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He smiled sardonically on the inside. Our Sect Head? More like their Sect Head, anymore. Forces of habit were truly hard to break.
The other three let that information sink in for a second. The one to break the silence was Han Xingyu, who burst out into joyful laughter.
“Hahahahaha! What are the odds of that? The world is too small, indeed!” she chortled, thrusting out both of her palms to smack her niece and brother-in-law on the shoulders at the same time. The two jolted, then shot her identical glares. “Look at that, you two. You got a new nephew and cousin without even needing to do anything!”
Zhu Li shot her a look. There was no need to make this out bigger than it needed to be. Families could get so big, cousins were as common as blades of grass, and long-lost ones as common as trees.
Han Taisha and Ren Zhuizhun stopped glaring at her to look at Zhu Li, eyes spilling over with complex emotions.
“I’m not telling you this to get anything out of you,” he continued on. “I just wanted to tell you that I know how my father is doing better than most would.”
Ren Zhuizhun’s mouth opened with an intake of air, then closed, his expression pained. A few seconds of thought later, he managed out, “Have you spoken with him recently?”
“Sorry. I haven’t had contact with anyone from the Caves in the five years after I left.”
“No contact at all? Not even letters?”
The desperation coloring the other’s tone made Zhu Li feel terrible that he couldn’t tell him any better news. “Sect rules say that there’s to be no contact with the outside world, on pain of banishment. No one can contact me even if they wanted to.”
The man considered him for a moment. “People from the Caves do business in Beishan all the time.”
“Those are Elders. Anyone else is not allowed.”
“And my brother is not considered an Elder, despite being married to the Sect Head?”
“No, Sir. The rules say that no one born outside of the sect can be an Elder. My father would never be allowed out of the sect without losing all of his children, too.”
Ren Zhuizhun was becoming visibly angry, something Zhu Li could hardly blame him for.
However, the other’s anger gave way to musing, and he briefly looked Zhu Li over. “Why are you outside of the sect, then?”
His mood dropped faster than a boulder off a cliff. This was not something he wanted to talk about.
However, before he had time to answer with anything, Chu Ran’s voice cut in. “Pardons, Mister Ren. While these talks were very informative, I must regret to inform you that we have something to do before night comes. I believe I heard the chime for midday some time ago? You all must know how as the days near winter, they keep getting shorter and shorter, and the nights colder and colder. We really should be on our way, lest any visits after dark be called inappropriate.”
That couldn’t exactly be labeled a polite notice of leave. It was an appreciated one, nonetheless.
Ren Zhuizhun looked slightly taken aback at the quick turn of events, though he collected himself quickly. Upon realizing that he had asked something potentially sensitive, he smiled in apology. “Ah… of course. Excuse my hastiness just now, Doctor Zhu. If you do not mind terribly, I would like to speak to you later, in a more private setting.”
“That’s fine,” Zhu Li answered, relieved that he would have some more time to mentally prepare, and with less of an audience. Telling his uncle that he left the sect out of humiliation would be humiliating. Clearly.
Han Taisha looked to be still be reeling from the tsunami that had suddenly come down upon her head, staring at him like she would a strange creature. “Why did you not tell us this earlier?”
“The conversation took a turn before I could.”
“No, not then. For all these five years.”
“Oh… I didn’t know until a few days ago. I kept away from Beishan, and my father never mentioned a brother.”
Ren Zhuizhun was aggravated anew. Again, Zhu Li couldn’t blame him. He was sure his father had his reasons, indiscernible as they were for now.
“I guess I understand, then.” She eyed Chu Ran and Xin Junyan as they came up next to him. “Father always spoke of his missing brother. Hearing that he is safe is good.”
“Actually, I want to talk to you one-on-one too, Jasmine,” Han Xingyu said. She was still seated, chin in hand, eyes boring into him. Weird old woman. “I’ll come find you later, yeah?”
“Sure.” As if her popping up randomly near him was anything new. (He would definitely be interrogating her about that very thing when the time came.)
Han Taisha looked like she wanted to say something else. Unfortunately for her, Chu Ran butt in yet again. “A family reunion is always nice to see. Anyways, since we’re about pay a visit to Han Shiduo and her sick child, I do have other things to ask; do you know what illness her son has? And could you get someone to guide us there?”
That plan was total news to Zhu Li, but okay.
(He had the honor of watching other people be caught off guard by Chu Ran’s wild changes of topic. It was a gloriously validating feeling.)
