Nie Huaisang liked to braid his brother’s hair.
Proper Nie braids, the way it should be, no matter where they were or what happened to them – it’s very calming to him, and he liked to think his brother enjoyed it, too. He’d certainly fought hard enough for the privilege.
Wen Ruohan wasn’t very big on privileges, though he made certain exceptions for Nie Mingjue. Outside of formal events, which were an exercise in control and humiliation, Nie Huaisang’s brother could dress as he liked, provided he stayed within the boundaries of the Wen sect colors of white and red; the remaining details were left to his own discretion.
Since then, Nie Mingjue mostly wore white.
Not pretty white with embroidery, the way the Lan sect did, and definitely nothing with the red sun; just sheer unrelieved white.
Nie Huaisang wasn’t sure if it was meant to mourn their father, who’d died so long ago now – Nie Huaisang was too young to remember much about him – or if Nie Mingjue was merely mourning everything that had happened since then. The loss of their sect, of their identities, of…
Nie Huaisang’s hands slowed, and then paused.
After a moment, Nie Mingjue stirred. “Huaisang? Is something the matter?”
“Would it be easier,” Nie Huaisang said, “if you were married?”
He could feel the way Nie Mingjue’s shoulders tensed under his hands.
“I’m not going to marry Wen Ruohan,” his brother said after a moment, his voice harsh. “He killed our father, stole our birthright, and imprisoned us here. I’m not going to marry him.”
“Wen Chao said that he’d probably make you Madame Wen, if you agreed,” Nie Huaisang said. “You wouldn’t have to kill people for him, if you agreed.”
Nie Mingjue was the Wen sect’s saber. He trained the Wen cultivators and led them in battle; wherever Wen Ruohan pointed, he went, and where he went, people rarely survived. That was the deal Nie Mingjue had struck, years ago, when the Wen sect had invaded Qinghe the very day after their father was murdered – a premeditated two-pronged attack, designed to eliminate all obstacles.
Nie Huaisang didn’t remember much from that day. They had been weak, defenseless, vulnerable – the food at dinner had been poisoned, spies from within turning on them. He himself had been one of the most sick, unable to stop himself from constantly vomiting, his veins turning blue as the poison spread through his young body; without the antidote, he would have died that day.
After all, it hadn’t been him Wen Ruohan had come for.
Their father had been right, it seemed, to have gone to such lengths to hide the fact that his eldest son was a misaligned reincarnation, a man’s soul born into a body that didn’t match. It had been a tricky situation: if Nie Mingjue had been a woman, Qinghe Nie would have honored their word to make a marriage alliance with Qishan Wen, direct heir to direct heir, and if he’d been a man born into a man’s body, there would have been no question of any marriage alliance at all.
But Nie Mingjue was neither, and Qishan Wen didn’t recognize misaligned reincarnations.
Their father had decided to live up to his principles: his son was his son, not his daughter, and therefore the marriage agreement was inapplicable. He could always marry off another daughter, if he had one.
They’d kept it a secret for over a decade – but in the end, Wen Ruohan found out. He felt that he’d been cheated, and he was determined to take what he believed he was owed.
Wen Chao had once told Nie Huaisang that the original plan had been to marry Nie Mingjue to Wen Xu. Nie Mingjue would have the position of first wife, as a sop to Qinghe Nie’s honor, but that was all, and never mind how everyone know how badly Wen Xu treated his women, concubine or official wife alike.
That plan had been ruined when Nie Mingjue, sick with poison and grief and far too young, had nevertheless found the strength to lift up his saber and attack Wen Xu in the entranceway to the Unclean Realm – not only to attack, but to defeat; not only to defeat, but to permanently cripple.
He’d been only moments away from claiming Wen Xu’s head when Wen Ruohan had finally condescended to come to his son’s defense.
That fight hadn’t gone nearly as well.
(The only thing Nie Huaisang remembered from that day was this:
Wen Ruohan standing there with his foot on Nie Mingjue’s chest, pressing him down into the floor with a smile as he said, “You’re very talented. I’ll do you the honor of taking you as my own bride, instead.”
“I’d rather die first,” Nie Mingjue had spat back.
“I’m sure you would, stubborn Nie that you are,” Wen Ruohan had said agreeably, and removed a jar from his waist; it had been the antidote. “But how about your brother? Your sect disciples? Would you rather they died first, too?”)
In the end they’d struck their deal. The Nie sect disciples was not put to death by poison and sword, as originally intended, but was instead absorbed into Qishan Nie’s forces, and Nie Mingjue was not forced to marry as long as he served Wen Ruohan as his weapon.
