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The Grand Unified Theory of Shěn Qīngqiū

Chapter Text

There was no doubt that Shen Qingqiu was dead. Dead as a doornail. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing which follows will be miraculous.*

And then there was light.

[ Achievement Unlocked: Fatal Attraction! Achievement Unlocked: A New Leaf! Host has enough points to purchase 'New Game Plus,' initiating with current memories and cultivation level! Congratulations! Congratulations! Congratulations!]

Affinity with 'Shen Jiu,' 14%. Earliest origin point available; Qing Jing Peak, 12 years after birth of protagonist. ]

{ System, does this mean if I increase the affinity enough, I can transmigrate all the way back to the Qiu household? } Reliving the memories from the Dream Demon had given Shen Yuan a strong dislike of Young Master Qiu. Imagining being back there with a mid-Core Formation cultivation level was--appealing.

[ Transmigrating to savepoint 'Qiu Household' requires 80% affinity. Please continue your efforts! ]

{ How many points would it take to transmigrate into a different character? }

[ Other characters are not available in this universe. Host may only transmigrate into his own incarnations. ]

{ What. }

[ Please repeat your query in the form of a query. ]

{ What do you mean, my own incarnations? I'm from the real world! }

[ Host was resident in instance designated 'The Real World', with the identity of 'Shen Yuan.' Host reincarnated in world instance 'Proud Immortal Demon Way', with the identity of 'Shen Qingqiu', born 'Jiu.' ]

{ That's ridiculous! I don't remember being Shen Jiu! }

[ Host's preincarnation memories were unlocked by an unusual combination of high fever and qi deviation. This bug has been reported to quality control. Host's current incarnation memories may be unlocked by raising affinity with identity 'Shen Jiu.' ]

{ What. The. Fuck. }

[ Please repeat your query in the form of a query. ]

{ Why didn't you tell me this earlier, you stupid System?! }

[ ...This host did not ask. ]

{ Is there anything else I should know? }

[ Database inaccessible. Username "Stupid System" is not recognized. ]

Shen Qingqiu realized the implications with dawning horror. { Does that mean Airplane-Shooting-Towards-The-Sky really is the Creator? }

[ No! ] The toneless machine voice of the System still managed to sound appalled. [ In world instance 'The Real World,' the host linked to the account 'Shang Qinghua' had visions of world instance 'Proud Immortal Demon Way'. He has a detached retina in his third eye.** ]

{ How do I raise affinity levels? }

[ Raise affinity level by interacting with people, places, and artifacts associated with 'Shen Jiu.' Would you like to purchase the optional quest marker upgrade for this mission? ]

{ ...How many points? And how many do I have now? }

[ Quest Marker Unlock for this multi-part quest is 500 points. Host account balance is currently 10,120 points. New Game Plus mode costs 10,000 points. ]

{ If I start without buying New Game Plus, what happens to me? }

[ A clean slate, host! Forget your worries, forget your past mistakes! ]

{ ...I'll buy New Game Plus. }

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu woke, flat on his back, on his narrow, familiar bed. The difference with the last physical memories of his death as the world crumbled was so sharp he sighed involuntarily. There was a slight, warm pressure on his hand and he squeezed it reflexively.

"...Shidi? Shidi, can you hear me?"

Shen Qingqiu opened his eyes and blinked up at the white canopy. It was pretty, but he'd found out later that it was for practical purposes--the gauzy canopy and curtains kept flying insects away.

Yue Qingyuan was in a chair on his left. Shen Qingqiu had a brief, intense memory of the last time he’d seen him, on Maigu Ridge, barely a whisper of qi left. He reflexively reached for the fan on his pillow, opening it and hiding his face in one smooth, practiced motion.

"Shidi?" Yue Qingyuan's voice was worried, now.

Shen Qingqiu peered at him over the top of his fan. "...Sect Leader."

Yue Qingyuan's face dropped back into his mild, polite mask, but he didn't let go of Shen Qingqiu's hand. "Is there any discomfort?"

Shen Qingqiu shook his head. "Not... what happened? How long was I unconscious?" He moved to sit up. Yue Qingyuan hastened to help him lean back against the headboard. Shen Qingqiu swatted irritably at him with the fan. Always fussing!

Yue Qingyuan paused, thoughtfully, and studied his face. "We aren't... quite sure. Some of your disciples found you collapsed in your studio--,"

Shen Qingqiu frowned. They shouldn't have been in there.

Yue Qingyuan hurried on and didn't give the names of the offending parties. "--And called Qian Cao. Mu-shidi suspects Qingqiu-shidi suffered a qi deviation, and a brief fever, but both had passed by the time he was able to make an examination."

"Well, I feel... better. Is there any reason I shouldn't get up? What time is it?" Shen Qingqiu shifted to check the angle of the light from the windows. The neck of his cotton sleeping robe slid down as he turned.

"Xiao Jiu--"

Shen Qingqiu gave him a frosty glare. "I am not acquainted with any person of that name."

[ + 10 character points! Please continue your efforts! ]

Shen Qingqiu pushed back the light cover and prepared to rise, but froze as he realized he was wearing one of his oldest, lightest sleeping robes, and the light from the screened window to his right was really very bright.

Yue Qingyuan rose abruptly. "I'll find Mu-shidi to check on you," Yue Qingyuan said as he fled.

{ System. System, what's happening here. }

[ Prior purchase "Small Scenario Pusher" is still linked to this account! Thank you for your purchase, valued customer! ]

{ No! No, turn it off! }

[ New Game Plus allows the valued customer to retain all prior non-consumable purchases! ]

{ Off, off! }

[ Advanced account control settings can be purchased for 10,000 points. ]

Ugh. Shen Qingqiu was going to earn so many points. He would optimize his account. He would... He frowned at the door through which Yue Qingyuan had disappeared. He would assure the other Peak Lords that he wasn't possessed, and then he and Yue-shixiong would have words about concealing life-threatening conditions, oh yes.

Chapter Text

Yue Qingyuan must have sent a flying message for Mu Qingfang, because he arrived in only the length of a one-way trip to Qian Cao Peak. Still, it gave Shen Qingqiu enough time to put up his damn hair and shrug into some acceptable robes.

Mu Qingfang was evaluating him even before fully entering the room, sharp eyes missing nothing.

"How does Shen-shixiong feel?"

"Very peculiar. As if someone has gone into my library and rearranged everything." Shen Qingqiu frowned, realizing he would have to reorganize the Bestiary section, again, just when he'd gotten it the way he liked it.

Yue Qingyuan leaned forward. "Ah, don't worry, Qingqiu-shidi. When you fell ill, I had Library access restricted to hallmasters only."

Shen Qingqiu nodded approvingly. "That will... mitigate the damage."

Mu Qingfang coughed politely. "You feel disoriented? But you remember us, of course." His eyes were sharp.

Shen Qingqiu nodded. "Not entirely. I remember who you are, our relation within the sect, but not how we met."

Yue Qingyuan sat forward. "Do you remember how we met, shidi?"

Shen Qingqiu frowned slightly. "I've always known you. You're my first memory."

Yue Qingyuan sat back abruptly.

Mu Qingfang stepped into the breach. "If this shidi may examine Shen-shixiong?"

Shen Qingqiu extended his wrist. "I'll be troubling Mu-shidi."

As he examined Shen Qingqiu’s pulse, Mu Qingfang's expression went from polite professionalism to surprised professionalism. Yue Qingyuan tensed as Mu Qingfang's soft Han eyebrows twitched up.

"Is something wrong?"

"No..." He bent his head in concentration for another moment, then released Shen Qingqiu's wrist. "It seems... Shen-shixiong, your Foundation has settled."

Shen Qingqiu had no time to reply before Yue Qingyuan interjected. "But his Foundation was established decades ago."

Mu Qingfang shook his head. "Established, yes, and well into Core Formation. But Shen-shixiong's unique cultivation history meant his Foundation was unbalanced."

Shen Qingqiu opened his mouth again, but again Yue Qingyuan spoke first.

"So it isn't problematic?"

"Not in the long term. In the short term--" Mu Qingfang regarded Shen Qingqiu very seriously. "Shen-shixiong, because your Foundation was unbalanced, your cultivation was unbalanced in a complementary direction to compensate. For the next week, this physician strongly advises shixiong to restrict cultivation exercises to meditation. Begin with the most basic qi circulation of your favored cultivation route. When the week passes, add more advanced exercises, slowly, every day, as long as you feel stable. Running ahead of yourself may lead to another qi deviation, and this one may not have a salutary effect."

"I'll--" Yue Qingyuan snapped his mouth closed as Mu Qingfang gave him a sharp look, finally letting Shen Qingqiu speak.

"Thank you, Mu-shidi. I'll listen to your advice."

Chapter Text

Ming Fan arrived almost as soon as he was summoned. The officious young man had probably been hovering, hoping to be useful to one of the Peak Lords--and maybe acquire a little valuable gossip. In principle, Shen Qingqiu approved. In specific--he looked at Ming Fan, thoughtfully. The eager-to-please cannon fodder had eventually moved into a new role as a mob character. But as head disciple, he was too eager to exercise his meager authority. Perhaps Shen Qingqiu could do something about that earlier.

"This disciple is glad Shizun has recovered."

Shen Qingqiu waved off the pleasantries. "Get Luo Binghe, and bring him here."

Ming Fan's eyes widened, but he bowed hastily and complied. Shen Qingqiu flipped thoughtfully through the papers on his writing desk as he waited.

Cool, aloof, remote. Cool, aloof--my tiny white sheep!

Shen Qingqiu had steeled himself to ignore the bruises, but seeing a tiny Luo Binghe again, with chubby cheeks and knobby knees, was almost enough to make him break character. Luckily, the boy's eyes were downcast as he hesitantly shuffled in. Shen Qingqiu dismissed Ming Fan to shoo tardy disciples into the dining hall, then regarded the nervous Luo Binghe.

"Be still." Shen Qingqiu briefly touched his head, perfunctorily checking his meridians. "You've been here for two years without improvement. Indeed, you seem to have gotten worse."

Luo Binghe gasped, with tears in his voice. "This disciple has been cultivating every day, and has been working so hard, please don't throw me out--"

"Enough," Shen Qingqiu snapped. "This teacher has never given up on a student. Don't presume you will be the first. You'll become a competent cultivator even if it kills you." He loftily ignored Luo Binghe's suddenly worried look. "Take this," Shen Qingqiu handed him a bottle of bruise ointment. "This is a topical medication." He sighed. "That means you put it on your skin. Don't drink it." He stepped away. "Use that, and clean yourself up. Then return here with your current cultivation manual. Don't dawdle."

"Yes, Shizun!"

*

Yue Qingyuan and Mu Qingfang were in huddled consultation near the bamboo house.

"I'll call on Wei-shidi. His Hong Jing should at least rule out one cause."

"An abundance of caution must be called for."

Their conversation paused as they heard Shen Qingqiu call for Luo Binghe to be brought out.

Mu Qingfang's lips could have been used as a ruler. "Sect Leader. You know I don't approve of this."

Yue Qingyuan winced helplessly. "It's our practice not to interfere with the running of other peaks."

"Even so, this--." They quieted as they heard Shen Qingqiu speak.

Two years? Mu Qingfang mouthed. Yue Qingyuan shrugged and nodded.

"Sometimes--," Yue Qingyuan began quietly, then froze as the overheard conversation continued.

"Enough," Shen Qingqiu's voice snapped. "This teacher has never given up on a student. Don't presume you will be the first. You'll be a competent cultivator even if it kills you."

Mu Qingfang's eyebrows did a complicated little dance. Yue Qingyuan's face was slack with shock.

"Take this," Shen Qingqiu's voice continued "This is a topical medication." A long-suffering sigh was heard. "That means you put it on your skin. Don't drink it. Use that, and clean yourself up. Then return here with your current cultivation manual. Don't dawdle."

The silent eavesdroppers watched Luo Binghe's back as the boy hobbled quickly out the door. The pair exchanged a long, meaningful stare.

"Hong Jing."

"Yes, immediately. Wei-shidi may still be up."

*

Shen Qingqiu looked through Binghe's flawed cultivation manual while the boy knelt obediently. Previously, it had just been a minor prop in the overall plot. Now, he could recognize Ming Fan's precise, neat characters, and that was a bigger problem.

"When did you get this?" he asked with glacial calm.

"When, when I first arrived here, Shizun," he said nervously.

It was, indeed, well thumbed. Shen Qingqiu was silent for a few moments, then selected the most basic manual for physical cultivators from those he'd prepared on the table. It was intended for younger students, but they were working from a deficit, here. "Take two days without practicing cultivation exercises. Do only the exercises from your group classes. Then, start your cultivation using this method. Read the entire manual, cover to cover, before beginning practice."

"Yes, Shizun! This disciple will not disappoint you!" He bowed.

Shen Qingqiu sniffed. "Too late. Do better going forward. Dismissed."

[ +20 Character points! Please continue your efforts! ]

Shen Qingqiu thought. { Character points? Do I still need to unlock the OOC function? }

[ The OOC unlocking quest was completed during your previous incarnation. Purchasing "New Game Plus" reduces OOC penalties by 90%. ]

{ But I get points for in-character interactions? }

[ Correct! Point gain is higher when the protagonist is in the vicinity. ]

{ Excellent. }

*

Later that evening, Shen Qingqiu opened the door with a distinct lack of surprise. He was wearing the undyed cotton robe he used when doing serious painting or calligraphy.

"Yue-shixiong, Mu-shidi, Wei-shidi. Welcome. Please come in." He left the door open and swept back into the main room. Yue Qingyuan followed while Mu Qingfang and Wei Qingwei exchanged a glance, then stepped inside.

"Tea, brothers?"

"I wasn't planning on staying..." Wei Qingwei vacillated.

"We'll have tea," Shen Qingqiu said smoothly. "Since this is a social visit." He moved to a cupboard and busied himself with deploying the apparatus of tea making. The others stood awkwardly for a moment. Yue Qingyuan nodded briefly at Wei Qingwei, who unhooked one of the two swords at his belt and drew the blade a few hand-breadths. The whisper of spiritual steel was resonant in the quiet room. Shen Qingqiu seemed to focus entirely on the tea set. Wei Qingwei looked at him, then held up the sword by its hilt and scabbard and looked at the blade. The mirror like surface appeared to reflect the room in front of him, with Shen Qingqiu going through the ritual of tea making. Yue Qingyuan looked over his shoulder at the blade, then stepped back. Wei Qingwei shrugged, and returned the sword to his belt. The three visiting peak lords sat down at the table.

"I do have black tea, but maybe an herbal mixture would be more appropriate for so late at night," Shen Qingqiu said pointedly.

"That would be lovely, shidi, thank you," said Yue Qingyuan with bright politeness, ignoring the jab with the ease of long practice.

"What are you doing," Mu Qingfang yelped. Shen Qingqiu quickly took his hand away from the now hot kettle.

"Heating the--"

" 'Use spiritual techniques sparingly,' I said. Not even one shichen ago." His initially somber mien had vanished in the face of a patient blatantly flouting his care instructions.

"It's one kettle of water, I barely felt--" Shen Qingqiu huffed. "Fine. I'll do it the slow way for the next few days."

When they each had a cup of tea, they sat stiffly for a few minutes, chatting with the awkward politesse of men who rarely saw each other in a purely social setting. Wei Qingwei, however, seemed to be following his own train of thought.

"Shen-shixiong," he said abruptly. "Could I see Xiu Ya?"

"Of course." Shen Qingqiu raised his hand for a hand seal, but was cowed by Mu Qingfang's warning frown. "...I'll go fetch it." He rose and went to the bedroom.

While he was out of the room, Mu Qingfang and Wei Qingwei had a brief but intense conversation consisting entirely of eyebrow movements and facial expressions. Yue Qingyuan stared after Shen Qingqiu with a complex expression. When Shen Qingqiu returned with Xiu Ya, the three visitors abruptly regained their decorum.

"Wei-shidi," Shen Qingqiu offered the scabbarded Xiu Ya politely, with both hands.

Wei Qingwei held the sword thoughtfully for a moment, then unsheathed it a few finger-widths to examine the blade. He handed it back to Shen Qingqiu. "If Shen-shixiong would indulge this shidi by channeling a little qi into the blade?"

Shen Qingqiu looked dubious, but complied. Xiu Ya's cool, white light seemed to soothe the last of Wei Qingwei's concerns. The swordmaster shrugged and turned to Yue Qingyuan.

"Well, whatever happened, it isn't my problem."

"Wei-shidi's concern humbles this shixiong," Shen Qingqiu said politely.

Wei Qingwei waved a hand. "You know what I mean. You aren't possessed, or affected by demonic qi."

"My students might disagree with you, particularly around recital time."

*

The next morning, Shen Qingqiu entered the lower level meditation group before the beginning of class. Thirty students froze, surreptitious conversations petering out.

"Tomorrow, this teacher will evaluate your current state of cultivation. Bring your current manual; you may need to exchange it for a new one."

A quiet buzz of speculation rose as he swept out. Next, Shen Qingqiu went to the hallmaster in charge of cultivation exercises.

"At least one of the students has been using an unapproved cultivation manual."

The hallmaster's eyebrows shot up.

"This master has already found the culprit--" Shen Qingqiu watched as the hallmaster drooped infinitesimally in relief. "--But this incident may indicate other omissions. So over the next few days, this master will evaluate the cultivation levels of all juniors--" He could almost see the hallmaster's spine tightening in a corkscrew of stress. This was fun! "--and observe classes."

"Yes, Shizun," the hallmaster managed. "Can this disciple assist Shizun in any way?"

*

Shen Qingqiu spent the remainder of the afternoon in one of Qing Jing's small courtyards, teaching Ning Yingying and two of her older apprentice sisters how to use the Flying Leaves technique.

"...Difficult to master, but exceptionally useful. With this technique, you'll be able to defend yourself even without a weapon at hand. Yan Yue, this will be helpful for you when you return home. Carrying weapons in the palace is prohibited, but leaves are everywhere."

Luo Binghe was hovering nearby, watching without coming too near. Ning Yingying looked over Shen Qingqiu's shoulder at him. "Shizun, shouldn't Luo-shidi learn this too, because he's so small?"

Shen Qingqiu nodded approvingly. "This disciple is good to look after her shidi. Luo Binghe, come here."

Luo Binghe knelt hastily as the older sisters made room in their semi-circle. "Yes Shizun!"

Shen Qingqiu swept a glance over the students. "Now. Chu Ziyi, you have been able to perform this technique. Explain it to Luo Binghe."

Chu Ziyi began nervously. "Small, recently living things like fresh leaves, are, are most responsive for this. Push a little bit of qi into the leaves, starting--" She was starting to mumble as she continued the explanation, talking to the materials instead of the audience.

"Straighten your back. Head up." Shen Qingqiu snapped.

She twitched nervously and continued more clearly. "Uh, starting at the part where it was attached to the tree. If you use too little qi, it won't move, but too much and it will tear and lose the energy. Visualize the qi moving within the leaf, and use the, pressure to move it." She hesitated. Shen Qingqiu still seemed to be waiting for something. "And... and it's much easier to control when you're touching the leaf, so you charge it up and release it like an arrow from a bow," she finished in a rush.

"Adequate," Shen Qingqiu nodded, leaving Chu Ziyi to collapse in relief. "Ning Yingying, demonstrate, please."

Ning Yingying nodded seriously, tiny brow furrowed in concentration. With care, she made one leaf hover above her hand and revolve, then ambitiously lifted a second at the same time. She was sweating with the effort, but the other girls murmured approvingly.

"Good," Shen Qingqiu approved. "Continue to practice diligently, and your qi capacity will improve." She beamed proudly and bumped shoulders with one of her apprentice sisters. Shen Qingqiu flicked his eyes over the group. "Luo Binghe, try it now. Everyone else, continue to practice until mealtime but rest as necessary. Ning Yingying, supervise Luo Binghe until your reserves recover."

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu was sweeping out of his meeting with the Hallmasters when he saw Luo Binghe carrying water. "What on earth are you doing. You're supposed to be at music lessons."

Luo Binghe startled badly and dropped a bucket, slopping water over his feet. "This disciple doesn't have a qin, so he gets extra chores instead."

Shen Qingqiu frowned at him. "If you don't have an instrument, then you need basic lessons. Come along." Without waiting for a response, Shen Qingqiu grabbed him by the back of the collar and dragged him to the juniors' music pavilion. Luo Binghe stumbled to keep up, feet barely touching the ground. The second bucket was lost along the way.

Shen Qingqiu dumped him on the edge of the room, and surveyed the class. Only the three oldest students had the plain, self-made qins they'd crafted at Qing Jing. The supervising teacher stood up nervously. Shen Qingqiu recognized him as a past pupil, who in a few years would leave to become a tutor at a noble house.

"We are honored by Shizun's presence. How can this disciple help Shizun?"

The one closest to Luo Binghe's age had a pretty, shell-inlaid instrument. Shen Qingqiu looked at it thoughtfully. "This student brought this instrument from home?"

"Yes, Shizun," she chirped nervously.

"Do you have one you made yourself?"

"Yes, Shizun, but it isn't very good." The student looked embarrassed.

"Hmm." Shen Qingqiu looked at the supervising teacher, who twitched nervously. "Everyone up. Leave your things here. We're going to the workshop for basic lessons. Lu Renjia, Xu Ziyue, Zhao Xihe, come to advise your juniors."

*

The workshop wasn't far; the building was directly across from the junior music pavilion. The door to the workshop was locked, and the deep covered patio in front had a scattering of pebbles and old leaves. Shen Qingqiu looked at it judgmentally, then at the supervising teacher.

"This subordinate will go find the key, Shizun," the teacher said nervously.

"No need." Shen Qingqiu put a palm on the flat lock, and focused. The tumblers--simple gravity catches, not spring-loaded modern tumblers--tapped up one by one. The younger students nudged each other under the cover of their long sleeves. Shen Qingqiu pulled the door handle and entered.

With the practiced assistance of the three senior students, the younger disciples were soon set up with boards, wire, and nails.

Shen Qingqiu demonstrated the construction. "The sound of each string depends on length, thickness, and material. For this basic instrument, we will use wire. Instruments for performance will use twisted silk. The wood must be well-seasoned, free of moisture and sap. If the wood dries after the instrument is made, the body will warp under the pressures of playing--"

Chapter Text

Later that afternoon, Shen Qingqiu strolled peacefully on one of the many narrow paths which wound through Qing Jing's bamboo forest. The wind brought an unceasing susurration of leaves and a creaking of bamboo, leavened by the occasional rush of wings unseen in the canopy.

He paused, hearing taunting voices sift through the background noise, then a thump of fists and the scrabble of feet in the leaf litter. He changed direction and quickened his pace.

In the little clearing, Ming Fan and his handful of followers were already scuffling with Luo Binghe. Ning Yingying hovered at the edge of the fight nervously. As Shen Qingqiu watched, she darted in and tried to pull one boy away, but soon had to retreat from flying elbows.

{ System, why am I running into this scenario again? Is this a scripted event? }

[ Plot events cannot be avoided! ]

Shen Qingqiu certainly wasn't going to waste 60 points on this relatively harmless scuffle. But now he had other options. He withdrew a dozen paces, and pulled a square of paper from his sleeve. Using a wax pencil from his qiankun bag, he jotted a curt note, then folded the paper into a neat crane. A breath and a pulse of qi sent it winging to Ming Fan, as Shen Qingqiu moved further from the path.

The fighting disciples quailed, seeing the crane, and that gave Ning Yingying the opening to move between Luo Binghe and the other students. A couple peeked at her, shame-faced.

"Shizun needs my help with something," Ming Fan said self-importantly, lofting the letter. "You all, teach him to respect his seniors." He hustled off. The lower ranked disciples eyed Ning Yingying, who glared at them. Luo Binghe had already gotten to his feet.

Without the protective presence of the head disciple, the other students lost their bravado and hastened off with a few face-saving jeers.

*

Luo Binghe and Ning Yingying sifted through the leaf litter for the pendant, but it hung above their heads in the bamboo grove. Shen Qingqiu narrowed his eyes at it thoughtfully, and drew a leaf between his fingers. Carefully judging the timing, he sent it flying silently to break the string. It fell end over end, bouncing off Luo Binghe's head, then Ning Yingying's, before dropping to the ground. The two children gaped at it.

[ Minus 10 points! ] the System said disapprovingly.

{ Absolutely worth it. I got both of them! Did you see their faces? }

[ ...Image saved to Memories album. ]

Shen Qingqiu breezed off to the planned Peak Masters' meeting with a light heart. Ming Fan would keep.

Chapter Text

The peak masters drifted into the meeting hall one by one. Shen Qingqiu had arrived early, and was already in his seat. In the previous life, he'd deliberately arrived late to his first meeting to avoid taking the wrong chair.

Qi Qingqi breezed in. "Shen-shixiong, I heard you weren't feeling yourself."

"Self is a construct," Shen Qingqiu replied without looking up from his notes.

Qi Qingqi's elegant brows arched as she glided to her seat. "Sounds the same to me," she murmured as she passed behind Mu Qingfang.

[ +1 in-character point! +10 literary and philosophical depth to the role of Shen Qingqiu! ] chirped the System.

*

Shen Qingqiu's eyes skimmed over the assembled Peak Lords. Almost everyone was in attendance, though they'd left their disciples behind. Wei Qingwei, who looked like he was already wishing to be back on his peak. The ascetic Gao Qinggao of Ku Xing Peak, who despite appearances was actually enjoying that glass of water. Brewing master Ruan Qingruan, whose laughing monk appearance belied a very sharp analytical mind. Qi Qingqi, the oldest of the peak masters, both in years and experience outside the sect. She'd been a junior disciple sister of the previous peak master, and traveled widely before returning to teach. Rumors about her personal history ranged from pirate queen to empress-consort. Shen Qingqiu had 200 spirit stones on "both." Duan Qingze, diffident around humans but fearlessly confident with even the fiercest spirit animals. Feng shui master Lin Qingshui--blind, but that didn't seem to slow him down any. Liu Qingge, as neutral as a stone wall. And of course Shang Qinghua, for whom Shen Qingqiu had plans.

The only one missing was the artifact-refining Peak Lord, who was in closed cultivation. It was unusual for so many peak masters to make the meeting, but the agenda was perfectly ordinary. Inter-peak conflicts between students were resolved, the always changing political climate was briefly summarized, and the peak masters updated the group on any travel plans. In this case, it was Shen Qingqiu's group going on their first outside training mission.

"Does Shen-shidi plan to accompany the group? If there is some discomfort, one of our senior hallmasters might escort them instead." Yue Qingyuan watched, evaluating.

"This shidi has recovered, Sect Leader. I would like to evaluate the students personally; Qing Jing's current curriculum may need some adjustments."

"Adjustments, Shen-shixiong?" Lin Qingshui asked smoothly.

"More practical exercises," Shen Qingqiu replied. Liu Qingge snorted. "Liu-shidi's opinion is, as always, valued," he countered sweetly. The discussion turned.

Shen Qingqiu thought he had done pretty well in soothing the inevitable fears of possession or compromise, but the end of the meeting brought another test.

Yue Qingyuan smoothed a piece of paper, an uncharacteristic nervous gesture. "One last matter. Shen-shidi, we're sending a small group of students to the birthday party of a helpful official. He's a great appreciator of art. Perhaps Shen-shidi could provide a small painting as part of the gift?"

"Certainly. I have some pretty but unremarkable landscapes that would be suitable. I can send several to Qiong Ding for selection, or Sect Leader can send an assistant to my studio."

Ruan Qingruan of Zui Xian choked on nothing. " 'Pretty but unremarkable? ' " he echoed incredulously.

"I paint every day, shidi. They can't all be masterpieces."

The meeting ended after that, but Shen Qingqiu couldn't help but feel he'd made a misstep.

One good thing came of it; he was able to confirm Airplane-Shooting-Towards-The-Sky hadn't made a similar leap back into the past. He had come prepared.

Shen Qingqiu snapped a portfolio down in front of Shang Qinghua. He startled badly and stared at Shen Qingqiu with wide, panicked eyes.

"Wha--?"

"Shang-shidi. My next poetry compilation."

"What about--how can I--"

"In the folio." Shen Qingqiu narrowed his eyes. "With the illustrations. If they aren't printed together, the poems have no meaning." That was what happened last time, and the reactions of the gossipy xianxia literati were predictable. Worse, was the embarrassment of those dilettantes who apparently hadn’t noticed.

"What? I mean, of course I want to help, but printing and engraving--even with the new movable type, the time it would take--" Shang Qinghua protested. Shen Qingqiu saw no reaction beyond grievance and his baseline panic.

Shen Qingqiu considered. "Then a hundred copies for discerning customers, and the rest printed. And--" He narrowed his eyes. "--I'll do the engravings myself. The last batch looked like it was made with someone's foot."

Shang Qinghua's eyes blanked as he quickly tallied the profits on prints from engravings personally done by the poet, then added several zeroes for early-run prints and maybe auctioning off the engraved plates after the printing run. "Sure! Sure. How about two or--even three hundred copies? It's more economical to set up the press for big printing runs. We've been wanting a second one, with higher through-put from Xian Shu..." He trailed off into mumbling calculations, scribbling on the margins of his already crowded meeting notes with a wax pencil.

Chapter Text

And then there was the other meeting. The Peak Masters settled into one of the smaller hospitality rooms in Lin Qingshui's Zhi Ji peak. The Qiong Ding disciples, well aware of the value of gossip, were a little too observant to be certain of keeping this quiet. Lin Qingshui's students had a combination of unworldliness and fearful respect for their teacher which would ensure their discretion.

"So. What's going on with him?" Brewmaster Ruan Qingruan began.

"Not spirit possession, or anything demonic in nature. Hong Jing confirms," Wei Qingwei reported shortly.

"What can you tell us, Mu-shidi? Ethically, I mean."

"Shen-shixiong suffered a high fever, with an abrupt onset and no known cause. Given the condition of his meridians, I suspect there was also a qi deviation. If it was consequent, concurrent, or contributing is unclear, as is the severity of the deviation. That aspect had been resolved by the time I first examined him."

"Resolved on its own?"

"Yes. There were no traces of any qi but his own or that of Yue-shixiong," Mu Qingfang nodded at him, "Who was first at the scene and administered emergency aid."

"I tried modulating his qi at first, but it was already returning to baseline. There were no signs of anyone else in his home or studio," Yue Qingyuan contributed quietly.

Beast taming peak master Duan Qingze spoke up from his spot near the door. "Upon request, I searched the building and surroundings. The only scents inside were Yue Qingyuan, Mu Qingfang, and one of Mu Qingfang's disciples, who assisted him."

"He doesn't even let his own disciples past the front door of the house."

"The same with the studio."

"I believe he has them serve tea at his pavilion."

"Perhaps his previous personality was due to qi irregularities, and this has... removed the issue?"

"No, he's always been like that, since he was a child," Yue Qingyuan quashed the idea.

The other peak lords went thoughtfully quiet for a moment, as they always did when reminded of how long the two had known each other.

"Really not possession, Wei-shixiong?" Liu Qingge asked.

Wei Qingwei flipped an open hand up. "Perfect resonance with the sword. No copy, shade, possession, or puppet can do that. He's himself."

"There are well documented cases where a high fever or a head injury has caused an abrupt change in personality," Mu Qingfang said doubtfully. "It's generally permanent, unless the patient finds a work-around."

"This requires caution. If he's simply communicating more freely, well and good. But if he's being impulsive in other respects--"

"All the more reason to keep him from talking to the parents," Ruan Qingruan muttered.

"Sweet merciful divines, yes. I remember the last time."

"It's good this mission takes him to Shuang Hu. It's a small city, with relatively controlled circumstances."

The assembled peak lords sat silently for a few moments, ruminating.

"Maybe he's been replaced by his self from an alternate universe?" Shang Qinghua suggested.

Qi Qingqi picked up her cup and shrugged. "That makes as much sense as anything."

Chapter Text

And then there was the other, other meeting.

"Well, how fares our fearless leader?" Qi Qingqi sighed.

"Worried--"

"As always."

"--And sad, and happy, and guilty for feeling happy."

"So, no real change there, then." Duan Qingze weathered their censorious looks. "What? We were all thinking it."

"Where is Gao-shidi?"

"He had an important scheduled meditation," Qi Qingqi said. The two had a close friendship that had baffled onlookers for years, though a lot of it was conducted through exchanging notes, due to Gao Qinggao's rigorous meditation schedule and Qi Qingqi's effortless disruption of the peaceful atmosphere of Ku Xing. "He gave me his vote. But unless some new information comes up, we're both aiming for 'wait and see.' "

"And--damn it, Wei Qingwei snuck away again."

"Well, we knew his vote already."

"Before I came here, I had some more news about Shen Qingqiu. One of his junior teachers is a friend of one of my disciples. The teacher came to visit for tea and sympathy. Apparently, he personally dragged a delinquent disciple to class, and then stayed to critique the lesson plan."

Culinary peak master Ruan Qingruan whistled. "Ooh, that would give anyone a turn. The boss is not supposed to know what the subordinates do all day."

"So, it seemed like he knew what the lesson plan was?"

"In a way; he took them back to basics. Which for Qing Jing music lessons, means making your instrument. From scratch."

Mu Qingfang winced and sipped from his glass of liquor. "I remember those splinters and wire punctures. There's been less of that, in the last few years."

"Wait, so he used to do this? Most of his students are nobility or rich merchant families."

Mu Qingfang sighed, "Hence the punctures. You should have heard him. 'How do you expect to hold a sword if you can't use pliers.' And, 'It's a poor instrument, but they're poor musicians.' I think the idea was, that they'd get better at both, but..." he trailed off with a shrug.

Shang Qinghua pondered, rolling his glass between his hands. "Maybe he's lost only recent memories? And he's reverting to where he was years ago?"

Mu Qingfang waved off Qi Qingqi as she waggled the liquor bottle at him from across the table. "No, he's always been so polite he gives you frostbite. And there's nothing of that, now."

"Liu-shidi?" Qi Qingqi was regarding him thoughtfully. She'd always had a way of cutting incisively through a meeting or an argument.

He sighed. "Abstain. We don't have enough information." He accepted the bottle being passed. "It is damned strange, though. " He passed the bottle on and leaned back in his chair. "Maybe Shang Qinghua is right?"

"Alternate universe?"

"It makes as much sense as anything."

There were a couple laughs. "If it wasn't for Wei-shixiong checking--."

"It could happen," Shang Qinghua muttered, sotto voce.

Ruan Qingruan laughed. "But that allows us to postulate multiple Shen Qingqius, and the possibility of them meeting."

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu drifted down the hundred-step stone staircase, mentally tallying what he remembered about the Skinner mission. As he approached the mountain gates, it appeared the expedition was ready to set off. The carriage and horses were waiting, and the disciples were milling in the flat, stone-paved space. As usual, they were chattering in clumps of two or three, groups merging and splitting as they shared their excitement over having a real mission.

Luo Binghe was dusty from hustling back and forth, packing the carriage. The contrast with Ming Fan in his neat-as-a-pin robes was unsubtle. Shen Qingqiu approached, cultivator's enhanced hearing easily picking up his taunts.

"We're short on horses, so we have no choice but to inconvenience shidi. Perhaps the extra endurance training will improve shidi's poor fundamentals."

Luo Binghe stood resentfully with a flushed face and hands in fists. Ning Yingying tugged on the robe of one of the two older apprentice sisters who were on the expedition; the girl nodded and frowned. By then, a few students had seen Shen Qingqiu approaching and they hastily straightened up.

"Enough." Shen Qingqiu swept the quailing students with a glance. "We are embarking on the investigation of a phenomenon which has already claimed several lives. This teacher expects you to set aside childish squabbles when there's work to be done. Check our equipment and ensure there were no other mistakes."

There was a flurry of activity as the students checked the baggage against their inventory lists. With Shen Qingqiu present, they were a marvel of efficiency and decorum.

With the second inventory complete, Shen Qingqiu glared impartially all around.

"No other errors? Then be ready to move out. Luo Binghe, take Ming Fan's horse. Ming Fan, in the carriage."

Ming Fan's expression was something Shen Qingqiu would keep in his heart and treasure. Whispers broke out as Shen Qingqiu swanned into the carriage.

*

As they set out, Ming Fan sat frozen in apprehension. On the bench seat, he seemed to barely dare breathe. Shen Qingqiu ignored him with malicious intent. He opened the portfolio with his correspondence. He had been planning to settle in with the latest volume of Poison Genius Consort, but would now need to maintain his image. This didn't help his mood.

*

Just before they arrived at the city of ShuangHu, Shen Qingqiu halted their travel. He swept the disciples with a glance. They straightened nervously.

"This is a serious mission, and you represent Qing Jing and Cang Qiong. Roughhousing and childish antics will not be permitted. Whatever is responsible for the deaths of these young women, isn't the only danger. News of this sort will attract other predators, both human and not. You will travel in groups of no less than three. No excuses are acceptable. Female disciples will be especially careful. You're not here as bait; you're cultivators investigating a dangerous phenomenon, and you'll behave with due caution." He leveled a severe look at the three boys who had been teasing the girls on the road.

*

After the interview with Old Master Chen, the students were shooed off to their rooms; the three girls rooming together, and the boys split four and three. Shen Qingqiu had his own room, of course, near the entrance to the guest courtyard where he could keep an eye on the students’ comings and goings. Shen Qingqiu had told them to consider the information they had, discuss it among themselves, and be ready for a group meeting before dinner.

Ning Yingying was chatting with her disciple sisters in their guest room.

Chu Ziyi shivered. "He was so old! And she's so young and pretty!"

Yan Yue nodded and wrinkled her little nose. "It would be awful to be a concubine, it must be worse to be a low ranked one."

Ning Yingying, daughter of her father's fourth concubine, sat stiffly.

Yan Yue gasped, "We didn't mean you, Ying-er!"

Chu Ziyi squeezed her hand reassuringly. "You're so pretty! And you're the best at music in our group. Not just anybody can get into Qing Jing or Cang Qiong, you know. You're sure to be someone's di wife."

Ning Yingying smiled a little wanly. "I don't care about that; I just want to be happy."

Chu ZiYi and Yan Yue exchanged glances, and each wrapped an arm around her.

"We'll make sure you are," Chu Ziyi said firmly.

"And if not, Qi-shishu will," Yan Yue murmured. Chu Ziyi nodded seriously.

Chapter Text

The streets were unusually quiet; with the recent murders, citizens didn't linger in their business.

[ Would you like to purchase Easy Mode for this mission? ]

Shen Qingqiu thought. The disciples hadn't been gone long, yet, and the Skinner had enjoyed monologuing last time... { Not yet. }

Stepping quickly, he followed the feel of the demonic energy, like a trail of oily smoke, through the unusually quiet streets. He followed it to an area of walled residential compounds--the neighborhood of the head man's home, but approached from the back, if he remembered correctly. And close to home, the Skinner made the effort to hide xir energy. The trail disappeared into nothing. Shen Qingqiu paused, then pushed a little more qi into his subtle senses. Almost immediately, he sensed the small but clear spark of Ning Yingying's careful but low cultivation, and the smoking road flare that was the result of Luo Binghe's efforts with Ming Fan's flawed self-made cultivation manual. He'd been slowly improving with the new basic manual, but it would take time.

Shen Qingqiu concealed his own qi expertly, muffled his steps and breath with a hand seal, and approached the basement in which the wayward disciples had been hidden.

*

Ning Yingying's breathing was shaky, and her doll-like face had tear tracks. Nonetheless, she'd pushed her small energy stores into a couple slivers of wood, and was using them to saw through her bindings.

Shen Qingqiu watched from concealment as she freed herself and shook off the ropes, then hobbled over to Luo Binghe. Perceived as the greater threat, he'd been bound with red immortal binding cables. Difficult and expensive to procure, they'd been used on Shen Qingqiu last time. Ning Yingying tried to saw through them, and sobbed with frustration.

"They won't cut!" she whispered. "I don't know--"

"Ning-shijie, run! I'll be okay!" Luo Binghe urged.

As expected of the protagonist, Shen Qingqiu thought approvingly. But the gesture was futile; he couldn't sense the Skinner directly, but he could feel the weirdly sterile movement of xir hidden energies, moving closer.

As the Skinner lunged, Shen Qingqiu flash-stepped forward and deflected the blow with Xiu Ya. A short club, he saw--the being didn't want to damage xir riskily procured skins. But there was something like a heavy scalpel in xir other hand. He flicked his fan at it with his off hand--Xiu Ya's length was awkward in such a confined space. With a quick, qi-reinforced shove, he pushed the being back and gave himself more space to maneuver. The scalpel flew end over end and embedded itself, point first, in the timber wall. The Skinner used xir now-free hand to fling a handful of powder at Shen Qingqiu--he caught it with his fan and flung it back. As the being gasped and choked, he reversed Xiu Ya's path and charged it with qi for a neat all-in-one beheading and cauterization. Arterial spray was inelegant.

Shen Qingqiu paused dramatically--what great fan-art this would make!--then smoothly turned to the gaping disciples. The whole exchange took less than five seconds.

[ + 100 Coolness points! Please continue your efforts! ]

He concealed his mental fist-pump with his built-in aloof mask, and approached the disciples. "Ning Yingying did well to free herself," he sliced through the immortal binding cable around Luo Binghe with Xiu Ya. "And tried courageously to help her shidi, which is good. Rope of this kind stifles energy movement, and can only be cut with a spirit sword. There are more mundane ways to escape rope, which you will be learning in the escape and survival workshop your cohort will be doing immediately after this mission." Shen Qingqiu stored the pieces of binding cable in his sleeve. That was not something he wanted lying around.

He straightened and sheathed Xiu Ya with a hand seal. "Now. Do we need to retrieve any of your fellow disciples?"

"N-no Shizun," Luo Binghe squeaked.

"Really? Because there should be at least one more." He gave them a severe look. " 'Groups of no less than three, no excuses,' " he quoted.

"None of the others wanted to-- I mean--"

"No excuses."

Both disciples' eyes widened. The prospect of laps right now was concentrating their minds past the possibility of death five minutes ago.

"It was this disciple's fault, Shizun! I asked A-Luo to--"

"It was my fault, Shizun! Ning-shijie wanted to find a third person. This disciple will accept whatever chores, or, or beatings, or--"

"Oh, no," Shen Qingqiu cut off their babbling ruthlessly. "This has gone far beyond beatings. You two are going to write essays. Now, on your feet. Injuries? No? Then march."

Shen Qingqiu ended up telling Old Master Chen that the Skinner had been killed, but not before killing his last concubine. It was technically true, and avoided the nightmare public relations scenario of an influential citizen learning he'd been cuddling up to a being wearing his concubine's flayed skin. Eww.

Chapter Text

"--Systemic changes could participate--" the boy's eyes flickered between his paper and the audience. "--precipitate unrest in the southeast. This humble one thanks the esteemed listeners for their time." He bowed jerkily to polite murmurs of applause.

"That was a very good paper, Li Yan," Yue Qingyuan began. The boy twitched. "Who wrote it?" Silence fell over the small classroom and a flurry of anxious looks were exchanged. This was a junior class, after all. Finally, another boy nervously stood.

"It was... this student wrote the paper, Shizun."

"It was well done. Student Jin has accurately summarized the political and social barriers to reforming the land use system in X country."

Students Li and Jin exchanged panicked looks.

"The reason behind writing and presenting these papers is not only to be familiar with the pertinent issues, but to develop analytical skills while composing them. This teacher is glad you're learning to work together, but these are skills you both must have. The two of you will research the same problem as it applies to Y country. Student Li, you will compose the paper. Student Jin, you will present it to the class."

Young Li wilted with relief. Young Jin looked, if possible, even more terrified at the prospect of public speaking.

*

Liu Qingge intercepted him as the class flocked out of the room. "Taking a leaf from Shen Qingqiu’s book and sitting in?"

"It's been fun," Yue Qingyuan replied brightly. "I've already found two teachers cutting lesson time to work on their own research." They walked down the halls together. "How can this shixiong help shidi today?"

"I want to enter closed cultivation."

"Ah, the intersect competition is coming up. Of course, shidi. You'll be in the Ling Xi Caves, I imagine?"

"Mm." They reached his office and waved off the attending disciple. "How are you doing?" Liu Qingge asked.

Yue Qingyuan picked up a sealed message tube, looked at it blankly, then set it down again. "Mu-shidi says, when he made this breakthrough, he lost the resentments holding him back."

"And you worry that without resentment, you don't have a connection," Liu Qingge looked at him steadily. Yue Qingyuan huffed a laugh, and Liu Qingge looked offended.

Yue Qingyuan waved a hand. "No, your insights no longer surprise me, Liu-shidi. I just hadn't put it that baldly even to myself." He shook his head. "I was ready to say the same thing, but with many more unnecessary words."

Liu Qingge lost a little tension. "Even if you're starting with a blank slate, isn't that better than before? You can--build a friendship." He seemed to have to push the last words out.

"But not the same one," Yue Qingyuan said quietly. He shook his head and put on his polite social mask again. "But this shixiong shouldn't burden shidi with unimportant matters. Shidi wanted to--."

Liu Qingge rudely cut him off. "It isn't unimportant if it's important to you."

Yue Qingyuan sighed. "Liu-shidi can never resist following up on an advantage," he said thinly.

"You don't know he's forgotten the good things as well as the resentments until you talk to him," Liu Qingge insisted.

Yue Qingyuan blinked. "Oh."

"Right." Liu Qingge rolled his eyes, then paused on his way out. "I hope he's himself. I know he means a lot to you."

Yue Qingyuan felt warm. "Thank you, Liu-shidi," he said seriously.

Liu Qingge nodded once and left. Yue Qingyuan swallowed a sigh. He really should do something about that. Other matters had just seemed so overwhelming, the last few years. He wavered, and picked up a twice-mended cup from its shelf. But maybe things could make a turn for the better.

Chapter Text

The little expedition returned to Cang Qiong in a much more somber mood. The other disciples had been dismayed to learn that 'no excuses' also applied to letting their juniors run off without an escort. Luo Binghe and Ning Yingying were, after all, the youngest students. As a result, it was a very quiet and contemplative group which returned to Qing Jing. Shen Qingqiu put them in the care of the juniors' hall master, sent a note to Qiong Ding, and went to tidy himself up before he made his own report.

He fiddled with the mechanism which diverted water from the small waterfall behind the bamboo cottage into his private bathhouse. It was always a little finicky. As he adjusted it, he suddenly remembered the System's promise of quest markers.

{ System! You said I needed 500 points to get markers for the Shen Jiu quest. How many do I have now? }

[ Host has accrued 620 points! Please continue your efforts. ]

Fantastic; all those character role-playing points really added up. The protagonist proximity bonus, plus the quest completion reward for the Skinner mission, had given him a comfortable cushion.

{ Great; buy it. }

[ Quest markers unlocked! Thank you for your purchase. Starting Quest: In His Footsteps. Starting Quest: The Way We Were. Starting Quest: Memories. ]

Almost instantly, a few little three dimensional arrows appeared. One was on the water diversion mechanism. Shen Qingqiu waved his fingers through it experimentally; it seemed to have no presence. He reached through the floating arrow to turn off the flow, and had a brief memory of speaking with the designer. He, Shen Qingqiu, was skeptical of the efficacy of the device, but the craftsman argued convincingly about its merits, pointing to his drawings. Shen Qingqiu had reluctantly commissioned it, and was very satisfied with the results.

{ That's it? } He thought skeptically.

The system was silent.

He shrugged, bathed, and dressed for the visit to Qiong Ding. As he passed through his bamboo cottage, he noticed a few other floating arrows. He touched one on his work table, and was immersed in a memory of making a delicate wooden box. He carefully laid a talisman on the bottom, covered it with a thin veneer of wood, and built the box up around it. He knew, in the memory, that this box would be sent with one of his disciples who was graduating from the sect, so they could correspond.

Picking up Xiu Ya again gave him another memory--a fierce, clear impression of when he first drew it on Wan Jian. He basked in that secondhand glow for a moment, then headed off to Qiong Ding.

He hadn't really appreciated flying in his first incarnation--it looked, frankly, absolutely ridiculous to have a grown man balancing precariously on a narrow blade. He had only tried experimentally a few times before Without-A-Cure had given him a ready made excuse. But seeing other cultivators, and memories of Marty McFly with his hoverboard in Back To The Future, had pushed him to experiment on his own. An embarrassing number of hours skimming over the ground, at an easy falling distance if his qi cut out, gave him a little more confidence. Using tricks gleaned from that experience, he used a featherlight charm on himself and a bit of qi to stick his feet to the blade, and set off in high xianxia style.

*

The Qiong Ding disciples were respectful, but distant. Certainly, there were a few faces that were too blank to be entirely polite. Shen Qingqiu guessed that giving their teacher a cold shoulder hadn't endeared him to anyone there. He sniffed inwardly. They were, comparatively, toddlers, and he was pleased to ignore them. Yue Qingyuan had received his note, and Shen Qingqiu was led to his study and asked politely to wait.

Shen Qingqiu wandered shamelessly through the study as he waited. There were various ornaments--he recognized one of his own paintings, and another one in the unmistakable style of his teacher. What caught his attention, however, was a quest marker. It floated above a jadeite teacup. It was complete, even with its lid, but was set on a shelf as if it was never used. He picked it up carefully for closer examination, and noted it had been broken once and repaired twice. The first time used an ordinary glue, which left behind a slight tackiness. The second time it had been repaired properly, with lacquer. Shen Qingqiu ran a thumb over the etched leaves thoughtfully. There was no maker's mark; it was obviously a student piece. The associated memory sank into his mind like a stone into a pond. Yue Qingyuan approached from behind as he was examining it.

"Ah--"

"This is terrible. The details are crude and the proportions are clumsy. I can make much better, now." He set the cup back on the shelf.

"You remember it?"

"I remember making it. I don't remember how it broke."

"This shixiong is glad you've returned safely. How was it?" He took Shen Qingqiu's right hand in his and checked his spiritual circulation with the other. Shen Qingqiu sighed and put up with the familiar fussing.

"Disappointing. The only student who actually did something useful, also got captured. They need more practical exercises in the future."

"They're still young. There's no need to rush."

They sat down for tea, and Shen Qingqiu used the time Yue Qingyuan spent giving instructions to his duty disciple to interrogate the system.

{ How many Memories do I need to collect before I improve my affinity with 'Shen Jiu?' }

[ Memory value is variable. Current affinity with 'Shen Jiu' is 14.7% ]

Yue Qingyuan returned. "The situation was resolved?"

"Yes, but Old Master Chen's third concubine was dead before we arrived--dead weeks ago, in fact. The culprit was a skinner demon--now dead--and it was posing as each concubine it killed and replaced." He wrinkled his nose. "And helping Old Master Chen select new bodies, as well, I found out later." He sighed. "He doesn't know that, by the way; I simply told him his third and last concubine was dead, and so was the demon."

"Very diplomatic of Qingqiu-shidi," Yue Qingyuan's eyebrows had risen.

Shen Qingqiu sipped his tea. "I simply didn't want to deal with the hysterics."

[ + 10 character points! Please continue your efforts! ]

Chapter Text

The older disciples were gathered around the Pool of Tranquility for a demonstration. Quite a few younger students were peeking in the courtyard, too. Shen Qingqiu and his teaching assistants ignored them--it was something of a tradition to let the juniors eavesdrop on this demonstration. The novice years were full of memorization and drudgery; this showy lesson gave them something to inspire their studies.

" ...Can make items lighter than air, or heavier than stone," he said, simultaneously floating a stone across the surface of the water and letting an open flower sink to the bottom like an anchor. The students 'ooh'd' appreciatively.

"... Add energy--" he made a bowl of water boil and hiss. "--Or take it away." A second copper bowl made a shallow dome of ice as the water in it froze and expanded.

"...Can adhere--," he held a brightly colored, lint-stuffed ball on his open palm, then swiftly turned his hand palm-side down. "--Or repel." He placed the ball on the folding table with seeming casualness--the talisman on the table's surface bounced it up a foot and let it hang there, apparently suspended in air. Shen Qingqiu passed a wire hoop around it while the students ooh'd and aah'd--a little addition he remembered from the illusionist shows he'd seen on television as Shen Yuan.

"...Can speed your steps--" he flash-stepped to the other side of the courtyard, then casually strolled back to the front of the group with his hands behind his back. "--Or slow your opponent." He nodded to one of his teaching assistants, who launched a showy flying kick. The assistant began at full speed, then abruptly slowed to a stately glide mid-air. Shen Qingqiu waited a moment for the slow-motion kick to reach him, then idly stepped out of its path. Some students gasped, and some giggled, but they were all impressed and freshly inspired. The assistant beamed and bowed like a circus performer behind Shen Qingqiu's back. Shen Qingqiu loftily ignored him.

"Mastering these techniques will take years, if not decades, of practice and study. You will begin now." He nodded to his assistants and stepped away. He certainly wasn't going to spend his time going over the very, very basics--that was what graduate students were for. He joined Shang Qinghua, who had arrived earlier and waited at the fringe of the student group.

"You're... actually a really good teacher," Shang Qinghua said, with quiet astonishment.

Shen Qingqiu ruthlessly quashed the warm glow ignited by the praise. "Shang-shidi's surprise is not flattering," he returned coolly. Remember the chemical fertilizer, Shen Yuan, he thought. "How can this shixiong help Shang-shidi today?"

"Um, I wanted... I hoped..."

Shen Qingqiu waited.

"I wanted to see how you were doing with those engraved plates? You know? For the, uh, poetry compilation?"

"Ah, of course. They're complete; they're in my workshop. I can send them with Shang-shidi now, if that's convenient."

"Oh! Oh, okay, great. The press master has been at me, you know, because they have a schedule and it's always extra time for illustrations--" As Shen Qingqiu set off, Shang Qinghua kept up a nervous running commentary, trotting at his side. He kept giving Shen Qingqiu nervous, searching looks under his eyelashes.

"--He gets, you know, really loud, not shouting but just loud. And I tell him, hey, I know scheduling, okay, you should see my schedule, but--"

Shen Qingqiu, silent out of necessity, looked ahead to a pair of people sitting in the paved courtyard in the course of the path. His cultivator's hearing picked up--not a conversation, a monologue.

"--I just can't do it! I've already been here a year, and I don't even have a firm topic yet, I can't take even more time away from research to teach kids three-stroke characters--"

"Okay, breathe," her companion said, not unkindly.

Shen Qingqiu recognized them vaguely as junior teachers. One was a visiting scholar from one of the minor sects, the other a Cang Qiong disciple. They were both residing at Qing Jing to have easy access to the library's resources, and performing low-level teaching duties in exchange.

If not for Shang Qinghua as a witness, Shen Qingqiu would be seriously tempted to back up and go another way. As it was, he could only put on his aloof expression and glide forward.

"Master Shen, may this junior have a word." The young woman leapt to her feet as soon as she'd seen him, shoulders square and spine straight.

"This master is listening," Shen Qingqiu said with lofty hauteur. The junior's companion had also risen, and was standing very still. Shang Qinghua, behind him, had frozen and was trying to blend into the background. Shen Qingqiu could sense them exchanging commiserating glances over his shoulder.

The junior took a deep breath and began. "Master Shen, this humble student is having difficulty balancing the duties of teaching with the research which is the reason this student came to Cang Qiong. This student humbly requests a reduction in the assistant teaching schedules."

It was a fairly neat strategy. Request a lighter schedule for the whole group, be a hero if it was approved, and possibly bargain down for an exception for this single student. Shen Qingqiu searched his feelings and piecemeal memories. The original goods--his original self?--had quashed similar rebellions by simply expelling the problematic student. He definitely wouldn't reduce the teaching schedules--that the student was objecting now meant his harrying of the hallmasters was making them check up on the classes, rather than the tacit practice of shortening lessons to free up time. And the stressed-out diatribe he'd heard on the approach suggested a different problem.

"What is the focus of this student's research?" he asked neutrally.

"Master Shen, this student is studying the spread of flora and fauna from rifts between our world and the demonic realm," the student answered cautiously.

"An interesting--and broad--topic. Has this student made a first draft?"

"...No, Master Shen."

"An outline?"

"No, Master Shen." The student shifted uncomfortably.

"And this student has been residing on Qing Jing for a year." Shen Qingqiu paused for a moment to let everyone present contemplate the several ways this could go. "This teacher suggests it is not lack of time, but an excessively broad topic, which is the difficulty."

The student stayed silent, sensing a trap. He did like the smart ones.

"This teacher will assist you. Each week, the scope of this student's Library access will be reduced by one section."

The student inhaled sharply.

"This practice will continue until this student has produced an outline, based on the remaining sections available."

"...This one thanks Master Shen," the student managed after a moment.

Shen Qingqiu swanned off into the workshop, Shang Qinghua in tow.

"Here we are--twelve engraved plates." Shen Qingqiu carefully pulled two out of the acid quenching solution, rinsed them, and set them down to dry.

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu had another teaching task to accomplish.

Shen Qingqiu summoned Luo Binghe to his work room in the book binding and copying annex of the Great Library. He sent off a paper crane with a note, then waved Luo Binghe behind a screen. "Kneel there, and remain silent."

"Ye--," Luo Binghe caught himself and sealed his mouth, then knelt nervously behind the screen. Shen Qingqiu leafed through the correspondence on the desk--mostly other sects asking if Qing Jing had a particular volume, or occassionally offering a copy of an interesting item in their own collection.

It didn't take long before Ming Fan's hurried steps came down the corridor. Shen Qingqiu quickly used his fan to throw a one-way muffling charm at the screen--he didn't trust Luo Binghe not to sneeze or cough at an inopportune time, in true protagonist fashion.

"How can this disciple serve Shizun?" Ming Fan said obediently.

Shen Qingqiu rose from his desk, and picked up the flawed cultivation manual from under a camouflaging sheet of paper. "The disciple can explain this."

Ming Fan went the color of putty. Shen Qingqiu set the manual down on the desk again, very gently.

"This disciple--this disciple--"

"This teacher is listening."

"Shizun--" Ming Fan trailed off.

"What did Ming Fan do with the copy of the real cultivation manual?"

"This disciple--this disciple put it back with the others, Shizun!" Ming Fan's voice was shaking. Shen Qingqiu's check of the inventories had already confirmed one extra copy. Even the simplest cultivation manuals were rigorously tracked--knowledge was a cultivation sect's most precious stock-in-trade. But an extra copy didn't ring the same alarm bells as a missing one.

"Mm. And why did this disciple choose to switch an approved manual with one of his own devising?" Shen Qingqiu's cultivation-enhanced hearing caught a tiny gasp from behind the screen. Ming Fan, with his lower cultivation, didn't hear it.

"I thought--this disciple thought--it would work better, Shizun." Ming Fan's eyes were teary, now. "There are so many exercises in the main manual that don't do anything, this disciple thought it would be faster--"

Shen Qingqiu sighed. "Those 'exercises which don't do anything' are to balance and purify the circulating energies. They reduce the risk of qi deviations and blockages."

"I didn't--I didn't know--"

"You didn't know, and didn't ask. Instead, you hid your wrongdoing."

Ming Fan was silent and shaking.

Shen Qingqiu waited a moment, and when no further defense was forthcoming, said "Ming Fan will enter closed cultivation for two months to reflect on his character and judgment. You may continue to sleep in the dorms, but your meals will be delivered to you. At the end of those two months, you will return to your father's house as previously arranged--"

Ming Fan's face was ghastly as he imagined explaining to his ministry official father that he'd been kicked out of his prestigious cultivation sect.

"--And consider if you wish to remain on the path of cultivation. If you choose to return, you will be on probation for two years before even being considered for head disciple duties or being bequeathed a sword. Not coincidentally, these are the same two years of this teacher's time which you have wasted with this poorly thought out gambit."

Ming Fan wobbled, and knelt. "Yes, Shizun," he said in a small voice.

"Dismissed." Shen Qingqiu waited until he could no longer feel the torchlight of Ming Fan's qi before dismissing the muffling charm and calling Luo Binghe out.

Luo Binghe looked conflicted and stunned. Shen Qingqiu handed him a message scroll. "Take this to Hallmaster Ma. She's in charge of the senior students." He looked severely at Luo Binghe. "You are not being made a senior student. You will be sleeping in one of the vacant senior rooms until we sort out the dormitory. That will be about three months."

"Y-yes Shizun."

"Dismissed," he said, returning to his desk. Hmm, Ling Chen Sect was offering copies of a beautiful set of maps, in exchange for illustrated copies of one of Qing Jing's bestiaries... That reminded him of another chore. Luo Binghe shifted nervously for awhile, not quite daring to ask questions, then fled.

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu spent a lovely, peaceful few days painting his newly recovered memories and occasionally dropping into classes. He retreated to his studio when the hall masters started looking twitchy--he didn't want to have to train new teachers. Yue Qingyuan arrived for an unannounced visit just as he was about to take a break.

"Yue-shixiong, feel free to look around. I was just finishing up. Oh, and I've prepared those paintings for the birthday party."

"No rush, Qingqiu-shidi." Yue Qingyuan looked around with interest, hands clasped behind him. "I heard you were spending a lot of time in here. You've been productive." His attention was caught by a bright watercolor, hanging on a line to dry. "This is--"

Shen Qingqiu looked over from his easel. "Zi Dan, from when we were all disciples." The painting was of a laughing man, holding a barrel on one shoulder and letting three or four novices hang off the other arm. "I've been painting memories as they occur to me. It seems to be helping."

Yue Qingyuan looked at the painting seriously for a moment, then smiled neutrally. "So I see." He moved to see the piece Shen Qingqiu was currently finishing.

Shen Qingqiu was adding foreground details on a mostly complete painting on a square panel. It was a tortoise in warm, earthy colors, looking transcendentally happy as it prepared to bite into a chunk of melon bigger than its head. Yue Qingyuan studied it and smiled. "Vibrant. Warmer tones than your usual work. What are you going to call it?"

Shen Qingqiu thought for a moment. " 'Happy Tortoise Eating A Melon.' " He picked up a bit of natural sponge. As Yue Qingyuan watched, he dipped one corner in orange pigment, and the other in yellow. Dampening it from the other end, he squished it a few times. Shen Qingqiu blotted the sponge on a piece of scrap, then dabbed it across the mostly finished painting. Yue Qingyuan was silent for a moment.

"You didn't have to ruin it just because I said I liked it," he said quietly.

Shen Qingqiu looked sideways at him, then set the sponge down the old tray he used to mix paint. "Look more closely; it isn't ruined." He carefully wiped his fingers on a damp cloth. "The paint in that area was dry. Earlier, I covered certain parts of the painting with a soft wax. The sponge applied color selectively. When it dries, I'll remove the wax with absorbent paper and a warm iron." He looked at the painting critically. "I may leave the wax on the shell, though. I like the effect." He looked sideways again, then leaned his shoulder against Yue Qingyuan's for a bare inch of contact. They sat silently for awhile as Shen Qingqiu cleaned his brushes.

"When you're done, may I have this one?"

"Only if you can prove you like tortoises more than Ruan Qingruan."

"A tall order. Let's go have tea."

Like a very specifically trained hound, Luo Binghe had heard the word 'tea' and wanted to help.

"This disciple can make it, Shizun!" he offered, bright-eyed.

"This master will make the tea," Shen Qingqiu said firmly. "Binghe may fetch the water and tea set."

Luo Binghe hurried off.

Yue Qingyuan smiled in amusement. "Why not let him try? I'm sure he'll do fine."

Shen Qingqiu sniffed. "I, with my own eyes, have seen him put the tea in the water--" he paused, "--and then boil it."

Yue Qingyuan covered a smile.

"It's my own fault, I suppose. I did say I wanted it strong."

After Luo Binghe had been shooed off, they got to the reason for the visit.

"Ming Fan is no longer your head disciple?" Yue Qingyuan asked neutrally. Ah, well, perhaps partial amnesia followed by dismissing someone familiar with his habits was a worrisome sign.

Shen Qingqiu frowned at his tea cup. "He disappointed me."

"Of course you can remove him at will, but I'll need to have something to tell his father..."

"I haven't made a formal statement, and... here." Shen Qingqiu went to his desk and found the manual Ming Fan had given to Luo Binghe. "He gave a cultivation manual of his own devising to one of the other students." Shen Qingqiu sat again while Yue Qingyuan leafed through it. "To my newest, youngest student, who didn't have even the most basic grounding to know it was incorrect."

Yue Qingyuan closed the manual and weighed it in his hand. "It's... light," he said diplomatically.

Shen Qingqiu sniffed. "Apparently, he 'left out the parts that didn't do anything.' Apparently, he thought it was more efficient."

Yue Qingyuan winced. "Ah."

Shen Qingqiu sipped his tea. "If I thought it was malicious, I'd already have thrown him out. As it is, I assigned him to two months of closed cultivation--he's still sleeping in the dorms, though--and two years probation. When the two months are complete, he has a pre-planned visit home for his grandmother's birthday. He can choose then if he wishes to continue his studies, as an ordinary disciple. And two years will be enough to improve his character, if he wants to gain his sword and become head disciple again."

Yue Qingyuan sipped his tea, waiting.

Shen Qingqiu thought. "As for his father--he's a civil official. If Ming Fan had tried this stunt in a bureau--giving a junior dangerously incorrect information, and concealing it from his superior--he might have been executed. You know how rigorous they are with irrigation." He reached for the teapot. "I'd be happy to talk to him myself, if you wish."

"No, no," Yue Qingyuan said hastily. "I think we should continue our current policy on that." Shen Qingqiu does not talk to the parents, ever, was the policy. It was more peaceful for everyone that way, and the parents got to keep their delusions about their offspring's aptitude, attitude, and course of study.

Shen Qingqiu acquiesced. "Tang Xinran will be out of closed cultivation later this month. She did well as head disciple previously; I'll ask her to take up those duties again until I find another suitable candidate."

Yue Qingyuan studied his face thoughtfully. "Something seems to be troubling Qingqiu-shidi."

Shen Qingqiu shook his head. "I have this feeling I've forgotten something, but it won't quite come to me."

Yue Qingyuan smiled a little wistfully. "Qingqiu-shidi has recovered so many memories already; I'm sure it will come to you."

*

Later that night, Shen Qinqqiu sat bolt upright in bed, just as he was about to fall asleep. Fuck, I forgot about Liu-shidi!

{ System! System, wake up! }

[ The System does not sleep. The System sees all. ]

{ ... }

[ ... ]

{ What about Liu Qingge's qi deviation? Is that a plot event? Can I miss it? }

[ Liu Qingge's qi deviation is an unalterable plot event. ]

Shen Qingqiu felt a horrible sick vacancy in his stomach.

{ ...has it already happened? }

[ Liu Qingge's qi deviation has not yet taken place. ]

Shen Qingqiu felt a relief so deep he was lightheaded.

{ Can I buy quest markers for that? Or notifications? }

[ Quest markers and notifications for this minor quest are available for 100 points. ]

Shen Qingqiu had just bought markers for the 'Shen Jiu' affinity quest group, and hadn't paid much attention to his balance since then. { How many points do I have? }

[ Host has 130 points remaining! ]

Shen Qingqiu breathed in and breathed out. Thirty points was enough of a buffer.

{ Okay, buy the quest notifications. } Almost immediately, a countdown appeared; eleven days.

{ Okay. Okay. } As the adrenaline rush left him, he felt overwhelmingly tired. He lay back down.

Eleven days to enter closed cultivation. And study up on how to treat qi deviations, purposefully this time.

*

As usual when Shen Qingqiu was faced with a problem, he went to the library. In this case, the Great Library, the edifice most of Qing Jing was arranged around. There were annexes for specific subjects, and smaller collections for convenience, but every scroll and book in Qing Jing kept its original here.

The approach to the Great Library was always disconcerting. The quiescent labyrinth array around the facade made the doors look too distant and too close at the same time. New students would reach it by closing their eyes. Senior students usually kept their eyes on their notes, letting their feet find their way to the doors by muscle memory.

As Shen Qingqiu crossed the foyer, the great mandala in the mosaic floor reacted, shifting under and around his feet like a needy cat. The first time Shen Qingqiu-as-Shen Yuan had encountered it, he'd jumped nearly out of his skin. Luckily, no one was there at the time. This time, there was a memory marker floating in the center. He detoured to pick it up.

Walking into the Great Library made something loose lock into place in Shen Qingqiu's soul. Old Master Shen waited considerately for a moment while he regained his equilibrium.

Old Master Shen guided him through, pointing out interesting sections. The towering shelves, made of heavy polished timber and buttressed at close intervals, still seemed to have less weight than the books. Carefully filtered light was supplemented by glowstones, but he couldn't see an end to the shelves as they led away into the darkness. He had the sense of space that was larger than anything a building should have been able to contain.

There was a sign near the Librarian's office with characters neatly etched in the polished bronze. It said:
1 Silence
2 Do not interfere with the nature of causality
3 Items must be returned no later than the last date shown *

"Is that something this disciple needs to worry about?" Shen Qingqiu asked, looking at the sign.
"Not yet," Old Master Shen temporized. Shen Qingqiu decided to worry about it anyway.

Shen Qingqiu felt the memory settle into place, like a brick settling into a paved path. He continued to the medical section.

Getting permission to enter closed cultivation had been just as easy this time as before. But in the remaining handful of days, Shen Qingqiu would not be idle. In his previous life, he and Mu Qingfang had combed through Qing Jing's archives for poison information, in the wake of his exposure to Without-A-Cure. Their search had, ultimately, led to many dead ends, but there was a great deal more information they'd set aside because it wasn't relevant to the task at hand. Shen Qingqiu located the massive technique index, and began seeking out methods meant to prevent poisoning in the first place. He hoped to avoid Elder Sky Hammer’s retaliation entirely this time, but it never hurt to be prepared.

Almost incidentally, he found something interesting. The restricted archives contained techniques closely held by the sect. In one sub-index, he found a note in his dearly-missed teacher’s exquisite characters, indicating that a specific technique had been gifted to an outsider. There was a memory quest marker hovering intangibly above the page. He noted the incident number, and searched out the reference. The result was incredible.

Skimming the incident report, Shen Qingqiu felt an old memory slot into place and gain color. He had met Su Xiyan, briefly, in a mission which went badly after the two sects clashed over jurisdiction. She'd gone to some trouble to retrieve him after he was trapped--she'd probably saved his life. Old Master Shen certainly thought so; his neat, elegant characters detailed that he gifted her a poison containment technique, one which used qi to hold a malignant substance out of the vital organs. It was definitely a technique for emergencies, when the cultivator had no access to anti-venoms or cures. Could this be how Su Xiyan resisted the abortifacient forced on her by the Old Palace Master? And why would Old Master Shen choose this particular obscure technique, uniquely useful in such a dire situation but overshadowed when the cultivator had access to their normal support items?

Shen Qingqiu studied the technique thoughtfully, and reflected on the persistent rumors that Old Master Shen could see the future.

Whatever the reason, this made a superb thematic link.

[ Host has filled in a plot hole! Please continue your efforts! ]

Chapter Text

Three days left. Shen Qingqiu had given his hall masters their instructions and handed head disciple duties over to the newly returned Tang Xinran. She was a sensible young woman who, if things went the same as before, would be marrying the heir of another sect. The additional management experience would do her good.

He shooed off the disciples who had accompanied him to the cave entrance, and stepped inside.

{ System, how do I turn on the--oh, I see. }

[ This System has contextual hints turned on! ]

A new arrow popped up as soon as he crossed some invisible threshold. It rotated gently as he moved. Shen Qingqiu took a deep breath and moved further into the coolness of the cave complex.

Even with his recent cramming on treating qi deviations, he was worried. He was well aware, now, of just how lucky he'd been before. Experiencing a qi deviation was incredibly risky at high levels. The enormous amount of energy constrained by the meridians of a high level cultivator made any flaw as dangerous as a speck of grit in a racecar engine. It was only their unusually complementary qi natures--Shen Qingqiu was almost pure Yin, Liu Qingge almost pure Yang--that allowed his slapdash effort at first aid to work.

And Shen Qingqiu didn't know if he could repeat the lucky strike that had briefly disabled Liu Qingge the first time. Luck was, really, Shen Qingqiu's one advantage. The Bai Zhan peak lord had gone toe-to-toe and hit-for-hit against the protagonist, and survived.

But Liu Qingge had fought Luo Binghe for him--or at least, for his memory and the hope for a respectable burial--and Shen Qingqiu couldn't sit peacefully in Qing Jing and wait for him to die.

He made his way cautiously through the wide cave tunnels, noting landmarks from last time--the beautiful spiritual pool, the chamber with the grotesque spirit blade scars. Shen Qingqiu ran his fingertips over one gash, thoughtfully, and moved "wreak revenge on Yue Qingyuan" one spot higher on his personal to-do list.

Then he settled into sage seat, kept an eye on the quest countdown, and waited.

*

Shen Qingqiu was in the dreamy not-time of meditation when the counter gave an incongruously cheerful chime. The white days counter turned to red and began counting minutes. Shen Qingqiu rose, checked his qiankun items, and made his way swiftly down the tunnel along the path of the quest arrow.

It was just as before. Liu Qingge, breathing heavily, clearly compromised. Cheng Luan, buried hilt deep in the living stone, slowly working itself out. Waves of spiritual energy distorted Shen Qingqiu's spirit sense, making it unreliable.

Shen Qingqiu winced at the screech of metal on stone, and threw a quick muffling charm at the sword, followed by a sticking charm. Liu Qingge stared at him, mindlessly belligerent in the throes of qi deviation. He grabbed the hilt of Cheng Luan and heaved. Amazingly, the stone cracked and gave. The sticking charm had just enough strength to keep most of the blade coated with loose rubble. The maddened Liu Qingge didn't have the presence of mind to cancel the charm, but with his qi enhanced strength, he swung the blade like a club.

Shen Qingqiu ducked down and back, then used his fan to flick a featherlight charm on the burdened spirit sword. He could have done the opposite--thrown a mass multiplying charm--but he was genuinely concerned Liu Qingge would snap tendons and break bones in his frenzy. Instead, the lighter-than-air weapon pulled his arm up. The absolutely astonished expression which broke through the murderous frenzy of qi deviation was something Shen Qingqiu would treasure later. For now, he pushed the qi he had to spare into enhancing his speed, flash-stepped forward, and landed an open handed strike on Liu Qingge's chest. His lucky blow from before had hit right over the heart energy center, and he repeated that this time.

Liu Qingge collapsed. Shen Qingqiu nearly collapsed too, from relief and adrenaline.

Okay, that... was terrifying. Fighting him after knowing what he could do was roughly a thousand times scarier than going in blind.

Shen Qingqiu took a few deep, steadying breaths, then cautiously inched forward. He pulled qi from the base of Liu Qingge's skull and pushed cool Yin energy into the heart center. Coaxing and nudging, he pulled rogue energy away from the vital organs and back to the meridians. When the energy began to flow the right direction on its own, he opened his eyes--when had he closed them?--and pulled back.

"Are you helping?“ rasped Liu Qingge incredulously.

"Don't try to think; this shixiong is concerned the unaccustomed effort may set back Liu-shidi's recovery." Shen Qingqiu said tartly.

The nice flowery speech from last time had not been well received in the short term, and in the long term worked--Shen Qingqiu's mind skittered away from an uncomfortable and unexamined precipice--perhaps too well, so....

There was a baffled pause. "Why? Are you--"

"Oh, I'm going to hold this over your head for years. Maybe decades. I'll bequeath the story to my succeeding disciple, so--"

Liu Qingge grimaced in rage, then surprise, as the effort provoked another coughing spasm. Shen Qingqiu sighed and helped him turn to the side as he brought up more blood.

"Or maybe an epic poem would be more appropriate." Shen Qingqiu pulled Liu Qingge's hair out of the way and braced his shoulder. "About the brave, selfless, humble scholar who saves the idiot thug who decided to cultivate his way into qi deviation. Alone. In a cave. With literally hundreds of people outside happy to help him. You moron."

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu took a little time to regain his energy and equilibrium, then left the cave. He had hoped to be a little early and head the demon invasion off, but instead walked right into it. No matter; this time, he was prepared.

"This master heard Sha Hualing has been promoted. And now here she is, trying to make a name for herself. Most people do it the other way around."

Sha Hualing bared her teeth, while the demons behind her hissed. But a few--the older and more powerful followers--were suddenly paying close attention. Most of the horde were new recruits and low level muscle. But a few were genuinely powerful elders, and most of them had more experience in battle and court than the powerful but young new Demon Saint. Leading such a group was like riding a tiger; intimidating to onlookers, but one slip meant you were on the menu.

"Elder Shen misunderstands. Ling'er heard of the famous Cang Qiong cultivators, and brought her family to exchange pointers."

"It's courteous to wait for an invitation before arriving for a contest. But Sha Hualing is young and inexperienced, so perhaps she was unaware."

This time, the barb prompted a few snickers from the side of the demon horde farthest from Sha Hualing. Her eyes glittered in fury but her smile remained intact.

"But we have come all this way already." We traveled across human lands, and we'll travel back that way, was the implicit threat. "For courtesy, perhaps Cang Qiong sect will give us three matches. If you win, we'll leave immediately. If we win--" Sha Hualing's smile widened. In her eyes, the tiger roared. "--we will take your sign as a prize."

Even with Shen Qingqiu's stronger cultivation, defeating the horde without students being killed or maimed was a chancy venture. The demons were a disorganized rabble, but their individual abilities meant they were fast and agile. Just a bit of bad luck could let their area of effect attacks do terrible damage.

"...Then this teacher will be pleased to educate you. Three one-on-one duels, with strongest of your group against the strongest of ours."

"Yes." Sha Hualing's eyes gleamed. "Many thanks to Elder Shen," she said coquettishly, her mannerisms just as much of a prop as Shen Qingqiu's fan.

"Then I believe the first duel will be Sha Hualing against this master." Snap-snap, goes the trap.

Sha Hualing froze for just a moment before recovering her earlier hauteur. "Is Elder Shen not worried about his reputation, fighting a young girl?" she asked, then stiffened as she realized her mistake. Her strongest--and therefore most valuable--fighters were now watching with the bright-eyed attention dogs give to a cat fight. Once they get the taste of blood--the tiniest hint of weakness, and she's off the tiger.

Shen Qingqiu wafted his fan leisurely. "This master knows that appearances can be deceiving. And Sha Hualing is the strongest of your group, correct?"

"Yes," Sha Hualing replied firmly. There was no alternative.

"But as Young Lady Sha is fighting unarmored--" Shen Qingqiu hinted delicately, amid giggles from the assembled Cang Qiong disciples. "--This teacher will not use a sword."

There. That's the story that will go around, if even one demon survives this. Sha Hualing, arrogant and unprepared, attacked Cang Qiong sect. The lower ranks of the demons were now whispering to each other, while the powerhouses watched still and intent.

*

Liu Mingyan won her fight with the One-Armed Elder with only minor injuries. There were cheers from the Cang Qiong disciples and an unsurprising murmur of approval from the demon horde. They were swayed by displays of power, and the tiny human cultivator winning against a demon elder was impressive.

"Well done," praised Shen Qingqiu. "As expected from one of Qi Qingqi's disciples." Liu Mingyan retained her composure, but there was a spark of well-deserved pride in her eyes as she returned to her martial sisters. Sha Hualing hadn't taken her eyes off her since the fight began. The demon saint stepped forward.

"This Sha Hualing will challenge her!"

Shen Qingqiu tapped his fan on his folded arms. "But Young Lady Sha has already challenged. Each combatant fights once, was the agreement."

Sha Hualing looked unreasonably put out. "Next time, we fight. Ling'er will not go easy on you." The two pretty young women locked gazes.

Well, the rivalry subplot seems to be working this time, Shen Qingqiu thought. A bit early, though.

"This disciple will fight next!" Luo Binghe stepped out of the crowd.

"Binghe, no!" Shen Qingqiu snapped automatically.

[ Host, if he doesn't fight, there will be a penalty! ]

{ Fuck, I forgot. Okay, I'll take the OOC points to back down. }

"This disciple can do it, Shizun!" He trotted forward into the ring.

Or maybe he'll completely ignore my orders. Again. Damn it.

Too late for last moves; the Sky Hammer Elder had already stepped forward into the makeshift ring.

Chapter Text

"I am going to strangle him," Shen Qingqiu said serenely. A group of Qiong Ding disciples gathered near him were surprised into scandalized giggles, despite or because of the tense situation.

Seeing his tiny white sheep disciple dwarfed by the spike-armored Sky Hammer elder demon was distressing even when he remembered the older Luo Binghe. He knew Luo Binghe would survive. That, indeed, was his real golden finger. Whether it was the icy waters of the Luo River, desperate poverty, childhood neglect and abuse, or the horrors of the Abyss, Luo Binghe would endure, survive, and eventually adapt. The protagonist was peerless, undefeatable by external forces. Internal forces, on the other hand...

Shen Qingqiu watched and realized, belatedly, the other risk of the fight. The protagonist's golden body might protect his life, but not his reputation. Luo Binghe had already been scratched by the poison spikes.

Luckily, the dust clouds raised by their scuffling feet had concealed the minor wound. Shen Qingqiu suspected, upon reflection, that it was this injury which first ignited Sha Hualing's interest. Did she investigate herself, leading to the dawning suspicion that someone with a demonic bloodline was in a respectable cultivation sect? Or did she simply sell the interesting information on to the Dream Demon elder?

Luo Binghe took another punishing blow with the demon elder's hammer. Shen Qingqiu surpressed a wince as Luo Binghe threw himself to the ground to avoid a sideswipe. It was, frankly, ridiculous how quickly the demon could move with that size and that weight. He looked down at a tug on his sleeve. It was Ning Yingying, face pale and strained.

"Can't Shizun do something?"

Shen Qingqiu's stomach sank. He placed a reassuring hand on her small head.

Ning Yingying watched. "How is he still fighting? He must be so tired!"

"It's all the chores," Shen Qingqiu said kindly. "He's a physical cultivator. They use their qi to change their bodies. Spiritual cultivators use our qi to manipulate energies."

But while his attention was, briefly, diverted, the battle had turned. He heard a speculative murmur rise from the students. Elder Sky Hammer recoiled, stumbled, and recovered. Luo Binghe--reached into his sleeve again? Shen Qingqiu watched, shocked, as he pulled out a few leaves.

That... that... Outwardly impassive, inwardly reeling, Shen Qingqiu didn't know what to think. I am so proud. And so furious. Now I know what it is to want to hug and strangle someone at the same time.

Luo Binghe dodged and ducked around the elder's hammer blows, buying time to push qi into the thin leaves. He did an unlikely limbo move to avoid a lethal kick, and let the leaves fly in a physics-defying arc. One missed entirely, one flattened itself against the spiked helmet, and one flew straight into his eye. The crowd roared, humans and demons alike.

Luo Binghe followed up on his advantage--good boy--by flinging a handful of hastily scooped up gravel, which was avoided by the reeling elder demon, and then another two leaves, which were not. One leaf struck a glancing blow, but the other struck the remaining eye.

Shen Qingqiu wondered if the demon could regenerate that. The older Luo Binghe could have, of course, but that was heavenly demon blood. The One Armed Elder was proof that there were wounds ordinary demons couldn't recover from.

Luo Binghe stayed out of reach, harrying Elder Sky Hammer despite his wild, blind swings. He shouted, "Give up! Surrender!"

As expected of the protagonist, thought Shen Qingqiu, pleased.

The demon elder refused to surrender, and Luo Binghe was veering dangerously close to the horde. Shen Qingqiu didn't want this to turn into a hostage situation.

"Binghe, return," Shen Qingqiu snapped. Wonder of wonders, the boy actually listened. Elder Sky Hammer turned blindly toward his voice.

Shen Qingqiu pulled Luo Binghe into his side by the scruff of his neck--and away from the other disciples who might notice the scratches left by the poisoned spikes. He doubted Luo Binghe had felt them at all, still full of the fight and distracted by the blunt force injuries from the hammer.

The disciple looked up at him, eyes shining like stars. "Shizun, I--"

"We will have words about this later, young man," Shen Qingqiu said severely. "Sha Hualing, Cang Qiong has clearly won this exchange of pointers. Remove your 'family' from our sect."

Sha Hualing, furious, moved to remonstrate against her subordinate. He stumbled to his knees. Then, she paused. She smiled. Delicate Sha Hualing whispered something in Elder Sky Hammer's ear. He grinned, face a ghastly mask of blood, and Shen Qingqiu was instantly on high alert. Sha Hualing slapped something on the Elder's chest and walked briskly back to her restless horde. Elder Sky Hammer stood up, shakily. The paper was still on his chest.

...That looked like an explosive talisman. Not a common demonic tool, but Shen Qingqiu would not be surprised if they robbed a cultivator.

Shen Qingqiu did a quick mental calculation concerning the casualty rate among disciples exposed to shrapnel coated with an incurable poison, adjusted it for the ones who could reflexively cast reflective barriers, and came up with "too damn high."

He used his fan to boost the power of two thrown charms. Elder Sky Hammer threw off the mass multiplying charm that was meant to keep him where he was standing, but seemed perplexed by the sticking charm which would, hopefully, keep the shattered armor contained.

Apparently choosing to ignore the sticking charm--did he not recognize it?--the demon elder staggered blindly toward a murmuring group of disciples. Wide-eyed, they seemed not to realize the danger continued after the fight was finished.

Shen Qingqiu used his fan to throw a very strong muffling charm at the blinded elder. The demon was now missing two senses, but still terribly dangerous.

"Shizun! Shizun, I can--"

"Stay put, Binghe. No, better, go with your martial siblings." Shen Qingqiu gave him a quick shove toward the Qing Jing group, and watched in fascination as the elder's head blindly followed him. Did he have some other sense? Could demons sense demonic qi, just as a spiritual cultivator could sense human qi? Or did he recognize Luo Binghe's energy as that of his recent opponent?

Whatever the reason, Elder Sky Hammer seemed to have found a target. He moved forward, swaying like a sailor newly returned to dry land as he blindly moved toward the disciples.

"Students, Second Barrier," Shen Qingqiu snapped. The few seniors present put up their energy shield. Younger students hastened to duck behind the translucent protection.Second Barrier was supposed to be helpful against projectiles, but Shen Qingqiu didn't know if it would be effective against metal saturated in demonic qi.

As Elder Sky Hammer advanced, Shen Qingqiu threw a repulsion charm on the ground in front of him. As soon as the huge demon stepped across it, he was thrown back a few paces. A repulsion charm would need an enormous amount of power to move him far, but even a little was enough to disorient the blinded, deafened Elder. Shen Qingqiu reinforced the sticking charm, and wondered how long he had until the explosive tag went off.

Once this is over, Shen Qingqiu vowed, I'm never leaving my cottage without a giant-sized qiankun bag. They don't accept living beings but I could just kill him, stuff him in there, and end the problem. Unfortunately, all qiankun items had mass limits, and the ones he'd brought with him were too small.

And he couldn't cut through the armor, in the time he had remaining, to put the Elder in the bags he had.

The explosive tag had changed color. He threw a featherlight charm at the tag itself, hoping to make it fly away from the Elder and defuse the threat. But a well-made talisman was defended against such interference.

I'll have to do it the hard way, he thought grimly. He drew Xiu Ya and closed with the Elder.

The blinded demon was easy to evade, but Shen Qingqiu couldn't quite manage to grab the piece of paper. Xiu Ya's delicate blade couldn't slash through the armor easily. He could impale the Elder, but he remembered the result last time. The demon had pushed himself up the length of the sword. He pushed as much qi as he dared into enhancing his speed, spun out to give himself distance, and thrust Xiu Ya horizontally through the ruined eyes.

Xiu Ya's tip was stopped by the back of the helmet. Shen Qingqiu held the suddenly still demon off by the length of the sword, stretched his free hand forward, and plucked the explosive tag off the demon's chest. He breathed, and backed up, letting the body slump forward and Xiu Ya withdraw.

He tore the explosive tag in half, noting the red-orange color. This just-in-the-nick-of-time garbage is better left to the protagonist, he thought wearily. Then he saw, in horror, a spot of blood on the paper. Shit, not again.

"Hasn't Elder Shen violated the terms of our agreement? Elder Sky Hammer hadn't surrendered, and Elder Shen intervened."

"Sha Hualing intervened, by using that talisman and attempting to make her subordinate into poisoned shrapnel," Shen Qingqiu retorted coldly. He pushed qi into his right hand, frantically going over the details of the poison containment technique he had read about just before going into closed cultivation. He had studied the details, just in case, but... "This old teacher is disappointed. But not surprised."

Sha Hualing's nostrils flared--could she smell blood? "Ling-er thinks Elder Shen is hurt," she said with false innocence.

And then deus ex Liu-shidi arrived.

Chapter Text

Yue Qingyuan had, of course, left the intersect conference planning meeting as soon as he received word Cang Qiong was under attack. He arrived at speed on a sheathed Xuan Su, and was almost immediately swarmed. He was surrounded by his younger disciples, cheeping like the baby birds he sometimes privately thought they resembled. A senior disciple--a fledgling bird--was waiting to give him a preliminary report.

"Shizun, the hall masters are still doing head counts. Of the injured, some are seriously wounded, but none fatally so. Qian Cao is treating the wounded and Ling You and Bai Zhan are searching for lingering demons. As far as we've been able to confirm, Qiong Ding was the only peak infiltrated." The boy paused. "Shen-shishu and Liu-shishu left closed cultivation to repel the invaders. Shen-shishu is being treated by Mu-shishu."

Yue Qingyuan paused on his way to the main hall. "What were his injuries?"

"Shen-shishu was poisoned, Shizun."

"I just left there," Liu Qingge's voice came from behind them. "He's containing the spread with some sort of meditation technique. He can't talk right now, but he's sitting up."

"Liu-shidi, this shixiong is glad you're well. I'd like your report on the incident, if you've already checked on your sister."

"I have, Sect Leader, thank you." Yue Qingyuan sent the disciple to get updated headcounts from the hall masters. Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge walked to one of Qiong Ding's alcoves, one with a permanent muffling charm. Given the current unsettled state of the sect, Yue Qingyuan needed to remain visible to reassure the staff and students.

"I already have a summary of the beginning of the invasion; could Liu-shidi begin with his arrival on the scene?"

Liu Qingge avoided eye contact with Yue Qingyuan. "I should actually start earlier than that. In the caves, I had a qi deviation. A pretty bad one, I think."

Yue Qingyuan's eyebrows flew up and he grasped Liu Qingge's shoulder. "Have you--"

"I checked in with one of Qian Cao's medics; they didn't see any aftereffects." He hesitated. "But I didn't tell them what happened, either."

"You're going to be examined by Mu Qingfang or someone he delegates, as soon as he's free." Yue Qingyuan waited for Liu Qingge's nod before prompting, "What happened?"

"I encountered Shen Qingqiu." Liu Qingge pushed forward, ignoring Yue Qingyuan's sudden stillness. "I think he came looking for me. I was still in my meditation chamber. I attacked him. He disabled me and sorted it out." He looked up and caught Yue Qingyuan's incredulous stare. "He chewed me out the whole time, too."

"With respect, Liu-shidi, how did he manage that?" Yue Qingyuan paused and continued more thoughtfully. "Did he display any unusual abilities which would lead you to suspect he wasn't himself?"

"No; it was--" Liu Qingge shook his head in frustration. "It was basic techniques. The stuff we teach the kids who are first doing energy movement. A lightness charm, a sticking charm, and I'm pretty sure he was increasing his speed. But he was putting a lot of energy into them."

Yue Qingyuan paused, considering. "The day he woke from his fever, he boiled a kettle of water without even focusing on it."

"Not out of the question for a spiritual cultivator, but they usually hoard their energy."

"And he... treated you?"

Liu Qingge nodded. "He did some sort of qi manipulation--it felt like he was pulling some out from where it was causing problems, then pushing some in where it was supposed to be. It corrected the imbalance. He has almost a pure yin nature, did you know?"

Yue Qingyuan looked at him carefully, "I did know that, yes."

"Good to keep that quiet," Liu Qingge agreed soberly.

"And he was poisoned." Yue Qingyuan held up a hand. "No, I'm getting ahead of myself. Begin with when you arrived on the scene, please."

