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Willow Leaf

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As a child, Shen Jiu never considered himself lucky. Born into slavery, the best part of his life was Qi-ge’s company and love, but even that faded away when he was bought into the Qiu household. If he had been unlucky as a street rat, he became downright wretched once he met Qiu Jianluo. The young man was even crueler than the slave handlers, and his touches were more scathing. Most days Shen Jiu wondered if he could survive until his brother came for him and, sometimes, he wondered if he even wanted to.

Qiu Jianluo had a disgusting fixation with him. He summoned him more often than not with the excuse of calligraphy lessons, but even though Shen Jiu learned more than the basics from him, the required payment exceeded whatever the young master could ever offer.

The only silver lining was Qiu Haitang. Lovely, kind and utterly blind to whatever happened around her, she was a haven for Shen Jiu. Yet, her company was anything but auspicious, for he suspected that his closeness to Qiu Haitang was what made Qiu Jianluo particularly interested in him.

Shen Jiu sometimes wondered how long his bad luck would last. Would he have to endure it for the rest of his life? Or, perhaps, one day things would change and he could actually have something positive in his life?

The answer to his question came a little after he turned thirteen. As winter approached, so did the need for a bigger lumber supply. Most wealthy families would simply buy a big batch of the material, but the Qiu family was thrifty and, instead, they sent most of their male servants and slaves to the forest in the outskirt of the city to cut down their own trees. As expected, Shen Jiu joined them and he had to spend his days away using an axe he could barely raise. It was on his third day on the forest that the gods decided to change both his luck and fate.

At one moment the boy was swinging the axe and at the next he was falling flat on his face. A deep, sharp pain throbbed in his forehead and he felt the warm drops of blood mixed with sweat trickling down his face. The last thing he remembered was someone calling his name and the sense of fading away into the darkness.

He woke up several hours later in Qiu Haitang’s bedroom. His wound had been treated, but the pain seemed to have gotten worse. He couldn’t open his left eye, and he wondered if it was because there was a bandage covering it or if it was because it was too swollen. He tried to examine his head with his right hand, but Qiu Haitang held it strongly between her own.

“You’re awake, Xiao Jiu,” she sighed with relief. “We were so worried about you.”

Shen Jiu tried to speak but only a coarse gruff came out of his mouth. The girl offered him water, which he gladly drank. Feeling a little better, he tried speaking once more.

“What happened?”

Qiu Haitang frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. “A stupid kid was playing with his kite in a forest clearing when it got caught on one of the trees. He tried to bring it down throwing stones at it and one of them ended up hitting you on the forehead.”

Shen Jiu wanted to curse the kid and tell Qiu Haitang that, indeed, he must have been a very stupid brat. Who plays with a kite in the middle of the forest?

“They said you fell unconscious right away,” Shen Jiu tried not to think about how pathetic he must have looked. “There was blood everywhere! I was afraid you wouldn’t wake up!”

Qiu Haitang’s eyes quivered under the light of the lamps. The little red spots on her temples were signs that she had been crying for a long time. Shen Jiu was probably still concussed, because he felt guilty despite him being the only victim.

“They brought you home immediately. The kid’s parents were decent enough to pay for the physician’s bill and the medicine, but…”

The annoyed expression in Qiu Haitang’s face slowly transformed into something else. It wasn’t concern or sadness, but pity. Shen Jiu’s heart skipped a beat as he wondered if the wound had caused irreparable damage. Had he lost his left eyesight? Was there something wrong with his head? Perhaps he injured something else while falling down. Were his legs alright? They felt fine, but the throbbing in his head made it hard to concentrate.

“The physician said the wound would leave a scar.”

If he could’ve, Shen Jiu would’ve rolled his eyes. A scar? She was worried about a simple scar? His entire body was covered with those! Yet, it seemed that when they were out in the open it was much more difficult to pretend they didn’t exist. He knew Qiu Haitang was fond of him because she thought he was cute. Did that mean she would no longer care about him? Would she avoid him just because he looked different now?

“Is it that bad?” he asked thinking that perhaps the wound was much worse than how it felt and that maybe he would have to wear something to cover his face for the rest of his life.

“It’s your eyebrow, Xiao Jiu,” she wept, “your left eyebrow will have a gap.”

It took Shen Jiu a couple of seconds to weigh in both Qiu Haitang’s words and her disproportionate dramatism.

“That… ain’t too bad. Is it?”

“Xiao Jiu was so pretty! But now because of that stupid kid he’ll have a mark on his face for the rest of his life!”

“But you’ll like me just the same, won’t you?” Shen Jiu hated how easy it was for him to sound so pitiful.

“Of course! You’re my dear Xiao Jiu! How could I ever stop loving you?!” the frown on her face appeared once more. “Still, I wish I could make that stupid kid pay! If I could, I would throw him a rock twice as big as the one that hurt you!”

“Those violent thoughts don’t suit Miss Haitang,” Shen Jiu was stronger, he could throw the rock to the kid. She didn’t need to dirty her pretty hands.

“I’ll be violent to whoever dares to hurt my Xiao Jiu,” she said as she left her seat. “Now rest. I’ll go get the physician to make sure you’re alright. Try not to fall asleep before I come back.”

Shen Jiu heard her leaving the room, but he could only stare at the roof while he wondered what had he done in his past life to be so unlucky on this one.

