He thinks, all at once, that he might understand the Yiling Patriarch’s protection of the Burial Mounds in the year before his surrender, now. The thought steals his breath: he has never seen himself in someone so foolish before.

Nie Mingjue sighs. Xichen takes his hands.

“A-Yao,” he says. “No one thinks you should do less for the children. Da-ge only means you should take better care of yourself. You can do them no good if you are unwell.”

It doesn’t matter anymore, Jin Guangyao wants to say. They are no longer my concern. But he cannot bring himself to say it, to admit it and make it real.

“Take lunch with us,” Xichen suggests. “Then change your robes before the afternoon meetings, and go see Second Madam Jin afterwards.”

Jin Guangyao looks down and sees small handprints on his robes. A-Ling never does wash his hands well, and A-Xue must have been playing in the lotus ponds before they found her.

What Xichen suggests is all sensible. It is also self-indulgent, irresponsible, and a lost opportunity for gossip. He will never have this banquet again, this arrangement of tables, this chance to pour poison in one ear, praise in another.

But Xichen has invited him to lunch, and Nie Mingjue has expressed concern for him, and Jin Guangyao did not sleep even a half hour last night. And his robes are a gossip-worthy mess. So he nods.

“Good,” Xichen says. He rises to his feet and offers Jin Guangyao a graceful hand, as if the motion is the most normal thing in the world. Perhaps it is, for him. Perhaps he always offers exhausted, politically-elevated bastards his support: certainly his behavior toward Meng Yao at the long-ago Lan lectures would suggest so. He seems to be endlessly willing to help those he cares about, and he cares about so very many people. It is such an exploitable weakness, and such a temptation.

Jin Guangyao accepts his hand.

 

<hr>

 

The food provided for the Lan guest rooms is always plain, and the meal is silent in deference to Lan custom, though Xichen minds speaking during meals less than some members of his sect. Jin Guangyao eats the simple, elegantly presented food and marshals his energy for the afternoon of meetings, grateful beyond measure to have this space in which to prepare himself.

Lunch is a haze. Jin Guangyao changes into clean robes as swiftly as he is able, and the afternoon meetings blur together into an alarmingly homogenous stretch of time. Finally, the day's events have come to a close. There will be a banquet later, but he has a meeting to keep with Lady Jiang.

Jin Guangyao does not hesitate before knocking on the doorframe of Jiang Yanli's rooms, when she is not in the courtyard. If his hand hovers for a moment, it is only out of concern that she might be resting, unwilling to be disturbed.

The silent maidservant opens the door a bare instant after his knock, alarmingly swift. She still moves like a cultivator, smooth and fluid, dangerous in the way of the Jiang, though he has never seen her carry a weapon.

"My lady," the maidservant says, and it is one of the first times he has heard her speak. "He is here now."

Her tone is flat, unyielding as the surface of a still pond. She uses no title for him, no familial reference. Jin Guangyao feels somewhat adrift without it. If she had called him Jiang Yanli's brother-in-law, that would have been a clue; had the phrase been his honorific title, or his household position, that would also tell him how she, and perhaps also her mistress, regarded him. This bare statement is no help at all. He bows slightly, perfectly appropriate, and enters. The door slides shut behind him with a soft click.

Jiang Yanli and Madam Jin are in the rooms, the former reclining, the latter seated stiffly, as if she resents being present. Jin Guangyao prevents himself from blinking in surprise at her presence.

"Yao-shushu," A-Ling says. He and the girls are clean, and Jin Guangyao realizes, as of course he ought to have known, that it is their usual time to visit their father and grandmother. If Jiang Yanli is recovering, of course she would see them as well. He should have chosen another time, he thinks: but this is the only time he will not be at the banquet.

"They have been eager to see you again," Jiang Yanli says.

When she nods, all three children swarm him. A-Qing and A-Xue tug at his trailing sleeves and A-Ling runs up and holds out a scroll in both hands. Madam Jin makes a soft sound of disdain, so Jin Guangyao kneels and pulls the twins' hands from his sleeves.

"Help me look at this," he tells them, to keep them busy, keep them occupied and out of trouble, and unrolls it to see A-Ling's shaky handwriting, and a character he knows he never taught the boy. It's too complex, for one thing. Not practical, for another.

Jin Ling loves his uncle, it reads.

A-Qing and A-Xue point at the corners, where there are two rough X's, too shaky to have been written by A-Ling, even at his most distracted.

"We did it too," A-Qing says, and A-Xue nods.

Jin Guangyao blinks at the scroll, feeling utterly adrift, keenly aware of his audience.

"It's lovely," he says after a moment. "Did your mother teach you this one?" He points to "love" and A-Ling nods. "Well done," Jin Guangyao says, at a loss for words at the worst possible time. "Thank you," he adds, because it is a gift, even if he can't look at it without a kind of acute, exquisite pain.

Jin Ling loves his uncle, it says. Seven characters and two scrawled X's, no more, no less.

