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Mistakes We Made

Chapter Text

First thing that came to Nie Huaisang’s mind upon waking up was that he had been kidnapped. Instead of lying in his bed, he was lying on a much less comfortable, thin mattress, if it even could be called a ‘mattress’ rather than a ‘mat’. The floor in his bedroom was probably softer than this, which in turn meant that he wasn’t in his bedroom, even though he had definitely lain down there to sleep.

He held down a wave panic, and didn’t open his eyes. Instead he focused on what he could feel and hear – and remember. Last night… Not much had happened, really. He had done his usual work, then tried to paint a fan or two, but the art didn’t seem to amuse him much these days. So he took out a few of the spell arrays his sect had been developing recently, and tried to get them to work instead, which wasn’t really much different than painting, but at least he didn’t keep imagining his brother’s disapproving face while he busied himself with it.

Nevertheless, when he finally had tossed himself onto bed, he ended up thinking about Nie Mingjue. His brother was resting now, but his soul would not reincarnate, and he was trapped in the same coffin as the man who had killed him. True, Nie Huaisang had avenged his death, but… was either of them happy?

He drifted off wishing for another life and another chance, and clearly he slept too soundly, for he didn’t wake up even when someone carried him out. Now sunlight fell on his face, so it was morning if not even later. However, he wasn’t tied up and the kidnappers had been kind enough to cover him with a blanket, so Nie Huaisang risked opening one eye to peek out.

The room that greeted him was… familiar, though it took sitting up and looking around before Nie Huaisang realized that he was in the Cloud Recess. Well, that was weird. Of all people to kidnap him, he would have never guessed that it was someone from the Gusu Lan Sect. Though he supposed that Lan Xichen could hold a grudge against him, but then, was he really the vengeful type? And as a joke or by accident, the kidnappers even put Nie Huaisang into his old room, the same one in which he had stayed while studying under Lan Qiren at his brother’s orders. Bah, even his robes were here, and a painting… and even his old fans…

No, no, no. Nie Huaisang sprang to his feet. Wait a moment!

He shoved the door open and paused, looking across the green trees and blossoming flower. It was late spring or summer, he couldn’t tell, but definitely it wasn’t winter as it should have been. Nie Huaisang swallowed, his heart racing as he staggered forward, up to the river. The kidnappers couldn’t have kept him unconscious for a good few months, could they? But the other explanation that came to his mind was even less possible.

He reached the riverbank, and looked, and he had to sit down. He raised his hands to his face to make sure, but there was no mistake – his features were slightly different now, his cheeks more chubby than they would become in a few years. He wasn’t just younger – he was a teenager, between fourteen to sixteen years old, since that was more or less the time span when he had studied at the Cloud Recess. It had taken him two years to pass, and his birthday was in late spring, and he really wasn’t able to gauge his age based only on his own reflection in the river.

“Huaisang,” a voice called from behind his back.

Nie Huaisang looked up to be greeted by the sight of Jiang Cheng, frowning not unlike his older self. But he looked much different too, shorter and with similar, boyish fat to his cheeks, and most of all, his voice was completely different – Nie Huaisang hadn’t even recognized it at first.

“Brother Jiang,” he laughed nervously, stumbling to his feet. “Good morning.”

He scanned their surroundings, but Wei Wuxian wasn’t anywhere in sight. Did he sleep in?... No, from what Nie Huaisang remembered, Jiang Cheng would wait for his adopted brother and even go wake him up if needed. He would curse a lot while doing so, often swearing that no one was going to bury Wei Wuxian’s corpse, but ultimately, he always waited.

So this was happening already after Wei Wuxian departed from Gusu… Nie Huaisang looked at his reflexion in the river again. This meant he should already be sixteen, and that he had any amount of time between a few days and a good few weeks before his brother came to take him back to Qinghe.

His brother…

“Is this your sleeping robe?” Jiang Cheng’s voice was distant in Nie Huaisang’s ears. “Why aren’t you dressed yet? Huaisang? Huaisang!”

“Ah…” He blinked and swallowed, trying to think through the heartbeats that pounded in his ears. “I’m… not feeling well today, I guess.”

“You don’t look well,” Jiang Cheng admitted. “But it’s almost the end of the year, skipping lessons now is a bad idea.”

He was probably right. “Yeah… I’ll just get dressed and run. Please, don’t wait for me, Brother Jiang.”

Jiang Cheng’s frown deepened, but he nodded. “Just don’t break your leg.”

“Haha…” Nie Huaisang forced out another laughter.

Jiang Cheng was always a bit crude – too straightforward with his friends – but Nie Huaisang actually liked it. It reminded him about his brother, but without the ‘forcing me to train with the saber’ part.

He went back into his room and closed the door behind, then leaned against it heavily, waiting for his heart to calm down at least a little. His brother… If everything was precisely as it used to be, then his brother was still alive.

Nie Huaisang’s head hurt during the lesson with Lan Qiren, and this time it had little to do with the teacher’s monotonous voice. It hurt because he tried to wrap his mind around the events that were going to happen, and the scope of it was beyond him. The Sunshot Campaign, the rise and the fall of the Yiling Patriarch… His brother’s murder would come only after these grand events. Thinking about this, Nie Huaisang realized and decided a few things.

First, he didn’t really care about the war or the Yiling Patriarch. Yeah, it was sad to see so much death and hatred breed into the world, but Nie Huaisang was no hero to strive to stop it. The one thing he cared for was saving his brother’s life, and the rest of the world could crumble in order for him to achieve that. Of course he would rather it didn’t, but it wasn’t his main concern.

That led to the next thing, and it was – to hell with destiny, or harmony, or however the idea of non-interference might be called. He was not going down the same path, and he was not going to pretend to be the same person unless that would suit him at a given moment. Someone else might have been concerned about sending the world into an even greater chaos and indirectly causing deaths of countless more lives, but Nie Huaisang had no delusions that the world was as small as to only revolve around him. If he changed something, someone else would react to it, but if their actions killed people, those deaths would weight on that person’s shoulder. Nie Huaisang was not the center of the universe, and so he would not take responsibility for anyone but himself.

Besides, check with the point about the world crumbling.

Thirdly and lastly for now, he had to stop thinking that what was happening around him was the ‘past’. It was his present now, and he was going to meddle, so there was no guarantee that any of his memories would actually be useful, especially farther down the line. Some points would probably remain unchanged, like the corridors of the Koi Tower – which he had memorized by heart through the many years he had wandered them while paying his visits to Jin Guangyao – or like Lan Zhan’s stubborn love for Wei Wuxian, which must have already sparked by now. But these were only little isles in the sea of the unknown, and he should double-check himself not to rely on them too much.

Nie Huaisang smiled, fiddling with the fan that he kept in his lap. He was scared, of course he was, terrified of failing, of watching his brother die the second time, of perhaps not even being able to avenge him this time. But he was also excited – because this was his much-coveted chance to set things right.

“Huaisang!” Lan Qiren’s voice cut through his thoughts like a butcher’s knife slashing through a pig’s thigh. “Since you are smiling, I take it that you know the answer to my question this time?

Nie Huaisang stood up with a bow, gripping his fan in both his hands. “Ah, please, forgive me, I wasn’t listening at all!”

That was a mistake, of course, and Nie Huaisang realized it as soon as the words left his mouth. His old self wouldn’t have admitted the truth so easily, he would have tried to dodge by claiming that the subject was too difficult, or perhaps he just wouldn’t have said anything at all, not to provoke an even greater anger. He had grown too used to being an adult and a sect leader, even if one that was looked down upon. Sloppy.

A murmur of suppressed chuckles passed through the class, and Lan Qiren’s face reddened. He pointed with a trembling finger at Nie Huaisang.

“You! Copy 'Virtue and Conduct' before next week!”

Oh, so his stay at Gusu would be at last one-week long. Nie Huaisang bowed again. “Yes, I apologize! I will go copy it immediately after classes! Please forgive me!” Did it sound more like his old self? Right now, he would rather not provoke any suspicions about himself yet.

“Good.” Lan Qiren stroke his beard, though his brows still furrowed in irritation. “Sit down.”

Nie Huaisang obliged, keeping his head down, though in fact he fought to suppress a smile. He would copy the rules, he really would start immediately, and moreover, he would sit in the Library Pavilion to concentrate on his work better – or at least so would people think.

Chapter Text

It took Nie Huaisang one evening – one! – to find the Lan Sect’s room of forbidden books. He only just had to wait until the other students left as the curfew drew near, and then stroll across the room while stomping heavily. Thus he discovered a spot where the floor resounded as if there was an empty space underneath, and all he needed to do was remove the mat to reveal the secret door.

He was actually disappointed. If it had taken him something like half an hour, Jin Guangyao had probably breezed through the task like a fish skimming through water. Or would have, or whatever. The point was, the Lan Sect had no notion of espionage… But then, they were the people who prohibited gossip . The freaking door didn’t even have a freaking protective array, it just… opened.

A bell chimed in the distance – the curfew had just began. Nie Huaisang ignored it. If someone had caught him slipping back to his room later, he would have an excuse of staying up late to fulfil his punishment as quickly as possible… No, that didn’t sound right. He would have an excuse of falling asleep while copying the many rules and waking up only long after the curfew – that was better. Certainly they wouldn’t punish him for complying with his previous punishment, right?

Truth be told, he didn’t have much experience at being punished by the Lan Sect. Back in the day, it was Wei Wuxian who took the fall for all of them, and even later, Nie Huaisang was able to stay out of Lan Qiren’s piercing gaze. The today’s was an unexpected slip-up, but then, it enabled him to come here, so he wasn’t going to complain about his aching wrist.

He reached into his sleeve for a light-casting talisman, then paused, for he realized that he didn’t have any. Right. He had developed his golden core late, so it took a while before he started carrying some of a cultivator’s tools. Come to think of it, hadn’t he finally succeeded with the formation sometime around now? The golden core certainly was there, now that he focused on it. Could it be… Had he actually been transport back to the night when he had completed the formation?

That was an interesting thought, but one that he could ponder later. For now, he quickly sketched a light-casting talisman – this one was easy – put out all the other lights in the library, and slipped through the secret door. The sound of his footsteps echoed in the wide space, so just out of reflex, Nie Huaisang tried to move more quietly. He managed somewhat, though it was hard not to make any sound on the stone floor. The large room was filled with bookcases, each with only a few books at most, but altogether it was still thousands of tomes to leaf through. Nie Huaisang lit one of the candles from the room, then paused, looking around. With so many books, certainly there was some rule to how they were stored? The Lan Sect liked order and rules too much to just put their secret possessions wherever.

He walked along the rows, checking one book per bookshelf. Many didn’t have anything to do with music at all, and those Nie Huaisang skipped completely. Others had some mentions of tunes and songs, and those he had to look through more carefully. Wei Wuxian had mentioned that the book was called ‘Collection of Turmoil’, but he had been bluffing back then, trying to provoke Su She. Then again, it was much easier to provoke someone with the truth rather than with a baseless lie, so he should have used the real title.

Nie Huaisang found it at last, a rather slim volume tucked between other books with strange songs – a collection from the faraway Dongying. That was it. He slipped it under his robe, feeling as if a great weight had lifted off his shoulders. He had worried that he wouldn’t be able to find it, and yet here it was.

He scanned the other books as well, just to make sure that no other melody could be used instead of the one from ‘Collection of Turmoil’. But the other tomes didn’t contain dark songs at all, more like curiosities, some of them noted to possibly not even work. There was a tune that supposedly could calm the sea itself, another that could stir the winds – but nothing to put a person’s qi out of balance, to make them irritable and prone to anger.

Of course, the song was just a knife Jin Guangyao had chosen, and not the root of the problem. If not this, then another tool could be used for murder. But for now, Nie Huaisang was in high spirits. As he headed for the entrance, he paused by another bookshelf dedicated to musical cultivation. It contained simple textbooks and was terribly dusted, perhaps because the Gusu Lan Sect passed down this knowledge by practical lessons rather than by forcing their students to read the theory. However, Nie Hausaing had only a vague idea about playing an instrument and for him such a handbook could be quite useful, so he slipped one of them under his robe as well.

He just turned to leave when he heard the door open, and footsteps resounded in the room. Nie Huaisang nearly dropped the candle, then hastily put it out as he rounded one of the bookshelves to hide behind it. Still he had been clumsy or too late, for the other person paused at the bottom of the stairs.

“Who’s there?” the voice echoed throughout the chamber, sharp. “Show yourself!”

As if, Nie Huaisang thought, though his heart pounded so heavily, he would not be surprised if the other person heard it.

