Huaisang visits Jinlintai six months after Lanling Jin adopts a new guest disciple into their ranks. His ostensible reason for visiting is asking his San-Ge for advice on settling a dispute between Nie sect and Moling Su sect—he’s sure this will be resolved in Su Minshan’s favor, and he’s prepared to take the loss—but his real object is to set eyes on Jin Guangshan’s latest bastard, Mo Xuanyu.
Mo Xuanyu is not going to live out the year.
This is simple fact, as obvious to Nie Huaisang as the likelihood of snow in winter and monsoons in summer. It does not appear to be obvious to anyone else.
Mo Xuanyu is an awkward youth: short-statured and weaker than his fellow juniors, even those several years younger than he is. He is blind to sect politics, and overawed by the splendor of Jinlintai and the famous names of its visitors and disciples. He is also obvious, and not strong enough to defend himself. If he were anyone else’s son, he wouldn’t have been accepted—not at his age, not when he was raised outside the cultivation world, not with the faltering steps he has made towards forming a golden core.
But of course Jin Guangshan is trying to make a point to his heir ascendant: namely, that he isn’t Jin Sect’s only option. Jin Zixuan and Jin Zixun might be cold in the ground, but Jin Guangyao isn’t the only bastard child Jin Guangshan could recognize, should he choose. He marks this by showing Mo Xuanyu just enough favor to make his older son uneasy, although not enough to give Mo Xuanyu anything like certainty of his place in the Jin sect. So: Mo Xuanyu has come to Lanling, and Nie Huaisang is fairly certain that’s where he’s going to die.
Mo Xuanyu may not be a particularly promising cultivator, but this is no trouble for those who would see him supplant the current head of Jin sect. Ambitious people like to believe weak men are easily led. More importantly, Mo Xuanyu resembles Jin Zixuan and Jin Zixun, while Jin Guangyao is delicately, almost femininely pretty, very unlike the Jin family’s golden good looks. He is a walking, talking, weak-willed political opportunity, practically begging to be exploited and used against his older brother. He’d be surprised if Jin Guangshan didn’t already have plans to legitimize Mo Xuanyu—maybe even include him in the Zi generation.
There’s nothing I can do, Huaisang thinks, watching the Jin sect juniors train. Mo Xuanyu’s arm visibly trembles under the weight of his sword. “It’s already done,” he murmurs, just a breath too loud.
“What was that?” Jin Guangyao asks politely at his side. He’s been watching the juniors with a look of quiet pride, entirely appropriate for a sect heir.
Huaisang gives him a pitiful look, and flicks open his fan. “I’m done, San-ge. This is too much sun for me—in the middle of summer! In the heat of the day!” He is comfortably overdramatic, and knows Jin Guangyao will understand that Huaisang means he is bored.
Jin Guangyao smiles at him, indulgent. “Go inside, A-Sang. I’ll see you this evening.”
Huaisang goes inside, ignoring the smirks that pass between the two servants waiting respectfully at their sect leader’s back. Once in the safety of his quarters, he takes a very deep breath.
So. A boy is going to die. If not this year, probably next year.
The only question is: what is Huaisang going to do about it?
Mo Xuanyu has no friends in Jinlintai. This is not an exaggeration: the servants in Huaisang’s pocket report that he is disliked by his fellow juniors, his seniors, and the household servants, to varying degrees. Probably Jin Guangyao has arranged this on purpose: Jin Guangshan may have accepted Mo Xuanyu as a disciple, might make a point of showing Mo Xuanyu favor from time to time, but the only people Mo Xuanyu is likely to earn a kind word from are Jin Guangyao and Jin Guangyao’s wife. A fairly simple manipulation, but Mo Xuanyu is young and lonely, so it might work.
Luckily for Nie Huaisang, people don’t tend to mark where he goes, or who he talks to.
It’s easy enough to find himself in the garden on the same evening that Mo Xuanyu is being shoved against an ornamental fountain by a younger boy, two more disciples standing by to watch. Huaisang slips behind a fern and joins them, a silent observer.
“You were looking at her again,” the younger boy says accusingly, his hands fisted in Mo Xuanyu’s collar. Huaisang doesn’t know his name—one of the little Jin cousins. He’s already taller than Mo Xuanyu.
“Don’t be disgusting,” Mo Xuanyu says, but it comes out thin, whining.
“You’re the disgusting one,” the Jin cousin declares, and deliberately spits on Mo Xuanyu’s shoes. Mo Xuanyu cringes, but he doesn’t look surprised, and he doesn’t try to tear himself out of the other boy’s grip. “If I looked at my own brother’s wife that way I’d die of shame. I’d wish I’d never been born.”
“I’m not looking at her at all,” Mo Xuanyu protests. “She’s like my aunt, I swear!”
“That’s how you look at your aunts?” the Jin cousin says, and his fellows snicker. “You’re even more of a pervert than we thought.”
Huaisang is faintly surprised they haven’t figured out Mo Xuanyu’s real point of vulnerability—with his voice! His manner! He may as well have been Huaisang at fifteen!—but maybe they’re a little young to know a cutsleeve when they see one. They know he’s different, though. That’s enough for boys their age. There’s a little more banter back and forth on the same theme, and then, as he was always going to, Mo Xuanyu ends up in the fountain.
The boys leave with a few parting jeers, and Huaisang watches Mo Xuanyu for one more beat. He doesn’t get up immediately, staying where he is in the pool. One cheek is lightly scraped from being shoved against the stone, and it’s dark in the fading light. The expression on his face is faraway and familiar. Huaisang’s throat tightens, and he closes his eyes for an instant before slipping out from behind the fern.
He gives a little squeak of false surprise, and Mo Xuanyu slips and almost falls over in the fountain trying to bow to him, more deeply than is owed even a sect leader.
“What happened to you, little fish?” Huaisang asks, voice full of good humor, and goes to help him out of the pool. “Come out of there; you’re disturbing the koi.”
“Nothing,” Mo Xuanyu tries to say between apologies, and this close Huaisang can see he really is soaked to the bone, hair plastered to his robes. “It was an accident—Nie-zongzhu, don’t trouble yourself over this one—” but of course Huaisang manages to catch his arm, and makes a show of raising his eyebrows when he sees the scrape on Mo Xuanyu’s cheek.
“Ah, I should change my question, I think,” Huaisang says, and gives Mo Xuanyu a sympathetic grimace. “Who did this to you?”
“No one,” Mo Xuanyu says instantly, hiding the scrape behind a hank of wet hair. He keeps his head down in a bow. “I did it to myself, Nie-zongzhu.”
“I don’t think so,” Huaisang says. “What’s your name?”
Mo Xuanyu tells him, his eyes fixed somewhere around Huaisang’s feet.
“Listen, Mo Xuanyu,” Huaisang says, kind but carefully misguided. “If you don’t want me to tell your shixiong, I won’t. But you can’t keep letting people toss you in fish ponds! That’s no way to go about life!”
“Thank you, Nie-zongzhu,” Mo Xuanyu says, dripping wet and miserable, instead of any of the retorts a remark like that should earn. If he could only muster up a smile instead of that hopeless stare at the ground, Huaisang might recognize something of Jin Guangyao in him. “I’ll try not to let them next time.”
“Aha,” Huaisang says, and strikes Mo Xuanyu lightly on the shoulder with his closed fan. “So you admit they pushed you in!”
Mo Xuanyu finally looks up. “I—what?”
“You have to be less trusting,” Huaisang tells him, like it’s a joke. “Or you’ll keep getting pushed into fountains.” He winks. “Trust me: I’ve been knocked into a fountain or two in my time!”
“I...you just told me to be less trusting,” Mo Xuanyu says uncomfortably, and Huaisang laughs.
“Now you’re getting it!”
Mo Xuanyu bows again, still too deep, and accidentally inappropriate, like he is dismissing Huaisang instead of the other way around. He has been taught no etiquette, and clearly has no head for observation.
“Poor little fish,” Huaisang says, relenting. He gives his shoulder a light push. “It’s all right. Go dry off, and stay away from koi ponds!”
“Thank you, Nie-zongzhu,” Mo Xuanyu says again with a too-deep bow. He sounds confused.
Huaisang shoos him away with his fan.
Not enough, probably, but it’s something. A start.
Mo Xuanyu doesn’t die at the end of the year.
Instead, Jin Guangshan is found dead in a Lanling pleasure house, in a scandal whispered about from Gusu to Moling Su, and Huaisang is forced to revise his plans for Jin Guangyao yet again. He spends a great deal of effort trying to discover who exactly was present at Jin Guangshan’s death—everyone knows he died in bed with many prostitutes, but no one seems to know their names, or which brothel they were hired from—and who hired them in the first place, who accompanied Jin Guangshan on his outing, all without revealing those efforts or letting them be traced back to Qinghe.
He spends a great deal of time in Jinlintai, at his San-Ge’s side. Lan Xichen is often there too, looking even more exhausted than his bereft sworn brother.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Lan Xichen tells Huaisang once, after a dinner they spend watching Jin Guangyao perform sorrow as beautifully as any actor in a playhouse. Lan Xichen has been pretending to drink, and Huaisang has been really drinking. It will help if he can develop a reputation as a lush as well as a fool—but more importantly, it helps with the disgust clawing at his chest, watching Qin Su rest a hand on her husband’s arm in a quiet act of comfort.
“I’m glad you’re here!” Huaisang tells Lan Xichen, and toasts him earnestly. The wine burns pleasantly going down: the Jin at least are never cheap. “What would we do without your wisdom, Er-ge??”
Lan Xichen politely returns the toast, and takes an absolutely pointless sip of wine. He looks at Huaisang with kind eyes when he puts the cup down. “With the state of things in Gusu, I can’t be here as often as I like. But the two of you—” he stops and looks for a long moment at the front of the hall, a look few others would be able to identify as wistful passing over his face. Then he smiles at Huaisang again. “—you can help each other through your grief.”
“Er-ge always knows what to say,” Huaisang says, and drinks another cup of wine.
Sometime after that he excuses himself from the Floral Banquet, waving off Lan Xichen’s offer of an arm to walk back on, and finds himself pausing at the top of Jinlintai’s long fall of white stairs.
The night is very blue around him, and the parapets are quiet, distant noise coming from the disciple quarters and the hall behind him. Huaisang closes his eyes and breathes in deeply. He imagines standing here in Da-ge’s place, spirit boiling alive in his failing body, alone except for Jin Guangyao, watching him. It’s an old, familiar image, but Huaisang’s breath still catches in his chest. Eyes closed, he wobbles slightly on his feet.
There’s a brief clatter, and then someone grabs him by the arm.
Huaisang’s eyes fly open, body tensing—but it’s only Mo Xuanyu, who lets him go immediately.
“Apologies, Nie-zongzhu,” Mo Xuanyu says, still bowing too deeply. “It looked like you might fall.”
“I’m not that drunk,” Huaisang says, and makes himself laugh. “But thank you for your care, little fish!”
Mo Xuanyu flushes. Maybe he’d hoped to be forgotten.
“Walk with me,” Huaisang says, patting at Mo Xuanyu’s arm with drunken imperiousness until Mo Xuanyu offers it to him. “Help this old man back to the guest quarters.”
Mo Xuanyu laughs uncomfortably, but begins guiding Huaisang down the stairs. He’s a little taller than he was the year before, but still painfully skinny and unsteady with it in the way some teenagers can be. Huaisang remembers this: the years of feeling like a stranger in his own body, while around him Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji were all blossoming into graceful young adulthood, without a single blemish between them. (Jin Zixuan, he remembers distantly, had needed to resort to powder.) Mo Xuanyu has an angry blemish on his chin, red and sore looking. It’s either that or the alcohol that makes something in Huaisang’s chest go soft. He does his best to shake it off, patting Mo Xuanyu’s arm briskly.
“Little fish!” Huaisang chides him, to go along with the gesture. “You’re supposed to tell me I’m not old.”
“Sorry, Nie-zongzhu,” Mo Xuanyu apologizes, but it’s clear he’s confused as well as embarrassed. Huaisang doesn’t spend that much time around teenagers. Maybe twenty-four is indistinguishable from fifty-four from Mo Xuanyu’s vantage point. A little vain thing in Huaisang’s ribcage curls up and sulks.
“Fine, fine,” he says, waving it off. “Tell me how your studies are going, Mo Xuanyu.”
He reads between the lines of Mo Xuanyu’s stuttered response to find the real answer: his studies are going badly. A year in, and he is still nowhere close to forming a golden core, which means he’s relegated to classes with children four or five years younger than he is. This is why he’s still alive, Huaisang decides. He’s too much of a laughingstock to pose anything resembling a threat yet, and of course Jin Guangyao just celebrated his son’s first hundred days. Mo Xuanyu is safe so long as he keeps making Jin Guangyao look better by comparison.
Huaisang knows that being a laughingstock does not prevent someone from being a threat.
“What does your brother say about this?” Huaisang asks. “Does he have advice for you?”
Mo Xuanyu hesitates. “Jin-zongzhu is very kind,” he says quietly.
“Don’t feel too bad,” Huaisang says. “I didn’t develop my golden core until I was fourteen!” This is two years younger than Mo Xuanyu, but still older than most. “My brother wasn’t kind to me at all. He bullied me into practicing with my saber nine, ten hours a day! I had to meditate for three hours! He threw away my paints! I barely slept for an entire summer!” Huaisang leaves out the part where he’d spent just as much energy avoiding Da-ge’s dictates as following them, and when he’d finally fallen asleep in a bowl of soup Da-ge had relented.
