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The Lost Cause

Chapter Text

 

Nie Huaisang was thirteen when Meng Yao came to live in The Unclean Realm.

At thirteen, he was already the bane of his older brother’s existence. Nie Huaisang was everything his brother wasn’t. He was lazy, soft, and indulgent, and worst of all, had absolutely no shame about these qualities. Why was it a big deal if he would rather draw than study? What did it really matter if he practiced with his saber as often as he should? He didn’t need to be a master with his saber. His brother was good enough for both of them. He hated fighting, hated anything that made him sweat at all, and didn’t see the point in any of it. Why did people waste their lives doing such things? Could they not find a better way to spend their time?

At thirteen, all he wanted to do was raise his birds, which were his greatest pride. He spent days at a time stalking them in the wild, earning their trust so he could catch them and bring them home. 

He was soft, but he was not dull, and that was the real problem.

It drove Nie Mingjue insane. He knew that his younger brother was bright and clever, observant and shrewd. He could do incredible things with his life. But all Nie Huaisang wanted to do was feed his birds and paint on fans and, after he turned fourteen, read and draw pornography.

They argued about it often, and Nie Huaisang cried, but the tears were fake more often than not, and by the time Meng Yao arrived in Qinghe, they had basically come to a truce. Nie Huaisang worked with his saber a bit more and Nie Mingjue only yelled at him two or three times a week. Nie Huaisang only faked fainting to get out of things he found truly repulsive and Nie Mingjue stopped punishing him for doing it by releasing his birds back into the wild.

Nie Huaisang didn’t understand why everyone thought laziness was such a bad thing.

“If you want something done in the most efficient way possible,” he said to Wei Wuxian over a jar of alcohol during their time in Cloud Recesses, “give it to the laziest person you know.”

Wei Wuxian laughed and said, “And that’s you?”

Nie Huaisang tapped the tip of his fan to his temple and grinned.

He had zero ambition. His brother was strong and honorable and straightforward, and he was an excellent Clan Leader. Nie Huaisang loved and respected him, and moreover, felt he didn’t need to worry about him. His brother could survive anything. So what was the harm if he never bothered to become powerful himself? He didn’t need power. He just wanted to be left alone.

Meng Yao was interesting from the moment Nie Huaisang met him, a puzzle that he kept trying to solve. He was soft and polite, deferential to a fault, but worked three times as hard as anybody else. He immediately set about making himself indispensable, and he did an amazing job of it. He was, if not smarter than Nie Huaisang, at least as smart, but timid and unthreatening in a similar way. It fascinated Nie Huaisang, who had never met anybody else as soft as he was.

It was almost a year before he realized the key difference between them, that while he himself chose to be soft because that was what he preferred, Meng Yao was forced to be soft because that was what kept him safe.

“It’s stupid,” he said to Meng Yao one late night, after Meng Yao had finished persuading, coaxing, cajoling, and finally outright bribing Nie Huaisang to finish all the tasks his brother had set to him. The master of swords had seen them at the end and sneered that he didn’t know which one of them was more pathetic. Nie Huaisang had gotten very offended at that, because obviously he was the more pathetic of the two, why would the master of swords even need to question? “The way they treat you.”

Meng Yao smiled the way he always did. Meng Yao wore a smile like it was a piece of armor. “Don’t trouble yourself over it, Nie-gongzi.”

“I’m not troubled,” Nie Huaisang said. “I’m just stating a fact. They treat you like you’re less than you are, just because of who your mother is.”

“Everyone is like that,” Meng Yao said. He talked about this more frankly with Nie Huaisang than he did with anything else, because Nie Huaisang was no threat to him. Nie Huaisang was no threat to anybody, really, and would have been the first to proudly admit it. “The opinion is quite common.”

“That doesn’t make it less stupid,” Nie Huaisang said. “I mean, how strong you are, how smart you are, that’s not a subjective fact. They can’t just decide you’re less than you are. You are exactly as you are. Deducting points because of your mother is just factually incorrect.”

Meng Yao laughed quietly, looking genuinely amused. “I suppose that is true in a way, Nie-gongzi. But I don’t mind. Sometimes it’s no bad thing, being underestimated.”

