It took Lan Xichen five years to emerge from Cloud Recesses. Half a span of revenge, by Nie Huaisang’s count.
Five years, and the First Jade of the Lan arrived at Jinlintai just in time to absolutely ruin Nie Huaisang’s enjoyment of the cultivation conference’s opening banquet. Welcome back, Xichen-ge, he thought bitterly. Punctual as always. Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen reached the top of the stairs, along with a small batch of Lan disciples. Nie Huaisang ducked out of their line of sight to watch from behind a pillar.
He snagged a passing serving girl with a slanting look. She hurried over and dipped in a bow. Here it came, zongzhu, zongzhu, what can I do for you. Even as a know-nothing, servants were still afraid of clan leaders. Nie Huaisang noted a smear of powder on the inside of her sleeve, where she’d clearly been using it to dab sweat off of her face. Poor dear; it was humid this time of year, and she couldn’t be much past her fifteenth birthday. She’d been alive for as long as Nie Mingjue had been dead.
“Ah, miss, is the Nie delegation still seated between the Jiang and Lan clans for the banquet tonight?” Nie Huaisang asked. He winced and tapped his teeth with a fingernail, not bothering to hide how incredibly awkward his evening was about to become.
She wrinkled her brow, took a moment to count tables surreptitiously on her fingers, then nodded.
Wonderful. Either Jin Rulan was an idiot or no one knew that Lan Xichen was going to show up until after the seating chart was drawn up. A voice that sounded an awful lot like Meng Yao suggested that if someone was looking to stir up trouble between the Nie and the Lan, seating Zewu-jun and Nie-zongzhu next to each other at a public event was a fabulous way to do it. Jin Rulan wasn’t as young as he used to be, and shared with Nie Huaisang the dubious honor of being partially raised by Meng Yao.
Nie Huaisang shook his head to himself. He didn’t have to think like that any longer. He was done: all he wanted from the rest of his life was comfortable living, a prosperous sect, and to never touch a blade again. He’d been doing pretty well on all fronts lately.
It had been shaping up to be a really lovely party, and honestly, quite a nice cultivation conference in general. The theme this year was cultivating in formation and arrays, which Nie Huaisang and the rest of his clan were quite skilled with. He was finally going to have an opportunity to chat about how nice and under-appreciated the architectural lines of Jinlintai were.
Instead, his last surviving brother was exchanging polite bows with Jin Rulan, and Nie Huaisang was going to spend four days on edge. He pulled a fan from his sleeve and flipped it open with a flourish. The serving girl’s sweaty face wasn’t out of place in the humid air. A mosquito whined past Nie Huaisang’s ear and he fanned it away with a flick of his wrist. The disturbed air blew one of the loose pieces of hair framing his face against his cheek, where it stuck to his skin. It tickled, sending a shiver down to his fingertips. Nie Huaisang reached up to fix his hair. The mix of hair oil and sweat clung to his fingers once he was done, slick like the memory of blood.
Why couldn’t you just stay in Gusu where you belonged? Nie Huaisang thought bitterly. Go back to atoning, Zewu-jun. It suited you.
Nie Huaisang found safety in an unexpected corner: Jiang Wanyin. It was a well-known fact that Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian gave the Jiang sect leader a wide berth, and Lan Xichen appeared glued to his brother’s shoulder for the time being. Nie Huaisang sketched a half-assed bow in the direction of the Lans and fluttered off to find Wei Wuxian’s very estranged brother — quickly enough to dodge an unbearably polite smile from Zewu-jun, not quickly enough to avoid an ice-cold glare from Hanguang-jun.
Unfortunately, Jiang Wanyin was zero fun.
Jiang Wanyin scowled at his nephew. Then he scowled at the decorations. Then he scowled at some flowers. Then he scowled at Nie Huaisang. At least he looked handsome no matter how sour his face was.
“Why are you here?” Jiang Wanyin asked shortly. He did everything shortly.
Nie Huaisang rolled his eyes and said, “Avoiding my family, just like you.”
Jiang Wanyin snorted. “What family could you possibly be avoiding?”
It was a challenge not to laugh at how spectacularly rude Jiang Wanyin was capable of being. The only thing that saved the man from getting slapped at least once a week was the overwhelming sense that he’d take any hand that touched him off at the wrist.
“You must have noticed that the esteemed Zewu-jun has returned from his long isolation,” Nie Huaisang said. Not long enough, Nie Huaisang thought.
“Hmph.” That would be a no on the noticing, then. Jiang Wanyin was going to extraordinary lengths to stay out of his brother’s view if he hadn’t even caught sight of the Lan delegation. Lan Xichen didn’t cut a subtle figure. “So?”
“Jiang-xiong, your memory is even worse than your brother’s!” Nie Huaisang teased, then tapped his lips in regret as Jiang Wanyin flinched hard enough to make Sandu rattle in its sheath.
“Zewu-jun is still my er-ge,” Nie Huaisang said more gently.
“Gods above,” Jiang Wanyin swore. “You unlucky bastard.”
No, that would be my other sworn brother, Nie Huaisang thought. “Do you think I can pretend to be indisposed for the entire conference?” he said out loud. “I have a delicate constitution.”
“Don’t you dare make my nephew look bad by not attending his conference! I’ll burn down the Unclean Realm.”
“You can try, Jiang-xiong, but my home is made of stone, and it will be quite difficult.”
Nie Huaisang ducked out of the way of the slap aimed at his shoulder, laughing. For a flash he felt like a teenager in the Cloud Recesses again, before a thousand horrible things happened to everyone he knew. Then they both remembered themselves and settled back into their more worn adult selves.
“Don’t hide in your guest quarters like a coward,” Jiang Wanyin said firmly. “I’ll protect you.”
“Are you going to throw up?” Jin Rulan asked, giving Nie Huaisang a worried look.
