SnCr 43

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“Your trade routes intersect with our trade routes, Matriarch Dong! Dingyi, bring the map drawn up for what our trade routes should look like! This will ensure that—“

A ‘great’ surprise, my ass, thought Zhu Li as he cringed beneath the sound of Yin Wangrui’s literally non-stop shouting. I feel like my ears are going to bleed.

The man’s voice was shrill enough to crack stone and splinter wood, loud enough to offend gods, and grating enough to test the patience of even the oldest abbots. On top of that, there was definitely qi being interjected into those brays of his, which made him just as loud to those standing outside as he was to those inside.

What the hell was he doing, honestly? Putting the ‘Make Everyone Around You Hate Having Ears’ technique to good use? The ‘I Have No Self-Awareness So I Must Yell’ maneuver? The ‘Volume Is Just A Suggestion’ school of thought? Fuck this guy. It’d been his turn to talk for only a few minutes, and it was already too much. No wonder Dong Yongming didn’t like him.

Movement from the corner of his eye caught Zhu Li’s attention. He turned to look at Chu Ran—the other had his hands now covering his ears and was hunched over slightly, looking pained.

Ah. He was probably feeling this worse than him.

Brief respites would come during their wait time whenever Dong Yongming spoke, her gentle and smooth voice, also projected, like a balm of birdsong compared to Yin Wangrui’s rodent screeches, but her counterpart was such a windbag, it was hard to patch over the damage he was doing. Chu Ran was shrinking more and more into himself with each fresh wave of soul-scratching cacophony.

It was getting harder and harder to not ruin their plan by barging back into the hall, diagnosing Yin Wangrui with being too deaf to hear himself, and prescribing him with lye to eat so that his vocal cords would fry. Fame wasn’t something he cared about, but the land would probably hail him as a hero for the deed.

Maybe that was a bit harsh—

“Furthermore, there is a violation of our trade agreement in the Gaoju area! Matriarch Dong, tell your—“

Chu Ran visibly wilted under the repeated onslaught.

Nevermind. He hadn’t been harsh enough at all. That guy was getting a piece of his mind before this night was done.

While it wasn’t self-evident what Chu Ran was doing to help mitigate the effects, it was clearly not doing enough.

Zhu Li raised both his hands, carefully placed two fingers on each of Chu Ran’s temples, then began to pass him qi.

There was a very specific technique in qi therapy poetically named ‘River Makes the Rounds’, which harkened to its effects of flushing out unwelcome effects from one’s body and preventing the passage of new undesirables while in effect, much like how a river would block an army from crossing it with its rapids. In almost no time at all, Chu Ran visibly relaxed from surviving the attack, letting out a sigh of bliss.

“Thank you, Doctor. You must be a Bodhisattva, here to cure all ailments of the human world.”

“I’m not Buddhist,” Zhu Li answered monotonically.

“One does not need to be Buddhist, or even know of the Buddha, to achieve bodhi. Or so the monks have told me… By the Heavens, how are the people in there not bleeding out of their ears?” he justifiably complained. “Actually, I have no idea if they are or not. Can you see inside and check, Doctor?”

“No. Walls are blocking the way.”

“Oh, too bad. I suppose we will find out if your services are needed within the hour.”

They maintained that pose, listening in on what was going on inside. It was a fairly tedious slog involving sect matters that didn’t interest or concern them, at first, but then came a certain part of the conversation.

“I don’t believe that your proposed plan will work,” said Dong Yongming. Whatever she was disagreeing with had slipped Zhu Li’s personal attention. “It will take too many resources to implement, watch, and enforce. The dislike between our sects is profound, but Jin is only so big. We will not be able to entirely prevent crossed paths when the meeting we’ve had before were already not deliberate. Your proposal is both well thought-out and purposeless, Patriarch Yin. Our sect will not be dedicating time to this.”

“How dare you!” shrieked Yin Wangrui. The rest of his tirade was automatically filtered through Zhu Li’s mental lack of care to hear the man talk, up until the final part, which was, “We Yins have always stayed out of the way of your business! Why is it too much to ask for our business to be our own, as well?!”

“You stay out of our business? Are you sure about that?”

One could hear the smugness on her breath.

“Have things nearly boiled over in there?” Chu Ran whispered. “It’s about time.”

Their role before this moment had simply been to walk in with Dong Yongming when everyone had settled down in the main hall, make a show of bidding farewell to her while allowing the audience to fully take in their role and appearance, then go outside to wait for their next cue. Or Chu Ran’s cue, at least. It had already been decided beforehand that he’d have nothing much to contribute to the confrontation aside from glaring at people, so he would instead be going around to the guards outside here and making sure they didn’t let anyone out on Dong Yongming’s orders.

Dong Yongming’s voice proceeded to echo within the hall. “If the Yins have truly stayed out of our business, why did I just receive word that one of my own was bribed into helping one of your own murder someone?”

The room briefly went quiet before the storm of noise swirled up.

“What?! What are you implying, Dong Yongming?!” Yin Wangrui screeched.

“Exactly what you think I’m implying,” the woman answered, unfazed and unsuppressed by all the talking. “One of my juniors was roped into providing one of your juniors with venom, which was used against a certain Han Wenkang. I’m sure we’ve all heard that news.”

Yin Dun and Dong Hairong had both been nothing more than delivery boys, so that wasn’t completely true. But, embellishments.

“In fact, let’s bring him out right now. Tingwu, go.”

“W-wait, Matriarch Dong, surely… surely there’s some mistake,” said Yin Wangrui, although his voice was almost unrecognizable due to how he was no longer yelling.

“There is no mistake.—Ah, here’s Hairong. Speak now, boy. You helped locate the very venom that was used in Han Wenkang’s murder, yes?”

“I don’t think Yin Wangrui’s going to yell anymore,” Zhu Li observed, removing his fingers from Chu Ran’s temples.

Chu Ran sighed. “He’d best not. Would it not be a riot if Yin Dun was in the crowd, as well? That conversation is one I’d love to hear.”

They listened close. After Dong Hairong got to the part about Yin Dun, there wasn’t enough of a fuss afterwards to imply that he was there at all.

“What a shame. He must have been the part of the family left behind to look after things at home. That would have been so dramatic, yet it seems reality is determined to be a bore… Has the Fox come onto the stage yet?” Chu Ran wondered.

“No.”

“Hmph.”

“This is preposterous!” Yin Wangrui barked out. “Matriarch Dong, you must see that this is just the testimony of one man! Those… those two must have bribed him into saying such a thing! Please see the truth!”

Chu Ran scoffed next to him at the bribery claim. “Quite the jokester, he is. I would never bribe someone. Only threaten.”

“They bribed him for years to feign a friendship with Yin Dun? Long before Han Wenkang was murdered, long before ‘those two’ even met, as far as we know? You may not be aware of who your sectmates stay in contact with, Wangrui, but I have known since the start that Hairong had a Yin friend. I just didn’t think yours would convince mine to participate in something so unthinkable.”

