They arrived in Lotus Pier with great pomp and circumstance, with such pretentiousness and conceit a muscle in his husband’s jaw twitched in irritation, and Nie Huaisang hid his face behind his fan to hide his grimace.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” the first man said, greeting Jiang Cheng with a shallow bow. The Sect Leader looked like he had been handsome once, as a youth, but now had definitely wasted the last few decades of life through... constant celebrations and merriment. His tone just gave the right amount of respect before it could be considered condescension. “Thank you for your invitation to our humble Sect.”
“You have always been a long supporter of our family, Sect Leader Zhou of Yunyang,” Jiang Cheng said through gritted teeth, and Nie Huaisang would have elbowed his husband’s side if he knew he could get away with it. “I welcome you to Lotus Pier. May I introduce my wife, Nie Huaisang, the Second Young Master of Qinghe Nie?”
“Welcome, Sect Leader Zhou.” Nie Huaisang bowed, keeping his welcoming smile on despite the very strong urge to smack the man’s unattractive face multiple times with his fan. “I hope your stay in Lotus Pier will be enjoyable and fruitful.”
(How dare this man look down on his A-Cheng.)
“Indeed?” If the way Sect Leader Zhou’s tone when talking to his husband was of any indication, the way he treated Nie Huaisang was worse, barely dipping his head in salute after looking down at him from head to toe. “I will indulge on your hospitality then, Young Madame Nie. Sect Leader Jiang,” Sect Leader Zhou abruptly turns to Jiang Cheng, leaving Nie Huaisang hanging in the air. “May I introduce you to my family as well?” As the man starts to rattle off the names and titles of his family members, Nie Huaisang slowly straightens up, fanning himself slowly and casually, as if the brusque dismissal hadn’t affected him at all.
From the corner of his eye, Nie Huaisang saw his husband’s fist clench tightly. If there was anything Jiang Cheng was, it was that he had his pride, and to flagrantly disrespect his wife in front of him was the same as spitting on his face.
And there was nothing more Nie Huaisang wanted to do right now than to hold Jiang Cheng’s hand and soothe his ire.
But not now, not when they were so obviously in public, when all eyes were on them, tracking their every move, every word, every step.
They had a lot to prove, after all.
(If it was Jiang Fengmian in front of him, Sect Leader Zhou wouldn’t dare do something so callous in front of Yu Ziyuan.
She would whip him to shreds for even thinking it, and despite the strained relationship his in-laws had, according to Jiang Cheng, Jiang Fengmian would even step aside and let his wife finish what she started with a smile on his face.
It was during these times that Nie Huaisang wished he had even a hair of his predecessor’s talent and ability to intimidate others into submission with a simple glare.
But for now, he would continue to hold his head high, and keep face for Yunmeng Jiang, even as Sect Leaders from smaller clans dismiss him without a second thought.)
“And of course, Sect Leader Jiang, I’d like to introduce you to my daughter, Zhou Wenqian.” Sect Leader Zhou said proudly with a puffed up chest, looking more like a peacock than Jin Zixuan ever did. “It’s her first time to be away from home, and so I thought to bring her to Yunmeng to see your famous lakes and rivers. Wenqian, come and greet Sect Leader Jiang.”
The attendants who were with the Zhou Sect moved to the side, to reveal a lovely-looking girl just around their age, maybe younger, dressed in rich dark orange robes it looked almost red, embroidered in gold, with long, sweeping sleeves. Her hair was done up in an elegant but complicated style, kept in place with so many hairpins and decorations it was almost blinding to see.
Nie Huaisang kept his smile in place, even as his hand slowly tightened around his fan.
“Greetings, Sect Leader Jiang,” the demoness-in-almost-crimson smiled, bowing her head demurely, making the head decorations on her hair tinkle melodiously. “Thank you for inviting my father and our Sect to your beautiful Lotus Pier. And it’s truly a wonder indeed, to see everything built again in such a short time!” Her dark eyelashes fluttered, as she finally looked at him, clear admiration in her almond-shaped eyes. “You truly are as valiant and as hardworking as the stories say you are, Sect Leader Jiang Wanyin.”
Nie Huaisang saw Jiang Cheng’s eyes widen at the praise. “I— um, thank you for your words, Maiden Zhou.”
Zhou Wenqiang giggled back, eyes lowered as she looked away.
Nie Huaisang’s grip instantly tightened like a vice.
The sudden sound of wood splintering caught everyone’s attention, even his husband’s.
“Oh!” Nie Huaisang opened his hand immediately, seeing bits and pieces of lacquered wood scattered on his palm. It shattered hard enough that it broke skin, small splinters sticking out of his skin, his fan completely destroyed.
It was one of his nicer ones too.
“I do apologize for interrupting the conversation, but it seems that my fan broke.” He said, sighing and minutely shaking his head when Jiang Cheng opened his mouth to ask him what was wrong. “Goodness, I don’t know why they always break in my hands! It must be because I’m so clumsy!” He laughed, light and self-deprecating.
His palm was starting to ooze red, tiny pinpricks of blood swelling up and spilling over his irritated skin.
“Lihuan,” Jiang Cheng said immediately, getting Nie Huaisang’s attention. “Quickly escort Young Madame Nie to the healers to treat his hand.”
“At once, Sect Leader Jiang,” Nie Lihuan moved forward and lowered his head, before standing beside Nie Huaisang, not quite grabbing his elbow to guide him away, but it was a near thing. “Young Madame Nie.”
“It’s completely all right my lord, it’s just a small scratch, nothing to be concerned about.” Nie Huaisang said, giving his husband a frown.
“I insist, niang zi.” Concern was clear in his husband’s eyes, and Nie Huaisang quickly faltered. Jiang Cheng knew Nie Huaisang couldn’t refuse him when he looked like that. “Go now. Black Pearl will go with you.” At the sound of her name, the pup (not really a pup now, growing bigger and larger as the months passed, but not a dog either, still small enough to be carried back to the docks when they would go for a swim) immediately stood at attention and went towards Nie Huaisang’s side.
“... Of course, my lord. If you’ll all excuse me.” Nie Huaisang bowed, and left with a graceful sweep of his robes and a soft tinkle of his Sect bell, Nie Lihuan and Black Pearl following after his heels.
He could feel multiple eyes on his back, following him as he reached the land and proceeded towards the healer’s quarters. But he kept his head high, his shoulders straight, as he left the group like an Empress leading her own court away to her own palace.
So that was how it was going to be.
Every summer, the Jiang family, as the leading Sect in the southern parts of the cultivation world, hosted a gathering of their allies from the nearby towns and lands that surrounded Yunmeng. These allies were usually comprised of smaller Sects, such as Meishan Yu and Baling Ouyang, and they would renew their alliances, often negotiate their terms of support and assistance, and, very rarely, break off their alliances if they feel like they aren’t satisfied with the terms offered to them.
Due to their relatively young age, other cultivation sects did not take them as seriously as they would the other Great Sects. Lanling Jin and Gusu Lan would have had the same problem as them if not for the fact that there were still people beside their respective Sect Leaders who demanded equal, if not more, respect from the rest of the cultivation world. Madame Jin and Lan Qiren were far from pushovers, and could instantly smell an attempted coup from far away, so the majority of the other Sects didn’t even try.
They, however, he and Jiang Cheng, without the presence of the older and wiser Jiang Fengmian, Yu Ziyuan, and Nie Mingjue, were more than fair game.
It was a delicate balance and struggle of power, with some planning on openly deposing Yunmeng Jiang to become the Great Sect of the South, and others more subtle in their attempts of manipulation to rule Yunmeng Jiang from behind the shadows while showing themselves as a small, barely-noticeable ally.
Just thinking about it made Nie Huaisang feel exhausted. Most of these Sect Leaders were old men, greedy for more power and prestige, thinking of them like they were gullible children who they could twist and play around with through their words. At one point, that could very well have been the truth, if his husband had to do everything by himself, if he had no one by his side to give him the help and support he needed.
(Nie Huaisang’s heart ached at the thought of Jiang Cheng going through this alone.)
But Lotus Pier was now thriving and growing, mostly thanks to Yunmeng Jiang’s alliance with Qinghe Nie, and by extension, Gusu Lan and Lanling Jin (and his not insignificant work). It took some time to get there, but Yunmeng Jiang was stable now, once again on its way to greatness, establishing itself as the Great Sect of the South.
Nie Huaisang refused to give it up for anyone.
(Sect Leader Zhou wasn’t subtle in his plans.)
At the healers’ quarters, the head healer had fussed over splinters on his hand, directing him to sit on the nearest bed. Black Pearl followed after him, jumping on the bed and resting her head in his lap in a clear request for pats. Nie Huaisang cooed back, using his other, uninjured hand to stroke her head, while the healer fetched the supplies and medicines he needed. He glanced towards Nie Lihuan, who was standing by at the doorway, waiting for orders, watching their surroundings attentively.
“Lihuan,” Nie Huaisang finally spoke once they were left alone, “what do you do when you see someone trying to poach something in your territory?”
Nie Lihuan was tall, taciturn, and handsome, considered to be one of the most talented Nie Sect disciples in the current generation. A second cousin from his father’s side, he would have been the next in line for Sect Leader if Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang suddenly died without an heir. But instead, he was here, in a lower position and title as Nie Huaisang’s attendant, handpicked by Nie Mingjue himself to be his protector.
He took his time in answering, as the healer finally returned with his tools to clean and treat Nie Huaisang’s hand.
“First, you catch them alive, and ascertain their reasons for doing so.” The tall man answered evenly, watching as the healer wrapped up Nie Huaisang’s palm with a strip of cloth. “If their reasons are noble, despite their unjust actions, perhaps they could be pardoned, or be punished lightly, if driven by survival and desperation. But for those who are blinded by greed and power…” Nie Lihuan paused.
“You break their hands and legs, and toss them out into the streets to be torn apart by wild dogs.”
He looked up to stare Nie Huaisang straight in the eye, light brown irises glimmering with the bloodlust and violence their Sect was renowned for.
“After all, people do not realize what they have lost until it is truly gone.”
Nie Huaisang hummed in thought, continuing to stroke Black Pearl’s head, staring down at his bandaged hand.
“That is true. Thank you for your thoughts, Lihuan. Can you two please give me some time alone? I need a moment.”
Nie Lihuan and the healer bowed in unison. “I only live to serve Young Madame Nie.” The healer made himself scarce, and Nie Lihuan left at Nie Huaisang’s request, but he would never be far off. Nie Huaisang was fine with that, as long as he had the illusion of solitude.
He sighed, letting his shoulders sag, bending down to hug Black Pearl tightly. Her presence was a comfort, and she was watchful but silent, letting Nie Huaisang squeeze her tight while gathering his thoughts.
Nie Huaisang didn’t like politics. If he could have his way, he would spend his days in Lotus Pier tending to his husband and taking care of his home, collecting poetry, fans and paintings. He would host parties with his in-laws, gossip about what was happening, meet his nephews and nieces and play with them.
He would watch with a smile as his husband played fetch with the dogs, would dip his bare feet on the lake as he laughed at the disciples who tried to upend each other’s boats in the water.
He would spend nights watching the moon, the still lakewater over their private quarters, with his husband’s arms around him, humming a song, lulling him to sleep.
He remembered Zhou Wenqian’s triumphant little smirk, just before he left.
“Let’s go, Black Pearl. Let’s not keep our guests waiting.”
She barked back, and Nie Huaisang stood up, following after the dog as she jumped off the bed and exited the healer’s quarters through the open doors Nie Lihuan had opened for them.
Nie Huaisang smiled, with a determined gleam in his eyes, and stepped into the sunshine.
The next day, Nie Huaisang spent some hours of his morning in his enclosed bird garden, tending to his flock. There were more than 20 birds now, all tweeting and chirping around him, and Nie Huaisang sat on a nearby bench, looking up at them in fondness.
He was still a little tired, after welcoming the rest of their allied Sects and finishing the arrangements for the welcoming banquet. He gracefully waved away the voiced concerns for his bandaged hand, continuing his duties as the hostess in an impeccable manner. He knew Jiang Cheng was still worried, aware of his husband’s eyes following after his every movement, but a warm and steady hand on Jiang Cheng’s thigh during dinner, hidden by the table and his voluminous dinner robes, was enough to assure and placate his husband of his general wellbeing.
It also brought his husband’s attention away from Zhou Wenqian, who was sitting across from his husband, still all pretty and dolled up like a mockery of a bride on her wedding day.
(“I am fine, xiang gong,” Nie Huaisang had said, once they were back in their personal quarters for the night. “It’s merely a splinter, nothing life threatening.”
“Multiple splinters, you mean.” Jiang Cheng had snorted, looking at him with such fond exasperation that Nie Huaisang felt his chest grow warm and soft in return. “I don’t know whether to be glad or upset that your strength is improving, but be careful when holding things next time, you idiot. Or is it your fan that’s too weak against your grip? Have you been getting low quality wood for your fans, Huaisang?” He asked with a furrow in his brow.
“If Wanyin-xiong is so concerned about my fan-making, maybe he should look for a lumberjack who could provide me with strong, durable wood to make my fans with.” Nie Huaisang said teasingly, and apparently, his husband took that as a confirmation.
Nie Huaisang did not expect Jiang Cheng to approach him on their bed, take his injured hand, and press the lightest kiss on his palm, right on top of his injuries.
“If it is what my niang zi wishes,” Jiang Cheng murmured against his fingers, looking at him with tender eyes and a serious face.
And Nie Huaisang, with a red face, smacked his husband with a nearby pillow for causing his heart such terrible distress.)
Early today, his husband left their bed to join the other Sect Leaders who were practicing this morning, not without a kiss, but still leaving Nie Huaisang to his own devices.
Which led him here, in one of his personal gardens, relaxing and enjoying the mildly chaotic cacophony his birds were causing.
One of them approached, a small one with a gorgeous green and yellow coat, and Nie Huaisang opened his palm, seeds already prepared and ready for its arrival.
Nie Huaisang watched with indulgence as the warbler pecked at the seeds on his hand, taking its fill after a long journey. He patiently waited until the animal stopped eating, and placed the remaining seeds on a dish next to the bench, where a few birds remained, pecking through their meal.
“Now,” he murmured to the small bird resting on his hand, “will you sing for me, little one?”
The bird tilted its head, its beady little eyes looking at him in consideration. But its small, clawed feet hopped on to his awaiting finger.
It began to sing, and Nie Huaisang listened intently.
“—be easy to seduce Sect Leader Jiang.” A woman’s haughty voice sounded.
“Do you think so, my lady? He looks so… severe.” Another voice answered, sounding much softer, more hesitant. “And his wife is a man. Doesn’t that show he’s a cutsleeve? He might not be interested in a woman.”
“He only married his wife because he’s the second son of a Great Sect. Who in their right mind would choose to marry a man when there are a lot of women around? Women that could give him children, even!”
(Somewhere in Nie Huaisang’s chest was a clench so painful he almost couldn’t breathe.)
“Are you certain that your plan is… wise, my lady? If you were caught doing this, it would bring shame to your father and your family. It may even cost the Zhou Sect the alliance with Yunmeng Jiang.”
“But of course! Jiang Wanyin is still a man, and men always crave a woman’s touch. It is normal for a man to have multiple wives. It’s only a matter of time before I manage to get him in my bed. Once I’ve done that, he’ll be forced to marry me, and I can easily make him push his wife to the side. And, once I’ve given him a child, with a legitimate heir, he’ll make me the Madame of Lotus Pier instead! I’ll finally be the wife of a powerful man, just like what my father had always promised me!”
“... My lady…”
“Silence! You’re just a maid, how dare you question me?! Even if all else fails, I have something that would turn everything in my favor! Now fix my hair, you useless wretch, and make sure it’s perfect!”
The way Nie Huaisang’s lips curled up as he let the bird fly off to the nearest branch wasn’t what one could call a smile.
If a spoiled little princess thought she could get his husband that easily, then she had another thing coming.
(He was Nie Huaisang of the Qinghe Nie Sect, brother to Chifeng-zun, Nie Mingjue, one of the heroes of the Sunshot Campaign.
He was the Young Madame of Lotus Pier and the Yunmeng Jiang Sect, Sandu Shengshou, Jiang Wanyin’s First and Only Wife.
