The first time Liu Qingge meets Shen Qingqiu they are children still.
Girls on the cusp of adulthood, each considering herself worldly in her own way and too overcome by the stubbornness of youth to back down in the face of wounded pride. All it takes is one misunderstanding, one assumption, one cutting comment, and their fates begin carving itself into stone, destined to be butting heads at every turn.
The first time Liu Qingge meets Shen Qingqiu, she is still Liu Qing.
Qing for love, for that soft, sweet, fluttering feeling that encompassed all the whimsy her lady mother allowed herself in this life, a softness that Liu Qing herself disdained. Liu women were strong, decisive, their lovely faces making them the epitome of silk hiding steel. But even Liu Qing’s mother, formidable as she was, bent to the wishes of the clan’s elders and hung up her sword to give birth to the next generation. It was a fate that seemed to await Liu Qing and as soon as she had been old enough to understand what lay ahead, she started running.
Liu Qing cared little for her lessons except for swordplay. She attended lectures just enough so that no one could claim she was illiterate or unread, but spent much of her time poring over cultivation manuals or volumes depicting different martial art styles instead of the poems and ancient scripts her beleaguered tutor tried to teach her. Her writing was, to her tutor’s despair, clean-cut and strong, filled with a vitality that men could only lament they lacked, not at all like the willowy and elegant script of a well-bred young lady. She picked up a needle only long enough to mend the clothes she ripped in training lest she be scolded for ruining her robes so frequently, never embroidering a single handkerchief to her nurse’s dismay. When she presented the fruits of her labour to her father, he sighed while patting her on the head fondly, and her mother smiled before quietly correcting her form.
Days saw Liu Qing out on the training courts at the crack of dawn and taking off for the forests near her home town the moment her harried teachers called an end to the day’s lessons, eager to test her mettle against any foe foolish enough to step into her path. She lived for the thrill of the hunt, for the thrill of battle, adrenaline rushing through her veins as she slew her way through legions of monsters and knocked down every opponent, a vision in silks, an avenging goddess descended from the heavens. Asking her to hang up her sword was simply asking for her soul and as rule abiding as Liu Qing was this was her bottom-line - she was a warrior, not a lady, and nothing would convince her otherwise.
When her father broaches the topic of an engagement, Liu Qing declares her intentions to leave home and become a disciple of the Cang Qiong sect.
She finishes the tasks set before her with a flourish and neatly declines the attentions of the Lady of Xian Zhu Peak, vying instead for the regard of Bai Zhan Peak’s Lord and winning, becoming one of the rare female disciples of Bai Zhan at the age of fifteen. Her swordplay enabled her to stand at the top in terms of skill amongst her follow martial brothers and sisters and she held her head high no matter how some whispered of foul play that a woman would beat out all other Bai Zhan prospectives to be at the top of the pack. Poisons or underhanded tricks, they said, and Liu Qing knocked them all down over and over again with her sword until they dared not speak another word of slander.
A year passes and Liu Qing proves herself worthy to be a disciple of Bai Zhan and a crowning jewel of the Cang Qiong sect. Already she has started to make a name for herself as the War Goddess of Bai Zhan peak, a title that leads to whispers of how surely her Shizun means to name her, the most promising talent to come to Bai Zhan for years, as his head disciple should all go smoothly for her cultivation. She is admired by her martial brothers and sisters, gets along well enough with her fellow head disciples and future peak lords, improving by leaps and bounds under her Shizun’s tutelage. All is well for Liu Qing.
Until Shen Qingqiu appears.
No, not Shen Qingqiu, she was still just Shen Jiu back then. And Liu Qing had heard whispers about the other woman long before she first laid eyes on her.
Delicate Shen Jiu, with her figure that suggested a single breeze might break her, who had their Zhangmen-shixiong catering to her every whim with just the slightest quiver of those thin shoulders.
Shen Jiu who was cold but demure and ladylike, who spoke in riddles, hid sharp, poisonous intent behind flowery words, and made gossip and lies her weapons.
Shen Jiu who could serve you tea with those delicate wrist bones elegantly turned to advantage, and smile as she coaxed you to eat poison without flinching, strumming the zither calmly as you gasped your last breath less than a foot away.
And such beginnings, a slave girl born in a whorehouse who claimed to have become learned through service as a lady’s maid, whom was rumoured to have murdered and cheated her way into a better life - How dare she darken the doorsteps of Cang Qiong?
But it is not a disciple’s decision as to who gets to stay and who ought to be evicted from their sect, and so they all must suffer this poisonous vixen as a martial sister. How their paths had not crossed before the Immortal Alliance Conference, Liu Qing does not know, though likely it had to to with them both being kept busy building a strong base for their cultivation within their remaining formative years. Shen Jiu clearly needed the intense focus; Liu Qing remembers the whispered rumours spreading when disciples thought their elders weren’t listening, giggling maliciously behind their palms, of how that girl was a late bloomer in things that really mattered, and had only started cultivating in her teens.
(There are more distasteful rumours still that were bandied about, but Liu Qing steadfastly closed her ears to those - no matter how much truth they may hold, Liu Qing refused to suffer such crass words and most around her were smart enough to desist or risk her ire.)
Thinking hard, Liu Qing vaguely remembers Liu Qing as a wisp of a girl she had spied on the opposite end of the grounds as each hopeful scrambled to prove themselves worthy to enter Cang Qiong sect, a frail shadow who had completed the tasks but looked so close to falling over for doing so that Liu Qing had completely written her off. The young woman standing in front of her now, poise and grace emanating from her every gesture, skin fair and hair neatly coiffured, looks nothing like that thin waif who could have passed as Liu Qing’s age or younger, nor does she looks particularly like a poisonous vixen.
Shen Jiu smiles and nods as Liu Qing stops to greet her Zhangmen-shixiong who has been carefully escorting Shen Jiu across the grounds, gentle and tranquil in a way that makes Liu Qing itch to see how she holds up under the strain of battle or with mud on the train of her immaculate robes. For a second Liu Qing wonders if she had perhaps been too hasty in forming an opinion, if she had let rumours cloud her judgement of a young woman whose rather meteoric rise in abilities despite having been little more than a rouge cultivator had surely drawn envious minds and malicious tongues.
Then Shen Jiu smirks at her, the motion quickly hidden behind a harmless looking silk fan, and those limpid, doe-eyes flashed with with something sly as those petal-pink lips formed their greeting, “This shijie greets shimei, a pleasure.”
And Liu Qing’s instincts instantly scream for her to be on her guard.