SnCr 46

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Slate stone under hooves made a melodious rhythm as they advanced into the shadow-cloaked courtyard.

“We won’t worry about any nitty-gritty details at this moment,” Ren Nidan told them as he walked on foot ahead of them, his horse mysteriously gone. “It’s too late at night for anything beyond getting you all settled in and rested. Wuji figured that you wouldn’t appreciate any pomp surrounding your arrival, too, so she told the whole sect that they’d suffer lashes if they didn’t turn their lights out, keep their windows closed, and not bother you.”

That was accurate behavior from Zhu Wuji. Zhu Li would have to thank her later.

It was a straight shot to the main building from the gate. When Ren Nidan got close enough to the front door, disciples appeared from the shadows, causing poor Chu Mei to jump in alarm.

“The disciples here will lead your horses to the stables,” he explained. “I will lead you all to your rooms.”

Their group all dismounted, took their luggage off of their horses’ packs, and stepped forwards. The disciples went to take the horse’s reins, but when one went to grab Guhui’s, she expertly flung her head so that the leather swung out of their reach.

The disciple paused, then carefully tried again. She repeated the rejection, this time turning so that her rump was presented to the disciple’s face.

“Guhui,” Zhu Li said. His tone took on the discrete tone of a disappointed father.

The mare looked back and raised her chin in some sort of acknowledgement.

“The stables aren’t far, and they won’t put you with any other horses if they know what’s good for them,” he loudly hinted. “Behave.”

She snorted, then turned away. The disciple hesitated a bit, but successfully grabbed her reins this time, then began to lead her away.

Ren Nidan stared after Guhui curiously. “Does your horse… understand you?” he asked.

“Kind of. Her hearing is selective,” he answered.

His father hummed and nodded. “You’ll have to tell me how you managed to get a slopenose, son. It’s a very rare and expensive breed.—This way, now.”

He led them across familiar stone paths that wound with the dips in the ground, past lacquered wooden walls, and to where Zhu Li knew the guest quarters were. They were small and cozy one-room courtyards to emulate hospitality, yet were also purposefully unsuitable for permanent residence so that no one overstayed their welcome. No one wanted nosy aunt number thirty-one from clear across the valley to stay more than a week, after all.

Xin Junyan and Chu Mei were each given their own neighboring rooms. To Zhu Li’s perturbation, he and Chu Ran were also shown their own guest rooms.

Why would they need these? Didn’t he have his own courtyard with plenty of rooms…?

A bad feeling welled up in his gut.

“Dad,” he started. He had to decide his words cautiously. “Is the… Fucheng Court not available?”

Ren Nidan blinked at him from where he stood at the guest room’s entrance. A look of realization soon descended upon him. “Oh, your courtyard is still intact, son. No need to worry about that,” he said with a reassuring smile. “It’s just unsuitable for your use right now. We can deal with those details tomorrow.”

Um, what? “What do you mean by unsuitable?”

Ren Nidan looked a bit uncertain as to whether he should say anything, but that lasted only a moment. He sighed and said, “I suppose there’s no point in sugarcoating it… Your mother sealed the Fucheng Court up the day after you left. No one’s been in it since. I’m almost positive that it’s coated in layers of dust and weeds at this point.”

“She… sealed it?” he repeated dumbly.

“Yes. She didn’t give much of an explanation beyond not wanting anyone to touch your things. That would be fine by itself, but she also configured the seal so that only you can open it. Not even she can undo it without causing severe property damage.”

…What the hell. What does that mean? Zhu Li thought. Is that her way of protecting my stuff? Or… memorializing me?

“I don’t understand,” he said, sounding as lost as he felt.

Ren Nidan sighed. “Neither do I, son. You know how your mother is. Let’s get you both settled in… hm.”

He looked at Chu Ran, who had attached himself to Zhu Li’s arm before they’d started walking, then remained oddly silent during their walk.

