The snow was sliding off the awnings by the time Ning Yingying made her way across the walkway, a steaming tray carefully shielded under her warming talisman. She stopped in front of the Sect Leader’s apartments, shaking snow off her cloak.
“Shizun,” she called in the doorway, “Shizun, I am coming in.”
“There is no need to announce yourself,” muttered her master. “Enter, this master will allow it.”
“Thank you.” Ning Yingying shouldered the door and stepped sideways into the apartments, where the lamps were lit, and her master knelt by the center table. “Forgive me, but Sect Leader was very firm on that point. No one is to enter without shizun’s knowledge and permission.”
Her master twitched in that way people did when Ning Ying pointed out something she felt they should already know. “That doesn’t apply,” he muttered. “Besides, Sect Leader is not here, is he? If that fool wants his instructions to be obeyed, then he shouldn’t wander off as he pleases, now should he?”
“He promised to be back soon.”
Her master sneered, pulling the oversized outer robe further around himself. It was not, Ning Yingying noted, in his size, and hardly a color her master would have chosen on his own volition, but Ning Yingying was of course too canny to comment on it. “His word is worthless. Put the tray down here.”
Ning Yingying tried another approach as she set the tray down and uncovered the dishes: soup, tea, and some steamed vegetables -- minimally spiced, the way he’d preferred many years ago, before Luo Binghe’s terrible influence. “My other shizun said that it was likely a minor matter.”
“I trust his word even less,” huffed this master. “That master of yours is a fool and a fake. You should question everything he’s ever told you.”
“Yes, shizun,” said Ning Yingying.
“And don’t accept all his lessons just because it’s him.”
“Yes, shizun,” said Ning Yingying, holding back a smile as she filled his bowl for him.
This Shen Qingqiu was in fact, one of two who now lived on Cang Qiong. Though the Shen Qingqiu that Ning Yingying knew best was currently out. He’d flown down to the valley with the Sect Leader, to resolve the issue of a rampant snow spirit. The weather was just another reminder of their absence.
“In fact, he should have known better to have even sent you out in this storm,” grumbled the second Shen Qingqiu.
“He thought you could use the company.”
“...But that it didn’t have to be me,” she added. Here, Shen Qingqiu eyed her. “He said, mm, what was it? The version of me in your world had a terrible falling out with you over a particularly awkward misunderstanding, and I should tell him immediately if you act strangely towards me in any way at all.”
“I… see,” said Shen Qingqiu. He lowered both of his hands to the table. As they were prosthetics made of enchanted iron, they clicked rather notably. Ning Yingying showed him his bowl.
“Is that enough, shizun?”
“Quite,” said Shen Qingqiu, as if he had gone to a place very far away in his mind. Ning Yingying happily poured the tea and sat across from him, making sure as per her instructions he had more than one bite.
This Shen Qingqiu was a bit fragile like that. His health was not what it once wa. It’d been completely shattered in the other world, in fact. Hence his prosthetic arms and legs, and his long white hair. She admitted, she liked being able to tell him apart from her other master so well. Despite what everyone said, they were not really all that alike at all, when you got to know them. Enough had gone differently in either world, they were like two different people.
Quiet moments like this were just one of the little ways that showed it. While her master might have taken this moment to glare at the empty air, and mutter to himself -- a strange habit he’d developed after a qi deviation many years ago -- this master simply pressed his mouth together into a hard, sad line as he gazed out at the snow streaming past the slots in the window.
“They both should have known better,” he murmured. “A blizzard like this is outside of its season. Even here. One of this strength would suggest a conglomerate. Snow spirits move together like bees, and a swarm this large would suggest a queen…”
“Shizun is so knowledgeable,” said Ning Yingying. She might have laid it on a little too thick, because the other Shen Qingqiu glanced back at her, one eyebrow raised.
“And yours would have taken this into account, now would he?” A spidery index finger tapped the table for lack of a fan. “The snow hasn’t let up, and they’re already late. I should never have trusted the Sect Leader to him. It’s fools leading fools, bah.”
“How would this shizun approach a case like this?” asked Ning Yingying, genuinely interested.
But Shen Qingqiu shook his head and returned desolately to his tea and supper. “...And I have been reduced to my own students coddling me.”
But Ning Yingying looked so wide-eyed and hopeful he sighed and added:
“There are a number of ways, depending on the tools at hand. In the past, I’ve found a certain lantern is the most effective…”
And he gave her the point by points on how to track and subdue a swarm of snow spirits, and of an encounter he’d had many years ago with a queen of such a swarm. It’d been a different circumstance. It’d taken place in summer, far from Cang Qiong, but he’d tricked them into following the lantern and one of his over robes into a hot spring, and thus avoided direct confrontation entirely.