"I left the caves and could tell from the qi in the atmosphere that something was wrong. The students waiting outside the caves told me about the invasion, and on my way up, I ran into more who explained the--" he waved a hand irritably. "--The three matches thing. By the time I got there, all three were over. Shen Qingqiu..." He paused. Yue Qingyuan held his breath. Liu Qingge continued carefully. "Shen Qingqiu was fighting with one of the demon elders. He had heavy armor, covered in spikes. He'd been one of the brawlers. The story was, all the spikes had poison--something that was deadly to humans but harmless to demons. There was something on his chest. Shen Qingqiu killed him and plucked it off. I was told later it was an explosive tag. He didn't look injured." Liu Qingge glanced at him, then away. "Then he got into it with their leader, the teenager. They exchanged some words. She was goading him to attack her, I think. That's when I jumped in. I used Thousand-Sky-Falling-Swords to rout the demons, and Dark-Falling-Grave to weaken them enough that the disciples could pick them off. When I returned, Shen Qingqiu was sitting in meditation. His disciples told me he had a scratch on his hand--his right hand. Mu Qingfang was already on the way."

Yue Qingyuan dipped his chin in thought. "I didn't know you could contain poison with meditation."

"News to me, too. But it seems to be working."

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu sat in peaceful meditation. Breathe in. Breathe out.

The System gave a cheery chime. [ Captured Liu Mingyan's attention: Success! Captured Sha Hualing's attention: Failure. Gained fame during Sha Hualing's invasion of Cang Qiong sect: Success! Protagonist's coolness level +400 ].

A poorer score than last time--why wasn't Sha Hualing fascinated? She was certainly paying attention to the fights--but he would take the points.

Shen Qingqiu's right hand, resting on a cloth-covered tray on the table, sprouted a small forest of acupuncture needles. Mu Qingfang's ferocious concentration had blocked out the noisy room. Three of his senior disciples were watching raptly.

Shen Qingqiu was maintaining his meditative focus when there was a commotion in the next room.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Whatever it was, it soon subsided.

"Alright," Mu Qingfang said, studying his handiwork. "Shen-shixiong, in a moment, I will make an incision to remove the poison. On my word, release your poison control technique. My acupuncture array should keep the poison from escaping into your bloodstream. But if you feel the backflow, be ready to resume the technique."

"Acknowledged.”

Mu Qingfang checked his work again, then made a tiny incision between the middle and ring fingers of Shen Qingqiu's hand. Blood beaded sluggishly; an unusually dark red.

"Alright... now," Mu Qingfang instructed.

Shen Qingqiu released the technique. The cut bled more easily, the color still unnaturally dark, and Mu Qingfang watched it intently as Shen Qingqiu monitored his qi.

When the blood turned to a bright, fresh red the tension finally left Mu Qingfang's shoulders. "Superb. We'll let that clot on its own." He tested Shen Qingqiu's meridians, then moved his hand to a clean cloth and began the process of removing the acupuncture needles.

"Truly, if Mu-shidi claimed to be the second best medical specialist, no one would dare claim to be first."

Mu Qingfang gave him a sharp look as his skilled fingers continued to remove and discard needles. "Do not test me right now, Shen-shixiong. That should not have worked. An extremely nasty poison."

"What was it, exactly? She said, 'Without-a-Cure,' but..."

Mu Qingfang nodded absently, discarded the last acupuncture needle, and did another check of Shen Qingqiu's meridians. "A demonic poison. Not something I'm personally familiar with, though I'll be checking our archives." He withdrew his hands. "And it may well have been 'without a cure.' It was attacking your meridians directly. Many of our ordinary energy techniques would only have fueled it. Confining it to just one area was perhaps the only solution." He dismissed his assistants with a flick of his eyes. They filed out, talking between themselves in awed whispers.

Mu Qingfang made a muffling charm with a hand sign. Of course a healer would have reflexive familiarity with those, to protect the privacy of his patients. "Shen-shixiong, I believe there will be side effects. Traces of the poison remain, sequestered in the flesh of your hand. It may affect energy techniques done with that hand. I believe the effect will be sporadic, but there's no way to tell how often or how severely you'll be affected."

Shen Qingqiu thought. "It could be worse. If it had spread through my body, my qi circulation might have been blocked entirely."

Mu Qingfang gave a relieved chuckle. "Yes, that would have been a nightmare." He prepared a bowl of medicated water to bathe and dress Shen Qingqiu's hand. "I'll need to tell Sect Leader, of course--" His eyes flicked up to Shen Qingqiu sharply, "--But besides that, sharing this information is at your discretion."

Shen Qingqiu nodded. "I don't mind the other Peak Lords knowing, but it would be best not to let it get around. I'll discuss it with Yue-shixiong."

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu stayed in one of Qiong Ding's guest rooms to recover, and returned to Qing Jing the next morning.

Luo Binghe and Ming Fan were cooperating--more or less--to put up windscreens around the pavilion just downhill from Shen Qingqiu's bamboo cottage. They were ignoring each other, which he supposed was an improvement. They had just finished as Shen Qingqiu arrived, and stood nervously next to each other. He studied them. Ming Fan, recently returned from his visit home, was wan and shame-faced. Luo Binghe was flushed and skittish.

"Hmm. Ming Fan, return to your studies." Probation meant no privileges, including the dubious honor of personally waiting on the teacher. "Luo Binghe--" Shen Qingqiu gave an internal sigh. The things he did to maintain proper decorum. "--Fetch tea." Both students bowed and left in different directions. As Ming Fan walked past, Shen Qingqiu gave him a brief pat on the shoulder.

Luo Binghe returned shortly with a laden tea tray, and silently went through the homely procedure of tea making. He waited silently at the side.

Shen Qingqiu sipped the tea once, and frowned. "Did Ning Yingying never teach this disciple to make tea properly?"

Luo Binghe froze, wide-eyed. Shen Qingqiu closed his eyes for a moment. "This teacher will show you. First, ensure the leaves aren't stale or mildewed. Smell these for reference. Hot water, just off boiling. Pour away the first rinse, especially in a formal setting or if one is serving guests." Shen Qingqiu gave him a sharp look, remembering that first disastrous tea ceremony. "The first steeping removes impurities."

"Why--Shizun, this disciple does not understand why we take so much trouble, when the tea is the same?" His forehead was wrinkled.

"First, it doesn't taste the same. The difference is obvious to anyone who makes a habit of drinking tea. Second, offering tea is a fundamental part of hospitality. It is often the first impression others will have of you."

"Yes, Shizun," he said obediently. Shen Qingqiu waited; long future familiarity told him his most troublesome student had something on his mind, but Luo Binghe often needed a little extra time to put his words in order. "Shizun--why--"

Ah.

"This teacher is listening."

The words came out all in a rush. "Shizun, why is Ming Fan back? This disciple asked around and his--he--."

Shen Qingqiu sipped his newly brewed tea. "This teacher never gives up on a student." He looked at Luo Binghe over his cup. "Any student."

Luo Binghe stood with a slack face, remembering that first post-fever meeting.

Shen Qingqiu gestured for him to sit down. "If this teacher expelled students for making mistakes, he would have very few students left. Does Binghe understand Ming Fan's greatest mistake?"

"He told--"

"Mm."

"He gave--"

Shen Qingqiu twitched an eyebrow at him. Luo Binghe sat silently for a moment in thought. Success! thought Shen Qingqiu. Houston, we have achieved cognition.

"He... he..."

Shen Qingqiu waited, silent.

"He... hid... his mistake from Shizun?"

Shen Qingqiu nodded approvingly. "Yes. And hiding the mistake made it worse." He debated with himself internally for a moment, then leaned forward to press his good hand to Luo Binghe's head. So soft! "Binghe, remember this. You will never make a mistake so great that you cannot come to this teacher with it. If you learn one thing on Qing Jing, let it be that you can and should ask for help."

Luo Binghe looked like he was having a religious experience. Shen Qingqiu topped off his tea to give himself cover, internally grateful for his built-in poker face. After a long pause, he lightened the moment.

"This teacher thinks that Ming Fan might not have appreciated the particular form of that help at the time--" Shen Qingqiu began. Luo Binghe gave a wet giggle. "--But it was the help he needed. So it will be for Binghe."

They sat quietly for a few minutes, as Luo Binghe regained his composure and Shen Qingqiu drank his tea. Luo Binghe had brought some light refreshments with the tea as well, which Shen Qingqiu sampled and approved of.

"This disciple can make all Shizun's meals in the future," Luo Binghe offered shyly.

Shen Qingqiu concentrated on his breathing for a moment, feeling the reassuring rush of qi through his meridians. He pulled his thoughts away from an older, grimmer Luo Binghe pulling a bloody fist out of his innards in the Water Prison. Just one cut finger, one drop of blood--it probably wasn't a problem, with Luo Binghe's bloodline still sealed. In fact, he knew intellectually that was true. But as for enjoying the meals...

"This master eats lightly for the benefit of his cultivation," Shen Qingqiu said, as soon as he trusted his voice. "But, Binghe enjoys cooking?"

Luo Binghe had wilted at the refusal, but brightened shyly at the conversational gambit. "Y-yes, Shizun. This disciple's mother taught him."

"Hmm." Shen Qingqiu tapped his fan. "Talent should be nurtured. This teacher will think on it."

Luo Binghe peeked up at him. "Is... Did this disciple do well in the matches?"

Brat, thinks Shen Qingqiu. A novice defeated a demon elder, in what world was that not fought well? He tapped the fingers of his good hand thoughtfully. "Binghe fought well." Luo Binghe brightened like a tiny sun, before Shen Qingqiu continued ruthlessly. "Binghe did not listen well." He waited while Luo Binghe wilted. "We will discuss that, at length, later."

"This disciple is sorry--" Luo Binghe began with tears in his voice.

"If the student errs once, the teacher has erred a thousand times," Shen Qingqiu intoned sententiously. "This teacher will correct his errors. For now, Binghe will meditate on his mistakes, and write an essay--" He treasured Luo Binghe's look of goggle-eyed horror. "--Of no less than three thousand characters, reflecting on his actions and their possible outcomes."

"...Yes, Shizun."

"Due in three days."

"Yes, Shizun."

*

Shen Qingqiu was under strict orders to rest, and he was much more inclined to listen after having seen Mu Qingfang's speed and precision with needles. He had a brief meeting with his hallmasters to keep them apprised, then returned to his cottage. He spent the remainder of the day finding and activating floating memory quest markers. Some were out in the open, some were in drawers, some were attached to items in qiankun bags. Led by the markers, he also uncovered several caches he had never encountered in his previous life. They were secreted in objects he'd never suspected were qiankun items. There was nothing particularly unusual, secret, or valuable in them. Food, carefully packaged for travel. Little bits of money or pouches of gems. There seemed to be no pattern behind them; the caches were secreted as randomly as a squirrel stashes nuts. Why would a Peak Lord need to hoard food or valuables, especially in such minuscule amounts? If he needed emergency supplies, surely they'd be better organized and planned? A mystery.

Most memories were dull, everyday things. Some were amusing. A few left him gasping and sour-nosed. The Memories quest ticked above 30% completion.

That evening, Shen Qingqiu looked at his bandaged right hand. "Tomorrow, this master will need a volunteer from the disciples to assist with paperwork, and one for hair."

"I volunteer!" Ning Yingying and Luo Binghe chorused at once.

Shen Qingqiu looked at them. "Ying-er may help with hair." Luo Binghe wilted. "Binghe may assist, if he can follow her instructions, which is a skill he needs to work on."

*

Yue Qingyuan and Mu Qingfang visited the following morning.

Through the propped open door, Luo Binghe was combing a section of Shen Qingqiu's hair with lip-biting concentration, while Ning Yingying had three accessory boxes open and a hair pin in each hand. "The jade carp is the best one, but the feather carving on this pin is so pretty..."

"You may choose one," Shen Qingqiu said severely.

The two students looked up guiltily as the door opened. Shen Qingqiu gave the visitors the flat stare of a martyr on the chopping block.

"Shen-shidi," Yue Qingyuan tried to control his voice, "Apologies, these brothers are early."

"This disciple will make tea," Ning Yingying said before dashing off. Luo Binghe looked put out and followed her.

Shen Qingqiu waved his bandaged hand inchoately. "In retrospect, I should not have picked the two youngest students to help."

"Let this shixiong assist Qingqiu-shidi," Yue Qingyuan offered quietly.

"I'll be troubling Yue-shixiong."

Yue Qingyuan pinned up Shen Qingqiu's hair, with a neutral face and no wasted movements. Mu Qingfang checked on his hand and evaluated his meridians.

"We'd like to discuss your prognosis and treatment. I've brought several references from our medical library."

Shen Qingqiu brightened. "Ah. May this shixiong make copies, if we don't already have these volumes?"

"Certainly--though I know at least one was copied from Qing Jing in the first place."

*

Once tea had been prepared and the disciples dismissed, Shen Qingqiu, Mu Qingfang, and Yue Qingyuan seated themselves around a low table. Shen Qingqiu looked thoughtfully through one of the scrolls Mu Qingfang had opened.

"I was just looking at something related to that. One moment." Shen Qingqiu pushed himself to his feet using his unbandaged hand and Yue Qingyuan's shoulder. Mu Qingfang politely looked away from the sect leader's face, watching Shen Qingqiu rifle through a short bookcase near the door.

"I've wondered, Shen-shixiong, why you don't have more books in your home," he stalled.

Shen Qingqiu set the book he found on the top of the bookcase and flipped through it with his good hand. "Everything I have here is a reading copy. Anything unusual or valuable stays in the Great Library. It has protections against--" he waved his bandaged hand. "Pests, fire, theft, and so on. Ah, here it is." He slid the book onto his uninjured hand and carried it back to the tea table. He set it down in front of Mu Qingfang and lowered himself down again with Yue Qingyuan's shoulder as support.

When the tea was almost finished, Yue Qingyuan came to what they expected to be the sticking point of the visit.

"Qingqiu-shidi, until we know the extent of the lingering effects of the poison, I'd like you to remain in Cang Qiong," Yue Qingyuan began cautiously.

Shen Qingqiu nodded. "Reasonable."

"Once we know more, we can reevaluate that recommendation."

*

When Mu Qingfang prepared to go Yue Qingyuan remained behind, sending Mu Qingfang ahead with a significant glance. He returned to examine Shen Qingqiu's bandaged hand, holding it as delicately as a butterfly. "There's really no discomfort?"

"No; Mu-shidi is truly skilled. I suspect the bandages are just to remind me not to use it."

"Something seems to be troubling Qingqiu-shidi," he probed.

Shen Qingqiu couldn't very well tell him he'd been sorting through memory quest markers. And he suspected if he told Yue Qingyuan he was overwhelmed by memories in the bamboo cottage, he'd find himself ensconced in the Qiong Ding guest quarters for the foreseeable future.

"Those hair ornaments..." Yue Qingyuan began quietly. When Shen Qingqiu had opened the boxes, many had memory markers attached. They were very repetitive.

"This shidi is simply troubled by the implications of the invasion," Shen Qingqiu hurried forward.

"A troubling time," Yue Qingyuan said soothingly.

"It was just so... childish," Shen Qingqiu said in frustration. And it had been. If not for the injuries and the nature of the threat, it could have been a prank. "This shidi cannot understand why they would make so much effort, take so much risk, for so little benefit. It was just... a raiding party, but one which attacked a strong and heavily fortified target. I think, if they had not lost all three matches and needed to regain face, they wouldn't have tried the explosive tag." That was the main difference, from last time. That, and Sha Hualing personally losing her match... He shook his head. Yue Qingyuan waited silently. "I wish I knew what was happening in the demonic realm to provoke this. Why was Sha Hualing so driven to burnish her reputation, that this seemed like a good idea? And why would experienced combatants follow her?"

"They may have owed her family something," Yue Qingyuan suggested.

"Mm." Shen Qingqiu ducked his chin, frowning. "I don't like not knowing things."

"No, you don't," Yue Qingyuan said with a smile in his voice.

Chapter Text

When Liu Qingge visited her on Xian Shu, Liu Mingyan had a spark in her eyes and a spring in her step that he was glad to see. She was widely acknowledged as Qi Qingqi's favorite and probably succeeding disciple, but her habitual caution could sometimes slide into a lack of confidence. Her analytical mind could see every step where a battle could go wrong, for her or her opponent--Liu Qingge was glad his sister was gaining confidence in her own strength.

They walked to the public training grounds outside of Xian Shu's formidable labyrinth array, kept so Xian Shu's students could meet and train with friends of all genders from other peaks. Qi Qingqi firmly believed in her students having the home field advantage.

Liu Mingyan described the battle as they walked, hands occasionally waving to emphasize a point, voice quickening with excitement before smoothing back to her usual measured tones.

"...And so I won," she finished modestly. "I wish I could have fought one of the others, though. The one in the poisoned, spiked armor--using those leaves as missiles was so clever!--or the leader..."

"The one who was about your age, and wearing hardly any clothes," Liu Qingge returned dryly.

Liu Mingyan flushed faintly. "She was very good. Brash and impulsive, though," she said censoriously. "Oh, and I saw Shen-shibo fight as well, of course. He's very fast," she said admiringly.

*

Liu Qingge had given very little thought to Shen Qingqiu. He was an enigma, an anomaly, and an obstacle--but not the kind of obstacle Liu Qingge could deconstruct. He ignored him as a matter of course, avoided him when he could, and worked around him when he must. Shen Qingqiu was significant to him only because he was significant to Yue Qingyuan.

Yue Qingyuan, who had come out of nowhere to rise through the disciple ranks like a comet. Who, despite being one of their generation's strongest, was unfailingly kind to even the weakest. Who--here, his thoughts stuttered and delicately circumnavigated a bruised place--who was one of the best men he knew. Who was one of the few who had trained as intensely as Liu Qingge, until he had brought Shen Qingqiu back to the sect and lost his drive. Who had publicly favored Shen Qingqiu--and, later, showered him with gifts--only to be rebuffed, ignored, and avoided.

Liu Qingge had confronted Shen Qingqiu about it once when they were disciples--he wanted to impress on the other boy that Yue Qingyuan had friends here, who wouldn't let his good nature be taken advantage of. Shen Qingqiu had looked so... hurt that Liu Qingge had abruptly abandoned the plan. It was one of the few times he'd seen anything other than that aloof mask, and it made him so uncomfortable he avoided Shen Qingqiu after that. He'd spoken to his teacher about it, to understand how the confrontation had gone so wrong so quickly. Shizun had given the weariest sigh he'd ever heard from that great man, and dragged him to the practice ring. As far as he could tell, that lesson had been about thinking things through.

But now he was unavoidably, inescapably, impossibly bound to reconcile with him.

Their confrontation in the Ling Xi Caves was like a splinter he couldn't pull out. It nagged at him, from the moment he woke up in the morning. It drifted up in his meditation and distracted him when training. Nothing in Shen Qingqiu's new, strange behavior explained it.

Try as he might, he couldn't contextualize the dichotomy of a warm hand curled protectively over his shoulder while that cold voice dripped poison in his ear. Shen Qingqiu hadn't softened for a moment. Every word had been a goad. But he had also never relented in trying to help him.

Liu Qingge needed more information, so he went to Qing Jing.

A disciple greeted him at the end of the bridge, gave the bag he was carrying a curious look, and guided him to Shen Qingqiu. On the way, he kept his cultivation-enhanced ears open. He heard the usual student detritus of letters home and good or poor remarks from the teachers, and then--

"--It just felt like such a weight off my shoulders," Liu Qingge heard a non-Cang Qiong disciple say. "I was so stressed about it at first, but I just, boom, picked a topic, put it down on paper, and I felt so relieved."

"And you still have access to most of the Library."

"Ugh."

Liu Qingge internally raised his eyebrows and continued following the guiding disciple to Shen Qingqiu's pavilion. He could hear a lecture in full stride from down the path.

"--Never seen anything so reckless, so irresponsible--"

"But I won!" Luo Binghe objected.

Shen Qingqiu stared levelly at him, then past him to the approaching Liu Qingge. "Ah, Liu-shidi. You owe me a favor." Shen Qingqiu shook Luo Binghe by the shoulder. "Repay it by taking this one into Bai Zhan."

Luo Binghe's expression went from sulky mutiny to horror immediately.

"Shizun, no, I'll listen next time!"

"What." Liu Qingge scowled at Shen Qingqiu.

"He is brash and foolish, but so are the rest of your students, so he should fit right in."

Luo Binghe struggled against the hand on his shoulder like a quick escape would avoid the situation. Liu Qingge frowned at Shen Qingqiu over his head.

And. Shen Qingqiu. Winked at him.

He breathed. "No. You only saved my life. I don't owe you that much."

"Fair enough." Shen Qingqiu looked at the bag, which had started wiggling. "What is that?"

"An edible monster. As thanks." He shook the bag, which wiggled harder. "It's alive to stay fresh."

Shen Qingqiu gave the bag a thin-lipped, judgmental stare, as if he knew what was inside and already found it wanting. "Mmm. Luo Binghe."

"Yes Shizun!" the boy chirped brightly.

"Take this to the kitchen and--" Shen Qingqiu waved his fan. "--Do... whatever needs to be done with it."

"Right away, Shizun!" The boy took the bag and trotted off, as cheerful as if he hadn't just talked back to his teacher in front of another peak lord.

*

Luo Binghe took the wiggling bag to the Qing Jing kitchens. In the back was a roofed, open-walled space where chickens were prepared, and he cautiously set the bag there. The creature in the bag seemed to sense its proximity to the kitchens, because it redoubled its escape efforts. It had already pulled a small hole in the side of the bag.

Luo Binghe looked at the bag, and thought about Liu-shishu.

He had heard, through the disciple pipeline, that Liu Qingge had been ready to accept him into Bai Zhan, before Shizun swooped in and claimed him for Qing Jing. It had been an insult leveled at him from the other students--that he didn't really belong here, that he should go to the warriors' peak. For awhile, Luo Binghe had seen it as a source of hope--Shizun selected him specially, Shizun even flouted his martial brother to bring Luo Binghe to Qing Jing, surely he was valued? That hope had faded to nothing over his novice years. Shizun now was--good--but had he changed so much that he would really send Luo Binghe to Bai Zhan? Luo Binghe didn't want to be handed over to another peak, changing hands as easily as... this short-furred monster, which had gotten one little trotter through the widening hole in the bag and was now industriously working at the edge.

Luo Binghe wiggled the bag to quiet the creature, then moved the bag so the hole wasn't visible from the door. After a little thought, he carefully pulled the hole a little farther open. Then he went to look for the cookware he would need, very slowly.

*

In the early morning, Shen Qingqiu sat behind the bamboo house, watching the short-furred creature explore the small clearing. It was the size of a small dog, looking a bit like a furry pig with a short prehensile snout, or a short-nosed and small-eared mammoth. It snuffled peaceably in the foliage, more interested in finding insects than the approaching disciples. Luo Binghe carried a tray, while Ning Yingying held paperwork. They froze at the sight of the creature, then continued hesitantly as Shen Qingqiu beckoned them forward.

"What is it, Shizun?"

"Is it dangerous?"

"Since Liu-shidi said it was edible, it's probably an herbivore. Or an insectivore. Carnivores usually don't taste very nice." Shen Qingqiu tapped his fan. "As to the species. Hmm. There may be some clues in the library," he hinted. The Bestiary section would probably have a lot of activity in the future.

"How is a wild monster so calm, Shizun?"

"That's a good question. If you observe, you may find the answer."

Ning Yingying had already seen the drum tucked to the side, near a couple scroll cases. "Shizun used beast master techniques to tame it!"

Shen Qingqiu nodded approvingly. "Good. Yes, music carries calm and command techniques well. And this beast is mild-mannered to begin with. With more aggressive or complex creatures--including humans--the difficulty of the technique increases dramatically. A beast taming specialist is a formidable ally, and a fearsome foe."

Ning Yingying's doll-like face lit up. "I didn't know it worked on cute animals, too!"

Shen Qingqiu hid a smile behind his fan. "It does, and very effectively. Most cultivators focus on creatures with combat potential. But there's a place for subtlety, too. A cat, a bird, or a small dog can be very useful friends." He paused thoughtfully. "Ning Yingying may learn the technique, but it will take diligent study and continued focus in qi gathering exercises."

"This disciple promises to work hard!" He had never seen Ning Yingying so enthusiastic about cultivation exercises. This, alone, was worth all the trouble the furry little creature had caused.

*

Rumors of the creature spread quickly; Shen Qingqiu shooed it into an out-of-the-way pavilion, where a rapt group of disciples soon gathered.

"We will have a poetry contest at the end of the month to select the creature's name," he announced. A quarter of the disciples perked up. "Naming rights are transferable." The rest brightened. Swapping chores was forbidden, but there was a brisk market in other goods.

Chapter Text

"Shen-shidi came to speak with you?"

Wei Qingwei nodded thoughtfully, hands never ceasing to move from the custom leather scabbard he was finishing. "For a couple of things."

Yue Qingyuan waited.

Wei Qingwei continued. "First, he wanted to commission a fan. Or, at least to see if the design he wanted was possible."

Yue Qingyuan considered this as Wei Qingwei worked on the tooling.

"But he makes his own."

"That's what I said. But he wanted a big one--big enough to ride on like a sword."

Yue Qingyuan waited again, as Wei Qingwei added some details to the scabbard.

"He said... it was for the aesthetic." He glanced up at Yue Qingyuan. "Which of course I could have guessed."

"But he usually wouldn't admit that."

"Mm." Wei Qingwei was quiet again, working on a tricky bit of decoration. It was an unusually complex scabbard; Yue Qingyuan hadn't seen anything quite like it. "The other thing--" Wei Qingwei continued after awhile, then paused.

Yue Qingyuan thought, not for the first time, that although he genuinely thought his own management style of compromise, communication, and mutual respect was more effective than all others, his now-ascended teacher's style of intimidating all who opposed her into fearful submission had its points.

"The other thing," Wei Qingwei continued, "Is that he wanted me to look at a few spirit swords he'd picked up. None of ours, of course." He had Yue Qingyuan's full attention again. "He didn't remember where he'd gotten them, you see. But he wanted to give a spirit sword as a gift, and he wanted to make sure none of these had a history that would make it inappropriate."

Yue Qingyuan thought about that for awhile as Wei Qingwei worked. "That is--a singular gift," he said diplomatically.

"And I didn't recognize any of the blades. So. We worked out a trade; I give him a new blade for his gift, he gives me any two of his."

"Interesting, Wei-shidi. Did you notice anything else?"

Wei Qingwei gave a rare smile. "Just one thing. He said it was a revenge gift."

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu made his way through the cavernous brewing storehouse of Zui Xian Peak. Each aging tank had a slate in front of it, upon which was meticulously recorded the contents and inspection history. He could smell the peculiar toasty scent of hops, and the sharp undertone of a stronger alcohol. A disciple led him through the storehouse and into a testing room at the back.

Ruan Qingruan gave him a sharp-eyed, evaluating look, then rose. "Let's go over to the elixir shed. We've been doing some interesting things over there." It was also restricted to senior inner sect disciples.

*

Shen Qingqiu sipped his tea appreciatively. "Even with the same leaves, mine never tastes quite as fine. A flaw in technique, I suppose."

"You should come to one of our classes," Ruan Qingruan offered mischievously.

"I don't want to owe you two favors."

"So what's the first one?"

"Qing Jing has a student I'd like to send here for your cooking classes."

"Looking to get rid of your disciples?"

"Always, but not in this particular case. Though if he eventually wishes to transfer, I wouldn't object. It's my youngest--"

Ruan Qingruan's brows flew up. "The one who--"

"The one who just beat a demon elder in single combat, yes." Shen Qingqiu’s mouth flattened. "That's the problem. He has great combat potential, and to hone that I'd send him to Bai Zhan, but the problem is elsewhere. He's mediocre at best in the four arts. He has exactly one friend on Qing Jing, and there has been some fairly severe bullying. This teacher has been... negligent in that regard, and can only hope to rectify the error now." He looked away, and then back. "I have him in an open room in the senior disciple quarters now, and hopefully I can send him back to the junior dorms when the outer sect disciples change over. And he's an orphan--absolutely no support outside the sect." Shen Qingqiu took a sip of his tea. "But he's recently revealed a talent and inclination toward cooking. I believe he learned from his mother. It's the only thing, besides combat, that he's been really good at. So I was hoping--."

"Hoping he could make friends and develop an interest here." Ruan Qingruan nodded thoughtfully. "Well, I'm never opposed to teaching the joys of the kitchen. You will owe me a favor, though."

Shen Qingqiu saluted him with his cup. "This shixiong never thought otherwise."

Chapter Text

As Yue Qingyuan moved from the hall masters’ meeting room to his office, his duty disciple intercepted him. The junior carried a message scroll.

"Shizun, Shen-shishu has requested a meeting with you."

Requested? Yue Qingyuan thought. He scanned the terse scroll. Xiao Jiu's calligraphy was exquisite, of course, but the sharp characters seemed to hold a tension which had been missing from their interactions since the fever. "Of course. When do I have an opening?" He looked interrogatively at the junior--duty disciples were responsible for tracking their senior's schedule over their assigned day.

"Shizun can meet Shen-shishu during the lunch hour, immediately prior to the Peak Lords' meeting," the disciple said firmly.

Yue Qingyuan was sure he'd been planning to work though lunch. "Message him to confirm, please. And--"

"This disciple will arrange lunch, Shizun."

Yue Qingyuan patted the student on the shoulder and continued to his office. His disciples were getting sneaky.

*

Ruan Qingruan arrived early for the meeting. One of his star students had made additional refreshments, and he wanted to make sure they were presented to best effect. But before he could continue on to the satellite kitchen, he heard peculiar sounds coming down the hall.

"How did you know?" came Yue Qingyuan's voice.

"Well, it certainly wasn't because you told me," Shen Qingqiu's voice hissed.

Ruan Qingruan's brows rose. He investigated.

"--Stop whining, it's one piece of steel wire. Snapping it is trivial for a cultivator of your level. It's just to be sure you don't draw the wrong one by mistake."

Yue Qingyuan was standing on a chair in his office, diplomatic smile wilting around the edges. Shen Qingqiu was beside and behind him, adjusting a complicated-looking scabbard with two swords. He recognized Xuan Su's familiar hilt, though he'd never seen the blade. The other sword was one of Wei Qingwei's deceptively simple creations, new and unblemished.

Ruan Qingruan's eyebrows were somewhere around his hairline. "Why can't Yue-shixiong draw Xuan Su?"

"Collateral damage," Shen Qingqiu replied succinctly.

"Wait, what?"

Yue Qingyuan smiled reassuringly. "It's not importa--ow!"

"So sorry, Sect Leader, my hand slipped."

"You know what, this cook is going back to the kitchen," Ruan Qingruan said, and made a speedy exit.

*

When the other Peak Lords arrived, the food was beautifully presented, the tea was ready to serve, and they were short two important members.

By general acclamation, Liu Qingge was sent to herd their two tardy seniors to the meeting room. Through the door, Shen Qingqiu was lecturing full-stride.

"--If you think I won't delve into forbidden arts just to lecture you if you die stupidly, then you clearly have not known me long enough--."

He knocked on the door. "Meeting."

Shen Qingqiu huffed. "Fine." He jabbed a vicious finger at Yue Qingyuan, hissed "This isn't over," and swept out.

Yue Qingyuan hesitated a moment, then followed. He looked battered but glowingly happy, like a daffodil after a hailstorm.

Liu Qingge followed after them, turning the incident over in his mind.

*

It was a long meeting, comprising a damage report for the demon attack, a list of injuries, assignments for security improvements going forward, and discussion of any changes to be made to the upcoming initiate trials.

Yue Qingyuan handled it with uncharacteristic firmness, listening to individual views but also moving the agenda briskly along and scheduling more complex problems for a future analysis.

"I think that concludes our meeting. Qingqiu-shidi, stay after, please."

*

Yue Qingyuan hustled them off to the cavernous Sect Leader's manor, giving quick instructions to a dismayed disciple to rearrange his schedule. If Shen Qingqiu had ever been inside the manor, he didn't remember now. There were no floating memory quest markers in their path, as Yue Qingyuan hurried him through the door, down a hallway, and into a little used parlor with what he recognized as very good security talismans.

Yue Qingyuan steeled his spine. "Qingqiu-shidi, only the previous sect leader and I knew about Xuan Su. How did you know?"

"I saw it during my qi deviation." Technically true, and impossible to disprove.

"You saw..." Yue Qingyuan pinched the bridge of his nose. "What did you see."

Shen Qingqiu pressed his lips into a thin line. "You were on a mountain. Xuan Su was unsheathed. You asked me to sheathe it, I did, and you told me the whole sorry tale." He jabbed Yue Qingyuan in the ribs. "I. Cannot. Believe. You."

Yue Qingyuan sat, looking defeated. "Since you woke up, sometimes you've been like a different person. I need to know."

Shen Qingqiu had thought a simple reconciliation was enough. But he thought of being freshly transmigrated, having no one who remembered prime time TV, or paperclips, or linoleum. He thought, five years in, of being so relieved to meet Airplane-Shooting-Towards-The-Sky, just because there was someone who remembered. Of humming pop songs and quoting tv shows and arguing about which Peak was which Hogwarts House, because it was something you never thought you'd be able to share again.

Shen Qingqiu sat, shoulder to shoulder with him, and stared straight ahead. "I remember talking to you through a door." Yue Qingyuan stiffened as if the breath had frozen in his lungs. "I told you my legs were broken. But that wasn't true. I just said it so you'd leave. We were both kids. I didn't realize that for a long time. I always thought of you as the grown up one. But we were both children, and we were both slaves. And you'd lived like that for years longer than I had. I realize now how limited your resources were, that it wasn't a choice, and you tried your best. More than that, you overreached yourself trying."

"...You never accepted my apology."

"I thought you were apologizing for deliberately choosing to abandon me. That would be unforgivable. But you didn't. Instead you took a terrible risk trying to help me, and it... didn't work out."

"You forgive me?" Yue Qingyuan's hope was tragic to behold.

"No," Shen Qingqiu hissed viciously. "I will never forgive you for nearly getting yourself killed, you moron. I'm willing to move past it. But if you ever do something like that again, don't think you'll get off so easily."

"Xiao--"

"Do not call me that," Shen Qingqiu snapped, with more force than he intended. He took a breath. "That's not my name."

Yue Qingyuan was quiet for a minute. "Shen Qingqiu is a courtesy name. It's what--" He stopped.

It's what everyone else calls me, Shen Qingqiu realized. After weighing the pros and cons, he said, carefully, "I've always liked the name Yuan."

Yue Qingyuan looked up. "Yuan, like...?" The character in his own courtesy name, he meant.

"No, the character for 'wall.' Like..." He wrote it on the dusty table with a finger. Shen Yuan | 沈垣. The characters were a little stilted. He hadn't written his name for a long time. It got a little complicated to calculate if you counted the time travel.

"Shen Yuan," Yue Qingyuan tested the syllables and smiled.

Shen Qingqiu glanced away. "No one else calls me that, but you can. But not the other."

"I will, but... why don't you like the other name?"

"It isn't a name. It's just what I was called. They don't give slaves names."

Yue Qingyuan waited.

"Qiu Haitang named all her maids after flowers. People do the same to dogs."

"I don't mean it like that, but I won't call you that anymore if you don't want me to," Yue Qingyuan said softly.

Shen Qingqiu nodded stiffly.

"Shen Yuan--Xiao Yuan--Can I hug you?"

"Well, if you really must," Shen Qingqiu huffed.

The hug was an unsettling mix of bone-deep familiarity and alien strangeness. Shen Qingqiu's subconscious told him it should be bonier and colder. After some initial unease, he settled a bit. Yue Qingyuan's dense qi was always pleasantly familiar, in any case. It was like pushing through a cloud of friendly electrons.

Shen Qingqiu looked over Yue Qingyuan's shoulder at a large mirror. Even with the color distorted by the highly polished bronze, the contrast of black and green and white was striking. He should explore this in a painting--maybe a color study?

He started to shift away. "Well. We should--"

Yue Qingyuan's arms tightened briefly, "Please, Xiao—Xiao Yuan, give me a minute."

Shen Qingqiu leaned into him again while he thought. "...I'll agree to one hug on demand at a later date, provided you release me now."

There was a thoughtful pause as Yue Qingyuan's diplomatic training kicked in. "One hug, of the same or greater duration as this one, no later than one month from today."

"Agreed."

Chapter Text

A smaller group of peak lords made their way individually to Zui Xian. Qi Qingqi arrived early and found Ruan Qingruan in the fenced, wooded meadow behind his home, using a sturdy rake to scratch the back of an enormous spirit boar. The beast--gargantuan, iron-hided, with hooves like anvils and an unsettling intelligence in its shining black eyes--wore heavy quilted covers over its arm-length, razor sharp tusks. The covers had pom-poms on them. It arched under the rake with every sign of enjoyment.

"Does 'o miss your daddy, huh? Is Xiao Dou being a good piggy for daddy?"

The boar whuffled happily.

Qi Qingqi approached, taking care to scuffle her feet on the flagstone path.

"When will Zi-shidi return, do you know?"

"Qi-shijie, welcome. Do you want to give Xiao Dou an apple?"

The boar's ears perked up.

"Well, now I have to," she laughed. She took one of the melon-sized Zui Xian-grown apples from the bin and offered it on two flattened hands. The boar lipped it up delicately, and crunched the treat.

"Dan-shixiong is well, thank you. He should be old enough to return in a few years." Ruan Qingruan's always-pleasant face had an additional rosy glow of happiness.

"I'm really glad for you," Qi Qingqi bumped his shoulder. "You two have been through a lot."

"Every time I think that, I think of how much worse it could be. If he'd had lower cultivation, it could have been centuries before he reincarnated."

"It worked out for Shen-shibo, but I'm glad you didn't have to wait that long."

"Me, too," Ruan Qingruan smiled. The boar snorted. "And Xiao Dou agrees. Speaking of Shen's..."

"Yes, what the hell is up with Shen Qingqiu? Why did Yue-shixiong hustle him out of there so fast?"

"I may have some insight on that... but let's wait for the others. Snacks while we wait?"

"Would you believe me if I said no?"

*

"Is this everybody?"

"Mu-shixiong is busy," Ruan Qingruan said. "My students are making dinner for Qian Cao. I'll update him when we bring it over."

"Wei Qingwei isn't coming."

"Surprise!"

"Okay, so what just happened?"

"He was yelling at him," Liu Qingge said. "But it was... affectionate yelling? Fond yelling."

"I think," Lin Qingshui said carefully, "--That if you need to ask a favor from Sect Leader, it would be an auspicious time."

"Aw, man," lamented Shang Qinghua. "I just got approval for a second printing press. Signed and everything. I should have waited."

"Ha!" Qi Qingqi exclaimed. "I might win that bet after all."

"Bet?"

"The bet, you know, the bet. From the previous generation of peak lords."

"Qi-shijie may have difficulty collecting at this point," Lin Qingshui suggested delicately.

"No, it carried forward--" Qi Qingqi's hand blurred out to slap Gao Qinggao's shoulder, who dodged seamlessly. "Tell them, A-Gao. You're the bookmaker."

"Our honored predecessors--and Qi-shijie--now ascended, made a certain bet among themselves. Given that they are now beyond such petty mortal considerations--we hope--the bet will pay out to the current master of their peak."

"What were the terms?"

"Given the personalities involved, it would be best to keep that secret to disallow interference."

"So, everyone is settled about Shen Qingqiu?"

"If he wanted to harm Cang Qiong, all he had to do was not show up."

"Yeah, speaking of that, how about we tell our disciples not to stick around and spectate a fight with demons?"

"It's on the list. Emergency drills, including the shelters."

*

Shang Qinghua hurried back to his own peak, using the short sword flight to argue with his System.

< Look, you have got to give me more to go on than this! >

[ ... ]

< None of that was supposed to happen! I didn't write this! And Cang Qiong winning all three duels? That's just sloppy writing. It goes; one win, one loss, score is tied, tensions are high, everything is riding on the last match, and BOOM, underdog comes through. Am I right? Huh? >

[ ... ]

< And what is with Shen Qingqiu's personality change? You cannot just change a primary antagonist's personality on a whim. It destroys the narrative. If you want a villain redemption arc, you have to show the whole thing, not "oh, la la la, I woke up good this morning, let's give the hero a pat on the head." >

[ ... ]

< Look, I cannot work under these conditions-- >

Caught up in his one-sided argument with the System, Shang Qinghua stormed into his living quarters-slash-home office and stopped so suddenly he stumbled. "My--," he quickly closed the door and lowered his voice. "My king! Why--wh--hoooow can this servant help you today?" he changed thoughts mid-sentence.

Mobei-Jun stared at him from the corner. "You're uninjured." He turned to go.

Is that a new thing? Should I be roughed up? Was I supposed to get injured helping the attack succeed?

"My king, ah, ah... Was Sha Hualing one of your vassals? If this servant had known, I would have, uh--" Shang Qinghua wasn't sure he could have done anything to change the one-sided rout of that attack, but without knowing Mobei-Jun's mood, he wasn't going to say that.

To his relief, Mobei-Jun snorted. A very good mood, then. "If she was, she would not be for long after that utter disaster of an invasion. But at least this humiliation has calmed her father's ambitions, for now."

Shang Qinghua furiously made mental notes. "That's, um, Sha... Jun? Or, no..."

Mobei-Jun looked pained. "He's trying to unite the southern lands under his rule. But he doesn't have the strength. This farce proved it."

"Ohhhh, I see," Shang Qinghua said blankly. He did not see. He had not written that. Sha Hualing rebelling against her father, then helping Luo Binghe seize his lands, okay. Empire-building from anyone but the protagonist, no.

A lot of people in his book lacked ambition, actually. If they weren't directly fighting the protagonist, they just sort of sat around.

"Oh! Oh, my king, I have valuable information for you." Shang Qinghua was filled with the warm glow that came from being useful to someone who could, literally, crack his skull like an egg.

Mobei-Jun waited silently.

"Uh, uh, Shen Qingqiu was poisoned. By the Without-A-Cure poison."

"He's dead?" Mobei-Jun's stare was suddenly as focused as an acetylene torch.

"No, but he may have some complications. We--Qian Cao isn't sure, yet."

"Without-A-Cure is deadly to humans, without exception," Mobei-Jun said skeptically.

"He had some sort of--" Shang Qinghua waved a hand, forgetting his habitual fear for a moment in remembered authorial resentment. "--Some sort of bullshit technique, no one had ever heard of, but somehow he knew exactly how to counter this poison no one here even recognized." Mobei-Jun looked unconvinced. "My king, is it possible he did know about the poison in advance? He's had some huge unexplained personality changes--could he be in contact with someone from the Demon Realms? Someone working for Sha Hualing?"

Mobei-Jun scoffed. "If the house of Sha had such resources, they would not struggle to hold their vassals. More likely, Sky Hammer was sold fake goods at a high price. He died the death of all such fools."

Shang Qinghua knew for a fact that wasn't true, but it wasn't like he could say anything, now could he?

Chapter Text

By the end of his unnecessary convalescence, Shen Qingqiu had searched out all the quest markers in his house and the surrounding area. But his idle walks and still-vague recollections led him down a path some distance from the current classrooms. There were a few mostly-empty buildings, mothballed as Qing Jing's needs changed. Almost from muscle memory, he found his steps leading toward a stone cliff face. Within, he found a home, meticulously preserved.

He had been here briefly in his past life, but saw it as a memorial more than anything else. He'd paid his respects at the shrine, dutifully, as he had on holidays as Shen Yuan.

Now, the cave residence was scattered with dozens of memory quest markers. It was oddly bare, like a hotel room or a poorly staged television set. But even without activating the markers, Shen Qingqiu could recognize bits and pieces glimpsed in different memories. He picked up a half-palm-size painting, and let the memory sink in. It was one of his own, a silhouette of Old Master Shen and his weirdo wandering cultivator husband, walking on a cliff at sunset. He'd made it intending to slip it into Master Zhao's baggage when he left on one of his many investigation missions, but in the end had been too embarrassed. He breathed through the regret.

"You miss them, don't you?" came Yue Qingyuan's voice.

"Of course." Shen Qingqiu set the small painting down on the shrine, carefully. "I was thinking, recently, about my most troublesome student, and how Shizun would have handled him. I was not, you may recall, a model disciple when entering Cang Qiong or Qing Jing."

Yue Qingyuan approached carefully. "What are you doing with him now?"

"Having him write essays. It’s the only way to have him sit down and think. Otherwise, it's just action-reaction. And, of course, it sometimes answers the question, 'What was he thinking?' "

Yue Qingyuan huffed and stepped up beside him. "Is it working?"

Shen Qingqiu sighed. "At a glacial pace, perhaps."

"And what would Shen-shishu have done?"

Shen Qingqiu tilted his head. "Better communication, I think." He grimaced. "As far as I can remember, I never actually told him why he had twice as many chores as the other children."

Yue Qingyuan hid a wince. "Ah," he said diplomatically.

"I'm supervising him personally, now, but when he behaves inappropriately, I don't know if it's deliberate or he was just never taught. And he takes corrections... perhaps too much to heart."

"He sounds like a fresh disciple again, even though he's been here for years."

Shen Qingqiu nodded. "That's how I've asked Tang Xinran to treat him."

"And you're sending him to Zui Xian, I hear?"

"Hopefully he'll make some friends--or at least friendly acquaintances--before the new outer sect disciples show up. You know how cliquey they can be. Don't look at me like that," he frowned.

Yue Qingyuan quickly averted his fond eyes and hid a smile. "I was just..."

Shen Qingqiu hooked two fingers in the sleeve of Yue Qingyuan’s robes almost instinctively. "Right." He suddenly huffed a laugh. "Or--I wonder what Master Zhao would have done with him?"

"Lend him a sword and let him loose, probably."

"Let's call that Plan B."

Chapter Text

"Look, I really need you to make a decision here, Liu-shidi--"

"They're both the same! Just pick one!" Liu Qingge was walking briskly, Shang Qinghua in close pursuit.

"You pick one! It's your budget--" Shang Qinghua stumbled to a halt as Liu Qingge stopped abruptly ahead of him. "Ow! You're--solid--um." Shang Qinghua rubbed his forehead. "Do a hand signal or something next time."

"I'll be damned, he actually did it." Liu Qingge was ignoring him, staring ahead where the path had a sharp curve and switchback.

"What?" Shang Qinghua squinted. "Oh. Wow."

Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan were walking together--actually together, not just happening to be in the same place at the same time and traveling in the same direction. Shen Qingqiu had even--here Shang Qinghua exercised his rusty cultivation skills and sharpened his vision--had even tilted his head a little towards the sect leader.

My smol sons, Shang Qinghua thought tearfully.

Liu Qingge gave him a baffled look. Oops, sub-vocalizations and cultivator hearing.

"Let's go the other way," Liu Qingge decided.

"Yeah, awkward. You know, I didn't--I mean, I believed you when you said they were getting along, but there's a world of difference between 'not fighting' and 'taking walks together.' "

Liu Qingge shook his head. "It's amazing. Thirty, forty years, then overnight--honestly, I thought Yue-shixiong was pursuing a mirage."

"Yeah... still no idea what caused it?" Shang Qinghua probed.

Liu Qingge shrugged. "I've seen weirder qi deviations."

"I just hope he doesn't change back."

Liu Qingge frowned darkly. "He had better not."

"Ah-ha-ha..." Shang Qinghua ducked away under the scowl. "Anyhoo. You really need to make a decision on these training dummies."

Liu Qingge finally, finally focused on the supplier letters Shang Qinghua was carrying. "Just pick one. What's the difference?"

Shang Qinghua waved a letter in each hand. "I'm glad you asked, because these are sturdier but more expensive, and these are cheaper but won't last as long."

"Which do we have now?"

"Um, more like the sturdy ones, but they're from a different supplier. They lost their Imperial charter, that's why we need a new source."

Liu Qingge frowned again. "Damn politics. Okay, replace them with the sturdy ones. And in the future, I'll have the students start making dummies. It will be good strength training."

"Okay, I can, um, source some logs."

"Let me know when they arrive, and my disciples will carry them up the mountain, too. Endurance training." Liu Qingge took the turn that would lead him to Wan Jian. Shang Qinghua continued on.

Every day, I give thanks that I wasn't inducted into Bai Zhan, he thought fervently.

Chapter Text

"Good morning, Mu-shishu," the disciple said respectfully.

"This master is visiting your teacher. If this disciple would guide me to him?"

The disciple brightened and set off without a pause. Mu Qingfang raised his brows and followed.

They approached the cottage, then stopped. Unable to play an instrument or hold a brush with his right hand bandaged, Shen Qingqiu was doing his daily cultivation practice by singing. Mu Qingfang watched the disciple's rapt expression with amusement.

*

"What lovely tea; many thanks to Mu-shidi."

Luo Binghe, hovering in the background, lit up. "This disciple will--"

Shen Qingqiu raised a quelling hand. "--Will bring the tea set and water and observe."

As Luo Binghe ran off, Mu Qingfang let his neutral face relax and raised a questioning eyebrow.

"He makes terrible tea," Shen Qingqiu explained. "Speaking of which, if Mu-shidi would like to enjoy the lovely tea he brought, this shixiong will need both of his hands. Otherwise, I have a quite acceptable tea in the cabinet, and we can take our chances with my disciple's skills."

"Mm. Well, let's have a look."

"I'll be troubling Mu-shidi." Shen Qingqiu extended his bandaged hand. Mu Qingfang surveyed it critically for a moment--Shen Qingqiu could feel the light tickle of whatever mysterious medical analysis technique he was using--then deftly removed the thin bandages with a few swipes of his fingers.

"Oh, how clever!" Shen Qingqiu exclaimed. "What is that?"

Mu Qingfang looked modestly pleased. "Blade Palms--just a little utility technique." He manipulated Shen Qingqiu's fingers expertly, channeling a little carefully modulated qi through selected areas. "Hmm. Draw a little energy through the Active Pond. And now Joining The Valley." He watched, nodded to himself and sat back. "This shidi sees no current issues with Shen-shixiong's recovery. You may begin using spiritual techniques cautiously," Mu Qingfang's tone indicated that he knew how casual Shen Qingqiu had been in following his advice last time. "The archives have given no information about what to expect going forward. Please remember our previous discussion on your prognosis."

"I'll keep extensive notes."

Luo Binghe returned with a laden tray, and the conversation moved to less delicate topics.

They sampled the tea--under Mu Qingfang's eagle eyes, Shen Qingqiu obediently allowed Luo Binghe to heat the water with a talisman--and made a bare minimum of polite conversation before they both moved with relief back to their real interests.

"This shidi wishes to ask Shen-shixiong for more detail about the technique he used to contain Without-A-Cure. Unless it's a secret?"

"It is, but I'm happy to share it within Cang Qiong. Unfortunately there are few circumstances in which it is useful--but perhaps Mu-shidi can find others. In fact, it's based on a qi control exercise intended for medical students. Versions of it may be in the Qian Cao archives even now."

"A medical exercise?" Mu Qingfang's soft Han eyebrows rose. "If so, it's unknown to this shidi."

"Perhaps in a different form... The most basic technique is this--" He selected a clean ceramic pigment bowl from several on his cluttered calligraphy table. This one was still unstained. He filled it with water, and pushed a little qi through the fingertips of his left hand. Mu Qingfang watched intently. Luo Binghe craned his neck to see from his place near the wall.
"Now... I've imbued the water with qi. As long as I maintain my concentration, I can manipulate the water." To demonstrate, he pulled the water up in a dome, then pushed it down into a shallow well. To the side, Luo Binghe gasped. Novices were always so easy to impress.

"I see..." Mu Qingfang said neutrally.

"And if I add something else--" Shen Qingqiu used his free hand to add a drop of ink with the brush he'd set aside earlier. The drop sat on the water briefly, then sank down. Despite expectations, it didn't diffuse into the water but rotated gently just under the surface. The three cultivators watched--Luo Binghe with fascination, Mu Qingfang with interest, Shen Qingqiu with detached focus--as the drop slowly changed its shape, settling into a rough ball.

"Ah, I see! You don't control the poison, but the environment. And that's how the containment works."

"Just so. The drawback is, it only works while I'm concentrating. If my attention wavers--" He drew his focus away from the water in the bowl. With only the briefest pause, the ink billowed out to tint the water.

"The poison spreads. I see." Mu Qingfang looked somber, but interested.

Luo Binghe was teary-eyed. "If Shizun had been distracted--"

"The poison would have spread throughout this master's body, rather than being localized in his hand. But Mu-shidi is an exceptionally masterful healer, and this teacher is confident he would have been able to mitigate the damage."

Mu Qingfang glanced to the side.

"The full technique is more complex--it's used in a living being with spirit veins, of course--but that is the basic idea. I'd be happy to go through the process with you, and also provide the sources. Ah, the original books will need to stay in the Great Library, I'm afraid. But I'll be pleased to make copies for Qian Cao's medical library."

"This shidi thanks Shen-shixiong." Mu Qingfang looked pleased.

"Shizun, can this disciple learn that technique?"

"Hmm. It will take dedicated practice of energy control. When Binghe can do this demonstration with the ink--" he tapped the bowl, "--And play a game of qi at the same time, then this master will teach the poison containment technique."

*

"I'll make copies of the relevant scrolls, and we can arrange a time for the technique practice," Shen Qingqiu said as he walked with Mu Qingfang to the bridge.

Mu Qingfang seemed to hesitate. "Shen-shixiong seemed interested in the Blade Palms technique...?"

Shen Qingqiu brightened. "A very elegant and efficient application, yes. This shixiong would be pleased to learn it, but this isn't a quid pro quo. The poison containment technique is yours, regardless."

"I'd be pleased to share my knowledge with you," Mu Qingfang replied. He seemed a little flustered. Was it his own, original technique? Hidden depths, Mu-shidi!

Chapter Text

Standing outside the bamboo house, Yue Qingyuan and Luo Binghe listened peacefully to the haunting sounds of the erhu. Yue Qingyuan may have made a habit of arriving early, when he could catch Shen Qingqiu at cultivation practice, just for this.

Abruptly, the music cut off. There was just a suggestion of a shaky slide of the bow before it fell silent.

They rushed to the house to find Shen Qingqiu, face pained, holding the bow awkwardly by his pinky and ring finger, and the erhu's neck in the other hand. He carefully lowered the bow as they hurried in.

"Ah... Binghe, take the erhu, please. Gently. Put it on its stand in the corner."

"What happened?"

"My hand cramped." He gave Yue Qingyuan a significant glance. High level cultivators didn't get cramps; their circulating qi prevented it.

His right hand. "Disciple, tea for your master, please."

Luo Binghe balked briefly, then ran off. Yue Qingyuan carefully held Shen Qingqiu's hand and wrist.

"You have-- ah, no qi circulation in this hand," Yue Qingyuan murmured. "And the muscles have spasmed. I can relax the muscles, and send a note to Mu-shidi."

"Yes; he wanted to observe the effects first hand."

Yue Qingyuan stared at him. "To fix it, Qingqiu-shidi."

"It's just the energy flow in my hand that's blocked. The blood circulation is fine." He pressed his fingertips with his left hand to demonstrate; the pale pressure marks refilled instantly with color.

"Please don't treat your health as a medical experiment, shidi," Yue Qingyuan said tightly. He rubbed Shen Qingqiu's wrist as the hand slowly relaxed.

"I won't, I won't, but the more information we have, the better."

Luo Binghe returned with a tea tray and a tremulous expression. Yue Qingyuan sent him off again with a note to Mu Qingfang; he returned so quickly that he must have handed it off to another disciple.

"Is Shizun going to be okay?" he asked nervously.

"This teacher will be fine. It's a minor inconvenience."

"If Shizun can't play the--the--"

"Erhu. You'll start learning it next year."

"--The--it's this disciple's fault for fighting when Shizun said not to!"

Yue Qingyuan watched incredulously as Shen Qingqiu patted the boy's head. "No, it's this disciple's fault that he fought a very dangerous bout, risking his own life. It is Elder Sky Hammer's fault that he chose to use a deadly poison and caused this injury. But let this be a lesson to Binghe; choices one thought would affect only oneself, can have unforeseen effects. That's why you listen to teacher."

The arrival of Mu Qingfang broke up the tableau.

*

"There seems to be no damage. The blockage is limited and transient. We'll track, now, how long the effect lasts." Mu Qingfang sat back with his notes.

"The hourglass on the table is tracking that," Shen Qingqiu said.

"It won't cause permanent damage, to let this go untreated?" Yue Qingyuan asked tensely, holding Shen Qingqiu's good hand on his other side.

"This shidi is monitoring him," Mu Qingfang said firmly. "Everything we learn now is something we won't have to learn by surprise in an emergency."

"And I'm quite comfortable now that the muscle spasm has--Luo Binghe, this teacher can sense you lurking. Go to class."

There was a gasp and quick footsteps from outside the window. Yue Qingyuan and Mu Qingfang exchanged a speaking look over Shen Qingqiu's head.

"No laps?"

"Laps do not work," Shen Qingqiu said, pained. "He just apologizes, and does the same thing again five minutes later."

Yue Qingyuan patted his good hand consolingly.

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu was using a qi-infused stylus to carefully incise characters into the blank wall of the activity building between the junior dorms and the dining hall. He seemed to be copying a list carefully laid out on a piece of paper.

Liu Qingge read the writing, silently.

Rule 1: Rules are made so you think before you break them. *
Rule 2: Be mindful in public areas.
Rule 3: Look before you leap.

"Aren't these all common sense?" he asked, finally.

"You would think so," Shen Qingqiu murmured grimly. "You would really, really think so." He was finishing the last characters on Rule 4: Appearances can be deceiving. Liu Qingge looked over his shoulder as he moved on to Rule 5: Do not speculate in advance of the evidence. *

Shen Qingqiu suddenly froze and hid a wince. He carefully used his left hand to pull the stylus from his cramped right hand. "I was almost done, too. It always happens at the worst time."

Liu Qingge looked closely. "Oh, so that's what happens. And you can't use spiritual energy with that hand?"

"Or hand seals, as you can see. It will pass, but..." He indicated the hand.

"We should go to the practice ring."

"What?"

"That's why I came. You should learn to fight even when you can't use your hand. Better to practice here at home than in the field."

"True, but now?"

"No time like the present. Like you said, these things always happen at the worst time."

*

"This is a mess," Liu Qingge said, appalled. "You should clean it up."

Shen Qingqiu surveyed the practice rings. One had a large, dead, half-collapsed tree. Another had a ruined, roofless building. "This is cleaned up." He tapped the building with the scabbarded practice sword in his left hand. Part fell off. "My students are trained to use, and to work around, environmental obstacles."

"They can't use any kind of real footwork here."

"I'm not training them to duel; I'm training them to survive. And how often have you had a real fight in a perfectly level, perfectly clear, perfectly open space?"

Liu Qingge quirked his brows upward, and shrugged, a silent admission of, Okay, you have a point. Shen Qingqiu would take it.

"Okay, first..." Shen Qingqiu sighed. "Learning to pull off the scabbard when I can only use one hand."

"You can get a new scabbard that you can unhook, if you can't do a right-handed draw," Liu Qingge suggested.

Shen Qingqiu nodded, and after a little experimenting, found he could hold the hilt of the sword and fling the scabbard away with a small, precision repulsion charm. It was a small enough expenditure of qi that he could do it with only a moment of focus, no hand seal required. Fighting left handed was another matter, and he spent most of the bout evading. Every clumsy strike was worse than no attack at all, as Liu Qingge easily turned the movement against him. Shen Qingqiu regained qi circulation in his hand after less than half an hour, and they had a casual bout before Shen Qingqiu called a halt.

"You should practice like that more often," Liu Qingge suggested as they left the training area. "You can't rely on spirit techniques for everything, anyway."

"Spiritual energy is burned up too fast to rely on in extended combat, yes. It's more efficient to enhance my speed, than to throw energy techniques which may miss. Liu-shidi's help is much appreciated."

Liu Qingge gave him a sharp, thoughtful look, nodded and left.

Chapter Text

Ning Yingying sat on a bench, playing a melody on the pipa. The birds in the tree behind her harmonized beautifully. Shen Qingqiu thought, not for the first time, that she was like a live-action Disney princess. He watched measuringly as she went through the training routine.

"What's she working on?" Qi Qingqi asked, approaching from behind him.

"Training the birds to find and retrieve a dropped hairpin."

"Mm."

Shen Qingqiu smiled behind his fan. "When she becomes more advanced, she can train them to take someone else's, and drop it somewhere it isn't supposed to be."

"Ooh!"

Ning Yingying gasped. "Shizun, that's mean!"

"Of course, one would only do that to bad people," Shen Qingqiu said smoothly.

"Oh! This disciple understands." One bird let out a proud call as it located the pin, and the rest of the flock broke into a rowdy chorus. Ning Yingying went to reward the well-performing bird.

"Bless her dear little heart," Shen Qingqiu sighed.

"She'd be eaten alive in court," Qi Qingqi agreed. They exchanged glances and silently made a pact. "Anyway. Speaking of delicate little birds, you must be feeling cooped up here on Qing Jing. My girls are going bandit hunting; come along and be decorative."

"Qi-shimei's lightest wish is this shixiong's command."

"It is if you know what's good for you." She bumped his shoulder companionably. "Next thirdday, dawn, the top of the Hundred Step Staircase."

"If I could ask Qi-shimei--" Shen Qingqiu activated the muffling charm in his fan. "Are there energy techniques which can be used to style hair? If my hand spasms in the early morning--"

"Oh, yeah, that would be a anxiety nightmare for you," Qi Qingqi said sympathetically. "Yeah, I remember a few tricks from the good old days. You would not believe how long those court hairstyles take, without cultivation tricks."

"And Qi-shimei had better ways to use her time, if rumor is correct."

She smirked. "Rumor does not know the half of it. The patriarchy won't topple itself. I could tell you stories."

*

Shen Qingqiu watched idly as Qi Qingqi's tiny little pirates swept over the poorly fortified bandit encampment. He reflected that Qing Jing really needed more practical exercises like this. It was good for teamwork, too.

"Perimeter secure, Shizun!" reported one of Qi Qingqi's disciples.

"Alright, girls, what do we do now?"

"Loot the bodies!" chirped a dozen dulcet voices.

"Qi-shimei is really leaning into the pirate queen rumors," murmured Shen Qingqiu, watching a senior apprentice shift a body so her junior could check the pockets. Qi Qingqi grinned like a wolf.

"I see you taking mental notes. Planning a field trip now, yourself?"

"Yes; mine are too competitive. But if they had to cooperate or get poor remarks--"

"Treasure map!" one of Qi Qingqi's disciples squealed. The other girls swarmed around her.

Shen Qingqiu hid his smile behind his fan. "You old softie; you salted the mine."

"You're only young once," Qi Qingqi said innocently.

Chapter Text

Ah, the mail had arrived. Shen Qingqiu left most of it to the administrative disciples, and took the few personal letters to his house.

One letter was from one of his former students, now living in the city of Jianning. In the course of an investigation, he'd found a peculiar item. He didn't recognize it. Given the esoteric paraphernalia in the house, he wondered if it was a cultivator artifact. He enclosed it for Shizun's examination. The item was in a qiankun seal, inked neatly on the letter. Shen Qingqiu had a moment of pride for a student who could so fluidly use cultivator techniques in their day to day work. He opened the seal.

The item was a sturdy wooden box, longer than it was wide, too short to hold a sword. It had a quest marker floating over it. Curious, Shen Qingqiu activated it.

Little Nine is very small. He is in a plain room. There is only one sleeping mat, though outlines indicate several people have roomed here in the past. Little Nine's fingers are like twigs. He crouches and carefully traces characters on the dirty floor. One... jin... salt, he copies laboriously. Ten... jin... rice... He is copying the characters from a discarded grocery invoice. Brisk footsteps approach the door--he hurriedly scuffs the marks and stands up, secreting the paper in his thin shift.

A woman, worn from work but probably younger than she appears, looks in on him. Her eyes aren't unkind, but they lack interest. "Little Nine, go to the north store room. The young master wants you."

Little Nine nods obediently--he is always obedient when observed, it is easier--and sets off at a trot. The illicit scrap of paper pokes at him; he ignores it.

Young Master Qiu is already in the room. It's a store room he ordered cleared out several months ago, after his parents died. There is one, high window, permanently shuttered, and the walls are very thick. It's usually sparsely furnished with a table, a chair, a brazier, and a stool. Today, there is a new addition; a large box on the floor.

Young Master Qiu looks at him with barely more interest than the slave woman had. "Ah. Sit here. Drink this." Young Master Qiu points to the stool, hands him a small bowl with a few mouthfuls of dark brown liquid, and walks to the door.

Little Nine sits on the stool. He looks at the bowl. He looks at the box.

Little Nine can think very fast, when he needs to.

The box on the ground is new. It is made of yellow pine. The pine is fresh--he can smell it. The boards are crisply cut, sharp edged--he can see them. A little sap is still coming from the boards. The box is closed.

Little Nine remembers a smaller box. When it was opened, it had spikes in it. His arm hurt for weeks.

This box is very large. A young boy could lie down in it.

Little Nine hears Young Master Qiu throw the door bolt. Little Nine thinks very fast indeed.

While Young Master Qiu is still at the door, Little Nine pours most of the small bowl into his scrap of paper. He twists it up. It will do. As Young Master Qiu returns, Little Nine has just tipped the bowl back down from his mouth.

"Done?" Young Master Qiu takes the bowl and puts it back on the table without waiting for an answer. He leans over the table and looks at a book, and a piece of paper. He seems to be checking a list. Little Nine can feel the liquid-filled scrap of paper slowly becoming sodden.

After a minute, Young Master Qiu straightens. He looks at Little Nine.

"Are you ready," he asks. This is the first time Little Nine has ever been asked a question by an owner.

"Yef-- yat--" Little Nine's brow furrows. He only let a little bit of liquid from the bowl in his mouth, but his tongue and cheeks are numb.

Young Master Qiu gives a smile which is not a smile. "Get in the box."

Little Nine looks at the box. He thinks of the bolted door, and the thick walls, and the bowl of liquid which would have numbed his throat and vocal cords if he had drunk it.

Young Master Qiu is older and larger than Little Nine. His fingers are not like twigs.

Little Nine steps toward the box, but this step also takes him toward the table. He jumps up on the chair, jumps up on the table, and kicks Young Master Qiu as hard as he can. He aims for the head, but clips him on the shoulder. The blow, and the surprise, are enough to spin him on his feet. Young Master Qiu tries to grab Little Nine. He misses. Little Nine kicks him again. This time, he is grabbed, just by the arm. Little Nine grabs Young Master Qiu's arm in turn, jumps down from the table, and bolts toward the box.

Young Master Qiu is pulled off his feet. His head hits the edge of the box. There's blood.

Young Master Qiu comes to his knees, face distorted with anger. He opens his mouth to bellow. Little Nine grabs the scrap of paper, soaked through. He stuffs the paper in Young Master Qiu's open mouth. He shoves him back. His head hits the box again. Little Nine steps up on the box, and kicks his head this time. Young Master Qiu falls back to sit. He looks confused. One of his eyes looks different from the other one.

Little Nine steps back.

Young Master Qiu tries to say something. Nonsense comes out. Little Nine waits until he's still.

Little Nine carries the stool over to the door. He uses the stool and stands on tip-toes to move the bolt.

Little Nine walks down the hallway. His collar is torn. There's a numb patch on his side where he had the liquid-filled scrap of paper tucked between his arm and his body.

Little Nine walks to the kitchen. He doesn't meet anyone on the way. There are few servants in Qiu Manor, anymore.

Little Nine enters the kitchen. The middle-aged slave woman from before is rolling out dough for noodles and talking with an older woman. She gasps when she sees him.

Little Nine tries to explain what happened. Nonsense comes out of his mouth. He mimes being given a bowl to drink. The woman gives him a bowl of congee. She leaves the kitchen, walking briskly.

The older woman watches him silently as he drinks his congee. He spills some, and the dark liquid still makes his mouth taste funny, but it's very good.

The middle-aged woman comes back. She keeps the same brisk, measured pace until she reaches the kitchen, then she hurries. She begins to take things from the cupboards and put them in bags. The older woman goes to her. They have a quick, whispered conversation. They both turn to look at Little Nine.

The older woman leaves for awhile. The middle-aged woman takes Little Nine's shoulder, and pulls him to the other kitchen door, then to the courtyard, then to the big door in the wall, one of several doors that Little Nine isn't allowed to use. It opens into an alley. The air smells different, here.

The middle-aged woman hands him a smaller bag. It has a pottery container with cooked rice, and some oily things wrapped in paper. "Keep walking until you're outside of the city walls. Tell people your name is something else." She looks at him again, then puts the cloth draped around her shoulders over him, instead, and closes the door. Little Nine understands that she's been as kind as she can afford to be. He goes.

*

Shen Qingqiu woke up with a gasp. Yue Qingyuan was kneeling beside him, face distressed.

"What--"

"Qingqiu-shidi," Yue Qingyuan's voice was thin and strained. "You collapsed. Stay there; I've sent for Mu-shidi."

Shen Qingqiu took a deep breath. "I think I can sit up."

Yue Qingyuan sounded exasperated. "Qingqiu-shidi, please."

"No, it's... I just remembered something. It was a bit overwhelming. I'm fine."

"Please let this shidi be the judge of that, Shen-shixiong," came Mu Qingfang's tart voice through the door. Luo Binghe's stricken face was immediately behind him. The room suddenly became very crowded.

Shen Qingqiu tried to sit up and immediately felt a hand on his shoulder. Mu Qingfang took his pulse and sighed. Luo Binghe hovered.

"Binghe, fetch tea, please," Shen Qingqiu said, resigned.

"Yes, Shizun!" He ran off.

To Mu Qingfang's mute eyebrow, he replied defensively, "It gives him something to do, and gets him out from underfoot."

"Now, what exactly happened?"

"I was opening my correspondence, and something--triggered a memory. It took me by surprise."

"I should say so." Mu Qingfang glanced at the writing desk, then politely away. It occurred to Shen Qingqiu, perhaps belatedly, that an expert physician would certainly recognize the signs of childhood malnutrition. Mu Qingfang had never mentioned his origins, either in this life or the previous one.

Shen Qingqiu wondered about those "nourishing tonics" Qian Cao used to prescribe to him in his disciple days. Hmm.

"Well." Mu Qingfang released his wrist and sat back. "The crisis has passed--sit down, Shen-shixiong, until I make sure you aren't light-headed--and there's some good news. Would Sect Leader be so kind as to help him sit up, please? Thank you."

Shen Qingqiu felt Yue Qingyuan's big, warm hand rubbing his back. The Sect Leader hadn't said a word since his mention of his memory.

"Good news?" Shen Qingqiu prompted.

Mu Qingfang looked pleased. "In the past, such a distressing occurrence would surely have triggered a qi deviation. Now, Shen-shixiong's meridians are disturbed, but stable."

"Ah! Some benefit has come from my fever, then."

"An unlooked for blessing," Mu Qingfang agreed. "Which isn't to say this was a minor episode."

"But he will be alright?" Yue Qingyuan finally spoke up.

"He will. Though it would be good for Shen-shixiong to have company, to be sure he's recovered," Mu Qingfang said innocently.

"Qingqiu-shidi should stay on Qiong Ding for a while," Yue Qingyuan pushed.

"That sounds like a good idea. Let me get myself together here, and I'll come over for lunch."

Yue Qingyuan looked surprised and pleased by his easy acquiescence.

*

Later, at Qiong Ding, Shen Qingqiu took advantage of a few minutes alone to question the System.

{ System, is there any way to avoid triggering these memories the second I touch them? Can I collect them, and look at them later? Like codex entries? } Another strong memory would be incapacitating in the middle of a fight, and Proud Immortal Demon Way had plenty of those.

The System seemed to 'think' for a minute. [ Processing request... Request logged... Initiating interface wizard... Interface implemented. New menu available. ]

{ Nice. Good System! }

[ This System values your feedback! Please stay on the line to take a short survey after your incarnation. Help us, help you! ]

Shen Qingqiu cautiously navigated the new interface. Two thirds of the memories were still greyed out, visible only as blurry outlines. Others were vivid, full-color tiles. He activated one, and relived a brief memory of watching, amazed, as Qi Qingqi made elaborate called shots with her spirit bow. Show off, he thought fondly.

[ Quest: In His Footsteps: 10% Complete. Congratulations! Congratulations! Congratulations! ]

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu was attacked almost immediately upon entering the dream demon's grey half-world.

"Shizun!" A heavy head thumped solidly onto his sternum and panicky hands clutched at his robes. Shen Qingqiu breathed carefully, in and out.

Huh. I was sure it was going to be Ning Yingying this time, he thought, carefully placing a hand on Luo Binghe's head.

So. Last time, he met Luo Binghe. He guided the tiny white sheep through three trials--good fairy tale structure there, he thought with approval. Once he passed the trials, the Dream Demon appeared. Luo Binghe confronted him, and the Dream Demon sent Shen Qingqiu... elsewhere.

Shen Qingqiu had a horrible thought.

{ System! System, can the Dream Demon see my other memories? }

[ To protect the Plot, only present timeline memories are accessible to third parties. Please respect the nature of causality. Take Only Memories, Leave Only Plot-points, ] the System replied primly.

{ ...Who makes these rules? }

[ That information is only available to authorized users. ]

{ How could the Dream Demon show me the original good's bad ending last time, if he can only see my current lifetime's memories? }

[ Analysis suggests the "nightmare" experiences are drawn from your fears, not your memories. ]

Luo Binghe was still shaking against his robes. "Shizun, I've been here forever, I--"

"Take a deep breath, Binghe. What's the last thing you remember?"

"I was... here..."

"How did Binghe get here?" Shen Qingqiu guided him soothingly.

"I didn't--this disciple didn't--"

"Did you walk? Did you go through a door?"

"No..." Luo Binghe loosened his grip and looked around. "Shizun, what is this place?"

"Think, Binghe, how did you get here?"

"I... this disciple didn't... Am I dreaming?"

"Good." Shen Qingqiu patted his head. "A disorienting feeling like this may be an illusion. Think of things you know, or should know, to gain clarity."

Luo Binghe seemed to realize, abruptly, that he was clinging to a real Shen Qingqiu. He flung himself back. "This disciple is sorry!"

Shen Qingqiu patted him on the head again. "Settle yourself. We've been pulled into a dream realm. For such an extensive illusion, there is only one possible culprit: Meng Mo, the Elder Dream Demon." Shen Qingqiu reasoned that Meng Mo was very probably observing them right now. It wouldn't hurt to flatter him a bit. "He's an old, powerful, and subtle demon elder. We must be calm and alert."

"Yes, Shizun," Luo Binghe said in a small voice.

"Listen to this teacher. Everything here, is made from your mind. If you break a rock, or punch a monster, or burn a house, you will be causing damage to your own mind. Understand?"

"Yes, Shizun."

"What won't you do?"

"Damage things, or people, Shizun," he said obediently.

"Good. Now, let us go explore. Meng Mo may show himself, in time." They set out across the featureless plain. In the way of dreams, a walled city loomed before them, and had always been there.

"Has Shizun met Meng Mo before?" Luo Binghe asked as they walked through the not-crowd.

"Elder Dream Demon appears to few people. Binghe knows about the stages of cultivation--qi refining, Foundation, and so forth. A higher level--higher than this teacher's--is the Nascent Soul stage. At that point, a cultivator may live on even though his body is destroyed. The spirit has gained enough strength that it can exist outside the body." And wouldn't that have been more convenient than putting himself in a glorified squash. Luo Binghe listened obediently, head tilted up. "Demons have their own cultivation methods--Binghe has heard of demonic cultivation?"

"It's evil," Luo Binghe said emphatically.

"It can certainly cause very serious problems if human cultivators use it. Our energy isn't meant to move that way. But it's the ordinary method of cultivation for demons. In fact, using righteous cultivation methods can hurt demons badly."

"Oh." Luo Binghe seemed to think about this as they walked.

"Elder Dream Demon had reached a level of demonic cultivation similar to a human cultivator's Nascent Soul stage. Thus, when his body was destroyed, he was able to live on. But being bodiless hasn't decreased his power, or his cleverness. You must be cautious."

"This disciple will, Shizun!" Luo Binghe hesitated. "But Shizun, why is this disciple here? Surely this disciple is too small for the Elder to bother with."

"Binghe did well in the bouts during Sha Hualing's invasion," Shen Qingqiu began. Luo Binghe literally sparkled; an artifact of this world being a projection of his mind. "That performance may have--" He broke off as the streets seemed to shift around them. Abruptly, they were in a warren of narrow wooden walls and the broken down remains of street stalls. A tiny--tinier--Luo Binghe was in trouble.

*

The first trial was, as before, Luo Binghe seeing his smaller self beaten in the street. This time, Shen Qingqiu looked around for landmarks. If he could increase his affinity with 'Shen Jiu' and new game plus to an earlier time, he might be able to prevent this entirely. He brought his attention back to Luo Binghe as the boy rushed toward his past tormentors.

Instead of taking the punch as before--better not to let him get used to that--Shen Qingqiu diverted him by the simple expedient of picking him up. The boy froze, shock and embarrassment momentarily breaking his tunnel-vision.

"They were mean, yes," Shen Qingqiu said soothingly. "But they were also mortal. Binghe is cultivating, now, and will live on long after they're old and grey and gone to the next step in the reincarnation cycle."

In the second trial, Luo Binghe wept over the shade of his mother. They were in a facsimile of a wooden shed--uninsulated, and damnably cold in the winter. There were no locational clues visible from inside, but Shen Qingqiu tried to memorize the woman's face. It was unlikely he'd run into her by chance, but if he could, and find a smaller Luo Binghe before all this happened...

"Those--I should have been here! If they hadn't--I'm going to--" Luo Binghe's emotional distress was pulling him farther from rationality.

Shen Qingqiu tried to calm him. "Perhaps she would have been pleased to see them beaten, but--"

"No! She wouldn't, she would never--"

Shen Qingqiu took another approach. "Was she a good mother?"

"Yes!" Luo Binghe sobbed.

"Then think about that love. Loss will fade over time, but if you hold onto the good memories, they'll last forever. She, too, is in the next part of the reincarnation cycle."

Shen Qingqiu reflected that, now, it had been just a few years since Luo Binghe had been once again orphaned. The injury was still fresh, and an easy target for the Dream Demon.

The third trial was a parade of heart-string-tugging trauma. It seemed like Meng Mo was just throwing every miscellaneous hurt he could reach at the wavering Luo Binghe. The spoiled young master spilled the congee, the older Qing Jing disciples bullied and isolated him, a tiny Luo Binghe struggled with chores...

Luo Binghe's hand tightened on Shen Qingqiu's sleeve. "Ning-shijie... Ning-shijie said..."

Shen Qingqiu waited.

"Ning-shijie said the chores were to make this disciple stronger?"

Ah, Shen Qingqiu had almost forgotten that fragment of conversation, on the fringes of the fight with Elder Sky Hammer. "Binghe is most suited to be a physical cultivator. He heard, that Liu Qingge was prepared to accept him into Bai Zhan?" Luo Binghe nodded, head down. Shen Qingqiu settled a hand on his back, carefully. "Physical cultivators use their qi to change their bodies--their strength, endurance, and resilience. Every time a physical cultivator brings themselves to the end of their endurance, they get stronger. It's why the students of Bai Zhan train so hard." Shen Qingqiu drew out the explanation, feeling Luo Binghe's heart slow down under his fingertips with every breath. "This teacher... possibly could have been more forthcoming with that information. This teacher is a spiritual cultivator, as are most on Qing Jing. This teacher should have realized that Binghe needs more guidance, from--"

"No, don't send me away!" Luo Binghe clutched at his robes.

"Binghe is not being sent away," Shen Qingqiu said firmly. Well, there went that idea. Getting him to Zui Xian for cooking classes was going to be a treat, he could tell. "Even if this teacher sends Binghe somewhere--temporarily--to continue his education, Binghe can always come back. Binghe has seen the older students returning from investigation missions, and educational visits to other sects."

"But--"

"And this teacher has had students return after years long research trips, after being married, and after retiring from public life. This teacher never gives up on a student, and Binghe will always have a home on Qing Jing."

Luo Binghe sobbed--Shen Qingqiu hoped it was in relief. He bore it stoically, one hand on Luo Binghe's fluffy head. I know the dorms all use the same soap, he thought idly, waiting for Luo Binghe to settle down. Something to look into. I will absolutely take some from the supply room if--

"Aw, hell," came a grumpy, elderly voice.

Chapter Text

Meng Mo appeared, staring at them with disgust. "Enough with the inspirational garbage. This old man will allow the brat to come over, but not this common righteous cultivator."

"Any negotiations will need to go through this teacher," Shen Qingqiu said smoothly.

Meng Mo stared at him, and laughed. "You're real cute, kid. I've got shoes older than you. Not that I need them, these days." He snapped his fingers, and, for Shen Qingqiu, everything went black.

 

He remembered--no, he thought--no, he imagined being back in the Water Prison, his favorite student approaching, like an itemized list of everything he never wanted for the boy. He saw his family--he-as-Shen-Yuan's family--sitting around an empty-eyed husk in a hospital bed, his father letting the company go to ruin, his mother ignoring her friends' calls, his brothers beginning to quietly resent the pressure his hopeless treatment put on the family finances, his sister quietly dropping out of university. His kind-eyed teacher was looking at him with disappointment and resignation. He was very small, and a door was closing, and the latch was too high for him to reach, and he couldn't think quickly enough--

 

He woke up.

He breathed, so frozen in his bed that even respiration didn't seem to be under his conscious control. After a few moments, he was able to open his eyes, blink, swallow, and carefully curl to another position under the sheets. He had, he calculated, another few minutes to gather himself before Luo Binghe made the mad dash from the senior dorms to his bamboo house.

He circulated his energy strongly to get rid of the last lingering vestiges of sleep, and laboriously got up. Cultivation is better than shady energy drinks, he thought as he put up his hair and pulled a couple layers of outer robes over his sleeping robe. He went to find Luo Binghe, where he had just felt the boy smack into his security array like a bug hitting a windshield. On his way to the door, he paused and felt his face. He backtracked and used a plain handkerchief and some leftover water from the kettle to wipe his face.

*

"Come." Shen Qingqiu settled a hand on Luo Binghe's head and checked his meridians. As expected, no overt sign of the Dream Demon's influence. That would come later.

"Shizun, this is all my fault!"

"Don't be absurd, Binghe. The world doesn't revolve around you." Actually, it did, but Shen Qingqiu was never going to let the protagonist know that.

"Does this disciple need to write an essay?" Luo Binghe asked tearfully. This was ridiculous. Most people would look red and damp when crying; the protagonist looked like a Korean skincare commercial.

Shen Qingqiu sighed. "Binghe will write a report, of everything he saw and experienced in the dream realm." This would need to be reported to the sect leader, after all.

Luo Binghe hopped up, already planning to lie and conceal his deal with Meng Mo, if Shen Qingqiu was any judge. "This disciple will--"

"This disciple will go back to sleep, as it's four in the morning and demon attacks are no excuse for missing classes."

"Yes, Shizun," Luo Binghe said obediently and--

"Wrong way, Binghe," Shen Qingqiu said, without turning his head. He could sense Luo Binghe's magnesium flare of energy moving away from the senior dorms.

"This disciple was going to the kitchens--"

"Sleep. Now." Shen Qingqiu went to his writing desk. He would not sleep, but would write up a preliminary report while the incident was still fresh in his mind. The kitchens--hah. I knew it was a bribe. And he does it on purpose. First it's 'Shizun, I had to leave the group behind and fight the monster on my own,' and then it's 'try this new tangyuan filling, Shizun--'

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu reported the encounter with the Dream Demon, and Ku Xing was busy brainstorming improvements to Cang Qiong's defensive arrays to mitigate the threat. Shen Qingqiu had never seen Gao Qinggao so happily busy; apparently, an attack that needed a specific defense instead of being sloughed off by Cang Qiong's established arrays was a rare opportunity. He had never thought of the ascetic peak lord as being creatively stifled, but there could be no doubt he was blooming now.

But the attack brought to the fore an issue Shen Qingqiu had been wrestling with. It was time to come clean. About some things. After reporting the initial encounter, Shen Qingqiu steeled his spine and said, "This shidi needs to speak to Sect Leader confidentially, when time permits."

Yue Qingyuan was instantly alarmed. "What's wrong? Your hand?"

Shen Qingqiu shook his head. "No, an administrative matter. It's important, but not time critical."

*

He was originally planning to have this discussion after the disastrous Inter-Sect Conference, but pulled it forward after reflection. After all, presenting a lie by omission only after the fact, when there was no possibility of rejection, would undoubtedly be seen as an insincere confession.

In the highly secure parlor in the sect leader's manor, Shen Qingqiu took a breath, and let it out. "I've kept something from you, Sect Leader. Luo Binghe has a sealed demonic bloodline, and I've known since he entered the sect."

Yue Qingyuan put his teacup down, very carefully. "You're going to need to go into details."

"During the induction trial, I saw immediately that he had a seal. Closer inspection revealed that it was the work of Su Xiyan, the--do you remember her?"

Yue Qingyuan nodded. "Huan Hua Palace's former head disciple. She disappeared in--" He gave Shen Qingqiu a sharp look. "--In mysterious circumstances, ten or fifteen years ago. I didn't know you knew her."

"We met only once, but she left an impression. She saved my life during a disastrous mission. Shizun gifted her one of our secret techniques, in recompense. The same one I used to stop the progress of Without-A-Cure, in fact." Shen Qingqiu tapped his teacup with a finger. "She was a remarkable talent. I have a good deal of respect for her judgment and character. So when I saw the seal--"

"You were inclined to trust her judgment. I see. But Huan Hua is notorious for their uncompromising stance against anything but the righteous path. Why would Su Xiyan seal a demon instead of--ah... they give no quarter for age."

"Luo Binghe is, roughly, thirteen years old." The two men looked at each other. "The age isn't certain, because he was adopted as an infant."

"I'll check our records, for the last known sighting of Su Xiyan. If the timeline fits..."

Shen Qingqiu nodded silently and looked at his tea. He knew what was coming.

Yue Qingyuan was silent for a few moments, then "Why wouldn't--" He paused. "Is this why you stole him from Liu-shidi?"

Shen Qingqiu's hands twitched around his cup. Apparently he didn't know where this was going.

{ System! System, why is he speculating like this? Surely it's clear I was just being spiteful. }

The system 'sounded' bemused. [ That was never explicitly stated in the text. The reader may have assumed it. But it's a matter of interpretation until directly referenced. ]

Yue Qingyuan was still looking at him. Shen Qingqiu flailed for an answer. "I'm not suggesting Liu-shidi would be unfair--"

Yue Qingyuan sighed. "But he does tend to see things in black and white."

"A certain lack of nuance, yes."

"But you should have told me."

Shen Qingqiu winced. "I should have. I'm... sorry. I thought I had foreseen and prepared for any possible problems, but this attack showed the flaw in my reasoning. And I--didn't want to take the time and effort to explain myself, when I was so sure I was right."

Yue Qingyuan muttered something. It sounded like, 'you haven't changed a bit.'

"Cang Qiong doesn't discriminate on the basis of background, but this--we'll need to be very careful." He sighed. Shen Qingqiu internally squirmed with guilt over the tired lines on his face. "Who else will be able to see the seal, as you can?"

"A spiritual cultivation specialist of my level or above, who is specifically looking at meridians. I saw it at the induction trial only because I was looking closely at him as a potential candidate. His spirit veins were already active."

Yue Qingyuan nodded, thoughtfully. "He's now cultivating well with a physical manual, you said. No indications of the qi sickness which comes when demons use righteous techniques?"

"Correct. In fact, he's cultivated without blockages since he got the manual."

"Perhaps a weak bloodline, or a distant ancestor," Yue Qingyuan murmured. Shen Qingqiu winced internally. "If he goes to Wan Jian to get his sword--"

"To the best of my belief and knowledge, Hong Jing won't react to a sealed bloodline." It hadn't last time, after all. "If it might be problematic, I can get him a sword through another route."

Yue Qingyuan looked at him, expression grave. "I'm glad you trusted me with this now." Shen Qingqiu shifted uncomfortably. A lecture would have been easier to handle. Which was probably why Yue Qingyuan took the I'm-not-angry-I'm-just-disappointed route instead.

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu summoned Luo Binghe immediately after lunch, as the other students were settling into their afternoon chores or cultivation practice.

"Yes, Shizun," he chirped, bright eyed.

"Binghe, follow and remember this path." They set off across the Rainbow Bridge. "You know how to use the bridge?"

"Yes, Shizun. May this disciple ask, where are we going?"

"To Zui Xian." Luo Binghe's footsteps halted, then sped up. "Every second day and fifth day, at this hour, you will attend a cooking workshop there. The schedule may change later. If it causes conflicts with your studies at Qing Jing, tell Tang Xinran. These classes will count as one of your chores. This teacher will lead you to class this first time, but after this, Binghe must go on his own."

"I'm--this disciple is not being reassigned to Zui Xian?"

"If you want to--"

"No!"

*

Shen Qingqiu led Luo Binghe to the low building assigned to the junior cooking class. It was thoughtfully designed with wide sliding doors under a deep covered porch, so entire classrooms could be opened to air out smoke. He watched as the no-nonsense teacher took Luo Binghe in hand, internally wished her good luck with that, and went off to find Ruan Qingruan.

The Zui Xian peak lord was in his vineyards, shaded from the afternoon sun by the reinforced trellises. He looked up from his inspection of the grapes as Shen Qingqiu approached. "Shen Qingqiu, welcome. Your student is settled in?"

"Time will tell. He seemed to settle down when I told him we weren't trading him for a cask of wine."

Ruan Qingruan huffed. "A whole cask? Please. Even for a disciple who defeated a demon elder, half a cask, and not the good stuff."

"Fair. I wanted to give you this." Shen Qingqiu pulled a qiankun item made from a folded paper envelope out of his sleeve. From the qiankun space, he pulled the watercolor he'd done of Zi Dan, now on a display board.

"This..."

"I've been painting as an aid to memory. And I'm certainly not going to keep it. You might as well have it."

Ruan Qingruan controlled his face with some difficulty. "Thank you, Shen-shixiong." After a fraught moment, he added. "You still owe me that favor, though."

"I never doubted it for a moment."

Chapter Text

"Shizun is in the learning gallery," the disciple said.

Liu Qingge gestured mutely to be lead there, and followed.

This was, he thought, the same disciple Shen Qingqiu had shamelessly poached a few years ago. He studied his energy pathways from behind, perplexed. Why would Shen Qingqiu, who usually needed to have his disciples pushed on him at figurative swords-point, go to so much trouble? And why would he, a spiritual cultivator, train the boy up as a physical cultivator? If he was suited to it--and he was--why not send him along to Bai Zhan and wash his hands of him? Or at least the more balanced cultivation path of Qiong Ding.

They found Shen Qingqiu in the wide, airy hallway of a building which seemed to be dedicated to painting. Half a dozen students had folding tables set up, and were scattered through the roomy, sparsely furnished hall. Shen Qingqiu was circulating among them. They seemed--he looked closer--they seemed to be copying the paintings already on the walls?

As his guiding disciple made an unhesitating line for Shen Qingqiu, Liu Qingge paused to look at a group of paintings which had no student near it. As he studied them, they seemed to be--different versions of the same painting? Each had a few more details... As he scanned the panels from right to left, he saw the pattern; each painting built on the version before it, ending up with... He stepped back. Ending up with a rather pretty, if bland, picture of a sun-dappled stream running through a young forest. Birds appeared, flowers bloomed, and plain trees grew bark and mossy details. Hmm.

Shen Qingqiu approached from the side, leaving a comfortable amount of room between them.

"How can this shixiong help Liu-shidi today?" He looked at the display Liu Qingge had been studying. "Painting lessons, perhaps?"

Liu Qingge scanned over the progression of paintings again. "I thought you just--" He waved a hand, "--Sat down and painted."

Shen Qingqiu wafted his fan. "Sometimes I do. But a good painting has structure; it's built up, layer by layer." That disciple, at his teacher's elbow, looked raptly attentive. Perhaps this was what Shen Qingqiu had seen--could a spiritual cultivator see artistic talent, like a physical cultivator could see proprioception? He would have to ask.

*

"Shizun, what is the difference between cultivation paths?" Luo Binghe asked. Liu Qingge gave Shen Qingqiu a judgmental look over his head.

"Spiritual cultivators manipulate energy. Physical cultivators change their bodies. Balanced cultivators, like our Sect Leader, can do both."

"It's possible to do both?"

"It's often different ways of doing the same thing. For instance--" Shen Qingqiu picked up a small stone. "If a spiritual cultivator wanted to destroy this stone, he would first imbue it with energy, then use that energy to break it apart." He demonstrated; the stone turned to dust in his open hand. "But a physical cultivator--if Liu-shidi would indulge this shixiong." Shen Qingqiu held up another stone. Liu Qingge sighed and held out his hand. Shen Qingqiu placed the stone in it, and Liu Qingge crushed the stone to gravel with his fingertips.

