Nie Mingjue was, probably for the first time in his life, tired of fighting.
He’d fought in secret against the Wen sect for years, thanklessly defending the other sects that had refused to even acknowledge Wen Ruohan’s actions for years on end, and yet it had not prepared him for the brutality that was open warfare, for the difficulty of being the general of the entire Sunshot Campaign, for the burden of knowing that so many lives depended on him and him alone. He’d fought battle after battle, won tremendous victories, and yet the last hope had seemed out of reach – he’d eventually resorted to a desperate stratagem that had gone wrong – he had been tortured, mocked, his men killed – and at the moment of when all seemed lost, he was saved.
Saved…only to realize that it was Meng Yao being credited with it, with being their spy, and Lan Xichen had not told him.
He’d limped back to his camp, but they’d chased after him, and the news of what Meng Yao had done got out – not really a surprise; given the man’s ambitions, if someone else hadn’t spread it he would have done it himself – and in the end, politics had meant that there really hadn’t been much of a choice about swearing sworn brotherhood with the two of them, binding them together in life and death, not unless he wanted to risk another war.
Nie Mingjue very, very much did not want another war.
He had still not fully recovered from his injuries by the time the Jin sect had set up a celebration in the Nightless City, with Jin Guangshan using Nie Mingjue’s refusal to take on any of Wen Ruohan’s ridiculous trappings as an excuse to all but name himself Chief Cultivator in the man’s place. Nie Mingjue knew he should have protested then, but he was tired, his sect in need of rebuilding – they had been the ones bearing the brunt of the war, as they always had, and the only reason they were not the worst off of the Great Sects was because of what the Wens had done to the Cloud Recesses and the Lotus Pier – and he’d never really wanted personal advancement, anyway.
After what had happened with his father, he’d had a lifetime’s worth of being promoted.
Besides, as part and parcel of their self-granted promotion, the Jin sect had promised to take care of the worst of the clean-up, including dealing with the prisoners of war, and that had seemed fine, even a good result. After spending half his life doing things for other people, Nie Mingjue would return home to focus on that which matter most to him, and for once someone else would take the lead in caring for the rest of the world.
It wasn’t like the Jin sect couldn’t afford a few more mouths to feed.
It wasn’t like their coffers were anywhere near empty, or that they needed to rebuild; it wasn’t as though they’d ever stopped trade with Qishan or actually led in a major battle or - he should stop thinking about it before he became angry.
He’d been angry for so long. It would be nice to stop for a while.
Of course, it felt as though he’d barely settled in back at home before he was being summoned for yet another celebration hosted by the Jin sect, this time at Phoenix Mountain. A hunt, no less, and it was so pointedly designed as the sort of thing that the Nie sect favored that it would have been impossible to turn down the invitation. Not to mention, the invitation had oh-so-casually mentioned that Jin Guangyao, his sworn brother, would be the one in charge of setting up the hunt, meaning that any disruption or failure cause damage not only to his own reputation but to Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen’s, for having sworn with him.
Jin Guangshan would either have his day in the sun or a reason to tear everyone else down - a win-win situation for him, lose-lose for everyone else.
Still, there wasn’t anything for it. They had to go, so they went.
Nie Mingjue felt himself drifting back into that disconnected state that had allowed him to survive years of discussion conferences hosted by his father’s murderer. It was a strange sort of state, that allowed him to do the things he had to do to support his sect while feeling as though the world was separated from him by a window through which he watched everything happen. Anything that occurred beyond that window – all sounds and sights and even emotional reactions – was dulled or even muted; he could look Wen Ruohan right in the eye and think to himself of how much he longed to slaughter the man where he stood for his crimes, look at Jiang Fengmian smiling quite sincerely at Wen Ruohan and Lan Qiren bowing to him as if he was a man worthy of respect, as if they weren’t hypocrites that took Wen Ruohan’s money in trade and said apologetically that there wasn’t anything anyone could prove about Nie Mingjue’s father’s death, and yet, no matter how much he hated them all, his body would do nothing.
He would drink tea, and nod, and he would not breach etiquette, he would not bring war down on his sect’s head, he would do nothing.
Sitting in a place of honor at Phoenix Mountain felt much the same: yet another burden to bear, a torment that he could only hope passed quickly.
(It wasn’t healthy, but then again, what was? His entire life was grist for the mill that was his sect’s well-being, shortened by excessive cultivation and stress and endless rage, and knowing it didn’t change anything.)
