[If you’re not reading this on chichilations, then you’re reading a stolen copy. Reposts are not allowed anywhere or for any reason! Nor are unauthorized EPUBs!
Links for thee: Ko-fi Donation — Writer’s Twitter — Project Index — EPUB Library — Discord Server
I see all your likes and comments! Thanks in advance!
Thank you much to Christy, Tran, Misha, baegulls, Alice, S, Agnieszka, chocolate shortbread cookies, Joy, Oden, SilensVigilo, Hazel, and three anons for the ko-fis!]
Dimmed lanterns, dark walls, curtains of blue-washed or bleached muslin, golden decor, bronze censers, tables of light-colored wood, backs clad in differently-colored fabrics, pots of wine set up all around, a stage laced with chrysanthemums still on their branches…
The aroma of tastefully light flowers, occasionally overpowered by unwelcome whiffs of wine and being unwashed…
The qin music and understated mumblings of hushed conversations…
And, of course, a lone woman on the stage, dancing away, her brightly-colored ‘outfit’ barely deserving of the word. It was a pants, jewelry, hairpins, a length of silk, shoes, one dudou, and nothing else.
This entire setup automatically made Zhu Li tense, as if he was about to face some terrible enemy.
It also made him deeply, unutterably uncomfortable.
He and Chu Ran were following a worker up a flight of stairs, where the supposed private room of their unnamed messenger was. The man had apparently paid for a better… view.
It was going to take Zhu Li a lot of effort to not judge him prematurely. Efforts that might or might not work.
(They probably wouldn’t.)
When they reached the door and the worker retired, Chu Ran — still in that white-blindfold getup — suddenly grabbed the inside of his elbow, albeit gently.
“Are you okay, Doctor?” he asked, voice airy and unbothered, because the lucky bastard didn’t have working eyes.
Would he enjoy this even if he could see? If Zhu Li’s suspicions were correct, the answer was a ‘maybe’, not a definite yes.
“I’m fine,” he confirmed, raising a hand to awkwardly pat the other’s hand.
“If you say so,” Chu Ran answered, pushing the door open.
The room was the same dark wood as the rest of the building, with red-cushioned benches built into either wall and an egg-round table in the middle, which held a steaming tea pot, a not-steaming wine pot, cups, a smoking censer, and various snacks. One side had no wall at all, instead holding carved banisters that gave a full view of the stage over them.
Seated on the left side bench, on the corner closest to the banister, was a man in dark gray, unassuming robes. At first, his back was to them, one elbow propping his chin up against the railing as he watched the show downstairs, but he turned upon hearing the door click open.
This alleged go-between was on the cusp of being middle-aged — too wrinkled to be considered young, yet missing too many gray hairs to be considered old. His brows were overgrown and unruly, his fingers were pudgy, and he overall had the sort of unwashed look typical of men that needed to go here.
Those beady little eyes of his bored out from beneath wiry hairs to boredly glance over Chu Ran, then sharply settle upon Zhu Li once he noticed he was there.
He noticed the man’s eyes narrowing, could practically feel that gaze scraping across his clothes and skin as it scrutinized him thoroughly, looking for who knew what.
Displeasure arose within him. Getting stared at was a common occurrence that he could typically ignorable, but for some reason, the way this guy’s eyes moved was particularly odious.
“Greetings, Mister Zhi,” Chu Ran called out, finally putting a name to the man. “Enjoying yourself?”
“The fuck is this?” ‘Mister Zhi’ gave as a snappy non-answer, taking his hand off of his cheek to gesture broadly at Zhu Li’s everything. It was vaguely offensive. He didn’t even have the gall to look at him while he did it.
“‘This’ is a friend of mine,” Chu Ran replied flatly, taking a seat across from the man on his own initiative. He idly patted the space beside him, and Zhu Li obligingly, if warily, took the suggested seat. “Is there an issue?”
With a tch, Mister Zhi reached for his wine cup again, narrowing his eyes upon Zhu Li’s face again. “A ‘friend’, huh. How much did this one cost? From that face, I’d guess a whole heap.”
That out-of-nowhere question hung in the air for a few moments. “Pardon?”
“This boytoy of yours. You get him from the left wing?”
The reality of what this guy was implying dawned on Zhu Li very, very slowly.
“Zhi Bengsuo,” Chu Ran called out. His voice was lined with stern warning. “This is Doctor Zhu Li. He’s here to meet you so that you can go to him directly, sometimes. Surely, even you’ve heard of him.”
The man — Zhi Bengsuo, apparently — raised a brow at this, but dropped the subject.
No apology for blatantly mislabeling Zhu Li as a rentboy and Chu Ran a solicitor came from his mouth, because of course it wouldn’t.
Zhu Li took a deep, calming breath, disallowing his growing irritation from showing on his face. This probably manifested in a still-frosty mask, as he’d been told before in his life; he couldn’t exactly see his own face, though.
