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As promised, Ren Zhuizhun first detailed the Ren family.
It was a smaller, but longstanding and powerful cultivation family of the Beishan area. Their focus on cultivation and jianghu matters typically meant that they valued blood relations at a lower than average rate; for example, out of Ren Zhuizhun’s mother’s generation, only two siblings out of five decided to have any children. Some still had decades of time left — a nice side effect of achieving advanced longevity was a much longer period of fertility— but there was little chance of that happening at this point in time.
The current family had the children, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents, and one great-great-great-great-grandmother left over, a one-hundred-and-forty-year-old who had outlived her children, and then her children’s children. This was a significant accomplishment, due to factions in charge of fighting of yao and devils typically having a high mortality rate. Somewhat paradoxically, the older and/or stronger a cultivator became, the more likely they were to die violently from a monster, qi deviation, malicious array, or another cultivator; this likely stemmed from being more on the frontlines compared to younger or weaker cultivators.
This was why this one singular woman surviving to nearly the end of her maximum lifespan was so impressive. It would be slightly less so if she was from a mostly non-combative sect, like the Miasma Caves. Zhu Li could name five extremely-aged elders of his off of the top of his head, in fact.
Ren Zhuizhun proceeded to list off members of the main branch to him. In all impolite honesty, Zhu Li was not really committing all of them to mind — small family or no, there were too many strangers to bother with right now. He didn’t interrupt, of course, because the mostly one-sided conversation was doing wonders at making him less nervous.
“My immediate family would be thrilled to meet you, one day. Only when you want, though,”said Ren Zhuizhun, done with his introduction that had mostly gone unabsorbed. He leaned forward to eat some of the stewed beef before him, and swallowed it down. “I know that you are quite preoccupied with a lot of nonsense right now.”
That was an understatement.
Then, Ren Zhuizhun got to the part that Zhu Li had been hoping for: his father’s past.
As the older brother, Ren Zhuizhun had brought Ren Nidan all over the place to see the sights of the world. With the Rens being a warrior clan and Ren Nidan being kind of artsy, he had been hoping to inspire him to focus on martiality. It hadn’t worked at all, only serving to inspire him into making more poetry and art, but Ren Zhuizhun had continued to try.
Zhu Li noted that this was a completely accurate trait to the father he knew.
The two’s travels had continued for years. They had come to be known as the Two Melodies; Ren Zhuizhun with his zither, Ren Nidan with his flute.
That also checked out. He had heard his father playing late at night, in his youth… but by the time he left, he hadn’t played it in many years.
(There was no need for him to guess as to why.)
During all their wandering, the Two Musicians had run into the Three Spirits of Caprice: the Drug Spirit, Ru Yeying; the War Spirit, Han Wenkang; and the Dread Spirit, Xin Yinhui.
Their names were threatening, and with good reason. The Caprice added onto their collective title was with good reason, too, for the Three Spirits were known to have two sides to them; one benevolent, and one wild. Always had the spirits been trustworthy, and always had they been forces of wanton destruction.
The Drug Spirit had possessed wondrous medicine that could cure the incurable, yet also could poison with what had no antidote. Calm in the face of all, exacting on all around her, and not the nicest with words, but always willing to help those in need. Famed for her strong work ethic and fantastical ability to locate weird plants, infamed for her lacking personality.
She sounded familiar. She also sounded like every half-decent Miasma Caves member in all of history. Who was she? Why had Zhu Li never heard of her?
The War Spirit had possessed wondrous skills with the blade that would run through the most powerful of yao, yet also run through the most evil of humans without a second thought. Judge and executioner both, she had been — but no one had ever been able to find a single fault behind her judgements, which was how her reputation as ‘cutthroat, but fair’ had persisted.
The Dread Spirit… had possessed a wondrous ability to creep everyone out. Allies had been haunted by her disturbing words and admittances uttered in guileless tones, whilst enemies had quivered under the hushed whispers of vile, graphic threats. Her blindness had not slowed her down any, as she had been known to move as silent as a phantom, appearing at random times and scaring the soul out of the nearest living creatures.
