Nothing ventured, nothing gained, Nie Huaisang reminded himself. Risk is proportionate with reward. Your spine should be made of steel, just as your saber is.
He licked his lips, thought of his brother who had loved him, and threw himself forward with tears in his eyes.
“Oh, gongzi!” he blubbered. “Can you help me? I’ve gotten completely lost, I don’t even know where to begin –”
Xue Yang blinked at him, the lids of his eyes moving slowly like a reptile.
“Maybe you know where my san-ge is? Lianfeng-zun?”
The feeling of immediate threat lessened. It seemed he’d gambled right, and the rabid dog that was Xue Yang could still be controlled by reference to Jin Guangyao.
“I’d really appreciate it if you could just give me some guidance on where to find him,” Nie Huaisang said, lowering his voice confidentially. “I’d be sure to pay you back! If there’s anything you want –”
“Do you have any snacks?” Xue Yang asked.
Nie Huaisang, who had come prepared based on the rumors he’d painstakingly collected, produced some dragons’ beard candy.
“Not bad,” Xue Yang said. “Okay, sure.”
Nie Huaisang smiled, and even meant it.
“Hey, good-for-nothing,” Xue Yang said, and Nie Huaisang turned to look at his least favorite but nevertheless highly useful source of information in Lanling Jin. The fact that Xue Yang had no idea that he was functioning as such just made it more satisfactory. “You like kids, right?”
Nie Huaisang blinked. “Yes?” he hazarded, not so much because he actually did – he’d never had strong feelings about children one way or the other, though perhaps he was being presumptuous in thinking that the reference did not involve goats – but because that seemed to be the answer Xue Yang was looking for.
Xue Yang wrinkled his nose in distaste, though not, Nie Huaisang thought, at him.
“Theoretically,” he said, and he wouldn’t know ‘theoretical’ if it hit him in the face, “if there were, I don’t know, a whole bunch of them hanging around somewhere without parents, you’d be able to do something about that, right? Especially if they had a talent for cultivation?”
It took only a moment to piece together what must have happened to lead to such a question, given the ruthlessness of the cultivation world and of Jin Guangyao in particular, and Nie Huaisang marveled briefly at the idea that Xue Yang might draw a moral line in the sand over something. Presumably he felt some kinship to the children, being similarly utterly infantile, amoral, and fond of sweet things.
“Oh sure!” he said, playing up the brainless idiot who didn’t know to ask questions. “My sect is always recruiting, you know. We took some losses in the war and, well, I feel like adult cultivators aren’t really all that interested in joining ever since I took over…”
“Because you’re a waste of space,” Xue Yang said, and Nie Huaisang pouted at him. “Whatever, the important thing is that you have space for kids. Orphans. Think, like, a whole orphanage getting shut down or whatever – anyway, not important. You’d take them back to Qinghe, right?”
“Oh, that would be so wonderful!” Nie Huaisang clapped. “That would suit everyone, wouldn’t it? They don’t have to worry about the children, and we get new disciples. I should tell san-ge – no, on second thought, he might be too busy –”
“Definitely too busy,” Xue Yang said quickly. “Wouldn’t it be nice to accomplish something yourself? You could casually show him that your numbers went up at the end of the month instead so he gives you the credit, without explaining that it’s kids making up the increase.”
“That’s a great idea! He’ll be much more impressed by that, I should definitely do that. Where is the orphanage?”
“…uh, in the forest. The back forest.”
You couldn’t come up with a better lie?
“You already brought them here?” Nie Huaisang asked, batting his eyelashes. “You’re so nice, Xue-xiong! I’ll go tell my second in command to go deal with it right away!”
It was in the fifth round of kids getting picked up – small cultivation clans being massacred and there was nothing Nie Huaisang could do about it, because there was either no evidence or else Jin Guangyao had come up with some motive to justify his actions and, inevitably, Lan Xichen would be there behind him, soothing over tempers and providing explanations because he believed him, every time – that something unusual happened.
“Sect Leader Nie,” one of his most trusted subordinates murmured into his ear. “There’s a problem.”
