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A knock was heard at the front gate some time later, right near the end of the Rabbit’s hour. Zhu Li had long gotten properly dressed, having expected this visitor, while a relatively more chipper — if predictably sore in the neck — Chu Ran nursed some black tea in his bedroom, awaiting the time he was more awake to get ready.
He ceased brushing Guhui’s mane, much to her high-pitched disapproval, and went to open the gate. Xin Junyan greeted him, dolled up especially fancily today, a fact that made him raise a brow in question as he let her in.
Guhui huffed at being snubbed, following the two of them to the door, neighing all the while. It got to the point where Zhu Li had to turn back, rub her on the nose, and reassure her that he would brush her later to get her to calm down.
“Does your horse… understand what you’re saying?” Xin Junyan asked when he came back, watching Guhui curiously whilst the mare galloped away, ruining the nice landscaping with her hooves. Whoever was getting assigned to clean up after they left was not going to be the slightest bit happy.
“Sometimes, I think. She’s always been smart. One of the first words she understood perfectly was ‘treat’.”
“Ha! I can imagine that.” After the laugh, her smile turned into a ponderous look, her feet bringing her inside. “Do you think she’s turning into a familiar?”
Zhu Li paused slightly in his act of rearranging the books on the table. “Maybe.”
He wouldn’t be holding his breath for it, though. The mechanics behind familiarization were inscrutable, its occurrences random; even sects that specialized in the taming of less violent yao were unclear on how it worked. Had anyone figured it out, it would have circulated through all of the continent in a heartbeat by now.
He picked up one of the stolen registers and handed it to her, then sat down himself. “That’s an income-outcome ledger for the expenses of the infirmary and its members. The sect’s accounting office always verifies them, so the chances of them being falsified are basically none. They wouldn’t look deeply into spending and income, though, just that it really did happen, with who, and where. Just flip through it and tell me if you see anything odd, whether it’s in price, or content. If you’re unsure, just ask. I also have the same month from last year’s register, if you want to make comparisons.”
“What fun,” she answered dryly, also taking a seat and opening her book. Meanwhile, Zhu Li took the register detailing the medics’ outside movements, looking for anything suspicious.
Reason told that of the five, Biebie, Zhong Hua, and Shu Lao would leave the sect less often than Chao Su and San Wan, having no families in the area to visit. Shu Lao in particular would have no one to visit even if he did go on an abroad trip, while Biebie might.
Any culprit with a working brain would never do anything openly suspicious. Were those three to have gone somewhere odd, or for too long, it would automatically raise eyebrows. On the flipside, if Chao Su and San Wan left frequently to visit family or his home sect, respectively, that would be easy cover for a misdeed slipped in there. Whether Zhu Li would find something odd or not remained to be seen.
Not long into the two of them beginning their perusal, Chu Ran came out of his bedroom and into the main hall, fully dressed in grays, browns, and blacks, with that characteristic small smile hung upon his face. “Ah, Junyan. What do you think of my outfit? Did I completely ruin it?” he asked, a lilt to his voice implying that he was hoping she was mad.
Xin Junyan glanced up, fleetingly, from her register without moving her head, then looked back down. “I specifically coordinated your travel wardrobe to be impossible to clash. Try harder than that, dear brother.”
Chu Ran looked just a little put out, coming over to take his seat beside Zhu Li. “Doctor Zhu, may I bother you to help me with putting together the most atrocious outfit I possibly can? I’m unsure if you noticed, but Junyan loves fashion, and she hates when I do it wrong. An affront to her entire being.”
“Hmph. The good Doctor always shoots down my ideas for brightly-colored outfits for him, so he doesn’t have anything for you, either. I wish you the very peak of luck, you little pest.”
“I want no part in this,” Zhu Li said simply, returning to his search.
“How disappointing! I do hope you change your mind. Making her mad is great fun. Ah, speaking of which, you have more hairpins than usual on your head, Junyan. Who are you dressing up for? Surely not the Doctor, here. You never bothered before, and I highly doubt he would entertain you now.”
A pair of fiery eyes met Chu Ran’s blank ones. The latter grinned upon sensing her anger.
“What I wear is none of your business,” she growled out at him. “So what if I want to be somewhat fancier today?”
“Hmm, I wonder. You never dress up for strangers ordinarily; could it be that one of the people we’ll be meeting is to your fancy? Han Xingyu and Ren Zhuizhun are much too old for you, but Han Taisha certainly isn’t. Is that who you want to impress? Quite a high aim you have.”
She jerked her head up, staring murder at him.
Before she could yell at him again, Zhu Li cut them both off with a, “Don’t bicker right now. We need to do this research before we go in at noon.”
