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“Remember to focus your breathing and clear your mind. Do all you can to hit her.”
The three of them were in the foreyard. Chu Mei was in basic stance, holding a wooden training sword in front of her. She was sweaty due to warmups and nervous due to facing Xin Junyan, who was perfectly put together. Both of them were in the most bland of training clothes.
“Don’t worry about hurting her,” Zhu Li continued. He was standing firmly to one side, arms crossed. “Go all out. Fight her like she’s your worst enemy.”
“I don’t have a worst enemy,” Chu Mei answered, voice small.
“Fight her like she’s a bear, then.”
Xin Junyan, designated bear, shot him an unamused glare. He soundly ignored her.
Chu Mei took a deep breath, braced herself, then launched her attack.
The point of this exercise was to gauge how Chu Mei’s fighting abilities were coming along, and possibly hone them with experience. It was something he himself had needed to do back in the Caves, even with their lack of emphasis on martial skill; he recalled several instances of getting beaten by older cousins in spars, scolded at for his lack of fighting initiative by whatever teacher of the day, inspired by how much he hated the sparring sessions to get stronger, then studying hard until he stopped losing so much and ‘graduated’ from needing to have lessons at all. Good enough had always been the sect’s main goal for brawling.
The girl had only been learning sword forms for a few months. Unlike the women back in his sect, she had only been taught the arts of embroidery, qin playing, and ‘sitting there, bored out of your mind, but beautiful while doing it,’ as had been permitted by the sorry excuses for men in her immediate family — and to top it all off, they had filled her head with self-defeating nonsense that he didn’t even want to mentally repeat.
They’d had way too many discussions that started with her responding to something with a sentence similar to any of the following: “My second/third brother/father said that women’s bones are too delicate for heavy work/there’s a reason women are never in positions of power/yin is inferior to yang/scars will make me unmarriageable/I should only focus on womanly studies/wearing men’s clothes will make me weird in the head/I can never measure up to a man.”
Whereupon Zhu Li would have to say something like: “Your brother/father is not a doctor/historian/Daoist/smart man and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Only the dead have bones that brittle and you’re clearly not dead/Women have always been in positions of power, which he would know if he had opened any history book worth its paper/The entire point of yin-yang balance is that they’re equal forces and anyone who says otherwise missed the entire point/Who cares about marriage right now/There’s no such thing as ‘womanly studies’/It’s literally just fabric/He shouldn’t be commenting on anyone else’s ‘measurability’ when he can’t even measure up to dirt. Ignore him.”
The Chu family’s list of crimes had been growing steadily in his heart since the first day he had arrived here. ‘Teaching Chu Mei wrong and giving her confidence issues’ had made its way onto the list, too.
Nevertheless, he carefully observed the fight. Never before had he seen Xin Junyan fight in person; he knew that she and Chu Ran would spar on occasion, as was typical for martial artists, but he had never participated nor spectated them, so he wasn’t sure how she fought. Spectating her now, he noticed that she was looking only minimally at Chu Mei herself, her eyes typically looking elsewhere when not closed completely.
The slices she used were wide and slow sweeps – even though she was doubtlessly going easy on Chu Mei so as not to slice the girl completely in half, he knew that they would be slower than, say, jabbing moves at full speed. An advantage of this motion was that it gave a much broader range of attack, and therefore less need for accuracy.
They were the perfect sort of moves for someone that might not see their opponent too well. They were also familiar, harking back to that one-sided marmalizing Chu Ran had given what’s-her-face at the Han Estate.
Chu Mei was doing well falling back and ducking down, but too much hesitation lingered around her attacks. Her conviction was shaky at its foundations – a very bad trait, when yao, wild animals, and human threats were everywhere.
In better news, she was applying the jab-heavy style of Vigilant Serpent accurately, if amateurishly. Her blows aimed for the ribs, the throat, the collarbone, the kneecaps, and the eyes, which were all acceptable targets; after all, one didn’t necessarily need to be stronger than their opponent to beat them, just stronger than the breaking point of the other’s bones.
Not a one of the hits landed where they were supposed to, of course. If a grown woman that trained constantly was hit by a tiny creature while on full guard, Zhu Li would definitely end the day with scolding the former.