Nie Huaisang found a reason to leave the party early, a reason to go to the rendezvous point, and, once there, found the reason for the problem.
“Oh, hey there,” he said with a smile fixed onto his face by sheer force of willpower, crouching down to make himself seem less intimidating. Not that he was ever particularly intimidating, though given the rage coursing through his veins right now, he thought he might be able to pull it off if he tried. “What a lucky chance! It’s so funny, finding you here, Songsong. How are you?”
Jin Rusong wiped his eyes and looked tearily at him, recognized that the person asking was his Little Uncle Nie, and threw himself into Nie Huaisang’s arms with a howl.
This was pretty typical – Jin Rusong wasn’t much of a crier, but when he did he definitely took Nie Huaisang as his model, something all the other adults in the cultivation world had a tendency to give Nie Huaisang dirty looks over.
The only problem here, of course, was that Jin Rusong was dead.
Or, rather…he was supposed to be dead.
And if Jin Rusong was here – here, in the rendezvous point where Xue Yang put those of his prospective victims that happened to be a little too young for even him to stomach killing, at least without the personal grudge that had driven him to slaughter the Chang clan in its entirety – that meant only one thing.
Jin Guangyao had ordered his own son to be murdered.
Through demonic cultivation, no less, which was a pretty nasty way to go. There was a reason everyone implicitly countenanced Jiang Cheng’s vendetta against demonic cultivators no matter where they were, even when he ignored all territory lines and forgot to not ask for permission – the things a demonic cultivator gone bad could do were just so much worse than what anyone else could that they couldn’t risk any delay in dealing with the problem.
Well, shit, Nie Huaisang thought, even as he comforted Jin Rusong, petting the toddler’s back to try to get him to calm down. What do I do now?
“There has to be a reason,” Nie Huaisang insisted. “He’s not rabid. Songsong was his son!”
“Sect Leader Nie, we can’t find anything that might explain it.”
“Look harder. I don’t care how minor it is, I want to know everything to do with Songsong. Every little detail – every person who saw him – every medical report, every compliment, every good grade –”
“He placed last in one of his classes,” one of his spies volunteered.
“He placed last in one of his classes. About two months before his ‘assassination’, and shortly before his father started collecting evidence against the other sects that were in his way, which he later used to ‘prove’ that they had been involved in the alleged murder.”
“He wouldn’t kill his son for failing a class,” one of the others objected. “The kid’s barely more than a baby. What’s he expecting, genius from birth?”
“He’s a genius himself. Why not?”
“If everyone inherited everything directly from their parents, he’d be a whore.”
“He’d be a Jin. They’ve all got that nose, every one of them…”
“I heard he’s having the other Jin bastards killed. All of them, even the women…”
Something snapped in Nie Huaisang’s hands.
They all turned to look at him.
“Investigate Qin Su,” he said, looking down at the mess of wood and paper that had once been a fan. “Come to think of it, she has a Jin nose, too.”
“I don’t want to go!”
“I don’t want you to go, either,” Nie Huaisang said, feeling tired and also much more in sympathy with his poor older brother than he’d ever been while Nie Mingjue had been alive. “But you disobeyed me, and that means we don’t have a choice. You have to go.”
Nie Songsong looked down at the ground, his lip quivering. “I didn’t mean to…”
“You did,” Nie Huaisang said. “You have to own your decisions, Songsong. You can’t take them back once they’re done, no matter what the consequences. Not even if you feel bad, but definitely not because you feel bad for having to pay for what you did.”
“No, Songsong. You cannot be in the Unclean Realm when – when he’s here.”
Nie Songsong hung his head.
“He’s not your father anymore,” Nie Huaisang said. “You know that, right?”
Nie Songsong nodded.
Nie Huaisang sighed and held out his hands, and his arms were full of a teary-eyed child a moment later.
“He loved you once,” Nie Huaisang murmured into his child’s hair. “I love you now. I wish I could give you more than that – I wish I could give you an answer, tell you why he didn’t love you enough to keep from doing what he did. But I can’t. All I can do…”
Is what I’m already doing.
