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Waiting around for the inevitable was not the most entertaining thing in the world, but at least it was broken up by a visit from Han Taisha. They exchanged some small talk — she thanked Zhu Li for cheering her father up a little, mostly — before she got to the point.
“I came to thank you both in person for your help with Doctor San and all them. Shu Lao and he are in permanent custody, while the other three have been ousted from the sect. My rival Elders have all backed off so that I can run the sect properly. Perhaps the sect might even be able to have a mourning period, at long last.”
“You weren’t afforded a mourning period?” Chu Ran asked her, confused. “My teacher’s body had yet to be recovered seven years ago, and we still mourned her immediately.”
Han Taisha gave no verbal response, idly lifting her tea cup for a sip. I was too bogged down, the gesture said.
Speaking of bogged down, the bags under her eyes were even more horrendous. She was pale, and overall didn’t look too great. What was she doing, working herself to death? Not sleeping?
Mentally justifying himself as having concern for a family member, Zhu Li asked after it rather bluntly. She only gave him a blank, exhausted look. “Cultivators do not need as much sleep as mortals. I am fine.”
“Pardon my bluntness, but you clearly need more sleep than you’re getting. You also don’t look fine at all.”
“I just… need to get used to this. I will be fine.”
He narrowed his eyes at her, observing her graceless state fully. “How many hours of sleep do you actually get?”
“Six shichen, once every three days,” she answered, looking back at him evenly. It might have had power to it, if she didn’t look so drained, and hadn’t just spoken something ridiculous with complete, unshakeable confidence.
Zhu Li, the eternally beleaguered and exasperated doctor, had to massage his forehead. “Just because you only need two shichen instead of four doesn’t mean that you don’t need to sleep every day. Who told you you could?”
“My mother could do it.”
Oh, for Heaven’s favor. Why were people so bad at caring for themselves? “Your mother was sixty years old and had higher cultivation than you. Please get back to not depriving yourself of sleep; twelve hours once every three days is bad for your health, four hours per night is good for it. I advise you to not push yourself so much.”
“I really do feel fine.”
“With all due respect, Sect Head Han, do I need to get you a mirror?”
She bristled at this. Her hackles raised, but quickly lowered again in defeat.
“Ah, Sect Head, you should not even bother arguing him. Not only is he always right, but his apothecary is right in my house, and he has never once lost a quibble with even the most stubborn of customers. I can hear it through my walls,” Chu Ran quipped in amusement, happily munching away at mantou dipped in sauce in the meantime. “He takes no nonsense, this one.”
“I am aware of Doctor Zhu’s merits. Han Dao’s physical recovery is a testament to that,” Han Taisha admitted, nodding absently. “I will… consider those words. In fact, this relates to something that I came here to ask.”
She turned to Zhu Li. “I know that you will leave Beishan soon. However, I would like to extend an invitation for you to come back, Doctor Zhu, once this is all over and you are freed of the Twelve-Petaled Lotus’s restrictions.”
Her counterpart looked back at her, surprised. “You want me to be the sect’s new doctor?”
The Blue Orchid Sect’s infirmary was recently vacated; it wasn’t hard for him to fathom her thought process, here.
“Yes. It is a bit sudden to propose, but competent jianghu doctors are rare. Doctor San’s sect contains the best-regarded doctors in the region. Or at least it formerly did. Since you are here, and family, it made sense for me to ask you.”
Zhu Li paused, sinking into thought.
Huh. Being an in-sect doctor… it would be a much different life than his time as a wanderer, for sure. Less free and scenic, but more stable and secure. He would be able to foist the logistics off onto someone else, never worry about the weather or something happening to Guhui, and — after everything that had happened recently — be more in-the-loop.
Had this been before the trial, he would have rejected this immediately. Now, the concept of being protected by numbers and not hunted down by unknowns was more appealing.
“I’ll think about it,” he replied. He couldn’t exactly give her a guarantee that he would.
