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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.

Chapter Text

Chifeng-zun, I write to you in the most earnest hope that I can aid you in your campaign...Although untried, I deeply desire to assist you in our efforts against the Wen...Wen Xu has taken command of the Wen forces below Qishan, and soon he will be moving south. The northern passes are clear, but few are wide enough for their full forces to pass through. However, a look at the map shows that a disciplined force could pass the mountains entirely by...

 

Nie Hauisang would not be going to war with his brother. It was never even in question. His brother didn't want him to go, and he definitely didn't want to go. Besides, its not like he had any skills that would be useful in a fight.

He told Nie Mingjue that cheerfully the night before he was set to depart for the field. His brother just glowered at him, as usual, and continued with his lecture.

"Remember to practice your saber while I am away."

"Do I have to?" he whined.

"Yes."

Nie Huaisang pouted and nodded. He wouldn't, of course, and by this point his brother knew that he wouldn't, but Nie Mingjue still said it every time he went out on a night hunt that would be longer than a day.

But this wasn't a normal night hunt. It wasn't even a normal campaign. Nie Mingjue was not going to be gone for a night or a week, facing threats that could never match his strength. No, he was going to war against the strongest of the Five Great Sects.

He waved his brother away from the ramparts with a smile, though. There was little enough he could give his brother under the circumstances. Times like this almost made him regret his decision not to cultivate the saber. Almost. He didn't want to die of qi deviation, but if he could fight like his brother, then perhaps he wouldn't worry so much.

Qinghe was almost deserted with his brother and most of the disciples gone. The Unclean Realm was a fortress that had never fallen, so most of the disciples remaining were young and untried, or old and set in their ways, along with just enough fighting men to hold the fortress. And Nie Huaisang, of course.

Nie Huaisang was in the enviable position of having no one around who cared what he was doing. Without his brother to insist, none of the sword instructors cared that he skipped out on saber practice. Nie Qiaolian, the elder who taught cultivation theory and suffered through remedial lessons with Nie Huaisang under his brother's orders, had given up on ever teaching him a thing and washed her hands of him. So long as he stayed out of the way, the disciples of the clan were happy to pretend that he didn't exist.

So he was free to read, and paint, and care for his birds, without even having to worry about Nie Mingjue dragging him out to the training grounds. Everything he ever wanted.

But he had such a difficult time enjoying it. He was unable to concentrate on any book, even his old favorites, and anytime he sat down to paint either the paper would remain blank or the lines would twist in on themselves into dead trees and broken mountains.

Laying aside his brush, he admitted that he was far too worried about Nie Mingjue to treat this free time as it deserved. He knew it was foolish. Nie Mingjue was the strongest member of the sect, probably even the strongest member of their sect since its founding. It would take more then the Wen to hurt him. But that didn't make him feel better.

What did make him feel better was breaking into the Second Captain's quarters to read his war correspondence.

Second Captain Nie Yizhen was responsible for maintaining open communication between the various arms of the army. With several sub companies in the field, as well as scouts and the occasional spy, direct communication could be difficult. So most information was sent to Qinghe, which was at least a fixed position, and then from there back out into the field. So his desk was the most likely to have the information that he was looking for. And it did. There was a packet for the courier, and Nie Huaisang unwrapped it carefully.

Although the packet was going to Nie Mingjue, and therefore didn't have anything on him directly, there was enough information for him to read between the lines. The company watching the Northern passes had seen no sign of the Wen, even though that was the easiest way for them to get down into the plains. And they were obviously in the plains, since the captain stationed at the border with Lanling reported a battle with Wens that came out of nowhere.  

That didn't sound right. He turned to the scouts reports to see if they mentioned anything related, and raised his fan in dismay. They were, to put it frankly, a mess. He shuffled the papers around again, hoping to be able to see an order. But no. Each report was on a separate page, with only the bare minimum information listed. How far from this town in which direction, how many Wen sighted. There was no order except maybe chronological, with the newest reports on top.

He looked at the late afternoon sun. The Second Captain had gone to train for a shichen as was his habit, and Nie Huaisang judged that he still had time. He drew over a fresh sheet of paper and started copying out the information. It would take his brother hours to sort this out, hours that he could be using for other things. 

He planned to just condense the information into a more usable format, but it was a bit more difficult than he was expecting. Not only did he need to duck out of the Second Captain's office quickly before he was caught, he also ended up needing to borrow some maps from Nie Mingjue's office. It took him a while to work out how he thought the Wen were moving, from the reports. And there was no way to be sure that he was right. It seemed that there were a lot of Wen moving from northeast of Gusu southwestward, but it could be an illusion. Still, if it was true then he needed to tell Nie Mingjue. His brother didn't have the time to spare to take this long playing with maps when he was in the middle of the war.

Although there was no way he was going to let him know it was him. Anyone who had ever met him would laugh at the idea that he thought he could have some say in military matters. Even Nie Mingjue probably wouldn't take him seriously.

And if he did, that would be even worse. He had worked hard to lower his brother's expectations. Between his troubles in Cloud Recess and his complete ineptitude with the saber, he had finally mostly given up on trying to make Nie Huaisang into a proper Nie cultivator. But if Nie Huaisang showed even the slightest interest in something like this, something a proper second young master of the Nie would be interested in, then Nie Mingjue would be newly encouraged. 

So he wrote out his findings yet again, more carefully this time. He formed the characters neatly and blockily, without his own habitual flourishes and delicate touches. He wrote out what he had reasoned out, and why he thought it was true. That took several pages, but when it was done he still wasn't quite satisfied. Licking his brush, he considered. 

Well, if what he said was worthless, Nie Mingjue would know. He would be quick to discard any foolish or dangerous ideas, and if they were very bad, then at least Nie Mingjue would have an idea about what not to do. So he wrote out several strategies about how he would deal with the problem, if he was Nie Mingjue.

By then it was almost morning, and he had to hurry to stuff it in with the other papers on the way to Nie Mingjue's camp. He didn't even need to worry about getting caught doing it, just came hurrying up with a letter that he had 'forgotten' and knocking all the papers flying. At that point it was easy enough to slip his other, unsigned message in with the others.

And that would be the end of it.

 

...extrapolating from their known movement, the Wen are gathering in the northeast plains of Lanling. It is likely that a large army might form, unimpeded by the Jin. Being under the sensible command of Wen Xu, they are unlikely to overtly threaten the Jin and provoke them to finally take a stand against Wen Ruohan. However, from there, another, more sustained attack on the Cloud Recesses in Gusu would be possible. It would be best to harry and disrupt this group, but not break into full battle. In the open ground, they outnumber the men that we can bring to bear.... To reach Gusu, the Wen will have to move to the east once they have gathered. If Chifeng-zun blocks the plains to the northeast, then they would be forced to march through the southeast marshes...

 

That was not the end of it. Not a week later, he again let himself into the Captain Nie Yizhen's office to go through his files, to copy down the information and take it back to his maps. It was mostly more of the same. There were still Wen massing in the plains. So far, so bad. So he sent another letter, just like the first one. If nothing else, it made him feel like he was doing something.

After that, it became a habit. He didn't bother to replace Nie Mingjue's map, instead keeping it in his room where he could easily spread it out on his own desk. If anyone asked, he just told them that maps were another way to record the beauty of the natural world, and he would be happy to show them some sketches that he had been working on. He even had the sketches, although someone might question why they were written through with random lines and dashes.

About a month or so into it, he almost dropped his brush when he realized that Nie Mingjue had done what he had suggested. His people had formed a pincer to attack the Wen from the flanks, just like he had recommended. He had read the letters that Nie Huaisang had sent, and he had thought that his ideas were good enough to try them out.

Nie Huaisang had needed to take an extra day to consider that. It was an awful amount of responsibility. His plans were sending those disciples, people who were part of his family, into danger. Not only that, but those disciples carried out his plan without knowing he was the one to send them into danger. If they had known, would they have agreed to follow his orders, even if it was Nie Mingjue speaking the words? He doubted it.

But if they came to harm, it was still his fault. His fault and his responsibility.

This was why he didn't want to be a leader. He didn't want this sort of feeling.

It took him a while to wrestle with his feelings. In the end, he told himself that it was Nie Mingjue's choice to consider his words. His brother obviously found value in his plans, so didn't he owe it to him to keep going, even if only to give his brother more choices on how to deal with his responsibilities?

But if it took Nie Huaisang a long time to pick up his brush, nobody was there to say anything about it.

 

Nie Huaisang had a reputation for silliness. He didn't take anything seriously, and was completely deaf to the tensions of the war. So when he pouted about wanting to take one of his birds out for some winter hunting, and how he didn't understand why they wouldn't let him leave Qinghe, no one thought it was anything out of the ordinary. The lieutenant responsible for the gate was exasperated by the whole conversation. He could not understand how this soft and annoying child could possibly be related to the great Nie Mingjue. Eventually he gave in out of sheer self-preservation, figuring that if some Wen came upon him unaware, then that would only mean that the Nie Sect would be spared his incompetent leadership if some mishap befell Nie Mingjue on the battlefield.

Nie Huaisang just told them he thought they were being overcautious. No Wen had been sighted within li of Qinghe. He would be home by evening, he was sure.

And Nie Huaisang did return by evening, hawk hooded and docile, a pair of pheasants tied to the saddle of his horse, safe enough. He made much of the bird, as if it had taken down a demon and not some game fowl, asking the cooks for delicacies for the bird to feast on when they butchered the pheasants.

He also returned with a message, tucked deep in his robes. Buzzard hawks were known to hunt young owls in the wild, and one as well trained as his would obey if told to attack even a great one like the Wen used to carry messages. He had been uncertain if he would succeed, especially as he had needed to use his own terrible cultivation to counter the aura of the owl.

But it was worth the risk. Seeing the orders in the message, he knew it would have been worth more. This was something he would need to send to Nie Mingjue immediately.

 

The enclosed orders were intercepted from the Wen. Although it must be treated with caution, as any such word might be the bait for a trap, neither should it be safely ignored. Especially as they order an attack on the Nie detachment to the north. Might I propose that Chifeng-zun lay a trap of our own. If a small number of Nie move to this valley, there is a hidden pass in the back. When the Wen attack, they can retreat, and lure the Wen into the valley. From there, more Nie can attack the Wen from the back and sides...If the correspondence is a trap, then our people will be in a position to break off battle without engaging.

 

At this point, Nie Huaisang was questioning how the Second Captain had gained his post. Somehow Nie Yizhen had convinced Nie Mingjue that he was competent enough to be promoted and trusted with a key position in the sect. Whatever it had been must have been a lie, though.

Nie Huaisang wished he were as incompetent as the Second Captain. He would have stabbed himself years ago, and even Nie Mingjue would have been forced to admit he wasn't cut out for a Nie disciple's life.

That wasn't quite fair. The man's cultivation was reasonably high and he worked well with his own people. The problem was he had no idea what to do with the scouts. Who weren't actually under his command, true. But when he got a report saying that there were Wen in Qinghe territory itself, the proper response was, 'Give me more information, now!', not 'Let me send this to my superior'. 

Nie Huaisang continued muttering on the theme as he drafted a letter to the scouts in question himself, stamping them with his copy of the sect seal instead of signing them. He hated doing this, as if any of the recipients thought to write back for a follow-up, it would be quite clear that they weren't sent by any legitimate authority. And from there, it would just cause chaos. 

But it hadn't happened yet. So far, no one had suspected anything out of the ordinary. Which was good, since he was planning on sending several more of these letters.

He looked longingly at his fan painting silk. That was what he wanted to be doing. It was new, a blank canvas for him to fill. But no. Instead, he needed to do Captain Yizhen's job for him.

He scowled at the silk and bent his head back to his letters. If he was quick, he might be able to finish before he lost the light completely, and at least start a painting.

 

The trick to hunting was patience and stealth. A quick approach would be seen by the quarry, and they would always be quicker to escape or attack than the hunter.

He was certainly patient. He had once tracked a bird for three days without rest, never losing it, until he had been able to catch it with his bare hands. This was surprisingly easier than that had been.

Wen soldiers were not as wary as a wild bird. 

Nor were they supposed to be this close to Qinghe. He watched from the hillside, trying to see how many there were, how they were armed. It would be practically impossible to tell what their orders were without getting much closer than he wanted to, but you could learn something from eavesdropping on bored guards. It seemed they were a small party, only about twenty or so, traveling north east. They didn't know, but it seemed likely they were sent to secure one of the northern passes for a retreat.

There was nothing for it. He crept away silently.

He raised the alarm as soon as he was back at the walls of Qinghe, of course. Told the guards that he was just following a pair of nightjars, and had seen a huge encampment of Wen two valleys over. It was incredibly frustrating trying to get them to listen to him. Not only did they not believe him, for some reason they wanted to talk about how he was outside of the walls in the middle of the night instead.

He had to resort to throwing a tantrum and forcing them to get someone in authority, to take them to see what he was talking about. Then, he had to pull rank on the Second Captain to convince him to take a reasonable amount of men in case things went wrong. Then, he had to distract them enough for them not to alert the Wen that they were there.

But once he took them to the Wen encampment, and they saw that he was right, things took a much more serious turn. They refused to let him return to the city alone, not with Wen about, and neither would they leave without dealing with the Wen. Although for some reason they wanted to attack the camp outright.

It took a lot of overacting and waved arms to convince them that it was a bad idea. And it was a bad idea! Even the Second Captain should be able to tell that. Of course the Nie disciples could take any three Wen in a fight. He wasn't arguing that. But there didn't need to be a fight.

The Wen didn't know that they were there, and this deep in enemy territory they were not using torches so that they wouldn't alert the enemy. But when the enemy already knew they were there, it worked against them. There were a lot of shadows in the forests of Qinghe. It would be easy enough to get through their picket line and take their leadership hostage. Which they did, after Nie Huaisang finally managed to convince them that it was perfectly honorable and a plan that meant that none of them would die.

But he had to go with them to make sure that Second Captain didn't mess anything up. And he had to interrupt to convince the Wen officer that they weren't just a small band, but a company strong enough to break the Wen group easily. He didn't want to think about what Wen Ruohan did to his officers to make them this reluctant to surrender. Did he force them to watch him torture the ones who failed him, or something? But he got the surrender eventually, and when the dawn came he and the others marched their prisoners into Qinghe.

Back inside the walls, he returned to his rooms, heart beating wildly. That was an awful experience. It could have gone so wrong, so easily. There could have been fighting. If someone had been careless and alerted the guards, if Second Captain had been just a little more stubborn, or if the Wen captain had been a little more afraid of Wen Rouhan and a little less afraid of the Nie... There were so many ways that could have erupted into bloodshed.

At least the Second Captain and his men had agreed that they were never going to talk about this battle with anyone. He hadn't even needed to suggest it. But apparently they thought it was shameful that they hadn't gotten into an actual fight? Nie Huaisang would never understand these people. But if it meant that word didn't get back to Nie Mingjue, he would take it.

 

...moral among the Wen is low. The efforts of the Yiling Patriarch has instilled in them a terror that is not matched by more conventional means. They are close to breaking, and mild pressure will cause them to falter. Their minds turn to retreat, and without any strong leadership in the field since the death of Wen Xu, they will break into chaos and disarray....The Jiang are encamped to the west, and this troop of Wen are as yet unaware of their danger. If the Nie come from the east, preferably in the dead of night, they will break easily, and their retreat will take them straight to the mercies of the Yiling Patriarch...

 

There was no early warning of Nie Mingjue's capture. He first learned about it at the same time as everyone else, and as he heard Nie Zonghui tell him the terrible news, he was filled by a terrible panic. How could this have happened? Nie Mingjue was the strongest person Nie Huaisang knew. It would take an army to bring him down, and even then he would resist being captured with all of his might.

He wasn't sure what to do. Nie Zonghui continued to talk, but Nie Huaisang couldn't hear what he was saying. His mind was in the newest records of Nie men. There weren't enough to attack Qishan outright, but maybe if he joined the Lan they would be able to combine their forces. That was if the Nie would obey him. They had no reason to think he had any idea what he was doing.

But maybe they would do it for Nie Mingjue. The entire sect loved him just as much as Nie Huaisang did, so surely they would want to get him back. But if he had to go alone to rescue his brother, he would.

Nie Zonghui must have been alarmed by whatever look was on his face, because his brother's second-in-command took him up to his rooms. He left him there, no doubt to confer with the other captains and the elders about their options. Nie Huaisang was not taken along. His opinion wasn't needed. His opinion wouldn't help.

Calmly, methodically, he unrolled his map, the map he had taken from his brother's office, and weighted it down just like he had done so many times before. Qishan was there at the top, to the north. It would be difficult to reach it with any significant force. But he needed to.

It took him all night to figure out a strategy that he thought might work. It would be dangerous, of course it would be dangerous, but there was no other choice. And it would need to be done quickly. Every hour that his brother staying in the Wen's hands was another hour he was in deadly danger.

He would need the help of the sect though, if he wanted it to work. If they didn't agree that his plan might work, then he would try to free Nie Mingjue alone. He would probably fail, but he had to try. Although maybe if he went and found Wei Wuxian? His friend was a scourge on the battlefield. But that was for later, if he had to go to Qishan alone

It would be better if he could go with some of the disciples. He hoped that he could convince them that his plan was a good one. He rolled up the scroll that he had written it out one and headed to the council. They were the first people that he would need to convince. He hoped they would listen, and not brush him aside like they usually did, like he usually wanted them to.

Actually, what he hoped was that his brother's council had a better plan of action, something smarter and more likely to work than his own idea.

So that was why, when he entered the council chamber he didn't spread the scroll out imediatly but instead asked, "Have you any idea how we are going to rescue Dage?"

They looked irritated to be interrupted by him. He judged that none of them had gotten anymore sleep than he had in the last day, not even elderly Nie Ao, who had been a captain under Nie Huaisang's father's grandfather.

"We are discussing our options." None of the elders seemed to be pleased that he had interrupted, but Nie Qiaolian was at least willing to act as if he should be here. Some of the captains weren't even trying to hide their derision. "The Wen have not been open for ransom in the past, and even if they consider it, it is unlikely they would set the price for Nie Mingjue at something the sect will be able to pay."

"Ransom? We aren't going to rescue him?" He hated that he sounded so young. It looked like he would need to talk about his plan after all, and no one would even start to listen if he sounded like he didn't know what he was talking about.

"We can't, second young master. Qishan is a fortress, and although the Wen forces are much diminished and on the run, they still have enough men to hold the city. Not to mention that Wen Ruohan has a personal grudge against Chifeng-zun for the death of his son. Our only hope is to wait."

"Wait? For what, Wen Ruohan to kill my brother?"

"No. For the city to fall. It will not take much longer. Now that the Jin have joined the fray, and the Yiling Patriarch is killing any Wen he gets his hands on, the Wen's days are numbered." She explained as if she was talking to one of the children she taught, someone who had no idea how the world works.

"I know all that," Nie Huaisang protested. He had sent another letter to his brother on that very subject three days ago. He wondered if Nie Mingjue had ever received it, or if he was captured beforehand. "But all it will take is one moment for Wen Ruohan to hurt Dage."

"That is the way of war," said Nie Ao. "We are not in a position to retaliate. All we can do is wait for an opportunity."

"We can't." He shook his head. "We can't leave Dage there."

Nie Zonghui just shook his head from his position to the side. "I know how you feel. It is terrible to think of Nie-zongzhu in the hands of the Wen, but we need to be careful, and put our people first."

"But Dage could be in danger. He could be dead in a Wen prison! What then?"

"Then you will be our sect leader. But until that terrible fate happens, you should be silent and not cause problems for your elders." Nie Qiaolian said. "You are overwrought. Allow a disciple to take you to your rooms."

"No! Not until you listen." He fumbled with the scroll. It was probably a silly idea, but if no one else had a solution, then he needed to at least offer it.

But before anything more could be said, a messenger burst into the room. She bowed to the elders and to Nie Hauisang, and then said the best words that Nie Hauisang had ever heard.

"News, news from Qishan. Wen Rouhan is dead. Sect Leader Nie is safe, and coming home!" She continued, but he couldn't hear any more over the rushing in his ears.

He dropped the scroll as relief went coursing through him. He sat down on the floor abruptly, light-headed as all the stress melted away. Dage was safe. He was alive, and fine, and the war was over, so he would be coming home.

"Let's get you back to your rooms," Nie Zonghui came over to help him up.

"Yes. Yes, I need to write my brother." He clung to Nie Zonghui as he burst into relieved tears. Nie Zonghui just patted him on the back and helped him back to his rooms. He even picked up the scroll for him, leaving it on Nie Huaisang's desk.

Two weeks later Nie Mingjue returned to the city, and Nie Huaisang was the first to greet him. He jumped him and held his brother in a tight embrace, reminding himself that Nie Mingjue was not dead. His brother told him to let go and stand up straight, but Nie Huaisang knew he didn't really mind. Nie Mingjue was just as relieved to see him as he was to see him.

And just like that the war was over. Things returned to how they had always been. Nie Mingjue was the strong leader of the clan, and Nie Huaisang was his terribly spoiled younger brother, who hadn't been touched by the war.

Nie Huaisang returned to worrying about how he was going to escape his saber training, and stopped worrying about the going on of the war all over the country. And he was happy again, not needing to worry about anything. So Nie Huaisang returned the maps to his brothers office. He burned the scroll that had his last desperate plan on it, and decided to put all of it behind him.

His brother had returned, the war was won, so he had no need to worry about it any further.

Chapter Text

Koi Tower was a beautiful place. Full of beautiful art, beautiful nature, and beautiful people. The air of celebration made those beautiful people look even more wonderful, as they wore their best robes and finest jewelry. The city was full of bright colors and laughter, as Jin Guangshan showed off how well he and his sect had come out of the Sunshot Campaign. Nie Huaisang could spend many days here, just gazing at all the splendor, and be quite happy.

Lanling was unlike Qinghe, whose beauty was found in clean lines and subtle shades, in clear night skies and solitary trees growing on the rocky edges of cliffs, in movement that was not meant to be graceful, but achieved grace through sheer steadiness and control. It was the beauty of a flower as opposed to the beauty of a sword.

Of course, all flowers were born from compost, and Lanling was no different. But he could ignore that! Here, not even his brother hounded him about his sword practice. He was far too worried about the politics to bother, at least for the time being. The fall of the Wen was causing more problems than his brother had expected.

But he didn't need to worry about that! The Nie Sect had come through the war practically intact, with few defeats and no major setbacks. The only sect that could compare was Lanling Jin itself, who practically hadn't fought at all. They were in a powerful position, and Nie Mingjue could easily trade on that to secure favorable alliances and useful concessions, and why was he even thinking about this? He was the useless second master, too weak to have fought in the war despite his position and much too silly to have any sort of respected opinion.

And that was the way he liked it. So why wasn't he zoning out the boring talk of politics and watching the servants as they flitted about the room like birds in bright colors, gold shining in their hair and against their elegant necks. Or if he was put off that by the way Jin Guangshan's eyes followed them through the room as well, there was still the art on the walls, or the elegant design on his fan. He didn't even need to worry about Nie Mingjue seeing his distraction, since he was seated directly behind his brother, and even he didn't have eyes in the back of his head.

He deliberately forced himself not to pay attention to whatever minor sect leader was flattering Sect Leader Jin, talking about how his wisdom had gotten his sect through the war with minimal casualties. And Nie Huaisang supposed that it was wisdom, in a way, that he hadn't joined either side until it had become clear that the allied sects would have the victory against the Wen. And he had no room to talk, staying well behind the front lines as he had. But no one would ever praise him like that, as if he had been the sole reason for victory. As if everyone in the room didn't know that the newly named Jin Guangyao was the only Jin with a significant contribution to the war.

His eyes slid over to his new third brother. Jin Guangyao stood to the side of his father's retainers, not even given a desk to sit at, although Jin Guangshan was showing off his wealth and position by seating even his minor advisors above the other clan heads. Still, his smile was as perfect and unruffled as always. He gave no clue what he was thinking, as he heard his father praised for his own actions.

From there, he found Lan Xichen across the way. He was also smiling serenely, the picture of elegance and decorum. Although Nie Hauisang doubted he was as calm as he appeared. The Lan were in a worse position than the Jin or the Nie, still recovering from their loses in the war. Between that and the cost of rebuilding their burned home, they must be in tight straits.

Although the Lan were still in a better position than the Jiang, whose white mourning sashes just reminded everyone that they barely had a sect left. If it wasn't for Wei Wuxian's sheer power, he would worry about them being overrun by some ambitious small sect, or simply falling into obscurity within the next few generations.

His attention was drawn back to the conversation when he heard his clan mentioned. The minor sect leader had finished up, and Jin Guangshan was addressing his brother directly.

"Of course, we must admire our allies as well. Without the Nie and their fearless leader's efforts amidst the blood and muck on the battlefield, our victory would not have been so swift. You must be enjoying the respites of civilization, Sect Leader Nie, after so long in the field. But the Nie have always preferred the field, have they not?"

Nie Huaisang bristled at Jin Guangshan's speech. While his words were perfectly correct, his tone made it clear that he had never even seen muck in his life, and that he didn't think Nie Mingjue would recognize civilization if it challenged him to a duel. And why was he implying that victory would have still come without them? When everyone knew that Nie Mingjue was the winner of the most significant battles? But he saw some of the lowland sect leaders raise their sleeves to hide smiles, especially the ones that came under the authority of the Jin.

He grew suddenly calm then. He should have expected something like this. The Nie were the only sect that was currently powerful enough to challenge the Jin. Of course Jin Guangshan was trying to discredit them. He had probably been insulting Nie Mingjue for months now, spreading rumors that he was undiplomatic and crude, unworthy of his power and position.

He was probably trying to get Nie Mingjue to explode in anger. Such behavior was expected and understood in Qinghe, with its long history of bloodthirsty Nie and qi deviation, but down here in the lowlands, that sort of fury would be seen as a sign of barbarism.

But his brother didn't rise to the bait. "It was a long and tiring campaign. But we gained victory in the end." Short and clipped, to the point. Not the best response, but Nie Mingjue would never be the sort to flatter people like Jin Guangshan.

He was almost grateful for Jin Guangyao, who hurried quickly to his father's side and started whispering in his ear. But Jin Guangshan had a goal and didn't let it lie there, batting aside his son and continuing on. "Of course you did. The Nie are known for your martial abilities. Those Wen-dogs were no match for your fury, I'm sure. I have heard certain things though. Is it true that you were not the author of of your strategies? It must be nice to have such capable and loyal followers."

He hoped that no one had seen the look on his face before he had raised his fan to block his face. He couldn't believe that this was being brought up. Especially from the Jin! How did they even know? Did he know? He hadn't looked at Huaisang while he was spoke, and he didn't think anyone knew that he had sent those letters. Surely his brother would have confronted him if the truth had come out.

If he had know that Jin Guangshan was going to use them against his brother, he wouldn't have sent those letters!

He looked around frantically, but none of the other sects seemed to know what was happening. Not that it wasn't obvious. Nie Mingjue's back was still in front of him, and there was no telling what his reaction was going to be from the tense muscles. But Nie Huaisang knew his brother, and he could guess. He hated lying and deception. He was going to say, right here in front of the other leaders, that the victories in the war weren't his.

