SnCr 52

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A discordance of barks greeted his ears as he approached the Estate’s west.

Unlike the mouser cats, hunting dogs were not allowed to run rampant throughout the Estate, being too graceless, big, and destructive to be left unsupervised. Behind eight-chi-tall stone fences was a dogpen stretching an entire field’d breadth for them to run around and destroy toys in, instead.

Zhu Li didn’t bother to find an entrance, jumping straight up to land on the nearest wall so that he could survey the area below.

It was the time of the Dragon, and the hounds were already going wild. Some were chasing each other, three were climbing all over built equipment, one was barking at a cat that was cleaning itself and clearly couldn’t give a fuck, and a few introverted stragglers had chosen to hang out alone along the walls.

He began to walk along the slanted black tiles of the wall’s roof, looking for one dog in particular.

While the wolfdogs here were certainly descendants of wolves, how recent that wolfish ancestry was was a matter of hot debate. Their body structure and general looks were almost identical to actual wolves’, minus their slightly bigger stature and unique coats: black with dark golden tips on the body, maybe some dark gray symmetrical splotches on the underbelly, maybe being an earthy brown altogether. As it was winter, they were fluffier than normal, and destined to turn this place into a furnado come spring.

Sect policy decreed that animals raised by any sect members were not for consumption; once they passed of natural causes, any cows, yaks, chickens, or other animals used for their byproducts were given the same funeral rites for their service in life, same as companion animals like dogs, cats, and horses would be. Meat wasn’t too popular here for several reasons—the valley was rich in qi and good soil for crops, and eating too much meat would remove animal neutrality, which was bad for handlers—but what was eaten was all wild game. Snakes, hares, deer, and pheasants were common fare due to their high numbers.

When not being used during yao hunts or as trackers, the wolfdogs here were used to hunt normal animals. Much like full wolves, they were almost terrifyingly fast and strong, able to break the spines of small animals they snapped up and take down larger prey with their momentum. Their noses were keen enough to even sniff snakes in their burrows, which they would drag them bodily out of, earning them their breed name: Shashe, ‘Snakebane’ Wolfdogs.

If they weren’t working, though, they were more or less hyperactive goofballs.

As he walked along, his steps quiet as the wind itself, only a few of the dogs even noticed his presence. Those that did looked up at him with gold-colored eyes, tails wagging with excitement at the thought of a human coming to play.

Occasionally, he would lean to the side to observe the more introverted dogs that he passed below. So far, they were more interested in sleeping in snow than paying attention to him.

Upon approaching the completely uncaring cat that was in the middle of cleaning herself, she looked up at him with green-yellow eyes. It was as he expected; this was the one, the only, Houfu, Empress of the Estate, who he’d last seen curled up on his mother’s lap.

Houfu—also known as Her Majesty, Her Eminence, and Tofu—bestowed him the honor of one low-pitched meow. He stopped and bent over to pet her on the head, which she also graciously allowed, the paw she was licking held up in the air.

All the while, the incessantly-barking dog below continued to woof itself hoarse. Although the sound was plainly obnoxious, Houfu seemed to take joy in tormenting the canine, as she hadn’t budged from her spot where it could see her.

In contrast, Zhu Li was sick of the noise. He shot the dog a downright noxious glare, which startled it mid-bark so that it ended in more of a yelp.

Yellow eyes stared back at him. The unnamed dog’s ears were perked up, its tail held straight back, as if it was assessing him as a threat. Its conclusions about him were apparently dire, as it soon tucked its tail between its legs, pinned its ears back, and ran off back into the pack.

After a good scratch between Houfu’s shoulders, he continued on his way, basking in the crisp air all around him.

When his eyes landed on the next indrawn canine coming up on his left, he recognized his target instantly.

“Fangzi,” he called out.

The dog was lying on her right side in some snow, the angle of the shadows putting her in the warmer light. At the mention of her name, her triangular ears perked up, her eyes opened, and her head raised to look at him. She didn’t immediately get up from her comfy position to greet him, watching him skeptically.

Zhu Li jumped off the wall to land softly on the ground a bit away, then slowly came up to her. Fangzi didn’t stop scrutinizing him, her mind slow to be jogged as to who he was. It had been a while since they’d seen each other last.

Once he crouched down and let her smell his hand, her tail started wagging, and she excitedly jumped to her feet so that she could jump on him in turn. Dirt and snow that had been clinging to her fur and paws wiped off on his clothes as she tried to wiggle into his unmade lap; he dropped into a sitting position on her command.

