Nie Huaisang was thirteen when Meng Yao came to live in The Unclean Realm.
At thirteen, he was already the bane of his older brother’s existence. Nie Huaisang was everything his brother wasn’t. He was lazy, soft, and indulgent, and worst of all, had absolutely no shame about these qualities. Why was it a big deal if he would rather draw than study? What did it really matter if he practiced with his saber as often as he should? He didn’t need to be a master with his saber. His brother was good enough for both of them. He hated fighting, hated anything that made him sweat at all, and didn’t see the point in any of it. Why did people waste their lives doing such things? Could they not find a better way to spend their time?
At thirteen, all he wanted to do was raise his birds, which were his greatest pride. He spent days at a time stalking them in the wild, earning their trust so he could catch them and bring them home.
He was soft, but he was not dull, and that was the real problem.
It drove Nie Mingjue insane. He knew that his younger brother was bright and clever, observant and shrewd. He could do incredible things with his life. But all Nie Huaisang wanted to do was feed his birds and paint on fans and, after he turned fourteen, read and draw pornography.
They argued about it often, and Nie Huaisang cried, but the tears were fake more often than not, and by the time Meng Yao arrived in Qinghe, they had basically come to a truce. Nie Huaisang worked with his saber a bit more and Nie Mingjue only yelled at him two or three times a week. Nie Huaisang only faked fainting to get out of things he found truly repulsive and Nie Mingjue stopped punishing him for doing it by releasing his birds back into the wild.
Nie Huaisang didn’t understand why everyone thought laziness was such a bad thing.
“If you want something done in the most efficient way possible,” he said to Wei Wuxian over a jar of alcohol during their time in Cloud Recesses, “give it to the laziest person you know.”
Wei Wuxian laughed and said, “And that’s you?”
Nie Huaisang tapped the tip of his fan to his temple and grinned.
He had zero ambition. His brother was strong and honorable and straightforward, and he was an excellent Clan Leader. Nie Huaisang loved and respected him, and moreover, felt he didn’t need to worry about him. His brother could survive anything. So what was the harm if he never bothered to become powerful himself? He didn’t need power. He just wanted to be left alone.
Meng Yao was interesting from the moment Nie Huaisang met him, a puzzle that he kept trying to solve. He was soft and polite, deferential to a fault, but worked three times as hard as anybody else. He immediately set about making himself indispensable, and he did an amazing job of it. He was, if not smarter than Nie Huaisang, at least as smart, but timid and unthreatening in a similar way. It fascinated Nie Huaisang, who had never met anybody else as soft as he was.
It was almost a year before he realized the key difference between them, that while he himself chose to be soft because that was what he preferred, Meng Yao was forced to be soft because that was what kept him safe.
“It’s stupid,” he said to Meng Yao one late night, after Meng Yao had finished persuading, coaxing, cajoling, and finally outright bribing Nie Huaisang to finish all the tasks his brother had set to him. The master of swords had seen them at the end and sneered that he didn’t know which one of them was more pathetic. Nie Huaisang had gotten very offended at that, because obviously he was the more pathetic of the two, why would the master of swords even need to question? “The way they treat you.”
Meng Yao smiled the way he always did. Meng Yao wore a smile like it was a piece of armor. “Don’t trouble yourself over it, Nie-gongzi.”
“I’m not troubled,” Nie Huaisang said. “I’m just stating a fact. They treat you like you’re less than you are, just because of who your mother is.”
“Everyone is like that,” Meng Yao said. He talked about this more frankly with Nie Huaisang than he did with anything else, because Nie Huaisang was no threat to him. Nie Huaisang was no threat to anybody, really, and would have been the first to proudly admit it. “The opinion is quite common.”
“That doesn’t make it less stupid,” Nie Huaisang said. “I mean, how strong you are, how smart you are, that’s not a subjective fact. They can’t just decide you’re less than you are. You are exactly as you are. Deducting points because of your mother is just factually incorrect.”
Meng Yao laughed quietly, looking genuinely amused. “I suppose that is true in a way, Nie-gongzi. But I don’t mind. Sometimes it’s no bad thing, being underestimated.”
Nie Huaisang thought that was probably true.
He didn’t think about how true until he saw Meng Yao shed his timid demeanor and soft smile and murder the master of swords in cold blood.
It was a shock to him, which annoyed him, because it shouldn’t have been. Because he had realized at least a year previous that Meng Yao wasn’t really soft, not like he was. Because the master of swords did, in all honesty, deserve it. He had been viciously cruel to Meng Yao for years, and honestly hadn’t treated Nie Huaisang much better. Nie Huaisang didn’t shed a tear over his death.
If it had just been him that witnessed it, he thought, things probably wouldn’t have changed much. He would have been cautious around Meng Yao in a way he hadn’t been before, made sure to stay on his good side, but there was really nothing to be concerned about. He was soft, and Meng Yao knew he was soft, and Meng Yao had never seen him as a threat and probably never would. He considered Meng Yao a friend, and the murder of the master of swords didn’t really change his opinion.
Nie Mingjue, however . . .
It was fascinating to watch Meng Yao realize he had been seen. To watch the cold, satisfied smile vanish in a heartbeat and be replaced by fake panic, pleading tears. Nie Huaisang watched from where he was hidden and wondered if he could ever be that good an actor if he spent his whole life practicing.
None of it made any difference to Nie Mingjue, however, and as Nie Huaisang watched Meng Yao depart, he felt an uneasy stirring in his stomach.
His brother could survive anything. He could certainly survive Meng Yao.
~ ~ ~ ~
Things then got much worse, for reasons that had nothing to do with Meng Yao at all.
“You’re really making me go?” he wailed to Nie Mingjue. “I won’t survive a day in Nightless City! Look at me!”
Nie Mingjue slammed his hand down on his desk. “This is exactly what I’ve always told you!” he roared. “You’ve told me your whole life that being weak and soft wouldn’t be a problem, and I kept telling you that someday it would, and now, here you are! Crying to me that you won’t survive something! Sometimes I think you’re truly a lost cause!”
Seeing that the tears weren’t any use, Nie Huaisang stopped them. “Why are we going along with this?” he protested. “Can the Wen clan really get away with this? Are the other clans really going to send their young masters as well?”
Nie Mingjue calmed down as well, once he had stopped crying. In a voice that was slightly more gentle - which for Nie Mingjue meant it still had steel edges - he said, “I can’t get in touch with anyone at Cloud Recesses. It’s best to assume that they’ve already taken Lan Wangji. Clan Leader Jiang said he was going to comply. He trusts his sons to stay safe, and does not want to provoke the Wen clan into an attack. I don’t know what the Jin clan will do but their friendship with the Wen clan is longstanding. They are in far less danger than any of the rest of us and don’t have the same incentive not to comply.”
Nie Huaisang’s legs had grown weak and watery after the first two sentences. “They really took Cloud Recesses?” he asked, and Nie Mingjue nodded. “And they breached The Unclean Realm so easily that day . . .”
Nie Mingjue said nothing. The way his fists clenched on the table made his opinion on that matter clear.
After a long moment, Nie Huaisang said, “What should I do while I’m there?”
“Be compliant. Do not make trouble. This is probably just them throwing their weight around, proving that they’re able to make ridiculous demands.” A slight, begrudging smile touched Nie Mingjue’s face. “And if they order you to do something truly odious, just faint.”
Nie Huaisang laughed. “I never thought I would hear you encouraging that!”
“This one time,” Nie Mingjue said, with a straight face.
“I’m going to faint every day,” Nie Huaisang said proudly. “They’ll think I’m totally helpless.”
Nie Mingjue sighed, but surprisingly, did not argue.
~ ~ ~ ~
Depending on how he looked at it, Nie Huaisang fainted at either precisely the right or precisely the wrong time.
He wasn’t going to complain at all that he missed a long hike and a dark cave and a murderous tortoise. Or a swim. He wasn’t much of a swimmer. But he didn’t find out about any of that until later. All he knew at the time was that when he got up the next day, he was suddenly the only young master left in Nightless City.
He timidly inquired the guard at his door and was told that the others had gone out on a night hunt. Satisfied that ‘classes’ were suspended for the day, he went back into his room and started sketching. They brought him his meals. A full day passed. Then a second. Then a third.
On that third day, he asked the guard who brought his dinner, “Um . . . can I go, if we’re no longer having classes?”
The guard said nothing and walked away.
On the fourth day, nobody was outside his room anymore. He left it and began to wander. He was soft and timid and no threat to anybody. A few people gave him strange looks, but nobody said anything to him. He overheard some of them talking about the ‘accident’ in the cave and started to panic. When he saw somebody clad in nicer clothes than the guards, he went to tug on his sleeve. “Can I go home?” he asked him. “I’d like to go home now.”
“Who are you?” the man asked him.
“Ah . . . I’m Nie Huaisang . . . I was sent here for indoctrination . . .”
“Nie-gongzi?” a familiar voice said, and Nie Huaisang blinked over at Meng Yao.
“Meng Yao!” Despite the circumstances, he was relieved to see a familiar face. He thought about asking ‘what are you doing here’ but then realized he knew exactly what Meng Yao was doing here. He was working for the Wen clan, to get revenge on Nie Mingjue for throwing him out. As soon as he had decided he didn’t need to ask, he decided to ask anyway. If he could convince Meng Yao that he wasn’t smart enough to put that together, all to the better. “What are you doing here?”
“Ah - ” Meng Yao said, clearly taken off guard. But the moment of hesitation only lasted a fraction of a second, and Nie Huaisang watched the gears turn in Meng Yao’s brain while he decided how to answer. “I’m serving the glorious Wen clan, obviously. Why should I not, after all the other clans rejected me?”
Nie Huaisang rubbed a hand over the back of his head. “My brother was so harsh to you . . . I tried to convince him to change his mind, but he wouldn’t budge! I’m sure you had good reason to kill the master of swords . . .”
“Let’s not waste time discussing it,” Meng Yao said, still smiling. “It’s done. Were you here for indoctrination? They must have forgotten about you after everything that happened . . .”
“What did happen?” Nie Huaisang clutched at Meng Yao’s forearms. “Meng Yao, nobody will tell me anything. I’m so worried. All the other young masters went to the cave and none came back . . .”
Meng Yao sighed. “Come with me,” he said, nodding to the other Wen clan member. He ushered Nie Huaisang back to his quarters and started making tea, half-watching while Nie Huaisang anxiously twisted his fan in his hands. “Truthfully, they escaped.”
Nie Huaisang’s eyes went wide. “Escaped?”
Meng Yao nodded. “Wen Chao tried to force them to string one of the young ladies up and bleed her to attract the monster. They rebelled. There was a fight, and the monster showed up. Wen Chao elected to seal the entrance to the cave with the others inside.”
“Oh no!” Nie Huaisang gasped.
“There must have been a back way out, though,” Meng Yao continued, “because we got word yesterday that Jin Zixuan and Jiang Wanyin were seen together on the road. I can’t say for certain if everyone got out, but I doubt they’d leave anyone behind.”
“Thank goodness,” Nie Huaisang said, breathing a sigh of relief.
“I can’t believe they just forgot about you,” Meng Yao said. “I mean, I can, this place is not exactly a tightly run ship, but . . .” He shook his head. “I’ll talk to Clan Leader Wen and see what he wants to do with you.”
“That sounds terrifying!” Nie Huaisang protested. “Meng Yao, can’t you just let me go? You know there’s no reason for me to be here . . . they already took my saber and da-ge is going to be furious with me . . .” He let the tears start flowing. “Please, I just want to go home.”
“Of course I can’t just let you go,” Meng Yao gently scolded. “I’ve barely been part of his ranks for two weeks. You think I’m going to risk getting in trouble right now?” He saw the look on Nie Huaisang’s face and sighed. “But I will tell him that you are no threat, and that there is no purpose to keeping you here. The whole thing was just Wen Chao showing off anyway - I doubt Clan Leader Wen will care if you’re returned to Qinghe.”
Nie Huaisang wiped the tears off his cheeks and put on what he hoped was a brave face. “Thank you, Meng Yao.”
