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It was evening by the time they returned to the Han Estate. Zhu Li was worn-out from the whole day, having been dragged to all sorts of touristy stalls and local shops by Chu Ran and Xin Junyan, the latter happy to recite all that she saw, and the former happy to listen. At least the food had been good, and he now had an excuse for his pilfered medicine’s existence. When the Han infirmary finally noticed the discrepancy in their amounts, it wouldn’t matter, as Doctor San had made too much of a fool of himself for anyone to believe his words anytime soon.
“Hey, Doctor. How’s your vacation going?” Xin Junyan asked him, playfully bumping his left shoulder with her own as they walked.
He narrowed his eyes, peering at her out of his peripheral. “I have to help solve one piece of a complicated murder mystery.”
“Then it’s going well, yeah?”
“If that’s your definition of a vacation.”
“Look on the bright side; the sooner we get all these individual bits of information in one line, the sooner you’re free of the accusations. Being directly involved will at least put your mind at ease that something’s getting done.”
“I guess. I’m not an investigator, though, and there aren’t any clues from when the tainted radishes got into the food. I doubt I’ll be able to find anything new.”
“Hm. What are you doing right now?”
“Going through registers that we stole.”
“…Yingliu, was that your idea?”
“My dear sister, I am offended,” Chu Ran answered flatly from his right, notably not denying anything.
“It was mostly mine,” Zhu Li defended for him. “I figured we would cut them off before anyone in the infirmary had time to hide anything.”
“That was probably the right move. Say, do you need help looking over them? Since I’m not a guest of honor, no one’s seen fit to entertain me, and I’m bored senseless. I literally have nothing else to do,” Xin Junyan suggested.
“Sure. You can come over tomorrow morning; it’s too late today, and Yingliu needs rest.”
He heard Chu Ran chuckle with an embarrassed tinge.
“Oh, right. I don’t envy you,” she conceded. “Good luck with your experiment! Maybe you’ll finally solve the mystery of his nighttime thrashing. He’s refused to go to a doctor all his life before now.”
“Now, now, I have nothing against doctors. I merely fail to see the point of going to a doctor when I’m perfectly healthy,” Chu Ran rebuked.
Zhu Li’s side-eye turned to him instead. It did not take long for the other to buckle under its pressure, his lack of ability to see it irrelevant.
“Mm… fine. I know these aren’t things you in particular tend to do, but when I was younger, my father would bring in these charlatans that claimed they could fix my eyesight. While there is obviously no such result now, that fell short of stopping them from poking my face full of needles, feeding me alleged ‘medicine’ that made me sick, and pinching the meridians I didn’t have at that point in my life until I bruised. If I refused treatment, father would smack me right across the face until I behaved. Eventually, father became incensed at the lack of results and fired all those phonies. I still don’t trust doctors, however.”
Near-dead silence followed his words. They had already stopped walking, now at the crossroads to return to their respective courtyards.
(It was a good thing that no one was escorting them right now, or this would have been extra awkward for the poor sap assigned to the task.)
“Gods below, Ran. You really know how to kill a mood,” Xin Junyan quipped.
Chu Ran laughed. “This is your fault for bringing it up.”
She waved him off, said “I’ll see you both tomorrow,” then abruptly turned and left, the hooped tails of her hair swinging behind her as she faded into the darkness.
Sadly, Zhu Li could not repeat the motion, because he shared a courtyard with this guy. Not that he was mad about Chu Ran’s incomprehensible tendency to drop gunpowder barrels full of uncomfortable truths onto conversations much more innocuous than this one, it was just that the explosions could be a hard to recover from.
At this point, Zhu Li wasn’t even sure if Chu Ran was doing it on purpose every single time, or if his sense of right and wrong had been built sideways due to a bad childhood. Then again, he had just gotten a kick out of Xin Junyan’s discomfort, and if he had a teacher in the form of Xin Yinhui, she should have taught against such behavior… hm.
“Will taking your medicine tonight be a problem, then?” he chose to ask.