She nodded, like it was no surprise. “Of course. The date is nine months away, so there is no rush in any decision you make. This one wanted to let you know that the option is there.”
“Well, while you happen to be here, why not do us both a favor?” Chu Ran interposed with a friendly smile. “Does your sect house anyone versed in pacts that could meet with us?”
That random inquiry visibly caused wheels to turn in Han Taisha’s head, as well as for alarm to arise on her features. “Is there a problem with the Lotus pact? Has something gone wrong?”
“Not exactly. The Lotus hurts the good Doctor here once at the end of every month, for reasons unclear to us. We were hoping for a professional opinion.”
“You were the one to forge the pact, Sect Head Chu. Are you… are you not aware of all the pact’s inner workings, yourself?”
Beaming from ear to ear, he simply stated, “No.”
She looked dumbfounded. “O… okay. I can find someone for you…?”
While Chu Ran grinned impossibly wider, Zhu Li acted like the man’s lack of foresight had nothing to do with him. How did someone that was actively plotting his family’s demise not be careful with stuff like this?
…Maybe he should be concerned about the soundness of Chu Ran’s master plan.
It wasn’t long before someone dropped by their courtyard, examined the Lotus mark on Zhu Li’s arm, then bluntly hit them with, “What kind of goddamn idiot designed this?”
Zhu Li looked at the design on his arm, looked at the Han elder holding it, then looked at the game-faced Chu Ran.
“This is all wrong. This pathway is useless, it doesn’t connect to any ends. These instructions are incomplete! This is why no one should touch oaths, ever! Did a blind man fucking conjure this up?! It’s all wrong!”
Nope. He was not saying anything. Not a peep.
“First of all, I can tell what this half of the oath was trying to do. There’s the first layer, which tells the other half whether you’re still alive. The second layer has instructions to fade a petal away for each month the pact is survived through. The third layer of charms is supposed to corrupt your meridians and kill you if it doesn’t receive signals that your counterpart is alive. The problem here is that this third layer is completely broken! It’s missing this channel, it’s missing that channel, these channels are cut off, this function doesn’t work. To the naked eye, it’s fine. To those experienced, this thing is a hot mess!”
“What does that mean?” he had to ask, growing anxious.
“It means that this oath of yours is bogus, at least on your end. The signaling layer works, the mark management layer works, but the actual pact layer doesn’t do anything useful. Those pains you get every month, when one of the petals fades, is essentially this third layer getting hyped up from the activity and attempting to kill you.”
He couldn’t keep his eyes from widening.
“Of course, it’s never going to succeed at that. It’s cut off from the first layer, it doesn’t know your counterpart is alive, and so it tries to kill you. But its access to your meridians and qi is also cut off, so it’s completely impotent, too. The second layer needs to draw your qi to work, though, and when that bit of qi comes, the third layer steals some of it to cause major, but ultimately non-damaging pain. Once the second layer’s process it done, the third goes back into dormancy. It’s odd, but a common problem in all arts of proximal channels.”
So, this life-and-death pact did absolutely nothing? It was pointless? Had it just been a sham to fool the Chu’s?
Zhu Li shot a questioning look at Chu Ran. He wasn’t really mad, he just wasn’t sure why the other hadn’t simply told him that it was a farce.
“I would really like to see the other half of this oath. Maybe it’s just as messed up,” she continued to mumbled to herself.
Then, she jumped when Chu Ran abruptly shoved his sleeve back and stuck his arm near her face. “Here you are,” he stated in his placid voice.
Her eyes landed on the identical Lotus mark, then on Chu Ran’s very blind eyes. She declined to comment. In contrast, this was Zhu Li’s first time seeing the scarred-over Lotus, last seen back in the jail cell, when Chu Ran had carved himself bloody while muttering enchantments under his breath.
(It wasn’t really an image he enjoyed having in his head.)
