SnCr 48

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The door to Wanming Court was eerily unlit.

It was also locked. And possibly barricaded.

How the hell were they supposed to do this? Shouldn’t there be someone here at the door?

“What a conundrum,” Chu Ran mused, tilting his head to the side. “Should we scale the walls like a pair of spiders and enter through the balcony?”

“Those doors might be locked, too. There’s all sorts of arrays to keep this place from rotting and dusting over, which includes keeping all openings shut tight,” Zhu Li answered, brows furrowed. “I never learned how to open this, either. We weren’t allowed to visit my grandparents when they were alive.”

“You weren’t allowed to? Hm… Is that normal? I feel it might not be.”

“It’s not.” Traveling the world had taught him how many aspects of his life in the Miasma Caves hadn’t been in the realm of ‘normal.’

“Well, now I’m curious, Doctor. Why was that the case?”

“No idea. I was only about seven when they died, so it lost relevance.”

“Ah, I understand. Is that the meaning of that old adage, ‘What the eye no longer sees, the mind doesn’t worry after’? It only means so much to me.”

Zhu Li huffed. “Yeah, that’s about right.—Maybe we should just knock.”

He knocked on the door. The sound of it was heard to bounce off the walls, ceiling, and floors within, giving it an impeccable cavernous ambience.

They waited for a few seconds. Then a few more. Then a few more…

“Perhaps we can brute force it open?” Chu Ran suggested.

Soon after, a loud clunk came from the door, as if some mechanism had shifted.

Zhu Li reached out and pushed the door. It swung open easily, revealing innards that were even darker than the dusked world outside.

He cautiously stepped inside. Chu Ran stepped in after him, his steps quite a bit less cautious.

As soon as they were both fully inside, Zhu Li closed the door and latched it shut. In response to this action, the hall they were in lit up with the world’s dimmest lanterns, giving off no more light than the sunset outside and looking much like ghost lights in fog. It cast the already dark wood of the walls and furniture in a gloomy gleam, giving the whole area a spine-chilling sense of something sinister lurking nearby.

Who the hell decorated in here? Did older people like the dark or something?

He had apparently paused for too long, as Chu Ran asked, “What is it, Doctor?”

“Nothing. It’s just dim in here,” he answered, then began to look around.

What now? He didn’t actually know which room his mother was residing in, and this place was a little too big to just go—

“Second floor. Furthermost right room.”

Zhu Li jumped out of his skin at the voice suddenly in his ear. So did Chu Ran; the man instantly grabbed his arm like a security blanket.

Despite the voice’s source having sounded like it was two cun from his ear, a cursory look around

“Ah. Voice projection. A talent of the older generation,” he said stiffly. “What a… pleasant surprise to hear that again. My teacher was quite fond of using it; I believe she enjoyed scaring the soul out of everyone.”

It was generally rude to project one’s voice directly into stranger’s ears, so it had been years since it had been used on Zhu Li, too. Quasi-disembodied voices were always fun to hear.

Taking a deep, calming breath, he began to lead them forwards.

The staircases to either wing of the upper floor were in this very room. While Zhu Li hadn’t been allowed to visit his grandparents any further than five times in his life—yes, that was extremely weird, now that it was at the forefront of his mind—he still had a mental layout of this place memorized.

The hallways of the Court’s wings on both floors went in 凵 shapes, the living quarters being on the outside and the meeting rooms on the inside. Aside from the staircases in the middle (and the balconies, technically), there was no way to get to these rooms, meaning that the rooms on the ends were the most inconvenient to get to. This design choice was due to an old, feng shui-based belief that staircases and doors invited bad omens, so the less of them around and the further away the rooms, the better.

A room on the bend of a second-floor wing was as isolated as one could get from the Court’s only door.

The wood of the stairs was dark-stained. So was the wood of the floor, the walls, the ceiling, the tables, the vases… everything was so dreary in here. What little paint or ornamentation there was had a dark red hue, be it a cinnabar coating or vermillion staining or some fake plants made out of metal and jasper.

It looked a lot like the sect’s uniforms, actually. That was at least a little excessive. Although the architecture in the sect tended to be dark and red-colored, it would at least have life and color in it in the form of plants, paintings, or just lighter-colored things.

That wasn’t allowed here, apparently.

