500 days, that was how long the Sunshot Campaign lasted.
Five hundred days Meng Yao spent by General Nie’s side; his soldier, his secretary, his spy. A lowly boy teetering at the edge of manhood, Meng Yao thought General Nie would be like the rest of them— hypocrites, a squabbling bunch of cultivators.
They talked about their lineages like it meant something at warfront, quarrelsome and petty; like the prostitutes he grew up with, except instead of trinkets they coveted weapons. They sneered at Meng Yao, but he took no notice, diligently doing his chores. Being part of the troops was very much like being in the whorehouse, Meng Yao decided. The duties were very much the same: the army had to be fed, dressed and rested before fighting. Rinse. Repeat. The only difference was at least the whores had enough self-awareness about their place.
General Nie was not such a man. He was completely indifferent to Meng Yao’s circumstances, he neither condemned him nor did he commensierate (more than anything else, Meng Yao would have hated those sickening expressions of false pity.) All he cared about was the Wens, the war and winning it.
By the time they passed through four cities, Meng Yao was his second-in-command. They had slept through , their horses dragged in filth. On the long road towards Nightless City, their path was littered with corpses.
“General Nie,” Meng Yao called out at dusk. “It looks like rain again. Should we trench before dark?”
“Hmph.” Nie Mingjue looked towards the sky, the lifting wind and howling red. Red sky in the night, a sailor’s delight , or so the saying went. “Yes.” He raised his head, his voice thundering across: “Prepare for Camp! TRENCH!” The wind carried his words, the troops murmuring as they broke position.
“A-Yao, three shifts for night duties. Set the schedule. We leave at daybreak.” Nie Mingjue’s profile cut sharply against the setting sun, the harsh line of his jaw, the flame in his eyes. He looked every inch a leader, the kind of man others would follow to the ends of the earth for. Powerful. Strong. His General .
“Yes sir.” Meng Yao said. “I will report to you after.”
The moon was halfway across the sky by the time Meng Yao had given out the orders, and settled the men.
“General Nie?” Meng Yao said softly.
“Come in.” Nie Mingjue sat at his desk, his head bent over a map. “Are they resting?”
“Yes sir.” Meng Yao said, delivering his report. “We have three men at each point, shift change at each quarter and two on patrol at all times. If it rains tomorrow, shall we wait out the storm?”
“A little drizzle shouldn’t put us too far behind, but let’s keep an eye on the weather.” Nie Mingjue said. “We shouldn’t risk it if it snows.”
“That would be something.” Meng Yao smiled. “Does it normally snow around this time?”
“Not often, but there’s a chance of an early snow.” Nie Mingjue said, looking curiously at his young vice-commander. “Have you never seen snow before?”
“I confess, it’s my first time.” Meng Yao said lightly. “It’s far too warm in Yunmeng to snow.”
“I’ve forgotten you’re from the Great Lakes area,” Nie Mingjue said thoughtfully. “You fit right in with us here. Although it’s a pity the war is dragging so long. When I was younger, we’ll make snowmen and snow angels.”
“We?” Meng Yao questioned.
“My younger brother, Huaisang. He’s at Qinghe, managing home.” A fond smile crosses Nie Mingjue’s face. “Snow angels though, that was something Xichen taught me.”
“Xichen… as in Lan Xichen, Young Master Lan?” Meng Yao shook his head. “I don’t even know what a snow angel is.”
“Ah, that’s right! You’ve met him haven’t you? At your place?” Nie Mingjue chuckled. “He doesn’t look like it now, but when we were younger, he was quite a little scamp.
“General Nie, if I may be so bold, this is the first time I’ve ever heard you laugh.” Meng Yao smiled. A gentle smile, back before Meng Yao learned how to smile from the best (not that the other would know). A quiet smile, shy and unfurling in the soft dark of his General’s tent, a smile that could touch the heart, or perhaps, all it really mattered was that it touched his.
This is the part Jin Guangyao, once known as Meng Yao, has deliberately forgotten. Whose hand had reached out first. To whom, words of longing were once whispered. Whose lips had touched first, inciting a blazing fire that warmed even on the coldest of nights, that no storm nor snow could conquer. To whom, Meng Yao had once been held as though he was the most treasured; treasured as a flower, treasured as a partner, such precious loyalties embraced. To whom, Nie Mingjue had gentled his own strength, poured his power to the lover below him and called him a brave warrior, a worthy man, and in the fierce beat of their bodies, the secret sharer of his heart.
2 hours was two sticks of flower incense, Jin Guangyao knew. He knew this time like the back of his hand, the same hand that swung an axe, the axe he used to cut up his sworn brother, Nie Mingjue. There was blood on his robes; blood soaking through the gold finery, sticking on his skin like a lie he would never be free of. Even now, Nie Mingjue’s body shook at his chains, his eyes shut, his long lashes sweeping across them, a deep furrow in his brows.
“Da Ge,” Jin Guangyao pleaded. “Why won’t you calm down?”
Nie Mingjue roared. Jin Guangyao stumbled back, his face flecked with blood and thick spittle. He should be worrying about corpse poisoning, but all he could feel was a vague itching sensation, drying blood as it flaked and crusted, skin to second skin, his own sins. Even now, butchered and in pieces, there was too much resentment and anger, wild and uncontrolled. Another roar, this time Mingjue opened his eyes.
Whited out and pupiless, those deep set eyes blown open again with fury.
Jin Guangyao reached out to shut his eyes again, but thought better of it. At such a close range, Nie Mingjue would simply bite his fingers off with his teeth, or perhaps even tear his hand out.
(He remembered another time, a different time, under a tent, under the stars, his fingers kissed one by one.)
Slowly, Jin Guangyao moved towards the chair. He felt like he was underwater, drowning with the smell of blood that he never seemed to be able to leave. Growing up, he saw it. Splashed on the cheeks of women when the customers got too fierce. During Sunshot, he gloried in it, bathed it with the blood of Wens that ran down his blade. Now, all he felt was a hollowness, as though he was merely a shell made of blood, his own self sucked out, vaporized into golden fragrance.
“Da Ge,” he heard himself speak, his mouth moving sluggishly to form words, distant and faraway. “Da Ge, if you don’t calm down you’ll send yourself into deviation again. Groping on the floor, he reached for his guqin. He will play Cleansing again. Once more, more his eldest brother.
Xue Yang found him much later, sitting in the dark. Jin Guangyao cradling his eldest brother’s head, humming a song with strings plucked from his own skin. The guqin laid discarded on the floor.
∞ 0 ∞
Entombed in stone, trapped in an eternal embrace
Death had brought them back together again
A question hung between them, haunted and unanswered
[did you ever love me at all?]