chapter 8: on rotten lives and shared secrets
Mercy is a concept Ren Liufang knows well and knows nothing of at the same time. It is a unique violence imposed by oneself over others. It is a pedestal to mold your feet into, nothing but a kinder murder, a punishment disguised as an angel.
When she wakes up, half dead with her body being dragged on the ground like a corpse, she wonders if it is mercy.
Ren Liufang and Cheng Bowen have a short but storied history, some of which she kept as secrets. Secrets she thought were hers until now.
Now, he holds it all in his hand, pulling her half-unconscious body in the dirt as he strides forward with large and rough steps. Ren Liufang jerks when she strikes a pebble, body convulsing as the aftershocks of the curse marks slowly set in like a thousand knives piercing through her chest.
I trusted her. I trusted her and she broke it all. She left us. Why did she leave us?
She gasps softly out of pain. Cheng Bowen halts in his place. His grip on her robes tighten.
“Are you awake, Ren Liufang?” he asks quietly. Ren Liufang tries to focus on him, but her vision is marked by blots at the edges and spots of pain that come with every blink.
“Why…” she croaks out, throat painfully raw. She can hear her own screams echoing through her ears, and she grits her teeth. Cheng Bowen looks at her, eyes unreadable.
“We’re almost there,” he says instead, moving again forwards. Ren Liufang grunts and hopes that the wounds on her chest have not opened, drifting into unconsciousness again.
❀ ❀ ❀
Ren Liufang knows Cheng Bowen before he ever even notices her, and it is both a blessing and a curse.
It’s almost a magical thing, the way rumors spread in the cultivation world. Ren Liufang first hears about Cheng Bowen through a network of gossip circles, from the sect elder’s wife to the street vendor to the sect disciples to the sect officials, a younger boy born out of circumstances too shameful for the father to admit, his mother dead, executed by the sword of a high ranking female disciple.
She first sees him at a cultivation conference in the Cheng sect compound. He is small and frail. He holds his father’s hand like a vice and clings onto him like a burr. No one at the conference knows who he is by looking at him. The then Cheng Sect Leader only laughs and introduces his son, obliviously exposing his son to a reality greater than himself. Afterwards, Ren Mingshou pulls her over and tells her to not associate herself with children like Cheng Bowen. Ren Liufang obeys him because she has to.
Still, when she looks at Cheng Bowen, she can’t help but to see someone else eerily similar in his place. The boy turns to her for a split second, and suddenly Ren Liufang can see her.
Ren Mingshou tugs her away before she can ever say hello. Maybe she is guilty.
Maybe Ren Liufang is guilty sixteen years later, when she takes the Cheng Sect Leader’s head off his shoulders. The blackened stump rolls on the ground, dark blood slowly oozing out of the flesh. The ceremonial necklace, given only to the deeply dedicated and blessed leaders of the Cheng sect, hangs off his neck. Ren Liufang steps back, sword shaking in her hand, and she finally realizes what she has done. Her fingers are the same shade as the skin on the disembodied head.
She wonders if she will go to hell.
Later, the new Cheng Sect Leader introduces Cheng Bowen to Ren Liufang as an apprentice, a new sect leader candidate, someone to “take under her wing”. He shakes her hand, and his eyes are empty like a dried gourd. It is like looking into a mirror from six years ago, like the universe is playing a cruel joke on her. Ren Liufang looks away from him.
She thinks that she will never be able to tell him that his father died with a smile on his face.
They are forced to spend time with each other. They learn each other’s in and out, and they learn to guard each other’s back. Ren Liufang pretends that he is not similar to someone she loved, two of them. She pretends that she is not guilty. Instead, she tries to help him as much as she can, which isn’t much.
“We’re similar, aren’t we?” Cheng Bowen asks her one day. He is now taller than her, more muscular—a far cry from the scrawny toddler Ren Liufang remembers crying next to the Guanyin statue.
“What makes you think that?” she responds without meeting his gaze. He looks at her with an indecipherable expression.
“No reason,” he responds, voice strange. They won’t return to that subject. Not if Ren Liufang can help it.