Nie Huaisang bowed to no one, not even his husband.
And especially not to spoiled little girls who thought they could have anything they want if they demanded it.)
“Yuyang, Lihuan. I need your help.” They appeared at once, in their dark violet and green robes, faces and statures completely opposite each other, but moving forward and kneeling in front of him in an eerily identical motion.
“How can we serve, Young Madame Nie?” Nie Yuyang asked, looking up with a face similar to his own when viewed at certain angles. As a distant cousin from his mother’s side, Nie Yuyang had taken on the Nie family name when he became orphaned at a very young age, one of the very few maternal relatives Nie Huaisang had left. Nie Yuyang had all the legitimacy and claim to use Huaisang’s mother’s last name if he wanted to; but he didn’t, and continued to use Nie as his last name, for some reason. Nie Huaisang had asked, and his delightfully infuriating cousin refused to elaborate.
Apart from being a cousin, he was very close to Nie Huaisang in build and height, but with a more powerful cultivation base. With the right clothes and hairstyle, Nie Yuyang could very much pass for Nie Huaisang himself.
(Another precaution and layer of protection, should it be needed.)
Nie Huaisang unfurled his new fan and and lightly waved it against his chest. He had no doubt they had also heard the conversation that ensued, and the quiet anger they felt only amplified his own. “We should make the Zhou Sect’s temporary stay in Lotus Pier a memorable experience. Don’t you agree?”
“Your orders?” Nie Lihuan asked, face severe.
“I’d like you to prepare a few things for me. Also, keep your eyes and ears open.”
Nie Huaisang looked to the distance, still waving his fan, expression cold and deathly serious, despite his lighthearted tone.
“It will be an interesting few days, I think.”
(To make a plan successful, one needed information. Not just any type of information, but numerous, direct, accurate knowledge that could affect your plans in any way, shape, or form.
Everything else could follow.)
Nie Huaisang was waiting at the largest pavilion in Lotus Pier, dressed in his newest robes in shades of violet and green, wearing his gold and emerald jewelry. He had a new fan dangling on his wrist, an ornately designed hand fan made from the rarest wood and painted with the most expensive pigments, a gift from his dowry that he never had the occasion to bring out until now.
The skies were clear, and in the distance, the foot of the mountain ranges met with the seemingly edgeless pool of water from the lake, creating a picturesque scene. This pavilion was almost as large as Lotus Pier’s main receiving hall, able to hold almost a hundred guests as once, and in fact was built for that exact purpose.
Around him, servants were preparing the tables and cushions, as he had invited the other Sect family members to join him for the midday meal. His husband was still in the middle of talks with the other Sect Leaders, and while he was welcome to join, Nie Huaisang had his own wars to wage and win.
So before he left, he pecked his husband’s cheek, wished him well on his meeting, and Jiang Cheng’s dismayed expression made Nie Huaisang chuckle on the way to the pavilion.
Soon enough, the other Sect wives arrived, also in their best robes and finery, greeting Nie Huaisang, introducing themselves and their companions. Despite being male, Nie Huaisang was easily welcomed to the fold as Jiang Wanyin’s wife and the Young Madame of Lotus Pier, the women easily and casually conversing with him. Gossip traveled far and wide, a woman’s pastime, and Nie Huaisang absorbed all he could, offering stories and scandals of his own, delighting the people listening to him.
His words to the servants, now in the presence of strangers, were more vague, more uncertain, with multiple shakes of his head and waves of his fan. If the Lotus Pier servants had noticed this change, they did not openly comment on it, though they gave him strange, concerned looks.
Once everything was set and the eating utensils were placed on the tables, Nie Huaisang bid them all to take their places and to enjoy their meal, moving to take his own seat in the middle of the spread, as was right and proper.
At least, until he saw that his seat was already occupied by someone else.
“I do hope that I’m not being too forward taking this seat, Young Madame Nie,” Zhou Wenqian said sweetly, despite the scandalized looks other people were giving her. She looked beautiful today as well, dressed in light purples and pinks, face powered paper white with blood red lips, hair done up immaculately with a garnet hairpin keeping it together. “It was unoccupied, and you told us to take what seats were free, and so…”
Nie Huaisang did say that, she wasn’t wrong.
He hid a smile behind his spread fan, as he took his place on her right, where guests of honor and lesser wives were supposed to sit. Like this, it seemed like Zhou Wenqian was the Young Madame, and he, relegated to being the mere concubine, thrown off his seat of power.
(You’d think she would be smart enough to avoid such an obvious trap, but noooooo. She stepped into it willingly, blindly, without a thought to the consequences for her Sect.
This time, despite the offense and indignation he felt swelling up in him, Nie Huaisang took the higher road, and remained completely calm.
There was no way he was ruining another fan, especially not this one, and this… this hoyden would not get anything from him.
“Of course, it’s no trouble at all, Maiden Zhou.” Nie Huaisang assured her with an airy tone and wave. “It is your first time in Lotus Pier after all, and propriety only demands that I provide you a… memorable experience.” He smiled, guileless, innocent, placing his fan on the table and drinking the tea offered, ignoring the pitiful looks the other guests were giving him. “So please, Maiden Zhou, don’t hesitate to ask for anything you require.”
“I will heed your words, Young Madame Nie,” She said with a very polite smile and nod, not fast enough to hide her smirk as Nie Huaisang turned away.
He continued to smile and act as if nothing was wrong, despite the blatant show of disrespect and disregard for his position.
That was fine. It didn’t matter anyway, in the long run.
The dishes were finally brought out by the servants, freshly cooked and made from the finest and most expensive ingredients, which the other Sect wives had looked on with approval. Since Lotus Pier was situated over water, most of the dishes were made from freshwater animals and plants, seasoned generously with spices, as per Yunmeng traditional cuisine, with the occasional meat dishes paired with lotus flowers, leaves, and stems. Lotus seeds were abundant as well, shelled and presented in small plates between the dishes. Jiang Yanli’s lotus and pork rib soup was the main course of the meal, taught to the kitchen cooks before she left for Lanling, and it brought much praise and compliments.
Then finally, the main event.
“Ah,” Nie Huaisang said with delight, as the special dish was placed down in front of him and Zhou Wenqian, “it finally arrived.”
For the first time in the day, Zhou Wenqian sounded hesitant, looking down at the food that was just served. “What is…?”
“It’s a delicacy here in Yunmeng, served rarely and only on very special occasions to guests of honor, as the ingredients are particularly difficult to procure. Even I’m not able to eat it as much as I’d like.” Nie Huaisang absentmindedly thanked the servant who brought it, turning to Zhou Wenqian with a smile.
They were little black balls of cured and salted roe, made from a certain type of fish one could only get from the oceans on specific seasons. The roe clustered together into a small golden container, with multiple spoons laid out for their use.
At a quick glance, they looked like black pearls, glistening attractively on its plate.
From up close, they looked like the eyes of a fish, dead and unseeing as it waited for its demise.
“Of course, Maiden Zhou, as the guest sitting in the place of honor, please do try it and tell me what you think. After all,” Nie Huaisang continued pleasantly, “Lord Jiang is particularly fond of this dish, and always partakes in it whenever it’s served.”
This was true enough. For some ungodly reason, Jiang Cheng loved the dish, eating it whenever it became available. For his part, Nie Huaisang would never eat it willingly, but he could stomach it, if necessary.
(It made Jiang Cheng happy to see his wife appreciating his home’s local dishes, and of course, what wife would not consider it his duty to ensure his husband’s happiness?)
Zhou Wenqian’s eyes flashed at him with hate as she was boxed completely from all sides. “Young Madame Nie, I—”
“Please,” Nie Huaisang interrupted with a smile, enigmatic, looking at her and waiting patiently. The others on the table were silent, chewing on their food, watching the battle unfold with interested eyes.
Put on the spot like this, with the declaration that the dish was special, there was no way for her to refuse without offending the host. And the additional information that Sect Leader Jiang actually liked eating this dish left her with no choice, and only one way to move forward.
“Of course, as Young Madame Nie suggests,” Zhou Wenqian said through her teeth, bared in an approximation of a smile. She took a clean spoon, stabbed it through the black cluster, and took out a large portion of the roe even before Nie Huaisang could open his mouth.
“Maiden Zhou—” Nie Huaisang said, tone studiously quick, as he prepared to stop her from doing what she clearly intended to do.
But, naturally, he was far too late.
Zhou Wenqian shoved the entire thing in her mouth, and everyone watched as her face turned even paler than usual, the slightly fermented taste and sheer saltiness of the roe scalding against the taste buds.
And apparently, that was enough to set off her entire digestive system, as she immediately stood up and left the table without another word, her attendants immediately following after her, leaving everyone else to stare at her back in stunned surprise.
“... Oh my.” Nie Huaisang said after a good amount of time has passed, shaking his head at the remaining guests of the table. “I tried to warn her… she didn’t let me explain how to eat it properly. How silly of her.” Nie Huaisang said, glancing helplessly at all of them, “I don’t know what to do now... ah, let me explain. Since this dish is made from a special ingredient, there is a specific way to enjoy this dish’s flavor.” He said slowly. “This dish has a… powerful flavor to it, and could very easily overwhelm your senses. Do not worry, it is completely safe to eat. As I’ve said, Sect Leader Jiang likes this dish quite a lot.”
That made murmurs break out across the table, the wives now looked more intrigued at the dish than ever, as everything made a lot more sense now.
(Of course Young Madame Nie would never give them something to eat that was harmful or bad-tasting. They were all Sect wives and family members after all, and they only deserved the best Lotus Pier and Yunmeng Jiang could offer.
And of course there was a method to eating such a rare delicacy, it wouldn’t be deemed as such if it was eaten like a common youtiao from off the streets.
Clearly, Zhou Wenqian was just too impatient, too impulsive to listen, and it cost her a unique, one-in-a-kind experience.
And to make sure they wouldn’t meet the same fate, the wives were carefully listening now, to save themselves the embarrassment that the Zhou Sect had just gone through.)
At that moment, a servant came with the bread and sour cream, and Nie Huaisang gave a beatific smile as he showed the other guests how to properly eat the dish. “Everyone, if you could watch me—”
Once they knew the proper way to construct and pair the roe with the side ingredients, the dish was met with exclamations of wonder and delight, as the roe pops in the mouth, flooding the tongue with a hint of sweetness and the fresh taste of the sea, balanced perfectly with the blandness of the bread and the tartness of the cream.
As the other guests started talking about how fascinating and delicious this new dish was, Nie Huaisang looked on with satisfaction, fanning himself to hide the smirk that wouldn’t stop appearing on his face.
The seat beside him continued to remain vacant for the rest of the midday meal, which was probably for the best.
(On the rare times he managed to try the roe, Nie Huaisang found the flavor appealing once it was eaten with unsalted bread and soured cream, as its flavors were too strong to be consumed on its own.
But of course, only he knew that information.)
Nie Huaisang finished off his own small portion of the roe with a smile, his pinky finger wiping off the excess cream on the side of his lips, the other dusting away the crumbs of bread off his robes.
The next day, the other Sects participating in these talks were talking about how rude Zhou Wenqian was, leaving the midday banquet without even asking permission from Young Madame Nie, who had worked so hard and prepared so meticulously to provide his guests with such rare, delicious delicacies.
And Zhou Wenqian’s claims of being fed with disgusting, unpalatable food were quickly and firmly refuted by the other wives, who told their husbands that she merely didn’t know how to eat the dish, did not stay long around to listen to Young Madame Nie’s instructions, and that they suffered no ill effects from eating the roe.
Later on, Nie Huaisang also heard from Nie Lihuan that Sect Leader Zhou’s temperament was terrible during the afternoon talks, and in the end, because of his belligerence and snide, not-so-quiet comments about him, his husband kicked the man out of the room with a furious snarl, Zidian unsealed and crackling threateningly from his finger.
“Whoever has anything to say against my wife, say it now or forever hold your peace,” Jiang Cheng had said, in the coldest voice anyone had ever heard, purple lightning sizzling around him.
“Because if I hear anyone say anything than less than perfectly civil and respectful about him after today, I will personally make sure that you will never be able to use your mouth to talk again.”
After that incident, no one dared talk about Nie Huaisang negatively in the presence of Sect Leader Jiang.
If Nie Huaisang swooned after hearing the events, it was of no one’s concern except his own.
And if he decided to drag his husband the moment they both had time to spare into the nearest empty room by the collar of his robes, to kneel in front of him and... properly show his appreciation because his honor was so well defended, well... that was their own business as husband and wife.
And if Nie Huaisang arrived at the next engagement looking completely debauched, with bruised knees, his hair in disarray, lips swollen and cheeks flushed, people should really know better than to ask questions on what he had been just doing.
They wouldn’t like the answer at all.
(Like Zhou Wenqian, whose look of outrage and envy was so visible on her face Nie Huaisang found it hard to look at her without laughing in her face, his fan hiding his vindicated glee as everyone else looked away, feeling thoroughly mortified.
After all, Nie Huaisang would be remiss in his wifely duties if he could not attend to his husband’s needs.
His every need.
Petty victories were still victories after all, and should be celebrated when possible.)
It was a few days into the alliance gathering when Zhou Wenqian attempted another one of her nefarious plans.
These recent days, Nie Huaisang vacillated between being in a good mood and being extremely stressed about everything in the world. So far, there had been no major incidents that tarnished the name of Yunmeng Jiang, his own little tiff with Zhou Wenqian notwithstanding.
He might even go so far as to say that everything was going splendidly in their favor, with the negotiations going well, Baling Ouyang, Beiluan Yao, and Meishan Yu’s continued association and cooperation easily gained once more. The other Sects were not so easily to… convince, Yunyang Zhou among them, and more than once a meeting had to be postponed for another time because tempers were flaring and more than a few weapons were unsheathed in the main hall.
Still, the purpose of this alliance gathering was to make sure all of the Sects attending will continue their support for Yunmeng Jiang, and so, as per Nie Huaisang’s suggestion, perhaps a whole day tour around Lotus Pier would be beneficial to them all. More than a few Sect Leaders were interested in seeing the results of Lotus Pier’s reconstruction, and it would be a great opportunity as well to show off the changes his husband had made to the residence, although Jiang Cheng had tried to ensure that Lotus Pier was rebuilt the exact same way before it was burned to ashes.
(Of course, they would only be sticking to the public areas, as Lotus Pier’s security had to be considered as well.)
It was also one of the few times he was able to accompany his husband during this time, and so Nie Huaisang got ready for the trip as per usual, but with a few distinct changes.
“Huaisang, are you sure you want to wear… that?” Jiang Cheng raised an eyebrow at Nie Huaisang’s outfit for the day.
Nie Huaisang was rightly offended, smacking his husband on the shoulder with his fan. “Why? Is there something wrong with it?”
Jiang Cheng hesitated. “Not exactly, but…”
Nie Huaisang could perfectly understand his husband’s confusion. Apart from his usual purple and green robes, he was also wearing a long, black coat with a hood, with its sleeves cut at the elbow that allowed his arms more freedom of movement.
It was stylish and it certainly cut an imposing figure, but it was at the height of Yunmeng’s summer, and even now, Nie Huaisang could feel a bead of sweat rolling down from his neck to his back.
(It was completely necessary, however. Nie Huaisang was a creature of comfort, and he would rather die than compromise any part of his well-established ease.
But one could not win a battle without sacrifices, and this was one of them.)
“I’ll be fine. I just wanted to wear this for the day because I haven’t worn anything from Qinghe in a long time!” He twisted and moved around, showing how well the cloak swirled along with his Yunmeng Jiang robes. “Isn’t it pretty? I bought it especially cheap too!”
“It’s also something you use for winter.” Jiang Cheng pointed out, pinching the bridge of his nose with an exasperated sigh. “Fine. Do whatever you want. But if you faint from the heat, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.”
“Of course.” Nie Huaisang agreed easily, going on tiptoes to press a kiss on his husband’s cheek.
“After all, I have my big, strong husband to catch me if ever I fall.”
Jiang Cheng’s ears flared scarlet, even as he scowled and looked away, and Nie Huaisang laughed, tucking his hand around his husband’s elbow as they exited their private chambers.