Nie Huaisang thought about it. He’d had a lot of wine with dinner, and then more wine after. “No,” he decided.
“Good, because Hanguang-jun is coming and I need to go do...sect leader stuff.”
“Hey hey hey no — ah damn,” Nie Huaisang called after him. Jiang Wanyin had left him with his nephew while he went off to take a piss, and now he was being abandoned entirely to a terrible fate. It didn’t help that he was very drunk. Being very drunk at the banquet had been his plan since well before Lan Xichen arrived, obviously, but there was happily chatting about engravings drunk and there was coping with your family history drunk, and Nie Huaisang was experiencing the latter.
“It’s two in the morning, you little shit,” Nie Huaisang muttered at Jin Rulan’s retreating form. Nie Huaisang was also a sect leader: he knew business didn’t stretch past midnight unless there was war brewing or family was involved.
Nie Huaisang covered the lower half of his face with his fan so he could wrinkle his nose at Lan Wangji. He looked stately, but in the Lan way where that meant layers and layers of gauzy robes. Beyond impractical. To the casual eye, it made them look less warlike than the Nie clan, or even the Jiangs. But Nie Huaisang had watched Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen executing perfect, brutal violence. All that frivolous silk would have bound a lesser fighter’s limbs, slowing them. But the Lans killed so efficiently it didn’t matter what they wore. Those delicate robes spoke volumes; it was a brilliant piece of sartorial work, Nie Huaisang had to admit. Comforting to the weak, intimidating to the powerful.
“Nie-zongzhu,” said Lan Wangji, and bowed. It was long past the Lans’ resting hour, which at least meant that Lan Xichen was not accompanying him.
I’ll protect you, Nie Huaisang thought, deeply annoyed with Jiang Wanyin. He’d sat through two entire hours of Jiang Wanyin’s opinions about some new treatise on sword forms, peppered with awkward overtures about why Nie Huaisang didn’t carry a blade himself. Nie Huaisang had been polite about it the entire time as repayment for the repeated glares Jiang Wanyin kept leveling at the Lan contingent to keep them at bay, only to be left exposed at the critical moment.
“Hanguang-jun,” Nie Huaisang replied, and bowed with as little wobble as he could manage.
Lan Wangji stood extremely straight and fixed his gaze at a point about six inches above Nie Huaisang’s left shoulder. “My elder brother wishes to speak to you.”
Too bad for him that I do not share his wish. All Lans could go throw themselves off the side of their holier-than-thou mountain of rules and regulations.
Apparently Lan Wangji was not finished, because after a portentous pause he continued, “I believe this is unwise.”
Nie Huaisang rapidly raised his evaluation of Lan Wangji’s common sense and decency.
“I think,” Nie Huaisang said carefully, forming the words as well as he could around his drunken tongue, “it would indeed be best if Zewu-jun and I did not spend much time face to face while in Lanling.”
Lan Wangji nodded, turned, and drifted briskly away.
An odd alliance, but a welcome one. Nie Huaisang deserved worse than an unpleasant banquet and an uncomfortable conversation. Still, he didn’t plan on collecting his due any sooner than he absolutely had to. Fifteen years after the death of his first brother, five after the death of his third, Nie Huaisang had no interest in being killed by his second brother in a final, stupid gasp of revenge. Lan Xichen, the First Jade of the Lan, Lord of all that Flourishes, could cleave through Nie Huaisang in one fluid motion. It’s what had made him a useful weapon in the end.
Nie Huaisang sighed, scanned the room for anyone watching, and left. Halfway to back his guest rooms, he changed his mind about not throwing up.
The happenings at breakfast the next morning would have to be relayed to Nie Huaisang second-hand, as he spent the morning being hung over. A servant knocked on his door with a tray of simple food and left it on the step for him when he hadn’t emerged by mid-morning. Jinlintai was well-prepared for over-indulgence by its guests.
The place was filled with veterans of an old war. There were plenty of reasons to drink, even two decades later.
Reasons like Lan Xichen wanting to talk to Nie Huaisang.
Briefly, Nie Huaisang considered bringing some sort of weapon to the day’s events. He discarded the thought as soon as it arose. What would Nie Huaisang even do with a knife when confronted with Lan Xichen? The last thing Nie Huaisang had done with a blade was cut his own leg open, and that hadn’t even been a particularly elegant wound. The scar high on Nie Huaisang’s thigh was puckered and uneven. Shoddy workmanship; one of Nie Huaisang’s least favorite things.
He hollered for his attendant, and was answered so quickly the man must have been waiting outside his door for hours. A pang of guilt struck Nie Huaisang over so inconveniencing him before he remembered that he was sect leader and this was the service due to him. How was that still so difficult to remember?
The attendant chided him into drinking tea to soothe his stomach and his head, then set to re-braiding his hair.
“Gently, gently!” Nice Huaisang scolded. “My hair is attached to my scalp, you know, and my scalp is connected to my headache.”
“Not too tight today. I don’t need my eyebrows pulled halfway up my brow.”
“Of course, zongzhu. Drink your tea.”
Nie Huaisang changed his mind three times about what hairpiece would look best, and dithered so long about which over-robe gave him the right balance of martial appearance and coquettish vulnerability that he missed the first quarter of the Jiang Clan’s demonstration of channeling spiritual energy via whips.
The demonstration was well-choreographed, and Jiang Wanyin had even reserved a seat at his left side for Nie Huaisang. At his right was Jin Rulan. Nie Huaisang was grateful for his cadre of eligible bachelors, especially with Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji, and Lan Xichen sitting across the open courtyard from them.
Nie Huaisang kept his eyes averted. Watching Jiang Wanyin watching his brother was painful enough.
“It’s rude to be late,” Jiang Wanyin whispered, face thunderous.
