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“Make sure to aim at the softer parts of the body. Once you’re more confident in your aim, you can go for areas that need more accuracy, like the joints or eyes.”
“Softer parts consist of the abdomen, inside of the joints, and eyes. The abdomen is less lethal, if you only mean to ward off. If you want to be lethal, your shorter stature means that you can go for the neck, or into the underside of the chin. There’s a moveset I can teach you specifically involving that.”
“Remember to act quickly and automatically. If you’re pinned before you can reach the hairpin, it’s already over.”
In a split second — though not any quicker than the average mortal man — Zhu Li reached out to grab Chu Mei’s free arm, fingers clamping around her wrist. She yelped in surprise, tensed up, and tugged away on reflex, to no real avail.
Some seconds passed. Zhu Li watched her startled, yet unmoving expression, and then his eyes slid to her also-unmoving hairpin, which was grasped hard in her other hand.
“Act quickly,” he reminded, letting her go. “Cultivators can’t hurt you without the Dao’s lethal backlash. Civilians, namely men, are only restricted by civilian law, which can be ignored or manipulated based on changing factors. If you’re out on the street alone and a man grabs you, civilian society might not only fail to help you, but blame you for his behavior. You’ll have to adapt to civilian society for as long as you’re a civilian, and as a civilian woman, it won’t have your back very much. You need to protect yourself when others can’t, or won’t.”
She lightly rubbed the wrist that had been grabbed, not out of pain, but thought. Her nod in reply was absent, her gaze in another plane as it pointed towards the seam of the courtyard wall.
They were outside right now, with Guhui munching away at a pile of hay a few chi away. It was a few days after Zhu Li had gifted her the hairpin, and only now had she asked how to wield it. Sadly unsurprisingly for a woman from a civilian family, Chu Mei had no combat knowledge or learned reflexes whatsoever; it would be some work getting her into the mentality of a fight.
“Doctor Zhu,” she suddenly said, looking back up at him. “Do you… think it’s too late for me to be a cultivator?”
“You’d have to be dead for it to be too late. Starting younger is ideal, but not necessary,” he answered, maybe a bit too bluntly. “Why do you think it’s too late?”
“My second brother practices martial arts. When I asked him to teach me, he said that they weren’t for girls because we’re yin, should be started at six years old, and muscles would ruin my chances for a good husband in the future, anyways.”
Zhu Li paused slightly, then slowly brought his hand to his lowered face, pinching the space between his brows to massage it. There were about ten different things badly wrong with that statement.
“Chu Fu is a bottom-tier cultivator. Don’t listen to a thing he’s ever said,” he declared. “If you want to learn cultivation, you first need to find a potential teacher that fits with your natural aptitude and interests. Your brother and I are the only ones that can fill that spot immediately, but there’s nothing stopping you from going out and finding another teacher.”
Chu Mei tilted her face down and away, but in a way that let her still cautiously glance at him. “Would… would you mind?”
He considered the logistics behind that possibility briefly. “I wouldn’t. I’m not really trained to be a teacher, though,” he had to admit.
“That’s okay. Um, how do I know whether my aptitude fits?”
“If you’re learning from me, then you’ll be going off the Book of the Vigilant Serpent. Since the Miasma Caves aren’t a fight-centric sect, all of its moves are centered around stealth, throwing weight around, and hitting vulnerable spots. Its foundation is modeled so that anyone can learn it, relying on neither strength nor size. There’s some sections dedicated to specific body types, but otherwise, it’s something you need to adapt to on your own.”
She looked to ponder that for a good few minutes. “What about my brother? What Book does he use? Would I still be able to learn it, if I’m not blind?”
“I don’t know what he uses. I haven’t seen him fight without Shenhuan, or seen Junyan fight at all. You’d have to ask, but I figure they put emphasis on qi sense in all of their moves. Blindness isn’t needed for that.”
“Qi sense… what is that? You feel things with qi?”
“Basically. Qi reacts differently to different materials, bouncing off and distorting in different ways when sent outwards, then brought back in. All cultivators can use bursts of it, especially for dowsing, but Chu Ran has his qi going at basically all hours of the day. That needs special training to be able to do.”
“Could I do both?” she asked tentatively. “Both the qi sense, and the sneaking around?”
He considered that idea for a minute. “Mixing martial arts techniques is exactly how you get new ones. The hard part is doing that in a way that’s effective and non-contradictory. You would be on your own in figuring that out, and the two different schools taught at the same time might confuse you more than help. You would generally be better off sticking to one to start.”