Every once in a while, Xin Junyan would send her blunt wooden sword into the side of one of Chu Mei’s extremities or abdomen, resulting in several hearty thwacks that sure sounded like they hurt. In an impressive display of willpower that spited her sheltered and painless (hopefully, though he wouldn’t put it past the Chu’s to have been physically abusive) upbringing, Chu Mei powered through all of the hits with only minor flinching, up until an especially hard one landed on her right shoulder, causing her to cry out in time with the drop of her weapon. She stumbled gracelessly to the ground, the side of her left leg hitting it hard.
Xin Junyan ceased attacking immediately. Zhu Li walked up to Chu Mei to check her over.
She had recovered from her fall and now stood, clutching her hurt shoulder, tears gathered in her eyes. Even so, she was biting her lip, doing her best not to let them fall.
He gently grabbed her arm to examine her shoulder with qi — it was already red and would definitely leave a nasty bruise. “Your meridians have yet to fully form, so your control over qi won’t be great,” he started explaining. “Try circulating your qi around this area anyways, just like how I showed you. Think of it as convincing your body to work harder at fixing itself.”
She nodded, placing her hand over the affected area to do as he said.
“As for your forms, you need to have more confidence in your moves. Once your hesitation is worked through, other aspects can be improved,” he continued.
The girl nodded mutely.
Meanwhile, Xin Junyan made some weird noise while she stretched somewhere behind him. “Are we done with the boring parts? I want to take Meimei to the theatre. The Windborne Troupe is in Zhongling, and they’re putting on Tragedy of the Red General. I want to catch them before it takes them another three years to come back here.”
Chu Mei perked up, her own hurts and tears immediately forgotten. “The Windborne Troupe?!” she exclaimed.
Zhu Li raised his brows slightly — that was the highest he had ever heard her voice raise.
Xin Junyan laughed. “You heard me right, Meimei. They’re going to start the performance at sundown, all the way at Hua Xiu Theatre. If we go now, we’ll have plenty of time to catch lunch and check the nearby market.”
After a high-pitched squeal, Chu Mei scuttled away into the depths of the Pavilion, channeling a mouse’s speed for the deed. Excitement had clearly dulled her pain into nonexistence.
“Well, Doctor Zhu, I’m going to go get ready, too. These drab sparring clothes won’t cut it,” Xin Junyan said, gesturing to her indeed quite bland clothes, and turned to follow Chu Mei inside.
However, she paused with her hand on the doorway, then turned back to him. “Actually, why don’t you come with us? You’re not doing anything today, right?”
He had just been turning towards Guhui — the mare was occupied with sniffing out the treats he had hidden all over the yard for her to find — when those words came out, causing him to stop in some surprise. “You want me to go with you?”
“It’s been a while since the two of us have just hung out, hasn’t it? Chu Mei likes spending time with you, too, and you don’t seem to get out much. What do you say?”
He regarded her, and the details she had left unsaid, quietly for a moment. “That sounds fine to me.”
She nodded once. “I’ll be back to help you pick out an outfit, then.”
When she disappeared into the apothecary, he was left staring at her back in contemplation.
The reason it had been a while since the two of them had hung out was because Chu Ran, the very man she had been actively shunning since shortly after their return from Beishan, was always happily hovering around him. But even when Chu Ran had been occupied elsewhere, she would either be caught up in her own things, or bringing Chu Mei elsewhere for exclusive girl-time. Their budding friendship had starved, more or less.
“Really, Doctor Zhu? Never?”
“No. There were no operas in the Caves, and I never really had the time or interest in seeing one. If I was even in the right place.”
“Mayhaps we should bring you to one, then. I cannot say anything for the visual aspect of it, clearly, but the songs are nice to listen to.”
“We should wait for those troupes where the actors are all cultivators,” Xin Junyan interjected, her chopsticks clinking against her bowl. “They use qi and fancy machines from way north. Plus, their acts never get old. Literally.”
“…Terrible, Junyan. Were my fan on me, I’d smack you.”
…maybe she had recalled that conversation from some unknown day a while ago.
He waited patiently, gently shoving Guhui’s nose away whenever she tried to nudge him to find snacks for her, until Xin Junyan came back out and dragged him inside to pick out an outfit for him.
“I don’t need to dress up every time we go out, Junyan,” he said as she rummaged through his wardrobe, which was about a quarter his traveling robes he had used for five years straight and three-quarters outfits this very woman had picked out for him in the past few months.
She scoffed, hidden behind the wardrobe doors. “Yes you do. If you go out in those shabby clothes you normally have, people will think we mistreat you.”
