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.”
It turned out that the party had been a meeting of important cultivators, sect leaders, and that meant, of course, that his father had been there.
His father. No wonder his mother had been so excited!
And even knowing that nothing had come of it, that his mother had returned empty-handed, despite himself, when he heard it, Meng Yao was excited, too, feeling a frisson of hope run down his spine. He regretted, now, that he hadn’t been able to go to the party as a server, thinking of the might-have-beens if he’d gone, if he’d done something to impress the man, if his father had finally decided to take them away from this place –
“He was too drunk to recognize me,” his mother said, sad and eyes distant. “And some of the younger girls had gotten to him first…I couldn’t catch his eye, and in the end they sent me away with one of the other sect leaders.”
As a joke, she didn’t say, an old whore with a man too drunk to tell the difference, but Meng Yao wouldn’t guess at that truth, the source of so much bitterness, until much later.
“Not Wen Ruohan, right?” Meng Yao asked, and breathed a sigh of relief when she shook her head.
“You shouldn’t refer to your elders by name, A-Yao,” she reminded him, always trying to teach him etiquette – though now that he thought about it, Nie Mingjue had used the man’s name directly, too. Maybe it was his way of trying to make the man seem less scary. “It would be ‘Sect Leader Wen’…and how do you know any of the sect leader’s names, anyway?”
“A cultivator came here last night,” Meng Yao explained. “He gave me a qiankun pouch, and some money –”
“In return for what?” His mother’s voice was sharp. “A-Yao, I told you, you’re not allowed to make deals with people –”
Meng Yao’s shoulders went up by his ears. He knew what she really meant, that he wasn’t allowed to sell himself or his body because it’d give him a bad reputation in the future; he wasn’t allowed even if it meant the difference between a hungry night and a full one, a freezing one and a warm one.
“I didn’t do that,” he muttered. “I just –”
“There’s no just. No deals at all, A-Yao; if you get into the habit of seeing everything as something you can buy or sell, then it’s only a matter of time before someone buys you.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Meng Yao protested. “He gave me a pouch, and he said –”
It was the wrong thing to say, especially after a disappointment like last night, and his mother started scolding him fiercely, alternating with tears, and in the end he decided it was better to say nothing.
Nie Mingjue would come back with the manual, the way he’d come back with the money, or else he wouldn’t, and either way there was nothing Meng Yao could do about it.
And anyway, after a few months, he realized he had bigger problems.
It started pretty unnoticeably: a tightness in his mother’s face, an unusual refusal to take on clients for the more lucrative type of engagements, spending more on food than usual…at first Meng Yao thought that it was only that she was happy to have money again, even if it spilled through their fingers like sand on getting her new clothing and better make-up, larger shoes for Meng Yao and a warm coat, only slightly torn from previous use.
He’d been worried, although not unduly so, when she’d started being sick sometimes – she’d claimed it was food poisoning, and they had been eating more meat than usual, so maybe…
One of the other ladies called it out one day in mockery, not a single doubt in her voice, and his mother didn’t deny it. Meng Yao’s stomach dropped, his heart frozen in terror.
And she hadn’t taken any steps to get rid of it, the way she should have – whores had their ways, even if they weren’t perfect, and his mother knew enough of them. He knew that she would have been acting very differently if she intended to abort, would have been less cautious, less resistant, less –
She’d bedded a sect leader at that party, he remembered, doing the miserable math on his fingers. Not his father again, no, she wouldn’t make that mistake twice - would she? She’d gone there to see him, after all.
No, in the end, she was still counting on Meng Yao to earn his way into his father’s graces on his own, for the sake of both of them. But she had gone to bed with another one, and if it had taken…
Meng Yao knew his mother loved him, but for the first time in his life, he feared losing that love.
He tried to keep his fears to himself, tried not to burden her, but in the end he was a child and not yet good enough at hiding his expressions; she spotted him soon enough, took him into her arms and coaxed his fears from him.
“You silly goose, A-Yao. Don’t you know it’s for you?” she whispered in his ear, putting his hand on her belly. “I’m too old and sick to have a strong child, all the doctors said so; even if this one is born, he’ll be weak and sickly, likely to be swept away by the first chill of winter. I don’t need that sect leader to support me – we know already that they won’t do that. I just need him to feel guilty enough to take you with him back to his sect as recompense for having burdened me with a child that was lost.”
Meng Yao felt a touch of ice run down his spine. “But...what if the child lives through the winter?”
“There are many ways for a child to die,” his mother said, and her voice was calm and gentle, a pool undisturbed by the ripples beneath, just the way she’d always taught him. “Only some of them are winter.”
Meng Yao knew his mother loved him, but for the first time in his life, he feared what that love might mean.
His mother had grown cunning since his birth and more cynical since his father’s most recent rejection. She decided not to write to the sect leader with the news at once – that would be risking a rejection, a dismissal, an accusation that the child could be someone else’s son, or worst of all a blow to make her miscarry. She planned instead to wait until the child was almost here and only then she would summon him, knowing he would come to check just in case it was true. It was said that cultivators had a means of testing birthright, the way regular people didn’t, and that they were very cautious about such things.
That way, when the child died at birth or immediately thereafter, there would still be enough time for the sect leader to feel guilt and to be coaxed into taking Meng Yao in as a disciple, and once Meng Yao had learned the basics of cultivation, he could make his way to his father’s place to prove to him that he was worth taking in, that it was time to make good on all the old promises he’d made.
It was a good plan, if a cold one.
It would have worked, too, if Meng Yao hadn’t blundered his way into something better.
Perhaps that was giving him too much credit: he wasn’t the one who did the blundering. That was all Nie Mingjue, who six months after he’d made a crazy promise to return had actually gone and done it.
“You live in Qinghe,” Meng Yao said accusingly instead of greeting him, because he’d gone to listen to the gossips talk until he’d managed to figure out where the cultivation sect surnamed ‘Nie’ resided. “That’s not even in this part of the country; how can you be back so soon?”
“I promised you I would, didn’t I? I keep my word,” Nie Mingjue said with a smile, as if it was that easy – as if a child could make decisions like that, ones that involved crossing mountains and rivers and going deep into another sect’s territory, when Meng Yao couldn’t even walk too far down the street without the brothel owners cursing him out as a would-be runaway. “Don’t worry about it. The Jiang sect doesn’t really pay attention as a general rule, and even if they did their current leader’s too busy with his angry wife to care about who’s traveling through his domain.”
Meng Yao rolled his eyes - he’d heard that gossip, too. But he didn’t care, that wasn’t what mattered; there were more important things to focus on. “Did you bring it?”
Nie Mingjue produced a manual out of his sleeve. The quality of the paper was far better than any of the ones Meng Yao’s mother had bought for him, and he knew at once by looking at it that this was no fake. He tried to grab at it with both hands, but Nie Mingjue pulled it back.
“Cultivation is dangerous,” he warned. “You need a guide, at least at first, to make sure you don’t make any mistakes – it’s easy to make mistakes, especially at the beginning, and that can lay the groundwork for a qi deviation in the future. I’ll let you read it, but you have to promise that you’ll only practice with me for the first week or so, okay?”
“You’re staying a week?”
Nie Mingjue’s cheeks flushed red. “Uh, well – I was planning on two, if you don’t mind…”
“Of course I don’t mind! You can stay with me in my attic.”
“I brought enough money for a room at an inn –”
“We can use the extra to buy more meat,” Meng Yao told him, already pushing and shoving him, and Nie Mingjue was easily convinced.
He was easily convinced to follow him back to the brothel, too, which was a little frustrating: how could anyone be that naïve? If Meng Yao had wanted to sell Nie Mingjue, he probably could do it, cultivator or no; there were a hundred things to fear in a brothel, hidden in the tea or the incense or the smiles of seemingly friendly strangers.
Nie Mingjue was lucky that Meng Yao had longer-term goals in mind for him.
They passed the day quite pleasantly, eating meat skewers and dragon’s beard candy and discussing the basics of cultivation – Meng Yao read the book (his book!) and asked questions, and Nie Mingjue did his best to answer them – and then in the latter part of the afternoon the women at the brothel roused themselves, coming out to prepare for their nightly work, his mother included.
She was fairly heavily pregnant now, but there were men who liked that sort of thing, as long as there was something she could do for them, and the brothel owners wouldn’t waste their money by kicking her out no matter how annoyed they were at her for keeping the child. She wasn’t allowed to roam too far out of her room, being as she was a specialized service that might frighten regular customers, and so it wasn’t until she came to find Meng Yao to make sure he was all right that Nie Mingjue saw her for the first time.
“This is my mother,” Meng Yao said, his back stiff with expected insults even though Nie Mingjue hadn’t said a single word about Meng Yao living in a brothel so far.
Nie Mingjue stared at her with eyes so big and round and surprised that Meng Yao irritably wondered if he’d never seen a whore before, or perhaps it was the idea that one might be stupid enough to get pregnant and keep it. Maybe he would save his insults for that, instead, and Meng Yao would be forced to try to break his handsome face…
“You’re the lady they sent to my father’s room,” Nie Mingjue said, his voice faint and shaking with shock. “You’re – is that my brother?”
It turned out that the Nie sect, unlike the Jin sect, cared a great deal for matters of blood and children born of it; Nie Mingjue didn’t even demand a test or anything before he’d insisted that they come back to Qinghe with him, both of them, absolutely certain that his father would be overjoyed by the news.
Meng Yao and his mother exchanged looks, each of them skeptical and cynical to the core, and tried to convince him to slow down a little. To write a letter, perhaps –
“No! You have to come right away,” Nie Mingjue insisted, his cheeks pink with excitement. “We have doctors to care for you, and, oh, he’ll need a saber, someone will need to start on that right away – and anyway, a Nie should be born in Qinghe.”
“There’s still some months left to go,” Meng Shi said, though Meng Yao could see that she was a little amused by Nie Mingjue’s earnest enthusiasm. “Tell your father to come here and take me away, if you’re sure he’ll care so much.”
“I am sure,” Nie Mingjue said. “He’s just busy at the borders again, with Qishan Wen causing trouble all over; who knows how long it’d take for him to get word? Why do we have to wait for him to come in person anyway?”
“Because we can’t leave,” Meng Yao said, finally condescending to point out the obvious. “Mother belongs to the brothel, and we haven’t saved up enough to buy her freedom.”
Even an old whore was an expensive proposition, especially if she knew skills like singing and dancing and playing instruments the way Meng Shi did – and one with a burden like Meng Yao could be exploited to do all sorts of things that a normal woman might refuse. It would be costly to redeem her, more costly than anything a young sect heir might have expected to buy.
Meng Yao had expected that to be the end of it, but he’d apparently underestimated Nie Mingjue’s stubbornness: he went to the market and sold every last piece of metal he had on him, right down to the silver crown off his head, and was about to go try to barter away his clothing or sell his strength to a dockworker when Meng Yao shoved the money he’d so carefully saved up into his hands.
“With this it might be enough,” he said, biting his lip with guilt as his mother gaped at the glittering gold in his hand – he hadn’t dared tell her about it, about the fact that he’d been saving up again. She’d told him before that there was no point in buying her freedom, that she had no other skills to sell and a bad reputation to boot; they would live free for a single summer only to have to sell her back again in the winter, and the brothel owners wouldn’t be pleased at all by that.
“It will be,” Nie Mingjue said. “Even if I have to buy the rest on credit, it will be!”
“At least be clever about this,” Meng Shi sighed, giving in even though she clearly didn’t think it was a good idea. Meng Yao supposed she figured that if it came down to it, there were brothels in Qinghe, too, and at least she’d be something new there with her soft Yunping accent and manners. “If they think you’re desperate, they’ll raise the price – you should be more arrogant. Act as if you were doing them a favor by taking me off their hands.”
Nie Mingjue’s nose wrinkled.
“Pretend they’re surnamed Wen,” Meng Yao suggested, and that did the trick: Nie Mingjue’s lip curled at once, vicious and angry (and a little scared, but only deep down where most people wouldn’t see it easily). He marched right inside the brothel and demanded they sell Meng Shi to him, flaunting himself as the son of what he called a Great Sect.
It might not have worked except that he made such a fuss that people started to gather, including a passing cultivator and his wife – a much more respectable-looking pair than gawky too-tall-for-his-age Nie Mingjue with his hair now bound only by a ribbon, with a horsetail whip in the hands of the woman and swords on both of them – and the man’s eyebrows had gone up as high as his forehead. “Nie-gongzi,” he called, and even saluted properly and everything. “What are you doing so far from home?”
“Trying to complete a transaction,” Nie Mingjue growled, glaring at the brothel owner even as he saluted back. “I think he doesn’t think I’m good for it.”
The female cultivator snorted, shifting the baby she carried on her back from one side to the other. “That’s brave of him. Doesn’t your Nie sect like to break things that disagree with you and pay for the damages later?”
“He’s too young for that,” her husband told her. “Look, he’s not even carrying his saber yet.”
“I wasn’t talking about him,” she said. “I was talking about the retainers his father almost certainly sent to track him down – didn’t you say you saw some very angry-looking cultivators entering town not long ago? They looked fit to slaughter.”
Nie Mingjue blanched, suggesting that he hadn’t expected company quite this early – or perhaps hoping that he could hide away from them – but the cultivators’ words had made the brothel owner quite contemplative. He finally agreed to sell him Meng Shi’s contract for all the money Nie Mingjue had and a letter of promise for that amount a second time over, an outrageous price even after they’d used all of Meng Shi’s tricks on him, but Nie Mingjue had agreed to it in a heartbeat.
“Won’t your father be angry at your spending?” Meng Yao asked, wondering. It was so much money.
“I’ll make it up to him,” Nie Mingjue said dismissively. “As soon as I get my saber and start night-hunting, money flows free and easy. It’s hard to explain, but you’ll see what it’s like once you get there.”
Meng Yao blinked. “What?”
“Aren’t you going to be a cultivator?” Nie Mingjue asked, blinking at him. “You’ll be part of my Nie sect, of course, so the same rules that apply to me will apply to you.”
“No,” Meng Yao explained. “I’m going to be part of –”
His mother pressed down on his shoulder. “You’d be willing to accept A-Yao into your sect?” she asked, her gaze sharp and penetrating.
“Of course,” Nie Mingjue said, sounding puzzled. “I was willing to do it before, just for helping me out, and now, well – he’s the brother of my brother, isn’t he? That makes him all but family directly, especially if you marry in as a concubine.”
They both gaped at him.
“…do you not want to?” Nie Mingjue – hapless idiot, fulfiller of dreams – asked, actually sounding worried. “I just assumed you would, to make sure the child isn’t born a bastard…”
“I wouldn’t object,” Meng Shi said, her voice full of rich irony that only Meng Yao understood. “But I think your father might.”
“You don’t know my father,” Nie Mingjue said simply. As if it was simple, as if people were like that. “He’ll do the right thing.”
It seemed, to Meng Yao’s surprise, that there were in fact people like that; it was only that they were all apparently surnamed Nie and lived hidden away in a fortress deep in Qinghe, probably for the good of society.
Sect Leader Nie – known fondly to one and all as Lao Nie, an informality he encouraged – was at least more thoughtful than his son, insisting on a number of tests before he’d accept the child was his, which was a bit more in line with Meng Yao’s expectations. But even before the doctors had been called to check Meng Shi’s pulse he had already been listening without recrimination to Nie Mingjue’s excited plans about where they would stay and where the child’s room would be, and had only the mildest of criticism regarding his son’s decision to sell all his things to buy a Yunping whore to bring back to Qinghe.
The Nie clan, Meng Yao decided, were weird.
But not in a bad way – when the doctors confirmed that the date of conception was around the right time and that the child would more-likely-than-not have a gift for cultivation that his mother lacked, Lao Nie nodded and permitted Meng Shi to cross his threshold as an official concubine.
Not even a mistress! Official!
Sure, Lao Nie could divorce her if he wanted, but the mere act of marriage gave Meng Shi – and by extension, Meng Yao – security that they’d never had before, the right to many things they’d never had before: a solid foundation in the world for him, a married woman’s hairstyle and a place to be buried for her.
Meng Yao had worried at first that he would be reviled by Nie Mingjue’s mother as a bastard at best - a concubine’s baggage from before the marriage, infringing where he should not be; there were a thousand stories describing exactly what legitimate wives thought about people like that - but it didn’t take long for him to see that there was no other woman in Lao Nie’s life, excluding only his second-in-command who already had a wife of her own.
“Your mother died?” Meng Yao asked Nie Mingjue, his mind already spinning with the possibilities – having Meng Shi get officially named first wife was probably out of the question, since that would start gossip regarding the possibility of disinheriting Nie Mingjue, but if his mother could fill the position even a little, then maybe in the future…
“She’s gone,” Nie Mingjue corrected, and it took a while before Meng Yao understood that Nie Mingjue meant gone as in vanished or missing, not as in dead. According to the gossip, his mother was either a goddess or a rogue cultivator, but either way she hadn’t stayed much longer than a year or two past the time of her marriage to Lao Nie, with Nie Mingjue having been left to more or less raise himself ever since.
No wonder Nie Mingjue was such an open-minded idiot, believing in airy principles rather than rock-solid reality, Meng Yao thought, heart flush with fondness. He’d never had a mother to teach him any tricks.
Not that Meng Yao minded. On the contrary, he appreciated the benefits of that open-mindedness: for the first time in his life he had robes made of sturdy and comfortable material, finer than anything he’d owned before, with proper shoes made to fit him; he had teachers in all the subjects a gentleman should know, as much meat as he could ever want to eat, and even a room of his own, with a proper bed and a lock on the inside. All the things he’d ever envied in others were now suddenly within his grasp.
It was heady stuff.
Meng Yao was happy.
And then he went to his mother’s rooms after the first week to tell her of his adventures and saw her contemplating the crib in the side of the nursing room with a neutral expression that might as well be a frown.
He shivered a little and went to her side. “It won’t be necessary now, will it?” he asked hesitantly.
Meng Yao had never doubted his mother’s cunning before, but...well. It was only that Nie Mingjue was so looking forward to having a brother – Meng Yao was in some ways a brother, too, of course, or at least a shidi, but he was of an age that made him more of a friend so it apparently didn’t count – and had spoken so many times about the fun they’d have with a baby that they’d be able to teach everything they knew that Meng Yao had temporarily forgotten that the baby wasn’t going to get to live.
“I will decide what’s necessary,” she said, and that meant it probably was. Poor baby. “Your job right now is to get yourself a comfortable spot here that you can maintain even if I’m thrown out, you understand me? What you’re doing with Nie-gongzi is good. His father indulges him beyond reason; if you make him love you, he will fight for you to stay no matter what happens.”
Meng Yao secretly thought that, in all honesty, getting Nie Mingjue to love him seemed a bit too easy a job.
He’d already tried to play his mother’s tricks, to make himself seem nice and accommodating, the sort of brother any man would love, but Nie Mingjue had seen him at his most bossy and capricious when he hadn’t known that it would made, and it was a bit late to recover the original impression now. And yet to his surprise it didn’t seem to matter, when Nie Mingjue was puzzled and even concerned by Meng Yao’s gentle and submissive behavior rather than enchanted by it, and when he eventually reverted back to something more natural just to make him stop prying.
No, it didn’t seem to matter at all. Meng Yao was pretty sure that Nie Mingjue was already ready to die for him if need be.
Maybe not die. He shouldn’t think such things, especially not around his mother – especially not with Madame Nie gone, with Lao Nie’s next heir in Meng Shi’s belly and her eyes speculatively set on his bed.
“I’ll make sure of it,” Meng Yao promised, thinking that his mother’s fear of the abandonment of men was for once a good thing if it meant she hadn’t yet started thinking of how only a single child’s life stood between her sons – including her new son – and all the power and riches of the Nie sect.
He’d never thought to scheme against his mother before.
He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to do it now, but…that poor baby.
Poor Nie Mingjue, too.
So Meng Yao went back to Nie Mingjue, but instead of doing what his mother wanted and earning his love – he had Nie Mingjue’s trust, and that was all he needed – he instead whispered in his ear about how happy old Lao Nie seemed to be with a woman by his side, pointed out his smiles when Meng Shi served him at dinner or asked to rearrange a room with some new decorations she’d found in the market.
“I mean, it makes sense,” Nie Mingjue said, his voice a little doubtful but not too much. “Even if she wasn’t his choice, she’s his responsibility, especially now, and it’s better if they like each other. What’s your point?”
“I’m just saying –”
“Oh, come off it, you never just say anything. You’re my brother! If you’ve got some thoughts, just tell me, and we’ll work on them together.” He laughed at Meng Yao’s shocked expression. “I’m not much of a scholar, but even I know that brothers are better off when they scheme together, rather than in parallel or against each other. What is it you want to do?”
Meng Yao weighed his options and spoke: “After the baby’s born, you and I should take care of it so that my mother and your father can spend more time together.”
“Is it that you’re worried about being cast out if they don’t get along? It won’t happen –”
“No, no,” Meng Yao said quickly, though he was, a little, and anyway it certainly was a good excuse to use. “But wouldn’t it be nice to have more brothers?”
Nie Mingjue was easily convinced, as always. “Maybe even a little sister!”
“But you can’t have new babies if you’re taking care of the old one,” Meng Yao continued, twisting truth a little and counting on the fact that Nie Mingjue didn’t seem to know too much about children or child-bearing. “That’s why we should take care of the baby ourselves.”
