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The trial, as it turned out, was later that same day. Zhu Li had had no idea, as no one bothered to tell prisoners anything.
It was little wonder as to why Chu Ran had chosen this time to visit him, then; this development would not only shock everyone, but be a huge public scandal.
Even though Zhu Li had not known the man for too long, he was already quite aware that something was decidedly bizarre in the relationship Chu Ran had with the rest of his family. For one, he, again, had never of Chu Ran before today, despite him having heard plenty of Chu Fu, Chu Xu, Chu Yan, and even little Chu Mei, the other four Chu siblings of the primary branch. For two, Chu Ran seemed to delight in the concept of embarrassing them all. When he had been detailing the extent of his plans to him — belatedly, Zhu Li had noticed that the man had sent the guards far away — he had mentioned how he planned to circumvent his father’s inevitable outburst, and the way he was going about it was certainly unfilial.
He had also answered that he was, in fact, entirely blind, when Zhu Li had asked.
“Colors are things beyond my imagination,” Chu Ran had said, dirtying his mostly-white robes by sitting on the cell floor. “Clouds are things beyond my senses. I have been like this since birth. It’s no big matter. Not anymore.”
Such peculiar wording that very last phrase had. Asking after it would have to wait.
In the few shichen that had passed since then, Zhu Li had been mulling things over. A blind eldest son whose name he hadn’t known until now, while the Chu’s were obsessed with face… could it be that because of his disability, they had hidden him away, keeping his presence on the down-low? Had he broken his way out?
He frowned, thinking back to similar stories he had heard of people hiding away disabled or disfigured family members for the sake of reputation, or even killing them at birth. Scarred faces, missing limbs, particularly glaring birthmark — if it was too shocking for the world at large, it was to be locked away, or at least covered up until the problem was gone.
Still, that was just speculation, as well as his prejudice talking. The guy could just be a recluse of his own volition, or a low-key person. It was too early to judge.
After explaining himself, Chu Ran had departed some time ago, leaving Zhu Li alone until it came time for the sham trial. The guards outside then came in to get him, placing their rough hands on each of his upper arms, hauling him up, then hauling him out. Surprisingly (to Zhu Li, at least), they appeared to be unfazed by the fact that he was enigmatically no longer bound.
They walked through the prison corridors that were not at all nicer than the interior of his cell had been, came out and passed through the receiving building, then broke into the outside world.
It had been a month since Zhu Li had seen any sort of light or breathed fresh air, the former stinging his eyes and the latter burning his lungs the instant he stepped over the threshold. They were welcome pains to his ever-aching body. Once he mentally recovered enough to really start appreciating everything, though, the guards pushed him to start walking towards the Just Alliance’s not-too-far-away meeting hall.
The front doors of the hall were dramatically opened by yet another two guards, allowing the first two to continue dragging Zhu Li along unimpeded. It took all of his self-control not to hiss as he stumbled along, fatigue and malnutrition helping to dizzy him from exertion he hadn’t been blessed to have in a month.
Once they figured that they had dragged him in far enough, they roughly tossed him onto the floor. He landed with a harsh thud on his side, his various wounds stabbing and joints jostling hard in their sockets.
Voices were heard swimming in his gunked-up head, unclear and cacophonous. Through the pain, he slowly struggled to push himself up with his arms, ignoring the pounding in his head. Apparently, he was going too slow, as a guard forcibly propped him up into a kneel. The abrupt motion made the shapes before his eyes dance all the more frantically.
His arms were released once more, and he automatically hunched over, a hand placed on his temple while he took deep breaths. More voices were in his environs, but they didn’t form any words, being nothing more than meaningless aural blobs.
After an untold amount of time, his consciousness finally stabilized enough, and he looked up.
Vision yet dark, he still recognized many faces amongst the seated crowd circling him, all previous customers of his. Those he knew, for the most part, were looking uncomfortably away, while the parties he didn’t recognize were either placid, or glaring at him in disdain.
(There was one particular person absent. It was devastating how unsurprised he was, bitter and disgusting disappointment churning in his gut.)
