No matter what awful tortures filled Shen Qingqiu’s waking hours, sleep came as a release. Every night’s small helping of oblivion gave him strength for whatever Luo Binghe did next, allowed him to close his only eye and wait for the latest pain to pass.
Then the nightmares started. At first, he only saw him at the edges of his vision, souring a dream of the bamboo house or, in his happiest dreams, being a child again with Yue Qi. Shen Qingqiu could dismiss what he saw, even when he was filled with old fear. There was still the joy of being whole, of remembering being cared for. But soon, even that was lost.
Shen Qingqiu’s arms were numb from being tied behind his back. His legs were numb too, his knees throbbing from kneeling for over a shichen. Qiu Jianluo liked to keep him like this, making him into a living ornament. If Shen Qingqiu tried to adjust his position in even the slightest way, he’d get kicked in the chest. Sometimes the face, if Qiu Jianluo was feeling especially cruel. None of it should have mattered to Shen Qingqiu—Luo Binghe had done so much worse, and Shen Qingqiu had gotten his revenge against Qiu Jianluo and the rest of his household, after all.
In dreams, Shen Qingqiu was just a terrified child. His waking life, every year that he’d spent as Peak Lord, didn’t matter to Shen Jiu, who was living in hell, who daydreamed about being saved by Yue Qi. That was more painful than any of Qiu Jianluo’s blows—knowing that Shen Jiu would never be saved by Yue Qi, and that Shen Qingqiu would only bring misfortune to Yue Qingyuan. He was trapped with his younger self’s terror, knowing how much worse it would become. Shen Qingqiu had begun to dread sleeping as much as waking.
When he heard footsteps coming closer, his whole body shook. What kind of beating would Qiu Jianluo give him today? What humiliation would Shen Jiu have to endure? He was too afraid to lift his head and see Qiu Jianluo’s smile.
“Shen Qingqiu,” said a honeyed voice, the tone deeper than Qiu Jianluo’s. It was just as familiar. “I’ve learned so much about you.”
Luo Binghe put his fingers under Shen Qingqiu’s chin, tilting his head up. Shen Qingqiu felt abruptly taller, shifting into his adult body. But he was still bound.
“This disciple knows exactly how awful it is to feel like you do,” Luo Binghe continued. “Powerless. Wondering what you did to deserve this, if there’s any way to please the person who hates you so. It feels so much better to be on the other side, doesn’t it? But you’ll never be able to hurt anyone again. Does that make you sad, Shizun?”
It made him furious. Mutilated by his little beast of a disciple. He didn’t even have to be restrained to keep him in his cell anymore. His only comfort, knowing that Yue Qingyuan was alive somewhere, that at least he hadn’t taken down the phoenix with his rat’s fate—that was gone too. A shiver passed over him.
“I can take Qiu Jianluo away just as easily as I took away your limbs. But you have to give me something first.”
“What do you want, bastard?” Shen Qingqiu’s voice was clearer than it usually was, not as disused as it had become in the prison.
Luo Binghe clicked his tongue. “Shizun still speaks so unkindly to this disciple.” He shifted his hand to Shen Qingqiu’s cheek, his fingers tracing lightly over Shen Qingqiu’s skin. Shen Qingqiu shivered again. “Does this disciple repulse Shizun that much?”
A liar like Luo Binghe wouldn’t take Qiu Jianluo away. But the hand against Shen Qingqiu’s skin, that soft point of contact … No one disgusted him more than Luo Binghe. But Shen Qingqiu had only been touched with kindness a few times in his life. Since being imprisoned? His body was just an instrument of pain. Luo Binghe’s gentleness was threatening to destroy him.
“You never have to see Qiu Jianluo again,” Luo Binghe said, crouching down to Shen Qingqiu’s level, “if you let me do whatever I want with you.”
“Why do you need my permission? Haven’t you been doing whatever you want to me for years?”
“There’s one thing I haven’t done.”
Realizing what Luo Binghe wanted made gooseflesh appear on his arms. “You want to rape me? I see you’re that kind of low beast as well.”
“If that was what I wanted, I would have done it.” Luo Binghe rubbed his thumb against Shen Qingqiu’s cheekbone. “I want you to ask. Don’t you wish Qiu Jianluo gone?”
“That’s what Shizun said about Sect Leader Yue.”
Shen Qingqiu bit the inside of his cheek to keep silent. He couldn’t think about Yue Qingyuan, not with Luo Binghe’s hand on him.
