Actions

Work Header

On Deaf Ears

Work Text:

“I found something that might help reduce the risk of qi deviation for you!” Lan Xichen said, holding what looked suspiciously like a musical score and looking so delighted that Nie Mingjue couldn’t bring himself to dampen his hopes. Or, well, recoil and hiss as if he’d just had a snake shoved into his face, which was what he really wanted to do. “It’s one of the Lan clan’s secrets, but since we’re sworn brothers, we can use it – we already know that the sects are stronger when working together than apart, so why not in this way, too?”

Nie Mingjue looked at the musical score. “…is it a song?” he asked, hoping against hope that it wasn’t.

“It is! It’s called the Song of Clarity, and it –”

Nie Mingjue really hated to have to do this. “I don’t think it’ll work, Xichen.”

“You have to give it a try, da-ge! I know you don’t cultivate with music the way I do, but you’ve seen what we Lan can do with music on the battlefield. Why not in helping with qi deviations as well?”

“It’s not that I doubt you,” Nie Mingjue assured his friend. “It is only…well…”

Please, da-ge. Even if you don’t think it’ll work, can’t you at least try it? For me?”

The war had been hard on them all, these past few years. Nie Mingjue had led men into battle and out, had seen how they wavered and what they used to keep themselves going; he knew how important hope was to maintaining a man’s foundation, to letting him keep going without collapse. How sometimes it was better to give his soldiers something to do, anything to do, because they needed to feel as if they were making progress, even if nothing they did would actually affect the final outcome.

If playing this ‘Song of Clarity’ would make Lan Xichen feel better, Lan Xichen who had been suffering so much and taking so much on himself to rise to be Sect Leader Lan…well, then – why not?

Anyway, when he eventually figured out it wasn’t having any effect, Nie Mingjue could always apologize for the (mostly) unintentional deception at that time. Maybe they’d even laugh about it then, in that distant future time when laughter seemed like something they would be able to ever do again.

“All right,” he said, giving in. “I’ll listen to you, Xichen.”

Lan Xichen’s blinding smile was entirely worth the colossal waste of time he’d just agreed to.

-

“ – and I was hoping that you’d like A-Yao come and play for you during the times I’m too busy. I know things are still tense between you, and this is an opportunity to spend time together –”

“I do want to spend more time together with him,” Nie Mingjue admitted. He was trying to be a good brother to Jin Guangyao, to balance his concern over the younger man’s apparently fundamental lack of character with concern for him himself as a person, but he knew that his irritability, aggravated by the war, made Jin Guangyao shy away from him, and that wasn’t conducive to a real relationship between them. If Jin Guangyao were willing to spend time together in a neutral sort of way, something divorced from politics and their sect’s opposing interests, that was a good thing. Yet at the same time… “Just… maybe not…this.”

Why was it the stupid Song of Clarity thing again?

“But da-ge, it’s important! You’ve been doing so much better –”

“There isn’t a war on, my disciples are no longer getting killed, and my father has been avenged. Of course I’m doing better. It’s not related to your song.”

“You don’t know that. Please, da-ge, it’ll be a good reason for you two to be in the same room for a while without talking, and then afterwards you’ll both be calm and relaxed, and maybe then you’ll be able to have a real conversation – ”

That did sound appealing.

Damnit.

“Fine,” Nie Mingjue said, giving in again. “But only for a few times. And he decides if he wants to come over or not entirely on his own – no pressuring him, all right? I don’t want him to force himself to spend time with me just because he thinks he’s contributing to improving my health, because he won’t be.”

“I’m so glad, da-ge!” Lan Xichen said, and Nie Mingjue suspected he was just ignoring the parts of the what Nie Mingjue had said that he didn’t want to hear. The Lan sect did that sometimes. “I really hope that this will help you both. I’ll go write him a letter right away.”

Nie Mingjue nodded amiably and continued his aimless walk through the Cloud Recesses, idly watching as Lan Xichen walked purposefully towards the hanshi, stopping only a few times to talk to some people who greeted him – a disciple with a question in one case, his uncle, passing the other way, in the other.

