SnCr 41

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As the venue came into view, all Zhu Li could think was, Why is this place so massive?

The Dong-Yin conference had to take place in neither Nan’an nor Dongqiu, as either major family coming to the other’s door would be considered as degradingly admitting that the other was superior, since they had taken the painful effort to come over. No self-respecting sect would ever lose face like that, so places like this so-called Hall of the Leaping Qilin were used as a compromise. Since Zhongling was equidistant from all four major cities, both families would have to travel the same total li and meet in neutral ground where neither had the upper hand.

How often were groups large enough to take up all this space meeting up, though? Surely the building had some other use in other times.

Even though the outer walls concealed the first floor, the building’s other three protruded clear over it. There was also nothing stopping the inevitable loud chatter that came with large crowds of people. Given what he had learned just recently about how little the Dong and Yin families got along, these conversations were likely filled with meaningless drivel and veiled insults.

He suppressed the compulsion to turn Guhui around and march right back to the Pavilion of Quiet. The only reason he was able to — and the same reason he had agreed to this in the first place — was the assurance that this would be a one-day affair. They would speak with Dong Yongming, find Faux Fox nearby, possibly instigate the Yins into admitting something, then leave. Quick, easy, done.

Hopefully.

“What is it, Doctor? You seem to be a little tense,” questioned a well-known voice beside him.

“Do you even need to ask, Ran?” riffed another voice. “You know that he doesn’t do well with crowds. Neither do you, neither do I. The Yin family is full of stuck-up jerks, too, so we’re facing an annoying crowd of people that think they’re somebodies. Are you not tense?”

Zhu Li looked over indifferently at Chu Ran and Xin Junyan. They had bickered a lot on the way here; this current scenario was not too surprising to see at this point.

“Oh, please, Junyan. Tension is reserved for things I lack confidence in. I predict that we will be finding everything we’re coming for in due time,” Chu Ran shot back haughtily.

Xin Junyan narrowed her eyes. “Right. Want to make a bet?”

“What sort of bet?”

“I bet you four days’ worth of meals that the second we’re in the Hall of the Leaping Qilin, you’ll get annoyed and cling to Doctor Zhu’s elbow the rest of the time.”

There was a pause.

“I will not be taking that bet.”

Xin Junyan humphed triumphantly. “Coward.”

Zhu Li turned his head away. At least these two were less awkward than they had been before. Xin Junyan had apparently taken his advice, and whatever disagreement had caused a rift between them seemed to have been patched over.

They dismounted, strode up to the front door, greeted the doorman, and…

“Who are you people?”

The doorman was firmly blocking their way through the door, scowling fiercely all the while.

Chu Ran smiled broadly at him. “We are Xin Yingliu and Xin Junyan of the Xin Sect, and Doctor Zhu Li of the Miasma Caves. We’ve come to speak with some attendants of the conference.”

The other wrinkled his nose and looked upon them with contempt. “This event is restricted to the Yin and Dong families, as well as their constituents. I’m afraid that you all don’t count and will have to leave.”

Zhu Li and Xin Junyan shared a look. They were definitely thinking the same thing: We were invited… right?

They both looked back to Chu Ran who just kept smiling. “That doesn’t seem to be quite right, sir. We were indeed invited, and the Doctor here is a good friend of the Dong family’s matriarch. Surely she mentioned it before, and it just slipped your mind?”

The doorman’s peeved and suspicious expression morphed into something much more unsure. His eyes shifted away on occasion to study the environment, as if he was looking away in deep thought.

Zhu Li spared a random glance towards Xin Junyan, only to find that she was visibly tensing up, her eyes widening minutely at the exchange in front of her — an exchange that was, in Zhu Li’s eyes, nothing remarkable at all.

He would have asked after it, had this been the time, and had this reaction not been concealed almost as quickly as it had come.

“Come now,” Chu Ran continued. He didn’t sound any different than normal. “This is surely jogging your memory, isn’t it? Don’t you remember?”