“This disciple hasn’t had any need to lie to Shizun for a long time.” Luo Binghe ran his hand through Shen Qingqiu’s hair. “You don’t resist as much since you’ve started dreaming of him. It’s important for both of us that you get proper rest. Won’t you let me give that to you?”
“Don’t I disgust you too?”
Luo Binghe nodded, a smile creeping across his face. “But you also look inviting, before I ruined you.” As he settled his fingers over Shen Qingqiu’s lips, Shen Qingqiu’s skin tingled. “I won’t even demand that you say yes. Just don’t say no, and you’ll never see Qiu Jianluo again.”
Shen Qingqiu tried to force out a “no,” yet nothing came. The desire for rest, and being touched, held his tongue. Luo Binghe leaned in to press a kiss to the corner of Shen Qingqiu’s mouth. Shen Qingqiu felt nauseated at the same time it aroused him, a sharp feeling he’d nearly forgotten. When Shen Qingqiu didn’t pull away, Luo Binghe shifted, kissing him fully. Luo Binghe made a pleased noise, swiping his tongue across Shen Qingqiu’s lip so he would open his mouth.
Then Luo Binghe’s hands were on the ropes binding Shen Qingqiu, forcing open the knot to free him. He massaged Shen Qingqiu’s numb arms, making Shen Qingqiu gasp into his mouth when he rubbed his thumb in a slow circle over Shen Qingqiu’s palm.
“Does that feel good?” Luo Binghe asked. “Nod or I’ll stop.”
As Shen Qingqiu nodded, Luo Binghe kissed along his neck, pausing to feel Shen Qingqiu’s speeding pulse under his lips.
“I’m going to make this so good for you,” Luo Binghe murmured.
Shen Qingqiu loathed himself. He’d told Yue Qi that he could have all his loyalty in this life—where was that now? Yue Qingyuan was dead, and Shen Qingqiu’s body was responding to his murderer’s. Only someone as vile as Shen Qingqiu could react like this, would allow Luo Binghe to have him instead of resisting.
Luo Binghe gently moved Shen Qingqiu onto his back, mindful of his sore legs. He started massaging them next, stroking up and down Shen Qingqiu’s thighs. As he opened them up, his fingers kneading against Shen Qingqiu’s inner thighs, Shen Qingqiu was grateful there wasn’t much Luo Binghe could see under his robes.
“I want to see more of you,” Luo Binghe said, and without saying another word, Shen Qingqiu found himself naked. Shen Qingqiu snapped his legs shut, trying to conceal his arousal and everything else. Luo Binghe slid his hand between Shen Qingqiu’s thighs. “Don’t be ashamed; I’ll have to see it all eventually. Here, I’ll let you see me.”
Luo Binghe slid his outer robe off his shoulder as everything else he was wearing faded away. He opened Shen Qingqiu’s legs again as Shen Qingqiu blushed in embarrassment, exposing everything below his waist. Shen Qingqiu’s eyes drifted from Luo Binghe’s taut stomach to his cock.
“Exaggerating your size in dreams?” Shen Qingqiu asked, eyebrow raised.
Luo Binghe smiled. “I missed your legs,” he said, pressing a kiss to Shen Qingqiu’s calf before swiping over the skin with his tongue. “So long and well-formed,” he added, nuzzling it. “At least I can still have them in here.”
“And what are you?” Luo Binghe asked, wrapping his hand around Shen Qingqiu’s cock. “I’ve hurt you so badly, and yet you’re hard for me.”
Shen Qingqiu bit the inside of his cheek again, until he tasted blood. He was just as disgusting as Luo Binghe.
“In dreams,” Luo Binghe said soothingly, “nothing has to hurt.” As he stroked Shen Qingqiu, he used his other hand to slip one finger inside him.
Shen Qingqiu had heard that it was painful. There was none of that—only enough pleasure that Shen Qingqiu squeezed his eyes shut, unable to control the moan that escaped his lips.
“Imagine how something bigger would feel.” Luo Binghe pressed another finger inside, making Shen Qingqiu cry out. “Is Shizun ready for me?” Luo Binghe asked, speeding up his hand on Shen Qingqiu’s cock.
“You’re calling me Shizun like this?” Shen Qingqiu replied, a laugh bubbling up even as Luo Binghe’s hands had Shen Qingqiu digging his nails against the wooden floor. “Unclean disciple. Go ahead—do what you want.”
“What I want?” Luo Binghe said, letting go of him and withdrawing his fingers. Shen Qingqiu tried not to let the loss show on his face.
