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“Hey, Doctor. What’s the weirdest case you ever had to handle?”
Utterly, horribly, and tiredly irked, Zhu Li looked up from his noodles at Xin Junyan. “Don’t be like Yingliu.”
She blinked at him in confusion. “Huh?”
“Let me finish eating before we talk.”
At that, she looked thoughtful, seemingly mulling over what those two sentences meant together. She eventually had a certain epiphany. “Okay, fair.”
It had started snowing off-and-on a few days ago. The courtyard was now covered in a sheet of snow, albeit a thinner one than the drifts right outside the Pavilion itself.
In response to the escalating cold, Chu Ran had set up an array of (explicitly not Chu-sourced) qistones attached to heating talismans to prevent it from being too cold inside. This was mostly out of regards to Chu Mei and Guhui, as everyone else that milled about this place were far less sensitive to the cold.
Not to the extent that Zhu Li and Xin Junyan wouldn’t wear extra layers outside like they were right now, but, still.
They both watched Guhui and Chu Mei carefully play together in the snow. Laying on her good side, Guhui was trying—and failing—to bury her big head in the snow, so Chu Mei was helpfully scooping up handfuls of the stuff and placing them on top of the mare’s head and neck. The white powder caked upon her shaggy winter coat made her look like a giant piece of dragon’s beard constructed into the rough shape of a horse.
He would call her weird, had he not seen several horses kept at the Caves also play in the freezing cold snow. It would be more accurate to conclude that horses in general were weird.
Since Chu Ran was out for the day, the girls had expressed heavy disinterest in going outside in this weather, and no potential patients felt like doing so either, they had all deigned to whittle the time away together.
Finished with his bowl, he set it down on the table with a clink, and raised his head to see Xin Junyan staring at him, all wide-eyed and expectant.
“Patient confidentiality is part of the medical creed,” he deadpanned. “I’ve told you this before.”
“What?!” she exclaimed. “I waited all that time just for you to say that?!”
“You should’ve known better than to ask.”
“Oh, come on. It’s not like you have to tell me any names. And I’m not ever going to meet these people, right?”
He shot her a look. “You think other peoples’ bad luck is interesting?”
She choked on her words for a full minute, then threw her hands up in the air. “Fine! I see how you are.”
He watched her grump and cross her arms out of the corner of his eyes. After a significant pause, he said, “A noble’s son of a tribe I once visited was having chronic sharp headaches. They turned out to be caused by a rock he had shoved up his nose as a toddler, which had been lodged there for a decade at that point.”
Surprised eyes turned to him. The grump soon resumed, though. “You’re kind of a jerk, you know that?”
He huffed. “And you’re nosy. Runs in the sect?”
“Uh… sure,” she said, faltering oddly. “Anyways. What’s the story behind that nose rock?”
“Initially? Just a kid being dumb. The rock was small enough and shaped in such a way that it didn’t really obstruct his breathing. He reported having a few random episodes of pain in his head over the years, but nothing major until this last time, when the pain and bleeding just wouldn’t stop. The traditional doctors couldn’t help, so they called me. I found the rock, broke it apart with qi, and he sneezed out gravel for a few days. That was that.”
“A rock in his nose… for a decade, you said? Why did it act up after all that time?”
“He was a toddler when it went in and a teenager when it was removed. It’s possible that the canal expanded around the rock until it was eventually dislodged just enough to draw blood, yet not enough to actually get it out.”
“That’s kind of harrowing, actually. What if it never came loose like that?”
“Then he’d probably sneeze it out randomly at some advanced age.”
“Gross. Do you have any other stories?”
“What kind do you want?”
“Hm… I don’t know. What’s the most moving?”
“There were a handful of animals I’ve seen that refused to leave their owners’ graves.”
“…I said moving, not tragic. Do you like going for the jugular, or what?”
Zhu Li looked at her indifferently. “Sad stories are moving. If you don’t want me to go for the jugular, don’t expose it.”
Xin Junyan scrunched up her nose. “You’re something else. How about something happily moving? Where I’d hypothetically cry tears of joy instead of misery?”
He paused so that he could put some actual thought into his answer this time. Successful treatments were always a happy event, but—ruthless as it might seem—they’d blended together after a while. There were a few that stuck out to him even so, and one in particular seemed like a sufficiently romantic tale to be worth telling. Too bad Chu Ran wasn’t here to be first to hear it.
Turning to watching Guhui and Chu Mei play, he continued. “During one of my trips to Na territory, there was an incident with a Wuche prince and his wife intruding upon the territory. The Na and Wuche don’t get along for a lot of reasons, but most of it comes from the Wuche viewing women as commodities when the Na value them as people. Trying to literally steal Na women hasn’t really endeared them, either.”
“Ugh… Were they successful?”
“No. The Na aren’t many, but they do have their own hundreds-strong cultivation sect. It’s plenty to keep knocking the Wuche armies back down the mountain and to the plains.”
“You’re implying that they’ve attacked more than once.”
“Yeah. Na are matriarchal, so the Wuche might think they’re all weak women and might get one over on them someday. Who knows. What I’ve heard of them makes me think they’re not very smart, and I’ve never personally associated with them since they keep slaves.”
“They do? I’m surprised no one’s come in to stop them.”
Zhu Li narrowed his eyes. “You’d be even more surprised at the amount of smaller societies that have slaves. I’ve had to cut visits short and rescind services before. The Wuche avoid some consequences by being nomadic and difficult to locate at times, though I guess their lack of connectedness to the outside world is a punishment in and of itself.