He sighed. “They’re not shabby, they’re work clothes. Working and traveling in fine silks and whatever would just ruin them.”
“Sure, but you’re not purely working or traveling anymore. You need to look nice! Even though that face of yours could make even rags look good, I feel like I’d be committing some crime if I let you run around in the most boring clothes ever.”
“You make it sound like I didn’t get those tailored and designed by Danping,” said he, ignoring his impulse to go and tug her ear.
Her head popped out from behind the doors, eyes wide. “You what?”
“The owner of Danping made me that entire set of robes because I treated a chronic illness of her son’s. They’ve held up against the wear and tear well.”
Her eyes widened. “You… you just… Do you even have any idea? Any idea at all?”
He tilted his head to the side. “About what?”
“Danping is one of the premier tailors and designers of Zhongling, and you… you had them make work clothes?”
“They’re good quality. Woven with arrays that make dirt roll off of them, too.”
She stared at him for a few second more, then dove back into the wardrobe. The force of her dive incidentally knocked the wardrobe doors more open, giving Zhu Li a full view of her pulling out one of his ‘boring robes’ and carefully inspecting the stitchwork, material, and other such things.
“Danping owed you a favor, and they made you such… such bland clothes…” she mumbled, bewildered.
“I asked them to make them blander.”
She turned to glare at him viciously. It was like he had just confessed to murdering kittens or something.
“If they were too fancy, I would get attacked even more on the road than I already was,” he explained. “Bandits can’t do much to me as a cultivator, but Guhui isn’t the same.”
Xin Junyan’s glare evaporated under that sun of a statement. She wordlessly folded the robes back up and tucked it away.
“Why do you like picking my outfits out, anyways?” he asked idly.
“It makes me feel better, I suppose,” she answered while continuing her rummaging. “When I… first came here, Ran asked me to pick out his outfits for him. Before that, I’d never been allowed to even pick out my own clothes, so it was like a whole new world was opened to me. Fashion is soothing, I guess. A way to be in control of my own self. Since you don’t seem to care much about clothes, I figured you wouldn’t mind me doing it for you.”
Half of her head peeked out from behind the doors again. “Do you mind? I can stop. I don’t think I ever really asked.”
Zhu Li met her eye for a moment, wistful. He quickly waved the question off. “It’s fine. You can.”
Not being allowed to pick out her own clothes did not paint Xin Junyan’s past in a favorable light. He could think of one of three options: her family had been too poor to afford more than a few basic outfits for her, her family had been filthy rich enough that she wasn’t allowed to dress herself out of social convention, or her elders had just been that controlling.
None of those options were great. Even if her family had been rich, she was clearly not living with them anymore.
He would ask about it. One day.
She ended up putting him in fancier gray-blue robes, all accented with black and white. He didn’t remember her ever buying these for him, actually. Was she sneaking into his room when he wasn’t here and putting new ones in?
…He wouldn’t put it past her.
She also made Chu Mei wear a veil across her lower face like she did whenever she went out in public, something he had still never asked about.
One dress-up and carriage ride later, they were out and about at the market nearest the Hua Xiu Theatre, fully intending to fill up on snacks. The streets were way more busy than Zhu Li would have liked, so he put his Fiendish Aura to work again, keeping the rabble at arm’s length.
They didn’t end up buying too much, mostly taking in the sights and chatting about nothing. That was, until Zhu Li’s hackles subconsciously raised.
Xin Junyan and Chu Mei were talking about something or other regarding her studies when he felt something wrong spike through the air. He subtly surveyed his surroundings to see if anyone else had noticed the disturbance, but there was no reaction in the crowd. Not even Xin Junyan noticed anything.
Nothing sinister immediately made itself known. He continued to watch out, playing the part of a sentinel on bated watch for something he didn’t even know the identity of. The conversation going on between the other two went in one ear and out the other. Eventually, when they tried to include him, they noticed his tension.
“What is it, Doctor Zhu?” Xin Junyan whispered to him, brows furrowed.
He opened his mouth to say that something was wrong, only to shut it quite quickly. “I felt something off,” he answered with instead.
She frowned a bit harder, but didn’t question him, furtively glancing around. Her eyes soon caught on something, widening in shock, and she reached over to grab his hand — the clenching force of her fingers hurt.
“We’ve spent enough time out here, Meimei. Let’s make our way to the theatre,” she said soothingly to Chu Mei, betraying none of the raw emotions she was surely feeling as she kept her eyes trained on one spot.