The heat was killing him, slowly and surely.
Nie Huaisang kept his smile in place, even as his wrist worked double-time alongside his fan to bring him a much-needed relief from the sweltering weather.
So far, the tour of Lotus Pier had brought them inside the main residence, the gardens, and the training areas. The Sect Leaders with them had oohed and ahhed appropriately, asking questions on the details of the rebuilding, which either he or his husband answered.
Ignoring his husband’s all-knowing look, Nie Huaisang directed his attention to the wooden walkways that surrounded Lotus Pier, finally relieved they were outside, even if the sun was shining down on them unforgivingly.
“Obsidian, Black Pearl! Don’t go too far!” He called after the pups, who were accompanying them on the tour. They were bright and energetic today, playing around their feet and chasing each other, constantly darting around their legs and ankles.
For the most part, the other Sects had taken no offense to the dogs’ presence, and even a few had requested to pet and touch them, with Jiang Cheng’s permission. They were doing extremely well with their training, and were exceptionally well-behaved, even for their breed, able to recognize their masters’ voices, follow instructions, and even do several tricks.
Because of that, they were never leashed and were free to go wherever they liked in Lotus Pier, but more often than not, they were beside either the Sect Leader himself, or his wife.
“You sound like an overprotective mother,” Jiang Cheng muttered under his breath, glancing at the dogs, but there was something contemplative in his eyes, something thoughtful, as the dogs heeded Nie Huaisang’s words and remained close.
“The walkways here don’t have rail guards, they might fall into the lake,” Nie Huaisang murmured back, finding himself as fond of the dogs as his husband was.
(Jiang Cheng had overseen the pups’ training himself, carving out the time from his day to spend some time with them. It had even cut into their letter-writing time in the afternoons, but Nie Huaisang couldn’t begrudge his husband’s happiness on being able to take care of his own dogs again.
They simply wrote their letters outside now, with Nie Huaisang watching as his husband wrestled with his pets, and could even be persuaded to play fetch every so once in a while.)
“They know how to swim, they’ll be fine—Shall we retire to the gazebo now for refreshments? You may also walk around to explore the other pavilions as well.” Jiang Cheng said out loud, to the group behind them.
“Oh, and please be careful as well.” Nie Huaisang added, gesturing to the wooden plankways with his fan. “As you can see, there are no guards in some parts of the walkways as they are also used to dock boats. Please watch your steps and take extra caution when exploring this area.”
Nie Huaisang smiled.
“But I’d also like to ask you to not to pluck any lotus flowers or seeds by yourselves, as we would like to preserve Lotus Pier’s natural surroundings. If you would like to eat or have some, just please approach any of our servants, and they will be happy to assist you.”
While most of the people on the tour decided to stay under the shade of the gazebo, some opted to walk around to admire the clear waters under them, or to gaze at the profusion of lotus and lily flowers that grew in between the docks. As their guests settled in, Nie Huaisang looked up at his husband.
“Xiang gong, shall we walk around? It’s been a while; we can take the dogs with us as well. The two of you, come! Wanyin-xiong will take you both on a walk today!”
At the promise of spending more time with their masters, Obsidian and Black Pearl bounded towards them, tails wagging in excitement. With three puppies staring at him pleadingly, Jiang Cheng just exhaled a breath, pressing the heel of his palm to his forehead, shaking his head with fond resignation.
“... Fine. As my niang zi wishes.”
Nie Huaisang gave him a brilliant smile in return and tugged at his arm towards a path, with the dogs following after them cheerfully.
And it was… nice, to spend some time alone with his husband with their dogs, walking around the home they built together. Jiang Cheng always had something on his person to entertain the pups with, and with a little wheedling, a small ball was produced from a qiankun pouch, and the dogs were happy as punch to have something to chase after while they took a seat on the nearest pavilion, which was quite small and intimate, partially hiding them from the gazes of the other people in the area.
As the heat slowly caught up to him, Nie Huaisang couldn’t help but lean on his husband’s shoulder, face already pink from the radiating heat. The shade of the gazebo was leaps and bounds better than being under the sun, and Nie Huaisang’s shoulders sagged in relief.
“... I told you the cloak was too much.” Jiang Cheng was unimpressed, even as he moved his arm to wrap around his wife’s shoulder, plucking at the cloak, while Nie Huaisang quickly fanned himself to cool down. “Why don’t you take it off already? No amount of vanity is worth being baked under the sun.”
“My, Wanyin-xiong, you must be really keen on getting my clothes off,” Nie Huaisang said, coquettish, fluttering his eyelashes in lieu of not answering Jiang Cheng’s question.
(Did his husband really think he was doing this because he wanted to look good?! Of course not! If given the choice, Nie Huaisang would like to have his light and airy robes back, thank you very much!
But he couldn’t take it off, not yet, because the main event had not yet started.)
“Not now though, there are still people around, xiang gong.” Nie Huaisang said with a wink, pressing his fan against his lips, as if keeping a secret.
As expected, Jiang Cheng instantly turned red and pushed Nie Huaisang away. “Shameless! See if I worry about you again!”
His husband was adorable when he’s being teased. “Aww, my husband does worry about me! I’m very happy to know that, Wanyin-xiong!”
“O-Of course I do! What about it?” Jiang Cheng glared back at him with flushed cheeks. “Isn’t caring for my wife’s health something I’m supposed to do as a husband?”
Once the words sank into Nie Huaisang’s mind, he turned as equally red as the other, mouth gaping open in surprise as butterflies burst free in his stomach, fluttering their wings madly.
His husband shouldn’t say things like that so easily with a straight face!
Dangerous! His husband was truly dangerous for his heart!
It was Black Pearl’s sharp barks that brought them back to the present, and the sound of the increasing volume of voices that caught their attention.
“—dare you stop me! Move out of the way this instant! Don’t you know who my father is?!”
Immediately, they both stood up at the same time, heads turning towards the direction of the commotion. With a shared nod, they exited the pavilion and went towards the source.
As they moved closer, they could clearly see a small group of people in the middle of the wooden pathway, a group of young women gathered around a beautiful woman wearing robes of pink and blue so pale it looked almost white.
Ah, Nie Huaisang thought as they finally arrived, no wonder the voices were so familiar.
(And the stage was finally set.)
“As Young Madame Nie stated, people are not allowed to take any lotus flowers and seeds from around Lotus Pier.” A Yunmeng Jiang disciple was standing in front of the group of ladies, preventing them from taking another step, arms crossed and standing his ground. Black Pearl and Obsidian were beside him, growling at the woman who had just spoken. “So begging your pardon, but please return the lotus pod you have just plucked, my lady.”
“What nonsense are you speaking about? Are you accusing me of theft?” Zhou Wenqian demanded, not taking a single step back. “How dare you! I’m the daughter of Sect Leader Zhou of Yunyang! You lowly disciple should know your place! Now let us through!”
“Not until you return what is not yours, my lady.” Fifth shidi answered politely but firmly, and Obsidian followed with a loud bark, taking a step closer.
“What is going on here?” Jiang Cheng demanded, cutting through the conversation. “Obsidian, Black Pearl, to me.” The dogs immediately came to his side, though they did not stop growling at Zhou Wenqian.
“Sect Leader Jiang! Greetings to Young Madame Nie as well.” The young man greeted, saluting them both deeply.
“Fifth shidi, what happened?” Nie Huaisang asked in concern, unfurling his fan and waving it as he glanced from their disciple to the Yunyang Zhou group. “What is the fuss all about?”
“Sect Leader Jiang, Young Madame Nie,” the young woman turned to them, now the very picture of a wronged victim, the tears in her eyes included.
(Nie Huaisang rolled his eyes so far up his head he had to use his fan to cover his face entirely.)
“I beg you to punish this disciple for his incompetence! Me and my maids were just enjoying the view of your beautiful lotus flowers when this disciple of yours suddenly stopped us and demanded that I return something I do not have! This is completely unacceptable! To accuse me of something so petty and ridiculous!”
“Is this true?” Jiang Cheng asked the disciple, who kept his head low, still saluting. “Raise your head and speak.”
“Speaking freely Sect Leader Jiang, but the young lady is lying.” Fifth shidi said evenly, glancing at her before focusing on his Sect Leader. “I saw her pluck a seed pod from this group of lotuses,” he gestured to their side, at the water below, where a profusion of water plants grew, “and hide it in her sleeves. When I approached them, she was telling her attendants that she would be eating the lotus seeds in her quarters, and that was when I stopped them.”
Zhou Wenqian scoffed, as if the story was completely untrue, turning her large, tearful eyes onto his husband.
“Sect Leader Jiang, I would never do something do crude and disrespectful! I swear I have never done anything of the sort! This disciple is only stopping us because I refused his advances! Please believe me!”
For the first time, a dark red appeared on fifth shidi’s face, and he looked completely indignant. “I have never done such a thing! Sect Leader Jiang, I swear on my sick mother’s honor that everything I just said was the truth, and I have no malicious intent towards the young lady.”
“How about this, then?” Nie Huaisang interrupted pleasantly, moving forward and stopping the rising tension.
(His husband looked close to believing Zhou Wenqian’s words, and Nie Huaisang was not about to let injustice slide, and let an innocent young man take the blame for another person’s actions.
Honestly. His husband was too weak to a woman’s wicked wiles.
He would need to fix that. Immediately.)
“If there really was no mischief done, then surely it would be easy for Maiden Zhou to let us see into her sleeves and do a thorough check through her clothes. If not us, then one of her ladies would suffice.” He glanced at all the affected parties and folded his fan shut.
“And truly, if the lady says the truth and our disciple is truly at fault, then I will punish the disciple myself, and submit myself into your rooms and kowtow to thoroughly apologize for this grave slight.”
Jiang Cheng and the disciple startled at his words, looking at him.
Nie Huaisang lifted a hand to forestall their protests. “It is only right. After all, stealing and rule-breaking are serious offenses, and should be dealt with accordingly. So?” He took a step forward. “Shall we do a quick check, Maiden Zhou?” His smile widened imperceptibly, with another step.
“If nothing was truly done, then there is no need for fear, isn’t there?”
Zhou Wenqian stiffened, taking a step back, and to Nie Huaisang, that was as good as a confession. “I-I refuse! Asking to see a woman’s body just like that! Young Madame Nie, have you no shame?! Your disrespect goes too far! The moment my father hears about this, you’ll regret it!” She turned to leave.
But Nie Huaisang wasn’t going to let her go so easily.
“Maiden Zhou, wait—!”
Without a warning, Black Pearl jumped out with a snarl, sharp canines clamping down on Zhou Wenqian’s long arm sleeve. She gave a frightened shriek, pulling at her robes, but Black Pearl refused to let go, pulling back as much as her small body could.
“Help! This beast is attacking me!” Zhou Wenqian yelled hysterically, scrambling back.
“Black Pearl, stop! What are you doing?!” Jiang Cheng surged forward with a furious expression, and with a loud rip, the cloth split into two.
At the same time, the young woman took another step back, and was met with air.
Without further ado, with a loud screech, Zhou Wenqian fell completely into the lake.
It all happened within the span of a few miǎo.
Everyone was frozen, unsure of what had happened at first.
And then the people moved all at the same time.
“My lady!” Zhou Wenqian’s attendants cried, dropping down against the edge of the pathway, reaching their hands out to fish their mistress from the lake. Fifth shidi immediately dove in after her, and soon enough, they both surfaced, Zhou Wenqian holding tight onto their Yunmeng Jiang disciple, coughing and gasping, while the young man tried to find a ladder they could use to get up to the wooden platform.
“Black Pearl! You bad dog! What have you done?!” Jiang Cheng was standing in front of the dogs, glowering at her while the pup whined pitifully, lowered herself to the ground, but immediately stopped when he saw what the dog had between her jaws. “This is…”
It was a lotus seed pod, full with ripe seeds, the stem dangling uselessly at the sides, alongside a scrap of light pink satin.
The disciple was saying the truth.
“My lady, are you all right? Are you hurt anywhere?” Nie Huaisang heard fifth shidi ask, and she didn’t answer, which did not surprise Nie Huaisang at all.
(Wasn’t that the worst slap in the face, to be rescued by the very same person you wanted to use to cover up your crimes.)
“Help her out and use this to cover her.” Nie Huaisang said at the same time, unlacing the cloak around his shoulders and offering it to the nearest maid as they finally managed to pull her out of the water.
The moment the cloak was removed on his person, Nie Huaisang breathed in satisfaction as the wind finally touched his overheated skin. Finally. “Xiang gong, fifth shizhi, avert your eyes right now.”
Jiang Cheng quickly turned around, kneeling down instead to whisper his apologies to Black Pearl, as she was completely avoiding him after she was severely scolded, hiding behind Obsidian. Fifth shidi remained in the water, waiting until the young lady was completely covered before hauling himself on the wooden walkway.
Nie Huaisang too, diverted his gaze away moment they were on solid ground, as the maids fussed over her. The black cloak was immediately wrapped around her, covering Zhou Wenqian from neck to toe, ensuring that no one saw any part of her body.
(Like hell Nie Huaisang would let her use this moment of indecency to lay a claim on his husband.)
“Young maiden, go and inform Sect Leader Zhou what just happened to Maiden Zhou.” Nie Huaisang instructed one of the maids and paused. “And don’t mention the lotus pod anymore. I think what happened just now,” he gave a meaningful look towards Zhou Wenqian, who was completely drenched, her hair and makeup ruined, “is an appropriate punishment for her crime.”
(All of them perfectly knew that if Nie Huaisang wanted to, he could do something much, much worse to her, for breaking a law in Lotus Pier, and attempting to escape with evidence of the crime.
As far as punishments went, this was a mere slap on the wrist.)
“T-Thank you for your kindness, Young Madame Nie,” the head maid, who had been looking after Zhou Wenqian all this time, shakily bowed. “We will not forget your generosity towards our young lady.”
Nie Huaisang waved the gratitude away. “It’s of no consequence. Now, get yourself clean and warm, Maiden Zhou,” he turned to her cheerfully, fanning himself, “and I shall send some lotus pods to your quarters later, if you still wish to taste our famous lotus seeds.”
Zhou Wenqian’s pale cheeks bloomed bright crimson, but could not say a word, completely humiliated by the discovery of her wrongdoing and the apparent magnanimous nature of Young Madame Nie, who allowed her to get away with her indiscretion at the great cost of her dignity.
(Perhaps it was disproportionate, even cruel.
But she threatened to hurt one of his own, and Nie Huaisang was not about to get her get away with it.
At least, he hoped this event would let her learn a few lessons on humility and honesty.)
A final bow, and the Zhou group left, Zhou Wenqian being flanked by all sides by her maids, towards their given quarters, with Yunmeng Jiang following them with their gaze.
Jiang Cheng had finally managed to get into Black Pearl’s good graces again, and stood up slowly, his eyes narrowed at the group of women walking away. “That was…”
“An attempt to get away with breaking the rules.” Nie Huaisang said decisively, whirling to face his husband and poking him with the tip of his closed fan. “And you, Jiang Wanyin! You should be more careful when it comes to things like these! Do not base stories and your decisions on a person’s appearance! What will you do if the same exact situation happens?!”
Jiang Cheng made a face, but couldn’t exactly argue back. At his feet, Obsidian and Black Pearl circled around, sensing their master’s distress, and his husband absentmindedly patted them on the head as Nie Huaisang continued his scolding.
“Fifth shizhi was almost punished for something he did not commit! Xiang gong, you should apologize to him and his sweetheart for putting him in such a situation!”
Both Jiang Cheng and the young disciple choked, the young man blushing darkly, spluttering.
“Y-Young Madame, h-how did you—?”
“Oh, people say a few things every now and then,” he answered, nonchalant, before glancing at the young man with a wide smile. “Your actions are commendable, but I think your sweetheart will be quite upset if she hears you’ve saved another maiden from drowning, fifth shizhi.” Nie Huaisang continued casually. “I would advise that you two wait until you’ve risen up the ranks and become a senior disciple, at least. Winning over a merchant family will be difficult, after all, but they are easily impressed with tales and stories of valor.”
The young disciple’s face was so red he could rival the famous spices of Yunmeng. “I… I thank Young Madame Nie for his advice.”
