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Xin Junyan’s horror stories of Chu Ran’s noise level proved to be exaggerations. The horror stories she had told of the damage he incurred while sleeping, however, had not been exaggerated enough.
The guest courtyard they had been shacked up in was called the Place of Mental Tranquility, a singular building in the middle of a square yard that was much too small to hold generations of a family, yet slightly too big for a single person and their various subordinates or pets. To best host any distinguished guest that graced its presence, every one of its walls were part of a noise-dampening array (Chu Ran had firmly and passionately insisted that this was a different sort of array than the one his family used, to Zhu Li’s puzzled acknowledgement), lending the entire place a near-complete silence that would barely be disturbed by a war going on right at its walls.
As that was so, Zhu Li had slept peacefully, waking undisturbed with the rise of the sun. After getting up, letting his hair down, and getting a teapot going, he thought back to Xin Junyan’s tall tales contrasted against how paradoxically peaceful his night had been, and decided to check up on Chu Ran while waiting for the water to boil. He had, after all, never encountered Chu Ran during his morning routines before; this was the first time they were actually cohabiting, rather than just occupying two different building in the same complex, so he wasn’t sure what to expect out of the man.
Being a temporary home meant for few people, the building was not too big, with one kitchenette, one front hall-slash-study, two bedrooms, one servant room, and one bathing room. In other words, finding Chu Ran’s door was easy, and he knocked on it, waited for a spell, then opened the door with a single step inward…
His brain stalled for a minute, jammed by the chaos temporarily deprived of form before him. Once it had worked through the clog and set to milling away again, he chose to focus purely what was all over the ground, first.
On account of the cooling-down weather, extra heavy, good-quality blankets were provided in the room, both of which were now on the floor like worthless heaps of hemp — one a fuzzy cascade coming down off of the bed, one spread out to play the part of a haphazard rug. As for the top blanket the bed had come with, it had somehow ended up completely off of the bed and in a corner, one Chu Ran should never have been able to reach from his vantage point.
Aside from one soft pillow seen propped askew on the bed’s backdrop, the other three were in various mystifying spots. The room wasn’t that big, but it wasn’t that small, either; how one had ended up landing so that it sticking halfway out a shelf and the other had ended up in the trajectory of the door Zhu Li had just opened, no one could ever possibly know.
The worst victim of this human catastrophe was the porcelain pillow, having consciously been set aside on a far table by Chu Ran himself the previous night in a concession to his own sleep habits. As kind as this action had been, sleep-Chu Ran had apparently had no mercy, managing to fling a soft pillow so that it had accurately hit the unused porcelain pillow, knocked it off the table, and shattered it on the floor, all evidenced by the white, sharp pieces and the guilty pillow lying together in a crime scene.
The offending man himself was diagonally face-down on his bed and partially out of it, his right arm dangling off so that his knuckles brushed the floorboards. In spite of his messy-haired head looking uncomfortably pressed against the woodwork, he was sleeping soundly, light snoring heard coming from him.
A messy murder scene that had involved a frantic struggle, minus the blood. And the murder.
Following a short bout of blank staring at this hibernatory tragedy, Zhu Li slowly shut the door, walked back to the teapot, steeped his tea, poured it, and shot it all back the second it wouldn’t horribly scald him.
Sleep problems: lavender, valerian root, chamomile concentrate, goji, cherry, braiva, warm and heavy food. He would have to make up pills for Chu Ran once they were back in Zhongling, or buy the materials here if they had them, or try to finagle ‘Doctor San’ into making them, though that seemed like a far-and-away improbability.
Of course, those would only really help if Chu Ran’s nighttime fun was also accompanied by a lack of proper rest. Were he to be waking up just fine soon, no herbs in the world might be able to help whatever was going on in his sleep-mind.
During his contemplative sit-down time, a faint tingle went through the air itself, coupled with a knock at the main gate outside. A puppet on subconsciously-running strings, he got up, went out, and answered the gate to see a young girl outside, who was holding Dusha.
Ah, right. That was a thing.
The young girl — a disciple of some class — looked up at him with wide-eyes, which was quickly followed by her face turning pepper-red. She quickly bowed her head so that she couldn’t see him anymore, shoved Dusha into his hands, then bolted, shouting behind her, “Sorry to disturb you!”
