Meng Yao went bursting out of the door of the prison, shouting that Xue Yang had escaped. Several of the guards started shouting as well, to start a search and try to prevent his escape from The Unclean Realm. It would have been impossible for Wen Chao and his lackeys not to hear, so Meng Yao was satisfied. Hopefully they would take that as a reason to withdraw, so the battle wouldn’t get out of hand. And now he had the location of one of the pieces of yin iron. A nice bit of work, he thought to himself. Now he just needed to -
“You!” Fen Hong shouted, charging towards him. “What did you do?”
“Me?” Meng Yao asked, somehow resisting the urge to say, ‘I just saved the day, why do you ask’. He was much too preoccupied stumbling backwards as Fen Hong drew his sword. “Ah, Captain, what - what are you - ”
“You let him go, didn’t you,” Fen Hong demanded. “I saw the way he looked at you yesterday. You two made some sort of deal!”
“Captain, if you’ll just - ” Meng Yao scrambled back a few more steps. More than anything else, he felt annoyed. He couldn’t just tell the captain that Xue Yang hadn’t escaped, because if anyone overheard, it would ruin his whole plan to get the Wen forces to leave. He had come up with what he felt was a very clever plan, and now this moron was putting the whole thing at risk.
“You filthy traitorous son of a whore!” Fen Hong shouted.
Meng Yao avoided another blow and then grabbed a saber off of a fallen Nie soldier. He blocked the next blow, wincing as he did so, aware that fighting back only made him look guilty but not seeing what choice he had. The worst part was, he could even see Fen Hong’s point. Xue Yang was not at all subtle, so it was completely possible that his plan to approach Meng Yao and bribe him to be let out had been obvious. Meng Yao had reasons to accept it, even though he hadn’t done so. Fen Hong was acting in what he felt were the sect’s best interests, and although his prejudiced perception of Meng Yao’s character was playing into his actions, they weren’t entirely unreasonable.
No, he realized, the worst part was that there was no way he could win this fight. Fen Hong was far above his level; Nie Mingjue did not hire just anybody to be in charge of the soldiers. He found himself wishing irritably, distantly, that he had just stabbed him without warning and avoided the whole problem (although he was sure it would have resulted in different ones). He didn’t like to get into fights at all, let alone against someone who was his better by an exponential magnitude.
He hissed in pain as Fen Hong’s saber sliced through his upper arm, weakening his ability to wield his weapon, and then tore a gash in the back of his thigh.
Fuck the plan, then. He wasn’t dying for this, so he panted out, “Captain, listen, Xue Yang’s not - ”
“Shut up, liar!” Fen Hong shouted, and sent the saber out of Meng Yao’s grasp with a vicious blow.
“He’s not - ”
Fen Hong lifted his saber, and Meng Yao rolled to the side as it came down, and then there was an enormous clash of metal on metal. Meng Yao made it onto his back and saw Baxia returning to Nie Mingjue’s hand after it had knocked Fen Hong’s weapon out of his grip.
“What in the thundering hell is going on here?” Nie Mingjue roared.
“This traitor let Xue Yang out of his cell!” Fen Hong shouted.
Nie Mingjue’s gaze flicked to Meng Yao, and he quickly shook his head, not wanting to give too many details. In a somewhat lower voice, although still clearly enraged, Nie Mingjue said, “What evidence do you have to back up this accusation?”
“I - look out!” Fen Hong shouted, and dove forward as Wen Zhuliu’s blade came flying through the air. He shoved Nie Mingjue a few steps back, and the blade hit Fen Hong directly in the chest, although it only sunk a few inches deep. He went staggering and hit the wall. Nie Mingjue fended off Wen Zhuliu’s next blow, and then Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng both came running up from different parts of the battlefield. Meng Yao tried to get up, but the wound on his leg sent him tumbling back to the ground.
“Nie-zongzhu,” Wen Chao said, with that same damnable smirk. “Qinghe is at the foot of Qishan. And now you are under my feet.”
It was a bit premature, Meng Yao thought, given that Nie Mingjue looked like he was still itching to beat the shit out of every Wen soldier who had come through the door. But as long as Wen Zhuliu was there, Nie Mingjue was in check, and everyone there knew it.
