The event is nothing like Jin Ling’s one month celebration had been, though in all fairness it could hardly be the same debacle – it’s not as if the Yiling Patriarch is likely to emerge from the blood pool of the Burial Mounds and murder father and cousin before utterly rewriting the history of an infant child’s entire life.
It’s been done before. It won’t be done again.
But then, the birth itself had been quiet, too. Even the marriage of Jin Guangyao to Qin Su had hardly held a candle to the great blazing sea of lanterns that had been that of Jin Zixuan to Jiang Yanli. Though it had been a match between the son and daughter of old friends, Jin Guangyao and Qin Cangye had not made a spectacle of their children’s union. It had simply been, and apparently that had been enough.
Jiang Cheng does not know if either Qin Su or Jin Guangyao agreed with this, but it’s not as if he’s going to ask. Still, it rankles him, even though it’s not anything like his business. It’s understandable that Jin Guangyao will always be in the shadow of his dead brother – but even his dead cousin is given more deference than he is. And this, despite Jin Guangyao having done more in three years for the Jin clan than Jin Zixun had done in an entire twenty-something years of life.
But then, Jin Zixun hadn’t had the temerity to be born the son of a whore.
Jiang Cheng had debated not attending at. He doubts Jin Guangyao would have begrudged him his absence; they’ve reached understanding enough for the other man to know that Lanling is never high on his places to be. But it is an opportunity to see Jin Ling, and Jin Guangyao also knows that this is something Jiang Cheng will never easily surrender.
It’s late into the showpiece banquet before he gets the chance to speak privately with his brother-in-law. Even then, it’s largely accidental; Jiang Cheng is slipping away from said banquet when he notices that Jin Guangyao, who has all night flitted around the hall like the endless migration of a hummingbird, has stopped at last. He stands deeply removed from the main hall, almost more servant than son. There’s a pensive line to his form, standing alone even though he ought to be one of the centres of the celebration. Yet it has focused primarily upon Qin Su and her son, and he is withdrawn into the shadows as he so often is.
“You don’t seem to be having a good time.”
He’s not fool enough to think he had actually surprised him, but Jin Guangyao still turns to him as if startled. “Oh. Jiang-zongzhu.” A blink, and his neutral expression slides to effortless concern. “I do hope the same could not be said of yourself. Is there something I can get for you?”
“Other than my nephew? No.” The raised eyebrow this earns him says that says he knows himself that Jin-furen has insisted the Jin heir be put to bed, and not disturbed again this evening. “But I’m serious. It’s your party, why aren’t you enjoying it?”
The faintly ironic look is probably the most honest one Jiang Cheng is likely to get from him this evening. “It is the unfortunate lot of the host that one must be always be alert to the way in which the celebration unfolds, in the event that…adjustments, must be made.”
“Technically your father is the host.” The bland smile has returned. “So, he makes you plan your own parties, too?”
A slight snort is the only give in his placidity. “Do you think I’d trust anyone else to do it?”
“Fair.” Jiang Cheng he doesn’t pull the punch when he adds with blunt ease, “But you really should be allowed to enjoy the one month celebration for your own son.”
“Jin Rusong is gift enough in himself. I don’t require such validation in order to treasure him,” That’s enough to have Jiang Cheng frowning, something tightening low in his gut and high in his chest, but Jin Guangyao already turns away to indicate the corridor. “Did you want to see him, Jiang-zongzhu? I believe you haven’t had the chance.”
He’s spent most of his time in Lanling near his nephew and they both know it. It’s not that he particularly has anything against Jin Rusong, despite the cutthroat politics practised in Lanling – but he doesn’t strictly have much interest in him, either. He’ll be Jin Ling’s cousin, so undoubtedly Jiang Cheng will deal with him in the future. That doesn’t require him to much look forward to the opportunity.
The slim back of Jin Guangyao moves away without a glance backwards. There’s a wordless expectation that Jiang Cheng will follow, though it’s more that of a servant than a young lord. It still has Jiang Cheng following, even as he wonders why in the hell he’s doing so. Then again, it’s not as if there’s anyone better for him to converse with here tonight.
In silence they move away from the banquet hall, where guests still quaff their drinks and gorge themselves on a meal for a child most of them cannot recall the name of. Jiang Cheng is familiar with the way to the royal nursery, and this is not it. He’s never been to Jin Guangyao’s personal family quarters, only those of his official office; yet somehow he knows this is where he is being led, away from the main family buildings and deeper into the maze of Carp Tower.
