“In here,” Jin Guangyao says urgently, dragging Mingjue’s helpless body through the threshold of his personal rooms. Too much space. Too many corners. Too many windows, doors and nooks for the enemy to hide.
What is their enemy? Mingjue knows the answer, of course, has been working tirelessly for months at Jin Guangyao’s side to unseat it from power. He knows the name of it, the shape of it. It’s only that his mind is slow and sluggish with blood loss, and his tongue is tied with something heavy that tastes like mud and sour milk.
Assassins, he thinks. Sweep the rooms, his mind tries telling his body.
But Jin Guangyao only holds him tighter when Mingjue attempts to break away from him, when he tries putting his heavy, heavy body between him and the room.
“Let me,” he starts. He slurs the words between his teeth as if drunk. His body is full to bursting with animal worry.
Twenty-five. There were twenty-five of them that Mingjue counted before he was overwhelmed and time became a blurry, uncertain thing.
“Quiet now,” murmurs Jin Guangyao as they enter the smaller parlour, east side. The windows are open. Curtains flutter in the breeze, each shadow the shape of a person large enough to chase Mingjue’s insides right up to his throat.
“I need to,” he starts, but Jin Guangyao shakes his head.
“Stop talking,” he says. “Stop talking.”
His voice is hard, thin. A needle. Sharp.
The traitor heir is more beautiful than Mingjue thought possible.
He watches the man, a slip of a thing dressed in white and gold silk brocade, bow to his father. The angle is precise. Elegant. How he turns his wrist, a slice of skin under the fall of a sleeve just so, feels calculated in a way that reminds Mingjue of Huaisang playing his game in the halls of less important society gentlemen. A beautiful thing, meant for nothing else but admiration: a glass knife.
Mingjue swallows. There is a strangeness that settles into his stomach as he watches Jin Guangshan wave his son away.
Here, Jin Guangyao, the butcher of Qishan. Voice firm, controlled and polite as he says his thanks and turns, the flurry of fabric behind him light like dragonfly wings in the sun, opalescent. Mingjue thinks, in the absent-minded way most great revelations come: this man will kill me, one day.
But Mingjue doesn’t have time to resent whatever presentiment of ill fate wormed its way into his mind. The traitor heir is walking away from his father who gifted him Mingjue’s service, down the length of the hall and past him without a fleeting glance to the side where Mingjue stands at a respectful half-bow, ready.
The expectation is clear. Mingjue follows Jin Guangyao out through the gold-run stone doorway of Jinlintai’s throne hall into the sun, down the stairs and across the ornamental gardens to the Eastern Palace, which was given to Jin Guangyao along with all his dead brother’s earthly possessions almost two months ago.
The traitor heir stops by the twin cypress trees that mark the gate to his territory, turns around, and looks up at Mingjue with an expression of perfect neutrality.
“I know where your brother lives,” he says, nothing more, nothing less. He doesn’t wait for an answer. He doesn’t stay to measure Mingjue’s response.
The arrogance of it makes Mingjue’s hands itch.
I know where your brother lives.
The contract between Nie Mingjue and LanlingJin is a formality. A lie. An excuse for a good for nothing father to insult his least favoured son. Everybody knows it.
Jobs are often like this, these days: the Nie clan had lost their power almost a decade ago, but their name carries weight still, which carries Mingjue in turn. Who is more influential and capable of giving him work, a purpose, than the Jin? What better insult is there for a man born from a whore-made-concubine, than to be thrown the once-heir to QingheNie to place in his household as a retainer, a spy?
You will protect my son, and report to me, said Jin Guangshan.
I know where your brother lives, said Jin Guangyao.
Huaisang had taught Mingjue a very important lesson years ago, a lesson Mingjue will never forget: the most delicate and hollow things are often what will kill you, in the end.
Jin Guangyao deposits Mingjue on a settee, Mingjue’s own weight doing most of the work, then rushes out in a flurry of gold and white for… what? Mingjue is dizzy, afloat—poison, he remembers, the blade burning as it bit into his shoulder. There were three men on him at once. Short swords, a knife, one with a thin, metal wire that was dripping with something. Mingjue’s thoughts have been running heavy like icy water since he woke with the sting of Jin Guangyao’s hand crashing against his face still fresh.
Oaf, he tells himself. Get it together.