Yin Wangrui’s voice began to tremble. “That’s… No, something is amiss, I swear it! We Yins are good people that have always been aboveboard in conduct! None of us would partake in a heinous murder without there being some other story!”

“Aboveboard conduct,” Dong Yongming repeated flatly. “Is that really what you think of yourselves? Would ‘good people’ have habitually gone to learn the art of espionage and deceit? Faux Fox, come out.”

Some confused whisperings came up about why she would be asking for someone like that. And also why their name sounded very ‘what’s-their-face’-y.

“Oh, there it is. I should get going,” Chu Ran said. He patted Zhu Li’s still-raised arms, and he obediently lowered them, releasing him from his hold.

Once Chu Ran strode away into the building for a better internal waiting spot, Zhu Li started his patrol.

The nearest gate was the west one. He flashed a token Dong Yongming had given him, relayed her instructions to make sure the alarms were fully up and to not let anyone out, then moved on to the other seven gates in rotation. By the time he got to the eighth one, his mouth was dry from having repeated himself so much.

He had only caught snippets of what was being shouted about inside because he wasn’t really paying attention. Accusations were being thrown about; maybe some fists, too. Martial artists were always resorting to fists when their feelings were hurt or reputation was poked at or ego was bruised or whatever else those people threw tantrums about.

Regardless, he trusted Chu Ran to connive his way into getting his public admission without help. Listening in on things he already knew was a waste of time, and butting in when he had nothing to contribute other than likely contrite insults wouldn’t help. Chu Ran did that without help, anyways.

With his task done, he circled back around to where he’d seen the horse pen. He’d passed it earlier and had immediately spotted the bone-white Guhui, who, despite being a horse and therefore lacking human facial muscles, had looked completely bored.

By the time he got there, she had somehow slipped her tied-up reins and was in the middle of trying to undo the latch to the pen’s gate with her mouth.

Instead of stopping her, he decided to stand in place, arms crossed, and watch her work.

It took a few moments for her big horsey teeth to lift the latch successfully, then a few more tries to keep the mechanism lifted while she kicked the gate slightly open. The maneuver was finished with her knocking it aside with her nose.

She jauntily took her first few steps of freedom, which were tragically cut short when she spotted him at last. Her trot stopped dead.

They stared at each other for a minute or two. Or three.

“You need to behave,” he stated flatly, starting in on her. How had she even gotten free?

She huffed, only backing up when he gently placed his hand on her nose and pushed.

A scant few other horses were posted up in the holding pen, each confined to a stall filled with water and fodder. They were perfectly fine with this temporary arrangement. One such stall had a forlorn-looking bridle lying empty in the dirt.

Zhu Li examined it to find the main culprit of the escape; one of the bridle’s clasps had come undone. He would have blamed the workers if he didn’t know that Guhui could be a dastardly escape artist with inscrutable methods when she really wanted to be.

He untied the bridle from the stall and put it back on Guhui, though he hesitated to tie her up in the stall again. In ordinary times, he would have brought her out of this place for a walk and exercise until something for him to do came up, but he hadn’t successfully avoided trouble for himself by wandering around alone beyond warded walls. Idiocy and complacency would have landed him in trouble long ago if he were one to fall for them.

He really wanted to go and visit the real Xin Junyan, who hadn’t been very enthused at getting left behind in a stranger’s house for a plan she clearly hadn’t known about (expecting Chu Ran’s communication problems to be completely fixed after one conversation would have been unrealistic, anyways), but that was a no-go. Having a less-rushed walk around the Hall’s sizable grounds wouldn’t be out of the question.

With a wave of his hand, he led a very happy mare out of the pen, latching it behind them.

His own footsteps were noiseless, as they should be, while Guhui noisily clopped against hard dirt, stones, and walkways alike. Not a soul was out and about, with even the gate guards holed up in the walls’ internals. The conversation inside the Hall had quieted to a one-person lull.

Zhu Li couldn’t really tell if the relative silence was peaceful, or just unnerving anymore. Hearing Guhui’s steps, feeling the chill in the air… it was quite easy to imagine that he was back to how he’d once been, riding alone on tamped-down, frosted paths.

But that wasn’t how it had been for him recently, had it? He’d always been accompanied. The lack of this company, of another pair of hoofbeats clacking against the stone, made something feel indisputably off in the air around him.

Before all of this, being alone would have been his normal. Now it was abnormal, an unwelcome regression to a less-liked scenario. The worst part was that the abnormality was a familiar feeling, one of being displaced from routine; it was just like when he had freshly run away and everything was strange to observe or experience, if far fainter.

Even though he’d always enjoyed quiet alone time back in the Miasma Caves, after five or so years of almost excessive alone time and interactions with strangers only, the isolation must have gotten to him a little if he was subconsciously reluctant to trek not even a few paces alone.

Just a little. Really.

But what would have happened, if this whole framing debacle hadn’t? Would he have just continued how he’d been indefinitely, or only until… what?

Until he swallowed his pride and chanced going back to the Caves? Until he got sick of wandering and set up a permanent apothecary ? Until Guhui got too old to carry him around?

Maybe he was overthinking this. His sisters still would have taken over the Caves and sent him a letter regardless of this whole mess, it just might not have been as expedited. Then again, the elders had always been stubborn old crooks, so it might have taken decades…

Ugh. This was exactly why being alone wasn’t ideal. Even in the Pavilion of Quiet, he would hear the other three chattering away until he fell asleep. It was a shame that Guhui couldn’t talk; when his only company was his own constantly turning mind, it was terrible company indeed.

Zhu Li stopped all of a sudden, frowning. Guhui also stopped behind him, bumping her nose on his shoulder in question.

He listened and looked around — up on the eaves, to faraway corners, to shadows worsened by the approaching sunset, to open windows. There was nothing. Nothing but the odd, foreboding current in the air that told him he was being watched.

But there wasn’t anyone or anything jumping out at him. Furthermore, this was a protected area that wasn’t easily broken into. Was he just being paranoid? Was a Yin watching him from somewhere?

He wasn’t about to resume walking around blindly while the feeling persisted. Maybe he should head inside and remove himself from being out in the open. That would leave Guhui out here, though, and he didn’t trust strangers to not—

A hard force suddenly hit him from the side, completely blindsiding him. He registered Guhui’s surprised shriek before he turned, back hitting the ground and knocking the wind out of his lungs. He managed to prevent his skull from cracking on the cold, dense dirt, but not the hand now twisted in his lapels.

He grabbed the offending arm with both hands, then froze.

His sudden attacker was in black, close-fitting robes with a hood, standard fare for people that didn’t want to be noticed. However, that similarly black mask on their face would grab anyone’s attention instantly, as it was a ghastly thing, pieced together grotesquely from clay shards to form the enlarged, alien-looking head of a…

Wasp.

It couldn’t be.

Zhu Li’s shock was brief. His hands pulled, each in a different direction, and a dull snap came, followed by a curse that was very much high in pitch. Masked Wasp drew back to clutch his arm, an opportunity Zhu Li used to shove him off, roll away, then get to his feet a far enough distance away.

