Shortly after Nie Huaisang began night hunting with Lan Wangji, an arrangement most of the cultivation world viewed as a glorified babysitting job for Hanguang-jun, Qin Su received an anonymous letter warning her that her son would be in danger so long as he continued to stay in Koi Tower. She’d heeded the previous note when her husband was taken prisoner by the Nie sect, and so followed the instructions provided after her son survived a near-fatal poisoning, from replacing Rusong with a construct to fool the cultivation world and her husband into believing their child had died, to traveling to Lotus Pier where Jiang Wanyin was awaiting her arrival.
She’d claimed that she’d needed to leave the Jin sect out of grief, then simply never returned, and when her husband pleaded with her to rejoin him, he received a letter, as well.
This second letter carried no message - only the location of his mother’s remains.
And so, Qin Su was allowed to remain in Lotus Pier, to watch the junior disciples grow, including one who took a little longer to learn the techniques than others, but was unfailingly kind, and smiled brightly all the same.
Madam Jin, on the other hand, chose to remain in Koi Tower to spend time with her grandson, and to keep an eye on his regent. She could often be found sending letters filled with images and poetry to a friend of hers, though she refused to name who this friend might be regardless of who asked.
Jiang-zongzhu had not realized that receiving correspondence from their shared informant through a medium besides erotic art was an option until he’d brought several pages of it to a Discussion Conference, only to discover that the other leaders already had access to the information encoded in the borders and from considerably less risque material.
Apparently, after Nie Mingjue had given him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, his face had shifted colors through the full spectrum until it finally settled on a hue that matched his robes.
One thing was certain - if Nie Huaisang didn’t die laughing, Jiang Wanyin was going to kill him.
Of course, there were still several disadvantages to setting a would-be assassin loose to commit murder. One of them being that once he got started, it was nearly impossible for Nie Huaisang to get him to stop without revealing his complicity and indirectly implicating his brother in the process.
He’d known this would happen to some extent when he’d asked to leave the sect, and accepted that there would be consequences down the line. What he didn’t expect was how tainted he would feel when Jin Guangyao confirmed that Jin-zongzhu was dead, nor how little such feelings would matter when Jin Guangyao used the alleged murder of his son to erect a series of Watchtowers that were ostensibly to keep the common people safe.
With such surveillance, threats could be identified and neutralized sooner, saving lives.
And wasn’t that kind of him? Wasn’t it compassionate?
With little A-Song’s death as the perfect excuse, Jin Guangyao was able to spread his influence and his spies and there was nothing Nie Huaisang could do but grit his teeth, bear it, and hope Da-ge didn’t upset the balance by pushing Jin Guangyao into another attempt on his life - though Wangji was so often chasing assassins away from Nie Huaisang that one had to wonder how he would find the time - until news reached him of something he hadn’t seen coming -
Mo Xuanyu’s fall from grace.
Rumors spread, each of them worse than the next, but the general consensus was that he’d attempted to seduce his married half-brother, and because Mo Xuanyu was a known cut-sleeve, no one questioned it. However, Nie Huaisang had always been of the opinion that Xuanyu-gongzi was a man of good taste, and thus harbored suspicions regarding the validity of this story. In addition, undermining and defaming any who would speak against him had always been Jin Guangyao’s modus operandi, which could very well mean that this boy had information that Nie Huaisang could use.
And if he didn’t, a little birdy may have mentioned that certain irreplaceable manuscripts went missing from the Jin sect library following his expulsion, and those were certain to be of interest.
He managed to arrange a visit to Mo village several months following his exile from the Jin sect. Shortly after he arrived, a donkey tried to take a bite out of his robes, but after meeting Lady Mo and her sons, he found that he actually preferred the donkey. She flattered him endlessly and loudly, clearly hoping that he’d come to train one of her sons in cultivation, despite the fact that the pair of them were well past the age of developing a decent personality, let alone a golden core.