He also caught sight of Chu Ran amongst the host seats near the back of the hall, right beside his father, Chu Haoyu, who was looking particularly red-faced, irate, and oddly sickly, with that pale face and those dark bags. There were other members of the hateful Chu family, as well; Chu Fu and Chu Yan, Chu Ran’s younger brothers. Du Lin, Chu Haoyu’s first wife, was also present, recognizable by the fact that she was unrecognizable beneath her white conical-hat-and-veil combination.
Similarly lined up in the seats of honor were the Hans in their signature pale blues, all of their faces heavily overcast. Han Wenkang’s eldest daughter in particular looked like she wanted to eat Zhu Li alive.
Of course the two main culprits of this farce were taking the head seats. Why not?
“Zhu Li, did you hear me?” Chu Haoyu suddenly spat in rage. Chu Fu and Chu Yan had matching looks of utter contempt, while Chu Ran’s head was slightly tilted downwards.
Ah. The old man must have been saying something back when his mind had been unable to comprehend proper speech. Well, then.
That bluntness seemed to enrage Chu Haoyu even further. He got so mad, in fact, that he started coughing up a storm, prompting Chu Fu to pat him on the back, Chu Yan to show concern, and Du Lin to start whispering to him.
Chu Ran, conversely, remained stock-still. If he cared at all about his father’s health, nothing about his posture was showing it.
Yet another point of strangeness for the Chu’s.
Since Chu Haoyu was busy spluttering, Han Wenkang’s daughter, Han Taisha, deigned to speak up. “Zhu Li, you were brought here today for trial. Do you acknowledge your crime?”
“I have done no crime,” Zhu Li answered, looking back blankly. He felt for her since her mother was murdered — truly, he did — but he also didn’t kill her.
“How dare you!” she shouted, loudly pounding a clenched fist against the table. “You murdered my mother, yet you say that no crime was committed?!”
“I didn’t kill her,” he blandly answered. His throat felt like it was on fire.
“Right, as you’ve refused to admit this whole month,” she squeezed out from between her teeth, hatred dripping off of each word.
I refused because I didn’t do it. Use your brain, Zhu Li mentally mocked her, but now was not the time or place for that. He sagely kept his mouth shut.
“Despite all the evidence proving you’ve done it, you still refuse to confess! Do you really think you’re getting out of this?!” Han Taisha continued yelling, face contorted in fury. The expressions of the rest of her similar-faced family were practically identical.
She then cleared her throat, coming to a stand. “My fellow Alliance members, on behalf of the Han family, I thank you for attending today to witness the trial of Zhu Li, who has murdered the former Sect Head of our Blue Orchid Sect. We and the Chu family have three pieces of evidence: the coroner’s report, two witnesses, and the fight between Han Wenkang and Zhu Li.”
Zhu Li was immediately confused. What fight? With Han Wenkang? He didn’t even know what she looked like. He had heard of fabricating evidence before, but making up an entire scenario that didn’t happen was beyond the pale.
As for the coroner’s report and witnesses, who knew what was on that, and who they were? He had never precisely been told how he had purportedly murdered Han Wenkang, the woman he had never met.
Those witnesses… what could they have possibly seen, if he was innocent?
Any of the patients that had gone to him that night would have verified his innocence, but when would prosecutors ever try to find evidence to acquit their target? And who would ever step up to play defense for Zhu Li, a loner, and thus alienate the powerful Han and Chu families?
Well. If what Chu Ran had said earlier was anything to go off of, the answer was: one of their own.
“The coroner stated that my mother was killed with a sword that had been laced with poison, which originated from a banded scarlet snake,” Han Taisha stated pointedly, voice clipped. “The attack happened late at night, during the martial convention at Zhendong City. My mother was in her guest room at the hosting Wan household.”
Zhu Li raised an eyebrow, only vaguely hearing the mumbles of the nearby crowd.
The banded scarlet snake was native to the area around Miasma Caves, being the source of the uniform’s design due to its prevalence and common usage by the sect members. They were frequently kept by the people of the Caves, mostly for their venom, sometimes for their scales.
Coincidentally, the Caves were Zhu Li’s home sect. How very convenient for these fools.
“Zhu Li had fought with my mother a month prior to this over him taking up his practice in the Han family’s territory. According to my brother, Han Yupan, their argument had gotten quite intense, and Zhu Li had left angrily.”
He had? That was news to him.