Footsteps resounded again as the other person began to move, closer and closer. Left or right? Nie Huaisang focused on the sound. Left. Then…

A person’s steps always had a certain rhythm to them, and Nie Huaisang made good use of it now. He listened, taking step only when the other person took a step as well, approaching the right end of the bookcase. It helped that the other person moved slowly, perhaps wary of a surprise attack. Both of them rounded the bookcase at the same time, and so Nie Huaisang paused again, listening while the other person probably scanned their surroundings, their light held high. The stairs were just in front of him, but one, he would be heard if he made a move for it, and two, given that he was an intruder, a sword sent to pierce his chest was a real possibility. It was safer to hide and wait for the other person to leave.

Nie Huaisang rounded the bookcase again while the other person emerged from behind it, so the two of them never caught sight of each other. Whoever that was, they still seemed filled with suspicion, for they wandered into another row, and then yet another. Finally, they came back and paused. Nie Huaisang waited, his heart racing, until he heard the sound of a book opened, the pages leafed through, then for while, someone writing. After that, the person finally headed back to the door, and closed it, plunging the room into complete darkness.

Nie Huaisang waited, counting, and after he reached five hundred, he hastened to the door. At this point, he just wanted to be back in his room as soon as possible, so no one would notice that he had been missing for a period of time. He was close enough to the stairs that he didn’t need to relight his talisman, only keep a hand up, so he felt at the door before he hit it with his head.

He pushed it only a bit at first, and as he saw no light around, he opened it and climbed out. He didn’t need a candle to navigate through the Library Pavilion – the moon shone brightly enough to mark the bookshelves and the outlines of the walls and windows. Nie Huaisang left through the door, his pace hastened, and headed down the path.

A blade was thrust right in front of his neck, and he had to halt. He swallowed, looking at the sword gleaming in the moonlight – it was Shuoyue.

“Turn around so I can see your face,” Lan Xichen instructed softly.

Nie Huaisang obliged, slowly, somehow keeping quiet, though internally he screamed, Sloppy, sloppy sloppy! Why hadn’t he thought that there could be an ambush? That the other person was waiting for him on the only way back? He was supposed to be more careful than that, and yet he had acted hastily, like some teen that didn’t yet–

Oh. Nie Huaisang took in a deep breath. Right. So not only did he have to make sure his bias from the future didn’t influence his current actions, he couldn’t even trust himself fully. How long would it take for his body to fully mature? A few years at least. Just wonderful.

“Huaisang?” Lan Xichen let his sword down, his face that of a pure shock. “That was you? What are you doing here?”

Nie Huaisang smiled uncomfortably. “Ah… Brother Xichen…”

Lan Xichen waited. What was the conclusion that he would come to? That Nie Mingjue had sent Nie Huaisang as a spy in Gusu? No, that was the future Second Brother of the Venerated Triad… He wasn’t stupid, but he was gullible.

“I’m terribly sorry!” And idea sparked in Nie Huaisang’s mind. “It’s all my fault! I knew that I shouldn’t have done it, but I still couldn’t stop myself!”

“Huaisang, calm down,” Lan Xichen said. “What did you do?”

“I’ve once found out that there’s an empty room underneath the Library Pavilion, and I was too curious, so I checked it out!” Nie Huaisang cried.

Tears came to his eyes, which wasn’t difficult, given that he was terrified . What if he failed, and the dark songs made their way back to the secret room? Would that be a sign that there was no way to change the future, that everything was already decided?

Like hell. Or at least – he wouldn’t go down without a fight.

“And then I realized what kind of room it was, but I still didn’t leave,” Nie Huaisang wailed. “That’s because… Brother Xichen, you know that I like music and that I’m terrible with my saber, so my brother is always strict towards me! And soon he’ll take me back home, and he’ll be disappointed that my technique isn’t any better! So I thought… I thought that since it’s possible to cultivate through music, maybe if I could learn how to do it a bit, just to show to my brother, he wouldn’t be angry with me…”

Saying that, he pulled out the handbook from underneath his robe – the ‘Collection of Turmoil’ still safely hidden – and handed it to Lan Xichen with a deep bow.

“I’m sorry, I was wrong,” Nie Huaisang went on. “I knew that cultivation through music is your sect’s precious technique, but I thought, I’d only learn the basics, nothing much, just to show it to my brother…”

Lan Xichen took the handbook, leafed through it, and sighed. By now, Shuoyue found its way back to its sheath, and the Jade didn’t look angry.

“You could have just come to me and ask,” Lan Xichen said. “Me and your brother are close, you can turn to me when you have a problem. At any rate, learning how to play an instrument from a textbook is difficult…”

Nie Huaisang blinked. Lan Xichen was saying?...

“Stand up straight,” Lan Xichen said. “It’s still about a month before your brother comes, right? I am a tad busy, but not as busy that I can’t give you a few lessons. It will not be much, like you said, but already some basis for future learning.”

Nie Huaisang blinked and straightened up. “Brother Xichen, you’re saying…”

“...I will teach you,” Lan Xichen said. “But, you must promise to never go to that room again, and to never mention it to anybody.”

“Of course!” Nie Huaisang smiled widely. “Thank you!”

He considered jumping at the older Jade to hug him, but he decided that would be too much.

Lan Xichen also smiled. “It’s good to see you excited about studying for a change,” he said, but there was no malice in his voice. “Now run to your room before Wangji sees you.”

So Nie Huaisang did, skipping between the shadows and the silent buildings. He returned to his room successfully, relief and joy mixing and making his blood rush. He took in a deep breath as he closed the door and lit a candle. There was nothing wrong at celebrating a victory, but he still had one more thing to do before he could truly call the night a success.

He leafed through the ‘Collection of Turmoil’ – songs to lull a person to sleep, songs to block their senses or their qi. And so on. Nie Huaisang had never thought that there were so many ways to temper with a person’s mind or body simply by the use of a dose of spiritual energy and a proper tune. The idea was equally fascinating as it was terrifying, but there was one song which Nie Huaisang just wouldn’t stand.

There, in the middle – a song to temper with one’s qi to make them more irritable and unbalanced, easy to push into a frenzy. That was the melody that had killed Nie Mingjue.

Nie Huaisang tore the two pages out and lit them with the candle. He held them, watching as the flames slowly devoured the notes line by line. Good luck, Brother Yao, he thought, unmoved even while the fire drew close to his fingers, in memorizing something that no longer exists.

He let the paper go only when the fire nearly seared his skin. The two corners of the pages finished burning on the floor, leaving behind nothing but ashes.

Chapter Text

Nie Huaisang pondered over the puzzle that was Jin Guangyao. It wasn’t a foreign activity to him, though it would be the first time he did it while Lan Qiren droned on about this or that piece of general cultivation theory in the background. He knew Jin Guangyao, the Chief Cultivator, pretty well – better, in fact, than Jin Guangyao’s own father had, and likely better than either of his two sworn brothers. Nie Huaisang had visited the Koi Tower often, he had cried at his enemy’s shoulder. He had studied Jin Guangyao’s methods and his closest subordinates, he had learned about his crimes, and eventually, he simply turned it all against his foe. Had Jin Guangyao been a good man, without any blood on his hands, Nie Huaisang would have never bested him – but then, had there been no blood, his older brother would have never been murdered in the first place.

The thing about Jin Guangyao was, he was scary, with perfect memory and the ability to switch personas at will, depending on who he was talking to – but he wasn’t free of error. And the basic error was that from his point of view, all people were either idiots or himself.

Idiots could be used sometimes, but ultimately they were meaningless. That was how Nie Huaisang had survived – by playing a fool in front of everyone, he had never been a player in Jin Guangyao’s eyes.

Those who weren’t idiots were supposed to be like Jin Guangyao himself. Not exact copies, of course – Jin Guangyao knew that they could have different abilities and different drives, and he was pretty good at discerning those. However, he assumed that they all operated within the same set of rules. Favor for favor, offense for offense, no emotional restraint or attachment beside maybe a few chosen ones. That was why he had been so indignant when Lan Xichen had stabbed him – he couldn’t understand why the older Jade would turn on him, would become jittery around him to the point that any gentle push would’ve been enough. After all, Jin Guangyao had never harmed Lan Xichen, and Lan Xichen had repeatedly protected him in the past, why would this dynamic suddenly change?

Was that also the reason why he had towed Nie Mingjue out from Wen Ruohan’s den? Thinking that after saving Nie Mingjue’s life, he could expect a great payback in the future? This was most puzzling to Nie Huaisang – Jin Guangyao was overall not a terrible judge of character, he should’ve sensed that his brother was completely different than that. So either he made an even greater mistake than misjudging Lan Xichen and Nie Huaisang later in life and never learned from it, or there had been another reason. But what other reason could there be? Certainly he hadn’t acted out of the goodness of his heart.


All in all, Nie Huaisang discovered that while he knew Jin Guangyao pretty well, he had little idea about Meng Yao. This was quite problematic, since he also couldn’t completely remove his foe from the equation, or at least – not easily. It would perhaps be viable to find the right brothel and stick a knife into Meng Yao’s chest, or better yet, instigate someone else to do it, but Nie Huaisang didn’t intend to save his brother from Jin Guangyao only to have him instead die at the hands of Wen Ruohan. And the war was inevitable, as was Nie Mingjue involvement on the frontlines.

So… What options did he actually have?

The more he thought about it, the more his head hurt. If he let Meng Yao save his brother and become Jin Guangyao as it had happened in the previous life, then the two would be already beyond the point of reconciliation. Furthermore, Jin Guangyao would already be a difficult opponent to tackle, having gained experience as a double agent and with a base of operation at the Koi Tower, even if it wouldn’t precisely be a welcoming home to him. However, if Nie Huaisang killed Meng Yao now to avoid future trouble, his brother would die either way. Was there a way to feed the wolf without sacrificing the sheep?

What did Meng Yao really want from life? Why had he climbed those steps up to the Koi Tower for the first time, why did he become a cultivator? Nie Huaisang hated the idea of his foe living his life happy and satisfied, but if that was the price to pay to ensure Nie Mingjue’s survival, he would pay it with his own hands – except he would rather not get too close to the tiger, if he didn’t have to.

In a way, he felt like he was standing in front of a river, and tossing stones into it. The pebbles, like his slip-up on his first day, disappeared without any trace. The stones, like his promised lessons with Lan Xichen, would leave a few waves, but ultimately those would smoothen out too. However, at some point his throwing would provoke a whole avalanche which would splash the water all around, forcing the river to completely change its course or even split into many separate trickles. And Nie Huaisang had no way of controlling all the stones, he could only decide when to let them fall, and perhaps add a push here and there.

But then, as it was now, a disaster awaited at the end of the river either way, and the further down they went, the more difficult it would be to avoid. Perhaps an avalanche right now was his best option, and then use all his strength to keep afloat.

“Huaisang?” a voice snapped him out of his thoughts.

Nie Huaisang blinked – and only then he realized that the lesson had finished, and the other students were leaving. Only Jiang Cheng paused by his desk, frowning.

“What, have you fallen asleep?” he asked. “That’s quite a trick to sleep with your eyes open.”

Jiang Cheng – or at least, his sixteen-year-old version – was actually quite endearing.

“Fallen asleep?” Nie Huaisang smiled, and stood up. “How would I dare! I was only pondering over the last words of our dearest teacher.”

Jiang Cheng blinked. “You… have grown somewhat bold in the past few days.”

“How is it bold when we are the only two people in the room?” Nie Huaisang sighed. “Brother Jiang, you should know me better than to call me bold.”

“If not bold, then something else,” Jiang Cheng said. “At any rate, you sound different.”

Nie Huaisang decided not to dispute that point. They left the classroom and strolled down the path; the day was exceptionally warm, but a breeze made it the pleasant kind of warmth rather than the stifling kind. However, the late spring would soon turn into summer, and summer into autumn. Following the previous timeline, the next Qishan Discussion Conference would take place, and after that – the aggressive expansion of the Wen Sect. The Cloud Recess would burn next year, and one month later, once the leaves turned red and began to drop, Nie Huaisang would find himself at the reeducation camp with Wen Chao. Then there would be war.

Hell. That wasn’t much time at all!

“Brother Jiang, I think we are close, so I’ll speak frankly with you,” Nie Huaisang said, fiddling with his fan like a nervous person would. “I didn’t notice that the lesson finished, because I was thinking about my brother. He’ll take me home in just one month’s time, and he’s always so strict! I’m afraid that his discipline will be worse than Lan Qiren’s!”

“What are you worried for?” Jiang Cheng said. “He’s your older brother and a sect leader; of course he’s strict towards you, but that doesn’t make him mean. He has to fill in for your father.”

“You say so, but your father certainly isn’t that strict,” Nie Huaisang said. In reality, he knew very little about Jiang Fengmian, which was the very reason behind his prodding. “He even traveled all the way here in person just because Brother Wei got into trouble.”

