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“Doctor Zhu, would you mind accompanying me for a little trip?”
Zhu Li quickly looked up from his current task, which was to diagnose a now-startled patient, as Chu Ran had shown up out of nowhere again. Martial artists were known for having quiet footsteps, but this guy took it to a whole new level; he moved like a ghost.
Shooting a glance at the queue outside, Zhu Li had to reply, “In just a moment.”
Owing to his expertise on poisons, venoms, and a multitude of odd diseases, he had earned himself the title of ‘Divine Doctor’ long ago. Once word that he had a permanent practice location had not only fully traversed jianghu, but the streets around Zhongling, he suddenly had a lot of civilians of all classes lining up at his door over the past few days.
However, he was seriously wondering why about ninety percent of these people really didn’t need to see him specifically at all, and could have just gone to a regular doctor. Like the one he was diagnosing right now, for example.
“I can wait,” Chu Ran answered mildly.
Zhu Li nodded, finally letting go of the patient’s wrist he had been holding. “You said that you’ve been having headaches? Would you like honesty, sir?” he asked the middle-aged man, who was from a decent family, judging from his manner of dress.
The man looked nervous. “Yes…?”
“You don’t need medicine. You need sleep, and to drink more tea.”
“Ah? Wh-what kind of tea?”
“Any. You’re dehydrated. I’m assuming you’re working too much, and have neglected to sleep and drink properly.”
It was disappointingly easy for even smart people to forget one golden rule of life; looking after oneself properly. Seriously, that was all that had been wrong with most of his patients lately. Was everyone in Zhongling terrible at self-care? Had no one taught them?
The man, looking thoroughly embarrassed, attempted to pay for the consultation, but Zhu Li waved him off, as it had only taken a few minutes. After a longer period of insistence than the visit had even been up until that point, the doctor finally caved, accepted a piece of silver, then kicked the man out with another reminder to catch up on sleep.
Chucking the silver in his payment bin, Zhu Li turned to Chu Ran at last. “I can deal with the line later. What are you planning on doing?”
“We finished copying your book of snakes. It will certainly be useful, even beyond this case. The good news is that using the locations provided, we’ve already discovered a few candidates for where the venom might have originated from. The bad news is that, as you may likely be able to tell, the visual descriptions are useless to all of us except Junyan, and she refuses to leave the Pavilion for extended periods. She also hates snakes and would hate me for making her go, which is the much bigger issue at hand, actually.”
“…Right. Can I ask how you figured places out so quickly?”
He had offered to do whatever it was that Chu Ran might need, given that he was willing and able. Dealing with snakes wasn’t something he was necessarily unwilling to do, and being a seeing-eye human wasn’t something he was unable to do, so he didn’t really have the compulsion to refuse.
Chu Ran smiled brightly at him. “Be already suspicious of someone, track their movements over time, cross reference that with known poison peddlers and snake keepers, and there you have it. The problem with that, of course, is that narrowing down between which ones actually have the relevant venom, relevant snakes, and relevant customers is not something mere information lines are used to conveying.”
Zhu Li frowned. “Your sect alone has the manpower to track people like that?”
“Of course not.”
He didn’t elaborate, so Zhu Li took the cue to not ask after it. Just those three words confirmed that Chu Ran and his sectmates were collaborating with unknown parties, anyways. “That’s fine, then. When are you going, and for how long?”
“Tomorrow. We only have three places to go, and they’re fairly close by, so they shouldn’t take long.”
Faint doubt gathered in Zhu Li’s chest. That seemed a little too easy and convenient.
“The trial was shamelessly incompetent, was it not, Doctor Zhu?”
Now, Zhu Li’s brow furrowed. The answer to that question was yes, of course, but what was with the change in topic?
“Yes, shamelessly incompetent. Like it had been set up by people with more money and confidence than anything else,” Chu Ran continued. “There is a certain beauty in simple minds. Sourcing things from too close would be too obvious, but sourcing from too far would be too much work, if things are certain to go one’s way regardless. It simply needs to be just far removed enough to not be immediately obvious, while close enough to not be too much of a waste of precious effort.”
