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“You surely must have heard about my father’s many concubines.”
That statement had been offered without prompting, and also right when Zhu Li was in the middle of delivering very expensive noodles to his mouth, causing his chopsticks to pause in midair, mouth hung open uselessly.
“His main wife, Du Lin, is birth mother to none of us,” Chu Ran continued, idly mixing the rice and fixings in his bowl together. “We all share a father, but we each have a different mother. Five concubines total. His harem should have been a catastrophic mess, but it never was. Have you heard of the part that says why, Doctor?”
Zhu Li slowly put his bite back into the bowl. He hadn’t come in here expecting to talk about harem intrigue, of all things. “I haven’t.”
“The Chu family is not fully incompetent at all things, else they would not have survived until this day. A family of shrewd businessmen that managed to stick its grubby fingers into more arcane matters, and never let go… hah. They’re especially good at throwing money to keep rumors and voices quiet, which I am living proof of. The fact that all of his concubines are dead under similar circumstances is further proof.
“My mother was first. She died of alleged ‘complications’ six days after my birth. A month after Chu Fu was born, his own mother died of ‘abrupt and catastrophic illness’. Chu Xu’s lasted three years until ‘terrible food poisoning’ claimed her. Chu Yan’s passed minutes after his birth from ‘hemorrhaging’. Chu Mei’s ‘hung herself’ the day after her birth.” He casually took a bite of fish and rice, as if he hadn’t just said something off-putting, then washed it down with tea. “Quite unlucky, they were. But these were very convenient turns of events for Madam Du Lin; unable to have children herself, she could impose herself unhindered as our sole mother.
“Even better was that these concubines had all been picked out by her, and if they didn’t come from brothels or poorer families desperate to sell their daughters, they were unfavored, concubine-born daughters of richer families. No natal support, no annoyances of people coming knocking and wondering what had actually happened. The bodies were buried, and the matter was done with. Meanwhile, my father was an absolutely useless sack that wrote all of this off as women being weak in body and mind, meaning that this was all par for the course.
“Unfortunately for him, her bad habit cost him any further concubines. After Chu Xu and Chu Yan’s mothers died, people caught on. Chu Mei’s mother was particularly unfortunate; after years of being unable to get another concubine, my father finally got one whose family really wanted her gone. Her death, having been particularly egregious, sealed his fate in getting any further ones, however. Giving daughters to him at this point would be social suicide, and not even the brothels will sell him their girls, especially considering that they would sooner hunger strike themselves to death than go.”
He took another brief sip of tea. “My hatred for the rest of my family does not stop at their poor treatment of me in my younger days. I also have to account for the debt of blood that came from my mother’s death… a mother I never had the chance to meet.”
Brows furrowed, Zhu Li looked down at the broth in the bowl he held, watching the spices and herbs floating on its surface. And he thought his family situation was less than ideal.
“Even so… even so, I have mixed feelings towards Du Lin. I cannot call her a mother, but I know from my nursemaid that she advocated for me in my childhood, so that I was not disposed of when my blindness became obvious. Despite her showing me no motherly love, she was never cruel to me like my father was, and the poor behavior of my brothers stems from him, not her. She was also the one to find and request that Xin Yinhui teach me, even allocating more funds for all of it. When she went missing, she was quick to request and push for search parties, only to be shot down by my father every time.
“She further helped Chu Xu escape an arranged marriage to a known bastard at age fifteen, keeps Chu Mei from our father, and might be setting up something similar to her. In fact, I believe that… ah, I digress. I am telling you this to backdrop a proper overview of my family, why they are after you, and why they act the way they do.”
Zhu Li nodded, wondering why Chu Mei would have to be kept away from her own father. Maybe it was a non-jianghu societal detail that he wasn’t versed in.
“First, my family as a whole. In jianghu, it is known for peddling and hoarding techniques for making arrays, talismans, and tools, as I’m sure you know. In mundane circles, however, it is immensely popular for its manufacturing of qistones, which I’m also sure is not a new concept to you. The amount even the highest quality ones contain is piddly in comparison to what cultivators automatically generate, but they have plenty of uses in the mundane world, as non-cultivators are free to use them: room heating, room cooling, keeping baths and beds warm, stoves stoked, providing non-burning light, and so on. A lot of different varieties in a lot of different qualities, essentially. Where the Chu family stands out is that they can manufacture them in greater quantities than anyone else is able or willing to. Qistones, once a cultivator-only novelty, became household necessities in my great-grandfather’s time, making them a rich cornerstone of Zhongling.