His right hand went to Dusha’s hilt, and his left, his scabbard. Wide eyes watched his opponent, studied the mask he had only heard about second-hand.

It was him.

The ghost that was lurking behind all of this, the monster behind the scenes, the man that wanted his mother dead; he was now suddenly standing before him.

Why? What the hell was he doing here? And, Zhu Li noted while quickly looking around, why did he seem to be alone?

He watched, fully alert, as the other held his dangling arm close to himself, then reached into a pouch at his belt for something.

Zhu Li wasted no time slipping needles into his hand and aiming them at Masked Wasp’s usable arm. The other dashed to the side to avoid it, grunting in the process.

“Calm yourself,” said the masked… what? “I didn’t come to fight. Good arm strength, by the way.”

That was not a man’s voice.

No. No way. That couldn’t be right. Masked Wasp was a man; Chu Ran had said so himself.

And yet…

He had chalked the earlier high-pitched swear up to a misconception. Apparently, he hadn’t thought wrong at all.

“Who are you?” he demanded. His muscles were tensed for whatever came next: a fight, or an escape.

“Is that not obvious?” Masked Wasp shot back, taking a polished piece of nephrite out of the pouch he— she had been going for. She held it up to her broken arm, and, without a single peep made, snapped the busted bones back into place, where they held together well, fusing into proper place.

A qistone. Of course. Pumping massive amounts of qi into yourself could technically heal wounds faster. Zhu Li highly doubted that it would be good for the long-term, but like he was going to give medical advice to this murderer.

Having successfully doctored herself, Masked Wasp straightened back up. She still held her left arm to herself protectively, though.

“I have to tell you something,” she said, calm as a still lake. It was like she hadn’t just suffered a grievous injury at all. “Are you going to listen? Or are you going to throw more needles?”

Zhu Li huffed in derision, eyes narrowing. Was she really trying to make him out to be the unreasonable one? “I’ll listen if as you don’t tackle me out of nowhere again.”

“I had to make you sit still somehow. Can you honestly say you wouldn’t have bolted if I had given you a regular hello?”

Zhu Li glared harder at her.

“In any case,” she continued, that grotesque mask turning more towards him, “are you adopted?”

“…What?”

Masked Wasp chuckled. “Well, we have this one woman with us. She’s short, pudgy, noisy, not very nice to look at, and claims to be looking for you as your sister. We would have thought she was lying, if she didn’t have the same surname and outfit as you.”

His blood went cold.

That was where Zhu Heng had been all this time? Locked up with proven murderers, while he’d been casually living his life?

“Relax. You look like you want to skin me alive,” Masked Wasp continued, her voice like slime. “She’s alive and unharmed. For now, anyways. If you’d like her to stay that way, pass a message along to your mother: Come out and face me, or I kill your daughter and let the world know.”

His hands clenched around Dusha tight enough to bruise his own skin.

They’d guessed right. She was aiming for his mother. To what end? They had theorized revenge for Dong Wanqiu and Ji Misheng, but was that anything other than conjecture?

“Why?” he asked, keeping his voice steady. “Why are you trying to lure her out? Is it related to Ji Misheng?”

“What useless questions. You already know she’s hiding away to delay the inevitable.”

“So you threaten my sister’s life? Aren’t you worried about backlash?”

“No.”

He scoffed at the audacity. “You’re sure confident about that.”

“Of course I am. Nothing happened when we locked you up.”

Those words, uncaringly delivered, made him seethe quietly.

“Truthfully, nothing happening is exactly why we went this route. You being locked up didn’t draw her out like I thought. In retrospect, I should have expected that a cold-hearted bitch would also be a cold-hearted bitch to her own son.”

And now he’d been more or less stabbed right in the gut, too. He bit her with his glare.

Masked Wasp huffed. “Pass my message along, boy, and we’ll both get what we want. Tell her she needs to send word to the contact in Yinwei Inn. Farewell.”

“Stop—!”

Zhu Li didn’t quite get to finish calling out, and Masked Wasp didn’t quite get to leave, because a giant head charged forward out of nowhere and clamped down on the back of the latter’s clothes, bodily hauling her backwards with a great strength.

Guhui had screeched and jolted backwards at the initial shock, whereupon she had temporarily gone somewhere out of sight. She had evidently chosen this time to launch a sneak attack on who she rightfully viewed as a threat. Using her massive weight, she flung Masked Wasp down onto her back with a flick of her head, then whirled around to stomp on the prone human with a forehoof.

Masked Wasp rolled out of the way, leaving Guhui to stomp the dirt ineffectually, yet also leaving herself open; Zhu Li took the opportunity to dash forward and grab her.

His left arm hooked around her neck, tightening to pin her throat between it and his body, and when her other arms flew up on reflex to pry him off, he used his free arm to pin both of hers to herself with crushing strength. Since he had caught her before she could fully rise, they were both crouched on the ground, and he was forcefully keeping it that way so that she couldn’t get any leverage to kick him with.

She struggled hard, of course, but he held on just as hard, giving her no quarter to counterattack. For the legendary head of a shady organization, she was not putting up nearly as much of a fight as she should have been, which just made him more suspicious. He could feel her attempting to use qi to strengthen herself enough to break out, but the power was coming in odd, uneven pulses, a characteristic he recognized as being unique to people with badly damaged meridians.

So that’s how it was.

If she could just hurry up and pass out, that’d be stellar. She was going to be a very valuable source of information once she did.

But, with a sudden burst of strength, Masked Wasp slipped one hand free, quickly took something out of her back, then stabbed the shoulder of his arm that held her neck.

He grunted, grit his teeth, and bore with the pain. Despite his best efforts, though, he felt his arm begin to tremble and loosen, and then Masked Wasp wriggled out of his hold like a fish, kicking him in the sternum for his efforts.

He fell backwards onto his ass, but recovered quickly enough due to his fairly high pain tolerance. Before he could do anything, however, he saw Guhui start to bear down on Masked Wasp again, her ears flattened, tail flicking, nostrils flared, eyes glaring, and lips peeled back over her huge teeth—

But of course Masked Wasp wouldn’t allow a repeat of last time. Zhu Li felt a crackle in the air as the woman gathered ambient qi, then swung a kick right into Guhui’s side.

The mare screamed high and long at the impact. She was knocked off her feet, landing hard on her left shoulder with an awful thud.

“No!”

A shout ripped itself automatically out of Zhu Li’s throat at the sight. He felt a cold prickle shoot through all of his limbs, and a ringing in his ears like he’d just been deafened from an explosion.

He was vaguely aware of Masked Wasp getting away, but he really, really didn’t care about that, his legs automatically staggering him over to Guhui’s side, then dropping to a kneel.

She had gotten her legs under her, though she didn’t attempt to stand. Her pose heavily favored the side that had been struck, keeping it off the ground. Her upper lip was raised in a grimace.

His shaking palm went to her neck as if it were connected to strings. Qi flowed from it to throughout Guhui’s body, taking in the damage.

Cracked ribs. Nothing else.

The breath he didn’t know he was holding slipped from his mouth.

