He sees her out behind the infirmary tent.
He had heard that Jiang Yanli was working with the doctors some days ago, before the knowledge flew clean out of his head to be replaced by troop movements and supply caravans. Here is the truth of it: her sleeves tied back, blood under her nails, the clean back of her hand pressed against her mouth that does not quite muffle her sobs.
He must make some sound of his own, because she looks up, composure slipping back over her face like a mask.
“Nie-zongzhu.” She bows, as graceful as if this had been the Lotus Pier receiving hall and not a scrap of muddy earth. “I hope you are well?”
“Jiang-guniang.” Nie Mingjue returns her bow. “I am indeed, but I fear you are not?”
“Ah.” She reaches up to brush tears from her cheeks, then checks herself when she recalls the state of her hands. “One of the patients. I had thought he was recovering, but instead...I didn’t want to cry in front of the others; they should be focused on getting well, not on me.”
“Jiang-guniang,” he says, “your care for our soldiers does you credit. I...I would hope only that you remember to care for yourself as well.”
Jiang Yanli laughs softly. “I do try, but I am grateful for the reminder. If you will pardon me--” She reaches for the tent flap. “--I should return to my duties, and I am surely keeping you from important business.”
No, you’re not. The words are on the tip of Nie Mingjue’s tongue. It seems suddenly, vitally important that he stay here, that he keep talking with this woman. “Ah. Of course, Jiang-guniang.”
With a final bow, she vanishes back into the infirmary tent. Nie Mingjue stands there for a moment longer, trying to recall where he was headed. Jiang Yanli’s voice is a steady murmur through the canvas.
After the banquet in Nightless City--after the speeches and the drinking and the food and more drinking and more speeches--Nie Mingjue retreats to his room and his little brother follows.
Ever since he was old enough to attend banquets and conferences, Nie Huaisang has delighted in picking apart the foibles of the attendees afterward; studying sect leaders, heirs and disciples with equal scrutiny to deduce their motives. It’s not something he does with Mingjue so much as it’s a solo performance in need of an audience.
Tonight, it starts when Nie Huaisang flops onto Mingjue’s bed with a theatrical sigh. “How rude.”
“Anything in particular?”
Huaisang smirks. “Should I go in chronological order or degree of offense?”
“Your choice, didi,” Nie Mingjue says, taking the guan down from his hair, and gestures with the pin for his brother to start.
Nie Huaisang sits up, the better to gesture with his fan as he talks. “First there was Jin Guangshan tricking his way into the seat at the head of the room. Anyone who knows you could have told him that you would never sit on Wen Ruohan’s throne, so he gets to offer you the place of honor and pretend regret when he has to sit there instead.”
Nie Mingjue snorts. “Yes, he looked very sad indeed. What else made your list?”
“Putting the Jiang Clan on the spot like that.” Nie Huaisang does look genuinely offended now, his jaw clenched at the memory. “They’re still in mourning; to make a public display about Jiang-guniang’s engagement was rude at best, cruel at worst. Thankfully Wei Wuxian is just as rude or poor Jiang Yanli might have been bullied into a marriage right there in front of Wen Ruohan’s throne.”
Nie Mingjue remembers Jiang Yanli behind the infirmary tent, her eyes bright with tears but gaze steady. He doesn’t think she could be bullied into anything.
But perhaps she can be asked.
He waits until the mourning period is over, until Jiang Cheng has been formally invested as sect leader, before writing to arrange a visit.
Their meeting is as relaxed as any visit between sect leaders can be; in a small receiving hall at Lotus Pier, private, fortified with a selection of food and tea. It takes Jiang Cheng a little while to warm to the conversation, nerves or suspicion or both making him wooden. Still, they worked together closely enough during the war that familiarity slowly returns.
Nie Mingjue stated purpose is a formal greeting to the new sect leader and offering himself for any assistance Jiang-zongzhu might require, which isn’t untrue. Nie Mingjue sees a great deal of promise in Jiang Cheng, but he’s had to assume leadership under circumstances Nie Mingjue knows all too well. Even after his own father’s death, Nie Mingjue at least inherited a sect that was still whole; Jiang Cheng has been rebuilding his quite literally. Even where he may lack knowledge or experience, however, his instincts are good. Nie Mingjue offers less advice than he had initially thought he might; instead, it provides Jiang Cheng a chance to talk out his own ideas for Lotus Pier with someone who can verify if they might work the way he hopes.