“Now, you see, my great-grandfather was a shrewd businessman. He very carefully curated his public image, staunchly refused to get involved in any politics whatsoever, treated his wife with respect, kept the method for their mass production of qistones a family secret, and kept prices reasonably affordable. This let the family remain without major enemies and suspicion from authorities, allowing the business to thrive indefinitely.
“My grandfather did much of the same, but he died early. Jin law states that eldest wife-born sons automatically inherit, unless an exception is made in-clan for a later son. Grandfather happened to be in the middle of talks for not giving the family property to my father, but, alas, he died of ‘sudden illness’ during them, conveniently leaving everything to my less-than-competent father. Just as previous generations had done, he kicked out his brothers from his home; they would move into different homes in Zhongling, taking the Chu secrets with them, and expand the business by operating out of their own homes.
“Father is not so completely stupid as to not know how to run the business, and he still avoids mundane politics, hence why business remains thriving. However, his people skills are lacking, leading to the family’s deteriorating reputation. His treatment of his wife, concubines, and daughters have not exactly endeared him to the many powerful women of jianghu, or anyone that has a gram of empathy in them. Despite the fact that he fails to give himself face, he becomes frightfully angry when no one else does, either. It is only through his cornered market that civilians passively allow his nonsense, and the secret techniques he hoards keep jianghu from grumbling too much about him as he sticks his nose in its business, and him paying off or supporting various powerful individuals that would be annoying in a group. Your arrest that one night was a combination of various Chu members and paid allies coincidentally happening to be on-scene — no one else would pair up with them, if not for money.
“Masked Wasp is a bit of an exception. All Chu members produce the qistones in-house, and the qi has to come from somewhere. Reportedly, Masked Wasp is in charge of a massive underground operation that imports stones, plants, animals, and particularly yao dense in qi from Jin’s borders, which are all used primarily for the Chu’s manufacturing. In fact, production has picked up so much in my father’s time, that business has expanded substantially outside of Zhongling. Masked Wasp and the Chu’s business are now inextricably linked; he and my father have known each other since he was at least twenty. Father inherited the family assets at twenty-two, spent a decade getting business to higher levels, then married Du Lin, who had just turned fifteen. Her family is in jianghu, but isn’t powerful enough to threaten him, and she was young enough for his tastes. Which is ‘as soon as she’s of legal age’, you know.”
Zhu Li wrinkled his nose. While such things had long stopped being surprising to him, they were never not revolting to hear about.
“After a year of no pregnancy, he gave up on her, and started bringing in other concubines, picked out by her. Perhaps she picked so-called ‘low quality’ women to get back at and humiliate him, but he has unfortunately never known proper shame, so I’m not quite sure it worked. Skipping over the rest that I already explained, we come to my siblings’ education. I was raised separate by my nursemaid, so no comment. Du Lin was absent in their childhood, while they received father’s terse teachings; as such, they are quite fond of him, and adhere themselves to him as well as each other. They share his values, his secrets, and his friends. Masked Wasp, for whatever reason, wants you dead, so they want you dead, too, lest they anger their precious supply train.
“Chu Fu is a slightly superior clone of my father; business-savvy, loves to get face, becomes petty when things don’t go his way. He hates me, and you by proxy, for poking holes in his sham trial. He’s also a weak cultivator; no other man of the family ever has been a cultivator period, me aside. Prior generations were either uninterested, too lacking in morals, or untalented. His is just enough to count, which, when mixed with his riches, makes him potentially dangerous. Alone, he would even lose to you ten times over… ah, no offense, you simply are not a fighter. Still, his money lets him buy a lot of more dangerous artifacts or tools, and his cultivation, weak as it is, lets him use them. If you ever see him, you are to stay away. There is no way for him to infiltrate the Pavilion of Quiet without me knowing and beating him soundly before he can step foot into it, at least.