Holding the sword in his arms, he watched her kick up a cloud of dust as she ran like a tiger was chasing her, baffled. What in the world was that?
He looked down at himself, then felt his head. His hair was up, and he had remembered to throw on an outer robe over his inner ones; it wasn’t formal, but it also certainly wasn’t inappropriate for early morning semi-unexpected visits.
Shrugging the weirdness off, he shut the gate door, then went back inside the building. The sight that greeted him was unimpressive.
The strange tingle of the alerting array must have woken Chu Ran up, as the man was currently jiangshi-walking out of the bedroom hall: pale, unkempt as all get-out, heavy-bagged, grimacing in fatigue, and hands outstretched to snatch up the still-warm, strong tea sitting on the table. This was, dare Zhu Li think it, not the spitting image of someone well-rested.
After watching Chu Ran woodenly fill a new cup and down it, Zhu Li asked, “You didn’t sleep well?”
Chu Ran jumped a little, turning towards him, which was surprising — when it came to scaring people with sudden noises, this situation was most often reversed.
“Oh, Doctor. What were you doing outside?” the other asked back, voice groggy and husky from being freshly roused.
Chu Ran’s face scrunched up in confusion, unable to quite recall in his haze what he meant.
With a light sigh, Zhu Li walked over, setting Dusha down so that it leaned against the table. “That isn’t important. Do you always do that when you sleep?”
“The mess, you mean? Mn.”
“Do you take medicine for it?”
“Mm… no. I don’t care much for medicine.”
“No. Doctors scare me.”
“Oh, not you.”
Zhu Li waved him off. “That aside, you should know that you can come to me if you have any problems. Sleep problems included.”
A hint of conflict passed across Chu Ran’s face. “I wouldn’t wish to be a bother. This is something I’ve had all my life, so I learned long ago to deal with it.”
“I’m a doctor. My life’s purpose is to take care of people’s medical issues. You can’t be a bother by asking.”
Succeeding some clear hesitation, Chu Ran nodded. “Very well. That’s very kind of you, Doctor. What do you recommend?”
“Braiva, ideally, but it’s likely too rare to find in Beishan. I already thought up a full prescription for you.”
“Already, hm? Haha, the noise must have been terrible. My apologies.”
“It wasn’t, the arrays work well. I just saw the… wreckage.”
“Ahahaha… yes, I will have to pay for that porcelain pillow, won’t I?”
“I doubt the sect would make you pay for it. You know how sects in general are.”
“Even worse. Then I’ll have to apologize profusely and pay more than double it’s worth, as a sign of goodwill straight from my coffers.”
“Aren’t your coffers full of your dad’s money? Which you love to have every excuse to spend so that you can blackmail him for more?”
“That is all true, yes. I suppose you have a point; I should pay triple what it’s worth.”
“…Whatever makes you happy. Is there anything on the schedule for today? I need to know when I can go out and get the medicinal materials.”
“Oh, ah— we have a debriefing meeting to bring both of our sides up to speed with the other’s business, but you shouldn’t leave the sect for that. All you need to do is ask an assigned disciple for whatever you need, and they will retrieve it for you. If you go and get your own supplies, a diplomatic disaster will spread around about how the affluent Blue Orchid Sect is too cheap and inhospitable to provide their guest with such things, thus making him get them himself.”
That sounded needlessly convoluted. Far be it from him to be a courtesy expert, though. “…I’ll take your word for it.”
“Please do take it. In order to offend the least amount of people, and stay the safest, we will all have to stay within the sect’s walls while letting them wait on us. Since Han Taisha herself invited us over, we get to live in the pinnacle of Beishan comfort, hm?”
Zhu Li nodded slowly, thinking. “So, we just wait around until we’re called?”
“That’s about correct. The host is to entertain the guests, after all.”
When disciples came in to deliver a light breakfast, Zhu Li exchanged it for a list of materials, and they set off to procure it for him. In other circumstances, he would have been fine with having the sect’s medics find the materials for him, but in light of certain details, the very notion of that filled him with two words: ‘No thanks.’ They might try something.
By the time lunchtime arrived, the materials were still not there, yet they were summoned for a meal with Han Taisha. Finding that suspicious, Zhu Li quietly filed the oddity away to be brought up later.