As if he wasn't the one who fought in every major battle between the Nie and the Wen. As if he wasn't the strongest warrior in all the sects.

But that admission would be even worse than bursting into rage. No matter how Nie Mingjue phrased it, the other sect leaders would only see weakness. And if it came out that the tactician was Nie Huaisang, it would be even worse. He knew what he was like. He was weak and cowardly, and the very notion of Nie Mingjue taking his of all people's advice about fighting would instantly transform Nie Mingjue and their entire sect into as much of a laughingstock as he was.

He couldn't let that happen.

In horror he watched Nie Mingjue shift in front of him as he prepared to answer. But he was quicker. 

"What are you talking about? Everybody knows that my brother is the best general in the war." He giggled and fanned himself, trying his best to look like an empty headed idiot.

All eyes in the room spun to him, most of them looking thrilled to see him embarrass himself. Jin Guangyao made a gesture behind his father's back as if to reach out and shut him up, while across the way Lan Xichen had closed his eyes as if in pain. Nie Mingjue turned in his seat and sent him his best death glare.

But he had a lot of practice withstanding his brother's glares, and just continued on. "I don't know anything about war, but Dage led our people to victory. The Wen could never match him. And of course all of our people are loyal. I don't know anything about strategy, but Dage is brilliant, so of course he brought us to victory." He closed his fan in emphasis, and nodded with his best airheaded smile. He would have continued onward, but he didn't need to.

"Please excuse us, Sect Leaders, Your Excellency. I must attend to clan matters." Nie Mingjue rose and grabbed him tightly by the wrist, already moving towards the doors without more than the curtest of head nods to the dais. Nie Huaisang let himself be dragged away. Much better for the sects to gossip about how Nie Mingjue couldn't control his idiot of a brother than for them to gossip about any of his perceived weaknesses.

Even if it did mean that he got into trouble with Nie Mingjue. Well, he was always in trouble with his brother, he could deal.

"Nie Huaisang!" His brother roared once they were in the quarters, practically throwing him down on the floor. "I told you to sit there and be quiet! Even you shouldn't have a problem obeying those orders."

He pouted and rubbed his wrist, sitting up and facing his brother. Nie Mingjue was stupidly strong. "I'm sorry that I interrupted. But I don't understand. They were insulting you, Dage. And you weren't saying anything, even though everyone knows that whatever he was saying was a lie."

"He said nothing that was not the truth." Nie Huaisang darted a quick glance to the door and the window panels. Both were closed, so Nie Huaisang could only hope that his brother's words weren't overheard by some spy. He was speaking quieter as well, his anger quickly running out of him as it always did when he was angry at Nie Huaisang. All good things so far as keeping this a secret went.

"What do you mean, Dage?" He widened his eyes just a little, looking up from his kneeling position, fan held crossed in front of his knees. It was an expression that he had learned from watching Jin Guangyao, back when he was Meng Yao, and he knew it made him look just a little helpless and confused.

"I took the advice of another tactician. Not for all the battles, but for a significant percentage of the fights the strategy did not come from me." All the anger seemed to have drained out of Nie Mingjue, and he collapsed at the desk, rubbing his forehead.

Nie Huaisang flicked open his fan, and held it in front of his face, trying his best to make his eyes over the leaf show nothing but surprise, not the fierce rush of pleasure that swelled up at his brother's words. He had been paying enough attention to troop movements to know that Nie Mingjue had either been taking his advice or they thought in the exact same way, but it was another thing for his brother to come out and say it.

"Surely not," he protested. "Dage is the best leader, the best fighter. No one can compare."

"Stop the flattery." But his brother seemed pleased, nonetheless. "I am good enough to admit brilliance when I see it. Without their help, the war would have been much harder to win."

It was even harder to hide his pride. He ducked his head, hoping his brother took it for chastisement. He had thought what he had said just made sense, and hoped that it could help Nie Mingjue in someway, even just by telling him what not to do. But to hear his brother call him brilliant!

He bit his lip and reminded himself that Nie Mingjue wouldn't have said that if he knew it had been Nie Huaisang who had written those letters. If he knew, he probably would have swept them aside without even looking at them, or sent him back a letter about how he was wasting paper with his nonsense. The thought steadied him enough for him to raise his head and lower his fan, certain that his face gave nothing away.

"But that's okay, right? If one of our people was good like that, then its still fine, right? It just means that you have good advisors. That's fine, no one can use it against us."

"It's not that easy." Nie Mingjue sighed. "I don't know if it was one of our people, to begin with. Whoever they were, they covered their tracks very well. I have no idea who they might have been, and since the war ended, they have vanished like they never existed."

"That's even better then," he snapped his fan closed and nodded decisively. "You can say it was you. That would solve everything. Nobody would dare say that you were less than the best."

He wasn't surprised by the glare that Nie Mingjue sent him for that suggestion, but it was still the best option, so he had to bring it up. "Nie Huaisang! You know better than that. A lie of such magnitude would shame our sect, our clan, and all our ancestors!"

He should have expected that. Nie Mingjue was never one to even consider anything dishonorable. "Then don't say it was you! Just say it was one of our elders, or one of the captains. If they are loyal to you-"

"Silence!" Nie Mingjue was working himself back up into anger again, but Nie Huaisang just barreled on.

"Even if you don't say it yourself, if you just nod when some one else says it, then it will still-"

"Nie Huaisang! You seem to think that I take advice from you, as if you were a member of my council." Nie Mingjue thundered.

Nie Huaisang flinched. He didn't think that he had pressed his brother hard enough to get that sort of reaction, but apparently his brother was more stressed by the situation than he thought. Well, all the more reason for him to try to fix this for him. Even if it would be so much harder without Nie Mingjue playing along.

Nie Mingjue closed his eyes and Nie Huaisang could see him visibly control his temper. Speaking more calmly, he continued. "I appreciate your worry, but it is not your concern, A-Sang. That's what I have advisors for. Now, if you wish to be worthy of a place on my council, you will need to work on your cultivation, and learn to think about the consequences of your actions."

As if he would ever want to be on his brother's council. He wanted to stay as far away from that mess as he possibly could. Between the elders who thought he was a stupid idiot and the captains who thought he was a cowardly idiot he wouldn't have a second of peace. And that was even before he got into how much work it would be. No, he much preferred being left alone to paint and enjoy his days.

But this wasn't the time or the place to get into that with his brother. And if Nie Mingjue thought he was showing a small hint of responsibility, he would be more likely to go easy on him when they got back to Qinghe and he set Nie Huaisang to the inevitable sword drills. So he moved his gaze to the left, pouted, and spoke in a begrudging tone. "What consequences, Dage?"

"First, of all, such deception is without honor. And if we steal their credit and honor, we would be little better than the forger, who debases metal. Also, we do not know if this man is a man of the Nie. They may be a enemy. If so, they would have proof of our deception, and nothing good would result from it coming to light. If they are a member of the Nie, than that is even worse. For we would be denying a loyal follower of the honor and respect that they deserve, that they have gained in service of our sect. It is bad enough that I cannot give them the accolade and title they deserve, but that is their choice by remaining anonymous."

"But if they are anonymous, than surely they wouldn't care." He bit himself off before he said I. That was the last thing that he needed. This was turning out to be a more serious matter than it really deserved. And accolades? He could just see the elders' reaction if Nie Mingjue tried to give him of all people, military accolades.

"You have no understanding of the military mind." Nie Huaisang had to hide another smile at that. "We are full of pride in our skill. To debase that, to not only ignore it but trample over it, would enrage the most loyal of subjects. And I would deserve whatever retribution they decided on. And I don't want to guess what form their revenge would take. Or when. I've read enough of their work to be able to say that whoever this person is, they are not only vicious and decisive, but patient."

"Vicious?" He repeated, stunned, mind racing to catch up. How could anyone say that he, of all people, was vicious? Fortunately, his brother seemed to take it as concern, and not anything suspicious.

"Not in a bad way. Against those Wen-dogs, such tactics are practical and encouraged. But they are not qualities I would court in an enemy. And that is three reasons that I will not be taking the credit for our victories."

Nie Huaisang nodded, sick at the thought that his brother had considered him as an enemy. Nie Mingjue didn't know it was him, of course, but still. It was almost enough to make him admit everything, and throw himself on his brother's mercy. He would be angry at him for lying to him, and for wasting his time during the war, but he would be forgiven eventually. And at least then his brother would know that he was never a threat. He couldn't believe that this was being treated so seriously. It wasn't meant to be anything!

"Think on what I've said, A-Sang." Nie Mingjue rose and passed. He ruffled Nie Huaisang's hair as he passed by towards the door. "And try not to interfere in such things while we are here. I don't trust the place."

"I will consider what you said, Dage," Nie Huaisang agreed. And he would. Just not on the parts his brother wanted him to.

 

Chapter Text

Nie Huaisang was never one to obey his brother, so as soon as he had his thoughts in order, he returned to the banquet. He would need to gather information before deciding on how he was going to fix this.

A little judicious gossiping, and Nie Huaisang learned that most of the other sects had little idea of what Jin Guangshan had been talking about. The Nie, on the other hand, knew exactly what he meant, and were quite happy to brag about them. Some were even ready to pick fights in the anonymous tacticians defense.

"I don't understand," he wailed at Nie Zhonghui when he found him drinking in a corner with a few other Nie officers, away from the gaze of the more serious sect leaders. "What did Sect Leader Jin mean? He sounded like he was insulting Dage, but I don't understand. What did he mean about a strategist?"

"Your brother didn't tell you? Although I suppose you were out of the way at Qinghe." Nie Zonghui moved aside to let him sit. He nodded to Captain Yizhen. "Yizhen didn't know about this either. Someone was sending us battle tactics. We don't know who, but your brother thought that they had worthy advice."

"A genius, I say," said Captain Zan, in the loud voice of someone who had drank just a bit too much alcohol, despite the early hour. Nie Huaisang wished he would be quieter. Didn't he know there were Jin people all around them? "I thought we would be dead when the Wen came over the ridge. No way to hold them off, and they outnumbered us five to one. I was sure that the Wen-dogs would tear us to pieces when Chifeng-zun came and took them by surprise. Said he knew about it from a letter. A letter!"

"Whoever they were, they always knew where the Wen were moving. I saw some of those letters, and they were impeccably detailed. And some of those stratagem were works of art. Whoever they are, the sect owes them." Nie Zonghui poured him the last of the alcohol, which Nie Huaisang sipped but didn't finish.

"Don't be so casual, Zonghui-gongzi. He saved my life, and the lives of all my men." Nie Zan waved over a servant for another jar of alcohol. "Sect Leader should make them a general. I would follow any of their plans, and so would all of my men."

"Surely that's an exaggeration. Just letters, they can't have been too important." Nie Huaisang realized that he was fluttering his fan quickly as he spoke, and closed it with an effort of will. He thought he had gotten over that nervous habit.

"Good strategy can be a matter of life and death." Nie Zonghui shrugged. "They certainly made a difference. The real question is who they are. Nobody knows, you see. It could be anyone."

"Well it wasn't me," Nie Yizhen said. "I had more than enough to do as it was. I find it hard to believe that their plans were as effective as you say."

"I think it was one of the juniors. Probably didn't want us to know that they're a youngster, wanted us to think they were older." Captain Zan laughed. "As if we wouldn't respect anyone who can think like that."

"I would think one of the elders would be more likely," Nie Yizhen argued. "If they're as good as you say then they must have prior experience."

"But why wouldn't an elder admit it. It makes no sense."

"They might not even be a member of our sect at all," Nie Zonghui added.

"Of course they are one of us. Even if they weren't born to us, they've helped us so, we have to take him in," said Nie Zan. "They've earned a comfortable place in our sect for what they did. I've got a daughter, he can marry her if he wants. That'll make him one of us."

"They may be a woman," said Nie Zonghui, sharing an amused look with Nie Yizhen. "Or someone not interested in women."

"I have a son too. Which ever they want. I owe them."

"That sounds a little extreme, surely." Nie Yizhen laughed.

Nie Huaisang slipped away, an odd feeling in the pit of his stomach. Although strong on the battlefield, Nie Zan was not a man for deep thought. His admiration meant nothing. But Nie Zonghui was more thoughtful, and he sounded just as respectful as Nie Zan, if much less ebullient.

Asking around carefully and listening showed that yes, the entire Nie clan was deeply approving of their tactician. They were mentioned almost as much as Nie Mingjue was when talking about why they did so well in the war. Although at least some of it was because of the mystery of the tactician's identity. He heard some ridiculous guesses as to their identity.

It didn't take him quite as long to get a good idea about what the rest of the cultivation world thought about his actions. The other sects might not know the details, but now that it had been brought to everyone's attention, everybody was talking about it. Although he thought it was again because of the mystery. Everyone with an ounce of curiosity was wondering about it. They would forget about it soon enough, he was sure, probably as soon a Wei Wuxian did anything interesting, but for now it was a hot topic for gossip.

He retired to his room for a bit, and set to pacing, shaking his fan nervously as he walked and thought. How could this have happened? He wrote those letters because he had wanted to be able to tell himself he was helping his brother. Really, he had thought Nie Mingjue would throw them away in disgust, so it was more just for his own peace of mind. And sure it had gotten a bit more involved than he had planned, but it really wasn't this big a deal. But everyone was acting as if it was. The Jin were trying to use his existence as a weapon against his brother, and even weirder than that, the Nie were approving of him for the first time in his life.

Well, not of him. They approved of the mysterious tactician.

But that was besides the point. However much he wanted to spend the time to figure out how he felt about that, it wasn't what he needed.

What he needed was for Nie Mingjue and the Nie Sect to continue to be respected by the rest of the cultivation world. The easiest way for that to happen was for this situation to be finessed until Jin Guangshan couldn't use it against them.

Best case scenario, everyone forgot about this. Unfortunately, that didn't seem likely, and there was no way for him to force people to forget. Although maybe if there was a big enough distraction? He was sure that Wei Wuxian would provide something sooner or later.

Worst case scenario, it came out that it was actually him. The Nie sect and more importantly Nie Mingjue would be mocked far and wide. He could just imagine the gossip. 'Did you hear? Nie Mingjue is so bad on the battlefield he took advice from an artist who can't even swing a sword. Can you believe? The Nie sect has really gone downhill.' The Nie sect would be disgusted, and they might blame Nie Mingjue for being fooled despite all their loyalty. The sect was strong enough that they would survive, but their reputation would take a major hit, and people would laugh at his brother for years despite his strength.

Unless of course, he immediately went out and proved that he was as good as everyone said he was, and not the useless second master after all. That would prove that Nie Mingjue was right to trust him. The mere thought made him shudder. He didn't think he could do that. He really, really didn't think he could do that.

If he thought that was going to happen, he could just tell Nie Mingjue that it was him. If he told his brother that it was all him, then surely Nie Mingjue would be fine with taking the credit. If he was so worried about his tactician turning against the sect, then knowing that Nie Huaisang was more than alright with not taking responsibility for this could only reassure him. Even though it was a lie, surely Nie Mingjue would see that it was in the sect's best interest for this to be kept secret?

That would save the sects reputation, but it still wouldn't be a good outcome for him. It would lead to stress and training and losing all his free time and worst of all, high expectations from his brother. But if the alternative was the Nie sect's reputation being ruined, he could do it. Probably. 

But he would try spreading rumours first, maybe turn the tide of gossip onto his side. He could hear the sounds of revelry in the distance continuing on, and the Jin's party would doubtless continue for hours yet. He would return and see what he could do without being suspicious. With luck and the unknowing help of some of the more suggestible and talkative Nie disciples, by morning the entire cultivation world would know about the Nie clan's tactician and much, much more importantly, their absolute devotion to Nie Mingjue.

He smiled to himself, striking his palm decisively with the monture of his fan. "After all, only a worthy leader can command someone so skilled."

Perfect.



Lan Xichen was  used to waking early. The habit of a lifetime had him up and ready for the day long before most others. Especially compared to people who had stayed late at a gathering held by the Jin, where wine and revelry were easily found. When he had retired last night, the celebration was still ongoing, as cultivators celebrated their victory against the Wen and their good fortune in surviving the war. He knew that it would have gone on for hours after he had taken his leave, so he wasn't expecting to see many other people until much later in the morning, after they had enough time to recover from the hangovers from their carousing.

So he was surprised to see Nie Huaisang slipping into the side courtyard that the Nie and Lan delegations shared in the early morning light. Maybe it was trick of the grey light of false dawn, but he looked surprisingly serious, a pensive look on his face as he looked back towards the tower.

"Good morning, Nie Huaisang," he greeted. Nie Huaisang started, as if he hadn't expected to see him there.

"Good morning, Sect Leader Lan." Whatever Lan Xichen thought he had seen in his expression was gone, and Nie Huaisang sent him a cheeky grin. "I don't suppose you can forget to tell Dage I was out this early?"

"I'm sure that we don't need to tell him." Whether Nie Huaisang had stayed out drinking or gossiping with friends or enjoying some pleasant company for the evening, Lan Xichen was sure that no harm was done. There was no need to cast Nie Huaisang to Nie Mingjue's strict attentions.

"There's no need to worry or upset him," Nie Huaisang agreed immediatley, sending Lan Xichen an almost conspiratorial smile.

Lan Xichen gestured to the small table he was sitting at. "I was planning on watching the sun rise. Would you care to join me?"

"Of course, Sect Leader Lan." Nie Huaisang hurried over with enough energy that Lan Xichen changed his guess from drinking to something of a more delicate nature. He sat on the closest side instead of across from him, so that both of them had a good view of the east. "The gardens here are beautiful. The Jin have excellent gardeners. They take such care to impose order on the natural world. There is not a leaf out of place."

"You don't have to call me Sect Leader Lan." He smiled at Nie Huaisang and poured him some tea. The air was chilly, and Nie Huaisang gripped the warm cup gratefully. "I am now your brother's brother, which make me your brother as well. Please call me gege."

"Yes, Er-ge!" He said brightly. It was strange. Lan Xichen knew that he was the same age as Wangji, but Nie Huaisang always seemed so much younger. Although perhaps that was an unfair comparison. Wangji was much more serious, for one. "And you can call me Huaisang, if you want."

"Of course, Huaisang." He smiled warmly at Nie Huaisang. "And please, I want you to feel free to rely on me for anything that you need."

Nie Huaisang waved his concerns away with a quick gesture of his fan and another smile. "Oh, you don't need to worry about me. I don't have any worries. Dage keeps me safe, and what I think about would just be so silly to you, I'm sure. It should be me offering you my help, although I don't know what I could do for you. You are like Dage, in charge of a whole sect. I can't imagine being responsible for that much, it would be way too hard!"

There wasn't much Lan Xichen could say to that. Sometimes its was difficult, yes, but he couldn't just say such things to Nie Huaisang. For all his pretty words, Nie Huaisang would never understand the difficulties of command. "We must bear the responsibilities we are given."

"And that's why everyone admires you!" Nie Huaisang tapped his closed fan on his chin, a mock serious look on his face as if dispensing eternal truths.

He had to laugh at that. His new older brother was quite right when he said the Nie Huaisang was silly. But there was nothing wrong with such light-heartedness. After the war, didn't they all need such? Nie Mingjue was too hard on his brother.

"In all seriousness, please come to me if you ever need anything," he hesitated, but continued on, remembering how Nie Mingjue had dragged Nie Huaisang from the room the other day. "I know that your brother expects a lot out of you. If he ever pushes you too far, I can try to intercede for you."

Nie Huaisang snorted. "Don't worry about that. Dage would never hurt me. He'll figure out that I'm never going to be a proper Nie eventually. He's just being stubborn right now, and I know how to handle him."

And Nie Huaisang called his brother stubborn. "He might be happier if you put in a bit of effort. Even someone without any natural talent can become skilled with enough practice."

"Er-ge! That would just encourage him." He made an exaggerated shudder. "And that would be work. No thank you."

They settled into comfortable silence for a while. The rising sun touched the tops of the trees, and hit the walls of the tower, bathing them with pale gold. Lan Xichen would have expected Nie Huaisang to chatter, but he was just as happy to sit in silence and watch, his hands folded in his lap around the handle of his fan and his eyes alert but distant. 

It was Lan Xichen who broke the silence in the end. "You look deep in thought.  Is it just the view, or do you have one of those worries that you consider silly?"

Nie Huaisang started, dropping his gaze to Lan Xichen. He caught his eyes, trying to show his sincerity, but Nie Huaisang broke eye contact to look down at his fan.

"Of course not," Nie Hauisang said. Lan Xichen just continued looking at him. He raised his eyes, but seeing Lan Xichen still looking at him, ducked his head again. "Maybe."

"I am happy to hear it, Huaisang, if you are willing to tell me."

Nie Huaisang ran his fingers back and forth on the guard of his fan, still not meeting Lan Xichen's eyes. "I've been thinking about what Sect Leader Jin said yesterday. About Dage's strategist."

"Ah. One of the great mysteries of the war. I'm not surprised that it was brought up. I know that I am curious."

"I didn't know about it yesterday, or I wouldn't have jumped up like that." Nie Huaisang sounded sheepish.

"It's true that you shouldn't have interrupted like that, but no harm was done."

"I got a lecture though." Nie Huaisang pouted. "That's harm, isn't it?"

Lan Xichen had to fight a smile. "I hope he wasn't too harsh." Although Nie Huaisang needed some sort of discipline. If Lan Xichen had interrupted sect leaders in the middle of a discussion, his uncle would have had him beaten and made to meditate on his manners for days. Although he could admit that might be a little excessive.

Nie Huaisang waved his fan dismissively. "He just talked about it."

"That's good."

"Dage thought they might be an enemy," he he said hesitantly. "He was worried that they might hurt us. That they might come after our sect because we didn't deal with them fairly." 

They were getting closer to the problem he thought. He supposed it made sense. Even someone like Nie Huaisang, who had never even approached the front lines, wouldn't have been untouched by the war. It was natural that he would worry about further violence. But this was something he felt comfortable setting straight.

"I don't think they are an enemy. They helped us far to much. And I don't think your brother thinks so either. He was always glad when a message came from the courier. He would snatch it up first, then spend hours going over it before he even looked at anything else. He wouldn't have given them such consideration if he didn't trust them to have our best interests in mind." In fact, Lan Xichen would judge that Nie Mingjue trusted those letters more than he had any other's advice during the war.

"So they were on our side? You don't think that they would come after Dage for not being honored?" Nie Huaisang sounded incredibly young. He still wouldn't meet Lan Xichen's eyes.

So that was what was really worrying him. What had Nie Mingjue said to make him this scared? "No I don't. In fact, from those letters I read, they hold your brother in the highest regard."

"You read the letters?" Nie Huaisang shook his head. "Of course you did. Nevermind. So you definitely think that they are loyal to Dage?"

"Without question."

"Well that's a relief." Nie Huaisang slumped theatrically, then straightened up with all the energy he had had earlier. "Thank you for indulging me, Er-ge. That really takes a weight of of my mind."

Lan Xichen had to laugh at the abrupt change in mood. "I'm glad to be able to help."

"Although maybe you could remind Dage about that? I don't want him to worry either."

"I'll see what I can do." Lan Xichen smiled. It was amusing to realize that Nie Huaisang was just as concerned about his brother as Nie Mingjue was about Nie Huaisang. It was rather like seeing a kitten trying to defend a fully grown tiger.

Although Nie Huaisang was much easier placated. He started to point out various trees, as lighthearted as if their earlier conversation had never occurred. Lan Xichen allowed himself to be drawn into an intelligent conversation about nature.

Nie Huaisang was pleasant company and it was nice to be able to pretend there was nothing serious going on for an hour or two.

Chapter Text

Nie Mingjue was surprised to see Nie Huaisang talking with Lan Xichen when he strode into the courtyard in the morning. Huaisang was rarely up and about at this time of the morning. Although he saw that he was still wearing last night's clothes, so maybe it was the opposite. He scowled at his brother. If he had enough energy to stay out all night, he had more than enough energy to put in an hour or two of saber practice. 

Nie Huaisang must have felt his glare, because he raised his head from where it was bent next to Lan Xichen, who also looked up. Both of them smiled at him, and Nie Huaisang waved him over. He headed over to join them.

"What are you getting up to," he demanded. He had seen Nie Huaisang at the banquet last night, so his brother obviously hadn't stayed in his room like he had told him to. He knew he should have been stricter, marched over and dragged him out again, or even punished him harsher. But Nie Huaisang had looked so happy last night, laughing and talking with a different person each time he had seen him, and he hadn't been able to bring himself to.

"Your brother was just keeping me company," Lan Xichen said. "We saw a very nice sunrise, and we were just discussing the Jin's gardens."

"It's pretty, but so boring, Dage," Nie Huaisang said, pointing to a tree. "They cut it to within an inch of it's life. I'm sure that if a bird tried to nest in it someone would come to chase it away within an hour. Truly the Jin wish to impose their own order on the natural world."

"The Jin are like that." Almost as eager as the Wen to impose their personal order.

"But the harmony that it creates is beautiful, is it not?" Jin Guangyao added, walking into the courtyard to join them. "It could not be found in the wild. Truly such delicacy must be admired." 

He bowed. "Forgive me, Dage, Er-ge. My father held me long this morning. I apologize for being late."

Nie Mingjue glared at him. The only thing worse than staying in this viper's den would be talking with the slimiest snake of them all.

But Lan Xichen wanted them to get alone like they had used to, and seemed to think that if they just spend enough time with each other they would mend the rift between them. He didn't seem to realize that there were some things that Nie Mingjue would not, could not compromise on.

"Oh, are you meeting with Dage and Er-ge? I didn't mean to intrude." Nie Huaisang rose and bowed to the two of them. "Thank you for your indulgence this morning, Er-ge. I hope we will have a chance to talk again in the future. I'll leave you with my brother." He left with a skip in his step, and Nie Mingjue again wished he would spend a quarter of that energy on his training.

Nie Mingjue waited until Nie Huaisang had left before rounding on Jin Guangyao. 

"How did you father know about my strategist?" Nie Mingjue wished that he could pick up Meng Yao and shake him until the truth came out. Whatever the truth was. If he even knew what the truth was. But Lan Xichen was there, and he would never understand. "You're the spy. Everyone knows that your father gets his information from you. How did you know? Was it from one of my men?" Options raced through his head. Did Meng Yao have people in the Nie sect? He couldn't believe it of any of his men, but at one point he would never have believed it of Meng Yao.

"Dage, I think you need to calm down, please sit." Jin Guangyao smiled, gesturing to the table where Lan Xichen was still sitting. "I called for food, so we should eat together and catch up."

"Peace, Nie Mingjue." Lan Xichen agreed. "I told him."

"You." He sat down, still glaring at Jin Guangyao who took the seat across from him. "Why? When?"

"Because A-Yao asked after you. He was worried about you, so I told him everything I knew you had done for the entire war. It just naturally came up." Lan Xichen smiled and poured the tea.

"I did tell my father, but I didn't realize that he was going to bring it up in such a way." Jin Guangyao had a perfectly apologetic look on his face, and Nie Mingjue knew that it was false. Jin Guangshan had probably asked for some weakness of his, some fault that he could attack, and Jin Guangyao had given it to him. Probably with that same smile on his face.

"Of course you realized," he snapped. "You're not a fool. You knew exactly what you were doing."

