A-Yuan never remembered much from his early childhood, but he couldn’t forget the day they took his voice.
He hadn’t been much older than six. A third son in a minor family, too frail and too small to tag along with his brothers, he had made his friends among the serving staff.
It was on that fateful day that the kindly cook took him along to buy some supplies for dinner. She called him a sweet boy and her best helper. It made him feel important, like his brothers were, in fact more important because without his help they wouldn’t have such a nice dinner!
Arms full of supplies they had made their way back to the estate and that’s when they had run into the cultivators. A-Yuan couldn’t remember what his caretaker had done to offend them, but whatever it was her cries and apologies couldn’t protect her from their ire.
How dare they hurt her? She didn’t mean it!
He had panicked, he was just a child, but sometimes; if really wanted them to, sometimes people listened to him.
He mustered every ounce of conviction in his six-year-old frame, pulling whatever power he had to his lungs and then shouted.
“Leave her alone!”
For a moment it was like time had stopped. It felt as if his words had stretched out then tangled amongst the men wrapping around their limbs holding them still. There was the faint scent of a storm in the air, but A-Yuan hadn’t noticed. They had listened and his friend was safe.
The warm relief that had settled in his chest suddenly sank, a stone of cold dread weighing down his stomach. Just as quickly as they had stopped the cultivators’ attentions turned from his caretaker to him.
At the time he had believed them to be angry at him. Speaking out of turn and interrupting their sport. As he grew older and looked back on that day he realized it was not anger that had motivated their actions.
It was fear.
He was just a child; he had known nothing of cultivators and their words of power. Since then he learned. No child that young should have controlled experienced cultivators with nothing but a few words, but he had. His desperate cry had bent them to his will and that’s why they had taken him to Huan Hua Palace.
To speak things into existence was a talent only those who cultivated were able to do. To imbue their words with spiritual energy and cause the world to abide by them; willing or otherwise, it was a coveted skill. Words were the reason the sects held so much power, words were the means used to fly upon swords, and words were the only advantage humanity held over the demonic realm.
His words were the reason at the tender age of six A-Yuan trembled before the sect leader Lao Gongzhu, unable to stop the hand on his throat that pulled out the small jade stone that contained his voice.
He should have been too young to use words of power, so they had taken them away.
The other thing he could never forget was Su Xiyan.
They had stolen him there on the road, if his family noticed his absence he’d never know. He’d been told that the palace was his new home but little else.
He’d been placed with the younger disciples, but was by far the youngest and the others had lost any interest in him when he didn’t answer their questions. Not that he could, why couldn’t he talk to anyone? Finding no help there he’d left the dormitory and gotten himself lost wandering around the unfamiliar halls.
That was when Shijie found him.
Su Xiyan was Huan Hua’s head disciple, she had been absent on some mission when A-Yuan and been brought to the palace.
He had been wailing soundlessly in some alcove frightened and confused. It was cold and he was alone unable to tell anyone that he needed to go home. His father might punish the kindly cook if she returned home without him. It wasn’t her fault!
Su Xiyan stopped mid stride when she noticed him there. After realizing he was alone she cautiously approached him. Patiently she coaxed him out of his cubbyhole into her arms. She was the first person A-Yuan had met during this whole ordeal that had spoken to him rather than around him.
Despite her gentle questions he could only nod yes or no. He couldn’t tell her anything, nothing about his family, the kindly cook he couldn’t even tell her his name.
After more frustration he buried his face in her collar and the tears returned with a vengeance. Patting his head soothingly she promised to find a way to help.
She seemed to know the halls better than him. Already exhausted from crying just the cadence of her step lulled him to sleep.
Her furious yelling was what woke him.
He was pressed to her chest her grip squeezing him closer to her with every shout. His sleep addled mind couldn’t make out what was being said but it was clear she was incensed.
“You will never use him!”
A-Yuan shivered at the words, there was something about them that was different. Something that made him feel safer, protected. It reminded him of the words he had yelled in defense of his caretaker.
He wrapped his small arms around his defender’s neck as she stormed away from whomever she’d been verbally assaulting.
A-Yuan peeked over her shoulder and was distressed to see the Palace Master scowling at them. The fear pierced through his sleep addled thoughts as he ducked, hiding his face back into his new Shijie’s arms, her hand coming to rest protectively on the crown of his head.
She had brought him to another room this one was empty of other disciples, the bed was large and opulent. He guessed that this must be her room.
Once the door was closed she leaned her back against it letting out a ragged breath.
That’s when he noticed her crying.
A-Yuan had thought she’d been angry not sad, and he couldn’t fathom what could have made her cry. Seeing her tears all he could think about was making them stop.
He wriggled towards her face and tried to wipe them away, his little hands not quite as dexterous as intended but he didn’t know what else he could do.
She slid to the floor and chuckled. Soon he found himself placed neatly in her lap and a finger under his chin directed his gaze to hers.