“Wen Chao, haven’t you gotten what you wanted?” Wei Wuxian asked, helping Meng Yao to his feet. “Xue Yang is long gone. Why don’t you go collect him and your yin iron and leave the rest of us alone?”
Wen Chao sneered. “Wei Wuxian, you think you’re so high and mighty that you can tell us what to do? You think your little quest for the yin iron has made any difference at all? Since you’re so interested in the Lan sect, you should know that my brother has brought a fight against Gusu. If Lan Wangji manages to make it back, what do you think he’ll find?” He gave a dramatic pause, then finished, “Cloud Recesses in ruins!”
Meng Yao’s breath caught in his throat. He darted a look at Nie Mingjue, but he didn’t return it.
“The yin iron pieces will all be ours sooner or later,” Wen Chao said. “We haven’t displayed our power in a long time. So the other sects don’t remember how to respect us now? I’ll spare you today. But if this happens again, Qinghe will be the next Cloud Recesses. As for you, Wei Wuxian,” he added, pointing, “my father said to let you go to Qishan with the other young masters. I’m going to enjoy spending time with you then.”
He turned with a flourish, and the Wen soldiers followed him.
Nie Mingjue knelt next to Fen Hong, his mouth pressed into a thin line. He cut the cloth away from the injury and said, “It’s not deep. You can go see the medics after you explain to me what the hell you were doing attacking my assistant!”
“He helped Xue Yang escape!” Fen Hong groaned. “I saw the way they looked at each other yesterday! It was obvious to anyone paying attention that they were going to make a deal!”
“Did it not occur to you that there might be a reason he had done so?” Nie Mingjue growled. “Did you even stop to ask him, or did you just try to kill him?”
Rallying slightly, Fen Hong said, “E-Explain yourself, then, Meng Yao! What sort of deal did you make that could possibly have been worth releasing that maniac?”
Pressing a square of fabric against the wound on his arm, Meng Yao snapped, “I didn’t release him. He’s still in his cell. I just sent up the word that he had escaped because I figured that it would make the Wen forces withdraw.”
Fen Hong went somewhat pale. There was an awkward silence in the courtyard.
“Go check if you like,” Meng Yao continued. “Go see for yourself that he’s still there.”
“Ah - ” Fen Hong seemed to sense that taking Meng Yao up on this invitation might make things even worse.
“I’ll check,” Nie Mingjue said. “Not because I don’t believe Meng Yao, but because someone else might have helped him, including someone from the Wen sect. Both of you stay where you are.”
No problem, Meng Yao thought, since his leg wouldn’t quite support his weight. He was still leaning heavily on Wei Wuxian and Nie Huaisang.
Nie Mingjue went into the prison, and came back out a few moments later. He gave Meng Yao a brief nod, then said to Fen Hong, “Follow me to the sword hall where we can discuss this further.”
Still somewhat pale, Fen Hong followed. Meng Yao limped after them, even as the others chided him to stay put. But he knew Nie Mingjue wouldn’t allow him to witness what was going to happen next, and he understood why, given what Fen Hong was likely to say about him. So he sat down in the courtyard outside the sword hall and allowed them to call a medic for him. She applied some blood-coagulating grass and bandages to his injuries. The one on his arm was minor, she said, but the one in his leg was deeper and more serious. She advised him to stay off his feet as much as possible for the next three days.
“What do you think’s happening in there?” Nie Huaisang asked, looking at the ominously quiet sword hall.
“Fen Hong is undoubtedly justifying his actions with a litany of complaints against me,” Meng Yao said.
“Are these complaints valid?” Jiang Cheng asked, sounding dubious.
“Most of them, no. I’ve made sure to behave impeccably ever since I got here for just this reason. But he’ll certainly try to convince Nie-zongzhu that I shouldn’t be allowed a place here at all because by very nature of my birth, I am certain to be deceitful, opportunistic, and generally of low character.” Meng Yao saw the three of them exchange glances and felt somewhat exasperated. “I’m not saying that because I believe it. I’m saying it because he believes it. He’s loyal to Nie-zongzhu, and thinks that my being here is a danger to him, that I will inevitably corrupt him with my indecency.”
“What horse shit,” Wei Wuxian said, and Meng Yao sighed.
“Well, what will happen to him, then?” Nie Huaisang asked.