Seeing that latter interaction, Nie Mingjue immediately tried to turn himself in a different direction, but no matter how nimble he was in the battle field he still wasn’t quite quick enough to avoid seeing Lan Qiren’s eyebrows rise up as Lan Xichen quite clearly informed him, very cheerfully, of his plan. And he was equally incapable of avoiding Lan Qiren’s eagle-eyed gaze finding him a moment later once Lan Xichen had continued on his way.

Really? The older man’s expression seemed to say. Really, Nie Mingjue?

Nie Mingjue winced. His initial agreement had been in a moment of weakness, and now Lan Xichen was so committed that it seemed like it would be hideously embarrassing to correct him. Sure, Nie Mingjue knew he’d have to do it eventually, and that waiting only made it worse, but he was still human, all right? He could have frailties, too! He could push off wanting to do the right thing for a little bit, especially when Lan Xichen’s misunderstanding had so clearly cheered him up so very much.

Especially when it might be that that misunderstanding could help repair Nie Mingjue’s damaged relationship with his former friend and now youngest sworn brother…

Seeing Lan Qiren still looking at him, he shrugged in silent response.

Lan Qiren rolled his eyes, but turned away without another word, which suggested that he, too, had noticed Lan Xichen’s improvement. Or maybe he thought indulging Nie Mingjue’s little temper tantrum was helpful to Nie Mingjue himself, who had had so little opportunity in the past to be selfish.

Whatever.

Nie Mingjue would explain, eventually. Just…not yet.

-

Nie Mingjue’s relationship with Jin Guangyao was not improving.

This whole Xue Yang business…the whole mess of it stunk, and so did Jin Guangshan’s attempt to throw around his weight as if merely being the only active sect leader left of the previous generation was enough to entitle him to order the rest of them around. As if age had any impact on the relationships between the sects! Wen Ruohan had been an ancient monster, and they’d taken him down, too…

They’d had a nasty argument the last time they’d met, too.

Nie Mingjue had been utterly disgusted by Jin Guangyao’s self-serving statements of carefully manufactured helplessness, as if the man who had helped take down Wen Ruohan was now somehow completely incapable of resisting Jin Guangshan…as if he couldn’t even find it in himself to simply not do everything in his power to support his father’s objectives without a word of protest. Did Jin Guangyao think Nie Mingjue didn’t know about how he jockeyed for influence among the subordinate sects of Lanling Jin, trying to convince them that his father’s actions weren’t really that bad, that they should support him and simply ignore the massacred Chang clan’s demands for vengeance? Did he think that Nie Mingjue didn’t have spies, that he didn’t have ears? Did he think that Nie Mingjue would just forgive him for everything he did just because of the oaths they’d taken…?

It was all filthy.

It was evident that Jin Guangyao wanted power in Lanling, and he would sell his soul for it. He had sold his soul for it. The man Nie Mingjue had thought he was swearing a brotherhood oath to, the Meng Yao that had cared for the common people affected by the wars and who had wanted to see justice done against those who bullied the weak, had disregarded all of that in order to tell him, like one prostitute to another, that it was better to sell their virtue than to give up the benefits they personally could get from that sale – and then, when Nie Mingjue refused, had immediately shifted over to treating him like a client, saying anything they thought their audience wanted to hear just to get what they wanted out of them.

It had been disgusting.

It still was.

He’d warned Jin Guangyao once – twice, now. Maybe next time they met, Nie Mingjue wouldn’t be able to restrain himself. The strength of Baxia’s saber spirit rubbed on his own spirit like sandpaper, making him angrier and easier to incite than before, so maybe they wouldn’t just limit themselves to some angry words – maybe he would do something well-nigh unforgivable, maybe he would lash out in some truly tangible way, unable to resist punching Jin Guangyao or maybe kicking him, or maybe shouting out some insult that would hurt him more than anything. Maybe he’d even end up calling him a son of a whore, not because Nie Mingjue thought that was a disqualification or said anything about his actual blood-related mother, but simply because that was how he was behaving.