“You left me alone with your nephew, who then deserted me in the face of Lan Wangji,” Nie Huaisang whispered fiercely back. “Now we’re even.”
Later, Jiang Wanyin saved Nie Huaisang a place again for the midday meal. It forced a mild scuffle as the established seating arrangements were disrupted. If it had been just Nie Huaisang sitting somewhere incorrect, he would have been bullied back into place next to Lan Xichen. Jiang Wanyin, on the other hand, did not take kindly to bullying, and nobody even tried.
“Your disciples performed very well! You should visit Qinghe along with a group of them to practice formations with us. I think we could develop something quite special by combining the best of both styles,” Nie Huaisang said as they were served.
The food was rich and delicious, as expected. There were tender dumplings floating in soup, the bone broth simmered so long that it coated the lips, with scallions floating in delicate rings over the surface of the liquid. It seemed there were a hundred dishes: cold chicken generously doused in vivid chili oil, crisp greens steamed with fragrant herbs, sweet pork with soy glaze, salted fish so crisp and flaky that it shattered in the mouth before melting on the tongue. Jin Rulan had a sweet tooth to rival Nie Huaisang’s, so there were also water chestnut cakes molded into delicate shapes of leaping fish and many-petaled flowers and fried cookies rolled in black sesame and crushed peanuts for later.
Jiang Wanyin picked up a dish of pork belly and wood ear mushrooms and slid it closer to Nie Huaisang’s bowl.
“I’ll think about the trip,” he said, and glared across the hall to where, presumably, Wei Wuxian was malingering. “Yunmeng is busy this autumn, and Qinghe has the most foul winter weather.”
“Of course,” Nie Huaisang said. “However, Yunmeng’s rivers are beautiful in the frost. Perhaps this winter we could come to you, if it would be more convenient.”
The Jiang clan, despite Jiang Wanyin’s temper, was very prosperous and flush with cash. They controlled almost all of the dye production in the region, and guarded the secrets of their recipes fiercely. No one could create a fast red pigment as fine as Yunmeng. Unlike the Jin clan, they didn’t display their money so ostentatiously, but Nie Huaisang saw wealth in the vivid purple of Jiang Wanyin’s robes, plain as day.
“You’re a charmer, Nie-xiong,” Jiang Wanyin said grudgingly. “I see why no one trusts you.”
So rude. This time Nie Huaisang was unable to contain his laugh of delight. “Everyone trusts me, Jiang-xiong! I am very predictable in my tastes, which are refined, and my wisdom, which is lacking.”
Jiang Wanyin snorted into his tea. It was fun, lying to someone who knew the game and wasn’t going to bother hiding it. Nie Huaisang quite enjoyed artifice without trickery.
“Let me visit you. It’ll be fun, and I get cold so easily,” he wheedled.
That netted him an eye-roll and a non-committal humph, which was as good as a yes from Jiang Wanyin.
I won’t even use you to kill your sworn brother, Nie Huaisang silently promised. On my honor.
“Nie-xiong!” Wei Wuxian’s voice broke through the cicada-humming night air. Nie Huaisang was drunk again, and from the sing-song slur of Wei Wuxian’s words, he wasn’t alone.
“Wei-xiong, you scared me almost out of my skin!” Nie Huaisang shouted back, scanning the pavilion for a slender figure in black, stomach turning at the possibility that it would be accompanied by two silent figures in white.
“Higher, higher,” Wei Wuxian called, and Nie Huaisang finally spotted him, sprawled alone on the roof of Nie Huaisang’s quarters. He waved brightly, then tipped his head back to pour more wine into his mouth. Some of it missed, falling on his chin and the collar of his robes. Nie Huaisang winced on behalf of the silk. Lan Wangji had to be spending a fortune keeping his husband in fine clothes. Wei Wuxian wiped his face with his palm, unconcerned.
“Join me! The roofs here are very comfortable. Much better than Cloud Recesses.”
Nie Huaisang looked up, knitting his eyebrows and widening his eyes. “Wei-xiong,” he whined. “I’ll fall.”
“Ah, none of that. Be brave, Nie-zongzhu.”
“I work very hard to not be brave!”
Wei Wuxian leaned forward abruptly, coming to a rest with his elbows propped on his knees and his drunken gaze uncomfortably sharp. “I remember working very hard to avoid carrying my sword,” he said.
It would have been indecorous to flinch or stomp his foot, so Nie Huaisang didn’t. Wei Wuxian reached a hand down from the eaves, and Nie Huaisang leapt upwards to catch it. Then he was hauled without ceremony up onto the roof and handed a jar of wine.
“I haven't seen you spend this much time with Jiang Cheng in years,” Wei Wuxian remarked, once Nie Huaisang was settled. “Did he turn into a pleasant conversationalist since the last time he bawled me out in public?”
“What do you think?”
“I think that you like my brother the way you like that horrible little parrot that bites whenever you take it out of its cage,” Wei Wuxian mused. “Which means only in small doses. However, the past days you two have been inseparable companions. I’m forced to conclude that you’re using him for some purpose of your own.” He paused and took a drink, giving Nie Huaisang an expectant look. Nie Huaisang pouted back at him.
Wei Wuxian sighed and continued. “If there was some quarrel between your sects, you might try to keep him close, but he wouldn’t be keeping a space open for you at his side. So — “ Wei Wuxian paused again to shoot Nie Huaisang one of his dazzling, devilish smiles. “You must be courting him!”
“Aren’t you?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“I am a bachelor, first and foremost!”
“Hm, hm, that’s true,” Wei Wuxian said, nodding sagely. “It’s some other reason then. I would have spoken to you earlier, but it’s dangerous to allow Lan Zhan within reach of Zidian. Are you avoiding me? No no, can’t be, we’ve had so many lovely conversations at these parties. Who else — “
“Fine, fine!” Nie Huaisang said. Wei Wuxian’s relentless monologues of logic had broken down far more difficult audiences. “Lan Xichen is here, and I don’t — I don’t know.”
