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By the Stroke of a Brush

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It started as a moment of madness, as a fit of boredom. Locked in his Bamboo House in medically mandated seclusion after his latest Qi Deviation following a two-pronged argument against Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge.

He had been so furious that he sat down and wrote an entire fictitious argument between the three of them where he had actually been given the opportunity to explain and justify himself and the two had been intelligent enough to understand and accept his reasonings! He could hear their voices in his head as he wrote, smearing the ink and spotting his table and his sleeves in his speed to write, furious and bitter over how poorly the fight had gone, to the point where he hadn't even been able to tolerate the usual five exchanges with Yue Qingyuan before he was storming away. But he wrote out that comment that snapped his temper, he wrote Yue Qingyuan hesitating, something in Shen Qingqiu's words making him pause just long enough for his shidi to keep talking. To argue his case, to reason with him before his temper got the better of him.

He wrote them actually listening to him.

And when he was finished, it felt like poison had been drained out of him.

He felt cold and shivery, and empty.

But oh so very tired and miserable.

How pathetic..... That the only place he could ever imagine his own martial brothers listening to him, letting him defend himself, was in a wretched story he wrote because he had nothing else to do. Because he just needed something tangible, he needed to drain the words and the hurt. He needed to get it out so that he could breathe.

He sighed and wrote a note to himself to try not to be so emotional the next time they argued. Getting pissed off at Yue Qingyuan for being an oathbreaker was one thing, but getting pissed off at him for being a moron was useless. He knew that when they were both street rats.

Idly, he reread the conversation and smirked tiredly. He could definitely hear their voices. He could definitely see this happening if only the Heavens were a little kinder, and Yue Qingyuan a little more trusting of him.

It certainly read better than half the trash he found in any given bookshop.

He sighed and set it aside. And then in a fit of amusement, dull and tired, decided to write his account of the mission as though it were an adventure rather than a report. He went into detail on his thoughts and feelings, why he reasoned doing something one way rather than another. Reading through it once finished, he laughed softly at himself for the sheer ridiculousness and over-dramatisation of the whole situation. He set it with his argument and gathered a second sheaf of papers to write his official report.

Funnily enough, it was easier to write now, he was able to boil down what occurred as succinctly as possible and why he did what he did.

He put it into his out-tray to be sent off to Zhangmen'shixiong when he was freed of his seclusion, and his afternoon of entertainment dried up there after.

By the time the third day rolled around he was near enough on the verge of chewing through the seals on his door and windows to get out just for want of something to do. Eventually he did something he swore he never would – he opened up the qiankun pouch of books that Shang Qinghua had given him one year as a gift, saying that he knew Shen Qingqiu enjoyed books so these were some of his favourites. It was a pathetic attempt at ingratiating himself with him that had, at first, offended Shen Qingqiu violently. He didn't have time to read for leisure. Did that witless worm believe him so lazy and pathetic in his cultivation that he would laze around like Liu Qingge no doubt imagined?

But now he really did have nothing to do but read.

Mu Qingfang had banned him from cultivating, he was on medically inforced seclusion – and while yes he could quite easily destroy the talisman barriers, it would also inform Mu Qingfang that he had done so and the wrath of the healer just was not worth the ten minutes of freedom he would have before the man showed up.

So he made himself some tea, he emptied the qiankun pouch and chose the least offensive looking of the offered novels, and settled in to read something that would hopefully pleasantly rot his brain to the point where he wouldn't realise time was passing.

 


 

GOD OF WAR?!!!

MORE LIKE GOD OF WRETCHES AND IDIOTS!!!! HE HAD SEEN BETTER FICTION WRITTEN IN COW'S DUNG ON THE WALLS OF MAD MEN'S HOVELS!!!!

Shen Jiu was offended and disgusted.

THIS was what passed as literature?!

You could ram Xiu Ya up his ass, drop him in the middle of a balloon bottomed pitcher plant, and he could write a better story on the walls than that travesty of literature! He slammed the book shut and set it aside, breathing hard before snatching up the next one on the pile.

Maybe this one would be better.

 


 

WRETCHED!! PATHETIC!! REVOLTING!! WASTE OF DAMN PAPER!!

THE HEAVENS THEMSELVES WEEP AT THE INEPTITUDE OF THE AUTHOR!!

LEARN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A SIMILIE AND A METAPHOR, YOU HACK!!