"There's another, unseen aspect,” Shen Qingqiu continued. “When this teacher destroyed the stone, the energy contained in it was lost. But your Liu-shishu still has his strength."

"And physical cultivators are generally melee fighters,” Liu Qingge contributed. “We have few distance attacks; that's where spiritual cultivators have the advantage."

"Liu-shishu made sword energy that fell from the sky when--" Luo Binghe began.

Liu Qingge sighed. "That was a spirit technique, and you are nowhere near ready to learn it." He gave Shen Qingqiu a significant glance. Shen Qingqiu, thank the merciful divines, picked up on it.

"Now, Binghe, you have qin practice to catch up on."

"Yes, Shizun." The boy left.

"You coddle him," Liu Qingge said. "I never would have believed it. And why didn't he know that? It's basic information."

"His education has been lacking the past few years," Shen Qingqiu said, ruffling his fan.

"You were the one educating him."

"This shixiong knows his wrongs," Shen Qingqiu said coolly. "I've been patching the holes in his knowledge as I find them. Thanks to Liu-shidi for indulging him. Now, how can this shixiong help Liu-shidi today?"

Liu Qingge drew a small, tightly rolled scroll from his sleeve. "This is yours. A training plan to help you learn to fight left handed. It won't turn you into a melee fighter, but it will improve your survivability."

A rare surprised expression broke through Shen Qingqiu's aloof mask. "Many thanks to Liu-shidi. This shixiong appreciates the time this took."

"I owed you."

"I wasn't going to collect, but I'll gratefully accept the gesture."

"Say it."

Shen Qingqiu made the tiniest, hidden suggestion of an eye roll. " 'We're even.' "

*

Shen Qingqiu walked with him to the Rainbow Bridge as the visit ended, and their path took them past the dining hall. Liu Qingge did a double-take as he saw a new addition.

"Rule Fourteen, do not hug Shizun?" he asked incredulously. "Why do you even need that?"

Shen Qingqiu looked pained and hid behind his fan.

Chapter Text

"I'd like to visit Ling Chen Sect," Shen Qingqiu began. Yue Qingyuan's hands paused briefly as he prepared the tea. Aha, thought Shen Qingqiu. "I need to talk to their sect leader." He watched as some, but not all, the tension subsided. "Under the circumstances, it would be better if I arrived quietly. Could you give me a letter of introduction, so I could meet him without revealing my name?"

"If you wish, of course. Is your business something you feel free to discuss, or..."

"I believe Qiu Haitang is a disciple there." Shen Qingqiu watched as Yue Qingyuan hid a twitch by going very still. I knew it! he crowed, behind his habitually impassive face. "My recent qi deviation has brought some... clarity. I believe her cultivation will have faced some of the same blockages mine has. I won't talk to her directly," he watched as the last tension left Yue Qingyuan's shoulders, "--But I'd like to give that information to her teacher. Lu Zhiguang has a reputation as a good and conscientious teacher, and I hope he'll be able to make use of it without exposing her to undue stress."

Yue Qingyuan sipped his tea thoughtfully, habitual calm restored. "I'll help if you wish, of course, but wouldn't a letter be sufficient in this case? You could communicate what you need to, without... risk of a confrontation."

Shen Qingqiu nodded. "I'd prefer that, honestly, but in this case, my physical presence will help support my statements. Some time ago..." he paused, gathering his thoughts. Yue Qingyuan waited patiently, eyes sharpening. "Some time ago, I got the scare of my life." He took a breath, and continued. "I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror by accident, and thought Qiu Jianluo was in the room." The memory had come to him via a quest marker, and had left him feeling sick and unsettled for hours.

Yue Qingyuan stared. "You... you think you were related?"

Shen Qingqiu nodded, toying with the lid of his teacup. "You never saw him except in passing, I think. The resemblance, at that age, is striking. I chose not to think about it, for years, but my recent breakthrough has let me reflect on what that could mean."

"So Qiu Haitang would be..."

"A sister, half-sister, or some sort of cousin, perhaps. She was Qiu Jianluo's half-sister, you know. His mother was the di-wife, her mother was a concubine." He finally shifted the lid of his teacup and took a sip. "That's why I want to go in person. A simple blood test can confirm it, and she doesn't even need to be in the room."

Yue Qingyuan looked worried. "I'll help you if I can, you know that, but... why stir up these old ghosts now?"

Shen Qingqiu looked down. "There were other peculiarities in that household. I remember whole areas being abandoned--none near the women's courtyard, where Qiu Haitang lived, but elsewhere. And I remember her talking to thin air, and seeming to hear responses."

"Memory charms. And illusions," Yue Qingyuan concluded grimly.

"Yes. And knowing that may help her teacher lead her through the blockages in her cultivation."

*

Ling Chen sect leader Lu Zhiguang looked momentarily astonished as Shen Qingqiu entered the room, but recovered quickly. "Master Ye Wenxuan, please join me. This poor Daoist was quite surprised by a letter of introduction from Cang Qiong."

"In fact, this one is Shen Qingqiu of Cang Qiong's Qing Jing Peak. This guest humbly apologizes for the deception, which was intended only to avoid hardship for one of Sect Leader Lu‘s disciples."

Lu Zhiguang's eyes were very keen. "Indeed. It is an unlooked for honor to meet Master Shen Qingqiu. Please, sit, and share your story."

As Shen Qingqiu sat at the tea table, the Ling Chen sect leader moved through the ritual of tea making as if by rote. Shen Qingqiu had no doubt he was thinking furiously. Shen Qingqiu took the opportunity to review his approach, one more time.

When they had finished the first, formal cup of tea, they could finally move into real discussion.

"This Shen Qingqiu would like to offer information to Sect Leader Lu, but is unsure if it is appropriate."

"Please, enlighten this poor Daoist." Lu Zhiguang watched his guest with keen eyed attention.

Shen Qingqiu contemplated his teacup for a moment. Plausible deniability would be his friend here. "Sect Leader Lu may have heard that this Shen Qingqiu was ill, some time ago?"

Lu Zhiguang nodded silently. Gossip was the cultivation world's most eagerly traded resource.

"Accompanying that illness, a resentment which had been blocking this Daoist's cultivation was suddenly resolved. That breakthrough gave--a great mental clarity, and past events which had previously been too painful to think on, were suddenly brought to the mind's eye. This Shen Qingqiu had heard of the events in the Qiu household, in fragments, through third parties. The story was, a slave brought into the household was freed, was betrothed to the house's only daughter, then went mad and killed the young master of the house, along with many slaves. The murderer fled with a rogue cultivator, never to be found."

"Indeed, a sad story," Lu Zhiguang said noncommittally.

"And a very dramatic one. But as this Shen Qingqiu reflected on his memories, incongruities in the story gained new context. There was no announcement of such an engagement--it would be unheard of for a noble household to betroth their only daughter to a slave, even a freed one. And Qiu Haitang was quite young; only fifteen. She hadn't even had her hairpin ceremony. And how would a boy with no combat training kill a dozen household slaves, without being grievously injured himself?”

"Master Shen has another theory?" Lu Zhiguang asked neutrally.

"When this Shen Qingqiu was young, he was a slave called Jiu, in the household of Qiu." Shen Qingqiu sensed Lu Zhiguang's energy spark with interest.

"I see! And... forgive this old Daoist, but why has Master Shen come forward now? These sad events happened decades ago."

"There were two surviving children of House Qiu; the young master, Qiu Jianluo, and his shu sister, Qiu Haitang. There were other sons, but they died before this particular tragedy. Qiu Jianluo wanted, desperately, to be a cultivator. But he was the only son, and his parents wanted him to learn the family business--they owned stores. They died in a carriage accident when he was in his late teens--a very convenient accident, for him. But by that time, he was too old to enter a sect in the usual way. He didn't have the talent to enter one of the decent sects, and the Qiu family wasn't wealthy or well-connected enough to gain entry to Huan Hua Palace."

Lu Zhiguang's brows rose briefly and he hid his mouth with his teacup at the casual slight to Huan Hua, though he said nothing one way or another.

"Without reliable teachers, he found other sources. He could occasionally buy manuals or journals from rogue cultivators. Most of it was trash, of course, but it could be dangerous trash. Sect Leader Lu may be aware, that there are some disreputable practices which purport to take qi from one source, to strengthen the cultivation of another. These are generally the worst kind of snake oil; they harm the source, and bring no benefit to the other party. But there are very specific circumstances in which a transfer can be effected. The source must have active spirit veins, and the odds of success are better if there's a blood connection. The closer the better."

Shen Qingqiu took a breath. "I don't think Qiu Jianluo knew why his experiments suddenly found success with me. But I realized it later, as I reached his age, and noted the resemblance."

Lu Zhiguang didn't look as surprised as he had when Shen Qingqiu had introduced his birth name. But he did look pained and sympathetic. "Master Shen need not go into details. This old Daoist has seen too many tread that darker path, looking to steal power through blood and other fluids."

Shen Qingqiu pushed on, glad of his built-in poker face under the sympathetic gaze of someone who was, after all, old enough to be his father. "There were other peculiarities in the household as well. Qiu Haitang and Qiu Jianluo were the only members of the family in residence. I believe there were no changes made to Qiu Haitang's living conditions, but the rest of the compound was empty and neglected. I believe Qiu Jianluo sold off many household slaves to fund his experiments."

"Mm. That does explain the condition of the family store. Young Haitang inherited it, and gifted it to the sect when she joined. There were no outstanding debts, but also no indication of where the profits had gone."

"And I don't believe she knew any of this. She used to--" Shen Qingqiu paused, sorting through his piecemeal memories. Lu Zhiguang wouldn't gloss over inconsistencies as easily as Yue Qingyuan might. "--To behave as though she was having conversations--short ones--even though no one was there. When I looked at the area later, I'd often find strange paper dolls. I couldn't identify talismans at the time, of course..."

Lu Zhiguang closed his eyes. "Exposure to illusion charms, over the course of years--" he muttered. "No wonder she was in distress."

"Sometimes, she spoke as if she didn't know her father and his di-wife were dead. Other times, she seemed to remember. She'd often be confused or upset when she returned to the compound after an outing. By the end, she rarely left at all."

Lu Zhiguang bowed his head for a moment. "I see. Can you tell me the circumstances in which you left?"

"I did kill Qiu Jianluo, that much is true. He had crafted a more ambitious version of a smaller qi draining implement. I believe it would have killed me. I caused him to fall, and he hit his head on the side of it." This was a very sanitized version of that desperate, dirty scuffle, but covered the main points. "I escaped the storeroom, and went to the kitchens. One of the kitchen slaves hurried me out of the compound through a side door."

"...And so you fled. You didn't go to the magistrate?"

"Nothing that was done to me was illegal. Or, was a misdemeanor, at most. And it is illegal for a slave to defend himself against his owner. The laws are written by slave owners, after all."

Lu Zhiguang sighed. "It is a practice which casts a dark shadow."

Shen Qingqiu had not arranged this meeting without carefully investigating Lu Zhiguang's character and beliefs, but it was still a relief to hear it.

"The fire..." Lu Zhiguang hinted delicately.

"I have no specific knowledge of it, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was set by the other slaves after looting the house. A slave whose owner dies under violent circumstances doesn't have a good future, even if they weren't culpable."

"Mm. The magistrates do tend to spread blame around with a big shovel, in those cases. And as mortals, they will be decades dead, now. The rogue cultivator had nothing to do with this?"

"He didn't act directly, but I believe he was culpable," Shen Qingqiu said grimly. "His name was Wu Yanzi, and he was one of several rogue cultivators who sold Qiu Jianluo the books he used as the source of his experiments. I don't believe he expected the practices to work, or he would never have let them go. Certainly, without a blood connection, the odds of success were low."

"Well." Lu Zhiguang sat quietly for a minute, then rose. "I believe we can find objective confirmation on one point, at least. Master Shen doesn't mind the blood test?"

"This master would welcome the certainty."

*

Gu Yuan, the Ling Chen apothecary, was summoned and went into quiet discussion with Lu Zhiguang. When he returned, he used Lu Zhiguang's desk as an impromptu worktable. Shen Qingqiu and Lu Zhiguang watched with interest as he prepared his bowls of components, mixing and grinding with expert precision. He carefully painted out the talisman on a sheet of heavy paper, using a different brush for each mixture, then briskly washed his brushes and sat back.

"The first sample is prepared. Master Ye, if you would...?"

"I'll be troubling Master Gu," said Shen Qingqiu as he offered a fingertip for the blood sample.

Gu Yuan neatly added the few drops from Shen Qingqiu to the paper, then a few from his prepared sample vial. "Alright, here we go," he murmured to himself, and used a sliver of wood to drag a line from one to the other. As the two samples connected, he activated the freshly drawn talisman with a push of qi. Shen Qingqiu watched with interest as the drops trembled, beaded up like mercury, then rolled swiftly to the same area of the diagram.

Gu Yuan's eyebrows arched. "Ah! Full blooded siblings. I wasn't expecting anything, to be honest." He looked at Shen Qingqiu keenly, and Shen Qingqiu, in turn, looked at Sect Leader Lu Zhiguang.

"I'll leave the matter entirely in your hands, Sect Leader Lu. But it is my hope that this will help resolve some of her difficulties."

*

After the curious--but, apparently, discreet--Gu Yuan was coaxed out, Shen Qingqiu and Lu Zhiguang conversed in a much more convivial mood.

Lu Zhiguang served fresh tea, then sighed. "To be honest, we hardly needed the blood test. Master Shen hasn't seen Qiu Haitang for years, correct?"

"Since my escape, yes."

Lu Zhiguang nodded, thoughtfully. "You look just like her. When you entered the room--well, I knew something was up." He let out a sudden bark of a laugh. "Hah! Shen Qingqiu!" He leaned backward and shook silently with merriment.

Shen Qingqiu smiled faintly. "It's even the same character. Shizun had a subtle sense of humor. And mind you, when he named me, I didn't even know yet."

Lu Zhiguang chuckled and shook his head. "The matter always bothered this old Daoist. There were so many things that didn't make sense. How did a scrawny teenager overpower armed guards? Why would a noble family betroth their only daughter to a freed slave? Begging your pardon, Master Shen; you did not at that time have your remarkable attainments."

"Oh, I quite agree. If it was a book, I'd take the author to task for the plot holes."

"Hah, yes. But it is exactly the kind of thing a sheltered and romantic young lady would imagine. Or be driven to invent, filling the holes created by those charms." Lu Zhiguang's face dropped from joviality to sobriety at the reminder. "Ah, poor young Haitang. She's a good girl, but this has been a thorn in her heart. We will need to proceed carefully, to remove it without hurting her more." He glanced at Shen Qingqiu. "I cannot recommend that you meet her. Indeed, as her teacher, I won't allow it."

Shen Qingqiu nodded. "It is her good fortune to have such a careful teacher."

*

When Shen Qingqiu returned from Ling Chen Sect, he went immediately to Qiong Ding without stopping at Qing Jing. Yue Qingyuan greeted him warmly, but with a little tension in his shoulders.

"Don't worry, we're still on good terms with Ling Chen," Shen Qingqiu reassured him under the cover of his fan's muffling charm.

"I wasn't worried," Yue Qingyuan protested mildly.

"Liar," Shen Qingqiu returned fondly. He smiled. "It went very well. I think my visit will be of help."

"You confirmed--" Yue Qingyuan paused as his duty disciple entered with tea.

"May this disciple prepare lunch for Shizun and Shen-shishu?" the disciple asked.

Yue Qingyuan looked surprised. "Is it that time already? Qingqiu-shidi--"

"This shidi will gladly stay if Yue-shixiong has time. I didn't send word ahead."

"Please, join me." Yue Qingyuan nodded to the disciple, who left, looking quietly pleased.

Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu sat to tea in the meantime.

"It went well?"

"Yes. Your letter won me entrance immediately--thank you again for that--" Yue Qingyuan smiled and passed him his tea cup. "Lu Zhiguang listened with interest, and the blood test confirmed at least that part of my story." Shen Qingqiu sipped his tea carefully. "Though, apparently it was barely necessary. Lu Zhiguang said the resemblance is remarkable."

"You didn't see her?" Yue Qingyuan asked gently.

Shen Qingqiu shook his head. "Nor would it be wise at this time, I think."

Yue Qingyuan ran his thumb over the lid of his tea cup, meditatively. "And the blood test confirmed...?"

"Full blooded siblings. Which is a relief. I'd rather be more closely related to her than Qiu Jianluo."

*

As Shen Qingqiu left to return to Qing Jing, he gave Yue Qingyuan their now customary hug. Quiet enough for denial, he murmured, "Thank you for helping me, Qi-ge." Yue Qingyuan brushed a barely-there kiss against his hair. Shen Qingqiu felt something in him untangle.

Chapter Text

Ning Yingying was playing the pipa, coaxing a butterfly to hold still while Luo Binghe carefully copied the pattern and color of its wings.

"Okay; thanks, Ning-shijie."

Ning Yingying allowed the butterfly to flutter away, then looked over Luo Binghe's shoulder at the drying image. "That's great! We only have three more creatures to collect. Luo-shidi is getting much better at line drawing, too!"

Luo Binghe brightened and looked at his sketches with new appreciation. "Thanks, Ning-shijie. When Shizun gets back, I'll show him how much I've been practicing."

Ning Yingying rolled her eyes, but only a little bit, and only in her heart. She was glad of the new harmony in Qing Jing, but sometimes Luo Binghe was A Lot. "That should be pretty soon. He said he'd only be gone a few days." She was suddenly the focus of an unsettling degree of attention.

"He said so? When?" Luo Binghe's brow furrowed like he was sifting through every word he'd ever heard from Shen Qingqiu, to divine the source of this new information.

"Just before he left, when he took me and Wei Xiaofei and Chu Ziyi and Deng Jiaran over to Xian Shu. We had a tea ceremony with Qi-shishu." Finding out there was a whole group of kung fu disciplines just for women had been one of the best discoveries of Ning Yingying's young life.

Luo Binghe looked stricken. "I couldn't go?"

"Boys aren’t allowed," Ning Yingying said smugly. "Even Shizun didn't go in. We had the tea ceremony, and he left us with Qi-shishu."

Ming Fan entered the courtyard, hesitantly.

"Ming-shixiong, are you working on your project, too?" Ning Yingying chirped. Ming Fan was so uncertain, now; she tried to encourage him.

"Oh--yes, I'm almost done. I was just at Qiong Ding, and Shizun is back--"

"I'm not ready!" Luo Binghe yelped, and rushed out of the courtyard.

Ning Yingying looked after him, then at his discarded papers. "I am not doing the report myself," she said firmly.

"He probably wants to make Shizun dinner." Ming Fan hesitated. "Ning-shimei, do you think--"

"What?"

"Do you think--" Ming Fan glanced around and lowered his voice. "Do you think Luo-shidi could be Shizun's son?"

Ning Yingying gasped, scandalized. "No! Really?"

"Shh, keep your voice down! I mean, I don't know, but Shizun takes a lot of care with him."

"But--I mean, he's nice now, but he used to be..." Ning Yingying stops herself, loyalty warring with reality.

"But now he knows--" Ming Fan broke off, looking down and away. "--knows it wasn't Luo-shidi's fault. He was harsh at first, but now that he's doing well in class, he's kinder."

That said more about Ming Fan's father than Ning Yingying was really comfortable knowing. "But--" Ning Yingying, who had two brothers no one had known about before her father brought them back to the house, knew better than to object that Shizun was unmarried. "But why hide it? He's so proud of Luo-shidi, now."

Ming Fan was solemn. "Shizun has enemies. He's a powerful peak lord. And second senior in the most powerful sect. If people knew, Luo-shidi might be used against him. Maybe his reputation could be blemished, or maybe he'd even be used as a hostage."

Ning Yingying was still skeptical, but intrigued. "I don't know, but if anyone asks--"

"Yeah." Ming Fan paused. "If he is, do you think Luo-shidi knows? He's really...eager."

Ning Yingying giggled. "He made Shizun a drawing! It's a crane. Maybe that's what he was going to get."

Chapter Text

The peak masters’ meeting the following month was a small affair; several peak lords were taking advantage of the lull before the upcoming initiate trials to travel.

Shen Qingqiu arrived early to speak with Yue Qingyuan.

"It's one of my students; I may be troubling Sect Leader in the future."

Yue Qingyuan hid a wince through long practice. Shen Qingqiu using his title usually meant something official.

"My youngest female disciple, Ning Yingying, has recently discovered a talent and interest in beast taming. She's been doing quite well in her early studies."

Yue Qingyuan thought. "Lord Ning's daughter. Wasn't she accepted as an outer sect disciple?"

"Correct."

"And... you've been teaching her cultivation techniques."

"A few. Self-defense, like all the girls, simple energy movement, and meditation. Beast taming is the first technique she's really applied herself to."

Yue Qingyuan pinched the bridge of his nose. "Please tell me she's also been learning the four arts."

Shen Qingqiu looked mildly affronted. "Of course. She's one of my best music students, a mediocre painter, above average in calligraphy, and abysmal at qi."

Yue Qingyuan looked at him.

"She can follow the tactics, but doesn't have the attention span for involved strategy," Shen Qingqiu explained.

Yue Qingyuan gave him a long, flat look. "And she's an outer sect disciple. Which means, after her hairpin ceremony, her family probably has an arranged marriage waiting for her."

"Nothing she's learning will keep her from that. The animals she's most interested in would make acceptable pets for a noble lady."

"They won't be happy, though."

"Yes, they don't like it when the bride can defend herself." They exchanged a look. "But I do teach my students discretion."

Chapter Text

Yue Qingyuan watched Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge spar in the Qing Jing practice area.

They were moving so fast that their swords sounded like buzzing bees, humming through the air too quickly to see except as a pale afterimage. Yue Qingyuan could tell Liu Qingge wasn't fighting at full strength or speed, while Shen Qingqiu was near his limits. But his limits were far higher than Yue Qingyuan had realized. He abstained from his usual spirit attacks of energy darts and dust devils, instead enhancing his speed to eye-blurring levels.

Yue Qingyuan looked measuringly at the bright-eyed boy sitting at the edge of the ring, watching raptly as the two peak lords sparred. One of Liu Qingge's disciples was there, as well; the older student had a hand firmly holding the back of the boy's uniform, so his eagerness didn't bring him into the training ring.

He looked, even to Yue Qingyuan's enhanced senses, like a perfectly normal youngster. A little more sturdy than most, perhaps. Few connections, the strongest of which had faded with death. A good seedling. Yue Qingyuan would have given him only the kindly but impersonal interest he had for all Cang Qiong disciples, if not for Xiao Jiu's revelation.

And wasn't that unexpected. For Xiao Jiu to reach beyond his abilities, extraordinary as they were, was not a shock. His Xiao Jiu had always been prone to taking such calculated risks for remarkable rewards, even when he couldn't fully articulate the thought process behind them. For Xiao Jiu to hide his decision was, unfortunately, also expected. He hated to explain himself, hated to expose his thought process to scrutiny.

But for Xiao Jiu to take such a risk with no direct benefit to himself? To volunteer the information, later, when he could have concealed it with no repercussions? That was such a dramatic change that Yue Qingyuan still couldn't quite comprehend it.

His Xiao Jiu was softer now, in a way he hadn't been even as a child. He was like a pampered younger son of a wealthy family; petted, indulged, and sheltered. Yue Qingyuan could almost see the life he might have led, hanging like invisible threads around him. Doting parents, fond older brothers, a younger sister...

But he was still, inimitably, his Xiao Jiu. Finding he still had at least fragmentary memories of their shared past had been a relief, but what really brought it home was that moment when Shen Qingqiu reached out automatically to hook his fingers in his robes. Like he did when he was very small, so his Qi-ge couldn't move away without him knowing. And also, Yue Qingyuan thought with a wry inner smile, so he could pinch if he wasn't getting enough attention from him.

In the ring, Shen Qingqiu was abruptly disarmed and went flying. He evaded Liu Qingge for a few moves more, trying to regain his lost sword, before yielding.

"That is so frustrating," Shen Qingqiu frowned as they stilled. "I can evade, but I'm not quite fast enough to counterattack."

Liu Qingge huffed and walked off to the far edge of the ring to calm his mind. His disciple released Luo Binghe, who rushed at Shen Qingqiu like a loosed arrow. The Bai Zhan student took his time gathering a canteen and towel.

Luo Binghe offered Shen Qingqiu a container of water. Shen Qingqiu took it with a head pat. Yue Qingyuan's habitual mild smile became a little more real. That was extraordinary, too. Though, it was strange that the boy seemed to have no residual fear for one who had been such a harsh teacher. A peculiarity of his heritage? Or something else? He would need watching, especially since he was so close to Xiao Jiu.

Yue Qingyuan made his presence known. "These junior martial brothers are working hard."

"This shidi has much to improve on, apparently," Shen Qingqiu responded. "Liu-shidi has been generous with his time."

The Bai Zhan student cautiously approached Liu Qingge, staying in his line of sight and making sure he had left his combat focused tunnel-vision before drawing too near. Liu Qingge took the canteen with a nod and approached the others, answering Shen Qingqiu's earlier statement as if there had been no break in their discussion. "Your speed improved, but your mind hasn't adapted yet. You need to practice more to bring your reaction time up."

Shen Qingqiu nodded, then looked thoughtful. "I wonder if I could use spirit energy to increase my thinking speed."

"Qingqiu-shidi, please be cautious," Yue Qingyuan began.

"Try it the old fashioned way first," Liu Qingge said dryly.

Chapter Text

As the administrative peak, Qiong Ding was the center of preparations for the upcoming initiation test. It was also making plans for the Imperial civil service exams, held next year. Due to the volume of work Qiong Ding was handling, the peak masters' meeting was being hosted by other locations. This time was Qing Jing's turn. Shen Qingqiu was just returning with Duan Qingze, and they met several other early arrivals on the way.

Their progress to the hospitality pavilion was impeded by a small creature wandering out of the shrubs to snuffle at their feet.

"Porkchop, go home." Shen Qingqiu flapped his fan at the as-yet unidentified short-furred monster. It sneezed and wandered off.

Liu Qingge frowned at the small fuzzy beast. "You were supposed to eat it, not make a pet of it."

"It somehow escaped the sack, and the students have gotten attached. I suspect someone felt sorry for it and let it go without thinking of the long-term consequences."

"You didn't have to keep it, though."

"Killing it now would make thirty teenagers cry. This teacher doesn't want to deal with it. This way."

His fellow peak lords exchanged glances and tacitly ignored the green kerchief the creature was wearing, with Shen Qingqiu's distinctive--and valuable--embroidery.

*

Lin Qingshui studied Shen Qingqiu as they all found their seats. "Shen-shixiong has an excess of yin energy," he said abruptly. "He should get more sun."

Shen Qingqiu considered that. The feng shui master rarely volunteered advice, but when he did it was always worth listening to. "Oh? I'll plan on painting en plein air more often. Speaking of yin energy, this shixiong has been meaning to mention... Some of my students have taken it upon themselves to make a gathering area off one of Lin-shidi's pathways, near the northeast waterfall. It's been there for awhile; I only found out when they tried to carry a bench over."

Ling Qingshui's nostrils pinched. "Why is it always near the water. I'll send one of my disciples to evaluate the changes."

*

Decisions for the initiate trials had long been finalized, and not every peak was sending students to next year's civil service exams. The meeting covered a few minor updates to security and travel plans, but the main discussion centered on the early preparations for the Intersect Alliance Conference. This time, Shen Qingqiu had suggestions.

"You know I hate to spread spiteful rumors about other sects--" Shen Qingqiu began. Ruan Qingruan's eyebrows did a little dance before settling on 'incredulous.' "--but I've heard certain groups will be sending disciples who are more decorative than functional."

"There are always a few. We can't block participants without upsetting other sects."

"Alright, but we can mitigate the damage. I recommend setting up a few aid stations, inside the main defensive formation but protected by their own arrays."

"Obviously anyone entering would void their participation in the conference...." Qi Qingqi looked interested.

"Certainly. But hopefully they would survive to the next one. One can't learn from fatal mistakes."

Shang Qinghua looked overwhelmingly relieved, and Shen Qingqiu thought a little better of him for it. No. Remember the chemical fertilizer, Shen Yuan. Remember Luo Binghe knowing you were alive. "We can provide the structures, no problem. The defenses, uh..."

"My disciples could benefit from the practice,” Lin Qingshui suggested. “If Ku Xing would provide guidance on the actual design...?"

Gao Qinggao nodded guardedly. "We can. We have years to plan, after all. It will make a good long-term project."

*

"Other business..." Yue Qingyuan cleared his throat unnecessarily and looked through the papers in front of him. "Ah..."

Qi Qingqi's hand smacked the table. "Other business--Shen Qingqiu, stop stealing our damn disciples!"

Shen Qingqiu spread the fan in his hand to buy time. "Steal? Qi-shimei--" He looked at her frowning face and judiciously altered his response in mid-sentence. "--This shixiong isn't stealing them, merely borrowing them. And returning them with, for instance, a new appreciation for pre-Feng Reformation poetry."

Liu Qingge, who was attending this meeting only under protest and after having been intercepted on his way out, leaned forward. "That's why they've been reading!" he accused.

Shen Qingqiu folded the fan and leaned back in his chair. "This master is only giving them something to occupy their time, since they seem to have so much leisure available. As long as they keep coming to Qing Jing, this teacher will continue to... educate them." He steepled his fingers ominously.

Chapter Text

The usually peaceful, solemn atmosphere of Qiong Ding was currently as frantic as an overturned anthill. The initiate trials were approaching, which inevitably meant the parents of prospective students would be arriving as well. They weren't permitted to stay in Cang Qiong--thank the divines--but would take up every inn in the surrounding area. Some wealthy families had manors nearby, which they might lend to friends. And each family, or their representative, wanted to make a social visit to Cang Qiong.

Shen Qingqiu returned to Qing Jing, thoughtful. He looked at the chore rota, then made his way to a courtyard many students enjoyed in the afternoons. He scanned the students he found there. Picking out the three with the best calligraphy skills, he said, "Chen Jinhua. Yu Xinxin. Lin Xian. Find your calligraphy kits, and meet this teacher at the Rainbow Bridge in ten minutes."

The three students hustled off to the dorms, exchanging hurried whispers.

From the bridge, Shen Qingqiu led the students to Qiong Ding, and then into the group of rooms dedicated to outgoing correspondence. There was a system set up; the tables had neatly organized boxes of invitations, regrets, RSVPs and polite inquiries which would all need appropriate responses, and all of which were time-sensitive.

A harried Qiong Ding disciple greeted him. "How may this disciple help Shen-shishu?" she asked. She looked like if she were given one more thing to do, she would head down the mountain and never look back.

Shen Qingqiu wafted his fan in the busy warmth of the room. "These three Qing Jing disciples would benefit from practice with their calligraphy."

The Qiong Ding disciple's eyes widened. "Yes, Shen-shishu."

Shen Qingqiu's three students were soon pulled into the assembly line of outgoing mail; a small group of Qiong Ding students composed a reply, a draft was created, and a Qing Jing disciple would copy the final message in beautiful calligraphy. Shen Qingqiu swept out.

*

When Shen Qingqiu returned that evening, he found his students had stayed over to dinner rather than return to Qing Jing. Meals were always a great deal more casual at Qiong Ding in the rush season. In this busy time the Qiong Ding dining hall had every door propped open, lights ablaze, and tired, hungry students eating inside and outside. Shen Qingqiu saw one of his students talking enthusiastically with a Qiong Ding disciple of the same age, and the other two playing some sort of map puzzle game with a group. Seeing them settled, he moved on.

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu swept into the class. The students nudged each other when they saw Xiu Ya in its scabbard. "Luo Binghe. With me," he snapped. Shen Qingqiu exchanged words with the hallmaster as Luo Binghe scrambled to his feet. Clumsy. That growth spurt came earlier, this time, he thought. Is it the spiritual food on Zui Xian? Something to keep in mind for my next life. Shen Qingqiu was already planning what to do when he reached that 80% affinity threshold.

*

Yue Qingyuan greeted him with delighted surprise. "Qingqiu-shidi! You're participating in the initiate selection this year?"

"Yes. This one took some time to get started, but he's been cultivating well for a year now." Shen Qingqiu dropped Luo Binghe off the sword by his collar and gave him a push toward the other waiting disciples. He approached the group of peak lords, sheathing Xiu Ya with a hand seal as he walked.

Yue Qingyuan watched as Luo Binghe righted himself, straightened his sleeves, and joined the surreptitious chatter of the disciple group.

"Hm, he is coming along." He hesitated for a moment, then continued. "But why do you keep manhandling him like that?"

"I heard it from Duan-shidi. You pick them up while they're small, and when they're grown, they still think you're bigger than they are."

Duan Qingze, arriving from behind them, sputtered. "That's for spirit animals, not children. You weren't even paying attention. You were writing something."

"I was listening. It's just that nothing you were saying required my full attention."

[ + 10 character points! Please continue your efforts! ]

*

The group was the usual mix of applicants. Minor nobility, merchant's second sons--and a very few daughters--and youngsters of more humble origins, most traveling alone from nearby towns. Cang Qiong recruited novices with no regard to background, but the poorest were still a distinct minority. It was difficult and expensive to travel far. Shen Qingqiu noted with mild curiosity that one of the boys was unusually old for a new applicant. It looked like he was in his late teens or very early twenties. He had the look of a farmhand, rangy and tanned.

Luo Binghe watched the industriously digging group with curiosity, perhaps remembering his own turn as an applicant. Shen Qingqiu turned to him.

"Shizun is going to choose a new disciple?" Luo Binghe asked. He was clearly trying to hide it, but sounded like he wasn't enchanted with the idea. That, in fact, was the reason behind this tradition. If the most recent disciple helped to choose the new addition, and was assigned to help them settle in, it "created buy in to the process," as Shen Yuan's business major older brother would have said, in another life in another world.

"Binghe is going to choose a new disciple."

"Oh."

"With this teacher's guidance. Now. Observe the applicants. What do you see?"

"They're all getting tired."

"True. What else?"

"Some of them weren't expecting to do work; they're dressed nicely."

"True. What else?"

"Why is that one here? Isn't he too old to cultivate?" Luo Binghe asked. It was that unusually old applicant. Shen Qingqiu could see the young man's shoulders stiffen as he continued digging.

"In fact, no. One is never too old to begin cultivation. One's cultivation level is carried forward into the next incarnation, in the form of stronger spirit veins and fewer qi blockages. Of course, one can still acquire new blockages from experiences in their current and next life."

"Then why are most disciples young?"

"Because most teachers wish to mentor a disciple at least through Core Formation stage, where they will stop aging. And that takes time. It's difficult to lose a student to age, especially knowing it may be a teacher in their next life who leads them to Core Formation and eventually Ascension. That's why teachers will often put a spiritual imprint on their succeeding disciple. If they die early, through battle or misadventure, the teacher can find them when they reincarnate."

"Does Shizun have a succeeding disciple?" Luo Binghe had that look.

"This teacher will not even need to consider it for several hundred years," Shen Qingqiu answered dryly. "Look again at the applicants. Which would make a good fit on Qing Jing?"

"Um... they all look nice..."

"Hmm. Which one would be the best poet? Don't overthink it, just your impression."

"The... the one in blue and green, with the wood hairpin?"

"And why does Binghe think that?"

"That--that sleeve is the same kind scholars wear? Maybe his family are scholars?"

True, but Luo Binghe was beginning to grasp at straws. There was a fine line between using intuition and guessing wildly due to frustration. It had taken years for Shen Qingqiu to learn, attending initiate trials with his own teacher. That was enough for today.

"Close your eyes," Shen Qingqiu said, and placed his fingertips on Luo Binghe's temples. He shaped a thread of qi and sent it carefully through his third eye. "Open them. Now what do you see?"

"Oh!" He gaped at the crowd, fascinated. "Is this what Shizun sees all the time?"

"Focus, Binghe. Look at the applicants. You see which ones have open spirit veins. Compare that to your impression of the ones who would make a good fit on Qing Jing."

*

It took a little prodding, but Luo Binghe finally picked one new student. Shen Qingqiu selected another, and both boys were ushered aside.

Shen Qingqiu shooed his two new students toward the Qiong Ding disciple who would record their names, origins, and peak assignment. Luo Binghe, brightening now that he'd been introduced as their new Luo-shixiong, went with them. As Shen Qingqiu turned to follow, the unusually old applicant stepped into his line of sight and bowed respectfully.

"This one," the young man stumbled over the formal, sometimes stilted speech. "This one asks this immortal master, what was the spirit sight he used to help his disciple?"

Shen Qingqiu regarded him thoughtfully. "It is a skill a cultivator learns with time and practice. This master temporarily enhanced his disciple's vision, as a teaching tool."

"Can you--can this master look at this humble one, to see if he has spirit veins?"

Shen Qingqiu had already looked, of course, in the process of observing all the applicants. But he nodded solemnly, and looked closely at the young man again. After a fraught moment--he could see the young man's nascent energy tightening in hope--he spoke again. "This master can tell the applicant has been practicing meditation. The applicant doesn't currently have open spirit veins. By continuing to practice consistently, this young man may slowly strengthen his spirit veins. It is unlikely that he will be a cultivator in this life. But the benefits of practice will carry forward to his next life."

The young man bowed stiffly. "This humble one thanks the immortal master."

"Hmm. Would this applicant like to use the same technique? The effect is brief, but it will guide your cultivation." It would assuage the disappointment and inspire him to continue practicing, hopefully.

"Yes, this humble one would be very grateful," the young man said, bright-eyed.

Shen Qingqiu indicated that he should turn towards the milling Cang Qiong disciples--and away from the still-busy applicants--with a nod. He was sympathetic, not foolish. "Close your eyes," he said. As the young man did, Shen Qingqiu placed his fingertips on his temples, and very carefully wafted a bare breath of qi though his inactive spirit veins. "And open them."

The young man--almost a boy still, really--abruptly opened his eyes wide and stared. "Oh! That's--" He suddenly turned his head, to look at the diminished crowd of applicants still toiling away at their holes. Shen Qingqiu drew his hands back swiftly, cutting the flow of energy which enhanced his sight. The young man's face drooped. Shen Qingqiu looked at him thoughtfully, with a little more reserve than he'd had earlier.

"This one thanks the immortal master," the young man said hastily.

"Go and live well." Shen Qingqiu responded, then returned to his new students.

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe reluctantly led the equally recalcitrant new novices toward the quartermaster's building. They drooped behind him like they were going to a punishment.

"Wang-shidi and Zhang-shidi will like it on Qing Jing," he said with false cheer. "Shizun is a peerless immortal master, just like the stories."

"Yeah."

"...Yeah."

"What's wrong?" Luo Binghe asked. "As long as you work hard--"

"It's just... I never really wanted to learn to paint. Or do music."

"My father wants me to be a scholar, but I want to be a soldier like my brother," the other one said glumly.

The first novice looked at the second, shared interest brightening his eyes. "I was hoping to be picked for Bai Zhan."

"Me too! The warrior's peak." They both glanced at Luo Binghe, who had stopped walking.

"I mean, this is fine though."

"You know," Luo Binghe began slowly. "Bai Zhan doesn't exactly pick disciples. New applicants have to go through their proving ground."

"They don't pick? There was a Bai Zhan hallmaster at the initiate trial."

"That's just to keep an eye on things. The proving ground is the approach to Bai Zhan. During the trials, they set up special arrays that make you feel really heavy as you're walking up the trail. It's to test your perseverance. Then at the top, you have to climb up a cliff. A small one," he added.

For a moment, both boys had the gleam of hope in their eyes.

"I bet I could do it," the soldier's little brother said slowly. "I used to climb walls with my brother."

The other disciple looked envious. "I've never done anything like that."

"Well... if you guys really want to try..." Luo Binghe began leadingly.

They'll be happier there, he thought virtuously. And Shizun won't have to spend his valuable time on students who don't want to be here.

Chapter Text

Parents of current and prospective students were eager to visit Cang Qiong. In the days surrounding the initiate trials, the sect hosted a variety of small gatherings to manage the visitors--and keep enemies from meeting. This evening event was one of them. Shen Qingqiu couldn't tactfully skip the gathering, but a Qiong Ding disciple was close at hand. The disciple was, theoretically, there to run errands. Shen Qingqiu strongly suspected he was also under orders to tactfully intervene and distract if necessary. Shen Qingqiu certainly felt a need for the distraction now; he was trapped in conversation with a minor noble, one wearing the severely plain robes many seemed to feel were appropriate when visiting a cultivation sect.

"...A pleasure to meet Master Shen. This one's house has benefited from your poetry for years." The man's face was a little shiny from excitement. "We were initially going to send our daughter to apply to Qing Jing, but she's been a bit willful lately--we're sending her to Xian Shu instead."

"Xian Shu will give your daughter a splendid education. You will be amazed at the change in her," Shen Qingqiu replied politely. That was true, too. Qi Qingqi's disciples could do a superb imitation of docility, by the time they left her tutelage. Shen Qingqiu listened with half an ear as the father swept the conversation forward. After the obliging Qiong Ding disciple smoothly redirected the man's attention to another guest, he caught the eye of the woman behind him, one he vaguely recognized as one of Qi Qingqi's past students. He thought she'd been one of his pipa students as well. They exchanged glances which said "Can you believe the bullshit we just heard?" and "I know, really," before dividing with the crowd.

*

Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan were walking slowly toward the Rainbow Bridge after the gathering, when they saw a little knot of nervous, plain-clothes disciples trying and failing to nonchalantly stroll down to the small city at the foot of Cang Qiong.

"Ah... those are yours, I think, shidi?"

Shen Qingqiu sighed. "For my sins, yes."

"You aren't going to go after them?"

"The city is very busy this week, and the council has put more guards on. And they're in a group. They'll come to only the ordinary sorts of harm. It will be a learning experience." They continued their walk, and Shen Qingqiu added, "They'll learn more, if I catch them coming back." He ducked his head to hide a smile as he surprised an out-of-character snicker from Yue Qingyuan.

The prospect of a quiet night in with a novel followed by a pleasant very-early-morning ambush of his wayward disciples, lasted only until he arrived at Qing Jing. There, the sight of Ning Yingying and head disciple Tang Xinran in nervous conference made a stone of worry drop into his stomach. They hurried over to him as he arrived.

"Shizun, some of the apprentice brothers have gone down to the city, uh..." Ning YingYing wrung her hands, a nervous habit she'd mostly broken.

Shen Qingqiu put on a reassuring demeanor. "This teacher will scold them when they return. Is there a specific reason for worrying?" he asked.

"We're concerned because they left in two groups," Tang Xinran took over smoothly. "Luo-shidi left first, alone. The others left separately. They were overheard wanting to cause trouble for their shidi."

Shen Qingqiu listened, then shared a glance with Ning Yingying. "Why is it always him?" he asked rhetorically.

"This disciple does not know, Shizun," Ning Yingying answered emphatically.

"I'll follow, and make sure no harm comes of it. You two go to your rest. You did well to inform this teacher, but you're still expected at morning lessons tomorrow."

"Yes, Shizun!" they chorused, and left, much relieved. He wished he could relieve his own worries so easily. This had "protagonist plot event" written all over it. In fact...

{ System! System, is this a quest? }

[ Correct, host! Quest: The Little Lost Lamb, initiated. ]

{ How much for quest markers? } It was nearly midnight, and he was tired. Why couldn't the students keep their shenanigans to the daylight hours?

[ 100 points, host. Your account balance is more than sufficient. ]

{ Great; I'll take it. } He entered his house and quickly changed his outer robes into something less conspicuous. He also picked up his plain, secondary spirit sword. Xiu Ya was far too recognizable. After selecting a few of his emergency supply-filled qiankun bags, he was off down the mountain. Traveling by sword, he would probably beat the nervous disciples there.

Chapter Text

Unsurprisingly, the carnival atmosphere of the crowded town had already distracted the wayward disciples from their schemes. One was sampling a stick of something from a street vendor.

The bright lights of the brothel had drawn them like moths to a lantern. Shen Qingqiu saw an amused, plain-clothes bouncer watching his little group of students from across the street. Shen Qingqiu caught his eye, and the two paused behind a bright display of incense pouches to talk.

"Come to herd your wayward sheep home, Teacher?"

"This master wouldn't dream of depriving them of the chance to educate themselves. Particularly, on Madame's views on credit." The bouncer snickered and rubbed his nose. "But I'd appreciate if you'd keep an eye on them for me." Shen Qingqiu offered a small pouch, which was cheerfully accepted. "I have another one that's gotten separated." He sighed. "And this one attracts trouble like tanghulu attracts lint."

The bouncer grinned and smoothly secreted the pouch in his clothing. "Go find your little lost lamb, Teacher. This servant will make sure the others only find the kind of trouble they can pay their way out of." He arched an eyebrow. "They can pay, right?"

"Their families can, at any rate," Shen Qingqiu replied dryly. "And if I remember our guest list correctly, they may well meet some of their fathers in there." The two men exchanged civil nods before going on their separate duties.

*

Shen Qingqiu followed the quest marker to a sidewalk tea stall, now closing up, and then to a quiet area at the fringe of what was, in daylight, the fruit-and-vegetable market plaza. The area was a muddle of partial footprints and discarded produce, but a cultivator's night vision let him find and follow the twin furrows of heel marks on the dirty street. He suspected that with his bloodline sealed, Luo Binghe was still susceptible to mild intoxicants. It was ridiculous that he'd be immune to Without A Cure but vulnerable to knockout drops, but that was the way the plot device crumbled. Shen Qingqiu didn't have to follow them far--he knew from experience that Luo Binghe was heavier than he looked.

He cautiously surveilled the area of wooden sheds and lean-tos, pushing out his subtle senses to find either his wayward student, or his captors. Luo Binghe's magnesium flare of qi was the only sapient being in the immediate area--the early and loud start of the vegetable merchants made it an unpopular place to sleep rough.

He eyed the shed's flimsy door, then approached from the back. Even in the thin moonlight, the wood was thin and weathered grey from years of use. It had probably been salvaged, several times over. He found a good vantage point where he could just see Luo Binghe on the floor through a crack in the boards, then cautiously widened it with a quiet invocation of Mu Qingfang's Blade Palms technique. Pulling the wider sliver of wood away let him see that his student was on the floor, tied up but apparently regaining consciousness.

Shen Qingqiu waited a few minutes, letting Luo Binghe wake, struggle with his bonds, and begin to panic. Seeing his already ineffective efforts to free himself become more disorganized, Shen Qingqiu finally spoke, using the sound talisman on his fan to project his voice into the room.

"Young man, you are in quite a bit of trouble."

"Shizun!" Luo Binghe's instant change in mood, from miserable panic to sunny hope, would have been gratifying if it wasn't two in the goddamn morning.

"Sneaking out after curfew, leaving the sect, drinking to excess--"

Luo Binghe looked around as much as he could, while tied hand and foot, frantic. "Shizun, this disciple would never! There was this note--" he cut himself off instantly and stuttered, "--and, the tea was drugged, and--"

Shen Qingqiu was only passingly curious about what specifically tempted him down here. "And look where that led you. Rules Three and Four, Binghe."

" 'Look before you leap,' 'Appearances can be deceiving.' " he recited obediently.

"Ah, so this disciple was paying attention. Now. How are you going to escape?"

Luo Binghe pulled against the ropes. "The rope is too strong. This disciple asks Shizun for help."

"This teacher won't always be here. You need to learn how to rescue yourself if this happens again."

Luo Binghe looked like he was about to fall back into panic and his eyes teared up again. No, not the tears!

"Be calm, Binghe. Remember that this teacher is here, and will help if you can't free yourself. It's alright to be scared, but now you need to set that aside and think. Take a breath." Shen Qingqiu watched carefully as he did. "Now, think about what you need to do."

"Get out of the ropes."

"And?"

"Get out of the room."

"Good. And?"

"Get back to Cang Qiong."

"Alright. Is there anything you can use on the ropes?"

Luo Binghe looked around, levering himself up. It didn't look like his captor had left any convenient farm implements, protruding nails, or sharp stones--obviously super-villain material in this world.

"...No..." his voice was shaky again.

"Breathe. Fear won't help right now. Set it aside and feel it later."

"Is Shizun--" Luo Binghe took a nervous breath. "Has something like this happened to Shizun?"

Shen Qingqiu was quiet for a minute, thinking of the ceaseless rushing sound of the Water Prison, his qi bound by immortal binding cables, the little palace mistress advancing with her barbed whip, an older Luo Binghe with cold eyes and a false smile. "Something like that. That's how this old teacher knows to advise you now."

"...Did Shizun--," Luo Binghe started.

"Focus, Binghe. You can't get out of the ropes right now. What can you do?"

"Get... get out of the room?"

"Good. Try."

Luo Binghe levered himself up by wiggling to the corner and scooting his shoulders against the wall. "Okay--I can--" he hopped experimentally toward the door. Shen Qingqiu had lost sight of him through the widened crack and prepared to move around to the front of the shed. "Hey!"

Shen Qingqiu froze, worried about something he hadn't anticipated.

"There's an old nail in the wall here! I think--this disciple thinks he can saw the ropes off."
Bless the room-temperature IQ of this world's villains.

"Good, Binghe. Try that."

There was a rustling and shuffling sound as Luo Binghe shifted to use the nail on the ropes around his wrist. Shen Qingqiu stared at the moon and thought longingly of a cup of tea and his comfortable couch.

After a few minutes of activity Luo Binghe said, "It's working, Shizun! This disciple just felt the ropes break a little."

"Good." Shen Qingqiu thought of that tea. "You understand how to do it now?"

"Yes, Shizun!" he chirped, with the energy of the young. "...It may take awhile. This disciple will try to hurry."

"As long as you understand the principle," Shen Qingqiu thought, Fuck it, it's late, and used Blade Palms to neatly slice through the boards horizontally, then vertically through the supports. He pulled the whole unit away, then hastily rotated it to support the structure as it shifted ominously. Oh, I guess that was a load bearing wall. What am I thinking, they're all load bearing walls. Luo Binghe gaped at him, frozen.

Shen Qingqiu was armored with his dignity. "Now that you have an idea of what to do, you'll be faster next time. This teacher hopes you won't be caught at all." He smoothly sliced the ropes with the Blade Palm technique--ordinary rope, not cultivation binding cord--and picked them up. "We'll leave through the back, so we don't give away your escape to your captor. But first, we'll lay a trap. Watch closely."

Luo Binghe followed him docilely to the spot on the dirt floor where he'd first woken up. Shen Qingqiu selected a few qiankun bags from his sleeve and lectured as he went. "It's possible to create a very realistic looking dummy, or puppet, using talismans." He selected one. "They're useful for faking an injury or death to trick your enemies. They require some organic material, of about the same mass as whatever you're mimicking. I usually carry some firewood in my emergency supplies--we'll use it for this instead." As he spoke, he set out a dozen pieces of hardwood, approximating Luo Binghe's weight. "Come." He held out a hand for Luo Binghe, then pressed a talisman between his hand and the wood. A push of qi activated the talisman and turned the firewood into a fairly lifelike mannequin of Luo Binghe.

Luo Binghe poked it experimentally, fascinated. "It still feels like wood."

"It's mostly an illusion. Turning the wood to flesh and blood would take an exorbitant amount of energy." You could use a corpse for this, but Shen Qingqiu thought it was better not to mention it. "It will last for a day or two, and fool your captors through the door, anyway. Come along." He shepherded Luo Binghe out the opening he'd made in the back of the shed, then carefully wedged the panel of wood back into place. The shed had more or less settled--he just hoped there wasn't a sudden windstorm tonight.

As Shen Qingqiu shooed him back to Cang Qiong, Luo Binghe had questions. "Shizun, why didn't we go out the front?"

"Sometimes, a kidnapper will have the front door watched, or trapped or marked in some way. This way, hopefully, they won't know you've escaped until we can capture them. Now, who exactly did you see, Binghe?"

Luo Binghe's eyes were wide and offended. "Shizun, it was that man from the initiate trials! The one that was applying even though he was too old!"

"Mmm. And he sent you a note..."

Luo Binghe was silent.

"And you left without telling anyone."

"...Yes, Shizun," said Luo Binghe.

"And when you met him, he gave you tea..."

"...Yes, Shizun." Luo Binghe's voice was very small.

"Which you drank."

"...Yes," he squeaked. Ah, his voice was changing.

"And what have we learned? No, don't tell me now, just think about it. You will be writing an essay on the subject."

Chapter Text

Yue Qingyuan listened to the disciple who'd been waiting on Shen Qingqiu. "--He seemed unaffected. Apart from that, there were no problems, Shizun."

"Well done. Go to your rest, disciple." The student left. Yue Qingyuan suspected he would, instead, join the other senior disciples in enjoying the wine and food left over from the party. A harmless tradition.

Yue Qingyuan took a quick look through his paperwork, organizing it for tomorrow--well, he should probably draft a response to that now--and--

He heard Shen Qingqiu's voice and paused. Guessing it came from the veranda, he set his brush on the stand and investigated.

Shen Qingqiu was talking to one of Qiong Ding's hall masters, one who was on night duty this week. He was holding a woebegone Luo Binghe by the back of his collar--a funny sight, since the boy reached his shoulder now.

"--Should be in the shed. I didn't wish to involve the town guards lightly."

"Of course, Master Shen. I'll send some disciples to lie in wait. They can treat it as a small investigation mission."

"Please impress upon them that he isn't a cultivator," Shen Qingqiu said firmly. "I inspected him this afternoon. Accidental injury may make this more complicated."

The disciple nodded, then they saw Yue Qingyuan approaching. "Sect Leader."

"What happened?"

"This one--" Shen Qingqiu gave Luo Binghe a little shake. "Got himself kidnapped. The culprit was one of the applicants from this afternoon's trials."

Yue Qingyuan's brows rose. "A ploy?"

"The man was what he appeared to be; I looked closely in the course of the trials. No active spirit veins, no previous cultivation history. His motivation escapes me."

"Hmm. Perhaps it will be revealed in time. Well--" He regarded Luo Binghe with hidden amusement. "This disciple was very fortunate."

*

Clarity came in the morning. The kidnapper had been apprehended when he checked on Luo Binghe in the pre-market hours. He had brought the boy food--and another drugged drink, probably intended to keep him quiet as the city became busy. The city deputy mayor and guard vice-captain had been perfectly happy to hand him over--the man wasn't a city resident, apparently didn't know any citizens, and had wronged only Cang Qiong. The man was brought up the mountain, but it wasn't necessary to question him to find the reason behind his plan. That came with the morning mail.

One of Qiong Ding's disciples brought to the clue to Shen Qingqiu. "This was dropped off at the main gate yesterday, Shen-shishu. It was just in the box; no one noticed it in particular." The letter, on plain paper, was a ransom note. One disciple in exchange for two cultivation manuals and a sum of money.

"Better than this master thought," Shen Qingqiu said seriously. "I feared they wanted to harvest his cultivation."

"This disciple has heard that there are demonic cultivators who bathe in the blood of righteous cultivators to gain their power," the student said, solemnly.

"Not just demonic cultivators," Shen Qingqiu said, looking over the note. "Ordinary humans, too."

"It's true?" the disciple asked with horrified fascination.

"It isn't true in the sense that it works," Shen Qingqiu said carefully. "It is true in the sense that people do it anyway." To the student's wide eyes, he continued. "Not out of interest in cultivation, you understand. But because cultivators are ageless and have good health."

The student looked horrified.

"That's why you students are always sent out in groups, and always with a high level cultivator until you have your swords," Shen Qingqiu added. "Even non-cultivators can be dangerous, if their bad intentions are combined with guile."

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu was in one of Qing Jing's open air pavilions, carefully painting a tea cup.

"Shen Qingqiu, we need to talk about that disciple of yours," Liu Qingge said as he approached.

"I don't even need to ask which one," Shen Qingqiu sounded resigned. He turned the teacup over and painted a little fan on the bottom. "What has he done?"

"I woke up to two new disciples this morning."

"Condolences?" Shen Qingqiu glanced up at him quizzically.

"Your disciples. The ones you picked out yesterday."

Shen Qingqiu looked baffled and finally set the teacup down. "What are you talking about? They're spiritual cultivators. You have your--" He waggled his hand vaguely, then patted the table to find his fan. "Testing thing, set up."

"When I asked my hall masters, they said he carried them through the mass arrays and up the cliff."

Shen Qingqiu's cool mask was slowly dissolving into astonishment.

"Technically, they passed the test," Liu Qingge added.

Shen Qingqiu abruptly began to smile, and hurried to cover it with his fan. "Ah, apologies, Liu-shidi. I knew my disciple was jealous of his new juniors, but I never imagined he'd take it this far."

Liu Qingge waved a hand dismissively. "I don't care about that. You need to come get them."

"You said your hall masters saw--were they conscious when they were being carried up?"

"They say yes." Liu Qingge gave Shen Qingqiu a dubious look. What the hell did he expect? That Luo Binghe would knock the kids out and dump them in Bai Zhan?

"Then this shixiong recommends we let them stay where they are. At least for a few days."

"Shen Qingqiu, they're clearly spiritual cultivators," Liu Qingge said, exasperated. "Even the morning exercises will..." He trailed off. He exchanged a look with Shen Qingqiu, whose eyes twinkled above the fan. "Huh."

"It will be a learning experience," said Shen Qingqiu, hidden smile showing in his voice.

"A few days. Not longer."

"Certainly. This shixiong thanks Liu-shidi for the consideration. They'll be so much easier to teach if they want to be here."

"What's that you were doing with the cup?" Liu Qingge asked.

Shen Qingqiu folded his fan. "One of my students requested lessons on pottery, so I'm refreshing my skills for the workshop."

" 'Requested lessons?' "

Shen Qingqiu smiled thinly. "Smashed a tea set in a fit of pique."

"So that's why you requisitioned mining rights for the clay deposits," Liu Qingge realized.

"It's amazing how much work goes into the little things, isn't it?" Shen Qingqiu said serenely. "This, too, will be a learning experience."

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu waited at Bai Zhan, examining the spread fan in his hands. The two delinquent students trooped in, followed by a blank-faced hall master. They both had bruises, and one had his arm in a sling.

"And what have we learned?" Shen Qingqiu asked genially.

One student was silent. The other muttered, "Trust no one."

Shen Qingqiu hid a smile. "Good to learn so early in life. Come along." He nodded politely to the hall master and led the students back to Qing Jing.

The students followed. As they left Bai Zhan and approached the Rainbow Bridge, Shen Qingqiu said mildly, "Another student of Qing Jing helped these novices enter Bai Zhan." He felt their nascent qi spark with emotion. Good, they were tired, but their spirits weren't broken. "These novices will not see him during the next week. He's been sent to Bai Zhan for training, for the same length of time you two were there." He paused to let that sink in. "As you both stayed three days, he'll be there six days."

"Good," he heard one mutter, and caught the other nodding emphatically in his peripheral vision.

Luo Binghe would undoubtedly thrive in the classes, and return with yet another OP move, but it would satisfy the novices. The protagonist had definitely sulked at the news that he'd be barred from Qing Jing for that time. Shen Qingqiu would have to remember that.

*

When Liu Qingge next looked for Shen Qingqiu, he found him in one of Qing Jing's paved courtyards.

Five students--four girls and one boy--were settled on benches around the central tree, heads diligently bowed over the embroidery work in their hands. Shen Qingqiu alternated between circulating among them and touching up his own painting. He glanced up as Liu Qingge arrived.

"How can this shixiong help Liu-shidi today?"

"I didn't know you taught embroidery here. How is that related to cultivation?"

"This is my advanced class. They're making qiankun pouches."

"They look like those incense sachets nobles wear."

Shen Qingqiu tapped his chin with his fan. "Students. Rule Four."

"Appearances can be deceiving!" came the ragged chorus.

"Good. Continue." Shen Qingqiu walked to the edge of the courtyard and activated the muffling charm in his fan. "And how is our little troublemaker?" he asked.

"Moping," Liu Qingge said, stone-faced. "And not an easy target for the other students."

"The two wayward novices have recovered their spirits--they're actually doing quite well in their defense training, undoubtedly because of the early practice in evasion. And how can I help you?"

"Your boy snuck off. I assume he'll make a beeline for you."

Shen Qingqiu hid a smile with his fan. "Ah, Liu-shidi is lying in wait."

" 'Don't strike where your target is; strike where he's going to be,' " Liu Qingge quoted.

"Very well; this shixiong will stay here and be visible." He turned back towards his students.

"And--"

"And, I won't speak to him, as we discussed."

Chapter Text

The structure of Cang Qiong was more complicated than it seemed. Everyone knew about the twelve peaks, of course; semi-independent schools which cooperated and acted as a unit when interacting with the cultivation world.

But the peaks also cooperated extensively when educating students. Most peaks taught calligraphy, several taught music or poetry, but advanced students in either subject were sent to Qing Jing for classes. Qing Jing sent skilled chess students to Qiong Ding for additional strategy lessons. Many students were sent to Qiong Ding for etiquette classes, depending on their background and the requirements of their future paths. Students of all peaks were cheerfully--even gleefully--accepted at Bai Zhan's sparring practices.

Indeed, that was in part the source of Cang Qiong's strength. It wasn't one sect, but twelve banded together. Individually, some might have been too small to stand on their own. Ku Xing was the smallest, currently having just a dozen inner sect disciples in residence, and a handful of others in closed cultivation. With over four hundred students, Xian Shu was by far the most populous peak, in part due to Qi Qingqi's aggressive recruitment.

Ku Xing, with its silence meditations, strict curfew, and prescribed meditation schedule, was the most cautious in admitting new disciples. Gao Qinggao firmly believed that the ascetic focus of his peak was harmful for immature spirits. So their young minds would develop healthfully, Ku Xing would 'foster' prospective disciples with other peaks. Qing Jing, with its calm atmosphere and scholarly focus, was a frequent host to these disciples. Lin Qingshui's Zhi Ji Peak was another. Shen Qingqiu liked them; they tended to be good students, quiet, with a rigorously logical approach to problem solving.

And so, in addition to his own two new inner sect disciples, Shen Qingqiu was looking after two for Ku Xing. That led to some interesting discussions.

*

In Shen Qingqiu's workshops, he both allowed and encouraged the students to talk. This was distinct from calligraphy, painting, and music classes, where he kept a more formal atmosphere.

One of Shen Qingqiu's advanced students was frowning. "I thought Xian Shu only allowed girls, but I saw Yi Liu going in the gates last week."

"Maybe there's something wrong with their array?" Both students turned to look at Shen Qingqiu inquisitively.

Shen Qingqiu kept his attention on the qiankun pouch he was making. It was a tricky new design, and he had high hopes for it. "Hmm. This teacher can say for certain that the array is functioning as intended. So what is the solution?"

The students whispered to one another, but soon descended into silent confusion.

"If your theory doesn't fit the facts, then examine the assumptions that went into the theory," he hinted. The students heads leaned together again.

"Is Yi Liu really a girl?"

Shen Qingqiu stared into the middle distance for a moment. "Hmm. What was your other assumption?"

"Uh..."

"Oh, that Xian Shu only allows girls!"

One of Shen Qingqiu's quieter students, who he expected to go to Ku Xing shortly, spoke up. "No students of Xian Shu are boys, but it doesn't follow that students of Xian Shu are necessarily girls."

"And what, precisely, were these students told when they entered Cang Qiong?"

Another quiet conference, then an epiphany. "Oh! Xian Shu doesn't allow boys! So they allow girls and..." the original questioner's forehead creased in puzzlement.

The second student, perhaps better read, offered, "--and other people who aren't boys."

Clarity dawned.

*

Shen Qingqiu examined a shipment of painting brushes, sent from a new supplier. He compared the shipment numbers to the current inventory and went to investigate. If they were going through so many brushes, they weren't properly maintaining them. He poked his head into a classroom as the students filed out and, as expected, saw brushes just sitting in the sink. He mentally added 'teach students to make brushes' to his list of future lessons. But while he was there, Chu Ziyi greeted him respectfully and brought up a concern.

"Shizun, this disciple has a question."

"This teacher is listening." Shen Qingqiu paused and waited.

"Shizun, why can't girls learn to make talismans?"

Shen Qingqiu's brows rose. "That's not true. Who told you that?"

Chu Ziyi stopped, planned words scattering. "We can?"

"Of course. Why would Chu Ziyi think otherwise?"

"Ku Xing doesn't allow girls..." she began.

"Ah. They make talismans at Ku Xing, and Ku Xing doesn't allow female disciples. Well. Think carefully on this; what is this disciple assuming, and what are the facts?"

She took a breath. "I can learn it?"

"Certainly. Xian Shu has a very good educational program specializing in talismans. Unfortunately, this master cannot guide you in that. Talismans are a complex specialty, and not one this teacher possesses."

She stopped to think; good. "This disciple has seen Shizun write talismans; what is the difference?"

"This teacher can copy existing talismans, and make small modifications. But designing new ones, and making complex arrays, is a difficult and subtle art. But if Chu Ziyi wishes to learn, this master will find a teacher for her."

"This disciple thanks Shizun," she said, doing a little pleased push up on her toes.

"It is only what this teacher should do. Dismissed."

Shen Qingqiu made a note to send the request to Qi Qingqi, and headed off to his workshop. He was getting more individual questions, lately. Maybe he should start holding office hours.

Chapter Text

The first Peak Lords' meeting after the rush of the initiate trials was always great deal more leisurely than the usual. This one was, once again, back in the large room in which they'd held the first meeting after Shen Qingqiu's fever and subsequent rebirth.

As it happened, this meeting was scheduled just after Luo Binghe's exile ended.

"Try and keep him this time," Liu Qingge said as he handed Shen Qingqiu the Bai Zhan hallmasters' reports.

"Many thanks to Liu-shidi for looking after him for me." Shen Qingqiu skimmed through the short training evaluations briefly, before tucking them away to read later. "These will be very helpful."

"Why don't you just adopt the boy, if you're going to go to so much trouble for him?" Liu Qingge grumbled.

"I don't want children. Students are bad enough. Them, I can at least get rid of when they come of age."

"Right. All those letters is you washing your hands of them," Qi Qingqi snorted as she took her seat.

Shen Qingqiu opened his fan. "They often have interesting and valuable information for me."

"And finding placements for them."

"Of course I want to put them somewhere useful," Shen Qingqiu said, narrowing his eyes at her over his fan.

"And bringing them back as hallmasters and junior teachers..." she needled.

"Where else am I going to find teachers who can be trained up to my standards? I don't like the direction this is heading."

Liu Qingge looked away to hide a smile.

When the attending Peak Lords--just seven, this time--had made their greetings and taken their seats, they began.

Yue Qingyuan surveyed the assembled Peak Lords with a pleased expression. "Welcome, martial siblings. This shixiong believes our main order of business will be arranging schedules around the upcoming civil service exams. Unless there is new business?" At the general shaking of heads, he continued. "Qiong Ding will be sending fourteen students to the exams this year, including guest students, all of whom are currently junior teachers. Shen-shidi?"

"Seventeen, same."

"Bai Zhan, two, one is teaching."

"Zhi Ji, five, three teachers."

"An Ding, seven, four teachers."

Yue Qingyuan continued as his assisting disciple recorded that. "We'll be splitting the students into four groups for the workshops, all of which will be held in the afternoons and evenings after juniors' classes. We'll send the schedules along in the next week. With so many of our junior teachers preparing for the exams, does anyone need assistance in keeping the younger students occupied?"

Qi Qingqi rapped the table. "Last time, we set up an informal tournament on the public grounds in the penultimate month. There were separate events; target shooting, races, and sparring. My disciples really liked it. I'd like to do that again this year."

Liu Qingge spoke up, "My students remember that, and want to do something similar, but they've only been talking about sparring. We'll need to do a handicap for students from other peaks, though."

Yue Qingyuan looked between them. "Bai Zhan hosts the boys' tournament, Xian Shu everyone else, and a combined competition in the last week?"

Qi Qingqi nods. "It will be good for them to practice setting things like this up. And planning will keep them productively busy, too. What are we going to do for a combined event, though?"

The table was quiet for a minute. "Obstacle course?" Duan Qingze suggested. "We have some blocks and walls we use for training the animals."

"We could have them go through in teams," Shen Qingqiu spun his fan over his fingers meditatively. "Teams of, say, three or four, time them, the team isn't done until everyone crosses the finish line."

Qi Qingqi jabbed a finger at him. "Good. I like that."

"Cross-peak teams allowed? Or required?"

"Let's go with 'allowed.' Let them learn that lesson themselves," Liu Qingge said.

Chapter Text

After Luo Binghe returned from Bai Zhan, he moped incessantly. He still followed Shen Qingqiu like a shadow, but didn't approach, instead staring with hurt, shiny eyes. This, despite Liu Qingge's reports of his stellar performance in the combat-oriented training classes. His sulk lasted until Shen Qingqiu began going through the Bai Zhan instructors' evaluations with him. He still trained with the Qing Jing disciples, but was quickly outpacing even the seniors. Shen Qingqiu scheduled a once-weekly sparring session with him, to shore up his weak points.

With the initiate trials over, the next planned crisis was the Imperial Civil Service Exams. They were held every three years, and other sect events revolved around them. The initiate trials were every two years, the Intersect Alliance Conference every four years. Each event began in a different season of the year, so none would fall at the same time.

Cang Qiong lay in the Tian Gong mountain range, surrounded by four separate, mostly peaceful empires. The natural border of the high mountains had been reinforced by the sect's defenses, and the sect was scrupulously neutral, politically. They had students from all four empires, and a few from more distant countries. For the students' families, the connections their offspring made at Cang Qiong were often more valuable than the education they received.

The civil service exams for each country were held around the same time. Given the travel times involved, that meant no student could take more than one. With noble families sometimes having multiple branches spanning borderlines, it was a simple way for the different imperial governments to make individuals declare their allegiance. The candidates were usually in their early twenties; rarely, up to thirty.

Many of Qing Jing and Qiong Ding's junior teachers had been preparing for these exams for years. In the months to come, they'd be unavailable to teach, so Shen Qingqiu assigned junior students to group projects to keep them productively occupied.

Qing Jing students went to debate and etiquette classes on Qiong Ding, Qiong Ding students to essay workshops on Qing Jing. Qing Jing's libraries were also busy, with students who had suddenly and abruptly confronted holes in their education.

*

Shen Qingqiu addressed those of his disciples who were candidates for this year's exam. He had also quietly invited some younger students who were undecided as to whether to prepare for the next set of exams, in three years, or to pursue the path of cultivation.

"You are all old enough now to make decisions about your future. Qing Jing has prepared you to walk several roads. If you become a civil official, you will have a life in the material world. If you pursue the path of the cultivator, you will make a solemn commitment not to interfere directly in politics." Shen Qingqiu wondered how many, this early in their lives, caught the delicate inference there. "Both paths have their rewards, and their difficulties..."

*

Not all students now preparing for the exam were being taken off teaching duties. Some had made the long trip home to visit family, ahead of the high expectations and grueling preparations for the difficult exam. This meant a certain amount of catching up and gossip when they returned.

"I swear I just saw Master Shen going into the offices."

"I thought I saw him talking with Shizun, yesterday."

"He didn't--maybe it's someone who... looks like him?"

"Looks a lot like him." The two students exchanged uncomfortable glances.

The mystery wasn't solved when a third friend joined their study group; it only deepened. Qu Lingbei, who whenever possible pretended his extended family didn't exist, had stayed behind at Qiong Ding to study. He'd also been present for the breathless rumor mongering which had surrounded Shen Qingqiu's initial collapse, his part in repelling the demonic invaders, and later reconciliation with Yue Qingyuan.

"I heard they had a fight in his office, and then they were acting like they'd been friends for years."

"So... mind control?" the first student asked, half joking.

Qu Lingbei thumped him. "Shut up! Shizun would never."

"Better, or worse than finding a substitute?"

"Worse."

"I have a friend on Qing Jing who says he's sparring with Liu-shishu."

"They don't even talk!"

"Oh! Maybe that's why they don't talk! Liu-shishu resents—resented—"

"No!" came the scandalized gasp.

"Shut up!" Qu Lingbei hissed, and they all bent their heads studiously over their notes as a senior teacher passed.

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu was seated at a small, portable easel in the thin, early morning sunlight. Evidently he was taking Lin Qingshui's recommendations seriously. Good.

Mu Qingfang chose his approach to the historically prickly Peak Lord carefully. "Ah, Shen-shixiong was about to paint?"

Shen Qingqiu turned to look at him over his shoulder. "Just my morning cultivation practice. I can delay it, or work as we talk."

"Please, don't let this shidi interrupt. I received Shen-shixiong's request to bring students to Qian Cao, and I have questions."

Shen Qingqiu nodded. "Pick an animal."

Mu Qingfang blinked, once. "A swan."

Shen Qingqiu looked over his selection of colors. "Hmm; beautiful, graceful, can and will break your arm if you're not careful. I can see that." He set out a few dabs of blues and greens, a tiny dot of yellow, and a bit of white.

Mu Qingfang took a seat to the side, and introduced his topic. "Qian Cao is always happy to host diligent students, of course. If Shen-shixiong can give us more detail about what they will be studying, we can arrange a time." And keep students out of the delicate areas, was the tactful implication.

"Of course; I want them to make sketches of common medicinal herbs. I can give you a list." Shen Qingqiu's hand seemed fly across the small panel, adding sweeps of color and then switching to another area. When he went to change brushes, the drop to normal speed made the hand look languid.

Mu Qingfang watched with interest. "Shen-shixiong is using spiritual energy to increase his speed?"

"Yes; it's something I frequently do for relatively simple paintings. Or, of course, those which need a lot of mindless detail, like a street scene. Painting individual lines of flagstone is stultifyingly boring."

”Ah."

"And there's another trick--" He set his brush on a stand, and carefully placed his fingertips on the edge of the panel. A momentary push of qi, and the texture of the painting seemed to shift slightly. "A good painting needs layers, but applying fresh color to wet paint makes a blurry mess. With care, you can use just a touch of energy to dry the paint--less than you would use drying clothes or hair. It also gives an interesting but subtle texture to the finish--that particular appearance is very hard to duplicate without qi."

Mu Qingfang blinked. "Ah, I see," he said politely.

"Oh, the students. I'd like to take them in small groups to your medicinal gardens. I want them to make sketches, from life, of the individual plants. Roots, too, if one of your disciples can assist with that."

"This shidi is not against the idea, but why?"

"By the time they leave Qing Jing, I'd like each of them to have a guidebook, of sorts, to common and useful herbs. They'll remember it better if they draw and write it themselves, than if they simply copy an herbal. I'd also like them to recognize the plants from life, not pictures."

Shen Qingqiu dried the final panel, then offered it to Mu Qingfang, two-handed. It was a swan--a swan seen from underwater, upside down and stretching for strands of watercress on the pond bottom. Mu Qingfang laughed.

Chapter Text

Yue Qingyuan sensed an arrival at his door. Focused on his desk, his attention touched on the presence only briefly.

"Just... one moment," Yue Qingyuan murmured absently, skimming one of the last letters left in his correspondence stack. That moment soon stretched out, and as he reached for the next document and found nothing, he straightened up with a wince. He carefully set down the fine-tipped brush he'd been using to take notes, and turned to the door. Empty. Then he saw Xiao Jiu, sitting on one of the guest chairs--the comfortable one--and reading a book.

"Qingqiu-shidi, you should have let me know you were here," he protested.

Xiao Jiu looked up and marked his place with a finger. "Your duty disciple wanted me to remind you of dinner. I can now see the reason for their concern."

"Nothing's wrong, I hope?"

"I don't... think so." Xiao Jiu frowned. "I was just finalizing the schedules for our joint essay workshops, but one of your disciples flagged me and, somehow, I ended up here. They're really very good."

Yue Qingyuan smiled. "The current bunch are coming along well, yes. Maybe I should give them more to do." He flexed his hands and winced. "The paperwork, anyway."

Xiao Jiu frowned sharply at Yue Qingyuan's hands. "No wonder. You should be doing hand stretches." He reached across the desk to press one of Yue Qingyuan's hands flat between both of his, then opened his palms slightly. Yue Qingyuan sat frozen, but his fingers curled in as the pressure released. "Look at this, your tendons are shortening. Mu-shidi has some very good exercises--I give them to my students, too."

"Your--music students?" Yue Qingyuan asked faintly. He wondered if he had fallen asleep. His Xiao Jiu arriving, unbidden, and coaxing him away from work, was a cherished daydream. The hand thing was new, though. He was sure he would be revisiting it.

"All of them," Xiao Jiu said. "Calligraphy, painting, writing--they're all very hard on the hands." He released Yue Qingyuan's hands to pick up his brush. "But a more comfortable brush helps, too. A larger shaft, with a flattened place for your fingers to rest. I'll send you a few of mine; see if you like them." He began to rise.

"Join me for dinner?" Yue Qingyuan asked hastily. "We can talk about those workshops."

"Certainly."

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe trailed through the Great Library in search of Shizun. He hadn't seen him in awhile and he was starting to feel anxious. He finally found his teacher in the tea and relaxation room connected to the Library, the only place in the building it was acceptable to eat and drink. There was an sternly worded sign outside the door, and a table underneath, where students could leave their books.

He heard Shizun's voice and--something he didn't quite recognize. Luo Binghe peeked around the door. Shizun was sitting at a table, elegant as always. But across from him was a strangely shaped figure, with red fur and unlikely proportions. It was holding a teacup with its foot, as the two hands gestured emphatically. As Luo Binghe watched, the being finished making its point, took the teacup into its hand, and drained it with a strangely delicate gesture.

"Oook."

"Of course, there are so many demands on your time. It's always a pleasure to see you." Shizun rose to bow politely.

"Oook," the orangutan said with gentlemanly courtesy, and knuckled off peaceably into the stacks. Luo Binghe gave... him? plenty of room as he passed.

Luo Binghe moved forward automatically to tidy the table. There was a partially deconstructed basket of fruit, with a bow on it. "Shizun," he finally asked, "Was that a demon?"

Shizun sat back and lifted his tea cup to allow Luo Binghe to clear the tea table. "No, that was an orangutan. He's a very senior Librarian at another branch. Be polite if you see him, and find this teacher."

"Oh." Luo Binghe thought. "Should this disciple wait to escort him out?"

"No, he's returning to his own Library from here."

Luo Binghe filed this under 'mysteries of Shizun.' "Yes, Shizun," he said obediently. He began to load a tray. "It's... this disciple thinks it's strange to have a mon--"

Shizun leveled a severe look at him. "What has this teacher taught Binghe about proper taxonomic classification?"

Large... tailess... "--An... Ape?" Luo Binghe hazarded.

Shizun nodded. "Good. Rule Eleven."

" 'Politeness costs nothing,' " Luo Binghe quoted automatically. He continued to tidy the table, deep in thought.

"Binghe has questions?"

"Um... He wasn't... human."

"Correct."

"So... people who aren't human can still be good?"

"Of course. Some are good, some are bad, most are nothing in particular."

"What about demons? Does Shizun think all demons are evil?"

"Does that seem like the kind of sweeping, unqualified statement this teacher would make?" Shizun wafted his fan. "The demons cultivators generally encounter, are raiding parties or criminal individuals from the demonic realm. Usually, they need a reason to stay on this side of the divide. Our world is no more hospitable for them than theirs is for us. One can think of it as another country on our borders. If you see people from that country on our side of the border, you should think; are they soldiers? Bandits? Merchants? Refugees? It is wise to observe."

"Oh. Refugees?" Luo Binghe asked uncertainly.

"They have warring lords and political conflicts, just as we do." Shizun folded his fan. "And just as with other countries, they may have customs or practices which are abhorrent to us. Binghe has heard that there are demons who eat human flesh, especially rotten flesh?"

Luo Binghe felt his stomach drop. He nodded.

"That's true. Though, not all demons do that. And that's a practice which will never be acceptable to human society."

"Oh. How can you tell which ones... do that?"

Shizun had adopted the smooth, compelling voice he used for lectures. "Some demons are monstrous, and very powerful. They tend not to think in complex ways. It's difficult for humans to communicate with them, if it's possible at all. On the other end of the spectrum, there are demons who can think and plan like humans do. The Elder Dream Demon is one of them. They're also very powerful. And then there are the ones in between. They are weaker, and may have mental traits of either monstrous or sapient demons. And it is often these in between which human cultivators fight."

Luo Binghe struggled to remember all this. It was very different from what the Elder Dream Demon had told him, but some parts were the same. Shizun carried on.

"There are some other fundamental differences in culture. For instance, demons don't enter the reincarnation cycle, as humans do. When a demon dies, he goes directly to the next world. That's why they focus on becoming strong; they go to the next world with their current strength. Whereas a human cultivator won't move on to the next world until they ascend."

"What about... Shizun, what about normal humans? Non-cultivators?"

"Their spirit veins will strengthen with every incarnation. This can be hastened by meditation and cultivation, but it isn't the only path. Eventually, they too will ascend. And so, in the next world demons are numerous, but weak on average. And humans are powerful, but far fewer in number."

This left Luo Binghe with more questions than he started with. Was it his mother, or his father who had demon blood? If they had died, then they had certainly gone on to the next world. And his human parent would have reincarnated, just like his adoptive mother. They would no longer remember him.

"Shizun, what about spirits? Like spirit animals?" Luo Binghe had finished cleaning the table, now, but he hesitated, holding the laden tray. He was rewarded for persisting, as Shizun gave the curve of his eyes which meant a smile.

"Good question," he gave rare praise. "And the answer is, it's only a name. People tend to call harmful spirits demons, and neutral or benign demons, spirits. Binghe has heard that plants and animals can sometimes cultivate, and become sapient?"

"Yes, Shizun." He hadn't, but nothing would pry that information from him now.

"Those plant and animal spirits can trace their ancestry to beings who crossed over between the demonic realm and our world. Usually, through rifts which appear between them. These rifts may be temporary, or permanent." He frowned. "One of the teaching assistants was doing a paper on it. I really should check up on that."

"They're... descended?"

"A natural eel with a Night Hag Fish, some variety of invertebrate with Bone And Blood Grass--they aren't actually grass, you know; they're a type of worm--" Luo Binghe was momentarily dazzled by Shizun's bright eyed enthusiasm for preternatural beasts, but he steeled himself. This was important, and the first time he'd had an opening when there were no unfriendly listening ears.

"Shizun, do they cultivate in the normal way, or with demonic cultivation?" He held his breath.

"Another good question," Shizun praised. Luo Binghe felt a funny warmth in his stomach. "And the answer is, we don't know. It may depend on the strength of their inherited disposition, to one side or the other. To this teacher's knowledge, there is no documentation on the subject." Shizun was suddenly very serious, earlier enthusiasm washed away. "Anyone who has first hand experience has probably, wisely, remained quiet. Following anything other than the righteous path is viewed with suspicion--for many reasons, some good and some bad. Binghe's classes have taught him to recognize the warning signs of demonic cultivation, correct?" He waited for Luo Binghe's nod. "That's what happens when a person follows a path of cultivation not suited for them. We have little information about what happens when a demon attempts righteous cultivation, but the effects should be similar. They are...?"

"Nausea, headache, mood swings, uncontrolled appetites, bloodshot eyes," Luo Binghe recited obediently.

"Good." Shizun patted him on the head and rose from the table. "Does Binghe have more questions?"

Luo Binghe had so many questions he didn't know how to articulate them. "Not... right now, Shizun."

"Well. This teacher will be happy to answer them if any occur. But be cautious about to whom you speak about this. Even academic interest in demonic cultivation can be risky to one's reputation."

"Yes, Shizun!" Luo Binghe said, with his best attempt at cheeriness.

Chapter Text

Yue Qingyuan watched Shen Qingqiu, who had changed his usual habit of working in the covered pavilions, and was sitting in the afternoon sunshine. There was a complicated looking wooden box in front of him; a partially opened drawer showed peculiar tools. With his silk robes iridescent in the sun, he looked like a dream--not the kind of dream Yue Qingyuan had ever known was possible, when they were young. His single-minded focus hadn't changed, though. He was just as intent now, head bent over the object in his hands, as when he was small and trying to figure out how the imprint of a shell had gotten into a rock.

The present Shen Qingqiu was holding a cup on a cloth with one hand, while the other hand carefully used a burin and spiritual energy to carve the stone. He didn't look up as Yue Qingyuan approached.

"I trust you're bothering me for a good reason?"

Yue Qingyuan smiled, helplessly fond, and sat next to him. "How are you doing that?"

"Two things. I'm imbuing the jade with spiritual energy, to more precisely control what areas are removed. And I'm using spiritual energy in the chisel, to etch the material. It allows much finer detail. And it's good practice in qi manipulation."

"I see. I've brought by your final room assignments for your workshops. Just let me know if you need anything else."

Shen Qingqiu glanced at the neatly rolled scroll Yue Qingyuan set down. "Thank you. Oh, and I'm planning to do something a little different, at least with one class."

"What's that?" Yue Qingyuan asked neutrally.

"At the first workshop--it should be about two shichen, if I remember correctly--"

"It is."

"I'll give an overview, but then set them to writing a brief essay from assigned topics, there in class. It will mimic the exam, but not be quite as strict in structure or long in duration. That should take about one shichen. Then I'll split them into groups and have them exchange papers to discuss their peers' essays." Shen Qingqiu's hands were occupied, so he couldn't make the short, sharp gestures which usually signified his excitement, but his eyes were bright. His face was, as usual, so coolly impassive that a casual observer might think he was uninterested. Yue Qingyuan had never been a casual observer of Shen Qingqiu.

"Oh, I see! Giving them experience with exam conditions, and immediate feedback on their results." Interesting! Was this how Shen Qingqiu ran Qing Jing's workshops?

"It's unlikely they'll review all the papers in one session. But it will give them early experience in writing these time-limited, assigned topic essays."

Yue Qingyuan felt a warm glow, seeing Shen Qingqiu's formidable mind turned to teaching techniques instead of his own projects. "Please, let me know how the class responds to it. It could be a very effective technique, if they can stay focused."

Shen Qingqiu nodded, pleased, hand still busy with the burin. "They'll need to do real, full length exam questions and deal with my remarks, of course. But for an introductory class, I have high hopes."

Shen Qingqiu carefully turned the cup over, and etched a small fan into the bottom. Then he set the burin aside, and used the cloth holding the cup to wipe stone dust away from the finished piece. "Hm," he set the lid into place. "Here," he handed it to Yue Qingyuan. "I don't have anywhere to put this."

Yue Qingyuan turned the cup carefully in his hands. It was a familiar bamboo and leaf theme. The green streaks in the white jadeite were expertly worked into the carved stalks. "Xiao--Yuan--this--"

"It's just a cup. Don't embarrass us both by thanking me," Shen Qingqiu said briskly. He turned his face away resolutely as he began tidying up his work area.

When Yue Qingyuan managed to control his voice, he asked, "Why are you collecting the pieces?"

"The chips, I might use in a mosaic. The dust will be used in my paintings. It's easy to over-apply--my students frequently do--but using just a dusting, selectively, can add a nice iridescence to... snow, water, painted embroidery."

"Oh. I've always wondered how you do that."

"The process is always less magical than the results."

Chapter Text

"Tang-shijie? Do you have a minute?" Ming Fan asked.

Tang Xinran looked up from her notes. She was reviewing them while having tea in the currently unoccupied dining hall. "Sure, Ming-shidi. What do you need?"

Ming Fan sat down opposite her, hesitantly. "You've been studying at Qing Jing a long time, right?"

"Fifteen years, yes."

"Is Shizun... Is he different now?"

Tang Xinran thoughtfully straightened her notes with one finger. "He's always been strict. But if you worked hard, he'd try to teach you. If you goofed off, well..." She gave a little shrug and eyebrow twitch that said volumes. "Three of my cohort were expelled, and two left to go back home. At least one of them ended up doing very well at another sect. I know because I still write to her."

"Do you know... what happened, that I'm on probation?"

"No. When I got out of closed cultivation, I got a note saying 'See me,' and Shizun asked me to be head disciple again." She set her elbows on the table and folded her hands. "Frankly, I thought you were a little young for the position. You needed more life experience before taking responsibility for other students. Maybe Shizun just didn't want to train up someone for the interim. I don't know."

"Oh."

Tang Xinran looked at him over her folded hands, eyes shrewd. "So. Whatever happened, and I don't know what, you're wondering if you should be a cultivator now, or if you should go home and--what does your family do?"

"Um, my father is in the ministry of civil works. He's head of irrigation."

"Hmm."

"And we have some farms."

"Do you want to do civil service? Or own a farm?"

"...No."

"Alright. So the question then is, can you be a cultivator? Ask yourself this; would Shizun allow you to stay here, doing cultivation studies, if you didn't have the potential?"

Ming Fan stared at her.

Tang Xinran raised her eyebrows. "I mean, does he seem like the kind of person who would let you stay just so he wouldn't hurt your feelings?"

The absurdity was too much for Ming Fan. He coughed, then started laughing, then finally collapsed into cathartic giggles. Tang Xinran smiled to herself and sipped her tea.

Chapter Text

Leaving the Rainbow Bridge at Qing Jing, Yue Qingyuan saw Liu Qingge ahead of him. "Liu-shidi! Visiting Shen Qingqiu as well? I hope I won't be interrupting your training schedule."

Liu Qingge shook his head. "One of my hallmasters wants to include that disciple of his in training sessions. I thought it might solve some problems."

Yue Qingyuan smiled. "Yes, tired children are good children."

Liu Qingge huffed his agreement and they walked on together down the paved path. "I'm glad things are working out between you two," he said after a moment.

Yue Qingyuan was touched. "Thank you, Liu-shidi. I confess, I was beginning to lose hope myself."

Liu Qingge shrugged. "If he was like this before, I can see why you tried for so long."

Yue Qingyuan hesitated, then volunteered, "He wasn't like this. He had... a difficult start in life." He looked away, then back. "Well, so did I, so did many of us, but Qingqiu-shidi had especially bad luck. If his fever let him unknot that karma, I can only be grateful."

"You do seem a lot happier." Liu Qingge paused thoughtfully as they walked. "You both seem a lot happier. I saw you, but I didn't see how sad he was before."

Yue Qingyuan's head turned fast enough to muss his hair. "He--what? I mean, I know whenever I saw him--he looked--" He broke off.

"When you weren't there, too. He was pretty miserable, I think. It got worse, the last couple years before his fever.” Seeing Yue Qingyuan's stricken expression, Liu Qingge bumped his shoulder reassuringly. “It's better now."

As they traversed the curves of the path, bits of voices filtered through. They were nearly to the courtyard entrance when one of those voices came through clearly. It was Qi Qingqi.

"...All I said was, if he could have multiple wives, then I should be able to have multiple husbands. He didn't like that for some reason."

Across the table from her, Shen Qingqiu laughed--face open and bright. He leaned forward to reply. Yue Qingyuan grabbed Liu Qingge's arm and they hustled out of sight back down the path.

Yue Qingyuan looked a little shaken. "I haven't seen him laugh like that in fifty years."

"I didn't know he could laugh."

They stared at each other, then silently and mutually decided not to discuss it.

Chapter Text

"--so sorry, Shen-shishu, but your gift broke before Shizun could see it," Yue Qingyuan heard. "This disciple humbly apologizes, and will order a replacement."

"No matter," came Shen Qingqiu's coolly disinterested voice. "This master will simply make another one." His footsteps tapped away. The disciple, apparently, stayed put. Hmm.

*

The mystery was solved later that day, when he saw three disciples in the stationery rooms off the mail courtyard. They were huddled over something, and oblivious to his presence.

"--Didn't know he made it himself! I am going to be in so much trouble--"

"--It's one cup. Shizun has given him three tea sets just that I know of. I thought--"

"My uncle has one wine bowl, and he takes it out to show everyone," a third student said glumly.

Yue Qingyuan muffled his steps and approached from behind, choosing his angle so he wouldn't block the light. The three disciples were looking guiltily at a--cup? Bowl? Something ceramic--on a piece of cloth, in a box.

"Ah, this teacher was wondering where this had gotten to," Yue Qingyuan said in a friendly tone. He reached past them to pick up the box and the item.

The students froze in horror, the only movement frantic glances between them.

"And the three of you need to get studying, don't you?" he said jovially. "Exams coming up, hmm? Your next essay workshop will be with Master Shen, this teacher believes."

It wasn't before, but it was now. They were Qiong Ding students; they understood instantly. "Yes, Shizun," they chorused.

