Chapter 1: Questions and Empty Rooms
Life for Liu Qingge made sense due to its simplicity.
His mother had lovingly called him her ‘swift arrow,’ straight to the point, inflexible, elegant, and dangerous. Others would have been insulted to have such a nickname by a family member. He shrugged, learning the path of least resistance was with the wind and not against it. He’d never cared what others thought.
Martial arts fell into one of the few simple categories. Art was his antithesis, nothing but wrong answers that can be right and everything was subjective. Mostly arguing and words. He hated it. With fighting, it was simple; don’t die, keep practicing, and stab the other person or thing. Easy.
The unfortunate fate that he was beautiful, or pretty made life unsimple. Of course beauty -to his utmost annoyance- was another one of those subjective things in life. Yet, from a young age people of all ages, genders, and standing would comment on how handsome he was. As if that meant something. His body was small, so he trained. Purposefully he learned to frown, especially when people who called him pretty wanted him to smile. In his youth he caused enough dinner fights his parents just stopped taking him to formal events. He preferred it that way.
Contemplating his life, in ways that made things unsimple, Liu Qingge returned to the Cang Qiong Mountain he’d never considered his home but more his base camp. It too was familiar, the paths of the mountain well worn, the lessons repeating, his duties and paperwork unending and tedious. Same old, same old.
Life had a pattern, he followed it because it had made things simple.
Anything unsimple, palpitated his heart, made his mind swim, he’d sweat and want to crush it. His sister called that anxiety and he’d frown at her.
Simple was good.
Until Luo Yuan and his strange family.
Within seconds of meeting, Liu Qingge had recognized Luo Binghe. He’d been brought back to the moment he’d seen the boy, during the idiotic selection ceremony, a year or so back. It had been like being in a meadow and seeing a young fawn and instantly knowing that it would grow into a mighty buck.
Away from the mountain, Luo Binghe had flourished under his father’s care. More proof for Liu Qingge of how unfit Shen Qingqiu was to be a teacher. Not that he considered himself much of an instructor, yet he didn’t mistreat or damage his students' cultivation.
As he always did, the first thing Liu Qingge did upon returning was to find his sister. After a brief search where he scared a few disciples, he found her reading alone under the shade of a flowering wisteria pavilion. He caught the title of the book right as she set it down, ‘Thousand Lanterned Sky.’ He didn’t enjoy reading, but the boys had and he’d tolerated lying in the grass of the peaceful valley, watching the clouds float by as Qinglong read aloud. Something in his chest had settled.
“You appear troubled,” Liu Mingyan said in a way of greeting. Right to the point.
Liu Qingge recalled how every single time the sons or their father saw each other, they would hug.
Multiple times a day.
Pressing close, smiling, humming happily. Never in his entire life had he seen people hug that way. Considering his sister, he attempted to recall if they had ever hugged. When she was little, he carried her everywhere. Partially for training and partially because she cried and he hated the noise. At some point they stopped. Because it was what everyone did. The rules that people followed.
Except that wasn’t the case?
His fingers twitched at his side, arm muscles tensing before he exhaled and turned his head from his sister, gathering his thoughts.
Things were unsimple and he hated that.
“I met,” his voice trailed off. He couldn't say he found a missing disciple. He also could not even bring his lips to say the word friend, despite how easily Luo Yuan called him so. “An odd family that took me in for a few weeks. I trained with the two sons in return for a debt owed.”
Although it wasn’t.
He frowned, hating that he couldn’t easily sort the odd family and their fascinating relationship into a box as everything else in his mind filtered into. Maybe the solution was just to give them their own box? A massive box just marked Luo.
“A friend?” Liu Mingyan cut straight to the point.
He pursed his lips, not agreeing or disagreeing. Two younger disciples approached the pavilion as if to talk to his sister, saw him and fled.
“I would like to meet this odd family.”
Picturing his sister in the valley, Liu Qingge considered that she’d be able to take off her veil, unharrassed by the Luo family or the citizens of the city nearby. If people could ignore the tall, intimidating and attractive yet odd Luo Yuan, his sister would not even be noticed. Despite the oldest son’s hilarious suspicion of him and cutting remarks, he knew Liu Mingyan would get along most with Qinglong. Lord Luo would enjoy spending money and shopping for Liu Mingyan and fighting the Lord would be wonderful practice for his sister. He could imagine Binghe, who was shy yet also fierce, reading with his sister under the shade of a tree, watching the oxen graze, making her sweets for them to share.