“Won’t we be too busy?” Nie Mingjue asked. “We’ll have lessons and classes and training –”
There was, Meng Yao conceded, an awful lot of training to do at the Nie sect.
“– while your mother will be resting and able to spend more time with the baby. And feed it, too, though maybe we should talk to someone about getting a wet-nurse to help her out…maybe a nanny goat as well…”
“A wet-nurse is a great idea,” Meng Yao said encouragingly. The less dependency they had on his mother for things for the baby, the better, and most especially when it came to the baby having enough to eat. One of the other women at the brothel had had a baby die from hunger once, when she stopped producing milk but lacked the money to buy a replacement. “But really, think about it – you said yourself that it’d be nice if we could teach the baby things.”
He pushed it as far as he could, and the heavens obligingly did the rest by giving his mother a difficult last few months – not so difficult that he felt afraid that he’d lose her to the birth, not with all the Nie sect’s expensive doctors fluttering around, but enough to exhaust her, and Nie Mingjue was convinced by the need to lift her burdens where he hadn’t been by more practical arguments.
And so little Nie Huaisang, when he was born, spent his first month of seclusion carefully guarded by his attentive brothers, and was then spirited away to their rooms the second they were able – it wouldn’t save him from the winter, Meng Yao thought with satisfaction, but it might save him from his mother.
His mother – their mother, now, but really still his mother – knew what he was doing and allowed it with an indulgent look, which he’d expected; after all he was her precious A-Yao, child of her youth and dreams, and as long as the mistake wasn’t fatal he was allowed to make one here and there.
And Nie Huaisang was a mistake worth making.
Meng Yao had taken a while to think so – he’d started out less than impressed with the baby, which was little more than a fleshy blob, capable of nothing but crying and emitting noxious bodily fluids, but Nie Mingjue had loved Nie Huaisang on sight, treating caring for him as a different type of training, and he’d been so enthusiastic that Meng Yao had gotten a little carried away by it. And after a while he discovered that Nie Huaisang would only settle down if he was there, if he helped, and that went to his head, leading him to preen like a peacock with pride (though it was good that Nie Huaisang eventually calmed enough to permit Nie Mingjue to assist before Meng Yao collapsed of exhaustion)…
All of a sudden it was real.
Nie Huaisang was his brother.
His real brother, a brother by blood – another child of their mother, small and clever and cunning like him, another who would stand by his side and make her proud, to show the world that they were more than just what she had been.
(He’d say that Nie Huaisang could help him beat anyone who said a bad word about her, but Nie Mingjue was doing a good job of that on his own, pretending all the while that he wasn’t doing it at all. As if he could keep a secret.)
Meng Yao was happy.
But then -
Then it was winter.
The first little cough came during one of the classes on politics Meng Yao shared with Nie Mingjue, both of them writing their answers with delicate calligraphy – well, delicate and refined for Meng Yao, while Nie Mingjue’s brushstrokes were forceful yet elegant. Nie Mingjue didn’t notice the cough, absently hoisting Nie Huaisang a little higher in his non-writing arm, but Meng Yao was immediately frozen, thinking of what his mother had said.
He probably won’t survive his first winter.
Nie Huaisang was born in the late spring, which meant he was only half a year old when the winter came – some protection, but not much, and he was as weak as Meng Shi had predicted. The Nie sect had doctors aplenty, and Lao Nie spared no expense in getting medicine for his second son, but Meng Yao constantly worried that it wouldn’t be enough.
When Nie Huaisang continued to sicken, those soft little rasping breaths ringing in Meng Yao’s ear, he even started to wonder whether his mother really had done something after all, even though she knew he wanted Nie Huaisang to live, and he hated that he even thought it. And yet, he wondered...
His mother visited her sick son a few times, fewer than Nie Mingjue would like and more than Meng Yao wanted, and she had a good face for concern, full of gentle worry, good enough to fool anyone but her firstborn. Meng Yao overheard her crying once and was puzzled, only to understand when he heard Lao Nie comfort her that she wasn’t to blame, and that she wouldn’t be thrown out even if the child did die.
There were fewer visits after that, the purpose achieved.
(Meng Yao loved his mother, and knew she loved him – child of her heart that he was – but sometimes he thought he could almost hate her, too. It was a thought he’d had before, hidden deep in his heart, but only now that he knew there was more to life than her did he actually allow himself to think it.)
Nie Mingjue didn’t quite understand why she was acting the way she was, and Meng Yao determined in his heart that he never would. He might be younger in years than the boy he’d started (after a great deal of pressure and sad eyes like a lost puppy) to call his da-ge, but he was older in spirit. Perhaps if he were older, if he’d suffered more, he would resent Nie Mingjue’s carefree nature and the heart he wore on his sleeve, so easy to hurt and speaking of a lifetime of having not been hurt, but he was still young and all his dreams had come true – it was easy enough to shrug off the innocence and earnestness that, if he’d ever had it, he had lost it long ago.
It didn’t matter.
What mattered was the sleepless nights Nie Mingjue spent tending to Nie Huaisang, shoulder-to-shoulder with Meng Yao, persisting even when Meng Yao fell asleep; the way Meng Yao would always find a blanket covering him if he had, the way Nie Mingjue scolded him to eat while forgetting his own meals, the way he hid his tears for the times he thought Meng Yao couldn’t see or hear because he didn’t want to burden him –
“He’ll always be weak,” the doctors said, examining Nie Huaisang’s too-thin too-small frame, shuddering with coughs. “His muscle tone is low, his cultivation base unsteady…”
You might as well give up and try for another, they meant, and Nie Mingjue heard it as clearly as Meng Yao did.
And just as Meng Yao did, he refused to listen.
Where Meng Yao smiled at the doctors and thought of revenge, Nie Mingjue bristled and shouted, cursing them with as wide a vocabulary as he knew – wider, now that he had made Meng Yao’s acquaintance, than it had been before – and chased them away as frauds and liars.
And just as Meng Yao started to lose hope, Nie Huaisang turned a corner and got better.
“I don’t know if I can do that again,” Meng Yao said, staring with tears in his eyes at his little brother’s rising and falling chest, unhindered by any obstruction. “Next winter…”
“Next winter he’ll be older,” Nie Mingjue said, and wrapped an arm around him. “And so will we.”
Perhaps it was that that drove Nie Mingjue to pick up his saber a full two years before he rightfully should have received it, claiming a truly fearsome blade as his own if only he could master her, and after nearly a year of hard work he did. He named her Baxia, and Meng Yao thought of a creature strong enough to carry a mountain on its back – but it was of Nie Mingjue he thought.
(His own saber, he decided, would be named Chiwen, and like him it would draw evil away from others, taking it all on himself and swallowing it into his belly where it could rot him through and through if it meant that those he loved most would remain untainted by it.)
Meng Yao learned all the same things as Nie Mingjue, clearly being groomed for a position as Nie Mingjue’s counselor along with several of Nie Mingjue’s cousins – a great honor, he supposed.
Still, it meant that he knew what a Discussion Conference was, and knew to fear its imminent arrival.
Everything was going so well, after all.
His mother was dressing properly now, settling slowly into acting like a proper lady no matter that she was only a concubine – she’d even started to warm up to Nie Huaisang, taking the small child into her arms and singing to him the way she used to sing to Meng Yao, spoiling him a little out of what Meng Yao suspected might even be guilt at her initial plans for him, finally recognizing what Meng Yao had long ago realized: that he was good luck, not bad. A person, her son, and not merely a tool.
Best of all, Meng Yao’s little schemes on her behalf seemed to have been rather effective: Lao Nie had grown quite fond of buying Meng Shi little trinkets whenever he returned home from travel, burnished combs from Gusu, golden earrings from Lanling, even a hairpiece adorned with the Yunmeng pearls that Meng Yao knew she’d always envied. Her courtyard did not go unvisited, and the household begrudgingly unbent enough to let her give orders, the servants and retainers expressing through their service, through their willingness to overlook her origins, their appreciation of how her skillful playing and witty conversation helped ease the worst strains of Lao Nie’s vicious temper.
But now the time had come for the Discussion Conference to be held at Qinghe.
It was one thing when the conferences were held elsewhere, like the one in Yunping that had brought Nie Mingjue into Meng Yao’s life and Lao Nie into Meng Shi’s, because in those situations Meng Shi could be safely left behind at home – but not in Qinghe.
For the first time, Meng Yao almost wished that Lao Nie did not like his mother so much. After all, as a general rule, concubines were not allowed to host strange men, not even on their husband’s behalf, but when the concubine was favored, as Meng Shi was, when there was no first wife available to run the kitchen and do the welcoming, to greet the guests…
For anyone but Meng Shi to do it would be an affront to her dignity, and it would never occur to Lao Nie to be ashamed of her like that, even with her having been a prostitute before. It made perfect sense – and if she were anyone but herself, it would be fine.
A compliment, even; a willingness on Lao Nie’s part to show her off to his peers.
But Meng Yao knew, as Meng Shi knew, that there was a pit waiting for them.
After all, a Discussion Conference would bring in all the leaders of the major and minor sects – there was no way that Jin Guangshan, Sect Leader Jin, would miss it, and he had visited Meng Shi often enough through the years that there was no way he would fail to recognize her.
Asking Lao Nie to ignore that Meng Shi was a prostitute was one thing; men since time immemorial had taken on prostitutes as concubines, even those that had borne sons for other men. But to ask him to ignore that she had borne a son for one of his political rivals, for a man he despised as a cringing coward, for him to be exposed as raising one of what Meng Yao now knew the entire cultivation world snidely called the Jin bastards…
Meng Yao worried.
Nie Mingjue didn’t understand why Meng Yao was so worried, of course, but how could he? He’d never been told the details; Meng Yao would have said, trusting his discretion enough, but Meng Shi had stopped him each time.
And so Nie Mingjue thought it was only nervousness ahead of Meng Yao’s first Conference – he himself had skipped the last two Discussion Conferences, despite being old enough to usually have no choice but to come along, on the excuse that he had to care for Nie Huaisang, now a lively if lazy toddler whose favorite words were “da-ge”, “er-ge”, and “no”.
“If you don’t feel comfortable, you can go back to rest after the welcoming ceremony,” Nie Mingjue assured Meng Yao, earnest and well-meaning as always. “You don’t even have to stay for the banquet if you don’t want. I have to stay since I’m the heir, but that’s not applicable to you. If you’re worried about face, don’t be; you can take Huaisang with you – that’d be a good excuse, no one would question it.”
Meng Yao dredged up a smile for him. “I may do that,” he said, but knew that by that point it would be too late.
If they’d been better people, they would have warned Lao Nie of what to expect – but for all that he seemed to be a good man, he still had that unpredictable, explosive temper that was the Nie family inheritance as much as all the rest of it, and Meng Shi was determined that Meng Yao get as much of a cultivator’s education as possible before they were cast out – and she was sure they’d be cast out, no matter how well things had gone so far.
Meng Yao had argued with her that the few months extra he got weren’t worth the Nie sect’s loss of face, that they were better off telling him in private lest he be taken by surprise, that if he knew he could take measures to protect them both, but she had refused.
(Meng Yao loved his mother, but sometimes he thought all her cunning got in the way of being smart. He’d never thought that before Qinghe, before he realized there were more ways to do things, to move people, than by playing tricks – before he realized that the truth about the tricks you played coming out might cost you everything you had gained and more.)
The worst of it, though, was that he still had hope.
Hope for his own sake – hope for Jin Guangshan, hope that wouldn’t go away no matter how he tried to quash it.
It wasn’t like he was still the naïve child he’d been before, dreaming of a rescue – he’d gotten that! – but only the hope of every fatherless son that the man who sired him was worth something, that his blood was an inheritance he could be proud of.
A swiftly fading hope, given everything he learned from the teachers about the way the cultivation world worked. As a future counselor to a sect leader, he was privy to all the gossip, all the stories, the judgements on personality and proposed solutions on how to deal with them, none of which were very kind in their analysis of Jin Guangshan – and yet.
Qinghe Nie had a tense relationship with Lanling Jin, owing both to personality clashes between their sect leaders and historical precedent, for all that they’d recently become closer allies given the aggression of Qishan Wen; Meng Yao knew that there would still inevitably a negative slant to what he learned, ancient prejudice influencing their judgment. And so he still hoped –
It was not a hope that lasted long.
Sect Leader Jin looked impressive from a distance, in his gold robes and golden adornments, but once he drew near the hints of dissipation on his face were obvious to a boy that had grown up in a brothel: the sort of man that liked women and drink too much, the sort that was a good mark because and not in spite of how inconstant he was.
His eyes skimmed over Meng Yao as if he were nothing, despite there being at least three or four points of similarity between them – Meng Yao resembled his mother more, but not entirely – and stopped at Meng Shi. A brief moment of surprise, and then his lips curled up into the disdainful smirk of knowing something that others did not; his eyes flickered over the crowd and this time landed on Meng Yao directly. Their eyes met for a moment that seemed to last forever, but in truth it was only a few heartbeats before Jin Guangshan’s smirk widened and he turned to whisper something into his aide’s ear, and then that man laughed…
Meng Yao felt a rush of shame fill him from head to toe.
It had been a while since he’d felt that familiar feeling, pain and hurt and rage all mixed together. It wasn’t that Qinghe was some paradise that forgot about birth, there were plenty of people who would sneer at a prostitute’s son, who would refuse to deal with him or call him names – fewer, since Lao Nie had started allowing Meng Shi to help run things in his name, letting her act almost as if she was the first wife – but he hadn’t felt shame about it in a while.
At the beginning, when it happened, Lao Nie told him that people would undoubtedly talk cruelly about him all his life but that good conduct would let him ignore them. It wasn’t especially helpful advice, though Nie Mingjue seemed to believe it (they had names for him too, for all that he was the heir, and not all of them appreciative), but perhaps it would be something he’d understand when he was older.
Certainly Nie Mingjue cited the folly of his youth for why he repaid each insult against Meng Yao with a beating, if the offenders were in his generation, or a beating for their sons if they were older. Folly of youth or not, though, Nie Mingjue’s beatings had reduced the incidents more than any of Lao Nie’s words and Meng Yao had been able to hold his head up high and proud.
Not so now.
In a single instant, he was no longer the second young master of Qinghe, Lao Nie’s ward; Jin Guangshan’s haughty look and laughter reduced him back to being nothing more than gutter trash, a prostitute’s mistake, the leavings of a sect master so high above him as to not even bother to redeem the mother of what, to him, was merely yet another son.
He hated it.
For the first time, it occurred to him that it might have been Jin Guangshan himself that sent his mother to Lao Nie’s bed all that time ago – that he’d been playing a nasty joke on a man he hated, a man he knew hated him in turn, by getting him so drunk that he wouldn’t be able to tell that the woman he had taken to bed was Jin Guangshan’s former lover, no matter how obviously she was throwing herself at him. It would make sense, Jin Guangshan and Wen Ruohan each wanting Lao Nie out of the way for their own reasons…
He hated it.
(He hated even more that even after this humiliation he still somehow wanted the man’s approval, wanted to show him that he was wrong about him, wanted to be taken home by him the way he should have been all along, to seen as critical and necessary and important – but how could that ever be, now that he’d already sworn loyalty to another sect?)
The welcome ceremony was quickly poisoned, whispers spreading and a growing frown on Lao Nie’s face – that explosive temper again – and Meng Yao didn’t need the pointed glance from one of the sect deputies to know it was time for him to leave, using Nie Huaisang (who was being perfectly well behaved) as an excuse for why he had to go.
Nie Mingjue gave him an encouraging nod, because of course he did, oblivious as he was to most social undercurrents, and Meng Yao wondered as he left how long it would take for the whispers to reach him – how long before Nie Mingjue knew that Meng Yao and his mother had lied to them, albeit by omission, that they’d deliberately hidden the truth and made them lose face in front of everyone.
He wondered how Nie Mingjue would react to that.
At least Nie Huaisang was too young for any of this, babbling away happily in something half intelligible and half fragmented pieces of thought that made no sense to anyone, clutching at Meng Yao’s hair as if he was considering trying to eat it again the way he had when he was younger.
In his anxiety, Meng Yao put him down for bed earlier than he would normally, and true to form Nie Huaisang woke up deep into the night crying for a snack. Meng Yao gave him some dried fruit from the stash he always kept in his pocket and promised to get him something more substantive from the kitchens, and Nie Huaisang snuggled contentedly back into bed (Meng Yao’s bed, which was probably his actual goal the entire time, the devious brat).
Even though Nie Huaisang would probably be fast asleep by the time he returned, Meng Yao still turned his feet towards the kitchens. A Nie kept his promises, no matter how small, and at least for the moment he was still a prospective junior disciple of the Nie sect, ward of the Nie sect leader and responsible for upholding his honor – even if he might not be so tomorrow.
The banquet was still going, though presumably it was finally reaching its tail end, and Meng Yao couldn’t help but wander over in that direction on his way to the kitchens to see if people were still talking about it. About him, him and his mother…
A figure stumbled out of the main hall into the unlit corridors, and two years of familiarity allowed Meng Yao to identify Nie Mingjue at once even before he staggered back against the wall for support, moonlight shining on his face. His eyes were strangely vacant, his mouth slack – was he drunk?
It seemed bizarre to even think it. For all that Qinghe Nie spoke big about how picking up your saber was the step into adulthood, no one would ever allow a boy of Nie Mingjue’s age to drink enough wine to become intoxicated, much less to such a degree. He shouldn’t have even had wine served to his place setting, and previous experiments had revealed that stealing a single cup wasn’t enough to cause any effect on Nie Mingjue’s top-rate constitution. So why..?
Meng Yao hesitated, wondering if he should go and help him. Yesterday he would have done it without thinking, but that had been before the events of the day…
A shadow covered the face of the moon, casting Nie Mingjue’s face into darkness.
No, he was wrong – it was only that there was a man in the hallway, standing now between Nie Mingjue and the open window, and he stepped forward to catch Nie Mingjue in his arms, helping him stand once more.
Someone else had gotten there first, it seemed, and Meng Yao was about to leave when the man smiled, a glint of teeth, and suddenly he recognized him, for all that he’d only seen him briefly years before.
Sect Leader Wen, the only thing that could make Jin Guangshan and Lao Nie forget their enmity for each other – a poisonous snake, a terrifying tyrant, a pestilence on the cultivation world that constantly tested Qinghe Nie’s borders and tried to lure away its affiliated sects, all the while smiling and denying that it was doing any such thing.
The man who had once chased Nie Mingjue into hiding himself in a brothel, and thereby changed Meng Yao’s life forever.
Meng Yao did not feel especially grateful to him for it. The scene before him suddenly took on new light: Nie Mingjue was no longer merely drunk, leaning on a friendly hand for support and making a nuisance of himself as he did – he was frowning almost as if he were having trouble realizing what was happening, trying to push Wen Ruohan’s hands away but with fingers too weak to put up much resistance, and Wen Ruohan smiling all the while. Meng Yao knew that the brothel had had drugs like that, dizzying intoxicants that sapped the body’s power and the mind’s stability; the owners used them on vulnerable women who tried to resist their offers, knowing that after they had lost their virtue once it would be easier to coax them into giving it away again.
If he’s disgraced, your brother is the heir, something deep inside him whispered, sounding almost like his mother. Lao Nie can’t cast out the mother of his heir, not the way he could a concubine and her shu son, and it’s not as if you have to do anything. You were already in bed, and no one would ever know that you saw anything –
He’d know, though. Wen Ruohan would probably be able to figure it out, too, with his high cultivation, and he could use it against him in the future.
So what? Even if you did see something, what could they expect you to do? It’s not as if you can do anything. Who do you think you are, some whore’s trash son that doesn’t even have a saber yet? You’d never be able to stop the mighty Sect Leader Wen who strikes fear even into the heart of the likes of Lao Nie. Better to just let it happen…
Nie Mingjue made a small sound, a tiny whimper that was barely audible and soon muffled by the fingers Wen Ruohan put on his tongue; the older man had pressed him against the wall, a leg pushed in between Nie Mingjue’s thighs, Nie Mingjue’s weak attempts to push him away translating as little more than gentle tugs on his robes. Using his body to keep Nie Mingjue pinned in place, Wen Ruohan’s free hand slipped down –
Meng Yao gritted his teeth and went away.
The kitchens still had lanterns lit, and skewers to carry a flame from one place to another – it hurt Meng Yao deeply to set fire to a store of rice, knowing it would have been enough to feed him and his mother for an entire season without going hungry, but it didn’t hurt as much as the thought of a future in which all those slandering tongues treated Nie Mingjue as if he’d never been anything better than Wen Ruohan’s whore.
“Fire!” he shouted once it has spread enough to be a threat. “Fire!”
One of the kitchen servants rushed in and saw, immediately joining his cry to Meng Yao’s, and soon enough everyone was rushing around frantically, more and more people drawn over by the noise. In the frenzy, Meng Yao slipped out and with a strong pinch made his eyes fill with tears.
“Da-ge!” he cried, throwing himself into Nie Mingjue’s arms the second he saw him – Wen Ruohan would never have feared discovery by a single person, easily discredited, but when all the sect leaders in the main hall had started coming over to see what was happening he had had no choice but to step away. “Da-ge, I went to get some snacks for Huaisang and there was a fire!”
