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Generated: Jun 01, 2022 2:45 PM
Post last updated: Jun 01, 2022 2:45 PM
someone should just stab honor cultures
vanda nosseo meets the jianghu
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A new planet is discovered! It's an Earth. The people involved seem to be psychologically human-typical and non-reductionist. Their biology seems to be magical in some way; demons can't conjure any basement dwellers of the humans on this planet, even if they don't appear to be capable of using any magic. Magic users, called "cultivators," are strong and tough and can fly using swords and do assorted magical effects by writing things on specially prepared pieces of paper. Cultivators typically seem to form their own parallel societies which barely interface with the non-cultivator society. Their territories mostly but not perfectly match up with non-cultivator polities. They tend to match up better when the non-cultivator polities are empires and less well when polities are rather small; presumably because cultivators have fast travel and communication, their polities tend to be rather large. Magic users mostly spend their time dealing with assorted monsters, mostly dead people, who seem to have a remarkable tendency to arise from the grave and start killing people. 

A delegation is sent to the largest empire on the planet, China, and a second delegation is sent to the associated cultivation polity (called the "jianghu"). 

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The jianghu gets Nelen Utopia's newly formed team of five dispatched to whatever looks like their biggest enclave, where they present themselves politely.

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"Hello, Masters," says a boy in his early twenties with a forehead ribbon. "I'm sorry, I wasn't expecting you."

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"We're sorry to have interrupted! We are peaceful visitors from Vanda Nossëo, a federation of many peoples from other planets around other stars."

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Lan Sizhui immediately draws several mostly inaccurate conclusions about these visitors and kowtows. "This humble one apologizes for his unforgivable error, Blessed Immortals. Thank you for your condescension in visiting this useless house."

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"- error?" says Nelen, puzzled. "I - is my translation magic misbehaving, it does that sometimes, what did it sound like I said please -"

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He is so good at speaking from the kowtow position. 

"Blessed Immortals, this humble one's ignorance is inexcusable. If the noble immortals have traveled from another star, they must have extraordinarily high cultivation. In the books of the Lan, scant though their knowledge is, it has never been reported that any cultivator has even reached the moon."

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"- we traveled using non-cultivation methods. Different worlds have different ways of achieving supernatural effects," says Nelen uncertainly.

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"Blessed Ones, this useless one senses that he may be causing offense, and begs that the immortals explain how this slave may do them honor."

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"I would - like you to - get up off the floor and talk to us like peers?" attempts Nelen. "My culture does not do - being on the floor like that." He glances at the others.

"Mine does but only if you're being really dramatic," volunteers Natsuko.

"To me it looks kinda like you think we're going to kill you? We aren't going to kill you," says Zanro.

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Many people, having received this advice, would continue to talk to the powerful strangers the way that they were taught to talk to powerful strangers.

But Lan Sizhui has spent the past ten years of his life managing powerful rogue cultivators, representatives from hundreds of cultivator sects and clans from around the world, and the Yiling Patriarch, so he quickly reorients.

He stands and bows the way you would to a respected stranger. "I'm sorry if I caused any"-- not offense-- "discomfort. Etiquette is very different in different cultures, and I default to the polite way to welcome a powerful stranger in the jianghu." If it was Wei Wuxian he'd add "which is that they might kill you" but he wants to get more of a sense of them before he jokes. 

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"Thank you," says Nelen, visibly relieved. "Did my translation suggest that you had made an error or - anything, or is that just standard etiquette? It's good translation magic but sometimes it needs adjustment."

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"In my culture, it is usual to express great respect to people with high cultivation, and I had accidentally slighted you by treating you like you were people with cultivation similar to my own. --I understand that you don't cultivate, but I didn't realize that one could travel from star to star without cultivating. We have only traveled to space on our swords."

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"Ah. So far this is the only world we've discovered where cultivation is a thing at all."

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"I should like to talk about that. --But I'm being rude. How can I offer you hospitality? I don't know what your needs are." He thinks about this and decides to offer a safe default. "Ordinarily, I would send a servant to prepare tea and a comfortable room to sit and food if you're hungry, and rooms for you to stay in the evening."

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"We don't strictly need any of that but if it would be more comfortable to handle the situation more like a familiar one we won't object," smiles Nelen. He has too many teeth, on top of the bright red hair.

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He goes off to find a servant to make arrangements.

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And a small child approaches. 

"Hi! Are you from far away? Father says I shouldn't talk to people from far away because I will cause dip-lo-matic in-ci-dents but Daddy says that it's e-du-ca-tion-al and anyway it's very funny." To Nelen: "Why is your hair red? Do barbarians have red hair? I haven't seen any barbarians with hair like that before." To Zenro: "Why do you look funny? Are you a monster? Are you a demon? My daddies killed the Tortoise of Slaughter! It's the biggest monster in the whole world probably. People don't like demons but my papa is a fierce corpse and my papa is very nice. He gardens. So I think some demons are nice too probably." 

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"Awwwwww hi! My parents have red hair. Where I'm from most people have purple hair but some have other colors," Nelen says.

"I'm an orc," Zanro says. "We should check in about 'demon' translation when our host is back..."

"Yeah," says Nelen, beaming at the small child.

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"Are orcs a kind of monster? Do you come from dead people or alive people or dead things that aren't people or alive things that aren't people? Are you from the moon? Jing Xincheng said that Baoshan Sanren was from the moon but then I told him to shut his stupid face because no one is from the moon because it takes too long to get there and you'd get bored and then Jing Xincheng said that the immortals don't get bored and I said that Cangse Sanren wasn't an immortal and she would have gotten bored so there. Is it boring coming from the moon?"

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"Depends who you ask," says Zanro. "We're all alive except Cassiel, she's dead."

"Just a little," says Cassiel.

"We got here very fast!" says Nelen. "So it wasn't boring at all."

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"Are you going to bring presents?"

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"Yes we are! What kind of presents do you think would be best?" Nelen asks.

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"Second Uncle gave me a bow to practice with, and Third Uncle gave me brushes so I could practice my calligraphy, and First Uncle is very sad but he gave me a dizi so I could learn to play music like Daddy, and Fourth Uncle isn't even really an uncle at all, he's younger than Elder Brother, but he keeps giving me JEWELRY which is BORING. So I think you should give me a dizi or a bow or brushes and not jewelry. --But even Fourth Uncle is better than Great-Uncle, Great-Uncle won't even give me any presents because he doesn't like Daddy or Papa because Daddy married Father and made Papa be alive again even though he was dead and told Great Uncle the rules of the Lan clan were stupid. Also some other things I think." 

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"Okay. So you like practical presents and musical instruments," says Nelen, nodding seriously. "I'll keep that in mind when ordering inventory."

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Lan Sizhui returns. The guests seem to be enjoying Lan Su, so he doesn't apologize for her presence. "If you come with me, we can have some tea." He guesses based on Nelen's facial expression-- "Lan Su, would you like to sit in with us to watch, if our guests are all right with it?"

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"Yes!" says Lan Su. "I will be very good. I will be so quiet. You will have no idea I am there."

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"Awwww you're welcome to join us Lan Su!" says Nelen. "- she mentioned demons, what are those hereabouts?"

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"Demons are a classification for entities that are formed from living humans. Some of them are malevolent, some of them are benign, and some of them are even helpful."

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"Interesting. As an artifact of the translation effect what we're hearing is a name for a particular species from another world but we can recalibrate that if it'll be confusing."