He rolls it up with steady hands, and tucks it in his sleeve, smiling at the children, feeling the weight of Jiang Yanli and Madam Jin's gaze on him the whole time. What must they see on his face, when he is too tired to school his expression as he ought.

"I'm sure you're going to be very busy during the rest of the Conference," Jiang Yanli says. "But I hope you will still make time to see them each morning and evening? They missed you, today."

He stifles a blink.

"Of course," he says, because it is the correct answer. The children bounce or wiggle in his peripheral vision. He thinks if their grandmother were not there, scowling like a very elaborately dressed, golden stormcloud, they might even cheer. "It would be my pleasure," he continues, because it is still the correct answer. It may also, he thinks, be the truth.

A knock at the door saves him from any further truths. A servant bows, obviously distressed, and Jin Guangyao is swept away to smooth over a minor political dispute between two tiny sect leaders whose children's engagement was annulled mere days before the Conference.

Jin Zixuan holds his own during the banquet. He will never be as long-spoken as his father, but he opens the events with obvious good cheer, looking more animated than Jin Guangyao has seen him in months. The seating arrangements are appropriate; the food elaborate and rich, varied and complex without showing preference to any specific region or cuisine. It blurs worse than the afternoon of meetings did, and Jin Guangyao wonders if anyone can see the small scroll tucked into his sleeve.

Jin Ling loves his uncle.

When was the last time someone said that to him, he wonders. His mother, most likely, but he shies away from that thought as he might avoid hot coals. When he wrenches his attention back to the toasting, Jiang Wanyin is glaring at Lan Wangji, who is ignoring him with the kind of indifferent, glacial calm that made so many of his peers resent him before the war. Now, grown into his title, Hanguang-Jun makes Sandu Shengshou's persistent glare look childish, petty, and immature; all without raising a finger or opening his mouth.

Jin Guangyao looks around the room, listens with half an ear to the toasts, and watches the way bodies bend toward one another. There, a Moling Su disciple talking to an Ouyang one. There, a Jiang disciple making eyes at a Yao cultivator. There, Nie Mingjue, glancing at his brother, whose fan flutters as he shakes his head. There, Lan Xichen, smiling placidly and conversing with his own younger brother, whose expression softens hardly at all.

The courses wind to a close as the entertainment does, and Jin Zixuan dismisses the assembled cultivators earlier than was his father's wont. It marks a clear divide between the two of them as a political gesture. It is, Jin Guangyao suspects, not at all intentional on Jin Zixuan's part. He has been looking more and more impatient as the night progresses, though he has hidden it well enough.

When everyone has stood from their tables, Zixuan steps to his side.

"Go," Jin Guangyao tells him, before Zixuan can open his mouth. His desire to see his wife is written clearly across his face, and he will have no patience for politics tonight. Jin Guangyao has no patience for anything, tonight, tired as he is, heartsick as he feels, but he is not the sect leader. He does not have the luxury of choice.

Jin Guangyao circulates, smiles, listens, and gradually the hall empties of the sect leaders and their heirs. When he walks out of the hall onto the balcony he sees two tall forms in pale geometric blue and dark geometric grey robes, leaning on the railing, heads tipped together in quiet conversation. They match, light and dark beside one another. The blue Lan robes, Jin Guangyao knows, are a gift from Mingjue, woven in old traditional patterns of the Nie sect. He helped select the weavers, though the fabric was still on the loom when he left the Nie Sect. He hesitates a bare instant, but he has already made too much noise to pass a warrior of Chifeng-Zun's caliber unheard.

"A-Yao," Xichen says, turning when Mingjue's shoulders go slightly stiff. "Are you done?"

He has paperwork. He has days of paperwork, and some of it is urgent. But Xichen is smiling at him, and reaching out a hand.

"Come sit with us," Xichen says, and Jin Guangyao hears himself agree.

They end up in the Qinghe rooms this time, surrounded by Nie retainers; the Nie bring their own servants every time they visit, allowing no Jin household staff entry until after their departure. It has been vexing, in a small way. Yet another sign of Sect Leader Nie's continued distrust. Jin Guangyao wishes yet again that Lan Wangji had not been so willing to travel back and forth to Qinghe to play Clarity. Left to his own devices, he could have had the man most of the way to qi deviation by now.

The cups are heavy red clay, glazed in grey: Nie-made, and brought here along with all the other items for serving tea and drinks. The casual assumption that poisoned cups might occur should sting. Jin Guangyao holds the cup and wonders what it means that his hands still remember the weight of this pottery, prefers it to the feather-light Jin porcelain and jade. His cup is empty.

“You are preoccupied,” Mingjue says. It doesn’t sound like judgment, but Jin Guangyao can feel himself bristle at the potential insult hidden in the words.

“Something is wrong,” Xichen says, before Jin Guangyao can open his mouth. “Won’t you tell us what it is?”

He blinks to refocus himself, and Xichen pours them all another drink. It would, he reasons, be rude to refuse.

“Something is very wrong,” Xichen says, and when Jin Guangyao drinks the liquor and puts the empty cup down on the table, Xichen reaches out to take his hands. “A-Yao, you can tell us.”