Chu Mei quirked her head to the side. “Will that, um… make more sense in context?”
He smiled slightly. “If it’s your natural calling. Before anything else, we need to see if you have any potential for forming meridians. Give me your wrist.”
She acquiesced, oddly tense. He placed his fingers on her pulse, flicking his eyes up to her nervous expression. “Don’t worry. If all else fails, I’ll teach you how to make poisons to defend yourself with,” he reassured her.
However, she just put on a strange and faltering smile, giving a very unsure statement of, “Sounds… good?”
“Self-defense trumps personal principles, because to have principles, you need to be around to care about them, first. Don’t forget that. And don’t fidget while I’m doing this, either.”
He shut his eyes, and concentrated on pushing strands of qi through her veins, thus getting a feel for how the qi flowed through her.
The primary indicator of whether one had potential or not was the direction qi flowed through them naturally, as well as the speed it did so. Ambient qi flowed in the same direction as the sun, so those with flows that went quickly in that same direction had a high capacity for taking qi into themselves, and therefore could cultivate quickly. Someone whose qi flow was on the slower end would take longer to cultivate, while someone whose went counter-sunwise would find it even harder, and counter-sunwise at the highest speed ensured that one would never be a cultivator in their lifetime.
Why did qi flow differently in different people, then? That was a question no one really knew the answer to for certain. Some complex blend of consisting of mostly current-life karma, maybe some past-life karma, a lot of dumb luck, and far too much vague shrugging.
Regardless, Zhu Li was pleased — and not too surprised — to find Chu Mei’s going sunwise and fairly fast.
“You have high potential,” he said, releasing her wrist. The sparkle igniting in her eyes did not go unnoticed. “As expected.”
The sparkle grew blinding, to the point that he nearly had to look away. “You expected me to?”
“You’re a young girl. In civilian populations, girls are most likely to have potential out of anyone, and the probability goes up the younger they are.”
She blinked a few times, the wheels turning in her head. Her thinking session was capped off with a furrowed brow of non-comprehension. “Why?”
In spite of his general trove of random knowledge and tendency to read random books, all he could really give her as an answer was a shrug. “No one really knows. The youth thing is generally understood to be correlated to sins, where it’s not age that lowers potential, but just having more time to do more harm. The gender thing isn’t understood at all.”
The girl puffed up a little, suddenly smug. “Maybe the Dao likes girls better.”
“If that was the case, the girls things wouldn’t only apply to civilians. Anyone born or adopted into jianghu is almost guaranteed to have high potential, with no differences between genders.”
She wilted a bit at her girls-only dreams being crushed, though that was replaced with some confusion. “Huh. That’s weird… everyone says men are stronger by nature, so shouldn’t they have better chances?”
“Whatever divine calculations are meant to determine potential don’t seem to factor that in. The entire purpose of cultivation is to expand beyond one’s nature-given fate and be an advocate for the Dao, anyways, so any natural advantages or disadvantages would be either negated or surpassed.”
“Oh! Like those heroes in stories, that cultivate until they can beat someone a lot older and stronger than them? Or a monster a lot bigger than them?”
“Right. Books tend to exaggerate, but it’s the same concept. Meridians become the foundations for one’s power as opposed to their given stature, and those are formed with effort and concentration, not strength. Once one has meridians and can manipulate qi, physical limitations matter even less. No amount of muscles or height will defend any civilian from getting ripped apart by a blast of qi, but moving qi to fight against it or reinforce your passive defenses will.”
Chu Mei appeared to consider all of this heavily, and at prolonged length. It took her a very long time before she concluded, “So, if I work really hard at cultivating… I can be strong enough to fight demons and villains?”
“Cultivation offers other things besides power, too. Longer life, better health, enhanced senses, less of a need to eat. For you as a future doctor, you can learn how to perform qi therapy.”
“But I would still be able to fight things as a doctor, right?” she pressed, hope shining within her big eyes.
So, she wanted to be a doctor, but also a hunter? A sort of warrior-medic?
The young sure were ambitious.
“You can,” he confirmed, taking note of her budding excitement, “but you’ll need a lot of training before you can get anywhere near a yao hunt, much like how you’ll need a lot of training before I can let you do anything other than fill medicine orders. Unless you work really hard to be equal in both aspects at a reasonable advancement pace, you’ll be a lot slower at advancing in both fields than someone who’s specializing in one field.”