It was a lovely image and he hated how vivid it was for him.
He was not prone to daydreams.
He tapped his fingers on the table.
“Mn,” he replied, thoughts swirling. “I promised I’d return with books for the youngest boy. You read.”
“Oh,” Liu Mingyan exclaimed, eyebrows raised. “You want my help for gifts when you return.”
“How old are the boys?”
He did not know. “Fourteen and sixteen.” Probably?
“What do they enjoy?”
“The youngest enjoys stories, cooking and”-hugging- “physical activities. The oldest has a fondness for snakes, he keeps one as a pet, clothing, and irritating me.”
Liu Mingyan laughed. “I have some books in mind.”
“I will take them when I leave.” he stood up and she did the same, her hand reached out then fell at her side. His arm also twitched as if to lay a hand on her shoulder, which he’d never done. He swayed on his feet.
“When you have time, we should spar.”
Her eyes widened. He’d never made such a request. She nodded and he left, hands twitching at his side.
Simple. He saw his sister as he always did.
On to Peak duties and paperwork.
He reported to the Sect Leader, and was informed of a mandatory meeting he couldn’t avoid in two weeks time. Annoying yet also predictable.
Liu Qingge returned to the house assigned to him. In the silence, so deep he could hear his blood rushing through his veins, he wished for a moment to be somewhere else.
Unsimple and unusual.
Shaking his head as if to dislodge the thoughts like enemies latched onto his back, Liu Qingge changed clothes and went to the training yard to spar. Fighting made sense. He just needed to perform his duties, follow his schedule, and walk the worn path.
Simple, ordered, predictable.
Just how he liked it.
At night, the thoughts he’d been unable to beat out of his mind during training, tormented him.
Most of his life, he’d been alone and that had been fine. Since returning to the peak, Liu Qingge hadn’t noticed how quiet his room was. In a few weeks he'd become accustomed to the Luo family breathing in the same room as him. Luo Yuan mumbled in his sleep. Luo Qinglong occasionally made sharp hissing noises while his younger brother Luo Binghe whimpered only to be shushed by his father or brother. Every moment they occupied space around him, they were noisy and vibrant.
They touched each other so often and affectionately he couldn't always watch. The citizens of the city were not even bothered or baffled by the amount of affection they showed. A thorn lodged inside his chest everytime he observed them.
Unable to sleep, he got up and wandered the peak at night as he’d done as a youth. How strange, those people and these feelings and thoughts. What could he do? What did he want to do? The more his mind remembered the more jumbled and tangled it felt. He was supposed to be the straight arrow, the swift attack, and the one without problems.
At night, with no one around and no expectations, his shoulders sagged with a sigh. He continued shoving all those thoughts into the Luo box.
Complicated and exciting or boring and predictable.
He felt tugged in opposite directions, threatened to tear in two.
After five days of interrupted sleep, unease and a slow boiling irritation, Liu Qingge met the one person he didn’t ever want to see, Shen Qingqiu. Said scummy cheat breezed into the library as he was examining the manuals available. Luo Binghe didn’t look like it yet, but judging from his father and his well defined muscles, the small boy would blossom. A manual that focused on more powerful attacks with more full bodied actions would suit the boy better.
“If Peak Lord Liu Qingge wanted a manual, does he not have his own printed stack on his own peak? If you are having trouble with the characters, I can have a disciple draw you a picture,” Shen Qingqiu slid up to him, attempting badly to sneak up.
Everything that came out of his mouth had multiple meanings. He lied constantly. Liu Qingge got a headache trying to decipher every single word that came from the scumbags lips. Why not just say what he meant? Liu Qingge suspected Shen Qingqiu would die before showing an ounce of emotion or honesty. And people whispered he was a cold brick wall.
“I have a disciple that requires something different.”
