the night before | hbd sunnyv
Ren Liufang wishes Xiu Lihua wouldn’t.
It is the night before they invade the Ren Compound, from which Ren Liufang’s influence had been removed from after Ren Mingshou after the final instance of her disobedience. Cheng Bowen had insisted upon joining along with them and Xiu Lihua’s old friends, but he was in the other room now, probably grieving. Ren Liufang wouldn’t touch him until the next morning, when she’d evaluate his condition for the upcoming mission. For now, she places her trust in Shi Jinghui.
Xiu Lihua and Ren Liufang are left by themselves now, in the room they had rented for themselves. It reminds her of that first night in the inn, only a few days after their first reunion. Ren Liufang’s arms are wrapped around Xiu Lihua’s waist and her chin is nestled on her shoulder. Xiu Lihua shifts uneasily in her grasp at first but relaxes after the body warmth tires her out. They’ve already talked about how the next day must go. Ren Liufang has recounted her stories and Xiu Lihua hers, and now, they both lay together, basking in each other silently.
But a bug wriggles inside of her head. She has no choice but to spit it out.
“Xiu Lihua, do you love me?”
An annoying question like that.
It is not unusual to hear each other’s full names fall from each other’s lips. Still, Xiu Lihua turns around quickly, rotating her body on the mattress. Ren Liufang softens her hold on her so that they can face each other fully.
“W-What brought this on?” Xiu Lihua asks, clearly flustered. The tip of her nose is flushed prettily.
“I just wanted to hear it,” Ren Liufang replies softly. The other woman examines her facial features for a second before sighing, averting her eyes in uncertainty.
Normally, Ren Liufang would never have asked this question. The notion of love had only been brought up a few times and had been accepted only once before, so both of them were still new to the idea. Xiu Lihua in particular was easy to fluster and put off balance when it came to things like this and tends to think too deeply, and Ren Liufang is not cruel enough to find pleasure in a large amount of the other’s apparent suffering. The confession itself had been difficult enough for Xiu Lihua to live through without burning up to the highest heavens in embarrassment, and Ren Liufang had built up a sort of resilience to waiting after such a long time for it to happen. She could wait more.
In conclusion, there had been no conversation. It was not even determined after this time if they were even dating.
Xiu Lihua bites her lip, forming a cute expression. Ren Liufang wants to touch her face, but she refrains from the action out of self discipline. Instead, she tries to alleviate the other’s distress.
“It is my mistake for ask this so suddenly. It’s alright if you can’t give me an answer right now,” she says as an apology. She hesitates before saying the next thing, lowering her gaze and gripping the other’s chest. The real hard-to-swallow pill will reveal itself now.
“Please, if you love me, then do not sacrifice yourself for me tomorrow.”
Xiu Lihua inhales sharply. Ren Liufang tightens her grip on her body, her expression momentarily contorting into one filled with pain. She buries her nose into the back of the other woman’s neck, hugging her to her chest as if she’d disappear if let go.
“That’s all I ask,” she whispers. “Please.”
Xiu Lihua is silent. Then, she touches Ren Liufang’s cheek softly, caressing her pale skin with the palm of her warm hand. Ren Liufang leans into the touch, averting her eyes. Xiu Lihua strokes her jawbone for a few seconds longer, her eyes brimming with emotion.
“I cannot imagine myself… I cannot imagine myself being like this with anyone else,” she says quietly. “No one else but you.”
It’s as close to a confession as it gets. Ren Liufang’s eyes widen, and Xiu Lihua continues. “I’ve wanted to apologize for so many things,” she admits, “always.”
“There don’t need to be any apologies tonight,” Ren Liufang says resolutely. She rubs the underside of Xiu Lihua’s eyelid with her thumb and presses their foreheads together. “This is enough.”
Xiu Lihua raises her gaze in order to meet hers. Without warning, she grabs the back of Ren Liufang’s neck and joins their lips in a single fluid movement. Ren Liufang makes a sound of surprise, but her mouth easily fits in with the other woman’s, their tastes melding together sweetly.
They keep kissing like that until she realizes that Xiu Lihua is too timid to take it further on her own, her eyes squeezed shut almost like she is holding her breath underwater. Ren Liufang can’t help a smile at her cuteness, quickly taking control and slipping her tongue in. Xiu Lihua gasps and tightens her grip on the nape of her neck.
