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Their luck with the weather was mighty well, as light snow only began to fall when Zhongling was within sight. By the time they arrived at the city gates, everything was dampened by frost that had met surfaces still too warm for it to withstand, coating the world in icy dew.
The tall and compact buildings of Zhongling towered up above as they wound past them, which were contrasted with the general lack of people outside. This struck Zhu Li as odd, especially since it wasn’t that cold or wet outside, not enough to stop the majority of people. The few people they did cross on the road looked to be in a hurry to get somewhere, even though sunset was only just coming up, the night still a few shichen away.
“Yingliu, Junyan,” he called out, watching yet another servant of some family shuffle away. “Do you know what’s going on?”
“Oh, the faint whiff of panic emanating from everyone we pass? Not a clue,” Chu Ran answered across from him, smiling with out-of-place peace. “Something likely happened while we were away. I wonder what?”
His tone implied that he either did have a clue, or was reveling in the oddity. Zhu Li chose to not comment on it.
Xin Junyan shrugged. “No one likes going out at night in Zhongling for about ten different reasons, but this is new. We’ll see, I guess.”
Curious. She didn’t give the same vibe as Chu Ran, which meant that she might not know. Or she just wasn’t his brand of weird.
Back to Zhongling, back to a stranger Chu Ran, the foreboding Chu Estate, and now whatever was going on with this weird atmosphere. It never ended, did it?
Their journey back to the Pavilion of Quiet went unimpeded by even passersby, so far. In spite of its light and ephemeral nature, the snow seemed to dampen all sound, making the oddly empty streets even more uncanny. Stalls were gone or actively packing up during prime dinnertime, seemingly no one had any interest in being up and about — an air that persisted no matter which district they passed through. Poor or rich, no one wanted to be out in the orange light of dusk.
Strange, he thought. This is like that one mountain village. Everyone went inside at sunset, because a yao they couldn’t defeat was attacking them at night…
But that had been a village without cultivators, located near the yao-infested borders. Zhongling was a huge city located as far as it could possibly be from the borders, and it had at least had a few competent cultivators residing within it. What monster could have an entire city shaken like this?
He narrowed his eyes, yet had no answers.
Once the carriages and horses were close enough, the main gate of the Pavilion opened of its own accord, and a tiny head popped out to look at them. Eyes twinkling, the owner darted back inside, shutting the door behind her again.
Zhu Li was faintly amused by the sight. Someone was clearly excited for them to return.
While Chu Ran orchestrated for the unpacking of luggage and the return of their rented transportation, Zhu Li and Xin Junyan headed on inside. A certain little girl was rocking back and forth on her heels, practically shaking with excitement. She was also trying, and failing, to keep down her urge to smile from curving her lips.
Poor thing must have been lonely and bored, with only the ‘company’ of Xin Sect members around her.
When they were close enough, she greeted the both of them in a sing-songy voice. One of her ‘crossdressing’ ‘disguises’ — both words, albeit technically true, were too strong for a simple wearing of some fairly boring clothes — was still being worn proudly. This one in particular was dark-blue and layered against the encroaching cold, which wouldn’t be out-of-place on some merchant household’s concubine-born son, or a wealthy household’s servant.
“Nice to see you again, Mei’r. How were things while we were gone?” Xin Junyan asked, petting Chu Mei’s head along her pulled-tight hairs. She smiled affectionately at her, too, much like how Zhu Li had seen her smile at all those dogs back in Beishan — an honest-to-goodness sucker for cute things.
“They were okay. It’s boring without everyone around, so I’m really glad you’re all back,” answered Chu Mei, her own smile giving one the near-uncontrollable urge to poke her nose. (It was good that Zhu Li had impeccable restraint.) “Doctor Zhu, I read most of the books you told me to, since I had time.”
He nodded at her once. “Then we can move on to the next round of basics. Texts only do so much. Did any patients give you a hard time?”
The girl’s smile fell a little. “No. Not patients, really.”
This earned her twin stares from both adults, making her fidget. “It wasn’t that big of a deal, but… Father and my second brother tried to visit. Several times,” she explained. “The Xin Sect never allowed them to come too close to the Pavilion, and I couldn’t hear them past the array, but I could see them shouting and trying to get in. They also tried to get in through the side gate. It was only once, though.”