He hoped he wouldn’t really do that, of course. Certainly not in public, given how much he knew Jin Guangyao valued his face. Nie Mingjue, at least, had not lost his mind (yet) to such an extent that he would violate the oaths he’d sworn.

But if Jin Guangyao kept pushing

“Sect Leader,” one of his subordinates said politely. “Liangfang-zun is here to see you.”

Nie Mingjue sighed and waved his hand in permission.

“I wouldn’t have thought you’d come again so soon,” he said bluntly when Jin Guangyao entered. “We exchanged harsh words, last time. And I haven’t changed my mind on the Xue Yang business.”

Next time I catch you trying to defend him, things will go badly between us. You know it as well as I.

“Of course, da-ge,” Jin Guangyao murmured, the same fake smile on his face. “I’m not here about that. I’m here to play Clarity for you.”

Nie Mingjue groaned and pinched his brow, closing his eyes for a moment. “You’ve got to be joking,” he said, but of course Jin Guangyao wasn’t. “I appreciate the thought –”

He usually called him ‘Meng Yao’, since in his view that prostitute’s surname had still been more respectable than the filthy Jin surname he’d adopted no matter how much more society prized the latter, but recently he had been trying to avoid doing it. It had occurred to him that maybe Jin Guangyao didn’t understand why he did it.

“– but there’s really, truly no point. It doesn’t work.”

“Da-ge…”

“I told Xichen from the very beginning that I wouldn’t have you forcing yourself to come here because you thought it was for my health,” Nie Mingjue said firmly, deciding that this farce had gone on long enough. This conversation was going to be hideously embarrassing and positively shameful, but that was his own fault; he’d done it to himself. “I won’t do that to you, not when we’re having an argument. I’ll tell Xichen next time I see him.”

“I am happy to be here,” Jin Guangyao protested. “It is a pleasure to know that I can help da-ge –”

“Would you be here if you knew that you weren’t helping, though?” Nie Mingjue sighed. “Because I wasn’t being facetious or overly cynical about the probability of success. I was being quite literal: the Song of Clarity has no effect on me. Musical cultivation has no effect on me.”

Jin Guangyao, who had been ignoring him and going to set up his guqin regardless, finally paused at that.

“What was that, da-ge?” he asked.

“I didn’t tell Xichen because he seemed so cheered by the possibility of finding something to help,” Nie Mingjue confessed, wondering if maybe he could connect with his increasingly distant youngest sworn brother through a display of wrongdoing on his own part, however minor. Maybe if he showed that he knew how it was to have done something petty and stupid and selfish, and that it was all right to make mistakes as long as you just learned your lesson and stopped what you were doing… “He was miserable back then, tired and depressed, and finding the Song of Clarity made him smile again. So I just – didn’t explain.”

“Musical cultivation has no effect on you?” Jin Guangyao repeated. His expression was very strange, moreso than Nie Mingjue would have thought justified by the simple statement. “What does that mean? It’s a spell just like any other spell, isn’t it?”

“It’s a spell that enters and affects the spirit through the ears. It’s like how arrays need to be either seen or felt in order to activate, and talismans need physical contact to work…I mean, take haunted paintings as an example. They can only trap those who gaze into them, and once you realize, you can free yourself by shutting your eyes. That’s why they’re considered extremely low-risk targets for night-hunting, even if they’re quite dangerous to regular people.”

“And why Wei Wuxian could only raise the dead within range of Chenqing’s sound, unless he was using the Stygian Tiger Seal as enhancement,” Jin Guangyao said agreeably, nodding as if Nie Mingjue weren’t explaining the very basics of cultivation to him all over again – that might have come off as condescending, now that he thought about it. He hoped Jin Guangyao understood he hadn’t meant it as an insult, but he probably had. “But what does that have to do with the Song of Clarity not working on da-ge?”

“Music generally, not just the Song of Clarity,” Nie Mingjue corrected. “It’s not a specific song that’s the issue, and it’s only for songs that are meant to work on me directly – for example, when Lan Xichen uses Liebing in an attack, he’s directing the music to cause a force of spiritual energy to lash out, and I can be affected by that force because I’m as subject to spiritual energy attacks as anyone else.”