Once they were halfway through the hallway’s second floor, Chu Ran suddenly burst into shivers.

“Goodness, it’s cold in here. I’m freezing,” he remarked, when it was honestly only a little chilly.

Zhu Li huffed in lieu of a laugh. This again? “You’re always cold.”

“Yes, I am. Cold is just the worst. In all honesty, however, I believe it’s less a physiological reaction and more a psychological one, bestowed to me after years of my father deciding that I didn’t need firewood in winter. Perhaps he was hoping that I’d freeze to death… ah, well. How unfortunate for him that he failed and I still live. All he ended up doing was leave a nice scar on my psyche, one of many.”

…There’s the Chu Ran he knew. Now this wasn’t funny anymore.

They came up before the rightmost room, as instructed. These rooms placed on the bend were larger than the rest, a denotation of status to be reserved for only the eldest of the eldest. Zhu Longmai was the only one here, though—what did status matter to anyone?

Zhu Li paused, wondering how loud he should knock, when the voice said into his ear again, “Come in.”

How the hell she knew exactly where they were, he couldn’t know.

His stomach twisted uncomfortably. He took a deep breath, then two, then three. It didn’t help much.

Just get it over with, he told himself, slowly reaching out to push the door open…

Chu Ran pushed it open, instead.

Then, with that very same hand, he patted Zhu Li’s arm in reassurance, and began to lead him inside the room.

He was fine with this, actually.

The tigress’s den was brighter than the hallways, thankfully, but all that realistically did was highlight the morose decor even worse. In addition to that, the balcony on the far wall was fully opened, as were its accompanying windows.

The combined effect put a lot of focus on a bunch of things Zhu Li found to be all the stranger.

On top of most available surfaces was an organized, if random, assortment of half-finished projects. Some dusty instruments laid in one corner, unfinished calligraphic projects were spread on top of a table, half-formed animals were embroidered into fabric that had been abandoned on a bench, and there was even a half-batch of fletched arrows sitting on some side table.

That’s weird. He didn’t remember her ever having these hobbies.

No one was immediately visible in the room. As he was dragged further along, however, Zhu Li noticed a brighter dome of light peeking over a folding screen to the right. When they went around it, a scene he’d partially been expecting greeted his eyes.

Zhu Longmai was seated behind a walnut wood desk, various writing paraphernalia spread out across it.. The official’s-hat chair she reclined in was not facing it, but the open balcony ahead, and a brown cat with broken black lines was curled up on her lap.

In stacks behind her was pages and pages of unfinished poems, if their top pages were any indication, thus completing the odd collection of aborted projects.

As for the woman herself, she was just how he remembered her; a slightly more opulent uniform where all layers tied at the waist, a tight hair bun with two bronze hairpins, a rotating collection of animalian earrings (dragons today), and features that were fairly similar to his own, yet somehow both sharper and more feminine. Right now, only her side profile could be seen as she stared outside at the orange-red sky, the sun unseeable at this angle.

In the seconds he was taking to observe her, she turned to them, and her cold gaze—those eyes the same shade of brown as his own—stabbed into him like a knife bathed rust-gold in the sunset.

For one frigid moment, the air between them solidified.

Retired she might be, but less imposing, she was not. He might as well be staring down a bear for how his nerves were jittering

“Ah, hello! You must be the former Sect Head, yes? My teacher was a friend of yours, I believe. Do pardon the intrusion upon your leisure time, but we do have some very important things to discuss.”

The tension crumbled apart in the wake of Chu Ran’s cheery, blithe words.

Zhu Longmai’s gaze was dragged away from Zhu Li and to the newcomer. She blinked once. In a slow movement, she stood from her chair with the sleepy cat in her arms, fixed it so that it faced them, and then swept a hand out to gesture to the two chairs across from her. “Go ahead and have a seat.”

Chu Ran took the chair to the right. Zhu Li—very stiffly—took the chair to the left.

Zhu Longmai sat back down, as well, cat and all. Her back was straight, shoulders square, and chin up as she mostly took in Chu Ran’s appearance, which was a far cry from the relaxed pose she’d been in.

The man in question rattled off his names and rank for the third time in a day, after which he got straight to the point. “I’m not quite sure what you’ve been informed of ahead of time, Senior Zhu, so please forgive me if I’m rehashing things. Now, first thing’s first—how about we discuss Masked Wasp?”