Following some brief exchanges of looks, Ren Zhuizhun gave the details the other had asked for. “Han Dao has been sick ever since he was very little, with some unknown illness that makes him dizzy and fatigued every day. He cannot stay awake for long.”
“As diagnosed by Doctor San?”
Chu Ran hummed.
Without many further banalities, a disciple — the same one from before, Han Qi, who beamed at them all proudly — was found to lead them, and the three took their leaves. Once out of hearing and viewing range of both the elders and young Han Qi, Chu Ran jabbed Xin Junyan in the side with a finger, causing her to jump.
“Although I realize that I regularly joke about you being my seeing-eye dog, there’s no need for you to take it so literally by never making a peep,” he playfully derided her.
She glared at him viciously. “So sorry, dear brother — I wasn’t aware that you needed me to be your speaking-mouth dog, too! What did you want me to say? I don’t know anything you don’t know, and you’re the chatterbox here! Doctor Zhu didn’t speak much, either!”
Don’t drag me into this.
“I thought that you would at least talk to the Sect Head. What happened? Too afraid?”
“You’re on about that again? What would I say to her? And when could I have? Quit looking for things that aren’t there!”
“Hm, sure. You know, Doctor, the reason I know how little Junyan here is a lotus-picker is that I once caught her—“
Xin Junyan practically pounced on him like a pissed-off cat, forcing him to swiftly dodge away. “You shut your mouth!” she hissed, though she didn’t chase him further.
He calmly fled to the other side of Zhu Li, using his slightly-larger form to hide. “No need to be so embarrassed, Miss. Being a lotus-picker has been all the rage for the last couple of centuries.”
“Doctor Zhu, is there a medicine that can make someone shut up?”
“Paracress. It numbs the mouth.”
Chu Ran said nothing, but his lips scrunched into a pout.
“Yingliu. You were in a hurry to tell them about my blood relation, but were also in a hurry to cut the conversation short before they could ask much,” Zhu Li continued, questioning without the question.
“Of course I was. They were getting too nosy, too quickly, when family reunions need to be done slowly. Also, Ren Zhuizhun is a valuable asset in every regard, so appealing to emotion and dangling something he wants just above his nose will make him more agreeable. It can’t be dangled if he gets all of his information at once.”
“So you’re being manipulative.”
“Just a little. It’s for the greater good, obviously.”
Zhu Li huffed. “And your sudden want to meet Han Shiduo is, too?”
“Doctor San treats her sick kid, she gives him money, and then he transfers it to his sect in a roundabout way. That kind of makes sense, but what’s with the secrecy? Why can’t she give it to him all in one lump sum, and why can’t he give it to his sect in a more normal way? Why did they have to hide it?” Xin Junyan mused.
“It is odd, isn’t it?” Chu Ran answered concisely.
It was odd.
They were led to a series of long buildings with the distinct looks of mass quarters; with how plentiful in number the Blue Orchid Sect was, even if it was sprawling and rich enough to put most towns to shame, it couldn’t exactly make itself a maze of individual courtyards for every single person in it. That would just be awful feng shui, on top of being horribly cramped. As a compromise, these rows left plenty of open space between dwellings. Ones for low-tier disciples were more cramped, split up into mere rooms, while higher-tier ones were only connected in loose sense of the word, being separate buildings that shared verandas between them.
As the daughter of a cousin of the main Han branch, Han Shiduo’s rank was higher than most, but still not top-tier, indicating that she wasn’t too great of a cultivator. Her courtyard was at the very end of one of the mid-tier homes — although it was decently-sized and couldn’t be called shabby at all, it did share a wall with its neighbor, making for poorer privacy.
The guiding disciple went ahead of them to knock on the front gate and get the occupants’ attention. In not too long of a time, it opened, revealing a young-looking woman of short stature. Once the disciple explained the threes’ identities and purpose in coming her face morphed into an apologetic smile, and stepped out of the door to greet them. She very pointedly shut the gate behind her, however.
“Greetings to you all, Sect Head Chu, Doctor Zhu, and Miss Xin. This Han regrets to inform you that Dao’r is sleeping right now, and he wakes easily. Please forgive me for my rudeness.”
A gracious way to rebuff an uninvited guest, that was.
“Yes, yes. We just spoke with Elder Ren about Doctor San, whereupon your son came up, and he expressed concern over his condition. Doctor San has failed to cure him all of these years? He sleeps most of the day, right? Doctor Zhu here is an expert, and could possibly tell you something new about your son’s illness that Doctor San cannot. Diagnoses can be taken while sleeping; might he come in to check on the boy?”