“It’s A-Yuan right?” He opened his mouth to tell her until he remembered it wouldn’t work, he then nodded solemnly. He missed how the aborted movement had caused her smile to falter “Well A-Yuan I’m your new Shijie, and I’m going to take care of you from now on.”
His eyes widened and she had to choke back a sob, “You’re going stay with this disciple now, doesn’t that sound nice?”
He broke into a smile and nodded eagerly, Shijie was the nicest person he’d met here by far. He jumped up and gave her the biggest hug his tiny body could. She gripped him back tightly as if she let go someone might take him away. It made him feel safe.
Face once again buried in her shoulder he didn’t notice the tears falling for the poor little boy who’d lost his home and his voice over the petty ambitions of fearful men.
Shijie had been good to A-Yuan, she had shown him how to talk with his hands so he could be understood. Only Shijie and a few of the palace servants knew how to read the hand signs but he didn’t interact with any of the other disciples anyway, so he was content to keep his conversations selective.
She’d tell him stories, sing him lullabies and even teach him some cultivation basics. If the weather was nice, they’d picnic somewhere on the palace grounds or peruse the library.
A-Yuan still missed his family but Su Xinyan made it easier, taking care of him just like she had promised.
It was hardest when Shijie was away, he had a small room adjacent to hers and he rarely left without her especially if she was gone from the palace on some hunt or mission. Even after he became more comfortable with the mazelike halls of Huan Hua he stayed close.
He’d tried to explore on his own several times but often got stopped by some disciple who couldn’t understand him. He’d end up frustrated and in tears, so he decided it wasn’t worth the stress, especially after the time he had almost run into Lao Gongzhu.
Shijie was the head disciple but she always seemed stiff when interacting with her master, at least she did when A-Yuan was with her. He didn’t particularly like the looks the Palace Master sent his Shijie’s way, he liked even less the ominous glares the man leveled at him.
Especially when they evoked the memory of a hand around his throat.
So rather than wander the palace and try to learn cultivation with the other disciples who couldn’t understand him, A-Yuan would fill his small room with books and lose himself in the pages.
Su Xiyan had been quick to teach him to read, she even gave him some basic cultivation manuals to study. He had taken to it easily. He practiced as instructed but he quickly got bored with the instructional books. Shijie Laughed at him and told him he should read them again, but that same night he had found a small pile of new books resting on his desk.
She would take him to the library and bring him new books often, his favorites were either heroic stories or the ones that catalogued monsters. The best ones had heroes, monsters and pictures to match.
It still did get lonely when Su Xiyan was gone. He missed her lullabies, he tried humming them to himself in his head. It was better but just not quite the same.
She’d hum them wordlessly as she blew out his candle and pried the latest manuscript from his tired fingers.
Some nights she would sit by his bed and stroke his hair until sleep claimed him. He missed those nights most when she was gone.
But Shijie was important, the head disciple of a sect couldn’t spend all her time taking care of some kid who wouldn’t ever get to be a disciple. So, he would try singing silently to himself imagining that she was there singing him to sleep.
“A-Yuan wake up.”
He was almost ten years old the night that Su Xiuyan pulled him out of his bed well past sundown. She had been absent more and more recently, and even half asleep he’d wrapped his arms around her neck welcoming her return with a hug.
She hugged him back tightly, lifting him out of his bed but something was wrong. Her smile that was almost always warm and comforting seemed strained. A quiet anxiety seemed to pull her gaze to the door. She gently put him to his feet and gripped his shoulders, kneeling to his eye level.
“I need A-Yuan to listen to me, you are going to be leaving Huan Hua tonight understand?” He rubbed the sleep from his eyes nodding obediently.
Whatever Shijie asked of him he’d do, he didn’t understand why he couldn’t wait and leave in the morning but, if she thought it was best he wouldn’t argue.
“I have a friend he is going to take you to Cang Qiong mountain.” His eyes widened, he’d read about the twelve peaks in some of his books. Some of the most righteous and talented cultivators in his stories had belonged to Cang Qiong.
Although some of his books had said the same about Huan Hua, and he knew firsthand how righteous they could be. Then again, they weren’t all bad. Shijie was Huan Hua’s head disciple after all.
A-Yuan tilted his head curiously why couldn’t Shijie take him?
She kept her voice hushed but it was still brimming with emotion, “I have to stay here, but it won’t be safe for either of us soon.” her gaze shifted to the door again, “We’re not going to have a better opportunity to get you out of here.”
A-Yuan nodded again. He had been comfortable here; the library was big, and he’d finally figured out all the twists and turns of the hallways but the only thing he had really liked about the palace was Su Xiyan. Most of the disciples scared him so he’d avoided them and everyone else pretty much ignored him.
Leaving wouldn’t be too bad but the fact that Shijie wouldn't be coming with him made him a bit nervous.
She smiled weakly at his nod and hastily began dressing him in some warm travel robes. “We’re going to have to be quick and silent.” Not that that’s ever been a problem for you.” she bopped him on the nose affectionately and he grinned at her. Quiet was what A-Yuan did best.
