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Better Things to Do with a Flute in Wartime

Chapter Text

It started because they nearly lost the battle at Nanyang.

Earlier in the war, all their forces were split, fighting on multiple fronts. Nie Mingjue kept the core of the army with him, while Lan Xichen focused on the south. The Jiang, initially too wounded to be of much direct help, had taken on hit-and-run tactics in the west as Jiang Wanyin dragged his sect back from the brink, which had abruptly shifted into pitched battles after his missing sect brother had shown up with the ability to create corpse armies from half-dead battlegrounds. Initially disadvantaged by how many of the Jiang couldn’t fly—Jiang Wanyin had been doing his best, but his new recruits were still closer to ordinary soldiers than proper cultivators—they had become a third front overnight. Fierce corpses might not be able to fly either, but ghosts could, and from all reports no one wanted to be caught in the air when Wei Wuxian decided to whistle up some of those.

Reports also said that Wei Wuxian had become dangerously arrogant and unstable, refusing to carry his sword and running around with corpses even outside of battle. Mingjue took those with a grain of salt, keeping in mind what people might think about the Nie methods of cultivation, but he did keep them in mind. In the run-up to taking Yingchuan, as all their armies piled into Henan province and the battles became more pitched, he got the chance to observe it for himself, if only occasionally. Wei Wuxian skipped most meetings and actively avoided staying in camp, but his and Lan Wangji’s arguments could be heard from several li away. On the battlefield, however, Wei Wuxian was devastation wrapped in a cold tide of resentful energy, so Mingjue left well enough alone. He was Jiang Wanyin’s subordinate, and Mingjue knew better than to meddle in the affairs of other sects unnecessarily. Jiang Wanyin, young and bloodied as he was, would surely be even more unappreciative of interference than most.

But that was before Nanyang. The terrain was more complicated than most, spread out over two valleys, but nonetheless it started no differently than many battles. The Wen had the numerical advantage, as they almost always did, which Mingjue no longer worried about as much, since as soon as there’d been enough killing Wei Wuxian would stop relying on the corpses he already had and start raising new ones, and at that point the tide of battle tended to reverse dramatically. But at Nanyang the Wen brought up more reserves than their plans had accounted for—more reserves to an astonishing degree: there had been informational sabotage, somewhere. They were coming up from the south, which meant that Mingjue needed to urgently pull forces down from the northern valley. He ordered signals and sent fliers, but then he was in the thick of it himself, head hazed with bloodlust, for what felt like a full shi. They fell back—and fell back again, chased northward as only a few columns of relief troops appeared, far too few. Garbled reports reached him with news that the battle in the northern valley was going unexpectedly ill. Had more Wen troops appeared there as well? No—something had happened with Wei Wuxian’s corpse army, their forces were being overrun—

Their fortunes changed back just as quickly as they’d gone ill. There was the screaming of crows and the high shriek of a flute, the temperatures plunged abruptly into sub-freezing, and suddenly there were corpses rising amidst the enemy’s front line, throwing it into chaos. The main Wen force broke off, and both sides retreated to fight again another day.

Back in camp, the question of what had gone wrong didn’t become any clearer. Rumours were flying thick and fast. Wei Wuxian had lost control of his corpse army—he’d been shot by a lucky Wen soldier and was grievously injured—he’d turned on his brother and murdered his own shidis—the Wen had figured out his wicked tricks and stolen his corpses away from him—Lan Wangji had finally slain him for his evil sorcery—what had really happened was left entirely unclear. What was clear was that the minor sects that had been fighting in the northern valley were hysterical, Wei Wuxian was nowhere to be found, Jiang Wanyin was bristling like a rabid porcupine, and the Jiang contingent had closed ranks around its young leader.

Mingjue always had a headache after battles, and this situation wasn’t helping. But it was rumours and gossip, and fortunately, he knew somebody who was very good at sorting out rumours and gossip. He set Huaisang on the matter.

“Ah, da-ge, you are not going to like hearing this one,” Huaisang said, over a very early breakfast the next morning. Mingjue was fairly certain Huaisang hadn’t actually slept, but since he hadn’t had to fight all day yesterday and also smelled strongly of wine, Mingjue refused to feel bad about that.

