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New story, new story… unlike Dragon Drowned, I don’t plan for this one to be very long.
I’ll throw this into a free EPUB once I’m done. (In the event that I ever someday make a version that I charge for, it’ll have undergone significant editing, be of better quality, and probably have added content or something, so I won’t super care about a rough draft EPUB that’s barebones and full of typos. Self-publishing seems like a pain in the ass though lmao)
Anyways… that’s a story for later. This is a story for now. Enjoy, loves.
Imprisoned for a crime he had not committed, yet with no way to prove his innocence, a man daydreamed as he festered away, limbs bound by harsh ropes cutting off his circulation whilst he laid unmoving atop a bed of scant, rotting straw.
There was nothing to do here in this damp, dirty, rancid cell filled with must and mice besides exactly what he was doing now; wasting his time away with his thoughts, his memories, his imagination. He held no joy, nor sorrow, nor anger, really — just raw and bland acceptance of what his fate was going to be.
Those that had framed him, their names and faces unknown, had been truly skilled at warping the truth, to the point that no one listened to him, not even those that he knew had benefited from his medical knowledge, once upon a time.
He had come from a line of poison-makers, but had used his skills to make miraculous antidotes instead, traveling the world with his one-of-a-kind wares, techniques, and ingredients. He had thought to help people, to be a proper doctor, to live his life well without facing the tangible disappointment of his mother…
He had thought, but apparently not.
There was nothing to see but the cell. There was nothing to smell but the rot. There was nothing to hear but the scuttle of rodents. There was nothing to feel but the pain of the ropes. There was nothing to taste but his own tongue and blood.
Soon, this would be over, when they came for him and got their sham of a trial over with.
It sort of surprised him how quickly he had come to accept his end. Not even a month of imprisonment, torture, and interrogation later, and here he was, prepared for it. His mind was blissfully blank, all things considered.
His one regret was that he had never made up with his family, but what use were regrets, when the present could not be changed? What use was anything that he had—
Footsteps echoed down the corridor outside, interrupting his thoughts. Cold calmness washed over his mind; it must be time.
He continued to feign sleep. Despite his acceptance, these people were just going to have to work for their performance, as he certainly wasn’t about to walk and cooperate with them.
Whoever was approaching was alone. They walked up uneventfully, after which he heard the sound of a jailer opening the cell door. The footsteps came over to him, followed by the sound of robes shifting — presumably, the person was crouching — and the distinct sound of a knife leaving its sheath.
He was slightly surprised; were they not wanting to make a spectacle of this? Killing him in his cell wouldn’t do wonders for the message his captors wished to send.
Even so, he stubbornly refused to open his eyes, awaiting a slice to come upon his throat, or a stab to his heart…
Only for it to carefully start sawing through the ropes binding his arms behind his back.
His eyes shot open, but as he was laying on his side and facing the wall, he couldn’t see who was acting. Since they had a knife, he didn’t dare to move, either — he had accepted his end, but he wasn’t about to get himself accidentally stabbed for no reason.
“They’re such brutes, here,” a man’s voice he didn’t recognize came from behind him. “Is there really a need to tie up someone that’s already locked in a cell?”
Then, the ropes came loose, and he could feel his arms once again. They responded to him sluggishly, used to being numb, starved for blood, and stiff, but he gradually managed to sit up and work them out.
A tug came from his ankles, and he jolted; the unknown man was working on the ropes at his ankles, now. He quickly turned to look at his new companion.
It was hard to get a read on the other man; his robes were white with black trim, which wasn’t a type of uniform or style that jumped out to him, and he was faced down and away from him as he worked. To be blunt, he had no idea who this man was, or could possibly be.
Once his ankle binds were undone, he felt immediate relief, rubbing them with his weakened hands. His unnamed counterpart stood back up and took one step in reverse, giving him space. In response, he obligingly — slowly — turned over, finally getting to see the face of the newcomer.
Which was mostly covered in a blood-red blindfold.