Her eyes narrowed upon him evaluatingly, which made Zhu Li’s shoulders stiffen. “The rogue and lackey for the Chu family,” she began, her voice low and clear. “I doubt I know much more than you do about him.”

“Oh, but I’m afraid you might. After all, he’s orchestrated the deaths of the War Spirit and the Dread Spirit, and is aiming for you, the final Spirit, by capturing your wayward daughter as bait. Zhu Heng was the name, I believe. Luring you out with the good Doctor here failed, so he decided upon a back-up plan—silly, is it not?”

His mother’s calm visage had darkened further and further with each of Chu Ran’s words. Once he was done, she seemed to be at a temporary loss for a response of her own.

Oddly, that calmed Zhu Li’s nerves a little. Not even the untouchable former Sect Head was immune to this level of bluntness, it seemed.

“To be quite honest, we aren’t positive of his identity or his motives. While it hardly matters in terms of his fate, which is to face reckoning for what he’s done and plans to do, we hoped that you would shed some light on the situation. Ren Zhuizhun told us about the Ji Misheng incident, and also that you fled to this very sect shortly after. We’re assuming this is the catalyst for revenge, but we could very well be wrong and there was something else controversial that the Three Spirits did; do you mind clearing things up for us?”

She stared at him for a few terrifying moments. Zhu Li was on edge, ready for the onslaught…

A huff escaped her, sounding almost… amused. “You really are Yinhui’s disciple,” she mused, raising her free hand to prop her cheek against it. She didn’t elaborate on that comment.

She’s not mad? Zhu Li thought, baffled. She hates it whenever anyone outside of the family tries to be too informal or direst with her. What gives?

“We did a lot of things no one else wanted to or could do,” she continued. “A turtle-like yao was in some lake that the locals worshipped as a god, but they didn’t know or care that it was poisoning that water. They were mad at us for killing it. We raided a human trafficking ring in Dongqiu and killed both the slavers and the buyers—we got criticism for that since the buyers were upper class. An official in Malao County was a known serial molester that the other officials kept covering for, so we strung him up by his neck in the city’s center for everyone to see in the morning, and also took some fingers off of the ones that helped him. I could go on with these. The thing with Ji Misheng, though…”

She leaned back a little, straightening up her posture again. “That’s the only one involving other cultivators and a victim that was technically innocent. Anyone mortal we’ve offended is too old to do anything now. Wenkang…”

She trailed off. A flash of what Zhu Li could scarcely believe to be sadness briefly cracked her mask, but was quickly covered up by neutrality. “Wenkang was too popular for any mortal’s grudges to stick to her.”

“The late Han leader was poisoned by someone in her employ, which was how she was weakened enough to be envenomed and killed,” Chu Ran pointed out, not batting an eye. “She might have been popular, but the Wasp’s pincers were dug into a lot of places. Do you know who could have both connections to Ji Misheng and enough power to build this ill-gotten empire?”

Zhu Longmai contemplated that for a few seconds. “That can only be Zheng Tingqi.”


Seeming to notice their confusion, she extrapolated. “He’s a prick that throws his money around, likes younger girls, and is always fake polite. He also manipulated the righteous Ji Misheng into being his ‘good friend.’ I’m guessing he’s the head of the Dragon Well School by now, even though he’s not a cultivator or smart.”

Head of the Dragon Well School? Was she talking about Zheng Enyuan? He was a cultivator, though… wasn’t he?

Chu Ran leaned forward in his seat. Out of nowhere, his hand reached over and grabbed Zhu Li’s closest wrist, a gesture of familiarity.

At any other time, he would have welcomed that bit of touch. But with an audience like this? He felt like an entire crowd might as well be watching him.

Predictably, Zhu Longmai’s eyes jumped down to that hand, lingered on it for a second, then jumped back up before Chu Ran started speaking.

“You’ve just described Zheng Enyuan, Senior Zhu, except he styles himself as a cultivator. Could it be the same person? Or does he have a double?”

She raised a brow, curling her lip in disgust. “Did he give himself a cultivational name to sell the act? That’s funny. He never had a tael of cultivation talent because he wasn’t willing to ‘limit his options.’”

