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The Lost Cause

Chapter Text

Three days later, Nie Huaisang had all the details on Jin Guangyao’s part of the plan, and he was trying to decide if he loved it or hated it. He tapped his fan against his lips for several long moments before he said, “Are the prostitutes really necessary, though? I feel like it’s a dead giveaway.”

“Nobody’s going to believe his heart gave out for no reason,” Jin Guangyao said, rolling his eyes. “And he never bothers sparring or working with the troops anymore. There’s got to be some exertion involved or it won’t be believable.”

“For the poison you chose, it’s not believable,” Nie Huaisang said. “There’s lots of poisons. It would be far easier to make it look like spoiled food or something.”

Jin Guangyao shrugged. “The prostitutes might make it look like it was my doing, but they’re not just there for decoration. They’re there to make Jin-furen so furious that she doesn’t push too hard after the matter is settled.”

“Ahh,” Nie Huaisang said. “Isn’t she used to it by now?”

“In general, yes, but she hates it when he brings them here, to Koi Tower.”

“But he still does?”

A nod. “Especially when he’s angry about something, which I’m fairly sure he will be once he’s done meeting with the Twin Jades.”

“All right then.” Nie Huaisang turned the plan over in his mind a few times and found no other obvious flaws. “What did you think of what happened with Clan Leader Jiang and Wei-xiong?”

Jin Guangyao gave a loud snort of disbelief, which was really answer enough.

“Yes,” Nie Huaisang said, “I agree.”

The ‘fight’ that Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian had could not have been more obviously staged if it had literally taken place on a stage. It amused Nie Huaisang, partly because neither of those two had a lick of subtlety, and partly because nobody else seemed to realize what had happened. That Jiang Cheng had publicly renounced Wei Wuxian, in a way that could conveniently be witnessed by dozens of people, and fought him to a draw – to a draw! – so he could not be blamed for not capturing him. As if, Nie Huaisang thought, either of those two would stop fighting while all their limbs were still attached if it was something that really mattered. Hell, he was fairly certain that neither of them would stop fighting as long as they still had one singular limb, if it was something that really mattered.

“It’s good, though,” Jin Guangyao said. “It’ll keep Clan Leader Jiang out of this while we get it done.”

“Which is undoubtedly what he intended,” Nie Huaisang said, “even if he doesn’t know what our plan is. What did your father say?”

“He called Clan Leader Jiang a lot of disgusting names, but then calmed down when Jin-furen suggested he use it to force Jin Zixuan’s engagement to Jiang-guniang back on.”

Nie Huaisang considered that. “That’s good, actually. It’ll keep Jin Zixuan distracted.”

“Good for him, good for us.” Jin Guangyao gave another snort. “Good for Jiang-guniang? I’m not so sure about that.”

“She could do worse,” Nie Huaisang said, “and for some reason she actually seems to like him.”

“I guess there’s no accounting for taste,” Jin Guangyao said.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

The meeting with the Twin Jades of Lan went exactly as poorly as Nie Huaisang and Jin Guangyao had counted on.

Lan Xichen was calm and reasonable, which was the first problem. Yes, he admitted that Wei Wuxian was out of line. Yes, he was definitely concerned that Wei Wuxian had raised the dead. Yes, he agreed that Wei Wuxian alone could not handle the power of the Stygian Tiger Amulet and it was probably contributing to his poor behavior. He agreed and admitted to all of this but then steadfastly refused to say that they should do anything about it. Wei Wuxian had gone into exile voluntarily. Would it be wise to disturb him? Wouldn’t it just cause more problems?

He mainly had this argument with Jin Zixun, who had, as expected, taken up the lead torch and pitchfork in the discussion. Nothing was good enough for Jin Zixun except complete annihilation of both the Wen clan remnants and Wei Wuxian.

Jin Guangyao waited until just the right moment to slide into the conversation and give an innocent, “But Jin Zixun, surely you don’t need Zewu-Jun’s permission or assistance for that, do you?”