“But why?” Jin Guangyao persisted. “Why do you think musical cultivation, even if not the Song of Clarity in specific, directed directly at you won’t affect you?”

“Well,” Nie Mingjue said, and coughed. “That would be because I’m deaf.”

“…you’re what?!

-

“What’s the big commotion?” Lan Qiren asked irritably. He was still limping as he walked and clearly hated every minute of his persistent ill health. Nie Mingjue had been trying to keep the volume down specifically to avoid drawing him over, but was having no luck. “Are the three of you arguing again?”

“Forgive us, shufu,” Lan Xichen said. “Da-ge was simply saying some – some things – and it caused me to…ah…temporarily put aside my self-restraint and speak at too loud a volume…”

“Finally told you, did he?” Lan Qiren said, unimpressed, and Nie Mingjue winced. “Mm. I was wondering how long it would take for him to mention it.”

Lan Xichen turned to his uncle, his expression aghast. “Shufu! You knew that da-ge was deaf, and that music would do nothing for him? And you didn’t tell me?”

“It was making you happy to think you were doing something,” Lan Qiren said ruthlessly. “And it was nice seeing him act childishly, for once. Though I was expecting him to own up a bit sooner…”

Nie Mingjue winced again. He felt especially childish at the moment, getting a lecture from a respected teacher, but he didn’t really have a good defense right now.

“How can da-ge be deaf?” Jin Guangyao wanted to know. He seemed almost more offended than Lan Xichen over the whole thing. “We converse with him all the time!”

“I read lips,” Nie Mingjue clarified, not for the first time. “And I have an array that translates sounds into characters for me to see so that I’m not taken by surprise.”

It worked pretty well, most of the time. Sure, sometimes it was a little awkward when random sounds (croaking frogs, for instance) got misinterpreted as words, but he’d gotten fairly good at differentiating the false from the true after all these years.

Ironically enough, it had been Wen Ruohan that had initially designed the array for him. He’d done it at his father’s request, back when they’d still been on good terms with each other. Nie Mingjue hadn’t been born deaf, but rather had been rather traumatically deafened at a fairly young age in a night-hunt gone wrong, and Wen Ruohan was the foremost master of arrays in the cultivation world, as well as his father’s friend; it had been no surprise that his father had turned to him for help. Of course, Wen Ruohan hadn’t been interested in helping until Nie Mingjue’s father had turned the matter into a challenge, assuring Wen Ruohan time and time again that it was fine that such an overly complex and intricate array as the solution would require was beyond him and needling him until Wen Ruohan had declared in a moment of pique that he would be more than happy to – and most definitely capable of – designing such a thing.

He had, too.

After everything, that had made it all worse. Wen Ruohan had been extremely proud of his creation when all was said and done, which was understandable. The array really had been incredibly complex and intricate and incredibly difficult to put together, well beyond the capacities of normal people; Wen Ruohan had taken nearly an entire season to create it and then visited once a season for an entire week over the next three years to calibrate it further. Some pride, even a great deal of pride, was all incredibly reasonable, and Nie Mingjue did not hold that against him.

But he did hold against him that Wen Ruohan was a selfish man, vain and self-absorbed and more than a little cruel, and after Nie Mingjue’s father’s death, he was also a mad one; he cared more for the work of his hands than the damaged child he had created it for. Nie Mingjue had had to endure years of discussion conferences in which Wen Ruohan would find a reason to corner him to ask him questions as to how the array was faring, or, worse, to casually put his hand on the back of his neck where the array was anchored. When they clashed, which was often, he liked to whisper threats in a voice so low that no one could hear, knowing that Nie Mingjue would be able to see the words appear in front of him even if he closed his eyes…

Even after Yangquan, when Nie Mingjue had been captured and forced to his knees before him, Wen Ruohan had been casually tracing a portion of the array on his throne, knowing that Nie Mingjue would recognize the familiar motions – the implicit threat that what he had given he could take away again always there, and further combined with the risk that he might try to use Nie Mingjue as some sort of experiment subject.