Ah. The enemy’s capabilities were not to be overestimated, then.
“It seems you get it,” Chu Ran said cheerfully, which alerted Zhu Li. “You’re too busy today, so let’s head off tomorrow morning. I will inform the guards to rebuff anyone that comes around.”
With a final wave, the man turned and left for the inside of the Pavilion.
Zhu Li fell into slight contemplation; this was not the first time Chu Ran had seemed to be able to partially read his mind, as he had spoken similarly back in the prison. The man was such an enigma, he might very well have the ability, or at least something similar.
Actually, on that same note, he had noticed that Chu Ran and the rest of his blind sectmates moved around just fine without the use of typical walking sticks. There had to be some other method they were using. Setting off bursts of qi to sense one’s environs was an old and widely-known technique, and particularly powerful people were known to be able to sense the qi signatures of living things around him, but the first method was not a constant thing, while the second thing didn’t account for non-living factors.
Sighing, he got up from his diagnosis station, then headed for the door to see who was next. They would be spending time on the road together, so he could simply ask after it then.
On the morrow, when he had come out the front gate while leading Guhui by the reins, Chu Ran — already astride on his own horse — abruptly tossed him Dusha.
Zhu Li caught it with his spare hand, then released Guhui’s reins to unsheathe the blade. The clean steel was the same as ever, as were its embellishments, and even the weight at the end was intact. He could still feel it resonate with him without issue.
Upon sheathing Dusha again, he uttered a “Thanks,” then mounted Guhui. With this action, he noted that Chu Ran had his sword on him, too, as did his accompanying sectmate. While martial artists rarely parted from their swords, the fact that Dusha had specifically been returned to him now was telling that trouble might come to them.
No words were exchanged as Chu Ran set out on his intended route. As had been agreed to prior, Zhu Li took his place behind him, while the remaining sectmate took up the rear.
The further they went down the road, the more Zhu Li’s crawling suspicions were being confirmed; his blind companions were having no trouble navigating the busy streets, avoiding pedestrians and turning corners. They weren’t even stopping to ask someone to read signs for them.
That last bit could at least be attributed to memorizing the path ahead of time, but pedestrians could not be memorized. Curiosity was growing inside of him.
“Is there something you would like to ask, Doctor Zhu?” Chu Ran’s voice sounded out from ahead of him, projected over the sound of horseshoes on stone.
There he went again, practically reading his mind. That, too, confirmed his other suspicion.
Taking advantage of the spacious street, he spurred and maneuvered Guhui so that he was close to Chu Ran’s side, able to speak with him regularly instead of shouting at him from behind. “You use qi to sense the world around you, as well as peoples’ emotions,” he answered, though it was less of a question, and more of a statement of fact.
To think that Chu Ran was actually reading minds would have been stupid. Clearly, if he could sense his surroundings using some unknown technique, sensing and interpreting physical emotions might not be that much of a stretch. Zhu Li knew nothing of Chu Ran’s sect, but if the overwhelming majority of his sectmates were blind, their teacher had likely been blind, too, and had to have bestowed secret techniques unto them.
“Very astute, good doctor,” Chu Ran replied, sounding amused. “We do indeed sense our surroundings with qi, up to a certain scope around us. But why do you think that I can sense emotions? Maybe I just have good intuition.”
“If you had intuition good enough to suddenly know that I was curious about something, despite me being behind you and saying nothing, I would have a completely different reason to find you frightening.”
Chu Ran bust out laughing. “You find me frightening? That won’t do, if we’re to get along. How can I make myself less frightening to you?”
Being less cryptic would help, Zhu Li thought, but didn’t say. “You don’t frighten me in particular. I just don’t know you that well.”
The other nodded in thought. “We have had few chances to speak, and it’s been less than a month that we have known each other. I understand. How about this; you can call me by my bestowed name, and I can call you by yours. That will make us a little more familiarized, yes?”
Um… that could work, but there was a bit of a problem with that, as things stood. “I haven’t heard yours before.”