Uninterested in being gracious back, Chu Ran was. Han Shiduo hadn’t bowed due to being older than them all, yet Chu Ran had given no one any room to cup their hands before speaking to her. His ability to stomp over propriety and get somewhat away with it was unparalleled.
She immediately looked awkward, and no small amount of nervous. “Um… Dao’r has a miserable time whenever he wakes. It’s best to not disturb him, as he feels better when he wakes up on his own. Forgive me.”
“Oh? Are you sure? The sooner a better diagnosis is had, the sooner your son will not have to suffer sleeping through life.”
A defensive light went through her eyes. “Doctor San is one of the most famed doctors in Beishan. I would not settle for subpar care.”
Chu Ran offered her a smile, its comforting intention diluted with some mockery, something only people that knew him well enough would be able to identify. “You misunderstand. As you must know, all doctors have their different specialties. I assume that Doctor San specializes in wound healing, considering what sect this is, while the good Doctor here specializes in afflictions of the body. You would like to make sure, yes?”
Zhu Li could tell that Han Shiduo was getting upset. Neither he nor Xin Junyan were about to intervene, of course.
Han Qi was not like them, promptly coming to her rescue. “Sect Head Chu, while your concern is definitely appreciated, Elder Shiduo is simply saying that it’s getting late in the day. This junior can arrange a time for you all to come by tomorrow morning, when it’s more convenient. I believe that Han Dao is always awake in the mornings.”
“Ah, that will work just fine,” Chu Ran answered amicably.
Seeing how Han Shiduo didn’t look too pleased at this turn of events, Zhu Li noted, with distant amusement, that the lad hadn’t come too much to her rescue.
“Disciple, you’re overstepping your bounds! I never gave permission for them to come in here!” Han Shiduo chided, taking on the tone of a disappointed mother. It was a weak attempt; Zhu Li had heard more potent tones than that.
The boy blinked at her. “Oh, but them coming was Elder Ren’s idea. If you rebuff them, what will I tell him?”
She gaped. There was really nothing she could say to that, other than: “Well… well, that’s fine, then.”
“Very good. Doctor Zhu and I will come at dawn, Elder. With luck, your son will be feeling better by then. Come, young man, lead us back,” Chu Ran said curtly, gesturing at Han Qi. He wasn’t giving Han Shiduo the proper farewell courtesy or letting anyone else give it, again. Internally shrugging, both Zhu Li and Xin Junyan followed after him, silent shadows.
The woman was taken aback at their exit that was just as sudden as their arrival. Zhu Li glimpsed her surprised face, then turned away from her.
While they walked, saying nothing, he wondered if anyone acted normal in this bloody sect. That excuse of Han Dao being asleep had been flimsy, yet it was still hard to say whether Han Shiduo had been simply wary of strangers, or genuinely acting fishy.
When they were far along enough on the path, Chu Ran dismissed Han Qi with the promise to bring him up to his Elders at the nearest opportunity, then turned to Xin Junyan. “Have someone track for any activity in Han Shiduo’s courtyard tonight. Be sure to inform Han Taisha and them of what we’re doing.”
She nodded, practically ecstatic to finally have something to do, and broke away from their group to go in another direction, skipping away in a graceful, not-childish-at-all manner.
“You suspect her of something?” Zhu Li asked quietly, now that they were walking alone down the spacious walkway.
Chu Ran made a noise in answer. “I could be wrong.”
The ‘but it’s better safe than sorry’ went unsaid.
A shichen or two later, when the sun had set and the two men were seated at the main hall’s table, Zhu Li reciting the events of some bygone tale over tea with Chu Ran, a knock suddenly came from the door.
“Doctor Jasmine, it’s me.”
Zhu Li turned his head to narrow his eyes at the door. After a slight pause that he needed to take to process this, he got up with a sigh, then went over and opened the door.
“Miss Han. When you visit people’s homes, it’s proper courtesy to inform the guards at the gate,” he uttered dispassionately to Han Xingyu’s smiling face.
“Sorry to bother you so late at night, little man, but it’s fine, isn’t it? We’re not strangers at this point,” she nonchalantly refuted. “Nevermind that. I came over here for our talk.”
“Already? You know I’m not staying alone.”
Han Xingyu peered over his shoulder to look at Chu Ran, who was still seated far behind him. “Hm… he can hang around for it, I suppose.”
“Mhm. That’s fine with me.”
“You aren’t afraid of any sensitive information getting out?”