Nie Huaisang thought that was probably true.

He didn’t think about how true until he saw Meng Yao shed his timid demeanor and soft smile and murder the master of swords in cold blood.

It was a shock to him, which annoyed him, because it shouldn’t have been. Because he had realized at least a year previous that Meng Yao wasn’t really soft, not like he was. Because the master of swords did, in all honesty, deserve it. He had been viciously cruel to Meng Yao for years, and honestly hadn’t treated Nie Huaisang much better. Nie Huaisang didn’t shed a tear over his death. 

If it had just been him that witnessed it, he thought, things probably wouldn’t have changed much. He would have been cautious around Meng Yao in a way he hadn’t been before, made sure to stay on his good side, but there was really nothing to be concerned about. He was soft, and Meng Yao knew he was soft, and Meng Yao had never seen him as a threat and probably never would. He considered Meng Yao a friend, and the murder of the master of swords didn’t really change his opinion.

Nie Mingjue, however . . .

It was fascinating to watch Meng Yao realize he had been seen. To watch the cold, satisfied smile vanish in a heartbeat and be replaced by fake panic, pleading tears. Nie Huaisang watched from where he was hidden and wondered if he could ever be that good an actor if he spent his whole life practicing.

None of it made any difference to Nie Mingjue, however, and as Nie Huaisang watched Meng Yao depart, he felt an uneasy stirring in his stomach.

His brother could survive anything. He could certainly survive Meng Yao.

Couldn’t he?

~ ~ ~ ~

Things then got much worse, for reasons that had nothing to do with Meng Yao at all.

“You’re really making me go?” he wailed to Nie Mingjue. “I won’t survive a day in Nightless City! Look at me!”

Nie Mingjue slammed his hand down on his desk. “This is exactly what I’ve always told you!” he roared. “You’ve told me your whole life that being weak and soft wouldn’t be a problem, and I kept telling you that someday it would, and now, here you are! Crying to me that you won’t survive something! Sometimes I think you’re truly a lost cause!”

Seeing that the tears weren’t any use, Nie Huaisang stopped them. “Why are we going along with this?” he protested. “Can the Wen clan really get away with this? Are the other clans really going to send their young masters as well?”

Nie Mingjue calmed down as well, once he had stopped crying. In a voice that was slightly more gentle - which for Nie Mingjue meant it still had steel edges - he said, “I can’t get in touch with anyone at Cloud Recesses. It’s best to assume that they’ve already taken Lan Wangji. Clan Leader Jiang said he was going to comply. He trusts his sons to stay safe, and does not want to provoke the Wen clan into an attack. I don’t know what the Jin clan will do but their friendship with the Wen clan is longstanding. They are in far less danger than any of the rest of us and don’t have the same incentive not to comply.”

Nie Huaisang’s legs had grown weak and watery after the first two sentences. “They really took Cloud Recesses?” he asked, and Nie Mingjue nodded. “And they breached The Unclean Realm so easily that day . . .”

Nie Mingjue said nothing. The way his fists clenched on the table made his opinion on that matter clear.

After a long moment, Nie Huaisang said, “What should I do while I’m there?”

“Be compliant. Do not make trouble. This is probably just them throwing their weight around, proving that they’re able to make ridiculous demands.” A slight, begrudging smile touched Nie Mingjue’s face. “And if they order you to do something truly odious, just faint.”

Nie Huaisang laughed. “I never thought I would hear you encouraging that!”

“This one time,” Nie Mingjue said, with a straight face.

“I’m going to faint every day,” Nie Huaisang said proudly. “They’ll think I’m totally helpless.”

Nie Mingjue sighed, but surprisingly, did not argue.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

Depending on how he looked at it, Nie Huaisang fainted at either precisely the right or precisely the wrong time.

He wasn’t going to complain at all that he missed a long hike and a dark cave and a murderous tortoise. Or a swim. He wasn’t much of a swimmer. But he didn’t find out about any of that until later. All he knew at the time was that when he got up the next day, he was suddenly the only young master left in Nightless City. 

