Whatever had happened during the day and a half that Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji were missing, Meng Yao quickly resigned himself to the fact that he wasn’t going to learn about it any time soon, if ever. At least, he thought, it seemed to have brought them to a better understanding of each other. Lan Wangji looked at Wei Wuxian somewhat differently afterwards, a little more indulgent of his antics, and Wei Wuxian’s teasing was gentler. No matter the reason for the shift, Meng Yao was glad of it.
He figured it would only be polite to mention to the Yunmeng trio that he might have actively encouraged Jin Zixuan to sabotage his own betrothal. When he brought it up, Wei Wuxian’s reaction was a resounding, “Good! Let him wiggle his way out of it so shijie can find a man who deserves her - not that such a man exists.”
Jiang Yanli looked somewhat sad at the news despite how rudely Jin Zixuan had treated her, and Meng Yao said to her, “I know it’s distressing to be treated as if you’re not good enough for things that are beyond your control, Jiang-guniang. Please, trust me, I understand that feeling. I know the desire to continue to try to measure up to some imaginary, impossible standard. Please believe me when I say that you shouldn’t waste your time doing so. There are people in the world who value you for who you are, so don’t chase after those who don’t. The fault lies with them, not with you.”
With a soft smile, Jiang Yanli said, “Thank you, Meng-gongzi. It does help very much to hear.”
He didn’t hear anything more about either issue for several days, so he felt a little nervous when a Lan sect disciple came to the Nie guest house on one of their days without classes and let him know that Zewu-Jun had summoned him. It was quite rare for Lan Xichen to do so, given that he could rely on Meng Yao to turn up at some point every day, depending on the class schedule. He was more worried than he wanted to admit when he approached the hanshi, and when he saw Nie Mingjue inside, he nearly turned around and went right back the other way.
Instead, he marshalled his courage and went inside, bowing low to both men. “Nie-zongzhu, what brings you to Cloud Recesses?”
“I’ve heard you’re doing very well here,” Nie Mingjue said, with a scowl that was at odds with his words.
“Yes, I am,” Meng Yao said, unsure if this was the right answer. He bowed again and said, “Thank you for letting me attend the lectures. I have greatly enjoyed and benefited from them. I am hopeful this will allow me to serve you better in the future.”
Nie Mingjue nodded a few times, his scowl unchanging. Finally, he said, “Lan-xiansheng seems to think you might like to stay longer than the typical six months.”
Meng Yao blinked. He wasn’t so much surprised at the assertion, but that Lan Qiren had made it to Nie Mingjue. He knew that Lan Qiren had been in Qinghe for the cultivation conference recently. Had he just told Nie Mingjue he wanted Meng Yao to stay? “I’m flattered that they would think to allow me to stay longer, and I’m sure I could continue to learn, but I would not want to leave you in The Unclean Realm if you need my assistance.”
Abruptly changing the subject, Nie Mingjue said, “I heard you were attacked.”
“Ah - yes,” Meng Yao said, trying to keep up with Nie Mingjue’s shift. “You didn’t need to come here because of that. I’m fine, honestly. It was just a little scuffle.”
“That’s what your letter said,” Nie Mingjue said. “And that’s what Huaisang’s letter said. That’s even what Xichen’s letter said. Which is why I found myself unhappy to learn from Lan-xiansheng that one of them pulled a sword on you.”
“Oh,” Meng Yao said. “I didn’t want you to worry.”
“Seems nobody did,” Nie Mingjue said. “But I’m not sure it’s best for you to stay here, under the circumstances.”
“As if nobody has ever pulled a sword on me in The Unclean Realm,” Meng Yao said with a laugh.
He meant for it to be a joking comment. A deflection, to minimize the situation so Nie Mingjue would not think he would be unsafe in Cloud Recesses. He realized an instant too late that he had badly miscalculated how both men would react to that statement. Nie Mingjue’s eyes narrowed and Lan Xichen’s back stiffened.
