They were three days away from the Discussion Conference, and Jiang Cheng was going to have a heart attack.
“Everything has to be perfect!” he repeated to the disciples who were decorating the conference hall. “This is the second Discussion Conference ever to be hosted by Yunmeng Jiang since the Sunshot Campaign, and we need to make up for the disaster from eight years ago!”
He caught sight of a teenage disciple mouthing along with his words, but she was busily scrubbing the floor as she mocked him, so he let it pass.
Even he was getting tired of his own repeated reminders.
But it was important that everything be perfect. Eight years ago, he and his fledgling sect had hosted their first Discussion Conference at the rebuilt Lotus Pier.
Afterwards, Jiang Tanhua and all of the elders had assured him that it had gone well enough, but Jiang Cheng had seen the disdainful sneer on Sect Leader Yao’s face, remembered how Jin Guangyao had pulled him aside after the conference and offered to lend them some of his staff for next time, you know, since we’re more or less raising A-Ling together now.
Jiang Cheng could read between the lines. He knew that Jin Guangyao really meant: “So that you don’t embarrass yourself or Jin Ling in this way ever again.”
Even with the bastard dead and rotting for years now, Jiang Cheng was determined to make him eat his words.
“Jiang Tanhua!” he barked.
His second-in-command stepped forward, looking exasperated. “The disciples are still training twice as hard as usual, Sect Leader,” she said. “They’re more than ready for their exhibitions.”
“Why aren’t you at the training grounds? They need to be—”
“Perfect, yes, I know, Sect Leader.” She beckoned and suddenly there was a cup of tea in Jiang Cheng’s hands. “There’s only so hard we can push them, or else someone will get injured. You know that.”
Jiang Cheng tried to take a sip of the tea and cursed as he scalded his tongue.
Jiang Tanhua sighed. “All of our disciples know how important this conference is,” she said. “Everyone is working as hard as they can.”
“That’s correct,” came Jiang Shanyu’s sweet, placid voice. “All of the kitchens have been scrubbed and the cooking staff have been eating off the counters because they’ve been working nonstop. Almost all of the ingredients that I’ve ordered have been delivered by the boatload, and our junior disciples are being forced to clamber over baskets of seafood when they pull up to the front of the pier because the docks are so covered in supplies.”
Jiang Cheng groaned, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “Those docks—”
“Will be soaked tomorrow and scrubbed until they smell like perfume, yes, Sect Leader.” She raised an eyebrow. “If Sect Leader has so much energy, perhaps he’d like to join the disciples who will be doing the scrubbing.”
“I just might!” Jiang Cheng snapped.
“Jiujiu, scrubbing docks like a junior disciple being punished? Now this I’ve got to see.”
Jiang Cheng whirled around to find not only his nephew but also Jin Ling's friends and—Lan Xichen?!
The world wobbled on its axis. What were they even doing here when everything was a mess and he was too busy to entertain them and had that disciple on the left just ruined an entire half-hour of work by smudging fingerprints on that polished brass plate—
“You’ve done all of the planning and coordinating, Sect Leader,” Jiang Tanhua said calmly, watching Jiang Cheng spin with a vindictive light in her eyes. Clearly she had not forgotten Jiang Cheng waking her up before sunrise to demand a status report.
“That’s right,” Jiang Shanyu agreed, smiling more kindly. “You’ve done your part, so we invited Sect Leaders Jin and Lan and these other fine young men to take your mind off things while we do our work.”
When Jiang Cheng continued to sputter, Jiang Tanhua sighed. “People get nervous when their sect leader is hovering over them like the scariest, most brooding mother hen.”
Behind Jiang Cheng, it sounded like one of the Lan boys had choked on his own spit.
“Sect Leader.” Jiang Tanhua looked him directly in the eye. “You might have chosen us all those years ago because you didn’t have any other choice, but you’ve kept us this long because you trust us. So trust us.”