“Wonderful.” He beamed back. “Now go along and get yourself dried up. You will be rewarded for your quick action and diligence. You’ve done our Sect proud.” Nie Huaisang shooed him away gently with his fan, waiting until the young man had stumbled away before bending down and patting Black Pearl on the head.
“And you! My good girl, so smart and talented! You did such a good job, protecting your shige!” He cooed, briskly running his hands over the pup’s body, petting her as thoroughly and as best as she deserved. “My husband might have been mean to you, but don’t you worry, there will be a nice dinner for you, I’ll make sure of it! A nice cut of meat, cooked to perfection!”
“I didn’t mean to be!” Jiang Cheng protested. “I thought she was attacking the young lady!”
“They are your companions, Wanyin-xiong, and even if they are animals, they are very smart. You should have known better than to assume the worst of this good girl!” Nie Huaisang cuddled the pup harder, looking at his husband reprovingly. “They will never do anything without good reason.”
Black Pearl barked, tail and body wiggling, simply happy to be given attention by one of her masters.
“So you say,” Jiang Cheng said with a pointed look at Obsidian, who was simply rolling around their feet with his tongue out, trying to catch their attention as well.
This time around, even Nie Huaisang had to give his husband a sheepish grin.
“... Well, most of the time?”
(Later on, as they returned to the main pavilion to speak to the other guests, Jiang Cheng looked like he realized something, and was now looking down at him with suspicion.
Soon enough, Nie Huaisang found the attention unbearable. “... What?”
Jiang Cheng was squinting at him. “You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you?” He gestured to the Yunyang Zhou Sect, whose Leader excused himself immediately after being informed of what happened to his daughter, to Nie Huaisang’s robes, which were now completely visible after he had removed the extra layer of cloth. “That’s the reason why you wore the cloak. You knew something would happen.”
Nie Huaisang simply rolled out his fan and cooled his face, hiding a smile.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, my A-Cheng.”)
When events did not go the way a person wanted to, they began to lose control. Small holes now became visible, motives slowly and surely uncovered as their mistakes piled up, one on top of the other.
And finally, their blunders would lead to a slip so large and disastrous it could never be recovered.
Today seemed to be the day when such a slip would happen.
Entertainment was a natural part of meetings and talks of these nature, and each Sect offered their own talents and skills to keep everyone amused and in light spirits. From playing musical instruments, singing, and dancing to poetry reading, sword exhibitions and play acting, the styles of entertainment differed every night, depending on which Sects were presenting.
(It went unsaid that there was an undercurrent of competitiveness when these things happened, with each Sect trying to undermine each other’s performances and using it to gauge how much of a threat a particular Sect would be, as it told other people how much and how well a Sect taught their disciples.
No one had outright sabotaged another Sect’s performance, since it was an affair meant to encourage fun, enjoyment, and camaraderie, but it still did not stop the amount of ‘accidents’ that happened that would only worsen as the shichen went on.)
By tradition, the host Sect would have the final performance of the evening to close out the day, the grandest and the most awe-inspiring, and the pressure for Yunmeng Jiang to perform well was immense.
So far, they had managed to come through each night relatively unscathed, his husband’s disciples earnestly trying their best to entertain their guests every night and managing to become the talked-about performance every night. Jiang Cheng did not hide how proud he was of the little ducklings, and Nie Huaisang supported them wholeheartedly as a sort-of young mother or older brother to them all, since it meant his husband, despite his young age, was able to teach his own disciples enough to beat other disciples with years of experience and cultivation ahead of them.
(They were also very adorable in their wide-eyed sincerity, such white lotuses, and to see his husband surrounded by junior generations made his heart twinge with a yearning Nie Huaisang did not want to fully think of.)
This night, Yunyang Zhou was performing, and Nie Huaisang was not surprised to see Zhou Wenqian behind her father in the table assigned to their Sect, wearing such outrageously bright-colored robes it was impossible not to look at her. It was clear who was going to perform for her Sect, and with the whispers and sneaking looks towards her, she was getting a lot of attention, and it was the good kind too.
After the dinner, they all sat down, plied with food and wine as they settled to watch the performances. There were some performances that were better than others, and Nie Huaisang sincerely watched and clapped if it merited his praise.
By his side, Jiang Cheng looked bored out of his mind, only sitting up more properly when the performances included sword fights, but other than that, he really looked like he’d rather be anywhere else, if not for Nie Huaisang’s hand on his knee that kept him in his place.
Politics demanded their physical presence, and it was a duty they both could not forego.
However, when Yunyang Zhou was called up to perform, Nie Huaisang paid complete attention as the musicians took their place to the side as she stood up, taking her place in the middle of the room.
As the chimes shimmered and the pipas started to strum, Zhou Wenqian started to move around the room, her long sleeves billowing around her as she started to sing.
Nie Huaisang was familiar with the song. Jiaren Qu, a song about a woman with an exceptional beauty from the north, and with one or two looks upon her visage, could devastate cities and cause empires to fall.
Nie Huaisang had to cover his face to muffle the snort that threatened to escape. Unsubtle.
To be a completely honest and impartial judge, it was Zhou Wenqian’s face that carried her entire performance. Despite her less than stellar vocals, the way she dressed and looked made her look ethereal, a fairy that perhaps descended from the heavens to grace the undeserving humans with her beauty.
Once her dance finished, she took her place beside her father once more, lauded and praised for such an ethereal act. Sect Leader Zhou looked as if his chest would burst with arrogance, loudly boasting that his daughter was the best of the night, and that no one could compare to her song and dance.
Nie Huaisang quickly took a peek to see his husband’s reaction, and was pleased to see that he looked politely disinterested, even as he gave a perfunctory clap after her performance. Perhaps her beauty was not enough to allure him, which was good enough for Nie Huaisang.
(Jiang Wanyin was not an easy man to ensnare. Nie Huaisang would know, he spent years trying to do it, even if it ended in his success.
And Zhou Wenqian seemed to realize it as well, if her frustrated look towards his husband, who didn’t even spare a glance in her direction, was any indication.)
The entertainment continued on and on, until it was time for them to finish the day’s activities. As Jiang Cheng raised his hand to call on his disciples to their places in the middle of the hall, Zhou Wenqian tapped the table with her long fingernails, grabbing the attention of people nearby.
“Please, Sect Leader Jiang, if you would indulge this naive one,” Zhou Wenqian said, her voice carrying throughout the room, causing her to be noticed by the other Sects in the main hall. “I would like to ask Young Madame Nie a question.” Zhou Wenqian was the picture of a perfect lady, head down, eyes averted.
(To Nie Huaisang she was a snake, just waiting for the right opportunity to strike.)
Jiang Cheng gave him a look that plainly said, ‘Well, it’s your call,’ and Nie Huaisang nodded minutely, turning to look at her.
“And what does Maiden Zhou want to ask me?” He asked with perfect courtesy.
“Forgive this one if she sounds impudent, but does Yunmeng Jiang not have more performances other than showing their disciples’ swordplay?”
“Yunmeng Jiang does not only show swordplay, but they also show our martial arts that are characterized by flexibility and acrobatics that are entertaining for the audience,” Nie Huaisang replied with a polite smile in return, hearing the insult for what it was and letting it roll down his back. “And since people are thoroughly amused, we see no reason not to do it every night.”
“But I have heard that Yunmeng Jiang boasts of exceptional skills and multiple talents. Sect Leader Jiang Wanyin is, of course, an exceptional cultivator, talented in all the Six Arts, and every night, Yunmeng Jiang has proven that its disciples are as equally skilled in their own ways.” Zhou Wenqian’s perfectly plump, rouge-colored lips stretched up in a smile.
“But people have yet to see Young Madame Nie’s abilities. You are the younger brother of the famous Chifeng-zun of the Sunshot Campaign, are you not?”
Nie Huaisang kept his pleasant expression in place, even as a vein twitched on his forehead, his hand tightening on his fan.
“Of course, but I am not my brother. As people know, my skills lie more in the softer arts, such as painting and fan-making. I don’t know anything about fighting or leading a war, I’m afraid.” He gave a short laugh. “And I doubt people would want to see me paint in front of them. It takes some time for me to complete a fan piece, due to the details I paint on the leaf.” Nie Huaisang continued with a demure shake of his head and a humorous tilt of his head, his fan waving lightly on his chest. “Unless you would like to sit with me on one such occasion, Maiden Zhou? I assure you it would be a long and tedious process.”
“Of course, if that is Young Madame Nie’s wish.” Her smile remained meek and sweet. “However, I would very much like to see Young Madame Nie perform tonight, if you are willing to fulfill my unreasonable request.”
The murmurs started as the idea took hold. Nie Huaisang didn’t care much about how he was seen in public, but truthfully, he was aware that people in the cultivation world outside Lotus Pier, even outside the Four Great Sects… did not see him in a generous light. Compared to his older brother, he was but a speck of dust floating in the air.
(The talentless one. The fencesitter. The headshaker.)
Which was why a lot of the smaller Sects, when they heard that Jiang Wanyin had asked to marry him, had been insulted on behalf of their daughter’s or sister’s honors, who had been waiting for the opportunity to marry one of their own to the prestigious Yunmeng Jiang Sect.
What did he see in Nie Huaisang, they whispered among themselves, protected inside the walls of their Sects.
“Why did he marry the headshaker? There’s a lot of choices for someone like Jiang Wanyin, isn’t there?”
“Did he need that alliance with Qinghe Nie that badly? There are better brides for him if he just needed an alliance with another Sect!”
“Apart from being useless, Nie Huaisang can’t even bear him children! Does Jiang Wanyin intend to bring the Jiang family shame?”
Whispers, rumors, slander, all swirling around and spread in the cultivation world. It was par for the course, but Nie Huaisang ignored and refused to address it, focusing instead on his new life, his now husband, and his new Sect.
(But he knew, one day, that it would all catch up to him.
And today, it finally had.)
Beside him, Jiang Cheng made to stand up, but Nie Huaisang stopped him from interfering with a hand on his thigh.
“Maiden Zhou, I rather think that putting me in this sudden position is rather impolite, don’t you agree?” Nie Huaisang asked coolly. Jiang Cheng gave him a look, but Nie Huaisang’s eyes were sharp as he shook his head once. “I am not a pet that people could ask to do tricks as they please.”
(No. Jiang Cheng would not fight his battles for him.
It boiled Nie Huaisang’s blood, but this was a war he had to win alone.)
Zhou Wenqian looked startled her, pressing her hand against her mouth as if the very notion of Nie Huaisang doing tricks was shocking.
“Of course not, I would never ask Young Madame Nie something of that sort!” She shook her head quickly. “I did not mean to offend you, Young Madame Nie. But after all, since Sect Leader Jiang chose to marry you, you must be also skilled in numerous arts.” She turned to address the room at large.
“Surely, as the First Wife of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect and Young Mistress of Lotus Pier, Young Madame Nie would be able to provide us all with something wonderful and pleasing to the eyes.” She tilted her head, the very picture of earnest innocence. “Perhaps a dance from Qinghe Nie? Or a song? Or even the famed Nie Sect swordplay?”
“... Qinghe Nie does not have any dances or songs particular to our Sect as we concentrate on our cultivation style first and foremost.” That was the truth, it was painful to admit it, and Zhou Wenqian was completely aware of it. “And as I said earlier, I have no talent when it comes to fighting.”
“Then does that mean that Young Madame Nie will not show us any of his talents tonight because he has none to speak of?” Zhou Wenqian asked in an innocent tone, but the question itself was so rude and insolent it instantly raised the hackles of any Yunmeng Jiang disciple who heard it.
Nie Yuyang actually stepped forward, a hand on his saber, already pulling it out of its sheath. “You dare speak that way about our Young Madame—!”
Nie Huaisang lifted a hand immediately, never taking his eyes off her. “Yuyang. Stand down.”
The tension in the hall skyrocketed, even as his attendant followed his words. Everyone else was silent, watching the scene unfold.
Showing your hand a little too obviously there, girl, Nie Huaisang thought, spying the tight expression on his husband’s face. Despite his vocal promise that anyone who disparaged his wife would be severely punished, Jiang Cheng couldn’t do anything to a woman on principle, not if he wanted an all-out fight against another Sect, and there was the other Sects with all of their eyes on them right now, waiting for their next move.
Between a rock and a hard place.
To everyone’s shock, Nie Huaisang turned to Zhou Wenqian, his lips curled up in a slow, meaningful smile.
“Then who am I to deny such an earnest request?” Nie Huaisang stood up slowly from his seat, placing his fan on the table, the large silver bell on his sash and the small golden bells on his hair crown tinkling as he inclined his head.
“Very well. As requested, for Yunmeng Jiang, I will be the one performing to close the night.”
This brought a wave of stunned noise and discussion. Even Jiang Cheng looked unsure, even if he didn’t show it outwardly, his stare on his wife heavy and tinged with concern as Nie Huaisang called for his attendant.
“Lihuan, give me my fans. The metal ones. And ask the musicians to bring out the drums.”
“At once, Young Madame Nie,” Nie Lihuan left immediately, and the musicians were shuffling in, bringing standing drums on wooden posts that were nearly as tall as he was, setting them in a half-circle around the space in the middle of the hall.
As Nie Huaisang moved around the table, Nie Lihuan finally arrived with a large, rectangular box, made out of lacquered dark wood. With fingers undoing the clasp that fastened the box shut, he opened the box completely, showing Nie Huaisang its contents.
These fans were large, larger than the ones he carried and used throughout the day. Made out of strong but thin metals, these fans, while elaborately made and designed, were made for warfare, able to store, conduct, and use its wielder’s spiritual energy.
Nie Huaisang had not used these fans for a long time. His own golden core was already weak as it was, and using these fans for a significant amount of time wore down on its user.
But he loved them, as they were presents from his brother who, after burning his collection of fans after one of their worst arguments, gifted these to him as an apology. As a compromise.
He touched the fan guards with reverence and nostalgia. “It’s been a long time, Tianjin, Qilin.”
(It just might be his own imagination, but the fans gleamed back, as if in greeting.)
Da-ge, Wanyin-xiong, I will make you proud.
With a sweep of his robes, Nie Huaisang grabbed both fans, and went to the center of the room, where all the focus was.
“I will show you something that we in Qinghe Nie do as a way to train our senses and cultivation.” He said out loud, cutting through the chatter. “Xiang gong, if you can help me.” Nie Huaisang said, gesturing to Nie Lihuan, who was waiting by their table with a scrap of black cloth in his hands.
To his husband’s credit, Jiang Cheng did not ask any more questions, merely standing up and doing as he says, getting the cloth and joining him in the middle of the room.
He had a lot of questions, Nie Huaisang could see that. He also looked very concerned, and it made Nie Huaisang’s heart flip in happy little circles.
When his husband was finally close enough, Nie Huaisang simply smiled, assuring him with a light hold and squeeze of his wrist. “It’ll be fine, Wanyin-xiong.” He tilted his head up to stare at him, and something must have convinced his husband, because Jiang Cheng merely nodded in response.
The whispering around the room increased, and as the word spread, more and more people started coming into the room to the point of completely crowding the doors and windows, faces peeking from where there was space, watching the scene unfold.
Nie Huaisang chuckled. Jiang Cheng glared at him, but it held no heat, and it only increased Nie Huaisang’s amusement. “We have a lot to talk about later, niang zi. Prepare yourself.”
“Of course, as my xiang gong asks,” Nie Huaisang nodded happily, and closed his eyes as Jiang Cheng covered it with the folded up cloth, moving behind him to secure it to the back of his head. “Make sure it is tight, Wanyin-xiong, and I will not be able to see a thing.”
“Don’t nag.” With a final knot (and a gentle tug on his hair), Jiang Cheng moved back, and Nie Huaisang opened his eyes, only to see complete darkness. Perfect.
“Thank you, Wanyin-xiong.” He said softly, listening intently as his husband returned to their table. The musicians took their places as well. He heard Nie Lihuan go to the table where his husband was seated, and with a soft clink of porcelain against wood, he placed down a small bowl of beans, as Nie Huaisang instructed earlier.
The instructions were clear, even unsaid.