“Have you been practicing your saber like you promised?” Meng Yao asked. He poured the tea, and for a few minutes, things were like the way they had been before. Nie Huaisang laughingly admitted that he hadn’t been, Meng Yao chided him, and he promised to do better while clearly having no intentions to do so.
“I’ll send someone to see you once Clan Leader Wen has made a decision,” Meng Yao said, after they’d had their tea.
“Can’t you come yourself?” Nie Huaisang asked hopefully.
Meng Yao sighed. “Nie-gongzi. We cannot be friends anymore. How do you still not understand that? Your brother exiled me from The Unclean Realm. I’m now serving Wen Ruohan, who has every intention of grinding the other four sects underneath his boot. I’m going to happily help him do that after the way they treated me. We are not friends.”
“I’m still your friend!” Nie Huaisang protested. “Meng Yao! Don’t say we can’t be friends anymore! I - I’ll cry!”
“You’re already crying,” Meng Yao pointed out, and shook his head. “Are you really still so naive after the past few months? There is going to be a war, Nie-gongzi. And you and I - we are not going to be on the same side.”
“Yes, I know,” Nie Huaisang said. “But that’s not my fault! You - you don’t understand! You’re on the wrong side! The Wen clan burned Cloud Recesses! They injured Lan-xiong, they sent all the young masters down into the cave without swords, they - ”
“No, you’re the one who doesn’t understand,” Meng Yao said patiently. “I know I’m on the wrong side. But Nie-gongzi - ” He smiled. “I don’t care.”
Nie Huaisang was left with his mouth ajar.
Meng Yao stood up. “Most likely, they’ll send you home,” he said, and seemed to recall himself, perhaps realize that he had let too much of his true self show. “Once you get there, don’t tell Chifeng-Zun that you saw me here. Please?”
“Oh . . . okay,” Nie Huaisang said. “I wouldn’t. He would just fly into a rage and break things . . .”
“That’s true,” Meng Yao said. He hesitated, then said, “Thank you, Nie-gongzi. You at least always treated me well. I hope we can meet in better circumstances in our next lives.”
With that, he was gone.
~ ~ ~ ~
“You’re actually practicing,” Nie Mingjue observed, a week after Nie Huaisang returned to the Unclean Realm. “I didn’t even have to shout.”
“I hate it,” Nie Huaisang said dispiritedly, letting the saber down. He’d had to get a new one and he hated this one even more than he hated his own. “I just want to feed my birds and paint my fans. Is that really so much to ask, da-ge?”
Nie Mingjue sighed. “In this world? Yes.”
“If I’d been taken into that cave I just would have been a burden on everybody, the way I was at Danfan mountain,” Nie Huaisang said. “It’s never really bothered me before. There are always other people around who can protect me. But it seems different this time. It seems serious.” He rested his saber against the wall. “Da-ge, are we really going to go to war? Real war?”
“Yes,” Nie Mingjue said simply, and Nie Huaisang shuddered. “The Wen clan has proven that they will not stop. Things are going to get much worse. I was just coming out here to tell you . . .”
Seeing the look on his face, Nie Huaisang stiffened. “What? Tell me what?”
Nie Mingjue hesitated, but didn’t attempt to cushion his words. “The Jiang clan was attacked by Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu. Clan Leader Jiang and Madam Yu were both killed.”
Nie Huaisang felt like the breath had been kicked out of him. “Wei-xiong? Jiang-xiong?” His voice rose in panic. “Jiang-guniang?”
“Missing,” Nie Mingjue said. “All three of them.”
Nie Huaisang sank down to sit on the ground. He swallowed hard but controlled his tears. Now wasn’t the time for crying. Finally, he looked up and said, “What are we going to do?”
“What do you think?” Nie Mingjue said. “Pick up your saber. We’re going to fight back.”
~ ~ ~ ~
The next few months were some of the longest of Nie Huaisang’s life.
No matter how much he practiced he was still, generally speaking, terrible with the saber. He tried to stay at the rear most of the time, as they found and destroyed camps full of Wen soldiers roaming the country. Then during the third attack, they hit bad luck when the group had far more soldiers than they anticipated. “Why don’t we send people ahead to scout?” Nie Huaisang asked.
Nie Mingjue shook his head. “The Wen lookouts always catch them.”
Nie Huaisang tapped his mouth with his fan. “Let me try.”
“You?” Nie Mingjue sounded incredulous, to put it kindly. “Huaisang . . .”
“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang said calmly, “which one of us has caught a falcon with their bare hands?”
Nie Mingjue thought that over. “You.”
“Do you think the falcon would have allowed that if it had known I was there?”
“No,” Nie Mingjue admitted.
Nie Huaisang nodded. “Let me be the scout.”
He was shit with a saber but he was an amazing scout. He could get within fifteen feet of the camps without them knowing he was there. He could count the soldiers in the dimmest firelight. He could recognize the captains and report their names to his brother so they knew what specific skills or weapons they might be contending with.
For the first time in his life, Nie Mingjue was excessively proud of his little brother, and although Nie Huaisang really still wanted to be left alone with his birds and his fans, he had to admit that was a pretty nice feeling.
They met up with Lan Xichen and the remaining forces from the Lan sect. Then, a week later, Jiang Cheng showed up. For the first time since he had arrived, the scowl faded from Lan Wangji’s face, and he all but grabbed Jiang Cheng by the front of his robes. “Wei Ying is with you?”
Jiang Cheng shook his head. “We got separated. He was supposed to meet me, but . . .”
A month went by. Lan Wangji was taking Qishan by storm in his single-minded quest to find Wei Wuxian, with Jiang Cheng only slightly less ferocious at his side. Nie Huaisang continued to scout and Nie Mingjue continued to fight. Then one day, Lan Xichen showed up with a map full of tactical information.
Nie Mingjue didn’t worry about where it had come from.
Nie Huaisang did.
“Ah . . . Zewu-Jun,” he said anxiously, pulling him aside after the strategy meeting. “May I ask you something?”
“Of course,” Lan Xichen said.
“This information . . . some of it conflicts with things I’ve heard while scouting . . . where did you come by it?”
“Ah,” Lan Xichen said. “I would ask you to keep this in confidence, but there is somebody on the inside who is passing information to me. However, it could be slightly out of date. It can take time for his letters to reach me. What did you hear that was different, and when?”
“It was over a week ago now, so it could be my information that’s out of date,” Nie Huaisang said, but detailed the slight differences. All of them were trivial, small troop movements or changed personnel. Whichever one of them was right probably wouldn’t matter, but Nie Huaisang thought back to that day in Cloud Recesses that seemed like it was a thousand years ago and said, “Is it Meng Yao?”
Lan Xichen’s face froze, which was answer enough. “Ah . . .”
“I saw him there, when I went for indoctrination,” Nie Huaisang said. “I thought it was odd that he would join the Wen clan . . . even after everything that happened between him and my brother, it seemed unlike him. Now I think I might realize why he was there.”
Lan Xichen looked slightly uncomfortable. “Have you told anybody else this? Your brother?”
Nie Huaisang shook his head. “It only would have upset him, so I didn’t say anything.”
“Good.” Lan Xichen reached out and gripped Nie Huaisang’s shoulder. “Please keep your silence, Nie-gongzi. It’s crucial that we do not jeopardize A-Yao’s position, and you know how rumors can spread.”
“Yes,” Nie Huaisang said, and nodded. “I’ll keep quiet, I promise. I just . . .” He managed a smile. “I’m glad. It means I was right about Meng Yao, and that maybe we can be friends again someday.”
That made Lan Xichen smile. “I hope so.”
~ ~ ~ ~
Nie Huaisang was not at the final battle at Nightless City. There was no need for scouts, and he would only be a liability on the front lines. He only found out about his brother’s plan to sneak in through the back and kill Wen Ruohan after the fact, and was furious about it. “That, I could have helped with!” he shouted at Nie Mingjue while his injuries were tended. “How could you not tell me?”
It was the first time he had ever raised his voice to his brother, and Nie Mingjue was too surprised to be angry about it. “I didn’t need your help.”
“Oh, of course not!” Nie Huaisang yelled. “Because everything went perfectly, as is evidenced by the fact that you assassinated Wen Ruohan as you intended and didn’t get your ass kicked by Meng Yao of all people!”
“Do not bring up that snake in my presence!” Nie Mingjue roared, and Nie Huaisang shrank back involuntarily. Nie Mingjue sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. “Fine. I should have at least told you I was going. But I still wouldn’t have let you go with me. It was too dangerous.”
There were a hundred things Nie Huaisang wanted to say in return to that. Wasn’t the whole point of everything he had learned so that he could handle himself in dangerous situations? Was he still that poor at it? Did his brother still think of him as a liability? Or was Nie Mingjue just making a sentimental exception, not wanting to risk his own brother’s life?
He said none of it, because none of it was worth saying. Instead he sank down in the chair across from his brother and said, “Meng Yao . . . why still call him a snake? We couldn’t have done this without him.”
“A snake is a snake,” Nie Mingjue said, “no matter how many times it sheds its skin.”
Nie Huaisang sighed. He had been thinking about this for the last several hours, because he was still unsure. They couldn’t have beaten Wen Ruohan without him, but Nie Huaisang couldn’t help but be suspicious of the fact that they had come much closer to losing than they had winning. Meng Yao had not lied in any of his correspondence, but had he held things back? Things that could have mattered? If Wei Wuxian hadn’t had the Stygian Tiger Amulet, things would have ended much differently.
But it also answered a question for him which had been bothering him for a while. For months, he had thought about to Meng Yao’s smiling face as he said he didn’t care that he was on the wrong side. It wasn’t the answer that bothered him – it was the fact that Meng Yao had told him. The fact that Meng Yao had dropped his soft shield and allowed Nie Huaisang to see his true nature. But if he had been undercover – it made more sense. Meng Yao had calculated that it was a lesser risk to let Nie Huaisang see his true nature than it was to let anyone in the Wen clan think he was not perfectly loyal.
Did it matter, in the end? Lan Xichen was utterly convinced that Meng Yao was good and just, and it was clear there would be no changing his mind. Nie Mingjue was equally convinced that Meng Yao was an amoral opportunist who had played both sides and then switched to the winning team at the last moment, and there would be no changing his mind, either.
Nie Huaisang wasn’t sure what he believed, so he decided to do what he was good at. He would wait, and he would watch.
“I’m going to go check on Wei-xiong,” he decided, standing up. “Please get some rest once they’re done tending your injuries, okay? Don’t storm around.”
Nie Mingjue sighed and waved him off, but nodded.
Nie Huaisang visited Wei Wuxian for about an hour, watching him sleep while Lan Wangji played the guqin for him, to ease his mind. It eased Nie Huaisang’s mind as well, and he felt himself relaxing for the first time in months. The war was over. They had won. The Wen clan was defeated. Everything else could be dealt with as it came.
He thanked Lan Wangji for taking care of Wei Wuxian, which made Lan Wangji’s eyebrow twitch, and then headed back to the guest house he and his brother were staying in.
The next day, Jin Guangshan arrived. He met with all the other Clan Leaders and made a huge deal about how he and his disciples would finish the mop-up.
“Hey, da-ge . . .” Nie Huaisang said, not looking up from where he was painting his first fan in months. “Don’t you think it’s odd that Wen Ruohan never attacked Koi Tower?”
Nie Mingjue also did not look over from where he was practicing with Baxia, despite the fact that he was still injured and had been told to stay in bed. “Koi Tower is very defensible. It would be a poor target.”
“Because The Unclean Realm wasn’t defensible? Or Cloud Recesses?”
Nie Mingjue did glance over at that. “What does it matter, Huaisang?”
Nie Huaisang shrugged and sighed. His brother was so honorable. It would never occur to him that the Jin clan had had anything but good luck. “I don’t know. It just seemed odd.”
He needed a better audience for this conversation, because his brother was hopeless at intrigue and politics. But the problem was, there was really nobody else he could discuss it with. The Twin Jades of Lan were too intimidating for him to discuss matters with frankly. Jiang Cheng wasn’t much better at politics than Nie Mingjue, and probably wasn’t in the right frame of mind for this sort of talk anyway. Everyone in the Jin clan was out for obvious reasons. Wei Wuxian was still unconscious and probably would be for several days.