Silence fell between them. The noise of people talking had faded into low threads of conversation between pairs and trios as the last guests walked back towards their rooms. From the dining pavilion came the clink of tableware being cleared and the scrape of furniture being dragged away. Sounds traveled differently on the rooftops, Nie Huaisang observed. It filtered up from the paths and open doorways, all of it equally indistinct whether it came from just beneath their feet or halfway across the top tier of Jinlintai. Nie Huaisang listened to the tap of tree branches against wooden screens where the gardeners had been neglectful in their pruning, the trill of katydids, the rasp of someone snoring with their window open. The shift of Wei Wuxian’s robes as he drank next to Nie Huaisang was just another part of the night song.
“He was very angry, the first year,” Wei Wuxian said eventually. “But it’s faded.”
Nie Huaisang knew a thing or two about anger that appeared to fade. Also, he’d already been warned off. “Lan Wangji thinks differently.”
Wei Wuxian raised his eyebrows, eyes dancing. “Is my husband keeping secrets?”
“He said Lan Xichen wished to speak to me, and that it was a poor idea.” Nie Huaisang didn’t feel like joking anymore.
“Hm.” It was fascinating, watching how mirth slid on and off of Wei Wuxian’s face. His features softened as his attention drifted inwards and he turned his gaze to the stars. “I wouldn’t assume that was for your sake.”
Mid-morning the next day, it was time for a friendly calligraphy showcase. Since calligraphy was one of the arts meant to aid in swordsmanship, Nie Huaisang had been allowed to practice it since he was small. It never translated into skill in martial arts, but he had become reasonably respectable among the gentry, and was looking forward to being openly good at something.
The event itself was only loosely organized. A few desks were arranged in one of the tower’s spacious reading rooms, and everyone took turns with the brush while others gathered round to watch and pass judgement. Nie Huaisang created a well-balanced inscription for prosperity in bird seal script. Not as romantic as he often chose, but it stood out against the other styles. The thin arcs and consistent lines reminded him of home.
Once all the brushes were down, a gaggle of masters and scholars arrived to argue over whose brushwork was superior. There was an unspoken rule that they would move the best work to the central table to be most prominently displayed, and someone would slyly hand the winner a jar of wine as a prize later on in the evening. Nie Huaisang didn’t expect to win. Lan Wangji had taken the prize — and handed the wine immediately to his husband — the past four times they’d come together and dallied in the arts at a conference.
Nie Huaisang kept a sharp eye out for Lan Xichen. He and Lan Wangji had taken part in the showcase, but the room was large and they’d largely stayed seated off to the side. As soon as the Lans rose, Nie Huaisang was out the door.
The midday meal was as sumptuous as expected. Jiang Wanyin sat beside him and did a poor job of hiding that he was fretting over Jin Rulan’s cultivation level, spurred by some interaction Nie Huaisang had missed. By his age, Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian had been the Twin Heroes of Yunmeng, well-hardened by death and combat. Nie Huaisang suspected that Jin Rulan had never killed anyone in his life.
It wasn’t so bad, not being the type of person who knew how to cut throats. Nie Huaisang didn’t say so; it wasn’t the kind of thing Jiang Wanyin wanted to hear. He wanted someone to listen and make sympathetic noises while he complained about Jin Rulan’s desire to learn trick shots instead of how to shoot an arrow so it struck his enemy in the eye every time.
Luckily, with Jiang Wanyin wrapped up in insecurities about his own parenting, Nie Huaisang got away with eating almost nothing without comment. He felt nauseous, and faintly like he was going to slide out of his body if he wasn’t careful. The past two days had been filled with too much watching, too much being aware of every thread of connection in the room and carefully hunting for the inconsistencies that would betray their secrets, too aware that Meng Yao was doing the same thing and doing it better and that he must never, ever consider Nie Huaisang a threat, not even for a moment.
He needed some air. Nie Huaisang decided to take his chances and spend some time by himself to go back and take a look at the calligraphy winners. Art was always a balm.
The reading room was cool and empty. Nie Huaisang stood just inside the doorway for a long moment and closed his eyes, breathing in the smell of ink, paper and varnished wood. Jinlintai, with its relentless golds and eggshell blues, demonstrated slightly more reserve in the reading room. The colors were darker, the light less blinding.
Spread in the place of honor on the central table, held flat with smooth, red jade weights, was a sheet of rice paper with calligraphy that definitely didn’t belong to Lan Wangji. It was loose but elegant, freer than Lan Wangji’s flawless writing but still perfect in its grace.
“Wow,” Nie Huaisang breathed, leaning close to the page. Somebody here was awfully good. Nie Huaisang had an inkling as to who, but to dwell on it would ruin his appreciation for the work, so he didn’t.
There was no signature; only an artist’s seal pressed into the bottom left-hand side. Semi-anonymous, but not ostentatious about it. The identity of the artist floated closer to the fore of Nie Huaisang’s mind. He let it slide away and considered the brushwork more carefully. Each stroke caught the movement of the painter’s hand, connected by whisps of ink left by a lightly dragging brush tip. The style would betray even the slightest tremble or hesitation, but there was no sign of faltering. Quietly, he read it aloud. “Opening my robes, I sit at the edge of heaven. With a wave of my hand, I brush away the clouds and smoke.”
“Next time, for fairness’s sake, I’ll abstain,” said a smooth voice next to him. “None of my fellows have enjoyed the time I’ve had over the past five years to do nothing but practice.”
Nie Huaisang jerked backwards so violently he stepped on his inner robes and felt a seam pop as the fabric yanked. Standing at his shoulder, head tilted at a slight angle to survey his own work, was Lan Xichen.
He looked almost the same.