People touch him all the time. Surely they do. This simple contact, skin on skin, should not sear through him like a brand.

But, no. No one touches Lianfang-Zun. He is untouchable: too polluted for the gentry, too elite for the common people. Only the children touch him, and only recently. And they are so small, so delicate. Their hands don’t engulf his own the way Xichen’s do.

“I can’t find her,” he bursts out. “I can’t find her anywhere.”

He tries to pull away, to clap a hand over his own mouth. He can't tell anyone this. He’s been trying so hard to find any mention of his mother, any proof of life, but no one will speak of her. His own efforts to preserve her good name have mutated into a nearly pathological fear of her name among the people of Lanling’s pleasure district. He is the victim of his own schemes, and he hates it.

Xichen looks confused. Mingjue sits perfectly still, watching the two of them the way he always watches their interactions: like he thinks Jin Guangyao is a threat. As if he could ever be a threat to Xichen.

“Who?” Xichen asks, and Jin Guangyao looks away.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “Forget I said anything.”

“You mean your mother,” Mingjue says. Jin Guangyao has always disliked the occasional man’s flashes of insight, and never more than now.

“But surely —” Xichen says, and he looks around, as if it is only now occurring to him that he has never heard anyone speak of her, since Jin Guangyao came to exert any authority here at all. “She is not here?” He asks.

“It would not have been permitted,” Jin Guangyao says, biting back a bitter laugh at the mere idea. “But —” he pauses, tries to find words that will bring these two into accord without revealing his scheming. He sighs, thoughts swimming, and settles for the least elaborate path. “Things are different now.”

It is true in more ways than one; he will have to see how they choose to interpret it.

“Your father would not have permitted it,” Mingjue says. His voice is flat, his tone even. It is more dangerous, perhaps, than when he seems angry.

Jin Guangyao just shrugs. It is a common gesture, beneath him. He hates himself for it even as his body moves.

“A-Yao,” Xichen says, and squeezes his hands tighter. He has sword calluses. His fingers are so long, so firm. “Why did you not ask? Even if you could not have acted during your father’s lifetime, you must know we would have assured her freedom and comfort.”

Jin Guangyao blinks.

“She was a whore,” he says. Oh, he thinks, he did not mean to say that out loud. He must be much more tired than he thought; he needs to seclude himself for the evening lest he make more mistakes. No, he has to check on the children first, and finish sorting papers. Then he can rest. But Xichen is still holding his hands captive; he cannot simply flee.

“We are aware,” Mingjue says. His tone is bone dry.

“She is your mother,” Xichen says, as if that is all that matters.

“It doesn’t matter,” Jin Guangyao says, because he cannot breathe around the pain of what they are offering, what they — or Xichen, at least — might have offered if he had only known to ask. “I can’t find her.”

Xichen and Mingjue exchange a look, some kind of wordless communication, and Jin Guangyao does not close his eyes, does not look away. He used to speak with Mingjue like that, in glances and without words, when he was Meng Yao. He communicated with Xichen like that, after the burning of the Cloud Recesses.

He threw away those connections in pursuit of Wen Ruohan’s power, sealed his fate when he cut down Nie cultivators before their sect leader, when he chose his father’s regard and a chance to rise to authority with the Jin over Gusu or Qinghe.

“How may we help?” Xichen asks.

Jin Guangyao laughs, bitter.

“How would either of you find her?” He demands. “Meng Shi. She was known to be both beautiful and literate, for all the good it did her. She was thrown out of the brothel in Yunping some time before Sunshot. She might as well be dead for all the rumors will tell me.” He doesn’t meet their gazes. “Her health was already poor when I left,” he admits. The words burn his throat with something that feels very like regret.

He doesn’t regret leaving. He can’t. His mother and Sisi had insisted, and Meng Yao had known enough of the world to agree. He had been almost old enough for his first night to be sold, no matter who his father was — perhaps because of who his father was — and his mother and Sisi had saved for most of his life to ensure his freedom to leave. His mother had told him to seek out his father, and he had done so, had earned a place in the sect despite everything.

He left an ailing parent behind to preserve his own future. It must have looked unfilial at the time; it must still look unfilial, ungrateful. It must look unforgivable to men who treated their own parents with such unfailing regard. He doesn’t know how to explain the exigencies of survival to these paragons of the gentry, who have known danger only in times of military threat.

“Meng Shi,” Xichen repeats. He nods. “She taught you to read?” He asks, and the change of subject takes Jin Guangyao by surprise.

“Yes,” he says. “And music. And painting and poetry.” He laughs, bitter. “Shi,” he says. “Like poetry.”

She had been impossibly accomplished to his young eyes. Looking back, he can see that she must have had the same tricks of the memory that he inherited, to have remembered so much, to have learned so swiftly and so well.

“A very accomplished woman, indeed,” Xichen says. Mingjue’s expression is firm in disapproval.