She wriggled onto her back, belly to the sky, her tongue lolling out of her mouth and tail wagging hard enough to till a row into the ground under it.

As someone who much preferred peace and quiet over roughhousing, the typical hyperactive dog would not be Zhu Li’s style. In a fortunate twist of fate, it had been apparent since her puppyhood that Fangzi was not hyperactive in the slightest, eclipsing even the other dogs in terms of her laid-back temperament: no barking, no aggression, no rough play, no anxiety. Her current excitement was an outlier purely because she hadn’t seen him for a good chunk of her life.

A fortunate aspect of the Shashe Wolfdog was that they were significantly longer-lived than any other dog breed Zhu Li knew of, living a mean age of twenty-four-ish. Unlike Wulang, which were confirmed to be benign, qi-mutated liondogs with slightly higher intelligence and lifespans, these wolfdogs had never been confirmed to be anything other than regular dogs. Why they lived so long and grew up so slowly—normal dogs stopped growing at one, maybe two years, while it took these dogs about seven at the minimum—was not too clear, but close proximity to long-lived cultivators and/or immersion in a qi-rich environments for hundreds of doggy generations might have played a part.

In other words, this was why the twelve-year-old Fangzi hadn’t gotten any white hairs, let alone died of old age, while he’d been gone.

He scratched her right under the chin. “Hope you weren’t that lonely.”

She probably hadn’t been. All of the hunting dogs were communal, not really limited to one human that cared for them; she was probably closer to any given serving disciple than she was to Zhu Li. It was still nice to see an old friend, though.

Sighing, he fell backwards onto the ground, swiping his loose hair to the side so that he wasn’t laying painfully on it. His clothes were gray and going to get ruined by dog hair, anyways.

Having been jostled off of his lap by the motion, Fangzi quickly wiggled herself into a new position by his side, laying her big fluffy body on top of his right arm and her head on his chest. All the while, her tail was beating the ground like it was a drum; she seemed to be perfectly happy to resume her nap with a new buddy around.

Zhu Li stroked her head languidly with his free hand. Forever had passed since he’d last been in this position; Guhui was too large to do this gracefully, even though she definitely tried.

He shut his eyes, willing himself to relax amongst the rhythm of Fangzi’s drumming and the other dogs playing.

He entered a semi-meditative state, focusing on the current of air going by, the ambience, the action of his own breathing, and the slow repetition of petting to blank his mind out.

This was nice. Not having to think was nice. Only needing to pet a dog instead of participate in whatever the mystery of the day was nice.

Fangzi adjusted herself yet again, tucking her maw right up against his neck and placing a massive paw right on his sternum. The weight of something being on his right arm specifically called to mind a specific individual, and for a brief moment, he imagined that instead of Fangzi, it was Chu Ran’s head that was lying on his chest and that he was petting.

He opened his eyes to glare incredulously at the sky and every still-meddling god-corpse in it.

What the hell was that? Really? He was imagining things like some lovesick teenager? A few hugs was all it had taken? Tch.

This wasn’t going to be a very peaceful rest if his mind was going to act up. Maybe his subconscious liked cuddling or something, but that didn’t matter—they weren’t at that stage in their relationship yet, and he wasn’t going to rush or force anything.

Actually, they hadn’t even verbally confirmed that there was that kind of relationship between them, which was stage one. Or two. Three? It was one of the earlier stages, definitely.

At the same time, did it need saying? Based on all that Chu Ran had said and done, there wasn’t any competition for Zhu Li to worry about, and Zhu Li, for his part, wouldn’t tolerate anyone else getting close to himself unbidden.

Chu Ran had never asked for confirmation from him on what they were. That meant that he was either also going with the flow, knew implicitly what was going on, or was… not thinking in that direction at all because he was Chu Ran, with all the damaged self-regard and insecurity in relationships that entailed. Fuck.

Would Zhu Li have to say something blunt? But what if he was too blunt, and just ended up making everything awkward? There was a reason he was trying to go slow, here.

Self-esteem aside, Chu Ran wasn’t stupid. Somewhat socially oblivious, but not stupid. He had to know that this ’spending more time together than anyone else’ thing was not just what friends did, right? That all that flirting was not just friendly banter, right?



Maybe saying something would be a good idea.

Zhu Li shut his eyes in an attempt to meditate once more, but it didn’t take long for there to be a wet and tickly feeling on his forehead, as well as the sound of snuffling.

He opened his eyes again to see that another dog had taken to sniffing his head.

In retrospect, trying to get total peace in a dogpen might have been one of his stupider ideas.

