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Easy Come, Easy Go

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Easy Come, Easy Go

As someone who suffered an endless streak of struggles throughout his entire life, Shen Jiu hated people who had it easy. He experienced injustice since the very beginning of his life and it didn’t matter how hard he tried, how much he struggled or prayed, his miserable existence seemed willing to remain like that, as if fate itself wanted to ban him from happiness. He strove to merely survive and so he hated those who thrived without even trying, those who always had it easy. And, of course, no one had it easier than Luo Binghe.

Surely, his experience in the abyss must have been a nightmare. His stay at Cang Qiong was only marginally better. Yet, the boy had everything: wit, charisma, strength, beauty and a proper core foundation. Shen Jiu hated that the little beast could succeed in all his endeavors despite how much he tried to push him down. It didn’t matter if his martial brothers bullied him, he could heal unnaturally quickly. It didn’t matter if Shen Jiu never took his time to teach him proper cultivation techniques, he could still reach levels unreachable for any other; including Shen Jiu himself.

Luo Binghe conquered the abyss, the most powerful sword in the three realms and the heart of hundreds of women. Luo Binghe could achieve anything he desired despite his past and the infinite amount of obstacles he encountered. Sometimes, Shen Jiu thought he was born with a protective halo that shielded him from everyone and everything. Sometimes, Shen Jiu thought that this halo was the only reason he survived despite his constant attempts to destroy him.

Luo Binghe had gotten everything he wanted: power, his own sect, a legion of demons and the vengeance he always strived for. For anybody else it would have been impossible to obtain even a fraction of what he owned, but for Luo Binghe everything had come easy.

But Shen Jiu, who always struggled for as little —or as much— he had, knew that what easy comes, easy goes.

As always, Shen Jiu had to work extremely hard to change things around. Some things had been easier than others, but it didn’t matter because he had a goal; the same and only goal he ever had on life.

Shen Jiu was determined to survive.

He hadn’t survived the streets, the Qiu household, Wu Yanzi and his own hatred just to end up in that disgusting little dungeon in the Huan Hua Palace. He would survive Luo Binghe’s obsession even if it meant a more tortuous and painful path than the one written for him on the walls of the Water Prison.

Some things were easier than others.

Shen Jiu was capable of withstanding Luo Binghe’s torture without too much concern. He was used to pain, he knew it was useless to beg for forgiveness. He understood why he was there and why Luo Binghe wanted to hurt him. It was easy to push the beast to the peak of his frustration, to make him confused and angry because it didn’t matter what he did, his master was still unwilling to acknowledge him.

That was, of course, until Shen Jiu made him believe his indifference was not because he loathed Luo Binghe, but because he believed his imprisonment was a fair price to pay for the protection of the Cang Qiong Sect.

It was a decent excuse —one not even far from the truth—, and Luo Binghe believed it even if it didn’t make much of a difference. His punishment resumed with the same intensity, but Shen Jiu knew his disciple well enough to recognize that the tension over his shoulders had slightly relaxed.

Shen Jiu had to wait longer to reach the next stage, but the moment came nonetheless. Luo Binghe was goading his good luck, his power and skills and how he was getting close to controlling the three realms. He seemed so proud, barely anyone could read the insecurities hidden in his red eyes. Shen Jiu might have not raised the kid, but he was more than aware of his disgusting desire to please him, of his obsession to be accepted. He knew his harem, as big as it was, was only an accessory for him (a tool, in the best of the cases) and that the women were incapable of making him feel acknowledged. No. That was something only his cruel master could do. So, he placed the bait right in front of him.

“Luo Binghe has done well, indeed,” he murmured, his throat too dry to be able to speak any louder. “This master is proud of him.”

It was difficult to contain the poison of his words, but the result was worth it.

“You’re going to make me believe this was your plan all along?” his smirk showed a glimpse of his sharp left fang. “Do you still believe I’m that naïve disciple who complied to your daily, cruel whims?”

“They were no whims. They were my intents to destroy you,” two thirds of truth, one third of lies. That was Shen Jiu’s best recipe and it was yet to fail him. “But despite this master intents, you’ve achieved so much. This master is truly proud of his disciple.”

Luo Binghe was an ignorant beast, but he was capable of understanding cruelty and so, he could understand Shen Jiu being proud of the monster he helped to create. He could understand it, but it still confused him. He left him soon after that, and he didn’t come back for months, maybe years.