But there was Meng Yao. His loyalties were as of yet unproven, but Nie Huaisang found himself curious about what he would think. He certainly had no love for Jin Guangshan, so at least he would entertain the idea. Plus, since he had been undercover with Wen Ruohan, he was in the best position to know whether or not there had been anything going on.
Decision made, he set his fan to dry and went out to look for him. He wasn’t sure where Meng Yao would be, what accommodations he had been given, but he knew who would know. He wasn’t about to have a discussion of politics with Lan Xichen, but it was simple enough to ask, “Ah, Zewu-Jun, have you seen Meng Yao? I wanted to catch up with him.”
Lan Xichen smiled and said, “You hadn’t heard yet? He is Jin Guangyao now. His father legitimized him after his role in the siege at Nightless City.”
Nie Huaisang stood with his jaw ajar for a moment before blurting out, “Jin Guangyao? Not Jin Ziyao?” He saw Lan Xichen blink and added, “Ah, I just thought, the character for their generation was Zi . . .”
Lan Xichen’s smile faded. “I have to admit I found it an odd choice, but . . .”
“Oh, no, no,” Nie Huaisang said hastily, waving his hands to indicate that he wished he had never begun this conversation. “I’m sure there were good reasons for it. I would like to go congratulate him; do you know where I could find him?”
“He would be at his father’s pavilion, I’m sure,” Lan Xichen said, and pointed the way out to him.
Nie Huaisang thanked him and hurried away, because Lan Xichen would think it odd if he didn’t. He certainly wasn’t about to ask Meng Yao – Jin Guangyao – anything about whether or not Wen Ruohan had avoided targeting the Jin clan now. But he supposed he would at least go say hello and congratulations.
They were outside the pavilion, and Jin Guangshan was discussing something with several of his men. It took Nie Huaisang a moment to even locate Jin Guangyao in the crowd; he somehow looked wholly different in the robes of a Jin disciple, and had even donned a black gauze cap. Nie Huaisang bowed to Jin Guangshan, then to Jin Guangyao, and said, fumbling, “Nice hat.”
Jin Guangyao smiled his utterly fake smile and said, “It was a gift from my father.”
Jin Guangshan snorted and said, “I kept losing him in the crowd because of how short he is. His mother’s side of the family, I suppose.”
The smile froze on Jin Guangyao’s face. Nie Huaisang watched that infinitesimally small change in expression and wondered if Jin Guangshan had any idea that the man standing next to him was plotting his murder.
“Ah,” Nie Huaisang said, pretending to suddenly recall why he was there. “Congratulations, Jin-gongzi – is it Jin-gongzi or Jin-er-gongzi?” he added. He was sure that even if Jin Guangyao were technically older, he wouldn’t be counted above Jin Zixuan in the hierarchy, but the question would both make him seem feckless and flatter Jin Guangyao, so he asked it anyway.
Contrary to his expectation, Jin Guangyao’s smile grew even more brittle, and Nie Huaisang understood why a second later when Jin Guangshan said, “Jin-san-gongzi.” That meant Jin Guangyao had been placed below Jin Zixun in the ranking of young masters, even though Jin Zixun was Jin Guangshan’s nephew rather than his son.
“Of course, of course,” Nie Huaisang said, bowing again. “Congratulations, Jin-san-gongzi.”
“Thank you, Nie-gongzi,” Jin Guangyao said, returning the bow. “How are your brother’s injuries?”
“He’s healing well!” Nie Huaisang gave a nervous laugh. “You know how tough he is. He’s already up and around and practicing with his saber even though the doctors were telling him to stay in bed.”
Jin Guangyao smiled. “I would expect no less from him.”
Another disciple rushed up, probably with news of more Wen remnants being found, so Nie Huaisang hastily made his retreat with none of his questions answered.
In the gardens by the guest house where his brother was still practicing, he spotted a canary.
“Hello,” he said softly to the bird, “you’re going to be my new friend.”
Wait, he told himself. Watch.
~ ~ ~ ~
Nie Huaisang waited and watched for one month, and by the end of it, he was convinced that Jin Guangshan was, to put it bluntly, shady as fuck.
It was no secret to anybody that the Jin clan had come out of the Sunshot Campaign with fewer losses than anybody else. It had never been a secret that the Jin clan was proud and arrogant and extravagant. So it didn’t surprise anybody that they were acting like they owned the world after the Wen clan fell. For so long, the Wen clan had stood as the most powerful among the Five Great Sects. Now there were only four, and it was clear that the Jin clan meant to claim the position the Wen clan had held.
“Who cares?” Nie Mingjue asked, when Nie Huaisang mentioned it. “Let them strut around. It doesn’t matter to me.”
“It doesn’t matter yet,” Nie Huaisang muttered, because he had a feeling that it was going to matter in the long run. He just wasn’t sure how.
Without any better idea, he diligently practiced with his saber for two entire weeks and then asked permission to go to Yunmeng to visit Wei Wuxian. He was the only person Nie Huaisang felt comfortable sharing his suspicions with. Nie Mingjue gave him permission and made him promise to keep working hard while he was gone.
When he arrived in Yunmeng, Wei Wuxian wasn’t at Lotus Pier. It would have been rude not to pay his respects to the actual clan leader, though, so he spent the day there with Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli. By the time Wei Wuxian came home, it was late, and he was drunk, so Nie Huaisang didn’t bother to try to talk to him.
The next day, though, he cornered Wei Wuxian and said, “Aren’t you going to show me around Yunmeng?”
“Of course!” Wei Wuxian said. “We have the prettiest girls, the strongest liquor, and the tastiest desserts in the world. Let’s go!”
Over dinner that night, Nie Huaisang said, “Don’t you think it’s odd that the Jin clan refused to get involved in the Sunshot campaign until the very end, except a little token effort?”
Wei Wuxian rolled his eyes and downed his bowl of liquor. “Shijie says I shouldn’t be spiteful.”
“Has she met you?” Nie Huaisang asked, and they both laughed. “In all seriousness, though . . . Koi tower was never attacked. Jin Guangshan didn’t order his forces to join us until after the danger was passed . . . I’ve been wondering why not.”
“Obvious, isn’t it?” Wei Wuxian said, uncorking another jar. “Why get involved when they had Zewu-Jun and Chifeng-Zun doing all the hard work? Why would they care who won? Either side was going to take heavy damages. If the Wen clan won, the Jin clan would have let them wipe all of us out, and then come in and cleaned them up. Instead, we won, and now the Jin clan can rule over all of us.” He took a swig straight from the jar. “Win-win.”
To hear the agreement laid out so plainly surprised Nie Huaisang. He knew Wei Wuxian was smart, but he hadn’t expected he would have suspected something like this and not been shouting it from the rooftops. “What should we do about it, do you think?”
“There’s nothing we can do, is there?” Wei Wuxian said. “Even all three of our sects put together couldn’t rival them now. They won.” He laughed bitterly. “Let them have their place at the top of the world. What does it matter now?”
Nie Huaisang studied his friend for a long minute and realized he would get no help here. Wei Wuxian agreed with him, Wei Wuxian thought he was right, but Wei Wuxian didn’t care. He had lost too much for something like this to be important to him.
The next day, he left for Lanling.
He thought about making a stop at Cloud Recesses, but in the end he was still too intimidated by Lan Wangji to really talk to him. Besides, Wei Wuxian was right about one thing – all three of their clans couldn’t stand against the Jin clan. The Twin Jades of Lan were far too straightforward and honorable for the sort of work that would need to be done now.
“Jin-san-gongzi!” he greeted Jin Guangyao enthusiastically. “How is Lanling? How is Koi tower? Is it everything you dreamed it would be?”
“And more,” Jin Guangyao said, with a smile that screamed lie. “Thank you so much for your visit. It’s nice to have some company. What brings you here?”
“Ah, I’m hiding from da-ge, what else?” Nie Huaisang said with a laugh, flipping open his fan. “He thought the war would make me take things seriously, but I’m afraid I’m just a lost cause. I didn’t practice my saber for three straight days and then I cried when he yelled at me, and he told me to get out of his sight before he set my room on fire. I miss having you in Qinghe, Jin-san-gongzi! You could always make him go easy on me.”
“More than you deserved,” Jin Guangyao said, although he was smiling, a smile that looked far more genuine. “But I heard you did good work in the Sunshot Campaign.”
“I did! Even da-ge was proud of me. But it’s over now, isn’t it? What’s the point of winning a war if you don’t get to relax afterwards?” Nie Huaisang grinned at Jin Guangyao. “Won’t you take me around the city? I need to buy a new fan as a memento of my trip.”
Jin Guangyao laughed. “I’ll be busy with my duties until this evening, but we can go out after that.”
Nie Huaisang clapped. “It’s going to be just like the old days!”
In a way, it was. He ate from food stands and bought far too many useless trinkets while Jin Guangyao trailed around after him and counseled restraint. They had a couple of drinks together while Nie Huaisang complained about his strict older brother and Jin Guangyao urged him to mind his brother’s instructions.
On the way back to the tower, Nie Huaisang pretended to accidentally let Meng Yao’s old name slip, and then apologized far too much. “It’s just so hard to remember! Why Guangyao, anyway? Shouldn’t it be Ziyao?”
His suspicions were instantly confirmed when he saw Jin Guangyao’s fist clench at his side. But his smile never faded as he said, “Who am I to question my father on his choice of names?”
“Well . . . it’s your name,” Nie Huaisang pointed out. “Guangyao is a little rude, isn’t it? Like he’s claiming you as some sort of possession.”
“Pointing it out is what’s rude,” Jin Guangyao said.
“Ah, I’m sorry!” Nie Huaisang said hastily, tugging on Jin Guangyao’s sleeve. “Don’t be angry. I’m sure he had good reasons to choose that name for you . . .”
Jin Guangyao’s momentarily frosty expression melted back into his usual smile. “Look at you, Nie-gongzi. You still cry too much.”
“I do,” Nie Huaisang agreed, feigning shame. “Ah, but I have a solution. If I can’t remember your new name, can I call you san-ge?”
Jin Guangyao laughed. “If you want.”
“Good! And you can call me . . .” He pondered for a moment and then his face lit up. “You can call me A-Sang!”
“I’m not calling you that,” Jin Guangyao said, with a snort. “Even da-ge doesn’t call you that.”
“Only because he’s too strict,” Nie Huaisang said, as if this made sense. “At least call me by my name, though, if you won’t call me A-Sang.”
“If you really want,” Jin Guangyao said, shaking his head as he half-carried Nie Huaisang up the steps.
Nie Huaisang stayed in Lanling for a week. By the end of it, he was certain that Jin Guangyao was plotting at least three murders, and was honestly somewhat impressed that he hadn’t committed any of them yet. Or perhaps he had. Somebody mysteriously vanished on the third day he was there, and it was someone who had sneered at Jin Guangyao more often than not.
Everyone treated him terribly, from Jin Guangshan down even to the servants. Any time something wasn’t absolutely perfect, it was Jin Guangyao’s fault. Jin Zixun didn’t like the choice of alcohol at dinner and threw a cup of it in Jin Guangyao’s face. Jin-furen couldn’t find her favorite sash and accused Jin Guangyao of stealing it (only to find a few minutes later that one of the maids had taken it to be cleaned). One of the young mistresses broke her fan and slapped Jin Guangyao across the face with it for no reason other than that he was nearby.
Jin Guangyao accepted all the abuse with a smile and sometimes a soft apology for whatever the deficiency was, and Nie Huaisang thought that if Jin Guangyao didn’t start murdering people soon, he might, just on the general principle of making the world a better place.
He carefully set himself up as the absolute opposite of the Jins. He thanked Jin Guangyao profusely even for small favors. He complimented his taste and outwardly enjoyed anything and everything that Jin Guangyao prepared for him. This was not difficult, as Jin Guangyao truly did have exceptional taste and an excellent memory. Nie Huaisang would have had to work hard to find fault with his hosting skill.
By the end of the week, he was sure that Jin Guangyao looked more kindly upon him than he did upon any of his blood relatives, and decided it was time to leave. He could not overstay his welcome. This was something that was going to take time.