“Kind of case in point is why the prince and his wife had come; she was sick, and the Wuche’s medical resources were too scant to diagnose her, let alone cure her. The Na were the most advanced socially in the area the Wuche were occupying at the time, so he’d come there out of desperation. Other Wuche were dying from what turned out to be parasites, probably from bad water they drank—he was worried about his wife dying from the same.”
“I get it. Were they hard to get rid of?”
“No. Bitter wormwood cleared it up pretty quick. The Na wanted him out and his wife to stay, just like how they had sheltered other women that had escaped from the Wuche, but she refused to be separated from him. They figured that he might have some hold over her, but no to that, too.”
He paused in his story when he realized that he needed to add some crucial context, his eyes turning to peer at Xin Junyan. Her head also turned in response to meet him, a quizzical look about her.
“Even though I’ve never met the Wuche myself, I’ve learned plenty of them from women that escaped them,” he started. “They got their start as an offshoot of the Tesh plainsmen that were ousted for being too monstrous; it’s even in the name, which comes from the Tesh word for traitor, ‘urvach.’ Even though the Tesh were no strangers to warring over resources and pillaging, the violence and depravity of the Wuche horrified them so much, the Tesh went in the opposite direction and are now as peaceful as the Na. That’s how bad the Wuche are.
“I might have been too generous in saying that they see women as commodities, actually. Women aren’t even human to them, they’re just breeding stock. Daughters only have worth as bargaining chips in marriage. A son is taken from his mother at two years old so that she doesn’t taint his mind with ‘weak, womanly thoughts’—that’s their own words—and he’s taught disrespectful, woman-hating bullshit to alienate them further. Every woman in their pack was either kidnapped, or is a daughter descended from a kidnapped woman. If an unwilling ‘wife’ dies or is dying, they never bother to get a doctor for her. They just let her die and replace her with a new, equally unwilling ‘wife.’”
Xin Junyan’s growing horror at his description evened out into understanding. “So, you’re saying that a Wuche man actually being concerned for his wife was weird.”
He nodded. “Weird to the Na, not so much to me at the time. The two were let in to be seen by me on the conditions that they weren’t to return to the Wuche, and also were to convey any intel they had on them. It didn’t pose much of an issue, since the prince wouldn’t be welcome back for being too weak. Even if he did have a problem with me treating his wife, at first.”
“Oh? Did you know him?”
“No. He just thought a male doctor treating a female patient was improper. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before. Not being old or ugly enough probably labelled me as… I don’t know, some kind of romantic threat. I’ve never understood it and I’m not going to try.”
She giggled a little at him, a mischievous glint in her eye. “That’s understandable. Any man would be afraid that your handsomeness would make his wife look down on him, you know?”
He sighed, placing his forehead briefly in his hand. “Like I’ve been told a hundred times before. Trust me, I know.”
“Hmm…” Her eyes narrowed on him in curiosity. “I’ve been meaning to ask, actually: Why do you hate being complimented on your looks so much? Or when anyone brings it up at all? I can tell it bugs you under that stone mask of yours.”
“Yeah, your face hardly moves. It’s a stone mask. Ran gets to cheat with his emotion-reading whatever, but all I get is your facial movements. And there aren’t a lot of those.”
Zhu Li paused. The seconds drew out distinctively long.
“I’m not… that unexpressive,” he managed to lamely eke out once the offense had worn off.
“You are, though,” Xin Junyan shot back, thoroughly unimpressed.
“I’m plenty expressive. You’re just not paying attention.”
“Uh-huh. Right. You must just turn your head away every time your mask cracks. Anyways, my question?”
He gave her a baleful little look before he grumbled out the non-answer of, “It’s complicated.”
“Oh, please. It can’t be too complicated to sum up.”
That was true, but… “It’s also kind of stupid.”
“Clearly not, if it bothers you. Come on, tell me.”
He honestly didn’t want to. Complaining about being good-looking, of all things, was idiotic to think about, let alone speak about.
But this wasn’t really about being good-looking itself, was it? It was more other peoples’ reactions that he’d never really be okay with. Now, how could he condense that feeling into a few sentences instead of a full-on rant?
“It’s two different things, I think,” he began. “One is that it’s not right to treat people differently based on what they can’t control. I never had a say in how I ended up looking, but people change how they treat me because of it—for better or for worse, and whether they realize it or not. It’s caused… issues.”
(Losing friends due to jealousy and misplaced anger, having people stomp all over his boundaries, and uncomfortable staring? Check all those off.)
“The other thing is that… I don’t know. I’ve been practicing medicine ever since I was eleven, but the ratio of people bringing that up versus how I look is one to about ten. Going straight to my looks has always seemed like shallow praise, like they don’t think my field is worth bringing up, like…”
His mind was overworking itself. Why was it so easy to feel, yet so difficult to put those same feelings into words?
Slowly, though, they slotted into place.
“Like what I was lucky enough to be born with is way more important than what I’ve worked hard to achieve.”
Xin Junyan looked thoughtful. She seemed to be carefully chewing through what he said, lost in her own thoughts on the matter.
“I get it,” she finally said. Her expression was oddly wistful as she leaned back into her chair, meeting eyes with him. “You want recognition for what you do, but it’s overshadowed by what you are. It doesn’t make sense, it’s not fair, and you have no control over it. I get it.”
She spoke like she had her own experience. Maybe everyone did, in their own individual way.
What a sad, yet seemingly unkillable, state of the world that was.
They were both quiet for a minute.
“Now I feel bad for thinking your annoyed facial spasms were funny,” she added.
Zhu Li narrowed his eyes at her. “So you do see me emote.”
“Uncoordinated twitching is not emoting, Mister Doctor.—What were we talking about before this?”
“I was telling a story that you wanted me to tell you. You interrupted it with questions,” he bluntly pointed out. “Do you want me to keep going? I was almost done.”
