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As it turned out, the source of the fire was a sword.
The source of the earlier thunder had also been a sword. As had the earthquake.
It was the same exact sword in all three instances, actually.
In the middle of one of the Blue Orchid Sect’s massive training grounds, a very one-sided fight was underway, and it was causing devastating amounts of property damage.
Poor, unfortunate Han Wagu was desperately defending against an onslaught. Bursts of fire, streaks of lightning, blows strong enough to make the earth shake, and one relentless length of actively-ablaze, electrically-crackling metal attacked her at different intervals, all originating from a very, very, very pissed off Han Taisha.
Chu Ran hadn’t been kidding about Tianzai’s effects. In all honesty, he also hadn’t emphasized its effects enough; when he had said that it made Han Taisha into a ‘living disaster’, that was clearly a nod to the fact that her sword both sparked off lightning and fire, as well as gave her enough strength to cause mini-earthquakes. It was both intimidating and ridiculously overpowered — no wonder she had been able to hold on to the Sect Head title against more experienced family members, of arguably higher baseline strength. That sword was giving her about three different powers in one, and if it had any others, it would easily be the cheapest weapon in existence.
A secondary effect of the sword was to not only set itself on fire, but to give its owner a visible aura of similar fieriness and electric sparks, pairing with her furious visage to make her look like a war goddess descended from Heaven, or even an infernal demon crawled out of the netherworld. Even if it wasn’t setting her clothes on fire or burning her, it was certainly doing that to Han Wagu.
Zhu Li didn’t even feel close to bad for her.
Han Taisha was relentlessly coming after the woman, strike after jab after flare. Whatever Han Wagu’s own sword did, it was clearly ineffective against the overwhelming force of Tianzai’s.
Suffering several nicks, Han Wagu’s sword was eventually knocked out of her hand, and she was sent down to the ground, puffing up a cloud of dirt. She struggled up into a sit, her general state pitiful: burnt patches on her clothes, cuts all over her body, dirt in all of her wounds, hairpin askew, hair itself gone awry from her slicked-back bun, furious from the humiliation.
Han Taisha moved to stand over her, pointing her sparking blade at the other’s chest. It was an imperious command, one that had been repeated three times since Zhu Li and them had come over to watch. The first time they had witnessed, Han Taisha had growled out a demand for her aunt to get up and keep fighting, following which she had seemingly decided not to waste her any more of her breath.
Having arrived too late to catch the start of this one-sided fight, all three of them knew only that Han Taisha was beating the impetuous right out of Han Wagu’s bones, and making an obnoxious amount of noise while they were at it. Making the ground shake, fabricating lightning, and setting the ground ablaze was not anywhere within the same field as the word ‘quiet’.
Han Wagu grit her teeth, grabbed her sword, and got up, getting back into the fray. With how things were going, Han Taisha would likely not be letting her go until she legitimately couldn’t get up anymore.
The three of them were not the only spectators to this fight. Practically all of the Blue Orchid Sect was there to watch, giving the arena a wide berth. None of the other elders had ever stepped up to stop Han Taisha as she beat down her aunt over and over again, observing quietly.
“What does Han Wagu’s sword even do? Nothing?” Xin Junyan quipped from his left, watching this brutal display with an unimpressed look, lips pursed and nose wrinkled.
“It might be a dud,” Zhu Li answered, arms crossed as he observed. “Or just not flashy.”
“When I fought with her, I could tell that it was putting more power behind her attacks. Sadly, that is quite the useless feature if you fail to ever hit your opponent, or are being badly overpowered, like so,” Chu Ran commented from his right, smiling, not at all sad or sorry.
Zhu Li scanned the crowd for the fifth time, still failing to find a familiar face within it. How odd. With Han Xingyu’s personality, she should have been all over watching a family member get beaten up.
The next round didn’t last long at all. Han Wagu was smacked down yet again, more bruises doubtlessly added to her current collection. Han Taisha pointed her sword at her, but the other failed to rise again, staring at her hatefully.
Han Taisha’s seething voice began to project, punctuated by the flames. “You are this weak, yet you dared to try and overstep your bounds. Who you think you are, and who you really are, are two different people, Han Wagu!”
Han Wagu said nothing, lowering her head in a begrudging concession.
“No one here should ever forget that being divided brings shame unto the sect, unto our ancestors! If you will all excuse my impertinence, Elders, many of you believe yourselves to be more deserving of the Sect Head title than I! I have already convinced over half of you otherwise, while the other half continues to be in disharmony with sect values, which has led to this incident! Tianzai is out, I have spent energy fighting Han Wagu — if anyone believes that they can contend with me, now is the time to step forward, or else may you forfeit your claim from here on out!”
