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Zhu Heng… out of all of his family, Zhu Heng?
His stomach sank. What an unfunny joke.
“What is it, Doctor?” Chu Ran’s voice came from ahead of him.
Zhu Li snapped out of it, shook his head, then came all the way in. The old man was in the middle of fiddling with some tightly-gapped cages made of bamboo reeds.
“I always take them out to sunbathe in the afternoon,” he said. “You all caught me in the middle of it.”
“Very sorry, elder. We won’t keep you long,” Chu Ran apologized.
In short order, the old man held one snake up. It was as green as fresh grass, with white stripes starting from its nose and going horizontally down to its tail, and its tail was flicking out curiously.
“Here’s one. There’s about eight, but they’re all the same species. I’ll show you the rest to put you at ease, and so that you don’t bug me again.”
He proceeded to do just that. He wasn’t lying; they were all the same shade of green, though some were missing the stripes.
“Thoughts, Doctor Zhu?” Chu Ran asked.
“These are the highly venomous white-whiskered vipers. How did Han Wenkang act right before her death?” Zhu Li answered, no-nonsense.
“According to immediate accounts of those that went to help her, she seizured, went stiff, was gasping for air, then died shortly after passing out, and it was quite quick. Do you have an idea, Doctor?”
“He’s clear, then. These vipers don’t have the right venom.”
“Right venom? There are different kinds?”
“Yes. The venom from scarlet banded snakes, orange-tailed snakes, and bright-ringed snakes all cause painful spasms that lead to paralysis and suffocation, while having no swelling at the bite itself. Vipers such as these will cause swelling, bruising, and rot if untreated, among other symptoms; they’re not interchangeable.”
“Yes. Either your skin turns black and falls off, or bursts open and bleeds profusely—“
“I immediately regret asking, Doctor Zhu,” Chu Ran cut him off. “Please spare my stomach.”
“…” Then why did you ask? Did you think ‘rot’ would be something pleasant?
“Though, the different types really explain a lot… haha. That really explains a lot.”
Vaguely ominous words, yet again. That might just be how this guy talked.
“In any case, this absolves our suspicion of you, Elder. We will not bother you again,” Chu Ran declared, taking out a bit of silver from his coinpouch and passing it to the snake-holding old man. “For your trouble. Excuse us.”
They all said their proper goodbyes to the elder, who was in a much better mood than before because of the money, then left and mounted their horses again.
On the road, over the sound of hoofbeats, Chu Ran asked from beside him, “Zhu Hong? A relative?”
Ah. Of course he would ask. Well, it wasn’t like Zhu Li had anything to hide. “Zhu Heng. My third older sister.”
“Oh? So many sisters? And here I thought that she would be some disliked cousin, with the way you felt about it… oh, but if it’s uncomfortable for you to talk about it, there is no need to.”
“It isn’t that important.” A distant, tightening feeling gripped Zhu Li’s heart. “We simply… never got along. And…”
He paused, able to continue, but very unwilling to.
Years and years of teachings had told him that family came before all else, the bonds of blood tying one to their kin the most undying, and the most to be cherished. It was so ingrained, that speaking poorly of his family in any capacity set his heart racing in affront and panic, while his first instinct was to make it stop, shut it all up.
But… but it was Zhu Heng, and…
“…And the man said that she was here a week ago. If she was looking for me, she would have found me by now.”
“Hm. Who could she be looking for, then? The Miasma Caves are relatively isolated, right?”
“We… they aren’t. They don’t socialize much with jianghu on principle, but they keep an ear out for news, have trade routes, and go out incognito.”
There was quite literally nothing stopping them, and yet…
Chu Ran had surely noticed his slip-up, but he didn’t chase it, merely saying, “Your family makes you even more upset than being in a cell did. If your sister comes to the Pavilion, I will keep her from entering unless you say.”
Zhu Li startled from that. “…What did you say?”