Once he was dressed, she enveloped his hand in hers and they made their way through the labyrinth of halls. A-Yuan struggled to keep pace with her hurried strides, but he wasn’t going to complain. It seemed important to her that he leave the palace so he would leave and try to make her proud.
Shijie led him down an unfamiliar hall and seemed to find a door where there had only been a wall before.
A-Yuan didn’t even have a moment to be amazed by the secret passage before they had exited the palace and made their way into the surrounding forest.
Su Xiyan pulled out her sword and spoke the words that would lift it into the air. She stepped onto the blade and pulled A-Yuan up with her, gripping him securely as she directed them deeper into the forest away from the palace.
They stayed low.
This was A-Yuan's first chance to fly, he was excited and wanted to enjoy it to fly higher and see the world below his feet. but his Shijie’s grip on his shoulders was so strained, and she kept them covered by trees it was if they were hiding from something. He couldn’t help but worry.
Shen Jiu had been eager to leave Huan Hua Palace, he’d only recently ascended to Peak Lord status and he was uncomfortable being away from Qing Jing for so long, even if visiting other sects was considered a part of his duties.
Lao Gongzhu was one of the worst sect leaders he had to deal with. The man barely considered Yue Qingyuan his equal let alone the ‘lesser’ peak lords.
It didn’t matter that Shen Jiu had worked harder than any other cultivator to earn his place, one where no one would look down upon him, and yet this Old Palace Master had the arrogance to barely treat him better than some rogue cultivator.
It was clear that the man only saw Cang Qiong as stepping-stones on his ascent to power, and that rankled Shen Jiu. He had taken great care to overcome his shortcomings in the formalities of politicking. For a man born to the privilege to simply ignore it? Well that aggravated his already volatile temper.
Not that he let it show, the only thing worse than the sect leader’s scorn was letting the bastard know how much it bothered him, so Shen Jiu’s expression had remained impassive throughout the meeting. It bothered him that he hadn’t been wholly successful in maintaining his untouchable persona, no matter how hard he tried Shen Jiu’s words never lost their acidic edge.
Needless to say he hadn’t made any friends, or at least that’s what he had assumed. Just as he was preparing to leave, Huan Hua’s head disciple had approached him. She requested a rendezvous at the edge of Bailu forest. She hadn’t said why but at the very least if her proposition wasn’t worth his while Shen Jiu could at the very least get some blackmail out of the woman.
She was a pretty woman and the meeting could easily be an attempt to sully his own reputation. If that were the case, she would learn the hard way how he earned his place as a peak lord.
Shen Jiu found the mentioned location and waited.
He had not expected Su Xiyan to show up with a child.
Was this some secret lovechild she needed hidden from her sect. if so, she had severely misjudged his capacity to care.
A small boy pale and nervous. At a glance he could easily be mistaken as an early disciple from any of the sects.
The child ducked behind Su Xiyan clinging to her robes. She glowered at Shen Jiu with protective fury challenging him. To what he wasn’t sure, whatever he had been expecting from this rendezvous the young boy was not it.
“Can Qiong doesn’t need your leftovers.” He sent her one of his more scathing looks from behind his fan, but she remained unmoved.
“He isn’t safe here and I can’t be around to protect him anymore.” The child peeked out and she placed a hand defensively on the back of his small head.
Shen Jiu sighed, why anyone thought him a bleeding heart was a mystery. He’d spend his life building a reputation of aloof superiority, and yet people still tried to appeal to his non-existent sense of pity.
More so since he took his place as Peak lord, these people where honestly exhausting.
Although Su Xiyan wasn’t someone to be discounted. She was the head disciple of a powerful sect. If he took the boy, she’d owe him a favor, perhaps taking on the child could benefit him. He tapped his fan against his chin as he considered his options.
He snapped his fan shut decisively gesturing in front of him, “Boy come here.” the child perked up and scrambled to the spot, standing ready for inspection as any disciple might. “What is your name?”
For whatever reason the question caused the small boy’s face to crumple, he turned dismayed to Su Xiyan.
Shen Jiu barked at him, “Do not look at her, this master is asking the question of you.” It was the same tone of voice he would use with any of his own unruly students.
The boy looked at him again furrowing his small brow. He seemed determined not to break eye contact but still refused to answer.
Shen Jiu locked eyes with the child but addressed Su Xiyan, “Does he not have a name?”
She raised her chin in a challenge, “His name is A-Yuan, he does not have a voice.”
That caught Shen Jiu’s attention meeting the woman’s eyes, “Lao Gongzhu took it from him.”
Suddenly the odd request made a lot more sense. This wasn’t some love child she was trying to shuffle out of sight for propriety, no this was far worse. Taking someone’s voice was a common practice amongst slavers, not cultivators.
Unless the Palace Master intended to use it.