“And they all melted away,” concluded Shen Qingqiu. “No swordsmanship required at all.”
It was something a Bai Zhan peak disciple would have called an underhanded and craven victory, but Ning Yingying clapped her hands delightedly. “How resourceful,” she said. “That sounds just like my clever shizun.”
“Even in this world?”
“Of course,” she said. “No matter the world, my shizun’s tactical mind is best regarded on the Peaks.”
“Best regarded,” echoed Shen Qingqiu, with a peculiar expression. His eyes returned to the window. His lip curled. They’d gone through another candle.
So Ning Yingying tried something else: “Does Sect Leader keep a weiqi board? Would you indulge this student in a game?”
“...Has this student learned to do more than stack the pieces?”
“Barely,” said Ning Yingying, proudly. “But she would love to be properly beaten by a master.”
“Now you’re truly humoring me,” sighed Shen Qingqiu.
“Oh, no. Usually it’s my shizun who humors me,” she said. “He lets me win, sometimes, but I know it’s because he pities me.”
That seemed to offend this Shen Qingqiu on a deep and personal level. “I pity no one.”
Ning Yingying sat up happily. “Excellent,” she said. “This student accepts your instruction.”
He beat her about three rounds, each match slightly longer than the last, before his eyes began to drift to the door again.
Ning Yingying was a little tired from doing her best to survive a few more turns, so she’d run out of ideas of how to keep him occupied. Instead, she said, gently. “Sect Leader is fortunate.”
“Sect leader is out in a blizzard with the greatest fool on the mountain,” said Shen Qingqiu. “And he has obviously been waylaid. What about that is fortunate?”
“...Both of my masters care so much for his safety,” said Ning Yingying. “Who could ask for more?”
Shen Qingqiu stared at her, speechless, until the bell rang from the main hall -- the smaller bell, the one that indicated a returning cultivator.
“Ning Yingying,” said Shen Qingqiu, but Ning Yingying already had his cloak. Together, they stepped out into the courtyard, Shen Qingqiu’s prosthetics leaving small circular tracks as he did his best not to move too eagerly towards the lanterns of the audience hall. Ning Yingying hurried to keep pace, but hung back just a little bit. She didn’t want him to think she was running to keep up.
Shen Qingqiu stopped at the side door. His metal hand hovered.
“...Oh,” he said, stepping back. “But why should I be the one to -- he might even be here--”
But the door opened before he could lay a hand on it. A very wet and very apologetic Yue Qingyuan stood on the other side. He nearly walked right into Shen Qingqiu. Ning Yingying had to grab his arm to keep him from stepping backwards off the walk way.
“Xiao Jiu!” said Yue Qingyuan, flushed from the cold and embarrassment both. “My apologies. It took a bit longer than we expected. There was…”
“A swarm,” said Shen Qingqiu, regaining himself. “Yes, I expected as much. Qi-ge should have taken me after all. I’m sure that imposter was completely useless. No wonder you are late.”
“Ah, the villagers asked us to clear the pass afterwards,” he said. “That took longer than expected. The snow spirits weren’t too much trouble. We used the spirit lanterns, as per your notes. Subduing the queen was easier than we expected. She’s secured at Qing Jing, if you are interested in interviewing her.”
Shen Qingqiu wrapped his pointed prosthetic sharply against the walk way, and whirled away with his back to him.
“Would I be interested, he asks! As if I am to be won with such an obvious ploy. As if he hasn’t left me waiting. Again. Again, Qi-ge!”
Ning Yingying noticed then the hands crossed over Shen Qingqiu’s sleeves were holding tight on the cloth, and shaking slightly from his agitated spiritual levels.
“Qi-ge is here now,” murmured the Sect Leader, quietly.
The hands eased off the fabric.
“I suppose he is,” said Shen Qingqiu, turning. “But don’t think this means he’ll get off lightly.”
Ning Yingying was not one to miss a cue.
“Ah, since Sect Leader will want to speak with my master,” she announced, “I shall go fetch some tea.”
“...that will do, Yingying.”
And if she lingered a little longer to watch out of the corner of her eye as Shen Qingqiu elegantly allowed himself to fall into the Sect Leader’s arms when he thought no one was watching, well, who was around to scold her for it then?