“And exactly who,” Nie Mingjue said quietly, “has pulled a sword on you in The Unclean Realm?”
Meng Yao wished he had started shouting. Shouting he could deal with. This was far more dangerous. “Please, Nie-zongzhu, don’t make a fuss. It was quite some time ago now, and I don’t believe I ever knew their names - ”
“Names? Plural?” Now Lan Xichen was getting involved, so that was just great. “How many times did this happen?”
“Only twice!” Meng Yao said. “The first time it was just after my promotion. He was upset. I managed to talk my way out of it,” he added, hoping this would help. His ‘talking’ had been more like ‘begging’ but he wasn’t about to admit that to either of these men. “I promised him that I would mind my place and be grateful for all Nie-zongzhu did for me . . .”
“And the second time?” Nie Mingjue asked. “When was that?”
“About a year ago now, and it was my fault! One of the men was drunk and called me - a nasty name, and I got upset and called him one in return. Fortunately he was too drunk to do any damage to me and I managed to get away without a problem.”
“How is that your fault?” Lan Xichen asked, but he didn’t wait for an answer. “See, Mingjue-xiong, this is what I’ve been saying. I truly think he belongs in the Lan sect. Not just because Qinghe is overall a rougher place, but just - his cultivation is better suited for precision, not force.”
“You only said that because his cultivation level was low, and you also said it’s improved by leaps and bounds since he got here! As long as he continues to work on building his golden core he’d do fine in Qinghe. I didn’t send him here so you could steal him from me! Do you have any idea how much more smoothly things run in Qinghe with him there?”
Meng Yao winced. “Nie-zongzhu, if you need me back in Qinghe, of course I can come back right away - ”
“That’s not the issue,” Nie Mingjue said. “I can handle things being a little messy while you’re attending the lectures.”
“But Mingjue-xiong, if you allowed him to stay longer, I could begin teaching him the guqin,” Lan Xichen said.
“Teach your own disciples the guqin!” Nie Mingjue said. “I don’t see why he has to learn it.”
“Well, what if he wants to learn it?” Lan Xichen asked.
“Then come teach him in Qinghe!”
“Please,” Meng Yao said, wincing again. “Please stop arguing. I have enjoyed my time here immensely and I would like to continue to learn, but I am proud to be an assistant to the Qinghe Nie.” He managed to pull himself together and face Lan Xichen and bow. “I am truly grateful to the Gusu Lan for everything you have done for me. But I have no desire to join any other sect. Nie-zongzhu saw my merit and promoted me when nobody else did, even in spite of my background. I would like to continue to serve him as my sect leader.”
Lan Xichen’s face softened, and he sighed quietly. “I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable, Meng-gongzi. While I believe you would do well in Gusu, of course it is your choice to make. Still, I hope you will stay for the rest of the lectures.”
“As long as Nie-zongzhu allows me, I would be happy to,” Meng Yao said.
Nie Mingjue waved this aside. “I said you could stay the six months and I meant it.”
Feeling quite confused as to everything that had just taken place, but especially why Nie Mingjue had come all the way to Cloud Recesses just because Lan Qiren had given him the impression that Meng Yao might not come back, Meng Yao decided it was high time he excused himself from this discussion. “Then if there’s nothing else . . .”
“Ah, no, Meng-gongzi,” Lan Xichen said, smiling. “Mingjue-xiong, I need to speak to you about - that other issue - in any case.”
Meng Yao bowed and, despite his curiosity about ‘the other issue’, which surely had something to do with the larger picture he couldn’t quite put together, excused himself.
“What was all that about?” Nie Huaisang asked, when Meng Yao returned to the guest house. Meng Yao gave him a brief summary of the situation, and Nie Huaisang replied with, “Ah, you didn’t tell them that you couldn’t choose between them! You just went ahead and chose! You were supposed to say you wanted both!”
