Jin Guangyao was in the middle of nursing A-Song when Jiang Wanyin suddenly appeared at the Unclean Realm's giant gates. Word of this had only just reached her as her son unlatched and she was on her way down to greet the Jiang Sect Leader when she ran into Nie Mingjue, who held a letter.
"Jiang Wanyin is already gone. He handed me this letter from Yiling Wei, asked a few questions, and departed again pleading his own sect's need for him," Her husband explained.
Jin Guangyao sniffed something fishy right away. It reeked to high heavens like the Long River of her Yunmeng homeland.
"That's the Wei Sect's response? What about Er-ge?"
Nie Mingjue's expression darkened. "Jiang Wanyin left very quickly. He knew how things looked."
Jiang Wanyin was indeed politically conscious. According to Qin Su and Nie Huaisang, the young sect leader was involved in a dangerous conspiracy with his brother and sister but had the good sense to keep everyone in suspense about his loyalties. Not enough sense to sever ties completely, but enough to not publicly side against Lanling Jin. Huaisang and Qin Su thought he put on a fair performance of ignorance at the Discussion Conference.
By happenstance, Nie Huaisang tore down the hall with Qin Su, both winded. Huaisang stamped his foot as he fanned himself. "I run down to the gates to see Jiang-Xiong and show off my pretty new wife, and he’s already gone? What's the meaning of this?"
Jin Guangyao gestured vaguely with the dozing infant in her arms at the letter in her husband's hands. "Jiang Wanyin delivered Yiling Wei's response."
Nie Huaisang and Qin Su's eyes widened in understanding.
They all went to the sect leader's bed chamber to discuss this unsettling development since Jin Guangyao regretted every moment spent outside her bed slightly more than every moment spent abed in recovery. She regretted being in such a rush to see Jiang Wanyin - had been in such a rush to have the whole ordeal of feeding her son over with actually - that she had skipped over aftercare for her breasts.
Jin Guangyao stepped behind a screen to apply salve to her chaffing nipples and to wrap her breasts with cotton binding to support them and absorb any leaks. An uncomfortable but necessary task.
It reminded her of being Meng Yao and being taken out-of-body somewhat each time she sequestered herself away from the world and came to face herself. Binding her breasts was a necessity she was familiar with. She never liked it, never liked the vulnerability of doing it and being left open to discovery. Hated having to do it to feel a bit safer the rest of the time.
Despite everyone knowing her for a woman now - despite perhaps being physically safer than she had ever been her whole life before - Jin Guangyao did not like binding her breasts now either. It drudged up complicated emotions.
This whole motherhood thing, in just the past few days after the initial terrifying euphoria faded, had drudged up decades of emotional debris from her deep waters.
"A-Song looks cuter and cuter every time I see him," Huaisang took the time to gush over his nephew. He poked his nephew’s little cheek with his fan causing the baby to frown. "Nice and fat!"
Nie Mingjue loomed behind his brother until Huaisang sheepishly retracted the offending fan.
"Like a piglet," Jin Guangyao joked mirthlessly. "He certainly eats like one."
A-Song nursed every few hours. His mother could not quite keep up. Jin Guangyao's new physician, a mediocre doctor-midwife to the Qinghe City nobility, comforted her that she would produce more milk in time. It still stung to have to concede to a wetnurse. It felt like an interloper was encroaching on her territory, and truly, it was a dangerous time to let a stranger feed her child. That A-Song would be endangered by his mother's failings...
Jin Guangyao had plucked the wetnurse from utter obscurity, somewhere her father never would have thought to plant something poisonous, and then watched the woman every second she held A-Song. Jin Guangyao was pleased to learn that Nie Huaisang took on a hawkish observation of the domestic staff, particularly those related to Jin Guangyao and the baby, without anyone's asking. It made it just a bit easier to let another person hold her baby and not act like a madwoman about it.
Jin Guangyao gently took him back from Qin Su, who took one last deep whiff of fresh baby while she could, but was undeniably eager to have A-Song back in her own arms. She trusted Qin Su - though she wisely maintained some reservations in light of recent opportunism on her loved one's part. It was simply that Jin Guangyao would always trust herself and Nie Mingjue most with A-Song. Herself, Da-ge, and - she had to trust Er-ge.
Jin Guangyao turned to her husband, rocking their squirming son in arms. "What questions did Jiang Wanyin ask you?"
