When Nie Minglin is three she is the darling of the Unclean Realm. Everyone says so, and she’s pretty sure they mean it, even the quiet part in her head that is scared of everything, the part she ignores because it’s weird and scary. Instead, she listens to her uncle’s servants and his guests. A-Lin is so smart! A-Lin is so sweet!
No one says it more than her uncle. Actually, Sect Leader Nie Nuaisang isn’t really her uncle. He’s actually her cousin, the son of her mother’s brother’s concubine. He adopted her after her parents went to ‘rest with their sabers’ and he has done nothing but praise her ever since. She is mostly sure he means it. He is Chief Cultivator. She doesn’t know what that is yet. She just knows he wears pretty robes and talks a lot.
He commissions her robes of silver and grey. Most of the robes of the Nie disciples are plain, but he orders ones with birds embroidered on the sleeves.
“Sparrows,” she cries, the first time she puts them on. She laughs and runs in circles, and keeps well away from the steps of the main hall. “Sparrows!”
Her uncle catches her with a smile.
“No, A-Lin,” he says, “Cuckoos.”
It is a joke, he explains. Cuckoos are birds that lay their eggs in the nest of other birds, so that they might care for their young. Some people say they are pests. But it takes a certain bit of ambition doesn’t it? Besides, what parent wouldn’t be proud of a child inexplicably bigger and fiercer than the rest!
“Am I a cuckoo?”
Her uncle uses the fan to poke her nose.
“Don’t worry, A-Lin,” he laughs. “You are exactly where you’re meant to be.”
He teaches her a lot about birds.
Nie Minglin's reflection doesn’t look like Nie Minglin. She’s not sure why -- the concept is a little beyond a four year old girl. What she does understand is that there’s a big bronze standing mirror in her room, taller than she’ll ever be, and every time she looks into it the girl who looks back waves when she waves and smiles when she smiles-- but still, she’s very sure it isn’t her.
So, instead she tells her how her day is. Surely, the girl would like to know. Hello, A-Lin is learning how to meditate! Hello, A-Lin is learning how to paint!
The girl smiles and nods just as excitedly as A-Lin when she tells it -- but still, it doesn’t feel like she knows her very well at all.
When Nie Minglin is six she watches her uncle hold court in the Unclean Real, seated beside him in front of the family crest.
She is very grateful he lets her sit there. Soon she will understand she should be grateful for a lot about her uncle. He is the one who took her in, even though her parents died so suddenly after her birth. He adopted her even though she was born under bad stars, on a terrible day -- the day the previous Chief Cultivator went away, even. She just knows he never came back and as a result her uncle has a lot of work and it must be bad because he complains about it all the time.
She doesn’t understand why thinking about the previous Chief Cultivator gives her shivers, any more than she understands why she hates storms and the smell of temple incense, but she doesn’t think too hard about that. She is six.
What she does understand is that her uncle doesn’t have to spend time with her. But he lets her come to watch him talk to guests. She likes watching him talk to guests. They come from all over. Local officials, cultivators from other sects, merchants. They all ask for favors from him.
The Chief Cultivator can do a lot of favors.
But A-Lin has her own skills.
“Mm. What do you think about all that?” asks Nie Huaisang, leaning over to whisper to her behind the shield of his fan. The local magistrate has just excused himself. He’s going to the guest pavilion, to await an answer to his suit.
“Admin brother talks a lot,” reports Nie Minglin. “He keeps squeezing his hands though. Like this.”
She demonstrates by wringing her chubby little fingers, and her uncle’s eyes dance in barely contained mirth.
“Does he now?” And her uncle leans in, “Why do you think that is, A-Lin?”
A-Lin is a good girl. She will not speak ill of their honored guest, but she puffs her cheeks and notes solemnly: “I don’t think he lost everything when the ship sank.”
The local official’s request for a loan is denied, and his accounts are audited. He’s sent back to the imperial capital on charges of embezzlement within a month, but A-Lin only understands that much later.
A-Lin is a fixture at all of his personal audiences, of which he complains there are too many. She comes to his parties, of which he always complains there are too few. She sits next to him on the dais, in the finest silver and grey robes he commissioned for her. She holds the fan he gave her for her birthday, making sure to curve her wrist just like he does.
“Chief Cultivator,” says one of her uncle’s guests, a pompous man in black and gold, which means he is from the Yao sect, he is a funny man who should not be taken too seriously. Though Nie Minglin knows better than to laugh in front of him. “With regards to Fierce Corpses in Iron Town, are we certain such things are suitable for such….delicate ears?”
The Yao cultivator nods at Nie Minglin. Her uncle laughs. “Oh, A-Lin?” He titters his fan at her. A-Lin, obligingly, titters back. “Don’t you worry. She is a perfect gentleman.”
“Uncle, A-Lin is a girl,” says A-Lin, scowling. She is at an age where there are Rules and they must be Followed.
“And a much better one than me,” insists Nie Huaisang. It is a joke. Everyone is supposed to laugh. A-Lin smiles in that bright way that shows the dimples in her round face. But she holds her fan up over her mouth the way uncle showed her. You never want to tell anyone too much about yourself. A-Lin takes it to heart.
When Nie Minglin is seven she locks herself in her room and refuses to come out.
Her tutor is startled. One moment she was performing a flawless recitation of a passage from the Nie sect cultivation manual, the next her eyes go wide, fixed on a flicker of movement at a walkway across from the pavilion.