“Oh, yeah, the barbarian man actually caring about his wife. Go ahead.”
Normally, he would object to that condescending little pejorative, but the Wuche were probably the one group scum enough to deserve the title.
“Anyways, once he got told off by the Na for being rude, the prince calmed down. He and his wife told me a rough version of their story while we were waiting for the first decoction. He was the tenth son of the chieftain with a lot of half-siblings—despite what was tried on him, he never really believed in the Wuche’s principles. He still fought so that he wouldn’t be seen as weak, but it wasn’t what he wanted out of life.
“His wife was basically given to him as a goodwill gift from some high-ranking general. She was expected to be one wife of many by everyone, just not the prince himself. He instead decided to teach her everything he knew in secret, making her more his equal. They laid low for a long time, but their secrecy and his reluctance to take concubines or wives were eventually noticed by other princes. During some politic strife, some of his half-brothers pressured him to pick a side, or shoved concubines at him in a way he couldn’t refuse without angering his father. In the middle of that mess, the parasite incident came. When she recovered, he decided to give up his life from before to seek refuge with the Na.”
He paused just briefly. “The story itself isn’t anything special, but… it’s a nice change of pace. Mortals from the cities aren’t known for treating their wives well even when taught to, but a prince from a band of violent outcasts still ignored what everyone had told him since birth to do the right thing. He threw everything away for her instead of treating her like he can just get another wife. A lot of people treat marriage as a horde, burden, or pure politics, when it’s supposed to be a partnership.”
An image of his father and mother flashed through his head.
Emphasis on ‘supposed to’, he thought glumly.
“I get that, too,” Xin Junyan said, smiling wistfully. “Being happily married sounds nice. Did you remember this story because that’s important to you?”
“Sort of. It’s not a huge priority for me, especially not right now. But I’ve never crossed off the possibility that it could happen naturally,” he answered. “What about you?”
She wrinkled her nose. “My family from before tried to matchmake, but none of the men were interesting to me. They ended up arranging a marriage to whoever was the most advantageous to them, and he… I’m not really sure how to describe him. He looked like the human version of a porcupine?”
How could anyone ever— nevermind, he didn’t want to know.
“Anyways. The thought of being married to him made my skin crawl, so I left. Even when I’m allowed to choose whoever I want, though, finding someone I’m actually interested in who’s also interested in me is hard. Really, really hard. Maybe marriage isn’t for me.”
“You’re twenty, and there’s a lot of people out there. It’s a little early to be writing that off if you really want it.”
Her face fell a little. She looked off at Chu Mei, who was making a snow horse out of Guhui. “I guess you’re right,” she grumbled miserably. “It’s just discouraging. A lot of smoke, yet no fire. Ran’s the same, too, if for other reasons… it’s just hard.”
This was a familiar road of conversation to one he’d had before. Just not here, and not with her. Should he just be blunt about it?
“My little sister likes women, too. That’s why I asked you to come along with us to the Caves.”
Xin Junyan jolted, freezing up afterwards. She then ever-so-slowly turned her head—bug-eyes and all—around to gape at him.
He roundly ignored her disbelief. “I haven’t seen in her in five years, but she was complaining about there being no girls her age that she was interested in and also liked her back. I doubt one’s randomly cropped up in five years.”
She continued to boggle at him.
“She’s eighteen this year, in case you were wondering.”
The silence sustained.
“And she was training to be a beastminder. She’s got dogs.”
A tiny spark split pieces off of her confoundment, allowing her face to twist up in partial horror. “Is… is that why you invited me along to your sect? To set me up with your sister?” she practically spluttered.
He met her wide eyes nonchalantly. “Yes. I’m being a good brother by looking out for her future.”
“S-sure?… Wait, no! How did you even figure out that I like— I never said I did! Explain yourself!”
“Were you trying to hide it?” he answered, tone flat. “You weren’t doing a very good job. And Yingliu sold you out a little.”
She glared hard at him, her hackles raising. “Explain better.”
He raised a brow in response, then readily acquiesced. “Alright. Don’t blame me for being blunt.
“One,” he began, holding up a finger in count. “Yingliu teased you back in the Blue Orchid Sect about dolling up for Han Taisha. You weren’t dressed up any less than you usually were to me, but the only two reasons he would’ve said that is either that he knew how you are, or that he was just being an ass.”
“Can’t it be both?” she grumbled.
“Yes. Two,” he held up another finger, “You’re a single woman. I’m a single man. Single women seem to inevitably flirt with me at some point. You’ve called me handsome, but nothing further than that—it’s always felt to me like you were praising artwork you like looking at, not like you’re actually interested in me. I know how I look and I know what people think about me, so if you had any capacity for liking men, I probably would’ve triggered it. Three…”
He trailed off, thinking back to something that had happened quite a bit ago.
A peaceful lull in patients had been interrupted by Chu Ran banging the door open noisily, a little smile gracing his visage.
Zhu Li looked up from his paperwork with a blank face; he was beyond the point of getting startled by this guy’s noisy entrances anymore.
“Doctor Zhu,” Chu Ran sing-songed. He raised his arm to reveal that he was holding a thin, gray-covered, innocuous book. “I discovered this book hidden beneath the stairs to the girls’ courtyard. It clearly isn’t one of mine, so I was mighty curious as to what it is and what it was doing there by the wayside. Could I pester you with reading its contents for me?”
“Sure,” he agreed, clearing a space in front of him and taking the book. Its title was ‘Adventures in Lotus-Picking,’ which was oddly familiar, yet not immediately so.
He opened the book.
He closed the book.
He said, “It’s a poem anthology.”
Chu Ran said, “Oh? How odd. Junyan has only ever had a passing interest in poetry… I’m horribly curious, Doctor—could you read one to me?”