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"That does sound confusing. I hope we can figure a way to make the translation effect unambiguous-- perhaps if we named the other species in Chinese? --Incidentally, I believe I may have failed to introduce myself. I am Lan Sizhui, first disciple of the Wei sect, and this is Lan Su, Sect Leader Wei's daughter. Sect Leader Wei himself is busy with research and prefers not to be disturbed"-- and has no diplomatic skills and should definitely not be allowed to meet the people from the other star when Lan Sizhui isn't ready to manage him-- "but as the first disciple I handle welcoming all guests of the sect."

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"It's a pleasure to meet you! I'm Nelen Utopia; these are Cassiel Jones, Tarwë, Zanro, and Tanaka Natsuko. We can handle the recalibration of the 'demon' thing on our end no problem, though - 'apsel', how's that?"

"Of the five of us I'm the only one who does surname first," Natsuko volunteers.

"Yes - though Utopia isn't a surname," says Nelen.

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"Lovely to meet you all," he says. "In general, as a sign of respect, we refer to men as 'Master' and their clan name and women as 'Mistress' and their clan name. If I called you by your first name, that would be taken as claiming that I'm your close personal friend. You would call me Master Lan. What should I call you?"

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"Ambassador Utopia is fine," says Nelen.

"Mistress Jones makes me sound like... yeah I don't really want you to call me that. Envoy Jones?" says Cassiel.

"Tanaka-san," says Natsuko.

"If it's clan names you want I suppose you could call me Master Noldo," says Tarwë.

"I don't have any other names. Master Zanro if you must," says Zanro.

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"Tanaka-san sounds like the names of people from a country on our planet called Japan," Lan Sizhui comments. 

Lan Su follows behind, being SO quiet. 

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On their way to the room, they see:

-A variety of fierce corpses, mostly standing or jerkily performing routine tasks, although one appears to be planting turnips. 
-A lot of people, mostly Chinese but some not. Some are chatting, some are practicing music or swordfighting or archery, some are painting, some are flying on their swords, some are controlling the fierce corpses with flutes or guqin, some are trading goods, some are cleaning or running errands. About half of them are extraordinarily beautiful; the other half look like pretty normal medieval peasants. Only the normal-looking ones are cleaning or running errands, and only the beautiful ones are trading goods or flying or practicing swordfighting or painting, but the other activities are evenly divided. They bow when they see Lan Sizhui. 
-An extraordinary number of small children running around playing loud and incomprehensible childish games and occasionally earnestly demanding candy from Lan Sizhui. The less involved adults keep a benign eye on them and occasionally intervene if something too dangerous appears to be happening, although they have an approach to "too dangerous" suited for people who are lowkey invulnerable. 

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"I'm from a Japan! There are a lot of planets with the same continents and similar political geography to this one, called Earths, and I'm from an Earth," Natsuko says.

"Good morning," Zanro says to a turnip-planting fierce corpse.

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"Good morning, Master!" the turnip-planting fierce corpse says. 

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"I believe we have some other visitors from Japan," he says to Natsuko, "should I introduce you?"

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"If you'd like, but I'm from a completely different Japan," Natsuko says.

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"I don't know if it would be interesting. Not right now, of course, there are more things to settle."

He takes them into a beautifully decorated room and pours them each a cup of tea. Lan Su sits decorously beside him. "I suppose I should answer any questions you have? This is a sufficiently unusual situation for me that I don't know what questions I should ask."

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"Of course," says Nelen, "let me explain why we're here. Vanda Nossëo has many member states, each citizen of which gets a routine payment just for being a citizen, and each political unit of which is entitled to defensive support as-needed. The baseline requirements to join are complete freedom of emigration, laws against murder, torture, and rape, and a majority vote of the entire population of the candidate polity. We're here because from what we were able to observe cultivators are basically their own coextensive political unit relative to the non-cultivators, and we couldn't assume that a single envoy team would suffice for both."

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"...what do you define as murder?"

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"The nonconsensual taking of a person's... life. I do see how that might be complicated with undead - well, maybe vampires are technically dead -"

"I'm technically dead," says Cassiel.

"Yes, but also, no one can possibly murder you," Nelen tells her. "Let's say nonconsensually imposed cessation of a sapient existence, though it's not currently written like that and there will need to be an amendment once we more fully understand what's going on with the undead."

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"...what if a monster is killing people?"

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"Self-defense is allowed, including lethally, if you don't have a nonlethal means of stopping the assailant."

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"Well, that doesn't do the peasants much good, they can't kill monsters."

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"Hang on, I'm going to fiddle with my Allspeak some more - it should have Chinese, I have met Chinese people -" Pause. "Lethal defensive action is permissible including if you are defending people other than yourself. But if the monsters are people we'd like to prioritize less destructive ways to address the situation."

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"There are other situations where cultivators would like to be able to kill things-- gods can cause a great deal of trouble without technically attacking anyone, just by interfering with rain patterns and so on-- I guess technically if people die that would still be self-defense? And I don't know if anyone has ever killed a god for nonfatal misbehavior, killing gods is very difficult."

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"Gods sometimes get special handling regarding whether it's all right to murder them, though if at all possible we'd like to also send a delegation to them and see if they can be reasoned with," says Nelen.

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"Gods are just very powerful people. They're different from ordinary humans, but only because they all were the sort of people who both wanted to become gods and succeeded. --I suppose the gods that used to be plants, animals, and rocks are harder to reason with but they're also easier to kill, even an ascended rock is still pretty stupid."

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"Huh," says Nelen. "But anyway, the point of having a law against murder isn't to make it so you have to let powerful people walk all over you."

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"Assuming that by 'polity' you mean all of the jianghu and not simply the Wei sect, I think you'll encounter difficulties because the jianghu doesn't in fact have... laws or any mechanism to create them. --Unless you mean the laws the Emperor makes, which cultivators have agreed to pretend bind us as long as the Emperor doesn't do anything unreasonable like try to enforce them."

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"- we can send more teams down if it's necessary to deal with all the sects individually," says Nelen.

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"There is a chief cultivator-- currently it's Nie Huaisang-- but he only handles interclan affairs. Divisions of territory, resolving disputes, organizing night-hunts and cultivation conferences, that sort of thing. Individual clans and sects have their own rules, and rogue cultivators are bound only by the fact that wherever they go belongs to some clan or other and that clan may take offense to some kinds of behavior on its territory and choose to punish the malefactor with the torture or murder you wish to make illegal."

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"To be clear, we do have ways to handle thieves and such," Nelen says, "and would be more than happy to take over the sentencing for any clan that wants to join Vanda Nossëo but feels their hands would be tied by the rules - our practices just don't include those options."

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"...I suspect with that pitch no sect will ever take you up on Vanda Nosseo membership. I am glad that you see us as a different polity because I would hate for the jianghu's reluctance to get in the way of more money for the peasants."

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"Well, as long as we haven't sent envoys to any other sects yet maybe we can work out a more appealing pitch," Nelen says, "what about it is the issue?"

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"If a sect gives up the defense of its land to outsiders in exchange for money, it's saying that it's weak and poor. I can't imagine anything that would make them lose more face. Most cultivators would rather die than be so humiliated."

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"Ah." One of those. "...the fact that you're coextensive with the non-cultivators complicates things, since the land in question would, if they joined, be entitled to defense from us."