Her uncle steps in through the double doors, all smiles. “Oh, A-Lin,” he is saying. “What is that you’ve memorized?”
Her tutor prods her with a cautious severity. She’s never faltered in a recitation before. Her ability for memorization is without peer
“No,” says Nie Minglin.
“You’ve done this before,” says her tutor.
“I know,” says Nie Minglin. Her voice gets very high and very panicked. “I know I have.”
She dashes out of the pavilion before her uncle can get a good look at her.
Her tutors check on her. Her attendants check on her. The steward checks on her. She doesn’t come out for her afternoon lessons. She doesn’t come out for tea, or even supper. An attendant attempts to lure her out with a tray full of hot steaming food. It goes cold at her door.
Around her, the Unclean Realm titters in concern. Is the Young Mistress unwell? Is she possessed? The typical guarding wards over the living quarters remain undisturbed, but in the Unclean Realm there is always the fear of errant spirits. They work with them often enough. Perhaps there is something worse afoot. Perhaps they ought to contact a doctor. Perhaps another sect.
When, at last, a day has passed and two very muscular Nie cultivators unhinge the doors at her uncle’s behest, she is not in her room.
At age seven Nie Minglin tries to run away.
She doesn’t make it very far. She’s only seven, after all. A young man in servant’s grey can be passed over easily enough, but no one can mistake a seven year old with birds on her sleeves as anything other than the child of a wealthy family. Her uncle’s retainers find her in the next town over, attempting to ship herself out among a barrel of pickles. She jumps in the river when a dock boy gives her up.
She knows how to swim, but her body doesn’t. It’s startling how fast she sinks. They grab her by the back of her hastily stolen peasant robes, and drag her to the nearest inn.
Her uncle finds her in the inn’s back room, still shivering and wet. She’s changed her clothes, but the pickle juice is still in her hair. The steady beating of his fan does little to save him from the smell.
“A-Lin,” he says, eyes full of only a partly-feigned confusion. She flinches away from the softness of his voice. “What’s all this about? Has someone threatened you?”
Nie Minglin says nothing.
She will not say.
She stares at her uncle like a little stone Buddha. The kind that didn’t smile. “I’m seven.”
Her uncle has the nerve to mince. “But you’re so advanced for your age.”
When he sees Nie Minglin’s hands vanish up her sleeves, he sighs and lowers his fan.
“Ah, but A-Lin, let me ask you something. Say, you are having a lovely evening drinking and writing poetry, looking at the moon out the window--”
“I’m still seven.”
“And then you realize, ah, with the window open, I’ve let in a wasp. The biggest, most hideous wasp you can ever imagine. It might even take down a bird.”
Nie Minglin sighs, and waits for him to get to his point.
“You can hear it buzzing. But you have no idea where it might be. You might leave the window open, but no sensible insect has ever availed itself an open window without causing some damage along the way. Tell me, A-Lin, which would you prefer? To see it and know where it is? Or to be unsure whether or not it will be there when you close your eyes to sleep?”
“Isn’t that just being drunk?”
“If one is feeling ambitious, after. Please think about the answer to that, A-Lin.”
He gives her time to think about it. Nie Minglin sighs, drops the fork she’d borrowed from the nearest table, and slowly takes her uncle’s hand.
Nie Minglin is ten when she experiences her first spiritual conference -- not as an official junior. Her studies have been excellent, and no one is about to ask a ten year old for her political opinion, but her tutors have sung songs about her precociousness, and her uncle has run out of excuses to keep her from attending. He knows she’ll just trade clothes with a serving girl to sneak in on the proceedings if left unattended. She’s good at pretending to be older than she is.
So Nie Minglin wears the Nie grey and silver brocade and follows her uncle like an obedient little shadow. She carries a scroll and voraciously makes note of every sect leader who arrives. Her attendants all coo over her studiousness. She will not show them a single page.
Sect Leader Jiang arrives with just two senior disciples. A small retinue, but to be expected. Sect Leader Jiang prefers functionality over a large company. There’s only so many people he can stand in the world -- and the Jiang sect trains for quality of its cultivators over quantity.
‘Moody,’ she writes down diligently, watching the dubious expression he gives other envoys. ‘Suspicious. Will either need convincing on policy or will just agree to make it fast. Find out which.’
Nothing new, she doesn’t write.
She assesses each of the sect leaders are they arrive:
Baling Ouyang: “Tired. Guard is down. Will retire soon. Consider working through the son.”
Pingyang Yao: “Pompous. Extra ornate crown. Wants something. Easily flattered. Votes with Ouyang if possible. Compliment crown.”
Meishan Yu: “Envoy again. Not important enough to them for sect leader to show up. Intends to stay consistent with previous voting record.”
Nie Minglin doesn’t mean to raise her head when they call, “Sect Leader Jin.” But she does.
Jin Rulan arrives late, gold and glaring, and surrounded by an honor guard of twelve stern-faced female cultivators. It’s not an unusual sight of late. Rumor has it that following the death of the previous chief cultivator, the Lanling Jin sect fell into such disgrace that only daughters wished to join. Nie Minglin suspects that surge of female cultivators in Carp Tower has much more to do with Jiang Wanyin calling on his Meishan Yu cousins to provide bodyguards for his young nephew after an early assassination attempt. The whips hanging off their belts indicate as much.