“It can’t be as bad as Sect Leader Yao was making it sound,” grunted Mingjue. Sect Leader Yao had been convinced that Wei Wuxian had decided to defect to the Wens. How he managed to reconcile that with the fact that Wei Wuxian had shown up again to end the battle in the southern valley, Mingjue didn’t know, because he tried to tune out Sect Leader Yao as much as possible. Actually hearing Yao’s words did bad things to his blood pressure.

“Yao’s an idiot,” Huaisang said, with the kind of decisiveness that he usually reserved for his thoughts on clothing and fans. “No, but he accidentally stabbed one of his shidis with his flute.”

Mingjue blinked at that. War was war, and when blood was high, accidentally mistaking friend from foe was certainly possible. But.

“With his flute.”

“Mmhmm. Jiang-xiong had sent one of his runners, Gao Lei—Wei-xiong’s always off by himself, a bit apart, you know—anyway, it seems that the runner startled him from behind, and Wei-xiong, well, he didn’t have his sword. So he stabbed him with his Chenqing. All the way through, how awful!

“It really was an accident, though—Wei-xiong was so horrified, he refused to pull the flute out, because of course that probably would have killed Gao Lei. Only... without Chenqing, the corpses... apparently he controlled them with whistling. So he could make sure they didn’t attack anyone, but, that meant they didn’t attack the Wens, either.” Huaisang flicked his fan open and closed: what can you do, eh? “Jiang-xiong sent over more runners when it became apparent that something had happened, and they tried to sort it out, but they had to get the kid to a medic before Wei-xiong would retrieve his flute, or even let go of it. He said if he did let go then it’d poison the poor kid, but you know how Wei-xiong refuses to let anyone fly him anywhere, so they had to get a medic out to the field instead... ah, what a mess. Gao Lei’s expected to live, but not to make a full recovery.”

Mingjue grunted. “He’s lucky Wei Wuxian didn’t have a corpse rip his throat out.”

“Wei-xiong prides himself on keeping a very tight lock on his corpses,” Huaisang pointed out.

It was true. He did, at length and volume. Mingjue couldn’t even blame him for that, not when everyone and their brother was giving him the side-eye; and if he hadn’t had such absolute control over them, Mingjue wouldn’t have kept ordering the living onto the battlefield anywhere in their proximity. And apparently that control held even when he’d been startled badly enough to stab somebody with his flute—with his flute, what the fuck.

Mingjue had been assuming that the reason Wei Wuxian wasn’t carrying his sword anymore was arrogance. Hadn’t Wei Wuxian openly claimed as much, that he had no need for a sword when he could command armies with a song? But now that boast rang hollow. Reflexively stabbing someone in the middle of battle was one thing; doing so with a flute, something definitely not designed for stabbing, was something else. The level of force that would require would have been complete overkill with a bladed weapon. Wei Wuxian was reputedly an excellent swordsman, or had been, before he’d started leaving his sword everywhere except at his side. For him to use that much force, he must have truly panicked.

Was the arrogance real? Perhaps Wei Wuxian’s boasts were more directed at himself than anyone else. Was he refusing to carry his sword because he felt he shouldn’t need it? Because he was afraid he’d stab somebody with it? If that last was the reason, it was a poor one. Using a blade would probably have been less damaging than shoving a blunt object through somebody, let alone a blunt object that was a powerful spiritual tool saturated in resentful energy.

If not for Huaisang’s account of events afterwards, Mingjue would have suspected it was not an accident at all. But if Wei Wuxian had left the battle to save the unfortunate runner’s life, then it couldn’t have been aimed at the runner. And whatever Sect Leader Yao thought, everyone with any sense knew that Wei Wuxian would rather set himself on fire than assist the Wens. No, it must have been an accident.

Unfortunate, that. Mingjue had been trying to avoid leaning too hard on Jiang Wanyin—he knew how hard it was to be a sect leader so young, but at least Mingjue had had a sect; he hadn’t been rebuilding the Nie from the ashes while fighting a war against their destroyers. But Wei Wuxian was Jiang Wanyin’s disciple, and as much as nearly everyone disliked it, Wei Wuxian was critical to the war. They couldn’t afford more accidents like this one.