Hearing gradually returned to him. It was only now that he became aware of a ruckus that had spontaneously sprung up all around him while his mind had wandered.

He looked around. Many people had spilled out of the nearest entryway, all on alert; he noticed Dong Yongming, Faux Fox, Chu Ran, and Yin Wangrui amongst them.

“What happened here?” boomed Dong Yongming’s voice. Her eyes narrowed in on Guhui’s state and the narrow dagger jabbed into Zhu Li’s shoulder.

“An attack,” he answered hollowly, checking his wound at the same time. “It was Masked Wasp.”

It went quiet with shock for a full second. Zhu Li wordlessly moved his good hand to his shaking shoulder to assess the damage; somewhat unsurprisingly, there were trace amounts of a weak poison spreading throughout the area that was making his muscles weak and shaky. He circulated qi to force it all back out the way it had come in.

Sadly, this pause was soon broken by Yin Wangrui’s piercing voice. “That’s impossible!” he shrieked. “We have wards preventing outsiders from accessing this place! There’s no way he could be here! Doctor Zhu Li, you must explain clearly what went on here!”

Zhu Li turned to look blankly at him. “I was walking Guhui around the grounds. Masked Wasp tackled me out of nowhere. I managed to grapple her, but she stabbed me in the shoulder, kicked my horse, and got away,” he answered, bland as plain rice.

“What?!” the man barked. “That makes no sense! Why would he attack you for no reason?!”

“Good question. She framed me for no reason, too. Who knows what’s going through that head.”

Some shifting of fabric was heard behind him, and a hand was gingerly placed on his good shoulder. Turning the other way, he came face-to-face with Chu Ran, who had a worried look on his face.

“Come, Doctor,” he said gently, pulling at his arm. “While there is no world where I am superior to you in terms of treatment, a simple patch-up isn’t beyond my capabilities, and you seem to need one. But we must get you off the ground, first.”

“Now hold on, there,” Yin Wangrui started up again. He was summarily thwarted by Dong Yongming’s terse voice.

“Enough. Doctor Zhu, there’s a free room inside you may use. I will have supplies sent in. And since the Yin family was primarily responsible for security here, we will be getting to the bottom of this on our end. Do rest assured.”

Zhu Li got to his feet, then, sparing a glance at Yin Wangrui. The old man already resembled those paintings of old, reed-thin poets with huge bags under their eyes and wispy clumps of facial hair, and Dong Yongming’s imposing presence made him shudder like a leaf in the wind.

Guhui got to her hooves, as well, and not without pained complaints. He debriefed Dong Yongming on what had happened to his horse, and she assured him that there was an animal doctor amongst her own flock. Chu Ran quickly located the free sideroom within the Hall, sat Zhu Li down at the nearest table, then accepted the supplies someone brought in and began to identify them by touch and smell, in a corked bottle’s case. A basin of water, a cloth, two bottles labeled as wine and chitosan, and a roll of bandages was the full entourage.

Zhu Li’s hand was still placed over the wound, as he had moved on from getting the poison out to preventing more from getting in. Once settled, he nonchalantly flicked the offending dagger out of the meat of his shoulder, making Chu Ran squawk when it clanged to the floor.

“Doctor Zhu, really,” he chided, brows quirked into worry. “I’ve yet to even set my supplies down, and you make yourself bleed further?”

“There was poison on the blade. I can use qi to slow the bleeding, anyways.”

Chu Ran paused in his unwinding of the bandages, then resumed the motion with a shake of his head. “Of course it was poisoned,” he mumbled. “Of course that rotten cad snuck in when my sword couldn’t reach him.”

Zhu Li said nothing to that. He quietly loosened the belt at his waist, peeled layers of robes away from his shoulder, and freed his arm from the confines of his sleeve.

He absently watched Chu Ran dip the cloth into the water, his mind trying to process what had just happened as quickly as it possibly could. When the damp rag hit his skin to wipe the blood off, he leaned closer to Chu Ran and whispered, “Masked Wasp claimed to have Zhu Heng. He wants my mother to come out and fight him, or he’ll kill my sister.”

The other paused briefly in the middle of a swipe, but quickly returned to his task. A few seconds passed, then he said, “I figured that there was something more to this that you had no desire to let the crowd to hear of. That was not quite the plan I thought he’d have, though I suppose I should have expected a harebrained scheme from a harebrained man.”

“Woman.”

“Hm?”

“That ‘Masked Wasp’ was a woman.”

Chu Ran furrowed his brow in confusion as he rinsed and wrung the now blood-soaked rag. “That shouldn’t be… no, that can’t be. I once heard him speak, and he was most certainly male. This woman was claiming to be him?”

“She spoke like she was,” Zhu Li admitted. He sank into some thought. “Do you think ‘Masked Wasp’ is more than one person?”

“More than one… hm. It’s not exactly unbelievable. As much as I loathe to admit it, I’m not genned up on the inner workings of Masked Wasp’s circle, and they could have some strange interpersonal functions I have no inkling of.”

More rinsing and wringing came, followed by him draping the rag over the side of the basin and grabbing the small wine bottle. “That being said, if there is more than one, then their motivation for all of this falls apart,” he continued, pouring the liquid on Zhu Li’s wound. The sting made his eye twitch, which earned him a placating pat on the arm. “It’s much more likely that there is a leading Wasp with subordinate Wasps taking his place for things he considers less important.”

That was true. Delivering a message wasn’t something the real one would need to step in for.

Still, though… something wasn’t right.

“Why a woman?” he wondered aloud. “Shouldn’t he at least want to create an illusion of there only being one Wasp? If he had only male subordinates take his place, no one would be the wiser to the switch.”

Chu Ran hummed thoughtfully. He dabbed chitosan over the wound, then began to feel his way through wrapping it up. “I would be the first to claim that he’s merely a complete dullard that thinks very little through, but that is odd, isn’t it?”

He tied and cut the bandage. A huff of satisfaction left his nose. “There, all done. Though we don’t have to leave the room quite yet, if you’d rather not.”

“I wouldn’t,” Zhu Li answered. He fixed up his clothes and gave no indication he was going to move from his spot, too lost in his thoughts.

This whole thing was reminding him of something he had encountered years before, but he was mentally flip-flopping on whether it had enough relevancy to bring up. A helpless feeling was starting to dawn on him, too, one doubtlessly arisen from the bullshit fact that Zhu Heng was the second of his family to get roped into this. Third, even, since their mother was the actual target.

“What are you thinking of, Doctor Zhu?” Chu Ran asked gently, drawing him back to the present. “Several different things at once, I imagine?”

“Basically. Is there any way for you to track down where Zhu Heng is?”

“Oh. Ah…”

Chu Ran sheepishly went quiet. He sat in the nearest chair, which was followed by him setting to the important task of messing with his own sleeves.

“I would love nothing more than to claim omniscience, but I’m afraid that Masked Wasp has ten main bases of operation, perhaps more. She could be in any one of them, or even none of them at all. Although I do have some contacts among his corps, none of them are very high in rank. I could still ask them for news.”

Zhu Li’s stomach sank a bit. In other words, going over Masked Wasp’s head and rescuing Zhu Heng might not be possible.

