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Nocturne for a Shooting Star

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The reason why Shen Qingqiu had become head disciple, and eventually peak lord, was a permanent topic in Cang Qiong's gossip ring.  

Some speculated that he had seduced his Shizun, pleased her with his body in return for lenience in regards to his foul personality.  After all, everyone knew that he came from a that kind of background.  

Others disagreed. Far too crass! The previous Qing Jing peak lord had been notorious for her lack of interest in such amusements.  Shen Qingqiu must have tricked her, sabotaged his martial brothers and sisters until he was the only candidate.  

But she was a master of diplomacy! The first group exclaimed.  Do you not recall how she handled the incident with Tian Yi? Nobody with such a discerning eye in political affairs would miss scheming as blatant as that of Shen Qingqiu!  

Perhaps he truly did have a heritage of importance, mused those convinced by both arguments.  It would also nicely explain why Yue Qingyuan was so desperate for his favor.

Shen Qingqiu, contrary to what his martial siblings might expect, did not actually have any knowledge of these rumors.  Though he certainly had a personality that might be discreetly described as the type, actually knowing the happenings of foreign social strata required having friends. In particular, friends that were both brave enough to relay less-than-flattering rumors, and also, not the most politically visible figure in the region.

If Shen Qingqiu had known about these rumors, though, he would have laughed.  For one, his Shizun had been more repelled by touch than even himself. For another, the one and only time he had attempted to sabotage his Shizun's carefully curated peak hierarchy and social structure, he had been brutally shut down not halfway through a scheme, and had been warned that the next offense would result in expulsion from the sect.  


It happened like this: Shen Jiu had been in disgrace for the last two months, ever since his failed attempt to frame the head disciple for thievery.  He spent his free time coming up with increasingly convoluted plots, ones that would undoubtably fail from sheer complexity before they even had a chance to be discovered by his Shizun.  In the meantime, however, he could not afford to be expelled from the sect, so he obsessively practiced the arts that he was taught: mathematics, calligraphy, poetry, and music.  The other arts required the involvement of other people, and were thus impossible to practice outside of class.

Calligraphy was a chore.  Poetry was inane. 

Music...


"Such talent," his Shizun said from behind him, as though enjoying a private joke.

Shen Jiu promptly broke a string on his guqin. 

After replacing the string under the eye of his smirking Shizun,  Shen Jiu had performed for an hour.

"Such talent," she said again, more wistful this time. She gave him a considering glance, and seemed to decide upon something.

Simmering with rage at the quiet condescension, Shen Jiu had watched suspiciously as she removed the layers hiding her hands from view. 

The view surprised the resentment out from his chest.

"A hammer would have been faster," he said, and went white as he realized what he had said.  Miraculously, she was merely amused.

Her fingers were gruesomely twisted, covered with scars and unable to completely straighten.  

"I used to be talented, too," she said. "That talent saved my life, from a demon.  Then the demon took my fingers, in return."

She gave him him an infuriatingly superior look, and Shen Jiu was reminded of why he hated her.

"Tomorrow, I'm going to start assigning you students.  You will study with me, twice a week."


Shen Jiu had thought his lessons overly simple, irrelevant, and rather boring.

He now realized these problems were minuscule in comparison to the torment known as teaching.

Ten years, eighty acclaimed performances of his own compositions, and forty students bullied to halfway passable later, Shen Jiu was made head disciple. 


"Such talent,"  Luo Binghe says, lounging in front of him.

Shen Qingqiu snaps a string.

"Wasted!" the beast laughs.  "If Shizun reacts so to compliments, then perhaps this one should give him more."

The beast gets off his chair, walks to where he stares blankly  at his instrument.

"Shizun promised to entertain me," he croons into his ear.  "But Shizun is finished, and I am not satisfied.  Does Shizun wish to move to other activities?"

Shen Qingqiu shows his opinion of that suggestion by slamming his fist towards the little beast’s cock.

Unfortunately, Luo Binghe learned his lesson the last time Shen Qingqiu had tried such a maneuver. 

Shen Qingqiu does not regret it, regardless of what the beast had done to his legs in retribution.

"Shizun's eagerness is an inspiration for us all,"  the beast says, pinning Shen Qingqiu's hand where it had landed, not pausing in his siege forward.

