Chapter Nine: On Bitter Truths and Bloody Parties
Xiu Lihua has never woken up wishing that she didn’t. She has survived and survived and survived this far: out of spite, out of her own will, out of debt to a few, and so, she lives, gratefully, with a conviction.
But despite this--this morning, she begins to rethink things.
“Good morning, Xiu-guniang!” Wang Yushi chirps, out of his perfect mind, as he throws open the doors to her guest disciple room.
“Gods above,” Xiu Lihua answers, pitiful. She pulls a pillow over her head. It’s as scratchy as she remembers. “Would it kill you to knock? Is that a thing you still do here?”
Ren Haoran hums. “Wang Shu said that if you heard us coming, you would have run away again.”
“Which is so sad!” Chang Ming chimes in, bouncing in the doorway. “Jiejie should be happy to play with us!”
Xiu Lihua groans, smothering herself further into her pillow. The four boys--wait, where’s the fourth one? Ugh--have been following her around ever since she came to Tianan.
Which is awful! Don’t they have any form of self preservation? She knows what the Ren Sect thinks of her, and despite how often she shoos them off, saying that she really does live up to her reputation and they shouldn’t associate with someone so fearsome, they say something awful like--
“Teach us your cool sword tricks!” Wang Yushi demands, fists raised excitedly to his chest. “It doesn’t matter if they’re wicked or not by the book or whatever! They must be super awesome in a fight!”
“Go away,” Xiu Lihua pleads, rolling out of her bed, disgruntled. She’s hungry. Hungry in the worst place in the world. “What’s wrong with you kids? Can’t you just leave me alone?”
They shrug in unison at this. She sighs, pushing them out of the room as they laugh in glee.
She shuts the doors so she can properly pull the upper half of her hair up with a ribbon, and then her outer blue robes on--she’d discarded the Ren red ones. They...itched. Too much.
Xiu Lihua shuffles over to the entrance, sliding open the doors haphazardly. Because she’s fully ready to yell at the boys and leave, seriously, she will not be bullied by some teenagers, but--
Ren Liufang looks at her, standing quietly in the doorway. The boys stand behind her, peering at them curiously.
“Uh,” Xiu Lihua says. She sniffs. “Morning. Bye.”
Xiu Lihua shoulder checks the other woman as she pushes past her. She needs to get away. Anywhere near Ren Liufang is--
A hand circles firmly around her wrist.
Xiu Lihua whips around, throwing it off fiercely.
“Don’t touch me,” Xiu Lihua spits, levelling her with a piercing look. Ren Liufang meets her gaze, unfazed, her features schooled icily into a mildly disapproving frown.
“Xiu Lihua,” Ren Liufang says, with such an obviously forced politeness. Probably for the sake of the four disciples standing near them. She clears her throat before continuing. “Do you believe it would be in your best interest to stay in Tianan?”
“What,” Xiu Lihua says.
Ren Liufang doesn’t budge. “Thank you for bringing me here. However, perhaps, for the sake of the safety of the sect as well as yours, leaving--”
“Don’t tell me what to do!” Xiu Lihua interrupts, bristling in poor concealed anger. “Who are you to tell me what’s good for me? I’ve been doing fine on my own, but--for hell’s sake, just leave me alone!”
Ren Liufang’s eyes widen, almost imperceptible to anyone else, but Xiu Lihua knows that look--when they were younger, when the other girl would be surprised at the sight of a frog or something else Xiu Lihua had brought home. Xiu Lihua huffs, not wanting to think more of it. The memory just ticks her off more.
Not bothering to hear the other woman’s response, she turns on her heel, shaking the floor with her steps.
❀ ❀ ❀
9 years ago, in the past
He hasn’t returned.
That’s what the Ren elders say, at least. Last night’s hunt was to some farther part of Tianan, and the disciples who returned quiver even still. There’s a huge yaoguai. Or something equally as frightening, she guesses.
Xiu Lihua sits outside the door of the main room, where the elders discuss.
“We cannot just leave him there,” a voice that sounds like Ren Ronghu says.
Xiu Lihua strains to hear the next one, but, of course, it’s recognizable: “Ren Yangguo is a near adult, and a capable cultivator,” Ren Mingshou says. “I’m not willing to risk more of our own at this late into the night just to retrieve him.”
“Ren-zongzhu, don’t you think it’s dangerous? He may not make it until morning,” a different voice chimes in, solemn.
“He will be fine,” Ren Mingshou repeats. He sounds sure of himself. Xiu Lihua frowns. But how could he be? She’d seen Ren Yangguo, and while it was true he was capable--if the yaoguai had been strong enough to scare the group of cultivators, how could he alone wait until morning for help?
Xiu Lihua turns to her side, eager to tell Ren Ju about her plan, but--
Ren Ju isn’t there. She deflates a bit. Right.