❀ ❀ ❀
Ren Liufang stumbles as Cheng Bowen pulls her roughly to her feet. He has gotten exponentially stronger since they first met, and he might be able to lift her with one hand now. They duck into a small house on the outskirts of a city Ren Liufang cannot recognize. She coughs. A ball of blood and mucus bursts onto the ground. Her mind feels muddled, like a haze has been spread over it. Cheng Bowen is wordless when he leads her forward into the abandoned home.
Ren Liufang has to blink twice when they come to stop.
“It’s what you need, isn’t it?” Cheng Bowen says lowly.
“You—” she whirls to him, but he pushes her forward until she has to scramble to stay standing. Suddenly, she clutches her head, eyes blown open.
I want to live I want to live I want to live.
In front of her, tied tightly by his limbs to the chair, a man. Froth coats his lips, and he thrashes violently, ebony blood trickling down his arms. It smells foul.
On his bared chest, a writhing curse mark, not too different from the one currently invading Ren Liufang’s mind. A distant memory crosses her mind.
Honglei jingles on her hip. With trembling fingers, Ren Liufang reaches for it. Her breath catches. She hesitates, even though her body screams at her to kill.
Cheng Bowen steps up behind her, a silent but looming presence behind Ren Liufang’s heaving shoulders.
He leans in.
“I don’t think I’d forgive you if you gave this scum more mercy than my father,” he whispers. Ren Liufang sucks in an inhale.
You useless child. Even in their death, you were utterly worthless.
She raises her sword and swings. The sound echoes across the ground.
It is over in a second.
Cheng Bowen watches with narrowed eyes. The man gurgles for a few seconds, and it is silent.
Then, the curse mark recedes back into her chest. Ren Liufang arches her back and screams as the heat tears through her ribs and seals itself in a fell swoop. Her skin turns back to pale, and her vision clears, if only for a second.
Then, she collapses onto the ground.
❀ ❀ ❀
Ren Liufang is never given the option to die.
Her small body feels as if it has been disemboweled and hollowed out. Her parents’ ashes coat her fingers, and there they will stay until she dies. The air still smells like human remains, even though it has been weeks since Ren Liufang desecrated those graves.
Now, she knows that there is truly no one waiting for her when she dies.
She sits in the hall, fingers knitted together and stomach churning. In front of her, a small door. She flinches when it creaks open and Ren Mingshou comes out.
“She’s ready to die,” he informs her. Ren Liufang doesn’t respond, shoulders heaving as an unbearable heat burns through her ribcage. She coughs into her hand and recoils as she sees the blood on her palm. The sect leader watches her, expression calculating.
“Your parents’ case was special,” Ren Mingshou had told her, “Their curse marks were especially designed for them to stick and kill slowly without any side effects. You aren’t so lucky.”
Ren Liufang rubs her hands together, slick with sweat and blood. Honglei seems to grow heavier in her lap. The door in front of them seems to get bigger with every second.
“Can’t we just stay here?” she asks herself.
“Do you want to die?” a different voice responds. It is not foreign.
Slowly, Ren Liufang stands up and reaches for the door shakily. Ren Mingshou watches her coldly.
“I’ll be here when you’re done. We’ll clean up later,” he says. Ren Liufang nods mechanically and plunges into the unknown.
It takes awhile for her to adjust to the sudden blackness. She grabs onto the wall to orient herself only to recoil sharply, the wood coated with a slick liquid that smells like blood.
Suddenly, her eyes widen in shock. She steps back, but the door has clicked closed.
In front of her, a teenage girl barely older than her dangles, tied spreadeagle to the wall with sticky fluid flowing out of the wounds on her face and arms. Every exhale is ragged, and it’s nauseatingly loud.
Her face is eerily familiar.
Ren Liufang turns around and latches onto the doorknob. She jingles the mechanism panickedly, only to find it locked. Breath quickening, she beats at the door, fists banging into the hollow but reinforced wood.
“Let me out. Please, let me out!” Ren Liufang screams, pounding at the door in vain. A hopeful part of her thinks she can hear Ren Mingshou pacing outside, agitated. She hacks another dry cough, throat tears itself into shreds.
“Ren-zongzhu!” she yells, gasps descending to cries, “A-niang! A-die! Please!”
There is nothing. There is nothing except for two half dead girls, one with the sword and one splayed like a butchered pig on the wall.
Honglei jangles on her waist, and its sound splits through her ears like a siren. Hysterically, she yanks the sword off and throws it across the room.