“How interesting. And here I heard that he performed feats only cultivators could manage.”

“He probably hides a few qistones in his sleeves and dupes people that don’t know better. I doubt he’s ever performed for actual cultivators. He was already in his thirties when I knew him, and I could tell just by looking at him that he was mortal. He has to be in his seventies, now.”

“Ah, right, right. Mortals tend to look quite old at that age. What do you think, Doctor Zhu? Did he look old when you saw him? How was he to you?”

Brows creasing slightly, Zhu Longmai peered over at Zhu Li, the weight of the look making him feel like he just regressed twenty years in age. He avoided eye contact on pure instinct, looking down at the floor.

“He looked his age,” he confirmed, fighting the inexplicable bitterness curdling in his stomach. “He seemed nice, but kept his distance. He didn’t speak to me much.”

“Well, then. Either he’s mortal, or poor enough of a cultivator for there to be little difference,” went Chu Ran again. “However, he still cannot be Masked Wasp. That one has some actual talent. If you don’t mind much, Senior Zhu, allow me to walk you through the rest of what we’ve learned so far…”

After listening to the end of it—where Chu Ran had indiscriminately explained Zheng Enyuan’s marriage to Ji Yaoyi, Zheng Tonghao’s involvement, Ji Zhan’s supposed death, Dong Yongming’s testimony, the female Wasp, and so on—Zhu Longmai huffed in derision.

“No ivory comes from a dog’s mouth,” she stated plainly. Her expression was blank, but the disdain was clear in her tone. “Marrying the much younger daughter of his dead friend and manipulating his own daughter’s heart for his gain isn’t surprising behavior from him.”

“Oh? Do you know him well?” Chu Ran questioned.

“No, but I know his type,” she answered with a sneer, spitting that word like it was poisonous. “I wasn’t there, so all I can really give is speculation.”

“Speculation would be just fine, actually. Perhaps it will give us something over our unclear foe.”

Zhu Longmai turned her head to look out of the nearest window. After a few moments of thought, she said, “This won’t make sense without the beginning.

“The first time the three of us met Zheng Tingqi, I immediately knew something was off with him. Yinhui did, too. He was too friendly and charming, and trying too hard to get close to us. Wenkang almost fell for it. When I researched him later, he apparently had a penchant for speaking to women not his age and befriending people in power with his glib tongue. He even got some of the more trusting or naive jianghu people on his side. He always sang peoples’ praises, upheld a good image, pulled every string he could involving his lineage, and was patient in his goals. Above all, he would help with small things that wouldn’t cost him much, and those would accumulate until he eventually cashed them in.

“That relates to Ji Misheng. He was a good cultivator, but blind to Zheng Tingqi’s faults due to them being childhood friends. He was also blind to the jealousy his ‘good friend’ had for him.”

Zhu Li’s eyes narrowed. This was going to be a real story, wasn’t it?

He placed his anxiety aside in preparation.

“I wasn’t close to Ji Misheng and only meddled so much. Even then, whenever I saw them together, I could tell Zheng Tingqi was hiding his anger. There’s a way to tell in the way their smiles strain. Yinhui just plain sensed it off of him, like you do. That was because of Dong Wanqiu.

“Like I said before, Zheng Tingqi liked younger women. He was married at sixteen, but once his wife hit twenty, he started taking even younger, lowborn concubines. Because he was only allowed two, he got frustrated when they got ‘too old’ for him, too. No respectable mortal family would allow him near their daughters and no jianghu woman would give him the time of day, so he was confined to illegal prostitutes and naive peasant girls. But Ji Misheng had the beautiful Dong Wanqiu as a wife, and her aging had started slowing earlier than most—she didn’t look any older than nineteen.

“Even though she was a little old for for Zheng Tingqi’s tastes, I guess it got him thinking of the future. A wife that didn’t degrade so quickly would be perfect for him in his older age. And their then-fifteen-year-old daughter was shaping up to be a talented cultivator, herself.”

Disgust rolled over his perpetual nervousness at the implication. Old people making grabs for those half their age was something he’d like to stop seeing forever. What was wrong with people?

“On top of all that, the Zheng family wasn’t doing well financially back then. They didn’t have the connections they do now. The Ji family was dying out, so they had a lot of inherited assets from the dead branches and relatives. Rich, powerful, and with an eternally pretty wife… Ji Misheng had everything Zheng Tingqi didn’t.