Her friend had been...missing in action, lately. It doesn’t matter. Xiu Lihua thinks, looking to the training ground, where the blunted swords were stored.
She’d tell Ren Ju about it when she came home.
❀ ❀ ❀
The night is cold, and the mule she struggled to mount herself onto seems to be sympathetic to this, hardly making noise as it canters through a howling forest.
Xiu Lihua grips onto its reins fearfully. More than she’d like to admit: she’s scared.
She’d never been outside of Tianan at night without Ren Ju, especially not in a part of the woods like this. But she swallows, looking at the map she’d swiped from the meeting room. This is where Ren Yangguo was stuck.
Xiu Lihua gives the mule a light kick, pulling it in one direction. When she reaches the huge hole in the ground: a monstrous thing, sucking dirt into its pit like a greedy, gasping mouth, she swallows. Xiu Lihua pulls out the rope from her bag.
❀ ❀ ❀
“How’d you find me?” Ren Yangguo asks, every visible part of his skin caked in mud. He’s taken to the front of the mule, and Xiu Lihua holds onto the back of his robes.
“I...thought it’d be harder,” Xiu Lihua evades, sheepish. “I thought I’d have to fight a monster or something, but--you were just stuck in there? Where’s the beast?”
Ren Yangguo is quiet. Then, “I killed it.”
Xiu Lihua frowns, puzzled. The whole reason she came was because--the Ren disciples, they’d abandon him until the morning for a thing that could easily have been killed on his own? What?
Xiu Lihua clears her throat. “But I thought--”
“Don’t think,” he snaps, and she flinches at the change in his tone. He lets out a breath, shakily, before he continues, “Just don’t, kid. And don’t think about fighting monsters like that again. You’re barely allowed to even use a sword.”
❀ ❀ ❀
Ren Ronghu greets her when she returns. Ren Mingshou doesn’t make a big deal out of things--thanks to Ren Yangguo, who’d omitted the very damning part in which Xiu Lihua had snuck out and looked for him.
“I’m tired. Where’s Ren Ju?” Xiu Lihua asks, evasive, when Ren Ronghu walks her back to the sleeping quarters.
“She’s busy,” Ren Ronghu says. “Don’t do something like that again. Okay? What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking, wow, Ren-zongzhu won’t mess with me ever again when I bring this guy back,” she snips back, and it’s not entirely a lie. “What’s Ren Ju busy with?”
“Parents,” Ren Ronghu answers, but his features are pinched into a frown. “You need to worry about yourself more, A-Ying.”
“Yeah, yeah, thanks, xiong,” she answers, waving him off. She is fine! It’s not the worst situation she’d gotten herself into! “How are her parents?”
He presses his mouth into a thin line. “Still ill.” Then, after a long moment of silence, and something like a hesitant look on his face, “I hope something can be done, before…”
And this, really, Xiu Lihua thinks, many years after, is where everything went wrong.
❀ ❀ ❀
She leaves to another part of Tianan.
Somewhere outside of the sect compound, away from all the cultivators. Just--where yelling shop owners and busy street vendors and hardy flowers line the streets.
Xiu Lihua tilts her head back as she stands in the middle of the street, quietly drinking in the air. Despite how her life had been when she was here--Tianan was beautiful, in the ways that she’d learned to cherish when she was younger.
I should get something from here, Xiu Lihua thinks, hands on her hips, for when I finally leave and finish this stupid curse mark case.
A small souvenir, maybe, like a tassel to tie to Mengdie. She looks at her sword fondly, and it hums back in its sheath.
Stupid Rens and stupid people, Xiu Lihua thinks to herself, irritated, after being turned away from yet another vendor on the basis of “sorry, Zaihuanü.” She huffs, kicking a rock. Did she really have to go further out in Tianan to not be recognized?
The next vendor she walks by catches her eye--and not just because the old man behind the cart is the only one not glowering at her. She flashes him a smile, waving cheerily. A small, wooden contraption sits on his display.
It looks like it’s held together by strings, and Xiu Lihua peers at it, eyes wide in wonder. With a few clicks, the box stops, then bursts open to reveal a carved lotus flower.
Xiu Lihua gives a small gasp.
“It’s yours if you can pay for it,” the old man behind the cart grunts, chuckling good naturedly. “Half the price for a pretty girl like you.”
She ends up transfixed with it all the way until noon, toying with the thing as she walks up and down the streets, taking in the smells and the noises. Her hands are sticky from where she’d gripped a few sticks of the tanghulu she’d bought, but she makes sure to keep her fingers from brushing against the most intricate parts of the box.
A small thing bumps into her knees.
Xiu Lihua frowns, looking down, hand flying to Mengdie as if a tiny little spirit had suddenly decided to attack her legs.
A young girl peers up at her, pleading eyes fixed on the toy. Xiu Lihua tilts her head.
Needless to say, she ends up giving it away.