She can still hear the broken sound of the girl’s breathing from across the room. Ren Liufang presses her palms to her ears and squeezes her eyes shut, sliding down to her knees. Her body is on fire, but there’s nothing to extinguish, only the unrelenting urge to stab through flesh and devour.
“A-niang, A-die,” Ren Liufang claws weakly at the door, sobbing, “Where are you? I can’t see you. I can’t see you anymore.
She stays there for who knows how long, timing her breaths with the ones from the opposite side.
“This will test your senses,” Ren Mingshou had said, “You will be unnerved, but there has not been a single person that has not overcome it. If you do fail, you will be the first in a long line of successes.
“If you fail, then don’t even think about returning home,”
Home was… what? What was home? Where her parents were? Where the Ren Sect was?
“My home is wherever you are, Ren Ju!”
Home was—It was—
“I’ll be taking care of you for your parents, alright? Come with me, little one.”
Ren Liufang opens her eyes blearily. Her vision is blurred, pricked with unwanted tears.
But instead of feeling anguished, she was only be unbearably angry.
Shakily, Ren Liufang stands up, hands bleeding from splinters. She slowly treads towards her sword, picking it up with trembling hands. She turns to the girl.
Her eyes are closed. Ren Liufang stiffens at the resemblance the girl bears to her. Her shoulders shake.
“A-niang, A-die, are you listening? It’s been awhile since you left on that mission, and I know you two argued before you left, but I really miss you. Everyone tells me you’ll be back soon, but I don’t want “soon”, I want now! Even if Shushu tells me to be less selfish, I’ll still keep using my prayers on you. It’s not like I have anything better to wish for anyways. Come back soon! I want to go to the river.”
Ren Liufang raises her sword above her head. The girl cracks open one eye.
She is weeping. Both of them.
Ren Liufang inhales a shuddering breath. She steadies her stance. Inwardly, she prays.
Then, she brings the sword down.
❀ ❀ ❀
Ren Liufang wakes up with a harsh shout, bolting upright. Her hands immediately go to her chest, where she expects disturbance or disease, but there is nothing.
In fact, it is eerily silent.
Ren Liufang turns to see Cheng Bowen staring at her. His eyes lack any of the usual glimmer in them, instead adopting a reserved look.
It is an expression Ren Liufang recognizes but wishes she doesn’t.
“Cheng Bowen I—” She starts, but he doesn’t give her the chance to finish, quickly standing up and leaving. The door clicks shut behind him, and Ren Liufang is alone, tightening her fists into the blankets.
For some reason, her chest feels like bursting even though the curse mark is dormant.
Gritting her teeth, she gingerly gets to her feet, slipping on a pair of bamboo slippers on her way out. Slowly, she pads to the door and slides it open, stepping out.
Tianan feels like it is buzzing. Ren Liufang’s brow furrows, and she wonders if the disciples have gotten up to something again. Without rushing, she heads to the main square.
“Ren-daren, what are you doing out of bed?!” She turns her head as a cry comes from her left, an angry looking doctor stomping towards her. Shi Jinghui jabs a finger into her chest.
“Don’t you know that you shouldn’t be out and about like this? Are you stupid or something?” he scolds. Ren Liufang averts her eyes, feeling thoroughly scolded even though they have shared less than a conversation.
“I apologize. I wanted to get some fresh air,” she says, subtly gesturing to the commotion down the street. Shi Jinghui follows her lines, and he frowns, trying to catch Ren Liufang’s gaze. She steadfastly avoids it. He sighs.
“As a doctor, I can’t allow this,” Shi Jinghui says.
“You are a very good doctor. And I will suffocate if I am in that room for any longer. Which is bad for my health,” Ren Liufang replies. The male gives her a hard look.
“Alright, we can go,” he relents, “But you’re coming right back here afterwards.”
Ren Liufang nods almost imperceptibly. Then, she strides away, leaving the male scrambling after her.
There is a crowd of disciples standing at the main training grounds. A couple elbow each other, and they all turn towards Ren Liufang in unison, bowing and stuttering out a hello. Ren Liufang acknowledges them with a tilt of the head, the barest hint of a smile edging onto her lips. She had always enjoyed teaching disciples. It was like repentance.
Suddenly, the sound of swords clanging rings out, and someone falls to the ground.
Along with him, a tree.