Jin Rulan is twenty-five and raises his head as though ready to challenge the world. He looks brave, resolute, and entirely too ready for the world to bite back. He bows as is required, runs through the respectful greetings in a terse but adequate manner, but his hand is on the back of his spirit dog almost immediately.
‘Young,’ writes Nie Minglin, mostly so she’ll stop staring. Young, and yet older than she’d ever seen him. Where did those fat cheeks go? Where did the silly little pout go? ‘Too many guards. Looks insecure.’
“Oh, A-Lin,” titters her uncle, behind his fan, “So shy, so suddenly. Is that Golden Prince your type, maybe?”
Nie Minglin’s blood goes cold. She looks up, sharply. “Uncle--” she begins, in a voice which breaks. She doesn’t get far. A flash of white tells the entire audience hall the Gusu Lan have arrived. Six senior disciples, each flanking a young man with a gentle countenance, his hands crossed behind his back. Nie Minglin feels her breath catch. The Lan representative’s stance is practiced. It’s the posture of a young sect leader. Or at least of a young man thrust into a position of greater power than he’d necessarily expected to hold.
But the young man is a head shorter and wears the senior disciple whites with no flourish. It’s Lan Sizhui. He’s here on behalf of Sect Leader Lan, who is weak from his latest period of seclusion and could not make the trip. He assures the hall his uncle has given him full authority to act on his best judgment, and hopes they accept Zewu-jun’s most humble apologies for being unable to attend the meeting in person. It’s a beautiful, practiced apology.
After all, he has been sending them on for the past ten years.
Lan Sizhui presents his gifts and moves off to join the other sect leaders at the table. Jin Rulan’s eyes brighten at the sight of him. A moment later they are lost in quiet, animated discussion as they prepare for the salutation ceremony. The sight of Jin Rulan bowing stiffly and Lan Sizhui laughing at him makes Nie Minglin impossibly antsy. She takes a breath, eyes her inkwell, and then flicks it over onto its side. Ink shoots across the good zitan furnishing.
“I’m so sorry,” she sputters, cheeks red. She hides her face behind her sleeves, as mortified as to be expected from a ten year old who’d wanted so badly to look like an adult. “I’ll go clean up.”
She excuses herself so quickly her attendants barely have time to make chase.
She finds Jin Rulan in the halls sometime after hours. She offers him some candy she did not steal from her uncle’s cache under the Nie throne. She’s not supposed to know about that.
“For you, Sect Leader Jin.” The women escorting him coo over her, from their dutiful three steps behind him -- what sweet, precocious child.
The young sect leader blinks. “Huh. So you’re the niece. Isn’t this supposed to be the other way around?”
“I remembered to take dinner,” she says, pressing the candies into his hand.
“Oh, huh guess I -- hey, how did you know that. You’re like, a baby. Also I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
“I’m ten,” she says.
“Like I said, a baby,” repeats Jin Rulan staring at the sweets in his palm. Nie Minglin stands on her toes and grabs his wrist.
“Also, if you bring so many guards with you everywhere, you look scared.”
“You should have more confidence. You fought to get here, didn’t you?”
“Who should have more confidence -- you’re ten!”
Nie Minglin smiles prettily. “And a half,” she says, proudly.
She turns and skips down the hall like a little kid should, leaving the Jin Sect Leader completely confused. But the next day, he arrives at the conference hall with just two guards like his uncle. And his ferocity in the debates is the talk of The Unclean Realm for weeks to come.
When Nie Minglin is eleven she is caught reading confidential letters in her uncle’s offices. Her tutors are aghast. Her uncle feigns shock and betrayal, swooning in his seat. Oh A-Lin, how could you! I know you like playing politics, but to get caught in such a way! Ah, who are you? You are not my adorable niece! Woe! Betrayal and woe!
She stops paying attention somewhere in the middle of the tantrum.
The attendant who’d let her sneak out of her rooms is fired along with the rest of her household staff. She is punished with extra sword practice. It’s repetitive and exhausting but by the end of it she offers her uncle a formal, toneless apology. I got ahead of myself, Uncle. It will not happen again.
It won’t. Nie Minglin goes back to her room and begins her own writing. She’s already memorized the contents of the letter. She reproduces it as perfectly as she can, though she’s still working on her fine motor skills, and this handwriting is not one she often thought to forge.
When she’s done, she holds it out and blows on it. Pressing her finger next to the first character on the page.
You shall forgive my absence from the upcoming summit. I hope a direct letter shall go a way of providing some apology -- no offense is intended to the office of the Chief Cultivator nor to his considerable effort. I humbly assure you that my proxy shall act in the utmost with my interest. They have our confidence.
With regards to matters discussed at the last conference, Sizhui has relayed your intentions to us in full. Rest assured that Gusu Lan remains in support with the reconstruction bill, and we shall provide the requested donations -- on the condition that the Nie sect remains committed to the reconstruction of the northern cultivation retreat.
In regards to the particulars, please direct all responses to the Grandmaster or to Hanguang-jun for a swifter reply. I shall be beyond reach until late spring.
The icy formality could very well leave frost on the underside of the page. There is very little committed to it that is not already known. No great secrets, no glimpse of a personal relationship -- beyond, perhaps, the choice to use her uncle’s title as the main address rather than the ‘younger brother’ that he had once been allowed. There’s nothing about the letter of any particular political value upon that. Hardly worth twelve hours of extra sword training.