After the careful examination, she looked oddly at the mark’s owner. “This half is fine,” she said carefully. “Made by an amateur and definitely going to leave a scar, but it functions.”
“I was working with water-damaged instructions being read off to me by another, who also had no idea how to make oaths.”
The Elder was trying hard not to look tremendously annoyed. It wasn’t working, at all. Not even a little bit.
“Okay, you two. I’ll be frank. If you die,” she pointed at Chu Ran, “then only you will die. If you die,” she pointed at Zhu Li, “you both will die. Neither of you should be doing anything reckless to begin with, but you especially shouldn’t. At least when he dies, it’ll only implicate one person.”
With that, she left quickly after no pleasantries. The two of them sat in silence, Zhu Li in particular thinking back to what he knew of Chu Ran.
“Did you do that on purpose?” he asked.
Chu Ran tilted his head to the side. His lack of automatic denial was confirmation enough, though he did add on, “Partially. The instructions being damaged was not a lie, and my half of the pact is not identical to yours, so one set of instructions cannot supplement the other. I simply excised remaining parts of your half so that it was effectively neutered of any lethal effects. As long as the signaling layer worked, I would be fine with my intact half of the pact.”
“You didn’t think to tell me of that earlier?”
The other smiled apologetically. “I presumed that since the effect was the same, where I would die if you did, it was fine to not worry you with the details. The pain part was unexpected, on account of my lack of experience in the field, but it turned out to be nothing, yes?”
Zhu Li glared at him for a split second, then decided doing so wasn’t worth the effort, rising with a tired sigh. He needed more tea. “I’ve told you before that you don’t need to keep things like that from me.”
“I disagree. Life is easier when one doesn’t know certain things about it.”
This again? It wasn’t the first time he’d said something like that, and probably wouldn’t be the last, either. Fine. “You could have futzed with your half, too.”
“Sadly, I did not have the time. Making your half not automatically lethal to you was a bit more pressing. Besides, threats are not effective unless there is substance behind them, yes? If any of my family or Masked Wasp’s people try to attack you or I directly, their reputation will hit the bottom of an abyss, without question. They have yet to do so, which is a right shame… ah, but my reaction will be fitting, if the time comes.”
“You’re confident that they won’t succeed?”
“Haha, no. They lack the ability. If they were any sort of formidable, they would not have had to dishonorably envenom and ambush those more powerful than them, and Masked Wasp would have sent someone better if he had someone better. The Dao turns its back on the wicked, after all.”
Zhu Li thought it over, then nodded. “I guess you’re right.”
Thus, the day proceeded onwards. Zhu Yaodang and his ilk did not show that day, nor in the night, nor all of the next day. Han Xingyu and Ren Zhuizhun did pay a visit instead, mostly to see Zhu Li off one last time. The former attempted to pinch his cheek as a joke (and failed), while the other lamented some more about how he had never been given the chance to know his nieces and nephew.
The man also said a bunch of stuff about how he hoped that his nieces were as resourceful (and kindhearted and other junk) as he was, because that would make meeting them all the better. Zhu Li hadn’t been this embarrassed since his grandmother had gushed over him in his childhood, the only difference between then and now being his impeccable self-control. Not a single blush, awkward fidget, or stutter affected his bearing as he waited for the torment of being complimented to end.
(Still, it was heart-warmingly sweet, in an odd way. He barely knew Ren Zhuizhun, yet the other seemed to have warmed up to him immediately, enough to be excited about meeting him again in the future. Perhaps the prospect of seeing his brother again had softened him up.
In any case, he liked being complimented on something other than his looks for once.)
That night, the Lotus acted up again. There was no Du Lin coincidentally coming to get unknown packages from Chu Ran, nor the strangely desolate quiet of Zhongling’s curfew; the sole points of familiarity were the chill of nighttime courtyard stinging his skin, and the dim, orange light of the lone courtyard lantern.
