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Predictably, Zhu Li wasn’t able to get to sleep the whole night from the disturbance, thus electing to spend it busily sorting his files, checking his stock, rearranging things, and doing other busywork to occupy him through the night. Such was how he was discovered in the morning by Xin Junyan: at his diagnosing desk, hunched over an accounting book he had neglected for all of his business days, and methodically itemizing written receipts, names, and completed services, all done up for preventing fraud and false accusations.
“Wouldn’t you say it’s a bit early for this, Doctor?” he heard her ask from in front of him.
He didn’t lift his head, focusing on the registry. “It isn’t early if I never slept, it’s just more late.”
“What? Oh, no… you’re saying you pulled an all-nighter?” She set the breakfast tray down next to him, in an area not occupied by work supplies. He glanced at the breakfast — soy milk with youtiao, very nice — then raised his head to look at her.
“Look at the bags under your eyes!” she exclaimed. “Why did you stay up? Ran was going to have you help with something once you were rested!”
“I couldn’t sleep. There was a weird noise, and I kept thinking about it every time I tried.”
“Weird noise?” Xin Junyan looked hesitant, looking to the side for an instant before looking back at him. “What sort of weird noise?”
“Metal grinding on stone. Do you know something?”
She looked at the wall of drawers full-on, frowning. He got the sense that she wasn’t seeing them, but what was in that general direction — the Chu Estate.
That wasn’t too good, was it?
“Every once in a while, the Chu’s quieting array… fails, momentarily,” she explained.
“Is it the array’s failure that makes that noise?”
“No. I’ll get pu’erh to help wake you up, and then Ran will call for you when he’s ready,” she said, taking to the wind thereafter, practically fleeing before he could get the chance to ask further.
…What was with the aversion on telling him? What could that noise have possibly been? And what did it represent?
Weird. It was all too weird.
Not too much time had passed — his youtiao eaten and tea drunk — when he heard a commotion outside, like an unfamiliar man yelling. Zhu Li furrowed his brow; what now? He had told the gate guards that he was closed for today (there was no way he was risking a misdiagnosis due to fatigue), so was someone making a ruckus over that? It seemed to be too close-sounding for that, though.
Setting down his brush, he reservedly opened the front door of the makeshift apothecary to peer out into the front courtyard… to be met with the sight of Chu Ran, in a fresh gray outfit and wearing a cold smile, pressing down on the face-down, bound, roughed-up Deng Xia’s head with his left foot so that the man was practically suffocating in the grass and dirt, and understandably struggling — and failing — to break free.
What in the hell was going on here?
A split second later, Chu Ran noticed him, and the smile under his ever-present red blindfold turned brighter, head slightly inclining in his direction. “Ah, Doctor Zhu! Are you ready?”
Eyeing the flailing Deng Xia in confusion, Zhu Li asked, “Ready for… what?”
“Why, the interrogation of this sorry sod, of course! You said you wanted to know more about what was happening in all this — is there any better opportunity to start off with than getting information straight from the water’s source? Of course, since I would prefer for you not to be past the screened wall, I carried him out here so it’s convenient for everyone.”
This must have been what Xin Junyan meant with ‘help with something’. “Sure… I think he’ll suffocate if you keep that up, though,” he pointed out, noting Deng Xia’s increasingly worsening spasms.
“He’ll be quite fine. I once heard that children that almost drown will grow up to be stupider adults, but I have firm belief that he cannot possibly get much more idiotic,” Chu Ran answered, his smile widening into a toothy, predator-like grin as he removed his foot from Deng Xia’s head.
The latter sucked in a greedy breath, then began to cough, automatically rolling himself back over onto his back and using his bound arms to prop himself off. Zhu Li made his way over, taking his position two chi away; once Deng Xia had calmed enough, he looked around, eyes wild upon his dirt-smeared face, until they landed upon Zhu Li and got all the wilder.