He visited again about six weeks later and found the situation exactly the same (except for the fact that one of the worst offenders from his first trip had also mysteriously vanished), and then visited again two months after that. For both visits, he brought Jin Guangyao delicacies from Qinghe that he remembered Jin Guangyao liking.
On all the visits, they spent at least a couple evenings having drinks together. A lesser known fact about Nie Huaisang was that he could match his brother drink for drink, even despite his smaller stature. Getting drunk was one of the few activities both brothers enjoyed, so they often drank together, and Nie Huaisang’s alcohol tolerance had only improved since Jin Guangyao had left Qinghe. But it was easy to act more drunk than he was and slowly convince Jin Guangyao that he could easily be drunk under the table.
At night, he would walk around the palace, because nobody really cared about him. The one time someone acted suspicious, he just pretended to be drunk and confused, and they helped him back to his room.
There wasn’t really much purpose to his nightly excursions, other than that he wanted people to get used to seeing him wandering around by himself. If they were used to it, they wouldn’t think to question it if an occasion came up that he really needed to do it.
They ended up being more important than he would have expected. Late one night, he passed an open door and heard his own name, spoken in disparaging tones by Jin Zixun. He ducked around a corner and listened intently.
“Why does that Nie Huaisang keep coming here?” Jin Zixun said, and then, just as Nie Huaisang secreted himself away, “Is Chifeng-Zun sending him to spy on us? Do you think he knows?”
Knows what? Nie Huaisang immediately wondered, and hoped dearly that somebody would answer that question.
“Don’t trouble yourself about Huaisang,” none other than Jin Guangyao said. “He just comes here to hide when his brother gets mad at him for goofing off, that’s all. He’s harmless.”
“Like I’d trust your opinion,” Jin Zixun sneered. “What do you think, Uncle?” he added, and Nie Huaisang understood he had stumbled upon some family meeting. He wondered if they held them regularly.
“Guangyao lived in The Unclean Realm for years,” Jin Guangshan said. “He has more knowledge of them than we do. You’re stupid to discount his opinion.”
Nie Huaisang was impressed. At least Jin Guangshan was an equal-opportunity asshole.
Jin Zixun wasn’t chastened. “Just because Nie Huaisang is an idiot doesn’t necessarily mean his brother isn’t sending him here. In fact, it might work in his favor, if Nie Huaisang is too stupid to lie to him about what he might see and hear.”
Jin Guangyao sighed. “First of all, Huaisang wouldn’t lie to his brother anyway. Secondly, Huaisang isn’t going to see or hear anything important because he’s too busy buying trinkets and drinking. Thirdly, Chifeng-Zun definitely doesn’t know anything, because if he did, the last thing he would do would be to send Huaisang to spy on us. He would just show up here with his saber to demand answers, because the word ‘subtlety’ isn’t in his vocabulary.”
Nie Huaisang scowled despite himself. He would teach Jin Guangyao a lesson about disrespecting his brother. But that could come later. What were they worried that his brother might know?
Unfortunately for him, the conversation turned to other topics. He stayed three more days and headed to the same room at night, but the meeting never repeated. He reluctantly headed back to Qinghe, wondering if it had anything to do with the crowd hunt. All the clans would be there. But whatever it was, he didn’t have much time to find out. The crowd hunt was barely a month away. There wouldn’t be the chance for another visit to Lanling beforehand.
After some thought, he decided that he found it unlikely that the crowd hunt was the point of discussion. Wei Wuxian had been correct when he had said that all three clans put together couldn’t hope to challenge the Jin clan. But even so, it would be stupid to act when all the clans were assembled. The Jin clan, despite their many faults, was not the Wen clan. They weren’t hoping to burn down the world and then rule over the ashes. They wanted to be in charge, to be on top. They wanted to stand on the other clans, not destroy them. Whatever their plans were, it likely involved an individual clan or person, in which case making a move when everyone was present was unlikely.
So Nie Huaisang went back to Qinghe. He fed his birds and painted his fans and occasionally worked with his saber, and overall, felt safe to continue to play the long game.
The crowd hunt had been ongoing for less than a day when it all fell apart.
To be fair, Nie Huaisang thought afterwards, it was not his own judgment that had been incorrect. The Jin clan hadn’t made a move beyond their usual arrogant showing off. The torment of the Wen refugees was appalling but not surprising. Jin Zixuan actively running away from Jiang Yanli, also appalling but not surprising. Jin Zixun challenging the Twin Jades of Lan to drink with him despite their prohibition, appalling but not surprising. These were typical things that he expected. Nobody even looked at his brother sideways, which was his real concern, and certainly nobody cared about him.
What he had not expected was for Wei Wuxian to completely lose his shit.
In the silence that followed Wei Wuxian leaving, Jin Guangshan flipping the table and storming out, and Jin Guangyao having two different drinks thrown at him, Nie Huaisang loudly asked, “What just happened?”
He knew what just happened. What just happened was a perfect example of how far a man could be pushed before he snapped.
Jiang Cheng was beside himself. Jin Zixun was practically purple with rage. Lan Xichen was trying to comfort a distraught Jin Guangyao, who Nie Huaisang thought was definitely not as distraught as he seemed. Everything was in shambles and Nie Huaisang turned to Nie Mingjue and whispered, “Da-ge, I’m going to go see if Jin Guangyao is okay.”
Nie Mingjue scowled, because he still hated Jin Guangyao, but he didn’t argue. As Lan Xichen headed away from Jin Guangyao to talk to his brother, Nie Huaisang came up at his elbow. “Ah, san-ge, are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Jin Guangyao said. “I have to attend to my duties. Please excuse me.”
Nie Huaisang sulked slightly as he headed back to his table.
The tone of the banquet had much changed. There was a lot of muttering. People came and went in a way that wasn’t typical of such a banquet, trying to share rumors and keep track of the gossip. Jin Guangshan came back almost an hour later and was clearly still in a fury. No, Nie Huaisang thought, whatever the Jin clan had planned, this clearly wasn’t it.
But he was out of time to figure out what it was. Things were going to get much worse.
A few hours later, word reached them that Wei Wuxian had slaughtered the guards at Qionqi Way, freed the prisoners, and raised the dead.
Nie Huaisang had a headache.
It was late by the time he managed to corner Jin Guangyao, who looked exhausted. “Let’s go have a drink,” he said.
Jin Guangyao turned an exasperated look on him. “Can you not read a situation at all? Do you really think now is the time to go out drinking?”
“We can’t do anything,” Nie Huaisang said. “Wei-xiong is long gone by now. Your father’s furious and if you stick around here, he’s only going to find an excuse to abuse you. Da-ge is mad at me because he thinks I should have known Wei-xiong was so unstable because, um, I might have been telling him I was visiting Yunmeng instead of Lanling because he still doesn’t like you? So that was easier for me, except now it’s suddenly not easier for me because he wants to know every single thing that Wei-xiong has said in the past six months and I’ve run out of things to tell him.” He puts on a desperately hopeful expression. “Please? One drink?”
Jin Guangyao looked like he was about to have an aneurysm. But he took a deep breath and forcibly put his smile back on like a mask and said, “All right, Huaisang, one drink, but let’s drink here instead of going into town, all right?”
“All right!” Nie Huaisang quickly agreed, because to be honest that worked better for him anyway. “You can come to our guest house; da-ge went to talk to er-ge so he won’t be there.”
“Fine,” Jin Guangyao sighed. They went back to the guest house. Nie Huaisang retrieved a jar of liquor and poured two bowls, and waited for Jin Guangyao to drink. “I can’t believe Wei-gongzi threatened Jin Zixun in front of everybody like that. What kind of idiotic stunt . . .”
Nie Huaisang shrugged. “It wasn’t idiotic, was it? It got him what he wanted.”
“If what he wanted was my father’s army after him.” Jin Guangyao took another swallow. “He’s beyond furious. To be so disrespected in his own tower . . .”
“He deserved it,” Nie Huaisang said. He smiled at Jin Guangyao and said, “Hey, san-ge. I won our game.”
“What game?” Jin Guangyao asked, his eyes glassy.
“Which one of us could convince the other that he was harmless.” Nie Huaisang’s smile widened. “I won.”
Jin Guangyao looked at him. He looked at his empty bowl. He looked at Nie Huaisang’s full bowl. “Did . . . did you poison me?”
“What? No!” Nie Huaisang waved his hands. “Geez, san-ge, you have a really dark mind. I just drugged you, that’s all.”
“Oh.” Jin Guangyao continued to blink at him for a long moment before his eyes sagged shut and he sprawled out backwards.
Nie Huaisang breathed out a sigh of relief. That had been the easy part.
He wrapped Jin Guangyao in the cloak of a Qinghe disciple and snuck out of the tower with him. He’d gotten an inn room for the purpose, and made sure to strip it of any distinguishing marks. He cast a silencing spell that he’d learned at Cloud Recesses a lifetime ago so nobody would hear their conversation. Then he waved some particularly potent flowers underneath Jin Guangyao’s nose. He snorted and sat up immediately, then clutched his head. “Oh . . . fuck,” he muttered, amusing Nie Huaisang greatly. He looked around, saw Nie Huaisang, saw the room, and said, “Where are we?”
“Somewhere that nobody is going to hear us,” Nie Huaisang said.
“Why?” Jin Guangyao asked, still rubbing his temples.
“Here, drink this,” Nie Huaisang said, holding out a bowl. He saw Jin Guangyao’s suspicious look. “It’s just water, I promise! See?” He took a long drink of it himself. “It’ll make your headache better.”
Jin Guangyao accepted the bowl and drank deeply, then put it down and frowned. “Huaisang . . . do I even want to know what sort of idea you’ve gotten into your head? Why on earth would you drug me and cart me to some random inn?”
Nie Huaisang grinned despite himself. Even now, Jin Guangyao thought he was an idiot. He was proud of the work he had done. “I know you killed Jin Yan.”
Jin Guangyao froze.
“I found her body,” Nie Huaisang said. “I don’t blame you, honestly. She was a horrible bitch. Did she really make you eat a whole hot pepper just because her food was too spicy? I would have killed her too.”
Jin Guangyao looked at him carefully. “What do you want, Huaisang?”
“I want you to tell me what Jin Guangshan is planning, and if my brother is in any danger.”
A little relieved, Jin Guangyao took another drink of water. “It’s all gone to hell now anyway. He wants the Stygian Tiger amulet. The plan was to get Wei Wuxian to cause enough trouble that Clan Leader Jiang would force him to surrender it, or the Jin clan would declare the Jiang clan enemies and destroy them. But he lost his mind and ran to hide in the Burial Mounds, so, there goes that idea.”
“What does he even want the amulet for?” Nie Huaisang said.
“I think it’s more that he doesn’t want anyone else to have it than that he has specific plans for it,” Jin Guangyao said. “Right now, nobody can hope to challenge the Jin clan’s position at the top. Why allow that to change?”
“Then why are they so worried about da-ge?” Nie Huaisang asked, and when it looked like Jin Guangyao was going to temporize, he added, “I overheard them talking about it so don’t say they’re not.”
Jin Guangyao looked at him with the most respect Nie Huaisang has ever seen on his face. “You’ve been busy.”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” Nie Huaisang replied.
“Out of the three clans, the Nie clan has the most power and the most people left, and Chifeng-Zun is formidable,” Jin Guangyao said. “It worries them. I’ve told them that they shouldn’t worry about it, because if Chifeng-Zun ever feels like they’re up to something, he’ll just attack Koi Tower and get himself immediately killed, but they never listen to me.”
“But they won’t act against him?” Nie Huaisang was regarding him carefully, trying to decide whether or not he believed him. “Unless he acts first?”
Jin Guangyao shrugged. “No promises.”
Nie Huaisang thought all this over for a few minutes while Jin Guangyao finished the water. “All right,” he finally said, “I think we should kill Jin Guangshan, then.”
Jin Guangyao spit water all over the floor. He coughed for several minutes before regaining his composure. “What?”