Book three had better be an improvement, or he was going to break that seal and go and strangle Shang Qinghua himself for having such terrible taste in literature.

 


 

“SHANG QINGHUA!!”

Shang Qinghua screeched in terror as his door was brutally kicked in by his shixiong who barely managed to bellow something about – about – terrible novels? Before Mu Qingfang was bodily dragging him back out.

What – what had just happened?

He whimpered and, with shaking hands, wrote a request to go down the mountain to handle some logistics and sent it off with his Head Disciple to Qiong Ding before snatching up a Qiankun pouch and fleeing to the Northern Demon Realm to hide beneath his King's robe hems until whatever madness seized his shixiong passed.

 


 

His seclusion was tripled.

Shen Qingqiu seethed.

He prowled restlessly through the rooms of his Bamboo Cottage. He had gone through every single book offered by Shang Qinghua in that qiankun pouch and all of them were trash. And not just light reading without thought or opinion, not just a series of stories to just fill the hours with something mindless and self-indulgent. No. They were, objectively, trash.

Oooh, just thinking about them infuriated him.

Emotional whiplash, idiotic villains, convoluted plotlines that made no sense, dropped plotlines, villains whose main motivation seemed to be 'look how EVIL I am', brainless heroines, asshole heroes. Flawed cultivation. There was absolutely nothing redeemable about any of those books! Even the scant few illustrations were terrible!

He could write better!

In fact!

He would write better!

Shen Qingqiu seethed under his breath as he cleared his desk, and gathered his papers, brushes, and started scribbling ideas.

Since the ideas of the Heavens seemed to be the prevalent theme in all the terrible novels, then he would start there. He would start with Heavenly Officials. But since all Heavenly Officials came from mortal men and women he wasn't about to put them on a pedestal, oooohohoho no. They were going to be just as flawed, and dirty, and cruel, and hypocritical as the filthy gutter filled humanity they thought they had dragged themselves up and above. Womanizers, oathbreakers, betrayers, murderers, the cunning, the cruel, the lucky, the clueless, the ignorant, all of them.

But he would never be able to tolerate writing about one of them.

So instead, he made his main character the kind of person he wished he could be, someone who no longer cared about the nonsense of others, but was still cared for none the less. Someone who had been broken so thoroughly in the past that they did terrible, awful, shameful things. But someone who others still thought was worth saving, someone who had someone, anyone, just one person, stand with them. Because Shen Jiu knew his heart, knew himself, he knew that if Yue Qingyuan ever completely turned from him.... he would shatter. And that terrified him more than he was willing to admit.

He wrote.... about a young man who was loved. Who ascended. Who was high-minded, arrogant, who thought he could resolve the world's problems. Who learned better. Who fell from grace in the worst way possible. Who lost everything. Who broke. Who put himself back together. Who brushed himself off and carried on walking. Because what else was there but to keep going?

Shen Jiu's brush hesitated above the paper as he..... dithered for lack of a better word.

Love was an integral part of many of the stories he rejected. He rejected them because the love they showed was shallow and pointless and could be replaced by any name and any pretty face. That love was.... He could not understand it. It lacked.... It just lacked. It felt hollow to read about.

It never occurred to him as he laid out the building blocks for the romance in this book, for the discovery of the betrayal of someone the main character viewed as a good friend, a mentor, an older brother, a leader, and discovered them to be the arbitrator of all their ills and misfortunes that..... He had set the foundations of a romance between two male characters. And now he hesitated.

It wasn't that being a cutsleeve was uncommon. With the world they lived in and its over abundance of aphrodisiacs the idea of men engaging with each other was normal, common place, an act of necessity.

But romance?

Unheard of.

At least within the public sphere. It would be considered shameful and improper. Men having to relieve themselves with one another out of necessity was one thing, but seeking intimacy and affection? It was considered immoral, it went against family values and filial piety, one should never treat a brother as they would a wife, how shameful, how disrespectful. This kind of thinking had confused Shen Jiu for a long time, especially amongst cultivators who were supposedly, supposedly, above such mortal things as gender biases. Amongst the Immortals, men and women were as equals beneath the Heavens. Supposedly.

So he hesitated.

But in the end..... he wrote it. He had already woven it so intrinsically into the story that he couldn't take it out without ruining everything. And to change the gender of one or the other would be cheap, a cop out, cowardly! And if there was one thing he refused to be, it was a cowardly sell-out.

