chapter 10: of parental figures and the lack thereof
Cheng Bowen comes to get her around midnight. At his presence, the torch flame flickers.
“Get up,” he says, “I’ve found a new lead.”
Ren Liufang doesn’t say a word about him breaking into Ren archives again. She stands up and dusts her ceremonial robes off. Her parents’ headstone stares back at her, along with an almost decade old pile of shifted dirt, smelling of fire.
She’s been kneeling for an hour.
“Where to?” Ren Liufang asks quietly.
“Wu City. Tomorrow morning,” he answers, tone just as low. She nods. Cheng Bowen casts one more glance at the grave before turning away without a word.
“Wait,” Ren Liufang says. The man pauses.
She swallows, “All this time, were you waiting?”
Cheng Bowen glances at her from the corner of his eye. His blue clothes are colored with dust and dried traces of washed blood. Everything about his face is cold. She wonders if this is what he’s been hiding all this time.
“I still am,” he replies.
He’s gone as quickly as he came. Ren Liufang can’t help but to stare at his disappearing figure, the tail of his robes and the slight jingle of his sword against his hip.
“You were always the better of the two of us,” she thinks and blows out the torch fire.
❀ ❀ ❀
“Focus on cultivating! I won’t raise someone who can’t defend themselves!” Her father scolds, wincing as Ren Liufang tightens his bandages. Her mother scoffs.
“Ha, I told you when she was born that she’d never be the grand warrior that you imagined! So small, less than the width of my forearm! She should just focus on calligraphy and literature so she doesn’t get hurt.”
“Really? Because it seems like her studies aren’t doing well either. Another failed test! Another failed sword form! She’s being overworked, otherwise she wouldn’t be doing this badly! I at least want to know my daughter will be able to fight back if she’s ever attacked!”
“It’s your stupid delusion of her becoming some kind of golden warrior that’s the fault! Look at her! All bones and looking like she’s never been outside in her life! Someone like that will never be able to get forward in cultivation!”
“I’m focusing on both,” Ren Liufang says quietly. “Uncle teaches me both.”
At the mention of Ren Mingshou, her father immediately turns sour. However, with a sharp glare from his wife, he only coughs and changes the subject.
“Ren Ju, do you have a lot of friends? You’re not lonely, are you?” he asks.
“You ask that question every week!” Her mother complains. “Didn’t she say that she’s too focused on studies! Bah, I bet if we just made her a noblewoman she wouldn’t have to deal with so much to learn for cultivation!”
“Do you only know how to rag on me?” her father shoots back before apologetically smiling at Ren Liufang, “You’re okay?” he wonders worriedly.
“I’m okay,” Ren Liufang replies, tying off the edge of the bandage. Her father grunts as he shifts into a more comfortable position, coughing into his palm.
“If there’s anything you need, just tell mom and dad, okay? We’ll do anything for you.” He kisses her on the forehead. Ren Liufang closes her eyes as his cold lips contact her skin. Her mother huffs and pulls her to sit by her instead.
“And where are we? Right now, it’s Ren Ju taking care of us. What good parents we are!” She pulls Ren Liufang’s small shoulders towards her, resting her daughter’s head on her body.
“You don’t have to visit so much, you know. Go make some friends,” her mother murmurs, carding her wrinkled fingers through her hair.
“When you get better, I will,” Ren Liufang says, leaning into her fragile warmth. It takes all she has to not fall asleep right then and there; she’s so tired.
“Bah, when we get better? How about you improve your grades first,” her mother nags but lets a smile tug at her lips nonetheless.
Ren Liufang leaves her parents’ room a few hours after that. Outside, the healers give her a short and sterile briefing. Ren Liufang only nods until they leave, dragging the scent of death behind them.
Suddenly, she coughs into her palm. When she removes her hand from her mouth, it’s stained with black blood.
❀ ❀ ❀
When Ren Liufang awakes, she believes for a second that she can hear her parents yelling in the other room. It’s always yelling; it sounds like music.
She’s halfway down the hallway when she realizes that she was only hearing things.
Sometimes, Ren Liufang brings women home. Other times, she smokes or drinks until she blacks out. And sometimes, she does neither because there’s always a voice in head telling her to “stay alive”. It’s on these days when she shutters the windows the best she can and curls up in a corner of the room where the darkest of the shadows don’t reach, listening to that voice ramble on and on about terrible things it wants to do to others.
Today though, it is blessedly silent.
A few hours later, Shi Jinghui raps on the door. His knocks are gentle but loud all the same.
“We’re heading out, Ren-daren,” he calls. “We’ll meet you in the courtyard.”
Ren Liufang doesn’t respond, not moving until she hears Shi Jinghui steadily patter away. Slowly, she eases herself to her feet and smooths her nightwear out, combing a few fingers through her oily hair.
She’s out of the house in five minutes. The sun has already risen. All around them, the remnants of yesterday’s festivities lay untouched on the ground. There are even a few senior disciples slumped by the river’s edge, presumably watching the moon from last night. Briefly, Ren Liufang heads towards the waterbed and runs her fingers over the sharp pebbles, through the icy water. Her skin still perks from the chill, from the rough ebb of the low tide. Her breath evens into a straight line, until everything falls away in front of her eyes.
That was what raised her.
“Ren-daren, are you ready to head out?” Shi Jinghui’s polite voice rings out behind her. Ren Liufang gingerly extracts her hands from the water, shaking it off her palm.
“I am,” she replies. Honglei is cold on her hip. There was once a time where she deemed it heavy enough to notice its presence, but now, it isn’t the sword that is heavy. It is the weight of her head on her shoulders that is heavier. Ren Liufang turns around and sees Cheng Bowen, Xiu Lihua, and Shi Jinghui waiting for her. Only the latter is staring at her.
“Who will you ride with?” She directs this question at the shorter man.
“Me,” Cheng Bowen answers for him. “I can hold it steady for Shi-yisheng.”
“And I know you can’t.” Those words go unsaid, but they still are heard clear as day. Ren Liufang has always thought that Cheng Bowen was too perceptive for his, or her, own good.
