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No more can you distinguish of a man

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The first few days after his father’s death were a blur for Jin Guangyao. Ritual demanded much of a filial son shocked and grieved by his father’s untimely death; the suspicious eyes of the cultivation world demanded more of a virtuous man shocked by the unvirtuous manner of this death. Add to this the difficulty of taking up the reins of the Jin Sect and deflecting the inevitable doubts of his right to do so; add to this the necessity of hiding certain of Jin Guangshan’s activities from curious eyes; add to this the sect leaders pouring into Lanling, each of whom needed individual handling; and on top of all that, the most difficult task of them all: controlling the delinquent Xue Yang. Xue Yang was outliving his usefulness, he rather thought, and he knew a dangerous number of secrets besides.

At least he did not have to deal with his stepmother. Madam Jin had taken to her bed in shock after the news had been broken to her. Her health had broken two years ago, in her grief for her son and her daughter-in-law, and the new grief and shame was likely to shatter it completely. Qin Su tended to her dutifully, and would no doubt inform him if there was anything he ought to do.

Qin Su… A-Su had been a blessing to him. Only recently risen from childbed, with A-Song barely a month old, she had smoothly and quietly taken over the running of the household. They herded the visiting sect leaders as a team, graceful and conciliatory and dignified, each barely needing to speak to the other to catch their thought and come to their aid at need. It was only a pity that they had so little time to spend together. Especially as A-Su would not dream of resuming marital relations while her husband was in mourning for his father…

 

Bowing to yet another dignitary, Jin Guangyao let his face show some weariness. Er-ge caught it, of course, endlessly perceptive as ever. 

“You should get some rest, A-Yao,” he said, gently reproving, as he had been meant to. “All is well in hand. The noble souls of the beloved dead would not wish you to overstrain yourself and fall ill.”

Jin Guangyao demurred, but allowed himself to be persuaded. He did not say, before he walked away, that his father had never in his life concerned himself with how overworked his son was, and that it was unlikely he would start after death.

Xichen knew that, anyway. His careful phrasing, too, implied that he had guessed that Jin Guangyao’s prayers and offerings had been, in his heart, directed more towards his mother than towards his father. His mother, who had not gotten elaborate funeral rites, after whose death he could not have afforded to keep proper mourning, who would have been grieved if he fell ill.

He had sworn, long ago, that he would rebury his mother in glory one day. He would be able to keep that vow, now.

 

Halfway to his rooms, his planning of his mother’s new tomb was interrupted. Jin Ling, shrieking with laughter, was chasing a grinning Jiang disciple around a little courtyard, unsteady on his small legs but intent on his prey.

The Jiang disciple came to an abrupt stop as she caught sight of Jin Guangyao. “Jin-zongzhu! I… we meant no disrespect! It’s only, it is hard for a child as small as A-Ling to sit through the long rites, and…” she trailed off, dismayed.

He smiled kindly at her, fishing around in his memory for her name. “Don’t worry so, xiao-Tong. It is xiao-Tong, isn’t it? A-Ling has been very well-behaved, and I’m glad he has a chance to play now.”

Xiao-Tong’s returning smile was interrupted by A-Ling’s outraged howl at her continued failure to flee from him. 

“Oh don’t — don’t scream like that, A-Ling,” she sighed, barely audible over his voice. “Don’t you see I am speaking with your honored uncle? I’m so sorry, Jin-zongzhu,” she bowed a little with the words, “I’m afraid the little master here desires this unworthy disciple to only pay attention to him.”

Laughing a little, Jin Guangyao released her with a gesture, and she dashed away to the other side of the courtyard, calling merrily, “Come and get me, A-Ling!” 

It took a moment for A-Ling to register through his tears that he had gotten his wish. Still sniffling a little, he ran haltingly after her, tripped, fell over, and started howling again.

 

A minute or so of coaxing by xiao-Tong failed to persuade A-Ling to “hush now, you’re not hurt really”, or to “see, it’s all better now”, or that “we can play more, just as you like it”. With a world-weary sigh, xiao-Tong pulled out the last tool in her arsenal, and tugged the sobbing child into her arms.

“I know, I know,” she murmured into his ear, rocking him a little. “It hurts and everything is ruined and you’re tired. I know. Maybe it’s time for a nap? But you won’t sleep at night if you nap now, and your uncle will not thank me for it. Maybe just for a little while I hold you, huh? Do you want Tong-shijie to walk around with you a little?”

