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A Skilled Tactician is the Jewel of a Kingdom

Chapter Text

It was fitting to see Nie Mingjue in a warcamp. It was like seeing his Uncle Qiren in a library, or Wangji pacing the perimeters of Cloud Recess, Lan Xichen thought. Nie Mingjue was in his element here, commanding his people to set up their camp, as he seldom was when they saw each other in more formal and political circumstance. But then, the Nie were the most warlike sect. Between the Yidi and the threats in the western passes, they rarely had the sort of calmness that he was more used to in the east. It made sense that he would be more suited to this than words and diplomacy.

Nor could there be any doubt of his gladness to see him and his disciples. With the Wen assaulting them at all opportunities, even a stranger bringing fresh soldiers would be welcome, much less such a close friend. But there was little chance for the intimate conversation he would love to indulge in with Nie Mingjue. Instead they exchanged the bare minimum courtesies before the Nie leader was drawn away to his other duties.

"I need to take care of this," he said without apologizing. "We'll talk more this evening." He frowned and pulled a sheaf of papers from his robes. "Look at this, I want to know what you think."

"Of course. Attend to you duties. I will look forward to your company this evening." He took the papers. Seeing the salutation at the top of the well worn pages, he wondered whose letters Nie Mingjue wanted his opinion on.

He had time to look. His people as were organized as anyone influenced by Lan Qiren, and a neat camp was established in a calm an orderly fashion. Within a shichen their makeshift lodgings had the peace of home. A disciple brought him freshly brewed tea and he settled in to look at the papers. His eyebrows rose when he got a closer look at the contents.

To begin with, it was a single letter, not a whole stack of separate ones he had supposed. Although really, at this point it could be bound. It started with a bare line of extremely formal greetings to Chifeng-zun, before immediately transitioning into an exhaustive list of known and suspected Wen movements. It was even written with smaller glosses, like annotation on scholarly readings. The glosses mostly gave extra information on when the information was discovered and how likely it was to still be accurate, with some suppositions on likely future movements. Those were all written in a way that made it clear that they were not factual in the way the other information was.

That would have been enough, but after several pages of that, it switched to actual tactics. Taking some of the information from the first section, it sketched out battle scenarios. If these troops go here, then the Nie soldiers could cut them off here. There was a supply chain here, and Nie soldiers could disrupt it if they did this. There was a mountain pass that was only lightly guarded, and skilled fighters could use it to attack this band of Wen from behind, or set up a joint attack with a larger army to the fore.

Lan Xichen called a disciple for a map and laid it out on the table. The letter writer had sketched out some of the more detailed tactics, with simple strokes for land and dots and crosses for different units. He didn't know enough to tell if the troop information was accurate, but the terrain described certainly seemed to match the maps.

It finished up briskly, compared to the pages and pages of strategy. Moving back up the register to incredibly formal, like the first passage, it expressed a desire to help the great Chifeng-zun and a hope that these humble and surely terrible ideas could serve him even in some small way. It was signed simply as his loyal follower.

He was still looking over it when Nie Mingjue joined him. He looked up when he ducked into the tent, seeing that it had grown dark outside, and torches had been lit. His own desk was illuminated by a oil lamp, which he hadn't even noticed being lit.

Nie Mingjue, never one to waste words, got straight to the point. "So you've read them. What do you think."

"I think that whichever of your captains wrote this needs more responsibilities. So far as I can tell, if the information is accurate, its brilliant."

"It wasn't one of my captains."

"What?"

Nie Mingjue scowled. "It's not from any of my captains. I've asked. The first time I got one."

"The first time? You mean there's even more than this." He waved at the pile of papers laid out on the table.

"These are just the ones I got yesterday. They're the third set in the last two months."

Lan Xichen raised his eyebrows in polite inquiry. "And you don't know who they came from?"

"No. And I should. They know a lot more than they should. Not only about the Wen, but about the Nie. They don't list it out, but its obvious from what they say that they know exactly where our forces are at all times. It's frankly concerning, coming from an unknown source."