“Which of the things that I want, Shen Qingqiu?” He lifted Shen Qingqiu’s legs over his shoulders and settled between them. Ducking his head, Luo Binghe kissed Shen Qingqiu’s inner thigh, his hands resting on Shen Qingqiu’s hips. He looked at Shen Qingqiu from under his long lashes, his expression tranquil.
Shen Qingqiu hated him. He wanted to spit in Luo Binghe’s face; he’d done it before, and suffered each time. What if he raked his nails across Luo Binghe’s cheek, ruined that jade-like skin? He knew exactly what would happen if he did: Luo Binghe would leave him to Qiu Jianluo. Shen Qingqiu would eventually wake from the nightmare, alone in his cell, and wait for either Luo Binghe to return, or Qiu Jianluo. There was no ending.
“Take me,” Shen Qingqiu said under his breath.
The feeling when Luo Binghe finally pushed into him was so different from his fingers—this new pleasure was paralyzing, drove the breath from his lungs. Luo Binghe opened him up slowly, thrusting only a little inside before he pulled out. Shen Qingqiu reflexively tightened his legs.
“Don’t worry,” Luo Binghe said, “I won’t stop. But Shizun’s legs are getting in the way.”
A cold knot of fear settled over Shen Qingqiu as Luo Binghe stroked Shen Qingqiu’s thighs, and Shen Qingqiu forced himself to relax his trembling legs. Luo Binghe leaned down, thrusting inside him fully for the first time. Shen Qingqiu gasped.
“The box I sent to Sect Leader Yue originally held a qin. Do you think he found it appropriate?” Luo Binghe asked.
For one awful moment, Shen Qingqiu remembered Yue Qingyuan’s face, imagined the expression on it as he opened the box and realized what Luo Binghe had done to Shen Qingqiu. “Wretched beast.”
Luo Binghe grinned and increased the pace, chasing away most of the thoughts in Shen Qingqiu’s head. They were moving together now, Shen Qingqiu arching his hips in time with Luo Binghe’s thrusts. Shen Qingqiu’s body was as much a traitor to him as it was a disappointment. He came not long after that, his whole body tensing up in ecstasy.
“Shizun finished so quickly,” Luo Binghe chided. “How is this disciple supposed to achieve the same? Maybe Shizun would last longer in the real world…”
Shen Qingqiu came awake with a start. The Qiu manor was gone, replaced by his prison cell, and Luo Binghe was standing above him. How long had he been there, watching Shen Qingqiu’s nightmares? The lantern in Luo Binghe’s hand burned Shen Qingqiu’s sensitive eyes. He set the lantern on the floor, then reached for Shen Qingqiu’s clothes. The robe Shen Qingqiu was wearing had to be knotted in multiple places so it would fit on what was left of his body.
“I must be mad, to be willing to touch something like you,” Luo Binghe said, taking off Shen Qingqiu’s robe. “Don’t you think so? Do you think there’s anything worthy of desiring left?”
“There must be,” Shen Qingqiu replied, “because you’re hard.”
Luo Binghe laughed, running his hand down Shen Qingqiu’s chest. “So are you. It won’t feel as good here, you know. I wasn’t exaggerating my size.”
“Get it over with and go back to your wives and lackeys.”
“What if I made you a wife?” Luo Binghe asked, his hand brushing against the base of Shen Qingqiu’s cock. “I could ask your Yingying to wheel you around the gardens in a chair.”
Shen Qingqiu knew he was being humiliated, but the thought of being able to see gardens again made him despair that Luo Binghe was lying. Luo Binghe sat down in front of Shen Qingqiu and pulled him into his lap.
“If you’re good, I’ll think about it,” Luo Binghe lied, and kissed Shen Qingqiu’s forehead.
“I’d rather die.”
Luo Binghe took a jar of ointment out of his sleeves and coated his fingers with it before slipping two inside Shen Qingqiu at once. This time, it stung. He removed them just as quickly so he could open his robes and pull out his cock. Shen Qingqiu blanched at the size of it.
“See?” Luo Binghe said. “I can be honest.”
Hands firmly on Shen Qingqiu’s waist, Luo Binghe lifted him up and positioned him over his cock. Luo Binghe teased the edge of his hole, letting Shen Qingqiu know exactly how big he was before he thrust up for the first time. It was agony, but that was familiar to Shen Qingqiu. It felt better, in a way, than that awful pleasure in the dream. He barely made a sound as Luo Binghe forced him down, until he was fully seated.