Mo Xuanyu is looking at him with his eyes very wide. “But it worked?”
“It worked enough,” Huaisang says easily. “But you want to know the real secret, little fish?”
“Yes,” Mo Xuanyu says. They’re coming up on the guest quarters now, and Huaisang allows himself to lean a little more heavily on Mo Xuanyu’s arm. It’s time for a little risk.
“It can be a very valuable thing,” Huaisang says carefully, “to have everyone in the world know you’re bad at something.”
Mo Xuanyu blinks. “I don’t understand, Nie-zongzhu.”
“Think about it,” Huaisang says, and pushes himself off Mo Xuanyu’s arm into a short flight, easy and light on his feet. Nothing fancy, but more than a drunk man should be capable of.
Mo Xuanyu stares at him, and Huaisang winks.
“Come and see me, little fish,” he says. “We’ll talk about your progress.”
It’s difficult at first to build his own spy network without knowing who is already in Jin Guangyao’s pocket. The spymaster who worked for his brother is next to useless, as far as Huaisang can tell. Da-ge’s priorities had never been staying well-informed. And while Huaisang has always enjoyed staying well-informed, it’s hard to elevate gossip to the level of spycraft through determination alone.
Thankfully, his San-ge is very willing to advise him.
Huaisang listens to Jin Guangyao’s advice, reads into the thinking beneath them, and carefully organizes two spy networks: one run ineptly by his brother’s spymaster, and one much smaller and tightly managed network run by Huaisang himself. He lets the first network be led around by the nose often enough that he thinks it should mask the real work underneath.
Jin Guangyao tells him he’s doing a good job, the next time they speak.
Mo Xuanyu remains an opportunity. If Huaisang works out a way to take it before anyone else does, then—Mo Xuanyu is a valuable opportunity.
He has his spies in Lanling help bolster a few of the worst rumors about Jin Guangshan’s youngest son. Not to make him miserable, but to keep him out of Jin Guangyao’s ill favor for as long as possible.
The most popular rumor in the city is that Mo Xuanyu was beaten in a fight by none other than little Jin Rulan, all of ten years old and already wielding his father’s sword, and his six-month old puppy. It helps that this rumor is true.
The second most popular rumor is that Mo Xuanyu pesters the kitchen maids, and that no girls will bring anything to his room. This one is not true, but girls do stop bringing things to Mo Xuanyu’s room.
When Huaisang next comes to Lanling, Mo Xuanyu comes to see him.
Whenever Huaisang visits Jinlintai, in fact, he is sure to be paid a visit from Jin Guangyao’s unrecognized little half brother. Mo Xuanyu always approaches him with thinly veiled excuses for his presence—usually in the guise of asking to do some service for Huaisang—and Huaisang always insists on the pleasure of Mo Xuanyu’s company. If anyone were paying attention to Mo Xuanyu, they might think it strange—but the only people keeping tabs on him are Jin Guangyao and Nie Huaisang himself, and Jin Guangyao knows Huaisang is no threat to him.
Mo Xuanyu, Huaisang knows, is simply grateful for a sympathetic ear.
So over the course of the next year Huaisang hears all about Mo Xuanyu’s failures to strengthen his cultivation, despite all the efforts a lonely and uneducated child is capable of directing towards his studies.
“I can make talismans work,” Mo Xuanyu says in frustration, pacing back and forth along the garden path while Huaisang works on a painting. “I can manipulate my spiritual energy! But no matter what I try, my golden core is barely strong enough for me to unsheathe my sword, let alone ride it.”
“That’s how it is sometimes,” Huaisang says, frowning at the painting. “Practice can help.”
“I can’t wait,” Mo Xuanyu says, coming to a halt with his back to Huaisang. His voice is bleak. “I’m seventeen, Nie-zongzhu. I’m—a guest disciple, only here because—of who my father was.” Jin Guangyao has, unsurprisingly, failed to legitimize Mo Xuanyu with a new surname. “If I can’t cultivate the sword path, I’m going to be expelled from the sect. And I can’t go back. I can’t—I can’t—I can’t go back,” he says, the line of his shoulders rising and falling too quickly.
“Okay,” Huaisang says. “You can’t go back. Why can’t you cultivate something else, little fish?”
A little rasp of a sound comes from Mo Xuanyu’s direction, and Huaisang realizes it is a laugh. “If I can’t cultivate the sword, there’s no way I can cultivate the blade,” he says, turning around at last to cast a longing glance at Huaisang’s weapon.
“Ah, no,” Huaisang says, and blows on his canvas a little. “But there are other kinds of cultivation, aren’t there?”
“I don’t—” Mo Xuanyu begins, but Huaisang keeps going.
“After all, if you can make a talisman,” he says, as if having the thought for the first time, “then you can craft an array. There are always other ways to be useful to your brother.”
“I—” Mo Xuanyu starts again, and this time he stops himself, a strange expression crossing his face. It’s as transparent to Huaisang as the pages in a book.
Mo Xuanyu has to have heard stories of Xue Yang, even if he’s never met him. Jin Sect has kept a pet demonic cultivator before. And just because Wei Wuxian and Xue Yang turned out to be untrustworthy murderers doesn’t mean everyone who walks the path is one, right?
Mo Xuanyu wants so badly to belong. Huaisang doesn’t need to hear stories about Mo Manor to know that there was never a place for him there—and of course, despite having lived in Jinlintai for three years, Jin Guangyao has ensured there’s no place for him here either. Demonic cultivation could offer him a way to finally move forward, even if it’s onto a darker path than the one he thought.
“What are you thinking, little fish?” Huaisang asks, hoping Mo Xuanyu is smart enough not to tell him. “Finish your sentences! It’s rude to stop in the middle.”
Mo Xuanyu colors. “What—other kinds of cultivation even are there?” he asks finally, as though he’s just making conversation. Good.
Huaisang shrugs. “Oh,” he says. “I really don’t know.”
After that visit his spies tell him that Mo Xuanyu is spending more and more time closeted with his brother, who seems more pleased with him than he’s been ever before. Mo Xuanyu has also stopped attending all classes with his fellow juniors except music lessons. Huaisang isn’t surprised that Jin Guangyao is delighted to have a new demonic cultivator in his pocket; probably he would have been just as happy kicking him down the steps of Jinlintai, but a disciple who can arm the Jin Sect with fierce corpses is too valuable to dismiss, particularly since Xue Yang appears to have genuinely vanished this time.
His spies don’t tell him if Mo Xuanyu is any good at demonic cultivation.
Instead, they tell him probably inconsequential things about Jin Guangyao’s closest friends: Su Minshan disappears and reappears at odd times, even inside Moling-Su, Lan Xichen refused the Lan elders again when asked to take a wife, Qin Su is not pregnant again despite the rumors that went around Jinlintai when she was ill last month.
They also tell him that there is a mass grave in the woods behind the house where Jin Guangshan died, with evidence of about twenty bodies or so having once lain in it. The evidence, Huaisang assumes, is even now terrorizing the villages of Lanling, animated by the resentful energy accumulated at their murders. Another dead end.
Huaisang goes to kneel in front of Da-ge’s tablet, and once again asks himself if he shouldn’t just try to assassinate Jin Guangyao instead. He could do it, probably. Not personally, but—he could probably find someone willing to stick a knife in Jin Guangyao’s back, for enough money. He could get them close enough. It might work.
But of course it might not, and then Jin Guangyao would be on his guard, and in the worst case he might trace it back to Huaisang, and all the work Huaisang has poured into this since Da-ge’s death would be for nothing.
And more than that.
Da-ge didn’t die as easily as Wen Ruohan. Da-ge died in agony, died knowing that his sworn brother had forced him into the same noose he’d been fighting against with all his strength since Sword Sacrifice Hall. At least—Huaisang hopes he knew it was betrayal, and not just his own failure.
He discovers he is digging his nails so tightly into his closed fist that he is bleeding.
“Sorry, Da-ge,” he whispers, and bows to his brother.
No matter what it takes, he swears to himself for the fourth, fifth, hundredth time, Jin Guangyao will not have an easy death.
The next time he sees Mo Xuanyu in person, serving his elders at a cultivation conference, he is startled by the change in him.
At eighteen, Mo Xuanyu has finally grown out of his teenage gangliness, and into his Jin family features: his complexion is smooth and gold, his eyes have the same heaviness that Jin Zixuan and Jin Guangshan both had, and although he’s still skinny, he seems more settled in his body.
He is also, Huaisang is fascinated to see—happy.
“My brother has let me look at his private library,” Mo Xuanyu tells him. Brags, really.
It’s also the first time he’s heard Mo Xuanyu describe Jin Guangyao as his brother. He frowns. “I’ve been doing research into—things.”
Huaisang takes this to mean that Jin Guangyao has seen fit to show Mo Xuanyu the papers he scrounged out of what was left of Demon-Subdue Palace.
“What have you been researching?” Huaisang asks, for the pleasure of listening to Mo Xuanyu go into a panic trying not to answer him.
“Ah, well, it’s not like I would understand anyway,” Huaisang says when he’s tired of it. “But you seem happier!”
Mo Xuanyu pauses, and then looks at him, uncertain. “I—am?” he says, like it’s a question.
“Is it just the work you like?” Huaisang presses him. “Or has something else changed?”
Mo Xuanyu flushes, which is how Huaisang knows there’s a boy. His spies haven’t mentioned a boy, and he’s faintly surprised Jin Guangyao would allow him one. Perhaps it’s new.
“Ah, Mo Xuanyu, Mo Xuanyu,” he says, chuckling. “Say no more. Only I hope she’s pretty?”
“I don’t know what you mean, Nie-zongzhu,” Mo Xuanyu says, now beet red.
Huaisang winks at him, and lets the matter drop.
He does make a point of observing Mo Xuanyu more closely himself on the rest of his visit, however. Mo Xuanyu spends a great deal of time in Fragrance Hall, sometimes alone for many hours. Qin Su passes in and out of the rooms with Jin Rusong, apparently unbothered by his presence.
Once he watches Mo Xuanyu playing with Jin Rusong in the courtyard with the lotus pond, peeling lotus seed after lotus seed for his little nephew to eat, although Jin Rusong chucks just as many of them back at him as actually end up in his mouth. The little boy doesn’t call him shufu—doesn’t call him anything, so far as Huaisang can tell, just makes demanding noises, so either he’s even more spoiled than Jin Rulan or he’s young for his age—but he does run into Mo Xuanyu’s arms for comfort when he slips and almost falls into the pond. He watches Mo Xuanyu carefully reassure him he’s all right, sees how the gesture warms him. He carries the child back to Qin Su, and says something that makes her laugh and touch her hand briefly to his shoulder. He supposes he’s not surprised Jin Guangyao let him have this much, even if it does make Mo Xuanyu less miserable than Jin Guangyao must like. It’s hard to supplant a relative you love.
And then Huaisang takes a leaf out of poor dead Wei Wuxian’s book and sits up on the rooftop with a bottle of wine one night, and watches Mo Xuanyu slip out of his room very late, and let himself into the empty library. A few minutes later, a serving boy about Mo Xuanyu’s age steals in after him.
Huaisang waits for another hour, and then the serving boy and Mo Xuanyu emerge at the same time, obviously trying to be quiet, but confident that no one else is awake. Mo Xuanyu is holding the boy’s hand, and before he turns around to lock the door he pulls the boy back into its shadow for what looks like a very sweet kiss. There’s a little murmured conversation, and then the boy pulls away and leaves, looking back over his shoulder just once. Mo Xuanyu locks the door and then leans against it for a beat, his eyes closed.
He’s in love, Huaisang realizes, not just discovering the joys of having a body. He sighs.
It doesn’t take much to persuade Mo Xuanyu to let him into his confidence. Huaisang simply arranges to have a pleasant afternoon with one of the handsomer Jiang cousins—unfortunately not as handsome as Jiang Wanyin, but that would require a full-blown campaign, and not just a suggestive look over the top of his fan at a banquet—and bids the man farewell just as he knows Mo Xuanyu will be passing by.
Huaisang is, of course, perfectly put together—he’s taken pains for Mo Xuanyu to see him as something of a mentor, a delicate enough needle to thread when the rest of the world sees him as a fop—but there is no mistaking what the Jiang cousin has been doing. Mo Xuanyu’s eyes go wide with realization, and he flinches back when the Jiang cousin snaps at him not to stare.
“See you later, little fish,” Huaisang says casually, and lingers in the doorway to watch the Jiang cousin go. Mo Xuanyu is still gaping at him, bright red. Huaisang slides the door shut.
Sure enough, at their next meeting, Mo Xuanyu confesses about the boy about ten minutes into their conversation. The boy is one of Jin Rusong’s minders, which is how Mo Xuanyu came to know him. He is no one of import, but Mo Xuanyu says his name like he wants to be gentle with the syllables in his mouth.
“Does anyone else know?” Huaisang asks him, fan twisting open.
“Only Lianfang Zun,” Mo Xuanyu says, coloring again. “But he has been very kind about it, Nie-zongzhu—he told me he would forget all about it! And he didn’t ask for the library key back!”