Immediately, Jiang Cheng’s face darkened. “That’s different. He wouldn’t do the same for me.”

Jiang Cheng kept his voice soft, but the bitterness was clear. Was this the root of the eventual animosity between the two brothers? Nie Huaisang stifled a sigh. He had just wanted to get a feel on what kind of man the current Sect Leader Jiang was, but instead he stumbled right into family drama.

“So maybe he is strict towards you,” Nie Huaisang said. “Like you said, he’s a sect leader and your father.”

“No that’s not it.” Jiang Cheng kept his back straight, looking up ahead. “He’s not strict, he just doesn’t care.”

There was nothing that Nie Huaisang could say to that – so instead he dared to reach out and pat Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. Jiang Cheng jolted up, as if shocked by a thunderbolt.

“What’s wrong with you?” he blurted, then flinched. “Ah, I didn’t mean it so– Never mind. Didn’t you mention some additional lessons you’ll be having this afternoon?”

With Brother Xichen. Right. Nie Huaisang nearly hit his own head with his fan.

“Thank you for reminding me, Brother Jiang!” He hastened down the road.

“Don’t break your legs!” Jiang Cheng called after him.

Nie Huaisang didn’t break his legs, and he actually managed to arrive on time in front of the music hall. Lan Xichen already sat inside, as if meditating, though he opened his eyes as soon as Nie Huaisang strolled in, and a smile appeared on his face.

“I already wondered if you’d come or not,” he said mildly. “Since my time is unfortunately limited, why don’t we begin? Which instrument would you like to learn?”

Nie Huaisang had thought about it.

“Brother, if you don’t mind. Guqin is a majestic instrument, but it’s quite big, so I’m worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle it properly. So I thought – would it be all right for me to learn xiao?”

“I’m happy that you would choose it.” Lan Xichen’s smile deepened from ‘polite’ to ‘perhaps genuine’. “I also happen to have taken a spare. Here.”

Nie Huaisang took the flute in two hands. It was the most basic shape made of solid wood, long and a bit heavier than he had expected. How did you make your breath travel such a long distance anyway? He wasn’t able to swing a saber as strongly as his brother would like him to, would he be able to at least blow as hard as it was needed?

“Don’t worry,” Lan Xichen said. “It might look intimidating at first, but I’m sure you will do just fine. Now, as let me show you how you should hold it…”

Nie Huaisang tried to focus, but throughout the whole lesson, his thoughts kept fleeing back to the past-future. The Sunshot Campaign was the starting point of all the trouble, so he had to start even sooner. He had one month to prepare as well as he could – and then he would have to act.

Chapter Text

Nie Huaisang didn’t think himself a planner. It was more like – he had ideas. An idea to involve the Gusu Lan Sect by tossing his brother’s ghostly arm close to their junior disciples. An idea to wait until Lan Zhan was nearby, so he could sweep in to save the youngsters – though even if he didn’t manage, it would still work just as fine. An idea to talk with Mo Xuanyu, because it didn’t cost Nie Huaisang anything, and who knows, perhaps the madman’s summoning of Wei Wuxian’s soul would actually work. And so on. Whatever grew out of his ideas, he could later shape into the outcome he desired – but he didn’t have the entire series of events outlined from the get-go. There were simply too many unknowns at play, too many things that could work out differently than he had initially imagined, so a rigid plan would actually be more of a hindrance than an advantage.

Sometimes he wondered if Jin Guangyao had the same philosophy in this regard. For instance, had he set Jin Zixun against Wei Wuxian knowing that the latter would snap? Did he send Jin Zixuan there, hoping that the sect’s rightful heir would die? Or was it just an idea, just another seed planted, only it bore a lot more fruit than Jin Guangyao had dreamed of?

Even if that specific event would never happen in this life, Nie Huaisang regretted not knowing.

“Very good,” Lan Xichen said when the xiao’s melody finished.

Nie Huaisang took in a deep breath. Playing wasn’t physically that difficult – there were tricks on how to breathe and so on – but simultaneously putting in his spiritual energy into the music was a daunting task. If he focused on it too much, he forgot to play, but if he only played and forgot the spiritual energy part, then the whole exercise had no meaning.

“From what angle did it sound very good?” Nie Huaisang muttered. “If I played it in front of a walking corpse, they would be sure to kill me faster to get rid of the noise.”

Lan Xichen laughed. “You are too harsh on yourself. At this point you know enough to practice alone, so make sure that you do it regularly – then one day perhaps you’ll be able to face a walking corpse with only your xiao.”

Regularly… if my brother lets me. Nie Huaisang stifled a sigh. His one month was coming to an end, and although he didn’t know the exact day when his brother would arrive, he couldn’t help but fret about the future more and more. Even though perhaps he had a few ideas, it was one thing to think them, and yet another to actually put them through.

It would be much better to have a set date. Not knowing if it was today or next week, Nie Huaisang was only growing more anxious about seeing his brother each day, when he awaited a bell or a junior disciple running to announce a sect leader’s arrival.

But another afternoon passed by, and nothing like that happened.

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” Jiang Cheng said as they walked down a path towards their rooms after supper. Despite the hour, the sun had yet to set. “So I thought… How about a jar of Emperor’s Smile for goodbye?”

Nie Huaisang blinked; it hadn’t happened in the previous life. “Sure, why not?” He smiled. “Though it might be hard for only two of us to sneak it in…”

Jiang Cheng scratched his head. “Actually, I was thinking more in terms of going down the mountain, drinking there, then running back here before the curfew.”

“Brother Jiang, you know that I can’t run fast, so it could never work! Not to mention, would we really be able to finish a whole jar in such a short period of time?”

Jiang Cheng’s brow furrowed in the oh-so-characteristical way. “I suppose we wouldn’t. But what else do you propose? Even if we tried to sneak it in the old way, the sun will be up for hours, so all the guards will see us. Or do you want to wait outside until the middle of the night? That’s a tad late…”

“No, no,” Nie Huaisang smiled. “I’ve got an idea. We’ll even return before the curfew! Well… shortly before, but still.”

They shared money to buy a jar of Emperor’s Smile, and strolled up the mountain path unhurriedly. They couldn’t arrive too soon, or else the plan wouldn’t work – it had to be shortly before the curfew, for a few reasons. First, most people would already be in their rooms, so it would be unlikely to stumble upon a bypasser, but at the same time, the disciples standing the nightwatch wouldn’t patrol the grounds yet. In short, the way up to Jiang Cheng’s room – which was closer to the gate – should be clear.

Second, the upcoming curfew gave Nie Huaisang a good excuse to run.

He left Jiang Cheng and the precious jar behind at the last turn, and actually managed to sprint all the way up to the gate. The guards watched him with dispassionate face – until Nie Huaisang tripped over and fell, and then didn’t get back up but instead cried out.

“What’s wrong?” one of the guards approached him.

“I can’t stand up, my ankle hurts so badly!” Nie Huaisang wailed. Actual tears well in his eyes – he had many years of practice faking them.

“Here, let me help you.” The disciple offered him a hand. Nie Hauisang took it and made sure to lean on it heavily. “Pff, you’re actually pretty heavy.”

The other guard hastened up to them, and took Nie Huaisang by the other arm.

“We’ll take you to the medic,” he said. “Just… calm down.”

“But it huuuuuurts!”

And so they towed him away, leaving the gate unwatched. The whole Cloud Recess was surrounded by a barrier, so no outsiders could enter – but students with tokens of passage, yes. And if they carried some extra weight with them, well, a spell wouldn’t detect that.

“How’s you leg?” Jiang Cheng asked when Nie Huaisang slipped into his room.

Nie Huaisang smiled, spreading his fan open. “Apparently my ankle hurt because I took a wrong step, but there wasn’t any serious injury, so I shouldn’t cry.”

They sat down on the mats cross-legged, and Nie Huaisang poured the first cup for each of them. Jiang Cheng downed his own in one gulp, then winced.

“So,” Nie Huaisang stared at the liquor, but didn’t drink yet, “you mentioned that you’ll be leaving tomorrow. How do you know? I have to wait for my brother to arrive, and I’m not sure which day it’ll be.”

“That’s because no one’s coming for me.” Jiang Cheng poured himself another cup. “I’ll travel on my sword to a nearby village. There I should meet up with some disciples from my sect and travel the rest of the way with them. We’ll likely take a boat.”

He sounded bitter about it – and by now, Nie Huaisang had a good idea as to why.

“You know, my brother comes for me only because he thinks I can’t defend myself and shouldn’t travel alone,” he said. “Since you’re allowed to return by yourself, isn’t this a sign of trust?”

Jiang Cheng’s brow furrowed – clearly he hadn’t thought to look at things in such a way. “If it was your brother, then it would be like you say,” he said at last. “With my father…” He looked into his cup. “I don’t know.” He downed the cup’s contents.

Nie Hauisang had thought that it would be difficult to finish the whole jar of Emperor’s Smile without Wei Wuxian around, but clearly Jiang Cheng was determined to drink it all by himself. Not that Nie Huaisang minded – even as an adult he wasn’t good with alcohol, and being back in his sixteen years old body, he was bound to be even worse. Some people had a strong head, but he wasn’t one of them.

So for now he only sipped at his first cup while Jiang Cheng already poured himself the third one.

“It’s like.” Jiang Cheng took a generous gulp from the cup, then paused, as if collecting his thoughts. “He only has the eyes for Wei Wuxian. Ever since he took him in…” He sighed. “Honestly, I hardly remember what it was like before. But my mother didn’t seem permanently angry… I think.”

Permanently angry? Why does it sound familiar?

“And Dad never says anything!” Jiang Cheng added, downing his cup. “He’ll let Wei Wuxian slack off the whole day… I bet he didn’t practice at all in the last few months…” He trailed off, and turned his head as if he expected his adopted brother to pop up behind him.

Nie Huaisang patted his shoulder. “You’ll see them soon.”

“Mhm.” Jiang Cheng slumped back against the wall.

So much for finishing the whole jar. Nie Huaisang took another sip and struggled not to wince when the liquor traveled down his throat.

He regarded Jiang Cheng, wondering if he should prod him awake – three cups weren’t that many – but then, maybe it was better that the boy didn’t drink too much the day before he would set out, lest he fall from his sword. Or something.

It all will burn, the thought struck him. The Cloud Recess, the Lotus Pier. Both destroyed by the Wen Sect.

Nie Huaisang shook his head. He was no hero… but it didn’t mean that he liked the destruction. Then again, who were to say how things would go this time around? Especially after he put some of his ideas through, and the river changed its course. There was not one certain future.

However, even though destruction wasn’t guaranteed, neither was survival.

“You never know when people dear to you will disappear,” Nie Huaisang murmured. Suddenly he remembered his parents – they had also left too soon, yet there was nothing he could do about it. He downed his cup and put it away. “Cherish them while you can.”

Jiang Cheng didn’t respond.

Jiang Cheng set out immediately after breakfast, so Nie Huaisang was left to wander the paths of the Cloud Recess alone. He practiced the xiao a little, then leafed through his collection of fans, but by now, all of them were painted. Next, he visited the library, but he couldn’t focus properly on anything. He was just going to leave when a disciple came in running, and Nie Huaisang’s heart skipped a beat.

“I was told to fetch you,” the disciple said. “Sect Leader Nie has just arrived.”

Even if he was going to say something more, Nie Huaisang didn’t listen. He rushed for the door and down the path, running as fast as he dared. He was catching for breath after just a short while, but he didn’t slow down until he arrived at the gate.

He was there. Heavens. He was there in the flesh, standing with a group of disciples from both the sects and greeting with Lan Xichen, and he was alive, alive, alive.

“Huaisang?” Nie Mingjue noticed him.

Whatever he was going to say, he wasn’t given a chance, because Nie Huaisang bolted forward and hugged his brother as tightly as he could. Nie Mingjue grunted as if surprised, and everybody else was probably staring, but Nie Huaisang didn’t care. He only turned his face as to hide the tears that came to his eyes, this time unbidden.

His older brother was here, warm and living, and that was all that mattered at the moment.

Chapter Text

Nie Huaisang held on to his brother, squeezing as hard as he could. Nie Mingjue grunted again, and patted Nie Huaisang’s back awkwardly. “You did gain some strength in those arms of yours,” he muttered. “Come on. Let me go.”

If Nie Huaisang let go, would his brother vanish like a dream that had lingered for too long? He didn’t want to find out.


The too-familiar snap finally brought him back to his senses. He pulled back, swiftly wiping his tears with his sleeve and blinking to make sure that they wouldn’t return.

“Ah, forgive my outburst.” He bowed to Lan Xichen, who had his polite smile on. “I couldn’t contain my emotions.”

“Don’t mention it,” Lan Xichen said. “I’m glad to see you in high spirits.”

