Meng Yao sat out on the balcony of the brothel, bored out of his mind, as he waited for the party in the fancy inn down the way to finish.
He knew it was an important one from the way his mother had nearly clawed another girl’s eyes out for the opportunity to go. It wouldn’t have been worth it otherwise: she was older, her looks a little faded, her body a little weaker than the others, and a party like that was not nearly as effective a means of making money as the steady work at the brothel.
But Meng Yao didn’t know why it was so important – only that his mother had looked especially excited as she’d gotten ready.
Maybe she thought she might find a patron there.
Wistful thinking, if she did – she hadn’t had a patron in over a year, and the last one hadn’t been worth much; they hadn’t even gotten a better room at the brothel out of it, much less being set up in a discreet apartment of their own the way Meng Shi had told him had happened in the past.
At least Meng Yao hadn’t been recruited to act as a server at the party. The bosses at the brothel and the inn asked for him to do odd tasks like that more and more since they knew they could get him to do it for free, and he had no choice, even though he hated seeing his mother smile and flutter her eyes at the men she serviced. This party, though, was too high-end, apparently, to risk having a child like him mess up – they’d gotten actual servers, paid ones, and never mind the cost.
Maybe there would be rich men there, generous ones. Maybe his mother would be able to get a good tip. Maybe the bosses would be well-paid enough to let her keep it. Maybe they could get some meat to eat…
“Hey, you! You – you up there! Can you help me?”
He looked down.
There was another boy there at the base of the balcony outside of Meng Shi's window, where Meng Yao liked to sit: a boy few years older than him, taller, in finely made clothing that would normally make Meng Yao itch all over in futile envy, but the other boy’s eyes were white around the edges in a way that was immediately, painfully familiar.
“Someone’s chasing you?” Meng Yao asked, and the boy’s eyes widened even further, surprised, but he nodded in confirmation. “There’s a trellis around the left side – can you climb up? I'll hide you.”
The boy found the trellis that Meng Yao used to get in and out of the second floor without anyone seeing – it creaked a little under the bigger boy’s weight, but he was just young and small enough that he managed to get up without too much of a problem, and Meng Yao pushed him through the balcony door just as a dark figure stepped out from the inn down the road, his motions a little too slow and deliberate to be anything but predatory.
The man was handsome enough, in a cruel sort of way. Meng Yao didn’t like the way he smiled as he started to survey the street with his eyes – looking for the boy Meng Yao had just hidden away, no doubt about it, and men who attended parties stocked with people like Meng Yao’s mother as party favors didn’t have good intentions when they looked at boys with a smile like that.
Meng Yao put on his stupidest and most vacant expression, leaning his head against the bars as if he’d never done anything more interesting in his life than daydream, and eventually the man walked by the brothel without paying him more than a cursory look.
As soon as he was sure the man was gone, Meng Yao turned and went back inside.
“Thanks,” the boy said. He was sitting on the floor in the middle of the room, his knees pulled up to his chest and still shaking; he didn’t even seem to have noticed that he was in the perfumed heart of a brothel lady’s personal chambers. “I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
“He was looking for you in particular,” Meng Yao said, crouching down next to him and studying him with the practiced eye of a boy raised among whores. The boy was handsome, with straight features, good cheekbones, and a certain ruddiness that suggested health – not the sort of pretty boy that usually got sought out at such parties, but certainly more than pretty enough. Tall, too, to judge by the length of his legs, but the amount of baby fat on his face suggested Meng Yao had been right about him being not that much older than him. “Why? He was at a party full of prostitutes.”
There wasn’t any point in obfuscating.
The boy ducked his head down, cheeks flushing dark. “My father’s there,” he said, not really answering the question. “They kept toasting him over and over, until they’d gotten him really drunk, and then they set up him with one of the – with a lady. Normally he keeps an eye on me so there isn’t any trouble, but this time...”
Meng Yao frowned. “That man’s been after you before?” A shaky nod. “You’re sure? Has he ever tried –”
The boy flinched.