When they finally break apart, both of their eyes are dilated, their breaths heaving out of their mouths hotly. Ren Liufang stares at her, the woman she’s loved for a third of her whole life, and Xiu Lihua stares back just as strongly.
“Let’s have each other tonight,” she says, “before tomorrow comes.”
Xiu Lihua’s cheeks flush, but she pulls her down for another kiss, and it all goes from there.
Afterwards, they lie next to each other again, their skin warm against each other and their bodies sated. Xiu Lihua’s hand lazily traces Ren Liufang’s waist, emboldened by the prior activities. The other woman’s chest rises and falls steadily, her thin frame warm in her hands. She gazes at the older woman, unable to take her eyes off of the sleeping form.
She must’ve been tired, Xiu Lihua muses. Then, her expression turns solemn, and she brushes a stray strand of hair out of Ren Liufang’s face, her lips pressing together into a thin line.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
The kiss Xiu Lihua presses to her forehead is still awkward because of her own inexperience, but it’s the only thing she can do to atone.
How easy life would be if you could be satisfied simply by loving another without expecting anything back. Except, she isn’t good at that either. She can’t express her feelings freely through words, and she’s too stilted to initiate anything. But what if she were presented with an opportunity to finally show her love with the strength that it demands? With no fear of how the other woman would respond?
She runs it through her mind, a single moment where Ren Liufang isn’t raised enough or a missed swing that results in a vulnerable part of the body being exposed. Or maybe, a sudden unprecedented burst of power that would catch her off guard.
“I don’t think I can stop myself should such a situation arise.”
Xiu Lihua traces the scars on her back, her fingertips having memorized the pattern of marred skin already. Then, she looks to Ren Liufang again. The other woman shivers in her sleep, and Xiu Lihua pulls her closer.
In the end, ‘I love you’ are just words.
For a blubbering idiot and unlovable person such as herself, Xiu Lihua would die in order to realize them.
“Teacher, why would you choose to age?”
The moon blew dust off of itself as the chilly night stirred itself like a pot of cold soup. Those two sat side by side with a tray of tea between them, chessboard long abandoned. The younger was never too good at the game anyways, never too good at thinking dishonestly.
The boy finally asked the question after a few years of being under his tutelage. By now, his chest was curved and firm, his arms filling the sleeves of his shirt. He no longer struggled to gain muscle, though his figure was slim enough to obscure that fact. He was very different from the child he had met before, though he was still a boy.
“It’s the natural order of things. People are supposed to age,” he replied, taking a long sip from the cup. The boy’s tea was untouched, as he had never favored bitter things.
“But cultivators aren’t,” the boy retorted, “Aren’t you a cultivator, Teacher?”
″You are a cultivator,” Teacher said pointedly, “I am just an old man with nothing else to do.”
“But—” the boy bit his lip. He had to stop himself from being indelicate with his words. “But you teach me to cultivate. I see you practicing cultivation on your own when you do not need to teach me. And I—I do not even know how old you are.”
Teacher barked out a laugh that sounded like a dog’s cry. He held his stomach and laughed alone, not because it was particularly funny but just, the nerve of this boy!
“For once, you’re right. I have been cultivating since before you were even conceived!”
The disciple nodded; he had already expected that to be true, though he pouted a little at the first comment. Teacher slowly calmed down, stifling his guffaws with curve of his stomach.
“So, you ask me why your elders, why I, and why all other cultivators would choose to grow old when we could die while looking youthful as you? That is partially untrue, as aging comes naturally even to us, but why we would speed up the process?”
“Is it to gain more respect, Teacher? Are older people afforded more benevolence?” The boy cut in with his own hypothesis. Teacher wondered how long he had been pondering this question, useless as it was.
“That is partially true, sure. Though if you’re guessing that from your own experience, let’s just say that not all youths are as respectful to the elderly as you try to be,” Teacher drawled, though he soon cleared his breath with another swallow of the fine tea.
“Then—?” The boy pushed.