Oh, well. He shut his eyes again, reaching up and gently pushing the new dog’s snout away before it started licking him.

An unknown amount of time passed, after which his reverie was yet again interrupted by the sound of a distant gate clunking open.

On any other day, he would have gotten up, fixed up his clothes and hair, and taken on a more dignified pose. But also on any other day, he would have never lied down on the ground in the first place.

Screw it. His self-image was only upheld because it made himself feel better, not because he cared what other people thought, and he specially cared for neither today.

The unknown newcomers came in the old-fashioned way, shirking Zhu Li’s own method of lazily jumping a very tall wall. While he didn’t care enough to focus on their conversation, he could tell that they were two female voices he recognized.

Ah. Xin Junyan the dog-lover and Zhu Canxi the dog-keeper, both coming at the same time into the dogpen. No one could have ever predicted this.

A heady calm settled over him again. Too bad for them that he’d gotten here first; he wasn’t going to move.

After a bit, he heard the telltale sounds of laughing, running, playing, and excited barking. Good for them.

The noise traveled around the pen for quite some time. The increased volume of his surroundings somewhat ironically gave him something to focus on this time around, putting several of his doubts out of his mind momentarily.

Fangzi, for her part, was still disinclined to move.

His calm was ultimately torn apart when the two women unavoidably noticed the whole man laying on the ground.

From the sounds of it, they’d been playing some kind of chase with the dogs, and their round around the perimeter had brought them to his and Fangzi’s resting spot. After spotting him, they’d stopped in their tracks, as had the many paws that had been excitedly following their lead.

Who knew what they’d been thinking when they approached him cautiously.

“Having fun, gege?” Zhu Canxi asked; he could vaguely sense that she was leaning over him.

He grunted as a reply.

“Yeah, ‘gege.’ What are you doing down there?”

Wrinkling his nose slightly, Zhu Li opened his eyes to glare up at Xin Junyan. “That sounds weird when you say it.”

“Uh-huh.” She crouched down near his head, his sister following suit. “Answer the question, good Doctor.”

He humphed. “I’m relaxing. And thinking.”

“About what?”

“Your brother.”

“Ugh. Gross.”

Before he could argue, Zhu Canxi said, “He didn’t mean anything weird by that. Gege doesn’t have a perverted bone in his body. Junhe once figured that he was ‘narrow-minded’ and tried to give him… um, books of springtime, and what he didn’t throw back in her face, he destroyed.”

Xin Junyan’s brows rose up high. “That dramatic, eh?”

“Yeah. I remember that he started getting a lot of marriage requests; so many, they poured out of the couriers’ arms whenever they brought them over. It was like a waterfall of paper and bad poetry describing him.”

She laughed a little, but the smile soon dropped off of her face, as if she realized something. “He was fifteen. You’re only supposed to send marriage requests when the receiver comes of age at twenty, and it’s frowned upon to think too much of the future before twenty-five, so… maybe it isn’t that funny.”

Xin Junyan didn’t look so daunted. “Civilians get married at fifteen all the time.”

“That’s fine for people that stop being able to have kids at forty and die at sixty,” Zhu Li said, giving her a sharp look. “Not really for people that have kids until their nineties and die at one-hundred-fifty.”

“You told me that they rarely make to a hundred.”

“Doesn’t mean it can’t happen.”

“Even if we do die from a yao or something, our lives up to that point are still better,” Canxi remarked. “Mortals seem to always be dying of plague, childbirth, breathing wrong, or just murdering each other. At least the only real causes of death here are ‘yao’ and ‘stupidity.’”

“You say that like life in mortal cities is hell on earth,” Xin Junyan said, raising a brow.

“Isn’t it? Mortals can just do whatever they want, no Dao to keep them in check. There’s mortal law, but you can just throw money at that until it goes away; the Dao can’t be bribed, you know?”

“I… guess that’s true. I’ve just never thought about it. Anyways, Doctor, why are you thinking about Ran?”

Hm. How could he word this in a way that wasn’t stupid?

After some deliberation, he said, “Is there anyone I need to throw in a snake pit?”

There was a beat of silence.


“Chu Fu mentioned past guys. Do I need to throw them into a snake pit, or what?”

“What? Chu Fu?… Oh, I see.”

Xin Junyan clucked her tongue. “Chu Fu couldn’t tell the full truth even if he was dangling from a cliff. Ran doesn’t have any past lovers, Doctor.”

He raised a brow. “None?”