Cutsleeve romance in a book about Heavenly Officials and Calamity level Ghosts. People would spit blood and burn the book if they had even the slightest idea.

He would have to slide it in carefully. Which meant he would need to choose where to begin. Hmm... Perhaps at the third Ascension.... After the eight hundred years of exile.... yes, that was a good place to begin. The main character would be unfamiliar with many of the people in the Heavens after such a long period of time, but the older gods would still be present to remember him and explain, if unwillingly. It would add more to the mystery and make people want to know more about the main character and his story and his relationships with the other gods, and the Calamitous ghost that attacked the Heavens.

He started scribbling outline notes.

He would start with the reappearance of the Green Ghost, the pathetic ghost that pretended to be greater than he was that Shen Jiu had loosely based on a combination of Shiwu and Qiu Jianluo. The Wrath level ghost that he was basing off of Qi Qingqi, the Ghost Bride causing so much trouble. The tragic little girl who did her best but received nothing but harm but was clearly the only decent human being out of everyone the main character encountered that day! Then the first hint of the main character's awful past and the traumas connected to it: the Human Face Disease and the fourth Calamity, Bai Wuxiang, the eldest of the four.

Romance would have to wait until significantly later on in order to hook the audience in and get them invested enough to ignore the fact it was cutsleeve, and none of that porn nonsense. Ugh. What a waste of paper. He had no desire to write those kind of disgusting activities.

Unwillingly experiencing them in the Qiu household was enough to put him off for life.

That would be book one. The incident with the Ghost 'Groom', the city of Banyue, hmmm.... Ghost City, he was quite looking forward to that place. Not only for all 'immoral' activities, but also for all the unique people and their unapologetic imperfections. The reveal of some of the main character's past, the kidnapping of the Earth Master, and the Wind Master.... Yes, book one would be set in the main part of the storyline. Book two would be the past, the fall of the main character's Kingdom and his ascension and fall from martial god to trash god.

Book three would be more of the past but set after the fall of the main character's Kingdom, how the heavens reacted, how Bai Wuxiang further pushed the main character into despair. How it took one person. One grumpy, awkward, frightened, pitiful old man and a rain hat and thirty seconds of pity and kindness and how it changed everything.

No wait, he should put in the confrontation between the Heavenly Officials and the other Calamity as well. And include the Kiln and other worldbuilding concepts regarding ghosts and resentful energy and how they empower themselves to greater heights. He would cut book three into sections and dedicate only a little bit to the past and move the rest to Book four and make that the culmination, the crescendo of the main character rejecting the White Clothed Calamity.

Which would lead nicely into book five when they fight properly, when the White Clothed Calamity was revealed as the main character's mentor, leader, and older martial brother. The one who was kindest to him. The man who sat upon the Jade Throne himself.

Perhaps it was bitterness, anger, all the old hurts that boiled up within him but – as he sat back and overlooked the outlines he made for each of the characters he couldn't help the sharp twist of guilt when he realised....

Jun Wu. Bai Wuxiang.

He had based this villain off Yue Qingyuan.

Perhaps that was why, in the end, he wrote a light for him, a means for him to come back from the dark place he had gone to, gave him someone to extend a hand the way that gruff fisherman had done for the main character, the way that the Red Calamity had.

Shen Jiu carefully ordered his papers and his notes, he put them into books so he could flip through and find them as and when he needed, and then he started writing. He began with the third ascension of the Crown Prince Xie Lian to the Upper Heavens.

And the dismay and disdain of everyone upon seeing him again.

 


 

Shen Jiu came out of his seclusion quietly and without fanfare.

He pretended he hadn't broken out specifically to terrify Shang Qinghua into fleeing the Sect, though he did make sure his Shidi received a note telling him his taste in literature was trash and Shen Jiu had burned the abominable insults to fiction for the offence of ever having existed and wasted quality ink and paper. No doubt the fool would cry, but at least when next he attempted to make conversation Shen Jiu would have plenty to spit at him that he would at least understand. Unlike usual.

Writing, strangely, became something of a stress relief.

As days turned to weeks and then into months, Shen Jiu rewrote almost every argument he had with his martial siblings, changing a single line here or there that would give his written counterpart the opportunity to turn the tables, to snap back, to make himself heard. He articulated himself better with the written word he discovered, and so, he stopped even attempting to speak as much. Instead he would simply send a Disciple off with a letter whenever he needed to speak with his martial siblings and remain on Qing Jing Peak. They could attempt to misread his words, but when they were there, in black and white, there was little to misinterpret even for those fools.