“Chu Yan is the more connected brother. He has friends and good relations in every single major sect, plus many in smaller ones. This makes him both sneaky and dangerous. The Deng poison had been ferried by Yin Dan because his friend Dong Hairong had asked it of him, and Dong Hairong had done so because Chu Yan is his friend. Deng Xia raised the venomous snake at the behest of his Master, Masked Wasp, and the venom took a roundabout route back to Chu Yan, who is Masked Wasps’s ally. Using so many middlemen blurs the lines of culpability, though not so much that I couldn’t sniff him out.
“Beyond them are the other branches of the family. The Chu’s are odd for doing this, but ever since at least my great-grandfather’s time, his brothers would be expelled and given money to buy new properties, thus creating their own branches. This spreads out areas of production, which is optimal for how they manufacture the qistones. The men of the family are all in on the secret, and will never spill it.”
“That seems… counterproductive, to be spread out instead of all in one place, splitting up the resources and equipment for it,” Zhu Li said, harkening back to his own sect, which had its own monopoly on poisons and their antidotes. If anyone had proposed ‘splitting up’ the sect, they would have been forced to copy the codex until their fingers fell off.
A dark chuckle left Chu Ran’s mouth. “For this business, having more space is a must. Trust me on that.”
Well… okay. “You said that the eastern portion of the Chu home was empty. Why isn’t it used for this?”
“Oh, it is. That’s exactly why it normally remains vacant, in fact. Now, to sum things up, Masked Wasp has something against you, my father dislikes you and I for losing him face with both Masked Wasp and jianghu at large, and my two brothers are much the same. All of them are in on the murder plot, though they likely have no idea why Masked Wasp wants you dead, just as I don’t. Of course, there is also the possibility that he isn’t targeting you for personal reasons, but just because you were a convenient target; a doctor with purported access to venom and poisons who travels alone, has a weak support system, has relatively few personal details known, and is from a sect everyone side-eyes…” Chu Ran tilted his head. “Odd, isn’t it? Framing you is too specific of an act to not be personal, but the way the forged evidence had been made and presented was much too haphazard.”
The abrupt change of topic away from the Chu Estate had not gone unnoticed by Zhu Li, yet he did have to admit that the new one was much more relevant to him. He would simply file that away for later. “You’re meaning to say that it was rushed, for some reason?”
“That is a high possibility. They had been gathering and fabricating evidence to frame you, at an interval ranging from at most before Deng Xia had started keeping snakes two years ago, to at least when your robe had been robbed a little over half a year ago. You being a private person worked both for and against you; others could assume things about you based on superficial details, but they still had to tread lightly in the event that they got something grievously wrong that could give them away. That was why they only had one ‘personality vouch’ for you in the form of Han Yupan. There are three jianghu people or groups that could have vouched for your personality otherwise, yet were absent from the trial, or too weak.
“One was Zheng Tonghao, absent due to pressures from her family and cowardice; had she spoken up, the Chu’s would have retaliated by no longer buying supplies from them, and they need the income due to the matriarch’s illness. Another was Han Xingyu, coincidentally too far away to hear the news and attend at the time. The third was everyone that you had previously treated, who were too weak and targetable individually to matter; I had told them not to speak, as even if they spoke as a whole, the Chu’s were petty enough to pick off a few of them.”
Zhu Li blinked. “You told them not to…?”
“I did. I assured them that their words would not be needed, as I would be drawing out the trial. I also spoke to Jin Zihu and Qu Xin prior, to make sure that they worded their testimonies accurately and avoided absolutes that the rest of my family could latch onto.” Chu Ran took another hearty gulp of oolong, likely drying out from all the talking he was doing. “I do hope you aren’t too angry at them. You may be angry with me, if you like.”
“I’m not angry,” Zhu Li answered, idly stirring his cooling noodles that he had lost appetite for. “Even before you said this, I figured they had their own priorities.”
The other hummed. “Those priorities were only having faith in me, this time. Some of them, I was connected to before all of this already, and the others only needed their friends’ assurance. Although you keep to yourself, you have a good reputation in jianghu, especially in the Xiyuan and Beishan areas. Few genuinely want to stand by and watch an innocent man be wrongly condemned.”