Wow. She also sounded familiar. The distinguished tiger of a teacher would not have a dog for a student, indeed.
Three for three; Han Wenkang was probably suspiciously similar to her daughter or somebody else, but Zhu Li didn’t know any of this family well enough to say.
The Two Melodies had teamed up with the Three Spirits in order to fell a particularly unfortunate and powerful devil, who once was the Flaming Hand of some place. Their success had come after a long battle, where Ren Nidan had been injured badly and most of Ren Zhuizhun’s weapons, particularly his zither, had been destroyed. What had followed was a lovey-dovey adventure that was mercifully skipped over, since Ren Zhuizhun correctly intuited that Zhu Li would have no interest in the romantic history of his father and uncle.
The point of his story was that he had fallen for Han Wenkang, while Ren Nidan had fallen for Ru Yeying, and Xin Yinhui wanted nothing to do with romance whatsoever. The problem inside the story was that Ren Zhuizhun had gotten bad feelings from Ru Yeying.
In hindsight, it was petty, but she had always been overly blunt, disrespectful, snide, and generally unpleasant. He had not comprehended, and still did not comprehend, what his brother had seen in her, aside from the nursing-him-to-health bit. She had just been doing her job as a medic; what was so special about that?
If he knew Zheng Tonghao was the same way, what would he think? Zhu Li thought, idly sipping tea. Like father, like son, except the inverse had happened — very ironic, that was.
Even though Ren Zhuizhun had tried to get Ren Nidan to give up on Ru Yeying multiple times, it had basically been the equivalent of trying to lead a stubborn donkey. Ultimately, he had given up, and decided to wait until their relationship fell apart on its own.
Years later, however, Ru Yeying and Ren Nidan had up and disappeared one day without a single spoken word. Ren Nidan had left him a verbose letter of how Ru Yeying was nervous about something, so he was going with her back to the Miasma Caves, and would come to visit and send letters from his new destination.
Ru Yeying, meanwhile, had left a very short and simple not: I’m going home. Don’t look for me. Ru Yeying.
…This was really giving off a feeling of deja vu.
And yet, in spite of his claim, no visits or letters had ever once come from Ren Nidan. He might as well have disappeared into thin air, a ghost passing on to the afterlife.
“I will not lie; I disliked Ru Yeying so much, I automatically assumed that she had killed him and left his body somewhere he would never be found,” Ren Zhuizhun candidly divulged as he poked at his own food, “though I never gave up hope. She was so controlling about everything — if things were not done her way, she would be moody, and if things went her way yet also wrong, it was everyone else’s fault — that I figured she may have simply cut off his contact with the outside world. The decreased presence of the Miasma Caves members at around the same time corroborated that.”
Controlling… now that he was thinking about it, he could recall a fight he once incidentally heard. His father had been raging mad about never being allowed to leave, and his mother had seemed completely unable to wrap her head around why anyone would want to.
The Miasma Caves had shut off at exactly the same time that Ru Yeying had returned. There was always a possibility that she had merely returned home on notice so that the Caves could be closed, but… well. He was far from the willfully ignorant sort.
“Mister Ren, can you tell me what happened just before they left? Something big had to have gone on.”
Ren Zhuizhun blinked, then scrunched his brows in thought. “Nothing out of the ordinary for us. It was very sudden.”
“Then, did they ever get into a controversy of some sort?”
“Yes, several. The biggest one I can think of is the killing of Ji Misheng and Dong Wanqiu, but that was several years prior, even before my brother and I met up with them.”
“Dong Wanqiu? Of Nan’an?” Zhu Li repeated in astonishment.
“Yes, that is the same family.”
Something wasn’t right. That family name coming up again couldn’t be a coincidence.
