SnCr 26

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Chu Ran took it upon himself to answer the door for the messenger, who was one of the many alternating sect disciples. The other bowed, then told them that Ren Zhuizhun had asked to meet with Zhu Li, specifically.

“I regret to inform you that we are busy with lunch and such at the moment,” Chu Ran answered breezily. “We will similarly be busy for the rest of the day with other things. Please pass that along to Mister Ren for us. Farewell.”

Then, he shut the door in the disciple’s face. With quite a bit of force.

Zhu Li couldn’t help but gawk at him.

“Off time is off time. I did inform everyone ahead of time that I was going to be unavailable all day long, so me rebuffing them should be something they expected,” the other answered flippantly.

“I’m not you, Yingliu. There’s no ‘do not disturb’ sign on me, the one he asked for,” Zhu Li answered, closed his eyes and pinching the space between his brows. “You can’t just slam the door on the people hosting us.”

“On the contrary, Doctor. I could and I did.”

Shooting him a glare, Zhu Li then ignored his powerless protest while he himself headed outside to stop the retreating, bummed-out disciple. “Tell the messenger that I can join Mister Ren for dinner,” he passed on to them, causing the other to perk up. They had probably been racking their brains on how to restructure Chu Ran’s blunt no into something diplomatic.

He was welcomed back inside with a faintly-pouting Chu Ran, whose arms were crossed over his chest. Zhu Li raised a brow at him.

“I heard all of that. Doctor Zhu, it’s no good to let these types walk all over you, or be at their beck and call,” the man scolded, tone only lightly disappointed. “These people are much too busy for my tastes, always doing this and doing that. We have helped them plenty with their barely-functioning family unit and its problems these days, they need to give us more of a break. Such a lack of gratitude, working us to the bone.”

Zhu Li narrowed his eyes, then thought back to his time in the Pavilion of Quiet versus the Blue Orchid Sect. Now that he had, he realized that a lot more had happened to him at this upturned sect in just a few days than had happened to him in his few months at the Pavilion, as the latter would always have days or weeks of nothing happening to cushion the blow.

“So you’re saying that you’re lazy,” Zhu Li commented tonelessly, leveling him with a look.

“Why, Doctor, I’m insulted! I work incredibly hard! I just keep a very nice balance with my down time, is all.”

“By foisting things off onto Junyan, right.”

“Incorrect. I foist things off onto her, my circle of informants, and those lazy itinerants in my sect,” Chu Ran replied with a toothy and shameless smile.

Shaking his head at this man’s antics, Zhu Li ushered him out past the disciples out front (including the one that had been impinged upon), then away to fetch supplies from the communal kitchens.

Once back in their own domicile, Zhu Li set a pot of dark pu’erh tea boiling, then started to get the barley flour baking in the oven. Neither step was conventional, as the pu’erh was supposed to boil for several shichen and the barley was supposed to be roasted in sand before being milled, but there wasn’t exactly room for a giant tea-boiling pot over a massive fire pit here, nor could he have potentially left any such devices unattended out of a fire hazard. Milling would have also been a major pain in every regard, requiring a slow job by mortar and pestle that he wasn’t much interested in doing. Thus, the improvisation.

With that going, the second part was the preparation of a simple fruit syrup, as Zhu Li had decided to do one batch of tsampa savory, the other sweet. Some pre-made chili sauce had been taken from the main kitchens, so there was no need to make that, though he did fire up a second pan to roast some thoroughly diced scallions — the roasting would take out some of the raw flavor, the result of which would be mixed into the tsampa. As for the syrup, he poured some yellow wine into a pan over mashed pears, one of the in-season fruits still available.

The third part was the preparation of the buttered tea. The Bohd drank so much of the stuff, they had their own specialized churns specifically for making it, yet Zhu Li had hit a critical equipment lack yet again. As a substitute, he chose a sealable metal vessel to shake up the resultant ingredients in. Once the pu’erh was cooled down slightly from its temperature of ‘might as well be lava’, he poured appropriate amounts of the tea, milk, and butter inside. Out of appreciation for the fact that salted tea was very much not everyone’s cup, he left it out of this first mini-batch for Chu Ran to try.

The other sipped at it, then looked thoughtful. “The butter makes it rich, and the milk makes it interesting. Milk in tea… hm.”