Zhu Li followed her gaze. He froze momentarily, some surprise also coursing through him, but it was quickly replaced by a cool sensation of fury, his eyes narrowing.
That inferior clone of Chu Ran was turned full towards them, watching them like a creep. Even from this far away, that smarmy little smirk of his — able to piss off even the calmest of monks — was fully visible, as were the matching looks on his cronies. Gross.
Chu Ran had done such a good job of deterring the less savory members of his family, that Zhu Li had almost forgotten that this shithead had taken great relish in beating him up in that prison. Under the guise of ‘beating a confession out of him’, of course.
Why was he here? To cause trouble? Had he been tailing them since they left, or incidentally seen them on the road? He was glad that Chu Mei was in a veil, though the other might have guessed as to who she was.
I hope he does try to start something, Zhu Li thought. I’ll make him regret trying to butt in.
The three of them shuffled to Hua Xiu Theatre, with Chu Mei none the wiser (hopefully). After Xin Junyan flashed her admittance token, and were then being led up the stairs to a private room overlooking the main room.
Fairly unsurprisingly, Chu Ran had thrown money at Xin Junyan so that she could buy the most expensive room and service. This was also why Zhu Li’s last-minute addition was not really an issue; as a room, the person limit was six-ish, and the service would simply change to accommodate.
They all settled into their cushioned banister seats. Nobody was onstage yet, so the noise of people talking permeated the venue in their stead.
“I’m guessing you’ve never seen the Windborne Troupe before, Doctor Zhu?” Xin Junyan said. No tension was in her voice, but she was attentively scanning the crowd for interlopers.
“No,” he answered. “Is it one of those cultivating troupes you told me about?”
“Yeah! They use qi and martial arts and stuff!” Chu Mei piped up. “I’ve never heard of this play before, though.”
“You’ve never heard of the Red General?” he asked.
She shook her head, and he really shouldn’t be surprised at this point. But maybe this would do her some good, in light of everything.
“Pay attention, then. She’s considered the foremother of all cultivation sects.”
She blinked up at him in surprise. He just turned away to focus on the stage.
A band soon came up to play on the sides. As the pipa and erhu sang in tandem, props and a backdrop were seen to slide onto the stage without human help, out from a covered areas to either side — some array carved into the underside of the boards here, surely, if this stage was often used to host troupes like these.
The setting was clearly supposed to be some sort of training field. An actor in ostentatious clothes and facepaint all but darted onto center-stage, nearly invisibly. Their clear, warbling voice announced with the swell of the percussion, “The young lord and lady of Yan are coming! Everyone, come pay your respects…”
The play unfolded much like how he remembered the Red General’s legend having going, just dramatized, expanded, and now accompanied by bold costumes, singing, and dancing that he wasn’t quite used to. The disciplehood of the to-be Red General, known as Yan Bai, and her brother, Yan Hei—definitely not their actual names, because who named their children ‘black’ and ‘white’?—played out onstage. Yan Bai’s actress was dressed in extravagant reds, an ornate crown with pheasant feathers, and hate white-and-red facepaint on, her actions bold and brave as she moved; Yan Hei had much more understated dress in whites, his facepaint black-and-blue. Each outfit complemented their roles as the ‘brave fighter against the world’ and ‘mild-mannered strategist.’
Zhu Li snuck a glance at Chu Mei. She was enraptured with watching Yan Bai fight onstage, the actress flawlessly dispatching disciples that had insulted her for being a woman and weak—this had taken place over seven-hundred years ago, perhaps even longer, when jianghu had been more like current civilian society. Hopefully, this lesson would stick.
(The lesson was to beat up everyone that insulted her, of course. He endorsed it. The number one way of restoring one’s honor in jianghu against people that tried to slander it was to beat them to a pulp in public.)
When a competition involving the Yan siblings came up on the stage—this play must be based off of the written version by Xiu Jinyong, not the oral version, because Zhu Li didn’t remember this part of the legend—his eyes caught upon an unwanted guest.
Chu Fu, model bastard, was on the lower floor, looking around. He quickly located the three of them on their balcony after not finding them on the main floor. That ugly, infuriating, disgusting grin of his cracked that horrendous mug of his in half.
So he was looking to start something.
Anger rose in Zhu Li’s chest again. He stood up calmly, alerting the other two, then leaned over to speak close to Xin Junyan’s ear. “He’s here,” he whispered, quietly enough that Chu Mei wouldn’t be able to hear him. “Don’t let Chu Mei know anything is wrong, but be alert. I’ll take care of him.”