There had never been a moment in his life where Nie Mingjue forgot that he was deaf, and, by being deaf, reliant on spells and the people around him for his safety and well-being in a way that others were not. It had instilled in him a sense of caution that his forefathers had perhaps lacked – he had always had to reckon with the fact that if he used every ounce of his energy in a fight, he wouldn’t have enough spiritual energy left to power the array, with the notion that he might not receive the right signal because of his unreliable hearing, with the fear that something might happen at night while he was asleep and he would not see what other men would easily ‘hear’, with the fear of someone tampering with something he needed…

“ – using the Song of Clarity on da-ge,” Lan Xichen was explaining to Lan Qiren, who looked even more irritable than before. Nie Mingjue hadn’t been paying attention, so he wasn’t sure what had set off the old firecracker this time – perhaps the notion of Lan Xichen teaching one of their sect secrets to Jin Guangyao as an ice-breaker, which Nie Mingjue had always secretly thought was probably worth a lecture or two. “We’d been hoping it would be helping, but now to find out there’s no effect at all…it’s disappointing, that’s all. I suppose we’ll have to start from the beginning.”

“Hardly,” Lan Qiren said crisply. “There are more ways to convey a song than through sound – it is only more difficult, that’s all. Stay here for a moment and let me consult some books. Perhaps we will be able to make something of it regardless…” He turned and left, though before he went back into his rooms he tossed over his shoulder a comment of, “Lianfang-zun, I will admit to some surprise that Sect Leader Jin would permit you to assist Chifeng-zun in such a manner.”

“We are sworn brothers,” Jin Guangyao demurred. “He could hardly disagree.”

“Oh, he could,” Nie Mingjue said, grimacing in recollection of far, far too many discussion conferences that dragged late into the night. Once Jin Guangshan got drunk, he got a lot less subtle about how much he would be delighted to dance on their graves, no matter how discreet he thought he was being the rest of the time. “I don’t put anything past him anymore. He seems to have taken all the times I saved him – at his request – during the Sunshot Campaign as a personal insult…ah, I hope he doesn’t make things difficult for you. If so, just let me know and we’ll fix it.”

“Fix it?” Jin Guangyao echoed.

Nie Mingjue shrugged unconcernedly. “I’m allied to the Jin sect through you, not in general. If I get wind that he’s treating you less than well, I’m morally obligated to respond, and whether he acknowledges it or not, I can be a great deal more irritating to him than I currently am. And that’s excluding what Xichen could do.”

Jin Guangyao looked thoughtful.

Nie Mingjue wondered why. Surely he knew how much power he had in Lanling Jin by virtue of his relationship with Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen? It wasn’t for nothing that Nie Mingjue had asked him specifically to use his influence to bring justice to Xue Yang – he wouldn’t have asked if he didn’t know it was in his capacity to accomplish.

“Mingjue-xiong can be an absolute terror if he wants,” Lan Xichen said loyally, then remembered to glare. “Even if he sometimes omits to mention rather crucial details…”

“Surely you must understand why I can’t talk about this sort of thing publicly!”

-

“I have some concerns,” Lan Qiren said thoughtfully.

“I don’t,” Nie Mingjue said, unsure if he could actually get up at this point in time. Lan Qiren had designed a workaround to his deafness for the purpose of transmitting the Song of Clarity – Nie Mingjue lay down on a bed that apparently resonated to the music played by a guqin, pouring the spell into his meridians through touch rather than sound; the vibrations had not been unpleasant, had even been quite comfortable, but now that it was all said and done he felt as if he were a bowl of tofu shaken to the core. It had been Lan Qiren playing the song rather than Lan Xichen, and by all accounts Lan Qiren was a notably more aggressive musician – it made for some very strong medicine!

That being said, Nie Mingjue also felt remarkably clean. It was as if his spirit, which had been rubbed raw for years, had been doused in a stinging antiseptic that flushed the worst parts out, then covered in a gentle pain-numbing cream and bandaged to protect it as it healed.