“There is one other thing I would discuss with you,” Nie Mingjue says as the conversation at last begins to wind down. “...I would like to make an offer of marriage to your sister, Jiang-guniang.”
Jiang Cheng freezes in mid-reach for his teacup. “Ah, I see.” Zidian spits a warning spark. “If you had told me from the beginning the price of your counsel, Nie-zongzhu, I might have declined.”
Nie Mingjue can practically hear Huaisang encouraging him not to lose his temper. “My counsel comes freely, as a sect heir who had to step into his father’s shoes too early.” Jiang Cheng goes white around the mouth, but doesn’t interrupt. “And my request regarding your sister is only that: a request. If she does not find me suitable, it will not change my high opinion of her or Yunmeng Jiang.”
Jiang Cheng is quiet for a moment, turning Zidian around his finger. Eventually, he lifts his chin and locks eyes with Nie Mingjue. “I will speak with my sister. As you said, the decision is hers.”
Jiang Yanli has taken over one of the smaller pavilions as her office; neat stacks of paper held down with smooth river rocks as she makes training rosters and supply lists. She can enjoy the breeze out here as well as the quiet, but everyone knows where to find her if they need her.
She recognizes her brother’s steps on the boards of the pier long before he’s in sight. It gives her time to finish writing out her recommendations for instructors and set down her brush, readying herself for whatever crisis has him just short of running to her.
Jiang Cheng spends the first few minutes pacing in front of her desk in furious silence before finally blurting out, “He wants to marry you.”
“Who wants--” Abruptly she recalls Nie-zongzhu’s scheduled meeting with her brother. She had told the kitchen to be ready in case he should stay as late as dinner. “Oh.”
She has never considered Nie Mingjue before, not in this light. She spent so long engaged to Jin Zixuan that there was no need to think of anyone else. Stolen kisses with Yunmeng girls was one thing; setting her affections on anyone but her future husband just seemed like a path to heartache.
But the heartache came all the same, she muses, although better before the wedding than after.
How then to judge a new suitor, especially this one? She loved both her parents dearly but she always wanted a marriage of true affection as well as a partnership. Can he give her that?
I would only hope that you remember to care for yourself as well.
Her silence must be unnerving Jiang Cheng, because he adds forcefully, “Don’t do this just because you think you should. Because you think you have to for the clan’s sake.”
“I won’t. I’m not,” she adds firmly, when she realizes it’s true. “I...would like to get to know Sect Leader Nie better, before we formalize anything.”
The tension bleeds out of Jiang Cheng’s shoulders. “Of course. He’s not the only one who gets to make demands.”
According to Jiang Cheng, Nie Mingjue yielded easily to Jiang Yanli’s request for time (suspiciously so, in her brother’s eyes). Strictly speaking, they are not yet betrothed, so there is no need for formal betrothal gifts.
The gifts come anyway.
First are hair pins, cunningly worked in gold and silver wire; blossoms and birds and running beasts. Next are jade bracelets, and after that a fan painted with lotuses, and then bolts of grey-green silk.
With the gifts come letters.
The first is polite, if stilted: wishing Jiang Yanli well, asking after her family, hopeful that she will enjoy the hair pins. All the pleasantries one would expect, but none of the warmth. Jiang Yanli crafts her reply carefully. It comes out longer than perhaps is necessary, but Jiang Yanli knows hunting as well as any cultivator. One must try different bait to see what draws your quarry out.
(Jin Zixuan had never written to her at all; she won’t squander this opportunity.)
Nie Mingjue writes at length about his brother, fondness bleeding through every expression of frustration. He tells her about the people of Qinghe, how they live their lives when not burdened by war. His care for them is equally clear and it pleases Jiang Yanli to see it.
She learns more about the geography of Qinghe than her long-ago lessons ever taught her, and more importantly she learns about Nie Mingjue. His dry sense of humor, his sense of responsibility for his brother and his sect, his distaste for sect politics--she finds herself thinking of how they would complement each other, enough to make for strong sect leadership as well as a strong marriage.
It is perhaps looking too far ahead, but she wants to hope. She realizes just how much she wants this to work out well, and then the next day another letter arrives: an invitation to Qinghe.
She brings it straight to Jiang Cheng, her pleasure tempered with caution. There is still much to do before the Jins’ upcoming night hunt and Jiang Cheng cannot afford to be absent from Lotus Pier for as much time as it will take to travel, visit, and return. Even if they were to travel to Carp Tower straight from Qinghe, it doesn’t seem workable.
“I could go.”
Jiang Yanli startles at Wei Wuxian’s voice. She hadn’t even heard him enter the room.