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Lan Su is BORED. Grownups talking is BORING. Being quiet is EVEN MORE BORING. She wanders off.

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He sips his tea. "And the cultivation clans are offended, because you've stolen our prey, or because you take offense to our demands for tribute, or because a cultivator has killed or raped someone and you executed them-- and then we go to war with you and eventually you subdue us, I think, if you can travel from another star, but not without tremendous loss of life--"

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"We don't execute people, and tribute's potentially negotiable, and I'm not sure many people would in fact die if it came to open conflict, but it does seem like it might be very messy. We'd appreciate your guidance on how to approach this."

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"There has been a war and an almost-war in my lifetime. Two major clans and many minor clans were almost entirely wiped out. I would very much like to avoid mess. --I will send my martial uncle a butterfly and ask him to come out of seclusion, he has the shrewdest political instincts of anyone I know. In the meantime, perhaps I should explain the current situation?"

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"Please."

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"Most cultivators are members of clans or sects-- clans are related by blood, sects aren't. A clan or sect has a certain territory. In that territory, they protect the peasants from monsters and fierce corpses and other cultivators, in exchange for tribute. The tribute is generally sufficient to make any reasonably successful clan extraordinarily wealthy. --Even setting aside the protective talismans, my robes would cost as much as a peasant makes in a year, and I own dozens. The Lan and the Wei are both quite wealthy, and I am a first disciple, but we are far from the richest sects in the jianghu."

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Nelen nods.

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"We must provide a certain level of protection to the peasants, or they will ask another clan to protect them. It is considered quite shameful to fight a peasant-- it's pathetic, it shows you don't expect to win a real fight. And chastity, male and female, is valued among all the clans with good breeding. But-- if a cultivator is insulted by a peasant, he will take revenge. And it isn't as rare as it should be for a cultivator to force a peasant into sex, nor is it particularly considered more vicious than going to a prostitute."

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Nelen winces.

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"And among each other-- Sect Leader Jiang disliked the existence of demonic cultivators and so whenever he caught one he tortured them to death. No one stopped him, because he's a strong cultivator and from a major clan and everyone was scared of demonic cultivators anyway. Sect Leader Wei killed eight thousand people and now he's alive again and has started his own sect and no one is really happy about this, but they can't do anything about it because he and his husband are probably the two most powerful cultivators in the world who aren't currently meditating on a remote mountaintop. The ordinary thing to do, if someone kills someone you love, is to kill them back; if they're too powerful for anyone to kill them then they escape punishment or there's a war and thousands of people die."

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"Interrupting - cycles like that - is one of the things we optimistically hope to accomplish here."

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"The Wei sect is--"

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"Ah, a-Yuan, child of my youth, how could you do this to me? People from the stars! And you leave me in my workshop! When I gave birth to you from my own body--"

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He stands and bows. "Sect Leader Wei."

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"At least a-Su is a filial child. They didn't teach you shit in the Cloud Recesses. --Hi! I'm Wei Wuxian, better known as the Yiling Patriarch. Although I have lived in Qinghe eight times as long as I lived in Yiling so I don't know why I'm not the Qinghe Patriarch now."

He is wearing black robes, his long hair tied back with a red hair ribbon. He has two corpses flanking him, both of whom were quite pretty women before they started rotting.

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"It's nice to meet you," says Nelen, "I'm Nelen Utopia -" And he introduces the others too.

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"So what were we talking about?"

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"Apparently we're at risk of destablizing things around here," says Nelen dryly.

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"That's okay! I'm already doing that."

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"The Wei sect is very unusual because Sect Leader Wei invented a new form of cultivation which can be learned by anyone, even those without a golden core. We are teaching it to householders so they can use it to make textiles. We've also encouraged people to use qiankun bags and swords to engage in trade."

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"And then I make a fuckton of money without demanding tribute! --I'm also trying to work out how to get more kids to learn to cultivate, but that one's hard."

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"Well, congratulations on your successes so far!" says Nelen. "Apparently the likely points of friction in our case are that we're treating the non-cultivators as a separate polity, which happens to be coextensive with cultivator territories, and they will, if they want to join Vanda Nossëo, be entitled to Vanda Nossëo defensive support which might disrupt their existing arrangements with local cultivators, and that some cultivation sects are liable to take it amiss that the criteria for joining include forbidding murder and rape and torture for perks such as money."

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"--so the idea is that you're going to give the peasants money if there are laws about not torturing people?"

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"That is among the ideas. Being a citizen of Vanda Nossëo comes with a periodic payment for just being a citizen but the minimum laws are free emigration, and no murder, torture, or rape. Polities have to vote in, though individuals can join Vanda Nossëo if they want."

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"That's solvable. I'll tell them that if they fuck with you I'll send my fierce corpse army after them and then we're good."

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"Is that a good idea?"

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"You don't lose face if you back down because the fearsome Yiling Patriarch told you to."

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"--or it would start a war."

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"Led by who? Lan Xichen? Jin Ling? Nie Huaisang?"

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"We'd... rather avoid threat-based solutions. Especially since sending an army to subdue one's neighbors is itself the sort of thing that might involve something that might legally constitute murder."

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"Fair enough. But my fierce corpses are available if you need them."

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Lan Sizhui quietly requests that a servant bring wine.

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"--I don't understand how giving the peasants money works. If you give the peasants more gold, then there's just more gold, it doesn't make extra stuff."

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"So, actually, gold is almost completely worthless in the multiversal economy, and step one of integrating you folks would involve buying it all off everyone who currently holds some so the economy doesn't collapse before it can switch over to new forms of economic activity," says Nelen. (Cassiel illustratively picks up a rock and turns it into gold with a little jazz-hands gesture.) "We use fiat currency, which doesn't represent any specific object, but has the important feature that nobody has the ability to just make it without doing anything that anyone else will pay for."

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"--what's fiat currency? Is it like drawing against the credit of the Wei sect?"

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"It's different from credit - not totally unrelated but not the same thing. Uh, imagine that people's gold kept being stolen, so they put it all in one place with guards, and received pieces of paper that said 'owns one ounce of the gold in the gold place' per ounce of gold - I don't know if that's a reasonable amount - and also had their names on them. These would be easier to carry, and easier to hide from bandits. Imagine everyone gets used to that and then eventually somebody actually looks in the gold place because they want to make jewelry and discover that all of the gold has been... uh... eaten, or something. They still have all the little pieces of paper, and they can in fact just totally ignore that the gold isn't there any more. And when you have more technology, you can replace the pieces of paper with something it would be harder for Cassiel to make out of a rock, which is mostly just a very fancy way of writing down how much money each person has, and making that number go up or down when they earn or spend."

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"...if I found out the gold had been eaten I would just stop accepting the little pieces of paper."

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"Well, you could do that, but you don't actually have to, it turns out that it works fine if you don't. If Cassiel offered you a pile of gold for, let's say a demo of your flute there, would you take it? Considering that she can just go around doing that all day, and the envoy team sent to the emperor can too, and I've just told you gold is worthless in the multiverse?"

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"--oh, good point. Sizhui, tell whoever's in charge of this sort of thing to sell all our gold and, uh, probably also silver and gems too. We'll sell it on credit. Very good terms."

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"Yes, Sect Leader." He writes on a piece of paper.

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"Little antisocial," remarks Natsuko.

