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This was not a surprising outcome. In all unadulterated truthfulness, this was the only outcome anyone had reasonably expected.
Zhu Li felt nothing as he acquiesced to jumping into the dirt pit. Or, perhaps he only thought that he felt nothing, when the faint nibble of expectation was gnawing away at his insides in reality, too vague and spread out to pinpoint with any amount of precision.
His feet took him over to Chu Ran’s side. He was now close enough to peer over the lid’s obstructing edge and into the box below. The sight of its contents, exactly what he had been expecting, were no less terrible to behold.
There was skeleton within the box. Long had it decayed into nothing, as it was accompanied by nothing but the smell of dust, yet even so, he could see hair that had never broken down gathered upon the skull, reddish-brown with age. The body was slight in height, and dressed in deteriorated silks of gray and brown in a more feminine cut, with no jewelry to speak of. Its only accompaniment was a long cane made of dark wood, the head of which was carved into the shape of some unidentifiable creature painted in yellow, the body of which was the creature’s tail.
Distinct-looking, someone’s words echoed in his head.
What were clearly long-dried and dust-rendered bloodstains still coated the chest area of the clothes, leading the eye to a conspicuous spot on the chest — a straight line, straight through the sternum, pierced through where the heart would be. This woman’s fate was not left to the imagination.
He thought back to how Han Wenkang was described to have been murdered by a sword through the chest, in almost the exact same spot. It would have been the exact same spot, had she not moved.
That just confirmed their hypothesis, didn’t it? A powerful cultivator, dead and ambushed in a manner too similar to be a coincidence. The only difference was that no one had been framed for this, and that the perpetrator had bothered with a coffin — they had hidden
Someone had a bloody grudge against the Three Spirits. Two out of three were dead, the final one hidden beyond reach. If Masked Wasp knew that he was Zhu Longmai’s son, and also that Ru Yeying was her, then… wasn’t it a real possibility that Masked Wasp had been using him as bait, to lure her out?
If he hated her, then he probably hated him, her son, by proxy. It wasn’t a stretch of a thought; had the trial proceeded in truth, even if Zhu Longmai had never come out (she never would have, it’d been a fool’s hope), her son would have met a horrible end. Two eagles, one arrow.
The motive was here, just incomplete. How frustrating.
“I knew it,” Chu Ran said all of a sudden, breaking the silence.
Zhu Li turned to see him. The other was facing empty air, expression blank. “I knew she never would have abandoned us.”
No one had anything to follow that up with.
Somberness and mourning would have to wait, unfortunately, for there was business to be done. The black coffin was resealed and hefted out of the ground, slated to be strapped to an unsuspecting horse for delivery.
There was nothing else to be done here. They quickly packed up and got back on the road, a heavy atmosphere bearing down on all of their heads. Its influence prevented even Han Xingyu from attempting to strike up any idle conversations.
The time passed in excruciating discomfort. Not much a silence-breaker to begin with, Zhu Li never mustered up anything great to say throughout the journey. Not with so many people present, anyways.
They did share a courtyard, so he could always say something to him once they were back.
What he hadn’t expected beforehand was that the second they touched down in the sect, Chu Ran would pass everything off to his sect at flying speed, give only an “Excuse me, Doctor” to him, then flee to parts unknown at the maximum speed he was allowed before he would be viewed as flat-out running. Zhu Li hadn’t yet had time to even de-saddle Guhui, forced to watch him hurry away.
Any other day, that might be humorous. On this day, it was worrying.
He quickly passed off all of the sect’s borrowed gear back to them, then led Guhui back to their shared courtyard. A certain instinct of his told him to walk a lot slower than usual.
The disciples on-duty informed him that Chu Ran was indeed here. At least he hadn’t run off to a place he wouldn’t have been able to find him in.
The gates were pushed open for his horse and he. They entered unobstructed, only for him to pause upon hearing a particular sort of sound. Guhui’s ears perked up, as well, her head raising up to listen better.
He stood there, attempting to think up something for him to do, but his mind was coming up blank. Reassuring his little sister after a bad fall or some such was not remotely in the same vein. A real shame, it was, that he was a doctor of the body, not the heart.
Upon removing Guhui’s reins, she headed straight for her pile of toys in one corner, seeming to have become uninvested in the blink of an eye. Ah, well.
Following the sound, he wound past the building entirely to come to its rear garden. Its flowers were all the same native breeds as the rest of the sect had, but were arranged more aesthetically than their naturally-strewn counterparts. The garden usually emitted faint and pleasant scents that calmed the spirit; this day was no exception.