“Of course not, Doctor. I was seven then, and I’m a grown man now. Some weird-tasting medicinal brew is no issue for me. Ah, actually, on that topic, what kind of taste should I be expecting?”
The prescription was literally some flowers, fruit, a root, and warm food, the last of which Chu Ran had just eaten plenty of. Therefore: “A flowery twig’s.”
The other man’s face twisted a little at that description. “Oh,” he uttered, that lone syllable containing an unspeakable lack of enthusiasm.
“If it doesn’t work, you won’t have to take it again. Come on, let’s go.”
They walked alone through the night-dimmed sect, meeting no one; everyone was preparing for bed, only keeping disciple guards up in important areas not protected enough by arrays, like their quarters. Once inside, Zhu Li took out the packets of materials, laid them out on the kitchen counter, and set to work decocting the valerian root, lavender, and chamomile together.
As soon as the brew was boiled enough, he strained it into a bowl over dried gojis and cherries, allowing them to rehydrate and steep. By the time Chu Ran came back from dressing down, it would be ready.
Zhu Li went into his own room to get ready for bed. Upon coming back out, he saw Chu Ran seated at the table he had placed the brew on, in his sleep robes, sipping casually away.
He hadn’t even heard him emerge from his room. This guy was always lurking around like a professional burglar — martial artists tended to have quieter footsteps, but cultivators also tended to have better hearing, and this was ridiculous.
“You were right,” Chu Ran suddenly said, sensing his presence. “I may as well be drinking liquefied bark. If I try hard enough, I can imagine diluted berry juice and lavender if I put my mind to it, but only then.”
“Bear with it, be lucky you’re not in pain, and eat all the fruit.”
“Ah… why would I be lucky to not be in pain? The obvious aside.”
“Because, depending on the type of pain, I probably would’ve mixed cannabis, willow bark, yanhusuo, or turmeric into that. That’s about as bitter as it gets.”
“Not opium? Is that not the best painkiller there is?”
“That’s for people already dying, so they go out in peace. It’s too addictive to risk, otherwise.”
“Hm. How grim.”
Like you don’t say grim stuff about your life all the time, hypocrite.
“I suppose, all things considered, that that isn’t wholly inaccurate…” Chu Ran proceeded to mumble to himself. “Now that I’m thinking of it, Doctor, you rarely speak of your doctorly duties, even in those exciting stories you tell. If I may be blunt, I expected much more gruesome stories to come out of your mouth, and am still shocked it has yet to happen.”
Zhu Li raised a brow at him. “You want me to talk about that stuff?”
“Not in particular. I am simply curious as to why you don’t.”
“Work isn’t an exciting topic.”
“No? Surely you’ve treated some interesting things?”
“The most ‘interesting’ ones were ones I couldn’t actually treat, and they weren’t pretty. Why do you even want to know? You get disturbed by gory things, like bone meal, muscle atrophy, and my anatomy diagram when I read it aloud to you. On your request.”
“Well, those were because… nevermind. I suppose you’re right on all counts. What of plants, then? I know you started growing some in the yard, yet I never thought to ask why or what. Do you always grow your own materials? Seems a bit hard to do if you were a nomad, hm?”
Zhu Li took a seat beside him, expectant of a long talk. “It wasn’t like I was moving around every single second. I would stay in some places for months, and they would lend me some land to use for gardening, usually. Most plants don’t take long to grow. Other times, I gave seeds away for free so the locals could be self-sufficient with their medicine, where they would share if I happened to pass by again.”
“People must be more giving in villages. City-goers would stomp all over your goodwill for the sake of money, sad to say.”
“Villagers can do the same. I always gave the seeds out at random so no one had a monopoly in the area. The point of me going around and handing them out was so people had access to them, anyways.”
Chu Ran hummed, taking another sip. “Very altruistic of you. You left your sect to, ah, spread medical knowledge? Did I get that right?”
“Yes. The Miasma Caves produces or sources poisons for the sake of research, then sells the antidotes that they create. That’s the majority of our— their income. They only sell to people that can afford it, though; other cultivators, mostly. When I was young, I took more to working in the sect’s infirmary than I did to the family business, and realized early on that if we expanded beyond Beishan and Dongqiu’s markets, we could help more people. Since being outside of the sect for too long is forbidden, my elders didn’t like that idea.”