Jiang Cheng knew he could hardly continue to argue with her without sounding exactly like the kind of overprotective mother hen she’d just compared him to, and from the hard glint in her eye and the unamused tilt of her lips, he knew she was only a step away from making clucking noises to prove a point. But his pride wouldn’t allow him to back down from this kind of a challenge.
Suddenly, before Jiang Cheng knew what was happening, Lan Xichen had tucked a gentle hand into the crook of his elbow and was turning him away from his stand-off with Jiang Tanhua. Jin Ling was on his other side, yanking more aggressively on his sleeve.
“We’ll come back and help you scrub the decks tomorrow if you really want, Sect Leader Jiang, so today you have to entertain us!” Lan Jingyi wheedled, with a wide grin stretching across his face.
Ouyang Zizhen groaned quietly, muttering, “Don’t sign us up for that kind of thing without asking, Jingyi-xiong…”
Jiang Cheng’s eyes snapped to Lan Jingyi’s cheeky expression. “You’re all staying far away from here tomorrow!” he ordered. “I can’t afford to have extra bodies in the way!”
“We won’t disturb you tomorrow,” Lan Xichen said soothingly. Then he gave Jiang Cheng a soft smile. “Does that mean Sect Leader Jiang will make some time for us today?”
Jiang Cheng groaned. Even Zewu-jun is a little shit.
He slipped his arm out of Lan Xichen’s barely-there hold and shook Jin Ling off his other arm. “Stop jostling me, you brat!”
Jin Ling sneered and raised his pointy little nose in the air to show that he’d meant to let go anyway.
Behind them, the two Lan kids and Ouyang Zizhen closed ranks as if they thought they had to herd Jiang Cheng toward the nearest pavilion. Like he was some kind of sheep that was too stupid to know what was going on.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Xichen said, and now there was an attempt at a distraction if Jiang Cheng had ever heard one. “Knowing first-hand how stressful it is to coordinate a Discussion Conference, I took the liberty of bringing a short list of tricky problems that I’ve run into myself, along with some suggestions for dealing with them. With your permission, I would like to leave it with your very capable second-in-command.”
That was… way more useful than Jiang Cheng had been expecting.
The last time Gusu Lan had hosted a Discussion Conference, Lan Xichen had been about Jiang Cheng’s age now, hadn’t he?
And he’d had Jin Guangyao on his side. As much as Jiang Cheng hated to take even secondhand advice from the man… This Discussion Conference had to be perfect.
Jiang Cheng stopped his halfhearted glaring contest with Jin Ling to face Lan Xichen fully and bow in thanks. “I will humbly accept Sect Leader Lan’s guidance.”
The corners of Lan Xichen’s eyes crinkled. “It is my honor.” He waved a servant over and handed over a delicate scroll with careful instructions. As they watched the woman hurry off toward the main hall, he hummed thoughtfully. “...In the meantime, I have heard from a little bird that the seeds from lotus pods with the stems still attached are sweeter than normal lotus seeds. I admit I’ve always hoped to find out for myself.” He looked beseechingly at Jiang Cheng, and out of the corner of his eye Jiang Cheng could see Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi replicating the expression like creepy warped mirrors.
Little shits, all of them.
Jiang Cheng knew exactly what kind of black-and-red bird had been squawking in their ears, and for a moment he was blindingly furious that someone who hadn’t stepped foot in the place since that fateful night three years ago would dare to consider himself some kind of publicity agent for Lotus Pier.
The thing was—
The thing was, he wasn’t wrong.
And even after sixteen years away from the warm waters of Yunmeng, the taste of fresh lotus seeds didn’t fade easily from one’s tongue.
A-Xian is your brother now, a-die had told him a lifetime ago. Lotus Pier is too big to belong to one person, so you have to share your home with him.
But a-niang had also taught him, Lotus Pier is your birthright. Do not allow that boy to steal what is yours.
And a-jie, stuck in the middle of a squabble about whether a cloud looked like a dog or a rabbit, had said, Both of you can be right if I squint a little.
A-jie had very rarely been wrong.
Jiang Cheng’s heart was rooted deeply in the muddy waters of Yunmeng, and that didn’t change just because his people decided to come or go.