Xin Junyan took to giving Chu Ran a look that plainly said ‘This isn’t over,’ then went back to reading through the register.
“A shame that I cannot help. Truly. Perhaps I should go take a nap?”
Zhu Li tapped on the table to get his attention, not looking up. “That’ll mess up your sleep schedule. You don’t need more sleep problems.”
“Is he still thrashing around? You must be beyond help, Ran. Not that that’s a surprise to anyone,” Xin Junyan jeered.
Chu Ran grinned cheekily. “Beyond help when I sleep, hm? That’s certainly much better than being beyond help while I’m awake, like how you are.”
Right as Zhu Li was contemplating whether or not he ought to nip this sibling-like bickering in the bud, Xin Junyan quipped out a quick “Shut up and go make breakfast get to us faster,” then buried her face stubbornly into her register. Chu Ran obeyed her without a hint of complaint, going out the door with a snicker trailing behind him.
That interruption over with, they returned to poring over their respective books. It didn’t take long for Xin Junyan to say, “Do you know who Han Shiduo is?”
He looked up at her, then at her register. She hadn’t gotten very far in it. “No. What’s wrong?”
“Every day, there’s a logged gift from one Han Shiduo to the infirmary itself. It looks like it’s mostly monetary, and no one else appears to be doing the same.”
“For how much?”
“Very little. Five taels or less. It isn’t payment, because the sect pays for everything in the first place, but I wonder what the point of it is? It adds up eventually, but… hm.”
Zhu Li shook his head, having no idea. He would definitely be asking in the meeting later.
More page-flipping ensued. His own search was going exactly as he had predicted — in other words, terribly. In the month before the murder, Biebie hadn’t set foot outside the sect at all, Zhong Hua and Shu Lao had left for innocuous day-to-day things only, San Wan had gone out exactly once so far in a visit to his home sect, and Chao Su was hogging up ledger space by frequently leaving the sect multiple times a day, to both pick things up and visit his family. Was he a medic, or an errand boy?
To make matters worse, all of these outings had been supervised by escorting disciples of no affiliation with the infirmary. A random pickup of daikons would have raised eyebrows and been reported of.
Could the culprit have had them delivered? That didn’t seem too likely. Even when not in lockdown, all shipments would have been inspected and unloaded by people not in on their plot. Too many eyes to witness, too many mouths to bribe, too much risk involved. With the alerting array that was in place, sneaking a bundle in was just as improbable.
How had the daikons gotten in, then?
His gaze wandered back to the names of the escorting disciples. Every time, there had been a pair. A bunch of people being paid off would have been too difficult to do, but two low-rank disciples? That would have been much easier.
Of course, there was the issue that the majority of Blue Orchid disciples fell under Han Wenkang, now Han Taisha’s flag, But not all of them did.
Narrowing his eyes, he skimmed over the names. There were sadly no marks made indicating what family member each disciple belonged to. However, if he could find a pair where neither disciple was under Han Taisha’s wing…
“I’m missing too much context for this,” he announced flatly.
“You’re telling me. All these numbers look the same,” Xin Junyan complained, flipping to another page with a scowl. “Every time I think there’s something, I check the ledger from last year and learn that this Biebie person spending all of her monthly allowance on peppers was apparently a commonplace occurrence.
“Speaking of allowance, San Wan sending money back to the sect is weird itself. He basically gives away his entire monthly salary every time, which is only about twenty taels. His savings are basically nothing… why even bother sending that amount? What would it even do? You need at least two hundred a month to support a medium-sized sect with all its needs. Sure, it adds up eventually, but not to an amount that matters.”
Zhu Li thought back. He had already known that San Wan was sending money back home, and she was right — twenty taels could barely do a thing, unless the sect only had a single person in it.
He frowned at the familiarity of that notion, reached over to the pile of relevant materials, and pulled out the paper that listed each other medics’ origins. San Wan’s sect was too small for a fancy name at only nine total members, being known merely as the San Sect, and all there really was to say about it was that it specialized in medicine; the note itself didn’t have much. Generally, no news was good news, so they weren’t embroiled in scandal.
With less people came less funds, of course, but were they really so impoverished that they had to take almost all of San Wan’s money? Could the other four not work?
He was forced to conclude, “I don’t get it either, but he definitely has a money motive.”
San Wan was suspiciously defensive over his ‘territory’, actively refused to cooperate, needed money for some unknown reason, was not loyal to Han Taisha or her mother, and had the authority to either fetch the daikons himself, or have his disciples do it. Masked Wasp could have bought him off, leading to him now being overly aggressive, worried that something would be found out and implicate him.