“You never mentioned her,” is what Mingjue says. “I assumed she was dead.” Does he sound guilty? Jin Guangyao clutches at the idea, wishes desperately that he were less exhausted. He can’t work under these conditions, when he can barely think through the week-long fog of fatigue. The alcohol from the banquet, from the cups Xichen poured for them all just now, is not helping.

“You never said she lived,” Mingjue says.

Jin Guangyao blinks, and keeps his expression pleasant only through long years of practice, only because pleasant is his default blank expression now.

“You never asked,” he hears himself say. “Was I to beg for her freedom when my own position was insecure?” He looks away. “I knew my place better than that,” he says, and his tone is bitter even to his own ears.

“You assumed,” Mingjue says, but there is no heat in it. He shakes his head. “You are stretched too thin,” he says. “Can you not have someone else care for the children?”

Jin Guangyao sits up straight at that, removing his hands from Xichen’s grasp. He does not regret the loss of contact: he does not regret. Not anything. Not ever.

“Lady Jiang trusts me,” he says. It is true, he realizes. She could have hired a new nursemaid by now, a new fleet of servants and tutors. And then Madam Jin would sweep him away from the children in an instant. Jiang Yanli must want him to help her defy her mother-in-law.

“Of course she does,” Mingjue says. He sounds dismissive, almost resigned. Obviously he disapproves of her trust in someone like Jin Guangyao. He is not wrong, but it still stings.

“Da-ge,” Xichen says, and his tone is ever so faintly chiding.

They share a look, and Mingjue shakes his head, but he says nothing more.

“Promise me you will sleep tonight, A-Yao,” Xichen says. He wears the faint, caring smile that Jin Guangyao would burn cities to see. Agreeing to rest is nothing. He might even mean it when he accedes, when he leaves on forcedly steady feet and returns to the Jin family quarters.

He looks in on the nursery only briefly, sees the old servant rocking A-Hua as a shadow behind a screen, singing to him in the Yingtan dialect the children are probably learning. He will eventually have to discourage that.

The piles of paperwork on the desk in his antechamber are embarrassingly high, but nothing is so urgent that it can’t wait until tomorrow. He places his hat carefully on top of a pile of financial notebooks. Then he strips off the infinite layers of fine, heavy, formal robes that still feel like nothing so much as court armor and into much more comfortable sleeping robes.

Jin Guangyao wakes at dawn feeling, if possible, worse than the night before, even though he had burned off the excess alcohol before sleep. There is a kind of perverse protection to prolonged sleep deprivation: the tiredness shields you from the worst of itself. Having slept well and deeply, he can now feel all the aches and pains of nights bent over a desk, of days lifting and carrying children unexpectedly, of hours sitting stiff and straight at the Cultivation Conference without regard for his body’s discomfort. But there is nothing to be done about it. He stretches out the worst of the aches, dons his robes, and sits down to his desk to take down notes from his memory of yesterday’s seemingly interminable meetings.

When his secretary arrives unexpectedly early, the paperwork is divided neatly into categories, yesterday’s notes are ready for Jin Zixuan, and Jin Guangyao is staring at a blank sheet of paper wondering who else he might bribe for news of his mother. The man has to cough to announce himself, and Jin Guangyao gestures him in, impatient with himself.

“Lady Jiang asks if you will join the family for breakfast?” It comes out as a question. “If you are not otherwise occupied?”

Jin Guangyao knows he chose this man in part because he is so obvious when he is distressed or curious. It is still galling to be on the receiving end of it.

“Of course,” he says, smiling brightly to cover his surprise. He gets to his feet and tucks a few sweets into his pockets, just in case. “I’ll bring my notes with me, then. You needn’t bother with any of the center stack just now. See that arrangements for the morning’s first meeting are going smoothly. The plans are on the left.”

The secretary nods, and all but flees even before Jin Guangyao himself has departed. Madam Jin must be displeased with her daughter-in-law. This, Jin Guangyao thinks to himself, is a fight he is looking forward to seeing.

He was not wrong.

Jiang Yanli, on closer acquaintance, turns out to be utterly terrifying, even when she is ill.

She bends and weaves gracefully in so many contexts. She is so often called her father’s daughter for her diplomacy, her gentle voice, her peacemaking tendencies and shining smile. It’s true. She is all of those things.

But at that breakfast with Madam Jin, Jin Guangyao sees Madam Yu’s child emerge. Jiang Yanli is steadfast, unyielding, and utterly unwilling to give ground or compromise in defense of the people she considers her own. Somehow, by caring for her children, Jin Guangyao has become part of the fold.

Jiang Yanli does not have her mother’s legendary temper (Jiang Wanyin surely got enough of it for both of them). She is polite, and calm, and unflappable as she pours tea for her husband, his half-brother, and her mother-in-law. She makes polite conversation on several levels at once, fielding her husband’s attempts at deflection with an ease that makes Jin Guangyao wonder what it was like to grow up in Yunmeng under such a woman’s displeased eye. He is suddenly grateful he did not. As the conversation progresses, Yanli makes it clear that she supports Jin Guangyao without ever explicitly addressing the rift between him and her mother-in-law. If this is what Jiang Yanli is capable of when she has just risen from her sickbed, Jin Guangyao never wants to array himself against her.