"Calm down, Dage. A-Yao has no control over his father's actions, and you know it." Lan Xichen was almost as good at calming him down as A-Sang was, but he didn't want to be soothed. He wanted to be away from this city, back in Qinghe, away from all the Jin and their plots.

"It's won't be a problem, Dage. It will blow over. And I wouldn't have thought that you would care so much for your reputation."

"It's not about my reputation, but my sect's. I will not sit idly by while your father undermines my sect." He couldn't care less about what these people thought. Most of them had never been on a battlefield, so they didn't understand the sheer relief he had felt, reading those letters. Knowing that there was someone, somewhere, who could make sense of it.

"It's fine. Your sect is in a very stable position at the moment, it would take more than a little gossip to harm it." Jin Guangyao laughed his perfectly proper laugh and Nie Mingjue wanted nothing but to punch him. Maybe that would wipe the smile of his face. "They'll be talking about something else by tomorrow, I'm sure."

"Not if your father keeps bringing it up!"

"No, A-Yao is right. No one can lead without capable advisors, and all the other sect leaders know that. If you have such a skilled one, that is only to the credit of your sect." Lan Xichen said.

"Not the way that Jin Guangshan tells it."

Jin Guangyao winced. "I admit that my father does not have the most respect for advisors."

"He certainly doesn't value your advice." He was watching for it, so he saw the smallest crack in Jin Guangyao's face as anger flared in his eyes.

"Nie Mingjue!" Lan Xichen said.

"No, Er-ge, it's fine." Jin Guangyao swallowed, perfectly unruffled yet again. "It is true that my council yesterday was ignored, but I am as yet untried, and unfamiliar with the delicacies of politics in the Jin courts. I'm sure that my father will come to value my talents in time, as I prove myself to him."

Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen exchanged a look. They both knew that was unlikely to happen. Jin Guangshan wasn't inclined to value anyone. But they also both knew that Jin Guangyao was unlikely to listen. For Nie Mingjue part, he was disinclined to try. Jin Guangyao's troubles were all of his own making. If he had behaved with more honor, Jin Guangyao would still be at his side in the Nie sect, where his council had always been valued.

He continued to glare at Jin Guangyao, who valued the appearance of respect but whose humility was empty, who didn't value the truth and was quick to lie and hide, who didn't care about the people who served Nie Mingjue-

Lan Xichen nudged him under the table. Nie Mingjue stopped grinding his teeth. Jin Guangyao continued to drink his tea as if he hadn't noticed Nie Mingjue's rage. Another empty courtesy from him.

"I'm sure that your father will come to value your advice," Lan Xichen sad warmly.

Nie Mingjue snorted. "Remember to be honest with him."

"I thank you for your advice, Dage." Jin Guangyao inclined his head. "But I must admit I do share some of my father's concerns. Although they seem a skilled advisor, the fact that they are so secretive must be cause for worry."

Nie Mingjue absolutely hated that he agreed with Jin Guangyao about anything. He didn't want to give him the satisfaction.

"I'm sure that they have their reasons," said Lan Xichen. "No harm has come from them yet, has it?"

"I suppose not. But I can't help but worry for Dage."

"Don't," he bit out shortly.

Lan Xichen laughed as if it was a joke.

"Of course. You are well able to protect yourself against any threats, and I forget myself."

"You do. You are no longer a member of the Nie sect." He watched Jin Guangyao for another tell, but if he gave one, Nie Mingjue didn't catch it.

"Yes. But just because I am now a part of my father's sect does not mean that I forget all my care for you. And my father is concerned as well. Taking advice from such an unknown source can only be a risk, and an unnecessary one."

"Tell your father that he has no say over the running of the Nie sect, and that if he wishes to express concern over my management of the sect, he is free to take it up with my army. Maybe he has an honest fight in him, though I doubt it."

"Nie Mingjue!" Lan Xichen looked horrified. "We just ended a war, we can't afford to start another one! Especially against our allies."

Jin Guangyao's smile had frozen on his face. "Please forgive my careless remarks. They were spoken in concern for my oldest brother, and should not be reflected on my father or my sect."

"I want nothing to do with your father." And it would have been much better for Jin Guangyao if he had never caught his father's eye. Although he would still be someone who killed his allies, at least he wouldn't be devoted to such corruption.

"You are overwrought, Dage. The stress of the situation has made you forget your words." Jin Guangyao exchanged a look with Lan Xichen.

"I forget nothing, Jin Guangyao." He met his eyes, and Jin Guangyao looked away first.

Jin Guangyao rose and bowed to them both. "Thank you for your company this morning. I enjoyed our conversation, and wish that it could continue. But my father needs me, so I must take my leave." And with that he left, walking away as calm and collected as ever.

Lan Xichen looked after Jin Guangyao. "I wish you two wouldn't argue so. You used to be such close friends."

"A mistake."

Lan Xichen just smiled and changed the subject. "I enjoyed my talk with Huaisang earlier."

"I'm glade that the two of you get along so well. A-Sang has never been good at making close friends, and you are a definite improvement over Wei Wuxian."

"The two of them and Jiang Waynin did get into quite a bit of trouble, didn't they." Lan Xichen laughed at the memory of calmer days.

"Too much." He had approved when he had learned that A-Sang had become friends with such promising peers. He had thought that they might be able to instill a bit of work ethic by simple exposure, but that obviously didn't happen. And with the way that Wei Wuxian was turning out, it might be for the best that A-Sang hadn't taken his study habits to heart.

"I didn't want to bring it up earlier because Nie Huaisang told me in confidence, but he was concerned with something that you said earlier."

"What about it?" Nie Huaisang was rarely concerned about anything.

"He said that you were worried about your strategist. It wasn't very clear, but he said something about you saying that he was an enemy?" Lan Xichen smiled sheepishly to be repeating secondhand words.

"That child," Nie Mingjue scowled. Every other time he tried to impress upon him a care for the world around him beyond his birds and his art, Nie Huaisang ignored him. But one hint about his confused feelings about something that didn't concern him, and he was talking about it to everyone under the sun.

"Go easy on him, Dage. He was just worried about you."

"It isn't his place to worry about me." He was the elder. He was the one who needed to protect A-Sang from everything that might harm him.

Lan Xichen just waited, head tilted to the side, open and listening.

"I will not lie," he said. "It does concern me that they have been so secretive about their identity. It is true what they say. I am deeply in their debt for their skilled advice. I owe them as much honor as I can give them. And the only reasons that I can think for them to avoid their just rewards would be that they are unsuitable in some way."

"In what way?"

"I'm not sure. Maybe they are a criminal, or someone with a shameful past. Maybe they are a member of another sect, and their support of me is a betrayal of their values. For a while I thought it might be Jin Guangyao."

"A-Yao? Why?"

"Everything that they wrote was perfectly respectful and deferential, and very intelligent. And at that point he was spying on Wen Ruohan, so he would have access to the information needed. But Jin Guangyao would have given his information to Sect Leader Jin, not to me. And I doubt that any strategy he wrote would be so careful of the men."

"Jin Guangyao cares for his people. He has such grand ideas to protect the people."

Nie Mingjue remembered his sword master, dead by the blade of an ally, but did not bring it up. "Be that as it may be. If it had been him, he would not have told his father about it. Sect Leader Jin would only disapprove." He would have told everyone else though. Jin Guangyao never could resist praise.

"Interesting that Sect Leader Jin disapproves of so much, when his own character leaves so much to be desired."

Nie Mingjue barked a laugh. It was proof that Jin Guangshan was a terrible person if even Lan Xichen was insulting him.

"Agreed."

"I worry about Jin Guangyao here," Lan Xichen continued on. "He looks up to his father so. I wish he would come to Cloud Recess, or even back to Qinghe with you."

"I wouldn't have him. I wouldn't be able to trust him again."

Lan Xichen sighed. "I wish the two of you would talk. I feel like if you would just try to mend your differences you could restore your old friendship."

Nie Mingjue just gave him a skeptical look. This was a conversation that they had many times before. Neither of them were willing to give in.

And indeed, Lan Xichen shook his head a changed the subject to some matter of reparation in the post war period. A much less frought topic. Nie Mingjue had no desire to take in the remaining Wen war prisoners, and Lan Xichen didn't have the resources or the space since the Cloud Recesses was still being rebuilt. The Jiang were in an even worse position, so it seemed likely the Wen would go to the Jin. 

As little as he wanted to let Jin Guangshan win, even in a fight like this, he figured it would be harmless enough.



Nie Huaisang met him just inside the doors, a smile on his face and a skip in his step as he fell into step beside him.

"Good morning, Dage, did you have a nice breakfast?" He chirped.

"Don't think I don't know that you were listening." A bad habit, but one that Nie Mingjue was somewhat reluctant to discipline with much more than a frown and general disapproval. If it wasn't for what his brother heard when listening around corners he didn't think Nie Huaisang would know anything at all about current events.

And Nie Huaisang didn't deny it, just hummed.

"Dage, I've thought about what you said, and I don't think that you need to lie."

"I'm listening." Nie Mingjue was surprised. For some reason, this subject was eliciting an unusual amount of thoughtfulness out of his brother. He would have expected A-Sang to have completely forgotten everything about this hours ago.

"Your letter writer is a member of our sect, right? They wouldn't have sent their letters to you if they weren't."

"I told you, I don't know. They usually signed their messages as 'your follower', but they could be lying."

"But they are probably someone in the sect. Why would they lie about being your follower? And they could have sent their letters to Sect Leader Lan or Jin or someone if they weren't beholden to you." He nodded to underscore his circuitous logic.

"I'd like to think that no one in the sect would be this duplicitous." All disciples were taught to value honesty. There were very few that he would think capable of this kind of deception. Even Nie Huaisang, who had an unfortunate tendency to keep secrets, would know better than to keep a secret of such magnitude. Not that his brother had the kind of focus needed for strategy. The idea was laughable.

"Dage!"

"Alright, alright. Yes, they are probably a member of the sect."

"Then all you have to say is that one of your advisors has a head for strategy." He nodded vigorously to underscore his point.

"I thought you said I wouldn't have to lie."

Nie Huaisang shook his head. "It wouldn't be a lie, though. You have been taking their advice. That makes them an advisor."

"You've been spending too long away from Qinghe. I would expect that sort of sophistry out of Jin Guangyao, not from you." He would need to address Nie Huaisang's teachings. This sort of sneaky thought was unbecoming for a son of the Nie.

"We've only been here a week," Nie Huaisang protested. "I can't have picked up too many bad habits in a week, right?"

"If you do, I'll make you pay when we get home. An hour's of saber practice for every lie."

Nie Huaisang mock grimaced. "Anything but that. I'll be honest, Dage, really." He laughed.

"You think saber practice is amusing, then?" Nie Mingjue played along, mock serious. It was an old argument, and at this point it was practically a game. They both knew that Nie Huaisang would do as little saber practice as pleased him, and not a second more. Nie Huaisang took one look at his face and started laughing harder, raising his fan to hide his face. "Two hours for every lie, then."

"I'll just have to not get caught then." Nie Huaisang started ahead, then turned around to face him. "But really, think about what I said. I don't think that Sect Leader Jin is going to let it go that easily. And if you act like its all normal, then it will be harder for him to use it against you."

Nie Mingjue just waved him away. He went, probably to finally sleep. Nie Mingjue still couldn't believe that he had stayed out all night at a Jin celebration. They were so deeply unpleasant. Although since Nie Huaisang wasn't a sect leader, they were probably less stressful for him.

Lan Xichen had been right though. His brother was worried about this for some reason. Surprising, but Nie Mingjue would take any glimmer of serious thought from him. Although he wasn't unintelligent, Nie Huaisang avoided serious thought. But something about his strategist had caught his attention, for the moment at least.

And Nie Huaisang had a point. It edged dangerously close to a dishonorable lie, but all of the other options were equally dishonorable or even worse.

He would need to think about this.



He still didn't have a better solution the next day, when Jin Guangshan brought the subject up again. He had almost hoped that the other sect leader had forgotten it, but as they were making their farewells Jin Guangshan started talking about battles during the war.

The Jin sect had a tendency to make a production out of the most simple events. So the Nie delegations' leavetakings were taken up by what felt like hours of speeches and formalities. If Nie Mingjue had his way they would have just bowed and left. They weren't going off to battle, so there should be no need for speeches. Especially ones like this, which only flattered the speech-giver. He mostly tuned it out. He could only listen to Jin Guangshan praise himself for so long.

So he almost wasn't prepared when Jin Guangshan brought the conversation around to more dangerous grounds.

"And who was your strategist for that battle again?" Jin Guangshan said.

"Douji-zun. One of my advisors." Nie Mingjue said curtly. He heard a clatter to the right. A quick glance to the side showed that Nie Huaisang had dropped his fan and was stooping to pick it up. He would need to make him do more hours of sword drills when they returned to Qinghe if he was still that clumsy.

"Douji-zun. Douji-zun. Not a title I recognize?" Jin Guangshan's oily tone brought him back to the conversation.

"It was newly granted," he ground out. He hated lying like this. This kind of deception was low, and brought him down to their level.

"That's been going around lately, hasn't it. Lianfang-zun." Huaisang waved at Jin Guangyao with his recovered fan. "Of course, someone as admirable as you would get a title sooner or later. Dage and I are so happy that you are being treated so well by the Jin sect."

Nie Mingjue knew that he should be stopping his brother. He really shouldn't be interrupting like this, especially when Nie Mingjue was talking to another sect leader. Nie Huaisang was breaking so many rules of polite society, from interrupting two sect leaders to adressing Jin Guangyao over his father. Jin Guangshan was certainly looking at him as if he wondering how someone could be so rude.

Well, Nie Huaisang had never been much for propriety. And if it kept Jin Guangshan from continuing his line of questioning, then Nie Mingjue would even cheer him on.

"Thank you, Nie-er-gongzi." Jin Guangyao took Nie Huaisang's rudeness in stride, bowing in response to the praise. His father transferred his look to his son, and Jin Guangyao, ever quick to grovel, turned and bowed even lower to his father. "My father has been truly generous, and has rewarded me richly for my small part in the war."

Jin Guangshan looked at Jin Guangyao like he was thinking about throwing him down the stairs again for the presumption of talking in front of him. Nie Mingjue clenched his fists in anger before remembering that Jin Guangyao wasn't his to protect anymore. And he didn't even want to protect him to begin with.

"Your hospitality was truly generous, Sect Leader Jin. However we must take our leave."

"Are you that uncomfortable leaving your sect to it's own devises?"

Nie Mingjue ground his teeth, aware that he had fallen into a trap.

"Unlike the Jin, we Nie have more pressing duties."

"Then I suppose I must let you return to your frontier, Sect Leader Nie."

Finally. They started the rituals of formal leavetaking. They took much too long, and Nie Mingjue would never insist on them among his own people, but Jin Guangyao was the sort to insist on receiving every courtesy that he could claim.

Still, as soon as they were finished they could be on their way. It could not come quick enough. He wanted to leave Lanling Jin and their politics far behind.

As soon as they were out of earshot of the Jin, before they took flight, Nie Huaisang leaned over and hissed. "Douji-zun?"

"A well deserved name."

"Really? But why a name at all!"

"Because my honor demands that I treat them with as much respect as I can, at least until I know that they do not deserve it, and a title is the least that I would offer them if they made themself known to me."

"Dage, that makes no sense." He was fluttering his fan wildly. Nie Mingjue wondered what had upset him. Distracting Jin Guangshan from him earlier, maybe?

"Of course it does. You can meditate on honor and lies when we return to Qinghe. I'm sure with enough thought it will become clear."

Nie Huaisang just gave him an exasperated look and fell back.

Nie Mingjue just shook his head. He seldom needed to lecture Nie Huaisang on honor. He had a good grasp on ethics and a good heart. He was sure his brother could understand, even if he didn't understand the sort of soldier's honor that Nie Mingjue favored.

Chapter Text

Nie Huaisang cursed Wei Wuxian for his actions at the Pheonix Hunt. The entire meeting afterward he had been on edge. Was his friend trying to start another war? He was just making a tense situation so much worse.

Really, the agreement to let Sect Leader Jiang deal with him was probably the best outcome for that meeting. And he had hoped that it would work out, that Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin would manage to thread the political needle and manage to smooth everything over. He had thought that if Jiang-xiong had taken in the war prisoners and Wei Wuxian made some very public acts of deference to the entire cultivation world, things would have worked out. At least until the next time that Jin Guangshan tried to gain Wei Wuxian's power. 

Wei Wuxian being publicly exiled from the Jiang sect wasn't the best case scenario. It left them both very weak. But it was better than a lot of the alternatives, and he had breathed a sigh of relief that it hadn't been any worse.

But when he heard what his brother was planning to do about it, he had stormed through the halls, pushing open the doors to his brother's council to interrupt.

Nie Huaisang avoided his brother's council whenever he could. He had no interest in them. The work they did was important, he knew, but it was so very, very boring. He was so glad that he was the second son and would never need to deal with them. The council liked it that way as well. He was silly and irresponsible, so they preferred that he didn't try to interfere with their serious work.

So he could list every time he had willingly entered the discussion hall when they were meeting. And never before had he been this angry.

"Sactions against the Jiang? Hunting Wei-xiong down?"

Nie Mingjue gave him a glare for interrupting them. "I won't ask where you got that information, since you have no business in the running of the sect."

He had been eavesdropping, of course. He was in the side gardens with his birds when he had heard some disciples who had returned from a night hunt near Jin territory and a messenger joking about hunting down Wen. It was a phrase he had gotten unused to hearing since the end of the war, so he had drawn closer to hear better.

It wasn't good news. Jin Guangshan had felt that the Jiang hadn't punished Wei Wuxian enough. After all, the man was just going to create his own sect and return to terrorize the cultivation world. So he had decided that he would be going to the taking matters into his own hands.

And Nie Mingjue was planning on joining him.

"Dage, you don't need to do this."  The council members were all looking at him like they couldn't believe he was here. He couldn't believe he was here either. It would have been easier to talk to Nie Mingjue when he was alone, after he had thought through what he was going to say. But when he had heard the news, he had needed to talk to him immediately. He hadn't given it even a moment's thought. He still needed to talk with him, enough not to care that he wasn't really acting like he usually did. "You're going to kill my friend."

"Please leave us," Nie Mingjue ordered the council. They filed out, although he could see that some of them wanted to protest. Captain Yizhen in particular looked like he wanted to interrupt, but Captain Zonghui pulled him along. When they were gone, Nie Mingjue sighed and rose from his throne, stepping around his desk to approach Nie Huaisang.

"A-Sang, you don't understand."

"No, I do understand. You are going to hunt down the Wei Wuxian and kill him, all because he did something that you didn't like." He wished he didn't understand.

"If he has abandoned all honor, then he deserves death."

"Honor? Dage, honor has nothing to do with it. You are just angry that he is protecting the Wens."

"The Wen are our enemy, Huaisang. You know that. If Wei Wuxian is protecting them, then he is our enemy as well."

"Wei Wuxian is my friend, Dage! Whatever you think, it's not like that."

"No? Because it seems to me that Wei Wuxian has decided to betray his sect for the sake of all of our enemies." Nie Mingjue shook his head. "The Jiang have given him everything, and he doesn't even have the honor to obey his sect leader. If he were one of my disciples, he would have been exiled long ago."

Nie Huaisang knew that Wei Wuxian was not in the most stable of places since the war. The few times that they had talked together since Wei-xiong had been barely holding himself together, and no amount of teasing from Nie Huaisang had been able to get a completely genuine smile out of him. Instead, he just got lots of mocking and guarded looks. He had been determined to keep trying though. He didn't know what his friend had been through during the war, but he knew that sometimes people grew erratic after terrible experiences.

That wasn't a reason to try to kill them.

"And he has been, now. If Sect Leader Jiang is satisfied with that, isn't that enough?" He sat down at one of the side desks, allowing his brother to look even farther down on him. He had started this conversation in a very aggressive manner, and Nie Mingjue had only matched him. But if he visibly signaled that he wasn't going to be as confrontational about this, then maybe his brother would calm down a little and listen to what he was saying.

"Because as much as I hate to admit it, Sect Leader Jin has a point." His trick was working. Nie Mingjue had taken a step back so he wasn't looming over him quite so much, and his voice was less angry.

"What point, Dage. Please tell me what makes you think going after my friend is a good idea." That came out sharper than he had meant.

"He's dangerous, A-Sang. If he's turned against us, then it will take all that we have to take him down. The sooner we can do that, the easier it will be. If he is left unchecked, then he could have an army of fierce corpses in the Burial Mounds within the year."

If. Nie Huaisang was going to use that if. "But he hasn't given any sign that he is going to attack. He's been there for over a month, and he hasn't attacked anyone."

Nie Mingjue slammed his hand on the desk. "We can't take that chance. Our sect, our people, can't take that chance."

Out of the corner of his eye saw someone look into the room, take one look at the two of them, and duck out immediately. Of course they did. Nie Mingjue was furious, anyone with sense would leave.

He didn't have any sense, apparently.

"But surely if we talk to him, we can work it out! I'm sure if we just talked to him, it would be obvious that he doesn't plan on attacking anyone." He was sure that Wei Wuxian didn't have any intentions to destroy anyone.

"The Lan's have already talked to him. Lan Xichen tells me that the Yiling Patriarch told his brother that he had no intentions to obey sense and reason and surrender himself to the rest of us. And there can be no doubt that he has raised a fierce corpse. An extremely dangerous fierce corpse. Wen Ning has proven himself as terrible as any of his kin, and an abomination like it should be killed with impunity."

"You're wrong." He didn't know Wen Ning well, not like Wei Wuxian, but he remembered him as quiet and harmless. Wei Wuxian had once told him that Wen Ning was the only cultivator he knew that was less dangerous than Nie Huaisang was.

"It is the duty of our sect, of all cultivators, to destroy that which will threaten the people that we protect. Allowing the Ghost General and his master to live would be a betrayal of all that the Nie Sect stands for, of our purpose."

"Our purpose it to defend the weak," he snapped. "Our purpose is to destroy evil, and to behave with strength and honor. That's what you've always said. That’s what you've always done! This isn't any of that!"

"Yes it is! Wei Wuxian and the Wens are a threat. Why don't you see that?"

"Because it's ridiculous! The Wens are practically destroyed, what can they do against us? We outnumber them hundreds to one. Thousands to one." It was logic! Simple math! Which Nie Mingjue knew.

"One strong cultivator can be the equal of an army. Hasn't Wei Wuxian proved that?" Nie Mingjue sighed. "I know that you don't understand what that means. You weren't a part of the war, so you didn't see. He commanded armies of the dead. The resentful energy that he summoned could kill scores and scores of Wen without them even being able to touch him. Such power cannot be anything other than evil, Huaisang."

"Oh, so now it s evil, when he's protecting the Wen. I thought it was a good thing when he was killing them." Nothing he was saying was getting through to his brother, and he was getting frustrated. So was Nie Mingjue, who was not only glowering but pacing. He thought that if he was anyone else, Baxia would be rattling in her stand.

"Why are you so intent on this? It's not your concern." 

"Because Wei-xiong is in the right." He was on his feet now, even though he didn't remember standing.

"What," Nie Mingjue roared. He was probably shocked that Nie Huaisang was still arguing with him like this. Nie Huaisang certainly was. But he just kept speaking, unable to stop.

"Because it's not right, Dage! You saw how the Jin were treating the Wen at the hunt. You didn't think that was acceptable, you can't! You thought it was dishonorable too, you had to."

"They are our enemies! They killed our father!" Nie Mingjue was shouting now, his fists clenched at his side.

"Wen Ruohan killed our father! Those people had nothing to do with it. They didn't deserve what the Jin were doing to them." He was swaying on his feet, a little light headed at how he was acting. What was he thinking? But his mouth just kept moving.

"They supported him! They served him, they killed for him, they went to war for him! They deserved to die with him."

"You can't mean that!"

"I do! And we will be going after them tomorrow, as planned." Nie Mingjue looked furious, and Nie Huaisang knew that he should stop. Let him cool down, try again later. But Wei Wuxian was his friend, and he couldn't let it lie.

"But Dage-"

"Go!" Nie Mingjue thundered, pointing to the doors. "I will hear no more from you on this!"

He turned on his heel and stormed out, absolutely furious. Outside the members of the council were waiting. They drew back as he passed. A couple of them flinched as they met his eyes. Probably worried that Nie Mingjue was angry enough to take it out on them. Well good, since none of them had stopped him in this stupid, stupid decision.

And it was a stupid decision. Even putting aside the ethics of it, it was playing right into the hands of the Jin. If he had any doubt that Jin Guangshan wanted to become the next Wen Ruohan this laid them to rest. He was trying to divide the sects and weaken anyone who had the power to stand against him. He just wasn't doing it as overtly as Wen Ruohan had.

He almost turned around to find his brother and bring this up when he remembered himself. Nie Mingjue had made it clear that he wasn't going to listen to anything Nie Huaisang said. It would only make him angrier if he went back to try again.

Besides, that wasn't the sort of argument that would be listened to coming from Nie Huaisang. It was one thing to get so incredibly emotional over a friend, or even to start screaming about ethics and honor. It was another thing entirely for him to talk about political disadvantages and walking into a trap. His brother would laugh him out of the hall.

It was times like this that he regretted keeping his reputation for foolishness. Maybe if Nie Huaisang was someone responsible and strong, someone more like Nie Mingjue, his brother would be more likely to listen to him, and his friend wasn't going to be hunted down by the two currently strongest sects and killed.

But Nie Mingjue did listen to him. Or at least he did when he didn't know that it was him.

By the time that he had returned to his rooms, he had calmed down enough to have a working rational argument. Paper and a brush later, he was composing a letter to his brother. He needed to have this exactly right if he was to have any chance of swaying his brother.


Chifeng-zun,

I have heard that you have given me honor as an advisor, so I hope it is not too far out of line to offer you some advice. The situation with the Yiling Patriarch is extremely delicate, and I fear that if not treated carefully will result in another outbreak of war. The Yiling Patriarch is not an enemy that you should court. Our sect is strong, but even the strongest sword can break under enough pressure. Another conflict right on the heels of the Sunshot Campaign will stress us to the breaking point.

There is also the hidden enemy whom your actions serve. Now that the Five Great Sects have become Four, the Jin are obviously trying to become the greatest power of the cultivation world.

By seperating the Yiling Patriarch from the Jiang sect, the Jin have dangerously weakened both. Without the unmatched power of Wei Wuxian, the Jiang are weak, struggling with untried leadership and the devastation of Lotus Pier. They will have little power to act until they become more stable, if they are able to manage such with the Jin harrying their efforts.

Without the support of the Jiang Sect, the Yiling Patriarch is very vulnerable. No man, no matter how powerful, can stand alone against the world. He will be vulnerable to underhanded tactics, whether direct or indirect. It is obvious that they plan to either gain his loyalty, winning themself a powerful weapon in any future conflict, or to bring about his death in some misadventure.

At the moment, this plot does not touch the Nie Sect. However, one must always look to the future. If the Jin destroy all of our possible allies, we will be in a difficult position when they inevitably turn on us.

And the Jin will turn on us. They enjoy their current power too much to allow anything to threaten it, and the Nie Sect is, as ever, strong. Already they have targeted the Yiling Patriarch, who was the strongest individual fighter in the war. I fear that we will be next, as one of the few sects with the power to challenge them. If so, we will have no recourse to allies save for the Lan, who have traditionally kept a step back from such power struggles.

