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“Thank you all for coming to this meeting ahead of the official start of the discussion conference tomorrow,” Jin Ling said with his most formal voice, which might have worked better if he wasn’t also at the age where it tended to occasionally crack. “As we are all the leaders of Great Sects, it is incumbent on us to make sure things run smoothly in the cultivation world after all the disorder that we – uh, that we recently experienced."

He cleared his throat.

"That’s why I called you here today. It is our goal to minimize the potential for further disorder by aligning the four Great Sects on critical matters, particularly…uh…that is, in particular, you have all undoubtedly received, as I have received, numerous queries regarding the now-open position of Chief Cultivator, and I thought we might want to have a discussion to day to try to align ourselves –”

“You said align twice in a single sentence,” Nie Huaisang interrupted, voice pleasant as he fanned himself with yet another one of his countless accoutrements. “That’s poor composition – even I know that! Anyway, why are you being so circumspect? It’s only us Great Sect leaders here today. We’re all friends, aren’t we, whether it’s Hanguang-jun here, standing in for his brother, or your jiujiu, or me. So you might as well just be blunt and say what you mean outright…namely that all three of you would like to try to find a way to stop me from taking the job.”

No one said anything.

Probably because there was little point in denying it.

“Well?” Nie Huaisang prompted. He continued fanning himself, though he didn’t bother to use it to cover his face – there evidently wasn’t anything in his expression at the moment, too bored to even pretend to be offended, that he wanted to hide. “I’m curious to hear your reasoning. I mean, I’m assuming you came up with something, given that you’re too young, Hanguang-jun has no experience in running a sect and is too busy being newlywed to learn, and Jiang-xiong here may in fact be the only person in the cultivation world with a worse reputation than me…albeit more in the ‘too terrifying to approach’ rather than the ‘too useless to bother with’ vein.”

Jiang Cheng scowled and crossed his arms over his chest, but didn’t deny it.

Jin Ling swallowed and said, in a slightly squeaky voice, “Well, we thought…maybe someone from one of the smaller sects.”

“One of the smaller sects?” Nie Huaisang laughed, artless and casual. “That seems like an unfair burden to stick someone with, don’t you think? You know how conservative the cultivation world can be. Once a Chief Cultivator is elected, they won’t want to change it so quickly – not for at least a decade or two, until they’ve forgotten all the trouble involved with having an open position, all that jockeying and politicking and awkwardness…Though I suppose that’s part of the appeal for you lot, isn’t it? If someone else gets there first, the only way I’d ever be able to get the job is if the one who holds it before me voluntarily resigns.”

“At least you’re self-aware,” Jiang Cheng said coldly.

“We thought it might be better if it was someone with different qualities,” Jin Ling tried, clearly intent on following their original plan to be diplomatic even if his uncle was willing to give it up in favor of an outright fight. His other uncle’s influence, perhaps, or else the fact that they were all gathered together in Lanling and it was his sect’s battered reputation (due to the said other uncle, the last Chief Cultivator) that he was seeking to protect. “Someone – uh – someone approachable, but respectable. Someone that has no issues with their reputation, with a sense for the popular opinion, a desire to pursue justice…”

Nie Huaisang’s hand, which had been lazily wielding his fan, paused. “Why, Sect Leader Jin,” he said, and his voice was suddenly very soft. “Are you saying you think I lack the desire to pursue justice?”

“Everyone here knows to what extent Sect Leader Nie seeks justice,” Lan Wangji said neutrally even as Jin Ling flinched. “I believe the young Sect Leader Jin was merely listing exemplar traits.”

“Oh, well, that’s all right then,” Nie Huaisang said, abruptly cheerful, and resumed fanning himself, looking relaxed once more. “Anyway, it’s not like I’m actually going to fight about it with you.”

Jin Ling blinked. “You’re…not?”

“Well, it’d be a tall order, wouldn’t it?” Nie Huaisang shrugged. “I’ve done a few things well here and there since we last met, but I’m still best known as being the good-for-nothing Headshaker. If I’m opposed by the other three Great Sects, it’d be absolutely impossible for me to get the position simply on the strength of my own reputation. So why fight it? Though now I’m curious – who were you thinking of to be Chief Cultivator instead of me, anyway? With all your ‘exemplar traits’..?”

Nie Huaisang's smile suddenly broadened into a look of genuine amusement.

“A desire for justice and the ability to keep abreast of popular opinion, didn’t you say? An exemplar?” He chuckled, seemingly having thought of a joke. “In terms of what I’ve heard, I think the only person who would be fitting such a noble description would be someone like – oh – Sect Leader Yao.”