“If your sister was good to you, you would likely be more excited about seeing her, not itching with anxiety like you are. I have plenty of experience with unwanted relatives. Jianghu has many problems, but at least being less strictly filial is not a huge cause for talk.”
An unclear feeling bubbled in Zhu Li’s heart. “You don’t need to trouble yourself. I can handle it.”
“I’m not doubting that you could, and this is no trouble for us. Kicking out unwelcome ‘guests’ is something we have always had to do, anyways, and you are a welcome guest. To force you to put up with anything would be being a poor host. Regardless, if you wish to speak of your family at any point, you may do it of your own will.
“Put all of that behind you for now, as our next destination is a gang of hoodlums, and they most certainly will not be happy to see us.”
The complicated emotions that had arisen from Chu Ran’s words were obediently placed to the side, as Zhu Li had zero desire to dwell on them further. “Which gang?”
“A minor one. Their name is of no importance, just like they aren’t. I am simply informing you that fighting is likely going to happen, though it will not be much to speak of.”
So scathing. Chu Ran evidently didn’t think much of them.
They were heading back down the road they had come in on, but they split off on a right sideroad before they could return to Zhongling’s walls. The trip to the new location brought them to Zhongling’s west, at a pub-slash-rest stop placed to the side of the road, right at sunset.
After tying their horses up, the three entered the pub. Chu Ran wordlessly took an empty table near the entrance, then ordered wine after a waiter came plodding over.
Zhu Li took a look around. The place was small, yet filled with a bunch of people in plain clothes; many clearly had swords. This was either the sect’s base of operations, or a regular hangout of theirs. Some were giving them furtive looks, towards Chu Ran especially; that might have been because of the red blindfold.
Now that he thought about it… why would a blind man, who had been blind since birth and could not possibly know colors, insist upon the most eye-catching color there was for his blindfold? Xin Junyan was sighted, so had it maybe been her idea?
‘Yunzi’ also had a blindfold, but it was white, not red. Maybe red was the color of the one in charge? Maybe their teacher had worn it?
Actually, where was their teacher? Chu Ran had mentioned them, but never a name, and they had never physically shown up. Just like how he had previously never heard of Chu Ran himself, who the master their sect was, or had been, was a mystery to him.
Once the lackluster, lukewarm wine was served up and they had drunk down a few sips of it, Zhu Li glanced at Chu Ran. As per usual, he hadn’t really been informed of a game plan, and it seemed like the other man was happy to simply sit there and drink.
It wouldn’t exactly be smart to ask what to do when possible adversaries could overhear, so now was as good a time as any to ask about inconsequential stuff.
“Chu—… Yingliu?” he started tentatively, voice hushed. “I realize that I never asked what your sect is called, nor… your sectmates’ names.”
Chu Ran made a hum of acknowledgement. “We haven’t spoken much, have we? And these other wet blankets have certainly never introduced themselves to you.”
“We do not actually have an official sect name, because our teacher had no home base, and never attracted much attention — before the Pavilion of Quiet, anyways. The few that do know of us call us the Xin Sect, after our teacher’s surname.”
“The same Xin as Junyan’s?”
“The very same. Those without homes take it on. Xin is Yunzi’s surname, too.”
Zhu Li went quiet for a few seconds. “Who is your teacher?”
“Xin Yinhui, a woman with a very distinct-looking cane. You would not have heard of her, unless you had deep connections in jianghu.”
Just like how I never heard of you before? Zhu Li mentally asked, also mentally jotting this all down. “Are you a secret?”
Chu Ran chuckled, somewhat eerily. “Not anymore.”
…Okay. Yet another thing to note. Moving on. “Where is she now?”
“Dead,” the man said bluntly, his grin growing toothier, colder.
Seeing this, Zhu Li realized that this feeling he was now getting — the typical one of something being off with this guy — had been mostly absent up until this point.
Before he could offer condolences, Chu Ran kept going. “Though, we never found her body. We just know she’s dead, because she vanished four years ago, and she would never abandon us.”