‘Attempting to kill him’ was an apt description of the pain the broken Lotus caused as it lost a petal. The two prior instances of this had done nothing to mitigate the current waves shooting out from his arm, raking invisible claws all throughout his veins. Chu Ran was nearby, seated amongst the same rows of flowers, brows furrowed in concentration whilst he attempted to force qi away from the faulty layer.
Unfortunately for them both, it didn’t really work. Too much interference would actually just drag the hours-long process out further, as it inhibited the petal’s fading, and the entire process would not cease until it was completely gone. Chu Ran was eventually forced to give up that attempt for simply massaging the Lotus mark on Zhu Li’s arm. That didn’t really work, either, but it was distracting enough for the cause.
“Can you tell me a story, Doctor? Perhaps that will take your mind off of the pain,” he said, absently kneading his fingers into Zhu Li’s flesh. “I can sense it, myself. While it does not hurt me to sense another’s pain, so to speak, it certainly is not a pleasant experience. Talking should take your mind off of it, if nothing else.”
Sweat was dripping down Zhu Li’s temples, courtesy of the feeling that he was being flayed alive. His breathing was rough as he focused on evening it out. At Chu Ran’s suggestion, his consciousness reached into the depths of his mind, only to be too uninspired to grasp at anything. “What… kind of story do you want?” he managed out, huffing all the while.
Chu Ran hummed, fingers never pausing in their ministrations. A minute or so later, he said, “On that day we scoured the Han sect, the Sect Head graced me with the tale of Blue Orchid Sect’s founding. It was quite entertaining, as well as quite schmaltzy. Have you heard of it?”
“Where it was named after the founder’s husband or something? Yeah.”
“‘Husband or something’, listen to you. Were you not impressed by it? Have you no flair for the romantic and fashionable in your heart, Doctor?”
“Every sect embellishes its origin stories. If there actually were so many ill-fated lovers, battles, and immovable artifacts that they all claim existed, the world would have been overrun with them.”
“Oh, I get it. You’re a practical one, and dislike fluff… back on topic, Doctor, what of your sect’s own origin story? Is it romantic? Or perhaps you’ve heard of some other interesting ones, from other sects? The Xin Sect’s is terribly boring, so I always have this interest in hearing the tales of others. It’s quite intriguing, what drives some to found a sect… or at least what their descendants believed would make an honorable impression of their ancestors’ legacy.”
There was a long list of things Zhu Li would rather do than recount that bland, stupid sop. He told Chu Ran as much.
“Bland sop? Why, Doctor, now I’m all the more curious as to what you consider sop. Is it really so terrible? Is it romantic? I’m willing to bet that it’s romantic. Take no offense at this, but you don’t strike me as the sort to appreciate the, ah, fantastical.”
Zhu Li shot him a look out of the corner of his eye, then ignored him entirely.
“How about this proposal; I tell you of the origin story of the Xin Sect, and you tell me the origin story of the Miasma Caves. Does that sound fair to you?”
It was impossible for Zhu Li to care any less about this. Sadly, there was no way he could reject it without coming off as too unfriendly, and being evasive would just draw more attention to it. He nodded his unenthusiastic acquiescence.
“Very good!” Chu Ran said cheerfully. “Well, then. About two hundred years ago, three blind martial artists met up. Tired of being titled Blind Whoevers, they collectively took the surname Xin after the place they first met up in, and formed the only blind sect in Jin. That’s the long and short of it. Your turn, Doctor.”
Zhu Li gave him a look that screamed, ‘Are you kidding me right now?’
While the other man could not possibly have seen it, he beamed harder at sensing his annoyance, the audacious prat. “I did say that it was terribly boring.”
Sighing at his antics, he decided to simply go through with the request, and began to narrate the tale of The Snake and the Cure.
“Centuries ago, there was an herbalist named Zhu Yuan. Her cultivation clan had fallen due to famine and war in the North, pushing them all further South, down past yao territory and into what is now considered Jin. They lived in the mountains, above the point where yao preferred to roam.