Jiang Cheng barked out a laugh, and even Lan Wangji briefly raised his eyes to the ceiling.

After all, everyone had ‘heard’ about Sect Leader Yao’s desire for justice…to hear the man himself tell it, anyway.

Jin Ling glanced at the three others, then gritted his teeth and said, tentatively, “I mean…that’s not such a bad idea, is it? I mean, if the goal is to let most people continue their lives unaffected…”

“Really? Sect Leader Yao?” Nie Huaisang rolled his eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I don’t know, we could certainly do worse than Sect Leader Yao,” Jiang Cheng said, with a sidelong and very pointed look at Nie Huaisang. “Who knows? Maybe having a big important job would get him to shut up about how important he thinks he already is.”

“One cannot deny that Sect Leader Yao is generally quite well-informed regarding what people are saying on any given subject,” Lan Wangji said, and his habitual deadpan couldn’t conceal his slightly scathing tone, probably a result of all the rumors Sect Leader Yao had passed along about Wei Wuxian in his day. “One might even say that he is at the forefront of such knowledge.”

“He’s the biggest gossip-hound in the cultivation world, you mean!” Jiang Cheng scoffed, unable to resist. “Add in a thirst for glory and a tendency to exaggerate his own contributions in any circumstance – why are you Lan always so damn polite about everything? I don’t know why you can never come out and just say these things –”

“You can’t deny he was at least at most of the important events of the past few years,” Jin Ling pointed out, at this point clutching at his sword hilt with white-knuckled fingers in a way not wholly dissimilar to a child clutching onto a stuffed animal for support. “Including both the Sunshot Campaign and its – er – recent revival. Anyway, you’re not wrong that everyone’s heard about him and his supposed exploits, so it doesn’t really matter how much truth there is or isn’t there, does it? If anything the exaggeration will be useful in making him seem appropriate for the role! Listen, I’m not saying I like him or anything, but if the whole point is to fill the seat with someone who won’t do any harm, then why not him?”

“Must it be him specifically,” Lan Wangji asked in that not-asking sort of way he had. He already sounded resigned.

“I don’t care who it is,” Jin Ling said, exasperated. “But if it’s him, it would give us unanimity in proposing a new candidate, and that’s not nothing, right?”

“If you’re talking about me when you say ‘unanimity’, I haven’t said I’d agree to it,” Nie Huaisang pointed out.

“You don’t have to, you suggested him, that’s the same as supporting it,” Jin Ling said self-righteously, and Nie Huaisang looked somewhere between offended and approving. “Anyway, I mean, putting aside how annoying he can be, have any of you ever seen Sect Leader Yao himself do anything? I’m not talking anything bad, I mean – anything? Anything serious? Or even anything at all?”

Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji both looked thoughtful.

“You can’t actually be serious,” Nie Huaisang said, glancing at both of them. “I mean…Sect Leader Yao? That blustery old puff of wind? Really? Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have me instead?”

They would not.

“All right, then,” Nie Huaisang finally said after much convincing, rolling his eyes and slouching back in his seat. “Have it your way, then. Sect Leader Yao it is.”

-

“That could have gone much worse,” Nie Huaisang said, sweeping into the room without ceremony.

Yao Zhibin jumped, having not expected him –

No, that wasn’t quite true, was it? He had been expecting him, only perhaps…not so soon.

Maybe that had just been wistful thinking.

Probably.

It usually was.

“That’s good, Sect Leader Nie. I’m glad to hear it,” he said cautiously. He wished he knew why Nie Huaisang had asked to meet with him a day before the discussion conference opened – or at least he wished that he’d given him more of a heads up on the subject. If he’d only known in advance, he could have asked someone else to give him their opinion on how he ought to handle it, only his wife was still busy elsewhere and his friends weren’t in the know, so there really wasn’t anyone he could ask, unfortunately. He wasn’t very good at forming an opinion entirely on his own, he never had been, though it hadn’t ever been much of a problem in the past.

On the contrary, his general uselessness was – probably his only talent.

You really can’t do anything, can you? had been the very first thing his wife had said to Yao Zhibin back when they’d first met. Her tone had been stunned, as if she’d never even conceived of someone so incompetent as him, and just a little amused, as if she’d thought he’d done it just to entertain her. He’d been young, back then, and his lack of any serious skills had been something that affected no one – if anything, it’d been seen as a good thing, encouraged.

Something that made his family smile.