She nodded. “Will you be able to take him? He’s not alone,” she whispered back.
“They don’t scare me. Besides,” he answered, practically feeling his own voice cooling down. “I owe them something.”
Straightening his back out, he gave a quick excuse to Chu Mei so that she didn’t worry too much, then exited the room. He didn’t go far, though, standing there like a sentinel.
The main culprit showed his still-grinning face in due time, sliding in like an unwelcome spectre. Arms crossed, Zhu Li watched him coldly, acutely aware of Dusha at his hip and the poison he was yet to be rid of in his sleeve.
Chu Fu took a breath to speak in that grating voice of his, but Zhu Li raised a hand in an imperious notion of stop. “We’re going outside for whatever you have to say,” he stated simply, with no room for argument in the slightest.
Chu Fu rolled his eyes like the brat he was, yet acquiesced, turning and leaving with a disrespectful fling of his robes. Zhu Li barely tamped down the desire to trip him.
They went down the stairs and exited the Theatre completely. Instead, they came to the road outside, where there was still something of a crowd hanging about.
Once in the middle of the street, Chu Fu abruptly spun on his heel to face Zhu Li, his robes swirling out, causing the latter to stop with his hand on Dusha’s hilt. A few passersby shot them strange looks.
Putting his hands behind his back, Chu Fu grinned, an act that sent a fresh wave of revulsion through Zhu Li. This man’s resemblance to Chu Ran was close—too close, really, as this expression was not something Chu Ran would ever wear, giving a sense of wrongness that scratched at his brain.
Zhu Li narrowed his eyes. He thought back to his sudden capture, his time spent wrongfully in jail, this jackass’s involvement in both of those things and worsening of the situation…
He remembered unwarranted violence—getting his head shoved into the ground, kicks to the stomach and ribs, smacks and slashes to the face, even a few broken bones—and ropes straining his limbs, inlaid with charms and steel that made his qi flow sluggish and near-useless, cutting him off from the power he had cultivated his entire life to achieve.
Expensive things, those qi-cloggers were. Of course a rich family could have afforded them.
“Long time, no see, Doctor Zhu Li,” Chu Fu’s slimy voice dripped out of his mouth, the weird intonation he put on his name increasing Zhu Li’s ire for him. “You seem to be doing well since our last meet-up.”
That over-confident way he spoke betrayed his inner belief that he still had some kind of hold or power over Zhu Li. Maybe he was under the impression that getting one over on Zhu Li once, with the assistance all three elements of surprise, numbers, and bonds, meant that he now took up permanent residence in his psyche, where he was something worthy of being feared.
“What do you want?” he asked, voice mellow.
“There’s a lot of things I want from you, but I haven’t had the chance to ask after them all this time. You’ve been riding awful close to Kanqing all this time. What happened?” Chu Fu’s head cocked to the side. “Finally got out of his clutches?”
Zhu Li wrinkled his nose at the name. Asshole. He wasn’t going to indulge him with an answer to that.
Chu Fu began to approach. Zhu Li stood firm, his heart steady as he watched the other’s calm stride and smug eyes. At a mere chi of distance, Chu Fu looked up at him, no bravado lost from the lack of height he had on him.
“I’ve heard he always clings to you in public. Like a wife would her husband, they’ve said,” he whispered, his breath puffing unwelcomely into Zhu Li’s space. “It seems inappropriate, but he’s always acted odd, you know? Even beyond being blind. Say, Doctor… do you like that, or are you just putting up with it because it’s his roof you’re staying under? His mercy you’re at?”
Zhu Li continued to watch him, silent.
Chu Fu’s grin only widened. “You are at his complete mercy, you know. Kanqing knew that you were in jail the day you went into it, yet he let you languish in there for a month. On purpose. He could have rescued you much, much earlier than that, but he didn’t. Not very nice of him, is it?”
At his continued lack of response, the grin grew grander. “In fact… he very well might have known you were going to jail in advance, if you catch my meaning. Yet he didn’t stop it. Is that a very altruistic thing to do? Is that heroic? If he was convinced that you were innocent, wouldn’t he get you out of there immediately? Now, why would he do a thing like that?
“Maybe…” Chu Fu leaned in, eyes narrowing, “…he wanted you to be grateful to him. He wanted you to see him as a savior. Not only that, but gratitude might be manipulated into something else, something he wants, but can never achieve. Not with how he… is. The general state of him.