Still, when she is done rereading it her thumbs press so hard into the paper it buckles. The wobbly lines in the strokes she has reproduced are not entirely from the weakness of her own hand.
By the age of twelve. Nie Minglin has started to recognize the face in the mirror. She’s told it’s a soft face, a sweet face. The new attendants assure her she will be a great beauty when she comes of age. Her winsome eyes! Her long eyelashes! What round, dimpled cheeks! They try to get her to try make-up and perfumes. She submits to the fussing because it is a good way to gain their trust and affection. Treating one’s staff well is always the first step to a productive household.
But the first time they convince her to try on the make-up of a high lady, of a daughter of the Great Sect, she looks at the powdered face in the bronze mirror and her breath catches.
“Oh, young mistress, are you alright?” The attendant -- Yun, her name is Yun -- catches her shoulder as she flinches away. “I’m so sorry -- was it too much?”
“It’s fine, Miss Yun,” she whispers, shaking as she dares to meet her reflection. “I just -- I look so much older like this.”
“You look like a beautiful woman,” assures Yun.
She looks like the finest courtesan in Yunping -- but Yun is a young woman who has lived in Qinghe all her life. She’s probably never heard of Meng Shi.
"Tell me again what happened to the man you invited to tea, A-Lin?"
Nie Minglin hides her face. "I don't know. It happened very fast."
Her uncle's fan comes down with a sharp 'thwack!' across her hair bun. She jerks forward in surprise.
"I invented that phrase," he says, loftily, "Do not trifle with the master. Let us begin again. What happened to to that man you invited to tea, A-Lin?"
Dutifully, she recites: "He tripped on his robe when he sat down. I tried to steady him, but ah, his swordbelt clipped the glass. It tipped into the lamp. I didn't think it would explode like that! I didn't think it would hit him in the face no less."
"Yes exploding glass does tend to do a lot of damage," muses Nie Huaisang. "A bit, like, say, paying the waitstaff to hold him down while one carves his victim's name in his cheeks, forehead, and chin while he screams -- would you say?"
Her head comes up in alarm. "What?! Uncle, who would ever do that--"
Nie Huaisang eyes her sideways. "Hypothetically."
"I just hope it doesn't scar," she lies, piously.
"Don't worry, A-Lin," he sighs. "They'll most definitely scar."
"He'd been quite handsome." She lowers her eyes a little more. "It seemed to mean a lot to him."
"It did," sighs Nie Huaisang. "And now we'll have to actually pay him severance. Yes, yes. We'll pay the maid too. Much more than him. I've already found a old doctor the country to marry her. Don't worry. He's too tired for sex. But really, A-Lin. I think it's time you learned some discipline. I've spoiled you much too much."
So when Nie Minglin is thirteen, she receives her spirit saber. It is ceremonial more than anything. All inner clan Nie disciples of that age are expected to carry them. The Nie armory lies in the mountains, a rocky path lined by wards. They flap like banners as she ascends the stairs to the sword shrine.
Her uncle escorts her. They both tried to get out of it. In the guise of filial devotion, she grips his upper arm hard enough he yelps.
“A-Lin, A-Lin, please. I am just a frail old man,” protests her uncle, who is, in fact, barely middle-aged and a cultivator anyway. He doesn’t look a day over twenty.
“If I fall,” she says, sweetly, “you will come after me, won’t you, Uncle?”
“I would no less for my talented charge,” laughs Nie Huaisang. When they reach the shrine, he more or less shoves her in the direction of the forgemasters.
The darksteel gates and the heat from the work inside stinks like the Nightless City at its darkest -- but this is a memory far beyond Nie Minglin’s meager lifespan. She puts it out of her head as she is presented a long, unmounted blade, freshly tempered. Without its pommel, it is little more than a plain glossy square of metal. After the ceremony, it will be completed -- but first it must be named.
Her uncle waits. He expects her to hesitate. He expects her to try and negotiate, the way she tried back when the matter was first broached. Uncle, I have no aptitude for combat. Uncle, you never wear your saber--
But Nie Minglin doesn’t feel like delaying the inevitable. So she walks over and places her hand on the blade. It is seldom spoken out loud, in the Nie sect, but the voice of the saber reaches out to the discipline from the start -- to offer the first clue as to what they want to be called. That voice is the beginning of a life-long partnership. That voice will, oftentimes, also be the last thing a Nie disciple will ever hear in this life -- but that they never talk about.
The voice that greets Nie Minglin has the deep resonance of a large bell. It rings in her head. It is deep, primal, thrumming, and completely unwelcome:
‘Ah, child! Such a dishonest soul! Clearly, it is up to me to place you back on the path of righteousness. Grasp me in hand - I shall teach you the honorable way to face your enemies!’
She makes a face like she’s eaten a whole dried pepper. They ask her what she wants to name it.
“Da-ge,” she says. She can’t think of anything more fitting.
When the completed blade is presented to her seven days later, the word is written along the temper line. She places it on a beautiful ornate mount in her room, and never takes it to the practice yard.
There are only so many lectures one is willing to take in a lifetime, after all.
One of her uncle’s old gambling companions has died. He didn’t particularly like the man. He was a local governor whose connection to the cultivation world extended only so far as he liked to say he had a grand cultivator as one of his esteemed guests -- but he played a mean game of mahjong, and he had a loose tongue when drunk. So when the man died of an enlarged heart, of course he went to pay what little respects he had for the man. Most of the guests aren’t cultivators. They whisper at this otherworldly man who waves his fan despite the need for a fur-lined cloak. Nie Minglin stands beside him and jabs him when it looks like he might nod off during the rites.
