Lan Qiren was seething, even after an hour of meditation. He watched as a disciple delivered Nie Huaisang to his office and waited for the miscreant to sit down.
“You called for me, Teacher Lan?” Nie Huaisang asked, as if he hadn’t been dragged out of one of his classes.
Lan Qiren took a deep breath, focusing on remaining calm. He waved the disciple out, then began. “Due to recent rumors, today we have performed a surprise inspection of all rooms, searching for contraband alcohol.”
Nie Huaisang winced, then took out his fan, opening with a flick of his wrist. “I can assure you, there is no alcohol within any of the Nie quarters.”
Lan Qiren stared at him and could feel his face growing red. “But do you know what is in your quarters?”
The fan didn’t stop. “Nothing forbidden.”
The audacity of this child! To lie to his face so brazenly! “Nie Huaisang!” He slammed his open hand against his desk, making the boy jump. “This is the last straw!”
“Teacher Lan, I-”
“Silence! You are without a doubt one of the worst troublemakers I have had the displeasure of teaching!”
“That’s a bit harsh.” Nie Huaisang had the nerve to protest.
“You continuously break the rules!” Lan Qiren exclaimed.
“Wei-xiong took responsibility for most of those time we- he got caught, I was an innocent bystander!”
“You spread indecent books to the other disciples!”
“Nobody ever proved it was me.”
“You never study nor pay attention during lessons!”
Nie Huaisang sat back with a reluctant nod. “Well, yes, that one’s true.”
“And now I’ve caught you with smuggled-in pets!”
“Wha- Teacher Lan, there’s been a misunderstanding!”
As if Lan Qiren would ever believe such an obvious lie. “There are ten separate caged birds in your rooms!”
“Yes, there are, but I did not smuggle them in! I caught them here!”
“What.” Of all the stupid excuses.
Nie Huaisang continued undeterred. “I caught them in Cloud Recesses. I have a talent for it, birds like me.”
Lan Qiren pursed his lips, staring down at the insolent boy. “You expect me to believe you’ve caught all those birds in Cloud Recesses, tamed them and, just by coincidence, you had the cages and feed for them already packed in your luggage.”
Nie Huaisang apparently had no decency at all, as he continued with his lie. “When you put it like that it doesn’t sound believable, but it’s the truth!”
“These species of songbirds don’t live in Cloud Recesses!”
“Teacher Lan, you can’t expect me to educate you on which animals do and which don’t live in the forest.” Nie Huaisang said, waving his closed fan at him.
Lan Qiren breathed in very slowly and loudly through his nose, his face entirely red.
Nie Huaisang blanched and covered his face with his fan. “Or I could make you a guide? I could draw all the animals, and I’m sure Xichen-ge will help me with identifying all the different species?”
Lan Qiren smacked his hand on his desk again. “Enough! For smuggling pets into Cloud Recesses, you will receive-”
Nie Huaisang smacked his own hand against the desk. “No, I refuse! I will not accept punishment for something I did not do!” He glanced down at his hand, then quickly moved back, placing it in his lap.
The argument continued on for some time – Lan Qiren tried to assign punishment, but Nie Huaisang vehemently argued against it and protested, claiming innocence. Eventually Lan Qiren, in a fit of pique, sent the miscreant to his quarters, with the instructions not to leave even a single time unless he wanted to received an immediate flogging.
Then he sent an urgent summons to Qinghe Nie, sent via the established communication array. Let Nie Mingjue deal with his spoiled brat of a didi.
Nie Mingjue arrived that same afternoon. Lan Qiren sent for the younger Nie and instructed Lan Wangji to keep an eye on the little miscreant and to make sure he didn’t run off before his brother had the chance to punish him. Then Lan Qiren sat Nie Mingjue down in his office, explaining the situation with the smuggled-in birds.
He would never have even suspected that Nie Mingjue would side with his brother on this matter, despite such proof.
“No, all his birds are accounted for at home.” Nie Mingjue said with a shake of his head. “I checked before leaving. Any new birds he’s keeping, he caught them on his way to Gusu or while staying in Cloud Recesses.”
Lan Qiren rubbed at his temples, fighting off a headache. “Sect Leader Nie. Your brother very clearly smuggled the animals in. He has the cages and feed as proof of premeditation!”
“I make him bring those.” It was said in such a matter of fact tone as if it was completely ludicrous.
Nie Mingjue sighed. “There’s something in Nie Huaisang’s spiritual energy – birds just come to him. He also gets attached easily and cries each time I tell him to leave a bird he’s befriended behind, so it’s easier on everyone if he already has the means to care for the birds on him. He carries separate qiankun pouches for that.”
Lan Qiren stared at him in utter disbelief. “He has ten cages of various sizes.”
Nie Mingjue shrugged. “Birds come in various sizes. One time he went fishing and came back with a mother duck and her ducklings in tow.”
Lan Qiren stared at him for a moment longer, then took a deep breath. “Sect Leader Nie. I’m sure you realize how flimsy of an excuse that is. I admit that your brother is talented in taming the animals, they are perfectly behaved for him.” Otherwise he’d surely have heard them make some noise before now. “However, I doubt that your brother’s spiritual energy resonates with animals to such a degree as you are describing.”
Nie Mingjue narrowed his eyes, staring at him. Lan Qiren stared back, making sure his face portrayed just how badly this flimsy excuse had failed.