An awkward silence permeated throughout the room.
“It’s bad poetry,” he explained.
“Ah, I understand. What a shame, albeit not a surprise. Poetry is not her strong suit. I suppose I’ll just place somewhere in her room where she can find it.”
“Hmmm… Why so on-edge, Doctor? And is that disgust I sense? Surely, a poem cannot be that unbelievably awf—“
Zhu Li stood up, placed his hands on Chu Ran’s shoulders, and gently led him backwards right back out of the apothecary. “I hear a patient coming. We need privacy. Goodbye.”
Chu Ran blinked owlishly. “Oh. Okay. Have a good day…?”
(No patient was coming at all. His willingness for that exchange to continue had simply hit rock bottom.)
“…I once had to cover for you when you left your lotus-picker book where Yingliu could find it. Take better care of your things.”
Xin Junyan’s face immediately flushed bright red. Mortification was plastered across her every movement as she slowly sunk her face into her hands, covering it from view.
He’d clearly gotten his point across.
“You don’t have to talk to her if you’re not interested,” he clarified, watching her carefully. “It’s just a suggestion. She’s told me all about how hard it is to find girls, which is why I guessed it was the same for you.”
No response. Ah, well. That was to be expected.
“Guhui only needs three days tops to recover. We’ll be heading out after that. You have plenty of time to mentally prepare yourself for the meeting.”
A faint, miserable mumble of “Please stop talking” was heard.
He graciously stopped talking, instead taking both of their empty tableware away. “I’ll be back.”
After a brief trip to the kitchen, he returned to find Xin Junyan waiting for him inside the apothecary instead, the door to the outside shut and a stubborn glare put upon her. Oh boy.
He raised a brow in question.
“It’s your turn,” she stated, imperious. “Is there really nothing between you and Zheng Tonghao?”
What? Where had this come from? Did she think that if he gave up information about his own love life, they’d be even? It was lucky for her that he didn’t guard it too stringently.
His answer was as simple as could be, as a flat, unassuming, “There’s nothing.”
She raised her brows and narrowed her eyes. “Nothing? Really?”
“Even though I heard along the grapevine that you two were a couple?”
A breeze of melancholy washed through him, but it left as quickly as it came—the sour feeling of disappointment he felt towards Zheng Tonghao’s abandonment had fizzled with time, much like how the budding affection he’d felt for her had been coldly nipped.
Such a pity.
“We could’ve been one,” he started, not shying from her eyes, “but we weren’t one. Even if we were, it would still be over by now, since we haven’t spoken since I was jailed and there’s no reality where she would’ve chosen me over her family’s stability. Why do you ask now?”
“To make sure you don’t have any hang-ups,” she explained, in a… very loose sense of the word. “Now that that’s out of the way, what’s with you and Ran?”
Juxtaposing my semi-ex with Chu Ran. Very subtle, Junyan, he thought. Might as well play dumb to get her to say what she was thinking. “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. Ran told me that you invited him to live with you after all of this, and he was really happy about that, but I—… just, what do you expect from him?”
“Why are you so interested?”
That glare intensified briefly, bringing with it the threat of extreme heat, but it soon went out. She looked unsure for a moment—unsure of what, he couldn’t know.
“Ran has a history of… um, I’m not actually too sure what the root cause is. I’m sure you’ve noticed that he’s pretty socially awkward? I don’t know if he’s overly cuddly and that puts people off, or if he misinterprets signals at that puts people off, or— I don’t know! What I’m trying to ask is whether you see him as a friend or something else, so that I can tell him to curb his expectations!”
He held up a hand, brows furrowed. “There’s no need to yell.”
“Sorry,” she huffed, “it’s just that this is important. I’ve seen this kind of thing happen to him too many times, and he’s always sad for weeks afterwards. I don’t need to see it again.”
Calmly, he confronted her still-intense, wary stare.
“You’re worried that he’ll get hurt again,” he observed, blunt as a club and lacking any roundabout words.
Her lip worried. It was the only change in her expression.
“You don’t need to be,” he reassured, crossing his arms. “I’m pretty sure he’s been subtly flirting with me for months. If I hated it, I’d have told him a long time ago.”
Xin Junyan blinked. Then she blinked again. Then a few more times, for good measure.
“He has?” she asked, sounding somewhat far away. “Wait… you knew already? You’re fine with it? Wait— you like it?”
“Yes to all that. That flirting might’ve been him being socially awkward, as you said, but I don’t think he’s so awkward that he doesn’t register telling me that I smell nice is flirting.”
She stared at him for a full seven seconds. Her palm soon met her face with an audible slap.
“Gods below, he’s such a disaster,” she mumbled. “If you didn’t feel that way, this year together would have been really, really awkward… Just to be clear, you’re interested in him? Like, the lovey-dovey way?”
Weird way to put that, but okay. “I’m open to it, whenever that happens on its own.”
She seemed to consider that for a moment. He expected her to chase after the statement, but all she ended up doing was nodding with a single, “Okay.”
“Okay?” he echoed, tilting his head in question.
“Yeah. Okay,” she reconfirmed, smiling a little. “I know this isn’t a great time for romance. Ran is always so busy, too, so… ’open to it’ is good enough. Just don’t string him along or anything, okay? I’ll beat you up.”
“…You think I’m capable of stringing anyone along?”
“Um… you’re right. You’re way too strait-laced for manipulation tactics. Nevermind.”
They headed back outside. Guhui—still flour-dusted—was prancing around with more energy than she had before, and taking great joy in running back and forth between the laughing Chu Mei and the surrounding walls.
When they sat down, Zhu Li said, “I was thinking that we could leave Chu Mei at the Caves.”
