When Liu Qingge was little, he knew very few things about his soulmate.
1. His soulmate was certainly a slave. The first manifestation of the soulmark had been a slave brand--the character Qiu against his chest, deep and dark, certainly resembling the mark on his soulmate's body.
2. His soulmate's life is difficult. This he could tell from the various manifestations that came after, all of which trying to cover up the brand, sometimes violently.
Once, it looked as though his soulmate had cut away the flesh that bore the brand.
And Liu Qingge only wished to find them and to lift them out of their wretched situation. He wished only to find them and help them somehow, to make their situation even just a little better.
3. It has been years, and yet not once has Liu Qingge been able to find his soulmate.
As soon as Liu Qingge had been able to, he had all but stormed to the Qiu manor, a training sword in hand, entirely sure that within their residence, he would find his soulmate.
But all Liu Qingge found was fire burning all around.
His soulmate survived.
He was sure of this. If only because the soulmark kept growing and changing.
So he would keep looking. If he kept looking, he would surely find his soulmate. Right?
(Liu Qingge did not know what soulmark his soulmate had that would lead them together. Liu Qingge could only hope that his soulmate would know where to look.)
But years pass, and not once does Liu Qingge come close to figuring out who his soulmate might be or where they might have wandered. The world is far too wide, and Liu Qingge feels far too useless.
His soulmark grows and changes.
From the grievous wound, the Qiu brand reemerged.
But at least his soulmate did not try something so drastic, so painful again. Instead, it seems as though his soulmate found comfort in the arts.
Clumsy calligraphy decorates Liu Qingge's chest first, the lines to a classic poem, legible but not beautiful. The strokes were unsure, not entirely even. Which makes sense. Most slaves would not be educated, nor would they be treated kindly. Maybe his soulmate is now learning to read and write, along with how to present it artfully.
Liu Qingge places a hand on his chest, tracing the characters of the poem reverently:
Before my bed there's a pool of light
I wonder if it's frost on the ground
Looking up, I find the moon bright
Then bowing my head, I drown in homesickness 1
How sad, Liu Qingge thought, uncomfortable with feeling this uselessly. He is here, unable to do anything for his soulmate. He has never done anything for his soulmate.
So, Liu Qingge throws on his outer robes and exits his home in a rush, ready to brawl against his fellow Bai Zhan Peak disciples, if only to get the thought of his soulmate suffering out of his head.
Already, Liu Qingge is the head disciple, set to become the next Bai Zhan Peak Lord. So, his fellow disciples do not provide the challenge he seeks.
So, instead, Liu Qingge goes to find Shen Jiu wherever he might be hiding and scheming.
Shen Jiu is a dishonorable disciple of Qing Jing Peak. Their first encounter had been a dreadful one. Every encounter after has been just as dreadful. But Liu Qingge just kept on coming back to him.
Shen Jiu is one of the young masters that Liu Qingge despised.
"You--" Liu Qingge barks, drawing out Cheng Luan. "Fight me!"
Shen Jiu, sitting calmly in one of the many pavilions on Qing Jing Peak, blinks slowly. He sets his hands upon his qin, stilling the strings before drawing his hair away from his shoulder. "Liu-shidi," he says, with more than a little venom. "What can this shixiong do for you? Clearly, this shixiong is not busy with anything else."
"Fight me," Liu Qingge says again.
Shen Jiu always provides a challenge, if only because he does not fight fairly. Shen Jiu always had dirty tricks up his sleeves. Using qi-infused leaves to cut. Throwing up dirt to blind. He was always tricky.
And, better, Shen Jiu wasn't a good person. His heart is blackened.
Liu Qingge knows this. There were many words that could describe Shen Jiu: spoiled, lecherous, mundane, uncompromising, mean.
So Liu Qingge didn't feel bad going all out with him.
("What?" said Shen Jiu, his mouth hidden behind a fan. "Does Yue-shixiong really expect to save every lowly slave out there? It would be best for slaves to know their place, yes? To remain where they are, amongst the dirt."
"Xiao Jiu," said Yue Qingyuan, so very desperate. "Please."
Yue Qingyuan never scolded Shen Jiu. Never, ever, ever!
Even when Shen Jiu attacked those who were weaker than him, those who suffered needlessly. Those who were owned by others, unable to live their own lives.
Liu Qingge had gritted his teeth and placed his hand on his chest where, beneath all the layers of his clothing, lay his soulmark. The only connection he had to his soulmate, who had clearly suffered in this life so far. Who was being indirectly insulted by Shen Qingqiu.
He couldn't stand it!)