“So, once the parents were dead, he probably used his status as a family friend to make contact with the daughter, lured her in with lies about the circumstances and promises of revenge, separated her from her grandparents, convinced her to run away, then made his move to have the eternally young wife he always wanted. Once her grandparents were dead, all of that wealth was his to share, too. The little brother’s alleged death was definitely a lie so that he could turn into this vengeful Masked Wasp. As for the female Wasp, that’s probably Ji Yaoyi herself, stepping in once the backlash hit Ji Zhan. He might even be dead by now, at least dying.”

Zhu Longmai turned away from the window, relaxing back into the chair. A free hand pet the cat in her lap. “Masked Wasp’s supposed circle has ties in human trafficking, since disappearances went up ever since their inception. At the same time, it has some cultivators in its employ. Any cultivator that doesn’t want their own backlash wouldn’t associate with that willingly—they’re allowed to do it unknowingly, though. Those Ji siblings are the figureheads, but they aren’t the masterminds. I don’t need to tell you who’s divorced enough from the Dao to be the real one.

“Again, though. I wasn’t actually there. I could be wrong. That’s just what I can put together from what you’ve said.”

She carefully looked over Chu Ran’s still-smiling expression. “Looks like you’re not that surprised, either. If you’d already put as much together, I’m not sure what else you were expecting me to tell you.”

He chuckled lightly. “Nonsense, your theory is quite useful. I was hoping that you would have something to be used against him, perhaps something that could fracture the bond between Zheng En— Tingqi and the Wasps. Alas, if they’ve reached this point in their lives and still haven’t viewed on his behavior as odd, there may just be no hope for them.”

Oddly enough, she sank back into thought, as if she really did have something for him. “There’s one thing,” she shortly admitted, “even though it’s just more speculation.”

Chu Ran’s hand tightened around Zhu Li’s wrist in excitement. “Do tell, Senior. Your guesses have seemed sound so far.”

As opposed to answering immediately, she took a blank page off of her desk, dipped her brush in still-wet ink—had she been writing before they’d gotten here?—and wrote something strange on a piece of paper: The Circulation Technique of Ten Moons.

She read it aloud for Chu Ran to hear, then wordlessly slid the paper to Zhu Li. He took it carefully and suspiciously. “What I just told you is the title of a powerful qi-circulation technique that Ji Misheng was practicing. It’s supposed to increase qi efficiency after ten months. His copy happened to have been gifted to him by Zheng Tingqi. In a nice coincidence, Ji Misheng started turning into a devil about five months after getting it.”

Oh. He murdered his own friend so that he could marry his daughter and take his wealth?

That was almost laughably abominable, honestly.

“I only learned that through jianghu streams of the time,” she continued. “It could be nothing. It could be that Ji Misheng really was just poor at mastering that technique. It could also be that that was a fake technique with bad instructions. The only way to find out anymore is if that specific copy of the Technique gets found.”

“And where do you suppose it might be?” Chu Ran pressed.

“Ji Misheng lived with Dong Wanqiu when his parents died. If the book still exists, it’ll be with the Dong sect. Zheng Tingqi wouldn’t have been able to dispose of the evidence from so far away, and if he had any sense, he wouldn’t tell the Ji siblings of it at all.”

“That’s lovely news,” he answered with what was definitely legitimate happiness. “I suppose we’ll have to use your good connection with Dong Yongming to launch a search, Doctor Zhu. If we can acquire that book and find something amiss with it, cracks will be put into Zheng Enyuan’s reputation, not to mention the Wasps’ confidence in him. Given that all of that is true, of course, but it seems to be more likely than anything else.”

At his mention, Zhu Longmai’s eyes slithered back to Zhu Li, sending a fearful jolt down his spine. He bowed his head again. His patience for listening quietly was about to get shot, too.

“You don’t need me to contact Dong Yongming,” he practically mumbled out.

“Ah, but she likes you, Doctor. I’m not too sure she’s sold on me yet, though I’d like to imagine that she doesn’t think ill of me. Say, are you quite alright? You’re wearing that little necklace, so I can’t quite tell like I normally can, but you do sound a little reluctant.”