“Listen, I know you hate him,” Nie Huaisang said. “Don’t try to convince me that you don’t. He’s awful to you. Everyone here is awful to you. I still think there was at least a fifty percent chance that he was actively working with Wen Ruohan during the Sunshot Campaign, and even if he wasn’t, he sure as hell didn’t help any of the rest of us. If Jin Guangshan is a threat to da-ge then he’s just going to have to die and that’s all there is to it.”
There was a long moment while Jin Guangyao just stared at Nie Huaisang with his mouth ajar.
“I’ll get you more water,” Nie Huaisang said, and did so.
By the time he was finished, Jin Guangyao seemed to have recover from the shock. “I won’t lie and say it’s never crossed my mind,” he said. “But it’s not possible. At least, it’s not possible to do it and not get caught.”
“It wasn’t possible,” Nie Huaisang corrected. “But now you’ve got me.”
Jin Guangyao pinched the bridge of his nose. “Huaisang . . .”
“San-ge,” Nie Huaisang interrupted calmly, “where are you?”
Jin Guangyao glanced around but was forced to admit, “I don’t know.”
“How long have you been here? How did you get here? Will there be any long-lasting effects from the drugs I gave you?” Nie Huaisang watched Jin Guangyao’s frustrated expression. “Are you still going to sit there and say you don’t see how I could be any use when it comes to assassinating Clan Leader Jin?”
“All right,” Jin Guangyao said, “I agree that between the two of us, we could probably do it. But what do you get out of it?”
Nie Huaisang groaned. “San-ge! I just want to feed my birds, paint my fans, and draw pornography. I didn’t think that was so much to ask for in this life! But lately every time I turn around, evil is knocking at the door and trying to hurt the people I care about. I love my brother but he’s too straightforward for this political bullshit. Somebody has to protect him from himself, and that person is apparently me. And Wei-xiong is my friend, and the fact that he’s too depressed to have a self-preservation instinct at the moment isn’t really his fault. I just want to get this taken care of so I can stop working my ass off because let me tell you it is hell on my complexion, okay?”
Jin Guangyao gave a snort of laughter. “I can’t decide if you’re serious or not.”
“Listen,” Nie Huaisang said, “I never lied about who I was until everything went to hell. I’m soft and lazy and I’m fine with being that way. But at some point you’ve got to take a stand, you know? I was willing to let it go when the Jin clan fucked us all over during the Sunshot Campaign, and I was willing to let it go when they somehow took credit for all the hard work everyone else did, and hell, I was even willing to let it go that they treated you like shit because that was your problem, not mine. But I can’t let it go if they’re a threat to my brother, and you’re the only person I know who would actually be willing and able to help me with this, so here we are. Let’s make a deal, okay? We kill Jin Guangshan, which will improve your life considerably, and in return, you promise that you and yours won’t go after me and my brother.”
“But it’s fine if we go after Wei Wuxian?”
“I have reasonable expectations of what you can actually get done. Wei-xiong has painted an enormous target on his back and that’s a problem I don’t think either of us can solve. I’ll have to work on it later. Right now I’m more concerned about da-ge.”
Jin Guangyao thought about it for a very long time. Nie Huaisang waited.
“All right,” Jin Guangyao said, “deal.”
~ ~ ~ ~
Nie Huaisang insisted on blindfolding Jin Guangyao and sneaking him out of the inn before releasing him elsewhere in the city. It wasn’t that he really cared if Jin Guangyao knew what inn they had been at, but more to drive home the point that he had gotten the upper hand over him.
The point apparently went over Jin Guangyao’s head, because the next evening, he approached Nie Huaisang after dinner and said, “Let’s have a drink.”
“Sure,” Nie Huaisang said. “Is there somewhere here we can have privacy?”
“We can go to my rooms,” Jin Guangyao said. “Once my duties are concluded for the day, nobody bothers me.”
It had been a long day for Jin Guangyao, and Nie Huaisang couldn’t help but sympathize. His father was still in a rage. The week-long crowd hunt that they had carefully organized and spent extravagant amounts of money on was ruined. All anyone could talk about was the fact that Wei Wuxian had disrespected Jin Guangshan right to his face and then killed a bunch of his men.
The Jiang clan’s retinue had hastily departed Lanling that morning. Jiang Cheng said he was going to go after his brother and convince him to turn himself in, which Nie Huaisang imagined was going to go down as one of the most fruitless endeavors of all time. He wasn’t sure that Jiang Cheng even intended to do it, or if he just thought that the Jin clan wouldn’t let him leave the city unless he promised to do so.
Only a few hours after they had gone, the Lan clan had departed as well. Lan Wangji was clearly distraught over what had happened with Wei Wuxian, and Lan Xichen probably wanted to get him out of Lanling before he said or did something regrettable for the first time in his life. Their departure had been abrupt and only barely on the polite side, and Jin Guangyao was clearly sulking about it. Nie Huaisang wondered if he should tell Jin Guangyao that he should really try to tone it down when it came to his mooning around after Lan Xichen. It was obvious enough to be a little embarrassing. But he supposed since Lan Xichen didn’t mind, it wasn’t really his business. Jin Guangyao only had a few flaws, and his astonishingly obvious crush on Lan Xichen was the second biggest. It might prove useful someday, but he’d prefer not to use it unless absolutely necessary, because if Lan Xichen was put in danger, Lan Wangji would probably come chop his head off.
His most obvious and fatal flaw, Nie Huaisang reflected as he sipped his alcohol, was that he always thought he was the smartest one in the room – even after it had been proven otherwise. He thought of Nie Huaisang’s victory the previous night as a fluke, the result of perhaps a momentary lapse on his part, and something that surely wouldn’t be repeated. It was absolutely stupid of him to drink with Nie Huaisang after what had happened, and he clearly still didn’t realize that Nie Huaisang could match him drink for drink and only be half as drunk.
Nie Huaisang was absolutely fine with that. Arrogance was an easily exploited flaw; he was happy if Jin Guangyao kept it.
Or maybe, he thought as he watched Jin Guangyao drink, he had just had a really shitty day and was turning to the one person he might actually still consider a friend.
“The thing is,” Jin Guangyao said, nearly spilling the jar of alcohol as he poured himself more, “the thing is . . .”
“The thing is?” Nie Huaisang repeated, blinking at him guilelessly.
“The thing is, what if I don’t want to kill my father?” Jin Guangyao asked, and took a long drink.
“Ah, you agreed!” Nie Huaisang faked a pout. “You agreed, san-ge!”
“I can change my mind.” Jin Guangyao squinted at him, as if wondering when Nie Huaisang had divided in two, in his blurry vision. “That’s a thing that minds do.”
Nie Huaisang saw that pouting was not going to win him this argument, and switched tactics. “Why don’t you want to kill your father? You said you hated him.”
“I do,” Jin Guangyao said. “I really hate him. But . . .” He stared at the wall for a long minute, then hiccuped into his next drink. “I really want him to love me.”
“Oh, geez,” Nie Huaisang said. Maybe drinking with Jin Guangyao wasn’t a great idea. Or maybe it was. He was roughly five hundred percent certain that nobody would admit something like that while sober, least of all Jin Guangyao. Or maybe the problem was that, in order to get Jin Guangyao drunk, he also had to get at least somewhat drunk, and his liquor-muddled mind was having difficulty coming up with a response to that statement. He thought about it for what felt like several eternities before he decided he needed more information. “Why do you want a man you hate to love you?”
“He’s my father,” Jin Guangyao said, blinking at him blearily.
“Who cares?” Nie Huaisang asked, to more blinking. He set his bowl aside. “Listen. Listen, okay? Family is . . . family is bullshit.”
Jin Guangyao frowned, but much to Nie Huaisang’s relief, did not muster up a cogent rebuttal beyond, “No it’s not.”
“Yes! Yes it is. Blood, relatives - it’s all meaningless. Do you think my brother and I love each other less than Xichen-ge and Lan-xiong love each other because we only share one parent and they share both? Do you . . .” He scraped his memory for other examples. “Do you think Wei-xiong and Jiang-guniang don’t love each other like brother and sister because the same blood doesn’t run in their veins? Do you think Wei-xiong did everything he did for Wen Ning because he doesn’t love him like family? It’s all bullshit! It’s just something the world tells us we should care about. There’s no reason to care! Jin Guangshan has done nothing for you. He tried to claim you like, like a possession, to make himself look good, after discarding you when you needed him. You don’t need him to love you. You’re better than him.” Nie Huaisang searched for a powerful closing argument, slapped his hand against the table, and proclaimed, “Fuck that guy!”
Jin Guangyao stared at him for so long that he began to worry that maybe he had gone too far. But then he abruptly drained the bowl, tossed it aside, and declared, “Yeah, fuck that guy!”
“He’s the worst!” Nie Huaisang said.
“The absolute worst,” Jin Guangyao agreed.
They drank in silence for a few minutes. Nie Huaisang felt pretty good about how this evening was turning out.
“What about Jin Zixuan though?” Jin Guangyao finally said. “How do we kill him?”
Nie Huaisang suddenly felt very sober. “Wait, hang on, we never talked about killing him. Why would we kill him?”
“He’s awful,” Jin Guangyao said.
“Not really,” Nie Huaisang said, relaxing somewhat. He could handle this. “Actually when you consider who raised him, he’s really not so bad. Sure, he’s spoiled and snobby and he cares way too much about fancy stuff. Not that I can talk,” he added, pouring them both another bowl. “But he doesn’t deserve to die for that.”
“Okay but it’s not fair,” Jin Guangyao said. “All his life he’s had everything he wanted just, just handed to him, while I had to work my ass off.”
“Oh, yeah, sure, it’s totally unfair,” Nie Huaisang agreed. “But that wasn’t his fault. He couldn’t make people stop giving things to him and more than you could make people give things to you. That’s Jin Guangshan’s fault, and that’s why we’re killing him,” he added, even though it really had very little to do with why they were killing him.
Jin Guangyao thought about all of this for a minute, then nodded and said, “Okay.”
Relieved, Nie Huaisang lifted the bowl to his lips.
“But if he’s not dead how am I gonna be Clan Leader?” Jin Guangyao asked.
Nie Huaisang choked on his liquor. He coughed for several minutes while Jin Guangyao ineffectively thumped on his back. “We never talked about you being Clan Leader, either!”
Jin Guangyao frowned at him. “Obviously I want to be Clan Leader. I didn’t think we needed to talk about it.”
Nie Huaisang felt a headache setting in. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “No . . . no, san-ge, you really don’t. You don’t want to be the ruler. You want to rule. How do you not already know that those two things aren’t the same?”
“I want both,” Jin Guangyao said.
“No,” Nie Huaisang said, “you absolutely don’t. If you’re in charge, all the knives come out for you. Geez, san-ge, I thought you were smarter than this. You have no self-awareness at all, do you. You have . . .” He searched in his mind for the words he was looking for. He suddenly remembered a term from some pornography he had read once, and proclaimed, inspired, “You have a praise kink.”
Jin Guangyao was now the one who choked. “I have a what?”
“A praise kink! You live to make people happy. Which is funny because you don’t like most people. But still. I saw you at the Floral Banquet. You knew where everyone should sit and what they would want to drink. You remembered their wives’ names and their kids’ names. Jin Guangshan didn’t even know their names, let alone their wives’ and kids’.”
“So what?” Jin Guangyao asked, looking like he might sulk.
“So everything! A clan leader’s job isn’t to make people happy. Do you think, if you hadn’t been there, Jin Guangshan would’ve been out there doing all that stuff himself? Of course not. Somebody else would have. All the stuff you enjoy about ruling is the stuff you don’t actually get to do when you’re the ruler. It’s just listening to people complain all the time and then sometimes taking out your saber and beating the crap out of people. Believe me! I’ve watched my brother rule for years. And so have you! You know what it looks like. Is that really what you want?”
Jin Guangyao hesitated.
Seeing that he was making progress, Nie Huaisang continued, “No, you don’t. You want to be what you were in Qinghe - the trusted right hand. Jin Zixuan is technically in charge but he’s a lot prettier than he is smart. He’ll rely on you if you just let him. Do what you do best. Be helpful, be smart, be indispensable. By the time he’s been Clan Leader for a year, you’ll be running all of Lanling. And the best part is, nobody will even know it. You’ll be able to do anything you want.”