"If we planned to come around Yiling in the near future and what that would entail, it being across the river from Yunmeng. If we would start communicating with Yunmeng Jiang in the near future about Qinghe Nie's position on different issues since we neglected to attend this past Discussion Conference. If we plan to snub Yunmeng Jiang like we have Lanling Jin and Gusu Lan by forgoing the conference and hosting our own 'lectures' this past summer. Things of that like."
"Matters of pride and state," Jin Guangyao observed.
"Jiang-Xiong has always defined himself by his responsibility as heir and future sect leader," said Nie Huaisang.
His elder brother sent him a withering look. "Well obviously! You are the exception, not the rule, Huaisang."
Huaisang fanned himself happily with the fan Qin Su had gifted him. "It all worked out in the end since I'm no longer the heir. My job is now just to indulge A-Song so you and Yao-jie don't make him into a raving lunatic rabid for swords and politics. I plan to instill him with gentlemanly hobbies to balance things out, don't worry!"
"It makes sense that Jiang Wanyin would be concerned about his sect being left out of major discussions surrounding Yiling Wei and its conflict with Lanling Jin," Jin Guangyao steered the conversation back on a proper course. "Jin Guangshan likely isn't giving Jiang Wanyin much to work off of since the conference. My father clearly suspected Jiang Yanli of collaboration with Wei Wuxian, and he's been suspiciously quiet since the Discussion Conference overall." Likely biding his time for his reputation to recover from punishing poor pregnant Jiang Yanli for loaning horses to the shameless, frolicking Nie exiles. Su Minshan's demise was also a setback to Jin Guangshan's assassination plots that her father was sure to be ruminating on.
"What does not make sense is why Yiling Wei sent their response through Jiang Wanyin and not Er-ge," Jin Guangyao spoke gravely. "Where is he?"
"If not Yiling and not here, then I can only imagine he's back in the Cloud Recesses. The fact he didn't send word of this tells me there wasn't just some emergency back home. He must have been caught communicating with Yiling Wei or something similar," Nie Mingjue deduced.
"And consequently confined again by the Lan Elders." Having endured various arrests and confinements the past several months, she viciously understood what Lan Xichen was going through. Is one of the Venerated Triad forever doomed to be locked away? She wondered. Does Fate conspire to keep us three apart?
Jin Guangyao should have talked him and Nie Mingjue out of these dealings with Yiling Wei. She had realized too late that she should have pressed Nie Mingjue to arrest Wen Qing. Then Jin Guangyao and her sworn brothers could have turned the Wen doctor over to Lanling Jin. Effectively buying Qinghe Nie some time and favor with Jin Guangshan so they could plot against his Chief Cultivator plans more effectively and repairing Lan Xichen's reputation within his own sect by helping to capture a wanted criminal.
Jin Guangyao let guilt get the best of her at a vulnerable moment and endanger Qinghe Nie and Lan Xichen both for the Wens' sakes. She needed to rectify this.
"We must curtail these communications with Yiling Wei through the Jiang Sect. Jiang Wanyin is too susceptible to manipulation by my father since he is funding the reconstruction of Lotus Pier and holds Jiang Yanli in the palm of his hand. He cannot touch her right now due to public sympathy for her and her pregnancy, but she won't be pregnant in the future. Or she will be but it just won't matter."
This current pregnancy only mattered to Jin Guangshan in so far as it provided a nephew or niece to lord over the Jiang Sect Leader should any misfortune befall his dear sister. Just like how Jin Guangyao was likely not targeted by any curse only because Jin Guangshan hoped to have his grandchild rule the Unclean Realm someday. For this reason, A-Song's birth and his One Month Celebration would be announced on very short notice.
"We can send Nie disciples next time. That's preferable to relying on third-party reports anyway; our own can scout out the Burial Mounds." Nie Mingjue spoke as a general.
Jin Guangyao spoke as a politician. "Er-ge isn't reckless. Jiang Wanyin left quickly, before we could probe him for details. There had to have been some sort of incident with Yiling Wei that upset the Lans."
Her husband rebutted her as a friend. "Maybe it upset his clan, but if Xichen thought whatever happened was cause to cut off communication with Yiling Wei, the Lan Elders would have let him tell us. I'd say that since Lan Qiren isn't knocking at our door as well, Xichen actually hasn't said anything against Yiling Wei to his clan. He wants us to press on."