Waiting was easy. Shen Jiu had waited for most of his life.

The most difficult part begun once the beast returned. He offered him a deal, loyalty in exchange for the sect’s survival. It was a deal Shen Jiu would’ve accepted even without survival in mind. He tried not to sound to enthusiastic when he agreed, though. Later, Luo Binghe led him out of the prison and into a discrete studio. There was a library just a couple of doors away. It was a golden cage, but golden nonetheless. Shen Jiu would learn to love it just as he learned to love Qing Jing Peak.

His new position wasn’t difficult because he had to pretend to be civil with the beast or because he had to use his wits to help him conquer whatever place needed to be conquered, but because it led Luo Binghe to look at him differently. Shen Jiu had seen that look before in Qiu Jianluo’s eyes, and it burnt him in the same unforgiving way. It was difficult because he had to endure it, but also because he had to nourish it. It was difficult because he knew that in order to survive he would have to do far much more than to remain loyal to Luo Binghe. He had to make him want him.

It was difficult because Luo Binghe had no qualms about taking advantage of the situation. It was difficult because, in time, Shen Jiu didn’t have to simply endure the pain and the shame, but also Luo Binghe’s longing, his pathetic desire to feel loved and his ingenuous belief that one day they might love each other. It was difficult because Shen Jiu had to also pretend he believed in that day.

Shen Jiu waited for decades to reach to the point when the beast —the poor, stupid, little beast— actually trusted him, but the moment came, and Shen Jiu was quick to recognize it.

He was also quick to use the wicked sword to pierce his heart while his eyes teared up at the realization that he never really obtained his master’s approval nor his love. He died before his tears managed to escape the luscious cage of his eyelashes.

Things became easier after that.

For the moment, he chose to keep the death of Luo Binghe a secret. Only the main generals knew about it and only because Shen Jiu knew they didn’t care. Demons were simple, easy to understand. They respected power and, to their eyes, Shen Jiu was stronger than his previous leader. They had followed his plans and studied his maps. They knew he was hardworking, cruel and patient enough to wait for decades for his revenge. They knew that, in a way, Shen Jiu was more demonic than Luo Binghe could ever be. They would remain loyal as long as they believed in Shen Jiu’s strength.

Dealing with the thousands of wives was a little bit more complicated. All of them had long been forgotten, Shen Jiu being clever enough to keep their previous lord to himself, and so it didn’t come as a surprise when they received the chance to go back to their family homes. Shen Jiu knew he should’ve killed them all, but he always had a soft spot for women, after all.

Shen Jiu knew that the ones who accepted the dismissal wouldn’t become a concern. They had been young and blindsided by Luo Binge’s wealth and remarkable bed skills (Shen Jiu could give credit when it was due), but now they were older —some of them weren’t even cultivators nor demons— and they were tired of the neglect. They had been harvested as pretty fresh flowers and then left to rot in an abandoned vase. They would disappear from the palace with the resolve to reclaim their own lives, just like Qiu Haitang did years ago.

There were those who remained in the palace because it was their best option. They were used to luxury and Shen Jiu didn’t care enough to refuse it to them.

There were also the ones who were smart and ambitious enough to suspect what was going on. Shen Jiu was prudent, so he put them in strategic positions of power, where they could be of better use and under an even better watch. Shen Jiu would speak with them once his power was properly cemented. Their loyalty would be hard to earn, but the benefits surpassed the complications and, in case they did become a threat, they would be at an arm’s reach. Shen Jiu would deal with them just like he did with the Little Palace Monster.

That one, at least, had been easy, the easiest thing he had done in a very long time. Shen Jiu was cruel and he didn’t even blink as he saw her back being shredded into thin ribbons of skin and blood with her own whip. She barely lasted fifty lashes before she perished. What a pathetic creature, Shen Jiu thought. He had endured thrice that amount every other week. She didn’t even have the decency to keep her dignity until the very end. She cried and begged for mercy like the spoiled little brat she was. It was lucky that Shen Jiu didn’t plan to subject her to the same tortures she granted him. It would have been terribly frustrating for her to die so quickly. Instead, Shen Jiu found her death cathartic and amusing. He knew most of the remaining wives —widows, they were widows now, he reminded himself— agreed with him. After all, the Little Palace Monster had never been one of them. She was worse than most demons Shen Jiu had encountered and she was treated as such. If only she had been raised better. Shen Jiu couldn’t help but feel disappointed that he couldn’t give the same treatment to her terrible father. She would’ve ended up entirely different if only he hadn’t fomented her worse traits. It really was a pity that Luo Binghe killed the old bastard before Shen Jiu could put his hands on him.