The doorman’s face blanked out for a second — perhaps not even that long— then shortly turned red. After he hesitated in place for a bit, not knowing what to do with himself, he bowed deeply with his arms held out in front. “I… I’m terribly sorry, esteemed guests. I actually do remember Matriarch Dong saying something like that, yet it was in no officially documented capacity, so this lowly one forgot completely. I beg your forgiveness!”

Chu Ran chuckled. “Are we haughty nobles, our egos bigger than our veneers of importance? You are already pardoned. We are purely interested in a conversation with Dong Yongming, mind, not with listening in on things that do not concern us — is she available?”

The man gave an apologetic smile. “She’s in a meeting with Patriarch Yin at the moment. It will be quite some time before it’s over, unfortunately. I can send for a spare room to be arranged for your wait?”

“Your offer is appreciated, but there will be no need for such treatment. We will simply spend time at a nearby restaurant and come back in, oh, half a shichen, I reckon. I trust that our second arrival will not be impeded upon?”

“Of course not, of course not! I will inform the other workers so that there is no confusion,” the doorman assured, bowing on repeat to them.

Thus, just like that, they were back on their horses and taking to the road, with Xin Junyan in the lead.

“I figured that Dong Yongming would be busy once we got here, so I planned for this slight derivation,” Chu Ran announced as they went along. “We will be going to Faux Fox now instead of later. As long as one person has seen us in the Hall’s vicinity prior, that will suffice for the cover.”

“The cover for what?” Xin Junyan piped up. Her question mirrored Zhu Li’s own thoughts.

Chu Ran chuckled. “For a little bit of a chicanery, of course. Now, Doctor, I will have to ask you to memorize the paths we’re taking for me. Is that alright?”

“Uh… sure,” Zhu Li answered. Why did he need to when Xin Junyan was leading them, though?

He tamped down his speculations for the time being. Like all things that involved Chu Ran, the best course of action would be to seat his rump firmly on the boat and let the current go where it may.

It was deep into winter right now. Although the roads had been swept free of snow, most people wisely went out only when necessary, and that fact paired with the poor acoustics made for a very, very quiet world. All that filled the ears was the sound of the horses’ shoes clacking hard against the stone underfoot.

There were no present threats of more snow in the pure-blue sky above, thankfully. Cultivators were less sensitive to temperature changes than the average person, but horses were not. Even if Guhui had been bundled up in several fancy-looking layers, courtesy of Xin Junyan.

As it was, she was clearly fond of dressing up not only humans, but whatever she could get her hands on.

On the topic of dress-up, actually, she had stuffed all three of them into well-layered, well-gussied-up winter outfits, despite the aforementioned insensitivity to temperature. Zhu Li was in a mostly-black get up with gold accents and an equally dark cape line with the fur of who-knew-what dead animal, Chu Ran’s was quite similar except for the colors being dark gray and white, and Xin Junyan herself had oddly not dressed up. She favored brighter colors and eye-catching accessories in general, yet today, she was in an out-of-character cloak of understated light gray, no flashy jewelry to be seen. They made a strange gradient of non-color against the white.

Beyond appearances, though, the outfits were also meant to conceal quite a lot beneath them. Zhu Li wasn’t sure what the others had on them, but he himself had a packet of iron needles, both the real and the fake Dusha, a dagger that had been very insistently gifted to him, that bottle of deadly toxin he hadn’t actually gotten rid of, and the qi-blocking necklace he very much needed until he had his mind sorted out.

Their miniature convoy wound through streets until it came to a place Zhu Li quickly identified as a collection of temporary homes, the ones used for when people wanted their own place while in town for an extended period, yet were either unable or unwilling to spend time with friends or family, or were just not wanting to be bothered by inn staff. While the lot contained several such small houses to create a mini neighborhood within a neighborhood, the walls and yards separating them created more distance than inn walls would. They were great for introverts and artists.

And for people doing sketchy things, of course.