After neatly sidestepping her offer to stay for lunch, he idly inquired after Mo Xuanyu’s whereabouts, watching with interest as her face contorted with hatred.
Still, she pointed him towards a small shed and he nodded his thanks, then took his leave, following the stone path to a ramshackle structure that barely passed for a shed.
Resentful energy oozed from its cracks. The whole place smelled of blood.
Even from the outside, Nie Huaisang could hear its occupant muttering furiously to himself, “No, no, no! It’s still not right! Was it three strokes or four?”
Peering in through the window, he could make out talismans written in blood, a half-completed Body Sacrifice array on the floor, and a man dressed in rags biting his lip as he poured spiritual energy into the sigils marking the paper in his hand.
It seemed that the rumors of demonic cultivation hadn’t been baseless, after all.
Nie Huaisang snapped open a metal-tipped fan with a flick of his wrist, then stepped into the doorway, where he continued to watch for a moment, leaning against the framework with an inscrutable smile, “They say you’ve lost your mind.”
“And what do you think, Nie-er-gongzi?” Mo Xuanyu replied without removing his gaze from his work.
Nie Huaisang let his silver fan fall to his side. “Madness tends to follow Jin Guangyao wherever he goes.”
At that, Mo Xuanyu abruptly ceased his manic movements. When he turned to at last acknowledge his visitor with a raised brow, Huaisang was stunned once again by how young the teen was, and mentally cursed himself for not having found a way to warn the boy.
Mo Xuanyu cocked his head. “You suspect that he cursed me. You think that’s why I’m like this?” Nie Huaisang waited, and was rewarded with a bout of howling laughter. “You’ve met my family, haven’t you?” Wiping at his rouge-framed eyes with his sleeves, Mo Xuanyu’s lips curled into a deadman’s grin, “I hardly needed a curse to lose my mind.”
His cousins beat him, stole what little possessions he had left, starved him, and forced him to sleep on the cold ground every night. His aunt had forbidden him from being seen out in public, treating him as though his very existence was a secret shame that could be buried until the cultivation world forgot his name. Until there was nothing left of the boy but a corpse to be disposed of.
“And Jin Guangyao ordered that you return to this place? Does he know of your treatment here?” Perhaps he’d hoped his stupid and cruel family would kill him, and judging by the collar bones jutting from the boy’s chest, he hadn’t been wrong to think so.
“My aunt wears jewels now she couldn’t afford before I was exiled. My cousin's clothes are of a better quality.” Mo Xuanyu picked a chicken’s feather up from out of the dirt, idly twirling it between his fingers. “There’s no evidence to prove it that I know of, but I think it’s safe to assume that my dear half-brother has hinted to the Mo family that a healthy dose of discipline would set me back on the righteous path.”
Between the flat affectation in his voice and the unearthly gray pallor of his skin, it felt as though the teen’s soul were barely tethered to the world of the living, as though his living body hadn’t quite caught on to the fact that the person who inhabited was already little more than a ghost.
“You’re old enough now. If you wished to rejoin the Jin sect, you could stake a claim on the right to succession.”
A flicker of humanity appeared in Mo Xuanyu’s dull eyes, dim as an ember. “I couldn’t do that to Jin Ling. He’s a bit of a spoiled child, but he was always kind to me.”
“His uncle has raised him well, though I’ve heard that some of Jiang-zongzhu’s infamous temperament has rubbed off on the poor boy.” Nie Huaisang chuckled. “There’s a rather outspoken Lan disciple who constantly addresses him as Young Mistress. It’s quite cute, actually.”
Mo Xuanyu placed his talisman down, gesturing for Nie Huaisang to take a seat on the mat. “A-Ling may have mentioned that boy once or twice. It’s good to hear that he’s making friends his own age.”
Nie Huaisang tapped the tip of his fan against his knee. “But will friends be enough to protect him from his other uncle, I wonder?”