Eventually they come to a corridor opened along one side to a modest but lovely courtyard; it’s less ostentatious than most architecture around the Tower, and for that alone Jiang Cheng could feel somewhat more comfortable here. With that said, Jin Guangyao does not immediately lead them in, and they are not alone.
He had noticed that both Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue had been absent from the tailend of the feast, but he’s surprised to find that both of them are outside what are presumably Jin Guangyao’s family quarters. While they linger at a distance, the other two brothers of Jin Guangyao’s sworn triad converse in soft voices, easy and familiar. That’s not peculiar, even though the Lan are usually reserved and the Nie disinclined to idle chatter. What is peculiar is that cradled easy in the arms of the larger man—
Jin Guangyao shifts, small shadow smiling at his side. “Are you surprised, Jiang-zongzhu?”
“You didn’t expect him to be good with children?”
There’s a lot of things one might not expect of Nie Mingjue, and this isn’t even the strangest one on the list. “I know you’ve said before than Lan-zongzhu has…a knack.” Not that he’s strictly seen as much for himself; he’s never accompanied Jin Guangyao nor Jin Ling on their occasional visits to the Cloud Recesses, even knowing that the esteemed Hanguang-jun is still deep in his seclusion. “But I can’t say I ever thought about Chifeng-zun and children.”
“It’s not entirely natural. He did have to learn.” Any faint amusement leaves his tone when he adds, quiet, “I can’t imagine raising Huaisang was easy for him.”
Nie Huaisang had been very young when his mother had died, and not much older when their father had followed. But then, Nie Mingjue had barely come of age himself at the time he had taken over his sect, though Jiang Cheng doubts he’d ever been much of a child in the first place.
Turning his head, Jiang Cheng finds it somehow simpler to watch Jin Guangyao watch Nie Mingjue bouncing his son with distracted ease as he continues to talk to an ever-smiling Lan Xichen. His expression still isn’t strictly readable, or at least Jiang Cheng doesn’t expect to see anything there that Jin Guangyao has permitted. Therefore he can’t help but be surprised when the other man says, “I taught him that.”
“When I was still his vice general.” That’s a subject even more startling; his time in Qinghe is something rarely discussed, and certainly not under his own instigation. And yet, he goes on. “We were dealing with a Wen incursion along one of our western borders. A village happened to be in the middle of their chosen path. Although we’d had advance warning, we were still later to arrive than we would have preferred.”
“Fortunately not, though the evacuation had been somewhat haphazard.” Jin Guangyao has not looked to Jiang Cheng once during this conversation; his dark eyes, shadowed in this corridor, remain fixed upon Nie Mingjue alone. “One of the men found an infant. Barely three months old, abandoned in a barn.” He pauses, shakes his head just a little. “No, that’s wrong. Hidden, in a barn. Waiting for their parents to return, though at that stage we weren’t sure that that was going to happen. We still weren’t entirely certain where the villagers had gone, or if they’d been kept safe in their passage there.”
War orphans – it’s hardly a new concept to any of them. Yet something peculiar glitters in his eyes, now, the same blank sheen of obsidian rock as Nie Mingjue resettles the small bundle of his son into the crook of one great arm.
“They brought him to me. Because it was a problem, and that is what I did. I solved problems.”
The easiest response is just to roll his eyes. “You still do.”
“And they never stop appearing,” he says, and that actually has Jin Guangyao giving him a sideways glance, though it doesn’t last long. “But as it turns out, I know perfectly well how to handle a child.”
Jiang Cheng knows that. He’s seen the deft and delicate way Jin Guangyao deals with Jin Ling, for starters.
“But he hadn’t expected that,” he says, voice calculated in its calm. “Nie-zongzhu, I mean.” Again, his attention is quite fixed upon the Nie sect leader, broad and dark, Baxia like a silvered bolt of lightning upon his back. “You’d think he’d never seen a man hold a baby, before.”
“He was impressed?”
With a sudden snort Jin Guangyao at last turns his full attention to Jiang Cheng, as if pulled from some reverie at last. “I’m not sure impressed is entirely the word I’d use, but…yes. He was…intrigued. Perhaps that’s a better way of putting it.”
To someone as genteel as Jin Guangyao, his next words might come across as unforgivably blunt – but then it’s not as though his reputation would ever imply him to be otherwise. “Is that why he’s being like this? When he barely speaks a civil word to you otherwise?”
“It has precedent.” Even in the half-dark of the corridor, his smile is as perfect as any master stroke upon a painting. “That first time he saw me with a child, after all, was also the first time he propositioned me.”
At first, he has absolutely no reply to that. He can only stare, and of course Jin Guangyao only returns it with perfect ease, perfect serenity. The bastard. For not the first time, Jiang Cheng thinks that the other man really does enjoy doing this to people.