“None. The closest things he had were a few men he got close to, then grew apart from when they got ‘weird,’ in his terms. He didn’t really go into detail with me, but he said that they wanted more from him than he was willing to give, or that he didn’t like what they wanted from him. Whatever that means.”

Whatever it meant was foreboding as shit.


“Was that all you wanted to ask? Whether you had to kill any love rivals?”

“I wouldn’t kill them and they wouldn’t be ‘rivals.’”

“A snake pit wouldn’t kill them?”

He narrowed his eyes. “Not if they know to sit still.”

“…You’re a little concerning. You know that, right?”

He shrugged—as best as he could lying down, anyways. Better that than a pushover, especially having grown up in a place like this.

“Gege, um…” Zhu Canxi interjected, looking down at him with an almost wary expression. “Are you really courting Mister Chu?”

Hearing that man get called ‘Mister Chu’ was not just a little weird. But he did have over a decade on Canxi, so it made unfortunate sense. “I’m not following regular courting procedure, if that’s what you’re asking,” he answered.

She smiled back. “It’s not, but that’s not surprising. You never like ceremony if you can’t see a point in it.”

Xin Junyan leaned forwards some more, looking down on him condescendingly. “You think ceremony’s boring, do you? Ran isn’t good enough for it?”

Zhu Li gave her a blank look. “I can see your nosehairs.”

She drew her head back like a turtle going into her shell. “Don’t change the subject, you!” she said with a scoff, and no small amount of embarrassment.

“Don’t force me to look up your face holes,” he replied, deadpan, then looked to Canxi before the other woman could splutter out a response. “I’m interested in him, yeah. I’m taking it slow for now.”

She nodded. “You’re seeing what comes naturally? That’s smart. And very you,” she said fondly, then turned to speak to her companion. “Trying to get gege to power through doing something he doesn’t want to do or thinks is stupid is impossible. People would try to suggest that he come to events or celebrations and whatnot, but if he didn’t like the people that ran it, he just wouldn’t. I heard that when he was really little, Dad forced him to go to someone’s birthday party once, and he was so awful that no one brought it up again until he was a lot older. He still never went to them because Mom never forces us to do anything she doesn’t deem necessary, and I guess socializing fell into that category.”

“Lucky. All the things I was forced to do for the sake of appearances…” Xin Junyan shook her head before turning it to Zhu Li yet again. “Seriously, though. No courting for my brother?”

Zhu Li opened his mouth, shut it, thought some more, then opened it again.

He was courting Chu Ran. All of this close proximity and stuff certainly hadn’t been allowed for, thought up, then done due to them being ‘good brothers.’

However, Zhu Li’s heart was particular. His methods would be considered slow and methodical even by cultivator standards, to say nothing of the fact that mortals usually decided on marriage with the bare minimum deliberations.

There was always a speed to these things that he just couldn’t match. He’d watched his contemporaries pass him by in this regard; their attraction to each other would be instantaneous, they’d start flirting the next second, they’d shower each other with gifts for a few months, they’d plan life together by the eighth, they’d get married within the year. This was despite being cultivators that had all the time in the world.

For people whose entire lives revolved around obeying the Dao’s creed of ‘goi with the flow and do no harm,’ their flow was more like a rapid torrent, in his eyes.

That initial attraction—something he’d read about, heard described, seen in action, been the victim of—had never happened for him. Where others might get flushed and shaky-handed and nervous over someone they found attractive, Zhu Li wouldn’t, maybe even couldn’t. It wasn’t like he couldn’t tell when someone was beautiful, it was just that he evaluated and appreciated those looks much like how one would a masterfully-done painting.

People generally didn’t want to kiss, hug, and marry parchment, last he checked.

Without that instant physical attraction everyone else but him seemed to have, he was set pretty far apart from the norm. His type of attraction was slow to ignite, like it had been with Zheng Tonghao—before that was all savagely snuffed out and had its wick cut, of course. In the time it took him to warm up to someone and open his mind up to the idea of being in a relationship with them, they’d have gotten over him and moved on to someone else.

Those awkward teenage years hadn’t been filled purely with him running away from potential suitors. They’d also held quite a lot of slaps from reality.

There weren’t tales told or novels written about people that fell in love and courted as fast as a tortoise walked. No one ever saw fit to jot down how an official took five years to court his wife; it was always ‘get married as soon as possible, have babies as soon as possible, set up the whole rest of your life as soon as possible.’

Zhu Li had also never heard of someone like him before. Similar to him were many tales of ‘natural-born monks and nuns,’ as they were colloquially called, but these stories were never quite right. The hypothetical monks and nuns often held an utter and total disregard for mortal connections, whereas Zhu Li did not.