Zhu Li frowned. Kanqing?
There were exactly two things brought to his mind with that verbal combination: the term for ‘looking poorly upon someone’, and the term for ‘seeing clearly’.
Bestowed names were, as the term implied, bestowed onto a cultivator once they had earned their sword. Who did the naming depended on one’s own situation, but parents were always top priority. In the absence of parents, the teacher stepped in; in the absence of a teacher, a sect elder stepped in; in the absence of sect elders, aunts and uncles stepped in; in the absence of aunts and uncles, older sect siblings stepped in; in the absence of sect siblings, older blood siblings stepped in; in the absence of siblings, respected peers stepped in; in the absence of all of the above, one simply named themself.
As Chu Haoyu still lived, Chu Ran’s bestowed name must have come from him. Wealth didn’t guarantee that someone would have the class, personality, and intellect to match, but… the man wouldn’t have been so stupid and shallow-minded as to name his blind son ‘seeing clearly’, right? This had to just be a coincidence.
“Which characters are those?” he had to ask, hoping for clarity.
“Kan from ‘sight’, and Qing from ‘clear’, of course. As given to me by my father.”
What was wrong with the Chu family? Honestly? Would they name a deaf family member Tingshuo, for ‘hearing and speaking’, too?
Likely able to sense his burgeoning annoyance, Chu Ran chuckled. “Not too suitable for me, is it?”
Zhu Li feared that if he opened his mouth and said anything, his wording would be… strong.
“You can use the name my teacher gave me, instead. ‘A frigid pond reflects willows, seven pearls duly slip away.’ You may call me Yingliu.”
That was a much better name. At least Chu Ran’s teacher had had some sense. “Are you a reflected willow tree, or are you duly slipping away from something?” Zhu Li asked. Had he not known that poem, he would have not even known what to ask.
“Hmmm.” Chu Ran tilted his head towards him, smiling gently. “It’s supposed to be the first one, but the second one can apply, too.”
A small silence stretched out.
“I can’t return the favor of sharing my bestowed,” Zhu Li admitted.
“Oh? Why ever not?”
Chu Ran didn’t sound mad or disappointed, just curious, but a distant pain panged in Zhu Li’s heart as his own anger and disappointment echoed. “I was never given one.”
“…Ah?” Chu Ran was seen to frown slightly. “You have your sword and sect, though. And you’re certainly of age. Why would you not be given one?”
Zhu Li’s feelings intensified, a heavy sensation weighing on his lungs and stomach. Brows scrunching together, he bowed his head slightly to look at the ground instead of his listener; he didn’t even know where to begin with that complicated scenario.
“An unhappy subject, then,” Chu Ran said, sounding sympathetic. “There is no need to elaborate, I understand the feeling well. I’ll simply have to call you… hm, well, we’re certainly not close enough for nicknames. Perhaps Doctor will have to keep doing. Unless you’re okay with Brother?”
“Whatever you want to say is fine,” Zhu Li replied, trying to distract himself from the low mood.
Chu Ran hummed in answer. “This explains why I never found out your bestowed during investigations. Turns out it simply doesn’t exist… well, if we get to be good enough friends, I can bestow you a name. There are plenty of poems in the world, and a good portion will apply flatteringly to you, good doctor.”
Zhu Li’s spine stiffened a bit in shock at that remark. “If I was going to disregard my mother like that, I would have given myself a name already.”
No reply came to that except for an uncaring wave of the hand. Chu Ran had no interest in arguing with him, and Zhu Li had no interest in continuing the topic.
The rest of the trip to their first destination was spent in somewhat awkward silence.
Said destination was a fairly inconspicuous home that belonged to some sort of merchant; decent, well-kept, and not too rich or too ugly. Zhu Li couldn’t say that it stood out in his memory.
Chu Ran’s sectmate jumped off his horse, carrying the reins with him as he went up and knocked on the front gate.
A servant poked his head out. Upon hearing of Chu Ran’s identity, the servant’s expression twisted up, and he quickly turned tail to report.