“Well,” Jin Guangyao said, “all right. At least for now. I’ll give it a year and we’ll see if you’re right.”
Nie Huaisang, being certain that he was right, relaxed. He waited to see if Jin Guangyao was going to throw him any more curveballs. But Jin Guangyao did not. In fact, he had leaned his upper half against the bed and was snoring softly.
“Geez,” Nie Huaisang said, heaving Jin Guangyao up onto the bed and turning his face to the side, just in case. “I have to do everything around here.”
~ ~ ~ ~
“We do have to kill Jin Zixun, though,” Jin Guangyao said, as Nie Huaisang studied the book on botany he had picked up. “I know we didn’t talk about it earlier, but it’s not negotiable.”
Nie Huaisang glanced up and took a fraction of a second to think about it, then nodded. “Yeah, that guy absolutely has to go, but consider . . . at the end of the day, we’re going to need someone to frame for the murder of your father.”
Jin Guangyao frowned. “Nobody will believe it. Jin Zixun has no motive to kill my father.”
“Leaving aside the fact that Jin Guangshan is a terrible person and treats everyone like shit, and just treats you like even more shit than anyone else, that’s mostly true.” Nie Huaisang put the book aside. “Jin Zixun isn’t stupid, unlike Jin Zixuan, and that’s the problem. Honestly, I’m a little surprised that Jin Guangshan doesn’t like him more. They’re very much alike – needlessly cruel for fun. I assume bringing the prisoners to the archery tournament was Jin Zixun’s idea?”
Jin Guangyao nodded. “Although my father supported it enthusiastically.”
“Of course he did.” Nie Huaisang rolled his eyes and thought about everything that had happened over the last few days. “Does Jin Zixun have a problem with the Twin Jades of Lan?”
At this, Jin Guangyao’s expression tightened, clearly thinking back to the way Jin Zixun had pressured Lan Xichen into taking a drink in front of everybody. “A personal problem, no. If what you’re asking is if he had a reason to do what he did at the banquet, it was just to prove that he could strong-arm the leader of another sect into doing such a distasteful thing.”
Nie Huaisang tapped his fan against the page of the book he was reading. “One more question. Has er-ge really swallowed your act as much as it seems he has?”
Jin Guangyao flushed pink and said loftily, “I don’t see what you mean.”
“Yes, you do. Er-ge seems convinced you’re the paragon of all that’s good and sweet in the universe. I assume it’s because you saved his life after the Wen clan sacked Cloud Recesses, although if there’s any other reason, you’re welcome to tell me.”
“No.” Jin Guangyao looked away, his cheeks still pink. “Er-ge is just . . . he believes the best in me. I’ve never let him see any other side of me.”
“Good,” Nie Huaisang said, “because we’re going to need him as a character witness. Jin Zixun will absolutely try to blame everything on you after your father is dead, but er-ge’s word will carry more weight than his, even though he’s not a member of the Jin clan. It’s hard to argue with a hero.”
“There’s a flaw in this plan,” Jin Guangyao said, and pointed out, “Er-ge’s not here.”
“You didn’t think we were going to do it today, did you? Obviously not. We’re going to have to wait until the Twin Jades’ next visit. It shouldn’t be long. Jin Guangshan is going to want to make a move against Wei-xiong, and Lan-xiong will want to keep that from happening. They might have left in a hurry the other day, but it was only so they could regroup. We’ll see what happens after Clan Leader Jiang confronts him, assuming that he actually does.”
Jin Guangyao thought this over, then nodded. “All right. What’s your plan for the murder, then?”
“I don’t have one. That’s your job.” Nie Huaisang looked up as Jin Guangyao frowned at him, and laughed. “Geez, san-ge. How many murders do you think I’ve committed? Zero, that’s how many. You’re the expert! My job is to make sure you don’t have your head chopped off afterwards.”
After a moment, Jin Guangyao gave another nod. “I assume it doesn’t need to look like an accident, if we’re planning on framing Jin Zixun?”
“Yeah, although it can look like the murderer tried to make it look like an accident,” Nie Huaisang said. “And we’ll need at least one or two pieces of physical evidence we can tie to Jin Zixun.”
“All right,” Jin Guangyao said. “That’s easy enough.”
“How long will you need?”
“Three or four days.”
“We’ll have at least a week before the Twin Jades are back, so that should be fine. Just let me know where you are in the process so I can make sure everything is ready on my end.”
Jin Guangyao nodded and appeared to think all of this over for several long minutes. “What about your brother, though?”
Nie Huaisang’s senses went on high alert. “You agreed you wouldn’t – ”
“Don’t worry about me killing him,” Jin Guangyao said, waving this aside. “I’m worried about him killing me. He’ll know I was responsible. He saw my true nature and he’s never forgotten.”
“Oh, yeah.” Nie Huaisang waved this aside. “That’s da-ge for you. He saw you murder one guy who honestly deserved it and his good opinion was lost forever. I’ll make sure he doesn’t suspect you this time. Or at least make sure he doesn’t act on any suspicions.”
“All right,” Jin Guangyao said. “I’m trusting you with this, Huaisang, and I hate trusting people, so don’t let me down.”
~ ~ ~ ~
Thank you for all your kind comments! I've really enjoyed writing this and I hope it's given you something fun to read while we're all stuck inside! ^_^
Three days later, Nie Huaisang had all the details on Jin Guangyao’s part of the plan, and he was trying to decide if he loved it or hated it. He tapped his fan against his lips for several long moments before he said, “Are the prostitutes really necessary, though? I feel like it’s a dead giveaway.”
“Nobody’s going to believe his heart gave out for no reason,” Jin Guangyao said, rolling his eyes. “And he never bothers sparring or working with the troops anymore. There’s got to be some exertion involved or it won’t be believable.”
“For the poison you chose, it’s not believable,” Nie Huaisang said. “There’s lots of poisons. It would be far easier to make it look like spoiled food or something.”
Jin Guangyao shrugged. “The prostitutes might make it look like it was my doing, but they’re not just there for decoration. They’re there to make Jin-furen so furious that she doesn’t push too hard after the matter is settled.”
“Ahh,” Nie Huaisang said. “Isn’t she used to it by now?”
“In general, yes, but she hates it when he brings them here, to Koi Tower.”
“But he still does?”
A nod. “Especially when he’s angry about something, which I’m fairly sure he will be once he’s done meeting with the Twin Jades.”
“All right then.” Nie Huaisang turned the plan over in his mind a few times and found no other obvious flaws. “What did you think of what happened with Clan Leader Jiang and Wei-xiong?”
Jin Guangyao gave a loud snort of disbelief, which was really answer enough.
“Yes,” Nie Huaisang said, “I agree.”
The ‘fight’ that Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian had could not have been more obviously staged if it had literally taken place on a stage. It amused Nie Huaisang, partly because neither of those two had a lick of subtlety, and partly because nobody else seemed to realize what had happened. That Jiang Cheng had publicly renounced Wei Wuxian, in a way that could conveniently be witnessed by dozens of people, and fought him to a draw – to a draw! – so he could not be blamed for not capturing him. As if, Nie Huaisang thought, either of those two would stop fighting while all their limbs were still attached if it was something that really mattered. Hell, he was fairly certain that neither of them would stop fighting as long as they still had one singular limb, if it was something that really mattered.
“It’s good, though,” Jin Guangyao said. “It’ll keep Clan Leader Jiang out of this while we get it done.”
“Which is undoubtedly what he intended,” Nie Huaisang said, “even if he doesn’t know what our plan is. What did your father say?”
“He called Clan Leader Jiang a lot of disgusting names, but then calmed down when Jin-furen suggested he use it to force Jin Zixuan’s engagement to Jiang-guniang back on.”
Nie Huaisang considered that. “That’s good, actually. It’ll keep Jin Zixuan distracted.”
“Good for him, good for us.” Jin Guangyao gave another snort. “Good for Jiang-guniang? I’m not so sure about that.”
“She could do worse,” Nie Huaisang said, “and for some reason she actually seems to like him.”
“I guess there’s no accounting for taste,” Jin Guangyao said.
~ ~ ~ ~
The meeting with the Twin Jades of Lan went exactly as poorly as Nie Huaisang and Jin Guangyao had counted on.
Lan Xichen was calm and reasonable, which was the first problem. Yes, he admitted that Wei Wuxian was out of line. Yes, he was definitely concerned that Wei Wuxian had raised the dead. Yes, he agreed that Wei Wuxian alone could not handle the power of the Stygian Tiger Amulet and it was probably contributing to his poor behavior. He agreed and admitted to all of this but then steadfastly refused to say that they should do anything about it. Wei Wuxian had gone into exile voluntarily. Would it be wise to disturb him? Wouldn’t it just cause more problems?
He mainly had this argument with Jin Zixun, who had, as expected, taken up the lead torch and pitchfork in the discussion. Nothing was good enough for Jin Zixun except complete annihilation of both the Wen clan remnants and Wei Wuxian.
Jin Guangyao waited until just the right moment to slide into the conversation and give an innocent, “But Jin Zixun, surely you don’t need Zewu-Jun’s permission or assistance for that, do you?”
The mere implication sent Jin Zixun into a frothing rage, and he shouted, “Damn right I don’t! I’ll do whatever I want!”
Jin Guangshan immediately slapped him down. “You won’t do anything except what you’re told!”
Nie Huaisang, who was listening from a quiet alcove which happened to catch the acoustics quite nicely, hid his laughter in his sleeve.
Throughout the entire argument, Lan Wangji just stood in silence and gave everyone an icy glare that apparently made them quite nervous.
After several more minutes of shouting, Jin Guangyao again smoothly inserted himself into the discussion. “Surely, Father, it would be better to put some time and space between what just happened and our next move? Right now Wei-gongzi will be on the defensive, expecting us to attack. If we give him time, he might let his guard down.”
“A-Yao . . .” Lan Xichen said, sounding a little disappointed.
Jin Guangyao gave Lan Xichen his best, most innocent smile. “Er-ge, I know that you believe that Wei-gongzi was quite provoked before his actions after the Floral Banquet. Of course I wish no harm to come to Wei-gongzi, who was, after all, a hero in the Sunshot Campaign and is a good friend to the Lan sect. But I am concerned, if he is allowed to keep the Stygian Tiger amulet, it will continue to affect his mind and his temperament. He has already crossed the line between the living and the dead. How far into demonic cultivation might he go, before you agree something needs to be done?”
Lan Xichen sighed. “Wangji,” he said quietly, “A-Yao has a point. This is my concern as well.”
Lan Wangji stared straight ahead at the wall and refused to look at anyone present. “If Wei Ying is left alone, he will not need to continue to develop his demonic cultivation.”
“Do you honestly believe that?” Jin Zixun sneered.
Lan Wangji’s stare could have frozen entire rivers. “Would I say it, if I did not believe it?”
Jin Guangyao said, “Then perhaps we can all agree on a time frame, a period in which we can watch Wei-gongzi to see if he shows signs of using demonic cultivation? We can agree that there is no need to intervene right now, but that if he continues to degenerate, action must be taken? And in that case, it will be better that we waited, so that he may no longer be on the defensive? I would say three months, perhaps?”
Lan Wangji said, with confidence, “I agree.”
“I agree as well, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said.
“Fine,” Jin Guangshan grunted, and gave Jin Zixun a look. He scowled but nodded.
Nie Huaisang smiled in his little alcove. Jin Guangyao really was brilliant. To talk both sides into a compromise was impressive enough, but it served a dual purpose, because it gave Jin Guangyao the victory – something that was certain to enrage Jin Guangshan and Jin Zixun both.
Dinner that night was tense and awkward. Lan Wangji stared hard at him when he sat down and asked, “Why are you still here?”
“Wangji,” Lan Xichen murmured reprovingly.
“Ah, da-ge said I could stay for a little while after the crowd hunt, just to visit with san-ge,” Nie Huaisang said, waving his fan excessively. “We were friends for such a long time in The Unclean Realm, you know – he lived with us for almost four years.”
Lan Xichen nodded and smiled at Nie Huaisang, saying, “I’m glad you’re keeping him company. I wish I could visit with him more often.”