The perpetrator, or rather, the victor, scans the scene after their triumph, hands on their hips. Their chin juts out in confidence, hips cocked. They whirl around, and suddenly, their eyes meet Ren Liufang’s.
It’s Xiu Lihua. The woman quickly averts her eyes, and Ren Liufang’s heart pangs. She wishes she could call out to her, but she stays still.
The whole energy on the training grounds fizzes out. All of the disciples instantly turn towards him and bow.
Standing there, is Ren Mingshou in his full glory.
Ren Liufang stiffens in shame. She had failed at Zhoucheng. She had gone out of control. She had allowed for the mass murder of hundreds at the city she was supposed to protect. Would he scold her in front of the crowd again? It was humiliating, but she supposed, necessary for her to stop making such stupid mistakes. Mistakes that would cost her more than just a reprimanding.
But instead of calling her name out publicly like Ren Mingshou normally would have done, he stares at Xiu Lihua. Ren Liufang tenses, but she does nothing.
Like always, she only watches.
The other woman is frozen, fists curling at her sides. Smoothly Ren Mingshou holds his gaze there, enough to make an ordinary disciple squirm but enough to make Xiu Lihua visibly stop breathing.
Ren Liufang looks away. She might stop breathing as well.
Finally, Ren Mingshou relinquishes his gaze and commands the disciples to move the fallen tree away. He walks towards Ren Liufang, and she bows her head in greeting. He regards her curtly.
“We’ll talk more in the main building,” he says quietly to her. She nods, numbing herself for a conversation to come. They head towards the main building, and Ren Liufang suddenly remembers Shi Jinghui’s command for her to go straight back to the medical quarters. She glances in the male’s direction, but he’s already gone to Xiu Lihua, unsurprisingly. For some reason, something slightly bitter strikes her chest.
No matter, she swishes her sleeve behind her and follows Ren Mingshou.
“Report,” Ren Mingshou orders once their tea has been set. Ren Liufang swallows, knowing that the Sect Leader is probably only making her repeat the details of the failed mission out of discipline, not because he is actually unaware.
“We arrived at Zhoucheng, but the seals were in place already. We didn’t have enough time before… The mass murders started,” Ren Liufang says, staring in her lap. Her voice feels dry, but she feels as if any movement she makes now will paint her as weaker than she already is. Ren Mingshou hums.
“I didn’t expect you to make such a simple mistake,” he says slowly, “It seems as if this is a growing trend lately, especially with your little… escapades.”
Unsaid: “You should’ve listened to me when I said you weren’t ready to be out on your own. How can I trust you with the sect if you can’t even handle yourself on your own private missions?”
“I was impulsive,” Ren Liufang says quickly, “I miscalculated the time needed, and I failed to see the possible outcomes. It was just a simple mistake that won’t happen again.”
“That’s true, of course,” Ren Mingshou narrows his eyes, “But why did you see the need to bring along extra people?”
“I would have died without them,” Ren Liufang defends them weakly.
“But it was only because of them that you were in any danger of dying in the first place,” Ren Mingshou responds, “Or perhaps, that was only because they acted in self defense?”
Ren Liufang blinks, “Self defense?” She echoes. Ren Mingshou nods, taking a drink from his tea cup.
“Come to think of it, Cheng Bowen was sporting quite a nasty wound when he came to Tianan,” he muses. “I had to practically force him to rest last night, despite the fact that he almost bled out if not for our medics getting to him quickly,”
“I was irresponsible in my care for Cheng Bowen,” Ren Liufang says. She curls into herself. Ren Mingshou side eyes her.
“That wasn’t an accident, was it?” he comments offhandedly.
“From now, take care of him, okay? You’ll be collaborating in the future, so show him the ropes.”
“No, Ren-zongzhu,” she answers softly, “That was not an accident.”
“Was it with full purpose?”
Ren Liufang pauses, “Yes, Sect Leader.”
“It would probably be better if you didn’t see him for a while,” Ren Mingshou decides. Ren Liufang opens her mouth in protest, but he cuts her off, “Only for him to heal. I wouldn’t want him to feel endangered in your presence.” Then, in a quieter voice, he adds, “Mistakes made in the past aren’t meant to repeat in the future.”
Ren Liufang closes her mouth. “Yes, Ren-zongzhu,” she says hoarsely. He smiles.