And now Xiu Lihua’s sulking as she travels through more stores, wooden flower lost to her. And she’s alone, browsing the shops, until--
“That was kind of you.”
Xiu Lihua freezes at the voice, warm, devoid of any sarcastic observation, and she turns around to face them.
“It’s awfully sunny outside today,” Ren Ronghu observes mildly, clicking his tongue as he adjusts a red umbrella over his head. “Making me sweat quite a bit.”
Xiu Lihua doesn’t respond. What does she say? What is there to say after so many years?
“Ah, my apologies. Too much information?” Ren Ronghu asks, tilting his head at her with a gentle smile. The same one he’d had so long ago.
“Xiong,” Xiu Lihua breathes out, feeling like a weight’s been lifted off her shoulders. She lets herself smile.
“Have you eaten yet?”
❀ ❀ ❀
“I don’t like this restaurant,” Xiu Lihua says.
“The owner’s looking at me all weird!”
“He is not, he’s just…”
“Ah, just ignore it, really...”
Xiu Lihua huffs, taking a spiteful sip from her waterskin. Ren Ronghu looks at her, something like fondness in his eyes, and she tries not to preen under it. She dedicates herself to watching the sellers outside the window blow sugar sculptures in various animal shapes, and resists the urge to climb out and buy the entire cart.
“I have to leave soon,” Ren Ronghu says, suddenly.
Xiu Lihua sputters, frowning at him. “We just got here!”
“I know, I know, but--we can catch up later, yes?” He asks, letting out a deep sigh. Then, laying his chin on his hands, “I was actually just passing by with my partner for an--event, we’re to plan together. It’s quite the big thing, actually, and many sects will be attending, so.”
“Oh,” Xiu Lihua says. She blinks. An event? “Okay, yeah, I get it. Go do your boring responsible things, xiong. What’s the event?”
“A party,” Ren Ronghu says. “A celebration, really. My partner’s coordinating quite a bit of it. She’s actually here with me! Eat well, Xiu Ying. I’ll see you later, yeah?”
“Your partner’s here?”
The man nods as he stands up, primly dusting off his red robes, before gesturing to--
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Xiu Lihua groans.
Ren Liufang looks back at her, eyebrows furrowed, like she hadn’t expected this, either.
Xiu Lihua grits her teeth as she whips around to Ren Ronghu, but-- he’s already gone? She frowns. What? Just a second ago, he was--
Her hand suddenly slams down onto the wooden table. When she tries to lift it, it doesn’t budge, like an invisible chain is tying her to the surface.
“It’s part of a Ren spell,” Ren Liufang explains, neutral, as she sits in the seat opposite of Xiu Lihua, who’s still struggling angrily. “It keeps you longer the more you raise your voice at me, similar to a string that gets tighter the louder you are, so please--”
“Screw off!” Xiu Lihua yells, and other patrons turn to stare at them. Ren Liufang gracefully waves down a man, telling him an order, before turning back to her.
“I must make this quick,” Ren Liufang says, fixing her stupid perfect hair with one hand. Xiu Lihua seethes. “You want to leave. It is in everyone’s best interest that you do. So--”
“Blah blah blah,” Xiu Lihua interrupts, vicious. “Always wanting me to leave Tianan, yes? Is this a satisfying reenactment for you? Wishing you’d forced me out instead?”
Ren Liufang’s gaze goes sharp, cold indifference melting away. The other woman stands up.
“I’m warning you,” Ren Liufang says, icy. Then, with no preamble and none of the usual courtesy to the restaurant owners, she sweeps off.
Xiu Lihua slams her hand against the table.
❀ ❀ ❀
Xiu Lihua chews angrily through her carp and noodles.
Chang Ming beams at her from across the table.
“We found you,” Yue Yunqi supplies, deadpan. She ignores them, slurping her food.
“One night hunt,” Wang Yushi bargains. “Just one. One! And we won’t bother you again!”
“Most likely,” Ren Haoran says, helpful.
Xiu Lihua can list off all the reasons in her head why she shouldn’t take them out.
For one, Wang Yushi is too arrogant, because in the few days that she’s unwillingly been forced in his presence, he’s spent it admiring his own appearance and skills. Ren Haoran barely holds the other boy back, and while he’s smart, he’s timid.
Yue Yunqi is...she looks at him, and he peers at her quietly. She doesn’t even know how Yue Yunqi got into the sect compound, since he doesn’t seem to be a guest disciple, but the others seem to know him. But he seems like he knows a few spells--she’s seen him scrawling on talismans by himself--which is incredibly surprising for a boy as young as him.
His family name makes her wonder, though. She shakes her head, not thinking more of it.
And Chang Ming? Chang Ming cuddles up to her side. She sighs, wiping her mouth on the back of her sleeve to look at him.
“Chang Ming, you don’t even want to be a cultivator,” Xiu Lihua says, frowning. “Why are you following me around, too?”