A thought came to his mind all of a sudden, and he tilted his head as he watched her expression. “Do you want to give up being a doctor to be a hunter?”
“No,” she answered automatically, and quite adamantly. In fact, she looked a little peeved. “I want to be both. I’ll work hard towards it! Aren’t you both a doctor and a warrior, Doctor Zhu?”
Him? A warrior? What a joke. He healed warriors that had infections or battle-earned chronic complications, and had absolutely zero desire to join their ranks.
“But you fight! I know you do! Big brother said that you smashed some guy’s face in back in Beishan!”
What, he thought blankly. Why the hell did he tell her… nevermind, it’s Chu Ran. Of course he overshared.
“That wasn’t a fight,” he answered, resisting the urge to massage his forehead again. “It was me smacking a man harder than I meant to and sending his face into the floor, when he was already beaten down.”
“That still takes a lot of strength, right?”
“Sure. I learned strength-building exercises because I was by myself on the road so much, but Vigilant Serpent is all sneaking, dodging, and quick jabs. Power doesn’t hurt for it, but it doesn’t really help, either, and it definitely doesn’t turn me into a front-line fighter.”
The disappointment in that singular syllable was palpable.
“You might want to talk to your brother or Junyan about their skillset. I’ve only seen Yingliu fight once, but his style seems more in-your-face than mine,” he suggested.
“I’m not blind, but I can try… um, sneaking around can still be used for hunts, right?”
He gave her an unimpressed look. “So, you’re implying that you want to be a warrior-doctor hybrid, with a hybrid style of two completely different skillsets.”
The girl looked sheepishly away, as if embarrassed that her thought processes had been seen through so easily, then deconstructed so readily.
Well, he wasn’t going to knock her for being ambitious. She just needed to understand what exactly she was asking for, here.
“Regardless of what you think you want, you need to have a solid foundation in a singular discipline. Vigilant Serpent wouldn’t be appropriate for hunting, so you’ll have to learn from someone else. I’ll stick to teaching you medicine, plus some tricks that won’t interfere with your practice.”
Chu Mei nodded obediently.
“You’ll still need to put in a lot of time, no matter what. As for cultivation, we can also find your brother for—“
The door of the apothecary loudly slammed open from the inside. Chu Mei jumped nearly three chi in the air, while Zhu Li did not; he merely looked over in that direction tiredly.
Speak of the Emperor, and the Emperor would come, apparently.
“Hello there, Doctor Zhu, Mei’r!” a certain man’s voice chirped out, and he came fluttering over to them.
Today, he was wearing a light gray over-robe with a black main robe, a belt with a dark red tie, and a white blindfold as opposed to red, something that surprised Zhu Li slightly. He had only ever seen him with the red one, or none at all.
“What are you two discussing out here?” Chu Ran asked with a faint smile, tilting his head in Chu Mei’s general direction. “…Mei’r, why are you holding a hairpin like that? Are you going to stab the good Doctor? Be a good girl and don’t misbehave so terribly.”
Accused unfairly, Chu Mei began to pout, holding her hairpin closer to herself.
“I’m teaching her how to stab someone in self-defense, actually,” Zhu Li defended.
“Ah, is that so? That’s fine, then. Be sure to stab our father and brothers if they bring their unpleasantry around here again, Mei’r. It’s the least that they deserve.”
Chu Mei nodded uneasily. Now was a good time to broach their spoken-of subject, though.
“Your sister wants to learn martial arts, so that she can be both a hunter and a doctor,” Zhu Li began to explain. “We were just talking about the logistics of that. My style is focused too much on stealth to be any use in constantly fighting giant monsters, so I figured yours would be better.”
“Mine?” Chu Ran repeated, frowning slightly. “The Xin style was made specifically for the blind, and it is indeed fight-oriented, but you aren’t blind, Mei’r… I do suppose that there’s no explicit contraindication that one needs to be blind in order for it to work. The constant qi sense overlapping with sight may become confusing, though I wouldn’t know for certain, obviously. Hm…”
“Doesn’t Junyan use your style?”
“No, she doesn’t. She uses the basis of ours, but isn’t interested enough in fighting for the advanced portions. That girl wants to be a beast tamer, not a hunter.”
Then, he faced Chu Mei and her big, naive eyes. “Mei’r, why do you want to learn how to be a warrior? You like medicine, don’t you?”
