Warnings: misogyny, violence.
Her footing was wrong.
It was rare enough that Lan Qiren’s lectures turned to practice, Nie Mingjue knew. He had enough memories of his own time in Gusu over ten years ago, when he had kneeled and sat in silence in the cool air of the ancestral hall of the Lan clan, to remember as much. His father had beat enough propriety into him by then that Mingjue had not complained of his boredom, but he had felt it all the same. Only twice during the half-year he spent in the Cloud Recesses had Lan Qiren allowed for sword practice, and then again only under close supervision.
No sparring. No moving an inch off of the postures and moves taught to them by the then-not-so-old man. Postures meant more for control than fight, simple to remember and easy to recreate. At the time, Lan Xichen had been but a junior disciple, standing by and watching while Nie Mingjue trained. Lan Wangji had been a little boy by his side, sitting as still and silent as a porcelain doll.
The sword moves inculcated by Lan Qiren were not complicated, only difficult to maintain over the hours. By all means, any disciple with enough brain to walk should be able to mimic them adequately on the second or third try at most.
Huaisang’s footing was wrong.
“She is not the worst of them,” Lan Xichen murmured after the third time Nie Mingjue bared his teeth in frustration.
Leave it to the older Jade of Lan to find reason to defend Nie Mingjue’s incompetent sister. Nie Mingjue did not reply only because he had no wish to spend his frustration on a man he respected.
“Nie Huaisang!” Lan Qiren’s voice boomed over the open field. Huaisang’s lazy, haphazard footwork faltered even more; the heavy saber in her hand shook and touched ground. “Is this how you plan to represent your clan name?”
Nie Mingjue did not look around to see the other sect leaders’ reactions. He already knew that Lan Xichen would show none but sympathy, Jiang Fengmian none at all, and the peacock Jin Guangshan much too open a smile.
It did not help, he thought irately, that Huaisang picked the two boys from Yunmeng as an entourage for the duration of practice. Her weakness may have been overlooked, had she chosen to stand with the rows of mediocre students in plain robes whose cultivation level was low. Instead she swayed and fumbled with the serious Jiang boy at her right and the sharp Wei Wuxian to her left.
That Lan Wangji’s almost poetic swordsmanship was at play half the field over was very small consolation.
Nie Mingjue did not stay to watch Lan Qiren go through the ranks a few minutes later, correcting his students in sharp words. He heard Jin Guangshan’s faint hum as Huaisang’s turn came to be criticized from up close and rose to his feet instead, clutching the pommel of his own weapon in one hand and thin air in the other.
Lan Xichen rose with him. Nie Mingjue avoided his eyes as well, contenting himself with directing disgust at Jin Guangshan—whom he caught in the middle of a leer no doubt directed to the girl being scolded now.
Jin Guangshan paled and looked away.
It only made Mingjue angrier at Huaisang.
He said nothing at all as Xichen led him through the quiet halls of Gusu. Meng Yao followed after him after a quick nod his way, careful to keep his own face blank of any feeling, though Mingjue knew how well the man took care of Huaisang and how much he had pleaded in her favor to allow her to study here.
Only when they reached Xichen’s study did Mingjue allow himself to comment upon it. “You have it now, Meng Yao,” he said spitefully. “Three months wasted and nothing to show for it but mediocrity. Huaisang shall have to apologize to you in person.”
Meng Yao bowed his head and replied, placating, “I did not expect the lectures of Gusu to be so difficult. Please forgive me.”
“Difficult? You saw that sorry spectacle out there.” Nie Mingjue’s knees cracked loudly as he sat, so tense with frustration was he. He set his heavy saber down onto the wooden floor loudly. “If Jiang Fengmian’s servant boy can achieve this level of cultivation at fifteen, what excuse does my heir have?”
“Perhaps,” Lan Xichen murmured, “as a young woman… Few women attend my uncle’s lectures, and fewer of them the practicals. It may be that young master Meng is right, and the level is too high for her.”
He had come around to recuperate tea from a boy of twelve or so who had brought it into the room. He served it now with elegance dripping from him more surely than air, than livelihood; from having met he and his brother enough times through the years, Mingjue knew that Wangji was just as talented.