Xin Junyan and Zhu Li exchanged a look.
How typical of them, to try to get in when all that was at home was a little girl. Either they were idiots and trying to get at secrets in the Pavilion, or were possessive and after Chu Mei; and considering the timing, it was very likely the latter.
A bunch of Dao-defying creeps, they were. Maybe he would see if Chu Mei had any talent for cultivation, as that would eliminate all of the Chu’s ‘legal rights’ to her, and get her forever out of their clutches. They might pull some other stuff, but with the Jianghu Convention, it wouldn’t be very effective stuff, especially not when she would be able to easily defend herself against them physically.
Speaking of which… he reached into his sleeve’s pocket, procured a wrapped bundle, then handed it over to Chu Mei. “I got this for you. You need it,” he partially explained.
She blinked at both him and the bundle in confusion, but took it carefully regardless. Upon unwrapping it, her eyes sparkled at the glittery-yet-simple dragon hairpin. The sparkles quickly morphed into confusion, however. “You bought me a hairpin?” she questioned, looking up at him. “…I need it? For my hair…?”
“You need it for self-defense. That’s why it’s made out of steel, not a precious metal.”
She bowed her head to look at it, frowning in perturbation. Her fingers idly felt over the dragon’s carved scales.
“You hopefully won’t ever need to use it, but it’s good to have,” he continued on. “If anyone ever invades your space and doesn’t take no for an answer, stab them. They won’t bother you after that.”
She looked all the more perturbed at that, but it soon ebbed fully away. Who knew what was going on in her head while she held the hairpin tighter, smiled at him, and obediently stuck the pin through her hair bun?
“Thank you, Doctor. Your wise instruction is always appreciated,” she said. Her voice was kind of overly polite and stilted. It made him raise a brow, but he chose not to comment on it, or the fact that he hardly considered himself ‘wise’.
Right then, the gates opened behind them again, and in walked Chu Ran with the equipment-less Guhui. The mare ambled her way past them all, not neglecting to tickle Chu Mei’s face with her fuzzy lips as she passed into the rest of the yard, tossing her mane in relief at being amongst the familiar flowers.
“The good Doctor is right, little Mei’r,” Chu Ran’s voice rang out, the man himself coming to a stop by Zhu Li’s side. “Every soul that dares to take aim at you because you’re a tiny girl deserves at least a few dozen stabs from that pin. Preferably, you should aim at the sternum, stomach, neck, eyes, groin, between the ribs, into joints, through hands and feet… the list goes on. Just make sure that your attacker will truly never be bothering you or anyone else again, hm? It’s the just thing to do.”
Chu Mei went back to looking disturbed.
“No need for the apprehension, little sister. This is simply how life is. When a rabid animal attacks a village, the village puts it down, yes? Never feel guilty for putting rabid animals down, I say…”
“Yingliu,” Zhu Li warned.
“Fine, fine. I am serious, however. Never hesitate to defend yourself. Why, Doctor Zhu gifted me a hairpin of my own, and I plan on utilizing it the second I get the chance to, myself.”
His warning had gone mostly unheeded. This was quite an unsurprising development, Zhu Li self-admitted with a faint sigh.
“That aside, have you heard any news, Mei’r? People were very skittish on the streets when we were riding in. It was quite the peculiar sight,” he continued, smiling merrily, like it was more amusing than peculiar.
“Oh, um… some soldiers stopped by to tell us that curfew is being lengthened, for an added half-shichen on each end. About ten days ago, I think? The Xin brothers said that some nobles were going missing. They didn’t tell me who exactly, though.”
Zhu Li snuck a peek at Chu Ran’s face. The other was unfazed.
“Is that right? How predictable. People have been spontaneously disappearing from Zhongling’s streets for decades, but only now that someone other than an ‘undesirable’ has been affected is it a big deal,” he answered, waving dismissively at the whole idea. “Madam Du received her packages fine, yes?”
“Yes, big brother.”
“Very good. Do excuse me now, all of you, as I need to make sure my sectmates have properly cared for my plants. You should come too, Junyan.”
Xin Junyan blinked, exchanged another look with Zhu Li, then shrugged, following Chu Ran inside. The other two were left alone in the courtyard.