Curled up amongst the variegated petals was a form in light blue, his back curved as he buried his face into his knees. Those shoulders were seen to shake, even from far away — the man seemed to be trying his best to stifle his sobs, and not succeeding too well.
Should he approach? Should he leave him alone? He wasn’t sure which the man would prefer.
If he walked away, it could possibly signal that he couldn’t be bothered, so approaching him was the best bet. He could just tell him to get lost if he didn’t want his company, then.
Quieting his footsteps, he slowly walked up to Chu Ran’s side and sat on the ground beside him. The other didn’t automatically acknowledge his presence, but he also didn’t tell him off, so that was a good sign.
Guhui’s unhurried hooves were heard to beat against the ground, giving off gentle thuds as they drew nearer. Zhu Li turned to see her; she was heading right towards them from the left bearing one of her favorite toys in her mouth, a rope with weights on it.
Maneuvering to be behind the two of them, she silently dropped it by Chu Ran’s right side, then lowered herself into a lay. They could lean against her in lieu of a wall, if they wanted to.
A few minutes of silence followed, peppered with increasingly-infrequent hiccups and quiet cries. When Chu Ran finally cried his tears dry, he lifted his head up from his pose, and Zhu Li silently passed him a handkerchief.
This earned him a weak, tear-stained smile from the man, who mopped the snot and moisture off of his face. Chu Ran’s face as as red as his eyes, which were puffy and shiny alike.
So many poems of the long-gone past would describe crying women as ‘dewy plum blossoms’ and other junk. Had the poets smoked opium before they put brush to paper? Had they been weirdos that liked seeing people miserable? This was something Zhu Li had never understood. He would feel compassion whenever someone else was upset, of course, but never had he thought, ‘This is something I like so much, I’m going to write poetry about it.’
(He would never write poetry, since he was about as creatively-inclined as a sheer-drop cliff, but the point still stood.)
Those poems would describe the ‘flowers’ as beautiful things marred by ‘dew’, implying that their beauty was veneered by an invisible barrier, and once the barrier was gone, they would resume their gorgeousness. The reality was that the ‘flowers’ should actually be described as both dewed and wilted; once their tears were gone, they would still need care to return to their former glory. Reality wasn’t as pretty as these pedants harped on about it being.
The poets of ancient times had weird proclivities and should have kept them off paper. Chu Ran didn’t look good at all after crying — Zhu Li preferred that creepy smile to whatever this was, and he would argue that that was the correct response. Smiles trumped crying.
“F-forgive my inelegant display, Doctor,” Chu Ran apologized with a sniff, voice hoarse and nasally. “I would typically find somewhere less… shared for this.”
“You don’t need to apologize. You do this often?”
“You said typically.”
“Oh, well. This is not something I do much of anymore, I should say.”
He couldn’t really be blamed for that.
There was a lull in their talk. The sound of wind swishing through tree leaves and Guhui’s intermittent huffs were the sole breaks in the silence.
“Do you hate your mother, Doctor?”
Zhu Li blinked at the sudden question. “No. Why?”
“Even after she refused to give you a name and left you in that cell?”
His stomach dropped, one fist clenching slightly in reflex. No forgiveness would be easily earned for either of those things, but… “No.”
Zhu Li opened his mouth, but after a few seconds of nothing coming out, he shut it again.
Why not, indeed?
There was no pretending that he wasn’t angry with her, in some capacity. He hated certain actions of hers. He hated how stubborn she was. He hated her inaction. But hating her,?
He couldn’t pretend that he did.
“She’s…” he started, trying to find the words, “flawed, not evil. The times that were bad were bad, but that doesn’t mean she was always wrong. We got the majority of our poison knowledge and martial techniques from her, and she’s a good teacher. She was the one that suggested and arranged for me to study in the Caves’s infirmary, too. And even though she never really bonded with my youngest sister, she never treated her any differently.
“Never once did she really demand that any of us not go on the paths we take or hobbies we have. My eldest sister took more to martial arts than she did at her age, my second sister has a love for tailoring, my third is into botany, my only little sister is really into snakes — nothing was said about any of that, she just expected results and for us to tell her if we needed help. She was always protective of us, too, and wouldn’t tolerate a single bit of nonsense from anyone else. It’s just…”
He trailed off again. It was just a lot of things.
“It’s just that she’s weird about certain things. She never exploded, unless anyone suggested that we leave the sect, and then she would really blow up. Father would get mad at her, they would argue, but she never defended herself well. She never really got mad at him back, either, not even when he pulled away from her. I don’t know why she was colder to my little sister, I don’t know why she’s so adamant about no one leaving, I don’t know why she won’t explain herself. I don’t know why she does anything. I just don’t get her.”