Some panic made Zhu Li’s heart jump up. “I’m fine,” he said quickly, trying to mentally will Chu Ran to not keep going down this path.

“You’re acquaintances with a Sect Head, son?”

His mother’s question bit him. There was no tone to it, but that was worst part of it—it was impossible to read.

In his hesitance, Chu Ran filled in for him. “Two, actually. We made quite a good impression on the new Han leader. Han Wenkang’s daughter, yes? It was quite a surprise to everyone when we discovered that they were paternal cousins. Did you know that they almost though Mister Ren had abandoned you for yourself? The ‘Ru Yeying’ alias threw everyone right off. Isn’t that quite silly?”

Please, please stop talking, Zhu Li thought miserably. The more you talk, the longer I have to be here.

An idea he’d once had was to try and get the truth out of his mother, as a lot of her words and actions clashed. Even though he wanted little more than to understand her better, the way her mere stare was affecting him meant that he was badly unprepared for her.

Five years apart had apparently not been enough to shoo away those mental shadows.

“The alias was taken on because I had to,” Zhu Lonngmai readily gave up. “The Elders were cautious even then. They didn’t want anything getting back to the sect.”

Also? He could not believe his mom was speaking this openly to Chu Ran. She’d never spoken this openly to him—more like just at him while he had to bow his head and listen. Was it the other’s similarity to Xin Yinhui that was putting her guard down?

She couldn’t have changed that much in five years. He refused to believe she had. The way she looked at him, the way no one else wanted anything to do with her, spoke volumes.

“Oh, how interesting. Were you summoned back so suddenly for that very reason?”

“There was an emergency and they shut the sect back up afterwards. So, kind of.”

Wow. She was so upfront. If Zhu Li had asked that question, she would’ve gone completely tight-lipped. He was surprised he hadn’t been told to leave so that they could talk in peace.

The other two started talking about some other stuff. He stopped paying attention, his thoughts taking over.

Was this how it was? A stranger was fine for her to make friends with, but her own son was just a disobedient embarrassment of a dog?

Cold resentment unpleasantly settled in his gut, threatening to turn his lips down in a scowl. He controlled it into a layer of protective frost that coated him, and he sat up tall from the cower he hadn’t even realized he’d gone into.

Why was he wasting energy being nervous? It wasn’t like that was going to do anything useful.

Opposite to bowing his head like a good little boy, he raised it and watched them converse with a cool eye. Even when Zhu Longmai cast game-faced glances at him, he didn’t budge, let alone react.

“…and to be honest, this whole thing has been quite convoluted. I was prepared for it to be at least a little convoluted, of course, but I must say that I underestimated just how much work it is even getting parties that are friendly with each other to coordinate. As a matter of fact, Doctor Zhu here has been key in making this all much, much easier to throw together and bring those responsible to their knees. He’s quite the kind man, though he certainly takes no nonsense from anyone—he broke a man’s face with the floor once. That one was no one good, anyways.”

Zhu Longmai’s brows raised up. She looked at Zhu Li again; he stared back, placid as a lake.

“My son was never one for fighting before,” she commented flatly.

“Oh, he’s said as much, and I hardly blame him. But he’s stronger than most regardless, surely formidable against the tide—and on top of that, he’s a very successful doctor. Anyone who’s met him has nothing but praise for him, you know? The only bad words I could find about him were from people that can never be pleased, the type I’m sure you know of.”

She inhaled, then sighed heavily. “Naturally.”


“Medical practice was always my son’s talent,” she continued to Chu Ran. “Him standing out from the crowd is to be expected.”

Is that your version of a compliment?

“And stand out he does, Senior Zhu. Ever since that massacre of doctors decades ago, quacks with false remedies have been allowed to propagate unfettered all across this accursed country. One that knows what he’s doing is appreciated highly, yes?”

Zhu Li finally side-eyed Chu Ran. What was he doing?

“This conversation has been very engaging and enlightening,” the other continued. “As the day is getting late and we are still slightly lagged, I would like to talk to you a little more tomorrow, if that’s quite alright with you, Senior Zhu.”

He wanted to talk to her more? Zhu Li knew this guy was a little weird, but he didn’t think he was this weird.

“You can come here whenever you want,” his mother said.

Yeah. And he can come by himself.