“What happened to them?” he had to ask, curiosity gnawing at his mind.
“Ah. Something terrible and tragic; their story spread very far, very quickly, back in the day. They were a married couple with children, but he… was on his way to turning into a devil, after a particularly nasty qi deviation. The mutation was rather slow, and he still held most of his psyche, so he went off on a quest to find a cure. She left their children behind at the Ji home, in order to accompany him.”
A cure for devilism? That was a fool’s errand. The Caves had been looking for that for centuries, but a poisoning of the dantian was apparently the worst poison of them all. At least the affliction was relatively rare.
“As I am sure you can guess, they never did find a cure. Time went on, and Ji Misheng’s affliction became worse. He turned wild, uncontrollable at times, attacking everyone around him indiscriminately, even his own wife. Even though she was strong enough to fight and subdue him every time, he was a barrel of gunpowder with a lit fuse, at that point. Once out of options, they decided to seek out the Drug Spirit herself…”
Ren Zhuizhun’s brows knitted as he frowned, seemingly displeased. “Well. Ru Yeying was always a very pragmatic person, to the point of heartlessness. She could do nothing for Ji Misheng, which was predictable, but right after they visited, she went to her fellow Spirits and jointly plotted with them to kill him while he was in the area. Before he became a problem that took lives, and while he had yet to take any.”
Mixed emotions arose in Zhu Li’s heart. Heartless, yet pragmatic, indeed. Becoming a devil was an inevitability, and devils were mad beasts. He had only met one before, the son of a tribal leader that had suffered a bad qi deviation — breaking the news to the man’s father that the only treatment available was death had been an experience he never wished to repeat.
Still, killing a man after he had come to you for help, and when he had yet to do any horrible wrong… it was justifiable, sure, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a hard pill to swallow. From the sounds of it, Ru Yeying hadn’t even hesitated.
Ruthless. Pragmatic. Honorable, if one squinted. He would ask his question soon.
“So, that is what they did. When Ji Misheng and Dong Wanqiu were in the nearby outskirts of town, the Three Spirits ambushed them. Ru Yeying poisoned Dong Wanqiu with something non-lethal, but weakening, thus getting her out of the way while the three of them slayed Ji Misheng. Wenkang would later tell me that he put up a fight, at first, then eventually appeared to give up, as horrible as that is to hear.
“His body was given back to the Ji family, for what that was worth. Dong Wanqiu would later attempt to kill the Three Spirits, only for Ru Yeying to permanently handicap her with some sort of substance that robbed her of use in her legs. Years later, Dong Wanqiu would commit suicide, effectively orphaning her children. Criticism of this mostly came from the Dong and Ji families, with some bystanders commenting on Ru Yeying’s unnecessary cruelty, but the rest of jianghu overlooked it, then came to forget it entirely, it seems.
“And that is the unfortunate end of that tale, I am afraid. There was no happy ending for anyone, not even the Spirits, who could never shake the hit to their names their ruthlessness gave, up until they gave them up and disbanded.”
What a terrible story. “I’ve never heard of that before.”
“It happened long before you were born, and jianghu is always changing. Unless it has relevance, it will never reach your ears.”
One would also have to be proactive in raking information in, which he had not been in the slightest. This whole thing had definitely taught him a lesson.
Now, it was his turn for questions. “What character for Ji is Ji Misheng’s family name? I haven’t heard of them.”
“An obscure one, I believe. The only words I can think of is an archaic form of ‘wish’, and the name of Jilin, a nearby town.”
It’s an old word, our Ji is. As far as I know, we are the last remaining family in Jin that has it. You can remember it from an old word that no one uses anymore for ‘wish’.
Words from his bygone past were triggered, floating up from the depths of his mind. His heart skipped a beat.
Ji Misheng, the same Ji as Ji Youyi… Zheng Tonghao’s mother.
Was that another coincidence? It seemed too unlikely that there would be another one. It also seemed too unlikely that it wasn’t one. What the hell was actually going on?