A lazy arch of eyebrow only twists deeper in his already crawling abdomen. “Have you never heard the rumours?”
He has. Because there have always been rumours about Meng Yao, about Jin Guangyao. But Jiang Cheng has never held much stock in them. Or at least, he hasn’t in some time – not since Jin Ling’s birth, or more accurately, since the two of them had come to an understanding over Jin Ling’s upbringing after the death of both of his parents.
He’d never thought to understand Lianfang-zun. This is far more than he had ever thought to learn. Clearing his throat, he wonders what Jin Guangyao expects him to say. If he actually requires him to say anything at all.
His nod might have been confirming something as mundane as the fact he’d kept the household accounts of the Unclean Realm. “I’d already been his vice general for some time. And he promoted me on merit – and kept me on for the same.”
The challenging note that comes towards the end, strangely, makes him feel somewhat more even-footed. That doesn’t change the fact that Jiang Cheng is still not quite sure what game Jin Guangyao is playing – and from his own growing headache, he would not want to join in even if he did.
“Why are you telling me this?”
Those eyes blink just once. “It’s relevant information.”
“In what way?”
“Nie-zongzhu is my sworn brother.” It’s a diplomatic return to his own clear suspicion, simple as a truce already settled. “Therefore he is one of Jin Ling’s uncles, just as we are.”
“No-one is his uncle like we are.”
For a second, Jin Guangyao looks genuinely startled. It only lasts that singular moment, of course, before it disappears behind the faint shadow of a smile. “This is true.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t answer immediately. Instead he returns his attention to where Nie Mingjue still holds Jin Guangyao’s son, standing close with their shared sworn brother. It’s a long moment before he says, “He’s never paid much attention to Jin Ling.”
“This is mostly because my father will not allow it.” There’s no discernible emotion to his words when he adds, “He does not care overly for Nie-zongzhu.”
“And he’s a fool for it.” It’s frank, but it is also the truth. “The Nie are as much an influence over the cultivation world as are any of the great sects.”
“Yes. They are.” Again Jin Guangyao’s attention has returned to Jiang Cheng; it’s faintly uncomfortable to the focus of his scrutiny, mild as it currently appears. “I want to give Jin Ling all the advantages I can,” he adds, “And my brotherhood with the Nie and the Lan is just one of those that I can offer.”
“He’s lucky to have you.”
Sometimes Jiang Cheng wonders what Jin Guangyao would be, if that smile were stripped utterly away. If there would actually be anything left. “I suppose that’s one word for it.”
“I mean that.” Roughly given, the words come as hard and fast as any blow he might strike with Sandu or Zidian. “Don’t listen to what other people say. They don’t know anything about you.”
The great dark eyes stand as still as the night sky. “As I dare say they know nothing about you, Jiang-zongzhu.” But the smile has returned when he adds, “Thank you.”
There seems little left to say, after that. And yet Jin Guangyao does not move to encourage him forward, does not offer again to introduce him properly to his infant son. Into that silence Jiang Cheng speaks first, voice pitched low. “…did he really proposition you after seeing you take care of a baby.”
The amusement seems unfeigned. “Is that so strange?”
“Well, I can see why you’d take it. If it was on offer. I mean…I just—”
The awkwardness only deepens said amusement. “I understand what you’re trying to say, Jiang-zongzhu.”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t think that’s true, even as he’s terribly afraid that he does. “Yes, well. I’m not the type to moon around like that.”
“Well, in all fairness, we did do enough of that ourselves.” There’s something uncomfortably comradely in the eyebrow tilted his way now, as if anything between them has ever made them friends. “What, can you not imagine Da-ge mooning around?”
With the tiny baby in his massive arms, it’s far easier than it has any right to be. “Well, I can now.”
A snort, and Jin Guangyao smooths out the line of already impeccable robes. “He’s actually quite dreadful, when he’s in love. You’d never think it to look at him in battle, but he’s just a quivering mass of warm shy muscle when he doesn’t know how to explain himself to a paramour.”
Now that really is more information than he ever wanted to know about Chifeng-zun, even as a part of him wonders at the real reasons as to why Lianfang-zun would choose such an opportunity to impart it. “He loved you?”
“Do you think me unlovable, Jiang-zongzhu?”
Looking at him in the half-darkness, Jiang Cheng does not answer immediately. But the truth of the matter is, everyone would agree that Lianfang-zun is very beautiful – and they’d said the same of his mother. But it’s his brilliance that has brought him here, to the heart of the world inhabited by a father who’d accepted him only when he’d become a person unable to be ignored any longer.