“You see, Kanqing is the type of man that is not only determined to cut off his own family branch, but very willing to convince another man to cut off his lineage, too. He’s tried to do so to other men before you, actually, though he obviously wasn’t successful. Putting the fact that men typically go for women aside, who would ever want a blind man? He’s too hopeful.”
No one wants a blind man, echoed a memory of Chu Ran’s voice.
Zhu Li frowned slightly, an understatement of his actual anger. The sight made Chu Fu laugh.
“I’m glad you understand,” the man practically purred. “He’s a tricky devil. Keep your distance from him.”
Zhu Li stared at him for a brief moment. “Are you done?” he asked calmly, once it was clear that Chu Fu was waiting for something.
The other’s smile diminished slightly at the general non-reaction Zhu Li had. He narrowed his eyes, clearly trying to determine whether the calm was real or faked, but ultimately seemed to not be able to tell. “No, I’m not,” he continued, drawing out his words, his feet taking him backwards some. “I know my little sister is with you. I just want her to come home. Can you go back into the Theatre and tell her to come out?”
He purposefully projected his voice so that everyone around could hear. Attention was drawn to the two of them, the ears of nosy busybodies perked to hear the drama.
“No, I can’t,” replied Zhu L. Succinct and efficient, like a short knife.
Chu Fu stood there in wait for his explanation of why he couldn’t. He was destined to be disappointed, because Zhu Li wasn’t about to give him a god damn thing.
“…Is there a reason why you can’t?” Chu Fu tried to prompt.
“The reason is that I don’t know who your sister is. Go get her yourself if you think she’s in there.” Try it. See what happens, you bastard.
A severe eye twitch and the collapse of his grin betrayed Chu Fu’s annoyance. He took a deep breath, then hung his smile back on its hook. “I’m afraid she won’t come with me if I’m the one to ask. That’s why I need your help.”
“Sounds like a you problem.”
The last of Chu Fu’s patience visibly leaked out of him. He raised his finger to point at him, then let out a mighty shout of, “Zhu Li, how dare you play dumb to your misdeeds! Bring me to my little sister, now!”
Even more eyes were drawn to them due to his outburst. Zhu Li peered around; Chu Fu’s cronies were now circling and mixing within the crowd, having crawled out from some unknown shadows prior.
“Yelling doesn’t make me know who you’re talking about more,” he countered, still collected as could be. There was no point in getting worked up. “Why do you think I’d be around your sister?”
“Liar! I know that you have a young assistant in your apothecary who only showed up after our Mei’r went missing, and you walked into that theatre with two women, one of similar stature to her!”
Zhu Li raised a brow. “My apprentice is a boy. Everyone knows that. And those two women are my sisters, not yours.”
He already had four sisters. Why not add another two to the pile?
“How could they be your sisters?” Chu Fu retorted.
“Do you have proof that they’re not?” Zhu Li sniped right back.
Chu Fu’s face darkened at being more or less completely shut down. He grit his teeth, but Zhu Li’s complete denial and blatant lies had apparently thrown him for a loop, as nothing immediately came out of his mouth. Maybe he’d been expecting more of a guilty conscience, maybe he’d been expecting someone meeker, or maybe he’d been expecting an angrier reaction — regardless of what he’d imagined, he’d basically gotten the embodiment of a wall.
“You seem to be done now, so I’m leaving,” Zhu Li commented dryly, after which he spun on his heel to head back towards the Theatre. What a waste of time this had been.
“Stop right there!” Chu Fu furiously shouted. When he continued to be ignored, he hollered even louder, “I know that ‘boy’ apprentice of yours is no boy at all, and I’ve seen her face before! That’s my sister, Chu Mei! Don’t you know that men and women aren’t to mingle?!”
Zhu Li stopped in his tracks. Slowly—very, very slowly—he turned around to stare at Chu Fu again.
The other man smiled upon successfully riling him up. However, the smile slowly melted away when Zhu Li approached, his unblinking eyes staring hard into his, his face devoid of emotion, his hand still on the hilt of his sword, and the aura rolling off of him extremely, absolutely, and terrifyingly livid.
Zhu Li stopped in front of him. He looked down upon him with his neck straight and chin up, a true emphasis of their height difference.
“Say what you want to say plainly,” he said. Despite his even tone, each of his words was heavy with warning. “And speak up, so everyone can hear.”