Heart light, Yue Qingyuan took his prize to his office before examining it. Turning it in his hands, he was puzzled. It was a tea cup, certainly--there was even a lid, wrapped separately. A single cup, larger than the delicate things he used in his office. Xiao Jiu called them 'tea cups for guests, and ones you don't want to overstay their welcome.' This one fit his large hands quite comfortably. The decorative design was in plain black ink, painted with a fine brush and then glazed. He tilted it to the light and tried to make out the design. When he made sense of the lines, he had to swallow a laugh. What he'd thought was a pretty but trite design of flying birds was a series of ink drawings, done with a fine tipped brush. Instead of the butterflies, birds, or mythical creatures usually used as decoration, this cup had hands--hands drawn in neat, elegant, curving lines, going through a series of stretches and mobility exercises. Xiao Jiu's sense of humor had not lost its bite.

Chapter Text

It was very different, teaching older students.

Shen Yuan's health had made the university experience different for him. He had still enrolled--it was just What One Did with children in his parents' social class. But his health meant he skipped class for weeks at a time. His teachers seemed to like him, but it was tacitly understood that graduation was a matter of course, rather than something to strive for. He'd majored in Art History--his mother's major--and filled out his course requirements with Classical Literature and the bare minimum of science and math.

If his one biology class had covered fire-spitting pigs or carnivorous flowers, he might have been more interested. Anyway.

His brothers were both business majors, of course. His little sister had started out in finance, but transferred decisively to mass media and communications without informing their parents.

At least--without informing their father. Now that Shen Yuan-as-Shen Qingqiu thought about it, their mother's surprise had a note of artifice to it. He wished, now, that he'd had a chance to ask.

Their family had been confused but supportive--it wasn't as if she'd ever have to work for a living, after all, was the verdict--and she breezed into her new major like she'd been born to it.

Thinking about the family of his previous incarnation was always bittersweet. In his previous life, he’d felt guilty for not being able to return, and worried they were out there, in another world, waiting beside a hospital bed for him to wake up. He'd felt he should be striving to return, even though there was no way forward, no way to even begin. Learning that he had entered the reincarnation cycle the normal way, his memory irregularity not withstanding, had been a relief.

In any case, he still had his warm memories of them. He'd drawn on that realization when consoling Luo Binghe during the Dream Demon dungeon instance. It was his sister's second hand class experience, relayed in many complaint-filled QQ sessions and pearl milk tea chats, which Shen Qingqiu drew on now. Plus a little bit of the 'brain storming sessions' his brothers described from their business case classes.

*

Shen Qingqiu's current duties were two-fold. First, he led workshops to keep the younger students productively occupied while the teachers who normally led them had time to study for their own exams. Second, he led groups of those teachers through their own workshops, generally in constructing essays addressing particular topics.

The exam candidates were all in their twenties and thirties--the older candidates being those who had followed the path of cultivation, but chosen not to apply for a sword and the vow of political non-interference which came with it. They were also all male, of course, at least as far as Shen Qingqiu knew. The Imperial Civil Service had never formally made sex a requirement of taking the exams, just because it was so inconceivable that a woman might apply. Shen Qingqiu knew that Xian Shu had successfully sent students through the exams before, but Qi Qingqi operated on the rule that the only real secret was one no one else knew.

Shen Qingqiu regarded the small group of disciples narrowly. There were ten in this particular class, one of several groups who would be led through the exam prep workshops in the coming months. The classes were comprised of a mixture of backgrounds; some Qing Jing disciples, some from Qiong Ding, and a few from other sects who were studying at Cang Qiong as guests. They were all nervous but there were three Qiong Ding disciples in particular who looked especially twitchy.

"You've all memorized facts and learned ideas at Cang Qiong. It remains to be seen if you can put them into context. For this exercise, each of you will be given an essay topic. Answer it in the time provided; you have about one shichen. Exam etiquette is not required; you may talk amongst yourselves.”

Shen Qingqiu circulated among the students, pausing to speak quietly with any who had that particular blank panicked look that meant they were stuck.

Chapter Text

It was when Liu Qingge had lost count of their sparring sessions that he asked about something that had been bothering him.

"Exactly what happened in the Ling Xi caves? What I remember from that fight doesn't make sense. I think I'm missing time."

"Oh. It was pretty fast," Shen Qingqiu allowed. "When I entered your meditation chamber--"

"Hold on, how did you know I was going into qi deviation?"

Shen Qingqiu looked at him over his fan. "I heard you. And sensed the wild energy."

Liu Qingge had the sudden certainty that Shen Qingqiu was hiding something. Why or what, he didn’t know. "Huh," he said neutrally.

"Anyway. I entered the chamber, and Cheng Luan was in the wall. It was shaking and trying to work itself out. When you saw me, you--wait, let me go back. I saw you and saw the sword. I threw a sticking charm at it, and a muffling charm--it was making this awful screech, I couldn't hear myself think. Then you saw me, grabbed your sword, and pulled it out of the wall."

"With the sticking charm."

"Yes; a lot of the wall came with it. It was covered in rubble. You swung at me, and I hit the sword with a strong featherlight charm--" Shen Qingqiu folded his fan to gesture with it.

"Okay, let's go through it." Liu Qingge beckoned Shen Qingqiu forward, and set up in a fighting stance. "I pulled the sword out--right hand." Liu Qingge mimed the motion.

Shen Qingqiu mirrored him. "Yes. I threw the feather--"

"Swung it at you--I must have thought I could hit you."

"I was... about here. I ducked back." Shen Qingqiu mimed dodging. "Then I threw the featherlight charm--" He flicked an empty hand forward, as if he were holding his fan. "That pulled your whole arm up, the right arm." Shen Qingqiu waited while Liu Qingge mimicked that. "Then I stepped in and struck your heart center with a strong spiritual attack." He mimed the attack with his own right hand, but stood in place.

"With yin energy, which--you stepped in? What if I'd grappled you?"

"You weren't in any shape for the most basic strategy. I'm honestly surprised you thought to grab your sword instead of using fists."

"Okay, okay. You stepped in--" Liu Qingge waved him forward. Shen Qingqiu went through the movement--approaching at a side-front angle, stepping with right foot first, a palm strike to the sternum. Liu Qingge felt his stomach flip at the brief contact and unaccustomed proximity, and ignored it. "--Hit me, and I fell."

"And I started redistributing your energy. You were unconscious, or at least unresponsive at that point."

"That was... really dumb, Shen Qingqiu."

A faint flush across Shen Qingqiu's cheekbones gave the lie to his coolly impassive face. "What do you think would have happened if you'd died while I was in the caves? I made the best decision I could in the circumstances."

"Yes, your callous calculation shames us all," Liu Qingge returned dryly.

Chapter Text

A beautiful little melody drifted down the hall, notes shimmering like pearls in the air. A couple curious disciples leaned their heads in the door to see Shen Qingqiu sitting with a pipa, Yue Qingyuan at his desk listening raptly. They withdrew with haste, exchanging chatter with quick hand signs as they departed.

"It's a superb instrument," Shen Qingqiu said, hands still wandering over the strings.

Yue Qingyuan lifted his chin off his hand. "If you want it, it's yours."

Shen Qingqiu was already shaking his head. "You know I make my own. But it would make a fine gift for one of your students. It's definitely heirloom quality."

"Not for one of your students?"

Shen Qingqiu sniffed. "They make their own, too. At least one a year, each to be an improvement on the last." He sighed. "I wish they'd continue the practice once they graduate, but what can you do?" He shrugged and set the pipa aside.

"Speaking of graduates," Yue Qingyuan began carefully. "This shixiong recalls that a couple of Qingqiu-shidi's better students are fairly well placed in Qin Country?"

"Hmm... Yes, Chu Nanshan, who is now Chu-wang, and Hai Quancai who is... something in the military? A general, now, I think." Shen Qingqiu frowned. "He never writes, I know that."

"The Empress Dowager has invited Cang Qiong to her birthday party; would Qingqiu-shidi like to accompany me?" Seeing Shen Qingqiu's hesitation, he continued hastily, "I'm taking some of my students--not to the banquet, of course, but they'll benefit from the smaller gatherings in the other houses."

"I'd be very pleased. Though, with my memory still returning--"

"This shixiong will stay close, to render assistance as needed," Yue Qingyuan said smoothly.

The crease on Shen Qingqiu's forehead smoothed. "Very well. A few of my students, also? Though--" he frowned. "If any attend, they'll need a brush up on their manners. I will, too, come to think of it."

"Make a list of those you think will benefit. We have eight months until we set out. We can add them to Qiong Ding's etiquette classes. And maybe dinners once a week, for formal table manners." He hesitated. "There is one thing. Your hand--you'll almost certainly be asked to perform."

Shen Qingqiu tapped his fingers thoughtfully. "I don't need qi to play, but having a muscle spasm in public would be--sub-optimal. Mu-shidi is fairly confident, at this point, that the poison metabolites build up over time. Once I have a spasm, and clear them, the risk should be minimal for weeks."

Yue Qingyuan changed his seat to examine Shen Qingqiu's hand again. "I wish there was a way to cure it entirely."

"Mu-shidi thinks we may find a way to deliberately trigger the spasms--" he swatted at Yue Qingyuan with his free hand as the sect leader's grip tightened. "--Just to prevent them occurring at an inopportune time, don't fret so much. Better it happen in a controlled environment than in a fight."

"True, true." Yue Qingyuan still looked fretful. He examined Shen Qingqiu's palm, then his fingers. His voice changed tone. "Has... Mu-shidi prescribed some salve for you?"

"Coconut oil," Shen Qingqiu said smugly. "Not a prescription; I just use it with my hand exercises." He pinched Yue Qingyuan's arm. "I'd be happy to give you some, for when you do them."

"I am! Your, ah, cup was very helpful, once I wrested it from the students." Yue Qingyuan smiled.

Shen Qingqiu nudged him. "Back to the trip, for a minute--May I trouble Qiong Ding's etiquette masters to manage this shidi's wardrobe? The requirements--"

"--Are complex." Yue Qingyuan glowed with quiet happiness. "This shixiong will take care of it personally."

Chapter Text

The author formerly known as Airplane-Shooting-Towards-The-Sky had seen his life turned upside down so many times that he would invest in one of those astronaut pens that write in space, if his current life hadn't made that impossible. And oh, how he missed ballpoint pens. Cheap, widely available, an effortless, spill-less, smudge-less flow of ink, easily portable in your pocket or backpack--he hadn't known how good he had it.

The author currently known as Shang Qinghua was on Zui Xian when his life revolved again. He was supervising the delivery of some casks--the disciples kept trying to ride them, and no, you just did not do that with pay-by-the-jin aged oak planed from timber grown in the spiritually rich forests of East Qunnan, thank you--when he saw him. The Protagonist. Booking it across the Rainbow Bridge and up the stone steps to the classrooms.

Shang Qinghua gaped at the rapidly disappearing back, completely forgetting the numbers from the cask inventory. This is the end. I've gone insane. I've dropped into an AU of an AU, and the protagonist got into Zui Xian instead of Qing Jing and any moment there's going to be a crossover, and Luo Binghe is going to eat us all with fava beans.

"Shang Qinghua? Are you alright?" came Ruan Qingruan's worried voice. Shang Qinghua blinked out of his daze, seeing the brewmaster's generally cheerful face directed at him with concern.

"Ye--yeeeees. It's just I thought I saw one of Qing Jing's disciples running though here. You know how strict Shen, um, shixiong can be."

"Oh! Yes, young Luo Binghe. Actually, it was Shen Qingqiu who sent him here."

"He transferred him?" Shang Qinghua felt his voice wind tighter again. That was one way to pull a death flag, but he liked Ruan Qingruan, who always greeted him cheerfully and always brought him a box of snacks when he needed favors. Whereas Shen Qingqiu was... well, only a minor villain.

"No, no. He's just taking a few classes," Ruan Qingruan said soothingly. "And doing well, to my surprise. Shen Qingqiu was concerned he wasn't making friends on Qing Jing, so he sent him here to enlarge his social circle."

"Shen Qingqiu."

Ruan Qingruan laughed. "It surprised me, too. But he seems fond of the boy. Not that he's any easier on him for it."

Shang Qinghua's head spun. He had to get the plot back on track before it crumbled completely. And the source of this madness seemed to be Shen Qingqiu.

Chapter Text

Liu Qingge was returning to Cang Qiong by sword in the very early morning. He skirted the other peaks to approach Bai Zhan. Then, a change in the wind brought a whiff of smoke. Looking around, he saw a bright orange-yellow flicker on Qing Jing. He quickly changed direction to investigate.

A surprised Shen Qingqiu looked up at him, seated beside a brazier in one of Qing Jing's open, roofed pavilions. The brazier was burning away the morning mist, but it still made the scene hazy in the pre-dawn dimness. Shen Qingqiu, always slightly ephemeral, looked like part of the mist himself, as if he'd scatter with a touch. Liu Qingge blinked, and the fanciful thought disappeared.

"You're up early," he said as he landed.

"I lost track of time in the Library. It was easier just not to go to sleep." Shen Qingqiu had what looked like student essays scattered over the table and his lap.

Liu Qingge glanced at them; the leaving students' exam practice questions. "You actually read those?"

"Well, I skim them," Shen Qingqiu admitted. "You can tell a lot just by looking." He picked up one. "For instance, this student didn't know how to answer the question at first, and was just filling space--see the large characters and margins? But toward the end, he got an idea, and the writing is more rushed as he tried to write it down."

"Oh."

"They will need to practice in real exam conditions, of course, but that will come later. Tea?" Shen Qingqiu had already drawn a cup out of--his sleeve?

"Where did that come from?"

Shen Qingqiu folded back the edge of his sleeve; there was a ribbon, hanging from a carved button, holding a neat line of tiny qiankun bags. "I always keep a few little necessary items. A trick up my sleeve, if you will."

Liu Qingge snorted as he sat down. "Suits you. So, what are 'real exam conditions?' for scholars?"

Shen Qingqiu poured a cup from the pot and handed it to him, not standing on ceremony. "There are three tests--at least, at the level these students will be starting at. Students without references have additional exams, earlier and in less strict conditions, to qualify. Each exam--the local, regional, and national--is one to three days. And the tests are taken in solitude to prevent cheating. Each student is sent to a private room, and stays there for the duration."

"For up to three days."

"Just so."

"How do they... uh--"

Shen Qingqiu hid a smile in his cup. "They have a chamber pot, but I imagine it gets unpleasant. Diet, before the exam, is one of the things we advise our students on." He frowned. "It's one of the little things which makes the exams less egalitarian than they're purported to be. In theory, the simplest peasant can study diligently and enter one of the ministries. In practice, the expense of books, and the knowledge of exam procedures, makes success distinctly unequal."

"Huh. Have you ever taken the exams?"

Shen Qingqiu shook his head. "I've never been interested in a political career. I did go through the exam preparation process, several times, as succeeding disciple. Old Master Shen advised it, so I could guide students in the future."

Chapter Text

Ruan Qingruan was led through Qing Jing by a disciple. He found Shen Qingqiu playing a qin, in complete and eerie silence. Shen Qingqiu glanced up as he approached, and placed a hand on the silently vibrating strings. He broke the muffling charm with a hand seal.

"An experimental technique? Music without sound?"

"Interesting thought. In fact, I use the muffling charm so I can practice sad songs without worrying my disciples." He idly played a lighter melody. "How can this shixiong help Ruan-shidi today?"

"I wanted to talk--"

"This disciple has prepared tea!" Luo Binghe announced proudly.

The two peak lords turned to him. Shen Qingqiu, resigned, began to rise. "Well, then, let us speak inside."

*

Ruan Qingruan sipped his tea, paused, and set it down. "I'll just set this here to cool," he said diplomatically.

"He tries so hard," Shen Qingqiu said, hiding a smile. "I have another tea set--"

"Please."

With fresh tea--in deference to Ruan Qingruan's high standards, he prepared the tea himself in contravention of usual hospitality mores--they settled down to talk.

"I came to cash in that favor..."

"Ah. Yes, Binghe has seemed happier lately. Speak, please."

"Zi Dan is ready to return to Cang Qiong--"

"Oh, congratulations!"

A smile bloomed across Ruan Qingruan's face. "It's been a long time. Letters just aren't the same. Anyway, I'm going to meet him and escort him home. Could I trouble Shen-shixiong to keep my senior disciples busy?"

"As long as it doesn't involve cooking."

"This shidi insists that it does not," Ruan Qingruan agreed smoothly.

"I could teach them how to make qiankun items? Useful for any brewer or cook."

"That would be perfect. Just something to keep them from experimenting, while I'm not there to contain the damage."

"I remember the Noodle Incident. Alright, I'd be very pleased. Would it be possible..." A smile was there and gone across Shen Qingqiu's face. "--Possible not to let them know I'll be teaching?"

A matching sly smile briefly displaced Ruan Qingruan's glowing happiness. "Of course. Builds character."

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu arrived at the juniors’ music classroom just before the end of class, and before lunch. The students froze like rabbits as Shen Qingqiu's eyes swept over the room. "Zhao Xihe. Teng Yao. Lin Xian. And Luo Binghe. Meet in the southwest pavilion." He swept out with a nod to the hallmaster. The students whispered, wide-eyed, wondering what these students could possibly have in common. The first three were older than Luo Binghe by several years. The selected students swiftly saluted the room teacher and headed toward the indicated meeting place.

*

Shen Qingqiu gave the kneeling disciples a measuring glance. "Qin Country is holding a birthday celebration for the empress dowager. You four will accompany myself, the sect leader, and four Qiong Ding disciples to represent Cang Qiong. You will not attend the palace banquet, but will attend gatherings hosted outside. We depart in eight months time. Beginning next week, you will attend etiquette classes at Qiong Ding on second-day and fourth-day, and dine with their table master on sixth-day. Appropriate clothing will be provided for you. You may ask questions."

Teng Yao hesitated, then asked, "Shizun, why are these disciples not attending the palace banquet?"

"Because the imperial palace is a backstabbing death trap, which requires special training to survive. Zhao Xihe."

"If we've already had etiquette training--" began the nobly born outer sect disciple.

Shen Qingqiu silenced him with a sweep of the fan. "Insufficient. Making mistakes in this milieu is inevitable. Your classes will teach you how to make the kind of mistakes you can recover from."

"Why has Shizun selected these disciples?" the quiet, thoughtful Lin Xian asked.

"Because you will benefit the most from this early experience."

*

"This one--" Yue Qingyuan tapped Luo Binghe's name on the list. "I don't object, of course, but... why did you wish to bring him? He's still quite young."

"His youth will give him leeway to make mistakes. He has an impulsive disposition. I hope to temper it." Shen Qingqiu concealed a sigh. "Insofar as that is possible."

Yue Qingyuan raised his brows inquisitively, seeking more.

"He has great potential--that was clear from his win against Elder Sky Hammer. But combat prowess, and bold moves, won't get him far in an imperial capital. I'd like him to learn other strategies for conflict resolution, besides... 'be the strongest, beat up everyone.' Which is, apparently, what he knows now."

"Mm. 'If the only tool you have is a hammer, you see every problem as a nail,' " Yue Qingyuan quoted.

"Yes; I want to give him more tools. This trip will, I hope, show him the need for them before he learns it the hard way. And--" Shen Qingqiu paused, eyes flicking up to Yue Qingyuan for a moment.

"And?" Yue Qingyuan encouraged.

"And, he still acts like a servant, not a cultivator. Did I tell you, he wanted to make my meals for me?"

"Well--that's something a devoted disciple might do."

"Mm. Well, I'd rather he focus on his cultivation. Or his four arts. Which are horrible. We expect all disciples to perform menial tasks, but I'd rather it was motivated by duty, rather than by habit."

After a thoughtful moment, Yue Qingyuan nodded. "Inside the sect, it's fine. But outside, if he steps into a humble role by habit--"

"Some people will make use of that, yes."

Yue Qingyuan turned his cup in his hands thoughtfully. "Perhaps it's just you, though? Have you asked Ruan-shidi, or the Bai Zhan hallmasters about it?"

"I... well, no." Shen Qingqiu looked at Yue Qingyuan, brow clearing. "That's a good idea. I'll do that. The hallmasters first, then Ruan Qingruan when he returns."

Chapter Text

Shang Qinghua had tried, in his early years, to recreate whatever magic had let him generate this elaborate, reason-defying world. But no luck.

Learning he had transmigrated into his own, original novel had been hellish. Finding that the world was based on his original notes lightened the burden a bit. But all these changes were disorienting in the worst way. He needed more information. Shang Qinghua maneuvered to encounter Shen Qingqiu as he returned to Qing Jing, near the Rainbow Bridge.

"Shen-shixiong!" Shang Qinghua said with an ingratiating smile. "What a fortunate coincidence to run into you. This shidi was hoping to discuss the set up of our new printing press."

Shen Qingqiu spread his fan, slowly. Shang Qinghua repressed a shiver, irresistibly reminded of a cobra spreading its hood. Shen Qingqiu regarded him silently for a moment, then bid him to follow with a curt gesture.

Shang Qinghua followed Shen Qingqiu over the bridge to the same hospitality pavilion where they'd held the Peak Lords' meeting, some months ago. Then, out of nowhere, a wild Luo Binghe appeared.

Oh, no! The Protagonist! Shang Qinghua tried to look ineffectual and bland. Background character. I am a background character.

The Protagonist followed Shen Qingqiu with adoring eyes, much like Shang Qinghua's childhood labrador retriever had when someone was holding a slice of bacon. This is... so weird. So weird. It wasn't that he wanted to see the little white lotus being beaten. But where was the plot?

"Binghe," Shen Qingqiu said with careful deliberation. "Prepare tea."

"Yes, Shizun!" Shang Qinghua's future world-striding colossus of a blackened protagonist chirped.

Shen Qingqiu sat, watching Shang Qinghua over his fan with the cool judgment of a mother-in-law on her first visit to a new daughter-in-law's home.

Shang Qinghua tried to fill the silence with nervous chatter. Often, people would speak just to shut him up. "So. I hear Ruan Qingruan has gone to get Zi Dan. It will be nice to have him home, right?"

No luck this time. Luo Binghe returned, too quickly not to have run part the way with the tea tray. He settled beside the tea table and went through the tea process with lip-biting concentration. Shang Qinghua tried to suppress his mixed fear and indignation over having his very profitable YY protagonist performing such a menial task.

It was very unsettling, being this close to him. He'd tried to avoid The Protagonist during his years at Qing Jing. The character Shang Qinghua had managed to avoid his vindictive--and creative--wrath, and the current Shang Qinghua wished to do the same. Under Luo Binghe's bright, expectant eyes, he picked up his tea. He sipped.

It was... not the worst tea he'd ever had. It really wasn't... anything. It tasted, strangely, both over-brewed and too weak. There was a... call it an aftertaste. Something he couldn't quite place--mint? Chamomile? Juniper?

He couldn't tell the Protagonist his tea was awful--he'd die! He'd probably be boiled alive in tea. Or forced to drink tea until he exploded. Something tea-related, anyway.

"Very good," he lied, managing a smile.

The Protagonist beamed and looked at Shen Qingqiu expectantly.

"He's been practicing," Shen Qingqiu said. "Well done, Binghe." Shang Qinghua thought Luo Binghe would take orbit from the praise. What. Was. Happening?

"Have some more," Shen Qingqiu urged. He had not, Shang Qinghua noticed, taken more than a sip of his own tea. "What is Shang-shidi busy with, these days? The chemical fertilizer you mentioned at the last peak meeting?"

Shang Qinghua was happy to talk, to avoid sipping more of that tea. "Hah, yes, it's very promising. We're almost finished with the data collection phase. The increase in yield is really something. It seems to have topped out at a seventy-percent success rate, but the greater crop yield more than makes up for it."

"Seventy percent success rate. And what happens to the failures?"

"Oh, about two-thirds of those just don't grow as fast or yield as much."

"Ah."

"The remaining third turns to slime. Gross, but harmless."

Shen Qingqiu looked at him over his fan. It was so much more unsettling in life than on paper. "Have some more tea."

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu hadn't paid much attention to what was going on in the tournaments. He was vaguely aware, from overheard gossip, that there were fiercely contested rivalries being sorted out. Desperate alliances were made, friendships were born, or strained, and there were some sort of hijinks where students tried to spy on one another. He kept seeing little groups of students rushing back and forth between peaks. It was probably educational, if you looked at it very broadly, and it kept them out of his hair. It was amazing how seriously the juniors took the events, when the teachers invented them just to keep the students occupied.

During this time, Luo Binghe trailed him to and from afternoon workshops at Qiong Ding. Shen Qingqiu hadn't put a stop to it, because while he was in the classroom teaching, Luo Binghe would talk with the Qiong Ding juniors, who had been given leisure for their own group projects.

He'd tried to follow him to evening classes just once; Shen Qingqiu scolded him and sent him back to the dorms ahead of curfew.

On one of their walks back to Qing Jing, Luo Binghe had stuttered, then asked nervously, "If this disciple gets to the tournament finals, will Shizun come watch?"

Shen Qingqiu was suddenly, painfully reminded of the Intersect Alliance Conference, just three or four years away. He never had found out what Luo Binghe had wanted to talk to him about. "This teacher will attend one of Binghe's bouts, finals or no. Pick one, and tell this teacher a day ahead of time." He reached out to pat Luo Binghe's head. Halfway, he had to adjust for the sudden growth spurt. "Binghe doesn't need to reach the finals, for this teacher to be proud."

They walked on, Shen Qingqiu reflective and Luo Binghe glowing.

"Is Binghe participating in the obstacle course, as well?"

"Yes, Shizun!"

"Have you thought of who you want on your team, yet?"

"...No, Shizun."

"Well, you have time." Shen Qingqiu hadn't pried to see if Luo Binghe was making particular friends at Zui Xian, or at his new sparring classes on Bai Zhan. But it was difficult.

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu looked thoughtfully over a larger-than-usual group of junior disciples. They were in one of Qing Jing's larger courtyards, and from the sound of it, were eagerly trading strategies for the upcoming obstacle course. He was quietly pleased at the way the noble-born, merchant class, and commoner disciples mixed. Qing Jing was a strict meritocracy--very strict, sometimes--and it wasn't unusual to see a lower-born student as the de facto leader of a group. Normally, Shen Qingqiu would feel a spark of pride and move on. But his conversation with Liu Qingge some days ago had made him reflect on what he might be missing.

Disciples all dressed in the same uniform robes on Qing Jing. They were only strictly required in classes, but most adopted them as everyday wear. New students, no matter their background, were issued their robes when they entered the sect, and got new ones each year. Some of the students wore accessories in addition to their disciple robes. The quality of hair ornaments was different, of course.

Ornamentation was, strictly speaking, trivial. And students who wore their Cang Qiong robes when visiting the small city below the sect would be more likely to draw respect rather than ridicule.

But then, what would they do in the city? Anything but browsing the market stalls cost money. He could certainly think of some students who rarely left the sect, while their peers went to markets and festivals to spend their allowances. Were some students at a disadvantage, unable to develop the same social ties that their wealthier peers would rely on in later life? Something to think on.

Shen Qingqiu blinked out of his pondering as footsteps approached his vantage point.

"Shizun, may this disciple have a word?"

It was Tang Xinran, who never wasted his time. "Speak; this teacher is listening."

Tang Xinran folded her hands demurely. "This disciple is at a challenging stage in her research. It would be helpful to have an assistant for head disciple duties."

"That should be acceptable. Does Tang Xinran have a preference?"

"Ming Fan has been consistent and diligent in his duties while this Tang Xinran has been head disciple," she said smoothly.

Shen Qingqiu nodded. Well, that was that. "Tang Xinran has always shown good judgment. Approved."

"This disciple thanks Shizun."

*

Luo Binghe was on top of the world. He had reached the tournament semi-finals, he had a team for the obstacle course, and after his bout, Shizun walked with Luo Binghe back to Qing Jing.

Time alone with Shizun was to be treasured. Shizun didn't take so much time with any of the other junior disciples; Luo Binghe had checked. On these walks, Shizun would answer any of his questions, and sometimes tell Luo Binghe interesting things. He never talked about his past, though. Luo Binghe had thought a lot after his embarrassing rescue from the non-cultivating sect applicant. That was the first time he'd heard even a suggestion of Shizun's life before he'd become a powerful peak lord. Luo Binghe had asked the other disciples--some of them would roll their eyes at him, now, when he asked--but no one even knew what province he came from, or his family. The one thing he had learned, was that 'Shen' was a courtesy name, given by his own teacher, the Old Master Shen associated with the shrine in the mountain.

Luo Binghe's heart quailed at asking Shizun directly. But Shizun would answer his other questions. “Shizun, what kind of cultivator is Shang-shishu?"

"He's a physical cultivator. He specializes in defense. He's very resilient."

"Oh."

Shizun looked at him sharply. "Has he been bothering you?"

"No, Shizun! This disciple was just curious. This disciple has gone with some students from Zui Xian to listen to Shang-shishu's stories."

"Ah." Shizun's voice was quiet and Luo Binghe risked a glance at him. His heart quavered. Shizun was smiling! A real one! A tiny smile, but definitely there!

Luo Binghe rushed forward, with a directionless urge to keep that smile in place. "Shang-shishu tells great stories. There's one--" His voice speed up in excitement, and he pulled it back. "--One about an evil fox spirit that attacked a village, and it was sealed up inside a baby, and he grew up with it trapped inside him, but he learned to be a cultivator anyway and became leader of the village."

Shizun covered his face with his fan. "That sounds like a good story." A miracle! He sounded happy. He had made Shizun happy! The glow warmed Luo Binghe for the rest of the day.

Chapter Text

Liu Qingge was enduring a one-sided argument from one of his hallmasters as they headed to Wan Jian.

"Could Shizun speak in support of transferring him?" the hallmaster pressed. "He has so much potential."

Liu Qingge sighed heavily. "Shen Qingqiu will support it only if he wants to transfer. You need to convince the boy."

"He won't listen. It's such a waste to leave him in Qing Jing."

"Even if he was willing to leave, it doesn't mean he'd come to us. He's taking lessons at Zui Xian, too, you know."

The hallmaster looked momentarily nonplussed. It was an unfortunate trend, in his current crop of students, to see little value in the specialties of other peaks. Maybe Shen Qingqiu had the right idea, farming out some of his disciples. Liu Qingge suddenly looked at the hallmaster with an evaluating eye. The man, wisely, looked worried. "Shizun?"

"Maybe we can arrange a trade. Temporarily. It seems some of our students would benefit from learning to appreciate the other peaks."

"Our training schedule... uh..."

"In the afternoons, maybe."

"Uh..."

"I'll bring it up at the next hallmaster meeting."

"Yes, Shizun."

If Liu Qingge was any judge, the man would quickly spread that information among his peers. He paused, as the ground seemed to shake under his feet.

Ruan Qingruan appeared in the distance, arriving from the direction of the Hundred Step Staircase. He was grinning, and running after a laughing young man. Liu Qingge righted a passing Zhi Ji junior disciple who stumbled as the ground trembled.

Their heads turned as they heard a happy bellow from the direction of Ling You. The shaking intensified as the source moved closer. Xiao Dou appeared, running faster than such a large spirit boar should be able to move. The three jumped aside as the boar galloped past. It probably wouldn't trample anyone, but better not to be careless. As Xiao Dou disappeared into the distance, they regained the path.

"Um."

Liu Qingge released the Zhi Ji youngster's shoulder. "As you were."

"Um. Liu-shibo, what was that?"

"That boar belongs to a Ling You cultivator who's been absent from the peaks for some time," Liu Qingge replied.

The junior and the Bai Zhan hallmaster exchanged baffled looks, briefly united across age and peak affiliations. As Liu Qingge moved on, he could hear them talking quietly.

"...That answers nothing," he heard.

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu was giving last minute instructions to an outer sect student who was returning to her family for an arranged marriage. There were always a few who found it convenient to make the long journey home at this time, accompanied by their exam-destined brothers. Shen Qingqiu had a leaving tea ceremony with each of them, and some parting words of advice. Yue Qingyuan arrived early for a pre-arranged meeting, and waited considerately a little ways off as they finished.

"--Be diligent in your meditation exercises."

"Yes, Shizun."

"And practice your pipa and calligraphy every day."

"Yes, Shizun."

"And what do you do if your husband mistreats you?"

"Stab him, poison the guards, and set the house on fire on my way out," Yan Yue recited obediently.

"Good. Go and live well." He touched her forehead briefly in benediction before she went off with her apprentice sisters, to wait for her escort.

Shen Qingqiu turned to his audience.

"Poison the guards, shidi?" Yue Qingyuan asked as he approached.

"To delay pursuit."

"Ah."

They were interrupted by a distant tremor, and an uncanny honking cry that echoed through the peaks.

In the distance, they saw two dramatically different sized dots meeting. Another small dot followed, but waited some ways away. A cultivator's enhanced vision gave a little more detail; Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu watched the young man and the huge boar meet in a grassy pasture at the foot of Ling You.

"That's heartwarming," Shen Qingqiu said. "I should set it to music. Maybe a swelling, sentimental orchestral piece."

"Ah..."

"Oh, yes, your painting. You're welcome to look through what I have. I'm not sure if anything will fit the Dowager Empress's taste, though." They began to walk toward the art building, which also housed Shen Qingqiu's private studio.

"She likes sentimental scenes, and soft, floral landscapes."

"I have some of the latter--but there are no people in them." Shen Qingqiu thought. "I suppose I could add them; it would be a simple enough exercise."

"Oh? I always thought, once a painting was done, it was done." Yue Qingyuan waited while Shen Qingqiu opened his studio--it was always kept locked so curious students couldn't investigate.

"They're never really done; I just stop adding to them. Mimicking a years-old style would be difficult, but if I was adding something different--figures instead of foliage--the mismatch wouldn't be unappealing." Shen Qingqiu went to a tall, wide, but shallow cabinet. The folding panels were hung with neat rows of little qiankun bags, on hooks, and an index. Each bag, and hook, had a tidy label.

"Oh, that's where you keep your work?"

"Yes; it saves space. And protects them from incidental damage. Feel free to look around while I pull out some appropriate panels." Shen Qingqiu said, opening his painting inventory book.

Yue Qingyuan looked idly through the half-finished paintings and reference sketches already on display. Shen Qingqiu was selecting qiankun items when he heard a gasp. Yue Qingyuan was frozen, looking at a palm sized panel.

"What--Qingqiu-shidi, what is this?" he managed.

Shen Qingqiu looked over his shoulder. It was an abstract combination of colors in wide arcs and blocks--black, pale green, a touch of gold, a soft peachy pink he was rather proud of and had noted down. "Oh, a color study. That was the best one, but I'm not quite sure what to do with it. I thought it was nice way to experiment with the way non-representative art can still create artistic communication--but it didn't quite gel." He studied it more closely. "But if it can provoke such a reaction, maybe I was on to something."

"Has anyone else seen this?" Yue Qingyuan asked in a strained voice. Then, with more decorum, "May I have it?"

"Of course; I took notes." Shen Qingqiu was baffled.

Yue Qingyuan smoothly stashed the small piece in his own qiankun ring, regained his composure, and looked at the book Shen Qingqiu was still holding with his habitual, mild expression. "Ah, your inventory?"

"Yes; my finished paintings, their subject and media, and any notes on technique. So I can recreate it later." Shen Qingqiu was still confused, but happy to expound on his process. "So, these--are done on silk, with the translucent layered oil effect which is so popular these days..."

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu was attempting to work out the instrumental intro of "Telephone" when Qi Qingqi approached his open pavilion. She did not, of course, use the path.

She tilted her head at the music, thoughtfully. "You know, I never fully believed Shen Qingqiu really went to brothels for the music. But I've never heard anything quite like that."

"The music and the gossip, thank you." Shen Qingqiu idly improvised a few bars. He was unsurprised she liked Beyoncé and Lady GaGa. "Qi-shimei should come with me, next time. Madame would be delighted to see you."

"She reminds me so much of her mother," Qi Qingqi said mournfully, taking a seat.

"Did Qi-shimei want anything in particular today, or did she just miss the dulcet sound of this humble scholar's voice?"

Qi Qingqi leaned back comfortably and grinned. "The second one. I'm hiding out."

Shen Qingqiu raised an eyebrow at her, playing a suspenseful little musical sting on the qin.

"My disciples are organizing their tournament, and they keep wanting me to make decisions. They should be figuring it out themselves."

"They're focusing on races and weapons skills, I heard?"

Qi Qingqi nodded. "Yeah; they have so many events planned simultaneously that I don't know how they're going to get enough participants. They heard about Bai Zhan's tournament, and some are participating in that, too."

Shen Qingqiu moved on to one of the sentimental, meandering ballads Qi Qingqi enjoyed. He would say it was a guilty pleasure of hers, but if the woman had ever felt a moment of guilt in her life, it was before his time. As it came to a close, he spoke up.

"Is Qi-shimei very familiar with Shang Qinghua?"

Her head lifted in interest. "Not as much as some of our martial siblings. Why?"

"He's been making a point of visiting me, lately. I wondered why."

"It's your charm," Qi Qingqi said promptly. Shen Qingqiu laughed, and she continued. "Does he seem to be looking for anything in particular?"

"No. And that's the strange thing. He doesn't seem to be building up to asking for a favor."

They exchanged a glance.

"My palace intrigue senses are tingling," Qi Qingqi said, deadpan.

Chapter Text

Exam preparations were winding down, and next month the students would slowly be sent off on the long trek to their respective exams. As luck would have it, Shang Qinghua's contacts chose this time to forward a tidbit of information he could use. Seizing his opportunity, Shang Qinghua put his plan into action. He made the first step at the following Peak Masters' meeting.

"Ah, one... new order of business, Sect Leader," Shang Qinghua began, as the others were just starting to shift in their chairs and pick up their notes.

Yue Qingyuan looked at him with mild, pleased interest. He did like it when people participated in meetings. "Yes, Shang-shidi?"

"There's a big auction in the capital city of Qunnan next month. If anyone would like to make a wishlist with preferred prices, I'll keep my eyes open for you. The auction is just the main event; a lot of other merchants will be there, too." He made a show of checking his notes. "I recently heard a rumor that a library belonging to a minor sect, now defunct, will be part of the goods on offer. I'd like permission to go bid on it."

As expected, Yue Qingyuan looked immediately at Shen Qingqiu, who in turn was... watching Shang Qinghua? What the hell? "Qingqiu-shidi, is that something you'd be interested in?" His voice slid smoothly from 'kind but fair leader' to 'doting shixiong.' Shameless.

Shen Qingqiu turned his gaze from Shang Qinghua to Yue Qingyuan. "It could be valuable, if there are personal writings and journals included. I doubt they have anything we're lacking in terms of references or classics."

"Oh," Shang Qinghua said in what he hoped was a realistic tone of disappointment. "I was just going to bid on the whole thing. But if that would be a waste..." Take the bait, take the bait, take the bait...

"Well," Shen Qingqiu said after a long pause, "If Shang-shidi wouldn't mind company to the auction, this shixiong could look at the material himself."

Yes, Shang Qinghua mentally fist-pumped. "If Shen-shixiong can spare time to travel, his expertise would be invaluable."

"Excellent," Yue Qingyuan beamed. He was always so happy to see the Peak Lords getting along. "Both of you, let me know when you've arranged a departure date."

*

"How much time?" Yue Qingyuan fretted, the next day.

"Shang Qinghua would prefer to travel by carriage. For some reason."

"By carriage?" Yue Qingyuan repeated with a worried frown. "That will add weeks to your journey."

"I have no idea why. Returning, perhaps, if he buys a high enough volume of goods that they need to be transported. But I have qiankun items which should be more than sufficient. I don't know what he's planning to buy that would take up more space than that."

"Did you try to reason with him?" Yue Qingyuan frowned.

"We compromised. We'll fly to X City, stopping to rest at inns as necessary. Then from X City, we'll take carriages he hires. That makes sense, as far as it goes. Carriages will be hired out for miles around Qunnan City, if the auction is as busy as he says."

"It will still add weeks to your journey."

"To his, maybe," Shen Qingqiu grumbled. "I fully intend to fly back from Qunnan, whether he accompanies me or not."

"Is that safe?" Yue Qingyuan fretted. "With your hand--"

Shen Qingqiu waved at him irritably. "Don't fuss. It doesn't affect my flying. I've tested it."

"You've tested--" Yue Qingyuan echoed, squeezing his eyes shut.

"From a very low height. And I have featherlight talismans ready to use. I can activate them with my other hand." Shen Qingqiu folded back his sleeve to show the neat line of tiny qiankun bags hanging on their ribbon in his sleeve.

Yue Qingyuan gave a glance at the sliver of pale wrist, then a second, and looked away. "As long as you're careful... How long will you be gone?"

"Fourteen days, if everything goes as I expect. Three weeks, if whatever Shang Qinghua is planning really requires overland travel."

"Come for a visit before you depart. You'll still be gone for weeks."

"As you wish, but we'll be leaving very early, as soon as it's light."

"Breakfast, then. I rise early in any case. Oh, wait--that would mean you would have to wake even earlier. You can't be tired when you're traveling..." Yue Qingyuan trailed off, worrying at the cuff of his robe with his fingers.

"I could use one of your guest rooms," Shen Qingqiu suggested. "Then breakfast, and leave from Qiong Ding."

"Perfect," Yue Qingyuan said instantly.

Chapter Text

The all-peak obstacle course tournament would take a full month to run to completion--there was a certain amount of rebuilding and resetting to do with every group. To make it more exciting for the kids--and spectators--there were two, identical courses, fully visible from the seating area, and they ended in the same open space.

Shen Qingqiu went to one of the first bouts.

There were walls to scale, rope bridges to traverse 'lava', and... "What are those hanging bags?" Shen Qingqiu asked curiously.

"Uh, swinging axes," answered Shang Qinghua, who had approached when he arrived. "You can't see the axe, anymore--the paint flaked off. There's a kind of counterweight system to make them swing."

Shen Qingqiu was impressed, and said so. "An Ding's disciples have outdone themselves."

Shang Qinghua huffed out a huge sigh. "Too much--do you know, they wanted to use sandbags at first? They said it would be more realistic. I had to talk them down. Those are filled with rags and hay."

"I see Qian Cao medics standing by, just in case."

Shang Qinghua, in a nonchalant tone, said "So, you're here to watch--oh, will you look at that, I've got to go."

To Shen Qingqiu's bafflement, he jumped up and sped off. Shen Qingqiu was just blinking after him, when Yue Qingyuan sat down in the newly vacated spot beside him.

Shen Qingqiu shrugged off Shang Qinghua's eccentric behavior and turned to greet him. "Yue-shixiong, I'm surprised you were able to find the time to spectate."

"This is a valuable event for camaraderie between the peaks. If it works out, we may hold these events more frequently."

"It looks fun," Shen Qingqiu said. "The 'winning' team is the first to get all four members to the finish line. Hopefully, the students watching will quickly see that there's no benefit to rushing ahead of their comrades."

Yue Qingyuan nodded, pleased. "One of my disciples is keeping an eye on the sign-up lists. Many teams have members from multiple peaks, more than I was expecting."

"You had a good idea, stating that option specifically."

Yue Qingyuan shook his head fondly. "They do get tunnel-vision, don't they?"

*

Ning Yingying had opted not to participate, and had looked genteelly horrified at the suggestion that she might want to. She was there to cheer her friends on, though. Since she had many friends, across several peaks, she'd be a frequent spectator.

Luo Binghe had formed a group with an older Zui Xian disciple, another one his age from Bai Zhan, and, surprisingly, Wang Hu, who was one of the new novices he'd smuggled into Bai Zhan. Shen Qingqiu wanted to ask him how that had come about, but didn't want to interfere. His team did well, of course--who ever heard of the protagonist washing out in the prelims?--and advanced to the next round.

Immediately after the team's time was recorded, Luo Binghe bolted for Shen Qingqiu's seat. Shen Qingqiu gave him the expected head pat. "You did very well." He included the rest of the team, approaching at a more sedate pace, in the praise. "You all did very well."

"An excellent display of teamwork," Yue Qingyuan agreed.

The other students thanked the sect leader, looking a little nervous. The Bai Zhan disciple spoke up, looking at Luo Binghe. "My sister said she'd make us all dinner. Do you--"

"Enjoy yourself, Binghe. Just remember your curfew."

"Yes, Shizun!" The group departed with respectful bows. Luo Binghe wasn’t the oldest, and there was no official leader for the obstacle course teams, but Shen Qingqiu could see them orbiting around him, nonetheless.

"A good seedling," Yue Qingyuan said, using a hand on his back to gently move Shen Qingqiu back a few steps. Just in time; another group of disciples rushed past to the preparation area. "Have you told him you'll be traveling, yet?"

Shen Qingqiu grimaced. "Ah, no. I'll make a note."

"Perhaps you could give him some little job to do, while you're gone."

Chapter Text

As the students taking the Imperial Civil Service exams had different destinations, they left at staggered times to begin the long trip to their respective testing places. Those who would reach the highest level of testing, the Palace Tests, had months of successive, difficult exams ahead of them.

The workshops, however, wrapped up on the same week. It was part of Cang Qiong's careful neutrality; no special consideration was given to citizens of any of the four surrounding empires.

Yue Qingyuan invited Shen Qingqiu to dine at Qiong Ding, ostensibly to celebrate the end of the preparation period. But Shen Qingqiu suspected the invitation was at least partly provoked by his looming trip with Shang Qinghua.

His suspicions proved valid. Dinner was pleasant, but Yue Qingyuan seemed alternately far away and unsettlingly intent. After the meal, Shen Qingqiu brought out a long term project, intending to distract him.

"Something I've been working on," Shen Qingqiu explained. He took a discarded message he'd used as scrap paper, and put it in one bag. Then, with a showy flick of the wrist, he withdrew it from the other bag.

Yue Qingyuan was gratifyingly impressed. "What is that? It's far too small to be a transportation array."

"Qiankun items," Shen Qingqiu said smugly. "Two, linked, qiankun items, which share the same qiankun space."

"That's remarkable! I didn't know that was possible."

Shen Qingqiu basked in the warm glow of accomplishment. "Rather neat, yes. It doesn't solve our supply problems; the mass is strictly limited, and I still need to test if the connection breaks down over long distances. But unlike transportation arrays, it doesn't need to be recharged with qi."

"What's the mass limit now?"

"About a quarter jin. The space simply won't accept anything greater. And mind you, that's making them myself. For reference, the largest traditional qiankun item I can make is closet-sized, holding 250 jin. The cultivator's skill determines the capacity."

Yue Qingyuan's eyebrows rose. "Do you have one of those?"

"A few. Items of that capacity are inefficient to make. And how often do you need them, really? Smaller items are more useful." Shen Qingqiu tapped one bag. "I'm not sure what use I could find for a specialty item like this, but the construction is so interesting I'd like to investigate it."

"It might replace a letterbox. Those miniature transportation arrays need to be recharged with every use. But trading letters through a shared qiankun space--even a non-cultivator could use it." Yue Qingyuan gestured toward one of the bags inquisitively, and Shen Qingqiu handed it to him.

"I've tested the connection within Cang Qiong, even between different peaks," Shen Qingqiu explained as Yue Qingyuan examined it. "I want to be sure it's stable across greater distances. I'm hoping to test it on this trip. I'll leave one with one of my disciples, and send a note via the other each day. We should be able to test the connection across quite a distance."

"I can help with that," Yue Qingyuan said quickly.

Shen Qingqiu nodded. "Thank you. I'll bring a letterbox too, of course. It's a pity those can't be stored inside qiankun items."

"If it does work, will you teach your students how to make them? Or keep it as a secret technique?" Yue Qingyuan asked with interest.

"The effect needs to be built into the items when they're made, and they must be made simultaneously. It's a tricky technique. I'll be glad to teach it within Cang Qiong, but I fear they'll remain rare even so. By the time they're ready to leave the sect, my students can make a conventional qiankun item holding, perhaps, 10 jin. If they managed to make one of these--and it isn't trivial, the technique is tricky--it would hold only a few coins."

"Or some paper."

"Just so."

If it was stable across long distances, he would also find one of the transient tears between the human and demonic realms, to see if items could be transferred across the dimensional boundaries. Transportation arrays didn’t work across the divide, he knew. If he could find a way to supply Luo Binghe during those years in the Abyss--well, many of his worries would be relieved.

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu was going over his packing list for the trip with Shang Qinghua. Qiankun items made traveling much easier, but didn't solve the problem of what to bring. Invariably the particular book or project-in-progress which he wanted, was never included.

Ning Yingying approached, looking nervous.

"Shizun, this disciple would like to ask..." Ning Yingying looked uncomfortable. "There's a thing we learned at Xian Shu..." She sat down, clasping her hands tightly. "How to make a, a--"

"Ah, the cinnabar potion."

She gasped. "Shizun knows? But it's supposed to be secret!"

"It is a secret, but a secret which has been entrusted to this teacher. Ning Yingying is good to be cautious with it," Shen Qingqiu said approvingly. Apparently his lectures on infosec hadn't gone unheeded. Ning Yingying was turning into a real heroine, albeit of the Disney variety.

"But my mother said--uh... it's..."

Shen Qingqiu kept his eyes on the list. Avoiding eye contact would make this conversation easier, for both of them. "Hmm. Ning Yingying thinks this is an unscrupulous trick?"

"Well... I mean... if..." She wrung her hands in embarrassment.

Shen Qingqiu thought. "Ning Yingying may never make it, but it's good to have the knowledge in reserve. And if she has daughters, she may teach them, even if they don't study at Cang Qiong. Ning Yingying knows, some of her martial sisters are not from noble families?"

Ning Yingying nodded.

"And their families could not give them the potion when they were young. Being a student of Cang Qiong gives them a respectable status. And having a cinnabar mark is informally required when a young lady marries into a noble family."

"Oh..." Ning Yingying's forehead cleared.

"This teacher also knows, that boys don't use the potion at all."

Ning Yingying gasped, "That's not fair!" He could always count on Qi Qingqi to instill that spark in his students.

"No, it isn't fair," Shen Qingqiu said smoothly. "So it's well that girls have a choice, too. Ning Yingying would be wise not to trust people who want to take her choices away."

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu had a brief meeting with his hallmasters to address any last-minute concerns, but there were no changes to the instructions from the last meeting. He picked up his luggage--qiankun items were really so convenient--and made his way to Qiong Ding. He had a late dinner with Yue Qingyuan, then was ushered off to the guest room he'd used before, with the reasoning that 'he should be well rested for his journey.'

*

Yue Qingyuan tried and failed to calm his mind for his usual before-sleep meditation. Terrible scenarios kept disturbing his calm. Xiao Jiu hadn't been away from the sect for so long since being poisoned. Could the poison spread from his hand? Would he realize it? If he had to seek shelter, would there be a friendly sect nearby? Had he lost his reflexive wariness to the extent that he'd trust unwisely? Xiao Jiu said he'd considered rogue cultivators, but what about the dangerous wildlife between here and Qunnan?

Yue Qingyuan stretched his neck and hands, then tried to sink again into meditation. But it was no use. What if whatever caused his partial amnesia returned? What if it was more complete, this time? What if the reverse happened, and Xiao Jiu snapped back to his old self? Yue Qingyuan knew his Xiao Jiu would be mortified to remember his current, warm behavior. He might refuse to return to the sect entirely. He might disappear for any number of reasons, and Yue Qingyuan would never know what had happened to him.

Yue Qingyuan's eyes opened. The shaky, hollow feel to his stomach wouldn't go away.

Unable to settle himself, Yue Qingyuan went to check on Xiao Jiu. Just briefly, to be sure he was alright. He made sure to dim the nightpearl; if Xiao Jiu wasn't rested when beginning the journey--

He opened the door nearly silently, but it wasn't quiet enough. Xiao Jiu turned his head, squinting disagreeably with the candor his elegant mask never showed, anymore.

"Is there something wrong?" he asked, voice groggy.

"No, I was just... checking on you," Yue Qingyuan whispered.

Shen Qingqiu pushed himself up on one arm. "You sound worried."

"No, don't get up; I didn't mean to wake you," Yue Qingyuan said, stepping inside.

"You didn't. What's troubling you?" Shen Qingqiu sat up and stretched out a hand.

Yue Qingyuan approached and took a seat on the edge of the bed. "It's just... a long trip."

"Only... four times as long as the one to Ling Chen. Remember, I'm flying back, no matter what Shang Qinghua decides to do."

Yue Qingyuan nodded absently, mind still going down the worn paths of worry. "If your hand acts up on the way back, when you're alone--"

Shen Qingqiu shifted and leaned their shoulders together. Yue Qingyuan felt his stomach unknot at the easy contact, still new after two years of reconciliation.

Shen Qingqiu spoke up. "Thanks to Liu-shidi's help, I can hold my own against anyone but another high level cultivator. And I'll fly away from those."

"There are any number of spirit beasts in the wilds between here and Qunnan--" Yue Qingyuan worried.

"Uh-huh," Shen Qingqiu looked at him sidelong.

"And we never really found out what caused your qi deviation and fever--"

"Here--lie down."

"What?" Yue Qingyuan's train of thought scattered.

"On your side. Come on." Shen Qingqiu tugged at his sleeve.

Hesitantly, he did. Xiao Jiu curled up right behind him, like he used to, when he would tuck himself between Yue Qingyuan and the wall so no one could take him away while they slept. Xiao Jiu's forehead nudged between his shoulders, and his breath made a warm spot that was so familiar and beloved that it brought tears to his eyes.

After they breathed quietly for awhile, Yue Qingyuan spoke up in a hushed tone. "Is this... uncomfortable to you? I could leave, now."

"No," Shen Qingqiu said, voice dozy. "I wake up and miss you too, sometimes. Go to sleep."

As if he could feel his rushing emotions, Xiao Jiu pinched his side sleepily, then wrapped that arm tightly around his chest. He was big enough to reach all the way, now. "Go to sleep, Qi-ge. Stop thinking."

Yue Qingyuan didn't mean to--he meant to stay awake, pressing Xiao Jiu's hand under his. But knowing, for certain, that Xiao Jiu was here and safe, breath huffing reassuringly against his back, was too much for him. He dropped into one of the most restful sleeps he'd had in years.

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua left before dawn the next morning. They had arranged to depart from Qiong Ding's broad plaza; they would make the first leg of the journey by sword, rest for the night in X City, then continue on using the carriages Shang Qinghua had arranged there.

Shang Qinghua arrived in a rush, fixing the sleeves of his robes and with a steamed bun stuck in his mouth by one of his obliging disciples. No matter how early he got up, he was always running a little late.

Entering the big courtyard, he slowed. Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan were already there. Shen Qingqiu was dressed for travel by swordflight, wearing trousers with his robes, hair closely bound, and with leather bracers keeping his flowing scholarly sleeves confined. Yue Qingyuan, from his posture, was giving some last minute cautions. Shen Qingqiu, in sharp contrast to the last forty years, listened with indulgent exasperation instead of staring into the middle distance or finding an excuse to walk away.

Yue Qingyuan was taking advantage of it, too. Shang Qinghua paused on the edge of the courtyard, chewing his steamed bun and itching for a pen. His internal author was gleefully taking notes. Another part, which had been in this weird fictional world too long already, tsked judgmentally. It had taken time for him to understand all the weird social rules here, but he'd gotten used to them. That hand on the shoulder was acceptable. In light of Shen Qingqiu's recent injury and their long and close acquaintance, pressing the other one might, possibly, be excused. But both at once? In public? For shame, Sect Leader!

Shang Qinghua backed up, then made a great scuffle of feet as he reentered the courtyard. "Sorry sorry sorry, my head disciple couldn't find my notes, and the dining hall was closed--"

Shen Qingqiu gave him a coolly judgmental look--did he have any other kind?--and Shang Qinghua was glad he'd tucked his fan away for travel. Shang Qinghua knew exactly what he could do with it--he'd written it, after all--and seeing him wave it around to make a point was like someone using a Taser as a laser pointer.

Yue Qingyuan drew him aside and looked at him earnestly. "Shang-shidi, please look after him on your trip. With the poison still in his body, he needs especial care." Shang Qinghua noted that Shen Qingqiu, sorting through one of his many qiankun bags, seemed not to react. Yue Qingyuan must have used a small muffling seal, then.

"Sect Leader can count on this shidi," Shang Qinghua said enthusiastically. "This shidi will guard him with his life." Yue Qingyuan gave him a sharp, narrow look. Oops, too much, walk it back. "--At least for as long as we're traveling together. Shen-shixiong has his own plans for the second half of the trip."

Yue Qingyuan looked mostly reassured. "Yes, he told me. Well, if you don't need to take the carriage all the way back, this shixiong would prefer you travel together." His tone implied, they had better not have to take the slow way home.

"Y-yes, Sect Leader! Understood!" They turned to greet the approaching Shen Qingqiu.

Chapter Text

After watching Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua vanish beyond even a cultivator's enhanced sight, Yue Qingyuan turned his attention to the other occupant of the courtyard. He smoothly moved to intercept Luo Binghe before the boy could depart. It looked like he had no plans in that direction anyway, looking in the direction Shen Qingqiu had departed with woebegone eyes. He looked miserable, and very young, and... very cold, in fact, since the novice robes were no match for the pre-dawn chill. He didn't even have a cloak. Yue Qingyuan dropped his planned approach--'get back in time for morning meditation, and we'll say no more about it, young man'--for a new one.

"He'll be back soon, youngster. Study diligently, so you have something to show him," Yue Qingyuan said kindly. He supressed his own misgivings. He had learned early in life that it was easier to comfort and reassure others than himself.

Luo Binghe uncurled enough to salute the Sect Leader, still looking miserable. "Yes, Sect Leader."

"Come have breakfast at the Qiong Ding dining hall. Then you can go back to your studies." It would be a good opportunity to sound out this youngster who was so attached to Xiao Jiu.

*

In the dining hall--the seniors' was closest, and very quiet at this hour--Luo Binghe looked at the early morning selection of food with wide eyes. He started to speak, then glanced nervously at Yue Qingyuan.

"Speak your mind," Yue Qingyuan said, as he selected a bowl for himself. He'd breakfasted with Xiao Jiu, of course, but sharing a meal was one of the simplest ways to create rapport. A few early rising Qiong Ding disciples noticed them, but tactfully ignored their presence. His current students really were a promising bunch.

"This is different than the food at Qing Jing," Luo Binghe said cautiously.

"Most at Qing Jing are spiritual cultivators. They need to eat lightly. Eating heavy foods can cause them discomfort." He shepherded Luo Binghe to a seat near a brazier, and made a note to suggest to Xiao Jiu that he expand the selection at Qing Jing, in light of his student's predisposition. Xiao Jiu was so clever, but he could sometimes miss the simplest things.

"Oh." Luo Binghe thought. "Is that why... This disciple wanted to make meals for Shizun--"

Yue Qingyuan nodded, taking a sip of his broth so Luo Binghe could begin eating as well. "Just so. Due to his path of cultivation, your teacher is even more careful of what he eats than other spiritual cultivators. And his spirit veins were open very early; he's been like that since he was a child." He waited. As expected, Luo Binghe pounced on the bait.

"Sect Leader has known Shizun for a very long time?" he asked shyly.

"We grew up together, yes," Yue Qingyuan continued obligingly.

Luo Binghe peeked up at him through his lashes. He‘s adorable, though that can’t be why Xiao Jiu has developed a soft spot for him. "What, um, what was Shizun like when he was this disciple's age?"

Yue Qingyuan remembered Shen Qingqiu's too-thin limbs, his carefully neutral mask, and his wary, hurt eyes. He kept his own neutral, kindly mask up with the ease of long experience. "He wanted to learn, more than anything. Even more than he wanted to eat, sometimes."

Luo Binghe glanced up again. Aha. That one wasn't shyness; that was sneakiness. Yue Qingyuan kept his face neutrally pleasant.

"What, um, what are Shizun's favorite foods?"

Yue Qingyuan wasn't going to encourage bribery, and Xiao Jiu's weakness for sweets was something he'd keep to himself. "Hmm. He likes tangyuan, but just a few at a time."

Luo Binghe nodded seriously.

"Ah, that's right, your teacher arranged cooking lessons for you. Are you learning a lot?" Yue Qingyuan coaxed.

"Yes... but--" Luo Binghe hesitated, and Yue Qingyuan nodded encouragingly. "--But this disciple wishes he could take the lessons from Shizun."

"Your teacher speaks well of you. He says you work diligently." Yue Qingyuan waited while Luo Binghe glowed under the praise. He lowered his voice conspiratorially. "Your teacher is very good at many things, but he can't cook." Luo Binghe looked briefly scandalized. Yue Qingyuan could see him teetering on the edge of closing off, just from the very mild suggestion that Shen Qingqiu was not perfect in every way. Hmm. "Your teacher wants the best for you, so he's sent you elsewhere to learn what he can't teach."

Luo Binghe unfurled again, brow clearing.

"No one, no matter how learned, is good at everything. It is a wise person who knows their limits."

Re-framing the issue to put Shen Qingqiu in a good light was apparently enough to win Luo Binghe's acceptance. They moved on to a very mild, low stakes conversation about the differences between classes at Qiong Ding, Qing Jing, and Zui Xian. Yue Qingyuan made a mental note, for when Shen Qingqiu returned, to offer Luo Binghe's inclusion in one of Qiong Ding's social groups. They were designed to give the students practice in fluent conversation, and he could see how Luo Binghe's early poor socialization had stunted him in this regard.

Luo Binghe inhaled his meal, and Yue Qingyuan sent him back to Qing Jing--where he would probably have a second breakfast, as growing teenagers did.

"Any last questions?" Yue Qingyuan asked at the Rainbow Bridge.

"How... um, how does Sect Leader get his voice to do that?"

Ah, he'd picked up on the calming technique Yue Qingyuan used. "Many years of practice. It's something you, too, can learn, with study."

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua had only been traveling a few hours--the sun was still low on the horizon--when they had to make an unscheduled stop.

They flinched almost simultaneously as the breeze brought a foul odor. They flew on until they were able to breathe freely, then Shen Qingqiu signaled for a pause. "We are near the trade routes..." he speculated. They exchanged a glance. "Shang-shidi should stay here. This shixiong will take a look." Shang Qinghua looked torn between avoiding the grim sight that odor indicated, and avoiding the blame if Shen Qingqiu was injured. Without a pause, Shen Qingqiu flew off.

He returned just ten minutes later, more relaxed. "Not a massacre. Corpseflowers."

Shang Qinghua looked baffled. "Corpse..."

"A plant which has the odor of rotting flesh. Unpleasant, but harmless. Interestingly, the fruits even look vaguely corpselike. They have these large, fleshy, irregular lobes--" Shen Qingqiu reined himself in as Shang Qinghua stared at him. "Anyway. I took some seeds."

"Why would you do that? Why would you want more of those?" Shang Qinghua asked, so incredulous he forgot his habitual caution of Shen Qingqiu.

"I was thinking, trade goods. There are some fairly harmless minor demons. This scent might be pleasant to them."

"Like a bacon scented candle," Shang Qinghua muttered.

"Exactly." Shen Qingqiu adjusted his sleeves while they were stopped. "I'm aware of no species which requires human flesh, specifically, to survive. Such a choosy diet isn't a survival trait. Perhaps they'll be more peaceable if they can, ah, satisfy their cravings another way." He brightened. "Oh, I wonder if they can eat the corpseflower fruit--"

"Feeding demons on Tofurky," Shang Qinghua muttered to himself, disbelieving.

*

Traveling with Shen Qingqiu was weird. Shang Qinghua had gotten used to the way he never made actual expressions, but constant proximity let him start seeing different types of blank.

They flew throughout the day, then made a pre-planned stop at an inn for the night. Shang Qinghua had carefully selected their accommodations to avoid plot points.

Along the way, Shang Qinghua tried fruitlessly to probe for information.

He saw Shen Qingqiu writing something after dinner.

"Sooooo... How are your students coming along? Anyone in particular standing out?" Shang Qinghua probed.

"They are all equally horrible," Shen Qingqiu answered, calligraphy brush not pausing for a moment.

"What are you working on?"

"I'm writing to Yue-shixiong." He pointed the brush at the letterbox on the table.

"You and Sect Leader are getting along better now, huh? What was up with that, anyway?"

Shen Qingqiu looked up at him, eyes narrowed. "We had a misunderstanding. It's been resolved."

"Hell of a misunderstanding," Shang Qinghua said, sotto voce, hoping to provoke a lengthier explanation.

"Yes. It was. It would have been resolved more quickly if certain people had shared information earlier." He gave Shang Qinghua another cool look and returned to his letter.

Eeeeek. This trip had been a bad idea. Shang Qinghua did not need to plant new death flags.

*

Chilly as he was, being in close proximity to Shen Qingqiu made it more difficult to think of him as a minor villain NPC. Shang Qinghua kept learning little humanizing details. Shen Qingqiu had a heating talisman worked right into his sleeping robes, for instance--a good idea, actually. He had another one in a light throw blanket he'd brought with them. Shang Qinghua would keep an eye out for his next requisition, to order one for himself.

During their inn rest stops, Shang Qinghua tried to see if Shen Qingqiu had any of the prophetic nightmares that were in his first draft and notes, but hadn't made it into the final, posted version. It would be nice to know exactly what version of his novel he'd transmigrated into. His life to date as 'Shang Qinghua' hadn't answered that question. Perhaps now that they had reached the protagonist's on-page origin story, he'd have more luck.

Chapter Text

They arrived in the capital of Qunnan Province--called, with Proud Immortal Demon Way-typical creativity, Qunnan City--without Shang Qinghua getting much in the way of useful information from Shen Qingqiu. As expected, the city was teeming with merchants, customers, and confidence men targeting both.

They were fortunate they had the carriage. It got them through the city gates faster than the long line of pedestrian travelers, and it was a slow but uneventful trip to their inn. Shang Qinghua had made ironclad arrangements ahead of time. He overheard travelers who weren't so lucky, searching inns for free floor space. Or, rather, very expensive floor space, this time of year.

Accommodations secured, Shang Qinghua and Shen Qingqiu rested briefly, then toured the area before supper. The city had taken on a festival atmosphere, with seemingly every citizen in the streets selling something. And not just citizens. The main event was, of course, the multi-day auction. But with so many free-spending travelers, many other merchants had arrived to offer their wares. Shang Qinghua picked them over with a jaded eye. "I haven't seen anything less than four times overpriced," he sniffed.

"It's a festival. We're buying the experience." Shen Qingqiu's fingers toyed with the cuff of his robe. He was, mostly, 'incognito,' not wearing his favorite green or brandishing his trademark fan. At Shang Qinghua's recommendation, he also wore one of the veiled hats affected by many young noblemen wandering around places they considered beneath them. Shen Qingqiu had enemies, and the last thing Shang Qinghua needed was for the villain to get into trouble when Yue Qingyuan had made Shang Qinghua responsible for him.

"We're not buying anything at this markup," Shang Qinghua said disdainfully.

*

The auction house had opened select goods to the inspection of favored clients. Shang Qinghua of Cang Qiong sect was one. He brought Shen Qingqiu under a pseudonym.

The auction itself would be held on a purpose-built stage, but the VIP preview took place in a beautiful old manor house. It had once belonged to a noble family, and had been richly appointed. Now, it had the slightly soulless feeling of a home no longer lived in. Not all the items up for offer were shown here, of course; most were in the great warehouse, under guard. But the better paintings, books, ornaments, and poems in beautiful calligraphy were displayed throughout the rooms.

Many of the auction's participants were incognito. Veils and even full faced masks were common. Shen Qingqiu had swapped out his favorite pale green outer robes for pale blue ones, and wore a veiled hat. It was a common practice, so no one knew who was bidding on what. Major auctions were a hotbed of gossip--who had ready cash, who was posing, and who hadn't attended at all. Like most auction houses, this one was offering a small selection of cultivation treasures. Nothing particularly valuable to an established sect, but the glamour of it would draw wealthy dilettantes.

Shen Qingqiu, of course, made a line directly for the art. Despite the veil, Shang Qinghua could still make out his expression of distaste as he examined a painting.

"This is awful," he declared.

"It says it's yours."

"Only if I painted it with my foot. Not even then. Look at that brushwork. Sloppy. And poorly structured. Why is this tree here? It must be covering up a mistake."

Shang Qinghua saw an opportunity. He lowered his voice. "We can warn the auction managers. If they can pull it before it goes up for bid, it would save them some embarrassment. We might get a discount."

Shen Qingqiu looked intrigued. "I'll be troubling Shang-shidi, then."

*

Later, back at the inn, Shang Qinghua fidgeted with the sleeve of his robe. "They wonder if, ah...."

Shen Qingqiu let one brow slowly float up.

"See, the painting has already been announced. If they pull it now, they'll lose face."

"People will just think they made a private sale. It happens all the time," Shen Qingqiu said dismissively.

"Ah, but, um..." Shang Qinghua quailed under Shen Qingqiu's cool glare. "They-asked-if-you-would-provide-another-painting? Maybe? So they can switch it out? They say they'll let us into the auction warehouse before anything is put up for bid. It isn't a gift, we'd still have to pay, but--" Shang Qinghua cut himself off as his words began to run together.

"Hmm." Shen Qingqiu bowed his head, lashes lowering in thought. He was so pretty, in a fool-you-should-be-so-lucky kind of way. Even if he was kind of a cold bastard. Oh my god, he had a type.

Shen Qingqiu was looking at him. Had he said that out loud? How much had he said out loud?

"If I can examine anything in the warehouse, I'll do it." Shen Qingqiu narrowed his eyes and leveled his closed fan at him. "And I want the fake painting, or for them to destroy it in my presence. And the one I make won't be the same subject. And, of course, they have to pay for my painting. Half of whatever it goes for at auction."

"Okay! Okay, we can do that. I'll tell them." Discount!

*

Shen Qingqiu was seated a few feet from a window, working on a painting. It was... A village, placed in a mountain valley. At dusk or twilight, Shang Qinghua thought. As he watched, Shen Qingqiu added a layer of translucent color to the few lit windows, already so delicately detailed that the paint seemed to give off a warm glow. Then, he switched to a different brush to add depth to the fog.

"Wow. That's... really good."

Shen Qingqiu sniffed. "Overly sentimental." He picked up a brush that had, like, three hairs on it, and added a few pale lavender lines to the grass growing in the tiny dooryard of one of the lit houses. It seemed to be catching the light from the window.

"Uh, how did you get so far on it so quickly?"

"Oh, I always travel with a few works in progress," Shen Qingqiu answered absently. "You never know what you'll get a yen to work on."

Shang Qinghua assumed 'a few' was three, at the low end, and multiplied that by the reserve price set for the fake painting, plus, oh, call it twenty-five percent if the bidding heated up. "You know," he said slowly, "The auction house would be more than happy to--" He bit his tongue as Shen Qingqiu gave him a sharp look.

"They may have one," Shen Qingqiu said severely. He turned his attention back to the painting. After a few moments, he spoke again. "Though you may negotiate delivery of, let's say, two more over the next year."

"Super! Okay, great!" Shang Qinghua headed for the table to draft an offer. "Really great. Uh, what are you going to use the money for?"

"Some of my students aren't from families with means. I'm going to begin giving them an allowance." He leaned close to the painting to add a scattering of detail work. Shang Qinghua stared up at him, hands frozen.

"Uh... that's... unusual."

"It will help them learn responsible money management."

What the hell. What next? Opening an orphanage? If he opened up an orphanage, Shang Qinghua was going to quit.

*

The painting was finished, and exquisite. The cool fog sinking down the slope of the valley, combined with the warmly glowing windows, gave an indefinable sense of welcome. There were a few, dim stars in the sky and a delicate pink-lavender tone to the horizon.

After the auction manager's first shocked stare, he'd gone on to examine the painting minutely. If they'd been so careful with the first one, this opportunity wouldn't have arisen. He finally straightened, and nodded to Shang Qinghua.

"Superb. Niu Jia auction house is very pleased to have the opportunity to do business with Cang Qiong. Ah, what is the title of the piece?"

"Homecoming," Shang Qinghua said firmly. Shen Qingqiu, when asked, had said 'mountain village at dusk,' and that just wasn't a brand name you could do anything with. Shen Qingqiu, he thought, not for the first time, needed a good manager.

*

Shen Qingqiu meandered through the auction warehouse, trailed by an obsequious employee. Shang Qinghua stayed at the front, talking shop with their inventory manager. It took over an hour for Shen Qingqiu to return, wearing the 'pleased' version of his habitual blank face. Shang Qinghua waited until they were in the carriage on the way back to their inn before asking questions.

"Anything interesting in the books for sale?"

"Yes, some diaries," Shen Qingqiu said absently. He was reviewing a list he'd taken from his sleeve.

"Journals? Those are useful?"

"A travelogue. A cultivator from that sect who traveled extensively, and kept a diary. A contemporaneous account of the people and places he encountered. Cross-referenced with what we already have in the Library, it might be quite useful." He glanced up at Shang Qinghua and tucked the list back into his sleeve. "I've been meaning to take some of my students on educational outings. They need more practical experience.”

"Oh. Huh." Shang Qinghua thought for a minute. "This old sect hasn't been really active for twenty years, though. Anything this guy saw will be grown over."

"That will be part of what they learn. How to recognize a site, and uncover it responsibly. Then they can make sketches and take rubbings. I'm not sending them out to learn things we already know, and nothing new will be out in the open."

Shang Qinghua, wide-eyed, covered his mouth before he could say 'Indiana Jones!' It would be nonsense in the cultivation world, of course.

Also, holy shit, that was the most words he'd ever heard Shen Qingqiu speak at once, barring a prepared lecture or an excoriating attack on some novel or piece of poetry.

Chapter Text

The auction manager, though doubtless extremely busy on this big day, came to greet them briefly. He left them in the care of a subordinate, who guided them to a private room with a good view of the stage. The auction house was a theater, in daily life, Shen Qingqiu surmised. The subordinate left them with tea, refreshments... and two very pretty, elegantly dressed young ladies. Shen Qingqiu gave Shang Qinghua a judgmental look.

"Not my idea! It's just, just part of the whole thing!"

"Hmm."

One of the young women looked like she was trying not to let her friendly-but-not-too-friendly smile turn into a laugh. The other was studiously pretending deafness. They were, Shen Qingqiu guessed, here not just to charm and entertain--and gently encourage alcohol-fueled bidding--but to inform their employers about what items the wealthier clients were interested in.

*

The auction began--a very professionally done program. The auctioneer moved the bidding briskly along; the stage hands displayed each new item quickly, and the natures of the items for sale rotated frequently enough to keep interest high. These auctions were partially a form of entertainment, but Shen Qingqiu bet that more than a few people who had attended as spectators, would spend more money than they expected.

The cultivation 'treasures'--nothing really spectacular, from a cultivator's point of view--got the most attention. Shen Qingqiu watched as a small box of octarine spirit grass was sold for an exorbitant price. A cooling talisman in a small pouch was advertised as 'a bag of wind, inexhaustible'... at least until it had to be recharged by a cultivator. Most of these would be bought as status symbols by wealthy novelty seekers. The few qiankun bags for sale went for a good price--Shen Qingqiu's poorer students would be able to support themselves, crafting them, when they left the sect.

Shang Qinghua's eyebrows flew up at the fanciful description of the next item up for auction. "Wow, a... an inexhaustible source of water? That breaks so many physical laws. Conservation of mass...." He trailed off.

Shen Qingqiu looked up from his notes. "Oh, an Everflow Ewer. It's a kind of specialty qiankun item; it only holds water, but large amounts of it. They are quite handy, but no rare treasure." He sniffed. "Not worth the prices I'm hearing, certainly."

Shang Qinghua slowly turned his head to look at him. "Can you make them?"

Shen Qingqiu lifted his brows briefly. "Of course. The technique is hardly complex."

"What's the capacity?"

"It depends on the skill of the cultivator. Several hundred dǒu, easily. They're actually more useful for draining ponds... oh, and travel of course." He made a mental note to put one in Luo Binghe's emergency supplies. He was collecting a few little necessary items for the Abyss questline. Oh, an extra spirit sword, too. Zheng Yang would probably break again. He jotted a little reminder, in his private code, in the margins of his notes.

Shang Qinghua was still staring at him. "Do you know--" he choked out. "--Do you know, how many supply problems that would solve for us?"

Shen Qingqiu frowned at him. "Well. You didn't ask." Take that, Mr. So Many Thousand Year Flowers I Lost Track.

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu's painting went for a gratifyingly large sum. He, in turn, left the hospitable young ladies a very good tip. He left Shang Qinghua at the auction house; he'd been invited to tea with the auction manager, no doubt to discuss the future delivery of the other two paintings. Shen Qingqiu returned to the inn alone, by carriage. As in the vast cityscapes Shen Qingqiu remembered as Shen Yuan, no one who was anyone walked.

The trip had brought up memories--not memory quest markers, but the softer-edged, nostalgic memories of his life as Shen Yuan. Especially walking through the big old manor house, and later the auction warehouse, looking at the art displayed.

Shen Qingqiu could remember doing the same thing with his mother--the mother of he-as-Shen-Yuan, that is. She had been an art history major at university, though like many well brought up young ladies she hadn't done anything with the degree before marrying Shen Yuan's father. He remembered her holding his small hand through museums. His two older brothers accompanied their father on company tours, but Shen Yuan--younger, and delicate even then--was exempted. His mother eschewed noisy guided tours and walked him through the expertly lit rooms herself. There was a break of a few years, for the birth of his little sister, but it was a tradition they had kept, just the two of them. He remembered begging for, and receiving, a cheap painting kit from a museum gift shop--even though he had much nicer painting supplies at home.

Shen Qingqiu was distracted as he arrived at the inn, but was brought back to alertness as he sensed a being in their rented parlor. Not a cultivator. Not anything he recognized specifically. But a strong presence, neatly buttoned down so it wouldn't alert every cultivator within the neighborhood.

It was Mobei-jun, no doubt checking up on Shang Qinghua, and not expecting a second peak lord. Shen Qingqiu looked at him, face neutral. He'd had a lot of time to think about Shang Qinghua and Mobei-jun. Not while he was on the run in his past life, of course--he had more immediate concerns--but later. Shang Qinghua had sold his escape plan out to Luo Binghe, that was true. But he had no reason to volunteer that information--no one could possibly know it existed to pressure him about it. The only reason to reveal it, would be as a bargaining chip.

Shen Qingqiu had all the pieces, but hadn't put it together until he'd delved into Qing Jing's archives for what little information they had on high demons' culture. He'd been looking for the reason Sha Hualing hadn't been fascinated with Luo Binghe, unlike last time. But in fact, he already had the information he sought. In his previous life, in the context of Sha Hualing's hypothetical interest in Luo Binghe, he had thought to himself 'for a demon girl, the person she likes should be goaded and viciously bullied.' Once he applied that to Shang Qinghua and Mobei-jun... well. Some things made more sense. And judging from their conversations in his past life, Airplane-Shooting-Towards-The-Sky was entirely oblivious.

Shen Qingqiu stepped in, and closed the door. "Ah. Shang-shidi's friend. This Shen Qingqiu is pleased to make your acquaintance." Turning and leaving, while his preference, was out of the question. It would be a show of weakness, and Shen Qingqiu didn't want to provoke another attack on Cang Qiong. Time to bluff. Shen Jiu, I choose you! he thought irreverently.

Mobei-jun stood stock still in the corner of the room. "He's spoken of me," he said, with no inflection.

"No, but one can learn so much from what isn't said. Please, sit."

Shen Qingqiu went through the ritualized motions of formal tea making. "This one is, of course, Shang Qinghua's senior martial brother. The Peak Masters of Cang Qiong view each other as family, so this master is curious about your intentions toward his junior brother."

Mobei-jun sat silent.

"Under the circumstances, this Shen Qingqiu understands why no formal introduction was made." Shen Qingqiu heated a kettle with a touch. Mobei-jun sat, stone-faced. Shen Qingqiu first brewed the tea, then paused. "Ah, but hot tea is so oppressive in this climate, isn't it? It really is unseasonably humid for autumn." He pulled the heat away from the tea in Mobei-jun's cup with a brush of the back of his fingers against the porcelain. It cooled abruptly, steam disappearing and being replaced by quickly melting ice crystals. The displacement of energy made the room just that tiny bit warmer.

"The House of Sha suffered for their attack on Cang Qiong," Mobei-jun began experimentally.

Shen Qingqiu nodded, tapping his teacup lid with one finger. "The students performed well. As teachers, we're very pleased."

"You... are trying to make them stronger?" Mobei-jun's voice had a faint thread of incredulity.

"Of course. That's the purpose of the school. Isn't that what you do with your own youngsters?"

"Your own bloodline, yes, but... They can't all be your offspring, surely?" Mobei-jun looked horrified at the thought, in an understated kind of way.

"None of them are," Shen Qingqiu corrected. "For the most part, their parents send them to us to be educated. The demonic realm doesn't have such schools?"

"It's inconceivable. A strong vassal will rebel against the liege; that's the way of nature."

"This is fascinating. We have so much to learn from each other. Please, go on." Shen Qingqiu was already taking mental notes to add to Qing Jing's tragic lack in this area. He was sure Shang Qinghua would be busy at the auction house for hours.

Chapter Text

Liu Qingge returned from his trip just in time to be pulled into the monthly Peak Masters' meeting. He didn't see Shen Qingqiu--or Shang Qinghua, for that matter--but thought little of it. Few peak lords attended every meeting; he knew Yue Qingyuan asked Ruan Qingruan to provide the refreshments, on those occasions when he needed a good turnout.

Yue Qingyuan looked a little stressed, but that was expected--he had students currently taking the Imperial civil services exams, and their performance would reflect on the sect.

Liu Qingge did note the change, when he visited Qing Jing several days later. Shen Qingqiu's usual cool, slightly repressive aura was absent. He thought he was just visiting another peak, and made plans to return later.

It wasn't until he ran into Yue Qingyuan the next week, and saw the sect leader's increasingly tense posture, that he realized something was wrong.

"He's just on a trip with Shang Qinghua," Yue Qingyuan explained. "They went to that auction. Shang-shidi wanted to take a carriage part of the way, for some reason." His tense jaw suggested Shang Qinghua would find his next budget amendments scrutinized very carefully indeed.

"A carriage? I can't see Shen Qingqiu putting up with Shang Qinghua's chatter that long."

"Indeed he isn't," Yue Qingyuan said with a thin smile. "He said he plans to fly back alone."

Ah ha. "Where did they go?"

"Qunnan Province--their capital city."

They walked on silently for a minute, before both spoke at once.

"I know he's--"

"Do you want me to--"

They both paused. Yue Qingyuan spoke first, carefully. "I know he can look after himself. He's certainly proved that. And it would be terribly insulting if I sent someone after him. Especially since he'll be with another Peak Lord for most of the journey."

"Well, yeah." The conversation turned to other things.

A few days later, Liu Qingge set out again. There were rumors of a river monster where the Ru River flowed through Qunnan Province, and he might as well investigate. Besides, both Mu Qingfang and Lin Qingshui assured him the yin-rich waters would be beneficial for his cultivation.

Chapter Text

It wasn't difficult for Liu Qingge to find Shang Qinghua and Shen Qingqiu. As expected, Shang Qinghua had selected the best inns available to avoid any risk of conflict with Shen Qingqiu.

At the inn dining room in Re He, he found them--arguing. It sounded like a friendly argument, though. He slowed his approach to eavesdrop shamelessly.

"It's ridiculous," Shen Qingqiu was saying. "Gu Beiyue is obviously, in every way, a superior love interest to Long Feiye."

"Well, you know, the male lead is for the female lead, and the secondary love interests are for the readers," Shang Qinghua said wisely. Shen Qingqiu sniffed contemptuously. Shang Qinghua continued. "The disciple who introduced it to me--it's published in her home city--she likes Gu Qishao."

"What? But he's obviously her brother! Half-brother, or whatever."

"See, she thinks that's a red herring--" Shang Qinghua suggested.

"It's implied too subtly to be a deliberate attempt to deceive, though..." Shen Qingqiu frowned, apparently giving the thought consideration anyway.

"Yeah, she's trying to find her birth father and Gu Qishao's father has never appeared. I don't think he's even named? But he, obviously, had a big impact on him. I thought it would be resolved when they found the servant who'd been poisoned mute--"

"Pfft."

"Yeah, two hundred chapters, then nothing. The author seems to be building up to something, though. It can't be long before the big reveal now."

"Hah! Bold of you to assume," Shen Qingqiu scoffed.

Liu Qingge had reached their table, now, and they blinked at him. Shang Qinghua was blankly frozen--was that guilt? Shen Qingqiu was coolly inscrutable, as always.

"Liu-shidi. What a pleasant surprise. What brings you here?"

"Poison Barbed Lion-headed Eel," he said briefly. "In the Ru Shui."

Shen Qingqiu brightened. "Oh. Has it killed anyone?"

Liu Qingge and Shang Qinghua gave him judgmental looks, that remark having overcome even Shang Qinghua's habitual diffidence. "Shen Qingqiu."

The fan came out. "I just mean, they're much more dangerous when they've fed. Although it takes some time to absorb the, ah, meal, apparently."

Liu Qingge was interested. "How much time?"

"That's never been precisely determined, for obvious reasons. Several hours, at least."

"You can come help, if you want," Liu Qingge offered generously.

Shen Qingqiu looked tempted. "Hmm. Are the parts already spoken for?"

"No one made any specific requests. If you have qiankun items with you--"

"Always. Very well. Shang-shidi, are you interested?"

Shang Qinghua shook his head immediately, fringe flopping. "No, no, not my line of country."

Shen Qingqiu looked at him over his fan, eyes gleaming. "But you were so set on spending time with this shixiong. It will be a bonding experience."

As Shang Qinghua protested, and Shen Qingqiu ruthlessly cut down his excuses, Liu Qingge looked again at the An Ding peak lord. What was his motive, here?

*

On the way, Liu Qingge warned, "We don't know if it's killed humans or not. There have been some deaths, and an unusual number of disappearances, but the Ru is a cold, fast-moving river. They might have been natural. We're suspecting a Lion-headed Eel, because a sect upriver reported seeing one. But there was a rift in the area, around the same time."

Shen Qingqiu spoke up. He was following Liu Qingge, with Shang Qinghua trailing behind. "The disappearances are a more likely sign than the deaths. The Lion-headed Eel eats the flesh of the body, not the qi or blood. It's an unmistakable sign. Unlike the Freshwater Vampire Clam, the prey of which can be mistaken for a drowning victim."

"What was I thinking," Shang Qinghua muttered behind him.

Shen Qingqiu hid a smile and continued as if he hadn't heard, surveying the forest. Dark, dense, and cool, it covered the west side of a row of tall hills. "Hmm. Poison Barbed Lion-headed Eels don't usually run this far east, but seeing this environment, I am no longer surprised. I wonder if those hills have old burial caves." Burials would add to the yin energy.

"Worth looking into," Liu Qingge suggested.

"Maybe not this trip. Who is supposed to be looking after this area, anyway?" he asked.

"Huan Hua, but nothing formal."

"What could they be thinking?" Shen Qingqiu frowned.

Shang Qinghua spoke up. "They could be, uh, letting things build up to make one big spirit instead of a lot of little ones?"

Liu Qingge snorted. "Short sighted." He noted that Shen Qingqiu was giving Shang Qinghua a thoughtful, measuring look, and wondered why.

"Hmm. Something to make note of. Well, let's begin."

*

When they tracked it down, the creature was fortunately in a deep pool separated from the swift, deadly waters of the Ru by a natural dam. It also wasn't a Lion-headed Eel.

"Ah, a Ten-Mouthed Poison Lake Squid," said Shen Qingqiu, eyes bright. "I must get samples."

"Not a Barbed Lion-headed Eel."

"No, but still venomous. They don't actually have ten mouths, of course; that would be ridiculous."

"Sure."

"But they do have two hearts; one inside the main body, and the other kept externally," Shen Qingqiu continued.

"Uh."

"But still attached. It's in a kind of fleshy sack." Shen Qingqiu used his hand and closed fan to indicate something the about the size of a melon. "They'll keep it in the muddy river bottom, when possible. They'll die, eventually, if just one is destroyed. But to drop them quickly, one needs to get both."

"Is it dangerous?"

"Most definitely. Do you see those glints of light, just under the surface of the water? Phosphorescence. It's a lure, for fish, animals, and humans." He pointed with his fan. "Note the lilies. Some are a distinctly different species than the others. They have a paralytic slime on the underside and the roots trailing in the water. The lure draws in the curious, they're paralyzed by the slime, and the Poison Lake Squid waits for them to drown. Very efficient." His fan angled downward. "And unless I'm very much mistaken, this one has already done so. That is a human rib."

"How... how can you tell it's human?" Shang Qinghua sounded a little shrill. "It could be, a, a deer or something."

"The shape. Humans stand upright, so our ribs are curved to hold our insides, like a bowl. Whereas, something like a deer is a quadruped, and the ribs are flatter. More to the point, that is definitely a boot with a foot still in it. It must have been puzzled by the leather."

Liu Qingge tapped Cheng Luan's hilt mediatively. "Alright. Shen Qingqiu, do those energy darts you use sap your strength?"

"Minimally."

"Then send those on the surface of the water, near the trapped lilies. If it thinks it's caught something, we can draw it out. I'll ambush it when it does. Shang Qinghua--" Liu Qingge looked dubiously at the tense An Ding Peak Lord. "Once it's out of the water, I'll draw it away. You get between it and the water's edge, and dig in. You don't need to engage, just look formidable enough that it will fight me instead of going to ground."

"Uh..."

"Your spirit armor should be up to it," Liu Qingge said firmly.

*

Shen Qingqiu used his fan to flick a single energy dart toward the water, testing. Adding another had no response. He experimented with darts which broke apart upon impact, sending a dozen tiny ripples over the surface. There--a movement in the water, too large to be from one of his darts. After a moment's thought, Shen Qingqiu sent a floating flare charm flying over. They were usually used as portable lighting--he had used them to good effect in the Sun-And-Moon Dew Flower cave complex. But they had just a trace of warmth. Ah, there! The Poison Lake Squid came out of hiding, thin tentacles reaching eagerly for what it believed to be its prey. Really fascinating; the 'lilies' were sensitive to both movement and heat. Shen Qingqiu would have to make a note of it.

Grasping and finding nothing, but still sensing the heat of the flares, the squid came to the water's edge to find its prey. Liu Qingge baited it to attack, and the fight was joined.

*

Liu Qingge drew the squid away from the water before making his first serious attack. He saw, from the corner of his eye, Shang Qinghua moving into position between the creature and the water's edge. His spirit armor was so heavy he looked blurry.

The squid had ten limbs--eight long and thin tentacles, and two shorter, fleshy arms it used to maneuver in the shallows. Liu Qingge smoothly removed one tentacle, and used the creature's recoil to attack its body. The tentacles gave it great maneuverability, even on land; he dodged a strike from above and behind him. The one he'd amputated was still twitching lethargically, but was much slower than the ones still attached. Examining it in passing, he could see the inside surface of the tentacles had tiny mouth-shaped suckers with some sort of barbed protrusion. Probably the poison vector.

No matter; this was such a basic enemy one of his students could have handled it, let alone three peak lords. Liu Qingge focused on the workman-like task of removing the tentacles, one at a time, so the creature couldn't retreat to the water. It took less than a minute to get the next six. He tried to direct the tentacles to the same area, to reduce the risk of someone brushing the poison suckers accidentally. That was made easier, by the way the tentacles reflexively grasped whatever was near; they clung to each other in a death grip.

The creature tried to make it back to the water with one tentacle and two arms. One of Shen Qingqiu's energy attacks--a stronger version of his dart--struck an arm, and the creature briefly floundered before recovering. Then--there was a wave of demonic qi. Interesting. It had at least some energy manipulation abilities. Liu Qingge watched as the water moved; apparently the creature was pulling it in a wave, so the returning tide would help it regain the relative safety of the river bottom. Liu Qingge took the opportunity to flash-step forward and stab through the creature's rubbery body to where he judged its primary heart should be, no longer protected by the poisonous surface of a half dozen flailing tentacles.

Shang Qinghua dodged the wave easily. But Shen Qingqiu evidently opted to rely on his barrier charms instead. The first rush of the wave broke seamlessly over his barrier, but as the water rushed back, he tensed and the shield shattered. He was soaked in the back flow. He switched Xiu Ya to his off hand. Liu Qingge heard him cursing--he must have misheard. Scene Pusher? No matter. He was already moving without conscious thought, severing the thing's secondary heart. It collapsed onto the shore.