Beyond that, we cannot afford a war with the Yiling Patriarch. Chifeng-zun has seen his power in battle, the destruction that he leaves behind in his wake. If that power is turned against us, then it will not be enemy Wen who die in fear and blood, but Nie disciples. Men and women who owe their loyalty to the sect, and who in return must deserve to be kept safe from unwise danger by their leader.

I beg you to consider my words.



He raised the brush and considered. Yes, he thought that was everything. Everything that might persuade Nie Mingjue at least. He hesitated before signing though. He had always signed as 'your loyal follower' or some variation before. But he didn't want to imply that he would follow Nie Mingjue in this. And he did have another option, now.

In the end, he hurried through the strokes of Douji-zun. It looked awkward, and he felt self-conscious the entire time. Really what had his brother been thinking. A title, for him. Not that Nie Mingjue knew that it was him, but still.

After that, it was simple enough to slip into his brother's rooms and place the letter on his desk, right on top of the correspondence from Sect Leader Jin. There wasn't even any worry about his brother finding him sneaking around. Nie Mingjue had taken Baxia and stormed out to the training yards. Nie Huaisang had heard the destruction clear from his room.

Hopefully once his anger was spent he would be in a better mood to consider logical arguments. Hopefully he would reconsider.



In the morning he headed down to the main courtyard where the men would gather before heading out. It was quieter than he would have expected for an amassing force, more like a regular day than a day when an army was mustered. He stood there for a few minutes, watching the disciples move about and listening. There was no talk of heading out. There was talk about his embarrassing behavior yesterday, although he didn't get to hear it before the speakers were hushed, with gestures towards where he was standing.

All in all, it was hopeful. Maybe Nie Mingjue had agreed with him, once he had calmed down. Or maybe the letter with its more calculating words had swayed him.

If it hadn't, then he could try again. He wasn't sure what he could say that he hadn't already, but he still needed to try.

He was just about to go and find his brother to ask for answers when Nie Mingjue drew up behind him. He looked tired.

"I sent a message to Lanling Jin," his brother started, then stopped. 

"You aren't going after the Wen's with the Jin's after all." It was the only thing that made sense.

"I have reconsidered."

"You aren't going to hurt Wei-xiong?" He couldn't keep the hope out of his voice.

"For the moment. But A-Sang, you must understand. Wei Wuxian is playing with forces he cannot control. He is capable of terrible things. Some of the things that I saw from him during the war were beyond my imagination."

"I know he's dangerous, Dage." So was his brother, and all of his brother's friends. Wei Wuxian was just more of the same.

"Yes. And if I every think that he is going to turn his power against the rest of the cultivation world, I will have no choice but to put him down."

"He's a person, not a dog, Dage." But that was okay. For now, everything was going to be okay. Wei Wuxian would be alright, or at least as alright as anyone who was living in the Burial Mounds could be. This whole plot was going to fizzle out.

The Jin would be upset when word reached them that the Nie would not be supporting their attack the Yiling Patriarch. He would willingly practice the saber for a whole week if the Jin decided to go against Wei Wuxian alone. Jin Guangshan, for all the sheer numbers of cultivators who followed him, was very cautious. You just needed to look at how his sect had behaved in the war to know that. He wouldn't make such a strike without major support. The Jiang wouldn't and he rather thought that the Lan wouldn't either.

So Jin Guangshan would make some big fuss, put a nice spin on things to please the more easily influenced minor sect leaders, but he wouldn't attack Wei Wuxian. Not overtly, at least. He expected to hear a lot more rumors circulating though, ones that painted Wei Wuxian in a much worse light.

But he had bought his friend some time.

For the moment, everything would be alright.

Chapter Text

He had been right about the nasty rumors, but with Wei Wuxian sequestered in the Burial Mounds there was very little that he could do about it. He was having a hard enough time stressing about how the Jin reacted to Nie Mingjue backing out of their planned attack. Jin Guangshan definitely wasn't pleased. 

For awhile, it seemed like Jin Guangyao was around every other day trying to smooth things out between the sects. Nie Huaisang was glad to see him despite his reasons for being there. He had missed him. When he was a teenager, Jin Guangyao had been one of the fixtures of his life. He had organized Nie Mingjue's correspondence and managed his schedule, rewrote his letters and managed the household. The two of them had been a force to be reckoned with, and after Jin Guangyao had left the sect nothing had run quite so smoothly as it had before.

But no matter how busy he had been, Jin Guangyao had always had time for him. He had listened to him complain about having to practice the saber, and had always been happy to look at his newest art work.

Jin Guangyao had always been endlessly patient with him. No matter how silly the subject was, he would just smile and listen. Nie Huaisang had loved him, and when he was sent away he had wept and begged for his brother to reconsider and let him back. To no avail, of course. Nie Mingjue wasn't likely to reconsider his decisions.

And it had turned out well in the end. Jin Guangyao had gotten the acknowledgment that he had always wanted, and had happily put his skills to the use of his father. He had the respect of the entire cultivation world.

But he still didn't seem satisfied. Nie Huaisang could have predicted that. Jin Guangyao worked harder for his father than he ever had needed to for Nie Mingjue, and with even less acknowledgment. Nie Huaisang couldn't imagine how miserable that would make him. It would certainly be torture if it was him.

He had told him that one afternoon when he had caught Jin Guangyao leaving his brother's office. He had hoped to remind him of their old relationship, but failed. Jin Guangyao had smiled like usual, but it hadn't touched his eyes.

"I am happy to serve my sect, Nie-er-gongzi."

"You always call me that, you should call me Huaisang like I always told you to." He had told him that so many times back when Jin Guangyao was Meng Yao. He had never taken the liberty though, no matter how often Nie Huaisang had begged. He had always claimed it wouldn't be proper. As if anyone worth paying attention to would have cared.

"I couldn't possibly." He said, just like he had so many times before.

"Come on, it's fine. Nobody could possibly object to that level of familiarity. Aren't we both young masters of our sect?" He was looking for the flash of pleasure at the reminder, and was gratified to see it. He knew that Jin Guangyao was still incredibly happy over being acknowledged. Reminding him that they were of equal status now would please him.

And Jin Guangyao's smile did grow more genuine. "Your brother might have something to say on the matter."

"Of course he won't. And what do you mean, your brother? He's your brother now too."

"I suppose he is." Anyone else would have missed Jin Guangyao's uncertainty, but Nie Huaisang knew him far to well.

"It's okay. Dage has a soft spot for brothers, he'll forgive you."

"You sound like Xichen."

"That's such a complement, Er-ge is very wise. You should listen to him." He shook his fan at Jin Guangyao in censure. "Just be honest with Dage about what you did and why, and tell him that you know that it was wrong and you won't do it again."

"That might work for you, but it's different for me, Young Master Nie."

"Huaisang! You are my brother's brother, so you are my brother too. And brothers don't go around calling each other second young master." He raised his fan to hide his smile. "Er-ge said so, and you won't disagree with Er-ge will you?" No one could possibly disagree with Lan Xichen. He was too beautiful and elegant.

"Alright, if you insist, Huaisang."

"Excellent! And can I call you San-ge?" he added eagerly.

"I suppose," Jin Guangyao said indulgently.

It was a good conversation, and Nie Huaisang made a point of trying to talk to Jin Guangyao when he was in Qinghe on sect business. He did his best to remind Jin Guangyao of all the good times he had while he was a member of the Nie Sect. Jin Guangshan seemed to have delegated a lot of the relations between the two sects to his son, probably because his and Nie Mingjue's sworn brotherhood created a close tie. He had a lot of power at the moment, and the more partial he was feeling to his old home the better.

Nie Mingjue wasn't helping in that regard. He was distrustful of Jin Guangyao, and unfortunately obvious about it. He never had a calm temper at the best of times, and sometimes it seemed like half of their meetings ended in stalemate and seething anger from the both of them.

Nie Huaisang started to put his eavesdropping skills to work, and began to interrupt the two of them whenever the situation got too tense. The better to placate Jin Guangyao and distract him from what ever his brother told him. It was a good thing that Jin Guangyao still thought of him as a foolish kid, because if he realized how Nie Huaisang was manipulating him he would never let him interfere like this. 

And so it went. He wished that he could relax and stop worrying. He had things to paint and time to waste, and the tension of waiting for lightning to strike was incredibly tiring. But at least disaster hadn't struck quite yet.

Wei Wuxian and the Wen remained in the Burial Mounds. No one had quite worked up the courage to strike against him. But he had an awful feeling that it would only be a matter of time.



Jin Guangyao reminded himself yet again that he was here because his father trusted him. It was the first sign that Jin Guangshan valued his efforts. If he convinced Nie Mingjue to ally himself with the Jin Sect, it would prove his worth yet again, and his father would be pleased. They would be able to strike at Wei Wuxian and solidify their power. It would greatly advance their goals.

It was harder to remember each time he spoke to Nie Mingjue. Harder to keep smiling. Harder to speak calmly and rationally.

"Nie-zongzhi, please reconsider." He bowed again from where he knealt before Nie Mingjue's desk, perfectly supplicant. "Our sect will be happy to make concessions to maintain our good relations."

"Will you open trade through Lanling territory? Or exempt us from the per capita taxes on trained cultivators?" Nie Mingjue was standing, looming over him in his private office. Jin Guangyao noted the way that he stood over him, forcing him to remember that Nie Mingjue was the one with all that power here. He noted it, and told himself that one day Nie Mingjue would not be able to treat him like he was powerless.

"Those funds are used by the office of the Chief Cultivator to recover and rebuild from the devestation of the Wen. They are used for the good of the public, and as such cannot be avoided by any upstanding sect." If he had been talking to Lan Xichen, he might have added that he thought those taxes were mismanaged at best and a well of greed and corruption at worst, and that he wished he had a say in what those funds were used for. That money could do so much, and privately he though his father was foolish for ignoring it's long-term potential. If it was used to provide for the lesser sects as it was meant to, they could buy so much goodwill for the sect, goodwill that they could use to entrench themselves in their position at the top of the cultivation world. Instead, it mostly just went into the Jin sect's coffers, with a mere pittance going to public works.

"As for the trade agreements," he continued, "the tithe for people crossing Lanling territory is to pay for their protection from threats. To exempt the Nie Sect from such fees is beyond my meager power. Such matters will have to be cleared by my father."

Nie Mingjue snorted. "I suppose he knows better than to give you too much power." 

Jin Guangyao kept smiling. He was sure he looked perfectly unaffected as Nie Mingjue moved around behind him and around to his other side. He didn't turn his head to follow him. He wasn't going to give Nie Mingjue the satisfaction.

Once it would not have been like this. Once he had spent many hours in this room, dealing with the sort of issues that he was now bringing to the table. They had worked together well, and this same scene could have happened then. Nie Mingjue had always preferred to move, even when he wasn't overcome with emotion, and would pace while dictating his decisions for Meng Yao. Then, he would have ignored most of what Nie Mingjue said while dressing up his orders into more politic phrases.

He reminded himself that Nie Mingjue had been happy enough to throw him out of the sect. He reminded himself that he was an acknowledged son of the Jin Sect. He reminded himself that one day, Nie Mingjue would kneel at his feet, and he would have the power.

"I have the authority that I have been given." Wasn't the fact that he was here at all proof of that? Although it was frustrating to know that it was given. That meant that it could be taken away.

"Until that power is taken away. Then what will you do?" Nie Mingjue's words echoed his own thoughts. It took a force of will to keep from reacting, although he wasn't sure how. Yelling or arguing would be proof of his ill-breeding. Attacking him would be futile. No answer would be proof of his weakness.

He was saved from losing his composure by Nie Huaisang, who chose that moment to burst through the doors and throw himself on him. He braced himself automatically against the quick hug.

"San-ge! You should have come see me as soon as you arrived! I had to hear from Captain Zonghui that you were here." Nie Huaisang let him go. "I have so much to tell you. One of my swallows laid eggs! And I finished up the painting that you saw last time you were here, so you must come look at it." He tugged at Jin Guangyao's sleeve.

"Nie Huaisang! What have I told you about interrupting!"

"Well of course I'm not going to interrupt when you are dealing with business." He pouted up at his brother, completely unaffected by Nie Mingjue's glare. Jin Guangyao was briefly envious, but he supposed that it was obliviousness to the power dynamics and not actual courage. "But this is San-ge. He's family, so I shouldn't have to be distant."

"I appreciate your regard, Huaisang, but I am speaking to your brother about matters of state. I will be happy to look at your painting, but perhaps afterwards would be better?" He said politely. There was no point in antagonizing Nie Huaisang, and some casual attention could keep him happy. Nie Huaisang would never be a useful ally, but he hadn't gotten to his current position by needlessly antagonizing anyone. And maybe Nie Huaisang might be useful to him someday.

"You should be at saber practice," Nie Mingjue added. "Not bursting in on my private discussions."

Nie Huaisang waved his fan dismissively. "I won't, I won't. I wouldn't want to, its always so boring. What are you even talking about anyway?"

"We are trying to reaffirm the alliance between our sects. It is quite an important matter, Huaisang." It amazed Jin Guangyao that Nie Huaisang was so careless and irresponsible. He would have thought that Nie Mingjue could have managed to beat some sort of edge into the dullest blade.

But Nie Mingjue had never taken a strong hand with his brother, as shown by the way he just sighed and dropped into his seat instead of taking his brother to task. "Jin Guangyao, I think that we a done for the moment."

"Of course, Dage," he agreed. It was true that they weren't getting anywhere, but he would have preferred to continue anyway. It seemed like they kept stalling for one reason or another. But there was no point in fighting Nie Mingjue on such a small subject. It would only get his guard up for next time.

Nie Huiasang took the opportunity to pull on his sleeve again, asking him to come see what he had to show him. He pretended interest in the birds, and admiration at the painting. It would not endear himself to Nie Mingjue if he upset his brother. And Nie Huaisang was so easily satisfied. And privately, he could admit to himself that it was nice, to talk with someone who looked up to him so.

He had brought a fan from Lanling, expecting to run into Nie Huaisang at some point on this trip. He presented it to Nie Huaisang as if it was a formal gift, and the boy was delighted with it. He tucked his own fan into his sleeve and opened the new one to admire.

It was yellow and cream with gold detailing, and the Jin colors were bright against Nie Huaisang's robes. Even Jin Guangyao, who was no artist, could tell that the colors were mismatched, but Nie Huaisang raised it to his face to hide a pleased smile. Jin Guangyao momentarily despaired over the boy. The most hopeless Jin disciple would know a bribe in a second. And Nie Huaisang was the heir to his sect! He would be torn apart if he ever needed to deal with politics.

He gently tried to steer their conversation away from art to more practical conversations. Nie Huaisang was silly, but at least he enjoyed gossip and was willing to share it. At least he was if Jin Guangyao was incredibly direct about his questioning. Although he had an annoying habit of shutting down and refusing to talk on a subject if he didn't want to, and no amount of cajoling would make him continue if he reached that point.

"I worry about Dage. Is he doing alright?"

"Of course Dage is doing alright. It's Dage, San-ge."

He should have known that was too subtle for Nie Huaisang. Really, it was mind-boggling how the simplest complexities escaped him.

"It's only that he isn't acting quite like himself. Allowing the Wen to escape without retribution, when they have committed such atrocities against us all." He frowned. "I would have thought he would have been the first to join with us and hunt them down."

"Oh, I don't know anything about that. You shouldn't ask me such things. Although I'm sure that everything will work out, without a war this time." Nie Huaisang hid his face with the cream fan.

Jin Guangyao kept his tone pleasant as he continued, reminding himself that Nie Huaisang was one of the few people who could sway Nie Mingjue on anything. If he convinced him to back him up, then it could only help. And if he didn't manage to pierce Nie Huaisang's fog of unconcern it would still waste nothing but a bit of time.

"I've heard such terrible things about Wei Wuxian." Heard the rumors, and written a few. Although rumors just grew in the telling. "Surely you could tell your brother that he is a danger to your sect. I know that you aren't as close to the Burial Mounds as we are, but surely it must still be concerning."

"Of course not," Nie Huaisang said, twitching aside his fan to show a frown. "Wei Wuxian is my friend. He's nothing like what they've been saying."

"I know that you knew him when you were younger, but you must understand that people change. Hasn't all of his behavior proved that?" It figured that this would be the only subject that Nie Huaisang showed the famous Nie stubbornness in.

Nie Huaisang just shook his head. "Not Wei Wuxian. Even thought I haven't seen him in so long, I'm sure he's still the same. But you should ask Lan Wangji about that, he would know a lot more. But that's a boring thing to talk about, San-ge. If you worry about Dage, I worry about you. How are they treating you in the Jin Sect? If they aren't treating you well, then I'm sure Dage will be happy to go beat them all up for you."

Jin Guangyao momentarily thought about what would happen if he asked Nie Mingjue to go against the Jin Sect for him. Nothing good. The entire idea was laughable. He couldn't believe that even Nie Huaisang was foolish enough to think that was a viable course of action.

"I am treated fine. My father gives me responsibilities, and I am quite pleased."

Nie Huaisang pulled a face. "Better you than me. That's just boring. And why are you the one who has to deal with everything? What about your brother Jin Xixaun or that cousin your father likes so much, Jin Zixun or whatever his name is? Why don't they take some of the responsibilities? Then you would have more free time and you could come and visit more."

"Jin Zixun has little skill at diplomacy." He realized how insulting that sounded and added, "his talents lie in other areas." Nie Huaisang probably didn't even realize what he said, but he couldn't afford to get into a habit of insulting others. Not not, not when Jin Zixun was so favored by his father. Although he wasn't sure why. Jin Zixun wasn't worthy to clean Jin Guangyao's boots.

"And Jin Zixuan is newly married. He has other worries, and cannot afford to be taken away from his new wife at the moment." And he wasn't any good at diplomacy either. As shown by the fact that he almost didn't get married in the first place. He couldn't stand how his father doted on Jin Zixuan so. He beat his brother on any objective scale. Every scale except legitimacy, at least.

One day Jin Zixuan would kneel to him. He wasn't sure yet how it would come about, but he had faith in his own abilities. Hadn't he gained a place in the Jin Sect despite all the factors against him? On that day he was going to grind his face into the dust. He would show him that there was no difference between the two of them in the end.

"Brothers, I know right." Nie Huaisang's airy laugh brought him back to the conversation.

"Yes," he said. "They can be a trial."

A safe enough sentiment. Especially to Nie Huaisang, who wouldn't read anything into it.

Chapter Text

When it broke, it broke fast and not in any way that Nie Huaisang had predicted. Once it was clear to everyone that Wei Wuxian had no intention of leaving Yiling, it had become a question of what what happen to change that. He thought that the Jin would drum up enough support to attack the Burial Mounds, however that would work out. Nie Huaisang even had some vague plans for how he would deal with it when the Jin were inevitably defeated.

That wasn't at all what ended up happening.

First there came news of an attack in the Qiongqi Pass. A garbled messenger came to tell how the terrible Yiling Patriarch had attacked the Jin. Nie Huaisang had panicked at the news. There was nothing good that would come from this, no matter what had happened. His immediate reaction was that it had to be false. But even if it was, the rumor would still be enough to threaten the uneasy truce between the Yiling Patriarch and the more righteous sects.

When they got better information, from an emergency messenger flying into Qinghe at dawn, it was even worse than he had thought. Jin Zixuan dead, along with his awful cousin and dozens of Jin desciples. Killed by Wei Wuxian and the Ghost General, who had struck them down without mercy or hesitation. There were a few survivors who were willing to swear to the ferocity of the pair of them, and the corpses of many more. Including Jin Zixuan, the heir to the Jin sect.

His first thought was that something didn't add up. Wei Wuxian hadn't left the Yiling region since his expulsion from the Jiang sect. He and his people had stayed in the Burial Mounds and they hadn't stirred to attack anyone. Oh, there were rumors, many of them so over-the-top that he could barely contain his laughter when he heard them, but credible sources showed that they were false. The last thing he would have expected was for Wei Wuxian to change his behavior so drastically.

Nothing here made much sense. He needed more information.

He needed to be there. He wasn't sure what he could do at this point. He wasn't sure what he should do at this point. But either way, he needed to be a lot closer to the decision process than he would otherwise prefer.

So when his brother and the other senior disciples gathered to leave for the gathering at Nightless City, he hurried and joined them. He hoped to go with them quietly without anyone noticing, but some of the disciples pointed him out to his brother.

"Nie Huaisang. What are you doing?" Nie Mingjue asked him, dragging him out from where he was half-hidden behind some of the taller and broader disciples.

"I'm coming with you," he said brightly, with a light smile half-hidden by his fan. He doubted that Nie Mingjue would be distracted enough not to ask why, but he had to try.

"A-Sang. This is not something that you can take lightly." He said sternly. "We are going to be declaring war."

The silly act didn't work. Another tactic then. He lowered the fan and met his brother's gaze for a moment before dropping his eyes as well. He was sure that his brother got a good look at the way that his eyes were welling with tears. Crying always let him get his way, and it was easy enough to do now. He barely even had to force the tears.

As usual, Nie Mingjue was immediately panicked by his tears. He pulled Nie Huaisang into an embrace. "Is this about Wei Wuxian again?" He sounded tired.

Nie Huaisang nodded against his brother's shoulder. "I can't believe he did this." His voice sounded lost.

Nie Mingjue rubbed his back. "I know that you've been worrying about him, but you have to understand that this changes things. If he is killing righteous cultivators, we cannot suffer him to live."

"I know, Dage." It was why he hadn't tried to convince Nie Mingjue otherwise, either by arguing himself or sending another letter. His brother wouldn't listen, and if Wei Wuxian was killing people indiscriminately for whatever reason, Nie Huaisang couldn't defend him. But he was sure that wasn't what had happened. He knew Wei Wuxian. He was unshakable in the defense of others. Which was why he was so sure that there was something that he was missing, something that changed things. He just couldn't figure out what.

"If you know that, then you should stay here, like you did during the war. You'll be safe here."

He shook his head again. "I'll be safe there too. You're going to Nightless City to talk to the other sect leaders. It's not like you are going straight to battle." And if Nie Mingjue was talking to the other sect leaders, then he could as well. Maybe he could still do something. If he could figure out what he should do.

Nie Mingjue nodded, conceding the point. "I suppose you can't get into to much trouble at a gathering like this. But A-Sang..."

"What is it, Dage?" He pulled away to get a better look at his brother's face. It was rare for him to be at a loss.

"I know that he was your friend, but he's gone too far. There's nothing that you can do."

"I not going to do anything. I just need to see Jiang-xiong." He shook his head. "He'll need me."

His brother sighed, but acquiesced. "Alright. But take your saber. I have a bad feeling about this."

Nie Huaisang had one as well.



He put the time between their arrival at Nightless City and the scheduled declaration of war to use. He went straight to the Jin disciples, and a bit of wide eyed admiration for their bravery in standing up to the horrors of the Yiling Patriarch got him all the  information they had. It wasn't much and most of it was garbled and exaggerated, but he was able to interprete it well enough.

He wished that he was able to speak with Jin Guangyao. He would know exactly what had happened. Nei Huaisang might need to put in the effort to figure out what he wasn't saying, but at least he would know that the information was accurate. But Jin Guangyao was busy. He moved seamlessly from his father's side to talking to the many minor sect leaders, and when Nie Huaisang had tried to draw him aside, he had been brushed off with less hidden than usual impatience.

But even without Jin Guangyao's help he was able to piece together a rough idea of what had happened and why.

He had been right. Wei Wuxian hadn't left the Burial Mounds and started randomly killing the nearest cultivators that he could find. He had been invited to the hundred days celebration of his nephew by his sister, the Young Madam Jin, Jiang Yanli. He had made the grave mistake of accepting the invitation. Nie Huaisang could kill him. Wei Wuxian was supposed to be smart! If even Nie Huaisang, who barely managed to pass his classes, could tell that was a trap, then the genius Wei Wuxian should have seen it in an instant. He shouldn't have gone near the Jin.

The Jin had been looking to destroy him for a while. Jin Guangshan wasn't happy that Wei Wuxian and his power was out of his control. They hadn't been successful at drumming up any major support for their plan of attack. They had some of the minor sects, of course, but none of the truly powerful sects were willing to go into such a risky venture so soon after the end of the last conflict. Especially not when they would be the aggressors. When Wei Wuxian stayed sequestered in Yiling, there was little that Jin Guangshan could say to convince people that he was in the right.

This provided them an excuse. Jiang Yanli's invitation drew him out, and from their it was easy enough to goad him into violence.

Now, they were simply responding in kind. They didn't land the first blow. Everything that was to come was in the name of justice, revenge for the unjust death of the Jin heir and other disciples.

He could see how it would have been planned. Jin Zixun, an annoyance on a good day, would have met Wei Wuxian there, probably under the guise of an 'honor guard'. From there, he would have goaded Wei Wuxian until he inevitably lost his temper. It would take effort, but Wei Wuxian could be as proud as anyone under the right circumstances. And even if he refused to be baited, Jin Zixun was probably under orders to reinterpret anything he did that could possibly be a threat.

He wondered if Jin Guangshan had planned for his death. It worked out very well for them if they had a martyr for their cause after all. If he judged right, then Jin Guangyao definitely did. He despised Jin Zixun, and Nie Huaisang had thought before that it would only have been a matter of time before he took things into his own hands. The only question was if Jin Guangshan knew that when he sent out his nephew, he was never going to come back.

He definetly hadn't planed for Jin Zixuan's death. He seemed to have legitimately stumbled into the plot. Jin Guangshan seemed truly grief-stricken at the death of his only legitimate son. He wouldn't have risked his lineage over something like this. Jin Guangyao might have. He was very jealous of his brother. But Nie Huaisang thought that it had too many lose ends to be a plot of Jin Guangyao's. It honestly seemed like a coincidence. Although he was certainly taking advantage of it, standing close to his father's side as his only acknowledged son. But intra-sect power struggles weren't important here, except as a side effect of the chaos massing against Wei Wuxian.

So if he hadn't missed anything, the plan was to provoke Wei Wuxian into a battle at the Qiongqi Pass. If against all odds Wei Wuxian was defeated, then the Jin Sect had a new hero in Jin Zixun and a great story about how he had defended himself heroically against the malevolent necromancer. And if they were defeated utterly, then the Jin Sect finally had a just cause that they could rally the other sects to.

He wondered is Jiang Yanli knew how her father-in-law had used her. Wei Wuxian had came at her invitation, and from her Wei Wuxian probably didn't check for traps. He didn't know Jiang Yanli well enough to ask, or even to guess, but he thought that she might. He caught a glimpse of her in the gathering, standing with the Jin contingent. She was back in white again, her usual soft and polite smile nowhere to be found, her face drawn and pale with stress. It seemed that whenever he saw her, she was wearing mourning. It didn't suit her, although did grief suit anyone?

He couldn't imagine what it must be like, to know that someone you loved was dead because of something that you did. Even if it wasn't her fault, or her intention, it still had to hurt.