He’d never cut the idea of relationships out of his life completely. He never would. He had simply placed them at a lesser priority in his life, then decided to wait for the Dao to have someone cross his path eventually. It had delivered in that aspect, bringing Chu Ran right to him, but that didn’t mean that the other worked like he did.

With statistics put into consideration, the chances of Chu Ran being as go-with-the-flow,-no-words-needed as he was were low. Really, really low. It was a lot more likely that Chu Ran wasn’t like him at all. And if Chu Ran wasn’t like him at all, he might not have registered that Zhu Li was reciprocating, or didn’t like how slow it was going.

He hadn’t said or done anything to give off the impression that he was unhappy with what they were doing, but Zhu Li also hadn’t told him what was what, but Chu Ran hadn’t confirmed anything either, so… what? Zhu Li’s own laissez-faire attitude might bite him in the ass? Who would have guessed.

“Uh, hello?” Xin Junyan said, drawing him out of his thoughts. She was looking down on him with some concern. “You okay, Doctor Zhu? Do I need a second doctor over here?”

He glared at her a little, quickly sequencing a viable sentence up in his head. “I am courting him. I just don’t know if he knows that.”

She looked down at him blankly for a very, very long time, so much so that he was getting uncomfortable.

“Are you serious right now?” she finally asked. “Of course he knows. He gushes to me every chance he gets when you so much as breathe in his direction. ‘Doctor Zhu did this, Doctor Zhu did that, Doctor Zhu’s a reincarnation of the Buddha, Doctor Zhu pukes gold and craps pearls.’ If he tries to say that’s just how people talk about their friends, I’ll beat him up myself. I don’t need that amount of denial coming from anyone in my life.”

…That one vulgar piece aside, her revelation was comforting to the point that it made him feel just a tiny bit stupid.

“I see,” he said blankly.

“Why did this even come up?” she asked further, narrowing her eyes at him. “Did he say something to imply that he didn’t like this?”

“No. I just… go slow with things,” he answered as a kind of crap explanation. “I was wondering if… he’s not like me, and would rather I go faster than this.”

A weird wince passed over her face. “I… doubt he has a problem with that.”

“Why?” he asked, watching her carefully.

“Um… how do I explain… He says qi-sense lets him ‘read’ emotions, but to be more specific, he ‘reads’ bodily functions in general. Hunger isn’t an emotion, but he’s known every time I’ve been. Monthly pains aren’t emotions, but he’s the first to sense that something’s up with Chu Mei these past months.”

Her face twisted up in some discomfort. “Lust isn’t an emotion, but he can sense that, too. It… weirds him out. Badly. And pretty understandably. There were some incidents that aren’t for me to divulge, but they put him off of letting anyone close.”


“So, if you’re ‘going slow,’ I doubt he minds. He probably even appreciates it. He has to perceive and sort through a lot of things you and I would never think about.”

In other words, he’d been overthinking things entirely.

“Where’d this come from, anyways? You’ve never struck me as the type to second-guess yourself.”

“How do you figure that?” he mumbled.

“From the way you state literally everything so matter-of-factly. You think Chu Fu taught Chu Mei wrong, so you say that at every opportunity. If some patient comes to the apothecary and demand anything you don’t recommend, you tell them off in that biting, low-key way of yours. Whenever Ran himself is being self-deprecative, you pretty much tell him that that’s stupid. I’ve never gotten a single thread of hesitation off of those interactions.”

“That’s because I know that Chu Fu’s an idiot, that a non-doctor doesn’t know better than me, and that Yingliu’s comments about himself were planted by someone else.”

He sighed, then sat up and turned to face them, gently making sure not to dislodge Fangzi too harshly. She seemed happy enough to join in the sitting circle, wagging her tail and looking at everyone with big eyes.

“I… barely know anything about relationships,” he continued. “I’ve been just doing what my gut tells me to do, and whatever feels natural. But then I remembered that everyone around me seems to move a lot faster than I do, and if I messed things up because I think I should get a little more time than a few months to decide on and make my way through stuff like this, then that’d be… pretty shitty.”

The two women furrowed their brows at the thought.

“I guess that is how it usually goes,” Zhu Canxi mumbled. “Meet someone, feel instant attraction, court for a few months, get married within the year. Our parents married the second they got back to the sect, even.”

“I thought these cultivator sects would go slower,” Xin Junyan said.