Mingjue knew better than to meddle in the affairs of other sects unnecessarily, but he also knew when it was necessary.





Talking to Jiang Wanyin didn’t go so well.

“Please accept the Jiang sect’s deepest and sincerest apologies,” said Jiang Wanyin, bowing precisely to the angle that was due another sect leader and no deeper. “It will not happen again.”

“How do you plan to ensure that, Jiang-zongzhu?” Mingjue asked skeptically.

Jiang Wanyin frowned even harder, which Mingjue hadn’t been sure was physically possible. “Wei Wuxian will be punished appropriately.”

Appropriately? “He stabbed one of your disciples with a flute.”

“As I said, Nie-zongzhu,” Jiang Wanyin bit out.

“You have appropriate punishments set for flute-stabbing?”

“There are appropriate punishments for dereliction of duty.”

Punishments only worked if the person would keep them in mind. The Wei Wuxian that Huaisang had described to Mingjue after their days together at the Cloud Recesses hadn’t given a fig for punishments, one way or another. The Wei Wuxian who had killed Wen Ruohan’s second son and could raise undead armies might, but stabbing somebody with a flute wasn’t a situation that sounded like it involved any rational thought. Unless Jiang Wanyin intended to get creative in a way that Mingjue rather thought—or, perhaps, hoped—he wouldn’t, not towards a member of his own sect...

“Why does he not carry his sword anymore?”

He could practically hear Jiang Wanyin’s teeth grinding. “With respect. Nie-zongzhu. That is an internal matter of the Jiang.”

Uh-huh. And so were the current whereabouts of Wei Wuxian, first disciple of the Jiang. Which Jiang Wanyin, according to Huaisang’s most recent gossip, still didn’t know; nobody knew. Never mind that Wei Wuxian was also effectively about a quarter of the entire damn army.

Still, if he pushed any harder, Jiang Wanyin was going to start leaking smoke from his ears, and without Wei Wuxian here to answer the questions that Jiang Wanyin clearly couldn’t, there wasn’t anything else to do. Behind all that rage, Jiang Wanyin looked just as lost as Huaisang had, after the Unclean Realm had fallen, before Mingjue had taken it back.





The major advantage of having Huaisang with the army, instead of managing logistics well behind the front-lines—no matter how much it sometimes made Mingjue’s heart skip a beat, when he thought of how close some of their recent battles had been—was that he had full access to Huaisang’s network of gossips. Even the Jiang closing ranks couldn’t avoid all of Huaisang’s little birds. When Wei Wuxian returned at two in the morning, Mingjue heard about it by breakfast the next day.

In retrospect, though, he should have told Huaisang to wake him up for it.

He wasn’t sure how Lan Wangji had heard about it, given how much Xichen’s brother didn’t gossip, but apparently he had, and they’d had a screaming—well, shouting, and only on Wei Wuxian’s part—row about it on a rooftop. Which, of course, meant that Jiang Wanyin had heard, and dragged Wei Wuxian into the Jiang wing of their current headquarters, presumably to ream him out. From the thunderous face he had afterwards, Huaisang reported, it hadn’t gone well for him.

“It’s hard to fight your older brother,” Huaisang said ruefully, flicking his fan across his face, which was such absolute bullshit. Huaisang fought him all the time, tooth and nail. If he hadn’t, Mingjue would have made him into a passable swordsman long since, damn it.

Mingjue could take a hint, though. Older brother? Mingjue would show Wei Wuxian older brother. And not set a torch to the Nie sect’s alliance with the Jiang, he hoped.





The temporary headquarters they’d set up for the Henan push were in an old fortress outside one of the civilian cities. A blessing: the weather had been shitty lately and Mingjue had gotten tired of sleeping in tents within the first month of the war. The Jiang inner disciples had their own wing, but the guards were all on the outside, and in the mid-morning while they were all being yelled through drills by their young sect leader it was easy to make his way unnoticed through their halls.

Wei Wuxian, of course, infamously didn’t bother attending sword drills anymore, and Huaisang had reported that Mingjue would be able to find him in his room. Huaisang hadn’t said anything about Mingjue being able to enter the room, though, he reflected ruefully.