Now, Shen Jiu’s main concern came from those women from the major cultivation sects. Whether they chose to leave or stay, he feared what news they could send to their sects and what they could trigger. Yet, they were too many to keep an eye on, so instead he chose to keep his eyes on their sects. Shen Jiu wished no conflict with them, but he would have to act if he was forced to.

At that moment, Shen Jiu was reading one of the last updates from his spies. There seemed to be unrest in Cang Qiong Sect. There was a heated discussion between the Peak Lords just the day before. Shen Jiu feared they suspected Luo Binghe’s death and that they were trying to take advantage of the situation. Yue Qingyuan wouldn’t agree with them, of course. He always chose peace whenever it was an option and so far there hadn’t been any threats from Huan Hua Palace nor the Demon Realm. Shen Jiu hoped they would be sensible enough to keep for themselves for the time being.

Shen Jiu sensed Mobei Jun’s presence and, as soon as he entered the office, he knew his hopes had been in vain. The demon didn’t look worried, but he was definitely surprised.

“My lord,” he said, cautious, “Yue Qingyuan is approaching the Palace.”

Shen Jiu nodded as he piled up the documents at his table.

“How many cultivators are with him?”

“None, my lord. It’s just him.”

Bewildered, Shen Jiu rose his head up to the demon as if he wanted to make sure he wasn’t joking.

As if someone like Mobei Jun was capable of such a thing.

“Has he lost his mind? Why is he coming here by himself?”

“He wishes for an audience with Luo Binghe.”

“Well, that might be a little bit difficult to grant,” his tone was grimmer than what he expected. “He’ll have to settle with me. Send him here once he arrives. No one is to hurt him, understood?”

“Of course.”

The demon was about to leave the room when Shen Jiu remembered he wasn’t the only former Peak Lord in the palace.

“Once the Sect Leader arrives, please go back to your husband. He must be scared out of his mind,” if Yue Qingyuan suddenly had the guts to fight against his traitorous martial brothers, he would surely go for Shen Jiu first. Nevertheless, knowing Shang Qinghua, he must already be dreading the worst case scenario, that is, his premature death. It must be exhausting to be someone like him, fearful of everything and everyone all the time. No wonder he got himself such a powerful husband.

Mobei Jun showed a small, but contented smile as he nodded and continued his way toward the door. Undoubtedly, Shen Jiu made the right decision keeping Shang Qinghua alive. Not only was he a proficient administrator, but also a great leverage against Mobei Jun and the most amusing person in the palace. Shen Jiu’s mood always improved after watching him quivering and crying for whatever reason he could find.

He sighed as his mind came back to Yue Qingyuan and he braced himself for a dozen scenarios. There could be many reasons after Cang Qiong’s request (war declarations, renewal of treaties, second intentions), but he couldn’t understand why any of them would require the Sect Leader to come by himself. Shen Jiu hated not having all the information beforehand, but it couldn’t be helped. He could only expect Yue Qingyuan to be as transparent as he always was.

Shen Jiu glanced to Xiu Ya resting next to him. He still remembered the day Luo Binghe gave it back to him. It was the happiest day of his life because it was the first time in years he felt safe once again, because it was a sign that everything was going according to plan. Yet, it had also been the most difficult day because it was too soon to get back at Luo Binghe and he had to restrain himself from piercing him with his blade. He prayed he didn’t need to use it today.

Yue Qingyuan was brought before him after what felt like an eternity. If only Shen Jiu had had his mind on it, he could’ve finished his paperwork before the meeting. Unfortunately, it would have to wait for a little longer.

Yue Qingyuan looked as handsome and formidable as always. It was good to know that the remaining Peak Lords took good care of their leader. Shen Jiu always thought the man never took care of himself properly. He seemed tired, though. Scared. His eyes wondered throughout the entire office before laying upon Shen Jiu.