“Let us go then.”
She draws her sword in a single movement, the others following. Xiu Lihua has not spoken a single word, but the sound her sword makes is the loudest, a metallic slice accompanying the constant hum of Mengdie.
They jump on, with Shi Jinghui’s arm looped tightly around Cheng Bowen’s waist, and ride away before anyone can see them.
When Ren Liufang was young, her parents used to tell her that dragons lived above the clouds. If you tried to fly to that height, the dragons would see you and curse you out of the afterlife for daring to lay your eyes upon their holy forms. Looking back, that was probably just a silly myth they made up to prevent her from flying up too high when she was just a child. Going too high meant that if you stayed there long enough, you’d stop breathing. Your spiritual energy would bleed away until all you could do was fall.
Midway through the ride, something goes wrong.
The sensation of losing control while in the air is a unique kind of pure fright. Ren Liufang is flying in front of all of them, mainly because she knows the way and also because she can’t bear to look at Xiu Lihua. She feels it first, and her sword suddenly dips, bringing her body with it.
“Ren-daren!” She can hear Shi Jinghui yell, because he’s the only one talking to her at the moment.
Ren Liufang falls for a total of one and a half seconds. Sucking a breath, she summons a burst of energy and ascends again, barely skimming a cloud. She looks behind her, fear spiking for the second time.
“It could have been a mistake on my part,” she thinks desperately, until Cheng Bowen tips over in Shi Jinghui’s frantic grasp. They regain their balance in less than half a second, but it was still too close; Shi Jinghui’s eyes are wild. Xiu Lihua in the very back almost speeds forward towards them before she realizes something, gaze darting around until it pinpoints on something.
“Whirl… wind? Wind… wind demon? No, it’s a spell,” she mutters under her breath. Ren Liufang follows her pupils towards a source northeast of them, a small spiral vortex in the middle of the sky.
“But there has to be an origin. Someone has to be making it.” Her eyebrows knit together.
Meanwhile, Cheng Bowen and Shi Jinghui wobble again, the latter shrieking as he scrambles to keep a hold on the taller man. Cheng Bowen grunts.
“We need to get down!” he yells, but just as he presses one of his feet down onto his blade to descend, another wisp of wind nearly sends them toppling over. Ren Liufang resists the urge to fly over as fast as she can, instead removing a dagger from her robes.
It’s small. The handle is the size of two of her fingers. The sheath is thin but durable enough to not be pieced during battle. It’s been a mandatory precaution since the war several decades ago.
“To be used in the events of enemy capture.”
Swords are sacred in the Ren Sect. A Ren sword bears everything but the blood of its wielder. Ren Liufang knows this. She won’t be going to hell for that.
This dagger, she’s held for far less honorable reasons.
“I’ll piece the vortex! Find the caster!” She shouts at Xiu Lihua, who looks increasingly panicked with every second. It only takes another moment for her features to gloss over at the sound of Ren Liufang’s voice, which hurts but can’t be amended now. She’s been sending spiritual energy out for a few minutes now, the blue light slicing through the roughening wind. She doesn’t reply to Ren Liufang’s order, but it’s natural because she isn’t under her command.
Or her friend.
Cheng Bowen and Shi Jinghui look terrifyingly close to falling now. The wind slices at Cheng Bowen’s face and back as he shields Shi Jinghui from harm, tears gathering in his eyes from the whipping gale. Shi Jinghui’s knuckles are white from where he’s dug them into the taller man’s arms.
“I can’t find them!” Xiu Lihua grits out in frustration. There’s blood gathering under her jaw from a cut. Ren Liufang looks around again, until she hears Shi Jinghui’s shout.
“Above! Above the clouds!” he chokes out. Ren Liufang momentarily freezes, and from her place, Xiu Lihua stops as well from a split second. Concentrating once again, the woman takes a shallow breath and sends a last wave of energy out.
Her eyes snap open. She says something, but Ren Liufang can’t hear her above the wind. In an instant, she powers up and plunges above the clouds, back where none of them can see. Ren Liufang turns back to the vortex, struggling to stay standing.
She just needs to wait. Xiu Lihua has no extra weapon, but her sword is… strange in the way that it works beyond everything Ren Liufang knows.
She just needs to trust Xiu Lihua.
In the meantime, Ren Liufang inches closer to the vortex, wincing every time it draws blood. She’s tempted to just send a blast of spiritual energy out, but judging by how much she’s already spending on keeping herself afloat, there’s none for her to portion into damage control.
Her mother was right. She was born weak, but what can she do about it?
Distantly, she hears shouts coming from above. Ren Liufang crouches at the ready, ears perked for a single distinctive sound.
A shout and a scrape. Wind rushing.
Then, the sound of ringing.
Swallowed, Ren Liufang bends her legs and jumps, dagger in hand. The blade impales straight into the vortex, and it sputters. A wave of blue splits down the sky, baring the sun to them. From the corner of her eye, Ren Liufang thinks she can see a black figure hurrying away, but it isn’t before the gyre seizes.
Ren Liufang catches the sheath of her sword before she can plummet down into the ground below. The dagger is still clutched tightly in her hands.
Shi Jinghui however, isn’t too lucky.
His screaming tears through the heavens. His fingers slipped for only a second.
Cheng Bowen cries out in pain. His injuries have torn back open from the strength of the wind spell. Xiu Lihua cries out in horror from above. Ren Liufang thinks she can see the woman get ready to speed downwards, but she’s too high. She’s barely breathing and apparently, the exchange left her deprived of more spiritual energy than was predicted. Mengdie’s vibrating shakes the sky, and it looks chipped in some places it should not be. She looks determined.
Ren Liufang can’t have it.
“Stay put!” she yells at the top of her lungs. Xiu Lihua halts in her preparation and even looks angry for the split second that Ren Liufang can tell. But she can’t see linger on it as she takes a breath and plunges downwards.
Shi Jinghui’s limbs and robes are flapping everywhere. He doesn’t know how to keep his arms still, which works against Ren Liufang when she snatches him out of the air.