Hm, okay. Zhu Li sort of understood what was going on here. It was being horribly overblown, in his opinion, and public beatdowns would have been considered a method for much more uncouth folk in his own family, but he understood. This was being overblown on purpose so that Han Taisha could send a message to the rest of her family, and thus get them off of her back. The sooner unity was restored, the better.
This shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. He knew as well as anyone that tradition trumped sense and emotion in many instances, though.
An unanticipated jab to his back made him jump at right that second. He quickly whirled around to see the smug smirk of an old hag stab him in the eyes.
“Hello, Han Xingyu,” he said flatly. It was an automatic response laced with dry fondness and familiarity, feelings he had picked up over the years, but the recent suspicion and revelations he’d had crept up on him in turn. His look, infused with a purposefully-unamused air, was swapped out for a neutral one as he observed her with a renewed viewpoint.
She was middle-aged by cultivator standards, some light wrinkles the one signs of it. Compared to, say, the nearby Xin Junyan, she was a short and pudgy lady, the type that blended into a crowd without drawing too many eyes. Currently, she was dressed in the same uniform and hairpin as the rest of the Blue Orchid elders, which was certainly not her typical grade of bland outfits. In a crowd, she wouldn’t stand out — perhaps that was on purpose, with Chu Ran’s confirmation that she gathered information for the Hans.
Previously, he had never thought much of her always happening to run into him. Why would he have? He had known no one outside of his sect, and was still not anyone of importance. There had been no logical reason to be suspicious that she had ulterior motives.
However, Ren Zhuizhun was her brother-in-law, and his probable uncle. That was a bit too much of a coincidence. Maybe her initial discovery of him hadn’t been by happenstance, either.
“It’s been a while, Jasmine. Did you finally make friends and stop being a loner?” she cheerfully jabbed at him, eyes scanning over his two companions, who had also turned to see the disturbance.
He narrowed his eyes at her. “Don’t call me that.”
“Sure, sure. In any case, Zhuizhun sent me out here to come fetch all of you. He doesn’t want you to watch anymore of what’s going on out here — says it’s unbecoming of a host.”
Zhu Li peered back to see Han Taisha still standing there, on fire like a hellion, then turned his head back and nodded. He didn’t really need to see more of this. “Fetch us to where?”
“We were going to talk in about a shichen anyways, so we might as well start now. Taisha doesn’t need to be there for everything.”
“She’s the Sect Head,” he answered, suspicious.
“And she tells her dad everything. Come on, now.”
He exchanged a brief look with Xin Junyan, then glanced at Chu Ran. The other wasn’t smiling, but still looked peaceful and in thought.
They followed her away, into a slightly bigger building labeled as the Hall of Repose, then into a fairly unexceptional room, meant for about eight people total. A man — dressed in mourning white, yet conspicuously missing the silver hairpin of the elders — was seated within, gazing at the tea in his cup, and unhurriedly looked up at their entrance.
Pausing slightly in his steps, Zhu Li’s heart leapt at the sight. He had to force himself to keep going, not stare, greet the man with a bow, and sit down, looking anywhere else.
Any niggling doubts that he’d had regarding their relation had immediately been dissipated. Ren Zhuizhun’s resemblance to his father was so strong, so striking, that it had fooled his mind for a second into thinking that he actually was looking at him. An excitement paired with longing had hit him square in the heart, quickly replaced by disappointment once he registered all the details on Ren Zhuizhun’s face that were off. A lifetime of schooling his own expressions and self-control prevented him from contorting his face in weird ways. Or crying.
Gods below, he had been through way too many emotional highs and lows, lately.
A hand comfortingly pat his right shoulder. He turned away from staring at absolutely nothing to looking at Chu Ran, who had sat right next to him. The other said nothing, offering him a cheery smile.
…Yeah, he had probably sensed that mess of emotions.
Once Han Xingyu was seated beside Ren Zhuizhun, the latter spoke up. “I must apologize for not arranging this meeting sooner, as things have been hectic following my wife’s death. I must also thank you for making the long trip here for our reconnaissance. While Sect Head Chu has filled us in on a lot, there are yet more things we need to discuss in person, without the threat of interference.”
“It was no trouble at all, Elder Ren. I was unable to leave Zhongling until recently, so this is a breath of fresh air,” Chu Ran answered first, smiling amicably. “Quite literally, too. The air tastes different here.”