“One day, Zhu Yuan’s father was bitten by a purple snake. The venom was not automatically lethal, but it also wasn’t leaving his system, leaving him bedridden. No one in the herbalist clan knew how to cure him. Out of desperation, Zhu Yuan went down the mountain and into the more yao-infested areas, in search of either a cure, or the snake that had bitten him.
“For months, her search was fruitless. No matter what plants or minerals she tried to use to stave off her father’s poisoning, nothing worked. But, right when she was starting to lose hope, a man of ethereal beauty appeared before her.
“He asked, ‘Young lady, I have been watching you search for months. What is it that you are looking for?’
“She was confused and alarmed, because she had never noticed anyone watching her before. Regardless, she answered, ‘My father was bitten by a purple snake, and he isn’t getting better. I’m looking for a cure, or at least a treatment for his symptoms.’
“‘I know how to cure the purple snake’s venom,’ he told her. ‘There is a waterfall around here. Go to its lake’s edge, pick the blue flowers, and take the white stones. Grind both up for your father to take. He will be cured by the next morning.’
“She had no reason to either trust or distrust him, and she was out of ideas, regardless. After thanking the man, she found the waterfall, gathered the flowers and stones, then followed his instructions. The man hadn’t lied; upon examination, her father was completely cured.
“Zhu Yuan immediately went back down the mountain to find the man and thank him, but she couldn’t. What she did find was the same purple snake, basking in the sun near the lake.
“She was enraged at the creature that had nearly taken her precious father from her. Brandishing her weapon, she told it, ‘Accursed creature, I will ensure that you never do what you did to my father ever again!’
“To her surprise, the snake answered her. ‘Humans are so arrogant, so ungrateful,’ it hissed. ‘They are the ones that trample upon your home first, then have the audacity to be angry when those they invade, those they menace bite back. Your father attempted to beat me with a stick, and I bit him. I helped you, and now you threaten me — it seems I should have bitten you, too.’”
“‘You? Help me? You didn’t help me, it was a man that did!’ she argued, and was surprised further when the snake transformed into the same man she had seen before, but angrier. Zhu Yuan then realized that she and her family had insulted a jing.
“She was humbled immediately, falling into a bow. ‘Forgive me, venerated jing, for not recognizing your grace. On behalf of my family and father, I thank you for the cure you have given us. Please tell me what we can do to repay you.’
“‘Erect a shrine for me, and leave food on it for me to eat every nine days. Then, I will forgive your transgressions,’ the jing replied. She took his message back to her elders, who quickly followed the jing’s instructions.
“Every ninth night from there on out, the snake would visit very late at night, eat the offerings, and remain on the shrine until sunrise, when he would leave. One night, Zhu Yuan caught him there, and asked, ‘Why do you remain once the food is gone, venerated jing?’
“‘It’s amusing to watch you humans, and I have nothing else to do. We jing have no families, my sect is gone, and my valley is full of wild animals that can’t speak. There is no one to spend the days with, there,’ he answered. Zhu Yuan said… tch.”
He let out a small grunt. The pain came to be too much to ignore, for a moment. Chu Ran kneaded harder in apology. “I will procure some ice, next time. Perhaps that will work… keep going, Doctor. What happened next?”
Zhu Li took in a deep breath, wiped off excess sweat from his face with his free hand, and tried to keep going with the story. “Zhu Yuan said, ‘If you have nowhere to go, we can be your home. If you want company, we can be your family. You don’t need to stay out here alone in the dark, watching us from afar.’
“The jing said, ’I can’t stay here long, because I keep the venomous animals in the valley in. ”
“‘Then we can come to you, if you’ll let us. The Name Stealer’s devastation has ousted us forever from our homelands — whether we settle on the mountain or in the valley, that makes no difference to us.’