The two of them changed into proper meeting attire — Zhu Li in black with a dark blue overcoat, while Chu Ran was in a very similar outfit, light gray straight through that was paired with that red blindfold — then followed the disciple that had fetched them to the meeting area. All throughout the silent journey, Zhu Li observed their surroundings, noting that everything was quite austere; the Blue Orchid Sect evidently didn’t deal in frippery when it came to its architecture, all of it being nicely-constructed, yet without the embellishment of carvings, decorative beasts, or other such things. The path underneath was well-paved, if cheap stone, and the plants around looked like they had been allowed to grow as they may, giving their layout a natural feeling. Many varieties of flowers and trees more used to the northern mountain scenery — pines, poplars, lady-in-a-bath, yellowstar, rainbow pink, and so on — grew in abundance.
He failed to find any blue orchids that would be responsible for the sect’s name and uniform color, but, to be quite honest, he was unsure if blue orchids were even real. While being a doctor required knowledge of medically-useful and -harmful plants, orchids were medically useless, so he had no in-depth knowledge on them. Maybe he could ask the disciple right here.
After doing so, the girl looked proud as she recited, “Our founding ancestor discovered a rare blue orchid growing on this site, and erected the sect around it to protect it! We wear blue to honor the origin of our sect!”
…They built an entire sect to protect a flower? No matter how rare it might have been, that was excessive to the point of stupid. Then again, a lot of sects were several centuries old, so their origin story might be exaggerated, allegorized, or completely made-up. To dim his own ancestors a bit, the Miasma Caves’ own legend of its founder was extremely hard to believe, so he could understand the Blue Orchid Sect’s being similar.
“Are there any blue orchids left?” he decided to ask.
The girl looked unsure. “I don’t think so. If there are, the elders have hidden them away.”
He nodded, resuming his silence. Although he had little confidence that the orchids were real, the prospect that they might have a use important enough to justify squirreling them away was intriguing. Then again, if they were hiding it, they certainly wouldn’t share information about it with him.
In the event that the ‘blue orchid’ was an allegory, he wondered what it could be. Some sort of rare treasure or natural resource, like a qi-infused rock, natural wellspring, or artifact? Or could it be…
Hm. Orchids were a common symbolism for an elegant man, and he was pretty sure Blue Orchid Sect’s founder was a woman… had the ‘orchid’ been her boyfriend?
That was it, wasn’t it. Building a whole sect to keep one’s paramour in was a suitably corny thing for sect founders to do, and a common occurrence, to boot. Why were so many sects founded on the ‘power of love’ or some such junk?
There was a sizable probability that he had assumed wrong, at the very least. He would ask if it ever came up.
They went much further north in the sect, from the guest’s quarters in the far south. Passing countless training yards, pavilions, and other such buildings, they arrived at an outdoor pavilion, made of the same dark ironwood as all the other constructions and decorated with stone furniture, next to an artificially-made pond, the courtyard around it filled with the same vegetation as the rest of the sect.
Huh. Now that he had seen so for himself, Zhu Li was realizing that the entire sect kind of looked the same. Same ironwood, same white stone, same architecture, same noninterference style of landscaping. In a smaller complex, that wouldn’t be so odd, but in a larger one like this, which had to have been expanded over generations and experienced differences in tastes, it was prominently uniform.
In any case, seated inside the pavilion was Han Taisha, along with several plates of local dishes set upon the table. Upon their approach, she looked up, then nodded once at them, motioning for them to sit. There was no room in her repertoire for empty pleasantries, it seemed.
Once they took their seats, she said, “After we eat, we will talk,” then proceeded to go in on the food.
Yeah, no pleasantries indeed. As Han Taisha was certainly not mad at them or any such thing, this must just be how things went around here. It made sense for a fighting sect to be no-nonsense, Zhu Li supposed.
Despite having no idea what any of these dishes were called, he followed the other two’s suit in eating. At least it was hard to go wrong with various sorts of buns and noodles.
During the meal, Chu Ran took on the role of the epicurean by asking the name of every dish he liked; in classic fashion, the names ranged from the descriptive pork bing sandwich, to the metaphorical golden aerie of the eagle, to the unnecessary (and logically questionable) renaming of dabao to rock bun. Zhu Li himself could not really tell the immediate difference between this cuisine and the cuisine of any Reng-centric part of Jin, aside from the heavy use of lamb instead of other meats.