Even drugged and assaulted, Nie Mingjue’s first instinct was to comfort; he awkwardly patted Meng Yao’s shoulders and back, slurring out an “it’s okay, Meng Yao” that barely sounded anything like it.
Meng Yao pulled back away from him and allowed disgust to twist his face, all the disgust and disdain and hatred that had been churning in his gut the entire evening – how dare they all judge him, those sect leaders who’d never known a day of hardship in their lives, how dare they say things about his mother, as if they knew anything about her simply because of the role she was forced to play…
“Meng Yao, is it?” Wen Ruohan said, and Meng Yao widened his eyes in a burst of panic as if he hadn’t realized anyone was there, hadn’t intended for the feelings on his face to be seen by anyone.
“Sect Leader Wen!” he said. “Forgive me, I didn’t see you there – please forgive my shixiong, I don’t know how he’s managed to get this drunk, to shame himself like this…”
“Think nothing of it. He’s still young, after all,” Wen Ruohan said generously, as if he had nothing to do with it. “You’re – the ward, yes? The concubine’s son?”
Meng Yao nodded, putting his best version of a coward’s smile on his face – the one that was gentle, the way he preferred to be, but with shades of weakness that brought out disdain and condescension in stronger men. “I’ll make sure he doesn’t bother you any longer, Sect Leader,” he said sweetly, making it obvious that he was trying to pander. “I know you’re far too busy to be dealing with the stupidity of youth…”
Stupid, rather than foolish – meaning he thought that this reflected a judgment on Nie Mingjue’s character, rather than a momentary lapse. A cruel thing for a shidi to say, and to say that to a stranger, to Qinghe’s rival, was positively unpolitic; it would absolutely be a loss of face if it was called out.
But when such obvious weakness was displayed before a predator, it could also be seen as something else: an opportunity.
Wen Ruohan looked intrigued, as Meng Yao had hoped he would be – what would-be conqueror didn’t like the idea of recruiting a spy in another sect’s camp, especially one so highly placed? Especially one placed so near to something he wanted.
With a glance at the crowd that was growing rather than shrinking, he made his decision.
“Take him back to bed,” he told Meng Yao, who nodded eagerly. “And come see me tomorrow – you seem like a bright boy.”
“Of course!” Meng Yao chirped, looking as if he were overwhelmed by the extremity of Wen Ruohan’s favor, as if he could be bought with some pretty words and a little bit of resentment. He’d go, too, the next morning when the Unclean Realm was bustling with servants and a single shout could bring them running; he’d play up his young age, greedily gobble up the treats Wen Ruohan was sure to set out, and complain about how no one respected him, how everyone sneered at him, Jin Guangshan’s bastard – he’d whisper his fears about how Lao Nie would react – he’d puff himself up when Wen Ruohan inevitably flattered him.
It’d be easy enough to convince Wen Ruohan that he was weak, conniving, and greedy, the sort of person could be easily bought. The sort of person who would be happy to help a stranger sneak into his brother’s bed just to make himself feel better about being born the son of a whore.
If Wen Ruohan believed that that was who he was, what he was like, he would try to use Meng Yao to achieve his aims next time, and that would in turn mean that Meng Yao would be properly position next time to stop him – by accident, of course, or while trying to help him avoid notice, or whatever. Men like Wen Ruohan never really paid attention to their pawns after the initial coaxing period: once they considered someone to be theirs, once they’d judged someone too afraid to ever betray them, they got lazy and put down their wariness.
Meng Yao had met plenty such people in the brothel.
He carted Nie Mingjue off to bed – his bed, not Nie Mingjue’s, to reduce the danger – and Nie Huaisang (who was woken up by all the fuss) didn’t even notice the absence of the snack he’d been promised when it meant that he could sleep the rest of the night between his two brothers, his favorite place in the world to be.
He slept, and Nie Mingjue slept, and on the cold edge of his side of the bed, Meng Yao spent the rest of the night planning how to convince Lao Nie to let him and his mother stay. He had to stay, because if he left, if he left and Nie Mingjue had no one by his side, no one but Nie Huaisang who was too young –
Meng Yao didn’t know how long his da-ge’s carefree generosity could last in this cruel world, but he was determined to find out.
In the morning, as he’d hoped and feared, Nie Mingjue woke with no memory of the events of the night before.
It was good, because it meant that Meng Yao didn’t have to explain; bad, because who knew whether Wen Ruohan had tried a similar trick before with more success. The thought left a bitter taste in Meng Yao’s mouth, and it spilled from his mouth like poison when Nie Mingjue tried to ask him how he was feeling – “Don’t you know what they’re saying about me? All of them – my father.”
Nie Mingjue fell silent. “Meng Yao…”
“What? Can you stop their tongues? No one can change the facts of their birth, and yet I’m the one who keeps having to pay for it.”
“Meng Yao,” Nie Mingjue said, and his eyes were hurting. Good – let him hurt, let him feel one iota of what Meng Yao had always suffered, let him – “If I could make your father love you, I would.”
Meng Yao’s breath caught in his throat.
“If I could force him to honor you,” Nie Mingjue continued, voice solemn. “I would send you with him gladly, although I would miss you very much. I know it doesn’t mean anything just for me to say it, but…I would.”
It did, though. It meant quite a lot to know that the hurt in Nie Mingjue’s eyes had been for him, not from him. To know that he had heard all the stories, all the whispers, and in the end his only priority had been to think of how Meng Yao might feel.
To be angry, because Meng Yao wasn’t getting something he though Meng Yao should.
No, Meng Yao decided – no matter who he had to fight, whether Wen Ruohan or his own mother, he would find a way to stay by Nie Mingjue’s side.
(That was when he realized that he’d messed up his mother’s instructions even more than he’d meant, because he was never supposed to be the one that fell in love.)
Lao Nie did not, in the end, cast them out, but there was dissatisfaction in his eyes, a certain coldness in his dealings with Meng Shi in particular – he was never intentionally cruel, as Meng Yao might have feared, but his visits to her courtyard stopped, and their dealings returned to those early days when she had been a stranger he had agreed to host rather than a member of the family.
It wasn’t as noticeable with Meng Yao, shifting from being treated as a ward of the family to a sect disciple like all the others, but it was – still noticeable.
Meng Yao tried not to complain, especially after the first time he overheard Nie Mingjue arguing with his father in his study about it. The study was built with thick stone and lined with tapestries to boot, but two explosive Nie tempers raging against each other was not an easy thing to muffle, especially to someone as good as eavesdropping as Meng Yao. The gist of it was that Nie Mingjue didn’t care about the politics of it, about the loss of face, and the only thing his father said that had even a slight impact on him was that it meant that they didn’t trust them.
There had been a brief moment of silence, the words hitting their mark and leaving a wound, and then Nie Mingjue started arguing again.
It wasn’t true that Meng Yao didn’t trust him, but Meng Yao didn’t know how to make that clear. If he told Nie Mingjue that he trusted him, Nie Mingjue would believe him, because they were brothers and good brothers believed each other, but it would be something he would do purposefully, intentionally, something he would make himself believe when what Meng Yao wanted was for him to know the truth of it deep down in his heart, in his core, in those steely principles of his that did not know how to bend.
So he didn’t tell him, and turned his attention to sect matters instead, determined to make himself useful.
(He could have gone to Nie Mingjue with his grievances, whispered them in his ear again and again until Nie Mingjue was willing to do anything for him – but love like that was a gamble that could be lost in a single throw of the dice, the way his mother had, and he didn’t want that. So he had to be useful, instead.)
Meng Yao threw himself into learning how the Unclean Realm operated, knowing that sect leaders were often too busy to handle the minutiae themselves; he studied the kitchens, the forges, the stables, and more with the same enthusiasm as his actual classes.
He tried to make himself useful, tried to make himself irreplaceable – and he was.
Being useful helped reduce the sting of the letters that appeared on his bedside table as if by magic, the letters that reminded him of his long-term plan to work his way into Wen Ruohan’s confidence by pretending that he could be coaxed into being his spy – the only thing that made it remotely tolerable was that Discussion Conferences happened only once a year, and Wen Ruohan was never invited to Qinghe beyond that.
The same could not be said of their other allies.
The small sects were easily disposed of, but not the Great Sects; of them, only the Lan sect came in force to pay a visit to the Unclean Realm – and so Meng Yao was properly introduced to Lan Xichen for the first time.
Lan Xichen was everything Meng Yao ever imagined a cultivator to be: kind and gentle, graceful and polite, a proper well-born gentleman that would never let a harsh word pass through his lips, while also being talented in every art, powerful in his cultivation, and handsome to the point of beauty – basically perfect, without any of Nie Mingjue’s flaws: his temper, rigidity, obvious naivete, and carelessness.
Naturally, Meng Yao couldn’t stand him.
Maybe it would have been different if he’d met him a few years earlier, or even a few years later. Maybe he would have felt seen, seen and appreciated, because Lan Xichen truly did seem to appreciate him, his talents, his intelligence, everything. Maybe Lan Xichen would have become the white moonlight in his heart, forever out of reach, or maybe Meng Yao would have let his worst tendencies overtake him until he sought to conquer him, to lie to him until he stood by his side even to the point of forsaking his own principles, to keep him all for himself and no one else, because Lan Xichen’s one flaw was that he was too much a gentleman, that he gave out trust as if it were nothing and always thought the best of people, that he sympathized with whoever seemed to spill their heart to him first –
Meng Yao could have had him wrapped around his little finger in no time.
You say you’re his friend, Meng Yao thought, glaring, but you were at that awful Discussion Conference last year, too, and where were you when he needed you? Asleep, that’s where!
Possibly he was a little jealous.
Jealous of the way Nie Mingjue seemed flattered by Lan Xichen’s attention, almost riveted by it, as if Lan Xichen were better than he was and his views more important; jealous of the way Nie Huaisang’s eyes were always trained on the “pretty gege” that came to visit them every morning; jealous of how Lan Xichen seemed to have everything Meng Yao had ever wanted in the world served up to him on a platter.
No, he couldn’t stand him, perfect creature that he was. Meng Yao would make nice with him and wait for him to leave, and that would be that.
Naturally, about a week after he made that decision, Lan Xichen found Meng Yao alone in the garden one afternoon and confessed his affections.
“I…what?” Meng Yao gaped at him. “You like me?”
Lan Xichen’s cheeks were beautiful when they flushed red. “I admire you.”
He’d said more than that – he’d said that Meng Yao was brilliant and graceful, thoughtful and level-headed, talented and hard-working, a tragic figure that had overcome his circumstances through his own efforts – but Meng Yao was still having trouble believing he’d managed to pull the wool over this beautiful boy’s eyes without even trying.
(Meng Yao was all of those things, yes, except that he was also a spiteful son of a bitch and after enough years with the Nie sect, which valued straightforwardness and honesty, he was self-aware enough to know it.)
If he still listened to his mother’s advice above his own instincts, perhaps Meng Yao would have smiled shyly, averted his eyes and accepted the compliment, perhaps offered to hold his hand while he was there – per Nie sect rules, they weren’t old enough for more than butterfly kisses, so even if he was repulsed, which he secretly wasn’t at all, he could have managed it – and maybe suggested keeping up a correspondence, planning for the future. It was never a bad idea to have another patron in your back pocket, after all.
Perhaps it was the corruption of the sect’s principles, some of Nie Mingjue’s righteousness rubbing off on him, or just the fact that Meng Yao and his mother were having a bit of a cold period between them as she tried to get back into Lao Nie’s good graces (or worse, Jin Guangshan’s, even after everything) in what Meng Yao thought were all the wrong ways and for all the wrong reasons, but he decided not to do that.
He decided to be a little more honest, instead.
“Your view of me is idealized,” he said, more delicately than Nie Mingjue’s bluntness would have been. “There’s nothing ennobling about hardship, and being piteous can eventually become as tiring as being pitied. You would be better off waiting to learn more about me to see if you actually like me, or else you might as well just paint a picture and live with your dreams of me instead.”
Lan Xichen’s eyes filled with tears, even though Meng Yao had been trying to be nice, and he made some excuses before running away. When Nie Mingjue found him later, Meng Yao told him about it, and Nie Mingjue hummed thoughtfully.
“His mother is very sickly,” he said. “I heard that she can’t leave her house; per Lan sect rules, as boys, Xichen and his brother are only able to visit her once a month – otherwise, they only have pictures.”
Meng Yao put his head in his hands. “So you’re saying I accidentally poked at his most vulnerable point. While trying to be nice.”
He needed to get his hands on better information than he had. Maybe his mother had the right idea after all about figuring out what people wanted…
“I think it’s a good thing,” Nie Mingjue said. “The Lan sect only allow themselves to love once, which is a stupid rule, but imagine if he committed to someone and then realized he’d made a mistake?” He paused. “Not that you’d be a mistake, of course.”
“Of course not, I’m perfect and everything about me is more important than other people,” Meng Yao said, only somewhat joking.
Nie Mingjue cuffed him upside the head, but nodded agreeably – still a fool, after all these years.
“Still, I suppose that’s one useful connection I’ve ruined,” Meng Yao added with a sigh. “He won’t want to see me again.”
Nie Mingjue snorted. “You’re joking, right? The only thing you’ve done is add ‘insightful’ to the list of qualities he likes about you. He’ll still want to write to you, I promise – only maybe he won’t be quite so quick to pity you.”
For once, Nie Mingjue’s guess about people turned out to be the right one, and Lan Xichen turned out to be a lot more tolerable when you could tease him out of his Lan-sect otherworldliness.
Meng Yao supposed he could stand him after all.
(He was so very pretty. Even in the brothels, with all the paint and tricks in the world, Meng Yao had never met anyone who looked better than he did.)
It helped that Lan Xichen had the good taste to appreciate all the good aspects of Nie Huaisang, who at four was starting to turn into an actual person – a lazy spoiled brat of a person, sure, but Meng Yao couldn’t really blame him for it, not when Nie Mingjue was the sort of person to yell ‘no’ at an outrageous request and then give in immediately thereafter because the person he’d yelled at looked sad.
The doctors confirmed that Nie Huaisang would be weak all his life, his body underdeveloped in the womb, but the only thing that meant was that Meng Yao and Nie Mingjue had to work even harder to make sure the third young master of Qinghe would have a good life, untroubled and carefree.
And they could do it, too: Nie Mingjue had a general’s mind and the strength to back it up, with a frankly outrageous talent for cultivating that Meng Yao had incorrectly assumed was the result of starting early but eventually realized from the expressions of their teachers was in fact idiosyncratic, and Meng Yao had the cunning and paranoia he inherited from his mother. His own cultivation was progressing very nicely, his outstanding memory helping him pick up techniques as soon as he saw them and helping him figure out how to best utilize his speed and flexibility – aspects that would have made him a good swordsman, though Meng Yao found that all those years of seemingly pointless training had strengthened his arms and shoulders enough that his only slightly subpar saber skills tended to catch others by surprise.
He thought he wasn’t far away from receiving his own saber, his Chiwen, right within the usual age range for it, and when that happened he would at last be safe, only one final confirmatory mission away from being a full-fledged Nie sect disciple who knelt before his sect leader to swear loyalty. The conditions for expelling a disciple from the sect were very strict, codified in sect law – barring any premeditated murder, rape, or arson or suchlike, once in, it would be very hard to force him to leave except if he wanted to.
He could stay forever.
He would stay forever.
When Nie Huaisang was five, almost six, his mother suddenly started to show an interest in him again.
It was all that awful Madame Yu’s fault, Meng Yao thought. It’d started right after the Jiang sect had come to visit, a nice official visit purportedly meant to introduce the two young sons that were about the same age – Madame Yu was Madame Jin’s friend, and therefore hated Meng Shi on her friend’s behalf, but she was so much smarter about it. She was as vicious and poisonous as the spider mentioned in her title, and Meng Yao’s mother was good and talented and sneaky but she was as susceptible to flattery and wiles as anyone else, especially since she’d never been the target of such poisonous words poured into her ear before, all designed to incite her into doing something she’d regret.
Meng Yao figured out what was going on pretty quickly, and even Nie Mingjue was wary of her belated interest in Nie Huaisang, although in Meng Yao’s opinion he focused a bit too much on the possibility of harm to Nie Huaisang’s feelings and not quite enough on the fact that the only thing standing between Meng Shi and the significantly more secure position of first wife was him.
Meng Yao had his first real out-loud argument with his mother over it.
Nie Huaisang didn’t care at all, indifferent as he was to Meng Shi after all this time, except of course in the sense that he was upset that Meng Yao was upset. Nie Mingjue was charmingly worried sick about their reignited and intensified cold war – so much so, even, that he went behind everyone’s backs and arranged for Meng Yao’s first mission with Chiwen to be a bodyguarding escort mission to take Qinghe’s current mistress on a shopping trip.
Sometimes Meng Yao wanted to strangle him.
Irritatingly enough, it worked out just as Nie Mingjue must have planned. There was a limit to how much teenage sulking Meng Yao could get up to on an extended road trip that required a month’s travel in each direction, and his mother wasn’t so stubborn that she couldn’t be convinced regarding exactly how underhanded Madame Yu’s instigation had been. Anyway, in the end, she did love him more than anything, and that made forgiveness easy.
Soon enough they were back to their old ways, living in each other’s pockets as they always had, only this time they had money in their pockets and the arrogance of having a Great Sect backing them up. They made a point to stop by Yunping again to rub their good fortune into the faces of the brothel owners and other prostitutes that had once so tormented them, and even ended up buying his mother’s old friend Sisi’s freedom at a much-discounted price, given what had happened to her face.
“No one will notice in Qinghe,” Meng Shi assured her old friend, clutching at her hands with a smile brighter than anything Meng Yao had ever seen on her; it made her look ten years younger. “Half the women there have scars – scars, and sabers, too, if you look inside the main house. We’ll say you’re my maid so that you can stay with me all the time, but I won’t make you lift a finger – I promise!”
Meng Yao thought it was a good thing. His mother would have company which she’d lacked, especially since Lao Nie had stopped visiting her courtyard, and even better it was company she already knew she liked. They could sit together and play games, or music, do their hair and make-up and clothes, and never have to think even once about what a man would think of them.
Meng Yao was in a very good mood.
He probably should have realized that something terrible was going to happen.
He should have, but he didn’t, not until they rode straight back in through the gates of the Unclean Realm and Nie Mingjue rushed out in a panic to meet them. He had a black eye and bruises on his neck that Meng Yao identified at once as being caused by a man’s hand – he’d seen it before in the brothel, though not since – and although Nie Mingjue was ignoring it he favored one leg over the other in a way that suggested that his ankle was swollen and maybe even fractured under his robes.
“Da-ge!” Meng Yao cried out in pure shock at how wrong it was. Although there were spars every day in the Unclean Realm, even vicious ones that were only a shade away from true fights, no one should be able to lay a hand on the eldest young master of Qinghe like that without getting their head chopped off for it, and even a night-hunt surely couldn’t have gone that badly. “What happened –”
“I’ll tell you later,” Nie Mingjue said, and his voice was harsh, but with terror, not anger. “Come with me right now. He can’t be allowed to see you. Either of you.”
Meng Yao had many questions, but Nie Mingjue permitted none of them; he ushered them up to the guest quarters, the mediocre ones where neither honored guests nor hated enemies were housed, and hidden inside, wrapped in blankets and yet shivering, pale-faced with fright, was Nie Huaisang.
Meng Yao rushed to him at once, of course, and Nie Huaisang burst into relieved tears at the sight of him – silent tears, which was unusual for him; Nie Huaisang had always been prone to wailing.
“Don’t let him make noise,” Nie Mingjue instructed, and it was at once apparent why Nie Huaisang was doing his level five-year-old best to turn sobs into whimpers and heaving breaths into quiet pants. Meng Yao turned to look at Nie Mingjue – Meng Shi and Sisi turned, too, expressions of shock and confusion painted onto their features. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and they’d been here for years; there had to be a reason for all this panic.
“What happened?” Meng Yao asked, and “You need to see a doctor,” but Nie Mingjue shook his head, promised Later, and left, locking the door behind them – locking them in.
Nie Huaisang tugged on Meng Yao’s arm. “We have to move the table,” he said. “Da-ge said, as soon as you were here, we need to move the table.”
“Move the table…? Where?”
The answer, it turned out, was in front of the door. The table, and a bookcase, as if they were planning on resisting a siege.
“Are we hiding from a monster?” Sisi asked Nie Huaisang, trying to make light of a situation she clearly didn’t understand – that none of them understood, because Nie Mingjue hadn’t explained anything.
She was trying to make light, but Nie Huaisang nodded solemnly as if she’d only said the truth. “It’s not his fault, though,” he said, his lower lip quivering. “It’s not A-die’s fault that he’s a monster now.”
Meng Yao was so steeped in cultivation lore that he forgot himself for a moment, thought immediately of possession or demonifiation or a curse or something, and then his mother said, “When did he start hitting your brother?” and Meng Yao remembered that powerful men didn’t need an excuse to be monsters.
But no, that didn’t make sense either – perhaps it would have, if he hadn’t lived here for years, if he hadn’t known Lao Nie, but he had. Lao Nie had a fierce temper and a tendency to hold grudges, a heavy hand and a cold rationality in his heart that Meng Yao understood at first glance and that Nie Mingjue hadn’t quite figured out for all that he tried to parrot his father’s teachings, but he was generally speaking not a bad man. If he sometimes raised his hand to his sons, it was meant to teach them something – he wasn’t some customer at the brothel whose always-bruised children stayed home with shadows in their eyes.