Once sure he was done, Chu Ran made a small noise of acknowledgement. “Did speaking with Ren Zhuizhun knock your reluctance loose?” he asked out of nowhere, sounding much like a millstone.
Zhu Li raised a brow. That was not really the follow-up question he had been expecting. “Reluctance for what?”
“Speaking of your family, of course. You were quite against it when I asked you earlier.”
“You don’t know them personally, whereas Ren Zhuizhun knows my parents. Also, you don’t know how to ask without making it sound like you’re accusing them of something.”
“Oh, but surely they have done something.”
Zhu Li side-eyed him. Chu Ran smiled back.
“In any case, your mother has both good and bad qualities, according to you?”
Zhu Li nodded.
The other’s smile faded. He leaned back a bit, his spine resting against Guhui’s side. “You have not told me much about your father, but you do seem to adore him, yes?”
“Sure.” What was he getting at?
“That must be nice.”
No other remarks were forthcoming from the man, no matter how long Zhu Li waited. He took to laying against Guhui, as well; he got her haunch as a backrest.
Most of their day had been spent on this fateful journey. Earlier, Chu Ran had requested for Xin Yinhui’s remains to be cremated and her cane to be cleaned, which was scheduled to be returned to him at a further date. Zhu Li hoped they would hurry up with that, already, since the keepsake might help with the grief.
At that point, Chu Ran said suddenly, “There is not a single good quality in my father.”
Zhu Li looked at him expectantly.
“Years have I spent keeping tabs on him, getting every single bit of filth that I can from him. He is reprehensible to his core, possessing a sociopathic disregard for everyone but himself. If one makes him look bad, there will be hell to pay, regardless of whether they are blood. Words cannot define how very evil he is, and I cannot tell you the entire extent of his crimes, lest you be unable to sleep and think at peace with him next door.
“My motive for wishing for his downfall is not entirely selfless. Not only is he vile to others, but he is inextricable from every single bad thing that has occurred to me in my life. In my younger years, he provided only the barest of care, curated specifically so that I wouldn’t be a stain on an image he is too stupid to realize has long been stained black. Whenever I failed in my studies on account of the fact that no one he found knew how to teach a blind man, he would have a grand time finding out how to hurt me the most. A beating, a withholding of food, a nanny’s death. He could get creative.
“Had he been even a slightly better person, Madam Du might not be so broken, I might not be blind, and my birth mother might not be dead,” he continued, his words becoming more and more tinged with rage. “I might not have been thrown into a courtyard and forgotten. My brothers might not have been as corrupted by him as they are now. My sisters might not have fled from him as soon as they could.
“Alas, he is terrible, and has ruined the lives of everyone his disgusting light touches. This crime of killing my teacher, the one I considered a mother for most of my life, is one I will repay by rending apart everything his wretched heart holds dear. And I know he was involved — she was right next door so often, and he and Masked Wasp were so close. I will kill that one and bury every last one of his cronies, too.
“Never could that one I share blood with ever just leave me and my own be. He always has to meddle, meddle, meddle, and take away what makes me happy. I hate him. From the depths of my soul, I hate him. And every time some know-nothing comes and ever so kindly informs me that I am the worst sort of unfilial for going against my father, even though all he has done is wrong… what a bad joke. What has he done, aside from worse than the bare minimum? What has he done, aside from sire me in the same way any street mutt can? Does that deserve praise? Recognition? A reward for being a beast set out to stud? Nonsense,” he spat out spitefully. “The only beast he is is a rabid one, and rabid beasts get put down.”
That last word fell heavy upon the ears, weighted with a hate that could not be described with known vocabulary.
Zhu Li allowed silence to follow that. There was nothing good that he could say.
A painfully long time later, Chu Ran spoke again. “What emotion am I feeling off of you, Doctor? I’m failing to name it.”
“Compassion, probably. I’m not too sure myself,” Zhu Li candidly admitted. “Did letting all of that out make you feel better?”
Chu Ran blinked, then appeared to sink into thought. “Hm… I did dump all of that on you, didn’t I? My apologies.”
“It’s fine. You didn’t say anything surprising.” Considering everything else you’ve already said to me, Zhu Li mentally added on.
“You don’t think so?”
“No. You made the fact that you hate him pretty clear months ago.”
“Did I? That must have slipped out a few dozen times without my realizing it. He is a beyond hatable man.”
“Clearly. Your family problems make mine… pale.”
Most of the way through that remark, Zhu Li realized that it was a stupid and possibly very insensitive thing to say. Luckily for him, Chu Ran only answered with a brisk laugh, not looking offended or put off at all.