“And your father still took you to where he could find you?” Meng Yao shook his head: fathers really weren’t worth anything, were they? His own had abandoned him, abandoned his mother without even purchasing her freedom, and this boy’s didn’t seem especially good either, if he was out getting drunk and leaving his son where known harm could come to him.
“He didn’t have a choice,” the boy mumbled. “Either about going to the party, or about bringing me. Anyway it’s not even – I don’t think it’s about me. He doesn’t have any reputation for liking boys generally. But he hates my father, and I’m my father’s only son, his heir. Wen Ruohan only wants to ruin me to hurt my father.”
Having seen the avid, avaricious look on the man’s face as he’d walked down the street, searching, Meng Yao wasn’t so sure about that, but he thought it might not help to say so. “Well, you lost him.”
“Thanks,” the boy said. “I’m in your debt. But I’d better get going, before he starts knocking on doors and asking questions.”
“In this district? No one will answer.”
“They will if he offers them gold,” the boy said, rubbing his face. He looked tired, and scared.
If this Wen Ruohan was willing to go knocking at every brothel in town and offer them gold to search for the boy, it definitely wasn’t just about his father, but Meng Yao was a practical sort of person. “I can help hide you,” he decided. “Will you give me gold for it, too, later?”
The bosses wouldn’t share any of Wen Ruohan’s gold with him, but this boy – or rather, his father – might, if Meng Yao played his cards right. Of course, he might get nothing at all, but nothing was more than likely what he’d get on the other side, too, and if he did nothing then there’d be another ruined boy on the streets, probably disowned when his dishonor was discovered, with no way to live other than to sell himself to one of the brothels that catered to things like that.
He wasn’t yet quite bitter enough to want others to be torn down to make his own misery seem less.
Might as well try to help.
The boy nodded, eyes wide, and Meng Yao tugged him over to the closet where his mother kept her clothing. “He’s looking for a boy,” he explained when the boy didn’t seem to understand. “This brothel doesn’t keep boys – I’m not a worker here, my mother is – and so it would be strange for there to be a boy here, you understand? But not strange at all for there to be another whore. Not even a young one.”
He probably could have just hidden the boy in the closet and called it done, but Meng Yao took a certain pleasure in stripping down the fine sturdy fabrics the boy was wearing and replacing them with his mothers’ cheap silks – they’d been more expensive, once, but she’d had to sell those – and in painting the boy’s face and eyes until he looked like any of the other girls that worked the house.
More pretty than some, even. His looks were really quite striking, even covered in cheap makeup, but with a fan and a veil to guard his face, no one looked twice at him where he was sitting in the corner of the main room, not even when the man hunting him, Wen Ruohan, leisurely followed the bosses around as they tore through the brothel, opening closets and looking under beds, searching for a stowaway.
Meng Yao’s pettiness turned out to have been a good idea, and if the boy asked, he’d definitely done it on purpose.
(A few of the men tried to buy ‘her’, always out looking for new meat, but Meng Yao was an old hand at turning down or redirecting customers that wanted things, and the one that kept persisting, a mean old drunkard that they’d had problems with before, got scared away by the boy’s own vicious glare.)
“Thanks,” the boy said again once the man he'd called Wen Ruohan had left. “Again.”
“You’ll pay me later,” Meng Yao reminded him, and the boy nodded. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“My name is Nie Mingjue. What's your name?”
“Meng Yao. Come upstairs – I have a little place in the attic where I sleep, and if you squeeze you might just fit.”
Nie Mingjue did, albeit barely, and if Meng Yao shoved himself into the boy’s arms, insisting that there wasn’t any other alternative, he thought that the bit of warmth he got was the least he deserved for enduring the stresses of the evening. His suspicions that Nie Mingjue was a great hugger whose hands never wandered were borne out by truth, and they stayed warm and safe the entire night through.