Xin Junyan turned to him, eyes slightly wide. “What? Why?”
“Yingliu said that things might get dangerous soon. I don’t feel good about having her here in the crossfire, especially after that stunt Chu Fu pulled. She’d also get a better education in medicine and fighting techniques than I can give her.”
“Oh. That’s reasonable, actually. Would your sect mind?”
“No. My family’s too influential for them to complain if they did.”
She nodded slowly as she looked elsewhere, mind wandering off briefly. When she seemed to latch onto something, she looked at him once more, a tender melancholy shading her pupils.
“Listen, um… no matter what ends up being between you two in the future, I appreciate you being Ran’s friend right now,” she started. “Even I’m not the best at understanding him, or…tolerating him, embarrassing as that is after all these years. And…”
Her gaze cast downwards. “He’s lonely. I know he is, even though he never says as much to me. In the years after his teacher’s death but before I came here, he would just hang out around the empty Pavilion, all by himself—and after I came here, it seemed like he didn’t know what to do with me. So… thanks.”
Zhu Li huffed, though fondly. “This isn’t some difficult task you need to thank me for.”
He was given a smile, and nothing else.
Pleasant silence temporarily came between them, yet a nagging question tugged at the edge Zhu Li’s headspace — something he had been wondering all this time, only to have been rebuffed very early on.
“How did you and Yingliu meet?” he asked out of the blue. “Why would he take you into his sect and his house, if you’re an unrelated… oh.”
Panic colored Xin Junyan’s face at his words. It worsened at his sudden stop, too, because she realized that she had definitely let something slip that she shouldn’t have. An epiphany-giving slip-up of massive proportions.
He had been wondering since the very beginning what Xin Junyan had been doing here. This wasn’t because he didn’t enjoy her company, of course, but because her existence in Chu Ran’s life seemed incongruous to how things worked around here. Why would she be in a sect for the blind when she was not, in fact, blind? Why would Chu Ran take some random teenage girl into his house when any sect would gladly take her if she had talent? How would he have even come across a girl running from a bad betrothal? On her part, why would she have ever been willing to shack up with a strange man that had a decade on her? Whatever story was there hadn’t been something Xin Junyan had been willing to share at their first meetings, either — if Chu Ran had taken her in out of the goodness of his heart, wouldn’t she sing his praises, not keep the reason hidden?
Their situation didn’t make any sense. He hadn’t pried out of respect for her wish for privacy, but unfortunately for all of them, his subconscious had pieced things together anyways at this slight provocation.
It didn’t make sense for Chu Ran to have randomly sheltered a girl with no relation to him, but it did make sense for him to have deliberately sheltered a girl that was related to him.
“You’re Chu Xu, aren’t you?”
Chu Xu had run away five years ago at fifteen. Xin Junyan had joined the Xin Sect five years ago and was twenty now, so she’d also ran away from home at fifteen.
Xin Junyan had just said the family she’d come from was bad and she had no desire to be in her arranged marriage. The Chu family was objectively terrible, and Chu Xu had also infamously run from a marriage.
Whenever they went out, Xin Junyan’s behavior would adjust depending on where and when they were going; a night out to a restaurant would only be deserving of head bowed away from onlookers and a private room, while populated areas or daylight events—like the opera or the festival—warranted veils for both her and Chu Mei. The latter was understandable due to her family, but why the former, if not to hide from the same family?
Speaking of Chu Mei, the girl had taken to Xin Junyan extremely quickly, even calling her ‘sister’ practically the same day. That could be explained away by Chu Mei simply latching on to the only other woman around, but the ease of which they interacted could also be explained by them already being sisters from the start.
Why would Xin Junyan not be forthright with telling him, then? The answer was that to simple: Back when he had asked, he’d been a near-total stranger. If she was trying to keep a low profile, she wouldn’t go around announcing her actual identity to just anyone. Her never bringing it up again after that was due to it never being relevant, or being any of his business, really.
Putting this all together now made him feel a little silly for not having made the connection a lot sooner than this.
Xin Junyan looked away guiltily at his ask, which was all the confirmation he needed.
“You don’t need to look like you’ve done something wrong,” he softly assured her. “You’re allowed to have secrets.”
“Unless they’re poorly kept?” she grumbled.
“That’s the one exception,” he agreed with a faint smile. Her pouting reminded him of Zhu Pao’s. Except Xin Junyan was twenty and Zhu Pao had been thirteen, so maybe he should keep that similarity to himself.
Eventually, she sighed in resignation. “There doesn’t seem to any point in keeping it from you anymore, anyways. You aren’t the type to go around telling people who I am… Ugh, what was this conversation? I just wanted a mindless story.”
She was right. There were zero people he cared to tell this to. The only thing he got out of it was his stubborn curiosity itch being scratched at long last.
The days were shorter as winter impinged upon them. Night came far too soon, and with it, the closing of the apothecary.
Guhui was resting in the yard, her therapy session having gone smoothly. Just a few days more, and her cracked ribs would be seamless. It was too early for Zhu Li to rest like she was, though; he was instead going over his journal.
Although he had added to it over time, a lot of his information was either outdated, useless, or no longer relevant. Since the who, what, where, when, and why of his framing case had been firmly established and proven, there was no need to keep any information regarding them. The mysteries afoot no longer revolved around him, but Masked Wasp and the Chu family.
He removed all the pages that held information, carefully combed through them for relevancy, and started copying and condensing what he wanted to keep.
First, the Chu family.
Chu Fu: Dirtbag. Weak. Poor cultivation means poor morals. Known to use numbers and artifacts.
Chu Yan: Networker. Known glutton.
Du Lin: Younger than she looks. Likely poisoned and killed all of Chu Haoyu’s wives. Is now poisoning him. Unclear relationship with Chu Ran?