Now he found himself studying the boy more closely, looking more carefully he could see the truth of the matter.
A-Yuan hunched into himself in a way that made Shen Jiu’s shoulders ache with the memory of it. Instead of one boy standing there in front of him he saw two. The other skinnier, bruised and angry. Angry in a way that could never be forgiven, angry in a way no child deserved to be.
Even now years later with his voice long since returned and the power of a peak lord at his disposal the rage at being so helpless filled his chest.
But looking at this boy he didn't see the same hatred. No A-Yuan is not the same boy as Shen Jiu was, and if he takes him in then he may never have to be.
He knelt to face the boy at eye level, careful and slow as not to spook him. Shen Jiu made a few deliberate hand gestures and A-Yuan's face lit up with recognition. His small hands signed back enthusiastically, then he turned back to grin at Su Xiyan.
“He will come with me.” there’s no more negotiation, none is needed. Su Xiyan noded at him but by the quiver in her lip he understands that there are still goodbyes that need to happen.
He stood back to give them space. Wasting no time Su Xiyan immediately griped the boy in a powerful hug.
“Be healthy and happy and don’t cause too much trouble okay?” The boy noded dutifully keeping better composure patting her back comfortingly, “They have lots of books for you to read and Master Shen Qingqiu will keep you safe.”
She pulled away from A-Yuan looking the small boy in the eye, trying to convince him of the depth and sincerity of her determination. “and I promise you A-Yuan I will find your voice and take it back.”
The hairs on the back of Shen Jiu’s neck prickled as he felt the power she poured through those words, the way she trapped herself with them. It’s clear to him now how the woman had earned her place as head disciple and she would fulfill her promise. Her words practically guaranted it.
Her eyes turn to Shen Jiu and he stiffened uncomfortably under her gaze “You will keep him safe.” The sharp scent makes him wrinkle his nose and his hackles rose. He had no plans to let the child come to harm but for her to speak words of power over him set him on edge.
He reaches for the boy and grips the small shoulders protectively as Su Xiyan rises to meet him eye to eye, “He will be no one's slave.” His own words coil tightly around hers making the binding his own. Shen Jiu had fought hard and clawed his way out of that cursed life, his claws were still sharp, and he was willing to lend them so this A-Yuan wouldn’t need a set of his own.
He called forth Xiu Ya speaking the words for flight as A-Yuan signed comfort and promises to his shijie, likely unaware of the power that had been put in place just for him that night.
Su Xiyan’s eyes were watery and red as she waved mutely to her former charge. Shen Jiu didn’t understand it, while things were tense between Huan Hua and Cang Qiong she would not be unwelcome should she visit Qing Jing peak.
The boy would be safe there, he’d make sure of it.
Standing atop Qiong Ding peak waiting for one of their fellow peak lords to return felt needlessly formal.
It hadn’t been intentional really, they had just wrapped up the latest council meeting and upon learning of one of their absent member returning Yue Qingyuan hand insisted they greet him upon his return.
Since they were all fairly new at the whole peak lord deal none of them had felt comfortable rejecting their sect leader’s request, despite none one them being particularly fond of their returning shixiong.
Shang Qinghua settled himself next to Qi Qingqi tugging at the formal robes he still wasn’t accustomed to.
It still didn’t quite feel real, Shang Qinghua had worked hard his whole life but he still felt a little shocked that anyone had actually noticed that work and then rewarded him for it. He wasn’t even sure if he was any more well liked than the man they were waiting to greet.
As Shen Qingqiu drew near, they could see he was not alone. Qi Qingqi next to him snorted, “let the bloodsport begin.”
No one could deny that Shen Qingqiu earned his place at the peak of Qing Jing, but what nobody could seem to understand was why Yue Qingyuan was seemingly oblivious to the man’s acerbic manners and foul temperament. Something that the shrewd scholar took advantage of at every opportunity.
Something about the sect leader made him particularly hostile, then Yue Qingyuan would turn around and indulge the man. As if doing so would earn him favor, when it was clear to everyone else there was nothing to be gained.
Shen Qingqiu dismounted gracefully, his passenger clearly trying hard to mimic his elegance did not quite manage.
The boy was slight, he’d be small amongst most of the mountain’s disciples but he seemed to be the right age.
Shang Qinghua felt something familiar when he saw the child, like he should know who he was but at this very moment he couldn’t quite place him.
Even the unflappable Yue Qingyuan seemed taken aback by his shidi’s guest.
“This is my brother Shen Yuan.” That was bullshit, not that had ever stopped Shen Qingqiu. Shang Qinghua’s investigations had examined through his shixiong’s sordid past but even if the man’s family wasn’t long dead there was no room for reconciliation in the bastard’s shriveled heart.
Not that Shang Qinghua would ever call him out on the lie, then he’d have to explain how he knew it was a lie and nope! Not doing that. No thank you. The key to being a good spymaster was making sure no one knew you were a spymaster. It was basically lesson number one.
