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The next several days were spent organizing his reference materials, medical supplies, and personal items, sourcing and ordering missing or low-volume items, ordering and mixing fertilizers, getting the gardens turned up properly, planting in appropriate batches, drawing up plans for crop rotations as well as care instructions, making temperature-based talismans for the more finicky plants, and many other such business-related things.
True to Chu Ran’s word, nothing had been missing from his luggage sans Dusha, and Zhu Li always kept seeds of the cultivars and unique plants he grew. Despite being a traveling doctor, it wasn’t like he wouldn’t occasionally shack up somewhere for a few months for a plant to grow. Many poorer places he traveled to wouldn’t have the money to pay him back, but would have the land, agricultural knowledge, and manpower to help him grow and dry certain materials he needed for medicines. (Such items were, of course, things that either were hard to buy from vendors, or rarely up to his standards, else he wouldn’t have bothered with the trouble.)
At the end of all this busyness, once he was satisfied with his preparations and set-up, he inelegantly plopped down into a chair provided for him at the apothecary, letting out an exhausted sigh. Somehow, traveling and being technically homeless for months on end had been less stressful than these past few days had felt.
A giggle sounded out from beside him. “You’ve been working hard lately, Doctor Zhu. Shall this ‘maid’ fetch you some tea? Chamomile, green, licorice? All three?”
He looked over at the speaker, who was his ‘maid’; in other words, Chu Ran’s only non-blind sectmate that he had sent for the job of being Zhu Li’s personal servant, Xin Jiang, bestowed name Junyan. Chu Ran had justified it by saying that there was no one he trusted more than his sectmates, and it was efficient since she could also protect him, while Zhu Li mentally chastised that reducing a martial artist to a maid-slash-bodyguard was a grave insult to her.
Xin Junyan herself, at least, didn’t seem to mind at all. In fact, she loved to emphasize the ‘maid’ part at every given opportunity, and had very overtly said on several occasions that she didn’t much mind keeping a ‘such a handsome man’ company.
To be completely blunt, Zhu Li was still covered in healing scars, and his face also had some unsightly ones that would take a good while to heal. The torture he had undergone hadn’t been any sort of pleasant, and while his captors had avoided his face — Alliance law didn’t prohibit torture or beatings for prisoners, but it did prohibit torture with sharp implements, the removal or amputation of anything in any capacity (to the extent that cutting hair was even prohibited), and near-fatal blunt force in the absence of indisputable guilt — there were still wounds on it that had skirted the rules, such as his split lip from ‘accidentally’ being kicked in the mouth, and the vertical scar coming down from his right eye due to having porcelain broken on his temple. Even with all the good medicine at his disposal that was being applied to them constantly, he had high doubts that those two would ever fully be going away, due to the fact that they had festered from going untreated in that dirty prison. Other than that, there were superficial, but still present bruises and scrapes that had yet to fade, as well, which still said nothing of the various other healing wounds all over him that were much worse.
All that was to say that he doubted he was any sort of ‘handsome’ right now. He certainly looked better than he had upon coming here about ten days ago, but handsome? No. He had seen himself in a mirror, and he most resembled an abused dog, which was not an undeserving analogy.
So, she was definitely making fun of him with these comments. Fair enough.
“Licorice, if you could,” he answered, finally coming back to the present.
“A fine choice! That’s exactly what I was thinking. Wait just a minute,” she answered, turning and going around the screened wall of the passageway to get to the kitchen.
Zhu Li basked in the silence until she returned with a tea set, which she promptly poured two cups of. “So,” she started out, passing a cup to him, “do you have a special someone in your life, Doctor?”
He blinked, then narrowed his eyes at her. She beamed right back at him, taking her own seat a few chi away.
Unable to glean anything off of that look, he ceased his glaring, shut his eyes, then exhaled ruefully. He didn’t want to think about this.
Xin Junyan took a leisurely sip from her cup. “The Chu family knows a lot, as do we. Last we heard, you were being pursued by one Zheng Tonghao. It was all over jianghu’s little rumor mill.”
He furrowed his brow, lowered his head slightly, and didn’t answer.
“The tale of a righteous cultivator from a well-to-do family falling in love with a lower-class, but kind dark cultivator that once took care of her… it was a tale that captured the imaginations of many, you know? I heard she always tried to get you to stay longer whenever you were in her area, and even made paintings of you, a crush that lasted many years. How very romantic!”
“Why are you bringing this up?” he asked, unable to keep his happiness out of his voice as he looked up at her.
