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When Zhu Li awoke the next morning, it was with some regrets. Now that he was no longer exhausted, in pain, and in a bad mood, he was not looking fondly upon the memory of what he had said last night.
His sentiment of not being too happy about Chu Ran’s inconsistent evasiveness was real, and voicing it was not something he was sorry about. The true source of his conflict was that his delivery hadn’t been anything to be proud of. Calling someone an asshole was definitely not the way to broker what one wanted out of another.
Being mean to someone that had both saved his life and developed a crush on him was not really a line in his personal code of conduct, either.
Rising, he sighed, then went through the motions of preparing for the day.
As any other day before, he checked on his gardens of herbs, took out his registers, took Guhui on a walk, hid treats around the courtyard for her to find over the course of the day, then opened up the apothecary. As per usual, Chu Mei in her boy disguise eventually skipped in, cheerful and ignorant as to what had gone on last night.
After a good amount of the day passed by, no familiar silhouette abruptly announced his presence by barging right in. The lack nagged at the back of Zhu Li’s head until noon, whereupon he sighed, passed his duties off to Chu Mei temporarily, then headed into the Pavilion’s back.
He went around the weird wooden block to go straight for Chu Ran’s door, then knocked upon it.
No response. He couldn’t hear anything, either.
Imitating Chu Ran himself, he decided to let himself in, consequences be damned, yet was not really rewarded for the risk — the one he was looking for was nowhere to be found in the room.
He passed through to the rearmost courtyard and called out, but that yielded him no results, either. There was little chance that he couldn’t hear him or was hanging around the girls’ and servants’ quarters, so that pointed to one thing: Chu Ran was out of the building.
Fantastic, Zhu Li snarked in his head, putting on a grimace. I guess this is getting dragged out.
He went back into Chu Ran’s aromatic main room, his sights incidentally passing over all the bright petals, and narrowed his eyes as a thought crossed his mind.
Every individual plant was scanned thoroughly by him, then identified soundly. The overwhelming majority were particularly potent-smelling cultivars of lilies, though he did locate an errant sprig of frangipangi, a row of peonies near the most sun-soaked window, and a freshly-growing sprig of jasmine for tea.
Nothing lethally poisonous, like how he had thought.
His attention turned to the two doors leading to the ancillary rooms.
In typical homes with this layout, the larger room on the right would be for the man of the house’s wife, while the smaller would be for a concubine or maid. Since Chu Ran wasn’t married, these rooms served instead served for storage. He had peeked in them both before; the larger one held clothes and baubles instead of a whole person, while the other one…
His feet unconsciously ferried him to the apothecary, then brought him back to the door of the mysterious room, a lantern now in hand. The room had been dark, all light sources having been blocked off.
Upon lighting the lantern and stepping inside, he raised it higher to illuminate the dark shapes sitting within.
Thick squares of dark fabric efficiently blocked out what would usually be windows. Bushels of plants were hanging upside down from the rafters and on the walls; some were flowers, some were spices, some were herbs, and yet none were dangerous in any significant regard. Again.
Zhu Li’s attention quickly shifted to the bottles and boxes lining shelves against the walls. Placing the lantern down, he went to examine them all, one-by-one.
The vast majority of them were texturally labeled with their contents, the bumps of the characters prominent enough for him to read them normally. As an extra precaution, he would open the bottles or boxes to verify that the labels were correct and not code for something else. The place reminded him of his own apothecary, full of prepped concoctions for all sorts of maladies, or just plain empty bottles, most of which were so barren, it seemed to him like the labelled substance they were supposed to contain had never been there to begin with.
Unground minerals and herbs occupied small wooden boxes. One such box was unmarked, automatically piquing his curiosity — opening it revealed a collection of crystals, their color obscured by the insignificant light of the lantern.
Narrowing his eyes, he brought the box out into better light, and sunbeams lit the crystals up a semi-translucent scarlet once they hit them.
Cinnabar, his mind quickly concluded. The poison people think is a medicine.
But then he noticed that the color was off. Cinnabar was famous for its rich red coloration, and this material was covered in sporadic orange pigment over the red, flakes of the same shade sprinkled on the bottom of the box. Speaking of which, one side of a particularly big chunk of the stuff looked like it had suffered from being shaved at some point in the past.