"It doesn't matter, we'll buy all the gold and whatnot from whoever has it at the time," says Nelen, waving a hand. "The point is we use the writing down how much money each person has system without any underlying independently valuable thing the number relates to, and the money still has purchasing power. In the short term, given permission to do so, we'll set up a shop where we sell things in exchange for songs, or stories - we do actually want those, they help us preserve a snapshot of a culture before we show up and everything goes haywire - and in the longer term, giving all the citizens money indirectly causes there to be more stuff by making it possible to earn money beyond your basic income by producing and delivering things those citizens want."

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To Natsuko: "No, trade is good actually. You think that just buying and selling things doesn't create any value but actually it's really important to move goods to where people want them, that's why setting up trade routes is so important and is making the Wei sect so very very rich."

To Nelen: "So the extra stuff comes from... your people? And the peasants are still producing the same amount of potatoes and rice as ever."

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"I mean, yes that's important," Natsuko says, "but specifically unloading something that you know is about to be valueless seems mean, but like Nelen said it's not important."

"The peasants will probably mostly switch away from potatoes and rice," says Nelen, "as they import ways to make each farmer able to produce more of those things, and more different things, and trade opens up and people who want potatoes and rice can get them from other sources. The Vanda Nossëo basic income is mostly funded by proceeds from the sale of immortality artifacts, resurrection queue-jumping, terraformed planets, and similar relatively scarce things."

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Lan Sizhui finishes writing, folds the paper into a butterfly, and shoots some red energy at it; the butterfly glows and flaps away.

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To Natsuko: "That is my reward for being the sort of people that people from the stars land on and decide to talk to."

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"--okay I think the different stuff thing seems more important than the money thing? Like, contacting America was really important because we got potatoes, not because the Americans decided to give us more pieces of paper that you can't even do magic with."

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"Yes, but the Vanda Nossëo things that you might want to buy sell for Vanda Nossëo money," says Nelen, "except during the period when we'll operate stores where people can buy some things for stories or songs."

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"You should definitely put one of those here, whatever you do, we get cultivators from all over and we're the center of the best trade routes in China."

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"You can absolutely have one! If you show Natsuko a good place to put it she can put the building up now," says Nelen. Natsuko gets to her feet.

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"I suspect the Sect Leader will want to consult with our advisors before making any permanent decisions," Lan Sizhui says. 

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"The political situation is delicate, the Wei sect is controversial, and it would be a disservice to our friends from the stars to have them send a message they can't easily reverse."

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"We can vacate the building if asked later," says Nelen, "but I understand not wanting one erected."

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"It is an irreversible decision that you spoke to us first rather than the chief cultivator-- it will make people assume you are fundamentally aligned with the Wei sect. But there's no reason to send any more signals until you're sure that this is what you want to do."

Lan Sizhui is just not going to point out how he could have very easily hidden that the people from Vanda Nosseo spoke to the Wei sect first. It is useful for the Wei sect if people think the powerful new people from the stars are on their side. 

(He is also not terribly impressed by their political acumen, but it's not like any of the major sect leaders are any good at politics these days either.)

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"We could send them a separate team," says Nelen. "It's just sometimes hard to tell from space where the centers of power are. This looked like the biggest cultivator settlement."

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"The Nie clan is relatively poor because Nie Huaisang-- the sect leader and current chief cultivator-- has mismanaged it. I think we might look bigger than we are from space because of all the trade."

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"That seems very plausible. Shall I call for another team to be sent to the chief cultivator?"

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"I'm worried it will be seen as an insult if you are the primary team and they're the secondary team."

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"There's not an internal hierarchy like that between teams. If they'd likely prefer their assigned team to have more seniority or something I'm sure one of those can be found."

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"Especially if there's some cover story that doesn't involve you thinking that the Wei sect was more powerful than the Nie clan."

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Cassiel looks at her computer and says, "They're going to call in Ligaya's team, and she's got a Chinese person from Revelation on side, how about we have you guys check if she's not a locally objectionable kind of Chinese person - bad accent that comes through Allspeak, or looks like an ethnic group there's been tension with, or something - and then they can pop over and that can be their delay?"

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"Sounds like a plan."

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"Okay, here they come now."

Here are Ligaya's team, including a Chinese person. "Hello, I'm Sai Ding," she says.

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"Lan Sizhui."

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"Wei Wuxian, also known as the Yiling Patriarch. --Her accent sounds fine to me. Weird, but not like a barbarian or anything."

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"All right, we'll consider ourselves vetted," says Ligaya, and off she pops.

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"...that's going to be hilarious."

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"It is rude to speak ill of the Chief Cultivator."

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"Fucking Lan."

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"I feel like I'm missing some context," says Nelen mildly.

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"The Chief Cultivator is an idiot who is only the chief cultivator because all the other options are in seclusion, thirteen, or my brother."

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"He relies heavily on his advisors."

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"He says 'I don't know, I don't know, I just don't know' and breaks into tears while decisions happen around him. That's why we're in Qinghe, he can't make up his mind about whether to kick us out."

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"Well, that doesn't sound like the hardest personality for Vanda Nossëo to work with," says Nelen mildly.

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"He's great. There will be no mass murders while he's in charge, he wouldn't be able to make up his mind about whether to do them."

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(Lan Sizhui is quietly preparing a second butterfly.)

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Nie Huaisang is having a very bad day. 

Apparently new immortals came from the stars? And it didn't occur to Wei-xiong* to tell him this until five minutes before the delegation started?

(No fewer than twenty-two different people believe they are the secret power behind the throne whom Nie Huaisang is completely dependent on, except of course when he's too incompetent to execute their perfectly clear instructions; still, any replacement would probably be less easily led. Wei Wuxian knows perfectly goddamn well that Nie Huaisang listens to no one but himself, and so is the closest to an actual power behind the throne.)

(The poverty of the Nie sect is real. Nie Huaisang is not, in fact, a good sect leader. Nie Huaisang is specialized.)

(Nie Huaisang is constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The amount of time he spends lying under a blanket in his room overwhelmed by the demands of being the chief cultivator is absolutely genuine. The best kind of lies are the kind that are real.)

In order to establish the proper first impression, Nie Huaisang is crying from overwhelm when the delegates arrive. The crying is also real.

*A term for a friend; roughly similar to Wei-bro

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"- can I help you?" Ligaya asks. "Are you injured or sick?"

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"My bird died!" he wails.

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"I'm sorry to hear that. Is there someone else we should meet with while you're still grieving?" she inquires.

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"Barbarians usually talk to Sect Leader Wei! The Nie clan is too honorable to do trade. Except he is making a lot of money, and trade can't be that dishonorable if Hanguang-Jun is doing it! I don't know, I don't know, I just don't know!"

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"Some of our colleagues are talking to Sect Leader Wei," she says.

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"Well, then, why are you talking to me! When my bird is dead!"

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"Would you like us to talk to some of your advisors instead?" Ligaya asks patiently.

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"I don't understand why you're here in the first place!"

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"We're here to - sell some things, and give some things away, if that's a better way to put it than 'trade', and to see if your people are interested in joining Vanda Nossëo, the federation that produces all those things and is very rich and powerful."

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"Are you from America? I didn't know they had normal people in America."

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"All of us are from different worlds. You can't get to different worlds by traveling through space, no matter how far you go," Ligaya says.

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"I think they mention that in the books of the Lan!"

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"Really? That's interesting. Anyway, we'd be happy to talk to advisors or assistants of some kind while you recover from the loss of your bird."