“Ah, is it a competition for most troubled, Doctor? Problems are still problems, even in relation to others. Just because a neighbor’s house is swept away in a flood does not mean that the water covering your home’s foundation is not of concern.”
Zhu Li huffed. “I guess not.”
“If it was indeed a competition, it would be one where the winner is actually the biggest loser. I can assure you of that.”
Chu Ran pat his face in search of more damp or crackle-dried spots. “Ah, how aggravating. I knew a month after her disappearance that my teacher was dead. I have no idea why finding what I already expected was so… affecting.”
“Reality hit you. There’s nothing strange about it.”
“Yes. The reality that someone slaughtered the most mother-like figure to me like she was a wild animal, then buried her in a shallow grave. They tried to hide it with a box and the lake, but the Heavens dictated that the perpetrator could not hide forever.” Chu Ran grinned, baring teeth. “I find you right when Han Xingyu finds my teacher’s resting place. Fate deemed that so.”
Then, Chu Ran tilted his head to one side. “Hm… now that I think about it, had I not saved you, I don’t believe Han Xingyu would have ever said a word to me about this. Why give information to an unknown, a possible perpetrator?… Oh, not rescuing you would never have crossed my mind, Doctor. That would have ruined everything. My plans never involve those I dislike getting their way.
“That still does not erase the fact that you are my lucky sign. How does that sound for a cultivational name? Jizhou?”
Caught off guard by that abrupt change in topic, Zhu Li stared at him. “What?”
“Oh, but that’s such a common word, and too close to Jili… which is the same Li as your name, I was told. Hm. Eight is a lucky number… eight, eight… you know, that poem my teacher took my name from has ten clauses. Mine is seventh. The corresponding name out of it from the eighth clause would be Rumu, but those characters are from ‘elaborate’ and ‘grave’. Cling to a finely-decorated grave; the Eight Immortals enter obscurity… ‘enter obscurity’ is too foreboding, as well… hm…”
That was quite enough of that. “Yingliu. What are you doing?”
“Thinking up a name for you, of course. Every good cultivator needs a good name. What would suit you? Dexin would work, for ‘virtuous heart’. You are certainly—“
“Yingliu,” Zhu Li emphasized, “stop.”
Chu Ran did stop, brows shooting up in surprise. “What is it?… Why are you upset?”
“I’m not accepting a name right now. Why are you doing this?”
“Ah… did you not want one? Everyone should, yes? As you’ve helped me with one of my major goals, I supposed that I could help you think up a good one. I would not pick you a bad one, you know. That was done to me, and I cannot say that it was the most pleasant experience.”
Zhu Li sighed, placing his forehead in one hand. “It’s not as simple as me just not knowing what to pick for a name.”
All that earned him was a confused blink. “Does it have something to do with your mother not naming you? She’s refused, so why not take matters into your own hands?”
“Naming yourself is not shameful only in very specific circumstances, which I don’t meet. If my mother won’t do it, my father will have to, or my older sisters, or some other blood family. Naming myself slaps them all in the face.”
“Oh. I understand.”
He understood, but it sounded like he wasn’t too happy about that.
“In that case… do you want something else as thanks?”
“For being a ‘lucky sign’? No thanks. You do enough already.”
“No, no, not for that. For indulging me in all that I ask. You’re a nice man, Doctor.”
How sweet. But… “You don’t need to reward me for whatever you think you need to.”
“No? Getting Junyan to do anything with me is frequently met with sighs and extreme reluctance, unless I give her incentives.”
“…She has her own priorities, then.” Those being ‘a fierce independence from my overbearing sect head’ and ‘dogs’. “I don’t mind doing what you suggest. You don’t exactly ask for insurmountable tasks.”
“Oh? Walking around cities with me and listening to me talk isn’t the ultimate chore? I hadn’t a clue.”
Something fired off in Zhu Li’s brain. “Do you… think you’re a burden?”
“Ah? No. I was being facetious, Doctor.”
Even though Zhu Li only half-believed that, he let it go. No point in pressing it.
“Anyways, we happen to be about done with our business in Beishan. I doubt there is anything significant left to be gained here, information-wise. We have a new, guaranteed group of allies, yet they are still a bit splintered, and can offer nothing much more. As for who we need to look towards first, I think you are well aware of who she is.”
Those words gave him a sinking feeling in his stomach, which he banished with a sigh. “Zheng Tonghao and the Dong family. Yeah.”