This wasn’t cinnabar at all. That mineral was far too celebrated to be shaved like the peel of an orange. What this had to be was realgar, a similar-looking, far less popular rock, used primarily to make orange-red pigments for clothing.
A blind man would have no use for a pigment. Realgar’s secondary use had earned it infamy in jianghu, its more poetic title whispered only in disapproving hisses: crane’s crown red.
Once lauded as a medicine similar to how cinnabar still was, the substance had fallen out of favor with the anecdote of Lord Ying of Zi, who had taken realgar as a recurring treatment until he died in quite an undignified manner. That discovery had led to its decline as a medicine and uptick in usage as a chronic poison, meant to inconvenience with breathing and digestive problems until it built up enough in the body to kill. Only then would those inexperienced with it detect it, and by that point, it would already be too late.
Zhu Li wordlessly shut the box, put it back where he found it, and continued to go through the materials.
The next oddity he found was a wide-rimmed flask with no cork. A stick was instead balanced on top of it, with a string tied to its middle and hanging down into the flask itself. He raised it up to see what was on the other end — it was a growing salt crystal, given away by its scent.
This, too, was put away without comment.
A was of some herb was stuffed into a bottle labeled ‘woundwort’, only for it to not be purple woundwort at all; it was aconite, a lethal poison the uninformed also used as a medicine. Back onto the shelf it went.
His semi-final discovery was a large bottle simply labelled ‘water’. He opened it, scented it, brought it into the light, and concluded that it was indeed very water-like. This was why he went into the yard and poured some on the flame of his lit lantern.
At the slightest hint of garlic in the air, he waved the stench away with his sleeve, then carefully wiped the lantern down.
Water, his ass. That was arsenic.
The final piece was finding another unusually tall, nondescript cruet without markings. A split second after he opened it, he closed it back up, because the horrid stink that immediately assaulted his senses nearly made him gag on the spot.
Before he tried opening the thing again, he tied a handkerchief liberally applied with scented oils around the bottom of his face, then brought the offensive thing outside along with a pair of small tongs. He had, after all, glimpsed something white sticking out of the vessel in the brief instance he had been able to bear the stink.
With the stopper off yet again, he peered into the lit-up depths. There were several white, stick-like things stabbing out of some clear liquid. One was promptly grabbed with tongs, and he lifted it up to reveal that it darkened into black and flared out in the parts hidden. It kept going and going as he pulled it out, the object easily passing a chi in length, and ultimately revealed itself to be a… black feather?
He stared at it for a few seconds. The feather was soaked through, its hydrophobic qualities apparently since destroyed. The only bird he could think of with feathers this black and large was a crow or raven, but the feather seemed too large for even them.
Why would a crow feather be soaking in liquid, and why would it stink so badly? More poison, like the rest of the unmarked bottles? Poisonous birds weren’t a thing, though, so maybe Chu Ran was soaking them in some reeking concoction to make them poisonous for whatever reason. Feathers could be used for certain stealth weapons — it wasn’t a completely ridiculous idea.
The stink was a clear sign that something was inherently wrong with the substance. He had started looking through this stuff partly out of stubborn nosiness, partly out of wanting to know what toxins he was sharing a roof with so that he would know how to deal with them at a moment’s notice. Even so, in the face of all of his years of experience and studies with poisons, he couldn’t put an exact name to this one. Too many poisons smelled like rancid eggs when undiluted.
What a bust this last one was.
He made sure everything was back in its proper place and firmly shut the door of the toxic storeroom behind him. After a single, deep sigh, he looked around the bedroom again.
While he really should stop prying, a part of him was wondering if the flowers in this room went off the same pattern of hiding poisons in plain sight. Was there aconite amongst these?
…A second look-through wouldn’t hurt.
That was what he thought while he approached the odd lone jasmine plant, picked up its pot, and turned, an idea quickly startled away by the abrupt bang of the bedroom door slamming open, its wooden stopper crashing loudly against the unfortunate wall.
Zhu Li froze in place, eyes widening as they turned to look at the newcomer independently of his head. He dared not move, fearing that the friction of his clothes rubbing together would alert the other.
Not that that would matter in the long run. Chu Ran would be able to sense him no matter what he did.