After all, Yao Zhibin wasn’t supposed to be good at things. He was only one of the Yao sect’s many countryside cousins, part and parcel of a trade made two generations back when the head of the Yao clan sent his youngest son to marry the orphaned daughter of a very rich farmer and settle out in the middle of nowhere in order to grow the food that the rest of them needed to live on, with some left over to sell to pay for the clan’s expenses. But Pingyang Yao was a small clan, not big enough to have what the Great Sects called branch families despite their conviction that the only way to get big was to act as if they were already big, and that meant that all the boys from that family, Yao Zhibin included, got sent back to be raised in the main household, still considered to be possible rightful heirs if only they were worthy enough.

Which meant, of course, that they couldn’t be worthy.

Maybe if Pingyang Yao had been big enough that Yao Zhibin and his brothers could have known to one and all as mere ‘branch members’, they would have been allowed to develop as they pleased. A branch cousin could be seen as a skillful retainer that would help strengthen your sect in the future, rather than a rival that needed to be disposed of here and now – but they weren’t a branch, not really. And so Yao Zhibin’s father, a shrinking violet of a man, more farmer like his maternal grandfather than cultivator, cowardly in an amiable sort of way but one who loved his children dearly, had been very clear with his sons that he wouldn’t be able to provide them with any sort of protection from their cousins with their powerful mothers from other cultivation clans, and that meant that they either had to be talented enough to fight against the current and win themselves a position through their own merit, or else they had to give up and go with the flow the way he always had.

Yao Zhibin figured out pretty quickly that he wasn’t going to do the former.

So he’d accepted his lot in life – a possible substitute that was never meant to have a chance to get used – and he’d developed a different set of skills: the skill of saying a lot without saying anything of meaning, the skill of knowing which way the wind was blowing before there’d even been a light breeze, the skill of being part of a crowd instead of standing out; it was safe in a crowd, where everyone had to be blamed if they were going to be blamed at all. He wasn’t strong enough to resist pressure, but others often were, and hiding in their shadows was the best way to take advantage of their strength.

(A fox borrowing a tiger’s power, his wife later liked to tease him. You may not ever be the first one out there, but no one can say that you’re not always the first among the seconds!)

It was a way to live, though not necessarily a good one. Somewhere along the line, Yao Zhibin had gotten so good at flattering those more powerful than him – a nice, safe activity, unlike critiquing them – that he forgot how to do anything else, even when he wanted to. The inability to ever let out his true feelings annoyed him, digging in under his skin, and there was nothing he could do about that, except maybe to complain to his friends, all of them second sons or cousins like him, or else the heirs of sect so tiny that they were shunned by all the other better-born boys, like poor little Ouyang Huiyu who was always tagging along with him like a duckling following its mother.

Yao Zhibin got pretty good at complaining, actually.

He didn’t mind that. He expected that it would be all he’d ever get the chance to do.

After all, who was Yao Zhibin, really? He wasn’t half-bad at cultivation, but he was no cultivation genius that could make his way alone, without his family’s support, and he wasn’t particularly notable for anything else. He was of average height and slender build, with not especially notable features, he was not particularly good at the craftswork that were Pingyang Yao’s specialization beyond the sword, and while he wasn’t as stupid as he sometimes presented himself to be, he wasn’t much smarter, either, tending to be quite gullible in a given moment, believing whatever he saw in front of him and the rumors his friends passed onto him without knowing how to pause long enough to question what he’d heard. It really wasn’t hard to trick him. He certainly wasn’t going to be tricking anyone else, anyway.

So, in sum: no power, no looks, no skills, no smarts. He couldn’t be called especially lucky, either.

No, by the time he was crowned as an adult, it was quite plain to everyone, Yao Zhibin included, that he wasn’t going to make anything of himself in this life. He’d be considered lucky if the head of his family decided to use him as a pawn in a marriage exchange, as a place to dump some other sect’s unwanted daughter – and probably one who needed to be made a wife sooner rather than later, leaving him unwillingly raising children not his own – and he might even find himself married off to somewhere else as some recruited son-in-law, his children not even bearing his own surname and having no right to anything from his family, a symbol of his utter uselessness that would haunt him to the rest of his days. If he was unlucky, they wouldn’t even bother to do that much, leaving him to spend the rest of his days growing old alone in the family home, a clownish uncle to entertain his cousins’ sons or an extra body for night-hunts to win the Yao sect some glory, and maybe, maybe, if he survived long enough, he could have some vague hope of eventually growing into a not-very-respected greybeard elder of the Yao sect.

Yao Zhibin hadn’t liked any of that, of course. Who would? But, on the other hand, what could he do about it? Without talent, without family backing, without luck or an opportunity…what other choice did he have, other than to give in once again and accept his lot in life?

And then, just at the moment his despair had starting to shade into resignation, he’d met his wife.

It had changed everything.

“You can’t do anything, can you?” Nie Huaisang asked with a sigh, and his eyes when he smiled in amusement were just like hers. “I just said it could have gone worse, not that it’d gone well!”