With a sweep of his arms and the tinkle of his bells, unfurling his fans, Nie Huaisang assumed his first position, bending his body down, raising one leg up slowly, toe pointing up, until the position of his legs were perpendicular to the floor.
The bell on his sash tinkled softly, clearing his mind of any distractions.
(One must have knowledge of the Six Arts to become a good cultivator: Rites, Music, Archery, Charioteering, Calligraphy, and Mathematics.
Nie Huaisang excelled in music, calligraphy, and mathematics. Rites he had a firm grasp of, theoretically at least, since his physical fighting skills were abysmal, his archery was spotty at best, and charioteering was not his strong suit.
When Nie Huaisang got engaged to Jiang Wanyin, his brother completely gave up on him practicing the Nie Sect cultivation style, and instead proceeded to throw him bodily to Qinghe Nie’s female instructors to prepare him for his future duties as the Young Madame of Yunmeng Jiang.
Under the strict and unrelenting eye of his new teachers, Nie Huaisang learned singing, dancing, and instrument playing. He also learned estate and household management, flower arrangement, and tea ceremony, alongside sewing, weaving, and the basics of cooking and healing. Not only that, he started learning horticulture, learning about different plants and flowers and their uses, on top of the underhanded coordination he was doing to get as many people as possible to work on Lotus Pier.
He was even taught how to please his future husband in their marital chamber, to his mortification, modified slightly of course to fit his sex. He was told of what to expect, what to do and not to do, of how to use his body to pleasure and please his spouse.
His teachers were blunt and uncompromising, without a flicker of shame on their faces as they taught him slowly but surely. Nie Huaisang had so many lessons in a day that his feet had blistered from dancing, his fingers shook from playing, and his head throbbed from studying.
What women learned throughout their lives, he had to learn in a scant few years.
Nie Huaisang did not waste the time simply waiting for Jiang Cheng to carry him off and finally marry him. He was working, preparing, for this exact moment, the moment where his place beside his husband would be questioned, when his skills and abilities as the Young Madame of Yunmeng Jiang would be brought into scrutiny.
He was ready.
A mountain did not bow, no matter how loudly the wind howled.)
It was silent, with the audience waiting with bated breath, as the beans rustled in their bowl, Jiang Cheng finally getting a piece.
Under the blindfold, Nie Huaisang closed his eyes and let himself feel, tilting his head, gathering spiritual energy into his fans, spreading the energy from his feet connected to the floor.
With an almost inaudible flick, Jiang Cheng sent a single bean towards a drum on his left side, fifth in position, making a light tang against the drum’s surface before it hit the floor.
A sweep of his fan, and Nie Huaisang sent a blast of his energy towards the same drum, a deeper sound reverberating throughout the hall.
With a twirl and the rhythmic beats from the musician’s drums, Nie Huaisang took position again, this time in a different pose from the first.
The crowd around him burst into excited chatters, but Nie Huaisang ignored it all, all of his concentration focused on the drums surrounding him, and the others’ next move.
This time, there was less hesitation in his husband’s next flick, sending a bean towards the right side then the left, at a wider angle than Nie Huaisang first thought.
But that did not matter, as Nie Huaisang sounded the drums in the correct order, the bells on his person tinkling with his every movement. He paused, and moved into another pose, drawing his fans and a leg close to himself as the audience started to clap and cheer.
Nie Huaisang’s lips tilted up in a smile, and he didn’t have to imagine the grin that would be lighting up his husband’s face, the shocked and outraged expression on Zhou Wenqian’s.
He heard Jiang Cheng chuckle, and another bean was sent flying. Next were four drums in succession, from one side to the other, widely spaced out.
His cheeky husband. With a rise of his leg and a twirl on one foot, two drums were hit, one after another, a light step and jump, to hit the last two drums, arms spread and legs split. With a spin and the final rattle of the drums, Nie Huaisang stopped, cheek pressed against the back of his hand, his foot resting against his knee, fans spread and shimmering under the lantern lights.
The crowd burst into a roaring applause, cheers and whistles following after that demonstration. He could hear the other Sect Leaders clapping from their own tables, and his husband, clapping the loudest and brightest of them all.
Nie Huaisang chuckled quietly, but remained where he was.
(It wasn’t over yet.)
Later on, he would ‘forget’ to ask who it was that caused the next events to happen. He had been expecting it, but he was still not thoroughly prepared for the entire bowl of beans to be thrown in his direction, miraculously not hitting him, but hitting the drums around him.
It was a sound that was numerous and clattering, with no way or method to distinguish which drum was hit first or next, as the beans spread everywhere before falling to the tiled ground.
He heard gasps and chokes around him, and the scrape of the table in front as his husband stood up, sounding enraged. “You—”
Nie Huaisang merely tossed his head to the other side, making the bells on his hair shimmer, drawing attention to himself.
Watch me, Nie Huaisang thought as his lips tilted up in a smirk.
The water drums started their beat, the other drums following with a roll, and Nie Huaisang moved, hands twisting and body twirling as he hit one drum.
Then another, and another.
With every step he took, he skipped and leapt and jumped, both on air and on land, his fans flaring, sleeves fluttering. He avoided the beans that lay scattered across the floor, making sure his dance would not be interrupted until he was finished.
It was a blend of feminine grace with masculine power done so intrinsically it was the perfect balance, both a dance and a display of Qinghe Nie’s martial arts style.
Harder. Faster. Nie Huaisang did not have to struggle to remember the sequence of hits in his mind, hands reaching for each drum, his spiritual energy flaring as he dipped and swayed to the beat of the music, broken by the clinkle of his bells.
He could not hear anything, not even the beat of the drums around him. All he could feel was the rush of energy in his veins, the pounding of his heart, the harsh breaths that escaped through his lips. He refused to stop, not until he had hit everything in the correct order, not until he could prove his place by his husband’s side.
Watch me, A-Cheng. Keep your eyes on me.
Don’t look at anyone else. Just me.
With a flourish, Nie Huaisang gathered his energy through his right hand, through Qilin. And with a final spin, he brought his fan in a sharp, downward sweep.
Energy burst from the tips of the stems, hitting the drums all at the same time with a resounding bang, a fitting grand finale as the musicians finished their piece.
Nie Huaisang exhaled deeply, standing upright, arms trembling as he finally lets Tianjing and Qilin drop to his sides. He paused, waited for a response, but there was none.
Why was it so quiet? DId everyone leave him? Was it… terrible? Had he done that badly?
Why wasn’t anyone saying anything?!
Then an explosion happened.
NIe Huaisang startled badly, almost dropping his fans in surprise, but he had the presence of mind to remove his blindfold first.
And what he saw made his eyes widen.
Everyone was standing up and clapping for him. Cheering, hollering, screaming his name, from the ground to the second floor above them. Even the other Sect Leaders were on their feet, nodding and putting their hands together for his performance.
He was starting to get overwhelmed with all the attention, when a voice spoke behind him.
Nie Huaisang turned around.
It was his husband, his Jiang Cheng, face shining with so much pride it almost made him glow. He had the gentlest smile on his face, a lotus flower held in between his fingers, as he stood in front of Nie Huaisang.
Gray irises were alight with awe and wonder as they gazed down at him, and it made Nie Huaisang blush, to have his husband’s complete and undivided attention.
Despite his bashfulness, Nie Huaisang still gave the flower in his husband’s hands a pointed look.
“That flower better not be taken from the lake.”
“Of course not. I wouldn’t dare go against my wife’s wishes.” Jiang Cheng snorted, fingers reaching up to tuck the lotus blossom behind Nie Huaisang’s ear, the surrounding petals almost as big as his face. “But that was incredible. I didn’t know you could actually do that. You are incredible, Huaisang.”
Nie Huaisang quickly looked away. “I-It’s nothing, Wanyin-xiong. Like I said, it’s training we do in the Nie Sect.” He wasn’t lying, though there was no music involved, and the rocks used to get his attention actually hurt because they hit him.
“Still, if I had known you could do something like that, we could have been training your cultivation differently.” Jiang Cheng held his hands, cupping his shaking fingers that were wrapped around his fans. He felt spiritual energy entering through his meridians, flowing through where their skin touched.
“You’ve done well. This niang zi has done his xiang gong proud.”
The words made his cheeks bloom scarlet, but Nie Huaisang couldn’t hide his pleased smile as he gave Jiang Cheng an undeniably fond look.
(There was an all-too interested gleam in his husband’s eyes now, a thoughtful, calculating look, and Nie Huaisang wondered if he would come to regret this move.
He would, but that was something his future self would worry about.)
Finally, with his husband’s arm around his back, Nie Huaisang faced the crowd, the now adoring, loving crowd, and bowed his head in gratitude.
(The Yunyang Zhou Sect was nowhere to be seen, but that was all right.
It just made the taste of triumph all the more sweet.)
“Did you see Yunmeng Jiang’s performance last night?”
“I did. I never knew Nie Huaisang hid such talent. Qinghe Nie must really train their disciples well.”
“No wonder Jiang Wanyin was so intent on marrying him. Not just for political stability, but for his skills as well. If he could fight in a battlefield like that, he would have been just as renowned as Chifeng-zun!”
“Is that the reason why Chifeng-zun didn’t allow him to fight on the battlefield during the Sunshot Campaign? Because his younger brother is a calamitous beauty in truth?”
“Could you imagine a beauty like Young Madame Nie during a fight? Any opponent he has would be beaten by his grace and agility for sure!”
“Did you see how far his leg went up?! How flexible Young Madame Nie is? For a man, Young Madame Nie is quite pretty. Ah, Sect Leader Jiang must be always looking forward to every night—Ow! What was that for?!”
“You better shut your mouth and stop disrespecting Sect Leader’s wife! Do you want Sect Leader Jiang to come for your head?! If he doesn’t, I will! Young Madame Nie has always been nice and kind to us, so keep your dirty thoughts to yourself!”
“My, my, Young Madame Nie is keeping his husband on a tight leash. How smart of him.”
“I have never seen a more enamored man in my life. I’m sure that if Nie Huaisang asked him to buy all the gold in Lanling Jin, Jiang Wanyin would find some way to do it.”
“By now, Sect Leader Jiang should have been looking for a second wife to further his family line, but he stares at his wife like a lost pup trying to find a new owner.”
“Nie Huaisang has quite the hold over him. … Would this be the end of the main Jiang line, I wonder?”
“WHY?! Why is nothing I’m doing working?! Everything should have been perfect!”
“M-My lady, please, calm down…”
“Shut up, you useless wretch! Not only have my plans been ruined, but I’m not any closer to making Jiang Wanyin mine! It’s all his fault! It’s that damn cutsleeve’s fault!”
“Please my lady, your voice, if anyone heard you—”
“I don’t care! Let them hear me! They won’t be able to do anything anyway, not with my father watching!”
“... Perhaps you should stop this, my lady. Sect Leader Jiang does not want another wife, and Young Madame Nie is— Ah!”
“You dare speak his name in my presence?! Worthless tramp! So you’ll side with him now, instead of me, your mistress?! How dare you! I should hit you more for such impudence!”
“My lady, I’m only trying to protect you! If Yunmeng Jiang finds out what you’ve been doing they will never spare you! Your father may not see your worth, but I—”
“Shut your mouth! Be quiet! You even bring my father into this! You’ve tried my patience too many times! Get her out of my sight! I have no use for incompetent whores like you! If you won’t help me, then I’ll just do everything myself!”
“My lady? No, please, let me go! Don’t— get your hands off of me! My lady, stop this! My lady— My lady!”
A cornered animal was at its most dangerous. With nothing left to lose, it became wild, feral, and unpredictable.
Even Nie Huaisang, with all of his plans, had no idea what was going to happen tonight.
It was the last night of the gathering. It had been more than a week of talking, arguing, fighting, and negotiating, but most of the Sects who participated were satisfied, and agreed to continue their alliance with Yunmeng Jiang.
(Fucking finally. Nie Huaisang was very, very close to tossing them all out into the lake and letting them swim back to their homes where they belonged.
He wanted all of them out of Lotus Pier as soon as it was conveniently possible, and it was a sentiment his husband shared.)
As the last banquet of the night, Nie Huaisang dressed Jiang Cheng and himself in their best and most formal Sect robes, in colors of rich purple, with accents of gold and green for Nie Huaisang, and silver and black for Jiang Cheng.
Or tried to, at least. His husband was in an unusually licentious mood, and the wandering hands around his person, slipping into his robes, bringing him closer to a sturdy chest, was thoroughly distracting Nie Huaisang at every turn.
(Well… not so unusual. As the past few days were consumed with preparation and making sure that the gathering went along smoothly, he and his husband barely had enough time to sleep, let alone talk and unwind with each other. The most they could do was to fall unconscious the moment they could turn down in their bed.
They couldn’t even cuddle! Since it would mean disturbing each other’s sleep, when they needed to wake up in time to get to some meeting or engagement...
It had been the worst almost-fortnight in Nie Huaisang’s opinion.
So yes… Nie Huaisang understood his husband’s feelings.
And if Nie Huaisang didn’t try too hard to… dissuade his husband’s actions, that was no one’s concern but his.
… Still, the banquet hadn’t even started yet! Have some mercy on this poor wife’s sanity, xiang gong!)
“Just a few more shichen.” Nie Huaisang murmured, eyelashes fluttering with a sigh as his husband pressed kisses down his neck. His fingers tightened around Jiang Cheng’s bicep. “After tonight, we can—Ah, A-Cheng…”
“They could all go to hell for all I care,” Jiang Cheng murmured, and the sudden sink of teeth into flesh made Nie Huaisang moan. “Huaisang…”
Jiang Cheng’s voice was hot and heavy against his ear, and Nie Huaisang couldn’t quite suppress the shiver that ran down his spine.
Hands were already making quick work of his ties and belts, and Nie Huaisang almost, almost gave in.
“Wanyin-xiong, enough!” But Nie Huaisang finally got a hold of himself, pulling the last belt on his husband’s robes tight enough to make Jiang Cheng gasp and cough. “We don’t have the time!”
There was a groan of disappointment, but he was let go, which Nie Huaisang appreciated.
Atmosphere completely shattered, he took the moment to straighten out his robes and his hair. He was somewhat grateful that his husband had the presence of mind to make a mark where he could hide it with his robes, tucking the edges close and tying up his belt again.
However, his husband looked visibly displeased, and to make up for it, Nie Huaisang quickly lifted himself up to his toes to kiss his husband’s cheek. He stepped back, trying to see his finished work.
Truly, he had outdone himself this time. Jiang Cheng looked resplendent in his purple and silver robes, with tinges of black at the sides. His hair was still in a tight bun, his side braids still in their proper places, but he looked older, more dignified and assured of his position as Sect Leader.
He looked exceedingly handsome.
“Perfect. You look very distinguished, Wanyin-xiong.” Nie Huaisang offered a smile, and Jiang Cheng scowled at him.
… Right. Time to appease his grumpy husband.
With a sigh, Nie Huaisang raised his arms and wrapped them around his husband’s neck, tucking himself closer. Instantly he felt large hands on his hips, steadying him, drawing himself deeper in Jiang Cheng’s embrace.
“I know you’re not happy about this, xiang gong,” he started, peering up at Jiang Cheng through his lashes, mouth formed into a moue. “But we really can’t do away with this event. You know that, right?”
“En.” The lines on Jiang Cheng’s forehead eased, but he still didn’t look happy. “Still doesn’t make anything better though,” he muttered, like a petulant child who was denied his favorite toy.
In response, Nie Huaisang pushed himself up to press his forehead against his husband’s, softly laughing. “If we get through this unscathed, I promise to make it up to you.” He whispered, folding the collar of his husband’s robe, averting his eyes at the way Jiang Cheng’s grey eyes seemed to sharpen and intensify, like an animal smelling the blood of its prey.
“Just one more night, xiang gong. After this, when everyone has left…” Gods, just saying the words were hard, color and heat filling his face and cheeks.
“What?” Now Jiang Cheng sounded amused, voice teasing, and it just made the redness deepen under his skin. Jiang Cheng pulled, pressing them chest to chest, making Nie Huaisang squeak. “What will happen when everyone’s gone, Huaisang?”
Nie Huaisang bit his lip, refusing to answer. In response, Jiang Cheng leaned forward, biting viciously on the swell to his lower lip.