“It’s decided, then,” Chu Ran chirped, coming to a stand. “Tomorrow it is!… Oh.”

He stood while still holding Zhu Li’s wrist, which was suspended in his grip.

“I seem to have hogged all the speaking time. My apologies.”

Zhu Longmai stared at Zhu Li again.

“It’s fine,” he said dully, also rising to his feet. “You got what you came for.”

“I suppose I did. It gets dark so quickly in the wintertime—did you want dinner, Doctor? I personally would prefer more sleep.”

“Sleep sounds fine.”

“That was easy to settle. Goodbye for now, Senior Zhu… hm. Would more pleasantries be appropriate here?”

Looking towards his mother again, Zhu Li noticed that she seemed hesitant about something.

“That’s not necessary,” she started, locking eyes with Zhu Li again. “Is there… something you wanted to say to me, son?”

About a thousand things I can’t say without getting me the name Buxiao, he jeered on the inside.

“It was nice to see you, mother,” he said on the outside, void of emotion.

She stared at him for a few seconds. After that, she looked off into the window again, having clearly not found what she’d been looking for.

“Very well, then,” she answered distantly.

Well. If she’d really wanted to talk to him, she would’ve fought harder than that.

“Ah, right. I shouldn’t intrude upon close family members,” Chu Ran said suddenly and… disconcertingly. “I am perfectly capable of showing myself back to my room, Doctor, so take all of the time you need.”

…No way. Was he doing this on purpose?

Apparently so, because he dropped Zhu Li’s wrist at long last, turned on his heel, and started walking away on his own, leaving him to helplessly watch his back.

Zhu Li barely managed to tamp down his urge to tell him to come back and not leave him here. Pride was the main factor in that resistance.

He turned back to Zhu Longmai. She peered at him for about the fifteenth time—it was really starting to irritate him.

She looked down in due time, saying with a sweeping gesture, “You might as well have a seat again, son.”

“What for?” he immediately snapped out.

Both he and she were surprised at the gall he’d had. It was too late to take it back now, though, and to concede anything to his mother meant to reveal weakness to her.

Once she rallied herself, her eyes became even steelier, sharper. “For talking. What else?”

“Is there anything for us to talk about?”

“You’ve been gone for five years. I’d assume so.”

He laughed in complete contempt. “And whose fault is that?”

Her lips formed a thin line. Even though he expected her to quip back that it was his fault, that didn’t happen.

“I don’t want to fight with you on your first day back,” she said, a wary tinge coloring that mask of hers.

“I never wanted to fight with you in the first place,” his eyes narrowed dangerously, “yet look how we got here.”

“Fine,” she shot back. “No one’s forcing you to be here. You can go.”

Getting out of here was pretty high on his list. But, no. A stubborn part of him wanted more than just to strike his mother right in her ego.

With a huff, he sat himself back down into the chair. “Not yet. If you want to talk normally, you need to answer the questions that I’ve asked you for years. Things can’t be ‘normal’ between us if you don’t. I’m not going to sit here and take being berated.”

She narrowed her eyes in defiance. “I wasn’t going to berate you.”

“You always managed to turn every little thing into a negative so that you could deny giving me a cultivational name. Forgive me for not believing you on that,” he brushed that off. “There’s one question: Why were you dead-set on not giving me one?”

She went tight-lipped. A predictable behavior, but an infuriating one, nonetheless.

He pressed onwards.

“If you don’t want to answer that question, I’ve got others,” he begun. “Why were you only that strict with me, and only for that? Why do you get so mean when anyone wants to leave? Why were you supportive in some things and not in others? Why doesn’t anything about the way you act make sense?”

Maddeningly, she took her time looking out the window again. “No answer I could give you would be satisfactory.”

“You could at least try,” he snapped again, frustration bleeding into the words. “All I want is answers, even if you don’t think they’re great. I need something to reconcile why you were great most of the time and a monster some of the time.”

She remained quiet. He did, too, out of the hope that maybe she just needed time to organize her words.

But, no. There were no words. Just silence.

A vein threatened to pop out if his forehead. “Are you too scared to answer? Or just too proud?”

More silence.

Fuck this.

He stood up abruptly, sending the chair’s legs screeching back. “This is exactly why no one ever wants to talk to you,” he hissed out in anger. “I should’ve known better than to try.”