Lan Xichen’s face was still beautiful. Perhaps even more than before; there was a translucent delicacy to it now, like finely carved celadon jade. He wore his familiar serene close-lipped smile. But he didn’t blink enough, and his gaze moved from place to place with glacial slowness, as if he planned every sweep of his eyes, carefully controlling what he saw, and when. Like if he looked too quickly he might see ghosts. Nie Huaisang had the overwhelming sense that he was standing next to a porcelain vase balanced at the very edge of a table. One too-heavy footfall and it would tip over and shatter.
What word had Wei Wuxian used to describe him — faded.
“Where’s Lan Wangji?” Nie Huaisang asked, and whipped his fan open. It was too aggressive. Blunt like a Nie. If Lan Xichen startled and fell, who knew how the shards would fly and who they might cut.
Lan Xichen’s infuriating smile grew for a moment, then receded. “Where is Jiang-zongzhu? We’re both missing our minders.”
Nie Huaisang rankled at Jiang Wanyin being called his minder, then remembered that he had larger worries. Like whether or not Lan Xichen had his sword with him. It wasn’t visible, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t tucked away somewhere in his flowing robes.
“I wanted to speak to you alone,” Lan Xichen said quietly.
“Er-ge, I — I —”
Nie Huaisang wondered if it was even worth keeping up the act; it wasn’t as if Lan Xichen didn’t know the truth. For ten years, Nie Huaisang’s best defense had been that everyone looked at him and saw only where he failed to fill the void left by Nie Mingjue. He was an embarrassing grace note attached to an immense grief. Wasn’t it easier to dismiss him as a little fool than to consider one who shared their loss?
Nie Huaisang had sacrificed that defense in Guanyin temple, at least among the gentry. The common people remained ignorant of all but the vaguest details.
Lan Xichen stared at him with glass-black eyes. I could have done it quietly, Nie Huaisang thought. You would never have known. But Nie Huaisang had wanted to take everything from Jin Guangyao. Which meant that before he died, Jin Guangyao had to know that Lan Xichen found him disgusting.
“Huaisang,” Lan Xichen said, terrible and gentle, “I forgive you.”
“You forgive me?”
Lan Xichen’s slow gaze fell back to his calligraphy. I brush away the clouds and smoke. He nodded once, a small jerk of his chin.
Nie Huaisang’s nerves flashed in an instant into fury. His grip tightened on his fan until the ribs creaked, threatening to crack. He slapped it closed against his palm so he wouldn’t be in danger of tearing it. Then he took a deep breath and folded the ribs carefully, composing himself. The fury didn’t subside, but at least it stopped steaming off of his skin, condensing back within the borders of his body.
He thought seriously about backhanding Lan Xichen’s perfect face. Decided against it.
“Who gave you the right?” Nie Huaisang asked, spitting the words through his teeth.
Apparently, that wasn’t the response Lan Xichen was looking for. He swayed backwards, a branch bending in the wind. His brow knit almost imperceptibly as he looked back at Nie Huaisang with wide, limpid eyes.
“Do you think it’s your job to decide whether I did you wrong? Do you expect me to be grateful that the great Zewu-jun has judged my actions and deemed it not worth a blood feud?”
Lan Xichen tipped his chin up, his eyelids fluttering like he wanted to close them but couldn’t commit to the action. Da-ge always cried when we fought, Nie Huaisang thought. Don’t you dare try it on me.
“Please let me forgive you,” Lan Xichen said. Nie Huaisang could see hairline cracks forming under the surface.
Nie Huaisang felt venomous. “Did you love him?”
Lan Xichen shook his head, mute, not answering.
“Did you love the man who killed my brother? Tell me!” Nie Huaisang shouted. He felt closer to his ancestors than he had in years, prepared to fulfill the destiny of every Nie leader for generations. Dead by the hand of his own wrath. So it might come at the point of Shuoyue instead of the blade sickness: both were the consequence of rage.
“Tell me, Er-ge. If you loved him more than anything, how can you forgive me? Think how happy you would be, if I had never used you to take my revenge. Or maybe you never loved Jin Guangyao, and Da-ge’s corpse rotted unavenged for ten years for nothing. Either way we can never be reconciled! So which is it?”
Lan Xichen’s perfect, smiling mouth fell open, soft and helpless. Nie Huaisang wanted to watch him cough and spit blood on the floor.
Then the doors burst open, and in rushed Jiang Wanyin, Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji, and Jin Rulan, all breathless.
The study was suddenly very crowded, and it didn’t make Nie Huaisang any less angry. Jiang Wanyin grabbed him by the arm and yanked him back a few stumbling steps. There was a muted scuffle nearby as Lan Wangji subjected his brother to the same treatment, pulling on his shoulder until he took two reluctant paces back.
“If you break anything in this room, I’m billing your clan treasuries!” Jin Rulan shouted.
“I left you alone for half a stick of incense!” Jiang Wanyin said, also shouting, much too close to Nie Huaisang’s ear. Nie Huaisang rapped Jiang Wanyin sharply on the knuckles with his folded fan, and he let go of his arm with a hiss of surprise.
“Brother,” Lan Wangji said, much more quietly than the other two.
Wei Wuxian stood silent in the background, playing with the tassel of his flute, thumb rubbing over its carved bead over and over again. Whether he meant to or not, he cut an intimidating figure. The room simmered with tension.
“Well?” Jin Rulan demanded, crossing his arms over his chest. “Are you two done?”
Lan Xichen held out a hand, hushing him.
“Huaisang,” he said softly. Lan Wangji’s hand tightened on his shoulder, but he went on, undeterred. “Jin Guangyao played a part in front of me for a decade and a half. Maybe there were some elements of truth woven into the role. I will never know how much the portrait resembled the man. The A-Yao I knew — he died in that temple before you even arrived.” Lan Xichen stopped to take a shaky breath. “And yet — how could I not love him? Jin Guangyao created him especially for me.”