“Humans age naturally. Cultivators can go a century without growing a single white hair. But it’s not like we’re that different. That much should be obvious. Even to regular people, it doesn’t occur to them about how cultivators might be dissimilar to their expectations. Yet, as you one day reach a point in your training, you’ll realize it—”
That little by little, you are losing your humanity.
There is living and dying. There is death and rebirth. There is smiling with red lips blooming in both directions, and there is collecting your lover’s grey hair as they can only weakly lay in bed. There is forging your own sword with metal fallen from the sky, and there is splitting a body into two with your own two hands as the crowd can only tremble in fear. There is bearing a child and raising her to be just and brave and true, and there is draping white over your own shoulders as she closes her eyes for the final time.
There is being worshiped as a hero, and there is being shunned as the villain. There is the trust that surrounds and coats like armor, and there is hatred that sinks in and weakens. There is having enough power to save a city and enough power to destroy it.
“Normalcy... Is something is far gone,” Teacher murmured. “In this path that I’ve chosen to go down, I’ve already walked too far, haven’t I? The only thing I can do now is play chess and drink tea with someone as good as a son...”
“Teacher? I can’t hear you. What did you say?” the boy said confusedly. Teacher suddenly turned to him, shimmering eyes hidden by the wrinkles that he had dug into his own face.
“It’s good if you can’t understand me yet,” he said. “It’s good if you are still young, no different than other boys your age other than the sword you hold.”
“Then there mustn’t be anything different from you and an ordinary old man either!” The boy argued. Teacher laughed.
“Then I’m glad you think of me that way.” He leaned forward and ruffled the boy’s straight black hair with his fingers, only stopping when the boy squeaked and batted his hands away.
How naive, He thought inside, though he kept it to himself as to not inflame his disciple’s temper. He reached over to pour himself another cup of the cold tea before the other hurriedly did it for him, always trying to prove himself.
You could say that the old Teacher was already dead. You could say that he was supposed to be dead already. You could say that he should have stayed young forever instead of choosing to decay like this.
Still, on a night like this, where he could at least prick the edges of someone else’s warmth and massage the valley of folds on the back of his hand and roll the fallen strands of white hair in between his fingers, he could pretend like he was just another simple old man.
Just another person, caught in the unrelenting breeze of time.
There was a version of “Liu Junjie” that walked into his parents’ home that night and never came out.
Strange, how the first example he had ever followed was from the people that had ruined his life. And how in that way, he had made murder a habit somehow.
The new "him" had tried to live on like after that, so viciously cleaved from his own body. He washed his own back and tended to his own wounds and tried to pretend like everything was alright. But of course it wasn’t. He was just an umbrella bound to break, a roof bound to cave in. Every step forward rendered the previous step weak and feeble. He was stuck in two locations, the hell of the past and the constant breaking of the present.
He decided, that there was no way that he could live with this collection of pathetic yesterdays. In his dreams, he saw himself as he was when he was still desperately fragile, pressing his palms into his ears and succumbing to the prickling phosphenes as the doctors bandaged his back again. He couldn’t look into their eyes. He couldn’t look at his own eyes. That night, he could no longer bear it, and he killed it with his own hands, that puny flower. And then, he finally felt relief.
So from then on, every night, he would take the sword upon that illusion and sever it just the same. Another memory limp in his hands, another “Liu Junjie” blown away by the wind. It was just easier to live this way.
After all, wasn’t all of life spent on making things easier for oneself?
He remained nameless every night, as he stood over the cadaver of the person he was yesterday. He closed his eyes and imagined the loss of control, how the chest would start rising and falling before the breath was ready to be taken. It would flood out of the body like a waterfall, coat the bottom of his shoes and sink into the bandaged silk. It would suspend itself above his head and rain down clearly, odorlessly. And he would feel no dirtiness from the crime, only the feeling of purification that he had managed to cling onto for so long.
This process was mental but far from hypothetical. For his small, pathetic existence, this was the one constant. Forget the shames of yesterday. Focus on the triumphs of today. Wasn’t that what that man had told him once? Was it even him? Why couldn’t he remember anymore, the sound of that voice or the density of the other’s flesh when pressed upon gently... The soft curl of lip that he was convinced was revealed only to him or the pretty scintillation that person had produced when he was utterly immersed in his art, no, not in his sword’s silver but in his solemn yet focused gleam of his eye. Why did he want to forget that? Why did he want to discard the part of himself that held such a sweet reassurance? Why did he—
He thrusted the sword inside of the body’s heart, twisting until it went limp. His breathing was shallow yet agonizing. The corpse had its mouth open wide, as if to ask another terrible question.