But he can’t. Not now and not then, either, helpless in the arms of the man he is supposed to protect, his clothes heavy with rain and dirt and the blood of foreign men.
Jin Guangyao had dragged him under the overreaching roof of a house, opened his robe and plunged a needle into his chest hard enough that Mingjue had to bite his tongue on a shout.
It bought them enough time to make it through the city and past the wall into the compound. It bought Mingjue enough clarity to help them skirt the back paths to the Eastern Palace unseen.
“We should run,” Mingjue had said, mouth close enough to Jin Guangyao’s neck to brush against it, “you should run. He will kill you.”
“He will kill you,” Mingjue repeated himself, hoping—
Jin Guangyao only shook his head, his arm twitching minutely around Mingjue’s shoulder. He smelled sour, pressed against Mingjue in that dark dip in the wall, waiting for the guards to pass.
Afraid, thought Mingjue, fighting for control over his own mind as the poison began to overtake him once more.
He must have lost time again after that, because the next thing he remembers is the sight of Jin Guangyao’s hands pulling away from his face. Mingjue’s lips tingled. He felt, in his meridians, the curl of foreign qi, and he squeezed Jin Guangyao’s hand in thanks.
And now, here: Mingjue half-lying on the settee, his body in the same awkward sprawl as Jin Guangyao left it in his hurry. Mingjue wonders if this is it.
What truly awful timing to go now, he thinks. They are so close. So close. The shape of their enemy is too far for his mind to grasp, but Mingjue is still capable of mourning the loss of something more important than himself.
He wonders if Jin Guangyao will take care of Huaisang. He—
Mingjue shakes awake next to the sound of urgent footsteps and the sight of Jin Guangyao rushing in, in his arms an ornate box which he drops on the floor before tearing the lid open.
“Seven. Eight. Nine,” he mutters, and Mingjue lets himself be carried into near-sleep by the cadence of his voice as it counts the heartbeats up, up, up. “A shichen, no… half-time, the smell… no. Should have brought the fucking sword.”
Mingjue closes his eyes. Shallow water. Fingers in snow. A memory, lurching into his mind, uncalled: the day Mingjue saw the box for the first time, the shock of red on Jin Guangyao’s pale yellow underrobes, his eyes, dark and furious. Mingjue remembers the shape of Jin Guangyao’s fingers as they wrapped around Mingjue’s wrist with visceral clarity. Pale. Long. Beautiful. Dancer’s fingers, he thinks now, watching Jin Guangyao pull out a collection of fat ceramic jars from his box, his sleeves folded up and out of the way, exposing his forearms.
Get out, Jin Guangyao had said then, the day Mingjue had caught him treating a wound that looked close to festering. He tried to make him leave, but Mingjue—
He’d always been stronger, hadn’t he? He looks at Jin Guangyao’s figure now, his filthy outer robes, the way his hair curls around his sweaty neck. He’s such a skinny thing without all his clothes to arm him. Mingjue remembers being surprised, that day, too. Jin Guangyao had squirmed and chafed under him, but had gone quiet and still when Mingjue pulled his underrobe off his shoulder, hissed, and picked up the length of silk Jin Guangyao had soaked in hot water himself.
Mingjue had asked him, after. Why do you have enough medicine in your room for an army, with the best healers of the cultivation world at your beck and call?
Jin Guangyao had only laughed.
Now—now there is only this, ice cold hands opening Mingjue’s robes again and the pull of the wound that splits his skin. Jin Guangyao’s jaw is clenched tight. His shoulders tremble, but his hands are steady as they work the knot around a length of clean linen open, the ends dipping into the foul smelling stuff in a shallow bowl by Mingjue’s feet.
Jin Guangyao presses on the poultice. Mingjue watches, with half-detached fascination, his collarbone dip in and out of view as his loosened outer robes pull his neckline out of its proper arrangement.
One more point of vulnerability. One more loose end in the tightly woven fabric of proper conduct between master and servant.
Jin Guangyao lights a thin stick of incense, then reaches for a box, shakes out a pill, and touches Mingjue’s uninjured shoulder.
“Open your mouth,” he says, low and urgent, and Mingjue thinks—he thinks—
He thinks of foolish things. Forbidden things. It’s easy like this, adrift on poison-fever.
Jin Guangyao loses patience and digs a finger into Mingjue’s jaw, pulls his mouth open and drops the pill on his tongue.