He blinked hard, and when he came back to himself, he found that Jin Ling had already reached out over the edge of the dock to pluck a lotus pod from the water. He popped a few seeds out and distributed them, then demonstrated how to peel a lotus seed.
But instead of eating the seed he had just peeled, he dropped it into Jiang Cheng’s palm.
When Jiang Cheng looked at him, he flushed. “So what?” he snapped. “I eat these all the time. Besides, I had lunch before I came here!”
Beside Jin Ling, Ouyang Zizhen was waxing poetic about the sweet freshness of a freshly-picked lotus seed. Lan Jingyi was listening with a manic grin on his face.
“If Sect Leader Jiang is willing, maybe you should take some back to give to the young lady you’re courting,” Lan Sizhui suggested.
Lan Jingyi laughed loudly. “He’s not courting her, Sizhui, she’s courting him! ”
His words were boisterous but not mocking, and Ouyang Zizhen smiled sappily.
“She is, Jingyi-xiong, and I’m the luckiest man alive.”
Jiang Cheng had seen that expression before, slapped across his peacock of a brother-in-law’s face. He shook his head in exasperation, crunching on the lotus seed Jin Ling had peeled for him.
“This is the second young lady of the Baoqing Jia family?” he asked, just to confirm. He didn’t think Ouyang Zizhen was the kind of man to move from lady to lady that quickly, but you never knew.
“Sect Leader Jiang is correct,” Ouyang Zizhen sighed. “Jia Hongmei, of the delicate hands and deft brush. I never knew how good my face could look until she showed me with a painting.”
“Don’t forget the poem,” Jin Ling snickered.
Ouyang Zizhen sighed again. “And wrote me an accompanying poem.”
Lan Xichen, finally free to speak now that he had finished eating his lotus seed, congratulated him. “Your parents must be very happy.”
“Mother is ecstatic,” Ouyang Zizhen nodded. “She thinks I’ll be the first of her children to be married, even though san-jie and si-jie have been engaged forever. My sisters may never forgive me.”
“Is your entire family as overdramatic as you?” Jiang Cheng grouched, but there was no point in asking. He’d met most of the Baling Ouyang clan, and Sect Leader Ouyang was the lone member of his family who could sit through an opera without soaking through multiple handkerchiefs.
“Speaking of families,” Jin Ling interjected, his expression lightening, “Fairy’s just had her puppies!”
Another round of congratulations followed, and Lan Jingyi demanded to see them.
“Do I look like I’m carrying any puppies in my sleeves?” Jin Ling rolled his eyes. “They’re too young to travel right now, stupid. Besides…” He glanced sideways at Jiang Cheng, whose face didn’t move at all. “Dogs aren’t allowed at Lotus Pier.”
Technically speaking, that wasn’t strictly true. Fairy had visited with Jin Ling when both boy and dog had been much younger, and Jiang Cheng hadn’t been cruel enough to separate them. Jin Guangyao had smirked like he thought he’d won something, but in the battle between Jiang Cheng and his own memories, he barely figured as a bump in the road.
“Awww,” Lan Jingyi groaned, as if he hadn’t been told this every time they stopped by Lotus Pier on their way home from a night hunt and had to send Fairy away before they stepped through the gates. “Next time we come to Carp Tower, then.”
Jiang Cheng raised an eyebrow at the casual manner in which Lan Jingyi had just invited himself into Jin Ling’s home. He exchanged a glance with Lan Xichen, and Lan Sizhui flushed in mortification, but neither Lan Jingyi nor Jin Ling seemed to notice anything amiss.
“You’d better bring her a nice gift,” was all Jin Ling said.
That set off a new round of arguing, as Lan Jingyi exclaimed that the Young Mistress was spoiled if he expected his guests to present gifts to his dog, and Jin Ling retaliated by threatening to bar Lan Jingyi from Carp Tower until Fairy’s pups were fully grown.
At one point, the two troublemakers actually rose from the table, ducking around the servant who had come to pour tea for them in order to make comically threatening gestures at one another. Ouyang Zizhen began narrating their every move.