Shang Qinghua was gaping at the soaked, disheveled Shen Qingqiu, who eyed the mess of his hair with disgust. Liu Qingge looked at Shang Qinghua, then at Shen Qingqiu again. His many layers, voluminous when dry, lost that bulk when soaked.

"Ugh. Well, since I'm already soaked, I'll put the parts of the creature into storage." He patted his dripping sleeve to find his qiankun bags.

*

Shen Qingqiu made quick work of packing the creature away. It helped that the tentacles had already been neatly removed and put in one place. Apparently, he didn't need to touch the poison-barbed tentacles to pack them into his qiankun items; he gave a brief, unprompted, grumpy lecture about the poor thought process behind those which did. He did something with an energy technique, that made most of the water soaking his robes turn into steam--or fog--and drift harmlessly away. It didn't restore his previous appearance, though. During the whole process, Shang Qinghua kept darting nervous, guilty glances toward him. Shen Qingqiu seemed oblivious.

The trip back to the rural inn they were using as base camp was quiet, and short by sword-flight. Liu Qingge, bringing up the rear because Shen Qingqiu was in a rush to get to a bath and fresh clothes, noticed Shang Qinghua staring again, less subtly.

While Shen Qingqiu was off going through whatever involved process he needed to be presentable again, Liu Qingge stared Shang Qinghua down. "Don't even think about it."

"I know!" Shang Qinghua hissed. "I can't help it! I'm very gay and very weak!"

Liu Qingge shook his head in mock sympathy. "So, what's going on? You drummed up some excuse--" he noted Shang Qinghua's sudden stillness. "--to go on a trip alone with him, then you change plans so he returns with you instead of flying ahead, you detour through the scenic Ru River Valley--"

Shang Qinghua shook his head so hard his queue hit his face. He was one of the few Peak Lords who didn’t keep his hair long, instead using a hairpiece when he needed to dress formally. "No! Is that what Sect Leader thinks? He's going to kill me, I will die." His voice had drifted from shaky panic to grim certainty, and Liu Qingge noted the change.

"I don't think Sect Leader would murder you."

"They both would! I know!"

"You might want to be careful what you put in your budget, though."

*

"What are you drawing?" Liu Qingge asked. Shen Qingqiu was dry again, hair combed out and tidy, wearing an entirely different set of robes, because apparently he'd packed half his cottage into qiankun items for the two-week trip.

Shen Qingqiu looked up briefly from his work. "The Ten-Mouthed Poison Lake Squid. It's useful to draw the illustrations for our bestiaries from life. A corpse doesn't give a cultivator a really good idea of what they're going to be dealing with."

"Ah."

As expected, Shen Qingqiu needed little encouragement to expand on his favorite topic. "The waterlilies aren't part of the creature, you know. They actually grow them, and apply the paralytic slime when they're mature. You can often tell the origin of the creature by identifying the species of plant; they take them with them when they migrate."

"What does that mean for us?"

"That we should contact that little family sect in the Xue river valley. That's upstream from here, and where this particular variety of lily is common. Either there is a breeding group in their river, or something more predatory moved in and scared it away."

Liu Qingge brightened. "I should plan on a trip up there."

Shen Qingqiu shook his head in mock disapproval. "You have the strangest hobbies."

Chapter Text

When Shen Qingqiu returned to Qing Jing, he was ambushed.

"Shizun!"

Shen Qingqiu neatly flash stepped to the side. "Rule Fourteen!" Luo Binghe flew past him and pinwheeled his arms to come to a halt.

*

Yue Qingyuan was wearing his most gentle, brotherly smile, and Shang Qinghua knew what that meant.

"Did Shang-shidi find what he was seeking on his trip?" he asked mildly.

"Yes! No complaints!" Shang Qinghua squeaked.

"And what was it Shang-shidi planned to buy, exactly?"

Shang Qinghua had prepared several careful, unassailable reasons for the trip, to be pulled out in case he was challenged, but there was a sudden blank spot in his mind where they should be. "I... uh..."

"Shang-shidi professed to need guidance in whether to bid on this book collection. He said he was ignorant as to the value of its contents. But this shixiong has found that Shang-shidi made extensive and detailed inquiries, beginning a few months ago, seeking information about merchandise related to books or preternatural creatures. And, then, about the items for sale at this particular auction. So, given that Shang-shidi knew exactly what was available, this shixiong is very interested to know why he invited Shen Qingqiu on the trip." The way his eyes hadn't changed at all was suddenly very worrisome.

"I wanted... I wanted to ask..." Shang Qinghua's mind worked furiously, but it felt like he was spinning his mental wheels in the mud. There was no traction, no hope for escape.

"This shixiong is listening," Yue Qingyuan said. That was a threat. That was a threat if Shang Qinghua ever heard one, and he had been threatened loads of times, okay?

"I wanted... to..." Something sparked, a recent fleeting idea. "I-wanted-to-convince-him-to-let-me-be-his-manager," came out, all in a rush. Shang Qinghua took a deep breath.

Yue Qingyuan looked nonplussed. Not that he'd ever looked plussed in the first place. "His... what?"

"He has all these paintings! And other art, the, the pottery and jade carving and so on. And he doesn't do anything with it! I thought, I have contacts, I could be the middleman and... find a market. There are very serious collectors out there, you know. It seems like every time I go on a business trip, someone asks me to pass a request along."

"I see. I've gotten a few of those, too." Yue Qingyuan's brow had a very tiny wrinkle. "Why... didn't you just ask him here?"

"You know how he gets about his art. It's all 'not finished' or 'not representative,' or he's improved the technique... He has very high standards. Unreasonably high. Not just for the students." Shang Qinghua felt like his lie had really hit its stride.

"That's... true." Yue Qingyuan was looking at him narrowly, now.

"So I thought, if he could travel a little, see what passes for a masterpiece outside of Cang Qiong and Qing Jing..."

"--He'd gain perspective. I see." Yue Qingyuan looked thoughtful. Shang Qinghua felt like he'd escaped execution by the breadth of a butterfly's wing. Like he'd fallen over a thousand-foot drop and, by luck, been caught by a scraggly pine growing out of the sheer cliff face.

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu returned to his cottage, and began the arduous process of unpacking. Why had he brought all this stuff? He hardly used any of it. He resolved to pack lighter in the future. He always did.

*

Shen Qingqiu had checked in at Qiong Ding when he returned, of course, but his conversation with Yue Qingyuan had covered only the non-existent travel dangers and the encounter with the Ten-Mouthed Poison Lake Squid at the end of the trip. Liu Qingge had stayed behind to reconnoiter the area, so Shen Qingqiu brought the Bai Zhan peak lord's report in by hand and offered a more involved description when his account turned out to be of typical brevity. Yue Qingyuan had looked momentarily blank when learning about their fortunate encounter, but Shen Qingqiu thought he was pleased by their unprompted cooperation.

A day after their return, a Qiong Ding disciple brought an invitation for a longer visit.

"This shixiong heard of the excitement at the end of the trip, but Qingqiu-shidi hasn't mentioned how the auction itself went," Yue Qingyuan said as they settled at the table.

"Oh--yes, the library had some interesting items." Shen Qingqiu accepted a teacup. "Thank you. The collection had some travelogues... I was leafing through them on the way home, and the writer also made some hand drawn maps. Nothing elaborate, but certainly interesting."

Yue Qingyuan glowed happily at the casual mention of 'home.' "Ah, I'm glad it was a fruitful trip. You didn't bring back any paintings, or carvings? Niu Jia is supposed to be a reliable purveyor of fine art."

Shen Qingqiu shook his head. "So I'd heard, but their offerings were distinctly lacking at this sale. It was an unremarkable assortment. There were a few interesting bits of ivory, using that technique from the island empire--but it turned out to be a local imitation, and substandard. The rest of the offerings were strictly second rate--including a painting labelled as one of mine. Apparently, they got it as part of a private collection, and didn't check the provenance."

Yue Qingyuan's brows rose. "A forgery? Did you recognize the artist?"

Shen Qingqiu was shaking his head even as he finished. "No; not one of my students, anyway. It was definitely someone who had seen my completed paintings, but not the process. It was awful." Shen Qingqiu hid his grimace in his tea. "Muddy colors, terrible composition--you would have laughed. But Shang Qinghua used that as leverage to get access to the warehouse--and a discount, I believe."

Yue Qingyuan nudged a plate towards him. "So he spoke to the auction managers on your behalf?"

"After discussing it with me, yes. As it happened, I had a few works-in-progress with me--"

Yue Qingyuan smiled helplessly. "Of course you did."

Shen Qingqiu narrowed his eyes at him. "--because you never know what you'll be inspired to work on. I polished up one of those, and they withdrew the fake." He frowned. "One of my conditions was to take the forgery, or have it destroyed--they gave it to me. I thought perhaps it was covering something valuable--why else make such a horrible mess of it?--but there was nothing, even when I stripped it down to the bare panel."

"Does that happen often?" Yue Qingyuan asked with interest.

"Often enough, or so I've heard. Money changes hands, ostensibly for the 'art,' but some valuable intelligence is hidden under or inside it."

"Huh."

"You would need a better artist to make it believable, though, not just a famous name."

"It was good enough for Niu Jia to offer it for sale."

Shen Qingqiu sniffed. "That says very little, from what I saw." He sipped his tea. Yue Qingyuan hid a smile.

*

Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge sparred, both moving at a careful three-quarters of full speed. Yue Qingyuan's deliberate, technically perfect execution was a sharp contrast to Liu Qingge's fluid, well-practiced technique. They had very different styles; Yue Qingyuan's careful tactics were very hard to escape completely, as any evasion led the opponent into another trap. Liu Qingge's fluent style, created through decades of painstaking practice, made evasion and counterattack so deeply ingrained it was instinctive, beyond thought. It made spars challenging, but rewarding for both of them.

"Do you think he was telling the truth?" Liu Qingge asked on a break.

"I think he was telling a truth," Yue Qingyuan said carefully. "I confirmed part of it with Qingqiu-shidi. But I also believe he was hiding something."

Liu Qingge weighed the dangers and benefits of speculation, and decided in favor of discretion. He stayed tactfully silent.

Chapter Text

As they sat in the conference room ahead of that month's peak lords' meeting, Shen Qingqiu spoke with Mu Qingfang over tea.

"...Though I actually prefer the pipa."

"But Shen-shixiong starts his students with the qin?"

Shen Qingqiu shrugged. "It's the most respected classical instrument. And, more importantly, a quiet one." At Mu Qingfang's questioning brow he elaborated. "The novices haven't learned to make muffling seals yet. Thirty amateurs practicing the pipa would test what little patience this teacher possesses."

Mu Qingfang acknowledged that with a wry salute of his teacup, then looked behind Shen Qingqiu to the approaching Liu Qingge. "Liu-shixiong, welcome."

Liu Qingge nodded politely to Mu Qingfang. "Here," Liu Qingge said, handing Shen Qingqiu a fan over his shoulder.

"Oh," Shen Qingqiu said as he took it. "Thanks to Liu-shidi."

Liu Qingge took his chair. "Stop leaving them everywhere."

Shen Qingqiu examined the fan, compared it to his current one, then switched them out by putting the current one in his sleeve. "Perhaps I should put them on a ribbon, like children and mittens."

The newly returned Zi Dan, attending as Ruan Qingruan's guest, was frozen in the act of lifting his teacup. He stared at his husband. I told you, Ruan Qingruan mouthed silently.

*

Later, at home, Zi Dan picked up the conversation. "You told me, but nothing could prepare me for that." He shook his head, disbelieving. "You described it in your letters, but seeing the change--"

Ruan Qingruan nudged the tray closer to him and Zi Dan picked up a miniature egg tart almost automatically. "It really defies description."

"It isn't just that he's being nice--"

"--For a given value of nice," Ruan Qingruan interjected.

"Hah, yes. But he's also just... more present. Like he's actually interested in what's going on around him, instead of going through the motions."

Ruan Qingruan smiled. "He gave me that picture of you, you know. The one I have in the kitchen. Completely out of nowhere, a couple years ago."

Zi Dan squeezed him tightly around the waist, and they just leaned together silently for a while. In a bit, Zi Dan said, "And that one of a tortoise, in the hallway, I saw."

Ruan Qingruan poured him more tea, smiling. "That was for my birthday, though. Everyone brought a gift."

"And everyone knows how you feel about tortoises," Zi Dan shook his head fondly.

"They carry their homes with them," Ruan Qingruan said, with feeling.

Chapter Text

Zi Dan stayed mostly aloof from Shen Qingqiu's visit with Ruan Qingruan. Shen Qingqiu had considerately sent a note ahead--most of their martial siblings did the same, in respect to his long absence--and arrived with a gift.

He greeted Zi Dan politely, with a little of the awkwardness of their disciple years which he'd never really outgrown. Zi Dan sometimes thought he was nearly as much of a hermit as Wei Qingwei. His chat with Ruan Qingruan had mostly centered around some disciple of his who was being sent over for lessons.

It was rare that a disciple of one of the other peaks was sent to Zui Xian, and when it happened, it was usually a Qian Cao disciple who wanted to branch out to medicinal foods. It burnished Zui Xian's reputation somewhat, to have the second-ranked peak send a student over.

"--I know we had a devil of a time getting him to express an opinion about anything. He was always trying to guess the answer we were looking for." Ruan Qingruan shook his head and refreshed Shen Qingqiu's tea. "Still, he's come along since then. He got into an argument with one of my inner sect disciples just the other day."

Shen Qingqiu's cup paused on the way to his mouth. "Ah--"

Ruan Qingruan waved off his concern. "Oh, cooks argue all the time. This one was about whether you really need to use cooking wine when making fish, or if scallion-ginger juice is an acceptable substitute. Some things, you just have to experiment."

"Ah," Shen Qingqiu repeated, politely.

*

"Why is he so concerned about that student, do you know?" Zi Dan asked after Shen Qingqiu had left. Ruan Qingruan was thoughtfully quiet for a few moments. Zi Dan gave him the time to choose his words. He knew that despite their long relationship, there were things Ruan Qingruan simply couldn't tell him, because he wasn't a peak lord.

After the pause, Ruan Qingruan spoke carefully. "Guilt, I think." Zi Dan's eyebrows flew up. That wasn't what he had been expecting. Ruan Qingruan continued. "The boy is obviously a physical cultivator, but Shen Qingqiu brought him into Qing Jing. Perhaps one of his experiments, or perhaps--I've heard it said--to spite Liu Qingge. So, he was unsuited for the peak--and, worse, Shen Qingqiu told me there was some bullying. The youngster foundered for two years, before Shen Qingqiu noticed something was amiss."

Zi Dan winced. "At that age... Shen Qingqiu has never been good about seeing the human element."

Ruan Qingruan nodded. "You remember what he was like, but for the few years before his fever, it was... worse. He would rarely leave his peak, he'd barely speak at meetings, he wasn't teaching--but it worsened so gradually we didn't notice. He seemed to want to be left alone, so we left him alone." He sighed, and shrugged. "You know how Shen Qingqiu is about admitting mistakes. I think he's trying to make up for it. And perhaps he realized he could have ruined a promising cultivator out of neglect. More than one, if what I hear about his former head disciple is true."

"What, young Tang-shizhi?" Zi Dan looked astonished.

Ruan Qingruan shook his head. "No, no, he promoted a youngster when she went into closed cultivation. But she's in the post again now, so..."

"Ah."

Chapter Text

"Alright, Binghe. Show this teacher how you've progressed on the piece assigned to you."

Luo Binghe nodded seriously and carefully began the melody on the pipa. It was a slower piece, chosen so he could work on his technique at his current comfortable speed.

Shen Qingqiu watched him go through the piece diligently--he could tell he'd been practicing--but was distracted by the faint lines of discomfort on his face. When Luo Binghe finished the song, he pulled his hands from the instrument and moved to fold them. Shen Qingqiu stopped him with a gesture.

"Let this teacher see your hands."

Luo Binghe looked distressed. "Shizun, they're ugly now."

Shen Qingqiu snapped his fingers impatiently and gestured. Luo Binghe reluctantly opened his hands. Shen Qingqiu picked one up and studied the palm and inside of the fingers carefully. It was better than he'd feared; the boy had torn calluses, not been injured.

"Hmm. This teacher can see Binghe has been doing his hand exercises; that is good," Shen Qingqiu said. Luo Binghe wiggled happily at the mild praise. "But these calluses need better care."

Luo Binghe was distraught. "This disciple has been sparring at Bai Zhan, and the instructor won't let the students wear gloves."

"That's correct. You need to build up calluses. But if you leave them rough like this, they'll tear and hurt." He paused, remembering Yue Qingyuan's gentle nudging yesterday. Better communication. Right. He continued. "They aren't supposed to hurt. Use oil to soften them, then a rough surface to smooth them. Like this." He touched Luo Binghe's fingers to his own calluses; skin kept smooth over a dense, protective layer decades in the making. The boy's ears were bright pink from the individual attention. "This teacher will do it for you once, then you should maintain it yourself. Binghe is both an artist and a warrior, and both vocations mean he should take care of his hands."

He set the pipa aside, and selected one of his qiankun bags. It held a small jar of coconut oil--solid, at this temperature--and a small file. "For now, leave the calluses which have torn. Smooth them out later, once they've healed. Binghe may have this file and salve, and get more from the quartermaster later. After each use, clean the file with boiling water and a little soap."

Shen Qingqiu rubbed the oil into Luo Binghe's hand, taking the opportunity to question him. "How have Binghe's studies at Bai Zhan and Zui Xian been going?"

"Uh, this, this disciple is learning a lot," Luo Binghe replied automatically, flushed and twitchy.

"Details, please," Shen Qingqiu said sternly. Luo Binghe began to recite the various techniques and skills he was learning, wandering seemingly without a pattern between Zui Xian cookery and Bai Zhan combat.

He'd done only part of one hand when Luo Binghe began to squirm. "Shizun, this disciple--this disciple can do the rest." He really did look embarrassed.

"Can you? Show this teacher."

Luo Binghe was red-faced and self-conscious, but did manage a creditable job on the next callus.

"Alright. Make sure to get that sorted out today. Remember, leave the torn ones alone for now."

"Yes, Shizun," Luo Binghe squeaked.

Shen Qingqiu patted him on the head absently and left for the class he would be observing. He didn't think Luo Binghe had had this problem in his previous life--but Shen Qingqiu hadn't pushed him to pursue the arts. And it was possible that that Luo Binghe had simply ignored the relatively small pain of the torn calluses, as this one would have if Shen Qingqiu hadn't pressed the issue. Something to reflect on.

Chapter Text

Returned from his trip, and with the Civil Service Exam students gone, Shen Qingqiu now turned his attention to his junior disciples. While their assistant teachers were studying for their own exams, the younger generation had been taken through their own workshops. They were given guidance on finding a topic, analyzing it, and using Qing Jing's libraries to do supporting research. Shen Qingqiu had assigned them to small groups for their first project, and each group had written a paper. The length of the paper and depth of the analysis varied by the age of the students--generally, two pages per year at Qing Jing.

Shen Qingqiu was giving their papers a first read-through, now. He made notes for each one, setting down his first impressions for later grading. It was late at night, and the mountain was reassuringly quiet. He worked for some time before a sound some distance from his house caught his attention. He tilted his head, trying to triangulate the source. His security array hadn't been touched, but whatever it was, was close by.

It came again. It sounded like... a sniffle? It was far too late in the year for the new disciples to be homesick. Was there some sort of family holiday happening? Shen Qingqiu never kept track of that sort of thing.

He investigated.

*

It was Luo Binghe, trying and failing to keep quiet as he applied bruise ointment to his sides and shoulders. His uniform top was on the bench beside him, and his shift hung around his neck. There were recent bruises on his arms and back. They had already swollen badly, despite his faster-than-normal cultivation. He winced as he applied the medicine.

"What is this?" Shen Qingqiu said, surprised.

Luo Binghe startled badly, flinched as it aggravated his bruises, and fumbled the ointment. Shen Qingqiu flash-stepped to catch the small jar before it hit the ground.

"What is this?" he repeated. "Why are you hurt? Sparring shouldn't leave you this badly injured." He had thought that Luo Binghe was getting along better with the Bai Zhan disciples this time. Their shared sparring classes should have built a rapport. And he knew at least one of their hallmasters was looking out for him specifically.

Luo Binghe looked panicked. "This disciple--um--" His mouth worked soundlessly.

Shen Qingqiu sighed. "Didn't this teacher say you should ask for help when you need it? Sit, and think of what you need help with." He turned Luo Binghe by the shoulder and sat on the bench behind him, holding the salve in his other hand. Tsking at the bruising, he applied the salve and spiritual energy carefully.

Luo Binghe twitched. "This disciple can do it! This disciple does not wish to trouble Shizun!" he said nervously.

Shen Qingqiu rapped the back of his head with his knuckles. "And aggravate your injuries by contorting? And see where to put it on your back?" he chided.

"This disciple will just put it all over!"

Shen Qingqiu flicked the back of his head again. "Don't waste medicine. Qian Cao spends many hours making this. Speaking of which, why have you been getting hurt often enough to have your own jar?"

"Um..." Luo Binghe's voice was very small.

"Binghe," Shen Qingqiu said sternly. "Why have you been getting hurt?"

"This disciple... this disciple... fell... down... the stairs?"

Here, Shen Qingqiu made his mistake. He took both hands away to put the lid back on the jar of salve, so it wouldn't dry out. Luo Binghe bolted down the path.

Not this again! Shen Qingqiu briefly looked for answers in the heavens, then sighed and tucked the salve into his sleeve as he went after his wayward sheep. It was winter, pitch-dark, and he might well fall off the side of the mountain.

It was too late for subtlety; Luo Binghe's panicked running footsteps had pulled a few students out of the junior dorms, despite curfew.

"Don't chase him," Shen Qingqiu snapped. "You'll go right off a cliff in the dark--" There was a sudden, noisy splash. He sighed heavily. There were nervous giggles from students who were far enough away for anonymity.

*

Standing at the edge of the Pool of Tranquility, Shen Qingqiu had had enough. "Young man, get out of there right now!" he ordered sternly. Luo Binghe sank deeper into the pond, eyes wide and horrified.

Disciples were sliding out of the dorms in pairs and small groups, whispering excitedly. A few of the more gregarious ones were crossing over to meet friends from other groups. Okay, that was enough. If they got wound up, they would never go back to sleep. And more witnesses meant more people to wonder why the winter-cold pond didn't give Luo Binghe hypothermia. Being a physical cultivator would excuse a lot, but he did not need people wondering about Luo Binghe's unique constitution.

Shen Qingqiu used a one-handed Featherlight seal on himself, walked across the pond, pushed the seal further to include Luo Binghe, and lifted him out of the water by the back of his neck. He hung, woebegone and dripping, as Shen Qingqiu towed him back to shore.

"Students are reminded of their early classes tomorrow. No excuses." The whispering died down with gratifying speed, as Shen Qingqiu towed the nearly weightless Luo Binghe toward the bathing house.

As soon as the door closed behind him, he relaxed enough to roll his eyes. The unceasing glow of the night pearls lit up the plain room, but the little wooden rack with heating talismans was empty. Shen Qingqiu stared at its mockingly empty slats. Fuck it, he thought, and pushed spirit energy into one of the half-empty tubs. The water warmed swiftly, and he unceremoniously dumped Luo Binghe in.

"Sense Vitals," he murmured, going through the medical hand seals. "Diagnose." Shen Qingqiu surveyed the resulting information critically as the door behind him creaked open quietly. He sensed Ning YingYing's tiny clear spark of qi before she spoke up.

"Shizun? Is Luo-shidi going to be okay?"

"Well, his core temperature is lower than I'd like, but he isn't actually hypothermic," Shen Qingqiu frowned, then turned to pat her on the head. "He may get a cold, but he'll be fine. He's warming up, now. I'll make sure Master Jiang checks him in the morning."

"Okay." She leaned forward to check on Luo Binghe, who was nodding drowsily after the adrenaline rush and temperature changes.

"Ning Yingying, he had bruises. Is he being bullied again?"

Ning Yingying looked horrified. "I don't think so! He hasn't said anything."

"Hmm. Keep your ears open, please. And ask some of your older disciple sisters as well. I can move him back to the senior quarters if necessary."

She wrinkled her tiny nose. "That's so far away from everything, though."

"Well, that's how the seniors like it. For some reason, they don't like being woken up at midnight by their juniors jumping in ponds."

She giggled and Shen Qingqiu checked on Luo Binghe again. "Alright. Go get a couple of the big towels, please."

She complied while he picked Luo Binghe up again. "But Shizun, his clothes are all wet, too!"

"Watch carefully, and you can learn a lot," he said in his most serious 'teacher voice.' She watched raptly as he pushed spirit energy forward and the water soaking Luo Binghe turned to a cloud and then condensed as rain back in the tub.

She gasped. "Wow! Is that how Shizun washes his hair?" He raised an eyebrow at her and she ducked her head. "Some of the disciple sisters were wondering."

"Yes, it's really only practical with energy techniques. Or lots of servants." He wrapped a towel around Luo Binghe's shoulders and let Ning Yingying drape him with the other one before they left the bath house. As he'd hoped, one of his more reliable hallmasters was waiting outside. It had been an unlooked for blessing when Master Ma and her cultivation partner had returned to Qing Jing to teach. He handed Luo Binghe over to her while Ning Yingying was sheparded back to the dorms by a dozy Tang Xinran.

*

Early the next morning, he made his way past the buzzing dorms and empty classrooms to a flower-bedecked cottage at the fringe of Qing Jing's living area. Master Jiang Ling was one of Mu Qingfang's early outer sect disciples, now returned to spend his retirement years in Cang Qiong. Shen Qingqiu had snatched him up to act as an on-call physician for all the little maladies which didn't necessitate a trip to Qian Cao.

He rang the small bronze bell at the gate and greeted the grey-haired physician courteously. "This master apologizes for disturbing Master Jiang so early. Nothing is wrong; it's only that one of the students fell into the Pool of Tranquility last night, and this master hopes Master Jiang can check on him later."

"Of course! How long was the youngster in the water?"

"It's uncertain," Shen Qingqiu lied. "His core temperature hadn't dropped far when I fished him out. I put him in a tub of warm water immediately, and his vitals seemed restored. He's in the care of Master Ma and her wife, now. And," he took a moment to catch Jiang Ling's eye, "He had some bruises on his back. He says he fell down the stairs, but he’s had some problems with bullying in the past."

"Ah. I'll ask, discretely. Thank you, Master Shen." They exchanged goodbyes and Shen Qingqiu left. Jiang Ling returned to the breakfast table, and his guest, with a thoughtful expression.

Mu Qingfang poured him a fresh cup of tea and they exchanged a look. "Remarkable, isn't it?"

"I would never have credited the change myself. A fever and a qi deviation?"

"As far as we can tell."

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu sorted through his collection of instruments for the trip for the Empress Dowager’s birthday banquet. Most, he had made himself. He rarely gave away or sold his old instruments, instead tucking them aside in a qiankun space. He needed to bring instruments of sufficient quality to honor their hosts, but he wouldn't select his favorites. He didn't want to lose his best work to an accident. And a lesser instrument could be graciously offered as a gift, as appropriate.

He picked up one and played a few notes, meditatively. The wonderful thing about qiankun spaces, was that the instrument would always remain in tune, never warping. He brushed his fingers over the strings, then channeled a bit of qi through them. The next notes struck and held in the air, strings vibrating far longer than should have been possible. He loved his qin and pipa, of course, but sometimes he missed his piano like a lost limb.

"How are you doing that?" came a voice from behind him. Shen Qingqiu looked over his shoulder. It was Liu Qingge, holding a long bundle.

"Qi. I imbue the strings with spiritual energy, to lengthen the vibration."

"That must... You must lose the qi every time you take your hands off the strings, then," Liu Qingge frowned.

"Well, yes."

"That's incredibly wasteful, even with your energy reserves," Liu Qingge said critically.

"I have so much qi because I do spend it profligately," Shen Qingqiu answered tartly. "It's like..." he waved a hand. "Your strength. When you train, you aren't wasting energy, you're training your muscles."

"Oh," Liu Qingge stood, thinking about that.

"Anyway. What is this?" Shen Qingqiu nodded at the bundle.

"Swords. From Wan Jian."

"Oh, Wei-shidi came through! Wonderful. Set them--wait, no, not there." Shen Qingqiu looked around. There were instruments in every available space. "Well, I suppose the floor is fine."

Liu Qingge rolled his eyes and put the bundle down. "Why do you need them?"

"They're spirit swords, made by Wei-shidi's apprentices. Basic, but serviceable. They're for the disciples we're bringing to the Imperial capital. None of them has their own sword, yet."

"They can't bring their practice blades?" Liu Qingge asked skeptically.

"Those aren't spiritually active. They'll be using these for flying--short hops, to cross rivers and take some time off the journey. And they need to practice."

"Hmm." Liu Qingge tapped the hilt of Cheng Luan meditatively. "You're bringing young Luo Binghe, correct?" At Shen Qingqiu's nod, he continued. "Make sure he knows not to bring the new sword to Bai Zhan practices."

Shen Qingqiu huffed. "Do I look like a fool? No, these will be securely in this teacher's possession when they aren't actively practicing. With oversight."

"Oh, so you've learned from last time," Liu Qingge said, straight-faced.

Shen Qingqiu frowned and swatted at his arm irritably. Liu Qingge caught his wrist automatically. They both froze.

"This shixiong apologizes to Liu-shidi; that was too familiar," Shen Qingqiu said stiffly.

"No, that's... fine," Liu Qingge said as he opened his hand. "It was just unexpected."

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu had lined up the four Qing Jing disciples who would be joining the trip to the Imperial capital. Each had a plain, unpaired spirit sword.

"On this journey, we'll take short swordflights over rivers to avoid long detours by road. Each of you needs practice flying. No higher than knee height, and only within this clearing."

They rose, wobbling on the thin, scabbarded blades, arms outstretched for balance. He'd given them each a generous practice space, to avoid a domino effect. The tricky part was keeping a bit of attention on the smooth flow of qi into the blade. Once they could reliably keep that focus and balance at the same time, he had them slowly float from one end of the clearing to another.

Shen Qingqiu watched closely as they practiced. He'd staggered their starts. The turns were, predictably, the sticking point.

"Alright," he said, as their still-developing qi reserves began to falter. "We'll practice at the same time--" His instructions were interrupted as Luo Binghe fell. He'd been returning to Shen Qingqiu at their starting point, and splitting his attention between the swordflight and Shen Qingqiu's instructions had proved too much. He wobbled and toppled into Shen Qingqiu.

He flung himself away as if repelled by a magnet. "This disciple is sorry!"

Shen Qingqiu stayed perfectly still. He didn't know why Luo Binghe had suddenly become afraid of him again, after several years of kind treatment. He should ask Yue Qingyuan. "That's why we practice," he said calmly, then turned to include the entire group. "You will all return here at the same time, second, fourth, and sixthday. When you have enough experience not to fall, we'll begin longer flights outside the clearing." He gathered the practice swords.

"Can these disciples keep the swords for practice?" Zhao Xihe asked, as if he never had a duplicitous thought in his life.

"To ask the question is to receive the answer," Shen Qingqiu rejoined. "Dismissed." Luo Binghe fled; the other students left at a more sedate pace.

Chapter Text

The many pieces of Shen Qingqiu's banquet outfit had all, finally, arrived. He went to Qiong Ding to try it on. The many layers and ties meant the robes didn't need to be fitted, fortunately, but they did need to double-check that no fastenings were misplaced and that he wouldn't trip over them.

Yue Qingyuan had considerately arranged for him to try them on privately. He didn't like the idea of a tailor and assistants breezing in and out of the room. Though, as Shen Yuan, he'd been to too many event-focused suit fittings to count, under his mother's exacting eyes.

Yue Qingyuan helped him with the complicated outer layers. Shen Qingqiu tried to keep track of the way the different pieces were fastened. He would need to do most of this himself before the banquet, or trust one of their host's servants to assist. Yue Qingyuan would be busy with his own attire. Fortunately, the tailor had included a helpful set of instructions and sketches for reference.

Yue Qingyuan kept up a soothing stream of chatter at first, peppered with pleasant anecdotes about past banquets. As the outfit was built up, layer by layer, he became more distracted. Eventually, the chatter stopped completely; he was solemnly focused on fastening each tie and tucking every fold, as if involved in some private ritual. Shen Qingqiu didn't interrupt the quiet, respecting whatever secret meaning this had for him.

When the last piece was done, Shen Qingqiu felt like one of those elaborate nesting dolls. Yue Qingyuan's face was blank, like it never was, without even his habitual mild smile. Shen Qingqiu waited, then offered, "Do you need a hug?"

That startled him out of it. He huffed a laugh. "Yes, yes, I need a hug." Careful of the many layers, they embraced for a few calming moments, then Yue Qingyuan spoke again. "Alright, here comes the tricky part. You'll need to practice moving in these. Since, ah, neither of us has a partner, we'll go into the banquet together--"

Shen Qingqiu went through the motions of walking, alone and with Yue Qingyuan mimicking the posture of his own formal robes, sitting, rising, eating and drinking--both with empty utensils, here--and playing both qin and pipa. There would be musicians for the occasion, of course, but it would be a surprise if the Dowager Empress didn't ask him to play as well. The only action that was a little troublesome was getting into and out of a carriage, and a featherlight charm helped with that.

Chapter Text

There were students whole-heartedly dedicated to the scholarly arts in Qing Jing, and others who thought painting, drawing, and music were a waste of time which could be better spent studying strange creatures and lost civilizations. Shen Qingqiu himself would have been one of the latter, if he hadn't had such a talent for music and painting. People do tend to enjoy activities they're good at.

In sympathy with both factions, and to inspire enthusiasm, Shen Qingqiu's group projects combined disciplines. For this next assignment, the students would write a well researched report on a topic, but the final result was designed to include drawings of buildings and animals. The groups were assigned--he relished their horrified faces as they realized they would have to work with people outside their particular friends. He also mixed their ages, in the hope that the younger students would learn research basics from their seniors. It worked, at least on average. Then again, there were some groups where a single strong personality would take control, and sweep all doubters before it.

Shen Qingqiu looked down at the paper on his desk. He steepled his fingers. The four students in front of him waited nervously.

"So," he began. They twitched. "These disciples were given several items. Three written eyewitness accounts of a creature. A feather from that creature. And a cast of a footprint, noted as being found in the area. You received all these items?" he questioned them.

"Yes, Shizun," two replied. The two younger students just nodded.

"And from these items, you were supposed to make a drawing of the creature, and a tentative identification, and submit those to this teacher. Then, if your analysis was verified, you would write a report on the creature's habits, habitat, and traits." He tapped the paper on his desk. "These students instead believed they had identified the creature, and made the report immediately."

"We thought it would be more efficient, Shizun," offered the ringleader, the second oldest student. One of the others stepped on his foot, believing the movement to be hidden by the desk.

"The report is decent, but its subject is the wrong creature," Shen Qingqiu said. He held up a page. "And this teacher is at a loss as to how you identified it as an Eel-Headed Elk, when the Eel-Headed Elk has hooves, not paws."

"We thought that the footprint found at the witnesses' location was a coincidence, and misattributed to the creature, Shizun," said the ringleader.

"That does sometimes happen," Shen Qingqiu acknowledged. "But if that were the case, there would be two large creatures in the area. Did you make a tentative identification of the print?"

The ringleader and oldest student shifted guiltily. One of the younger students had a sour expression which indicated he had tried to suggest that, and was voted down. Shen Qingqiu tapped the pages together, then steepled his fingers. He regarded the students over them for a minute. "In the course of an investigation, you will often be wrong. You must make an analysis to progress, but the conclusions you draw may be based on incomplete or inaccurate information. Being able to acknowledge mistakes and backtrack is a sign of a flexible mind." His eyes cut to the ringleader, who looked mulish. The youngest student looked quietly vindicated. "Refusing to do so may result in death or injury to those relying on your information. In this case--" he tapped the paper. "The precautions against an Eel-Headed Elk would have done nothing against the actual, very dangerous creature. Now--" He surveyed them carefully. The oldest student looked blankly contrite--this hadn't really sunk in. The ringleader looked resentful. The two youngest were just beginning to worry about what shared punishment they would face. "Each of you, individually, will attempt to identify the creature. Turn in your conjecture and supporting arguments separately. Your hypothesis is due in three days, before evening meditation. We will revisit the group project at that time. Dismissed."

They left--silently, but Shen Qingqiu suspected there would be an argument as soon as they thought he was out of hearing range.

Chapter Text

It was time for the junior students' semi-annual recital, where they would receive a formal evaluation by their teachers. Shen Qingqiu sat in on this one, taking his own notes.

Luo Binghe carefully played the piece Shen Qingqiu had assigned him to learn during his trip with Shang Qinghua, to the general approval of the evaluators. He was making more progress with the arts, this time.

The recital was, strictly speaking, only a teaching tool. But students often invited friends for their performance. A dozen Xian Shu disciples, and as many from an assortment of other peaks, gathered for Ning Yingying's recital. She performed 'Daybreak in May,' a beautiful but difficult composition for the pipa--first solo, then in duet with the senior accompanist.

Hers was the last recital, and afterwards she was swamped by well-wishers.

It was a combination celebration of her superb performance, and a bon voyage party. The next week, Ning Yingying was returning home for a prearranged visit. It was for her father's birthday, and also the hundred-days celebration for her new baby brother. She had prepared a gift for each of them; a beautiful watercolor for her father, and a pretty, hand painted drum for her brother. She had made both of them herself, and Shen Qingqiu hoped their reception wouldn't disappoint her. She had also asked his advice on some embroidery techniques, which he thought were intended for her mother.

She would leave Cang Qiong with an escort her father had arranged--and two maids, ostensibly hers, which she certainly didn't have at Qing Jing. Shen Qingqiu suspected Qi Qingqi's iron hand at work.

The following morning, Shen Qingqiu sat with his music-oriented hallmasters to discuss the progress of the students.

"Young Luo is still behind the others of his age group," one hallmaster ventured, "But his rhythm has improved since he's begun studying at Bai Zhan."

Shen Qingqiu nodded. "They have their own cadence practice, for use with footwork. The physical learning style seems to be a good fit for him."

Another hallmaster, who had been frowning distractedly during the previous discussion, spoke up, "Can we do something to ensure Ning Yingying has at least another two years here? I'd like to make sure she gets started on composing."

Shen Qingqiu nodded. "This teacher is not aware of any formal arrangement at this point. I'm consulting with Qi Qingqi on the matter. I agree, her talent should be nurtured."

The hallmaster looked reassured at the news that Qi Qingqi was involved. She had a formidable reputation, both inside and outside the peaks. More than one of her students was studying under a false name, after family pressures became insurmountable.

Chapter Text

Liu Qingge rapped on the door frame of Shen Qingqiu's bamboo cottage, and waited.

After a few long moments, Shen Qingqiu's voice came, slightly hollow with the effect of one of his sound manipulation charms. "Welcome, Liu-shidi. You may come in, but it will be a few moments before I can greet you." His voice did, indeed, sound distracted.

Liu Qingge let himself in and looked around for Shen Qingqiu. He found him sitting near a window, part of a swath of pale silk across his lap. He was--embroidering? It was a very sheer silk. Probably one of the many layers the Qing Jing peak lord seemed to think were necessary to dress properly. It was really... very sheer. Liu Qingge could see Shen Qingqiu's hand moving under it as he added to the bamboo-stalk-and-leaf design on--a hem? A cuff?

"Why are you going to so much trouble for something no one sees?" Liu Qingge felt off balance, and didn't know why. That made him snappish.

"I'll know it's there. And this is actually functional; an extra qiankun space."

"In clothing? Do you even know how extravagant that is?"

"It isn't extravagant when you can make them," Shen Qingqiu answered smugly.

"Why would you need--"

"Because you never know. Done." While they were speaking, Shen Qingqiu had done something complicated with the thread. He cut the trailing end with a brush of his fingertip, and set the robe aside.

"What was that technique? The cutting one."

"Blade Palms; something Mu-shidi was kind enough to share. It's really very convenient. Tea?"

Liu Qingge shook his head automatically. "I can't stop." He'd been planning to, but suddenly felt like moving.

"Oh, then I'm sorry to have kept you waiting. What did you need?"

"I asked around my hallmasters, to see if any of the disciples had been feuding with your boy in particular," Liu Qingge began. He instantly had Shen Qingqiu's full attention. "None had, but some have been showing up with the same collection of bruises. When we looked into it, it turned out some of them put together this--" he waved a hand, "--fighting club, outside supervised practice."

"Oh!" Shen Qingqiu was wide-eyed, surprise breaking through his mask.

Liu Qingge looked away. "Anyway, we haven't decided what to do about it, but I thought I'd let you know it isn't bullying."

Shen Qingqiu's eyes were a little shiny. "He has friends!"

"That's what you're getting from it?" Liu Qingge asked incredulously.

"This is a big step," Shen Qingqiu said as he blinked and turned away, as if embarrassed by his very mild outburst. It was a veritable torrent of raging emotion, compared to his usual aloof hauteur.

Liu Qingge shifted, nervous energy pushing him to move. "I'll keep you informed about what we decide to do about it," he said as he turned toward the door.

"Of course; don't let me keep you. Thank you for letting me know."

Liu Qingge escaped.

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu was carefully working on the lump of jadeite he had found near the Ru Shui, when Luo Binghe approached nervously. He'd been acting strangely since Shen Qingqiu returned; watching him from a distance rather than sticking at his side, volunteering to help with tasks and then fleeing immediately thereafter.

"Can this disciple help Shizun in any way?"

"Not right now, Binghe," Shen Qingqiu replied absently. "Oh. Wait a moment." He set his tools down, and held out the raw jade. "Hold this for a moment. You should be developing your subtle senses, now. Direct them toward the stone. What do you sense?"

Luo Binghe held the rock, eyes scrunched closed in concentration. "It's... this disciple thinks it's shaking, a little." He opened his eyes and looked at the rock dubiously. It was very obviously stationary.

Shen Qingqiu nodded approvingly and took it back. "Good. This rock is raw jade. This master found it on his journey with Shang Qinghua. The vibration you felt is the stone's spiritual potential. The stronger the vibration, the larger the jade deposit. The higher frequency of vibration, the higher quality of the jade. If Binghe finds more stones like this, he should pick them up. It's never too early to save for your future."

"Yes, Shizun," Luo Binghe said obediently. He reflexively felt the pendant hidden under his collar, eyes downcast.

"What troubles this disciple?" Shen Qingqiu asked, pausing in the process of picking up his tools again.

"This disciple has a jade pendant from his mother but it isn't... it isn't a good one." Luo Binghe's face was flushed with embarrassment.

"Hmm. A gift from your mother. Would you trade it for another one? For gold? For a strong cultivation manual?"

Luo Binghe looked stricken. "No! I mean, no, Shizun."

"Then it is precious, and Binghe should treasure it." Shen Qingqiu resumed his work.

*

Later, Shen Qingqiu was eating dinner alone and reflecting on his day. On the table was an in-progress study program for the students who would be travelling to the imperial city. Something occurred to him.

{ System, why didn't the Guanyin pendant work on Maigu Ridge? }

There was a long pause he chose to interpret as 'embarrassed.' [ Plot items not in use are compressed to save storage space. Please provide advance notice when retrieving items from long-term storage. ]

{ Explain 'storage space,' } Shen Qingqiu said suspiciously.

[ Additional storage may be purchased for points, ] the System said cagily.

{ Do I have items in storage now? }

[ Storage is currently empty, host! ] the System chirped. It may have been Shen Qingqiu's imagination, but he thought it was eager to distract from the earlier error.

{ Can I put... this bowl into storage? } he asked, looking down at his mostly-finished lean pork congee.

[ Only plot-relevant items may be added to the storage space. ] the System replied.

Shen Qingqiu thought for a moment. { You had the pendant in storage for awhile. Do you still have the data file? The measurements? }

[ Apologies, host; the cache has been cleared by your rebirth. ]

Hmm.

*

As the disciples were leaving their evening meditation class, Shen Qingqiu called Luo Binghe aside. "Binghe mentioned a pendant. May this teacher borrow it for a few days?"

"Uh..." Luo Binghe showed uncharacteristic ambivalence, a hand pressing nervously over the pendant under his shirt.

Shen Qingqiu spoke carefully. "This teacher wishes to make some sketches. But it is Binghe's choice."

"Um, okay Shizun." After another brief hesitation, he pulled the pendant by its cord and offered it to Shen Qingqiu.

Shen Qingqiu patted his head. "This teacher promises to return it quickly."

*

"Shen Qingqiu?" Liu Qingge called.

"Enter. Just a moment."

The bamboo cottage was dimly lit by a small lamp, but Shen Qingqiu was working by the brighter light of a night pearl. It was fastened in some sort of enclosure, with a polished metal back which focused and redirected the light.

Shen Qingqiu was bent over his drawing table, making sketches. There were a few pieces of soft clay on a dish on the desk, and a stone Guanyin pendant.

Liu Qingge looked at the latter carefully. "I hope you didn't pay for this."

Shen Qingqiu shook his head, hands busy. "It belongs to a student; a keepsake. I'm simply borrowing it." After a distracted moment, he blinked. "Oh. I'm glad you stopped by; wait just a moment."

He finished the sketch he was making with a few lines, and rose to go to another cupboard. He pulled out a flat, covered box, and a leather portfolio.

"One of my students forwarded me rumors of a Tufted Spiny-Maned Wolf in Luodai--" Shen Qingqiu said.

Liu Qingge nodded, reaching for the portfolio. "I'll send a few of my senior disciples."

"--But from the description," Shen Qingqiu continued as if he hadn’t heard. "I suspect it's actually a Crimson-Tipped Spider Wolf."

Liu Qingge brightened. "I thought they were extinct."

"Just very rare, on this side of the border. Their lungs don't adapt well to our atmosphere--they actually feed on the miasma from the Abyssal rifts." He held the portfolio away with one hand, and proffered the shallow box with the other. "The Spider Wolf's location and characteristics are yours--if I get samples."

Liu Qingge stared at him. Shen Qingqiu waggled the box meaningfully.

"Fine."

"Good." Shen Qingqiu handed him both items. "The leather tags in the box are qiankun items. They're already labeled. I also have a chart of what I want."

"You could have just asked," Liu Qingge said, amused.

"You have your hobbies, I have mine," Shen Qingqiu sniffed. "Anyway. What did you need?"

*

Shen Qingqiu called Luo Binghe aside the next morning on his way to breakfast, and returned the pendant. The boy looked overwhelmingly relieved to have it back. He hurried to tuck it back into his collar.

*

Several weeks later, Shen Qingqiu summoned Luo Binghe to his workroom. He arrived at a run, hair a mess from sparring.

"What is this? It's no emergency; don't run around looking like a wild creature." He tidied Luo Binghe's hair absently.

"Yes, Shizun," he said obediently, still breathless and flushed from the run.

Shen Qingqiu knew his mild remonstration had gone in one ear and out the other. "Well. Can Binghe show this teacher his pendant again?"

Without hesitation, this time, Luo Binghe did. Shen Qingqiu produced his own project; a flat setting, carved from jadeite. The back had Qing Jing's bamboo-and-leaf emblem; the front had a niche which would snugly hold the Guanyin. He neatly fit the pendant into it. He examined the result with satisfaction, and handed the combination back to Luo Binghe.

"Channel a little bit of qi into it."

Wide-eyed, Luo Binghe did.

"Good. Now they won't separate accidentally. You can part them temporarily by absorbing the qi; it works the same as a jade book."

Luo Binghe stared at him, silent.

"It's also a qiankun item." Shen Qingqiu patted his head. "Now, run alo--" He was cut off by a tight hug. "Rule Fourteen!"

"Rule One," Luo Binghe countered, voice full of emotion.

Chapter Text

When one of Ruan Qingruan's young students tactfully informed him of a 'stress baking incident' in one of the junior kitchens, he was expecting one of his own disciples. Instead, it was Shen Qingqiu's.

Ruan Qingruan surveyed the mess thoughtfully. Using the space was fine. The student kitchens were specifically set up to allow the disciples to experiment. They encouraged the students to work in small batches, to save materials--but that's what had been done here. Many, many small batches of... glutinous rice dumplings. There was a much-depleted jar of flour on the work table, more in dustings over the counter, and easily a dozen small bowls of various fillings. Ruan Qingruan watched as young Luo Binghe, apparently oblivious to his presence, carefully used a spoon to lift a dumpling out of the pot.

"You must be cooking for an army," Ruan Qingruan began. Luo Binghe startled badly and flipped the dumpling right out of the bowl. Faster than a blink, Ruan Qingruan caught it in one of the empty mixing bowls.

Luo Binghe's face had already begun to crumple at the prospect of that wasted work--a sure sign of excessive stress, to be derailed by such a small thing. His face smoothed out in amazement as Ruan Qingruan handed the bowl and rescued dumpling back to him. "Wow!"

"Lots of practice," Ruan Qingruan winked at him. "Now, you've taken the pot off the flame? Nothing waiting to be cooked? Then why don't you tell this old man why you're making so many tangyuan?"

Luo Binghe shuffled his feet and hunched his shoulders. "They're for... a gift."

"Ah," Ruan Qingruan nodded encouragingly. "Your friend must have a big appetite, then."

Luo Binghe looked around the kitchen in dismay, as if only now realizing the extent of his efforts. "No, it's just... they have to be perfect."

"Hmm. Are you, perhaps, a little nervous about your upcoming trip to the capital?" He didn't know Luo Binghe's family situation, after all. Ruan Qingruan waited, but Luo Binghe simply looked at his feet bashfully. "Well, let's take these tangyuan to Qing Jing--or Bai Zhan, you study there too, right? Pick half a dozen for your friend, and set them aside."

Luo Binghe shook his head glumly. "None of them are good enough."

"Hmm. Well, with all this practice, the next ones you make will be even better."

Luo Binghe brightened a little.

Ruan Qingruan helped Luo Binghe pack the dozens of tangyuan up to travel, then to clean up the kitchen. Luo Binghe looked amazed as Ruan Qingruan heated the wash water with qi. As they left--Ruan Qingruan gave the excuse of visiting Shen Qingqiu--Luo Binghe asked about it. "I've only seen Shizun heat water like that."

"It's something any cultivator can do--but it takes quite a bit of energy. Most prefer to save that energy for other things. But I like to use it in practical ways. And Shen Qingqiu uses it for everything, to expand his qi reserves."

They made a stop at one of the small dining halls to pilfer spoons and bowls, which Ruan Qingruan stashed in his own qiankun pouch, then set out. They were halfway to Qing Jing when they heard Shen Qingqiu's voice from down the path and around the bend.

"Observe. As the glacier retreated, vegetation began to take hold in the newly opened space. The mature trees in the valley were the earliest growth," Shen Qingqiu said, voice as cold and smooth as riverwashed stone. "Here, the glacier's path has opened space for foliage. The combination of the thin air at the high altitude and the layer of calcium-rich sediment is favorable to the growth of certain medicinal flowers--"

Luo Binghe first brightened and sped up, then looked with distress at the tangyuan he was carrying and slowed down. Ruan Qingruan lowered his voice and said, "Don't be surprised if your teacher doesn't take one. He's picky about his food. But I saw them; you did well."

Luo Binghe looked more distressed than the mild warning warranted. They rounded the bend to find Shen Qingqiu with a small, mixed group of disciples; most Qing Jing, a few Qian Cao, and two Xian Shu students with a friend from Qing Jing.

"We'll pause here for awhile," Shen Qingqiu was saying. "You all have your sketchbooks; take note of the flora and rock formations in this area." Shen Qingqiu turned to greet Ruan Qingruan and Luo Binghe as the students slowly scattered over the small glacial valley. "Ruan-shidi." He looked at the lidded ceramic bowls of tangyuan, in fiber carriers with rope handles. "Catering?"

Ruan Qingruan pushed Luo Binghe forward by the shoulder. "Young Luo had a tangyuan project; he was just bringing the results to his fellow disciples." The students, who had been industriously sketching and pretending not to listen in, perked up and began to drift closer.

"That's very thoughtful of both of you," Shen Qingqiu approved, calling the students in with a gesture. The nature tour descended like very polite locusts, each thanking Ruan Qingruan and Luo Binghe and taking a treat.

Ruan Qingruan answered their questions about how to make tangyuan--they were so amazed by the simplest things! Had they never learned to cook? He watched from the corner of his eye as Luo Binghe timidly offered Shen Qingqiu a bowl. He was ready to step in with a distraction, but to his amazement, Shen Qingqiu took one of the little dumplings. He tasted it and made some comment to Luo Binghe which made the teenager glow.

The students spread out again to enjoy the snack. One of the students, at the edge of the loose group, looked over a small height and gasped. "Shizun, there are dead people!"

Shen Qingqiu idled over and looked where the student indicated. "If they were dead, they would smell. Those are Bai Zhan students. They're resting from their conditioning training." The Bai Zhan disciples were collapsed in various states of disarray, around an enormous log. The bark had been torn off in places, where they'd gripped it. The disciples were still breathing heavily. One, probably the ranking disciple in the group, wobbled to his feet.

"This--disciple greets--Shen-shibo," he said carefully, breathing still labored.

"As you were," Shen Qingqiu said. The student collapsed gratefully on the ground again. "Do these students require assistance?"

"Thanks to Shen-shibo, but these disciples are doing endurance training." Several of the Bai Zhan disciples were now rolling over and pushing themselves to a sitting position. A growing cluster of the Qing Jing disciples were gathering behind Shen Qingqiu, gaping at their cross-peak counterparts. The two Qian Cao disciples who had joined Shen Qingqiu's tour skidded down the small slope to check on their fellow students.

"Do we still have tangyuan left?" one Qing Jing student asked.

"I made lots," Luo Binghe said with satisfaction. A small delegation of relief troops carried the snacks to the exhausted Bai Zhan disciples.

"Were they carrying the log? Why are they doing that?" one Qing Jing disciple wondered out loud, baffled.

"It makes them stronger," replied Zhang Ping, one of Qing Jing's two new novices who had gone to Bai Zhan for a few days through misadventure.

"It doesn't work for spiritual cultivators," said the other, Wang Hu, grumpily. One of the Bai Zhan disciples grinned up at him, still lying flat and breathing hard. Wang Hu scowled and threw a pebble at him.

Chapter Text

This had been a bad idea, Yue Qingyuan thought. He'd imagined a pleasant, uneventful journey. Short hops by swordflight would shorten the trip and give the disciples valuable flying experience. Traveling on the main roads by carriage would let them recover and study. He and Shen Qingqiu could have leisurely chats in their own carriage. Yue Qingyuan had imagined a pleasant interval of taking notes from reports and letters, looking up occasionally to see Shen Qingqiu reading a book or going through his own correspondence. Perhaps Shen Qingqiu would briefly nap on his shoulder. He'd brought a small pillow, just in case.

The reality was much different. The students, who should be well old enough to look after themselves, had reverted to their younger selves in the excitement of the journey. Two of his students had, out of nowhere, developed a bitter rivalry. They were resolving it as Qiong Ding disciples did, with passive aggressive needling and a flawlessly polite cold war. Another of his students was familiar with one of Shen Qingqiu's, and was undecided if he had a crush, or just friendly admiration. His self consciousness meant he ignored the Qing Jing student entirely, which made the other Qing Jing disciples defensive.

The short swordflights were the only saving grace; it gave the disciples a way to burn off their youthful energy, and they were much more manageable when tired.

They stayed overnight in a variety of places; small cities, towns, and rural villages. In the smaller settlements, they camped, by arrangement with the village headman. It avoided putting strain on the settlement's resources, and was good practice for them. Experience with the smaller villages was valuable in another way, too; the students had varying family circumstances, but none was from a rural area. It was good for them to see a different way of living.

And the exchange of culture went both ways. In one tiny clan village, Yue Qingyuan lost track of Shen Qingqiu. He found him very seriously showing a ten or twelve year old how to make a simple instrument, using scrap wood and wire.

"--Tuning pegs like these are a little tricky to make, and not necessary for beginners. My instrument uses different thickness of wire to make different notes, but if you have only one type of wire, you can get the same effect by using different lengths."

Yue Qingyuan watched, concealed, as Shen Qingqiu used nails, a spool of wire, and a flat piece of wood to make a rough instrument. The nails were tapped into the wood, the wire strung between them and pulled taut. He played a little tune on it to demonstrate, to the youngster's amazement.

"It's possible to make an instrument with even the simplest tools and materials. It doesn't have to look any particular way to make a pleasant sound. This instrument will be very quiet. It's for practicing. But when you want to let other people hear, you put it on a resonator chamber, like this--" Shen Qingqiu set the piece of wood--it had a hole in the middle, Yue Qingyuan saw now--onto a thin wooden box. He played a tune again; it was much louder. "The empty box amplifies the noise." He separated the two parts again. "Now, you try."

The child did, and looked dismayed when he couldn't make the same lovely notes. Shen Qingqiu guided him, as brisk as with his own students. "Longest string--third longest--second longest. Good. Pick up your fingers quickly. Speed will come with practice. Pretend the strings are covered in honey, and you don't want to get your fingers stuck. You can use a chip of wood if your fingertips get sore--but they'll toughen in time."

The child nodded seriously, and tried again.

The village headman--grandfather, great-grandfather, or great-uncle of the majority of the villagers--saw Yue Qingyuan standing still, watching. The elderly farmer approached from the side with a questioning look. Yue Qingyuan held up a staying hand and backed up to speak with him quietly.

The headman craned his neck to observe the lesson. "Ah, Little Li. He's always been a curious boy. Could he become a cultivator?" he asked. He seemed of two minds about the idea.

"Becoming a cultivator requires open spirit veins. This Yue Qingyuan can ask Shen Qingqiu to look. But music and craftsmanship have no prerequisite."

*

Varying travel accommodations meant sleeping arrangements were different with every stop. In the smaller villages, the two Peak Lords simply meditated while the disciples slept. When they stayed overnight in a small city, the inn had enough rooms that the four Qiong Ding disciples had one to themselves. That meant they were finally able to exchange gossip unseen.

=Do you think they could be related?= one Qiong Ding student signed.

There was a speculative pause.

=They look nothing alike,= another student answered. He gave the fist that signaled a pause, as the first student began to sign his argument. =He does look a little like Shizun.=

This pause was significantly more active than the last one, as the students exchanged glances.

=They began to reconcile just a couple years after he joined the sect.=

=Joined the sect as an orphan,= another student emphasized.

*

Shen Qingqiu watched the students in confusion the next morning. There seemed to be a sort of very subtle war on, over Luo Binghe's attention. The Qiong Ding students, more experienced in social tactics, were winning. The Qing Jing students were not at all pleased with another peak poaching their shidi.

He did overhear a scrap of conversation, when Yue Qingyuan was absent talking with the local strongman.

"--He had a painting, but he turned it so I couldn't see it," one of the Qiong Ding students said as they packed the carriage. Gossip was a hot commodity in the cultivation world, and Qiong Ding disciples learned that early. "I got a peek of it later, but it was just some blobs of color."

"Weird," his martial brother said, with interest.

As they continued their journey, the students mixed as they chose carriage seats.

In one carriage, Lin Xian read a book while Teng Yao spoke to one of the Qiong Ding disciples. "Qu-shixiong, I thought you were getting ready for the Imperial Civil Service exams?"

"I was, but I decided not to take them. I want to be a cultivator instead."

"Uh, is your family okay with that?"

Qu Lingbei winced. "I sent them a letter, but I haven't heard back yet. I think that's why Shizun brought me on this trip."

"Well, Qin country is as far away from Wei Country as you can get, while staying in the Four Empires."

"Are you going to participate in the Intersect Alliance Conference, then?" the other Qiong Ding disciple asked.

"Uh... I guess I could? If I get my sword in time. Shizun says he'll consider it, after this trip," Qu Lingbei replied.

"Lucky!" the second Qiong Ding student and Teng Yao chorused.

"Intersect Alliance Conference?" Luo Binghe asked.

Qu Lingbei turned to him, happy to move attention off himself. "Yeah; it's years away, but if you want to participate, you should start training now. You spar at Bai Zhan, right?" He waited for Luo Binghe's nod. "They usually do something for it."

Seeing Luo Binghe still looking confused, Lin Xian spoke up. "It's a contest; cultivators from the four great sects--"

"And others--"

"Yes, and others--gather in a closed security array. It's an area that's been stocked with monsters. And you stay there the whole week, camping. The participants are ranked by how many monsters they defeat in the time allowed."

"It's really competitive," Teng Yao interjected. "I've heard stories about people being attacked by other cultivators in there."

Qu Lingbei nodded seriously. "That happened when I was a junior disciple. The student was expelled. He didn't know that the masters watch the whole event."

"I heard there was a Scarlet-Crested Giant Porcupine Lizard at the last one!"

Luo Binghe's eyes were shining as the seniors exchanged stories and rumors.

*

They needed to cross a broad and fast river today; the students' still-developing qi reserves made it a chancy venture. Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan each shepherded one student across at a time, ready to catch them if their energy ran out. Luo Binghe, as the youngest, was the only one who needed intervention, but the others were exhausted by the trip. They took a long break for lunch on the other side of the river.

Luo Binghe, who had been flushed and embarrassed since Shen Qingqiu set him on the opposite shore, only picked at his food.

Qu Lingbei reassured him. "It's just because shidi is young. Your energy reserves will improve with practice."

Luo Binghe hid his face in his sleeve. Being scooped up onto Shen Qingqiu's sword, and seeing Shen Qingqiu effortlessly pull the unpaired spirit blade to him with a hand seal, had been embarrassing.

"Binghe's qi reserves are ahead of those of his age group, or this teacher would not have brought him on the trip," Shen Qingqiu said from his own seat. "When we return to Qing Jing, Binghe may begin to practice making spirit stones. That will grow his reserves faster."

Luo Binghe's nebulous plan to participate in the Intersect Alliance Conference gained new strength. A chance for combat abilities to shine, with Shizun watching! He would train hard, and prove himself.

Chapter Text

The Cang Qiong group was hosted by one of Yue Qingyuan's most distinguished outer sect disciples, the Minister of Personnel for Qin Country. In this highly respectable and responsible position, Minister Xiu oversaw promotions, demotions, merits and demerits for the administration.

The students were as prepared as they could be for the rigorous scrutiny they would face. Their youth would help quite a bit in smoothing over any little gaffes. Also in their favor, was the relative peace of country Qin at present, and the generally good relationship between the Imperial administration and Cang Qiong leadership. That relationship was bolstered by trips like this one. The Empress Dowager would be flattered by such high ranking guests, and the dazzling gift they would proffer. As cultivation treasures went, it was nothing priceless--but in the material world, it would be a treasure.

Yue Qingyuan had spent much of the trip filling Shen Qingqiu in on the current gossip surrounding the houses at which they would attend events. In Shen Qingqiu's last life, he'd been caught off guard by some of the social changes he encountered. Legal--or at least, non-criminal--slave ownership was one. The common practice of keeping concubines was another--one Shen Qingqiu privately thought was linked inextricably to the first. But those were fairly typical of the novels he'd read, and showed up in Proud Immortal Demon Way in particular. Other changes caught him off guard. One of the most surprising, but welcome, social changes in this world was the total absence of homophobia. Even the most respectable, stick-in-the-mud bureaucrat might cheerfully introduce his husband, married in the same elaborate multi-step ceremony which would be familiar to any reader of historical novels. There might be male concubines in the same household as female concubines--though courtyards were still strictly separated. It was more rare for women to marry women, simply because so few women had the means to live independently of a man. But it wasn't at all rare for a widow to remarry a childhood friend. Sometimes by assuring that widowhood privately. Because, while lack of homophobia removed many social strictures, it also added new complications, as the same affairs, jealousies, and inner courtyard warfare gained a new layer of complexity.

*

The imperial city was enormous; a dozen times larger than Qunnan City, and much more densely populated. In this time of heavily centralized government, everyone wanted to be close to the seat of power. The combination of their carriages, Cang Qiong credentials, and their formal letter of invitation got them through the gates easily, but the long lines of people on foot would take days to enter the city.

Luo Binghe was sharing a carriage with several other disciples. During the course of the journey, the students' initial tendency to socialize with their peak-mates had worn into an easy trade of places. This carriage held Luo Binghe, one other Qing Jing disciple, and two from Qiong Ding. Luo Binghe looked out the window curiously as the carriages slowly rolled past the waiting lines of people.

"Qu-shixiong, why are so many people trying to get in? They can't all be here for the Empress Dowager."

The Qiong Ding disciple didn't look up from his book--they were all used to Luo Binghe's questions by now. "There will be gifts for the populace, too, to celebrate the Empress Dowager's good health. There's usually a festival, associated with something like this."

"Unless there's a recent death in the family," Zhao Xihe chimed in.

Qu Lingbei flicked an annoyed eyebrow, but didn't look away from the page. "Unless there's a mourning period, yes."

"Oh," Luo Binghe said. "Will we be able to go to the festival?"

"It will be huge; we won't be able to miss it."

"It takes up the whole city," Zhao Xihe agreed.

*

They met Yue Qingyuan's student, and were graciously welcomed by his household. After the welcoming tea ceremony, Yue Qingyuan and his student stepped aside to his study while the others were taken to the courtyard prepared for them.

"It is this disciple's good fortune to offer Shizun hospitality," Minister Xiu said, a worried wrinkle on his brow. "This disciple wishes to confirm Shizun's request concerning the guest quarters. It would be no trouble at all to assign servants to your rooms, and ensure comfort."

"Your Shen-shishu is a very private person," Yue Qingyuan said smoothly. "He lives a simple life on Qing Jing, and this teacher fears he would be uncomfortable with the frequent comings and goings of servants." And Yue Qingyuan didn't know how he would react to the household servants--their life-and-death contracts often made them, effectively, slaves. Better not to risk it, when Shen Qingqiu didn't have the solitude of his peak to retreat to. "Of course, minor matters like heating water are trivial for a cultivator of his level."

Minister Xiu's brow cleared. "Ah. And artists must have solitude, of course."

Yue Qingyuan inclined his head. "We may need to rely on Madame Xiu's hospitality in providing servants to help dress for the banquet, however."

Chapter Text

During the day, the two peak lords had escorted their students through one of the city's large markets, and to a private shop of good repute. To avoid strife, the disciples were under strict instructions not to make purchases, but only to observe and take notes. The purpose was to let them see how cultivation treasures were viewed and valued in the material world; living in Cang Qiong since childhood, cultivators could sometimes develop blind spots.

When they returned to their host's compound, the students were sent off to their studies. Yue Qingyuan had a private meeting outside. When he returned, Shen Qingqiu was in the courtyard, seated before a silk panel a little over a chi in width. Yue Qingyuan watched him for awhile. He wasn't the only one; the manor's servants made frequent detours to peek over his shoulder, from a distance. None approached him, even to offer refreshment. Evidently, at least one had encountered Shen Qingqiu's usual snappish reaction to having his work interrupted.

When Shen Qingqiu paused and set his brush down, Yue Qingyuan approached. "That's a larger panel than I've seen you work on for awhile," he said cautiously.

"It's for our host. Or would that be inappropriate?"

Yue Qingyuan smiled. "No; it's a wonderful thought. He'll cherish it." It would undoubtedly become a family treasure. Yue Qingyuan looked more closely at the painting, which had moved from wide blocks of color to the stage where lines were being added. "It's--oh, it's the family courtyard."

"Yes; it's very similar to this one."

The basic shape of the courtyard was complete. Yue Qingyuan could see the suggestion of shapes which would become figures. Shen Qingqiu always worked like that; shaping the setting before adding people.

*

After dinner that evening, Luo Binghe had a question.

"Shizun, could we visit Ning-shijie while we're here?"

"Hmm." Shen Qingqiu thought, then looked at the three Qiong Ding disciples loitering nearby. "Students. Pop quiz. How would you go about arranging a meeting with a young girl of a noble house, without causing her undue trouble."

The students were instantly attentive. Qiong Ding disciples tended to be overzealous. They exchanged quiet whispers and hand signals, then asked, "What resources do we have, Shen-shishu?"

"This master, her teacher, and the student's own facility with beast taming techniques."

They clustered to consult again. Luo Binghe looked puzzled.

"A young unmarried lady of a noble house doesn't generally receive visitors who don't also know her family," Shen Qingqiu explained. "This old teacher doesn't wish to cause trouble for her."

*

Despite Shen Qingqiu's cautions to Luo Binghe, it wasn't difficult to meet with Ning Yingying at a poetry reading sponsored by her noble father. Partly, because he was her teacher and she was still quite young. And partly--here, he internally screwed his nose up in distaste, behind the iron door of his built-in poker face--partly because her father and his di-wife would be delighted to have an esteemed cultivator in the family.

Ning Yingying was miserable. "Shizun, I don't understand why they're being so horrible. I just want us to be a family. They're my sisters." She was near tears. A female servant busied herself silently nearby. Shen Qingqiu was almost, but not completely, certain that he recognized her as one of Qi Qingqi's students. She was certainly a cultivator.

"This teacher can't hug you right now, Ning Yingying," he said, trying to make his habitual aloof tone sound more kindly.

"But Lin-shimei is--" Ning Yingying glanced at the 'servant,' who raised an eyebrow drolly.

"Yes, but there is always the possibility of other eyes. This teacher doesn't want to cause trouble for Ning Yingying."

Ning Yingying sniffled. "I just want to go back to Cang Qiong."

*

Lord Ning was pleased to talk with Shen Qingqiu.

"She has great potential as a musician," Shen Qingqiu complimented. "Too often, this teacher sees the talents of noblewomen neglected. It is Ning Yingying's good fortune to be born into a household which values the arts."

Lord Ning flushed proudly. "Yes, our little Ying-er is our treasure."

Shen Qingqiu knew better than to trust that. No matter how petted, girls of noble families were raised to be bargained into marriage alliances. Once they married, they were spilt milk--the family would, and could, do little to directly protect them. If they even cared to.

"Of course she needs to marry..." Lord Ning continued.

"Of course," Yue Qingyuan, arriving beside him, interjected smoothly. "But some short-sighted households marry their daughters off early, cutting short their education before they can reach their full potential."

*

Lord Ning happily introduced the two Peak Lords to other attendees at the party, burnishing his own reputation with such illustrious guests. They were kind enough to mention his Ying-er as a student of Cang Qiong, and he knew his next gatherings wouldn't lack for guests.

He had heard rumors of Qing Jing's aloof Peak Lord, but never met him. Never wanted to, in fact; his razor edged critical essays were enjoyable, but no one wanted that sharp wit directed at them. But the man himself was much less intimidating than the rumors painted him. Aloof, yes, giving the strong impression that there were many weighty matters on his mind and you were not one of them. But perhaps that was to be expected from an immortal master. Also...

Lord Ning had seen how assiduously Yue Qingyuan had seen to his colleague's comfort, blocking off one angle of approach to him so he wasn't crowded, smoothly intervening when he looked to be growing irritated. Definitely a connection to cultivate.

*

Shen Qingqiu mostly resisted the ebb and flow of the little conversational groups. He stayed where he was, and took part in the discussions which formed around him. There was an endless movement of people at these parties, groups gelling and scattering as people made greetings and introductions.

The tide of people brought one such introduction to him. A young man in rich robes with the eyes of a shark.

The young man bowed. "This humble one greets the illustrious Master Shen. This humble one's younger brother is a disciple of the esteemed Master."

Shen Qingqiu noted the resemblance, and buttressed his poker face. "Ming Fan has good potential as a cultivator. This young man is...?"

"Ming Wen, representing our father. He was unable to attend Lord Ning's event, and sent this poor substitute in his stead."

More likely, Deputy-Minister Ming didn't want to be seen as close to Lord Ning's household, who had aligned themselves with... which crown prince candidate? Shen Qingqiu could never keep track of these things. He made a mental note to ask Yue Qingyuan, just in case it ended up being important later.

The conversation continued, full of subtle probes and hidden allusions. Shen Qingqiu sensed Luo Binghe's magnesium flare of qi approaching from the side, but the boy stopped just out of sight. He decided to be more brisk with Ming Wen than he would have done otherwise. The last thing he needed was Luo Binghe giving this ambitious young man a chance to get his hooks into him.

"If the esteemed Master Shen could guide Ming Fan on the path of cultivation--" Ming Wen continued smoothly.

"Qing Jing's students learn many things," Shen Qingqiu returned without a pause. "Among them, how to choose their words."

Ming Wen's mouth closed on the rest of his sentence, and he flushed faintly. He was, really, very young.

*

When their group had returned to their host's home, it was late. Yue Qingyuan pulled his own students aside to debrief from the party. The Qing Jing students went to change out of their formal robes. Before Shen Qingqiu could leave to do the same, Luo Binghe approached him. "Shizun, was that Ming Fan's brother?" he asked hesitantly.

Shen Qingqiu wafted his fan idly as he answered. "His older brother, yes. What knowledge did Binghe gather from the conversation?"

Luo Binghe thought, head down. "He doesn't like him much."

"If Ming Fan doesn't become a cultivator, he may return home and compete with his brothers. It creates strain."

"This disciple thought Ming Fan was from a rich family."

"He is," Shen Qingqiu confirmed. "They are wealthy enough that every member of the family could live comfortably. But sometimes, the more a family has, the more fiercely the family members fight over it."

Luo Binghe looked up at him searchingly. "Shizun, is that why Ming Fan--"

"There are many things students may learn at Qing Jing. It is this teacher's error that Ming Fan did not learn that not everyone is a rival."

"But he has friends!"

"Hmm. Those boys were his friends when he was head disciple. Are they his friends now?" Shen Qingqiu waited while Luo Binghe thought, and continued when his eyes widened. "Just so. That, too, is something Ming Fan has learned at Qing Jing."

*

"Do you think it worked?" Shen Qingqiu asked, later, when they were alone in their shared parlor. On Yue Qingyuan's advice, Shen Qingqiu had performed a duet with Ning Yingying; the same 'Daybreak in May' that she had presented so well at her recital. It was rapturously received by the sophisticated audience, and Lord Ning basked in the reflected glow. If nothing else, Ning Yingying's status in her house would rise, for a while.

"It should have," Yue Qingyuan assured him. "Lord Ning may not be able to manage his back courtyard, but he didn't gain his current position in court by being a foolish man. And greed is easy to provoke. He's already been looking into advantageous marriages for her. Letting her study longer will only make her skill more valuable. He's unlikely to make a decision while the crown prince title is still undecided."

"I hate raising students just to have them used as bargaining chips," Shen Qingqiu frowned.

Yue Qingyuan squeezed his hands. "I know. Think of it as giving them leverage."

Chapter Text

The upcoming birthday banquet meant an influx of prominent citizens to the Qin Country imperial capital. Many noble houses and influential merchant families had arranged gatherings to create useful relationships and renew ties with existing allies. Illustrious guests would improve the host's reputation.

Ahead of the main event of the banquet, the Cang Qiong delegation had a busy schedule.

Most of these parties were what Shen Yuan's socialite mother would have cattily called 'just a little get together for one or two hundred of their closest friends.' There were far too many guests for real intimacy, and most were only there to be seen to be attending. Talk wasn't about business, and politics were rigorously avoided. Instead, most habitues talked about their children, and watched what others were wearing. Every word, gesture, and item of ornamentation was carefully chosen for display.

Shen-Qingqiu-as-Shen-Yuan had attended quite a few of these--company events, or the innumerable birthdays, engagements, and welcoming parties which came with his mother's wide acquaintance. As the youngest son, and a sickly one, he was expected to do little more than dress appropriately and be polite. If it came to that, that was all he really needed to do now, as Shen Qingqiu. He and Yue Qingyuan traded off on checking on the disciples, who were under strict instructions to stay in pairs or trios, and to remain in the crowd.

There was a beautiful little ornamental pond in the courtyard, almost flush with the paving. Candles floated on its surface, and carp fluttered underneath. Shen Qingqiu guessed it was to provide entertainment when drunk or distracted guests tried to use it as a shortcut.

He spotted Yue Qingyuan and Minister Xiu, across the courtyard. They waved him over. Shen Qingqiu looked over the dense crowd and made his way to them by the simple expedient of using a featherlight charm to cross the pond. The guests, unused to cultivation tricks, murmured behind him.

Yue Qingyuan hid what he probably considered an out of character smile, but Shen Qingqiu could see it in the corners of his eyes. "You know, we aren't hurting for disciples," he murmured.

"It won't hurt to burnish the reputation of our graduating students, though."

"Just so." Yue Qingyuan smoothly took his arm on the side away from the pond, blocking an approaching guest from greeting him too enthusiastically.

*

The two peak lords soon separated again to help their students show to their best advantage. Teng Yao and one of the Qiong Ding disciples were playing a closely-watched game of qi before an interested audience. One other Qiong Ding disciple, and Qing Jing's Zhao Xihe, were discussing poetry with a group of scholarly dilettantes. Lin Xian was one of Shen Qingqiu's best calligraphy students, but couldn't show his ability without paper and ink. Instead, he and Luo Binghe were in a quieter corner, trading melodies on a qin. Lin Xian would play a little melody, Luo Binghe would carefully copy it, and Lin Xian would turn it into a more elaborate little song. Most of their audience was motherly women cooing over how adorable the youngest disciple was.

*

The party was already waning when a vicious argument broke out between two well-maintained noblewomen. They stood, smiles in place, voices a polite murmur, and flung barbs at each other from five paces. A desultory audience soon formed, ostensibly making innocuous chatter in their own groups while remaining just within earshot. Taking advantage of the change in focus of the party, Shen Qingqiu made his way to a slightly quieter area.

There, he encountered a lean nobleman in his fifties, with iron grey hair and a figure that could be described as 'spry.'

The old man looked up from his wine cup in amazement. "Shizun!" He bowed hastily. "What a surprise! A delightful surprise," he hastened to add. This was Chu Nanshan, now Chu-wang, one of Shen Qingqiu's former students.

"Chu Nanshan," Shen Qingqiu greeted him politely. "This old teacher is surprised not to see you in the middle of the commotion."

"Between those two? Too risky." The quiet argument did seem to be heating up.

Shen Qingqiu gazed disapprovingly at the crowd over his fan. "If they were this teacher's students, they would all be running laps. Tired children are good children."

Chu-wang grimaced and grinned at the same time. "I remember."

"I bet you do."

*

Luo Binghe, Teng Yao, and Lin Xian were watching the growing commotion with interest--from a safe distance--when Yue Qingyuan approached from behind them.

Yue Qingyuan drew the three of them back further as the two guests threw accusations, their acquaintances picked sides, and the host tried to mediate.

"It might be best for these students to go inside," Yue Qingyuan said pointedly.

Teng Yao and Lin Xian looked properly chastised; Luo Binghe asked, "Is Shizun inside?"

"This master believes he is," Yue Qingyuan said smoothly. He sent the three of them off.

*

Shen Qingqiu and Chu-wang were in a quiet interior courtyard, some distance from the party.

"--scolded for fighting." Shen Qingqiu was saying, seated at a table with Chu-wang.

Chu-wang smiled archly and leaned back. "I hate to tell you this, Shizun, but they weren't fighting." He beamed, and waited. Shen Qingqiu smiled at him over a tea cup, and after a moment, Chu-wang's face dropped into astonishment. "You knew?"

"If I'd punished them for what they were doing, it might have sent the wrong message. Their houses were not friends, if I recall correctly."

Chu-wang gestured silently, apparently at a loss for words.

"My favorite part was threatening to make them share a room if they couldn't get along better," Shen Qingqiu continued serenely. He turned as the students arrived, dropping the muffling charm with a hand seal. Shen Qingqiu introduced them to Chu-wang, then asked "Problems?"

"Some ladies are having an argument, Shizun," Teng Yao volunteered.

"Yue-shibo sent us here," Lin Xian added. Luo Binghe went to Shen Qingqiu's side as if drawn on a string.

"It is never wise to get involved in ladies' confrontations," Chu-wang agreed.

Chapter Text

"Ah, now this is where the action is!" Meng Mo cackled the next evening, rubbing his hands together with glee. "The imperial capital! Lights! Action! If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere."

Luo Binghe waited patiently while the Elder Dream Demon monologued. He'd learned that you just had to wait him out.

"Okay," Meng Mo continued. "You have some time before those damned righteous cultivators come back. Palace banquets take days. Sometimes weeks."

"Shizun said they'd be back this evening!" Luo Binghe protested.

Meng Mo rolled his eyes but didn't comment. "Right, right. Okay, kid, you know what to do. Just don't touch the cultivators. You aren't ready for that, yet."

Luo Binghe pulled himself out of his target's dreamworld, flushed and outraged. "He was--thinking things! About Shizun!"

"That? That's nothing. We need to broaden your horizons, if you're scandalized by a little slap-and-tickle like that."

"Don't say things like that!"

"Keep your head cool," Meng Mo advised. "Don't waste this opportunity being bashful. The capital is where the real power is. The people around here know where all the secrets are hidden, and where the bodies are buried. You need to go into their dreams to get leverage, and you can't bail out when things get embarrassing. Try again."

*

It was very late when Shizun and Yue Qingyuan returned from the Dowager Empress's banquet, but Luo Binghe had stayed up. He was sitting out of sight of the door, trying to keep from nodding off. One of the older disciples looked in on him occasionally, for awhile, but they had long since gone to bed.

Luo Binghe woke from his doze as he heard the rustle of robes approaching.

"--Was so utterly boring," Shizun's voice floated in from the courtyard, with an undertone of querulous complaint Luo Binghe had never heard from him before.

"It's good that it was boring," Yue Qingyuan replied, tone indulgent. His voice held the same warmth Luo Binghe felt around Shizun. "The exciting ones aren't enjoyable at all. If no one is assassinated, it's a successful event."

"No wonder; these headdresses would drive anyone to murder. Thank you for helping me remove it in the carriage."

There was a long pause, then Yue Qingyuan took a breath and said, "Xiao Y--"

Suddenly, out of nowhere, without even a tickle of warning, Luo Binghe sneezed explosively.

He heard quick footsteps approaching and scrambled back to the rooms.

*

"One of the disciples stayed up," Yue Qingyuan said when he returned.

"We'll know which one in the morning, by the circles under his eyes."

Chapter Text

On the day after the Dowager Empress's banquet, Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan escorted their students out into the ongoing street festival.

As the sun sank, the rapidly darkening streets were lit with lanterns. The elaborate hanging lights created bright pools of illumination which made the shadows outside them seem even darker. The Cang Qiong delegation browsed the streets as a loose group, pairs and trios merging and splitting off to investigate interesting stalls and street performances.

One group of stalls appeared to be run by a family; they were all similarly decorated, and shared displays. They sold various sweets, making many of them right in the open. Sugar roasted chestnuts, sweet-filled dumplings, and various gooey candies on sticks glistened enticingly and cast their caramel aromas into the air.

Yue Qingyuan could tell Shen Qingqiu had seen the tanghulu for sale by the way he completely ignored that area of street stalls. He drew close to offer, "I can distract the students if you'd like to buy some."

"Impractical," Shen Qingqiu said, after a telling pause. "It's impossible to eat neatly." After another pause, he continued. "I'll come back later, and use a qiankun item."

Yue Qingyuan swallowed a chuckle that would have gotten him pinched.

*

Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan strolled through the street fair. Luo Binghe, browsing with the other students, craned his neck to keep them in sight. He didn't know why, but losing track of Shizun made him distressed. The older students hadn't missed his discomfiture.

"I'm absolutely sure they aren't going to leave us, shidi," one said dryly. Luo Binghe frowned. He shouldn't even joke about that. The others were distracted by an elaborate display of wooden toys.

Luo Binghe sensed--something. Nothing to do with his slowly developing cultivator's senses. Nothing with his more quickly growing demonic senses, either. But something, some deeply held instinct, called him to investigate a narrow, dark street. It led to an empty courtyard, surrounded by darkened residential buildings. It was... suspiciously empty, considering the festival in full swing just a short walk away. Appearances may be deceiving, Luo Binghe recited conscientiously to himself. Look before you leap.. Shizun was so wise. Sometimes, when Luo Binghe didn't know what to do, he repeated The Rules to himself. Be mindful in public areas. Well, this was theoretically public, even if no one was--there, movement in the shadow of a tall old house. Luo Binghe moved to rush forward.

He was given pause by the appearance of one of the other students. A second appeared behind him. "Luo-shidi, what's going on?" Teng Yao whispered. Zhao Xihe was watching the area with narrowed eyes, one hand tucked in his sleeve, on the hilt of a knife which he certainly hadn't shown before. Many of the seniors had qiankun items they'd made themselves. And other items--Teng Yao pulled out a paper muffling talisman and activated it with a breath.

"Someone is in trouble!" Luo Binghe whispered back.

"It's us!" Zhao Xihe hissed. "There are people standing watch on this street; if we weren't cultivators, we wouldn't have slipped past them. I don't know how you did."

Teng Yao looked worried, now. "Should we call Shizun?"

With beautiful dramatic timing, fireworks were set off in a street nearby. The three students stared at each other in the noise and flickering colored lights.

"It's an ambush," the nobly born Zhao Xihe said grimly. "But not for us. We're already here. Let's wait. We can help whoever they're trying to capture, and Shizun will notice we're missing soon."

"With Luo-shidi here, he will," Teng Yao grinned, despite the trouble they were in.

"Stop it!" Luo Binghe jabbed at him.

They scuffled silently, then huddled together to wait.

*

It didn't take long for a palanquin to arrive--and the bearers to depart. They set the conveyance down at the edge of the courtyard and fled without a word, disappearing into the darkened streets. Bribed, almost certainly. It took a minute for a veiled head to poke out cautiously. The palanquin was plain and rough--one of the many hired vehicles available in the city which strictly regulated horses within the city walls. The young woman--a girl, really--who cautiously left it was plainly dressed, but not rough at all. There was something in the wary tilt of her head, and the carefully trained stillness of her posture, that said 'noble house.'

"Ah," Zhao Xihe said knowledgeably. "I know this one. Noble girl, separated from her escorts. Someone's trying to ruin her reputation. Or force her to get married."

"We have to rescue her!" Luo Binghe said staunchly.

"Let her be attacked first," Teng Yao said sensibly. "Otherwise, she may think we're the bad guys."

Zhao Xihe looked at him with new appreciation. Luo Binghe looked baffled that anyone could consider him a villain. They all waited.

The girl stood where she was and looked over the semi-circle of residential buildings--old manors which had been long subdivided into apartments as the city grew. Then, she turned decisively and walked briskly back the way the palanquin had come, back toward the noise of the festival.

The ambush struck, from the shadows of the buildings. The three Cang Qiong disciples darted forward to intercept them. Zhao Xihe kept his knife sheathed, but all three had unarmed combat training. None of these men were cultivators, and what little armor they had was strictly for street scuffles.

The three students avoided obvious groin kicks and foot stomps for the qi-fortified strikes to joints that they learned in their defense classes in Qing Jing. Luo Binghe had, by far, the most combat practice, with his classes on Bai Zhan. But the other two students were older, and had years more training. Qing Jing defense classes started by assuming your opponent wouldn't let you have a sword. They were outnumbered, but had the advantage of cultivation-enhanced speed and endurance. It took just minutes to have the dozen attackers incapacitated and on the ground.

Zhao Xihe grabbed Teng Yao's shoulder. "You and me, after the two guys standing watch. Luo-shidi, stay with the girl." They ran off. Luo Binghe blinked at the girl, who hadn't fled but looked no more trusting of the new arrivals than the ruffians.

*

Zhao Xihe and Teng Yao caught one lookout as he fled, but the other was gone. They looked at each other. "I'll carry him down to the others," Teng Yao offered. "You get Shizun?"

"Swap those," Zhao Xihe said firmly. "I'm your senior."

Teng Yao sighed.

"Shizun can't assign you laps when you're in the city," Zhao Xihe said cheerfully, picking up the unconscious lookout.

"Bet?"

*

When Teng Yao--ruffled and flushed from the fight--found the rest of their group, Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan were already alert and looking for their lost disciples. Teng Yao guided them to the narrow street, now much brighter than his description. Some sort of diversionary charm for the non-cultivating public, perhaps.

When they arrived on the scene, the 'ruffians'--soldiers, in plainclothes, Shen Qingqiu guessed--had already been defeated. They were unconscious, or at least pretending to be.

"Are you injured?"

"No, Shizun!" Luo Binghe chirped. He was only a little dirty from fighting in the alley.

"And your little friend?" Shen Qingqiu glanced at the young lady, who had straightened up and was looking at them warily. She was younger than he had thought; perhaps twelve or thirteen.

"They never got close!" Luo Binghe exclaimed, still bouncing from the fight.

"You've done well," Shen Qingqiu said as he gave the expected head pat. Luo Binghe glowed.

[ + 100 protagonist coolness points! Please continue your efforts! ]

Yue Qingyuan followed at a more sedate pace. In the interim, he'd acquired a new person--a young woman in her twenties who was visibly distraught. She rushed to the preteen, ignoring both Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe, whispering fiercely.

Shen Qingqiu glanced at Yue Qingyuan, who placed a staying hand on his arm. They exchanged a glance. Yue Qingyuan's eyes were very serious as they met Shen Qingqiu's. Shen Qingqiu nodded, and let Yue Qingyuan take the lead.

*

The young woman and the girl left together, with polite thanks to the Cang Qiong delegation. The group's return to their host's courtyard was quiet and without further events. When Luo Binghe had been packed off to be cleaned up, Shen Qingqiu got an explanation.

Yue Qingyuan sounded strained. "That was one of the Emperor's daughters. I don't remember which one, off the top of my head. I have no idea why she was out without an escort."

"At least she was in disguise?" Shen Qingqiu suggested.

Yue Qingyuan rubbed his temples.

*

It was no surprise when, the next day, the Cang Qiong delegation was invited to the palace. The whole group, specifically including the students.

Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu withdrew to discuss the invitation.

"We have to go," Yue Qingyuan said seriously. "Can you impress upon your students, that they aren't to speak unless spoken to?"

Shen Qingqiu nodded. "I will. How worrisome is this?"

"Not very," Yue Qingyuan said, though he was frowning faintly. "It's probably pro forma. He can't acknowledge our help without admitting to the embarrassment, but ignoring it risks causing a rift. A casual invitation is a good middle ground."

*

As they prepared to depart, Yue Qingyuan addressed his students seriously. "Assume observers in the palace know our hand signals. Communicate nothing you mind being overheard." The Qiong Ding students nodded solemnly, as Shen Qingqiu ushered in his own students. All eight of the disciples were tidied and in Cang Qiong colors. Fortunately, no one expected cultivators to dress elaborately. They were supposed to be above such frippery.

On the way to the palace, Shen Qingqiu used the time in the carriage to give some last minute cautions. He'd been concerned that Luo Binghe would forget if they were warned any earlier. "It's a game in politics to provoke your opponent into speaking unwisely. That is why these disciples will sit and observe silently. Someone may attempt to goad you into speaking. Don't jump into a conversation, but wait for Sect Leader or myself to invite you to speak."

Teng Yao spoke up. "Shizun, what if someone asks us a direct question?"

"It would be unusual--and perhaps, even rude--for them to do so, when your elders are representing you. But if they do, and they have sufficient rank to compel a response, answer briefly and to the point. The less you speak, the less leverage you offer enemies."

"Can we... expect to meet enemies in the palace?" Lin Xian asked carefully.

"We're on good terms with the current administration; if we were not, we wouldn't bring disciples at all. But the palace has its own politics, and even allies may wish to get leverage against one another. Cang Qiong does not involve itself in politics, but some parties may try to make use of us nonetheless."

"Shizun, um..." Luo Binghe hesitated. Shen Qingqiu nodded at him to speak. "If Cang Qiong is neutral, why does it matter what the empire thinks?"

"Because citizens of the empire may make decisions according to what they think the Emperor's wishes are. Some of your fellow students are from families in Qin Country. If their families were concerned about appearances, they might be called home. Some of them would not be returning to good situations."

Luo Binghe nodded, thoughtfully.

*

The actual audience was very uneventful, despite or because of the many warnings. The Cang Qiong delegation was received in a beautiful and immaculately groomed garden. Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu were invited to sit and offered tea; the eight students stood silently to the side. Conversation was light and inoffensive, touching on nothing more controversial than the weather. Very mild compliments to Cang Qiong were accepted with equally mild humility.

They were graciously dismissed after just half an hour; less than a quarter of the time it had taken to travel there by carriage from their host's compound.

They were escorted back to their carriages--Shen Qingqiu double-checked to make sure Luo Binghe hadn't somehow wandered off after another plot device--and returned to their origin point. The brief visit had taken most of the day. Shen Qingqiu was glad for his cultivator's constitution; the students were drooping.

