It was meant to be a surprise.
Nie Huaisang would be the last person to deny that he was a lazy, useless good-for-nothing, but he prided himself on having a good heart, and a generous one; even his brother couldn’t deny that Nie Huaisang’s ability to give gifts tailored to the recipient’s wishes were second to none. There was a reason he’d managed the Nie sect’s social affairs ever since the age of eight.
And, of course, the person he put the most effort into finding just the right gift for was his da-ge – and that was also the person he found the hardest to please.
Sure, Nie Mingjue would probably be overjoyed by the promise (and fulfilment) of a solid month of effort in saber practice, but that would only raise Nie Mingjue’s expectations while ruining Nie Huaisang’s life for a month, and anyway Nie Huaisang had already given his brother that the year he was thirteen and he hated repeating gifts. Since that option was off the table, if Nie Huaisang wanted to give his brother something that would make him happy, he had to think hard as to what that might be.
Especially since that present a few years ago, which had gone so terribly wrong.
(He’d thought his brother would be happy that he’d killed a Wen lieutenant for him, using his saber the way he so rarely did – and it hadn’t been easy, that’s for sure – but Nie Mingjue’s hands had actually shaken when he’d found out that Nie Huaisang had left the security of the Unclean Realm and Nie Huaisang didn’t want to see that gutted expression on his brother’s face ever again. Luckily, the war ended soon after, and it wasn’t an issue any more – except for the worried look on Nie Mingjue’s face every time his birthday came around.)
He’d played it low-key for a few years – finding exotic animals for a hunt, a new whetstone for Baxia, practical things like that – but this year was the end of a decade, and he was determined to do better.
The Song of Clarity seemed like the perfect solution.
After all, if Nie Huaisang learned to play it, his da-ge could hear the calming music every day, and he wouldn’t feel guilty about interrupting their lives for his needs; Lan Xichen was of course busy with his duties as Sect Leader, and Jin Guangyao, though always willing to visit, had a weak golden core that made the distant travel unpleasant.
Naturally, he couldn’t just ask to learn it. He liked his da-ge’s sworn brothers very much, had adopted them immediately as his own, but Nie Huaisang knew perfectly well that anything he told to them would swiftly reach his brother’s ears – he didn’t mind; after all, they were Nie Mingjue’s sworn brothers, not his. But it did make it tricky when he wanted to plan a surprise.
Luckily, the Unclean Realm was full of secrets, and the chamber near his brother’s receiving room – used by one of their more unscrupulous ancestors to spy on suspicious guests – was the perfect one to solve his problem. Nie Huaisang flattered himself to think he was pretty good at music; if he sat in the stone chamber that Nie Mingjue had forcefully erased from his mind years before, and which even Jin Guangyao with all his tricks had never known of, to listen to the tune being played over and over again, he should be able to figure out how the sounds came together.
He’d even get to benefit from the calming and mind-sharpening effects of the music itself, which would surely help him learn the tune even faster.
It was a great plan.
So great, in fact, that he found himself coughing up blood after only a few weeks.
Nie Huaisang didn’t suspect the music at the beginning. Since he didn’t share his brother’s dislike of submitting himself to medical experts, he went to their family doctor at once.
The man had the strangest expression on his face.
“Have you been practicing your saber too hard?” he asked, and if that wasn’t a suspicious question, Nie Huaisang didn’t know what was. It wasn’t as though he didn’t know anything about the saber spirits – his brother’s best attempts to keep him blissfully ignorant aside, it was pretty hard to learn their family’s history without knowing a little about how their sect became so powerful, and how their sect leaders tended to die – but it wasn’t usually very relevant to his life. He didn’t refuse to practice saber because he was afraid of the qi deviation that would probably kill him no matter how much or how little saber he practiced; he refused because he was lazy, and the family philosophy of ‘suppress evil wherever it appears’ seemed like an awful lot of work to put on his shoulders in exchange for, ugh, what, more exercise? No thanks.
“I have not,” he said.
“Nie-gongzi, if this is for your brother’s birthday –”
“It isn’t!” he protested at once, but that got him thinking: wasn’t he listening to the Song of Clarity every week, same as his brother? Even if Nie Huaisang did get it into his head to overdo things with his saber – not that that was likely to be possible at his age and cultivation level, his family’s lives were short only in comparison to other cultivators and even his brother, the prodigy, hadn’t had any signs of qi deviation so young – it shouldn’t have been able to affect him, not when his mind was being cleansed.
Not unless the Song of Clarity didn’t do what it was supposed to.
Nie Huaisang was alarmed by the thought. Not wanting to spoil a birthday surprise for his brother was one thing, but something that could harm his brother, however inadvertently? That was an emergency.