Amidst the backdrop of playfully raised voices, Lan Xichen looked serenely at Jiang Cheng. He nodded gratefully at the servant and raised his cup of tea to his lips.
“This is delicious,” he said in delight, inhaling appreciatively. Upon taking his first sip, his eyes began to sparkle. “Is this lotus tea, Sect Leader Jiang?”
“Zewu-jun has a good nose.” Jiang Cheng nodded. “Grown right here in the waters of Lotus Pier. We’re going to be serving it at the conference, which is why the kitchen has it easily to hand right now, so thank goodness you find it palatable.”
“More than palatable,” Lan Xichen assured him. “Perhaps someday we might grow lotuses in the Cloud Recesses so I can drink this tea whenever I wish.”
The words were a lightly-spoken hypothetical, as if Lan Xichen knew he was perfectly welcome to drop by Lotus Pier for tea whenever he wanted, no lotus growing required. Jiang Cheng might grumble about being drunk out of house and home, but these five idiots never paid him any mind.
“I think your waters are too cold for that,” he said finally. “Otherwise your brother would undoubtedly have already done it as a gift to—as a wedding present, or something.”
Lan Xichen’s smile widened. “Why, surely I can count on Sect Leader Jiang to help me find a way to make it work. If only to see the look on Wangji’s face.”
Jiang Cheng snorted, but his mind was already racing with calculations about which plants he might be able to breed to be more cold-resistant. “You’re a menace, Zewu-jun. You’re just as ridiculous as the rest of these miscreants.”
Lan Jingyi gasped with a hand clutching at his chest. “You take that back, Sect Leader Jiang!” he cried, and Jin Ling exclaimed, “You don’t have enough white hair to talk like such an old man, jiujiu!”
When Jiang Cheng raised a threatening eyebrow at him, he yelped and hurried to say appeasingly, “Lanling is colder than Yunmeng too! Zewu-jun, you and jiujiu are welcome to visit anytime and take a look at the lotus pond my father built for my mother! Perhaps it will give you some ideas.”
“Who do you think helped your father build that pond in the first place?” Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes, but Lan Xichen’s eyes curved into gleeful crescents. Jiang Cheng groaned, knowing there was no escaping now.
“We will happily accept your invitation, Sect Leader Jin.”
By the time the sun began meandering back toward the horizon, plots had been hatched, everyone had been thoroughly insulted at least once, and several lotus pods (plucked from the water with the stems still attached) had been relieved of their seeds.
The group that Jiang Cheng shooed out the front gates was still bickering gaily as their swords rose into the air, pointed in different directions.
When at last Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi’s voices faded out of earshot, the white and gold specks of their robes blinking out in the distance, Jiang Cheng exhaled, a relieved little smile curling at the corners of his lips as peace and quiet descended upon him.
Then he sobered a little and his brow knit together lightly. He hadn’t managed to get anything conference-related done after those menaces had shown up, so why wasn’t the silence screaming at him? Normally, right before important events, he had to pace up and down the hallways for hours before the buzzing in his bones went away, but he’d been sitting around all day—and yet there was no itch under his skin.
As he stared at his hands, wondering why they were steadier than they had any right to be so close to the Discussion Conference, Jiang Roumei paused mid-stride as she passed him. No doubt she was on her way to shout the display weapons into a brilliant shine.
“Sect Leader,” she said, and her hand came down on his back like a medium-sized boulder. It failed to break him out of the daze he was standing in, still thrown by how stable he felt.
“Sect Leader,” she said again, more insistently.
“Hm?” He looked up at her, and his eyes widened at the rare sight of her stern face cracking into a smile.
She said, simply, “I’m glad you’re happier these days.” Her hand slapped his back twice, like two claps of thunder, and then she was heading up the steps toward the armory and disappearing around the corner.
“...Huh,” Jiang Cheng said.
He stood in the evening light until the glow faded from the sky and all that was left was the warmth of the stone beneath his feet.