“He wishes that as well,” Nie Huaisang said cheerfully, because what the hell, he could wingman with the best of them. Lan Xichen smiled and redirected his attention to his plate, looking almost a little embarrassed. “Ah, Lan-xiong, why do you look so sour? Didn’t everything resolve well?”
“For now,” Lan Wangji said, in a tone which boded ill for people if things didn’t continue to resolve well.
While they were talking, Jin Guangyao was being run ragged by Jin Guangshan and Jin Zixun. As usual, he dealt with this adeptly, never losing his patience or his smile no matter how much abuse they heaped on him. Nie Huaisang saw that Lan Xichen was clearly thinking about speaking up once or twice and murmured, “Please don’t say anything, er-ge . . . he’s so embarrassed when you see the way they treat him. He’ll feel humiliated if he needs you to defend him.”
Lan Xichen sighed and nodded. Nie Huaisang wondered what he would say if he knew that Jin Guangshan had already been poisoned with the first course. Presuming, of course, that Jin Guangyao hadn’t lost his nerve. But Nie Huaisang was almost positive that he hadn’t.
As dessert was served, Lan Xichen said to Jin Guangyao, “Perhaps you’d have the chance to join me for tea later?”
“Of course,” Jin Guangyao said, with a smile that looked more genuine than usual. “Once my father retires for the night, I’m free.”
What an excellent alibi, Nie Huaisang thought. Of course, anyone with any medical knowledge at all would know that the poison could have been delivered hours ahead of time, but still, it couldn’t hurt to have Jin Guangyao with the illustrious Zewu-Jun at the moment of death.
“Wangji, will you join us?” Lan Xichen asked, and his brother nodded, although his sour expression persisted. “Nie-gongzi, you’d be welcome as well.”
Seeing no point in wasting an alibi for himself as well, Nie Huaisang beamed and bowed and said, “That’s so kind of you, er-ge.”
He caught Jin Guangyao’s eye just before he walked away, and Jin Guangyao gave the slightest, almost imperceptible nod. It was done. Now all they had to do was wait, and manage the aftermath.
~ ~ ~ ~
They were still drinking tea at the Lan clan’s guest house when they heard shouting from the main palace. Jin Guangyao looked up and chewed on his lower lip, looking nervous. “I’d better go see what all the fuss is about,” he said.
“I’ll go with you,” Nie Huaisang said, and in a lower voice remarked to the Lan brothers, “they don’t go as hard on him when I’m there . . . but if we’re not back in ten minutes or so, maybe come see what’s wrong? I’m worried Wei-xiong might have done something . . .”
‘Wei-xiong’ was the magic word. Lan Wangji immediately stood and said, “We will accompany you as well.”
Jin Guangyao sighed and looked put upon, but didn’t argue. “Just please, if it’s an internal matter, will you promise to let me handle it?”
“Of course, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said. “We don’t wish to interfere in the Jin clan’s business.”
As soon as they got into the main house, they could hear a woman sobbing, and a lot of people speaking very loudly. The words, ‘A clan leader in his prime doesn’t just drop dead in the middle of having a few women!’ reached their ears before they had made it half a dozen steps.
Nie Huaisang was once again impressed by Jin Guangyao’s acting ability. The color drained out of his face and he looked genuinely stricken, and seemed to completely forget the people with him as he ran ahead of them and burst into the room where people had gathered around the body. “What happened?”
“You!” Jin Zixun caught sight of him and immediately went into a rage. “What did you do, you bastard son of a whore?”
“Jin-er-gongzi!” Lan Xichen protested, coming in behind Jin Guangyao. “Watch your language.”
The reprimand made things even worse. “He killed his own father and you’re concerned about my language?”
“How – what – ” Jin Guangyao looked hopelessly confused. He saw the body on the bed and the prostitute wailing in the corner, gave a wounded gasp, and swayed on his feet. Lan Xichen caught him before he could fall.
Nie Huaisang carefully kept his own expression schooled into shock and horror, despite the urge to grin. It seemed he had taught Jin Guangyao a thing or two over the years.
“Everyone please stay calm,” Jin Zixuan said, although he too was pale. “It’s true my father was healthy, but this amount of exertion . . . could have been considered unwise even for a younger man.”
“Nonsense!” Jin Zixun shouted. “He was poisoned, and someone is trying to cover it up! And this one here is the one who brought all his dishes this evening!”
“And tasted every one!” Jin Guangyao said, rallying slightly. “You saw me, everyone saw me! Everyone knows that I’m his official poison taster!”
A strange expression crossed Lan Xichen’s face. He half-turned Jin Guangyao so they were facing and said, “Truly?”
Jin Guangyao nodded, his gaze sliding to the side. “Ever since I came here . . .”
It was the angriest Nie Huaisang had ever seen Lan Xichen. His furious gaze crossed the room, lingering on each member of the Jin clan, before he said, “He made his own son his poison taster and nobody thought to speak up?”
“This is none of your business!” Jin Zixun snapped at him. “What does it matter that he tasted everything? If you were the one who had poisoned it, you easily could have taken the antidote beforehand!”
“Where would I even get poison?” Jin Guangyao said, looking around with a pleading expression. “And why would I do this at all? My father and I didn’t always get along, that’s true, but he brought me into the family, he legitimized me, he gave me everything I had ever wanted! I gain nothing with his death; I’m not even the second young master, let alone the first!”
“Don’t worry, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said, squeezing his shoulder. “Everyone here knows you would never be capable of such a thing.”
Nie Huaisang was glad he had practiced keeping a straight face. Lan Wangji’s face similarly seemed set in stone, and Nie Huaisang wondered what he was thinking. If there was any wild card in the room, it was, strangely, Lan Wangji. Nie Huaisang wasn’t sure how he would react to any of this, let alone what he thought about Jin Guangyao’s capability of murder. But hopefully, since this wasn’t about Wei Wuxian, he wouldn’t get involved.
“You could get poison anywhere,” Jin Zixun snarled. “As long as you know what you’re doing!”
“Ah!” Nie Huaisang pretended to recall something, slapping his fan against his palm. “Jin-er-gongzi, didn’t I see you with a book on rare plants the other day?”
“What?” Jin Zixun was taken off guard. “No.”
“I did!” Nie Huaisang said. “And I saw you at the apothecary, too! Just yesterday!”
Jin Zixun flushed dark red. “I was at the apothecary for an upset stomach. Is that a crime, now?”
“But should we take your word on that?” Lan Xichen asked. “You were so quick to blame Jin Guangyao. Is that because you were trying to keep suspicion off yourself?”
“This is ridiculous!” Jin Zixun roared. “I don’t have any books on rare plants and I didn’t buy any poison at the damned apothecary, and, and as Guangyao pointed out, he’s the poison taster, so he would have been poisoned too, but he’s fine!”
“That’s true,” Lan Xichen said, turning a worried gaze on Jin Guangyao, “but he would have consumed far less of it, and if it was something that made the heart give out after exertion, well . . . Clan Leader Jin was clearly exerting himself, whereas A-Yao was quietly drinking tea with myself and my brother. So he would be safe from any effects.”
“Who brought in the prostitutes?” Madam Jin finally spoke up, her voice cold and angry. “He knows I hate having them here. And three at one time? Even Guangshan would not request such a thing here under my nose. Somebody must have brought them in for him.”
Silence sat in the room for a moment before Lan Xichen said, “Why don’t we ask?” He walked over to the woman who was still crying in the corner, probably traumatized by having her bed partner die on top of her. “Where did the other two go?”
“They ran,” Jin Zixun said, disgusted. “Probably afraid they’d be blamed. She fainted and was too weak to go anywhere after she woke.”
Lan Xichen kindly blotted at the tears that were running down her face. “Miss,” he said gently, “can you tell us who brought you here to the palace this evening?”
The woman sobbed and hiccupped. “We weren’t brought, we were sent, from the brothel. The man who hired us did it yesterday. He said we were to come this evening after dinner to serve Clan Leader Jin. But we never met him! He sent a courier. The letter had the sect seal. It’s not, not odd for that to happen before big events, there’s always so much planning that go into them that we’re often hired that way.”
“What about payment?” Lan Xichen asked. “Did you receive it ahead of time?”
She nodded and held up her wrist to display a jeweled bracelet.
“That . . .” Jin Zixuan sounded shocked. “Zixun, I saw you buy that myself, a few days ago.”
Jin Zixun’s face went from red to purple. “Yes, I bought it! I bought it to give to a woman I was courting! I don’t know how this whore got it!”
“It was with the letter!” the prostitute wailed. “I didn’t know I shouldn’t wear it! I didn’t know what was going to happen!”
Lan Xichen straightened up, his face dark. With the utmost politeness, he said to Jin Zixun, “It could be a replica, if people saw you purchase it. Could we look in your room to see if the original is still there?”
“Fine!” Jin Zixun shouted. “I have nothing to hide!”
That, Nie Huaisang thought, was an unforeseen moment of brilliance on Lan Xichen’s part. He had expected to have to make that suggestion himself, and wasn’t sure of how it would have gone over, although he was sure that Jin Zixun could be goaded into it. Lan Xichen had phrased it just right, though – making it sound like they were going to search Jin Zixun’s room for evidence of his innocence, rather than his guilt, even though Lan Xichen clearly expected (and hoped) for the latter.
A few minutes later, they had reached Jin Zixun’s rooms. Lan Xichen wasted no time going through what was on his desk, and his brother joined him. “I don’t see any bracelet,” he said. “But . . . this panel is loose.”
Nie Huaisang was proud of this. It had been a bitch to construct a drawer with a false bottom that matched the desk already in Jin Zixun’s room, then swap it out without anyone noticing. But he had decided it was a necessity. Jin Zixun was too smart to allow them to search his room with evidence lying out in the open, but also arrogant enough that people would willingly believe he thought he had hidden it well enough.
“What’s inside?” Jin Guangyao asked, his voice trembling.
With effort, Lan Xichen pried the panel up while Jin Zixun protested in the background that he had never known his desk even had a secret drawer.
“Ah – that’s the book!” Nie Huaisang shouted, as soon as Lan Xichen took it out. “That’s the book I saw him reading!”
“That book isn’t mine!” Jin Zixun roared.
“Several packets of herbs, as well,” Lan Xichen said. “I’m not familiar enough with this sort of thing to identify them. Is there a doctor who can come?”
“I can,” Madam Jin said, stepping forward. “The ladies of the Yu sect study such things in our youth.” She took the small packets from Lan Xichen, opened each one, sniffed the contents and studied their appearance. “Both of these do have medicinal properties and could be easily gotten at any apothecary,” she said, “but combined, they will have a lethal effect.”
Everyone turned to stare at Jin Zixun. His face had gone white. “How could you think I – why would I – what motive could I possibly have?”
“You wanted to attack Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji spoke for the first time. “He would not allow you to.”
“That’s – I didn’t – ” Jin Zixun continued to sputter. His gaze landed on Jin Guangyao and he shouted, “This was all your doing! You’ve hated both of us from the beginning! You – ”
Jin Zixun lunged forward. Jin Guangyao cringed and grabbed the back of Lan Xichen’s sleeve. “Er-ge!”
Lan Xichen easily blocked Jin Zixun’s attack. “Jin Zixun! Do not make things worse for yourself!”
Jin Zixun stood still for a moment, breathing heavily, looking around as if confused as to how things had turned against him so fast.
Lan Xichen turned back to Jin Guangyao. “A-Yao, are you all – ”
“Er-ge!” Nie Huaisang shouted. “Behind you!”
Lan Xichen did not hesitate. Jin Zixun had already attacked once; Jin Guangyao was obviously helpless and terrified. He was already unsheathing his sword as he turned, and buried it deep in Jin Zixun’s chest.
“Zewu-Jun!” Jin Zixuan was obviously shocked.
“He had a knife!” Nie Huaisang wailed. “He was going to kill Meng Yao!”
Jin Zixun coughed up a mouthful of blood and said something that sounded like, “No,” but it went unnoticed. He slid backwards off Lan Xichen’s sword and collapsed into a heap. A moment of stunned silence lingered.