Obviously, the only thing to be done was to ask someone wiser for help.
After all, Nie Huaisang’s only a good-for-nothing; how could he deal with something of this magnitude? He made an excuse about needing to purchase something and went to Gusu at once.
After all, it had been Lan Xichen who suggested applying the song – if there was some fundamental clash between Lan and Gusu techniques, such that a technique meant to help in fact hurt, he would be the one to ask. Jin Guangyao might play it more often, but when in doubt, it was always better to go to the master.
“A clash?” Lan Xichen asked, frowning. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve been listening to san-ge play it, every time he comes over,” Nie Huaisang explained. “I want to learn the chords.”
Lan Xichen smiled. “You could have asked –”
“It was supposed to be a surprise, and you would have told him. No, don’t shake your head, you would have; you’d have put down the flag and drums the second he looked the slightest bit worried about it. You’re hopeless, er-ge, just admit it. Anyway, that isn’t the point – I’ve been teaching myself the chords by listening to it –”
“You always had a talent for music,” Lan Xichen said, and Nie Huaisang beamed. “It must have come from your mother.”
Nie Huaisang giggled into his sleeve. “It’s not da-ge’s fault he’s halfway tone-deaf. Do you remember back when your uncle tried to teach him an instrument? Da-ge’s playing nearly made him start crying, and all the while da-ge kept insisting that what he was doing and what you were doing sounded exactly the same to him.”
Lan Xichen smiled outright at the memory.
“Anyway, I started coughing up blood the other day –”
“What?!” Lan Xichen exclaimed, smile disappearing from his face at once. “Huaisang! You should have started there!”
“I was getting to it. Don’t worry, I visited the family doctor and he said some extra time meditating would be enough to put me to rights –”
“You haven’t done it yet, have you.”
Ouch, Lan Xichen hadn’t even bothered to make it a question; was Nie Huaisang so predictable?
“But I shouldn’t have been able to have that problem,” Nie Huaisang continued stubbornly. “Not if I’m listening to the Song of Clarity all the time the way da-ge is – not unless the song isn’t working the way it’s supposed to. You know me, er-ge; I’m not as prone towards qi deviations as my brother is! If the song was working, I shouldn’t have had one in a hundred years.”
Lan Xichen’s usual smile had been replaced by a frown. “You’re right. That is strange. You think there’s some clash between Nie cultivation and our traditions, such that the song is ineffective? It seemed as though it was working at the beginning…”
“What else could it be?” Nie Huaisang asked practically. “Plenty of things are effective in small doses and poisonous in large, er-ge; and you said yourself just the other month that it seemed as though da-ge’s temperament was getting worse rather than better.”
Lan Xichen was pale. “You’re right. If it’s hurting him, we have to put a stop to it at once and start over from the beginning.”
“It’s still just a theory,” Nie Huaisang said. “But getting proof shouldn’t be hard – after all, I may not be much of a cultivator, but I’m still a Nie. Here, why don’t you sit down? I’ll play what I’ve learned for you while you examine what it’s doing to my qi; that way we’ll be able to see what sort of effect it’s having.”
Prompt: what about something where LXC discovered that JGY had altered the song of Clarity/Cleansing, before NMJ died? Is JGY able to convince him it was a misunderstanding, or does he realize the betrayal?
“This is the worst kidnapping ever,” Nie Huaisang moaned.
Lan Xichen had given up on not smiling about ten complaints ago. “You’re doing very well,” he said.
“I am not.”
“You got me to come with you to the Unclean Realm, didn’t you?”
“You’re the one that flew us here.”
“Well, I’m better at flying on a sword than you are. Still, you did get me here. Against my will, even.”
“You said you thought it was a bad idea,” Nie Huaisang said gloomily. “Twice. And then you stopped protesting.”
Lan Xichen shrugged. “I still think it’s more likely that you remembered the song wrong.”
“And I’m telling you that I am far too incompetent to accidentally come up with a variation that causes the exact opposite effect to what it’s meant to do,” Nie Huaisang said stubbornly. “We’ll go to the room and listen and then you’ll see.”
“But there’s no need to sneak around – we could just ask A-Yao to play it for us, and we’ll be able to see –”
“No! This is my honor at stake here, er-ge. I’m telling you: if you’re there listening, there’s no way san-ge won’t worry about doing it perfectly right, and that means he won’t make any mistakes. You have to hear him when he’s not thinking about it.”
Lan Xichen’s hand was covering his mouth and had been ever since Nie Huaisang had said the word ‘honor’ which – fair. It wasn’t exactly Nie Huaisang’s concern the majority of the time.