No... Those times could never be returned to. He had thrown it all away. Not that either... It wasn’t him that threw away everything, it was him that was thrown away. By expectation or rule or whatever it was. Back then, he had treated himself like a delicate floret and had been treated that way by others accordingly. He had no faith in himself to endure, so he had been loved and spoiled and whittled into a dull knife without edge, content to stay weak and coddled forever. And even to the people he mourned every day afterwards, he was only a copper coin wedged between the stones on the ground. Worth only a candy piece at the cheapest stall.
And the blood, oozing down the staircase and through the crack in the door... It was all simply a consequence.
But, he blamed that person. He could understand him at moments of clarity, but here, sobbing over a body that used to belong to a version of him that was happier, he felt nothing but hate and loathing and utter despair at what he had left him as.
The boy finally reached the peak.
His thin robes clung to his body, moist but only from external water vapor, which originated from a nearby waterfall and hung in the air like a thick curtain. He did not sweat easily in the first place, but he thought to himself that he was not perspiring now as much as he would have before. Now, he was a stronger man, overlaid with sturdier skin, and that simple thing alone filled him with a sense of pride.
If he had climbed this mountain a few months ago, he no doubt would have collapsed by now. He had trained tirelessly, for his lungs not to heave and for his legs to not wobble. The wind stroked his face and tousled softly, making sounds like rushing water. At this moment, he was standing at the highest point in the world.
Below, the soft cliff drop made the ground look tantalizingly near, like steps in stairs in the way you could hop down with two legs together and land with two legs together too. He was strangely enthralled by it. Who knew something like this would be the gateway towards hades, the portal to purgatory, where your body wouldn't simply break if it hit the bottom, it would shatter.
Teacher suddenly prodded him at the small of his back with a bamboo rod, and although the boy was trained, he had not yet learned to keep his surprised squeaks to himself. With wide eyes, he whirled to the wrinkled face of the elder, which made the other huff. The older man gestured at the abyss with the stick, eyes flicking expectantly at the looming drop.
"Well, aren't you going?" He did not need to state the task in full because it would only whet the boy's unacknowledged fear further. The boy swallowed, adam's apple swelling like an uneasy tide as the euphoria gradually phased out of him.
"Teacher..." he said uncertainly, "I won't die, will I?"
Teacher always felt like scoffing with this pupil. "Didn't you say so yourself," he said dryly, "That you needed to breach the first entrance to hell in order to feel what it really was like to be strong?"
"I said I needed to be lucid for it," the boy corrected. His were rubbing against each other like flint and stone, roughly and erratically, and it looked as if he was making a visible effort to not hug himself. Teacher, observing his agitation, ignored the talking back just this once.
"Lucid or not, you're going to jump anyways. And you're not going to die," the older man said firmly. The boy glanced at the edge and then looked away just as quick, oscillating from one position to the next. Oh how he wished he had never asked to take up this challenge in the first place. Oh how he wished everything could go back to normal.
But then again, what was normal anyways?
"Teacher," the boy said, trying to mold his voice into something more solid, "I'll—I'll meet you later."
"If you don't go now, I will push you," Teacher replied, tone rough in order to disguise the well meaning behind his spiny words. The boy nodded, taking a deep breath. Vapor flooded into his mouth, and he tasted it slowly, running his tongue slowly over the textured roof of his mouth, his smooth teeth.
The drop looked much gentler than it really was. He tried to surround in that mirage as he raised his arm over his head. Just this once, he thought, he'd let himself believe a falsity.
Thighs together, he bent himself at the knee and pushed himself upwards like an arrow, piercing through the highest clouds.
*Warning: Explicit descriptions of violence. Please proceed at your own risk.*
It was clear that he had learned nothing.
