Good Help - chapter 4 - ao3 link
The day Wen Ruohan returned, Meng Yao felt ready for just about anything short of an immediate order of execution. He had survived an increasingly frantic set of attempts to murder him – in many instances, his survival was entirely courtesy of A-Jue – and had a list of achievements as long as his arm, each one backed with public recognition and an explanation as to how they fit into Wen Ruohan’s pre-existing orders.
He'd disposed of any dissenters, too.
The return ceremony was no time for someone to blurt out something awkward.
It was intricately planned: first the multitude out in the Nightless City, cheering their Emperor’s return, then the procession through the court with all its ministers and representatives of all the other Great Sects, and finally the entrance to the throne room, which would contain only those most important to the Emperor: his closest deputies, his wives and concubines, and of course the Empress far above them all in her sedate chair.
And Meng Yao, of course.
The innermost hall would be guarded by those guards assigned to it, an honor that they all lusted for, and Meng Yao had abrogated the right of the guard captain to select each of them himself, claiming that all of the disasters in the past few weeks had shown him the need to take especial care of their beloved Emperor’s life.
He didn’t select A-Jue.
He hadn’t even looked for his name in the list. He'd rather deliberately planned on A-Jue not attending, in fact, and A-Jue hadn’t questioned it, only saluted with a bow deeper than any of the (usually ironic and highly irreverent) ones that had come before. Their eyes had met briefly – a glance full of regret, regret and understanding – and they had said no more about it, each going their own way that evening as if everything were the same.
And then, in the morning…
A-Jue had not come.
Meng Yao had not permitted himself to be disappointed.
He’d turned his mind to other things, to preparations, to making sure everything was perfect, and it was. He’d worried briefly about the Empress, that she might refuse to leave seclusion, but she was there before he was, seated and waiting in her place, a larger than life statue in her thousand veiled layers as always. He’d stressed over the placement of the guards, but they were there, shining and immaculate as always, each one carefully selected for their talent at discretion. He’d checked over his multiple plans designed to let him survive.
He was as ready as he could ever be.
Wen Ruohan’s procession took an age, the concubines in the inner hall yawning and shifting from leg to leg, the veiled Empress as unmoving as stone. Meng Yao took her as his model and remained still, refusing to show weakness.
And then –
The Emperor walked in through the doors, a swirl of robes, and no matter how much Meng Yao had prepared himself, he still involuntarily drew a breath when he felt the sheer power radiating off the man. There were those that accused Wen Ruohan of doing dark and dirty things to get his power, those whisperers all dissatisfied and envious, and they were probably right, too. But those that entered his presence, that were subject to his might directly, knew that it didn’t matter how he’d gotten his power.
Power was power.
Strength was strength.
Wen Ruohan had the face of a young man and the aura of a vicious beast, the temperament of an emperor and the emotional stability of a madman – and he had enough power to crush all the rest of them with a snap of his fingers.
He swept into the room like a storm.
Following in his wake were those he had taken with him on his travels: his highest-ranked guards, his most favorite servants, and Imperial Consort A-Sang, veiled and hidden but for his clever eyes, characteristic scholar’s fan held loosely in his hands.
Walking freely, as if he feared nothing.
As if he owned the hall.
Meng Yao was not the only one who tensed at the sight of the Imperial Consort and his blithe unconcern, thinking that the last thing that they needed right now at this moment was the bitter internecine conflict of the harem breaking out.
And then, of course, it turned out that their concern, all those rumors and suspicions and speculations and schemes, were all for nothing.
Wen Ruohan didn’t so much as look at the rest of them – not the concubines he had obtained, unmatchable in their beauty; not the guards he had nurtured, each one as ferocious as a tiger and as precious as pearl held in his palm; not the deputies he valued so highly; not even Meng Yao to who he had entrusted his city, his sect, his empire.
He had eyes only for his Empress.
“My beloved,” he said with a smile and hands extended as he climbed the stairs, Imperial Consort A-Sang left forgotten behind him to quietly retake his proper place among the other concubines. “Have you missed me?”
The Empress ignored him, silent and unmoving as always.
Wen Ruohan did not take offense the way he might have with someone else – the way he would have, with anyone else.
Meng Yao had heard people say that Wen Ruohan was mad over his unspeaking statute of an Empress, but his time in the Fire Palace had made it difficult for him to believe it. Wen Ruohan enjoyed rape, among the multitude of torments inflicted there, and he took sadistic pleasure in snatching would-be brides or daughters, sometimes even sons, from people he disliked and forcing them to become concubines; the more he disliked them, the more time he spent in the beds of their loved ones.
He was a man who enjoyed violence and humiliation above all else. How could such a man fall in love?