Shaking, Jin Guangyao knelt beside him and reached inside Jin Zixun’s sleeve. When his hand withdrew, he was holding a knife. “Huaisang . . .” His eyes filled with tears. “Er-ge . . . you saved my life . . .”
“Did he draw it, though?” Jin Zixuan was still trying to deal with how quickly things had happened. “I didn’t see him draw it.”
Nie Huaisang said, “He did, I saw him!”
“But . . . against Zewu-Jun . . .”
Lan Wangji drew himself up to somehow seem even straighter than usual. “Nie-gongzi was the most effective scout in all of the Sunshot Campaign,” he said. “He never reported any inaccuracies in almost three months of fighting. If he says he saw a man draw his weapon, who are you to disagree with him?”
“Ah . . .” Jin Zixuan sat down heavily. “No, you’re right . . . I apologize, Nie-gongzi . . .”
“No, no, it’s fine,” Nie Huaisang said hastily. “It just happened so fast, that’s all. I still can’t believe it myself.”
“Are you all right, A-Yao?” Lan Xichen asked, helping Jin Guangyao into the nearest chair. When he only managed a weak nod, Lan Xichen turned to Madam Jin and said, “He’s in shock. With your permission, I will take him back to our guest house so he can rest and recover from this tragic incident.”
Madam Jin nodded. “Better than having him under foot. Zixuan, come with me. There are things that need to be done.”
Seeming just as shocked as Jin Guangyao, Jin Zixuan obediently followed his mother. Lan Xichen gathered Jin Guangyao in his arms and left the room, with Lan Wangji and Nie Huaisang behind him. When they got back to the guest house, Lan Xichen immediately took Jin Guangyao into one of the bedrooms to lie down.
“Nie Huaisang,” Lan Wangji said, as he started boiling water for tea. “Did he draw his knife?”
Nie Huaisang managed a smile. “You said it yourself, Lan-xiong . . . I never reported something incorrectly in three months . . .”
Lan Wangji was silent for a long minute, making sachets of tea and putting them in the pot. “Wei Ying will be safe now?”
“I hope so!” Nie Huaisang said. “I truly hope so.”
After another moment, Lan Wangji nodded. “I do not approve of the methods you used,” he said, “but I believe they were the ones needed. So thank you, Nie Huaisang.”
Seeing that there was no point in continuing to pretend, Nie Huaisang said, “Don’t tell your brother. It would break his heart to know that Jin Guangyao used him like that. But it was the only way. I thought about it for a long time.”
Lan Wangji gave him a sharp look, but then nodded again. “Very well.”
Nie Huaisang sprawled into the nearest chair and started thinking about what he would paint on his next fan.
~ ~ ~ ~
It wasn’t quite as easy as that, of course. All told, it was almost a week before Nie Huaisang was able to sit down to paint that fan. The death of a clan leader was no small thing.
He slept at the Lan brothers’ guest house that night. Jin Guangyao was also sleeping, or at least pretending to sleep, and Lan Xichen clearly had no intention of waking or moving him. Nie Huaisang slumped down into the comfortable chair and pretended to have fallen asleep himself, and nobody bothered him. After a while, he actually slept.
At one point, he heard Lan Wangji murmur, “You’re pale. Drink this.”
There was the clink of porcelain. “I’m all right, Wangji,” Lan Xichen said. “It was just . . . let’s call it an eventful evening and leave it at that. It’s hard to believe Jin Zixun would behave in such a manner.”
Nie Huaisang tensed despite himself. Then Lan Wangji said, “Is it? When you recall his past behavior, particularly at the crowd hunt, it seems perfectly in line with his character.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Lan Xichen said, and Nie Huaisang relaxed. “Poor A-Yao was in such a state. I’m surprised he was able to sleep.”
Lan Wangji said, in a flat tone, “Your A-Yao will be fine. He is tougher than you seem to think he is.”
Lan Xichen laughed gently. “That is also true.”
With that, Nie Huaisang drifted back into a doze.
When the rooster crowed the next morning, Jin Guangyao flung his covers back and woke Nie Huaisang with an abrupt, “Oh, no, I’m late!”
The Lan brothers were, of course, already awake and perfectly ready for the day, giving the impression that they had not slept at all. Or at least if they had, they had done it in their regular clothes without ever moving so not even a single hair was out of place. “Don’t worry, A-Yao, I’m sure nobody will expect you to – ”
“Jin-furen will definitely expect me,” Jin Guangyao said, struggling back into his outer robe. “If I don’t serve her morning tea precisely ten minutes after the rooster crows, she’ll slap me into next week. Please excuse me!” he added, and rushed out without taking the time to fix his hair. Nie Huaisang saw Lan Xichen frown after him faintly, but then apparently decided it wasn’t worth an intervention. Things would be different in Koi Tower going forward; there was no use worrying about past sins.
Lan Wangji put a cup of tea in front of Nie Huaisang, who thanked him. “The Jin clan will be busy with their internal matters today,” he said. “We should not disturb them. I am going to go to the Burial Mounds, if you wish to accompany me.”
“Is that wise, Wangji?” Lan Xichen asked. “We don’t yet know how everything is going to resolve. Although I doubt Jin Zixuan will be as dead set against Wei-gongzi as his father was, this will not be simple.”
“I will not give him false hope of an easy solution,” Lan Wangji said.
Seeing that Lan Wangji just wanted to go visit his friend, Lan Xichen backed off. “Very well, then. Please give him my best wishes.”
Lan Wangji looked over at Nie Huaisang. “Nie Huaisang?”
“Go? To the Burial Mounds?” Nie Huaisang put on a frightened expression. “No way! I’ll stay here.”
Lan Wangji studied him for just long enough to convey that he was absolutely not fooled for a second by Nie Huaisang’s demeanor, then simply said, “As you wish.”
“You should write to your brother,” Lan Xichen said to Nie Huaisang. “The news will travel fast. He will need a detailed account.”
Nie Huaisang grimaced. “He’ll storm in here no matter how many details I give him, but at least we’ve already caught the culprit, so he can’t be too angry. But yes, you are right. Thank you for letting me sleep here; I will head back to my own rooms.” He bowed to both of the Twin Jades of Lan, silently thanked them for all their help, and left.
He did write his brother, because Lan Xichen was right about that. If Nie Mingjue found out about Jin Guangshan’s death from the rumors, rather than hearing about it from his own brother who had been there when it happened, he would be furious. He explained, as if it was proven fact, that Jin Zixun had been frustrated by Jin Guangshan’s refusal to move against Wei Wuxian and had killed him because he figured Jin Zixuan would be easier to manipulate. ‘Insurmountable evidence’ had proven Jin Zixun was the culprit, and when he had been accused, he had lashed out and been killed. Nie Huaisang didn’t mention who he had lashed out at. In fact, he did not mention Jin Guangyao at all in the entire letter. There was no point in anything that might arouse his brother’s suspicions, and even reminding him of Jin Guangyao’s existence would probably be enough to do that.
That being done, he went to find Jin Guangyao and see if he could be of any use.
~ ~ ~ ~
Jin Guangyao looked good in mourning white, Nie Huaisang mused. It was a good thing, considering how often he was probably going to end up wearing it over the course of his life.
Over the next few days, things settled. Jin Zixuan was clearly wholly unprepared to be a Sect Leader, and Jin Guangyao was almost always by his elbow, offering helpful reminders and intelligent advice. Nie Huaisang heard the words, “Thank you, Guangyao,” more often in the next three days than he had in all his previous trips combined.
With some help from Lan Xichen, Jin Guangyao pulled off a move that was going to increase Jin Zixuan’s reliance on him by tenfold. Swooping in before Madam Jin could do it herself, he arranged a meeting between Jin Zixuan and Jiang Cheng, regarding the engagement to Jiang Yanli. He coached Jin Zixuan carefully on what exactly to say so he would come off as conciliatory instead of arrogant, but still not surrender his pride.
“My sister still holds considerable affection for you,” Jiang Cheng said, “so I will not rule it out. However, I also will not agree without her consent.”
“Perhaps we could arrange for her to visit?” Jin Zixuan said, almost a little too eagerly.
For a moment it looked like Jiang Cheng was going to question whether or not it was really proper to court a woman while still in white, but then apparently decided he didn’t care. He needed the alliance, given what had happened to the Jiang sect and what had happened with Wei Wuxian. As long as Jiang Yanli was willing, his own reluctance was not important. “I’m sure she would enjoy that very much.”
With that arranged, Wei Wuxian’s fate became much more clear. Jiang Yanli still dearly loved her brother, and it was obvious that Jin Zixuan would bow to any of her wishes if it got her to stop looking so sad every time he spoke to her. Lan Wangji made another trip to the Burial Mounds. The Wen remnants would be returned to Qishan and left alone to live in peace. Despite offers from the Jiang sect and the Lan sect, Wei Wuxian intended to go with them. He felt he could not leave Wen Ning alone, and was obviously still wary of the offers from the other clans, even from Lan Wangji.
Nie Huaisang and Jin Guangyao were in perfect agreement that they weren’t getting involved in that. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji would have to settle their lovers’ quarrels on their own.
“Think they’ll ever figure it out?” Jin Guangyao asked, as he poured their first drink.
They were friends now, Nie Huaisang thought, honest friends. You couldn’t commit a double murder together and not be friends afterwards.
“It’s really difficult to say,” Nie Huaisang replied. “Wei-xiong is as dense as a brick, and Lan-xiong seems to think he loses a month of his life for every word he speaks out loud. But one of these days I think the sheer overwhelming weight of the unresolved sexual tension will break one of them and they’ll figure it out after that.”
Jin Guangyao laughed and lifted his bowl. “We can hope.”
They both drank, and Nie Huaisang refilled their bowls. “You should ask your brother about your name, you know. I don’t think he’d care if you changed it.”
Jin Guangyao shook his head. “This is the name my father gave me, for better or for worse. I don’t want to look like anything other than a loyal, grieving son right now.”
“Ah, I suppose that’s true,” Nie Huaisang said.
“Losing your edge, Huaisang?” Jin Guangyao asked, smirking.
“What edge, san-ge?” Nie Huaisang asked, blinking guilelessly. “It’s like you don’t know me at all. I’m soft and I cry all the time. I’m just a lost cause.”
Jin Guangyao snorted into his liquor.
Nie Huaisang matched him drink for drink.
“You’re gonna make me a promise, san-ge,” Nie Huaisang said. “You’re going to promise you’ll never lift a finger against me or my brother. Swear it on your cultivation and your mother’s grave.”
Jin Guangyao lifted three fingers and half-slurred, “I so solemnly swear.”
Nie Huaisang drained his bowl and gave a sigh of contentment. Lanling had good alcohol, all things considered. But he missed Qinghe. He’d been gone more often than he’d been home for the past year.
“Unless it’s self-defense,” Jin Guangyao added, proving that he was perhaps not quite as drunk as Nie Huaisang had thought.
“That’s fair,” Nie Huaisang said. “But why do you need to defend yourself when you have er-ge?”
Jin Guangyao smiled at the ceiling. “He’s so handsome, Huaisang. So kind and strong. I wanna marry him. Do you think he’d marry me?”
“Honestly?” Nie Huaisang filled his bowl. “In a heartbeat.”
“Oh, good,” Jin Guangyao said. “Next time I see him, I’m gonna kiss him right on his beautiful mouth.”
Nie Huaisang laughed so hard he spilled his drink.
~ ~ ~ ~
“Have you been practicing with your saber?” Nie Mingjue barked out as soon as Nie Huaisang entered The Unclean Realm.
“Geez, da-ge!” Nie Huaisang shrank back. “I’ve been busy with other things! Don’t yell at me when I’ve just gotten home . . .”
Nie Mingjue’s eyes narrowed and his gaze fell on the cage that Nie Huaisang was carrying. “And what is that?”
Nie Huaisang straightened up and said proudly, “A snow crane!”
The two brothers looked at each other for a long minute.
Nie Mingjue smiled first, and reached out to clap a hand on Nie Huaisang’s shoulder. “It’s good to have you home, Huaisang.”
Nie Huaisang beamed. “It’s good to be back.”