Shen Jiu would never go as far as to say he liked the Lius. The young master was an imprudent brute; not quite idiotic, but close. He was aggressive, bold and too keen on fights for him to see Shen Jiu as anything but a training dummy. On the other hand, old Master Liu was calm, diplomatic and foresighted, but also condescending, exasperating and downright odd.
The young boy waited for several days for Master Liu to show his true intentions. He was convinced no one in his right mind would help a broken little slave just for the kindness of their heart. Yet, the more he interacted with him, the more he suspected that, perhaps, he was actually a good person. Which could only mean that the old man was as stupid as his son.
That was a comforting thought because more often than not Shen Jiu wondered how they could be so different. If not their character, at least the Lius shared their foolish concept of rightfulness and honor, which actually made it feel as if he was dealing with two family members and not a pair of lunatics who ended up traveling together.
Shen Jiu didn't agree with the Lius' wishful way of thinking. It annoyed him to no end, but he forced himself to deal with it. After all, even if he didn't like them, they were being unexpectedly kind to him and he was willing to take advantage of that until the very last moment. He graciously accepted Master Liu's generosity. After all, he did need new clothes to match his new freedom and there was no way on earth he would reject the sumptuous feasts they usually had for dinner. One day they visited a small bookstore and the man bought him a booklet he dared to show interest in. It was difficult for the boy to hide his enthusiasm. After all, aside from his clothes, that booklet was the very first thing he had ever owned. It was thin and cheap and full of childish fables where the characters learned their lesson in the end. (Not at all like in real life where people lever learned and they kept making the same, stupid mistakes until they finally killed them). Against his judgment, Shen Jiu treasured the booklet and he read it over and over again as if the words changed every time.
Of course, it didn't take long before someone noticed.
"You're reading that again?" asked Liu Mingwu as they were preparing for bed. Despite the hour, Master Liu was dealing with some business in the first floor of the inn. The children were happy with the lack of adult supervision and they were reluctant to go early to bed, even if there was barely anything entertaining to do as they waited for Master Liu. Shen Jiu had already settled on his bed when the brute dared to sit on it to have a better glance at the book. "What's the point of reading the same thing over and over again?"
Shen Jiu raised an eyebrow and granted Liu Mingwu a single, annoyed glance.
"Back at home you spend most of your days training and fighting, don't you?" Liu Mingwu nodded, not too concerned about the unexpected question. "Isn't it tiring? To fight the same people over and over again?"
Liu Mingwu narrowed his eyes as he prepared his answer. It took him a long time, but he reached a better conclusion than Shen Jiu would've ever expected from him. "You're saying that each time you read a book, it's different. You learn something new with every reread."
Shen Jiu was so satisfied with his words that he granted him not only a second look, he even put the booklet down, making it clear that he was actually willing to engage in a conversation with Liu Mingwu. Who would've thought?
"It's simple, but it's fun to read. The drawings are terrible, though…"
"You should ask my father to buy you more books; better ones."
If Shen Jiu was a better person, he would've answered something stupid like "oh, but Master Liu has already been so generous to me, how could I ever ask him for anything else?", but luckily he wasn't.
"That's the plan. Unfortunately, it seems there aren't many bookstores on our way to Cang Qiong…"
Liu Mingwu snorted as he stood up to go into his bed.
"Fighting is better than books. You don't need bookstores for that."
Shen Jiu rolled his eyes and did his best to ignore Liu Mingwu's ignorant display.
He really didn't like him at all!
The following morning, Shen Jiu was having breakfast with the Lius. Once again he tried his best not to eat too much but failed terribly once the sweets were placed on the table. The egg tarts were particularly good (or so Shen Jiu thought because he had never had an egg tart before) and he didn't miss the chance to eat both his and Master Liu's servings.
"How can you eat so many pastries?" asked Liu Mingwu as he stared at him with concern and disgust. He probably remembered the first night they ate together and Shen Jiu had so many sesame balls he threw them all up alongside half of his dinner.
"They taste good. Why shouldn't I eat them?"
"Sweets are for little kids."
A smirk appeared on Shen Jiu's lips as he offered him his half remaining tart to Liu Mingwu.