“You’re enough, er-ge,” Nie Songsong whispered back. “You’re enough. I promise.”
“When will I get to go night-hunting?”
“You go night-hunting all the time,” Nie Huaisang grumbled. “You’re a fraction my age, and already my height, my weight, yet you wield a saber like my brother was around to raise you properly. You’re ruining my reputation, you know; now no one will believe that my incompetence comes from how short I am…”
“Not night-hunting with the rest of the sect, er-ge,” Nie Songsong said, rolling his eyes. “With other juniors!”
“Not long now,” Nie Huaisang said, looking down at the paper beneath his hands. It was all finally coming together. “Not long now. Just give er-ge a little more time to finish taking care of matters for da-ge, and you’ll be able to go night-hunting with anyone you like.”
“Er-ge! Are you all right? You look so pale…”
“I’m sorry,” Nie Huaisang whispered. “Songsong – I’m sorry. I’m so sorry –”
“What happened? Are you injured?” Nie Songsong demanded, already starting to pat him over, looking for wounds. “Er-ge, what’s wrong –”
“Your mother’s dead.”
Nie Songsong’s hands stilled.
“I told her about your heritage,” Nie Huaisang said, his lips numb. He’d never tried to hide it from Nie Songsong, although he’d introduced the subject very gradually and only once he thought that he’d be able to handle the revelation. “About your father – your grandfather. What they did. I wanted her to be angry at him, to turn against him, to distract him…instead, she killed herself.”
“I shouldn’t have told her. If I knew –”
“I should have brought her in earlier – told her about you surviving – I kept her from you for years –”
Nie Huaisang looked at the child he had raised as a little brother the way his older brother had raised him, a father in everything but name, and who he had the constant feeling of having failed.
He wondered, as he always did, whether his brother had felt the same about him.
“Er-ge, it’s all right,” his little brother, his adopted son, said, and took his hands in his. “It’s all right. You tried, remember? Time after time, you tried to talk to her, but every single time you concluded that she would’ve told her husband instead of trusting you. She would’ve ruined everything. If she did that, I’d be dead all over again, and you with me.”
That had been what Nie Huaisang had concluded. That was why he’d never told her.
“She’s your mother.”
“And you’re my er-ge. As long as you don’t die on me, too, it’ll be all right. Okay? It’ll be all right. It’ll be worth it in the end.”
Nie Huaisang shook his head. He’d already done so much, caused so much chaos and strife, and yet this moment – this was the step too far.
This was the first time he realized that he wasn’t sure he believed that it would be worth it anymore.
But by now…what else was left to do? There were no ways out of the plan he’d made himself; he’d designed it that way on purpose, because he’d known that if there was a way out, that snake would find a way to slither through it. He just hadn’t thought that he would be the one looking for it.
It didn’t matter.
He had to keep going.
His older brother deserved it, even if the younger one didn’t.
“I represent the Nie sect,” the young man – just about their age, though shorter than either of them – said with a smile. He seemed kind, gentle and polite, easy-going, but Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui looked at each other, and then at Jin Ling, who just scowled. “Can I come in?”
“Were you even invited?” Jin Ling asked in bitten off words. He was still bitter about some of the things that had happened in the Guayin Temple a month before, and of all them the one he was most bitter about was his second uncle’s retreat into seclusion – they were all upset about that.
“But it’s a discussion conference,” the young man said, blinking in confusion. “We’re a Great Sect. Why wouldn’t we be invited?”
In the face of such profound ignorance, there really wasn’t very much they could say, and eventually Lan Sizhui stepped forward with a smile, welcoming the young man – Nie Songsong, he introduced himself – into the Cloud Recesses.
Everything seemed fine for a little while. Lan Sizhui was able to talk to the people in charge of arranging juniors into finding another place for Nie Songsong to stay, although it would be a little delayed – Nie Songsong assured them that there was no issue – and as recompense they even showed him, at his request, a few of the main landmarks.
And then they turned around and their guest had disappeared.
“I knew he was up to no good!” Jin Ling exclaimed.
