This was why he didn’t like to leave the Unclean Realm, Nie Mingjue thought to himself with dismay. Guileless dark eyes blinked up at him, tiny hands clutching at his robes.
Nie Mingjue watched the child hide his face against his thigh as a furious street vendor bore down on them with murder in his eyes. The child whimpered.
Nie Mingjue pinned the man in place with a single, sharp look, and the vendor abruptly decided to find somewhere else to be. The child peered out of his hiding place to watch him go.
He was thin, Nie Mingjue thought with a frown as he cast a quick glance over him. Thin and covered in a few days’ worth of dirt at least, wearing threadbare robes and bearing bruises and scratches where the fabric was torn.
“Why was he chasing you?” Nie Mingjue asked, brow furrowing when the child shrank back at Nie Mingjue’s tone. His mumbled response was unintelligible, perhaps intentionally so. “What was that?”
“I stole from his trash because I was hungry,” he said quietly. The child scuffed his shoe in the dirt and lowered his head. A pitiful display, one that reminded him of Nie Huaisang being scolded. They were about the same age, by his best guess, and his chest ached at the thought of his little brother living on the streets, resorting to begging or stealing food to survive.
Nie Mingjue cleared his throat. He hated to do it, but he had to ask- “Where are your parents?”
Oh, no. The child’s lower lip wobbled dangerously. Accustomed to Nie Huaisang’s dramatics when upset or mildly inconvenienced, Nie Mingjue crouched to study the child’s face.
“What’s your name, then?” He asked before things could escalate.
A sniffle. “Wei Ying.”
“What’s in your robe, Wei Ying?” Wordlessly, the child handed over a lump of bread, a burned roll that had obviously been determined inedible and thrown out. He glanced up, noted the starved, longing look in Wei Ying's eyes as he stared at the roll, and felt a flash of fury that made him want to track down the vendor and introduce him to Baxia.
Nie Mingjue tossed it aside. Wei Ying made an aborted movement, like he’d intended to chase after it, then slumped in place with another sniffle. He wouldn’t meet Nie Mingjue’s eyes.
“Let’s go,” Nie Mingjue said, rising and holding out his hand. Wei Ying lifted his head to stare at him in confusion. “You can’t eat that, it’ll break your teeth. We’ll get something better.”
“Better?” Wei Ying asked, tentatively clutching his hand.
“Better,” Nie Mingjue affirmed with a short nod. He was late meeting his disciples, but they could manage a few extra hours alone before they left Yunmeng. His meeting with Jiang Fengmian had been short and to the point, a formality more than anything. A waste of time, Nie Mingjue thought, but common enough after a new Sect Leader was appointed to ensure the relationship between sects would remain friendly.
Nie Mingjue had never been friendly a day in his life, but he was in no position to turn down any support. His father’s death- his murder, though no one outside of Qinghe believed it- meant that Nie Mingjue had ascended to Sect Leader years before his time. He was young, drowning in rage and paperwork, and had a little brother to raise.
He did not have the time or attention to spare for tiny little street orphans, no matter how pathetic. But there was nothing just about leaving him behind to starve to death. Maybe they’d be able to track down his family.
He realized with a jolt that Wei Ying had stopped moving, dragged a few chi behind him before Nie Mingjue halted. The child was frozen in place, barely breathing and complexion drained of all color as he stared ahead of them. Nie Mingjue followed his gaze, baffled, and found a group of stray dogs sniffing around a vendor’s stall.
He looked back at Wei Ying, just now noticing that some of those scratches were in fact bite marks, and that the child was hardly bigger than the dogs wandering the street. Wei Ying was breathing fast now, mouth open like he wanted to scream but had no air for it.
Nie Mingjue swung him up in his arms. He let Wei Ying cling to him, fearful whimpers muffled against his shoulder, and stalked past the dogs. “Stop that. They can’t get you now.”
Wei Ying trembled as he peeked over Nie Mingjue’s shoulder. “‘Cause you’re so tall? And angry?”
He would get along great with Nie Huaisang, who had accused him of the same not two days ago. Exasperated, Nie Mingjue jolted his arm to bounce Wei Ying, who gave a little giggle and clutched him tighter. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you to respect your elders?”
Wei Ying nodded. “Mama said!”
Nie Mingjue paused at a vendor selling dumplings, fishing a few coins out of his robes and pointing out a selection. Wei Ying was very still in his arms, as though afraid one small movement would make Nie Mingjue change his mind.
“Do you know your mother’s name?” He tried, carrying the child and the food over to a nearby table. He set the food down in front of Wei Ying, who eyed him warily, like this was a trick.
“Cangse Sanren,” Wei Ying told him, attention glued to the dumplings.
Nie Mingjue paused. “Cangse Sanren? As in Baoshan Sanren’s daughter?” Everyone in the cultivation world knew of Baoshan Sanren, the legendary immortal cultivator who lived on a celestial mountain. He hadn’t known that her daughter had a child, but… if Wei Ying was Baoshan Sanren’s grandson, Nie Mingjue definitely couldn’t leave him here.
Wei Ying nodded emphatically. His eyes were on the food, but he still hadn’t moved. Nie Mingjue shoved the plate closer to him.
“Eat,” he ordered, and considered the situation as Wei Ying tried to shove an entire dumpling in his mouth at once. “Stop that, you’ll choke. Take small bites.” He was mostly ignored.
Nie Mingjue’s father had been murdered by Wen Ruohan. Now he had to be the one to run the Qinghe Nie Sect, to raise his brother, to train his disciples. Him alone, which was a daunting task even without a second child wreaking havoc in the Unclean Realm.
But he could not leave this child here and still call himself a righteous man. He briefly toyed with the idea of taking Wei Ying to Jiang Fengmian, but… he’d met Madam Yu, and wouldn’t wish her on any child. He doubted she would even allow Wei Ying into the sect, and if Jiang Fengmian overruled her she would only take out her anger on the child.
No. Better to bring him to Qinghe, where no one would dare harm a child. If Wei Ying was anything like his grandmother, he would be a formidable cultivator one day. The Qinghe Nie Sect knew how to handle strong cultivators, and would train Wei Ying to his full potential.
Besides, Huaisang would be pleased to have a friend.