“I tried to choke that ‘Masked Wasp’ out to catch her, but got stabbed for my efforts,” he admitted, and not resentfully. “I should have told her to bring Zhu Heng to me so that I could know she’s even alive.”

“A solid effort. Perhaps even more proof that that wasn’t the real one was her coming alone, when I have no doubt that the real Wasp would have been escorted,” Chu Ran commented. His voice was its typical breeziness. “I don’t believe you need to worry about her dying. That karmic debt would be too big for him to bear.”

Right. The Dao would have killed Masked Wasp if he even tried to kill unreasonably, so Zhu Heng was going to be fine in the long run. Probably. Unless he forsook seeing his revenge out fully just to kill her, which really didn’t seem likely.

This line of reasoning was bringing something else to mind, however. Something he had overlooked before, unconsciously or not. And it was uncomfortably twisting in his gut like a worm.

“Why isn’t he dead already, then?” he suddenly asked. His brows furrowed as he glared venomously at the table, dissatisfaction replacing that unwelcome worm. “He’s killed two people that we know of. Shouldn’t he be dead?”

His questions hung in the air. He turned to look at Chu Ran when the man failed to answer; he didn’t look much happier than him, and also didn’t look surprised. Clearly, he had thought the same thing before.

Silence weighed down discomfortingly upon his back. A small part of him wanted to break it, yet another part of him didn’t, because that would mean asking for an answer he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear.

Chu Ran cleared his throat. “The Dao is famously bad with nuance when it comes to complex histories and murder, Doctor Zhu. So bad, in fact, that no one bothered to verify if you had recently qi deviated after allegedly murdering Han Wenkang. I believe that this may be another case of it getting tangled up in itself.”

Zhu Li watched him uncertainly. “What are you thinking, exactly?”

“Masked Wasp didn’t face deadly backlash for killing two people. Had he been wrong to do so, he would have died all those years ago for the death of my teacher. However, none of the Three Spirits qi deviated for any of their actions, either. At least not notably.

“If we assume that this is over Ji Misheng’s slaying, there’s several layers to peel back. One is that while he was irreversibly turning into a devil, he never actually turned into one, and thus never committed any crimes worthy of death. Another is that, in spite of his lack of crimes, he was already destined to commit them in the future. Slaying him like the Three Spirits had could have paradoxically been both a virtue and a sin; a virtue for preventing inevitable tragedy, and a sin for killing someone who was technically innocent.

“In that way, it’s fully possible for them to have slain Ji Misheng and gotten away from it clean, yet also ‘reasonable’ for Masked Wasp to get revenge on those who killed his sinless family member. This is the reason why he still lives; his victims weren’t completely innocent, so the Dao chose to overlook their deaths a little.”

He paused there. One forefinger started tapping idly against the table, the tk-tk-tk of its nail on wood filling the quiet space. Zhu Li watched the digit move while his own mind blanked out.

All of a sudden, the sound stopped, pulling him back to the present. He looked at Chu Ran’s face — it was tilted downwards and almost disturbingly blank, where nothing could be drawn from it at all.

Then, his lips parted. A low breath escaped him, slowly followed by his lips curling upwards and back over his teeth, followed again by the breath transitioning into a laugh. Each punching noise bounced off of the walls, bright and happy and dark and dangerous all in one, like a delighted promise for death to be delivered.

Months before, this would have made Zhu Li’s blood run cold with a self-preserving fear. Now, though… well. It still gave him cause for concern, just not really for himself.

Once out of air, Chu Ran took in a gasping breath to speak in a low, rasping, almost manic voice. “That still doesn’t matter much, does it? He may have gotten away from that punishment due to some divine technicality, but he’s never going to get away from me.”

Zhu Li looked down from his face and at the hand he’d kept on the table, which had formed into a fist at some point. It was trembling with exertion, the skin over its knuckles stretched a sickly starch-white.

He reached over and carefully placed his own hand over Chu Ran’s. “Stop it,” he said, voice hushed.

Chu Ran jumped slightly at the contact, the trembling in his hand stopping. A few seconds passed — one, two, three — and then he unclenched, allowing Zhu Li to gingerly turn his palm upwards instead.

Upon seeing the bloody crescents imprinted upon the skin, he breathed out in a not-quite sigh. “And after you just scolded me about hurting myself,” he said quietly.

Chu Ran chuckled, less maniacally and more tiredly this time around. “It’s fine, isn’t it? Mine will heal much faster than yours all on its own.”

There were several things Zhu Li could say to that, mostly variations of “It’s not fine,” or “That’s not the point.” He chose none of them, instead staying quiet while passing qi to prompt faster scabbing.

Only the soft sound of their uncoordinated breaths could be heard in the time the atmosphere took to settle back down. Eventually, Chu Ran said, “Save your energy for yourself, Doctor. It truly isn’t that serious.”

Zhu Li grunted, disinterested in obeying him. That just made the other man giggle and shake his head. “Stubborn, are we?” he jovially prodded.

“Sure.”

“Ah, I suppose I should stop expecting you to rise to any bait when your ego is as stable as a mountain. Regardless, you don’t have to worry; I will not let anything happen to your mother, contentious as your relationship seems to be. At least one of us will be getting a happy ending in this wretched tale.”

That last sentence gave Zhu Li pause. He ceased the flow of qi altogether. “You think your ending won’t be happy?”

“Is it not obvious that it likely won’t be? I blackmail my poor excuse for a sire for every coin I’m owed and use my apathetic sectmates for every task my late teacher deserves. I also plan to destroy the former beyond his foundations and throw every rein I have to the latter to fight amongst themselves over. That will leave me, a lone blind nobody with no adequate skillset, without a source of income and power. Tell me, dear Doctor, does that sound like a recipe for a good ending for me?”

Zhu Li released his hand all at once.

That was neither an answer nor a question he was properly prepared for. Classic Chu Ran, really; springing heavy stuff on him with little prompting at all, thus leaving him to digest it quicker than he was supposed to. Unfortunately (or, from a certain viewpoint, very fortunately) for Chu Ran, he was getting accustomed to these repeated assaults to his sensibilities. And he didn’t much like what he was hearing.

He purposefully let those words and all their implications sink into his brain, so that his emotions would be boiling over enough for the words he wanted to say. He stared hard at Chu Ran — who cared if the man couldn’t see it? He could definitely feel it, plus the disbelief, worry, and outright anger clustering in his stomach.

Chu Ran predictably turned his head towards him and took his arm back, his brows furrowed in consternation. Like he couldn’t comprehend why Zhu Li had reacted so strongly to his admittance that his future was bleak.

“You went into all of this with no expectation that you’d get out of it unscathed,” he analyzed, voice flat as he could make it, “maybe not even alive in the long run.”

“Well, yes…? That comes with the territory of revenge. One should not expect a perfect outcome for it. Is there—”

“You mean every single word you say, so when you call yourself a ‘lone, blind nobody’ and all that other shit, you’re not being sarcastic. You actually think of yourself as a nobody.”