“I don’t have anything to hide. Besides, whatever I tell you, you’ll just tell him, right? There’s no point in wasting time with splitting you both up.”
“…I wouldn’t tell him every little thing.”
“You’d tell him enough. What I want to say is mostly relevant to what’s been happening.”
“Hm. Come in, then.”
When he had moved to the side and she had stepped through into the hall, Chu Ran said, “I trust you’ve been well, Elder Han? I understand why you would circumvent the proper door to speak with the good Doctor; visiting younger men in the night would get the wrong people talking. A very brilliant plan of yours, to do so unnoticed.”
Zhu Li paused in his motion of sitting back down, thereafter sneaking a peek at Han Xingyu’s face. It was twisted up in a clear guise of incredulous annoyance, her nose wrinkled and lip quirked in a sneer.
“You’re a charming one,” she answered eventually, taking a seat. Zhu Li followed soon after. “I heard a little about you before all of this happened, Xin Yingliu. Reality doesn’t match up to fantasy. You stopped wearing that blindfold?”
Zhu Li raised his brows, subconsciously straightening up. What was this, now?
“As expected of you to know. Ever nosy, you big sects are.”
“And your sect isn’t? I have to say, I was surprised at you going around with a different name, though it made sense when I thought about it some more. Being a Xin would defeat some of your credibility as to knowing the ins and outs of the Chu family, right?”
“Having their surname certainly helps my case. Now, how about we explain things to Doctor Zhu? He seems to be mighty confused.”
Han Xingyu looked over at Zhu Li, who was indeed confused, and began to explain. “I’m assuming you don’t know the name Xin Yingliu?”
Zhu Li shook his head.
“’Sect Head Chu’ here came out of the blue at that fake trial, bearing allegations and evidence against the Chu family, and not just its main branch. Bribery, child abuse, murder, rape, collusion — any crime possible, they’ve done, apparently, keeping it all under wraps with money, connections, and blackmail. Zhongling in particular is all coiled up in it, with even the one Chu branch in Beishan implicated, and a lot of people have cut ties with the family to avoid getting dragged in. All of those jianghu folk that they hired slunk away into the darkness, Masked Wasp’s interactions with them have declined, sales on their qistones are banned in a lot of places. It’s a whole mess.
“I don’t care anything about their fate, that’s just what’s going on outside. I know you’re a bit of an aloof homebody,” she said with a grin, which she quickly tried to put away. “The weird thing here is that I recognized ‘Chu Ran’ as Xin Yingliu, a low-key lurker in jianghu, known for being blind, wearing a red blindfold, being a disciple of Xin Yinhui, and not much else. The majority of jianghu didn’t recognize him because of how unremarkable he was, only ever showing up to spectate… er, listen in on competitions, or just wander around. Despite his unique appearance, since he never did anything, talks about him in jianghu were sparse. By the time he cropped up again, almost no one recognized him and connected him to Xin Yingliu.
“But I did, because Wenkang asked me to always keep a specific eye on two types of people: members of either the Xin Sect, or the Miasma Caves. I’m sure that after the conversation we just had, you can guess why.”
He could indeed figure out why. Han Wenkang had wanted to know about him for reasons connected to Ru Yeying.
Following some seconds of quiet, he said, “I can’t imagine that yielded much. I don’t remember you asking about any Ru Yeying, either.”
Han Xingyu looked thoughtful, chewing on the inside of her cheek. “Well, no. Wenkang never told me to ask, just to tell her how you were doing and such. Same with the Xin Sect as a whole. The very first time I told her about you, she scolded me for not being a good elder by buying you a wig, then told me to take care of you… I never asked her what she was thinking in making me watch both of you two, and now it’s too late to. Maybe she wanted to look out for her friend’s fellows.”
“One moment… wig?” Chu Ran asked, full of curiosity.
Han Xingyu looked over at Zhu Li, who coughed awkwardly. “I… cut all of my hair off before I left the Caves. I had to.”
A symbolic gesture; defiling the body your parents gifted you when you leave your ancestral home forever, thus also severing ties with them. He hadn’t wanted to do it at all — it had been humiliating, he had felt horrible and ugly and unfilial — but he would have been physically stopped from leaving the sect, otherwise.
“Your sect takes its isolationism seriously, doesn’t it,” Chu Ran commented, inflectionless.
Zhu Li said nothing to that. He couldn’t exactly argue. Instead, he asked Han Wenkang, “Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?”
“I figured that our friendship starting off on orders wouldn’t be a productive thing to share. It would’t make you happy, you know?”
He paused. Those words sounded familiar.