“Yes, your circumstances were certainly an enlightenment. Speaking of which — young man. Zhu Li.”
Alerted by his name, Zhu Li straightened up a bit, raising his dipped head some to see Ren Zhuizhun’s face. The other looked collected.
“On behalf of the Han family — Han Taisha especially, as her father — I humbly apologize to you for our part in all of this. I had my suspicions that the Chu’s were disingenuous, but things then were even more disorganized than they are now. My wife should have had a few more decades to… nevermind. Excuses will not make up for our negligence. Han Taisha is young and inexperienced, and had judged you too impulsively, on brittle evidence. We owe you deeply for this oversight.”
Zhu Li was not too sure how to react to that. “It’s… fine.”
Ren Zhuizhun shook his head. “It is not. We will be helping to solve this, absolve you, and find my wife’s real murderer, as much as we can.”
Nodding tentatively in answer, as further objection would be rude, Zhu Li’s eyes slid from Ren Zhuizhun’s mourning clothes to Han Xingyu’s distinctly non-mourning clothes. Now that he thought about it, no one else in the sect was wearing them, either, not even Han Wenkang’s children. Hm.
“On that same note, you are from the Miasma Caves, and I have something else to ask you,” Ren Zhuizhun continued, focusing his oddly expectant gaze on him. Zhu Li was confused for a second, then slightly excited, as he had a vague feeling on what the other was going to ask. Zhu Li resembled his mother more than his father, and if Ren Zhuizhun had seen Zhu Longmai before…
However, his hopes were soon dashed, because the next words that came out of Ren Zhuizhun’s mouth were: “Do you know of a Ru Yeying?”
He blinked in confusion, because no. No he did not. Who was that? Why would the other ask about them?
“No. I don’t think there’s even a Ru family in the sect,” Zhu Li answered. He would know the full roster, being a descendant of the founding family and all, and Ru didn’t ring any bells.
Even though Ren Zhuizhun’s eyes flickered downwards in clear disappointment, he quickly recovered with a nod. “Have you perhaps heard of Ren Nidan, then?”
Here it came. Zhu Li imperceptibly gulped; maybe he ought to take this slow. “I have. He’s married to the Sect Head.”
The other nodded slowly, looking thoughtful, if confused. “The Sect Head, who isn’t Ru Yeying… do you know how he was doing, when you left?”
His parents had barely been speaking, last he knew. How could he word that in a diplomatic way? “He’s… living well, and very respected in the sect. The Sect Head and he were in disharmony, though.”
Ren Zhuizhun’s brows furrowed. He was clearly displeased by that answer. “Has he had children?”
“Yes, five. Four girls, one boy.” Hint, hint.
The man looked even more unhappy. “I see. Thank you for the information.”
A few seconds of awkward silence interrupted the conversation, until Han Xingyu leaned forward conspiratorially towards Zhu Li. “Ren Nidan is his little brother, missing for forty years. Last anyone saw him, he had been whisked away by Ru Yeying, a well-known Miasma Cave member. Buuut, if he’s married the Sect Head now, I assume they didn’t work out, hm?”
If you could not tell me about my father’s past love life, that’d be nice, he thought to himself.
Soon after that, he wondered if he had ever told her about his family, and if she would put two and two together. While he didn’t believe he ever had — putting things out of sight, out of mind was a personal talent of his — he wasn’t completely positive.
Looking at things in hindsight, he would not have ever labeled her as ‘nosy’ or anything, nor could he recall her having ever been as interested in his personal life as Chu Ran. That only raised more questions as to what the hell she had been doing talking to him in the first place.
“This is a bit weird, though. How come you don’t know who Ru Yeying is? She was famous in jianghu back in the day,” Han Xingyu picked back up. “I was a little too young to be allowed out, but sis would always bring back stories of what adventures she had gone on or things she had seen and whatnot. Ru Yeying was a known hero-slash-troublemaker.”
Zhu Li shrugged. “She might have died before I was born, which is why I’ve never heard of her.”
Han Xingyu paused, lips pursing almost imperceptibly. “I don’t really like how old you saying that makes me feel,” she grumped.
He wanted to snipe her about it being too late to be concerned about acting like a proper elder, but out of consideration for the host’s face, he kept quiet.
“I happen to have heard about Ru Yeying before.”
Zhu Li looked over at Chu Ran, who had suddenly interjected. He was no longer smiling, a forbidding aura beginning to creep up over his figure.
“Is that so? Do you know anything about her?” Han Xingyu answered casually, appearing to willfully ignore his worsening aura.