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Dammit. He has no idea which power-behind-the-throne to refer this to. Or, he does, and the answer is Wei Wuxian who already has things under control.

"--oh, but I wouldn't know which one to pick! Why don't you tell me what you're doing and maybe I can figure it out?"

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"All right," says Ligaya. "So, Vanda Nossëo is a group of a lot of different nations on many planets in many worlds, and we, along with our sister polities Mîr and Elendil, seek the flourishing of sapients everywhere, and we've just discovered this world and want to invite you to partake in some of the flourishing, whether you join Vanda Nossëo yourselves or not."

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"And what do you want in exchange for that?"

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"Not much! Usually we set up shops and then sell all the merchandise, including tokens you can exchange for a ride to elsewhere in the multiverse, in exchange for stories, true or not, or songs or other cultural tidbits; it helps us get a sense of a culture that we're inevitably changing just by showing up. If you do want to join for basic income and defensive alliance support, there are some minimal requirements - majority vote, some basic laws most people already have if not necessarily applied uniformly."

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Nie Huaisang is thinking about how he knows lots of songs and these are really very convenient immortals when he hears the words 'defensive alliance support' and everything else is driven clear out of his brain. 

The immortals from the stars are going to want to kill their enemies, obviously, man and woman and child alike put to the sword. But they are clearly very powerful immortals. They'd have no use for him in war any more than Lan Wangji would have use for a peasant. And what that means is that any wars which happen in the future don't have Nie Huaisang as a combatant.

What they want from him is a useful figurehead who'll do what they say. If they give him art and music and lovers and good wine, they'll have one. And if they don't...

Well. Nie Huaisang has destroyed people more powerful than him before. 

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None of this shows on his face as he says, excitedly, "Merchandise? What are you selling?"

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"Depends on the planet! Typically popular stuff includes the translation magic we're using, healing, exotic food, smokeless light and heat devices, contraceptives, sometimes things like Escan's menagerie there -" Ligaya indicates the little golems and pets of various shapes that Escan has perched on her and crouched at her feet. "But if this planet mostly wants, oh, children's toys and gardening implements, I can get you those too."

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...contraceptives. He wants contraceptives very badly.

A strong cultivator can prevent himself from having children if he doesn't want to. Nie Huaisang has never been a strong cultivator. He knows he is too soft-hearted not to take in a bastard, and his bastard would of course cultivate the saber, and he doesn't want anyone else he loves to die.

He could marry, if there were contraceptives more reliable than the herbs the peasants used. He could marry, and plead infertility, and not have to watch his children die before he does--

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"I imagine the peasants would want gardening implements, they certainly do enough of it. --I can't imagine what need we'd have for translation, if the barbarians want to say something to civilized people they can just learn Chinese. Cultivators can heal more-or-less anything not inflicted by a monster or a cultivator. But we'd like food and contraceptives and your little menagerie, I think, and art and poetry and music and weapons and the lore of other cultures. I suppose poetry doesn't translate, although I don't know if the translation magic handles scansion."

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"Actually, Chinese is a multiversally common language," Sai Ding remarks, "this planet is one of a type that's common, Earths, and most Earths have a China, though there will be some divergences. So you can enjoy the poetry from some other worlds even if you don't want translation magic."

"We generally don't stock weapons," says Ligaya, "though I guess you could make a good case for an exception if people are mostly interested in them for fighting the undead."

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"If I were a religious man I would have some kind of comment about Heaven about the number of Chinas, but I never paid any attention in cultivation class. --I imagine people would primarily want them for hunting the undead and cultivation conferences and so on?"

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Jin Guangyao would have loved planning a cultivation conference for interstellar visitors. He is so very, very tired.

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"Then we might stock them here, although none of ours will be particularly suited to cultivators, since those only exist here so far."

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He calculates. Appearing decisive is a cost... but if he can appear impulsive and concerned with luxury over political advantage, twenty-two powers behind the throne will roll their eyes and none will consider their positions threatened until Nie Huaisang is securely the patsy of the only power that's going to matter anymore.

"Well, what are we waiting for? I will call for some servants and they can begin building immediately."

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"That won't be necessary! Tuturio here can put up the building in a few seconds, as long as we've got a space for it!" Ligaya says cheerfully; the woman with the butterscotch-yellow hair waves. "Same with a bus stop for people who want to go check out the multiverse, though that wants a bit more room."

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That was a good decision! Also, he wants to spend the next six hours under a blanket in his bedroom!

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"Do you have a design that works well with the architecture?"

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"I can make it match!" says Tuturio.

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"Excellent! Let's find a good spot--"

He will locate a spot that is neither a training field nor home to restless saber spirits.

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And Tuturio puts up a cute matching little storefront in about six seconds by magic.

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FUCK. FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK

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That is not a safe emotion for Present Nie Huaisang! Future Nie Huaisang can go sob into his blanket about how everything is terrifying and overwhelming and all he wants to do is paint fans. Present Nie Huaisang is too stupid to notice implications. 

"Can I buy something?"

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"Of course!" Ligaya chirps, while Sai Ding nips up to the ship to collect a Bag of Holding full of inventory to unload. "What should we unpack first?" (Boxes larger than the bag start emerging from the bag.)

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"I collect fans! I would love to own a fan from a different world!"

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"Hmm, I don't know if we specifically have a fan in the standard inventory..." says Tuturio, scanning box labels.

"We have the little handheld electric ones, but they're not really collectible art pieces," says Ligaya, but she opens a box labeled in Not Chinese and pulls out a tiny bladeless fan in black and cyan. She turns it on demonstratively. "Like so?"

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o.O

"How does that work? No one is moving it! I can't sense any energy!"

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"It's powered by electricity! A lot of the nonmagical things are electrical. It'll run out of stored electricity eventually but you'll be able to use it for years before that happens and I can give you a spare battery no extra charge," Ligaya says. "Do you like it?"

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"I think I prefer the painted kind," he says.

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"I can special-order some," says Tuturio. Ligaya reboxes the little fan and they (with help from Escan's golems and pets) start assembling displays of their wares.

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"I also heard about contraceptives?"

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"Mm-hm!" says Ligaya, opening a different box and coming up with a little golden ring. "That's these - also available in different form factors, and there's nonmagical stuff that works on ordinary humans but I can't guarantee it'd work on cultivators, I don't know yet how different you are from standard nonmagical humans, so this is what I'd recommend."

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Fuck. "...do you have to wear it all the time or only during sex?"

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"During sex will do it, as long as you remember to put it on every time."

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...so much for marriage. Maybe they come in "invisible." He can afford-- he can't afford that because the immortals are going to make all of the Nie wealth valueless. Maybe they'll like his stories.

"Can I trade you a song for that? Bastards are so inconvenient, you know." 

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"Sure!"

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He sings. 

He has an beautiful voice: clear, sweet, obviously professionally trained. It is somewhat of a contrast with the lewd folk song he has chosen to use to demonstrate this capacity. 

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Ligaya applauds lightly when he's done and hands over the ring. "You might sing well enough to use Elf song spells! You have to be really good for those but some humans can manage it."

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"Most cultivators have at least some musical training, musical cultivation is powerful." (For example, it can murder people.) 

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"Then maybe the songs'll be popular here - they've got them for crop growth, and lie detection, and healing... not the strongest healing spell in circulation but much less tightly regulated."

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"Why are the other ones regulated?"

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"The underlying magic systems you have to learn to use them are more dangerous."