“Don’t move,” she grunts breathlessly. Thankfully, the man is injury-less, probably due to Cheng Bowen taking all the blows from earlier. His heart is skipping beats, and Ren Liufang can only hold him as tightly as she can as they steady themselves. Luckily, the aftershocks from earlier have faded.
“We need to find a village,” she tells them raspily. They nod without a word and once again, they settle into their usual formation, except with Ren Liufang and Shi Jinghui in the middle.
Shi Jinghui’s shoulders are trembling. His eyes look glazed over, and Ren Liufang knows they’ll have to touch ground before they get to their destination.
“Shi Jinghui,” she says slowly. He turns his head up in acknowledgement, but he’s still too stiff to even look at her.
“Look above the clouds.” she points to the exposed blue above. His eyes flicker, following her gesture.
“There are dragons.”
It’s not even noon, so they’ll need to head back out of town soon. Still, Shi Jinghui is close to collapsing, and Cheng Bowen’s unhealed wounds have been reopened. Xiu Lihua hasn’t spoken since the encounter with the mysterious figure earlier, but Ren Liufang is partially too angry at her to notice.
“She almost fell to her death. What kind of fool is she?!”
“Xiu-guniang, please find a place for Shi-yisheng to rest,” she orders the other woman stormily. Xiu Lihua looks ready to protest, but one look at Shi Jinghui’s trembling frame is enough to shut her up. Ren Liufang pushes his body into her arms gently, relinquishing her hold on the man. Shi Jinghui protests.
“Wait, I have to look at… Cheng-gongzi’s injuries,” he croaks. Cheng Bowen shakes his head.
“You should rest. We’re going to leave soon anyways and we’ll need you more then than we do now! I’m fine, see?” he flexes a bicep and suppresses a wince. Shi Jinghui laughs weakly but lets himself be carried away by Xiu Lihua. Ren Liufang turns to Cheng Bowen.
“We’re going to find a doctor. You’re not fine,” she says flatly. Cheng Bowen’s previously carefree expression melts away, replaced by a more serious one.
“You lead the way, Ren-daren,” he says. Ren Liufang purses her lips and whirls away, leading them both into the fray.
It’s an all too familiar position. Ren Liufang in the lead as the more experienced superior, Cheng Bowen trailing behind her as the subordinate. They’d gotten in the habit of standing side by side in the past few months, but it seems they’ve regressed back to this.
It’s too much. Ren Liufang asks around the marketplace for a doctor, and they all point her towards a single place.
“He’s not a doctor, but he fixes people up from time to time. If you’re a cultivator that wants to lay low, then he’s your best bet.”
Considering that Ren Liufang didn’t inform Ren Mingshou of her departure, that sounds ideal. She hauls Cheng Bowen towards the other side of town, and they soon arrive at what seems to be a small but well furnished home at the edge of the din.
Ren Liufang knocks. Cheng Bowen simply holds his bandages in place. After a few moments, someone answers the door, a boy with a slight build and a noticeable limp. When she looks inside, she thinks she can see crutches leaned against the wall.
“We require your services. We can pay as well,” Ren Liufang says concisely. The boy looks them up and down, partially in disbelievement.
“You’re cultivators?” he asks, incredulous.
“We were told that you have treated cultivators before,” she replied. He nods cautiously.
“That, I have.” He moves to create space for them. “Please, come in.”
❀ ❀ ❀
“Don’t you think it’s time to give up?”
Ren Liufang blinks numbly, clasped fingers digging into her knuckles. She doesn’t even acknowledge Ren Ronghu’s presence, only staring distantly at the wall. Bandages encircle her left eye and neck, reaching down into her upper torso.
By all accounts, the transfer was a success.
Ren Ronghu doesn’t flinch when those lifeless silver eyes finally turn onto him, locking into his form.
“Give up?” Ren Liufang echoes. Her voice sounds like it’s coming from a million miles away. Ren Ronghu purses his lips.
“It’d be easy to transfer the curse to a criminal. A murderer. You wouldn’t have to bear this,” he says. Ren Liufang’s gaze sharpens.
“Would you?” she asks, irises like steel. Ren Ronghu does not answer.
Instead, he says: “Why are you still doing this?”
Something in his voice reeks of envy and even deeper than that, self-loathing.
Ren Liufang stands up. It takes all her efforts, and her legs are shaking from the strain.
“I will find a way,” she says firmly. “With all of my strength, I will find a way.”
“And if your strength isn’t enough?” he dares to wonder. Ren Liufang simply looks at him. Her red robes look like blood against her paper white skin. The bandages, drawn taut around her tiny body, creak when she strides past him, towards a place he can’t go.
This is not just Ren Liufang. For some reason, she’s started to be influenced by others even more than before.
She pauses, several steps ahead of him.
“I will find a way,” she repeats.
Ren Ronghu shuts his eyes.
❀ ❀ ❀
The young man introduces himself as Sun Chao, the grandson of a farmer.
“What’s your grandpa doing these days, Sun-yisheng?” Cheng Bowen makes small talk as he fights back another wince from Sun Chao resewing the stitches back in. The boy’s hands are nimble despite being lame. “Twisted from birth,” he’d explained without them asking first. Ren Liufang makes a note to herself to force Cheng Bowen to take anesthetic next time, despite his “cultivator pride”.
“I’m not a doctor, you don’t have to address me as such. My grandfather passed,” the boy replies not uneasily. “I was abandoned as an infant, so he took care of me until he died.”
By instinct, Ren Liufang opens her mouth, but she shuts it without saying anything. Cheng Bowen’s eyes become downcast.
“I’m sorry,” he says after a moment. Ren Liufang nods with him, far less articulate than him.
Sun Chao pauses his work, waving them off. “It wasn’t your fault,” he dismisses. They wait for him to keep speaking, but he says nothing, simply tightening Cheng Bowen’s stitches one last time before removing a roll of bandages from the low shelf beside them.
“Don’t agitate the wound any further,” he lectures. “I know you cultivators heal quickly, but it isn’t worth risking an infection.”