Nie Mingjue grunted, which could be a sign of agreement, but Nie Huaisang wasn’t sure. His brother’s grunts could have many meanings, and sometimes it was hard to recognize which one it was at the moment.

“Would you like to stay for tea?” Lan Xichen asked.

Nie Mingjue hesitated, and Nie Huaisang could more or less guess the struggle in his brother’s head – he didn’t like to waste time on frivolities, but he did respect Lan Xichen and didn’t want to refuse him.

“One cup,” Nie Mingjue said at last, glancing at Nie Huaisang. “While you go get your things.”

Nie Huaisang wanted to protest that he wouldn’t leave his brother, but he stifled the silly urge down. He would come back in fifteen minutes or so, and Nie Mingjue would still be there. And yet, his heart still clenched when he turned away. “I’ll be right back,” he managed, and hurried up the path.

“Lan Qiren’s discipline really is outstanding,” he heard his brother’s voice. “I’ve never seen Huaisang so energetic.”

Lan Xichen sighed. “I’m not sure it’s my uncle’s merit…”

Nie Huaisang couldn’t hear any further, but he still blessed the heavens that he had been transported so far back. If he had been put back to Qinghe instead, it would have been much more difficult to explain his sudden change of character.

Most of his things were already packed, so he only had to add in his clothes and other necessities he had been using in the past few days. His collection of porn books… and the slim, inconspicuous volume tucked between them. That sight made him pause. The collection of dark songs had two missing pages, but the other melodies were intact. Nie Huaisang hadn’t been able to play any of them, his skill was far too basic for now, but perhaps he could self-learn in the future, so he ignored his pangs of conscience and slipped the volume under his robe. It was safer than to keep it with his less practical books, in case someone looked through his luggage this time around.

That was all. He scanned the room one last time – small, but he had come to like it – then left. As he went down the slope, he could almost hear the sound of rolling stones.

Standing on his saber, Nie Huaisang discovered two things. One, he was about as terrible a flier as in his previous life. Two – his spiritual energy had actually increased somewhat as he grew older, which meant that now it was even less than what he was used to.

For the third time, his saber’s one end lurched up unsteadily, almost knocking him over. He had never killed with the blasted thing, this life or the previous one, so the spirit was completely silent, and yet now it suddenly grew humorous… Well, no, not really, it was just his current body’s lack of control over its energy showing, but it would be nice to put the blame on something else.

“It’ll be faster if I carry you,” Nie Mingue grumbled.

Nie Huaisang felt sweat bead up on his forehead. For his brother to actually propose that – usually he’d complain that Nie Huaisang didn’t want to do anything on his own – his patience had to be stretched so thin that it could snap at any moment.

Or maybe not. Glancing at Nie Mingjue, he seemed more worried than angry. Was watching Nie Huaisang struggling to get his saber to hover up evenly actually painful to him? This was way before the war, before Nie Mingjue’s saber spirit grew relentless, before Jin Guangyao’s meddling. He wasn’t nearly as snappy back then – now – as later in life, never mind under the influence of the dark song.

Truthfully, Nie Huaisang didn’t even remember how they had traveled back in the previous life – it was quite possible that he had been carried. But if he wanted to change the future, to influence anything at all, he could no longer be dismissed as a useless dandy by the people closest to him. Flying by himself was a good starting point to show everybody that he had changed.

“I can do it,” Nie Huaisang said, trying to focus harder. “Just… give me a moment.”

Finally the saber rose into the air steadily, so Nie Huaisang managed to keep his balance. He let out a breath of relief and looked up. His brother’s brow was still furrowed.

“You won’t fall over?” Nie Mingjue asked.

Nie Huaisang felt a blush creep across his cheeks. “I’ll manage.”

Nie Mingjue nodded, though he seemed less than convinced. “You two, fly below him,” he ordered, pointing at a pair of disciples from his small retinue.

That was another thing – Nie Huaisang felt like he was surrounded by strangers even though all of them wore familiar costumes. Of the six disciples, he recognized only one, the youngest of the group, who would later become a teacher for the children. The rest… they must have died during the war.

Rising into the air, he couldn’t help one last glance at the Cloud Recess, which almost cost him his balance. Lan Xichen still stood on the yard, a lone white-blue figure seeing them off. Should Nie Huaisang have warned him about the aggression by the Wens? But then, what could he have said that the older Jade would actually believe in?

At any rate, the war wouldn’t go the same route as it had in the past – he would see to that – so his warnings could turn out to carry no merit. It was best to keep silent for now.

Even though they spent the majority of the journey flying on their sabers, it still took days to get back to Qinghe. The air grew colder, especially while they soared high above the uniform, coniferous forests. Still, it was nothing that Nie Huaisang wouldn’t be used to, so he didn’t complain.

On their way, Nie Mingjue kept asking questions about his studies. What did Nie Huaisang learn? How many spell formation could he recall? And so on. Nie Huaisang was actually able to answer some of the questions, simply because he studied those subjects later in life, like the talisman patterns or spell arrays. He had to be careful when talking about the sects’ relations – he knew a lot about them, but much of his knowledge would be completely inaccurate right now, and could raise suspicions.

After theory, the interrogations moved to practice.

“I heard that you picked up xiao,” Nie Mingjue said. “I’m not against that, since at least it’s some sort of cultivation, but remember which sect you’re in. When we’re back to Qinghe, you’ll resume your saber training.”

Nie Huaisang swallowed at that, awkward. “Brother, you know how I am with the saber… I picked up xiao because I thought I might actually be able to master it.”

“That’s not up for discussion,” Nie Mingjue growled. “The sect leader of Qinghe Nie will not be seen on the battlefield playing a flute!”

Nie Huaisang flinched at that; he had managed to forget how it was to be chided, and especially now it felt so strange. He was really the older one here… Well, kinda. Nie Mingjue sure towered over him, even though he actually flew a little lower.

This is going to be difficult, Nie Huaisang realized. Xiao or not, he’ll still see me as lazy and useless if I don’t train with the saber. And regardless of my change of character, I’m his little brother, who ought to obey him. Not someone to whom he’d listen to like to an equal.

And he wouldn’t train with his saber, he had better things to do. If he couldn’t convince his brother to let him act as he wished for now, then he would have to go around him.

The Unclean Realm slowly came into sight before them, a solitary island of civilization on the sea of trees.

“I’m not the sect leader, though,” Nie Huaisang said, somehow pushing the words through his suddenly hoarse throat.

And he would make sure that he never was.

Chapter Text

Avoiding saber training was actually harder than Nie Huaisang remembered. If he stayed in his room, his brother would soon storm in to drag him out. If he left to roam the city – listening for any bits of news and gossip about the cultivation world that reached the remote Qinghe – he would then be told off for hours for being irresponsible. If he hid among servants in their quarters, then they would be punished too, regardless of his protests. It was as if Nie Mingjue had seen that Nie Huaisang wasn’t talentless after all, so he doubled the efforts to root out what he perceived as sheer laziness.

It was an experience both frustrating and bizarre. All Nie Huaisang wanted to do was to snap at his brother that he wasn’t a child anymore to be treated this way, but he knew that he would very much sound like one if he did so. Truthfully, he had no idea what to do – in his machinations, he had never really worked against someone, not in the sense of clashing with them directly. He gathered information, he learned who the person was and what they wanted, and then used it to his own advantage. He manipulated the scene more than he manipulated the actors themselves, so they never felt coerced into action.

But what Nie Mingjue wanted was for Nie Huaisang to train with his saber, grow muscles, and generally become the embodiment of the Nie Sect’s ideals, the way he perceived them. Nie Huaisang considered briefly giving in a bit, appeasing his brother this way, but by now it had become a matter of principle not to touch his saber in any combat-like situation. Besides, it was hard to judge if his brother would really be appeased, or only encouraged to press harder.

All in all, Nie Huaisang had not expected that the biggest hurdle on the way to save Nie Mingjue could be Nie Mingjue himself.

It was time for training, so Nie Huaisang hid again, but not among the servants or outside the gates, which were now being kept a close watch on. He slipped right into his brother’s office, knowing that Nie Mingjue only spent short periods of time here, usually in the evenings and only if he had to. Otherwise he remained near the training grounds or in his private quarters, depending on whether he was working or resting.

The office was the same that Nie Huaisang had used in his previous life, though now it looked nearly bare without any of the decoration. There was no furniture beside a single large table, with a brush and an inkstone placed on it neatly, which contrasted with the heaps of papers that stood next to them. Nie Huaisang paused at the sight; he had managed to forget what a hopeless mess the sect’s accounts were right after he had inherited them from his brother. He had needed Jin Guangyao’s help back then, not just as a part of his charade, but because he genuinely had been too inexperienced to deal with the chaos of ledgers and other mundane documents that towered above him when he sat down at the table.

Well, he wasn’t inexperienced now. He pulled up his sleeves and grabbed the brush. Some of the documents had been written by disciples and clerks, and these just needed to be sorted properly, into heaps by category and then by date, so Nie Huaisang dealt with them right away. The rest he needed to rewrite – some because they were needlessly split into separate papers, others because the language just wasn’t right or some of the signs were smudged, as if his brother had stacked them together hastily, without waiting for the ink to dry.

The task was mundane, but Nie Huaisang didn’t hate it, so soon he got lost among all the papers and calculations and didn’t even notice when the sun began to set outside. He jumped only when the door snapped open, almost spilling the ink. A disciple wouldn’t come in so abruptly, so he wasn’t surprised when he raised his gaze to see his brother’s stone-like face.

Nie Mingjue wasn’t angry, or at least he didn’t shout right away, and Nie Huaisang had yet again remind himself that this was before the war, so his brother’s temper was far better than what he remembered. Besides, as far as he could read Nie Mingjue’s face, he seemed… puzzled.

“What are you doing here?” Nie Mingjue pointed at the stacks.

“Ah… Cleaning?”

Nie Mingjue’s eyebrow arched up, and he strolled up to look at the papers. He picked some up, shuffled through. Suddenly, Nie Huaisang felt as if he was waiting for Lan Qiren to mark his assignment, except now it was even worse, because he actually cared about the outcome.

“Who taught you all that?” Nie Mingjue scratched his head. “Your whole room is a mess, how can you tidy these blasted papers so well?”

Now Nie Huaisang felt a little offended. His collection was always neatly arranged – the fans sorted by their style and color, other art pieces placed so they looked most pleasing to the eye. It wasn’t his fault that altogether, they occupied some space. “Brother, just because you can’t see the reason why things are arranged a certain way, it doesn’t mean that it’s not there.”

His breath caught in his chest when he realized that it wasn’t the way he used to speak to his older brother – but Nie Mingjue didn’t seem to notice.

“I wouldn’t mind you handling these,” he said, putting down the papers on the table. Nie Huasang intercepted them quickly to place them back on the right stack. “My assistants would stop flinching whenever I hand the papers over.”

“Uh… sure,” Nie Huaisang said. He wasn’t really sure, handling ledger and such wasn’t really what he needed to be doing right now, but if it was going to make his brother see him in a different light, perhaps it was a worthwhile trade. “I can do this, if you don’t mind.”

Nie Mingjue’s brow furrowed. “But you still have to practice with your saber,” he said. “You can train in the morning and do these in the afternoon.”

Nie Huaisang stifled a sigh. He would not train with his saber, and he suspected his brother knew of that already, but he was too stubborn to give up just yet. At least he didn’t forbid Nie Huaisang playing the xiao, which he had been practicing in the evenings.

“I’ll be here tomorrow, then,” Nie Huaisang said, and headed for the door.

“Where else would you be?” his brother’s gruff voice reached him, but when he glanced back, he found that Nie Mingjue was smiling ever so slightly.

And so their game of hide-and-seek had been limited to the mornings, while in the afternoons Nie Huaisang would come to his brother’s office to look through the daily stack of reports, ledgers, and other documents. Sometimes he was alone, sometimes accompanied by a disciple, and sometimes his brother sat there, leafing through the results of his work. Nie Husaisang worried in passing that Nie Mingjue would use the opportunity to tow him out to the training grounds, but it wasn’t really his brother's style. Nie Mingjue was a man of his word, and besides, the idea to use this kind of dirty trick would never cross his mind.

Though reading through the less frequently appearing papers, Nie Huaisang discovered that his brother did, in fact, employ spies. He called them ‘scouts’ and they reported anything they could find about the Wen Sect’s movements – the number of disciples that trained battle formations, the amount of food and other provisions transported across Qishan, even their patrol routine and available routes. Nie Huaisang was astounded how meticulous this information was. Even if Nie Mingjue didn’t write the reports himself, he had found the right people and allowed them to work this way, and that was already something.