The mere implication sent Jin Zixun into a frothing rage, and he shouted, “Damn right I don’t! I’ll do whatever I want!”

Jin Guangshan immediately slapped him down. “You won’t do anything except what you’re told!”

Nie Huaisang, who was listening from a quiet alcove which happened to catch the acoustics quite nicely, hid his laughter in his sleeve.

Throughout the entire argument, Lan Wangji just stood in silence and gave everyone an icy glare that apparently made them quite nervous.

After several more minutes of shouting, Jin Guangyao again smoothly inserted himself into the discussion. “Surely, Father, it would be better to put some time and space between what just happened and our next move? Right now Wei-gongzi will be on the defensive, expecting us to attack. If we give him time, he might let his guard down.”

“A-Yao . . .” Lan Xichen said, sounding a little disappointed.

Jin Guangyao gave Lan Xichen his best, most innocent smile. “Er-ge, I know that you believe that Wei-gongzi was quite provoked before his actions after the Floral Banquet. Of course I wish no harm to come to Wei-gongzi, who was, after all, a hero in the Sunshot Campaign and is a good friend to the Lan sect. But I am concerned, if he is allowed to keep the Stygian Tiger amulet, it will continue to affect his mind and his temperament. He has already crossed the line between the living and the dead. How far into demonic cultivation might he go, before you agree something needs to be done?”

Lan Xichen sighed. “Wangji,” he said quietly, “A-Yao has a point. This is my concern as well.”

Lan Wangji stared straight ahead at the wall and refused to look at anyone present. “If Wei Ying is left alone, he will not need to continue to develop his demonic cultivation.”

“Do you honestly believe that?” Jin Zixun sneered.

Lan Wangji’s stare could have frozen entire rivers. “Would I say it, if I did not believe it?”

Jin Guangyao said, “Then perhaps we can all agree on a time frame, a period in which we can watch Wei-gongzi to see if he shows signs of using demonic cultivation? We can agree that there is no need to intervene right now, but that if he continues to degenerate, action must be taken? And in that case, it will be better that we waited, so that he may no longer be on the defensive? I would say three months, perhaps?”

Lan Wangji said, with confidence, “I agree.”

“I agree as well, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said.

“Fine,” Jin Guangshan grunted, and gave Jin Zixun a look. He scowled but nodded.

Nie Huaisang smiled in his little alcove. Jin Guangyao really was brilliant. To talk both sides into a compromise was impressive enough, but it served a dual purpose, because it gave Jin Guangyao the victory – something that was certain to enrage Jin Guangshan and Jin Zixun both.

Dinner that night was tense and awkward. Lan Wangji stared hard at him when he sat down and asked, “Why are you still here?”

“Wangji,” Lan Xichen murmured reprovingly.

“Ah, da-ge said I could stay for a little while after the crowd hunt, just to visit with san-ge,” Nie Huaisang said, waving his fan excessively. “We were friends for such a long time in The Unclean Realm, you know – he lived with us for almost four years.”

Lan Xichen nodded and smiled at Nie Huaisang, saying, “I’m glad you’re keeping him company. I wish I could visit with him more often.”

“He wishes that as well,” Nie Huaisang said cheerfully, because what the hell, he could wingman with the best of them. Lan Xichen smiled and redirected his attention to his plate, looking almost a little embarrassed. “Ah, Lan-xiong, why do you look so sour? Didn’t everything resolve well?”

“For now,” Lan Wangji said, in a tone which boded ill for people if things didn’t continue to resolve well.

While they were talking, Jin Guangyao was being run ragged by Jin Guangshan and Jin Zixun. As usual, he dealt with this adeptly, never losing his patience or his smile no matter how much abuse they heaped on him. Nie Huaisang saw that Lan Xichen was clearly thinking about speaking up once or twice and murmured, “Please don’t say anything, er-ge . . . he’s so embarrassed when you see the way they treat him. He’ll feel humiliated if he needs you to defend him.”