Chu Fu’s eyes darted all around Zhu Li’s face. His own mug was twisted up with some mix of confusion and nervousness. It quickly morphed into a falsely-confident grin. “Everyone knows that unrelated men and women are not to be together. I know you dark cultivators have queer customs and perhaps even queerer preferences, but you must be aware that a young girl hanging out with a grown man is entirely inappropri—ghk!”
People that had nothing good to say should not open their mouths. This was a turn of phrase that Zhu Li now enforced with a hand on Chu Fu’s jaw.
The other reacted fairly quickly, shooting out a palm to get him to let go, but Zhu Li quickly jabbed two fingers into his wrist, both deflecting the blow and fracturing the bones in his wrist. Unable to open his maw, his screams were muffled by his own flesh.
Shouts came out of the crowd. Chu Fu’s cronies came storming out, ready to attack, yet were stopped by Zhu Li’s firm warning of, “Get too close, and I’ll break his jaw.”
He lifted Chu Fu straight off the ground. Kicks were sent into his torso and legs, bouncing off of him like throw pillows. Because this man was known for his dirty tricks, not his cultivation prowess.
A weak, unmanly, stupid good-for-nothing.
“You came out here and tried to ruin the reputation of your own little sister while she’s trying to have a good day,” Zhu Li continued, terrifying calm. “That’s disgraceful, but you clearly don’t have any self-awareness. Those rumors about you were true.
“Since you don’t know how jianghu works, I’ll spell it out for you. If I was actually doing what you’re implying I’m doing, the Great Dao would have struck me down and left me a weak, pathetic husk like you. The fact that you thought something was going on says more about you than it does me. Mostly that you’re a chronic idiot.
“Chu Mei is my disciple. She learns how to defend herself and how to heal others, which are things you lot did all you could to stop her from doing. She’s part of jianghu, and therefore emancipated from any entitlement you think you have to her. She’s not going to jump on your command like a fucking dog. Instead of making demands, you should be looking inside yourself and ask why a girl from a rich family would hate it in there enough to run from it.”
He tightened his grip. Chu Fu hissed in pain, grabbing his arm powerlessly with his one good arm. “I saw you skulking around earlier. I know you’ve been itching to start shit because you think you’re more untouchable and influential than you actually are, even though you’re also too much of a coward to try anything when your brother isn’t around. You can’t even do anything to me when I’m not tied up.
“I’m going to give you only one warning: If I ever see you again, I know exactly where and how to break your spine to cripple you for life. Consider that a mercy, because any other cultivator wouldn’t have given you any warning for slandering their name.”
His gaze flickered to the side for a second in thought. “Also, you don’t have any room to talk about Yingliu when you’re worse than him in every way. Now piss off.”
All of a sudden, he lightly threw Chu Fu backwards, sending him down to the dirty ground with a harsh sound. The man tumbled with a cry, dirt picking up on his fancy robes, and he raised his hand to feel at his surely sore jaw. His cronies quickly flocked around him.
Zhu Li spun on his heel and left, uncaring of whatever they were doing behind him as he returned to the Theatre. The people behind him easily parted to let him through.
He had no expectations that Chu Fu would leave him alone for good, but the wounds to his face, wrist, and ego would hopefully keep him away from Chu Mei.
On top of that… well, he knew how rumors spread, and the crowd today had grown quickly over the course of this very quick encounter. He had used the fact that he knew Chu Ran was actively ruining his family’s reputation to add more credence to his own words, despite not being fully aware of the contents of those prior rumors at all—their contents didn’t really matter, after all. There was no such thing as a good rumor.
When he returned to the Theatre room, Chu Mei was still enraptured by the performance onstage, none the wiser, while Xin Junyan jumped slightly and spun towards him. Upon seeing his face, she relaxed, yet kept her eyes on him expectantly.
He took his place next to her again. “He’s not going to bother you two today. Or ever again,” he whispered.
“What about you?” she whispered back, a worried crease to her brow.
“Like I said, he doesn’t scare me. He’s a weak fop with too much money.”
The worry increased. “Did he use any of those artifacts he has? Some of them… some of them are really nasty.”
“No. There were too many people around. He was trying to damage Chu Mei and I’s reputation, not actually fight. Stuff about how men and women shouldn’t mix.”
She remained quiet for a few moments, processing that information. “Bastard,” she hissed, turning back to the play.