He snapped his fan shut and threw himself down artlessly on the couch right next to Yao Zhibin, who tensed up for a moment before relaxing, realizing that they must really be alone if Nie Huaisang were acting like that. Or at least, acting like that around him.

“How many times have I told you not to call me Sect Leader Nie all formal like that?” the little brat complained, wrapping his arms around Yao Zhibin’s arm and leaning his head against his shoulder, an insolent little smirk on his face. “I liked much better what you were saying before – what was it again – ‘whoever he is, he’s a man of justice who’s definitely standing on our side’..?”

Yao Zhibin could feel heat in his cheeks. “You told me to make it sound good.”

Nie Huaisang sniggered. “I did, I did. No one’s better at moving a crowd than you, Uncle! Anyway, you owed it to me after that stunt you pulled with Wei Wuxian all those years back.”

“I didn’t realize you were actually friends with him! Anyway, we needed the help, back then, and I didn’t know what else to do, and he made it seem like it was such a small thing, a stupid little favor…ah, Sect Leader Jin, I mean – er, the last one, that is, or rather the one before last –”

“Jin Guangshan. You certainly don’t have to save an honorific for him.”

That was probably the case, assuming all those rumors about how he’d died (and lived) were true.

Admittedly, Yao Zhibin had gotten a little wary of rumors as of late…

“You should’ve come to us for help, not accepted the Jin sect’s offer,” Nie Huaisang said, pouting. “Fight or no fight, you know we would have helped.”

“She said not to!” Yao Zhibin said helplessly. “And I couldn’t – not without asking – she would have been so angry!”

Nie Huaisang giggled. “Well, you’re right about that. Auntie doesn’t play around!”

That she didn’t.

Nie Huaisang’s generation of the main line Nie clan had consisted only of himself and his elder brother, the (frankly) terrifying Nie Mingjue, and in just the same fashion its previous generation had consisted of two siblings as well: the former Sect Leader, a terrifyingly powerful man that had been almost universally known as Lao Nie, and his considerably younger sister, Nie Xiao, just as universally called Xiaoxiao for reasons long lost to the sands of time.

Normally, a Great Sect with a daughter to marry off would be much in demand, with everyone in the cultivation world eyeing a chance to net themselves a Great Sect leader as father- and brother-in-law, but in Nie Xiaoxiao’s case, both father and brother alike had proclaimed that they would be respecting their family’s precious treasure’s choice in the matter of her marriage, no matter how unlucky such a thing was said to be. The rumor in the cultivation world at the time had been that Nie Xiaoxiao had personally won the right to determine her own marital affairs through her terrifying prowess with her saber, displayed in a series of duels against all the Nie sect’s finest warriors.

Whether or not that was true, Yao Zhibin had no idea – Nie Xiaoxiao had laughed every time he’d asked, which wasn’t actually an answer – but what was undeniably true was that no one in their right mind wanted to go up against Nie Xiaoxiao. Possibly in defiance of her name, she’d opted for what seemed to Yao Zhibin to be the largest saber the Nie sect had, a zhanmadao capable of slaughtering cavalry, both horse and rider, in a single swing, and she was like all of her sect highly enthusiastic in demonstrating its use in night-hunts.

In fact, it had only taken a few such ‘demonstrations’ involving the bisection of an enemy yao until the number of suitors petitioning for her hand had dropped down to only the most powerful, the most ambitious, or the most desperate. Despite that, none were successful, and she’d remained unmarried long past the usual age; by the time Yao Zhibin met her, it was widely believed that she intended to remain unmarried for good.

You really can’t do anything, can you? Nie Xiaoxiao had said, bemused, when Yao Zhibin had tripped and fallen flat on his face in front of her, kneeling down to help him up out of the mud. Come on, up you go. You can’t fall behind in a night-hunt like this.

It’s all right, he’d said back, equally bemused as to why this terrifyingly powerful woman was taking the time to bother with him. I’m only here to make up the numbers anyway.

I didn’t mean in terms of winning glory, she said, rolling her eyes up to the heavens. I meant it more literally: we’re hunting yao that were originally pack animals, which means that their instinct is to target the weak ones in the herd. If you fall behind in a night-hunt like this, you’ll die.

…oh. Huh. Ah…yes, I think I’d like to avoid that, all things considered, thank you.

She’d giggled. It had been a remarkably silly sound, wholly unexpected from a woman like her – Nie Xiaoxiao had the pointed Nie chin and an aquiline nose that lent her features a sense of harshness and ferocity, even some beauty in a fierce sort of way, but nothing about her suggested the sort of vacant-headed femininity that many of her female cultivator counterparts deliberately cultivated in themselves.