To be completely blunt, he hadn’t the slightest idea what Han Taisha was talking about. The last fight he remembered getting into was back when some thief had pilfered his stuff while he was traveling. The month before the murder, he had been nowhere near the Han’s more northern territory, instead going through the westernmost territories where the Hui lived.
“A month later, Zhu Li and my mother happen to be in the same general area after their argument, she ends up dead by venom that his sect happens to cultivate, and two witnesses saw him jump out of the window of the room she was staying at.”
Yet another thing that had never happened. Yes, he had been at the Wan’s sprawling accommodations for the event, but so had droves of other people. That tended to be the case at martial conventions.
“Master Jin Zihu, Lady Qu Xin,” Han Taisha called out. “Please stand.”
Zhu Li scanned the crowd; from entirely opposite places, a young woman in a sky-blue ruqun and an older, bald man in gray Daoist robes stood up from their spots. Not even their names were familiar to him, which made him narrow his eyes; how would they have recognized him, if he didn’t recognize them? His face wasn’t that unique, nor was his manner of dress.
Qu Xin bowed to everyone before she gave her account. “On the night of the murder, I witnessed someone in brown and scarlet robes, wielding a sword, jump out of a second-story window at the Wan’s, then run off and leap over the wall, where I lost sight of them. I had been walking to my own room at the time. The sun had already set; the drum towers had recently gone off for the halfway point of the time of the Dog.”
Brown and scarlet robes? But…
“I can confirm the time,” Jin Zihu said. “I also saw someone dressed like Doctor Zhu leap over the outermost wall of the Wan household, after which they ran into an alley and disappeared into the crowd. I happened to be strolling around; no one else was around to see.”
Annoyed confusion bubbled within Zhu Li. The monk was testifying against him, and didn’t know him personally, yet still respected him enough to use the title of Doctor?
“We are unsure of where Zhu Li went after that,” Han Taisha spoke up again, “but this—“
A new voice was speaking, one that Zhu Li had only recently become familiar with.
Chu Ran stood up tall from his seat at the front, his red blindfold striking to the eyes. “I know where he went afterwards.”
Murmurs began to pick up again. Zhu Li was unsurprised, as he had been informed of this happening ahead of time, but he was still curious as to what Chu Ran had cooked up. He had been told a general outline of how things were going to go, not any specifics.
“Son, what are you referring to?” Chu Haoyu asked, face dark with displeasure.
“Answering you, Father, you know that I have contact with the sect members my teacher left behind. They were on guard around the venue during the convention, and one happened to catch sight of Zhu Li as he ran away, whereupon he tailed him. The person eventually ran into an abandoned home site, came out a few minutes later with a bundle and a shovel, dug a pit in the courtyard, threw the bundle into it, covered it up, then left. My person lost sight of the attacker, but he did go back to the courtyard and retrieve what was in the dug pit.
“However, before I bring the bundle out, I have a question for Zhu Li himself.”
Many eyes turned to Zhu Li. He straightened up his aching body in his kneel as best he could, hands on his knees, and gave a slight nod.
“When was the last time you wore your sect robes?”
Zhu Li blinked. An odd question, but Chu Ran had instructed him to answer everything truthfully, and things would be fine. So, the truth it would be.
“When I left my sect five years ago, I had three sets of our traditional outfit,” he answered. His cracking, hoarse voice hurt to speak with. “One was shredded beyond repair by a yao attack very shortly after I left. The second was ruined from stains about three years ago. I turned both into rags. The third one…”
He paused, as something had clicked into place in his mind. “The third one vanished over six months ago in the fall, after a thief tried to steal medicinal supplies from me.”
After that sunk in, some began to talk amongst themselves. Chu Ran smiled a little, then tilted his head, which was apparently a signal; someone slunk out of the shadows with a piece of folded clothing in distinct colors, as well as something long wrapped in hemp cloth. Both objects were set upon the table in front of Chu Ran.
With no flashiness to be had, he shook out the bundle of clothing, laid it out on display, then unwrapped the bundle, placing the tip of the exposed object onto the floor and angling it against the edge of the table, for the sake of letting the crowd get a good look at it.
The clothes were the unmistakable brown-scarlet robes of Miasma Caves’s sect uniform. The object was Zhu Li’s irreplicable spiritual sword, Dusha, the Fiend of Poison.