The man in question looked as he usually did, if unsmiling, his red blindfold over his eyes. Said cloth was ripped off roughly by his own hand while he walked, then tossed it onto the bed as he passed it, exchanged for a teapot placed upon his bedside table. With it in hand, he whirled back around and headed back out, all before the abused door could finish swinging shut.
Once it did, emitting a dull thud, Zhu Li waited a few more seconds, then stiffly set the jasmine’s pot back down. He also finally remembered to take a breath, once he realized that he had unconsciously started holding it.
Chu Ran’s qi sense had to be off. Zhu Li’s past treatment suggestion had now done him the service of not being caught like a thief.
He forced himself to calm down, relax his muscles, and start for the backyard’s door. Unfortunately for him, the door banged open again in record time, causing him to freeze yet again with his hand outstretched to push the door open.
Chu Ran returned with a steaming kettle, felt around the same table for his cup, and lifted it to fill it full of tea, after which he set the kettle onto its stand and took a sip of the piping liquid. This was followed by him nonchalantly crawling onto his bed, opening the window, then leaning against it, closing his eyes to listen to the birds outside.
Meanwhile, Zhu Li was stuck in a tar pit of his own creation.
The second he did anything or breathed too hard, Chu Ran would notice him, which meant… that he should probably just break this cracked pot already.
Taking in a silent breath, he uttered, “Hey—“
Air being sliced apart hit his ears. He dodged quickly to the right, his left hand coming up to gingerly grip what had been thrown at him.
Liquid splashed across the floor and wall in light splats, as well, managing to miss him completely.
He looked over at the wide-eyed Chu Ran. The man had one arm braced against the wall and the other outstretched in a very obvious ‘I just threw something with ever fibre of my being’ position. His cup was gone — no guesses as to where that went.
A few seconds of silence awkwardly stretched out.
“What…” Chu Ran finally breathed out, sounding like he had forgotten to breathe, too. “What in the world… Doctor Zhu? Is that you?”
“Yeah,” Zhu Li answered flatly, walking over to set the cup next to the teapot with a thunk.
“Ah,” was the short answer to that. Chu Ran curled in from his startled posture, placing a hand over his heart. His brows curved upwards in relief. “Goodness, that was… that was not good for my heart… Five years were just shaved off of my lifespan, I believe…”
He paused briefly, then straightened up, his face taking on an accusatory tinge. “Why on earth are you in my room, Doctor?”
Welp. No point in fibbing. “I’m… looking around.”
“Did we not have a tour previously? Were you looking for something in particular?”
“I was looking for you at first, but you weren’t here. So I went looking in your poison room.”
“My poison…? Oh.”
Zhu Li watched the way Chu Ran’s expression changed. It wasn’t a dramatic shift; his suspicious confusion leveled out into nothing, and his face turned away slightly.
“And what have you discovered and concluded from your perusal, Doctor Zhu?” Chu Ran questioned. The lilt in his voice was the same airiness as ever, like he was unbothered by his privacy getting breached, but Zhu Li could still pick out a darker edge to it.
That wouldn’t do.
“I found that you have realgar, aconite, arsenic, and something to do with feathers,” Zhu Li started, coming over to the bed and sitting on the edge of it. “I’ve concluded that you’re probably poisoning at least one person chronically. Do you want to explain why you have them?”
Chu Ran’s lips pursed together. “Must I?”
“No. But you should.”
Those lips pursed tighter. “And what if I were to refuse?”
“Then we’d leave it at that. I can’t exactly force you.”
That grumpy look worsened for a few seconds. It quickly waned to just a dark, furrowed brow. “Those I poison deserve it in full, I can assure you.”
“You don’t seem the type to go around poisoning innocents for fun. That’s hardly a surprise.”
“That’s a very good thing, because I am not.”
When no more information came up on its own, Zhu Li gave him a prompt. “What’s in the tea and salt bricks you give Du Lin?”
Chu Ran startled lightly. “How do you know about that?”
“I guessed. Seems I’m right,” Zhu Li fibbed. There was no need to bring Chu Mei’s helpful blabbermouth into this.
“Well, I… hmph. Fine. They’re for my dear father,” Chu Ran answered with a sneer, emphasizing the last word. “Madam Du has even more of a reason to hate the man than I do, so she does all the poisoning. I simply provide the means. Pure aconite and realgar would be easy to detect, but when they’re mixed with salt and tea leaves? They hide right under the nose.”