Shifting his weight to keep her balance, she made to stand. Jin Guangyao watched captivated as the child, clearly used to this maneuver, clung closer to her and quieted down.

“Perhaps I could hold him?” he offered, on an impulse. “Surely you have earned a break.”

“Oh but… I couldn’t presume, Lianfang-Zun. Jiang-zongzhu told me to look after A-Ling, and…”

Jin Guangyao held up a hand. “I am his uncle, xiao-Tong. I do not think Jiang Wanyin will fault you for relinquishing him to me.”

With visible reluctance, xiao-Tong untangled A-Ling’s hands from her neck. “Come over to your uncle, A-Ling, now there’s a good child,” she murmured.

He was heavier than Jin Guangyao had expected. Somehow he had thought he would be as light as A-Song, as small as he had been when Jin Zixuan had died. But of course, that had been over two years ago, and the sniffling, wriggling weight in his arms was not quite so easy to hold onto.

He rocked A-Ling a little, experimentally, the way xiao-Tong had done. A-Ling did not stop crying, but he did throw his small arms around Jin Guangyao’s neck, so he supposed that was a success. He nodded a dismissal to xiao-Tong, and the girl sped off in apparent relief.

 

So easy it was. Any Jin servant entrusted with Jin Ling would have hesitated, and worried, and hovered, knowing that Jin Guangshan had forbidden his son so much as to touch A-Ling. They would not have dared to protest, not now that he was the master of Jinlintai, but there would be muttering and sideways glances, not the ready and cheerful acquiescence that the Jiang girl gave him.

It occurred to him, belatedly, that he could have done this at any time that Jin Ling was in the care of the Jiang sect. It was not as if any of them was aware of any reason the child could not be given to him. Or at least, he could have done this if he had been prepared to face the consequences when his father inevitably found out. Which he had not been; it would have been a waste of goodwill for no good purpose.

Jin Ling howled directly into his ear, and for the next several minutes, Jin Guangyao was preoccupied with increasingly futile attempts to calm down the child. Rocking him again the way xiao-Tong did proved ineffective; so did bouncing him in the slightly different way that worked like a charm on A-Song; so did pacing and softly humming to him. A-Ling objected strenuously to it all.

What worked, in the end, was simply sitting down in a pavilion, holding A-Ling in his lap, and waiting for him to cry himself out. After some time, the desperate shrieking quieted down, A-Ling curled into his uncle — and between one breath and the next, fell fast asleep.

 

He was so small, Jin Guangyao thought. So young, and so small, and he had not yet learned to smile in the face of misfortune. Carefully, so as not to disturb the child, he pulled a handkerchief out of his sleeve, and attempted to wipe the snot and dirt away from the tear-streaked face. 

How old had he been when he stopped crying like this when he fell, when he learned to put a smile on his face no matter what, to bow and to lower his eyes and to show nothing? He could not remember a time when he did not know this, but once he, too, must have been a wailing infant, knowing only that he was cold or hungry or hurt.

He had learned quickly.

And he had won. For the first time since his father died, he let the feeling of triumph fill him. Jin Guangshan had mocked him, used him, kicked him down the steps of Jinlintai; but in the end, here he was, Jin-zongzhu in his father’s place, acknowledged and honored, with Zixuan’s child sleeping trustfully in his lap.

 

How small A-Ling was. How easy it would be to break that small neck; to smother those tiny breaths with a pillow; to let him run into a dangerous place and fall off a height. How easy it would be to kill him without anyone finding out or suspecting, to blame it on a careless nursemaid or an unfortunate illness or the natural high spirits of a growing child. What a tragedy , they would say. 

He ran his hand absently over the top of the child’s head as he thought. A-Ling’s hair was soft and fine between his fingers.

There had been grumbling about his succession as sect leader, but not actual opposition. A man’s son was his natural and customary heir, and Jin Guangyao was Jin Guangshan’s only living acknowledged son. There was, in the end, no alternative, Jin Guangshan’s insinuations about Mo Xuanyu notwithstanding. Not while Jin Ling was a child.

But one day, Jin Ling would grow up, and then the world might well remember that his father  had been the legitimate son and the heir. When Jin Rulan became a man, he might wonder why it was that he did not sit in the seat his father had been destined for. He might wish then that his uncle would step aside and let him rule. He might not confine himself to wishing.

He might grow up to be a dangerous enemy, this small boy clutching Jin Guangyao’s thumb in his sleep with his small sticky hands. 