He saw her again a bit later, exchanging words with her brother. He wasn't able to get close enough to eavesdrop without being obvious, but he was able to watch from a distance. From her body language she was intent on something, and trying to sway her younger brother to her opinion. For his part, Jiang-xiong was angry, although what else was new with him. He also looked a bit conflicted, although it was always hard to tell with him. Eventually, she embraced him and returned to the Jin contingent. Jiang Cheng looked worried as he looked after her.

He caught up to him after a bit of time had passed, wanting to know what his old friend thought about what was happening. When he said that he wanted to talk to his old friend it was mostly an excuse, but it was a sensible one. Jiang Cheng knew Wei Wuxian a hundred times better than Nie Huiasang did, and he would have a much better idea about what might have driven him to this. He would also be the only sect leader he could expect to oppose killing the Yiling Patriarch. He was one of the few who might be able to sway the public opinion even now.

"Jiang-xongzhu," he called, waving his fan as he greeted his old friend. Jiang Cheng did not look happy to see him, not like he once would have. Before, he would have acted annoyed, but he would have caught him smiling and known that he was just as amused as everyone else at Nie Huaisang's antics. But Sect Leader Jiang Cheng was far to stressed and preoccupied for that. Especially not now. "Fancy seeing you here, it's been so long."

"I don't have time for this." Jiang-xiong practically growled. If they were still as close as they used to be, Nie Huaisang would have told him to relax.

"I was just thinking about you. Everyone's been talking a Wei Wuxian, so of course I think about our happy days in the Cloud Recess." A bit blunt, but Jiang Cheng was a blunt person, and if he didn't get to the point immediately, likely to lose what little patience he had left.

"Of course everyone's talking about Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian is causing such trouble. He wasn't content to come b-," Jiang Cheng cut himself off with a swallow, before continuing. "To waste away in the Burial Mounds. He'll get what's coming to him for making Jiejie cry."

"I'm sure its not like that, Jiang-xiong." He used the more familiar honorific. A reminder of better days, when the three of them played the days away. "I'm sure that there must be some sort of explanation. If we just waited a bit, surely we can work this out."

"Not you too." Jiang Cheng scowled.

"Me too?" He was surprised. He hadn't seen Lan Wangji at the gathering, and wouldn't have thought anyone else here would be openly defending Wei Wuxian at this point. And he was being as circumspect as he thought he could get away with.

"Jiejie was insisting that it must be a misunderstanding, too. As if he hadn't widowed her! Left little Jin Ling an orphan."

"I'm sure that he didn't mean to." He didn't know Jiang Yanli well, but he knew that Wei Wuxian would sooner rip his own heart from his chest than cause her the slightest harm. "It was probably an accident." Jin Zixuan probably just got in over his head when he tried to interfere. No one's fault, except maybe his father's for setting the trap.

"It doesn't matter. He did it. Whether it was an accident or carelessness or loss of control, it doesn't matter."

Nie Huaisang shook his head. "It has to matter, though. If he didn't mean too, then surely it's not fair to punish him for it. Isn't it better if it wasn't intentional?"

"It's just as bad. Worse, in some ways." He frowned. "If it was intentional, then it would be one thing. I've been tempted to kill Jin Zixuan before myself. But not recently, and not like this. This is different, and you're right, it's not something that Wei Wuxian would do. But that just means that he's out of control.

"If he's out of control-" He choked on the sentence, and Nie Huaisang wasn't sure if he was going to break out in tears or rage.

He could guess what the rest of the sentence would be. Nie Mingjue had told him various times in the past year. If he doesn't have control, it is our duty to take control of the problem. We have to deal with it. We need to protect our people, and defeat the threat against them.

All of that was true. He couldn't argue with any of it. He wished he could. Wei Wuxian was his friend, and words that would make logical sense when applied to anyone else broke down when applied to him.

"Aren't you brothers, though?" It was his last ditch effort to get Jiang Cheng to disagree with the people who wanted to kill Wei Wuxian. Jiang Cheng was Wei Wuxian's younger brother, even if not by blood. He would never speak against his brother like that, no matter what happened If Nie Mingjue killed innocents then the only thing Nie Huaisang would do was cover it up. Not that Nie Mingjue would ever do that, no matter how he lost control. "How can you stand aside and let this happen?"

Jiang Cheng looked angrier than ever. "Wei Wuxian has made it clear that I am no brother of his." He whirled and stomped away.

Nie Huaisang didn't bother to follow. There wasn't anything else he could get out of that.

Maybe the war-torn ruins surrounding him were getting to him, but the uneasy feeling from before had returned. It was seeming more and more likely that there was going to be war after all, that there wasn't anything that could stop it at this point.

But he wasn't ready to give up quite yet. And there was one last Sect Leader that he could try.

Lan Xichen was polite as ever when Nie Huaisang found him talking quietly with some of the other Lan disciples, and greeted him with a smile. And if it didn't quite lift the shadow from his eyes, under the circumstances Nie Huaisang couldn't take the time to amuse him into a real smile. No matter how he might like to.

With Lan Xichen, he didn't bother to approach the topic obliquely. "How is Lan Wangji? He can't be happy with all of this."

Lan Xichen's smile faded, and Nie Huaisang tried not to regret needing to be serious for the moment.

"My brother is upset, yes. It is a shame it's come to this."

Nie Huaisang doubted that anyone else would classify how Lan Wangji felt at this mess as merely upset. "A shame? A shame is when I spill ink on a painting that's almost done. This is a tragedy."

"I suppose it is." Lan Xichen looked away. "One that could have been averted, in a better world."

Isn't that the truth. "It doesn't have to happen. We don't need to declare war, Er-ge. If we just sorted it out, I'm sure everything will be fine."

"Huaisang," Lan Xichen said gently. "It's gone to far. We may not have said the words, but we are at war. Wei Wuxian has violated too many strictures to be allowed free reign anymore."

"The rules again? Surely he can be punished a little and that will be the end?"

Lan Xichen shook his head. "That is for minor transgressions, to teach right behavior in the future. And Wei Wuxian hasn't violated the rules, but he's gone against humanity and morality. There is no punishment that will bring him back to the right way."

"Can't you try? To find another way?" There was a wobble in his voice, and he frantically shook his head as he tried not to cry. That wouldn't sway Lan Xichen, and he didn't want him to see him like that anyway.

"You sound like my brother." Lan Xichen looked away polity. Probably to let Nie Huaisang collect himself. "He's been asking us to shelter Wei Wuxian for a while now."

"Of course he has. Lan Wangji would do anything for Wei Wuxian." Nie Huaisang wiped his eyes. "I can't believe this is happening."

"I understand," said Lan Xichen. "It's hard to think that someone we thought we knew is capable of something like this."

"Everyone keeps telling me that! That Wei Wuxian is capable of so much evil, but he's not! He wants to protect the innocent, and defeat evil, and tease his friends." He was crying again.

Lan Xichen sighed and placed a hand on his shoulder. "I wish I could tell you that wasn't true, that he was still the same happy force of chaos we remember. But Huaisang, people change."

Nie Huaisang shook his head again. There really wasn't anything else he could say.

"The ceremony is going to start soon. I need to go. But Huaisang, we should talk again later."

Lan Xichen took his leave with another of his gentle smiles. Nie Huaisang wished that he frowned, or raged, or did anything but act like everything was normal. But he wouldn't be Lan Xichen if he didn't.

There wasn't anything else he could think of. No one who might be swayed. Nothing that he could do that might matter.

He felt numb as the sects declared war. It made a bit of poetic sense, to declare a resurgence of the war in the same place they gained victory before. Jin Guangshan probably planned it that way. Or Jin Guangyao. It was the kind of subtly meaningful display he enjoyed.

But this wasn't the same war. No matter that the people cheering around him were still baying for Wen blood. This was different. This didn't have to happen. Everything about it felt wrong.

His uneasy feeling from earlier just kept growing throughout the ceremony. Something was wrong. He thought for a bit that it was just the fact they were declaring war on Wei Wuxian, which was something wrong in and of itself. But the feeling crystallized itself when the attention of the entire gathering was drawn to a figure in red and black breaking into hysterical laughter.

It seemed that Wei Wuxian had decided to drop in.



Chapter Text

It was the first time he had seen his old friend in ages, and this wasn't the circumstances that he would have wanted their meeting to be under.  Things were tense, and the way that Wei Wuxian was standing apart from everybody else created a visible divide between him and the rest of the cultivation world. Nie Huaisang couldn't help but think that it was a bad sign. 

Worse was the way that he was acting. His speech and manner, not to mention the hysterical laughter, was the image of a man nearing the end of his rope. And no one was trying to deescalate the situation. Why wasn't anyone telling him to calm down?

Nie Huaisang started to edge himself up through the ranks of the Nie disciples. He was standing relatively close to the front, but he wanted to be closer to his brother. Just in case something went wrong.

He had almost reach the front when a stupid idiot fired a shot. He froze, possible actions and reactions racing through his head. This wasn't going to end well.

It didn't.

Wei Wuxian didn't seem much bothered by being shot. He only kept laughing as he raised Chenqing to his mouth. 

Nie Huaisang winced as he saw the people around him tense. Wei Wuxian might not have been a close associate of the Nie Sect during the war, but no one was unfamiliar with his power. Even Nie Huaisang, who had not stepped foot in battle, knew what was coming when Chenqing was heard.

And then there was chaos.

Corpses rose, and Nie Huaisang had a momentary thought that whoever decided to have a diplomatic summit here of all places was a rank idiot. Didn't they think of the hundreds and hundreds of unburied corpses from the last battle? Even if they weren't expecting a fight with the Yiling Patriarch here, surely it was still bad luck?

Groups of cultivators were forming as they started to face the reality of the situation. Each sect was grouping itself off as they began to defend themselves from the threat. Some cultivators had broken in fright and ran. A stupid decision, as a lone cultivator was easily caught by a fierce corpse.

None of the Nie disciples were that foolish, at least. They were more likely to run up to the enemy swinging their sabers wildly than anything else. Almost as dangerous, but at least they were aware of what they were doing.

He had broken formation before the battle had started, and was among some of the more senior disciples closer to the head of the group. They were relatively level headed about the situation. Of course they were, no Nie could get to that rank without experiencing some form of battle. They bunched up, presenting an united front to face the enemy.

He didn't even try to join in. This wasn't something that he could deal with. If he had know things would come to this he would have stayed home in Qinghe. Instead he let Nie Zonghui push him into a position behind the Nie disciple's line where he would be mostly out of danger and not in their way.

The sound of Chenqing swelled in a frantic crescendo as the first line of corpses met their sabers. Nie Huaisang winced at the sound. It should have been impossible to hear the flute over the din of battle, but the high-pitched notes cut through the noise. You could hear it clearly, even as the clang of sword and saber made it impossible to hear yourself think.

And it was very hard to think. Everything was moving very fast, while seeming to take forever at the same time. His focus kept trying to narrow to the space directly in front of him, and it took actual concentration to widen his focus to the battle around him.

It wasn't helped by the fact that he didn't have a good view of what was happening.

They were in the middle of a large open space at the foot of the Wen's stronghold. Unfortunately, it must have been the place where some final battle was fought, because the fierce corpses just kept coming. Even without the seemingly inexhaustible supply of corpses, the position just wasn't defensible. It wasn't going to work.

He took a deep breath and stepped out from the safety of his position. As much as he didn't want to expose himself to more danger than he had to, under the circumstances it wouldn't be a good idea to startle Nie Zonghui by coming from behind. Instead he placed himself clearly into Nie Zonghui's line of sight and raised his fan out, just like he would if he was watching he and his brother spar and he wanted their attention. It worked, and he saw Nie Zonghui's eyes widen as he saw him. He pulled the fan in sharply, motioning back, at the same time he stepped back in to safety.

Nie Zonghui joined him, letting the disciples to either side of him cover him as he retreated. "Are you hurt?"

Nie Huaisang shook his head. "No. But we can't stay here. It's not defensible."

Nie Zonghui was a veteran of countless battles, he didn't need more than that to understand Nie Huaisang's point. "Did you have an option."

"There would work," he waved his fan to the left. A low wall ran along the edge of the open field, broken by a few arches that led into streets.. They could put their backs to it, and that would be one less direction that they would have to worry about. If he thought it would work, he would suggest an all out retreat, but there wasn't a clear path out of the city. Going down through the streets would mean splitting up and in an unfamiliar place like this, they would be easy pickings. So moving out of the center of the promenade was the best option. "If we're careful, we might be able to funnel them into one of the side streets. They just keep coming at us, so they probably don't have the intelligence to realize its a trap. "

Nie Zonghui considered the situation, his eyes flicking from their current position to the wall. "I think you're right. You have your saber?"

Nie Huaisang nodded, drawing it slowly. It probably was something he should have had out already, under the circumstances. No matter how bad he was with it, no matter how dangerous it was, these were mitigating circumstances if ever there were any.

Nie Zonghui nodded. "We'll be moving then. Stay close, and stay alert. Don't try to engage if you can help it, but defend yourself if you need to."

Believe him, the last thing he was going to do was attack some random monster. Nie Zonghui must be confusing him with some of the aggressive disciples his age if he though that was even a remote possibility for Nie Huaisang. "Don't worry." 

Nie Zonghui turned to go, and Nie Huaisang caught him before he could. "Did you see Dage? Is he alright?"

"Nie Mingjue went ahead, after the Yiling Patriarch. He was backed by the other sect leaders, so I'm sure he will be fine."

That was true. And it was a bit silly to be worrying about his brother, Chifeng-zun himself, the strongest fighter in generations of strong fighters. Especially when he needed to worry about himself. Really, if one of them was going to get hurt, it was much more likely to be him.

Nie Zonghui spread the order to move, and so began the most nerve-wracking journey of Nie Huaisang's life. Really, it should take only minutes to cross the space in normal circumstances, but these were decidedly not normal circumstances.  It felt like they inched their way across the battlefield, and every foot they needed to stop to fight off another attack. The only mark of time passing was the notes of Wei Wuxian's flute, which just continued on. He wondered if he would ever run out of breath. 

He was actually glad that he had his saber, for once. Although he was terrible enough with it to practically be unarmed, at least he had some weapon at hand. Even though he was never going to tell his brother that thought had ever crossed his mind. He even used it a few times to block blows, although it was pure luck that his awkward flailing caught anything.

Finally, after what seemed like hours but was only long enough for Wei Wuxian's tune to repeat twice, they reached the comparative safety of the wall. Nie Huaisang wished he could take the time to lean up against it for a moment to rest, but there was still too much to do. They needed to make sure the side street was clear, with no fierce corpses laying in wait for them. They needed to post at least one lookout, so that they couldn't be surprised if the enemy tried to get around. They needed to form some kind of defense, so that they could defeat any fierce corpse that attacked them with as little casualties as possible.

Nie Zonghui had that well in hand though. He gave the same orders that Nie Huaisang would have, and the disciples hastened to obey. They formed a rotating line at the entrance to the side street, and set with a will to the favorite pastime of the Nie sect. He even heard a few joking about it, and even counting kills.

There was little enough that he could do to help. He certainly couldn't fight along them. He would just be a weak point in their line. So he fell back and did his best to coordinate. He ordered people in when he saw the line start to falter, and had people dragged out when it looked like they were ready to fall. Nie Zonghui saw what he was doing, and must have approved because he nodded to Nie Huaisang and joined the center of the line, where the fighting was thickest.

At least he could free up one of their strongest fighters. That was something.

Other people started to trickle in, drawn by the safe space. At first it was mostly other Nie, rallying to the point, but after a while other sect members showed up. Especially the injured. He ordered a section of the street behind them blocked off for the wounded. He didn't know anything about field medicine, but apparently some of the people here did, because they took over quickly with iron discipline.

He saw Jiang Yanli briefly as she passed, being dragged by a mixed pair of Jiang and Jin disciples. She was fighting them every step of the way, calling for her brother. "Sect Leader Jiang is alright, my lady," the Jin disciple told her. "But he's fighting, and you can't interfere."

Nie Huaisang spared a fleeting thought of pity for her. No one seemed to even consider that she might be calling for her other brother.

He shared her concern, but it was overshadowed by his worry for his own brother. It was easy enough to say that Nie Mingjue was the strongest fighter, unmatched on any battlefield, and another entirely to see that battlefield. And the longer things passed without any sign of him, the more his worry grew. But there wasn't anything he could do about it, so he grimly focused on his line of defense.

Eventually, a cry went up for his brother. Nie Huaisang hurried over and forced himself in to see. It was his brother, strong and apparently unhurt. Although looking for injuries was almost an afterthought when he saw the terrifying monster that he was fighting.

It was a mass of old bones, tied together by resentful energy. It must have been formed of remnants of corpses that weren't intact enough to rise as regular corpses. But the how wasn't as important as the result. Which was a skeletal monster over ten feet tall, the force of whose blows lift craters in the ground. It dwarfed even his brother, and even he was having trouble dealing with it by himself. 

Nie Mingjue called over to them, and the Nie rushed over to support their leader, leaving only a bare minimum to guard the archway.

He ducked back and ordered the people behind the line to retreat back down the street. If anything happened, they would be safer if they were farther away. And not a moment too soon, because almost as soon as they moved the last of the injured, there was a terrible crash from the battlefield.

He whirled, just in time to see the wall collapse under the blows of the skeletal monster. Rubble went flying, and dust obscured his vision as he watched his brother match it blow for blow. His heart was in his throat as he watched, waiting for the moment his brother faltered, hoping that moment would never come.

And it never did. He cheered when it fell to Baxia's blade. He should have known that no overgrown bag of bones was a match for his brother.

He thought he understood now, why everyone was so terrified of Wei Wuxian. He knew that his old friend was the terror of both his enemies and his allies, and that he could control armies of the dead, but knowing that fact was different from seeing it. Seeing the resentful corpses throwing themselves at the sabers of the Nie sect, trying to claw them apart.

And the high piping notes of the flute just kept playing on.

They needed to not be here. This position was less open then the one that they had started in, but with the wall collapsed it was wide enough that the corpses were able to come at them from all sides. The group that he was in had formed up into a circle, but it was only a matter of time before someone else fell. They needed to find someplace better defensible, or they would be overrun. He cast his eyes about wildly, looking for something suitable.

There, to the right across the street, there was something that might work. It looked to be a large ruined building, the roof partially collapsed and three walls still standing. That would be more easily defensible than their current position.

"Dage! Over there!" He waved to the building. His brother followed his gaze and nodded decisively, and started ushering the other disciples over. He pushed Nie Huaisang and Nie Zonghui into another disciple, who took him by the arm and dragged him roughly through the chaos. Nie Huaisang was happy enough to be escorted. It wasn't a far distance, but the chaos and enemies on the battlefield made it much too far a distance for him to make it on his own. As it was, they had to stop to defend themselves three times before they reached the relative safety of the outcropping.

Or rather, the Nie Zonghui and the other Nies defended them. Nie Huaisang wasn't too proud to admit that he was useless. He barely managed to block one corpse's strike awkwardly with his saber. But that still gave Nie Meilan time to behead it, so a net gain, he supposed.

Then she had to haul him up to his feet after he tripped over another corpse in their path. Jin colors, just starting to twitch again as Wei Wuxian's flute played on. He kicked its grip from around his ankle and scrambled back to his feet with her help. He was never going to be able to listen to a dizi again.

Finally, after what felt like forever, they made it to the relative saftey of the outcropping. He practically collapsed against the wall alongside Nie Meilan as Nie Zonghui whirled to watch the field and protect the other Nie disciples as they made it across.

"Oh man, that was a rush," Nie Meilan said, panting. "Nothing like a night hunt."

"You are crazy." He answered her when he got his own breath back. "This is awful."

She shrugged. "It's a bit crazy, but its a bit fun. I'm glad I didn't miss this. I was too young for the Sunshot Campaign."

Nie Huaisang just shook his head. All the other members of his sect were crazy. He almost raised his hand to hide his face with his fan out of habit, but the weight of his saber in his hands reminded him that it was in his belt, and it probably wasn't the safest idea to pull it out under the circumstances.

His brother was the last to make his way across the battlefield to join them. He looked over them, counting and looking for injuries. Nie Huaisang weakly raised his saber when Nie Mingjue's eyes passed over him, before he hurried over to them.

"You're alright?" He said. "I saw you go down."

"You were watching? I just tripped, I'm fine."

Nie Mingjue just nodded, and squeezed his shoulder. "Stay back here with the injured and the younger disciples. Keep yourself out of the way and stay safe."

"Dage, believe me, I'm going to stay as far out of the way as I can. I definetly don't want to get hurt. Don't worry about me, you need to get back to fighting." When this was over, he was going to have so many good arguments for why he just wasn't suited for battle.

Nie Mingjue looked at him again, as if reassuring that he was really safe, before he turned and strode back to the defensive line to take command. Once he had turned, Nie Huaisang backed further away from the fighting. He really shouldn't have insisted he come.

He was glad of the protection of his brother and the Nie disciples. With them here, he knew he would be as safe as it was possible to be on a battlefield. But he also wasn't able to see what was happening. Which was fine, it wasn't like he could help. But it was bothering him, and the more he watched the backs of the fighting disciples, the more it ate at him.

So he looked around, considering the problem. The outcropping looked like the ruins of a collapsed building, and Nie Huaisang was pretty sure that he would be able to climb it. He was, and was even able to wedge himself into a space that had him protected on most sides, the hilt of his saber poking awkwardly in his side. Hopefully the neutral colors of his clothes would help to disguise him as well.

From his vantage point, laying on top of the outcropping, he had a good view of the battle, both the opening where the Nie line was fighting and the wide open battlefield to the right. Not that it helped him much. He was never going to write to ask people to tell him their movements in battle ever again. It was hard enough figuring it out when he was just focusing on that and not worrying about fighting himself.

Below him, Nie Mingjue and the other disciples had created a defensive line, and no enemy was able to pass it. He so glad that his brother was such a distinctive figure, it made it so much easier to pick him and Baxia out. He was still fighting strong, and Nie Huaisang knew it would take much more than this to hurt or defeat him.

Farther out in the wide promenade, everything descended into chaos. He saw more knots of Nie disciples in the crowd, fighting to the limits of their strength. Groups of other disciples were also gathered together, as each sect fought independently of each other. Which wasn't efficient, everyone would be a lot safer if people were working together.

He didn't see a trace of Wei Wuxian, although he knew that he had to be around because he could still hear the flute. If he ever got his hands on that thing he was going to burn it, friend or not. Also, the army of corpses was a good sign of the Yiling Patriarch's presence. The majority of the corpses were old and wearing disintegrating rags in Wen red, but by now there were more than a few fresh ones in a variety of sect colors.

It was impossible to tell who was winning. Maybe Nie Mingjue, with all his experience in battle, would be able to read the field in an instant, but Nie Huaisang was as lost in the chaos as the people fighting below him. He tightened his grip on his saber. What use was he here, if he couldn't figure anything out?

As he was frantically searching the crowd below, his eyes were caught by a flash of graceful blue. Lan Xichen was close below, a circle of untouchable calm in the midst of the chaos. Shuoyue flashed as calmly and elegantly as if he was at morning sword practice, and not in the middle of the battlefield. He couldn't get a good look at his face, but Nie Huaisang was sure that it would be calm and serene as if he was concentrating on meditation, and not on the death of his enemies. 

But even Lan Xichen wasn't infallible, and Nie Huaisang saw in horror as a corpse rose to approch him from the back, unnoticed by Lan Xichen. He cast his eyes frantically over to the line of Nie disciples, but Nie Mingjue was at the other end of the line. Too far, and there was no sign that he had noticed.

There was nothing for it, and Nie Huaisang didn't waste time thinking for another solution. Nie Mingjue might not be able to reach Lan Xichen, but Nie Huaisang might. He jumped from his perch, hitting the ground hard. Leaning low, he sprinted over to the corpse, not even slowing as he barrelled it over.

Lan Xichen turned as he heard the commotion behind him. His eyes widened in alarm as he saw Nie Huaisang grappling with the corpse. "Huaisang!" There was nothing he could do, not without risking hitting Nie Huaisang.

Nie Huaisang really hadn't thought this through. He should have thrown something, drawn Lan Xichen's attention that way. Or had his saber out at an angle to impale the thing when he ran into it. If he had been really smart, he would have taken a bow when he went on the roof. Even his mediocre shooting skills would have been better. Instead, here he was, tumbling around on the ground with a corpse, trying to get enough leverage on his saber to strike at it.

Finally, he did manage to spear it through the heart into the ground. It still tried to struggle, its hands clasping at the blade. He twisted it, keeping it pinned to the ground. He really wished he had paid more attention to how to defeat fierce corpses. But finally, it shuddered and grew still.

He was dragged up by his brother, and relief swelled up when he realized that he was safe. So was Lan Xichen, who was standing to his brother's shoulder, watching their backs, his face pale and bloodless.

Nie Mingjue shook him roughly. "What were you thinking?" He roared.

There was no good answer to that. He really hadn't been, or he wouldn't have done it. Lan Xichen was a seasoned warrior. He would have been fine without Nie Huaisang's help.

"Now isn't the time, Dage," said Lan Xichen. 

Nie Mingjue had to concede that point, because he didn't continue the lecture that Nie Huaisang knew he wanted to give. Instead he dragged Nie Huaisang back to the defended area, Lan Xichen following to make sure no other enemy took advantage of of Nie Mingjue's distraction.

"Stay here, and stay out of the way," he snarled, practically throwing him into the makeshift field hospital, before turning and running back to the front.

Nie Huaisang had no intention of doing anything else. He didn't think he could, even if he wanted to. He found a place out of the way, near the back of the clear out space, and collapsed against the wall, just listening to the sounds of the battle in the distance and the flute playing over everything, as it had all this time.

In the corner Jiang Yanli was still calling for her brother, and she was still fighting against her guard. Although she was much weaker now, her struggles feeble things with no hope of succeeding. She was going to make herself sick, he thought absently, remembering her frail constitution.

And so time passed, marked only by the screams of battle and the flute over it all.

Eventually, the flute playing finally, finally stopped. He knew what that had to mean. So did everyone else, as they burst into ragged cheers.

Jiang Yanli burst into tears, falling limp in the grasp of the Jiang disciple holding her.

He wished he could join her in her sorrow, but he just felt numb.

 

Chapter Text

With Wei Wuxian's death, the battle was as good as won. Without the Yiling Patriarch to replace them with newly risen soldiers the remaining fierce corpses were quickly subdued by the remaining sects. Without the direction of their leader, they were quick to fall. The field hospital started to fill with cultivators with minor injuries as they could now afford to leave the field.

Jiang Cheng strod in, seaching for his sister. He looked to be on the brink of tears, but seeing his sister sobbing onto the shoulder of the Jiang disciple watching, his features twisted in rage. His stride lengthened, and he practically threw the other woman from his sister's bed side as he took her place. He embraced her tightly, and Nie Huaisang felt a bit like he was intruding, even though neither of the Jiang siblings gave any sign that they noticed him, or for that matter, the many cultivators surrounding them in the field hospital.

"Jiejie," Jiang Cheng said, his voice rough. "Wei Wuxian..." He choked on the name, but it was obvious what he was going to say. Jiang Yanli just cried harder.

Nie Huaisang rose from his seat by the wall as quietly as he could manage. He might be nosy, but there was no way that this conversation was meant for his ears. And the Jiang siblings deserved a bit of privacy in their grief.