Zheng Tonghao didn’t seem to mind, though, Zhu Li thought bitterly, furrowing his brow.
“Not happy about something?” Chu Ran asked, tilting his head the other way. “Say, why did you not put on that pendant I gave you?”
That last question didn’t sound judgemental, just curious.
“I don’t have anything to hide,” Zhu Li answered succinctly, inwardly sighing as he pushed the no-longer-wanted bowl of noodles away.
“Like I said, there are other reasons to wear those. I would, myself, if they didn’t affect my senses… hm, what else is there to… ah, right. Masked Wasp’s identity is unknown, as is whoever impersonated you, but I know where to find at least good hints towards the latter issue: Faux Fox.”
Zhu Li blinked, then concentrated on trying to remember where he had heard that weird moniker before. “The only disguising master in Jin?”
“The only one worth anything, yes. Everyone who uses advanced disguising arts can trace their skills back to her, and anyone that wants to track a disguiser can simply ask her who she has taught. She only teaches people for money, and rats them out when they’re in trouble for just as much money; her lack of loyalty to customers, and own lack of criminal conduct, protects her from lethal backlash. There are no laws in Jin that say that someone cannot teach people how to steal while doing no stealing themself, odd as that is. When Deng Xia spoke of Masked Wasp being accompanied by a maid, I knew that she was either Faux Fox, or one of her disciples. They love to take on low-key roles where few pay attention to them.”
“Would she know where her disciples are at all times, though?” Zhu Li asked doubtfully.
“No, but I know that she has strict records on who she taught what over the years. She is quite the cautious person. Han Yupan claims to have seen you fight with his mother, even after getting a look at your face, so that means that she has taught someone with good enough face-changing skills to fool him. We will have to take a trip to Beishan someday before we look for Faux Fox, actually, as I need to verify how similar the impostor was to you, or perhaps if Han Yupan had been paid off and lying to begin with. The Hans might have more information as to why Han Wenkang was murdered, too, since they would know her best.
“On top of that, the imposter-you that killed her had to have been very skilled, to kill the head of a prominent warrior sect. No offense, Doctor Zhu, but you are… not a fighter. I didn’t want to say as much during the trial because it was a bit too subjective to those that don’t know you, but, you know.”
“None taken.” It was true, anyways. He was no brawler, he was a ‘disarm them and get out of there’-er. “Did you want to ask them about your teacher?”
Chu Ran’s ever-present smile quickly fell, and he lifted his head a bit. “What?” he asked, baffled, and maybe a bit affronted.
That reaction made Zhu Li a bit nervous, to be honest. He mentally noted to not bring up the man’s teacher without prompting again. “You said that Han Wenkang and your teacher were friends. Maybe they know how the friendship was, or what might have happened to her.”
The other man was quiet for a moment, then sighed, resting his chin on his palm. “You may be right, but those are two separate issues. I can request all the information I want from them regarding the investigation of her death, while my own teacher’s death is likely worthless to them.”
“I don’t know the Hans personally, but I’ve heard they’re straightforward sorts. It wouldn’t hurt to ask,” Zhu Li offered.
Chu Ran smiled tiredly. “You may be right again.”
A small moment of silence stretched out, both of them thinking.
“Unfortunately, the Hans are currently busy rearranging their power structure, so we won’t be able to meet them for a month or two,” Chu Ran suddenly continued. “Without going there, we cannot yet go to Faux Fox. This puts investigating the imposters on hold. Masked Wasp will be easier to deal with once we meet up with the Hans, too, as Han Taisha promised to help. We already know the source of the killing venom, as well as those imposters’ outfit. The final mystery for now is the duplicate Dusha.
“I will show you later, but the craftsmanship on the fake Dusha was masterful. Physically, it was identical and non-spiritual to the real one, except for one difference that I could plainly feel, and was also confirmed visually by Junyan. I am not quite sure what that difference signifies, however, and I am rather perplexed by it — whoever crafted it had even replicated the poem stanzas carved along the shaft. I readily admit that I had people look into you and what was known about you prior to all this, and it was reported that you basically never drew your sword. How could someone know the sword well enough to get the poems on either side of the hidden blade accurately, yet mess up the carvings on the scabbard, which is out in the open?”