After not too long, the doors opened up, and the three were invited in, their horses taken for care while they visited. A portly, nervous-looking man with a big beard met them in the reception hall. “Good day, Noble Chu,” he greeted, visibly sweating. “Apologies for the poor state of our home. I had no idea someone of your presence would be arriving here today.”
“How would you have known, Mister Deng, if it was I that so rudely failed to give prior notice?” Chu Ran said with a smile. “Even so, might you have an idea as to why we came here today?”
‘Mister Deng’ started sweating even worse. “I… I am afraid that I am too stupid to understand. Please impart your wisdom onto me.”
“It is no big matter, really. Recently, you had some business that I would like to speak with you about, and my friend here, Doctor Zhu Li, needs to take a look at your snake collection.”
“My snake collection?… Ah, yes, of course. I understand,” Mister Deng smiled ingratiatingly. “I don’t mind, not at all. Xiao Yin, please show the Doctor the way to the garden. I will be speaking with Noble Chu.”
No further explanation needed? Really? Zhu Li raised a brow, but didn’t need to be told twice, following a servant away for further in the home.
Nothing about this place said that it was anything but a regular, non-jianghu family’s, so he was firmly unworried about being in it. However, it was undoubtably strange that they had come to a civilian home at all, as most civilians knew better than to get involved in jianghu.
Hell, jianghu people knew better than to get involved in jianghu. A chaotic mess at all times, it was.
They came to a side-wing room that had been surrounded with particularly tall walls. The guiding servant, notably, opened the gate very slowly, observed the ground, quickly ushered Zhu Li in, then shut the gate quickly.
The yard itself was sparse. There were no plants or trees to speak of, just dirt, sand, rocks, minor weeds, and some artificially-made mini-caves. He could openly see several snakes lounging about lazily on many an available surface, basking in the spring sun.
“This is where the Young Lord keeps his pet snakes,” the servant informed. “The building has their supplies and habitats. They frequently roam about the yard… I ask that you watch your step, Sir.”
Pet snakes, huh? An admittedly rare hobby, but not unheard of. Hopefully, this was a false flag, and there were no venomous snakes here, else the keeper might be in for a rude awakening someday.
Without any further prompting, Zhu Li began touring around the yard.
Rainbow snubnose, jade whip, white-painted black constrictor, brown brocadeface…
He had brought his book of snakes with him just in case, but he didn’t even need it, really. Everything in this yard was either nonvenomous, or only mildly venomous, where a bit would make one itchy for a minute or some such — none of them could be the source of the poison. Whoever was keeping them was doing a good enough job to keep them fed and fat enough to be too lazy to attack their smaller penmates.
Or, they were cheating with some gimmick to make them calm. Unless an array or talisman actively affected someone or their surroundings, they were fairly difficult to spot, if one didn’t know what exactly they were searching for. An array meant specifically for calming snakes would be difficult for him to sense, as a non-snake, but if it tried to affect him in any way, it would be very, very easy for him to track it.
Arrays were expensive, though, so keeping them fully fed on dead things was a much more likely option.
With the servant’s help, he also searched the inside of the building, which contained some more snakes of non-interest — until he spotted an orange tail peeking out from inside a nesting pot.
Moving cautiously, his old snake-wrangling knowledge kicked in, and he very slowly tipped the pot over, spilling soft, dry grass, dirt, and the snake itself onto the ground…
Upon sighting a fat, scaly rope that had an orange head, green front, white rear, an orange tail, and red splotches all over, he felt immense disappointment at not having found a snake with venom that could kill a man.
The autumnal constrictor’s head bobbed blearily around, its tongue flicking out, presumably awoken by such a rude awakening.
An orange tail it did have, yet the same brand as orange-tailed snakes, it was not.
Sighing, he moved on to inspect the rest of the snakes, but his search was fruitless. The source of the venom was not here.
Led once again by the servant, he exited the courtyard of snakes, then met up with Chu Ran and his friend at the reception hall. Mister Deng looked scared for his life, while Chu Ran’s mouth was not in its trademark calm smile, which meant that the talk likely hadn’t gone well.