The former had been trying to speak to him earlier, and now appeared to have a more tangential connection to this debacle than just ‘coward that doesn’t want to implicate her family’. The latter group had received his treatments and supplies before, but the family was big enough to rival the Hans — if they were having similar fragmenting problems, that wouldn’t be a surprise. He was at least willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
There was also the oddity of the Yin family’s out-of-the-blue involvement, that Faux Fox person, the one that made the fake sword, the one that had impersonated him for one murder and committed a different murder seven years earlier…
Honestly, now that he thought about it, they didn’t seem to have uncovered much. Some family secrets and a likely, but not set motive, but not much.
When he said as much to Chu Ran, the other only laughed. “You forget that you now have an established blood connection with the Han family, and the Xin Sect has the Blue Orchid Sect’s unified support. That’s good leverage. Instead of the lot of us running all over the place, people will come to us, defying the threat of the Chu’s blood money and Masked Wasp’s nonsense.”
“Are powerful sects really afraid of those two?” Zhu Li doubted. “The way you speak of them makes them not seem that great.”
“Oh, they are no sort of great at all, trust me. Give an idiot too much power, and he will be more dangerous than the most cunning schemer — my father used to be able to buy off tiny batches of people in secret. He can no longer do this. Masked Wasp is harshly limiting contact with him, too, so that threat is all but negated. The man was never too powerful, anywho. His name is quite representative of him and the bees that buzz around him: annoying, individually weak, reliant on deaths by a thousand stings. No one wanted to provoke them due to the untraceable aggravation their extended network could cause; ruining relationships with smaller sects by proxy and such.
“However, I have had great fun in ruining both of their reputations and connections. Too bad for them, that money and fear do not forge lasting relationships. That weakness and our own growing connections have edged that advantage away from them.”
Zhu Li nodded. While he mostly understood, strength politics were an arbitrary and confusing concept to him, a lack of understanding born from being no where near the first in line for sect succession. He would leave that to Chu Ran to handle.
“Although our business is mostly done, we should remain here. After all, your time of the month is incoming.”
Chu Ran had an innocent, I-have-said-nothing-wrong-at-all expression on. “What what?”
“You mean the Lotus’s monthly act-up,” Zhu Li deliberately drew out, staring holes into him, “which is a less weird way of saying that.”
“Hm? How was the first way weird?”
Cheeky jerk. He was right, though; the end of the month was coming up, which meant that the Lotus’s pain was going to come get him soon. Experiencing it while out on the road would be way more inconvenient than waiting it out here.
“The guy that bothered us out on the market still hasn’t shown up. If any Caves members aren’t here by the time the Lotus flare-up passes, they’ve taken too long, anyways,” Zhu Li pointed out.
Chu Ran nodded. “That is true. One last possibility, albeit one that relies on another to have some sense. Hm… now that I think of it, all major sects have experts in channel-based things, like arrays and pacts. Perhaps they would be able to tell us why the pact hurts. I am not well-versed in pacts, myself. And the Twelve-Petaled Lotus technique might have lied to me.”
Zhu Li gave him the stink eye.
“I knew the Lotus wasn’t lethal or crippling,” the other offered, smiling apologetically. “I suppose I should have expected that my family would not be truthful with the details of its forbidden techniques.”
“Didn’t you say the notes were waterlogged, too?”
“Oh, yes. Junyan couldn’t read them all to me.”
The stink eye grew in intensity.
“Ah, Doctor, don’t be mad. It was all for the better.”
I don’t believe that for a second.
Not too much later in the day, Xin Yinhui’s odd yellow cane came back from being scrubbed of dirt. Chu Ran cradled the object to his chest, then, head bowed, and refused to let it go until it came time for rest.
The author says: Comparing crying women to dewed flowers is meant to convey feeling affection and pity for them. Zhu Li doesn’t understand this, instead choosing to believe that poets are freaks with bad kinks… then again, considering foot binding is still a thing in his world, maybe he isn’t that wrong.
3 thoughts on “SnCr 29”
Poor Chu Ran. 😭
Thank you for the update! I really liked this conversation between Chu Ran and Zhu Li, it felt very natural.
So… After sorting up the Hans, now it’s time to go to yet another problematic clan, isn’t it 😀 Can’t wait for the next chapters ^^
Ah. Ah. Well…
Sometimes all that’s needed is company.
Well it’s not like Chu Ran wasn’t planning the full works of the rend apart all their workings, cast them down unto the utmost pit of ignominy, and then after a suitable interval death variety anyway. This just means the net of heaven will be deployed a bit more thoroughly
Doctor if someone is told something enough they will consider at least a little true.
I mean it is intense, flesh being carved out with a knife monthly pain…
Thank you for the chapter!