“The Zhu family moved into the valley with the snake jing. Over time, they came to share his knowledge of keeping the venomous creatures, treating their venom, and cultivating oneself. Zhu Yuan came to rise to the top in her family, then proposed to the jing himself; this was advised against by her elders, but she didn’t care. He agreed, giving up his snake form in order to become one with the family. This marked the beginning of the—kh!… the Miasma Caves, Zhu Yuan and the jing’s descendants going on to grow in number, forever committed to combatting the venoms of the world.
“Over a century later, when Zhu Yuan passed of natural causes, the snake jing passed his worldly possessions on to his descendants, permanently gave up his human form to gain his snake form back, and disappeared into the wild, never to reappear. From that day on, all descendants of the Zhu family have believed that the jing continues to watch over the valley, hidden from us all.”
After powering through the last bit of the story, he focused on breathing heavily. His companion said nothing for a minute, then announced, “That’s a rather sad ending, is it not?”
“Death is unavoidable if you’re human. Dying of old age is the best anyone can ask for,” Zhu Li answered mildly. The pain was ebbing a bit, which meant that the Lotus was either giving up on its attempts, or gearing up to hit him with another wave.
Chu Ran’s lips pursed in vexation, telling him without words that he had been expecting a soppier romance tale than this.
“There’s about ten different versions of the origin story. In some, Zhu Yuan had no family; the rest of them either died, or go unmentioned completely. Sometimes she skipped the mountains, moving right into the valley. Sometimes the snake jing has a name, and other times he’s not a jing at all, just a hermit that likes snakes too much. Some focus more on the romance between them, some focus on spirituality and tradition. That’s the problem with mythology, really. The more time goes on, the more people reinterpret it until the original story is overshadowed.”
“A lot of different stories, that is. Does your sect not have official records?”
“They burned in a fire centuries ago. People have had to make up stories ever since.”
“Oh, an old sect. The Name Stealer was a very long time ago… well, I suppose that’s natural. Most of Jin’s own recorded history ends up in flames, deteriorated, and then exaggerated. Why, there’s one legend of some ancient Jin Emperor, Haozhi, that states he took a fox jing as a concubine; unlikely, as foxes have more self-respect than marrying an ugly bag of wrinkles, as described by dear Junyan… speaking of which, does this make you part snake?”
“If I was, I’m twenty to thirty generations removed, and it hasn’t done me any favors. I’m probably not, too. Jing and humans can’t have children together.”
“Oh? Do you know some jings yourself? Do your medical textbooks have sections devoted to them?”
Zhu Li leveled him a look. “Yes, actually. The Canon of Divine Pathways, section Supernatural Ancestry.”
“Oh. Really?” Chu Ran looked thoughtful, brows scrunched up. It very slowly morphed into disturbance. “Dare I ask, ah… why? And how the author got the information?”
“Relax. It’s a compilation of historical tales, verifiable sources, and a few anecdotes from actual jing. Supposedly. If half-jing were real, there would probably be a lot of them, and they’d be obvious.”
“If you don’t believe them to be real, why did you read a book about them?”
“I got bored on the road one day. There’s a lot of myths I need to know about, so that I also know how to debunk them.” Zhu Li gently placed one hand on Chu Ran’s to get him to stop massaging; the pain was receding still, which was good sign that it was sodding off fully. “For example, I’ve never heard of a purple snake, a venom with long-term effects, or cornflowers and talc making any worthwhile antidote.”
Chu Ran wrinkled his nose in distaste. “My good Doctor, you’re sapping the fun out of this. Why are you such a good and accurate storyteller, when you love to break the listener’s illusions?”
“My elders used to praise me for my memory, and criticize me for my lack of attachment to fantasy. My sisters always relied on me to recall stories, but never to make any up, or be enthusiastic about it.”
“Does the fantastical not capture your imagination? The world is more vast than I can ever comprehend, with bizarre yao, bizarre divinity, and bizarre, yet naturally-born animals hiding in all of its nooks. Who knows; perhaps the myths are real, and merely lurking where we can never find them?”
