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Under the Smile

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When his father said that someone ought to get rid of Nie Mingjue, that he was in their way, that he would never stop, Jin Guangyao’s first thought was about the Song of Clarity that Lan Xichen was teaching him – and the Song of Turmoil, that he’d taught himself in one of his secret visits to the Lan sect library. He’d long ago noticed the similarities between the two tunes, one to help and the other to harm; it wasn’t similar enough to fool anyone skilled in music, of course, much less in musical cultivation, but Nie Mingjue rather infamously wasn’t.

His second thought was: let’s wait and see.

Perhaps it was only that it had been a very long day, and Jin Guangyao was tired, feeling unusually surly and dissatisfied. But it occurred to him that it wouldn’t do his father any harm to have to actually ask for something from him, rather than merely hint at it and have Jin Guangyao run to do it for him before he even finished the sentence – a rather unpleasant comparison had been made between Jin Guangyao and a poodle earlier that day, and he was still sore.

So yes.

Let’s wait and see.

-

Waiting was not, it seemed, paying off.

His father’s hinting had grown all the more intense, although he had not yet actually asked, and as for Nie Mingjue...

Nie Mingjue had promised to try to trust him again, Jin Guangyao thought to himself with a sigh, but most days it seemed that the only thing he trusted was that Jin Guangyao was up to something.

He scolded and he scowled and he questioned, always looking for loopholes and tricks hidden behind every word and gesture, never giving him the benefit of the doubt on a single thing. Jin Guangyao thought nostalgically back to the days when Nie Mingjue would simply present him with a problem that needed taking care of and tell him to deal with it as he saw fit, trusting not only in his competence in dealing with it but also in his judgment of how things ought to be resolved.

They said that trust was like a priceless porcelain vase: once shattered, it would never be whole again, even if it was repaired.

Jin Guangyao supposed that he deserved it for letting himself get caught like that.  An amateur’s mistake, but you only needed one of those to ruin everything.

But if it couldn’t be fixed…

He was just contemplating the Song of Turmoil again as he walked through the halls of the Unclean Realm when Nie Huaisang unexpectedly tackled him around the waist, making him Jin Guangyao stagger back and nearly fall – poor cultivator or no, Nie Huaisang had some heft to him, and plenty of muscle from years of running from his brother’s attempts to make him train.

“You have to help me, san-ge!” Nie Huaisang said, eyes wide and pathetic in such a patently unauthentic way that Jin Guangyao had an immediate stabbing feeling of empathy, an affliction he almost never suffered from. What a little scoundrel you are, he thought, not without fondness. “Da-ge’s on my case again. Scolding and scowling and trying to catch me in some sort of trick – and I would never play a trick on him, never - not in a million years -”

It occurred to Jin Guangyao that perhaps Nie Mingjue really did treat him as a younger brother, and it was only that he’d incorrectly assumed that he’d be treated as being somewhat more capable than the man’s actual younger brother.

Who was, he conceded, probably equally untrustworthy when it came to the likelihood of playing tricks on his too-earnest older brother, even if the tricks Nie Huaisang generally played were significantly lower in both quality and importance than his own…

“Huaisang! Where are you – ah, Meng Yao. What are you doing here?” Nie Mingjue asked, blinking at him. “Anything urgent?”

“Ah – no?” Jin Guangyao said. “I came to play for you, da-ge, you remember – er-ge said –”

“Right, of course,” Nie Mingjue said, in the tones of a man who had completely forgotten. “Could I borrow you for something else while you’re here? Perhaps Huaisang will learn better if it’s not just me.”

“Of course, da-ge,” Jin Guangyao said. It was always better to do someone a favor than the other way around, to better use it later, and Nie Mingjue almost never asked him for anything. “What are you trying to teach him?”

“How to run a sect,” Nie Mingjue said, lifting Nie Huaisang by the waist. “No, Huaisang,” he added when the younger man whined. “You do not get a choice.”

With that said, he lifted the younger man above his head – Nie Huaisang, as mentioned, was not light, but Nie Mingjue didn’t seem to notice – and walked back towards his office.