“The arsenic and feathers are the same deal?”
“No. Those are for self-defense, just as my teacher once taught me.”
Zhu Li huffed in amusement. “Guess I can’t blame you for that, considering my own mother. Maybe your teacher even picked it up from her.”
Chu Ran smiled somewhat awkwardly. “That would line up, yes. You are not… more disturbed by my nefarious deeds, Doctor?”
Arching a brow at his accusatory tone, Zhu Li countered, “I already knew you were off. None of this is shocking.”
The smile was wiped off of the other’s face. He said nothing, at first, coming to rest his cheek against his bent knees. “You are very honest, Doctor. It’s a fine trait,” he commented tonelessly, almost sarcastically, and certainly unhappily.
Taking in his body language, Zhu Li mulled this all over, then sighed. “Listen. I didn’t come here to poke around initially, and I only did that because it fits the theme of me being slightly more involved. It’s the same theme as last night.”
Chu Ran became visibly more upset at the subject, but Zhu Li pressed on. “I knew from the bottle you gave me that you had poisons in here, so I figured I would see what they were for myself. I need to know what toxic stuff is around me so that I can be prepared if something bad happens. That’s all.”
“Very well. Is your curiosity sated now?”
“Sure. But I said that I came here for you, first.”
“Oh.” Chu Ran squirmed uncomfortably at this topic. “Was there… still something to discuss? Your message was quite clear.”
“And that message was influenced by me being in pain and tired,” Zhu Li corrected. “My sentiment was real, but I didn’t use the best tone. I’m sorry for that.”
Chu Ran’s eyes widened. He looked like someone had just told him that the ground was actually the sky, with proof to back it up.
“Oh. You have nothing to apologize for, Doctor Zhu. I am obtuse by nature. It is one of several flaws I have been made verbally aware of in recent days, right there with ‘conniving’ and ‘unable to hold a proper conversation’ and such.”
Okay, I’m just going to ignore that last bit and unpack it later, Zhu Li thought. “Why are you obtuse about certain things?”
“Why? Hm. It’s easier to convince others of what you’re trying to say, in a way. If you come out the door and say something akin to, ‘This noble that everyone respects actually routinely beats his servants to death and discards their bodies in his backyard river,’ no one will believe you. If you spread a rumor around that human bones were found in that specific river, and then those curious go and actually do find bones, the first part is much more believable.”
“That’s a… pretty specific example.”
“It’s because someone I know beats his servants to death and dumps their bodies in the nearest river. No one will work for him at this point, however. His reputation is too tarnished.”
Zhu Li stared at him for a moment. How was Chu Haoyu getting worse every time he heard anything about him? “So, you’re saying that you only vaguely hint at things to build reasonable doubt in the public before you hit them with the whole truth.”
“Yes, exactly. I have tried to be straightforward before when I was little — mostly about how my father treated me, you know — and was met with disbelief, resulting in me eroding his noble’s reputation in other ways. Did you know that society at large once found him respectable, even with his poorly-maintained facade of mightiness? Wolves overlook a packmate’s ill acts, indeed.“
“Sure, but that’s his public reputation. What does that have to do with me?”
Chu Ran paused, tilting his head in confusion at the sudden change in subject. “What do you mean?”
“You’re evasive to outsiders in order to build doubt. If you want me to be involved in this investigation process, why do you do the same with me?”
The room went fully quiet. Zhu Li watched as Chu Ran’s face phased through a couple of different expressions, each more complicated than the last. Once he was done doing that, he said weakly, “Force of habit, most likely. You know how habits are; hard to break, hard to notice that you’re even doing them. I will…”
He paused slightly, hesitant, then sighed. “I am not quite sure I can be as open as I perceive you wanting me to be, Doctor. Ignorance is a boon, at times, and I don’t wish for you to become overly involved in certain aspects of this mess, nor worry too much. However, I will… try.”
“Not worry too much,” Zhu Li repeated back to him. “Is that why you keep making me paranoid about the Chu Estate?”
“Well, I certainly don’t want you to go in that horrible excuse for a nobleman’s house. Does that make me successful?”
“I was already not going in there from the first time you warned me. You don’t need to keep doing it.”
“Ah. I suppose that’s true.”
There was a beat of silence.
“I truly do despise the lot of them, though.”