His fingers dug deeply into the cup he received. “She was the one who wanted to learn,” he replied, while in front of him Xichen served Meng Yao, who took his own cup in near-comical reverence. “She swindled Meng Yao into agreeing with her, begging me for months to allow her to attend the lectures.” He laughed, and took a sip of scalding tea. “Do you know what her letters have been about since she arrived? Boys.”
He spat the word out with enough venom to embitter the whole room.
Lan Xichen stayed elegantly silent at that. He drank from his own tea, sculpted stone in motion, while Meng Yao on his other side did nothing more than finger the rim of his cup.
“Boys,” Nie Mingjue muttered again. “Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian, even Jin Guangshan’s son and his herd of servants. Even your brother, Xichen, has been the subject of at least a paragraph or two.”
Xichen smiled weakly. “She is at that age, I suppose,” he said. After a thoughtful pause, he added: “They all are.”
Mingjue scoffed, “I shall like to see the day Wangji starts losing his focus over a pretty face.”
Lan Xichen’s smile shook slightly.
“The young lady has different worries than you,” Meng Yao said softly. He bent toward Nie Mingjue as he spoke, his tea still untouched, his hand still wrapped around the cup as if afraid to let go. “Forgive me for saying—perhaps she simply needs guidance of a different kind. Female guidance.”
Nie Mingjue clenched his teeth and said nothing.
It was more often than not, nowadays, that he found himself agreeing with Meng Yao’s words in spite of himself. But he knew that he was right; he knew just how cold the walls of the Unclean Realm must be for Huaisang since their mother had died when she was just a little girl. She had tutors, of course, to teach her the ways of a woman. She had Meng Yao too, whose talents included knowledge of the fairer sex that most men were not privy to, thanks to his upbringing.
Mingjue felt only some mild embarrassment at thinking of the man this way. Meng Yao had been a gift to his household since his coming two years prior, and he would make use of him in every way he could, including this one.
He saw no reason to hide it either. “It’s a shame your father didn’t recognize you,” he told Meng Yao. “I should have liked to betrothe you to Huaisang, strengthen your bond to our clan.”
Meng Yao marked a still pause, his cup in hand and his face caught in the midst of a shaking smile. His eyes swept over Nie Mingjue, Lan Xichen, and then Mingjue again.
“You honor me too much, sect leader,” he said stiffly, finally letting go of his tea in order to bow. “I fear the young lady would want for a better match than me, however—”
“Nonsense,” Mingjue cut in. “If you had the status, what could Huaisang complain about? I fear it would be too much of a burden to ask you to care for her as a husband.”
Meng Yao’s still, still smile did not move.
“Jin Guangshan can’t recognize talent or worth,” Nie Mingjue continued heedlessly. “It’s why his clan suckers the wealth off of Wen Ruohan rather than make its own accomplishments. This Jin Zixuan looks every bit the peacock that his father is.”
The conversation flowed easier after that, away from the topic of the sister that Nie Mingjue never knew what to do with and onto surer political territory. Lan Xichen remained polite and clever in that quiet way of his, tempering Nie Mingjue’s accusations with wisdom, listening with a creased brow to his reports of near-corpses discovered round Qinghe with red scars over their necks. Meng Yao meshed well with him too, and the both of them together coaxed the frustration out of Mingjue until his mind was clear once more, the humiliation of seeing Huaisang so mediocre among her peers long forgotten.
“What about those Wens who came to study?” he asked after Meng Yao had gone to fetch Huaisang.
The short afternoon hours were gone, the sky outside dipped in blue. Lan Xichen never looked more elegant than he did at this time of year and at this time of night, with the torchglow upon his pristine clothes, with his face caught between light and shadow.
“They caused disturbances, didn’t they?”
“They are rather quiet,” Xichen replied mildly. “The young lady walks around the mountain a lot. Her younger brother is sickly, I understand, so he mostly stays inside.”
“Sniffing around like dogs,” Mingjue added. “They were there during that incident with the waterborne abyss, weren’t they.”
Lan Xichen frowned and nodded wordlessly.