"Oh, I'm sorry. You should've told me you wanted mine."
Liu Mingwu's face turned completely red and his little fists tumbled over the table. Shen Jiu didn't look at Master Liu, but he was sure that he was hiding an amused smile with his teacup.
"I'm not a child! I'm older than you!"
"No, you're not. You're twelve, aren't you? I'm almost fifteen."
Liu Mingwu was taken aback. He raised his eyebrows and his mouth hung wide open despite his lack of words.
"You!" he stuttered after three failed attempts. "That can't be true! You're too short to be fifteen!"
Usually, Shen Jiu didn't mind appearing younger and weaker than he really was. It was a good way to earn sympathy (and coins). Yet, for whatever reason, it annoyed him to no end whenever Liu Mingwu pointed it out.
"I'm sorry. Starvation usually prevents people from growing up."
Shen Jiu knew that was a low blow, but perhaps that would make Liu Mingwu think a little more before opening his stupid mouth.
Master Liu was about to say something, but he was interrupted by an annoyed growl from Liu Mingwu.
"Whatever, you can have mine if you like them so much," he then slid Shen Jiu's half eaten egg tart back to his side of the table before doing the same with his own.
"Thank you very much, Da Bao," he mocked. "Let's keep yours for the road and share it later, okay?"
Liu Mingwu nodded and then turned to his father.
"Could we also order almond jelly for the ride?"
"That's a good idea. It'll help us endure the midday sun."
As Master Liu called for the waiter's attention, Shen Jiu reminded himself to ask Liu Mingwu about his favorite sweets. Perhaps he had been too narrow-minded asking for something like egg tarts. There was probably a long list of delicious, expensive desserts he could still try before arriving to Cang Qiong.
Life was too short to limit oneself with just a handful of cheap desserts!
For several years Shen Jiu hated luxury: the vibrant colors, the golden decorations, the bronze sculptures that costed a hundred times more than what Qiu Jianluo paid for him. The extravagant excesses might have been enjoyable for some, but for Shen Jiu it was only a bad memory that carried the shadow of the Qiu household. During his first days traveling with the Lius, he met enough rich families to assert that his dream of riches and opulence wasn't a very good idea after all.
That was, of course, until he met Hui-furen. She was a wealthy widow, owner of several plots of land and the biggest mansion Shen Jiu had ever seen. As compared to the previous lords he had met, her house was scantly adorned, but the little decorations she had were elegant and beautiful. They were so precious they had their own glow and Shen Jiu thought that it wouldn't be too bad to have some of those in his future home. He particularly liked the broad painted fan decorating the visitor's pavilion. Perhaps one day he could be able to make one himself. The mere thought of creating something so beautiful thrilled him, but he did his best to keep the decorum. He had to be on his best behavior, after all. He couldn't afford Master Liu to get tired of him and ditch him when they were so close to Cang Qiong Mountain.
Hui-furen herself was a model of propriety. Her aged beauty was accentuated by her posture and cold demeanor. Her movements were minute and practical, yet elegant. Shen Jiu understood then that he disliked luxury, but he enjoyed fine things. He also understood that, in order to obtain them, he would have to refine himself. And, what better role model than Hui-furen? He spent most of his time in the pavilion observing her and memorizing her movements hoping to mimic her gestures one day. He was a fast learner and a good actor. If he could pass as a young master before, he was certain that one day he could learn an emperor's mannerisms. Hui-furen was only the first step.
Shen Jiu did his best to follow the adult's conversation, but the long list of unknown places and names didn't help him at all. Neither did Liu Mingwu's restlessness which gradually increased until Master Liu could no longer ignore it.
"I apologize, Hui-furen. It seems my son has finally spent his remaining patience."
"He really takes after his mother", the woman's voice was stern and imposing, but Shen Jiu recognized the warmth in her eyes. "They can explore the courtyard. Surely it will prove more exciting than our conversation."
After showing their respects, the boys excused themselves and walked towards the door.
"Your son's friend has impeccable manners. Which family did you say he comes from?"
Shen Jiu couldn't help but smile. If he could convince someone like Hui-furen that he was the son of a noble, he probably could fool anyone else. If things went his way, no one would treat him like a street rat ever again.