When they arrived at their host's home, the students were shooed off to prepare for dinner. Yue Qingyuan's student was still at the Department of Officials, but Madame Xiu came out to greet them with well-hidden worry in her eyes. Yue Qingyuan gave her a few reassuring words, and returned to the guest courtyard with Shen Qingqiu.

Once behind closed doors, the mask dropped and Shen Qingqiu could see the tension the sect leader had been operating under all day. Not worrisome, indeed, he scoffed to himself, pulling Yue Qingyuan to lean against him. He repeated that out loud, as Yue Qingyuan relaxed with a blown out breath.

"I worried anyway," Yue Qingyuan replied, slightly muffled by Shen Qingqiu's shoulder.

"Yes, you do that," Shen Qingqiu acknowledged, rubbing his back. "Was I imagining things, or did you imply...?" Even in their private courtyard, he wouldn't say it outright. At the tea, Yue Qingyuan had delicately implied, without saying anything concrete, that 'Luo Binghe' was a pseudonym for a student whose identity must be kept secret for political reasons.

Yue Qingyuan's head lifted slightly. "You caught that?"

"Of course I did. It was a literary allusion."

"Mm. Well, it is true."

"I would never have thought of it quite like that, but it is. Let's go change, and before dinner you can tell me what else I missed."

[ Quest Completed: Knives in the Dark. Rescued Princess Xinxin: Success! Captured Princess Xinxin's attention: Success! Gained the approval of Emperor: Success! Unraveled the royal conspiracy: Failure. Protagonist's coolness level +300. Please continue your efforts! ]

Chapter Text

After the excitement of the students' palace visit, they had spent the afternoon and evening quietly. Shen Qingqiu added to his painting throughout the day. He moved it inside their shared parlor when it got dark.

Late in the evening, the compound was quiet. Occasionally, the noise of the ongoing street festival could be heard, but even that was muffled by the high walls.There were no more fireworks, Shen Qingqiu observed. When Shen Qingqiu finally looked up from his painting, he found Yue Qingyuan had dozed off over his book. He must have fallen asleep early; he hadn’t gotten very far in it. Shen Qingqiu shook his head and washed his brushes. Rising, he closed the abandoned book around an embroidered bookmark, and set it aside.

Using a quick, quiet featherlight charm, he lifted Yue Qingyuan and carried him to his room down the hall. He froze for a moment as Yue Qingyuan shifted, but continued when he settled back to peaceful breathing. The charm let him move the heavier man effortlessly, but the difference in height still made things awkward. He had to sit Yue Qingyuan beside him on the bed and lean him against his shoulder to loosen his hair. He carefully balanced their positions while he set the crown and pin on the bedside table, then did an awkward kneel-reach-and-shuffle while bracing Yue Qingyuan's shoulder, to get his feet up on the bed without twisting his back. That done, he carefully shifted Yue Qingyuan's hair to the side so he wasn't lying on it. Once Yue Qingyuan was settled in a way that looked more-or-less comfortable, he took a moment to remove the featherlight charm, and saw his friend's face.

Were those tears in his eyelashes? Honestly! How embarrassing was it that the leader of the strongest sect was such a crybaby. If the other sects found out, where would they put their face? At least he was smiling a little. Shen Qingqiu wondered what he was dreaming about.

Shen Qingqiu found himself reaching to brush back--unnecessarily!--a lock of hair, like a doting caregiver in a terrible, terrible drama. He drew his hand back sharply and took himself off. Just because I'm living in a dog-blood novel, doesn't mean I have to act like a dog-blood character, he thought firmly.

*

Early the next morning, they were at a table in the large, comfortable guest courtyard their host had provided for them. The morning was cool and dim; there was little sound but the early-rising city birds and the distant sound of clinking ceramic from the kitchen.

"This is nice," Yue Qingyuan offered, after a long period of quiet.

"Yes, it is," Shen Qingqiu responded, glancing up briefly from his notes. "Very peaceful. I give it ten minutes before the students arrive and ruin it."

Yue Qingyuan hesitated. "I mean... having breakfast with you." He waited.

"Ah.” Shen Qingqiu smiled. “Yes, that too. We should do this sometimes back home."

Yue Qingyuan‘s shoulders briefly relaxed, then squared again. He took a breath but was distracted from whatever he was about to say by the sound of the students approaching—arguing quietly, it sounded like. The enforced proximity of the journey was wearing on them. It would be good to go home.

Chapter Text

By the end of the week-long visit, the disciples were more than ready to leave; the capital was diverting, but tiring. They packed in the evening, ready to leave early the next morning.

Before their departure dinner with the family, Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan planned to present his gift to Minister Xiu. The painting was beautiful; a peaceful scene of the family courtyard, with a few of the Minister's family members picked out in exquisite detail.

Two of Minister Xiu's young grandchildren were playing under a tree--the same map puzzle game they played at Qiong Ding. The Minister's daughter and daughter-in-law were keeping one eye on the children while they chatted over their embroidery work. Another, older grandchild was bent industriously over a qin, their bowed head and finger placement conveying their careful studiousness.

"This is... spectacular. A treasure," Yue Qingyuan breathed. The level of detail, and the personalization of the figures, made it clear that this was created as a personal gift for this specific household. It was a flattering view of the family--Yue Qingyuan had never seen the family courtyard without at least one crying child--and Minister Xiu was sure to show it off to every visitor.

Shen Qingqiu looked pleased. "It did turn out well. In the time I had." He frowned. "What were the names of the children, again? In case it comes up when we present it."

*

And then they were off.

The trip home was faster than the one leaving. The students' sword flying skills had improved measurably during their short trip. Their qi reserves had grown only slowly, but they were all more practiced and efficient in manipulating the qi needed to fly. Therefore, on the last leg of their trip, it immediately caught Shen Qingqiu's attention when Luo Binghe wavered.

Shen Qingqiu quickly accelerated and drew up beside him. He had a hand ready to pull Luo Binghe onto Xiu Ya if his qi ran out, but a longer look suggested lack of energy wasn't the problem. Luo Binghe was teary-eyed, but not yet crying.

Baffled, Shen Qingqiu looked for a cause. Then he realized. They could just see Cang Qiong, sitting high in the Tian Gong mountain range, glowing in the late-morning light. This was the first time Luo Binghe had been away from Cang Qiong for any significant time since he joined the sect. So, it was the first time he was coming home.

Shen Qingqiu silently flew beside and behind him for a time, to make sure there were no more... unexpected energy fluctuations.

Chapter Text

"Qingqiu-shidi! I heard you were here," Yue Qingyuan said, speaking even as he entered the room. To Shen Qingqiu's surprise, he was embraced immediately. The disciple following behind Yue Qingyuan startled and reversed their steps, pretending they'd been several paces behind.

Yue Qingyuan looked--frazzled. He was also wearing more formal robes than his everyday wear—the heavy fabric was stiff under Shen Qingqiu’s hands. "Are we under attack again?" Shen Qingqiu asked him, only partially joking. Sha Hualing's attempted raid aside, any move against Cang Qiong would be presaged by diplomatic feints.

Yue Qingyuan huffed and relaxed. "No, just me, I'm afraid." He rubbed Shen Qingqiu's shoulder, like a worry stone, and released him. "Qu Lingbei's family head has arrived, with entourage."

"I see." Shen Qingqiu thought for a moment. "Shall I talk to them?"

"Ah..." Yue Qingyuan hesitated.

"After dealing with me for five minutes, they'll be delighted to talk to you."

Yue Qingyuan hid a smile. "Actually, you taught most of his essay workshops. That might be very helpful."

Yue Qingyuan filled him in as they returned to the receiving room. He leaned close to impart the background information. As he listened, head tilted attentively, Shen Qingqiu wondered why it felt so much more conspiratorial to talk in whispers like this rather than using a muffling charm.

*

Qu Lingbei's family patriarch was from a merchant clan. He was Qu Lingbei's adoptive father, and also a cousin from the senior family branch--one of those complicated family situations. The family head gave Shen Qingqiu an incisive look as he entered with Yue Qingyuan, probably tallying at a glance the value of his clothing and ornaments. Well. Let him. Shen Qingqiu didn't expect to dress to impress, but he made or detailed most of what he was wearing, and knew his own work was priceless.

Yue Qingyuan introduced Shen Qingqiu gracefully, both as Qing Jing peak lord and the teacher who had led Qu Lingbei's exam preparation workshops.

It soon emerged that the Qu family patriarch thought young Lingbei was discouraged from taking the exams due to his performance. "After all his years of study, why would he not do well on the exams?" he asked, voice controlled but displeased.

Shen Qingqiu turned his closed fan in his fingers absently. "Qu Lingbei has a fine and original mind. He would have done quite well on the tests. His essays showed a subtlety of thought which would have served him well as a court official."

The man's brows drew in, then relaxed. "Then why--"

"But he will make a better cultivator. Once he takes the exams, his future is set; it would take a substantial excuse to leave imperial service. Furthermore, if he dedicates himself to the path of cultivation, his lifespan will be measured in centuries, not decades."

The Qu family patriarch, well preserved but visibly well into his sixties, paused. "A longer lifespan--that's true?"

"This master's own teacher was eight hundred years old before he cultivated to ascension," Shen Qingqiu confirmed. "His cultivation partner was over four hundred, before they ascended together."

The patriarch sat back a little in his chair. That seemed to change the calculus for him--he would not have adopted a cousin, no matter how gifted, if he had sons of his own. However, one of the younger men accompanying him was now deliberately flattening his hands against his knees to keep from clenching them into fists.

Yue Qingyuan smoothly stepped in--or added fuel to the fire. "This master's own teacher, the former Sect Leader, was in her fifth century when she ascended with her martial siblings. Some of her several-times-great-grandchildren are now disciples of the sect."

"So, you--" the patriarch hesitated delicately. There was no polite way to ask strangers if they can have children.

"Some cultivators dedicate themselves to the ascetic path, but most do not," Yue Qingyuan assured him. "When one commits to the path of cultivation, one sacrifices only the ability to directly involve oneself in politics."

*

"It never ceases to amaze me how little non-practitioners know about cultivation," Shen Qingqiu huffed later.

Yue Qingyuan guided him into a hospitality room with a hand on his arm. "They know, but think it's mythology. You've seen how eagerly they buy the simplest items. Let's have tea here; we're less likely to be disturbed than in my office."

Once inside, they hugged. Yue Qingyuan murmured, "Since we got back, I've barely seen you."

Shen Qingqiu leaned into him. "We saw each other all day, every day, for almost a month."

"But never enough," Yue Qingyuan said gallantly. Shen Qingqiu swatted at him, and they moved to the tea table.

"What has kept you so busy?" Shen Qingqiu asked. "Was there a problem while we were gone?"

"No--my disciples managed things well, in my absence, but they want reassurance. On everything.” Yue Qingyuan paused to take a sip of his tea. “One thing did come up; they set it aside for me. Huan Hua and Zhao Hua want yet another planning meeting for the Intersect Alliance Conference." Yue Qingyuan frowned, an uncharacteristically obvious show of irritation. They really must be getting on his nerves. "It's excessive, in my opinion. I think Huan Hua is simply using these meetings as an excuse to network."

"It must be even more inconvenient for the smaller sects. The travel time--"

"Yes; the Conference will have fewer participants in future years, if this keeps up." Yue Qingyuan tapped his cup thoughtfully. "They're trying to insist a 'person of sufficient rank' attend the meeting. They're angling for me, but..." Yue Qingyuan began to smile. "Perhaps you could go instead."

Shen Qingqiu answered slowly, dubious. "Well, if you request it, but I can't promise no casualties."

"I thought I'd send Liu-shidi as well." Yue Qingyuan was definitely smiling now.

Shen Qingqiu gave him a flat stare. "Is Sect Leader trying to start a war? Because we should talk about that."

Yue Qingyuan ducked his head to hide his smile. "Between the two of you, I'm confident it won't come to that."

Shen Qingqiu thought, then suggested, "Could we not let them know who will be showing up?"

"Oh, yes. They'll just think I'm putting off committing to the meeting." They shared a conspiratorial smile.

*

When Yue Qingyuan brought up the trip with Liu Qingge, he agreed readily enough.

"As long as I don't have to give a speech," he said.

"Qingqiu-shidi will handle that, if it comes up. Just--if he runs into someone unpleasant--"

"I'll look after him for you," Liu Qingge committed.

"Then this shixiong is reassured," Yue Qingyuan smiled.

Chapter Text

Sitting at the large Qiong Ding conference table before the regular Peak Lords' meeting, Shang Qinghua was trying and failing to negotiate with Shen Qingqiu.

"How about a, a jobs board?" Shang Qinghua suggested desperately.

"A..." Shen Qingqiu gave him a narrow eyed stare over his fan.

"Like, like a board. For jobs. Available to all disciples." Shang Qinghua gestured vaguely, as if trying to shape the concept out of thin air. "We say--I say--we need ten of these Everflow Ewers, and we'll pay so-and-so much for each one, and they can take the job--completely voluntarily--" he raised his voice as it looked like Shen Qingqiu was about to interject. "And we--I--pay them as individuals." He held his breath and waited, looking at Shen Qingqiu hopefully. There was a long pause.

"That... would be acceptable," Shen Qingqiu said, finally.

Shang Qinghua let out the breath he'd been holding, all in a rush. His suggestion that making the items could count as a classroom assignment had not gone over well; the whole conversation had crashed and burned from there.

He was ready to stop the discussion there, in case Shen Qingqiu changed his mind. But Ruan Qingruan and Duan Qingze had arrived while they were negotiating, and looked interested.

"What's this?" Duan Qingze asked curiously.

Shen Qingqiu wafted his fan. "Some of my students can produce artifacts which are useful to An Ding. Qiankun items, for instance. We're putting together a system so they can be paid for their craftsmanship."

"We're putting together a system? I'm putting together the system," Shang Qinghua muttered. The others ignored him.

Ruan Qingruan's brows rose as he sat down. "Huh. That's not a bad idea."

"Your peaks are welcome to participate, if you'd like."

"I'll float the idea to my senior disciples, to see what they're willing to offer. But will your students be interested, Shen-shixiong? Surely most of them get family allowances."

"Some do not. It puts them at a disadvantage in learning responsible money management. And it was pointed out to me that simply giving them an allowance myself might be taken badly."

"Pointed out to you?" Duan Qingze echoed incredulously. "Who would--"

From the doorway, Yue Qingyuan watched them talk with a pleased, misty expression.

*

After the meeting, Shen Qingqiu made his way through the precise, elegantly groomed paths of Zhi Ji. A well-mannered disciple guided him to a small ornamental lake, where Lin Qingshui sat in an open pavilion on the water. Shen Qingqiu greeted him politely.

"This shidi hopes Shen Qingqiu enjoyed the walk here,” Lin Qingshui said graciously.

"It's beautiful, but I'm always afraid of touching anything," Shen Qingqiu said as he sat.

"Unplanned changes are part of the pattern," Lin Qingshui replied serenely.

"Speaking of changes, Ning Yingying is on her way back," Qi Qingqi said as she arrived. "Her father is refusing engagements for her left and right. Whatever you did, nice work." She gave Shen Qingqiu a punch to the shoulder on her way past; Shen Qingqiu swayed to avoid it.

"It was mostly Yue-shixiong," he admited. "He knows the political situation, and made a few comments to her father."

Qi Qingqi nodded, pleased, and took her seat as Duan Qingze and Liu Qingge approached. "And on the topic of political situations... I went to the brothel while you were gone. Did you hear--?"

Duan Qingze winced while Liu Qingge greeted Lin Qingshui. "Qi-shijie--"

"--The latest from Jing City?" she continued as if she hadn’t heard. "Apparently, Li Feiyan and Yang Jun stayed overnight at an entertainment establishment."

"No!" Shen Qingqiu said, scandalized. Lin Qingshui tilted his head curiously.

"I heard it from a most reliable source," Qi Qingqi said smugly.

"Why is this important?" Liu Qingge sighed as he sat.

Shen Qingqiu glanced at him over his fan. "Li Feiyan is the lover of Jing City's most prominent citizen, Ye Liu. Yang Jun is--was?--Ye Liu's second in command."

Qi Qingqi nodded, leaning forward slightly. "Was. Until he lost a duel to Ye Liu's own son--"

"That was such a scandal; obviously staged by Li Feiyan," Lin Qingshui contributed.

Qi Qingqi looked pleased. "Ye Liu disowned his own son for the little lover. But the son took up with Jing City's military commander... Oh, Liu-shidi, do you know him? Qin Shiyue."

Liu Qingge nodded, baffled. "Good man. Good head on his shoulders. So if the lover is stepping out on, uh, Ye Liu--"

"--Then Jing City is firmly in Qin Shiyue's hands. And, thus, in Ye Sinian's. Ye Sinian is the son."

Liu Qingge looked lost again. "Why do we need to know this?"

Qi Qingqi sighed explosively. "You have no drama in your soul."

"You have enough for all of us and then some."

Shen Qingqiu hurried to hide a smile behind his fan.

*

Shen Qingqiu returned to Qing Jing alone, tired out from the unusually long stretch of time in a social setting--the Peak Lords' meeting, plus this unofficial gossip session, had stretched late into the afternoon. He was more than ready for the solitude of his bamboo cottage.

He had arrived at the meeting on foot, via the Rainbow Bridge, and now returned that way. Hearing voices ahead, he left the bridge a little early, happy to avoid even more social pleasantries when he was already feeling stretched thin.

As he made his way through the peaceful and empty paths, he was thinking about nothing in particular. His subtle senses were active, though, to help him avoid meeting anyone on the path. So he caught the fluttery sensation of qi, deliberately shaped but inexpertly formed. A student practicing in private, no doubt. Shen Qingqiu muffled his steps and prepared to move past.

He paused when he saw what the closely concentrating student was doing, though. It wasn’t one of his--the youngster was one of Lin Qingshui's disciples, and not one of the few seniors Shen Qingqiu could recognize. He was about fifteen, a student on the late side of the junior level. The teenager was trying, and failing, to use the Flying Leaves technique. Shen Qingqiu could see a wooden board propped up against a tree for use as a target, with hatch marks and the remains of dead and drying leaves scattered over it.

Shen Qingqiu warred with himself--it wasn’t quite polite to interfere with another peak's students, and he only got away with it on Qing Jing by arguing eminent domain. They were, technically, in the no man's land between peaks...

Shen Qingqiu hesitated too long, and the student looked around. He jumped to his feet. "This disciple greets Shen-shibo," he said nervously.

"As you were," Shen Qingqiu said immediately. "Continue to practice diligently." He paused, then continued, "When using a fresh leaf, the technique becomes significantly easier." There. A correction, but also plausible deniability. Shen Qingqiu internally congratulated himself.

"Yes, Shen-shibo," the disciple said obediently. As Shen Qingqiu turned to go, he was already gathering more leaves from the denuded shrub nearby. Half a dozen flew at the target, most wavering badly and falling short of the mark. That was the fluttery feel of an intentional but uncontrolled technique he had felt before.

Damn it. "Also," Shen Qingqiu added, turning. "Practice with just one leaf, until you can control it consistently, then add another. And so on."

The disciple looked down at the leaves in his hands. "Luo-shixiong can hit the target with ten at at time," he said hesitantly.

"Yes, and he started with one leaf. And he was very bad at it."

The disciple was wide-eyed. "Shen-shibo is Luo-shixiong's teacher," he said, in tones of realization.

This is exactly the kind of thing that would make the original goods--make me--gnash my teeth, Shen Qingqiu thought. He looked at the student coolly for a minute. The Zhi Ji disciple was raptly attentive, now that Shen Qingqiu was associated with his idol. "It's natural to think, that to do as the advanced students do, you should emulate their training. But for the advanced students, you don't see the training they did to reach that level. Jumping ahead will be frustrating at best, dangerous at worst." He looked over the scattered compost of dead leaves. "This disciple has been practicing all afternoon?"

"Yes, Shen-shibo. This disciple works very hard."

Oh no. That was the start of a lip wobble. "Practicing when you're tired will create bad habits. Practice for short periods, and take frequent breaks. That will help you improve."

"Yes, Shen-shibo."

"Though, if you were able to keep up practice for this long, your qi reserves are ahead of your peers. You can make use of that, but still conserve your resources."

"This disciple will try, Shen-shibo," the Zhi Ji disciple said earnestly.

Shen Qingqiu could not have stopped himself for a mountain of gold and unfettered access to Wikipedia. "Do, or do not; there is no try," he intoned solemnly. The disciple looked impressed by the borrowed wisdom.

Chapter Text

Yue Qingyuan dreamed of brushing his lips against Xiao Jiu's soft wrist. He woke just as he was about to move Xiao Jiu's sleeve a finger's breadth higher.

He woke to chimes, and squinted at the talisman-powered water clock in his chamber. An irreplaceably useful and yet much hated possession, one of his teacher's double-edged gifts. His dreams of Shen Qingqiu always seemed to occur just before he woke up.

He prepared for his day--or at least, prepared to prepare, making himself presentable to listen to his duty disciples' schedule and briefing over breakfast.

But he had a few minutes.

Yue Qingyuan's qiankun ring, unbeknownst to most, was made of two pieces of metal, and held two qiankun spaces. One, was for everyday items. The other, keyed to his own spirit energy, was intended for sensitive or dangerous information. Yue Qingyuan pulled Xiao Jiu's small color study out of the secret compartment. It was really just color and shape, without detail. It didn't look like anything, really, but on the first impression, when just glancing at it... That was definitely Xiao Jiu's favorite pale green. The black--hair, or Yue Qingyuan's robes? The patch of gold suggested the latter. Or maybe a hair ornament. And the touch of very pale peach, with just a blush of pink... A shoulder? A hand? Yue Qingyuan quickly put the small painting away.

He took a moment in the hall to make sure he was presentable before leaving his rooms. This mirror, in fact, was the one he'd had removed from the guest room Xiao Jiu sometimes used. After Xiao Jiu's nervous account of his mirror-created scare, leading to the realization he was related to Qiu Jianluo, Yue Qingyuan took care not to prod the wound.

Decades ago, when he'd first looked at Xiao Jiu in his tidy, austere Qing Jing robes and wanted, he'd felt guilty and horrified with himself. He'd committed to keeping Xiao Jiu safe, and failing at that, had no right to want more. Following swift upon that, grief, and the sick emptiness of knowing he was doomed to a lifetime of one-sided devotion. Decades--even centuries, given a cultivator's extended lifespan--loomed ahead of him. His Xiao Jiu couldn't bear to be in the same room with him, let alone allow him to touch his hand, his hair.

When he had seen Shen Qingqiu collapsed on the floor of his studio, pale and senseless in the wake of a qi deviation, he had seen the prospect of something worse. A lifetime of never catching a fleeting glimpse of him down a path, never seeing him across the space of a table at meetings, of a world where Xiao Jiu didn't exist at all. The possibility had nearly sent him into his own qi deviation; only the iron self-possession of decades managing Xuan Su let him push it back.

So he had ignored Mu Qingfang's judgmental eyebrows to hold Xiao Jiu's limp hand, and second-guessed his resolution to give Xiao Jiu the space he seemed to want.

It wasn't until they were on their way home from the Empress Dowager's birthday banquet that he realized that, now, another future was possible. In the temporary and fragile privacy of their carriage, with his fingertips brushing Xiao Jiu's soft, warm hair as he carefully removed the heavy formal headdress, with Xiao Jiu's head tilted trustingly into his hands in the semi-darkness, the epiphany was so sudden that his hands trembled and his mouth went dry.

His few, impulsive attempts to express himself were interrupted--and now that he'd had time to reflect, he was glad. His Xiao Jiu deserved more than a sudden, impulsive confession. He deserved a serious, elaborate courtship, so he knew how solemnly Yue Qingyuan took this commitment, how important he was to him. It had to be perfect.

He had kept the hair ornaments. For years. Yue Qingyuan had been sure they'd been thrown away, or destroyed, or sold, not that he would blame Xiao Jiu for that. Had he kept his other gifts? His cottage was so small that Yue Qingyuan, not seeing them, had assumed not. But he'd forgotten Xiao Jiu's facility with qiankun items. Perhaps Xiao Jiu had tucked them away, out of sight, unwilling either to discard or use them.

Chapter Text

Liu Qingge found Shen Qingqiu in his workroom, in a building near the Great Library. A disciple--not Luo Binghe, who was currently in classes on Bai Zhan--had guided him there.

The building smelled like glue, paper, and oil. Liu Qingge could see books in various stages of construction, some in wooden vises as if to keep them from escaping. Given the kind of books the Great Library held, Liu Qingge wouldn't be entirely surprised if that were the case. Shen Qingqiu was in the last stages of assembling a volume, using a curved needle and a length of Ghost Head Spider Thread. Liu Qingge could see the rest of the spool on the desk. Shen Qingqiu glanced up at the disciple's nervous announcement, and nodded. "Liu-shidi. Do you have a moment to wait while I finish this up?"

"Take your time."

The disciple was sent to prepare refreshments while Shen Qingqiu turned back to his task. He was carefully attaching the sewn-together pages within a leather cover. Liu Qingge took the opportunity to admire the elegant line of his back, the deft movements of his hands. He couldn't get between Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan--wouldn't if he could--but there was no harm in looking.

"That's done." Shen Qingqiu smoothed the cover with his hands and rose. He gestured for Liu Qingge to accompany him to the hospitality room.

"Pretty book."

Shen Qingqiu nodded. "A bestiary; it's going to Ling Chen sect as part of a trade. Their part was a very nice set of maps."

"You do that a lot?" Liu Qingge asked with interest. "Trade books?"

"Of course. As long as it's an equal trade. Loans, too, if the other library is reliable. We have a fairly robust inter-library loan system going with Tian Yi and Zhao Hua, for instance."

"Not Huan Hua, I notice," Liu Qingge noted, needling. Shen Qingqiu's huffy dislike of Huan Hua Palace was amusing. He didn’t disappoint this time.

"No," Shen Qingqiu sniffed derisively. "They have a superb collection, of course, but they've refused--" he stopped, mid-sentence and mid-step, as if he'd just remembered something.

Liu Qingge stopped as well. "Shen Qingqiu?"

Shen Qingqiu shook his head and continued, sweeping past Liu Qingge into the hospitality room. "Just a thought. Something to follow up on." As he waved Liu Qingge to a seat, he literally made a note, pulling a small square of bound paper out of his sleeve.

*

"So, field trips?" Liu Qingge asked, waving the message slip he'd received from Shen Qingqiu.

Shen Qingqiu brightened. "Ah, yes. I'm planning some short trips with small groups of my disciples. Short ones; none of them have their swords, yet. I can give you a list of locations. If any of your students would like to come along--"

"You just want your boy to bring his friends along," Liu Qingge accused.

The fan came out. "--Inter-peak cooperation should be encouraged."

"So you'll be inviting disciples from other peaks?" Liu Qingge asked skeptically.

Shen Qingqiu narrowed his eyes over the fan. "As a matter of fact, I am. Two herbalism students from Qian Cao--"

"And from Zui Xian? His age?"

"...A few," Shen Qingqiu admitted. "None of these sites should be dangerous, and they want to try foraging."

"Uh huh."

"And some from Ling You; they want to practice calling wild beasts."

*

Later, Shen Qingqiu thought about Huan Hua. The Palace had been stingy with loans ever since he reawakened in this world--and, his memories told him, even before that. It was odd. It merited further investigation.

Shen Qingqiu made his way to the Great Library, and the room which housed archived loan documentation. There, he confirmed his hypothesis--Huan Hua had lent out parts of their impressive collection, for years. In fact, when the long-established practice stopped, there had still been a few items on loan from Qing Jing which had never been returned; Huan Hua had paid compensation for them. When the current Palace Master took his position, early in Shen Qingqiu’s teacher's tenure, the cooperation stopped abruptly. Why? It was a relatively low cost and low risk way to extend influence, and Huan Hua loved influence. No library would loan out an irreplaceable volume; Shen Qingqiu knew that any copy which left his library had an original, kept safe and sound in the archives.

Security measures, he thought.

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu was holding an informal workshop. He'd been leaving Qiong Ding, when he'd been waylaid by several of the disciples who had been on the trip to the imperial capital. They remembered Shen Qingqiu's casual reference to making spirit stones, and asked to participate.

And so, Shen Qingqiu was now instructing a small group of interested students, of mixed ages and peak assignments. There had been more interest than he'd anticipated. Shang Qinghua's jobs board--set up on the Rainbow Bridge, so all students had access--was turning out to be a success. Disciples of all ages were even posting their own jobs, creating a hub for Cang Qiong's informal inter-peak barter economy. The students in this workshop wanted to learn to create spirit stones as trade goods and currency.

Luo Binghe had a slow start--the delicate control needed to siphon energy into the quartz crystals was tricky, and he was still unpracticed with energy movement. He was the youngest student in the class. He had seemed to get the knack for it, but his technique had slipped badly as the class went on.

In fact, the crystal he was holding clouded and cracked as Shen Qingqiu passed his table. "Don't be discouraged, Binghe. Calm your mind and try again."

"Could Shizun demonstrate for this disciple again?" Luo Binghe asked.

"You know the technique; you've filled several crystals successfully." Nonetheless, Shen Qingqiu paused and set his fingertips to Luo Binghe's hands, pressing threads of qi through acupressure points to show how to push energy into the new crystal. Several students at the next table giggled and nudged each other; Shen Qingqiu frowned internally. Just because a student was a little slow was no reason to find amusement at their expense.

"This disciple will practice diligently," Luo Binghe promised, ears pink from embarrassment.

"Try your best," Shen Qingqiu said as he moved on to the next student.

*

Shen Qingqiu had been carefully going through each of the diaries he'd bought at the Niu Jia auction. He listed off potentially interesting sites for further analysis. He also went into Qing Jing's archives to find his own field reports, delivered to Old Master Shen when Shen Qingqiu himself was a disciple. He would select sites for field trips for the benefit of the students, but it wouldn't hurt to pick up a few more memory quest markers along the way. He had been through Qing Jing and Cang Qiong, and his quest progress hadn’t quite reached forty percent.

Luo Binghe had been spending more and more time at Bai Zhan, to the point where Shen Qingqiu rarely saw him anymore. Some of the Qing Jing teachers had complained to him, privately. Since Shen Qingqiu had originally encouraged him to branch out, he couldn't say much. He told the teachers to report if Luo Binghe began skipping his music and art classes for sparring practice.

Shen Qingqiu was also concerned with how Luo Binghe would react to Ming Fan being made head disciple again. But the older boy's probation was nearly up. He'd been fulfilling his assistant duties admirably, and Shen Qingqiu was pleased by the new maturity of his character. And Tang Xinran was showing a certain alacrity in fetching the mail which made Shen Qingqiu think he would soon be losing his current head disciple.

Shen Qingqiu would be giving Luo Binghe additional lessons on identifying and fighting dangerous creatures. He could do some of that in the guise of lessons for the students; they would all benefit. Shen Qingqiu gave all the students guidance for their future--sometimes, of course, that was limited to "you're not suited for this, find something else." He could help prepare Luo Binghe for the trials of the Abyss, in the guise of 'career counseling.'

Not all disciples would benefit from these applied lessons, but Shen Qingqiu made the optional classes open to everyone. Students focusing on art were interested in the extra classes in creature physiology, and the drawing exercises assigned on trips to Ling You. Those who planned to be scholarly researchers were encouraged to participate in at least the basic field trips, so they had an idea of the conditions their sources worked under. Some had ambitions as field researchers or investigators--mostly students from cultivator families, or those without wealthy relatives to make plans for them.

The students began with short overnight trips, camping in the relative safety of the Tian Gong mountain range. They all started out full of enthusiasm, but the realities of a chilly, uncomfortable camp quickly dissuaded some from dreams of field research. Shen Qingqiu simply reminded them that interesting sites would not always be near a village or inn. But he also gave examples of long-forgotten landmarks which had towns built up around them, then were forgotten. It was educational, and made for excellent campfire stories.

Shen Qingqiu also arranged a series of short visits to Ling You Peak, with the cooperation of Duan Qingze. The students learned to roughly classify types of creature by their footprints, with the beasts residing on Ling You as a guide. He didn't expect them to memorize a lot of print identifications--there were simply too many beasts, and of too many varieties, for anyone but a dedicated specialist to do that. But they should get an idea of whether a creature was demonic or natural, and what level of danger it posed. It also helped the students to make the mental jump between identifying a print from life, and from Qing Jing's collection of casts.

Trips to Ling You Peak, to learn about spirit beasts, research projects so Luo Binghe would learn the habits and weaknesses of the beings he would encounter in the Abyss, how to set up a secure, secret camp, first aid beyond the basics... there was a lot to do, in the year to come.

*

That afternoon, Shen Qingqiu had made an appointment with Wei Qingwei. He sent a note ahead, and left by swordflight. When he arrived, Wei Qingwei was already in the forging and refining area, in one of the small practice yards the Wan Jian disciples used to test out their new creations.

Wei Qingwei was in the middle of testing a blade, now. A disciple waited respectfully as his teacher examined a finished sword. A finished blade in any case; the hilt looked like a temporary measure even to Shen Qingqiu's less experienced eyes. Wei Qingwei carefully balanced the sword in his hand, then made an easy, flicking cut toward a target made of three sandwiched wooden boards, on the far side of the yard. There was no apparent change, but Shen Qingqiu heard a faint crack. Wei Qingwei gave a tiny nod of approval, and handed the blade back to the student. The disciple glowed as if he'd received the most ebullient praise, bowed respectfully, and carefully wrapped the sword in cloth. Wei Qingwei turned to Shen Qingqiu. "So. How many students are you sending over?"

"Six," Shen Qingqiu answered him.

"Including that boy of yours," Wei Qingwei said. It wasn't so much a question as a statement of fact. "He's been cultivating well?" Behind him, Shen Qingqiu could see the disciple taking apart the wooden board target. The center board had been neatly bisected, while the front and back boards were whole.

"For years, yes," Shen Qingqiu said carefully. He was suddenly alert. Wei Qingwei did not make small talk.

"He's been getting along well with the other students, I hear." Wei Qingwei paused, then seemed to come to a decision in his mind. "Alright, send him over with the rest."

They exchanged brief pleasantries--briefer was better, for Wei Qingwei--and Shen Qingqiu left.

Chapter Text

On Qian Cao, a small group of Zui Xian junior disciples were getting their first experience in running errands outside their peak. A senior disciple patiently supervised as the novices were led through the requisition process. Qian Cao took pains to make sure confused novices didn’t wander around their peak.

"Be careful with these," the Qian Cao disciple said as she handed a carefully packaged bamboo carrier to a Zui Xian novice.

"I'll try," the younger disciple said seriously.

"Do or do not, there is no 'try,' " his disciple sibling said, carrying a small wooden crate.

The supervising Zui Xian disciple nodded politely to the apothecary, then looked over the novices. "Everyone got a good grip? Let's go back. Don't rush, and watch where you're going." He led the group out.

The Qian Cao apothecary looked after the departing students. "That's a new one."

"For me, too," said the Bai Zhan senior disciple who was picking up his own peak's requisition. "They must have gotten it from a novel."

"Let's see; ten quarter-jin jars of bruise salve, and two basic medical kits--"

*

Ming Fan was on an errand for Tang Xinran, dropping off paperwork at Qiong Ding, when one of the older disciples poked his head out of a study alcove and waved him over.

"Ming-shidi. Are you on your way somewhere? We were wondering..." 'We' was a cluster of Qiong Ding disciples a little older than Ming Fan. "--You had just been made acting head disciple when Luo Binghe was initiated, right?"

'Acting' head disciple was a diplomatic way to put it, but... "Yes, shixiong," Ming Fan replied warily.

The Qiong Ding disciple leaned forward. "Does shidi remember, did it seem like Shen-shishu knew him already? Or recognized him?"

Oh, no! "No, shixiong, he was the same as any other initiate," Ming Fan said firmly.

The Qiong Ding disciple nodded easily. "Oh, okay. We were just wondering. Sorry to bother you, shidi."

Ming Fan hurried off.

*

As he left, the Qiong Ding disciples exchanged significant glances. =Did you see his face?= one signed.

=As good as confirmed,= another answered.

"Look, he's a good kid," another disciple said out loud, sounding uncomfortable. He was one of the disciples who had gone on the trip to the imperial capital.

"Well, of course he is," huffed the first disciple.

=Why wouldn't he be raised here on Qiong Ding?= one asked.

=Shizun has enemies,= another signed solemnly.

=We can't let this get around,= came the serious-faced reply.

=We should be careful. There are lots of visiting students from other sects,= agreed the first.

=He should spend more time here, though,= suggested one. =So he makes connections.=

They put their heads together to plan, full of good intentions.

*

Luo Binghe was training at Bai Zhan. The Intersect Alliance Conference conditioning classes were much more challenging than the regular classes. The instructors took pains to point out that sparring against a humanoid was very different from fighting one of the beast-type monsters. Some Ling You disciples brought their spirit beast partners to spar, with padded weapons and careful protective charms, which was helpful. But even the most rambunctious tamed beast couldn't display the ferocity of those they would face in the Conference.

The previous day, Master Zi Dan had brought his enormous spirit boar to the peak. The largest training field had been set up with dummies so beaten up they were ready to be thrown out. The small crowd of Conference hopefuls had watched in dismay as the spirit boar devastated the field, goring dummies and kicking targets with his anvil-sized hooves. When Xiao Dou had trotted back to the proud Zi Dan, frisky as a piglet, he still had one training dummy impaled on a tusk. It was all too easy to imagine the loosely flopping limbs belonging to a human.

Today, they were practicing group tactics against a gigantic enemy. A three-times man height canvas bag, filled with straw and suspended with a rope and crane, was their target.

"No, it's... here, I'll show you." Luo Binghe used a piece of paper and a wax pencil to sketch out the sequence of moves he was trying and failing to describe verbally. Two of the Bai Zhan disciples hung over his shoulders to observe, watching with interest as the drawing took shape.

"Oh, I see what you mean," said one. "Okay, let's try that. Luo-shixiong's drawings are really handy. I wish the diagrams in our manuals were that clear." He ruffled Luo Binghe's hair and stood up. His junior brother thumped Luo Binghe's shoulder as they moved back into their formation. Luo Binghe flushed under the praise and the easy physical affection that was part of Bai Zhan Peak's culture, so different from Qing Jing's decorum.

*

Luo Binghe arrived in answer to Shen Qingqiu's summons, hair ruffled--fresh from sparring at Bai Zhan, probably. Shen Qingqiu addressed him. "This teacher is planning educational trips for the students. It will give you all some experience with field research."

"Yes, Shizun," Luo Binghe said brightly.

"It's time to talk about what Binghe wishes to do after he graduates from Qing Jing," Shen Qingqiu said.

"This disciple only wants to stay by Shizun's side forever," Luo Binghe said earnestly.

"If that were true, then this teacher would have failed greatly." Shen Qingqiu continued, ignoring Luo Binghe's scandalized gasp. "Disciples study so they can bring what they learn out into the world. The student learns from the world and, sometimes, comes back to share what they learned with the sect."

"Is that what Shizun did?"

"It is. Though Qing Jing hasn't had a dedicated field research team since Master Zhao ascended."

"The Master Zhao from the shrine in the mountain?"

"Yes, the husband of the previous Qing Jing Peak Lord. He was a feng shui master and a disciple of Zhi Ji peak. He did field research and special investigations at the behest of the previous sect leader." He was relieved to finally have caught Luo Binghe's interest; how like him to pick Zhao Yunlan as his role model. Well, he could certainly do worse.

*

Luo Binghe wandered dreamily toward the Rainbow Bridge and sparring practice at Bai Zhan, before he remembered that he had already been there today. He redirected to the smaller Qing Jing practice area. His head and heart were full of visions of the future. To go out and fight monsters like Master Zhao--he would have to look him up in the Qing Jing archives--to save people and make a name for himself, and then... and then... to come home to Shizun and tell him about his adventures. He had seen Shizun quietly taking tea with the Sect Leader and Liu-shishu and, less often, with the graduated disciples who returned from time to time. A few had become wandering cultivators. Next time one visited, he would try to ask questions about their travels. Imagine, being able to talk to Shizun as--not an equal, of course, Luo Binghe reminded himself hastily. But as an adult, without the distant formality Shizun quite properly enforced with his disciples. And maybe... if he did really well in the Conference...

Luo Binghe was distracted from imagining their future conversations by the sound of quickly moving feet. Ming Fan entered the practice area, looked around, and approached Luo Binghe with haste.

"Luo-shidi--" Ming Fan looked around again, nervously, then used a paper muffling talisman he pulled from his sleeve. Luo Binghe was immediately on guard. He and Ming Fan had reached a tentative truce, but he still remembered his novice years. But now, Ming Fan's face held only worry.

"Luo-shidi," Ming Fan began again. "People are talking about you and Shizun."

Luo Binghe gasped and clutched at his heart. "But I've been so careful!"

Ming Fan's head jerked back; his eyes were comically wide. "It's... it's true?"

Luo Binghe hesitated, then jerked his chin up. "I'm not ashamed. Some day, when I've made a name for myself--" he cut himself off. His plans were too new, too delicate to share.

Ming Fan stood frozen for a minute before recovering. "I guess--I thought--I wasn't sure. I mean, it makes sense, but..." he shook his head as if to clear off cobwebs. "It's a secret? Well, no one will hear it from me. The Qiong Ding disciples were asking, though, and--" he stopped. "Oh no. I asked Ning Yingying about it, months ago."

"That's alright," Luo Binghe said earnestly. "I've been talking to her about it, too. She has some really good ideas."

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu was due shortly on Bai Zhan to plan the joint field trip with Liu Qingge. He was packing up maps, schedules, and notes.

"May this disciple help Shizun?"

"Binghe may carry these." Shen Qingqiu gestured to a box of supporting materials. He could put the whole thing in a qiankun item, of course, but Luo Binghe seemed to like helping. And he would probably tail Shen Qingqiu to Bai Zhan anyway.

"Yes, Shizun!" Luo Binghe happily followed him with the box.

When they arrived at Bai Zhan, a helpful disciple pointed them toward the smaller training fields. The disciple was carrying an entire armful of practice swords, so they didn't keep him. They made their way to the practice fields without an escort, Luo Binghe leading the way with his growing familiarity with Bai Zhan.

Liu Qingge was going through a beautiful sword sequence, one which included a lot of aerial moves. They waited considerately at the edge of the field as he finished. Shen Qingqiu watched with admiration as they waited. Liu Qingge really did have a mastery of motion, fully as skilled as Shen Qingqiu with his instruments and brushes. He appreciated the extraordinary and complicated series of strikes, each leading fluidly into the next.

"Oh, no!" he heard Luo Binghe say quietly.

Shen Qingqiu was instantly sympathetic. "Binghe, set that down here and find an open meeting room, please."

"Yes, Shizun," Luo Binghe said hastily, and fled.

Liu Qingge finished the sequence and approached, sheathing Cheng Luan as he walked. He was still throwing off steam in the cool early morning air. "Where's that boy of yours?" he asked.

"I sent him to run an errand," Shen Qingqiu smiled. "He should be back shortly."

*

Luo Binghe was embarrassed--and horrified with himself. That feeling was only for Shizun! He pressed his forehead against the wall of the equipment shed.

"Problem, shizhi?" Luo Binghe turned at the voice approaching. It was Teacher Huo, one of the Bai Zhan hall masters. He was very strict, but a popular instructor because his students improved rapidly. Luo Binghe liked him because--

"This disciple is fine, Teacher Huo. This disciple is only worried he won't be ready for the Intersect Alliance Conference."

"You've been training diligently, and you have over a year to prepare."

Luo Binghe saluted respectfully. "This disciple will continue to work hard." He tried to look bright and diligent. This often helped with teachers.

Teacher Huo studied him. Luo Binghe waited. "Hmm. There may be some new techniques you can learn. This teacher will discuss it with Shizun."

"Thanks to Teacher Huo," Luo Binghe chirped. This was why Luo Binghe liked him. Teacher Huo could sometimes be charmed into teaching techniques Luo Binghe was not, technically, supposed to learn yet. This was true of several of the hallmasters who tried to coax him to join Bai Zhan. Not that Luo Binghe ever considered it, he thought virtuously.

*

Luo Binghe had looked up Master Zhao after Shizun had mentioned him. There was a whole section of the library which archived non-classified field reports; Luo Binghe found a lot of information there. Zhao Yunlan had had amazing adventures, and his field reports were far more exciting to read than the dry examples they studied in class. But Luo Binghe was most interested in his history. Zhao Yunlan had been a disciple of Zhi Ji Peak, and headed up Cang Qiong's Special Investigations team, reporting directly to the Sect Leader. And--here, Luo Binghe curled covetously over the reports and was glad he was doing his research alone--he was substantially younger than the Qing Jing peak lord he married.

And Zhao Yunlan and Old Master Shen had frequently traveled together. Luo Binghe remembered the times they'd made camp on the trip to the imperial capital. The disciples had often woken up to see Yue Qingyuan sharing an early morning cup of tea with Shizun. They had looked very peaceful together. The older disciples had quietly told him that it was polite to pretend to be asleep until they'd finished their tea. Luo Binghe wondered what that would be like, to sit with Shizun and drink tea in the early morning stillness, far from Cang Qiong.

The Qiong Ding disciples had been full of tidbits of information like that. They were very nice, even once they had returned to Cang Qiong. They always answered Luo Binghe's questions, and even their junior disciple siblings had taken their cue to do the same. And they had noticed immediately that Luo Binghe didn't like the sweets they offered, instead giving him savory snacks on his visits.

On one of those visits, he had asked what to do about Ming Fan--not by name, of course. One of the things the Qiong Ding disciples had gently corrected him about was leaving out names unless you really had to use them.

After the field trip to the imperial capital, Luo Binghe had thought a lot about what he'd learned about Ming Fan and Ning Yingying's families. Ming Fan didn't talk to him much at all, but Luo Binghe had overheard a lot of "my father" this and "my brothers" that. He hadn't mentioned any of what Shizun had deftly uncovered in the Imperial city.

Ning Yingying rarely spoke about her family either, though Luo Binghe knew she got letters from her mother regularly.

Chapter Text

Qi Qingqi stayed after the next Peak Lords' meeting, to talk with Yue Qingyuan. "I thought I should give you a heads up on a rumor I'm hearing."

"Rumor?"

"They usually come to you first, but this one I guess they assume you already know. The rumor is, that you and Shen Qingqiu are getting closer--" she waited while he visibly brightened, then ruthlessly followed up with, "--because he's raising your secret son."

"What?"

"It's very romantic," she continued breezily. "Apparently, you were childhood sweethearts, but this lover put a rift between you--"

"What?"

"But after they died--tragically, no doubt--your son made his way to Cang Qiong--"

"Wait--"

"And Shen Qingqiu swept in to raise him--" Qi Qingqi drove on like a siege engine.

"No--"

"And now, a second chance at love, as you awkwardly co-parent--"

"Luo Binghe," Yue Qingyuan said flatly.

"It's true?" Qi Qingqi exclaimed in scandalized delight, then frowned. "It isn't true; I'd know. Also, there isn't really a resemblance, if you look."

"A resemb--" Yue Qingyuan pinched the bridge of his nose. "No, it isn't true. How did this start? He's Shen Qingqiu's project, not mine."

Qi Qingqi looked marginally sympathetic, like someone watching a sad play. "Apparently some of the kids were wondering why Shen Qingqiu treats him so well, couldn't say he was his son because they look nothing alike..."

"That doesn't--" Yue Qingyuan froze. "The breakfast."

Qi Qingqi raised her eyebrows interrogatively. "The...?"

"When Shen-shidi and Shang Qinghua went on their trip. Luo Binghe was moping. I took him to the seniors' dining hall for breakfast."

"Ah, a tender father-and-son moment," Qi Qingqi grinned. Yue Qingyuan sighed. "I just wanted to clue you in. No doubt they'll move on to a new rumor soon enough."

"It will be worse," Yue Qingyuan predicted glumly.

It was worse.

*

"--and now, Luo Binghe has fallen for his father's sweetheart, and is trying to separate them!" another Xian Shu disciple whispered breathlessly to Liu Mingyan.

Liu Mingyan frowned thoughtfully. "That doesn't sound true..." she shrugged. "But I don't know enough about them to refute it." She brightened. "It does make a great story, though!"

"Either way, yes! We should write it down for The Thing." The Thing was the semi-unofficial letter, short story, and essay compilation published by Xian Shu disciples on their own small, unregulated printing press. Several students were taking engraving lessons on Qing Jing, and one thing led to another, and... Qi Qingqi most definitely did not officially know about it, and definitely hadn't provided the typeset.

"We'll change the names."

"And make up a new sect."

"Oh, we can use the one Deng Jiaran made up for her story!"

"Continuity!" they harmonized.

One of the novices ran up, breathless and flushed. "Liu-shijie, your brother is here!"

Liu Mingyan brightened and rose. "Thanks, mèimei. Shu-shimei, later?"

"I'll work on it, yeah. Have a safe trip!" Her fellow disciple turned to a new page in her sketchbook. Liu Mingyan fastened her veil, grabbed the spirit sword she had checked out from the Xian Shu quartermaster earlier that day, and set off for the main gate.

Her brother was waiting for her in the hospitality pavilion just outside Xian Shu's labyrinth array. "Ready? You have incense?"

Liu Mingyan patted her hip bag. "All set."

They set off, their destination a small temple half a day's journey from Cang Qiong. There, they paid their respects at the small family shrine, Liu Mingyan asking for blessings as she prepared to go to Wan Jian for her sword.

"Are you nervous?"

Liu Mingyan tilted her head, evaluating her mindset, then shrugged. "No, not really. Whatever sword I get will be the right one for me."

"Wei-shixiong would approve."

*

They had lunch in the pleasant, leafy temple grounds before making the return trip to Cang Qiong. As they ate, Liu Qingge casually mentioned the future trip to Zhao Hua for the Conference planning meeting.

"With Shen-shibo?" Liu Mingyan turned to him, eyes bright and speculative.

Liu Qingge firmly quashed his own uncertainty. His sister could scent drama from five hundred paces. "He'll be taking the lead; I'll be there so no one takes a swing at him."

She waved that off. "Do you know what's going on with him and Sect Leader?" She paused for a minute, unsure. "I mean, if you can tell me. Did they really know each other before they came to Cang Qiong?"

"Yeah; that's no secret. They grew up together."

Liu Mingyan gasped and clutched at her heart. "No! Tell me more."

"Actually, Yue-shixiong joined first, and years later he was the one who brought Shen Qingqiu to the sect," Liu Qingge continued. "This was before your time. He was going to be an outer sect disciple, but Shen-shibo nabbed him."

"That is just... wow." Liu Mingyan turned her hands in little circles, apparently overwhelmed.

"What's this about?" Liu Qingge asked, belatedly suspicious.

"Oh, you know, some of us were just talking." Liu Mingyan took his arm as they left--less a cute little sister gesture than to make sure he couldn’t escape. She's been learning a lot from Qi Qingqi. "So... were they ever roommates?"

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu was visiting Ling You Peak today; he had a prior appointment with Duan Qingze, to work on a project. He saw Zi Dan, riding his enormous spirit boar, as the pair taught herding skills to a group of older Ling You disciples.

Duan Qingze waved him down as he passed an enormous covered riding paddock. "Shen-shixiong! I thought I sensed you coming."

Shen Qingqiu greeted him politely, and they made their way to a barn-like structure at the edge of Ling You's occupied buildings. There was an unpleasant chemical smell which made it clear why these buildings were far from the living quarters. "I've been meaning to ask--doesn't it disturb your spirit beasts to have a taxidermy area here?"

"They hate the smell, of course," Duan Qingze said. "We all do. But the practice, no, actually. They mostly have natural predator-and-prey relationships. Even the nearly sapient ones, like good old Xiao Dou, have a very different outlook. That's something I try to impress on all my students; you can't just think of demons and spirits as being funny shaped humans. They think very differently than we do. It's when their different perspective isn't taken into account, that problems start."

"Ah. This shixiong is enlightened." Ling You Peak's extensive natural history collection, with an emphasis on zoology, had been a delight to visit. It was an archive, not a museum, but a fascinating experience nonetheless. The Qing Jing student field trip to study the meticulously preserved and displayed taxidermy specimens had inspired this project.

"If this experiment works out, it will be very exciting for training. For the students, and for their partner beasts."

"They will only be dummies," Shen Qingqiu cautioned.

"But still so much better than what we've been using."

"With one 'reference' dummy, it should be possible to make a large number of copies."

"Possible for you, maybe. Some of us have normal sized qi reserves." Duan Qingze rolled open the door. "We only have the one finished. The Poison Lake Squid tentacles keep folding up."

They entered the enormous structure, Shen Qingqiu pulling out the veiled hat he used when doing metal engraving. The charm worked into the veil was effective against acid fumes--now, it would mitigate the odor of the preservatives.

The building was barn-like, its cavernous interior divided by movable wooden walls. In the largest space was a big leather bag filled with sawdust, and a finished full body mount of a taxidermied beast, looking both fearsome and a little pathetic on its wooden frame.

"A Crimson-Tipped Spider Wolf," Duan Qingze sighed. "I saw one, alive, years ago. But it was already in bad shape, and limping back to the Rift it came from."

"Such a fierce beast, but it requires such a specific environment," Shen Qingqiu lamented.

"Some day, I'd like to mount an expedition to the Abyss," Duan Qingze said dreamily. "You'd need specialized protective gear, of course. But there must be whole species we've never seen or heard of, because they can't survive outside of that environment."

Shen Qingqiu saw an opportunity. "Let's get together later and discuss what equipment and survival supplies one would need." He waved a hand reassuringly as Duan Qingze gave him a startled and faintly worried look. "It couldn't hurt to think about it. It would be a good intellectual exercise, and it might result in something useful."

Duan Qingze nodded thoughtfully. "No one prepares by accident. But for now, let's see if this particular experiment works." He stepped back as Shen Qingqiu pulled a talisman from his sleeve.

Shen Qingqiu had been carefully conserving his qi stores for days--he even used talismans to heat water, like a novice. As a result, he was practically overflowing with energy. He pressed the talisman between the Crimson-Tipped Spider Wolf mount and the leather bag of sawdust, set his feet, took a breath, focused... and pushed almost all that qi through the talisman. He felt the little internal click of a successful technique and stepped back, a little lightheaded, to see two Crimson-Tipped Spider Wolves. This was the same talisman he'd used to make a decoy of Luo Binghe, when the boy had been kidnapped a year ago.

Duan Qingze moved forward and prodded the new dummy curiously. "Wow. And it feels just like that big bag of sawdust."

Shen Qingqiu nodded, then had to steady himself on a sawhorse. Duan Qingze politely looked away as Shen Qingqiu absorbed the energy from a spirit stone. Even for an energy movement specialist in Core Formation stage, that was a lot of energy for one technique. "It will only last a few days," he cautioned, regaining his equilibrium. "But that should be enough time to train with it."

Duan Qingze nodded. "I've seen how hard those Bai Zhan disciples are on their training tools; that's about as long as it would last, anyway." As Shen Qingqiu opened his mouth, he continued. "And I'll invite yours, too. I remember our deal." He walked around the second dummy, prodding it experimentally. "We'll hang a sign on the original, so no one tries to use that one for practice. And you can really make more?"

"As many copies from the original as needed, yes," Shen Qingqiu confirmed. "Though it's a substantial expenditure of energy for each one. It will be less for smaller beasts. If you and Liu-shidi can arrange a schedule for training against particular beasts and specific combat maneuvers, this shixiong will activate the talismans."

Duan Qingze began to nod, then froze. "Oh sh--oh, no," he breathed, in tones of doomed realization. Shen Qingqiu turned to him. "How are we going to get this all the way to Bai Zhan?"

The two of them stared at the large, heavy dummy in silence.

*

Walking to the seniors' training grounds, Teacher Huo spoke to Liu Qingge. "He's been training diligently, and improving by leaps and bounds. This disciple still thinks he would do better, if he were formally admitted to Bai Zhan--"

"And under Shen Qingqiu's tutelage, he defeated a demon elder with just two years of combat training," Liu Qingge countered drily. "With--" he shook his head, "—Some damned leaves. When it comes to working with the tools at hand, there's no one better."

"Young Luo Binghe is learning that, as well. This disciple recently learned he's been finagling advanced techniques out of the teaching staff." Teacher Huo ducked his head. "I fell for it, too."

Liu Qingge huffed a laugh. "Introduce him to the first rank secret techniques, then. But come to me before even hinting that there's more."

"Yes, Shizun." Teacher Huo looked pleased. There was really no joy for a teacher quite like a genuinely talented and dedicated student.

Then, something strange floated into view from an adjacent path. The two men stopped mid-step, hands automatically reaching for weapons. But the flat, oblong head didn't turn its several pairs of eyes toward them. And from near the creature, came human voices--not panicked or pained, but with the tinge of exasperation that came from cooperating with an unwieldy group at a frustrating task for a long period of time.

"Okay, left turn coming up in thirty paces--left side, slow down a step--"

Liu Qingge and Teacher Huo stared transfixed as half a dozen Ling You cultivators came into view. They were holding taut ropes, towing what looked like a Crimson-Tipped Spider Wolf, which floated between them like a balloon lantern. The dummy moved in a stately glide over the ground, but its inertia meant a terrible struggle for its handlers. Especially on turns, apparently.

"Would you--like some help?"

Duan Qingze, apparently organizing the parade from the rear, looked at them with relief. "Liu-shixiong! And Huo-shizhi. Yes, we could. This is yours, actually. It's for training."

Liu Qingge and Teacher Huo automatically moved forward to steady the floating dummy. One of the handlers took the opportunity to rub his aching shoulders with a grimace. "For training?" Liu Qingge asked incredulously. "We appreciate it, but--you know how hard my students are on their equipment."

Duan Qingze beamed. "It's replaceable! The talisman will only last a few days anyway; then it will go back to being a bag of sawdust."

"Talisman?" Liu Qingge poked the dummy dubiously. It did, in fact, have the slight give of one of the sawdust-filled leather training dummies they used for unarmed combat practice.

"Shen Qingqiu suggested it. It's copied from one of our specimens. We can only make about one a week, though. It wiped out even his qi reserves," Duan Qingze said, as they maneuvered the floating dummy around the last turn to the senior training grounds. Liu Qingge's brows rose in surprise, and he made a mental note to visit Qing Jing later. Duan Qingze continued. "We have a few full body mounts of other creatures, too. Smaller ones are more qi-efficient, apparently. We can set up a training schedule."

Liu Qingge shook his head in disbelief. "I didn't even know he was working on this." They set down the dummy in the training grounds and removed the featherlight charm. The Ling You disciples and Teacher Huo stayed to collaborate on setting up a new training scenario.

"He had a condition, though," Duan Qingze said, as he and Liu Qingge walked toward the seniors' equipment building. "He says he wants one of his disciples to participate in the training."

"Luo Binghe," Liu Qingge said, shaking his head. "So that's why he suddenly came up with this."

"No objections, then?"

Liu Qingge rolled his eyes. "He's been in the Conference training group for months, anyway."

Chapter Text

When Liu Qingge stopped by Qing Jing, he wasn’t the only visitor. Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan stood near one of the pavilions, talking.

Liu Qingge had fully expected some kind of announcement when they returned from their trip to the Qin Country capital. Fortunately, he hadn't participated in the pool, because he would have lost that bet. He wondered what Yue Qingyuan was waiting for.

By the time he reached the pavilion, he walked into the middle of an argument.

"Stop giving me things!" Shen Qingqiu hissed. "I don't have room for them." He ruthlessly cut off Yue Qingyuan's first response even as he opened his mouth. "I don't need a bigger house; I like my house." Shen Qingqiu looked down the path as Liu Qingge approached. "Liu-shidi."

Yue Qingyuan turned to greet him as well, smiling, with fondness still lingering in his eyes from talking with Shen Qingqiu. Liu Qingge felt his heart flutter, and perhaps that's what sparked his impish impulse.

"I just came by to make sure Shen-shixiong was feeling alright," he began. Shen Qingqiu's eyes narrowed suspiciously at the address. Liu Qingge never called him 'shixiong'; it was apparently a point of irritation for him.

...That may be why he does it. Or at least, why he does it now.

Yue Qingyuan turned immediately to Shen Qingqiu. "Qingqiu-shidi, are you ill?" He moved to support Shen Qingqiu--needlessly, since the man's spine was still straight as a rod.

Shen Qingqiu frowned. "I'm fine." He didn’t shake off Yue Qingyuan's hand, though, Liu Qingge noted with secret satisfaction.

"But why--?" Yue Qingyuan turned a questioning face to Liu Qingge, who obligingly answered him.

"He and Duan Qingze did some sort of experiment, using a talisman to make a copy of one of their taxidermy specimens. To use as a training dummy. Great work, and we'll certainly use it--but we were worried it may have taxed Shen-shixiong's qi reserves too deeply."

Yue Qingyuan looked sincerely alarmed, enough to make Liu Qingge feel a little guilty, even though he'd just been talking with a clearly healthy Shen Qingqiu. He slid his hands into Shen Qingqiu's sleeves to check his qi. Liu Qingge internally raised an eyebrow at the familiarity. He remembered the embroidered hem of an underlayer he'd seen Shen Qingqiu working on, some time ago. His fingertips tingled as he imagined Yue Qingyuan finding those little details. He deliberately steadied his breath.

"They are low," Yue Qingyuan fretted. "Lower than I've seen them in quite some time."

Shen Qingqiu's hands twitched, probably wanting the cover of his fan. "I'm already recovering. And I have spirit stones with me which I filled myself, just in case."

"I heard you were teaching some of the juniors," Liu Qingge said with interest. Shen Qingqiu gave him a poisonous look. Liu Qingge immediately retaliated. "You do look a little pale. Maybe someone should stay with you for awhile, just in case."

Yue Qingyuan leapt on the bait like a starved tiger. "That's a very good idea. Qingqiu-shidi, come back to Qiong Ding with me. Or I can have my correspondence sent here--" He frowned thoughtfully, no doubt reviewing the day's agenda.

Shen Qingqiu surrendered with ill grace. "Fine. I'll go. I have hallmasters' reports to review, anyway."

Having achieved his goal--checking on Shen Qingqiu--plus a bonus, Liu Qingge excused himself. Shen Qingqiu's cool stare threatened future retribution. Yue Qingyuan was probably not truly oblivious, but was happy enough with the result not to pursue the issue. As he left, Liu Qingge saw Shen Qingqiu swat irritably at Yue Qingyuan's arm in response to something he'd said. Yue Qingyuan smiled and took the opportunity to link their arms, as smoothly as if he'd planned it--and maybe he had. It sparked the memory of Shen Qingqiu swatting at Liu Qingge in a similar way, just a few months ago.

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe heard a beautiful melody played on the qin, and cautiously crept closer to the pavilion. With the complex, precise cascade of the melody, and the delicate resonance to the notes which meant qi was being used, it could only be Shizun playing. But the song was a sweet, romantic ballad, like nothing he'd ever heard Shizun play. Luo Binghe snuck closer, hoping to catch a glimpse.

Shizun was sitting alone in the pavilion, hands floating in a complicated pattern over the strings of the qin. His face was serene. He made it look so easy, to make music like this. And--Luo Binghe carefully used his slowly improving energy movement to improve his vision--he was wearing a very faint smile as he played. Luo Binghe hid a gasp. The number of times he'd seen Shizun smile--really smile, not just the curve of his eyes which meant happiness--could be counted on one hand. He tried to memorize this one.

"Luo Binghe."

Luo Binghe startled.

"This teacher can sense you lurking. Come state your business." Shizun's hands didn't pause or slow in the melody.

Luo Binghe hastened forward and knelt respectfully. "This disciple only wished to hear the song. It's very beautiful."

Shizun nodded, the very faint smile gaining depth. Luo Binghe sighed in his heart. "It is. It was written by this teacher's teacher, the previous Qing Jing peak lord. The lyrics were written by his husband."

"There are lyrics?" Luo Binghe put on his best pleading face. It often worked with Shizun. "Could this disciple be disrespectful and ask to hear them?" If he could hear Shizun singing a romantic ballad, he could die happy.

"Hmm." Amazingly, Shizun seemed to be considering it! Luo Binghe felt his stomach flutter. "It has been a while since this teacher performed for the students. Before Binghe joined Qing Jing, in fact. This teacher will think on it."

*

Shen Qingqiu used to perform a song or two for the students, but it was a habit he'd abandoned in the years before his fever. Maybe it was time to rekindle the tradition, while there were still some students studying who would remember it. Shen Qingqiu went to the kitchens. He found the head chef, a former Zui Xian disciple, holding court over the lesser cooks.

"Master Chef, this teacher would like to arrange a casual outdoor dinner for the students. Would the day after tomorrow be too short of a notice?"

The head chef waved off a few curious cooks. "For something simple, we can certainly accommodate you. Will Shen-shibo be performing?"

"As well as some senior students, in all likelihood. You and your staff are welcome to bring your families as well. It may have been awhile since some students have seen young children. And undoubtedly, word will get out to the other peaks."

"We'd be very pleased."

Shen Qingqiu handed over a purse with coin for additional supplies, then made his next stop. The hallmaster in charge of senior music students was surprised at the impromptu event, but was happy to canvas the students for those who wished to perform for their juniors.

*

The disciples were having breakfast when Shizun entered the dining hall. Luo Binghe's heart gave a painful thump; he was suddenly, intensely, self-conscious. Shizun swept his gaze over the students as conversations petered out and heads turned.

"This evening, dinner will be served outside. Several of your fellow students will be presenting musical compositions. This master will also perform two songs. These disciples may choose which songs they wish to hear." There was an excited, but quiet, buzz of chatter. "Decide the choice among yourselves, then bring the result to Tang Xinran. 'A Thousand Years,' has already been requested." He swept out. A buzz of speculation followed him.

Luo Binghe gazed at the door, just in case he came back, then turned back to the room.

"We'll get to hear Shizun!" Chu Ziyi was saying from the girls' table.

"I wonder if any of the senior students will perform with Shizun?" Ning Yingying speculated. "It was an amazing experience."

"You've said, once or a few times," Deng Jiaran sighed, bumping her shoulder good-naturedly.

"I'd like to hear it again," Luo Binghe volunteered, across the aisle at the boys' table.

"Ming-shixiong, you've been here longest. Do you think he will?" Ning Yingying asked.

"I don't know," Ming Fan said cautiously, from Luo Binghe's far side. Ning Yingying had made a practice of insisting he sit near them. "I remember he did this once, when I was a novice. But it was a solo piece, then."

"Is 'A Thousand Years' really famous, then?" Luo Binghe asked.

Ning Yingying and Deng Jiaran sighed, almost in harmony. "It's the most romantic song in the world," Ning Yingying said.

"It's so beautiful," Deng Jiaran added. "I'll have to write home about it. They'll be so jealous."

"It will be dark," Chu Ziyi said thoughtfully. "I bet we could sneak in friends from other peaks."

*

After the outdoor dinner and concert, Shen Qingqiu exchanged his qin for a book. He wouldn’t retire to his cottage, yet; the cheerful inter-peak socializing would go on long after curfew. Instead, he settled himself at a pavilion, inside a talisman array. The one-way charm ensured he could hear and see what went on outside, but he himself was shielded from eyes and ears. It was a low level array--senior students, and, of course, his hallmasters, knew where he was, and could find him easily if need be. He looked up to find Yue Qingyuan approaching. "Yue-shixiong, welcome. I thought I sensed you earlier."

"May I--?" Yue Qingyuan gestured to the area Shen Qingqiu had settled in.

"Of course."

"You aren't joining the party?" Yue Qingyuan asked as he sat.

Shen Qingqiu shook his head. "No, but I'll stay up as long as the crowd lasts. Though I don't anticipate any real problems. My hallmasters are circulating, and my students tend to be quiet--but at least once, one has tried to get rid of illicit alcohol by tossing it in the fire."

Yue Qingyuan chuckled obligingly. "So smart, and yet--"

Shen Qingqiu hid a smile. "Shizun used to say, 'the brightest minds of their generation do the dumbest things.' "

Yue Qingyuan ducked his head. "That, ah, does sound like him." After a pause, he leaned a shoulder into Shen Qingqiu.

"Oh, I brought--" Shen Qingqiu searched through his qiankun items, finally producing a cloak trimmed with soft, white fur. "It is cold, isn't it."

Yue Qingyuan touched the soft fur Shen Qingqiu draped over his lap. "You--you kept this."

"What?" Shen Qingqiu was honestly nonplussed.

Yue Qingyuan looked up at him, eyes wet. "I gave this to you. You don't remember?"

Shen Qingqiu shook his head, with an uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty. He vaguely remembered seeing a memory marker, but he had collected it as a matter of course. He really should go through his codex to make sure he wasn't missing anything else.

Yue Qingyuan was smiling shakily, but his eyes were still damp. He shook his head. "Nevermind; it doesn't matter. I'm just glad you have it."

Shen Qingqiu frowned. "Of course it matters." He hesitated, then pressed on. "Tell me about it."

Yue Qingyuan blinked at him.

"I don't remember, so tell me about it."

Yue Qingyuan shook his head. "It... isn't a great memory. This one is better." He leaned into Shen Qingqiu again, settling a warm arm behind him.

Shen Qingqiu acquiesced with a huff and leaned into him. "Fine." After a pause, he continued, "I've been using it as a lap blanket, when I'm reading."

Yue Qingyuan pressed his smile into Shen Qingqiu's hair.

Chapter Text

The Intersect Alliance Conference planning meeting would be hosted by Zhao Hua, as usual. It was an easy trip by swordflight. The trip would take just three days; one day for travel and obligatory greetings, one for the business of the meeting itself, and the third to return to Cang Qiong. Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge made plans to leave early that morning, meeting at and departing from Qiong Ding.

Shen Qingqiu was dressed for travel, in heavy fabric and with tightly bound hair. Liu Qingge was used to seeing him in his many fluttery layers of silk robes--sometimes cotton, if he was painting or doing calligraphy. Now, in dark, stiff outer robes, with thin leather arm guards instead of flowing scholarly sleeves, he looked different. Colder, more austere, more purposeful--like someone Liu Qingge wouldn't mind fighting beside, in fact, even if he didn't know about Shen Qingqiu's audacious ingenuity.

It was a more fitting wardrobe for the notoriously aloof Qing Jing peak lord, and Liu Qingge wondered if he would be putting on a persona for the meeting.

"You're much calmer than last time," Shen Qingqiu told Yue Qingyuan.

"I won't be worried as long as Liu-shidi is with you," Yue Qingyuan answered.

Liu Qingge, overhearing, continued checking the short inventory list. Being entrusted, without reserve, with someone Yue Qingyuan obviously loved so much, gave him a warm glow.

*

Conversing while in the air was difficult, but Liu Qingge and Shen Qingqiu had the chance to talk when they stopped for lunch. Liu Qingge was still hung up over the taxidermy training dummies.

"It's a ridiculous amount of energy for something that's temporary."

"My energy replenishes itself in time. In fact, over the last few months, the heavy usage has increased my qi reserves. And I didn't think that was possible at my level, without closed cultivation."

"Couldn't you just--I can't believe I'm saying this--just use a thousand spirit stones or something to activate the talisman?"

Shen Qingqiu was shaking his head before Liu Qingge even finished the sentence. "It has to be a single push of qi. Spirit stones, even used at the same instant, give fragmented energy."

"Hmm." Liu Qingge was quiet for a while as he thought. Shen Qingqiu picked at his lunch, then ignored it in favor of the tea. It wasn’t until they were almost ready to leave that Liu Qingge spoke again. "You usually use a lot of energy, but in little bursts throughout the day. But this is one brief, strong surge. And now your qi reserves are expanding again. It's similar to the way we do physical training. Small, frequent efforts, interspersed with rare maximal efforts."

Shen Qingqiu considered this over his tea. "Interesting point. Maximal effort versus endurance effort."

"The third way we train is a sustained low effort," Liu Qingge offered. "Those mass multiplying talismans you see some of my disciples wear."

"Oh, I see. I wonder if I could get the same effect by indefinitely maintaining some technique--some sort of charm, perhaps."

"You still need to take breaks," Liu Qingge cautioned. "But it's worth looking into."

They spoke about it on their way out of the restaurant.

Chapter Text

The meeting was hosted by Zhao Hua Temple, and took place in their beautiful temple complex. They had a brand new hall, purpose built for such meetings, which Elder Wu Wang took quiet pride in showing off to the two Cang Qiong Peak Lords.

"We've been very fortunate in our benefactors," he said. "We hope to see a lot of use for this building. Just last month, we were able to successfully mediate between House Di and House Hai."

"Zhao Hua is justly famous for their help in creating such peaceful outcomes," Shen Qingqiu murmured cordially. While he listened politely to Elder Wu, Liu Qingge spent the tour looking around. After they'd been shown to their rooms--austere but private monks' cells, fitting for an ascetic order--Shen Qingqiu asked what had drawn his attention.

"The benefactors' tiles," Liu Qingge answered, unexpectedly. "The family names. A lot of them are associated with Huan Hua Palace. They send their kids there."

Shen Qingqiu paused in the act of preparing ink. "They--huh." He blinked, thoughtfully. Well. That did explain a few things from his previous life.

*

Having tea with Great Elder Wu Chen before the meeting, the Old Palace Master heard some surprising news.

"Shen Qingqiu is here?" he echoed, mind working furiously.

"In place of Yue Qingyuan, yes," Wu Chen confirmed, refreshing their tea. "We were expecting the Sect Leader, of course, but Shen Qingqiu is second in seniority. This poor Daoist thinks it's perfectly appropriate."

"He's alone?" the Old Palace Master asked, chin tucked thoughtfully into his snowy beard.

Great Elder Wu looked up. "Ah, no; Liu Qingge is with him. I was quite surprised. You know they--"

"--like a cat and a rat, yes," the Old Palace Master answered, absently. "Shen Qingqiu so rarely leaves Cang Qiong."

"I was surprised, as well. Perhaps he will take a more public role in the future."

The Old Palace Master bowed his head in thought for a moment, then turned to Wu Chen. "Fellow Daoist, this old master would like to address the meeting, if that's appropriate."

*

The meeting was convened that afternoon, scheduled to continue the next day and the participants to leave the following morning. In the new meeting hall, most of the guests stayed close to their assigned seats. After Liu Qingge's observation, Shen Qingqiu paid careful attention to which sects had been placed together--and which had been separated. There was a general polite murmur of conversation; these meetings happened frequently enough that there was little catching up to do. Liu Qingge and Shen Qingqiu first greeted the Sect Leader of Tian Yi Overlook politely. The Abbess was showing just a tinge of frustration on her serene brow, but addressed them graciously. Shen Qingqiu bet that at the next meeting, she too would send a high ranking subordinate. How clever of Yue Qingyuan to undermine Huan Hua and Zhao Hua's influence peddling, while still being flawlessly polite.

After greeting the Abbess, Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge split up to circulate through the rest of the room. Liu Qingge was greeted by representatives of martial sects, many of whom he seemed to know personally. Shen Qingqiu received a certain degree of polite wariness, and he kept his greetings to the most civil and inoffensive nothings he could manage. News of his qi deviation, fever, and subsequent personality change were now old news, but this was the first time most of these cultivators had interacted with him in person since then. Ling Chen Sect had sent a representative Shen Qingqiu didn't recognize, and Shen Qingqiu gave him the same well-mannered mini-conversation he was having with everyone else.

Elder Wu Wang circulated among the guests, accepting polite compliments on the new building. Great Elder Wu Chen and the Old Palace Master were not yet present, a fact which was causing very quiet irritation among the assembled sect representatives. The smaller sects felt the imbalance of power keenly, and keeping them waiting only exacerbated that dissatisfaction.

Shen Qingqiu felt the dense, incandescent pillar of the Old Palace Master's Nascent Soul level cultivation approaching, with Great Elder Wu Chen's Late Stage Core Formation level beside him. He nudged Liu Qingge--gaining a few astonished glances from their fellow sect representatives--and they returned to their assigned seats.

Shen Qingqiu noted, with interest, that the Old Palace Master seemed to be leading the way. But he paused just outside the door, letting Great Elder Wu Chen, as the host, enter first. Hmm. Noting a few sudden poker faces, Shen Qingqiu suspected several other high-level cultivators had noticed the same thing.

Great Elder Wu Chen gracefully greeted the crowd, soothing many ruffled feathers. Zhao Hua was famous for their mediation skills, after all. He made a very mild joke, which garnered equally mild chuckles, and the group settled in to what seemed to be a boring planning meeting like any other.

Then, with a glance to the Old Palace Master, Wu Chen changed the script. "Huan Hua Palace has requested to address these esteemed fellow Daoists; this humble Wu Chen begs your indulgence."

He sat, and the Old Palace Master stood. With his snowy beard and brows, and the tranquil glow of his Nascent Soul level cultivation, he looked like an illustration from a storybook. "Esteemed peers, this humble Daoist has received worrying information. This humble Daoist will present it to the esteemed cultivators present, and beg their judgment--"

*

As the Old Palace Master laid out his case against Shen Qingqiu, the object of his accusations stood silent. Liu Qingge kept one eye on him, and one on the assembled cultivators. The onlookers seemed astonished; at least this wasn't an ambush. Shen Qingqiu sat with his chin ducked down. Liu Qingge's recent years of familiarity with the Qing Jing peak lord led him to believe he was thinking furiously.

"In my opinion," the Old Palace Master concluded, "It would be best to have Shen Qingqiu relocated to Huan Hua Palace for the time being. Wait until we've ascertained the truth before we come to a decision--how about it?"

Wu Chen and Wu Wang had exchanged several worried glances over the course of the speech. Wu Chen attempted to draw the Huan Hua Palace Master into a private conference, and was rebuffed. Politely, but in the open, in front of the assembled Intersect Alliance representatives, and in their own building. The tension increased by several degrees.

Shen Qingqiu rose and stood silently for a moment, face neutral. Liu Qingge buttressed his stone-face and waited to see which way he would jump.

"Since when did other sects start jumping to conclusions based on a mere rumor?" Shen Qingqiu said, finally.

The Old Palace Master responded without hesitation. "If it were just rumor and hearsay, then naturally we wouldn't have believed it so easily. It's just that these words were spread precisely from people of respectable sects. Your own included."

The representative from Ling Chen sect stood, cautious in the charged atmosphere. "Qiu Haitang is from this humble cultivator's sect. This master has heard nothing of this."

"Maiden Qiu made these statements directly to my Huan Hua Palace," the Old Palace Master countered smoothly. "She is not present, but this old Daoist is confident she will testify."

The Ling Chen representative flushed; a speculative murmur rose up from the watching cultivators.

Shen Qingqiu paused, then, to Liu Qingge's astonishment, showed the very faint relaxation of his lips which he passed for a smile. "This sort of accusation cannot be supported by mere words," he said carefully.

The Old Palace Master laughed. "What I want to say, Peak Lord Shen, you are already well aware. Those here with clear minds will also understand."

"Discussing anymore is pointless. I offer myself up freely."

The Old Palace Master's eyes sparked with triumph.

"However," Shen Qingqiu continued, laying the word into the silence like a qi player setting down a stone. "Surely the Zhao Hua Temple is a more appropriate place than Huan Hua Palace," he said smoothly. "We're already here, and Zhao Hua is entirely trustworthy."

There was a sudden buzz of speculation from the assembled cultivators. Many eyes had been on the Old Palace Master, and they caught that unseemly flash of triumph, and the frustration which followed Shen Qingqiu's counteroffer. Several left their seats to cross to colleagues from other sects. At least one was hastily, and openly, scribbling a note--no doubt a report to his sect.

The Old Palace Master tried to regain control of the situation and, in grasping for that, lost it. He held up his hands. "This old Daoist thinks--"

Great Elder Wu Chen spoke over him, using a charm to project his voice. "This humble Wu Chen thinks we should consider the matter carefully before taking any further steps. Peak Lord Shen is already staying at Zhao Hua Temple for the next few days, due to this meeting. Zhao Hua will host Master Shen while the investigation continues." He turned to Wu Wang to give instructions, apparently not seeing the Old Palace Master move forward to speak to him.

In the interim, Shen Qingqiu turned to Liu Qingge. "If Liu-shidi would look after Xiu Ya for this shixiong," he said, handing the sword and scabbard over. "And these--" he unhooked a ribbon of half a dozen tiny qiankun bags from his sleeve. "And these as well," he finished, drawing two more qiankun items from the other sleeve.

Liu Qingge took them, face neutral. He thought, abruptly, of seeing Shen Qingqiu in his cottage, adding a qiankun seal to the cuff of one of his inner robes. Shen Qingqiu, you devious son of a bitch, he thought admiringly. They didn't seem like dirty tricks when they were on your side.

The assembled cultivators were talking--some arguing, even--and several had approached Great Elder Wu Chen. The Old Palace Master, visibly frustrated, was given a wide berth.

*

Zhao Hua didn’t try to jail Shen Qingqiu; they didn’t have the facilities for that, anyway. Instead, he was confined to the courtyard in which they had already been assigned rooms. As long as he didn’t try to leave, all parties could maintain the pretense of hospitality. Shen Qingqiu had retreated to their sparse monks' cells for privacy. Liu Qingge stayed in the semi-public courtyard outside, highly visible, and spoke to the few leaders of minor sects who approached him. Most of the representatives were busy writing or returning to their own sects, seeking information or counsel. Liu Qingge himself would wait on Yue Qingyuan's orders before acting.

One of Huan Hua Palace's delegation had already approached him, a senior inner sect disciple.

"Surely Master Liu wishes to bring this news back to his sect immediately?" suggested the Huan Hua Palace senior disciple. He was probably trying to curry favor with his teacher, to improve his chances of being named succeeding disciple. A futile hope. The Old Palace Master showed no signs of either stepping down or cultivating to Ascension.

Liu Qingge leaned back in his seat and folded his arms, stone-faced. "I'll send a message." In fact, he had already done so, using his letterbox to send a quick report to Cang Qiong and another personal note to Yue Qingyuan. Without specific instructions, Liu Qingge would stay put; he didn't trust Huan Hua not to use some ruse to spirit Shen Qingqiu away. His presence alone made it unlikely they'd try the 'he was trying to escape' and 'we had no choice but to send him to a more secure area' gambits.

The Huan Hua Palace senior disciple wasn't quite willing to press the famous Liu Qingge, and departed.

*

In the privacy of his austere room, Shen Qingqiu wrote to Yue Qingyuan, setting out the situation. He laid out Huan Hua Palace's complaints, and the counterevidence he'd already collected. Lu Zhiguang of Ling Chen sect would be the best witness. He hadn't seen Qiu Haitang; he hoped the Old Palace Master didn't still have custody of her.

Reflecting on the strange tension between the Old Palace Master and the Zhao Hua elders, he tried to summarize their reactions. He had to abandon the attempt, unable to parse their expressions. He ended up including some sketches of their faces at different parts of the confrontation.

It was too early. Shen Qingqiu had thought it was seeing Luo Binghe at the conference which had precipitated the Old Palace Master's scrutiny. But if he had encountered Qiu Haitang before, and held her in reserve--what was he after?

Chapter Text

Shang Qinghua buzzed through Ling You, trying to find Duan Qingze's senior disciple in charge of expedition supplies. He'd already been to the east pasture, the aviary, the other aviary, and the senior disciples' mess hall, told at each place that he had just missed his quarry.

He peeked into one of the open-air classrooms. This one had a large stone-edged pond.

"The Night Hag Fish has little attack power, but don't let that fool you," Duan Qingze was saying to his junior disciples. "When threatened, it excretes a slimy, viscous substance which can make it very difficult to maneuver." He swished a blunt trident in the pool; a furious thrashing indicated the annoyed Night Hag Fish, as it fled to the other side of the enclosure. Duan Qingze stirred the trident around a bit, then lifted it out. A clear, dense gel had formed around it.

"Eeew," chorused the students. They pressed closer to look. Duan Qingze obligingly pulled the gooey trident closer.

"It isn't corrosive or toxic, just gross. You can examine it, just be careful not to get it on your sleeves."

A dozen small hands gleefully squished the slime. "Wow, it's really thick," marveled one student.

"Yes, getting this around your ankles or knees will make a fight really challenging. It dries rapidly in the air, so--Zhao Long, don't tease your shidi," Duan Qingze snapped. A child who was menacing a smaller student with a handful of slime startled guiltily.

His quarry nowhere to be seen, Shang Qinghua moved on. He was just on his way to the herbivores' veterinary building, when he overheard one disciple talking to his junior.

"Do, or do not," the disciple said seriously. "There is no 'try.'" The junior disciple nodded solemnly, then they both squeaked as Shang Qinghua descended upon them.

"Where did you hear that?" he asked intensely. The two disciples gaped, frozen in shock. One began to back away; Shang Qinghua just barely kept himself from grabbing the disciples to keep them still for interrogation.

"It's just... it's just a koan," the older disciple stutteringly replied. "Everybody says it."

"Where--"

"Shang-shibo," came a voice from behind him. "This disciple heard you were looking for him." It was the senior disciple he'd been searching for, arrived with suspiciously good timing.

Shang Qinghua stared after the rapidly retreating junior disciples. He could feel a twitch starting under his eye. He rubbed at it and turned to the senior disciple, trying for his usual ingratiating manner. "Right. Right. These, um--" Shang Qinghua had to look at the portfolio in his hands to remind himself of his errand. "The expedition manifests."

The senior disciple put out a wary hand for the paperwork. Shang Qinghua handed it over. A flying message arrived for Shang Qinghua; he opened it while the disciple was skimming through the lists.

"Uh, get that back to An Ding soon, alright?" Shang Qinghua waved the message. "Got to go." His path to Qiong Ding intersected with Duan Qingze's.

"Do you know what this is about?" Duan Qingze asked.

"No more than you," Shang Qinghua answered, frowning. "Have you--have you ever heard the expression, 'do or do not--' "

"--'there is no try.' It's just one of those things. My disciples have been using it; maybe it's from a play?"

*

When they arrived at Qiong Ding, Qi Qingqi and Lin Qingshui were already in close conference with Yue Qingyuan. By the notes at that end of the table, they had been there awhile. A diplomatic issue, then, or at least one that started that way. Yue Qingyuan, Qi Qingqi, and Lin Qingshui were the most outward-facing Peak Lords, and were the most frequently involved in diplomatic issues. Something serious, given the grim set to Qi Qingqi's jaw. Divination expert Lin Qingshui was as imperturbable as ever. Shang Qinghua and Duan Qingze took their seats; Wei Qingwei was ahead of them and Mu Qingfang behind them. Ruan Qingruan hurried in, and, remarkably, Gao Qinggao finished up the group.

Yue Qingyuan stood. Shang Qinghua was baffled as the Sect Leader began to speak--weren't they going to wait for--

"Martial siblings, Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge went to represent us at a planning meeting for the Intersect Alliance Conference--"

As Yue Qingyuan laid out the accusations and the background, Shang Qinghua felt his skin go numb, and a buzzing filled his skull. This cannot be happening. It's too early. He's going to be executed. Am I going to have to push Luo Binghe into the Abyss myself? His heart quailed at the notion. < System. System, what is happening? This is not any of the versions of my book. >

"Where is Shen Qingqiu now?" Ruan Qingruan asked grimly.

"Still at Zhao Hua Temple. They aren't allowing him to leave. However, Huan Hua wanted him taken to their Water Prison--" There were shocked murmurs from the gathered Peak Lords--the notorious Water Prison was generally only used for desperate criminals, the ones practically caught red-handed, for whom a trial was a mere formality. Mu Qingfang looked particularly aghast--his series of papers on the ethical treatment of prisoners was currently required reading at every Imperial Medical College.

Yue Qingyuan held up a hand to quiet the group. "I'm familiar with the background of these accusations--" What? thought Shang Qinghua. "--and I'm confident they will be fully disproved in the public arena." What? Shang Qinghua thought again, with increasing hysteria. "I've already corresponded with Ling Chen Sect Leader Lu Zhiguang, who is fully aware of the circumstances. I called you here to give you the background, so you won't be taken unawares." He paused to take a breath. "I think Shen-shidi would prefer this information to remain private, but these accusations have been made in public. I know I can trust in the good judgment of each one of you."

And then he began to carefully, meticulously, tell a story which destroyed Shang Qinghua's three views.

Chapter Text

At Cang Qiong, Yue Qingyuan was dealing with an escape attempt. Luo Binghe, belligerent and resentful, had been intercepted trying to travel to the Zhao Hua Temple. Yue Qingyuan was reluctantly impressed by his skill; if not for the higher security put into place when Shen Qingqiu was restrained, he might have succeeded.

"We've got to rescue him!" Luo Binghe argued vehemently. "If you won't do anything, then, then this disciple--" His eyes were a little faraway. Yue Qingyuan guessed he was imagining his heroic rescue of his teacher.

"And if you were caught, your teacher would be blamed for your actions," Yue Qingyuan said firmly. That finally, finally, gave Luo Binghe pause.

"I wouldn't--"

"Are you sure? Because Cang Qiong's security caught you easily." Yue Qingyuan waited while that sunk in. "Your teacher is safe. Your Liu-shishu is remaining with him in the temple. And we will bring him home, without a stain on his reputation, by--"

"By negotiating?" Luo Binghe asked, with teenage scorn.

Yue Qingyuan wondered if he'd ever been this young. "By revealing carefully verified facts to the public, which will cleanse your teacher's reputation and damage the people who tried to smear him."

That gave Luo Binghe pause. "Oh."

"Yes, 'oh,'" Yue Qingyuan repeated dryly. "Rule--," he thought, what was it again? "--Two."

" 'Be mindful in public areas,' " Luo Binghe recited automatically.

Oh. He had been thinking of 'Look before you leap,' but... "Just so. This accusation was made in a very public area. Your teacher's reputation has been threatened. This Sect Leader has been in contact with him. He is eager to use this opportunity to retaliate against the people who injured him."

"Oh," Luo Binghe repeated. He didn’t look contrite--that would be too much to hope for--but he did look thoughtful, finally. No wonder Xiao Jiu sometimes looked so frustrated. Yue Qingyuan waited as Luo Binghe took a breath and continued in a more respectful tone. "This disciple heard... that it was, it was his fiancée who accused him?"

Ah. "The lady in question is his sister. She has been grievously misled. She experienced the events in question while under the influence of a very dangerous class of charm, memory charms. Your teacher's accusers took advantage of that." Yue Qingyuan saw Luo Binghe's hands begin to ball up into fists, and added, "She is now in the care of her sect. Your teacher was very concerned about her; she's his only living family." As far as they knew, and Yue Qingyuan was quite happy to keep it that way.

"Oh," Luo Binghe said again. As he calmed down he seemed, belatedly, to reflect on his recent actions. Yue Qingyuan watched as horror dawned over his face. Amusement has been hard to come by the last two weeks. "This disciple, uh, humbly apologizes--"

"Does this disciple know why his teacher assigns him essays?" Yue Qingyuan asked. He waited, while Luo Binghe blinked at him. "Because his teacher wants him to think before he acts. This is exactly the kind of situation that calls for it. This Sect Leader knows Luo Binghe is concerned about his teacher. But for difficult and complicated problems like this, he should--"

"--Ask for help," Luo Binghe finished quietly.

Well. That wasn't where he was going with that, but it was a good lesson, and seemed to have special meaning for the boy.

"You'll be attending classes at Qiong Ding and staying in our dorms for the time being. Your punishment for your three attempts to sneak out will be left to your teacher--" Luo Binghe visibly paled, as he realized Shen Qingqiu would come to know about this. "--But this martial uncle recommends you start writing the essay now."

Chapter Text

"Fiancée?" Liu Qingge asked.

Shen Qingqiu shook his head. "Sister."

"Sister?" he echoed.

"It's been confirmed with a blood test."

Liu Qingge looked at him flatly. "See, I didn't know you had either of those things."

"I've already spoken to Sect Leader Lu Zhiguang of Ling Chen. And Yue-shixiong knows the entire background, of course."

Liu Qingge stared at the ceiling for a minute. "Okay," he said slowly. "Now, could you give me the whole background? You know, since I'm here anyway."

"What I know isn't that complicated, but I don't have the full story myself. I was abandoned as an infant, and grew up as a slave--"

Liu Qingge straightened up abruptly. Shen Qingqiu waved him quiet. "--I was bought by House Qiu when I was... around ten, I think. I still had some baby teeth, anyway. After Qiu Jianluo's parents died, he began conducting some extremely ill-advised experiments around harvesting spiritual energy; I was one of his test subjects." He held up a hand again to keep Liu Qingge from interrupting. "I killed him and--"

"So you did kill him," Liu Qingge said blankly.