He blinked his own uncovered eyes. Was the man blind? Wearing it on purpose, for some unknown cultivation technique?
The sight was so odd and striking, it should have been helpful, yet it wasn’t. There couldn’t be many in jianghu that ran around in a blindfold, especially one like that, but he couldn’t think of even one. What in the…?
Wait. No, there was someone in his memories that had one, just as blood-red. But who?
Red blindfold, red blindfold… who had the red blindfold? It was so visually distinct; how could it have slipped his mind like this?
“Zhu Li,” the man called for him, breaking him out of his reverie. “You want to get out of here, surely?”
Zhu Li blinked from his spot on the ground, then narrowed his eyes. Typically, people would call him Doctor, or Mister, or any variety of terms, as opposed to saying his name outright. Who did this guy think he was?
It wouldn’t be good to argue with someone who might be his savior, though, so he swallowed his slight indignation back down, bringing up a question in his rusty, painful voice instead. “Who are you?”
The blindfolded man tilted his head. Zhu Li quickly took in his bearing and manner of dress during this moment; his robes were long, overlaid with an outer layer, and quite pretty with their silver-thread embellishments and embroidery, the inconvenient tell of someone that was fairly rich, and at least not about to go fighting. He carried himself like a bookworm, too. There was a sword attached to his belt, but that was nothing unusual for any cultivator worth their salt.
“Do you remember, at the Gorge of Truth?” the man asked, voice placid, borderline monotone, his lips barely moving. “You saved my life.”
Zhu Li’s mind automatically rolled back to a time from many, many years ago, when he had been a young fool. There had been a competition that he’d been hired as a medic for, just in case, but things had gone south; someone had been poisoned by a yao, and he’d had to rush to help them. Was it this man?
Yes… yes. The other had had a different, more neutral-colored blindfold on. White. Perhaps that was why his memory was being so fuzzy about it; imprisonment must have given him brainfog.
“I do remember that. Vaguely,” Zhu Li answered. “Are you…?”
“Debts of life must be repaid, come rain or shine,” the man interrupted yet again, as was apparently his tendency. “You saved my life, so I’ve come to save yours.”
Zhu Li was flattered, for all of one second, and then reality set in. “How are you going to do that? Are you from a powerful family? It can’t be powerful enough to defeat the Han’s and the Chu’s, can it?”
The Han’s had been the ones to accuse him of murdering their Sect Leader, Han Wenkang, via poison, despite the fact that he hadn’t even been in the area when the death had supposedly occurred. The Chu’s had provided falsified evidence for his involvement, pinning him at the location and sourcing the poison back to him via circumstantial evidence. Why the Han’s had come for him, and why the Chu’s had helped, was not something he could fully grasp, as he had personal enmities with neither… well, not until now, when things had very much become personal.
“I have my ways,” the other replied. There was something kind of off about him — eerie, even — and it grew more profound the more Zhu Li observed him. “To tell the truth, I am a Chu. Chu Ran, eldest son of Chu Haoyu. It’s nice to meet you after such a long time.”
Zhu Li sat up straighter. Chu Haoyu was the patriarch of that family, and one of the main culprits for his framing, which he knew on account of how prominent the man had been during his capture, as well as how vocal he had been in labeling him a murderer. His eyes narrowed; he knew that a rescue would have been too good to be true.
What was this guy’s plan, then? To try and humiliate him further? To get a forced and false confession out of him for his bastard of a father?
“There is no need to get so angry and suspicious,” Chu Ran said, voice as blank as ever. “Am I my father?”
Zhu Li snorted. What kind of question was that? The Chu’s were a known old-fashioned family, to the point that they were stuck together like honey, all the types to live and die together through each other’s wrongs. To say that the sons were exactly like the father was not really an exaggeration. How they had ever managed to team up with the Han family, their exact opposite in values, was a mystery.
But, again, why did he have almost no memories of this Chu Ran? The eldest son of a family like the Chu’s was always a big deal. Maybe he was just predominantly a recluse.