Jin Guangyao watches, waits, and finds himself absurdly pleased at the increasingly sour expression on Madam Jin's face. Soon enough the food is gone. At a nod from Jiang Yanli, the children are ushered in. A-Ling clambers into his grandmother’s lap without hesitation. A-Qing sits by her mother’s side, A-Xue climbs onto her father’s lap. To his surprise, the scarred servant hands A-Hua to Jin Guangyao himself before she leaves the room.

Jiang Yanli greets the children, and praises their manners. When Madam Jin tries to credit their strong bloodlines, Jiang Yanli smiles, and Jin Guangyao can see a trap about to be sprung.

"Heritage can be so important," she agrees. "I am glad to hear that my esteemed mother-in-law agrees that it is time to allow illustrious descendants of the Jin Clan to live up to their full potential."

Madam Jin blanches. Jin Guangyao has no idea what Lady Jiang is referring to, but her poise is unruffled as her mother-in-law goes almost alarmingly pale. A-Qing looks between them all with evident curiosity. A-Hua hiccups, and Jin Guangyao rocks him gently, finding himself grateful for the distraction.

When he looks up, Lady Jiang is smiling at him.

"You are good with him," she says, and her glance at Madam Jin is not the least bit subtle. "We appreciate your assistance more than we can say, A-Yao." She takes Jin Zixuan's hand in her own, and he nods, lending tacit support.

It is a masterful bit of manipulation. Jin Guangyao watches Madam Jin depart a few minutes later with the children, feeling impressed and a little bit uncertain of exactly what just happened. For his part, Jin Zixuan looks at his wife wearing the nearly unbearably besotted look that has become his norm.

Lady Jiang sags visibly, and coughs, a deep, racking cough that seems to shake her frame.

“A-Li,” Zixuan exclaims. He turns to Jin Guangyao. “Send for the doctors. For Wen Qing.”

“A-Xuan,” Lady Jiang chides him. “It’s nothing—“ but she coughs again, and her hand comes away bloody.

Jin Guangyao sends a paper butterfly for Wen Qing without a second thought.

“Wen Qing told you not to push,” his brother is saying. “A-Li,” he pleads. Her frame is wracked by coughing, suddenly frail in a way Jin Guangyao has not seen before.

“It was important,” she says, between bouts of coughing. She looks pained but resolved, utterly without regrets even as the cloth Zixuan handed her goes red with blood. Jin Guangyao wonders again how she managed to hide such mental depths and steely will for so long. Madam Jin would surely not have selected a daughter-in-law known for her strength.

Wen Qing bursts in with two Lan retainers trailing behind her, trying their hardest to keep pace with her dead run. She glares at the two men, and examines Lady Jiang with careful hands.

“You idiot,” she says, and her tone is harsh. “You’re just like your brother, pushing too hard against your doctor’s orders.”

Lady Jiang smiles at that.

“A-Xian does what is right,” she says. There is nothing but unwavering faith in her voice.The man the world fears, the monster who was rumored to curse her baby, and she sees only the boy she is rumored to have all but raised, the man who defended the Wen Remnants at the cost of his own life and prospects.

Wei Wuxian is a bitter mirror, Jin Guangyao thinks: another unwelcome child, a rumored bastard. But where Jin Guangyao has been kicked down the stairs of Koi Tower twice, Wei Wuxian was the fourth most eligible bachelor of their generation; where Jin Guangyao has had to claw for every ounce of position, Wei Wuxian proposed outright heresy at the Lan lectures and only had to copy lines. But, too, where Jin Guangyao manipulated demonic cultivators and now sits at the right hand of a clan leader, Wei Wuxian openly demonically cultivated and is now under arrest for the cultivation method that ended the Sunshot Campaign. He is cut off from communication with the world by Jin Guangyao's own spies. Jin Guangyao shoves a momentary pang aside, shakes off his fit of introspection as Wen Qing lifts Lady Jiang with the help of the scarred maid.

“Go away,” she says to him and glares at Zixuan. “You’re evicted for enabling bad patient behavior. I’ll let you know when you can come back.”

“A-Yao,” Lady Jiang says. “Thank you. Please keep watch over the children. A-Xuan, be good.”

They leave under Wen Qing’s glare, and Jin Guangyao distracts himself by running through his notes with Zixuan, preparing him for the next several days of the cultivation conference.

When they finish evaluating the wording necessary to gain advantage, to maintain an edge despite the burden of Zixuan becoming Chief Cultivator and the need to plan for how to maintain Jin influence without being seen to abuse authority, Zixuan looks at him, actually looks at him, and Jin Guangyao wonders what he has done wrong.

“You just remember all that. You’re incredible,” his brother says. “She’s right, we’re taking you for granted.”

Jin Guangyao smiles, off-balance. He has worked for this kind of recognition, hasn’t he? Why does it sit so poorly now that he has received it?

“I do what I can,” he demurs with a small shake of his head.

Zixuan takes one of his hands.