“He’ll be banished from The Unclean Realm, most likely,” Meng Yao said. “Nie-zongzhu might have executed him for attacking me without cause, but since Fen Hong saved his life, he’ll spare him.”
“Ugh,” Wei Wuxian muttered.
Before another minute had gone by, the door to the sword hall opened and Fen Hong came out, looking livid. He didn’t look at any of them as he walked past them, one hand still pressed to his bleeding chest. But then he wheeled around suddenly. “I don’t know how you’ve deceived him into thinking you deserve this sort of treatment, you filthy son of a whore,” he hissed. “If you had any self-respect you’d go die in the gutter where you belong instead of kissing the feet of your betters and begging for a handout. I hope you know that your mother is burning in hell.”
With that, he spit in Meng Yao’s face and turned to walk away.
All Meng Yao could see was red. The pain and weakness in his leg had vanished. He launched himself to his feet and tackled Fen Hong around the midsection, sending him sprawling onto the ground. He was vaguely aware of somebody, Nie Huaisang he thought, crying out in alarm. It didn’t matter. He rained down blows onto Fen Hong’s face and his arms as he tried to protect himself. He couldn’t see, couldn’t think. The rage was all there was.
“Fucking hell, Meng Yao,” Nie Mingjue swore, and grabbed him under the arms, lifting him off Fen Hong and then off the ground entirely as he struggled to get free.
“You - ” Fen Hong managed to get back his feet, his face written with the same fury that was consuming Meng Yao. “Did you see what he - ”
“Yes, I saw what he did, and I heard what you said!” Nie Mingjue snapped. “You’re just lucky he wasn’t still holding a saber because if he was he would have gutted you and frankly I wouldn’t have blamed him! Now get out! You’ve forfeited the hour’s leniency I gave you to gather your things. Go straight to the gates and don’t look back. If I ever see you in Qinghe again, I’ll kill you.”
“I’ll make sure he gets there,” Wei Wuxian said, his voice as cold as Meng Yao had ever heard it. He gave the man an unnecessary shove towards the way that led to the front gates.
“Meng Yao, are you okay?” Nie Huaisang asked worriedly. “Your arm is bleeding again - ”
“I’ll take care of him,” Nie Mingjue said, seeing that Meng Yao was still too incoherently furious to respond. He sighed and added, “Though now I’ve got a dozen things to delegate and no damned captain of the guard. Huaisang, will you just - just take him to my rooms and do what you can. I’ll be there shortly.”
Nie Huaisang nodded and took Meng Yao by the arm, gently steering him towards the main hall. Meng Yao followed obediently, and by the time Nie Huaisang had him sitting down and was dabbing at his arm wound, he had calmed down enough to say, “How bad is it?”
“Not too bad, just bleeding a little. Your hands are all banged up, though. I’m going to get some cold water.”
Meng Yao sighed but didn’t argue as Nie Huaisang went to fetch it, looking at his bruised and scraped knuckles. They hadn’t hurt at the time, but they were starting to ache now. His eyes stung and his throat was tight with rage and he hated the fact that what should have been a triumphant moment for him had been so thoroughly ruined. He hadn’t even had the chance to tell Nie Mingjue that he had gotten the location of one of the pieces of yin iron.
Nie Huaisang came back in with the bowl of cold water, and Meng Yao put both his hands in it, hissing a little in pain. “Hey, Meng Yao,” Nie Huaisang said, and Meng Yao winced, waiting for the awkward words of comfort. But instead, Nie Huaisang said, “Da-ge told me about what the Wen sect is demanding. He hasn’t told me that he’s going to send me but I know he is, after today. Wen Chao proved they could just come and take me if they wanted, so . . .”
He was right, unfortunately, so Meng Yao nodded. “Don’t worry about it too much, Nie-gongzi,” he said. “They’re just throwing their weight around.”
“What should I do while I’m there?” Nie Huaisang asked. “I don’t want to make trouble for da-ge, but I don’t want to just meekly comply . . . I know I’m weak in a lot of ways but . . .”
“Your weakness may be a good thing,” Meng Yao said. “People underestimate you, Nie-gongzi. So don’t make trouble . . . unless you have to.”
That made Nie Huaisang smile. “All right,” he said. “I’ll do that.”
