When Meng Yao arrived at the Cloud Recesses, Lan Xichen met him in a building above the courtyard overlooking the half-constructed shells of the buildings below. Reconstruction work had begun, and the disciples below were framing up the roof on the Library Pavilion, which was the furthest along. Lan Xichen had a faint sheen of sweat on his face, like he'd been with them just before Meng Yao had arrived.
"Zewu-jun, thank you for seeing me when you're clearly very busy," Meng Yao said, "I apologize for taking you away from your efforts."
"If not for your efforts, I wouldn't be here at all, and we all might well have fallen to Wen Ruohan at Nightless City. Besides, I enjoy your company, and I haven't seen you in some months. Tell me, how is life in Qinghe?"
After Meng Yao had killed Wen Ruohan and the Sunshot Campaign had ended, half a year ago now, Meng Yao had hoped his father might acknowledge him and bring him into the Jin family; he was disappointed. Even though many in the cultivation world had recognized his contributions, Jin Guangshan hadn't so much as looked at him. Without any family backing, Meng Yao had worried that this momentary fame would fade quickly, and he had no idea how he was going to maintain it.
Or rather, he had no idea, until Nie Mingjue offered to marry him, seemingly out of the blue.
Considering how angry Nie Mingjue had been at him just after Nightless City, when Lan Xichen had had to stop him from killing Meng Yao, Meng Yao hadn't expected to ever hear a kind word from him again, much less a proposal of that nature.
It wasn't the recognition he'd wanted, but being Nie-furen at least gave him some security, however tenuous.
Meng Yao gave Lan Xichen a brief, somewhat impersonal account of how affairs were going in the Unclean Realm, about the strangeness of dealing with those who had laughed at him as deputy who were cautiously deferential now, about the friendship he seemed to be starting with Nie Huaisang.
"And how is your husband, Nie-furen?" Lan Xichen said, a half smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.
Meng Yao smiled back, pained. "Mingjue barely speaks to me," he said. "I'm not sure what he was thinking in marrying me, if he didn't want me."
"He did, though," spilled out of Lan Xichen's mouth as his smile faded. "I may have suggested it, but he wouldn't have asked you if he didn't mean it, that's not who he is."
Lan Xichen had suggested the marriage? That made him feel even worse. At least when he thought it had been Nie Mingjue's idea, he could believe it had been from some real feeling. "Huaisang says the same thing," he said, pushing his stung feelings aside, "and the two of you know him better than anyone, so it must be true. But that doesn't change the fact that he has gone out of his way to avoid me since the ceremony."
Lan Xichen was quiet for a moment. "He must still have some difficulty trusting you," he offered, as though that were new information. "And until you can find a way to earn back his trust, he may continue to behave this way."
"But what can I do?" Meng Yao protested. "I saved his life back at Nightless City. I can't get him to speak to me for more than a few minutes at a time. It's hard to earn any trust when he won't talk to me."
"Mingjue-xiong values action over words," Lan Xichen reminded him. "If you can find something tangible to do in Qinghe to remind him that you have the Nie Sect's best interests at heart, I'm sure eventually he will come around."
After they'd spent more time catching up, Meng Yao insisted on helping out with the reconstruction efforts for the afternoon. When the sun started to get low in the sky, he said his farewells to Lan Xichen and headed back to Qinghe by sword. Nie Mingjue was waiting for him in the courtyard, which surprised him.
"How is Xichen?" he asked as he walked with Meng Yao into the palace.
"Well enough. He's been rebuilding the Library Pavilion and the other buildings damaged when the Wen Sect attacked the Cloud Recesses," Meng Yao said carefully. "I thought it would be nice to send some him some help—people to help with the building itself, or resources to replace what they've lost. Since the Unclean Realm wasn't as badly damaged, we should have some to spare."
Nie Mingjue gave him a look he couldn't read. "Yes, of course we can send people to Gusu. I should have thought of it before."