“You quack! What kind of doctor are you?!” he bellowed out, unkempt hair and spittle flying off of him. “Do you know that he has—“
Before he could finish, he was swiftly kicked in the ribs by Chu Ran, which made him land hard on his unkicked side. He coughed and hacked to the point that Zhu Li could see blood splattering onto the grass.
Apprehensively, Zhu Li wondered what Chu Ran had that could possibly challenge his own doctor status, in this guy’s eyes.
“Tut, tut, Young Lord of the Deng Estate. Are you in charge of the discussion, here?” Chu Ran asked, sounding icy in spite of his smile. “Anything we ask of you is to be answered to its fullest. You are not allowed to try and steer the conversation. Lie, and I’ll break more bones. Keep lying, and I’ll start removing things that will not grow back. Do you understand?”
Deng Xia was catching his breath. Zhu Li noticed that the man was missing his outer robe, had rips in the robes he still had, and bruises in places where skin was visible. It was impossible to tell whether that all had been sustained in the fight last night, or if Chu Ran had since decided to use Deng Xia as a punching bag.
“Antidote,” the man finally choked out, voice hoarse, “give me the antidote for the damn venom, before it kills me!”
Zhu Li raised a brow, peering at Chu Ran. He hadn’t told him, apparently.
“You should know that the venom doesn’t really kick in until a full day after the bite. You’ll be fine before nighttime. Just don’t be difficult and I’ll give you the cure,” Zhu Li fibbed.
Deng Xia swore, but brought up no argument, moving himself back onto his back.
Chu Ran unlooped his sheathed sword from his belt, then prodded Deng Xia in the sternum with its tip. The latter sucked in a sharp breath, evidently injured in that spot, then glared all the more scathingly at him, jaw clenched hard.
“First thing’s first, Linyang,” Chu Ran said casually, snapping what had to be Deng Xia’s bestowed name off of his tongue. “How about you introduce yourself to the good doctor? Tell him all about what you did, why you did it, and who you interact with.”
Oh. Were they… were they just going to do this in the middle of the yard? Okay.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about, shithead,” Deng Xia spat out, gnashing his teeth.
Chu Ran sighed, tilting his head back and rolling his shoulders. “Try not to make this harder than it needs to be. If you cooperate and offer up everything you know, you may even leave here intact.”
“Tch. Know about what? All I know is that you two bastards broke into my house last night, and now you’ve abducted me! You all beat me up without even asking anything, too! Do you think you guys are going to be the ones ‘intact’?!”
‘Punching bag’ status, confirmed. Zhu Li side-eyed Chu Ran. He held zero sympathy for a man likely involved in his framing, but couldn’t he have interrogated him while beating him up? What had been the point? Stress relief? To each their own, he supposed…?
“This is all for the greater good,” Chu Ran completely brushed off, thus apparently absolving himself of any wrongdoing. “What you’ve participated in is far worse than anything I have, also. Do stop trying to play dumb. This is your chance to endear yourself to the one who has your antidote, which you happen to currently be failing at.”
“Why would I incriminate myself on made-up charges that you have no proof for? I was only defending my house from intruders!”
“Yes, you certainly were innocent, cruelly beheading your pet snake that you knew was lethally venomous, then trying to jab me with it. You definitely didn’t have another option aside from announcing your presence and attacking immediately, either. How foolish of me to suggest otherwise.”
The sarcasm seeping from Chu Ran’s words appeared to piss Deng Xia off even more. “You want me to talk, but won’t say what I supposedly did. I’m afraid I can’t talk about things I’m ignorant in, ‘Noble’ Chu,” he answered, sneering.
“You are well aware of what’s going on here. If you insist upon this farce, I’m afraid that even if Doctor Zhu here feels like curing you, I won’t let him.” Chu Ran crouched down to be closer to Deng Xia’s laying form, his neck craned slightly over him. “You surely know what happened to Han Wenkang. Already dying from a stab through the chest, her muscles seized up, she had trouble breathing, and then she passed in protracted agony… that venom in you has identical effects, which you should know of, and why. Is continuing to be stubborn wise?