Tell me, then, she said mischievously, linking her hand through his as if they were on a moonlit stroll through a garden in Jinlin Tower rather than in some dark, gloomy forest where the gnarled branches blocked out almost all the light from the stars above. If you’d rather not die, then why are you alive?

At any other time, Yao Zhibin would have remembered himself well enough to say something politic, something fashionable, perhaps a joke, something harmless and distracting…but his cousins had been particularly intolerable that day, and none of his usual friends had been around to distract him from gloomy thoughts about his future, so he’d ended up blurting out the truth as he saw it: …mostly to complain, I think.

Nie Xiaoxiao had burst out laughing.

That’s good, she said, eyes glinting with the shadow of other arguments. No one in my family ever complains about anything. We just throw ourselves against our problems until our bodies wear out and there’s nothing left of us…your cousins told me you were useless, you know.

Yao Zhibin winced. He was all too well aware of what his cousins thought of him.

Well, in my opinion, there’s room out there for the useless. She’d squeezed his arm. I’ve been useful my whole life long, and I find that I’ve grown sick of it. When we get out of here, why don’t you show me something else?

He’d thought she was only joking, but she wasn’t.

They were married by summer.

(Even as late as the dawn of his wedding day, one of his cousins had told him, sounding deeply confused, that he’d wracked his brains for months and he still had no idea how Yao Zhibin managed to snag himself such a fine bride. After all, it didn’t matter that she was older than he was, or that she wasn’t a traditional beauty, not when she had a family so powerful that the only possible response to their suggestion that the Yao clan really ought to find a willing matchmaker and propose already had to be a resounding yes and some very hasty internal reshuffling to return Yao Zhibin to the official roster of possible heirs from which he’d very nearly been officially dropped, even moving him up a few steps. Yao Zhibin hadn’t taken offense at the comment – it wasn’t like he had any idea, either.)

Yao Zhibin hadn’t really expected to get married, and he certainly hadn’t expected to be happy, either, but he was. With Nie Xiaoxiao at his side, doing her best to pretend to be demure and mostly failing – it wasn’t as if his aunt would dare be harsh or demanding to such a powerful daughter-in-law, and his mother even less so, but Nie Xiaoxiao got the strangest enjoyment out of play-acting her (somewhat strange) idea of what a good subservient wife ought to act like when they were in public – Yao Zhibin’s family couldn’t bother him any longer even if he didn’t suck up to them, though he generally still did out of habit, and his company was suddenly considered respectable enough to join in the circles from which he’d previously been excluded.

Even better, his rising tide lifted all the boats in his wake, and he was able to bring his friends with him, finding them good wives and better arrangements than they might have otherwise hoped for. Even excitable little Ouyang Huiyu, who refused a proper marriage option like the reckless romantic that he was and eventually ended up marrying some wild rogue cultivator woman he’d found that he cheerfully and bull-headedly insisted was probably some sort of bird yao (she wasn’t, as she herself confirmed), ended up profiting considerably, with his tiny little sect becoming the beneficiary of multiple valuable trade agreements with both the Nie sect and the Jiang sect, mostly due to the latter’s concern that the former was trying to steal one of their subsidiary sects out from under them, and growing accordingly in importance.  

They were happy.

Even after Nie Xiaoxiao had some sort of terrible fight with Nie Mingjue following the death of his father, her brother, and promptly refused to have any sort of interaction with him ever again – Yao Zhibin didn’t ask, but he suspected that each of them had made some sort of terrible self-sacrificing offer to each other, that Nie Mingjue had gotten his way in being the one to sacrifice himself, and that Nie Xiaoxiao would never forgive him for it – it had been all right. Nie Mingjue’s vengeance was focused on the Wen sect, and anyway the fight was very scrupulously one-sided; he routinely sent New Year’s gifts and regular updates on Nie Huaisang that Nie Xiaoxiao devoured avidly before burning.

They’d been happy.

And then – and then

The Cloud Recesses had burned.

News of the attack hit the cultivation like a bolt of lightning from the blue, wholly unexpected. No one understood what had driven Wen Ruohan to take such a shocking action, no one had known what it meant, what he would do next. The clan head had asked Yao Zhibin to send his wife to the Nie sect to glean whatever insights a Great Sect might have on the subject, despite their ongoing quarrel, and it was a measure of the seriousness of the situation that she had consented to go. Yao Zhibin, still thinking to himself that this whole thing was probably some sort of horrible misunderstanding, seized the opportunity to ask her to take their young children with her so that they could meet their maternal family – fight or no fight, it was still a connection that the Nie sect honored, and that meant forming a relationship would be a benefit to their children in the future – and she’d rolled her eyes good-naturedly and agreed, kissing him good-bye and gracelessly loading them all onto her zhanmadao like sacks of rice.