“Xiu Lihua has grown, hasn’t she?” he suddenly says. Ren Liufang’s mouth goes dry.
“Her coming with me was not my sole decision—”
“I feel quite bad for her. I’m sure she has not been having such a pleasant experience being in a place that caused her so much pain,” Ren Mingshou says, and Ren Liufang reels back in confusion.
“But that was only because of you,” she wishes she could say.
“She left because she was dissatisfied,” Ren Mingshou says, seemingly reading her mind, “I’m surprised she even stayed so long, honestly.”
Ren Liufang looks at him incredulously. “But it was—”
“I suppose something was keeping her here, despite everything. She must’ve lost something very dear to leave so bombastically like that. I wonder what it was, though.”
“Sect Leader, if I’m not mistaken, it was you who she accused of mistreating her,” Ren Liufang says slowly. Ren Mingshou meets her eye.
“I never tried to bring her back, though. In fact, I left her perfectly alone to live her own life as happily as she could, just like we had agreed when she left. Although a few disciples tried to find her for revenge, I dealt with them appropriately so that she would never come in contact with the Ren clan again.” He says calmly.
“Really, it could be said that in these past few years after she left, the one who treated her worse wasn’t me. It was you.”
Ren Liufang stops. Ren Mingshou continues, “I do wonder what was going through your mind the moment I saw that girl in the courtyard. It seems like yesterday I remember her cursing the Ren name and rushing out while crying, yet she’s here now, looking awfully miserable like a sort of trapped mouse.”
“I did not compel her,” Ren Liufang says, but her voice wavers.
“Then who did?” Ren Mingshou counters.
She falls silent. The older man puts his hand on hers, and she flinches.
“You know I care about you, Ren Ju,” he says, eyes softening. Ren Liufang nods meekly. He rubs the back of her hand, and she finds herself sighing into it, the only tender touch she’s received in… longer than she remembers.
“And although it doesn’t look like it, it is the sect leader’s responsibility to ensure the comfort of our guests. It was my failure as a teacher that you didn’t learn it properly,” he chastises himself quietly.
“No!” Ren Liufang bursts out in protest, “It was my wrong, Sect Leader. It is my mistake to correct,” she falters, “Should I… tell her to leave?”
“You know her better than me. Whether or not she stays is up to you,” Ren Mingshou abruptly stands up and dusts himself off. All the warmth from his expression is gone. Her hand is cold now. On the table, the tea cup is empty. He looks at Ren Liufang, eyes simmering with condescending caution.
“I can only hope that you make the right decision this time.”
With that, the Sect Leader whirls out of the room, leaving only dust and Ren Liufang in his wake.
❀ ❀ ❀
When Ren Liufang is a toddler, she is cut by a blade for the first time.
It is small, barely on the finger, but still, she squirms and she can feel tears welling up in her eyes. Ren Mingshou, holding the small dagger in his fist, tells her to grit her teeth and bear it. She doesn’t. She squeals. His eyes are quiet but blazing with an angry flame. He stares at her with an unknown and scorching intensity, and she starts crying. Ren Mingshou slaps her hard on the wrist, and it hurts more. But, she learns to be quiet after that, only sniffling softly.
Later, she can hear her parents arguing through the screen door. She slides it open slightly so that she can see them.
“Ren Mingshou isn’t fit to care for her! Did you see what happened today?!” Her father shouts. His delicate eyebrows are curved in an angry twist and his usually fair skin is flushed from anger.
(It has always been said that Ren Liufang looks more like her father.)
“He is still healing! Our daughter could help him!” Her mother cries, wringing her hands. Her father scoffs.
“He needs more than a child’s help to be “healed”, that psychopath,” he mutters.
“Do not call him that!” she shrieks, “He just needs someone to love, someone to care for!” Through the crack in the door, Ren Ju can see that they’re both standing up, chests heaving.
“Our daughter is not a tool to “save the heart” of a hopeless man! A woman couldn’t do it, a man couldn’t do it, even you couldn’t do it! Ren Ju will not be used to deliver that damned happiness to a damned cultivator!”
“He would never hurt her! I trust Ren Mingshou more than anyone in the world; he would not!”
“You trust him more than me?”