A few minutes later, Nie Mingjue came in. He was still rumpled from his fight with Wen Zhuliu, and actually took his hair piece off, because it had been knocked askew. Meng Yao didn’t think he’d ever seen him without his hair piece before, with his braids down around his face. He accepted a cup of tea from Nie Huaisang and said, “How are your injuries?”
“I’m fine,” Meng Yao said, then added automatically, “I’m so – ”
“Don’t you dare,” Nie Mingjue said. “Don’t you dare apologize for that. If he hadn’t saved my life, I would have killed him myself. Huaisang – you can go. Wei-gongzi and Jiang-gongzi are going to head back to Lotus Pier and I think they’d like to say goodbye to you before they leave.”
“Okay.” Nie Huaisang stood, squeezed Meng Yao’s shoulder, and left the room.
The silence sat for a long moment before Meng Yao said, “Xue Yang told me where one of the pieces of yin iron is.”
Nie Mingjue spit out his mouthful of tea. “Seriously? And you’re only mentioning it now?”
“I certainly wasn’t about to mention it in front of Fen Hong,” Meng Yao said, trying to keep the edge out of his voice. “It’s not far. He hid it in Yueyang. But the medic said not to put much weight on my leg for the next few days . . .”
“I’ll send Nie Zonghui,” Nie Mingjue said. “I don’t dare leave The Unclean Realm right now.”
Meng Yao nodded, and then, unable to help how anxious he sounded, “But what about Cloud Recesses?”
Nie Mingjue’s mouth tightened. “As much as I hate to say it, there’s nothing we can do. If Wen Chao knew that his brother was heading to Gusu, then Wen Xu and his troops must have left several days ago. They’re far ahead of us by now; we would never make it in time. Hopefully if Wangji rides the sword most of the way, he might be able to help.” He saw the look on Meng Yao’s face and said, “I don’t like it either, Meng Yao, but this is a war, and the Gusu Lan are not weak. We will have to rely on them to take care of themselves.”
“I know you’re right, I just . . .” Meng Yao looked away.
For a long minute, Nie Mingjue didn’t say anything. Then he reached out and drew Meng Yao’s hands out of the cold water, inspecting the bruises and abrasions on his knuckles. “You really beat the stuffing out of him,” he said, with a chuckle that surprised Meng Yao, and Meng Yao tried to smile in return. “He got in a few good licks, though,” he added, tracing his thumb over Meng Yao’s cheekbone.
“Did he?” Meng Yao forgot what they were talking about, because Nie Mingjue was touching his face and suddenly nothing hurt anymore. He felt warm again, but not in a bad way. Nie Mingjue was right there, he was so close, and he was so strong and protective and brave and Meng Yao was kissing him before he could think better of the idea.
Not that he really knew what he was doing, so basically he just sat there with his mouth pressed against Nie Mingjue’s for a brief second before he realized what he was doing and pulled away, mortified. “Ah – I – ”
“Thank fucking – ” Nie Mingjue bit the words off, grabbed the front of Meng Yao’s outer robe, and dragged him in for another kiss. Meng Yao surrendered to it completely, and found that whatever experience he lacked didn’t matter, because Nie Mingjue knew what he was doing. Meng Yao’s mouth opened underneath the pressure of Nie Mingjue’s lips and the next thing he knew, he was being kissed utterly breathless. He was dazed and panting when Nie Mingjue released him, only to haul him to his feet and steer him towards the inner rooms.
Somehow, by the time they got there he had lost his outer robe and his hanfu was half off and this seemed very unfair to him so he started grabbing for handfuls of the fabric in front of him. Nie Mingjue managed to get his belt off and they stumbled a few more steps, kissing, always kissing.
“Ah – ” Meng Yao nearly tripped over one of their many discarded garments and barely caught himself before falling. “Nie-zongzhu – ”
That made Nie Mingjue pull away, and the look in his eyes was a mixture of concern and affection. “Not here,” he said firmly. “I am never your sect leader in here. Only another man. Use my name.”
“I couldn’t,” Meng Yao protested.
“Meng Yao,” Nie Mingjue said, “this has to be as equals. It isn’t acceptable any other way, which is why I’ve done my best never to push my attention on you. You can’t be my subordinate in my bed. If you can’t use my name, then we can’t – I can’t.”