Had he known, he would've come prepared. Had he known, he would've come with his sword on his hip, polished and shiny like the weapon it was supposed to be—had ceased to be. Had he known, he would not have shrieked as loud, would not have fallen so quickly to the ground when they struck his stomach, his chin smacking against those smooth, red floors with the sound of cracking bone. Had he known, he would not have simply watched as his parents' voices broke and splattered onto the wall, swelling and receding in one sickening breath.
"He was spoiled in Baxian Peak," they said as they rubbed their dirtied boots over his cheek. He was spoiled with small smiles and comfort and beautiful things. And now, he was beautiful just like it. Like those green ghylls, those fragrant pines, and those sweet rains. How soft, the stickiness of his pale skin and the lashes framing his frightened eyes. How lovely, the overflowing tears sullying his rounded jawline and the jut of his wobbling lip. He truly was beautiful.
And utterly pitiful.
They intended to have fun tonight. His parents' bodies were already piled in the corner, more flesh than human. If they hadn't threatened him, if they hadn't waved their sharp daggers in front of his little nose and said they'd slit his eyes if he dared looked away, he would not have watched as their souls melted out of his parents' mouths and seeped onto the floor. His naivety would've stayed intact for a few moments more.
And when they were done with them, the bandits smiled at him with boiling syrup dripping from their teeth.
"Did you listen?" They asked, the roofs of their mouths glinting at him like a puddle of blood. "Did you hear about that deal they tried to make?" He pretended that he couldn't hear them as he shook under their grip, eyes blown open and unable to close.
Suddenly, those grimy fingers trickled near the name of the boy's neck, and he gasped as the back of his robes were torn, exposing the naked skin to the densely red oxygen, that dirty air. He quivered and wondered if he would die right there, not from injury but from shame, but his thoughts were firmly staunched when something sharp pricked into the soft epidermis.
His bloody fingers made caves on the floor as he screamed. The bandits could only laugh, great delight dripping out of the corners of their yellowed mouths. "You should've studied numbers better. Couldn't count 'til thirty even if you tried." they sneered. His skin was nothing but a stone stele for etching into, nothing but a tablet to record the results of the day's hunt. The boy thrashed, clear liquid leaking out of his teeth. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to shake too much with his sobs in fear that the agony would be prolonged. And soon enough, he ceased to move and flattened his stomach to the crimson tile, mouth stuck open. It only made the job easier.
(They had missed something though. From that very first moment, when the boy shattered onto the ground, they had taken too much time playing with flesh instead of paying attention to that sliding body and sticky hands, which shakily crawled and pulled off the emergency fireworks with a great sound. They hadn't noticed, too caught in their delirium to feel the reverberation, and instead took to dragging the boy back to where he had been at first, laughing as they slapped the back of his useless legs with the flats of their scarlet swords. Something akin to glee in their eyes, their ears were smothered by the euphoric blanket of depravity.
They too, were human after all.)
In that final moment, as the bandits stood over their handiwork with great pride, the air grew thicker with static. Thunder suddenly boomed through that hall, and they were only able to grin a last time at each other before they were no more, severed by a bolt of lightning.
(The bandits had heard those rumbling footsteps too late. This was the one thing that saved him. The boy had been crying out feebly: "Shizun... Shizun... Shizun..." and that was a curse. Chances of survival were at an absolute none when the Baiye-Jun found them, brought in by his disciple's pathetic whines.)
The boy laid there as the rescuers rushed in like the water after a terrible drought, relieving for those alive but taunting for those who weren't. At first, the cultivators thought he was dead as well, until a single shadowed figure rushed from the center of the fray and took that thin body up into his arms.
"He's alive. He's alive," the man cried in a voice no one had ever heard from him before. He tore off a strip of his own silk sleeve and bound it tightly around the other's bloodied shoulders. He hugged the boy to his own chest in a defining moment no one would remember and along the way back, he kept whispering to himself like a madman: "Not this one. Not this one."
Needless to say, the boy survived. He still breathed, though everyone found it difficult to look at the scars left upon his back, much less trace them with liquor and redress them, address them. He might never stand up straight in pride again, but he would live, yes. At least he would live.
But despite all this, no one was sure of anything. That at any given moment, something could go wrong. But wasn't that the case for every patient? Just a missed beat, and they could be erased from the world.