“Come, now. Explain how you came to suddenly take an interest in snake-keeping, how you coincidentally came to have a highly venomous snake, and how you passed on that venom so that it could be used for Han Wenkang’s murder.”
“Do you have any proof of that outlandish claim?” Deng Xia shot back disdainfully. “If you kill me, do you think you’ll be getting away with it?! My Master will come find you!”
“Doubtful. He would have to know where you were smuggled off to, and who smuggled you, whereupon he would have to care enough to find the task worth the effort. I can assure you that he would not.” Here, Chu Ran gave a dark chuckle. “Masked Wasp has many disciples, all based on his own personal convenience. You are compromised, and no longer convenient. I could keep you here for decades and he would never show up. And, well… if even he won’t show, the rest of your clique of nobodies certainly won’t, either.”
Masked Wasp? What was he, a big, ugly asshole that stung anyone just for looking at him?
Zhu Li thought back to those unfortunate times he was in the swampier South and had the grave misfortune of coming across giant hornets there. He was typically firmly against harming wildlife, but in all of those moments, he had not hesitated to destroy the menacing swarms with potent qi blasts that had reduced them to hornet dust.
…Anyways, there was no way someone with that menacing name was any sort of good person. Back on topic.
“As for proof, here’s a refresher for you: when you gave the venom to Yin Dan, he had a servant by his side. Don’t you remember?”
Deng Xia’s anger gave way to a weird blankness, then a furrowed brow of confusion, and ultimately a slightly wide-eyed look. “He was one of yours?”
“No, but money talks. He informed us that he saw the transaction happen, and gave a copy of the financial ledgers to prove it. About thirty taels, was it? Marked under the not at all suspicious category of ‘literary expenses, origin Deng Estate’? Not very bright for a son of an already-rich family to request payment for a favor, thus creating a trail to be followed. Oh, but that surely wasn’t your idea. I wonder whose it was.”
The other looked conflicted.
“No need to answer, I can guess. Chu Yan has more paranoia and gluttony than sense. He needed an excuse for Yin Dan to visit you at the Deng Estate without it being suspicious, so he forged a scenario where he was buying special supples off of you, which could simply have venom bottle snuck into it. What a shame that that servant noticed the bottle amongst the supplies when he checked them, and wasn’t loyal enough to resist the pull of money.
“Why did I know where to find that servant, you may be wondering? Yin Dan’s visit was not as sleek as Chu Yan would believe it to be. I can’t go into specifics, but there are a vast many people that the Chu family has wronged in some capacity, and with a great amount of enemies comes a great amount of attention. Someone noticed Yin Dan personally visit your Estate, which was odd in and of itself, as why would a rich gent do the footwork of fetching his own supplies? Getting them delivered to Dongqiu would also be odd, because why would people from Dongqiu order writing supplies from Zhongling, no matter how good their quality is? Unable to get the supplies himself, untrusting of servants, and unwilling to implicate himself, he had to get the venom in a roundabout way by using a friend that happened to be in town.
“If it’s specifically physical evidence that you want, I can go get the copy that confirms where Yin Dan went and how much he spent. Otherwise, let us stop this song and dance already.”
Deng Xia went quiet for a minute, then asked, “If you know so much, why don’t you just explain it?”
“Would my mouth be better than a horse’s?” Chu Ran asked, grinning eerily. “Get on with it, now. Time is ticking for you on that venom. Be thorough, and don’t omit anything. I will know.”
After some more painful hesitation, Deng Xia finally gave in, deciding that his loyalty would have to be set aside for the sake of living to see another day.
He started from when he had first met his Master, Masked Wasp, at the age of fourteen, which had been nine years ago, when his father had hired him to teach the boy martial arts. (At this point, he moodily told Chu Ran that this was why he didn’t believe his claim that no one would come for him — why would his Master bother teaching him for years just to throw him away? Chu Ran didn’t answer, simply giving his signature chilling chuckle.