“You’ve made trouble for me,” sighs her uncle, once the service is over, and the mourners have gone off to be professionally sad with the rest of the procession. Her uncle holds her hand, under the pretense of comforting her, though she never met the man personally in her life. They walk back across the bridge towards the main estate, where the widow -- Madam Nan -- has agreed to put them up in the guest suites.
“How so, Uncle?” asks Nie Minglin. “You know I’ve been studying for the past month. No one knows where I am better than you.”
It’s true. These days half of her attendants have espionage training. It takes one to know one.
“Words travel faster than our bodies,” sighs her uncle, squeezing her hand. “You know, Madam Nan and Miss Rong were not supposed to kill the old governor. … oh please don’t give me that face, A-Lin. I know you know.”
“Most of the mourners are professional,” says Nie Minglin, after a minute. “He wasn’t a very good man. He took bribes for administrative positions. And used his government on land for himself …. And he stole Miss Rong’s son.”
“Yes, yes, yes, and he beat her and threw her out when she begged him to at least marry her after ruining her--” Her uncle nods quietly, touching his fan to his chin. None of this is news to him. “I’m not saying he was a good man, or even a tasteful one. But he was supposed to kill himself. After Madam Nan fled to a monastery and divorced him, following a tell-all of all his awful secrets!”
Nie Minglin scowls. “Uncle, that would have taken too long.”
“Ah, and I’ve tried so hard to teach you patience, A-Lin. Will you at least tell me where they found the doctor who agreed to poison him?”
The rain hides their voices. Her uncle laughs and minces as he talks. No one could guess what he could be saying. With his fan over his mouth, there’s no visible lips to be read. Nie Minglin stops and stares. “Eh?”
Her uncle stops a step ahead of her, peering back over his shoulder, one eyebrow arched. “...because I know A-Lin has her ways. She’s so advanced for her age. Please be honest with me. I didn’t raise a liar -- and it would be a pain to have to fire all your staff again.”
It’d take her a long time to befriend the new set after the last mass firing. “...don’t blame the laundress,” she mumbles. “She grew up with Miss Rong. She only came to me for help from you. I didn’t tell her how we’d secure it. The message was sewn into the sleeve of my robe. She didn’t know what it said. She doesn’t know how to read.”
Of course, her uncle already knows this. He let the message through. “...mm. That’s almost entirely the truth. Perhaps there’s something to be done with you.” He sighs. “They’ll be scared of us for awhile. I’ll have to work doubly hard to look silly again. Oh, couldn’t they have waited just a little longer to make the move? Madam Nan’s so full of integrity, unlike her husband. Do you know how hard it is to get good people to rat each other out?”
Nie Minglin volunteers no opinion on this. She’s a thirteen year old girl, after all.
For her fourteenth birthday, her uncle brings in a group of local players.
“Oh, I think you are in for a treat, A-Lin,” says her uncle, settling in with a bowl of wine and a particularly festive fan, the one with a yew tree and the berries, tiny little flecks of red, like blood. “This one hasn’t been performed in ages. They brought it back on request.”
“What is it called?”
Her uncle’s smile turns sharp. “The Follies of Lianfang-zun.”
She doesn’t blanch or sigh at the title, nor does she glare at him with the venom built up from fourteen years under his thumb. She is no amateur. Instead, she smiles, accepts the game for what it is, and says: “Oh, then it must be old. A tragedy I assume?”
Block and counter.
“A comedy,” says her uncle.
She’ll give her uncle this: the production values are stellar. The costumes are garish but expensive. The make-up is bold and vivid. When the titular Lianfang-zun struts onto stage with a hat as long as his forearm, Nie Minglin can’t help but nod approvingly. It is a very tall hat.
When a stagehand obligingly kneels down for him to jump up on his back and whisper bad ideas loudly in Chifeng-zun’s ear, which Chifeng-zun studiously did his best to ignore, she covers her mouth. It’s a nice piece of physical comedy.
She even laughs when he fails to backstab Wen Ruohan at least three times due to being unable to lift the various weapons he is handed -- the eventual death by pillow after the sect leader has been downed by Chifeng-zun is, admittedly, quite a bit inspired.
“Is that really what happened, Uncle?” she asks innocently.
“It must be,” says her uncle, with a perfectly straight face. “These people are scholars and saints. They would not make anything up just for our entertainment.”
But when a man floats onto the stage in white and blue, with a long trailing ribbon tied around his forehead, Nie Minglin’s smile fades.
The flutter of her uncle’s fan pauses. “Ah,” he mutters. “This part. Perhaps we might just skip over--ah, well. It is what it is.”
But though he shifts uncomfortably in place, the act is well under way, and the play continues.
The audience is introduced to Zewu-jun, the kind if remarkably stupid leader of the Lan sect. When Chifeng-zun takes Lianfang-zun to task for the murder of his men, Zewu-jun counters with a musical number: “Oh, But He Said He Didn’t Do It.”
When they swear an oath of brotherhood, and Lianfang-zun promises to Absolutely Not Kill Chifeng-zun, Ever, At Least Not In A Way That Anyone Will Notice, Zewu-jun just laughs and goes. “See? Everything is fine now!”