“Hm. Your sect prefers to stand alone, does it? Do you know why?”
“Sort of. There isn’t a lone reason for it, more like a combination of factors. It mostly has to do with us historically selling poisons, then getting in trouble for it, so our ancestors hid away to escape persecution. To prevent any of their members from getting too greedy and selling poison anyway, they implemented the isolationist policy.”
“Haha… no one ever has poison for good reason, hm. It’s always about death, always. In that case, I suppose I understand why they keep to themselves. What I fail to is why you appear to have been banned forever for leaving? Did I get that right?”
A tiny pit formed in Zhu Li’s stomach. He brushed it off easily enough; it had been such a long time, and he was the one to have actively gone down this path of conversation, this time. “If you leave without authorization, for anything other than trade, it’s seen as a betrayal to your people. They don’t want traitors back.”
“If you don’t mind me saying, that seems much too harsh.”
“The rules had been relaxing before my mother took over. When she did, she tightened them all up again. Only elders have been allowed to leave for four decades, now. I don’t know why.”
The other narrowed his eyes, clearly confused. “Did something happen, do you think?”
“Maybe. She never spoke much to any of us about her private life. My eldest sister asked her why during a dinner once, and she was… spitting mad. ‘I am your mother, not your friend. The orders of elders are not for juniors to question or disobey. Do not ask after my personal matters again. Dining halls are not classrooms, dinner is not lesson time. Never bring this up again, you unfilial child.’”
He still remembered her shouts clear as day, after all these years. They echoed in his head with every word of hers that he verbally recited. It was burned into his memory, how angry she had become at an innocuous question. He had never seen her that angry before.
(It wouldn’t be the last time she was.)
His memories settled on the rest of the scene. Zhu Cha’s surprised fear at being so viciously berated, Zhu Qin’s frozen worry, Zhu Heng’s concealed nervousness betrayed by her trembling, clenched hands on the table, Zhu Pao’s unsuccessfully muffled whines and sobs of fright, his father’s increasingly loud demands that his mother calm down and explain why she was even so angry..
His own flip-flopping stomach, faltering grip on his chopsticks, instinctual need to make himself smaller.
Mother had always been stern. Looking back on it as an adult, he had always sensed the anger simmering under the surface of her actions as a child, yet had not had the capacity to identify it until much later, with more experience. In his youth, he had been reassured otherwise, but there was always a faint feeling that her anger had been all their fault.
When he had later told her that he wanted to expand out of their mountains to help more people with medicine at the age of ten, her face had twisted into an expression he would never forget; one of disdain and anger, as if she had been looking at a roach.
She had called him negligent in his studies. Hadn’t he listened to a thing they taught him? If they expanded, they would go too far away from their ancestral lands. If they gave things away for free, that would threaten business and their livelihood? Why would he want to do their family harm for some strangers? Stupid, unfilial boy.
That had been a few days before this incident he was remembering, actually.
“Longmai, calm down! It was only a question. She’s almost of age, of course she—“
“This isn’t a question she should still be asking! For years, we taught her why, and she still has the nerve to ask?! Zhu ‘Wuji’, indeed — you forgot your fears, apprehensions, and scruples while you were at it!”
“That’s enough! This is no way to talk to your daughter! Why are you doing this in front of the children, I—“
He tuned out his parents’ arguing, shaking, turning to Zhu Cha. She was shaken, pale-faced, obviously shocked at the outburst. They knew mother and father hadn’t been getting along recently. Mother had never been the same after Zhu Pao’s birth.
Speaking of, Zhu Pao, just a toddler, had gotten off of her seat to come cling to his robes, sobbing in terror. She was saying something; Zhu Li was too distracted to try and decipher it.
Mother’s eyes slowly shifted over to the crying girl. “What is that noise?” she asked, the anger ebbed from her voice. For a second, he was hopeful that the crying had made her soften up, but…
“You’re not a baby anymore, Zhu Pao. Sniveling on your brother like you are one is not acceptable,” Zhu Longmai said, sneering with bared fangs. “Quit your crying right now, or leave, else I’ll give you something real to cry about.”