He saw in the corner of his eye the way his little brother’s eyes flickered to him and then saw him frown – he’d never liked it when Nie Mingjue went quiet and passive, knowing how alien the feeling was to him, knowing through fellow-feeling what it felt like, though perhaps he was wondering why the state had come upon him now again when Wen Ruohan was already dead and gone, even though it had never really just been about Wen Ruohan.
Perhaps because of that fellow-feeling, Nie Huaisang found a conversational interlude that allowed him to slide over a little closer than politeness dictated, casually putting a hand on Nie Mingjue’s arm as if to beg for something. He knew that Nie Mingjue took comfort in the touch, in the reminder that with his saber at his side and his brother within arms’ reach, Nie Mingjue felt as thought he had everything he valued most in this rotten world close enough that he could try to protect it.
And then the Jin sect – using Jin Guangyao as their mouthpiece, though whether it was because of his skillful silver tongue or simply because they didn’t think he was worth anything more than that, only he would know – announced that they would kick off the hunt with some entertainment.
Nie Mingjue lifted his cup of tea to his lips, feeling pained, and his eyes briefly met with Lan Qiren’s across the hall, no longer in the place of the sect leader but slightly behind, his expression making clear that the same thought was on both their minds – anything but the prostitutes again.
(Surely Jin Guangyao had a bit more self-respect than that…?)
When a bunch of people in chains were marched out, Nie Mingjue had only enough presence of mind to be briefly relieved that the presence of mixed genders meant that they were probably not prostitutes – Lanling Jin abided by rules relating to birth gender and sexuality that seemed nearly as strict as the rules they were always criticizing Gusu Lan over, and according to them no one ever switched or was misaligned or deviated at all, which frankly seemed more than a little bizarre and unbelievable – and then uncomfortable because, well, they were in chains. Weren’t they supposed to be done with war?
And then Jin Guangyao started announcing the rules of some sort of ridiculous archery contest that the younger generation would engage in, and for a moment that seemed almost a relief as well – as a sect leader, Nie Mingjue was excluded from the younger generation despite being only a few years older than the rest of them, and of course there was no point in expecting his brother to participate in any competition of martial skill, and so for a moment it seemed as though this could be another part of this torturous endless experience that he could just tune out.
Indeed, that he was obligated to tune out. No matter how idiotic it was, whatever it was, whatever he thought about it (and he wouldn’t like it, he knew he wouldn’t like it, he’d never liked anything Wen Ruohan – no, that was Jin Guangshan, insofar as there was that much of a difference – he’d never liked anything Jin Guangshan had set up in nearly ten years of working together, and odds were good that he wouldn’t like this), Nie Mingjue still had to think first of his sect and the consequences of making a fuss, and that meant he didn’t. He didn’t want a war, and so he had to be polite, restrained, quiet, no matter what he thought.
It wasn’t that hard to simply pull back even further. Nie Mingjue had been suppressing righteousness in favor of etiquette at these horrible conferences for such a long time that it came naturally to him, the way all bad habits did.
Only this time he’d brought Nie Huaisang with him, which he’d always resisted before, and his brother’s hand tightened on his arm to the point of pain.
Nie Mingjue’s first thought, stupidly enough, was to be pleased by the discovery that Nie Huaisang actually had some arm muscle underneath all those prissy frills he favored. His second was concern that Nie Huaisang had suddenly taken ill – with admittedly a bit of hopefulness that perhaps it would be something they could use as an excuse to leave early, as long as it wasn’t that serious – but when he turned to look at him his brother didn’t seem sick.
He seemed – angry?
Not Huaisang, Nie Mingjue thought, heart abruptly seized with an ancient fear. He knew perfectly well what he’d gotten himself into when it came to the saber spirits, had accepted years ago that he would die young, die early, die horribly and alone with nothing but his rage, but that was not going to be Nie Huaisang’s fate, not if he had anything to say about it.
The fear curdled in his chest, and it felt as though a crack appeared on the window that shielded him from all sensation, all pain and desperation forced far away.
No one was talking, other than Jin Guangyao droning on and on about whatever the new entertainment was – Nie Mingjue had stopped paying attention long ago – and so he couldn’t ask Nie Huaisang what was wrong, but he looked at him and furrowed his brow, trying to convey the question silence.
Nie Huaisang caught the glance and understood, and his mouth moved, shaping silent sounds – it’s an execution, they’re going to kill them –
Baxia, lying by his side as she always did during these meetings, shifted a little, her rage nudging against Nie Mingjue’s mind as it always did – sometimes he thought she hated these meetings as much as he did, other times he was sure of it – and the crack in the window got a little wider, let in a little more light and color and sound, and Nie Mingjue found a thread of willpower to force himself to listen to what the entertainment Jin Guangyao was proposing actually was.