“It feels good,” he added, and felt a little regretful. Lan Qiren had been his father’s friend, too, and while as interim sect leader he didn’t have the power to authorize the repeated use of the Song of Clarity on another sect leader, in the regular course of events it was quite possible that even with the saber spirit his father would have lived long enough to see Lan Xichen reach twenty, and then Lan Xichen might have authorized it…things could have been very different if his father hadn’t been murdered. “Really good. I think it helped.”

Lan Xichen looked satisfied, his ruffled feathers over the whole deafness debacle finally soothing back into place. As expected, he cared more about the effect than the method.

“That’s not the nature of my concern,” Lan Qiren said, frowning down at his fingers, still lingering on the guqin. The three of them were the only ones there; Lan Qiren had rather icily informed Lan Xichen that while, as sect leader, he was entitled to share Lan sect secrets with fellow musicians at his discretion, Lan Qiren’s own innovations were not yet classified as such and therefore he as the creator had the right to determine who got to see or hear them.

At first Nie Mingjue hadn’t understood the nature of Lan Qiren’s seemingly inexplicable enmity with Jin Guanghao – on the contrary, he had been rather thoroughly surprised by it, as he would have thought that a polite, well-spoken, earnest and hardworking young man like Jin Guangyao would be precisely the sort of person calibrated to best please an old teacher like Lan Qiren. Lan Xichen had clarified the matter in a whisper: it seemed that Jin Guangyao was involved in supporting the Moling Su sect, which had been founded by a former Lan sect disciple that had defected and which used a number of Lan sect techniques without alteration, only without honoring any of their ancestral rules or traditions…

No wonder an old stickler like Lan Qiren would disapprove. If anything, knowing the teacher’s soft spots, he was probably more polite to Sect Leader Su, who was a former student of his even if he was a technique-thief, than an interloper like Jin Guangyao, who swore brotherhood to the Lan sect on one hand and supported their disgrace with another.

Really, Nie Mingjue might almost feel sorry for Jin Guangyao’s frigid reception, only it really was something he’d brought onto his own head. Again!

“What is your concern, shufu?” Lan Xichen asked, sounding a little anxious. “Is it with the course of treatment? Or perhaps the frequency? I know Mingjue-xiong is busy, but surely if we’ve actually found something that might work, he could make an effort –”

“Chifeng-zun is not one of our disciples, Xichen, you cannot manage his life no matter how good your motives,” Lan Qiren scolded as if on instinct, his voice a little distracted. “At any rate, he hasn’t even indicated that he’s not willing to come. Do not make assumptions about others.”

Lan Xichen bowed his head a little in acknowledgement of the admonition, though Nie Mingjue noted that he was smiling a little. He couldn’t help but agree – it was good to see Lan Qiren back in proper form, tetchy and overly rigid as always but without the bitterness and sorrow he carried in him since the war. That they all carried in them since the war.

“The issue is different,” Lan Qiren continued. “I believe...no, let me restate. I encountered resistance while playing.”

Nie Mingjue had no idea what that meant. He certainly hadn’t noticed anything when he’d been lying on the bed watching the character he associated with ‘guqin string sound’ appear repeatedly on the ceiling in Wen Ruohan’s handwriting.

Lan Xichen clearly did, though, judging by the look of shock on his face. “Shufu,” he said. “Are you saying Mingjue-xiong has been poisoned?”

“Not very well,” Lan Qiren said, while Nie Mingjue tried to sit up to participate in the conversation and ended up falling sideways because all his limbs had turned into noodles while he wasn’t paying attention. “I suspect that whoever did it intended to use musical cultivation as the means of administering poison, but failed because of Chifeng-zun’s particular deficiency in that regard. Only the remnants remain.”

“What type of poison?” Nie Mingjue demanded. “And how would they even think to try to poison me with something like that? Everyone knows I don’t sit around and listen to music!”

“Well, you must have,” Lan Qiren said waspishly. “I’m quite familiar with the effects of a spiritual poison, thank you.”

He’d helped with caring for the wounded during the war, even though by all counts he’d been among the wounded himself. He’d also led the Lan sect forces…truly, the Lan sect asked for so very much from Lan Qiren, just as the Nie sect asked so much of Nie Mingjue. He hoped the old teacher would have some time to finally rest now that the war was done.