“Xiao Jiu…” Shen Jiu fought against rolling his eyes. Were they still going to do that after so many years? “Are you alright? Where is Luo Binghe?”

Shen Jiu used his fan to point to the seat in front of him. It didn’t take long for Yue Qingyuan to take the cue.

“Lord Luo is currently occupied at the Demon Realm. This lowly one hopes he can be of use to Sect Leader Yue.”

“I wanted to see you,” he replied with blatant honesty. Perhaps Shen Jiu shouldn’t hate him for not changing at all after such a long time. It was comforting in its own way, “I feared for you.”

Shen Jiu hid his disdainful smile underneath his black silk fan. He made a point to keep using Luo Binghe’s colors. He wasn’t in a hurry to go back to his preferred whites and greens. He was patient enough.

“Sect Leader knows I have been serving as Luo Binge’s consort for many years now. He can rest assured knowing that Lord Luo takes good care of his belongings.”

Yue Qingyuan frowned as he placed his right hand over the table. He wanted to reach Shen Jiu’s hand, but he was wise enough to restrain himself.

“That, I know. That’s why I asked for a meeting with him and not with you. He always declined my requests to meet you.”

Yue Qingyuan tried to meet him before? Shen Jiu did his best to avoid looking too much into it.

“As Sect Leader can see, this one is healthy and content. He needs not to be concerned.”

For an instant, something shone in Yue Qingyuan’s eyes. Shen Jiu couldn’t decide if it was anger, disbelief or something entirely different.

“Ning Yingying and Liu Mingyan returned to Cang Qiong three days ago. They said Luo Binghe had renounced to his harem. I hoped you could also come back, but your disciple was certain he would keep you by his side.”

Ah, dear Ning Yingying! She was always so sweet and kind, even to the one that made her husband forget about her.

“She has always been a romantic.”

“I was still concerned,” Yue Qingyuan continued. “I wanted to know Luo Binghe’s plan. He’s been acting strangely as of late; utterly quiet.”

It seemed Shen Jiu still had the bad habit to lower his guard whenever he was alone with Yue Qingyuan, because he couldn’t help himself from cackling.

Of course Luo Binghe has been quiet! The little beast has been dead for almost half a season!

A grave silence fell upon them as soon as Shen Jiu controlled his laughter. Yue Qingyuan took a long, deep breath and his right hand, still over the table, closed into a fist.

“It’s true then,” he murmured and Shen Jiu’s left hand moved an inch towards Xiu Ya. “Luo Binghe is dead,” for a moment Shen Jiu tried to deny it, but Yue Qingyuan’s sudden resolve discouraged him from doing it. “Liu Mingyan suspected as much.”

“She has always been a clever woman,” at least when her brother wasn’t involved.

“Was it you?”

This time Shen Jiu didn’t bother to hide his smile.

“It was I.”

Suddenly, something changed in Yue Qingyuan’s countenance. His shoulders relaxed, his closed fist opened and his frown disappeared without a trace. Shen Jiu thought he looked so much better like this.

“I see,” he smiled softly, sadly. “Once again Qi-ge proves to be useless. Once again he shows up late to save his Xiao Jiu; so late he already saved himself.”

Shen Jiu wondered if Yue Qingyuan had the right to say he had been late again, when he didn’t even show up the first time. Yet, he was here now, wasn’t he? He wondered why.

“Enough of that. Whatever guilt remains in your heart, you made up for it a long time ago, Sect Leader Yue. There is no need for you to keep on worrying about this scum.”

“I know you are capable of taking care of yourself more than any other person I’ve ever known. Yet, I’ll always care about you and I’ll do whatever I can to undo the pain I’ve caused you. You were trying so hard to hurt yourself that I couldn’t see the truth beneath the Palace Master and Luo Binghe’s intentions. I allowed myself to believe the rumors and accusations because you never cared to deny them. Yet, everything happened as you said it would. Luo Binghe was a bastard, he wasn’t satisfied with you alone and your only mistake was that you didn’t kill him in the first place.”

“Now, now, Sect Leader,” said Shen Jiu underneath his fan. If he wasn’t so confused, he would be reveling on Yue Qingyuan’s words, “you’re talking about my late husband. Please show some respect.”