Shen Jiu sighs, as though this is a burden. But he goes to meet Liu Qingge in yet another rough brawl.
Again, Liu Qingge wins and leaves Shen Jiu in the dirt, Shen Jiu glaring at him hatefully.
"Liu Qingge," Shen Jiu spits out. "I really will kill you one day!"
The calligraphy fades from Liu Qingge's chest slowly, like old ink, revealing the slave brand once more.
Then, as though embroidered against Liu Qingge's skin, bamboo leaves appear, one by one, obscuring the brand.
Liu Qingge examines this change carefully, frowning to himself.
What could this mean? He did not know.
Perhaps his soulmate, in their journeys, has encountered bamboo. That didn't exactly narrow down where in the world they could be. Even Qing Jing Peak had a bamboo forest.
(A fact that Liu Qingge could attest to, slivers of healing skin on his hands bearing the bite of Shen Jiu's brand of qi-infused bamboo leaves.)
Liu Qingge sighs to himself, coming up with all sorts of scenarios in his head. "Where are you?" he asks himself, so very alone.
The bamboo leaves fall away from the brand, one by one.
For a while, no new manifestations blossom against Liu Qingge's skin.
And Liu Qingge finds himself somewhat listless. Wondering that maybe, just maybe, his soulmate had been hurt. Or had otherwise captured, unable to explore the arts as he had clearly been doing.
When a painting appears, clumsily, always clumsily at first, brush strokes against Liu Qingge's skin, Liu Qingge all but leaps out of his skin, hurrying out of the cafeteria and tearing his clothes off to see what lies beneath.
He stares at this painting for a long time.
Black ink covers the brand once again. And, this time, the ink forms a short-haired monster.
Liu Qingge looks at it incredulously.
What did this mean? he thought, both confused and surprised. This short-haired monster... looks cute. With big, watery eyes.
Liu Qingge goes to his Shizun.
The Bai Zhan Peak Lord frowns at him. "You want to hunt short-haired monsters specifically," he repeats. "They will not provide a glorious battle."
Liu Qingge nods.
"Do you... want to eat them?" the Bai Zhan Peak Lord asks. "Your cultivation base is strong."
Liu Qingge hesitates. Is that why his soulmate painted one? Because of the properties of the monster's flesh?
(If his soulmate wanted to cultivate, they would surely begin late, if only due to the unfortunate circumstances they had been borne into. But Liu Qingge would support them. Once he found them.)
Liu Qingge shakes his head. "My soulmate likes them," he says instead.
The Bai Zhan Peak Lord had a soulmark on the hollow of his throat, stretching up across his jaw. The qin notation had been composed by the current Qing Jing Peak Lord. Together, these Peak Lords are absolutely insufferable.
So Liu Qingge's Shizun would understand the importance of this.
The Bai Zhan Peak Lord waves his hand. "Go for it."
Liu Qingge goes to all the territories short-haired monsters are known to roam. He slaughters them by the bushel basket, but he does not come any closer to finding his soulmate.
There is no lonely painter to be found.
(Why Liu Qingge thought he would find his soulmate, spending their days in quietude, painting the local beasts, he did not know.)
When Liu Qingge comes across the last short-haired monster here, it looks rather pitiful.
It hunkers down and grows softly. But it does not run away, even though it knew of the clear danger before it.
Liu Qingge doesn't think before he acts.
He draws a net out of a qiankun pouch and captures this final beast, even as the beast struggles and nips ineffectively at his fingers.
Then Liu Qingge returns to Cang Qiong Mountain sect, the monster slung over his shoulder.
("When you said your soulmate likes short-haired monsters," says the Bai Zhan Peak Lord, "I didn't think you meant you'd take one on as a pet."
Liu Qingge shrugs.
The short-haired monster didn't seem like a problem to him. It ran about Bai Zhan Peak and then, when it grew hungry, it scurried over to Qing Jing Peak to gnaw at the bamboo stalks.
This worked out mostly well, as the Qing Jing Peak disciples have apparently taken to painting the damn thing.)
When the painting of the short-haired monster disappears, Liu Qingge is somewhat disappointed.
He feels as though, once again, he has failed his soulmate.
Years pass like this. And, when the An generation ascends, the Qing generation steps forwards to take their place.
The night following the celebration and banquet, Liu Qingge notices a new manifestation--the same poem from before, but with fine caligraphy.
Liu Qingge traces a finger against the sure lines of the calligraphy, letting out a sigh of relief.
Wherever his soulmate was, he had not yet failed them entirely.
(Sometimes, Liu Qingge believes that his soulmate is hiding from him.