The next morning, Meng Yao reluctantly gave Nie Mingjue back his clothing – he would’ve liked to have sold a few pieces if he thought he could get away with it, but Nie Mingjue was meticulous in dressing properly – and watched him get dressed, thumbing idly through one of the cultivation manuals his mother had bought him. She hadn’t come home the night before, which meant she’d had a customer at the party; hopefully that meant they would be eating this month, even if Nie Mingjue forgot about paying what he owed. Assuming she didn’t waste the money on even more stupid books…
“What’s that?” Nie Mingjue asked, nodding at it.
Meng Yao showed it to him. “It’s supposed to teach you the basics of cultivating.”
He didn’t think it did, though. Nothing happened no matter how many times he practiced the motions, and it wouldn’t be the first time something his mother had bought at too high a price with her hard-earned money turned out to be a fake.
“Cultivation?” Nie Mingjue asked, and took the manual. “This is wrong.”
Meng Yao sighed. Of course it was.
“This won’t teach you anything,” Nie Mingjue continued, flipping through the pages with a frown. “Some of this is actually backwards - it’s not just useless, it’s worse than useless.”
Meng Yao blinked. “How do you know?”
“Because I’m a cultivator, of course,” Nie Mingjue said as if it was nothing. “Do you really want to learn?”
“It’s my mother’s dream for me,” Meng Yao said, his hands curling into fists with excitement. Nie Mingjue could be lying, of course, but he’d figured out pretty quickly in their conversation the night before that Nie Mingjue was very bad even at dissembling, and he didn’t look like he was lying now. “If you get me a real manual, there’s no need to pay any gold.”
“I’ll do both,” Nie Mingjue said, very seriously. “I don’t have a beginner’s manual with me, but I’ll get one from home and bring it to you next time we come here. Will that work?”
Meng Yao nodded furiously. Even if he got nothing, he started with nothing, he reminded himself harshly, but he couldn’t quite stop himself from hoping. Just once, just this once…
“And as for the gold, I can get that right now,” Nie Mingjue said. “Stay here, I’ll be right back.”
Meng Yao spent the next quarter shichen telling himself to forget about seeing Nie Mingjue ever again, that the other boy had already forgotten him, that it was all pointless and he should be thinking instead about how to convince his mother to save some of what she earned from the night’s work rather than spending it at once.
But Nie Mingjue did come back, running as fast as he could.
“Meng Yao! Meng Yao!” he shouted, waving, and Meng Yao looked down at him from the balcony just the way he had the night before. “We’re going to leave right away, so I have to go back, but I got you whatever I could grab! Catch!”
Meng Yao caught the little bag Nie Mingjue threw him, stunned, and watched as the other boy ran back the way he came, a pair of fiercely scowling men in dark robes catching him by the arms and starting to scold him even as they dragged him away.
The pouch in Meng Yao’s hands was very light, feeling almost as if there was nothing inside, and very small, barely two fingers in width.
He figured that meant that there wouldn’t be much in there – a child’s pocket-money – but when he opened it up, he unexpectedly could fit his whole hand inside.
“Qiankun pouch!” he gasped, realizing what it must be, and grabbed a handful of the coins inside to pull out. They weren’t all gold – mostly not, in fact, but all those copper pennies and pieces of silver were still more than Meng Shi had managed to save up in six months’ time, and the two or three little chunks of gold hidden underneath would be an excellent start to a fund meant to buy her freedom.
Meng Yao hid the money in four different spots right away, putting the bag itself in the safest spot of all, and went to show the bosses a portion of what he’d gotten, claiming he’d gotten an unexpected tip. They took the small scrap of silver, leaving him with only a few copper pennies, and they went and found one of the more obviously hidden stashes to confiscate as well, just as he’d expected. But after that, they thought he’d been emptied out, while the gold and the rest of the money were still safe.
“Yesterday was a good day,” he told his mother with a smile when she returned, but she didn’t smile back even though her clothing was still intact and he didn’t see any new bruises, meaning it had to have been a decent enough night. “Wasn’t it for you?”
“No,” she said, her voice dull and deeply disappointed. “Not really.”