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"Oh, well, I certainly don't want to do anything dangerous. --Thank you for the ring. I definitely do not want any little Nie babies showing up and spitting up on me and producing fluids." 

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"No problem! You can put it on your toe if you don't want it conspicuous for some reason."

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"I guess bastards are better than legitimate children, you only have to talk to them once they've stopped the part where they vomit and won't stop crying."

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"You shouldn't have any children you don't want," Ligaya says.

Tuturio nods firmly and adds, "There are lots of people who want babies out there, nobody who doesn't want them needs to worry about it."

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"Oh, well, you need to produce an heir for your clan whether you like it or not. --Not that any of the major clans are doing that but, in principle."

(The idiot gossipy chief cultivator sneaking the immortals from the stars important information about the political situation? Never.)

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"Things change," says Ligaya, "I wouldn't be in a hurry if I were you."

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This is an advantage of being an idiot; people will admit things to you they'd never admit to someone who seemed like they knew what they were doing. For example, that they were planning to overthrow the entire structure of your society.

"Oh, we just want you to have laws against rape" his ass.

Without letting on that he'd noticed, Nie Huaisang says, "Fortunately, no one is. Sect Leader Jin is in no rush at all to be married"-- actually he is having a very good time with Lan Jingyi but Nie Huaisang is going to hold back that little nugget--"Sect Leader Jiang has been banned from every matchmaker, and Sect Leader Lan--" If Nie Huaisang were from the American South several centuries later he would have said "bless his heart." As it is, he leans back and tchs. 

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"Places that like to go on having a hereditary aristocracy usually find the heirs thing is less urgent when they can be immortal," Ligaya says. "That costs serious money, we can't hand it out for a song, but it's on offer - it's cheaper to go to Cube and morph younger, but that doesn't work for everybody's details, in particular I don't know how it'd interact with cultivation."

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Subtext: well, most of the jianghu won't be able to afford it. You're so poor and you have so little face that we can afford to give you artifacts cultivators would have given their lives, or rather their juniors' lives, for in exchange for literally a song. But if you help us we can make arrangements. 

Well, consider him bribed. 

"You can cultivate to immortality, although if you're anywhere close you're unlikely to be very interested in politics. The immortals either wander the earth doing good or meditate on remote mountaintops. So it should be possible at least, although I certainly hope your immortality leaves the immortal with more interest in-- the finer pleasures." He opens and flutters his fan. "Speaking of, may I try some of your alien food, in exchange for gossip over the meal?"

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"Our immortality doesn't make people uninterested in politics or food or anything," laughs Ligaya, and she pulls out a little countertop cooker thing and empties a packet of Amentan picklepot into it to heat up.

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All right, what should he share-- "The subject of bastards puts me in mind of little Lan Sizhui."

Let's get them some information about whom they're dealing with in Sect Leader Wei. 

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"Oh? Who's that?"

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"Well, that's just the question, isn't it? Hanguang-jun shows up out of nowhere one day with a child not even old enough to have formed his golden core yet.* Says he's from a minor branch of the Lan, one that had fallen on hard times after the Sunshot campaign, so the Gusu Lan-- the main branch-- took him in. But when people asked around about it, there's no branch from which Lan Sizhui could have possibly come!"

*This is one word.

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"Huh," says Ligaya, interested but not scandalized.

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"The odd thing is that Hanguang-jun is very morally upright. The Lan clan is the most morally upright of all the clans-- they have a thousand rules and most of them follow them, they don't drink and they're vegetarian and they are merciful to defeated enemies and they practice all the arts and they go to bed at nine every night-- and Hanguang-jun is the most morally upright of the Lan. They say he 'goes where the chaos is'-- he doesn't night-hunt monsters that are safe and bring glory, he night-hunts the ones that are harming the peasants most, even if it is a simple fierce corpse. So, I ask you, how can he have gotten a woman with child? Even if he were unchaste, against all the rules of the Lan clan and of honorable behavior, surely he would have cultivated to retain his semen."

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"So it's understood that all those things are correlated?" Ligaya inquires, stirring the picklepot.

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No shit, they're correlated, people who can control themselves to follow the rules of the Lan can also avoid impulsively knocking a girl up, and people who want to be good people are more likely to do good people shit than Nie Huaisang, who has never felt the impulse.

"Oh, I don't know anything about moral philosophy. --So everyone thought that Lan Sizhui was Sect Leader Lan's child-- that's Hanguang-jun's older brother-- he is the sort to fall in love with a woman and have a child with her, and if he did he would of course do his duty as a father and raise the child. It's not like he had a wife to interfere."

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"I take it there's no sign of Lan Sizhui's mother."

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"None at all, unless you count-- but I am getting ahead of myself. So a young cultivator sacrificed himself, removing himself entirely from the cycle of reincarnation, so that the Yiling Patriarch could possess his body and kill his family."

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(Internally, not letting them see: I'm sorry, Mo Xuanyu.)

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"And what do you know but Hanguang-jun falls in love with the Yiling Patriarch! They get married!"

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"Is the translation glitching on gender again, it's known to sometimes do that," says Escan, "or did I just forget how reproduction works, that's also possible..."

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"Well," Nie Huaisang says judiciously, "if a man killed fifteen thousand cultivators last time he was angry, then when he announces that he's married another man the wise gentleman takes a broad-minded attitude."

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"No, no, of course they can be married," says Ligaya, "Escan was just wondering what this had to do with where Lan Sizhui came from, since on most planets reproduction requires two complementary sets of reproductive organs, and she wasn't sure because on her planet babies spontaneously appear for no reason instead."

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"Well, that's the point, isn't it? Perhaps the child is Hanguang-jun's after all. If there is one thing we can learn from him marrying a terrifying mass-murdering necromancer, it is that his sexual and romantic choices make no sense at all."

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"Oh, I see," says Ligaya. The picklepot is done; she decants it into a bowl for him and borrows Tuturio's prestidigitator to clean out the cooker.

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He takes his first bite of foreign food. What does it taste like?

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Vinegary and savory! Picklepot is an Amentan food and one of the standard things to pull out when someone wants exotic multiverse food; humans can eat it all safely but he won't recognize any specific vegetables or meats in it.

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"This is excellent."

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"Glad you like it!" says Tuturio. "It's from my planet! Not my country, but still."

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"Now," he says, "I would be frightened if I were Hanguang-jun and I were married to the Yiling Patriarch and I brought home a bastard. --Everyone agrees the Yiling Patriarch is the wife," he adds as an afterthought.

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"- is the Yiling Patriarch not a man after all?" asks Escan. "I thought we just covered this -"

"Is there some reason to believe the Yiling Patriarch is prone to domestic abuse?" inquires Ligaya.

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"--what's domestic abuse?"

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"Maltreatment of one's family members, especially spouse or children - hitting, rape, throwing things, screaming a lot - I ask because it sounded like you were implying it would be reasonable for Hanguang-jun to be frightened of his husband? Which would be the sort of thing that might indicate that. It's not very unusual for someone to be very dangerous in only one of the spheres, domestic or public, and quite harmless in the other."

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He's not even pretending to be confused about this! This is legitimate confusion!

"...of course your wife is going to hit you if you bring home a bastard and her cultivation is high enough? Also, can married people rape each other...? That doesn't even make sense. You're supposed to have sex with your wife."

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"That's one of the things that sometimes trips people up about our law against rape," says Ligaya evenly. "We define rape as nonconsensual sex, and that's possible within marriage. Especially if your spouse also hits you."