Even if that wasn’t entirely true, he definitely knew something, and feared something else. If one of his disciples ended up being a murderer, what would that mean for him? He would be an accomplice at worst, and a shoddy, inattentive teacher at best — either way, he would probably be losing his job, his reputation stained with grime. He should have left this sect earlier for higher pay, but…
Zhu Li mentally curled his lip in disdain. Someone who still thought moxibustion and cupping did a damn thing was probably starved for work, too desperate to relinquish his grasp on this gig. Although the doctor shortage had upped a quack’s chances of success, they still weren’t passing fifty.
All things considered, that could just be his own bias speaking, though. Why San Wan had even come to have a career here in the first place was beyond him, yet had to have had some logic behind it. Maybe he was a serviceable doctor, whenever he wasn’t using discredited, outdated, placebic methods.
No matter what, he had overstepped his bounds. And there was still the book with the pressed lady-in-a-bath, an oddity that could not possibly have a good explanation.
“It would be great if something was clear-cut for once,” he griped, frustration starting to build up in his chest. Just because Han Taisha had entrusted them with trying to find the culprits didn’t mean that the answer was going to jump out at them, and his own haphazard collection of the registers wasn’t quite cutting it. The infirmary wouldn’t have had a visitor log, but the accounts office would — maybe an individual had brought the daikons in that way?
“Unless someone comes out with a reliable eyewitness testimony, it’s been too long for anything to be clear-cut anymore, yeah?” Xin Junyan said, quickly scanning the pages for any further insight. “I wouldn’t worry too much. Evildoers always slip-up somewhere.”
“I hope you’re right,” he said, continuing to read further into the medics’ backgrounds, brainstorming hard. “What I want to know is who even knew of the Avici radishes in the first place. When it comes to poisons, they’re as obscure as it gets.”
“They aren’t mentioned in… I don’t know, a toxin compilation? What do doctors read?”
“Textbooks. And not really. There’s a few brief mentions, but they’ve always been presented more as oddities than anything medically significant. They definitely never say specifically where to find them. Someone able to procure them must have been… a local.”
His eyes slid to Biebie of Hali’s name.
A Na from the mountains in the West, the same general area as Avici radishes themselves. He didn’t know her; who knew if the allure of money had enticed her?
Then again, would a foreigner have use for money that she couldn’t even keep? Had it been paid to her tribe? Did they even use taels, or had it come in the form of something else?
“What would it take to get an interrogation of the medics underway?” he wondered aloud.
Xin Junyan looked over at him questioningly. “Enough reasonable doubt to appease the elders and the bureaucrats, I’m guessing. You think you have the right questions to ask?”
“I’m definitely going to have them, once some others get answered.”
“Too bad you can’t break in and steal people’s thoughts like you did these registers,” she teased, giving him a cheeky smirk. “You’re pretty devious for an honest doctor, you know.”
“These are extenuating circumstances. I don’t like that San guy, either.”
“He is a nob, hm?”
“That’s putting it lightly. He’s guilty of something.”
“True. No one’s ever that evasive without something to evade. Speaking of evasive, Ran sure is taking his time… I bet he’s ordering snacks while he’s out there.”
Zhu Li nodded. That seemed like him.
Not even a few minutes later, after they had returned to reading, Chu Ran came back, followed by a disciple bearing a food box.
“They were making caijiamo, and I had them cook some sweet potato jiandui to go with. The service here is great, very prompt,” Chu Ran declared with a slightly mocking tone. After the following disciple set the box down, he pat the (affronted-looking) teen on the head, then kicked him out.
Their audience gone, he faced the both of them with a smile. “The disciples were extra-attentive when I went out! Word of yesterday’s little incident has clearly made the rounds. According to the disciples I asked, Han Taisha has been burning with rage. Perhaps literally.”
“As long as she doesn’t direct the fire at us later,” Xin Junyan stated.
Chu Ran took his seat, taking a seat, as well as his portion of the food. “Hardly. Remember what I said, about us leaving the sect to buy things reflecting badly upon the Blue Orchid Sect as a whole? That phenomenon is underway as we speak. I predict that San Wan is in for a world of tongue-lashing quite soon.”
“Jianghu information channels are no joke. They all need to get better hobbies, really.”
“It works to our advantage. While being a poor host is not a grave sin, it certainly cannot be said to be a good look, and certain things may escalate. ‘The Han family and its Sect, rich and influential as they are, are too stingy and rude to provide their honored guests with cheap, freely-available medical supplies for their comfort’ — that doesn’t sound great, does it?