Jin Guangyao followed, torn between wondering if this was the reason that the ceilings in the Unclean Realm were all so high and being unable to keep himself from doing the math: Nie Huaisang weighed more than Jin Guangyao did, being both heavier and thicker around the middle, so if it was Jin Guangyao that Nie Mingjue was holding, it could be estimated that he could hold him up for at least an hour, and even longer if he was braced against something convenient such as a wall –

He shook his head to rid himself of the useless thoughts. He would need all his cunning about him if he was going to embark on the difficult mission of trying to get Nie Huaisang to actually learn something, especially something as boring as sect management.

Questions of assassination were, comparatively, much easier.

-

The problem, Jin Guangyao discovered, was not, as he’d suspected, in keeping Nie Huaisang’s attention.

It was in everything else.

“ – and the sect leader is now requesting assistance,” Nie Mingjue concluded his summary of the situation behind the letter that they had received, laying out both the actual content of the letter, the implications behind it, and the background necessary to make a decision so efficiently that Jin Guangyao lost his head for a moment and imagined what life would be like if he could hire Nie Mingjue as his deputy. His life would be so much easier. “How do you respond?”

Nie Huaisang heaved a sigh. “That’s obvious!”

It was. The request was far more than this particular sect really deserved, given its past behavior (rather despicable) and the moderately high chance that they were simply trying to get the Nie sect to pay for benefits that would later go to themselves or, at best, the Jiang sect, but granting the request would not seriously damage the Nie sect’s coffers and would lay the groundwork for a better relationship in the future –

“We write a letter that heavily hints about what we know that the sect leader did in the past, expressing our concern and indicating that we received the information from the Jiang sect in a moment of indiscretion,” Nie Huaisang said happily. “He’ll be so distraught at the thought of potential blackmail from them that he’ll beg us for assistance, and we’ll be able to extract additional benefits before finally agreeing to –”

No, Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue said, even as Jin Guangyao boggled at the sheer wretched cleverness of the idea. It would work perfectly to isolate the other party through their own paranoia, leaving them feeling that they had no other way out but to throw themselves on the Nie sect’s mercy – there wasn’t a limit to what could be extracted that way. “If he’s so untrustworthy as all that, we don’t actually want him, do we? He’ll just betray us next time he can. No, we write to him the way we would anyone who wasn’t our dependent and lay out our terms, free and clear; if he wants better ones, he knows what to do.”

“People don’t have to be trustworthy to be useful, da-ge,” Nie Huaisang whined, and the infantile tone of his voice very nearly disguised the fact that he was saying something incredibly insightful. Not at all something Jin Guangyao would have expected to come out of the mouth of one of the Nie sect, much less Nie Huaisang, the most useless of them all. “They don’t even have to know they’re being used to be useful! I can think of at least three ways we could use –”

“The answer is no. Besides, I thought you liked Sect Leader Jiang?”

“Yes, but he’s far too direct to be dealing with someone like this – think of it as us ridding him of a pest! We could –”

“Huaisang.”

Nie Huaisang sighed.

-

“ – but if you would only consider what we could achieve with just a little bit of bribery –”

“Huaisang.”

“But it’s such a small amount! I could do it with my own pocket money!”

Huaisang.”

“Ugh, fine, have it your way, we’ll just ask, I guess…”

-

“Oh, wow, that’s a tough one. Uh…murder?”

“Huaisang!”

“What?! It was a reasonable guess!”

“It was not a reasonable guess!”

“We wouldn’t let anyone know that we were the ones that – I’m making it worse, aren’t I?”

“Yes, Huaisang. You’re making it worse.”

-

“I’m guessing the answer isn’t going to be blackmail?”

“That’s correct.”

“And not it’s bribery, either.”

“No.”

“Definitely not beating him up…”

“Huaisang, are you trying to get the answer by process of elimination?”

“It’s a valid strategy to figure out the answers to test questions!”

“This isn’t a test question, it’s real life!”

“No, it’s a test, because if it was real life, I could use blackmail.”

-

“…you know what,” Nie Huaisang said after a couple of moments of serious contemplation. “I actually have no idea what I’d do in that situation. San-ge? Can I have an assist?”

Jin Guangyao had managed, over the past shichen or so, to get ahold of himself. He shrugged apologetically. “I must admit that I’m at a loss myself. It seems like an especially tricky situation.”