He knocked again, a third time. There wasn’t any response, just as there hadn’t been any before. If Huaisang had not assured him that Wei Wuxian was here...

Again, he held out his hand over the crack in the door, feeling the energy gathered there: resentful and seething. It was a tricky ward for living quarters, never mind temporary ones. Wards on rooms where people routinely came and went were, Mingjue knew, quite difficult; and as it was temporary, it wouldn’t even benefit from a barrier threshold. He certainly wouldn’t have been able to set up a ward this strong.

“Wei Wuxian, if you don’t open this door, I’m going to open it for you,” he said flatly to the door. The sheer discourtesy of what he was doing itched at his skin like a mark of shame. It was far from the worst thing he’d done so far in the course of this war.

When there was still no answer, Mingjue unsheathed Baxia, wedged her tip into the crack, and with a mental shrug, let her loose.

Swinging the sabre wasn’t required: the resentment coiled within her was mobile all on its own, and it ripped into the barrier just as fully as if he’d swung her down with an overhead blow. Dark wisps of energy shot apart, and the doors slammed open. Mingjue patted her once in recognition and swung her onto his back before she could get any ideas about an encore.

Or before Wei Wuxian could get any ideas about what he was there for. Inside the room, the young man had leapt to his feet, flute raised, dark energy smoking off of it and a talisman ready in his other hand. Mingjue held up his own hands, a peace-gesture. “I did warn you.”

“Chifeng-zun,” said Wei Wuxian, a little blankly.

Mingjue gave him a once-over with a critical eye. He was in no fit state to be receiving visitors. If he were to say he’d spent the previous day hiding up a tree and then not bathed afterwards, Mingjue would not be surprised. His hair was dishevelled, his dark robes were stained—had he not changed at all since the battle?—and his eyes looked like sunken pits.

The room was in even worse state. There were ink-stained papers strewn everywhere. Dozens, if not hundreds, of talismans hung on strings from the ceiling, surrounding the bed and the table, and placed apparently randomly elsewhere, too. They’d been plastered to the walls. They were—Mingjue eyed one and grimaced—all of a much darker red, dried to brown, than was produced with cinnabar ink. No wonder the whole room smelled of blood.

No wonder Wei Wuxian refused to let anyone into his rooms. If anyone had been in here, the flute-stabbing wouldn’t have come as a surprise.

“Do you mind if I come in?” asked Mingjue, with strained patience. He was being polite. He was also standing in the doorway, so Wei Wuxian was going to have to either shove him backward or invite him in if he really wanted the door closed, which Mingjue bet he did.

Wei Wuxian looked past him, into the hall, then back at him. There was something hunted in his expression, but it wiped away a moment later into cold arrogance as he took a few sauntering steps backwards and over to his table. “I suppose you might as well. Tea, Chifeng-zun?”

Mingjue took a couple steps in and then closed the doors again. As his back was turned, he felt energy brush by him and flinched aside—but it had been aimed at the door, a glowing talisman that stuck to the wood. Belatedly, he recognized the radicals for silence, although it didn’t look much like any of the standard talismans.

“Silencing?” he asked, turning to see Wei Wuxian smirking at him. He’d knelt back down at his table and was twirling his flute in one hand.

“I like my privacy.”

Mingjue grunted. “Does it work better than the standard version? We need something better to proof war meetings against eavesdroppers.”

Wei Wuxian blinked, apparently thrown by that. “Uh... yeah, it does. I have a couple variations.”

“Good. Bring them to the next meeting.” Which was an implicit order to show up to the next meeting, but Wei Wuxian was still looking at him oddly, rather than bristling the way he usually did, whenever anyone who wasn’t Jiang Wanyin tried to challenge him on anything.

Mingjue took his own seat at the table, tilting Baxia’s sheathe so that she wouldn’t hit the floor. “Tea?”

Wei Wuxian looked blank, and then grinned. It wasn’t quite the same smirk as before, but it was in the same style. “Ah. Forgive this lowly one’s terrible hospitality, Chifeng-zun, but I’m not actually sure I have any. Wine?”