“Are you alright, Doctor?” Ren Zhuizhun asked, snapping him out of it.
“I— yeah. Yes,” he stuttered out. He would keep this realization of maybe-there implication to himself, for now. “I’ve been meaning to ask something else; what was the name of Ru Yeying’s sword?”
“Huasu? What of it?”
Oh, god dammit. Of course.
Amidst Ren Zhuizhun’s concerned calls, Zhu Li massaged his freshly-aching forehead, one elbow on the table as he rested against it. That subtle suspicion he had been getting this whole conversation was now confirmed. Because of course it was.
Controlling, pragmatic, ruthless, disagreeable. He respected his mother immensely, but he would never lie in the face of her flaws. Especially since he had born the brunt of her stubborn grasp on her own self-perception of control.
It upset him when others spoke lowly of his mother, like how Chu Ran had, but that was because of some part of him felt that his own honor was his parents’ honor, and vice versa. A useless, irrational defense mechanism, leftover from a time when he hadn’t been effectively exiled.
But he couldn’t be mad at Ren Zhuizhun for unintentionally insulting his mother several times — after all, unlike Chu Ran, the other had known her personally, and probably better than Zhu Li did himself. Instead, Zhu Li’s head just hurt.
Many things were clicking into place.
“Huasu is my mother’s sword. Zhu Longmai’s,” he finally voiced.
He watched as Ren Zhuizhun’s face morphed through the phases of confusion, realization, horror, and sheepishness. “…Oh.”
Zhu Li preemptively waved off any apologies that might follow. “The pseudonym explains a lot. It also connects me a little better to why Masked Wasp tried to frame me, if she’s the last of a set of three.”
Ren Zhuizhun looked uncertain. “I suppose so, but how would he have known, if she had gone by Ru, not Zhu?”
That… was true. Considering this had all happened before he was born, and that his mother had always been so restrictive with who and what left the sect, that information could not have easily flowed out. So how had it? Who could have known all the points together; that Ru Yeying was Zhu Longmai, that Zhu Li was her son, and that he was out and about, apparently ripe for the framing?
…An Elder? Was there yet another traitor in his social circle? What a crock of shit this all was.
He would have to tell Chu Ran about all of this business later. That guy was the information gatherer, not him.
Taking a sip of cooling tea to get the twisting in his stomach to scram, he finally said, “I don’t know.”
They sat in contemplation for a time. Then, he asked, “You wanted to hear about my father?”
“Ah, yes. Of course. Anything that you can tell,” Ren Zhuizhun quickly answered.
Zhu Li nodded. “My information is five years out of date. Actually, when I left the sect earlier, a Miasma Caves person ambushed me and said that they wanted to talk. I told them they could only do that in the sect. I doubt they’d come today, if ever, but if they do, they would know what’s going on with him now better than me.”
“Ambushed, you say?”
“My old sect is skittish and paranoid. They don’t like to interact with most major sects.”
Ren Zhuizhun looked troubled. “We have never hurt them.”
“Maybe not, but they don’t know you, so they don’t trust you.” Zhu Li rapped a finger on the table in thought. “That’s what father was always mad about. Mother’s paranoia and lack of trust. He was getting unhappier and unhappier, the last seven or so years I was there… or maybe thirteen.”
The other gave him a questioning look, prompting him to continue. “My little sister, Zhu Pao, Canxi. After she was born, mother mostly ignored her. Wouldn’t bond, wouldn’t play. She wasn’t cruel, but it was like she didn’t have time for her. My second sister, Zhu Qin, and I always tried to stand in for her, but we were kids. Father’s affectionate by nature, too, which helped. He was never happy at Mother’s lack of care for her youngest.
“Seven years ago… was when my mother first denied me my cultivational name, despite getting my sword young. He grew unhappier with her every year she continued to refuse to give it to me, until he eventually shacked up in a courtyard separate from her. She still never changed.”