“I could go,” Wei Wuxian repeats. “I could escort Shijie. I…” He toys with the cuff of his sleeve, eyes flicking to Jiang Cheng and then away. “I know I haven’t taken on as much responsibility as I could have lately. Let me do this for you both.”
Jiang Yanli is not a fool. She knows that something happened to her brother during the war, during the months he was missing. She suspects it is, in some way, still happening. Wei Wuxian has been avoiding possibly everyone since their return but the Yunmeng wine merchants. If he is ready to try something else, Jiang Yanli will not be the one to refuse him.
“Of course!” Jiang Yanli turns to him with a smile. “And you can see Nie-gongzi as well.”
Jiang Cheng folds his arms like he’s considering an argument, but checks himself at a look from his sister. “Fine. Just don’t spend all your time running wild with Nie Huaisang. But--” He lifts his chin, looking so much like their mother than Jiang Yanli’s heart aches. “--don’t let the Nies push you around either. You’re the first disciple of Yunmeng Jiang.”
“And a war hero,” Jiang Yanli adds, earning an emphatic nod from her brother.
“Exactly.” Jiang Cheng’s expression softens, just the slightest bit. “If they don’t treat you and A-Jie right, you tell me and--”
“You’ll break their legs, I know, I know.” Wei Wuxian is smiling now, open and honest. “It’ll be fine, Jiang Cheng, you’ll see.”
The last time Jiang Yanli arrived at the gates of the Unclean Realm, the ground was littered with corpses and Wen Xu’s head hung from the archway. This visit begins with Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang waiting to greet her carriage. For all the time she spent here during the Sunshot Campaign, it’s remarkably different to experience it as a place where people live, rather than a fortress that may become their last stand any day.
Jiang Yanli is also pleased to find a camaraderie between Nie Mingjue and his disciples that reminds her of Lotus Pier in her childhood. Never a lack of respect, but a closeness that she missed during the lectures in Cloud Recesses and has never seen in Carp Tower.
One afternoon, Wei Wuxian manages to convince Nie Huaisang to help him test some of his new talisman designs out on the training grounds. It’s not clear what they’re supposed to do, since all they seem capable of is a series of small explosions. This naturally draws an audience of Nie disciples; Nie Mingjue and Jiang Yanli observe as well, albeit from a little further off.
“I see Wei Wuxian is still coming up with new inventions,” Nie Mingjue says, as one of his disciples steps in to make some suggestions of her own. After some emphatic gesturing and borrowing a brush from Nie Huaisang, she adds a few strokes to a talisman and thrusts it at Wei Wuxian. He makes an exaggerated bow before taking it from her, drawing laughter from the other disciples. “His cleverness saved all our lives.”
“It is good to see him happy,” Jiang Yanli murmurs. “Wei Wuxian has not...I have been worried about him, since the war.”
If Nie Mingjue is one of those who fears her brother’s power, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he replies gently, “It will have been hard on him, the way war is hard on all young men, but being young...It's like the wounds you treated, Jiang-guniang. A strong young patient--with those who care for him, with time and distance between him and his injury--will recover well.”
Jiang Yanli turns to him with a smile, willfully ignoring the fresh round of shouting and laughter from the training grounds. “I’m glad to hear you say so, Nie-zongzhu.”
All too soon, it’s time to return to Lotus Pier.
Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang escort them to their carriage at the main gate, accompanied by a cluster of Nie disciples including the young woman who involved herself in Wei Wuxian’s talisman experiments. Jiang Yanli hasn’t gotten the full story from her brother, but she suspects there are going to be a great deal of letters back and forth between Lotus Pier and Qinghe and more explosions. Jiang Yanli decides not to mention that to Jiang Cheng right away.
After helping her into the carriage, Nie Mingjue is slow to withdraw his hand from hers. “Will I see you at the Phoenix Mountain hunt?” he asks.
“Yes,” Jiang Yanli says, squeezing his hand. “You may count on it.”
Dinner the night before the hunt is thankfully not a formal banquet; with guests arriving at Carp Tower throughout the day and into the evening, most take their meal in the rooms provided for their stay. There will be time enough over the next several days for public displays. Tonight is one last chance for quiet and privacy.
After her own dinner with her brothers, Jiang Yanli decides to explore the gardens around the guest quarters. They are full of cunning little paths that wind back around each other, lined with trees and beds of flowers. Around one such turn she finds Nie Mingjue.
It feels like more than a coincidence, like something out of a story. It feels right.