Few people milled around the place. After they left their horses tied near the entrance, Xin Junyan inspected the symbols by each of the residences’ gates. There were twelve in total, each branded with an animal of the zodiac; upon reaching the ox, which wasn’t too far from the entrance, she pounded rather loudly on the front gate.

Some minutes later, a woman opened the door just enough for her face to peek out.

She was lightly makeupped as well as aged, the lines of years coming off the corners of her eyes and nose. Her clothes were a common blue. There was really nothing to say about her appearance other than that.

In light of who this woman likely was, that was probably the point.

Her black eyes narrowed dangerously when she saw all three of them. With a careful meticulousness, she began to slash her gaze across them, starting with Xin Junyan.

Whatever she thought of as she looked at her made her eyes narrow. When she moved on to Chu Ran, they narrowed further, and when they landed on Zhu Li, they first widened in surprise, then decreased into slits that contained even more suspicion than they had before. Regardless, her mental findings appeared to frustrate and unnerve her.

“You three aren’t here for treatment, obviously,” she stated. Her voice was as plain, inoffensive, and forgettable as her appearance. “What do you want?”

Chu Ran chuckled. “How do you know that we aren’t here for treatment, Miss Fox? We could have all sorts of uglies hiding where you cannot see.”

Faux Fox snorted dismissively. “You’re cultivators as well. Scars don’t stick to us as easily, and even if they did, they’re things we would probably wear with pride. What our Dao-blessed bodies cannot fix is an unfortunate face or deformity, no matter how it might bother us. My face-molding treatment was made to fix ugly. That being said…”

She pointed at Xin Junyan, who widened her eyes. “She clearly doesn’t need it.”

She then pointed at Chu Ran. “You clearly don’t know what you even look like, so you don’t care.”

Zhu Li was her final pointing victim. “And if I ever had the audacity to mess with his face, the Dao would spit on me for committing the heinous sin of ruining Heaven’s artistry. Now, what do you want?”

Heaven’s… artistry…? Should I be flattered or offended? Zhu Li thought, eyes widening.

The unmistakable sound of a muffled snicker hit his ears. He shot a quick glare at Xin Junyan, who saw it, then wisely gulped the rest of her laughter down.

Chu Ran sighed, still smiling placidly. “Have you forgotten me already, Miss Fox? I was not aware that I would have to pull on a red blindfold in order to be recognized. You will have to forgive me for not remembering how important visuals are.”

Faux Fox visibly tensed at the mention of a ‘red blindfold’, the look in her eyes going from judgemental to wary. “Xin Yingliu,” she announced, following a brief a moment of surprise. “For… forgive me for my rudeness.”

That was a complete change in tone and body language. She was now nervous, afraid. That was rather odd.

Chu Ran waved her off. “No need for the false modesty, Miss Fox. Let us work together for today and then go our separate ways forever, hm?”

Faux Fox took a deep breath to collect herself. Tension visibly leaked out of her as her spine imperceptibly straightened, and she stiffly stepped out of their way so that they could come in.

First went Xin Junyan, then went Chu Ran. But before Zhu Li could come in, Chu Ran automatically recoiled from the threshold, holding his arms up like he had just been struck.

“What’s wrong?” Zhu Li asked quickly, coming to stand next to him to check him over. There was nothing immediately wrong with him. He shot a glance at Faux Fox — the woman looked unconcerned, too.

“Ah, Miss Fox. Are you so paranoid that you needed to set up this array in a home that you certainly do not even own?” Chu Ran asked grimly, his right hand rising to his temple. “Do you mind leading me while we visit, Doctor Zhu? Our gracious host has an array that inhibits my qi sense.”

Zhu Li offered his elbow without a word of protest.

He swore that he could feel Faux Fox’s eyes boring into him as they passed.

They were seated in a personality-neutral room in no time, a table with tea set up between them. Only Faux Fox was up and about, messing with some trunks of clothing, makeup kits, and other bits of miscellany.

No one was really saying anything to break up the silence, and the longer it was allowed to exist, the more awkward things became. Her dislike of their presence was so all-encompassing, it just about prickled across the skin.