Lan Xichen sighed and nodded. Nie Huaisang wondered what he would say if he knew that Jin Guangshan had already been poisoned with the first course. Presuming, of course, that Jin Guangyao hadn’t lost his nerve. But Nie Huaisang was almost positive that he hadn’t.

As dessert was served, Lan Xichen said to Jin Guangyao, “Perhaps you’d have the chance to join me for tea later?”

“Of course,” Jin Guangyao said, with a smile that looked more genuine than usual. “Once my father retires for the night, I’m free.”

What an excellent alibi, Nie Huaisang thought. Of course, anyone with any medical knowledge at all would know that the poison could have been delivered hours ahead of time, but still, it couldn’t hurt to have Jin Guangyao with the illustrious Zewu-Jun at the moment of death.

“Wangji, will you join us?” Lan Xichen asked, and his brother nodded, although his sour expression persisted. “Nie-gongzi, you’d be welcome as well.”

Seeing no point in wasting an alibi for himself as well, Nie Huaisang beamed and bowed and said, “That’s so kind of you, er-ge.”

He caught Jin Guangyao’s eye just before he walked away, and Jin Guangyao gave the slightest, almost imperceptible nod. It was done. Now all they had to do was wait, and manage the aftermath.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

They were still drinking tea at the Lan clan’s guest house when they heard shouting from the main palace. Jin Guangyao looked up and chewed on his lower lip, looking nervous. “I’d better go see what all the fuss is about,” he said.

“I’ll go with you,” Nie Huaisang said, and in a lower voice remarked to the Lan brothers, “they don’t go as hard on him when I’m there . . . but if we’re not back in ten minutes or so, maybe come see what’s wrong? I’m worried Wei-xiong might have done something . . .”

‘Wei-xiong’ was the magic word. Lan Wangji immediately stood and said, “We will accompany you as well.”

Jin Guangyao sighed and looked put upon, but didn’t argue. “Just please, if it’s an internal matter, will you promise to let me handle it?”

“Of course, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said. “We don’t wish to interfere in the Jin clan’s business.”

As soon as they got into the main house, they could hear a woman sobbing, and a lot of people speaking very loudly. The words, ‘A clan leader in his prime doesn’t just drop dead in the middle of having a few women!’ reached their ears before they had made it half a dozen steps.

Nie Huaisang was once again impressed by Jin Guangyao’s acting ability. The color drained out of his face and he looked genuinely stricken, and seemed to completely forget the people with him as he ran ahead of them and burst into the room where people had gathered around the body. “What happened?”

“You!” Jin Zixun caught sight of him and immediately went into a rage. “What did you do, you bastard son of a whore?”

“Jin-er-gongzi!” Lan Xichen protested, coming in behind Jin Guangyao. “Watch your language.”

The reprimand made things even worse. “He killed his own father and you’re concerned about my language?”

“How – what – ” Jin Guangyao looked hopelessly confused. He saw the body on the bed and the prostitute wailing in the corner, gave a wounded gasp, and swayed on his feet. Lan Xichen caught him before he could fall.

Nie Huaisang carefully kept his own expression schooled into shock and horror, despite the urge to grin. It seemed he had taught Jin Guangyao a thing or two over the years.

“Everyone please stay calm,” Jin Zixuan said, although he too was pale. “It’s true my father was healthy, but this amount of exertion . . . could have been considered unwise even for a younger man.”

“Nonsense!” Jin Zixun shouted. “He was poisoned, and someone is trying to cover it up! And this one here is the one who brought all his dishes this evening!”

“And tasted every one!” Jin Guangyao said, rallying slightly. “You saw me, everyone saw me! Everyone knows that I’m his official poison taster!”

A strange expression crossed Lan Xichen’s face. He half-turned Jin Guangyao so they were facing and said, “Truly?”

Jin Guangyao nodded, his gaze sliding to the side. “Ever since I came here . . .”

It was the angriest Nie Huaisang had ever seen Lan Xichen. His furious gaze crossed the room, lingering on each member of the Jin clan, before he said, “He made his own son his poison taster and nobody thought to speak up?”