“Tell me what work you need help with,” he says. “You were doing too much before the children. A-Li wants you to keep looking after them if you’re willing, but,” he sighs. “Sect Leader Nie had sharp words for me yesterday before the banquet,” he says. “He thinks you’re working yourself to death at my command,” he says.

Jin Guangyao hides his flinch through long practice. He seethes internally. How dare Nie Mingjue interfere in his life.

But he remembers how obviously frayed he was yesterday, how close he had been to falling apart before his sworn brothers’ eyes.

Zixuan is watching him, and Jin Guangyao thinks quickly. He cannot admit to needing help, but he does need it, and desperately. After a breath he averts his eyes so Zixuan will know he’s lying.

“It’s not too much,” he says. “This one is happy to do what he can for the honored sect leader.”

Zixuan shakes his head, looking frustrated.

“Zixuan,” Zixuan corrects him. “You are my brother. There need not be titles between us.”

Jin Guangyao blinks. He can’t help it. It’s a frustrating tell, one he has tried to train out of himself.

“Of course, Zixuan,” he agrees. He should feel victorious, winning such an obvious sign of trust. He feels almost regretful, almost as if he has betrayed the man sitting before him.

“Now,” Zixuan says. “Will you decide what help you need? More nursery staff, Yanli tells me, and perhaps another secretary? Lady Luo would be willing to help.” He pauses. “Not with the nursery," he amends. "With administration and inspections in Lanling,” he says. “She is good with people.”

She is very good with people. It is part of why Jin Guangyao has been keeping her at arms length.

“I will,” he agrees. “But first we must attend the meetings.” He looks at the two of them, taking in the formal robes, the lack of child-stains. “We will suit,” he decides, and straightens his own robes as he rises. “Do you have everything?”

Zixuan smiles. It's a small, honest smile, one Jin Guangyao has seen rarely, and never directed at himself before.

"I do," Zixuan says, and they walk into the conference hall together.

All of the major sect leaders are present; all of the minor sect leaders are present. The room is a riot of color, of robes that Jin Guangyao still sees and calculates fabric costs for in the back of his mind. Mingjue looks a bit the worse for wear, though a stranger would see nothing beyond his habitual scowl. Seated across the hall, Xichen looks serene as always, despite drinking as much as the other two the previous night.

Today's agenda is treaty negotiation, and Jin Guangyao provides information on demand, pulling out scrolls he does not need to reference in order to make the sect leaders feel their complaints have been listened to, have been logged, have been dealt with appropriately. The informal lunch promises to be tiresome, but Jin Guangyao is pulled away by the scarred maidservant, and spends the time interviewing nursery staff with Jiang Yanli.

"Luo Qingyang is looking into their families and backgrounds," Jiang Yanli tells him, after the last candidate has left, which relieves one worry. She looks over his shoulder. "How worried should I be?"

It is an unexpected question.

"Luo Qingyang is thorough," he says. "If their families are in debt, they will not suit. If they can be blackmailed, they will not suit. If their families are poor, pay them well, and they will be more loyal and less tempted to take bribes. If their families are wealthy, show them political favor, and they will be more loyal, and less likely to move against you openly."

She looks at him directly, and her gaze is determined, for all that she is propped up on more pillows than he has seen on a single couch since he left the brothel.

"I will know if they are bribed," he says, though he knows it is a question of when, not if.

She nods.

"Will you tell me?" She asks. She sounds honestly curious. "When it happens?"

He blinks at her, surprised by the certainty in her reaction.

"If you prefer," he offers. He still can't tell what her plans are, what pieces she has in play, what she might ask of him. But this is a small enough token to exchange for benefit, surely.

She nods again, and visibly suppresses a cough.

"You should go back to the conference," she says. "And I should rest, so that Wen Qing doesn't scold me again." She smiles as she speaks, clearly not worried about her doctor's temper.

Jin Guangyao, who saw firsthand in Qishan what Wen Qing is capable of, stands and bows.

"My Lady," he says.

"None of that," she says. "We are family. Saozi, please."

He bows again, and takes his leave. That is all too close, in levels of formality, to what Wei Wuxian called her, he remembers. He doesn't know what this offering means, but the cultivation conference takes priority.

The next several days are monotonous and petty, as cultivation conferences so often are. Breakfast with Jiang Yanli, Zixuan, Madam Jin, and the children becomes standard, becomes something to look forward to. Luo Qingyang takes over interviews and interpersonal management of his staff, and SECRETARY tackles the most boring sect paperwork, writing up detailed summaries of every task. Two nursemaids are hired, both from merchant families in Lanling, and the wetnurse begins to recover from her ailment.

By the time the final banquet ends, Jin Guangyao feels almost human again, though still tired from a night with precious little sleep. He knows the fatigue will take at least another week to clear up, but it is not worsening anymore. He can focus, when he puts his mind to it.