“You’ve told me that only a couple dozen times, too. My point isn’t that you have to tell me every single thing that’s going on, but that what you do decide to tell me, you tell me in full, not mock me for not being in the know all day long.”
Chu Ran’s brows raised. “Mock you? I wasn’t mocking you, I would never—”
“Then what would you call dangling the truth over my head all the time?” Zhu Li cut off, not without impatience. “You know things that I don’t, and that’s fine, as long as it doesn’t affect me personally. When you drop crumbs like you do, it just comes off as patronizing.”
“Patronizing?” the other exclaimed, aghast. “I never meant to be… That’s…”
Words failed the chatty man as he put a hand to his reddening face. “That wasn’t how I meant to come off at all… I…”
Some more aborted spluttering followed this as he kind of adorably turned a vermilion shade.
At least he still had shame.
Zhu Li allowed him a few moments to rally himself, then said, “As long as you’re aware from now on, it’s fine.”
“Your advice has been well-registered, Doctor. Goodness. I was thinking that you would need a few days of space after last night to cool down before I apologized, yet you snuck into my room, rifled through my things, and instead apologized to me immediately. I must say that I am both impressed and confused.”
He was going to ignore that ‘breaking and entering’ part for now. “I’m not one to let things fester. As long as saying something isn’t going to get me into actual trouble, I’m going to.”
“Allowing a pot to overboil is a generally poor thing to do? Take me for shocked. Though I suppose one has to be a bit more self-aware than I before they can go boasting about knowing better.”
Zhu Li huffed in acknowledgement. “What is that gross-smelling stuff with the feathers, by the way? I need to know how to combat it, since that was the entire reason why I snooped.”
“Oh, that? There’s no need to worry about antidotes and whatnot, Doctor. It has no cure nor treatment, and will kill whoever or whatever gets drenched in it before you can do a thing to save them. It is known as the viper’s revenge — you must have heard of it before?”
I’m getting rid of that bottle and never touching it again, Zhu Li vowed to himself.
Viper’s revenge had gained its name from the story of its discovery, where a group had killed a bunch of vipers and eaten them, only to horribly die from the meat that had unknowingly been tainted. Later on, wine they had made from the same batch of serpents went on to kill more when they drank it, and even further on, some had decided to hunt the creatures until they were extinct, thus eliminating their threat completely.
It was pretty ironic that the substance had popped up again, the viper’s postmortem vengeance baring its fangs.
“That only comes from a breed that went extinct decades ago,” he had to say, somewhat pensive. “How did you get it?”
Chu Ran grinned like a fox. “To be honest, I know not the full story, but my teacher did relay to me the location of some very poisonous snakes of similar quality to legends. I might show you them some day, and you can tell me whether they’re the same ones you’re thinking of, hm?”
Meeting poisonous, possibly even venomous snakes from legend? What a great idea for a terrible outing.
“I’ll take your word for it,” he declined. “Just… be careful with that stuff.”
“I have managed to reach my advanced age while handling it so far, but I do thank you for your concern,” Chu Ran said, scooting out of bed and coming to stand up. “Since you’re here and not angry at me anymore, how about we have lunch together? It’s about that time. I was going to sit here moping for a shichen or two, yet you’ve ruined my plans and returned my appetite. How do noodles sound? Have I ever cooked for you before, by the way? While I don’t believe that I have, my memory is not without leaks.”
Zhu Li gave him a look, rising as well. “That’s fine. Don’t think you can distract me from asking some more questions, though.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Chu Ran retorted with a wave, as if he thought the statement obvious. “Come, come! The noodles won’t make themselves.”
The author says: or will they????????
2 thoughts on “SnCr 38”
I love it when people make up as soon as possible, without needlessly dragging out the drama! 🙂
The trip round Chu Ran’s quarters was… exciting and enlightening, to say the least 😀
From his reactions during the conversation with Zhu Li, it seems to me that the reason he kept hinting at various mysteries was to kind of keep Zhu Li’s interest in him? 😀
Arsenic! Ahem. That is a fine selection of lethal substances.
The boys have a reasonable, open conversation. Good for them.
That Chu Haoyu was once respectable is unsurprising. The rich are always respectable. Prior to gossip anyway. (because only their own can condemn them)
Mythic snake venom huh. hm…