"The information is accurate, so far as we can tell. Which isn't quite far enough. What our scouts report almost always matches, and nothing important has been left out." He glares at the papers, more out of frustration than anything, Lan Xichen judged. "I think it may be one of my scouts themselves, that makes the most sense, but none of my lieutenants report this sort of skill and tactical thought from any of them."

"Well, where have they been coming from? From the front lines? Or found on your desk under mysterious circumstances?" The thought was amusing, the juxtaposition of secret missives and Nie Mingjue of all people.

"Neither." Obviously Nie Mingjue wasn't familiar with quite the same books that Lan Xichen was, or he would certainly have remarked on that phrasing. "They've been in with the courier packs from Qinghe."

"From Qinghe?"

"Yes. And before you saw anything, I know that doesn't mean they necessarily came from Qinghe. Someone could be slipping things into them at any point on the route. Even once they got into camp if they were careful with it. I sent messages to the officers guarding Qinghe, and none of them seem to know anything either. There wasn't anything suspicious that they've noticed."

"It wouldn't be so bad if I knew where it came from," Nie Mingjue continued. "If it was one of my officers or one of the elders it would be excellent work, and I could give them all the honor and respect they obviously deserve. But they don't sign their name, so they must have something to hide. Or they're lying, and I can't trust a word of it."

"Do you think they are lying?" He said gently.

"The information is accurate."

"That doesn't mean its not leading you into a trap." Lan Xichen tilted his head, looking intently at Nie Mingjue. "Why are you worried about it, if you aren't certain it's trustworthy? You don't need to give it any consideration."

Nie Mingjue just looked stone-faced, but Lan Xichen was always good at reading stone faces. "You been following their advice, haven't you?"

"Its been good advice. So far at least. And I've been careful to go over it with my officers, and none of them have found more than minor problems in them."

"You just said you thought it might be leading you into a trap." Lan Xichen couldn't help but be concerned.

"I know, I know. It's just," he sighed. "Its one thing when its just people and enemies I know and can see. But there are so many factors, so many things that change and move. It's impossible to keep it all straight. War like this is so different from what I know. And I don't think it's a trap."

"Why not?"

"The second letter started with a major warning that we were going to be attacked. And sure enough, the next day the Wen came for us in the night. If this tactician wanted us dead, all they would have needed to do was not tell us anything." Nie Mingjue sighed. "I hate that this mystery person knows more than I do. I'm the one with dozens of scouts."

"Well it seems like you have decided to trust them, at least for the moment. Just be careful. Double-check the information, and make sure that other people you trust agree these strategies will work."

Nie Mingjue collected the papers, sorting the loose pages with the ease of someone who had read them many times. "They remind me of my father, actually."

"How so?" Lan Xichen had only met the former Sect Leader of the Nie once or twice before his death, and he had been young, even younger than Nie Mingjue would have been. He had vague memories of the tall man with a booming laugh, but that was all. "I can't imagine him talking quite so humbly."

"Not the way that it's written, the things that are said. He was good at this sort of thing. Strategy and tactics. He used to say that it was just as important a skill to cultivate as bladework and qi. That the lives of our men would often rely on one or the other." He swallowed, and to Lan Xichen's horror he saw that his friend's eyes were bright with unshed tears. "I would be disappointing him, I know. Him and all the ancestors. If they knew that I was so unsure in my own martial skill that I would rely on anonymous letters from one who might easily be an enemy they would cast me out in shame."

"I'm sure your ancestors would not blame you." He smiled. "After all, no man can be skilled at everything. It is perfectly reasonable to take advice from those around you, to rely on those with different skills. Or would you take Nie Huaisang's guards away and tell him to defend Qinghe by himself?"

As he hoped, that ridiculous thought drew a laugh from his friend. "He would die in seconds. I don't think he raised a blade once the entire time he was in Cloud Recess. You should be more strict with your visiting students."

"You can't do much better, though? I've heard that he escapes training in Qinghe just as often."

"Gossip, Lan Xichen? What would your Uncle say?"

"I'm sure he doesn't need to know," he said serenely. "How has your brother been? He's back in Qinghe, correct?"

And with that their talk turned to happier things, and the matter of the war was put off for a few hours more.