“Did Nie Huaisang know?”
Strangely, this has those watchful dark eyes dropping away, returning to where Lan Xichen is currently, absently stroking one of the baby’s rounded legs as he continues his unheard conversation with Nie Mingjue. “You’d be surprised what he knows,” Jin Guangyao says, very quiet; his volume increases only a little when he looks again to Jiang Cheng. “Yes, he was aware of what was between Nie-zongzhu and I.”
But Jiang Cheng has again looked towards Nie Mingjue and the child. Lan Xichen continues to watch with that usual benevolent smile upon his face, but there is a new addition: Qin Su, small and lovely at his side. Glancing to Jin Guangyao he finds him, too, watching them: his two sworn brothers, his wife, his son.
“….but there’s nothing of that now.”
“Why, Jiang-zongzhu, what are you accusing me of?”
Even though Jin Guangyao hasn’t looked away from the tableau before him, a blush now burns high on Jiang Cheng’s cheeks. Qin Su smiles, her exhaustion only faintly apparent as Nie Mingjue continues to hold his former deputy’s child, Lan Xichen curved at his side like the white crescent moon. He appears now to be dangling a small piece of jade just above Jin Rusong’s chubby folded fingers, though the child’s hardly old enough to pay attention to such things.
“I’m not accusing you of anything,” he says, at last, and Jin Guangyao chuckles.
“I know. I’m only teasing.” When Jiang Cheng looks to him, his politician’s smile has returned in full force. “So – would you like to come and meet him?”
Looking back, Jiang Cheng struggles to make out anything of Jin Rusong; he’s so very hard to make out with any clarity, buried as he is in the arms of the big man. “They seem happy enough.”
“Oh, they won’t mind sharing.”
“No, it’s – it’s fine.” He’s already taken a step backward, figuratively as well as literally. He takes another one now. “It’s getting late, anyway.”
“As you wish, Jiang-zongzhu.” One hand rises, golden sleeve shifting like a beam of sunlight against the night shadows. “Shall I escort you back to the Fragrance Hall?”
“I know the way.”
“Well, then.” The bow he offers goes deep, low and generous to a fault. “A good night to you, then.”
But Jiang Cheng is not the one to leave first. Instead he watches Jin Guangyao glide away, and into the heart of his own home. The two men immediately look up at his approach, with two distinct reactions: the open delight of Lan Xichen, the wary watchfulness of Nie Mingjue. But Jiang Cheng sees only Jin Guangyao’s back, and nothing of what he shows to either of the men before him.
Jiang Cheng turns his own back, and returns to his own room alone. Without Jin Ling’s presence, there’s no party in Carp Tower worth his attention, anyway.
If there is one thing that Jin Guangyao would very much like at this moment, it would be to get some sleep. But given it’s not something he usually gets anyway, he can continue to live without it. Even with the added stresses of an infant child, he will manage; their household, at least, is permitted the usual nanny and wetnurse one would expect of a gentry child. Qin-furen has even come to assist her daughter, though she avoids him at all costs. Qin Su has yet to notice the intentional nature of it. If Jin Guangyao has his way, she never will.
Even this early in the morning, he has urgent matters to attend to. His father always has tasks for him. He will not go near Xue Yang while so many non-Jin cultivators are gathered in Carp Tower, nor will he chance the dungeons deep beneath the tower where he is ensconced, experimenting with the Yiling Patriarch’s writings and experiments. But this is only temporary respite. Soon enough the guests will leave, and he will again do exactly as his father commands.
It is the only way to get what he himself wants, in the end.
This close to dawn, very few people move around Carp Tower. Truthfully, it is only the servants who do so; truthfully, Jin Guangyao is as much a servant as any of those he nominally commands. Therefore he does not expect to run into him here at all.
Jin Guangyao turns on the path just quick enough to catch him. Nie Huaisang is nowhere near as tall and broad as his brother, but is still surprisingly heavy for his size; there is more to him than the eye would see. As a result he cannot but stagger slightly, pushing him back even as Nie Huaisang still clings to his sleeves with wide limpid eyes gazing up delightedly to meet his own.
“Are you drunk?”
“No!” Swaying a little, he screws up his nose, pouts; his grip on his fan however remains steady. “Well. Maybe a little.”
“Have you been to bed?”
“Nope!” With fan spread now, he chances a bright-eyed look from behind its careful calligraphy. “There’s too many things going on in this place for me to want to sleep, San-ge! How do you even keep track of all the gossip here? Every time I turn around there’s some new thread to pull!”