"If Er-ge is even with his clan," Jin Guangyao said ominously.
"Then we can't help Lan Xichen by backing off now," Nie Mingjue asserted. "If Yiling Wei has him, then we'll find out when we send in our disciples to investigate. You infiltrated the Nightless City on the grounds of information-gathering and positioning yourself to take down Wen Ruohan. Wouldn't you agree that getting into the Burial Mounds is the best strategy moving forward, A-Yao?"
Jin Guangyao disagreed, and she thought their own clan elders would disagree as well if they heard her suspicions about further political incidents unfolding in Yiling the past few days. They would dream up worse sins for the Wen Dogs to have committed than even her cynical mind could.
She did not think Wen Qing would be so stupid as to imprison anyone at this point, let alone the Lan Sect Leader. The fact remained something likely happened with Gusu Lan and Yiling Wei. Jin Guangyao simply wanted to exercise an abundance of caution. That was how she would present it to the Nie Elders.
She hated to embolden them to meddle, yet circumstances demanded it.
"What does the letter even say?" She asked, shoving off her discomfort at familiar excuses.
Nie Mingjue glanced over the letter for a reminder. "They want winter food supplies. Rice and dried beef - or any meat really - and live chickens as repayment for Wen Qing's services. Services they imply that they would be happy to extend again in the future. They also asked if we would be interested in purchasing some of Wei Wuxian's cultivation tools. Compasses and flares..."
Qin Su's face lit up brighter and brighter as Nie Mingjue spoke.
"What great news! How soon can we ask Wen Qing to examine my mother?"
Jin Guangyao smiled painfully at her giddiness, feeling a pit in her stomach remembering what Qin Su had at stake. Her eyes fell to the baby in her arms, blinking his darks drowsily at the ceiling, held so tenderly against Jin Guangyao's beating heart. What they both had at stake.
"We need to discuss it with the Nie Elders first," Mingjue informed Qin Su, grimacing sympathetically. "Many of them were upset to hear that a Wen entered the Unclean Realm and we started up talks with the Yiling Patriarch without asking. Jin Guangyao's detractors think this is a sign that the Nie Elders were only formalized as a ploy on her part."
They were, Jin Guangyao conceded with a mental shrug. She had needed the sect at large to trust her, so compromising her own centralized authority as a potential regent had been key. But it hadn't been wholly about optics. There had been real advantages to hers and her husband's health back when things were fragile, decentralizing power to take the pressure off of Nie Mingjue and his unstable core.
Jin Guangyao had expected her Nie Elders to become a headache down the line, but at this moment they once again worked unwittingly in the Madam's favor.
It would take very little to turn them completely against Yiling Wei. From there, Jin Guangyao could steel herself again after months of softening and convince Nie Mingjue, who was secretly eager for any righteous excuse to spurn the Wen Dogs, to take a more direct approach. Qinghe Nie could rebuild relations with Gusu Lan by standing against Yiling Wei. They would salvage Er-ge's reputation and authority - would free him from confinement. Afterward, they could dig through the wreckage of the fledgling sect for solutions to the saber spirits and Ye Meixiu's declining health - along with other secrets to use against her father in his quest to become Head Cultivator. The Venerated Triad could stand against him, together, and win.
Their fate was in Jin Guangyao's hands.
"I want to join this meeting," Jin Guangyao announced to the room. To Mingjue's concerned face, "I grow tired already of laying around and hearing about things second-hand. I miss the dignity of discussing political matters in a proper meeting hall rather than in bed chambers all these past months - as if that's the only place I belong anymore. You at least get to leave for your rehabilitation."
This was no deception. For how sore she still was down below, Jin Guangyao hated sitting around. Master Deng had been wrong - like always - this postnatal confinement was no more welcome than any of her others, and she defied it just as often for the sake of being more useful than a cow. A-Song slung across her chest in a green sling and Nie Mingjue usually following after her, spitting concerned rebukes. If he was not busy training himself back into fighting shape and delegating that task to Qin Su. Bolder and bolder these days, Qin Su was even pushier about getting Jin Guangyao into bed than she was when they were lovers.
"What of A-Song?" Nie Mingjue asked, reaching out and stroking the downy black hairs peeking out from under their son's little hat.
A-Song stirred at the sensation, stretching his back and flexing his tiny fingers around the corner of his blanket. He looked up at his parents with bleary eyes before curling further against his mother's warmth. Perhaps more a kitten than a piglet. Either or, Jin Guangyao could not stand to leave him.