“You did want separate rooms, right?” he asked them, though it was more directed at Chu Ran.

The latter jolted a little. His hand removed itself from the crook of Zhu Li’s elbow, after which he straightened up, brushing his robes out. “Yes, of course. Separate rooms seems to be appropriate,” he agreed, smiling blandly as usual.

Zhu Li’s brows furrowed.

If there was anything he knew about Chu Ran, it was that he only superficially cared about what other people thought of him or what he said, and would never act jumpy or uncertain around them. What was with this reaction, now?

Maybe it was just the late night. He’d watch to see if it repeated tomorrow.

He bid them both goodnight, retreated into his designated room, set his luggage down, and quickly dressed down for bed. Once he was laid down, though, he spent far too long just staring at the rafters, too riled up with thoughts to sleep.

That randomly-dropped information about his personal quarters having been sealed up like there were evil spirits in there was weird. It was really weird. It didn’t make any sense.

He really didn’t get his mother, nor the reasons for why she did half the things she did. He’d honestly believed that she would gut his courtyard as soon as he left, not preserve and guard it like it was some trove of treasures.

Had she… been expecting him to return? After drilling into him over and over again that no one was allowed to return if they left?

It didn’t make any sense. It didn’t.

He got up from bed, threw an outer robe and shoes on, shoved firesticks in his pocket, lit the guiding lantern at the entrance, and headed off.

The good thing about this Estate’s wide and shallow—or long and narrow, depending on how one looked at it—layout and adherence to feng shui was that it was easy to navigate. The Weiyi River flowed from west to east, and all he needed to do to reach his courtyard was go against the water’s flow. It was something he could do even in darkness, with his legs moving on their own as a guide.

For a few minutes, there was nothing but him, his tenebrous surroundings, the gentle sound of rushing water beneath the river’s frozen surface, and the cool breeze against his skin. The chill helped calm him so that he could barrier his active mind from his subconscious anxieties—the latter wouldn’t do him any good right now.

Once he was where he wanted to be, he snapped his fingers to make a spark that set a firestick alight.

The front gate of the Fucheng Court didn’t look especially strange—it wasn’t even locked or chained shut. The description of it being ‘sealed’ still made him somewhat nervous, so he used qi sense to probe the wall.

An electric shock fired back at him, confirming an array’s existence. Nothing was off on this side of the wall, so the array’s mechanisms were either inside the bricks themselves, or simply tucked away safely on the inside. It was sturdy enough to defy all but the strongest of attempts to break it. One couldn’t simply scale the walls, either, as there was a projected five-zhang ‘wall’ that would hinder such an action.

The array’s exact mechanics were indecipherable to him, but he could at least tell that the flow was constantly checking back to a set point at the door. It was also fragile in nature, like a sword made of glass.

His father had said that only he was allowed to open it. Maybe breaking this array was as easy as opening the door?

He slid the lacquered latch out of place, placed his palm upon the wood, and pushed.

A crackle went through the air. The array snapped like a dry twig, then died entirely.

While typical living spaces would place the main residence far away from the front gate, the partitioned dwellings of the Zhu Estate generally didn’t on account of the rearmost side being an entire river. The Fucheng Court had two sections; the fore held two residences of the same size on the left and right with a garden pavilion in the middle, and the rear was for storage and the garden. As a ‘junior’ residence, it was meant for either unmarried adult children or childless young couples.

Zhu Li began to methodically wander the grounds with the firestick’s dim light. Carved stone tablets were attached to the inside of the outer walls that had not been there when he’d left; these were the instructions for the array, installed for the long—yet not permanent—term.

Various Estate-wide arrays heavily redirected a lot of the snow, leaving a minor film of untouched frost over everything. This left a dead mess of overgrown weeds and grass poking out from under it from their unwelcome homes between the cracks in the stone pathways, under the pavilion’s boards, and bunched up at the base of every wall.