Hm. He’s sure in a hurry, Zhu Li thought. He didn’t get to think much else, though, because Guhui came back over to them and poked Chu Mei with something she was holding in her mouth: her metal-tined horse comb.
Thinking back to how often he had told Chu Mei to brush Guhui to bond with her, Zhu Li realized that he had accidentally caused her to be the designated horse groomer. Oops.
Then again, she accepted the brush rather happily, so she probably didn’t mind being that.
The apothecary was closed for the rest of the day and Zhu Li had nothing else to do, so he chose to supervise the girl and horse duo outside. In the meantime, he set up a temporary writing desk in the corner of the courtyard, his back to the wall so that he could see everyone possibly coming.
It was time again to add to his journal full of incriminating information. No one had tampered with it while they’d been away, else it would be a pile of ashes right about now.
First thing was first — he made notes about all of his newly-discovered relatives, from Ren Zhuizhun to all thirteen of his paternal cousins. An exorbitant amount of cousins, that was. He also jotted down how the whole sect was a dysfunctional mess of fighting over inheritance and power, though he decided to skip everything related to Doctor San; upsetting as it had been, it held scant relevance other than the revelation regarding Shu Lao.
On that topic, Shu Lao: sourced Avici radishes, possibly from the Na. Was the chief criminal behind Han Wenkang’s poisoning, possible helpers aside. Used to be a Yin, likely committed the act because he was a Yin.
Special mention was made for Han Taisha’s sword, followed by a quick flip to Chu Ran’s section for Shenhuan. Swords like those were worth some words.
This was followed by a quick noting down of the Three Spirits of Caprice to the sections for Han Wenkang, Xin Yinhui, and his own mother, as well as the Ru Yeying debacle. Zhu Longmai must have been paranoid from the beginning, to have wandered jianghu with a pseudonym before anything had even happened.
He made a section for Zhu Heng, as well, now that it was confirmed she was wandering about. Ren Nidan, too, if to comment that he had been quiet about his family of origin for reasons unknown.
Now, the main cruxes of the issue: the Dong-Ji couple.
Ji Misheng: Qi deviated forty years ago. Was turning into a devil. Killed by the Three Spirits.
Dong Wanqiu: Ji Misheng’s wife. Killed attempting to defend him from the Three Spirits.
Those names, he wrote in the section for the Zheng family. Even now, there was woefully little in the section, despite him having racked his mind for hints about him.
Zheng Enyuan: The Zheng patriarch. A fairly stoic man. He had only met him a few times, and briefly, leaving him with little to say.
Ji Yaoyi: The Zheng matriarch. Quiet. He knew even less of her, but her surname matched Ji Misheng’s.
Zheng Aota: Zheng Tonghao’s older brother. As quiet as his mother. Was close to his sister, from what Zhu Li had been able to tell.
He rubbed his forehead thinking of her, a slight headache and heartache coming on. Zheng Tonghao was connected to him, he was connected to Zhu Longmai, Zhu Longmai was connected to the deaths of Ji Misheng, Ji Misheng definitely had some relation to Ji Yaoyi, Ji Yaoyi was Zheng Tonghao’s mother. It came full circle, yet there was so much information missing, he wasn’t sure what to make of it.
Now that he thought about it, Zheng Tonghao’s persistence had always struck him as odd. He hadn’t been in Xiyuan too often, nor had he tried to overly reciprocate and give her false hope. Why had she, between the silent lack of requite and elongated periods of parting, been so hung up on him?
Had she known something? Had the other Zhengs put her up to it, to get information on him?
…No, that made no sense. He never shared sensitive information with her, nor had she ever asked about what little he might know, like his sect’s location. Conversations about his family had been off-limits, which he had made clear, so all they had spoken of were modern jianghu-related things, or other small talk. When would events from forty years ago have ever come up?
Then, maybe it had been to keep tabs on him? But she would have tried harder to keep him in one place, or tried to attack him in the five years of buffer time, or something. He wasn’t so unobservant that he wouldn’t be able to notice malice, and he couldn’t really think of Zheng Tonghao acting as anything other than a woman with a crush. Maybe she had been a really good actor, but even then, what could the point of it have been? How would they have even known that he, with the family name Zhu, was related to ‘Ru Yeying’, when hardly anyone else did, let alone him?