Her father wonders bitterly. There is a brief period of silence after that, where her mother simply stands and gapes. There are words unsaid that Ren Ju cannot catch, but it plays across their faces like a stage play.
“You envious envious man,” she accuses venomously. He turns away, and he squeezes his eyes shut.
Ren Ju shuts the door when the words “affair” and “love” are inevitably spilled. She isn’t old enough to understand what they mean so she goes back to the outside hallway and shoves her fingers inside of her ears.
In the end, Ren Ju doesn’t see Ren Mingshou again. Instead, there’s a nice enough woman who plays with her and teaches her how to hold a brush. She tells her that she has a son that she named after a fox, and her husband dislikes it a lot but apparently loves her enough to not argue. Ren Ju decides she likes this type of marital quarrel better. The woman says she’ll take her to meet her son one day, and she hums.
Later, Ren Ju is told that her parents plus a lot of other people will go on this very important mission outside of the sect. She can’t quite comprehend it, but she does know when her mother and her father kiss her forehead while the other is out of the room that they might not be back very soon. The woman caretaker and her husband leave as well. For some reason, their son seems happy to see them go.
The wait is long and boring. Ren Ju draws circles in the ground and hides from the other children in her house. No one comes to get her.
They return in two weeks. Ren Ju is only able to see her parents another two weeks after that. Midway, she tries to sneak in and she sees Ren Mingshou standing outside of the hospital room, looking irrecoverably broken. A single blink of his eyes however erases all emotion from his face. Ren Ju runs towards her bedridden parents, but Ren Mingshou sticks out one arm and holds her back. She looks up at his gaze again, and she notices that the flame has been extinguished.
His eyes are empty.
The medics intercept her panickedly and pull her aside for a talk. In the simplest terms, they explain that Ren Ju’s parents are sick and can’t take care of her anymore because they need to rest to get better. She asks how long that’ll take. She doesn’t get an answer. Instead, Ren Mingshou kneels to her level and takes her hands. Before she remembers to be afraid, she feels how cold those hands are.
“Ren Ju,” he says softly. Ren Ju blinks because she has never heard “Shushu” talk like this before.
“Are my parents going to be alright?” she asks timidly. He squeezes her fingers and turns his head away.
“I’ll be taking care of you for your parents, alright? Come with me, little one.” He stands up and he holds his hand out for little Ren Ju. She blinks and glances at the closed door where her parents are resting. “Sick.”
She takes Ren Mingshou’s hand and doesn’t look back.
❀ ❀ ❀
When Ren Liufang leaves the office, she briefly entertains the idea of finding Cheng Bowen for a drink before dismissing it promptly. Her body still aches from sitting for so long, the wounds straining at the bandages. She wonders if Shi Jinghui will be angry. A part of Ren Liufang hopes he will be. Maybe he’ll fuss over her again, keep ranting while he ties her bandages in that unfamiliarly delicate way.
It’s a nice thought.
When she reaches that familiar crossroads again, with one path leading to an isolated path behind the veranda and one path leading to the courtyard where there are usually children, she takes the more travelled one. She can hear Ren Mingshou chastising her in her head, “Sect leaders take the path less worn, the one the others will not use. That is what it means to be a leader, do you understand?!”
But Ren Liufang isn’t sect leader yet. For now, she can take the populated path, with the children’s cries of joy ringing sharply through the air and the disciples mulling lethargically through the grass, and she can pretend she isn’t walking alone.
“Ren-daren!” a male voice suddenly splits through the crisp air. Ren Liufang whirls around to see Ren Ronghu running towards her, red and white robes swishing around his legs. He catches up, wheezing even though Ren Liufang is sure it’s not possible for a cultivator as trained as him to be that exhausted after a simple run.
“Ren Ronghu,” Ren Liufang greets politely, knowing full well when the male winces at the sound of his own name. Her eyes crease, “Is something the matter?”
“Does something have to be the matter in order for me to want a conversation?” Ren Ronghu asks, amused. His tone of voice is veiled, familiar but only a fake. Ren Liufang doesn’t look at him.
“You change faces too easily,” she says. Ren Ronghu’s smile falls off his face.
“What an offhand comment,” he notes, voice returning to his neutral pitch. Ren Liufang sighs.
“I apologize. I was simply caught in my mind. Please speak freely.”
“You’re too quick for me,” he says not seriously. “But this time, I really did need you for something.”