Zhu Li’s eyebrows raised. “Vanished?”
“She went out to visit a friend, then never came back.” Chu Ran leaned forward, chin propped up on his hand. “By pure coincidence, that friend was the former Sect Head Han.”
Zhu Li’s brows raised even higher. Han Wenkang? A pure coincidence? Yeah, right.
Still, even if it was obviously not a coincidence, he wasn’t sure what it could mean, which was not an uncommon occurrence in his life as of late. Han Wenkang had killed Xin Yinhui? She had simply been ambushed?
He didn’t get to think more on it, as a high, scratchy voice came from a nearby table. “Han Wenkang?”
Zhu Li turned to look, while the other two remained still. His eyes landed upon a person glaring at them piercingly; they were androgynously unappealing to look at, with gray hairs all about their tied-back hair, hemp clothes, and sunken cheekbones. The low-twist hairdo, lack of facial hair, and higher voice lent them to being a woman, so, he was just going to assume that was the case.
“You’ve got some guts, coming here while being an associate of some Han,” the vagabond woman hissed.
“Everyone is an associate of the Hans in some capacity,” Chu Ran leisurely replied.
His casual tone apparently made her angrier, if her scrunching-up brows were anything to go by. “Who are you?”
“No one of importance, Rodent Queen. Say, are these all of your rodent subjects? I thought rats bred faster than this.”
“Wh— bastard!” The ‘Rodent Queen’ spat back, likely offended at the poor title. She drew out her blade impatiently. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t cut you up into bits!”
He chuckled back. “You would never be able to do that in the first place. Does that count as one?”
The Rodent Queen practically had veins bulging out of her forehead. Everyone else in the pub, even the waiter and bartender, stood up and drew their own weapons, totaling to about a dozen people.
During Zhu Li’s previous travels, he had fended off his own fair share of bandits. Said bandits had always been either talentless brutes, skilled but cultivationless martial artists, or people with negligible amounts of cultivation, and thus had only been bothersome in higher numbers. Not because he had ever been threatened by them, but because more bandits meant more people laying their grubby hands on his stuff while he was occupied.
It wasn’t as if he was some high-tier fighter, either. His skill level could be considered passable at best. Thwacking away people that couldn’t make blasts of qi or circulate qi to protect themselves was quite easy for someone that could do both of those things.
Looking at the group in the pub, they were assuredly weak. Chu Ran’s immediately insulting words had obviously been to provoke them on purpose, yet he had knowingly only brought one sectmate along with him. Since he wasn’t worried, Zhu Li wasn’t worried, either.
Chu Ran and Xin Yunzi casually rose from their seats, drawing their swords. Zhu Li attempted to rise, too, but Chu Ran held up his left hand in a gesture to stop him. “Sit comfortably, Doctor. We will not be long.”
He could believe that, so he planted his butt right back down, then kept sipping at the wine. Too bad these people hadn’t had the foresight to attempt drugging it.
The two blind men struck first, quickly coordinating a joint attack at the first row of people. One man next to the Rodent Queen got chopped on the neck, another smacked on the back of the head, both in quick succession, both in the span of a few seconds — they collapsed in a heap on the ground, unconscious. Before the rest could react, another two were taken down in similar manners.
The Rodent Queen, on the contrary, had quickly moved backwards and away, jumping over several of her supposed subordinates to land behind them, thus disappearing from Zhu Li’s limited point of view.
Hm. She must have some amount of cultivation to her, to be able to react so quickly. If she was the ‘Queen’, then she was likely the leader here, and therefore the most powerful.
The rest of the subordinates finally got the sense to lean away to protect their necks and heads, yet that didn’t help much. They were all quite comically collapsing in literal heaps on the ground, resembling giant, sorry lumps of horse manure.
In the brief span of time it was taking Chu Ran and Xin Yunzi to finish the last of the group, the Rodent Queen suddenly sprinted out from behind the others, bypassed her two opponents, hopped onto and launched off a table, then lunged forward with her sword thrusting outwards — and straight towards Zhu Li.