“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Lan Sizhui told him.
“I’m with Jin Ling,” Lan Jingyi said. “He seemed so nice and understated – just like you know –”
“Don’t talk about my little uncle,” Jin Ling hissed at him. “I know it’s true, but just – don’t, okay?”
“We should find where he went,” Lan Sizhui decided.
It took them a while, but in the end they found him in the most unexpected place: in the rooms their sect leader had chosen for his seclusion, sitting on the bed with Lan Xichen’s head on his shoulder, sobbing as if his heart had been broken.
“What are you doing?” Lan Sizhui exclaimed, unnerved even out of his own habitual politeness.
“I came to greet my uncle,” Nie Songsong said, his manner just as gentle and polite as it had been from the beginning, although it was now evident that he was as stubborn as a rock and not easy-going at all.
“Your uncle?” Lan Jingyi gaped. “How can he be your uncle?”
“You’re Sect Leader Nie’s son!” Jin Ling accused.
“I’m Sect Leader Nie’s little brother by adoption,” Nie Songsong corrected. “It’s through my father that he’s my uncle – and you my cousin, I suppose.”
“Your – father?”
“Oh, yes. My birth name, you see,” Nie Songsong said, “was Jin Rusong.”
“Why did you choose to reveal yourself?” Lan Sizhui asked. “Given that everyone knows – well –”
Nie Songsong finished the character he was writing and put down his brush. “Wondering if you should let it be known that you were born with the surname Wen?”
Lan Sizhui jerked in surprise, then flushed. “How did you – that didn’t come out in Guanyin Temple.”
“No, I knew it before,” Nie Songsong said. “My er-ge is very clever, you know.”
“Yes, I suppose I do...why do you call him brother? Shouldn’t he be uncle, or – or –”
“Uncle is probably right,” Nie Songsong said. “But he raised me like a son, just as his brother did for him.”
Lan Sizhui looked down at his hands.
“Why did he publicly reveal your background, knowing that you were still around?” he asked again. “Everyone will know. Who your father was, all those terrible things he did, his relationship with your mother –”
“Why shouldn’t he? He did do all those things, and he did have that relationship with my mother.”
“But what about you? What about your reputation –”
“Are you planning on sweeping Wen Ruohan’s grave?”
Lan Sizhui stared at him.
“He’s your grandfather, isn’t he?” Nie Songsong looked calmly back at him. “Who he was, all those terrible things he did –”
“That’s nothing to do with me!”
“And the crimes of my father are nothing to do with me. My er-ge gave me his surname, just as Hanguang-jun gave you his, and for the same reason – to cut us off from the sins of our original family.”
“I suppose that’s true. But – no one knew about you, just as no one knew about me until I told them, and I only told them because they were my friends. Why’d you tell us? Aren’t you worried we’d tell more people?”
“Of course I am,” Nie Songsong said. “I hope you don’t, of course, but you would’ve found out regardless – second uncle wasn’t exactly subtle in his grief. And I had to tell him.”
“Why? To bring him out of seclusion?” Lan Sizhui hesitated. “Do you care so much for him?”
“Of course not. The last time I met him, I was a small child, and my father was just about to order me murdered; that’s not much of a basis to build a relationship. But having him lock himself away like that, as if he were in mourning…it hurt er-ge. And I won’t let anything hurt my er-ge. Anything, or anyone.”
They looked at each other for a long moment.
“I understand,” Lan Sizhui said.
“I’m glad you do,” Nie Songsong said, and then smiled. “I would’ve had to escalate to threats next, and I’m given to understand that I’m too short to really pull them off properly.”
Lan Sizhui snorted. “I think we’ve all learned that that’s not true.”
“Should we talk about this?” Jin Ling asked, arms crossed over his chest and glaring.
“What do you want to talk about?” Nie Songsong replied.
“How about the fact that your father tried to kill me?”
“Sure. Can we talk about the fact that you got all of his affection for years and years after he tried to kill me?”
Jin Ling blanched.