"There's been a lot going on since the end of the war," Meng Yao said quickly. "I'm certain you would have thought of it before long."
It was the wrong thing to say, judging from Nie Mingjue's expression, and the way he turned away just slightly. Meng Yao bit back an irritated protest—he couldn't make comments about how Nie Mingjue might have understandably forgotten something, now?—and fell into an awkward silence.
His idea came to him in a fit of insomnia a few days later.
Meng Yao dressed down into common clothes so he would draw less attention and went into the city surrounding the palace to wander and watch people. As Wen Ruohan's assistant, he'd known about their spy networks in various cities, including in the Unclean Realm. Though Nie Mingjue had found a few members since they'd returned to the city, Meng Yao was quite certain he hadn't found them all. Wen Ruohan was particularly interested in Qinghe, since Nie Mingjue had a known grudge against him, and there was no way the five or so spies Nie Mingjue had found comprised the entirety of Wen Ruohan's force in the city. Surely, he thought, if he just wandered the city long enough, he would spot someone suspicious.
When he did, several weeks later, it wasn't anyone he expected. It was a Jin servant, whom he vaguely recognized from his very brief time in Jin Guangshan's army. She wasn't dressed in Jin robes, so it took him a while to realize where he knew her from, but once he'd placed her, he knew there was no mistake. But what was she doing here? Had she been released from the Jin Sect, or was she here on some other business?
She went into a store—a fan maker's, by the sign—and came back out a few minutes later holding a small fan, which she tucked carefully into her robe. Meng Yao frowned. Why come to Qinghe to buy a single fan? Lanling had any number of fan makers. He wanted a look at that fan, but stealing it from the woman was out of the question; he'd never been an excellent pickpocket, and the consequences of getting caught would be higher in his new position. Instead, he trailed the woman until she left the city, and then he turned back and went into the shop.
The fan maker's eyes widened just slightly when he saw Meng Yao. "Nie-furen," he said, arching his hands and bowing. "What brings you to my humble store?"
He wished he hadn't been recognized so readily; no one else had recognized him without the trappings of his rank. However... he recognized the fan maker, as well. One of Wen Ruohan's, certainly.
"There was a woman here a short while ago who bought a fan from you," he said, not letting on what he knew. "I quite liked the look of it. I wonder if you might have another that I could purchase?"
A flicker of concern touched the man's expression before he could cover it up with another, deeper bow. "Ahhhh, my apologies, Nie-furen, my fans are all one of a kind. I could certainly make you something similar, if you'd like?"
Meng Yao shook his head with a polite smile. "No, it really must be that one. Perhaps you could tell me who she is, and how to contact her? I would gladly speak to her myself about obtaining such a beautiful item."
The man shook his head. "Nie-furen, you must understand, my customers value their privacy—I can't simply give you their information."
"There's no private information to be found in fan making, is there?" Meng Yao said, almost enjoying the way the fan maker's eyes darted away. Yes, there was certainly something suspicious going on here, and Meng Yao was going to uncover it.
"You would be surprised. A fan can be a very personal gift. With the right painting, a man can tell his secret lover when and where they might meet in secret; a woman can tell her sister she is in danger. My clients rely on my secrecy to protect them; it's a duty I take very seriously."
"Oh? Do very many people pass secret messages by fan, then?"
"I know of a few cases," he said. "But with custom fans, I just paint what the customer tells me to paint." His smile didn't reach his eyes. "I certainly don't know the meaning behind any secret messages that I might be painting."
"Certainly not," Meng Yao agreed. "But... for the sake of argument, let's talk about secret messages, shall we?"
That night, he was startled awake by a sound in his room. It was very quiet; quiet enough that someone who wasn't a cultivator might not have heard whoever it was, but not quiet enough to keep Meng Yao from hearing them. He opened his eyelids just a crack to try to get a sense of what the person was doing, and just in time, as a pillow came toward his face.