“I wanted to see jiejie,” he responds, smiling wide. “You’ll protect me, right?”
Wang Yushi butts in, hand shooting out to her bowl. “You’ll definitely be able to protect us.”
“No,” Xiu Lihua answers, for the hundredth time. “Stop following me, stop telling me to teach you, stop--stop everything, actually? What kind of idiot, already someone the entire sect and region hates, would take four teenage boys out on a night hunt?”
❀ ❀ ❀
Xiu Lihua is the idiot, already someone the entire sect and region hates, who takes four teenage boys out on a night hunt.
She grunts as the huge rat-looking yaoguai that’d scurried out of nowhere falls to the ground with a thud. Wang Yushi gasps in excitement.
Ren Haoran claps politely. “You used your sword.”
“Uh,” Xiu Lihua says, between breaths of air she’s inhaling. She wipes her forehead. “Yes? I thought you wanted to watch?
“What he means is,” Yue Yunqi cuts in, matter of fact, “you used your sword. Without any cheap tricks.”
Wang Yushi shushes him, eyebrow ticking. “Good heavens, you have like, no tact! You didn’t have to say it!”
“It’s just what we’ve been told,” Ren Haoran is quick to explain, waving his hands in the air awkwardly.
Chang Ming tuts. “That’s not nice.”
“Ah,” Xiu Lihua says, looking at her reflection in Mengdie’s shaft. “Uh, no. Not...cheap tricks. I really did cultivate just as anyone else. This isn’t a demon blade or anything, hah.”
“Then why does the dang thing glow blue,” Yue Yunqi says.
“I cannot stand you,” Wang Yushi hisses, before Ren Haoran pulls his friend back soothingly.
Xiu Lihua observes the track marks in the grass. They lead further into the forest.
“I tied part of my soul into it,” Xiu Lihua says, tilting her head to observe the depth of the tracks. “And I hurt when it hurts, for real, so don’t do something stupid and--stick a firecracker to it? I don’t know. What do boys do to be mean nowadays?”
“I’m sorry, you tied part of your what into it?” Yue Yunqi asks, hopping off the rock he’d been sitting on.
“We show off our superiorly gorgeous faces,” Wang Yushi answers, flipping his hair over his shoulder.
Xiu Lihua sighs. She motions for them to follow her.
❀ ❀ ❀
“We knew you were formidable--considered a prodigy,” Ren Haoran chimes in, once he’s finished making a paper man like Xiu Lihua has asked him to. “But we were told that…. you took less than honorable shortcuts to get to your strength level?”
“Like dark arts,” Yue Yunqi fills in.
“No,” Xiu Lihua answers, ignoring the way the three older boys (Chang Ming is busy happily eating a persimmon Xiu Lihua gave him) let out a breath of relief. She tilts her head, inspecting the spiritual energy signature the tracks left behind. Why did they trace back to a water body? “No dark arts. The soul and the sword thing is a...technique I learned from a sect.”
Wang Yushi perks up. “From where?”
Xiu Lihua turns to narrow her eyes at him. He raises his hands in surrender.
“I wake up at the start of maoshi everyday to train,” Xiu Lihua continues. She stands up, peering at the tracks curiously. “Try that first, then come to me.”
❀ ❀ ❀
“Be smart about it!” Xiu Lihua instructs, firmly disarming Wang Yushi for the third time in a row. “You’re not looking at me, you’re looking at my hands.”
He groans, picking his sword back up with a grumble. Yue Yunqi’s busy making a silencing talisman for her.
Ren Haoran claps for him politely, regardless. Wang Yushi shoots him a wide grin and a thumbs up before turning back to her. The two seem...close. Xiu Lihua feels a soft pang in her chest.
“You two remind me of something,” Xiu Lihua says.
“Actually?” He asks, perking up as he starts to circle her.
“You know how I got this sword?”
Wang Yushi frowns at the sudden topic change. He shakes his head.
“Sacrificed four unsuspecting boys when they got separated from each other.”
“No,” Xiu Lihua says. She pauses, looks around. The other three boys are looking at her in horror. “What are you--it’s a joke? Oh my--okay, just. I mean: stick together, you guys. Friends are good. Keep them close. Geez.”
She ends up disarming Wang Yushi again, and he laughs, delighted, bowing to her courteously before running over to help Yue Yunqi.
Chang Ming bounds over to her side, holding a stick. She smiles down at him. “You want to spar, too?”
He nods, serious. She ruffles his hair, smiling fondly. These kids. At least they seemed like they were happy.
❀ ❀ ❀
“Aha!” Xiu Lihua says, as the forest clearing rustles, and the dirt beneath them shudders as the ground shakes. Something’s coming. “I knew it! From all the rat demons, the spirit that must be chasing it is a…”
A huge dog steps out of the clearing, snarling. Its jaws are probably the size of the trees. The boys all yelp, clutching each other.