Something had been niggling at the back of Zhu Li’s mind ever since they had been introduced and come in here. In an instance he would readily admit himself was quite uncharacteristic, he spoke first, “You mentioned treatment… Miss Fox. What do you treat?”

To be pretty frank, he thought the moniker of ‘Miss Fox’ that Chu Ran used was weird and probably at least a little rude, but he didn’t really know what else to call her. Madam Fox? Was she married?

The woman in question turned to him, eyebrow raised. “Do you not know already?”

“I only knew you were the premier master of disguise in Jin.”

She sighed deeply. It was a tired, heavy thing, as if she was letting off years of built-up fatigue. “Of course that part of my reputation precedes me forever.

“If you must know,” she continued, punctuating her words with sharp clacks from things she was moving around, “‘disguiser’ is not a career one can make money off of without espionage, and spies never live long. While I do take disciples every once in a while when the pay makes it worth the hassle of random people coming to ask me questions later, it’s not a good or consistent form of income.”

Finally, she took out a book, then came over to set it on the table with a plop. “My sect was also versed in the use of qi therapy to change physical features. Its uses for disguises are obvious, yet I’ve found that they’re useful for people with facial features they dislike, or non-cultivators with blemishes, scars, pock-marks, acne, age lines, and so on. Anything on the surface, I can fix.”

A nostalgic feeling of wondrous, intense interest swelled within him, something he hadn’t felt since he was a little boy just getting into the field of medicine. He knew exactly what Faux Fox’s profession was – it was something he had only heard of from his seniors at Miasma Caves’ infirmary, never seen, a practice rare, difficult, almost forgotten, and underappreciated.

Who could have known that he would meet one so suddenly? He almost didn’t know what to say.

“You’re a skin-sculptor,” he breathed out, fighting for his life to not sound too awed. “I thought the practice was forgotten. I only heard about them in stories.”

Faux Fox looked at him in confusion, brows raised. “What did you call me? Skin… sculptor?”

“Yes. Doctors that can seamlessly fix old scars, forcing the body to revert to an unblemished state. That’s what you do, right?”

She hesitated. “It is. I wouldn’t call myself a doctor, though. I just do things with appearance.”

“Appearances are important to a lot of people. Mending scars and such can help the psyche more than time ever can. What technique do you use to incite skin regrowth? Is it similar to the circulo-delesioning of Mo Ling’s trauma-fusion technique?”

“I’m… not too sure what you just said to me, young man.”

“It’s the technique used for prompting skin to mend faster than it would otherwise, maximized for minimal use of qi. It always leaves a scar, though. Your goal is to eliminate scars, so you must have a different process for circulating qi. Can you describe it to me?”

Faux Fox, for the first time, smiled. It was a tiny bit awkward-looking. “Is this, um… what you came here to ask about?”

Someone clearing their throat interrupted their conversation. Zhu Li looked over at Chu Ran; the man’s sleeve covered his mouth, though he saw a blatant smile peeking out from behind it.

“I do hate to interrupt when the good Doctor rarely gets so animated in speaking of things, but we are a smidgen pressed for time,” he stated. “Had I any idea that Miss Fox’s practice would be so intriguing to you, I would have brought it up to you sooner, Doctor. I can set up a correspondence for later, if you two are amenable?”

Zhu Li flushed (only a little bit) at the realization that he had gotten off-topic. It had been a while since he had had someone to talk proper medicine with, was all. And skin-sculptors were rare! Was he really supposed to keep the calm up when he had the opportunity to meet one?

He composed himself, straightened out his back, and looked Faux Fox in her slightly-confused eyes. “Apologies for coming off too strong. Medicine is a passion of mine. If you don’t mind, I’d like to speak more about what you do at some other date.”

The woman in question cocked her head to the side. “Huh… I’ve never had someone more interested in my vanity techniques than my disguising. No one’s ever even asked to learn them from me. We can talk, but I’m not sure how much insight I can give.”