He timidly inquired the guard at his door and was told that the others had gone out on a night hunt. Satisfied that ‘classes’ were suspended for the day, he went back into his room and started sketching. They brought him his meals. A full day passed. Then a second. Then a third.

On that third day, he asked the guard who brought his dinner, “Um . . . can I go, if we’re no longer having classes?”

The guard said nothing and walked away.

On the fourth day, nobody was outside his room anymore. He left it and began to wander. He was soft and timid and no threat to anybody. A few people gave him strange looks, but nobody said anything to him. He overheard some of them talking about the ‘accident’ in the cave and started to panic. When he saw somebody clad in nicer clothes than the guards, he went to tug on his sleeve. “Can I go home?” he asked him. “I’d like to go home now.”

“Who are you?” the man asked him.

“Ah . . . I’m Nie Huaisang . . . I was sent here for indoctrination . . .”

“Nie-gongzi?” a familiar voice said, and Nie Huaisang blinked over at Meng Yao.

“Meng Yao!” Despite the circumstances, he was relieved to see a familiar face. He thought about asking ‘what are you doing here’ but then realized he knew exactly what Meng Yao was doing here. He was working for the Wen clan, to get revenge on Nie Mingjue for throwing him out. As soon as he had decided he didn’t need to ask, he decided to ask anyway. If he could convince Meng Yao that he wasn’t smart enough to put that together, all to the better. “What are you doing here?”

“Ah - ” Meng Yao said, clearly taken off guard. But the moment of hesitation only lasted a fraction of a second, and Nie Huaisang watched the gears turn in Meng Yao’s brain while he decided how to answer. “I’m serving the glorious Wen clan, obviously. Why should I not, after all the other clans rejected me?”

Nie Huaisang rubbed a hand over the back of his head. “My brother was so harsh to you . . . I tried to convince him to change his mind, but he wouldn’t budge! I’m sure you had good reason to kill the master of swords . . .”

“Let’s not waste time discussing it,” Meng Yao said, still smiling. “It’s done. Were you here for indoctrination? They must have forgotten about you after everything that happened . . .”

“What did happen?” Nie Huaisang clutched at Meng Yao’s forearms. “Meng Yao, nobody will tell me anything. I’m so worried. All the other young masters went to the cave and none came back . . .”

Meng Yao sighed. “Come with me,” he said, nodding to the other Wen clan member. He ushered Nie Huaisang back to his quarters and started making tea, half-watching while Nie Huaisang anxiously twisted his fan in his hands. “Truthfully, they escaped.”

Nie Huaisang’s eyes went wide. “Escaped?”

Meng Yao nodded. “Wen Chao tried to force them to string one of the young ladies up and bleed her to attract the monster. They rebelled. There was a fight, and the monster showed up. Wen Chao elected to seal the entrance to the cave with the others inside.”

“Oh no!” Nie Huaisang gasped.

“There must have been a back way out, though,” Meng Yao continued, “because we got word yesterday that Jin Zixuan and Jiang Wanyin were seen together on the road. I can’t say for certain if everyone got out, but I doubt they’d leave anyone behind.”

“Thank goodness,” Nie Huaisang said, breathing a sigh of relief.

“I can’t believe they just forgot about you,” Meng Yao said. “I mean, I can, this place is not exactly a tightly run ship, but . . .” He shook his head. “I’ll talk to Clan Leader Wen and see what he wants to do with you.”

“That sounds terrifying!” Nie Huaisang protested. “Meng Yao, can’t you just let me go? You know there’s no reason for me to be here . . . they already took my saber and da-ge is going to be furious with me . . .” He let the tears start flowing. “Please, I just want to go home.”

“Of course I can’t just let you go,” Meng Yao gently scolded. “I’ve barely been part of his ranks for two weeks. You think I’m going to risk getting in trouble right now?” He saw the look on Nie Huaisang’s face and sighed. “But I will tell him that you are no threat, and that there is no purpose to keeping you here. The whole thing was just Wen Chao showing off anyway - I doubt Clan Leader Wen will care if you’re returned to Qinghe.”

Nie Huaisang wiped the tears off his cheeks and put on what he hoped was a brave face. “Thank you, Meng Yao.”