Or at least, he hadn’t been.
Meng Yao got some broken parts of the story out of Nie Huaisang with some difficulty, being as Nie Huaisang was five and self-centered and had no tendency, as Meng Yao had at his age, to listen at doorways. There was a night-hunt, apparently, and it had ended badly – Lao Nie’s saber, Jiwei, had shattered, entirely unexpectedly, and the creature had taken advantage of the moment to gore him, with only Nie Mingjue’s quick reactions saving his life. He’d been in a coma for three days.
Three days, and then he’d woken up, his eyes bloodshot with ceaseless rage, and he’d called for Nie Mingjue to bring him his saber.
“Qi deviation,” Nie Mingjue told him later that night, climbing in through the window with a few more bruises and a cut high on his forehead so new that it was still scabbing over. His eyes were dull with exhaustion. “He doesn’t understand that she’s gone, no matter how I try to explain it.”
It wasn’t that Meng Yao hadn’t heard all the stories about the Nie clan’s tendency towards explosive and early deaths, but this was too early – Lao Nie hadn’t actually been all that old, for all that he’d waited longer than most of his ancestors to have children, and weren’t there supposed to be warning signs about this sort of thing? And the saber breaking, a Nie saber breaking –
“It was Wen Ruohan,” Nie Mingjue said. “At the dinner party, some months back. You remember. They had that back-and-forth about that fancy new saber he got as a present.” He shut his eyes. “I was standing next to him when it happened. I felt the echo of Wen Ruohan’s cultivation right before it happened – he did something, weakened it somehow, unbalanced her. Shattered her.”
His hand had found Baxia’s hilt as he spoke, his fingers white with pressure of holding her; Meng Yao couldn’t say anything, his own fingers tight around Chiwen – Nie sabers were spiritual weapons, so tailored to their makers that one might almost think they were conscious, and there were whispers that if you cultivated enough they would really become so, rising to semi-sentience and maybe even full thought one day. A Nie disciple cultivated their saber using their own soul and spirit, making it part of themselves…even imagining such a thing was like a nightmare come to life.
Meng Yao took a deep breath and held it for several seconds before exhaling. “Okay,” he said, even though it wasn’t okay, not at all. “What happens next?”
“You stay here with Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue said at once. “I’ll bring you food, water, everything you need – there are servant’s passages in the walls, or I can fly Baxia to your window –”
Meng Yao reached out and caught his waving hand. “No, not – what happens next? We can’t cower here like trapped rats forever.”
But Nie Mingjue only looked tired, tired and afraid. “Meng Yao…”
“We can’t,” Meng Yao insisted. “And you – look at you, look what he did to you –”
“He’s still sect leader,” Nie Mingjue said. “And my father. He’s entitled to do as he likes.”
“There has got to be some sect law permitting the removal of a sect leader for madness!” Meng Yao exclaimed. “This isn’t a surprise; it’s hereditary – someone must have put in place measures –”
“Measures that require three-fourths of Nie sect elders to participate, enough to fill a quota, and an heir old enough to make a reasonable argument for inheritance,” Nie Mingjue said, and they both knew that he wasn’t. He was only fifteen; who would respect him? “There was some underhandedness a few generations back, someone trying to frame someone else for it in order to steal their position, so madness is a high bar to reach. I’ve sent letters to summon back everyone above the right age, as many as people as I can spare, but until they all come – we can’t let anyone know.”
Meng Yao hunted for words, but his silver tongue could not do what his mind knew was impossible; there really was nothing for it. Tensions with the other sects were too high. Even putting Wen Ruohan aside, there was Jin Guangshan in Lanling, always avaricious, and dozens of small sects dreaming of becoming bigger at the Nie sect’s expense. It was one thing to say that Lao Nie was injured and healing; yet another entirely to reveal that the Nie sect’s leader had gone mad, mad with anger, and that they were as rudderless as a raft on the open ocean.
They couldn’t openly demand that their traveling sect elders all come rushing back at once without alerting everyone to the problem – they couldn’t even ask the other sects to help find them.
No one could know.
“So, what are you suggesting,” Meng Yao said, his smile even gentler than usual in his rage. He might not show his fierce anger the way the Nie clan did, but that didn’t mean he didn’t feel it. “That we just put up with it until we gather enough people to do it right, or else until he dies? How long will that take?”
Nie Mingjue rubbed his face. “I’m not sure. A year, maybe?”
“That’s implausible,” Meng Yao pointed out. “Sect business still needs to get done.”
“I’ve been doing what I can,” Nie Mingjue said, because of course he was. He was the heir – he was the rightful sect leader, even though he was far too young for it. “Great-uncle says he thinks I can pull off being eighteen, so that my signature will be sufficient for most documents…”
“I’m going to help,” Meng Yao said, and held up his hand when Nie Mingjue tried to protest. “You know I’m ten times as good at household accounts and logistics as you, and it can be mostly done on paper, so there’ll be no need for me to go out of here to do the vast majority of it. You’re not stopping me. You need me.”
“Fine,” Nie Mingjue said, because he did and he knew it. “Fine. But for the few things you do have to come out for…listen, I tell you to run, you don’t argue, okay? I don’t know if he’s still angry at you about what happened at the Discussion Conference a few years back, but I’m not planning on finding out.”
Meng Yao shuddered. “He still – remembers?” he asked, because that was worse, somehow. So much worse to know that the monster that beat Nie Mingjue to limping, that wrapped his hand around his neck and tried to squeeze the life out of him, still had the same memories as Lao Nie, who used to look at his son like he’d been a star in the night sky that he’d placed there himself. Who’d never let his disagreements with Meng Shi affect the fairness with which he treated Meng Yao, who had once put his hand on his shoulder and told him he was doing well, that he was promising, that he was glad to have someone like him in his sect…
“It’s not so bad all the time,” Nie Mingjue told him. “Sometimes he forgets, for a little while, before it starts up again.”
That just made Lao Nie unpredictable, Meng Yao found, and he hated it – he hated the way Nie Huaisang cringed at doors, the way he’d started to wet the bed again, the way they’d had to let all his pet birds loose after Lao Nie destroyed one of their cages in a fit of unexpected fury. He hated the way his mother and Sisi both donned veils to hide their faces, lest they draw attention, and took to sneaking through the servants’ quarters; he hated the way Nie Mingjue stopped fighting about going to see the sect doctor the way he always had and started making a visit there every week like clockwork and sometimes in between, and didn’t even seem to realize anymore how bad it had gotten; he hated the way it almost seemed sometimes like Lao Nie was still in there, somewhere, confused about what was happening like a man lost in a fog that he thought might be on the verge of thinning and asking for someone to fetch his saber as if it were a lantern that could help guide him out of the dark.
But his saber was gone.
“I’m going to kill Wen Ruohan for this,” Nie Mingjue said one night, lying with the side of his head pressed against the cool stone wall to help reduce the swelling – Lao Nie had thrown something at his head again, trying to get at Baxia; he’d mistaken her for Jiwei again.
Meng Yao was sitting next to him, trying to compose a response to Lan Xichen’s latest letter – it was cheerful, talking about plum blossom tea and lessons in etiquette and a new guqin for Lan Wangji, the only sour note a reference to his mother’s illness not having yet resolved, though he hoped it would by the next visit they had scheduled. Meng Yao was having to wrack his brain to come up with some sort of fiction about what they were supposedly up to in Qinghe that would not bleed resentment through the lines.
Maybe he could say they got a dog? An especially rabid one, vicious and cruel, with a tendency to turn against everyone with teeth bared and no care for how they bled even though they loved him –
Maybe not a dog.
“You can add it to all the other crimes he’s committed,” he said absently, and he knew that Nie Mingjue would take it as referring to the man’s overall maliciousness – Wen Ruohan was an iron-fisted tyrant, vicious and mean, and he wasn’t quiet about his enjoyment of ‘punishments’ that were more torture than anything else; Lao Nie had vocally criticized him over it, and with him no longer there to rally disdain against it, Wen Ruohan would undoubtedly only get worse – but actually Meng Yao had meant the crimes Wen Ruohan had committed against them. Against the Nie sect, against the Nie clan.
Against Nie Mingjue.
Death was too good for the bastard, but for once Meng Yao would be fine settling for less so long as it happened.
Nie Mingjue huffed in agreement, as Meng Yao had expected, and finally closed his eyes to sleep the way Meng Yao had been on his case about doing for the last half-shichen. When he was deeply asleep at last, breath regular and easy for all that his brow was still furrowed in fear and worry that no longer went away, Meng Yao, who had been staring at the hypnotically beautiful sight of Nie Mingjue’s chest steadily moving up and down, alive and not too hurt, saw a shadow out of the corner of his eye.
“Huaisang,” he said, not even bothering to sound stern. “You should be asleep already.”
Nie Huaisang came up to him and put his head on his shoulder. “I want to help,” he said softly.
Meng Yao blinked. “With what?”
“Whatever we have to do,” Nie Huaisang said. He was watching Nie Mingjue breathe, too. “Whatever we have to do to make it right.”
Meng Yao wasn’t sure what to say. “Huaisang –”
“I want to help, er-ge,” Nie Huaisang said, and there wasn’t any doubt in his voice, any uncertainty. “Da-ge may be stronger, but you’re meaner. If anyone’s going to kill the one who did this, it’ll be you, and I want to help.”
Nie Huaisang ended his pronouncement with a huff, a familiar sound, and for all that it was a sound more characteristic of the Nie than his mother, Meng Yao couldn’t help but smile because he knew what that sound really meant: it meant I hate him, it meant he hurt da-ge, it meant I don’t know how to care about the world, I only know how to care about the ones I love, and for them I will burn it all down.
Meng Yao knew exactly how that felt.
It seemed that Nie Huaisang was vicious thing after Meng Yao’s own heart, underneath it all, and Meng Yao marveled all over again at his luck at having a living brother of his own blood – not any of those hypothetical bastard half-brothers and sisters Jin Guangshan sowed like he was trying to grow grain for the harvest, but his mother’s child.
A monster, just like him.
“All right,” he said. “If I can, I’ll let you help.”
Meng Yao ended up not writing back to Lan Xichen at all, which turned out to be for the best – Madame Lan died of her illness a little later in the year, destroying Lan Xichen’s tentative proposals for a visit that they would have had to find a way to tactfully refuse anyway, and Meng Yao was able to write that letter with a great deal more sincerity and shared pain than he might have otherwise.
Lao Nie did not last the full year that Nie Mingjue had predicted they’d need – the initial qi deviation only led to more deviations down the road, as his unchecked rage twisted his mind further and further away from reality and he tried to cultivate with a saber that no longer existed; within four months he was no longer recognizable as the man he had once been, and within six he was dead.
It was not a good death.
Meng Yao had started hoping for Lao Nie to die by midway through the second month, when it was clear that his condition was getting worse, not better, and that his madness was just a hair short of what it needed to be to remove him as unsuited for his position – he could stand, walk, talk, and make decisions (bad ones), and Meng Yao sometimes cursed whichever ancestor had schemed unsuccessfully to steal the sect leader’s seat through trickery because they’d made it so much harder for everyone else – but he hadn’t wanted it to happen the way it had.
For all that he was glad that Lao Nie was finally gone, six months after he’d actually died alongside his beloved Jiwei, Meng Yao would never have wanted Nie Mingjue to have to…no, better to say that he wouldn’t have wanted for Lao Nie to use his son as an instrument of his own destruction.
Nie Mingjue had been bearing up as well as could be imagined – better, even, through sheer will and the grit and stubbornness that the Nie clan had in spades – but that had been a step too far; he withdrew somewhere deep inside of himself, his eyes vacant and dead, and slept for three days straight. For a little while, Meng Yao had thought that he had also succumbed to a qi deviation, panic roiling under his skin as he had to try to keep it quiet, with Nie Huaisang helping as much as a small child like him could, but in the end Nie Mingjue woke up in time for the investiture ceremony making him sect leader.
They probably should have found some time to talk about it – talk about everything, to lance the boil of their suffering so that it didn’t fester in their hearts – except before Meng Yao could figure out what needed to be said, they were both pulled away by a sudden spate of the skirmishes on the border because of course Wen Ruohan would use the opportunity of the sect leader’s death to try to steal away some of their territory.
They didn’t let him.
Nie Mingjue’s rage was something worth seeing, and Meng Yao’s own was very nearly as great, even if he expressed it through coldness rather than heat – even if he was considered too young to be sent out to the front lines, since unlike Nie Mingjue he was not pretending to be three years older than he really was, even if he could only help govern the sect at home in Nie Mingjue’s absence.
It was that coldness that let him cut through the politics that always followed the initiation of a new sect leader, especially a new one that foolish people from the outside might think would be susceptible to influence, might be naïve enough to allow himself to be used as a method for climbing into power.
It was that coldness that his mother saw, when she came to him with her own suggestions – the would-be influencers soon found that Nie Mingjue was born to be a righteous general, unyielding and stubborn, and that Meng Yao was coldblooded as a serpent, unmoved by their appeals, and so had come to Meng Shi with flattery and the promise of all sorts of things if only she would pass along a simple harmless message for them – and which made her words freeze in her throat long enough for Sisi to catch up with her and take her away, scolding her all the while for being too easily swayed.
It was that coldness that allowed him to continue to exchange secret letters with Wen Ruohan, stupid ones that claimed that his elder brother had gone mad to accuse another sect leader the way he had – treasonous letters, of the sort that Wen Ruohan would be able to use as blackmail if only Meng Yao wasn’t quite so sure that Nie Mingjue would listen when he explained why he was doing what he did.
If he explained. It didn’t seem necessary to burden Nie Mingjue with the knowledge of what Meng Yao was doing, not yet – not when he was already bearing so many other burdens.
Nie Huaisang had previously been uninterested in all things military, thinking of it as nothing more than more of the saber work that he hated, but Meng Yao knew that couldn’t be permitted to last, now that he was the proper heir, and so he took him in hand.
He took him to the meeting room, with all the maps and plans, and told it to him the way it needed to be told: “This stone represents twenty Wen retainers, and they’re all dead now,” he said, pointing to one of the silver pieces. “And that one’s ten Wen disciples, and they’re dead too – your brother killed them all by himself, taking them by surprise. They were all cut up into pieces, and he didn’t get a mark on him.”
“Why are you talking about the dead?” Nie Mingjue – who had in fact gotten several nasty cuts as a result of that fight, but facts weren’t relevant when weaving legends were for small children to learn viciousness from – asked, back from the frontline to gather supplies and set to go out again the next morning, rolling his eyes at them both. “It’s the living that matter.”
“I agree,” Meng Yao said placidly. “It’s the living we have to deal with. Mark da-ge’s words well, Huaisang. You always have to deal with the living, they’re far more troublesome.”
But oh, how nice it was to see your enemies dead!
(Nie Mingjue didn’t understand – but Nie Huaisang did.)
It took three solid months to finally chase out the last would-be incursion, and right around that time Lan Xichen finally got his way about coming for a visit the way he’d been insisted he be allowed to do for the entire time since Lao Nie’s death and Nie Mingjue’s confirmation as sect leader was announced.
“I don’t have time for guests,” Nie Mingjue said shortly when he found out that Meng Yao had approved Lan Xichen’s request behind his back. “Meng Yao, you deal with him; he’s here to see you, anyway.”
“Da-ge says that he needs to be kidnapped away from work,” Nie Huaisang solemnly told Lan Xichen, his beloved pretty gege, later that day, walking hand-in-hand with him through the gardens. “Or else he’ll never get a break.”
“Oh, your da-ge said that, did he,” Lan Xichen said, his eyes dancing. “Not your er-ge?”
“Huaisang, we’ve discussed this,” Meng Yao told him. “A good liar doesn’t back down at the first challenge. Don’t admit anything until you’re really cornered – or have a good excuse for why you lied.”
Lan Xichen laughed, but Nie Huaisang nodded seriously.
Meng Yao was pleased to see Lan Xichen, of course, but he had had ulterior motives: he had thought of a handful of schemes to use Lan Xichen to lure Nie Mingjue out of the sect leader’s office. It wasn’t a good place for him to be after everything that happened there – there were still bloodstains on the floor, ones that Meng Yao had caught Nie Mingjue staring dully at more often than he’d really like – and even though Meng Yao had already set up an alternative to use while they finished cleaning and redecorating, Nie Mingjue continuously claimed to be too busy to relocate even temporarily.
In the end, all his schemes turned out to be unnecessary because by the time they got back Nie Mingjue was out in the training yard for the first time in weeks, showing a solemn Lan Wangji how to jump over a saber sweep to the legs in what was mostly just an elaborate game of bunny-hops.
Lan Xichen abruptly sat down.
Right in the middle of the walkway, with dust getting all over his otherwise pristine robes, no less. Meng Yao sent Nie Huaisang back inside before squatting down next to him. “First time in a while?”
“Wangji wouldn’t sleep, wouldn’t eat; he’s barely moved since our mother died,” Lan Xichen said, staring at the training field. His eyes were wet. “He’d obey if we told him to do something, but he kept sneaking out of the house to go wait by our mother’s door, no matter how many times we told him…I only brought him with me because I thought it might do him good to be somewhere new, rather than somewhere where he couldn’t help but think of her.”
Meng Yao thought about the sect leader’s office, which if Nie Huaisang was doing his job was at that very moment being moved to its new temporary home and the old one locked to all who might try to come and insist on being let in. Even if they were the new sect leader.
“I know what you mean,” he said, and smiled wryly. “But da-ge has a way about him, doesn’t he?”
By this Meng Yao meant that Nie Mingjue had charisma in spades – he was a natural leader, causing men to instinctively listen to him despite his age, though anyway that ridiculous height of his meant that he was already as tall as a grown man and was often perceived as one even by those who knew better. No matter how soft he was inside, how torn or broken, Nie Mingjue could inspire devotion, even fascination, from others in a way few others could.
Even Meng Yao with his silver tongue couldn’t compare: he knew how to cater to people, to calm and misdirect them, to lull them into a false sense of security so that he could sneak his objectives out of them, but Nie Mingjue could ask a man to fly to the moon and they’d seriously consider giving it a try.
He was something very precious.
“Yes,” Lan Xichen said, and he sounded almost as if he were realizing that fact for the first time. “He really does.”
A month later, Nie Mingjue had to attend his first Discussion Conference as sect leader.
At least it was situated at the nice neutral Jiang sect, Meng Yao thought, but he worried the entire time Nie Mingjue was gone. It wasn’t that he wasn’t allowed to go, if he wanted, but Meng Yao knew that having him back home – safe, keeping an eye on the Unclean Realm and Nie Huaisang both – would be infinitely more helpful in keeping Nie Mingjue from stabbing someone than his advice would be.
It still killed him to do it.
To think of Nie Mingjue alone, just him and his father’s murderer and three men that didn’t care to trouble themselves enough to help him get vengeance, for hours and hours and hours –
But Meng Yao knew what he had to do.
So he waited and paced and worked himself hard enough that Nie Huaisang started using some of their well-established tricks to lure Nie Mingjue from his office on him, which was really a sign of doing too much, and in the end the Nie sect delegation came home safe and unharmed and even successful: Nie Mingjue hadn’t stabbed anyone (the low, low bar they’d set for a success), hadn’t started any fights either physical or verbal (an even higher bar), and had even managed to get the reasonable concessions they’d been hoping to push through in the negotiations regarding sect matters after all the speeches and festivities were done (a stunning achievement).
Nie Mingjue didn’t seem as happy about it as Meng Yao would have expected.
“Meng Yao,” Nie Mingjue said when Nie Huaisang was safely tucked away into bed; he must have been waiting. “A word.”
“Of course,” Meng Yao said, but still led him back to his bedroom to prepare to sleep. They could talk business as well there as they could in Nie Mingjue’s office, and this way he wouldn’t be tempted to do just a little bit more, A-Yao, just the urgent things as if there weren’t enough urgent things to drown a man in. “What happened, da-ge?”
“I received an unusual offer,” Nie Mingjue said, and the way he said it meant that Meng Yao wasn’t going to like it. “From Wen Ruohan.”
Meng Yao already didn’t like it.
“He – expressed sympathy,” oh, no, Meng Yao hated it, “and suggested that he might be willing to withdraw his claim from the western river so that we could rely on its tolls in our time of need –”
“He’s willing to withdraw his soldiers?” Meng Yao asked, honestly surprised. “His made-up claim to the river is the only thing allowing him to claim that he’s entitled to put Wen sect retainers in the sects there; if he withdraws them, they’ll all come rushing back to us to swear allegiance, and our western border would be much more secure, even if he reneges on his word later and tries to come back.”
And that, of course, meant –
“For him to put that on the trading table, he must have had an extremely offensive request,” Meng Yao said. “What was it? Half our men put down their sabers and Nie Huaisang’s head on a pike for having defeated Wen Chao in the junior calligraphy competition last year?”
That should have gotten a laugh out of Nie Mingjue, but instead he just sat down on the bed, his shoulders hunched up by his ears. “No,” he said. “He didn’t want anything from – from the sect.”