Zhu Li straightened his back in alert. “The bai ze and wolfsbane images?”
“The very ones. On yours, one side is a lovely floral design of the highly poisonous wolfsbane, and the other side is a stylized bai ze; somewhat ironic, putting one of those on a sword that sounds like it poisons people. On the fake Dusha, however, there is no bai ze, just a continuation of the wolfsbane patterning. It is quite bizarre. Why go through all that trouble to make it exact, only to bungle this major detail?”
Quiet, Zhu Li thought his words over, simultaneously reaching behind him for the real Dusha that was leaned against the back of his chair.
He placed the sheathed blade on the food-cleared table in front of him. The scabbard was black-dyed steel, carved with silver lines in the likeness of wolfsbane bushes. Turned onto the other side, it was instead carved into one prancing bai ze, some of the wolfsbane leaves peeking out from the other side. The gray steel chape, locket, cross-guard and pommel were also carved with bai ze motifs, hinting at its healing nature for those versed in myth. From the pommel hung a tassel as dark as the scabbard, and a white dragon pendant swirled with jade greens, which was the only color the weapon could brag about, as well as a gift given to him by his older sister.
Unsheathing it, he went through every scenario he could think of for the discrepancy in design, imagining what the fake Dusha looked like and why it was like that.
The shaft of the blade was unremarkable, aside from the poem stanzas carved near the guard. ‘Always, the moon heals,’ said one side, and ‘Always, the sun warms,’ said the other; it was a poem remembered from a prominent, now-nameless doctor-slash-poet that had lived before the Great Wrath, a reminder that time would heal what medicine couldn’t.
“When I walk with Dusha, the side of the wolfsbane faces outwards,” he started slowly. “These stanzas are well-known and featured on many medical texts, one of the few poems that our ancestors had recited from memory that also relate to medicine. Anyone could look it up and find it in a compilation of pre-Wrath poetry. Could it be that they saw me unsheathe it once, but never saw the other side of my scabbard?”
Chu Ran took another sip of tea. “The level of detail and similarity is too precise for even someone with the best memory in the world, I’m afraid. I would say that the forger must have had Dusha itself to reference off of, if the scabbard wasn’t wrong. That was what I meant by haphazard; they spent so much time planning this, so why was their evidence so rushed? They didn’t even buy off a crowd of witnesses to make them more credible, instead banking on random people witnessing them and coming up of their own accord. I know why they did that, though.
“You see, you don’t travel to Beishan, and thus have never had much contact with the Han family. in the rare times you might have been in the same area, Han Xingyu would inconveniently be around, and she could stick a knife into their drawn-up plans. Therefore, they had to wait for an opportunity where Han Wenkang and you were both in the same place, and Han Xingyu was out of the picture. I believe their original intent was to assassinate her, but Han Wenkang actually changed plans; she had originally had no intent to come to the Zhendong martial convention, then changed her mind for unknown reasons. This had both panicked and excited the murdering group, as this was the perfect scenario. Alas, their evidence was not foolproof at the time, and they would have to rely on prestige and intimidation to keep anyone smart quiet… hasty fools know no patience. I surely have no need to fill in the rest for you, hm?”
Zhu Li nodded, processing all of this information as efficiently as he could. After some minutes of silence, where Chu Ran sipped his surely room-temperature tea and ate his room-temperature food, he asked, “You don’t know why Masked Wasp is after me, but do you know why he went after Han Wenkang?”
Chu Ran, following a hearty gulp of food and tea, hummed in contemplation. “I don’t. If I had some inkling as to what his real identity was, I might have some sort of clue. Perhaps we can get those Han brutes to find and beat the mask off of his face.”
He certainly wouldn’t object to that. No sympathy was to be given to murderers.
Eyes falling back down to Dusha as it lay re-sheathed on the table, Zhu Li’s mind returned to the issue of the duplicate Dusha. There was something wrong — beyond the thought of the wrong scabbard, of course.