Meng Yao jumped up with a start, but the figure was stronger than he was, and pushed him back down to the bed. A weight dropped onto his chest, pinning him in place, and the pillow was pressed firmly down onto his face, making it almost impossible to breathe. Once Meng Yao's brain caught up with what was happening, he used a free hand to grope under his pillow for the knife he was keeping there, and with one fluid movement he pulled it out and stabbed his assailant. The man let out a coarse grunt, releasing one hand from the pillow to grab at Meng Yao's knife hand, and the reduced pressure let Meng Yao get some air. He thrashed around, slipping out of the man's grip while he was trying to grab the knife.
"Help! Assassin!" Meng Yao cried as soon as he was free, hoping someone was awake and near enough to hear him, and he flew across the room to pull Hensheng from its sheath. When he turned back toward his would-be assassin, the man had drawn a weapon of his own, a black sword in the style of a Wen blade. When he swung it, however, his technique was from the Jin Sect. Meng Yao couldn't see his face, which was mostly covered by a black mask.
At least the assassin's sword skills were below average; he broadcast his movements enough that it was child's play to block them, and Hensheng was a much lighter and faster blade. Meng Yao might not have been a master swordsman, but he had always been a quick study, and was certainly on par with someone whose preferred weapon was apparently a pillow. In just a few minutes the assassin was dead on the floor, Meng Yao above him, sword in hand.
Naturally, that was when help arrived.
"Huaisang?" Meng Yao asked, looking dumbly at Nie Huaisang in the doorway, who was in turn looking at the body on the floor.
"You called for help," Nie Huaisang said, and stepped inside, his eyes staying on the body as he edged around it to stand next to Meng Yao.
He had called for help, but he'd hoped for, say, one of the disciples who actually carried his saber around, or a night guard. What would Nie Huaisang have done if the assassin hadn't been dead when he arrived?
But it wouldn't be politic to say that. "Thank you, Huaisang," he said instead. "Fortunately for me, he wasn't a very good swordsman."
"Is he a Wen disciple?" Nie Huaisang said. "One of the ones that haven't been captured yet? He looks the part."
"He does, but I think he may have been framing them," Meng Yao said. It couldn't just be coincidence that this attempt on his life had happened the same day he met a suspicious figure in town.
The last time Nie Mingjue had found him over a body with his sword in hand, he'd had to flee the scene to avoid certain death, but surely not even Nie Mingjue could begrudge him killing a man who'd attacked him in his own room, right?
Nie Huaisang looked at him with his big, innocent eyes. "Does this have something to do with the fan maker you went to today?"
Meng Yao's lips parted in surprise. "Did my husband appoint you my keeper?"
"No!" Nie Huaisang said, his fan fluttering nervously. "I was just going to look at the fans and saw you leaving."
That could mean exactly what it sounded like, but Meng Yao had too much practice reading into people's words to read it at face value. There was just as good a chance that Nie Huaisang had heard everything he said to the fan maker and was playing dumb—although, to be fair, that didn't sound much like Nie Huaisang.
"You're very good at staying hidden," Meng Yao said mildly. "I didn't see you."
"I've had a lot of pract—" His response was cut off when the door opened, and Nie Mingjue entered, in his night robes with his hair loose around his face. Meng Yao had never seen him like this; during the war he'd nearly slept in his armor, ready for battle at any time. On their wedding night, he hadn't changed at all, and had slept in a chair next to the bed.
Meng Yao would have appreciated the disheveled look much more if Nie Mingjue weren't brandishing Baxia and followed by six or so disciples.
"Meng Yao?" he said, looking relieved when Meng Yao was unharmed, and then his expression twisting grimly when he saw the dead body on the ground.
"Da-ge!" Nie Huaisang said. "You got my message!"
"The messenger said there was an assassin," Nie Mingjue said, gesturing to the body. "It seems he's no longer a threat."
"Meng Yao had already taken care of him when I got here," Nie Huaisang said. "I just heard him yell and thought I should send for help."