And not a dangerous enemy for Jin Guangyao alone. One day, Jin Guangyao would die, by natural or unnatural means. Did he not owe it to A-Song to make certain that when that day came, no older cousin could take his rightful inheritance away from him? To make certain that his son was never followed by vicious whispers naming him a prostitute’s grandson, unfit to sit upon the dais of Jinlintai?

 

It was a long way off, he reminded himself, looking down at the child curled up in his lap. There would be time to think about the future and to plan. No need to do anything rash in haste. However careful he might be, no plan could be entirely without risk, and to be discovered murdering his nephew would be catastrophic.

Jin Ling alive brought him the good faith and alliance of the Jiang sect; Jin Ling dead brought him cold civility at best, and the wrath and vengeance of Jiang Wanyin at worst. Either could be endured if there was a serious threat, but there was no need to go seeking them out without reason.

There was no reason, not yet. A-Ling was very small still; A-Song still smaller. A-Song was a healthy child, but babies grew sick so easily, even those not burdened with A-Song’s deadly heritage. And besides A-Song, he would have no heirs of his own body. He might yet — the hypothesis was strangely painful to consider — he might yet pass his title to Jin Ling with good will.

His future heir or enemy slept on, quiet as he never was when awake. Jin Guangyao disentangled his hand from the child’s grip and gently stroked his cheek, dirty and tear-stained but so very soft. He traced the curve of his ear, then his hairline, then his ear again, and wondered distantly that A-Ling could sleep in such an awkward position. How long would he keep this ability to sleep contorted into a knot as he grew? 

 

“There you are!”

The sudden voice from behind him startled Jin Guangyao, and it took him a moment to recognize the speaker.

“Jiang-zongzhu!” he exclaimed, instinctively attempting to rise and being thwarted by his nephew’s sound sleep. He was forced to settle for bowing his head deeply.

Jiang Wanyin returned the aborted bow with his own nod. “I apologize for xiao-Tong, Jin-zongzhu,” he said stiffly. “She was meant to be watching A-Ling, not imposing on you and running off.”

“No, no, Jiang-zongzhu, please! It was no imposition! I offered, and I was glad to have the chance to take care of my nephew.”

Jiang Wanyin relaxed a little at this, and even seemed to slightly smile. Making out his features was oddly difficult, and Jin Guangyao realized with a start that the winter sun, which had been low when he headed away from the gathered guests, had set entirely while A-Ling had slept.

“I am afraid I lost track of the time, Jiang-zongzhu” he said ruefully. “Have you been looking for A-Ling and I for long?”

Jiang Wanyin waved this away. “Not for very long, no. Weren’t you going to get some rest? The jabbering crowd out there is going to expect you back soon, and A-Ling is many things but rarely restful .”

Jin Guangyao’s chuckle was genuine, somewhat to his own surprise. “He is easier to please than Yao-zongzhu is, you must admit.”

Jiang Wanyin snorted. “That is not difficult. I’ve never known Yao-zongzhu to be pleased at all.”

Jin Guangyao’s smile in response to this was a trifle self-satisfied. He had known Yao-zongzhu to be pleased, when he had needed him to be. “A-Ling has mostly been sleeping, anyway,” he said, in lieu of explaining this.

Jiang Wanyin’s look turned unmistakably fond, even doting. It looked foreign on his face, but Jin Guangyao recognized it from the times when he would turn this same look on A-Ling’s mother. It had been years ago, now, but it was impossible to forget how the Jiang siblings had loved each other. If ever Jin Guangyao had been inclined to underestimate that love, Jiang Wanyin’s ferocity after his sister’s death would have convinced him otherwise. Even Jin Guangyao’s father had been forced to yield in the face of his bewildered grief and to permit him to have a hand in raising Jin Ling.

Jiang-zongzhu did not have a wife, nor had he shown any apparent desire to acquire one, he thought. Jin Ling already spent much of his time at Lotus Pier; if all went well, perhaps his uncle would simply make him his heir. Yes, that would perhaps be best.

He smiled down at his nephew one more time. His weight was warm and somehow reassuring. Shifting him carefully, Jin Guangyao stood and smiled at Jiang Wanyin. “I suppose I should return A-Ling to your rooms and then go back to face my guests,” he said regretfully.

“I can take him, if you want.”

Jin Guangyao shook his head. “No — no. I will carry him.”