Nie Huaisang only kept invoking it because every time he did, it made Lan Xichen giggle-snort in such an embarrassing way that he entirely forgot that he’d been opposed to this little trip.
Whatever. No one would ever believe he could successfully kidnap anyone, anyway, and they were probably right.
“Here, er-ge, come through this way,” he instructed Lan Xichen, pushing open a wall.
“Should you be showing this to me?” Lan Xichen asked, following him in. “It’s not a family secret, is it?”
“Only in the most technical of senses?” Nie Huaisang hazarded.
“Listen, if da-ge ever wanted to actually keep a family secret, he just wouldn’t tell me about it,” Nie Huaisang pointed out. “It’s a good system, and it works for us both.”
Lan Xichen was quiet for a moment. “What if there was a secret you had to know,” he finally said. “And he didn’t have a choice but to tell you –”
Nie Huaisang didn’t want to talk about the saber spirits, if only because his brother was much happier thinking he was ignorant of the whole thing.
“Shhhh, we’re almost there. San-ge should be getting started right around this time –”
Sure enough, by the time they arrived, Jin Guangyao was halfway through the opening chords. Lan Xichen settled down in the chair that Nie Huaisang had brought for himself, head tilted to the side to better listen, a soft smile on his face.
That smile slowly faded as the song went on, even though they hadn’t even gotten to the relevant piece yet.
Nie Huaisang really wanted to know why, but he couldn’t ask without giving away their presence – something he’d overlooked. If only he’d brought paper and ink! Then they’d be able to pass notes.
Or possibly he should really give in to his brother’s urging and learn some hand-signs for communication purposes…
Jin Guangyao finally got to the part of the song Nie Huaisang and Lan Xichen had been arguing about, and hah! Nie Huaisang had told him that he’d remembered correctly –
“Er-ge?” he asked, forgetting himself when Lan Xichen abruptly stood up and strode out of the room. “What –”
He ran after him, but he wasn’t fast enough to catch up before Lan Xichen burst into the room where Nie Mingjue was listening to the music.
“– are you doing, A-Yao?!” Lan Xichen was shouting. Actually shouting, which – wow. Lan Xichen never raised his voice; prior to this very moment, Nie Huaisang had honestly believed that his brother had laid claim to all three sworn brothers’ ability to speak at a high volume. “No spiritual power in the beneficial part, full power in the erroneous section –”
Jin Guangyao’s eyes were wide and frightened. “Er-ge, no, you don’t understand –”
“I don’t! A-Yao, why…?”
“I didn’t want to!” he shouted, his eyes darting quickly from side to side the way Nie Huaisang’s did when he was trying to come up with a good lie on the spot. “I didn’t – my father made me –”
“What exactly is going on?” Nie Mingjue said, rubbing his temples; he’d been meditating while listening to the music, and breaking the trance so abruptly had disoriented him. “And – Xichen. When did you even get here? And why are you here?”
Nie Huaisang stopped right before entering the door and abruptly reversed his steps as quickly as he could, even picking up his robes so he could better run away before –
Time to hide.
Nie Huaisang was never especially good at hiding; it wasn’t long before his brother had found him and picked him up by the collar – he felt and probably looked like a kitten being grabbed by the scruff of its neck – and dragged him back to the room, grumbling as he did.
Jin Guangyao was sobbing into Lan Xichen’s shoulder, and Lan Xichen looked upset.
“What happened?” Nie Huaisang asked.
“An excellent question,” Nie Mingjue said, and his face was black with anger, but that was pretty typical for him these days. “What was all that yelling about?”
Silence but for the sobbing.
“There was something wrong with the song,” Nie Huaisang volunteered, since no one else seemed like they were going to. “If you listen too closely, it has a negative effect rather than a positive effect. You see, I was eavesdropping and started coughing up blood –”
“You were what?! Have you –”
“The doctor said it’d be fine with some meditation!”
“Then you should go meditate!”
“Who says I haven’t?” Nie Huaisang protested, for which he got bodily lifted up and shaken like a disobedient puppy which…again, fair. “Okay, okay, I will, I will, I promise! But it doesn’t change the fact that he was trying to kill you!”
Nie Mingjue apparently hadn’t put that together yet and dropped Nie Huaisang like a sack of potatoes. “He was what?!”
“Not kill!” Jin Guangyao said immediately. “It was only supposed to disable you – to distract you –”
“Coughing up blood isn’t usually a symptom of distraction,” Nie Huaisang pointed out from the floor, a little skeptical.
Jin Guangyao wasn’t stupid – even when he’d been Meng Yao, he had always been very smart, very quick to pick things up, to put things together. How could he not know what would happen if he played music designed to destabilize instead of stabilize to a man already prone to qi deviations?