“I don’t doubt it.” Without even bothering to hide a sigh, he says, “Come with me, I’ll see you to your quarters.”
This time when Nie Huaisang waves the fan, he just avoids smacking Jin Guangyao in the face with it. “No, no, I’m not tired yet – how about we go see the baby, instead?”
“Your baby is the cutest baby I have ever seen.”
Again, he does not check his exasperation; this entire encounter is just a replay of many a day back in the Unclean Realm. “And how many babies have you seen, Huaisang?”
“He’s cuter than Jin Rulan,” he says immediately, utterly without shame; in fact, he’s grinning broadly when he adds, “And that’s just the truth. Not flattery. Jin Rulan was an ugly little baby.”
Rolling his eyes this time, a gesture that cannot help but remind him of Jin Rulan’s other uncle, Jin Guangyao indicates the path for only a second before he takes it himself. “You are definitely going to bed, right this minute.”
He doesn’t need to look back to know that Nie Huaisang will be pouting again behind his fan. But he follows him all the same, surprisingly even-stepped for someone who is probably well on their way to second-day drunk. With his own headache slowly blossoming behind his temples, Jin Guangyao doesn’t bother wishing he could live a life as hedonistic and careless as Nie Huaisang’s. Even had his father acknowledged him from birth, as had Nie Huaisang’s father, he doubts he ever would have been granted the liberties Nie Huaisang often seems barely aware he possesses.
Even now, he’s perfectly cheerful as he catches up to Jin Guangyao, nudging him just hard enough to break his step. “We should get Jiang-xiong married next,” he says, conspiratorial and careful. “More babies!”
“You could get married.”
“Oh, heavens, no.” When Jin Guangyao glances sideways, he finds that Nie Huiasang gives him a surprisingly steady look in return. “Can you see me getting married, San-ge? Whoever would we talk into doing such a thing!”
“I’m sure your brother could find you a suitable bride.”
“Da-ge can’t find himself a suitable bride. Like I’d trust him to find one for me.” The fan, already moving in slow sway, begins a much more agitated flutter. “He’d probably pick one of our Nie cousins. Some terrifying tall lady with a saber that eats yao for breakfast and drinks blood in place of tea. And she’d probably make me go out for saber practice every. Single. Morning.” Shuddering, not entirely melodramatically, he finishes by announcing, “No, I think the bachelor life is enough for me, San-ge.”
“Do you not want children of your own?”
“I think I’m child enough for myself.” His sunny grin does not quite match the hard accuracy of his own self-analysis. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
“I wouldn’t want to offend you, Huaisang.”
“Liar.” But his smile vanishes. Then, he stops; Jin Guangyao checks a sigh, even as he does so too. But as Nie Mingjue’s eyebrows have drawn downward, his fan has closed. There’s something in the way he droops forward, as sudden and miserable as an uprooted flower, that makes Jin Guangyao regret ever mentioning Nie Mingjue at all.
“I don’t know if Da-ge will ever get married.”
The quiet words leave much unspoken: time is running out. The qi deviation promised by his family’s legacy will come, whether or not Jin Guangyao does as his father commands and hurries it along. And he can. The rewritten Song of Clarity will bring even the great Nie sect leader to his knees.
And yet, whenever his fingers pass over the guqin strings, he still cannot bring himself to play it.
“He’s a particularly stubborn man, Huaisang. His standards are very high.” Laying a hand upon his shoulder, cold comfort though it must be, he adds with the usual soothing tone he’d mastered three days into his association with the young master of the Qinghe Nie, “And you really must take comfort in the fact that, unlike Jiang Wanyin, it’s not as if he has alienated every matchmaker in Qinghe.”
He looks up so suddenly Jin Guangyao actually flinches. “It’s not like he’s ever even spoken to a single matchmaker in Qinghe.” As Nie Huaisang’s gaze turns pensive, searching, Jin Guangyao abruptly wants nothing so much as to slap both hands over that mouth and shut him up completely. Instead, he only smiles, as he always smiles, and Nie Huaisang sighs again. “I saw him with Jin Rusong.”
And of course, Nie Huaisang cannot not take a hint, politely worded or no. “He…” The fan unfolds again, a slow rumble of brontide rather than sharp crack of thunder. “…he looked sad.”
It’s not quite a warning. “Huaisang.”
Yet he goes on, because of course he does. Nie Huaisang has never needed to learn to watch his words; there’s always been someone else to do as much for him. “Qin Su was the one to suggest your marriage, wasn’t she?”
“She was.” He speaks slow, careful, bland as he would be over seating arrangements for a banquet. “I made rather the impression on her during our encounter during Sunshot, or so it seems.”
