“Would you believe that I’m a saber spirit?” the ghost asked. “Or maybe an ancestor?”
“No,” Nie Mingjue said. He did not put down the exorcism talisman.
The ghost sighed. “Well, it was worth a shot.”
Before Nie Mingjue could do anything more, the ghost rushed at him – taken aback, Nie Mingjue flinched, and when he opened his eyes again the ghost was gone.
He still pinned the talisman onto the swaddling wrapped around his baby brother, who was grumbling in sleepy dissatisfaction at having been nearly woken up.
He wasn’t taking any chances with his brother’s health.
“I’m actually not dangerous,” the ghost argued. He’d figured out that if he hovered high enough, Nie Mingjue wouldn’t be able to get at him – though he still flinched whenever Nie Mingjue threw rocks at him. He must be a relatively new ghost. “I know it’s difficult to believe, but I’m here to help.”
“Sure,” Nie Mingjue said. There were plenty of pebbles next to the place where laundry got done, and he could grab one without being spotted whenever he dunked the clothing in. “I believe you. Come down here a little closer, I’ll believe you some more.”
The ghost sighed.
“Just give me a chance, okay?”
“I have good reasons –”
“If you come any closer, I’ll douse you in a male virgin’s urine,” Nie Mingjue said. “Ghosts are supposed to hate that.”
The ghost huffed. “Like I’m dumb enough come near you when you’re swaddling the baby anyway.”
“I’m leaving, I’m leaving! Just put Baxia down already!”
“You need more salt.”
“I thought ghosts hated that, too?”
“Maybe it’s rock salt ghosts hate?” the ghost asked, floating over Nie Mingjue’s shoulder. “I don’t think I have anything against proper seasoning.”
Nie Mingjue huffed, rolling his eyes, but he did add a little more salt.
“Ah ha!” the ghost exclaimed. “You are starting to listen to me!”
“That’s when the recipes says to put it in,” Nie Mingjue said. “I was always going to add some more of it in then.”
“I don’t believe you! You were definitely listening!”
“Listen, if I was a normal ghost, your father would have totally gotten rid of me, right?”
“Never said I thought you were normal,” Nie Mingjue said, soothing his brother to sleep in his arms with soft murmurs and a gentle voice that did not come naturally to him. “I said you were a pest. Did I ever say anything about being normal?”
“…no, I guess not,” the ghost conceded. “Damnit, I thought I was onto something with that. Also, shouldn’t a nursemaid be doing that?”
“Can’t be trusted,” Nie Mingjue said.
The ghost frowned, then blanched. “Right, right,” he murmured. “I nearly forgot, what happened with – uh, what happened right around that time. That would have been recently, too, wouldn’t it? You’ve always remembered it better.”
Nie Mingjue didn’t say anything.
“Still, you’re only seven. Even if they were scared to hire a nursemaid for fear of letting in another assassin, shouldn’t someone else be doing this?”
“I’m eight,” Nie Mingjue said.
“The point still stands. Surely one of the servants..?”
Nie Mingjue sighed. “I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but we’re at war,” he explained. “Everyone who can swing a saber is out fighting it, and that includes the servants.”
“I thought it was too quiet,” the ghost said, half to himself. “I haven’t seen anyone else in – okay, actually, now that I think about it, I haven’t seen anyone.”
“War,” Nie Mingjue said.
“You’re eight,” the ghost said. He looked upset. “How could they leave you alone like this? You make your own food, you do the laundry, you take care of – this is ridiculous! There must be people who are too old to go that could help…there must be other children! Where are the other children?”
Nie Mingjue didn’t say anything.
Nie Huaisang needed his sleep, after all.
“I refuse to let this go,” the ghost said. “Even if – especially if – a whole bunch of the other kids died or something, even if all of them died, which they didn’t, there’s absolutely no reason for you to be left alone like this.”
Nie Mingjue sighed. He’d hoped that the ghost would let it drop, but apparently, no.
Apparently, he was going to have to engage.
(Nie Huaisang waving his hands at the ghost, burbling happily, had nothing to do with that decision.)
“You assume they left me,” he said. “You have it backwards.”
“I ran away,” Nie Mingjue explained, and the ghost’s jaw dropped. “This place was abandoned because of the war – too awkward an outpost to be worth it for either side – and I took my brother and we came here, just me and him and Baxia. I’m planning on staying until the war’s over.”
“But why? You’re the heir.”
“Yeah,” Nie Mingjue said. “That’s why.”
“It’s ‘sang’ as in mulberry leaves, right?” he asked. “For his name? I heard you whispering it to him.”
“I - yeah, it’s mulberry,” the ghost said, blinking at him. “And ‘huai’ as in ‘to hold’…but you know that already, surely?”
Nie Mingjue shrugged.
The ghost stared at him. He didn’t blink, which was typical of ghosts, but still a bit unnerving.