“Got it,” Cheng Bowen says brightly, but his eyes are downcast. Ren Liufang averts her eyes.
Finally, after several silent minutes, Sun Chao ties off the last bandage, biting his lip in the process. Exhaling a sigh of relief, he stands up slowly, relying on his hold on the side of the chair to get to one of his feet.
“Thank goodness it went well. I haven’t operated in a while,” Sun Chao stretches before suddenly, he turns shy, lowering his arms and playing with his fingers. Cheng Bowen and Ren Liufang watch him curiously as he fidgets for a few seconds before he finally speaks.
“Uh, you’re the Xiong Jinli, aren’t you? The sect leader candidate for the Ren Sect?” he asks bashfully, cheeks flushed.
“Ah, yes. Is something the matter?” Ren Liufang asks confusedly. Sun Chao shakes his head vehemently.
“No! Just, uh, you have some injuries.” He points at the cuts in her robes, shallow but still bleeding. “Do you mind if I check them out?”
“They’re negligible,” Ren Liufang says. “You needn’t use your supplies on shallow cuts such as these.”
“But I—” Sun Chao looks away, face even redder than before. Ren Liufang just stares at him in bewilderment before she feels a sharp jab to the side. When she glances at Cheng Bowen, even he looks shocked at the action, a simple sign of comradery that resisted their distance.
“Anything in your line of work could lead to death! As a someone who could prevent it, I can’t allow that! I—I admire you very much!” Sun Chao bursts out. Ren Liufang jumps a little, startled. On instinct, she turns to the other male for help, only to remember the current state of things and quickly lean elsewhere.
“We really shouldn't take up your time," she says. Sun Chao wilts.
"You can help her out, she's just a little bit stubborn," Cheng Bowen cuts in. Ren Liufang looks at him incredulously. Sun Chao beams and removes another roll of cloth from his shelf, kneeling down again with extra care to address her injuries with vigor.
"I'll do my best!" he says enthusiastically. Ren Liufang reluctantly rolls up her sleeves and extends her arm towards him.
Every movement of his hands seems exponentially more delicate than before, as he raises her sleeve and gingerly dabs her cuts with alcohol. Ren Liufang watches him, trying not to grimace too badly when Sun Chao presses in too much. It’s a little strange, to be taken care of by someone who had just enthusiastically professed their admiration to her.
“Sun Chao,” Cheng Bowen suddenly says, “Why do you admire Ren-daren so much?”
Ren Liufang balks at the question. Sun Chao lifts his head, motions stopping.
“She’s a good person!” he asserts loudly, “I know that the sects get up to a lot of shady business, but the Xiong Jinli, er, Ren-daren really does a lot to help the common people! Compared to a few years earlier, before she became sect leader candidate, we were much more impoverished!”
“How do you know that she’s a good person?” Cheng Bowen follows up, expression unreadable. Sun Chao’s face hardens.
“I know she is,” he says firmly, “I know because the gang that kept ahold of my grandpa and forced him into shady business was destroyed by her! I know she couldn’t show up… in time to save him, but she did good in his memory, even if she didn’t know it. There’s no one I admire more than Ren-daren!”
Ren Liufang freezes. Cheng Bowen hums contemplatively.
“I suppose that’s true,” he acquiesces. Sun Chao huffs and goes back to cleaning out Ren Liufang’s injuries.
“Ren-daren gives me a lot of strength,” he says softly, “I wanted to become a cultivator but couldn’t because of my foot. Just seeing her do good deeds gives me the energy and motivation to do good myself.”
He finishes in about five minutes. He still looks a bit starstruck but tears himself away from Ren Liufang’s side anyways, coughing into his palm.
“I’m going to get some stuff. Wait here.” He starts to skitter away with impressive speed.
“Sun Chao!” Ren Liufang calls. Sun Chao stops, fingers inches away from the doorknob. Her mouth goes dry.
“Thank you,” she says. “For tending to our injuries.”
“Uh—it’s no problem, Xio—Ren-daren! It’s only my duty!” Sun Chao squeaks.
Ren Liufang lets herself smile a little subconsciously.
“You’re a very kind person, Sun Chao. I know many people that would like to have you under their apprenticeship.” she says. The boy looks like a tomato now, and she’d say it was quite funny had she not had the manners to not.
“Uh—thank you! It’s this one’s greatest honor! To be thanked by you!” Sun Chao bows so fast that he almost hits his head on his knees. “But uh, I am not fit for training as a doctor. I don’t quite meet the qualifications. I’m fine here, I swear!”
“As you say,” Ren Liufang frowns but dips her head at him, and he takes that as a cue to quickly slip into the other room.
They watch him go.
“He’s young,” Cheng Bowen says first. Ren Liufang’s chest clenches, and she doesn’t respond. Cheng Bowen looks at her indecipherably.
“You felt guilty, didn’t you? That’s why you brought me here,” he asks flatly.
“We’ve worked with each other for a year already,” Ren Liufang says, trying not to come off as defensive but failing, “It was only natural that I come with you.”
Cheng Bowen shakes his head, “You get along a lot better with Shi-yisheng than you think you do with me. Figures, since you’ve only spoken to him three times.”
Ren Liufang’s ears color, but she doesn’t let herself lose her cool, “Of course, “ she drawls, “Because you get along so well with Xiu Lihua that you placed tracking bells in her robes.”
Cheng Bowen’s eyes narrow, “You knew.”
Ren Liufang withdraws a few jingling bells from inside her robes and tosses them across the table. Cheng Bowen retrieves them slowly, eyebrows knitted together.
“Xiu Lihua might be half deaf from all the noise her sword makes, but I’m not,” Ren Liufang says sharply. Just saying her name forces a tremor down her throat, but she shoves it down. “I don’t have time for this.”
Cheng Bowen clenches his teeth. “No,” he hisses, “It’s me that doesn’t have time for this. You’ve had all the time in the world, which is why I’ve finally started doing some of the work for you.”