“I gave up on having principles when I burned the Cloud Recesses,” Nie Mingjue said, his voice flat. “It doesn’t bother me any longer.”
That was a lie, and they both knew it. Nie Mingjue might have traded away his principles for the lives of his family, of his sect, but he’d never given them up, not really – or else the Cloud Recesses wouldn’t have had so much time to empty out their Library Pavilion before it was put to the flame.
(Wen Chao said that Nie Mingjue had been friends with Lan Xichen, once. Sending him to do the job was meant to hurt.)
“And anyway, haven’t I told you to stop talking with Wen Chao?” Nie Mingjue added, and Nie Huaisang can see in the mirror the way his brother’s lips twist in anger. “He always tells you bad things.”
That was true, and Nie Huaisang acknowledged it. Still, Wen Chao wasn’t that bad – he had been, before, when he was still the spoiled oversexed princeling who didn’t think anyone on earth had the right to tell him no, but Nie Mingjue had beaten him black and blue over his womanizing enough times that he’d finally started to shape up in sheer self-defense.
Realizing that his father had lost interest in rescuing him had had quite an impact.
And anyway, it wasn’t like Nie Huaisang had many other friends here, especially not ones that were as useless as he was.
There was Wen Ning, who was nice, but he was an excellent archer and his sister had made him a decent doctor’s assistant, probably so that he’d have a reason not to be stuck in the Sun Palace; he was away more often than not, and Nie Huaisang couldn’t hold it against him.
There was Meng Yao, officially serving as his brother’s deputy; he was slippery as a snake, working his way into Wen Ruohan’s favor through all sorts of horrific inventions of torture, but he was efficient and useful enough to almost make up for it. Nie Huaisang knew better than to fall for his gentle smiles.
Who was there beyond that?
Wen Xu was a raving madman, having never recovered from his defeat at Nie Mingjue’s hands, and the only other person of sufficient rank to speak with Wen Ruohan’s wards was Wen Zhuliu – and Nie Huaisang didn’t like Wen Zhuliu.
Nobody did, except maybe Wen Ruohan.
“Without him telling me things, I wouldn’t know them,” Nie Huaisang said. “Like the fact that serving as Wen Ruohan’s executioner doesn’t excuse you from having to serve him in bed.”
The arms of the chair broke under the strength of Nie Mingjue’s fists, but Nie Huaisang’s hands were still in his hair, and they were unmoved. His brother would never take any action that could hurt a single hair on his head, no matter how angry he was, and they both knew it.
“He told you that?” Nie Mingjue said through gritted teeth.
“He did,” Nie Huaisang said. “You lied to me, da-ge. Maybe only through omission, but…you lied. You let me think that being his weapon would be enough for him.”
“Nothing is ever enough for him,” Nie Mingjue said. “The Cloud Recesses was burned, the Lotus Pier was split open like a rotted peach, Koi Tower is all but suing for terms of surrender – and none of it is enough.”
Nie Huaisang knew.
Oh, how he knew.
He started braiding his brother’s hair again.
They sat there in silence, surrounded by the wood splinters that had once been part of Nie Mingjue’s chair, and there was no sound by the soft whisper of heavy hair being moved, the quiet clink of metal as Nie Huaisang wove in the simple decorations his brother favored.
“Do you want me to marry him?” Nie Mingjue asked after some time had passed. He sounded tired. “You and your clever plans – would it help if I knelt before the entire world and bowed to the Heavens and the Earth with him? If I profaned our father’s spilled blood by letting his murderer greet him as father-in-law?”
“I’m not saying that,” Nie Huaisang said neutrally.
“But it would help. In – whatever it is.”
Nie Huaisang has hated Wen Ruohan for as long as Nie Mingjue had. Wen Ruohan never paid much attention to him except as Nie Mingjue’s weakness, and even less after he’d discovered that Nie Huaisang had a weak natural talent and a disposition to be lazy and useless no matter what punishments it brought down on his brother’s head.
What was the point in paying serious attention to someone like that?
After all, how much damage could some useless person who could barely cultivate really do? The only thing he’d ever done that was remotely interesting was setting up a thriving business in erotic art – yes, it was a surprise that it was so successful, with customers in Yunmeng, in Gusu, in Lanling, in dozens of small sects across the cultivation world, yes, but…really. What a tawdry business, and all of it for no reason other than to bankroll Nie Huaisang’s habit of buying fans – and those came from all over, too.