“...alright, that’s different,” Xiu Lihua says. She leans on Mengdie, scratching her head. “I was going to say a cat, but--”
“That is a dog!!” Wang Yushi screams, unsheathing his sword.
“It made sense! Cats eat rats!!”
“What about the traces back to the lake?” Yue Yunqi yells, staring at the yaoguai shakily. She shrugs, until a splash sounds in the lake next to them.
They turn, to see:
“A big, big koi fish!!” Chang Ming screams in absolute glee.
“That is some excellent symbolism,” Ren Haoran observes.
“What?” Xiu Lihua says.
And then the dog beast pounces on her.
❀ ❀ ❀
“Sorry for freaking out on you,” Wang Yushi says, glum, as they begin the trip back to the sect’s main compound. Ren Haoran nods in affirmation, and Chang Ming repeats this glumly. Yue Yunqi just continues trailing after her quietly.
“Nah, it’s fine,” Xiu Lihua says, despite the gash ripped above her knee. That dog was vicious. The koi stood its ground, though. “I handled it fine, anyways. You boys are kids. I didn’t expect you to fight those now.”
“Still, though,” Wang Yushi continues, laughing as he nudges his friend. “Even though I’ve only been a guest disciple for the past year--wow, if Ren-zongzhu had been with us, we would have been sent to the bamboo sticks right away already!”
“Imagine how it would be if Ren Jian were here,” Ren Haoran adds, shuddering. “He’d open his mouth about it and dig us even deeper.”
“Can you imagine if the famed Zaihuanü would be the one hitting us--”
“No,” Xiu Lihua cuts in, sharp, shaken at the notion. Her chest squeezes uncomfortably. How could she--in any way, how? Her fingers press crescent moons into her palms at the thought. She takes an awkward breath to compose herself. “Never, don’t--I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t.”
The boys go quiet at that, Wang Yushi awkwardly rubbing his head, and Chang Ming looking up at her sadly. He takes her hand in his, comforting, and she smiles, wry, down at him. They get back to the clearing with the roads in silence.
❀ ❀ ❀
“Xiu-guniang, what does your dress for the party look like?” Ren Haoran asks, polite, as they pass by another store.
“Uh,” Xiu Lihua says, who was planning to attend solely for the foodstuffs. “I hadn’t intended on dressing particularly fanciful for the occasion?”
“Most of the major sects will be there,” Yue Yunqi states, deadpan. “If you don’t dress up, especially for something like this, they’ll see it as a sign of disrespect.”
“Not to mention we can’t have you,” Wang Yushi cuts in, incredulous, gesturing to her face, “with a face like this, go to waste! Honestly, Xiu-guniang, your bone structure is so envious. The dark arts really don’t take away your beauty.”
“Not dark arts,” Xiu Lihua says, annoyed.
“No matter! I, luckily for you, our beloved Xiu-laoshi for the evening,” Wang Yushi continues, dramatically spinning around. Ren Haoran catches him as he trips, and he continues, “know a thing or two about beauty!”
“Oh no,” Yue Yunqi mutters.
Xiu Lihua frowns. What?
❀ ❀ ❀
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Xiu Lihua grits out, deadpan.
The noble ladies surrounding her pay her annoyance no mind as they put various fabrics to her skin, tighten measurements to her waist.
Wang Yushi wipes away a fake tear of pride from the corner of his eye. “I pulled in a few favors! No one from Yongtai Wang attends anywhere without being well dressed. These wonderful ladies can get you a dress and some makeup in no time, Xiu-guniang! No need to thank me.”
Xiu Lihua frowns, about to retort that she really couldn’t pay for this, before one of the women grabs her by the arm and whisks her off into a deeper room.
❀ ❀ ❀
“You have the most beautiful, big, doe-like eyes, darling,” one of the women says. Xiu Lihua tries not to flush, mostly because she thinks her blood’s already preoccupied flowing out of everywhere she’s been pricked by needles.
Another woman tuts, turning Xiu Lihua’s face back towards her as she dabs a brush on her lips. “Flower-like lips, a small face, yes, guniang, you have quite the face!”
“Thank you,” Xiu Lihua says, then immediately regrets it when the woman forces her mouth shut as she continues applying the lipstick.
❀ ❀ ❀
“Jiejie!” Chang Ming screams, when she walks into the room. “You look beautiful!”
“Oh. My. Heavens,” Wang Yushi says, gasping as he stands up straight from his cushiony seat. Ren Haoran claps enthusiastically.
Xiu Lihua clears her throat, sheepishly standing in front of them. She looks in the mirror.
It’s--wow. It’s...a lot to process, really? She hasn’t looked this lovely in--in well. Ever.
The ladies did neat work with her face, patting on a rouge color fully onto her upper lip and a vertical stripe on the middle of her bottom one. They’ve tied her hair up into neat buns and intricate braids, with a complicated silver headset resting into them, and blue jewels that drop down from chains onto her forehead.