He wandered out of the field hospital. It would be safe enough now, and he would be careful not to get in the way. He was briefly disoriented by the fact that the sun was shining. But of course it was. The meeting that had gone so wrong had been last evening, and even though Nie Huaisang had lost track of the time, he knew that they must have been fighting though the entire night. But it felt odd, that day would follow night.

He saw his brother, standing close to the other sect leaders as they discussed something. The battle maybe, or coordinating the cleanup. He almost took a step closer to eavesdrop out of sheer habit, before he remembered himself. He shook his head and raised his fan to his face as he walked resolutely away. It wasn't any of his business. Hadn't this debacle proved that nothing good would come of his meddling?

He walked the edge of the battlefield instead. The corpses, both those of the fallen and those of the former fierce corpses, were being collected. Temporary camps were being set up as well, as no one was in any condition to leave. Many of the Nie sect members bowed to him as he passed, but just as many were intent on their work. He felt a bit like a ghost, wandering through the busy areas.

Everything was so different from the night before. Yesterday, he had been sure that he could do something to stop this. Even while they were fighting, he had thought that it would end all right, that Wei Wuxian would retreat and they would still be able to work things out. But now, there were corpses and casualties, and the sort of mess that the chaos of the battlefield left behind.

He wondered if he had made things worse. Was Wei Wuxian really doomed? Would there have been less casualties if Nie Huaisang had let him be attacked before it came to this, when everyone had wanted to?

Why had he thought that he could change this outcome? He had seen it coming long ago, hadn’t he. Was there something he could have done that he missed? If he had said the right word in the right ear, would everything still be alright? If he hadn’t been so foolish and careless, would all the people who died on the battlefield still be alive?

He gripped his fan tightly, twisting it violently until he could feel the wood starting to splinter under his hands. For that matter, why had he thought he could do anything at all. He was a foolish young master, it was well known. What had possessed him to think that he could change anything when it came to matters of politics and war? He should have stayed with his birds, where he couldn’t make things so much worse.

"Second young master!" He was pulled from his spiraling thoughts by a call from a camp in Nie colors. "Come, come over and sit with us!" It was the always enthusiastic Captain Zan, who apparently wasn't calmed even by battle. Nie Meilin, his youngest daughter, was sitting besides him, and sent Nie Huaisang a glare as he approached.

"So how does it feel to defeat your first monster?" Nie Zan clasped him on the back boisterously. "You're a proper Nie now, and no one can deny it."

He blinked. He hadn't even thought of that. He had fought a fierce corpse, and he had killed it. By himself even. It was an odd thought. It was so outside his perception of himself. "You saw that?" He asked, more than a little embarrassed.

"My boy, everyone saw it. The sect leader went running as soon as he noticed. We all thought he wasn't going to make it to you in time, but it turned out you didn't need the help, did you."

"I suppose its too much to ask you to forget about it?" He asked hopelessly. He had been such an idiot, thinking that Lan Xichen of all people needed him to save him.

"Why? It was a good kill, boy." 

"It really, really wasn't." He had almost died. There wasn't anything further from the sort of martial skill and power that the Nie sect prized.

"None of that. Any fight that you walk away from uninjured is a good fight."

"And its not like we haven't seen you make a fool of yourself before," Nie Meilin added.

"Nie Meilin! You don't talk to the second young master like that," Nie Zan chided her. "It's not respectful, and besides you were worse on your first night hunt. Do I need to tell everyone how you dropped your saber and had to be fished out of the river?."

"Yes father." Nie Meilin said begrudgingly.

"Besides, everyone makes a fool of themselves sooner or later. Especially at your age," he continued, turning to Nie Huaisang. "Why, when I was just going on night hunts along with my lovely fierce wife, before she asked me to marry her, I once tried to take on a whole pack of demon wolves to impress her. Didn't work of course, I ended up in a tree at the end of it. Of course, she had to kill them all to save me though, so it all worked out in the end. Anyway, young master, I've seen worse than tackling a corpse to impress someone before."

"It wasn't like that," Nie Huisang, waving his battered fan wildly in front of his face in demurral. He could feel his face getting red at the very suggestion.

"Oh, wasn't it?" Nie Meilin said sourly. "It sure looked like you jumped a fierce corpse to impress a pretty boy. What, did you think you could save his life and he would fall into your arms in gratitude? I hate to break it to you, but you need to be a bit more skilled if you want to impress anyone with your battle prowess. Managing to stay upright is usually step one."

"Nie Meilin!"

"It's fine, Captain Zan. I'm not offended." If anything, he was grateful she was being so snide. It gave him a good way to redirect the conversation. "Anyway, Nie Meilin saved my life earlier, so if anything I need to be grateful."

"Oh did she?" Nie Zan turned back to his daughter, and Nie Huaisang was glad that his redirection had worked. "She didn't mention that."

"It wasn't anything. The second young master just tripped, he would have been able to get up on his own." Nie Meilin said defensively. "Besides, we were comrades on the battlefield, so that is the least we owed each other."

Nie Huaisang raised his fan to hide his smile. See how she likes being put on the spot. 

He had to admit that it was a nice thought. If he was more like his brother, it might even have been true. If he was a skilled fighter, he might have taken out that fierce corpse with a single graceful swing. Lan Xichen wouldn't fall into his arms like a fainting civilian though. But he might have given him a grateful smile, before turning back to the battle trusting him to watch his back.

It was a ridiculous fantasy. Nie Huaisang wasn't anyone's choice to watch their back.

After a few more rounds of teasing, he took his leave and started his walk back the way he had came. His brother would probably be finished with the other sect leaders, and Nie Huaisang wanted to reassure himself that Nie Mingjue was alright.

Which was a pointless impulse, of course Nie Mingjue was alright. Chifeng-zun was much too strong to be threatened by anything, and if he had been hurt, Nie Huaisang would know it by now.

But it was still a relief when he returned to where a tent had been set up for them and saw his brother sitting peacefully, cleaning Baxia. By the way his brother's eyes darted to him, Nie Mingue shared his relief.

"You left your saber," Nie Mingjue said, gesturing to where it lay beside him.

"I suppose I did," he agreed. He must have left it in the field hospital. He took it back, but only to move it out of the way. There was no sign of dirt or blood on the blade, just the clean sheen and smell of drying sword oil. Nie Mingjue must have cleaned it as well.

"You should have kept it on you. There could have been more fierce corpses that we missed laying in wait."

"There were hundreds of cultivators around. Even if you had missed one, I would have been safe." He really didn't want to have this argument again. Especially not now.

Contrary to his expectations, Nie Mingjue didn't continue the well worn argument. He just finished cleaning Baxia with slow, unhurried strokes. When he finished, he laid her reverently out to dry.

Nie Mingjue turned to Nie Huaisang, who did his best to sit up straight. He was due for a lecture, and for a change he was even going to listen. There was so much that he could have handled better, so much that Nie Mingjue would have done differently than he had. He hoped it wouldn't be too harsh, though. He thought that if his brother started yelling about him or his weakness right now, he was going to burst into tears, and they wouldn't be fake ones this time.

But Nie Mingjue only looked at him, apparently at a lose for words.

"Dage?" He asked.

"Are you alright?" Nie Mingjue asked.

Nie Huaisang blinked. That wasn't how he had expected his brother to start. "Dage, you know that the doctor's wouldn't have let me leave the field hospital if I was wounded. If I had the smallest scratch, I'm sure they would have let you know immediately."

"That wasn't what I meant." He hesitated. "Battle can hit people hard. Especially when it isn't expected, or if you aren't prepared."

"I'm fine."

Nie Mingjue gave him a stern look, and Nie Huaisang continued.

"I'm maybe a bit restless? And things don't feel quite real." He was half certain that he would wake up, and the last day would be nothing but a terrible vivid nightmare. But he was equally certain it was a vain hope. “And I keep going over it in my head, what I should have done differently.”

"Battle can take people that way. I get emotional, myself. You'll probably have nightmares. I think half of our forces are going to have nightmares after that. This was a bad one, even though we won in the end."

"Did you? After your first battle, I mean." He couldn't really imagine that. Not from his brother, who was so strong.

"I still get nightmares, sometimes. Especially when we lose someone."

Nie Huaisang fiddled with his fan. He had almost forgotten about that. How could he have forgotten about that? "How many of our people died?" How many of their people died because he couldn't think of a way to stop this?

"Too many. As I said, this was a bad one." He paused. "I never would have allowed you to come if I expected anything like this to happen."

"No one could have expected this, Dage. And believe me, if I thought that anything like this was going to happen, I would be as far from here as I could manage." He was quite happy to leave battle and war to his older brother, who was so much more suited to it than he was.

"You handled it well." Nie Huaisang raised his head at that, surprised.

"I mean it," Nie Mingjue continued, seeing the look on his face. "Everything that I've heard says that you were a great help on the field."

"I almost died, Dage." He couldn't imagine how he could have been less of a great help on the battlefield. And nothing that he had tried had accomplished anything.

"Nie Zonghui said that you kept your head and were very sharp about coordinating our people the field. He said that it was your idea to carve out a safe and defensible space and to set up the field hospital. That's not a small thing. There would have been even more casualties if there hadn't been a safe place for the injured to retreat to."

"It wasn't anything. Nie Zonghui is flattering me. He was the one in command, he was the one to keep everyone together and alive." He waved his hands in demurral. He hadn't done anything that Nie Zonghui or one of the other officers wouldn't have.

"Nie Zonghui isn't the type for empty praises. If he says that you were giving intelligent orders, then I believe that you were."

"Well, it's true that I pointed out that we could defend the side street, but that really wasn't anything important. Once any of the others got a chance to look at everything, it would have been obvious. I just saw it first because I wasn't focused on fighting."

"That is better than most can manage when they are dropped in a situation like that. Being able to look at the big picture like that is one of the first things we look for in officers. It shows that they will be able to command."

Nie Huaisang sent his brother a look that he hoped conveyed his complete incomprehension. Nie Mingjue chuckled. "Not that I'm going to put you in command of anything unless you get much better with your saber. I don't want to see you in a battle like that ever again."

"Good. Because that was horrible, Dage. And I was a mess, so I don't know what you are talking about."

Nie Mingjue reached out and pulled Nie Huaisang into a tight hug. "Stop arguing and let me be proud of you."

Nie Huaisang swallowed his protests. It was nice, hearing that. Even though it was ridiculous.

"I was useless. I thought that I could help, but I couldn't do anything. And now Wei Wuxian is dead." He continued on quickly, knowing that wasn't a position his brother would be sympathetic to. "And how many of our disciples? And thats not even counting all of the others."

"Huaisang." His brother gripped him tighter. "It isn't a failing on your part. This was going to happen in one way or another. It was the tides of war that it happened here and now. Their deaths are not your responsibility. That goes first to the enemy and next to myself and their commanders."

He broke out of the hug, shaking his head. "They're our people, Dage. Even if I couldn't have saved them, then I should still have been able to help." If he was strong like his brother, then he could have really been helpful. It was a mad thought, brought on by stress and battle-sickness. He didn't even want to be strong like his brother, didn't want to put in all that work, didn't want to face that danger. "The only thing I did to help was try to save Er-ge, and he didn't need it. I was useless, Dage."

Nie Mingjue looked like he was about to embrace him again, but instead his hand fell to Baxia's hilt, lying at his side. "That was incredibly dangerous."

"I know! I don't know what I was thinking. I could have died."

"Yes, you could have." Nie Mingjue sighed. "That's why we train. So that when events like this happen we are more prepared and more capable of protecting ourselves and others. That's why I wouldn't have brought you if I had known this would happen. You still aren't good enough to protect yourself."

Nie Huaisang gripped his fan. He knew that the fact he wasn't very skilled was a sore spot for Nie Mingjue. Usually he would wave it off, but after last night, he could see his brother's point. But it didn't matter. He was never going to be a skilled fighter. He didn't even want to be, temporary battle madness notwithstanding.

"That's fine. You'll just have to keep protecting me."

"I will always keep you safe," Nie Mingjue said seriously. "But I need you to be careful and not put yourself into danger."

"I don't want to be in danger either. You said it yourself, no one expected this to happen here. And I was a little reckless, I know, but I didn't get hurt."

"I'm still not letting you out of my sight until I know that you are capable of defending yourself."

That was alright. He didn't want to be out of his brother's sight anytime soon. "You know that just gives me even more reasons to not work at my cultivation, right Dage?"

Nie Mingjue growled at him, but Nie Huaisang recognized the fond look in his eyes. Nie Mingjue was even going to let him get away with skipping his lessons for a while.

He was never going to get involved with something like this ever again. From now on he would focus his energy on his birds, and his art, and let Dage take care of the serious matters.

 

Chapter Text

After they returned to Qinghe, Nie Huaisang was determined to keep himself out of politics. If the recent disaster had taught him anything, it was that he was better off not interfering in such matters. His amateur scheming was a waste of his time. From now on, he was going to keep away from any serious business, and wasn't going to make any more pointless plots.

It brought with it a realization that he actually spent a lot of time and energy on those things. Cutting them out of his schedule practically doubled his free time.

Nie Mingjue allowed him to retreat from the world with barely more than a token protest about him becoming stronger. Nie Huaisang must have really shaken him, if he was letting him off this easily.

So he was able to fill his days with his birds and his fans and his art. And time passed quietly. They were back in peacetime, and unlike before, when there was the question of Wei Wuxian hanging over everything, there was no lingering tensions. What gossip Nie Huaisang heard now that he wasn't seeking it out seemed to feel lighter, and everyone spoke as if a great weight had been lifted.

It seemed like the entire world was glad that Wei Wuxian was gone. He was not able to mourn for his friend publicly. He knew that it was better for the sect, politically, if he pretended that they had never been close. And any public defense of the Yiling Patriarch would reflect badly on his brother, for not reigning him in. But he managed to make some private offerings, at least.

He felt awkward doing it. He hadn't been any help to Wei Wuxian. He had practically stood by while he spiraled to his doom, and even at the end he had only been able to stand by helplessly.

There wasn't really anyone that he could talk to about missing him either. His brother would listen to him, yes, but he made it very obvious that he couldn't understand why Nie Huaisang was so emotionally invested in someone with such a history. The one time he had cornered Jiang Cheng to talk to him about his brother death, he had needed to flee from the lightning sparks in fear for his life. Well, Jiang Cheng had always turned his emotions into anger, so it wasn't unexpected, and they were no longer close enough that he could bring up some topics. He thought Jiang Yanli might be more open to talking about such things, but he didn't know her well enough to broach the subject with her. Besides, she spent most of her time ensconced in Koi Tower, so with his newfound resolve to stay close to home he never came into contact with her.

It was almost enough for him to try to find Lan Wangji. Even though they had never been close, and Lan Wangji's whole manner when he wasn't mooning after Wei Wuxian was incredibly standoffish and off putting, Nie Huaisang knew he would understand. He would be even more upset than Nie Huaisang was. He might appreciate being offered condolences from someone. But Lan Wangji was nowhere to be found. It was as if he had vanished off the face of the earth. Nie Huaisang had eventually tentatively asked Lan Xichen on one of his visits if he could talk to his brother. Lan Xichen had only shaken his head gently, and said that Lan Wangji wouldn't be able to speak with him.

Well Lan Wangji was certainly grieving. And the Lan sect was not kind to their members who spoke against their rules. He might not be available to speak to Nie Huaisang.

But that wasn't any business of his.

He wasn't paying any attention to outside news, to remove any sort of temptation to get involved, but some of it trickled in anyway. Mostly with visitors to his brother, especially from his sworn brothers.

Lan Xichen, having the duties and responsibilities of a sect leader visited more rarely than Jin Guangyao, but he was always a welcome guest.

He hoped that Lan Xichen had forgotten about his ridiculous behavior during the battle. Even more so, he hoped that Lan Xichen hadn't heard any of the rumors about why. He didn't think he would have, with the Lan regulation against gossip, but there was no way to be certain. And no real way to control what he heard either.

Other than finding him as soon as he heard that the Lan sect leader was in Qinghe, and sticking to him like glue for the entire time that he was there, of course. Which he probably would have done anyway, so it wasn't like that was a hardship. And that let his subtly guide him away from some of the more overt gossips.

After a while, some of the other disciples were deliberately telling him as soon as Lan Xichen landed, usually with barely hidden smiles. Nie Huaisang didn't try to disabuse them of whatever they were thinking. It was probably all true, and it would only embarrass him besides.

Although not as embarrassing as if Lan Xichen thought something similar. He didn't think he did though. Although he supposed that it would be hard to tell, Lan Xichen was always so composed. It made it difficult to tell if he knew everything that Nie Huaisang was thinking and was just humoring his friend's younger brother, or if such things had never crossed his mind.

Still, Nie Huaisang trailed after him whenever Lan Xichen visited his brother, and tried not to be too transparent.

Jin Guangyao was a frequent visitor as well. He came to Qinghe as often as he could spare time from the chaos that Lanling had devolved into.

Nie Huaisang supposed that he was trying to make amends with Nie Mingjue, although he was going about it the wrong way. Nie Mingjue always responded best to a single heartfelt and honest conversation, where you laid out your points as clearly as possible. He would loss his temper and rage for a bit, during which you just had wait calmly. Then you left him alone for a while for him to think about your points, after which he would come back and you could have a calmer conversation about your differing views. Afterwards, everything would be sorted through.

Jin Guangyao, for all of his skill at dealing with people, didn't seem to have realized this pattern, or at least didn't apply it to himself. Nie Huaisang though he might be uncomfortable with Nie Mingjue when he was truly furious as opposed to mildly angry, so he never let the conversation get quite that far, backing off just before Nie Mingjue lost his temper. Which was understandable, Nie Mingjue in a fury could be a frightening thing. But without that heightening of emotion, there was no way for Nie Mingjue to calm down and consider Jin Guangyao's points.

Instead of clearing the air, each conversation between them left Nie Mingjue simmering on the edge of fury, and less likely to listen to Jin Guangyao the next time that he came around.

It strained at Nie Huaisang's conviction to stop scheming. It was such an obvious misstep, and it would only take a conversation or two to point out where Jin Guangyao had gone wrong. It wouldn't even be a suspicious thing for him to know, since everyone knew that he tried his brother's patience daily, and obviously had some tactics for calming him.

But he had decided not to interfere, and Jin Guangyao would figure it out sooner or later. He was smart, and good with people.

On one occasion, both Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao were in Qinghe at the same time. He had been hiding from his brother (who was starting to be more forceful about his saber practice again, unfortunately) when they came, so he didn't hear about it immediately.

But as soon as he was told they had arrived Nie Huaisang left his half-finished book to hurry to interrupt them. It had been weeks since Lan Xichen had gotten to Qinghe, and even though Jin Guangyao had been by three days ago, it was still always good to see him.

He had planned to burst in on them like he had done so many times before, but right as he was about to enter his brother's rooms, his brother swept out. Nie Huaisang stepped back in in surprise, especially as he could see that Nie Mingjue was absolutely furious.

"Huaisang," his brother barked as he saw him. "Deal with him." And with that he turned away and strode down the hall like he was ready to fight anything that he passed. A passing servant practically threw themselves out of his way.

Nie Huaisang blinked. He could guess that him was Jin Guangyao, if only because he was the only person who could make Nie Mingjue that furious in such a short amount of time. But Jin Guangyao mostly came with at least the excuse of official business, and it wasn't like Nie Mingjue to neglect his duties. And what was he supposed to do with Jin Guangyao? Deal with him? How?

He pushed his way into the room and saw that he had been correct. Jin Guangyao was sitting very still, his perpetual smile still frozen on his face. If he had to guess, Nie Huaisang would say he was trying to regain his composure. Lan Xichen was also there, gingerly picking up some shards of broken pottery of the floor. It looked to be a broken tea set, and Nie Huaisang revised his estimate of how mad Nie Mingjue was by several levels. He usually managed not to take his anger out on innocent crockery.

"Huaisang," Lan Xichen said with his customary warmth, as if he had not just been a close casualty of Nie Mingjue in a fury. "It is good to see you. I was planning on visiting with you before I returned to Gusu."

"Of course!" He said, flicking open his fan. "I have some new works that I think you might appreciate. But Er-ge, leave that, we can get someone to bring a broom. I would hate to see you cut yourself."

"Nie-er-gongzi," Jin Guangyao said with a bow. "We were discussing matters of some import with your brother, and I fear we may have upset him."

"Don't mind him, Dage's just going out to the training fields. He'll be back later." He waved his fan idly, trying to act like this was something that happened everyday. Nie Mingjue must have been very upset to leave so abruptly. He was always so conscious of his duty, so abandoning guests to the irresponsible hosting of Nie Huaisang wasn't something he would do casually.

Although it was just Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao, and they were family, so maybe Nie Mingjue was just treating them as such? In either case, it was his responsibility to keep them distracted until his brother returned. "Er-ge, how is the weather in the Cloud Recess?"

"The spring ice melt has filled the rivers. It is looking to be a good year for the farmers in the area."

"Oh, it is spring there, isn't it? It will still be winter here for another few weeks. You must have seen the snow? It must be so nice to see the bloom of spring already. Especially in the Cloud Recess. It's so peaceful there."

"Yes," Lan Xichen said, though his neutral tone didn't match the shadows in his eyes. "It is very peaceful."

Nie Huaisang was momentarily wildly curious about what sort of problems were happening in Gusu to be bothering Lan Xichen so much. It couldn't be monsters, Nie Mingjue would know. Was Lan Wangji causing problems, or the Lan sect elders? He almost pressed for more information before remembering himself. Whatever was happening in Gusu was none of his business.

"And how is everything going in Lanling, San-ge?" He asked. "I spoke to Jiang Cheng the last time he came to visit Dage on sect matters, and he said that his sister is holding up well beneath he grief." Which was not how Jiang Chen had phrased it, but he could read between the lines. That was pretty much his only knowledge of the situation though. He was no longer eavesdropping on his brother's conversations, or discreetly reading his messages, so he was a little behind on the news from the wider world.

"Her husband's death must have affected her deeply," Lan Xichen added. Another shadow crossed his face, and Nie Huaisang wondered if he was thinking about his brother, who was still absent from all gatherings. "He was so young, they must have looked forward to many years together."

"The widow grieves, but she stays strong for her son, I think. She's needed that strength. My brother's death has thrown the courts into disarray, and I fear that little Jin Ling is a focal point."

Well he would be, wouldn't he. Lanling Jin had gone from having a strong adult heir to having a baby as its next leader. It would be a weakness for years, until Jin Ling was old enough and strong enough to be an effectual leader without ending up the puppet of one of his relatives. Meanwhile, all of the Jin disciples even remotly related to the Sect Leader would be jockeying to grab whatever power they could in the vacumn. Koi tower, always a mess of vipers, had probably turned into chaos.

Jin Guangshan's best option would probably be to name someone in his sect as Jin Ling's potential regent. If he was really smart, he would name Jin Guangyao, who would deal quickly and harshly with any threats to his power base. That would stabilize everything. But that would require Jin Guangshan to willingly give a high position to Jin Guangyao, so was vanishingly unlikely.

"Is she staying in Koi Tower than? I would have thought she might return to Yunmeng. Her brother could certainly use her help," he asked. He didn't know Jiang Yanli well, but anyone with sense would retreat in the face of that sort of peril, especially with as vulnerable a target as a young toddler to protect

Jin Guangyao shook his head. "She has raised the subject, but my father was unwilling to allow his grandson away from his side, and he is much to young to be parted from his mother. And she has grown close to my father's wife, so I suppose staying isn't a hardship for her."

Well, it sounds like Jiang Yanli is in a tricky situation. It's never good to be a valuable pawn. But it sounds like she has some allies at least.

And either way, it wasn't any of his business. He forced a bright smile onto his face, and changed the subject to something much lighter that sect politics.

After a few sichen, he was running out of light topics that might interest them. What had began as a pleasant chance to speak with Lan Xichen was becoming torturous. No matter how he tried to defuse the tension in the room, it only kept building. The two of them kept exchanging looks as Nie Mingjue still failed to return, and he was missing so much of the context he would need to read them.

Where was his brother? Had Nie Mingjue decided to fly to Gusu or go on an impromtu night hunt? Why wasn't he here? Hissed inquiries to one of the disciples serving their tea told him that was exactly right. His brother had taken a few of the senior disciples out of Qinghe, with no word about where he was heading or when he would be back. Leaving Nie Huaisang with no choice but to continue to host his sworn brothers.

Which wouldn't be so bad, if it wasn't for the fact that he could tell that they were worried. Worried and still not telling his why, no matter how subtly he was hinting.

Nie Mingjue still had not returned by the time the night watch took their positions. Nie Huaisan's entertainment had grow increasingly frantic as the evening progressed and his brother still hadn't returned. They had talked about everything from the weather in Gusu to the more promising juniors in their sects. Such boring subjects, and even when he had tried to steer them onto something amusing like music, the conversation just slipped back into tedious matters. He had called for food at dinnertime, and for a musician afterward.

Nie Mingjue's absence had led to a problem though. At first it had been reasonable for them to wait for him to return, but it had become clear that wouldn't be happening soon. At this point it would have been more reasonable for them to have sought their beds to continue their discussion in the morning. Especially for Lan Xichen, as it was long past the hour he should have retired. But they made no move to leave and Nie Huiasang didn't have the rank to outright dismiss them. Pointed suggestions that they have a good evening and telling them that the best guest rooms in Qinghe would be prepared for them didn't have any affect.

He couldn't send them away. Not without being very rude. And he wouldn't care about that, but it might cause problems for his brother if someone took offense. Not that Lan Xichen would, or even Jin Guangyao, but Jin Guangshan might have opinions about even his least favorite son being dismissed by the second young master of the Nie sect, and that was the last thing that his brother would need.

Finally, quite some time after the last light had faded and the lanterns had needed to be refilled the second time, he resorted to calling for alcohol. If there was no other way to get out of this, he could at least fake unconsciousness.

Lan Xichen refused, of course, and Jin Guangyao took a single glass only, leaving almost the entire bottle to Nie Huaisang. He had great fun pretending to be unable to hold his liquor, rambling nonsense and slurring his words. He even managed to collapse into Lan Xichen's arms dramatically at one point, which probably made the whole evening worth it.

Once he thought there had been enough time, he slowly fell over, pretending to have passed out. Now, they would have to leave, and he didn't even need to throw them out.

He lay there, fake snoring into his arm, and waited for them to leave. But even now, the two of them continued to wait They exchanged some more small talk, before the tone of conversation shifted to be more serious.

"I see what you meant, A-Yao." Lan Xichen said quitely.

"I hoped that I was wrong. It's worrying that Nie Mingjue doesn't seem to be getting better," Jin Guangyao responded.

Nie Huaisang strained his ears to hear. He had given up on eavesdropping, but surely this could be an exception. He didn't know that there was anything about Nie Mingjue he needed to worry about.

But Lan Xichen seemed to know what Jin Guangyao was talking about. "No. He still seems stressed, and his reaction when we told him our concerns was troubling."

"It is worrying, don't you think? I know that you thought he would calm once peace came, but I can't help but worry."

Lan Xichen hummed in agreement.

"I've been asking him about it, recently. But he just snaps at me, so I haven't had any luck." He hesitated. "Perhaps if you would try? He has more tolerance for you."