He replayed the words in his mind, turned to look at the people in chains – Wen sect, apparently, and though he couldn’t tell on sight whether they were civilians or cultivators, that didn’t matter. Not even criminals were executed like this, by standing at a distance and waiting to die, not even able to hope for an expert aiming to kill quickly and cleanly, but through a misplaced arrow that could strike them anywhere, cause them a lingering and painful death…this was supposed to be a game?
This was meant to be their entertainment?
The window between Nie Mingjue and the world shattered.
And suddenly all he felt was rage.
“What,” Nie Mingjue said, even as Jin Zixuan got up with a set expression on his face to accept a bow from his servant, “are you doing?”
Jin Zixuan paused, looking puzzled – and no surprise, since Nie Mingjue hadn’t said anything beyond the most mundane greetings when he first arrived. “Sect Leader Nie..?”
Nie Mingjue rose to his feet, his brother’s hand falling off of his arm as if he’d shaken him off like a dog. “What are you doing?” he demanded, louder this time. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
“Da-ge –” Jin Guangyao said, an obvious hint, a reminder of their relationship – Nie Mingjue was the one bound by it, the older brother responsible for setting a good example, and for all that Jin Guangyao was supposed to listen to him and follow his lead Nie Mingjue had never seen a hint that he’d ever planned to do so – but Nie Mingjue didn’t listen to him.
He was angry.
It felt good to be angry – a clean anger, a righteous anger, anger at injustice being perpetrated right before his eyes.
(Something so poisonous as rage shouldn’t feel this good.)
“This is an abomination,” he said, a touch of the battlefield in his voice so that it would be audible throughout the hall, would spread far and wide for all to hear. “Those are people you’re putting on the line.”
There was a moment of awkward silence.
Jin Zixun, Jin Guangshan’s nephew, broke it with an abrupt laugh. “Sect Leader Nie,” he said, pretending to smile, “surely you don’t think so little of us to suggest that my cousin would miss –”
“I don’t care even if he does strike true,” Nie Mingjue snapped. “You do not play with the lives of men.”
“Hardly men,” a minor sect leader, closely affiliated with the Jin sect, said. Sect Leader Qin, if Nie Mingjue placed him right. “Perhaps you did not hear, Chifeng-zun –” It was always his title they used when they wanted to avoid calling him sect leader, when they were trying to make a point about how young and angry and foolish they thought he was. “– but those are Wen-dogs.”
“I don’t care who or what they are,” Nie Mingjue shouted, and now he had fallen back into his body, back into the battlefield, because this was a battlefield; it was only that he had allowed himself – through tiredness or shock or a desire for peace – to forget it for a moment. “Is this not a celebration of peace, the end of war? If they are criminals, sentence them; if they are condemned, execute them with a sword. Even a rabid beast deserves to be put down cleanly, not to be used as target practice by children for the entertainment of others!”
There was movement in the crowd, multiple people shifting from one side to the other, the audience abruptly uncomfortable when faced not only with a gory spectacle but their own complicity in it.
“Sect Leader Nie, calm yourself,” Jin Guangshan said. His voice was stern, irritatingly condescending – as if he thought that styling himself as Chief Cultivator gave him the right to act as if he were Nie Mingjue’s father. “You go too far for proper etiquette; will you not give any face to me, as your host? Naturally, if you have a complaint, I will hear it –”
“I don’t recall the moment I yielded to your authority in matters of ethics, Sect Leader Jin,” Nie Mingjue snapped. “Please, feel free to remind me – the last I recall it, you were the one begging me for assistance.”
“Sect Leader Nie!” Jin Guangshan shouted, rising to his feet with his face starting to purple.
Nie Mingjue saw the furious glance he sent at a frantic Jin Guangyao – control him already! – and it makes his own rage surge even higher. It was not that he didn’t know that his sworn brother was being used as leverage against him, but to have it shoved right into his face like that, to think that they thought that etiquette and brotherhood would be sufficient to make him complaisant – to allow Jin Guangyao to run roughshod over his morality – to think that it had nearly worked –
“Sect Leaders, please.” That was Lan Xichen, standing up as well, his hands outstretched. “Is this not meant to be a celebration of peace?”