The girl bashfully bowed her head so that she couldn’t see what little of his face there was available. “I, um… want to be like the heroes in stories. Ones that take down really big yao and villains and stuff,” she mumbled.
“Is that right? Well, I don’t mind teaching you from the Void Records, though you might need to be prepared to blindfold yourself like I do. You also mustn’t copy these fictional heroes being reckless and fickle at heart, with all of their cliff diving and love hexagons, understand?”
“I know that’s just fiction, big brother. And girls don’t have harems.”
“No? How strange. I suppose Emperor Nie of Mao’s harem was a myth.”
“Hey,” Zhu Li interrupted, “let’s not. Did you come out here for something, Yingliu?”
Chu Ran cocked his head at that. Nevertheless, he abandoned the thought caravan containing the very female Emperor Nie’s messy love affairs that were unsuitable for anyone’s ears, especially younger ones.
“I did come here for something, in fact,” the other confirmed, “and it’s good that you two are both here, because I want to ask you if you’d like to accompany me to the Moon Festival. It’s coming up in the next five days, yes?”
That was yet another surprise.
The Jin state had about fifty legally-recognized celebrations a year, only around ten of which were major, an amount that had further locally-recognized celebrations dumped upon it. Setting aside his prison time, in the three months Zhu Li had been in the Pavilion, about thirteen festivals had come and gone, with neither him nor Chu Ran having attended a single one of them in earnest. They had indulged in the food at times, sure, but had otherwise stayed out of it, hiding away in upper floors of restaurants or infrequented parks.
Zhu Li knew his own reasons for never going — he was too introverted to enjoy bumping elbows with people of questionable cleanliness, mainly — yet he had never asked the other man for his. It must have been the crowds. Or the crowds’ stench. Probably both.
“Why do you want to go to this one?” he had to ask.
“Never in my life have I been to a festival proper, so I’m rather curious. It seemed like something meant for people that tolerate crowds more, and I doubt that’s changed in the years I’ve been alive, but we should all experience everything once, hm?”
Zhu Li raised a brow. “Have you broken an arm before?”
Chu Ran considered that. “We should all experience most things once.”
He huffed in response. “Sure, I can go with you.”
“You’ve never gone to festival, brother?” Chu Mei asked, eyes wide in surprise.
“No. My nannies were never allowed, my teacher didn’t care for them, and as an adult, I had no interest in crowds or lanterns or whatever else they cooked up. Junyan prefers running off on her own instead of hanging around me, but perhaps I can count on at least one sister to spend time with me?”
She nodded readily, which elicited a smile from him. “Very good, then,” he stated, reaching out to pat her on the head. “Run along, now. I have something to discuss with the Doctor alone.”
After nodding again, the girl scampered away on orders, leaving Chu Ran to turn to Zhu Li. “You do recall me mentioning the network of people united by hate for my family, yes?”
He had mentioned it several times with particular emphasis on the hate, yes. Zhu Li hummed in answer.
“Good. I would like you to meet their spokesperson of sorts, then. As opposed to speaking to multiple people, everything comes through one man as a messenger, and the unpleasant lout will only meet with me in Oriole Roost. Have you heard of that place, Doctor?”
The answer to that question was yes, yes he had. Every time he had visited Zhongling in the past, tales of the place would reach his ears without his permission. Some of the tales had details and comments he could have lived without.
(Some of them had even come from patients, spoken straight at his face without any shame. He had always calmed his affront by charging them triple.)
After confirming that he did know of the place, Chu Ran grinned, raising a hand to rest against his chin. “Oh? You seem displeased. Is the Roost not actually the favorite place of all men with working eyes, as I’ve been so informed? Do half-dressed women dancing about with veils not draw your attention?”
“Truly? And here I thought it was a universal truth. Regardless, if you are to meet with the Foul Beast of the Drink, we will need to meet him in Oriole Roost. And I do recommend meeting with him, so that you may become acquainted with his unsavory personality and dreadful stink.”
“Foul Beast of the Drink?”
Chu Ran grinned harder. “That is his official jianghu title, not a thought of my own creation. He earned it from being foul-smelling, beastly, and perpetually drunk.”
Fantastic. “You don’t like him, huh.”
“Ours is a relationship of necessity, not fondness. There is nothing much that is likeable about him, I assure you. All that aside, would you mind coming with me tonight? I know you were quite uncomfortable at that other brothel — as was I, but this one’s incense is less strong, or perhaps my nose is merely used to it — so it will only be just the once.”