Nie Huaisang audibly whimpered.
His husband was the absolute worst. Jiang Cheng was going to force it out of him, wasn’t he?
“Do enlighten me, niang zi.” A voice whispered against his lips.
For goodness’ sakes, now he was the one being seduced! Nie Huaisang was a married man! It should not be that hard to flirt and seduce his own husband to do what he wanted!
So Nie Huaisang steeled himself, exhaled a slow breath, and met his husband’s eyes straight on.
“I… I promise I will be yours for the entire night, A-Cheng.”
A sharp inhale of breath, a slow bob of a throat, a harsh squeeze on his hip. Before Nie Huaisang knew it, his breath was stolen from him again, making him lean his back as he was kissed passionately, hungrily, and he could do nothing but submit, to part his lips and let his mouth be ravaged by wicked lips and a talented tongue.
When Jiang Cheng finally pulled back, Nie Huaisang was completely dazed, gazing at his husband with half-lidded eyes, a string of saliva still connecting them.
(It was a hint, a promise, of the imminent future his husband had in store for him.)
This time, Jiang Cheng looked completely satisfied, light grey pupils blown wide as he stared down at his wife.
“Mark your words, my niang zi.”
It was a few shichen into the banquet, and everything was fine. The guests were enjoying themselves, food and drinks were untampered and of the highest quality, and the entertainment was delightful and engaged the audience completely.
Something was wrong.
Nie Huaisang could not help but grit his teeth as he continued to sweep his gaze across the room, his spread fan hiding his tense expression. Everything was going well, too well, and it had him on edge, glancing at Yunyang Zhou’s entourage at the corner of his eye.
There was no way Zhou Wenqian would give up her conquest to capture his throne so easily. This was her last chance to make a move, and as laughable and desperate her scheming was, her conversations with her poor maid just proved that he could not underestimate her and he could not let himself lower his guard.
Zhou Wenqian had yet to display her ace-in-the-sleeve, as she claimed, and that was what worried Nie Huaisang the most. With nothing to lose, she was willing to do anything to be in his place, and that was a dangerous combination.
That was when things could potentially become life-threatening.
As much as he wanted to stick beside Jiang Cheng all night, they needed to maintain their connections to the other Sects until the bitter end, and divide and conquer was truly their only option. While Jiang Cheng kept conversations with the other Sect Leaders, Nie Huaisang smoothed things over with the wives and other guests, since tonight was apparently the moment when everyone needed to have some of their attention.
Nevertheless, it still did not stop Nie Huaisang from glancing every so often at the raised platforms where the Sect Leader tables were, keeping track of his husband’s every movement.
His eyes found Jiang Cheng easily, flanked by a few senior disciples, immersed in a talk with Baling Ouyang’s Sect Leader. He saw Jiang Cheng drain his wine in one go, and a maid immediately came forward to refill his cup.
… A different maid that had been serving his husband wine for the last three rounds.
That shouldn’t be the case. All of the servants had their own areas in the hall, to make sure every cùn of space was covered and had someone available to offer assistance, food or refreshment to the guests.
There shouldn’t be any replacements to the servants or maids unless something happened. Lihuan kept him up to date with any changes, and they should be made only after he was informed.
Alarm bells instantly rang in Nie Huaisang’s head.
Damn it, she’s made her move!
Immediately he weaved through the crowd as fast as his feet and robes could take him, keeping his husband in his sight, but was stopped by a young couple who wanted to compliment him on the beautiful patterns on his fan.
On any other day Nie Huaisang would be happy to chat about his hobbies, but not when the feelings of dread and foreboding twisted his stomach! He pushed past them as fast and as politely as he could, averting his eyes for the briefest miǎo. After making his excuses, he glanced at the table again, and the blood in his veins turned into ice.
Their table was unoccupied.
Jiang Cheng was gone.
No one stopped Nie Huaisang this time as he staggered towards the low table, quickly snatching the cup his husband was using and taking a quick sip.
And instantly spat it out, the fermented taste of wine mixed with something bittersweet. A quick sniff of the remaining liquid confirmed his suspicions.
It can’t be…
A terrible realization came into Nie Huaisang, his mind quickly connected the dots. He glanced at the Yunyang Zhou Sect group, relief filling him when he still saw Zhou Wenqian among them.
But she was starting to stand up, making her excuses to the court she held.
Time was running out. His husband was already in danger, and the more time passed, the more something bad could happen.
“Nie Yuyang!” He called out, trying his best not to give in to panic, to anger, standing up and wiping the remaining wine off his lips.
He needed to buy time.
“Young Madame?” Nie Yuyang approached him, and Nie Huaisang wasted no time in grabbing his sleeve and dragging him closer to whisper urgently in his ear.
“Yuyang, follow Zhou Wenqian’s every move. Do not let her out of your sight. As much as possible, do not let her out of this hall. Do you understand me?”
The desperation and gravitas in his tone was apparent, because his attendant followed his words without question. With one hand loosening his robes and another pulling at the tie that kept his hair up, Nie Yuyang went into the crowd and quickly disappeared.
As his attendant managed to stop Zhou Wenqian in her tracks on time, keeping her near Yuyang Zhou Sect’s table, he turned to Nie Lihuan, who was already by his side, awaiting orders.
“Lihuan, help me find my husband, quickly!” Nie Huaisang quickly looked around the large hall, trying to spy his husband’s familiar hairstyle and decoration among the throng of glittering crowns and headpieces. “Search this hall, and if you can’t find him, go the healer’s quarters and tell them to bring as many antidotes as they can before looking for me.”
“... Young Madame?”
Nie Huaisang turned to him with a grim expression. “My husband might be drugged or poisoned, and we need to find him before someone else does.”
Nie Lihuan’s eyes widened, but did what he was instructed without another word. They split in different directions, and Nie Huaisang tried his best to not look as agitated as he felt, using his fan to obscure his face as he avoided the guests around him in search for Jiang Cheng.
How could he had not seen this coming? He should have been prepared for this to happen, for the worst kind of scheme to play out.
Nie Huaisang had thought Zhou Wenqian would have more integrity, more honor, than to resort to such lowlife, underhanded tactics.
(If his husband was hurt in any way, shape or form, Nie Huaisang would never forgive her, and he would do everything in his ability to make sure she doesn’t breathe again.)
His husband wasn’t inside the hall, and so Nie Huaisang left, checking the quieter side corridors, devoid of any people since most of them were at the main banquet hall and the gardens attached to it.
With every corridor and room he passed, his despair worsened, head turning in every direction, trying to find just a hint of his husband’s presence. “Jiang Wanyin! A-Cheng! Can you hear me?!”
No answer. But as Nie Huaisang passed another endless corridor, almost at the end of his rope, a small, black shadow appeared at the corner of his eye.
He quickly turned his head, and there his husband was, at the end of the hallway, slumped against the wall and partially hidden by the shadow of the corridor.
“A-Cheng!” Nie Huaisang ran towards his husband’s prone form, quickly kneeling down and checking him over, shaking his shoulder for any reaction. “A-Cheng, can you hear me? Answer me!”
With a lift of his husband’s head, in the light of the lanterns, Nie Huaisang saw the dark flush that spread under Jiang Cheng’s flesh, the almost unbearable heat that radiated from his body, cold sweat that drenched his skin and robes.
Ragged breaths escaped through parted lips, and upon closer inspection, there was the stale scent of alcohol on Jiang Cheng’s breath, with an undertone of something floral and bitter underneath.
Nie Huaisang gasped and jerked back, fingers quickly grasping a limp wrist, checking for any disruptions.
His husband’s spiritual energy was sluggish, as something hindered its circulation and attempts to filter something out of his husband’s spiritual pathways.
(During his lessons in horticulture, Nie Huaisang was taught about the different kinds of dangerous plants, its possible uses, its effects, and the symptoms of a person who was affected by one.
These symptoms could only be caused by one type of plant.
It could only be the Moondusk Flower, a well-known but rare paralytic that was especially dangerous to cultivators, as it affected their cores and energies as well. Brewed and prepared correctly, one dosage could render anyone with a relatively high cultivation immobile instantly and for a long period of time.
In its powdered form it was less effective, especially when blown and scattered through the air. However, the flower became more potent when ground and mixed with liquids, especially alcohol, and multiple dosages only amplified the effects.
Jiang Cheng had been drinking all night, unable to refuse the cups poured out for him, enough to dull his even his cultivator-sharp senses, enough to not notice the change of taste in his drink.
Enough measures of the plant taken for a long period of time would render a person unresponsive, and could lead to death.
It was the weapons of cowards and assassins, of people disgusting enough to take advantage of another at their weakest point.)
“A-Cheng, look at me,” Nie Huaisang pleaded softly, tilting his husband’s chin to stare into his eyes, transferring as much spiritual energy as he could, despite the drug resisting his efforts. “Xiang gong, please.”
Jiang Cheng’s eyes were half-lidded, unfocused and hazy, pupils completely dilated.
Seeing his husband so unresponsive, so helpless in this state, transformed Nie Huaisang’s terror, his fear, into a rage so all-consuming he completely forgot himself.
Just how much of the flower did they make Jiang Cheng drink? Were they trying to kill him? Was this their plan all along?!
To drug his husband so brazen and openly like this? To take advantage of him, to have her way with him and pass it off as his husband taking her virtue in an alcohol-induced lust?!
Nie Huaisang wrapped his hands around Jiang Cheng’s loose fingers tightly, and bowed his head low as he continued to pass qi to his husband.
He would make Zhou Wenqian pay. He would ruin her so thoroughly she would wish for death after he was done with her.
Nie Huaisang would not be kind. He would not be gentle.
He would see her despair, and only when she was broken, pitiful, a shell of her former self would he then take her life, slowly, painfully.
(Her head cut off and speared on a pike, to be displayed on the walls of Lotus Pier, would not be enough to sate his rage.)
That bitch would need to walk over his dead body first before she got her claws on his husband.
“Young Madame Nie!”
Nie Huaisang looked up at the sound of Nie Lihuan’s voice as footsteps approached them quickly. His attendant was with their head healer, who immediately went to work on his husband, checking through his meridians and physical state.
“He's been drugged with the Moondusk Flower,” Nie Huaisang immediately told the healer, who nodded and started to transfer spiritual energy alongside him, breaking down the blocks in Jiang Cheng’s meridians.
Nie Lihuan kept close watch around them as the healer slowly repaired the damage that was done to his husband’s body. Nie Huaisang was still grasping one of Jiang Cheng’s hands as a tonic was slid down his husband’s throat, a few herbs wrapped around a cold cloth pressed against his forehead to bring his temperature down.
After a few miǎo of everyone holding their breath, of working together to save his husband, the healer finally pulled back with an exhausted exhale and a slight smile.
“Sect Leader Jiang is fine now, Young Madame Nie. We’ve managed to clear out most of the Moondusk Flower. With some rest, he'll be alright.”
Nie Huaisang’s shoulders dropped in relief as he slumped against his husband, gathering him into his arms with a soft sound that could almost be a sob. Jiang Cheng was finally breathing a little easier, if still heavy, but he was out of danger.
He was safe.
But something the healer said caught his attention. Nie Huaisang looked up.
“You said ‘most’?”
“I’ve only managed to remove the extra dosages of the flower, my lord.” The head healer sounded apologetic. “The rest of it has already entered his body and has mixed with his spiritual energy. The only thing that could be done now is to let the effects of the flower run through its course and be expelled naturally through time and the body’s own processes. Since Sect Leader Jiang has a high cultivation base, he would probably be fine by tomorrow.”
“Of course.” Nie Huaisang said at once, all of the stress and fear melting away from his frame as he brushed away the bangs that fell on his husband’s face. “Thank you for your help.”
The head healer bowed deeply. “It is only my duty to serve my lords. It would be best to let Sect Leader Jiang rest on a bed and let him recover at his own pace.”
“I understand.” Nie Huaisang said, glancing between his attendant and the healer. “Help me get Lord Jiang into the nearest unoccupied room.”
With the three of them carrying Jiang Cheng, they managed to find a spare bedroom and get him on the bed. His husband was still dead to the world, even as he was manhandled on top of the sheets. Once that was done, Nie Huaisang dismissed the head healer after making sure that Jiang Cheng wouldn’t need any more medical attention for the night.
Once the young man had said his greetings and closed the bedroom door, Nie Huaisang turned to Nie Lihuan.
“Regroup with Yuyang and ask for what he knows. Afterwards, go and find that replacement serving girl at the main table and arrest her. Ask the servants and lock them up if they refuse to cooperate. Get a few disciples if you cannot do it alone. Do it as quickly and as discreetly as possible.” Nie Huaisang looked down at Jiang Cheng, at his flushed, heavily breathing husband, limbs and features twisted up in mild distress.
He could not find any mercy for those who hurt the person that held his heart.
Nie Huaisang’s voice was flat, cold, and ruthless.
“They will all be charged with attempted murder and hanged for trying to poison Sect Leader Jiang. Go.”
“... At once, Young Madame Nie.” And with that, Nie Lihuan left with haste, leaving Nie Huaisang alone in the bedroom, silence enveloping them.
It was only then that his knees weakened and he almost dropped, thankfully managing to land on the side of the bed, where Jiang Cheng was laying, still unresponsive. Nie Huaisang reached out a shaking hand to caress his husband’s cheek, to make sure with his own senses that his husband was here, beside him.
There was a crease on his husband’s brow, his skin still warmer than usual, but he was better now. He was out of danger.
He would still wake up the next day.
“My poor xiang gong,” Nie Huaisang whispered, using his sleeve to wipe away the sweat that gathered at the side of Jiang Cheng’s temple. Slowly, as gently as possible, Nie Huaisang undid the rest of his husband’s robes, removing the belts, untying the sashes, until all that remained on him were his white inner robes. His boots were laced and pulled off, placed beside the bed, and his hair was let loose, the silver headpiece placed on the low, bedside table.
Once he had made his husband as comfortable as he could possibly be, Nie Huaisang grasped his husband’s hand, the one nearest to him, and clasped it against his cheek, pressing fleeting, apologetic kisses on his fingers, on his knuckles.
Something wet and hot gathered on his eyelashes, as relief and reassurance surged, escaping the only way he knew how, sliding down his cheek.
“A-Cheng, I’m sorry I didn’t get to you in time.”
“... Why are you apologizing?” A raspy voice sounded above him and Nie Huaisang looked up in shock.
Jiang Cheng was awake.
“Xiang gong!” He dropped Jiang Cheng’s hand and went closer immediately, helping his husband sit up properly. He held on to Jiang Cheng’s arms as the other man shook his head before looking around the room.
“... Huaisang, where am I? What happened?”
“... A lot of things. You shouldn’t move so much, you should rest as much as possible.” Nie Huaisang said with a worried tone, checking his husband’s temperature. “You still have a bit of a fever, so it’s best you lay down.”
“A fever?” Jiang Cheng asked with a frown, glancing at Nie Huaisang. “But I felt fine earlier…”
“It’s not a normal fever.” Nie Huaisang wondered how much he could say right now, when Jiang Cheng let out a hiss, suddenly curling in on himself, fingers clawing at his chest.
“A-Cheng?! A-Cheng, what’s wrong?!” Nie Huaisang asked in a panic, gripping his husband’s elbows.
“Hot… Huaisang, it’s too hot… my body feels—” His husband gave a full-body shudder, groaning, “—strange—”
What was happening to him? How was Jiang Cheng even moving, with the effects of the Moondusk Flower going through his body?
As he tried to remember more information about the Moondusk Flower, he heard a rustle in front of him, felt the wind of movement.
Nie Huaisang was suddenly pulled by the front of his robes and he was pitched forward. Whatever he wanted to say was silenced when his husband suddenly kissed him, taking advantage of his parted lips to possess, to conquer, and the groan his husband gave was one of pure relief.
On instinct Nie Huaisang kissed back, thoughts instantly crumbling at the sensation of his husband’s hot mouth against his own. A familiar heat flared in his gut, the tingles of pleasure running down his back, because it had been so long since his husband touched him like this.
Before he knew it, his back was against the bed mattress, his legs dangling over the edge. In one breath, Jiang Cheng was on top of him, pinning him down on the sheets.