“How generous,” Huaisang murmurs.
“He’s going to be Chief Cultivator,” Mo Xuanyu says, and then, with more diffidence: “If he doesn’t mind—then maybe his opinion will sway others?”
“You don’t think so?” Mo Xuanyu asks.
“I think,” Huaisang says carefully, “That people like you and I need to be very careful who we trust.”
“Because we’re—cutsleeves,” Mo Xuanyu whispers, as though anyone could be listening that Huaisang did not know about.
“Xuanyu,” Huaisang says. “Don’t you know by now that people only look after their own?”
“I do,” Mo Xuanyu says, and his face goes suddenly empty. It looks like Jin Guangyao, when he thinks no one is watching him. “I do know that.”
“So,” Huaisang says carefully, fanning himself with slow, lazy motions, “Consider very carefully who your people are.”
Mo Xuanyu frowns. “You—don’t think I should trust my brother?” It is the first time this sentiment has ever been expressed between them.
Huaisang cocks his head to the side. “I trusted my brother with my life,” he says. “We always took care of each other. I would have done anything for my brother.”
The frown does not leave Mo Xuanyu’s face.
“Think things through,” Huaisang says, and then changes the subject.
Sometime after that, back in Qinghe, Huaisang is woken up from a dead sleep by his body-servant. “Why,” Huaisang says with sleepy despair, and then blinks and realizes that a letter has been put into his hands bearing the seal of his agent in Lanling. He grouses good-naturedly about being woken early for as long as it takes the lamp to be properly lit, and then he breaks the seal and reads the contents.
Jin Rusong is dead.
“What,” Huaisang says, and falls back onto the bed.
“Nothing,” Huaisang says, still flat on his back. He considers dragging a pillow over his face. “Thank you. That’s all for the night.”
His body-servant bows and leaves him with a last worried look.
“Fuck,” Huaisang says to his ceiling, heartfelt, and then gets up to burn the letter.
When he arrives at Jinlintai the next evening—after real word has come from the Chief Cultivator about the vicious attack on his family—there are headless bodies hanging from the walls. Past them, he finds half the cultivation world already there, as though there has been a conference instead of a murder. Lan Xichen is the one to greet him, his eyes red from weeping.
“Er-ge,” Huaisang says, drawing Lan Xichen a little out of the way. “What happened?”
“We are still learning the exact details,” Lan Xichen says heavily. “But it appears there was an attempt on A-Yao’s life last night. While A-Yao was able to defend himself and Qin Su, they—” he draws a slow, calming breath, and Huaisang wants to shake him, “—they also sent men to A-Song’s nursery. A-Yao was too late to save him.”
“But who would do such a thing?” Huaisang says, and threads a note of panic into his voice. He doesn’t need to pull very hard. “What enemies remain these days? Are any of us safe?”
“Be calm,” Lan Xichen says, managing to communicate reassurance despite the disgust Huaisang thinks he must be feeling. What kind of coward would think about his own safety when a dear friend’s son has been killed? “The assassins have all been killed, but one of them named the sect that hired them before he succumbed. This is the work of Tingshan He.” He manages to communicate quiet rage almost as well as his brother, who has perfected it into an art.
Tingshan He, Huaisang well knows, are one of the only minor sects who opposed Jin Guangyao’s appointment to Chief Cultivator. They’ve also staunchly argued against the watchtower scheme. Huaisang has used them himself as a proxy against Jin sect politically, although they never knew that was his intent. He knows He-zongzhu to be an honest man. He understands immediately why it is that none of the assassins survived, why Tingshan He is to blame.
What he can’t understand is why the hell Jin Guangyao would murder his own son. It’s too much coincidence for a murderer’s son to have been murdered by unrelated parties. Unless he’d tried to stage an attack against his family and Rusong died by accident during the attempt? But no—not if Rusong was in a different room when it happened. Why not keep his family together, the better to make sure things went according to plan? Unless it was a true error in judgment, or the work of a too-clever nursemaid, or—?
“I don’t understand,” Huaisang says with real frustration, and Lan Xichen gives him a solemn nod, his eyes too bright.
“I don’t either, Nie Huaisang,” he says heavily.
Jin Guangyao, when Huaisang sees him later that night, looks genuinely devastated. It’s a better performance than he gave even for his father’s death—dressed in white, with a healing cut across one cheekbone, he looks haunted, a shadow of his usual self. He has only come to make a brief announcement—Jin Sect will have its revenge against Tingshan He—and then he returns to his son’s coffin, where his wife is keeping vigil.
Huaisang passes quietly by the shrine, and sees a picture of domestic grief: Qin Su and Jin Guangyao kneeling by the coffin, the much-aged and exhausted Jin-furen kneeling behind them, little Jin Rulan at her side. Mo Xuanyu is not part of this family portrait.
Huaisang goes to Mo Xuanyu’s rooms. He has never been there before, but of course he knows where it is. He can hear movement inside, but no one answers when he knocks, so Huaisang uses a tiny jolt of spiritual energy to force the lock open. Once it does, he steps into the room and slides the door shut behind him.
The only light coming in is from the moon, so it takes his eyes a second to adjust. Mo Xuanyu is huddled against the far wall, his knees tucked up tight to his chest, head buried in them.
“Mo Xuanyu?” Huaisang asks. No response. He hardens his voice and asks again, as though he is angry.
“He’s dead,” Mo Xuanyu says into his knees.
“It’s a great tragedy,” Huaisang agrees, and takes a step closer. Mo Xuanyu draws more tightly into himself. “Have you been like this all day?”
“All night,” Mo Xuanyu says, and Huaisang knows he doesn’t just mean the few hours since sunset.
“You’ve been here since last night?” he asks. “No one came to check on you? You must be hungry.”
“I’m not hungry,” Mo Xuanyu says, but he’s only repeating Huaisang’s words, not really hearing them. Huaisang knows he loved his nephew, but this is more than grief, he thinks: this is shock.
“You at least need water,” Huaisang says, casting a glance around the room for a carafe. There’s a bottle on the desk. Huaisang retrieves it, uncorks it, and then kneels down a few feet away from Mo Xuanyu so he can hand it to him. At first Mo Xuanyu just stares at the bottle, and then abruptly he takes it and starts gulping down water. “Easy,” Huaisang says. “Easy, little fish.”
When Mo Xuanyu finally puts the bottle down, gasping for breath, Huaisang gets his first real glimpse of his face: his lip is split, and his left eye is swollen and purple.
“What happened?” Huaisang asks, making his voice as gentle as it can go.
“I was meeting A-Chao,” Mo Xuanyu says hoarsely, as though he were still parched. “We don’t usually meet at the nursery, but he had to stay late. We were just going to talk in the next room. That’s all.”
“You were there,” Huaisang whispers, his heart quickening. Who else knows this? No one has mentioned Mo Xuanyu’s presence in the fight. Not once.
“I was there,” Mo Xuanyu repeats, and brings a hand up to touch his swollen mouth, his split lip. “They—laughed at us, they—took my xiao, threw it out the window, and. I still can’t really use a sword.” He laughs, bitter and abrupt. “They killed him.”
“How did they kill him,” Huaisang asks, hungry for answers—any answer could help. Was it an accident, was it by design, was it really Jin Guangyao?
“They cut his throat,” Mo Xuanyu says vacantly. His eyes are faraway, like they were years ago when he stayed on his knees in the fountain. “They hit me. Then they killed A-Song. He was crying.”
“They didn’t try to kill you?” Huaisang presses. “They just hit you?”
“They knew who I was,” Mo Xuanyu says, and then tries to drink more water. The bottle is empty. After this Huaisang is bringing him a full meal with his own hands.
“How,” Huaisang says. “How could you tell they knew you? Did they say your name?”
Slowly, Mo Xuanyu nods. “They said—‘He said leave the bastard.’ That’s me. That’s—me.”
Huaisang lets out a trembling breath. So it was on purpose. All of this, by Jin Guangyao’s design.
“Didn’t you tell anyone?” he asks Mo Xuanyu.
“I woke up in the garden,” Mo Xuanyu says vaguely. “They—didn’t believe me. They said I’d been drinking. There was a broken bottle by my feet. They didn’t— believe me.”
Huaisang doesn’t understand, but he knows a fucking puzzle piece when he feels one in his hand. He’s elated, almost shaking with it. “He doesn’t want anyone to know,” he breathes, grinning so hard his face hurts. “Two heirs at once is too much.”
“What?” Mo Xuanyu asks, and tries and fails to sweep his hair out of his eyes, like his fingers don’t work. Huaisang does it for him, hooking his hair behind an ear.
“Don’t worry, little fish,” he says, and has to shut his eyes until he can get his face back under control.
“I don’t understand,” Mo Xuanyu whispers.
“I don’t either,” Huaisang says, and he doesn’t, but this is something, this is a rope he can pull himself along in the dark.
Then he opens his eyes, and sees the shivering boy on the floor before him, his eyes focusing and refocusing on Huaisang’s face.
“You need food,” Huaisang declares, levering himself up off the floor. “And you need sleep. I’ll have them send a tray to you.”
He steps back, goes to find the lamp, and lights it. Mo Xuanyu looks up, blinking hard at the sudden light.
“Do you know who did this?” Mo Xuanyu asks abruptly.
Huaisang hesitates. He needs to be cautious, and Mo Xuanyu is not capable of caution right now. “I am sorry,” he says eventually, “For what happened to you. And for your loss.”
Mo Xuanyu’s mouth crumples.
“I’ll send someone with a tray,” Huaisang repeats, and then he leaves.
He learns the rest of his story from his spies, and the general gossip in the tower. Mo Xuanyu, as everyone knew, was constantly getting into fights with younger disciples. He’d obviously picked a fight with a shidi, lost, and consoled himself with wine, out in the garden where no one was likely to catch him and punish him. He was discovered in the early morning by guards rushing to secure the family quarters. When he learned Jin Rusong had been killed, he hysterically started insisting before the Chief Cultivator and his grieving family that he had been present for the murder. But his story made no sense. Why would anyone have let Mo Xuanyu into the nursery at such an hour? Why would the assassins have then dumped his body into the garden, surrounded by the detritus of a night of carousing? Jin-furen had screamed at him that he was taking Qin Su’s real tragedy and warping it into a fantasy in which he was the victim, and Jin Rulan had accused him of habitually telling lies.
Jin Rulan was probably right, Huaisang realized, because it was not as though Mo Xuanyu could tell the truth about studying demonic cultivation, or why he no longer took classes with the other juniors, or where he went during the day, and on night hunts. Mo Xuanyu was a poor liar: probably it seemed like he was constantly making up terrible excuses for why he had not been somewhere he should. Maybe even that he lied to get attention.
Qin Su had descended into hysterics, and out of consideration for his wife’s grief, Jin Guangyao had ordered Mo Xuanyu to his rooms until he could restrain himself.
(Huaisang, a voice whispers somewhere behind Huaisang’s ribcage, restrain your grief.)
Mo Xuanyu does not emerge from his room until the next day, when the Jin sect—accompanied by Lan Xichen and a group of Lan disciples, as well as individual cultivators from Moling-Su and Yao sect, and a handpicked set of Huaisang’s own disciples—return from exterminating Tingshan He. The Chief Cultivator publicly scatters He Su’s ashes, his face grim.
Afterward, Huaisang goes to congratulate his San-ge on his decisive victory over the treacherous Tingshan He. Mo Xuanyu is near enough in the crowd that he can likely hear them, but not close enough to be included in the conversation.
“San-ge, San-ge,” Huaisang says, with as much sympathy as he can muster. “I’m glad you found your vengeance at least.”
“Thank you, A-Sang,” Jin Guangyao says, and he looks sincerely worn through, his eyes still rimmed with red. His eyes keep flicking over to Lan Xichen, as though he’s too tired to pretend he doesn’t want his Er-ge’s comfort. What kind of monster, Huaisang wonders, kills his own son and then weeps himself raw over it? “You always come in our hour of need.”
“Ah, I’m no use,” Huaisang says with a dismissive gesture. “But after everything you’ve done for me! Of course I had to be here.”
Jin Guangyao touches his arm, fond and brotherly. He smiles, wan but apparently real. The cut on his cheek is almost healed.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Huaisang says, softly. “And for what you had to do.”
Jin Guangyao is still smiling, already turning away when Huaisang lets his face drop.
Over Jin Guangyao’s shoulder, still several feet away from them, Mo Xuanyu stiffens. Huaisang allows himself to meet Mo Xuanyu’s eyes when Jin Guangyao steps fully away, keeping his expression perfectly blank. No one is paying the slightest piece of attention to either of them. Huaisang looks back to Jin Guangyao, then to Mo Xuanyu. Mo Xuanyu is pale as a ghost.
Then Lan Xichen approaches Huaisang, and when he turns to him he slips the headshaker back on, easy as donning a robe.
Armed with the knowledge that Jin Guangyao did indeed orchestrate the murder of his own four year-old son, Huaisang pursues different avenues of investigation. Perhaps Qin Su had been unfaithful, and Jin Rusong was not his son after all? Perhaps Jin Rusong was secretly fatally ill, and Jin Guangyao was heartless enough to turn his son’s illness into his political advantage? Perhaps Jin Guangyao required a large public distraction—public sympathy and outrage—to cover up something else? Something related to the watchtowers? Huaisang’s agents search out the doings of Jin Rusong’s former nursemaids, servants, playmates’ parents, and report all they discover to Huaisang, who does his best to look at all the pieces and discern the pattern. Jin Rusong was a well-liked child—loving and happy to be held, even at four. Jin Rusong was a fussy child, apt to scream at playmates, unlikely to use his words. Jin Rusong was a spoiled child: his nursemaids performed tasks for him that children his age were already eager to do for themselves, like feeding himself.