Zhu Li peered up at the sky. It was still the afternoon, with plenty of daylight to come; evening was nowhere close, and the apothecary would long be closed by the time it did arrive.
“Sure. I have nothing else to do tonight,” he agreed at last.
“Perfect!” Chu Ran said excitedly, clapping his hands together suddenly. The loud noise startled Zhu Li slightly. “We will suffer through that nonsense together, then. While you appear to be less busy for now, would you mind going over the Void Records with me?”
Having been wondering what exactly he’d meant by ‘Void Records’ earlier in the conversation, Zhu Li figured that this was the perfect time to ask. “Why do they have that name?”
“The Void Records? It’s shorthand for its full name, Records Detailing How to Float Like a Feather Through the Void. The Xin progenitor fancied themselves a poet, I suppose, but none of their descendants have ever felt the compulsion to say the full name. You are a smart man, so I assume you can guess as to why.”
Yeah, that was a no-brainer. “Sure. Why do you want me to go over them?”
“Oh, just to make sure they make sense to someone with sight, or if some adjustments are needed for dear Chu Mei.”
Zhu Li nodded in agreement.
A tiny bit of time later, they were seated in the apothecary with a giant, thick book that put Vigilant Serpent to shame placed upon the desk between them. There were clear gaps between each individual page that made the book even thicker than it had been to begin with; the reason for this wasn’t immediately apparent to Zhu Li.
The block of paper didn’t have a fancy cover, either, which was to be expected from a book for blind persons. It was just an expanse of bumpy canvas.
Chu Ran opened the book on his own, chattering away about it, and Zhu Li’s eyes discovered that the book’s pages were completely blank, Chu Ran’s fingers gliding over their surfaces.
Or… no, they weren’t, actually. He could vaguely see some distortion in the light rays casted upon the pages, which suggested that there was something either clear or page-colored on the book’s surface. Chu Ran must have been ‘reading’ whatever was on it with his hands.
In retrospect, that made perfect, obvious sense. It was a book for the blind — what had he been expecting? Regular ink? Sound? Magically-projecting words from legend? It was sort of amazing what pieces the mind would and wouldn’t put together, sometimes.
“…and this is really something, isn’t it, Doctor? It is I that typically needs things read to me, but this time, I’ll need to read this to you,” Chu Ran said happily. He seemed a bit too excited at the prospect. “Quite a shame that it must be something so boring and technical, though… say, how about you try to read this for yourself? I am quite curious to know if you can.”
At that, he turned the book around so that its unassuming pages faced Zhu Li instead. The latter looked down upon the tome doubtfully, yet did as he was told, his fingers trailing down the right of the page, from top to bottom.
No, really. The characters were slightly bigger on account of needing a puffier ‘ink’ than usually, but that didn’t help at all. All it felt like was an undefined texture rubbing against his skin.
Even when he focused hard, it took him far too long to string together one half-sentence.
“Begin with… a succeeding… posture?” he guessed.
Chu Ran chuckled, amusement saturating every burst of sound he made. “Not quite. ‘Begin with getting into a lotus position.’ Very basic, isn’t it? Do you want to try again with the next line?”
There came another chuckle, after which Chu Ran took the book back. “It takes a lot of time to be efficient at reading like this, so I can hardly blame you. Now, let’s begin…”
He began to deliver the Void Records aurally.
It started with the awakening of an expanded qi sense, which was actually not as simple as an expanded version of qi dowsing. Entering meditation came first, then was forming the meridians, then was a whole bunch of other basic stuff, until it jumped straight into something they called, ‘Feel, reach out, and grasp the vibrations of the universe.’
Predictably, Zhu Li had no idea what the fresh hell that was supposed to mean. He pointed this out to Chu Ran, who clucked his tongue in interest.
“You can’t feel those? The vibrations in ambient qi? How odd,” he commented. “They go off all the time around us. Even before I developed meridians, I could sense them around. Having no sight must have enhanced a sense of some sort…”
He furrowed his brow. “That’s not good, is it? Mei’r won’t be able to grasp the fundamentals without this piece. It shouldn’t be impossible with sight or anything like that, it must just be more difficult to grasp… I was always under the impression that others felt the disturbances in ambient qi much more weakly than we did, but I never thought that they wouldn’t be able to sense it at all. Is that not the point of cultivation? Manipulating qi and such to one’s own benefit?”