Zhu Li huffed. “I guess we can’t know for sure. And it isn’t that I don’t see why other people like to imagine things, it’s that… well. I know so much about poisons and diseases, reality is weirder and scarier than anything a person can think up on their own.”
The other’s face went completely blank. A few heavy seconds passed, where nothing but the sound of nocturnal insects interrupted the night — but what they were heavy with, Zhu Li wasn’t completely sure.
“You’re right,” Chu Ran finally replied, lips curving up slightly. “Reality can be a strange, terrible thing. I’ve yet to hear of certain things replicated in fiction, too abhorrent are they to repeat… too abhorrent, much too abhorrent… in any case, it’s a shame that you don’t have an interest in storytelling, Doctor.”
Here, he finally released Zhu Li’s arm. Took him long enough. “Why’s that?” the freed man asked, rubbing the still-aching mark on his arm.
“Your voice is nice to listen to, is all. The deep bubble of a wide creek. There are far too many people whose natural tones scratch the ears like talons.” Chu Ran stood, offering his palm to Zhu Li. His smile was wider. “Of course, that might also derive from me not liking the owners of those tones very much, you know?”
Zhu Li took it, rising to his feet as he eyed him warily. That compliment was suspect. “Your family, you mean?”
“And beyond. There’s a reason I have told all of my sectmates never to speak in my presence. They are quite the dour lot, and never have anything pertinent to say, anyway,” answered Chu Ran as he turned to head back inside, fiddling with his long sleeves.
“Why do you not like them?” Zhu Li asked, following close behind. He wiped off even more unwelcome sweat, but his own soaked-through sleeves were not too useful in the endeavor. It was a bit late in the day for tea, but… he was pretty sure he was getting dehydrated from this nonsense.
“Oh, petty reasons. All that binds us together is our blindness; go any farther than that, and we are all very different folks with very clashing personalities… are you putting on a pot of tea? At this time of night? I suppose you are thirsty from all that…”
“Well… carry on, then. Where was I?… Oh, yes. After my teacher’s death, my sectmates were none too happy about the sect head’s seal landing into my hands, for I am younger and less experienced than all of them. It’s just too bad for them that Shenhuan is too strong. Even for those that cannot see, it can create noise hallucinations, vibrations of things that are not there, invasive thoughts that are not one’s own. Quite useful, it is.
“Even so, it isn’t as if I have any desire to preside over people that don’t like me very much. We came to an agreement, of sorts: they would fully work with me to locate our previous Sect Head, then do away with everyone even tangentially related to her murder, following which I would hand them the seal and leave the sect of my own accord.”
Zhu Li’s eyes widened, just a bit. “Really? You’re just going to leave?”
“Hm. They were always thorns in my… eyes. Hm. I don’t think that idiom works for me. In any case, I never liked the lot of them, as even when my teacher was alive, they attempted to lord seniority over me. That never worked, so they turned into petty bullies. Bossing them around to my heart’s content before I dump them in a ditch is the best result I could ask for, to be honest.”
In response, Zhu Li nodded, then fell into a thinking state as something crossed his mind. Once he grasped the thread trailing across his mind, he looked at Chu Ran’s somewhat tired visage, and asked, “Since you’re plotting your family’s downfall and leaving your sect, where are you going afterwards? Are you staying in the Pavilion of Quiet?”
Chu Ran chuckled briefly; amused, but not very. “Of course not. That place is technically Chu property, so it will be seized or burned. Perhaps both, in that order.”
Zhu Li waited for an answer that didn’t come on its own. “So… where are you going, then?” he tried to prompt.
His attempt failed, at first. Chu Ran only kept his head bowed towards his hands as they fidgeted and fixed his sleeves. The posture could not have been due to him looking at what he was doing, which meant that it had to be some sort of idle, instinctual pose the man took while he processed the question.