Eventually Huaisang discovers the weak spot where he least expects it: not in the noise, but in the negative space.
Qin Su’s first maid, Bicao, has nothing to say about her lady’s recently departed son. Absolutely nothing. His agents report that no one can remember Bicao ever expressing an opinion on Jin Rusong, that she helped her mistress with him only when specifically directed to do so, that she wept at his funeral but said nothing in remembrance of the child. Bicao half-raised Qin Su, and cares for her mistress as though she were a combination of daughter and sister, but Bicao does not appear to grieve her mistress’s loss.
Huaisang cannot afford to interrogate her himself, of course, but he stands behind a curtain while his most skilled agent persuades and bribes and terrifies her into finally giving up the truth. Bicao breaks into sobs and tells them the truth between hiccuping breaths, and only after it’s escaped her lips does she seem to remember what the consequences could be, and dissolves into true hysterics. His agent has to give her tea with half a bottle of wine poured in and a satchel of calming herbs before she recovers enough to speak again.
So. Jin Rusong died because he was the product of an incestuous marriage, and Jin Guangyao will do anything to keep the secret.
Huaisang has no proof that Jin Guangyao hired the assassins, of course, but what he has in Bicao is enough to ruin Jin Guangyao’s reputation, at least, if not cost him his life. He could kiss her, hysterical as she is.
Huaisang’s agent assures Bicao the secret does not need to come out now, and pays her handsomely for her continued silence. Huaisang’s agent quietly assures Bicao that someday justice will be done, and that she may be called upon then. Bicao clutches a jade bracelet to her chest and flees.
Huaisang returns to Qinghe and gets roaringly drunk in celebration, eventually passing out on the floor of his bedchamber. When he wakes, head pounding and mouth full of pooled blood from biting his tongue in his sleep, he thinks he should feel worse. Shouldn’t he be ashamed of himself? Hasn’t he been celebrating the death of a four year-old boy? The crime of incest forced upon an innocent woman—a woman who has always been kind to him, and even now sleeps in her son’s murderer’s bed? He makes himself get up despite the headache, puts on fresh clothes and rinses out his mouth.
“I’ll tell the world what he did to you, too,” he promises Jin Rusong and Qin Su. A-Chao too, he supposes—killed because he made one of Jin Guangyao’s rivals happy. Unless he was simply killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “I won’t let him get away with it.”
He stares at his own reflection, the broad, gullible face, the pink blotches on his cheeks and throat from a night of overindulgence. His tongue is swollen. Disgusting. He spits a little more blood into the basin and then calls for his body servant.
Mo Xuanyu comes to see him in Qinghe. This is a first. Other Jin disciples have occasionally made use of the Unclean Realm’s hospitality, of course, but Huaisang has never seen Mo Xuanyu outside of Jinlintai. Huaisang meets him in the stables.
“Nie-zongzhu,” Mo Xuanyu says, bowing more perfunctorily than Huaisang has ever seen him. He’s also wearing too much powder—it makes him look like a girl. “I came to—”
“—Meet White Peach!” Huaisang says genially, and slaps the gate of a particularly mild-tempered mare.
“What—I don’t know how to ride horses,” Mo Xuanyu says, giving a wary look to White Peach, who noses placidly at Huaisang’s shirt.
“This is the fault of your education,” Huaisang says. “A gentleman should ride gracefully so as not to use up all his spiritual energy on long trips! Or else you’ll be forced to hire carriages like me.” He peers doubtfully at Mo Xuanyu, eyes flicking down to his belt where a sword does not hang. “How did you get here, anyway?”
“I walked,” Mo Xuanyu says. “Nie-zongzhu—”
“No time like the present,” Huaisang says briskly, and directs the waiting stablehand to ready White Peach and his own mount. “Come, little fish, we’ll talk as we ride.”
“I’m going to fall off,” Mo Xuanyu protests nervously.
“Probably,” Huaisang agrees. “Try not to break anything important!”
Huaisang is not a particularly enthusiastic rider, but he learned to be capable at an early age out of self defense. Qinghe is renowned for its horseflesh. His father and Da-ge had both loved their horses like they were people. He laughs at Mo Xuanyu every time he slips off White Peach’s back, and waits patiently while Mo Xuanhu figures out how to get his foot back in the stirrups each time.
When they’re far enough away from the keep that Huaisang is confident they can be seen but not observed, he reins them both down to an ambling walk, and says “All right, little fish. What did you come to tell me?”
Now that he finally has the time to speak, Mo Xuanyu hesitates. His face flushes a dull, red under the powder. Huaisang waits him out, and finally—
“You think it was Lianfang Zun,” Mo Xuanyu bursts out.
“I think what was Lianfang Zun?” Huaisang asks, patting his horse’s neck.
“You think—” Mo Xuanyu hunches in on himself a little, even though Huaisang brought them here specifically so that no one who might be directed to observe Mo Xuanyu’s doings—more likely in Qinghe than in Lanling, simply due to novelty—could possibly overhear them. “You think he was responsible for the attack.”
“I don’t think I ever said that,” Huaisang says mildly.
“But you think it,” Mo Xuanyu insists. “I know you do.”
“What gives you that idea?”
Mo Xuanyu looks paralyzed, his frustration showing in those twin spots of red on his cheeks. He looks less like a girl, Huaisang thinks, and more like an actor in a play. “I think—I know I was in the nursery when A-Song and A-Chao died,” he says, his voice cracking on the second name. “No matter what they tell me, I know that. And I know they didn’t kill me when they could have. They were told not to kill me. Someone moved me to the garden. Someone wanted A-Song dead, and me alive, and you—” He leans so far over White Peach’s neck that he almost slips off again, his face contorted. Again, Huaisang thinks, like an actor. “—you believed me. Don’t say you didn’t because I know you did.”
He’s close enough now that Huaisang very easily reaches over and grabs his dropped reins with one hand. Mo Xuanyu just keeps looking at him, eyes wide and desperate.
“So, so,” Huaisang says. “If all of this is true, how have you arrived at Lianfang Zun as the culprit? It seems to me nothing links him to the crime, little fish.”
“You said ‘he,’” Mo Xuanyu says, voice rising. White Peach twitches, and Huaisang tightens his grip on her reins. “‘He doesn’t want anyone to know.’ You said ‘Two heirs is too much at once.’ Whose heirs? His heirs! And then you looked at him, and you looked at me—”
“That doesn’t sound like enough for an accusation,” Huaisang says thoughtfully. “That sounds like wild speculation, Xuanyu. They could call you crazy for saying things like that where others can hear.”
“I’m not telling others,” Mo Xuanyu says, desperate and sincere. “I’m telling you.”
“Why are you telling me?” Huaisang asks him.
“Because—” Mo Xuanyu looks lost, like the child he was just a few years ago. “—because—you believed me. You’re—kind to me. You’re not as stupid as everyone thinks. I—I trust you.”
Huaisang nods. Then he tightens his hand into a fist on White Peach’s reins, and kicks his own mount into a canter. The horses tear off into the field, fleet as the Qinghe Nie horses are reputed to be, and Mo Xuanyu screams, flails for balance, and falls off.
Huaisang isn’t much more than competent as riders go, and can’t keep hold of both horses at this speed, so he lets White Peach go. He focuses on turning back towards the gold-robed huddle of Mo Xuanyu in the field. White Peach drops into a trot and turns to follow her companion, confused but obedient.
When he gets there, he brings his horse to a halt and looks down at the boy on his back in the dirt. He’s not seriously harmed, just dusty and shocked, but the look on his face is—wounded.
Good, Huaisang thinks savagely. He needs to understand, if he’s going to live. Distantly he wonders if this is something like what Da-ge felt when he tore up Huaisang’s art collection, or burned his fans, or took him to Sword Sacrifice Hall. Only worse, because Da-ge loved him.
Huaisang slides his mask off fully, leaving the headshaker somewhere else.
“I’ve told you before,” he says neutrally. “Don’t trust anyone.”
Mo Xuanyu’s lower lip is bleeding. Probably he bit it when he fell. When he wipes at his mouth it just smears the blood across his face.
“Do you understand me?” Huaisang asks.
Mo Xuanyu nods, expressionless.
“Good,” Huaisang says. He swings off the side of his horse, takes a couple steps closer to Mo Xuanyu, then drops to a squat beside him. “Now. Why do you think Lianfang Zun killed his own son?”
“I don’t know,” Mo Xuanyu tries, and Huaisang shakes his head, minute but sharp.
“You do know.”
“You told me he did,” Mo Xuanyu tries again, frowning.
“Wrong,” Huaisang says, cold. “Why do you think Lianfang Zun killed his own son?”
“Because—I don’t know! Someone was responsible! Why shouldn’t it be him?”
“Wrong,” Huaisang snaps. “You know why.”
“Because—because—he’s a liar!” Mo Xuanyu shouts, breathing hard. “He lies about everything! He never— means anything! He’s—it’s like he’s—he calls me didi, and I know he hates me! He hates his wife! He hated A-Song! He acted like he loved him, but when he’d hold him, it was like—I don’t know, he was lying!”
“How do you know,” Huaisang says, and Mo Xuanyu chokes out a laugh.
“If there’s anything I know,” he says bitterly, “It’s when someone wants to hurt me.”
“Good,” Huaisang says, and means it. “That’s very good. Keep that, if you can.”
Mo Xuanyu is still breathing hard, almost panting with the confession.
“All right,” Huaisang says. “Why didn’t Lianfang Zun kill you?”
Mo Xuanyu squeezes his eyes shut. “I’ve been learning demonic cultivation. It’s a secret.”
“I know,” Huaisang says, almost gently. “And why does that mean he won’t kill you?”
“He wants me to do his dirty work,” Mo Xuanyu says after a long minute, voice dull. “He—wants me to be another Yiling Laozu, but his.”
“What has he been having you do?” Huaisang asks him. Really this is as far as Huaisang meant to guide him, but—he can’t give up the chance at more answers.
Mo Xuanyu shrugs. “Learning arrays. Summoning ghosts. Practicing with Xue Yang.”
Huaisang’s eyebrows shoot up. “Xue Yang isn’t in Lanling,” he says. His agents know to look for Xue Yang.
“Sometimes he is,” Mo Xuanyu says flatly.
“And what,” Huaisang replies, “Does Lianfang Zun have you doing for Xue Yang?”
“Practicing,” Mo Xuanyu repeats.
“Practicing what?” Huaisang asks, with what he thinks is considerable patience.
“Repressing fierce corpses,” Mo Xuanyu says, scowling. “He won’t let me try a full body yet, though—just an arm.”
Huaisang’s heartbeat pounds so loudly in his ears he goes deaf for an instant. He rocks back on his feet, briefly afraid he’s just going to fall over.
“Xuanyu,” he says hoarsely, when he can. “I am going to be honest with you now, all right?”
Warily, Mo Xuanyu nods.
“Jin Guangyao killed his own son. He killed your father. He killed your A-Chao. The day you develop a golden core—or the day you become half as powerful as Wei Wuxian—is the day he’ll kill you, too.”
Mo Xuanyu lets out a gust of air, like it’s been punched out of him.
“I can’t prove it,” Huaisang says. “I can’t prove anything yet.”
“Yet,” Mo Xuanyu says softly.
Huaisang looks at him levelly, his heart still making a racket against his ribs. “Xuanyu,” he says. “What’s the first lesson?”
“Don’t trust you,” Mo Xuanyu says. He’s still bleeding sluggishly from his lower lip. He looks utterly wrecked.
“I’ll give you Jin Guangyao’s name and place if I can,” Huaisang says, and it comes out like a promise. “Do you believe me?”
Huaisang has never taken anyone into his confidence before. Anyone. Even his spies only know what he wants them to know. No one knows the entire picture. No one except Huaisang and Jin Guangyao. He can’t tell Mo Xuanyu everything—he can’t tell him about Da-ge—but this is more than he can give anyone else. The beauty of it is that no one will believe Mo Xuanyu if he says anything. If someone is watching them from the keep, all they have seen is Nie Huaisang indulging Jin Guangyao’s hapless not-quite-sect-heir, the only member of the gentry more hopeless than Nie Huaisang himself. If Mo Xuanyu tells anyone about this, all anyone will say is that he is mad.
Mo Xuanyu drags in a rattling breath like a sob. He looks utterly hopeless. “Yes,” he says.
“Good,” Huaisang says. He takes a moment to center himself, then stands up. He offers Mo Xuanyu his hand, and after a second Mo Xuanyu takes it, and he pulls him to his feet.
“Let’s head back,” Huaisang says, drawing the headshaker back around himself. He smiles, small and confidential. “And then I want you to tell me more about this arm you helped suppress.”
The adrenaline from that conversation hits Huaisang a few hours later, and he has to retire early so he can sit on the floor of his bedroom until he stops shaking. “Progress,” he whispers to himself, closing his eyes. “This is progress.”