How did he feel about all of this? Fairly neutral, all things considered. Even though she had spied on him, in a sense of the concept, it had been far from malicious; he had known that even before now, back when Chu Ran had first told him that she was a spy.
His life in the outside world had gone much smoother precisely because of her. From her constantly seeking him out for banal medicine and overpaying for it (a thin veneer, in hindsight), to her recommending him places to go or people to see for his craft, to her giving him quick lessons on how to survive in the wild, things that had never been given to him in the Miasma Caves. One of his early visits had been to an encampment of nomadic peoples, whose leader’s wife had been chronically ill for years — to make a long story very short, she had been unintentionally and slowly poisoning herself due to the cinnabar in her makeup, Zhu Li had treated it fully, and the leader had gratefully bestowed him with one of his prized slopenose horses: Guhui.
Over time, his wandering lifestyle had become comfortable precisely due to Han Xingyu imparting her occasional wisdom on where to go. The lack of access to jianghu doctors was universal in Jin, and in some situations, even the best civilian ones would be helpless, meaning that he had always had work, always had an income, always had useful gifts, always had ways of furthering his goal of spreading knowledge. Aside from occasional bandits and camping out in snow, he had suffered through very few hardships, and that could be attributed to her pointing him in the right direction. The trifle of her having been ordered to look out for him was irrelevant.
Ren Zhuizhun hadn’t known about their blood relation, and there would be no sense in Han Wenkang having known, yet not sharing. She’d had no idea that Zhu Li was her nephew-in-law, meaning that she had told Han Xingyu to look after a stranger, based on a very thin thread. Generous to the point of foolishness.
Two women that he had never met before had cared more about his safety and livelihood than his own mother.
That realization was both touching and demoralizing, forming a pit in his stomach. A deep regret for not having ever met Han Wenkang sprouted up within him.
“Miss Han… what was Han Wenkang like?” he asked weakly. He felt like a kid again, asking his father about something he was too young to know of yet.
Han Xingyu’s smile slowly dropped. She didn’t appear to be sad, just wistful. “She was a mix of ruthless and kind, an expert at balancing the two. Never once did she give up in looking for either Xin Yinhui or Ru Yeying. Any yao or cultivation-related issue that the civilian populace had, she would arrange to solve, no matter how minor the people or or how little the reward, if any. Ask any of her kids, and they won’t have a single bad thing to say about her. She was hard on most of the rest of the sect, but, I mean, you’ve seen them and how they act. Even though she had tried so hard to upend this old cutthroat culture of the sect, where it’s everyone for themselves, the sect is too big, disjointed, and estranged for that to have ever worked.
“Way back when, I was never interested in everyone’s fighting over the leader’s seal; I just wanted to stay out of it and travel the world. That wasn’t acceptable to anyone aside from her. While I could have just left the sect altogether, she convinced me to stay, promising me freedom to roam around to my heart’s content and a home to come back to if I sought out information for her. Now, I’ll keep doing so for her daughter.”
Han Wenkang didn’t deserve to be murdered, did she?
Zhu Li sighed. Maybe she had; it wasn’t like he had a way of knowing.
“Are we done with the depressing stuff yet?” Han Xingyu continued, putting on a grin. “I want to hear what you’ve been up to lately. Xin Yingliu, or Chu Ran, or Chu Ranliu guy is a weird little brat. I could tell that just from interacting with him a whole one time. Do you have any juicy gossip about him? Has he done anything embarrassing?”
Chu Ran faced them, carefully expressionless.
“There’s a few things,” Zhu Li admitted as he watched him.
Now, the other was pouting. Grown man. Pouting. Again.
Han Xingyu looked outright mischievous. “Oh?”
“I’m not telling you them. You know I don’t care about gossip.”
She scowled. Chu Ran looked gratified.
“Though he does have a habit of not eating his vegetables. My little sister used to do that when she was five.”
The gratification and scowl switched faces.
Apparently, the one that never gave other people face was upset that he wasn’t being given face. While Zhu Li knew that the man couldn’t see his smile, he would definitely be able to sense the warm amusement blooming in his chest.
2 thoughts on “SnCr 21”
Oooh, interesting stuff coming out in this chapter. 👀
And that final bit was cute. 😄
I wonder what Han Wenkang took with her to the grave…
Yeah Zhu Li you definitely have an aunt now. Also… oof in general at his whole family situation.
Chu Ran if you act like a shit don’t be suprised by karma. Did he go back near the family fold for purposes of burning it down and salting the ashes?