Chu Ran and them had indeed kept Dusha for a prolonged period of time after he had gotten out of jail, and he had seen the fake for himself at the trial. There was no reason to not trust that what Chu Ran had claimed was true, that the two weapons were physically identical aside from one glaring flaw.
Even without seeing it, he had already figured that the creator had only had a one-sided reference when making the blade. The poem would have been easy to fill in just by going from the original poem’s stanzas, but the bai ze pattern would have been impossible to guess.
A one-sided, highly-detailed reference could only be something akin to an incomplete diagram of Dusha. Where could such a thing have come from, though? He had never allowed anyone to make anything like that. Was there a drawing of Dusha that—
He froze, his entire body going stiff as cold coursed through him.
There was a painting of Dusha, unsheathed. Not just one drawing, actually, but two.
One was a portrait that had been painted back before he had turned twenty, in the Miasma Caves. It was tradition for one’s parents to commission a portrait the year before one came of age. He could still remember the pose he had been told to hold: knelt beneath a maple turning red, head bowed and eyes closed, hair unbound, uniform in place, Dusha stabbed into the ground in front of him with his hands around its hilt, the scabbard propped against the trunk behind him.
(Was the scabbard showing the wolfsbane side, or the bai ze side? He couldn’t recall.)
Another was a painting he had posed for, upon Zheng Tonghao’s request. She had always liked painting, and since she had liked him too, she had doubly wanted to draw him all the time. Since his travel plans were flexible, he had entertained her, and one day, she had wanted to paint him in what she had described as a ‘dynamic pose’ or some such. The day had been windy; she had done a magnificent job capturing the way his robes and hair had whipped about and danced in the wind as he had held the pose of Dusha pointed forward, an experience he had found miserable on account of the wind getting into his eyes and making him squint for a full shichen.
(When he had told her as much, she had laughed at him and invited him for dinner, greedily rolling up the painting to story away, like she had previously done for all the others.)
If he wasn’t close enough to anyone for them to know what Dusha looked like by heart, had never sought out his own painting, and reciting its look fully by memory was impossible, then that could only mean one thing. Either one of those paintings had to have been the reference.
In other words, either the woman who had once courted him had betrayed him by handing the portrait over, or his own family had.
Both possibilities made his stomach turn, bitter bile soaking into his insides.
There could be an explanation for this, like the paintings being stolen, but how? The two portraits were in secure homes that could not be easily stolen. Servants could have possibly taken and sold them if prompted, but that would require knowing that the paintings existed in the first place; Zheng Tonghao hated for others to see her work, and the Miasma Caves portrait had probably been thrown into some dusty storage to be buried beneath other stuff, if it hadn’t been burnt, that is.
“What is it?”
Chu Ran abruptly speaking snapped him out of his spiraling thoughts, causing him to blink, then shake his head gently. There was really no good explanation for how either of those two paintings could have possibly come into use for all this, but he needed to know the facts behind it, not speculate based on emotion. Once he learned the truth, then he could be upset and flip out all he wanted to.
Deep breath… let it out. Okay.
“I don’t know how it might have happened, but I know where the reference probably came from.”
Despite having downed his cooled noodles that had absorbed some of the effects of the pu’erh, Zhu Li was even less drowsy upon getting home than he had left.
With a near-determined gait, he went straight to his room, opened up his journal, and finished off the writing he had started earlier. To save time, he kept his wording succinct, and started from his already-made entries for the sake of thoroughness.
First, but certainly not best, Chu Haoyu: Debauched pervert. Keep young girls away from. Makes qistones using unknown means. In on the framing attempt. Friends with Masked Wasp, his supply chain. Face-obsessed. Not terribly bright. Awful to his blind son. Is kept away from his own daughter.
(Zhu Li did not like the juxtapostion of the first few points and the last one.)
Du Lin: Forced to marry a man twice her age. Killed five concubines after they gave birth, probably. Was okay to the resulting children. Helped Chu Xu run away. Shields Chu Mei.
Chu Fu: Weak cultivator. In on the framing. In on the family secret. Bastard with too much money. Clone of dad. Concubine mother killed by Du Lin.