“Chew,” he commands, his eyes hard and damp with fear.
He waits until he sees Mingjue chew, then swallow. He pushes himself off the floor after that, and disappears for almost long enough for the incense stick to burn down entirely. When he returns, he wears only his inner robes. He pulls Mingjue off the settee and through the door, past another parlour and the bedchamber, and into the sect heir’s personal bathing room.
The pool tiled with blue-white ceramic tiles is filled with water, the fire-wards carved into the stone at the four cardinal directions alight with a soft glow. The water smells acrid, medicinal.
Jin Guangyao undoes Mingjue’s trousers. He helps him step out of them, then helps him pull off the rest of his clothes and walk at a slow, painstaking pace, into the pool. He doesn’t think to undress himself. The gauzy layers he’d been wearing under the thick, golden outer robe cling to his skin as they grow wet, his hair a dark, fanning length of silk brushing against Mingjue’s waist.
He follows Jin Guangyao in. He lets Jin Guangyao push him down to sit on a stone bench, the water coming up to lick his throat and with it, the wound.
It burns. Jin Guangyao clicks his tongue when a whimper slithers past Mingjue’s clenched teeth, but the hand that strokes down the back of Mingjue’s head is gentle.
“I wish you’d left when I told you to,” he says softly. Mingjue doesn’t think it is addressed to him, not really—he can imagine the picture he must make, eyes half-closed and teeth clenched, barely a master of his own body. The water sloshes gently as Jin Guangyao shifts closer.
“What am I going to do with you?” he continues, voice a thin, soft thing. “I did everything, and you still won’t listen. Stubborn fool.”
Mingjue swallows and blinks his eyes open, willing his vision to focus just enough to see Jin Guangyao’s expression.
He is closer than Mingjue thought. His face hovers an inch away from Mingjue’s own, mouth a tight, fragile line in the sand.
I release you from your service, Jin Guangyao had said—when? Months ago, now. Time still sits oddly in Mingjue’s mouth.
“You got Huaisang out,” he says. “It would have been easier not to. Less risky. You could have made it look like anything. I never would have known.”
Jin Guangyao is quiet for a long time. Mingjue watches his expression shift into soft neutrality, just as he feels the fog begin to clear from his mind inch by excruciating inch.
Mingjue lifts a hand out of the water and lays it on Jin Guangyao’s shoulder. Wet silk shifts. Under it, Jin Guangyao’s skin is warm.
“Is that really what you think of me?” Jin Guangyao asks, in the end.
Mingjue wants so badly to shift his hand to the nape of his neck. He wants so badly to pull him down for a kiss. He wants so badly to shift himself and reach out, to rub his fingers against Jin Guangyao’s skin, to coax himself to hardness and Jin Guangyao with him and finally end this stalemate.
How could I bear to leave you? he doesn’t say.
“No,” he says hoarsely, and finds himself meaning it.
Jin Guangyao sways closer as if pulled by a force equally matched by his, his step faltering. His mouth hovers inches away from Mingjue’s cheek.
“You’re making this so very difficult,” he says softly. His hand tightens in Mingjue’s hair and Mingjue thinks about kissing his shoulder through his wet robes embroidered with a million tiny leaves, his teeth aching with want.
No, he tells himself. No, he tells himself, and still he allows his forehead to rest against Jin Guangyao’s chest.
“I’m sorry,” he says. His mouth could brush against Jin Guangyao so easily like this. He can feel the warmth of him. The softness of him. His shifting muscles, always hidden under his many-layered armour of silks except in fragile, rare moments such as this. Here.
Mingjue swallows, both his body and his spirit teetering on the edge of something that, once he spills it, he cannot take back anymore.
“I would welcome you, if you ever—”
“Impossible,” says Jin Guangyao. His hands—fine boned, dragonflies in flight—come to rest on Mingjue’s cheeks and shift to pull him back from his body, to turn his face up so Jin Guangyao can look at him.
“I’m sorry,” Mingjue says again, then turns his head to kiss Jin Guangyao’s palm.
After that, it’s much too late to hold back anything.
Mingjue’s hands shake. He’s touching Jin Guangyao. When did he begin reaching out? When did he think to put his hands against the crook of Jin Guangyao’s neck, to dip under wet silk and follow where Jin Guangyao guides him? Throat, collarbones, waist. Jin Guangyao makes a sound that is half relief, half anguish; and pulls himself closer to sit on Mingjue’s thighs with his legs spread open, obscured underwater from the waist down.
