When it turned out to be Jin Guangyao’s ghost that appeared in the revealing array designed to show Nie Huaisang the identity of the ghost that was haunting him, Nie Huaisang wasn’t even surprised.
After all, who else would bear him the sort of grudge that persisted beyond death? He was fundamentally harmless – to most people.
Jin Guangyao being the notable exception.
“Me figuring out it was you cannot have come as a surprise,” Nie Huaisang said, his chin on his hands as he looked at the ghostly figure hovering in front of him, floating in the middle of the array. “I mean. We’re cultivators. I live in a cultivation sect. Dealing with ghosts is practically the same as eating rice.”
Jin Guangyao looked at him for a long moment, an ominous aura cloaking him.
Nie Huaisang yawned.
Jin Guangyao’s eyes narrowed.
“Listen, you’re the one who’s been haunting me at night,” Nie Huaisang said, rubbing his eyes. “I need to catch up on my sleep. Are you going to say something, or just – stand there?” He frowned. “Float there? I don’t know. Is there some ghostly terminology you’d prefer me to use? Am I being rude?”
“You’re not at all surprised,” Jin Guangyao said slowly. His voice was a little eerie, similar to his original voice just somehow more…ephemeral. It was hard to describe.
“Not really,” Nie Huaisang said agreeably. “You’re a persistent sort of pest. Why? Were you surprised?”
Judging from Jin Guangyao’s face, he probably had been.
“You’re one of the most resentful people I’ve ever met, san-ge,” Nie Huaisang told him. “And you didn’t get all the soul-calming rituals from birth like the rest of us. Why should I be surprised at you coming back?”
“I would have thought that you’d think Nie Mingjue would’ve taken care of me.”
“My brother has better things to do,” Nie Huaisang said with a sniff. He’d gone to the Guanyin Temple and released the bindings to make sure of it – all those portentous declarations about them being trapped there for a hundred years was just exaggerating things, especially if you, say, had access to all the resources of a major sect and a willingness to spend them blindly to achieve your goals – but there could be no doubt about that all the signs of liberation were there: his brother had gotten justice, which was all he’d ever wanted, and had finally reentered the reincarnation cycle at long last. Nie Huaisang hoped his next life would be amazing; he deserved nothing but the best. “Besides, haven’t we proven that I can handle you just fine on my own?”
Jin Guangyao scowled.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Nie Huaisang said. “Did you not realize that this was supposed to be a punishment?”
“I’d thought it was, yes,” Jin Guangyao said, staring at him. There was a hint of growing alarm in his translucent eyes. “But I’m starting to wonder if it was meant to be a punishment for you or for me.”
“Oh, you,” Nie Huaisang said, and smiled. “Definitely you.”
“Aren’t you supposed to banish me?” Jin Guangyao asked. “Or at least try to liberate me or something?”
“The Nie sect has a long tradition of yoking evil resentful creatures to our will and using them to our own advantage,” Nie Huaisang said cheerfully. “I hope you like your new home – I couldn’t trust you with a real saber, you understand, being as you’re actually rather awful and kill people a lot, so this paperweight is just going to have to do. And this way I can carry you around wherever I go!”
Jin Guangyao’s eye twitched.
“Just think about it, san-ge! It’s going to be great! We’re going to get to be together all – the – time!”
Jin Guangyao couldn’t even put on a fake smile.
Nie Huaisang counted that as a success.
“You have an accounting error in your books,” Jin Guangyao said. “On the third line.”
“That’s nice,” Nie Huaisang said. “Is this you trying to be helpful?”
“Am I not allowed to be?”
“If it makes you feel better, go for it.”
A few moments passed.
“…are you going to fix the accounting error?”
“Nope,” Nie Huaisang said.
“These are your sect’s books!”
“The Nie sect is not going to go under if we misplace a bit of money, san-ge.”
“You cannot be serious,” Jin Guangyao said. “You wouldn’t purposefully damage your own sect just to piss me off.”
“I don’t know,” Nie Huaisang said thoughtfully. “Remember how my brother used to complain about how annoying I could be? The way I never went to practice and incited others to also avoid it, the way I wasted money on things I knew would bother him most, the way I brought down the sect’s reputation even more flagrantly after we’d had an argument, the way I seemed to almost be deliberately picking all of my actions just to aggravate him…”
Jin Guangyao’s eye twitched.