Meng Yao wasn’t stupid, and for a moment there his vision tinted red, Chiwen whispering sweet words of death in his ear: death to evil, death to those that threatened his loved ones, death to those that stood in his way.
Death to Wen Ruohan in specific.
“Da-ge,” he said, and for a moment his teeth gritted together before instinct took over and his face smoothed into a neutral expression, a faint gentle smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “You must be joking.”
Nie Mingjue’s shoulders somehow, impossibly, hunched even further up, as if he was the one who should be embarrassed by Wen Ruohan’s suggestion. “He propositioned me,” he confirmed, entirely unnecessarily.
“He tried to buy you, you mean,” Meng Yao said, and Nie Mingjue shrugged. Meng Yao’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not considering it, are you?”
“You said yourself it was a good deal,” Nie Mingjue said with a hint of stubbornness. “A shichen of discomfort and we could protect the western border for a generation, and if we can do that, we’ll have time to bulk up the rest of our defenses –”
“You cannot be serious. He killed your father!”
Nie Mingjue flinched.
“I know,” he said quietly. “But that’s my personal pain, not the sect’s, and I’m sect leader now, aren’t I? I need to do what’s good for the sect.”
“Okay,” Meng Yao said. “Fine. Then I’ll assassinate Jiang Fengmian’s son at the next Discussion Conference.”
“I’ll use a sword,” Meng Yao said. “You know how good I am at memorizing techniques; I’ve already gotten some moves from the Wen and Jin sects down pat, and no one will suspect a Nie if I’m not using a saber. In the chaos as they try to figure out who did it and what to do about it, we’ll be able to steal all sorts of benefits from the three of them. It’d be very good for the sect.”
“Meng Yao, don’t even joke about that.”
“Who said I’m joking?” Meng Yao said with a shrug. “You said it yourself – you’re a sect leader now. Why should your personal principles stand in the way of the sect’s advantage?”
“Without principles, there is no sect,” Nie Mingjue snapped. “Without principles, we may as well not be men; we would be beasts on two legs, a desecration of flesh, a waste of spirit…”
Meng Yao crossed his arms and waited.
“…and selling anybody, even myself, in order to take advantage Wen Ruohan’s offer would be a violation of my principles, too,” Nie Mingjue concluded. “I take your point.”
They sat in silence for a long moment.
“Still,” Nie Mingjue said thoughtfully, and Meng Yao turned to stare at him incredulously, “it’s kind of nice to know that I’d be really well paid for it, right? Your mother would be proud of me.”
“I’m going to strangle you,” Meng Yao said, but he was already starting to smile. Only Nie Mingjue would dare to be that tactless just to amuse – only Nie Mingjue would dream of making a joke about himself like that, with the same black humor Meng Yao and Meng Shi enjoyed most. “And you’re going to deserve it.”
“Probably,” Nie Mingjue agreed, and he was smiling back, and for a moment it felt like they weren’t sect leader and advisor any longer – just brothers, just friends.
“Yeah? I’m also going to tickle you.”
“Don’t you dare, I have a reputation to maintain –”
Nie Huaisang was really growing up quite well, in Meng Yao’s opinion.
He’d mostly recovered from the terrible fright of his father’s death, something Nie Mingjue was still struggling with – the blessings of youth, Meng Yao supposed – and he learned every single one of their mother’s tricks as if he were secretly a fox spirit, even if his commitment to saber training was still far from what Nie Mingjue might have hoped. Meng Yao feared what would happen when they unleashed him upon the world in all the best sort of ways.
Meng Shi was better now, too, with Sisi by her side: more human, Meng Yao thought, than she’d been in years. Cruelty had driven her to extremes, and it was easy for her to forget the good things that were so few among the bad, but Sisi had been kind to her when there’d been no reason to be, no advantage, and with her around Meng Yao’s mother regained a little of the joy she’d had when she was younger and still hopeful.
Some people still liked to laugh about her background, to talk about how she had been a prostitute (and worse, Jin Guangshan’s prostitute, one he hadn’t even bothered redeeming when it would have been as easy as flipping over his hand, and that in people’s minds made her his trash), but it didn’t seem to bother her as much anymore, even if it bothered the rest of them.
They each reacted to it in their own way: Nie Mingjue with a snarl and an open threat, Meng Yao with a gentle smile backed up with secret vengeance, and Nie Huaisang…well, Nie Huaisang tended to respond aloud.
“At least she could be bought,” he said to one especially arrogant young master, “unlike your mother, who couldn’t sell herself even if she tried – didn’t she have to pay for her husband?”
“Please stop fantasizing like that,” he told another. “It’s really disturbing to hear you lust after my mother so openly – and she so much older than you. Don’t you have any shame?”
“I never knew you were a spendthrift,” he said to a rich old sect leader who’d crudely offered a chest of gold for a night with her. “Imagine, spending all that much money on something that you don’t even have the ability to use – what’s even the point?”
Yes, he was growing up quite well, Meng Yao thought, happy and content, and even Nie Mingjue agreed.
Nie Mingjue was growing into himself as well, still (somehow?!) growing taller as time marched on, taller and broader still until he was a bigger man than even his father had been before him. But more important than his size was how it seemed to settle him into himself, the gawky awkwardness of adolescence fading swiftly in the figure of the man he’d become – the figure of the man he was.
Meng Yao had worried, he wouldn’t lie, about how Nie Mingjue, carefree and free-spirited and easily fooled, would handle becoming sect leader, but in the end his worries were for nothing. Nie Mingjue was a good sect leader, just as he was a good man: principled and righteous, thoughtful yet resolute, and surprisingly discerning for someone who still believed Meng Yao without question even after having seen what he did to people who underestimated him.
Though perhaps that was only because it was Meng Yao, who he trusted.
Nie Mingjue was brutally fair, never valued birth over merit, and was as exacting and just as could be hoped for – though Meng Yao liked to think that he and Nie Huaisang were the one glaring blind spot in Nie Mingjue’s harsh rules of righteousness. No matter how strict he was with others, he always spoiled them.
Indeed, spoiling them could be said to be his only hobby.
His father’s murder and eventual death had crushed the more frivolous parts out of him, and the burdens of being sect leader threatened to do the rest – Meng Yao and Nie Huaisang had had to conspire, with great difficulty, to force him to take some time out of his day to continue learning how to forge spiritual weapons, or to paint something other than talisman arrays and battlefield maps, or sometimes even, rarest of all and only on special occasions, to dance in that strange, almost hypnotic way he said was his mother’s.
Nie Mingjue had that classic Nie temper, of course, and he was prone to over-hasty judgments when that temper was roused, most especially when he felt he had been betrayed, but he was also capable of controlling it despite himself, something Lao Nie had struggled with; he was more aware of the consequences of his actions.
Maybe that’s why it came as such as surprise when he nearly destroyed their alliance with the Jin sect over mere words.
It was Meng Yao’s first Discussion Conference that he attended at Nie Mingjue’s side as his advisor, and that had been the problem. Jin Guangshan could just barely resist commenting on Meng Shi when she wasn’t around; with Meng Yao put front and center before him, he hadn’t quite managed to refrain from saying something.
Meng Yao had expected that.
He’d composed himself ahead of time, recited some of the worst things he could think of that could be said; what his father came up with by comparison was positively mild, merely some comment about being surprised that the Nie sect allowed someone like Meng Yao into good company being what he was, and it rolled off his shoulders like water off a duck’s feathers. He could lower his head and let it pass, so as to avoid making himself any more of a burden for his sect than he already was.
He’d somehow forgotten to account for Nie Mingjue’s temper.
He didn’t pull out Baxia, though Meng Yao might have wished he would have – that might have been forgiven in time. Instead, reaching for his tea, he’d only said, as casual as if he were remarking on the weather, “Yes, Meng Yao’s parentage is rather unfortunate, but luckily his mother’s traits dominated.”
Jin Guangshan choked – everyone knew who Meng Yao’s father was, after all – and in that moment of silent stewing rage, Nie Mingjue added, his tone musing, “Perhaps that was why she didn’t get along with my father that well. He could never tolerate being stepped on by anyone.”
Some unfortunate in one of the smaller sects sniggered, perhaps thinking of how clearly Nie Huaisang’s features echoed his brother’s even if they were writ on a smaller and more graceful frame, while Meng Yao’s face could only be considered in very broad strokes to be his father’s, and while they were silenced when Jin Guangshan turned to glare, the damage was done.
(Nie Huaisang had been there, sitting around and looking bored; afterwards, he’d made excuses to leave, and Meng Yao would bet serious money that half the rumors that sprung up afterwards about Jin Guangshan being unable to get it up unless he was being humiliated in bed were from his somehow impossibly dirty-minded little brother. Where he’d even gotten the idea about the one with the shoes, Meng Yao couldn’t even begin to guess…he grew up in a brothel, damnit; a spoiled young master should not have the ability to make him blush for shame!)
“You didn’t have to do that,” Meng Yao scolded him lightly, later. “You know I prefer to be underestimated.”
Nie Mingjue huffed. “I don’t interfere with your business,” he said, and most of the time he didn’t. “Father always said that if people talk about you, it’s your job to do so well that they have nothing to say, and I suppose that must be true –”
It wasn’t, but it was nice enough that Nie Mingjue really thought so that Meng Yao wasn’t going to spoil it for him.
“– but anyway you can’t expect me to leave off when he says something that can be construed as an insult to Huaisang.”
Meng Yao blinked. “To Huaisang? He was talking about me.”
Nie Mingjue rolled his eyes at him. “Meng Yao, you’re brilliant, competent and capable; you would be a shining star in any sect you chose to join. You’re so surpassingly talented that the only negative thing people can think to say about you is that you’re the son of a whore – and what does that make Huaisang?”
A recognized son of a sect leader who wanted him, Meng Yao thought, but oh, Nie Mingjue did make it hard to remain bitter. If they’d met too late, as adults, the Nie Mingjue who only survived his father’s death by shutting down so much of himself would never have presumed to say such things to him – he probably would have thought it, but he would have kept it locked inside, oyster-tight, the way he did most things these days – but Meng Yao had gotten to him early enough that there wasn’t any point in trying to keep things back; they’d long ago passed the point of etiquette.
“I appreciate your defense nonetheless,” Meng Yao said with a faint smile. “And the compliments as well – I always like to be complimented.”
“Forget compliments,” Nie Mingjue said. “Wait for the poaching.”
Meng Yao laughed, but in the end he was the one surprised: a number of sect leaders threw out hooks in his direction, incorrectly thinking that Nie Mingjue’s statement had put Meng Yao down, and most surprising of all was the pointedly casual conversation that a pair of Jin sect retainers had within hearing distance of him, clearly meant to be overheard, that suggested that an application to switch sects might not be met with such a cold reception as he would have otherwise have thought.
How he would be treated once in the sect would be a different matter, of course, but no matter how bad an idea it probably was, Meng Yao couldn’t quite help daydreaming about how it might go.
He’d never be the Jin sect heir, of course – though if he was legitimized, he supposed there was only Jin Zixuan and maybe Jin Zixun between him and the position. Even without that, though, he could shine bright enough to catch everyone’s eye, the way Nie Mingjue had said he could; he could show them all how good he was. He could make Jin Guangshan regret not having taken his mother out of that brothel, not having brought her home as a concubine, not having raised him as his own –
He could have all of Lanling Jin at his fingertips.
Then they got word that Meng Shi had fallen ill, a letter passed in by messenger, and Nie Mingjue immediately started wrapping up his business, giving orders that they would leave by sundown without even considering that finishing up the odds and ends of sect business might be more important than going to sit by the bedside of his father’s concubine, a former prostitute, a woman he had little enough reason to honor.
Meng Yao remembered that all the gold in Lanling was only a façade over their rotten hearts, and that the approval of his father was nothing to him over the well-being of his mother.
(He might have been more insistent if she had died in that brothel, he thought. It was not so hard to become fixated on power and glory when you had none, to feel it was something owed to you, to her, and to see it as a need when it was only a want – but she hadn’t, and he didn’t, and Jin Guangshan with all his riches had done less for them when they needed him than Nie Mingjue had when all he’d had was the trinkets on his body and a fierce determination that his younger brother should be born at home.)
Of course, there was one offer he couldn’t turn down.
Wen Ruohan made an effort to be subtle about it, Meng Yao would give him that much – one couldn’t deny the man was smart, smart and powerful and very good at getting even more powerful, with his only stumbling block being the fact that he was also conceited and thought that no one was as smart as he was.
A meeting was orchestrated to appear as though an accident, a few words exchanged –
Meng Yao smiled at him, letting his eyes show the warmth of future revenge, and Wen Ruohan left, satisfied that Meng Yao secretly wanted dominion but felt it was impossible with how he was situated: neither a true son of Qinghe nor a recognized son of Lanling. A perfect tool, easily understood, and with a convenient lure that was perfectly in line with Wen Ruohan’s own plans for conquering…
Everything was so going well.
Clearly disaster was about to strike, Meng Yao thought gloomily, and braced himself.
And yet, somehow – it didn’t.
Nothing happened except more of the same: Nie Mingjue’s reputation growing in leaps and bounds, winning him the title of Chifeng-zun, and Meng Yao was the shining star by his side, reputed to be clever and talented and behind many of the Nie sect’s political coups. The Wen sect made only small moves, their arrogance growing but only slowly, and despite the anticipation of war in the future, in that blissful window of peace, they were able to watch Nie Huaisang grow up.
Maybe, Meng Yao thought, looking at Nie Huaisang lazing around in the shade shouting encouragement at the men training rather than joining in himself, maybe the world didn’t need two monsters like him.
Maybe he could do it all himself.
When Nie Huaisang was old enough to attend the lectures at the Cloud Recesses for what would prove to be the first of three times – they’d only planned to send him the once, when the right time came, but circumstances and an unusually uneasy border conspired to need them to send him early, and Nie Huaisang gamely volunteered to do so badly at his lessons that they’d have no choice but to take him back, as if he weren’t more-than-likely to get that result even if he were trying given that he was too busy using his brain for all sorts of other things – Meng Yao and Nie Mingjue made a point of coming in person to drop him off and pick him up.
The first time, Nie Mingjue loudly scolded Nie Huaisang about needing to do well, while Meng Yao hung around his shoulder with a worried expression that suggested he thought the entire thing was causing the Nie sect to lose face, and then they went to the hanshi to visit Lan Xichen and only just barely managed to hurry through the door before Nie Mingjue started laughing.
“It was a good idea,” Meng Yao scolded him, while Lan Xichen laughed into his sleeve in confused sympathy even though he had no idea what was so funny. “It’s going to work, mark my words.”
“I know, I know, it’s only – his face –”
Nie Huaisang had in fact been perhaps slightly overselling the ‘poor terrified younger brother who’s going to make a terrible fool of himself’ shtick.
Meng Yao’s lips twitched. “I understand that some exaggeration is common in beginning actors.”
“Huaisang can lie to my face without blinking an eye,” Nie Mingjue retorted, “and you taught him that. You were doing that on purpose. Both of you!”
They had been.
“Some points need to be driven home,” Meng Yao allowed. “Not everyone understands subtlety.”
“Do I want to know?” Lan Xichen put in, looking back and forth between them with a smile.
“We’re trying to get people to underestimate Huaisang,” Meng Yao explained. “And to think that he and da-ge aren’t as close as they are. As a matter of strategy.”
“Someone tried to kidnap him,” Nie Mingjue said, his laughter dying off. “He’s too young to defend himself, too independent to feel comfortable being guarded…Meng Yao proposed a middle path.”
“One that takes advantage of his already existing skillset,” Meng Yao put in.
“If by skillset you mean total inability to recall things he doesn’t care about.”
“I do, as it happens. It’s actually rather impressive how thoroughly facts flow out of his head like water, unless they’re about fans, or art, or – ”
“ – other things like that.”
“He’s going to fail your uncle’s classes,” Nie Mingjue told Lan Xichen bluntly. “He was probably going to fail them anyway, but now it’s certain.”
Lan Xichen’s smile had faded as well, and he nodded. “I wish you did not have to make such calculations.”
“I wish your uncle were willing to make more of them,” Nie Mingjue said with a sigh. He did not mention Lan Xichen’s father, the nominal sect leader; the man hadn’t been seen in years and likely wouldn’t be for the rest of his life. “Even outside of wanting to make sure no one uses him as a bargaining chip against me, I don’t want anyone getting the idea that Huaisang is a younger and more vulnerable version of me.”
Anyone like Wen Ruohan, he meant, and Meng Yao didn’t have the heart to tell him that Wen Ruohan’s obsession with him was still startlingly personal. He’d had to see it again and again during the Discussion Conferences, all the little liberties Wen Ruohan enjoyed taking: sitting too close when possible, stroking his hand with his thumb while passing him a document, all but openly leering at him…
The other sect leaders pretended they didn’t notice, except only Lan Qiren who scowled helplessly whenever it got a bit too blatant – though Meng Yao suspected he might have mistaken the harassment as being mutual flirtation, which was somehow very nearly worse.
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Lan Xichen promised. “Can you two stay for a while, or will the Unclean Realm collapse if you don’t return at once?”
Nie Mingjue smiled. He didn’t do that often anymore, and the effect of it had somehow – in some grotesque, unfortunate twist of the universe – only magnified; Meng Yao’s sole consolation was that Lan Xichen seemed as stunned by it as him. “I think we can manage to stay for a little while, just to make sure Huaisang is on the right track.”
They didn’t really have that excuse when they came to pick him up, but Lan Xichen found them a supposedly private place with really great acoustics and Nie Mingjue got to use his battlefield voice to shout at Nie Huaisang in such a way that everyone heard, without the benefit of seeing the increasingly ridiculous faces Nie Huaisang was making in response.
After that, even Lan Qiren had delicately suggested that they stay a few days longer, quite obviously meant to allow Nie Mingjue some time to cool off his temper before a long flight home, and they’d wisely stayed with Lan Xichen the entire time to allow Nie Huaisang to go dramatically lick his wounds where everyone would be able to hear about it.
After all, Nie Mingjue’s ability to keep straight face was good, but not that good.
The second time they came to visit, they also didn’t have any excuse, but Lan Xichen asked them to stay longer anyway, looking very serious, so they did.
He took them to a secluded field and plied them with treats and started in on the small talk and the disclaimers to the point that Meng Yao – who was very good at this sort of thing, but couldn’t stand the increasing distress on Nie Mingjue’s face at the unexpected barrage of excessive politeness – finally interrupted and said, “If there’s something you’d like to tell us, Xichen-xiong, please do.”
Lan Xichen looked uncertain, so Meng Yao added, “Before da-ge explodes.”
Lan Xichen glanced over at Nie Mingjue and snorted with involuntary laughter at his woeful expression. “I’m sorry. I’m nervous, that’s all.”
“That,” Nie Mingjue said, “is what’s making me nervous. Are you trying to break some sort of bad news to us?”
“No! No, not at all – at least, I hope it’s not bad. It might even be good.”
“And it is..?” Meng Yao prompted, amused. The behavior was classic Lan, for all that he wasn’t sure exactly what Lan Xichen was thinking about that had put him on edge to such a degree – one would think, looking at him, that he was about to confess his affections, rather than chatting with his friends.
The two, it turned out, were one and the same.
“Wait,” Nie Mingjue said, interrupting about halfway through the somewhat overly flowery and abstruse speech. “You like both of us?”
“I do,” Lan Xichen said. “Very much.”
Meng Yao’s mind was racing and his breath was a little short: for once in his life he didn’t know how to reach or think or feel or anything.
Because Lan Xichen remained just what Meng Yao had always thought he was, kind and generous, a gentleman, perfect, just what anyone could ever want, someone Meng Yao secretly did want but couldn’t have because it would mean leaving the Unclean Realm, leaving Nie Mingjue, and he couldn’t do that.
Because actually he really had started to get worried that Lan Xichen liked Nie Mingjue the way Nie Mingjue so very obviously liked him back because if he did then there really wasn’t anything Meng Yao could say to oppose it other than but you’re mine and it wouldn’t just be about Lan Xichen, either, but of course that wouldn’t work because they were brothers, though not by blood; that meant it would be wrong and Nie Mingjue didn’t do the wrong thing.
Because he’d never, for all his cleverness, thought of asking for both, because he couldn’t have both.
He couldn’t even have one.
“I thought you liked Meng Yao,” Nie Mingjue said blankly, and Meng Yao felt a shiver of fear crawl up his spine: had Nie Mingjue only been holding back from pursuing Lan Xichen because of consideration for Meng Yao?
“I do. I just like you, too.”
“What are you proposing, exactly?” Meng Yao asked, and he only barely kept his voice even. “Would we trade off visits, perhaps? Set up a schedule?”
Lan Xichen blinked at him. “Why would you need to trade off visits? I had thought we could spend time together, as we’ve always done.”
Meng Yao wondered if there was a polite way to talk about the difficulties of having threesomes in which two parties didn’t touch with someone from the ever-repressed Lan sect. It wasn’t that he didn’t want Lan Xichen, he did, but he might actually die of jealousy if he had to watch him make love to Nie Mingjue, knowing that he could only touch the one and not the other.
“I thought the same might be true for love,” Lan Xichen said, with only the tightness of his hands in front of him revealing his nervousness now. “If you two would be willing to accept me, that is – I would never presume to interfere with your love for each other.”
Oh, no. Meng Yao was going to have to explain this, and then he would die.