The air in the shed grew colder, the shadows darker. In the face of that, Nie Huaisang refused to shudder. It was a sign of weakness that wouldn’t protect him here.
Mo Xuanyu brought his knees up his chest, staring up at him with a look of passive interest. “I heard once that you burned all of A-Yao’s gifts in your courtyard. And then shortly after he was released back to the Jin sect, you started going on night hunts, which everyone knows you hate. What did A-Yao do to you, I wonder? Whatever it was, it must be a fascinating story.”
“Whatever he may have done to me personally is in the past, and there it is best left. There are far more concerning matters to attend to, such as what his plans are for when Jin Ling comes of age.”
Mo Xuanyu’s brow furrowed. “You think he would hurt him?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time he’s harmed a child,” Nie Huaisang pointed out, and was pleased to see that Mo Xuanyu didn’t appear surprised by the accusation.
For the first time since he’d passed the threshold of this shed, the teen regarded him with bright, clear eyes without a trace of madness. “Why are you here, Nie-er-gongzi? Why didn’t you send one of your disciples to come in your stead?”
“No one knows my current whereabouts.” It was always a gamble - admitting that. “There are reasons I cannot expose your half-brother’s misdeeds. Just as there are reasons why I cannot save you.” The shed’s natural light began to dim as a cloud passed over the sun.
Without judgment or accusation, the teen commented offhandedly, as though the matter hardly concerned him, “You probably could if you wanted to.”
Nie Huaisang thought of how many problems directly defying the Chief Cultivator and the Jin sect would bring, and of how his old friend wouldn’t have hesitated - didn’t hesitate to sacrifice his own reputation when presented with a similar dilemma. But Wei Wuxian wasn’t the one sitting amongst blood and filth and demonic scripts. He wasn’t alive. And it wasn’t Nie Huaisang’s responsibility to save every innocent life he came across.
After all, hadn’t he seen firsthand what happened to those who tried?
Flushing at his boldness, Mo Xuanyu interrupted his unhappy thoughts with, “Ah, but Nie-er-gongzi shouldn’t trouble himself with such things. There’s little left of me to save now, and…” He paused upon finding some kind of hint in Nie Huaisang’s expression, some revealing twitch of muscle that caused him to sit back, a bitter smile twisting his youthful features, “And you’ve already thought of who you hope will replace me, haven’t you?”
Nie Huaisang didn’t deny it.
With a giggle like shattered glass, Mo Xuanyu grabbed a fistful of talismans, held them up to his face, and fluttered them as though he were mimicking the action of holding a fan.
“I’m sorry,” was all Nie Huaisang could say, yet it sounded insufficient. Mo Xuanyu seemed to agree, since he returned to his talismans and manuscripts without acknowledging his presence again for the remainder of the visit. Before he left, however, he turned to say one last thing, "Thank you."
Mo Xuanyu paused in his work, then resumed as though he hadn't, and Nie Huaisang left the shed without turning back again.
Several weeks after this, when the sacrifice ritual was not-so-coincidentally completed during the same week as the night hunt hosted on Dafan Mountain, Mo Xuanyu would mysteriously appear in front of Jin Ling and Jiang Cheng, just in time for Hanguang-jun to save him and send him on his merry way. Later on, when Lan Wangji opted to bring ‘Mo Xuanyu’ to Cloud Recesses to keep him safe while he healed, Nie Huaisang would stick even more closely to an increasingly confused Lan Wangji than he normally would, practically hanging off him so that he could enjoy the lovely shade of green ‘Mo Xuanyu’s’ face turned at the sight, and he would do this knowing that their future happiness would come as a result of a sacrifice neither of them would have approved of.
Even if it was a promise he’d made to a dead man, Nie Huaisang was going to bring Jin Guangyao to justice in order to create a world with one less dagger aimed at his back, one less dagger to hold, and once that was done…
He could finally go home.