Exasperated, Meng Yao said, “There’s quite a difference between ‘which of the two is more handsome’ and ‘which of the two has the right to your loyalty’ and of course that’s Nie-zongzhu. There’s no world in which I’m going to tell them I want to serve both of them. How would that even work?”
“You’re hopeless, Meng Yao!” Nie Huaisang groaned, and huffed away, leaving Meng Yao wondering why he was the hopeless one.
~ ~ ~ ~
Nie Mingjue stayed in Cloud Recesses for two days, and Meng Yao tried to ask him a few questions about what was going on, but Nie Mingjue wouldn’t say much. He confirmed that there was a larger issue, but said he hoped it wouldn’t affect Qinghe. He wanted Meng Yao and Nie Huaisang both to focus on the lectures, to get as much out of them as they possibly could. If he thought Meng Yao would need to know, he would tell him.
Meng Yao couldn’t ask for more than that, so he continued to diligently study and try to make sure he was never alone. The two members of the Jin sect who hadn’t been thrown out of Cloud Recesses clearly loathed him more than ever. He didn’t put it past them to try something, particularly with only a month of lectures left.
So when he came home from one of his evenings with Lan Xichen – who had started teaching him how to play the guqin despite the fact that they would barely have time for him to get down the basics – to find Luo Qingyang waiting for him, his back stiffened. Lan Xichen, who was of course walking him home, gave him a glance and said, “Do you need me to stay?”
“No, I’m fine,” Meng Yao said. “At this time of night, Nie-gongzi is inside.” Not that Nie Huaisang would be able to do much if he was attacked besides run for help, but Meng Yao figured nobody from the Jin sect would want to do anything with a witness. He bid Lan Xichen good night and then said, “Won’t you come in, Luo-guniang?”
Luo Qingyang nodded shortly but then said, “You might want to have this discussion in private.”
“No, not really,” Meng Yao said, heading into the guest house. Nie Huaisang greeted him cheerfully and then bowed to Luo Qingyang. Meng Yao went to make some tea. “I assume this is about Jin-gongzi.”
“Yes.” Luo Qingyang appeared to fight with herself for a moment before she said, “Why would you say such things to him?”
Meng Yao didn’t look up from where he was filling the pot with water. “You mean, specifically, why would I tell him that I agreed with him that Jiang-guniang was beneath his station and that he should write his father to ask that he be allowed to break off the engagement?”
“Of course! I have spent the last four months trying to convince him of the opposite. I was making progress with him! Then you came in and ruined all of it, and now any time I try to bring it up, he mentions ‘other people’ agree with him. Even though I’ve pointed out that ‘other people’ have absolutely no reason to wish him a happy life and I’ve been his friend since he got out of diapers!”
“Mm hm.” Meng Yao put the pot on the fire and turned to Luo Qingyang. “Why do you want him to marry Jiang Yanli?”
“What?” Luo Qingyang blinked, taken aback. “I want them to be happy.”
“So you’re trying to convince Jin-gongzi to treat Jiang-guniang well, because you’re accepting their marriage as a foregone conclusion. I haven’t accepted that yet. I want one of them to be happy, and she’ll be far happier if she marries somebody who doesn’t think she’s not fit to polish his boots.”
Luo Qingyang’s mouth pressed together into a thin line. “Neither Yu-furen nor Jin-furen are going to let the engagement be called off.”
“Neither Yu-furen nor Jin-furen control their husbands, from what I can tell, so they won’t be the final decision makers. Will Jin-zongzhu let Jin-gongzi wiggle out of it? I don’t know. But if he continues to treat her as he is, Jiang-zongzhu will step in. I’ve heard them talk about him, and how dearly he loves his daughter. He’s not going to marry her off to someone who treats her poorly. This was Jin-gongzi’s chance to make a good impression and he flubbed it. He’s been here five months and the best he could do was not actively insult her? Not good enough.”
“He’s – he’s just never learned that sort of thing,” Luo Qingyang said.