"Perhaps Shizun will sing for this one, today."

He slides an arm under Shen Qingqiu's legs, reaching around with the other to catch the hands flying towards his eyes.

"Shizun should really be more careful with his hands," the beast reprimands.  "If he were to injure his hands, he could not play for this one.  And then who would protect Yue-shibo?"

Xuan Su hangs, pristine, sealed, above Luo Binghe's bed.  The beast likes to make sure Shen Qingqiu has a good view of it.


Shen Qingqiu despises regret.  The feeling of it, the principle of it, the sheer uselessness.  People did what they did, because they thought they should, and if they were too stupid to understand the consequences, then that was their own fault.  

Hope is equally revolting.  A chain, that people put upon themselves, then act surprised when they find themselves limited.  Shen Jiu had hoped that Yue Qingyuan would save him, instead of making it happen.  

If the starving peasants in the street ever managed to work together, they could have all the rice they could eat.  But they wouldn't, because of useless hope that their pathetic children would somehow produce a better lifestyle, without any real sacrifices. They wouldn't, because of regret for not taking the opportunity earlier.


"What's this one about, Shizun?"

Shen Qingqiu glares.  The sheer quantity of idiotic questions was the best argument the beast had produced yet, that he should have been allowed to attend class at Qing Jing.

"It's not about anything," he snaps. "It's just music."

"I don't believe that," Luo Binghe pouts, eyes and mouth twisting in a way that made him look patently ridiculous. 

"What do you think it is about?" he asks.  He had asked his students this question, a long time ago. It helped them focus the structure of the piece, since their tiny brains couldn't process music in its pure form.  The semblance of teaching the little beast makes him want to gouge out his eyes, but at this point, Shen Qingqiu just wants a break from entertaining the wretched brat.  If he didn't have to answer questions, he could close his eyes and pretend to be alone, just like every other performance since his shizun left.

"Does Shizun finally grow to care about my thoughts?" the brat taunts. When Shen Qingqiu ignores him, he forges on, undiminished.

"So. A beautiful woman, likes a handsome prince.  Oh! She doesn't trust him. Because... because she thinks he only wants her for dual cultivation.  And she thinks that, uhh, because she has heritage that makes her better for dual cultivation? You know what, she's a star. There's definitely some starry stuff, in that high and dancy bit, and then it goes lower, which would mean not a star anymore. And she's good for dual cultivation because she's a fallen star. So, eventually, the handsome prince convinces her to have sex, and then she realizes he really does love her, after all."

Shen Qingqiu continues playing.

"Well?"

"Well?"

"HEY!"

Shen Qingqiu opens his eyes.

"What now?"

"What did you think of the story?"

Shen Qingqiu is moderately disdainful of the story, mostly because he hadn't heard anything past "beautiful woman".  He refuses, on principle, to say it was fine.  But if he said it was awful, he would need to justify why.

"What is the name?" From this answer, he could safely scorn whatever answer Luo Binghe gave.

"Stardust."

Shen Qingqiu sniffed.

"Unoriginal."


“So, there's this young man, and he wants to... something.  Something to do with demonic beasts. Maybe taming them? Anyway, he wants to be the best, so he goes around defeating all the other beast tamers, and he takes the dojo signs, and he marries the princess beast tamers.

"What name?"

"You know, that's a hard one..."

"Hmph."


"So, there's this princess, and she's under this curse that makes her turn into a frog at night, and she needs to dual cultivate with an accomplished cultivator to cure her curse. The cultivators refuse to help, because the curse makes her seem evil, even though she hasn't done anything to deserve it.  Finally, she finds finds a powerful demon, and beats him up, and gets cured that way. He fell in love with her while dual cultivating, though. And then they go back and get revenge on all the cultivators that threw her out.  It's very romantic.

"Name?"

"The Proud Immortal... Frog?"

Shen Qingqiu can't take it anymore.

"Sonatina Pathetique," he offers, immediately regretting it when Luo Binghe's face lights up.


"I have a proposal," Luo Binghe says.

"What?" asks Shen Qingqiu, warily. 

Luo Binghe's last proposition had been for Shen Qingqiu's willing service, every night, in exchange for Yue Qingyuan's life.

The beast smiles.  