Ren Liufang reaches for her sword, and he does the same, muscles tensed to fight. This wouldn’t be the first time they clashed words or even swords, but this would be the first time in seriousness.
Ren Liufang relents first. She sighs, leaning back into the wall while pinching the bridge of her nose. All her thoughts are jumbled, and she can’t think straight at all. Before, she had a few apologies and more than a few scathing remarks to throw, but now, she’s just confused.
“Why do this? Why did you bring us with you?” she asks tiredly, leaning backwards into the wall. “You don’t have to keep up appearances, you know. It’d be easier if you just left us behind.”
Cheng Bowen looks away, working his jaw. Ren Liufang waits, gaze wandering to the side door where Sun Chao had disappeared.
“I don’t know,” he admits quietly. “I don’t know why I brought you along.”
The both of them are still too sour to talk honestly. Ren Liufang reaches her hand to pat Cheng Bowen’s shoulder but hesitates, instead placing it on the table next to them where her fingers curl.
“Sorry for the wait, I had to take care of something—”
“We tracked you here, when are we heading out—”
At the same time, two of the doors burst open. One, with Xiu Lihua and Shi Jinghui, who looks like some of the color has finally returned to the face. And the other, with Sun Chao, limping out with a few bottles in his hand. Ren Liufang’s head snaps up, and Cheng Bowen looks at the both of them in bewilderment.
“Ah, did we come in at a bad time?” Shi Jinghui asks Sun Chao.
The boy doesn’t answer. Instead, his arm raises to point at Xiu Lihua, who’s frozen in her tracks.
“You,” he breathes, eyes suddenly icy, “You—killed my grandfather!”
❀ ❀ ❀
Ren Ju is three years old when she first runs away from home.
It’s a decision made only in the moment. Back then, she already knew she wasn’t too bright. Well, three year olds aren’t the brightest in the first place but her especially so.
She was crying again. She cries often, like when the teachers scold her or when her parents start arguing again.
She can’t stand the noise.
Her little legs wobble across the puddle specked ground. It rained the day before, so the air is thick with the scent of petrichor. She doesn’t like it; Ren Ju wrinkles her nose.
But anyways, she is crying. Yes, she’s crying because Dad went away and Mom was left and she yelled at Ren Ju a lot and she was crying and—
“Ah!” Little Ren Ju trips on her own feet and pitches face first into a muddy puddle.
“Ren Ju? What are you doing out here?”
She’s suddenly lifted up by a pair of foreign hands. She kicks and at the stranger, flailing her arms and accidentally slapping the person in the face with a palm of wet dirt.
“Ren Ju! It’s just me, Uncle!” The person growls, and Ren Ju finally stops, peering at the person holding her. Indeed, it is Uncle!
Wait, if it’s Uncle, then Mom must be nearby too. Ren Ju doesn’t want to see Mom; she’s running away from home. She’s running away from home and never coming back! She’s never gonna come—
Ren Ju wails suddenly, making Ren Mingshou jump. Awkwardly, he quickly pulls her to his chest, resting her head on his breast.
“Why are you so far from home?” he asks. She hiccups.
“Mom—Mom doesn’t love me anymore! Mom said that I’m always her problem and that I can’t do anything right and—” she bawls again, burying her face in Ren Mingshou’s sleeve. He sighs.
“When did she say that?”
“Just now,” Ren Ju sniffles. He pats her back.
“Do you want to hear a story?” he asks her. Ren Ju looks at him with teary eyes.
“What story?” she snivels. He hums.
“Once there was a woman and a man,” he starts, “They got married before they turned thirty. They argued a lot, and quite frankly, they didn’t get along at all.
“One day, those two declared that they were going to have a child. Their parents were very happy, but the couple wasn’t. A few weeks before the baby was due, the mother fell into sickness.”
By now, Ren Ju had quieted down and was listening intently. Ren Mingshou continues.
“She was very sick and so weak that she could barely walk. The baby took up even more of her energy, and she had many close calls leading up to the dae. The elders in the village didn’t want to risk a good cultivator, so they asked if she wanted to bear the child or not. What do you think she said?”
“No?” Ren Ju guesses, because the teachers at school always told them to take the most logical decision. She had been forced to copy poems because she had answered a question incorrectly before.
Ren Mingshou shakes his head, “She said she wanted to have the child no matter what. The man stayed by her side the entire time, and the baby was finally born later, earlier than expected. The end.”
“What does this story mean?” Ren Ju asks, frustrated. She didn’t get the question correct.
Ren Mingshou pokes her on the nose.
“It means your mother loved you very much, even before you were born.”
❀ ❀ ❀
Xiu Lihua admits that she didn’t see this coming.
It feels like so much has happened in the past few days that she doesn’t even remember what she’s supposed to think anymore.
Like, there’s the Xiu Lihua who’s logical and cool. She’s the one that can stay calm in times of trouble, that can calculate the perfect angle to slice so that everyone’s heads fall off in a single rend. She’s the one that pulls her to her feet and tells her to keep going when it’s hard. She’s the good one.
But there’s also the Xiu Ying that’s irrational and emotional and ardent about everything that doesn’t matter. The one that reacts without a second thought, the one that keeps stabbing the body after the life is gone. The one that storms out of the room, and the one that is just so easy to hurt.
Sometimes, the logical Xiu Lihua just hates Xiu Ying. Sometimes, she wishes she could just grab Xiu Ying and shake her by the shoulders and say: “Stop it please! Just please, stop it, I’m begging you! Just let others see us normally for once!”
“You, you—killed my grandfather!”
Xiu Ying immediately seizes in anger. Xiu Lihua takes a second to react.
“Aa, this happens every week! You don’t have to get so worked up every time—”
But her body is already moving, moving closer to the boy who immediately shrivels up and wobbles backwards with all his weight on one foot. His eyes are accusing, and Xiu Ying is just so fed up with everything.
Then, she takes one step too many, and Ren Liufang steps in front of her, smooth as always when she forces Xiu Lihua to halt in her steps, lips pressed into a thin line.