He should really have gotten that twitch seen to when he was alive. It was probably too late for it now.
Hmm, maybe Nie Huaisang would offer to take him to a doctor anyway…
“He wants to kill you, you know,” Jin Guangyao said, floating behind one of the sect leaders coming to Nie Huaisang for an audience. “Not just idly; he’s actively planning something.”
Nie Huaisang ignored him and smiled kindly at the sect leader in question.
“You’re allowing an active danger to your life to persist.”
Nie Huaisang ordered the servants to bring out some very nice tea and gifted the man with a box.
“What are you doing? You can’t buy him off. You have to stop him.”
Nie Huaisang asked the man, very seriously, if he had any daughters, as he was starting to get on in life and was starting to think about making a match.
“…you’re doing this on purpose.”
Nie Huaisang smiled.
“I hate you.”
In the end, the man was so flattered by Nie Huaisang’s determined attentions that he in fact ended up leaving off the murder attempts, which was a nice and unexpected surprise.
Nie Huaisang listened to the problem being presented very thoughtfully, tapping his fan against his hand a few times, and then gave the orders necessary to deal with it.
“Wait,” Jin Guangyao said. “That was actually – competent. Very competent, even; that was remarkably clever. After all those times of coming to me in the middle of the night to get me to solve all your problems…Nie Huaisang! Are you actually good at being a sect leader?”
“Always have been,” Nie Huaisang lied through his teeth. “Thanks for finally noticing.”
“You – you – !”
“If I promise to turn over a new leaf for real, would you fix that stupid accounting mistake already?!”
Nie Huaisang giggled.
“I’m going to visit the Lan sect,” Nie Huaisang said, and Jin Guangyao looked up. “Anything you’d like me to pass along to er-ge while I’m there?”
“You’re not taking me with you?”
“Do you deserve it?”
Jin Guangyao opened his mouth, then closed it.
“That’s what I thought.”
“You’re actually planning on getting married?” Jin Guangyao asked one night. He’d been helping with the accounting books again, mostly due to his inability to tolerate seeing lingering mistakes just sitting there. Nie Huaisang was having them checked over by someone else in secret afterwards, but he was pretty sure he just had a legitimate ghost accountant now; he wasn’t sure if his ancestors would be pleased or disgusted by his newest innovation on the traditional evil-taming technique. “For real?”
“Yes, for real,” Nie Huaisang said. “Why are you so surprised?”
“It’s just – you never showed any interest in it before.”
“Naturally I didn’t. I was busy.”
“Plotting my demise.”
“Mostly that, yes.”
Jin Guangyao considered it, then shrugged, acknowledging the point. “Why now?”
“My brother’s dead,” Nie Huaisang said. “His spirit has been liberated, and he’s entered the cycle of reincarnation – personally I’m quite hopeful that the virtues of his previous life will allow him to be reborn as a Nie.”
“…as a Nie.”
“Naturally, of course, that means that there have to be more Nie. I’ve been encouraging all of my cousins to get on with it, and now it’s my turn. I need to get married and have lots of babies – well, I’m looking for a main wife I actually like, gender unessential, and then lots of concubines for the babies –”
“I am not sticking around here if Nie Mingjue comes back!”
“Stop pretending like you have any choice in this matter. At the rate that your ‘redemption’ is going, you could be doing accounts for my Nie sect for centuries.”
“…I really hate you.”
“Don’t worry! It’s mutual.”
“I’ve decided to seriously commit to the whole redemption business,” Jin Guangyao announced. “Even if it means that I have to apologize to every family I’ve ever harmed, both starting and ending with Lan Xichen.”
“That’s nice,” Nie Huaisang said. “I’ll be sorry to see you go.”
“No you won’t.”
“No, I won’t,” he said agreeably. “But I have a son now, so I don’t care as much.”
He waved a hand and released the spell on the paperweight.
Jin Guangyao stared at him.
“Er-ge should be arriving for the first month party in less than a shichen,” Nie Huaisang said cheerfully. “Hope you’re ready to make good on that decision of yours!”
“…is it too late to go back to the paperweight?”