"I don't like it when you act like this," said Liu Mingwu as soon as they reached the main courtyard.
"Like what? Courteous?"
The younger one nodded.
"You become a different person whenever we visit a lord."
"There's nothing wrong with changing your demeanor according to the situation."
Liu Mingwu frowned, his face flooded with confusion and annoyance.
"Stop it. It creeps me out."
"You rather have me behaving like an uncouth, violent brat?"
"I rather have you acting like yourself."
Shen Jiu's heart skipped a bit. He never thought he would find someone dumb enough to ask him to be himself. He was terrible! Not even Qi-ge encouraged his scummy personality.
"I can be both," he said after a while, "courteous and uncouth and still be myself. But don't worry. I'll always show my worse side to you."
Liu Mingwu nodded as if he was satisfied with the deal and he then walked towards the center of the courtyard.
"Come, let's spar."
Usually, Shen Jiu would immediately reject the boy's proposal, but he was in a good mood, and sparing didn't sound like a bad idea at the time. He joined Liu Mingwu and, trying his best not to make a fool of himself, he charged.
Four days later, Shen Jiu acknowledged that accepting Liu Mingwu's proposal to train together hadn't been that bad. He was learning, slowly, and it was delightful to avoid even one of Liu Mingwu's hits (which, admittedly, didn't happen often). Apparently, Shen Jiu was so weak that Liu Mingwu didn't need to avoid his hits, which was great because he always enjoyed punching his way out of things. Moreover, even though it was painful, it was an ache he could endure. He could decide when to stop and when to pick up again; it was manageable and so very different from the pain he was subjected to in the Qiu household.
All his life Shen Jiu suffered by someone else's hands. Being the slave handlers, the male passersby, Qui Jianluo and even Qiu Haitang, whatever happened to his body wasn't his decision. Now he had gained control over himself for the very first time and even though he still went to bed covered with cuts and bruises, he also did so with a smile on his face.
Liu Mingwu wasn't patient for most things, but he was an unexpectedly persevering instructor. Then again, it probably didn't take much mental energy to plummet someone to the ground ten times a day. Shen Jiu admitted that their daily sparing sessions were exhilarating and even something akin to fun. Especially when unexpected things happened like the time Liu Mingwu stretched a little far too much and he tore the right sleeve of his outer tunic.
Liu Mingwu froze the moment he heard the tear and Shen Jiu walked behind him to evaluate the damage.
"How bad is it?"
"Not too bad. The seam didn't hold up. It seems you're growing up, Da Bao."
"Father is going to kill me," he muttered, ignoring Shen Jiu's provocation. "This is the third tunic in two months."
"I can sew it together again."
"You know how to sew?"
"And I'm quite good at it," he said as he helped Liu Mingwu out of his tunic. "Come, let's find someone who can lend us thread and needle."
Luckily, they found a servant idle enough to help them and, two incense sticks of time later, Shen Jiu was finishing the seamless repair to the tunic.
"That's very good. I can't tell it was repaired."
Of course it was good. Shen Jiu learned from his early years to mend his clothes as many times as possible. Ragged clothes did get him more money, but too many tears would freeze him to death in colder months.
"It's easy once you get the hang of it."
"You should teach me."
Once more Liu Mingwu caught Shen Jiu out of guard. (He seemed to be very good at it).
"Why would you want to learn? You're a Liu. I'm sure you can get someone else to do it for you."
"It'll be useful for night hunts."
Pragmatic and foresighted. Liu Mingwu had other similarities with his father, then.
"I'll teach you, but only because you are teaching me how to fight."
Liu Mingwu nodded curtly and he extended his hand towards the needle so eagerly he accidentally pinched himself. Shen Jiu snorted loudly.
He was going to have a lot of fun with their sewing lessons.
"I apologize, my lord," said the footman as he examined the carriage's broken wheel. "I'm afraid the repairs are going to take a while."
Shen Jiu stared at the rock responsible for the accident they had on their way to their second to last city before they arrived at Cang Qiong. For a moment, he feared it had been placed there by thieves to force them to stop, but it seemed the earth hadn't been tampered with in years. Apparently, they just had terrible luck and now they were stranded in the middle of nowhere under the scorching heat.