“That’s enough,” she says, expression like stone. Xiu Ying whips her head around to look at the others, and Cheng Bowen won’t meet her stare. Even Shi Jinghui, who she just took to eat the biggest lunch he’s probably ever had and who she just laughed with until she cried, is frozen in his spot. She can see the gears turning in his head, the slow processing, the gradual accusation.
And this is where Xiu Lihua gets angry. Because God, she’s angry; she’s so angry but she would never lay her hand on a kid, much less one that couldn’t fight back.
And his grandfather?
Xiu Lihua thinks about the people she’s killed. There was the woman in the village up north, and there was the man in the mountain village. There was the teenager living in a stolen mansion, and there was the grandmother sleeping in the house her son used to live in. She remembers their sneers, the sounds of their palms slapping against each other. She remembers the looks on their faces, the wickedness of their slitted pupils.
Xiu Lihua looks into the boy’s eyes—the tears and the hate and most importantly, the love—and she decides: she did not kill his grandfather.
“It wasn’t me,” Xiu Lihua says. She glances desperately at the rest of them, nails digging into her thighs. “I swear, it wasn’t me.”
“You’re the Zaihuanü!” The kid jabs a finger at her from behind Ren Liufang, teeth gritted. “If not you, then who?!” His voice is hysteric, so different from the seemingly punctual child she had assumed he was.
She bites her lip. “I didn’t kill him. The people I kill are— ” Xiu Lihua wrings her hands in frustration—“They're bad, terrible people and they deserved to die but not—"
"So you do kill people, and like my grandpa, they deserved to die?! How dare you, how dare you—" Shi Jinghui has to physically hold down the boy, whose teeth are bared like a vicious dog's, eyes rimmed red.
"No! No, I—" Xiu Lihua bites her lip. "Please," she begs quietly.
The other three don’t reply.
Xiu Ying breaks blood on her palms and whirls around, mouth tasting of iron. She slams the door into its hinges and storms away, again. Her robes flap around her, and she can’t see three feet in front of her.
Only their stares.
“Xiu Lihua, when will you stop being such a burden to us?!”
“Zaihuanü, really such a menace to public safety. Nothing but a bug on the sword of the sects.”
“You shouldn’t have come.”
She’s gone before she can catch Ren Liufang’s expression falter, Shi Jinghui cry out her name, and Cheng Bowen curse under his breath.
But it’s okay, since she’s guilty anyways.
It had happened so quickly.
One moment Ren Liufang is watching Xiu Lihua shuffle through various facial expressions and another moment, she’s slamming the door shut. Shi Jinghui’s shoulders drop with the sound, and after a few more seconds, he buries his head in his hands.
“Shit,” he mutters.
Ren Liufang breathes and finally blinks. Shuffling, she turns behind her to address Sun Chao. He trembles behind her, teeth clenched and nostrils flared.
“Why did you just let her get away?!” he yells at them, lashing out like a feral dog. “She killed my grandfather! She killed—” Sun Chao releases a gutteral sob and collapses to the floor. They watch him. Ren Liufang feels like she’s seen this happen before. At this point, it’s cruel, the way she unconsciously steps away from him, that perfect picture of grief. She can feel two pairs of eyes on them, on Sun Chao’s quivering form and his shaking hands.
No, they’re not watching Sun Chao. They’re watching Ren Liufang now. Her hands are shaking.
Slowly, she wrenches her hand up and places them on Sun Chao’s shoulders, meeting his eyes. He’s crying now, sniffling with his entire body and trying to not completely break down in front of his idol.
Idol? No, she was what he desperately wanted to become but couldn’t.
“It’s because I was born this way!” he wails, digging his palms into his eyes, “It’s because I was always so useless and couldn’t take care of myself. He shouldn’t have even picked me off from the side of the street. He shouldn’t have burdened himself with a grandson like me—”
“Sun Chao.” Ren Liufang removes his hands, forcing him to face her head on. He looks at her, and she can barely look back.
“Why did you let her go?” Sun Chao chokes out, “It was her. It couldn’t have been anyone else. I saw.”
“What did you see?” she asks gently.
“I—Grandpa didn’t come home for several days, and I got worried—so I—I snuck out and then I got lost—and then I saw her, the blue clothes and the sword. And then—my grandpa—” Sun Chao buries his head in his hands again, sobbing. Ren Liufang gives him a few moments to bawl his eyes out on his floor, in the middle of his small home in a village he was doomed to never leave.
“All children are useless when they are young,” she says softly. Sun Chao looks up, eyes watery.
“What do you mean?”
“Even I couldn’t be a good child to my parents. I was a disappointment. I was weak. I couldn’t live up to anyone’s expectations at all,” Ren Liufang confesses.
A long time ago, there had been two people who lived and trained alongside each other as cultivators. Their parents thought they were the perfect match, so they got married before they turned thirty. They argued a lot, and quite frankly, they didn’t get along at all.
“That isn’t true!” Sun Chao protests. She shakes her head.
When they had a daughter, the mother almost died during labor. However, the husband was there and transmitted a large amount of spiritual energy to her. When the baby was born, he promised his wife that their daughter would grow up into the best warrior of the land, someone that would make the both of them proud.
“But they still cared for me the best they could. They did everything in their power so that I could grow up well, just like your grandfather must’ve done.”
“That isn’t the same though. I’m still—”
“Sun Chao,” Ren Liufang says firmly, “You don’t need to be ashamed for having been loved.”
In the end, no one could tell if the couple had loved the other very much. However, everyone knew that they loved their child.
With that, she stands up. And before she starts to feel stupid, she walks away.
In the end, Sun Chao collapses in exhaustion. Shi Jinghui does a small, uninvasive checkup for him and lays him down into his own bed. Cheng Bowen and Ren Liufang watch him silently, eyes averted from each other. When Shi Jinghui turns back around to face them, he is frowning.
“Xiu-guniang isn’t back yet,” he observes. Ren Liufang doesn’t want to think about it. Shi Jinghui’s brows furrow deeper into his forehead.