He nodded. That was more than good enough for him.

“And please don’t ever call me a ‘skin-sculptor’ again,” she continued, oddly exasperated.

He nodded again, brows furrowed. What was wrong with the phrase? Didn’t it imply artistry?… Well, whatever. It was an easy request to fulfill.

“Very good,” Chu Ran chirped, patting the table. “Now, for the main issue. Which of the disciples you know resemble the good Doctor here?”

Faux Fox’s eyes landed upon Zhu Li once more. She had yet to take her seat, too distracted with talk, so she made her way over to his side. “Stand, please.”

He obeyed, coming to stand tall beside her. Her gaze flitted quickly across his form, taking in his height, stature, and shape, after which she went back to the ledger she had brought out earlier.

She flipped through the pages, very occasionally leaving a small slip to mark one’s position. It didn’t take her too long to finish.

“Dan Zuo, Yin Ru, Yin Li, and An Lin,” she listed off. “These four are similar enough in stature. Not many men take up disguising, and most that do are too portly or too skinny. Tall men with defined muscles attract too many eyes to be a good fit for disguising.”

Xin Junyan made a confused noise. “I thought those disguising arts were supposed to be miraculous? Are you sure there aren’t more?”

Faux Fox gave her a right stink eye. “You read too many fiction books. People good at it can manipulate their own facial features, but there’s only so much one can do to change their own height, weight, musculature, and so forth, especially in short amounts of time. A huge man is not going to be able to look like a petite woman no matter how hard he tries, and the same goes in reverse. A skinny and short man would never be able to look convincingly like this one right here.”

“Dan Zuo and An Lin,” Chu Ran repeated. He was firmly ignoring their brief exchange. “What can you tell me about those two? Do they work for either of the five major jianghu families, or anything similar?”

“Last I heard of Dan Zuo, he was going to move out of Jin. That was three years ago. An Lin is either long dead or in hiding. If you’re going to ask whether either of them would impersonate this man for money, I doubt it; Dan Zuo was a spy for some rich family, and An Lin was a noble that took it up due to strange views of himself.”

He hummed. “That leaves the two Yins. How convenient.”

“Tch. The Yins are repeat customers. My non-disclosure oath is quite useful in that regard, though I honestly have no idea what they love to use it for. Mainly espionage is my guess.” She looked over at Zhu Li. “And framing people secondly, it appears.”

“Are you absolutely positive that these are the only men that fit?”

“Yes. I don’t take many disciples. They know well that I’ll throw them under the carriage if they get themselves into trouble, too.”

“Of course, of course,” he said, waving his hands and abruptly standing up. “Well, I suppose that’s as good a segue as any. To be honest, Miss Fox, were this only a matter of asking you a question, I would have limited it to heavily-guarded letters rather than bother you with an in-person meeting. The request I have for you now is very simple…”

Half of a half of a shichen later, Zhu Li, Chu Ran, and Xin Junyan exited Faux Fox’s abode, while the real Xin Junyan grumpily shut the door behind them.

When they returned to their horses, Zhu Li noticed Guhui side-eye the fake Xin Junyan suspiciously. He patted her nose in reassurance.

The issue, as Chu Ran had previously stated, was that the names Yin Ru and Yin Li meant nothing to them. No one knew their faces, Chu Ran didn’t know their qi signatures, and they had no authority to be introduced or go looking for matches. Once they were pointed out, Chu Ran would have every intent to ‘interrogate’ them individually, to hopefully find out the how and why they had helped in the framing.

This was where Faux Fox came in. She would point out the possible culprits for them, thus speeding up the research process.

Once far enough on the road back, Chu Ran suddenly said, “We must remember to find out which of the Dong family may have crafted the false Dusha, if any. They are a family of master craftsman, so if they did not know of every single person who has the skill to create things like this, may the Heavens strike me down.”