“Have you been practicing your saber like you promised?” Meng Yao asked. He poured the tea, and for a few minutes, things were like the way they had been before. Nie Huaisang laughingly admitted that he hadn’t been, Meng Yao chided him, and he promised to do better while clearly having no intentions to do so.

“I’ll send someone to see you once Clan Leader Wen has made a decision,” Meng Yao said, after they’d had their tea.

“Can’t you come yourself?” Nie Huaisang asked hopefully.

Meng Yao sighed. “Nie-gongzi. We cannot be friends anymore. How do you still not understand that? Your brother exiled me from The Unclean Realm. I’m now serving Wen Ruohan, who has every intention of grinding the other four sects underneath his boot. I’m going to happily help him do that after the way they treated me. We are not friends.”

“I’m still your friend!” Nie Huaisang protested. “Meng Yao! Don’t say we can’t be friends anymore! I - I’ll cry!”

“You’re already crying,” Meng Yao pointed out, and shook his head. “Are you really still so naive after the past few months? There is going to be a war, Nie-gongzi. And you and I - we are not going to be on the same side.”

“Yes, I know,” Nie Huaisang said. “But that’s not my fault! You - you don’t understand! You’re on the wrong side! The Wen clan burned Cloud Recesses! They injured Lan-xiong, they sent all the young masters down into the cave without swords, they - ”

“No, you’re the one who doesn’t understand,” Meng Yao said patiently. “I know I’m on the wrong side. But Nie-gongzi - ” He smiled. “I don’t care.”

Nie Huaisang was left with his mouth ajar.

Meng Yao stood up. “Most likely, they’ll send you home,” he said, and seemed to recall himself, perhaps realize that he had let too much of his true self show. “Once you get there, don’t tell Chifeng-Zun that you saw me here. Please?”

“Oh . . . okay,” Nie Huaisang said. “I wouldn’t. He would just fly into a rage and break things . . .”

“That’s true,” Meng Yao said. He hesitated, then said, “Thank you, Nie-gongzi. You at least always treated me well. I hope we can meet in better circumstances in our next lives.”

With that, he was gone.


~ ~ ~ ~

“You’re actually practicing,” Nie Mingjue observed, a week after Nie Huaisang returned to the Unclean Realm. “I didn’t even have to shout.”

“I hate it,” Nie Huaisang said dispiritedly, letting the saber down. He’d had to get a new one and he hated this one even more than he hated his own. “I just want to feed my birds and paint my fans. Is that really so much to ask, da-ge?”

Nie Mingjue sighed. “In this world? Yes.”

“If I’d been taken into that cave I just would have been a burden on everybody, the way I was at Danfan mountain,” Nie Huaisang said. “It’s never really bothered me before. There are always other people around who can protect me. But it seems different this time. It seems serious.” He rested his saber against the wall. “Da-ge, are we really going to go to war? Real war?”

“Yes,” Nie Mingjue said simply, and Nie Huaisang shuddered. “The Wen clan has proven that they will not stop. Things are going to get much worse. I was just coming out here to tell you . . .”

Seeing the look on his face, Nie Huaisang stiffened. “What? Tell me what?”

Nie Mingjue hesitated, but didn’t attempt to cushion his words. “The Jiang clan was attacked by Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu. Clan Leader Jiang and Madam Yu were both killed.”

Nie Huaisang felt like the breath had been kicked out of him. “Wei-xiong? Jiang-xiong?” His voice rose in panic. “Jiang-guniang?”

“Missing,” Nie Mingjue said. “All three of them.”

Nie Huaisang sank down to sit on the ground. He swallowed hard but controlled his tears. Now wasn’t the time for crying. Finally, he looked up and said, “What are we going to do?”

“What do you think?” Nie Mingjue said. “Pick up your saber. We’re going to fight back.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

The next few months were some of the longest of Nie Huaisang’s life.

No matter how much he practiced he was still, generally speaking, terrible with the saber. He tried to stay at the rear most of the time, as they found and destroyed camps full of Wen soldiers roaming the country. Then during the third attack, they hit bad luck when the group had far more soldiers than they anticipated. “Why don’t we send people ahead to scout?” Nie Huaisang asked.