Zhu Canxi shrugged, giving a helpless smile. “Civilians don’t base their marriages off of love, so it doesn’t take long for those arrangements to get rejected or approved. Cultivators arrange their own marriages based off of feelings, so we can be kind of impulsive in our decisions. It’s a similar result for two different reasons.”

“I also thought that isolated cultivators wouldn’t know a thing about how ‘civilian’ life works.”

A shrug. “We’re taught a lot about how the outside world functions. Mostly so that we never want to leave to go see it.”

It was now Canxi’s turn to smile at him. “Don’t worry about what other people do, gege. Just go at your own pace.”

“Yeah, don’t even worry about it,” Xin Junyan chimed in. “You and I both know that Ran has always been vocal about what he hates. If he didn’t like you or what you were doing, he’d tell you right to your face in that faux-posh way he likes to talk.”

Zhu Li let out a surprised, laugh-like huff.

She was right. When had Chu Ran ever not told everyone around him all about what he didn’t like on any given day?

“I guess you’re right,” he gracefully conceded. “I’ve just been overthinking since I don’t have work to distract me.”

And since this place was a living, breathing stressor that wasn’t doing wonders for his psyche, but he wouldn’t say that out loud.

Zhu Canxi visibly rolled her eyes. “You distract yourself from your problems with work? Who are you, Mom?”

The sudden comparison to his ‘stressor supreme’ caused shock tinged with anger to quickly wash over him. Before he had any time to process, however, she followed up with, “Where is your beau, anyways?”

He took a quick breath to calm down. “He’s scoping out what the rumors are around here.”

Her cringe was palpable. “Oh, no. I hope he’s ready for what he finds.”

“Oh, please. He eats that trash up like it’s rice,” Xin Junyan said with a dismissive wave of the hand. “He’ll be fine.”

Zhu Li hoped she was right about that, too.

They spoke some more, and after about a quarter-shichen, Zhu Li decided to vacate the premises so that the two could have the alone time they’d almost certainly come there for in the first place. The laid-back Fangzi was more than happy to follow them around the dogpen, instead.

As he walked back towards, he briefly pondered how wise it would be to go visit his mother and say, ‘I did what you told me to and found out that your parents were even shittier than you are. So what?’

But that was just anger talking. Today was a no-stress day, so there would be no conversing with a source of stress.

What could he do, then? Other than things centered around Guhui, his research, and his work—and now dear Chu Ran, he guessed—what did he do for fun?

Maybe he’d had some real audacity calling his father boring.

A long-forgotten hobby of his suddenly brought itself to mind, instantly drawing him to it.

Unless one of the disciples stole it while they were cleaning his stuff up, it should still be in its case back at Fucheng Court.

And it was.

Back within the confines of his room, he had the simple wooden case on the table after finding it in storage. He eyed the flute on its pillow, mind blank from thought, fingers lightly tracing the instrument’s smooth surface.

As a child, he’d taken a shine to his father’s wondrous flute playing, wanting to play just like him, so the man had gifted him a flute meant for his tiny hands.It was something they’d ended up doing together a lot, with Ren Nidan taking the skilled lead and mini-Zhu Li being the inexpert follow.

When he was twelve, his father had gifted him this very flute to use for the rest of his life—a gift to cheer him up from Zhu Longmai’s burning refusal to give him a Dao name, in retrospect.

Around his teen years, he’d become too busy and drained from studying his chosen field to have much time for hobbies, and this flute had been tucked away in its wax-sealed case, never to be played again.

Around this same time, his father had stopped playing the flute completely, too.

His fingers finally curled around the flute, and he took it out.

Due to the case’s wax seal, no rot or dust had invaded the masterfully-crafted object. When he put it against his bottom lip and blew, its clean, buzzing trill filled the room with sound—the membrane didn’t need to be replaced, at least.

He brought it with him outside, traversed the Court, then found a good rock to sit on at the river in back, shifting his long robes out of the way.

It was barely the time of the Horse, the sun failing miserably to penetrate the opaque white sky above. Wherever Chu Ran was, he was probably hating the cold.

Zhu Li stared down at the brown bamboo body of the flute for a moment. He then looked over his shoulder to see Guhui, who was nibbling at some snow-dead grass while also clearly keeping tabs on him.

Back to the flute, he thought of how he hadn’t played this thing in over a decade. Did he even remember any songs?

Only one way to find out.

Once again, he put the flute to his lips to begin playing, letting notes fill the air…

…which he soon stopped, glaring at the instrument like it’d offended him.

Not only had he not played in over a decade, but he sounded like it, too. Any more of that screeching, off-key nonsense, and Guhui would think he was talking to her.