Chu Yan: In on the framing. Highly connected to all five major families. In on the family secret, too. Concubine mother also killed by Du Lin.
Chu Ran… no. He was skipping that section for now. The other Hans had nothing new on them, except for Han Wenkang: Friends with Xin Yinhui.
Xin Yinhui… hm. He looked at Xin Junyan’s section below. There was nothing really to add to it except for one thing, so he might as well start listing her sectmates as well.
Xin Junyan: Afraid of snakes.
Xin Yunzi: Also blind. Never talks? Does he have a personality?
Xin Yinhui: Former head of the Xin sect. Presumed deceased, body not found. Had an odd cane. Liked rubies. Hired by Du Lin to raise Chu Ran. Friends with Han Wenkang.
The Xin sect’s people… had not been forthcoming in introducing themselves to him, so that was all he had. Now was for everyone else that had been mentioned.
Deng Xia: Disciple of Masked Wasp. Decent cultivator in civilian family. Raised the venomous snake. Now detained.
Yin Dan: Friends with Dong Hairong. Fetched the goddess-of-death venom.
Dong Hairong: Friends with Chu Yan and Yin Dan. Helped retrieve the venom.
Dong Yongming: Sect Head of Feng Hills. Has received treatment before. Ordered treatment for sectmates, too. Friendly. Generous with money. Was not present at trial.
Barebones, but it was what he had to work with. The Zhengs were up next.
Zheng Tonghao: Avid painter. May have painted Dusha reference. Proficient at fighting. Likes sweet stuff, especially red beans… wait, that wasn’t relevant.
He hurriedly crossed those words out, heart aching faintly, and moved on.
Zheng Enyuan: Head of the Dragon Well School. Kind. Distant.
Ji Yaoyi: Skilled cultivator. From lower class than husband.
Zheng Aota: Doting. Spends days reading in sun and not eating.
Maybe he should have interacted with them more. Too late for that. Finally, the most important ones not yet listed.
Masked Wasp: Identity unknown. Supplier for Chu’s qistones. Commands own forces. Plotted Han Wenkang’s death. Is plotting my death. Motives unknown.
Faux Fox: Master of disguise. Takes disciples for money. Sells out disciples for money. Likely knows who the imposters are.
His brush paused. That was everyone so far, right?
Unless… he was going to put the Zhu family down, for having that one portrait.
No… no. There was no reason to. He would only put them down in his list with better justification than that. Zhu Heng was loitering about somewhere, but… no. Not yet. Hopefully never.
He flipped back to Chu Ran’s page. After reading the vertical text that he had, he narrowed his eyes, then set his ink to paper.
Chu Ran: Leader of Xin sect. Eerie. Laughs weird. Smiles weird. Talks a lot, and weirdly. Mostly fine when not talking about family in any capacity. Hiding things even when he comes clean. Spends his family’s money wildly. Has a bad family that deserves that. Plots their downfall. Senses emotions. Good fighter. Has complicated feelings towards his mother’s murderer…
Zhu Li stared at his own writing. He should say more positive things about his savior, really, but that savior was a weirdo. They also hadn’t spoken anything beyond proper business, making it all the harder for him to get a grasp on the man’s personality and ease up that constant feeling of strangeness he had around him.
Maybe he should analyze his interactions with Chu Ran, to list out exactly what traits he had, and why he rubbed him the wrong way?
Yeah. That sounded like a good idea.
The author says: Exposition, exposition… at least Zhu Li is going from 90% ‘I have no idea what’s going on’ to 60%. His sleep-deprived brain is starting to have bad ideas, though.
The Chinese version of Faux Fox’s name is jiahu’o/假狐哦 (fake + fox + ending o particle). This is a play off of jiahuo/假货, ‘counterfeit’. The o particle is very odd to add to a name or title, but it serves a purpose: 哦 is an interjection of either surprise or understand (like ‘oh, I see!’), and as an ending particle, it can soften a sentence to make it familiar, like a cheeky ‘eh?’, or imply that the speaker knows something the listener doesn’t. All of this harkens to her use of disguise and acting being so good, no one knows that she’s not actually who they think she is.