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as a lodestone to the north

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Shen Jiu went through three qi deviations during the first six months he spent at Cang Qiong.

The episodes were unpleasant, but the time he spent recovering from them was worse -because it was boring, because he was forced to lie still, when stillness, in the streets, had been a synonym for death.

And because, every moment that he spent on his back, counting the cracks in the infirmary’s ceiling, the hope of returning to find Yue Qi still alive withered and died, bit by bit.

The fourth time Shen Jiu woke to a pounding headache and the thick taste of blood in his throat, he was surprised to find he was still lying on the hard-packed dirt where he’d fallen. Someone had placed a balled-up piece of fabric beneath his head, and he Qian Cao head disciple was leaning over him with the sternest expression Shen Jiu had ever seen on his soft features.

“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” Mu Qingfang asked, jabbing a needle into the meat of Shen Jiu’s shoulder. “It’s a miracle you haven’t permanently damaged your cultivation.”

“You wouldn’t understand,” Shen Jiu bit out. He knew Mu Qingfang’s type. He was the sort of person who would, on festival days, scatter coins among the street urchins like they were pieces of candy, and believe himself generous - a mark, in Shen Jiu’s old life.

“Believe me,” Mu Qingfang replied, “I’ve heard it all. What is it? Money? A girl you’re trying to impress? Some cousin or other who attained immortality and won’t let you hear the end of it until you overtake him?”

Shen Jiu scoffed. “If you must know,” he said, “there’s someone I need to get out of…” he trailed off, unsure how the cultured young master he was pretending to be would put it, “out of a bad situation,” he concluded.

“So it is about a girl,” Mu Qingfang said, “What bad situation?” he hesitated, “Is she a prostitute?”

“No, you idiot,” snapped Shen Jiu, forgetting all about pretending to be a cultured young master. “I’m thirteen.” He had, over the course of the past few months, become aware that girls had breasts, and it was interesting sometimes, the same way boys’ jawlines and arms could be interesting, but still wasn’t quite sure what he was meant to do with that knowledge. He certainly wasn’t far enough along on the journey of discovery to be entangled in some sordid love affair.

“Oh,” said Mu Qingfang. “You’re younger than you look.”

No, he wasn’t. A lifetime of malnutrition had seen to that, leaving him slight and diminutive for his age. Then again, maybe Mu Qingfang had been basing his estimation on the assumption that youth would entail innocence, or some such rot.

After a lengthy pause, Mu Qingfang asked, more gently, “So, who is this person you need to help? And in what situation are they in?”

“My friend,” admitted Shen Jiu. He hesitated, unsure whether this could be used against him, or against Yue Qi. Fuck it. It wasn’t like he was getting anywhere by keeping it a secret. “He was sold as a slave to a rich household. They’re treating him badly. I promised that once I joined a sect and became strong, I would come back for him.”

Mu Qingfang’s brow furrowed. “If it’s like this, why didn’t you just ask the Peak Lords for help?”

Shen Jiu blinked. Truth be told, he hadn’t even considered it. Adults weren’t people to be trusted or relied on, in his experience. Authority figures, even less.

He’d assumed that rule would carry over into his new life, no matter how much the old bat he had to call Shizun pretended she liked him. “Do you really think they’d help?”

Mu Qingfang smiled gently and patted his shoulder, right next to where the surgical needle was still embedded. “Do you have anything to lose by trying?”

***

Yue Qi was very skinny and very pale, when they found him.

Shen Jiu supposed that he had always been, but after a year spent among well-fed people, and getting decent meals himself, the sight of someone who had always been a protector, lying so frail and still, had still been a shock.

The Qiu had not treated him well, though it still hadn’t been as bad as it could’ve been. He was still alive, for starters, and hadn’t been permanently crippled. One of his arms had been broken, at one point, and set badly, so that it had to be broken again to fix it, and he had several gashes and bruises in various stages of healing, but nothing worse than that.

He still had to spend several days in the infirmary on bedrest, once they got to Cang Qiong, a time during which Shen Jiu displayed an hithertofore unseen zealousness in accompanying his injured or ill martial brothers and sisters to Qian Cao.

And if it turned out that no such conveniently unwell person was readily available - well, Shen Jiu could engineer a nasty fall with the best of them.

His teacher put a very firm stop to this practice four days in. “Consider yourself exempt from your usual duties,” she said, levelly, like she hadn’t at all caught Shen Jiu on his knees, filling another disciple’s boots with sharp bits of gravel. “Go and visit your friend. You can tell him the good news.”

Shen Jiu swallowed. He got up, striving for the same level of self-assured insouciance the Cang Qiong sect leader displayed every day and probably falling about a mile short. “What good news?”

“That he may stay, of course,” she replied. “Not quite the proper procedure, but he does have a very high potential for cultivation, so we decided to forego the admission test.”

“Oh,” Shen Jiu said. Of course, Qi-ge was talented. He’d always been the best of them. “What peak?”

The sect leader’s lips twisted in a sardonic little smile. “We’re not sure, yet. He’s the subject of a fairly intense bidding war.” She shrugged. “Seniority dictates he should go to Qing Jing, but we’ll see.”

“Not Qiong Ding?”

“Ah, no,” she replied, “That boy might turn out to be peak lord material, and I already have half an idea of who to pick for Qiong Ding. It would be a shame to waste his potential.”

“Qing Jing might be a good fit for Qi-ge,” Shen Jiu said, even though his opinion probably wasn’t being solicited. Yue Qi had never displayed any scholarly inclinations, but Qing Jing was the second-best peak.

He wondered, almost idly, who it was that his teacher was taking into consideration as a successor, and what he could do to get rid of that person.

If he and Qi-ge could be peak lords together, it would be good.

“We shall see,” the sect leader said, but she was smiling. “Do clean out those boots before you go. We don’t need more injuries.”

***

Yue Qi was asleep, when Shen Jiu reached him, his chest rising and falling regularly, his lashes trembling gently.

For some reason, the sight of him, rosy-cheeked and full-lipped, made something turn over and squeeze in Shen Jiu’s chest. He hesitated, then he kicked off his shoes and shrugged off his outer robe, and crawled into bed beside Yue Qi, curling into his side the way he had when they were small.

Yue Qi made a low, annoyed sound in his sleep, but settled easily enough when Shen Jiu took his hand.

It was an uncomfortable position. The bed really wasn’t wide enough to hold them both, now that they weren’t on the edge of starvation, and the pin Shen Jiu had used to adorn his hair was digging into the side of his head.

Still, he wouldn’t have traded it for the world. “You’re going to have to call me Shixiong,” he whispered, unaccountably giddy, pushing a stray lock of hair from Yue Qi’s forehead.

Qi-shidi.

It did have a nice ring to it.