A pity. It’d been a pretty decent life, as they went.
“Xichen,” Nie Mingjue hissed, his cheeks bright red, and Meng Yao already knew what he would say: that it was incest, legally speaking, even if they were not related by blood; that he thought of Meng Yao only as a little brother; that he’d never thought of it once, that it was disgusting, that he – “That was shared in confidence!”
Meng Yao blinked. His mind, which had never once stopped moving, seemed to be unable to function.
“But Mingjue-xiong, it’s important –”
“But he doesn’t – I don’t want him to feel like – ” Nie Mingjue’s eyes flickered over to him, panicked, and Meng Yao recognized it from what was now over a decade earlier, that nervousness and anxiety that was all for Meng Yao’s sake, a fear that he would feel like a stranger, unwanted, that he would think that he had to pay something for all that he had received, when all Nie Mingjue had ever wanted was his happiness.
“I think this plan of yours will work,” Meng Yao said to Lan Xichen, suddenly calm.
Calm, and very, very happy.
They both stared at him, and Meng Yao smiled. “I like you,” he said to Lan Xichen, and then, to Nie Mingjue, “I like you, too.”
Words didn’t exist that defined exactly what he felt for Nie Mingjue, something so far beyond love that it went into possessiveness and had come out the other side as liking; he wasn’t anywhere near there with Lan Xichen yet, had never allowed himself to go there with Lan Xichen because he knew his heart had already been taken, but they’d made a decent start and he thought they could get there, one day.
“I think you like him, too,” he told his da-ge, who’d always been bad at categorizing his own emotions and would definitely have no idea that he might have feelings for the childhood friend he’d allowed to grow nearly as close as his own family. “And – me, as well.”
“Meng Yao –”
“I don’t think of it as an obligation, or as something to endured,” Meng Yao continued, not letting him have a chance to speak. Not for the first time, he cursed Wen Ruohan in his mind: he ought to have considered the damage Wen Ruohan’s relentless pursuit had wrought on Nie Mingjue’s view of romantic relationships; it wasn’t really a surprise that even the whiff of a suggestion that consent might be questionable would send him fleeing. “But rather as a gift that I have been honored to be given.”
Nie Mingjue seemed almost dumbstruck by his words, although the fear in his eyes was slowly receding – still wary, but now with the possibility of joy. “I didn’t – it’s not – I don’t feel that way about Huaisang or anything. It’s just you.” A glance at Lan Xichen. “Both of you.”
“You never said anything,” Meng Yao teased lightly, and reached out a hand to hold Lan Xichen’s, squeezing it in gratitude for his bravery. Lan Xichen squeezed back, looking increasingly delighted at the way things were going.
“I couldn’t,” Nie Mingjue said, expression solemn. “I’m older, taller, stronger, with a temper I can’t always control; my political position is stronger, sect leader as opposed to a sect heir and an advisor. It would not be easy to say no –”
As if they couldn’t blow Nie Mingjue around like a paper lantern – he, who folded like a stack of cards at their every request.
“– and any consequences from a relationship would be borne by you. I could not bear to cause either of you pain.”
Lan Xichen, whose uncle would never approve of his having fallen in love with someone inappropriate; Meng Yao, who the world would whisper was just like his mother – yes, Meng Yao could see the problem, and the problem was only magnified by the fact that Nie Mingjue liked them both. How could Nie Mingjue accept Lan Xichen, when Meng Yao was in his heart? How could he speak to Meng Yao, who owed him everything, in a way that would let him know that the response was sincere? And of course if he let them be together instead, he was not so good an actor that they would be able to avoid all the problems associated with that; no matter what they did, there would always be rumors that one or another might be stolen away –
The plan blossomed to life in Meng Yao’s mind, fully formed.
He turned it around in his head a few times, only half-listening to Lan Xichen’s passionate declaration that it was pain he was willing to bear for love, his explanation that he knew that he was not yet in either of their hearts the way they were for each other, that he was only asking for the opportunity to try, but in the end he really couldn’t see any flaws with the idea at all. It would work perfectly with everything he’d already established, the groundwork years in the making, and no one would have any reason to question it.
It would be easy enough to convince Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen that it made more sense for the public aspects of their romance to start with Meng Yao and Lan Xichen – perhaps he could stay longer at the Cloud Recesses, which Nie Mingjue could not, or find some reason to come alone when the time came to pick up Nie Huaisang. He could make his smiles wider, his eyes more shining, paint himself as the perfect picture of a man in love – it’d be easy, given that he was already halfway there.
And when the time came, perhaps next year when all the other sect heirs came for their turn at the famous lectures of the Cloud Recesses, when Nie Mingjue took his turn at being the one who was affectionate, the entire world would think that Nie Mingjue had stolen Lan Xichen away from Meng Yao.
The entire world –
And Wen Ruohan, too.
It was the perfect plan.
Everyone did believe that Meng Yao had been robbed in love. It even got to the point that Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen – both somehow taken by surprise by it, he had no idea how, given that it was so obviously the result he was aiming for – spent a great deal of time behind doors trying to make sure Meng Yao didn’t feel bad about it, which was very nice, if unnecessary, of them.
He assured them that he didn’t mind the gossip at all, but, well, if they were offering to spoil him…
More importantly, Wen Ruohan believed it, too, just as he’d hoped, and his belief that Meng Yao belonged to him was shored up to the point of being nigh-unbreakable, just as Meng Yao had intended. His comments on the subject, made in a small break during a Discussion Conference when Nie Mingjue was enduring a lecture from Lan Qiren, were sticky sweet and suffocating and revolting to the point that it tested even Meng Yao’s well-practiced façade.
Interestingly enough, Wen Ruohan didn’t seem to be jealous of the relationship, or even to mind its existence, as Meng Yao would have expected given his now years-long obsession. Unfortunately, he also didn’t stop his usual antics – which probably formed part of the basis for Lan Qiren’s lecture, come to think of it. He seemed to regard it as little more than a childish lark, a passing whim scarcely worth noticing; as if it didn’t matter what Nie Mingjue did because he knew, or thought he knew, how everything would end.
It was, Meng Yao reflected, the sort of thing that would drive a lesser man up the wall with rage.
Wen Ruohan did express a mild curiosity as to how far things between Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen had gone, but luckily was just barely self-aware enough not to ask the supposedly jilted Meng Yao to find out more details for him.
As a result, Meng Yao was able to nod along with his recruitment speech without having to swallow back too much bile.
“You’ve always been very kind to me, Sect Leader Wen,” he said, his voice as sincere as he could make it. “I find that I’m often overlooked, given my status, though of course Sect Leader Nie’s needs must come first…”
“That is not necessarily true,” Wen Ruohan hummed. “You are just as worthy as he, with as many needs; are you not human, too? Why should you be the one overlooked?”
“Qinghe Nie values strength of arms,” Meng Yao demurred. “And mine is – lacking. There can be no comparison.”
“It must be difficult to be somewhere where you don’t fit in,” Wen Ruohan said sympathetically, as if he had any notion of such a thing. “Especially when you know there are places where you would fit in much better, if only you had a chance.”
Meng Yao heaved a sigh. “I have long ago given up hope of – other places,” he said, dropping obvious hints with his body language that the hope was merely dashed, not gone. “One should be content with one’s place.”
“Never be content with anything,” Wen Ruohan told him, his own voice slightly more sincere than usual, and it might be the only honest thing the man had ever said to him. His own personal motto, no doubt. He dropped his hand on Meng Yao’s shoulder. “Perhaps you should make more time for yourself – there are some areas in Qishan where you could go night-hunting to earn some glory, and I think you would find the game there to your liking. Especially, oh, around the end of the month?”
Meng Yao allowed himself a small victorious smile, and let Wen Ruohan think that he had convinced him that he had wanted the recruitment all along – a perfect catch, after years of setting out lures.
“That sounds like an excellent suggestion,” he said, and even meant it. “My skills have grown rusty, staying in the office so much…though I only fear I do not know the way. You know that Sect Leader Nie does not trust me at the border.”
He did, of course, but what would be the point of sending him there? Meng Yao’s skill was in logistics and management; while that was useful in active battle it would be utterly wasted in patrolling their well-armed borders to help pep up morale. But it was easy enough to make it appear to be a slight.
“You are capable of doing anything you put your mind to,” Wen Ruohan said encouragingly. “But you are right in acknowledging limits, and should not fear to turn to – capable guidance, when you find difficulty in finding your own way.”
Meng Yao lowered his eyes, full of triumph – for real, this time. “I am honored that Sect Leader Wen is willing to instruct me.”
Wen Ruohan patted him on the shoulder again, then went off his own way. Meng Yao turned to do the same, and abruptly saw Lan Wangji standing in the distance, looking out a window at the sky; it gave him a start, wondering if the younger man had seen. Hopefully not, or at least he’d hopefully know to keep his mouth shut – Meng Yao would have to go feel him out later.
The work never ended, he thought to himself with a sigh, and returned to Nie Mingjue’s side before his sect leader broke something trying to keep his mouth shut while talking to Lan Xichen’s uncle about righteous conduct, a subject on which the Lan sect seemed to think they had the final say and on which Nie sect principles were wildly and fundamentally different.
(Lan Wangji seemed to act the same as always when Meng Yao talked to him later – which was to say, virtually expressionless except for whatever it was that Lan Xichen claimed he could read in his posture, and still hilariously distractable with news of Wei Wuxian, who he’d met for all of a few months during the lessons in the Cloud Recesses that Nie Huaisang had finally passed – and that was a relief. The less Meng Yao had to think about what he was doing when he wasn’t actively doing it, the better.)
Getting permission – and publicly – to go out night-hunting was easy enough, since Nie Mingjue actively enjoyed slaughtering evil beasts for the good of mankind and thought that everyone else did too; he only needed to casually mention that it had been a while since he’d had time to go out to stretch his legs and Nie Mingjue immediately suggested that he go out on a night-hunt.
Convincing him not to come along with was slightly more difficult, especially when he mentioned that he’d heard some whispers of a demonic presence near the border with Qishan – Wen Ruohan was certainly demonic enough, in Meng Yao’s opinion – but with his position it wasn’t difficult to juggle the paperwork schedule to ensure that there was far, far too much work for Nie Mingjue to accompany him.
Arranging that Lan Xichen come to visit shortly before he left was an extra perk that Meng Yao included for both of them – for himself, getting to spend a wonderful day in the presence of someone infinitely more relaxing than Nie Mingjue, and for Nie Mingjue, getting to spend time on paperwork with someone infinitely more sympathetic than Meng Yao, who truly enjoyed the process of comparing long lists of received goods with each other to see if something was missing.
He’d miss Lan Xichen’s departure due to his night-hunt, but that was good, too – him going off to an atypical night-hunt would be understood by the majority of the cultivation world as a huffy retreat to avoid having to see his former lover and his superior together, and no one would think twice about it.
Once it was all set up, it was only a matter of waiting.
Wen Ruohan was confident in him, Meng Yao knew, and rightfully so: if he’d really been the person he’d been displaying in his presence since childhood, Wen Ruohan’s tricks would have snared him without question. A fool with an endless pit in his heart, greedy for affection and too stupid to be able to realize that no amount of glory would satisfy that greed, cunning but having no heart to see the bigger picture…dumb enough to agree to go meet Wen Ruohan, but smart enough to demand a measure of trust before he did.
A measure of trust – like the guide he’d insisted on.
Like the identity of whoever it was that had been so-cleverly dropping off all those letters, over all those years. Whoever it was had to have a considerable position in the Unclean Realm since the time Lao Nie had been in charge, and corrupted by Wen Ruohan since way back then; someone who had the freedom of the interior parts of the fortress, someone trusted, with good enough martial arts to avoid being spotted even when Meng Yao was specifically looking to identify them.
He’d run some tests and confirmed to his satisfaction that it seemed to be the same person each time, so there was only one high-level spy he needed to be concerned about – there were others, of course, but Meng Yao knew about those, and what he knew he could manage.
Or, well, Nie Zonghui could manage, he supposed. Nie Zonghui was technically the one in charge of managing personnel, or at least he was whenever he wasn’t stuck on some type of body-guarding duty – while they hadn’t shared classes due to the age gap between them, Nie Zonghui being older, Meng Yao knew that they’d had all the same ones, preparing them for much the same role. Between the two of them as advisors, Nie Zonghui was better suited for fighting and advising on situations involving imminent death, and they'd generally divided the work accordingly, but he was more than competent enough at managing spies and Meng Yao had handed the job off to him with great satisfaction. It worked very well.
Well, as long as Nie Zonghui didn’t turn out to be the traitor, anyway.
Meng Yao sincerely hoped he wasn’t. Nie Zonghui’s hobby was learning saber forms, and he spent all his free time on it to the point that he made Nie Mingjue’s training schedule look reasonable – Nie Mingjue was still the more powerful of the two, but only because he had ridiculously high cultivation for someone his age.
(That high cultivation had made his position as sect leader secure and allowed him to earn a name and a title and respect throughout the cultivation world, but Meng Yao wasn’t the only one that worried about how Nie sect cultivators died of qi deviation once they got too powerful. But Nie Mingjue was fairly stable for the moment, despite his rapid advancement, and Lan Xichen had devoted himself to trying to find a way to keep it that way – Meng Yao thought he might allow himself some room to hope.)
It turned out that the traitor wasn’t Nie Zonghui.
It was Wu Bixian, one of the army commanders, which was not quite as bad but only slightly.
Wu Bixian was from a smaller sect very close to Qinghe, a part of the Nie clan by marriage to one of the closer cousins. He was a good warrior, a tolerable commander, and had once had the occasion to save Lao Nie’s life in their youth together – he had been in a position of trust for a long time. He was wealthy, in the way most members of the Nie sect were with the sect’s treasury at their back and night-hunts to their name (Nie Mingjue’s comment as a child that the money ran free and easy once you started night-hunting wasn’t wrong) and he had a good wife, a few children, a saber of his own, moderately strong cultivation that was slowly gaining in strength…He had never shown any interest in acquiring more power than he had, no lust for domination, nothing like that.
He seemed content.
He was one of the ones that made snide comments about Meng Yao’s mother and had initially tried to refuse to take Meng Yao’s orders, even the ones that came straight from Nie Mingjue, until Nie Mingjue had personally told him to cut it out or else accept a demotion in favor of someone who could follow orders, but given how early the letters had started landing on Meng Yao’s desk, his betrayal must have happened far earlier than that incident and could not be the inciting factor.
Meng Yao had no idea what sort of things Wen Ruohan had offered to turn him, but whatever it was, he hoped Wu Bixian had enjoyed it while it lasted because he was going to kill him.
“It is kind of Commander Wu to take time out of his day to assist me,” he murmured, lowering his eyes to hide his rage even as his voice remained sweet and gentle.
“Sect Leader Nie wanted to make sure you were safe,” Wu Bixian said, and for half a second there Meng Yao wondered if it had been some sort of terrible miscommunication because he could see Nie Mingjue doing that, but then Wu Bixian continued, “I thought it would be good for someone like you to have a proper guide to teach you.”
If he had used anything like that language around Nie Mingjue, he wouldn’t have been allowed to come help, and that meant that Wu Bixian was in fact the right contact.
“I will follow in your footsteps,” Meng Yao said, still playing cautious. He saw a smirk steal over the other man’s face, smug and arrogant, and they left without another word between them.
With Commander Wu with him, finding a place to cross the territory line into Qishan without being spotted was easy – and worrisome, of course – and it wasn’t long before they arrived at the forest glade where Wen Ruohan was waiting for them.
His retainers had already set up a place for them to take tea, with him sitting above and them below, and even his traveling chair resembled the throne to which Wen Ruohan believed himself to be entitled.
Before they left the woods, Wu Bixian elbowed Meng Yao in the side, hard. “None of the backtalk you sometimes give Sect Leader Nie,” he instructed. “You ought to count yourself as very lucky that Sect Leader Wen has come himself to meet with you – he puts a high priority on the affairs of Qinghe Nie.”
That meant that Wu Bixian thought himself better than Wen Ruohan’s other spies in other territories, which were probably only good enough to report to a Wen disciple, or maybe Wen Xu if they were especially prominent.
Arrogance was good. Meng Yao could use arrogance.
He knelt in front of Wen Ruohan, giving him the deference he longed for – he’d only ever knelt to Nie Mingjue once, when he’d sworn an oath to him as part of becoming an official disciple of the Nie sect, and it had been outrageously awkward for them both – and Wen Ruohan smiled.
“You made a wise choice,” he said. “Qinghe Nie will not remain standing and independent for much longer. Only those that realize the truth will have a chance to influence the future.”
“Sect Leader Wen’s strength is undeniable,” Meng Yao said, because his mother taught him how to say the words that men wanted to hear. His mother as she used to be, before Sisi came back into her life and made her happy – his mother, who now spent some time being mistress of Qinghe, some time traveling, some time merely visiting other places with Sisi at her side; his mother, who asked him if he was happy with Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen, who accepted his answer and sought to aid him as much as she could; his mother, who loved him, well if not always wisely. “I do not wish to be on a sinking boat when I could join the rising tide.”
There was a bit more of that, mostly mutual ego-stroking and puffery, but finally Wen Ruohan got to the point: “What is it that you want?”
“My rightful inheritance,” Meng Yao said, because it was the safest thing to ask for. He didn’t really care if Wen Ruohan got rid of Jin Guangshan, after all, and Nie Huaisang’s reports hadn’t been especially positive in regards to Jin Zixuan – Wen Ruohan would probably just disinherit him in favor of Meng Yao, and leave him alive to cause Meng Yao too many problems to have time to rebel. And it was much safer than asking for anything else. “The venerable Sect Leader Wen is above such petty matters as gossip, of course, but he undoubtedly already knows…my father…”
“The Jin sect is a pearl of great value,” Wen Ruohan said lazily. “Do you think your service can justify such a reward?”
“I am sure of it,” Meng Yao said, full of confidence.
“And there’s nothing else you want?”
Meng Yao hesitated, having not anticipated that question the way he had others, and Wen Ruohan laughed to see him. “I told you before not to be content,” he said with a smile Meng Yao did not trust. “You have chosen wisely to trust in the power of the sun, and in the heat of its rays, from the ashes of the old ways, too stiff in their rules to change, you will be rewarded with your heart’s desire.”
Meng Yao smiled. “I await your excellency’s benevolence with eagerness, to give me light where I have been blind.”
He bowed and took his leave, heading back to Qinghe with the heads of some fierce corpses to show as the results of his hunt – Wen Ruohan was thoughtful, in some ways – and left Wu Bixian behind to discuss further matters to which Meng Yao was still too new to hear: an excellent people management stratagem to whet Meng Yao’s jealousy of Wu Bixian’s position, while also assuaging any concerns Wu Bixian had regarding his primacy.
The second he was out of sight, he pulled Chiwen out of the qiankun pouch he’d tucked into his sleeve – sabers generally disliked small places like that, but Chiwen had always been extremely understanding of the indignities one had to suffer to achieve greatness – and threw him down, leaping on top of him and hurrying forward at break-neck speed, and even so he only just barely managed to catch Lan Wangji before he disappeared back into the woods.
(He hadn’t realized that Lan Wangji was suspicious at first, despite him having coming willingly to the Unclean Realm alongside Lan Xichen and being even less social than usual; it wasn’t until that very morning, when he’d murmured some denial about having plans for the day – and Lan Wangji always had plans for the day – that Meng Yao had realized that he might need to keep an eye out for a tail.)
Lan Wangji was stiff as a board, his hand already sliding to Bichen on his waist; Meng Yao ignored it.
“You need to go back to the Cloud Recesses,” he said. “As soon as possible.”
Lan Wangji paused. “Why?”
“Because Wen Ruohan is going to burn it down,” Meng Yao said flatly. “The Lan sect doesn’t have the ability to stop him, but if you go now, you can pack away your sect’s most valued treasures and hide them away somewhere safe before they do.”
“Why?” Lan Wangji asked again, still wary, only this time he meant why are you telling me this.
“Because you have to make sure Lan Xichen isn’t there,” Meng Yao said. “He’ll hate it and he’ll fight having to run away with every ounce of will he has, but he can’t be there – or else everything will be so much worse.”
“Sect Leader Wen told you?”
“He all but promised me Lan Xichen as a prize for my cooperation.” Lan Wangji flinched, and Meng Yao nodded grimly. “Make sure he has a safe place to go. The Nie sect will come to your aid, nominally, but the real purpose will be to make it seems as though the Wen sect has defeated two Great Sects in one blow – it will be devastating to the morale of the smaller sects, and convince many of them to just give in to Wen domination rather than fight back...listen, come up with whatever reason you have to in order to convince them, but don't explain where you learned of the information. You understand?”
Lan Wangji nodded slowly. “You plan to spy.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Meng Yao said, because he was far beyond planning at this point. But he knew, as Lan Wangji might not, that the elders of the Lan sect would never listen to Sect Leader Jin's bastard son or Sect Leader Nie's aide, so recently jilted in love - they weren't like Nie Mingjue or Lan Xichen, who would understand. “Listen, empty the Library Pavilion in advance, wait until they’ve started burning the other buildings, and then set fire to it yourself. If you defend it as if it’s full, maybe you can convince the Wen sect that they’ve done more damage than they really have.”
He shook his head – he’d been hoping to have more time, but the winds of war always came more swiftly than hoped. “Good luck, travel fast, and above all tell no one.”