“You named the child, didn’t you,” the ghost said. It wasn’t a question. “You take care of him, you raise him, you’re refusing to return home…it’s war, you said. Because of the massacre of the junior generation that everyone pretended was an accident but wasn’t, because of Mother’s death from that assassin pretending to be a nursemaid. People do things when they get angry, during war. What was going to happen to – to the baby?”
“Massacre at his conception, declaration of war at his quickening, assassination at his birth,” Nie Mingjue recited. “That’s three bad things; bad luck comes in fours, and we really can’t afford to lose this war. Newborns die easy as flipping over your hand, and maybe the next one won’t be so unlucky, won’t be a calamity star – that sort of thing. It was too dangerous.”
“Oh,” the ghost said. “I never knew.”
“Of course you didn’t,” Nie Mingjue said. “Who would have told you? I would’ve killed them, first.”
The ghost twitched, and stared at him.
“I like Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue said. “It’s a good name. Even if how you got it is a bit circular.”
“Someone murders you,” the ghost – Nie Huaisang of the future, as Nie Mingjue had long ago figured out, but it was easier to keep thinking of him as ‘the ghost’ – said, sitting with his back against the wall and his knees pulled up to his chest. It’d be a sad and pathetic sight, except for the way he was sitting on the ceiling. “I was trying to come back to stop it from happening…maybe even prevent our father’s murder, too, if I could. That happens when you’re fifteen, by the way. You have to inherit, and spend the rest of your life avenging him.”
“Do I succeed?”
“That’s good, then,” Nie Mingjue said.
“Don’t you want to know more?”
“Why? Are you planning on going somewhere?”
The ghost uncurled himself from his dramatic misery to float down until his head (still upside down) was floating in front of Nie Mingjue. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked.
“Ghosts that resolve their business are liberated,” Nie Mingjue said. “Maybe I like having you around.”
“One day you’re going to save the world,” the ghost told him.
“Today, you already have,” Nie Mingjue replied.
“Maybe I never went back in time,” the ghost said. “Maybe I’m just dead, and this is one of the eighteen hells, punishing me for everything I’ve done.”
“Are you having a bad time?” Nie Mingjue asked. He himself was having a good time: Nie Huaisang wasn’t crying, for once, and he had him sitting in his lap, a stick wrapped in his little baby hand (supported by Nie Mingjue, of course) waiving in the air in the rudimentary beginnings of proper saber forms.
“Well, no. But then again, ‘everything I’ve done’ wasn’t that bad, and all done in the name of filial piety – I even bought already-dead cats – well, except for little Mo Xuanyu. He deserved better than he got from everyone, me included.”
“None of that made even the slightest bit of sense to me, you know,” Nie Mingjue said. “But if you feel so bad about it, I promise to change it this time around.”
“No, you don’t understand,” the ghost said. “If this is the underworld, then you wouldn’t have the chance to change it. We’d just repeat this over and over again, forever!”
“How many times has it been for you, then?”
“Well, only one. But it could be the beginning of many times! Or – or – maybe I’ve forgotten the previous times!”
“Seems like a pretty stupid punishment if you just forget about it,” Nie Mingjue said.
“…hmm. Good point.”
“You’re prone to anxiety, aren’t you?” Nie Mingjue said to the Nie Huaisang in his arms, who made an expression that was clearly his best effort at smiling. He was still building up those facial muscles. “We’ll have to work on that, in this life.”
“Okay, so, positing that this whole living in an abandoned outpost is a real thing that is happened and is still happening, which I’m still not convinced of –”
“I don’t seem like the type to run away?”
“…you were always very righteous.”
“Sometimes, righteous people do stupid things,” Nie Mingjue said.
“Remind me to tell you about someone called Wei Wuxian,” the ghost said, now thoroughly distracted. “He’s more or less the walking, talking incarnation of that…”
“Did he have a sad childhood?”
“What? I mean, I guess so? His parents died, he lived on the streets for a while, developed a fear of dogs, but then he got rescued by Jiang Fengmian and adopted, so – are you taking notes?”
“How else am I supposed to keep track of all these names?”
“Maybe you should go pick up Meng Yao. If you’re planning on changing things, I mean.”
Nie Mingjue squinted at the ghost, who was supervising the stew he was making. It was meat, for once – a pheasant that had conveniently gotten scared to death. The ghost had gotten very creative in how he could help out despite his general incorporeality. “Isn’t that the name of the person who eventually kills me?”
“Why would I go help him?”
“…he had a very sad childhood?”
“If I adopt everyone you say had a sad childhood, there won’t be a junior generation anymore,” Nie Mingjue pointed out. “They’ll all be Nie sect.”
“And it would be better for them.”
“Annoying for me, though.”
“ – and that’s what demonic cultivation is,” the ghost concluded. “Why do you ask?”
“I have absolutely no reason to be interested in a type of cultivation specifically designed to make dead creatures do what I say, including shutting up whenever they’ve started talking in the middle of the night,” Nie Mingjue said, yawning. “None whatsoever.”
“It’s not that late, it’s only – hmm. Oops.”
“It’s not that different from what I do with Baxia,” Nie Mingjue argued.