Zhu Li momentarily dwelled upon how someone having a ‘signature chilling chuckle’ was really not a good sign. At least it had never been directed at him…?)
Since then, nothing had really been out of the ordinary. Deng Xia blandly reported all of the techniques he had learned off of Masked Wasp; they were nothing shocking or disturbing, and were even more typically ‘above-board’ than Zhu Li’s own teachings had been. Quite disappointingly, he said that he had never learned who Masked Wasp was, as the man had never used any other name for himself, nor ever taken off the mask he was known for. He had only ever taught in short bursts at the Deng Estate itself, meaning that they had never been alone for enough time for Deng Xia to ever have an opportunity to see beneath the mask.
Two years ago, however, Masked Wasp had approached him with a peculiar request; keeping harmless snakes in an unused courtyard of the Deng Estate.
That shocking bit of information startled Zhu Li. It explained Deng Xia’s out-of-place snake-keeping hobby, but… two years? They couldn’t have possibly been planning to frame him for that long, right?
If they had… had he done something over two years ago to trigger revenge over it? But what? Other than wannabe bandits, he’d never fought anyone or made enemies.
None of this was making any sense.
Masked Wasp had given Deng Xia instructions on how to care for the snakes, then had slowly begun to bring him more and more non-venomous snakes over the next year. About half a year back, however, he had brought him that heavily venomous goddess of death snake, told him to be extremely cautious with it, and wait for him to come by for it later. During one of Masked Wasp’s visits around a month and a half ago, he had milked the snake, bottled the venom, and told him to hide it in an order for Yin Dan, which would be picked up a few days later by that same man. That was exactly what had happened, no incidents to speak of.
After hearing of Han Wenkang’s manner of death and correlating it with the effects of the goddess of death’s venom, as had been described by Masked Wasp, Deng Xia had had suspicions, but admitted that he didn’t have much more of an idea of what was going on than they had. The snake-keeping had simply been a favor he had done for his teacher that he had thought odd, but ultimately harmless, until the venomous one had come along, and then he hadn’t had the cheek to ask. Yin Dan was not his friend, and he hadn’t even known Chu Yan was relevant until Chu Ran brought him up.
Just having the venomous snake had put him on edge, however. Masked Wasp had told him not to ‘lose interest’ in his feigned snake-keeping hobby until an unsuspicious amount of time had passed, after which he could dispose of all the snake without drawback. Zhu Li and Chu Ran’s sudden intrusion and identities had panicked him to the point of thinking to get rid of them, so as to save his own skin.
“‘Panicked’ was not what you appeared to be last night,” Chu Ran retorted dryly, having since stood up and gone to Zhu Li’s side. “You seemed practically enthused.”
“I was enthused to get you the hell out of my hair. Ever since Han Wenkang died, I’ve been on edge,” Deng Xia hissed back. “With the culprit of that case and his helper gone, I would have been able to rest easy! If I didn’t get rid of you two, who knows how you’d implicate me!”
“Hm, yes. That seemed to have not really worked out for you, though. Did you not consider hiding away, then tattling to your Master later? He would have been able to call for backup for you, instead of you jumping into a two-versus-one. It might have even hindered our investigation from being accused of tomfoolery by breaking and entering… oh, but I suppose it’s too much to ask for critical thinking skills out of you.”
Veins popped out the other’s forehead. He looked murderous; too bad he was tied up into uselessness. “You’re one to throw stones about being stupid! Why did you trespass on our property?! Couldn’t you have visited later and asked like a normal person?!”
“And give you time to dispose of the snake, which is evidence? No. Your stupidity stems from you being too trusting of a man named ‘Masked Wasp’ that wanted you to take care of a bunch of snakes — did you not think that suspicious, or were you too blinded by your useless filial piety to think at all? On that note, did you not think that this all might implicate your actual father, whose house you live in? Could he claim ignorance about a lethal snake being on his property, which was likely getting used in a murder case? Did you think that through?”