Zhu Li nodded. That was about the reaction he had expected.

He next prepared a proper batch of tea, which the tsampa dough was going to be made with. A mere few drops of it was poured for Chu Ran to try.

The other took the full sip. His only reaction was a narrow of the eyes and a scrunch of the nose, a reaction Zhu Li had also fully anticipated.

“How is it?” he asked, smiling ever-so-slightly.

Chu Ran’s lip curled. “Indescribable. People drink this?”

“It’s great if you grow up with it, or are starving in icy mountains. Once it’s mixed into the dough, it’ll taste a little better,” he reassured him, taking the cup away to rinse it out.

“I certainly hope so.”

With the butter tea done and the flour roasted, Zhu Li split the amount into two. Into one bowl of flour, he mixed sugar, and in the other, the lightly-roasted scallions, which had been patted dry to avoid clumping.

He guided Chu Ran in how to make the famed dough — after they washed their hands, of course. Just enough tea needed to be poured in so that the flour was damp enough to keep its shape, but not too much, or that would make it too runny. Then, the dough would be squeezed, removing any excess moisture and giving the pieces their distinctive hand-squished shape.

“Bodhans would leave the dough pieces like that, but you can roll them into balls. It doesn’t really matter,” Zhu Li told him while he plated the chili sauce and completed syrup, after which he sat down at the table with them, then helped Chu Ran with working the remaining flour.

“This seems like an awful lot of effort for such a simple thing. What did you call this? A staple food?” the other griped, in the middle of placing more flour into his mixing bowl. He had over-tea’d the dough slightly.

“Every Bohdan has a family system and tools for making this stuff in bulk, and the materials are everywhere there. I had to improvise.”

“They make the syrup in bulk? I was under the impression that sugar was hard to come by up in the mountains, perhaps too hard to waste on a snack food.”

“It is, but we aren’t in the mountains right now. The syrup and sauce I added just because there are more ingredients available over here than over there. Not much variety to have when the components don’t exist.”

Once all the doughy lumps were finished, Chu Ran quit his complaining to chow down on them. While no one had ever said that the simple dish was high-class cuisine, the man appeared to be pleased just fine with it, if his bulging squirrel cheeks were anything to go by.

Subsequent to everything being eaten away, Zhu Li rose with the full intention to leave. “I cooked, so you can clean.”

“Clean? Oh, but Doctor, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to see the dirt enough to clean it,” Chu Ran rebuked, smiling cheekily.

Zhu Li raised a brow. “Really.”

“Yes, yes. It stems from me being blind and all that.”

“Then I guess you’ll have to feel the gunk out with your fingers. Get to it.”

Chu Ran laughed, rising to his feet. “Ah, well. It was worth the attempt.”

“Do your attempts usually pan out?”

“On occasion. I should have known better than to try with you, my good Doctor; you’ve never struck me as the type to indulge in any nonsense.”

“I shouldn’t, because I don’t. If you really don’t want to clean up, you can do what I was about to do, which is entertain Guhui.”

“Hm. Now that you brought that up, I have suddenly rediscovered my passion for the path of cleanliness.”

Zhu Li rolled his eyes. “She isn’t that bad.”

“In her eyes, you are a perfect immortal descended from whatever is left of the Heavens, while I am a great dummy for biting practice. Did I ever tell you that after she awoke when we brought her home, she seemed to have an unquenchable thirst for blood? She snatched one of my sectmates by the hair and flung her into the wall. While it was quite hilarious, I have no desire to be thrown by my head into anything.”

“She’ll tolerate you more if you spend time together, probably.”

“Only probably?”

“Han Xingyu was tolerated eventually, and she only sees her every once in a while. I’m sure the same can go for you.”

“That seems to be an experiment that should be reserved for another day. Perhaps tomorrow, or the day after, or next month.”

“Whatever you’re comfortable with. What did you want to do after, by the way?”

“Hah?” Chu Ran asked, brows raised in questioning. He was currently in the middle of stacking all the dishes on top of each other to save himself a second trip.

“You just kicked up a fuss about both of us not being bothered for the day, and I don’t have anywhere to be until dinner in a few shichen. You must have wanted us to do something together, right?”