Then again, since it was warfare, Nie Mingjue probably didn’t consider it a deception. It was well within the rules, an activity that all commanders in the world would engage in, or at least all commanders that were any good. In Nie Mingjue’s mind, this and the more shady activities of Jin Guangyao or Nie Huaisang were two completely separate entities.

Nie Huaisang didn’t know much about warfare, even though he tried to study a bit by reading books and simply asking around. It wasn’t his priority, since he knew he would never be a commander on the battlefield, swinging his saber around to slay his enemies. He didn’t even consider the entire Wen Sect his enemies per se – there were too many opportunists in there, people coerced into obedience, or those who were simply too scared to voice their discontent. It was Wen Ruohan and his sons, and some of his closest subordinates that were the true problem.

However, having a vague idea on how armies moved and what to expect from their commanders could prove crucial during the Sunshot Campaign. It would happen, he knew, but he began to be tentatively optimistic about it. If he could replace Meng Yao as his brother’s aide, maybe it would be enough to change the history. Maybe the two would never get close, but Meng Yao would still want to prove himself, so he would become the spy at Wen Ruohan’s side. Maybe Nie Huaisang would be able to prevent his brother from ever being captured by the Wens. Maybe. If not this, then certainly there were other ways too tackle the Wen Sect, with the Yiling Patriarch and many other forces as their allies.

Maybe Nie Huaisang didn’t need to put through any of his more radical ideas after all.

Days passed, and the Qishan Discussion Conference drew near. In the past life, Nie Huaisang had been happy to ignore it, relishing the opportunity to focus on his hobbies without the threat of his brother coming to drag him out to the training grounds. This time he would rather go there to witness the infamous archery competition, which many cultivators speculated was the root cause of the war.

They were wrong, of course. The Wen Sect had been preparing for war for years, always valuing strength and power over ethics or balance. But perhaps the competition had been a spark that prompted them to finally act, and Nie Huaisang would like to be there, get a reading on Wen Ruohan, whom he had never actually seen.

He brought the matter up one evening in his brother’s office.

“No,” Nie Mingjue said without looking up from the papers.

“Why not?” Nie Huaisang asked. “I know that I’m not good at cultivation, but I don’t have to take part in any of the competitions, just being there–”

“No!” Nie Mingjue slammed his fist against the table, then took in a deep breath. “I will not let you anywhere close to Wen Ruohan. Ever.”

The dangerous gleam in his eyes, the way his lips pressed together in a tight line – Nie Huaisang immediately knew that it was a lost cause. This is because of Father, he realized. Their father had been killed after paying a simple visit to the Nightless City – so now Nie Mingjue would rather break his own saber than let his little brother anywhere near Wen Ruohan. It didn’t matter if Nie Huaisang had trained with a saber or not, if he had any other useful skills or not – as long as he couldn’t beat his brother in a fair fight, Nie Mingjue wouldn’t let him get involved with the Wens.

That would include the Sunshot Campaign, too.

Nie Huaisang clenched a fist behind his back, but he forced down the words of protests. “I understand,” he said simply, and stormed out, angry at himself more than at his brother.

He should’ve seen it coming. He should’ve known – his brother would keep him locked-up to ensure his safety, all while risking his own life on the battlefield. It was comforting in a way, but more than anything, it was an obstacle, because Nie Huaisang couldn’t spend his days on frivolities as he once had, and even managing some of the sect’s internal affairs wouldn’t be sufficient. Do some ledger and suddenly all would be fine? Ha! Wishful thinking. Results took effort – it was the same for schemes as it was for cultivation, only that Nie Huaisang actually had some talent for schemes.

Fine then. If he couldn’t stand at his brother’s side, he would instead go behind his back.

A few days later, Nie Mingjue and his retinue set out for the Nightless City, leaving the Unclean Realm under Nie Huaisang’s supervision. It was more trust than Nie Mingjue had ever shown him when it came to the sect’s matters, and it more than what Nie Huaisang had needed. He waited an hour, making sure that his brother wouldn’t return by some chance, then called the remaining disciples to the yard.

They gathered quickly and fell into perfect rows, used to Nie Mingjue’s surprise drills. Nie Huaisang strolled along them, fishing out familiar faces among the younger disciples. Many of them weren’t skilled enough to go with his brother, others were too young, barely out of the basic cultivation training.

But Nie Huaisang knew them, or at least he knew their potential, so he stopped and pointed with his fan. “You, and you, and you too…”

Altogether he chose eight disciples, all of whom were now looking at him in confusion. They had probably expected him to pass his days painting fans and not pay them any mind.

“We are leaving in two hours,” Nie Huaisang said. “Prepare food and ordinary clothes for the journey, ones that won’t make you stand out on the streets of any city. As for your sabers… keep them in your Qiankun bags, don’t strap them to your belts. We’ll only need them for travel.”

The disciples gazed at him, dumbfounded.

“Didn’t you hear?” Nie Huaisang waved them away with his fan. “Off with you!”

The chosen disciples were all younger than him and unsure of themselves, so they obeyed the order instinctively and scuttled away. Nie Huaisang focused on the rest. Beside the very young cultivators, there was also a group of senior disciples left, much older than his current body.

“Second Master, pardon me,” one of them said. “You said you’re going out?”

“So I did.” Nie Huaisang looked the man up and down. If he remembered correctly, he was the one who had been taking care of the Unclean Realm when Nie Mingjue was away in the past life. “You’ll be in charge here until me or my brother returns.”

The senior disciples stared at him, but Nie Huaisang bore their gaze. What could they do to him? Tie him up and lock in his room? Hah. Even if they were elders, Nie Huaisang was the second master of the Nie Clan, and his brother had already undermined the elders’ power after he became the sect leader at a young age. They couldn’t lay a finger on him without Nie Mingjue’s direct orders, and it must have never crossed Nie Mingjue’s mind that Nie Huaisang might leave on his own.

Finally the disciple averted his eyes. “As Second Master wishes,” he said.

“Good.” Nie Huaisang turned on his heel, eager to go check again if he had packed everything that he would need into his brand new Qiankun bag.

“Ah, wait, Second Master!” the senior disciple called. “If Sect Leader returns first, what… What are we supposed to tell him?”

That made Nie Huaisang pause. What reason could he give to his brother? Something that would make Nie Mingjue understand his actions, even if not approve…

“Tell him,” Nie Huaisang said, “that I also want to avenge our father.”

Chapter Text

The group flew up to the border with Qishan without any problems; the sight of cultivators didn’t awe anyone here, in the land that were pretty much a traveling hub between the many major cultivation sects. Nie Huaisang ordered them to land once they passed by Yueyang.

“Second Master, why did we stop?” one of the disciples said. “The sun is still high!”

The disciple’s name was Gao Yong, and he was one of the oldest and the loudest of the bunch. It was quite a contrast to how Nie Huaisang remembered him – an energetic, but grim bodyguard. What had changed? Was it because of the Sunshot Campaign? If his parents were also active cultivators, then it was quite likely that at least one of them died in the war. Bah, given Gao Yong’s age, it was quite possible that he had fought in a battle or two himself.

“Thank you for the information,” Nie Huaisang said, hopping off his saber. “I wouldn’t notice.”

Gao Yong blushed slightly and stepped down, as did the others. They had landed on a mountain, as close to the summit as it was possible while keeping under the cover of the trees, which should keep their little unit hidden.

‘Unit’ was really a generous term, though – it was a group of teens, though most were still older than Nie Huaisang’s official age. This posed several problems, such as the lack of respect. He wasn’t just a person they knew to be a failure at cultivation and a dandy,  he was also their junior. The one exception was perhaps the short Cai Yun, who had begun – and finished – his training a year sooner than the rest.

In the past life, Nie Huaisang didn’t have to work hard to acquire loyal subordinates. First off, he had been their sect leader; as much as they might have despised the idea at the beginning, the rules were still the rules. Second, they had uniformly respected his brother, so once they realized they were working to avenge Nie Mingjue, all hesitation vanished. Then it only became the problem of finding the right people to the right task, to pick out the smart ones from the sect that had been used to the most brutal style of fighting. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t that hard either, given that Nie Huaisang had time to train them, and to learn alongside them.

Now he had no time, no position, and most of all, not even a clear goal to present them with. He would have to win them over in a different way, bit by bit. And he would need them during the upcoming events. The awareness that he couldn’t fail twisted his guts, but he made an effort to keep anxiety off his face.

“The sun is high indeed,” he said slowly, and looked at Gao Yong. “Do you know where we are headed?”

“The Nightless City,” Gao Yong said. “The conference?”

“Not the most terrible guess, but you missed,” Nie Huaisang said and turned to the rest. “Can you tell why?”

The disciples only looked at each other in confusion. Nie Huaisang stifled a sigh; it was going to be a long journey.

“Uhm,” a quiet voice said. “Isn’t it that if we were simply headed for the conference, there wouldn’t be a need to wear ordinary clothes?”

Nie Huaisang turned to Cai Yun – who stood at the end of the line – and smiled. “Very good. What else can you say?”

“Uhm… Well, I suppose that since we’re dressing up, our visit shouldn’t be noticed by the Wen Sect at all.”

“Correct.” Nie Huaisang said, then pointed with his fan at the edge of the trees. “Now come with me, but try not to make a ruckus.”

The slope took them up to a ledge, which offered a decent view at the valley below. The track leading to Qishan was like a large serpent lying across the trees.

“How many of you have taken looking glasses?” Nie Huaisang asked. A few of the disciples raised their hands. “Great. Well then, use them. Let’s see which one of you first notices something strange below.”

The disciples were seemed too perplexed to protest. Nie Huaisang sat on a nearby stone, for a moment considering pulling out a plain fan to paint, but working on his knee would be more irritating than enjoyable, so he ended up watching the horizon as well. If the maps and his calculations were right, they were only a couple of days away from the Nightless City, if they kept traveling on swords. However, there were also a couple of obstacles on their way, including this very first one.

Minutes passed, and Nie Huaisang began to doubt if any of the disciples would fulfill the task, and also if even there was anything to find; perhaps the information he had copied from his brother’s office was no longer accurate. He was about to give them a clue, when Gao Yong straightened up.

“There! You see? There’s something between the trees there, a structure like… a tower, but with branches put on roof to mask it?”

Nie Huaisang let out a breath, and stood up. “Indeed,” he said. “This is the Wen Sect’s lookout. They keep an eye on the border, hoping to see everyone noteworthy who enters or leaves Qishan.”

“But if we want to go unnoticed…” Gao Yong paused. “Oh.”

Nie Huaisang nodded. “We will resume our flight at night. For now, let’s camp and get some rest.”

They retreated back into the trees. Nie Huaisang watched the disciples out of the corner of his eyes. He saw mostly confusion, but there was a bit of curiosity. Not a bad start. He didn’t want them to treat him like a military commander, but he wanted them to trust his wits, and for that, a bit of a show was necessary.

“But, but, Second Master,” Gao Yong caught up with Nie Huaisang. “How did you know? You couldn’t have seen it when we flew, the mountain was blocking the view!”

“Of course I couldn’t. I cheated.” Nie Huaisang pulled out a piece of paper from his sleeve and handed it to Gao Yong. “Here.”

It was a copy of the map of the Wen Sect’s patrols and lookouts, which had been found out by his brother’s scouts. If only the information was accurate, once they made it past this lookout, they should be able to travel unhindered until a town very near the Nightless City – from there they would have to go by foot not to draw attention. If there was a mistake… well. Nie Huaisang didn’t really have much choice but to trust that the scouts had done a good job.

“This…” Gao Yong seemed at a loss for words; other disciple approached to look over his shoulder.

“If it was war already,” Nie Huaisang said quietly, “and we were a strike team, thanks to this information we would’ve been able to enter the enemy’s territory unnoticed.” Of course, if it had been war, the routes would’ve probably been more secure – but Nie Huaisang decided not to mention this detail. “Please keep it in mind.”

He retrieved the map and slipped it back into his sleeve. The disciples sat down around, some of them pulling out blankets to make themselves comfortable.

“Second Master?” Gao Yong asked. “Do you think there will be war, then? With the Qishan Wen Sect?”

“Of course.” Nie Huaisang closed his eyes. “The only question is when.”

They arrived in the town near the Nightless City only a day after they had passed the border. The sun was still above the horizon when they landed, but it would set soon.

“It would be suspicious if we traveled by foot at night,” Nie Huaisang said. “Most ordinary people don’t do it if only they can avoid it, even rogue cultivators, unless they are hunting. For now, let’s see how well you will fare.”

“Fare at what, Second Master?” one of the disciples asked.

“Gathering information.” Nie Huaisang pulled out his fan and waved with it around. “We meet back in the inn in, let’s say… Two hours. See how much you can find in this time.”

“Find where?” Gao Yong cried.