“This is none of your business!” Jin Zixun snapped at him. “What does it matter that he tasted everything? If you were the one who had poisoned it, you easily could have taken the antidote beforehand!”

“Where would I even get poison?” Jin Guangyao said, looking around with a pleading expression. “And why would I do this at all? My father and I didn’t always get along, that’s true, but he brought me into the family, he legitimized me, he gave me everything I had ever wanted! I gain nothing with his death; I’m not even the second young master, let alone the first!”

“Don’t worry, A-Yao,” Lan Xichen said, squeezing his shoulder. “Everyone here knows you would never be capable of such a thing.”

Nie Huaisang was glad he had practiced keeping a straight face. Lan Wangji’s face similarly seemed set in stone, and Nie Huaisang wondered what he was thinking. If there was any wild card in the room, it was, strangely, Lan Wangji. Nie Huaisang wasn’t sure how he would react to any of this, let alone what he thought about Jin Guangyao’s capability of murder. But hopefully, since this wasn’t about Wei Wuxian, he wouldn’t get involved.

“You could get poison anywhere,” Jin Zixun snarled. “As long as you know what you’re doing!”

“Ah!” Nie Huaisang pretended to recall something, slapping his fan against his palm. “Jin-er-gongzi, didn’t I see you with a book on rare plants the other day?”

“What?” Jin Zixun was taken off guard. “No.”

“I did!” Nie Huaisang said. “And I saw you at the apothecary, too! Just yesterday!”

Jin Zixun flushed dark red. “I was at the apothecary for an upset stomach. Is that a crime, now?”

“But should we take your word on that?” Lan Xichen asked. “You were so quick to blame Jin Guangyao. Is that because you were trying to keep suspicion off yourself?”

“This is ridiculous!” Jin Zixun roared. “I don’t have any books on rare plants and I didn’t buy any poison at the damned apothecary, and, and as Guangyao pointed out, he’s the poison taster, so he would have been poisoned too, but he’s fine!”

“That’s true,” Lan Xichen said, turning a worried gaze on Jin Guangyao, “but he would have consumed far less of it, and if it was something that made the heart give out after exertion, well . . . Clan Leader Jin was clearly exerting himself, whereas A-Yao was quietly drinking tea with myself and my brother. So he would be safe from any effects.”

“Who brought in the prostitutes?” Madam Jin finally spoke up, her voice cold and angry. “He knows I hate having them here. And three at one time? Even Guangshan would not request such a thing here under my nose. Somebody must have brought them in for him.”

Silence sat in the room for a moment before Lan Xichen said, “Why don’t we ask?” He walked over to the woman who was still crying in the corner, probably traumatized by having her bed partner die on top of her. “Where did the other two go?”

“They ran,” Jin Zixun said, disgusted. “Probably afraid they’d be blamed. She fainted and was too weak to go anywhere after she woke.”

Lan Xichen kindly blotted at the tears that were running down her face. “Miss,” he said gently, “can you tell us who brought you here to the palace this evening?”

The woman sobbed and hiccupped. “We weren’t brought, we were sent, from the brothel. The man who hired us did it yesterday. He said we were to come this evening after dinner to serve Clan Leader Jin. But we never met him! He sent a courier. The letter had the sect seal. It’s not, not odd for that to happen before big events, there’s always so much planning that go into them that we’re often hired that way.”

“What about payment?” Lan Xichen asked. “Did you receive it ahead of time?”

She nodded and held up her wrist to display a jeweled bracelet.

“That . . .” Jin Zixuan sounded shocked. “Zixun, I saw you buy that myself, a few days ago.”

Jin Zixun’s face went from red to purple. “Yes, I bought it! I bought it to give to a woman I was courting! I don’t know how this whore got it!”

“It was with the letter!” the prostitute wailed. “I didn’t know I shouldn’t wear it! I didn’t know what was going to happen!”