He was quiet, and abnormally still. Beats stretched out, then a minute. He wasn’t giving even the slightest tell that he was going to answer her, eyes continuing to stare dead ahead… well, ‘stare’ was too strong of a word, really. If he was creeping out Ren Zhuizhun, the one he was directly across from, the latter wasn’t saying anything.
“You ask me what I know about her,” he finally responded, voice low and sour, “yet is the one who knows the most not you, Cultivator Han?”
Han Xingyu’s brow noticeably twitched at those words. An uneasy feeling crept across Zhu Li’s back, its origin unidentifiable.
“I’m not sure what you mean, Sect Head Chu,” she answered, still unfazed. Beside her, Ren Zhuizhun’s brows were creased, but he didn’t intervene.
“Is that so.” Chu Ran took a leisurely sip of tea, then set the cup down gently. “Members of the Han family are here, members of the Xin Sect are here, and a member of the Miasma Caves is here. Are you quite sure that you aren’t sure?”
With no idea as to what was going on, Zhu Li sent a questioning glance at Han Xingyu. She didn’t meet it, though, training her eyes on Chu Ran’s less-than-amused visage.
Subsequent to a painful amount of passed time, Chu Ran sighed loudly and unhappily for all to hear, then said something entirely abstruse: “Han Wenkang has many siblings, you know. Eight, to be precise.”
Zhu Li’s questioning gaze went right back to the resident riddle-speaker.
“So many siblings, yet none of them have any moral integrity. They hound their grieving niece over power: getting in her way, undermining her authority, disobeying her orders, harassing her little siblings, trying to demote her father’s rank, pulling seniority they don’t have, creating chasms amongst the disciples… the list goes on. A despicable, pathetic lot throwing adult tantrums and bullying their juniors, truly.”
Ren Zhuizhun looked astonished. “How did you…?”
“I do appreciate that you all prefer to keep your familial issues and secrets to yourself,” Chu Ran continued, ignoring the other’s half-said sentence. “Everyone likes privacy, and no one likes to inconvenience guests with their struggles. However, with things come to this, I must urge you to be honest about everything. Any further secrets will only muddy the waters, hindering instead of helping. Whatever reason you may be keeping your lips sealed for, I can assure you that it is no longer relevant at this point, Cultivator Han.
“Out of all of Han Wenkang’s siblings, you alone stand on your niece’s side, hence why you speak to us today. Why that is, you and I both know. There is no need to ask why or how I know, either; you should be well aware of both answers.”
Zhu Li could see Han Xingyu’s shoulders tense and jaw clench for a turn, then relax, a look of defeat crossing over her face at the same time. The woman typically had a jolly smile whenever she interacted with him, making this sad, tired look wholly out of place on her face.
He really wished that he had a single clue as to what they were talking about.
Ren Zhuizhun called out to Han Xingyu, only for her to wave him off. “Forget it, he has a point. Not being forthcoming is a habit of mine.
“Ru Yeying was friends with both my sister and her friend, Xin Yinhui. They formed a tri-sisterhood that was famous in jianghu about forty years back, though it ended abruptly when Ru Yeying went back to her sect and never came back out. My sister and Sect Head Xin kept it up for a few years until they settled down, too. I’m not sure if that’s relevant at all, but it’s what technically involves all of us.”
“Pardon my bluntness; Han Wenkang is dead, Xin Yinhui is missing, probably dead, and Ru Yeying is missing, possibly nonexistent. Three out of three is poor odds indeed, when cultivators are meant to live longer than the average person’s sixty.”
The weight of his words slowly sank in.
“What are you implying, Sect Head Chu?” Ren Zhuizhun asked.
Chu Ran plastered his mild smile back onto his face. “Not a thing. It was simply an observation of an odd coincidence. While I would like to hear more of the Three Sisters from someone who knew them, we can proceed with proper business. What was it, now? Sharing what both of us know about this whole shebang, yes?”
“Ah… yes,” the other answered, clearly caught off guard by Chu Ran’s abrupt change of topic. Zhu Li silently welcomed his uncle to the club.
Tentatively, the Han side took to recounting every last detail of what had happened in Han Wenkang’s murder.
The entire Han family had arrived for the Zhongling martial conference a few days before, wanting to test their younger disciples the same as anyone else that had come there wanted to. Han Wenkang in particular had been excited to see her younger children’s progress. She had admittedly been feeling under the weather ever since their arrival, but it had been so mild, she had chalked it up to some random illness; cultivators were resistant to disease, not immune, after all.