Then, the silence was broken with a, “I’m not too sure.”
“I never planned that far ahead. Honestly, I…”
He trailed off again. After a minute, he lifted his head to face him, smiling gently. “Well, the details don’t matter too much, do they?”
There were two possibilities, here. One: Chu Ran had some separate property that he didn’t want to share the location of, which was fair enough. Two: He didn’t have any follow-up plans.
The second possibility didn’t make too much sense. Chu Ran struck him as the type to plot and plan in excess, given time; even the half-bungled Lotus oath had been sound in theory and practice, just with a few loopholes that hadn’t been ironed out due to time constraints.
But if it was the first possibility, why wouldn’t he just say that he had a house somewhere? Zhu Li didn’t particularly care to know the location or anything, and the other was well aware that he wouldn’t do anything with it… right?
Then again, there were still things even Xin Junyan was evasive about.
Then again on that, Chu Ran had a natural inclination to overshare.
Then again on that again, Chu Ran would clam up in regards to the most esoteric things.
He wordlessly poured himself tea, then took a sip, ignoring the heat. None of these people made any sense.
“Regardless, I’ll be glad to get out of this place,” Chu Ran continued as he proceeded to head to his own room, throwing his voice. “Another six or so days back to Zhongling, and then we will take a measure of what nonsense my family has been up to. Nothing good or smart, surely, they can never manage anything like that…”
He quickly came back out, hair loose and outer robe gone. “Are you tired yet? I’m not.”
Blatantly staring at the bags under the other’s eyes, Zhu Li mentally called bullshit. “Yes you are. Go to bed.”
Chu Ran disagreed so hard, he was passed out in his own bed after drinking the nightly concoction not even five minutes later.
Unsurprised, Zhu Li was keeping watch on the other’s peaceful sleeping face for any signs of unrest. Chu Ran was curled up beneath the sheets, his head on a stack of two pillows; nothing seemed amiss.
But something was amiss.
He couldn’t quite put his finger as to why — a phenomenon that had been happening a lot, lately. Normally, he would leave Chu Ran alone with his medicine, but he accompanied him on this night. It had not been a great idea.
Something about the man’s prone position was bugging him. It was familiar, yet he couldn’t recall any clear memory where he had seen the pose.
The notion lingered at the forefront of his consciousness, like there was a disconnect between it and his subconsciousness, which was trying to tell him something that it didn’t have the words to describe — and then, the oiled notion was gone, slipping out of his grasp to fall back into an abyss of dead thoughts.
He blinked, brows still furrowed in thought, head bowed to look at Chu Ran while he stood by his bedside. Only at this point did he realize he was being a whole creep, watching someone while they slept, so he quietly exited the room.
He didn’t neglect to send one last look over his shoulder at Chu Ran, right when he was on the precipice. Nothing arose from looking at him this time, though.
Strange. Very, very strange.
The author says: Finally noticing, are you?
(i really thought i was being a smart with that Snake and the Cure nonsense, lol)
2 thoughts on “SnCr 30”
Another great chapter!
Doctor Zhu prescribes Go the Fuck to Sleep
Chu Ran why did you include that alteration
Zhu Li has acquired an uncle! And yeah if you’re polite and helpful people think you’re nice. It’s a thing.
Chu Ran may have left out a line along the lines ‘out of sheer spite’ in his retelling.
Zhu Yuan. oh. If you want a family and home we can be that.
So there is (probably. Maybe? hopefully) a Large snake out there somewhere the Zhu clan are obliged to address as revered ancestor
… well we all know /why/ there is a text on human/supernatural hybrids (monsterfuckers, so many monsterfuckers)
Ah the Chu family gothic floats gently beneath the surface again. Also wow Chu Ran really does get the short end of the human relations stick huh.
… honestly Chu Ran doesn’t expect to survive this mess. (that’s why)
noticing what remains to be seen
Thank you for the chapter!