“What you do with Baxia eventually kills you,” the ghost argued back.
“I thought you said I was murdered?”
“Through an existing weakness!”
“Without which the world will end, so it’s fine.”
“It’s not fine at all!”
“I’m just saying, it would be –”
“No! I am not letting you demonically cultivate with me, and that’s final!”
“Your older self is so annoying,” Nie Mingjue told Nie Huaisang after the ghost had stormed off. Through a wall, no less, and that was purely to be especially dramatic about it since Nie Mingjue knew that he knew where the doors were. “Such a pest!”
“If we’re going to do this – I can’t believe we’re going to do this – we’re doing it slowly,” the ghost said. “You hear me? Slowly. I don’t care how much of a cultivation genius you are.”
Nie Mingjue nodded.
“And no one ever finds out about it, okay? No one. If someone happens to see me, you need to lie and say that I – that I’m –”
“A saber spirit?”
“Baba!” Nie Huaisang burbled, or at least something that sounded vaguely similar. He was probably a few months too young for actual speech, though.
“Da-ge,” Nie Mingjue corrected, just in case.
The ghost sniggered. “So much of my childhood is suddenly explained, you have no idea.”
“I think I’m going to tell him to call you mama,” Nie Mingjue said thoughtfully. “What do you think that’ll explain?”
“You’re depressingly good at this,” the ghost said. “I mean, everyone always said you were a genius, but you’re really good at cultivation.”
Nie Mingjue shrugged.
“I still think you should hold off on the demonic cultivation aspects.”
“We’ve already agreed to disagree,” Nie Mingjue said. “And knowing demonic cultivation helps me refine my cultivation of Baxia as well – I can filter out only the finest resentful energy for her.”
“You make it sound like cat food.”
“Since you also thrive on resentful energy, what does that make you?”
“A mouse, surely.”
The ghost acted as if it had been stabbed and fell over backwards.
“There’s a person outside,” the ghost said. “They’re at the edge of the boundaries.”
Nie Mingjue could feel his shoulders stiffen. “What are they wearing?”
“Nie colors. I would’ve taken care of it myself if it was a Wen.”
They’d had an incident with a Wen squad coming too close, once.
The ghost, strengthened by Nie Mingjue’s demonic cultivation and the bond he’d formed between him and Baxia, had ripped the cultivators in the Wen patrol squad to pieces before they’d gotten too close.
Nie Mingjue had told him that he appreciated the enthusiasm, but to try to keep the mess down a bit next time. All that blood had attracted predators willing to feast on human flesh, and Nie Huaisang was still small.
“What boundary?” he asked, and went to go look down at it from one of the windows. “Oh.”
“Is this going to be a problem?” the ghost wanted to know.
Nie Mingjue looked at the man walking up. “No,” he said. “No problem.”
“What does he want? Is he going to make trouble for Sangsang?”
“No,” Nie Mingjue said. “Just for me.”
He waited outside the door, Baxia in his hand.
His father came to a stop a reasonable distance away. “What will it cost for you to return?” he asked.
It was about what Nie Mingjue had expected. They were a practical family.
Nie Mingjue didn’t have memories of his future life, and the ghost didn’t remember this period of his previous life: the months they had spent together in this abandoned fortress, the way Nie Mingjue taught him to smile and to crawl, fed him and changed him and slept with him to calm him, the life they had shared in the world without the ghost.
Still, he had asked the ghost the questions he had wanted answered, casually dropping names into conversation with the ghost to judge his response, and he figured out what his answer must have been in that life before.
He’d asked for the heads of those that had directly threatened Nie Huaisang, and an oath that the sect would honor Nie Huaisang as the heir, that he would be sect leader following Nie Mingjue. He’d gotten what he’d asked for, but what had been meant as a gift had in the end only been a burden – the ghost wouldn’t have been so desperate to come back to this time if it wasn’t.
He wouldn’t make that mistake twice.
“I’d like to make some changes,” he said, thinking of all the people that the ghost had talked about – all the ones who had sad childhoods. Many were the children of the other Great Sects, which would make things tricky to start – most people didn’t want their children raised by outsiders – but he’d thought of ways to make it work, and he knew the investment would ultimately bear fruit. His father, ruthless as he was, would understand that part of it, at least, even if he didn’t understand the rest. “Back me in full, or lose me forever.”
This was even more of a gamble than what he had asked for in his past life. A few heads, even of loyal servants, didn’t matter much, compared to blood – a blank slate was a far more dangerous request.
His father looked him over, and Nie Mingjue knew that he was calculating whether it was worth it. Whether it was Nie Mingjue’s head that he should take, this time, since he himself was still young enough to have more sons. But Nie Mingjue had learned from the ghost all the secrets he’d known about his own future cultivation, added to it the demonic cultivation he’d deduced, and he was, in the end, a genius.
There was a reason he was confident enough to make the request.
“Very well,” his father said. “I will back you.”
They told everyone that the ghost was an ancestor.