On the day of her murder, the ‘illness’ had flared up to its worst. Although she hadn’t quite been bedridden, she hadn’t been feeling great, either, confining herself to her room under the guise of wanting undisturbed meditation. Doctor San had been present, and had misdiagnosed the poison as an illness, prescribing medicines that had likely done nothing. Sadly, she had trusted his word, never going for a second opinion.
The next thing anyone had known, the noise of blades colliding had come from her room while everyone else had been away at dinner. A servant nearby had alerted the people around to it, yet by the time they got there, Han Wenkang had been stabbed through the chest, and the perpetrator had fled.
The discovery of the dual poisons had followed quickly, as well as a maelstrom of total havoc. Ren Zhuizhun had been aware of Zhu Li’s presence that night, and had even requested his presence, only to be told at the last second that he had been arrested by the Chu’s people and brought away due to accusations of being the culprit.
The doctors available at the time had been overwhelmed by the task. Defying Han Wenkang’s strength in body, the two poisons and grievous wound had taken her within the day.
“I did find it odd how quickly the Chu’s had brought you away, but it was so chaotic at the time… I should have fought harder against it,” Ren Zhuizhun admitted, a downcast air cast about him. “She was poisoned, you have a specialty in fighting poisons. Am I correct to assume that you would have been able to do more?”
Zhu Li hesitated, not exactly willing to boast about himself while telling a man that his wife’s death could have been prevented. “That’s hard to say for certain.”
The man nodded, needing no actual confirmation.
“Oh, the good Doctor being taken away too quickly was entirely on purpose, I assure you. The one that framed him also orchestrated Han Wenkang’s death; allowing any hiccups to go on with one of his victims treating his other victim would simply be unconscionable,” Chu Ran answered for them.
Ren Zhuizhun’s face darkened. “You mentioned him in the letters. Who is he?”
Han Xingyu looked surprised immediately. “Him? The brawn behind the Chu’s money?”
“Indeed. While his motives are unknown, he was undoubtedly the mastermind for both things. As soon as the plan to convict Doctor Zhu failed, Masked Wasp has cut many ties with the Chu family. While their business scheme for the qistones is still going, he no longer cooperates with them on other matter. Information, bodyguarding, it does not matter — if it has nothing to do with transporting supplies, he refuses to do it.”
“And I’m guessing that you have about as much of a clue as to what his true identity is that I do?”
Chu Ran nodded. The other two looked grim.
Ren Zhuizhun’s story continued. After Han Wenkang’s death, the Chu’s had reached out to the Hans, trying to convince them that Zhu Li had done it. With the aftermath being chaotic, their lack of past interactions and knowledge of the Chu’s, Han Taisha’s inner turmoil in general, and Han power grabs, they hadn’t had the spare time to look more into the Chu’s.
Aside from reaching out the one time, the Chu’s actually hadn’t made much further contact with them — because too-invasive efforts had been blocked by Ren Zhuizhun, on account of Chu Ran having sent a message warning him of the Chu’s suspicious nature. Even though the letter had held nothing specific, it had been enough to convince him to not get further involved until more details of what had happened came to light. In order to keep up appearances and prevent the Chu’s from noticing anything off, he had kept Han Taisha temporarily in the dark, leaving her to play the role of unwitting actor until after the farce trial was over.
(Zhu Li was a teeny bit miffed. He hadn’t exactly liked spending a month confined, starved, and violently ‘interrogated’ in a dirty, rat-infested cell, yet at least two people hadn’t bothered to get him out earlier.
Then again, he ought not be ungrateful about getting rescued at all.)
Successive to that, Chu Ran had kept in touch with Han Taisha, being vague, but worrying, in their correspondences. The Hans had not been able to do much on their end, encumbered by familial intrigue. Eventually, they had been able to procure a doctor that could properly identify the poisons still lingering in Han Wenkang’s body. As venom had been found in the stab wound, they had instead focused on dowsing for the much rarer substance that the doctor had described as being in there for a while.
The rotting remains of tiny daikons had been found in the compost, containing significant amounts of the poison. Undeniable traces of it had been detected in the infirmary’s medical supply room, indicating the daikons’ preparation there, not the kitchen. Their identification as Avici radishes, oddly enough, had come from Disciple Biebie of the infirmary.
That detail certainly made her look innocent. Avici radishes were so obscure, that if she had kept quiet, it would have been incredibly likely no one would have ever known. Giving up information like that would make her the continent’s stupidest murderer.