The dress she has on is a periwinkle blue, flowy with its light fabric, and a thin layer of embroidered flowers shines over it. The sleeves are slightly translucent, and her skin shows through the light blue of them.
“Ren-zongzhu won’t be able to insult you like this,” Yue Yunqi observes, and it’s the nicest thing he’s said to her all day. Ren Haoran nods vigorously.
“Pah, you guys are all sweet talkers,” Xiu Lihua answers, but she’s smiling so much her cheek hurts. She loves it. But how in the world am I going to eat in this?
❀ ❀ ❀
8 years ago, in the past
“Ren-zongzhu. We’ve been restraining her for this long, so she doesn’t learn anything like he could. But she grows more and more troublesome as she comes of age.”
“She’s naturally inclined to try, though, just like her father--”
“Enough of that man! You’ve been hung up on your failure to control him this long after his death--”
“How dare you talk like that to Ren-zongzhu!”
“Xiu Lihua is a new problem, Ren Mingshou, and if we continue like this--”
“I say we grow stricter with her. Make her really--”
Xiu Lihua runs away from where she was seated outside the meeting room. She has to find Ren Ju. She can’t bother to think about what the elders are saying about her, but:
Ren Ju’s...been so sickly, she has to intervene, she has to do something soon--
❀ ❀ ❀
It’s a party to celebrate the twenty year anniversary of Xiu Bingwen’s death.
Xiu Lihua swallows as she walks into the halls, suddenly conscious of how she’s dressed. There’s more than a few whispers about how Zaihuanü had such a surprising appearance. But she’s more focused on...
There’s a strange, monstrous caricature of what she assumes is Xiu Bingwen hung up above a flame. She curls her hands into fists. Contemplates taking it. Wonders if they would notice.
“Glad to see you’re not dead,” a coy voice greets her, light toned.
Xiu Lihua turns to face him. Shi Jinghui holds a cup in his hands. He’s dressed in brilliant gold robes. “Just checking in if you’re alive or not, what with the boys tailing you.”
Xiu Lihua snorts in response. “Disappointed that I still am?” She jokes, nudging him.
“Pleased to see that you still are, actually,” he answers.
Xiu Lihua doesn’t know how to respond to that. She gives him a small grin, gesturing to the slight man’s form. “Yeah, well the boys are way nicer to you, so. You’d have nothing to worry about from them. Nice robes.”
“Thank you,” Shi Jinghui answers, but he doesn’t look entirely pleased. “I admit I would like something more...on the fanciful side, if you will, but Ren Mingshou would look at me with quite the evil eye. You look stunning, though.”
Xiu Lihua laughs at that, an ugly chortling sound from her chest, and he laughs into his cup in response.
Later, when they all sit to eat, and the twenty four water banquet dishes are served--Shi Jinghui raises his eyebrows, impressed, at the peony swallow dish--she eats happily, mood significantly better than this morning. At the very least, she’s with a friend.
When they’re done: some dancers have been hired, their sleeves like water in the air as they twist elegantly to the beat of the music. Xiu Lihua makes her way across the floor to get a better view, apologizing as she pushes through bodies.
She trips, just slightly, over her dress in one moment, and she stands up to apologize to the person in front of her.
Ren Liufang stares at her, wide eyed.
She looks up and down Xiu Lihua’s form. Xiu Lihua feels self conscious, suddenly, standing in front of her--Ren Liufang is dressed brilliantly in luxurious fabrics of red and white that frame her form elegantly, and her makeup makes her looks sharper and more annoyingly untouchable than before.
“Excuse me,” Xiu Lihua says, not bothering to hide the irritation in her voice.
“Wait,” Ren Liufang says. When Xiu Lihua falters, narrowing her eyes at the other woman, she looks around, then back at Xiu Lihua with a pleading gaze. “Please. Outside.”
❀ ❀ ❀
“What,” Xiu Lihua starts, once they’ve walked away from the noise of the music and the cheering people. “Stop staring at me like that. I can look pretty too, you snobby twat.”
“I didn’t say anything,” Ren Liufang says. She doesn’t deny it, though, and Xiu Lihua snorts.
Ren Liufang sighs, looking weary. Then, she straightens her shoulders. “You shouldn’t have come,” she says.
Xiu Lihua bristles. This again? “I am so sick of your bull crap, Xiong Jinli! If you want me gone, then just have the guts to say so instead of putting it behind flowery words!”
“See, I predicted you would make a scene,” Ren Liufang seethes, silver eyes suddenly alight with a cold fury. Her fists clench at her sides. “All over something you take the meaning for whatever you want to take it for.”
“How else am I supposed to take it?” Xiu Lihua yells, vision red. The nerve of this woman, the gall-- “You said it yourself! If only I’d never been born! I’m just your nuisance, right? If only I’d keeled over and died that winter!”