Deng Xia’s expression morphed from unbridled fury, to blankness, to a nervous realization. “Don’t bring him into this,” he said, voice now much lower.
“A bit too late to care, now, isn’t it? The instant the venomous snake came into the picture, you should have backed out. Us kidnapping you is a blessing in disguise, actually; with you already gone, there will no point in dragging your father into this. After all, even if they knew that I was the one that kidnapped you, what would I care of his safety? It’s now too late to threaten you into silence, making him safer. Furthermore…”
Chu Ran giggled with a grin, tilting his head. “He’ll be even safer if you’re kept locked away. They are surely keeping tabs on you. Were I to let you out after your ‘disappearance’, which the Deng Estate is now alarming about, they will know that you didn’t die, but instead likely offered up information about all this. Even though your involvement and knowledge is minor, Chu Yan is involved. Do you need a reminder of how vindictive the Chu’s can be? Of how merciless they are to those who slight them, get in their way, or have deaths that would bring benefits to them? You should know. All of jianghu knows.
“Honestly, abducting you in the first place might have saved your life. The Chu’s, and those that toady up to them hard enough to survive, can be fickle. Who knows? There might have come a day where they would silence you regardless.”
“Why are you talking about the Chu’s like you aren’t one? Aren’t you just describing yourself?!” Deng Xia exclaimed, beginning to struggle as he looked at the sun and its slow trek to the West. “I answered your questions! Now give me the antidote!”
“Oh, yes. All of those adjectives and conditions can also apply to me. They run in the family. My goals will never align with the rest of the Chu’s, however, so I may speak of them how I will.”
“Why the hell wouldn’t you ‘align’ with your own family?”
Good question, Zhu Li thought. This was something he had been speculating on for a while.
“Oh, please. The eldest son of the main Chu branch, faded into obscurity? Only revealing himself during the known start of this whole debacle? Do you really believe that the Chu’s and their ‘traditional values’ would have skipped over a traditionally-valuable firstborn son, when Jin defaults to the eldest male heir for property? That my subdued outside presence since birth had been my machinations alone?”
Deng Xia looked baffled by those questions. “Uh… huh? What do you mean?”
“Our whole society loves the concept of face. Losing face, earning face, saving face. Only, to what extent face is viewed, revered, and considered varies by individual and family, making the concept as a whole hilariously and infuriatingly inconsistent… tell me something, Young Lord Deng. If you had been born blind, what would your father have done? Would he have been ashamed of you, and told you such at every turn he possibly could? Would he have refused to teach you in the way you needed to be taught, instead using methods for seeing folk? Would he have called you an idiot when you inevitably couldn’t learn anything, labeled you too incompetent to inherit, passed the privilege on to the next son, then shuttered you away in an infrequented courtyard so that he would never have to see you?
“Tell me, Linyang,” Chu Ran sneered out, sounding absolutely venomous. “Your father must have picked out that name for you, yes? Lin from the glittering of jewels, yang from the sun — not terribly original, but it portrays what he thinks about you. Precious, and full of life. If you had been born blind like me, would he have still bestowed you that name? Or would he have named you Kanqing, to mock you?”
While Deng Xia was wide-eyed in surprise, Zhu Li furrowed his brows. His previous hunch had apparently been correct, unfortunately.
Chu Ran fell silent, head down, allowing the other two to steep in an awkward atmosphere for several minutes. Deng Xia, for his part, looked to be absorbing all of that. Zhu Li simply didn’t know what to say to that outburst.
“Very sorry for this poor display, Doctor Zhu,” Chu Ran suddenly said, breaking the weird mood so hard, the sound made the other two jump slightly. “I invited you to help with the interrogation, yet you haven’t had a chance to ask anything. Do you have any questions?”
Many, but it’s not like I really know where to begin, Zhu Li thought to himself, pondering what he could possibly ask that Deng Xia would know anything about.