“Of course he hasn’t. He’s gotten through his entire life to date being rude and spoiled and demanding, and everyone bends over backwards to clean up whatever mess he makes when he offends people. Why would he have ever learned? He’s never faced a consequence in his entire life. I’m sure this will continue to work splendidly for him, and won’t have any lasting repercussions as he enters adulthood.”
That made Luo Qingyang wince. “That’s . . . fair,” she murmured. “But he’s not a bad person deep down!”
“Maybe so,” Meng Yao said. “You know him much better than I do, I’m sure. But nobody’s going to see him ‘deep down’. All they’re going to see is what’s on the surface. Jiang-guniang deserves better than him. You’re not going to change my mind on that issue. Maybe once she’s found somebody who appreciates her and they’ve made some beautiful, powerful children, Jin-gongzi will realize how badly he fucked up. But frankly I won’t hold my breath, and I won’t take back what I said to him the other day.”
Luo Qingyang appeared to struggle for a long moment before she declared, “Ugh, boys,” and stomped out of the guest house.
“That went well,” Nie Huaisang observed.
“I thought so,” Meng Yao agreed.
~ ~ ~ ~
With one week of the lectures left, Meng Yao had completed all the course work, and was mainly devoting himself to harassing Nie Huaisang into doing his. There were several essays and projects to turn in, and although Meng Yao knew intellectually that Nie Huaisang would scrape by at the last minute, he couldn’t help but protest when he saw him goofing off. “Nobody’s going to be sorry for you if you fail,” he said.
Nie Huaisang moaned. “There’s too much, Meng Yao . . . can’t you help me?”
“I’m not writing your essays for you,” Meng Yao said, for at least the third time. “Even if I was willing, which I’m not, Lan-xiansheng would see through it.”
“Couldn’t you dumb it down and make it sound like it was me?” Nie Huaisang asked.
“No,” Meng Yao said, and Nie Huaisang whimpered. “Just be grateful that I agreed to shoulder your fair share of the chores while you’re trying to get everything done. It’s more than you deserve.”
“Yeah,” Nie Huaisang said, and at that, he laughed. “Oh, that reminds me – I put the last piece of wood on the fire.”
Meng Yao sighed. “If I go out and get more firewood, and make you some of that tea which you say helps you focus, will you promise me that you’ll work diligently until it’s time for bed?”
Nie Huaisang held up three fingers in an imitation of Wei Wuxian and said, “I promise!”
Shaking his head, Meng Yao headed outside. Fortunately, he had already replenished the firewood from the stores a few days previous, so all he had to do was grab an armful to carry inside.
No sooner had he leaned over and picked up the first piece, he felt something touch his neck, and the next thing he knew, he was yanked off his feet and landed hard on the ground. He grabbed at whatever had looped around his throat and found that it was some sort of rope, and as he tried to pull it away, it twisted tighter. He choked and gagged as he was dragged back to his feet.
“You think you’re so fucking smart,” a voice hissed, and he was not at all surprised to hear that it was one of the Jin disciples that had attacked him on the path that day. “You think nobody else is as smart as you. How’s that going to help you now?”
Meng Yao was yanked around again, and he gave up keeping the rope from tightening and instead grabbed it a foot away from where it left his throat and pulled as hard as he could. The Jin disciple stumbled forward, not having expected this desperate move. For a bare second, the rope loosened enough for Meng Yao to draw in a deep, ragged breath. Then it was pulled tight again and he was nearly pulled off his feet as the man began trying to drag him away. Of course, the analytical part of Meng Yao’s brain said. The disciple didn’t want to kill him here. It would raise too many questions. He would drag him away, to somewhere that it would take time for him to be found.
He grabbed the rope and threw himself to the ground, pulling the other man with him. He landed hard, with a grunt, and Meng Yao tried to get control of the rope. It was burning at his palms as they struggled over it. But he was weakening quickly, his vision dimming and the world fading in and out with the beat of his pulse. The Jin disciple twisted the rope and dug his knuckles into Meng Yao’s throat. Meng Yao kicked wildly, pulled at his arms, fought with every ounce of his strength. But it wasn’t enough.