Chu Haoyu: Not worthy of the title of ‘father’ at all.
Overall: Doing something fishy. Metal-on-stone grinding occasionally heard from there at night? Using qi on outer walls results in sensation of hands all over one’s person. Teams up with Masked Wasp to produce qistones from yao.
His brush paused. He looked down at these words, brow furrowed.
The Chu men were terrible people and there was definitely something off about them, but… he was just now realizing that he had no idea what that ‘off’ thing was. Furthermore, Chu Ran had always said that he was going to bring them down hard, yet he never said for what, exactly.
Was it for their part in framing him, or for participating in the two murders? Neither made much sense; mortal law didn’t care about jianghu drama, and the treatise between the two worlds wouldn’t allow cultivators to do any country-scale arrests of mortals on their own. The Chu’s had to gravely offend mortal sensibilities to reliably fall, and ‘being complete pricks’ was sadly not enough of a reason.
But what the hell crime could that be? Did it have anything to do with the grinding noise? The ‘hands’? The constant warnings to stay away from the place, especially at night?
He jotted down ‘doing something fishy’ in the latest category. The answer would come to him later.
Next was… not the Han or Dong families, nor the stragglers like Deng Xia. Their parts in this had been completed, as far as he was concerned. The Yin family deserved a footnote of being morally questionable and connected to Masked Wasp in some way — even so, he didn’t think they would have too much relevance in the future, now cowed by the Dong family and their filthy underbelly getting exposed.
The Zheng family, he could not write off so easily.
A long, long time ago, Chu Ran had told him that every major family was involved in his framing. Why would he make such a bold statement if the Zhengs’ contribution amounted to one stolen portrait of him? Did Zheng Enyuan once being friends with Ji Misheng matter? Did he know something that he hadn’t shared yet?
Now that he was thinking about it, the story around the portrait was bizarre. Zheng Tonghao’s collection caught on fire, after which the portrait showed up far south in Nan’an—what was that about? Who would even know she had portraits of him other than people that lived with her? And why would those people be connected to Masked Wasp?
Now that he was thinking about it, that whole family had been weirdly cold to him, Zheng Tonghao aside. He barely knew anything about the rest of the family, other than Ji Yaoyi marrying her father’s friend. Which was pretty gross to think about.
Weird. Too weird to pass up. He wrote all of it down and moved on.
With almost all of the major families being passed over, the journal was now quite bare, leaving plenty of room for whatever the hell was going on with Masked Wasp.
While the female Wasp he’d encountered hadn’t given him much information, she’d all but confirmed that they were going after the Three Spirits due to what happened with Ji Misheng. The question here was why.
From what little he knew of Masked Wasp’s corps, they were a large mixed gaggle of cultivators and martial artists. Their reputation was shrouded in both infamy and mystery; while they were known about, their exploits were not, and their low-key presence contradictorily made them more suspicious to jianghu at large. They also only did business with non-cultivators, which was another ominous portent — what ‘benevolent’ acts could someone not bound by the Dao do with a group of shadows? Zhu Li couldn’t think of any.
The presence of cultivators in the corps was indicative of nothing, unfortunately. A loophole in the Dao’s laws was individual ignorance; what one didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them, essentially. As long as a cultivator didn’t participate in and had no knowledge of wrongdoings going around them, they wouldn’t face any divine consequences.
Shady, the lot of them. And their leader—perhaps leaders—made no sense.
Who were they to Ji Misheng and Dong Wanqiu? A friend? Family? Zheng Enyuan was Ji Misheng’s friend, and Ji Yaoyi was family, so maybe…
His eyes narrowed. Was the male Wasp Zheng Enyuan, and the female, Ji Yaoyi?
But… no. That didn’t quite make sense. Zheng Enyuan was the leader of the Windswept Sect in Xiyuan, and Ji Yaoyi co-administrated it. The Wasps primarily operated out of Zhongling due the Chu’s and the convenient location. They would be too busy to make constant trips out here.
However, there was also Zheng Aota, the eldest son. He could, in theory, manage the sect in his parents’ stead. He could also be the male Masked Wasp on behalf of his parents. Then again, the male one was stated to sound older, and Zheng Aota was barely in his thirties.
As for the female one, he ruled out Zheng Tonghao entirely. He’d have been able to tell if it was her from her voice. In light of him having barely spoken to Ji Yaoyi, he couldn’t say the same for her.
There was also still the possibility that the Wasps were no one he knew at all, merely friends of either victim no one had seen coming, or some unknown Dong family faction. Dong Yongming had assured that no one in their family held a grudge, but did she really speak for all of them? Did she really have full stock of every family member she had?
The only other relative was the purportedly-deceased Ji Zhan, who Dong Yongming had hinted might have had his death faked by his sister. If he was actually dead, then that was the end of that. If he wasn’t, he would be in his late forties by now. That wasn’t ‘old enough to have old-man voice’ territory, but… it wasn’t so far-fetched. Du Lin looked two decades older than she was; who could say that a forty-year grudge hadn’t aged him something dreadful?
Actually, now that he was thinking of her, the Lotus mark was due to act up again tonight.
He finished up his notes, checked the charms on it, burned the obsolete pages into ashes, and went to bed for some shut-eye he would be sorely lacking later.
A couple of shichen later, he was abruptly awoken by a predictable midnight pain.
He swung his legs to rise out of bed. Even though this pain had never once decreased in severity over the months, his tolerance of it had raised meteorically. It’d had to, since his attempts at alleviating the sensation had all failed.
Upon making his way outside, he moved a chair over to the spot Du Lin usually sat in, then moved another so that he could sit across from her. Out of grabbing range, of course—he didn’t need a repeat of last time.