After their bows and greetings are exchanged, he asks if he might walk with her and she readily agrees. “And what brings you out this evening?” Jiang Yanli asks. They walk close enough for their sleeves to brush, but don’t touch.
“Huaisang is up to something,” Nie Mingjue says, surprising a laugh out of her. “My best guesses are he’s captured another bird or he’s stolen from Jin Guangshan’s private stash of alcohol. Either way, he kept hinting I should take a walk and I decided it was better for me not to be there when his scheme comes crashing down around his ears.”
“Give Nie-gongzi a little more credit than that,” Jiang Yanli teases. “I trust him not to get found out until we are all on our way home.”
Nie Mingjue laughs with his head thrown back, as they come upon a particularly spacious and highly decorated garden pavilion. He is still smiling faintly when he turns to ask Jiang Yanli, “No regrets that you’ve given up your chance to be mistress of all this?”
He means it as a joke, she thinks, but she weighs her answer carefully before responding. “Carp Tower is a beautiful place,” she admits. “But it’s the beauty of appearances, not of purpose. I would rather have the waters of Yunmeng.” She takes a deep breath, like before the running leap off a pier. “Or the forests of Qinghe.”
Nie Mingjue’s expression is open and raw; it makes him look young. “Jiang-guniang,” he says slowly. “Are you...Do you want…?”
“Ask me.” She’s smiling so wide it hurts. “Please ask me.”
Nie Mingjue steps closer, his hands flexing on empty air. “Will you be my wife, Jiang Yanli?” His tone is all urgency, as if he still doesn’t know what she’ll say.
Jiang Yanli takes one of his hands in both of hers. “Yes,” she says. “Yes, of course.”
His free hand curls over the nape of her neck and draws her in. The touch of his mouth on hers is fierce but fleeting. “I am sorry,” he murmurs after pulling back. “I...I allowed myself to be carried away.”
Jiang Yanli does her best to look stern. “You should only be sorry if you’re not going to kiss me again.”
Nie Mingjue’s eyes flash; his second kiss is just as hungry but shows no signs of slowing. His hand slides down her spine to settle in the small of her back and pull her even closer.
It’s impossible to say how long they’ve stood there when they hear voices coming from down the path, the tread of boots on gravel. They jerk apart, both flushed and panting. Now is not the time to deal with company.
“Quick,” Jiang Yanli whispers, pulling at his hand. “This way.” She leads him back down the colonnade, ducking behind ornamental trees, until they can slip fully out of sight into her own guest room.
The giddy feeling of avoiding pursuit ebbs slightly once they’re safely alone. Nie Mingjue looks down at his boots, then over to the door, abashed. “I should go, Jiang-guniang. I would not want anyone to--”
Jiang Yanli holds up a hand to silence him. “I am grateful for your care for my reputation; I am not trying to risk it either, but--” She swallows hard. “I would have you stay, if you are willing. I am not an ignorant girl; there are other...things we could do.”
She feels a blush rise at her own daring, but decides it’s worth it when she sees how wide and dark Nie Mingjue’s eyes have gotten.
“I would not have it said that I denied my future wife anything,” Nie Mingjue says. “Perhaps Nie-furen will show her humble servant how best to please her.”
She steps back until her heels hit the bed and sits primly on the edge, parting her robes below the waist. “When you are ready, my lord.”
He smirks as he kneels before her, resting his hands lightly on her knees. “I believe at the very least you should call me Mingjue.”
He kisses her just above the knee, alternating sides and slowly climbing higher up her inner thighs; slow, sucking kisses that threaten to bruise. She hopes they will bruise, hopes she can squeeze her legs together tomorrow and feel them as she smiles through another interminable conversation with Jin-furen.
She’s so focused on the idea that Nie Mingjue’s mouth against her cunt is a shock. She yelps, hips jerking, and Nie Mingjue lifts his head, laughing.
“Perhaps my lady would prefer to lie back?”
She does so carefully, mindful of the pins still in her hair. Nie Mingjue’s hands shift to grip her thighs, pulling her closer and tilting her hips until he can reach all of her at his leisure.
He takes his time with her, savoring her like something he’s craved and been denied. He traces her inner lips with his tongue, then dips inside. He drags the flat of his tongue over her in one slow, feverish stroke. He seems content to stay there all night and Jiang Yanli is strongly tempted to let him.
“Will you do this on our wedding night?” she wonders aloud. She can feel his moan and laughs breathlessly. She lets one hand drift down to rest on his hair, still at first but gradually winding tighter in his braids as the wave builds inside her.