“You know what I’m going to do?” the Jin disciple grunted. “I’m going to take your body out into the forest and hang it from a tree. Everyone’s going to think you finally got the message and killed yourself, ending your shameful existence. Nobody will have any – ”
“Hey!” someone shouted, and suddenly there were arms around Meng Yao’s attacker, trying to drag him off. “Let him go!”
The Jin disciple gave the rope a vicious twist and half-turned, then gave a mocking laugh and pushed the other person away. “Are you going to make me, Nie Huaisang? You’re so soft that you might as well be made out of dumpling dough!”
Meng Yao kicked vigorously as the rope loosened for a brief second. His muddled mind thought that Nie Huaisang should go for help, but he knew there was no time. Nie Huaisang seemed to have the same opinion, drawing his saber and holding it out with shaking hands. “I said to let him go!”
What happened next was unclear to Meng Yao, whose vision was darkening rapidly. The Jin disciple laughed again, and Meng Yao thought he must have drawn his own sword, because he heard the rasp of one sliding free of the scabbard. But he did it one-handed; the rope around Meng Yao’s throat didn’t loosen. He was still laughing, and he -
Blood splashed down onto Meng Yao’s face.
The rope tightened mercilessly for a brief second before it loosened. The world was silent, like falling snow, nothing but gray, gray, gray. Then his body snapped back, heaving for breath. It felt like his head was expanding and everything was crowding back into it at once. He gagged and retched, rolling onto his side and gasping over and over and over again.
He managed to look up. Nie Huaisang was standing there, as pale as a ghost, the last six inches of his saber coated in blood. As Meng Yao watched, it fell from his trembling hands and landed in the dirt. The Jin disciple was lying on his side, eyes open and expression faintly surprised, the pool of blood around him slowly spreading.
“Ni – Nie – ” Meng Yao tried, but his throat completely rebelled at the idea of speech. He closed his eyes and tried not to whimper at the throbbing in his temples.
“Hey, are you guys okay? I heard some noise and it seemed like – ” Wei Wuxian jogged into their courtyard and his eyes went wide. “Ho – holy fuck! What the fuck happened, Nie-xiong, what did you – who – what – ” Wei Wuxian sputtered for a few seconds before he seemed to get a hold of himself. “I’m gonna go get Zewu-Jun, okay? You two just stay here, don’t go anywhere – ”
Not a problem, Meng Yao thought, and closed his eyes. Nie Huaisang sat down heavily in the dirt, the blood seeping unnoticed into the bottom of his robes.
Time went a little funny as his body recovered from the vicious attack, so he wasn’t sure how long had gone by when Lan Xichen hurried into the courtyard with several other Lan disciples, including Lan Wangji. Meng Yao managed to open his eyes and tried to sit up, and Lan Xichen immediately eased him back down, asking, “What happened?”
Meng Yao tried to speak but could only manage a rasp. He felt Lan Xichen’s fingers against his throat and then cool spiritual energy flowing through them, easing the worst of the pain. He went for the fewest words possible and whispered, “Nie-gongzi saved me.”
Lan Xichen looked over at Nie Huaisang, who was still quite pale, and asked gently, “Are you all right, Huaisang?”
“He – ” Nie Huaisang’s throat worked for a few seconds before he managed, “He was killing him. He had a rope around his throat. I told him to let go but he wouldn’t. He, he drew on me and I – ” He suddenly turned and threw up into the dirt.
“Easy, easy,” Lan Xichen murmured, rubbing his back. “It’s all right, Huaisang. You did well. Just try to breathe.”
Two of the disciples helped Meng Yao into a sitting position, and then a few moments later, to his feet. Lan Xichen helped Nie Huaisang get up as well, as several others checked on the body of the Jin disciple and confirmed that he was dead.