She leaned on her elbow, propping her chin up. A faint smile was on her face as she looked right back at him with half-hooded eyes. “It’s similarly known to all that the Zheng family relies on the Chu family, and that when you were arrested, she never even bothered to visit you in jail. She didn’t bother showing up to the trial, either.”
His fingers clenched around his tea cup, his expression scrunching up further while his stomach sank.
“I’m not saying all of this to hurt you. A few days after the trial, Zheng Tonghao started constantly coming over here, trying to meet with you. Ran didn’t want your rest and work to be disturbed by it, so he’s been sending her away. She’s very persistent, though. Did you want to see her?”
Zhu Li’s face blanked back out at that information. Bitterness and complex emotions coiled in his gut for a minute, resulting in another frown forming in quick order.
Did he want to see her? See the woman that had told him a bunch of sweet words, gifted him things that he wouldn’t have been able to afford, flattered him by always wanting to paint him, and waited for him all the time, only to throw him away at the first sign of actual trouble?
Could he really blame her, though? The Chu’s were powerful and petty. If she had gone against them by helping him in any capacity, the rest of her family would have been implicated, and who in their right mind would choose a poor wanderer over their affluent family?
Zheng Tonghao could get another beau to chase. She wouldn’t have been able to get another family.
“No,” he answered concisely. That unpleasant taste in his mouth was swallowed back with the tea.
Xin Junyan nodded, offering no argument. “We’ve told her no before, but she keeps coming around. Is there any sort of message you’d like for me to pass on to her?”
He smiled sardonically. “Tell her that constantly coming to the Chu home will cause talk. It’s a scenario she wanted to avoid this past month, after all.”
She smiled apologetically. “Understood, I’ll pass the message on when she drops by again. Do you want me to announce that your apothecary is open for business yet, by the way?”
“Sure,” he answered with a noncommittal wave of his hand. With his soiled reputation, he wasn’t expecting to get any patients anytime soon, anyways; opening promptly and getting word out on the streets was fine.
She nodded, downed the rest of her tea, placed the used cup upside-down on the tray, then bounded away.
Zhu Li was afforded a shichen or two of peace before a door guard came in to report that someone was there to get medicine.
He blinked from where he was crouched triple-checking the seedlings in the garden, then peered at the sky — yep, the sun was still up there.
Information flow in jianghu was no joke. More importantly, who was the one that had decided to wander on in?
“Who is it?” he asked the guard, standing up and dusting his clothes off.
“A member of the Han family, bestowed name Xingyu.”
Zhu Li paused in his dusting motions, then furrowed his brow.
For obvious reasons, he was not too pleased with the Han family right now. However, Han Xingyu was an outlier to the family and Blue Orchid Sect itself, as she preferred to be a lone operator. Tales of her solo prowess circulated constantly in jianghu. To top it all off, she had come to Zhu Li constantly for treatments in the last few years, at times even purposefully tracking him down to get whatever medicine she needed; a repeat, and very persistent, patient of his.
If they hadn’t had even that much of a ‘bond’, he would have told her to kick rocks.
“Tell her that if she’s here to speak of her family, I won’t be seeing here. If she’s here for treatment, I will,” he ordered simply. The guard nodded, then ran off.
Zhu Li calmly walked back inside the apothecary, then took a seat behind his diagnosis desk. Not even a few seconds later, the door opened yet again, revealing a middle-aged woman in drab traveling robes. Once she caught sight of him, she smiled ingratiatingly, bowed at him, then took her seat to his left, automatically placing her wrist upon the available pillow. “Long time no see, Doctor Zhu. I trust you’ve been well… hm, since that whole debacle?”
He gave her a completely unimpressed look, then grasped her wrist to take her pulse, sending probing qi through her meridians.
“I apologize on behalf of my entire family,” she continued, smiling lightly curbing. “I was abroad for three months, so I had no idea that the trial happened until a few days ago, or even that Wenkang had died. My little sister’s death came quite a few decades ahead of schedule, and Taisha is a bit too young and naive to be a Sect Head. Trusting the Chu family was never something she should have fully done, plus the fact that they very enthusiastically took control of the investigation for no immediately obvious reason is quite suspicious, you know?”
Upon being met with his light glare, she turned apologetic again. “Ah, young man, I’m not speaking up for her. What she did was quite stupid, and I hope she makes up for it on her own time. Unfortunately, I’m too isolated from the rest of the family to do much—“
“You’re lacking in jing,” he cut her off. “Your symptoms must be stiffer joints, unusual tiredness, bloating, lower libido?”