Lan Xichen straightened up, his face dark. With the utmost politeness, he said to Jin Zixun, “It could be a replica, if people saw you purchase it. Could we look in your room to see if the original is still there?”

“Fine!” Jin Zixun shouted. “I have nothing to hide!”

That, Nie Huaisang thought, was an unforeseen moment of brilliance on Lan Xichen’s part. He had expected to have to make that suggestion himself, and wasn’t sure of how it would have gone over, although he was sure that Jin Zixun could be goaded into it. Lan Xichen had phrased it just right, though – making it sound like they were going to search Jin Zixun’s room for evidence of his innocence, rather than his guilt, even though Lan Xichen clearly expected (and hoped) for the latter.

A few minutes later, they had reached Jin Zixun’s rooms. Lan Xichen wasted no time going through what was on his desk, and his brother joined him. “I don’t see any bracelet,” he said. “But . . . this panel is loose.”

Nie Huaisang was proud of this. It had been a bitch to construct a drawer with a false bottom that matched the desk already in Jin Zixun’s room, then swap it out without anyone noticing. But he had decided it was a necessity. Jin Zixun was too smart to allow them to search his room with evidence lying out in the open, but also arrogant enough that people would willingly believe he thought he had hidden it well enough.

“What’s inside?” Jin Guangyao asked, his voice trembling.

With effort, Lan Xichen pried the panel up while Jin Zixun protested in the background that he had never known his desk even had a secret drawer.

“Ah – that’s the book!” Nie Huaisang shouted, as soon as Lan Xichen took it out. “That’s the book I saw him reading!”

“That book isn’t mine!” Jin Zixun roared.

“Several packets of herbs, as well,” Lan Xichen said. “I’m not familiar enough with this sort of thing to identify them. Is there a doctor who can come?”

“I can,” Madam Jin said, stepping forward. “The ladies of the Yu sect study such things in our youth.” She took the small packets from Lan Xichen, opened each one, sniffed the contents and studied their appearance. “Both of these do have medicinal properties and could be easily gotten at any apothecary,” she said, “but combined, they will have a lethal effect.”

Everyone turned to stare at Jin Zixun. His face had gone white. “How could you think I – why would I – what motive could I possibly have?”

“You wanted to attack Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji spoke for the first time. “He would not allow you to.”

“That’s – I didn’t – ” Jin Zixun continued to sputter. His gaze landed on Jin Guangyao and he shouted, “This was all your doing! You’ve hated both of us from the beginning! You – ”

Jin Zixun lunged forward. Jin Guangyao cringed and grabbed the back of Lan Xichen’s sleeve. “Er-ge!”

Lan Xichen easily blocked Jin Zixun’s attack. “Jin Zixun! Do not make things worse for yourself!”

Jin Zixun stood still for a moment, breathing heavily, looking around as if confused as to how things had turned against him so fast.

Lan Xichen turned back to Jin Guangyao. “A-Yao, are you all – ”

“Er-ge!” Nie Huaisang shouted. “Behind you!”

Lan Xichen did not hesitate. Jin Zixun had already attacked once; Jin Guangyao was obviously helpless and terrified. He was already unsheathing his sword as he turned, and buried it deep in Jin Zixun’s chest.

“Zewu-Jun!” Jin Zixuan was obviously shocked.

“He had a knife!” Nie Huaisang wailed. “He was going to kill Meng Yao!”

Jin Zixun coughed up a mouthful of blood and said something that sounded like, “No,” but it went unnoticed. He slid backwards off Lan Xichen’s sword and collapsed into a heap. A moment of stunned silence lingered.

Shaking, Jin Guangyao knelt beside him and reached inside Jin Zixun’s sleeve. When his hand withdrew, he was holding a knife. “Huaisang . . .” His eyes filled with tears. “Er-ge . . . you saved my life . . .”

“Did he draw it, though?” Jin Zixuan was still trying to deal with how quickly things had happened. “I didn’t see him draw it.”

Nie Huaisang said, “He did, I saw him!”