He first broke the array on the empty residence on the left. After a cursory look at the dust-covered inside, he left it alone; they were unused spouse quarters with nothing of importance to him, after all. The residence on the right had been his own, once upon a time, and he opened it just the same.

The smell of dust was dulled by the atmosphere’s slow chill, yet was certainly still present. The same stone tablets that circled the other residence’s insides also adorned this one. As he advanced through the building from right to left, moving the firestick in a clean arc and taking in the details before him, he grew more and more dumbfounded.

The table in the middle of the room had a teapot, a single cup, a few books, and unfinished notes on crinkled pages, all furnished with an inkstone and brush that were as dry as a beggar’s mouth. Peering into the cup revealed the crumbling remains of tea leaves.

The bookcase and shelves were in noticeable disarray. Some of the titles were on their spines, hanging loosely, or flat-out on the floor. Bottles of degraded venom, now-impotent poisons, expired medicine, and so on populated the other shelf, a good portion of which were knocked over, and a few of those had opened, their contents dried.

The bed across from that had its sheets and pillows askew, unmade. The cabinets built next to it—used for clothing—were both slightly ajar, as if improperly shut.

The left side was mostly window and daybed, with the exception of a desk and chair containing self-grooming miscellany. There was a pair of scissors discarded upon the floor, and next to it was… a black mass.

A black mass of hair. Human hair. His hair. The very same hair that he’d cut off of his head five years ago.

By the Heavens. When his father had said that this place had been left intact, he’d really meant intact. The complete mess he’d left in his rush to leave all those years ago had been preserved as a portal into the past. The results of his mad rush to leave was on full display for him, long after his hair had regrown and his grief had waned.

He abruptly lost all desire to stay there a single second more.

Upon exiting the building and shutting it back up tight, he broke the array on the rear courtyard and its two storage buildings, then all but fled out the Court’s front gate.

Once those doors had closed behind him, he paced a few steps forwards and away from it, but stopped in his tracks soon after.


That was the one question on his mind. What he was asking ‘why’ about, what answer he was seeking… both of those things eluded him.

The firestick he was holding went out, casting his entire world in darkness.

His gaze unfocused, unblinking as it gazed out into nothing. A weird feeling was creeping into his veins, making him want to run.

A faint glow in his upper peripheral eventually caught his notice. Slightly bewildered, he turned to the source; no one else should be up this night.

Far in the distance—yet still visible to the naked eye—was a figure standing on the second floor of the Wanming Court, illuminated by a lantern set upon its railing. None of their details were perceivable from where he stood, but he could have sworn they were facing him.

The Zhu Estate was populated by only the family’s main branch at any given time. Wanming Court was one of its largest buildings, and was meant to house the elders, such as grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, and so forth. As a direct consequence of the sect living on the yao-producing borders and the older generation being obligated to protect the younger generation, every maternal ancestor of Zhu Li’s that went beyond ‘grandparents’ was dead.

No one should be in the Wanming Court.

As soon as he thought that, the figure put the lantern out, effectively disappearing.

Nope. No thanks. He didn’t want anything to do with whatever was going on there.

He did not scurry back to the guest quarters like a scared rat, no. He very calmly and very quickly walked back with as much grace as he could muster, using the isolated lantern of his quarters as a guide.

The closer he got to his destination, the more settled he became. When the lantern was no more than a few steps away, he let out a small sigh—

“Doctor Zhu.”

Zhu Li froze in place. His sigh got caught in his throat as he tried very hard not to jump out of his skin. (And he was successful. Really.)

He slowly turned to the source of the voice, which was directly to his right.

Chu Ran was standing in complete darkness like a weirdo… No, scratch that. He was standing in complete darkness like someone that didn’t need light to see.

“Oh, I apologize. It wasn’t my intent to surprise you,” Chu Ran said lightly. “Trying to sleep here has been dreadful. I looked for you earlier, yet you weren’t in your room. Where did you go off to?”