“Is that not true? Other than fighting and perhaps espionage, which are not popular trades, I don’t have many useful skills. Anything having to do with sight is out of the question… Why are you so angry, Doctor? What is it?”

Zhu Li widened his eyes briefly. A flash of cold shot through his body, starting from his hot out through his limbs. He was almost too astounded to speak.

“You… you can’t tell why I’m angry?” he forced out. Years of self-control prevented him from squeezing the words out from between his teeth. “You really can’t understand why I might be pissed off that you’re such a hypocrite?”

Chu Ran’s eyes widened in shock. “Hypocrite? What are you—“

“Shut up.”

The half-brained idiot obediently abandoned the rest of his words.

Zhu Li screwed his eyes shut while taking deep, calming breaths. It would not do to snap again.

When he felt calm enough, he started off with, “Your brother said a few things about you that day.”

He saw Chu Ran’s face crumple briefly, whereupon he regained his composure poorly.

“From your expression, you already know what he said about you,” Zhu Li said coolly. He watched him like a predator watched its prey, ready to catch every badly-controlled contortion in Chu Ran’s expression.

“Just about,” the man answered. His voice was devoid of inflection. “What is your verdict on what he said?”

“What do you mean, what’s my verdict?” Zhu Li spat. “The only ‘verdict’ I have is that he’s an asshole and everything he says is worthless. You think I’m stupid enough to give him any weight?”

Further confusion colored Chu Ran yet again. “No…? No, not at all, I… I don’t understand where this conversation is going, Doctor.”

“I’ll spell it out for you, then. You repeat things that he or your father said. I know they had to have put those ideas in your head, because no one smart or kind ever would have, and there’s no way you started thinking of yourself that way all on your own. You talk of their opinions like they’re objective facts, when they’re clearly not. Why do you care so much about what they say, when you’re the one calling them idiots all the time?”

He got a big-eyed look as Chu Ran’s brains visibly ground to a halt. He opened his beak once, twice, and thrice, yet nothing readily came out aside from some uselessly-stuttered ‘I’s and ‘I didn’t’s.

In no time at all, he’d been caught in his own paradoxical thinking.

The mind was a very weird thing, able to shove things into boxes that it didn’t want to think about and drive artificial divides between things it didn’t want to be related. Even the brightest of people could delude themselves about that which had rooted itself deep into their psyche.

“I’ve seen a lot of stuff like this before,” Zhu Li pressed on. He had to keep going while the iron was hot, after all. “I have an aunt whose parents didn’t like her playing the dizi just because he liked a quiet house. She was good at it, but their constant comments about her not being good at all whittled her down until she quit. Even after she stopped speaking to them much and realized they were full of it, she couldn’t pick up any instrument for decades. She didn’t think she had any sense of rhythm; not because that was true, but because she’d been told that too much as a child by people that shouldn’t have been putting her down. Maybe you can relate.”

A twitch of panic came over Chu Ran’s visage, followed by a sardonic, sad smile. “And if I told you that it was never just ‘family’ saying those things to me, Doctor?”

There it was. A concession and a travesty, all in one.

Zhu Li’s gaze turned soft, just as his voice did. “Then I’d say that you know better than to listen, Yingliu. You’re smarter than that.”

Chu Ran bowed his head, as if ashamed. “Am I really?”

“Yes. You just don’t think as hard about some things as you do others, like my future versus yours. Value yourself more.”

He narrowed his eyes at Chu Ran again. “Speaking of that, do you think I’m an ingrate, too?”

Chu Ran raised his head again, astounded at the change in subject. “…What?”

“You basically said that you’re expecting to be alone after all this is done. Did you forget about me, Junyan, and your little sister?”

“Neither of them enjoy my company much, so I assumed they would simply go their own way. Junyan is a capable young lady.”

“You think they don’t like you.”

“A bit of qi sense’s curse, that is. Junyan is frequently annoyed by my presence — when she isn’t wearing that necklace, that is — and Mei’r is too nervous to ever speak to me. You have a much better relationship with the two of them than I do, and in much less a time of knowing them — they are much more relaxed around you than me.”

Uh… shit. What could he reasonably say to that? Nothing? Nothing sounded good.

“I can’t speak for them, so nevermind that,” Zhu Li evasively answered. “Do you think I’m the same?”

“Hm… perhaps not as much. I’m well aware that you have negative reactions to the things I say and do, however. People generally loiter around things they like as opposed to dislike, yes?”

“…”

Okay. This was getting out of hand. The bulk of Chu Ran’s emotional baggage had not been solved in any of their last interactions, and it definitely wasn’t going to be solved in this conversation, either.

Zhu Li pinched the space between his brows. “If I didn’t like you, I wouldn’t hang around you as much as I do. You told me yourself that reading emotions isn’t reading minds, so don’t assume you know why anyone’s feeling the way they do.”

Chu Ran blinked in surprise. “Ah… okay.”

“You need to get this through your head, too: I’m not going to be indifferent to someone who saved my life. If you really don’t have anywhere to go after all of this is over, then you can come with me.”

There came a lapse of time where Chu Ran’s eyebrows steadily raised up into his hairline. Once they could go no further, he uttered a very intelligent, “What?”

“You heard me.”

“I… I did, but… ah…”

His brain seemed to be visibly breaking apart at the seams. Was this really that difficult to process for him?

“Do you need it said a different way?” Zhu Li calmly stressed. “You do have somewhere to go after this—with me. Whether I go back to wandering around or take Han Taisha up on her offer, I can bring you along.”

Chu Ran’s mouth opened, then shut, then opened, then shut. No words came out of it at any point. Eventually, he gave up on trying to force himself to speak, instead taking to wilting like an unwatered flower while he thought over what to say a bit more carefully.

Once he had his bearings, he said, “In the event that I do come with you, I… am unsure if I would be of any help to you. Your career path seems to be at least somewhat sight-based, yes? I’m afraid that would limit my usefulness to you quite severely.”

“I didn’t say you had to help me, or even be useful. You’re allowed to just exist.”

Chu Ran chuckled. The sound had a distinct tone of disbelief. “So, you are graciously suggesting that I just be a… freeloader? A layabout? Come now, Doctor, that hardly seems an efficient use of resources.”

Zhu Li blew an unamused huff out of his nose. “And I’m not being a freeloader to you right now?”

“Well, ours are and will be two completely different circumstances, you know? Your very presence is aiding me in my main goal of taking down those that deserve their fates, and I have a positively revolting amount of blackmail money at my disposal that exists to be spent. While I don’t wish to assume your financial situation before this, I assume those funds weren’t bottomless. Would they hold up with an additional burden to account for?”

“Yes.”

There was a lull where Chu Ran waited for a clarification that was never coming. When it became clear to him that, no, he was not getting anything other than that blunt ‘yes,’ he said, “Ah, are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Are you… positive?”

“If you don’t like the idea, you can just say no.”

Chu Ran jumped a bit, looking somewhat panicky. “Oh, no, I— I didn’t mean to imply that I didn’t like the idea, I just… I have… Perhaps you might change your mind about this later?”