Yao Zhibin waved goodbye, smiling.

Three days later, word came of another sect that had fallen before the Wen sect army – this one a smaller one, their size, not too far away. Two days after that, another one, and by now they were all very nervous, preparing letters to everyone they knew, trying to find out what people knew, trying to figure out where the Wen sect might head next, what the risk was that they’d come their way. Yao Zhibin had done his part in drafting some to his own acquaintances, though he thoroughly doubted that his small circle could do anything that the main clan couldn’t.

In the end, it didn’t matter. The letters never even had a chance to get sent.

Yao Zhibin was never sure, later, if during the attack on his home he had conducted himself with honor or covered himself with shame – in fact, he lacked any memory whatsoever of what had happened, retaining only brief flashes of sensation: an overall sensation of cold and lack of feeling in his limbs, a feeling of resistance as his sword entered someone’s body, the burning sensation of his throat hoarse from too much yelling, the seemingly impossibly heavy weight of a child in his arms as he tried to carry them from somewhere to somewhere else. Had he stayed and fought to defend his home? Had he tried to run and defended only his retreat?

He didn’t know.

It didn’t matter.

You have to be a hero, one of his uncle’s wives said when it was all done, wiping her eyes. You have to have been a hero. If the Yao clan is to survive, we need to have conducted ourselves so well that no one will doubt our strength, or else we won’t have any chance of getting one of the Great Sects to accept us.

A Great Sect? But the Yao sect isn’t a subsidiary sect, Yao Zhibin protested, more out of instinct than anything else. We’ve always been independent.

Even the Cloud Recesses burned! You saw how easily the Wen sect destroyed us, taking our sons hostage, our daughters driven to suicide…even if the Nie refuse to accept us on account of their grudge with your wife, the Jiang will take us.

The Jiang? We’re not going to the Jiang!

Listen here –

Stop arguing with him, Auntie, one of his cousins said, clinging onto her child. If he’s going to be sect leader, he needs to make the decisions.

Yao Zhibin staggered back. Me? Sect Leader? he’d cried out. Impossible? Why me?

You’re the next one in succession, they told him, and he’d found to his horror that it was true – anyone else who might have taken the job was either dead, crippled, or captured by the Wen sect, which was as good as the first. Even accounting for the fact that he’d been artificially bumped up a few spots in order to make his marriage to Nie Xiaoxiao less embarrassing, there was simply no one else for the job.

He’d ultimately refused to let them join the Jiang – ultimately a good decision, given what ended up happening to them, even if the actual reason he’d decided against it was more on the basis of how long the trek to the Lotus Pier would take them if they brought along all the women and children they had – and they had instead gone into hiding before ultimately joining independently with the forces of the Sunshot Campaign. It would be over a year until he had a chance to see his wife again, Nie Xiaoxiao having joined the war on the Nie sect’s side as soon as she’d heard about the devastation of the Yao sect and received the one hastily-written letter he’d managed to get sent out to her asking her to prioritize getting the children somewhere safe.

Safe turned out to be the rebuild Cloud Recesses, where Nie Huaisang was staying. Yao Zhibin had burst into tears the first time Nie Huaisang had greeted him as casually as if he were still that five-year-old child Yao Zhibin had once spent an afternoon talking about birds with, throwing his arms around him and calling him Uncle. He’d kept crying the entire time he’d been introduced to his youngest daughter – he hadn’t even realized Nie Xiaoxiao had been pregnant again when she’d left, neither of them had – had been sobbing unashamedly, taking breaks only to blow his nose, and somewhere along the way something in Nie Huaisang’s breezy carefree smile seemed to soften into something more genuine.

Ah, he’d said, eyes curving. I see why Auntie likes you.

Yao Zhibin didn’t. They’d been married a decade, and he still had no idea why his wife took such delight in him – he was useless. Every skill he’d ever spent time honing had been meant to help him avoid being noticed, to go along with the flow, to defer to and to borrow the power of others, and now he was suddenly a sect leader, responsible for being a hero and being notable and standing out, for winning glory on behalf of his family name. He couldn’t fade into the background anymore, couldn’t put safety and wanting to be with his family over valor – he had to have achievements.

Nonsense, Nie Huaisang had said gaily when Yao Zhibin had confided his fears in him, lacking as he did anyone else to talk to about it. You don’t have to actually have achievements, as long as people say you did. All those skills of yours can still serve some useful purpose! Just listen to your dear darling nephew, and I’ll explain it all to you.