Nie Mingjue shook his head. “The Wen lookouts always catch them.”

Nie Huaisang tapped his mouth with his fan. “Let me try.”

“You?” Nie Mingjue sounded incredulous, to put it kindly. “Huaisang . . .”

“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang said calmly, “which one of us has caught a falcon with their bare hands?”

Nie Mingjue thought that over. “You.”

“Do you think the falcon would have allowed that if it had known I was there?”

“No,” Nie Mingjue admitted.

Nie Huaisang nodded. “Let me be the scout.”

He was shit with a saber but he was an amazing scout. He could get within fifteen feet of the camps without them knowing he was there. He could count the soldiers in the dimmest firelight. He could recognize the captains and report their names to his brother so they knew what specific skills or weapons they might be contending with.

For the first time in his life, Nie Mingjue was excessively proud of his little brother, and although Nie Huaisang really still wanted to be left alone with his birds and his fans, he had to admit that was a pretty nice feeling.

They met up with Lan Xichen and the remaining forces from the Lan sect. Then, a week later, Jiang Cheng showed up. For the first time since he had arrived, the scowl faded from Lan Wangji’s face, and he all but grabbed Jiang Cheng by the front of his robes. “Wei Ying is with you?”

Jiang Cheng shook his head. “We got separated. He was supposed to meet me, but . . .”

A month went by. Lan Wangji was taking Qishan by storm in his single-minded quest to find Wei Wuxian, with Jiang Cheng only slightly less ferocious at his side. Nie Huaisang continued to scout and Nie Mingjue continued to fight. Then one day, Lan Xichen showed up with a map full of tactical information.

Nie Mingjue didn’t worry about where it had come from.

Nie Huaisang did.

“Ah . . . Zewu-Jun,” he said anxiously, pulling him aside after the strategy meeting. “May I ask you something?”

“Of course,” Lan Xichen said.

“This information . . . some of it conflicts with things I’ve heard while scouting . . . where did you come by it?”

“Ah,” Lan Xichen said. “I would ask you to keep this in confidence, but there is somebody on the inside who is passing information to me. However, it could be slightly out of date. It can take time for his letters to reach me. What did you hear that was different, and when?”

“It was over a week ago now, so it could be my information that’s out of date,” Nie Huaisang said, but detailed the slight differences. All of them were trivial, small troop movements or changed personnel. Whichever one of them was right probably wouldn’t matter, but Nie Huaisang thought back to that day in Cloud Recesses that seemed like it was a thousand years ago and said, “Is it Meng Yao?”

Lan Xichen’s face froze, which was answer enough. “Ah . . .”

“I saw him there, when I went for indoctrination,” Nie Huaisang said. “I thought it was odd that he would join the Wen clan . . . even after everything that happened between him and my brother, it seemed unlike him. Now I think I might realize why he was there.”

Lan Xichen looked slightly uncomfortable. “Have you told anybody else this? Your brother?”

Nie Huaisang shook his head. “It only would have upset him, so I didn’t say anything.”

“Good.” Lan Xichen reached out and gripped Nie Huaisang’s shoulder. “Please keep your silence, Nie-gongzi. It’s crucial that we do not jeopardize A-Yao’s position, and you know how rumors can spread.”

“Yes,” Nie Huaisang said, and nodded. “I’ll keep quiet, I promise. I just . . .” He managed a smile. “I’m glad. It means I was right about Meng Yao, and that maybe we can be friends again someday.”

That made Lan Xichen smile. “I hope so.”

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Nie Huaisang was not at the final battle at Nightless City. There was no need for scouts, and he would only be a liability on the front lines. He only found out about his brother’s plan to sneak in through the back and kill Wen Ruohan after the fact, and was furious about it. “That, I could have helped with!” he shouted at Nie Mingjue while his injuries were tended. “How could you not tell me?”

It was the first time he had ever raised his voice to his brother, and Nie Mingjue was too surprised to be angry about it. “I didn’t need your help.”