Nie Mingjue was fond of saying that all plans ended when the battle began, and all things left to chance would immediately default to the worst possible option, and Meng Yao found the statement to be true: it went from bad to worse almost immediately.
They received an invitation, if one could call it that, demanding that they send a direct disciple of the junior generation to the Nightless City for what was euphemistically called ‘education’ – and of course the only direct disciples of any generation were Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang, respectively, Meng Yao having become a regular disciple the way all the cousins were. And since obviously Nie Mingjue couldn’t go, that meant –
They were going to have to send Nie Huaisang.
Nie Mingjue, of course, was of the view that the only choices for a response were between “fuck you” and “fuck you and your mother”, but even he knew they weren’t actually ready for a full-fledged war with the Wen sect. For all their careful years of preparation, a war machine took time to get going; they would need to buy time to consolidate their efforts and to build a wall that the Wen sect would not be able to breach.
“They probably won’t slaughter us all at once, all of us from all the sects,” Nie Huaisang said, his fingers nervously running up and down his fan. “Right?”
Meng Yao nodded, and Nie Huaisang’s shoulders relaxed a little. “Well at least they won’t make me practice saber too much,” he offered, trying to lighten the mood.
“You’re not taking your saber,” Nie Mingjue snapped, and even Meng Yao turned to stare at him at that. “They’ll seize every sword and saber the second you walk in, claiming to keep it until you’ve done well enough to earn them back – that’s fine for the other clans, since their swords aren’t spiritual weapons the way our sabers are, but as far as I’m concerned no Nie saber will ever voluntarily enter the hands of the Wen sect. Go to the forges and have them remake a practice saber to look like Aituan; you can take that instead, and if they ask questions about why you don’t wield it right, pretend it’s your weak cultivation.”
It was a good idea, actually, albeit one that Meng Yao wished hadn’t been said in front of Wu Bixian, but luckily there wasn’t much of a window between receiving the Wen sect’s demand and receiving the Lan sect’s urgent cry for help – as anyone might have expected, Nie Mingjue immediately abandoned all reason and insisted on going there personally to help.
“If you must go, take only a small force; we can do the most good where we can be most helpful, while still fooling the Wen sect into thinking we are weak and unprepared,” Wu Bixian advised, and Nie Mingjue scowled at him, dislike of the idea written all over his face, but then Meng Yao spoke up in favor of that approach as well, and Nie Mingjue listened to him as he always did.
Sometimes Meng Yao wished he wouldn’t.
By the time they arrived, the Library Pavilion was alight, as were any number of other buildings; Meng Yao only hoped that Lan Wangji had managed to get the rest of his sect to believe his message in time to do some good.
He hoped Lan Xichen was nowhere nearby – that he had escaped.
That he didn’t have to see this happen to his beloved home.
Nie Mingjue was barking out orders left and right, Meng Yao darting around to try to make himself useful – Chiwen could be used to fight, of course, and often was, but Meng Yao knew his strengths; he was better off flying around to help direct or rescue people, especially since he could always pick up an extra sword lying around to fight with, utilizing Wen or Jin or even Jiang and Lan styles that he’d picked up over time.
He killed some, commanded others…he hated it.
He hated war.
How had Nie Mingjue dealt with this? While Meng Yao sat at home, devising logistics with a cold and unfeeling eye, Nie Mingjue put himself in each battlefield, Baxia at his side, wading through the blood and muck to win victory for them…
When Meng Yao got home, he would have to do something very nice for him to show his appreciation.
Meng Yao figured that would be it, that they’d get out as many people as they could before being forced to retreat – the Wen sect forces were even larger than he’d anticipated, and he’d anticipated being vastly overwhelmed – but somewhere in the smoke and ash and screams Wu Bixian found him and grabbed him by the elbow.
“Come with me,” he said. “We have a limited amount of time.”
“To do what?” Meng Yao demanded, sick and tired of Wu Bixian and figuring that the heat of battle would serve as an explanation for his uncharacteristic vehemence. “What’s left to do? The Wen sect will be victorious beyond telling: the Lan sect has largely fled where they can, Lan Wangji has already been captured – they broke his leg –”
No Lan Xichen in sight, though, and Meng Yao could only hope that he was safe, wherever he was.
“The second young master Lan is a worthy prize, but there are even better ones,” Wu Bixian said. “How long can Qinghe refuse to bow before Qishan Wen if it has no master to lead it?”
Meng Yao’s back went cold. “Now? You must be mad; you can’t capture Nie Mingjue here. There are a million pathways in and out of the Cloud Recesses, now that the wards have come down – even if you did catch him, he’d only escape, and then where would you be? Your cover blown, with nothing to show for it –”
“I’m the one in charge of this task,” Wu Bixian snapped, his voice taut with tension. “Your role is just to listen and obey –”
“You mean you’re messing up this task. If Sect Leader Wen wanted him captured here, he would have come up with a better plan –”
Wu Bixian laughed. It was an ugly sound, sneering, and Meng Yao stopped at once, hearing it. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to,” Wu Bixian said. “You want to save him up so that you can use him later, don’t you? You want to trade him in for a reward. You know what Sect Leader Wen wants…”
And so do you, Meng Yao thought, and everything took on a tint of red in a way that suggested that Chiwen’s rage was starting to seep back the wrong way through their bond, their rage becoming one in a way that was highly dangerous. You know – no. You knew. You’ve always known.
Somehow Meng Yao had deceived himself into thinking that Wu Bixian must not have known about Wen Ruohan’s abnormal interest in Nie Mingjue, that he had been corrupted by a desire for power or riches or something like that, but that he hadn’t really known.
Wu Bixian was one of the previous generation, one of Lao Nie’s contemporaries; he married in before Nie Mingjue was even born. He would have seen him grow up, known him as the child he had been and the man he’d grown up into, and despite all of that he knew what Wen Ruohan wanted, knew and didn’t care, and maybe he had even aided and abetted some of the incidents that Meng Yao had had to so strain himself to interrupt or misdirect or stop.
“Well, I won’t have it,” Wu Bixian said, and bared his teeth. “You won’t get the chance to sell him. Qinghe Nie won’t be disgraced like that! It deserves better than that – better than that abomination that has been taking up the seat of sect leader. I told Lao Nie when he was born to put him aside, strangle him in his crib before he had a chance to bring shame upon us, but he wouldn’t listen –”
Meng Yao actually took a step backwards from sheer shock. “What are you talking about?”
He’d always known there were nasty things said about Nie Mingjue behind his back, mostly comments about him having been raised without a mother or just the usual cruel things that people say about children they have reason to dislike, but he’d never heard anyone call Nie Mingjue an abomination.
That was a word for people like him, sons of whores too poor to command their own fate, not for true-born sons of the gentry –
Not for Nie Mingjue.
Wu Bixian sneered at him. “They covered up the horoscope as best as they could, but they couldn’t hide his face, that ridiculous height or that even more ridiculous talent – look at you, you’re surprised. You thought Sect Leader Wen wanted him for something as simple as lust?”
“What does his height have to do with anything?” Meng Yao asked, utterly at sea. He could see jealousy over his talent, even envy for his features, but Wu Bixian wasn’t jealous. He was – he was protective, he saw Nie Mingjue as a threat to the Nie sect, the fervor of the converted burning in his eyes. “I don’t –”
“He’s a furnace,” Wu Bixian said, and Meng Yao took another step backwards, the shock expelling the breath from him as effectively as a hit to the stomach. “A yang furnace, as opposed to the more common yin furnace you find in women, but a furnace is a furnace, in the end; he was born for dual cultivation, and that’s all he’ll ever be good for. All of that talent, all of that cultivation, what’s the point? It won’t do him any good; it’ll all belong to the man or men that claim him – why do you think Sect Leader Wen has been so patient all these years? The occasional impatience aside, he’s been waiting for him to grow ripe like a farmer waiting for the harvest.”
He laughed, his voice harsh. “Well, I won’t have it. I won’t see my Nie sect disgraced like that, with the whole world knowing that our ‘leader’ will be eking out the rest of his miserable existence on his knees or his back for whoever’s come to take advantage – it was one thing when he was younger, when he would have only been disgraced and cast aside for a new son, but now…? No. Sect Leader Wen will get his victory over the cultivation world, which is what he really wants, and he’ll get Nie Mingjue’s head on a pike, but that’s all. That’s all he’s ever going to get.”
The fervor of the converted indeed. Lao Nie hadn’t cared about his son’s unusual constitution – he’d cared too little, even, thinking that he’d hidden the truth when in fact he was sold out by one he trusted – but Wu Bixian cared; he didn’t want the Nie clan to lose face, he didn’t want to risk the disgrace. He had betrayed the Nie sect to the Wen sect to avoid it –
He would kill Nie Mingjue to ensure it.
Meng Yao knew what he had to do.
“And you, you miserable leech, are not going to stop me just because you want the gain for yourself,” Wu Bixian said, and turned to lead the way towards Nie Mingjue’s last known location. “Of course someone like you’d think it’d be better to sell him than to kill him; you don’t understand honor at all, don’t understand face – you’re only part of our Nie sect through by your mother’s tricks. Of course you think that everything comes down to a deal to be made, something to be sold, you’re just what your blood says you are, a fatherless son of a whore –”
Meng Yao drove Chiwen into his back.
Meng Yao turned and saw Nie Mingjue, who must have realized he’d lost sight of Meng Yao and come to find him to make sure he hadn’t gotten hurt.
Nie Mingjue’s eyes travelled from Wu Bixian, choking out blood as he died, down the length of Chiwen and to Meng Yao’s hand that held him: his eyes were wide and horrified, confused, even betrayed –
Meng Yao had never told him what he was planning with Wen Ruohan. He hadn’t wanted him to worry. He’d known how much even the mention of the man disrupted Nie Mingjue’s sleep; he’d known that he would reject any plan that involved putting Meng Yao in danger.
He’d thought he’d have time to explain.
He’d thought – well. He hadn’t thought that Nie Mingjue would find him with his saber in the back of his own commanding officer in the middle of a battle, one of the few crimes that Nie sect law called to be met with immediate execution or else at absolute minimum immediate expulsion from the sect.
“Trust me,” Meng Yao said, a plea more than an order, and then he turned and fled.
The Nightless City was grand and glorious, as luxurious as Koi Tower and as tasteful as the Cloud Recesses, and Meng Yao would burn it all down in a heartbeat for the chance to return to the familiar sparse stone and metal of the Unclean Realm.
Wen Ruohan had forgiven him for murdering Wu Bixian and blowing his cover once Meng Yao had explained the circumstances, although he’d been displeased; Meng Yao had had to work his way back into his inner circle the hard way, inventing monstrous machines for him to use in his Fire Palace, where he played at treating torture the way other people viewed sport.
Meng Yao had once dreamed of torturing his enemies – initially defined as anyone who insulted his mother, but later expanded to include anyone who made a serious effort to harm Nie Mingjue and recently he had been considering an additional expansion to loop in the same for Lan Xichen – but now he realized that torture was boring and burdensome and messy, and a quick execution was clearly much more effective.
There was a lot less upkeep, for one.
A lot fewer tormented doctors as well – that poor Wen Qing would probably have never picked up her needles if she’d known this was where she was going to end up using them, that was for sure – and anyway, neither of his lovers would have approved so it was all a moot point anyway.
Possibly former lovers.
Not that they’d ever actually made it to the stage of being lovers, what with Lan Xichen’s sect rules and parental trauma, Meng Yao’s nightmares of the brothel, and Nie Mingjue’s experiences with Wen Ruohan…
Probably for the best, actually, given what Meng Yao now knew about Nie Mingjue – something that he was almost certain that Nie Mingjue did not know about himself.
A few months at Wen Ruohan’s side had certainly been enlightening on that front. As Meng Yao might’ve suspected, he treated even the people in his clan about the same as wooden furniture, useful to varying degrees but all ultimately disposable, and someone like Meng Yao, a talented retainer he’d stolen from another sect and who had no way out, made for amusing company.
Wen Ruohan had in fact heard the rumor of someone in the Nie sect being born as a yang furnace, very likely from Wu Bixian himself in an attempt to get rid of what he perceived to be a stain on the sect’s reputation, and he’d investigated, ultimately figuring out that the person in question was Nie Mingjue. A yang furnace, Meng Yao learned, was considerably rarer than a yin furnace, requiring the right horoscope and lucky (or unlucky) parentage, and was considered far more precious – people with that constitution would have an incredible talent for cultivation themselves, but would also be able to magnify, many times over, the cultivation or even cultivation potential of those with whom they engaged in dual cultivation.
The furnace’s consent in the matter was not required.
After discovering the truth, Wen Ruohan had apparently gone back and forth for some time in deciding whether to snatch him up immediately, training him up as a concubine reserved for the use of the Wen clan, but one of his more esoteric specialists had told him that the sort of intense cultivation techniques he had in mind would likely kill a child and, more importantly, that the positive effect on his own cultivation would be magnified if Nie Mingjue’s cultivation were higher when he began.
“Sect Leader Wen’s patience is admirable,” Meng Yao said with the sort of smile he’d worn when talking to the brothel owner that used to beat his mother on a regular basis just so she’d ‘remember her place’. “If only I had known..! I am not so certain I could resist such a temptation for years on end.”
Wen Ruohan laughed. “Well, I must admit I gave it a half-hearted effort a few times. The doctors did say that a few times early on wouldn’t hurt.”
By hurt he meant damage to Nie Mingjue’s ability to cultivate, or to cultivate with others, not to the lifetime of nightmares and terror that Nie Mingjue suffered as a result of his unrelenting pursuit.
“Though on that subject,” Wen Ruohan continued, a faint smile on his face, “perhaps you’d like to take a look at the room I’ve prepared for him, and let me know if you have any suggestions – anything you think he’d enjoy for the times when he’s not – in service.”
“Of course, Sect Leader Wen.”
“Naturally, if you also have any proposals regarding any of your marvelous machines…”
“Naturally, Sect Leader Wen.”
“Good,” Wen Ruohan praised. “If you please me well enough, perhaps I’ll let you take a turn once I’m done with him.”
He had other requests, too, which were even less savory – mostly storytelling, Meng Yao casting his mind back to his days at the brothel and even in desperation some of the artwork Nie Huaisang insisted on collecting to describe all sorts of scenarios for Wen Ruohan’s evident enjoyment.
Meng Yao took a bath as often as he could plausibly manage it, and still felt unclean.
(Chiwen, hidden away as best as he could in the room he’d been assigned because a Nie saber did not voluntarily enter Wen hands, screamed in his head. He hated everything about what they were doing.)
It was amazing, Meng Yao thought, how far self-deception could go: he had thought, once, that he would be able to distract and dissuade Wen Ruohan without losing anything along the way, that he could sell himself without counting the cost, and at the last he realized that his mother had been right about warning him not to get used to making deals with bad men.
Wu Bixian, too. He had thought that Wen Ruohan’s goal was domination of the cultivation world, his pursuit of Nie Mingjue only a means to get there or at best a distraction, when in fact Wen Ruohan wanted to be a god, to break through the barrier of cultivation and rise up to the heavens, and he believed that Nie Mingjue could get him there.
And yet Wen Ruohan, too, was deceived – he thought that everything in the world was meaningless grist to that great ambition’s mill, thought that everything he did was for power and power only. And yet there was the great care and attention with which he had filled the prison room in the Nightless City with all the things Nie Mingjue liked, things that he’d figured out from casual mentions in discussion conferences, the fascination in his eyes when Meng Yao told him stories that were sometimes so very boring and mundane, the casual way he dismissed even his own heir’s death at Nie Mingjue’s hands…
Perhaps the interest had been merely practical once, but it certainly was no longer.
At least the war was going well.
Not much else was.
His letters with Wen Ruohan had been belatedly discovered and publicized, his betrayal becoming widely known – Wen Ruohan deliberately cutting off Meng Yao’s route of return, no doubt. The fact that it was a good move, and one Meng Yao would have done if he were in his place, did not make it any easier to swallow.
He had always assumed he would be there to explain the letters to Nie Mingjue.
He’d said so many cruel things in those letters over the years, hurtful things, things he didn’t believe but thought that Wen Ruohan would like to hear – things about Lao Nie, about Nie Mingjue, about Baxia, about Nie Huaisang…disdainful, wretched things, lies that had flowed so easily out of his brush when he’d thought it was all a game.
He didn’t want to think about Nie Mingjue hearing them – seeing them – reading them –
He didn’t want Nie Mingjue to think that was how he really felt.
Some days, in the middle of the night in the too-brightly-lit core of the Nightless City, Meng Yao put his head in his hands and felt the prickle of tears in his eyes. He should have known better, he thought. He shouldn’t have tried to take it all on his own shoulders; he shouldn’t have assumed he’d be able to explain, that he could swear on Chiwen that his motives were pure and that all would be easily forgiven; he should have told Nie Mingjue what he was doing early on so that it would not come to him as a surprise –
He should not have repeated his mother’s mistake from all those years ago.
(“They don’t trust us!” Lao Nie had shouted, his voice still audible behind those stone walls, and Nie Mingjue had gone silent, the words hitting their mark and leaving a wound, before he’d started arguing once again.)
Meng Yao had originally planned on having both Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen act as his contacts during the war, but instead for his sins he got stone-faced Lan Wangji and, eventually, red-eyed Wei Wuxian, who was clearly still deeply shaken by the near-destruction of the Lotus Pier and how close he had come to losing everyone he loved.
(Meng Yao killed time in between boring torture, nauseating dinners with Wen Ruohan, and interacting with his two contacts in trying to figure out how to get said contacts to confess their obvious attraction to each other without ever actually telling them to their face that they were being idiots.
How anyone had ever compared him to Wei Wuxian – citing their status as fatherless children being raised by sect leaders alongside their heirs – he honestly did not know; the boy had a genius for cultivating and the arrogance to go with it, but simply no common sense whatsoever. Meng Yao was his exact opposite.)
They had both briefly been guests of the Wen sect, brought in by the same invitation that had been forcefully extended to Nie Huaisang; once they were there, they were given to Wen Chao to lead and reshape. Obviously that went about as badly as anyone could imagine, Wen Chao being what he was.
Nie Huaisang had been there too, of course, and Meng Yao hadn’t dared go anywhere near him. It wasn’t that he doubted his own acting abilities, or Nie Huaisang’s for that matter, but rather his own perception. Nie Huaisang was a very good liar, and if Meng Yao got it into his head that his own blood brother didn’t believe him, he might very well fall apart.
So he didn’t go.
That turned out to be a mistake.
Apparently, not showing up was seen as some sort – admission of guilt, perhaps, because the second Nie Huaisang returned to the Unclean Realm, things started going very badly indeed. Many of his old contacts stopped talking to him or even disappeared, even the ones he would have sworn Nie Huaisang had no knowledge of, and he didn’t even want to think about how many of his plans ran into obstacles that had nothing to do with luck and had everything to do with Nie Huaisang’s Nie temper.
Meng Yao only hoped that the cause of the temper tantrum was his failure to apologize for not letting Nie Huaisang properly into his schemes, and not that Nie Huaisang thought –
Surely Nie Huaisang would have said something to Wei Wuxian or Lan Wangji if he didn’t believe Meng Yao to be trustworthy? They were peers, had been schoolmates, and a few months together was more than enough time for Nie Huaisang to get the measure of them – he had to know what they were doing on his behalf, surely, and he hadn’t stopped them, so…
Sometimes Meng Yao thought that his circular rationalizations would drive him mad, long before anything else about this horrible life of his did.
(He also thought, sometimes, about how his mother would feel – how she did feel – about what he was doing, and whether she approved or not. He usually tried to stop thinking about it as soon as possible.)
At any rate, the sect heirs had all escaped after some unfortunate encounter with a corrupted Xuanwu that made Meng Yao twitch in fear when he belatedly learned about it, and soon after that the war began in earnest.
The Nie sect took Heijian, as had always been the plan; the Wen sect’s cultivators threw themselves against their iron wall without any success and even some heavy losses, especially whenever Nie Mingjue himself was there to lead battles. The Lan sect was scattered after the burning of the Cloud Recesses, but Lan Wangji’s early warning had preserved more of their lives than might have otherwise been accounted for – the attack on the Lotus Pier had been similarly blunted through timely advice, although Jiang Fengmian’s stubborn refusal to take immediate action had resulted in injuries, some rather serious.
Two major attacks, in under a year – the rest of the cultivation world was alarmed. A sizeable number chosen to give in at once, while others opted to join the opposing forces, and war was everywhere.
Meng Yao had hoped that his information would be enough to tip the balance, that he could play the same role he’d played against Wen Ruohan in the past – acting as an interruption, but never quite tipping his hand. Never pushing for the real reward, taking the big risk…
The war dragged on.
There were some close calls – some difficult battles. People were dying on both sides. Several times there were reports of terrible injury to key people; the death of someone he loved was only a matter of time.
It seemed that he didn’t have a choice but to take more dramatic action.
Evil, Chiwen screamed in his mind, just as he had every day since Meng Yao had arrived at this horrible place. Kill it!
Meng Yao wished it was so easy.
“Do you mind if I borrow your brother?” he asked Wen Qing, who glared at him but accepted the jar of wine he offered her. “Just for a while.”
“None of your machines,” she said at once. He couldn’t blame her.