Zhu Li considered that. “It is,” he agreed, “but if no one’s told to look for something, they might never find it on their own.”
Chu Ran’s expression was mostly unreadable beneath the blindfold, but he noticeably paused at those words for a good minute.
“What a wise thing to say,” he eventually concluded. “That… gives me something of an idea. Do you mind learning the first steps of the Void Records yourself, Doctor?”
Zhu Li blinked a bit in surprise. “You want me to help interpret it to Chu Mei for you?”
Chu Ran beamed at him, puffing up a little. “Ah, speaking to the intelligent is such a treat! Yes, I would. I lack a frame of reference to help her with what apparently came naturally to me, which means that I will likely bungle any attempt to explain to her. As a fellow adult with working vision, you should be able to articulate your success to her better than I.”
That was an interesting proposition. An advanced qi sense was a skill that wouldn’t hurt him any to know.
Considering the strained state of Chu Ran’s meridians, it wouldn’t be one that he indulged in all that much, though.
“I can do that,” Zhu Li acquiesced, “but you’ll have to read the technique out to me.”
With a chuckle, Chu Ran ran his fingers across the page once more. “When you grasp the foundation of this, the rest will be easy, I’m sure. Let me recite it through for you, to make sure that there will not be further bumps in the road…”
He did indeed walk Zhu Li through the whole process, in great detail. The detail was so truly great, he needed to get up partway through to procure a blank journal specifically to write all thos esoteric mumbo-jumbo down.
At the very end, Chu Ran’s lips curved up into what Zhu Li could swear was an entertained smirk. “Did you get all of that, Doctor? You seem… displeased?”
He wasn’t ‘displeased’. Really, he wasn’t. Chu Ran was likely just mistaking his confused frustration for annoyance.
The issue stemmed from none of this making a whole lot of sense to him. One step required one to ‘feel’ their surroundings with hands that didn’t exist, and another one wasn’t too clear on whether it was focusing one one’s sense of smell, or hearing.
Oh well. It might make more sense once he was in the thick of it, hopefully.
“I’ll get the hang of it,” he said, even though he didn’t actually feel or sound too confident.
“Even if you don’t, it will be quite alright. We shall adapt. I have no trust for anyone else to ship my dear sister off to some stranger for training, so if the Void Records are not an option, she may have to make do with whatever your tome is… did you tell me the name of it? I can’t recall.”
“Way of the Vigilant Serpent.”
“…Hm. Are you quite positive that your ancestral folktale is fictional?”
Zhu Li sighed in exaggerated suffering. It earned him a gentle laugh.
That small smile soon ebbed into one that was maybe-there, maybe-not, as Chu Ran sank into unknown thoughts. For whatever reason, the mood in the room stagnated a little, causing Zhu Li to furrow his brow in thought.
This was a familiar feeling, one that had been missing almost entirely from their weeks at Beishan.
“A good way to test if you have it right,” the other started, voice distant, “would be to stand in between the Pavilion and the Estate, at night, and listen.”
Chu Ran bowed his head slightly, idly tracing the Records’s characters with his palm. “I know you have some curiosity towards the inner goings-on of the Estate. It’s something I sense within you whenever it’s brought up.”
He paused in both words and ministrations briefly, the continued on. “What you sense there may cure you of that, or make it worse.”
Zhu Li narrowed his eyes at him, trying to read what was going on in his head. “You forbade me from going into the Estate at all, and now you want me going near it?”
“The in-between space is safe. Those good-for-nothings wouldn’t dare to trip the protective arrays I’ve set up there, as the last time their hired hands attempted, they lost a limb or four. It’s tuned to only cut up people I dislike, you see.”
…What kind of an array is that? Whatever.
“Also, if anyone does bother you while you practice, you have my full permission to deal with them yourself in any way you see fit,” Chu Ran continued, standing up as he closed he Void Records. “I simply ask that you don’t get gore on the Pavilion’s walls. The stink always seems to seep through the stone when it gets too close.”
He hefted the book up into his arms, his smile shallow. “In fact, the stench can seep through multiple walls, without the source having ever touched the Pavilion’s. If you smell something foul on the air the night you check, you need not worry about it.”
A stench? Was he speaking literally, or metaphorically? It was hard to tell with this man, sometimes.
However… the one time he had crossed that eerily empty part of the Chu Estate, he had though a lot of different things, but not of how badly it stunk.
“Are you sure you want me to listen in on it?” he probed. “You always seem eager to keep me away from it.”