“Can you walk, Meng-gongzi?” Lan Xichen asked, and he nodded. “Let us head back to the main pavilion where a doctor can see to you. Huaisang – ”
His lower lip wobbling, Nie Huaisang said, “I promised Meng Yao I would work on my essay . . .”
Lan Xichen squeezed his shoulder and said, “I’m quite sure that my uncle will grant you an extension, given the circumstances. You both need to rest.”
Nie Huaisang looked at Meng Yao, as if for confirmation that yes, he was allowed to break his promise and not work on his essay after killing the man trying to murder his friend. Meng Yao nodded, and Nie Huaisang seemed to relax a little. Lan Xichen guided them back to the main pavilion and into a small set of rooms that appeared to be some sort of infirmary. A disciple came in and examined Meng Yao, then told him that there appeared to be no major damage. He applied some salve to the burn marks around his neck and on his hands.
While he was doing this, Lan Xichen excused himself, presumably to take care of whatever needed to be taken care of after a death on the soil of Cloud Recesses. Once he was gone, Nie Huaisang got anxious again. “What’s going to happen? Am I in trouble?”
It was a ridiculous question, but at the same time it wasn’t. Because although Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue were obviously going to be fine with Nie Huaisang having killed somebody to saved Meng Yao’s life, Jin Guangshan was going to be furious. Diplomatically speaking, this was a nightmare. So all Meng Yao said, in the same raw whisper, was, “Don’t worry, Nie-gongzi. Nie-zongzhu will take care of everything.”
That answer seemed to relieve Nie Huaisang more than a simple ‘no’ would have. He nodded and said, “Yeah . . . yeah, you’re right. Da-ge will fix it. Da-ge can fix anything.”
Meng Yao nodded. His temples throbbed.
When Lan Xichen came back, it was with a fresh set of robes for both of them. He coaxed them into getting up so they could clean up and change. His face darkened slightly when he saw the marks on Meng Yao’s throat and on his hands, which had become more vivid as the time had passed. “I’ve sent a message to Mingjue-xiong,” he said, “as well as one to Jin-zongzhu. But neither of them will be here for a few days, so for now, just rest. I’m going to keep both of you here at the main pavilion for now.”
“Does Jin-gongzi know?” Meng Yao asked.
“The visiting members of the Jin sect have been informed that Jin Zifu attacked you and was killed,” Lan Xichen said. “I haven’t told them how he died. All students are being confined to their guest houses for the time being. Meng-gongzi – ” He stopped and then took a deep breath. “I know you probably don’t want to talk about it, but was anyone else there? Did he have any accomplices?”
“No,” Meng Yao said. “It was just him. He tried to – drag me away. I think he wanted to get me somewhere that he could – ” He had to stop speaking as the pain in his head spiked.
In a small voice, Nie Huaisang said, “You didn’t come in from gathering the firewood. I was worried, so I came out to check on you.”
Meng Yao reached out and squeezed his wrist. “Thank you.”
“I can’t imagine how he thought he could get away with it,” Lan Xichen said, more to himself than to either of the others. “He surely had to know we would suspect him . . .”
“He said . . .” Meng Yao felt nausea twist his stomach. “He was going to hang me from a tree. So people would think I killed myself.” Without realizing it, he began to cry. “That I ended my shameful existence.”
“We never would have believed that!” Nie Huaisang said with vehemence that surprised Meng Yao. “Never!”
Meng Yao cried harder and leaned into Nie Huaisang’s shoulder. He was vaguely aware of Lan Xichen behind him, stroking his back and smoothing down his hair. The tears hurt; his head and his throat were both screaming in pain. But he couldn’t stop them. He heard Lan Xichen say gently, “There is nothing shameful about you, A-Yao,” and he could only choke out another sob.
He cried until he was exhausted, and when the tears finally stopped, he felt like he could breathe again. Lan Xichen helped him lie down on one of the infirmary beds and pulled a blanket over him, then pulled out his guqin and began to play. Meng Yao closed his eyes and let the world drift away.
~ ~ ~ ~