Zhu Li finished his sigh. Straightening out his posture, he turned to face him. “I couldn’t sleep, either, so I went to the Fucheng Court.”

“That place your father mentioned, yes? I figured that it was your personal courtyard, but I felt that asking him would be inappropriate. How was it?”

“It was exactly how I left it.”

“That’s good, is it not?”

“There was a pile of my own hair still on the floor from five years ago.”

A pause.

“Oh. Hm. That’s at least a little odd. Or perhaps I should say that it’s odd to me; my knowledge of how real families act may be a little shallow.”

“It was weird to see,” Zhu Li confirmed. “There was also someone watching me, I think.”

“Do you know who?”

“No. The place they were watching me is supposed to be off-limits, too.”

Chu Ran hummed in consideration. “A trespasser? A ghost? A trespassing ghost, perhaps?”

“The security here is so tight, a ghost is actually more likely than an intruder,” he quipped grimly. “I’ll worry about that later. Why can’t you sleep?”

“A tiny creature was yelling at me nonstop,” was Chu Ran’s very weird answer.


“A cat with a bell collar perched outside my window and demanded to be let in. It was very persistent, so I let the little thing in, only for it to perched at my door and demand to be let out immediately. Why it didn’t simply go around my room altogether is beyond my understanding,” Chu Ran explained, sounding more amused than anything. “The little perpetrator is still on this wall beside me, in fact. From what I’m sensing from it, it’s quite happy to see you.”

Ah. He knew who that was.

As if on cue, a jingle rang out into the night, and then a fuzzball shot off the wall with a woosh, aiming straight for Zhu Li.

He held his arms up in a catching pose on reflex. The fuzzball successfully landed on them, the jingles coming off of his bell complemented by the creature’s little mrrp.

Shifting so that his arms formed a cradle, he looked down at the barely-visible cloud of shadows he held, which looked back at him with expectant amber eyes. In no time at all, he decided that it’d had enough of the human’s slowness, and arched so that he headbutted him in the chin.

Zhu Li automatically let out a low chuckle, shifting around again so that he could pet the cat’s head and scratch behind his ears. It earned him vigorous head rubs, purr, and paws that kneaded the air out of sheer bliss.

“Oh? Is this a little friend of yours?” Chu Ran asked curiously. He came a bit closer, putting himself more in the light.

“His name’s Yeci. He’s a mouser,” Zhu Li introduced. He scratched the overgrown kitten under his chin, fondness blooming in his chest. “I’m surprised he still remembers me.”

“I only have your dear horse as a reference, but it seems that animals like you a great deal. Perhaps that isn’t so surprising. Yeci is an interesting name, though—what does it mean?”

“It’s the ye from ‘night’ and the ci from ‘assassin.’ You might’ve noticed that he likes jumping on people at night.”

“Curious. Were you the one that named him, by chance?”

Zhu Li blinked at him. “No. My eldest sister did.”

“Ah. It must run in the family.”

“…What does?”

“Nothing, nothing. Now, I’ve explained why I’ve failed to sleep, but what is it that’s kept you up, Doctor? Simple nerves?”

Zhu Li frowned. “Something like that.”

“That is very understandable. A bit foreseeable, too. Back when we first met, even the merest mention of your family would make you upset, and now we happen to be in the thick of it.”

He huffed. “I’m over that now.” Mostly, anyways, he didn’t add on. “Why were you looking for me earlier?”

Chu Ran let out a little laugh. “Since sleep eludes me, I was going to ask if you would use that soothing voice of yours to read to me. Do you mind?”

Zhu Li shot him a keen look. “Did I mind the last dozen times you’ve asked me?”

“Of course not, but it doesn’t hurt to ask and make sure, does it?” Chu Ran asked cheekily, tilting his head.

“No, it doesn’t.”

At that, he turned back towards the lit lantern and proceeded forth. Chu Ran automatically followed after him, keeping pace. “I recognized one of the books in my room—it’s a really smarmy romance novel one of my distant aunts wrote.”