"In self defense, but slaves aren't permitted to defend themselves against their owner. So, yes," Shen Qingqiu cleared his throat, and continued. "As I was saying. I fled and eventually reached Cang Qiong. After my qi deviation a few years ago, I put some clues together, and spoke to Ling Chen Sect Leader Lu Zhiguang. A blood test confirmed that Qiu Haitang is my sister--full blooded sister--meaning Qiu Jianluo was my, our, half-brother. Qiu Haitang was the daughter of a concubine. I can guess that I was a casualty of harem politics--a son discarded before he could be a rival to the di-son. But it's just a guess."

Liu Qingge waved his hands silently, apparently unable to form words.

"Oh, and by comparing notes with Lu Zhiguang, we confirmed that Qiu Haitang had been exposed to memory charms, for years, within the household," Shen Qingqiu continued. "Qiu Jianluo is the most likely culprit. Though he probably bought them from a rogue cultivator. With this new context, her sect has been trying to undo the damage. I don't know the details, as it's private information."

"Shen Qingqiu--" Liu Qingge stopped, at a loss.

"Do you want some leisure to think about this?" Shen Qingqiu asked helpfully. "We have time."

*

Shen Qingqiu's confinement at the Zhao Hua temple complex was very different from his stay at the Water Prison in his last life. For one thing, he was able to present information in his own defense.

Elder Wu Wang visited early in his stay; Shen Qingqiu wondered what had happened, to cause them to retrench. Over a very civilized formal tea, the Elder carefully interviewed him about the charges.

"This poor Daoist wishes to get background on the issues in question," Elder Wu Wang said.

Issues, now, not accusations. Huan Hua Palace would soon find itself occupying very lonely ground. Shen Qingqiu folded his hands elegantly. "This Shen Qingqiu would be pleased to discuss them."

"One item; there is a rumor that Master Shen sent a young disciple to fight a demon elder, during the attack on Cang Qiong?"

"He sent himself." Shen Qingqiu's brow creased at the memory. "And didn't return when I ordered him to. But if the crime is having a disobedient disciple, this master suspects it is one we are all guilty of."

Elder Wu almost cracked a smile. "Just so. But it seems unlikely for a callow youth to take such a risk, when his elders were nearby."

"A disciple of Xian Shu had handily won her bout against another elder, just prior. This teacher thinks he wanted to impress her."

Elder Wu coughed. "Ah. Well, that does... Well. Another matter, a rumor that one of Master Shen's disciples fled from him, so fearful that he jumped into a winter pond to escape?"

Shen Qingqiu nodded. "It was the Pool of Tranquility, and the same disciple. I found him applying a bruise ointment at night, in secret. He didn't want to explain why he was so badly bruised. Or why it happened so often that he had his own jar of salve. He fled rather than explain." Shen Qingqiu pressed his lips together in remembered censure. "It turned out, he had some sort of... fighting club with some disciples from Bai Zhan. They aren't supposed to spar without hallmaster supervision, but..." He lifted an open hand.

Elder Wu looked at him. "The same disciple?" he asked delicately.

"He tries hard," Shen Qingqiu said defensively. "The most promising students are often the most troublesome." He hurried on, adding, "Physician Jiang Ling examined him the next day and got the details on the matter. Liu Qingge investigated on the Bai Zhan side; he can give you more information."

"Mmm hmm." Elder Wu looked dubious. "The matter with Qiu Haitang..."

"This Shen Qingqiu trusts Elder Wu has already corresponded with Ling Chen Sect Leader Lu Zhiguang?"

"Ah, yes."

"This master imagines he isn't pleased to have one of his disciples involved in this."

Elder Wu nodded, brow furrowed. "The issues at hand seem... poorly thought out."

Shen Qingqiu's fingers itched for his fan. His inventory of dramatic gestures was severely curtailed without it. "As if someone acted in haste, expecting no one to question their accusations." He shared a long look with Elder Wu. "The Old Palace Master was very eager to take this Shen Qingqiu to Huan Hua. This master thinks the Old Palace Master wishes to know details about Qing Jing's library."

"The... library?" Elder Wu echoed, surprised.

"Particularly, the defenses." At Elder Wu's startlement, Shen Qingqiu continued, carefully. "This master is not suggesting Huan Hua wishes to raid Qing Jing. Rather, Huan Hua Palace has been without a proficient head librarian for some time. The previous one refused to work under the Palace Master, when he attained his current position. On his way to his retirement, he met with misfortune. His successor was previously only a mid-level archivist." He met Elder Wu's eyes. "This master suspects a significant portion of Huan Hua's collection is currently inaccessible."

They lapsed into a thoughtful silence. Shen Qingqiu hoped Elder Wu was using it to think through the requests the Old Palace Master had made of him, over the years.

"We've borrowed books from Huan Hua occasionally..." Wu Wang said cautiously.

"But not everything you request, not for some time? Some, are always unavailable to you?"

Elder Wu looked troubled, but admitted nothing. He straightened from the conspiratorial lean he'd unconsciously fallen into. "Well. There are several parties who should be able to confirm Master Shen's testimony. We will investigate. This old Daoist will be very pleased to have this terrible matter settled peaceably. We hope our esteemed fellow cultivators of Cang Qiong won't take offense...?" he probed.

"This Shen Qingqiu is but a humble scholar. This Shen Qingqiu will not decide for Cang Qiong to take offense."

They sat silently for a moment, considering just who would be responsible for choosing to take offense, or let it go. Shen Qingqiu sipped his tea.

*

When Yue Qingyuan arrived for the meeting--'trial' was too strong a word for the carefully restructured gathering--Liu Qingge was waiting for him. Yue Qingyuan's expression and body language were perfectly neutral, giving nothing away. As they walked to the building, they conferred under one of Yue Qingyuan's tightly localized muffling charms.

"They won't let you meet him beforehand," Liu Qingge warned him.

Yue Qingyuan nodded, face impassive. "They've severely overstepped prudence in making these accusations, so publicly and without securing supporting evidence. They want to provoke us into being equally imprudent, to give them some leverage in evading censure."

"And you're not going to give them that," Liu Qingge said carefully.

That finally prompted an expression, a very faint attempt at a smile. "Qingqiu-shidi would be very upset if he has been inconvenienced for nothing," Yue Qingyuan answered. Liu Qingge felt some tension drain away at the confirmation. "And Liu-shidi's own inconvenience," Yue Qingyuan continued after a moment. "Thank you, for staying with him." He wasn’t quite able to make it sound heartfelt, still focused on Shen Qingqiu, but Liu Qingge was surprised he was even able to think of it, under the circumstances.

Liu Qingge ducked his chin. "It's only what I should do."

Yue Qingyuan squeezed his shoulder briefly as they entered the building.

*

The concerned representatives from the Intersect Alliance Conference had been gathered in a large hospitality room and served tea, rather than assembled in the echoing mediation hall. Liu Qingge had seen Zhao Hua novices moving seats out of the prepared space. He suspected it was part of the ongoing effort to deescalate the accusations against Shen Qingqiu, as it became clear how thin the evidence was. He detected Yue Qingyuan and Qi Qingqi's hands at work, in the speed with which information was being spread between the minor sects.

Tellingly, the Old Palace Master was not present. Citing administrative duties at Huan Hua, he had sent one of his senior hallmasters instead. The man was stone-faced in his appointed task. Undoubtedly, another disciple hoping for favor and promotion.

Elder Wu Wang, face solemn, presented the accusations--delicately referred to as rumors--and the responses he'd gathered from Shen Qingqiu. "Now... the incident of the novice fighting the demon elder is well known. This poor Daoist believes the boy was not injured during the fight?" He glanced at the Cang Qiong delegation. Yue Qingyuan nodded at Liu Qingge to respond.

Liu Qingge stood to speak. "He's fine. And the other disciples present confirm that he ignored Peak Lord Shen's orders to stay out of the fight. You should have signed witness reports already, from disciples who were present for the invasion and matches."

"Yes, we've received them. The assembled Intersect Alliance representatives may review them at will. Well, it seems that's settled then." Elder Wu Wang looked relieved. "Now... it was the same novice who was allegedly thrown into a pond?"

Liu Qingge sighed. "The same. You should have a letter there from Divine Physician Jiang Ling, formerly of the Wei Country Imperial Medical College."

Elder Wu nodded and Liu Qingge sat down as the letter was introduced to the assembled masters. As Wu Wang read it out to the group, they began to look restive. An irritated murmur built up.

"Well, that seems to be resolved," Elder Wu Wang confirmed. "Ah, the third and most serious matter, that Shen Qingqiu, ah, as a slave child, murdered a free citizen and burned down his house..." He picked up another set of papers, while the assembled masters straightened up. Background conversations died down as they renewed their attention. This was the most crucial matter. "There is one surviving witness," Elder Wu Wang continued, "--A daughter of that house. She is a young Daoist currently of Ling Chen sect, named Qiu Haitang. Can Ling Chen sect comment?"

At this, the assembled masters turned, one by one, to look with interest at Ling Chen sect leader Lu Zhiguang. He stood, no longer the laughing monk. "This poor Daoist is aware. Our sect had already spoken to Master Shen, several years ago, and confirmed his account. We kept this information from Disciple Qiu because she needed more preparation to hear it. She had spent at least a year prior to the incident under the influence of memory charms. We feared the sudden revelation would cause qi deviation." His lips thinned. "Which, in fact, it has. She is recovering now, in our temple. And we do not appreciate Huan Hua Palace interfering with the affairs of other sects," he finished, tone severe.

There was a buzz of speculation from the assembled masters. No one was happy with Huan Hua's increasingly heavy hand.

Elder Wu Wang waited a moment for further comments, then continued. "And as far as corroborating evidence, ah, any documents manumitting the younger Shen Qingqiu or making a betrothal agreement would have been stored in the Qiu household. So we cannot confirm or deny the story on objective evidence." Elder Wu bowed to the group. "This Elder believes there is no cause for further inquiry."

The vote, by a show of hands, was decisive enough not to need a tally. Yue Qingyuan, who had been sitting silently beside Liu Qingge, now stood and spoke for the first time. "With that settled, we would like to leave with our martial brother." There had been a certain amount of nervous shifting in the audience when he rose, but that tension subsided when there was no immediate expression of reprisal.

Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge were speedily led to Shen Qingqiu, who had been waiting quietly in a nearby room.

The frozen tension which had been propelling Yue Qingyuan the whole trip disappeared in a rush. "Qingqiu-shidi."

Liu Qingge smoothly turned away and blocked the door so any well-wishers couldn't enter.

After a moment, Yue Qingyuan said, "Qingqiu-shidi. Let's go home."

"Don't you need to stay?" Shen Qingqiu asked. "To manage the other sect representatives opinions, after this?"

"Qingqiu-shidi--" Yue Qingyuan began, voice strained. He took a breath. Liu Qingge could hear it rasping in his throat. "I brought some of my senior staff, and Qi Qingqi is on her way."

"Oooh," Shen Qingqiu's voice was impressed and sympathetic.

"They will handle it," Yue Qingyuan said firmly. "The part of myself and Liu-shidi is to get you home without incident."

"You really were prepared for the worst," Liu Qingge said quietly as they were leaving.

Yue Qingyuan's face was grim. "Quite a few of the smaller sects had stories about Huan Hua, once they knew we would listen." Shen Qingqiu looked at him, eyes bright with curiosity. "Later, Qingqiu-shidi," he said seriously. "I... don't want to think about it right now."

Chapter Text

On their way to the meeting, Liu Qingge and Shen Qingqiu had stopped for lunch. Returning, Yue Qingyuan, Shen Qingqiu, and Liu Qingge stopped only briefly, and only in unoccupied areas.

Liu Qingge was glad he was there to stay alert; Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu were in their own world built for two, and might well be ambushed if he weren't there to watch their backs. Literally watch their backs; he stayed behind and above them, keeping his enhanced senses on their airspace so they wouldn’t be taken off guard. He tried to give them privacy, but the fickle wind occasionally brought a fragment of conversation to him.

"--Never doubted you would," he heard Shen Qingqiu say quietly. "If anything, I worried you would do too much."

"That disciple of yours tried to sneak away three times. In the end, I had to assign him to classes on Qiong Ding to keep an eye on him."

Shen Qingqiu sounded pained. "This shidi will try to impress upon him that Sect Leader's orders are not suggestions."

*

When they arrived back at Cang Qiong, Gao Qinggao was waiting at Qiong Ding. If it were anyone but the ascetic peak lord, Liu Qingge would have said he was waiting on pins and needles.

"Shen Qingqiu!" he said as soon as they landed. "While it's still fresh in your mind, this shidi would like your observations on Zhao Hua's talisman arrays."

Shen Qingqiu was already pulling a roll of papers from his sleeve. "I took extensive notes."

"Excellent." Gao Qinggao snatched the notes without pretense, unrolling and skimming through them at once. He immediately moved to return to his peak, like a squirrel hiding a treasured nut. "Good to have you back," he called over his shoulder.

Qiong Ding was quiet; Yue Qingyuan must have timed their arrival for a period when disciples were occupied or in classes. Or perhaps assigned extra indoor activities, to avoid curious onlookers.

"It will be good to be back at my own studio again," Shen Qingqiu said as they walked.

"Many of Qingqiu-shidi's students are from noble houses," Yue Qingyuan said smoothly. "They'll be corresponding with their parents. This shixiong would be more comfortable if Qingqiu-shidi would stay at Qiong Ding for a few days, until we have our messaging aligned."

Shen Qingqiu frowned, and Liu Qingge was suddenly, worryingly, aware that Yue Qingyuan hadn’t let go of Shen Qingqiu since he saw him at the Zhao Hua Temple. He had even flown beside him, hand hovering at his arm like he was spotting a student.

"We can move any of Qingqiu-shidi's paints and supplies, of course," Yue Qingyuan continued smoothly.

Shen Qingqiu's face cleared. "Much appreciated. I've had nothing but plain black ink and paper while I was confined. They can create an interesting effect, but it grew tiresome after awhile."

Crisis averted. Liu Qingge relaxed.

...He should probably talk to Mu Qingfang when he had a moment.

*

"Shizun!" A Shizun-guided missile launched himself at Shen Qingqiu.

"Rule--" Shen Qingqiu didn’t get the whole sentence out as Luo Binghe attached himself to him. Shen Qingqiu staggered under the impact; Liu Qingge automatically stabilized him with a hand on his back. Yue Qingyuan did the same, and their hands brushed. Liu Qingge froze for a moment, then drew away hastily.

"This teacher has heard that Binghe had to be prevented from acting unwisely," Shen Qingqiu said with unconvincing censure. He brushed a hand over the boy's head; he probably thought he was being subtle.

"This disciple is sorry," Luo Binghe said with equally unconvincing contrition. "This disciple will be more reflective in the future."

Liu Qingge shot a glance at Yue Qingyuan. Yue Qingyuan was almost preternaturally good with people, so to have trouble with a teenage disciple--there must be a story there, and he couldn't wait to hear it.

*

Yue Qingyuan ushered Shen Qingqiu into the Sect Leader's manor to report, rather than his office in the administrative buildings in Qiong Ding. Once inside, Yue Qingyuan squeezed him in a tight hug. Shen Qingqiu tucked his face into the offered shoulder, peaceably content in knowing that dealing with the ongoing diplomatic fallout was now somebody else's problem.

Yue Qingyuan pulled back and smoothed Shen Qingqiu's hair. "You're really alright? They treated you well?"

"Yes; I even stayed in the same guest quarters we'd been assigned for the meeting."

Yue Qingyuan checked his meridians again, and his tense brow relaxed. He must have been worried that the stress, and the public reveal of his origins, might send him into a qi deviation. I'll just have to put up with his fussing for awhile, Shen Qingqiu thought contentedly.

After checking him over, Yue Qingyuan tilted Shen Qingqiu's head up in his hands, as if trying to memorize his face. He looked at him intently, then leaned close to carefully brush a kiss to Shen Qingqiu's forehead. "I'm so glad you're safe," Shen Qingqiu heard, murmured into his hair. "We should talk about your experience," Yue Qingyuan continued reluctantly, drawing away. "Unless you're too tired."

"Of course. I'm interested to know what Huan Hua has been up to with the minor sects, that had you so worried."

Shen Qingqiu was guided into the secure parlor he'd seen on his first visit to the manor, years ago. It had been thoroughly tidied this time, he saw, and a few of the substantial pieces of furniture were gone. The large, polished brass mirror he remembered was one of the changes. A pretty mountain landscape--not one of his--now hung in its place. The arhat daybed had its thin cushions replaced with soft, thick ones. Yue Qingyuan guided him to sit and tucked a small blanket over his lap--one with a self-warming talisman worked into the weave.

Yue Qingyuan served him the milk tea Shen Qingqiu was secretly fond of; frothy soya milk, sweetened, mixed with a fine and strong black tea. He never drank it when it might disrupt his image. Yue Qingyuan prepared it himself; Shen Qingqiu hadn’t seen a single disciple or member of the staff, and the air had the strangely absorbent hush he remembered from karaoke boxes and music rooms as Shen Yuan. Not only the parlor privacy seals, but the security array around the manor, then. Yue Qingyuan was taking this secrecy very seriously.

"I'd like to carefully manage what information we make available, at least until we know how sentiment is shaking out in the minor sects," Yue Qingyuan explained when Shen Qingqiu mentioned it. He hadn’t let go of Shen Qingqiu since they sat down.

"I could go into closed cultivation--" Shen Qingqiu began.

"No," Yue Qingyuan said automatically. His hand on Shen Qingqiu's tightened; Shen Qingqiu reflexively squeezed back. "No. If it's necessary, you can always... stay here."

Over the next several hours, Yue Qingyuan took Shen Qingqiu's report of the events at the conference planning meeting, and its aftermath. Who was there, what was said, who spoke to whom--Yue Qingyuan's patient interrogation teased out details that Shen Qingqiu hadn't even realized he noticed. Shen Qingqiu had already sent him a sketch of the original seating chart, noting which sects were placed together, and which separated. Yue Qingyuan was particularly interested in knowing who spoke to whom in the immediate aftermath of the Old Palace Master's announcement. They took several breaks, while Yue Qingyuan filled Shen Qingqiu in on what had been happening in Cang Qiong in his absence. Including Luo Binghe's many rescue attempts.

"--Over the roof," Yue Qingyuan said, pained. "He didn't stop even when we spotted him and called him down. It took three hallmasters in a pincer movement to nab him. I thought we'd have to get a net."

Shen Qingqiu hid a smile behind one hand and his eyes with another.

*

"I'm more worried about my students," Shen Qingqiu said later, frowning. "If those with a strong background are pulled out of Qing Jing early--well, that's unfortunate, but they'll manage. But for those with humble origins--it will significantly affect their future prospects."

"Your past students have always done very well in the imperial civil service exams," Yue Qingyuan said. "Many of them are well placed in their respective ministries. Rivals may try to use that against them, but they're well prepared to defend themselves."

"My students do tend to perform well under pressure," Shen Qingqiu said with some satisfaction.

Yue Qingyuan remained tactfully silent.

"What was it they've been doing with the minor sects, that had you so upset?" Shen Qingqiu asked.

"Acting independently, to accuse and condemn practitioners. Perhaps some had done some genuine wrong. But in at least one case, the man was simply accused of not killing a demon, when he encountered it in the course of an unrelated investigation."

"Anyone who doesn't fit their very strict definition of a righteous cultivator, then," Shen Qingqiu frowned.

Yue Qingyuan nodded, sipping his own unsweetened tea. "Interestingly, none of the minor sects involved knew that others were having the same problems. Those targeted haven't publicized the accusations; even a whisper from Huan Hua carries weight. If they shared the information at all, it was with sects linked by blood or shared history. Now that high profile charges have been so publicly disproved, any future accusations will be suspect." He frowned. "Though there will be some aftereffects. In at least one case, Huan Hua sent a letter of censure to a sect, and the cultivator later went missing. Perhaps they ran into danger on their investigation. There's no positive indication that Huan Hua was involved. But..."

"Rumors take on a life of their own."

Yue Qingyuan rubbed a thumb over the knuckles of Shen Qingqiu's hand. "I wonder about the timing. Clearly it was opportunistic; you rarely attend these meetings of cultivators. But Qiu Haitang wasn't present; he must have met her previously. She hasn't been actively investigating the incident for years. But if she spoke to one of his hallmasters, he may have happened to see her--"

Shen Qingqiu tilted his head thoughtfully. "Has she participated in one of the Intersect Alliance Conferences? Perhaps there--"

Yue Qingyuan nodded. "Or at another meeting. If the resemblance between the two of you is as strong as Lu Zhiguang implied--"

"--The Old Palace Master may well have asked about her, and gotten further information from the Huan Hua hallmaster to whom she first spoke," finished Shen Qingqiu.

"Having something to hold over the second senior in Cang Qiong... well, it's valuable information. He would have been holding it in reserve, in case it was useful."

Shen Qingqiu ducked his head in thought. "But why would he use it now? And so hastily? This couldn't have been planned; even if he was expecting you at the meeting instead, he would have had Qiu Haitang ready. She would make for a sympathetic witness."

"He took a serious risk," Yue Qingyuan concurred. "Even in the circumstances."

"What was he after?" Shen Qingqiu hesitated. "Have I met him before? I don't remember."

Yue Qingyuan squeezed his hand soothingly. "You have, yes. Accompanying your teacher to the Intersect Alliance Conference, certainly. Though I'm not aware of any special enmity between you two." He frowned. "In fact... he's invited you to lecture at Huan Hua. Invitations which are now suspect. Huan Hua doesn't send out disciples as guest students, and rarely invites outsiders to teach. It seemed to be simple flattery. You've always refused as a matter of course."

"They don't seem to want anything. They certainly aren't hurting for money, or influence. The Old Palace Master is close to ascension, but he hasn't named an heir."

Yue Qingyuan paused, and a complex expression washed over his face. Shen Qingqiu looked at him with raised brows, expectant. Yue Qingyuan shook his head. "Just a thought." Shen Qingqiu frowned. Yue Qingyuan smiled. "I will tell you my conjectures. But do your own investigations first. I don't want to compromise your objectivity."

Shen Qingqiu nodded in approval of the caution. Shen Qingqiu had his own theories--did the Huan Hua library hold details on how Tianlang-jun was trapped? The location of other demons, allowed to increase in power so a single strong entity could be bound, as Shang Qinghua had hinted?

Like... Shen Qingqiu paused as an idea percolated. Like, why hadn't Su Xiyan reincarnated? Considering the Old Palace Master's obsession with her, he must have applied a spiritual imprint. Did she remove it? Could she remove it? He would have to check the Great Library.

With Su Xiyan's cultivation level, she certainly could have reincarnated by now. How long had it taken Zi Dan? Not more than ten years, certainly. And Luo Binghe was nearly seventeen, now. The Old Palace Master certainly would have looked for her new self.

As the years passed, he must have wondered. He might have gotten desperate. Was there something in the Huan Hua Library that would answer his questions?

*

Shen Qingqiu was sure Yue Qingyuan had a million things to do, but he'd shown no signs of leaving, and Shen Qingqiu was reluctant to remind him of it. Hours after Shen Qingqiu's return, they'd thoroughly discussed the charges, his confinement, and the resulting withdrawal of the accusations. Strategizing for the future would need to wait for Qi Qingqi's analysis of the meeting. Their conversation now had long pauses, but neither was willing to leave just yet.

Yue Qingyuan seemed to have something more on his mind, and finally divulged it.

"And--" Yue Qingyuan, who had kept hold of Shen Qingqiu's hand, arm, or robes whenever possible since seeing him at Zhao Hua Temple, reluctantly loosened his hold and sat back. "--I told our martial siblings, about your history, and what was revealed when you visited Ling Chen Sect." His spine was straight, but his shoulders were tense. "I thought--it was better that they should know, than to find out from third parties." He began to add something more, then closed his mouth and sat still, tensed as if for a blow.

Shen Qingqiu blinked and reached for his hand again. "I'm not ashamed of having been a slave," he said carefully. "But it's... personal. I never wanted to talk about it to anyone. But I understand that once the information was out, it's better that the other peak lords know everything that any outsiders do." He paused, and continued. "What about you?" he asked quietly. "It must be difficult, handling this, with no one knowing about your own origins."

Yue Qingyuan blinked. "Oh. I haven't really thought about that aspect."

Well, that was... weird. Under the circumstances. Shen Qingqiu wanted to ask about it--if he ever knew Yue Qingyuan's own origins, he had forgotten--but it felt inappropriate. When he new game plussed again, he would have that knowledge, with a Yue Qingyuan who hadn't given it to him.

*

Yue Qingyuan finally left to receive the information which had come in since the end of the meeting. Unless something had gone wrong, Qi Qingqi should be on her way back by now. Before he left, he reassured Shen Qingqiu of his complete privacy here; no one could enter with the security array up.

Shen Qingqiu was in the same guest room he had used previously. The cushions and blankets were now the pale, cool colors he preferred. It was very nice. He sat down.

Shen Qingqiu found himself in complete solitude for the first time in weeks.

Shen Qingqiu wasn’t sure how to think about his origins. In the real world--in he-as-Shen-Yuan's world, he corrected himself hastily--slavery was a crime and slaves were victims. Here, it was an unquestioned part of society, and slaves were barely considered people.

There's nothing to worry about, he repeated to himself firmly. I know these people. I know how they'll react. And even if they don't--react the way I expect, I know Qi-ge--Yue-shixiong--is on my side.

He rose and began to sort through his painting supplies.

The worst that could happen is I have to step back from Qing Jing for awhile. It will be like a vacation. Or a sabbatical. I can do some field research. I'm behind on picking up memory quest markers, anyway. Really, this is an excellent opportunity. Maybe the best thing that could have happened.

He jotted a quick note, a reminder to ask Yue Qingyuan to send someone to pick up his jade carving supplies.

My hallmasters are more than capable of handling day to day management. It will be good experience for them. He paused, thinking of Tang Xinran, who he had seen embroidering handkerchiefs for her wedding trousseau. He hoped this wouldn’t affect her plans. And Ning Yingying, whose father was keeping her in her prestigious cultivation sect specifically to improve her prospects. A fall in their teacher's status would affect their future.

If nothing else, Qi Qingqi will take in all the girls, he reassured himself. And I'd like to see anyone try to get them away from her.

And..., he paused, in the midst of checking what pigments he had available. When I new game plus again, none of this will have happened. From that perspective, it's a good experiment. I can see what the reaction is. For next time.

That settled, he put his painting supplies away again, and tried to remember where he'd put the field trip notes he'd been working on. He would make a list, of places most likely to have memory markers, and their proximity. He might be able to get several in one trip.

Chapter Text

< System, what is going on here? First Shen Qingqiu becomes a pod person, now this? Abused slave child becomes minor villain, okay. But concubine's son discarded by the di-wife? Living as a slave in his birth house? Fleeing to a cultivation sect and gaining powers? That's dangerously close to a protagonist back story. Something's really, really wrong here. Check for bugs! Status check! Check check! >

The System finally, finally responded. [ Environmental integrity... normal. Timeline deviation... normal. Script latency... normal. The Plot is operating within acceptable parameters. ]

Does that mean... Shang Qinghua paused, horror-struck. Does that mean when Qiu Haitang joined the harem in the original... Wow, talk about revenge.

*

As Shang Qinghua passed through Bai Zhan, he pushed his hearing to its cultivation-enhanced limits, sifting through the background noise for clues. It was mostly gossip, and mostly focused on the revelations around Shen Qingqiu.

"--Can't be that bad," he heard. "I know I've had worse beatings sparring here than we ever gave to our slaves."

He heard a thud and the sounds of scuffling feet; distantly, he saw a disciple being put into a headlock.

"We're allowed to fight back. We're even taught how to. Don't pretend it's the same thing," came the slightly out-of-breath retort.

"Huh. Okay, good point." There were a couple of thumps as the other disciple tapped out and was released. Bai Zhan disciples were very physical in their debates.

"May this disciple assist Shang-shibo?" Shang Qinghua heard from behind him.

Shang Qinghua turned to the speaker; one of Bai Zhan's junior teachers. Perfect. Old enough to move around unrestricted, but not senior enough to question Shang Qinghua's presence. "I need to check your inventory of hand-wraps," he said briskly. "There was a paperwork mix-up, and we want to be sure you don't run low. Where do you keep them?"

On the way to check the supplies, Shang Qinghua subtly pumped the junior teacher for information.

"You've been cooperating closely with Ling You, I hear."

"Yes, Shang-shibo. We've been setting up training scenarios for the Conference."

"There's a phrase, I think they picked it up from you. 'Do, or do not--' "

"--There is no 'try.' Yes, that's a good one. Sounds impressive, makes the kids think."

"Is it one of the former Bai Zhan Peak Lord's aphorisms? It sounds like something Old Master Feng would, ah, write."

"Oh. It does sound like Feng-shigong, but no, actually. This disciple has heard it used around Qian Cao; maybe it's from their Founder?"

"Oh! Qian Cao. That does make sense."

*

It was much more difficult to 'casually' overhear gossip on Qian Cao. The disciples there learned muffling seals as part of their most basic training, and used them liberally.

There was a lot of activity in one of the small courtyards the students used for breaks; apparently, some Xian Shu disciples wanted advice on first aid and emergency treatment for hypothermia. Qi Qingqi must be doing a survival workshop. It had turned into more of a social gathering than a study session, it looked like. The students fell abruptly quiet when Shang Qinghua arrived.

They were predisposed to be helpful, though, and Shang Qinghua easily learned that Qian Cao had first heard the phrase from Zui Xian.

*

Much, much later, Shang Qinghua had a tentative flowchart.

Let's see, Shang Qinghua thought. The first confirmed use was four months ago. I heard it in Ling You. The Ling You disciples heard it from Bai Zhan. Bai Zhan heard it on Qian Cao. Qian Cao says they first heard it from Zui Xian... Shang Qinghua paused, fingers halted in their nervous drumming. Zui Xian.

*

Shang Qinghua approached one of the test kitchens in Zui Xian, following a confused disciple. Through the open doors, he heard Ruan Qingruan's concerned voice.

"How can I comfort someone if I can't cook for them?" the Zui Xian Peak Lord fretted.

"Why can't you cook for him?" asked Zi Dan's voice.

"He barely eats anyway."

"Ruan-shidi! And--" Here, he paused, and gave Zi Dan a suddenly suspicious look. "--And Zi-shidi. Zi-shidi, you've been away for awhile, haven't you? Settling in okay, now? It's been nearly a year, right?"

Zi Dan unfolded his crossed arms, baffled. "Ye-ees, my thanks to Shang-shixiong."

"Good, good. Oh, I heard a koan that reminded me of you." He leaned closer, and said conspiratorially, " 'There is no spoon.' "

"What?"

Could it be that simple?, Shang Qinghua thought feverishly. He squinted at Zi Dan, who looked back at him with concern.

"Shang-shixiong, are you feeling alright? Do you want to go to Qian Cao?"

"Qian Cao! Yes. That is what I should do." Shang Qinghua abruptly turned toward the door.

"...I'll go with you." Zi Dan and Ruan Qingruan exchanged worried looks, and Zi Dan followed Shang Qinghua out.

*

Liu Qingge spoke seriously to Mu Qingfang, in his big, airy, workroom-slash-office on Qian Cao. "--I'm worried he'll keep Shen Qingqiu there, 'to protect him,' and Shen Qingqiu won't notice because he's too busy painting."

"It wouldn't have been a concern before... but, you're right. Shen-shixiong has, ah--" Mu Qingfang paused to select his words carefully. "--A certain tendency to ignore difficult topics. As you may have noticed." His sharp eyes didn’t miss Liu Qingge's flush. "And Yue-shixiong is more than happy to enable that habit."

Mu Qingfang dipped his head for a moment, then nodded decisively. "I'll speak to him. It should be straightforward enough; recent events have certainly put him at higher risk of a stress-related qi deviation."

Liu Qingge froze in the act of rising. "Wait, is that why he had all those qi deviations?"

"You know as well as I do that it's more complicated than that."

*

As Mu Qingfang and Liu Qingge left the office, they encountered Shang Qinghua, who stopped short and blinked at them owlishly. Zi Dan, trailing behind him, met Liu Qingge’s questioning look with a shrug.

"Can this shidi help Shang-shixiong?" Mu Qingfang asked with concern. Shang Qinghua looked worn down.

"No... ah, yes," Shang Qinghua said, twitching like he'd been living on tea and nerves. "This shixiong was wondering--have any disciples had head injuries lately? Or high fevers? Within the past few months?"

Mu Qingfang looked at him, baffled. "A few. Nothing really serious. Why?"

"Ah, uh... have any of them seemed... disoriented when they woke up? Asking lots of questions?"

"No..." Mu Qingfang began to frown.

"Not recognizing their friends, maybe?"

"No..." Mu Qingfang gently but firmly took Shang Qinghua's arm. "Liu-shidi, walk with us to the infirmary, would you?"

"Sure."

*

"Is this everybody?"

"Isn't Shang Qinghua coming?" Duan Qingze asked.

"He's resting," Mu Qingfang said as he arrived. "The stress has been a bit too much for him. I gave him some soothing tea and sent him back to An Ding with one of his senior disciples."

Duan Qingze’s brows rose. Mu Qingfang's soothing tea couldn't make you forget all your problems, but it could make you think the helpful little fairies would take care of them for you.

“I didn't think they were that close," Liu Qingge said thoughtfully.

"Qi Qingqi is still at the meeting," Ruan Qingruan contributed. "Gao Qinggao hasn't responded to my message; he may be in meditation. Wei Qingwei acknowledged the message, at least."

"Where is Shen Qingqiu now?" Lin Qingshui asked.

"Yue-shixiong hustled him into the manor on Qiong Ding as soon as they arrived."

"It's been nice knowing him," Duan Qingze said philosophically.

"I mean, if it was just us, that would be fine. We all agree to pretend we never found out, and everyone is happy."

"How about we just tell him we support him, and he doesn't have to talk about it if he doesn't want to? We do support him, right?"

"Sure."

"Yeah."

"Not his fault."

Lin Qingshui simply nodded. "This explains many things about his karma."

"I plan to visit Shen Qingqiu to confirm his health," Mu Qingfang asserted delicately. "Perhaps a written message, delivered then, so, ah..."

"So he doesn't have to acknowledge it in any way."

”Just so.”

Chapter Text

After leaving Shen Qingqiu, Yue Qingyuan had to take a moment. I rescued him, he thought. This time, I was there in time. He pressed a hand to his eyes. He was even dressed for travel. Like he had no doubt that I'd retrieve him. A more practical part of Yue Qingyuan admitted that Xiao Jiu may have been, instead, prepared to fight his way out. It would be like him to think ahead, so he didn't muss his robes and hair. Yue Qingyuan had certainly been prepared for combat, if more peaceful methods had failed. That was why he had Qi Qingqi arriving behind him, rather than the more sedate Lin Qingshui.

Staying at Cang Qiong, sending messages, had been an exercise in self-denial. He had some sympathy with Luo Binghe's attempts to simply sweep in and rescue Shen Qingqiu by force. If Liu Qingge hadn't been there, Yue Qingyuan didn't know if he could have restrained himself. And for good reason. Without Liu Qingge's forbidding presence, Huan Hua Palace might have succeeded in sweeping Shen Qingqiu back to their sect. It would have been significantly more difficult to extricate him, then. It could have been done--Huan Hua did bow to pressure. But it would have taken longer. Months.

The danger that Shen Qingqiu would be taken away from him--from them--was now past. The sticking point now was making sure Shen Qingqiu could move back to the little niche he'd made for himself. Given the opportunity, Shen Qingqiu would retreat to his cottage, his cultivation practice, his workroom and his studio. Some immortal masters spent their whole lives like that, teaching only through their personal disciples. A part--he hoped a small part--of Yue Qingyuan wanted that. To keep Shen Qingqiu tucked away, like a jewel, safe from bad luck or bad intentions. But Yue Qingyuan had seen how Xiao Jiu had opened up over the past few years, and didn't want him to sequester himself away.

With the breadth of backgrounds of the Qing Jing students--noble offspring, visiting scholars, members of family sects, merchant clans and commoners--there was no way to restrict the information the students received. So instead, they needed to manage the way that information was presented. To do that, he needed to use all the resources available. And he knew just the messenger for the task.

*

"Luo Binghe," Yue Qingyuan said, carefully pitching his voice to the concerned, firm-but-fair, authoritative tone that was second nature now with his own disciples.

Luo Binghe, who had been drooping on a bench, leapt to his feet and saluted. "Respect, Sect Leader." He waited, bright eyed and vibrating with eagerness, clearly hoping to see his teacher. That was good.

"Your teacher is well, but he's resting after his ordeal," Yue Qingyuan said kindly. "You're permitted to return to Qing Jing, and visit him later. Before you go, this martial uncle believes you have questions. You had a disagreement with some other students, I hear."

Luo Binghe shifted uncomfortably. "They're saying things that aren't true."

"There's a lot of misinformation and partial information flying about right now. If you like, this senior martial uncle can tell you what we know for sure. Perhaps it will set Luo Binghe's mind at ease." He gestured back to the bench. They both sat.

"Is Shizun in trouble?"

"Not anymore. The accusations against him were found to be entirely without merit." Yue Qingyuan let his concerned frown show; Luo Binghe looked alert.

"Sect Leader, is something else wrong?"

Yue Qingyuan nodded solemnly. "Your teacher was wronged. In trying to drum up accusations against him, his accusers brought up some very personal and painful memories. When he was young, your teacher was enslaved--"

Luo Binghe interrupted. "That can't be--"

"It is," Yue Qingyuan said firmly. "It's very personal, and not something he wanted to remember. But now it's become public information."

"But how--Shizun is so--"

"He was the son of a concubine, in house Qiu," Yue Qingyuan explained carefully, using the information they had pieced together. "He was never recorded in the family registry; the only official child of that concubine was Qiu Haitang. The main wife didn't want a rival for her own son. So she had him thrown out, in secret. That's how he became a slave."

"He‘s like me," Luo Binghe whispered, probably not intending to be heard.

Hmm. "Perhaps he sees something of himself in you. And he knows that children of humble backgrounds can rise to the highest level, because he's done it himself."

Luo Binghe was quiet. Yue Qingyuan continued. He talked with Luo Binghe for awhile, giving him carefully selected pieces of information, gleaned from Shen Qingqiu's reports and their own discussions with the minor sects. Each piece could be independently verified, and would be supported by the information trickling in via letters to students. As each piece was confirmed, it would strengthen the narrative, subtlety reinforcing the story the students then relayed to their parents. Then he sent Luo Binghe off, a messenger pigeon loaded with propaganda.

*

"Neatly done," said Qi Qingqi, moving forward from her vantage point.

"Yes, he's quite fond of Qingqiu-shidi," said Yue Qingyuan as he turned to greet her. "He'll be a good messenger. Thanks to Qi-shimei for waiting. You must be tired. Why don't you rest, and report tomorrow?"

Qi Qingqi nodded. She did, indeed, look drained. "Thanks to Yue-shixiong; I'll do that. I'll give you the gist now, though, if you have a few minutes." Yue Qingyuan nodded, and raised a muffling seal.

Qi Qingqi launched into the results of the meeting without formality. "Okay, so most of the minor sects are, if not on our side, than at least on the side opposite Huan Hua. They're happy to have an opportunity to complain about Huan Hua's excesses--which are many, large and small, incidentally."

"Mm." Yue Qingyuan nodded, listening.

"They aren't actually willing to do anything at this point, though. They universally see the charges as something Huan Hua fabricated. Shen Qingqiu's origins are--well, a little scandalous. But the interesting kind of scandal. It was fifty years ago, after all. Ling Chen Sect is getting a lot of visitors, but Lu Zhiguang seems to be handling it well. He was on good terms with Shen-shibo, apparently, and had a very good impression of Shen-shixiong, so I don't foresee problems on that front."

Yue Qingyuan nodded. "That was my impression, as well. A very responsible sect leader."

"I've been doing some listening, previously and on the way back. The noble houses see the charges as a cultivator problem. No one seems to care whether they're true or false. For them, it's his origins which may be the sticking point. Sentiment hasn't come down one way or the other, yet. I put out some feelers to buy his paintings, through intermediaries; I've only gotten a couple hits, and those two are from families who needed the money."

"Thanks to Qi-shimei; I'll reimburse you for those," Yue Qingyuan offered immediately.

"Get your own; these are mine," Qi Qingqi retorted. "Anyway. It seems, the various noble houses will wait and see and watch what everyone else is doing. As per normal. It might be--" She hesitated, frowned, and continued. "It might be helpful to emphasize his connection to the Qiu household. It would make his current status and accomplishments more palatable to the various noble houses."

Yue Qingyuan frowned. "You mean, it would be more comfortable for them to believe his talents came from aristocratic blood."

"Yeah. House Qiu was a very minor house, but still a 'one of us' rather than 'one of them.' Some of the movers and shakers really, really don't like the idea of a former slave rising so high. No one is saying it, but you can tell from the jokes they make."

"Jokes?" Yue Qingyuan asked neutrally.

"Like, what a fortune they could make if they just taught their slaves to write poetry. That kind of thing. Bad jokes, but you can learn a lot by watching who laughs. If he were a civil official, he'd be in real trouble. As a cultivator--" she shrugged. "Everyone knows cultivators are little weird and obey their own laws. And he's shown zero interest in politics, as long as I've known him. Some of the parents will undoubtedly quiz their spawn when they visit home. I'm not sure what Qing Jing teaches in their political science classes."

"They, ah. Don't have them."

"You're kidding."

"As you said, Qingqiu-shidi has no interest in politics. He sends students to Qiong Ding, if that kind of thing is necessary."

"And you're always very careful." Qi Qingqi frowned thoughtfully. "Okay, good. You know," she said as she rose, "--They would have thought twice if they were accusing the Sect Leader's husband."

Yue Qingyuan flushed. "Qi-shimei must have a bet on the line."

"I will neither confirm nor deny."

Chapter Text

When Luo Binghe returned to his temporary dorm, the Qiong Ding disciples were in class. Luo Binghe packed up the few things he had brought--the other disciples had been very obliging in lending him necessities--and left a note for his dorm-mates. He returned to Qing Jing in a daze. He automatically answered greetings from the other disciples he passed on the way, but he was deep in thought.

Shizun had been a slave.

Shizun--the perfect, untouchable, powerful immortal master--had once been the lowest of the low. So poor he didn't even own himself. So powerless that he had to flee in the night.

Luo Binghe had searched diligently for any clues to his teacher's past, but he had never imagined this. Luo Binghe had thought perhaps he was the son of some noble house, possibly even disinherited--unjustly, of course. Or a cousin of one of the Imperial families, now keeping his identity secret for political reasons. Or--Luo Binghe had liked this theory the best--a fairy, de-ascended from the next world. But now, he knew none of that was true. Shizun had been an orphan, a foundling. He had been thrown away.

He's like me, Luo Binghe thought, awed. The admiration he held for Shizun, always burning like a coal in his heart, flared up until it felt like it would immolate him. Luo Binghe clutched at his Guanyin pendant, his pendant Shizun had personally altered for him. The pendant which had been a source of comfort, which turned into a symbol of shame when he realized others would see it as worthless. The pendant Shizun had said he should treasure despite its humble material, because it was a symbol of his mother's love.

Luo Binghe loved Shizun so much he couldn’t stand it.

He renewed his vow to do a great deed worthy of Shizun. Taking first place at the Conference no longer seemed like enough. Showing everyone that Shizun was the best teacher, with the strongest student, was a start, but... it just wasn't enough.

*

Luo Binghe arrived back at Qing Jing and joined a group of other disciples who were gossiping nervously. Some were worried about their parents bringing them home.

"My father says that if Cang Qiong can make a slave into a scholar, then I have no excuse," Wang Hu said morosely. Zhang Ping gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder.

Ning Yingying brightened as she spotted Luo Binghe; she was tucked between Liu Mingyan and Shu Xiaoyan, from Xian Shu. "Luo-shidi, you're back! Is Shizun coming home, too?" She looked at him hopefully.

Luo Binghe nodded and sat with them, ignoring the way the other Qing Jing disciples quieted their voices to eavesdrop. "He's back! He's okay; I saw him." Ning Yingying gave him a cup of tea from the shared pot, served with the lumpy, misshapen tea set that the junior girls' dorm prized highly.

The other disciples drifted forward to listen, dropping the pretense of disinterest.

"He's really okay? I heard Huan Hua Palace tortures people," said one student, worried.

Another student shoved him. "They aren't allowed to do things like that. They're righteous cultivators."

"Shizun wouldn't let them, anyway."

"He's not hurt," Luo Binghe said firmly. "But he won't be back today. The Sect Leader is debriefing him. It could take all day."

Liu Mingyan's fingers twitched toward her qiankun bracelet. "Yes, that... that sounds right."

Ning Yingying covered a giggle with her sleeve. "But, he's really okay? He doesn't have to go back?"

Luo Binghe nodded seriously. Sect Leader had been very clear on that. "The Sect Leader said..." He paused to carefully remember the exact words. "He said that, 'the accusations against him were found to be entirely without merit.' "

A student from a merchant family leaned forward. "Was he really a slave?" he asked, in a fascinated tone. "I didn't know slaves could read."

"They can learn!" another student protested. "My family has some who do inventory."

"I heard he has sisters? Are they visiting here?"

Luo Binghe spoke up with authority. "He only has one sister. He was the son of a concubine in House Qiu, and she only had one daughter recorded in the family registry."

Ning Yingying gasped. "Oh! The di-wife didn't want a rival for her own sons!"

Liu Mingyan had pulled a wax pencil and a small sheaf of bound paper from her qiankun bracelet; she was using her knee as a writing surface. She had already filled one of the quarter-pages of her notebook; she turned to another. "House Qiu--what character? The same as his courtesy name?"

Another student gasped. "It's all connected!"

"It's your teacher who gives you your courtesy name; does that mean Shen-shigong knew?"

"Why would Huan Hua Palace target Shizun?"

"Maybe to put pressure on Sect Leader," one disciple said wisely. "Everyone knows they're--"

"Very good friends," Liu Mingyan said with delicate emphasis, reminding everyone to be careful of their words.

"Why would they have to go to all that trouble, though? Cang Qiong has always cooperated with Huan Hua."

"Cooperated too much," one visiting sect disciple muttered darkly. A few heads turned toward him. "My uncle says Huan Hua wouldn't have so much influence, if Cang Qiong went against them once in awhile."

"Well, that's going to change."

"I bet our field trips are going to be cancelled," one student lamented.

*

When Liu Mingyan returned to Xian Shu, it was late. She saw Qi Qingqi conferring with some of her hallmasters, around one of the stone tables in the big central courtyard. Qi Qingqi glanced up as she noted her favorite disciple's presence. = Five minutes, see me, = Qi Qingqi signed one-handed. Liu Mingyan saluted respectfully and detoured to the kitchens for a snack.

Later, speaking with Qi Qingqi privately, Liu Mingyan reported what she'd learned at Qing Jing. "Sentiment is positive, Shizun. The students are banding together, rather than criticizing Cang Qiong."

"Mm. Good. Keep your ears open. I'd normally get you started on teaching duties, now that you have your sword. But we'll hold off on that for for a bit, so you have the time for this."

"Yes, Shizun."

"Also, consider this--what if they had to pretend to be married."

Liu Mingyan gasped.

Chapter Text

The time at the Zhao Hua temple had given Liu Qingge time to think about the revelations, but not to digest the information. When he returned to his Bai Zhan, realizations kept ambushing him at odd moments.

Liu Qingge reflected on it while training. The familiar movement helped him think. Were Shen Qingqiu's humble origins the source of his unusual combat style? His disciples were trained, Liu Qingge remembered him saying, to make use of their environment. To survive, not to duel. Slaves weren't allowed weapons. So he used leaves. Shen Qingqiu trained his disciples in unarmed combat first--something which had irritated his hallmasters when he had first introduced the change. Liu Qingge remembered the complaints.

It had never seemed like a problem, because Qing Jing specialized in the four arts; no one expected a scholar to fight. Liu Qingge laughed and had to start his sword sequence over again. No one expected a scholar to fight, let alone fight dirty. No one expected ordinary leaves to be weapons. No one expected the aloof Shen Qingqiu to have the humblest origins of any of the Peak Lords. No one expected an ordinary incense pouch--or a gauzy underlayer--to be a qiankun item. "Appearances can be deceiving," indeed.

Was that why he wore so many layers? Was he... concealing some old injury? Or was it simple enjoyment of the luxury of being able to wear more than a slave's one or two thin garments?

'A difficult start in life,' Yue Qingyuan had said. What a talent for understatement! No wonder he was so protective. Liu Qingge wondered how they had met.

Shen Qingqiu was certainly uniquely resourceful, able to use basic techniques and common talismans in ways that wouldn't occur to a traditionally trained cultivator.

Shen Qingqiu had helped him in the Ling Xi Caves, even as he castigated him for cultivating into a qi deviation. No wonder he had been so harsh--was always so harsh--even as his actions belied his poison tongue. A former slave would have heard precious few soft words, growing up. Even the disciples he clearly doted on received only scolding, even as he patted their heads and corrected their novice errors. Before his fever he wouldn't even do that much, instead giving cold-voiced and perfunctory corrections, as if he didn't care if they were heeded or not.

Even after the fever, the only person he had seen Shen Qingqiu use kind words around... was Yue Qingyuan, and that only rarely. More frequently, he would return compliments with acid remarks, would swat away a friendly touch with his fan. But very occasionally, he'd accept--well, ignore--those gestures. And once, Liu Qingge had seen him tug on Yue Qingyuan's sleeve to get his attention.

He wondered if they were different, when they were truly in private.

This was, Liu Qingge thought, a terrible time to get a crush. And at his time in life, he should be beyond it, anyway. And of all the people in the world, why the person Sect Leader had watched with such devotion, for so many years?

*

Liu Qingge met with Yue Qingyuan the next day, to review his own reports. The confrontation at the meeting had already been well examined; Yue Qingyuan was now primarily interested in his conversations with various martial sect members in the aftermath of the accusations. And, of course, with Shen Qingqiu.

"And how did they treat him?" Yue Qingyuan asked.

"Fine, except for not being able to leave. We stayed in the same guest quarters we'd been assigned--pretty bare, but they're an ascetic sect. The Elders there don't have a soft life, either."

"How was he at the Temple?" Yue Qingyuan asked, frowning.

"Calm," Liu Qingge answered. "A little too calm. I was worried. I mean, you know how he gets." Yue Qingyuan nodded, silently but emphatically. "Prickly. He wasn't acting like he felt threatened--not by the accusations. I guess he was already prepared in case something like that happened. But he didn't mention anything about the fallout of having his personal history exposed. He--" Liu Qingge shook his head in disbelief. "He asked me if I wanted time to think about it."

"Hm."

"Did you know?" Liu Qingge asked Yue Qingyuan after a moment.

Yue Qingyuan watched him, carefully. "I did, yes." Liu Qingge was reminded of Yue Qingyuan's caution when discussing Shen Qingqiu's Yin nature, in the aftermath of Sha Hualing's raid. Yin nature--no wonder those experiments worked.

"If it was a secret, it won't be after this."

"Do you think that will be a problem?" Yue Qingyuan asked neutrally.

Liu Qingge frowned thoughtfully. "Not for the sect. Or Tian Yi or Zhao Hua. For secular families, maybe. But a lot of powerful families have Shen Qingqiu's artwork. If they shun him, it will lose value."

Yue Qingyuan's shoulders relaxed a bit, and he smiled thinly. "You can always count on self-interest." They stood quietly for a moment before Yue Qingyuan spoke up again. "Liu-shidi, thank you," he said seriously.

Liu Qingge frowned. "I was only doing what I should as a martial brother."

Yue Qingyuan shook his head. "No, thank you--for being there with him, when I couldn't be. For not leaving him alone. If you hadn't been there--I might have done something foolish." Yue Qingyuan still looked strained, though the grim blankness from when he first arrived at Zhao Hua Temple was gone.

Liu Qingge looked at him steadily for a minute. "Okay, I'm going to hug you."

"What?"

"I'm going to hug you. Hold still." He did, squeezing the astonished Yue Qingyuan briefly before releasing him. He kept a steadying hand on his shoulder. "It's been hard on you."

Liu Qingge felt Yue Qingyuan stiffen under his hand. "He isn't a burden," Yue Qingyuan said with some heat.

Liu Qingge sighed. "No, he isn't, but it's been hard on you anyway."

Yue Qingyuan paused, then let out a breath. "Thank you," he said again. He squeezed the hand on his shoulder for a brief moment before they mutually shifted and regained decorum.

*

When Liu Qingge was just about to leave, he finally blurted out the question that had been nagging at him.

"Is that why you haven't confessed to him?" Liu Qingge asked, all in a rush. "Because of his lack of background? Because--" Even as he asked, he couldn't believe it. Yue Qingyuan was one of the kindest, fairest people Liu Qingge had ever met. To excess, even.

"No!" Yue Qingyuan protested, turning pink. "At first we had our... difficulties, then... we've been rebuilding our friendship, and..."

"It's been nearly four years," Liu Qingge said flatly. "He might not have family backing, but his own accomplishments are more than--"

"That isn't it," Yue Qingyuan interrupted, uncharacteristically rude. "He... I've tried..." His words sputtered out.

Liu Qingge lifted his brows at the rare--even unseen--spectacle of Yue Qingyuan being tongue-tied. He waited it out.

Finally, Yue Qingyuan sighed. "Anything I could do to... show my affection, I've already... already..."

"...You were already doing," Liu Qingge said in realization. He hid a smile behind a hand. He knew Yue Qingyuan's partiality would come back to haunt him, but he hadn't expected it to take this form. Yue Qingyuan hadn't made a declaration because he had always been making a declaration. The gifts, the attention, the obvious and public favors... how did you escalate from that?

"He's...." Yue Qingyuan flushed. "All the things I'd do for a formal courtship. I've already done them."

"The... gifts, and dinners and things."

"Right."

"Has he--"

"He's given me return gifts, in recent years. Since his fever. But--"

"You don't think he means them as romantic gifts." They were both quiet for a moment in thought. "Maybe he hasn't noticed, because that's how you've always treated him?" Liu Qingge frowned. "You've been--with all due respect, Sect Leader--really obvious."

"Qingqiu-shidi is very clever," Yue Qingyuan said defensively. "He doesn't... appear to have had a lot of experience with this sort of thing."

Yes, Liu Qingge bet Yue Qingyuan had been paying close attention. Well... "Have you tried--I know this is unorthodox--telling him with actual words? Just saying, 'I value our friendship. I'd like to make that relationship a romantic one?' " Even saying the words second hand, Liu Qingge had to fight down his flush. He was grateful for his high cultivation, and the strong muffling seal they were still speaking under. And that they weren’t in some dogs blood novel, where the fragment of conversation might be overheard and misinterpreted.

...He's really glad of that muffling charm.

Chapter Text

Mu Qingfang followed Yue Qingyuan into the manor, his neutral, professional demeanor firmly in place. He didn’t raise an eyebrow at the active security talismans, or show a concerned frown when he noted the fine layer of dust that had collected, evidence that even staff and servants weren't being allowed entrance. Over their decades of acquaintance, he'd become convinced that Yue Qingyuan had eyes in the back of his head--or at least a very subtle and specialized distance viewing technique. Undoubtedly invaluable in high level negotiation, but challenging to deal with in situations such as this.

Yue Qingyuan led him into a large parlor, where Shen Qingqiu was ostensibly reading. He rose to greet them.

"Mu-shidi." Shen Qingqiu was as closed off as Mu Qingfang had seen him in years. His smooth, aloof mask was securely in place, like a layer of porcelain between him and the world.

"Shen-shixiong. This shidi is pleased to see you're well."

Even as they exchanged greetings, Mu Qingfang was examining him with his own specialized vision.

*

After talking with Shen Qingqiu, Mu Qingfang spoke to Yue Qingyuan privately.

"I'm worried about the possibility of a qi deviation, if he's further upset," Yue Qingyuan said. "You remember--"

"Just so. This shidi can see no sign of qi irregularities at this time. Shen-shixiong has become more resilient, since his fever. Distress is less likely to have damaging effects, and he regains his equilibrium sooner. Though I would like him to avoid additional stress."

"Of course. He can stay here indefinitely," Yue Qingyuan said.

"Certainly," Mu Qingfang answered, as calmly as if that wasn’t completely insane. "It will be beneficial for his health to be with someone he trusts. He can make short visits to Qing Jing at first, returning here to rest and make sure he's stable. The important thing is providing a calm environment."

"This shixiong doesn't want someone taking advantage of him when he's feeling vulnerable," Yue Qingyuan said, face worried.

"That would be terrible," Mu Qingfang agreed blandly. "Our martial siblings are all very concerned over him. Ruan-shidi is having trouble deciding what snacks to send."

"He's such a light eater," Yue Qingyuan fretted. "If Ruan-shidi needs special ingredients--"

"This shidi will pass that along. Though I believe Ruan-shidi is primarily concerned with pairing Shen-shixiong's tastes with strong spiritual food. I know he prefers to eat lightly, but after a stressful period, sharing a light meal with a friend can only be beneficial." Yue Qingyuan shared Shen Qingqiu's bad habit of abstaining from meals in favor of tea and inedia; Mu Qingfang might as well address both problems at once.

Yue Qingyuan wavered. Mu Qingfang pushed on. "In fact, even when he returns to Qing Jing, it may be helpful for him to leave Cang Qiong for short outings--with a trusted friend, of course. Wearing a veiled hat, and incognito. Simply being around people without the pressure of being under scrutiny. Perhaps a tea house, with a private room."

As expected, Yue Qingyuan took the bait. He was easily led where Shen Qingqiu's well-being was concerned. Mu Qingfang wondered if that was the Old Palace Master's main motivation; Shen Qingqiu would make an incalculably valuable hostage against the sect leader. "He does like people-watching," Yue Qingyuan said thoughtfully.

*

Yue Qingyuan walked Mu Qingfang out, then raised the security array again. Thoughtful, he returned to Xiao Jiu.

Xiao Jiu had already gone back to his painting, totally absorbed. He was more relaxed than he had been when Mu Qingfang was here. Yue Qingyuan watched him for awhile, then looked at the painting.

It wasn't done yet; the faces were still vague, pale blurs. Xiao Jiu always added detail to figures last; if he didn’t finish the painting, sometimes he’d leave the faces blank, to eerie effect. But Yue Qingyuan could tell from the proportions that the inhabitants of the painting were children, and from the body language that they were up to no good. It constantly amazed him that Xiao Jiu could perfectly depict subtleties in expression and mannerisms, but seemed at a loss when interpreting them for himself.

The children in the painting--Qing Jing junior disciples, from their robes--were sneaking around the edge of a building. Two peered cautiously around a corner at another group of children, who seemed oblivious to them. One was carrying--Yue Qingyuan smiled--the short-furred monster Qing Jing seemed to have adopted as a mascot. He could see the creature's confusion as it was inexpertly held by a child who didn't expect it to be that heavy. Another child brought up the rear, holding what looked like a worn blanket and a shallow box--the creature's bed. The disciples were clearly absconding with the short-furred monster, probably part of a quietly waged war between the junior dorms over custody of the beast.

"You miss them?" Yue Qingyuan asked, when Xiao Jiu paused in his painting.

"Not at all," Xiao Jiu answered promptly. He must have sensed Yue Qingyuan there. "I'm enjoying the quiet."

That settled it. It was tempting--it was always tempting--to keep Xiao Jiu here, safe from harm and social slights. Honesty with oneself was the most important trait of an effective leader, his honored teacher used to say. But he wanted him to be happy, more.

Chapter Text

Yue Qingyuan spoke with Luo Binghe, who had come to Qiong Ding in hopes of seeing his teacher.

The rumors around his parentage had expanded to include the Qin Country imperial family, the previous generation of peak lords, the founding generation of peak lords, and several mythological figures. Amusingly, one rumor that had gained traction was a relation to the former Sect Leader, Yue Qingyuan's own teacher, now ascended. Probably a student listening in on his conversation with Qu Lingbei's family patriarch.

But that early rumor connecting him to Yue Qingyuan was still in circulation. Gossip was one thing, but if Luo Binghe was seen as being an unwanted child, or an unwelcome disciple, it would go very hard on him. Yue Qingyuan had made a point of being kind to him, and not only for Xiao Jiu's sake.

"This disciple is filial to be so concerned for his teacher. You may help by listening to the other students in Qing Jing. Their parents may write them with concerns."

Luo Binghe's forehead creased in worry. "Answering Sect Leader, some students are worried about being called home."

"And they don't want that?" Yue Qingyuan pushed gently for more information.

Luo Binghe nodded solemnly. "Some of them haven't been home in years."

*

Yue Qingyuan arrived home and took a moment to just look at Shen Qingqiu, who was reading quietly. Yue Qingyuan smiled when he saw the crumbs of a plate of youtaio nearby, left from breakfast. Even decades away from their shared childhood, Xiao Jiu liked the street foods they had grown up on. For nobly born disciples, comfort food might be fish congee just the way their nanny had made it, or fatty pork ribs. But for Xiao Jiu, it was the foods sometimes given by soft-hearted street vendors.

Yue Qingyuan knew Xiao Jiu usually breakfasted on congee when at Qing Jing, when he had breakfast at all. Perhaps it was Yue Qingyuan's presence which gave him the excuse to indulge in his favorite foods. Or perhaps he tried to keep up appearances, even in private.

After a few moments Shen Qingqiu marked his place with a finger and blinked up at him. "Oh, I was distracted." He frowned. "You look worried."

"Do I? I'm not; it's good news." Yue Qingyuan sat with him. Shen Qingqiu set the book aside. "Several of your students who entered imperial civil service have been promoted. That wouldn't have happened without the approval and knowledge of the Emperor. It's a clear indication that their administrations don't intend to make an issue of your origins."

"And the noble houses will follow suit."

"As will the other empires. An education by Qing Jing is highly valuable; your former students may be poached by other potentates if they're unhappy with their treatment."

"So." Shen Qingqiu sat and thought for a moment. "They'll ignore my origins because thinking about it makes them uncomfortable? Perhaps that should surprise me, but it doesn't."

"Your, ah, other origins might help as well. We can play up the 'lost shu-son' side--if you're comfortable with that."

Shen Qingqiu shrugged. "I'll leave that in your hands. There's nothing left of House Qiu, in any case, as far as I know."

"Huan Hua has already sent a letter of congratulations," Yue Qingyuan said. His eyes were narrow and lips thin. "By letterbox. They must have already had it written."

"Congratulations for avoiding the trial they called for?" Shen Qingqiu asked incredulously.

Yue Qingyuan smiled without humor. "Just so. It was very polite. They said, ah, 'they could not, in good conscience, ignore the rumors.' " He shook his head. “Tian Yi is always fair, and Zhao Hua is eager to regain their status as an impartial mediator. There seems to have been little fallout among the minor sects. It might be different if the minor sects weren't so eager to snipe at Huan Hua--"

"Spite is a powerful motivator," Shen Qingqiu said, in the tones of one who knew.

Chapter Text

The Peak Lords had gathered to discuss the situation with Huan Hua Palace.

"Shen-shixiong, welcome back."

"Have a tart," Ruan Qingruan urged, nudging a tray toward him.

"It's so good Shen-shixiong is back," Shang Qinghua said feverishly. "You have... so many things to do. Important, critical things." He blinked as Mu Qingfang gently steered him to a seat.

Shen Qingqiu had entered the room with his fan already in his hand--he opened it now and peered over it suspiciously at Shang Qinghua.

"We'll be meeting under strong security seals--" Yue Qingyuan nodded at Gao Qinggao, who took the cue to raise the array. "So please speak freely."

There was a moment of silence as the Peak Lords regarded each other.

Lin Qingshui began. "So, why did the Old Palace Master take such a risk? Thoughts?"

"His ascension?” Qi Qingqi suggested. “His cultivation has stalled, since at least my head disciple days. Perhaps there's something in the Great Library he thinks could help him."

"That would fit," Liu Qingge said sourly. "He wouldn't ask for help if he was on fire."

"What about that head disciple of his?” Ruan Qingruan asked. “The one who disappeared?"

"Died, I heard."

"If he's looking for her--or looking for her new incarnation--he might need more information."

"Would he need it? He must have put a spiritual imprint on her. She was his succeeding disciple, after all."

"She would have reincarnated by now, surely? It's been nearly twenty years. At her level of cultivation--"

"Maybe something went wrong."

"How likely is it, really, that they've lost access to their library? There must be a backup plan, in case the head librarian died unexpectedly."

"My teacher said Huan Hua never takes down their old security," Qi Qingqi said. "They just put a new layer on top of the old ones."

"Sloppy," Gao Qinggao sniffed.

"Surely they couldn't hide losing the whole library!" Ruan Qingruan objected.

"If it's anything like Qing Jing's library, the more valuable and delicate volumes are kept separately," Shen Qingqiu suggested. "For everyday use, there are satellite collections. Annexes with copies of common references, for convenience and use by the students. If day to day use relies on those--"

Qi Qingqi lifted her head from her hand. "Some of my noble contacts have said they've gifted rare books to Huan Hua. Nothing priceless, if it was circulating outside of an established sect--"

"--But perhaps enough to maintain the illusion of a large collection," Lin Qingshui finished, interested.

"Shang-shidi," Shen Qingqiu spoke up. Shang Qinghua startled. "You mentioned your suspicions, some time ago, that Huan Hua was letting small demon infestations build up, to create a stronger demon."

"Well that's, that's how it works, right?" Shang Qinghua looked shifty. "You have two weak demons, the stronger eats the weaker one, you get one stronger demon."

"That's, ah, correct." Duan Qingze looked surprised.

"Shang-shidi has an impressive depth of knowledge," Shen Qingqiu said, voice mild. Shang Qinghua looked hunted.

"Why would they want a stronger demon?" Ruan Qingruan asked, baffled. "Why would anyone?"

"A single demon is easier to bind," Duan Qingze contributed, frowning. "Well, not easy. Simpler. Instead of a bunch of little seals, you just have one."

"We know Huan Hua prefers capturing powerful demons to killing them outright," Shen Qingqiu said. "They put a lot of effort into capturing Tianlang-jun."

"To the extent of asking for help, and they never ask for help," Liu Qingge said.

"Could that be it? Their library has records of the demons they've sealed? Or the areas they've let infestations build up?" Duan Qingze drummed his fingers thoughtfully.

"Why wouldn't they just ask for help, if it was something that important?" asked Ruan Qingruan.

"The same question could be asked if he's trying to regain access to Huan Hua's library. I'm sure Shen Qingqiu would drive a hard bargain--"

"Hmmph."

"—But he'd help. Would have helped,” Duan Qingze finished.

"I would. On both counts,” Shen Qingqiu said. “But there was no overt request--or even covert. If there was correspondence on the matter, it was in my teacher's time, and he destroyed or concealed it. Huan Hua has invited me to visit, but I've always declined."

Lin Qingshui, who had been thoughtfully quiet, tapped his fingers thoughtfully on the table. "Forgive me, Sect Leader, but this may have been intended to take a hostage against you."

The mood sobered. Yue Qingyuan's partiality toward Shen Qingqiu was generally a gentle joke, but the prospect that he could and would hand over Cang Qiong assets to retrieve him was an unpleasant reality.

"We've generally cooperated with Huan Hua's requests," Yue Qingyuan said carefully. "They've made no unusual demands."

"Except to invite Shen Qingqiu to lecture," said Lin Qingshui.

"Hmm." Qi Qingqi looked thoughtful.

Yue Qingyuan frowned. "I thought that was a pro forma courtesy but... they have made repeated requests."

"Apparently Shen Qingqiu and Qiu Haitang look remarkably alike--" began Gao Qinggao.

"Oh, this I've got to see," Qi Qingqi grinned.

"--So the charges against him would have fallen apart under scrutiny. The resemblance between him and Qiu Haitang alone, would have made the original accusations suspect. The, ah," Gao Qinggao cleared his throat in uncharacteristic discomfiture. "The engagement, I mean."

"But that resemblance wouldn't have been noticed as long they weren't both seen by the same people. If Shen Qingqiu was confined in Huan Hua Palace--"

"That was what he was focusing on," Liu Qingge contributed. "He was really disappointed when Shen Qingqiu managed to stay in Zhao Hua Temple. I'd even say getting him there was their goal, that they didn't expect the charges to hold up."

*

Duan Qingze and Mu Qingfang walked with Shen Qingqiu back to Qing Jing--Duan Qingze ostensibly to discuss the schedule for making more training dummies. Mu Qingfang didn't offer an excuse. Ruan Qingruan accompanied them as far as the Rainbow Bridge.

"Shang Qinghua--" Shen Qingqiu began.

Duan Qingze shook his head. "Oh, the stress got to him."

"Shang-shixiong is a bit overwrought," Mu Qingfang corrected diplomatically.

"When he's stressed out, he focuses on the strangest things," Duan Qingze continued, undaunted. "Do you remember, when he was running around making a chart of how old everyone was?"

"And--what was it, tomatoes? Where and when tomatoes were imported?" Ruan Qingruan shook his head. "Interesting, but... weird."

"This time, he's been looking for the origin of a koan--he'll probably want to check your Library for it, Shen-shixiong."

"Do, or do not. There is no 'try.' I'm sure I've read it somewhere before, but I can't quite place it," Duan Qingze said.

Ruan Qingruan looked idly after a group of junior disciples who had quickly slowed from a hurried run to a sedate walk when they saw the four Peak Lords. "Yes, mine have been saying that too. It started just a few months ago. I'm not sure where they got it from; Shang Qinghua must have begun wondering, and just... fixated."

*

Alone at last, back in his bamboo cottage, Shen Qingqiu indulged in a wicked chuckle. He'd spent some time thinking about what to do about Shang Qinghua. The Fertilizer Incident aside, Shang Qinghua had revealed his Sun-And-Moon Dew Flower Seed escape plan, leading directly to the other, darker Luo Binghe capturing him. This, despite their tentative friendship, and despite knowing Shen Qingqiu wasn't what Shang Qinghua persisted in calling an 'NPC.' Finally, he would have his revenge.

It was tempting to make a fake. Fragmentary writings recording the teachings of a mysterious Master Yo Da, for instance, the whole long since lost.

Between his artistic skills and his experience handling antique volumes, Shen Qingqiu was pretty sure he could make a convincing fake.

But Shen Qingqiu's scholarly soul rebelled at the idea. That would be falsifying a reference, and he just couldn't bring himself to do it. Even if Shang Qinghua's reaction would be priceless.

That didn't mean he couldn't make use of it, though. This would be so much better than needling him over his suspiciously accurate knowledge in a meeting.

Chapter Text

When Luo Binghe received Shizun's summons, he promptly abandoned his study group--accompanied by the groans of his classmates, and their threats that they weren't cleaning up after him this time--and raced to the book-binding annex of the Great Library.

Luo Binghe stopped in the hall outside Shizun's workroom, and took a moment to make himself less presentable. Collar askew, cuff of the sleeve flipped, a couple pieces of hair tugged out of place. Not too much; if he overdid it, Shizun would send him to comb it out. He took a deep breath, picked up his papers again, and entered.

Shizun looked up, and gave the faint wrinkle of his brow which Luo Binghe had classified as a 'slightly serious frown.' "What are you doing running around like that?" he scolded mildly.

Luo Binghe held his breath as those jade-like fingers straightened his collar, smoothed his hair, and tidied his sleeve. He wanted to bite them. That had been very confusing when he was younger, but he thought he had it figured out, now.

He did this as often as he dared. Moderation was key. Too much, and Shizun would send him away with instructions to 'make himself presentable.' He had to pick his tactics, too. Once, he'd arrived with his belt tied incorrectly, and had to skip class afterward. Imagining Shizun scolding him for tardiness had not helped.

Shizun looked at him seriously for a moment, then spoke. "This teacher is promoting Ming Fan to head disciple. As my personal disciple, Binghe will technically be coequal in authority with Ming Fan. If you have concerns about the way he manages the other disciples, come speak to this teacher first. Don't undermine his authority in front of the other students."

"Personal disciple?" Luo Binghe seized on this detail.

"Yes," Shizun confirmed. Luo Binghe felt as if fireworks had been set off in his heart. He was only slightly deflated when Shizun continued with, "As is Ming Fan. As such, you'll be joining the group going to Wan Jian to get your sword--" Luo Binghe vibrated with excitement. "--And this teacher expects you to behave with appropriate decorum and restraint."

"Yes, Shizun!"

"You're a bit young, but you've been studying diligently."

"This disciple thanks Shizun," Luo Binghe said breathlessly.

"Hmm." Shizun studied him for a moment. "Binghe wants to excel? Even if that means enduring hardships?"

"Yes, Shizun! This disciple will strive to improve."

Shizun stood silently for a moment, beautiful face impassive, then nodded briefly. "Dismissed."

Luo Binghe saluted respectfully and left, so thrilled that he felt his feet might leave the ground. Shizun believed in him! He was getting his sword early, a clear recognition of his potential! And he was a personal disciple, a public indication of how Shizun valued him.

He wanted to confess, but--

Not yet. He had to make some sort of gesture. Something grand enough for his Shizun. Something to make him look at him.

*

That done, Shen Qingqiu summoned Ming Fan to his office. The young man--over twenty, now--arrived promptly, hiding his nerves.

"Respect, Shizun," he said, saluting.

Shen Qingqiu looked at him thoughtfully. "This disciple has grown well in the past several years. When Tang Xinran marries out next year, Ming Fan will become Head Disciple."

"Not Luo Binghe?" Ming Fan blurted out.

"Luo Binghe is more suited to another path," Shen Qingqiu said diplomatically. His plot-driven future aside, he shuddered internally at the thought of the protagonist teaching the impressionable younger students his 'jump off the cliff first, find out how tall it is on the way down' philosophy. "He'll be doing field research. Ming Fan is better suited for teaching."

To his surprise, Ming Fan teared up instead of puffing up proudly. "This disciple isn't--doesn't have the ability--"

Behind his built-in poker face, Shen Qingqiu was taken aback. Perhaps he'd been too harsh. He hadn't intended to undermine the boy's confidence to this extent. Well, he'd fix it next time. "Are you questioning this teacher's judgement?" he asked coolly.

"...No, Shizun."

"Good. As for Luo Binghe. You will both be my personal disciples; you'll technically be coequal in authority. Given the history between the two of you, your duties will not overlap. If there's a conflict, come to this master first."

"Yes, Shizun."

"You'll join the group going to Wan Jian. Dismissed."

Ming Fan saluted and left, looking dazed.

*

That done, Shen Qingqiu went to supervise the unstructured afternoon workshop they’d begun holding once a week. It gave the students a set time to ask questions and ask for technique advice, and the experiment had worked well.

Rather than give his less affluent students allowances, Shen Qingqiu had been using the proceeds from his paintings to provide the raw materials for qiankun items and spirit stones. The raw materials were relatively cheap, but they added up in quantity. Especially when one included the materials ruined as the students were still perfecting their technique.

It had an unexpected benefit, as well. Shen Qingqiu made this plan for the benefit of the disciples with humble backgrounds, but students from well-off families have been taking jobs from the board too. No longer dependent on their allowances, some were now realizing that they could support themselves.

A disciple looked dismayed as the qiankun pouch he was making shivered and made a little pop. The technique had failed.

"If there was anything stored in the pouch, it would have been expelled when the technique failed," Shen Qingqiu said. "That's why you learn this version first; so you don't lose your items. Take a break, then try again."

"Yes, Shizun." The disciple picked up his needle and thread and began deconstructing the pouch.

Shen Qingqiu frowned. "This teacher said to 'take a break.' A tired mind makes mistakes. Go take a walk or get a snack." He gestured imperiously to the path out of the pavilion.

"...Yes, Shizun." The disciple scampered.

Chapter Text

At Yue Qingyuan’s request, and with admirable forbearance, Lin Qingshui had calculated the day’s fortune and found it good. Yue Qingyuan finished his visit to Zhi Ji Peak and diverted to Qing Jing.

He heard a sniffle, and saw a disciple sitting slumped on a bench, a picture of misery.

"What's wrong, youngster?" he asked kindly.

The boy looked up, teary eyed. Ah, it was Luo Binghe. He was holding a few folded papers, wrinkled with his grip. "This disciple, um..." His eyes darted away.

"Take your time."

"This disciple... wrote..." his voice trailed off as he spread the papers in his hands.

Yue Qingyuan skimmed the lines. Ah, love poetry. "This disciple will improve with practice," he reassured.

"This disciple gave it to Shizun..." Luo Binghe flushed.

Yes, now that Yue Qingyuan looked, he could see the dark green marks of Shen Qingqiu's wax pencil. He had made... substantial corrections.

"Ah. Well. Your teacher has... very high standards. There are poets at imperial courts he criticizes just as thoroughly."

The boy blinked up at him.

"Think of it like this; if your teacher didn't think you could improve, would he spend such effort correcting you? Is he someone who would spend so much time just to be polite?"

The boy's face brightened like a little sun. "This disciple understands!"

The highs and lows of youth. Yue Qingyuan gave him a kindly nod and continued on his way.

*

Yue Qingyuan found Shen Qingqiu at his cottage. Shen Qingqiu rose from his window desk at Yue Qingyuan's approach, already prepared for their outing. As requested, his outer robes weren’t his favorite pale green; the deep blue looked striking on him. Yue Qingyuan sighed in his heart.

"Qingqiu-shidi," Yue Qingyuan pressed his hand. "Are you ready to go?"

Shen Qingqiu absently checked his sleeves for his qiankun bags, then retrieved Xiu Ya from the weapon rack near the door. "I am. You never mentioned; what's the occasion?"

Yue Qingyuan ushered him out with a hand on his arm, and they made their way to the open space in the yard of the bamboo cottage which would make taking off by sword easy. "No occasion; this shixiong simply thought it would be nice to get out of Cang Qiong for awhile. I always enjoy having tea with you at my office, of course, but we're so often interrupted."

*

In the small city below Cang Qiong, Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan made their way to an elegant tea house. They both wore veiled hats to avoid notice, but the flimsy disguise didn’t fool the sharp-eyed proprietor. They were ushered discreetly to a private room Yue Qingyuan had reserved and took their tea on a balcony overlooking the city streets. It was shielded from street view by gauzy curtains and angled screens; perfect for people-watching.

Yue Qingyuan had removed his veiled hat when they entered the room. Shen Qingqiu reached to remove his own in order to try the refreshments. Yue Qingyuan stopped him.

"Let this shixiong assist shidi," Yue Qingyuan offered hesitantly.

"I'll be troubling shixiong," Shen Qingqiu said, sounding baffled.

Yue Qingyuan picked up the corner of the veil. "It's never any trouble for--Xiao Yuan." He carefully lifted the veil and tucked it back. He took, probably, too much time, busying his hands to resist the impulse to touch Shen Qingqiu's cheek.

"Thanks to--Qi-shixiong," Shen Qingqiu said, after a moment. Yue Qingyuan felt his heart seize; he was briefly dizzy. He noted, abstractly, that he had probably unknotted a minor blockage in his cultivation. He would study it in meditation, later. For now, he concentrated on the more important thing; Xiao Jiu looked unsure.

"I like it that you call me that," Yue Qingyuan assured him. Shen Qingqiu's brow smoothed.

*

Shen Qingqiu had relaxed in the anonymity of their balcony, with the flow of people on the street below providing a constant diversion. "Incidentally,” he said, ”Your suggestion that I should subsidize the students' independent crafting materials has had some unexpected benefits."

"Oh?" Yue Qingyuan refreshed Shen Qingqiu's tea.

"Yes; the more affluent students have been taking jobs as well. Some of them have realized they could support themselves, rather than depending on their families. I've seen more interest in pursuing cultivation or research, on all levels."

Yue Qingyuan smiled. "That is good news. It may come as a nasty shock to their families, though."

Shen Qingqiu looked pleased. "A much more elegant solution than just giving allowances." He looked over his tea cup at the street. Something had caught his attention. He frowned, then turned to Yue Qingyuan. "Some years ago--you gave me that white fur cloak. Was it because of seeing that boy and his mother, when we were children?"

Yue Qingyuan's hand paused on its way to the teapot. "Ah... yes. You remember that?"

"You are ridiculous," Shen Qingqiu huffed, looking away. He was a little flushed. Yue Qingyuan itched to touch him—but they were practically in public.

Yue Qingyuan glanced at the street to distract himself; it was late spring, and comfortably warm. No one was wearing cloaks. “What reminded Xiao Yuan of that?

“There was a grandfather passing by; it reminded me of a poem I read recently, comparing the seasons of life to changes in a mountain’s vegetation. That made me think of a hare’s seasonal coat. And winter fur...”

“Reminded you of the cloak.” Yue Qingyuan shook his head. “I can never quite predict where your mind will go.”

*

Back at his bamboo cottage, several hours later, Shen Qingqiu reflected on the pleasant day. He had half-expected some sort of mini-quest to come up on the peaceful outing--that always seemed to happen in novels. There was no point to including a peaceful interlude unless something happened that was relevant to the plot, or character development. But this one had been completely without incident—not even a filler episode. They had tea, they talked, they had a quiet walk by the river. With more people, it would have been a little more rowdy, and more tiring. But with just the two of them, it was almost like. Like...

Like... a date.

Shen Qingqiu shook himself out of his thoughts. That was ridiculous. They didn't have dating in this bullshit fantasy version of ancient China. Most marriages were arranged. If not with formal contracts between noble houses, then at least by your parents introducing you to the neighbors' kid. He was overthinking it. He chided himself for projecting a modern practice on a different culture and turned decisively to his correspondence.

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu gathered the half-dozen students who were sword candidates, the day before the scheduled trip to Wan Jian. They had all been giddy, to varying degrees, since being told of their candidacy.

Luo Binghe and Ming Fan were part of the group; they had overcome their rough personal history and the four-year age difference to reach a state of cautious non-aggression. Shen Qingqiu had even spotted them sparring, once. Luo Binghe had won consistently, but Shen Qingqiu, watching from concealment, hadn't seen malice in him. Perhaps a tinge of self-satisfaction at being able to so neatly best his old bully. Ming Fan, for his part, neither lost his temper nor stopped the practice. He seemed to be taking a healthy attitude of using the opportunity to improve his weak points.

There was only one female student from Qing Jing pursuing a sword this year; Chen Jinhua, whose parents were members of a minor sect. They'd sent their talented daughter to Cang Qiong, in the hopes that she'd shine on the larger stage. Their hopes had borne fruit, as she was one of Shen Qingqiu's better calligraphy students.

Teng Yao, who had been one of the students on the trip to the Qin Country Imperial Capital, was a younger son of a merchant family. Zhao Xihe was still unsure about committing to the path of cultivation, and would take another year to decide.

Lu Renjia was one of Shen Qingqiu's students from a humble background; he had planned to do field research from the start, and was the second youngest of the group after Luo Binghe.

And, surprising Shen Qingqiu, Lin Xian. Shen Qingqiu had been sure he was planning to take the next imperial civil service exams, but the quiet boy had expressed his intent to continue on the path of cultivation. He'd become friends with Qiong Ding's Qu Lingbei; perhaps that had influenced his decision.

Shen Qingqiu swept his gaze over the attentive group. "When we arrive, this teacher will put you all into the care of Wei Qingwei. Listen carefully to his guidance. The sword-calling process can be dangerous to even the strongest spirit; you must be cautious. If at any time you would like to delay your participation, tell this teacher. Delay is better than an uncertain spirit, in this instance, and will not count against you."

*

In the very early morning the next day, Shen Qingqiu took a moment to speak with each of the sword candidates, confirming their wish to continue on. The students had abstained from dinner the previous evening, and breakfast this morning; he hoped they were well rested, but expected they had all been too excited to sleep well. There were no second thoughts, and Shen Qingqiu led the small group to Wan Jian via the Rainbow Bridge.

Shen Qingqiu greeted Wei Qingwei respectfully, and the swordmaster surveyed the applicants. He wore two swords, but just as in Shen Qingqiu's previous life, Hong Jing had no reaction to Luo Binghe's presence. His bloodline seal, though weakened by his practice of demonic cultivation, still held. Good.

Completing his inspection, Wei Qingwei turned without a word. The Wan Jian disciple with him--there as much as an interpreter as an assistant--beckoned the Qing Jing disciples to follow. Drawn in by the solemnity of the atmosphere, none of the students looked back at Shen Qingqiu. They disappeared into the hall.

Shen Qingqiu settled in to wait.

*

The anteroom of the Sword Calling Hall was windowless, but illuminated by a skylight. It made a dramatic setting. When Luo Binghe's eyes adjusted, he noticed that the lighting was subtly supplemented with night pearls--placed mostly near doorways and benches, so the younger cultivators wouldn't be disoriented in the dimness. High level cultivators like Shizun, of course, could navigate easily.

Luo Binghe lined up respectfully with the other five disciples. Wei-shishu surveyed them again.

"Meditate. You'll be called one at a time. You first." He gave a minute jerk of the head to Luo Binghe and set off down a dark hall, without waiting for a response. Luo Binghe hurried to follow, even as the disciples behind him settled into meditation.

Luo Binghe followed Wei Qingwei down the narrow, dark hall to another room. This one was almost identical to the ante-room they'd just left; plain stone walls, high-ceilinged, dimly lit by a skylight. Luo Binghe fancifully imagined the building filled with a dozen such rooms, each one holding a nervous sword applicant.

Wei Qingwei moved to the center of the room, and turned to look at him, expressionless as a stone cliff face. "This master spoke to your teacher."

"...Yes, Wei-shishu," Luo Binghe said after a moment, when nothing more was forthcoming. He waited.

Wei Qingwei drummed his fingers thoughtfully on the hilt of his sword--he was wearing two, Luo Binghe had noted with interest--then nodded, once. "Sit in meditation. When your spirit is calm, open your heart to the Dao..."

Luo Binghe listened attentively to the instructions.

*

Shen Qingqiu sat outside the sword caves. Outwardly, he was in peaceful meditation. Inwardly, he turned in circles of worry. He relaxed, marginally, as he felt Yue Qingyuan's dense buzz of energy approach him. He opened his eyes. He guessed the sect leader had contrived to be nearby just in case Hong Jing reacted. But Wei Qingwei had worn the sword near Luo Binghe before, with no reaction.

"Worried?"

"Well. Yes."

There was movement at the entrance; Shen Qingqiu turned toward it, wondering which student had retrieved his sword so quickly.

It was Luo Binghe--of course it was--glowing with accomplishment. He greeted both Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan respectfully, before saying, "This disciple humbly begs Shizun to name his sword." From his kneeling posture, he offered the first rate spiritual sword on the palms of his hands, raising it reverentially to eyebrow level. It made a picture perfect representation of a filial disciple, except for the way Luo Binghe kept darting little eager glances under his eyelashes.

Shen Qingqiu was grateful for his built-in poker face. That was not Zheng Yang. That was a completely different sword, one Shen Qingqiu had never seen before. He tried to look deeply contemplative.

{ System. Is Zheng Yang not a plot-critical item? }

[ Answering host, Zheng Yang is not necessary to the Plot. The Protagonist's sword will be broken during the Fall Into The Abyss scene, but that sword does not have to be Zheng Yang. ]

{ Will be... Oh! To symbolically break his ties to his past. And so he's presumed dead, making his return more dramatic. }

[ Points for style, host! ]

Shen Qingqiu gathered his substantial ability for BSing grand philosophical statements, and looked thoughtfully at the blade. "The divine steed Huang flashes past. This is Fei Huang."

*

Zheng Yang was, instead, called by Ming Fan. The older boy looked at his new spirit blade with quiet pride.

"A first rate spirit sword," Shen Qingqiu approved. "This disciple has worked hard. It suits your character."

Ming Fan astonished Shen Qingqiu by tearing up. "This disciple thanks Shizun for his guidance."

Shen Qingqiu patted him on the head and mentally gave himself a check mark on his teaching evaluation. A pretty good result. Not perfect. I'll do better, next time. But it could be worse.

Chapter Text

Liu Qingge went to Qing Jing to find Shen Qingqiu this time. There was generally a disciple in the area near the Rainbow Bridge; their task was to greet and redirect visitors. It was an easy chore; most used the time to study or work on projects. Today, the disciple on duty was Luo Binghe, hunched over a folding drawing board.

Luo Binghe was entirely focused on his paper, sketching something. Liu Qingge looked over his shoulder. It was... Shen Qingqiu, fighting a humanoid demon which was unrealistically well supplied with scales and teeth. The demon held a club in one hand and a heavy scalpel in the other. Shen Qingqiu was also dual-wielding, brandishing his sword and fan. Luo Binghe had caught the moment just before the demon was beheaded. Shen Qingqiu's sword, arm, and back made an elegant line, an impression of furious motion, paused. It was well done; Liu Qingge could even see the impression of the swirl of Shen Qingqiu's robes, settling from the fight.

Liu Qingge waited until Luo Binghe lifted his bit of charcoal to speak up. "That's pretty good."

Luo Binghe still startled badly, but at least he didn't ruin the sketch. "This disciple greets Liu-shishu!" He began to pop to his feet, abandoning the papers, but Liu Qingge waved him down.

"As you were," Liu Qingge said. "A few of your martial brothers have sketches kept with their training manuals. Those are yours?"

Luo Binghe looked shifty. "Yes, Liu-shishu. They aren't in the manuals--"

"That's fine. It sounds like they're useful. Where's your teacher?"

Luo Binghe brightened and abandoned his sketching in favor of leading Liu Qingge to Shen Qingqiu.

*

Luo Binghe brought tea accouterments, then Shen Qingqiu shooed him off at Liu Qingge's silent signal. Shen Qingqiu prepared the tea, and Liu Qingge, not standing on ceremony, introduced the reason for his visit. "One of my hallmasters is leading a training trip for the Conference hopefuls. He wants to bring your disciple, too."

Shen Qingqiu nodded. "That's fine. Now that he has his sword, I should start sending him on investigation missions, as well."

"They're leaving next thirdday; the trip should take about a week." Liu Qingge belatedly second-guessed his decision to bring this up to Shen Qingqiu in person. He could have settled this minor scheduling and permissions issue with a note. But Shen Qingqiu had been staying on his peak, with the exception of meetings. Liu Qingge no longer casually encountered him in passing. It reminded him, uncomfortably, of Shen Qingqiu's absence from peak life in the years before his fever.

Shen Qingqiu nodded and made a note of the date and duration of the trip. "I've been meaning to speak to you, to arrange supervision for the joint field trips. My hallmasters will do, certainly. But since there are students from several peaks, I'm offering the option to their peak heads as well."

Liu Qingge frowned. "I thought you were planning on supervising yourself. I thought you were looking forward to it."

Shen Qingqiu's glance skittered away. "Under the circumstances--"

"Shen Qingqiu."

*

When Liu Qingge stomped off, nothing had been resolved. Liu Qingge was worried, and frustrated. He'd never seen Shen Qingqiu so--well, not timid. Liu Qingge wasn't sure he knew how to be timid. But wary. What did he think would happen? That non-cultivators would point at him? That the disciples wouldn't listen to his instructions? Because a few laps would clear that right up.

When he arrived, Qian Cao was a hub of frantic activity. The busy disciples were too focused on their tasks to greet him, let alone pointedly ask his business or if he needed an escort.

Liu Qingge found Mu Qingfang in the sun-dappled private courtyard of his office building, serenely drinking a cup of tea and reading a book.

"Is something wrong?" Liu Qingge asked, jerking his head toward the chaos outside the courtyard gate.

"Work station inspections are next week."

"Ah." Mu Qingfang was notorious for his rigorous approach to medical practice; sensible, in an occupation where life and death could be swayed by grain of medicine too many or too few. "I just wanted to ask about Shen Qingqiu," Liu Qingge continued.

Mu Qingfang stared briefly at the garden wall, too well brought up to roll his eyes. "This shidi is listening," he said mildly.

"Is there any actual reason he can't lead field trips? Medically, I mean."

He now had Mu Qingfang's full attention. The physician looked at him with sharp eyes. "Ah, no. Has he said there is?"

Liu Qingge frowned. "No, but he's been pawning supervision off on his hallmasters. My hallmasters, too. And he isn't leaving Qing Jing much."

"Hmm." Mu Qingfang closed his book, looking thoughtful. "Well, it isn't due to my medical advice. Not that he heeds it anyway," he finished, lips pressed thin.

"Alright. I know what to do about it; I just wanted to check before I pushed."