But Yue Qingyuan should also know better.
“Shen Shidi, there are rules for choosing new disciples.” The handsome man frowned, clearly trying to avoid calling him out directly.
“He is not a disciple he is my brother.” Shang Qinghua wished he knew how to maintain such cool aloofness, but alas he knew his strength and it was being a blabbering coward.
It seemed he wasn’t the only one who envied Shen Qingqiu’s poise. The young boy tried his best to mimic the man’s posture and expression.
Qi Qingqi leaned over to him with a loud whisper fully intended to be heard, “You have to admit the resemblance is uncanny.” it was especially so when both man and boy directed the same haughty glance her way.
This only managed to cause her and Shang Qinghua to snort. It was almost adorable, which was a word that had never ever been associated with Qing Jing’s new peak lord.
Yue Qingyuan’s ever present composure continued to slip. “Shidi the rules ar-”
“He cannot be a disciple when he doesn’t have a voice.” The peak lord snapped.
Yue Qingyuan looked stricken by those words, a complex range of emotions flashed over his face as he glanced between the boy and his shidi. Eventually it settled on guilt
“His name is Shen Yuan and he will be staying with me on Qing Jing peak.” It was not a request, it wasn’t even a demand. Shen Qingqiu was merely informing his fellows of a new development in a way that clearly told them that their input would not be necessary.
A taste of ozone burned at the back of Shang Qinghua’s throat. it was a familiar charge to the air that would occur as words of power exerted their intent.
Ah, so it seems perhaps a promise had been made. That was interesting. Shang Qinghua filed that in the back of his mind for future use. Still a boy that age without a voice tugged at some distant memory, perhaps a report he’d forgotten.
“Mu Shidi, I would appreciate if he gets a proper checkup before he settles in.”
And that was the end of it. Shang Qinghua was jealous he never had that kind of confidence. Even when framing his words of power requests were stronger than demands.
Even his cultivation had to convince people that it wasn’t his words but their idea before it would work. Qinghua sighed, such was his lot in life.
Not that it mattered, Shen Qingqiu would keep his ‘brother’ on his Qing Jing, and hopefully for the rest of the peaks there would be no repercussions.
Qing Jing peak was nothing like Huan Hua palace, rather than endless halls and grand rooms there were sprawling vistas and serene bamboo forests. A-Yuan, now Shen Yuan felt it suited him well.
Maybe not at first though. He had to get used to not being allowed to hide away in his room with a pile of books like he was used to. Which was a little unfair because Qing Jing put Huan Hua’s meagre library to shame.
Instead of pursuing his favorite stories from the safety of his bed Shen Qingqiu actually expected him to attend classes with the other disciples.
The prospect was terrifying.
In Huan Hua staying away from lessons was a survival strategy, at best the other disciples had ignored him. At worst he became their live training dummy.
While everyone here seemed to treat him better it was still distressing for Shen Yuan. Not only was he to be present for lessons but he was forced to actively participate.
Clearly Shen Qingqiu was a liar, the most obvious lie being that he was Shen Yuan’s brother but he had also promised the sect leader that Shen Yuan was not a disciple, then he turned around and treated him exactly like a disciple!
Or maybe near enough, he didn’t stay in the dormitories with the other disciples, instead there was a small room in Shen Qingqiu’s bamboo hut that he now occupied.
But still, it seemed rather unfair that Shen Yuan now had access to all these new books and barely a free moment to read them.
At least they had better monster manuals that Huan Hua.
After his first week, he had to admit that it wasn’t actually that bad. He did enjoy the opportunity to learn new things and all the elder disciples at least could understand his hand signs.
They weren’t quite as adept at understanding as Su Xiyan or his new brother, but if he went slow they usually could figure out what he wanted to say. Some of them were eager to speak to him with their own fumbling fingers, he’d even managed to make a few friends. Although none of the disciples his age seemed to know the language and he couldn't quite figure out why.
At least not until one of their language classes.
Shen Qingqiu stood at the head of the room as Shen Yuan and his peers filed in. The Peak lord did not teach every class, in fact most lessons for the youngest members of Qing Jing were taught by the more senior disciples. But occasionally their Shizun would take charge if only to remind them of a what a true scholar should be.
Graceful, poised and terrifyingly ruthless.
“Today you will learn how to speak without sound. As scholars it is our duty to learn every method of communication, so we never fall short in the pursuit of knowledge.”
Shen Yuan’s little chest swelled with excitement. This was why the older disciples could understand him. His signs were important! This was one class that he was already ahead of his peers and the thought made him giddy.
He wiggled excitedly in his seat, sure he didn’t really need to learn all this again, but it was heartening to know he’d be able to finally talk to his classmates soon.
That excitement withered as one of the other boys spoke up. “Why would we ever need to know the way servants speak? That should be beneath noble scholars like us.”
Shen Yuan’s brow furrowed. Why wouldn’t this boy want to speak with him, or servants for that matter. What was wrong with servants?