When he can make it up to his bed, he lies under the blanket and wonders when he stooped to terrifying boys. Grief-stricken boys. He doesn’t have any good answers for himself.
He’d do it again, he thinks, and shudders.
Mo Xuanyu goes back to Jinlintai to avoid attracting unnecessary interest, but with instructions to meet Huaisang in Lanling in a week’s time. Huaisang quietly hires a woman in Yiling—not styling herself a demonic cultivator, and so not yet caught by Jiang sect, although she deals almost exclusively in crafty tricks—to make two talismans designed to deflect attention. They won’t make anything invisible, but they’ll make things seem boring, unremarkable. Nothing worth looking at. Supposedly an invention of the Yiling Laozu, although Huaisang has his doubts—Wei Wuxian’s tricks were rarely so subtle. He wears the first one pinned to his sleeve, and greets Mo Xuanyu by slapping the talisman on his back.
Mo Xuanyu yelps, and Huaisang sees that he’s wearing too much powder again today.
“All right,” Huaisang says. “Show me where you buried it.”
They pass unnoticed through the city, and Mo Xuanyu quietly confirms Huaisang’s suspicions about his progress with demonic cultivation. He is a much better student of necromancy than he ever was with the sword—although this isn’t saying much, as even Huaisang has a fully formed golden core—and cultivates using a xiao. His only teacher, if he could be called that, is Xue Yang, and he has only met him a handful of times since beginning his studies.
Huaisang still doesn’t understand how Xue Yang could have escaped the attention of his agents. They’ve missed things before, but Xue Yang is famous, has nine fingers, and they’ve been looking for him.
Mo Xuanyu shrugs. “We never met in the same place. I don’t know where he stayed when he was here, or where he went. He—scared me, honestly.”
“I should hope so,” Huaisang says, and shudders. “Do you know he’s supposed to have made tea from a man’s dried tongue?”
“Not a man’s,” Mo Xuanyu says, clearly not really thinking about it. “It was a fierce corpse—a blind girl’s originally. That’s what he told me, anyway.”
Huaisang can’t help the face he makes at that, or the disgusted noise that comes out of his mouth. “How did it take you so long to realize Jin Guangyao was a villain, when these were his associates?” he demands, not really meaning it. “Tea from a girl’s tongue.”
Mo Xuanyu shrugs. “Xue Yang is good at demonic cultivation. Jin-zongzhu always seemed as disgusted by him as you are.”
“So,” Huaisang says. “Are you any good?”
“I don’t know,” Mo Xuanyu says after a brief pause. “I’m nowhere near as good as Xue Yang. I can only summon minor ghosts—the long-dead, not anything fresh or angry. But I’ve never seen anyone except Xue Yang try, and Xue Yang—cheats.”
“How does he cheat?”
“He has the Yiling Laozu’s Stygian Tiger amulet,” Mo Xuanyu says, as if this doesn’t require Huaisang to stop and recalibrate absolutely everything. “It focuses his energy in a way I can’t.”
This is what comes, Huaisang thinks faintly, of making an entire discipline seem illicit. The genuinely illicit parts get covered up by virtue of being painted with the same brush. The Stygian Tiger amulet, in Xue Yang’s hands!
“Well,” he says finally. “I wish Wei-xiong were still alive.”
Mo Xuanyu tilts a curious look towards him. “You—knew Wei Wuxian? I mean—I know you all knew him, that’s in the history books, but—?”
“We were friends,” Huaisang says. “When we were very young.”
“He was a genius,” Mo Xuanyu says fervently. “And as evil as they say—I’ve been looking through the notes he left in Demon-Subdue palace, and the things he made—if you knew what kinds of things he devised, zongzhu, you wouldn’t call Xue Yang villainous.”
Huaisang has never known what to think about Wei Wuxian. He can’t imagine the friend he knew in Cloud Recesses truly doing evil, but he knows Lan Wangji thought demonic cultivation was damaging to his temperament. And of course Wei Wuxian did kill Jin Zixuan and Jin Zixun, and the men in Qionghi Way, and hundreds of other cultivators at Nightless City. But this is before he knew Xue Yang had the Stygian Tiger amulet in his possession. He needs—to think about this.
“What kinds of things?” he asks. Mo Xuanyu looks sidelong at him. “I’m not that delicate, little fish. Tell me.”
“There’s a spell to turn a living man into a puppet,” Mo Xuanyu says. “And one to turn a body into a fierce corpse. There’s a spell to make the dead speak even if they aren’t brought truly back to life—only it doesn’t bring their spirit back, just animates the body again. It calls for the transfusion of a living, beating heart into the corpse’s chest. There’s a spell for possession, a spell for revenge—”
“I think it was an early plan for the Ghost General,” Mo Xuanyu says. “Most of his notes are about the Ghost General in some way. The caster paints an array that summons a restless spirit into his own body, and then sacrifices himself. In exchange, the spirit has to do the caster’s bidding.”
“How horrible,” Huaisang says.
“That’s not even the worst part,” Mo Xuanyu starts, and then interrupts himself. “We’re here.”
They have come to a graveyard at the outskirts of Lanling. It’s a pauper’s cemetery, nothing like the burial halls Huaisang has visited before. The individual graves aren’t even all marked.
Mo Xuanyu leads them deep into the cemetery, and then stops by a little tree, frowns, and then carefully draws a shape in the air. It flashes red and then shoots over to a random patch of earth, sinking into the soil. “That’s where it is,” Mo Xuanyu says. “That’s where we buried it.”
He starts scuffing the dirt away with his foot, and Huaisang sees that there’s a wooden platform only a few inches under the soil, a bright red array painted into it.
“Why so shallow?” Huaisang asks, his throat suddenly too dry.
“It wasn’t this shallow two years ago,” Mo Xuanyu says with a frown. “The arm is very restless—it’s trying to work its way to the surface.”
Huaisang swallows, and then swallows again. “Well. Let’s dig it up.”
Mo Xuanyu turns to stare at him. “Why? I told you, it’s just an arm—it can’t tell us anything. I don’t think you could tie it to Lianfang Zun except through my word, and my word counts for nothing.”
“Who says it can’t tell us anything?” Huaisang says, and fumbles in his sleeve for the spirit-repressing pouch he brought for this exact purpose. “Xuanyu. Please.”
“I didn’t bring a shovel,” Mo Xuanyu says.
Huaisang tosses him a qiankun pouch, and Mo Xuanyu reluctantly reaches inside and pulls out a shovel. It doesn’t take much to break the array—just a little of Mo Xuanyu’s blood spilled on the circle—but it takes him a little longer to dig underneath the wooden board to the cedar chest waiting under the surface.
When Mo Xuanyu opens it they both gag—there’s no smell, but the resentful energy is strong enough to make them both physically recoil. Huaisang gets a brief glimpse of a pale muscled arm before there’s a blue flash and suddenly he’s on his back in the grave dirt, a thick hand around his throat.
Huaisang can’t breathe. His ears are ringing, and so he’s barely aware of Mo Xuanyu shouting somewhere above him. The thick fingers around his throat tighten and tighten, a blunt thumb digging into his carotid, a sharp spike of pain. Huaisang brings both hands to the attacking arm’s wrist, a futile attempt to pull it off.
The world is starting to spark black at the corners of his vision when Huaisang thinks to slide one of his hands down from the corpse’s wrist, feeling out the thick-knuckled, familiar hand around his throat. As he’d feared—as he’d hoped—there’s a thick knot of scar tissue just under the fourth finger, where a cut had gotten infected in Qishan, and he’d been without the spiritual power to heal himself.
Suddenly something else slaps him on the chest—a ludicrously slight pressure compared to the one around his windpipe—but whatever it is, it makes the hand loosen its grip around Huaisang’s throat, just a little.
Huaisang doesn’t waste his breath. “Da-ge,” he gasps out, the very air piercing him as he forces it into his lungs. “Da-ge.”
The hand loosens its grip even further, and then Huaisang is free to suck in painful lungfuls of air as Mo Xuanyu curses and wrestles the arm into the spirit-repressing pouch.
Huaisang dashes the tears out of his eyes and feels blindly at his chest. It’s the second notice-me-not talisman. “You saved me,” he says when he has the strength to. His voice sounds terrible, and feels worse scraping its way out.
“This isn’t going to hold it for long,” Mo Xuanyu says grimly, tying off the spirit repressing pouch.
“Give it to me,” Huaisang orders him, and slowly Mo Xuanyu complies, kneeling down beside him. He crushes the pouch briefly to his heaving chest, allows himself one raw instant of pain, and then slides the pouch into his sleeve and clicks the lock shut on his grief.
“You didn’t say it was your brother,” Mo Xuanyu says, and Huaisang rips the second talisman off his chest and sticks it on Mo Xuanyu’s thigh.
“Well,” Huaisang says, as levelly as he can. “Why did you think I was doing this?”
Mo Xuanyu doesn’t answer him.
“Come on,” Huaisang says. “We’ve been sitting here too long already, even with the talismans. Help me up.”
Mo Xuanyu helps him. Huaisang leans on his arm as they hobble out of the graveyard.
“The arm needs to be suppressed again,” Mo Xuanyu says when they’re almost out. “It can’t just stay in the pouch.”
“I will handle it,” Huaisang says.
“I’m a demonic cultivator,” Mo Xuanyu argues. “I should do it.”
“It’s my responsibility,” Huaisang says sharply.
Mo Xuanyu sighs. “Fine. Just—what’s next?”
“Next,” Huaisang says, “You go home, and I go home. I drink a large quantity of honeyed tea.”
“No, I mean—what do we do now?”
“Nothing,” Huaisang says firmly. “I’ll look into this—see if it leads anywhere else. You just—make sure everyone at Jinlintai thinks you’re stupid and weak. If you can do anything to help convince your brother of that, do that too. Don’t attract any real attention.”
“I can’t just do nothing,” Mo Xuanyu protests. “I told you—I want to help! I can’t just keep living like nothing’s wrong!”
“You have to,” Huaisang says. “What do we have right now? An arm that could belong to anyone? Wild speculation we can’t prove? Nothing. We might get something if you’re patient, but not if you make Jin Guangyao suspicious. Understand me?”
“I understand you,” Mo Xuanyu says, but there’s a stubborn set to his jaw that Huaisang doesn’t like.
“Good,” Huaisang says, and leans a little more heavily on his arm. “Now call me a carriage; I don’t want to walk.”
Nie Huaisang is very angry.
He has been very angry for a very long time.
The arm doesn’t lead him anywhere. Nothing else is buried in the cemetery; Xue Yang remains a mystery, and his brother’s hand can’t speak anything but violence. His brother has been dismembered, he thinks to himself every so often. His brother has been ripped limb from limb, and scattered to the wind. Buried piece by foul piece like offal.
He is going to tear Jin Guangyao’s life apart. If Jin Rusong weren’t already dead, Huaisang thinks he might kill him, just to see Jin Guangyao’s face. But of course he didn’t love his son or his wife the way he should—as far as Huaisang can tell, Jin Guangyao hasn’t ever loved anyone the way Huaisang loved his Da-ge. Loves his Da-ge.
When the anger clears a little, Huaisang remembers that Jin Guangyao loved his mother enough to erect a temple in the place she used to sell herself, that his friendship with Lan Xichen, at least, appears to be real. He can ruin these things for Jin Guangyao. He can tear his position away from him, rend his reputation to shreds, put his allies in the ground, burn his temple, leave him with nothing. It won’t be what Jin Guangyao did to Da-ge, Da-ge who loves him so much that past rage, past death, past the violation of his body and spirit he still tried not to hurt Huaisang—but it will be enough.
Huaisang’s spies report that Mo Xuanyu has begun behaving more erratically than usual. He plays the xiao at odd times—in the middle of the night, early in the morning—and has stopped attending his music lessons. He has taken to wearing a cheap mask at all times, or appearing in such excessive powder that people have begun to wonder if he’s well. He continues to freely access Jin Guangyao’s inner rooms, although Huaisang’s agents report that the coldness that began between Mo Xuanyu and Qin Su after Rusong’s death has intensified. Huaisang hopes that this is Mo Xuanyu taking his advice to heart, and continuing to make himself appear ridiculous.
He’s warned Mo Xuanyu not to commit anything to paper he doesn’t wish Jin Guangyao to eventually read, but Mo Xuanyu has been taught the trick of sending golden Jin butterflies out with spiritual energy. It’s a simple cantrip, like the Lan silencing spell, and even a cultivator as weak as Mo Xuanyu can manage it. Huaisang receives little butterfly messengers at odd intervals, each with a brief restless message from Mo Xuanyu. This goes on for months.
“I have to hide my face,” Mo Xuanyu whispers in Huaisang’s ear while Huaisang is closeted with his accountants, trying to discover how much they’ve spent on repairing the granaries this year. “I’m afraid what would show on it if they could see me looking at them.”
“Do you think he killed A-Chao because he was always going to kill A-Song’s servants,” Mo Xuanyu asks, thready and nearly manic, while Huaisang is in the middle of the soup course, nearly making him drop his bowl. He bats irritably at the golden butterfly, but not before he hears the rest of it: “—or do you think he killed him to make me unhappy?”