No, it was definitely a murder attempt. It might not have been much of one, but he was going to have to pay.
“You were using it to attack me?” Nie Mingjue asked, his voice low; anyone who didn’t know him might think he was bubbling over with anger – and he was, but to anyone who did know him it was clear that he was hurt. “After all the oaths we swore –”
“It’s a bit more complicated than that,” Lan Xichen said.
Nie Mingjue snorted and turned his face away. “You always defend him.”
“I know that, but it’s different this time, I swear,” Lan Xichen said, and shook his head, his expression pained. “I believe him when he says he was acting under duress.”
“Er-ge…” Jin Guangyao said tearfully, his eyes starting to curve.
Nie Huaisang considered throwing his fan at him. Or possibly at Lan Xichen.
“But the consequences of his actions could have been serious, and that he did not consult us first – either of us – is indicative,” Lan Xichen continued, not looking at him. “Who knows what could have happened if I hadn’t listened to Huaisang’s wild story and even more wild idea of dragging me here?”
Nie Huaisang really wished Lan Xichen would stop giving him credit. Especially credit that might make his brother angry at his actions.
“The answer to that seems clear enough: he wouldn’t have repented even if I were in my grave,” Nie Mingjue said, crossing his arms; disappointment was writ large throughout his features. “Xichen –”
“You’re right, da-ge; and you’ve been right all along,” Lan Xichen said simply, and Jin Guangyao turned to him with an expression of shock. “Don’t look at me like that, A-Yao – we’re your sworn brothers. Even if your father was forcing you, you should never have lifted a hand against da-ge in violation of our oath.”
“But – I told you – my father threatened –”
“And I believe you, A-Yao, I do,” Lan Xichen said, sincerely, reaching out to put a hand on Jin Guangyao’s shoulder. “I’ve always believed you have reasons for everything you do, that the world has misunderstood you. But da-ge is right, too: I don’t know when or how, but somewhere you turned down a wrong path. Whether you thought what you were doing was justified or not, whatever reason there was to your actions, in the end you nearly killed da-ge..! That would have been unforgivable. For some things, it doesn’t matter what types of reasons you might have had.”
“I’m glad we agree on that,” Nie Mingjue said grimly.
“Da-ge swore to be your elder brother because he believed you needed instruction,” Lan Xichen said. “I thought he was being overly harsh with his assessment of you, but I realize now that he was right. We are your brothers; we will help you.”
“Help me how?” Jin Guangyao asked, his voice quavering. “What can the two of you do, one in Gusu and one in Qinghe, when I’m alone in Lanling and suffering? When my life is under threat, when my wife is under threat of even worse..? I have already accepted the name my father gave me, the position he has forced me into; I cannot disobey him without losing everything - what can I do?”
“It’s not what you can do, you – you idiot,” Nie Mingjue snapped. “We swore brotherhood. It’s what we can do.”
“We’ll need to consider the matter carefully,” Lan Xichen agreed. “Da-ge, come with me; I’ll play Clarity for you myself to help calm you, and then we will see about what must be done – both about A-Yao’s behavior, and about his father’s.”
Lan Xichen was probably the only person in the world who had the strength to pull open Nie Mingjue’s clenched fist, and the daring to do so; he led him away, still grumbling and shooting glares back towards where Jin Guangyao was standing.
Jin Guangyao in turn was left behind, gaping at the retreating backs of his two sworn brothers. In the end, he turned to look at Nie Huaisang as if he could offer some explanation.
“If you even think about doing anything to harm da-ge again, no matter what the reason, no matter how small, I will find your mother’s corpse and feed it to wild dogs,” Nie Huaisang told him with a bright smile. “And then you as well. In very small pieces. Are we clear?”
Jin Guangyao’s eyebrows went up, probably because he of all people could tell when Nie Huaisang was being serious, as he so rarely was.
His brother and er-ge might like Jin Guangyao enough to want to keep him around - Nie Huaisang couldn’t blame them, he rather liked the man too when he wasn’t trying to murder Nie Huaisang’s only living relative - but Nie Huaisang was going to make sure that he didn’t make the same mistake a second time.
He was going to make him pay - and then keep paying.
“Anyway, you’d better come with me to help me find my saber,” Nie Huaisang said, even though he really didn’t want to. “Da-ge will start yelling soon enough; he hates it when I don’t have it around when there’s a war on.”
“But the war is over,” Jin Guangyao said.
“The Sunshot Campaign is over, yes,” Nie Huaisang agreed. “But the Jin sect leader just tried to assassinate the Nie sect leader, after having forced his son to participate against his own sworn oaths...did you really not realize that your brothers would go to war for you?”