Its name was admittedly ironic, as it was not only not much of a fiend, but wasn’t poisonous. On the contrary, the name stemmed from it being a resister of poison, its natural aura able to suppress the efficacy of toxic substances in one’s system when close. It couldn’t cure them — that was Zhu Li’s job — but it was certainly capable of prolonging a patient’s life and preventing further damage. On top of that, even after a patient moved out of Dusha’s range, its suppressing effect would persist for a few shichen.
As a doctor, pacifist, and private person, he rarely ever drew Dusha, and had never made the sword’s power public knowledge. To someone who knew little about it, a sword with the name Dusha was a perfect murder weapon, but to someone that did know, daubing a poison-hindering sword with poison was extremely inefficient and blockheaded.
Noticeably, Zhu Li could feel no connection to this ‘Dusha’. Identical as it was, it seemed to just be an ordinary, non-spiritual sword.
His brows scrunched together as he realized what had happened.
Others began to mumble. The sword’s utter lack of spiritual capabilities was not too hard for anyone to sense were they to attempt, after all.
“Doctor Zhu always has Dusha on him,” Chu Ran spoke again. “Lady Qu, Master Jin. Is this the sword and sheath that you saw Zhu Li carrying that night?”
“It looks similar,” Qu Xin admitted. Jin Zihu simply nodded.
“Alright. However, I did notice that you two said something a little strange. Do you mind if I ask after that?”
After the two agreed, Chu Ran continued, “In your accounts, neither of you proclaimed directly that the one you saw was Zhu Li, simply ‘someone’ dressed as him. Why is that?”
A band of silence stretched out. “I only witnessed the attacker from the back,” Qu Xin explained first, head slightly bowed. “I saw the clothes, but not their face. I dare not proclaim what I cannot verify.”
“While I saw the attacker from the side, their head was bowed. I, too, did not get a clear look at their face,” Jin Zihu provided. “Even if I had, some people are adept at disguise. There was not a big enough window of opportunity for anything to be verified.”
Chu Ran smiled, gave one nod, and addressed them no more, turning back to the whole hall. “As I implied before, the murderer buried the clothes and sword in a random courtyard. Here is a question; why would Zhu Li wear robes he lost prior, then specifically bury them? Here is an even bigger question; why would any cultivator bury their own spiritual sword?”
Two very damning questions, those were.
“After this event, my subordinate came to report to me. I joined in on the investigation my family very speedily set up, and seized all of Zhu Li’s property from the room he was staying in. Amongst what was taken was something very peculiar, which you all should see for yourselves.”
With another gesture, the same person from before came out with yet another long bundle, unwrapped the contents without needing to be told, and propped the new object up against the table, like Dusha had been.
That type of presentation was chosen because it was a second sword, and not only that — it was a second Dusha.
Some gasps rang out, yet the crowd kept its calm. The other Chu members looked particularly furious, though whether it was from being deceived, or caught in their lie, was difficult to tell.
Zhu Li looked darkly upon the twin blades. The new one resonated with him; that was the real Dusha. The fake was an impeccable physical replica. So much for being irreplicable.
Someone had taken great pains to impersonate him for a murder, but why? Why murder Han Wenkang? Why now? And why frame him in particular?
He hadn’t killed her, but who had?
“In light of this strangeness, I believe that there is ample evidence to suggest that someone has tried to fool the Chu family in its investigation, and this trial has been done in too much haste. As the true murderer is unknown, and the exact details of what happened that night are unclear, I propose that the investigation period be extended in order to ascertain the truth.”
Chu Haoyu, the called-out hasty fool, was dark red in the face. Chu Yan was displeased, but Chu Fu was doing his best to look amicable.
“Eldest,” the latter started, standing up, “your investigative skills are superb. However, I cannot help but wonder why this was not brought to the rest of our family’s attention before now.”
The two brothers were right next to each other in seating. Chu Fu was facing Chu Ran, but Chu Ran didn’t even bother to turn towards him.
“These details are present in the case files back at the Chu Estate,” Chu Ran answered calmly, still smiling. “You may peruse them as soon as we return, brother.”
Chu Fu was collected enough to not audibly choke, but it was a near thing. Whatever he had been hoping to accomplish by speaking up had clearly been dashed by that confident answer. Accusing Chu Ran of manufacturing evidence, maybe?