Yet Zheng Tonghao’s art had likely been used for reference to frame him. She once claimed that her paintings had all burnt up in a fire. He remembered that she loved her art dearly — would she really burn them all up over a couple paintings of him, for a cause that predated her by over a decade?
Maybe… someone else stole the paintings from her, then set the rest on fire as a cover-up.
Maybe Ji Yaoyi.
Maybe Zheng Tonghao had no idea what her mother had gotten up to, and the stealing of the drawings had been unplanned, just like how Chu Ran described the framing incident as last-minute and hodgepodge. That was why Zheng Tonghao’s actions had been confusing, for a supposed accomplice.
Quickly dipping his brush in ink, he wrote down the speculations, yet continued on to say that they were just that. Some more details were added onto Zheng Tonghao’s section, mostly pertaining to her possible guilt.
Sadly, more clues were needed. What a complicated web this was.
He began to skim over his notes on everyone else, to see if there was anything he could add. Many old names — Yin Dun, Dong Hairong, Deng Xia, the various Chu’s — were skipped over, but his eyes hovered on Madam Du briefly.
“Chu Mei,” he called out suddenly.
The girl peeked around Guhui towards him, the mare’s mane caught on her face. “Yes, Doctor Zhu?”
“You gave Madam Du Lin packages?”
“Did you open them?”
Not moving her head, her eyes shifted from side to side. She refused to look at him. “No…?”
He raised a brow. “Come here.”
Deflating a little, she hunched her shoulders and shuffled over like she was about to be given a death sentence. Guhui huffed in displeasure behind her, mainly because she was both not brushing her and also making off with the brush itself.
“You’re a bad liar. It’s not a terrible trait, since honesty is good in medicine,” he started off with. No need to make her feel that bad. “What was in them?”
Chu Mei peeked at him. Seeing that he wasn’t any sort of mad, she relaxed a little, if warily. “Nothing that interesting. One was a big tea brick, the other was a salt brick. I couldn’t see anything special with them. Brother just said that they were some kind of special order that comes through the Xin Sect, though he didn’t tell me what they were, himself.”
‘Special order’ was code for ‘I poisoned them, specially.’ Zhu Li knew that much on instinct. It really wasn’t any kind of stretch to assume that Du Lin and Chu Ran were in cahoots to poison Chu members they didn’t like. Based off of Chu Ran’s disturbing anecdotes and implications peppered liberally throughout his speech, Chu Haoyu especially deserved a nice poisoning.
What were they poisoning him with? How were the salt and tea being made? Who cared?
Zhu Li held absolutely no inclination to stop Du Lin and Chu Ran from their obvious poisoning plot — and, really, what else could this be? — and that was the Chu family’s full fault. While he preferred to be benevolent, he wasn’t someone that placed mercy before reason, and there was no reason for him to show the people that had slated him for death any mercy.
Chu Mei was a possible wild card, though. Her being young and possibly impulsive aside, he still didn’t know why she had abruptly come over to the Pavilion of Quiet. She might hold some remaining affection for her father, which would get in the way of things.
“Make sure not to tell anyone about the packages, or what’s in them,” he warned Chu Mei. “Du Lin could get in trouble for sneaking out here at night.”
The girl nodded readily. At least she didn’t look conflicted about it.
He waved for her to go back to whatever she wanted to be doing and looked back down at his work (he had ensured that the contents of the book he was writing in were tilted out of her view all this time, of course), but she shifted on her feet instead of going anywhere. This drew his eyes back up to look at her. “What is it?”
She looked guilty for a second. “Um, I actually… do you know what’s in that big wooden building in the center of the house? The thing with no doors?”
A twinge of anticipation hit his heart. “No. Do you?”
“No,” she said with a troubled pout. “But I did… well, um… I think there’s a door on the roof of it. What could it be for?”
“Door on the roof? Did you go up there?”
“No, some Xin people were. I saw them open a hatch, dump the contents of some box in it, then shut it and leave. They did it multiple times a day, starting from about six days ago. I don’t know what they were doing.”
At this point, she looked all around, then leaned closer subconsciously, as if that would matter when she was a few chi away. “I don’t want to be rude, but I think… they didn’t know it was still light out when they did it? It would have been darker at this time of night before I started noticing.”