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"...you consent to sex when you get married? That's like saying if you pay a whore she's allowed to not have sex with you."

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"She is, although she might have to refund you," says Ligaya. "In Vanda Nossëo."

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"...I mean, if you injure your wife in bed and she doesn't like it she might run you through with her sword and go back to live with her parents or become a rogue cultivator? If her cultivation is high enough. If not she just has to live with it, we can't all get everything we want. --Or if she's Lan, the Lan disapprove of murdering your husband. It's the moral uprightness thing."

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"Most people prefer... divorce... to murder," pipes up Tuturio. "We have that. Divorce, I mean."

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"Well, we do too and that's an alternate method of solving the problem, although a lot of people consider it to be dishonorable. Or just leaving to become a rogue cultivator. But if she's very angry she'll probably kill you about it."

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"Seems like it might be a consideration on voting to make murder illegal," says Ligaya, "but we're probably getting ahead of ourselves there."

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"Well, yes, people do like killing other people in revenge for being dishonored or hurt in some other way." Not that he knows anything about this fact personally.

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"Yeah, that's one reason some places don't vote to join up, or delay about it, or demand particularly large signing perks," Ligaya nods. "Probably if my planet's shadow government hadn't already been usurped by an anti-murder concern at the time we encountered the multiverse it would have been really hard to get vampires to agree that murder should be illegal."

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"Really, it all depends on who you get married to. I would certainly never raise a hand to my wife, if I had one. But the Yiling Patriarch is sensitive when he loses face and, you know, he does have a terrifying fierce corpse army. I imagine Hanguang-jun likes that kind of thing or why would he marry him?"

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"...I suppose he might think he could win when it comes up."

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"I hope that whatever their relationship is like they're both happy with it," Ligaya replies.

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"Well, as it happens, the Yiling Patriarch loves Lan Sizhui. He claims when asked that he birthed Lan Sizhui from his own body but we know that didn't happen because he wasn't pregnant at any point. --Men normally can't cultivate to have a baby but if anyone could come up with a way to the Yiling Patriarch could. So I suppose it worked out well for everyone involved. Except poor Lan Qiren, who has lost yet another of the finest Lan."

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"Lost?" inquires Ligaya.

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"Oh, Lan Sizhui is the Yiling Patriarch's first disciple now! And he was such a good boy, too. As morally upright as his father and much less prone to ill-advised sexual decisions."

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"And this is a problem for his - relative? - Lan Qiren?"

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"His uncle, who has in practice been in charge of the Lan for, oh, thirty years even though he has spent absolutely none of it as sect leader. Because the actual sect leaders spend all their time in seclusion-- that means they live in a cabin meditating and never leave or talk to anyone-- for assorted reasons."

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"Ah, I see." The shop has been getting set up nicely in the background by the envoy team while they chat.

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"The story of the current Sect Leader Lan is horrifying. I was there for some of it! Most terrifying experience of my life."

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"Do you want anything else out of the shop? I'd love to hear it," says Ligaya.

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"I'd like some art, if you have it."

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"We've got fabric, does that count?" They do. It's very exotic and soft. "If it doesn't I can nip up and grab something else but you should be more specific!"

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"It's so soft I want it as inner robes but too beautiful for the purpose!"

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"You can have the whole bolt for a story if you want to make all your layers out of it!" says Ligaya.

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"You are very generous!"

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"There's a guy up on the ship who can make about a million bolts of fabric in a second if he wants," she says, "it's really not generosity on our end. The fabric costs less than our time."

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"The peasants will like that! --Well, the whole story began after the Sunshot Campaign, when Sect Leader Lan became sworn brothers with my brother Nie Mingjue and their friend Jin Guangyao." Which is to say that they were all dating but Nie Huaisang is saving his accusations of being a cutsleeve thank you. "Unfortunately, Jin Guangyao was a cruel and vicious man. He murdered my brother, his own sworn brother, and he had a child with his sister, and he arranged for his very own father to be raped to death!"

Nie Huaisang keeps the tone of his voice salacious

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"What happened to the baby?" asks Tuturio.

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"Jin Guangyao killed him to hide his incestuous lust!"

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"Oh no the poor baby!" squeaks Tuturio.

"How do you even rape someone to death," muses Sai Ding, "unless they're an Elf - are cultivators like Elves -"

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"Jin Guangyao gave him an aphrodisiac potion and then hired a hundred prostitutes to have sex with him until his heart gave out."

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"Yikes!" says Sai Ding. "I wonder if we can resurrect cultivators - it seems like you might be like Hazel wizards in which case we can't yet -"

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"...well, normally people's souls are reborn into new bodies, that seems like it would complicate things."

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"Oh, yep, that'd do it - that's not what's up with Hazel wizards as far as I know but yep."

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Nie Huaisang knows very little about this and is willing to admit to know even less. "Resurrecting Jin Guangyao's father will be very unpopular, he raped his own loyal subordinate's wife-- this is what, it is believed, drove Jin Guangyao to his atrocity."

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"If he's reincarnated I can't imagine it coming up," Ligaya assures him.

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"Now, Mo Xuanyu was a cutsleeve, one of Jin Guangyao's father's other bastards, and the Jin clan took him in-- and Mo Xuanyu repaid their generosity by trying to seduce Jin Guangyao! His own half-brother!"

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"How awkward!"

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"So of course Jin Guangyao expels him from the clan, and Mo Xuanyu decides to take his revenge"-- sorry sorry sorry sorry-- "by doing what I said earlier, permanently destroying his soul in order to allow the Yiling Patriarch, Wei Wuxian, to possess his body and take revenge. And so the Yiling Patriarch has to take revenge on Jin Guangyao, and one thing and another happens and we all wind up stuck in a temple together! Including me! Even though I was not involved at all!"

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"You, and Jin Guangyao, and the Yiling Patriarch?"

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"And Hanguang-jun, and Sect Leader Jiang, and the Ghost General, and Sect Leader Su, and Sect Leader Lan, and Lan Sizhui, and my brother's resentful ghost, and Sect Leader Jin, and Sect Leader Jin's pet dog Fairy."

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"- I'll tell the coordinator to keep an eye on Allspeak mistranslating the dog's name," says Sai Ding.

"Resentful ghost?" says Ligaya.

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"Oh, when people are full of resentful energy-- for example, because they were brutally murdered by their sworn brother-- they stick around as resentful ghosts bent on revenge."

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"Instead of reincarnating?"

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"One thing cultivators do is lay them to rest so they can reincarnate."

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"...we should probably check at some point if we can resurrect someone who hasn't reincarnated due to being a ghost," says Ligaya.

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"Oh, many people would be very happy about that!"

 

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"Yeah! Is there anyone you'd recommend known to currently be a ghost? If not I can kick the question up and the coordinator can look out for mentions of ghosts elsewhere."

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Nie Huaisang is putting his feelings in a box and he is putting a box very far away on the top shelf. Feelings are for Future Nie Huaisang. Present Nie Huaisang is enjoying his dinner.

(He is going to see his brother again. There are political complications but Nie Huaisang doesn't care, he would burn down the world to see his brother again. They can leave him mortal, they can deny him all the luxuries they have from their wealth, they can destroy the Nie, they can tell him to crawl on his stomach like a snake and lick their shoes and he'll say "thank you, O blessed immortals," if it means he can see his brother again.)