Since daikons only lasted so long — around twelve days at maximum — that had given them a timeframe of whose kitchen duties needed to be inspected. And it was then that they had come across their first roadblock.
Only two sorts of people were forced into kitchen duties: hired servants and disciples. The servants belonged to the Sect Head, technically, so there was no conflict of interest in investigating them. The problem came from the disciples being sourced from every single elder there was in the sect, and those elders did not take kindly to their precious disciples getting accused of being an accomplice to murder. The guilt tripping, string pulling, power grabbing, diversionary tactics, direct snubs, and verbal brawls that had followed would have angered any saint to death.
As Ren Zhuizhun described it, Han Wenkang had been the insoluble glue sticking the claws of vultures to their roosts. Now that she was gone, they had immediately started circling, awaiting the fresh corpse of a defeated newbie to devour.
After that, they had attempted to investigate the infirmary, only to be obstructed by Han Wagu, Doctor San, and the combined outrage of his past patients, who thought it inconceivable that the main branch would accuse someone that had graciously treated them before.
Logic-wise, the Sect Head should be a monarch of ultimate power. Reality-wise, a monarch whose institutions refused to cooperate with them had little power alone.
That was where they were at a frustrating standstill on their end. The funereal arrangements and ad-hoc supplemental lessons for Han Taisha had not helped the time crunch any, either.
Han Xingyu, the primary information gatherer for the main Han branch, explained that she had been on a reconnaissance mission, where she had gathered information that was not entirely related. For all intents and purposes, Han Wenkang had had no idea that someone was out for her life, nor had anyone in jianghu publicly predicted it.
After some hesitation, however, she confided that she had been gathering information on Xin Yinhui.
Chu Ran’s earlier statement about Xin Yinhui disappearing en route to Han Wenkang had been no lie. In fact, ever since that disappearance, the latter had entrusted Han Xingyu with locating her friend.
On top of her duties watching for changes in jianghu or gathering intel on outlaws, she had followed leads all along the road from Beishan to Zhongling, but had never had any success — until very recently. The mission that had her away from the Blue Orchid Sect during the trial had been a follow-up on a tip she had found, about a carriage in a lake that had surfaced due water levels dropping.
“I found it, marked it on a map, went home, then learned that Wenkang was gone. At some point in the confusion, I lost the map, sadly, and haven’t had the time to go pinpoint it again. Even though I remember the general area, the droughted lake was massive. I would need another free day to make it up.”
Oh, really, Zhu Li thought, narrowing his eyes at her and the telltale body language that she was putting on an act. Without saying a thing, he drew the map she had previously left him, then pushed the folded-up paper towards her.
Her eyes lit up, and she snatched the paper up, unfolding it to inspect the contents. “Oh-ho, this is it. So you were the one who stole it from me, Jasmine?”
“I can’t steal things that are given to me voluntarily,” he answered tonelessly. He wasn’t about to comment on that stupid nickname, either.
“Sure, sure. Did you ever follow it?”
He gave her a look. “How was I supposed to follow it if it’s not labeled, Miss Han?”
“Cross-referencing other maps.”
“Maps of unknown lakes in Beishan aren’t available in Zhongling.”
“That’s fine, then. You and your new friends can come with me on an expedition out there.”
Zhu Li raised a brow, staring at her. What had they just said about honesty, really? He knew for a fact that she hadn’t merely happened to leave that map behind.
Han Xingyu crumpled very quickly beneath his gaze; though, to be fair, she hadn’t appeared to be trying too hard in the first place. “Well… okay. I figured that there was no point in having the lead on Xin Yinhui anymore with my sister gone, so I passed it on to you, since her disciple might have more use for it. I thought that you would bring it up to your friends and go there yourself, but I guess I should have left a note or some such.”
“Yeah, you should have.”
“My mistake. We don’t quite have that friendship where we can read each other’s thoughts, yet.”
“Do I want to read your mind?” he quipped back, tinged with fake irritation.
Before she could counter that, Chu Ran spoke up from nearby. “Are you positive that the carriage is my teacher’s?”
She turned to look at him, instead. Hesitation was all across her face. “I can’t be, honestly. I’ve followed many dead-end leads before, and this could very well be another. But I won’t know for certain we’re over there.”
Chu Ran was quiet for a few moments, then nodded. “I would like to go, then. While we still remain here.”
With the Han side wrung dry enough, Chu Ran proceeded to explain his own side… uh, well, ‘explain’ was generous wording. He was an expert at giving truncated reasonings.