“Honestly, I’m not sure at all that I want you to. It’s merely that it was the first thing that popped into my mind at the prompt, unsurprisingly. After all…”
He trailed off, but a few seconds later, he leaned over to accurately place his hand upon Zhu Li’s own, where it rested upon the desk. His slight grin was none too kind.
“A source of childhood nightmares is not easily forgotten, hm?” he said, voice quiet as a whisper.
Then, he left, presumably to put the Records away, as well as do whatever he usually did.
Zhu Li was still seated, still staring at the direction Chu Ran had left in. For reasons unknown, he wasn’t getting the urged to rise.
The two of them had become something akin to friends, even before their cohabitation in Beishan. That much, he could admit. He wouldn’t have agreed to room with and hang out with him all of the time if he’d found him insufferable.
This was where lines were blurring, though. Chu Ran was a friend beyond mere pleasantries, yet not a close enough one for him to pry into his life and mind.
Should he press him about the questions he had, or wait for the answers to come about naturally with time?
Zhu Li sat back in his chair, crossing his arms and closing his eyes.
In spite of his ordinary calmness, every random detail Chu Ran divulged was actually making him incrementally antsier. It was not the constant, creeping sensation of needing to do something or leave as soon as possible, which would only really prickle at the skin, but a steadily-encroaching and subconscious dread that was setting into his bones with greater and greater weight.
Even so… it really wasn’t his style to be proactive. It wasn’t that he was lazy or uncaring, but more the fact that he knew better than to nose around at things he didn’t fully understand. That was how one ended up stumbling into things they shouldn’t know about, then silenced and disappeared.
Would Chu Ran silence him? Not immediately, with the Twelve-Petaled Lotus around, but after that time was up… who knew?
He had no interest in being on house arrest until the day he died, either. Tales of those that had lost the good graces of Emperors were many, and unpleasant.
Opening his eyes, he got to his feet, went into the bedroom, and opened the door to peer out of it. Its opening gave him a full view of the courtyard’s side door, the very same one Du Lin took in her late nights.
With every day that passed and conversation had, it seemed less and less like a typical door, and more and more like a barrier keeping some unknown nightmare at bay.
But that shouldn’t be, should it? The Chu family had serious issues, yes, but they were just a collective of rich idiots that bought all of its power and flaunted its connections to try and throw its weight around. Their highest-leveled cultivator, Chu Fu, was still a piss-poor excuse for one, similarly threatening only because of the baubles he had been able to buy.
What could they have about them that was actually menacing? Enough to disturb Chu Ran, enough to ‘stink’, enough for him to warn him about never stepping a foot inside at night only?
Speaking of Du Lin, how could she traverse the Estate at night and come out unscathed, if it was so bad?
Well. Since Chu Ran had suggested on his own initiative that he investigate this piece of the mystery himself, there was no reason for him to refuse to, was there?
The author says: But are you going to like what you find, dear Doctor?
The concept of “forming” meridians is just me reconciling TCM concepts with real biology. Someone pointed out to me recently that the concept of meridian, acupoints, etc. themselves likely formed from the sensation nerves give when hit (it’s terrible) compounded with inexplicable reflexes (sneezing when your hair is pulled? why?). Meridians are therefore intangible channels originating and expanding out from one’s nerves, formed mostly from meditation and becoming in-tune with the Dao.
How do you become in-tune with the Dao? It’s a force of neutrality and balance, so… you mainly just have to not be a total dick.
2 thoughts on “SnCr 34”
This is probably my favourite chapter so far!
If I may make a Star Wars reference – Chu Mei reminds me here of an overenthusiastic padawan who wants to learn two very different saber styles, preferably in jar kai (two blades) version ;D
Raising an ambitious teenager is a tough work, but it’s cool that both Zhu Li and Chu Ran are treating it seriously!
The last part got me both scared and excited, you’ve created such a great vibe there! Will the doctor finally get some answers? Or just more questions? 🙂
Chu Mei’s getting taught how to shank a man, good.
Well if she learns all that she’ll be set up for whatever she wants to do with the future at least. ‘The young sure were ambitious’ thinks the man of twenty five (and isn’t that a mood)
A festival that should be fun. Oh and a(nother) brothel.
Yeah the Book of the Vigilant Serpent was absolutely passed down from a particular (Revered) Ancestor
Time to poke at the local gothic horror (this is going to end… interestingly)
Thank you for the update!