Thus, he sat there, reciting mantras in his head to distract himself, up until the side door predictably creaked open.
Du Lin, dressed generously in furs, shuffled in painfully slowly with her lantern. When she reached her usual spot, she ignored the chair he had placed to kneel on the ground right next to it.
In the snow.
“Madam Du?” he questioned, brows furrowed at the odd display.
“Hello, young man,” she answered. She looked at him, her eyes glazed by light, and dull even with its help. “Thank you for the chair. There is no need for it.”
The contrast of her pale skin with the darkness surrounding it was striking, the wrinkles on her face and bags under her eyes obtrusively shaded. She looked like a ghost, but not a resentful one—just an incomparably sad and weary one.
There were a lot of Chu-related things he could ask her about right now, such as the empty half-Estate and that godawful grinding sound. He couldn’t focus on any of them. A question was on his tongue that seemed much more important to the attentive side of him.
“What happened to you?”
Not a ripple went through her expression. She raised her right hand up and extended her arm, her fingers—their knuckles knotted like a tree’s branches—curled in rest, her withered wrist offered up to the Heavens.
“Ah-Ran told me that his guest is a doctor,” she said, voice floaty and far away. “If it suits you, you may see for yourself.”
He looked uneasily at her wrist. Ignoring his previous hesitation at getting grabbed, he stood from his chair, came over, and kneeled down in front of her. His movements were slow, as if he was approaching an injured animal—perhaps, in a certain sense, he was—and he took her wrist gingerly in his fingers, where his qi began to search.
What he discovered was nothing short of horrific.
It would be forgivable to initially assume that Du Lin had been the victim of a violent incident involving a wild animal, or some sort of natural disaster. Her skin was maimed with interwoven scars, some having formed grotesque lumps while others made painful valleys, and her bones—from the individual pieces of her fingers, to her ribs, to her bound feet—were a tangram of crooked and disharmonious sections, with shards jutting out from poorly-healed fractures to stab into her flesh.
The sheer amount of scars layered over scars, of breaks on top of breaks, was unconscionable. There were so, so many; on one forearm alone, there were twelve individual scars and seven fractures, even.
A human couldn’t have done this. There was no way. This was too much, too barbaric for anything other than an unfathomable monster to have done.
And yet, when the injuries were looked at as a whole, a very sinister pattern made itself clear; there were no scars on Du Lin’s head, neck, or hands, nor had her skull, spine, kneecaps, or pelvis ever suffered fractures.
No scars where any outsiders could see them. No fractures anywhere that could be life-threatening or severely crippling, as they would not glide so easily beneath notice.
Every wound on her was deliberate.
Mindless monsters did not care if others saw proof of the pain they had inflicted. But mindful monsters did.
Disgusting. This was just… disgustingly cruel.
Words failed him, as did his years of medical knowledge. He opened his mouth to say anything—a reassurance, an outcry, a way to treat this, anything—but nothing came out. It was like this atrocity had shocked the power of speech out of him.
In a voice softer than the snow around her, more indifferent than the cold itself, Du Lin said, “Now you know.”
Yes. He did. But that didn’t mean he understood.
“Chu Haoyu did this to you?” he asked once his voice found itself. “All of this?”
She smiled vacantly. “Do not be surprised by his cruelty, for he is an evil spirit wearing human skin. His attentions, stretched over decades, are a fate worse than death. And he is thorough enough to prevent us from escaping him by silk.”
Acute distress began to eat at him. “No one helped you? No one’s stopped this?”
Her smile faded. “A wife is inferior to her husband. One that is beaten must have deserved it. All those willing and able to help me were kept in the dark, of course.”
Helpless anger overtook him in turn. “I… I don’t know how to fix this. I could re-break your bones, but there’s so many. I…”
“That’s quite fine, young man. I never expected you to,” she gently interrupted. “Great plumes of smoke fume my pain away.”
“Is that… Is that why you killed his other concubines?”
She raised her head higher at the inquiry to meet his gaze full-on. Through her dream-hazed eyes was the steely sharpness of resolution.
“It was the only mercy I could grant them.”
He shut his eyes.
A part of him was upset by the admission, of course. That was five people whose only crimes were being forcibly married to a monster, Chu Ran’s own mother included, and he doubted they had agreed to their own murder. Even though she said it was a mercy, she couldn’t possibly have known that
But, the thing was… was she wrong?
The pain she had to constantly be in must be agonizing. The injuries on her, within her, put a survivor of political torture to shame. And that was just what he could sense physically—if Chu Haoyu was capable of this much, who knew what else he had put her through? What mental anguish, what violations of the self, what humiliations?
Zhu Li didn’t even want to imagine it, but his mind wouldn’t listen to him. It dredged up accounts of horrors he had heard and read of, or the few he’d witnessed himself; women and children with eyes that’d had the life sucked out of them.
He had to ask himself; if he’d been in her situation, would he have acted any differently?
Sparing them would have condemned them to Du Lin’s same hopeless fate. As mortal, disenfranchised women with no family left, they would have had nowhere to run to. The law saw them as property of the families they married into, not entities, and as such, they were more likely to be labelled as insane and returned to their owner than they were to be helped.
If he’d been trapped in hell, would he have also lost his grip on reality and morality? Would he have preferred to die by another’s hand instead of go through what she had? Could Du Lin even be called sane enough to be admonished?
He felt like there was no right answer. He felt like he didn’t have a right to judge.
He did have the right to not like it, though.
His fingers released Du Lin’s wrist at last. He remained kneeling before her, lost in his thoughts as the time went by.
“Why did you kill the mothers, but not the children?” he asked, almost surprising himself for having asked at all. “If you didn’t want them to suffer, why didn’t you ‘save’ them, too?”