“Then you should check Xichen, too,” Nie Mingjue said. “The only times I’ve listened to music recently have been during political meetings, and he was present at all the same ones I was.”

‘Listened to’ wasn’t the right word, of course, but Nie Mingjue wasn’t exactly going to change his manner of speaking to account for his deafness. Everyone else said ‘listen to’, so he did, too.

“I would have noticed a spiritual poison in music,” Lan Xichen objected, although he reached out to feel his own pulse and, finding nothing, extended his wrist to allow Lan Qiren to do the same. Lan Qiren accepted and held it for a moment, then shook his head, confirming that he sensed nothing. “Da-ge, it must have been at another time.”

“I don’t listen to music,” Nie Mingjue insisted. “Even Huaisang doesn’t bother dragging me to plays or bringing operas home – and when he does, I’m very firmly elsewhere. Why should I give myself a headache from the strain? The only times I’ve been anywhere in the vicinity of music is political meetings, right this instant, or when Meng Yao is playing for me!”

There was a small lacuna of silence following what he said.

“Well, then,” Lan Qiren said, and Nie Mingjue blinked owlishly at him, and then at Lan Xichen’s increasingly horrified expression.

“No, wait,” he said. “You can’t be serious. Why would Meng Yao poison me? We may not get along all the time, to be sure. But even just thinking about it logically, putting aside our oaths, look at the position of my Nie sect – we don’t take money from the Jin, and our prestige is higher. If you think about it a certain way, I’m his strongest backer!”

“I wonder what song he’s using for the poison,” Lan Qiren mused, ignoring both him and the way Lan Xichen looked positively nauseous. “It would have to sound enough like the Song of Clarity to fool the untrained ear, which he must have assumed you had, and yet have destructive effects, which are very nearly the opposite…whoever did the actual combination must be remarkably good at composition. I wonder if he did it himself or if he had someone else do it?”

Shufu!” Lan Xichen howled. “Do not make assumptions about others!”

“I was simply making an observation,” Lan Qiren protested, though he looked a little embarrassed to have been caught being more interested in music than morals. “It’s not an assumption if it’s the only possible conclusion. Why don’t we just ask him? At worst it’s just an attempted murder, not successful – he can be punished as befits the crime; once the punishment is complete, the crime is expiated. As long as he changes his ways, there’s still room for forgiveness.”

Lan Qiren must really want to meet the musician who composed that poison, Nie Mingjue thought, feeling the sudden urge to roll his eyes and possibly also giggle hysterically. ‘It’s just an attempted murder’ indeed – if Jin Guangyao had really tried something like that, it represented the violation of their brotherhood oath!

“It’s the same as it was with Wei Wuxian,” Lan Qiren continued. “It wasn’t the demonic cultivation that made him anathema to the cultivation world, but the fact that he continuously persisted in it, refusing to return to the orthodox way and rubbing that fact in everyone’s faces. In the end, his refusal culminated in the deaths of Jin Zixuan and the massacre of the Nightless City. This is hardly a similar situation.”

“We’ll talk with Meng Yao,” Nie Mingjue said. He didn’t want to talk about Wei Wuxian – the corruption and ultimate death of that bright and brilliant young man weighed heavily on his soul. As far as Nie Mingjue was concerned, he and all those he had killed before his death were properly counted among the final victims of the Sunshot Campaign. It had been because of the war that Wei Wuxian had first started down his dark road, and it had been for that reason that he had gone too far to be able to return to the light of the cultivation world. If they hadn’t asked so much of him, perhaps things might have gone differently for him. “First we’ll figure out if he really did what he did, and if he did…we’ll figure out the rest.”

After all, he thought to himself, if there was one thing he thought he’d learned over the years it was this: while there is still life, there is still hope.

(And as for Wei Wuxian, Nie Huaisang had at one point muttered something to himself about finding a way to fix things if it was the last thing he did, and that was more than a little worrisome – if he was as deaf as a post, then his brother was as stubborn as a mule. Between his regret and his brother’s enthusiasm, they’d find themselves digging up some way to revive the poor man whether he liked it or not!)