Nie Huaisang looks up from beneath his eyelashes; a look that should be faintly coquettish is, oddly, watchful in a way that makes Jin Guangyao frown internally. “But you admire her in return.”
“I do.” This time, he allows his voice to harden in a way that brooks no argument. “Very much so, in fact.”
Nie Huaisang has no immediate response to this, which ought to be a relief. Yet he remains still, slender silver form against the golden gilt corridors of Carp Tower. The early morning sunlight glints from the guan worked through his braids, closed fan now resting light against the tip of his nose. He’s brooding, and it’s not as if Jin Guangyao hasn’t seen this a thousand times before. And yet now—
“Are you going to have more children?”
He blinks, then shakes his head. “I rather think at this stage that that is more Qin Su’s choice than mine.”
Even though the lie comes with such easy facility, even though it is a lie that Nie Huaisang could never see through, he barely suppresses a flinch when Nie Huaisang rounds on him, fan deployed and eyes dark and demanding. “Do you miss him?”
And he has to look away. He does not often allow himself the unfettered memory of his time in Qinghe spent at Nie Mingjue’s side. It seems unfair that Nie Huaisang, the least adept disciple in the Unclean Realm, should be the one to rip Jin Guangyao open from sternum to groin – and with mere words, and not even a saber.
And still Nie Huaisang watches as he struggles. He can only but hope he’s drunk enough not to remember this later, though in his experience he’s never known Nie Huaisang to forget something he wants to know. And Jin Guangyao sighs. He cannot imagine living with him again. But conversely, cannot imagine a world without Nie Mingjue in it.
“What is past is past, Huaisang. We have both moved on.”
“I don’t know about that.” Again the fan snaps closed; for the first time, Jin Guangyao really takes notice of the taotie carved upon its silver cover, fierce snarling creature so utterly at odds with the soft rounded features of its master. Still, Nie Huaisang’s eyes are unreadable when he says, “I really don’t think he’s ever going to marry.”
“Well, then you really ought to consider it yourself.” The forced smile is nothing that the both of them haven’t seen before. “Even though any child you sire is probably going to end up being raised beside my own, if your past behaviour is any indication of what kind of a father you’ll be.”
“I then never had a father myself. Not really.” He pauses, his eyes sliding sideways, mouth turned down in harsh curve. “Or a mother,” he mutters, and then turns his gaze back so suddenly that again Jin Guangyao cannot help but be reminded of a master swordsman. “But I had Da-ge,” he says. “And I had you.”
“I think I’ll go to bed now.” The announcement comes sunnily enough, strangely easy even as he turns away. He’s well beyond Jin Guangyao’s reach when he says, despite it being well past dawn: “Good night, San-ge!”
He vanishes far too easily. Left alone, Jin Guangyao has nothing left for himself now but a slow, long sigh. Turning himself, he makes to return to his office; that burgeoning headache from earlier has begun a gentle pounding beat now. The tone of the day has certainly been set, and set low.
Ensconced in his own chambers, he sets the kettle to boiling before retrieving a pot of particular dried leaves. It had been a gift from Gusu. Though not his particular speciality, Lan Xichen has a deft hand with healing herbs; it seems to come to him so easily, in the same manner as so many other things. Considering this as he scoops out a measure, Jin Guangyao acknowledges that faint pang of something that might be resentment. It lingers even as he pours the water, watches the leaves dance in the vortex that results.
It’s several hours later, and he is several reports deep, when a knock to the door rouses him from his work. It’s also still early. Raising his head, he calls, “Come in.”
The figure that enters is not his secretary, as he might have expected. Instead: here before him now stands Jiang Wanyin, severe-faced and impeccably dressed. He has always suited the rich purples, the deep regal hues of the Yunmeng Jiang. But then appearances are everything, especially when you are the youngest sect leader to one that had so very nearly been entirely eradicated.
With chosen smile in place, Jin Guangyao rises so that he might fold again to bow. “Jiang-zongzhu.”
The manner in which he waves away the formality cannot exactly be taken as friendly; it’s more that he’s taking the gesture as the banal pleasantry they both understand it to be. “Lianfang-zun.” His right hand, braceleted with Zidian’s chain, tightens about Sandu. “I would like to speak with you.”
With easy grace Jin Guangyao indicates the place across from him, even as he turns to the teapot again. This time he prepares a different blend, an overly fragranced concoction that seems to be the fashion amongst the Lanling elite this season. Jin Guangyao often thinks he’d rather sip at algae-riddled pondwater.