"I was fortunate he wasn't a very good swordsman," Meng Yao said, wiping off his blade on the man's robes before sheathing it again. "And that I woke when I did."
Nie Mingjue approached the body and nudged it with his sword. "Wen-dog," he said, disgusted. "How did he get in?"
"I'm not sure he's actually from the Wen Sect," Meng Yao said tentatively. "He used Jin sword techniques."
"But why would the Jin Sect want to kill you?" Nie Mingjue asked, dumbfounded. "You're no threat to them."
"Oh!" Nie Huaisang said, suddenly, and then scratched his head. "But the fan maker isn't from the Jin Sect, it can't have anything to do with him."
"What fan maker?" Nie Mingjue said.
"The fan maker in town, near the east gate," Meng Yao said. "And Huaisang is right, he isn't from the Jin Sect. I recognized him from my time with Wen Ruohan."
Nie Mingjue swore. "I thought I'd rooted out all the Wen spies," he said, then looked up again at Meng Yao. "But why would the Wen Sect be using Jin sword techniques? How does the Jin Sect fit into any of this? Jin Guangshan has been hunting down the last remaining Wen-dogs with as much fervor as anyone."
"But if he wanted to set up a spy network in Qinghe, wouldn't it be useful to use the remnants of one that was already in place? Perhaps he heard about it from one of his captives, and offered mercy to them if they could make contacts with those still in Qinghe. And I did see a Jin Sect servant leaving the fan maker's shop yesterday. It was the reason I went in to begin with."
Nie Mingjue looked skeptical, but he couldn't exactly refute the body on the floor, or the blood pooling around it. Someone had set this in motion.
"If it is the Jin Sect, they'll pay," Nie Mingjue said. "But we need evidence." He turned to his men. "Take the body to the morgue and wake the coroner to see what he can find. Have this room cleaned afterward. Meng Yao...." As he turned back to Meng Yao, his expression flitted through a number of emotions before settling on concern. "You'll sleep in my room until I'm convinced of your safety."
"Of course," Meng Yao said, his heartbeat pounding in his ears. Months of barely speaking to him, and all it had taken was an attempt on his life for Nie Mingjue to decide he cared about Meng Yao's safety, after all.
Meng Yao stood in the center of Nie Mingjue's room, fidgeting with his sleeves, while Nie Mingjue slipped off his shoes and sat down on the edge of the bed. He looked up at Meng Yao. "You're truly uninjured?"
"I'm not," Meng Yao said, and relaxed just a little. "Thank you for your concern."
"You are my husband, of course I'm concerned," Nie Mingjue snapped, and rubbed his eyes. "Tell me more about your discussion with that fan maker."
Meng Yao went over the conversation he'd had earlier in the day, leaving out certain details.
"I want to talk to him," Nie Mingjue said when he was finished. "Whether or not the Jin Sect is involved with this, you're right that it's too much of a coincidence that there should be an attack on your life so soon after questioning him about it. If anything, I wonder if the Wen Sect isn't trying to frame the Jin Sect for it; the Wen Sect has more motive, and the assassin's lack of skill with the blade might be because he was using less familiar forms."
"Maybe," Meng Yao said. "We don't have any other leads, so we may as well talk to him again. I don't know where the Jin servant went after she left town, and I doubt we'll learn much from the body of the assassin."
"I'll need to tighten security in the complex," Nie Mingjue said. "He may have been a poor swordsman, but he was able to get into your room without anyone noticing. My men aren't doing their job very well if someone like that was able to get in."
Meng Yao refrained from mentioning that perhaps they hadn't bothered guarding his door at all, hoping something might happen. Those who hadn't liked him when he'd been Nie Mingjue's deputy didn't like him any better as Nie Mingjue's spouse.
"Are you coming to bed, or are you going to stand there all night?" Nie Mingjue said brusquely, after an uncomfortably long silence, and Meng Yao was glad the dim candlelight hid the color that rose to his cheeks. "Your virtue is safe here; I told you I wouldn't force you do anything."