“I wonder if he would’ve gotten me a dog, too,” Nie Songsong mused. “I was too young for that when he ordered his demonic cultivator to feed me to fierce corpses and have my body ravaged until it was barely recognizable…but sure, let’s talk about how he tried to kill you.”
“I was talking about Sect Leader Nie!”
“Well, then, you should have been more specific. Sect Leader Nie’s my brother, not my father.”
“He’s a whole generation older than you!”
“My little uncle, then.”
Jin Ling flinched. “That’s worse. Go back to calling him your brother.”
Nie Songsong shrugged. “Would it help if we fought?”
“It makes me feel better, sometimes. Besides, I may be short, but I’m pretty good with the saber. I bet I could match your sword…maybe not your arrows. But I’ve always wanted to try.”
Jin Ling looked at him suspiciously for a long moment.
“Okay,” he finally said. “Sure. Why not?”
“I really hate that you’re kind of cool,” Lan Jingyi told him.
“I am so cool,” Nie Songsong said, and passed him another jar of wine. “Want to see my spring book collection?”
“Thank you for taking care of him,” Lan Xichen said to Nie Huaisang, who shrugged. “I’m sorry that you couldn’t trust me to help.”
“It’s only what I should have done,” Nie Huaisang said, not for the first time. He’d said it so often these past few days that it felt like a new refrain, an alternative to the old I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. He preferred the original. “I was his little uncle, remember? I held him on his first month party. How could I do any less?”
He did not say that Lan Xichen, who could be classified as Jin Rusong’s older uncle, had done much less, but from Lan Xichen’s expression, he’d taken it that way anyway.
“You never…” Lan Xichen hesitated. “Did you ever have any – concerns?”
“That he’d turn out an idiot? No. I figured he’d be in good company, with me.”
“That’s not what I meant!”
“Oh, you meant whether I was worried that he’d grow up longing for his blood family over his adopted family and turn against me in favor of his real father?” Nie Huaisang asked mildly. “No, not really. The memory of your father ordering you to be mauled by fierce corpses and to make sure your face is destroyed so that there’s a reason to refuse to let your mother see the body, as it would only upset her, is a fairly effective panacea against things like that.”
“No,” Lan Xichen said, though he looked sick all over again at the reminder of how considerate Jin Guangyao could be when it came to those he thought of as people, and how monstrous he was towards those he didn’t. “No, just – your brother always took such a hard line against the Wen sect…”
“Because they were raised with the philosophy that they were superior to the rest of us and my brother purposefully made himself into the symbol of their fallibility, thereby making himself and all the rest of us the primary target for their traumatic realization that they’re just as weak and vulnerable as everyone else,” Nie Huaisang said, rolling his eyes. “Our Nie sect cultivators were always especially targeted whenever we were captured – our survival rate as prisoners of war was less than half all the other sects, and it wasn’t just because we were usually more injured when we got caught. Even the civilians surnamed Wen would pull out knives and try to stab us in the back if they had half a chance! We were in a blood feud with them, er-ge. You don’t put down blood feuds just like that, not even if you want to. That’s not how it works.”
Lan Xichen nodded slowly, thoughtful.
“Anyway, Songsong is mine now,” Nie Huaisang said. “Just as Lan Sizhui is your brother’s, and Jin Ling Jiang Cheng’s. Can’t we all just agree to not care about the rest?”
“I suppose we have to,” Lan Xichen said, bowing his head. “Huaisang…did you ever think about what happens now? I mean – what should we do next?”
“I don’t know,” Nie Huaisang said, and smiled humorlessly when Lan Xichen looked at him. “I’m not joking. I didn’t know what to do when I got Songsong for the first time, er-ge, and I don’t know what to do now, either. I just wanted to see justice done for my da-ge, and I did, and for the rest – I don’t know.”
“That’s fine,” Lan Xichen said. “I don’t know, either.”
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, Nie Huaisang thought. Spine as steel as your saber.
“Would you like to come visit the Unclean Realm sometime?” he asked, pretending to be casual. “Perhaps we can figure out what we don’t know together. If you like.”
“…perhaps I will,” Lan Xichen said.