“Later is later. Right now, my mind isn’t changed. What exactly are you hung up on?”

“I…”

His counterpart trailed off, his brows creasing in obviously deep contemplation. Whatever his mental calculations resulted in made the unsurety melt right off of him, and he replaced that conflicted expression with an odd, wry smile. “Nothing of any real importance, I suppose,” he admitted.

Smart man. I’d just shoot down any self-deprecating excuse you would come up with, Zhu Li thought, a bit self-satisfied. (Just a little.)

“I don’t know why you think you’d be any sort of burden, so let me spell this out for you,” he started, leaning back fully in his seat. “I always get swamped with thank-you gifts I don’t ask for when I travel, which I usually end up needing to pawn for free space in my luggage more than money. I actually left a lot of things with… Zheng Tonghao, including a trunk full of money. And if I end up going to the Blue Orchid Sect, that point’ll be moot. Besides…”

He narrowed his eyes, paying even further attention to any changes in Chu Ran’s demeanor. “The ‘job’ I had planned for you from the start was to keep me company. I’d only have Guhui otherwise, and she can’t talk.”

Chu Ran’s went bug-eyed. Then, on a seeming delay, his face turned an unexpectedly deep shade of pink, like the sky at sunset.

“You want… me to keep you company? Truly?” he repeated absently.

Zhu Li sighed. What was with all these repeated questions? “We’ve been around each other for over half a year. Why’s it so hard for you to believe that I just might like your company, and just might care about your future well-being? Weren’t you the one always going on about wanting us to be friends, anyways?”

“Oh, well, it’s one thing to say I want to be friends, and another for anyone to actually take me up on the offer. Others have taken it, only to rescind their part later on… Say, would there be a time limit on how long I would keep you company for? Just so that I know I wouldn’t overstay my welcome? Would it be a year, as some sort of trade-off?”

“…No. No time limit.”

“A perpetual offer, is it? I must say, that is quite… quite flattering…”

Chu Ran’s eyes were sparkling, unseeing as they were. This was not hyperbole — his excitement had either somehow spilled over into tangibility, or he was about to cry.

“Goodness. I must admit that I am a bit overwhelmed by this idea, Doctor. Now that I’m thinking about it, no one’s ever wanted me around them in such an extended capacity before. Nor has anyone really cared about where I would go after this? Junyan just said that she would go on the road herself, no mention of me. Though it would be reasonable to assume that she assumed that I might be alright by myself, which is not really false, yet also not really true. While I am capable of doing relatively well on my own, the moment I have to read or navigate anything, it’s very easy to be manipulated by those with ulterior motives…”

And now this conversation was really depressing, with a capital D. It was time for a change of subject.

“Forget about all that,” he benevolently interrupted. “I just need a yes or a no to the idea.”

Chu Ran’s receding blush came back with a vengeance, and he raised his hands to feel at his heated cheeks. “It’s, ah, a yes. Of course,” he stammered out awkwardly. “I would be delighted to be your companion, traveling or otherwise, Zhu Li.”

Satisfaction arose within him for more than one reason. Reason one was fairly obvious, and reason two stemmed from the objective reality that no one blushed that much over the prospect of being a mere ‘traveling companion.’ It was more proof, after all, and he was a man that liked knowing things beyond a doubt rather than assume them.

It was right then that someone knocked on the door of their room, and an unfamiliar voice floated through the wood. “Matriarch Dong sent me to check on you, sirs. She wishes to discuss these recent developments. She also requests help with the very angry mare running loose in the courtyard.”

Dammit, Guhui.

“We will be out shortly. Please send the Matriarch my apologies for the delay,” Chu Ran answered steadily, his voice crisp, as if he hadn’t just been emotionally upended by someone being nice to him.

Again. Depressing.

Following a verbal affirmation, the speaker’s footsteps faded into the distance. When they were confirmed to be out of range, Chu Ran leaned a little closer to Zhu Li and said, “I didn’t quite get the chance to tell you before, but what we’ve come for has been secured, and that which hasn’t yet been will be in due time. This outing’s success means that your trial is over and done with in every sense but temporal — not that I haven’t already shaken its unsound foundation into pieces, mind.”

Zhu Li furrowed his brow slightly. “Really? There’s no evidence left to get?”

“Yes, really. We have the motive, the impersonator, the source of the poison, the blacksmith, the testimonies, the rescinded charges, and the sown doubt. I will call for the trial itself early, make a spectacle of it, and clean your name in a way that even hermits could hear the news.”

He made an absent noise of affirmation, his mind wandering off briefly.

Was that really it? This felt so… anticlimactic.

Chu Ran’s amused laugh brought him back. “You seem somewhat disappointed, Doctor. Were you expecting something else?”

“Yeah. More stumbling blocks or something,” he admitted.

“This may seem to be a blasé conclusion, but it is only because it’s not much of a conclusion at all. You were never the main event of this idiocy, just an unfortunate stepping stone towards the actual culprit’s demise.”

Chu Ran paused in thought fleetingly. “On that topic, Doctor: how much do you wish to be involved?”

Zhu Li regarded him suspiciously. “What do you mean?”

“The false charges are your business. Masked Wasp more or less confirming himself to be after your mother is also your business. But, no matter how one considers it, my family’s impending downfall has little to do with you. Masked Wasp and his corps are likely to predecease my father; if you would like, I can send you on your way beforehand so that you are not caught in any crossfire. Not that my family would be much without its proverbial teeth. I would catch up with you after the deed is done.”

In other words, things were going to get really ugly, and he was worried about involving him in what he didn’t ask to be involved in.

“And what about the Twelve-Petaled Lotus?” Zhu Li pointed out. “Won’t that have an effect?”

“Not really. You wouldn’t be affected if anything happened to me, anyways.”

“…What did I literally just say about valuing yourself more.”

Chu Ran smiled and shrugged helplessly.

Zhu Li sighed in exasperation. “Anyways, no. I’m in too deep to start drawing lines. Not sure how much of a help I’d be in the long run, though.”

“Oh, you wouldn’t need to do much, really. Past a certain point, all you’d really need to do is keep me… company.”

He’d paused like he’d only realized what he was saying while he was actively saying it, which, in turn, meant that it was too late to reword that sentence.

Zhu Li felt a smidgen smug.

Aware of himself, Chu Ran laughed aloud, blush suffusing his cheeks yet again. “Oh, what a joke. I hadn’t even meant to… What is going on with us, my dear Doctor? Have we become inseparable? Is fate itself up to its old tricks?”

A wistful shake of the head was Zhu Li’s answer.

An angry, absurdly loud whinny from outside was Guhui’s answer to a question no one asked.

Dammit, Guhui.

“Oh, dear. I believe she misses you,” Chu Ran quipped, rising from his seat. “Is she going to be alright? I, ah, felt dread coming off of you earlier.”

“Her ribs are cracked. I thought it might have been her legs, which would basically be a death sentence, but it wasn’t. With qi therapy, she’ll be good in five or ten days.”

Chu Ran nodded, seemingly appeased. “That’s good. That gives me plenty of time to expedite our travel plans, too.”