Nie Huaisang sent him a particularly brilliant smile. “Everywhere,” he said, and strolled away, aptly slipping into the busy crowd.

Sometimes birds taught their young to fly by kicking them out of their nests.

Nie Huaisang had always been good at listening, or at least he liked to think so. He listened for as long as he could remember. When he had been just a child left out of the important matters, he listened to his father talk to other disciples, and to gaps in the talks over the family dinner table, which sometimes revealed him the direction that he should be searching in. When his father was dying and no one would give him a clear answer as to why, he listened to the gossip by hiding in the garden close to the windows. He listened in while pretending to read, careful to follow the text with his eyes even if he wasn’t actually seeing it; he was astounded to find out how freely people talked when he appeared absorbed by a book, as if they forgot Nie Huaisang was even there.

And of course, once he came to the Cloud Recess, he listened to his peers’ cheerful babble while walking along, sometimes interjecting a sentence or two. After he had learned listening to things people didn’t want him to know, friendly chatter was a bit confusing. Apparently sometimes people actually wanted to share information, but he had to respond to their ideas correctly, and that was another thing he had practiced. He was already adept by next year, when he had finally met Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng, though Wei Wuxian’s big mouth made things much less of a challenge.

He listened to the news during the Sunshot Campaign, eager to find out that his brother was alive – but after the war passed, his abilities failed him. In the end he had been an amateur, so whenever Jin Guangyao came with gifts and a kind word, Nie Huaisang took it at face value. Later, he always wondered what would happen if he had listened more carefully. What if he had heard the strange notes in Jin Guangyao’s melody that made it different from the one Lan Xichen had played. What if he had listened to his own brother and realized how bad things had been between Nie Mingjue and the youngest of the sworn brothers, how that state didn’t match Jin Guangyao’s ever smiling face. What if, what if, what if. In the time of grief, after he had found out the truth, the ‘what if’ had almost driven him mad. Only the burning desire for revenge – for justice – kept him going.

To bring Jin Guangyao down, Nie Huaisang had relearned how to listen, this time not on his own, but through other people. However, it necessitated that those other people possessed a certain skill themselves – otherwise he could just as well be deaf.

But practice never hurt, so Nie Huaisang took the opportunity to refresh his more basic skills. Walking down the busy street, he could pick fragments of conversations between friends, many waiting in line to one of the numerous food stalls. The town was relatively small, but given its location, it was brimming with activity; if Nie Huaisang were to bet, he would say that at least half of the people on the streets were travelers.

And yet, even among the crowd, he noticed a silent figure following him. He waited for a turn, then halted and spun around.

“What are you doing?” he asked Cai Yun.

The boy blushed every so slightly. “Ah… I figured that Second Master will also go to search for information, to see that none of us tries to make things up.”

Nie Huaisang smiled. “You were right.” He resumed his stroll along the street.

“Uhm…” Cai Yun caught up with him in a few steps. “Am I not going to get punished?”

“For what?”

“What we are doing is meant to be an exercise,” Cai Yun said. “So if I follow you, won’t it be cheating?”

“There’s no such thing as cheating in real life,” Nie Huaisang said. “Only methods you can choose from.”

“But… back then, with the map, you said that you had cheated. Second Master.”

Nie Huaisang sighed. “It sounded right, that’s all. Sometimes you have to compromise your rules for the sake of a clever retort.”

He intended it as a joke, but Cai Yun only frowned, as if he was truly considering. “I see.”

Nie Huaisang stifled the sudden urge to hit the boy with his fan. “Sometimes what I say doesn’t make much sense. Try to see past that.”


“You will figure it out.” Nie Huaisang sent the boy a smile. You already had, once.

The town was rich in gossip, and it wasn’t hard at all to get vendors talking or to eavesdrop on a group discussion. The conference was a hot topic, perhaps because a lot of travelers were minor cultivators, who would keep in touch with what was going on in the Nightless City. In particular, the results of the archery competition spread far and wide. Many admired the Gusu Lan Sect for taking the two spots of the main four, others – the Yunmeng Jiang for scoring the first place. Some – the bolder ones – snickered at the hosts, who didn’t make a name for themselves at all.

It was not surprising that Wen Ruohan had treated the results as a slight, and that it had prodded him to move – and in Nie Huaisang’s vision, his reaction was a great waterfall, drawing closer and closer. If things continued down the same line, the situation would only deteriorate, until it might be too late to change anything.

The disciples – apart from Cai Yun, who had accompanied him the whole evening –  returned to the inn in a trickle. Some brought more or less the same news, others – a pleasant surprise – more details that fit with the big picture. Wen Ruohan was irritable, and so the political parts of the conference were particularly rocky and would likely draw out. A few fierce corpses were sighted in the nearby forests a couple of weeks ago, but the Wen Sect wasn’t doing anything about them.

“That’s because they called in too many people for the conference,” Gao Yong announced, as if he had just won a lottery. “They wanted to make impression, but they neglected their own people instead!”

“Keep your voice down,” Nie Huaisang muttered. The inn was crowded and loud, but one could never be sure who might be watching. Their group should look like a gathering of rogue cultivators, which wouldn’t seem strange considering the conference, but the illusion could shatter if they weren’t careful. “But, yes. This is a piece of information that’s quite valuable. Do you know why?”

“We can use it to spread bad rumors about the Wen Sect?” Gao Yong said.

Nie Huaisang shook his head. “It means that their numbers are more limited than they would like to admit. Next, they might try to remedy it somehow.”

The disciples exchanged looks. “Like how?” one of them ventured to ask.

Like by incorporating dozens of minor sects rogue cultivators, killing anyone who dares to protest.

“There are many ways.” Nie Huaisang spread his fan. “We would have to find out more to make an educated guess. Still, you did well – I’m impressed.”

Whether he really was impressed or not, it didn’t matter. As people who were used to an approving grunt at most, the disciples’ eyes almost literally lit up.

Nie Huaisang couldn’t help but fiddle with his fan when they strolled in through the gate of the Nightless City, but none of the Wen Sect’s disciples had tried to stop them. It was the time of peace, at least officially. Still… If they were discovered now, Nie Huaisang couldn’t even use the conference as the excuse – after all, it would be clear that they had never visited the nearby mountain, where the proper residence of the Wen Sect was situated. At present, he couldn’t think of any convincing reason he could give to someone if their true identities were found out, so remaining incognito became paramount.

“If anyone asks, we are a group rogue cultivators, on our way to deal with the corpses in the forests,” Nie Huaisang reminded quietly. They had already discussed their cover on the way, but he worried. He had had over ten years of experience, but the youngsters around him were… well, youngsters , as strange as it was to think that when most of them towered over him. “If they catch you fishing out for information, then you’re listening for gossip about the conference.”

“Are we going to search for anything specific?” Cai Yun asked. “Or is it another exercise?”

Nie Huaisang shook his head. “This one is serious,” he said. “We’re looking for a person. She’s a low-level cultivator, and her name is Wang Lingjiao.”

Chapter Text

Persuasion was difficult. By definition, it meant convincing someone to do what you wanted through argument or reasoning, or in other words, simply by talking to them. However, people didn’t want to do what you wanted – they wanted to do what they wanted. There were workarounds, like convincing them that pleasing you should be their goal, or making it appear that aiding you would benefit their own goals as well. Jin Guangyao had been a master at that, though he would use manipulation, threats, and other means just as often. As for Nie Huaisang, he preferred a less confrontational approach, but this time he had little choice in the matter. Even if he started training Qinghe Nie disciples next day with his brother’s blessing, he still wouldn’t be able to put them into all the right places before the war started.

They found the Wang family on the second day of their stay. The minor family of weak cultivators wasn’t one that many people remembered about, but eventually one of the vendors pointed them to the house in the better part of Qishan, or so two of the disciples claimed.

“What else did you hear?” Nie Huaisang asked while they were on their way.

“She said that even though they are cultivators, their family had been servants to more powerful clans for a long time,” one of the disciples said. “Hence their relative wealth.”

Nie Huaisang nodded – he had expected something like that. Wang Lingjiao had not seemed like someone able to exorcise a single walking corpse, much less make a living out of her cultivation.

“Are we going there to knock?” Gao Yong asked.

Nie Huaisang shook his head. “I want to speak with Wang Lingjiao alone, and in a more neutral environment, if possible.” He paused, considering. “They don’t seem like they have servants, so she should go out from time to time for shopping and such. For now, let’s just wait and watch.”

They lounged at the nearby restaurant, watching the house through the open windows, though Nie Huaisang sent a few disciples away to the nearby market just to busy them with something. Besides, you didn’t really know what news circulated in an area before you listened.

It turned out he didn’t have to wait long. After only half an hour, the house’s door opened, and Wang Lingjia walked… no, she was pushed out.

“And you better pray that you are pretty enough!” a female voice snarled.

The door shut. Wang Lingjiao – looking somewhat different in an ordinary, unrevealing dress – cursed under her breath and brushed her hair aside. She picked her way across the street, and the empty basket she carried indicated that she was headed for the market.

“Let’s go,” Nie Huaisang said quietly.

They followed the young woman across the market while she did her shopping. By the way she walked, she was in no hurry.

“Second Master, won’t she notice us if we keep going after her in such an open manner?” Cai Yun asked.

“I hope she does,” Nie Huaisang said. A dumb spy would turn into a dead spy too quickly.

She noticed them. She chose the middle of the market, where the crowd was dense and a couple of guards strolled nearby, and she spun around to face them.

“Congratulations,” Nie Huaisang said, sending her a smile.

“What for?” Wang Lingjiao snorted. “Who the hell are you?”

Worry wrenched Nie Huaisang’s gut. From now on, one wrong word from his lips could spoil the entire enterprise. Without even thinking, he pulled out his fan from his sleeve – then cursed himself. The item could serve as a means to identify him by, but now it was too late to hide it.

“How about I introduce myself in a more comfortable environment,” he said, pointing at the nearby inn. “This place looks like it should have private rooms. The dinner will be on me.”

Wang Lingjiao crossed her arms. “And why should I waste my time on it?”

“Hmm, I don’t know,” Nie Huaisang said. “I just thought you might have some time to waste before you go back home.”

This was a shot in half-dark, enough to make his heart stop for a moment, but the way Wang Lingjiao’s shoulders slumped told him that he had hit the bull’s eyes. Clearly, she did not want to return to her family’s house.

“I suppose I have,” she said. “But you better pray it’s tasty.”

The dinner smelled tasty, as Nie Huaisang found after the two of them sat down in the private room – more of a cabin, really – and the server brought in the dishes.

“All right,” Wang Lingjiao said, grabbing her chopsticks. “You can make your case.”

“Just a moment,” Nie Huaisang gave her an apologetic smile and stood up, pulling out a few paper talismans from his sleeve.

Wang Lingjiao tensed up, which he saw out of the corner of his eye as he walked around the room, slapping a talisman against each wall.

“This way no one will be able to eavesdrop on our conversation,” he explained, sitting down.

Wang Lingjiao gave him a long look. The talismans had been invited by QingheNie Sect under Nie Huaisang’s supervision years after the war, so to her it should be something completely unheard of – even if she apparently wouldn’t admit it out loud.

“Who would even eavesdrop on us?” Wang Lingjiao murmured at last. “What’s so important about this dinner?”

His subordinates… No, the disciples he had taken with him were likely to eavesdrop, or at least he hoped so, though he prefered to render their attempts futile.

“The dinner’s not important, though it might get cold if we don’t start eating,” Nie Huaisang announced happily, picking up his chopsticks. “ You are important.”

“Hmph.” Wang Lingjiao seemed less than convinced. “If you want to get into my mother’s good grace, then you chose a wrong way. She doesn’t care what I think.”

“I’m not even sure who your mother is,” Nie Huaisang admitted.

Wang Lingjiao blinked, idly picking at her meal. “No? Then…”

“I have a job offer for you,” Nie Huaisang said. “Since you’ll soon become Wen Chao’s sweetheart.”

Wang Lingjiao choked, and needed a moment to catch her breath. “You… How would you know? I haven’t yet…” She dropped her voice.

...attempt to seduce him? Nie Huaisang thought. Well, crap. At least he had impressed her; she would never listen to someone she deemed as lesser than herself.

“Your family will see then,” Nie Huaisang went on, the image of Wang Lingjiao pushed out of her home flashing through his mind. “That whatever they’ve arranged for you, you can do better. What’s their plan, by the way?”

Wang Lingjiao seemed shaken enough to actually respond. “Marriage, what else? A second concubine to some weak geezer, who’s not even a cultivator!” She paused. “How long have you been watching me?”

Not as long as you think. Nie Huaisang didn’t say anything, only smiled.

“This… job,” Wang Lingjiao said at last. “What is it about?”