Meng Yao climbed into the other side of the bed, and Nie Mingjue doused the candles and lay down beside him. Meng Yao's heart beat like a sparrow in his chest, and in the dark, he finally found the courage to speak.
"You would hardly be forcing me." His voice was barely over a whisper. Nie Mingjue turned to look at him, but Meng Yao kept his gaze firmly fixed on the ceiling.
"It wouldn't be a hardship, to share your bed," he said, glancing over at Nie Mingjue's sleep-mussed hair. Nie Mingjue was silent for a long moment, his eyes glinting in the dark. Meng Yao tried again, more directly. "I have wanted to sleep with you since I was your deputy," he said, finally, the baldness of the statement making him wince internally. There was no backing down from that, no trying to insinuate that he'd meant something else. "If you want to, I'm willing."
There was a small intake of breath in the space between them, and Meng Yao felt the ghost of a hand at his waist that disappeared a moment later.
"Let's solve this case, and then reconsider the question," Nie Mingjue said at last, and rolled onto his back, his eyes shuttering closed.
When they were heading out to the city with a small group of Nie Mingjue's trusted captains, Nie Huaisang came running up behind them. "I'm coming, hang on, hang on," he said as he joined them. "This is the best fan maker in town, I'll have you know, it really will be a shame if you have to kill him."
"You know his work?" Nie Mingjue asked, and Nie Huaisang was so delighted to talk about his collection, especially with the brother who had shown little interest before, that he filled what might have been an awkward silence between the three of them all the way to the shop.
In the shop, the fan maker looked up when they came in and his polite smile grew more forced as soon as he saw Meng Yao and Nie Mingjue. "Sect Leader Nie, Nie-furen, Young Master Nie, how can I help you today?"
"Tell me about the attack on Meng Yao."
The man blanched even further. "I'm not sure what you mean, Sect Leader Nie. He was attacked?"
"Come on, Feng Bai, surely if you know something it's better to say something now?" Nie Huaisang said. "I would really hate to lose the best fan maker in the region. How long have I been coming to you, now, two years? Three years?"
"Sect Leader Nie," Feng Bai said quickly, "I'm just a fan maker. I don't know why you think I would have something to do with an attack on Nie-furen. There are many coincidences in the world, surely this is just one more of them?"
"If you were just any shopkeeper, it might be a coincidence," Meng Yao said. "But we both know Wen Ruohan sent you here to spy. How can it be a coincidence that the very day I saw you here, an assassin broke into my room?"
With one swift movement, Nie Mingjue pulled Baxia from its sheath and slammed it down on the store counter. Feng Bai let out a small whimper and collapsed into a deep bow.
"Sect Leader Nie, please have mercy!"
"Listen, Wen-dog," he said, "Tell me what you know about the attack and your family, at least, might be spared."
The man let out a trembling laugh. "If you could guarantee that, Sect Leader, neither of us would be in this situation."
"They're being held captive," Nie Huaisang said suddenly, his fan flitting before his face. "Aren't they?"
Feng Bai nodded broadly. "Yes, yes," he said. "If I cooperate, he won't kill them, but as soon as I don't...."
"Who?" Nie Mingjue demanded. "Wen Ruohan is dead, who is left?"
"Not the Wens," the man said. "Sect Leader Jin. Jin Guangshan." Now the words ran from his lips like water. "When Wen Ruohan died, he sent someone in, a messenger—the woman you saw, Nie-furen, that was her. Sect Leader Jin learned about the network here and wanted to use it to act against you."
"But why?" Meng Yao said. "I'm no threat to him here."
Feng Bai shook his head. "I don't know his reasons. The messenger didn't say and I didn't ask. It's my family, Sect Leader Nie!"
Nie Mingjue looked as though he were thinking about lopping the man's head off anyway, but Meng Yao put a hand on his arm. "Wait," he said. "He can help us track down the rest of the network. Without him, we don't have any leads on who else might be part of it."