He sees no point in hurrying these pleasantries along, for all he knows Jiang Wanyin’s short temper; after years in the house of Nie Mingjue, however, Jin Guangyao knows exactly how to walk such a line. Still, the uneasy energy of the other man mirrors the charge of the air before a thunderstorm. When they are settled at last with their tea, Jin Guangyao gives fresh bland smile, thinks Jiang Wanyin should just be grateful he won’t insist on Lan silence over their beverages.
“What can I do for you today, Jiang-zongzhu?”
Jiang Wanyin seems unsettled, but then that is by design. Jin Guangyao had given him access to several seeming-secrets the day before, but despite those confidences they are now again two men from two very different sects: hardly friends, not even strictly colleagues.
His callused fingers tighten about the ridiculous gilt cup. “I want Jin Ling to spend more time in Lotus Pier.” There’s something of the air of a prepared speech about it even though he adds nothing more than, “It is as much a part of his heritage as this place. He deserves to know it better.”
He’s barely two years old, but then, Jin Guangyao isn’t inclined to argue the fact. “Unfortunately, that is something you would have to raise with my father.”
“But I would appreciate your support.”
“Whether or not said support would be of any great use to you is another matter.” Still, he nods easily enough, and finds that he means it when he says, “But have no fear, Jiang-zongzhu. I will willingly tender it.”
For all Jiang Wanyin will never know him well enough to tell an empty promise from one intended to be fulfilled, he takes this to be the truth that it is. He’s quiet for a long moment, one hand still curled about the small cup. He’s yet to drink from it. Jin Guangyao hardly blames him.
“You were from Yunping.”
The statement gives him the slightest pause. “That is where I was born and raised, yes.”
“Do you miss it?”
These are questions he does not care to answer. There are certainly ways around them should he choose not to do so. But Jiang Wanyin’s shadowed features are as blunt and straight as his words, and Jin Guangyao makes a different choice entirely.
“I do.” And he gives a low self-deprecating chuckle, which sparks something in Jiang Wanyin’s eyes he cannot immediately interpret. “I mean, it sounds silly to say so, given I ought just be glad to have regular access to food at all times, but I’ve never grown to like the cuisine of any of the other sects.” He raises one hand, lets it fall; he watches Jiang Wanyin’s eyes follow the elegant little gesture. “The Qinghe Nie love their meat too much; the Gusu Lan favour little else above bland nutrition, and the Lanling Jin are always so very, very rich.” And he sighs, perhaps just a little too overwrought. “What I would not give for the light flesh of steamed fish, the sharp sweet spice of a decent Yunmeng sauce.”
“I could send you some.”
Though not entirely unexpected, it still comes somewhat as a surprise. “You really needn’t do such a thing, Jiang-zongzhu.”
“Then just assume it’s not for your benefit. Do it for Jin Ling.” Curling his lip as he looks down into his untouched, oversteeped tea, he says dryly, “Don’t let him grow up on the lousy excuse for good food they serve in this tower.”
Though he speaks mildly enough, Jin Guangyao supposes Jiang Wanyin will not have missed his own lack of partaking in the stupid tea. “You do know I have extensive influence over the household and the kitchens.”
“It’s still your father’s house.”
“Indeed it is, Jiang-zongzhu.” Folding his hands carefully in his own golden-silked lap, the carefully stitched peony clearly displayed even upon his narrow chest, he says, “But one day it will belong to A-Ling, and I will not forget that.”
At that, Jiang Wanyin holds his silence, at least for a moment. Even now he has not taken a single sip of his tea. When he does look up it comes sudden, eyes narrowed like dark lightning strike.
“Did your mother sing you lullabies?”
Jin Guangyao allows himself the slight raise of eyebrows. “That’s an odd question.”
Again, he has a brief internal debate; speaking of his mother is not something he is often inclined to do, even with those he trusts and cares for. He can count on one hand the number of times he has willingly brought her up with even Lan Xichen, for starters. Information is currency, and this is not a subject on which he spends easily.
“She did, yes,” he says, at last, cautious in his own mind even if not in tone. Jiang Wanyin sets the teacup down with a decisive click, shakes his head.
“My mother didn’t really do things like that.” He’s staring at the faint crimson hue of the tea as his jaw works. “Jiejie sometimes did, I guess, but even then…I don’t really remember them.” There’s something strangely defensive to the set of his fine features, the timbre of his voice when he meets Jin Guangyao’s gaze again. “It’s not something I really ever thought about.”
At last he takes a slow sip of his own tea. “I see.”
“You’re going to make me say it, aren’t you.”
It’s just one eyebrow raised this time. “What do you mean?”