“When you’ll be Wen Chao’s mistress,” Nie Huaisang said softly, watching Wang Lingjiao’s face, “you’ll have many opportunities. To listen to him boast about his cunning plans; to accidentally overhear his private conversations; to read his letters while he is asleep…”

“All right, I get it. And who I’d be doing it for?”

“The faction that’s going to win the upcoming war.”

“Hmpf.” Wang Lingjiao crossed her arms. “You sure are full of yourself.”

Nie Huaisang again responded with a smile only, though his stomach tightened into an uncomfortable knot. This was the moment now – he would either gain himself a valuable ally, or leave empty-handed. The wait was nerve wracking. He really preferred his usual method of setting the scene instead of talking with the actors.

“What would I get out of it?” Wang Lingjiao said at last.

Nie Huaisang leaned back, considering. Money was a thing, of course, but what was it that Wang Lingjiao wanted most?

“A way out,” he said. He gestured around with his fan. “Away from all of this, as soon as the war ends.”

Wang Lingjiao hesitated. “I did hear whispers,” she said at last. “The Four Great Clans really want to butt their heads against the Wens?”

“Whether they want or not, that’s of little importance,” Nie Huaisang said dryly. “Wen Ruohan wants absolute domination in the cultivation world. The other clans can submit or fight. What do you think they’ll choose?”

Wang Lingjiao nodded. “Between you and me, Wen Chao isn’t particularly appealing, either,” she said. “Seems like the kind of man easy to seduce, but hard to keep your grip on. He was still a better prospect than the geezer my mother had chosen, but…” She shrugged.

Nie Huaisang raised an eyebrow. “From the past tense, I take it that I’m an even better prospect?”

“You do have a certain puppy’s charm.”

Nie Huaisang smiled, stifling down the urge to burst into laughter. There was really one way Wang Lingjiao knew to manipulate men, was there? Nevertheless, it would prove effective with Wen Chao.

“Now, let’s go over the details,” Nie Huaisang said. “You’ll need a way to contact us…”

He left the room almost an hour later, exhausted and less satisfied than he thought he would be, given that the mission was a success. Perhaps it was due to the fact that Wang Lingjiao wasn’t the most reliable person around, and she had no idea just how big a favor he was doing her. She didn’t know what her fate had been in the previous life; she could still choose to side with the Wens, play a double agent… Of course, there were precautions Nie Huaisang could take, like diversifying his sources of information, but he had turned to Wang Lingjiao because it would be extremely hard to get someone close to Wen Ruohan’s son in such a short period of time.

This was something to ponder later.

“How did it go?” Gao Yong asked as soon as Nie Huaisang entered the room where the disciples had waited.

“Fine,” Nie Huaisang said. “We can go back to Qinghe.”

“So… this whole trouble was just to talk with one woman?” Gao Yong seemed unable to believe. “There has to be more to it!”

“Mhm. Maybe I’ll tell you one day.” Nie Huaisang scanned the room, looking each of the disciples in the eye. “My other goal was to see how you’d fare – if you can understand the importance of information and how to gather it. You did well, so I ask of you – even after we go back to Qinghe and my brother returns, would you be willing to keep helping me?”

There was a moment of pause, when Nie Huaisang’s heart almost stopped, but then, one by one, the disciples nodded.

“Thank you,” he said with more relief that he had intended to disclose. “For the first thing – please don’t speak to anyone about what we’ve done here.”

“However, Sect Leader Nie will find out about this trip,” Cai Yun said. “And he will not be happy.”

Nie Huaisang closed his eyes as the angry face of his brother flashed in his mind. “I know. But I will deal with him.”

Somehow, he added silently.

Chapter Text

Nie Huaisang had never before truly dreaded returning home. Even back in the previous life when he came back after the Sunshot Campaign, he had expected to see scars and destruction, but he hadn’t been afraid. After all, they had been victorious and his brother was alive. What evil could possibly bring him down?

After Nie Mingjue’s death, traveling from and back to Qinghe become a tiring chore, nothing less and nothing more. The closest feeling to what Nie Huaisang experienced now was many years ago, when he had returned from the Cloud Recess for the first time with less than perfect marks, but even then it was more of a resignation than fear. He had been incopetent and lazy, but not disobedient. Not about things that truly mattered.

Stop fretting, Nie Huaisang chided himself. Think.

Jin Guangyao, in all of his Chief Cultivator’s glory, had been a scarier foe. Nie Mingjue always came at his opponents from the front; with Jin Guangyao, Nie Huaisang had never known if his enemy hadn’t figured him out, if his next friendly visit to Lanling wouldn’t be his last one. What was the worst Nie Mingjue could do?

Break his legs, perhaps. Or tie him up and stuff him into a safe room until the Wen Sect was done with. Nie Huaisang couldn’t allow for either, but it wasn’t the same as facing his mortal enemy. It was still his brother, still before the war, still his calmer self.

He was about to climb a mountain. What was the easiest route he could take?

“We will wait here,” he said at a town close to Qinghe, large enough to have more than just a single inn.

“Wait for what, Second Master?” one of the disciples asked.

“For my brother to return first,” Nie Huaisang said.

The hour was still early, so they settled around a table in the main room, loud with people talking over dinners. A waiter approached to take their order.

“I don’t understand.” Gao Yong scratched his chin when the man walked away. “The conference didn’t finish when we left, so it might take a good few days before Sect Leader returns. Why are we waiting?”

Nie Huaisang fiddled with his fan; truth be told, he wasn’t sure of his decision himself, but he had to confront his brother one way or another. He couldn’t remain tucked away at Qinghe or Gusu for the entirety of the Sunshot Campaign, and sneaking behind Nie Mingjue’s back would become more difficult. He had to take a more direct approach.

“A good commander will take advantage of the terrain the battle is taking place on,” he said, remembering one of the military books he had studied after his return to Qinghe. “But a great commander will make it so the battle happens on a terrain that’s most beneficial to him.”

Gao Yong frowned. “How is waiting for Sect Leader to return first beneficial, though?”

“Even if we returned first, Sect Leader would learn about our escapade from the elders,” Cai Yun said. “But if he returns first, then he’ll worry about Second Master’s safety, so when we return a few days later, he will be relieved to see him safe and sound.”

“Yeah, but won’t it make him more angry in result?” Gao Yong said. “I just don’t see…”

Nie Huaisang let them discuss while the waiter brought in their meal, but he listened only with one ear. His stomach clenched into a tight knot as he contemplated returning to the Unclean Realm. He wanted to put his brother out of balance, but was this really the right strategy? Or was he simply stalling the inevitable?

But now that he had already said what they would do, he couldn’t just change his mind too easily.

“Everything is set,” the waiter announced. “Please, enjoy your meal!”

The Unclean Realm loomed up ahead. Nie Huaisang had always thought it was a somewhat crude shape, even though the surrounding mountains weren’t a half-bad sight. But the high walls and sharp edges had nothing on the ethereal elegance of the Cloud Recess or the natural beauty of the Lotus Pier, and they wouldn’t change no matter what. Even in another life, when Nie Huaisang had been the sect leader and did his best to improve the presentation (his act allowed him for that much), he was never able to hide the fact that it was a military fortress, not a palace – much like putting a pretty dress on Nie Mingjue would do nothing to cover his imposing frame and muscles.

The image of Nie Mingjue in a dress was the only thing that kept him going and even made him crack a smile as they neared the gate.

“Wow, Second Master really is fearless,” Gao Yong whispered behind.

But Nie Huaisang was simply running away from his fear by distracting himself – didn’t that make him an even greater coward? Still, he said nothing. Let them think him fearless, then perhaps their expectations would push him to move faster.

Whispers rippled across the courtyard when their group entered and some of the disciples ran off, perhaps to notify his brother. Nie Huaisang turned to the ones that came with him, feeling like he might faint at any moment, but somehow he managed to speak, “Go now. I’ll face my brother.”

And so they scattered. Nie Huaisang hastened after the disciples that had ran off, into the main building and across the corridors, too quickly to let himself second guess or stop, because if he did, he would be unable to move again.

They bumped into each other, or rather, Nie Huaisang walked into his brother who emerged from behind a corner and managed to stop.


Strong arms wrapped around Nie Huaisang and for a moment he thought he was being strangled, but then he realized it really was a hug, though he still couldn’t breathe with his face pressed into his brother’s chest. He wanted to protest but suddenly Nie Mingjue released him on his own, pushing Nie Huaisang away though still holding his arms while casting a thunderous gaze over his face.

“What were you thinking! You can’t even hold a saber properly and you went off like that? Do you want to die?!”

Nie Huaisang winced; the image of his brother burning his fans and trinkets flashed through his mind unbidden. But it hadn’t been Nie Mingjue back then, it had been Jin Guangyao and the cursed song that Nie Huaisang had already burned. It would not happen.

Still a part of him revolted, an echo of an old rage. “I don’t want to die but I don’t want to stay idle, either!”


Nie Mingjue’s hand clenched around his shoulder, fingers digging into his skin painfully, and willing or not, Nie Huaisang flinched. Nie Mingjue released him then, as if afraid of breaking his bones, but Nie Huaisang forced himself not to retreat, not to massage the spot where it hurt the most.

“There are other ways to fight,” he mustered on. “Let me prove it!”

“What?” Nie Mingjue snapped. “What can you do?”

“I can make the Lanling Jin Sect fight.”

They stood, glaring at each other. Nie Mingjue looked shocked, but he said nothing. Nie Huaisag was shocked as well. Of course he had had every intention of involving the Lanling Jin Sect, they were the ones who had stalled the war effort for so long in the previous life, and he even had a plan… Well, more of an idea, really, but still. But what came over him to just shout it out like that, right into his brother’s face?

They had never really argued like this. Nie Huaisang had never really argued – he just wasn’t a confrontational person, most of the times.

But times had changed.

“I meant,” he began, searching for a way to smoothen that out, to calm both himself and his brother, but Nie Mingjue already turned away. Without a single word, he stormed off, leaving Nie Huaisang alone in the corridor.

Nie Huaisang buried his hand in his hair and took in a deep breath. Slowly, his heartbeat returned to normal, even though there was a bitter sense of loss twisting his guts. But it could have been worse, couldn’t it? His brother could have broken his legs or locked him up in a cell, or both.

But perhaps that would’ve been better than that strange, strange silence.


Two hours passed, then three. Nie Huaisang cooped himself up in his room. He paced from wall to wall, then sat down and tried to paint. In result he covered one fan in a mess of red and black lines, a disturbing sight that wouldn’t go well with any of his robes, so he put it away. He entertained the idea of practicing his xiao, but he really didn’t feel like playing, and then he thought about a trip to the library, but he really didn’t want to move.

So he just lay in his bed, staring at his ceiling and thinking where he had gone wrong – what he should’ve said or done differently – when the door to his room snapped open. Nie Huaisang sat up, looking at his brother’s grim face.

“Is it true what the elders said?” Nie Mingjue asked. “That you want to revenge our father?”

He had almost forgotten about that lie, but he forced himself to nod.

“And the Lanling Jin,” Nie Mingjue stepped into the room. “That you can make them fight – did you mean it?”

At last, Nie Hauisang found his voice again. “Yes.”

Nie Mingjue took in a deep breath and let it out, as if preparing himself for some great effort. Then finally he fixed a piercing gaze on Nie Huaisang’s face. “What do you need?”

Chapter Text

Months passed. Qishan Wen Sect grew relentless and spread around, swallowing one small clan after another, expanding their own territory, manpower, resources. The threat loomed, never clearer in Nie Huaisang mind, and he wondered how come he hadn’t noticed it in the previous life. Had he so desperately wanted to remain happy-go-lucky that he purposefully averted his gaze? Or had he simply trusted his older brother would stand up to any challenge that might arise? 

Whatever the reason was, he couldn’t look away now – instead he watched very closely, read what Wang Lingjiao had to say, searched for other places to slip people in or bribe those who were already there, all with Nie Mingjue’s… No, not quite blessing, but at least tolerance. His brother didn’t even know exactly what Nie Huaisang was doing, but he allowed him a small manpower and funds, and so both of them watched the Wen Sect grow with wary eyes.

Meanwhile, the Lanling Jin Sect threw a banquet.

It was Jin Zixuan’s birthday, but the Koi Tower was dressed up as if for a wedding, with ribbons and lanterns, its golds shinier than ever. If only the colors were red instead of the Lanling Jin’s yellows, Nie Huaisang would be scanning the crowd for the bride.

And what a distinguished crowd it was! All great sects had come and a handful of smaller ones that lived under the Lanling Jin’s supervision, and only the Qishan Wen Sect had not made an appearance, but no one was saddened because of that. Lan Xichen and Lan Zhan (though maybe Nie Huaisang should get used to calling the younger Jade by his courtesy name as well) both sat at a table close to the hosts, and opposite was Jiang Fengmian and his wife. No Wei Wuxian or Jiang Cheng, perhaps due to the sour history with Jin Zixuan’s betrothal to Jiang Yanli and the black eye Jin Guangshan’s precious heir had had in result.