And when Lianfang-zun comically smothers Chifeng-zun right in front of him, Zewu-jun is easily distracted by a beautiful bird. When he turns around to find one sworn brother dead, and the other one with a pillow pressed over his face, he smiles and says, “It’s so good of you to sing him to sleep for me.”
“Uncle,” whispers Nie Minglin, in a strained voice. She looks a little green. “Please beg your pardon. The soup was a bit -- ah. A moment.”
She slips out of her seat and out of the pavilion.
Nie Minglin isn’t sick in the courtyard, but it’s a near thing. She sends away the trailing servants. No, no, she says. She’s fine. She squats next to the nearest fountain and shoves a palm full of water in her face, before any of them can spot the hot ugly tears that have left scores down her cheeks.
Nie Minglin holds her eyes until they stop stinging. When she lowers her hands, the girl in the rippling water stares back up at her.
“Mother,” she whispers. She’s alone in the courtyard, but she doesn’t care. “I’ll study for the local exams. I’ll become a clerk. I’ll make enough money you don’t ever have to do this again. To hell with the cultivation world. What has it ever done for you anyway?”
But the face in the mirror, like that distant memory, is deeply disappointed.
‘It’s given me you.’ A trembling hand placed a pearl in his palm. She didn’t have long in this world. The face in the mirror is pale. Her dark eyes are filled with tears, but she’s smiling, despite the bitter sting of the medicine she has to take more and more of, to stay lucid. ‘A-Yao, please don’t worry. They will accept you. After all, you are a remarkable person.’
Nie Minglin misses the second act. When she returns halfway through the third. Lianfang-zun has just managed to comically give swords to every single one of his enemies, and is about to launch into the final monologue about all the wrongs of society (that he himself has committed). Her eyes are red. Her cheeks are puffy. But Zewu-jun is no longer anything more than a chorus part.
So like a gracious child, she sits through the whole rest of the show without any complaints, she even smiles and applauds as Lianfang-zun is properly escorted off stage by the righteous ghost of Chifeng-zun, still making excuses for himself.
“You know, Uncle,” she says, softly, doing her best not to sniff. “I think this one was a little underwritten.”
“Ah, yes,” says Nie Huaisang, with a grimace, “I think you might be right.”
After that, Nie Minglin’s uncle talks endlessly about marriage. Not for himself, of course, he’s happy being an eminently eligible if curiously unattached bachelor. But oh, A-Lin! You must be growing so lonely here! So sad! Just you, and me, and all these tough swordsmen? Who shall take care of you in your old age?
“Shouldn’t I take care of you in your old age, Uncle?” asks Nie Minglin.
“Oh, no. Never.” Her uncle shudders. “Ah, of course, an illustrious match suits an illustrious person. There is that Jin Rulan. I remember the first time A-Lin met him, she could not keep her eyes on him. What do you think? Does the wealth of the Jin sect suit you?”
Nie Minglin takes a very level breath, looks her uncle in the eye, and thinks about the exact length and sharpness of the hairpin she’s using to keep her bun this morning.
“You and I both know why that can’t ever be.”
Her uncle’s unfortunate sudden death by sickness will be the first reason. That sickness will resemble her hairpin through his eye.
But to her surprise, her uncle acquiesced, waving off the awful idea with little more than a limp wrist and a sigh. “Oh, no. That one’s not interested at all. But I do want to see you set up nicely. Isn’t it my duty, as your loving uncle?”
All the murderous intent dissipates with the idle wave of his fan. Nie Minglin sits at a loss.
She reaches for the profane. “I’m not going to tell you where I sold that absolutely wretched copy of the Regret of Chunshan.”
“That was vintage,” cries her uncle.
“The stables needed renovations. It made up the cost nicely and it doesn’t have to come out of donations.”
“Ugh, and it does keep us from flying our sabers quite so much -- ruthless! So ruthless! But I hold nothing against you, my sweet and eminently available niece. I’ve set you up with a marriage interview with Sect Leader Jiang. How is that for a prospect?”
Nie Huaisang’s eyes dance. “I know.”
It goes about how it could be expected:
“I want you to know,” says Jiang Wanyin, staring at her as they stand awkwardly in the tea pavilion at Lotus Pier. The matchmaker happily presented her and left them to get acquainted. They sat in silence for thirty minutes until finally the sect leader just ran his hand back through his hair and sighed. “I’m only humoring him because he gave me a tip off about that black market route in Yunping.”
“I want you to know,” says Nie Minglin, who in fact was one of the key players in unearthing that black market route in Yunping, but she leaves that out, “I'm only humoring him because he is an unbearable man and in almost complete control of every aspect of my life.”
“How unfilial,” says Jiang Wanyin, with a flare of teeth that almost counts as a smile from him. “But you’re not wrong. So, is it true that you threw out all that damn pornography of his?”
“That which had no artistic merit.”
Jiang Wanyin looks almost impressed. It’s the most approving he’s ever looked in her direction, not that he knows it. “That’d be most of it. Good. He deserves it. How’s his taste in theater these days?”
“Hmph. That’s not new. He used to do recitations when drunk at the Cloud Recesses.”
“How were they?”
“Wretched,” says Jiang Wanyin.
When Nie Minglin turns fifteen, she asks for a quiet birthday celebration. She was born under a cursed star, after all. It would be gouache to celebrate it so.