“It’s okay. He’s a moron for trying to accuse a cultivator of anything heinous.”
He looked over to the stage. The Yan Bai actress was speaking with a female character dressed all in black, their swords drawn in battle-readiness. That bastard, Chu Fu, had left him with no context for what was happening in the play anymore.
“He said some things about Yingliu, too,” he said quietly.
Out of his peripheral, he saw Xin Junyan’s head snap back towards him. He kept his eyes trained on the stage.
“It was nothing I haven’t already figured out or had a good hunch about. Like how he knew I was going into prison before I did.”
“He…” she started to say, only to pause. “He has his own agenda that he never shares with anyone. It’s infuriating. Him knowing in advance is pretty likely, though it’s also just as likely that Chu Fu is lying. Without asking him himself, it’s impossible to know.”
“Is that why you’re mad at him?”
“What? Oh. Was I that obvious?”
“Well… well, of course! He leaves me in the dark about things! I told him that I wasn’t a child anymore and that I can help him, but it’s like he’s determined to shoulder everything himself! I guess that’s not bad by itself, but… if I’m already this involved, why doesn’t he trust me?”
On the stage, Yan Bai and the new woman—Heilian, as he eventually caught them saying—began to fight, complete with acrobatics, sword clashes, and harmless bursts of flashy qi for effect. Their fight was more dance than battle, the fringes and silks and scarves of their elaborate outfits flying in trails after their movements.
“It probably doesn’t have anything to do with trust. I think it’s an attempt to protect you, misguided as it is,” he answered. “I got mad at him a little while ago, too.”
“You? Mad? What did you do, raise an eyebrow at him?”
“…I know how to yell. But after I yelled at him then calmed down, we talked it out. Now we’re okay. You, on the other hand, have been avoiding him for weeks.”
He looked over at her. Obviously conflicted, she was biting her lip.
“I know, I just— He’s so hard to talk to and be around, sometimes. I’m not great at arguments, either,” she admitted.
“Neither is he. Are you afraid of him?”
She turned to him in shock. “Afraid? No, never. I… I owe him a lot, really.”
“Then why don’t you talk to him?”
“I’m not good at it. I guess. I don’t know. Every time I try, I get nervous and mad all over again.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“What? No, no, I— I’m a grown woman. I’ll just have to suck it up instead of ignoring the problem until it goes away.”
Zhu Li gave a hum of approval, and let the conversation drop.
Although they still pissed him off, he went through Chu Fu’s words in his head once more. ‘Cutting off one’s family lineage’ was not a notion he agreed with, as he’d been taught since birth that one could contribute to their ancestors’ legacy without bearing any children. Pairing that with the other ignorant junk he’d said, he wasn’t going to put much stock into the contents so much as their implication.
The fact that Chu Fu had tried to plant doubts into his head was a warning flag. Had he tried to ruin Chu Ran’s relationships before? Judging from the fact that Chu Ran appeared to have no close friends and was, ahem, near-thirty and still single, that seemed to be a possibility.
It also… gave context to the random self-disparaging comments Chu Ran would randomly spout. Had someone said them to him before, he’d taken them to heart, and now was just repeating them?
Zhu Li’s resolve to knock Chu Fu’s teeth out grew.
Stuff like this reminded him of his only younger sister, sometimes, and how she’d once run out of the house , red-faced and mortified, after a particularly honest conversation with their mother. Then, that reminded him of a little comment Chu Ran had once made to Xin Junyan…
“Are you coming with us to the Miasma Caves, Junyan?” he asked. It was an out-of-the-blue to everyone but himself.
“Huh?” she uttered, baffled. “I wasn’t going to, no.”
“You should come. Chu Mei, too.”
She looked at him oddly, but didn’t say anything else on it.
“C-can you two please stop talking so much?” Chu Mei whined from next to them. Her glare made her look like someone had just bullied her. “I can’t really hear what you’re talking about, but… it’s getting hard to focus on the actors.”
Having been scolded by a child, the two adults immediately piped down, allowing her to enjoy what they had come here to watch in the first place.
The author says: did you want to see the Tragedy of the Red General? well too bad!!! the good doctor has no appreciation for the finer things in life!!! now you’ll never know!!! ever!!!
(I wrote this chapter after already completing forty-one and forty-two, which is not my typical method of operation. Buuuut I was tired of XJY and Meimei not getting any screen time. I also wanted Chu Fu to finally come on stage specifically so that he could get his ass kicked)