Huaisang is buried deep in a visiting rogue cultivator’s mouth when the familiar sparkling light flits into view, and the butterfly hovers at his ear to say “Is he going to kill Jin Ling? That would make sense, right? If you think he’s going to kill me, he’s probably also going to kill Jin Ling. Should we do something?” Huaisang chokes and pulls himself out, mood thoroughly ruined.
He can’t even reply to any of the messages, which means their utility is extremely limited. As it is, he is forced to quell all curiosity about the constant very public stream of butterfly messengers by quietly seeding the rumor that he’s in love with a member of Jin Clan. He won’t pair Mo Xuanyu’s name with his any more than he has to already, but he’ll keep it ready as an excuse, if anyone ever does question Huaisang’s interest in Jin Guangshan’s third son. At least Mo Xuanyu is old enough now that it would merely seem like another of Huaisang’s quiet-but-not-particularly-discreet affairs with men, and not like an entirely different and worse perversion.
“They didn’t have a funeral for A-Chao,” Mo Xuanyu says into his ear while Huaisang is on a visit to Gusu, actually in front of Lan Xichen. Huaisang spills his teacup trying to catch the butterfly in his hand. “They didn’t even list him as a victim,” Mo Xuanyu continues while Lan Xichen smiles knowingly at him. “Everyone else thinks he ran away, that he let them in.”
“An urgent sect communication?” Lan Xichen suggests lightly.
Huaisang smiles sheepishly, rubs the back of his neck. “Ah, not sect communication strictly, Er-ge…”
“It’s good to have someone to talk to,” Lan Xichen says, and hands him a cloth to wipe up the spilled tea. “I’m glad you have that.”
Huaisang laughs awkwardly, but Lan Xichen isn’t done. There’s a small line between his brows, and Huaisang knows this means he’s thinking of Lan Wangji. “It’s good that you get to be young,” Lan Xichen says finally, and Huaisang thinks incredulously that he means it’s good that someone can still find happiness, after the war. It still amazes him that someone as clear-eyed and clever as Lan Xichen should be so easily tricked. Huaisang’s brother is dead, and Lan Xichen thinks Huaisang is happy while Lan Wangji still suffers. Huaisang rights his teacup, keeping a bashful look on his face.
“You are young, after all,” Lan Xichen finishes, with a little smile.
Huaisang is thirty-two, and he feels ninety.
“Er-ge is not so old,” Huaisang says, swallowing the rest of it. He wiggles his eyebrows at Lan Xichen, a little bolder than he normally is. “I’m sure you could find someone to talk to if you wanted.”
Lan Xichen laughs, and lets the matter drop.
When Huaisang is bathing that night—in a very peaceful silence, since all the Lans went to bed an hour earlier—another butterfly comes, and he does catch that one in his hand. He brings it up to his face, and Mo Xuanyu’s voice drifts up to him. “I can’t keep doing this,” Mo Xuanyu whispers. “You at least get to leave. I have to look at him all the time. He looks at me all the time.”
“Xuanyu, Xuanyu,” Huaisang murmurs to the trapped butterfly, an instant before it dissolves. Little golden reflections shiver and then break apart in the water of his bath. “Don’t be stupid.”
He visits Jinlintai at the next opportunity.
The situation is worse than he left it. The good news is that Mo Xuanyu doesn’t appear to have done anything to draw suspicion. Unfortunately, he has done a remarkably poor job of not attracting attention.
The entire tower is abuzz with gossip about Mo Xuanyu. He wears a mask like an actor, or powder so thick he looks like a concubine. He carries a xiao with him everywhere, and says wild things about disloyal servants who have been turned off. He has lost the favor of Qin Su, who now goes pale whenever she sees him and avoids speaking with him directly. He keeps odd hours, and neglects formalities. He is, in short, beginning to look like a problem.
“I’ve noticed you are friendly with Mo Xuanyu,” Jin Guangyao says in the middle of a tea they take together. “The two of you often speak together when you visit.”
“Ah, yes!” Huaisang says cheerfully. “He’s a hapless boy, isn’t he? You know, I once saw two younger boys toss him into a koi pond.”
“He is unlucky,” Jin Guangyao agrees. A look of delicate concern crosses his face. “But you find things to talk about?”
“He likes to ask me questions about my youth,” Huaisang says, with a self-deprecating shrug. “You remember fishing me out of koi ponds back then. After all, San-ge, it’s not like you can expect everyone to grow up and become Jiang Wanyin or Lan Wangji!”
“It’s kind of you, A-Sang,” Jin Guangyao says, so easily that Huaisang knows his spies have already reported that Mo Xuanyu sees the Headshaker as a mentor of sorts. The model of an acceptable failure. “And he came to visit the Unclean Realm a while ago? To learn more from your example?” His eyebrows are very slightly raised.
“To learn how to ride horses,” Huaisang says. “Although he did fall off a few times.” He lets a very small smile creep onto his face, and then looks sidelong at Jin Guangyao. He might as well burn the excuse here: Jin Guangyao plainly suspects it.
"Very kind of you,” Jin Guangyao says wryly.
“San-ge,” Huaisang says, with a sheepish chuckle, “You know I’m a generous man.”
“Indeed,” Jin Guangyao says. “A-Sang, I am worried about A-Yu. He has not been himself lately.”
Huaisang makes a sympathetic face, and a little noise that he hopes communicates both vague well wishes and boredom. Spoiled Nie Huaisang would only care about a conquest so long as his troubles didn’t bother Nie Huaisang.
“Would you keep an eye on him, while you’re here?” Jin Guangyao asks. “Let me know what you think?”
“Oh, sure, San-ge,” Huaisang says, waving his fan carelessly. He is certain he sounds lazily perfunctory. “You can rely on me.”
Huaisang has Mo Xuanyu brought to his rooms that night, not bothering with subtlety, even though the Jin servant who delivers the message to Mo Xuanyu raises her eyebrows almost to her hairline. He prepares the room with a sound-muffling talisman, which will only add to the impression if anyone tries to listen at the door. Mo Xuanyu comes in and immediately rips off his mask, managing to look both impatient and relieved.
“Finally you come back,” Mo Xuanyu says, immediately walking past Huaisang to look and see if anyone else is in the room. Honestly. “Haven’t you been getting my messages?”
“Oh, I’ve been getting your messages,” Huaisang says, and stops himself from rolling his eyes before he remembers he can. He rolls his eyes. “You have only yourself to blame for our new cover story, by the way.”
“Cover story?” Mo Xuanyu says, distracted.
“I’m robbing the cradle, and you’re infatuated,” Huaisang says flatly.
“I am twenty-two, not in the cradle,” Mo Xuanyu scoffs. “Look, I have something to tell you.”
“Oh? Is it, perhaps, an explanation for why you’ve made yourself so ridiculous everyone in Jinlintai is wondering what you’ll do next?” Huaisang asks, and gestures for them both to sit. “You want to be under less scrutiny, not more.”
Mo Xuanyu waves this away like he’s batting at a mosquito. “No, something important.”
“You not attracting your brother’s attention is important,” Huaisang says, keeping the warning soft but audible.
“I’ve thought of a way to kill him,” Mo Xuanyu bursts out. His eyes are bright, almost feverish. “It’s foolproof. No one will find out.”
Huaisang sits back. Folds his hands in his lap. “Tell me.”
“I’ve been telling Jin-zongzhu that I want to push myself harder with demonic cultivation,” Mo Xuanyu says, barely pausing for breath. “He never stops me when I want to study, so I’ve been—pushing myself. He likes that. I’ve been asking him and asking him if I can meet with Xue-laoshi again, and he keeps saying no—but he says there’s another task I can do for him when I’m ready. I don’t know what it is, but you should have seen his face when he said it. It’s something evil.”
“And this relates because—?”
“I found something,” Mo Xuanyu says, his face alight. “I’ve been trying to act mad, so people don’t question where I go, or why I end up where I shouldn’t be. So the next time Su-zongzhu visited, I went to his quarters.”
Huaisang’s eyebrows shoot up. “Su She?” He knows Su She is one of Jin Guangyao’s most loyal cronies, and a thoroughly unpleasant man, but he hasn’t attracted much of Huaisang’s attention so far. He’s a mediocre cultivator, and his sect’s influence is minor. Not someone to worry about, or so he thought.
“Jin-zongzhu has occasionally taken Su-zongzhu into the vault while I study,” Mo Xuanyu says, and Huaisang stares at him.
“You never thought to mention this before?” he demands, already running through all the research he’ll now have to do on Moling Su’s doings the last few years.
“I’m mentioning it now,” Mo Xuanyu says. “I went to his rooms, Nie-zongzhu—and I found music that I’d seen before, but never read. It’s a song that, when played, saps the listener of spiritual power. The listener would become even weaker than I am.”
Huaisang takes a slow, deliberate breath. Su Minshan will die, he promises himself. He will die just as bloody as Jin Guangyao. But not yet. “Keep going.”
“If we got Jin-zongzhu alone,” Mo Xuanyu says, hands twisting in the air, “If I took him somewhere with just the two of us, maybe to do whatever evil thing he wants me to try as my next test—instead of raising the dead or controlling a ghost or whatever it is, I could play that song on my xiao. He’d be easy to kill, then.”
“What if he knows the music?” Huaisang asks, heart kicking a little in his chest. “What if he kills you before you can play it for him?”
“That’s the other piece of the song,” Mo Xuanyu says eagerly. “It’s only a small phrase—it would be easy to slip it into another piece of music, so he wouldn’t notice.”
Only years of practice prevent Huaisang from shuddering. “How do you stop people from tracing it back to you?” he asks instead. “If the two of you leave together, that will draw questions.”
“You can help with that part,” Mo Xuanyu says carelessly, and Huaisang laughs.
“Oh, so I’m there too?”
“Yes,” Mo Xuanyu says, ignoring Huaisang’s face. “You’re there, and you’re a witness, so whatever you say happened, happened. We don’t even need to kill him with a sword! We could set whatever monster he wants me to manipulate on him, and say he died in a night hunt! We could blame it on Xue Yang! We could do anything to him.”
“I see you’ve thought it all through,” Huaisang says.
“Yes,” Mo Xuanyu says, and scrubs a hand over his face. When he pulls his hand down he’s smiling, broad and real. “We can do this. We can kill him tomorrow.”
“No,” Huaisang says. It feels unreal coming out of his mouth.
“Okay, fine, next week. Next month—however long you want to prepare.”
“I mean no,” Huaisang says. “You’re not going to kill him.”
Mo Xuanyu stares at him. “What?”
“Xuanyu,” Huaisang says softly. “You don’t think I couldn’t have arranged a simple assassination in ten years? I could have killed him a hundred times if death was all I wanted for Meng Yao.”
Mo Xuanyu still looks disbelieving. “But—”
“I don’t just want him dead,” Huaisag continues, level. “I want him ruined. I want to take every piece of his life away from him, and I want him to watch it all happen. I want everyone in the world to know his crimes, and I want him to know they all despise him for it. Then I want him to die.”
“I can’t wait that long,” Mo Xuanyu says, horrified. “That’s—Nie-zongzhu, that is going to take years .”
“I can wait,” Huaisang says, because he can. Da-ge deserves it.
“I can’t,” Mo Xuanyu repeats, almost in a shout. “Do you have any idea what it’s like living here! Day in and day out! I can’t do this for another eight years! I can’t—I can barely stand to look at Qin-sao! He killed her son, and she sleeps in his bed!”
“You can,” Huaisang says. A cold corner of his mind is already working on the problem of what to do if he can’t. “You have to.”
“Don’t you want to stop him from hurting more people?” Mo Xuanyu demands. “Isn’t that more important than the perfect revenge? What if he kills Jin Ling next? Or his wife? Or—me? Would it still be worth it?”
Huaisang gives them both a moment to breathe, letting that last question hang in the air. There’s an easy answer he could give him—one that might stabilize Mo Xuanyu a little, calm him enough that he could bear the situation for longer. But—Mo Xuanyu is the only person Huaisang hasn’t ever lied to. Not about anything that mattered. “Xuanyu,” he says quietly. “How many times do I have to tell you who I am?”
Mo Xuanyu just keeps looking at him, his eyes red and shining.
“The answer is no,” he repeats, calm but firm. He is Nie-zongzhu, like his brother and father before him. He is tempered steel, not a bamboo fan. There will be no compromise in this. “Find a way to bear it.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking,” Mo Xuanyu whispers.
“Little fish,” Huaisang says, not unkindly. “This is the end of this conversation.”
“I can’t do it,” Mo Xuanyu says, still in that hoarse whisper. He’s looking down now, not at Huaisang. “I can’t, I can’t.” This pings something in Huaisang’s memory—Mo Xuanyu standing in front of him years ago, saying that he couldn’t leave Jinlintai. There’s a note in his voice that’s exactly the same, a desperate honesty.
“Take your hair down before you leave,” Huaisang says, just to break him out of it.
That gets Mo Xuanyu to look at him again, blinking hard. “What?”
“Unpin it,” Huaisang says, “and then pin it back up. Badly, like you were distracted.”
One of Mo Xuanyu’s hands drifts up to his hair, and the simple hairpiece keeping it pulled back. He looks—lost. Then he slaps his hand down on the table, his jaw set. “Why don’t you just fuck me,” he says, and his voice only shakes a little.
Huaisang blinks, genuinely shocked. “What?”