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"Oh, I don't keep track of that kind of thing."

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"Okay, I can write the boss." She points vaguely upward.

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"Jin Guangyao took Sect Leader Lan hostage so he could escape. Well, I will tell you, that was a very interesting hostage situation! And then the Yiling Patriarch confessed to Hanguang-jun that he loved him and incidentally that he wanted to have sex with him every day at least once and they spent the entire rest of the hostage situation snuggling and staring into each other's eyes and making happy noises. They even fought while cuddling. And there were maybe a dozen other personal revelations, which I will skip over because you don't know any of the people involved. And then my brother's resentful ghost got loose and tried to kill Jin Guangyao. And finally when we'd resolved the resentful-ghost situation and gotten Jin Guangyao tied up, he tried to stab Sect Leader Lan. And then Sect Leader Lan killed him instead, in self-defense. And having been so horribly betrayed, and murdering his own sworn brother-- it destroyed him. Sect Leader Lan was never the same again. I don't think he's ever going to leave his cabin."

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At this very moment Sect Leader Lan is receiving a butterfly from Lan Sizhui explaining to him that he really does need to leave his cabin, this is important, Lan Sizhui can't handle all the diplomacy on his own. 

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"He tried to stab him while he was tied up?" asks Escan.

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"He snuck his hand out."

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"Oh, I see. I hope Sect Leader Lan will be okay one day," Escan replies.

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"Now, as it happens, I have another story about Sect Leader Jiang, who has been banned from all the matchmakers--"

Immortals, please observe all of the helpful information Nie Huaisang is giving you here about Sect Leader Jiang's personality!

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They will keep handing him merchandise as long as he keeps talking!

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Personally it is Nie Huaisang's position that Sect Leader Jiang is a cutsleeve and doesn't know it.

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"That's not really scandalous in the wider multiverse," says Sai Ding.

"I mean, just because it's scandalous here doesn't mean it's impossible he is in fact gay and doesn't know it," says Tuturio.

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"The wider multiverse seems to have very strange sexual norms!"

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"It's a lot of different cultures encountering each other and working out how to live and let live," says Ligaya.

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Well, then, Nie Huaisang is going to tell more stories, and incidentally give the Vanda Nosseans a complete sense of the current political landscape in the jianghu.

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They appreciate this very much. He can have so much stuff. At some point in the middle of proceedings Sai Ding nips up to the ship to get a collection of art objects - prints and knick-knacks and music players loaded with nonmagical music instead of the healing songs and rugs and jewelry and, yes, a selection of painted fans.

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Quietly: "...oh, they're beautiful."

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"I'm glad you like them!" Ligaya says. "I'll tell the inventory curator you said so."

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He is just going to stare at the fans and touch them very gently.

(The universe has such beautiful things--)

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"- inventory curator says you're welcome to come up to the ship sometimes if you like!"

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"...that would be wonderful."

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"Do you want to go now?" Sai Ding asks.

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"...yes."

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There is a blink of discontinuity and then they are in the observation deck.

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...He sits down on the carpet and touches it. It's so soft. It is the softest thing he's ever touched in his life. And he stares out at his world, higher up than any cultivator has ever been.

Completely sincerely, without any artifice or any planning, he says, "it's beautiful."

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"I'm glad you like it," says Sai Ding softly.

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"...I didn't know it would be so small."

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"The planet? It isn't - it's just far away."

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"...I wish I could paint."

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"You could learn. After everything settles down in a few years, you can most likely arrange to have all the time you'd need for practicing."

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"...no, I mean, I wish I had my brushes and paints with me right now."

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"Oh. Do you want to pop back down and grab them?"

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"Yes. No. I don't-- I don't-- I just don't know!"

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"...well, I don't know where they are, so if you don't tell me, I guess I won't fetch them."

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Okay! He will tell the alien where his paints and brushes are!

And then stare at the Earth.

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Sai Ding pops down to collect his art supplies for him and brings them back up.

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And he paints the stars. 

...he is, in fact, a very good artist. Not too astonishing to Vanda Nosseo, which has elves and daeva who have spent centuries perfecting their craft, but very good for a human who is barely forty. 

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People drift by and look at the work in progress. Sai Ding waits.

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Meanwhile--

The discussion at the Wei Sect has been paused until two men who look like identical twins arrive. One of them has no facial expressions whatsoever--

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--and one of them is projecting an aura of misery so intense it's almost physical. 

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"Thank you for coming, Sect Leader Lan. I know this is difficult for you."

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"You're welcome," he says, miserably.

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"Sect Leader Lan is in seclusion," Lan Sizhui explains to the interdimensional guests, "and doesn't leave his rooms. His presence here is a violation of the rules of the Lan clan, and we prefer not to let people know that he's violating this rule, because they'll want him to leave seclusion when he doesn't want to."

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"...would it be better if we went to his rooms?" asks Nelen.

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"That would be noticeable to his servants. I have no reason to request food and tea for so many people. But here the servants can just leave the food outside the door, as they typically do for confidential meetings."

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"Would it help if we gave him a device he could use to talk to us without meeting in person?"

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"...I would appreciate this, yes."

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They will give him a phone and explain how to use it.

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And so Lan Xichen shall return home. 

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While they are waiting for him to return home, Lan Sizhui will determinedly continue small talk about comparative interdimensional music traditions. (Everyone except Wen Ning can contribute to this conversation.)

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Tarwë knows the most about music in the group and will demonstrate nonmagical Elf music, or the healing song if they'd like.

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Excellent! Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian can demonstrate some simple musical cultivation. 

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"Is that of a piece with all the rest of the fighting and meditating parts or can it be learned separately?" Nelen asks.

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"Regular musical cultivation doesn't work unless you have a golden core. Demonic musical cultivation works for anyone."

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"Interesting! If it works for people from other worlds you'll have folks interested in learning coming by sooner or later."

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"You'd want it to be--"

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Glare.

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"Maybe they will."

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Sect Leader Wei is getting so good at politics!

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And eventually Lan Xichen is set up with his phone. 

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He can be videoconferenced in and introduced to the concept of Vanda Nossëo.

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He is so very very tired. 

"...and you want me to consult on the politics here."

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"Yes, Sect Leader Lan."

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"--we can assume that Nie Huaisang is going to embrace Vanda Nosseo, because they are the most powerful and terrifying people around and the path of least resistance is to do whatever they say."

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--oh so that's the explanation they're going for of what Nie Huaisang is up to. Good to know. 

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"Not committing murder would, I think, be good for us." He's so tired.

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"- Sect Leader Lan, is there anything that we might be able to do for you to help you - adjust to the more complicated situation newly demanding your attention -"

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"--my problem does not seem like the sort of problem amenable to solutions by very helpful, very powerful people, although I admit I could be mistaken about your capabilities. Sizhui, can you--"

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"He murdered his lover."

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Or that.

He is so tired.

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"- that does seem more difficult. I'm sorry," says Nelen.

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"The Wei sect has convinced many people to behave dishonorably."

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"- how so?" Nelen asks.

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"Well, if the great Hanguang-jun does international trade, it mustn't be dishonorable after all. And then we bribe them with magic items."

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"Why is trade dishonorable?" Nelen asks. "Doesn't everyone have to buy things in a society that uses money at all?"

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"The usual thought is that merchants are just parasites. They don't produce anything, they just move it from place to place."

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"- is this going to be something we need to warn retail envoys about when they bring things here to sell?"