“Deng Xia. Do you… know why Masked Wasp might have targeted me?” was all he managed to come up with, a branch-off question to the lingering problem of why
“Huh?” Deng Xia blinked, snapping back to himself as he looked at Zhu Li. “You? You’re just a doctor, aren’t you? Maybe you failed to save someone he knew? I never heard him talk about you, nor anyone with the surname Zhu.”
Zhu Li frowned. That… wasn’t exactly unreasonable. “I’ve been practicing for around five years. If I did fail to save someone, do you know who it might have been to him, or at least when?”
The other gave it a thought, then shook his head. “He never reveals much of his personal life to me. We tend to go months without speaking; if he finished his mourning in one of those time periods, I’d never know.”
That wasn’t helpful. Zhu Li sighed; they had caught a witness, but not an extremely useful one. “Do you know if he has any other disciples, or if you ever saw him with anyone else?”
“No… oh. Actually, he came to visit once with a maid. She never spoke to me, and never came with him again, either.”
“Did you ever see her do anything maid-like?” Chu Ran interjected.
“…No,” Deng Xia answered, a bit uneasy. “How did you know?”
Laughing, Chu Ran didn’t answer that, instead saying, “Do you have any other questions, Doctor?”
Zhu Li shook his head. Had Deng Xia been telling the truth up until now, he wasn’t even sure there was any other info to get out of him.
“Very well. I suppose we are done here for today. I’ll be right back after this,” Chu Ran announced, though Zhu Li wasn’t sure what ‘this’ was referring. “Now, Young Lord, out of consideration for the facts that you were more stupid than malevolent, we did indeed break into your house, and you have cooperated thus far, if reluctantly, I am willing to let you continue to live. As for whether you will continue to live intact depends on how well you behave from here on out, because you cannot be set free for right now, lest you or your father face repercussions. Alright, come along.”
After saying all of that, he deftly kicked Deng Xia (who grunted very loudly) back over onto his stomach, picked him up by his bound arms, then started literally dragging him nonchalantly towards the right garden…?
Actually, how had they gotten in here in the first place? The ‘forbidden’ screened wall was the only entrance
“Wait, wait!” Deng Xia cried out in alarm as he struggled, before Chu Ran could drag him very far. “The antidote! I haven’t gotten the antidote!”
Chu Ran stopped in his tracks, turning his head towards Zhu Li in a pseudo-look.
Getting the cue, Zhu Li said, “You don’t need an antidote.”
Deng Xia stopped squirming. “What?”
“You don’t need one. You were never envenomed.”
“I stabbed you with needles so that you would think you were bitten. You’ll be fine.”
The face Deng Xia made deserved to be painted and hung in a rich family’s reception hall.
What also deserved to be painted was Chu Ran then dragging the furious man over to the wall separating this courtyard from the rest of the house, calling out for one of his various sectmates on the other side, and tossing Deng Xia clear over the wall with both hands, as if he was a particularly heavy sack of daikons.
Zhu Li was generally good at controlling his expressions, but he still went a little wide-eyed at that. The strength required for that was a little less important than the fact that he had thrown a man like that period.
He wasn’t given much time to dwell on it, as Chu Ran strolled his way back on over, unconcerned about what he had just done. “Now that we have no audience, I must tell you that Masked Wasp is who I know ultimately orchestrated Han Wenkang’s murder,” he suddenly revealed. “I know because of certain meetings I’ve eavesdropped on and letters I’ve intercepted — my family has not exactly been on guard against me up until recently, and they still don’t take me too seriously, which is why I could. Furthermore, too many things connect back to him for him to not be a leading mastermind.
“The issue with that is, well…” He smiled bitterly, tilting his head to the side. “I have no idea who he is beneath the mask. He has been very careful to never reveal his name or face to anyone, and his movements are difficult to track. He even has charms on him that block our qi sense from getting to him. This is why I need more time to investigate; I can prove your innocence all I want, but if the true culprits are not dealt with, they will continue to behave poorly, yes?”
Zhu Li nodded, a bit disappointed, but not really shocked.
“Ah, this is admittedly a part of why I thought not to involve you too much… I fail to have better news for you. At least the framing bit is easily disprovable,” the other lamented, shaking his head.