Strangely, her uncle acquiesces. He rents out a local inn. He surprises her neither with an elaborate banquet or, mercifully, any players beyond a sole pipa player of middling renown, who sings generic but competent songs about hills which rolled like the sea.
“Oh, she’ll be big by next year,” says her uncle, with a sideways smile. That he’s been the patron of the last five most popular music troupes in the region is a poorly kept secret. The fact that they send him reports about the local nobles and sects they entertain is a better kept one. “But not yet. Let’s enjoy this private concert while we can, A-Lin. Do you know this one?”
It’s an old one. Out of date and out of fashion. A boy learned it in a brothel in Yunmeng. It was one of the very first poems he ever transcribed. He practiced calligraphy on it and, in turn, showed it to a boy he had once tutored, many years later. The woman plays it competently, not too sweetly. For it is meant to be a song for a workman’s way of life.
“This niece has never heard it before,” she says. It’s not technically a lie. Her uncle’s eyebrow arches, but even he has to smile approvingly at the flawless response.
He’s so busy watching her reactions, he doesn’t watch as the first set of appetizers arrive, escorted by a group of sticky-voiced servers. Lightly fried dumplings. Tofu jelly. Clear soup Peaches soaked in sugar and rice wine. This last one, the server places down in front of her uncle with shaking hands. He’s quick to shove them back in his sleeves as he rejoins the line to wait for the next request.
Her uncle doesn’t see this. But she does. She takes a deep breath, and she smiles.
“Oh, peaches,” she says, taking the whole plate. She watches the server out of the corner of her eyes. The sweat stands out on his brow. “I love these. Thank you uncle. You truly know me.”
Both her uncle’s eyebrows go up. She has never expressed any preference for peaches in her whole life. Like a poorly trained child, she stabs her finger into the first slice and pops it into her mouth without hesitation. Greedily, she eats three more before her throat goes numb, and the world begins to spin.
When she wakes up it is three days later and she is now fifteen. She hurts all over. She spent three days having her meridians completely flushed of all toxins. When she turns her head she sees her uncle seated beside her. She reaches for her hairpin on reflex.
Her uncle snaps his fan closed and sticks it out to stop her hand. “Oh, A-Lin,” he says brightly before he sends out the doctor and the attendants, hovering worriedly behind him. “You are awake. How good. We were so worried about you. It almost made me sick. Your hair pin is over there by the way.”
Her hair pin is lying on the chest next to the bed. It glints sharply -- and uselessly -- out of her reach. Nie Minglin doesn’t try for it, simply sits up, holds her temples, and waits for her uncle to get to the point.
“My uncle is in a good mood, for someone who was nearly sick,” she says, trying to focus her eyes. She tests the movement in her fingertips. She tests her breathing. She checks her avenues of escape.
Uncle laughs and reopens his fan, holding it at a coquette-ish slant at his chin. She used to hope to mimic it, when she was young and muddled, before her circumstance became clear. He’s chosen the one with the cuckoos on it. Because he can’t help himself, sometimes. “I’m grateful you’re not dead! You are my dear little niece after all.”
Here, he manages to summon some glassiness in his eyes. Tears have never been hard for Nie Huaisang.
“I am your dear niece, after all,” she repeats, hollowly.
“And it pains me, to know you took a poison meant for me.” There, Headshaker gets to his point. Nie Minglin Looks at him. “What’s with that face! Yes, A-Lin. Those peaches were poisoned. Did you know?”
“How could I know something like that.”
“Ah, yes, how could you. How could anyone? Someone truly has it out for me. And you were nearly caught in the crossfire. Ah, it really is too much trouble, being Chief Cultivator. Who ever wanted such a job?”
“Who indeed,” mutters Nie Minglin. She considers simply pretending to swoon, but she also knows he is well practiced in that particular maneuver. It was a favorite in his days as a junior disciple.
The fan stops fluttering. The little birds painted on it still. “But A-Lin,” murmurs her uncle, with that Darksteel edge he gets sometimes. “If you did suspect they were poisoned, I should think you should say something. Why wouldn’t you?”
Nie Minglin can’t help it. She presses her palm to her sweaty forehead and barely bites back a laugh. “Uncle, please. Who would ever suspect something like that?”
“A true enemy of the world,” says her uncle, a phrase right out of those insipid plays he keeps commissioning. “Or at least, someone who does a lot of looking over their shoulder.”
“I am your clerk. I have been conquered by a peach. Surely someone like me has no reason to entertain such fearful thoughts. A suspicious mind belongs to a suspicious person. In that case, why would my dear uncle believe me if I were to tell him his food was poisoned? Wouldn’t he suspect I’d done it myself?”
“He might’ve,” he said, “if you hadn’t stopped breathing.”
Nie Minglin hesitates. There’s sharpness in that voice. Sharpness like a Nie saber, but she’s not quite sure where it is.
“And you called a doctor for me,” she says, realizing all at once. She wonders, just for a moment, of asking how long he must’ve stood over her before doing it. Not long, if the fact that her hands and legs still work are any indication.
“A-Lin,” cries her uncle, in that light whining voice. Like when she was little and said something a little too imperious. He’d cry and call her the biggest bully, and then do whatever she wanted. “That’s terrible. Why wouldn’t I? You’re my sweet niece. Besides, you remember that story I told you, when you were seven? I hope you do. You were always such an attentive child.”
She’s never forgotten it. She’s never forgotten anything.