Meng Yao nodded, because he understood, even as difficult as it was for him to overcome. Nie Mingjue was far too honorable to ever want to risk Meng Yao feeling like he was obligated to have sex with him, like he had no choice in the matter because Nie Mingjue was the leader of his sect. But Meng Yao desperately wanted this, and even if he couldn’t quite acknowledge that Nie Mingjue wasn’t his superior, he could acknowledge that he was in this bedroom of his own free will. “Nie Mingjue,” he said, and found that he liked the way it sounded off his lips, loved the way it felt in his mouth. “Nie Mingjue,” he repeated, and tilted his head back and said it to the ceiling as Nie Mingjue began to press kisses into his throat, along the line of scars. The skin there was incredibly sensitive, and his whole body shivered. “Ah, Nie Mingjue . . .”
Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined the way Nie Mingjue would make him feel. It was so far beyond, so far above any sort of pleasure he had ever conceived of that, some time later, he mumbled to the ceiling, “Did I die?”
“What?” Nie Mingjue asked, rolling onto his side so he could drape his (unbelievably beautiful, muscular) arm over Meng Yao’s waist.
“I must have died,” Meng Yao murmured. “Because this is Heaven.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Nie Mingjue said, with a snort of laughter and a quick bite at Meng Yao’s ear.
“Mm hm,” Meng Yao replied, wondering what had happened to his vocabulary. “I’m sorry.”
Nie Mingjue sighed, exasperated. “What are you sorry for now?”
“Making you wait so long,” Meng Yao said. “Making you think I didn’t want this.”
“Ah.” Nie Mingjue gave a slight shrug. “It wasn’t that long. You needed time to accept your place here before you were ready, and I knew that. But it was also . . .” His voice trailed off for a moment, and Meng Yao gave him a curious look. “Maybe I wasn’t sure for a long time, either.”
That made sense to Meng Yao, so he just nodded and didn’t really expect anything further. But Nie Mingjue reached out and caressed his cheek and said, “Let me tell you a story. I think it’s a story you’ll like, or at least I hope it will be.”
“I’m sure I will,” Meng Yao said, smiling.
Nie Mingjue smiled as well. “Several years ago, I went to Cloud Recesses for the lectures, just as you did, and met Xichen for the first time. And I was instantly, irrevocably in love with him.”
Meng Yao nodded again. This, too, made sense to him, and if the purpose of this story was to explain to him why he would always be second in Nie Mingjue’s heart, he would understand that.
“We had many enjoyable days together there,” Nie Mingjue continued, “but we both knew it couldn’t be anything long-term. Not just because of the issue of us needing to produce an heir - we both have younger brothers we hoped might take care of that for us, although clearly Xichen isn’t going to get that from Wangji - but because we were both clan leaders. Or in Xichen’s case, next in line at the time. We knew we would have duties, responsibilities, that our love for each other would always have to come second to.”
“How sad for you,” Meng Yao said softly.
“It was difficult, but we had both grown up with the idea that we would probably have to marry for alliance, for political reasons, not for love. It didn’t bother us as much as it perhaps should have. In any case, when we separated afterwards, we wrote to each other frequently, and whenever we saw each other . . . it was like no time had passed at all. We would spend as much time with each other as possible before we inevitably had to separate again. I suppose I thought it would always be like that, maybe even after we had married. But then . . . I met you.”
Meng Yao wasn’t sure how his entrance in this story had anything to do with the beautiful romance Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen had, but he nodded to show that he was following.
“I noticed you at first because of how hard you worked, how diligent you were, even at menial tasks that most of the soldiers complained about. And then I heard how the other men talked about you, which as you know infuriated me. I saw that you had a fire inside you, kindled by so many years of pain and anger. Your drive to succeed amazed me.”
“Ah, well, it wasn’t . . .” Meng Yao’s words trailed off as his cheeks flushed.
Nie Mingjue ignored his half-hearted protest. “And after I promoted you, based on your drive and your diligence, I realized how brilliant you are. I’ve never known a mind as sharp as yours, Meng Yao, truly. Not just your formidable memory, but how you can put puzzle pieces together, how you read people and understand them - it really is incredible. I thought, here is a problem, because I am falling in love with a man who is my subordinate. And I had to be especially careful with you, because I knew that, given your background, you might take the slightest hint of an advance as a terrible insult.”