“Do not be so selfish,” Ren Liufang hisses, low. “Do you think you’re the only one who suffered? That everyone else went to paradise after you left seven years ago?”
“Oh, screw you--”
“You left, Xiu Lihua! You left, so do not act--”
“And you never asked me to stay!” Xiu Lihua screams, eyes burning.
Ren Liufang stops, mouth agape. She looks taken back.
Xiu Lihua inhales, angry with herself for feeling so much--and Ren Mingshou’s right, isn’t he? She’s always felt too much. The thought of the man upsets her more, and the thought of him and Ren Liufang just--
Xiu Lihua viciously scrubs at her eyes. “If you’d just...chased me, or something,” she says, suddenly feeling small. She presses a hand to her eyes, wraps her other arm around herself. “Maybe, I would have...maybe I...could’ve stayed, but…”
Xiu Lihua isn’t even sure if she believes herself. How could she have stayed? But then again--she’ll never know.
Because Ren Liufang never asked her to.
They’re both silent.
Ren Liufang breaks it first. Quietly, “Xiu Lihua--”
“I’m sorry. Excuse me,” she manages, before breaking away. She turns on her heel and hurries as quickly as she can to get away. She cannot let Ren Liufang see her tears.
The noise of the party envelopes her again, a strange, chaotic respite. She lets herself grow numb to the sound of the drums, repeating to herself, like a mantra: I was brave, I am brave, I did what was right.
Xiu Lihua doesn’t know who she’s trying to convince.
❀ ❀ ❀
“Cheng Bowen informed me that there’s...something else that will be important to our case,” Shi Jinghui tells her, as the party starts to slow, the firepits dying down into mellow places of warmth to huddle by and the music delving into something slow.
He gently puts a hand on her shoulder, eyebrows furrowing. “Xiu-guniang?”
Xiu Lihua shakes her head. “What?”
“He said we can investigate tomorrow morning,” Shi Jinghui says, but he looks concerned. “But if you need rest--”
“No,” Xiu Lihua says, looking down at her hands. They shake. In its hilt at her back, Mengdie vibrates, uneasy. “I want to solve this.”
“It will have to be the four of us,” Shi Jinghui finishes, cautious. Like he knows. “Working together. Will you be alright with that?”
Xiu Lihua thinks of Ren Mingshou, and of Ren Liufang, and the rest of them. Her hands tighten into fists. She’d prove them wrong. It’s what she’d always wanted.
“Let’s do this,” she affirms, already bracing herself. No matter what’s to come, she’d be the one to solve things. She could do anything she put her mind to. “First thing in the morning.”
"Shizun," the young man breathes into his mouth, voice low.
Song Liwei takes a moment to sigh back, relishing in the warmth from their faces pressed so closely together. Then, without decor, he tugs at Liu Junjie's arms around his waist again. And again, Liu Junjie does not relent.
"Junjie," he whispers. "I must go pay the innkeeper."
Liu Junjie makes a sad huff, like an abandoned dog. Song Liwei makes another effort to gently pry himself out, pushing lightly against Liu Junjie's chest, and then his shoulders. He gives up again, sighing.
" ... just ... " Song Liwei glances furtively at the door. Xinyi is probably waiting outside. Shame flushes his face. " ... just one more is permissible, I suppose ... "
And with that, Liu Junjie perks up, swooping down eagerly to steal another k—
Song Liwei wakes with a start.
He rolls around in bed for several minutes. This is to quell his panic.
There is no way he can face Liu Junjie after yet another one of these ludicrous dreams.
Sun Xinyi ambles around Song-jiaoshou's kitchen for several minutes before finally deciding to sit down. Liu-xiong was looking kinda anxious about all his fidgeting, anyways. Unceremoniously, he reaches under the sofa cushion he stored his laptop under and pulls it out.
Liu Junjie looks at him again, eyebrows slightly furrowed.
" ... you good, man?" Sun Xinyi asks, meeting his confused stare. "Did I overcook something?"
"What?" Liu Junjie says, then glances down at the bowl of salty tofu pudding and soy sauce that Sun Xinyi had whipped up, courtesy of the ingredients Song-jiaoshou had in his fridge already. "No, it's—ahem. It's fine."
"Okay," Sun Xinyi answers, drawing out the last syllable in confusion. "Then what's the problem? You keep looking at me like I've pulled the professor out of a hat."
Liu Junjie scratches his head. He pauses for several moments. Sun Xinyi waits patiently for him to recalibrate and say whatever forcedly-chill thing he's about to say.
"You used ... his ... kitchen," Liu Junjie says, finally.
Oh. Sun Xinyi gets it now. He shrugs, then opens his computer with a snort.
"Is that it?" He says light-heartedly. "I know it's a little weird, but I've known Song-jiaoshou since I was a kid. The TA's at Baxian Mountain aren't this familiar with their professors' apartment unit, if that's what you're worried about." He pauses. "I mean, Prof was really fussy about it the first few times around, don't get me wrong. He's all about the professionalism, you know? Just took a couple of uninvited visits with some dire emergencies to break in."