There was more to it than simply Wen Ruohan’s need to assert dominance. Nie Mingjue had known the man next to him for a very, very long time. He had fought by his side already, studied with him and competed against him. He and Lan Xichen had struck something as close to friendship as Mingjue had ever gotten out of anyone before. He knew without needing to ask that Lan Xichen’s composed face hid more than it told him.
But it was late, after all, and his sister would be waiting. He was to go back to Qinghe in the morning now that practice observation was over. Nie Mingjue still bore enough healthy respect for Lan Qiren not to wish to impose for longer than a day upon his prized lectures.
“I heard Wangji did brilliantly during that hunt,” he still offered, almost in apology.
Lan Xichen smiled that smile reserved for the topic of his brother only. “I think the true heroes that day were the boys from Yunmeng. Young master Wei, especially, showed himself to be very clever and talented.”
Nie Mingjue laughed. “Made an impression on your brother, did he? That’s good, that’s good. Boys that age need some rivalry to keep their blood pumping.”
“Yes,” Lan Xichen admitted, looking sad, “Wei Wuxian certainly made an impression.”
They bowed and said their farewells in good humor. Although Nie Mingjue could never grow to love a place as much as he did the Unclean Realm in Qinghe, he could admit to the beauty and peace of Gusu’s Cloud Recesses. His mood maintained itself as he traversed the inner dormitories where the Lan clan disciples slept, then those of the outer disciples, before reaching the guest houses. He stepped over streams and quiet, starlit paths. He wetted the hem of his robes with the arrival of dew.
His mood plummeted when he arrived to the rooms that Huaisang occupied and found her talking inanely to Meng Yao, who surely had more important things to do than pay attention to her babbling.
She quieted when she saw him. Her plain face fell, and she rose awkwardly. Meng Yao hurried to bow and leave the room.
Nie Mingjue set down his weapon on a table. He asked her, “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
Huaisang opened one of her handpainted fans to hide behind. “Those exercises are too hard, brother,” she complained. “It’s only been three months—”
He already knew what she would say. He could see the words before his eyes as he saw them in her letters—which he had stopped reading and ordered a servant to summarize for him.
It is too hard. It is too much. The rules are too many, the schedule too difficult, the distractions abundant. Her saber was heavier than the other disciples’ swords. She oft felt too sick to train. Her head ached with the air of the mountains, preventing her from studying.
And then so many more strokes of ink to relate just how quick-witted Wei Wuxian was, just how rich Jin Zixuan, just how ethereal Lan Wangji. Tales and rumors of Jiang Yanli’s strained relationship to her betrothed, opinionated observations of Jiang Wanyin’s discussions with the Wen woman whose beauty Huaisang was jealous of.
Nie Mingjue looked at his sister, truly looked at her, for the first time in years.
She had grown, he knew, in the years he had left her to her devices. No longer was she the noisy little child that their mother carried in her frail arms, or the gangly teenager that their father used to ignore. She was almost a woman now, he supposed, and weren’t those things as women ought to be? Flimsy and slow-minded, uninterested in cultivation. He had seen only three other girls in the rows of disciples that day: Jiang Yanli and Wen Qing and a round-faced envoy of Lanling whom Jin Guangshan had spent most of his time looking at.
None of them except Huaisang had participated in the practical exercises. Jiang Yanli had sat them out by her father’s side, straight-backed and more poised than Huaisang could ever hope to be. Wen Qing, he guessed, had quite the mind for cultivation, but no wish to show her talent so openly. And the Jin sect girl had remained with the group of servants who had accompanied Jin Zixuan to Gusu.
“Tell me,” Nie Mingjue said curtly, “did you intend to embarrass yourself like this in front of all the sect leaders?”
He couldn’t see her face behind that blasted fan, only her eyes looking from one side of the room to the other and never directly at him. “No,” Huaisang muttered.
“I can’t hear you.”
She breathed out. “No, brother,” she repeated.
Then why, Mingjue wanted to ask, did you make a spectacle of yourself with those boys? Did you just intent to look like a brainless flirt? Did you think at all?
He had never known how to talk to Huaisang before. Their exchanges in Qinghe were limited to overdinner words, hardly even pleasantries, and not much else. Sometimes Mingjue saw her fool around and felt the need to give her a harsh word. Sometimes, he simply clenched his teeth and walked away.