At the end of the war, Yao Zhibin had become Sect Leader Yao to the point that he no longer flinched upon hearing himself referred to in that way. His wife was lying unconscious at home, comatose and deemed unlikely to ever reawaken, having been crushed in an onrushing tide of the enemy on the front lines – it hadn’t had anything to do with the Yiling Patriarch, purely her own valiant heroism in the face of overwhelming numbers, but it was still easy to get caught up in the tide that turned against Wei Wuxian back then, especially with Jin Guangshan spilling largesse and rumors from the same hand. Yao Zhibin’s clan had needed the largesse, desperately, and he’d always been good at spreading rumors, something Jin Guangshan had identified at once. He’d made Yao Zhibin an offer that sounded too good to be true and was, but at the time he hadn’t thought so; it had been like getting coal in the middle of winter, unexpected aid just when he needed it most, because he really did need the help desperately, feeling that he couldn’t go to the Nie sect, since his wife hadn’t wanted him to and wasn’t awake to change her mind.

It hadn’t seemed like such a big deal, either. It had been easy enough to pass along word to Jiang Cheng that Wei Wuxian was being disrespectful – that was mostly even true – and easy enough stand up against the Yiling Patriarch and proclaim that he was there purely on behalf of justice, rather than a personal vendetta, providing cover for anyone else who might want to join in. Easy enough to encourage others to stand up against him as well. Easy enough…

His wife had nearly eviscerated him for it when she’d finally woken up.

He really should have just gone to the Nie sect.

After all, in the end the Jin sect’s largesse, however much of a lifeline it had been at the time, disappeared without a trace, while the Nie sect remained…remained, yes, but damaged, and it was Yao Zhibin’s own stupidity in helping weaken the Jiang sect and strengthen the Jin sect that had let Jin Guangshan and Jin Guangyao feel comfortable turning their eye upon Nie Mingjue himself as the final obstacle in their path.

His fault. His to remedy.

Yao Zhibin had been a good little songbird for Nie Huaisang ever since.

Whether it was to publicly doubt Wei Wuxian’s sincerity so that his later about-face would be seen as a signal for the rest of them that it was also all right to change their previously held positions, to loudly proclaim his belief in the stories told by Sisi and Bicao which after all weren’t anything but words with no evidence, to suggest vile motives for Jin Rusong’s murder rather than let people think about excuses, or even to lay the groundwork for Nie Huaisang’s actions, should they be discovered, to be praised by all as virtuous and clever rather than diabolical…

Truly, he supposed, it was as Nie Huaisang had said all those years ago: his skills might not be the most suitable for being a sect leader, but they weren’t actually useless.

“So what was the result?” he asked Nie Huaisang now. “If it went – not as bad as it could have been?”

“As I expected, they don’t want me as Chief Cultivator right now, and there’s no convincing them otherwise,” Nie Huaisang said with an airy shrug. “It’s perfectly understandable. Emotions are still so raw, after all! Jiang-xiong is angry at me for having made his nephew cry, A-Ling is a child who keeps going back and forth between thinking that I’m useless and thinking that I’m dangerous – as if I can’t be both! – and Lan Zhan might be my friend but he’s so far up his new husband’s ass at the moment that he wouldn’t dare come out and support me for fear that it would make Wei-xiong feel momentarily uneasy…of course, clever little brat that he is, he also didn’t oppose me, either. He remembers that you’re my auntie’s husband, your children my cousins, even if Jiang Cheng forgot and Jin Ling never bothered learning.”

Yao Zhibin had a distinct sinking feeling sensation in his stomach.

“Why is that relevant?” he asked hesitantly.

Nie Huaisang’s smile had a dagger hidden behind his teeth. It always did, these days, now that he’d stopped pretending to be totally useless – he was still mostly useless, that was just the way he’d always been, careless and carefree, but he’d already started rearranging the entire cultivation world to his liking just the way he’d once arranged the Nie sect under his indulgent brother to his liking, and he wasn’t going to stop any time soon.

“It’s not, of course,” he said, and he snapped open his fan once more. “Except in the sense that I can trust that you’ll step down when the time is right for me to step up.”

The sinking feeling became even more profound. It’d gone all the way down to his boots by now.

“Step…down…?”

“He’s gone and made you Chief Cultivator,” Nie Xiaoxiao said, shoving the door open with a grunt and wheeling herself in. She must have gotten back from whatever she’d been doing and started listening from the other room, and Nie Huaisang must have known she was there – he didn’t look surprised in the slightest, just twisting and giving her a jaunty wave. “And you’re going to accept it, too.”

Yao Zhibin turned to look at her, horrified by the thought. “Me? Chief Cultivator?”