“It really wasn’t her, right? That killed Sun Chao’s grandfather?” he asks worriedly. His hands are rubbing at the bandages around his wrist in search of something to do, something to hold.
“It wasn’t her,” Ren Liufang speaks up, voice raspy.
“But he said he saw someone that looked like her,” Cheng Bowen questions. Ren Liufang looks at him sharply.
“It wasn’t her. I’m absolutely certain,” she says firmly. Cheng Bowen opens his mouth but doesn’t respond. Shi Jinghui looks at the door, then back at the two of them. His lips press into a thin line.
“I need to know what’s going on,” he says, assertively, “There’s too much going on.”
“It’s complicated,” Cheng Bowen responds. Shi Jinghui levels him a hard glare.
“All the more reason to talk about it.”
Ren Liufang laces her fingers together. They’re cold, and she focuses on it.
A long time ago, there had been two people that loved each other very much. They married after thirty when they were mature enough to handle the bond. They never had children, but they always had each other. They were the happiest in their small home with just as many rooms as they needed, and whenever they argued, they always made up within a few hours by talking calmly. These two people quit being cultivators and settled into a quiet life of farming. These two people, who adored each other, lived very long and happy lives—
“Ren-daren?” Shi Jinghui’s voice puts her out of her daze. Ren Liufang snaps up, startled. Shi Jinghui has his arms crossed in front of her, looking stern and concerned at the same time.
“Shi-yisheng?” she questions.
“Ren-daren, you’re going to get Xiu Lihua,” he says decisively. Ren Liufang stands up, and even Cheng Bowen looks confused.
“Shi-yisheng, with all due respect, is that really the best decision? Xiu-guniang would be far more favorable to you or even me coming to retrieve her.”
“Best decision? No. The necessary one? Yes. I’m not stupid.”
Ren Liufang shifts on her feet, subtly so that no one can read her body language. Shi Jinghui’s yellow eyes seem to see through her anyway, despite her best efforts.
“Ren-daren, she needs you,” he says gingerly, tone softening. She hates how it sounds like he’s talking to a child.
A child, who lived with two unhappy parents who were cultivators. They married before thirty.
“Sun Chao,” Ren Liufang says, a silent request.
“Of course,” Shi Jinghui replies. Ren Liufang looks at the door.
“I’ll go,” she says.
Xiu Lihua’s footsteps are far easier to track than the average cultivator’s. It’s the sword she carries, the bright blue that drops its vestiges everywhere it goes. Xiu Lihua is strong enough and has a fearsome enough reputation to find the disadvantage inconsequential, but if Ren Liufang supposes she wants to hide, then she’s out of luck.
She follows the trail towards the outer edge of the village. The most logical hiding place would have been a crowded place, but it couldn’t have served anyone wanting to properly run away.
Ren Liufang covers her eyes to block them from the specks of flying grass, the wind rushing around her.
She can hear it, a dull ringing noise.
Ren Liufang first heard it a few years ago, when travelling on her own. It was close to rain, and although she usually flew through it, she had to find shelter this evening. She had just touched down when she heard the sounds of shouting, ever so familiar. Though her energy was exhausted, she combed through the shrubbery to find a few corpses and a young woman wearing blue. She was facing all of them by herself, and before Ren Liufang could climb out to help, her sword sliced through the air and resentful energies were immediately destroyed. The young woman turned around.
Ren Liufang never forgot that moment. The sword in her hand, the cobalt shine, the resonating sound. Her face. She had memorized it all.
She had fled back then.
Now, Ren Liufang cries her name: “Xiu Lihua!”
The woman doesn’t stop her strong movements, swinging her sword again through the sky, training stance resolute. Ren Liufang covers her ears.
“Xiu Lihua!” she yells again. “Zaihuanǚ!”
Xiu Lihua stiffens. Her form falters, and her next swing is off mark. She pants and slams her sword back into its sheath, teeth gritted.
“What is it, Xiong Jinli? Come to accost me? Waiting for the day when you finally had a proper reason to drag me in front of the Ren Sect’s court?” Xiu Lihua spits at her. “Or do you think you can alleviate your guilt by crossing off the oh so terrible Zaihuanǚ on your list of suspected killers?”
“I never said anything of the sort,” Ren Liufang responds fiercely, “Xiu Lihua, just listen to me—”
“Listen to you?! Listen to you when I already know what you’ll say? You wanted me gone, remember? Why are you even here in the first place? Could it have been that getting rid of me was so low on your priorities that it’s just a lucky bonus that you could do it now? Or maybe you think you can just—”
“Xiu Lihua!” Ren Liufang shouts. Xiu Lihua flinches. Ren Liufang takes a deep breath.
“It was not you. I do not believe it was you,” she says firmly.
Xiu Lihua’s expression shifts from shock to disbelief to rage again.
“What do you mean by that?” she grinds out.
“It was not you. I do not know you do be that type of person,” she says instead. Xiu Lihua balls her fists.
“What, not the type of person to murder someone’s parental figure? Not the type of person to orphan a child? Not the type of person to kill whoever they see fit?” she snarls.
Angrily, Ren Liufang steps forward.
“Again, you’re twisting my words—”
“Maybe you should stop twisting them yourself and hiding behind all of your civilities—”
“Was I not clear enough?” Ren Liufang’s eyes are blazing, “I do not believe you killed Sun Chao’s grandfather. I do not believe you are the one to kill without a good reason. I do not even believe you are an evil person. Yet, you’ll manage to take all of this and turn this into some kind of attack against yourself. Xiu Lihua, am I still not being clear enough?!”
A long time ago, there were two parents and a child. The parents fell sick and the child had to take care of them. She almost gave up, but then she was given an option to save them. The child had one more person that she loved the most, and that person told her to be brave. The child had tried her best to be brave. She had tried her very best in order to carefully construct a world where all of them could exist.
Xiu Lihua stops. She opens her mouth and closes it.
“You’re lying,” she says in disbelief. Ren Liufang turns away.
“If that’s the way you want to see it. Shi Jinghui is waiting for you back at the office. He says he does not think you did it. Maybe you’ll think twice about doubting his words.”