Shen Qingqiu covered half his face with that stupid fan of his, making his gestures inauthentic and more challenging to understand. People lied all the time and Liu Qingge grew progressively more agitated the more people lied to him or tried to use their sickly sweet words to manipulate him into doing what they wanted. He was aware how ‘simple’ people found him and while they sneered at the word he judged them for being too ‘complicated.’ Why not just speak what you want?
He loved fighting for that exact reason. There was a clear loser and a clear winner, none of that complicated bullshit of compromise or secret promises that stab people in the back.
“Then you shouldn’t have taken a disciple you are unable to teach. I’ve found that a steady hand straightens the back.”
Remembering Luo Binghe’s reaction to the word “Shizun,” the rumors circulating, and how the boy flinched for days when he raised his own hand, Liu Qingge scowled. He set the book down and met the scumbag’s sharp green eyes. Unfortunately it was against Sect Policy for one Peak Lord to attack another. It was also against the rules to insight violence in the library. Liu Qingge also knew of the Sect Leaders disgusting soft spot for the Scumbag and how the dishonorable prick abused said privilege.
Without a word of acknowledgment, knowing the silent treatment would drive Shen Qingqiu mad, Liu Qingge left. He didn’t smile but hearing the bastard sputter and stomp his foot brought him an immense amount of satisfaction.
The rules were simple and straightforward. And for the first time since he could remember, Liu Qingge didn’t want to follow them. His black and white system didn’t bring him the ease it usually did.
That night, unable to sleep, a worryingly new habit, Liu Qingge snuck into the Qing Jing Peak library.
As a boy he perfected the art of disappearing, if only to avoid his relatives or those wishing to propose to him or worse engage in small talk. He had a suspicion Luo Yuan, had the man been on the Peak, would have eagerly joined him in his stealth mission. Liu Qingge could even imagine Qinglong tagging along, and him teaching the young boy swift-steps and how to blend into the shadows.
He’d never even taught his sister the shadow-quick steps. He paused. Why hadn’t he ever offered to teach her? She’d had to disappear from situations just as swiftly as he had. It had never occurred to him. For most of his life he’d hear people speak about how challenging he was as a teacher, how easy he learned, moved and grew in cultivation seemingly without effort.
No one saw him practice at night.
It had just been easier to let them assume.
Simple to train alone at night.
Shoving more thoughts and feelings into the Luo box which expanded and grew as he constantly filled it, Liu Qingge opened a window on the top floor of the library and climbed inside. Dark and full of shadows, silent and empty, Liu Qingge’s eyes adjusted as he walked swiftly and quietly, knowing which floor boards to walk around.
Inside the library, at night, by the light of the moon and fueled by spite, he shoved books inside his storage pouch, then proceeded to channel Luo Yuan and began reorganizing the shelves, taking books and shoving them in places they did not belong. Shen Qingqiu had wasted his opportunity to be Luo Binghe’s Shizun and it pissed him off.
He had seen the potential in the young man and he should have fought for him. Even now, the small boy - too small for his age- flinched when he raised a hand, even just to scratch his ear. The signs of abuse were obvious. Liu Qingge did not even consider the idea that his father or brother had been the ones to hurt him. No, it had to be Shen Qingqiu.
Liu Qingge had made it his mission in life to infuriate the pompous snake as much as humanly possible. The Bastard cheated, lied, practiced debauchery and tarnished the name of the mountain for simply existing. Liu Qingge’s job as a cultivator was to defeat ‘evil’ and while Shen Qingqiu was not evil, he did need to be beaten down. Humbled.
So he reorganized the shelves, stole manuals, books, and a few scroll paintings he knew were created by Shen Qingqiu then left the library as silently and unnoticed as he’d arrived. He considered breaking some chairs but resisted. The disciples might be blamed for that.
His chest expanded with a laugh but he didn’t release it. Only the moonlight saw him smile. He didn’t sleep that night, his house too large, too quiet, his skin too tight. But the unease in his chest lessened.
Now he had gifts for Luo Binghe. He needed two others for Lord Yuan and Qinglong.
Then he’d return to the valley.
Except what would he do after? He didn’t truly have a reason to return. Lord Yuan could have just been using fake politeness, as people did, when he’d offered a room in the house for Liu Qingge. Not a guest room. An actual room for him. Just him.