What else is he supposed to think when he has tried his best to locate them? Liu Qingge was reknown for his hunting skills--and hunting usually included tracking.
But he could not track his fated person.)
Yue Qingyuan gave Liu Qingge a mission.
A mission with Shen Qingqiu.
(The mission he and Shen Qingqiu had completed long ago, when they were still disciples, had gone badly enough, with Shen Qingqiu actually trying to murder him, though no one did anything to punish him for the attempt.
Shang Qinghua had not acted as an effective buffer.
And this mission would be worse, with no one to stand between them.)
Liu Qingge had been certain nothing good would come of the mission.
He had not expected for Shen Qingqiu to take a blow for him, the beast's long claws raking across his back. Shen Qingqiu goes down and he goes down hard.
Liu Qingge slays the beast, blood splattering over them both, foul and hot. Then he goes to help Shen Qingqiu.
Shen Qingqiu slaps away his hands. "Get away from me, you brute," he hisses.
"You're hurt," says Liu Qingge.
Shen Qingqiu raises his brows. "Liu-shidi is quite observant," he sneers. He rises from the ground, brushing dirt from his robes. He cannot do anything about the blood--his own and the beast's.
Liu Qingge hesitates.
This is unexpected. Shen Qingqiu is acting unexpectedly. How weird.
"We'll get you treatment," Liu Qingge says.
Shen Qingqiu glares at him. "Unnecessary."
So they don't stop in the town. Not even to inform them that the beast has been slain. Liu Qingge takes the time to gather the corpse of the beast.
(The fur could be useful. It could make for a very nice cloak.)
When they return to Cang Qiong Mountain sect, Shen Qingqiu immediately goes to his bamboo hut, without stopping to give his report to Yue Qingyuan or even going to Qian Cao Peak for help with the wound.
(And it must be terrible.
Liu Qingge had seen the blood spread throughout white robes.)
So Liu Qingge goes to Yue Qingyuan quickly, giving something of a report.
(Not quite good enough, judging by Yue Qingyuan's gentle-but-stressed expression. But Yue Qingyuan would get all the details from Shen Qingqiu.
After Shen Qingqiu stopped bleeding all over the place.)
So Liu Qingge nods and makes his way to Qing Jing Peak.
(After all, Shen Qingqiu was bleeding all over the place and there was no way he could wrap bandages around those wounds, though he would certainly try.)
Liu Qingge does not use the front door of the bamboo hut. Shen Qingqiu had always hated it and, besides, it would give Shen Qingqiu just a moment more to hide his injuries. So, without knocking, Liu Qingge barges in through the back door.
And stops shorts, shocked beyond belief.
Shen Qingqiu is bathing, the water running red. His back faces the door, so much pale, exposed skin. The claw marks run right through Shen Qingqiu's soulmark.
Shen Qingqiu's soulmark--a very distinctive sword.
Cheng Luan, running down the length of his spine.
Shen Qingqiu gasps, both sinking further into the water, trying desperately to hide himself away, and raging, throwing whatever is closest to him at Liu Qingge. "You absolute fool!" he shouts, tossing a perfumed bar at Liu Qingge.
This perfumed bar bounces right off of Liu Qingge's head.
It doesn't matter. He doesn't feel it anyway.
What matters is his soulmate has been here all along, right underneath his nose.
Liu Qingge's gone quite dumb, blinking slowly. "Shen Qingqiu," he says, feeling numb. "You are my soulmate."
And Shen Qingqiu grows quite red. "Soulmate? What soulmate?" he hisses. "No soulmate of mine would be so rude as to barge in through the back door without even knocking! My soulmate wouldn't leave the door open either!"
Liu Qingge shuts the door.
Shen Qingqiu lowers himself further into the water, hair spilling around him like ink. His face is terribly flushed. Like he's feverish. But, no. He's embarrassed.
Liu Qingge swallows and approaches. Right. He came in order to help with Shen Qingqiu's wounds and berate him for denying both help and rest. "Lean forward," Liu Qingge says, kneeling beside the tub.
And Shen Qingqiu obeys, still so very red, like his face forgot about its flush. "This means nothing."
Carefully, Liu Qingge washes the wound, all while taking in the details of the soulmark on Shen Qingqiu's back. The image of Cheng Luan was unmistakable. Even the characters present on the actual blade are there on Shen Qingqiu's back.
The hilt of the sword is emblazoned on Shen Qingqiu's neck.
With Shen Qingqiu's hair always half down, Liu Qingge did not have a chance to even notice this.
With a twinge, Liu Qingge recalls the few things he had known about his soulmate. That they had been a slave. That they had lived a painful life. That they learned the four arts slowly after seemingly finding freedom.