“Ah, right. Hm… well, I hadn’t exactly thought through what I wanted to do at the time, I merely didn’t wish to be bothered anymore. Since we’re speaking of it, though…”

He looked nervous about something unknown for a moment, then appeared to shake it off, placing the dirtied ware into a basin for a carting off. “Could you read something to me?”

Zhu Li blinked. That shouldn’t have caught him as off-guard as it had, considering Chu Ran loved to listen to storytellers back in Zhongling. “Sure. Like what?”

“Oh, I’m not choosy. Poems, folk novels, Daoist adventures. I am partial to scarier ones, I must admit, but that’s all.”

“Scarier ones? You like scary stories?”

“Yes, they’re quite fun. It’s amusing to hear of what people think is fearsome, as it typically pales compared to what reality itself has to offer. Nobody’s imagination is as vast and cruel as fate itself’s. Say, do you mind if I put on new pot of tea? I believe that salt is getting to me.”

“…As you wish.”

Distinctly not acknowledging all that, Zhu Li left to attend to his horse. She was an abnormally independent mare that preferred his company above any other living being’s, and if he wasn’t available, the void would do. This had been the factor that had made her the prime candidate for a gift, all those years ago; whether male or female, young or old, she did not tolerate the presence of other horses. Humans were fine, presumably because they were smaller and easier to fight if she wanted them to go to the underworld.

Back on topic, whenever he left her alone in any courtyard, she would have a great time entertaining herself with various pieces of junk, like ropes with bells and leather balls filled with hay. Her latest ball, as previously provided by the Blue Orchid Sect, had been kicked to death yesterday, and she was still mourning its mangled remains to this very hour. This was in spite of the two facts that she was the one who had ‘killed’ it, and it had been replaced already with an identical one.

Other horses equalled bad, humans equalled good. Mauling ball equalled good, mauling ball to death equalled bad. Far be it from him to fathom the inner workings of her sophisticated mind; all he did know was that her moping about this for so long meant that she was bored enough to, and a bored horse was a destructive horse. There was no need to add to what Chu Ran had broken before, after all.

To keep a better eye on her, after spending some time brushing and talking her, he got the idea to read to Chu Ran out in the courtyard so that Guhui could listen in, too. It wasn’t like she would understand whatever story he was going to read, but he had the feeling that listening to voices would calm her somewhat.

Their courtyard came pre-equipped with a few books for guests’ leisure reading, all by local Beishan authors. He picked one named Records of a Pine’s Eternal Seasons, the length of which stood out amongst the much slimmer volumes surrounding it, and set up the outside veranda for reading.

The book was an interesting read from the start. The ‘Pine’ in its title was not a metaphor for some human that was big, mighty, and noble, but a literal tree, and its perspective was followed exclusively, starting from its planting as a seed in a noble’s court for scenic purposes. Due to the abnormal circular design of the house, the tree could basically perceive everything notable that went on in the household. In its fledging years of life, it had already witnessed the deaths of its planter’s parents, one affair with a maid that enraged the main wife, and a surprise pregnancy from yet another maid. But was it the nobleman’s, or his adult son’s, or even his teenage son’s? Or his adult son’s son?

The nobleman was about sixty, by the by. The maids were maybe seventeen. Everything was going about as well as anyone would suspect.

“Doctor,” Chu Ran interjected, after Zhu Li had finished another chapter, “did you pick this book on account of how close it is to my own home life?”

Zhu Li blinked, looking down at the text. It was kind of similar, and the nobleman was basically identical to Chu Haoyu, but… well, the concubines were all still alive, and the eldest son was not only not blind, but had teenage children.


He narrowed his eyes at the idea that gave him.

“So, you have kids of your own?”

Chu Ran’s eyes widened instantaneously. Faint noises of disbelief were emitting from his mouth that opened and closed like a fish’s.

The guy had been super nosy about his nonexistent past lovers and completely improbable chances of fatherhood, which were zero. Why not turn the tables on him?

After a moment of shock, Chu Ran appeared to bounce back, if sheepishly. “That’s quite a silly question, Doctor. Of course I don’t. There are several crucial components missing from that equation for it to work, I’m afraid.”

“Are you sure you don’t have some secret brothel kids out there?”

“Wha— oh, I understand. Those questions were only to suss out your past, Doctor Zhu. I meant no offensive by them.”

“Hm. You were pretty insistent upon asking about it over and over again, though.”

“Why, I have not even a faint clue of what you’re talking about.”