Lecherous, crude, judgemental. In the brief few seconds he had known Zhi Bengsuo, Zhu Li knew him to be all of those things, and he also apparently held no capacity for admitting when he was wrong.
He made an internal vow to look away if this man was ever being beaten up on the street.
“How pleasant of you,” Chu Ran said dryly, pouring himself a cup of tea. “Doctor, if you would like to beat up this half-wit at any point, go right ahead. I will very conveniently be unable to witness it. I may very well go temporarily deaf for the next few moments, too.”
That was a very tempting offer.
Zhi Bengsuo sneered at the two of them. “Like some fop would be able to touch me.”
Scratch that. The offer was irresistibly tempting.
Chu Ran hummed. “Allow me to introduce you, Doctor Zhu. This is Zhi Bengsuo, the designated go-between for my various networks. He was chosen for this role due to his special lack of talent. As you may have noticed already, he is arrogant without basis, overinflates his own qualities, and has a chronic drinking issue.— The alcohol on your breath is horrid, Zhi Bengsuo. You might wish to invest in some mint leaves to chew, as that may very well solve the problem you have of even prostitutes refusing to sleep with you for double their usual rate.”
The ugly snarl Zhi Bengsuo’s mug contorted into was enough to quell Zhu Li’s burgeoning anger, replacing it with almost incredulous amusement. He resisted the urge to smirk, and felt no need to speak up in greeting just this yet.
“Piss off,” the man spat, taking a too-long gulp of his wine.
“We will gladly do so, once you give us the information. How old are you again, Zhi Bengsuo? Have you still not learned to not criticize if you aren’t ready to be criticized back?”
The man cursed unpleasantly some more, then devolved into an information dump, likely to shoo them away as quickly as possible.
What followed was a bunch of jargon about the locations and actions of all sorts of people, which were, unsurprisingly, all part of Masked Wasps’s posse.
That part wasn’t said specifically, of course, but Zhu Li guessed it from all the weird names, like Horned Tiger, Quilted Hare, and Blue Persimmon, of all things. Maybe they didn’t allow overlap in names, so they had to pull every word in existence out for their awkward naming conventions.
None of the news stuck out to Zhu Li. To be quite honest, he wasn’t absorbing it very well, either. It was like opening a new story to its middle, then trying to piece the plot together in spite of skipping half of it.
Chu Ran, on the other hand, was listening with focus, his back straight as a brush. Every once in a while, he would ask a question about something that was said, but otherwise remained silent.
I sure hope he isn’t expecting me to remember all of this, Zhu Li inwardly commented.
Eventually, whatever that was evolved into Zhi Bengsuo saying something of note: “The East base’s guards are still getting heavier. They were spotted putting a new array on it.”
Chu Ran hummed. “Is that so… and we still have no idea what they’re guarding in there?”
“What a shame. How goes my family’s business, then? Still on the decline?”
Zhi Bengsuo’s eyes shifted to Zhu Li, which he didn’t much appreciate.
Chu Ran didn’t see the hint, naturally. “What is it? What are you hesitating for?”
His brow twitching in annoyance, Zhi Bengsuo grumbled out, “Yeah. The… interference is going good. And the goods are squared away. No one’s going to be able to find them.”
“Good to hear,” Chu Ran affirmed, sipping at his tea.
Zhu Li was very, very lost. Did he even want to know what they were talking about?
“And what of what I asked of you?” Chu Ran continued, setting the cup down on the table.
Zhi Bengsuo shrugged. “No one has anything about it.”
That earned a nod. No explanation came.
Then, they devolved into nonsense again. Something about roads in Zhongling that he recognized, and alleyways that he didn’t.
Partway through their speech, the door abruptly opened, and someone entered.
Three someones, actually. And they were all scantily-clad women, of the same variety as the one downstairs.
Oh, no. Absolutely not.
“You picked three this time, instead of your usual one?” came Chu Ran’s thoroughly exhausted question. “As every day passes, you grow more and more loose in your morals, Zhi Bengsuo. Are you trying to be the worst in jianghu? Any decent sect would castrate you for the audacity.“
“The more, the better,” Zhi Bengsuo retorted. “Not like you can see it. As for your ‘friend’, if he’s really not your personal companion, I’m guessing he’s seen his fair share of bodies—“
Zhu Li abruptly stood up, the speed of the action startling the other five in the room. The anger he had tried so hard to keep down bled onto his face, leading him to narrow his eyes and sneer slightly at Zhi Bengsuo’s ugly, surprised face.
So, he told him, his voice colder than ice, “You aren’t worth the stretch marks your mother got carrying you.”
Zhi Bengsuo’s face tinged red, and he bared his teeth in anger. Right when he sucked in air to start arguing, Zhu Li cut him off.