“Oh, of course not!” Nie Huaisang yelled. “Because everything went perfectly, as is evidenced by the fact that you assassinated Wen Ruohan as you intended and didn’t get your ass kicked by Meng Yao of all people!”

“Do not bring up that snake in my presence!” Nie Mingjue roared, and Nie Huaisang shrank back involuntarily. Nie Mingjue sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. “Fine. I should have at least told you I was going. But I still wouldn’t have let you go with me. It was too dangerous.”

There were a hundred things Nie Huaisang wanted to say in return to that. Wasn’t the whole point of everything he had learned so that he could handle himself in dangerous situations? Was he still that poor at it? Did his brother still think of him as a liability? Or was Nie Mingjue just making a sentimental exception, not wanting to risk his own brother’s life?

He said none of it, because none of it was worth saying. Instead he sank down in the chair across from his brother and said, “Meng Yao . . . why still call him a snake? We couldn’t have done this without him.”

“A snake is a snake,” Nie Mingjue said, “no matter how many times it sheds its skin.”

Nie Huaisang sighed. He had been thinking about this for the last several hours, because he was still unsure. They couldn’t have beaten Wen Ruohan without him, but Nie Huaisang couldn’t help but be suspicious of the fact that they had come much closer to losing than they had winning. Meng Yao had not lied in any of his correspondence, but had he held things back? Things that could have mattered? If Wei Wuxian hadn’t had the Stygian Tiger Amulet, things would have ended much differently.

But it also answered a question for him which had been bothering him for a while. For months, he had thought about to Meng Yao’s smiling face as he said he didn’t care that he was on the wrong side. It wasn’t the answer that bothered him – it was the fact that Meng Yao had told him. The fact that Meng Yao had dropped his soft shield and allowed Nie Huaisang to see his true nature. But if he had been undercover – it made more sense. Meng Yao had calculated that it was a lesser risk to let Nie Huaisang see his true nature than it was to let anyone in the Wen clan think he was not perfectly loyal.

Did it matter, in the end? Lan Xichen was utterly convinced that Meng Yao was good and just, and it was clear there would be no changing his mind. Nie Mingjue was equally convinced that Meng Yao was an amoral opportunist who had played both sides and then switched to the winning team at the last moment, and there would be no changing his mind, either.

Nie Huaisang wasn’t sure what he believed, so he decided to do what he was good at. He would wait, and he would watch.

“I’m going to go check on Wei-xiong,” he decided, standing up. “Please get some rest once they’re done tending your injuries, okay? Don’t storm around.”

Nie Mingjue sighed and waved him off, but nodded.

Nie Huaisang visited Wei Wuxian for about an hour, watching him sleep while Lan Wangji played the guqin for him, to ease his mind. It eased Nie Huaisang’s mind as well, and he felt himself relaxing for the first time in months. The war was over. They had won. The Wen clan was defeated. Everything else could be dealt with as it came.

He thanked Lan Wangji for taking care of Wei Wuxian, which made Lan Wangji’s eyebrow twitch, and then headed back to the guest house he and his brother were staying in.

The next day, Jin Guangshan arrived. He met with all the other Clan Leaders and made a huge deal about how he and his disciples would finish the mop-up.

“Hey, da-ge . . .” Nie Huaisang said, not looking up from where he was painting his first fan in months. “Don’t you think it’s odd that Wen Ruohan never attacked Koi Tower?”

Nie Mingjue also did not look over from where he was practicing with Baxia, despite the fact that he was still injured and had been told to stay in bed. “Koi Tower is very defensible. It would be a poor target.”

“Because The Unclean Realm wasn’t defensible? Or Cloud Recesses?”

Nie Mingjue did glance over at that. “What does it matter, Huaisang?”

Nie Huaisang shrugged and sighed. His brother was so honorable. It would never occur to him that the Jin clan had had anything but good luck. “I don’t know. It just seemed odd.”

He needed a better audience for this conversation, because his brother was hopeless at intrigue and politics. But the problem was, there was really nobody else he could discuss it with. The Twin Jades of Lan were too intimidating for him to discuss matters with frankly. Jiang Cheng wasn’t much better at politics than Nie Mingjue, and probably wasn’t in the right frame of mind for this sort of talk anyway. Everyone in the Jin clan was out for obvious reasons. Wei Wuxian was still unconscious and probably would be for several days.