"A-Yao, you know that isn't true. If Nie Mingjue didn't have some level of affection for you, he never would have agreed to become our sworn brother. I'm sure that I would get the same response that you have."

Jin Guangyao waved away the statement with an ease that said the two of them had had similar conversations in the past. On his part, Nie Huaisang thought Nie Mingjue's feelings were somewhere in between the two.

"I wish that there was something that I could do. I hate not being able to help."

"There may be," Lan Xichen said consideringly. "I may have heard... I would need to look into it."

"Please, Er-ge, if there is anything that I could do to help, I will."

"Of course, A-Yao."

They finally took their leave, and Nie Huaisang gave them a while before pulling himself up and heading back to his rooms. Although there was no chance that he would be sleeping that evening.

That was concerning. If there was something wrong with his brother, he would need to find out. And he would need to help as well.

Chapter Text

The problem was qi deviation, of course. As soon as Nie Huaisang looked into the matter, it was obvious. The erratic temper, the paranoia, the impatience, they all added up to an obvious conclusion.

He couldn't believe that Jin Guangyao had figured it out before he had. He was the one who was closest to Nie Mingjue, he saw his brother every day. He knew his moods like the back of his hand. He should have known the moment that Nie Mingjue started acting even the least bit unstable.

But maybe it was more obvious to Jin Guangyao because he didn't see Nie Mingjue every day? Maybe a gradual change was more obvious when it was seen only sporadically? And it was true that Jin Guangyao often tested Nie Mingjue's patience, so perhaps he saw him lose his temper more often.

And maybe Nie Huaisang wouldn't have admitted that it was happening even to himself. He remembered how their father had died. He might have been too young to remember anything else about the man that his brother had such high regard for, but he remembered how he had died. He sometimes still had nightmares about that.

But that wasn't important. What was important was the plan for dealing with Nie Mingjue's situation. He wasn't going to take this as an inevitable given, like his brother would. Thankfully, his sworn brothers weren't inclined to such fatalistic mindsets. From what he had heard, it sounded like they were searching for a solution to the problem.

They hadn't asked him for assistance, though. He supposed it made sense, he wasn't an expert cultivator like they were or someone like Wei Wuxian, who could overturn the entire cultivation world whenever he tried. But he was the closest to the situation, and he would have thought that Jin Guangyao would have asked him to spy on his brother's moods at the very least. It wasn't like this didn't concern him. It wasn't like he couldn't help.

To that end, he ambushed Lan Xichen when he came to visit again.

It was easy enough to catch him alone. Nie disciples were still telling him whenever the Lan sect leader stepped foot in Qinghe, so he didn't even need to set up his own surveillance. It was simplicity itself to come across him in one of the outer courtyards and drag him off to a semi-secluded corner.

Usually, he would talk in circles with Lan Xichen. He could fill up hours worth of conversation about anything that came to hand, and Lan Xichen would always act interested, as if he didn't have so many other things to worry about. Not even his brother was as patient with him. Nie Mingjue would tune him out sometime around his first digression, and his side of the conversation would become low hums and nods. But Lan Xichen always acted engaged, and offered his own opinions on whatever the topic of discussion was. Sometimes he could pretend that Lan Xichen polite patience was a deeper level of affection, but he knew that it was just Lan Xichen's way. He was gracious enough that he made you seem as if you were the only person in the world. It made him a joy to talk with.

But today was not a day for long meandering conversations.

"Er-ge. Something is wrong with Dage," he started with something they both knew. Lan Xichen was softhearted enough that he would surely tell him everything he knew. It made him a better choice for this conversation than Jin Guangyao, who liked to keep secrets. Even if under usual circumstances it would be a pleasant game to steal them without letting Jin Guangyao know that he had revealed them, he didn't have the patience for that when his brother was a risk. And as Nie Huaisang expected, Lan Xichen did cave immediately.

"Ah, of course you would have noticed." Lan Xichen looked faintly embarrassed. "I apologize for keeping it from you, but I fear your brother thought that you would be upset."

Nie Mingjue thought he would be upset? Of course he was going to be upset, Nie Mingjue could be dying! That didn't mean that he didn't need to know.

Nie Huaisang hid his involuntary grimace at the thought with his fan and leaned in towards Lan Xichen, eyebrows raised in a silent request for more information.

"There are major signs of qi deviation," Lan Xichen said. He hesitated. "Do you know about qi deviation and the Nie cultivation style?"

Nie Huaisang nodded vigorously. He wasn't supposed to, that was something that was ceremoniously told to disciples after they had a proper saber spirit (which never made much sense to him, since by then it was too late, and they were doomed anyway), but he wasn't an idiot.

"Then you know that at higher levels, your sects cultivation may cause imbalances, especially when combined with stress or aggression," Lan Xichen checked.

Nie Huaisang waved his fan, trying to move the conversation along. "Yes, I know. It's silly and pointless, and Dage still shouldn't be affected by it for at least another decade."

"Well, with his power and the instability of the past several years, he may be more vulnerable than we might like to think," Lan Xichen continued gently.

Nie Huaisang ducked his head behind his fan and nodded. He knew that was possible, he just didn't want to admit even to himself that his brother might be in such danger.

"But we're not going to just let it go, are we?" He asked. That was what Nie Mingjue would do if given the choice. He would probably spout some nonsense about how death by qi deviation was a fitting death for their ancestors, so it was a fitting death for him. As if their ancestors wouldn't be thrilled to see him defeat their greatest enemy.

"There is a theory that Jin Guangyao and I believe might work," Lan Xichen said hesitantly.

Nie Huaisang leaned in eagerly, grasping at his sleeve. "What do you mean?" He had hoped that the two of them would have some sort of solution. Between the two of them, they had so much skill and experience, of course they could see a way through that Nie Huaisang hadn't seen.

"In the Lan sect techniques, there is a song that is said to calm the mind and quiet the spirit. The Song of Clarity is said to be able to bring peace to even raging armies when played by a master. It should calm Dage, and allow him to regain his balance."

"And you really think that will work? That it will save Dage?"

"I see no reason it wouldn't and several reasons that it would. And even if it doesn't, a little peace of mind certainly can't hurt him," Lan Xichen reassured him.

"That's good," he murmured, dropping Lan Xichen's arm. It was too soon to know if it would really work, but there was hope. And he wasn't very good at cultivation, so he definitely wasn't very familiar with musical cultivation, so he couldn't give a good estimate on how likely it was to be helpful. But Lan Xichen was an expert at musical cultivation, and he was confident that this Song of Clarity would help. That was a good sign, at least.

Nie Huaisang realized that he was practically standing on top of Lan Xichen, and tried to surreptitiously create a bit more distance in between them. But if Lan Xichen noticed that he had been far to close to be polite, he made no mention of it. Of course, Lan Xichen probably wouldn't have acted uncomfortable even if it did bother him.

"He'll be alright?" he checked again, his mind already spinning. This had to help, it had too. He had already checked their own records, and found no successful cures of their hereditary tendency towards qi deviation. If it didn't, he didn't know where he would look next.

"I believe he will be."

Well, if Lan Xichen was this confident, he had no choice but to believe him.



It was good to see how Nie Huaisang adored his brother. Lan Xichen smiled to himself as he continued to his meeting with his own sworn brothers. He was so concerned, it was rather endearing. Even if he didn't have any recourse to help his brother in his sickness, he was still so determined to try.

He joined Jin Guangyao in the hall outside Nie Mingjue's study, and apologized for making him wait.

"Although you could certainly have began without me. Even if you wanted me there to explain our idea, I'm sure that catching up with Dage would be more entertaining than waiting for me," he chided. Really, the way that Jin Guangyao had taken to avoiding Nie Mingjue was frustrating. They were never going to mend their differences if they never managed to talk about their grievances.  

"It was no trouble to wait for you." Jin Guangyao tucked his hands into his sleeves and flashed a quick smile that didn't quite hide his nervousness.

"You know that our plan means you will need to talk to him? If it makes you so uncomfortable, then I could probably work a schedule out." It wouldn't be easy, he had a lot of responsibilities and other calls on his time, but he was sure he could manage it. He might need to go without sleep for a month or two from traveling between the places every other day, and his uncle would be incredibly disapproving of him dumping most of his duties on him, and he might have to sacrifice his biweekly checks on Wangji in his seclusion, but he could probably work something out.

"No, it's fine. It isn't as if Dage is going to hurt me. You have so many more responsibilities, and I would hate for you to neglect them. It won't be nearly as difficult for me to get away."

"How have matters in the Jin Sect progressed? Has anything settled down?" He inquired.

Jin Guangyao frowned. "Not at all. Father insists that Jin Ling will be his successor, and whenever some cousin is foolish enough to point out that he won't be of age for over a decade and that father is no longer young, he reacts badly. And he has been bringing other relatives out of every corner of the cultivation world, it seems like."

"I heard. That must be upsetting." Jin Guangyao hadn't said anything, but it was common knowledge that after the death of his son Jin Guangyao had reversed his policy on his illegitimate children. Now, he was bringing many of them to Koi Tower. Lan Xichen supposed that the death of Jin Zixuan must have shaken him badly, and made him more aware of the value of family. A natural emotion, but one that troubled his friend. He knew how proud Jin Guangyao was of his efforts to be acknowledged by his father. It must grate at him to see half siblings be treated so much better than he had been.

"Yes. Although few stay long. If they don't show enough potential, then Father quickly loses patience with them. And if they show too much, then father's wife is happy to deal with them." He sighed. "It will be very nice to get away from that for a while."

Lan Xichen squeezed his shoulder in sympathy. For all that Jin Guangyao professed to enjoy some of the minor politicking that was common in the Jin courts, he had to imagine that such matters were stressful.

Jin Guangyao took a deep breath before they entered Nie Mingjue's study. Lan Xichen gave him another sympathetic pat before they went. There was no reason for Jin Guangyao to be so nervous about discussing this with Nie Mingjue. Although it was true that it was a sensitive subject, it was obvious that it was brought up out of concern and affection for their sworn brother, and Nie Mingjue would doubtless see that.

It hurt, to see how the bond between his two sworn brothers had grown so strained. When they had worked so close together, they had been like a cultivator's left and right hand. But now that Jin Guangyao lived with his father in Lanling, their relationship had grown strained. Well, if the physical distance was part of what was keeping them from reconciling, then their plan would hopefully help to mend their relationship as well as Nie Mingjue's spirit.

It had been a while since he had seen Nie Mingjue. Between the many calls on his time by the Lan sect and his own personal problems keeping Wangji from doing something drastic in his grief, he hadn't been able to see either of his sworn brothers as much as he might have liked. He was glad that he had Jin Guangyao to be able to remind him that he needed to be concerned about other people as well.

Nie Mingjue mostly looked tired. It wasn't an unusual sight, he was ever devoted to his duties and his sect, and even during the relative calm of peace time always kept himself ready for war.

"I was expecting you a quarter of a sichen ago," Nie Mingjue said. Lan Xichen didn't think that he was imagining the irritation in his tone. Was that normal annoyance over having his time wasted, or a more unnatural anger?

"Forgive us for our delay," Jin Guangyao said with a bow and a smooth tone. "We were unavoidably detained." 

Nie Mingjue fixed a glare on Jin Guangyao at that, and absently reached over towards where Baxia lay in her stand. That wasn't a usual reaction, even for Nie Mingjue. It was true he despised that sort of political nonsense, as he called it, but he usually understood that it was a necessary and expected part of politics. For him to grow so angry so quickly was a sign that Jin Guangyao was right in his suspicions.

"A-Yao, don't," Lan Xichen interjected. There was no reason not to be honest with Nie Mingjue. They weren't in Koi Tower, Jin Guangyao didn't need to make his every action acceptable to anyone. Nie Mingjue would understand. "The delay was my fault, Jin Guangyao was merely waiting for me."

Nie Mingjue's expression eased as he turned his attention on Lan Xichen. "Were you detained by sect matters in Gusu?"

"No, I was speaking with Huaisang, actually." He didn't mention the subject of the conversation though. Nie Huaisang had obviously been upset, and he wouldn't want to break that confidence to others, even if it was only his older brother and Jin Guangyao. Besides, the two brothers were close enough that he was sure Nie Huaisang would bring his worries to Nie Mingjue sooner or later.

"He didn't follow you," Nie Mingjue said sharply, rising from his desk to open the door and check the halls.

Lan Xichen blinked. "No? Dage, what are you doing?"

"He listens at doors, the brat. It's impossible to keep anything from him."

Lan Xichen exchanged a glance with Jin Guangyao. He knew that paranoia was one of the classic signs of qi deviation, but surely Nie Mingjue of all people knew that Nie Huaisang wasn't capable of such underhanded dealings.

"I'm sure that he wouldn't do such a thing," he reassured Nie Mingjue, who just gave him a narrow eyed look.

"I doubt that Nie Huaisang would care enough even to try. He would be bored to tears even thinking about anything serious," Jin Guangyao said with a laugh. "You know how hard it was to force him to concentrate during his lessons, he's hardly likely to seek out more of the same."

"You don't know my brother." But he did leave the doorway, although not before a final check down the hallway.

"What was this urgent matter that the two of you wanted to speak to me about," he asked as he sat back down.

Now that the time had come to broach the topic of his health with Nie Mingjue, Lan Xichen found himself at a loss for words. Fortunately, Jin Guangyao always had an easy way with words.

"Dage, we cannot help but be concerned with your health. Since the end of the Sunshot Campaign, you have been tense and quick to anger. Small things upset you, and you are less able to be calm. Your irritability has only grown since peace began, even though the calm should have soothed your spirit." Jin Guangyao began, before being cut off by Nie Mingjue. 

"Speak plainly, not in circles," Nie Mingjue barked. Jin Guangyao hid a flinch, but continued.

"We fear that you may be suffering from unstable qi. Given your sect and family's history with the affliction, we cannot help but be worried that you are heading for a qi deviation. One that would be fatal."

Nie Mingjue rose from his desk, a thunderous expression on his face. He turned to where Baxia was laying, before whirling around to face them again.

"Do you also think that I am unstable?" Nie Mingjue addressed Lan Xichen, turning away from Jin Guangyao. "Irritable and irrational? Soon to die, like so many of my ancestors?"

"I wouldn't phrase it in such a way," he said. "However your qi is, you are still yourself. You have led your sect since your youth, and any cultivator must admire your strength and resolve. But qi deviation is a danger of your sect's cultivation style, and it would be foolish to disregard such a possible danger."

"I am perfectly fine."

"Dage, you have to admit that you have grown more short tempered recently. It is worrying, and isn't something that I can ignore in good conscious."

"You are wrong," he denied again. "But even if you were right, and I am showing signs of qi deviation so early, what do you intend to do about it? Generations of Nie have suffered in such a way. None of my ancestor's have ever overcame it, and I don't have time for empty concern."

"The Nie Sect hasn't found a solution to the fault in their cultivation style, but they were limited to their own knowledge," Jin Guangyao said. "Our connection means that we are not so limited."

"The Nie sect does not practice musical cultivation," Lan Xichen added. "And it is in such methods that I believe we have found a recourse. I have found a song that should calm the spirit and quiet the mind, which will allow you the focus to balance out your cultivation. With time, it should calm you and take you out of danger."

"So you are planning on subjecting me to this, then? Well, I can't say I oppose listening to your playing Xichen, even if it is unnecessary." Nie Mingjue's annoyance had faded some, but his skepticism remained. Well, once he felt the difference the song would make he would realize how much he needed this. And it didn't matter how he felt about it, so long as he listened.

"Ah no," Jin Guangyao interjected.

"What San-ge means is that we felt it would be better for him to play the song."

"Him?" Nie Mingjue's glare intensified.

Lan Xichen hurried on quickly. "Jin Guangyao is a brilliant musical cultivator, as skilled as many in my sect who have been cultivating in this way from birth. He is more than capable."

"I don't doubt his capacity, I doubt his motives. Jin Guangyao never does anything without something to gain."

Jin Guangyao tensed at the insult, but when he spoke his voice was calm.

"As your sworn brother I am naturally merely concerned for your well being. It is in all of our best interests for you to be well. I want you to live healthy and well for many decades to come."

Nie Mingjue didn't say anything, but his expression conveyed his doubt.

From there, the argument continued. Neither of them were willing to back down. Nie Mingjue refused to accept help from Jin Guangyao, and continued to state that it was unneeded. Jin Guangyao was equally stubborn, and refused to yield his position. The longer the argument went on, the higher Nie Mingjue’s temper flared. Lan Xichen's attempts to calm the situation were futile. He wondered if he should offer again to come to Qinghe himself. He would, if the two of them could not come to an agreement. But it would be better if Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao had the opportunity to mend their differences.

They were interrupted eventually Nie Huaisang, who knocked before pushing open the door, a wide smile on his face. Nie Mingjue cut himself off in mid tirade, unwilling to air such vitriol in front of his younger brother.

"Are you finished with boring matters?" Nie Huaisang said with a bright smile. "I know you told me to leave you to your work this time Dage, but you were taking so very long. And I wanted to make sure that I saw Sange before he had to leave again."

Nie Huaisang had calmed himself from earlier. If Lan Xichen had not seen him on the brink of tears out of his worry for his brother not a sichen ago, he never would have known. Now he was as bright and vivacious as ever, as he prattled on. He gave no sign that he knew about his brother's sickness, and spoke of none of his own concerns from earlier.

Most of his words were about Jin Guangyao, actually. How good it was to see him, how much he had missed him, how he was the only person that he knew who had any good opinions on art.

"I know he comes visit a lot, but it's not the same as when you lived here."

Lan Xichen barely managed to keep a smile of his face as he realized what Nie Huaisang's aim was. He was trying to convince Nie Mingjue to allow Jin Guangyao to stay, despite their arguments. Although this oblique approach was more subtle than their direct tactics, it seemed more likely to succeed.

"We were just speaking about that, actually," he assisted. "Jin Guangyao was thinking about taking some time away from Lanling. Your brother is interested in A-Yao's skill in musical cultivation, so I believe he should spend some months in Qinghe. I'm sure that he would enjoy the chance to re-experience a place that was once so dear to him."

The happiness on Nie Huaisang's face was almost, but not quite, overdone. Lan Xichen's lips quirked in amusement before he schooled his features to be more somber. It wouldn't do to give away Nie Huaisang's game.

"Is Jin Guangyao staying, then?" Nie Huaisang said hopefully.

"For a while," Nie Mingjue capitulated to his brother so easily, resignation in every word. "Until he realizes that there isn't any point to staying."

Nie Huaisang cheered, and rushed to hug his brother before going over to Jin Guangyao and tugging him out of the rooms, chattering away like one of his songbirds. Nie Mingjue just sighed in his absence, looking even more tired than he had earlier.

Admirable, how Nie Huaisang had gotten the pair to agree so quickly, when all of Lan Xichen's calming words had been futile. It seemed that things would work out well after all.

Chapter Text

Although Nie Huaisang had been hopeful that this would help, Jin Guangyao's playing did not seem to be the cure all that Lan Xichen had promised.

Now that Nie Huaisang was looking for the signs of qi deviation, he saw them all the time. Anger and aggression, paranoia and suspicion, all of them grew in Nie Mingjue day by day. By now, everyone in Qinghe knew what was happening to their leader. Nie Huaisang stopped listening to the rumors that were going around. They were filled with the sort of defeatist talk as if his brother had already passed.

At least Jin Guangyao's playing seemed to have some effect. It quieted Nie Mingjue for an hour or two at least, before the fires of his anger raged again.

Not even all of Nie Huaisang's tricks could keep him calm. Few of his usual tactics to amuse his brother would work for long. Long meandering stories were met with indifference instead of fond indulgence. Antics and fooling around were met with snarling fury and orders to practice his saber more and not to waste his time. On one awful occasion, casual affection had caused his brother to break down in tears, although he hadn't given in to any of Nie Huaisang's coaxing as to why.

Nie Mingjue still hadn't told him about his troubles, even when Nie Huaisang did his best to draw it out of him. If he had been as oblivious as he pretended to be, then he would have no idea that his brother was even sick. He even lied about Jin Guangyao, claiming that he was just there because he was avoiding Lanling's continuing instability. No mention was made of calming music, or why Nie Mingjue might need it.

Not to mention, Nie Mingjue had grown even more demanding than usual when it came to his training. After so long being indulged in his avoidance of his saber, he wasn't expecting his brother to start rousing him roughly in the morning for dawn practice. His standards were higher than ever, and when Nie Huaisang inevitably fell short of his punishing expectations, he would break into fury.

Nie Huaisang had never been very good with his saber. Not like his brother was, not like he should have been. He was only an indifferent swordsman, and had never felt the urge to improve much beyond what his brother called 'passable, if you are fighting dumb beasts and weak corpses'. It wasn't something that he enjoyed, so he had never put in the effort to improve. Especially since being a good swordsman would mean going on night hunts and putting himself in danger, and that was even before the hidden dangers of qi deviation.

No, he had always been happy to leave the fighting to his brother, who enjoyed that sort of thing. His brother had mostly been happy to let him, with only minor grumbling.

But that was before. Now, he was standing in the middle of his brothers private training yard, sweat dripping down into his eyes and sticking his cloths to his back. He was barely standing upright, and his arms were shaking from the exertion, but he didn't dare drop his saber. The last time that had happened, Nie Mingjue had yelled at him for a while before adding another sichen to his practice. He didn't think he could do another sichen of this.

Nie Mingjue showed no signs of letting him leave anytime soon, either. His brother usually kept up a punishing training schedule, but even so he should have called for a break to attend to sect matters a while ago. Even he didn't usually train for sichen straight. And Nie Huaisang, who under more usual circumstances put in maybe of a sichen of practice every couple of days definitely wasn't capable of this sort of marathon training.

"Again." Nie Mingjue said, implacable as the mountains. He raised Baxia again, preparing to strike.

"Stop, stop," Nie Huaisang pleaded, trying to raise his saber into position to block. He barely managed to bring the saber up high enough to block, and the shock of the contact almost made him drop his saber again. "Dage, we've been at this since dawn, I'm tired."

"Do you think that the enemy will care that you are tired," Nie Mingjue roared. "They will just take hesitation as an opening. If you were on a night hunt, you would be dead! Your carelessness will only get you killed."

Nie Huaisang stumbled backwards, almost losing his balance as he wildly dodged Baxia's next stroke. His off hand windmilled wildly as a counterbalance, and he tried to bring his saber up to block Baxia again.

He didn't make it. He closed his eyes reflexively as he saw Baxia's edge heading towards him.

It didn't hit, of course. When he reminded himself that his brother would never do anything to hurt him and opened his eyes, Nie Mingjue had stopped the blade inches from his throat. His brother was breathing hard, even though Nie Huaisang knew that he would never be a challenge for his brother.

"Go," Nie Mingjue sighed, lowering Baxia. "We will try again tomorrow."

Nie Huaisang sagged with relief. Tomorrow would be bad. He would be sore and stiff, and the bruises that he had been given would leave him in pain even before he got another set. But that was tomorrow. And who knows, maybe Nie Mingjue would finally come to his senses and realize that no amount of training would ever make him as strong as his brother was.

He said as much as he tottered around the edges of the courtyard to cool down. As much as he wanted to collapse where he was standing, he knew that without at least some stretching now he would be in even more pain tomorrow. His brother had the same idea, and was swinging Baxia through a set of slow motions near the center of the yard.

"Really Dage, why are you insisting on all this practice."

"You need to put in the time to become strong. Do you think that I gained my strength without many hours of practice?"

"Of course not." Nie Huaisang knew better than anyone the sort of effort that his brother put into his cultivation, how much he did to ensure that his skills remained at their peak. "But that's you, not me. I'm never going to be as good as you are."

Not only was he unsuited to it, he didn't want to put in the effort he would need to overcome his difficulties. Martial strength was never going to be his goal.

"If you just tried. If you only put in the effort to practice and train, you could be so much stronger."

"I don't want to be stronger, Dage," he whined. He didn't. He was happy being the foolish second master. He was happy having no responsibilities. He was happy having time to pursue all his hobbies. He was happy that no one had any expectations for him.

He was happy to have his brother there to take care of him.

But his brother, who always strove to become stronger, wouldn't understand that point of view. "It doesn't matter what you want," Nie Mingjue took a step towards Nie Huaisang as he spoke, Baxia still in his hands. Nie Huaisang wondered if he had pressed his brother too far and gained himself another round of sparring. "You need to become stronger. If you went out on a night hunt now you would be dead within hours."

"Dage, that may be true, but I'm not going to go on a night hunt by myself," Nie Huaisang tried to placate him. "I never go on night hunts, you know that. And if I ever did, I'm sure that I would go with you or a bunch of the other disciples. I'm not going to get myself killed."

"I won't always be here!" Nie Mingjue snarled.

Nie Huaisang flinched at the words. They hit far too close, after weeks of worrying over his brother's health. But he wasn't going to let his brother talk like that, like he was already dead. Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao's song would work, it had to. And then Nie Mingjue would laugh at the fact that he had become so discouraged, and he would return to his usual training schedule and protect them all.

"Dage will be here." He insisted instead. His brother still hadn't told him that he was suffering from qi deviation. And so long as that was true, he wasn't going to say anything. If he didn't admit it was happening, then in a way, it wasn't.

"You are the second master of the sect! You need to be strong enough to lead. You need to be strong enough to protect our people. If you get into trouble, you need to be strong enough to keep yourself safe." A familiar argument, but one that had been brought up much more often recently.

"If I get into trouble, than Dage will protect me, of course." He responded, returning Nie Mingjue's glare with one of his own. His brother needed to stop acting so defeated. He wasn't the type to surrender to any enemy without a fight, and this shouldn't be any different.

"I won't always be able to keep you safe, A-Sang." He was A-Sang again, so despite his frustrated tone Nie Mingjue's anger was cooling.

"Stop talking like that," he protested. "You are strong, you will be able to protect me forever." He wondered if his brother was going to admit that he was sick. Jin Guanyao had been hanging around playing for him for months now, but Nie Mingjue hadn't told him anything yet.

But he didn't. Instead, Nie Mingjue just sighed and said, "Maybe." He looked defeated, and that wasn't an expression that Nie Huaisang had ever though he would see on his peerless brother. It was wrong.

"Why does it matter, anyway?" He asked, turning his head away to break their eye contact. He didn't want to see that look on his brother's face.

"The Sect Leader needs to be a capable cultivator, someone who is skilled with our ways."

That made no sense at all. It had nothing to do with what he had asked. Nie Mingjue was the epitome of the Nie cultivation style. There wasn't a technique or philosophy that he didn't take to immediately. Nie Huaisang almost told him so, before he realized what his brother meant. Nie Mingjue was convinced that he was going to die soon. He didn't mean himself, he meant Nie Huaisang.

That was an awful thought. His hand tightened on his saber's hilt before he forced himself to loosen his grip. But his voice was steady as he spoke.

"You are the best of the entire sect. All of our ancestors are proud of your skill and honor." He wasn't going to even acknowledge the thought of him being sect leader. If Nie Mingjue wanted to talk about that, let him say it right out. "Which is why you should be fighting with someone who is closer to your skill level. You know that I'm not a challenge for you. Any of the other disciples would be honored to spar with you, and they would learn a lot more from the experience than I would."