“I’ve barely known you, but it’s clear that you ignored the lessons your elders tried to teach you about having tact. Unless you’re trying to say that your elders don’t have any tact, either.”
That face grew redder. Good for him. He still wasn’t getting a chance to talk.
“Whoever allowed your attitude to get to this point failed you, because if you said anything close to what you said to me to the wrong person, the Dao would smile at them while they ripped your tongue out. You’re lucky I’m less violent than most.”
Then, he ignored him to turn towards Chu Ran, who conspicuously had his lips parted in wordlessness. “Yingliu, you can deal with people like him and places like this by yourself from now on. I don’t want to be involved. I’ll meet you outside when you’re done.”
He suppressed the urge to vault over the railing for a quick getaway, as that would scare the hell out of everyone on the main floor. Instead, he politely pushed aside the girls that had come to put on a personal dance, then left the room, taking his former path outside.
Actually leaving Oriole Roost’s premises would be an unwise decision — if Masked Wasps’s forces were tailing him, being around people deterred them — so he parked his butt on an outside bench, put on his learned Fiendish Aura, and sulked.
It wasn’t too long before Chu Ran came out searching for him.
He caught him out of his peripheral, the black-gray-white of his silhouette paired with a steady gait unmistakable. The man turned his head in a few different directions, the motion reminiscent of, but somehow not identical to, how one would look around. When his senses finally ran into the noxious Aura, he paused quite obviously, then avoided several other people to come straight for Zhu Li.
Neither of them said anything as he took a seat beside him on the bench.
The night’s shade blanketed everything around them, kept at bay only by dimmed lights meant to improve the mood. The noise of the music in the building behind them still resounded, muffled, but the scents from inside didn’t permeate through the walls, replaced with the typical cool, crisp smell of night.
It helped Zhu Li to calm down some.
“I did say he was a lout,” Chu Ran started a while later, “but his loutishness tonight surprised even me.”
Zhu Li huffed.
“No, truly, it did. He’s never acted like that in my presence before. Admittedly, I have also never brought a guest… how odd. He did seem a little nervous with you around, I believe.”
“He should have been.”
“Haha, yes. Though, he did keep bringing up the way you look, didn’t he? I suppose he was threatened by it. Insecure men, you know.”
“That’s his own problem.”
“Of course it is. I gave him a nice slap before I left, which is now also his problem. Those girls were about to laugh, I could tell.”
Zhu Li didn’t say anything to that, looking away momentarily.
“Could you answer something for me, Doctor?”
He looked back at Chu Ran. The other’s head was bowed.
“You are uncomfortable with places like this. I could sense that back in that Beishan brothel, as well. Do you mind my asking why?”
“Why do you think it’s weird enough to ask about?”
“It’s hardly weird, just uncommon, in my experience. A frequent ritual in Zhongling is to bring one’s young sons to places like this to get ‘experience’, so to speak, and those men grow up learning to regularly visit such places. You must have noticed how crowded it was in there; it’s a popular pastime.”
Zhu Li wrinkled his nose. “Engagement with trafficking of any sort is a grave sin. I know how these places operate.”
“I know of that much, yes. However, even with their issues, the brothel from before and Oriole Roost are at-will, no life contracts to be had. Does that make you feel a little better?”
Zhu Li considered that for a few seconds, eyes darting elsewhere. He knew this much already, but… “No. They’re stuck their for life, with how things run.”
The lessons his elders had taught him raged behind his eyelids. They had been drilled into him quite hard and without mercy, on account of certain past events that were coming to the forefront of head, now.
“Jianghu sects and temples will always hire them as servants, but I do agree. Is that the full reason you’re uncomfortable with them, though?”
“No,” Zhu Li answered, sighing. “I just don’t understand it, and can’t see the appeal in it. Never have.”
“Being intimate with a complete stranger isn’t appealing to you? What a surprise, Doctor.”
He looked askance at Chu Ran’s brash little smile. “Do you even need me to explain why I’m uncomfortable?”
“I suppose not. I would like to hear the full story, though, if you have one.”
A full story? His mind was happening to circulate around certain things, due to this line of questioning.
“There isn’t much of one. I didn’t have crushes as a kid, and puberty didn’t make me want to… be a typical teenager, I guess. It just made me moody. I also hated the attention I was getting after it so much, my mother banned the whole sect from speaking about arranging any marriages for me. None of that changed when I got older. Random people flirting with me or commenting on my looks isn’t flattering, it’s just awkward. And unwelcome.”
His mother had also threatened anyone flirting with him with lashings. Severe as it had been, he had appreciated how much space it had given him. He would keep that trivia to himself, though.
Chu Ran made an elongated ‘ah’ of enlightenment. “A natural-born monk, you are?”
“Uh, sure.” If that’s what he wanted to call it.