“Better a wasp you can see,” she murmurs. “Well. I believe that. Don’t worry, Uncle. This was unpleasant. Not an attempt at escaping you. No one loves life more than me. I’ve already had so much of it.”
She falls back into bed with a soft whumph.
“A-Lin does need her rest,” agrees her uncle. “But before you sleep, if I might ask you one quick thing?”
“Suppose you did know there was poison in those peaches,” he murmurs. “And say you were the sort of person who thought about those things. Who would have done it? And who would have paid them to do it? You don’t have to worry about the waiter. We’ve already arrested him and I’m sure he’ll be chatty, but I’d just love to hear what you think. You’re so insightful.”
Nie Minglin cracks open one eye. “I think,” she says, carefully. “You should check with his suppliers. Whichever merchant sells to the inn has likely married into a minor sect. Not that I have an interest in such things. Oh, Uncle, please. It’s all so terrible to think about. I’m so glad to be alive. I’m so glad you’re alive, too. But I’ve such a headache.”
He reaches over and pats her hand. It’s a cold, mechanical movement. His palm is a bit sweatier than expected.
“Of course, A-Lin needs her rest,” he says, almost like he means it.
The next day, the watchtowers capture a minor sect leader and a disgraced local magistrate as they attempt to flee Qinghe by river boat. They are brought before the Great Sects to face a full inquiry, with the imperial trial to be held for a week after that. Or at least, it would have been held, were the suspects not gifted two lengths of white silk, each delivered to their rooms.
They both accept the gift most graciously. Their bodies are found hanging from the rafters, the day before the public trial.
“Young mistress, please! It’s our job to do this for you!”
“It’s fine,” says Nie Minglin, pausing at the reflection in the mirror. “I’d just like to stay here a little longer.”
She is sixteen and her uncle has just agreed to send her to the Cloud Recesses. This last stunt was just too much, A-Lin. Of course, I mean that business with the Yao boy. What else would I mean? But you need someone to keep an eye on you! I’ve given it a lot of thought. I think the Lan know just how to handle you. All those rules.
“I’m being sent away in disgrace after all,” murmures Nie Minglin, with a faint smile. “I don’t expect I’ll be back any time soon.”
The attendant masks her alarm, but badly. “Oh, young mistress. Please don’t say that. Surely you’ll be back with us at the end of the term!”
Her name is Feng. She’s painfully earnest -- too much so to ever keep secrets. She was hired for her embarrassing honesty. Nie Minglin found her sweet, if completely useless as a messenger. Just like her uncle had hoped.
But Nie Minglin also knows the girl has three brothers, no sisters, and genuinely likes her mistress. “I suppose you’re right,” she says. “Still. I haven’t traveled this far from Qinghe in a long time. Please allow me to pay my respects. Don’t trouble yourself with the rest of the packing.”
Feng withdraws. Left to her own devices, Nie Minglin packs the very last pieces of her earthly belongings. A small contingency of carefully sharpened hairpins, her spirit saber, and a box full of copied letters -- all written in the echoed handwriting of Sect Leader Lan.
When she’s locked the trunk, she addresses her reflection properly. “I’ll be going now, mother.”
The woman in the bronze mirror raises an eyebrow.
“I don’t expect I’ll be back here again,” says Nie Minglin, primly, and then, now that she’s given the wild thought voice, she squares her shoulders and says more firmly. “I’m leaving the cultivation world. I’ve had enough of it. It’s done nothing but lay us both low. May we find happiness in the next life. This one has done nothing for us.”
The reflection has no response. Though its lips part in a soft sigh.
“Please don’t look at me that way,” whispers Nie Minglin, rubbing her thumb anxiously. “It’s better like this. I already gave this world my best. And look at what they did to us.”
But the woman in the mirror can’t keep the venom in her eyes for very long. Nie Minglin sighs and looks away.
“But I’d like to see him just one more time ... without blood on him.” And there, maybe, the eyes gazing back at her go just a little soft. She picks up her trunk. It clunks up against her leg. She really ought to hand it off to her attendants, but she still has something to prove. She still needs convincing. “But after that I’ll be gone. Mark my words. Let the gentry have their lofty ideals. Let them choke on them. They deserve each other. I won’t come this way again.”
And then with one last bow to the face of a woman who can’t answer her, Nie Minglin drags herself out the door of her apartments, down the steps of the Unclean Realm, and to the waiting carriage.
Her uncle waits for her. She hesitates in handing her trunk off her escort. She hadn’t thought he’d make the time -- but then, perhaps he wanted to be sure she wouldn’t trade places with a cook who could fit her robes.
“I’m here, Uncle,” she says sweetly. “Please don’t worry.”
“You know I don’t,” says Nie Huaisang. He reaches out and takes her hands, clasping them with real warmth. “A-Lin’s very good at taking care of herself. But please don’t leave any young men bound and naked on the steps of the Cloud Recesses.”
“Only if they truly deserve it, Uncle.”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” mutters her uncle. “Isn’t that just like you? Ah, but you’re not my problem anymore. You’re Second Brother's bad dream now. But we’re paying him a lot of money to keep you out of my hair. Try not to give him too much of a headache, will you? His health isn’t what it used to be.”
“My uncle has such high hopes for me,” sighs Nie Minglin, and to both their surprise, she squeezes his hands back and smiles. “But you needn’t worry. I doubt Zewu-jun will even learn my name.”
But then, like most of Lianfang-zun’s grand follies, it doesn’t go quite as planned.