“Only temporarily,” Nie Huaisang said soothingly.

“And he’ll make all the important decisions,” Nie Xiaoxiao added, making Nie Huaisang’s smooth expression crinkled up into an expression of disgust. “And take a fair share of the paperwork.”

Auntie!

“Don’t ‘Auntie’ me. You want to make my poor useless husband be useful for your own purposes, you’re going to have to be useful yourself.” She tapped the arm of her wheelchair, a gesture she’d picked up in the years since she’d started using it – her back had been broken during that final battle in the Sunshot Campaign, robbing her permanently of the use of both her legs for any significant length of time, but she’d gotten quite used to getting around in her chair by now. She’d even come up with a way to continue training her saber, and was somehow still as terrifying as she’d ever been. “Don’t think you’ve gotten so high and mighty that I can’t still put over my knee and spank you, Huaisang.”

“I surrender!” Nie Huaisang said at once, because he really was quite clever under all his ridiculousness. “I’ll make the big decisions, and I’ll – ah – well, I’ll delegate the paperwork.”

Nie Xiaoxiao rolled her eyes. “That’ll do, I suppose.”

“Do I have to?” Yao Zhibin asked plaintively. He could already see how tomorrow was going to go – the new Sect Leader Jin would nominate him with the claim that Nie Huaisang had suggested him, his uncle Jiang Cheng would second the motion, as expected, and then attention would go to Lan Wangji, who would nod in asset, and to Nie Huasiang, who would slouch and grumble and nod as well. After that, he would have to get up and stammer some words of surprise, an attempt to refuse the honor that wasn’t really a refusal, and then someone would need to jump up spontaneously to support him…

Nie Huaisang probably had someone in mind, but Yao Zhibin could probably convince him that Ouyang Huiyu would do the job just fine, and believably, too, and that would give him an excuse to be a little more partial to the Ouyang sect than others in the future. Nie Huaisang’s chosen agent could then lend his voice in additional support, the small independent sects all excited by the notion of getting one of their own above the Great Sects for once, and that would be that.

He wouldn’t be able to refuse.

“Yes,” Nie Huaisang said, patting him on the arm comfortingly. “Yes, you do. I need the influence of the Chief Cultivator position to ensure that my sect has breathing room to rebuild appropriately after the depredations of the past decade, and of course we should continue to build on and expand the good things san-ge put in place – whatever his reasoning might have been, the Watchtowers are a genuinely good idea, and now that a representative of the small sects is the one advocating for them, we might even be able to finally expand them to those areas that were too suspicious of the Jin sect’s motives to accept them before. Anyway, you’ll be winning all sorts of glory for your sect for the rest of time, pleasing your ancestors and benefiting your children; isn’t that reason enough?”

Nie Xiaoxiao was rolling her eyes again, but Yao Zhibin, gullible fool that he’d always been, still managed to feel comforted by Nie Huaisang’s words even when he knew they were meant just for that purpose.

After all, it was rather nice to think of being respected by everyone – not just him, but his children as well, making sure that they would never need to know the social isolation and ostracism that had so pained him in his childhood. His eldest children were already nearly adults, and the younger set he and Nie Xiaoxiao had had after the war were only a few years younger than Jin Ling, so serving as Chief Cultivator would at least mean that he’d be in a position to be able to find them good marriages that suited them and made them happy.

Because that was what mattered, really, wasn’t it? Being happy.

“And you will let me retire eventually?” he asked, just in case. “I don’t want to be useful forever.”

“See? He can be taught,” Nie Xiaoxiao said happily, and Nie Huaisang just laughed.

-

“That’s amazing!” Ouyang Huiyu said, practically bouncing up and down in his shoes – in some ways he was still that excitable little boy Yao Zhibin had met all those years ago, even though he had a beard and a wife and an equally excitable son that he treasured more than life itself. “I can’t believe it, almost, it’s just…you’re Chief Cultivator! Of course it’s well deserved, don’t take me as saying anything otherwise, you know how much I’ve always admired you, Yao-xiong. You’ve got some fame under your belt, and justly so after all these years, it’s just…one of our small sects, the Chief Cultivator! It’s amazing!”

“Truly amazing,” Yao Zhibin agreed, and stuck a smile on his face when Jiang Cheng, looking marginally content for once, came over to congratulate him as well. It was a rare sight, Jiang Cheng content, and Yao Zhibin was really looking forward to being as far away from him as humanly possible when he finally reintroduced his wife to the crowd at a later event and Jiang Cheng realized what had actually happened. “I truly appreciate being recognized by my peers like this…and really, I must say, even for someone as farsighted as me, it came as a complete surprise!”