First, he went through why neither he nor the Xin Sect were on the Chu’s side, glossing over his isolation and his mother’s death. Then, he systematically listed off the investigations his sect had done on his family and Masked Wasp: what communications they had intercepted, what networks of miscellaneous jianghu people they had uncovered as being connected to either party, how they had discovered the framing plot (and less so the murder part), what connections each individual Chu member had, and so on. All of it, Zhu Li already knew, or had at least previously guessed the gists of based on prior clues.
Some parts of the explanation made his fingers itch for the journal he hadn’t brought with him, out of concern that someone powerful might snoop. He regretted the decision only slightly.
Chu Ran also unabashedly detailed their abduction of Deng Xia, an amused smile on his face. The two elders’ faces remained impressively unaffected.
“That is all a lot to take in,” Ren Zhuizhun diplomatically concluded. His brows were furrowed hard, troubled. “I do not understand why Masked Wasp would target Ah-… my wife. He frequents Zhongling, not Beishan. Where would they have ever interacted?”
“It could be something from her time as a jianghu bigshot. But… I don’t know. Forty years is such a long time to hold a grudge,” Han Xingyu answered, stroking the hair that hung down next to her face. A thinking quirk of hers, that was.
“Did she do anything questionable while in the Three Sisters group?” Chu Ran asked.
“Hah! What didn’t they do?”
Everyone blatantly stared at her until she started metaphorically sweating.
“Ah… well, okay, they never did anything horrible. They just had that drive most young adults have, to be heroes and all that. Usually, jianghu is supposed to stay apart from the drama of the civilian world, but they made sure that justice was served to people that dodged it. A lot of stuff was stirred up. There are so many people from back then that might want revenge, it isn’t even funny— Brother, don’t make that face. You know how she was.”
That wasn’t too helpful, though it did help paint a better picture of Masked Wasp: he was vindictive enough to remember and conduct an age-old grudge, the coldest sort of dish.
“In any case…” Ren Zhuizhun, manifestly displeased, continued. “Have your efforts in checking out the infirmary born any fruit, my fellows?”
“Somewhat. While we did find some things of note, we lack context. Who is Han Shiduo?” Chu Ran asked.
Han Xingyu raised a brow. “She’s a niece of ours, the daughter of a first-cousin. Why?”
“She gives money to the infirmary on a regular basis, and then all that money is spent on an unusually expensive restaurant visit. It struck us as odd.”
“I know the restaurant you’re talking about. One of Doctor San’s sectmates owns it. White Plains, I think?”
Chu Ran made an interested noise. “That was the name on the sheets. His sectmate, you say?”
“Yeah. Their home sect has been having financial troubles lately, which I think has Doctor San in a tizzy. As for Han Shiduo, I didn’t know she was giving him money, but it’s probably because she has a chronically ill son, little Han Dao. Doctor San has been his doctor since he was a baby.”
“How expensive is ‘unusually’ expensive?” Ren Zhuizhun asked.
“More or less a hundred taels each run.”
Han Xingyu made a noise of surprise. “That much? The food there isn’t worth half of one tael, trust me.”
He hummed in acknowledgement, not furthering that line of conversation.
It was Zhu Li’s turn to show them the pressed lady-in-a-bath petals. Sadly, the other two couldn’t give him an opinion on it, as using dried flowers to perfume a room was a very common occurrence in the Beishan area. He might have very well overthought this.
Still, if the petals were for an innocuous reason, why hide the book away?
Talks turned to other things. The disciples and servants that could have gotten near Han Wenkang’s food had already been made into a list; now that Han Taisha had thrown all caution to the wind by beating one elder — and possibly others — to a pulp, it would be easier for them to procure the possible perpetrators. Chu Ran offered his own sectmates to help if any further brute force was needed.
Speaking of Han Taisha, she had never showed up the entire time they were talking, only coming at the very end when they were getting up to say their goodbyes.
No longer veiled by fire, she looked especially exhausted, the bags under her eyes dark. Either the fire hadn’t burned her, or she had gone to change, the latter hypothesis supported by every strand of her hair being in place.
While the others greeted her and her father promised to fill her in on what happened, Zhu Li observed Han Taisha’s state. He frowned lightly in disapproval, his doctorly heart immediately going through diagnoses and supplements to counter her fatigue, a trait of hers that had been extremely obvious from the moment he arrived in Beishan.
After calling out a similar greeting to her, he cautiously prodded her with a, “Excuse my bluntness, but have you been sleeping well lately, Sect Head?”
She looked surprised, if sluggishly so. “Is it that obvious?”