And Liu Qingge realizes he had been wrong about Shen Qingqiu.
That he had his own assumptions and treated Shen Qingqiu poorly.
"...sorry," Liu Qingge says.
And Shen Qingqiu goes stiff and still, not saying anything at all.
They remain quiet--this strange pair of soulmates. Shen Qingqiu dries himself and dresses in loose pants, allowing Liu Qingge to apply medicine to his wounds and dress them properly. Only then does Shen Qingqiu slip on a sleeping robe.
Shen Qingqiu looks very strange when he wears only his sleeping robe.
He looks... small.
Liu Qingge swallows. "Shen-shixiong," he says. "Can this shidi do anything more for you?"
And Shen Qingqiu shakes his head. "Unnecessary."
But Liu Qingge feels guilty.
How many years had he troubled Shen Qingqiu? Belittled him? Made him feel bad about himself?
"I will make it up to you," Liu Qingge announces, even as Shen Qingqiu turns away from him, very stiffly making his way to his bed.
"No need," Shen Qingqiu says now.
But there is a need for Liu Qingge to make up for time lost.
(All those years he had promised to help his soulmate and stand at his soulmate's side! Little did he know that he stood in his soulmate's way instead.)
So, yes, Liu Qingge must make up for the time he has lost. It simply makes sense to court Shen Qingqiu and to work on improving the reputation he had smeared.
(Liu Qingge presents Shen Qingqiu with the corpse of a monster.
Shen Qingqiu sneers, hiding the curve of his mouth behind his fan. "Liu-shidi, is this really necessary?"
Liu Qingge nods. Then he asks this: "My soulmate, my heart, why do you go to brothels?"
Shen Qingqiu had thrown his fan at him and retreated, his face terribly red.
And Liu Qingge had taken this fan as something to hold on to. Something he would give back to Shen Qingqiu when they saw each other next.
Not that it would be terribly long, of course.)
Liu Qingge returns this day with the fan and a basket of sweets.
(Shen Qingqiu would like sweets, he is sure. One time, images of sticky tanghulu had covered the soulmark. Liu Qingge thought it was cute.
Liu Qingge would not have thought that Shen Qingqiu liked such sweets, but, then again, clearly Shen Qingqiu is good at hiding things.)
Shen Qingqiu accepts this baskets of sweets gingerly, taking back his fan in order to hide his mouth as he eats. "If this is poisoned," he mutters, crumbs clinging to his lips.
"Why would I poison you?" Liu Qingge mutters.
"I don't know," says Shen Qingqiu, rolling his eyes. "Why do you toss corpses at my feet?"
"I'm courting you," Liu Qingge says.
And when Shen Qingqiu hears this, he flushes terribly. He turns his head away and says this: "None of this is necessary. Liu-shidi shouldn't feel forced to court something like me."
"Nobody is forcing me to do anything I don't want," Liu Qingge says. He steps forwards. Shen Qingqiu steps back. So Liu Qingge remains where he is. "I want to court my soulmate properly. I have always wanted to find my soulmate."
The expressions that cross Shen Qingqiu's face are painful. Liu Qingge can see him doubt.
But at least Shen Qingqiu does not reject the offering of sweets.
This continues for a while longer. But Shen Qingqiu seems to warm up to him.
At least Shen Qingqiu no longer seems to doubt Liu Qingge's feelings.
It took a while for Shen Qingqiu to understand that Liu Qingge truly and clearly wished to court him.
And how painful this is.
It spoke of his soulmate's self doubt, his low self worth.
(And Liu Qingge had promised before to help his soulmate, to stand by their side no matter what.
Standing by Shen Qingqiu's side is not a bad thing. Shen Qingqiu has more good qualities than bad, even if he seemed to try to hide his every good deed. Liu Qingge did not understand it. He would likely never understand. But he did not have to.)
"When did you know?" Liu Qingge asks Shen Qingqiu one day.
Shen Qingqiu blinks slowly, looking at him lazily, much like an overspoiled cat. They sit together within Shen Qingqiu's bamboo hut, drinking tea that had been prepared by one of the disciples along with a platterful of sweets.
(Or, really, Shen Qingqiu eats the sweets.
When Liu Qingge had tried to sample one, Shen Qingqiu smacked his hand away. Greedy little thing.)
"Know what?" Shen Qingqiu tries ineffectively before hiding his face.
Liu Qingge tilts his head. "You are no fool. When did you know I was your soulmate?"
Shen Qingqiu shuts his eyes. "...what does it matter?"
"It matters," Liu Qingge says.