He scrambled up before Mingjue could agree, going over to pick up a jug that was set by the messy sleeping pallet. There were several other jugs, there, too—some tipped over, obviously empty. Mingjue was hardly opposed to drinking, but given Wei Wuxian’s general... everything, he wasn’t sure more wine—it was assuredly more wine—was going to help. He didn’t think saying that would help either, though, so he let Wei Wuxian grab the jug and cups, politely ignored the way his host had to check if the cups were clean, and waited patiently as Wei Wuxian poured for them both.

It was terrible wine, but that was war for you.

“What brings Chifeng-zun to this one’s door?” Wei Wuxian asked, when they’d both drunk.

Direct. Mingjue could appreciate that. He reached into the pouch tucked up his sleeve and pulled out the pair of daggers he’d stashed there. Wei Wuxian’s hand went to Chenqing—wow, he was not subtle—but Mingjue ignored that too and set them down on the table, closer to Wei Wuxian’s side than his own.

“Um,” said Wei Wuxian.

“You trained with the Meishan Yu, didn’t you?” It was an educated guess. Like the Nie, the Yu didn’t cultivate with traditional swords. Unlike the Nie, they went smaller, rather than broader, sticking with knives that could be hidden up sleeves even without a qiankun pouch. That, or some of them specialized in fans. Mingjue had contemplated asking to send Huaisang to them, once, but relations between the Nie and the Yu had been frosty for generations, and it had seemed safer to send him to the Cloud Recesses, even if it hadn’t improved his sword-work at all in the end.

The Jiang, on the other hand, had had very good relations with the Meishan Yu. At this very moment, Yu-zongzhu was sheltering her granddaughter in their ancient mountain fortress. It wasn’t guaranteed that Yu-furen would have sent their first disciple there for training, but Wei Wuxian had been raised alongside Jiang Wanyin, was set to be his right-hand-man from childhood. It made sense. Wei Wuxian would know how to use a knife.

“I did,” Wei Wuxian assented, still wary.

“Then you should carry a knife.”

Wei Wuxian frowned at him.

“You stabbed your shidi with your flute.”

“A mistake I regret and will not repeat,” Wei Wuxian said tightly.

“Oh? So confident you can ensure that?”

“Do you think I’m a liar?”

“How do you plan to ensure you won’t be?”

“By taking more care. By ensuring that my own guard sticks... closer.” Wei Wuxian gave another one of those challenging smirks.

Did he think that Mingjue would take him to task for that? He knew what comprised Wei Wuxian’s ‘guard’: ghouls and spirits. Everyone knew that, since Wei Wuxian often had them with him outside of battle as well, and Mingjue had been happy to leave that headache up to Jiang Wanyin until now. But in the middle of battle it made sense: Wei Wuxian had to have some kind of guard, when he was busy playing the flute in the middle of a war. If he got hit with an arrow then there went a good chunk of their army. Mingjue didn’t disapprove of sensible precautions. Those precautions were, objectively, disgusting, but no more so than any of the rest of Wei Wuxian’s new cultivation.

But it wasn’t any kind of solution to and what if somebody taps you on the shoulder. Any messages would be delivered by the living.

“If you stab somebody with a knife it’ll hurt, but it won’t spiritually cripple them the way shoving your ghost flute through their torso will. Did. And you won’t have to either pull it out and kill your shidi, or abandon the battle to get them medical attention and get a lot more of your shidis and shimeis killed.” He reached into his sleeve again, pulling out a stack of papers that he set down on the table with a thump. “Has Jiang-zongzhu showed you the casualty reports from two days ago? Go on, look.”

Wei Wuxian swallowed, paling. He’d been pale to begin with—washed out, anemic-looking. Actually, he might well be anemic, if the number of talismans strewn around the room was any indication. Cinnabar ink was used by cultivators for a reason: it just wasn’t practical to go around bleeding all the time, even with the accelerated healing a golden core provided. The mild toxicity of cinnabar was much easier to shrug off. If Wei Wuxian was making this many talismans from his own blood on a regular basis...

Hm.

Making talismans out of your own blood was something civilians did, non-cultivators, the very weak or very untalented who couldn’t properly infuse spiritual energy into the ink.