He touched Lan Wangji’s hand with a small shake of his head, and his brother reluctantly let him go. Then he sank gracefully to his knees.
Jin Guangyao would have been proud. Lan Xichen kneeling was heartwrenching. His chest rose and fell in quiet, shallow breaths, lips parted around the words I’m sorry. The blatant manipulation was too much to take. Nie Huaisang changed his mind and slapped Lan Xichen across the face.
The crack of Nie Huaisang’s palm against Lan Xichen’s cheek shocked even Jin Rulan silent. Lan Xichen fell sideways down onto one elbow; he barely missed cracking his skull against the edge of the table. His hair spilled over the sheet of calligraphy, black drifting across black ink. Nie Huaisang’s palm was hot, his fingertips cold.
In a whirl of black and red, Wei Wuxian appeared in the space between Nie Huaisang and Lan Xichen. He held Chenqing out in front of him, arm stiff, face stony. Jiang Wanyin’s hand found the hilt of his sword. Behind Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji dropped to the floor next to Lan Xichen, propping up his brother’s sprawled form. Lan Xichen stayed limp. His cheek was vivid where Nie Huaisang had struck him.
This was what it looked like when the vase was dashed against the floor: irreversible.
“Some things can’t be forgiven,” Nie Huaisang said, not quite able to catch his breath. “You’re not better than me, just because you’re willing to pretend they can!”
Lan Xichen’s eyes cut upwards to Wei Wuxian for a long moment, then turned back to Nie Huaisang.
“Should we fight?” he asked plainly. “Is it better if more of us die?”
That would be tidier. That would make sense.
Lan Xichen shook his head and pushed himself up, using the edge of the table as support. His fingertips wrinkled the corner of his calligraphy; Nie Huaisang winced. He hated to watch beautiful things go to waste. “It doesn’t matter,” Lan Xichen continued dully. “I won’t agree to harm you.”
“Why not? You have every reason, why wouldn’t you?”
“I’ve forgiven you, little brother,” Lan Xichen said. “It’s done.”
Jiang Wanyin caught Nie Huaisang just before he collapsed. All the fury drained from him, leaving behind a dry cavern in his chest. Jiang Wanyin’s shoulder was warm and solid under his arm as he took almost all of Nie Huaisang’s weight. Nie Huaisang leaned into the support, sagging.
Cautiously, Wei Wuxian backed away so he was no longer blocking Lan Xichen with his body, although his fist remained tight around the flute. Without looking, Lan Wangji reached out and caught Wei Wuxian’s free hand with his own. Lan Xichen watched them, and some of the emptiness in his face turned to peace. Ah.
Nie Huaisang hadn’t brought Wei Wuxian back for any sentimental reason. His enemies held a piece of the Tiger Amulet: Yiling Laozu could solve that problem for him. But he’d brought him back all the same. How much would Lan Xichen have traded to see happiness on his brother’s face again? To no longer set a watch on anniversaries, to stop wishing he could send Lan Wangji to a place without so many cliffs.
How unfair, to be forgiven thanks to such an incidental act.
“C’mon,” Jiang Wanyin said, pulling on Nie Huaisang again. This time, Nie Huaisang went where he was directed: out the door, across the courtyard and over small decorative bridges until they reached the lotus ponds that surrounded Jiang Wanyin’s rooms at Jinlintai.
Nie Huaisang was perfectly capable of supporting himself by the time they’d gotten halfway across the first courtyard, but he let Jiang Wanyin half-carry him anyway. When they arrived in Jiang Wanyin’s sitting room, Jiang Wanyin settled Nie Huaisang into a sitting position on the daybed, then dropped down heavily next to him.
“Older brothers,” Jiang Wanyin muttered darkly.
Nie Huaisang heard himself start to laugh, high and thready, not entirely under control.
Jiang Wanyin lit the brazier to heat water for tea, gave Nie Huaisang a long, considering look, and fetched alcohol instead.
“Hefeng liquor. Notes of lotus root and toasted rice, long finish but not cloying, well-integrated flavors and a subtle aroma,” he said, setting a pot of it on the table in front of Nie Huaisang. “I brought it to try to teach A-Ling that there’s better things to drink than the terrible sweet wine he likes, but you look like you need it. ”
“Ah, you’re too kind, too kind, Jiang-xiong.”
“Also, it’ll get you stinking drunk.”
“Much too kind.”
Nie Huaisang pulled the lid off of the Hefeng liquor and sniffed appreciatively. He poured for Jiang Wanyin, then for himself, and took a sip. Jiang Wanyin watched him, waiting for Nie Huaisang to praise Lotus Pier’s specialty. Nie Huaisang smiled, relieved that he could give a genuine compliment in this arena. It was high quality, better than the sweet osmanthus wine Jin Rulan had been serving.
“Exquisite,” he said.
“Yeah, well, it had better be,” Jiang Wanyin said, clenching his jaw and glancing away to the side. “It’s good to know you have taste.”
“I’m a patron of the arts, even when I’m drinking in the middle of the afternoon,” Nie Huaisang told him, taking a hearty sip to demonstrate his dedication to enjoying the good things in life.
“Hmph.” Jiang Wanyin knocked back his entire portion of liquor and topped them both back up. “I need to drink, after all that. You practically sent me into qi deviation, slapping Lan Xichen! What did he say?”
Nie Huaisang shook his head.
“If you can’t talk about it sober, get drunk faster,” Jiang Wanyin said sharply.
The best thing about Jiang Wanyin was how he made Nie Huaisang laugh without even trying. He chuckled into his cup, happy that it sounded less hysterical than before. Look at that: Sect Leader Jiang, blacklisted by every matchmaker in the region for his vile temper, the first person in months to let Nie Huaisang openly laugh at him. A giddy mix of amusement, alcohol and recently-dissipated rage made Nie Huaisang’s head spin.