For a moment, Nie Mingjue thought he was standing up for his sake, supporting him in decrying what was happening in front of them – something he despised as much as Nie Mingjue did, that much was obvious from his stance – but then his eyes flicked from Nie Mingjue to Jin Guangyao as well, silently beseeching Nie Mingjue to remember how his actions could hurt Jin Guangyao’s standing, and Nie Mingjue felt cold.
So much for brotherhood, it seemed. How much was he supposed to bear on behalf of Jin Guangyao without receiving anything in return?
He turned his face away.
If the Nie sect had to make this stand alone, so be it. Even if it meant war, war against the rest of the cultivation world, war that would be ruinous to his sect...
There was no choice. The Nie sect stood for refusing to tolerate evil; to do any less would be to throw off the traditions of his ancestors more wholly than Nie Huaisang’s refusal to train the saber had ever been. Even on a personal level, he had long criticized others who stood quiet when evil was happening, and he would not let himself become the hypocrite that so many others had been.
Nie Mingjue had never before willingly backed away from doing the right thing, the righteous thing, simply because it was hard to do – he would not start now.
“It seems strange that a celebration of peace would begin with death.” That was Jiang Cheng standing up as well, the fourth of the Great Sects. His sister had once been engaged to Jin Zixuan, and she had been invited to the hunt as Madame Jin’s special guest – popular thought had it that the Jin sect would snap her up soon enough, allying with the last remaining sect, and leaving anyone who opposed them to stand alone. But even if that was the plan, it hadn’t happened yet, and Jiang Cheng was putting his voice on Nie Mingjue’s side – Nie Mingjue would have to find a way to repay him for his support later. “Weren’t the Wen sect supposed to be resettled somewhere peaceful? Or was the news I received incorrect?”
“The innocent branch members and civilians were of course resettled,” Jin Guangyao said, and his smile was strained – or was it? Was it actual concern, or some sort of show? Nie Mingjue could never tell with him, not now that he knew how easily the snake changed its skin. “These however are war criminals, sentenced to execution in the manner of our choosing. I hope you all understand: their deaths are in no way comparable to their crimes –”
You would know, having participated in so many of them, Nie Mingjue thought, and levelled a glare at his youngest sworn brother to remind him of that fact. It briefly interrupted the smooth flow of words, making them catch in Jin Guangyao’s throat; at least he had that much shame.
“Can I see?” Nie Huaisang asked in the brief interval, his high voice just as carrying as Nie Mingjue’s shouting – all those music and singing lessons had clearly been worth something.
“See what?” Jin Zixun sneered, stepping forward – and interesting that it was him that did so, while Jin Zixuan, the heir, remained still and silent. His expression was frosty, but he hadn’t yet spoken up in his own father’s defense; hardly filial, but given such a father it was difficult to see what else he could do. “See their crimes? Do you want a list, or for us to drag out their victims to testify? Is this how little your Nie sect thinks of our Jin sect?”
A strong effort on Jin Zixun’s part – it put the burden on them to prove that these were not evildoers and criminals who deserved what was coming to them, made the issue their rudeness and lack of etiquette, made it seem as if they were the ones looking down on everyone.
But for all that Nie Mingjue despaired of Nie Huaisang’s skill at arms, he had never doubted his skill with words.
“You misunderstand me,” Nie Huaisang laughed nervously, hiding his face behind his fan in a gesture of shyness – he made it look as though he were being bullied by Jin Zixun, rather than debating him. “I just meant, well, they’re criminals, right? They must be truly impressive cultivators to fight against the brave soldiers of our Sunshot Campaign…could we see their strength?”
Nie Mingjue knew a cue when he heard one. “Such strength must be considerable to deserve such a fate,” he said scornfully. “Even Wen Ruohan, who killed hundreds, was merely cut down, rather than tormented in the same manner he tortured so many of our cultivators…Or do you think to emulate him in this manner as well?”
“How dare you?!” Jin Guangshan was florid with rage – as if rage would ever stop a Nie. “You come to my home and accuse me with no basis –”
“I do accuse you!” Nie Mingjue shouted, letting his voice trample down Jin Guangshan’s. “But by your own acts you are condemned, by your own callousness and indifference. So much Nie blood was shed to stop Wen Ruohan from running rampant over us all – I would die rather than have spent that blood to buy us nothing more than the same dominion in a different color!”
And then everyone was talking at once, shouting, yelling, and Nie Mingjue took the opportunity to turn on his heel and stride over to Lan Xichen, standing there looking lost. Lan Wangji was beside him, only a step behind, and he caught Nie Mingjue’s eyes as he came over and nodded – he, at least, was with Nie Mingjue in this, and his support gave Nie Mingjue more confidence in what he was about to do. What he had to do.