“You want it to look like we fucked, right? That’s the excuse you came up with,” Mo Xuanyu says, and abruptly stands and drops himself into Huaisang’s lap. Huaisang catches him by his shoulders and shoves him back a little, and Mo Xuanyu scowls at him from a few inches away, caught. His eyes are still too bright. “So fuck me,” he says, like it’s a challenge.
“I’d rather not,” Huaisang says blankly. It’s true. He likes to be free with his bed partners, but he’s yet to bed anyone of actual consequence to his plans, and he’d like to keep it that way. More than that, Mo Xuanyu is—Mo Xuanyu. The boy Huaisang thought wouldn’t live out the year.
“I’m that disgusting?” Mo Xuanyu sneers, and squirms in Huaisang’s lap.
“Stop that,” Huaisang says, wincing.
“Fine. Don’t touch me. I’ll do all the work.”
Huaisang succeeds in pushing Mo Xuanyu off his lap, although he keeps his grip on his shoulders, out of self-defense. “That’s enough,” he says sharply. “This is not happening.”
“Why not?” Mo Xuanyu demands, arms tense against his hands. “You’ll use me for everything else.”
Huaisang deserves that, so he doesn’t correct him. “You need to pull yourself together,” he says very softly. Huaisang, restrain your grief.
Mo Xuanyu makes a sharp, frustrated noise, and then lunges forward, not breaking Huaisang’s grip but shoving him forward. He crashes their mouths together, clumsy and angry. One of Huaisang’s teeth catches against his own lip, a little flash of pain. He wrestles Mo Xuanyu off him, then uses a little real power to send him sprawling across the room. He stands up to put more distance between them.
The worst thing is that Mo Xuanyu looks thoroughly debauched. His robes are wrinkled, his hair is slipping free of its tie, and his mouth is bright pink. The look on his golden Jin face is pure hurt. He’s beautiful, Huaisang registers, and isn’t sure if the little lurch in his stomach is lust or self-loathing.
“I think you should leave now,” Huaisang says, when his breathing is under control.
Silently Mo Xuanyu gets to his feet and picks up the mask. He’s trembling a little, and almost drops it. He pauses at the door. “At least think about it,” he says dully, not turning around. Huaisang knows he means the murder, not the sex.
“I’ll think about it,” Huaisang says, and it isn’t even a lie. It still sinks like a rock into the pit of his stomach.
“Thank you, Nie-zongzhu,” Mo Xuanyu whispers, and then he leaves.
Huaisang never wanted to be sect leader, but he has learned some things about the work by doing it. For example, the price of Yunmeng silk, and how to measure it in Jin rice, Gusu porcelain, Qinghe steel. Compromise, compensation, negotiation. He is not unyielding. No one gets everything they want: those who try fail. You have to decide what matters. You have to be willing to give up, to make sacrifices, or you’ll spend all your energy holding on to the wrong things.
Huaisang has spent the last ten years pretending to be a fool. And Qinghe prospers. So yes, he knows when to let something go, and what to hold onto.
If Huaisang’s brother were resting quietly next to Huaisang’s father and grandfather, Huaisang might be able to allow his murderer a quiet death. For the sake of a boy he does not want to die, he might yield that far.
But Huaisang’s brother is not resting. Huaisang’s brother is in pieces. Huaisang’s brother once jumped into a literal abyss to save him; Huaisang’s brother is the only person Huaisang has ever really loved. Huaisang isn’t sure if he’ll ever love anyone like that again. Jin Guangyao tricked Huaisang into poisoning his brother, and then Da-ge died of that poison, and now Da-ge is in pieces.
There’s nothing to be done.
“Ah, San-ge,” Huaisang says, raising his cup appreciatively. They’re sharing a cup of wine together, just the two of them. Most of the conversation so far has been about Huaisang’s visit to Cloud Recesses, and the doings of Lan Xichen. “The wine is even more wonderful this spring than last year! I’ll dream of this wine when I leave Lanling.”
“Please take a case as a gift upon your return home,” Jin Guangyao says, returning the toast.
“So generous,” Huaisang says, pouring himself a second cup.
“I’m glad to see you enjoying yourself, A-Sang,” Jin Guangyao says, and that is a cue.
“Oh, yes,” Husaisang says, and ducks his head a little, bashful. “By the way, you were right about the disciple we discussed earlier.”
“Oh?” Jin Guangyao asks politely. “Have you had the opportunity to speak with him?”
Huaisang gives a careless nod, and then makes a face. “He’s changed since the last time I saw him. More—talkative? Than usual?”
Jin Guangyao nods, apparently untroubled by the idea that a sect leader has been habitually spending time with his much younger brother without talking to him. “Talkative?”
“Yes,” Huaisang says, and hesitates. Bites his lower lip. “I’ll be honest, San-ge, a lot of it didn’t make sense.”
“I hope he didn’t bother you,” Jin Guangyao says.
“No, no,” Huaisang says, unconvincingly. “It was just...wild stories, things like that.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it, San-ge,” Huaisang says, with an awkward little laugh. “Just—maybe tell him not to valorize Wei—the Yiling Laozu so much. People could get the wrong idea!”
“Ah,” Jin Guangyao says, with a delicate frown. “People could get the wrong idea. Thank you for letting me know.”
“Of course,” Huaisang says, draining his cup. “You’ll talk to him?”
“I’ll do my best,” Jin Guangyao says, and gives a short little sigh. “I’m glad he has a friend like you.”
There, Huaisang thinks. That should be enough to keep Jin Guangyao alive, but not so much that it means Mo Xuanyu will end up in the ground.
He pours himself a third cup of wine.
Three months later, Mo Xuanyu is thrown out of Jinlintai for pestering the Chief Cultivator’s wife. He should be safe there, if unhappy: disinherited is better than dead.
Huaisang waits for a rain of butterflies, but they never come.
Over the next six months, Huaisang’s work bears sudden frustrating fruit.
First, his new eyes inside Moling-Su report that not only does their sect leader’s long habit of vanishing without word continue without explanation—visits that last for days without taking a single member of his retinue, unexplained absences from his room in the middle of the night, unexplained reappearances in places people previously looked for him—he is very strict about his privacy. His servants all have instructions to never see him disrobed, even when drawing him a bath. There are rumors that even Su She’s whores only see him with two layers of robes on. There are other, quieter rumors, about what disfigurement Su She could possibly be hiding.
It is well known that the Yiling Laozu cast Hundred Holes on Jin ZIxun, which is the reason Jin Zixun and later Jin Zixuan died at the hands of the Ghost General. But Huaisang still remembers Wei Wuxian standing on the roof of the palace, denying it. Wei Wuxian was many things, but never to Huaisang’s knowledge, a liar.
He’s assumed for years that Jin Guangyao had something to do with his brother and cousin’s deaths, but the logic had never quite evened out: who could have predicted how boldly Jin Zixun would act, or how Wei Wuxian would respond? But if Jin Guangyao’s henchman cursed Jin Zixun, and blamed it on the Yiling Laozu...it isn’t proof, exactly, but put next to the rest of it, it looks damning. At the very least it would convince Yunmeng Jiang that the Chief Cultivator had murdered his brother and cousin.
Huaisang is still sorting through all the information and theories he’s gathered about Su She when he receives word that his agents have located the missing woman from the ruin of Blossom House. She’s kept in a secure compound and guarded day and night. He sends his most trusted—and best paid—surrogate to bring her out alive, and then he interrogates her himself, behind a mask.
Sisi is the best discovery Huaisang has made since Mo Xuanyu’s confession about Rusong, and quite possibly better than Bicao. Huaisang puts her under lock and key again, with the assurance that this is temporary and that she will be free to spend as much of his purse as she likes in the meantime.
So: Sisi is his evidence that Jin Guangyao killed a sect leader and his own father, and in the most horrible way possible. Bicao is his evidence that Jin Guangyao secretly and knowingly married his own sister, and got a son on her. Mo Xuanyu is his evidence that Jin Guangyao killed his own son in cold blood, and kept both Xue Yang and the Stygian Tiger Amulet secret so that he could continue experimenting with demonic cultivation. Su She is his evidence that Jin Guangyao provoked the Yiling Laozu into murdering Jin Zixuan and Jin Zixun—and thereby also indirectly caused the massacre at Nightless City.
That...is almost enough. It would be better if all of it weren’t testimony from years ago, and from such untrustworthy figures—but there are things Huaisang could arrange that would make it all feel urgent and immediate. If Jiang Wanyin believed Jin Ling were ever in danger, or if the other sect leaders were given the urgent impression that their own lives were at the Chief Cultivator’s whim. He could frame Jin Guangyao for that, or simply provoke him into trying something reckless himself—Su She’s hot temper is enough of a weak spot.
If the world turned against Jin Guangyao now, if they justly hated Jin Guangyao for everything Huaisang can level against him—if Jin Guangyao lost his wife, his position, his family, his wealth, his friends—it would be for his crimes against the Jin Clan.
It would not be for Da-ge.
So. It’s not enough.
Huaisang takes a small, trusted retinue on a visit to Gusu, and then has them stop in Caiyi town for a summer festival. He gives them quiet instructions to enjoy themselves, and that if they discuss him in public, they should mention how much Nie-zongzhu is enjoying himself at the local brothel.
Then he leaves on horseback, an unobtrusive talisman pinned to his robes, and rides for Mo Manor.
He expects to find Mo Xuanyu still angry at him, full of self-pity and hurt at having lost the home and the name he wanted for himself, the future his mother hoped for, the wealth and privilege of Jinlintai.
Instead, he can’t find Mo Xuanyu in the family wing. He doesn’t try to introduce himself to the family—he doesn’t want anyone to know Nie-zongzhu visited here—but some quick observation is enough to show him that there is only one young master in the family. He can’t find Mo Xuanyu in the servants’ quarters either, although he can’t imagine why he would.
It takes him a full hour of searching—testing the limitations of his talisman whenever anyone passes by—to finally hear one of the laundry girls complaining about carting linens “all the way out there.”
There’s a little cottage—barely a shack—at the edge of Mo Manor, Huaisang discovers, heart sinking. He knocks, but there isn’t an answer, so he just goes in.
The interior is filthy. There are dirty dishes stacked on the ground, and heaps of loose paper everywhere. There’s a faint sickly smell, and almost no furniture. There’s so little light coming in from the shuttered windows that it might as well be evening, deep shadows in each of the corners.
“Xuanyu?” he calls out, pushing back his hood.
“Go away,” comes the thin-voiced response. Huaisang follows it, and discovers a dark curtain drawn over a sleeping alcove. He slips underneath it, and finds Mo Xuanyu lying on the bed. He’s fully dressed and wearing his mask. It’s hard to tell in the dim light but Huaisang thinks his eyes are closed.
“Little fish?” he repeats, and when this gets no response, he sits on the edge of the bed near Mo Xuanyu’s feet. “You won’t even sit up to greet me?”
Mo Xuanyu doesn’t move, although his breathing gets faster.
“Xuanyu,” Huaisang says softly. “You really won’t look at me?” He rests a hand on Mo Xuanyu’s ankle, and Mo Xuanyu jerks away from him, then scrambles up to sitting, moving so fast that he smacks his head against the far wall.
“You’re here,” Mo Xuanyu says, and cautiously pats the ankle Huaisang touched, like he needs to make sure it’s still there. “You’re here. Why are you here?”
“I wanted to see you,” Huaisang says.
Mo Xuanyu makes a short coughing noise that might be a laugh. “Oh,” he says. “Well. Here I am.”
Mo Xuanyu tilts his head to the side, as if he doesn’t understand the question. “You know what happened,” he says, matter of fact. “You happened.”
Huaisang has never looked into the Mo family in any detail. He knew Mo Xuanyu was unhappy here, but he hadn’t imagined this. A room like this.
Huaisang breathes. “The air is stale in here,” he says. “You should open a window.” Putting action to words, he stands up and pulls back the shades of the alcove’s only window. Early twilight spills into the room, and Mo Xuanyu flinches away from it. “Have you eaten?”
In the better light, Huaisang can see that Mo Xuanyu’s hair is tangled and unkempt, and there is a dark bruise staining his jaw.
“Nie Huaisang,” Mo Xuanyu says tiredly. “Why are you here?”
“I need your help,” Huaisang admits. He smiles tightly, without showing his teeth.
Mo Xuanyu stares at him, and then breaks out into more choking laughter. Huaisang waits, the pit in his stomach growing deeper and deeper. “I’m sorry,” Mo Xuanyu says, “What? You need my help?”
“Yes,” Huaisang says.
“Why should I help you,” Mo Xuanyu says, still smiling a little, “when you have never helped me?”
Huaisang thinks of the years he has known Mo Xuanyu: the boy he helped out of the fountain, the boy whose complaints and fears he listened to, the only person he has ever brought into his confidence. He thinks Mo Xuanyu is right. “How can I help you now?”
“Oh,” Mo Xuanyu says, carefully readjusting his seat, wincing a little although Huaisang can’t see anything obviously wrong with him. “You could kill my aunt. And my uncle. And my cousin.” He looks sideways at Huaisang. “You could kill my brother.”
“Why not just kill them yourself?” Huaisang asks him. He isn’t going to kill random people, no matter how cruel they might be to their families. He isn’t a vicious person. All the blood on his hands is for Da-ge; there have to be lines he won’t cross. “You’re a cultivator; they’re civilians.”