Sect Leaders Lan and Nie stay longer than the other visitors, as befits sworn brothers, and the next morning, they are invited to breakfast. Jin Guangyao, who stayed up all night with A-Hua after the end of the conference, stops in the doorway for a bare heartbeat. It made sense to relieve the nursemaids at the time, to put them in his debt. Now he wishes he had waited one more day, that he were fully dressed, that he were wearing his hat to hide the way his hair is still tied back in Nie braids.

Mingjue's gaze flashes across him and his expression flickers with something Jin Guangyao cannot parse.

Jiang Yanli and Xichen carry the conversation, Lan rules evidently fully ignored on this occasion, while Madam Jin ignores them all in favor of her grandson, and A-Xue and A-Qing eat remarkably tidily, glancing at Xichen and Mingjue with obvious curiosity.

Jin Guangyao excuses himself at the earliest possible moment. If he accomplishes very little of his paperwork, staring into space and seeing nothing before his eyes, that is between him and the empty room. Finally, less than a shichen later, he stands, puts on his hat, and makes his way to the family courtyard, where he can hear children.

Mingjue and Xichen are the only adults there, which is a surprise. A-Ling is sitting very still, painting something with determined brush strokes. A-Hua is in Mingjue's arms, where he looks tinier than ever, and is apparently asleep. A-Qing and A-Xue are holding each other's hands, spinning in a circle as fast as they can, shrieking with laughter. A-Xue sees him as he steps into the courtyard, and she pulls away from her sister.

"Shushu!" she yells, already turning her momentum into a controlled dive for him. Her sister, surprised, less nimble, begins to fall.

It all happens in slow-motion, like being on a battlefield all over again.

A-Xue wraps herself around his waist. A-Qing's body flies toward the ground, and her head knocks against an ornamental carving with a wet thunk.

There is so much blood.

Jin Guangyao has A-Xue beside him and is kneeling by A-Qing's side before he knows what he's doing. A shadow looms over them and he pulls his sword with his right hand, sweeps A-Xue farther back behind him with his left. There is no answering ring of steel, no falling blow to block.

There is so much blood. A-Qing is not moving.

"A-Yao," someone is saying. A-Xue is sobbing, clutching at his robes. No one else touches him. That, more than anything else, allows him to blink, to reassess.

The person before him is Xichen. Mingjue has A-Hua and is keeping A-Ling a few paces away, talking to the boy in tones Jin Guangyao cannot overhear.

"A-Yao," Xichen says again, utterly still, kneeling before him with a hand reached out towards A-Qing. "Let me see her."

Xichen has a nephew, Jin Guangyao remembers. His hand is shaking as he sheathes Hensheng: it takes two tries.

"Er-ge" he says, and watches as Xichen touches A-Qing's head, feels her wrists. There is so much blood. In the background, he can hear A-Hua crying, can hear A-Ling's voice starting to rise. A-Xue is still sobbing. He pulls her into his arms, lets her clutch his robes into disarray. She is so small, and her sister is injured, and there's so much blood, and it's all his fault.

"I'm sorry," she is saying. "Shushu, I'm sorry!"

"Shhh," he hears himself say. He pets her hair, as his mother once did for him. "Shhhh." He holds her close as she shudders, and tries to comfort her as best he can without lying.

Finally A-Qing yelps, and Xichen lets out a low sigh.

"A-Yao," he says, and Jin Guangyao realizes he's closed his eyes, is rocking A-Xue a little bit. "She's fine. A-Qing is just fine."

A-Xue squirms to get down. She presses a clumsy kiss to her sister's forehead, apologizing in their shared language. A-Ling runs over, and soon there is a small pile of children before him.

A-Qing is visibly fine, sitting up, poking at her own head. Her face is half-covered in blood, like a particularly vengeful ghost in a theatrical production.

"Head wounds bleed a lot," Xichen says. His tone of voice is gentle, and Jin Guangyao wonders why. "A-Yao," Xichen says. He sounds like he's talking down a spooked animal. Jin Guangyao is fine. He's always fine. There's just so much blood.

Another shadow looms over him, and Jin Guangyao freezes in place, though he has the sense not to draw his sword this time.

It is Mingjue, and the expression on his face is unreadable, complex. It looks almost like sympathy, but that's impossible. He only barely tolerates Jin Guangyao. He kneels before them, and places A-Hua in Jin Guangyao's arms.

"Xichen," he says. "Get A-Qing cleaned up."

They exchange a glance, from A-Qing to Jin Guangyao and back. A-Hua snuffles, and Jin Guangyao holds him closer, feels the frail weight of him, so much more solid than he was before, still so fragile.

"Oh," Xichen says, as if something makes sense. "Da-ge. Of course."

And he pulls a cloth out of his sleeve, beautiful white linen, pulls the children apart, and begins mopping at her brow.

"Come on, A-Qing," he says, pulling her to her feet, gathering the other children to him. "Let's get you cleaned up. We don't want to scare your shushu."

A-Ling nodes. A-Xue opens her mouth and then closes it again, looking at him, at A-Qing, and at Xichen. She stands up too, and Xichen leads them into the open nursery doors.

"A-Yao," Mingjue says, still kneeling. He hasn't touched Jin Guangyao since putting A-Hua into his arms. "Are you back with us."