“But . . . against Zewu-Jun . . .”

Lan Wangji drew himself up to somehow seem even straighter than usual. “Nie-gongzi was the most effective scout in all of the Sunshot Campaign,” he said. “He never reported any inaccuracies in almost three months of fighting. If he says he saw a man draw his weapon, who are you to disagree with him?”

“Ah . . .” Jin Zixuan sat down heavily. “No, you’re right . . . I apologize, Nie-gongzi . . .”

“No, no, it’s fine,” Nie Huaisang said hastily. “It just happened so fast, that’s all. I still can’t believe it myself.”

“Are you all right, A-Yao?” Lan Xichen asked, helping Jin Guangyao into the nearest chair. When he only managed a weak nod, Lan Xichen turned to Madam Jin and said, “He’s in shock. With your permission, I will take him back to our guest house so he can rest and recover from this tragic incident.”

Madam Jin nodded. “Better than having him under foot. Zixuan, come with me. There are things that need to be done.”

Seeming just as shocked as Jin Guangyao, Jin Zixuan obediently followed his mother. Lan Xichen gathered Jin Guangyao in his arms and left the room, with Lan Wangji and Nie Huaisang behind him. When they got back to the guest house, Lan Xichen immediately took Jin Guangyao into one of the bedrooms to lie down.

“Nie Huaisang,” Lan Wangji said, as he started boiling water for tea. “Did he draw his knife?”

Nie Huaisang managed a smile. “You said it yourself, Lan-xiong . . . I never reported something incorrectly in three months . . .”

Lan Wangji was silent for a long minute, making sachets of tea and putting them in the pot. “Wei Ying will be safe now?”

“I hope so!” Nie Huaisang said. “I truly hope so.”

After another moment, Lan Wangji nodded. “I do not approve of the methods you used,” he said, “but I believe they were the ones needed. So thank you, Nie Huaisang.”

Seeing that there was no point in continuing to pretend, Nie Huaisang said, “Don’t tell your brother. It would break his heart to know that Jin Guangyao used him like that. But it was the only way. I thought about it for a long time.”

Lan Wangji gave him a sharp look, but then nodded again. “Very well.”

Nie Huaisang sprawled into the nearest chair and started thinking about what he would paint on his next fan.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

It wasn’t quite as easy as that, of course. All told, it was almost a week before Nie Huaisang was able to sit down to paint that fan. The death of a clan leader was no small thing.

He slept at the Lan brothers’ guest house that night. Jin Guangyao was also sleeping, or at least pretending to sleep, and Lan Xichen clearly had no intention of waking or moving him. Nie Huaisang slumped down into the comfortable chair and pretended to have fallen asleep himself, and nobody bothered him. After a while, he actually slept.

At one point, he heard Lan Wangji murmur, “You’re pale. Drink this.”

There was the clink of porcelain. “I’m all right, Wangji,” Lan Xichen said. “It was just . . . let’s call it an eventful evening and leave it at that. It’s hard to believe Jin Zixun would behave in such a manner.”

Nie Huaisang tensed despite himself. Then Lan Wangji said, “Is it? When you recall his past behavior, particularly at the crowd hunt, it seems perfectly in line with his character.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Lan Xichen said, and Nie Huaisang relaxed. “Poor A-Yao was in such a state. I’m surprised he was able to sleep.”

Lan Wangji said, in a flat tone, “Your A-Yao will be fine. He is tougher than you seem to think he is.”

Lan Xichen laughed gently. “That is also true.”

With that, Nie Huaisang drifted back into a doze.

When the rooster crowed the next morning, Jin Guangyao flung his covers back and woke Nie Huaisang with an abrupt, “Oh, no, I’m late!”