“They broke my xiao.” Mo Xuanyu looks away. “I’m not Wei Wuxian; I can’t whistle and have ghosts do my bidding.”
“I could bring you a new xiao,” Huaisang says, and hates himself for it a little. “If you help me.”
Mo Xuanyu keeps staring at the curtain, drifting in the breeze from the open window. “You won’t help me.”
“I could,” Huaisang says, and discovers he’s clutching Mo Xuanyu’s blanket hard in one fist. He makes himself let go and smooth it down. “I could take you away, if that’s what you want. Not to Qinghe, but—somewhere.” A secure house like the one Sisi is kept in; a vault for Nie Huaisang’s treasures.
“What do you want from me,” Mo Xuanyu asks, like he can hear the unspoken part of Huaisang’s thoughts.
“I need to know where the rest of my brother’s body is,” Huaisang admits, and Mo Xuanyu rasps out another laugh. “You’re the only one who can do it.”
“I’m not good enough,” Mo Xuanyu says frankly. An odd expression crosses his face, twists his mouth. “I just said I’m not Wei Wuxian.”
“You’re the next best thing,” Huaisang tells him. “You know where to start. That’s all I need.” It isn’t all he needs, but if Mo Xuanyu managed to improve on his skills—or if he managed to lead them to Xue Yang—
“No.” Mo Xuanyu’s eyes glitter behind the mask.
“You’re not being reasonable,” Huaisang says.
“I’m offering you a way out,” Huaisang says, louder, as if that will help Mo Xuanyu to hear him.
“You’re offering me garbage,” Mo Xuanyu says flatly. “You think I want to be your plaything any more than his?”
Huaisang is silent for a moment. “What can I do?”
“I can’t find your brother, Nie-zongzhu.” Mo Xuanyu curls in on himself, hugging his knees up to his chest. His voice is low, hopeless. “There’s nothing for you here.”
Huaisang feels himself reach out, hand poised above Mo Xuanyu’s arm, without conscious thought. He makes himself stop. Mo Xuanyu watches him do it. “So that’s it? You’re done?”
Mo Xuanyu says nothing. Huaisang realizes that he’s angry. Very angry. He’s shaking with it. “You’re just going to let them get away with it?” He curls his lip, contemptuous. “You’d let them have that?”
Mo Xuanyu’s fingers dig into the fabric of his robes.
“Maybe I should just leave you to die here,” Huaisang says coldly.
Mo Xuanyu makes a sharp noise, almost like an animal. One of his hands goes scrabbling for something under the blanket. “Is that what you want, Nie Huaisang?” he says, voice thick.
“No,” Huaisang shouts. “I want you to help me!”
Mo Xuanyu lunges across the bed, and slaps a piece of paper onto Huaisang’s chest. He leaves his hand there, pressing down hard until Huaisang takes the paper. “You’re as bad as they are,” Mo Xuanyu hisses. “You’re worse, because you know better.”
Huaisang unfolds the paper. In shaky, ink-stained calligraphy are the instructions for an array. He reads it with slow-dawning horror.
“What is this,” he breathes when he’s finished.
“It’s your next step,” Mo Xuanyu says, and grins at him. It looks horrible. “And mine.”
“This will kill you,” Huaisang says. He shakes the paper. “This would worse than kill you, Xuanyu, this—would destroy you. Your spirit—”
“Fuck my spirit,” Mo Xuanyu says, that horrible smile twitching on his mouth. “You think I want this? You think I want any part of this world again?”
Abruptly Huaisang can’t stand not to see Mo Xuanyu’s face. He rips the mask off, and Mo Xuanyu doesn’t try to stop him. He’s pale underneath it, purple shadows under his eyes. He looks beyond exhaustion, like he’s been tired for years. Huaisang hates it. Huaisang hates himself for leaving him here. He hates that he’s thinking about it: about who Mo Xuanyu could bring back. “There has to be a better way,” Huaisang says, and it comes out thin, wrong.
Mo Xuanyu laughs at him again. “A better way than resurrecting the Yiling Laozu?”
Huaisang’s mouth drops open. Wei Wuxian could solve every problem. Wei Wuxian could find his brother’s body—could control it—stop Xue Yang, recover the Stygian Tiger Amulet, put the pieces together—
“Yeah,” Mo Xuanyu says. He squeezes his eyes shut, tipping his head back. “That’s what I thought.”
It takes Huaisang several tries to speak, his throat dry as paper. “Maybe a temporary possession—at least you’d rejoin the cycle of reincarnation, after—”
“No,” Mo Xuanyu says, and taps the paper in Huaisang’s hands. “Didn’t you read the most important part? Wei Wuxian will have to do whatever I want, or die again.”
“Not negotiable,” Mo Xuanyu says. He grins again, brief and awful. “Who do you think I’ll have him kill, Huaisang?”
Oh. His aunt, his uncle, his cousin, his brother, and—
—the person who did this to him.
Huaisang’s heart is beating so hard he’s surprised Mo Xuanyu can’t hear it.
“That’s the deal,” Mo Xuanyu tells him. “I’ll do it, and you’ll make sure it works. You’ll give him as wretched a death as you can dream up. And then you’re fucking following me.”
He’s known since his first visit to Sword Sacrifice Hall that he’d die for his brother. To die by Xuanyu’s will, if not his hand—
It’s what Huaisang deserves, probably.
“Okay,” Huaisang whispers. He laughs shakily. “Okay, yes. Whatever you want, A-Yu.”
A muscle clenches in Mo Xuanyu’s jaw, and then he puts both his hands on Huaisang’s shoulders. He’s breathing too rapidly, and Huaisang closes his eyes.
“If you really don’t want to,” Mo Xuanyu says stiffly, “you can leave.”
Huaisang is already a cruel, heartless man. Look at what he’s done already. It’s not like this will tarnish his stained spirit any worse than it already is. Mo Xuanyu leans in very close, lips a breath away from his, and Huaisang doesn’t move.
“I’ve been in love with you,” Mo Xuanyu says viciously, “since I was sixteen.”
The heart Huaisang doesn’t have cracks, and Mo Xuanyu kisses him. It’s clumsy, unpracticed. Huaisang doesn’t deserve it—not the hitch in Mo Xuanyu’s breath or his hands tightening on Huaisang’s sleeves or his soft, pink lower lip. Huaisang kisses him back, as carefully as if he were a porcelain doll, as though he might break and shatter apart in Huaisang’s hands.
“I hate you,” Mo Xuanyu says into Huaisang’s mouth. It tastes like salt, because one of them is crying. It might be Huaisang. “Fuck me.”
It’s disgusting in that stale bed, that dark room. Huaisang feels Mo Xuanyu’s heart pounding in his chest, spreads a hand over the persistent beat. Huaisang kisses him as sweetly as he’s ever kissed anyone—kisses him like a bridegroom, like a bride—until Mo Xuanyu shudders in his arms. He uses every trick he’s ever learned to make Mo Xuanyu feel alive and in his body. When he does fuck him, he uses too much oil, and he goes slow, and Mo Xuanyu bites his neck and his jaw and digs his hands into Huaisang’s ribs trying to make him go fast. He’s beautiful, Huaisang thinks again, his eyes stinging. He’s beautiful, he’s sweet, and Huaisang has killed him. Huaisang will be killed by him.
Huaisang doesn’t understand when he became this person. How many times do I have to show you who I am? he asks himself, and chokes a little.
Mo Xuanyu starts swearing when he gets close, thighs trembling around Huaisang’s waist. Huaisang knows how to make an orgasm feel like the only thing in the world. He grinds in deep and touches Mo Xuanyu too lightly, keeping him right at the brink until his cock is twitching against his belly and he’s clawing at Huaisang’s back, and when Huaisang finally does fuck him properly he sobs. Mo Xuanyu comes like that, shaking and held. Huaisang makes it last, makes him stay in his body where it’s good for just a little longer.
Finally Mo Xuanyu pulls Huaisang’s hand off his cock, and buries his face in Huaisang’s shoulder, clinging to him. Huaisang is still hard inside Mo Xuanyu’s body, and he is sick with it. He cradles Mo Xuanyu close like a child, and kisses his sweat-damp hair. They stay like that a long time, until Huaisang goes soft and slips out. He isn’t sure if he’s ever been more tired.
“Are you sure,” Huaisang says, and his voice cracks. Mo Xuanyu’s head is a warm, heavy weight against his shoulder. His eyes are very dark when he looks at Huaisang, but his voice is even.
Huaisang meets Wei Wuxian again for the first time in sixteen years in Qinghe. He looks the same, except for the mask. He talks circles around Huaisang, compliments his fan, finds more pieces of Da-ge like it takes no effort at all, slings his arm over Huaisang’s shoulders like he’s forgotten he’s in disguise, and thinks they’re still friends. He’s brought Lan Wangji along, and Jin Rulan, and has half the puzzle solved in under a month, when it took Huaisang ten years.
Huaisang throws up afterward, in the grass outside Sword Sacrifice Hall.
After Da-ge is made whole and laid to rest at last, after Jin Guangyao dies a wretched death, Huaisang goes home. It does not take him long to put things in order. He waits for Wei Wuxian.
When a week passes and he doesn’t come, Huaisang goes to Cloud Recesses. He offers Wei Wuxian as much of an explanation as he can in front of Hanguang Jun, and then invites him to drink in Caiyi Town that evening.
Wei Wuxian raises his eyebrows up to his hairline, but accepts.
He looks like the boy Huaisang remembers from his own youth. He’s pathetically grateful for it.
They sit together in the best suite of rooms available in Caiyi Town drinking Emperor’s Smile until Huaisang manages to tell Wei Wuxian what he’s come for.
“Wei-xiong,” he says, the liquor warming his chest but doing nothing for the way the muscles are all clenched tight. “Are you glad you came back with your own face?”
“Of course,” Wei Wuxian says immediately. “It’s a very handsome face.”
“When you woke up to your new life. You were marked in some way?”
Wei Wuxian taps his left forearm, wrapped up in red cloth and black ribbon. “Now, how could Nie-zongzhu know about my scars?” He’s smiling, and his voice is friendly, but his eyes are suspicious. “Unless you’d seen the array before, perhaps?”
“Oh,” Huaisang says, and pours them both more wine. His hand doesn’t shake at all, he’s pleased to see. “In sixteen years, one can’t help but pick some things up.”
Wei Wuxian taps the side of his nose. “I’ve been wondering where Mo Xuanyu got the idea for Sacrifice Summon,” he says plainly, and Huaisang doesn’t correct him. He downs his cup instead, a quick rush of heat. “If you have a copy of the array, I would appreciate if you destroyed it. Not that I’m ungrateful to be here, but I should never have made it in the first place.” His voice hardens. “I would be displeased to find out it had been used again.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Huaisang murmurs. Da-ge is resting. Xuanyu is gone. Who else would Huaisang want to bring back?
“Then I suppose we can be friends,” Wei Wuxian says, like that’s all. But his eyes are still sharp.
“Ah, Wei-xiong,” Huaisang says, reaching for the bottle again. “Forgive my impertinence. But haven’t you wondered who the final wound belongs to?”
“The open wound,” Huaisang corrects him.
Wei Wuxian looks at him for a long moment. Then he reaches for the ribbon tying up his left sleeve, and starts unwinding it. Huaisang doesn’t let himself consider questions like ‘how’ or ‘when’: he is carrying powdered aconite in his purse that he’ll swallow if Wei Wuxian allows it, and he’ll take whatever comes if not. Wei Wuxian sets the ribbon aside, and then pushes up his sleeve.
His bare arm has four silvery scars crossing it—the revenge Mo Xuanyu died for—his uncle, his aunt, his cousin, his brother. There is no fifth cut, open or closed.
All the air leaves Huaisang’s chest, like he’s been punched.
It hurts to breathe. It takes all of Huaisang’s skill—and sixteen years of practice—not to break down weeping at Wei Wuxian’s feet. His heart is beating with such force that he has to press a useless hand to his chest just to hold himself together.
“Wei Wuxian,” he says hoarsely, when he can speak, although he can’t move his hand away from his heart. “You’d better be happy with this life. It was very dearly bought.”
A strange look crosses Wei Wuxian’s face. “Who was he to you?”
Huaisang’s heart keeps beating under his hand, as it is apparently going to keep doing. He doesn’t know if this is love or kindness or the best revenge he’s ever seen, but it hurts. “Someone who knew me,” Huaisang says finally.
Wei Wuxian says nothing to that, but his face is full of pity.
“I’m tired,” Huaisang says after a moment. “Could you leave?”
Wei Wuxian leaves, and Huaisang drinks the rest of the wine by himself.
He’s not sure where the turning point was. If he’d listened to Mo Xuanyu in Jinlintai—if he’d kissed him back—if he’d listened to Mo Xuanyu in Qinghe—if he’d stopped him from being pushed in the fountain in the first place—
“Da-ge,” Huaisang whispers to the night air coming in at the window. “I don’t know how to live with it.”
“Da-ge,” he says again, and he is weeping now. “Please help me.”
But Da-ge is sleeping in Yunping, and there is no one in the world who knows him anymore, and there is no one at the window. Huaisang is alone.
He stops crying eventually. He wipes his face clean, and pours the last of the wine into his cup. If there is nothing to do but live with himself, then Huaisang will live with himself. Far be it for him to deny a man his revenge.
He toasts the empty room.