There is still blood on the courtyard flagstones. He stares at it, seeing A-Qing's still body superimposed over it in his mind's eye, his memory as much a curse as a blessing. Mingjue sighs, and the sound draws his attention back to a troubled face.

"This doesn't happen to you often," Mingjue says. It is not a question, but neither is it an accusation. He sounds genuinely curious, almost.

"Da-ge," Jin Guangyao says. He hates himself for the weakness in his voice. This has never happened before. He does not lose control. "No. Never."

"Never?" Mingjue looks surprised. He holds a hand out, as if to help Jin Guangyao to rise. "She will be fine, A-Yao," he says, and pulls them both to their feet with hardly any effort at all.

Jin Guangyao is sorely tempted to lean into that strength, for a moment. He stands straighter instead, tucks A-Hua closer to his chest.

"Good," he says. His voice shakes only a little bit. "That's good."

They are still standing in silence, A-Hua cooing intermittently, when Xichen shepherds the other three children back out. A-Qing has a tiny bandage on her head, and all three have new outer robes.

"I'm sorry, shushu," A-Xue says, and bows very carefully. "I wasn't careful, and jiejie got hurt and I made you scared." She looks up, tentative, and Jin Guangyao can't help but smile at her.

"Don't worry about me," he says. "You're both all right. That's the important thing."

Beside him, he hears Mingjue's breath pause for just a moment.

"Go on," Xichen says, and makes a shooing gesture. The children go over to A-Ling's drawing table, and settle in together, A-Ling laying out paper and weights for his sisters with exaggerated care.

"What did you tell them?" Jin Guangyao asks, as the three of them settle onto a low bench.

Xichen quirks a small smile.

"The truth," he says. "Sometimes people like their shushu who fought in battles like the Sunshot Campaign get scared when they see that someone is hurt. And if it happens again they should get a grownup and be quiet and gentle."

"It won't happen again," Jin Guangyao says.

Mingjue snorts. Xichen shoots him a reproving glare.

"It might," he says. "You care about them. Wangji has done much the same, with A-Yuan."

It is the first time Xichen has used his nephew's name. Jin Guangyao will wish he had pushed more, later. For now, he is too caught in his growing shame.

"It won't happen again," he says. "I won't allow them to be hurt."

Xichen laughs, a soft huff. "They're children," he says. "A-Yuan keeps climbing trees, even though he knows Wangji is scared when he falls. They'll try, but they'll get hurt again. It's part of growing up."

The children are drawing, chattering quite incomprehensibly to one another. A-Ling appears to be keeping up.

"You can't protect them from everything," Mingjue says.

But that's his job. Jin Guangyao has vetted their nursemaids, has fired household servants who expressed too much interest in the nursery. He stares at them, unable to find the right words. His mother could not protect him, in the end. His father had no interest in protecting him. These children have parents who care, but the world is deeply unkind. Jin Guangyao will burn it all down, if that's what it takes to keep them safe.

"I can try," he says, finally.

Xichen nods.

"That's all we can do," he says. He has a small smile on his lips, though he looks a little sad. He takes Jin Guangyao's hand. "That's all parents ever do," he adds.

Jin Guangyao cannot hide his shudder at the reminder of his mother, despite himself. Mingjue glances at Xichen, who squeezes Jin Guangyao's hand, the pressure reassuring, unfamiliar.

"We would help you look for her," Xichen says. "Your mother. If you will allow it."

The children laugh; Mingjue only nods, his expression uncharacteristically soft as he watches them paint, clustered around a single sheet of paper now, their small backs hiding it from view.

There is no profit in accepting their aid, Jin Guangyao knows: there is the possibility of a debt to incur, and one he may not ever be able to repay. A-Xue grabs for a brush, and A-Ling helps her make a clumsy X in the corner of his sheet of paper.

"Thank you," he says, finally. He wants so badly to know, and he knows he has reached his own limits.

Something very close to a smile flickers across Mingjue's face; Xichen beams as if he has been given a gift of great value. Neither says another word, but Xichen does not release Jin Guangyao's hand, long fingers cool against Jin Guangyao's skin.

A-Qing laughs as A-Xue says something incomprehensible, and the children put their heads together, obviously conspiring. For once, though, they appear to be staying out of trouble. Perhaps they, too, were shocked by A-Qing's injury, willing to sit still now as a consequence. Birds chirp in the distance, and a fountain burbles. Jin Guangyao watches his nieces and nephew, feeling A-Hua breathing against his chest, and times his breath to the baby's, letting his heartbeat settle.

Some time later, A-Ling looks up with a smile. The three children beckon him over. Their painting is more than a little sloppy, but Jin Guangyao's breath catches in his throat when he sees it. Three smaller figures stand above a set of stairs that must be Koi Tower. They are flanked by four bigger ones, which appear to be a couple flanked by a woman and a man. The flanking man is shown wearing a tall hat and holding a small blob in his arms.

A very clumsy note in the bottom corner reads: "Family."

 


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