“It’s alright,” Zhu Li answered. It actually wasn’t fine, since he apparently had an unidentified person that wanted him dead for reasons unknown to him, but that wasn’t something to blame Chu Ran for. “I… understand why
“Hm? Oh. Haha… I’m afraid that isn’t the sole reason I hate them. There’s others. Many, many others,” Chu Ran said darkly, his slight smile turning into a frown.
There was even more to it? Gods…
“Oh. Speaking of charms that block qi sense, I have a charm like that right here! For you,” Chu Ran said, back to smiling as he drew something out of a pocket in his sleeve, then offered it up.
It was a simple, drop-shaped pendant made of orange jasper, and strung on a hemp string. Zhu Li took it; without even needing to activate it, he could feel it making the qi around it stagnate. “Why are you giving me this?”
“Junyan reminded me that being able to sense people’s emotions is ‘rude and strange’. Her words,” Chu Ran answered happily, seemingly unoffended. “She makes these herself. They work by deflecting qi away from the body and circulating one’s own qi back into them, thus preventing passive or invasive qi techniques from getting through. More forceful ones won’t be blocked, however, and it has the drawback of not being too healthy for you when constantly worn. Just don’t wear it to sleep, and you will have enough downtime to wear it safely during the day.
“I have a lot of seeing acquaintances, but none beyond her that I care to inform about the emotion-sensing issue, hence why it slipped my mind earlier. We blind folk cannot use these pendants, as they prevent our qi sense from working at all, yet they do have the other benefit of preventing you from being affected by talismans and arrays. Annoying if they’re benign, great if they’re not. Since we’re going to work together, I figured it would be best to not make you angry.”
“I wasn’t… angry,” Zhu Li said powerlessly. Even though he had felt the emotion-sensing to be weird, he’d simply accepted it as coming with the territory here. It wasn’t as if he had anything to hide emotion-wise, anyways.
“It’s good that you are not. Still, if you want privacy, it’s an option, and extra protection does the opposite of hurt. Speaking of sleeping… Junyan told me you didn’t get any? Is something wrong?”
“There was a noise. It’s no big deal,” Zhu Li tried to gloss over. Xin Junyan hadn’t wanted to talk about this, so he was assuming it was a no-go.
“Oh, the grinding?”
…Or not. “Yes.”
“That happens sometimes, when the Chu Estate’s array slightly wanes as they do… maintenance on it and the courtyard. It’s nothing to worry about, the Pavilion of Quiet is safe.”
What was with that pause and emphasis? Why would he have to worry about his safety outside of the Pavilion? That wasn’t going to help him sleep. “It’s fine. I can go a day without sleep.”
“You’re a doctor. You must know that that isn’t good for you, yes?” Chu Ran chided, disapproving.
“It’s too late. I already drank an entire pot of pu’erh.”
Chu Ran stood there kind of awkwardly.
By pure coincidence, the distant drum towers sounded out, prompting the man to hum. “Oh, it’s noon already? It felt like it was just morning. Time flies during interrogations, I presume.” He abruptly turned to Zhu Li, beaming. “Since you’re not really tired, do you want to grab lunch with me, Doctor Zhu? Perhaps the food will tire you out.”
The latter raised a brow. This guy definitely wanted to either talk about something or show him something; they weren’t friends enough to go out to eat just for kicks. “Sure.”
“Very good. The restaurant I have in mind is fancy, so make sure you’re nicely dressed… ah, being nicely-dressed means nothing to me, honestly, but Junyan said it’s important.”
“Why a fancy one?” A regular one would do, right?
“All of my expenses are charged straight to the Chu Estate. If I can afford the best at all times, why not get it for myself?”
That was polite code for ‘I’m spending my rich family’s money out of spite.’
Zhu Li huffed out a laugh. “Got it. Give me a few minutes to make sure I look the least like a dead man come back to life as possible.”
The author says: This is a really long first date.