But something was wrong. Jiang Cheng’s grip was too tight, too harsh than normal.
Nie Huaisang’s eyes were as large as it could get, breath punched out of him. “Wanyin-xiong, what—?!”
“I don’t know! But Huaisang, I—I want you.” Hands tightened their hold on his wrists, and Jiang Cheng lifted his head to stare at Nie Huaisang, voice raspy as his large, rough hands dug into Nie Huaisang’s skin. “I need to have you now. When I touch you, it—it hurts less.”
With great effort, Nie Huaisang craned his head back and peered into his husband’s eyes.
Jiang Cheng’s eyes were like liquid smoke, hazy but with unnatural focus, holding on to the last dregs of consciousness he had left.
“It’s the plant,” Nie Huaisang whispered, a moment of clarity that provided him with the answer he was looking for. “It’s the Moondusk Flower.”
(Brewed correctly, the Moondusk Flower is also an effective aphrodisiac.
When used for dual cultivation, it helps the body generate more yin and yang energies, and the exchange helped strengthen each of the participants’ golden cores.
… Damn it, why did he remove his husband’s bell from his person?! Its mind-clearing properties would have been very much appreciated right now!)
“A-Cheng, listen to me.” He said hurriedly, curling his fingers around his husband’s hands, as much as he could reach. “You’re drugged, you’re affected by the Moondusk Flower. You’re in pain because your body is generating a lot of yang energy right now. We could d-dual cultivate multiple times to ease the pain and get you back to normal again, but you never wanted this, and I will never do anything you don’t want—”
“I don’t care!” Jiang Cheng snarled, every single muscle tight with tension, as if he’s using every single drop of self-control he had to not ravish his wife like a wild animal. “Huaisang, I consent to whatever the hell we need to do to fix this. I just don’t want to hurt you! Your body wouldn’t be able to take it—” His arms flexed, hips instinctively dropping down to seek friction, and both of them groaned at the same time.
“You won’t hurt me.” Nie Huaisang said softly after catching his breath, because even trapped and caged under his husband like this, he didn’t feel afraid.
Not when his husband’s hands were shaking, his body still pulled as far away from Nie Huaisang as he physically could, despite every nerve and thought and sense screaming for the exact opposite.
Nie Huaiasng’s heart clenched, seeing his husband fight so desperately to keep him safe from himself, to hold on to the indescribable pain even if it meant destroying his body in the process.
In that moment, he had decided.
This time, he would be the one to save his husband.
“I promise that I’ll be fine. You will never hurt me.”
“Huaisang…” Jiang Cheng’s hands released his wrists, sliding upwards to catch his hands, their fingers twining together desperately in a last moment of tenderness as Jiang Cheng’s control completely sipped away, his body lowering completely on top of him. “Niang zi…”
“It’s okay, xiang gong.” Nie Huaisang whispered in Jiang Cheng’s ear, squeezing his hands in reassurance. “Let go. I’ll catch you.”
Nie Huaisang could see the exact moment the drug took hold of Jiang Cheng, his gray eyes glazing over completely.
And there was nothing to do but to surrender.
Nie Huaisang gasped for air, head rolling back as Jiang Cheng made another mark on his throat.
“A-Cheng, wait—” Nie Huaisang turned his head away, but it didn’t stop the other man, simply latching his mouth on Huaisang’s bared chest, a leg inserting itself between his thighs.
Hands had pulled and tugged at his robes, ripping it off without ceremony, his headpiece pulled and tossed behind the other man’s back, uncaring of where it landed. Already Nie Huaisang’s neck was a canvas of bright red and dark purples, with multiple teeth marks and love bites that could never be hidden by any cloth or robe.
(A chain, intent on keeping him by Jiang Cheng’s side.)
“Mine,” Jiang Cheng rumbled under his throat, slotting their hips together and grinding down, and Nie Huaisang could feel it, his husband’s hardness against his thigh, heavy against his robes.
“Yes,” Nie Huaisang breathed, fingers shaking as he wrapped his arms around Jiang Cheng’s neck, nails biting into the heated skin. “Yours, always.”
In response, Jiang Cheng closed his mouth on one of the small, pink nubs on Nie Huaisang’s chest, teeth scraping sensitive skin.
“Ah, ah—!” His husband’s tongue was unrelenting, cruel in their intent, slow in their motions. He was generous in his attentions, his fingers flicking and rubbing the other.
“S-Stop, A-Cheng, i-it feels strange…!” Nie Huaisang whimpered, despite the way his neck and chest lifting wantonly, chasing after his husband’s lips. His head was blurring, his thoughts hazy, as his husband pulled back, blowing on the now swollen and puffed up nipple, making hairs rise up on his skin.
He could feel his blood rush south, his cock growing harder as more time passed, desperately seeking release.
“Your body is more honest than you are, Huaisang.” Jiang Cheng muttered, switching to the other, sucking hungrily, the scrape of teeth against such sensitive flesh bringing a quick flash of sweet pain, and the wet tongue licking over the newest bite mellowed it down into waves of pleasure.
“I-I’m not a woman!” He cried back, fingers tangling in Jiang Cheng’s hair, trying to pull him away, but it just made his husband moan, adding another mark to the growing collection on his torso.
“Believe me…” Jiang Cheng whispered, his fingers moving down, pulling and ripping at cloth, to firmly grasp Nie Huaisang in his hand, “I am well aware, niang zi.”
Nie Huaisang choked, as his husband took his time renewing the fading marks on his chest, making new ones, moving lower and lower down Nie Huaisang’s body. His grip was still infuriatingly loose, winding him up tighter, stoking the flames of his arousal higher.
“I wonder if you can come, with me just playing with you like this,” another languid stroke, and Nie Huaisang’s hips bucked against his will, seeking his husband’s touch desperately. “Can you, Huaisang?” Jiang Cheng asked idly, a wicked tilt on his lips.
“Please,” Nie Huaisang whimpered, fingers scratching at his husband’s shoulders, as Jiang Cheng pressed soft kisses against his hip bones, finally pulling off the rest of his robes to bare him completely in front of his husband’s starving gaze.
“Mercy, I beg you, mercy, husband—”
“Mercy?” Jiang Cheng whispered against the tip of his cock, warm air making it twitch against his stomach. Fingers delicately pulling down the skin, the tip of a tongue, tracing a line from bottom to tip, teasing the head. “Maybe if you beg prettily enough.”
Tears gathered in Nie Huaisang’s eyes, unable to believe how cruel his husband was acting right now. In bed, Jiang Cheng was never like this, always so giving, so considerate to his needs before his own.
But right now, it was as if a demon was sharing his sheets, intent on torturing him
Nie Huaisang could almost believe that his husband was completely aware of what he was doing, if not for the completely unfocused glaze in his grey eyes.
“P-Please… have mercy on this wife… xiang gong…”
There was a small, satisfied smile on his husband’s lips.
“Since you asked so nicely.” Without another word, he swallowed Nie Huaisang’s length whole.
There was no time to breathe, to gather himself. Nie Huaisang came immediately, without warning, spurting into his husband’s mouth, felt his husband’s throat constricting as he swallowed it all. Spiritual energy left him in a rush, circulating through his pathways, intensifying the ecstasy he felt.
But Jiang Cheng didn’t stop, continuing to swallow around him, nails scratching down his inner thighs, as he pinned Nie Huaisang down with his hands.
And Nie Huaisang wailed, overwhelmed with the sensation of pleasure and pain mixed together.
His awareness came back just in time to realize his husband had spread and pushed his knees apart after sucking marks all over his legs, hands on his cheeks, spreading them open to reveal his opening, already wet and flushed a light pink.
He felt so open, so exposed, that his legs curled up, instinctively trying to hide, but Jiang Cheng slapped his thighs apart with a snarl.
Nie Huaisang let out a sob, the sting of the hit a sharp jolt to his senses.
“Let me see you.” A finger rested against the wrinkled folds, rubbing gently and blinking when the tip entered without resistance. “Oh, look at that. You open so easily for me, niang zi. Have I trained your body that well? Does it recognize the hands that has claimed it multiple times?” Jiang Cheng glanced at him with a smirk, and Nie Huaisang could only answer with a desperate nod, fucking himself on his husband’s finger like a wanton whore.
“Husband, please, just a little more—oh, yes—!” One finger turned into two, then three, curling inside him, slick and wet, stretching and preparing for what was to come.
“You look so pretty like this, Huaisang. That’s it, open up for me...” Jiang Cheng murmured, pressing insistently against that spot again and again, staring intently at Nie Huaisang’s face.
But it wasn’t enough. More. He needed more.
“Now, now, please, A-Cheng, need you now—” Nails scratched against bare flesh as Nie Huaisang tried to tug his husband closer, fingers scrambling for the flesh between his husband’s thighs.
But without warning, Nie Huaisang was slammed back on the bed, a hand gripping his forearms tightly over his head, making his heartbeat spike erratically, fear and arousal mixing in an intoxicating combination.
“Shh. Niang zi should learn how to be patient,” Jiang Cheng murmured, nibbling at the skin under Nie Huaisang’s jaw. “But since you’ve been so good, I’ll give you what you want.”
His husband removed his fingers and replaced it with something bigger, thicker, and hotter. It prodded at his entrance, tip catching and teasing against the rim before finally entering slowly, punching a cry out of Nie Huaisang’s mouth.
Even with preparation, it still burned. Nie Huaisang gulped as much air as he could, legs trembling as he tried to stay still, to let his husband enter him with no fuss as his walls opened and molded itself against his husband’s cock, accepting him into his body as he had many times before.
Finally, with a grunt and a pained exhale, Jiang Cheng was completely inside him, thick, throbbing, their hips flush against each other. Nie Huaisang felt like he was going to be split apart, tears clinging to his eyelashes as his legs wrapped around his husband’s waist.
“Fuck, you’re still so tight…” Jiang Cheng hissed, fingers gripping his hip and arms so tightly it would leave an impression for days to come. His husband towered over him, beautiful and all-powerful, even in his debauched state. “Gods, you’re just sucking me in…”
“A-Cheng…!” Nie Huaisang whimpered back, feeling hot and feverish, mind blanking out when Jiang Cheng moved, a slow, cautious grind that made lightning zip down Nie Huaisang’s spine. He cried out, heels digging into Jiang Cheng’s lower back as his husband leaned up and pressed a kiss against his open, panting mouth. He curled his tongue against Nie Huaisang’s in an almost comforting way as Nie Huaisang continued to cling as best he could, hips stuttering as another orgasm took hold.
“You always made the sweetest sounds when I fuck you,” Jiang Cheng murmured, removing his hand on Nie Huaisang’s arms to cup his hot cheek, damp with sweat and tears. A thumb moved down to brush against his mouth, catching on his lower lip, bruised and swollen, before pulling it down.
Nie Huaisang’s lips parted easily for his husband, the tip of his tongue darting out to taste, weak and completely willing.
“I wonder, if I can fuck you to the point your voice shatters, unable to even say my name.” Jiang Cheng said idly, as if to himself, a simple thrust of his hips forcing out another breath from Nie Huaisang.
And despite the strain he was starting to feel, a corner of Nie Huaisang’s lips twitched up, completely insolent.
“You’re welcome to try, xiang gong.”
Jiang Cheng’s lips curled up in a smirk, lifting Nie Huaisang’s leg over one shoulder, lifting his hips up to rest on top of Jiang Cheng’s thighs.
“You’ll regret that.”
His husband drew back, hard length dragging against his insides, before snapping his hips forward in a constant, punishing rhythm. Nie Huaisang was unable to do anything but writhe and gasp his husband’s name, hands almost tearing the bedding underneath him as he was almost folded in half.
“Ah, ah, ah—” His toes curled against Jiang Cheng’s hip, thighs trembling, opening his eyes, only to see his husband’s face twisted in pleasure, constantly driving into him with a single-minded focus. “A-Cheng!”
And just like that, the other man finally came inside him, the first of the night, and wrenched another two more orgasms from his body, one after another. It left Nie Huaisang thoughtless and shivering, his stomach a complete mess of mixed fluids.
He barely noticed being turned onto his stomach, of being arranged onto his hands and knees, of his husband entering him again from behind, easier and faster now with Jiang Cheng’s first release helping to ease his thick length back into Nie Huaisang’s body.
Footsteps wandered close in the direction of their room, breaking the haze of arousal in Nie Huaisang’s mind. He looked around in panic, realizing in horror there were no silencing talismans in this room.
People were going to hear them.
Oh heavens, if people heard them like this, if they were seen—!
The thought made his gut clench, heat coursing through his veins.
Then his head was forced back painfully, his husband twisting his fingers through his hair, and Nie Huaisang bit his lip to stop himself from crying out, raised up to his knees, held only by the strength of Jiang Cheng’s arms.
“If you’re not going to scream my name, then put your mouth to good use,” Jiang Cheng snarled against the shell of his ear, tugging on the skin with his teeth, shoving two fingers between his lips without a warning. “Suck.”
Shameless, helpless Nie Huaisang could only obey, curling his tongue around the rough, calloused digits, letting out a broken whimper at the salty, musky taste of his husband’s skin. He panted, mouth open, saliva dripping down his lips, as Jiang Cheng used his fingers to fuck his mouth like he was fucking him right now, keeping him upright as Jiang Cheng continued to grind up into him, never stopping his pace.
Like this, they trembled through another climax, white liquid dribbling uselessly and messily down his length, his thighs.
He was unceremoniously let go, and Nie Huaisang collapsed against the bed, weak from overstimulation as his husband pulled out, the sounds lewd and filthy as his husband’s second release splattered against his skin.
How many times had they done it? Nie Huaisang didn’t know, couldn’t remember, couldn’t keep track anymore. He panted, trying to push himself up with his arms, even an elbow, and failing.
Without drinking the aphrodisiac himself, he wouldn’t be able to keep up with his husband’s pace.
But his husband did not care, merely lifting his hips up with a hand, the other on Nie Huaisang’s back, pressing him against the bed, keeping him presented like a bitch in heat.
Without his husband’s cock inside him, Nie Huaisang felt desperately empty, and his muscles clenched around air, seeking relief, fulfillment.
“Beautiful.” Jiang Cheng rumbled, with a tinge of amusement, fingers tapping his swollen chrysanthemum, inserting three fingers easily. The squelch he heard was dirty, debauched. “Your hole is twitching for me, Huaisang.”
Hearing it said out loud made Nie Huaisang’s face flame in mortification, and he buried his head in his arms, releasing shaky exhales of air.
“D-Don’t say it…” He cried, voice stuttering as the fingers deliberately dragged over that sensitive spot, making him jerk. “Y-You’re terrible—Oh!” His husband finally took mercy, replacing his fingers with his cock, burying himself inside once more.
Jiang Cheng was still hard and throbbing against his sensitive walls, before starting a punishing pace that made Nie Huaisang thrash wildly, body unsure if he wanted to tug his husband closer or push him away.
He gripped the sheets so tightly his knuckles were white, unable to move, and not having the strength to anymore.
The faint sounds of voices were growing louder, getting closer.
Another hard thrust, and Nie Huaisang keened, biting the cotton under him in an effort to muffle his voice, sobbing, his face hot and wet with how good it felt.
“—ind Sect Leader Jiang!” It was a woman’s voice, a gratingly familiar voice, “He could not have gone far!”
Even now, being fucked within an inch of his life, Nie Huaisang recognized an enemy when he heard one.
(And it was finally time to give her the finishing blow.)
“Yes, yes, there, right there, harder xiang gong—!” Nie Huaisang gasped out loud, purposefully, and the footsteps stopped in their tracks, and the sounds of falling things followed shortly.
There was a paralyzed silence on the other side of the door.
“Faster, give it to me, A-Cheng—oh, gods!” He squealed, not entirely an act as the bed rocked with the force of Jiang Cheng’s thrusts, stirring up his insides in the best ways, breaths hiccuping as stars burst under his eyelids, his body shuddering. He could feel his body drawing taut, the waves of pleasure climbing higher and higher— “You’re so good, so good to me—”
“Come again Huaisang, let me feel you around my cock,” Jiang Cheng growled, completely draped over Nie Huaisang’s back, rutting into him like an animal in heat. “I’m not finished with you yet, give in, give yourself to me—”
“Yes! A-Cheng, yes!” With a howl of ecstasy, of pain, Nie Huaisang’s body seized, clenching tightly around his husband as he rode out another orgasm, vision blurring as he cried helpless tears, completely wrung out even with his husband’s spiritual energy coursing through his body.