The Lan brothers were, of course, already awake and perfectly ready for the day, giving the impression that they had not slept at all. Or at least if they had, they had done it in their regular clothes without ever moving so not even a single hair was out of place. “Don’t worry, A-Yao, I’m sure nobody will expect you to – ”

“Jin-furen will definitely expect me,” Jin Guangyao said, struggling back into his outer robe. “If I don’t serve her morning tea precisely ten minutes after the rooster crows, she’ll slap me into next week. Please excuse me!” he added, and rushed out without taking the time to fix his hair. Nie Huaisang saw Lan Xichen frown after him faintly, but then apparently decided it wasn’t worth an intervention. Things would be different in Koi Tower going forward; there was no use worrying about past sins.

Lan Wangji put a cup of tea in front of Nie Huaisang, who thanked him. “The Jin clan will be busy with their internal matters today,” he said. “We should not disturb them. I am going to go to the Burial Mounds, if you wish to accompany me.”

“Is that wise, Wangji?” Lan Xichen asked. “We don’t yet know how everything is going to resolve. Although I doubt Jin Zixuan will be as dead set against Wei-gongzi as his father was, this will not be simple.”

“I will not give him false hope of an easy solution,” Lan Wangji said.

Seeing that Lan Wangji just wanted to go visit his friend, Lan Xichen backed off. “Very well, then. Please give him my best wishes.”

Lan Wangji looked over at Nie Huaisang. “Nie Huaisang?”

“Go? To the Burial Mounds?” Nie Huaisang put on a frightened expression. “No way! I’ll stay here.”

Lan Wangji studied him for just long enough to convey that he was absolutely not fooled for a second by Nie Huaisang’s demeanor, then simply said, “As you wish.”

“You should write to your brother,” Lan Xichen said to Nie Huaisang. “The news will travel fast. He will need a detailed account.”

Nie Huaisang grimaced. “He’ll storm in here no matter how many details I give him, but at least we’ve already caught the culprit, so he can’t be too angry. But yes, you are right. Thank you for letting me sleep here; I will head back to my own rooms.” He bowed to both of the Twin Jades of Lan, silently thanked them for all their help, and left.

He did write his brother, because Lan Xichen was right about that. If Nie Mingjue found out about Jin Guangshan’s death from the rumors, rather than hearing about it from his own brother who had been there when it happened, he would be furious. He explained, as if it was proven fact, that Jin Zixun had been frustrated by Jin Guangshan’s refusal to move against Wei Wuxian and had killed him because he figured Jin Zixuan would be easier to manipulate. ‘Insurmountable evidence’ had proven Jin Zixun was the culprit, and when he had been accused, he had lashed out and been killed. Nie Huaisang didn’t mention who he had lashed out at. In fact, he did not mention Jin Guangyao at all in the entire letter. There was no point in anything that might arouse his brother’s suspicions, and even reminding him of Jin Guangyao’s existence would probably be enough to do that.

That being done, he went to find Jin Guangyao and see if he could be of any use.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

Jin Guangyao looked good in mourning white, Nie Huaisang mused. It was a good thing, considering how often he was probably going to end up wearing it over the course of his life.

Over the next few days, things settled. Jin Zixuan was clearly wholly unprepared to be a Sect Leader, and Jin Guangyao was almost always by his elbow, offering helpful reminders and intelligent advice. Nie Huaisang heard the words, “Thank you, Guangyao,” more often in the next three days than he had in all his previous trips combined.

With some help from Lan Xichen, Jin Guangyao pulled off a move that was going to increase Jin Zixuan’s reliance on him by tenfold. Swooping in before Madam Jin could do it herself, he arranged a meeting between Jin Zixuan and Jiang Cheng, regarding the engagement to Jiang Yanli. He coached Jin Zixuan carefully on what exactly to say so he would come off as conciliatory instead of arrogant, but still not surrender his pride.

“My sister still holds considerable affection for you,” Jiang Cheng said, “so I will not rule it out. However, I also will not agree without her consent.”

“Perhaps we could arrange for her to visit?” Jin Zixuan said, almost a little too eagerly.

For a moment it looked like Jiang Cheng was going to question whether or not it was really proper to court a woman while still in white, but then apparently decided he didn’t care. He needed the alliance, given what had happened to the Jiang sect and what had happened with Wei Wuxian. As long as Jiang Yanli was willing, his own reluctance was not important. “I’m sure she would enjoy that very much.”