Chapter Text

At the viewing pool on Zhi Ji Peak, Shen Qingqiu watched the reflected forest as a group of disciples carefully executed a search pattern. Luo Binghe's group happened upon the creature first and, contradicting instructions, hared off after the fleeing beast.

Shen Qingqiu concealed a sigh. "Many thanks to Lin-shidi for assisting. It will be valuable to know how he behaves with other teachers. Even if the specifics are distressing."

"This shidi is pleased to assist," Lin Qingshui said easily. "Is he being unusually wilful, then?"

Shen Qingqiu was entirely certain Lin Qingshui knew everything that was happening on the other side of the reflecting pool, blind or not. Even so, it was a courtesy to pretend he didn't know Shen Qingqiu's personal disciple had just broken formation and ignored orders to go off on his own. "Not unusually, unfortunately." Shen Qingqiu tapped his fan absently on his arm. "Huo-shizhi has asked more than once to transfer Luo Binghe to Bai Zhan. He may be less enthusiastic in the future."

*

That evening, Shen Qingqiu turned his attention to Shang Qinghua. He wouldn't falsify a reference.

But he could write fiction.

Of course, Shen Qingqiu wouldn't write an entire three-volume space opera novel out of spite. That would be ridiculous. But fragments--the ominous, dark-cloaked and steel-masked antagonist, the twins separated at birth, the wisecracker-and-straight-man duo... he could do that.

He made a vague outline of the plot, to refresh his memory, then focused on outlining just a few segments. He would compose individual pages, holding story fragments just close enough to the original to be intriguing. Shen Qingqiu could engrave the plates himself. For just a few sheets, he didn't even need a press; he could print it manually.

*

When Luo Binghe returned from the field trip, Shen Qingqiu called him to his workroom.

Shen Qingqiu looked at his bear child. "Alright. Tell this teacher what happened."

"This disciple is sorry, but--" Luo Binghe began. Ah, here we go, Shen Qingqiu thought wearily. "--But going after it alone was the most efficient way--"

Shen Qingqiu tapped his fan thoughtfully. "And does Binghe think the other students were happy with that? Will they be happy to go on missions with you in the future?" He cut off Luo Binghe's argument with a vague wave. "They will, of course, because their teacher will instruct them to. But later, when you are all graduated?"

"But Shizun, we did slay the monster," Luo Binghe protested.

Shen Qingqiu closed his eyes for a moment. "You aren't learning how to kill monsters. You already know that. You're learning how to work in a team."

"Oh."

*

"Why not let him do one all by himself?" Liu Qingge asked the next day. "Let him see how tough it is to do without help."

Shen Qingqiu leveled a look at him. "First. You are not one to talk."

"Yeah, but I'm me, and he's him."

"Fair."

"He's good, but not that good. Not yet."

"Also... well, it is a good idea. But I don't want to send him out completely alone."

"You coddle him too much."

"He's still small--."

"Taller than you," Liu Qingge needled. Shen Qingqiu swatted at him irritably; Liu Qingge caught his wrist easily, tugged it just enough not to pull him off balance, and released him.

Shen Qingqiu tidied his sleeves, aloof and finicky as if the moment of immaturity had never happened. "Fine, still very young, then," he huffed.

Later, returning to Bai Zhan, Liu Qingge flexed his hand thoughtfully. He has got to stop doing that. It had become reflexive, but with Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan's relationship still not settled, it wasn’t quite prudent. Liu Qingge was well aware of Yue Qingyuan's self-sacrificing streak when it came to Shen Qingqiu. The last thing he needed was for Yue Qingyuan to see and misunderstand. If he thought it would make Shen Qingqiu happy, he'd bury his own heart, and wish them well.

That would be a nightmare. Yue Qingyuan, hiding his pining under the 'good shixiong' mask. Again. Shen Qingqiu, confused and hurt as their glacially paced courtship came to a stop without warning. A mess that would take years to clear up.

No, better to avoid that complication entirely.

And Liu Qingge did not want to be on the wrong side of the Sect Leader's 'shovel talk.'

Chapter Text

It took several exchanges of messages, between Qiong Ding and Qian Cao, before Yue Qingyuan and Mu Qingfang could arrange a block of uninterrupted time to meet. When they did, they made polite conversation over tea before Yue Qingyuan introduced his motivation for the meeting.

"And how has martial brother Shang been faring?" Yue Qingyuan asked. "Is there anything this shixiong can do to ease his worries?" This circumspect overture was the result of years of careful negotiations. In theory, the sect leader could demand any variety of sensitive information. In practice, a certain amount of delicate circumnavigation made the business of the peaks flow more harmoniously. With strong personalities, and people who would work together for decades and centuries, the resentments built up from an overexertion of authority or carelessness with personal confidences would cast a long shadow.

Mu Qingfang sipped his tea and nodded thoughtfully. "He's been doing well. He's significantly less anxious now that Shen-shixiong has returned. I wasn't aware they were so close, but the resolution of Shen-shixiong's troubles has undoubtedly eased Shang-shixiong's mind."

"Would it be too much pressure on him, to attend the Conference?" Yue Qingyuan probed. "He's put so much effort into planning it."

"This shidi worries about placing an additional burden on his recovering nerves," Mu Qingfang said carefully.

Yue Qingyuan sipped his tea, weighing the issue. "The prospect does seem to be causing him some distress. He hasn't recommended any of his own disciples to participate. Several have come to this shixiong, asking for intervention."

"Really." Mu Qingfang blinked. "This shidi is surprised. One would think he'd be glad to send An Ding disciples, to burnish his peak's reputation."

Yue Qingyuan nodded, resigned. "He is perhaps being overcautious. It's a pity. They're quite capable, from what I saw. But I can't contravene his decisions on his own peak. I simply hope he has a good reason, beyond his anxiety."

"Well, there's always the next Conference."

*

Yue Qingyuan doesn’t invite Liu Qingge to tea. When they need to discuss something, he's invited to spar, and they settle the issue at hand in breaks from the practice ring.

"I haven't been seeing requests from Huan Hua to lend combat support to their investigations," Liu Qingge said on one such break. "Are you sitting on them, or are they not asking?"

"We preemptively informed them our resources are needed elsewhere," Yue Qingyuan replied serenely. "If we rejected requests on a case-by-case basis, I wouldn't put it past them to manufacture an emergency."

Liu Qingge's eyebrows twitched up briefly, then he shrugged. "Yeah. Requests from minor sects have been keeping my disciples busy enough."

"Zui Xian has found new customers for their spiritual wines and foods, as well." Yue Qingyuan shook his head. "It's been a decades long relationship, stretching even into my teacher's tenure. I confess, I was so accustomed to Huan Hua's purchasing power that I didn't look outside their requests to find other customers."

"That's why we've been cooperating with them?"

Yue Qingyuan smiled thinly. "It seemed like a mutually beneficial relationship. But now I wonder if they were seeking to influence us, just as they did Zhao Hua Temple."

"By leaning on their disciples' families to donate," Liu Qingge said, thoughtfully. "It's not like they could bribe an ascetic sect with luxuries." He grimaced. "I'm glad it's you dealing with this stuff, not me."

"I admit, a more direct approach to problem solving sometimes appeals to me."

"Speaking of problem solving," Liu Qingge said slowly. "Shen Qingqiu had some joint field trips planned, that he seemed to be looking forward to. Since returning, he's pawned them off on his senior hallmasters." He looked at Yue Qingyuan.

Yue Qingyuan tilted his head thoughtfully. "The cooperative exercises? But he has been going on field trips. Short ones, with those of his disciples who have their swords."

"Just Qing Jing disciples, then?" Liu Qingge frowned. "Is that what he's worried about? That disciples from other peaks won't listen to him?"

"It's possible." Yue Qingyuan tapped his practice sword against the ground, thoughtfully. "A baseless fear, from what I've seen. But the concern affects him, even if it's groundless." He turned his gaze back to Liu Qingge. "Perhaps having another peak lord accompany him would be helpful. To break the ice, so to speak. It was Qing Jing, Ling You, and Zui Xian on this next joint field trip, correct?"

"And Bai Zhan. Mine want all the practical experience they can get, ahead of the Conference." Liu Qingge would ordinarily volunteer for the trip immediately; he wasn't sure why he didn't, now. He felt uncomfortably self-conscious, looking for time to spend with Shen Qingqiu while talking to someone with a claim--or at least an interest--on him.

Yue Qingyuan waited for a moment too long before continuing. "I'll ask Duan-shidi about it. He travels so frequently that another trip won't be onerous." His tone was perfectly amiable, but Liu Qingge was aware of his scrutiny.

"Yeah; they've been working together on a project." Liu Qingge said. He was both relieved and disappointed. "I overheard them talking about rigging something up so a cultivator could breathe in hostile environments."

"On the other hand," Yue Qingyuan pivoted smoothly. "Perhaps another comrade would be more suitable."

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu was working at the outdoor desk he had set up, in the pavilion downhill from his bamboo cottage. It was a compromise between the public pavilions and the complete privacy of his own work areas. He still graded privately, but used this space when he was reviewing the paperwork which came with any large organization. With a hundred students, counting both inner and outer disciples, there was a certain amount of overhead. Disciples were allowed to work nearby, and occasionally ask questions, as long as they were quiet. Today, only Luo Binghe was present, catching up on his assigned calligraphy practice.

Since he now had his sword, Luo Binghe had been able to take minor missions, to gain more practical experience. The available missions were sometimes different from those Shen Qingqiu remembered from his previous life, but there was enough commonality that he could generally choose the tasks which would be most helpful for Luo Binghe's development. Still, a few surprises sometimes came up. One such surprise had arrived in the mail.

"Binghe, come here."

Luo Binghe, practicing his calligraphy nearby, arrived at speed. He waited attentively.

"Look at this. This is a letter from the father of a young lady you met on a mission a month or so ago..."

Luo Binghe scanned the letter, standing close to read over his shoulder. His eyebrows drew together as he skimmed the contents. "A... marriage proposal? Shizun, I don't... This disciple doesn't--"

"This teacher knows. I'll refuse it on your behalf, but this is a good opportunity to talk about what to expect."

"This disciple doesn't want--"

"And that's fine, but you should still know how to refuse gracefully. Part of that, is having someone to accept these proposals on your behalf. For now, that is this teacher."

Luo Binghe looked thoughtful. "Who accepts them for Shizun?"

"Technically, it should be Qi Qingqi, as the oldest of our martial family. In practice, Qi-shimei is very intimidating, so they're more likely to go to the Sect Leader."

Luo Binghe's brow smoothed, and he listened attentively to the introductory lesson on formal courtship and proposals in the nobility.

Shen Qingqiu dismissed him after the short lesson, but Luo Binghe hesitated before leaving. "May this disciple beg Shizun's indulgence, to review his poetry practice?"

"It's good to have extra practice," Shen Qingqiu approved. Luo Binghe dashed to his work station, and returned with a few carefully written sheets. "Ah, so that was what you were working on so diligently. Remember to keep up with your daily work, too."

"Yes, Shizun." Luo Binghe waited expectantly.

Shen Qingqiu skimmed the few pages Luo Binghe had offered him. "Ah, more romantic poetry. This teacher can see Luo Binghe has been practicing. You reviewed the poetry of Feng Anhu, as this teacher suggested?"

"Yes, Shizun. Shizun's suggestions were very helpful. Um."

Shen Qingqiu waited.

"Was Great-Martial-Uncle Feng really the Bai Zhan peak lord?"

Shen Qingqiu nodded, pulling his green marking pencil from his sleeve; Luo Binghe watched its movement with trepidation. "Yes; he was your Liu-shishu's teacher. He pursued both poetry and combat at the highest level; Binghe would do well to take inspiration from him."

*

Shen Qingqiu was hosting a Conference preparation meeting later that morning, with several other peak lords. Today, they would focus on supplies and security for the aid stations inside the main security array. Mu Qingfang and Shang Qinghua had arrived early; they were now waiting on Liu Qingge, and chatting idly ahead of the meeting.

When Shang Qinghua had confirmed his attendance at the meeting, Shen Qingqiu had given in to his impulse to change the disciples' duty roster. As a result, Luo Binghe was in attendance, assigned to fetch ink, paper, or refreshments as necessary. When he entered the pavilion, Shang Qinghua had frozen like a rabbit who had just seen a fast-moving shadow on the grass. Mu Qingfang soon drew him into conversation to the side.

Shen Qingqiu was arranging his notes when Luo Binghe spoke up, after seemingly having been deep in thought.

"What does Shizun think about harems?" Luo Binghe asked. The other two Peak Lords turned and blinked at him. Luo Binghe seemed to realize belatedly that this might not be the best forum for this discussion.

"Harems have unequal power dynamics, and are inherently unstable," Shen Qingqiu answered absently, attention still on his notes. "This is true of any highly centralized organization. It's a situation where one person has absolute authority over the others, and those of lower status have their choices--and often movements--unilaterally restricted. This inevitably leads to strife."

"Oh," Luo Binghe said, reflecting. "But what if it isn't unequal? What if everybody there has choices?"

"What Binghe is describing is a polyamorous marriage, not a harem," Shen Qingqiu corrected kindly.

"What about--"

Mu Qingfang cleared his throat. "Perhaps this disciple could bring tea."

After Shen Qingqiu's nod, Luo Binghe left.

"What was that about?" Liu Qingge asked, arriving just as Luo Binghe dashed off.

Shen Qingqiu smiled. "He just received a betrothal proposal. I refused it on his behalf, of course, but it was a good lead in to a discussion of his future. He must still have it on his mind."

"...Right."

"He's awfully young, though," Mu Qingfang said with a frown.

"Yes, I was surprised, too. It was a..." Shen Qingqiu waved a hand vaguely. "On an investigation mission, he saved a young lady who turned out to be the daughter of a ministry official."

"That kid," Liu Qingge shook his head.

"It's like something from a very bad novel."

Shang Qinghua, who had been sitting very quietly to the side, made a strangled, outraged noise. Shen Qingqiu turned toward him, eyebrows raised. "Shang-shidi had a comment?"

"...No," Shang Qinghua muttered, after a moment.

*

Seeing Shang Qinghua at the meeting reminded Shen Qingqiu of his ongoing project. That evening, in his bamboo cottage, he pulled out his story outline and test pages. Everything else--the wood, ink, and cheap paper--he had already gathered.

The first page written, Shen Qingqiu carefully copied the characters onto a piece of wood, using a simple and unremarkable lettering style. Then, he used a burin and spiritual energy to pick out the characters in bas relief. The process was simple, but time-consuming, even using spiritual energy to speed his hands. He wished he could put on music or a mindless television drama. He couldn't help but let his mind wander to the story; he took a few breaks to jot down ideas for dialogue and scene descriptions. It really did track well to a cultivation setting; how interesting.

With the makeshift stamp done, it was a simple matter to copy a dozen sheets. He took a little time to rumple and dirty the sheets realistically, so they looked like they had fallen out of a cheaply printed novel.

He repeated the process with several different story fragments, creating the illusion of a whole book with its pages scattered from the binding. He was tempted to destroy the printing stamps, to avoid any possibility of the pages being traced to him... but they'd been so much work. He tucked them into a qiankun item instead, just in case.

He would distribute them carefully. A fragment as scrap paper, a different one tucked 'by mistake' into another peak's paperwork, one caught in a bush, one half-soaked in a pond...

Chapter Text

Once again, it was time to prepare Qing Jing's list of Conference participants. Shen Qingqiu stared at the list of applicants. Luo Binghe's name was the first on the list, brush strokes large and confident.

{ System. He needs to fall into the Abyss at the Conference. But does it have to be at this Conference? }

[ ... ]

{ The Conference happens every three years. In another three years he'll be twenty. Surely... }

The System didn't respond, but a countdown appeared in the corner of Shen Qingqiu's vision. Well. At least he didn't have to spend points for it.

Shen Qingqiu picked up his inkstone, paused, and set it down again. He had a meeting planned with Liu Qingge, anyway.

*

A few of Bai Zhan's hallmasters had taken a break to share some tea and sympathy. They sat at an outdoor table in one of their peak's many small training yards.

"You're kidding," an assistant hallmaster said, in tones of horror.

Teacher Huo looked frazzled. "He just took off! As if the rest of the team didn't exist! He has the skills, but he never fucking listens!" Shen Qingqiu entered his line of sight and he froze in horror, realizing he'd just used such harsh language about a Peak Master's favorite disciple in his hearing. He took a breath. "Apologies, Shen-shibo."

Shen Qingqiu nodded thoughtfully. "This teacher has had exactly the same thought. Exactly." Shen Qingqiu exchanged a few more polite words and drifted off down the path on his errand.

Teacher Huo spoke further with his disciple brothers, but was distracted. As they left for the hallmasters' meeting, Teacher Huo glanced back the way Shen Qingqiu had departed. "I've never spoken much with Shen-shibo before. He's really--"

"Spoken for," his fellow disciple said, not without sympathy.

*

Of course, Shen Qingqiu was not on Bai Zhan to discomfit the hallmasters. He was meeting with Liu Qingge about an upcoming field trip.

He passed two senior Ling You disciples, talking with a small group of Bai Zhan junior teachers. They were intent on their discussion, and oblivious to his presence. "We have the Ten-Mouthed Poison Lake Squid specimen ready for display, now. If we could do a water training scenario--"

"In one of the big ponds?"

"We'd need a material for the dummy that will last in the water, but not taint it when it dissolves. Sawdust would--"

"Yeah. It needs to be something organic--firewood? An old tree?"

It was nice they were enthusiastic about the training scenarios. Shen Qingqiu moved on.

*

Waiting for Liu Qingge to finish a lesson, Shen Qingqiu watched Luo Binghe spar with one of Bai Zhan's senior hallmasters. He was far more skilled than he had been at this point in Shen Qingqiu's previous life--doubtless all the time spent in Bai Zhan's specialized combat training, rather than looking after Shen Qingqiu's food, laundry, and housekeeping. The training had made him broader, and he was taller, too. Part of that was probably due to the spiritual food at Zui Xian. Shen Qingqiu was confident he would do well in the Abyss, this time. In the original story, he took five years to make it back to the human world. In Shen Qingqiu's previous life, it took only three.

Despite that, Shen Qingqiu was... concerned. His tests with the linked qiankun items had shown that, like letterboxes and transportation arrays, the charm failed when used across a rift. When Luo Binghe went into the Abyss, he would have only what provisions Shen Qingqiu could give him.

Shen Qingqiu had redoubled his efforts at collecting supplies, but it would be difficult to give Luo Binghe everything he needed without exposing his foreknowledge. The System had gotten snippy on that aspect, and had been threatening to deduct points.

"Worried?" Liu Qingge said from behind him.

Shen Qingqiu shook his head. "No. He'll do well." He turned to look at Liu Qingge directly. "Many thanks to Liu-shidi for taking care of him."

"Mm." Liu Qingge studied him. "Well, let's go talk about this training trip."

*

In one of Bai Zhan's sturdily built hospitality pavilions, Shen Qingqiu spread out his notes and reference materials.

"--I visited the site when I was a disciple, though I only went into the first two levels. The wall carvings were quite interesting. The main temple dates to a time when literacy was rare even among cultivators; the wall carvings were used to teach cultivation techniques. You might need to go in through the top; the buildings are stone, but they were abandoned after a mudslide--" Shen Qingqiu indicated a river on the map. "The main doors may be blocked. There's some seasonal flooding, which was why it was never reclaimed. Since it will be the dry season, you shouldn't need to worry."

Liu Qingge watched Shen Qingqiu's elegant, long-fingered hands indicate points of interest on the map. "It's a good location. And you'll be joining us."

"What."

"I'm not letting you pawn all this work off on me." Liu Qingge sat back, stone-faced, watching Shen Qingqiu puff up like an offended cat. He was smugly certain that even if Shen Qingqiu objected to Yue Qingyuan, the sect leader would back him up on this one. Shen Qingqiu had been isolating himself too much, lately.

Also, he had caught his hallmasters drawing straws to choose which one would have to lead Luo Binghe's group next time.

Chapter Text

"Shizun, why isn't Ming Fan coming?" Luo Binghe looked like he was of two minds about this fact.

"Ming Fan is going to be a teacher," Shen Qingqiu said absently, double-checking his supply list. "He has neither interest nor aptitude for field research. You and the others of the group have specialties which will make this experience valuable."

"Oh."

*

As the disciples made camp, Shen Qingqiu used the opportunity to get his bearings. He stood on a small cliff overlooking the site, comparing the overgrown area to a drawing in his hand.

The wind picked up, and Shen Qingqiu stepped back from the cliff edge automatically. He bumped into Liu Qingge, approaching from behind him. Liu Qingge steadied him with a hand on his arm.

"Oh; excuse me, Liu-shidi," Shen Qingqiu said absently.

"You should be more aware," Liu Qingge said.

"I knew it was you, I just didn't realize you were that close," Shen Qingqiu grumbled.

"It doesn't look like much."

"Yes, this area has been flooded several times. That river--" Shen Qingqiu nodded at the gleam of water through the trees. "--tends to overrun its banks. So silt has covered up much of what was here."

Liu Qingge looked thoughtfully at the river. "Do we need to worry about flash flooding?"

"Not at this time of year," Shen Qingqiu answered, tucking the drawing away in his sleeve. "I wouldn't camp here in the spring or autumn, though."

"Before dawn tomorrow, I'll be taking my disciples to survey the area."

"I'll make sure mine don't stay up too late, then."

Liu Qingge huffed. "Let them. They'll learn something." He frowned, apparently just now noticing the strange angle at which they were conversing. "Are you using me as a wind break?"

"Well, you're right there."

*

The next morning, Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge did a quick, last minute check of the site to be sure there were no unexpected changes. It had already been reviewed by a few of Shen Qingqiu's disciples, all seniors; doing field work for their teacher was the exchange they made for representing Qing Jing at the Conference. The area had been clear of traps and bandits at that time, but it never hurt to double check.

"You're being too cautious," Liu Qingge said. He had finished checking over his half of the ruins, but Shen Qingqiu was still examining the other half with suspicious eyes.

"If any of the students die, it's a waste of the years I've spent educating them," Shen Qingqiu replied tartly.

Liu Qingge huffed and followed him back to the camp.

*

Shen Qingqiu addressed the attentive group of disciples, all of whom were vibrating with excitement. "We'll begin by making a simple map of the ruins. You all have compasses, notepaper, and measuring sticks. Work in groups of three to four." He surveyed the bright-eyed students with a quelling gaze. "Be cautious. If you see or sense anything unusual, note its location, but don't touch it. That includes strange weapons, glowing crystals, glowing writing--glowing anything--strange altars, odd animals--" Liu Qingge, watching from the back, didn't roll his eyes--but it was a close thing.

*

Luo Binghe, accompanying one disciple from Bai Zhan and one from Ling You, carefully surveyed their section of the ruins. Luo Binghe was drawing the map, while the Bai Zhan disciple checked for traps and the Ling You disciple's trained birds searched the high wall niches.

Luo Binghe felt an... impulse. The same thing he'd felt in the Imperial City, that led him into the ambush. Not exactly a compulsion, more an... awareness. He followed it.

"What's that?"

"What?"

"That rock is glowing. A little."

"Stay back; I'll check it out." Luo Binghe carefully touched the stone, one hand on his new sword. Nothing. He pushed a little of his still-developing spiritual senses out, the way Shizun had shown him with the raw jade. The stone trembled and the wall moved.

*

The ground shook, and Shen Qingqiu tensed. "Students, stay with the group. Roll call."

When the group of nervous disciples was assembled, they did a headcount. There were only minor scrapes and bruises from the minor earthquake, but Luo Binghe and his two companions had disappeared.

Two students from Ling You relied on their tamed beasts to search by scent, but the wayward disciples were nowhere to be found.

"Why is it always him?" Shen Qingqiu asked, pressing the bridge of his nose. Ling You Peak used talismans to track spirit beasts; Shen Qingqiu wished he'd thought to put one on Luo Binghe's Guanyin pendant.

"Stay with the students; I'll investigate--" Liu Qingge began.

"We'll both investigate," Shen Qingqiu said irritably. "The hallmasters should be more than sufficient to keep order." He gave a sharp look at the one who was standing aside, waiting for instructions.

"Yes, Shizun," affirmed the cowed senior disciple.

Shen Qingqiu and Liu Qingge quickly went through the ruins, together this time. It didn't take long to find the problem.

"This hallway was not there before," Shen Qingqiu said flatly.

"Not an array--a mustard seed dimensional space?" Liu Qingge suggested.

"Or a dimensional fold. And a transportation array, hidden within," Shen Qingqiu agreed.

"Just bad luck that the fold opened. And the students triggered the array." Liu Qingge continued. As he spoke, he was already looking over the area for more surprises.

"Luck, hah," Shen Qingqiu muttered, examining the quiescent array. "It looks like... it gathers energy from the surrounding area. It must have used up what energy it had stored, transporting the three students away."

"Any idea where it goes?" Liu Qingge asked, returning to his side.

"My guess is, in fact, a mustard seed dimensional space. The fold and the space may be linked. That would make sense, with these directional coordinates." Shen Qingqiu settled back on his heels, arms folded, frowning thoughtfully.

"How long will it take to charge up the transportation array again?"

"I'm not sure," Shen Qingqiu admitted. "I'll need to do some calculations. The energy storage array is empty, now; I'll note its rate of replenishment and make an estimate. That will take--" he waved a hand vaguely, even as the other hand pulled notepaper and an hourglass from a qiankun pouch. "Hours, certainly."

"I'll get the other students settled in, then," Liu Qingge sighed. "At least the camp is well away from the buildings."

"Mm." Shen Qingqiu frowned, then held up a staying hand. "If the array does take an unreasonably long time to charge up, there will probably be a return array, inside the dimensional space. That one should still be charged."

Liu Qingge looked marginally relieved. "The students should find it, then. They're all well trained."

"Good education, no common sense," Shen Qingqiu muttered.

*

It took just two hours for the two students who had been with Luo Binghe's group to return, babbling mutually contradictory stories. One had encountered an unbeatable tide of monsters and spirits. They exhausted his fighting strength before he finally fled from them. The other, embarrassed, admitted to seeing a hot spring full of beauties. Shen Qingqiu briskly checked them over for active charms, then handed them over to the Qian Cao disciples who had accompanied the group.

Shen Qingqiu had been keeping careful track of the energy level in the array; it was now just one-tenth full, and the rate of replenishment was slowing down.

"I could add energy to the array myself," Shen Qingqiu said thoughtfully, "But to fill it completely is beyond me. When entirely full, it could transport three individuals. It stands to reason that at one-third full, it could transport one--"

"You're not going," Liu Qingge said flatly.

Shen Qingqiu waved a dismissive hand. "I'm not planning to. We would need to send at least two people, for safety, and until we know exactly what is going on, I don't want to leave the disciples without a Peak Lord."

"Uh huh." Liu Qingge looked suspicious.

"But obviously we can't wait a week here, either. The most efficient solution might be to wait until it's two-thirds full--"

"You're not--"

"And I could fill it the rest of the way," Shen Qingqiu continued, as if he hadn't heard. "Then--"

The brewing argument was avoided when Luo Binghe returned, ruffled but unharmed, with a story about getting lost in the mustard seed dimensional space that Shen Qingqiu did not believe for a minute. The space, when they investigated again, had disappeared as if it had never existed.

*

Luo Binghe didn't want to lie to Shizun, but there was no other way. The spirit trapped in the mustard seed dimensional space said it had been awakened by his demon blood. The dimensional space, hidden within the crystal he had secreted away in his clothing, might be useful later.

His fellow disciples had been overwhelmed by the illusion, and Luo Binghe had to cast them out of the space to save their sanity. To someone who had learned from the Elder Dream Demon, overcoming such illusions was trivial. The next level of illusion was more detailed, but easy to dismiss. A harem of hundreds of beauties? Luo Binghe scoffed internally. None could rival Shizun. When he finally faced the confused and frustrated spirit, he felt, condescendingly, that he should be offering tips.

"You're really alright?" Shizun asked Luo Binghe as he checked his meridians yet again. Luo Binghe basked in the attention. "You didn't meet someone who said she was a lost princess, did you?"

"No, Shizun," Luo Binghe replied obediently. Shizun worried about the strangest things.

"Or some sort of animal? Possibly talking?"

"No, Shizun."

"A strange weapon, especially embedded in stone, or in the water?"

"No, Shizun."

*

"Lost princess," Liu Qingge echoed incredulously, when Luo Binghe has been checked over and sent off to regale his fellow disciples with his adventure.

"I cannot leave him unsupervised for five minutes," Shen Qingqiu said flatly. "Last time--" He froze mid-sentence. "Wait. I forgot to ask if he encountered a mysterious trapped spirit."

"Shen Qingqiu!"

*

The teachers examined the ruins yet again, and the disciples were led in groups to take rubbings of the wall carvings, for later analysis back at Qing Jing. There were no further incidents before they returned to the sect, on schedule.

From the students' point of view, the field trip was highly successful. Some of their own had had an interesting adventure, no one had been seriously harmed, and it made a great story when they returned to Cang Qiong. Neither of the disciples from Qian Cao were specializing in field medicine, but being relied on in a pinch in the field gave them a certain spring to their step. The two students from Zui Xian had joined the trip for practice foraging ingredients; they brought back quite a few items that they were almost-but-not-quite sure they recognized, for examination by their teachers later. The disciples from Ling You had learned how much more difficult it was to tame a beast in the wild, rather than the half-domesticated creatures which hung around Cang Qiong's strong spiritual field. They had managed to charm a few, which were now traveling back with them. One, a feathered mammal in a wicker basket, was handed over to Shen Qingqiu.

"It's for Ning Yingying," the disciple explained.

Shen Qingqiu eyed the basket warily. The creature was noticeably less easy-going than the other beasts accompanying them home.

The disciple hurried to explain. "It isn't a gift, Shen-shibo. It's part of a trade from--" The student went on to explain a complicated sequence of favors and reciprocity which seemed to span at least half the peaks.

"Mm," Shen Qingqiu said noncommittally. He supposed the creature's foul mood was because it was only half-tamed--if it was to be Ning Yingying's, she would finish the technique herself. "Luo Binghe."

"Yes, Shizun!" Luo Binghe chirped, appearing at his elbow instantly. Shen Qingqiu knew he hadn't flash-stepped only because he hadn't been taught that, yet.

"Take custody of this creature and deliver it to Ning Yingying."

"Yes, Shizun." Luo Binghe took the basket. "Oh, the exchange from Ku Xing."

Shen Qingqiu, baffled, wondered if he'd been wrong to introduce free trade to the students.

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu was sitting at his calligraphy practice when a small, despondent delegation approached. It was Qian Cao's head disciple, lips pursed, herding two reluctant Qing Jing students. Shen Qingqiu set down his brush. "And what will we be learning today?" he asked serenely.

The older Qing Jing disciple spoke up. "Um, pottery, Shizun." The younger disciple ducked his head and folded his hands.

"Very well. You know where the requisition forms are. Fill out one for the clay deposits. Dismissed."

The two students hurried off. Shen Qingqiu turned to the Qian Cao disciple. "Of course, this teacher doesn't expect Qian Cao to use their amateur efforts. You have an invoice?"

"Yes, Shen-shibo." He proffered it. Shen Qingqiu skimmed it, signed it with his calligraphy brush, and handed it back after drying the signature with a waft of qi. The student, accepting it, hesitated, then asked, "Does Shen-shibo want to know what they did?"

"Would it change their punishment? Which will be, incidentally, making thirty-one vessels to replace the ones they damaged."

"Ah, no, Shen-shibo."

"Very well. Dismissed."

It wasn't long before Shen Qingqiu received another visitor. Luo Binghe had seen the list of Conference attendees--a list which did not include his name.

"This disciple wishes to represent Shizun at the Conference."

Shen Qingqiu smoothly finished the character he was drawing. "No, Binghe, you're not ready. Ming Fan isn't going either."

Luo Binghe didn't back down. "With respect, Shizun, this disciple can defeat all the other Qing Jing apprentices, and even some senior disciples in Bai Zhan. This disciple begs Shizun to reconsider."

Shen Qingqiu finally looked up. "Your combat skills are acceptable, yes. Your scholarly skills are still far behind those of your age-mates. Perhaps because you spend all your time sparring. This master will not have it said that Qing Jing turns out one-dimensional fighters. If you wish to transfer to Bai Zhan, this teacher will arrange it with Liu Qingge. Otherwise, you can hone your skills and prepare for the next Conference."

"But that's in three years!" Luo Binghe protested.

Shen Qingqiu narrowed his eyes. "Enough. Go practice your combined characters; your calligraphy causes this teacher physical pain."

"Yes, Shizun," Luo Binghe muttered resentfully, and left. Shen Qingqiu returned serenely to his painting.

[ ...Host, if the Abyss event is not completed, host will lose 10,000 points! This is substantially higher than the current point total! ]

{ Since when does he listen to me? The event will go forward. But won't the Plot be better if he sneaks in himself? }

[ ... ]

{ He already has his sword, so he can travel alone. I suspect he'll try to register as a wandering cultivator. There were quite a few, last time. }

[ Ooooh! ]

{ Think of the drama! Rebellious disciple ignores master's well-meaning warnings, and literally takes a fall. He'll probably have a few random encounters on the way to the Conference, too. }

[ Please continue your efforts, host! ]

And if Luo Binghe, by some miracle, actually listened for once, Shen Qingqiu could always have a 'change of heart,' and summon him by letter.

*

"You're not letting him go to the Conference?" Liu Qingge had a dark look on his face; Shen Qingqiu hasn't seen him genuinely angry in years.

"He isn't ready," Shen Qingqiu said, setting down his brush carefully.

"He's been training for it for a year--longer. He could be in the top ten--maybe even take the top spot, if that Huan Hua disciple has a bad day."

Liu Qingge was clearly trying to goad Shen Qingqiu, by bringing up Huan Hua Palace. Shen Qingqiu narrowed his eyes and reached for his fan.

"Gongyi Xiao, yes. And Binghe could surpass him any day," Shen Qingqiu said with a tinge of pride.

Liu Qingge rocked back on his heels, then sat with a frustrated sigh. Shen Qingqiu pressed a finger to anchor his calligraphy paper as it was ruffled by the air of his movement. "Then why aren't you--"

"Because he isn't ready," Shen Qingqiu repeated. "His combat ability is not in question. His judgment is."

"He's one of the most talented fighters we've had in some time."

"He's also seventeen. You know how much attention and notoriety the top placers at the Conference get." Shen Qingqiu narrowed his eyes at Liu Qingge. "Know from personal experience, I might add. How do you think he would handle that, at his current maturity?"

Liu Qingge frowned at him.

Shen Qingqiu continued, "The next Conference is in three years. He'll be twenty--an adult. At that time--"

Liu Qingge frowned. "But you told him that it was because his four arts aren't up to standard."

"They aren't. But if I told him he wasn't mature enough, do you think he would listen? Remember being seventeen."

Liu Qingge blew out a breath, frustrated. "I don't agree with this."

"I've already told him that if he wants to transfer to Bai Zhan, I'll support that. Then he'll be your problem."

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe sat in his single room, the one he'd been assigned in the seniors' dormitory when he received his sword. It was the same room he'd used as a junior; it had happened to be open, and he'd asked for it specifically. There were drawings carefully tacked to the walls. Many of them were of Shizun; Luo Binghe never threw those away. Luo Binghe stared at them and thought.

He couldn't represent Qing Jing at the Conference? Well, that was fine. Luo Binghe was persuasive. He had options.

*

His best option was Liu-shishu, who he approached before his usual sparring class. The Bai Zhan peak lord simply frowned and waved him off. Luo Binghe knew he was meeting with Shizun later that afternoon, though. He held out hope. But that didn't mean he'd abandon his other plans.

*

Luo Binghe had noticed that the Sect Leader made a weekly habit of visiting each peak in turn, even if only briefly. He had often seen him on the Rainbow Bridge. Previously, Luo Binghe had used the extra forewarning to get to the kitchens ahead of the other disciples. Now, he used the opportunity to talk with the Sect Leader.

With careful timing, he encountered Yue Qingyuan just as he was leaving Ling You Peak. He greeted the Sect Leader respectfully.

"Shizun seems worried about something," Luo Binghe began.

He instantly had Yue Qingyuan's full attention. "Luo Binghe is a filial disciple to pay so much attention to his teacher's happiness," Yue Qingyuan said smoothly, turning to him. "What is causing him distress, do you know?"

Luo Binghe shook his head solemnly. "This disciple does not know for sure, but it seems to concern this disciple attending the Conference."

Yue Qingyuan's face cleared, and he smiled kindly. "Ah, this senior martial uncle understands. Your teacher is very fond of you, you know that." Luo Binghe brightened. Yue Qingyuan continued. "It will be a time of transition for you. Soon afterward, you'll go off to learn from other places--"

Luo Binghe was distressed. "This disciple wants to stay with Shizun, always!"

Yue Qingyuan shook his head gravely. "He would feel like he had failed you if you did. Students always need to find their own paths in life. Your teacher knows that, too."

Luo Binghe took a breath. This would be the tricky part; Shizun and Sect Leader spoke often. "Shizun is undecided over whether to send this disciple to the Conference. Shizun values the opinions of his fellow peak lords; this disciple would like to ask for their support." Luo Binghe carefully offered the paper he'd painstakingly composed and copied in his best calligraphy.

Yue Qingyuan glanced at the paper without accepting it and gave him an penetrating look; Luo Binghe felt like his motivations were laid out on a platter.

"Hmm," Yue Qingyuan said neutrally. "This senior martial uncle can tell you that a petition is not the way to go about this."

"This disciple only wishes to represent Shizun. If this disciple does well at the Conference, it will help Shizun's reputation," Luo Binghe argued earnestly.

"The decision is your teacher's alone."

Luo Binghe drooped.

*

"Not going?" Duan Qingze's eyebrows rose in surprise. The Blue Crested Hawk Lizard on his arm fluffed its feathers in reflection of his reaction and Duan Qingze soothed it hastily. "Huh. Well, I thought you were kind of young, but you've been doing the training... that's been going well?"

"Yes, Duan-shishu. This disciple has been keeping up with the Bai Zhan disciples easily," Luo Binghe said respectfully.

"Huh." Duan Qingze scratched the irritable Hawk Lizard thoughtfully. "Well, there's not much this junior martial uncle can do. Take it as extra training for the next Conference; with all this preparation, you'll really make an impression. Maybe you can even take first, huh?" He patted Luo Binghe on the shoulder and hastily brought the impatient Hawk Lizard into the mew.

Luo Binghe looked at his still-empty petition and squared his shoulders. He would persevere.

*

Ruan Qingruan looked at the petition, carefully held so it wasn't obvious it had no signatures, and sighed.

*

Wei Qingwei and Qi Qingqi were traveling; Luo Binghe would need to wait until they returned.

He didn't even get as far as showing the petition to Mu Qingfang. The physician gave him a flat look and summarily dismissed him.

One of Zhi Ji's disciples, looking intrigued and amused, told Luo Binghe that Lin Qingshui was in meditation and not to be disturbed.

The same explanation was given by one of Gao Qinggao's disciples, but Luo Binghe thought that one was actually true. By this time, Luo Binghe wasn't surprised; if even the Peak Lords Luo Binghe was most familiar with wouldn't lend their signatures to his petition, he was unlikely to get support from the others.

And then he went to An Ding.

*

"You're not going?" Shang Qinghua's voice spiraled up. Luo Binghe eyed him warily. Shang Qinghua, always twitchy, briefly looked as if he were going to have a foaming fit. "You've got to--I mean. It's a great opportunity. A once in a lifetime opportunity."

"This disciple must respect Shizun's judgement." Luo Binghe looked downcast. He counted. One... Two...

"Maybe..." Bullseye. Shang Qinghua licked his lips nervously. "Uh... have you thought of going independently? There are always wandering cultivators..."

*

Shang Qinghua wasn't exactly proud of how quickly he caved. But come on, this was The Protagonist! Plus, he had just come from a meeting where Yue Qingyuan kindly but firmly explained that Shang Qinghua would be staying in Cang Qiong for the Conference, instead of accompanying the group as previously arranged. Yue Qingyuan said it was because Shang Qinghua had been stressed, lately, but Shang Qinghua knew the truth. He'd seen Shen Qingqiu looking at him smugly, turning his fan in his fingers. Shang Qinghua couldn't even object strongly, because it would be out of character.

Chapter Text

Yue Qingyuan found Shen Qingqiu practicing his calligraphy. He was stressed, then. Shen Qingqiu found the meditative focus of calligraphy soothing. Yue Qingyuan took a few moments to just watch him, unannounced.

This wasn't a new practice. In the years before their reconciliation, Yue Qingyuan had made a habit--perhaps an unhealthy habit--of watching him like this. It was the only time he could see Xiao Jiu relatively at peace. It would last only until someone interrupted him. Sometimes not even that long; Xiao Jiu was his own worst critic, and Yue Qingyuan had seen him casually destroy art anyone else would consider a lesser masterpiece, when it didn't meet his standards.

Sometimes Yue Qingyuan was able to rescue the ruined object or painting; he had never known if Xiao Jiu had realized where they disappeared to. Certainly, unlike some of the nobly born disciples, Xiao Jiu wouldn't take for granted that someone would clean up after him. He had never mentioned it.

"You might as well come sit down," Xiao Jiu said, with just a tinge of irritation in his voice.

Yue Qingyuan ducked his head and entered the courtyard. "Your disciple approached me," he said. "You aren't sending him to the Conference?"

Shen Qingqiu looked at him, eyes narrowed. Yue Qingyuan held up his hands peaceably. "It's your decision, of course. I won't overrule it."

"Mm." Shen Qingqiu turned back to his folding desk, washing his brushes carefully. Too carefully. Xiao Jiu really was worried about the boy. "He's too young," Shen Qingqiu said after a moment.

"He's... seventeen or eighteen, I believe. Most of the students we’re sending are in their twenties," Yue Qingyuan said neutrally.

"I'm just... worried about the effect it will have on him. On his character. I have no doubts about his combat abilities."

Yue Qingyuan was thoughtfully quiet for a moment before continuing. "You, ah, might want to skip this afternoon’s Peak Lords meeting."

Shen Qingqiu looked at him suspiciously. "Why?"

Yue Qingyuan glanced away, trying to keep his voice steady. "Your disciple has been going around to each of our martial siblings, asking them to intervene for him."

Shen Qingqiu made an outraged noise; his head turned. His hair, pinned up so the trailing ends wouldn't interfere with his calligraphy practice, began to come loose. He pressed his hand to it, then stepped away from his calligraphy easel so he could fix it. "That--"

"Yes, yes," Yue Qingyuan said soothingly.

*

At the meeting, discussion centered around the upcoming Conference.

"Several of our number will be staying at the sect, in case of another attack. This shixiong believes Gao-shidi has made some additional plans for defense, just in case?"

"Heh heh heh." Gao Qinggao cleared his throat. "Heh. Yes, Sect Leader."

Qi Qingqi grinned. "Ooh, A-Gao, you did something mean," she said in a stage whisper.

Gao Qinggao tried and failed to fight back a little smile. "Heh."

*

Mu Qingfang stopped Shen Qingqiu after the meeting. "Shen-shixiong, this shidi would like to discuss your hand, when you have a few minutes."

"Certainly; is now convenient?" Shen Qingqiu replied.

Yue Qingyuan turned to them attentively. "You can use a parlor here on Qiong Ding, if that's suitable."

"This shidi would like to have his notes and references on hand," Mu Qingfang countered smoothly. "I believe Shen-shixiong has been keeping a log?" At Shen Qingqiu's nod, he continued. "If Shen-shixiong would bring that to Qian Cao, it would be very helpful."

*

Shen Qingqiu had been carefully recording his hand spasms, their date and duration. The severity seemed to be constant, which supported Mu Qingfang's theories about the poison metabolites building up over time.

"You're due for another one in... one to two weeks," Mu Qingfang said, frowning. "Then, another, probably not sooner than a month after the first. I see no link between using qi with that hand, and the spasms."

"It was a useful exercise, though. My energy movement with my off hand improved after just a month."

Chapter Text

The next day, Shen Qingqiu called Luo Binghe out of the crowd of disciples going to dinner.

"Luo Binghe, come along," Shen Qingqiu said, walking briskly to the vacant calligraphy classroom nearby. After a pause, he heard Luo Binghe's footsteps hurrying after him. "Sit," he gestured to a table.

"...Is this disciple in trouble?"

Shen Qingqiu frowned. "Not yet. What have you done?"

"Nothing, Shizun!"

"This teacher called you here to show you these," Shen Qingqiu said, setting out papers on the table. "This is your calligraphy practice about two months after you became a novice. This is the next year. Three years ago. Two years. Last year. And from today." Shen Qingqiu laid out the papers in a line. "This teacher knows Binghe has been frustrated by his progress. But you are improving, because you've been working hard. Continue to practice diligently."

After a long pause, Luo Binghe spoke, voice wavering. "Shizun kept all my practice sheets?"

"This teacher keeps some representative work for all students. That's how I track your progress, and what you habitually need to work on."

There was another long pause, then Luo Binghe asked wetly, "Shizun, can this disciple have a hug?"

Shen Qingqiu weighed the length of a hug versus managing a sulky Binghe. "One hug." He had barely finished the sentence before Luo Binghe flung himself into his shoulder.

"Am I Shizun's favorite student?" Luo Binghe asked. His voice was muffled. After a moment of confusion, Shen Qingqiu realized that Luo Binghe was hunched up awkwardly so he could still tuck himself into Shen Qingqiu's shoulder, despite his growth spurt.

"This teacher has no favorites. This teacher dislikes all his students equally." Shen Qingqiu surreptitiously pet his hair. So soft!

"Shizun, this disciple wanted... to come first at the Conference, so he could... talk to Shizun about a matter," Luo Binghe managed.

Ah, this. Shen Qingqiu had wondered last time, for years, just what subject was so important that Luo Binghe felt he had to earn the right to even discuss it. Later, of course, it was obvious.

He wanted to reveal he'd been learning demonic cultivation from the Dream Demon.

"Binghe will never be so grown up he cannot talk to this old teacher about his worries."

"Um."

*

A few days later, Ning Yingying approached Shen Qingqiu while he was painting.

"What troubles this disciple?" Shen Qingqiu asked, glancing at her.

Ning Yingying began to wring her hands nervously, but quickly folded them. "Shizun, this disciple would like to attend the Conference."

Shen Qingqiu was so surprised he had to quickly draw his brush away from his painting. He set it down carefully on its stand, then turned to her. "Ning Yingying needs far more practice with combat skills before..." he stopped at her frantic head shaking.

"No, Shizun, this disciple only wishes to be a spectator. Liu-shimei and Shu-shimei are participating."

"And they're friends of yours. Hmm." He regarded her thoughtfully. Sixty-forty she actually wanted to go to give Luo Binghe food and information on the way. Well, who was he to stand in the way of the Plot? "Ning Yingying may attend." He cut off her effusive thanks with a cautionary tone. "Ning Yingying will not enter the security array. She will remain with the Cang Qiong spectators at all times."

"Yes, Shizun!"

"This teacher is very serious that Ning Yingying shouldn't try to sneak into the Conference. It's extremely dangerous. If Ning Yingying wishes to participate, she may train diligently, and enter the next Conference."

"This disciple understands! This disciple will obediently stay in the crowd."

"Mm. Dismissed."

Chapter Text

Threatening rain had driven most of Qing Jing’s students and staff inside. Liu Qingge found Shen Qingqiu in his studio.

"Oh, you're painting?" Liu Qingge asked. "I can come back."

"It's just my usual cultivation practice. I can paint as we talk."

Shen Qingqiu had his palette in one hand and had just picked up his brush with the other, when he heard the chime of the Small Scenario Pusher and felt a snap. He froze in horror, as the smallest movement of his head might precipitate catastrophe. He could already feel a tickle as his hair shifted.

"What is it?" Liu Qingge asked, alarmed.

"My hair ornament snapped." The tickle turned to a slow-motion slide as his hair uncoiled, right toward the painting. Shen Qingqiu hastily dropped his brush and went to catch the runaway hair. It wasn't necessary; Liu Qingge had moved first, gingerly pressing a hand to his head to keep the hair from falling further.

"How could it break? You weren't doing anything."

"I know, but this isn't even the first time--"

"What's all this?" came Yue Qingyuan's pleasant, mild tone from the doorway. Shen Qingqiu supposed it did look pretty strange--him sitting, hair disheveled, and Liu Qingge helping to hold it up.

"His--ah, hair ornament broke," Liu Qingge said. He sounded a bit defensive.

"Ah. Let this shixiong help. If Qingqiu-shidi doesn't mind?"

"Thank you," Shen Qingqiu said, relieved. "Liu-shidi, could you put my palette down on the table over there?"

Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge deftly switched positions without--ha!--a hair out of place. Yue Qingyuan carefully picked a broken piece of polished wood out of Shen Qingqiu's hair, while he heard Liu Qingge moving to the side.

"Ah, I see. What a predicament. Sit down, Liu-shidi," Yue Qingyuan said, very firmly. Shen Qingqiu could hear Liu Qingge sit, and just barely see him in his peripheral vision. "Yes, it's completely broken. I'll need to loosen your hair to pick out the pieces, if Qingqiu-shidi will allow me?"

"Of course; I'll be troubling Yue-shixiong."

Yue Qingyuan stroked a hand over his hair. "It's never any trouble for Qingqiu-shidi."

As Yue Qingyuan deftly sorted out his hair, Shen Qingqiu heard Liu Qingge sigh. He must be so bored, sitting there. Shen Qingqiu wondered why Yue Qingyuan had insisted he stay.

Yue Qingyuan neatened his hair and put it back up, then paused.

"I have more, but I don't remember which qiankun item they were in," Shen Qingqiu said as he sorted through the ones in his sleeve by touch. "For the moment, you could use a brush?" Shen Qingqiu suggested. "A clean one, from the stand."

"Here, I have an extra," Liu Qingge said, a little hoarse from not having spoken for so long.

"Thank you, Liu-shidi," Yue Qingyuan said warmly. Out of the corner of his eye, Shen Qingqiu saw Yue Qingyuan's hand squeeze Liu Qingge's as he took the ornament. A tacit apology for snapping earlier, perhaps.

*

Once he was back on Bai Zhan, Liu Qingge made his way directly to the training grounds.

He found an empty area, a fresh training mannequin, and a heavy practice sword, and began practicing the Eight Hundred Eighty-Eight Cuts. He always thought best when he was moving. And he certainly had a lot to think about.

Shen Qingqiu's hair, spilling warm and soft over his wrist.

Yue Qingyuan, first frozen and then telling him to stay.

Yue Qingyuan's content, tender expression with his hands buried in Shen Qingqiu's hair. Shen Qingqiu, shyly pleased by the attention.

Yue Qingyuan, pressing his fingers to Liu Qingge's hand as he took the offered ornament, eyes fond.

Liu Qingge's hair ornament was in Shen Qingqiu's hair, and Yue Qingyuan had put it there.

Liu Qingge could feel his assumptions and expectations rotate and shift until they settled into a new thesis.

Okay, new plan.

Chapter Text

On Qing Jing, Liu Qingge watched judgmentally as Shen Qingqiu sparred with Luo Binghe. In less than twenty minutes, Luo Binghe managed to "trip" into his teacher twice. The second time, Shen Qingqiu called a halt.

Luo Binghe looked contrite. "This disciple will strive to improve. Perhaps with more practice..." he started leadingly.

The boy was taller than his teacher, now; Shen Qingqiu reached upward to pat his head. Liu Qingge had to suppress a smile.

"Binghe is still afraid of this teacher. That's alright," Shen Qingqiu said gently. "But the creatures at the Conference will be more frightening. What will you do if you trip there? Continue to cultivate diligently, and you can attend the next Conference."

Liu Qingge took a moment to enjoy the look on the boy's face as he realized he'd played himself. And that, brat, he thought with amusement, --Is why you need strategy as well as tactics.

*

Shen Qingqiu, Yue Qingyuan, and Liu Qingge were meeting to discuss the Conference preparations. They seated themselves around a low, square table, in the pavilion downhill from Shen Qingqiu's bamboo cottage, a penciled map and notes at hand.

Luo Binghe arrived with a tray of refreshments. Liu Qingge noted approvingly that he'd managed to get to the kitchens, win the dominance scuffle over who got to attend the three peak lords, and return with the tray, all without being ruffled or winded. He really would have done well in Bai Zhan.

Shen Qingqiu accepted melon juice instead of tea, and continued his point. "Few attendees will resort to the shelters immediately. Putting them well inside the boundaries would make them more effective. Here and here--" he paused in pointing out locations on the map to take a sip of juice, absently licking a droplet off the corner of his mouth.

There was a strangled sound from the wall, and all three peak lords looked around.

"Are you alright, Binghe?" Shen Qingqiu asked, concern in his voice.

"Yes, Shizun!" Luo Binghe managed.

"Alright, you're dismissed. If you have a cramp, go walk it off."

Luo Binghe left reluctantly, with many a backward glance. Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge shared a look over Shen Qingqiu's head.

"The question occurs, should we spread the shelters out evenly? Or place them near the areas with the most danger?" Yue Qingyuan interjected smoothly. Attention successfully redirected, Shen Qingqiu bent again over the rough map. Yue Qingyuan was seamlessly multi-tasking, splitting his attention between Shen Qingqiu's long, pale fingers and adding pertinent commentary.

Liu Qingge was well-versed in both strategy and tactics. Wait for it, he thought, watching Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan unconsciously lean towards each other across the table, as symmetrical as bookends. Let them come together first. And then...

Chapter Text

The staging area below the hundred-step stone staircase was a hive of activity. Conference hopefuls said their nervous or boastful goodbyes to friends, spirit beasts from Ling You wandered--and sometimes scuffled--and the quartermasters sent their assistants running for last minute omissions.

Shen Qingqiu chose not to ride in a carriage, this time. It was too close a reminder of the last trip, with Luo Binghe as the dutiful disciple bringing him snacks and offering massages. Shen Qingqiu regarded his horse with wary distrust. The beast waited docilely, turning one eye then the other to look at him.

Ling You's disciples had tended to bring spirit beast companions with high combat potential--but Shen Qingqiu was pleased to see that quite a few had brought creatures for scouting, as well. One student had a large, multi-limbed perch carefully attached to a rucksack. Ning Yingying was greeting the small birds fluttering around it with interest.

Qing Jing was sending a small group of disciples. All were senior students, and had experience in both combat and investigation missions. Doing Shen Qingqiu's field research was the price they paid for being included in the Conference. Tang Xinran was also participating; she would use the opportunity to cultivate friendships with her fiancé's sect, and after the Conference would travel home with her family to prepare for her wedding. She and Ning Yingying would travel with the Xian Shu group. On the return journey, they would also have Chen Jinhua, who had been away visiting her family’s cultivation sect.

Qian Cao was sending a group of students, primarily to get experience as combat medics. Mu Qingfang had specifically forbid them from collecting golden beads, in an effort to focus their energies.

It had taken only a suggestion to Yue Qingyuan to have Shang Qinghua firmly assigned to the group of peak lords who would remain behind to guard Cang Qiong. In the original novel, Mobei-jun hadn't been seen at the Conference. The cause for his appearance last time must have been Shang Qinghua's presence. Shen Qingqiu suspected the demon had arrived to safeguard his unwitting paramour, and intercepted Luo Binghe by accident. The fewer moving parts he had to manage this time, the better. The last thing he needed was Shang Qinghua trying to help the plot along and possibly reigniting Luo Binghe's enmity toward Cang Qiong.

Speak of Cao Cao, and Cao Cao arrives. As if summoned by his thoughts, Luo Binghe approached from the sidelines.

"This disciple has prepared some snacks for Shizun." Luo Binghe offered the tidy package with eyes as clear as a mountain spring. Even if Shen Qingqiu wasn't aware of his protagonist halo, he would be suspicious.

"Binghe is a dutiful disciple, to look after this old teacher." Shen Qingqiu played his part, exchanging the bundle for a head pat. A group of younger Xian Shu disciples, there to see off Liu Mingyan and Shu Xiaoyan, giggled. Shen Qingqiu wondered if they, too, were part of the conspiracy which would get Luo Binghe to the Conference site.

*

Shen Qingqiu had used a featherlight charm, to avoid saddle sores, and a sticking charm to keep from sliding around. When the sun grew higher, he pulled a hat out of one of his qiankun bags.

Shen Qingqiu watched the students as they rode. The various peaks were mixing more than he'd expected--more than he remembered, last time. He glanced at Yue Qingyuan, riding beside him. "Am I imagining things, or..."

Yue Qingyuan gave a proud little smile. "Many of these are the same groups which took the obstacle course, yes. There's been some re-weighting; there are far more Bai Zhan participants than any other group."

Shen Qingqiu nodded in approval. "A good strategy."

"It's interesting; not all of these students took part in Bai Zhan's conference preparation classes. But from what I've overheard, they've been training on their own with their cross-peak friends."

"Superb. I'm glad they're seeing this more as a training experience than a chance to earn points."

*

The caravan slowly made its way toward the conference site. The size of the group made finding inns difficult, so they camped along the way. That was less tiring than it sounded; all the peak lords, and many of the more senior disciples, had cultivation treasures which made a mockery of 'roughing it.'

Shen Qingqiu kept an eye on Luo Binghe's progress with the System. He breathed an internal sigh of relief when Luo Binghe left Qing Jing, ostensibly on a personal trip.

[ Well done, host! ]

Chapter Text

Shang Qinghua had an appointment on Qian Cao. He wandered into the main building complex, nodding vaguely to his juniors but lost in thought.

"Shang-shixiong, greetings."

Shang Qinghua jumped and whirled to face the new voice. It was Mu Qingfang. Shang Qinghua had been so deep in his worries he hadn't noticed anyone else in the courtyard. "Mu-shidi!" He blinked rapidly. "This shixiong thought you were escorting your students to the Conference."

Mu Qingfang smoothly caught Shang Qinghua's arm and led him down the path. As they walked, Mu Qingfang made no secret of taking his pulse. "This shidi had things to do here. I'll be joining the group by swordflight, later."

Shang Qinghua startled. "What a great idea. You know, I've been meaning to take a little trip myself--"

"Perhaps after our martial brothers return from the Conference," Mu Qingfang said firmly. "Is Shang-shixiong planning another trip with Shen Qingqiu?"

"After...? Oh, no, no," Shang Qinghua replied vaguely.

*

Mu Qingfang escorted Shang Qinghua into his airy combined office and workroom, just off the courtyard, and prepared tea. Shang Qinghua settled into his normal cover, which was nervous babbling. "--They seem to have settled down, now that the Conference group is gone. It helps that a new shipment of books arrived--it has the newest volume of Poison Genius Consort, and they're all trying to get it first. I really worry for the next generation. Half my students think Gu Qishao is a heart throb."

Mu Qingfang, pouring the tea, nodded absently. "Clearly unbalanced. But Long Feiye is a sociopath, so--"

"Personally, I hoped she'd end up with Mu Qingwu. But he hasn't even appeared in the latest installments."

"A waste of a good character."

Shang Qinghua nodded rapidly, accepting his tea cup. "Shen Qingqiu likes Gu Beiyue, but he seems to be marked for a heroic sacrifice, so--"

"Shen Qingqiu likes Gu Beiyue?" Mu Qingfang said, startled. "But he's so..."

"Nice, I know! He actually just said he thought he was a better love interest but--" Shang Qinghua stopped, his internal lenses aligning to focus on reality. "Wait. You read novels, too?" He teared up. "We could have had so much to talk about! I wish I had known!"

"We can still talk about them," Mu Qingfang said soothingly. "You have many, many years ahead of you."

*

Five years, anyway. On his way back to his own peak, Shang Qinghua thought about it. He had sent several messages to Mobei-jun, warning him not to visit him on Cang Qiong during the Conference. Shang Qinghua didn't want to see what surprises Ku Xing had planned. A destructive defensive array was bad enough, but if infiltrators were captured for questioning--well.

But the defense array wouldn't stop anyone from leaving; Shang Qinghua had checked, in the guise of managing the in-going and outgoing delivery schedules. The Cang Qiong caravan would be moving along the roads at carriage speeds. If Shang Qinghua left by sword, he might just be able to...

Do what? The artifact which would temporarily create rifts between Jue Di Gorge and the Abyss was on the demon world's side. And could he even interfere with the Plot? Whenever he had tried before, events just kept trundling forward to their grim, crowd-pleasing conclusion. Pleasing to his readers, anyway; even if Shang Qinghua survived his revenge tour, being stuck in a world where Luo Binghe was the undisputed ruler would be the opposite of fun.

But would The Protagonist even raze Cang Qiong? Why would he? He was well-liked, and popular with students on other peaks. Shang Qinghua could understand why he'd want revenge against the teacher who pushed him into the Abyss--but that was the problem, wasn't it? Would Shen Qingqiu push him? He treated The Protagonist like--okay, not like a son. Like a large and energetic pet, maybe.

Shang Qinghua trembled. If Shen Qingqiu found out, somehow, that he had helped his favorite disciple get to the disasterous Conference...

Maybe a few side trips weren't such a bad idea. He could visit the various small publishing houses, to find his fellow transmigrator. Shang Qinghua didn't recognize the typeset used for the few loose pages he'd found. What a fool he'd been, to search through Cang Qiong for the culprit! Obviously the other transmigrator had awakened elsewhere, and was now engaged in the transmigrator's traditional method of making money--plagiarizing other worlds' intellectual property. Shang Qinghua would search them out. Maybe that would let him find the reason behind these world changes.

Chapter Text

{ System, status update? }

[ The Protagonist has encountered three monsters, two damsels in distress, one cursed heir to a noble house, and one minor future villain. ]

{ Superb. Will he be on time to the Conference site? }

[ All signs point to yes, host! The protagonist halo is in full working order. Update! Protagonist has encountered a magic fish. ]

{ Oh, I remember that one. The fish is actually a mermaid princess who's been exiled from her undersea kingdom. }

[ ... ]

{ It's good to know he's meeting people. I think the lack of a harem in the last life was what really pulled him off track. }

[ ...This System could not possibly comment. ]

Shen Qingqiu was guiltily glad he didn't have enough points to avoid the Fall Into The Abyss scenario. He didn't have a high enough affinity with 'Shen Jiu' to go back as far as he needed to, but he had plans in that direction. He silently promised himself he'd find a way to help the younger Luo Binghe, as well.

Shen Qingqiu had had a difficult time deciding what to pack for Luo Binghe. Or, rather, deciding what not to pack. The System, which had become amiable and cooperative recently, had unexpectedly been strict about this. He could pack clothes, but not clothes in Luo Binghe's size. Robes weren't exactly form-fitting, but Luo Binghe was a head taller and somewhat broader than Shen Qingqiu was, now. A benefit of the spiritual food on Zui Xian, but inconvenient in this situation. Shen Qingqiu supposed Luo Binghe wouldn't fret over ill-fitting robes, though.

Shen Qingqiu had packed wool robes, a couple sturdy cloaks--one canvas, one leather--warm socks, and both cloth and leather belts. Then, he had an epiphany and included some crafting supplies and tools. Everyone knew Shen Qingqiu had multiple projects going at the same time, and that he often traveled with them. He remembered showing these same supplies to his increasingly incredulous students, on their camping trips. He wouldn't expect Luo Binghe to tan leather from the beasts he would encounter in the Abyss, but he could at least repair and alter his gear.

There were medical supplies, of course. Firewood, charcoal, tinder, a full Everflow Ewer, food suitable for camping. Talismans, for heating, cooling, and light.

Shen Qingqiu included some books, too--the adventure novels he had noticed Luo Binghe liked. A sturdy pipa, with extra strings. A flute, for when the strings inevitably broke. A folding drawing board, brushes, inksticks, and plenty of paper. Charcoal, and wax pencils, because he'd often seen Luo Binghe sketching.

*

The nice thing about traveling with senior students was that they could mostly look after themselves. Shen Qingqiu checked on his little group of Qing Jing participants, then left them to their own devices. Ning Yingying and Tang Xinran were camping with the Xian Shu group, overseen by Qi Qingqi. As he passed by without stopping, it looked like a cheerful group; they were exchanging gossip, techniques, and novels, under the cover of a weak but wide-ranging muffling seal. Shen Qingqiu could occasionally hear bits of conversation, when little knots of disciples moved between groups.

"--Trapped in a cave, and Zhang Daoling is hurt!" Shen Qingqiu heard one whisper. The other covered a gasp.

Shen Qingqiu passed them by, and returned to his own comfortable tent. It wasn't bigger on the inside than the outside, to his disappointment, but everything in it--the camp bed, chair, tea table, and soft furnishings--could be neatly packed away in an instant. His tent was near the Qiong Ding group, and Shen Qingqiu took his correspondence to the shared campfire.

The campfire wasn't necessary--it was quite warm--but Yue Qingyuan had wanted to make an informal gathering place for the other peak lords. He was there now, talking quietly with the newly arrived Mu Qingfang under a muffling seal. Shen Qingqiu sat with Duan Qingze, continuing their discussion and speculation over the creatures which would be present at the Conference. Of course, Shen Qingqiu knew that the situation would change within a day of the Conference start. Whatever technique or device Mobei-jun and Shang Qinghua had used, it temporarily weakened the barrier between the demon and human worlds. Once rifts began opening, aggressive demonic creatures, driven into the area by Mobei-jun’s henchmen, would pour through.

*

Later that evening, the campsite had quieted down. Shen Qingqiu had traded his letters for a book; he would normally paint or play an instrument this time of night, but painting would take more preparation and clean up than he wanted to do in camping conditions, and his pipa might call an audience. He could hear an impromptu duet--or a competition--near the Qing Jing group, anyway.

Yue Qingyuan had been quiet for a while. Shen Qingqiu glanced over casually, then did a double-take as he recognized the pages he was holding. Ruffled, battered, mismatched in paper type and size, they were the fragmented pages he'd been leaving out for Shang Qinghua. How had Yue Qingyuan gotten hold of them? Why was he collecting them?

Shen Qingqiu asked.

Yue Qingyuan smiled self-deprecatingly. "Oh, I just happened to pick one up in passing. It's quite a good story; I've kept my eye out for more. Someone must have torn up a couple copies." He held up a page. "This one was scratch paper, for instance."

Shen Qingqiu made a show of examining the pages. "How are you reading it? None of these pages are sequential."

"Well, I'm filling in the blanks," Yue Qingyuan admitted. "It's interesting, to think of how the story would go from these fragments. And how they got into that situation in the first place." He looked at Shen Qingqiu hopefully. "You don't happen to recognize the story, do you?"

Shen Qingqiu was not going to rewrite the entire Star Wars trilogy just to make Yue Qingyuan smile. He was not. "I can't quite place it. But if I find the original--"

...Maybe some short stories. The episodic nature of the series did lend itself to that.

*

At the Conference site, the group waited while Yue Qingyuan and a few of his senior disciples went to announce their arrival to the Conference coordinators. They would be assigned an area to camp, carefully chosen to reduce strife between the participating sects. The large Cang Qiong delegation would be an unofficial barrier separating the often rancorous family sects.

While they waited, the students milled about and stretched their legs after the long ride. Shen Qingqiu and Qi Qingqi supervised. Liu Qingge had gone to greet friends from other sects--and scope out the competition for his students.

He returned earlier than expected. He approached Shen Qingqiu, stopped, and stared at him. Anticipating his outburst, Shen Qingqiu used his fan to flick a muffling charm up.

"That brat--" Liu Qingge began.

Shen Qingqiu nodded. "He is."

"He's ignoring your direct orders," Liu Qingge said, still stunned.

"Mm hm."

"You were right; he isn't ready."

"Of course I was right." Shen Qingqiu fanned himself leisurely, smug.

"What are you going to do?"

"I won't have to do anything." Shen Qingqiu said serenely. Liu Qingge raised an eyebrow at him and waited. "He'll enter as a wandering cultivator, I'm guessing. He'll undoubtedly place high. He may even take first. And then--" He met Liu Qingge's eyes over his fan.

"He won’t be able to tell you about it," Liu Qingge realized.

"A learning experience, undoubtedly."

They looked around at a sudden displacement of air. Nearby, a disciple from one of the minor sects looked dismayed as his qiankun pouch seemed to have exploded. An armful of bandages, talismans, and provisions dropped at his feet. A few of his disciple siblings commiserated, and helped him gather up the fallen goods.

"What happened there?" Liu Qingge asked.

"A poorly made qiankun pouch," Shen Qingqiu said, without interest. "That's what happens when the technique is faulty. At some point--usually near the holding capacity--the seal fails. And the result, is as you see." He folded his fan. "Though there are two different types of seals. That one is the standard--the first one I teach to my disciples. It means you'll never lose what you put into the pouch. The other technique will actually implode, destroying access to the space and the objects within."

"Why would you even need that?"

"Oh, for items you don't want getting into someone else's hands. Sensitive letters, for example. Code keys. Suspicious corpses."

"Shen Qingqiu!"

Chapter Text

Leaving their senior disciples in charge of setting up their campsites, the Cang Qiong peak lords were free to go out individually to greet acquaintances from other sects. Shen Qingqiu accompanied Yue Qingyuan and Qi Qingqi, just to avoid the noise as the students worked.

The Conference site was a throng of excited disciples, most in their twenties. Wandering cultivators were often older, but rarely younger. When hearing lamentations over the disastrous Conference of his previous life, he'd learned that the number of younger and untested disciples participating had been unusual. The competition was, essentially, a bloodsport, and the sects quietly frowned on younger disciples joining the dangerous event.

There were a very few participants in their late teens, but those were prodigies, from established sects. Luo Binghe had been one such, in Shen Qingqiu's previous life.

Speaking of prodigies, Huan Hua Palace had indeed sent theirs. Shen Qingqiu saw young Gongyi Xiao freeze in mid step, forward foot pedaling absently in mid-air. From the angle of his head, he was struck by Ning Yingying and her apprentice sisters.

Shen Qingqiu narrowed his eyes. "Excuse me, Sect Leader, Qi-shimei." He swept off.

After a quiet word with Gongyi Xiao, emphasizing how proud he was of his little disciples, who he'd raised practically from toddlers, and how he wouldn't frown on a courteous and respectful friendship, he left the young man shaking and white-faced in the treeline and returned to the Cang Qiong group. Yue Qingyuan and Qi Qingqi had very obviously been using their qi-enhanced senses to listen in; Yue Qingyuan was fighting back a sentimental smile, while Qi Qingqi was doing nothing to hide her malicious amusement.

"Shixiong was little rough on a growing boy, perhaps," Qi Qingqi grinned wolfishly.

"It builds character."

"You know," she continued with false innocence. "If the families make an arrangement, your little grand-disciples may end up in Huan Hua Palace."

Shen Qingqiu puffed up like an angry Needle-Fish. Heads swiveled at Qi Qingqi's wicked cackle, then quickly turned again as she was recognized.

*

The Intersect Alliance Conference participants included not only the four major sects, but also the innumerable minor and family sects. There were quite a few wandering cultivators with no sect allegiance, as well. Some were hoping to gain the attention of an established sect, and with it, access to their cultivation techniques. Others were cheerful profiteers; one could make a tidy profit by harvesting materials from the beasts stocked in Jue Di Gorge for the Conference.

The Conference was more richly supplied than it had been in Shen Qingqiu's previous life. Huan Hua Palace displayed its wealth to dazzling effect, using artifacts to provide lavish accommodations for the spectators, and providing every participant with a generous gift bag of healing ointments, utility talismans, and charmed camping equipment.

"Huan Hua has spared no expense," Shen Qingqiu murmured to Yue Qingyuan under cover of a muffling charm, and shielding their faces from lip-reading with his fan.

Yue Qingyuan leaned closer to respond. "They're trying to win back support from the minor sects. And it will work. As long as their noble backers hold out."

They exchanged a glance, and Shen Qingqiu ducked his head to hide a smile.

*

The best part of the Conference was the gossip.

"--Without his sandals," Shen Qingqiu murmured.

"No!"

"My source is utterly reliable," Shen Qingqiu said as he folded his fan with its muffling charm.

After his conversation partner went to breathlessly gossip with someone else, Shen Qingqiu swept his gaze over the milling crowd.

Luo Binghe was getting a certain amount of attention, just due to his height and cultivation level. Shen Qingqiu pretended to be oblivious to his presence. It was difficult, when he was a head taller than the rest of the Conference participants and wearing a deep hooded cloak despite the sunshine. But there were many wandering cultivators and participants from minor sects. The observing sect leaders who were interested in new recruits would wait to see how the unknowns performed in the Gorge, before approaching them.

He was glad to see Huan Hua's Old Palace Master had declined to attend. Zhao Hua's part in Shen Qingqiu's confinement hadn't been enough to distract from the Old Palace Master's role as the prime mover in Shen Qingqiu's show trial. After the nasty little political tangle it left, the smaller sects would have been happy to snub the Old Palace Master, taking advantage of the protective presence of high level cultivators from Tian Yi and Cang Qiong.

The Old Palace Master, no fool, had sent his regrets. A senior hall master escorted the Huan Hua participants instead. They had still made a good showing, but there were fewer than last time. Doubtless Huan Hua had sent only the more savvy and politically discreet disciples, carefully coached to avoid further conflict. Shen Qingqiu breathed an internal sigh of relief. The younger and less experienced Huan Hua disciples from last time were currently absent. They had probably participated last time only to build contacts--seeing the Conference as more of a social event than a bloodsport. Certainly, some had been hunting for husband material instead of golden beads.

Lu Zhiguang of Ling Chen sect was present, though. He had brought a handful of senior students, a serious and tight-knit group.

"Peak Lord Shen."

"Sect Leader Lu." The two greeted each other respectfully. They chose their words carefully, aware of the crowd of gossipy cultivators deliberately not-looking in their direction. "Would it be impolite for this Shen Qingqiu to inquire after the health of his sister?"

Lu Zhiguang looked pleased. "She is recovering quite well. The way was difficult, but there is a solace in having the matter settled. She is much more at peace, with herself and the world." He looked at Shen Qingqiu with his bright, keen eyes. "She has expressed an interest in writing to you--perhaps, someday, even visiting Cang Qiong."

"This Shen Qingqiu would welcome it," Shen Qingqiu assured him.

*

Shen Qingqiu did run into the Huan Hua Palace senior disciple who apparently drew the short straw and had been sent to represent his sect.

"This master heard Peak Lord Shen spoke with our young Gongyi Xiao, and the boy looked rather distraught," said the Huan Hua Palace senior disciple. "Surely he wouldn't try to influence the outcome of the competition."

Shen Qingqiu unfurled his fan. "Surely Huan Hua Palace wouldn't make accusations with no evidence?"

The Huan Hua Palace senior disciple narrowed his eyes at Shen Qingqiu. Shen Qingqiu knew there was no genuine misunderstanding; he hadn't used a muffling seal when he spoke to Gongyi Xiao.

Some wide-eyed disciples from minor sects watched them exchange barbs, from a safe distance. "It's like seeing a Crested Porcupine Lizard fight a Lava-Spitting Lion Bear," breathed one. "Who do you root for?"

"Hope they wound each other badly enough that you can escape the area," said another, stolidly practical. She flapped her notes. "Because the poison quills go everywhere, and the Lion Bear always starts forest fires when provoked."

"...I cannot believe you prepared for that scenario."

*

Tang Xinran's fiancé visited the Cang Qiong encampment, with several attendants. Shen Qingqiu received the nervous bridegroom politely. Tang Xinran would be joining their group in Jue Di Gorge, forging the bonds she would rely on in married life.

Later, Shen Qingqiu addressed the few Qing Jing disciples who were participating in the Conference. "Your placement on the boards is irrelevant. This teacher expects you to work together, and be cautious. I hope I have not raised stupid disciples. You're scholars, not fighters. If you're badly injured, retreat to one of the shelters before you're incapacitated. A single instance of bad luck, when you're already wounded, will take your life. If you die, the years this teacher has spent educating you will be wasted. Do not disappoint me."

His students listened attentively; good. Shen Qingqiu was giving this lecture close to the edge of the Cang Qiong camp, in the hope that disciples from the minor sects would also hear and reflect. Wandering cultivators tended to be more cautious than the students from righteous sects. Without sect physicians available, and unable to rely on martial siblings for back-up, caution was a deeply ingrained habit.

Chapter Text

After the introductory speech--given by the entirely respectable Gusu Lan sect, the result of some negotiation--the assembled onlookers found their seats. Seating in the viewing tower was assigned, but sect representatives would migrate to talk with friends and rivals throughout the week-long event. The Cang Qiong peak lords were on the top level, with the other representatives of major sects.

Xiao Jiu had been quiet, and increasingly tense. This was the first time since his trial that he'd met with a group of outsiders. The other Cang Qiong peak lords had, without prior discussion, arranged to have at least one of them on the same floor with him at all times. Yue Qingyuan accompanied him most frequently, and enjoyed the quickly hidden astonishment from the other sect representatives when Shen Qingqiu accepted a guiding hand on his arm.

Yue Qingyuan stood beside him now, and watched the screens. Shen Qingqiu was watching his own students, of course, and following the misadventures of groups pointed out by other attendees. He didn't seem particularly focused on any group. The real action would come later in the Conference, as participants identified higher value targets to improve their standing.

Yue Qingyuan had been so busy when they arrived that he hadn't paid much attention to the attendees from other sects. One seemed to have caught Shen Qingqiu's attention--the attention of other onlookers, as well. The crystal screens tended to focus on the participants with the most activity, and this one was moving through Jue Di Gorge like a meteor.

Wait.

Yue Qingyuan looked more closely, then leaned in to speak to Shen Qingqiu under a muffling seal. "Did shidi change his mind?"

"No," Shen Qingqiu replied, with a glacial calm that boded ill for someone.

Yue Qingyuan straightened, controlling his face. That really could be trouble, later. When they returned, perhaps he could find a project for the youngster. His shidi was a little too permissive, with such a strong-willed student. Several of their allied sects welcomed visiting disciples. Maybe some sort of exchange program. A year or two without Xiao Jiu's protective aegis might be good for the boy.

Perhaps for more than one student. Luo Binghe was well known and well liked on Cang Qiong, and the other disciples of their group couldn't have missed him, in the audience of the introductory speech.

"At least he's wearing a mask?" Yue Qingyuan suggested.

"He's a head taller than any other participant," Shen Qingqiu countered flatly. “He entered under a pseudonym, at least. No prizes for guessing which one.”

Yue Qingyuan looked at the scoreboard, and hid a smile. “Ah, ‘Long Aotian’ looks like a favorite for the top three. Perhaps we should have placed a bet.”

“I don’t want to encourage him,” Shen Qingqiu sniffed.

*

Night had fallen when it started to go wrong. A shocked gasp from a small group watching a crystal screen was mirrored by another.

"What's one of those doing here? That's far beyond these students' levels."

"That's a Ghost-Face Eel!"

"No, it's--"

"Over there, on the other screen!"

Every sect representative was on their feet and crowding around the screens, as if they could reach through and pull their disciples back. Looking out from the viewing platform, emergency fireworks bloomed in the sky, sent from a dozen different areas inside the security array.

Yue Qingyuan automatically touched Xuan Su's hilt, feeling the reassuring hum of the sword's power--all the power he would ever need, as long as he was willing to pay the price--always ready at his fingertips. Then he felt the cool press of Xiao Jiu's fingers, as his hand was firmly moved to his other sword hilt. He had only worn it here so people would ask about it. Well. Point taken.

Chapter Text

Shen Qingqiu waited while, like last time, Yue Qingyuan prevented Zhao Hua from dropping the barrier array. The high level cultivators who would be entering the Gorge hurried toward the periphery, hashing out a rough plan of engagement as they went. Those with the highest cultivation level would spread out along one border, flaring their auras out as they pressed forward. Hopefully, that would alarm lower level demons and relieve some pressure on the disciples. Weaker demonic beasts would flee under the spiritual pressure, and stronger ones would switch their targets to the more valuable prey. Their primary goal would be to let the beleaguered students get to one of the four emergency shelters; once the bulk of the students were out of immediate danger, they would begin systematically clearing out the Gorge.

*

In the forest, Shen Qingqiu heard the sounds of a fight and rushed to investigate. It wasn't Luo Binghe, but Liu Mingyan. She was locked in combat with Sha Hualing, with no other enemies present. Sha Hualing... was wearing more jewelry than was strictly appropriate for a battle. Liu Mingyan had decisively taken the upper hand, and Sha Hualing was on the defensive. The young demon saint didn't look panicked, strangely. Her defensive moves had more flourishes than were strictly required. Still, Liu Mingyan looked to be winning handily, so Shen Qingqiu moved on.

*

Shen Qingqiu pressed quickly through the forest. He saw small rifts, and the aftereffects of others which had since collapsed. He encountered several disciples, alone or in small groups. A few were injured; Shen Qingqiu gave them a slapdash stabilizing treatment with the emergency medical supplies he carried, and sent them to the shelters. Even wounded, they could fly quickly on their swords, and with the auras of multiple Core Formation stage cultivators moving through the Gorge, demonic beasts would be moving with caution. With few stops, Shen Qingqiu made his way deeper into the Gorge, subtle senses alert for demonic energy, or Luo Binghe's magnesium flare of qi.

Then Shen Qingqiu heard it. The unmistakable hissing bellow of the Black Moon Python Rhinoceros. He broke into a run.

He pushed through the dim forest, liberally using Xiu Ya's sword energy to slice through low bushes and clear his path. He encountered a small pack of Ghost Head Spiders and casually dispatched them with a few flicks of his fan.

From reports on the Conference from his previous life, Shen Qingqiu knew there had been several encounters with Ghost Head Spiders. But it was another indicator that he was close.

He also saw what had attracted them; a small group of Conference attendees, lying senseless on the cold ground. Alive, but unconscious. The miasma from the small Abyssal rift which had brought the spiders still hung in the air; Shen Qingqiu dispersed it with his fan.

The way they had collapsed suggested that they were fleeing something. The spiders? Or... perhaps fleeing to something.

Ah. Shen Qingqiu remembered. The Thousand Year Purifying Snow Lotus, in this area. Well trained disciples, to think of it.

Shen Qingqiu hesitated. Unconscious, the disciples would be easy prey for any creature which showed up. He couldn't just leave them. But he had to go to do his part in the Abyss scene.

Shen Qingqiu heard another roar from the Black Moon Python Rhinoceros; the fight had started. He thought furiously, gripping Xiu Ya. The Protagonist's Golden Body would protect him. But these disciples were cannon fodder. The Conference from his previous life had proved that.

Working on memory and his subtle senses, Shen Qingqiu located the Thousand Year Snow Lotus, not far away. Its radiance was probably what had kept the Ghost Head Spiders from attacking immediately. Carrying the whole group to it would take too much time.

A-ha.

Shen Qingqiu couldn't leave the students undefended. But there was one thing he could do. Shen Qingqiu used Xiu Ya and four slashes of sword energy to carve an upside down pyramid in the ground around the Snow Lotus flower. Using a sticking charm to keep the soil together, and lifting the living flower and its soil with a featherlight charm, he floated the dimly luminescent plant into the center of the unconscious students. That should keep the demons at bay.

[ Secondary energy source detected! Would the host like to augment the System energy, Y/N? ]

{ Wait, wait, the flower? }

[ Correct. Would the host like to augment the System energy, Y/N? ]

{ Would that keep the flower's aura from protecting the students? }

[ The flower would no longer be in world instance Proud Immortal Demon Way, but rather in the System storage space. ]

{ ...No. I'll come back later. }

Shen Qingqiu flicked a glance over the clearing. All the students were within the dim glow of the flower, and he hoped they'd be sensible enough to stay near it when they revived. He moved on.

Chapter Text

Luo Binghe shuddered under the worst pain he'd ever felt. Worse than the street beatings he'd had as a child, worse than the beatings he'd had as a novice on Qing Jing, all the more bitter for their formality and Shizun's coldly impassive face. Worse than the injuries he'd had during the demon raid on Cang Qiong--the crushing blows from Elder Sky Hammer's massive weapon, and the treacherous poisoned scratches which he first hadn't noticed, then hid and treated himself.

It felt like molten metal was rushing through his body, warping his muscles and bones into something else. He twisted, trying to get away from whatever it was, but it felt like it was coming from inside him.

Then, cold, clear qi was there, too. It didn't push the hot stuff away, but made it bearable. The cool energy soothed the pain as quickly as the heat warped him.

When the strange, hot energy settled into a background burn, Luo Binghe became aware of his surroundings. He had to blink his tears away before his eyes could focus. The pale blur above him resolved itself into Shizun's face. As always, his expression was as distant as the clouds.

"Does it still hurt?" Shizun asked. Luo Binghe blinked up at him, mind momentarily blank. His body was on the cold ground, but his head was elevated. Shizun's long fingers were pressing his temples carefully. As Luo Binghe tried to make sense of that, the hands relaxed.

Luo Binghe's mind spun and failed to find traction. He was. He had. He had his head in Shizun's lap. Shizun was touching him. And he had missed it. He had been unconscious, like a fool, while Shizun gently ministered to him with his own perfect hands.

Shizun frowned and moved his hands back to Luo Binghe's temples. That cool energy returned and Luo Binghe drifted blissfully in it.

He felt a pinch to one of his ears. "Stay conscious, Binghe. You're in danger; you need to stay alert."

Luo Binghe opened his eyes again. "Yes, Shizun." That wasn't good. He meant to sound weak, but he was actually weak. What had--what had--

Luo Binghe remembered. His hand came up to his forehead and his eyes filled with tears. "Shizun, don't look!"

He heard Shizun sigh. "This teacher already saw." A hand brushed over his hair. Luo Binghe had never understood why Shizun seemed to believe he didn’t notice that.

"Shizun--"

"How long have you been practicing demonic cultivation, Binghe?"

Luo Binghe curled up and turned away. He covered his whole face, shaking. He suddenly remembered Shizun confronting Ming Fan about the fake cultivation manual, years ago. Luo Binghe now felt just the way Ming Fan had sounded. In the aftermath of Sha Hualing's failed raid, Shizun had spoken to him about it. He had said... that Ming Fan's greatest error was hiding his mistake from Shizun.

Shizun had said there was no mistake that was so terrible that he couldn't ask for help. And Ming Fan was still on Qing Jing, a valued disciple. Luo Binghe clung to that.

While Luo Binghe had been panicking, Shizun had pushed himself to his feet.

Luo Binghe uncurled and came to his knees, head down. "Since the Elder Dream Demon, Shizun." Luo Binghe took a breath. It was painful in his tight throat. "This disciple is sorry. This disciple should have told Shizun." There was a long pause. Shizun must be waiting for something else. Luo Binghe didn't dare look up. "This disciple shouldn't have disobeyed Shizun and tried to join the Conference. This disciple should have waited to be ready."

There was another pause. Then, Luo Binghe felt a warm, welcome weight on the top of his head--Shizun's hand. A fitful wind had picked up the miasma from the Abyss, but it no longer burned his eyes--Luo Binghe had already adapted enough to ignore its sting.

"Binghe, no. You were--more than ready." Shizun's voice sounded thick. When Luo Binghe peeked up, Shizun's eyes were shiny. "This teacher. This teacher simply didn't want you to grow up so fast."

"Does--does Shizun think this disciple is very wicked?" Luo Binghe had tears in his voice.

Shizun paused. "No," he said, voice very serious. "Even when Binghe's bloodline seal broke, he tried to use his power to protect the other disciples. This teacher is very proud."

Luo Binghe's head dropped in relief and his shoulders shook.

"Even so, there is a very serious problem, here."

Luo Binghe blinked up at Shizun.

"Your bloodline seal has been opened. Much faster and easier than it would have been if you didn't practice demonic cultivation, incidentally. Your demonic energy will be obvious to any cultivator. You can't leave the area because the security array is up. The best of your bad options is to enter the Abyss." Shizun reached down to pull Luo Binghe to his feet.

"What?" Luo Binghe immediately dug his heels in to resist. "Shizun, I'll stop, I'll--"

"The Conference was attacked by demons; the leaders won't give you the benefit of the doubt."

Binghe grabbed Shizun's wrist, panicked. "I had nothing to do with it!"

"Of course not, but protests will count for very little in the circumstances. Take these--" Shizun unhooked a ribbon in his sleeve, which held a long line of tiny qiankun bags. "Emergency supplies. The medical supplies are depleted, but hopefully your demonic regeneration will kick in. And this--" he unhooked the qiankun charm for his extra spiritual sword, pulled the blade out of storage, and pinned the charm to Luo Binghe's robe. Despite the grim situation, Luo Binghe flushed hot at the feel of Shizun tugging at his clothes. "Don't lose it; weapons in good condition will be hard to come by in the Abyss. This canteen has a large supply of water, but look for a safe source early. The miasma shouldn't be too dangerous given your constitution--Binghe! Pay attention!"

Luo Binghe took the sword, feeling dazed. "Sh-Shizun is serious?"

"Is this master inclined to joke? None of this would have been necessary if you listened to this teacher in the first place." Shizun settled a hand on his shoulder, warm and anchoring. "Listen now. You'll come out in the Abyss, which has many dangerous creatures but few sapient ones. Be ready to fly on the sword; I don't know how high the fissure is. From there, you can make your way to the demonic realm proper. You can reach the borderlands from there. But--focus, Binghe!--don't leave the borderlands until you can conceal your demonic energy. Most cultivators will attack on sight, especially after this mess. Understand?"

"Yes, Shizun." Luo Binghe had finally been browbeaten back into a student mindset.

"What are you going to do?"

"Go from the Abyss, to the demonic realm, to the borderlands, but not reenter the human world until I can control my demonic energy,” he recited obediently.

"Good. And stay away from Huan Hua Palace. The Old Palace Master is subtle and ruthless."

"Yes, Shizun."

"And don't pick up any demonic artifacts if you can avoid it. Destroy or discard them as soon as possible if you have to use them."

"Yes, Shizun."

"And," Shizun paused. "Make contact when you can. This old teacher will want to know you're alright."

Chapter Text

It was dawn before the senior cultivators were confident enough of their work to lower the security array and bring the juniors out. The disciples hadn't simply hidden in the aid shelters the whole time; those not badly injured had pressed out to hold the area around the shelters' smaller protective arrays. They were pale and shaky, but had held up well under the circumstances. The Intersect Conference competition was always dangerous, but this was the first time many of these juniors had faced such an overwhelming show of force.

Mu Qingfang was pleased by the speed and professionalism with which his disciples had reacted to this crisis. All his students were drilled to perform under pressure; those of his disciples who wished to become combat medics learned to work in chaotic conditions, and to improvise when they lacked supplies. That had paid off, in their response to this emergency.

Too many participating disciples had died. There were always a few deaths, and severe injuries, in this event, but this had been the worst in his memory. Huan Hua Palace had the highest casualty rate, and the most injuries; Mu Qingfang had treated their head disciple's broken arm personally. Now, the most severe and time-critical injuries had been treated, and Mu Qingfang was overseeing the current treatment areas.

Mu Qingfang was passing from one group of medics to another when he saw Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge moving in unison toward the edge of the occupied area. Shen Qingqiu must have returned, then. Mu Qingfang followed them; he'd seen Shen Qingqiu only a few times, from a distance, as the higher level cultivators cooperated in systematically clearing out the demon incursion. Shen Qingqiu had been involved in the offensive right through the final sweep through the security array, and hadn't appeared injured at that point, but Mu Qingfang knew Yue Qingyuan would call him over to check anyway. He might as well save time.

When he arrived at the group, it was clear something was wrong. Yue Qingyuan had his hands on Shen Qingqiu's arms, but the careful delicacy of the touch immediately rang alarm bells in Mu Qingfang's mind. Shen Qingqiu wasn't standing as if he had a broken bone, but Mu Qingfang wouldn't rule out internal injuries. He hurried his steps. As he approached the small group, he heard Yue Qingyuan asking questions in a low, soothing voice.

"This shidi is uninjured, Yue-shixiong," he heard Shen Qingqiu answer, voice uninflected.

"Shen Qingqiu." Liu Qingge hesitated. "You've been crying."

That provoked a reaction. "It's the miasma from the rifts," Shen Qingqiu snapped instantly.

"If this shidi could examine Shen-shixiong?" Mu Qingfang smoothly moved forward, pitching his voice to the calm, professional tone which would prompt automatic cooperation. Shen Qingqiu reflexively offered his wrist for his pulse.

Hmm. His shixiong's meridians were disturbed, but there was no sign of blockage. He'd had a shock, then.

They stood in the open; heads were turning to see what had prompted four Peak Lords to gather. It wouldn't do to worry the disciples, who were already tense and anxious in the aftermath of the attack.

Yue Qi