Du Lin met his gaze calmly. She drew in a long, hard breath, then let it out. “I thought he would be less harsh to his own blood. I was only partly right. Ah-Ran and the girls are such good children, but the other two…”
She shook her head. “They will meet their fate.”
He didn’t comment on that, instead changing the subject to, “Why are you still there? Why haven’t you left yet?”
“A keeper is needed here. The monster would be healthy and free otherwise.”
A light smile pulled at her lips. “Are you worried for me? He hasn’t been able to hurt me ever since Ah-Ran was old enough to help. Watching the monster’s health get worse and worse while he gets more and more helpless and angry has been wonderful.”
Right. She was poisoning him. Deservedly.
“You do not have to like that I killed them,” she continued. “Ah-Ran resents me for it, too. It’s okay. When both I and the monster die, I will see him in Hell as a demon, and he will never know rest.”
There was nothing more to say.
He left her there, kneeling in the snow, and went back to his room. He sat on his bed, yet made no
Although the worst of the Lotus’s pain had subsided during their talk, his mind whirred with too many thoughts and emotions to form a cohesive whole. He’d known that Chu Haoyu was bad, he just hadn’t been able to foresee that he’d be this bad.
The Daoist part of him was telling him to barge into the Estate and slay the monster within it so that he couldn’t hurt anyone else. The rational part of him knew that Chu Ran and them must already have a plan, and he shouldn’t interfere by letting the evildoers off easy. The doctorly part of him was still panicking from what he’d just witnessed.
He would have to ask Chu Ran if he knew about this. The man had previously said that Du Lin had used her killing of the other concubines to impose herself as the children’s legal mother, but now that Zhu Li had spoken to her, that didn’t seem to be her motivation at all. She hardly seemed like the motherly type, anyways.
Zhu Li’s own mother was never the motherly type, either. More of a distant, reliable mentor and protector.
Sighing, he settled in to bed. The time to worry about his trip to see relatives would be coming in a few days. He might as well start storing energy for it now, because he knew he would be running out of it later.
The author says: speak for yourself mr. doctor man. one phone call to my relatives and i’m out of socialization energy for a month
i’m curious, too; what do you all think of du lin’s mercy killing of the other concubines? do you think it’s justified? short-sighted? not justified at all? or are you like zhu li, and think this is above your pay grade?
5 thoughts on “SnCr 44”
I love how Zhu Li isn’t wishy washy or other such nonsense, just dealing with people and feelings in a very straightforward manner. Saves a lot of BS from happening, I appreciate it
Poor Du Lin, I’ve never understood why anyone would treat someone like that, but I guess that makes me sane. I think motivation and consequence need to be jointly considered with regards to morality. The consequence of her actions were certainly heinous, but those actions were done with merciful intent. We don’t know what the other women wanted. Maybe some of them did/would want to die, maybe some wanted to live, and maybe some did not know the full implications of what living would entail. A difficult question and for sure beyond my pay grade. Thanks for the chapter!
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Wow, this was one long conversation full of confessions revelations 😀 I love how easily Zhu Li is able to admit how he feels about Chu Ran! And Junyan’s identity… yeah, I feel a bit like fool too, that I didn’t connect the dots earlier 😀
Anyway – I really like how the whole conversation flows, from one topic to another, then an interruption, then coming back… it felt very natural ^^
And then there’s… Du Lin. Chu Haoyu should rot in the deepest part of hell. Her way of thinking though… For me it’s understandable, in a way? I’m not condoning her actions, but having undergone such torture, I think it’s understandable for her to think and act such way. But yes, this does feel like above my paygrade, so I won’t elaborate any further 🙂
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Well, I did NOT predict that Xin Junyan was Chu Ran’s actual bio sister. That explains a lot. Well played Chichi. (And my bad for forgetting that he had a runaway sister.)
I did however figure that Chu Haoyu was the kind of horrifically abusive monster that should never be allowed near a woman. I can understand Du Lin’s decision to ‘free’ the other women from him, but I think they should have had a choice in the matter. I’m kind of looking forward to seeing what Chu Ran’s plan for his father is, to be a just punishment for everything he’s done.
Thank you for another wonderful chapter!
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To be fair, Chu Xu was last mentioned (over?) a year ago in chapter nine. No surprise that she’s forgettable.
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Well this chapter was a ride.
First the establishment of here’s a group of people who nobody talks to on account of the explicit slavery and abduction there into. Hm, these standards shouldn’t be applied to anyone else of our acquaintance I’m sure.
Matchmaking! (cackling because Zhu Li is not a likely matchmaker At All). Junyan needing to be better at hiding her porn. An explicit shovel talk because love and can stand living with are two vastly disparate concepts with siblings sometimes.
To be fair Junyan wasn’t doing badly at the whole disappear into thin air thing. But living with your older brother is what we like to call a clue.
Chu Ran distinctly said qi-rich plants and creatures about what those stones were made of. Like way back at the start of this. I have long had an idea on what That meant
Du Lin… Like on one hand yes that is actual murder and a more than a bit fucked. But she has spent the last 30 years being brutalised by her husband- and it should be said this is how he treats his legal wife, i.e the one who has to be seen in public. And she was what 16-17 when she killed Chu Ran’s mother. Which if nothing else demonstrated /exactly/ how bad the first year was. And these are women who lived a time under her roof. Did she know them at all? well? Was she at the births? Did they have a notion of their husband’s character by his treatment of her? What confidences stood between them if any? I wonder that at least one of them might have conspired with her at their own destruction.
Doctor Zhu is a good man, a rarity in this place.
Zhu family dysfunction imminent
Thank you for the update!
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