The situation in question involved the crimes of an extremely well-connected individual, with interests from all over the cultivation world deep in his pockets; he would be a difficult man to cross. Moreover, he was well known for his perfidy, rendering blackmail useless, and well-off enough to make bribes pointless; mere intimidation was also out, given his connections – he’d already gone through a “trial”, if it could be described as such, and he’d only used it to cleanse himself. In such a situation, Jin Guangyao would probably hang back out of caution, seeking further information and hoping that an appropriate situation would appear that he could take advantage, but Nie Mingjue had specified that there was a time limit involved…

Nie Mingjue groaned. “You’re both overthinking it: for once, murder is the right answer.”

“Wait, it is?” Jin Guangyao asked, staring at him blankly. “I mean - what exactly do you mean, murder?”

“The man slaughtered children in broad daylight! The evidence is unquestionable and undeniable; he should be executed immediately.”

“But – his connections –”

“That’s why there’s a time limit,” Nie Mingjue said, rolling his eyes on both of them. “If you do it quickly enough, it gets attributed to the hair-trigger Nie temper going out of control and everyone treats it like a casualty in the face of a force of nature – the same way you’d shrug off the death of someone who got in the way of a hurricane or tsunami.”

“Oh,” Nie Huaisang said. “I see.”

Jin Guangyao envied him: he most certainly did not see. Since when was outright murder a possible weapon in the Nie sect’s diplomatic arsenal?

“Speaking of which, I’ve already delayed long enough, trying to teach you something,” Nie Mingjue added. “Huaisang, can you host Meng Yao for dinner? I’ll be back later this evening.”

“Of course, da-ge! Count on me!”

Nie Mingjue nodded at them both and strode out without another word.

“…where is he going?” Jin Guangyao asked.

“Presumably to go murder someone,” Nie Huaisang said, as if it were obvious, and then laughed, presumably at Jin Guangyao’s expression. “He always makes me practice with real questions, you know, though he does save them up if he can.”

“That wasn’t what I was surprised about,” Jin Guangyao admitted, because he’d already figured out – possibly for the first time – that Nie Huaisang almost certainly already knew what he was like under the smile. “It’s just…murder? Really? Da-ge?”

“Da-ge’s righteous, not kind,” Nie Huaisang said with a shrug. “Leave questions of mercy to the Lan sect! Here we believe that showing excess mercy to evildoers is itself committing a harm to their victims…ah, well, let’s not talk about it, shall we? If we do, I’ll just get another headache from trying to figure out the line between what I’m allowed to do and what I’m not allowed to do.”

“You know perfectly well what you’re allowed to do,” Jin Guangyao said, deliberately keeping his voice light rather than accusing. “You just want your brother to be a bit more open-minded.”

“He won’t be.” Nie Huaisang’s voice was fond. “He’s willing to pull those sorts of tricks when he has to – our exculpated murderer is an excellent example – but he’s never going to understand why anyone would pull a nasty trick if they had another choice…it’s just the way he is.”

He laughed, taking out his fan – a new one, Jin Guangyao observed – and lightly nudged Jin Guangyao in the side even as he hid his smile behind it.

“It’s fine, though,” he said. “Isn’t that why he has people like us?”

“Yes,” Jin Guangyao said, following Nie Huaisang to the dinner table, thoughts running through his mind. The Song of Turmoil – it would still work, more than likely, because Nie Mingjue would let him play it for him and him alone, and even Nie Huaisang needed clay to build bricks. But if he did it, and Nie Huaisang ever found out…

He thought that he might not like being Nie Huaisang’s opponent. 

He wasn’t sure which one of them would win and which would lose, of course, and he rather thought he’d bet on himself, but in all honesty he wouldn’t like to try. 

“In fact,” he said casually, “Huaisang, if you don’t mind, I have another situation that I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on.”

“Not another one,” Nie Huaisang whined, but his eyes narrowed in blatant curiosity. “But all right, all right, just one more. Only for you, san-ge, and only because I like you so much.”

Jin Guangyao smiled. “I appreciate it. Now, for the situation: assume there are two sect leaders, and one of them wishes to eliminate the other through underhanded means…”

-

“Murder, I think,” Nie Huaisang said thoughtfully. “No – most definitely murder. There is no other path forward. The only question is, I suppose: how much do you want your father to suffer during the process?”

Jin Guangyao smiled.

It was so nice to work with people that understood.