At that moment, a large commotion erupts from the edge of the clearing. Ren Liufang’s hand leaps to her sword, but when her vision clears, she can see that there was no need. Her throat closes up.
“Hey, stop tugging on my robes! Those robes were expensive!” Xiu Lihua complains loudly, being dragged across the clearing by what Ren Liufang recognizes as a few younger Ren disciples that she’s taught before. Xiu Lihua’s screeches are high-pitched and attention grabbing, and much to her obliviousness, the entire crowd of Ren cultivators has been inevitably drawn into it.
“Is that really her, Zaihuanü?”
“That fucker, how could she show her face here again? After all she’s done?”
“Diabolic sword! Get the children away from her!”
“Did you see the damage she did earlier? To the tree? I guess some things never change.”
Ren Liufang wants to cover her ears, though she isn’t sure what good it’d do.
“No! We’re going to make you show us your stupid sword skills even if you die afterwards!” one of the kids shouts, a loud fellow named Wang Yushi. Ren Liufang winces at the word choice.
“Isn’t that counterproductive?! If I just die, then I wouldn’t be able to—” suddenly, Xiu Lihua freezes, finally looking around her. The entire courtyard has gone silent except for the kids still bickering on her sleeve. From her side, she can feel Ren Ronghu smoldering, but when she looks into his eyes, the expression disappears.
“Aren’t you going to greet her?” he asks her, voice unrecognizable.
Ren Liufang has stiffened in place, only able to watch as Xiu Lihua’s eyes scan the crowd before eventually landing on her. The brown eyes widen. Ren Liufang steps forward, biting her lip.
“Hey kids, let’s find a less crowded clearing okay? Jiejie will show you a lot of cool tricks.” Xiu Lihua cuts through loudly. Her eyes seem to gloss over Ren Ronghu, as if not registering his presence at all.
“That’s what we were going to do in the first place,” the quiet one, Ren Haoran says pointedly. Xiu Lihua laughs, and it sounds like needles going through her chest.
“Haha, very funny! Let’s go then, can’t be late!”
“How can we be late to something with no schedule?”
And like that, they’re gone as quickly as they came. Ren Liufang stares blankly at the empty space in front of her. Ren Ronghu taps her on the shoulder.
“Let’s get going,” he says calmly. Ren Liufang tears her eyes away and strides away, leaving Ren Ronghu to nearly run to catch up.
“I heard your conversation with the Sect Leader,” he says quickly. Ren Liufang keeps walking.
“It’s bad taste to eavesdrop,” she says. Ren Ronghu ignores her.
“I have some preparations for you to do,” he says.
“For what?” The hospital room is only a few steps away. Ren Liufang’s ribs ache. She wishes she had never left her bed now.
“For a party.”
“A party for what?” Ren Liufang repeats distantly. Ren Ronghu looks at her, eyes strangely indifferent.
“The party for the twentieth anniversary of Xiu Bingwen’s death,” he answers.
Ren Liufang’s blood runs cold.
❀ ❀ ❀
co-written with sunnyv. links below:
-daren (大人): the suffix used to denote a position of power
-zongzhu (宗主): sect leader
Jie-jie (姐姐): means “older sister”. Can be used to address any older girl, often used by children.
Honglei (红泪): the name of Ren Liufang’s sword, means “red tears”.
Xiong Jinli (凶锦鲤): Ren Liufang’s unofficial moniker, means “fierce koi”.
Zaihuanü (灾花女): Xiu Lihua’s unofficial moniker, means “disaster flower maiden”.
Tianan (田南): area of land controlled by the Ren sect, modern day Henan.
Names: Our four main characters are Xiu Lihua ( 秀丽华 )—given name Xiu Ying (秀英), Ren Liufang (任流芳)—given name Ren Ju (任菊), Cheng Bowen (澄博文)—given name Cheng Bai (澄白), and Shi Jinghui (实静慧)—given name Shi Li (实理). People are only addressed by their given names by those who are very close to them. Ren Mingshou is the sect leader of the Ren sect.
Cultivator: people possessing spiritual power that refine their body to the point of possessing magic-like abilities and longevity.
Sect: an organized group of cultivators that control a certain patch of territory.
Resentful spirits/energy: malevolent energy from those who have died, reanimated.