She blinked. “Ah, yes, that’s all true. Is that all it is? I’m getting old?”
“Somewhat. You are getting older, but your higher cultivation and active lifestyle are putting a heavy damper on your jing leaking out. It simply needs to be replenished. I can give you a prescription for a yang-jing brew that will alleviate the symptoms. In your case, eucommia, barrenwort, and morinda for the main parts, and various other supplemental herbs for health promotion; I’ll write up that prescription for you with the specifics. The ingredients are ones any self-respecting apothecary would have.”
In his typical fashion, he quickly pulled out reference materials, double-checked the usages of various herbs and associated contraindications, then wrote up the prescription, bundled up the herbs to be used, bagged it up, and handed it over.
“As efficient as always, Doctor Zhu,” Han Xingyu praised, handing over payment in the form of a pouch that clunked against the counter due to the coins within it. He raised a brow.
“Surely, even a civilian doctor could have given you this diagnosis. You’re obviously not poisoned, or afflicted with some out-of-the-ordinary ailment. Why seek me out specifically?” he asked, reaching for the pouch to open it and verify that it was only what was needed.
All of a sudden, she reached out and placed a hand on his hand, stopping him from touching the pouch. He looked up at her beaming face. “The overwhelming majority of doctors are old men and women who are a pain to look at. Who wouldn’t want a young and good-looking doctor to treat them instead of those fuddy-duddies?”
He narrowed his eyes at her, then yanked his hand back. “Do you want me to give you a prescription on how to be a respectable elder, too? This is a place of business.”
She laughed, waved her hand, then turned and left in a whirl, shutting the door behind her. He was left alone with his thoughts.
Bowing his head, he looked at the coin pouch. It was made of hemp, and not particularly eye-catching. He was no dumb critter; she had clearly prevented him from opening the pouch right away.
Following a bout of consideration, he took the pouch, but did not open it, setting it inside his room for later. While in there, he grabbed a blank journal out of his stock, then went back out and sat down at the desk with it.
Han Xingyu’s odd behavior had inspired him to fall onto an old habit of his; meticulously and thoroughly detailing all he knew about a subject in book form. He had done it with medical materials, poisonous plants, poisonous rocks and metals, venomous and non-venomous snakes, and now, people.
Out of the loop as he was about all this, that didn’t mean that he had to remain so, and couldn’t start writing things down about those related to it. After grinding up the ink and fetching a brush, he got down to writing.
First, there was the Chu family in general. It was rich and powerful in the vast Tan State, due in part to its in-demand, yet highly-guarded knowledge pertaining to specialized arrays, talismans, and oaths, which were unduplicatable to outsiders. However, their strict adherence to tradition and face went against the acceptable bounds of phala, thus making them not very strong in cultivation, which was likely why they had never grown to the point where the rest of jianghu raided and killed them for their arrogance. In general, jianghu simply viewed the family as a necessary evil. He could not recall ever treating a Chu member, himself.
Zhu Li silently noted the extreme strangeness of half of the Chu Estate being unused, the array in the walls, and the fact that despite the Chu family being large, only the main branch was living in the inhabited half of the Estate. The other branches had been moved out to nearby, but firmly separate households, the Chu’s numbers and descendants spreading all throughout their native city of Yuanmin, the capital of Tan.
As for the specific main branch members, Chu Haoyu came first as its patriarch. Zhu Li knew personally little of the much older man, but jianghu had always brewed with stories of his shrewd practices, secrecy, observance of regressive values, lascivious nature, and short temper; he noted those down, along with his observations of the man’s ill health from the trial, which had included coughing, and an excessively red face that he found hard to believe had been entirely from anger. He had been eager to see Zhu Li be guilty, so he was obviously in on whatever was happening.
Next came the wife, Du Lin. Her natal family had little standing or renown in jianghu, which was why it had been willing to marry her off to a cad where other prestigious families would have balked. She was forced to wear a veil out of the Chu Estate, and had little presence outside of the home, so Zhu Li could not say much about her. However, he did know that she was not the birth mother of any of the second-gen Chu’s due to fertility issues, and they had all been born from concubines.
Then came the second son, Chu Fu, twenty-five years old. To be honest, Zhu Li had assumed that Chu Fu was the eldest, as he had never heard of Chu Ran before, but that was apparently not the case. Chu Fu was the son Chu Haoyu most showed off and appeared to be the most proud of, despite his clearly average capabilities at all things. He was married to Shi E, whose story was much the same as her mother-in-law, Du Lin’s.