Ah. The whole blind thing. Right.
With winter approaching, nights were getting longer, yet time was also going off-kilter. Furthermore, it was quite likely that other than Xin Junyan, the Xin Sect had no one else sighted to tell them whether it was light or dark out.
They might have either messed up, or not cared to hide it. Considering the timing, the latter was more likely, which just made it weirder.
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll ask myself, eventually,” he reassured her.
“Also, I saw something else. Brother has this side-room off of his bedroom… um.”
Chu Mei noticed the side-eye he was giving her, surely. She ducked her head a little. “I was just curious, so I went exploring the Pavilion… the Xin Sect really did have to water the plants he had in there, and I wanted to see them. Seeing the other room was an accident.”
“And what was in it?”
“It was weird. A bunch of unlabeled bottles in a cabinet, plants hanging from the ceiling, some jars that weren’t sealed. I didn’t touch or take anything, though.”
“Did you identify the plants?”
“No, it was way too dark. Everything that could have let in light was sealed up.”
He paused, looking away briefly. “Drying plants requires dark and warm spaces, so that’s probably all that is. Don’t go snooping in places you’re not supposed to anymore.”
She smiled sheepishly. “I won’t.”
While she went back to the (somewhat impatiently-)waiting Guhui, Zhu Li thought that little revelation over.
The room of drying plants and bottles was probably filled with poisons. He didn’t know that for certain, naturally, but he had a hunch. Chu Ran would have been open about it before now if it wasn’t, given that he had an apothecary being run right out of his house.
Although a designated poison room was a worrying addition to any home, Zhu Li wasn’t particularly worried for his own or anyone he knew of’s safety. Chu Ran wasn’t the type to go willfully poisoning innocents. But what would a room full of the stuff be for?
Perhaps it wasn’t all poison, and he should quit making assumptions.
This new information went unmentioned in his journal. A little too incriminating, in the event that his several self-destruct seals didn’t work or were neutralized. Overcaution had never killed anyone — the opposite, in fact.
Eventually, when the sun was near about fully setting, Guhui celebrated her newly-brushed coat by rolling in the grass much like to how a dog would, thereby ruining Chu Mei’s hard work. The girl didn’t seem to mind, cheerfully heading inside after tossing the brush to parts unknown. (Guhui would go searching for it once she wanted it again, the spoiled, overgrown filly.)
Zhu Li put his added-onto journal away in his narrow little room, then automatically went past the screen, into the deeper parts of the household. Bypassing the giant wooden construction, he headed for where he remembered Chu Ran’s room being.
The Pavilion was mostly unlit, Xin Junyan’s wing notwithstanding. It was one of those awkward times of day where it was too bright to light a lantern, yet too dark for comfort. In other words, he smelled the aroma of flowers coming out of Chu Ran’s room long before he reached the door.
His sectmates had indeed kept his plants well.
He knocked on Chu Ran’s door, only half-expecting the man to be there to begin with. However, a “Come in, Doctor!” came from inside, issued from a bubbly voice.
Upon opening the door, he just barely saw Chu Ran’s fuzzy outline in the dusken light. His long sleeves bound to his elbows, the man was fussing with the almost obscene amount of flowers growing in various pots around the room.
“How did you know it was me?” he asked, glancing about the room for a lantern. No such luck, predictably.
“I could know the contents of a locked chest automatically, were one to be presented to me. Say, what do you think of these flowers? Junyan tells me they are quite displeasing to the eyes. What a shame that I’ve no idea what she’s talking about.”
“I can’t see them that well, so I wouldn’t know, either.”
“No?” Chu Ran turned to him, tilting his head to the side. “Is it too dark? Hm. I never have a lantern in here because the fire could get to my plants… and also because I don’t need it. Regardless, did you need something?”
“I’m still monitoring your condition, remember?” Zhu Li noted blandly, holding out his hand in clear demand for a wrist.
“Ah. Very well,” the other answered, walking over and offering his wrist.
The results of his meridian examination were not exactly his favorite. Zhu Li looked at him, unamused. “Your qi strain hasn’t gotten much better. Have you been resting your senses as much as I’ve recommended?”
“…Perhaps not as much as you’ve recommended.”
“And why not?”