“No machines,” he agreed. “I need a courier.”
She paused, then put the wine down. “Out of the Nightless City? Safely?”
Wen Ning was delighted to see Wei Wuxian, and the feeling was decidedly mutual – Meng Yao had picked Wen Ning in part because of the extraordinary initiative he had taken at the Lotus Pier, initiative that made the entire Jiang clan quite fond of him – and Wei Wuxian happily agreed to smuggle Wen Ning out of Qishan to deliver a private message.
“Make sure he gets to Lan Xichen,” Meng Yao instructed. “A message can be compromised or lost – a person, not so easily.”
“I’ll do my best,” Wei Wuxian said, and almost looked approving, like he thought that Meng Yao was doing this to save Wen Ning from the worst of the war.
He had no idea what Meng Yao was doing.
“Wei Wuxian,” Meng Yao said when they were about to leave. “What does Lan Xichen say about me?”
A blink, there and gone. “He fears for your safety, and hopes you are well.”
“And – Nie Mingjue?”
He didn’t bother asking about Nie Huaisang. If his brother didn’t want someone to know how he felt, no one would ever have the slightest clue.
Wei Wuxian hesitated, and Meng Yao waited, and in the end Wei Wuxian finally said, “I don’t think I’ve heard him say anything about you at all.”
Meng Yao nodded. It was no less than he’d expected, for all that it felt as if his heart were shattering. “Thank you. Please go.”
Wei Wuxian would take Wen Ning to Lan Xichen, and Lan Xichen would believe the words of a person more than he believed a letter – it was his nature to do so, especially when that person was as serious and earnest as Wen Ning, who seemed so trustworthy and who would never knowingly tell a lie.
But a person who would never knowingly tell a lie could still be made to carry one, and so Lan Xichen would listen to Wen Ning, and he would take what Wen Ning told him to Nie Mingjue, and Nie Mingjue – who might have questioned information brought by Wen Ning but who would never question Lan Xichen, the way he had previously never questioned Meng Yao – Nie Mingjue would listen, and believe, and act on that belief.
He would go to Yangquang –
And Wen Ruohan would be waiting for him.
Sometimes Meng Yao hated himself.
Meng Yao was extremely practiced in keeping his emotions under control.
He always had been, his mother’s inheritance to both him and Nie Huaisang. The brothel had taught him the basics of how to utilize his natural talent for it, while politics had refined the skill into an art. He could keep a smile on his face as he was being tortured, something he would have once said was theoretical but could now definitively attest to, though thankfully only briefly.
Even so, he had to briefly close his eyes when they dragged Nie Mingjue into the throne room and threw him to his knees at Wen Ruohan’s feet.
Wen Ruohan didn’t notice, of course – he only had eyes for his prize – and that gave Meng Yao the moment he needed to collect himself before stepping out to deal with matters, as was his right as the person whose scheming had achieved such a triumph.
The first one who saw him was Nie Mingjue. His eyes were hurt and confused, tender like a day-old bruise that was being pressed down on, but he said nothing, did nothing. He didn’t rage or spit or anything that might have reasonably been expected; he didn’t yell or try to lunge forward, even though he wouldn’t have been able to get very far even if he tried.
For the first time in his life, Meng Yao couldn’t tell what Nie Mingjue was thinking, whether he was cursing him or if he was simply mourning him, believing he had been betrayed in truth – he remained silent, remained on his knees, his arms bound tightly to his side; he was quietly terrified to the bone, the emotion just barely hidden behind his unbending pride, and Meng Yao’s chest hurt to look at him.
The other Nie cultivators looked hurt, too, when they saw him. After all, not long ago he’d been their second young master, their sect leader’s right hand –
But that had been before.
Before, as far as they knew, he betrayed them all.
Meng Yao approached Nie Mingjue, saying nothing. After all, what needed to be said? There was no mockery greater than the mere fact of his presence there, clad in Wen sect robes.
He was even wearing a sword.
(Chiwen remained safe, hidden in his room, snarling and uncontrollable in his hatred for everything about their lives right now, but how would they know that? For all they knew he had discarded it like trash, the Nie sect’s life and livelihood, all nothing but trash…)
Or at least, there wasn’t any mockery greater than that, right up until Meng Yao opened the box he was holding in his arms and showed Nie Mingjue that Baxia had fallen into his hands.
No Nie saber will ever voluntarily be held in the hands of a Wen – Meng Yao had remembered Nie Mingjue’s words and seized Baxia the very first instant he could, but right now he was a Wen, and wasn’t that the worst insult of all?
Nie Mingjue flinched when he saw his saber lying there in Meng Yao’s arms, in a box of Wen sect colors, the threat not needing to be spoken for it to be clear – he flinched, flinched away from Meng Yao as if Meng Yao were Wen Ruohan.
That was the step too far for the Nie disciples that had been captured alongside him. One of them spoke up, saying something crude, an insult to Wen Ruohan, and for all that Meng Yao agreed wholeheartedly, such a thing could not be borne.
He stepped forward and backhanded the man, knocking him to the ground, and ordered him to be taken to Fire Palace – ordered them all to be taken there, and told the guards to go fetch Wen Qing, saying with a vicious smile that her doctor’s services would undoubtedly be needed to prolong their experience.
They were dragged away. Some of them shouted curses at him, damning him in the filthiest of language; others only continued to look hurt, even shocked, as if they had still believed in him right up until that moment.
Wen Ruohan laughed. “Always so quick to defend my honor, my Meng Yao,” he said, his voice low and purring and overly intimate, and then he stood, coming down from his throne. “It feels good to have such loyal retainers…don’t you agree, Sect Leader Nie?”
“Go fuck yourself.”
“Right verb,” Wen Ruohan said, and his smile was full of filth. “Wrong subject.”
He reached out and put his hands in Nie Mingjue’s hair, pulling out the few braids that remained intact and running his fingers against his scalp – it was something Nie Mingjue had always enjoyed when Meng Yao or Lan Xichen had done it for him, a little tidbit Meng Yao had unintentionally let slip during one of his storytelling sessions, and he could see Nie Mingjue shudder with disgust at the familiar action.
He probably wouldn’t like it again, in the future. Lan Xichen would undoubtedly mourn the loss.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” Wen Ruohan said.
“Do you want to take him upstairs?” Meng Yao interjected, but Wen Ruohan waved him away.
“Later,” he said, impatiently, already forgetting that Meng Yao was even there. “All of that can come later. I have a prize to claim, and in front of my throne is as good a place as any.”
Nie Mingjue tried to struggle then, to free his arms, to reach for Baxia still held so close and yet far away from him in Meng Yao’s arms, to do something, but all of his struggles did him no good. Wen Ruohan was not in the mood to play games of cat and mouse, not after so many years of being denied: he unleashed the full force of his cultivation, dominating and overwhelming, and pushed Nie Mingjue onto his back before he could recover from the effect, forcing his legs open and kneeling between them.
“Ah – stop!” Nie Mingjue cried out, pushed beyond his limits into something like begging. It didn’t help, of course. Wen Ruohan pulled open the front of Nie Mingjue’s robes, pressing him down. Their hips slotted together, Wen Ruohan rocking back and forth, his face ecstatic with the pleasure of domination, of victory, his obsession of so many years finally on the verge of being satisfied for the first of what would undoubtedly be many times. One of his hands pressed Nie Mingjue down, the other slid down between his thighs. “No! Stop it, don’t – stop – Meng Yao!”
Wen Ruohan laughed in delight. “How stupid do you have to be to call out to him?” he asked, eyes bright with amusement even as he pressed their bodies together even closer. “Do you really think –” A bestial grunt, and a cry of pain. “- that he’ll help you? He belongs to me –”
Meng Yao took Wen Ruohan's head off with Baxia.
It was a better death than the bastard deserved, far too quick and easy, but it was the only opportunity he had: Wen Ruohan had dropped every single one of his shields and protections to pull together the spiritual force he was using to keep Nie Mingjue pinned down and helpless, keep him writhing on the floor in spite of all his power; Wen Ruohan had been showing off his superior cultivation like a preening peacock, safe and unguarded, all his attention on memorizing Nie Mingjue’s every reaction. It wasn’t that he didn’t know Meng Yao was there, of course, but he hadn’t thought twice about him, thought of him as nothing but a prop, a mindless object allowed to remain close at hand only because it would enable him to wring out the maximum amount of misery and despair from Nie Mingjue.
Meng Yao could come up close, even with Baxia still clutched in his hands, and Wen Ruohan wouldn’t register his little loyal pawn, the one he’d seduced since childhood, as anything resembling a threat.
He should have.
Meng Yao checked to make sure he’d gotten the head fully off – he had, so quickly and cleanly that Wen Ruohan’s expression was still fixed in a look of triumph – and then turned back to Nie Mingjue, tensing when he saw that he hadn’t moved: he was still lying on his back, staring blankly at the ceiling, Wen Ruohan’s bloody corpse on top of him.
Meng Yao swallowed.
Had he acted too late? Had something fundamental been broken inside of Nie Mingjue?
“Da-ge?” he said hesitantly, not sure if he was still allowed to say that. “Da-ge, I got him – he’s dead.”
Nie Mingjue was shaking when Meng Yao pulled the corpse off of him, casting it aside, and then suddenly he was moving, up and towards Meng Yao and Meng Yao started to scramble away, not wanting Nie Mingjue to do something he’d regret in a moment of fury, but Nie Mingjue was faster than he was.
He wrapped his arms around Meng Yao and he – did nothing.
“Meng Yao,” Nie Mingjue murmured into his neck, his voice broken. “Meng Yao, A-Yao…”
He wasn't trying to hurt him.
He was hugging him. He was –
Meng Yao’s knees went weak, weak enough that he couldn’t stand, and he collapsed down onto his own knees, suddenly hugging Nie Mingjue back as hard as he could. “You forgive me?” he croaked. “I thought – you didn’t even look at me. You didn’t say anything!”
Not in the throne room – not for months.
“How could I say anything?” Nie Mingjue asked, and Meng Yao could feel his tears against the side of his face. “You’re always telling me that I’m a terrible liar. If I said anything, everyone would know – I couldn’t ruin things for you, not when you were in such danger.”
“You – you worried –”
“You told me to trust you,” Nie Mingjue said, as if the world were that simple. As if it was black and white, justice and righteousness, as if he knew, deep in that shining steel core of his, that Meng Yao loved him and trusted him and would do anything for him. “I trusted you.”
Meng Yao closed his eyes, feeling tears drip down his own cheeks now.
“Huaisang, too,” Nie Mingjue added, as if he knew exactly what balm Meng Yao needed to heal the wounds the Nightless City had left in his soul. “He told me that if I saw you, I was to tell you that he’s very mad at you for breaking your promise to let him help.”
“I let him fight the war,” Meng Yao automatically protested, because he had – he would never have committed to actually crossing sides like this if he hadn’t known Nie Huaisang would be able to do the critical strategic and tactical work on the other side. “How is that not helping?!”
“He says you should think the highest number your brain can calculate, and then translate that into fans you need to buy to make it up to him,” Nie Mingjue said. “I told him there weren’t that many fans in the entire cultivation world, but he said that he had faith in you.”
He had faith in you.
I trusted you.
Meng Yao pressed his lips together, rocking back and forth, unable to speak for a long few moments because the joy in his chest was so intense that he felt it as pain, a blazing light as hot as a firebrand pressing down in on him.
What good thing had he done, in a previous life, to give him such a family? How could Wen Ruohan have believed, even for a minute, that he would have betrayed them for something as stupid and paltry as ambition?
“…let’s get you dressed again,” he finally said, because he couldn’t express his emotions in words right now. “Xichen-xiong should be here any moment with an army.”
“Convenient.” Nie Mingjue’s voice was a bit wet when he chuckled, but he pulled away to start doing up his robes without taking a single glance down at them – he got a few ties done the wrong way round, but Meng Yao didn’t correct him. He suspected these particular robes would be burnt as soon as they were somewhere safe anyway. “Always a second plan, isn’t that right?”
There was never any plan where I let him have you, Meng Yao thought, and perhaps when things had calmed down a little more he would one day even find a way to say that out loud.
But for the moment, they were together, him and Nie Mingjue and even Baxia – Chiwen was on his way, entirely self-directed, Meng Yao could feel his overwhelming excitement about finally getting out of this den of misery as he whistled straight down the hallways as Wen sect disciples leapt shouting out of his way – and then Lan Xichen burst through the doors and exclaimed in relief to see them, rushing forward to take them both into his arms.
“The Nie sect retainers,” Meng Yao said a few moments later, when he could speak again through the tears. “The ones you came in with – Wen Qing is helping me, she’s the doctor I called for. She’s probably setting up to smuggle them to the border as we speak; we should tell her she doesn’t have to bother now that Xichen-xiong’s here…she’s Wen Ning’s older sister, Wen Ning’s the one I sent to you to keep safe. She has some crimes to her name, who doesn’t here, but she’s one of the good ones. Can something be done for her and her kin?”
“We’ll deal with the details later,” Lan Xichen sniffed, nuzzling his hair. “Oh, Meng Yao, I missed you..!”
“We really should deal with it now,” Meng Yao insisted.
“He’s right,” Nie Mingjue said, though he made no move to let either of them go. “This is neither the place nor the time. We can reunite properly later.”
For the first time since that horrible day at the Cloud Recesses, Meng Yao found himself looking forward to something.
“I would like your advice on something,” Meng Yao said to his mother.
Meng Shi was wearing silk again, rich colors that suited her – she had fully recovered from the serious illness she’d had a few years back, something for which he would be forever thankful to Qinghe’s doctors because he knew she wouldn’t have made it if they were on their own – and a fur-lined jacket that made her look especially comfortable. She finished pouring the tea and smiled at him.
“You do?” she teased. “Still, after all these years?”
“I’m never too old for your advice,” he said and kissed her on the cheek before sitting down.
The weiqi board in the corner was midway through a game, he noticed, and was glad: Sisi was terrible at weiqi, and the only other person who routinely played against Meng Shi was Nie Huaisang. Things between them had grown better as he’d grown older – he loved to paint, to play, to keep birds and raise flowers, and those were the things Meng Shi liked the most.
It was good to see them spending time together. Meng Yao hoped that Meng Shi could show Nie Huaisang how to forgive, and to remember how to be as carefree as he had once been.
After all, Nie Huaisang had taken up what had once been Meng Yao’s duties, during the war, all the intelligence work and strategy, the battlefield clean up and the politics, and it had left its marks. Indeed, if Meng Yao had been anyone other than Nie Huaisang’s dearly beloved brother, he would probably be the subject of a decade-long plan of utter obliteration right now, good motivations or not – in fact, he was pretty sure that Nie Huaisang had one already plotted out, and was still considering it an option if Meng Yao didn’t make regular deposits on the infinity of fans he apparently owed him.
(The brat wouldn’t take duplicates, either. Meng Yao had put in an order for someone to send him an entire ship’s worth from Dongying in the hopes that that would earn him a little credit. The relevant someone being Wei Wuxian, who was off exploring the world with Lan Wangji - possibly for no other reason than to get away from the rest of them all teasing them about the long and overly dramatic way in which they’d confessed their affections for each other.)
Still, Nie Huaisang had forgiven Meng Yao, even if he hadn’t forgotten, and they were most of the way back to being as they had been before – which admittedly was closer than he’d ever been with Meng Shi, who Nie Huaisang seemed to treat as a casual acquaintance instead of a mother. He treated her about the same as Sisi, actually, and usually acted as if he thought Meng Yao and Nie Mingjue were his birth parents instead of his brothers.
And possibly Lan Xichen as some sort of rich uncle he could (and routinely did) extort for gifts.
(He still called him ‘pretty gege’, though he’d recently started up several debates – mostly monologues – as to whether Lan Xichen ought to now be called ‘er-ge’ and Meng Yao ‘san-ge’ according to their ages, being that he was now part of the family, or if they should just all go ahead and get properly married already so that he could call him ‘sao-zi’ instead. They’d all collectively decided to ignore him.)
“Is it about those sworn brothers of yours?” she asked, lips curving up into a smile that was entirely unlike the practiced ones she had once used most of the time, a real one that was a little bit crooked, and that made it all the more beautiful in his eyes.
Meng Yao batted his eyelashes at her. “I will of course let myself be guided by Mother.”
She laughed. “I think it’s a good cover,” she said. Her eyes crinkled at the corners, now, and she didn’t try to hide it with make-up or anything else. Meng Yao treasured every blemish and imperfection. “You three can spend all your time in each other’s pockets, putting each other above everything else, and no one will question it – or, well, question it too much.”
“Let them talk,” Meng Yao said. There would never come a day when people didn’t whisper about him behind their sleeves, calling him the son of a whore, and nothing he could do, no matter how hard he tried, would stop it. He could only adjust his own thinking and ignore them, at peace in his heart with the knowledge that they were wrong about him. With the knowledge that he was better than they were or indeed would ever be.
Perhaps there was something to Lao Nie’s old exhortation after all.
“But do they have something to talk about?” his mother asked, arching her eyebrows at him. “You retire to the same room to sleep, but I’ve never seen any of you walking strangely the morning after – what are you waiting for? Actual marriage vows?”
“The sworn brother oath served that purpose,” Meng Yao said dismissively, just as he’d explained time and time again to Nie Huaisang. It was just as permanent, after all; they would be bound together in this life and the next, each name forever placed alongside the others in the annals of history. “And we’re just moving slowly.”
He’d explained, in the end, what Wen Ruohan had wanted, what Nie Mingjue was, what that meant; he didn’t want to keep it hidden and risk anyone later thinking that he was taking advantage.
He didn’t want to keep even one more secret from his lovers in this lifetime.
Nothing. Not even surprise parties.
Nie Mingjue hadn’t cared one bit about finding out that he was a furnace, because of course he didn’t; he was still an idiot after all these years. Lan Xichen, at least, had been rightfully alarmed – neither he nor Meng Yao wanted to risk harming Nie Mingjue by accident, no matter how much he argued that his cultivation was high enough that he wouldn’t even notice a setback, and anyway that he trusted them not to try to steal away from him.
Nie Mingjue had finally convinced them to try, the night after they’d taken the oath. Emotions had been running high, and they’d all fallen into bed together, their blood running hot.
It had been – an experience, to say the least.
Sex was pleasant, something Meng Yao knew intellectually from his days in the brothel and personally from the few experiences, male and female, he’d forced himself to have in order to ensure he didn’t have any demons in his heart on the subject. He’d been glad to confirm that although he liked it well enough, it wasn’t so good that he would become addicted to the feeling, descending into dissipation and cruelty the way his father had.
What they’d shared together on that night, however…that wasn’t just sex.
That was something he could become addicted to.
Meng Yao had insisted on a strict moratorium on any further activities until they could process what had just occurred, and it had been telling that neither Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen had argued.
It had been mindblowing, a combination of overwhelming physical pleasure and emotional satiation, and then there was the spiritual ecstasy of cultivation – Meng Yao’s own cultivation, never especially strong, increased at an almost frightening pace for the next week, and Lan Xichen had confirmed a similar effect had occurred for him. Nie Mingjue’s cultivation seemed just as high as ever, unharmed, but obviously they had to do more research before they did anything else lest they accidentally cause harm to him somehow.
That meant they were back down to the basics, limiting themselves to rubbing up against each other at night and offering each other helping hands, given that Meng Yao and Lan Xichen weren’t willing to do anything together if it meant excluding Nie Mingjue – though recently they’d figured out that Nie Mingjue could narrate pornography without batting an eyelash with that frankly magnificent voice of his, and also that he liked telling people what to do (they knew that already, but still)…
They were going slowly. That’s how Meng Yao thought of it, and it was fine – he had no doubt that they’d figure out how to move to the next step sooner or later.
Sooner rather than later, given how quickly Lan Xichen was pouring through their respective sect libraries; apparently sexual frustration was a very effective motivator for him.
“If you’re sure you’re happy,” his mother said, and he smiled. “You seem to be. I’m glad.”
“So if it’s not about that, what do you want advice on? You haven’t needed to consult me on political matters in years. A-Sang would be better at that.”
“It’s not entirely political,” Meng Yao said, “though it’s not entirely apolitical, either, and don’t worry, I’ll consult Huaisang as well. Nevertheless, I wanted your views on the subject. You see, a rather complicated situation has arisen…I’ve been made an unusual offer.”
“An offer? A-Yao…”
“I know, I know,” he said, smiling. “Be careful of offers from strange men, especially bad men, and this is exactly that. But I still thought it was something worth considering. After getting the benefit of your insight, of course.”
“Well, then,” she said. “Now I’m curious. What’s the offer?”
He gave her the letter that he had received and drank his tea while she read it, her eyes going wide and then even wider.
“So,” he said, when he judged that she was done. “What do you think? Do I look like a ‘Jin Guangyao’? Or should I tell my father to go commit anatomically improbable acts on himself?”
“I’m serious,” Meng Yao insisted. “This was always your dream, well before it was mine: whatever you decide, I’ll do. If you’d like for me to claim what should have been mine from the start, I’ll do it, though obviously if he thinks a mere name is enough to convince me to leave Qinghe in favor of Lanling he’s got a nasty surprise coming his way. But if you want me to tell him to his face that I’d rather be your son than his, I’ll do that too.”
He leaned back in his chair, and smiled.
“After all, I already have everything I want.”