Much less with the Empress, of all people. The frigid, silent Empress, who had no political backing to prove her worth, who had been there by his side for years and years – long enough for any man to grow bored, much less an Emperor who commanded the wind and storm, who could have anyone he pleased?
Meng Yao couldn’t believe it.
And yet, it appeared – he was wrong.
Wen Ruohan’s gaze as he walked up to his wife went beyond passion and into obsession. The miraculous treasure he had obtained in the south, a powerful spiritual weapon in the shape of a lamp that was said to increase the speed of the bearer’s cultivation a dozen times over, was placed in front of her.
“Do you like what I got for you?” Wen Ruohan asked, and the Empress turned her veiled head aside, a clear gesture of rejection. “So picky, so picky. I could pluck the moon out of the sky for you, my beloved, and you wouldn’t care…”
Any normal woman would yield to such persuasion.
Any woman who knew fear, knew Wen Ruohan’s fickle moods, would seek to at least temporize, distract.
The Empress ignored him.
“Same as always,” Wen Ruohan sighed exaggeratedly, and put his hand upon her cheek, turning her face back to him. “You never do change, do you, A-Jue?”
A cold sharp shock spread at the base of Meng Yao’s spine.
The Empress permitted her head to be turned, to be raised to regard her imperial husband.
“Fuck off,” A-Jue said, his voice painfully familiar, and attacked.
“Would you like some more tea?” A-Sang – Huaisang, apparently, Nie Huaisang, just as A-Jue was apparently the long-thought-dead heir of the Nie sect, Nie Mingjue, and obviously had never even once been a guard of any hall whatsoever – asked Meng Yao, patting his shoulder sympathetically yet again. “You’ve had a hard day.”
“No, thank you,” Meng Yao said, both because he didn’t know where he’d put the needles he used to check tea for poison after the last cup and also because he wanted to keep some room in his belly for the barrel of liquor he intended to find and down at some point later on.
He rather thought he deserved it.
A hard day. He scarcely had words to explain how much Nie Huaisang was understating things. A hard day!
Meng Yao still had blood splattered on his face from standing too close to the throne when A-Jue – Nie Mingjue, he needed to remember that – when Nie Mingjue decapitated the Emperor right in front of all his deputies and concubines, which was immediately followed by half of said concubines pulling out knives or swords or other weapons and moving at once to hold the other half hostage. The shrieks of those concubines that had not been in the know acted as a signal to those outside the hall, the roar of fighting breaking out at once, and Meng Yao didn’t even want to think about the gigantic mess they’d undoubtedly turned the Sun Palace into.
(But that was still better than thinking over and over, with no little amount of hysteria, I’m so glad I never ordered him to serve me in bed!)
Nie Mingjue had stalked out to the door, the frankly gigantic saber he’d always carried around everywhere finally drawn – it felt almost alive to Meng Yao’s admittedly inferior senses, alive and vicious and cruel and bloodthirsty, and he remembered how he’d once laughed off A-Jue’s claim that death would inevitably follow if he drew his blade – and he’d been greeted by shouts of acclaim and admiration from his followers, cries of dismay and despair from his enemies. He’d still been dressed in an Empress’ robes, which he’d torn apart for more mobility, but no one had cared one bit.
I guess the problems really did start in the harem, Meng Yao thought to himself, and thought he might still be a little hysterical.
Jiang Cheng had shown up at some point, wielding some sort of lighting-whip; he’d only stopped long enough to pull Nie Huaisang into a brief embrace before continuing onwards, his voice snapping out orders as sharp and vicious as his weapon, his orders obeyed by what might or might not have been a secretly resurrected Jiang sect. And he was the least disturbing of their visitors – the Lan sect apparently had been hiding a demonic cultivator away in their placid and boring little mountain retreat, just waiting to bring his unique brand of necromancy to cause havoc in the Nightless City – !
“How did I miss all this?” Meng Yao found himself asking Nie Huaisang, who smiled at him.
“Scale,” he said. “You were so close to everything, and your ascension so abrupt, that you had no chance to catch us – by the time you were put in charge, everything was already in the works. You would have only been able to see the patterns as they were, not as Wen Ruohan would have had them be.”
That made sense.
“You came pretty close a few times, though,” Nie Huaisang added thoughtfully. “I had to deal with more than a few frantic messages from my brother – thanks for spilling that, by the way.”
Meng Yao could not, for the life of him, tell if Nie Huaisang was being sarcastic.
He did feel marginally appeased that he’d come close.