“You looked like you spent a lot of qi out there. Fatigue can be a serious problem. Can I see your wrist?”
Shooting a glance at everyone else present, she then offered up her wrist with no qualms. Zhu Li took a firm hold on it, sent an examinatory wave of qi through her meridians, and knitted his brows lightly soon after.
“Do you skip sleep?”
“When I have much to do, yes. I catch up on it when I have less.”
He scrutinized her hard, hand not releasing her wrist, until she became visibly discomfited. “And how long do you go without sleep?”
“A day or two.”
Oh, no. Why did no one know how to take care of themselves in this bloody country?
Covering his face in exasperation on the inside, he placidly released her wrist on the outside, leveling her with a carefully impassive face. “Some cultivators might not need as much sleep as others, but they still need to sleep at night. Five hours of sleep each night is better than fifteen hours of sleep in one day. On top of how drained your qi is, I recommend taking braiva and going to bed as soon as possible, or at least as soon as the sun sets. Continuing to go down this path will erode your health, hinder your cultivation, and cause an early death.”
Han Taisha had been listening intently the entire time, and the last line looked to have floored her. Good. People that didn’t take sleep seriously would pay for it, in time.
“My mother did the same thing and never had problems,” she weakly argued, not sounding too convinced of herself.
“You’re not her. Don’t compare your own needs to someone else’s. Catch up on your sleep immediately, then stick to a schedule”
That seemed to sting her, too. “I… I understand.”
“I did tell you to stop staying up all night, Ah-Sha. You are an adult and can make your own choices, but do think of how your own father’s heart feels when you put your health at risk,” Ren Zhuizhun said, his fatherly reprimand of concern uncomfortably familiar to Zhu Li.
This man looked, sounded, and acted too much like his father, yet was also slightly off in all regards. It was unnerving in more ways than one.
Heartstrings tugged, Zhu Li prepared to take his leave, just to hear Chu Ran chirp out behind him, “Say, Doctor Zhu, what is the name of the Miasma Caves’s leader? It’s slipped my mind.”
Zhu Li slowly turned to look Chu Ran in the face. Even though that pesky smile on his face was as unreadable as usual, he could swear on his ancestors that it looked a tad smug.
What was this jerk doing? Business was over, so now was the time to go back to the awkward subject of surprise blood relatives?
While he seethed within, he remained calm, keeping his voice steady. “Zhu Longmai.”
To be honest, he wasn’t completely sure why he was reluctant to share this knowledge with Ren Zhuizhun or the Hans. It just seemed like it would get in the way, and from the way his so-called uncle had spoken, he might be none too pleased with the—
“Oh, yes, a relative of yours. Which one was she, again?”
Zhu Li’s glare at him was initially heated, but quickly cooled off. He sighed.
The other was forcing him to confess the relation, yes, but he was also not revealing anything of his own accord, instead waiting for Zhu Li to do it; a clear cue for him to not drag the reveal out longer than necessary.
Were Zhu Li by himself, he would have been happy to never say anything. Interactions with strangers inherently differed from interactions with strangers that were also blood-related, and he had viewed it as an unnecessary complication — but maybe that wasn’t the best course of action.
Of course, this ‘logical explanation’ of his was something of a cover for the fact that he was being a coward.
What could he say to defend himself, really? Once bitten, twice shy, in matters of family.
Taking in a deep breath, he turned to the Han side, who were all looking at him quizzically. Han Taisha was confused, Ren Zhuizhun looked expectant, and Han Xingyu looked like she might have already estimated what he was about to say.
“I don’t know who Ru Yeying is, but I do know who Ren Nidan ended up marrying. Our Sect Head’s name is Zhu Longmai. She’s my mother, and he’s my father.”
The author says: *chu ran voice* I DON’T WANT PEACE. I WANT PROBLEMS, ALWAYS
The Jasmine nickname comes from jasmine being moli (茉莉), and the li part being homophonous + visually similar to the li (利) of Zhu Li’s name.
One thought on “SnCr 20”
y’know I think the Han elders would’ve preferred a literal irate dragon. Not that Han Taisha is anything less of a heavenly calamity
Reads the physical description of Han Xingyu, yeah this woman is absolutely a spy, and a very competent one. Also yes why she might want to cultivate a relationship with a competent, independent doctor who doesn’t ask irrelevant questions hm?
Zhu Li your coping method is very understandable but my goodness.
… fake name maybe? either way the implications are a touch messed up
The plot is thickening nicely
Congrats Ren Zhuizhun your have a nephew! He’s currently accused of murder
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