Their Nie Sect was put a bit behind, because their ties had never been great and because Jin Guangshan likely hoped to avoid Nie Mingjue’s war agitation. That only worked at the beginning though, while they raised the first toast and ate the first meal, and later the guests began to mingle and change places. Nie Mingjue went to Jin Guangshan’s side even without Nie Huaisang’s prodding, who didn’t stop him because it was best that Nie Mingjue behaved the way he had in the previous life – the way everybody expected him to.

Nie Huaisang left his seat as well, so his retinue could disperse, and he strolled across the large, gleaming hall. He hadn’t come here in the previous life; in the face of the Wens’ expansion, Nie Mingjue had preferred to keep his brother in their home fortress, and Nie Huaisang himself had not complained much, jumping at any occasion to freely slack off.

But this banquet was important, more important than any of the gathered realized or would ever realize.

“Brother Xichen,” Nie Huaisang chose to approach the Lan table first. “It’s been so long!”

The older Jade smiled. “Too long, Huaisang. How’s your practice?”

“Oh, I can play simple tunes on xiao now, but it’s all thanks to Brother Xichen’s guidance,” Nie Huaisang said, a little surprised how easy it came to him to flatter the other. Then again, was it still flattery when he was speaking the truth? “My saber though… Let’s just say that the Wens aren’t the only reason why my brother’s brow furrows so much.”

Their eyes darted to the main table, where Nie Mingjue towered over Jin Guangshan, who had a tired expression on his face.

“If we don’t act now, it’ll only become harder in the future!” Nie Mingjue boomed. “And while they are dealing with all those minor sects, their forces are divided – there will not be a better moment to…”

Nie Huaisang glanced at Lan Xichen’s face, and what he saw was worry.

“Your brother is not wrong, Huaisang,” Lan Xichen said softly. “We stay idle while the sun only blazes harder.” And then the smile was back, the ever polite one, the mask of a perfect son that would later become the perfect sect leader. “Ah, but let’s not talk such grim matters. We will have time to discuss it later, your brother and I.”

Without you was the underlying message, one that Lan Xichen probably didn’t even intend, but Nie Huaisang accepted it with his head lowered. After all, he was still thought a simple dandy outside of Qinghe and truthfully, he preferred it stayed that way.

Nie Mingjue finally rose from the Jin table, and Lan Xichen excused himself to talk with him. Nie Huaisang sent him one last smile before scanning the room for another interlocutor. Madame Jin and Madame Jiang talked with each other behind Jiang Fengmian’s back, but Nie Huaisang had no idea how to make small talk with the older sect leader. Looking at his mellow face, it was hard to believe that Jiang Cheng with his permanent scowl could be his son, but it took one glance at Yu Ziyuan to solve the mystery, and Nie Huaisang decided that he didn’t want to wander into the woman’s proximity.

Another unoccupied person was Jin Zixuan. Lan Zhan was too unsociable too approach him, it seemed, and other guests were either his elders or of much lower status. And so the heir of the Jin Sect was left alone to scowl at his father, who seemed to grab any occasion when Madame Jin wasn’t at his side – and him grabbing an occasion was really just him grabbing a servant’s ass.

Nie Huaisang approached Jin Zixuan from behind “Lecherous old man, isn’t he?”

“Yes!” Jin Zixuan said, then scowled at him. “Nie Huaisang! Who are you to talk filth about my father?”

“No one, no one.” Nie Huaisang shot him a brilliant smile, as cheeky as he dared. “But you seem like you need a drink. So – a toast to another auspicious year of life?”

Jin Zixuan’s eyes wandered back to Jin Guangshan, whose hand in turned wandered up the servant’s skirt, then darted back to his empty cup. “Yes.”

Nie Huaisang poured each of them a cup (all the nearby servants were busy) and so they raised at the same time, Jin Zixuan downing his cup so fast he put it down when Nie Huaisang was still only halfway through.

He finished as quickly as he could and coughed; he really wasn’t used to liquor, even as an adult, and now his body was still younger than seventeen. Finally he caught his breath and searched for a thing to say, but his mind was empty. Jin Zixuan kept silent too, his eyes skimming to his father now and then, the scowl reappearing whenever he looked there.

“Another drink?” Nie Huaisang said at last.


Fifteen minutes later he thoroughly regretted every single sip, as the hall wobbled in his eyes and the air grew so hot it was stifling. It was stupid of him to drink so much. Silly. Sloppy. Sfoolish? 


Nie Huaisang took in a deep breath, desperately trying to gather his thoughts. He was drunk, all right. But not badly enough to throw up or to lose consciousness, so really what he had to do was keep away and keep silent, to make sure he didn’t say anything he shouldn’t say. That was easy. He pulled out his fan and fiddled with it. Was it easy?

“Second Master.” Cai Yun appeared beside him, hidden in the shadow of a pillar. “We’ve acquired it.”

Focus. Nie Huaisang told himself, fanning himself. They had an objective in coming here, he and a couple of his direct subordinates.

“Do I want to know how?” he murmured behind his fan.

“Let’s just say that Gao Yong is having fun with several laundry ladies,” Cai Yun said.

“I see.” Nie Huaisang closed his eyes and reopened them, hoping that it would stop the wobbling, but it helped only a little. “Good. Keep it hidden. And…” He hesitated.


“I’m drunk,” Nie Huaisang said, resigned. Cai Yun had probably already noticed, be it by sight or by smell. “If something happens, you’re in charge.” Nothing should happen, but it never paid to be careful, not when they really needed that prize. “I’ll go outside to rest.”

“Yes!” Cai Yun vanished back into the shadows, or really just into the crowd of lesser cultivators and disciples.

Nie Huaisang stifled a sigh as he made his way to the door. The cool air brushed against his cheeks, sobering him a little. He stood in front of the main entrance to the Koi Tower.

Before him stretched the stairs.

They really were some stairs. Countless steps, wide, glistening. Imposing. Climbing them would be a great effort, and Nie Huaisang was never happier that even his thin saber allowed him to fly.

He should go sideways, maybe search for a bench or another quiet sitting spot, but something prodded him forward, and so he took a step down, then another one. So many steps. How would it be to roll down them all? Surely it would kill a man… Except at least one had survived it.

Shouldn’t he be here already? Nie Huaisang strolled down the stairs, though there was that vague idea he really shouldn’t, that he should go back and hide. He shouldn’t interact with the person that would arrive, it was just too great a risk.

But still he kept going, step by step, as if his legs just couldn’t stop.

Finally he reached the bottom, an elegant courtyard surrounded by vast gardens. Peonies would have blossomed all around, he was sure, had it been the right time of year. As it was, the only flowers were the ones on the golden uniforms of passing guards.

He wasn’t here. Nie Huiasang surveyed the courtyard, but its emptiness didn’t change. He felt silly standing in front of the too-large stairs, so he moved aside, as if to touch the brush. Why wasn’t he here? Did something change, something Nie Huaisang didn’t see? Something he didn’t intend? Was it a good or a bad thing?

Nie Huaisang’s fingers brushed against the leafless twigs – and then he heard steps. Different than those of a guard, lighter, perhaps more unsure. His blood froze, alcohol all but evaporating from his system. He should flee, but he couldn’t, not when the other man was here already, not when he would see. So Nie Huaisang remained motionless, his hand against the twigs, as if he was surveying the brush.

Steps paused and resumed, as if the person momentarily stopped. Intimidated by the stairs, perhaps? But after that initial hesitation there was no break, just a smooth footfall passing behind Nie Huiasang’s back. Finally a change when the other person reached the first step.

“You shouldn’t go there.” The words escaped Nie Huaisang’s lips, and hung in the air while he cursed himself and alcohol, and even Jin Zixuan for needing too many cups.

“Excuse me?” the other person asked.

Nie Huaisang turned so they faced each other. What struck him wasn’t the lack of golden robes or of the usual hat, or even the younger-than-he-remembered, but still clean and attractive face. It wasn’t the simple clothing either, or the amiable smile, which was the only familiar detail. It wasn’t even the eyes, which looked the same but somehow different, perhaps simply younger and more inexperienced.

It was how vulnerable Meng Yao looked at that moment, and maybe especially at that moment, his slight body framed by those ridiculous stairs.

“Do we know each other, Young Master?” Meng Yao asked, his head lowered as if deference was his default position. “If so, you must forgive me, because I don’t–”

As if you’d forget if you had met me.

“We don’t,” Nie Huaisang said. “But your face is not unlike that of your father, and given that the guards let you in, it’s really not that hard to guess who you might be.”

“Oh.” Meng Yao straightened up. “Young Master is clever. But then, are you telling me I should not present myself to Father?”

“Don’t mind me, I’m just some drunk.” Nie Huaisang looked at his hand; without realizing, he had broken off a twig, and now it rolled between his fingers. Alcohol was likely the only reason why he wasn’t fainting yet or searching for another way to get out of this exchange, because he really shouldn’t, shouldn’t have started it – but now he found he couldn’t stop. “Do you know for whom this banquet up there is?”

Meng Yao said nothing, just looked at him with those resolute eyes of his.

“It’s for his legitimate son, Jin Zixuan,” Nie Huaisang said.

“Just because one son is celebrated, does that mean another one won’t be welcome?” Meng Yao said, smile never wavering. “Thank you for your advice, Young Master, but this is what my mother told me: ‘Your father is a great cultivator and he thought that I was special, and he must have thought that our son would be special, for he left me this token. But I can no longer faithfully wait for him, so you should go find him and offer it back; this way, he will know who you are.’”

Your mother was a fool, Nie Huaisang thought, but he wasn’t drunk enough to say that out loud. Deep down he knew he had already crossed the line, a cold realization that surged through his veins, and so he kept silent while Meng Yao bowed to him and resumed his climb, step after step, up and up.

Nie Huaisang hadn’t been there to witness the incident in the previous life, but he could more or less see the scene play out in his mind now. Meng Yao would arrive, slip through the crowded room to his father’s table – or maybe he would draw enough attention that the crowd would make way for him. Then he would present himself, all in the presence of Madame Jin, his half-brother, and a flock of servants around Jin Guangshan.

And then there would be raised voices and arguments, and screams, and rage. Lan Xichen, ever the mediator, would jump in trying to calm the tempers, explain the situation. He would defend the poor boy who had come all this way alone, but it would not be enough, and so Meng Yao would fall.

But even still, Meng Yao would remember that act of kindness from a stranger many months later when he would encounter Lan Xichen and help him. And then… What? Would Lan Xichen suggest that Meng Yao go to Qinghe, for the Gusu Lan Sect was in shambles and the Nie sect leader didn’t care about one’s bloodline, only their character? Or would it be Meng Yao’s own idea, after he decided to join the cultivation world despite the initial poor welcome? Either way, Lan Xichen would be the catalyst – the ideal, the embodiment of what this world should be.

Nie Huaisang turned on his heel and tossed the twig away; in another life, perhaps he would’ve liked to see his foe fall, but now, be it the alcohol or tiredness, he didn’t feel like watching. Besides, watching would put him on display, and he had already overstepped. Meng Yao must not find him after he picks himself up from the ground.

So Nie Huaisang strolled into the gardens, as far as he dared, and stayed there until hours later his sect’s disciples found him to tell him that it was all over and he should rest before they travel back home.

A few weeks later, Nie Huaisang stood on his saber, the wind that always blew far above the ground whipping at his clothes. They weren’t Qinghe Nie robes, just a simple, nondescript garb that any minor cultivator could wear. In contrast, the disciples around were clad in robes that were anything but nondescript – golden, with peonies on the chest.

The exact copies of the robe they had stolen during Jin Zixuan’s birthday banquet, prepared by the many tailors Nie Huaisang was acquainted with. Even if one were to take one of the copies and the original, there would be no difference other than the size, which was made to fit Nie Huaisang’s subordinates.

And they were his subordinates, really. The young disciples who had not attended the conference, who had trained hard for the past months, and whom Nie Mingjue had delegated to his command. Their faces should be unknown beyond Qinghe, and so the only markers of their identity would be their robes, now golden, and swords, which were cheap spiritual weapons bought from the same places minor cultivators supplied themselves at.

Far below, a transport to Qishan entered a valley.

“Remember to let a few of them flee,” Nie Huaisang said. “Now go.”

They obeyed and dived down in formation, a unit clad in gold, clashing against a group of surprised Wen disciples. Nie Huaisang allowed himself a smile while he watched; Jin Guangshan better have fun explaining this one to Wen Ruohan.

And so the avalanche came down.