Also, since Chu Ran was only asking after things he liked, he was noticeably avoiding the two dishes with eggplant in them. Interesting.
When lunch was mostly eaten, Han Taisha set down her chopsticks and cut to the chase. “This pavilion muffles sounds. Sect Head Chu, you said in your letters that there were some things you couldn’t say out of fear of intercept; what are they?”
“Ah, yes. There is a lot of ground to cover…”
Chu Ran animatedly recounted the summary of all they had discovered thus far; the connection between the Chu family and Masked Wasp, the somewhat-complicated origin of the venom used to kill Han Wenkang, and so forth. In the wake of each and every word, Han Taisha’s face grew darker until it looked practically murderous, interrupting her aloof, if slightly fatigued typical expression.
At the end of this diatribe, she sternly declared, “None of that makes any sense.”
Chu Ran jumped to defend himself. “A fair observation, Sect Head, but I can assure you that I have not lied about anything.”
“I did not mean you.”
At this point, she got up, hands behind her back, and turned to look at the garden outside. “Our Han family has no enmity with the Yins, Dongs, Chu’s, Zhengs, or even Masked Wasp. Not one of them would have had some political or monetary goal for plotting to murder my mother.”
“Perhaps it was personal? Against your mother, specifically?”
She went quiet for a short moment. That meant that she wasn’t sure.
“I cannot claim to know my mother’s every move and motive,” she admitted. “I must ask my elders, but I feel as though anything relevant would have come up by now.”
“That’s quite the shame. We have no clear motives as to why Doctor Zhu here was targeted, either.”
Han Taisha turned around, then, her steely eyes landing right on Zhu Li, who had tactfully remained quiet this entire time. He met her gaze, but had to look away after a few seconds due to the intensity, which heavily reminded him of his eldest sister’s stare whenever he had neglected sleep. The two would probably get on well, were Zhu Cha to ever be allowed a foot out of the sect without sharing his fate.
“From that battle, I could tell that you have potential and raw strength, but lack offensive training. Would you be interested in learning?” she asked out of nowhere.
He blinked in surprise. Why was that the first thing she said?
Managing to rally himself enough in time, he answered, “I’ll have to decline. Don’t take offense, but I want the more spar-happy members of jianghu to have as few reasons to try to duel me as possible.”
She quirked her lips in disappointment whilst nodding in understanding. “I see. You did lack resolve in fighting and harming others, though it stands to reason that a doctor would not enjoy such.”
Having calmed down from whatever had made her stand up, she took her seat again, saying as she did, “Speaking of which, I am ashamed to admit this, but I must ask for help.”
“The medics, correct?” Chu Ran piped up.
The woman nodded wearily. “I will be frank; these past few months have been hectic. I have also been… lacking in proper support to order a thorough investigation myself. After my mother’s death and the discovery of the odd poison, I immediately ordered a search of the sect, had the compost pile examined, and found the Avici radishes amongst the other radishes used for a dish the day before, by matching the substance in them with what was found in my mother’s bloodstream. I had people search for more of that substance with qi dowsing; the only other trace of it was in dried flecks the perpetrator failed to clean up, located in the infirmary. The room in particular that it was found in is the supply room, accessible only to the head doctor, his disciples, and me, as the Sect Head, in order to prevent tampering.”
The only reason they would specifically guard against tampering is if that had happened before. Rough — and, in a family as large as this, sadly unsurprising.
“Unfortunately, that is where my knowledge ends. Once the dust settled, and the Chu family stepped in with someone to blame, most of my elders became uncooperative. They all have their own children disciples that are loyal to them, not necessarily to me. All of mother’s disciples and the outer disciples are under my control. The rest are of questionable reliability.”
“They would be so belligerent to the one who holds the Sect Head’s seal?” Chu Ran asked.
“It was passed to me hereditarily, yet anyone with the Han surname is allowed to wield it. Challenges for it by my elders have taken up a lot of time, further delaying any investigation. The head medic has been here for so long, he and his disciples hold respect, and the elders have argued with me over interrogating them. Logic states that I should be in control and respected; tradition states that I need to prove myself against the trials of my elders.”
“Your elders believe that now is an appropriate time for power-grabbing?”