Yue Qingyuan’s laughter ringed on Shen Jiu’s ears. He hadn’t heard it in decades. It was a shame his voice carried so much pain within.

“Ning-shizhi told me about his tortures, his manipulation. She said you learned to love each other, but I feared someone like Luo Binghe was incapable of such a thing. He was a monster. There was even a time when he threatened us with merging the three realms!”

Oh, Shen Jiu remembered that! He had to fuck with Luo Binghe for weeks before he felt satiated enough to forget about his ludicrous plan. Shen Jiu was sure that that had been Xin Mo’s idea, rather than the beast’s. He was glad he found a way to destroy that rapacious sword.

“He was, indeed, a monster. But then again, I’m not too different from him.”

“But you are,” Shen Jiu hated the confidence in Yue Qingyuan’s words. “You allowed them to imprison you in order to protect the sect, then you used your influence on him to restrain him and, finally, you spared the world from him. You’ve made mistakes, but you’ve paid for them and now you’re doing your best to undo Luo Binghe’s legacy.”

Nonsense! Why on earth was Yue Qingyuan speaking so much nonsense?! He couldn’t truly believe Shen Jiu to be a hero, could he? He couldn’t be this stupid, could he?

“Everything I’ve done, I’ve done it solely to guarantee my survival. I care not about anything else.”

Slowly, Yue Qingyuan nodded and smiled with a tenderness that should no longer exist. Shen Jiu thought that never before had he looked so much like the memory of his Qi-ge.

“Xiao Jiu has always been very dishonest with himself.”

Shen Jiu wanted to hit Yue Qingyuan with his fan, but he feared he would hit him so hard it would break. It might not be Shen Jiu’s favorite color, but it was a very nice fan, nonetheless. Instead, he put the fan down, rose his right hand, took a deep breath and smacked Yue Qingyuan on the head. Unfortunately, his blow must have been much lighter than what he expected, because it didn’t keep him from smiling.

“You really haven’t changed at all, Qi-ge!”

Too late he reckoned the weight of his words. It must have been massive, because suddenly Shen Jiu felt the lightest he’d ever felt since he stopped being Xiao Jiu.

Perhaps now Xiao Jiu could show up every once in a while, he thought.

Qi-ge seemed willing enough (for whatever stupid reason).

“I know it won’t take long before Luo Binge’s death is uncovered,” he said in a vain attempt to regain his composure, “but I want to take advantage of whatever time I have to keep consolidating my position. I hope I can trust Sect Leader Yue with his discretion.”

“Of course.”

Yue Qingyuan’s eternal smile made Shen Jiu’s left eye twitch. “Once things settle down, it’ll be a good time to renew the treaty between our sects.”

“I agree,” said Yue Qingyuan. “It’ll be a good chance to tighten our bonds. Perhaps we could even talk about merging our sects?”

The eye twitch again.

“You do know that more than half of my followers are demons, don’t you?”

“If you keep them around they can’t be too troublesome. I heard Shang-shidi even married one of them. Willingly.”

“Of course he did, he’s disgusting. Do you want to see him?”

“I would rather stay here with you for a little longer. If I may.”

Shen Jiu shrugged and chose to distract himself by pouring tea for his guest. With all the commotion he had forgotten his basic etiquette. How shameful. Luckily, he always used a talisman to keep his tea hot, so he only had to serve it. When he passed the cup to Yue Qingyuan, the crazy Sect Leader dared to place his right hand over Shen Jiu’s left. It remained there even after the cup was exchanged and Shen Jiu rested his arm on the table. Shen Jiu would’ve smacked his hand away if it weren’t because it felt so warm and soft. It had been so long since the last time he was held by someone he cared about. Shen Jiu sighed when he realized that that someone had always been Qi-ge.

“You’re a fool,” he muttered.

Yue Qingyuan chuckled as he slightly squeezed Shen Jiu’s hand.

Years later, Shen Jiu would remember that day as the most difficult of his life. After all, that was the first day in decades that he dared to wish for something beyond his survival. It was difficult to consider himself worthy of any another path. It was difficult to accept that not only he had the right to wish for happiness, but also that he might be worthy of it.

What easy comes, easy goes, but Shen Jiu, who always struggled for as little —or as much— he had, would keep fighting to protect the world he created for himself.

Now that he had someone to share it with, he would fight even harder.