Zhu Li looked at him quizzically. What was he talking about now?

“Oh, right. I was originally planning for us to go to the Miasma Caves after I had cleared your name, but in light of this event, I believe that switching the two around is in order. Once your loyal mare heals enough to be brought with, we may leave.”

He turned away, finding the wall suddenly very interesting. “Right. Makes sense.”

In all honesty, he had been about to suggest moving the trip up, himself. Regardless of what his mother decided to do, she needed to know what was going on on this end, and not in the form of an easily-intercepted letter.

Even so, at this suggestion, his mind had gone into a strange sort of acceptance.

Home was not even a third of a month away.

His good shoulder abruptly gained a hand patting it. He whipped his head back around to look at the only other person in the room.

“Everything will be okay, Doctor,” Chu Ran assured with a smile. “Let us take things one at a time, hm?”

Another furious whinny came from outside.

His smile faded away. He turned towards the room’s lone closed window. “What is going on out there?”

“Guhui doesn’t do well with strangers,” Zhu Li answered, standing up out of his seat. “I’ll go get her. You can do what you need to do.”

Chu Ran also rose, smiling like he was in pain. “Ah, yes, even more chitchat. Not even all the tea in the world will assuage the very sore throat I’ll be having tomorrow.”

“I thought you liked talking.”

“Hmph. Everyone in the world loves eating noodles, just not ten bowls of them at once. And this isn’t even fun chitchat, it’s work chitchat. Of course that masked moron would make my life more inconvenient in even the pettiest of ways…”

Chu Ran continued to grumble as he led himself out the door. Zhu Li trailed not far after, then split off from him to head back out into the courtyard, where he quickly located a few people with their hands up in surrender towards a very pissy white horse.

Guhui’s tail was flicking, ears were laid back flat, and forelegs were pawing the ground in irritation. She eyed the humans warily, her mood doubtlessly not helped by having cracked bones.

Upon noticing that he was outside, one of the people came rushing over to him. “Greetings, Doctor Zhu,” they said politely. “We’ve been trying to corral and treat your horse, but she’s been irritable. We apologize for our incompetence.”

“It’s fine. You all can report back to Matriarch Dong,” he dismissed, moving past them to put himself into Guhui’s line of sight. “Guhui, come.”

Her ears perked up, and she happily—if slowly—sauntered over to him. The second he was in range, she maneuvered her big head over his good left shoulder, then pressed him to her in an equine version of a hug.

He raised that same arm to pet her neck in reassurance.

Thinking of her cracked ribs and how much worse that outcome could have been for her, anger curdled his mood.

“It’s okay, girl,” he whispered. “I’ll break her ribs once I find out who she is.”


The author says: The length of this chapter really got away from me. So I have a lot to say!

To anyone who doesn’t know horses that well: Horses can rarely bounce back from broken legs. They’re too heavy to allow severe fractures on their relatively light leg bones to heal efficiently, cannot survive with only three legs, and cannot remain immobile for long periods of time without consequences. It’s a death sentence even in modern times for a horse to have a bad enough leg injury, and that’s why Zhu Li freaked out so badly at something that wouldn’t be life-threatening to smaller creatures.

Chitosan is weird. It’s crab shell sugar that some weirdo discovered by melting crab shells in acid (why?), then found out was a hemostatic agent by throwing it into an open wound (why???). Why did our ancestors do the things they did?

The Dao’s morality is notoriously odd, but it would take a literal essay to explain its nuance + how it came to be. Just know that the ‘safeguard’ they’re speaking of was made specifically to prevent cultivators from brutalizing mortals for no reason, backs off when things get too ambiguous in motive, and a lot of holes were left in its ‘moral code’ on purpose. I might elaborate on this in supplemental material or something.

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5 thoughts on “SnCr 43

  1. Audibly gasped when guhui got hurt. No one can hurt my little baby boo boo guhui

    Good heart to heart with Zhu Li and Chu Ran, super cute and lowkey sad

    Like

  2. Zhu Li, thinking murderous thoughts about someone who is annoying/hurting him: This is too much, this person doesn’t really deserve it…
    Also Zhu Li, when the same person annoys and hurts Chu Ran: NAH, MURDER IS JUSTIFIED
    😀

    I often feel similarly to Zhu Li – I like (and need) alone time, but I get crazy or depressed when I’m left alone with nobody to talk to for too long 🙂

    Chu Ran finally got and agreed to a retirement plan that may actually make him a truly happy person for a change!
    “I didn’t say you had to help me, or even be useful. You’re allowed to just exist.” :’):’):’)
    So… the ship is slowly sailing out! Yay! 😀

    I wonder who the Masked Wasp Woman with damaged meridians is…
    But I’m happy that at least Guhui is still alright!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My gosh, so many things happened in this chapter, I don’t even know where to start. But the plot is really picking up pace now, on several fronts. There were so many surprises and ‘aha!’ moments in this chapter. I’m really curious to see how the visit to the miasma caves will go.

    Poor Guhui though. And oof, poor Chu Ran and his self-worth (or lack of). Your friends actually like and care about you, baby! Please believe that.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the chapter! I was positively tearing up by the end, before Guhui – poor girl, I was appalled by her getting hurt – took me back to reality. My good doctor, do you realize that was basically a proposal? And for no specific reason than my mind throwing me back, this made me think about at the start of FYC, when TF was going on about how he would write to complement his income, and SZ was basically “we’ll both live of my salary”. Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Why is Sect Head Yin shouting? Can he not be shouting.
    Guhui is a good and clever girl. Even if she is committing crime.
    Hm. emotional introspection time…
    A wild wasp attacks. What the hell. Good girl Guhui. She better be alright.
    Wasps do keep hives don’t they. Hm.
    Oh hell. Oh hell. Like laying aside the fact Chu Ran seems to be speculating on whether or not it will be the Dao that kills him for *waves hand in direction of the vengeance*, (good catch of That Implication Doctor), he just doesn’t believe he is someone people are willing to spend time around or care for particularly. And it isn’t just the family nonsense in this case really. He is also The Weird Kid. You know the one. Over passionate, odd interests, off putting. Can’t find a community with even those they have commonality with. So they become a hermit instead.
    And here’s Zhu Li going well that isn’t true because it’s bullshit, and would you like to live with me, because even though I do find you weird and a bit creepy we are in fact friends and I care about your wellbeing and don’t mind living with you. And that is a declaration of intention if nothing else- Chu Ran is blushing and teary as a maiden in a romance novel for a reason.
    Also yes that crush is utterly, utterly untenable at this point.
    Reality (and a large and Very Upset horse) intrudes. And I am what we call deeply suspicious about what’s coming next.
    Yup not having moments at present due to horse. Fair enough.
    Shank the wasp lady who harmed your most beloved horse, Doctor Zhu.
    The reason why the ancestors did things is science. And presumably they had decent amount of crustacean shells and lye to hand. And yeah the history of medicine is basically trying out stuff to see what won’t kill you/ might actually cure you.

    Thank you for the chapter!

    Liked by 1 person

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