A whirl of the sleeves, and he was storming his way out of the room, plumes of steam coming off of him.

What a waste of damn time.

When he barreled through the doors and let them swing shut hard behind them, he came face-to-face with Chu Ran, because that liar hadn’t left on his own at all.

“That seemed to have not gone well,” came the inappropriately cheeky comment. Thankfully for him, Zhu Li had learned how to not indiscriminately lash out at people when pissed off.

“Listening, were you?” he asked dryly, anger still simmering under his skin. He pushed on Chu Ran’s shoulder to get him to turn around. “Let’s get out of here.”

Allowing himself to be pushed along, Chu Ran kept an out-of-place smile on his face. “For what it matters, I won’t repeat what I heard.”

“It doesn’t matter if you do. Everyone already knows she’s secretive for no reason,” Zhu Li grumbled.

“Oh, but it’s still good to keep these things close to the heart, isn’t it?”

All of a sudden, Chu Ran reached up to grab Zhu Li’s hand off of his shoulder and hold it, beaming at him. “Before we retire for the night, do you want to take a walk around the sect?”

“It’s cold out.”

“That’s fine. The cool weather may cool your head as well, yes?”

He bumped his shoulder against Zhu Li’s. “And if I get chilly, you already have the perfect solution for that, don’t you?”

Some of the rage that had been occupying him ebbed away. He took in a deep breath, relaxed, and squeezed Chu Ran’s hand back.

Smiling just a little, he said softly back, “I definitely do.”

The author says: or do you???? (he does)

zhu li is a very nice man but hooooo boy is he nasty when he’s mad! goes straight for the jugular, he does!

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4 thoughts on “SnCr 48

  1. Whoa! Lots of stuff in this chapter.

    Longmai is everything we’ve come to expect from hearing about her. I wonder if she will finally give up why she’s been so horrible to him. I find it interesting that Zhu Li only saw her parents 5 times before they died because he and his siblings were not allowed to visit them as a rule. And with that court being so dourly decorated – it’s like they are trying to get whoever lives there so depressed they’ll die fast.

    Every sect/family so far has some major issues within itself. Makes me think that once every part of the mystery has been solved and the Chu family is brought down in the dirt, that Zhu Li and Chu Ran should travel and not settle within one. I think they’d be happier – not to mention not getting caught up in others’ drama.

    So we have a possible narrowing of how the whole Wasp thing came into being. Tonghao’s dad is a normal person (Normal as opposed to cultivator – him being a man who likes little girls? Not so normal and definitely icky… not to mention how he and the head of the Chu family probably got to know one another – one pervert to another). Her mother is the female Wasp. And her uncle is The Wasp, though most likely suffering from a Dao backlash for his murders. so was she in on it? Or not. It would be slightly amusing to have the family turn on one another once her father’s lies and misdeeds come to light.

    I had the feeling Chu Ran wouldn’t leave Zhu Li alone with the coldness that is his mother. Nice little flirtation there at the end.


  2. …of course Zhu Longmai would just open up and tell Chu Ran everything he asked about. Unpredictable person to unpredictable person. Aaaand then immediately clam up and infuriate her poor son.

    Chu Ran being an excellent supportive boyfriend here. I approve.

    And of course his extreme reactions to being cold are a trauma response to something done by his dad. I hadn’t guessed that but I am sadly not surprised. Additional cuddles are required.

    I also kinda love how Chu Ran taking Zhu Li’s arm, or otherwise casually touching him, is just such a normal everyday part of their lives now that neither of them thinks anything of it, but every member of Zhu Li’s family Takes Note when they witness it.

    Enjoy your date/walk boys!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well this is some haunted gothic nonsense house. Also good feng shui it may be but a lack of stairs is not great in the event of a fire. Not sure the colour scheme helps either.
    Chu Ran leveraging his felted tangle of trauma as a distraction I see. He does know Very Well what his job is here.
    Somehow Chu Ran in his inimitable self is exactly what this conversation needs.
    Another nonce, just what we needed. Like that situation is what we like to call incredibly fucked. The alliance with Chu Haoyu makes so much sense, believe me.
    Chu Ran your crush is showing.
    Zhu Li takes after his ma in temper. And stubbornness. Oh boy.

    Thank you for the update!

    Liked by 1 person

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