"I need someone to perform at an event. Who better than you?"

Such a task would be easier than his current occupation, of simultaneously playing his guqin and sparing attention for whatever drivel Luo Binghe threw his way.  At a political gathering, he wouldn't be expected to talk.

"What do I get out of this?" he asks.

"I would let Yue Qingyuan leave."

Shen Qingqiu wonders how the little beast figured out that particular weak spot.  He certainly knew how to use it.


"My husband," Luo Binghe introduces him, and Shen Qingqiu better understands what the little beast is getting out of this performance.

His eyes seek out Yue Qingyuan, in the crowd.  

It happens like this: Shen Qingqiu is obedient and demure and sweet to the demon king, in front of a huge audience of his former allies.  Yue Qingyuan has been released from his years of solitary confinement, and is wandering the crowd looking lost and diminished and vulnerable.  When the party ends, he will be allowed to leave.  He will not be allowed to take Xuan Yu. 

Hope digs its roots in Shen Qingqiu's chest, and he wants nothing more than slice open his chest and rip it all out.

What Yue Qingyuan needs to do is find someone, powerful, to give him shelter until he recovers.

What Yue Qingyuan does is stand beneath Shen Qingqiu's pedestal, as close as he can get without being pulled back by Luo Binghe's harem guards.

Shen Qingqiu is layered in exquisite robes, hidden behind a veil, and mildly obscured by the screen at the edge of his stage. He simply needs to perform well this night, and then Yue Qingyuan will be out of the beast's hands, and Shen Qingqiu can slit his throat when Luo Binghe leaves him alone.

Even if he wanted to, it wasn't possible for Shen Qingqiu to slip away and find Yue Qingyuan in the throng of people. Not with his crippled legs, anyway.

Shen Jiu had vowed to himself: no more attachments.  No more people that could claim a piece of his soul.  He had believed in Yue Qi, and it had crippled him, and he had loved Qiu Haitang, and it had blinded him.

Despite all that, despite years of resentment both subtle and overt towards his Shizun, he nevertheless tasted the iron of betrayal.

"Why are you leaving?"

She shrugged.  The sheer carelessness enraged him, like nobody but Yue Qingyuan has ever been able to make him react.

"Most of the peak lords are dead. You are ready. No reason to wait."

Shen Jiu wanted to scream at her, but he couldn’t figure out what to say.  It was true that most of the peak lords were dead, even if the head disciples for those peaks were nearly competent. He was ready, too, he knew it.  This is what he wanted, when Yue Qi went to cultivate when they were both children; security, power, comfort.

This was what he wanted.

This was what he had worked so hard for.

She waited for him to say something. He stayed in a perfectly respectful, distant salute, refusing to give her the satisfaction.

She left.

The next day, Shen Qingqiu ended all of his private lessons. 


“Did you enjoy yourself?" the little beast asks, carrying him back to the bed they shared.

Shen Qingqiu snorts, and brandishes his bleeding fingers.

Luo Binghe gives him a satisfied smile.

"Superior, as always."

"What was the event about?" he asks, more hoping to distract Luo Binghe than to get an answer.

But Luo Binghe surprises him.

"I plan to merge the demonic and cultivation worlds."

That... Shen Qingqiu can't even begin to imagine.

"How do you plan to protect the farmland?" he asks faintly.  

Cang Qiong possesses the greatest concentration of spiritual energy, so its likely counterpart would be the eternal abyss. Especially since the abyss had even opened there, years ago at the Immortal Alliance Conference. 

Considering his general uselessness, Yue Qingyuan was probably heading there.  Slowly, but fast enough.

"It happens as it happens.  The strong will survive."

Shen Qingqiu tastes iron.

He didn't like the little beast.  He still hated him, undoubtedly.

But he had played for Luo Binghe every night for years.  Regardless of what Shen Qingqiu wanted to admit, music came from the soul, and Luo Binghe had been greedily eating it up for years.  A connection was formed, regardless of intent.

Yue Qingyuan probably wouldn't get to Cang Qiong in time, anyway, not without a sword.

"I have a proposition," Shen Qingqiu says.

Without sustenance, even the strongest became weak.  The kindest became cruel.  Organizations crumbled.

Every street rat knows that.

Luo Binghe smiles.