“Will you abide by your Lan sect’s values and stand with me in this?” he asked Lan Xichen in a low, clipped tone. “Or was my oath of brotherhood only worth the benefits it could get for Meng Yao?”
“Da-ge!” Lan Xichen exclaimed, looking horrified. “Don’t think that, please. Of course I stand with you in this – what they were planning for the Wen sect members goes beyond bad taste and into the horrific.”
He hadn’t meant it the way Nie Mingjue had taken it, then. It must have only been Jin Guangyao’s pleading looks that had led him to take a stand the wrong way, seeking peace and friendship over justice.
“One should not look away from righteousness simply because it would be easier,” Lan Wangji added smoothly, sounding almost as though he were agreeing with his brother and not subtly scolding him. He saluted Nie Mingjue. “You have our full support, regardless of who is on the other side.”
Nie Mingjue continued to look at Lan Xichen who hesitated – no doubt thinking of the tough position they’d just put Jin Guangyao into – but in the end he nodded.
That was fine. Okay, no, it wasn’t fine, but right now he needed Lan Xichen’s support, regardless of his level of enthusiasm; the rest could be dealt with later.
He turned again and went to Jiang Cheng – Wei Wuxian was there as well, having appeared at some point, and he was vociferously yelling at some minor sect leaders. In Nie Mingjue’s favor, at least.
“Sect Leader Nie,” Wei Wuxian said, turning to him before Nie Mingjue could say anything to Jiang Cheng – not that he really need to confirm his support, given the public display from earlier, but it was only polite to come convey his thanks. “There’s something else you should know. I’ve heard some things about the innocent members Wen sect that were supposedly ‘resettled’ – and what’s been happening to them…”
Nie Mingjue glanced at Jin Guangshan, still shouting, and did a quick calculation. “Take Lan Wangji and go check it out at once,” he ordered. “They were supposed to be resettled by the Qiongqi Path. If Sect Leader Jin has been treating these ones so cruelly as this…I’m willing to believe anything right now. But whatever it is, make sure it’s both of you that see it with your own eyes, to make it harder to doubt your words.”
Wei Wuxian saluted him and headed towards Lan Wangji without even seeking approval from his sect leader. Nie Mingjue abruptly felt awkward and looked at Jiang Cheng, but the other man nodded his agreement before he could apologize for commandeering Wei Wuxian as if the other man was still his subordinate.
“At least he listens to you,” Jiang Cheng said, a rueful smile on this face. “Can I convince you to talk some sense into him when all this is done..? I must admit I wasn’t expecting another war so soon.”
“I had hoped we wouldn’t see one for another generation,” Nie Mingjue admitted. “I still hope we can avoid it – it depends on how the smaller sects fall out, and how determined the Jin sect is to dominate the rest, rather than willing to accept equality. But no matter how it goes, we can’t turn our faces away from injustice.”
“Agreed,” Jiang Cheng said with a sigh. “I think we have the better of the argument, and hopefully it sways the rest of them. But have you considered what happens if we win?”
“What do you mean?”
“Sect Leader Jin has been setting himself up as Chief Cultivator. After something like this, even if there’s no actual fighting, that’ll be impossible. You need respect to lead. So who will it be?”
Nie Mingjue experienced a brief moment of horror at the thought of having to take it himself – but no. It was a reasonable solution, of course, but it would also taint the whole thing. It would make his decision to stand up into a tawdry political play, designed to increase his power, rather than a genuine outburst of offended principle.
He might have proposed Lan Xichen as a compromise – he would have, even a shichen earlier. But after that display of weakness from earlier, however brief, he feared that it would somehow end up with Jin Guangyao (and Jin Guangshan behind him) pulling the strings from behind the scenes, using Lan virtue as a cover for their iniquity…no, that wouldn’t do at all.
The only other option was –
Nie Mingjue had thought to himself that he needed to do something to pay Jiang Cheng back for his support earlier, hadn’t he?
(And at worst, he’d owe him yet another favor.)
Nie Mingjue put his hand on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “You have my full support,” he said solemnly, and ignored the sudden look of panic on Jiang Cheng’s face. “Think it over before you say no.”
Being Chief Cultivator would do more to restore the Jiang sect to prosperity than anything else Jiang Cheng might do, and he’d put that together himself sooner or later even if the idea of that much responsibility had to be fairly terrible. But before they could decide things like that, they needed to win.
One more fight.
He could do that much.