After that came the third daughter, Chu Xu, twenty years old, if she was still alive. Going against what her elders taught her, she had become famous in jianghu for running away at fifteen when she had come of age, presumably in order to avoid her marriage to an unwanted fiancé. This event had happened just as Zhu Li himself had left Miasma Caves, so he had happened to catch the drama. It was unknown what happened to her, but she had obviously either joined some other sect, or died.
The fourth son, Chu Yan, nineteen years old was known for above-average physical prowess, and also eating like a starved pig at all times. Tales of his poor table manners were so bad, they managed to constantly intrigue the jianghu crowd enough for it to tell of his latest ‘feats’, such as downing who bowls in one gulp and deboning ribs with one rip of the teeth. He was also close to his older brother, Chu Fu, and acted like his hind leg.
The fifth daughter, Chu Mei, was thirteen. Not old enough matter, in the grand scheme of things, and since she was a girl, the Chu’s were probably coddling her.
Finally, Chu Ran, the eldest at twenty-nine, was still a mystery, even with Xin Junyan having provided some details and what little he had absorbed from conversations. Despite being the eldest son, he was unmarried, unengaged, and not set to inherit the family fortune; a true oddity for such a traditional family. He had been born blind, then eventually gained an outside teacher for reasons unknown. Something had happened to that teacher, as he had inherited the commanding seal of his nameless sect, and he now operated in direct defiance of his family. Oddly, he had come out of his lifelong hermitism only recently, after Zhu Li had been arrested; before that, he was unknown to even the nosiest gossipers in jianghu.
It had not gone unnoticed by Zhu Li that Chu Ran had described the Pavilion of Quiet as a place once used for disliked guests. Xin Junyan had confirmed that the entire complex had been designated specifically for Chu Ran the moment he’d been born. Similarly, Chu Ran had mentioned that he had enemies; either the rest of the Chu’s, or someone else.
Placing the firstborn son in quarters explicitly for unwanted guests, set on the farthest point away from the main Estate, and therefore the rest of the family… what was wrong with the Chu’s? Had that really been because their son was blind, and therefore ‘unpresentable’, in their eyes?
Nothing made sense. He couldn’t claim that he wasn’t curious enough to ask, but he was also treading carefully, here. Chu Ran and his sectmates, saviors as they were, were unknowns, and he didn’t want to invite calamity onto himself by being too inquisitive about things they might not want him to pry about.
In any case, none of that was much to go on. It gave no insight as to why the family might be after him, either, but it was all something to be added to in the future.
Next, there was the Han family. Unlike the Chu’s, they operated under a legit sect instead of just their family name. The Blue Orchid Sect was known for its physical and martial prowess, as it always had disciples in the top places of any martial competitions, if not occupying all of them. That was why they had been at Zhendong’s martial convention, after all. Compared to the Chu’s, they had a good reputation as steadfast warriors of righteousness, which made their collaboration with the unpopular Chu’s quite confusing.
Han Wenkang, the now-dead Sect Head, had been of stable personality and dignified presence, if jianghu’s claims were anything to go by. She had also been an accomplished fighter of few losses, causing the claim that Zhu Li — a doctor that wasn’t an expert in fighting, nor particularly strong — had caught her off guard and killed her to be quite laughable, as well as an insult to Han Wenkang’s name.
Han Taisha, age twenty-two, was Han Wenkang’s eldest daughter, out of seven total children. She had become the de-facto Sect Head with the death of her mother. During the trial, she had been emotional, but not unreasonable in the face of convincing evidence. Zhu Li didn’t know her well.
Han Yupan, one of Han Taisha’s brothers, age unknown. He had claimed to have seen Zhu Li and Han Wenkang fight, which was false, but with the knowledge that there was an impostor around, he could have very well been duped.
Han Xingyu was already explained, though…
He shot a look at the bedroom, where the mysterious pouch laid. He would have to examine it later.
Quickly recording his observations on Han Xingyu, he then thought of who else he could add to the list. Chu Ran’s sectmates were good candidates, but the problem with that was that aside from Chu Ran and Xin Junyan, he had no idea what anyone else’s identities were, nor even what the group as a whole was called. He didn’t even know what their homeland was called; for all intents and purposes, the Pavilion appeared to be their homeland.
Chewing on his tongue, he wrote down Xin Junyan’s name. Chu Ran had described his sect as being full of blind people, but she was assuredly not blind, for whatever reason. Perhaps that was why she had been assigned to Zhu Li, who was obviously also not blind?