Shen Qingqiu had known for a long time and had avoided telling him this. Their relationship had been bad. Liu Qingge would make up for this for the rest of his life.
Shen Qingqiu lets out a long, drawn out sigh. "All of the manifestations were swords," he says. "When the Bai Zhan Peak training sword was replaced by Cheng Luan, I knew immediately. Before then, I only had an inkling."
Liu Qingge nods. How many years could they have shared together if the misunderstandings had been cleared long ago? How many more years would have gone by if the misunderstandings were allowed to continue to pile up? "Did anyone else know?"
Shen Qingqiu pauses. Very carefully, he says this: "When I was little, the manifestation was still a sword. A wooden training sword, very plain. My brother saw it."
Liu Qingge did not even know Shen Qingqiu had a brother. In all their years at Cang Qiong Mountain sect, Liu Qingge had not heard of Shen Qingqiu's family before. Not even once.
So, very smartly, Liu Qingge says this: "You have a brother?"
Shen Qingqiu shrugs a shoulder. "We... have not been close in years. He abandoned me and would not tell me why."
Liu Qingge shakes his head, still connecting the dots. Shen Qingqiu had a brother. Shen Qingqiu was a slave. "Did... your brother sell you?"
Shen Qingqiu shakes his head. When he smiles, it's a bitter thing. "No, he meant to come back to rescue me," he says. Then he laughs. It sounds painful. "But he didn't."
Liu Qingge moves slowly, before he can think, enveloping his soulmate in a hug.
Shen Qingqiu clutches at him desperately, as though he is afraid that Liu Qingge might just disappear.
"It's okay," Liu Qingge says, running his hands through Shen Qingqiu's hair, petting him so very softly.
"Is it?" Shen Qingqiu says, as vicious and pointed as ever even though he is cuddling Liu Qingge. Not too subtly, he sniffles. "You know what soulmark binds me to you, it's only fair if I know too."
The hand resting on Liu Qingge's chest burns, right over the soulmark--the slave brand covered clumsily.
"There have been many manifestations, but the soulmark has never settled," Liu Qingge says.
"It's something you don't want me to see," Shen Qingqiu says sharply.
Shen Qingqiu is quiet for a moment but then he nods. In a small voice, he says, "You'll tell me when it settles, right?"
Liu Qingge's presence on Qing Jing Peak becomes well known throughout Cang Qiong Mountain sect.
("Is it really some sort of sect tradition?" one hallmaster mutters to another. "Must the Qing Jing Peak Lord always be the soulmate of the Bai Zhan Peak Lord?"
"Hush you. Can't you see that this is a good thing? With Peak Lord Shen and Peak Lord Liu more occupied in one another than smashing one another into the dirt there's so much less property damage. They've both been behaving so calmly!"
"They're certainly going to smash one another in the dirt. Just not how you expect."
Liu Qingge's presence in the bamboo hut is still something new, something precious, as Liu Qingge is allowed to see the vulnerabilities of his soulmate. As Liu Qingge is allowed to watch his soulmate practice the four arts calmly, a serene expression upon Shen Qingqiu's face.
(There is no tremble to that hand. He is sure of every motion.
Shen Qingqiu is a master.)
Shen Qingqiu paints a mountainside that so resembled the mountains of Cang Qiong Mountain sect. Then, once he is done, he prepares a poem directly on this paper.
Liu Qingge reads right over his shoulder as Shen Qingqiu writes, his calligraphy beautiful.
The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
Until only the mountain remains. 2
Shen Qingqiu sets aside the brush, letting out a little sigh. There is a smear of ink against his cheek, something his has not noticed just yet.
Liu Qingge wets his thumb and cleans this mark for him.
Shen Qingqiu allows him, his lashes fluttering to fan out against the curve of his cheek. Then, without opening his eyes, he asks Liu Qingge this: "Do you like it?"
Shen Qingqiu had seemed so at peace while working on this particular piece.
"It's beautiful," Liu Qingge says. "Like the artist behind it."
Shen Qingqiu lets out a snicker, his face growing warm. "And when has Liu-shidi gotten so smooth?"
Liu Qingge smiles, then shrugs a single shoulder. "This shidi had to practice," he says, "learning what to say to make his soulmate blush so."
(The soulmark on Liu Qingge's chest changes one last time.
The slave brand is no longer visible, covered by a copy of this painting Shen Qingqiu had created, the beautiful lines of the poem against Liu Qingge's chest.
And, when Liu Qingge eventually shows Shen Qingqiu, Shen Qingqiu spends a long time tracing each dark line against Liu Qingge's skin, a faint smile on Shen Qingqiu's lips.)