“I am not my father,” Chu Ran emphasized. He then offered his right hand, to help him up. “I will help you.”
“And how do I trust that?” Zhu Li asked, not accepting that offer by sitting firmly on the floor.
Chu Ran’s abandoned hand changed trajectory to dive into one of his pockets, then pull out a dagger wrapped in a plain-looking sheath, which made Zhu Li’s eyes narrow in distrust again. Chu Ran just smiled, a palm held up in a placating gesture. “Have you heard of the tale of Chu Yan’nan?” he asked.
“One of your ancestors? No.”
“He was a lovestruck man, the son of one of the founders of the Just Alliance. His wife was once accused of a heinous crime and quickly sentenced to a prompt death, so he created a type of blood oath in protest, one that bound his wife’s life to his own for one year, after which it would harmlessly whither away. It is called the Twelve-Petaled Lotus, one petal for each month.”
Zhu Li saw what he was getting at. “That plan of his worked?”
“It did, and it did not. Out of a fear of killing his own son, Chu Yun’nan’s father postponed the death penalty, giving Chu Yun’nan a year of buffer time to investigate and find who he believed to be the real killer. About six months in, he fell in love with another woman and took her as a concubine, angering his pregnant wife so much, she hung herself with a length of silk. He automatically perished along with her due to the oath, of course. That branch of the family was completely snuffed out.”
“…” What kind of crappy ending was that?
“This is not important, really,” Chu Ran continued, placing his hand in his lap. “The oath still exists and has not been used since, but the technique for it was hidden away in the Chu’s archives, never destroyed, for whatever reason. We are a family of oath-makers, just as your family is one of poison-makers… I suppose they had their reasons for keeping what killed their son.”
Zhu Li’s eyes drifted down to the still-sheathed dagger, its significance less suspicious now that all that was said. Still… “You want to enter that same kind of oath with me? Even with how risky it is?”
Chu Ran’s smile got slightly bigger, with more teeth. It was not kind. “As I said, debts of gratitude are to be repaid. The ones that framed you are sly indeed, with a solid case against you. However, as Chu Haoyu is my father, him forcing me into my death by killing you would not reflect well upon him. He cares very much about his reputation, you know.”
“…Wouldn’t he care about your death more than his reputation?” Zhu Li asked, brows furrowing.
“No,” the other man answered without hesitation, his smile unchanged.
Ah. Well. There was nothing to say to that, truly.
“This is great and all, but like you said, the Chu’s and Han’s have a solid case.” Zhu Li paused to snort in derision and hopelessness, looking at the dirt floor. “They’ve come this far, so they’re definitely determined to ensure that guilty verdict, and they have the means to do that. This would draw things out for a year, but what would be the point of that, if it’s going to end in my sentencing and death regardless?”
“You will not be found guilty at all. I already know that you are blameless in this. I also know who actually did kill Han Wenkang.”
Now, Zhu Li’s head snapped up. Unfortunately, he couldn’t glean any expressions off of a blindfold and a false smile, and Chu Ran’s posture and intonation were as bland as ever. The lack of animation on the man, which caused him to be much like a possessed puppet, was really unnerving.
“I know, but I need more time to gather evidence.” Chu Ran crouched down again to be at eye-level with Zhu Li, the dagger still grasped in his right hand. “I also need your help for it. I would ask if you accept, but…” Here, he tilted his head slightly to the side. “It seems like it would be redundant to, when your only other choice is a wrongful death.”
Zhu Li felt nothing at the man’s pushiness, since he was absolutely right. Just a few minutes ago, he had been prepared to die. Now, he had a sliver of hope in the form of a monotone-voiced man in a red blindfold. An odd savior, for sure, but did he have any room to be picky?
And what did he really have to lose, anymore? The Chu’s had seized all he had owned in the raid; his property, his life, and his repute. No one was coming for him here.
He looked up at Chu Ran, brows furrowed in determination. There was perhaps no point to the action, as the other couldn’t see it, but, well. It felt right.
“Tell me exactly what to do.”