“Was it always supposed to happen now?” he asked, curious. “The lamp he retrieved – was it –”
“Oh, no, no, we’re three months early! The lamp wasn’t important at all; it was just something I dug up a reference to because I knew he wouldn’t be able to resist going after it and we needed him out of the way to set up the last few things we needed. And then da-ge got into a fight with him so that he’d get the idea to drag me with him – he’s vindictive like that, but also predictable – and that gave me the opportunity to keep on poisoning him. The whole thing was actually supposed to be at his birthday banquet, after he’d gotten drunk…it’s all your fault, you know.”
“He was going to execute you, as you’d suspected,” Nie Huaisang said. “Your methods would have forced his hand – he couldn’t have done it publicly, not and keep his self-image of the merit-rewarding Emperor intact. But he promised your father that you’d be dead before the month is out, even if he had to cause an ‘accident’ himself.”
Meng Yao shuddered. That’d been the one weakness of his plan: his weak cultivation, which Wen Ruohan could have used to excuse a death from a supposedly ‘friendly’ interaction.
Still, that wasn’t the key part of what Nie Huaisang had said.
“You sped up your plans – for me?” he asked, confused, and Nie Huaisang nodded. “Why?”
“My brother likes you! He doesn’t like just about anybody, really,” Nie Huaisang said, voice blithe and merry as it had always been, something that raised Meng Yao’s hackles more than relaxed him. Clearly Nie Huaisang wasn’t anywhere near as useless and head-in the-sky, dreamy and idealistic, as he’d appeared for years. “Especially when it turned out that you were easy enough to convince into not continuing to commit atrocities as long as another route was offered – you don’t know how hard some people find that, and of course you did come out of the Fire Palace, very suspicious, but all in all you passed your trial period with flying colors. So obviously we couldn’t let you just die, could we?”
“…this humble one thanks you,” Meng Yao forced himself to say.
Nie Huaisang waved a hand dismissively. “Anyway, you’re a good administrator,” he said. “And there’s still the Nightless City and all the Empire left to manage. You don’t mind, do you? There should be fewer assassination attempts now.”
Meng Yao frowned. “Those attempts…?”
“We spread word that Wen Ruohan was planning on keeping you,” Nie Huaisang said, and he didn’t even sound apologetic. “Obviously Wen Ruohan had already encouraged all those he thought were his enemies to attack you, but we tried to lure out the rest of them: his most faithful servants, the greedy and the vile – that part of the plan was before we got to know you. Or, well, before my brother did. He felt so bad after a while…I don’t see why. He protected you, and together you got rid of any number of the people who would have been our fiercest enemies! So what if you had to endure a little stress?”
No, Nie Huaisang was definitely not useless and dreamy and idealistic.
“Now there’s really only one problem,” Nie Huisang mused. “It’d be strange if you went from being Wen Ruohan’s viceroy to being ours, so we need to give you a new position. But what would suit…?”
“Huaisang! Meng Yao!”
They both turned.
A-Jue – Nie Mingjue, why couldn’t he remember – strode towards them. He’d changed into proper robes at some point, dark ones that could handle bloodstains, and he looked like a war-god, shining with power as bright as sunlight. He was every bit as powerful as Wen Ruohan was, in his own way – the blazing sun to Wen Ruohan’s dark and ominous hurricane – but that wasn’t so much of a surprise, given as he was such a ridiculous cultivation maniac…and, oh, they’d made jokes about the Empress right in front of him. They’d joked about her dual cultivating with the Emperor in front of him – !
No wonder he was so powerful. Wen Ruohan literally shared his spiritual energy with Nie Mingjue, presumably for years, the cultivation making them both grow more powerful and creating a connection between them, a connection that Nie Mingjue had used to drain all that power away from a weakened Wen Ruohan – Nie Huaisang’s unspecified poison, presumably – and then to sever the bond between them when he severed the erstwhile Emperor’s head.
A-Jue smiled at them both, just as free and easy and straightforward as he’d ever been.
“I’m so glad you’ve finally met!” he said, beaming. “You’re very similar, in some ways; I think you’ll get along excellently. Which is good, because I’ll need all the help I can get –”
And then he started talking about a publicity campaign, rearranging the army, and tax reform, about implementing Meng Yao’s system of random audits for more than just wheat and expanding the Watchtowers concept across the entire Empire, and Meng Yao stupidly felt a little like someone had given him flowers and romantic poetry written just for him.
At his side, Nie Huaisang started giggling.
“Oh,” he said. “Well there’s always that, I suppose. It’ll work quite well. I think you’ll make a very nice Empress, Meng Yao – perhaps a bit more sociable than our last, wouldn’t you say?”
The pinnacle of power, Meng Yao thought to himself, and shrugged, accepting his likely fate with a smile that he thought was even genuine. And why not? He could have everything he’d had under Wen Ruohan, except with a leader that would actually listen to him – that he had already trained to listen to him – and it would good for them, too. They’d keep him around, he was sure of it.
After all – good help was so very hard to find.