"I guess it can't be helped," said Master Liu as he unbridled the horses. "I just hope we can get into the city before it gets dark."
"Leave it to us, master. We'll be done before lunchtime," the second servant was so confident in his words that Master Liu dared not to question him. "There's a stream nearby. Master Liu and the young masters could go there to freshen up as they wait."
Master Liu wasn't too thrilled about the plan, but his son had a different idea. He didn't say anything, but the expectant shine in his eyes was enough to convince his father.
"Alright, then. Call us if you need anything."
Moments later, Shen Jiu and Liu Mingwu were guided through an adjacent trail that led to a narrow, but deep stream. Liu Mingwu started to remove all his clothes the moment he saw the water and, by the time he dipped into it, he was completely naked. Shen Jiu, whose plan was simply to rest on one of the cold rocks at the riverside, was so surprised by his actions that he could barely move as he saw the boy wallowing in the water. He had seen a similar scene years ago, when he was still a slave running around hand in hand with Qi-ge. It was the beginning of spring and the water from the river that crossed the city was finally warm enough for the slaves to bathe on it. Regrettably, one of them dared to wallow far too deep. It had been a small girl, too light and weak to do anything against the water current. She was washed away only to be found again two days later lifeless, cold and swollen.
The rational side of Shen Jiu told him that that had been an unfortunate accident. Not only Liu Mingwu was heavier and stronger than the little girl, but this stream was less deep and barely had any current. Nevertheless, he couldn't stop himself from worrying and he turned his eyes from Liu Mingwu to his father hoping the man would stop him. Unfortunately, he seemed unconcerned about the boy as he comfortably sat under the shadow of a fir.
"What are you waiting for?!" yelled Liu Mingwu right before splashing Shen Jiu. "It's hot. Get into the water."
Shen Jiu shook his head more effusively than he had planned.
Liu Mingwu swam to the riverside, where he rested his arms over the mossy rocks of the shore. His brows furrowed and he stared at Shen Jiu as if he was trying to read something written on his forehead. "You don't want to undress? It's alright, you can stay in your under robe."
A blush crept into Shen Jiu's face. What was the brat talking about? He was worried about his damn safety and he came up with something as nonsensical as his modesty. That had nothing to do with his reaction!
(Not that he wanted to undress before the Lius. Why would he do such a thing?)
"That's not it. It's just…" he stammered. "The water is too deep."
"You can't swim? Then come. I'll teach you how to float."
In the brink of panic, Shen Jiu turned to Master Liu hoping he would stop his son's ludicrous plan. Unfortunately, things didn't turn out how he expected, because the man had the nerve to encourage him. "It'll be fine, Shen Jiu. I'm keeping an eye on you both."
It took a long time for Shen Jiu to make a decision. He didn't want Liu Mingwu to think he was a coward so in the end, he agreed to remove his outer robe and shoes before getting into the water. He remained close to the shore, where he could still feel the slimy stones of the bottom, but Liu Mingwu walked towards him and took him by the arms, guiding him to deeper waters.
"Floating is easier than you think," said Liu Mingwu. "Just wait and see. Once we are in Cang Qiong I'll teach you how to swim and you won't be scared of water anymore."
Shen Jiu was too nervous to respond (nervous, not scared, he was definitely not scared), but he silently prayed for Cang Qiong to be a place without lakes or rivers.
If Liu Mingwu got him into another body of water ever again he might have to kill him.
Shen Jiu had been traveling with the Lius for a month now. It took him half that time for him to be able to doze while sharing a room with them. He still hadn't been able to sleep properly, but at least he could have light naps that would allow him to rest his eyes and recover part of his strength. He wasn't too concerned about it. He'd had it worse, especially during his first months with the Qius.
Yet, now that they finally arrived at the city at the foot of Cang Qiong Mountain, Shen Jiu found it impossible to even pretend to be asleep. Too many thoughts crossed his mind. Too many doubts.
Would he be selected into the sect? Master Liu had acknowledged his spiritual aptitude and Liu Mingwu's training had helped to strengthen his body, but he was still too short and skinny. He wondered if any Peak Lord would be as foolish as to look his way.