Han Taisha laced her fingers together, her exhaustion becoming all the more evident on her face the more she spoke. “When mother’s father died, she bested her eldest brother, elders, and cousins for the seal soon after, and continued to fight them off until they were all beaten once. This is a continuation of that tradition.”
“But was your grandfather murdered, and his family actively getting in the way of finding out the murderer?” Zhu Li had to interject, feeling his own annoyance slightly rising.
She locked eyes with him briefly, soon after which she looked away. “I should not speak ill of my elders,” was all she answered with, a damningly faint phrase with a sentiment he could understand all too well.
So, Grandfather Han had likely died of natural causes that had long been seen coming, making his demise unsurprising, and the fight for power slightly less inappropriate in timing. Mother Han had died tragically and unexpectedly, making this power grab a highly inappropriate one that basically amounted to a bunch of seniors bullying their very young, bereaved junior, as well as actively inhibiting said junior’s grieving process, plus her ability to get justice.
What a great example they were setting out for later generations.
Words of chastisement were on the tip of Zhu Li’s tongue, yet he pushed them down. It was not his place to judge too much; the words he had already said could have been interpreted as nosy and belligerent, had he said them to someone more of a stickler for polite walls.
“My movements are bogged down by sect politics and blood ties,” Han Taisha continued, looking back up at them both, “but yours are not.”
Zhu Li quirked a brow in confusion. They were guests, and guests were to stay in guest quarters; what free movement was she speaking of?
“That is quite the silly idea, Miss Han. As guests, all we may do is flutter about our rooms in wait to be summoned,” Chu Ran put, somewhat irreverently.
Han Taisha reached into a pocket in her sleeve as a response, pulled out two jade tokens hung on black tassels, and passed them over. On their blue-green surfaces were identical orchid carvings; though nothing to look at, a probe revealed that they were internally engraved with charms.
“Those are tokens of permission. While many of my elders covertly refuse to work with me or hide their defiance with excuses, few would dare to overtly contend with me outside of contests, so long as I remain unbeaten. Tokens do not lie — those will not grant you entry into sensitive areas without an escort, but they will grant you access to lower-level areas, such as general meeting places, non-elder dorms, and, most importantly, the infirmary.
“I do hate burdening guests with this, but… everyone under my command is either too young to have a foundation, unskilled in the medical field, or both. I hold the hope that your skillsets can give insight that we lack, as I have failed to think up anyone else that can possibly help. If you can help me with finding out who brought the poisoned radishes in, prepared them, transported them to the kitchen, then laced her food with them, I will be infinitely grateful.” Her eyes dimmed a bit. “Even if it comes up that multiple people are involved.”
Some seconds of silence stretched out.
“I agree to this. However, if one of those medics is guilty, and yet all of them are being deliberately bullish, it stands to reason that most, if not all of them are guilty of covering for the perpetrator. Why not simply arrest them all? Do your elders really have that much power to prevent you from doing so?” Chu Ran asked.
She looked lightly annoyed, though not at him, specifically. “Yes and no. The elders must defer to the Sect Head on paper, but not having their support means they can trip me up in secret. One of my elders in particular… tch, fancies Doctor San. She has advocated non-stop for him. I did attempt to arrest him and his disciples earlier, yet she started wailing at the top of her lungs that I am unfilial, wantonly accusing good people, and so on. Elders that do not like me piled on, turning it into an obnoxious mess…”
At that exact point, she seemed to realize something, exhaustedly placing her palm on her forehead. “I apologize. This is not the time for gossip. My point in saying this is that while they might get away with badgering and teaming up on me, not only do they have less to grab hold of when it comes to you, but you have nothing that they want. The only silver lining to this is how they do not genuinely care to obstruct investigations, they merely care about preventing me from having or exercising power, and taking the seal for themselves.”
I suppose that makes sense, for a load of power-hungry, heartless animals, Zhu Li bitterly thought to himself.
He put that thought away for right now, instead saying, “I can’t guarantee that I’ll be of any use to the investigations, but I’ll do all I can.”
Han Taisha nodded. “Many thanks to you both. It may be hard for me to directly affect the medics without repercussions, but there has been nothing stopping me from adjusting the arrays that surround the sect so that only I have reign over them. No one can leave or enter without me knowing. On top of that, I have banned everyone from going out, on pain of defeat. Not even the servants have been able to get out for errands. Even though this has also been a point of contention, of course, no one has been able to have contact with anyone outside, obtain any new supplies, or flee, aside from my siblings.”