“On top of that, gossip breeds gossip. If there’s already a bad rumor going around, someone else could grab hold of that for nefarious purposes. New rumors may take root due solely to a smidgen of probability mixed with a bad precedent being set. Now, it isn’t San Wan versus Han Taisha, but San Wan versus the whole sect.”
“That seems like an overreaction,” Zhu Li commented.
“When one steps back and takes a look at it objectively, yes. If an average family didn’t cater to a guest’s every whim, no one would say a thing, because no one would care. If a big name like the Han family is accused of the same, everyone would care. Such is the natural price of being so big and influential — infinite, unwanted, and typically overblown scrutiny.
“San Wan really failed to think all of this through. He had been too arrogant, banking on us being too meek to snub us and draw things out, then too hasty, implicating himself by calling for someone with no real authority. I suppose he was used to being able to push Han Taisha around, and forgot to consider that we would not have her same restrictions. Now that he has graciously dropped a rock on his own foot, further investigations will be simple. What have you two found out, by the way?”
Zhu Li and Xin Junyan set aside their books, explaining the oddities they had found so far — or complete lack thereof — while they all got to breakfast.
After swallowing down a jiandui, Chu Ran commented, “Han Shiduo is one of Han Taisha’s aunts. Perhaps she’s paying him to be a nuisance.”
“If she is, then she isn’t paying him nearly enough, nor is she even paying to the right entity. All the money is going to the infirmary, and those funds aren’t for anyone to just randomly pay their family with,” Xin Junyan pointed out.
He shrugged in response. “We have only so much information to go on, yet what we do have is enough to imply that more than one thing is off with the infirmary. We’ll bring our concerns up soon.”
Breakfast passed, as did the rest of their research. Zhu Li discovered a shared outing where all the medics had gone out to a restaurant near the end of the month, while Xin Junyan correspondingly discovered that, in both the recent month and the year before, that visit was not a one-time event, having happened the year before. While that in and of itself wasn’t strange, its timing of being mere days before Han Wenkang’s date of death was. So was the fact that each time they went, they would somehow spend over a hundred taels, and it would come right out of the infirmary’s budget.
“What in the world… what are they eating that’s so expensive?” she mused, furrowing her brow in deep concentration. “Gold-encrusted lobster? Silver-lined bird’s nest soup?”
“Either of those things would kill you,” Zhu Li said flatly.
“You know what I mean! Are they eating a household’s worth of food each every time? A hundred taels could pay an entire poor family’s expenses for a year, and they blow it on food maybe monthly?”
Chu Ran huffed at her, lips pursed. “While you never pay the dues whenever we go out to eat, I had expected that you would at least pay attention to the prices when we did. Depending on the restaurant’s intended clientele, what they make, and where their ingredients come from, visits can get very expensive. A hundred taels would be twenty taels per person, which is not surprising at all, my dear, smart sister.”
Xin Junyan narrowed her eyes and sneered at him. “Oh? Those restaurants you only go to to spend your family’s money, my dear, annoying brother? Are you completely positive that you have any margin to be mocking me for anything?”
Zhu Li cleared his throat. The two quickly piped down, giving him time to steer the conversation back. “We can all agree that it’s weird that the infirmary’s funds pay for these outings, right?”
They nodded, so he continued, “Why would the Blue Orchid Sect allow that?”
An atmosphere of contemplation settled around them.
According to standards, infirmary funds were to be used for infirmary-related things, not frivolity. An outing to an expensive restaurant was only tangentially related to the infirmary, and most definitely frivolous. The accounts office should have stopped this from happening the first time, yet had seemingly allowed it multiple times — why?
Zhu Li took the expense register, looked it over, and then, due to a nagging feeling, began to mentally count up the daily taels Han Shiduo gave.
Following a full minute of page-flipping, he said, “One-hundred and twenty.”
“Huh?” Xin Junyan uttered, a bit lost.
“Han Shiduo gifted them a sum of about one-hundred and twenty taels over the course of the month.”
He flipped back to the page with the restaurant expense; it had been one-hundred and twenty-six taels, exactly.
Chu Ran’s eyebrows rose once he pointed this out. “How bizarre. That’s certainly not a coincidence, and the roundabout method of spending is on purpose. Seems a bit too tortuous for the act.”
“Maybe it’s specifically because of Han Shiduo’s donations that the accounts office lets it slide? It would be extra money anyways,” Xin Junyan suggested.
“That is true.”
There was nothing else to discover, so the registers were piled back up and packed away for later reference. The entire episode had only lasted about half a shichen, leaving plenty of time available before the meeting.
That was, until what was distinctly a burst of rolling thunder soon came barreling over their courtyard.
Xin Junyan, who had just been about to leave, turned to look at the still-seated Zhu Li, just as perplexed as he was. What weird stuff was going on now?