“How fortunate for you. Many men dedicate their entire lives to fighting the natural pull of bodily desires, and here you are, defying them all on your own. At times in the past, I believed myself to be like you as well, but I have come to realize that it’s less a natural lack of want for relationships that makes me a ‘monk’, and more a combination of factors.”
Zhu Li sensed the onset of another ramble.
“I am far too lazy to go snuffling around for a companion like some boar in rut, wouldn’t exactly know how to go about it due to lack of elders to do it for me, dislike most people, and am far too busy. Most people I meet find me fairly off-putting, too. Water can both float a boat and sink it; sensing emotions is a tricky endeavor, as one will sniff out falsehoods atop truths they would rather not know. Perhaps it would be better for you to never learn how the sense works, but that will ultimately be your own choice later, not mine… hm.
“In any case, you dislike your looks being pointed out, Doctor? That makes quite some sense, given what I know you’ve felt in the past. I will refrain from bringing it up from now on. Besides, isn’t this very fortunate?”
Zhu Li raised a brow. “What is?”
“My blindness, of course. I will never be able to tell what you look like for as long as I live. Whether you’re handsome or as ugly as a bear, it matters not to me.”
With that, he reached up and pulled the blindfold off, eyes curving in a smile. “Speaking of which, be brutally honest, Doctor. I am none too pleased that my own looks couldn’t send Zhi Bengsuo into a rage, as that’s a huge missed opportunity. This begs the important question: Am I ugly?”
“Uh, no.” Zhu Li wasn’t one to care about such things as appearance (unless he really didn’t like someone, which meant they were getting a mental roasting), but he couldn’t place Chu Ran anywhere near the category of ‘unpleasant to look at’.
“Oh? Then am I handsome, or plain as undyed silk?”
Zhu Li narrowed his eyes, peering at every facet of Chu Ran’s face as he strained his brain to think.
‘Handsome’ was not the word he’d use to describe him. ‘Plain’ wasn’t, either. Honestly, he was a bad person to ask for this, because people’s looks didn’t register as very important to him. He rarely committed such labels to memory.
For Chu Ran, however, he did have a label, now that he was reaching into the depths of his mind. Would the other man like it? Probably not.
“Neither,” he said, earning a confused frown. “I would call you cute.”
Something strange and wondrous happened to Chu Ran’s face. It was hard to tell whether he was flattered, embarrassed, happy, and/or dying on the inside.
Following many contortions, his expression settled upon a strained smile. “Ah… cute. Cute? Did I hear that correctly? That was the word that left your mouth?… And it was your mouth, yes? Not some ghost possessing you?”
“Is it that surprising for me to say?”
“No. Yes. I’m not sure. How dare you, though. I’m a grown man.”
“Yeah. A grown man that’s pouting.”
Chu Ran immediately fixed up his definitely-pouting expression, exchanging it for a powerless glare. “I… suppose… that being ‘cute’ is better than being ugly, so I will take it. If begrudgingly.”
“It isn’t that bad of a label,” Zhu Li said, rolling his eyes. His sisters had called him cute until practically the day he’d left.
Chu Ran hmph’d. “Very well. Regardless…”
He suddenly reached out and pat Zhu Li on the shoulder, with the same barely-there, unconfident touch that he typically used.
“I am sorry about tonight, Doctor. This did not go as planned at all, and I feel a fool. Blame me for not being able to predict that a lout would be a lout, even though it’s glaringly obvious that he would be, in retrospect.”
Zhu Li waved this off. What was done, was done.
He did feel a bit lighter and less grumpy, though.
Getting to his feet, he turned and offered a hand to Chu Ran. “Let’s go. This place gives me a headache.”
Chu Ran accepted it, smiling at him. “Does it? I don’t sense one on you. Are we speaking metaphorically?”
…Yeah, he wasn’t going to grace that with an answer.
The author says: i’m not cute. i’m manly as hell
Zhi Bengsuo will be a recurring character… unfortunately. 40-year-old ancient Chinese frat boy.
3 thoughts on “SnCr 35”
Oooh, Zhu Li is ace. Nice. I love seeing a-spec protagonists. And that certainly explains a few things.
And lol at Chu Ran getting pouty over being called cute. Pouting won’t help your case, Chu Ran! You’re a big adorable bratty baby.
my heart just skipped a bit
(Chu Ran’s probably did too, when he was called ‘cute’ by Zhu Li :D)
and now I’m smiling like an idiot… 🙂
Another great chapter!
“40-year-old ancient Chinese frat boy” is not something I’d ever imagine reading with my own eyes… 😀
Oh so he’s a Fuckboy Fuckboy. Seriously talk shit get hit is absolutely a jianghu rule and yet…
I love your terrible a-spec children very much.
Nope Chu Ran is so expressive he is definitely cute.