In the middle of his writing, someone slapped his desk, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. Looking upwards instantaneously, he was met with the smiling, blindfolded face of Chu Ran. When had he gotten here?
“Sorry to scare you,” the other said, cheery. “You were just so engrossed in writing.”
Zhu Li glared at him, blew on the pages, then shut the journal. Both actions might have been pointless due to the other’s blindness, but it didn’t hurt to be cautious, in case he had some ability to… sense ink.
That was a stupid thought, but the world was full of weird things.
“I simply came today to thank you for your hint in checking up on the coroner. By raiding his house and checking his salary records, we found quite a bit of unexplained capital on his person. He cracked soon enough, and said that he had been both bribed and threatened.” Chu Ran chuckled. “Though I believe that the second part is simply to save his own skin somewhat.”
Zhu Li raised his brows. “You had the authority to do that?”
“The coroner was not a man of jianghu, but Tan law states that getting involved with jianghu in any capacity subjects one to its laws, or lack thereof. Besides, we didn’t make a mess of his house or arrest him, we simply combed through his stuff, intimidated him, then obtained his written confession. His autopsy report was completely accurate, aside from the specification of the scarlet banded snake, which he had been bribed into saying.
“Unfortunately, he was useless when it came to identifying the briber, only able to say that they were a man covered head to toe in dark cloth, of high martial arts, and no spirit sword on him. A right shame, but also a predictable one. People will be watching the coroner’s home in case the briber attempts to retaliate for ratting him out, but the chances of that are low.
“As you may realize, the duplicate Dusha alone is plenty of evidence to verify that you were framed, beyond reasonable doubt. The more we can get to support your innocence still, the more of a trail we will have to follow, as all fabricated evidence has a source. Therefore, if you have any further insights to share, please do.”
Zhu Li thought for a time, then stood. “Wait a moment,” he threw out, then headed into the bedroom.
A moment later, he came back with another journal. “I specialize in poisonings, so I have my own record of venomous snakes. It lists everything in the Tan region that could have possibly been the source of the venom that killed Han Wenkang. It also has pictures and visual descriptions, though those will be of no use to you, so I can help.”
“Oh?” Chu Ran intoned, intrigued, then held up his hand in the air. “May I borrow it? Our sect has ways of making tactile copies.”
Tactile copies? Zhu Li had never heard of such a thing, but he gave his assent, placing the book in Chu Ran’s waiting hand. The latter grasped it firmly with both, then stood himself, turning in Zhu Li’s direction to give him a smile. “Thank you much, Doctor Zhu. There is no guarantee that we will be able to trace anything, but this is better than nothing.
“Though, I must tell you that venom isn’t actually how Han Wenkang died.”
Zhu Li blinked, brows creasing.
“The coroner confessed that while there was indeed venom on the blade used to kill her, it seemed to have been a backup plan just in case the main killing method didn’t work, which it didn’t. The killer had been aiming for the heart, determined so due to the slant in the wound, but Han Wenkang must have moved enough for the blade to slip not only past the heart, but the lungs, avoiding all major damage. It’s quite a shame, really; had the venom not been around, she very likely would have survived.”
Dusha’s true effect gnawed at the back of Zhu Li’s mind. “He got away with omitting that much from the coroner’s report?”
“He did. Once.” Chu Ran chuckled. “He never will again.”
That sounded ominous.
Chu Ran departed. The rest of the day passed in uneventful peace. It wasn’t until Zhu Li had dressed down for bed in the night that he opened the pouch Han Xingyu had given him.
What caught his eye first was the preposterous amount of money inside it, which far outvalued the price of the herbs he had given her — a gift of guilt, probably. What caught his eye second was a folded-up piece of paper amongst the silver within.
He carefully drew out the paper, then unfolded it fully and reoriented it. Greeting his eyes was a map, of what seemed to be a lake and its surroundings; it wasn’t immediately obvious where it was, and there was no name nor labels on the map to speak of. The lake was shaped like the character for horse, but on its back, while the only area of note on the map was a plain area circled in black near the lake’s northeastern shore.
What in the hell was this?
Why had Han Xingyu passed him this? She had obviously known it was in there, else she wouldn’t have stopped him from opening it in semi-public, where anyone could have walked in. It wasn’t a case of it being left in there accidentally. But he had no idea what this place was, nor why she was telling him something was there.
Not knowing what was going on was really getting old.
Semi-frustrated, he folded the map back up, then decided that sleep was more important than all this other horseshit right now.
The author says: maybe my problems will go away with a good night’s sleep *wakes up* oh no