“How dare you!” his father exclaimed, slamming a fist on the table. He was red with rage, eyes glaring holes into his wife.
(Further back into his memories, he remembered being fake-sick whenever he saw his parents acting lovey-dovey. What had happened? They…)
The next instant, Zhu Qin got up from her seat, grabbed both Zhu Li and Zhu Pao, and started hauling them away, her movements frantic.
“Heng’r, get over here,” she quietly hissed out at Zhu Heng, who was still trying to eat like nothing was wrong.
The other stared at them, narrowed her eyes, and shook her head, ignoring the shouting match started anew as she stubbornly picked up veggies to eat.
(Always acting like nothing was wrong. Like she was never in the wrong. Stubborn, belligerent, vindictive — what was her problem?)
Zhu Qin’s harsh tch was heard over his head, then she dragged them away from the—
A sharp pain on his hand snapped him out of his reverie, making him jump a little.
He blinked, turned his head, and saw Chu Ran’s face, the other’s brows scrunched up in concern. His left hand had reached over to pinch him lightly on the web of his right hand, successfully bringing him back to the present.
“Ah, my apologies, Doctor. I was talking, but you weren’t saying a thing back, and your emotions felt like they were going all over the place. I figured that your mind had wandered.”
“Yeah, it did. Sorry,” Zhu Li admitted, shoving all of what he had been thinking of to the side. Viewing his memories objectively was better.
“I was merely trying to make some sense of your sect’s thoughts, not get you buried in memories, Doctor. There’s no need to speak of what upsets you,” Chu Ran said, ever magnanimous.
“This isn’t the first time you’ve asked. You just want to know why Masked Wasp might be after me, right?”
“Well… yes. But you’ve already told me that you know nothing of your sect’s current state, so I’ve since given up. Now I wish to simply know you better. This is what friends do, right? Tell each other their lives and secrets?”
Zhu Li was not really surprised at his own growing mental conjecture that Chu Ran didn’t have any friends. Minus him and Junyan at this point, of course. “To an extent. You sure don’t tell me everything.”
“I tell you everything that— oh. Actually, there is something I forgot to tell you.”
One eyebrow raised, Zhu Li gave him a disparaging look.
“To defend myself, there never seemed to be a great time to bring it up. I either didn’t want to ruin the mood, or we were busy. Anyways, mm… I suppose I’ll be blunt; I looked into it, and your father actually is related to the same Beishan Ren family as Han Taisha’s father, Ren Zhuizhun.”
A slight bit of surprise jolted Zhu Li’s heart, but swiftly subsided. One family could make many branches, and then those branches would have branches. Far-off relations were not exactly uncommon. “Are they cousins or something?”
“Ah, no. Ren Nidan is his little brother. Full-blooded, too.”
More surprise hit Zhu Li in the chest. That was not something he had expected.
“I… didn’t know he had a brother,” he mumbled out. “I didn’t know anything about his family, actually. He would just say that his parents died.”
“That there is a lie, I’m afraid. Both of your paternal grandparents are alive and well. There’s always a chance that this is a different Ren Nidan we’re discussing, though it doesn’t appear to be that common of a name.”
Another Ren Nidan being around was laughably stupid. But why would his father claim that his parents were dead and he had no family, when he very clearly did?
He pondered it, then had an epiphany. “He did it to fit in.”
“Hm? What do you mean?” Chu Ran asked, eyebrows raising in question.
“He lied to fit in with the sect’s rules. Because all spouses that marry in are never allowed to leave, they tend to have no families, or renounce them. He must have renounced his, then lied about it to us so that we wouldn’t get curious about the outside world, or visiting.”
“That is… unreasonable. Ah, sorry. I don’t mean to insult your family.”
“It’s fine. It’s another thing my mother reinstated after decades or centuries of not doing it. It was extremely unpopular, with a lot of married-in spouses moving back out, bringing their children with. Some people left along with them.”