Liu Junjie looks at him with an even more tightly furrowed brow. There's ... huh. Something troubled in his expression. Sun Xinyi frowns, confused.
Song-jiaoshou's bedroom door swings open.
He looks up to see the professor, already neatly dressed in his usual work attire, standing in the doorway. The man nods to Sun Xinyi in acknowledgement, then looks at Liu Junjie.
With an almost panicked hurriedness, he turns away and sweeps into the kitchen.
"I made breakfast," Sun Xinyi calls over his shoulder cheerily.
There's the sound of the shoddy microwave turning on. Then, " ... thank you, Xinyi."
Hm. He looked over at Liu Junjie, who was already turned away and scarfing down the pudding quietly.
Weird, Sun Xinyi thinks to himself. So weird.
masterchefsun - 1 hr ago
anyone else got plans for the summer lol? so hard to get work done in this heat
therainstops - 46 minutes ago
Glad to see you're making good use of the TA forum, as always.
masterchefsun - 43 minutes ago
oh haha. glad to see you're being a pretentious prick as always
so? your snooty tooty school corp got you doing anything?
therainstops - 40 minutes ago
Not yet. You?
masterchefsun - 38 minutes ago
nah lol i'm with song-jiaoshou right now though
holed up at his bc of reasons
therainstops - 29 minutes ago
How dog-like of you.
Wouldn't expect anything less at this point.
masterchefsun - 27 minutes ago
yah yah whatever douche
if we ever meet irl you'll see how great he is xoxo
therainstops - 1 minute ago
Song Liwei sits, stock-still, in the passenger seat of Liu Junjie's car. Neither of them have said so much as a word for the entire car ride.
As luck happened to have it, Liu Junjie also happened to be involved with the volunteer program that Song Liwei was working on developing under Baxian University's oversight. That ... technically made him Liu Junjie's superior. Again.
All the more reason to put distance between them, he tries to reason to himself.
Normally, he would have taken the subway. But the heatwave had an effect on the province's power grid, and the entire railway system had been temporarily shut down. And Liu Junjie was driving to the same place to work, anyways, as Xinyi had so aptly pointed out as soon as Song Liwei had stepped out the door, so ...
Here they were. In perpetual, frosty silence.
Song Liwei tries not to look at him. He really does. Aside from the shameful guilt he know is overdue, and the much-deserved apathy he receives from the younger boy, the residue disgust of the past few nights' dreams do not allow him to think of anything but...
Song Liwei swallows, looking to Liu Junjie's larger hands on the steering wheel. Unbidden, images of those hands around his, accompanied by a much warmer voice come to mind.
By chance, he meets Liu Junjie's eyes in the front mirror. Quickly, he looks out the window, hoping the warmth does not show on his face.
It's...jarring. To be faced with the evidence that Liu Junjie has, undoubtedly, grown into a sturdy, unfairly large young man. Song Liwei finds himself unwilling to detach from the image of a vulnerable, younger boy, with a sweet smile and a jubilant voice, who needed Song Liwei to hold a cup of orange juice to his lips under the spell of a cold. Who needed to be protected, on various fronts.
Still. They are where they are now. Whether or not Song Liwei chooses to cling to that image and refuse to buy into the visual of the present day, adult Liu Junjie doesn't matter.
What matters are the facts. And the facts are that Liu Junjie hates his former mentor so much that he can hardly speak to him. It is Song Liwei's bed that he's made, and he must lie in it. There is no room for his personal sentiments to take any space.
But even still, working and living with Liu Junjie—with those dreams, and these strange, new feelings—seems impossible.
co-written with @mnemosynink, who wrote chapter eight (and all even-numbered chapters)
-Tianan: area of land the Ren Sect controls (aka Tianan Ren). modern day province of Henan
-Zaihuanü: Xiu Lihua’s unofficial title; “disaster flower maiden.” Similarly, Ren Liufang’s title is Xiong Jinli, “fierce koi.”
-yaoguai: spirit, monster
-maoshi: the time period of 5-7 a.m.
-Yongtai: the area of land the Wang Sect controls (aka Yongtai Wang)
-water banquet dishes: taken from the real life Henan dish of the Luoyang Water Banquet courses, in which there are 24 dishes, some of which are bigger ones (as the peony swallow dish) accompanied by smaller side ones. See some lovely pictures here!: https://www.youlinmagazine.com/article/the-water-banquet-in-luoyang/MTA1OQ==
Suffixes (to address/refer to a):
-guniang: young woman
Jiejie: “older sister”; can be to address any older girl, often used by children
-Xiong (Shixiong): martial elder brother, can be used to address an older boy in your sect
-gongzi: young man
-zongzhu: sect leader