She starts walking back on her own. Then, she stops and turns around. Ren Liufang waits for Xiu Lihua to follow her.
Xiu Lihua hesitates. Ren Liufang doesn’t move from her spot.
Slowly, Xiu Lihua heads down. Ren Liufang hangs back until she’s caught up to finally make for Sun Chao’s home.
Shi Jinghui thinks Cheng Bowen is quite the strange person. Sometimes when he smiles, he’s not. Sometimes when he laughs, he’s not. Not to mention, the other man seems to have a penchant for giving Shi Jinghui near heart attacks. Or worse, for making Shi Jinghui’s heart beat impossibly fast. Maybe he needed to get a doctor. Well, another doctor. For his heart.
Today though, it isn’t like that. Cheng Bowen sits by Sun Chao’s bed, eyes fixed on the boy’s face. Shi Jinghui would call him out for being a creep if not for the melancholia in the other man’s eyes.
Since the only other person Shi Jinghui could possibly talk to easily—boy did fix up Ren Liufang and Cheng Bowen quite well after all, despite immediately accusing Xiu Lihua of murder—the situation is now incredibly awkward.
Shi Jinghui coughs into his hand.
“Cheng-gongzi, where did you get your scar?” he asks politely, referring to the long horizontal scar running across the upper half of Cheng Bowen’s face.
That’s literally the least polite thing you could ever ask! Are you dumb, Shi Li? Where has your brain gone?
“You don’t have to tell me if you’re not comfortable,” he adds belatedly. Cheng Bowen looks at him, tilting his head.
“Would you like to know?” he replies.
Well that’s why I asked in the first place—
“If it’s okay by you,” Shi Jinghui says. Cheng Bowen leans back and runs his fingers over the scar, the hard edges and the fleshy middle.
“When I was a child, I wasn’t very popular. Or rather, the circumstances of my birth made it that way. It was just a couple of bullies,” he says.
Shi Jinghui was expecting some kind of epic battle tale. Cultivators usually got scars that way, he knew. They got scars in the process of gaining more power or they got scars in the process of tearing those with power down.
“I’m sorry,” Shi Jinghui murmurs. Cheng Bowen laughs.
“It wasn’t a very heroic story, was it? Don’t worry, I wasn’t treated badly continuously. Once my father found out, he protected me from harm. I owe everything I am to him.” His eyes soften at the mention of his father, though the sadness never fades.
“Your father loved you,” Shi Jinghui says.
“He did,” Cheng Bowen replies. “I’d rather think he did.”
The conversation ends there, and for some reason Shi Jinghui feels like he can sit a little closer to the other.
He owes it to Cheng Bowen after all, when he looks so lonely.
Ren Liufang opens the door for Xiu Lihua, who steps in uncertainly. From Sun Chao’s bedside, Shi Jinghui leaps up.
“You’re back!” he cries, rushing over to Xiu Lihua. “You aren’t injured or anything? There should be enough supplies in this house for me to help you a little if you were—”
“You really don’t think I did it?” she cuts in quietly. She looks like she’s afraid of the answer.
Shi Jinghui recoils. “No!” he exclaims, “Of course I don’t!”
“But you looked like you…” Xiu Lihua trails off.
“Give me a second to process next time. I’m glad you’re unharmed,” Shi Jinghui says, inspecting her body for any potential cuts and bruises. For some reason, Xiu Lihua looks ready to cry.
Cheng Bowen and Ren Liufang meet eyes. He doesn’t look away.
Sun Chao shifts in his bed. They shift their attention to him, gazes mixed.
“What do we do about him?” Shi Jinghui says first, as he usually does.
Ren Liufang is silent for a few seconds.
Then, she touches Sun Chao’s shoulder, lightly shaking him awake. The others look at her in shock, but it’s already too late. Sun Chao eases awake gradually, blinking blearily.
“Ren-daren? Is that you?” he asks. Ren Liufang nods.
“Thank you for helping us out. We’ll be heading out now,” she says softly. Sun Chao scrambles to sit up, then freezes when he spots Xiu Lihua standing awkwardly in the corner. Immediately, the sleep goes out of his eyes, replaced by a cold fury.
“You—” He gets ready to launch himself off the bed, but Ren Liufang shakes her head.
“It wasn’t her,” she says. He looks at her lividly.
“I saw her!” Sun Chao grabs her arm, shaking it wildly, “It was her! Who else could it have been?!”
Ren Liufang gently tugs her sleeve out of Sun Chao’s grip and stands up. She beckons the others towards the door. Hesitantly, they follow her directions while Sun Chao struggles.
“Don’t let her get away! Ren-daren, please! Please believe me, it’s my grandfather. My grandfather—!” Sun Chao howls. Ren Liufang finally looks away, feeling as if she’s about to burst.
Shi Jinghui holds the door open. They all linger by it, looking at her to see what she’ll do.
Finally, she speaks:
“Sun Chao, the Zaihuanǚ didn’t kill your grandfather. I did.”
Ren Liufang sends a doctor of the Ren Sect a bird with a letter of recomendation attached to its claws. The others watch her, silent.
She watches the bird fly away, wings flapping into the distant blue.
When she turns around, all three are staring at her with mixed expressions, still waiting. Ren Liufang touches Honglei at her hip.
Once, there was a child.
“I’ll tell you everything,” she promises them. “Soon.”
❀ ❀ ❀
co-written with sunnyv. links below:
-daren (大人): the suffix used to denote a position of power
-yisheng (医生): also meaning “doctor” literally, the suffix meaning “doctor”
-gongzi (公子): the suffix meaning “master” or “young master”
Honglei (红泪): the name of Ren Liufang’s sword, means “red tears”.
Mengdie (梦蝶): the name of Xiu Lihua’s sword, means “dream butterfly”.
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”.
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 and the uncle of Ren Liufang. Sun Chao (孙超) is formed from Sun (孙) meaning “grandchild” and Chao (超) meaning “surpass”. Because he is a peasant, he possesses no courtesy name.
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.