If only you’d been born a boy, he wished, not for the first time. If only I had a brother.
If Huaisang had been born a brother of his, someone like Lan Xichen or Meng Yao, or even one of those boys she so liked to write about; perhaps then Nie Mingjue would have known how to talk to her.
Perhaps, like Jiang Fengmian, he should find himself a stray to love above his own kin.
If was with some sort of grief on his heart that he told her, “Do not humiliate me again, Huaisang.”
He left without waiting for an answer.
Jin Guangyao covered in blood was almost a forbidden sight.
Oh, it was not the first time Nie Huaisang saw him like this. He had been gravely injured when her brother had thrown him out of the Realm all those years ago, bleeding from a stab wound to the chest. Still, he had bowed at the time with the utmost propriety. He had not rejected or begged to change his sentence for betrayal. She had his blood on her hands then quite literally, after she had helped him walk to the inner chamber where Nie Mingjue had requested to meet him. She had been panicked, at the time, not only for having gone from the Realm for so long in company of Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, but also because Meng Yao had always been one of those she relied so preciously on.
This memory seemed so far away now. Huaisang could not remember if, in the end, her brother had scolded her for running away from home. No doubt he had known then that Lan Wangji’s presence would act as a deterrent to her flirtatious ways; the boy might as well be made of stone, and wish for others to be the same.
Of course, that turned out to be quite untrue. Untrue then and untrue now. Jin Guangyao had been quick to understand and make use of that weakness.
But Nie Mingjue, injured and grieving the loss of Meng Yao—the loss of a brother—had not scolded her, she thought.
Now the Meng Yao who had fed the need for company in her when she was a teenager bled far more than ever before. It had been Lan Xichen who had dealt the last blow, an outcome none of them could have predicted and which saddened Huaisang.
Truly, she had wished Wei Wuxian would take care of it all, or at least Lan Wangji. She had no wish to see Lan Xichen hurt.
That was perhaps the only thing she and Meng Yao had in common.
He bled now, almost emptied of life already, and—
He was looking at her.
Huaisang hid behind her fan. The sight of him was grotesque, flesh and limbs cut off to expose his innards, the silk gone from his hair, his golden robes caked with dirt. It was quite unbearable to witness, and Huaisang spared a thought for the boy Jin Ling who had already lost so much, for Lan Xichen by Meng Yao’s side who always looked at her with grief wedged into his eyes.
A second ago Meng Yao had been dying. Now he looked at her with a hint of understanding—with the same light in his eyes as one would get after pouring over a text for hours, looking for something and not finding it, realizing too late that it was under their eyes all along.
She lowered the fan to her neck. Behind Lan Xichen’s back, she smiled at him.
It was only hours later that she found the occasion to talk to Wei Wuxian, and only then because Jiang Cheng had gone away, because Lan Wangji was with his brother and not standing by Wei Wuxian’s side, looking at him like a man drunk on relief.
“It’s all over now,” she sighed at him, shifting from foot to foot. “Master Wei, you could’ve told me who you were before. I would have believed you. Thankfully now the world will learn the truth, that it was all Lianfang-Zun’s doing…”
He gave her half a smile. He was even more handsome now than he had been when they were young and Huaisang had debated which of her classmates to secure a future with. Huaisang had not realized just how synonymous with safety his presence was until she had seen him emerge, bruised all over, from the Mo family house.
Looking at him and Lan Wangji now, she still felt their love to be quite a shame.
Still, she supposed, she could let him have that. Mo Xuanyu had her to thank for the spell he had used to bring the Yiling Patriarch back, but she had worked Wei Wuxian hard over the past few months. It couldn’t have been easy for him.
She folded her fan back. Her fingers shook over the handle slightly. There was a tiny speck of blood in a corner of the hand-painted motif, one tiny ruby dot which would brown over in time.
Now then, she thought over the trembling of her limbs.
The path in front of her led nowhere anymore. Little by little the shackles over her broke and fell, invisible to all, leaving marks on her skin that she alone would ever see.
The steps she took down the mountain path were as light as air.