“And are your siblings trustworthy?”
Zhu Li, keeping his cool, reached out and pinched Chu Ran on the thigh, unseen by Han Taisha. It was a real shame that this guy’s emotion-sensing skill didn’t extend to thoughts, else he would be telling him that he was a stone-brained idiot. Could he go one day without insulting or probing into someone’s family? Was it physically impossible for him?
The other man pretended that he hadn’t felt the pinch, nor Zhu Li’s budding warning.
Han Taisha looked a bit angry, then a bit sad. Dammit, Chu Ran. “I would hope so, after everything.”
Before Chu Ran could say anything else ill-advised, Zhu Li pinched him again, and beat him to the punch. “Is there anything we need to know about the medics?”
She nodded, successfully distracted, and pulled a folded paper out of another pocket, on her other sleeve. “Their backgrounds are checked before they ever step foot into the sect, provided partially by Doctor San himself. While I have no reason to believe anything is falsified, judging by his current behavior, it is not an impossibility.”
With the paper passed over, Zhu Li took and unfolded it, quickly skimming as he simultaneously read it aloud to Chu Ran. The contents of it were detailed, if both unenlightening and unexciting.
The head medic, Doctor San Wan, was a weak cultivator from a small medical sect of Beishan. He had been invited to work at the Blue Orchid Sect fifty years ago, and was eighty years of age now. His parents had died of natural causes decades ago. He had always been known as slightly stubborn and old-fashioned, but those traits had gradually amplified over time, manifesting in his current combativeness. The support of Han Wagu had given him even more of an unwarranted backbone. On top of that, he would always send a big chunk of his paycheck back to his home sect to support its foundation and his sectmates.
His four disciples went as such: Chao Su, male, the eldest, a Beishan native of normal family status; Zhong Hua, female, another native of orphan status; Biebie of Hali, female, a Na from the mountains to the West; and Shu Lao, male, the youngest, a former Dongqiu native of orphan status. All were relatively young, since Sun Wan had not begun to take on disciples until about a decade ago, when he had suffered an illness that gave him a late-life crisis.
Zhu Li quietly folded the paper back up and tucked it away in his lapels.
“I realize that it is not much to go on, but it is all that we have,” Han Taisha proceeded. “I will be bringing up what you told me with my father and my aunt. You have a good reputation with her, Doctor Zhu, correct?”
Aunt?… Oh, right, Han Xingyu. He nodded, if somewhat unsurely.
“She will be back in town in two days, after which we will likely have another meeting to discuss further plans of action. Until then, you may do with your free time what you will.”
Good. He had several questions for Han Xingyu, to put it lightly.
With their meeting done and information exchanged, Zhu Li and Chu Ran said their goodbyes, then departed. Upon their return to their quarters, Zhu Li immediately noticed that the medicine had still not been delivered, as confirmed by the disciple keeping watch outside the gates after he had gone and asked.
He narrowed his eyes. This delay, or perhaps complete overlook, had either been on purpose, or the infirmary was too busy to fill the orders.
He asked the disciple to bring the previous disciple that had taken the order over. She scurried off, coming back not long after with a familiar, nervous-looking teen.
The boy bowed, palm against fist. “G-greetings, Doctor Zhu. Is there a problem?”
“How long ago did you bring my request to Doctor San?” Zhu Li asked, getting straight to it.
“This humble one went there right after you told me to.”
“They must be busy, since I still haven’t gotten anything. I need that stuff tonight, so I can just go and make it up myself to save them time. Lead the way to the infirmary, please.”
“You haven’t—? Busy? Um… o-okay.”
The disciple turned to start toddling off, appearing to be a bit overwhelmed, when Chu Ran piped up behind him. “Am I invited to listen in on the excitement, Doctor?”
Zhu Li turned to look at him. “Weren’t you going to take a nap?”
“I was. This seems more interesting, though.”
“Sure, then. Just let me do most of the talking.”
“But of course! I hardly know a thing about medicine.— Go on, young lad, lead the way. We have proper business to attend to.”
The author says: Zhu Li, Chu Ran, and Han Taisha form the Our Families Are Full of Assholes Club! Will they get more members? Probably.