"And he acted under duress!" Nie Huaisang added. "You can't blame him for that!"
"He was a Wen-dog before he started taking orders from Jin Guangshan!" Nie Mingjue snapped. "He's lucky I don't track down his family and kill them, too."
Feng Bai let out a cry from where he knelt on the ground. "Please, Sect Leader Nie, I'll tell you whatever you want to know."
"Who else is in this network?" Nie Mingjue demanded.
"Give me—give me some paper, and I'll write it down for you," he said. Nie Huaisang grabbed a roll of paper from behind the counter and a brush and ink and set them on the ground next to where Feng Bai was kneeling. The man lifted himself from the ground just enough to write, the characters shaky on the page. When he was done, he held up the page toward Nie Mingjue, who frowned at it.
"I know some of these people," he said. "I've trusted some of these people. You're trying to tell me they've been Wen spies all along?"
"Of course it's for you to verify, Sect Leader Nie, but that is what I'm saying. I haven't told them anything about Jin Guangshan; they think I'm in contact with someone in hiding, trying to rebuild the Wen Sect. It was easy to convince the man to try to kill Nie-furen—after all, he's the one who killed Wen Ruohan."
Nie Mingjue sheathed Baxia and grabbed the page from him, rolling it back up and tucking it in his sleeve. He grabbed Feng Bai by the collar and hauled him up. "You'll stay in the prison until I've investigated this list," he said, and stepped outside, where he shoved the man at one of the waiting disciples and gave the order to bring him to the prison. A small crowd had gathered upon seeing all the Nie disciples outside the shop, but they dispersed quickly as soon as Nie Mingjue glared at them.
Nie Mingjue hung behind for a moment as his men took Feng Bai back toward the palace. "I can take it from here, Meng Yao," he said, uncharacteristically laying a hand on Meng Yao's arm. "I'll let you know what I find."
Meng Yao watched his back as he walked away, his arm tingling. Behind him, Nie Huaisang let out a deep sigh. "What a waste of talent!"
Nie Mingjue was true to his word, and was remarkably efficient; ten days later he had found every person on the list, arrested them, interrogated them, and executed them. The list included one of Nie Mingjue's closest lieutenants, several merchants in town, and, astoundingly, the sect's bookkeeper, which sent the entire records division into a frenzy of checking and double-checking documents from the past two years when the man had first taken the position.
As soon as Meng Yao heard that Nie Mingjue had worked his way through the last of the list, he took a box of food down to Feng Bai in the prison.
"Finally," the man said when Meng Yao entered the cell. "You're here to get me out, right? I was afraid Sect Leader Nie would have me executed before you had a chance."
"Keep your voice down, please," Meng Yao said. "I've been trying to get Sect Leader Nie to let you out of his own accord. I've almost persuaded him." He laid the dishes out on the small table in the center of the room, and sat down to eat with Feng Bai. Feng Bai dove in as soon as he saw Meng Yao take a bite.
"You promised me," he said between bites, gesturing at Meng Yao with his chopsticks. "You said you could convince him to let me go. I only agreed to this because you swore you could do it."
"You agreed to it because you had no other option," Meng Yao said. "Because the chance of life, even on the run, was superior to death at the hands of Wen Ruohan's chief torturer."
Feng Bai looked uncomfortable at the reminder of Meng Yao's previous position in the Wen Sect.
"Freedom and money, you said. Enough money for passage across the country, enough for a new start. Where is it, Nie-furen?"
"The financials are in disarray after the bookkeeper's execution," Meng Yao said offhandedly. "If any money is missing, it will be attributed to him. I have to applaud him on rising to that position in such a short time. It's a shame his talents couldn't be useful to us after all."
Feng Bai's chewing slowed, as he seemed to realize Meng Yao hadn't given him any real reassurances at all since he'd arrived. "You gave your word," he said after swallowing. "Surely that must mean something, even to the son of a whore."