Wei Wuxian wouldn’t carry his sword, made talismans out of his own blood, and surrounded himself with layers upon layers of protective wards in his own rooms—which he hid, from everyone. That was, perhaps, the most damning piece of information: that he didn’t want anyone to know.

Mingjue had wondered before, but Wei Wuxian did have excellent control over his corpses. And he was handling resentful energy at such volume that if he’d been doing it the Nie way, he’d have gone into qi deviation months ago. Since he hadn’t, Mingjue had figured that it was somehow different: that maybe the resentful energy of humans was fundamentally not the same as the resentful energy of beasts.

He’d been reluctant to examine the implications of that. He’d turned his face away.

But maybe Wei Wuxian hadn’t managed to conjure himself a complete miracle. Was that what all his arrogance was hiding?

Time for a stab in the dark. “Wei Wuxian,” said Mingjue, “just how damaged is your spiritual energy?”

In an instant, Wei Wuxian’s expression had shifted to one of cold disdain. It was the same look he gave everyone who challenged him for not carrying his sword. “My cultivation is just fine, Chifeng-zun. But this lowly one thanks Chifeng-zun for his concern.”

That wasn’t going to get him anywhere. Mingjue held his gaze, thinking. If any could be said to be experts in such matters, before Wei Wuxian’s meteoric rise, it should have been the Nie, even if they told no outsiders. But the Nie restricted themselves to using the energies of beasts and yao. Such practices weren’t sinful. They were, in their own way, part of the natural order.

Dragging the souls of dead people up and setting them to dance to your own tune was something different, and that was sacrilegious on a level that Mingjue couldn’t approve of, even if he also couldn’t condemn it, not during a war where the living did worse to each other every day.

It was war, and if Wei Wuxian was suffering from his heretical cultivation... Wei Wuxian was not Nie. Mingjue owed him nothing except the respect of a fellow cultivator. But Wei Wuxian was also critical to the war effort. And he was a person, a man walking out blindly into the dark. Human fellowship demanded that Mingjue offer a light to guide the way, if he could.

Wei Wuxian’s methods were not those of the Nie, but they did share similarities, and Mingjue owed him a warning.

“How well do your silencing talismans work?” he asked.

“Planning to make a lot of noise?” Wei Wuxian asked, still smiling, and Mingjue didn’t need Huaisang there to interpret the underlying threat. With effort, Mingjue refrained from rolling his eyes. How stupid was Wei Wuxian? Huaisang thought he was a genius—but maybe the resentful energy was rotting his brain already.

“No,” Mingjue said bluntly. “I wish to share with you a secret of the Nie, and I won’t have it overheard.”

That knocked the arrogant young rooster off-balance again. Wei Wuxian blinked, some of the edge going out of his smile. “They work very well. There’s no one within twenty paces of us, anyway.”

That wasn’t something a silencing talisman would tell him. A different talisman? There were certainly enough strung up around the room. Mingjue decided to accept the claim. “You will not share this secret with others.”

“You have my word, Chifeng-zun,” said Wei Wuxian, serious now.

“The ancestors of the Nie were butchers,” said Mingjue. He drew Baxia—slowly enough that Wei Wuxian wouldn’t startle—and laid her across his knees, rubbing a thumb reverently across her edge. His constant companion and partner in life. He couldn’t resent her for it. “Our cultivation is based in practicality. As hunters eat dead animals for sustenance, our blades eat the resentful energy of dead beasts and yao.”

“I know,” said Wei Wuxian.

It was Mingjue’s turn to be caught off-guard.

“I can sense it,” said Wei Wuxian, nodding to Baxia. “It builds up in them, doesn’t it? Baxia is very strong.”

Mingjue grunted. “Yes. When we are young, when our sabres are young, it makes them stronger. We don’t touch the resentful energy directly; our sabre spirits do that for us. But as a cultivator becomes more powerful, as the blade becomes more powerful, eventually the resentful energy overwhelms it. It bleeds out into the owner of the blade. Inevitably this induces qi deviation.”

Wei Wuxian’s brows had drawn together. Mingjue waited for the question. When it came, it was more delicately phrased than he would have expected. “Your father...”