Dimly, Nie Huaisang heard the scramble as the people on the corridor made themselves scarce as quickly as possible.
“Huaisang,” Jiang Cheng snarled back, hips snapping once, twice, and he came again, emptying himself inside Nie Huaisang’s willing, pliant body, his essence coming out in thick splurts.
He felt so full Nie Huaisang could barely breathe, could almost believe that if he looked down his stomach would be swollen with his husband’s come.
(If he was a woman, there was no doubt he would be with child after tonight.)
He offered no resistance, no fight, as he was turned around onto his back once more, gazing up his husband with half-lidded eyes.
His husband was right. His body wouldn’t be able to take it.
But he didn’t mind.
Nie Huaisang could only loll his head back as he was picked up and set in Jiang Cheng’s lap, his husband’s blade sheathing itself inside him once more, his body bouncing like a doll as the other man took his pleasure for the innumerous time.
And Nie Huaisang could only cling onto his husband’s strong arms and back, add his own scars and marks on the other man’s skin, biting hard enough to pierce flesh and draw blood.
“I can’t—A-Cheng, I can’t—” Nie Huaisang whispered, voice hoarse and broken, with nothing more to give, unable to tell the difference between pain and pleasure anymore, his vision graying out and blackening at the edges.
“Yes, you can,” Jiang Cheng murmured against his parted lips, mouthing down his jaw, his neck in a way Nie Huaisang could only call as worshipful. “Just one more, niang zi, one more for me.” Some semblance of consciousness was returning to those grey irises, the fog slowly clearing away. “I know you can.”
Despite his body’s protests, the weakness that sank deeply into his bones, Jiang Cheng built him up one final time, Nie Huaisang’s arms trembling as his husband murmured sweet praises, mouth and fingers playing with his body like a talented musician with a familiar, well-loved instrument. As fingers stroked his cock back into life, the pleasure rose again, so slowly and gradually it was more of an exquisite pain than anything else.
“Please, please…” Nie Huaisang cried, openly sobbing, breaths hiccuping as trembling fingers cupped his husband’s face. “Xiang gong, please.”
And finally, finally, Jiang Cheng nuzzled into his palm and looked into his eyes, pressing a butterfly-soft kiss on his lips.
“Let go, niang zi.”
A short, voiceless scream as Nie Huaisang’s back arched, his hearing swept away in a tide of white noise, his vision sparking with a bright flash of light.
Nie Huaisang grinned viciously, triumph singing in his blood.
(Victory was his.)
And he finally knew no more.
He slowly came to in bits and pieces, surrounded by comfortable pillows and silken fabrics.
Nie Huaisang slowly opened his eyes, wincing at the light that filtered through his irises. From what he could see, he was back in their sleeping quarters, turned on his side, wearing the softest inner robe he had.
Obsidian was on the bed with him, sleeping by his side, a comforting presence as he felt the pup breathe evenly under his palm. Nie Huaisang patted the dog’s side absentmindedly, trying his best to just breathe through his nose, as every part of him ached and screeched in pain, his hips and lower back most of all.
He might have to apologize to his husband the next time he saw him though, some part of him drowning in guilt for taking advantage of his husband’s vulnerable state. It was the fastest way he could think of to burn the drug from his husband’s body, but even with Jiang Cheng’s consent, it was still wrong.
It was dangerous, to leave his body in the hands of someone under the influence of an aphrodisiac.
But Nie Huaisang couldn’t bring himself to regret his decision.
No matter what, his husband would never hurt him, not willingly, never on purpose.
(Nie Huaisang trusted Jiang Cheng with all of his heart.
If there was anyone he could entrust his body to as well, it would only be to his husband.)
As if sensing the movement from the bed, Obsidian woke up at once, head darting up and tail wagging when he saw Nie Huaisang awake.
“Good… morning? Afternoon? Did you stay here and kept watch over me?” Nie Huaisang could only run his hand over the pup’s spine without aggravating the rest of his body. “Good boy.”
Obsidian barked in response, tongue out as he nuzzled against Nie Huaisang’s hand, but maintained his distance, as if aware that his master wasn’t in the best of shape as of the moment.
(His husband’s dogs were so smart.
He was so glad he chose them as Jiang Cheng’s birthday present.)
The door to their room opened, and Nie Yuyang appeared in his line of vision, carrying a tray of food, still warm, from the way light steam wafted from the open plates and bowls.
“Young Madame, you’re awake,” Nie Yuyang said with some relief, quickly setting down the tray and rushing to his side. “How are you feeling? Should I call for a healer?”
“No… no, I’m all right.” Nie Huaisang tried to sit up, but his body refused to cooperate, with every muscle refusing to follow his orders. Nie Yuyang gave him some water to drink, and Nie Huaisang sighed in relief as the cool liquid slid down his parched throat. “How long was I unconscious? And can you please help me up? I’d like to sit for a moment.”
“I would advise against that,” Nie Yuyang told him, even as he offered his arms for Nie Huaisang to hold. “You were unconscious for the entire morning, Young Madame. It is now shēn hour,” the middle of the afternoon, then, “and the healer said to let you lie down. You shouldn’t even be moving at all.”
He was also studiously averting his gaze, at least until Nie Huaisang realized that his inner robes were partly open, bruises and bites more prominent compared to normal-colored skin. Even with his robes tied as closely to his body as physically possible, it still did not hide the not-insignificant number of marks still visible on his body.
“Don’t mind that for now.” Nie Huaisang was not going to lose against his own body, his injuries be damned. After some time and a lot of assistance, Nie Huaisang managed to sit up, with a nest of pillows under his hips and legs to help cushion the delicate state of his behind. Obsidian rested his head on Nie Huaisang’s lap, lazing around, and he ran his hands through the soft fur as he gave all of his attention to his attendant.
“What happened? Tell me everything.”
“After Sect Leader Jiang finally awoke from his… condition,” Nie Yuyang started delicately, “he immediately brought Young Madame to the healers. You… your body was not in the best of states. There was… tearing. Some blood was also involved.” He paused.
“You weren’t responsive. Sect Leader Jiang thought he had completely broken you. After learning of what happened and what you suspected from Lihuan and I, he was… completely furious.”
It was the most angry anyone had seen him, was what he did not say, but Nie Huaisang heard it as clear as day.
His husband, a wrathful and vengeful god, delivering justice to those who wronged him.
It must have been a sight to see.
“After being reassured that you will recover completely, Sect Leader Jiang called for an assembly immediately. He locked Lotus Pier down, refusing to let anyone leave until he found out who the perpetrator was.”
“Sect Leader ordered for Yunyang Zhou’s rooms to be searched and to bring Zhou Wenqian to kneel in front of him. Sect Leader Zhou was ready to declare war on Yunmeng Jiang until one of the disciples discovered Moondusk Flower powder inside one of Zhou Wenqian’s chests. She refused to take responsibility, saying one of her maids was the culprit, until a woman spoke up and relayed the past events as it happened, with a written confession included.
“She had also pleaded with Sect Leader Jiang to spare Zhou Wenqian’s life, despite the young woman’s crimes.”
Nie Huaisang fiddled with the edge of the blanket, glancing at his attendant. “... The maid that approached us before, I presume. The one closest to her, that was dismissed from Zhou Wenqian’s service.”
(After she was removed from her station, the maid had begged permission to be granted an audience with him, and told him everything she knew of her former mistress’s plans. Of the plans to seduce Jiang Cheng, of the attempts to ruin Nie Huaisang's reputation, of the bribes done to some of the Lotus Pier servants to drug his husband enough that he wouldn't know what he did until the deed was done.
Her confession, written on paper with a talisman that ascertained the truth, was a vital piece of proof to bring Zhou Wenqian down for good. Without her help, Nie Huaisang would have had a harder time trying to convince other people of the truth.
As gratitude for her good heart and nobility, Nie Huaisang had offered her a position in his own household, and she had gratefully, tearfully accepted.)
Nie Yuyang nodded. “Once the entire truth was revealed, Sect Leader Jiang ordered one of the disciples to cut off Zhou Wenqian’s hair, declared Yunmeng Jiang’s alliance with Yunyang Zhou permanently abolished, and exiled the entire Zhou Sect and anyone who helped or were bribed by them from entering any part of Yunmeng Jiang’s territory unless they want to be killed on sight.
“From now on, according to Sect Leader, the Yunyang Zhou Sect will be considered an enemy of Yunmeng Jiang. And the events had been spread far and wide, so other Sects would know and decide where they stood on the matter. So far, everyone has supported our Sect, with most of the Sects gathered cutting ties with Yunyang Zhou as well.”
And that was that, Nie Huaisang supposed. A bad reputation in the cultivation world was an instant death sentence for any Sect. Without good standing, they would not have any support from other, nearby Sects, and as those rumors reached the common people, they too would refuse to ask for that Sect's assistance and services. Families with children who have the potential to have cultivators would not send them to become disciples in that Sect either, and without monetary or social support, there was only the inevitable.
The complete destruction of one Sect, brought down upon them by a single woman too greedy and covetous for her own good. She was a beautiful girl, a lady of good standing, who could have her pick of any available cultivator gentlemen around if she so desired.
But she targeted her husband, even hurt him in the process, and against him, she never stood a chance.
As the gods willed it, Zhou Wenqian’s life was spared.
(But every time she would look into a mirror, she would always remember who caused her own family’s ruin, would be forever branded with dishonor and hate in the cultivation world.
She would never marry, would never find a husband that would know and appreciate her for who she was, would waste away perfectly knowing what she had just given up in an attempt to gather more power and prestige.
In the end, death would be a kindness for her.
Still, Nie Huaisang was a little disappointed he wasn’t the one who personally delivered her to the gates of hell.)
“Anything else?” Nie Huaisang asked, cuddling Obsidian to his stomach.
“Also, it was fifth shidi who cut off Zhou Wenqian’s hair. He considered it a great reward for saving her life. His young lady was particularly pleased with that news as well.” Nie Yuyang added casually with a smirk, and Nie Huaisang smirked back.
Poetic justice was the sweetest kind of retribution one could have.
Before Nie Huaisang could ask any more information, the door to their quarters opened again, and this time around, he knew who it was that entered, with a familiar bark and stomp of black boots.
Soon enough, his husband came into view, along with Black Pearl, and Nie Huaisang was relieved to see him. Apart from wearing robes with a higher collar, he looked relatively calmer, which was always a good thing.
However, Jiang Cheng stopped in his tracks when he saw them, and Nie Yuyang, as the more well-versed one when it came to social conventions, immediately read the atmosphere and stood up. “I shall take my leave then, Young Madame Nie. I will take the dogs with me as well. Sect Leader Jiang,” he greeted Jiang Cheng, who continued to remain frozen in his place.
Soon enough, they were finally alone, the dogs ushered out along with Nie Yuyang as the man closed the door firmly behind him.
It was a painful, awkward silence. Nie Huaisang fidgeted, playing with the stray threads on the nearby pillowcases, wondering what he could say, if he could say anything.
(It was the first time he felt so uncomfortable in his husband’s presence, and he did not like it one bit.)
Then Jiang Cheng cleared his throat.
“Huaisang… I’m sorr—”
“Don’t. Don’t apologize. It’s not your fault.” Nie Huaisang said sharply, finally looking up at him. “You didn’t want it to happen, and I don’t regret what I had to do to help you through it.”
Jiang Cheng scowled back at him. “Of course it’s my fault! I should have been more careful when I’m drinking! If I had been just more vigilant then this wouldn’t have happened!”
“Then if that is your fault, then it is mine for not keeping a more careful eye on the servants during the banquet,” Nie Huaisang countered calmly.
Jiang Cheng looked frustrated, clearly holding himself back from saying something callous or hurtful. “That’s not—”
“Fair? What I meant?” Nie Huaisang interrupted, watching the way Jiang Cheng’s mouth clicked shut, looking away with a stubborn set to his jaw.
Nie Huaisang sighed, and gestured for his husband to come sit beside him. “A-Cheng.”
After a long, drawn-out moment, Jiang Cheng huffed and did as requested, sitting on the side of the bed, within reach, but still keeping his distance.
With another drawn-out exhale, Nie Huaisang’s hand reached out, fingers gently touching under Jiang Cheng’s jaw, coaxing his husband to turn his head back. “Xiang gong. Look at me.” He ducked his head down, trying to peer into his husband’s eyes.
After a long while, Jiang Cheng finally did, his storm-gray irises filled with so much hesitation and uncertainty Nie Huaisang’s eyes and chest gentled, his heart throbbing something fierce, completely unrelated to the current aches and pains of his body.
(It seemed like he would always find a reason to fall in love with his husband.)
“When we bowed three times in front of the entire cultivation world, I also swore to protect you when you promised to protect me.” Under his light touch, he felt Jiang Cheng inhale a shuddering breath.
“What I don’t have in cultivation, I try to make up in other ways. I knew what the options were, and in the end, it was my choice. I could have chosen differently, that’s true. But I chose the path that would help alleviate my husband’s pain the most.” He said, using his other hand to cradle his husband’s jaw, using his thumb to stroke his husband’s cheek tenderly.
“There’s no need for an apology. You’ve already bled for me multiple times. It’s my turn to do the same.”
Nue Huaisang smiled.
“So let me, A-Cheng. Let me carry the burdens you have too.”
In the silence of their quarters, Nie Huaisang saw the exact moment Jiang Cheng gave in, as his shoulders dropped and his body lost all of its tension.
“Stubborn.” He muttered against Nie Huaisang’s palm, face turning towards it as he exhaled deeply. “Have you always been this hard-headed, Huaisang?”
“We’ve been married for a while now, Wanyin-xiong. You should know better by now.” He laughed, sitting back and wincing at the pain that flared up his back. “What did the healer say? How much time would I need to recover fully?”
“A week at the very least. You’re not allowed to do anything while your body repairs itself.” For a moment, Jiang Cheng looked like he was going to fuss, but thought better of it.
And for the first time in a while, something light appeared in his husband’s eyes.
“But afterwards, once you’re completely healed, we can start working on your cultivation base immediately.”
“... Do we have to?” Nie Huaisang’s voice verged on a whine. “Wanyin-xiong, look at me, I’m very injured right now. Do you really want us to train again so soon?”
“Your performance a few days ago gave me a good idea on how to train your cultivation properly. I’ve even asked da-jiu, and he said he didn’t mind you not learning the Nie saber technique anymore as long as you learn a cultivation path.” To Nie Huaisang’s growing horror, his husband looked proud, even smug, as he regarded Nie Huaisang with the eagerness of a child who had just learned how to wield a sword and wanted to show off to his family and friends.
“Congratulations, niang zi. You just invented a new fighting style for the Yunmeng Jiang Sect.”
“Once we’ve established a few basic moves, we can build up to multiple forms and eventually teach disciples who have the potential for it.” Jiang Cheng looked downright excited as he told Nie Huaisang of his future plan, studiously ignoring the way Nie Huaisang’s mouth opened and closed multiple times like a fish. “I’ve asked Lihuan to deliver your metal fans to the blacksmiths to see if we can craft something similar for future disciples. It’ll be difficult to replicate it, I think, since we don’t have the right metals, but we’ll find a way.”
“... Wait, didn’t I just tell you that I’m terrible when it comes to cultivation?!”
“‘Know it to be impossible, yet do it anyway’,” Jiang Cheng said in a dismissive tone, finally standing up. “We can talk about the details more once you’ve recovered. For now, eat and get some rest. I’ll return later.”
A quick kiss on his knuckles, and Jiang Cheng turned to go, leaving his wife to gape openly at his back.
“Wanyin-xiong!” Nie Huaisang screeched after his husband, once it had sank into his mind. “You just can’t quote our Sect’s motto at me! I hate you now! I want to get a divorce!”
Jiang Cheng just laughed at him as he left their quarters.
And despite his words, Nie Huaisang felt an answering smile on his lips in return.