Uh-huh. Narrowing his eyes further, Zhu Li returned to the book.

With Guhui either standing nearby or screwing about in the background, he read a little bit more before the sun threatened to descend. Most of the words that graced his eyes were the main wife expressing how much she hated her useless, weak, ugly, invalid husband. Precisely after her hateful monologue was over, a disciple outside abruptly entered, apologized for the intrusion, and informed him that Ren Zhuizhun was waiting for him, as dinner was underway.

“Already? Did they make an early dinner on purpose?” Chu Ran complained for the disciple to hear. The displeased scrunch of his face might have been cute on a kid — on him, it was eyeroll-inducing.

“Not really. Sunset is coming, and days are weird in autumn,” answered Zhu Li, inserting a leaf to use as a bookmark prior to closing the book.

He rose to leave, only to catch Chu Ran’s deepening pout from the corner of his eye. Oh, boy. Did this guy hate being alone, or something?

“Why don’t you go hang out with Junyan?” he tried to suggest, yet Chu Ran failed to look any happier, waving him off.

“She’s busy today, albeit she failed to inform me with what. Shopping or the library, were I forced to guess. If I go to pester her, she likely won’t be there, and now I must get somebody unknown to read to me.”

“Don’t you have anything else to entertain yourself with?”

“Nay. I garden, but I could not bring my garden back home with me. I possess some books with tactile text in them, but those are rare, hard to make, and were left for safekeeping. I like playing the qin, but that wouldn’t fit in the luggage. There are several local places back in Zhongling that I like to visit, yet I know nothing around here, and hearing of locations verbally is little help. It’s quite boring in Beishan, Doctor.”

Huh. That was reasonable, he supposed.

After giving this some thought, he proposed something that made sense to him. “Why not take Guhui for a walk around the sect?”

Chu Ran looked blankly at him for a time, then flat-out looked betrayed. “…But I cleaned up lunch, like you told me to. Why do you still wish to punish me?”

“It’s not a punishment, Yingliu, she just needs mental stimulation. I was going to do it today, but this dinner and your need to be entertained got in the way of that.”

“I apologize…?”

“No need to, I don’t really care. It’s just something to do if you’re bored. If you really don’t want to do it, you don’t have to.”

Chu Ran considered that. And considered it. And considered it for many seconds more.

“Do you know how to put reins on a horse?”

Now, the other was slightly caught off guard by that question. “Ah, yes?”

“If you end up changing your mind, just try putting the reins on Guhui. If she refuses, you’ll know you aren’t in good with her. If she allows it, then she tolerates you enough. Unlike what you’re thinking, she’s not violent or unfriendly for no reason. She just doesn’t like bad surprises, strangers, and swords pointed at her. You don’t belong in the first two, and if you point any swords at her, I’ll kill you if she doesn’t.”

“I would never, but… duly noted,” Chu Ran said with a nod, seemingly only a little intimidated (by the death threat or Guhui herself, it was hard to tell). “I just fear that I wouldn’t know where to lead her. Again, this area is new to me.”

“You can let her guide you around, instead. She has a knack for finding the nearest food or water source, or somewhere nice to lay around in.”

“Oh, a guide horse? What a novel concept. Junyan will be devastated to know that she’s on the same level as a horse.”

That impish little smile foretold that he was going to relish that devastation, indicating a probable change of mind.

“Only if you feel comfortable with the idea. I won’t be offended, otherwise.”

Chu Ran waved off his concern. “No, no, I have nothing better to do. I would be able to tell whenever she gets angry so that I may give her a few zhang of berth, should the time come… I will consider it.”

Zhu Li nodded, turning to leave with the disciple that was waiting patiently nearby.

The walk to the meeting spot was unremarkable. It was the same exact path they had taken to the meeting a few days ago, and near about the exact same destination, in fact.

Without much fanfare, he was led quietly into a room. Its only occupant was Ren Zhuizhun, who was seated alone at a grand ironwood table, accompanied solely by a tea set. He had his hands around a cup, his head bowed and eyes closed in rest. He looked about to nod off, until Zhu Li got close enough.

He could see echoes of his father in the man’s face. Deep down, though, he remembered that he hadn’t thought so upon first meeting him, because he hadn’t been looking for the signs. Maybe these echoes were nothing further than wishful thinking, just him seeing what he hoped he would see.