“Is it overcast out? The air didn’t seem cold enough for that,” Chu Ran commented curiously, if unconcerned.
Without a second thought, Zhu Li rose from the table, then went outside with Xin Junyan to check the weather.
…Thunder from a clear sky, indeed. There wasn’t a single cloud up there.
He exchanged another look with Xin Junyan, who shrugged in confusion. They stood there for a minute longer to listen, Chu Ran catching up behind them. A few seconds later, the latter said, “I hear fire.”
Zhu Li raised his brows in surprise. “You do?”
Cultivators had better hearing than the average person, able to hear at longer ranges if they really concentrated (keeping such senses on high all the time would be too distracting and cause sensory overload; they were less physically-flawed humans, not gods, after all), yet Zhu Li hadn’t heard a thing out of place after the thunder.
“Yes. Perhaps a kitchen caught fire?” the other wondered, sounding a bit too enthused about the scenario. Weirdo. “Oh, but it’s much too active. Maybe not.”
“…What do you mean, ‘active’?” Zhu Li asked, frowning a bit.
“Hum. It’s a bit hard to describe, sad to say. I can follow it to its source, however, if you two would like to have your curiosity abated.”
“Are you quite positive that it’s our curiosity that needs abating?” Xin Junyan jabbed, lightly imitating Chu Ran’s way of speaking, as she normally did when speaking to him. Whether she was doing it on purpose or subconsciously, Zhu Li had no idea. Perhaps it was a bit of both.
Chu Ran hummed. “An inkling is passing through my mind. Come, let’s… oh, your horse is sad, Doctor.”
Zhu Li looked around briefly, quickly spotting Guhui, who was standing nearby with her brush held in her mouth. Even though horses didn’t have the same expressing capabilities as humans did, he could swear that she was disappointed. It had been a mere few days of her being cooped up in this courtyard, but she must already be feeling lonely; while the Pavilion of Quiet was smaller, he rarely left it, and if he did, someone else would be around to keep her company.
Sighing, he stepped forth to pet her on the nose again. “Sorry, Guhui. Later.”
The mare huffed in clear dissatisfaction, letting the brush drop from her mouth, and turned to skulk away, much resembling an aggrieved toddler.
“See? She’s definitely smarter than the average horse!” Xin Junyan exclaimed.
“I concur. Back when we were securing Doctor Zhu’s things, when we tried to get Guhui, she did all she could to bite and kick my sectmates to death. We had to knock her out with qi, cart her into the Pavilion, and leave piles of food and treats as peace offerings. She never suffered any of us being near her until she saw you again. A smart horse, distrusting of horsenappers; most other ones take strangers stealing and mounting them in full stride,” Chu Ran said, shooting Zhu Li a smile.
Zhu Li waved them off, though he was secretly proud on Guhui’s behalf. “She’s always been smart. Let’s—”
He was cut off by a very faint tremor abruptly emitting from the ground itself, which alarmed all of them. Guhui was heard to whinny in conjunction with it, somewhere off to the right.
They all looked at each other — or, Xin Junyan and Zhu Li did. Chu Ran could, understandably, not look at anything, though he faced the northwest with a slight frown.
“…Let’s go, already,” Zhu Li finished, not adding the last part of, Before we hear or feel yet another bad omen.
The author says: 😡 brush the horse you monster
6 thoughts on “SnCr 19”
Oooh, I reached the end of all the available chapters so far…
I’ll say once again: I love the mystery, the main characters and their relationships, extraTM swords, intelligent horses, and the witty writing style which makes me smile often 😀
I’ll be waiting for new chapters ^^
Thank you, dear Author, for sharing this story with us! I had a blast reading it so far ^^
This is really interesting, I like the characters and how they interact with each other, the mystery of the case is good too, and I like the pace, not too fast or too slow, hope to see more soon.
I really adore Chu Ran, hes so fun. Im also excited about this fire :DD
Zhu li brush your damn horse, she deserves brushes and treats
Guhui is the Best Girl and deserves Much Brushing.
Money laundering shenanigans hmm…
Chu Ran and Xin Junyan have so much sibling energy it’s delightful (well not to deal with I’m sure)
The sheer speed of gossip is just how small elite social groups work irrespective of whether or not they have better things to do.
Also how many horses have you stolen to know that Chu Ran
Mounting omens are indeed ominous (hopefully not an annoyed dragon. Not that family drama is better)
Author – you’re in control of whether the horse 🐎 get brushed or not 🤪
Chu Ran and Xin Junyan being bratty siblings is a delight. 😁
And that last bit sure sounds like something exploded. 👀