“You may want to look into Dong Puxiu,” Faux Fox said. Her voice was an eerily similar intonation as Xin Junyan’s; it would be enough to fool a layman, but to Zhu Li’s ears, it was off-puttingly incorrect. “He’s a blacksmith that I often commission replicated items from. He likes trouble about as much as I do, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he had been lied to, misled, or just not told at all about what the blade was going to be used for.”

Chu Ran chuckled. “Not willing to lose an ally, are you?”

She huffed in irritation. “I’m willing to lose my own skin even less. Still, it would be a shame to lose such a talent just because some lowlifes dragged him down.”

“Fret not. He may very well be present at the conference.—Do you know a Dong Puxiu, Doctor? You frequented Nan’an, yes?”

“The Dong family is more interested in their crafts than socializing,” Zhu Li commented honestly. “Out of the entire family, I mostly only ever met Dong Yongming, her immediate family, and some more interested fringe relatives. They weren’t hostile or anything, they just have hyper-focus as a family trait.”

“Is that right? How enviable, to be able to focus on their craft so exactly. I wish I had such concentration.”

Zhu Li looked askew at him, narrowing his eyes. “Dong Yongming’s father focused on his work so much, he forgot how time functioned. He couldn’t remember what decade it was by the time I finally met him.”

“Oh. That’s, um… hm.”

“Yeah.”

Soon enough, they came back to the Hall of the Leaping Qilin, and were ushered in speedily by the doorman. No one within these walls knew Xin Junyan well enough to know that there was an imposter in their midst.

They were led ahead by a servant, who had explained that Dong Yongming was very much interested in seeing them, yet still somewhat occupied at the moment. An empty room was going to be prepared for them to wait in in the meantime.

Zhu Li noticed how Faux Fox was secretly glancing at every single person they passed. She either had a great game face or wasn’t seeing anyone she recognized, as she gave nothing away.

He, too, was having a look around at the people. He recognized very few of them from the Dong family; the Yin family, he had never met before, and therefore recognized zero of them. Some of them very plainly gave him looks of disdain, however, and it was enough of a pattern for him to ponder why.

Were they trying to make themselves look obviously guilty by glaring at a stranger? Or was it just that — snootiness? Maybe they were looking down on him for being a ‘dark’ cultivator, like some did?

Whatever they were doing, they weren’t endearing themselves to him, that was for sure.

And then, he had to stop.

He could sense his companions stop as well, asking him what was wrong, but he ignored them. His eyes were trained elsewhere.

Was he seeing wrong? Was this a case of mistaken identity?

The woman he was staring at turned her head fully around, oblivious to his disbelieving observation, and… no, he wasn’t mistaken at all, actually. He would know that distinct placement of moles any day.

Now that he knew, that begged the question: What the hell was she doing here?

His eyes slid to a man next to her, whose arm was captured by her hands. The yellow-gold-black of his robes were a Yin uniform, and she wore much of the same, conspicuously missing the brown-and-scarlet robes of the Miasma Caves that Zhu Li had last seen her in.

Knowing who she was as a person… he also knew that this was far from good.

A hand gently touched his arm, promptly snapping him out of his trance that had lasted for mere seconds, not the minutes it had felt like.

“Doctor Zhu?” came Chu Ran’s gentle voice. “Are you alright?”

Zhu Li shook his head slightly. Turning, he leaned in towards Chu Ran’s ear, making sure that no one else could hear him.

“One of my elders from the Caves is here, and she shouldn’t be.”


The author says: she needs to go back into them and hibernate like the bear she is

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2 thoughts on “SnCr 41

  1. Did Chu Ran do some kind of a mind trick on the doorman…??? 🙂
    It was nice to finally meet the Faux Fox! And the investigation is continued! With a very suspicious presence of a Miasma Cave elder… Huh, things are really getting interesting 😀

    Like

  2. No seriously how fine featured is our good Doctor? Also it’s nice to see him genuinely fascinated by something on this voyage of discovery.
    Miss Fox is a practical woman which hath its virtues.
    Oho. How did that come about we wonder?

    Like

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