“What would make her draw everyone back like that, then be so adamant that things remain that way?”
“I don’t know, I was far from being born yet. No one spoke of it, either, not even my dad. He must have given up his family to be with my mother… did your information sources say if there was anything that might have happened to cause a rift in the family?”
“I had no time to hear back before we left, unfortunately. I couldn’t say for certain.”
Great. Without knowing the circumstances of his father’s estrangement, he couldn’t tell whether the Han family would be thrilled to find out that he was a long-lost relative, or less than enthused that he was the relative of a deserter. And he was meeting with three of their highers — Ren Zhuizhun included — tomorrow afternoon.
(Did he want more blood relatives to reject his existence? No. Not at all. Even if he had no emotional attachment to these people, he knew it wouldn’t be a great feeling.)
A light pat to his hand distracted him, and he looked at Chu Ran. “Don’t fret, Doctor. I don’t know if it has any bearing on the framing case. To be quite honest, I have no idea what use bringing it up would even do. It does technically link you to Han Wenkang, yet not really in a way that matters. I doubt anyone knows you’re Ren Nidan’s son, anywho, as no one knows your mother’s name, either.”
Zhu Li blinked a bit. “No one?”
“Not from what my network gathered. They asked about Zhu Longmai, and her given Zhu Ya; not a word on either in jianghu, anymore. Perhaps she’s stayed in your sect for all her life, to be so unknown.”
She rarely ever left her workspace in the sect, making that hardly a shock.
But, Chu Ran was right. Had his mother done something bad enough for revenge, word of it would never die in jianghu. Had his father done anything, then?
That would be a real shock. And similarly unlikely, if no one knew he was his son.
This new tidbit of information had only served to make things even more confusing.
“I can try to skirt around the subject at our meeting tomorrow, Doctor. If that suits your tastes more,” Chu Ran suggested. “Instead of telling him outright, we can mine his opinion on his brother out of him in a more roundabout way. How about that?”
“Only if it ends up being relevant. I would rather talk to him by myself.”
Zhu Li idly looked outside at the darkness, then added, “But it would be nice to know if he won’t be unhappy with me existing, before I do that.”
“Of course! Junyan will be there, too. We’ll brainstorm together for scenarios, in the event that they don’t give one themselves. Your older friend will be there, too. As perfect a time to ask as any, I would say.”
He nodded in response, then poked Chu Ran’s medicine bowl. “Drink your bark juice. We can both sleep on it.”
The other man smiled wryly. “Yes, yes. I hear you.”
Once he woke up on the morrow, Zhu Li freshened up, then automatically went to check in on Chu Ran. While what greeted him was not the same scene as yesterday morning’s, it was no less surprising.
In lieu of flinging everything on his bed off of it, Chu Ran had apparently flung himself off the bed — everything remained on the bed, while he himself was entirely off of it, sprawled face-down on the floor with one leg caught in the bedding. It looked preternaturally uncomfortable, yet the man was snoring away without a care in the world.
This was an improvement, somewhat. Maybe.
Crouching down to wake the one that was definitely going to have a stiff neck, Zhu Li silently resolved to double Chu Ran’s next dose. With any luck, he wouldn’t have to triple it.
The author says: This one’s a little shorter than average because the next part is too long to fit in neatly with it. In any case, the plot thickens with Zhu Li’s semi-dysfunctional family.
3 thoughts on “SnCr 18”
They’re becoming much more comfortable with each other, which is nice to see.
Zhu Li’s mother definitely has a Deep Dark Secret in her past.
I just realized… this isnt a translation. This is an original, thats amazing! I’m really loving it, great work.
Also poor Zhu Li, got a serious case of Mommy Issues. One of the most accurate representations of childhood reaction to a toxic and abusive family situation I’ve seen tho
The plot very much thickens with regards to family dysfunction (Zhu edition). (So many questions)
Chu Ran’s standards for normal and polite social interactions are definitely very warped but at the same time you did ask so.
As ever eager to see what fresh hell/revelations the next chapter will bring (both? probably both)