Chu Ran gently took his arm back, turning away to idly play with some other flowers again. His fingers glided over the bouquet’s petals, which — since they were close enough — Zhu Li did notice that the petals were more gnarled than any florist would allow.
“Imagine, if you would, that I order you to go around with your eyes closed for one shichen out of every day, on top of the three or so you already spend sleeping. Would you much enjoy the prospect?”
Zhu Li crossed his arms. “No. But if the alternative was my eyesight getting progressively worse if I didn’t, I’d deal with it.”
Chu Ran’s brows creased together as his lips quirked down. He was clearly displeased, if quiet about it.
During their travel, Zhu Li hadn’t checked on the other’s meridians, but he had at least expected Chu Ran to calm down some. A miscalculation had clearly been made somewhere when it came to his comfort level with doing this.
Zhu Li sighed. “Was it the travel making you too nervous?”
A chuckle was directed at the hapless flowers. “Does one not wish to be on full alert in unfamiliar territory?”
“Sure, but you have to hold yourself to resting. You’re an adult and I’m not going to hound you about your own health.”
After allowing a stint of silence, where Chu Ran moved on to another pot, Zhu Li reached out and poked him. “You like being read to, right?”
“Of course. Junyan usually does it, kicking and screaming all the while,” was Chu Ran’s answer, his voice its typical nonchalant airiness.
“If you promise to sit and do nothing for enough time, I can read to you instead. I was doing that in Beishan, anyways.”
Chu Ran stopped busying himself with the surrounding flora, turning his face in his general direction. He didn’t respond immediately. “You wouldn’t mind? Truly? Every time I ask Junyan to do it, she acts like I requested some enormous task of her.”
Hm… well, their sect drama was theirs, not his. “I said I didn’t mind then, and I still don’t mind now. I have nothing else to do, other than work or tag along with whatever investigations you’re doing.”
Chu Ran’s face flashed with something akin to sadness, so quick, Zhu Li had nearly believed himself to have misseen. It was quickly covered up by a blank smile, which portrayed nothing of real substance. “Then I shall take you up on that offer. Free entertainment, and not having to do anything? Such a steal. I am quite sure that Junyan would welcome the break from her chores.”
Why do you sound so unenthusiastic? Zhu Li wondered internally, taking note of the odd reaction. Junyan didn’t like this, Junyan didn’t like that — were they having an actual issue, lately, or was this how they were?
“I am in no mood for paying attention to any plots right now, but if you would like to start this tomorrow, I do have a sizable book collection in the back house.”
Zhu Li nodded, simultaneously looking down at his belt, where he knew the bottle of lethal self-defense poison still was. He hadn’t been without it, even in Beishan; call him superstitious, but he felt like the minute he didn’t have it, he would sorely need it.
Something in him really wanted to question Chu Ran about his mysterious room of plants, possible stock of poisons, and the origin of this deadly, unknown vial, but the other part of him knew that this wasn’t how he operated. Similar to how he would never go door to door asking for patients, but they would come to his door asking for him, he wasn’t one to ask for critical information out of the blue. If the boat was already on that current, then sure, he could ask questions, but even a near-month of sharing quarters with Chu Ran hadn’t quite given him the cheek to be nosy.
Besides, if Chu Ran was truly doing anything deplorable, the Dao would have eaten him alive by now.
There was only one thing he really knew how to do, in patients and friends alike: announce that he was available, then wait for them to come to him, in their own time.
Things were silent. Chu Ran had asked no follow-up question, nor was he giving any indication that he was about to.
“You can talk to me, you know,” he said at last.
Chu Ran ceased his tactile examination of the flowers. It was a few seconds before he turned full around, dark brows knitted in pure confusion. “Talk to you? Do I not already, about a lot?”
Understatement of the year, right there. Zhu Li knew how much of an asshole Chu Haoyu was without ever having to directly interact with him, and also without having ever asked much about it himself. “You do. But you’re not being honest about your treatment progress, here, and I suspect some other random things. Why didn’t you tell me you were having trouble keeping up with it as soon as possible?”
The man pursed his lips, then bowed his head. His hands, fully exposed from the cover of his sleeves, were raised so that he could fidget with them — a nervous tic of sorts.