He drank two more cups of the rich Hefeng liquor before drawing their conversation back to Lan Xichen.
“He forgave me, the supercilious piece of shit,” Nie Huaisang said.
“That’s it? Were you hoping he’d draw Shuoyue on you?” Jiang Wanyin said. “You’re not stupid; you know you’d lose, right? Even if he’d been neglecting his sword forms for the past five years, which he hasn’t, you’d lose.”
Obtuse bastard. If he wasn’t going to figure it out on his own, Nie Huaisang was going to have to poke some of his sore spots. As soon as he had another shot of Hefeng liquor.
“You too have done unforgivable things,” Nie Huaisang said, voice rough despite the smoothness of the drink. “Things you could never take back. Do you want Wei Wuxian to pretend the slate can be wiped clean?”
That struck. Jiang Wanyin’s jaw went tight; Nie Huaisang thought of lying on a cold tile floor, eyes closed in feigned unconsciousness while Wei Wuxian whispered, Forget it. That was all in my previous life. Good for Wei Wuxian — how fortunate he could discard the past. Some people weren’t so lucky.
“I wanted him to be angry,” Nie Huaisang said.
Jiang Wanyin made a disbelieving sound. “Lan Xichen? Angry? Lan Xichen?”
“When things matter, you get angry about them!” Nie Huaisang snapped. “You don’t just — kneel and forgive and pretend.”
“So you are a Nie after all,” Jiang Wanyin said. “Huh.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That under all the you —” Jiang Wanyin waved a hand up and down to encompass Nie Huaisang’s entire form — “there’s a backbone.”
“You can go fuck yourself, Jiang Wanyin,” Nie Huaisang said. It came out more fond than waspish.
“Who else am I going to fuck, a woman?” Jiang Wanyin asked with a snort, then made a horrified face and drained his cup in a hurry.
“Oh come on,” Nie Huaisang said, patting his shoulder. “You’re officially the second most attractive bachelor in the cultivation world now that Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian are married.”
“I’m aware who made that list, flatterer,” Jiang Wanyin said.
“And I’m an excellent judge of bachelors,” Nie Huaisang replied easily. “I know about these things.”
Jiang Wanyin grabbed the jar of liquor and took a drink straight from it. Without a word he passed it over to Nie Huaisang, who took it and drank as well. A drip escaped the corner of his mouth to run down his chin. Apparently he was turning into a messy drunk to rival Wei Wuxian. He wiped it away, and found that his lips were already starting to go numb. Strong liquor on an empty stomach was less of a good idea than he’d expected.
Across the table, Jiang Wanyin’s rigid posture loosened as he too edged into drunkenness. He’d stopped glaring into space, and was instead focused on polishing Sandu’s pommel with the corner of his inner robe.
“Are you all right?” Nie Huaisang asked, after the silence stretched too long. Jiang Wanyin was often not all right, to the point where his foul moods were almost completely unremarkable, but this seemed like a more specific type of troubled, and Nie Huaisang wanted to know.
“How much of it was you?” Jiang Wanyin asked, softer than Nie Huaisang was used to hearing him. “Jin Guangyao, Su She, Qin Su, Mo Xuanyu —”
“Almost all of it,” Nie Huaisang answered, and he was drunk if he was answering this plainly. Meng Yao would have his tongue if he knew Huaisang was ignoring all of his lessons in statecraft, then Jin Guangyao would find him out, and he would die like Da-ge, bleeding from his eyes, but worse because there’d be nobody to avenge him, not even a blade spirit left behind, the end of the line, a final disappointment to the centuries-old Nie legacy.
“Why?” Jiang Wanyin asked.
“He killed Da-ge.” He’d thought that was clear. And now Jin Guangyao was dead, Nie Huaisang remembered. He’d won.
“No,” Jiang Wanyin said, still soft but increasingly irritable. “Don’t be obvious. Why didn’t you ask me for help?”
He sounded so frustrated and lost it took Nie Huaisang a moment to process it.
“You could have told me! We’re friends, I would have believed you!”
“I didn’t know,” Nie Huaisang said, and it was almost true. He’d known once, but he’d let himself fall too deep into the game. He’d forgotten that everyone didn’t need to play by Jin Guangyao’s rules, which were first and foremost to trust no one and kill who you must.
“Well, now people are dead,” Jiang Wanyin said. “So remember it next time.”
Nie Huaisang hoped there would never be a next time. It seemed unlikely, in any case. There wasn’t anyone he loved left to die at this point. What a maudlin thought.
“You slapped Lan Xichen,” Jiang Wanyin said eventually, out of the blue and full of drunken wonder. “I’ve thought so many times about hitting Lan Wangji, but you actually did it. What’s it like?”
Nie Huaisang pulled a petulant face. “Honestly? Not as nice as you think it’ll be.”
“So...Jin-zongzhu, should I apologize for causing a diplomatic incident?” Nie Huaisang asked, lifting his fan to shade his face from the slanting Lanling sun. He’d used one of Wei Wuxian’s talismans to sober up after leaving Jiang Wanyin’s quarters, but the damn things always left a blistering hangover. Late afternoon was a terrible time for a headache, he decided.
Jin Rulan frowned and scuffed his shoe against the ground. “Uncle said to be grateful nobody got pushed down the stairs, and that the rules are different if you lived through the Sunshot Campaign. Then he complained about Sen — about Wei Wuxian for a while, I think because he was annoyed that they were in the same room without shouting at each other.”
He fiddled with the pendant on his sword, a nervous habit he certainly didn’t pick up from Jiang Wanyin. “That’s good, right?”
“Brothers shouldn’t fight,” Nie Huaisang agreed. He got a skeptical look for the hypocrisy, but shrugged it off. “It’s good of you to want to help them.”