"A-Song just ate. He'll sleep right through the meeting. And what better way than a sleeping baby to keep everyone's voices down." She smiled playfully up at her husband.
Nie Mingjue looked back at her, frowning slightly. Jin Guangyao's smile nearly faltered, sensing disappointment from him. That pit in her stomach - the one she felt opening wide in her the whole first week of her son's life - Jin Guangyao felt like she was sinking in on herself into it.
"I won't keep you from the meeting," Nie Mingjue said finally. "A-Song should stay back, in case he cries."
"Oh! I can help with that!"
Qin Su wormed her way into the meeting on a compromise between Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue. She would take A-Song out of the meeting if he started fussing. If that did not happen - as Jin Guangyao bluffed with dark circles under both hers and Mingjue's eyes - then Qin Su would be free to sit with Nie Huaisang and contribute, despite her known status among the Nie Elders as a fake wife.
A larger drawing-room close to the sect leader's private office had been officially designated as the sect council room. The Nie Elders poured into the room the evening after Jiang Wanyin's departure and took their seats along three sides of the room. Jin Guangyao took a special seat beside Nie Mingjue at the head of the room, partially to signify her status as Madam Nie and partially because she still required a special pillow to sit on...
She sat on it like a throne, greeting everyone as they arrived with exceeding dignity.
Early-arrivals lingered over A-Song to coo at the newborn heir - interrogate his parents - laden them with unasked-for advice on childrearing - and tactfully offer better suggestions for courtesy names. They took their sweet time about it, Jin Guangyao smiling growing tight in the face of it all where Nie Mingjue's glowing pride faded and his puffed-out chest deflated.
Some Elders ran a bit late. Like Nie Puyi, her husband's cousin and Jin Guangyao's former guard, who had just recently recovered from her retaliation during Nie Han's assassination attempt. A scar now ran down from his left nostril down to his upper lip like a smear of bloody snot. He stalked into the room with his head held high and saluted Nie Mingjue, and Jin Guangyao by virtue of her being too closeby to ignore. Jin Guangyao greeted him with quiet magnanimity, pretending to forgive him like she had chosen to do with Wang Qiao.
Nie Puyi had learned nothing from the spirit wasp crawling up his nose, unfortunately. Jin Guangyao might have simply remained cautious of him but overall tolerant of his existence, had he not looked at her with such unveiled scorn when greeting her. His severe ponytail bared his every slight resemblance to Nie Mingjue to the world, showing off his close relation to the main branch and reminding Jin Guangyao of when her relationship with her sworn brother plummeted to its lowest points. To salt the wound, his arrogant, strutting bearing reminded her of scornful Jin cousins.
Jin Guangyao watched Nie Puyi take his seat with an impassive mask and quietly loathed him.
The meeting got underway with more minor matters, to clear their docket of any petty distractions and also prevent other important matters from being pushed off, should things get ugly while speaking about Yiling Wei and eat up valuable time. Something Jin Guangyao fully expected to happen when she slipped in her suspicions about Yiling Wei and the Lans...
Nie Lin and Tao Minghao reported on the search for Nie Ruofei's notes and the examination of Su Minshan's corpse. Their usual dry, monotones gave way to a slightly morbid enthusiasm for the topics. Jin Guangyao attributed her queasy feelings to that.
Having swept the library one last time in the days since A-Song's birth, arrangements were now being made to open the shared tomb of Sect Leader Nie Taiyan and his consorts in search of any journals, notes, or clues hidden inside. These preparations included precautions against the tomb security arrays and stirring resentment of the spirits. Nie Lin credited the plan to Jin Guangyao, and she might have brushed this aside as someone setting her up to take the blame should it turn out they desecrated the grave of such honored figures for no reason.
Then, Nie Lin thanked Jin Guangyao for her permission in undertaking new projects with what new materials had been successfully - if unintentionally - rediscovered in the repeated searches of the depths of the Nie archives. He extended these thanks on the behalf of Senior Nie Lingling, his newly appointed co-coordinator, and his husband, Nie Aibing, the secretary assigned to the project.
Nie Lin's gratitude left Jin Guangyao incredibly vulnerable to the mention of Su Minshan.