In any case, the one that had led him here introduced his presence, stated the estimated arrival time for the food, then whisked herself away. Under Ren Zhuizhun’s studying gaze, Zhu Li silently bowed in greeting to him, and subsequently took his seat across.

Some fairly awkward silence proceeded to pan out. He felt the other’s eyes on him while his head was dipped in respect, yet Ren Zhuizhun wasn’t saying anything. Why?

He chanced a glance upwards to observe the man’s face. What he was greeted with was a complicated, unsure expression, paired with many instances of glancing-away eyes and silent false starts.

Ah. He was simply at as much of a loss as he was. That was fine; he could wait as long as needed to not be the one starting this conversation off.

Eventually, before the food could get there, Ren Zhuizhun asked an out-of-the-blue, “What do you know of your paternal family, Doctor Zhu?”

Zhu Li raised both brows in surprise, silent for but a few seconds. “I… not much. My father would never answer questions or tell us anything about his past. He would always say that knowing the past is useless, if you can never reach it.”

Brows were furrowed at that. “He was not allowed out?”

“No one ever is, aside from the Sect Head and some Elders. It’s been like that for as long as I can remember.”

“Are you an Elder?”

Zhu Li’s gut twisted in discomfort. He knew what questions were coming up next. “No. I… left on my own. Without permission.”

Ren Zhuizhun nodded slowly, looking off elsewhere in thought. “I guessed so from the moment I heard of you. We do not need to speak of it just yet. On the contrary, would you like to learn about your paternal family now?”

Some surprise clenched at Zhu Li’s heart. All he could utter was one extremely intelligent, “Um?”

The other smiled at him. “Familiarity is not blood, blood is not familiarity. Putting our ties aside, I thought that it would be rude to demand information out of you whilst offering nothing from myself. It is probably painfully obvious that I wish to ask about my brother and his never-met family. If you wish to know of your never-met family, I can provide that information to you, too.”

This caused Zhu Li to pause and consider.

Like always, he was not thrilled at the concept of needing to talk about his family. He had subconsciously developed a self-protecting mental blockade very quickly after leaving home, where as long as he didn’t bring up or think about them, he could put everything out of his mind and distract himself with literally anything else (mostly work). Was it the best or healthiest way to go about things? Likely not, but doing so had kept him sane and functioning well enough until the pain faded, to the point where thinking of them only hurt a fraction of what it had before.

Even better was that, this very moment aside, he had never come across anyone whose business had anything to do with his family, specifically. The Miasma Caves, maybe, but he always avoided Beishan and Dongqiu, their common haunts.

Hearing about different family… might possibly calm his nerves, at least a little.

“I would like to hear about the Ren family, if you don’t mind, Sir,” he started, “and…”

And what? He had added that on without really thinking about it.

“And I would like to know what my father was like,” he finished, grasping onto the source of that impulse. His father had always been closer to his sisters and he, in the end, making his unconscious want to know more about him unsurprisingly in hindsight.

Ren Zhuizhun smiled warmly at him. The ghost of his father’s own smile manifested at the corners, putting Zhu Li’s nervous mind at some ease. He knew very well that this was going to be a long, long conversation.

The author says: it’s so long, i had to put it in another chapter (no guesses needed as to who the universally favored parent is, btw)

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3 thoughts on “SnCr 26

  1. Yay for quiet time together. And Chu Ran just telling people to bugger off and leave them alone. And getting all pouty when it has to end. 💜

    I kinda want to see how Chu Ran being left alone with Guhui goes down. I don’t expect she’ll give him an easy time at first – gotta let the guy know who’s boss.

    And our good Doctor is about to learn some family history. 👀


  2. Aaaah, so Chu Ran and Zhu Li got a few hours to themselves after all! ^^
    Thank you for these cute scenes of them working together on the lunch (with a classic dispute of who cleans the dishes :D) and then reading together 🙂
    Haha, Chu Ran is really best motivated by spite 😀 I wonder if he actually takes Guhui on a walk!
    Meanwhile Zhu Li is in for an awkward dinner conversation… Hang in there, Doctor!


  3. Guhui is a murder horse and I love her.
    Good on Chu Ran for enforcing time off. Also if he has intentions in a particular direction he probably should try and get along with the horse…
    Time for a lore drop


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