He didn’t have much time to ponder the boy’s statement before a fan rapped harshly on a desk.
“As cultivators we cannot pick and choose the people who require our aid. How will you figure what plagues a lord’s manner if you cannot question the entirely of his staff?”
Shen Qingqiu approached the boy’s desk and looked down at him, voice like an icy chill on the back of one’s neck “Or are you simply afraid of what those servants might have to say about you?”
The boy shrunk into his seat thoroughly cowed.
Everybody stared at their teacher in awe. Shen Yuan’s new Gege was so cool!
“Be mindful upon which peak you reside and remember, you can never know too much, only too little. Ten laps around the mountain for your arrogance, speak out of turn again and I will remove your tongue. Maybe then you will see merit in today’s lesson.”
Shen Yuan smiled brightly. So cool!
Overall, Shen Yuan had adjusted well to life on Cang Qiong. He had finally decided that he like his new lessons almost as much as he like reading books. His status as ‘not quite a disciple’ didn’t bother him like he thought it might and everyone treated him like one anyway.
Disciples from the other peaks didn’t seem to know his hand signs but that was alright, he rarely ran into them without another member of Qing Jing present anyway. They could translate for him, and it wasn’t like he was sent on many errands across the rainbow bridge.
He still missed Su-Shijie though. He thought about her often, he knew she was out there doing important things. He still longed for her singing, especially since there was no way he would ever get Shen Qingqiu to sing him a lullaby.
He wondered if she missed him too.
The nights he couldn’t sleep, he thought of her the most, he had to be satisfied with singing his favorite lullabies to himself just like when she had been away. It helped a little bit not enough though, especially since it was only in his head.
It had been over a year since he’d waved goodbye to her, he wondered when she’d come to visit.
He knew she would.
She had to. After all, she had promised him she would get his voice back and his Shijie never broke a promise.
Until the day he discovered that she had.
Su Xiyan had hoped for many things.
She had hoped she would have more time, she hoped she could’ve been more persuasive, she had hoped that despite everything Lao Gongzhu would not hurt her.
She had always thought herself more practical than hopeful, but she supposed Tinglang Jun’s habits had become her own.
Now she watched all those hopes go up in flame and she spread the ashes in the wind.
Her faith in her sect had been eroding away for quite some time, ever since the day she’d discovered A-Yuan frightened and voiceless cowering in one of their halls. Perhaps it had only a matter of time after that before they would turn on her.
Maybe she had thought she could divert their course, another foolish hope.
At the very least she had stopped her master from using a child’s voice to boost his own cultivation. It didn’t matter how powerful the voice it was a horrifying notion.
“You will never use him!”
That had been the first time she had ever used any words against Lao Gongzhu but clearly it was not to be the last.
He had kept the voice, useless to him or not.
Oh A-Yuan I hope you are happy away from this mess, I hope you have endless books and friends like you could never make here.
She thought of him more and more especially now that she was expecting a child of her own.
She desperately hoped that she had done the right thing. She hoped she was doing it now.
She had always channeled the most power through direct statements. Truths that would make the world twist and turn at her will to ensure they came to pass. She had always been deliberate with her words and she refused to regret them.
Even now when they would kill her. The master had taunted her, forcing her to imbibe the demonic poison knowing full well that whatever words she wished to use may not affect her child. She couldn’t merely speak her babe stronger that the vile tincture flowing though her veins.
Not only was her child’s father a demon he was Tinglang Jun, a heavenly demon. While most demons could resist words of power heavenly demons were immune to them. Her babe was half human too but that was not a guarantee that her words would have any effect.
Not on the child at least.
“The demonic poison will burn through me and never reach my womb.”
Her foolish master had considered the matter settled, he merely locked her in her rooms as if she wasn’t his head disciple. He didn’t take her voice, he hadn't even tried to use immortal binding cables.
He considered her loyalty absolute, oblivious to how he had degraded it over the years.
Lao Gongzhu couldn’t fathom that she might sacrifice her life for her unborn child regardless of demonic heritage. He didn’t understand how anyone might choose to die to allow another to live.
That and his self-serving greed would be his downfall. Su Xiyan only regretted that she would be around to witness his undoing.
Anger had fueled her words, and that same rage would sustain her as she escaped. Huan Hua was no longer her home and she wondered how long it had been since that had changed. How long had she looked at her fellow disciples as enemies rather than allies?
She had a limited time before the poison drained her strength, she needed to be away from the palace and soon, but she couldn’t leave yet. Not while another set of words still hung over her head.
“I will find your voice and take it back”
She would never regret her words, not now, not ever. She would leave the palace with A-Yuan's voice stone, or she would die trying. The only uncertainty being if it would be the poison or the backlash from unfulfilled words that would kill her.
Even if they killed her they were still words she would never regret uttering.