After a moment, Nie Mingjue pursed his lips briefly, clearly displeased about Lan Qiren not falling for it. But instead of continuing to argue the point as his brother had, he called him. “Huaisang!”
The door opened, and Nie Huaisang stuck his head inside. “Yes, Da-ge?”
“Go into the forest now and find a new bird.” Nie Mingjue ordered, not breaking eye contact with Lan Qiren “Something pointy.”
Nie Huaisang glanced at Lan Qiren, then shrugged. “All right, Da-ge. Maybe I’ll find an owl.”
Lan Qiren snorted. “I doubt that. It’s the middle of the day.”
The Nie brothers shared an odd look, then Nie Huaisang bowed. “I’ll be off then.”
Lan Qiren rolled his eyes with a scoff. “Very well then. Sect Leader Nie, if you are so insistent on proving this ridiculous notion, I will permit it. However, Lan Wangji will join your brother to make certain nothing dishonest occurs.”
Nie Mingjue’s eyes narrowed even further. “I agree.”
Lan Qiren nodded. “Wangji!”
Lan Wangji stepped into the office and bowed politely. He accepted his assignment with his usual stoic demeanor and the boys set off, walking into the forest alone.
Lan Qiren and Nie Mingjue stayed in the office, drinking their tea in silence. Both were reticent for their own reasons, though those reasons could be equated to stubbornness. Even Lan Xichen, the one time he’d tried to join them, sensed the tension between them and left them to their tea.
A shichen later, the doors opened and Wangji stepped inside. His usual demeanor was nowhere to be seen. Instead, his brows were furrowed, lips pursed in such a tight line his cheeks were puffing slightly. His hands were fisted, both handing at his sides instead of one folded elegantly behind his back.
Nie Mingjue grinned. “So? What did he find?”
Lan Wangji’s lips tightened even further (somehow). “Da-ge. Did you truly instruct A-Sang to find a ‘pointy’ bird?”
The grin slid off Mingjue’s face, and he closed his eyes with a pained grimace. “Oh crap, I did.”
Lan Qiren sputtered. “Wangji! Are you saying he actually found an owl?!”
“No.” Lan Wangji sat down slowly, gaze on his hands folded in his lap. “He did not find an owl.”
“Then what is it?” Lan Qiren remanded, but Lan Wangji refused to answer, gaze fixed on the floor.
Nie Mingjue got up with a sigh and walked outside. Lan Qiren, after another hard look at his nephew, followed.
Nie Huaisang stood outside, surrounded by disciples of all colors. He was visibly rumpled, leaves and small twigs stuck in his hair, half of his braids hanging loosely. One of his arms was extended, and on it perched… an eagle. A rather large, golden brown eagle.
“Da-ge! Look who I found!” Huaisang called, his face awash in delight.
“Very pretty Huaisang.” Nie Mingjue said, hands on his hips. His tone was one of fond exasperation.
Lan Qiren gaped. “That is a golden eagle.”
“It is.” Nie Mingjue nodded.
“Golden eagles don’t live on this mountain!”
“And vultures don’t live near Koi ponds, but guess what Huaisang found in Lanling once.” Nie Mingjue sighed, then walked down the steps, the gathered disciples parting before him.
Huaisang continued to grin. “She’s so pretty, isn’t she, Da-ge? And her wingspan is so impressive, show Da-ge!” He tickled the eagle under her chin, and she stretched her wings upwards. They were massive enough to dwarf Huaisang. Her wings were resplendent, nearly glowing in the late afternoon sun.
Nie Mingjue nodded. “Impressive indeed.”
“You haven’t seen the best part yet!” Huaisang fiddled with the front of his robe, pulling the material apart until a little beaked head popped out. “She had her baby with her! I’ve named him Zhenzhen! She’s Mama Rong.”
The eagle leaned down, touching beaks with the chick.
Wei Wuxian gaped. “Two? Holy fuck, Nie-xiong.”
Huaisang stuck his tongue out. “You’re just jealous because you have none.”
“Where’d you even find them?” Jiang Cheng asked, hands on his brother’s shoulders to stop him from leaning in too close.
Huaisang pouted, looking at the bird with sympathy. “Their nest fell out of a tree. Judging by the damage, a predator had tried to get at the baby. Mama Rong was really distressed, she was sitting on the nest and crying. I got her calmed down, and then I found Zhenzhen hiding under the nest. They’re both okay, though Mama Rong has some scratches on her. Nothing too deep, thankfully.”
“Why is the chick in your robes?” Someone asked.
“For warmth.” was Huaisang’s reply, because why else would one stick a chick with claws sharp enough to rend flesh open inside your robes.
Nie Mingjue grabbed his Huaisang-qiankun from his belt and dug inside for the packet of dried meats he kept for the predator birds. He offered one to Mama Rong, who stared at him, eyes intense.
Huaisang chuckled and tickled her middle. “Rong, Da-ge is being nice.” He chided her gently. “Don’t be rude.”
Mama Rong let out a chattering sound at him, then took the meat from Nie Mingjue’s hand, swallowing it whole. She took the second one Nie Mingjue handed her as well, though she didn’t eat it. Instead, she held it up to Zhenzhen, which the chick eagerly gobbled up.
“They won’t fit in a travel cage.” Nie Mingjue mused. “Did you bring the larger perches?”
Huaisang nodded, his loosened braids swaying with the motion. “Of course, Da-ge. I packed them all, as always.”
Meanwhile, Lan Qiren returned inside. He really needed to lie down for a bit.