Meng Yao looked away, because he knew that was true. His mother had been a whore. For years, any time someone had indicated sexual interest in him, it had been met with a sort of revulsion that was difficult to describe. A feeling that they were only showing interest because surely, as the son of a whore, he was a man with loose morals, a man who wouldn’t refuse.
“Besides that, I was confused, because I still love Xichen so dearly, and how could I love two men at the same time?” Nie Mingjue sighed slightly. “So, I went to talk to him.”
Taken aback, Meng Yao said, “You went to talk to Zewu-Jun about the fact that you were falling in love with another man?”
“I tell Xichen everything. How could I hide this from him? You might remember - I took a trip to Cloud Recesses about three months before the lectures.”
Meng Yao nodded. “I remember.”
“So I told Xichen about you, about your drive and your ambition and your brilliant mind. And he smiled and said he was sure that I had enough room in my heart for both of you, and that if you were as wonderful as I made you sound, surely he would love you too. So he asked me to send you for the lectures, which would give him a chance to get to know you and fall in love with you without my being there to, to influence things.”
Now Meng Yao had to look away again. “But it didn’t work.”
“What?” Nie Mingjue frowned. “Of course it worked. That’s why I had to come to Gusu, to remind him that he wasn’t allowed to steal you because I loved you too. And first, for that matter.” He laughed suddenly and added, “Oh, we had a big fight about it that night. Our first ever fight.”
“You . . . and Zewu-Jun . . . fought over me?” Even with everything that had happened, even while being naked in Nie Mingjue’s bed, Meng Yao had trouble believing that.
“He said it wasn’t fair, that I would get to take you back to Qinghe and have you all the time, and he would only get to see you on a rare occasion, and only at the same time as me.” Nie Mingjue laughed again. “He was right, to be honest. I told him that all right, you could come to Gusu and start learning the guqin from him, and stay a few months each year. But then the yin iron and the Wen sect, and . . .” Nie Mingjue’s smile faded. “He said it would be better for you to come back here with me, at least for the time being, because he knew there was a strong possibility Cloud Recesses would be attacked and he didn’t want you in danger.”
“Oh.” Meng Yao’s mind, which was apparently brilliant and incredible to Nie Mingjue, was having difficulty following this conversation. “Zewu-Jun . . . loves me? You love me?”
He half-expected Nie Mingjue to make fun of him for asking such a silly question, but Nie Mingjue caressed his face again, rubbing his thumb over Meng Yao’s lips. “I understand that for a long time, you were treated like you don’t matter,” he said. “I expect you may need some time to get used to the way things are changing. But yes, Meng Yao, he loves you, as I love you, and we are going to make sure you are never treated that way again.” He leaned in and kissed Meng Yao, briefly, softly. “But the question I have for you, the reason I have told you this story, is because I don’t know how you feel. I don’t know if you believe it’s possible for someone to love two people at once, wholly and equally. I don’t know if you love either of us, let alone both of us.”
“How could I not?” Meng Yao blurted out. “You are both so wonderful, and in such different ways. I would never be able to choose between you, but I never thought I would be with either of you, let alone both . . . the very concept of it is still baffling to me, even now.”
Nie Mingjue kissed him again, this time deeply, taking his breath away. “You will get used to us,” he murmured, and Meng Yao believed him. “Once this is all settled, with Wen Ruohan and the yin iron, we will go back to Cloud Recesses together. Or perhaps I will ask Xichen to come here . . . he tends to be more comfortable indulging himself here in Qinghe.”
Thinking of the many, many disciplines against self-indulgence, Meng Yao couldn’t be surprised. If anything, he was surprised that Lan Xichen was willing to indulge himself at all. Then the words sank in and he realized exactly what Nie Mingjue was suggesting, and his body responded with vigorous approval.
Nie Mingjue chuckled. “You like that idea, hm? Sharing this with both of us?”
“I died,” Meng Yao whispered, staring at him. “This is Heaven.”
“No, Meng Yao, it is far better than that,” Nie Mingjue said. “It is real life, and the three of us will be together in ways you’ve never even dreamed of.”
~ ~ ~ ~