“Mingjue,” she gasps. “Mingjue, I need your fingers.”
He doesn’t lift his head to reply, just shifts enough to heed her desire. His finger is thick, so much thicker than her own, and she moans. “Another,” she demands. He’s careful with them, his touch inside her so much softer and slower than his tongue.
Her leg is hooked over his shoulder now and her slipper has fallen off; she digs her bare heel into his back, urging him on. His tongue is relentless against her clit, harsh flicks and flat strokes drawing her higher. She’s whimpering, hips rolling against his face and her hand an iron claw in his hair, until he closes his lips around her and sucks.
Jiang Yanli manages to bite down on her sleeve, muffling her scream as she convulses into orgasm, clenching around his fingers. He soothes her through the aftershocks with lighter touches, drawing his fingers out slowly.
Nie Mingjue sits up, scrubbing his mouth with the back of his hand. She can see where his moustache is still damp, where the corner of his lip shines. “I trust my lady is satisfied?”
Jiang Yanli draws him up with her grip on his hair until he moves to sit beside her and she can kiss him. She chases the taste of herself in his mouth until Nie Mingjue pulls back, groaning against her cheek. Jiang Yanli glances down at the obvious tenting in his robes.
“And how may I return your kindness?” she wonders.
Nie Mingjue shifts; she catches him by the wrist to keep him from moving away. The fact that he seems more flustered now than he had with his head between her thighs is charming. “I would never ask anything of you until our wedding night, I--”
“But you are not asking,” she points out. “I am offering.”
Together, they fumble Nie Mingjue’s robes open, distracted by further kisses and their own hands brushing, until his cock is out.
Jiang Yanli was a nurse during the war; she’s seen more of men’s bodies in this life than she ever expected to. (More to the point, she has a younger brother who has never been as clever at hiding his pornography as he thinks.)
Still, it’s something else to see it in person: a man flushed and hard for her.
She reaches out cautiously, fingertips just brushing the shaft. His cock jerks at even that brief touch, a thin trickle of precome leaking out. Jiang Yanli drags it back up with the pad of her thumb, rubbing around the head.
Nie Mingjue makes a sound perilously close to a growl. “A-Li, do not tease.”
“Tonight I will not,” she agrees, curling her hand firmly around him at last. “But I make no promises for later.”
It takes only a few strokes before Nie Mingjue is panting hard; she can feel the sweat from his forehead where it’s pressed against her temple.
“You seem terribly excited,” she says, voice steady even as she feels herself blush clear back to her ears. “Did you enjoy pleasing me that much?”
“Yes,” he rasps in her ear, “and I will enjoy it more when you are sitting on the throne in the Blade Hall.”
Jiang Yanli gasps at the thought and tightens her grip. That’s all it takes; Nie Mingjue comes in thick pulses that spill down over her knuckles and the back of her hand. Jiang Yanli watches, fascinated, before slowly letting go.
Nie Mingjue gathers himself enough to help clean her hand with a corner of his innermost robe, where the stain will be hidden enough for him to get back to his rooms. She kisses him in thanks, then again for the pleasure of it. Slowly, they tip back to lie on her bed, her head pillowed on his shoulder. Jiang Yanli knows that they should put themselves in order and part ways, but she also knows that once their engagement is officially announced, they’ll have a much harder time getting any privacy like this before the wedding.
“Oh!” Jiang Yanli would sit up in surprise, were Nie Mingjue’s arm not gently pinning her. “We have to tell my brothers about the engagement. And your brother. And--”
Nie Mingjue kisses her neck, stopping that line of thought in its tracks. “In the morning, A-Li. It will all be there in the morning.”
“Yes, but you had better be somewhere else,” she teases, poking him in the shoulder. “Where’s all that care for my reputation now, hm?”
“I seem to have misplaced it. Perhaps Nie-furen will help me search my robes?” he remarks dryly, but moves his arm so she can sit up.
Jiang Yanli has a retort of her own on her lips when she finally takes notice of the state of Nie Mingjue’s hair. His guan is barely held in place and half the braids are unraveling. It looks as if someone (she blushes, even as she starts laughing) has been pulling at it. Anyone who sees him will guess what he’s been up to.
Nie Mingjue arches an eyebrow and she gestures helplessly toward his hair. “I may have--” She smothers another wave of giggles. “Will you let me fix your hair?”
Nie Mingjue chuckles, leaning in for another kiss. “It would be my pleasure to show you how.”