His fingers twitched, muscles quivering, unsure if he should move or stay still.
Eleven days later, with growing unease, he couldn't identify and refused to sit long enough and think on, Liu Qingge attended the mandatory Peak Lords meeting. He sat across from Shen Qingqiu. The two traded sharp words, as always. The Sect Leader, excused the bastard, as always. Shang Qinghua hid behind his paperwork and avoided eye contact, as always. Predictable. Boring.
His foot lightly tapped under the table.
“Huan Hua Palace has reported a strange string of thievery, as have smaller Sects.” The Sect Leader began the meeting. “The culprit has been stealing from libraries. Occasionally, in Huan Hua’s case, leaving items that do not belong. It is believed to be harassment and up until last night we were seen as one of the culprits-”
“They stole from my library,” Shen Qingqiu interrupted the Sect Leader with a snap of his fan. “This is an attack on all of us.”
No one mentioned that while the main library resided on the Qing Jing Peak, it was not in fact Shen Qingqiu’s. Liu Qingge settled his hands under the table, clenching his pants tightly, forcing his eyebrows to furrow and lips to pull down in a frown lest he begin laughing. How amusing.
The Sect Leader began listing off all the books, novels, and manuals stolen. It could be a coincidence but Liu Qingge had seen a box of scrolls and manuals stuffed in the corner of the Luo family room. He ground his teeth to keep from smiling.
Shen Qingqiu squawked like a bird about the thievery, a few other Lords weakly joining in.
“I will investigate.” He offered in a clipped tone.
Shen Qingqiu stopped mid-tirade to glare at him, pointing the damned fan in his direction. “How generous of you Shidi-” the too familiar name grated at him and he scowled as Shen Qingqiu grinned “-to care about the pride of our Mountain. Fighting is what you are good for. Go Fetch. Bring my books back.”
The Sect Leader, a physically strong person Liu Qingge admired yet a weak person emotionally -possibly mentally- he disdained like the others, did nothing. Saying one thing and doing another. Over with the bullshit and drama, Liu Qingge stood up and left.
He had a very good excuse to visit the valley.
But he couldn't go yet. He didn’t have gifts ready.
Liu Mingyan found him and requested a spar. He led her to a place everyone on his Peak knew was his training area and stayed away from. Any disciples caught sneaking around were given extra training and laps around the mountain.
After their sparring practice where he corrected her stance then suggested she use more force in her lunges pointing out where she faltered mid-swing, thus losing power in her attack, they sat in silence watching the sun set.
His sister reached into the pouch at her hip and set down a bundle of books tied with a sturdy soft looking red rope. “I spoke with some sisters on my peak and gathered some books. They will both find these informative. They will need oil too.”
Liu Qingge raised an eyebrow at her in a silent question. Oil? For their skin? As a gift? The Luo boys were very soft looking. He knew they trained a lot, even their father did hard manual labor on a farm and yet none of them had callouses. He considered his own hands for the first time. Should he be using oil?
His annoying sister laughed in that cute way she did when she was teasing him. “All boys need oil. To keep things from being so. . . rough with use.”
So he did need oil for his hands. He’d add a bottle to the list just for him. With a shrug he took the books and stashed them in his own pouch.
“I am leaving in a few days. Join me down below for shopping.”
“Oh-” she raised an eyebrow and laughed again “-so soon?”
It had been three weeks and it felt like months. The silent nights itched under his skin. In a manner that was completely unlike him and he was doing his utmost not to examine, in any way , he wanted to grab his sister and drag her to the valley with him. The mountain was just a base, a place he’d lived at and trained because it was easy and expected. The valley felt like a home.
No. Don’t think about it.
No simple. Not Easy. Not able to place in a box.
His chest expanded, so tight he wondered if his lungs would just pop inside of him. Warmth flushed over his skin, hot enough to make him think he was feverish.
“I have a mission to investigate the Huan Han thieveries. The valley just happened to be close by.”
“I didn’t mention a valley.”
Damn her. She’d tricked him.
“Will you come with me?” He turned the topic away.
“Yes, of course.”
Matters settled, he stood up. She followed and before she could leave, he reached out and settled his hand on her thinner shoulder. Gently squeezing, intimating how Luo Yuan had done to him, he stared into his sister’s wide eyes.