“I did think it was odd that you did not have one, yet I figured it would be rude to ask. The old apothecary owner, that San Wan, had a different view of cultivational names, believing they were only to be shared with close people, for example. Why would she not give you yours?”
Zhu Li’s lips pursed together tight. There was really no way to explain it filially, even if Ren Zhuizhun wouldn’t particularly care.
“We’re both stubborn,” he concluded, looking down. “She never allowed anyone out of the sect, on pain of permanent exile, and would raise her voice if any of her kids tried to question her on it. When I was little, I studied in the sect’s own apothecary, and came to learn that we only did business with a select few groups in Beishan and Dongqiu. I wondered why we didn’t try to expand, since we had a lot of life-saving medicines and remedies for poison. Eventually, I got the idea to be a traveling doctor. It went over about as well as you can expect, with Mother.
“She berated me for wanting to leave, saying the outside was too dangerous for me and that I shouldn’t go against her. I argued back that this would save people. She argued back that other people were not their problem, and giving them free resources like I wanted to would cut into the sect’s profits. Father prevented her from punishing me for any of this, aside from the fights.
“I was thirteen when Dusha came to me. At the naming ceremony, she gathered the whole sect together, and then… announced that she wasn’t giving it to me, because she thought me too immature to deserve it.”
Eyes were on him. He could feel them, burning through his clothes and into his skin. He still sat kneeling, back straight, new sword held in his arms, eyes wide, all as his mother’s words poured over him like freezing cold water.
He looked at her in disbelief. What was happening? Why? Why was she…?
“Zhu Longmai, what is the meaning of this?!” Ren Nidan shouted. It was louder than anything he had ever heard before, echoing in his vacant mind that had leaked all thoughts away.
“I don’t need to repeat myself,” his mother stated, oh so calm, as if she hadn’t just upended the world. She levelly met her son’s gaze, ignoring his husband. There was no emotion in her eyes.
“Longmai, what do you mean? You’re not giving Ah-Li a name…?” one of his uncles piped up, incredulous.
She didn’t answer. Her stare hurt.
“Sect Head, you cannot do this. This will reflect badly upon—“
“Quiet,” she silenced the speaking Elder, rising to her feet. “The rest of the ceremony is cancelled. Once my son proves that he deserves a name, I will think one up for him. Unless you all wish for me to name him the only word that’s on my mind right now — Buxiao?”
The false name reverberated in the deadly quiet hall. Buxiao. Unfilial.
“Not giving him that is a mercy enough. There will be no more discussion on this.”
“How dare you,” his father spat out. While it was not the first time he had become angry at his mother, never had he been so livid before, opening his mouth to hiss more vitriol at her.
Then, Zhu Junhe blocked his sight off, in her usual way. She hefted him to his unstable feet, his shaky legs threatening to give out, and quickly began to usher him away. Things were being said, shouts were being hurled, panic was being raised.
He felt so numb—
“Father never forgave her for that.”
Ren Zhuizhun appeared to have not noticed his few-second episode, or merely wasn’t going to bring it up. He looked disapproving, to say the least. “Seniors are to be wise and kind.”
Implying that Zhu Longmai was neither. The comment irritated that unconscious part of him, but it wasn’t wrong in the least, was it?
“It wasn’t, um, all bad. He was happier when they separated, actually,” he said, in a graceless attempt to lighten the mood. “He was always closer to us. Maybe… with the sect trying to reach out to me, you can go to see him. The messenger mentioned that my mother might be usurped by my eldest sister, who won’t have the same policies.”
Ren Zhuizhun’s eyes shone with a bright light. That was a nicer note. “Instead of my mother, I can talk about my sisters, if you want,” he offered.
“I would prefer to meet them in person, if I could have the chance. And if the chance does not come to me, I will fight for it.”
Zhu Li studied the man. That one sentence had lifted his spirits immensely; perhaps the news of a single chance to see his long-lost brother was enough for him.