“If there is anything else I can help you gents with, please do not hesitate to ask,” Mister Deng offered, attempting to discreetly wipe his brow off with a kerchief. “Let me send you all off with some things as compensation…”
“There is no need for that, Mister Deng. Your hospitality and tolerance for this was already more than I could have asked for,” Chu Ran stated with a wave of his hand. He bowed towards Mister Deng, who rushed to evade the gesture, then turned to go. “Excuse us for the impolite rush, but we are quite busy today. Please bring our horses back out. Come, Doctor Zhu, Yunzi.”
Zhu Li spared a curious glance at Mister Deng, but obediently followed Chu Ran out of the home.
The three stood at the gate, awaiting the Deng servants to bring out their horses. The blindfold prevented Zhu Li from seeing much, but he could at least tell from the frown and crossed arms that Chu Ran was sunken into thought.
He hesitated a little bit, in light of the atmosphere they had had coming in here, but he mustered up the courage to prompt, “What’s wrong?”
“A person of interest definitely came here, but Mister Deng never interacted with them. As you know, I could tell that he wasn’t lying when he claimed ignorance,” Chu Ran explained, seemingly unbothered. “Someone else in his home must have interacted with them, but we are no government body. We cannot just start interrogating the entire household for who did it.”
Zhu Li nodded in response, understanding.
“Nevermind, there’s nothing to be done. Come, let us go to our next location.”
The next trip took them beyond Zhongling’s northern gates, to an off-road town just over. As noon hit, their steeds stopped at small home on the town’s northern outskirts.
The place was more yard than it was house, having decent, if basic, gardens, and a sturdy, if unremarkable, single-room home.
There was no need for anyone to go up and knock on the door, as it opened on its own, the head of an elderly man, his hair a messy bird’s nest, poked out.
“What are you milling about there for?” he asked, disgruntled, as he emerged fully from the doorway, leaning on a cane due to his limp. “State your business!”
The door was slammed shut firmly behind him.
Zhu Li blinked. He attempted to exchange looks with his companions, but, well, they were blind, so that was pointless.
Chu Ran just about giggled. “How curious,” he mused, before bowing towards the man, ‘Yunli’ following suit. “Pardon our intrusion, elder. We are from the Chu Estate of Zhongling, and we heard you sell venom here.”
The old man narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips. “Another one of you? I told you jianghu people before, I don’t sell venom, and I’m not selling my snakes. Scram!”
Chu Ran’s smile grew, apparently unaffected by the elder’s gruffness. “You were visited by other people? May I ask who they were?”
“Hmph. One was a man wrapped up in black cloth asking for venom, and another was a young woman asking for directions. Not many come around here.”
“They came together?”
“No. The man came a few months back, the lady came last week.”
She must not be relevant, then. Unfortunately, the culprit had concealed their identity yet again, just like what had happened with the coroner.
“Regardless, we are searching for the source of a venom used to kill someone,” Chu Ran replied, gesturing to Zhu Li. “You have not sold any venom, but would you mind if Doctor Zhu examined your snakes to confirm that you were not involved?”
The old man peered warily at them all, then waved his hand dismissively. “Do what you want. Could I even stop you? I’m an old decrepit that lives alone, you’re all young jianghu folk. Just follow me inside, the snakes are all in cages.”
He turned, then stopped partway through to look back at Zhu Li. “Zhu is your last name? Which Zhu?”
Zhu Li blinked, caught off guard by the sudden interest. “The one from ‘a great deal of’ something.”
The man nodded, then opened the door to lead them in. “That woman said her last name was the same Zhu, too. Also said that she was looking for someone, though I’m not sure why she came asking me. What was her name… Heng? Hong?”
Zhu Li, having just stepped through the door last, stopped in his tracks, eyes slightly wide.
The author says: All of the snakes I’m referencing are real and from various parts of Asia, I just renamed them.
The reference for Yingliu is 凄潴映柳, 七株应溜, both parts pronounced almost exactly the same. There’s no source for it, I made it up.