“Can you teach them to me?” It’s not a demand; in fact, there’s that high flush gathering on his cheekbones again. Jin Guangyao has always thought the look quite fetching on him. “They say you have an excellent memory,” he ploughs on, even as his colour deepens. “That you never forget anything you’ve been taught.”
“This one might be so humble as to say that he is not so extraordinary as all that, perhaps,” he murmurs into his teacup, before setting it down again. “But yes. I do remember the lullabies of my early childhood.”
“I asked a question.” There’s a gathering edge to his words, a shining blade silently sharpening itself. “Will you do it or not?”
There is some power to be held in this exchange, though Jin Guangyao is not yet quite sure of what he might do with it. He smiles behind the rim of his cup once more. “If you wish, Jiang-zongzhu. Though I do believe there may be…an issue, which you have not yet considered.”
He speaks too fast when he says, “And what’s that?”
“I would assume the lullabies of the common folk are…somewhat different to those of the gentry.”
To that, he says nothing. His colour remains high, and he still has not touched his own tea. Indeed, as he looks down at it, his expression appears to have turned faintly nauseated. Jin Guangyao doesn’t blame him, even as he takes another swallow himself.
When he regains his voice, it’s sudden, but surprisingly strong. “But they’re still of Yunmeng.” He sets his jaw, and again Jin Guangyao must marvel at the sharp strong lines of it; really, despite his personality, it’s remarkable that he hasn’t been trapped in some ridiculous gentry marriage yet. But then, his inborn stubbornness shines bright when he adds, “And they were sung to his uncle.”
Jin Guangyao finishes his tea, sets the cup delicately down as he holds back his sleeve with his other hand. “I will write them down for you,” he says, perfectly pleasant. “Can you read musical notation, or will I need to teach you the tune, too?”
“I…” Victory leaves him floundering; he’s frowning deeply when he eventually admits, “I never really had a lot of interest in music.”
Jin Guangyao had thought as much, even though between them lies the unspoken ghost of Wei Wuxian and his cursed dizi. Giving a little shrug, Jin Guangyao retrieves an agenda from the other side of his desk, scrutinises it as if he doesn’t have the damn thing memorised a hundred times over already. “From what I understand, the Jiang delegation is not leaving until tomorrow morning. If you are willing to learn, I can teach you. It will just need to be at a particularly early hour, in order to be fitted around my other duties.”
“…you don’t mind.”
He looks up, smiles again in the way that has been known to make an underperforming aide cry. “Oh, I would have been awake either way. It’s just that it’s really the easiest time to rearrange my schedule.”
Despite that, Jiang Wanyin now watches him with an oblique expression of his own; he’s actually beginning to feel vaguely uncomfortable when he asks his next question.
“Do you actually ever sleep?”
“Upon occasion.” Jin Guangyao raises one hand, loosely indicates the teacup he still hasn’t drunk from. “Is there anything else I might do for you today, Jiang-zongzhu?”
“No. Aside from support any submission I make to your father about Jin Ling and his education at Lotus Pier.”
Even as he says this, Jiang Wanyin stands; Jin Guangyao chooses now to remain seated. By dint of long practice, it is not a position of vulnerability unless one allows it to be so. He’s still there when Jiang Wanyin turns, halfway to the door; his words come abrupt as the motion itself.
“You’ll sing them to Jin Rusong, too.”
“Oh, no.” His smile burns, but he only spreads it a little wider. “He’s a Jin. We have our own songs, here.”
“Who taught them to you?”
For a moment, Jin Guangyao merely watches him. He’s a handsome man, Jiang Wanyin. And despite his manner, he is not a stupid man. Sometimes, Jin Guangyao thinks that this might all be easier if he was.
“I taught them to myself,” he says, at last. “There are plenty of books on the subject in the Jin family library.”
“You can’t learn everything from books.”
“Well.” He lets the smile go. “We do what we can.”
“We do.” There’s something deeply unspoken in that pause; whatever it was, Jiang Wanyin takes it with him when he turns away this final time. “I’ll leave you to your work then, Lianfang-zun.”
Still seated, Jin Guangyao watches him leave, slender shadow in deepest purple. They’d called his mother the Violet Spider; less charitable men had called her a harridan and a curse. As far as Jin Guangyao is concerned, people are never just one thing – and certainly never the one thing that the majority believes them to be.
But as he reaches for a different tea sent from and prepared by the Gusu Lan, he supposes he can call Jiang Wanyin one thing in particular:
And there is no doubt that Jin Guangyao will have a use for that. Both for Jin Ling, and for Jin Guangyao himself.