But there was Meng Yao. His loyalties were as of yet unproven, but Nie Huaisang found himself curious about what he would think. He certainly had no love for Jin Guangshan, so at least he would entertain the idea. Plus, since he had been undercover with Wen Ruohan, he was in the best position to know whether or not there had been anything going on.

Decision made, he set his fan to dry and went out to look for him. He wasn’t sure where Meng Yao would be, what accommodations he had been given, but he knew who would know. He wasn’t about to have a discussion of politics with Lan Xichen, but it was simple enough to ask, “Ah, Zewu-Jun, have you seen Meng Yao? I wanted to catch up with him.”

Lan Xichen smiled and said, “You hadn’t heard yet? He is Jin Guangyao now. His father legitimized him after his role in the siege at Nightless City.”

Nie Huaisang stood with his jaw ajar for a moment before blurting out, “Jin Guangyao? Not Jin Ziyao?” He saw Lan Xichen blink and added, “Ah, I just thought, the character for their generation was Zi . . .”

Lan Xichen’s smile faded. “I have to admit I found it an odd choice, but . . .”

“Oh, no, no,” Nie Huaisang said hastily, waving his hands to indicate that he wished he had never begun this conversation. “I’m sure there were good reasons for it. I would like to go congratulate him; do you know where I could find him?”

“He would be at his father’s pavilion, I’m sure,” Lan Xichen said, and pointed the way out to him.

Nie Huaisang thanked him and hurried away, because Lan Xichen would think it odd if he didn’t. He certainly wasn’t about to ask Meng Yao – Jin Guangyao – anything about whether or not Wen Ruohan had avoided targeting the Jin clan now. But he supposed he would at least go say hello and congratulations.

They were outside the pavilion, and Jin Guangshan was discussing something with several of his men. It took Nie Huaisang a moment to even locate Jin Guangyao in the crowd; he somehow looked wholly different in the robes of a Jin disciple, and had even donned a black gauze cap. Nie Huaisang bowed to Jin Guangshan, then to Jin Guangyao, and said, fumbling, “Nice hat.”

Jin Guangyao smiled his utterly fake smile and said, “It was a gift from my father.”

Jin Guangshan snorted and said, “I kept losing him in the crowd because of how short he is. His mother’s side of the family, I suppose.”

The smile froze on Jin Guangyao’s face. Nie Huaisang watched that infinitesimally small change in expression and wondered if Jin Guangshan had any idea that the man standing next to him was plotting his murder.

“Ah,” Nie Huaisang said, pretending to suddenly recall why he was there. “Congratulations, Jin-gongzi – is it Jin-gongzi or Jin-er-gongzi?” he added. He was sure that even if Jin Guangyao were technically older, he wouldn’t be counted above Jin Zixuan in the hierarchy, but the question would both make him seem feckless and flatter Jin Guangyao, so he asked it anyway.

Contrary to his expectation, Jin Guangyao’s smile grew even more brittle, and Nie Huaisang understood why a second later when Jin Guangshan said, “Jin-san-gongzi.” That meant Jin Guangyao had been placed below Jin Zixun in the ranking of young masters, even though Jin Zixun was Jin Guangshan’s nephew rather than his son.

“Of course, of course,” Nie Huaisang said, bowing again. “Congratulations, Jin-san-gongzi.”

“Thank you, Nie-gongzi,” Jin Guangyao said, returning the bow. “How are your brother’s injuries?”

“He’s healing well!” Nie Huaisang gave a nervous laugh. “You know how tough he is. He’s already up and around and practicing with his saber even though the doctors were telling him to stay in bed.”

Jin Guangyao smiled. “I would expect no less from him.”

Another disciple rushed up, probably with news of more Wen remnants being found, so Nie Huaisang hastily made his retreat with none of his questions answered.

In the gardens by the guest house where his brother was still practicing, he spotted a canary.

“Hello,” he said softly to the bird, “you’re going to be my new friend.”

Wait, he told himself. Watch.

 

~ ~ ~ ~