However, he had also felt the phantom tug of old skills pouring into his limbs in just those few notes, ready to take their place again once the rust had been scraped off of them.

Taking a deep breath, he went in yet again.

It took a while, but the atonal screeching evened out into fine, smooth notes that carried across the water, out into the open beyond. Creatively disinclined as he might be, the songs his father had painstakingly taught him flooded through his thoughts anyways, carrying his mind away and causing his fingers to move like they were being puppetted by someone else entirely.

What had to be a few shichen passed by like so. He went from Falling Plum Blossoms to Snow’s Reverie to The Southern River’s Babbling and back again, almost in a trance, and when he finally stopped, out of both breath and energy, he felt oxymoronically revitalized.

As if his very soul had been cleansed, he felt lighter and less pressured behind the eyes. He couldn’t claim to have played with passion, nor could he claim to have expressed his deepest emotions through song—what he could claim was that the act of rehearsal, the effort he’d used putting his all into something he wasn’t naturally talented at, was a passion and expression in and of itself.

Setting the flute in his lap, he allowed himself a few deep breaths with closed eyes, the cool air stinging his lungs in the best way.

It was a damn shame he’d left the flute behind all those years ago. Now that he had it, he should do this more often.

“You’re quite a good player.”

Zhu Li near about jumped out of his skin, spinning around on the spot. It took every bit of self-control he had to not involuntarily snap the poor flute like a twig.

Chu Ran was standing a few zhang away and a few chi back. He wasn’t quite facing him; if Zhu Li didn’t know better, he’d think the other was staring out at the water.

“My apologies, Doctor Zhu. I had no intention of startling you,” the other said, tilting his head to the side. “If you’ve told me that you can play before, I’m afraid that the words have completely slipped my mind.”

Squaring up his shoulders, Zhu Li looked back down at the flute. “I didn’t bring this with me when I left, so I haven’t played in years. I probably sound like rubbish.”

“Not so. You’re a good player. Dear Junyan also plays the flute; I highly recommended that she put a silencing array around her room.”

Zhu Li fought down the urge to laugh at Xin Junyan’s expense. “I’ll need to set one of those up, too. If anyone’s ears start bleeding, I’ll be the one treating them, anyways.”

Chu Ran chuckled lightly. “No need for that. In the case that you pick this hobby back up, I’ll gladly play the qin alongside you. I happened to bring it with me; one never knows when they need to entertain themselves with a musical interlude. Even if I do play like a drunk donkey.”

Zhu Li laughed a little, heart light, and then slid himself off the boulder. “I’m not nearly as good as my father is. Maybe you should ask him to play for you.”

“Maybe,” Chu Ran echoed, strangely vacant. He still wasn’t moving from that spot.

The strange aura around him made Zhu Li suddenly remember what Chu Ran had set out to do. Worry started to tinge his feeling of ease—had something happened?

“Ah, nothing happened,” the other quickly said, as if reading his mind. No pendant today, so that was probably it, instead. “Word on the wind is simply… interesting here.”

Zhu Li scoffed. “That’s one way to put it,” he said, placing a hand on Chu Ran’s shoulder to get him to turn around. “Come on. Let’s get you out of the cold.”

Chu Ran went willingly, and without so much as a peep.

The other’s oddity aside, Zhu Li was still in a good mood. Once Chu Ran was settled in at his table, he went to make late day tea for them both.

“What did you get from eavesdropping today?” he asked, activating the superheating engravings of the tray the teapot sat on. One of the things he had missed about the sect beyond family was how abundant all the mundanely convenient contraptions were here; in the outside world, he would be limited to qistones and crude, self-made talismans for heating water, and it wouldn’t be so elegant-looking, nor as fast.

“I listened in on the petty gossip of high-born teenage girls and scathing old bureaucrats, apparently,” Chu Ran said, sighing like he’d just come back from war. “Did you know that the difference between those two groups’ gossip is about zero? And if you tell any of the offending old men that, they’ll throw an emasculated fit that simply proves your point?”

Zhu Li looked over at him, both brows raised. The man was leaned over, a hand on his head as its elbow rested against the table, the other one getting brushed with his loose hair as it rested horizontally against the table. His all-gray robes just served to make him look all the more downtrodden.

“That bad?” he remarked.