Few knew the secrets of Huan Hua like it’s head disciple and it had been too easy to slip away from her guarded room, towards the maze array to the water prison. Where better to keep valuables but in a nearly impenetrable vault next to a nearly impenetrable prison.
It was embarrassingly effortless to slip past the disciples on guard. The vault was vast but as often happened with words of power she found the small rack of voices stones with ease. The charged air directing her attention to a flawlessly beautiful bead of pale green jade.
There no doubt in her mind who’s voice it could be.
When she snatched it up, she nearly cried holding it close to her heart. Now that she was holding his voice stone, she could hear him. He was reciting some facts about some monster a three eyed lynx. He must’ve been reading another monster manual, truly he was still the same little boy.
But it was already so late at night. Su Xiyan thought to scold him for being up so late, realizing her instinct she fought back the urge to laugh. He was safe in Cang Qiong and no longer her charge.
Not that he could hear her anyway.
The idea that he might be happy at his new home warmed her heart even as it twisted painfully. He deserved to laugh and sing, to complain loudly when reminded of his bedtime. She was trying hard to make that happen.
Eyes watering, tears threatening to spill she tied the stone with a red cord and placed it around her neck. She had two children to save tonight and there was no way she was going to let them down.
She slipped out of the palace, her only obstacles; the poison weakening her qi and the beginning pangs of labor. She had barely made it to the far edge of Bailu forest before a new agony caused her to fall from her sword.
It was the start to a long night.
It was not long before Huan Hua realized she was gone. Far longer than it should have but still too quickly for her own sake.
She trekked as far as her body would take her before she had no choice but to stop. It was by sheer luck she had found a small hut long since abandoned along the edge of the Luo river.
That was where she had given birth. It had not been an easy delivery and she had felt both relief and terror in equal measure as she heard her son’s first cry.
She had a son, a precious baby boy, and now for his sake she would have to send him away. Already weak from the poison her exhaustion was almost enough to claim her life, but not yet.
Her son would be safe away from her sect before she died, she would be sure of it.
“They will not find him.” Using words of power now stole air from her lungs, every syllable costing the energy it would take to climb a mountain.
Even the words themselves felt weak, but it would be enough.
It had to be.
She swaddled the babe in her inner robe and placed him in an old wooden basin, glancing out the decrepit shack’s window she eyed the river.
They would find her, that much was inevitable, but she needed to make sure when they did he would be long gone. The river was her only option.
Each step she took was like wading through a swamp, whether it was the poison sapping her strength or her own hesitation that caused the difficulty she was not in a state to know.
Her thoughts turned back to her son. Healthy and stunningly beautiful. A full head of curls and his father's eyes. If only Tianlang Jun could see him. She imagined the delight that would shine in the demon’s eyes if she were able to present him with their baby. Perhaps it would be filled with the same love he had once showered upon her.
She nearly collapsed as she reached the river’s edge, tears staining her cheeks. She’d never get to see those things and the loss of it tore through her chest.
Even now she crouched protectively over the basin, choking back sobs as she tried to circulate her qi trying to keep the poison at bay. Even so It wouldn’t be long now and her son... her son would be alone.
As her grief consumed her a small tug at her neck dragged her out of those dark thoughts. Her charming little boy was babbling and tugging at the stone around her neck.
Of course, A-Yuan's voice!
With the events of the night Su Xiyan had almost forgotten the other boy she intended to save. Gently she unwound her son’s hand from the string holding the stone close and listening.
He was humming one of the lullabies she had used to sing to him, it made her heart swell. It was nice to know that sweet little A-Yuan hadn’t forgotten her. He’d keep her little boy company, and maybe he could return A-Yuan's voice one day. Perhaps A-Yuan could tell him about her.
Her hope had returned and this time she clung to it, knowing soon it was all she would have left.
Carefully she removed the stone from around her neck and tied the string short placing the loop around her newborn son, tucking the jade gently beneath the swaddling.
Her lip trembled as a fresh wave of tears threatened to overwhelm her as she gazed upon her sleepy baby boy. She focused on everything she wanted for him and gathered her waning strength.
She lifted him to her chest for a final hug hoping to pour all her love into the small form she gripped in her arms. They would not meet again, not in this world, but she would give him the best chance she could before he would see her in the next.
She kissed his forehead gently before she spoke the words.
Each one felt like it was trying to wrench away a piece of her soul, but rather than fight it she allowed it to happen. She stopped circulating her qi and every piece of herself that she let bolster her words was replaced with a burning pain.
She ignored it in favor of the power coursing out of her and enveloping her son like a blanket, swirling and coalescing around him.
“He will be strong,
He will be kind,
And he will be loved.”
The scent of lightning and a tingling along her skin let her know that the words had taken root, the strongest she had ever uttered.
A fist clenched around her heart as she let her shaking hands lower the babe into the basin and her final tears fell as she set him adrift.
When Mei Ling went to the fish market that morning she had not expected to return with an infant.
Apparently, the newborn had been fished out of the river by a few of the fisherman. They had dubbed him Luo Binghe and brought him to market with them.