Even if Shen Jiu was admitted into the sect, what would happen if he still couldn't find Qi-ge? Master Liu assured him he would help him to look for him, but perhaps the reason Qi-ge hadn't come back for him was because he was incapable to. Perhaps he had been stolen by other slave handlers, or maybe he came back to the Qiu Mansion and Qiu Jianluo hurt him for daring to ask for the freedom of his favored slave. It would've been easy for Qiu Jianluo to keep it a secret, after all.
(Perhaps Qi-ge died right after they separated and now his cold and abandoned body remained in a humid, dark cave).
He knew he shouldn't waste his time worrying about things he still ignored. Nevertheless, he had always been one to plan ahead of time and he couldn't do that if he didn't consider his options beforehand. Said thoughts were what kept him up at night and what made him get out of his bed once the Lius fell asleep. He walked as silently as he could and he slowly opened the door that led to the room's balcony. There, he sat on a wooden bench that allowed him to look at the darkened silhouette of the city. The sect would hold the trials next week and dozens of visitors swarmed the inns of the town making it livelier than it probably was. Shen Jiu decided to entertain himself by counting the lamps hanging from the buildings.
He heard someone approaching the moment he reached to thirteen. Shen Jiu sighed, hoping that whoever it was didn't force him to go back to bed and into his thoughts. Moments later, Liu Mingwu joined him on the balcony.
It seemed Shen Jiu wasn't the only one kept awake by his thoughts. "You can't sleep."
Liu Mingwu nodded and he took a seat next to Shen Jiu. "It's alright. Once we become cultivators we won't need to waste time sleeping."
Shen Jiu smiled bitterly, wondering what difference would that make. "I don't know. I think I would rather sleep."
A long silence befell upon them. Not quite uncomfortable, but uneasy. Shen Jiu found it difficult to deal with Liu Mingwu's intense stares. He didn't know if what made him nervous was that the brat was constantly trying to figure him out or the fact that he often succeeded.
"Tell me a story," said Liu Mingwu.
"One of the stories of your books. Tell me one of them."
"Why would I do that? It's late. Go back to bed; I don't want to deal with your grogginess tomorrow."
"I taught you how to float. You owe me."
Cursed brat! When did he learn how to bargain?!
Shen Jiu huffed and crossed his arms. "Fine, but you better pay attention. Otherwise, I'll never tell you a story ever again."
The young man started talking, retelling one of his favorite fables. He had good memory and he could recite it almost entirely. If he forgot about something (or if he wanted to improve a particular verse), he would improvise. The process helped him forget about the sect and his fears, making it easier to breathe. He talked for over an incense stick of time and, once he finished, he barely paused for a moment before starting a second story, too afraid that his brain would go back to brooding once he stopped talking.
Shen Jiu finished his second story and then he began a third one. By the fourth, he felt the weight of Liu Mingwu's head over his shoulder. The boy had fallen asleep, but Shen Jiu was still not ready to go back to bed so he kept talking until he had recited the entirety of his booklet. He then retold the cheesy stories Qi-ge shared with him in their little corner of the slave's shed. They were tales of unfortunate souls who had to endure years and years of suffering and pain (just like them), but one day something changed in their lives and, after one final test, they could finally reach safety and happiness. They were dumb stories, childish and unrealistic, but he still enjoyed them, even though back then he would scold Qi-ge for wasting his time with his wishful thinking.
Now he wished he had asked Qi-ge for more stories like that.
Shen Jiu talked for a long time and, once he ran out of stories, he began all over again. He talked until his mouth was dry and his eyes became heavy; until his head became heavy too and he had to rest it over Liu Mingwu's.
Master Liu heard when both his son and Shen Jiu left their beds and went outside to the balcony. For a while, he listened to the muted voice of the latter, but he ended up falling asleep once again. The following morning he noticed that the boys didn't return to their beds. He went outside and met them on the balcony. They were both asleep, resting their heads on each other.
Master Liu smiled and left them like that as he went downstairs to order some breakfast. The boys needed a good rest and Master Liu wouldn't mind the extra time for himself.
It had been a long trip for all of them.