“When one listens to gossip for a long time, it gets very easy to ascertain the true origins of common pieces of it. I heard many things about how so-and-so is clumsy and inelegant, how so-and-so wastes food, and how so-and-so has unfilial tendencies; the sources being that ‘poor soul number one’ had the audacity to trip in public once, ‘poor soul number two’ had gotten something inedible and tossed it while a bad actor was looking, and ‘poor soul number three’ had a family spat that is honestly no one else’s business. The product of bored, overactive, and perhaps innocently cruel minds, I would say.”

Chu Ran’s fingers rapped impatiently against the table. “However, when the gossip wasn’t petty, it was… concerning. Less so the likes of the old clowns in Court, more so the likes of vicious Consorts and soldiers promising death on their breaths. The things they spoke of were not petty insults merely meant to dent reputations, but a sneering contempt for those they didn’t approve of, a bone-deep need to tear down those that didn’t act within their expectations.”

Brows furrowed, Zhu Li asked, “Can you… give an example?”

Another sigh. “I feel as though you would be much happier if I didn’t.”

Zhu Li stopped pouring the already-hot water instantly.

What a familiar thing for him to say.

What a familiar sentiment to what Zhu Longmai was essentially doing, now that he thought about it.

His good mood soured a bit.

“I’m not delicate,” he grumbled. “I don’t know why everyone has to circles around heavy subjects around me.”

Chu Ran hummed. “It’s not that I think you delicate, Doctor, but that I very much doubt that a bunch of old good-for-nothings were brutally tearing into a young man’s character for having a few nights to himself—when he’s raising his little brother alone and left him with a trusted friend so that he could unwind for a few days, no less—would make a very good story.”

Ah. Why didn’t that surprise him at all?

“That does sound like a shitty story,” Zhu Li admitted.

“It’s a terrible one. Your stories are much better, Doctor.”

“I did try to warn you that it was a cesspool.”

Chu Ran let out a very tired laugh. “That you did, that you did. I have indeed done this to myself.”

There was something that Chu Ran wasn’t telling him, clearly. He must have been subject to the especially nasty comments that some of the old folk here spewed like chronic vomit, the contents of which were too rancid for anything but wiping away and forgetting about.

Speaking of rancidity…

“I’m going to go talk to my mother tomorrow,” Zhu Li suddenly said. “I’d appreciate it if you came with me.”

“Oh? Why me?”

He came over and set tea down in front of him. “She’s hard for me to talk to and seems to like you.”

“Ah, I understand. I’ll play the role of ‘emotional support dog.’”

Zhu Li chuckled deep in his chest at that. “You’re more of a bird, but sure. That’s one way of look—… considering it.”

“A bird?” the other replied incredulously. “What sort of bird?”

“A mynah; chatty and flying everywhere all the time.”

Chu Ran put on a pout. “…I must say I’m offended, Doctor.”

If Zhu Li had a tail, it’d be wagging right about now. “Don’t be. It’s a compliment.”

“How so?”

“Mynahs are cute, aren’t they?”

As Chu Ran grumbled something about not being a cute and noisy little bird, warmth filled Zhu Li’s chest, and he decided that tomorrow’s worries were for worrying about tomorrow.

The author says: did you think he was going to say crane? joke’s on you, i’m not that corny
(edit 3/5: I accidentally repeated how Zhu Li had never heard Chu Ran play qin, even though he said that already literally last chapter. I had to fix it.)

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3 thoughts on “SnCr 52

  1. I’m with Zhu Li here. I don’t tend to notice what people look like and I take forever to ‘move’ forward with any type of relationship. Since others are moving at a thousand miles per hour, I never seem to get to that part as they have already moved on to someone who moves fast. I’m glad Ran likes things going slow. They seem perfect for one another. As Li’s sister mentioned – he doesn’t seem to laugh and yet, Yingliu can make him chuckle.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An Empress Mog. Also doggos but The Empress is more important.
    !!! Someone’s got a crush.
    Ah the joys of ace-spec relationships.
    And something akin to sense asserts itself by Zhu Li asking an outside party. Junyan deserves nice things for putting up with these two.
    The implication of ‘incidents’ in connection with lust is… concerning. Let’s go with that.
    Zhu Li really does take after his mother more than he’d like to acknowledge though.
    The joys of music. (Summon Ran)
    Welcome to rural communities Chu Ran. Everyone knows everyone and everything and has Opinions.
    Thank you for the update!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I had to check what does the mynah bird look like, and yes, they’re cute 😀 (also it turned out I knew them already, just not under the English name, lol)

      Thank you for the update! Zhu Li definitely needed some time to think about his feelings, and, as it turned out, to talk them through with someone else. It’s nice to see the girls being so patient and supportive ^^

      Liked by 1 person

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