With that arranged, Wei Wuxian’s fate became much more clear. Jiang Yanli still dearly loved her brother, and it was obvious that Jin Zixuan would bow to any of her wishes if it got her to stop looking so sad every time he spoke to her. Lan Wangji made another trip to the Burial Mounds. The Wen remnants would be returned to Qishan and left alone to live in peace. Despite offers from the Jiang sect and the Lan sect, Wei Wuxian intended to go with them. He felt he could not leave Wen Ning alone, and was obviously still wary of the offers from the other clans, even from Lan Wangji.

Nie Huaisang and Jin Guangyao were in perfect agreement that they weren’t getting involved in that. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji would have to settle their lovers’ quarrels on their own.

“Think they’ll ever figure it out?” Jin Guangyao asked, as he poured their first drink.

They were friends now, Nie Huaisang thought, honest friends. You couldn’t commit a double murder together and not be friends afterwards.

“It’s really difficult to say,” Nie Huaisang replied. “Wei-xiong is as dense as a brick, and Lan-xiong seems to think he loses a month of his life for every word he speaks out loud. But one of these days I think the sheer overwhelming weight of the unresolved sexual tension will break one of them and they’ll figure it out after that.”

Jin Guangyao laughed and lifted his bowl. “We can hope.”

They both drank, and Nie Huaisang refilled their bowls. “You should ask your brother about your name, you know. I don’t think he’d care if you changed it.”

Jin Guangyao shook his head. “This is the name my father gave me, for better or for worse. I don’t want to look like anything other than a loyal, grieving son right now.”

“Ah, I suppose that’s true,” Nie Huaisang said.

“Losing your edge, Huaisang?” Jin Guangyao asked, smirking.

“What edge, san-ge?” Nie Huaisang asked, blinking guilelessly. “It’s like you don’t know me at all. I’m soft and I cry all the time. I’m just a lost cause.”

Jin Guangyao snorted into his liquor.

Nie Huaisang matched him drink for drink.

“You’re gonna make me a promise, san-ge,” Nie Huaisang said. “You’re going to promise you’ll never lift a finger against me or my brother. Swear it on your cultivation and your mother’s grave.”

Jin Guangyao lifted three fingers and half-slurred, “I so solemnly swear.”

Nie Huaisang drained his bowl and gave a sigh of contentment. Lanling had good alcohol, all things considered. But he missed Qinghe. He’d been gone more often than he’d been home for the past year.

“Unless it’s self-defense,” Jin Guangyao added, proving that he was perhaps not quite as drunk as Nie Huaisang had thought.

“That’s fair,” Nie Huaisang said. “But why do you need to defend yourself when you have er-ge?”

Jin Guangyao smiled at the ceiling. “He’s so handsome, Huaisang. So kind and strong. I wanna marry him. Do you think he’d marry me?”

“Honestly?” Nie Huaisang filled his bowl. “In a heartbeat.”

“Oh, good,” Jin Guangyao said. “Next time I see him, I’m gonna kiss him right on his beautiful mouth.”

Nie Huaisang laughed so hard he spilled his drink.

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

“Have you been practicing with your saber?” Nie Mingjue barked out as soon as Nie Huaisang entered The Unclean Realm.

“Geez, da-ge!” Nie Huaisang shrank back. “I’ve been busy with other things! Don’t yell at me when I’ve just gotten home . . .”

Nie Mingjue’s eyes narrowed and his gaze fell on the cage that Nie Huaisang was carrying. “And what is that?”

Nie Huaisang straightened up and said proudly, “A snow crane!”

The two brothers looked at each other for a long minute.

Nie Mingjue smiled first, and reached out to clap a hand on Nie Huaisang’s shoulder. “It’s good to have you home, Huaisang.”

Nie Huaisang beamed. “It’s good to be back.”

 

~fin~