Instead, that had been reversed so that the rest of the family looked like morons that had overlooked something important. What a shame for them. Too bad Zhu Li had left his sympathy back at the jail cell.
“How much time do you suggest extending this for, Mister Chu?” Han Taisha, who had gone silent up until this point, asked, looking severe.
“I believe that this case is quite complicated, and involves many more people than anticipated, Sect Head Han,” Chu Ran replied, bowing his head some in respect. “In order to find as many threads as possible, I suggest an investigative timeframe of one year at most.”
“A year?” Chu Haoyu butt in, practically spitting in rage. “Even if we’re given that time, what do you hope to uncover?! The case is already a month old!”
Chu Ran tilted his head towards his still-seated father, his expression as usual. “Never give up hope, father. No matter how old an incident is, there are always clues to latch onto. A year simply gives us plenty of buffer to look, and if enough evidence is had before time is up, the trial may take place earlier.”
“A year is too long,” Chu Fu spoke again, his smile fake and ghoulish. “Why not half that time?”
“I’m afraid that I’ll have to insist on the year,” Chu Ran unhesitatingly countered.
“Might I ask why?”
“I have invoked the Twelve-Petaled Lotus.”
Chu Haoyu shot straight out of his seat, even more livid. “You what?”
“I took the Oath of the Twelve-Petaled Lotus with Doctor Zhu,” Chu Ran clarified, his smile having a taunting tinge to it that was nearly imperceptible. “For those unaware, this oath ties the lives of those who take it together for twelve months. If one dies, the other shall, too. It’s a special technique of our Chu family.”
Zhu Li looked around. Some that were better at controlling their expressions were unaffected, while others were astonished.
“Patriarch Chu, is that true? Is that a real oath?”
All of his blood vessels about to pop, Chu Haoyu was forced to grit his teeth and confirm that, yes, the Twelve-Petaled Lotus was genuine. To helpfully corroborate his father, Chu Ran exposed the back of his left arm, where there was indeed a lotus with twelve petals carved delicately into his skin.
Though far apart from him, Zhu Li knew exactly how the lines of the lotus went. He had an identical mark on the back of his own left arm, imprinted onto him during the oath.
And thus, things came full circle. The Chu’s would not be able to expedite this trial without seeming like they wanted Chu Ran dead, now that the oath’s existence was known to all. Such had been Chu Ran’s plan; sow doubt in the minds of the Just Alliance about the truth behind this trial, then prevent his own family from being unduly rash.
As for what enmity the Chu’s had with him, or what enmity Chu Ran had with his own family, Zhu Li still had no idea. Being the subject of a conspiracy he’d had no idea existed was rather frustrating.
“As things have come to this, I have no complaints about this timeframe,” Han Taisha announced again, projecting her voice. Her tone was much calmer this time around, though her expression was much angrier. “Mister Chu has spoken correctly; this evidence paints a strange picture that cannot be ignored. If Zhu Li genuinely was framed by an imposter, and my mother was murdered by someone else, then I want the true killer brought before me. I cannot avenge her on false accusations. As Chu Ran has brought these significant details to our attention, our Han family will be happy to collaborate with his branch of the family. Alone.”
Her glare towards Chu Haoyu was scathing, her words pointed. Huh. Had she had no idea that she was being lied to? Had the Chu’s been the lone framers? Or was she simply mad that they had been careless enough to get found out?
As one of the de-facto leaders of the Just Alliance, and the main instigator of this trial, Han Taisha’s word was final. There would be one year to find out the truth, or…
Zhu Li lifted his sleeve to observe the red lotus mark on his skin, sighing in weariness.
Or the Twelve-Petaled Lotus would expire, and then his future would be uncertain.
The author says: Let’s not have round 2 of Stupid Court, thanks.
Despite the terminology of cultivators/spirt swords/yao, this is wuxia/xuanhuan, not xianxia. Stuff like gu, qi, swordlight, and so forth was already fantastical, there’s just even more fantastical elements in play. Examples: Cultivation won’t make you immortal or able to punch through mountains; it’ll make you live for a max of 150, age slower, and give you some extra oomph, but that’s about it. Tianma exist, but so do regular horses. You’re not going to find any ‘secret realms’ or whatnot.
I promise I won’t pull any deus ex machinas out my rear. Everything will have prior hints, hoho.