It was quite clear that none of them knew what to do with such a catch and as the conversation turned to selling him Mei Ling quickly intervened.
While she never had any children of her own, she had more of a mind for how to care for one than the fisherman she had saved him from. The poor thing was so cold that she was sure he would have frozen to death had she not volunteered to take him.
Mei Ling made a modest living as a washerwoman, her husband had died young and she had never tried to find another. Her life wasn’t easy but there was a satisfaction in the simplicity of it, she hoped she could bring the small babe the same degree of contentment.
She set about warming water for a bath, there was still a chill settled on his skin and she worried that a newborn should have cried at least once by now. He was so small, and the cold could take him yet.
She gently unwrapped the swaddling, it had protected him from the morning’s chill but now it retained the cold. It appeared to be an underrobe made of fine fabric but stained and a little worse for wear.
Why someone who could afford to discard such expensive cloth would give up a child baffled her. Was he perhaps some lord’s bastard? And illicit love child of a married lady? She shook her head, it didn’t matter he was hers now and she would protect him from whatever malice his heritage created.
How such an adorable child could be so cruelly discarded broke her soft heart. He already had dark curls framing his cherub cheeks, and sweet little doe eyes that looked so trusting, so sweet.
No matter. She would clean up the garment and sell it to help pay for the necessities her new son would require.
Testing the water, she tenderly lowered Luo Binghe into the wash basin. That’s when she noticed the slash of red. Briefly, she worried that it was blood, that his sending down the river had been a premature funeral rite. She held her breath, chest tight as she looked for confirmation.
A lightness swelled within her when she realized it was merely a cord leading to something gripped tightly between his chubby little fingers. An even breath left her lungs as she gently pulled each digit off the object. His grip was far stronger than it had any right to be, but he was still a newborn.
Mei Ling slipped the item from his gasp and slid the cord off his neck. Holding it up to the light her eyes were met with a small jade stone. It idly spun on the cord and she felt her heart break all over again.
Barely a day old and her little Binghe had met so much tragedy.
It was a voice stone. They were not common, too expensive for most to afford. Often if they could people would have them made from their deceased loved ones. A memory to hold on to, a memento so they could listen to a voice that would never be truly heard again.
She wondered perhaps if the voice was his mother’s or maybe his father’s, either way his abandonment tragically made a lot more sense.
She had been contemplating the stone and what it might mean for her son when a howling shriek pulled her from her thoughts. She put aside the voice stone and moved to calm him.
Perhaps the water had been hotter than she had thought, he was clearly distressed, and she whispered quietly in an attempt to soothe him, to no avail.
After toweling him off and wrapping him up once more she no longer worried over his silence.
Even feeding him hadn’t cause him to settle. How such a small creature could create such a deafening wail was as confounding as it was impressive. She paced back in forth in her small home rocking him comfortingly.
It had felt like half the day had passed before in her own distress Mei Ling remembered the discarded stone. In her tired desperation, she retrieved it from where she had left it next to the basin, dangling the cord in front of Luo Binghe.
The instant he noticed the swinging stone he immediately latched on to it, gripping it once more in his chubby fist. The tears ceased, followed by wet hiccups and eventually a contented babble.
Mei Ling said a silent prayer of thanks to the voice’s owner. She continued her rocking and placed and hand over Binghe’s tiny fist.
She wondered if it was her tired mind that heard a little boy’s voice singing a lullaby, not that it truly mattered. Her little Binghe had finally drifted off to sleep.
Shen Jiu was all too familiar with the harsh realities of the world. He’d been forced to face many of them long before he reached A-Yuan's age. Savage truths had torn down the counterfeit childhood he had endured.
He’d hauled himself from the barbarism that had shaped his early life, but he could never forget it. Nor would he shy from educating any who thought themselves above life's cruelty.
Teaching those lessons had a certain appeal, retribution for ignorance. He was a teacher after all.
This? He would gain no satisfaction from this lesson. A-Yuan was hardly a deserving student.
He wouldn’t lie to the boy. Lies to spare feelings always hurt more in the end. Shen Jiu had first-hand experience with such painful dishonesty. Just because the child had taken it upon himself to imitate Shen Jiu didn’t mean he would let the lies corrode and twist him into a perfect replica.
Besides A-Yuan deserved to know. Even if the truth would warp him in other ways, he was entitled to it.
He also deserved someone softer to tell him. Someone tender and comforting, Shen Jiu was all sharp edges and cold grace.
But who else knew?
No one else had met with Su Xinyan that fateful night in Bailu forest. No one else knew that it was Lao Gongzhu himself that had ripped away the boy’s voice. No one else knew of the promise that had been woven into his bones, helplessly tying the child to a man that was nothing but caustic remarks and severe gazes.
No one else could break the news.
Su Xinyan was dead, it was going to shatter A-Yuan's heart, and there was nothing Shen Jiu could do but watch it happen.