From Yunmeng, from Gusu, from Lanling, from dozens of small sects.
Nie Huaisang especially liked the ones that Wei Wuxian, currently stationed in Yiling, would put together for him. They were always so very clever.
“He’d want children, if we married,” Nie Mingjue said. His eyes were closed in the mirror, his forehead wrinkled in pain as he seriously considered the idea of selling his body for a plan he had never permitted himself to know the details of. Nie Huaisang had never hated himself more than in this moment. “You know he’s wanted for years to replace his sons; he’s only refrained from demanding it because he knows I’d detonate my own golden core first.”
“They say that Lan Qiren is thinking of holding lectures again,” Nie Huaisang replied, changing the subject – it was true, of course. Wen Ruohan wanted Nie Mingjue to bear him better sons than the failures he had; he wanted him the way he had him during formal events, hair arranged and face painted like a proper lady in a dress to match, and he wanted him like that all the time. “In Hejian, since the Cloud Recesses is still being rebuilt. I never did manage to pass that course, the last time.”
He didn’t say that it would be a good excuse for explaining Nie Mingjue’s change of heart. His brother knew.
Anyone who was listening – and there was always someone listening – would only think that Nie Huaisang was exhorting his brother for his own selfish purposes.
That’s what this had to sound like.
“Besides, a niece or nephew wouldn’t be so bad,” he added, finishing the final braid. “Though I know you’d hate being pregnant, da-ge – they say too much exercise is bad for a child, damaging. You’d have to stop training.”
Stop fighting, he meant. With Wen Xu dead and all the leaders of the army loyal to Nie Mingjue, Wen Ruohan’s army would disappear much faster than the man would expect.
It’d be all for nothing, though, if they couldn’t get someone to drop the Nightless City’s defenses, build up over the past few years with all the treasures Wen Ruohan had looted away from the other sects. That was something no one could do but the master of the city –
Or its mistress.
“I’ll think about it,” Nie Mingjue said, and that was very nearly a yes.
“I’d like to take Wen Ning with me, he’s nice,” Nie Huaisang said. “Wen Qing, too, since he’s so sickly…do you think Wen Chao would like it, if I convinced him there’d been plenty of pretty girls there?”
Wen Chao hadn’t so much as looked at a girl since Nie Mingjue had executed Wang Lingjiao for having disfigured another woman out of jealousy, but bad reputations were hard to get rid of. Still, it was useful, both now and in the future when Wen Chao took the mantle of Sect Leader in Wen Ruohan’s stead.
He’d be terrible at it, of course, but Wen Qing hadn’t wanted the position, even if she agreed to be making most of the decisions behind the scenes; Wen Ning didn’t want anything to do with them at all, his only wish being to move to Yiling to be a mad scientist at the side of his idolized Wei Wuxian.
Meng Yao had been a tricky one to win over, since Nie Huaisang had no intention of letting him become Sect Leader Jin the way Wen Ruohan had implicitly promised him. But Nie Huaisang had found the key in one of his visits to the Cloud Recesses when he’d seen the way the man looked at Lan Xichen with stars in his eyes. After that it had been easy enough to convince Meng Yao that being Madame Lan would be just as prestigious as being Sect Leader Jin, and much more enjoyable besides.
“If you bring Wen Chao along, Wen Zhuliu will go as well,” Nie Mingjue reminded him. “And Lan Qiren has no warm feelings towards him.”
“Who does?” Nie Huaisang asked airily with a shrug.
He’d already promised Wen Zhuliu to the Jiang sect to do with as they pleased – Jiang Cheng and his vicious bitch of a mother both, the two of them seeking revenge for what he’d done to Jiang Fengmian and Wei Wuxian, the latter of which having been officially banished ever since his golden core was melted.
Really, it was all already set up. They would all meet at Hejian, long the Wen sect’s weak spot, and at the right moment Jin Guangshan would die (Meng Yao had volunteered with a grin), Jin Zixuan take his place, and then all four of the remaining Great Sects would rise in simultaneous rebellion against the Wens.
The only part left to be arranged was this.
He’d been desperately trying to figure out a way to deal with the Nightless City’s defenses before Wen Chao had told him the truth about his brother, and even afterwards he’d spent months trying to find another way.
There wasn’t one.
There was only this.
Nie Huaisang was really a bastard, wasn’t he?
He put his hands on his brother’s shoulders and met his eyes in the mirror.
“I really want to go, da-ge,” he said, his voice intentionally childish. “Won’t you help me?”