“Wen Ruohan broke his sword, and exposed him to that energy early,” Mingjue said, shoving aside the anger with long practice. Soon, soon, he promised Baxia. “He went into qi deviation ahead of his time. But it would have happened in a few years anyway.”

“Then... you...”

“I will be lucky to see forty.” He’d known that since he was fifteen, since he’d taken up the mantle of sect leader and the elders had been forced to tell him of the death sentence it carried.

It was almost comical, the shocked outrage on Wei Wuxian’s face. “This is so for all Nie?”

“The stronger the cultivator, the faster it occurs. A strong golden core clashes with the resentful energy. It can’t be otherwise. And we only deal with what spills over from our blades. Wei Wuxian, I have seen you call upon resentful energy directly. You don’t suffer from it the same way we do, that is obvious. But you do suffer from it.” He nodded at the dangling talismans around them. “It has already damaged your ability to cultivate normally, hasn’t it?”

Wei Wuxian’s expression flattened out. “Chifeng-zun, I appreciate the concern. And I am honoured that you have shared this secret with me. But my cultivation is not the cultivation of the Nie. I am fine.”

The little idiot. “Paranoia is one of the first symptoms of qi deviation. Stabbing your clan members is considered one of the later-stage signs.”

“We’re at war. A little paranoia in the middle of a battleground is healthy.”

“A little paranoia is what you call shoving a flute through your shidi?” He held up a hand before Wei Wuxian could make a further protest. “I am not telling you to stop cultivating resentful energy. Perhaps I should, but we are at war. I am telling you that you need to learn to manage the side-effects so that you don’t end up killing your sect brothers and sisters, the way my father killed his before his death. And I am telling you to be mindful, because if you go into qi deviation in the middle of battle, you will get a lot of people killed.”

There was something very thin and painful about Wei Wuxian’s smile, before he smoothed it back into arrogance. “I assure you, Chifeng-zun, if I believe I am at risk of qi deviation, I will alert you ahead of any battle.”

And that was a useless promise, when Wei Wuxian was obviously fixed on believing he was fine. Mingjue would have to set Huaisang to keep an eye on him. It was, unfortunately, critical information to have.

If for no other reason than knowing this, risking his relations with the Jiangs had been worth this conversation. If Wei Wuxian started hemorrhaging in the middle of a battle, a quarter of their army would go with him, or worse, go berserk. What had happened at Nanyang would only be a warm-up. Mingjue felt like he was walking across a bridge, and had only now looked to the side and seen that the support pillars were rotted through.

“Carry the knives, then. They’re hollow. No spiritual energy—you won’t cripple one of your shidis if you accidentally stab them.” If Wei Wuxian was willing to carry a spirit-blade, he would be carrying his own sword. Not that Mingjue would have handed over a saber to a non-Nie anyway.

“I don’t plan on stabbing anyone else.”

“That’s what makes it a problem when it happens,” Mingjue said pointedly, and he heaved himself to his feet, settling Baxia back into place over his shoulder. “You should inform your sect leader.”

“Jiang Cheng knows he can rely on me.”

Which meant that Jiang Wanyin knew no such thing. Fuck, Mingjue was going to have to tell him, wasn’t he?

What had Huaisang said? “It’s hard to fight your older brother.”

Who exactly was Wei Wuxian trying to protect, here?

“Huaisang doesn’t know,” Mingjue found himself saying, as he looked down at Wei Wuxian. The man’s posture had devolved over their conversation; he was now sprawled rather than than kneeling properly, propped up on his hands as he leaned back.

“Oh?”

“About the Nie sabres. I understand how it is, to keep a secret from a younger brother.” He paused. “But I will tell him when the time comes.”

How, he had no idea. But it was his duty. He would give Huaisang the gift of ignorance for as long as he could, until the time came that it would no longer be a gift, but a curse.

Wei Wuxian was silent, contemplative as he stared down into the open mouth of his wine-jug. And apparently oblivious to Mingjue’s presence. Whatever manners he’d had left had deserted him, it seemed.

Mingjue rolled his eyes. “Take the daggers. And I meant it about bringing those privacy talismans to the next meeting,” he said, and turned and showed himself out.