His fighting knowledge had come from his home sect, but an important thing to note was that a collection of people that spent most of their time manufacturing substances, or mixing random things together to create said substances, were not exactly interested nor specialized in combat. Every technique taught involved doing everything one could to defend oneself, redirect attacks, and end fights quickly; identifying weak points, learning how to spot openings in defenses, and getting really, really good at quick jabbing actions were amongst those defense mechanisms.
This was why, without batting an eye, he rolled forward out of his seat, ducked beneath her sword, punched the inside of her elbow to get the blade to go left and away, then slammed his right palm straight into her throat.
The effect was immediate. Her trajectory changed from a lunge forward to a fall backwards, and she landed heavily on her back on the wooden floor, her grip on her sword loosening so that it was flung to the side, clanging noisily against the wall. With both hands free, she coughed and spluttered on the ground, clutching her throat.
Chu Ran and Xin Yunzi quickly leapt over, having dealt with the rest of them.
The entire fight had not even gone past the one minute mark.
“My apologies, Doctor,” Chu Ran spoke, coming in close to him as he sheathed his sword. The fight had not given him a hair out of place, his light blue outfit still pristine. “No pain? Very good. I suppose I should have had you wait outside… she was a quick one. It seems that you can take care yourself just fine, thankfully.”
“I’m used to beating up bandits on the road. That was nothing,” Zhu Li answered concisely.
“You fucking— shitheads,” the Rodent Queen spat out, barely managing to prop herself up. “What do you even want?!”
“Your brand of snake poison, of course,” Chu Ran replied, tilting his head in her direction, but not facing her.
“If that’s all you wanted, you could have just asked to buy some!”
“Why would I give any of you money?”
The Rodent Queen started choking again.
“Tell us where your stash is, Rodent Queen. I can assure you that we will not be gentle if we have to locate it ourselves.”
She looked even angrier for a short moment, but grit her teeth. “In the cabinet, in the back. Top shelf. It’s a yellow liquid—”
“Can you not see that we’re blind? Use another descriptor.”
“You’ve got a guy with eyes right there!”
Chu Ran’s smile grew dangerous, but Zhu Li gently interjected. “I’ll go get it. It’s not a big deal.”
With that, he stepped over all the collapsed people to go through the only other door in the building that wasn’t the entrance, entering a cramped storage room. There was only one cabinet, so he found the glass bottles of light yellow soon enough.
He held up one bottle to the light, then frowned.
Snake venom ranged in color from clear to an amber yellow, so this light tinge was no surprise. What was surprising was that there was what looked like sediment in the venom, visible even amongst the warp of the glass.
Opening the bottle, he gave it a sniff. There was no scent at all, which was typical of venom, but unhelpful in alleviating his doubts. Luckily, he knew of a solution to know for certain.
He exited the room, gave a brief “I got it,” then headed straight for the tiny stove typically used for warming wine.
“What’s wrong, Doctor?” Chu Ran called out.
Opening the bottle and pouring a bit into a pot, Zhu Li set it over the still-stoked fire. “I’m testing something. Wait a moment.”
It didn’t take too long for the thin amount of liquid to heat up to the point where the pungent stench of rotten garlic hit him in the face, prompting him to take the cup off the heat.
“This isn’t even snake venom,” he announced. “It’s arsenic mixed in water.”
“Arsenic,” Chu Ran was heard to repeat. “Why is your snake venom not snake venom, Rodent Queen? A scam?”
“Quit calling me that!” the woman shouted while Zhu Li made his way back over, the bottle of poison abandoned. “It was just a nickname that stuck! Who cares what it’s called, if it works as a poison?!”
“Arsenic is most harmful ingested, with non-lethal irritating effect on wounds. Snake venom is the opposite, where it does nothing if eaten, but can be deadly if it gets into a wound of some sort. There is no possible worse ‘nickname’ it could have had,” Zhu Li mocked, deadpan.