Yet, unknowingly, that scar would be his last streak of bad luck before he could change his entire life for the better.

Shen Jiu healed from his wound much faster than what he expected and the remaining scar was nowhere as dramatic as Qiu Haitang had implied. It was obvious, yes, cutting through his left eyebrow as if he had a shaving mishap, but it didn’t make a difference for him. Qiu Haitang was as sweet as always (even if a little bit more condescending), and soon the rest of the slaves and servants of the mansion got used to his new face and stopped staring at him as if he had grown a second head. Shen Jiu genuinely thought the awkward and painful accident was past behind him, but soon he realized that his scar changed much more than what he expected.

Qiu Jianluo was no longer interested in him.

It didn’t happen overnight, of course. After a particularly violent beating where he reprimanded Shen Jiu for being stupid and clumsy enough to ruin his face, he made sure to point out that he wouldn’t stop using him just because he looked different. But then his daily summons became weekly and then monthly. Now, three months after the accident, Qiu Jianluo didn’t even look at him. It was as if Shen Jiu had turned invisible and he would’ve blessed his scar if it wasn’t because Qiu Jianluo’s mingling attention was turned into his sister.

At the beginning Qiu Haitang was happy that her brother doted on her even more, but as much as she loved Qiu Jianluo, she wasn’t stupid enough to ignore the prolonged touches and the uncomfortable stares. At the beginning, Shen Jiu did his best not to get involved (he was free of Qiu Jianluo’s attention and he had no intentions to reclaim it), but in the end he couldn’t remain silent once Qiu Haitang’s smiles dwindled and Qiu Jianluo’s provocations emboldened.

“I don’t understand what happened to A-Luo. He’s acting so strangely. I… I don’t like it at all. Has he said anything to you?”

Shen Jiu shrugged as he combed Qiu Haitang’s dark long hair. “I’m afraid not. It’s been long since he asked for my assistance. I think he dislikes my scar,” he waited for the girl to say something else, but she didn’t and he had to press on. “I don’t like it either. I preferred it when I looked more like Miss Haitang.”

The girl flinched, but remained silent. She dismissed Shen Jiu soon after and she didn’t call for him for four entire days.

Qiu Haitang and Shen Jiu had a long, serious talk a week after their last encounter. Qiu Jianluo was becoming bolder every day and her sister was running out of options. She couldn’t even trust her own parents, who were barely ever at home and, when they were, they dismissed her concerns as childish fabrications. She couldn’t trust anyone but Xiao Jiu, she said. After all, only he could truly understand her.

That night truths were told and decisions were made: they would run away with the generous amount of money Qiu Haitang had saved throughout the years.

Initially, Shen Jiu wasn’t too keen on the plan, but as much as he wanted to wait for his brother, he couldn’t put Qiu Haitang at risk for much longer. They reached a compromise. They would travel together to the west, to Cang Qiong Sect where Qi-ge was supposed to be. It was uncertain they would be able to join the sect, but Shen Jiu hoped they could at least get information. Just in case, Qiu Haitang would leave a message for Qi-ge with her old wet nurse. Chances were she wouldn’t remain in the Qiu household for long, but she was the only person they could trust with their plans.

They left at night, through the main door and with the excuse of catching fireflies in the river adjacent to the mansion, something they had done dozens of times before. They were unguarded, making it extremely easy to change their clothes before running into the red light district of the city. They chose to hide in one of the smaller brothels, where they generously paid for a room and their silence. The women were kind and understanding (once they explained they weren’t foolishly young runaway lovers) and they kept their secret zealously. By the time word was sent that a slave had kidnapped the Qiu mistress, they were safely hidden inside the brothel, the last place they would be expected to be found. They allowed the search to go on for several days, but soon the guards stopped looking inside the city and nearby towns and they turned their attention to more remote places. It was only then when the youngsters dared to leave the brothel and the city. They posed as orphaned brothers traveling west in search for their last living aunt and no one doubted their alibi. With the proper garments Qiu Haitang became a very convincing and attractive young man, and with the help of a little bit of make-up no one would suspect Shen Jiu’s eyebrows were anything but perfect willow leaves.

It took them almost two months to reach Cang Qiong Mountain, barely in time for the yearly trials, but when the time came, both Shen Jiu and Qiu Haitang were accepted into the sect. Shen Jiu was picked by the Qing Jing Peak Lord while Qiu Haitang was sent to Qian Cao Peak. Just two days later, Shen Jiu reunited with an unexpected, but overjoyed Qi-ge. Apparently, he was trying to convince his master that he was ready to get his own sword, but the man wasn’t easily persuaded. He seemed relieved, though, to know that his impulsive disciple would no longer try to rush to Wan Jian Peak. Perhaps now he could focus more on his training and less on whatever foolish promise he made when he was a child, he said. It took Shen Jiu all of his will not to resent the Sect Leader after that, but he knew it was not his place to complain.

All in all, the plan had been a success. The now named Shen Haitang was free from her lecherous brother and Shen Jiu had found his stupid, yet noble, Qi-ge. After years of hardships, Shen Jiu’s luck had finally changed for the better and all thanks to the scar on his eyebrow.

If Shen Jiu ever discovered the identity of the aggressor who changed his luck, he would make sure to repay him in tenfold.