With their parents gone, it was just the two of them. Alone. Adrift from each other. She sucked in a breath and one of her hands reached up and laid on top of his. The moment swelled between them like a bruise before it became too much and he felt as if he was burning. Giving her shoulder one last squeeze he pulled away.
“Noon, two days.”
“Mn,” she replied, lost for words.
Chapter 2: The Perfect Gift
So So Short. One more and I'm done
No Beta Reader
The city is bustling. People yelling, clopping hives, squeezing wheels, the stench of sweat and dirt exasperated by the heat of the sun. Liu Mingyan has always enjoyed the city. Liu Qingge could care less. He avoids cities at all costs. Forgoing even supplies or doctors when on missions. Cities meant people which led to too many questions and words and staring.
Sure he didn’t care.
But even he was not fully immune to the staring. As if he was a bird in a cage.
His skin itched.
“What about this?” Liu Mingyan held up a flower pressed bookmark.
Liu Qingge considered it because otherwise his thoughts seemed determined to sink down and dwell about topics he constantly tried to drown out. The flower was too yellow, a small tear in one of the pedals. Not good enough. Not what he wanted.
Qinglong would hate it. Although he liked watching the boy’s feathers ruffled, he did not want his returning present to have that effect.
It continued the same. She held up items for him to inspect only for him to reject each one. They stopped for a meal after noon, well, she ate and he refused to put anything so sweet into his mouth. Adult men did not like sweets, they were supposed to eat bitter and spicy food, both of which Liu Qingge did not prefer. It just was. So he settled for watching his sister eat, enjoying it with her.
“A weapon?” Liu Mingyan suggested.
They squirreled themselves in a corner, her back his. She faced the wall and ate as he faced the world around them and glared at anyone daring to even glance in their direction. He felt his sister chew then swallow. Her heartbeat steady and pressed against him. When they stopped hugging, when he was told to stop carrying her around everywhere. The only touch of contact they had was this. Warm.
“Why not,” he relented.
Liu Mingyan finished her overly sweet treat, drank the tea provided at the restaurant and they stepped back outside into the bustling crowd. She followed after him this time. He led her to three weapon shops until he found it.
Cracking the slender short whip in his hand, Liu Qingge tested out the leather and strength of the weapon. It was sturdy. He liked it. Easy to wrap around Qinglong’s slender waist. Easy to use as a long distance or close proximity rope for defense. He’d teach the boy both methods. They needed to be safe.
He refused to even consider why it mattered to him that two boys he’d only know for a month were safe.
Instead he bought his sister another hair-pin dagger. She accepted his gift without protest. Used to his type of worry and acts of care.
“Thank you,” Liu Mingyan said. The only weapon on her body he hadn’t bought her was her sword.
One present paid for, they continued wondering. His sister stopped him to buy jars of oil. Special oil she insisted he buy at the perfume shop. The woman behind the counter blushed and bit her lip but did not giggle.
He missed something.
“This way,” his sister quickly dragged him from the shop with a hand on his elbow. A touch she rarely gave him and he expected her to drop his arm when they reached the street. She kept her hand on his elbow and he slowed his pace to match hers prolonging the contact neither mentioned.
An entire day spent at the market with his sister, Liu Qingge had been unable to locate the perfect gift for Luo Yuan who’s smile and touch made his stomach heave. At first he’d thought it to be revulsion but after sometime understood it to be nerves. He wanted the family to like him, in a way he’d never cared about before.
“Expect a letter,” Liu Qingge told his sister the day he left.
She nodded and swayed on her feet. Liu Qingge glanced around, sharp eyes searching the empty area for hidden enemies. No one. Gathering his courage, Liu Qingge surged forward and wrapped his arms around his sisters shoulders. Holding her close. Slowly she wrapped his own arms around his, hiding her face in his neck. The fluttering of her veil from every breath she took ticked his skin. Releasing her, ears red, he patted her shoulder once and turned on his heels, embarrassed and warm.
Liu Mingyan didn’t question or call him back. But the imprint of her smile on his skin lasted until he flew to Hua Huan Palace.
Then the headache began.