“Then this was a waste of time,” Chu Ran said. Zhu Li could tell from the downward arc of his mouth that this was displeasing to him. “Come, then, Doctor, Yunzi. There is no need to be here any longer.”
The Rodent Queen spat out some more swears behind them as they left, then returned to their grazing horses.
They hadn’t spent longer than a quarter-shichen in there, the setting sun still threatening.
Zhu Li was a bit perplexed, though. They had gone to all three locations, yet had garnered no results; it had basically been no venom, wrong venom, and fake venom. Had the venom originated from elsewhere? Chu Ran had seemed so confident the day before, and how many people peddled snakes and venoms, really? There surely weren’t many.
Maybe… he had overlooked something?
He snuck a look at Chu Ran, who was frowning in frustration as he mounted his own horse. “This day was a bust, Doctor,” the man said, sounding tired. “Very sorry to waste your time. It appears that we will have to find new locations.”
“Verification isn’t a waste of time,” Zhu Li countered, not accepting the apology. He took his book of snakes out of the pack on Guhui’s back. “I’m going to consult the book to make sure I didn’t miss anything.”
The other nodded.
While back on the road home, Zhu Li attempted to hold the reins in one hand and read the book in his other hand, but that resulted in him doing neither task properly, since he couldn’t both pay attention to the road and read, and couldn’t flip pages quickly with reins in hand. Only a few minutes passed of this before Chu Ran sensed his discomfort, then kindly took Guhui’s reins from him so that he could concentrate on the book.
He did so diligently, but even with his skimming over pictures, it was taking a good minute to flip through. He spotted the green vipers the old man had had, the rainbow snubnose, various other snakes he had seen in the first spot…
Then, when they had almost reached the city and he had since lit torch to be able to read in the dusk, his heart skipped a beat.
His eyes were skimming over one of the final entries in his book — in other words, one of the most recent. Its newness and practically identical resemblance to a harmless snake must have caused it to slip his mind entirely.
“Ch— Yingliu,” he said, trying to remain calm. “I may have messed up in identification.”
“What do you mean?” the other answered. He was invisible in the dark, the light from the torch making what it didn’t reach all the darker to Zhu Li’s maladjusted eyes.
“The first home had a white-painted black constrictor in its collection, which is non-venomous, but it has an extremely similar lookalike that is venomous, and fatally so, sourced from the southern marshes — people in those parts call it the ‘goddess of death’, in their language. Victims of its bites suffer severe paralysis and particularly painful spasms. The effects are usually on a delay, but the amount they inject typically isn’t much… if the sword used to stab Han Wenkang had been liberally applied with the venom, it might have caused a greater reaction.”
“The effects of the venom had not been immediate, actually. Neither had her death been,” Chu Ran answered, spurring his horse on a bit faster, which made Guhui pick up the pace, too. “People had been trying to treat her for hours after the fact, but it had ended with her seizing up. The false Dusha, we will speak of later. You’re certain of this?”
“I went through the rest of the book, and there are no other possibilities. I should have noticed sooner, though,” Zhu Li admitted guiltily. “I only heard of the snake a couple of months ago. I must have forgotten.”
“No need for apologies, Doctor Zhu. It’s far from too late.”
“I might be wrong, too. It could just be a regular constrictor.”
“If it is, then no harm will come from double-checking. We’ll have to sneak in, but…”
Even over the wind and loud hoofbeats, Zhu Li could clearly hear Chu Ran’s dark chuckle. “When have I ever had issues getting into where no one wants me to be?”
The author says: If you ever see me say ‘the translator says’ at the bottom of sncr posts, that’s force of habit from translating too much.
Like I said, the snakes here are based on real snakes. The white-painted black constrictor’s real-life name is the white-banded wolf snake, and the goddess of death snake’s is suzhen’s krait. They really do look startlingly alike, and when you’re in an era that has no genetic testing, you have to make do with sight.