Mingjue follows him there, too. He licks into Jin Guangyao’s mouth when he seeks him and digs his fingers into Jin Guangyao’s ass until Jin Guangyao hisses and bites Mingjue’s lower lip viciously.
“You presume too much,” he says. He winds his hands into Mingjue’s hair and pulls.
When Mingjue imagined this, in those rare moments he allowed himself time for such fantasy, he had pictured a vague image of silken sheets, soft candlelight. He imagined himself above Jin Guangyao. He imagined them marking each other with urgent kisses, with teeth. He imagined Jin Guangyao’s body, flawless and golden, opening up for him.
This, Mingjue thinks as Jin Guangyao lurches away from him with a hard exhale and pulls Mingjue with him by the hair, is better. He follows where he is guided. He allows Jin Guangyao to press him against the wall of the pool, to kiss him with a ferocity that isn’t, on second thought, entirely unexpected.
When Jin Guangyao helps him up to sit on the edge of the pool, he doesn’t think… he doesn’t—
Then, Jin Guangyao is above him, wet hair spilling across Mingjue’s shoulder and on the stone. He looks down at Mingjue, his expression terrifying and tender. His skin through the open robe is pale and marked with scars.
“I—” Mingjue starts, but Jin Guangyao shakes his head.
Here, Nie Mingjue; lying on cold, tiled stone with the numbness of poison still nesting in the joints of his hands. Here, Jin Guangyao the traitor heir; tilting his cheek into Mingjue’s outstretched hand before bending his waist to kiss down Mingjue’s neck, his torso.
Mingjue makes some noise of protest. Isn’t it a form of sacrilege, a lord on his knees with a cock in his mouth? Shouldn’t he… wouldn’t he rather… but Jin Guangyao only brushes against Mingjue’s cock, a fleeting touch too soft to call a kiss, even. Barely more than warm air.
Mingjue shifts again.
“Don’t speak,” Jin Guangyao repeats himself softly before lifting Mingjue’s legs onto his shoulder and kissing the crease of his hips, the inside of his thigh.
By the time he tilts Mingjue’s hips up and pulls him open, Mingjue had lost the line of his thoughts entirely. All he can do is open his mouth on an inhale and allow Jin Guangyao to lick into him, let whatever noises Jin Guangyao coaxes from his body fall where they may. He floats on the sensation of being loosened. Mouth, tongue, a finger, two. Mingjue thinks of oil, then thinks of nothing at all as Jin Guangyao works him open with unending patience and the tireless application of his mouth.
It burns when he pulls away and replaces his fingers with his cock. It burns even as he caresses Mingjue’s cheek with his free hand to soothe him, his mouth a red slash in his pale face.
Mingjue pulls him down for a kiss. He spreads his legs and takes what Jin Guangyao gives him, the sounds in the room—the gentle lapping of the water, Jin Guangyao’s wet robes, skin on skin—lulling him softly into content equilibrium.
“I don’t love you,” says Jin Guangyao softly against Mingjue’s temple. Mingjue rests his hand on the back of his neck and closes his eyes.
The traitor heir will look at Mingjue sometime in the months following his assignment to the Eastern Palace, and smile. It is devastating. Miserable, Mingjue will think, unsure where the thought had come from.
“Come,” the traitor heir will say. “We have work to do.”
What work the snake prince of Jinlintai means, Mingjue cannot fathom. Still. Mingjue is nothing if not conscientious. His contract is clear in its outlines both written and unwritten, so he follows the man who looks, from up close, almost swallowed up by the Jin robes and their splendor.
Living without sect colours is so freeing, Huaisang had said once, not long after they had abandoned Qinghe. He was dressed in a translucent, pink robe, and was eating sweets out of a paper cone.
Mingjue watches Jin Guangyao, the Butcher of Qishan, exit the Eastern Palace out into the rain. He hadn’t noticed before how the gold and white colours of his sect wash Jin Guangyao’s skin a sickly pale.
In a momentary flight of fancy, Mingjue imagines him in Qinghe grey and green, then shakes his head as if to dislodge thought from his mind and hurries to catch up to Jin Guangyao with an umbrella in his hand already half-open.