They didn't have the imagination to do so anyway.

When he wasn't rewriting events in his every day life, he was writing his own reports as adventures, taking amusement in describing fights and thoughts and studies. And then he would boil those accounts down to their bare bone facts and make a report for Yue Qingyuan to paw through seeking a fault to tell him off for. Shen Jiu didn't give him the satisfaction.

He finished the first book of 'Heaven Official's Blessing' and took it down to the Warm Red Pavilion for the brothel madam to read. If she enjoyed it, he would consider it a book well enough written to seek publication and printing. Madam Qiang had actually been his and Yue Qingyuan's Dajie amongst the slave children, she had been sold as a concubine to a wretched old man who died attempting to perform beyond his capabilities. So of course the man's wife got rid of the young concubine she hated at first opportunity. And Dajie found herself a whore in a brothel, where she always knew she would end up. Shen Jiu never expected to see her as a Disciple seeking a night of rest, but he was glad he did. The two of them did everything they could to track down the rest of their little gang of slaves, but with very little success. They found San'jie, pregnant and bitter, but still smiling and kind as she joined them at the Warm Red Pavilion. They found Liu'ge, and he never once told them what his work was, but Shen Jiu knew he was ashamed of it none the less. He now worked the kitchens of the Warm Red Pavilion that Dajie owned. San'jie also worked there, but she was primarily in charge of the other girls, leaving Dajie time to handle the business affairs. The three were a good team.

When next he returned to the Warm Red, he was immediately rushed by many of the girls, all asking where the next volume of his book was to his great surprise.

Dajie only chuckled at his confusion, “It was very good, Jiu'di. This one had to share it. San'mei has been reading it to the girls every day before work,” she explained, sweeping through the clustering prostitutes with a whispering rustle of silks, cupping his face and pressing a gentle kiss to his forehead. “Even Liu'di thought it was very good. And we know how terrible his taste is.”

Shen Jiu wrinkled his nose. Liu'ge liked his stories dark and violent. The fact that he was enjoying the book meant that he was sniffing out what Shen Jiu had planned for later.

“Dajie thinks it good enough for print?” he asked thoughtfully.

She smirked, “As if anything written by my Jiu'di could not be. This one would love to have copies of her own, as would all the girls, even those who cannot read,” she added with a glance at a few of them.

Shen Jiu always had hated the fact that education was barred to the non-elite.

“Then this Master supposes that he ought come more often in order to teach his beloved Dajie's employees how to read,” he decided with a put upon sigh as several of the girls lit up with squeals of delight.

A moment later he was drowning in perfume and silk as several girls threw their arms around him.

 


 

Heaven Official's Blessing needed to be reworked a little for print, and Shen Jiu even created some wood blocks to print illustrations. Little things like Hua Cheng's butterflies, the Wind Master's fan, Banyue's pot.

He wasn't expecting much out of it. Especially as he was publishing under a fake name and going through a few proxies and the Warm Red Pavilion to hide his identity. If anyone found out the Qing Jing Peak Lord was publishing cutsleeve romance novels the Sect would suffer for it. Not that anyone particularly knew that Heaven Official's Blessing was cutsleeve, yet.

Honestly, he put the novel out of his mind, too focused on writing the next volume and handling his Peak.

It wasn't until he went down the mountain to visit that Dajie presented him with a large box stuffed with money pouches, several of them qiankun pouches which meant that they were full of money also. Which was no small feat. He stared in confusion. Not quite understanding.

Dajie was smiling like a fox. So she clearly had something to do with it.

“Jiu'di's novel is so popular,” she declared happily, “Truly this Dajie could not be prouder. Ah, don't worry, she already took her ten percent payment in exchange for holding fees and services rendered,” she informed him as she pushed the box over. “Mulberry Leaf Publishing would like to know when to expect the second book. Demand has been significantly high.”

Shen Jiu stared mutely at the box.

“They want – ”

“Book two. Yes,” she informed him agreeably, her eyes bright with amusement as he slowly sat down. “Quite badly as a matter of fact. Jiu'di's work is selling faster than their poor scribes can print it. Mulberry Leaf has had to expand twice over to keep up with demand.”

His book was.... popular?