“You are,” Luo Binghe growled, “uncomfortably tight. But I can fix that.”
Keeping one hand on Shen Qingqiu to hold him in place, Luo Binghe made his sword rise from its sheath so he could drag the blade across his palm. The sword clattered to the floor as Luo Binghe roughly pressed his hand to Shen Qingqiu’s mouth.
“Drink,” he commanded. Shen Qingqiu struggled, trying to turn his head away, but all he achieved was smearing blood across his mouth. “Drink, or I’ll never finish the deal, and you’ll have endured all this for nothing.”
Shen Qingqiu opened his mouth, letting the blood trickle past his lips. It tasted like metal and made him feel sick as he swallowed. Keeping his hand firmly against Shen Qingqiu’s mouth, Luo Binghe started to thrust again. It didn’t hurt as much, and Shen Qingqiu felt more open, receptive to Luo Binghe’s body the same way he was in the dream. Shen Qingqiu gagged on the blood, making Luo Binghe withdraw his hand. The wound healed immediately before he wiped the blood off on Shen Qingqiu’s chest.
“Shizun feels so much better now,” Luo Binghe said, briefly kissing Shen Qingqiu. “His body’s welcoming this disciple in.”
“Stop it,” Shen Qingqiu hissed.
“Is that a no?” Luo Binghe asked, speeding up. “Should this disciple really stop?”
Shen Qingqiu said nothing. His reaction to Luo Binghe was shameful, and when Luo Binghe kissed him again, Shen Qingqiu kissed back. Luo Binghe moaned, his hands tightening on Shen Qingqiu’s waist as he adjusted Shen Qingqiu’s position, suddenly rubbing against something that made Shen Qingqiu start panting into his mouth.
“You’re so desperate for me,” Luo Binghe said, pressing light kisses to Shen Qingqiu’s lips. “Will you want this again? Maybe I’ll give it to you.”
It felt even better than the dream, because there was pain it, because he knew it was real, because even his mutilated body could still experience pleasure. Shen Qingqiu came untouched, spilling across Luo Binghe’s robes. Luo Binghe followed him, biting Shen Qingqiu’s neck hard enough to draw blood as he climaxed. They stayed like that for an incense time, catching their breath.
Luo Binghe used Shen Qingqiu’s robe to wipe himself off, then dressed him again. His hands were efficient, his face shuttered as he propped Shen Qingqiu against his typical spot on the wall.
“I’ll keep my word,” Luo Binghe said, then left.
Shen Qingqiu wanted to weep. There wouldn’t be any more humiliation in it than what he’d just suffered, after all. But he’d lost the ability to cry a long time ago. He felt indescribably dirtied by Luo Binghe, by what he’d learned about himself. That he could be aroused by anyone, no matter how loathsome he was. His body was a burdensome thing that he couldn’t depart soon enough.
It took him a long time to fall asleep.
Shen Qingqiu was standing outside. He blinked in the sunlight and listened to the sound of wind passing through the trees. Had Luo Binghe kept his word? Was he really delivered of Qiu Jianluo and the suffocating manor? He found himself smiling as he walked forward, holding his hands open so he could feel the long grass caressing his palms.
Then he saw the archers on a distant hill. But they weren’t looking at him—they were looking behind Shen Qingqiu. He turned.
Yue Qingyuan was stumbling to his knees, pierced by countless arrows. Shen Qingqiu rushed towards him, arriving just in time to take him by the hand.
“Qi-ge,” Shen Qingqiu sobbed. Yue Qingyuan tried to look up, but was unable to lift his head. He didn’t even know that Shen Qingqiu was there before his body succumbed to the poison, dissolving into nothing but blood on Shen Qingqiu’s hands, staining the grass.
Shaking, Shen Qingqiu lifted his hands to his face, heedlessly smearing blood over his cheeks. “No,” he muttered. “No. It’s too cruel.”
Yue Qingyuan had died because of him. The only person Shen Qingqiu had ever cared for, summoned by a letter of blood that Shen Qingqiu had written in cowardice. There wasn’t even a body for Shen Qingqiu to hold. Nothing to bury, like he’d imagined doing, so many years ago. Shen Qingqiu groped in the grass for the shards of Xuan Su that he knew were there, the blade cutting into his hand when he found it. Good. He wanted the pain—maybe he could wake himself up. Anything was better than seeing Yue Qingyuan again.
Shen Qingqiu found himself standing in a field of grass. There was a soft breeze stirring through the trees, and archers in the hills. He turned.