“Jin-zongzhu, lying is unbecoming of a sect leader.”
When Jin Rulan snorted he sounded exactly like Jiang Wanyin. But he wasn’t hardened underneath the surface the way his uncle was. Nie Huaisang had spent a lot of time with Jiang Yanli in the Unclean Realm during Sunshot. She would stay up all night in the makeshift infirmary with the dying, mopping their brows and holding their hands when they cried out for their families in the grips of delirium. Nie Huaisang sat with her during those difficult hours, and they sang to each other to help stay awake. They shared silly rhyming games from childhood, nonsense lullabies, boisterous melodies for marching, boasting, and drinking. By the end of the war, he’d learned almost every song she knew. Sometimes he saw her in her son so acutely it made his heart clench. A pity the boy hadn’t inherited her good taste and instead took after the fashions of his gaudy father.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” Nie Huaisang said. “You ought to ask them for more stories of your mother. Absolutely not when they’re in the same room. Ideally not even the same city. But it will be good for them to think of her more often.”
Jin Rulan shot him a suspicious look. “Don’t meddle.”
“It’s not meddling, it’s advice,” Nie Huaisang said. “You don’t have to take it.”
A breeze lifted the humid air up out of the courtyard for a fleeting moment, making bells ring in the distance. Nie Huaisang had the urge to dig his fingers in under his braids to itch at his scalp, so the cooler air could reach there too. He indicated with his fan and raised his eyebrows to indicate that they should move to the shade, or perhaps even go inside where there would be chilled sour plum tea and cut fruits to enjoy.
They wandered over to an open pagoda, hung with light, billowing curtains. The supporting pillars were carved with the shapes of flowering branches. It created a pleasant, almost-private space. Nie Huaisang nonetheless checked the sightlines to see if there were any carefully placed gaps to allow a spy or an archer to see past the obscuring silk.
This entire business with Lan Xichen was making him paranoid. Perhaps he should just —
“Jin-zongzhu, may I ask you a question?” Nie Huaisang asked. Jin Rulan shot him a look that was only moderately suspicious, then shrugged.
“Did you know Lan Xichen was coming?”
Question asked, Nie Huaisang tensed, ready to counter a sidestep or a lie, but Jin Rulan rolled his eyes and huffed in irritation. “I thought the third person they were bringing was Sizhui!” he complained. “Would it kill them to tell me things ahead of time? You and Uncle have been ruining all of my seating charts, and Ouyang-zongzhu is really cranky that he and Yao-zongzhu haven’t been able to sit together gossip like fishwives.”
There wasn’t any artifice to the answer that Nie Huaisang could see. None at all. “Lans,” he agreed after a moment. “They never say anything until absolutely necessary, and sometimes not even then.”
“Did somebody tell you? You could have given me a warning, if they did,” Jin Rulan said, looking down and frowning.
“No,” Nie Huaisang said.
Jin Rulan’s face did something complicated, then settled into a stubborn expression that made him look older, and sadder. “I did try to keep you and Lan Xichen from having a fight. Even if it would have done more than threaten to make a mess in my reading room; I’m not like that.” He bit the inside of his cheek, revealing that under his persistent baby fat there were cheekbones after all. “The whole Jin clan isn’t going to be like that anymore. I swear — I swear on my mother.”
It hurt, in a piercing, clean way, to hear Jin Rulan repudiate Jin Guangyao so staunchly. The next generation was going to be better than they were.
“I’m sorry,” Nie Huaisang said. “You don’t need to — I wasn’t trying to imply —-”
“Does it happen to you too?” Jin Rulan asked carefully.
“Where you forget he’s dead, and it makes you frightened?”
And if that wasn’t an odd feeling, not being alone. It had been an odd day. Nie Huaisang had told the truth so many times in a row it was almost becoming easy.
“Yes,” Nie Huaisang said. “Often.”
“He would hate it so much, me talking like this to you,” Jin Rulan said with a brave smile. “I’d have bruises on my upper arms for weeks from him dragging me off for a lecture on discretion and decorum.”
Jin Guangyao would have left worse than bruises on Nie Huaisang. But he remembered being Jin Rulan’s age and enduring the sharp tongue Meng Yao brought out in private, and had more sympathy.
“If he saw me slap Lan Xichen earlier, I think he would have died of apoplexy on the spot,” Nie Huaisang said, forcing his tone to lighten.
“He’d bring out the smile,” Jin Rulan said slyly. He bared his teeth in an eerie imitation of Jin Guangyao’s most strained polite expression.
Nie Huaisang laid a dramatic hand over his heart, feigning horror until Jin Rulan gave in with a laugh. He dropped the awful grimace and Nie Huaisang made an exaggerated show of relief.
“I have sect leader business to attend to soon. Do you think you and Zewu-jun can behave for the rest of the day?” Jin Rulan asked. He lifted his chin in a self-important gesture no one had been able to drum out of him since he was a teenager.
“Ah, Jin-zongzhu, I’m wounded you think I’d be anything but polite at your cultivation conference.”
Jin Rulan rolled his eyes and turned to leave. When he reached the steps leading out into the main courtyard, he turned and caught Nie Huaisang’s eye. “Nie-zongzhu — maybe later you could tell me some stories about Chifeng-zun. I know I must have met him, but I was too little to remember.”
Nie Huaisang dipped his aching head and laughed helplessly, shielding his face with his fan in a token effort to hide it. Jin Rulan grinned, pleased with his own cleverness.
“Jin-gongzi! You presumptuous young man! Trapping your elder in his own net!” Nie Huaisang said, shaking a finger and chasing after him. Jin Rulan danced backwards, raising his hands to block Nie Huaisang as he swatted at him. “I will have to tell you exactly what da-ge would have thought of that.”