Tao Minghao described the state of Su Minshan's body dampened the warm feeling that Nie Lin sparked in Jin Guangyao's chest. She bore through Tao Minghao's report on her progressing investigation of the corpse, the spiritual tool used to curse Nie Mingjue, and the effects she hypothesized resulted from the curse rebounding and the effects she hypothesized resulted from the use of the Thread of Damnation, as it had come to be called. Tao Minghao showed off the Thread in a clear vial held against the light, and informed her fellow Elders that she believed it was just one of many dangerous objects that Lanling Jin took from the Nightless City. Ones that Sect Leader Jin was simply too afraid of using himself.
"My father won't gamble with his own life and reputation. He will try to outsource the use of such dangerous cultivation tools to someone else every time. Someone who is not even really Lanling Jin, but who he thinks he can manipulate for whatever reason and cast out again without consequence," Jin Guangyao herself and Su Minshan were prime examples of that. However, Jin Guangyao's situation would appear like too easy a turn-around to an outsider, giving the fools false hope. No one must believe they can escape collaboration with my father unscathed, Jin Guangyao thought. Her eyes fell to her sleeping son in her arms. "We need to show the cultivation world what happens to you when Jin Guangshan whispers promises in your ear and points you at Qinghe Nie. The body needs to be preserved perfectly until after A-Song's One Month Celebration."
Tao Minghao looked disappointed. "No dissection until then?"
The Nie Elders ruled on it unanimously. Not out of respect for the attempted assassin's remains, or general disgust at the proposed scientific inquiries, but in agreement with Jin Guangyao's plan once she explained. It slaked their thirst for vengeance on Su Minshan better than Tao Minghao's science would.
"Speaking of Nie Song's forthcoming celebration..."
The meeting trudged along then, delegating certain duties in the preparations and hammering out the heightened security around the event. The secrecy of the event was impressed upon everyone present, as invitations would not be issued until scarcely a week beforehand. There was some debate about snubbing Sect Leader Jin, but Jin Guangyao, Qin Su and Nie Huaisang, who all knew and interacted with the man, expressed their belief he would send some sort of delegate in his stead anyway. It was best not to make Qinghe Nie took like the petty ones now.
"If things go well, we should invite Wen Qing to the celebration," It was less a suggestion from Qin Su than it was a physical urging at Jin Guangyao's side. She could feel Qin Su nudging her despite the other woman sitting perfectly well-postured with her hands in her lap. Nudging Jin Guangyao ever closer to the edge...
"Later," Jin Guangyao whispered back, digging in her heels.
Dread welled up in her at the defiant flash in Qin Su's eyes that answered her.
She braced herself for some type of outburst throughout Aunt Ruilin's reports on the ongoing charitable projects in Qinghe. Fortunately, Qin Su cared enough about what she was hearing that she did not dare interrupt and let Jin Guangyao take in the progress as well.
The initiatives to send more medicine and food to targeted districts had been successful, with fewer reported illnesses that summer than those from last year. Granted, they were working off the single monk at the Guanyin Temple's estimations.
The city's mediocre officials, in conjunction with imperial authorities with a vested interest in the city's prosperity, had agreed to finance a well-digging project for the eastern city districts, starting next spring. Qinghe Nie would be enlisted to install talismans which would ensure these wells would not become as polluted as the river had been. Jin Guangyao did not think the river was a long cause like the reports made it out, but she had her own tentative plans for the spring to address that issue. It was not the sort of thing Qinghe and Imperial elites would be interested in, that was for certain.
Jin Guangyao's head had drifted off to cost expenditures and infrastructure, gardens and renewal, and humble daydreams of clean water flowing freely through squalid city districts, pouring life back into a place half-dead. She remembered A-Shang's fake cultivation manual. Her little friends and their mother begging outside that Guanyin Temple. The charm tucked tied the lattice of her son's crib. The deep pit began to well up with something.
She came back to herself, sensing Nie Mingjue's eyes on her.
Jin Guangyao flushed seeing him smile at her.
It might have seemed something girlish from the outside, but truly, it was born of shame.
Jin Guangyao focused her attention back on the meeting as Nie Ruilin and the Treasurer finished their summary of next year's new allocations toward charitable work in the city. Reports Jin Guangyao requested a copy of for Qin Su to review. With that report promised for the next day, the meeting shuffled along to the next item on the docket.
Aunt Miu was about to present an issue to the Nie Elders that apparently fell outside her realm of expertise as the Mistress of Horse, when suddenly there was a commotion in the hall.