Their meal had been picked away over the course of their conversation, during intermittent pauses in speech. Some other small-talk was exchanged, mostly anecdotes about his father, after which Ren Zhuizhun happily saw him off, promising to speak more later. About what, he didn’t clarify.
One party had grown some hope, one party had received a possible lead towards his predicament. It was a good exchange.
Leaving the building, he looked up at the now-dark sky. Some lanterns were lit across the path ahead. A disciple escorted him back to his courtyard, only for him to look around and find neither Chu Ran, nor Guhui.
He asked a disciple outside to go locate them. In not too long a time, they returned, looking like they were about to crack up, and offered to lead them to the wayward duo.
He agreed, they left, and it didn’t take long for them to reach a courtyard of the massive sect complex, where a conspicuous sight was beneath a lantern that had been almost mockingly planted in the ground and placed above it.
Guhui, the lazy mare, was yellow in the dim light, her body splayed out on the ground while her massive head was pillowed firmly in Chu Ran’s lap. The man was seated upright, frowning and especially unamused.
At Zhu Li’s approach, Guhui did not stir, though Chu Ran certainly did. “Good evening, Doctor. I am pleased to announce that I have not been mauled, and less pleased to announce that I have been turned into an equine’s pillow. It was the oddest thing, truly; one moments I was sitting here, watching her do as she willed, and the next, she was kneeling next to me. Flattering, for all of five seconds, whereupon she forced her head onto my lap and flopped over. Whether this is an honor or an offense, I am not sure, but she’s been like so for hours.”
Zhu Li smiled a bit, genuine, and took his seat beside him. “It’s better than being a murder target.”
“Barely, if I’m to be crushed or bored to death.”
He chuckled lightly, earning a startled turn of the head from Chu Ran. The surprised look he had caused his smile to fall. “What?”
“Oh, nothing, nothing at all. This is the first I’ve heard you laugh. Amusement is no rarity within you, yet you hardly ever express it. Did the talk go well?”
“Yeah. He learned something of my family, and I learned a lot of things about my parents’ past. Specifically that Ru Yeying is actually just my mother, under a pseudonym.”
Chu Ran made an interested noise.
Zhu Li relayed the rest of the information; of the Three Spirits, their personalities, Ji Misheng and Dong Wanqiu, Ji Youyi, and the mystery of how someone could have known Ru Yeying was Zhu Longmai.
“Goodness, Doctor Zhu. I thought that was going to be a fun conversation you would have, not more business.”
“It’s just what happened.”
“Regardless, that is an event I was not aware of. I’ll look into Ji Misheng and Dong Wanqiu,” Chu Ran added, doing his dark laugh at the end. “A coincidence, this is not.”
While tickling Guhui’s nose to make her get up, the horse huffing moodily in response, Zhu Li thought, Yeah. There’s no way it is.
The author says: no coincidences have ever happened in the history of anything ever
also: *bullies my teenage son with Public Humiliation* why doesn’t he respect me?
3 thoughts on “SnCr 27”
Ooooh, interesting things coming to light in this chapter. 👀
And I guess Guhui does like Chu Ran after all, but she’s still going to show him who’s boss. 😆
Okay, so… He did took Guhui out for a walk 😂
The last scene was adorable ^^
But eariler, wow – so much new information! The story of past and present seems to be slowly coming together… But there’s still a lot to investigate, and I’m excited for it ^^
Now there’s three people you never invoke by name
The student really does follow the master doesn’t he…
The fun of recognising your mother from her youthful exploits. And Ren Zhuizhun is not wrong in his assessment of her.
If you have to squint to spot someone’s honour that’s not necessarily something you would want to rely on…
What the… I know Doctor Zhu might feel otherwise but I for one am glad he got out. And I hope his dad and uncle may meet again in this life.
Guhui is such a shit.
Yeah that is not a coincidence. At all.
Thank you for the chapters!