Meng Yao's smile froze on his face. "I gave you my word Sect Leader Nie would not kill you," he said tightly. "And he has not."
At that moment, with the dramatic timing that seemed to define Meng Yao's entire life, the man in front of him took a breath to speak, and suddenly began gasping and clawing at his throat. Meng Yao calmly took another bite and watched as the man suffocated.
"I might have had some regret about killing you, if you hadn't said that," he said as the man fell to the floor, convulsing. "Huaisang is quite enamored of your fanmaking talents, and I have some respect for anyone who can organize a network like the one you've been managing. But I can't leave any loose ends around, you understand, not when I'm so close to being back in Mingjue's good graces. If I'd let him kill you himself, well, you might have told him about our deal before you died, and I really couldn't have that."
Meng Yao looked at the body on the floor, unmoving, for another moment, and then pulled out the white silk he'd tucked into his sleeve before coming and looped it over the rafters. He hefted Feng Bai's body up and into the noose, making sure the weight held securely before returning to pack up the food he'd brought.
He smiled faintly as he turned the key in the cell door and left the prison, a grey figure watching from the shadows as he left.
"Feng Bai hung himself in his cell," Nie Mingjue said later, in his room, as Meng Yao combed out his hair. "After begging me not to kill him, why would he do such a thing?"
"Perhaps," Meng Yao said, letting his fingers linger on Nie Mingjue's neck as he worked, "he realized he couldn't prevent his death, and decided to hang himself rather than face whatever he imagined you had in store for him."
Nie Mingjue's expression in the bronze mirror didn't look any more at ease, but he shook it off a moment later. "Good riddance," he said. "Saved me the trouble."
Meng Yao finished combing his hair, and rested his hands on Nie Mingjue's shoulders, rubbing light circles into the tight muscles there. Nie Mingjue looked up to meet his gaze in the mirror. "You did well," he said. "You were right. I won't let Jin Guangshan get away with this, you know."
"Sect Leader Jin is... more subtle than you are," Meng Yao said carefully. "He will find a way to deny he played any part in this."
"Of course he will," Nie Mingjue said, disgust in his voice. "I expect nothing less." His expression softened, and he turned to look up at Meng Yao, placing his hand over his. "I won't be able to take him down without you."
And that was it, that was the whole reason he had done this in the first place. He smiled. "Of course I'll help."
Nie Mingjue searched his face for a moment, and then pulled him down into a kiss.
"Now, about that matter we postponed...."
On Meng Yao's walk back to his own quarters the next morning, sleepy but more content than he'd been in months, he was joined by Nie Huaisang.
"Did you have a good night?" Nie Huaisang asked, and Meng Yao smiled at him.
"I'm glad to see you and Da-ge are getting along better."
"As am I," Meng Yao said, still smiling, but his skin prickled in concern.
Nie Huaisang stopped suddenly, and Meng Yao stopped with him, turning to face him in the middle of the hallway.
"Was there ever a spy network at all, or did you frame all those people, too?"
The contented feeling in Meng Yao's chest twisted into terror in an instant. He evaluated quickly—Nie Huaisang knew something, but how much? What could Meng Yao admit without giving anything more away?
"It was a real spy network," he said finally.
"But Sect Leader Jin had nothing to do with it."
Meng Yao nodded his assent.
"The Jin woman in Feng Bai's shop?"
"Buying a fan for her sweetheart, according to Feng Bai."
Nie Huaisang cocked his head to one side. "Well, I can't blame you for wanting to take on your dad, and you did help us out. But if you ever try to hurt this clan, you won't have enough of a corpse left to bury."
Meng Yao looked at the steely edge in Nie Huaisang's gaze, and believed him. He nodded again, not trusting himself to speak.
"Next time, you should tell me what you're planning. I'll be more help if I know what's going on." He clapped Meng Yao on the shoulder and wandered off the way they'd come, leaving Meng Yao staring after him and wondering whether he'd made a friend or a foe.