“A perfect book to laugh myself into dreams, in other words? I truly cannot wait.”

The author says: i thought this chapter was too short at first. it’s not. it’s literally regular chapter length. my sense of normal is just broken because i think 15 pages is appropriate chapter length

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7 thoughts on “SnCr 46

  1. I’m really enjoying this novel – the calm tone amidst all of the dramatic events, the strength and vulnerability of the characters and the way the events of the story build emotional richness, so that the reader is allowed to wonder about and eventually understand what is significant instead of being told loudly what everyone is feeling and why.

    I didn’t realize that it was still being written – I thought that this was a translation of another author’s work. I suppose maybe it isn’t important to know, but I feel privileged to be reading something new as it emerges, even though a translation also entails a lot of thoughtfulness and insight.

    Anyway, thanks for putting this out there! I’m looking forward to more.


  2. Damn, caught up to the updates

    Excited to see what will happen in the miasma caves, hopefully Zhu Li gets some resolution with his mother


  3. Oh, I can’t believe I’ve caught up. Now I have to wait for updates. Nooooo! LOL

    Loving this story. I basically zipped from one chapter to the next. I love how you didn’t have Zhu Li fall into the pit so many authors do – of having them jump to a million wrong conclusions about their flirtatious partner. It was also nice to have him accept Ran’s ‘flirting’ with only some thinking need done about it.

    Can’t help but wonder what all the grinding sounds, the sounds in his head, and the fingertips under the skin were all about. Then again, as Ran has said, there are some things you can’t unknow once you hear them and it would be best never to hear of them in the first place.

    I’m impressed how you planted all the info needed so that when we found out who Junyan was, that all the hints made sense. *After all, if he would smuggle Mei into the household, why wouldn’t he smuggle Xu as well.* Plus, they had been calling each other brother/sister from the beginning. Which could have been a sect brother/sister thing. Nicely done.

    And I adore how Ran and Li’s relationship is going. No insta-love *Ugh I hate that^ and Li, even if he’s younger than Ran, has the maturity and level-headedness needed to deal with Ran’s EXTREMELY abused background. Also, I love how he’s introducing Junyan to his little sister soon.

    And, since I don’t remember all the parts I’ve loved, I also enjoyed how Junyan sounded him out about his asking Ran to be with him as his companion after the whole mess was over. Protective title sister. Which fits her well.

    And now I wait with others to see how Li’s mother explains herself. (Not to mention what’s going on with the Masked Wasp(s))

    Looking forward to the next updates 🙂

    Thanks so much for this incredibly wonderful story.


  4. Despite their isolationist tendencies, the Miasma Caves seems like a cool and interesting place!
    It may not have been good for Zhu Li’s mental health, but I liked this night escapade of his; and the ending was cute ^^ (I’m a cat person :D)

    So, I’ve caught up with the latest chapters! Thank you so much for the updates, and I wish you a happy and healthy 2023!


  5. what a nice chapter!! at the end of everything, running into chu ran after all that creepy stuff felt so refreshing… I hope zhu li & him can sleep well after this


  6. Guhui!
    … if hobbits were also medical goths. Warning for passive aggressiveness noted.
    Chu Ran doesn’t care about strangers’ opinions of him (well he tries) but, this is your family Zhu Li. And he doesn’t know how much store you set by their opinions. Or how much you might.
    Okay that’s… I think we all might like an explanation to why. Currently going with Zhu Longmai is doing her best to cope. But walking back into a still life of getting the hell out is a bit…
    Could that figure be?
    Chu Ran going I’m pretty sure that’s weird but don’t exactly have points of reference is always fun. Their relationship has certainly come a long way from that prison cell.
    And he’s awake because he got catted.
    An Murder Mog. I call them all goths for reasons, and the naming sensibilities are one of them.
    The boys are being cute again…. Tropey romance is an excellent bedtime story.

    Thank you for the update!

    Liked by 1 person

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