"No," Nie Mingjue said flatly. "We will practice again tomorrow at dawn." He turned and strode away, the conversation over.

Nie Huaisang considered following and trying to get the last word, but decided against it. His brother would be going to the council room or his study to deal with sect matters, and when he was in this mood he would probably try to teach Nie Huaisang about those responsibilities. Besides, the thought of running after his brother with his long strides sounded like torture right now, when his whole body was sore from exercise.

Besides, there would be other chances. He could meet up with his brother later, and continue this conversation then. He wasn't going to allow his brother to give up. Nie Mingjue needed to fight this, not give in to whatever fatalistic thoughts were going through his head. He was going to help. He was going to remind his brother that he was needed, that the sect needed him, that Nie Huaisang could never even dream about taking his place.

But before that, he needed to take a bath. A long one, with very hot water.



Jin Guangyao raised his hands from the strings of the guqin, and breathed in deeply, looking for calm.

The song of clarity was a difficult piece, both technically and spiritually. There was a reason that it wasn't a common tool of Lan cultivators, despite its usefulness. The song that he and Su Minshan had composed, weaving chaos music throughout the notes of the song of clarity, was more taxing yet. Especially as the affects of the two song were so directly opposed. It was a strain each time he played it, to keep the music in balance and not twist out of his control.

It would be so easy for the chaos script to get out of control. It fought with him, every time that he played it, surging with power. It wanted to be fully unleashed, not bound by the notes of calm surrounding it. It wanted to destroy all those who heard to.

So far, he had kept it under control. So far, it had worked as slowly as he wanted to. Nie Mingjue was declining fast, but not so quickly as to arouse suspicion. No one thought that Nie Mingjue's qi deviation, although early and proceeding rapidly, was anything other than a natural consequence of Nie Mingjue's power.

As it was, it was a waiting game. Short of blocking his ears entirely, there was no way for him to be entirely unaffected by the song himself. It wasn't comfortable to feel his qi surge and his calm shatter. He knew that he was getting emotional, and minor things upset him easily. It wasn't a comfortable feeling, especially since his mind had always been his sharpest weapon.

But however he was feeling, Nie Mingjue was doubtless feeling much worse. The Nie sect had a weakness to qi deviation, and Nie Mingjue was no exception and his power only made it worse. He would succumb long before Jin Guangyao. All that he had to do was keep himself as balanced as possible while Nie Mingjue's symptoms grew worse. It was only a matter of time.

Already, Nie Mingue was feeling the affects of the song. His temper grew ever shorter, and the Nie disciples walked around Qinghe with worried faces, whispering of qi deviation. Nie Mingjue himself had stopped protesting that he was perfectly fine, and no longer gave Jin Guangyao short shrift when he showed up, guqin, in hand, to pour another helping of poison into his ears. His playing was Nie Mingjue's only relief from the raging of his spirit, after all.

The song that he and Su Minshan had hit on mimicked the effects of the song of clarity in the short term, while having the opposite effect in the long run. So while Jin Guangyao was playing, and for a short while afterwards, Nie Mingjue would be unnaturally calm. Then the rage would return, worse than before. Until he called on Jin Guangyao to pour a little more acid onto his spirit.

Nie Mingjue was indifferent to music, and unlikely to notice the way that the song had been corrupted. He barely even paid any attention to Jin Guangyao and his playing, letting him fade into the background as he did paperwork or attended to sect matters. Jin Guangyao would be surprised if he could even hum the main melody of the song, despite having heard it so many times before. It really seemed like the plan was going to work as well as intended.

When his father had called him to him and ordered him to kill Nie Mingjue, he had despaired over how he would do such a thing. Nie Mingjue was strong and powerful, and Jin Guangyao could never dream of being a match for him. But he didn't need to face Nie Mingjue head on. That would only play into the Nie sect leader's strengths, and not to Jin Guangyao's own. This subtle plan was much better, much more likely to work, and less likely to be blamed on him.

He was careful to keep Nie Mingjue suspicious, but not for the right reasons. Small interjections about Lanling Jin, and how if he did this surely the whole cultivation world would prosper. Making sure that he rifled through Nie Mingjue's official papers and left just enough of a trace for Nie Mingjue to know that he had done so. Talking like an advisor despite no longer being part of the sect, but making sure that his suggestions were all in favor of the Jin sect, and not the Nie.

All in all, his actions had convinced Nie Mingjue that he was there to spy on him and support his father's political goals. Which was true, and kept him from digging for another motive.

No, this was going to work. Nie Mingjue would die. Nie Mingjue would never look at him with contempt again, as he had ever since he had been thrown out of the Nie sect. Nie Mingjue would never tell Lan Xichen or anyone else that Jin Guangyao wasn't to be trusted. He would look down on Nie Mingjue, beaten and bloody, and Nie Mingjue would know that he had bested him-

Jin Guangyao took another deep breath and released it meditatively. No, he would not allow his anger to get away from him. Nie Mingjue would fall, yes, but he would never know that it was by Jin Guangyao's hand. No one ever would, except for Jin Guangyao himself and his father.

His father would be pleased, like he had been pleased when he had killed Wen Ruohan. His father might even name him his successor, when he saw how assiduous Jin Guangyao was in advancing their goals. He might even call him son and tell him that he was proud of him. Those were words that he hadn't heard since his mother's death, no matter how filial he was, but surely this would be enough?

"I was told that you received another letter from your wife," Nie Mingjue said bluntly, dragging Jin Guangyao from his fantasies. "In with the official mail from Lanling."

"Yes, my wife grieves to be so far apart during this time," he said, refocusing on the present. "I will need to tell her not to send anything by such official channels."

"It's fine." Nie Mingjue waved it aside. "Was it good news? She must be rather far along in her confinement."

If Jin Guangyao was as blunt a person as Nie Mingjue was, as honest as he was, he would say that the only good news would be that she had miscarried. That the thing was an abomination and needed to die now, before it had a chance to inevitably grow into a monster. That every time he saw his wife, he had an urge to carve it out of her stomach, and only the knowledge that he would need to explain himself stayed his hand.

But Jin Guangyao was a liar, so all he said was, "She and the infant are healthy, and the healers expect her to deliver without any problems in about two months."

"Early."

If Jin Guangyao was a sect leader, or even his father's named heir, he would snap that it meant nothing. He had married her, after all. No one could ever call his child illegitimate, and he wouldn't stand for that even from his sworn brother. If she hadn't been his sister, there would have been no shame in what they had done in the weeks leading up to their wedding.

"The doctors do not anticipate any problems," he said instead. He was ashamed at the bite he couldn't quite hide in his words, but Nie Mingjue didn't seem to notice.

Nie Mingjue frowned. "A-Sang was born early. He was incredibly small, and they weren't sure if he would live for months, even with the best doctors attending to him." He shook his head as if to banish unpleasant memories. "I'm sure that you will want to attend your child's birth. When were you planning to leave?"

There was little that Jin Guangyao wanted less than a reminder of that abomination. If he could find a way to kill it in the womb without Qin Su realizing what he had done, it would already be dead. But any potion or poison that would cause a safe miscarriage would be obvious even to as sheltered a woman as his wif- as his sister, and anything he knew that would be subtler would be as much a danger to the mother as to the parasite growing inside her.

"I was planning to stay here. Your health isn't steady enough for me to feel comfortable leaving."

Nie Mingjue's frown grew, and Jin Guangyao wondered if even the forced calm of the music would fail so soon. "You should go. Even if you are so lost to family feeling so as not to care about your son, your wife will want you there."

Family feeling? They should never have made their bows, never have spoken their vows. They should never have been a family in this way at all.

"Qin Su will understand," he said instead. "She has been very understanding."

Qin Su had been understanding when he had turned aside from her overtures on their wedding night. She had been confused, but understanding when he had refused to touch her as she swelled with the evidence of their transgression. She had even been understanding when he had insisted that he needed to leave and spend her confinement ministering to his sworn brother. She was very understanding.

If she hadn't been his sister, she would have been the perfect wife.

"I'm sure that Xichen could spare some time so that you could welcome your child. He's not so busy as that."

That was the last thing he could allow. Lan Xichen would play the correct tune, and the difference in effects would bring his true intentions to light. Then he wouldn't need to worry about the abomination growing in his sister's womb, because Nie Mingjue would cut his head off on even a suggestion of wrongdoing from him.

"It will be fine. I wouldn't dare to trouble him."

"If you insist," Nie Mingjue shrugged, relaxed in the after effects of the music. He returned to the papers that he had been working on. He made it clear that their conversation was over. Not like Lan Xichen would. Lan Xichen would talk and laugh and treat him like a brother. He would make it clear that he valued Jin Guangyao, and that every moment they had a chance to speak was a valued one.

Bitterly, Jin Guangyao thought that Nie Mingjue didn't even notice that Jin Guangyao was still here.

But he would be the one to win in the end, he thought as he picked up his guqin to leave.

Chapter Text

Nie Mingjue knew from a young age that he would not live a long life. Few Nie lasted to old age. They fell to night hunts and to battle, and if they survived that, qi deviation haunted the family like a wraith. It was the one sickness that strong cultivation could not overcome.

He was younger than most, but he knew the signs. He had denied it at first, but by now he knew that his days were numbered. Lan Xichen's cure gave only temporary relief before the fury was back. He was dying, just like his father had. Just like so many of his ancestors before him. By now the entire sect knew it.

Or almost the entire sect. He had never been able to bring himself to tell his brother of his eventual fate. Maybe if he had, things would be different. Maybe knowing that Nie Mingjue would die young would have inspired his brother to actually put in the effort to be the excellent cultivator and leader that Nie Mingjue knew he could be if he only tried.

Or maybe it would have inspired him to run away and vow to never cultivate again. There was no way to tell with Nie Huaisang.

His brother was sitting to his right, visibly inattentive despite multiple warnings from Nie Mingjue over the afternoon. Oh, he made it look like he was paying attention, but Nie Mingjue had caught him hiding a yawn behind his fan at least twice, and that unfocused stare guaranteed that he had was thinking about birds, or painting, or whatever shiny thing had caught his eye recently.

His council hadn't said anything when he had ordered his brother to join them. They knew that soon enough it would be Nie Huaisang sitting on the dais. Besides, as his heir A-Sang should have been attending council sessions for years. But his little brother had never shown an interest in running the sect, and he had always indulged him. He remembered how overwhelmed he had felt when he was that age, already responsible to the sect. So he had let Nie Huaisang avoid his responsibilities for longer than he probably should have. But now, time was running out.

The incredibly dry report about taxes finally wrapped up and he dismissed the council for the day. They filed out, doubtless grateful to leave his increasingly volatile presence.

"Nie Huaisang, stay." His brother already on his way to the door, turned and reluctantly returned to his place. He was just as hesitant as the others. Well, he had snapped at him several times already, so Nie Huaisang probably expected some harsh punishment.

"What are your thoughts, A-Sang? The Elder gave us so much information on crop yield. Do you think our current taxation will work going forward, or will it be too hard on the people?" He asked.

"I don't know, Dage." Nie Huaisang didn't meet his eyes. "I'm sure that Dage's opinion is the best."

"How about the trade agreement with Lanling Jin? Are the terms reasonable for us?"

"I don't know that either, it was very complicated." Nie Huaisang flicked open his fan, but visibly thought better and closed it again, gripped it tightly instead. Good. At this point, Nie Mingjue wanted to take that fan and break it in half. Possibly over his brother's skull. Or maybe set it on fire.

Nie Mingjue did his best to swallow his annoyance and continued, "What about the news of unrest among the western peoples? Do you think that we should fortify the western passes?"

Nie Huaisang tilted his head, eyes bright, and for one glorious moment Nie Mingjue thought he was going to say something reasonable. Even if it was something stupid, it would show a glimmer of consideration, of thought about his responsibilities. It would be some sign that his brother would be alright after he died. But the moment passed, and Nie Huaisang just shook his head.

"I don't know anything about any of that, Dage." His tone was as meek as Nie Mingjue had ever heard from him. He wished he would be more forceful. The sect would not be kind to him if he continued to be this demure.

"When you are sect leader, you will be the last word on all these subjects. You won't be able to have the council take care of it for you. They are your advisors, but it will be your responsibility."

"But Dage, I'm not the Sect Leader, and I'm not going to be Sect Leader," Nie Huaisang was practically pouting. "It's not my responsibility at all, and it never will be."

He definitely should have told his brother about qi deviation. "I won't always be here," he said. "Then it will be your responsibility."

"But that will be so far away, Dage. And I'm sure that you will have lots of children, so even then I won't ever have to lead the sect."

Nie Mingjue pulled a face. "Unlikely." There wouldn't be time for that, and even if there was the thought wasn't something he had ever found appealing. He sighed.

"A-Sang, I need you to take this seriously. These are all skills and knowledge that you will need in the future. I have been lenient in the past with your avoidance of your duties, but we cannot afford to indulge you anymore."

His brother flinched, and looked down at the fan in his hand instead of looking at Nie Mingjue. He looked so young. Nie Mingjue couldn't help but think that it had been so recently that he had been toddling around, following him in everything that he did. But at the same time, so much time had passed.

"I don't know why you are intent on this. Even if I don't know this, they all do. I don't need to tell them what they already know."

"Because they don't already know it!" He yelled in frustration, before catching himself. He needed to stay calm. He knew that he wasn't really as angry as he felt. Besides, getting angry with him would just make Nie Huaisang dig in his heels. He continued at a quieter volume. "Without someone to lead them and direct them, the sect will fall apart. You cannot simply expect them to run it for you without oversight. Besides, you need to know enough to command them well, or no one will follow you."

"Dage, no one is ever going to follow me. I'm not a leader, you know that." True to form, Nie Huaisang grew even more stubborn at Nie Mingjue's temper. If he channeled a tenth of this strength of will to his cultivation, no one would ever accuse him of being weak. But no. Instead, his brother preferred to waste his time and his potential on meaningless frivolity. It would get him killed, Nie Mingjue was sure of it.

"You certainly haven't been acting like a future sect leader." He bit out. "Our ancestors must be ashamed to know that someone so weak will be responsible for our sect."

Nie Huaisang actually looked hurt for a moment at that, and Nie Mingjue almost regretted what he had said.

"I am never going to be the sect leader!" He continued his defiance, actually raising his voice. Nie Mingjue could count on one hand the number of times that his brother resorted to raising his voice at him. He usually gave in to Nie Huaisang's whims long before it came to that. But this wasn't something that Nie Mingjue could falter on.

"That's not a choice that you get to make!" Nie Huaisang would be sect leader, and sooner than either of them would prefer.

"Yes it is! Jin Guangyao's music will work, and you'll get better-" Nie Huaisang broke off, his eyes widening as he realized what he had said. He pulled out his fan, and raised it to shield his expression.

It was a habit of his that Nie Mingjue had come to detest in the past few years, but this time he didn't bother to bark at him. He was on his feet in a moment, and crossed the room to his brother. He grabbed Nie Huaisang's wrist, pulling the fan down so that he could see his brother's face.

It looked calm, but Nie Mingjue was sure that there were many thoughts racing behind it.

"What did you say?" He asked tightly.

"I said that you will get better." His brother's voice was calm now, and he met Nie Mingjue's eyes without hesitation. "The Song of Clarity will heal your qi deviation, so all these worries are unnecessary."

"Who told you?" He had wanted to keep it from his brother for as long as he could. He had promised to protect his brother from all hurt, and he knew that A-Sang would take it hard. All of his disciples knew how he felt, and none of them would have betrayed him by telling his brother that he was so unstable. If any of them had, he would kill them.

"No one told me," Nie Huaisang said quietly. "I figured it out on my own."

He was lying. Nie Mingjue knew that he was lying. He had done his best to be calm around his brother, to talk to him only when he was in the eddies of the song of clarity when the rage felt distant, or on the training fields when he had a purpose and the calm that came with it. And Nie Huaisang didn't pay attention to that, anyway. Some one must that told him.

If it hadn't been one of the disciples, there were few other options. Jin Guangyao and Lan Xichen, though Lan Xichen hadn't been back in Qinghe for a while, too busy with his sect and his own younger brother. Jin Guangyao had. Jin Guangyao had barely left the fortress since he had arrived. Jin Guangyao was always amused with his brother's antics. Jin Guangyao talked to his brother regularly.

If Jin Guangyao had been the one to tell him, to take Nie Huaisang's peace from him, he would destroy him. Behead him as he should have so long ago. If he had been whispering in his brother's ear of Nie Mingjue's weakness, then a quick death would soon follow-

Nie Huaisang dropped his fan to the ground with a clatter. Nie Mingjue looked down and realized that he was still holding his brother's wrist, and his grip had tightened as he had thought. He let go in an instant. He hadn't been thinking of what he was doing. He knew that he was strong, even for a Nie, and his grip was trained with hours on Baxia's hilt. He should have realized that he could have hurt his brother.

And why had he been so upset? His brother had always kept secrets from him. It was in Nie Huaisang's nature. He always knew more than he should. He should have known better than to think he could keep secrets from Nie Huaisang. Learning that his brother had learned this without his knowledge should have only amused him. He should be laughing ruefully at how easily his brother had found him out. He shouldn't be about to erupt into a tower of fury.

It seemed his qi deviation was only getting worse.

"Go," he ordered, collapsing into his throne. He couldn't continue this conversation, not without doing something that he would regret later. "We will talk about this more later."

"But, Dage-"

"Go!" He pointed to the door, his other hand over his eyes. He had the beginnings of a headache, and he was sure it was only going to get worse.

His brother went, but only slowly, and he lingered in the doorway. Nie Mingjue glanced up and met his eyes. "What?" He asked irritated. He had told him to go, so of course his brother, who was only stubborn when Nie Mingjue needed him not to be, was still there.

"It's just..." Nie Huaisang fiddled with his fan nervously. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

Nie Mingjue should tell him. Tell his brother that it wasn't going to work, and he wasn't going to be getting better. That none of their ancestors had ever managed to fix this flaw in their cultivation style, and that the 'cure' that Lan Xichen was so certain would help gave only hours of relief before the fury was back, hotter than before. That it didn't matter what Nie Huaisang thought, in a terribly short time he would need to be in command of the sect, and Nie Mingjue would not be there to protect and guide him.

"No, A-Sang," He said instead. "I just need to be diligent in your training."

His little brother didn't look convinced, but he didn't press the issue. Thankfully. "Yes, Dage."

"And stay away from Jin Guangyao," he added. "I don't trust him."

He could practically see the rebuttals in his brother's face. But Dage, Jin Guangyao is my friend. But Dage, he is only helping you. But Dage, don't you spend a lot of time with him? But Dage, don't you trust him to spend hours by your side and perform complicated cultivation techniques on you?

If he had said any of them, Nie Mingjue couldn't had promised that he wouldn't fly into a rage, even if the only target would be his brother. Even thinking of them was enough for him to ball his hand into a fist, wishing for the comfort of Baxia's hilt. Enough to make him want to find the largest monster he could find in Qinghe territory, so that he wouldn't feel guilty at the joy he would feel at killing it. Enough to make him not care about the guilt he would feel at killing Jin Guangyao, if he challenged him to a fight in his rage.

Nie Huaisang with his usual perceptiveness must have seen that on his face, though, because he only bowed and left. And if he sent Nie Mingjue an uncertain look over his shoulder, that wasn't something Nie Mingjue could easily fix.



Nie Mingjue was inclined to put the conversation behind him, at least until his next attempt to make Nie Huaisang take his responsibilities seriously. But in the late afternoon, after he returned from his saber practice, he found a letter laying in the middle of his desk.

He would know these letters anywhere. That small blocky script, the characters crammed into any small space. He was used to searching for them in courier packets, hoping that he would find them. But he hadn't gotten any such letters since the end of the war. Except for the brief missive before the siege of the Burial Mounds, he hadn't received any messages from his mysterious tactician.

They weren't at war now, either, so he wasn't expecting any either. There weren't even any major tensions that he thought might lead to war, like there had been with the Yiling Patriarch. It was somewhat alarming that he would send such a thing now, when he was slowly dying. Did Douji-zun think that his death would lead the sect to war?

The contents were even more alarming, as well. It didn't address his illness at all, even though Nie Mingjue was sure he must know of it. Instead, it talked about more general matters of the sect. Fortification of their borders, the balance of trade, taxation... A wave for confusion mixed with fury overcame him as he realized that they were answers to the questions that he had asked his younger brother after the council session.

That was a private conversation with his brother. It shouldn't be the concern of some shadowy tactician who didn't even dare to show his face to his sect leader. And what was Douji-zun thinking, to insult his brother in this manner? If Nie Huaisang lacked answers to his questions, it wasn't the place of some stranger to speak in his place. He wasn't the best at politics and manipulation, but he was familiar enough with them to know that this wasn't a compliment to his brother.

And the fact that they knew what he had asked his brother had to be significant. He cast his mind back, trying to remember if there had been anyone else left in the disscussion hall when he had taken his brother aside. He thought he could remember a few of them hanging back. Worse, the door had been open. It was quite possible that whoever his tactician was had simply overheard them speak.

But why had they brought it up? What were their intentions?

The worry gnawed on him throughout the evening, even when Jin Guangyao came with his guqin for a round of music. Nie Mingjue hated that he had to be grateful for Jin Guangyao's effort for him. If he had his way he wouldn't spend any time with him, but he had to admit that the music did help. It provided him with a level of calm, however fleeting it was.

But even that calm didn't help with his worry. Something about the message bothered him, and he couldn't help but feel that he was missing some subtext to the letter.

His frowns were obvious enough that Jin Guangyao remarked on it when he was finished playing. He asked in his most infuriating obsequious tone if it was a matter that he could assist with.

Nie Mingjue considered the offer. He didn't trust Jin Guangyao, but he had to admit that the man was skilled at interpreting people's motives. And the information contained in the letter wasn't sensitive, wasn't anything that Jin Guangyao didn't already know. He debated for a moment, then pushed the letter over to him. "Here. Tell me your thoughts on this."

Jin Guangyao read the letter through, then again more slowly. "They mention that they are answering your questions. But unless something has changed, you still don't know their identity? So you could not have asked them anything."

"They answers the questions I posed to A-Sang earlier. Quite sensibly, but I am uncertain why. I haven't heard anything from them in quite a while, and when I did it was always on military matters. This is much more broad."

"What you asked Nie Huaisang..." Jin Guangyao trailed off, then folded the letter and returning it to Nie Mingjue's desk. "It is quite a clear threat to the second young master."

Fire ignited in his chest, and Nie Mingjue grit his teeth to keep from rising and tracking down whoever even thought about threatening his brother. But he beat it back. He had no valid target for his rage. He still didn't know Douji-zun's identity, and had no idea how to find it out. The only one here that he could take his anger out on was Jin Guangyao, and despite his treachery, he had no hand in this. It wouldn't be just to strike at him for giving him bad news.

"How so," he managed, voice tight with rage. But he had the control not to unsheathe Baxia, despite his tight grip on her hilt.

"Not a physical threat of course. Your brother is in no danger," Jin Guangyao soothed him. "It is much more subtle than that."

Nie Mingjue motioned for him to speak clearer. He was in no mood to bandy words with Jin Guangyao.

"The second young master is your heir, of course. And it is clear that you are not doing as well as you might be."

"Don't cloud your meaning. Speak straight." He knew that he was dying, he didn't need Jin Guangyao to tiptoe around the subject.

Jin Guangyao bowed his head in agreement, still smiling his infuriatingly meaningless smile. "They wish to prove to you their value as an advisor. Advice like this would be valued, and under usual circumstances I would believe that they wanted to remind you of their skills and push for a trusted position at your side."

"I would have given them any honor that they asked for, provided that they were a righteous cultivator. They have never asked, or given any hint where I should give my admiration. And how does that equal a threat to A-Sang?" He wished that Jin Guangyao would be direct for once in his life.

Jin Guangyao shook his head. "They are looking ahead, to the time when Nie Huaisang is sect leader. You ill health and the fact that they have not put themselves forward in the past gives a more sinister bent. They want to position themselves to be Nie Huaisang's trusted advisor in the future. Perhaps even the true power behind the sect."

"I wouldn't trust anyone who will not show his face to be by my brother, no matter how much they have helped me in the past. And Nie Huaisang would never be a puppet on anyone's strings."

Jin Guangyao sent him a skeptical look, but he had never tried to get Nie Huaisang to do anything he didn't want to. He wouldn't know how stubborn his brother could be.

"Another option is that it is a boast. That they would be a better sect leader than the second young master. This would be a more direct threat to your brother. It could imply that they intend to work against him once you are no longer here to protect him. He might have an easy time of it. I'm sure that many of your disciples and retainers are less than enthusiastic about following the second young master."

"The Nie would not follow anyone who does not stand by them on the battlefield. We are people of honor, and no one would betray A-Sang like that."

But the worry remained. He had been working under the assumption that his tactician kept himself hidden out of shame. That would be true enough if the tactician was a criminal or an honorless man, but what if they were one of his captains or elders. Jin Guangyao was right, there were quite a few people who weren't happy about the prospect of Nie Huaisang taking over the sect. That was one of the reasons that he had been pushing him so hard recently, so that he could prove that his brother would be a strong leader despite their doubts.

If his tactician was one of his closer cousins, or even just a highly respected member of the sect, and he made a real play for power once Nie Mingjue was dead, Nie Huaisang might be in trouble. He wouldn't have any idea how to handle something like that. Honestly, Nie Mingjue wouldn't know how to handle something like that. He was far to straightforward to deal with such things. He wasn't a twisted snake like Jin Guangyao was.

The very thought of it made him want to rage through the halls and track down anyone who would stand against his brother. Beat up anyone who had ever dreamed of following someone else.

There had been succession quarrels in the Nie sect in the past. How could there not be? Nie Mingjue was the first person to admit that they were quarrelsome and prone to anger. So it was no surprise that the family had a history of quarreling cousins, and even a few murderous brothers, although Nie Mingjue had a hard time imagining such a thing.

A-Sang was different. Nie Mingjue wouldn't know what to do if someone hurt his brother and he wasn't there to stop it.

"When I die, you will need to help A-Sang." It grated at him to say such a thing. Jin Guangyao was not a man of honor, wasn't anyone he would have liked to need to trust about his brother's safety. But he was fond of A-Sang, and he was clever and skilled at politics. A-Sang would need that, especially if he had such a shadowy enemy.

"I'm sure that it won't come to that," Jin Guangyao smiled. "Shall I play for you again? I'm sure that someone of your strength will overcome this minor set back and grow more powerful than ever. Shortly, all these worries will be unnecessary."

Nie Mingjue snarled at Jin Guangyao's empty flattery. He hated him. He hated that he relied on his playing. He hated that he wasn't able to trust him, and he hated that Jin Guangyao hadn't done anything to betray him since the end of the war. He hated that Jin Guangyao acted like the perfect sworn brother, never showing him anything but the face of a righteous and just cultivator, even though they both knew that it was a lie. He hated Jin Guangyao for never telling him the truth.

But he knew that this simmering fury was a sign of his sickness. It wasn't real. And maybe if he was well these thoughts would never have crossed his mind. Maybe Lan Xichen would have been right, and the two of them would have overcome their differences long ago. There was no way to tell, not when his emotions were so unreliable.

So he waved at Jin Guangyao to play again. He needed all the calm he could get. For however long it would last.