Zhu Li patiently waited for an answer to that, watching those fingers as they aimlessly rubbed against each other, on the lookout for signs of change.
“It simply… isn’t too big of a deal, right?” Chu Ran answered. The faltering resolve in his tone could not be mistaken.
“What isn’t? Your health?”
“No, ah… I worded that poorly. I just don’t wish to impose, yes?”
“Impose how? On who?”
Chu Ran dragged out those two words, unsureness rising as he doubtlessly realized how stupid what he was saying was. Zhu Li was positive that he had never portrayed annoyance at too much asked of him, just those few instances where Chu Ran would sneak up and scare him.
The man in question looked down further, seemingly embarrassed. By what, Zhu Li wasn’t so sure.
“I’m not sure what your hang-ups are,” he started off cautiously. “You’re frank about a lot things, and secretive about some random things. If you think you’re imposing on me, you’re not right now, and you haven’t been. I don’t know what gave you that impression.”
Chu Ran’s hands moved to play with his tied-up sleeves. A few second later, he quietly admitted, “It isn’t you, specifically.”
Zhu Li frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Ah, nothing much. So that I may be clear on this, you want for me to… be more open? Ask for help more?”
“A foreign concept, but will try because you asked, Doctor. I only request that this be saved for tomorrow.”
Why did he think those were foreign… nevermind. It was probably family trauma-related. “Thanks,” Zhu Li didn’t neglect to praise, “though I’m also talking about all that other stuff you don’t think I want to talk about.”
Chu Ran’s eyes widened at him. “What other stuff?”
“What you think ‘wouldn’t make me happy’ to know. If you think I’m too proper to know about things that aren’t fit for polite society, you’re wrong.”
Those eyes narrowed a bit. He could see Chu Ran’s mind rushing like a river, working to wrap around the implications of that. If he understood that Zhu Li already had a hunch about what he was doing here, he might become a bit more forthcoming about the elephant in the room.
If he didn’t… well, there wouldn’t be a lot Zhu Li could or would do about it. He wasn’t about to risk burning bridges over damned curiosity.
And then he saw Chu Ran begin to smirk, that puzzled look going away. “Is that so, Doctor?” he asked, almost playfully. “You wouldn’t mind if was doing some truly nefarious deeds? Or being less-than-righteous in my acts?”
I already knew you were weird, Zhu Li commented, but only on the inside. “You can’t be that nefarious, or you’d be weak or crippled, if not dead.”
“Like my fool brothers and father? Point taken.”
Whatever funk that had been over Chu Ran was gone, as he automatically cheered up at the opportunity to berate his family’s existence. How predictable.
“Your message has been received loud and clear, Doctor,” he continued. “Perhaps, when the day brightens again, you can come back and tell me if these flowers are as ugly as dear Junyan claims.”
“Do you care about how they look that much?”
Chu Ran beamed at him, eyes curving upwards in sly mirth. “Oh, no. Not at all. This is my room. What would I care if anything ugly is in it?”
‘Then why do you want me back here?’ was a question Zhu Li had the ever-growing suspicion that he didn’t need to ask.
The author says:
zhu li: i have a sneaking suspicion
readers: about what
readers: ABOUT WHAT
also, i have an insatiable need to always end chapters with a. a cliffhanger b. fluff c. some stupid little quip/comment
3 thoughts on “SnCr 32”
So… People are disappearing. Something or someone is very probably being kept alive inside the wooden building and fed by the the Xin sect. Chu Ran is… doing suspicious stuff a usual… Hmm 😏
Zhu Li, Chu Ran clearly wants you to spend time with him because you like it, not because you ‘don’t have anything better to do’…!
Chu Mei is a treasure, I hope nothing bad ever happens to her ever ^^
Oof, Chu Ran expecting people to find spending time with him and caring about him to be a chore. Poor baby. And was that sad face because Zhu Li made reading to him sound like something he was only offering to do out of boredom rather than a desire to pass time pleasantly together? Zhu Li – tell the man you’re starting to consider him a friend! Come on!
Giving young women knives is certainly a worthwhile gift. Even if unpleasant. Chu Ran dial it back a bit.
Oh good she is poisoning him, I had hoped. Love that Zhu Li just went oh cool about it
Yes what is it Doctor Zhu has a suspicion about?