"This boy, he was sullied by the blood that beat his family home," they said. A rotting odor soon filled his body, one of expired goat's milk and soiled water. He no longer slept with a serene smile on his lips. Instead, he writhed and thrashed, jaw slack or grinding like the sound of a knife against a whetstone. His hair was no longer straight like the hanging vines, and instead, it was bunched and smelly like a bird's dirtied nest.
Though he would live, none was sure if he would ever wake up. "This boy," they whispered, "he was spoiled in both of the ways the word could imply." He was spoiled, and it was clear there was nothing else that could be said or done.
All they could do was wait.
Better to Think Before Making Promises
It's so hot that the air is like liquid, which seems counterintuitive, but anyone who's been outside on a midday brighter than hell itself would know that summer is often just that: counterintuitive. Such days are best to be spent inside with a woven fan and a basket of loquats. Maybe hustling the vendor for some bingfen half off or playing around in a river with some friends.
Well, at least he got halfway there.
Sweat rolls down his face like blood would. If you just looked at the riverbank, you'd think that a dead body was lying there, freshly done away with. The sword in his hands doesn't help the image either, even though the blade is decidedly uncolored.
But, this young man isn't dead, even though, in blots of random thought, he wishes that he was at the moment. He's just languishing. Sleeping. Whatever.
Something about him is dead though. Maybe it's the fact that he's here again, staring at the sky and counting the seconds it takes for the sun to move a milometer. Maybe it's the fact that every time he closes his eyes, he can remember that this lifeless position isn't unfamiliar to him. Maybe it's the fact that his limbs remain limp, stay motionless even when he wills them to move or twitch or do anything to be honest.
(Something about him aches. For sweet release. For eternal sleep. For him to get to his goddamn feet like a cultivator is supposed to do. Any one of those things would be absolutely brilliant.)
The lukewarm water laps at his shoes like some kind of dog, the only reason he hadn't managed to fall asleep through the hours he'd been lying here. It's a shame that they're completely soaked though, because they were expensive and well, hard to sew. They'll wet his feet and make them stinky, he thinks blearily. He can only afford one flower fragrance a month and that much is always spent for the more delicate jobs at the brothels or the bathhouses.
He tries to sit up again, and suddenly, his body pulses with something that chokes the breath out of him. It doesn't hurt, no. He would never admit that. At least his tongue isn't lolling out of his mouth or something. That would be embarrassing.
"Well, are you going to get up any time soon?" A voice greets him from above. He thinks for a moment that the sun is speaking to him, but then he remembers that he is still alive.
"Teacher?" He rasps. His tongue almost flaps. He reels it back in.
The older man sighs. He bends over and pinches one of the boy's biceps deeply, making him yelp in a shamefully high pitch. The limb twitches though, the first movement in a while.
"You're going to burn your skin down to the bone if you keep lying here," Teacher scolds.
"I was training," the young man defends himself. His voice sounds tinnier than a cicada's cry, which definitely isn't helping his case at all.
"Do pigs have to train before they're roasted?" Teacher scoffs before his expression softens, much to the boy's displeasure, "If you had called for me hours ago, I would've carried you back."
"That's why I didn't call," he said stubbornly. Mobility slowly returning to him, he slowly flexes his fingers, wincing when the raw pink flesh scrapes against itself. Teacher exhales deeply like he's been living seven lifetimes, which is actually possible to be honest. Still.
"You should get out more. I feel like you're too unsettled by this teacher-student hierarchy," he says tiredly. "You know, get yourself a partner. A boyfriend? A girlfriend?"
It takes a second.
"Girl—girlfriend?" the boy stutters, suddenly discovering it was possible for his body temperature to rise even when he feels like he's being burned alive by the forces of nature. Teacher pinches the bridge of his nose and backtracks a little.
"Maybe not a girlfriend. A friend your age at least? Don't you have any desire to socialize?" he tries. He wonders if his student is still traumatized by that one time he had a conversation with a man on the street and he hadn't realized the other was flirting with him until he had asked if he preferred pitching or catching. (Except with more... Explicit vocabulary.)
The young man doesn't respond to his question, instead rolling himself gently out of the rushing water's grasp and attempting to sit up. Teacher watches without helping, having learned early on that the younger didn't appreciate any sort of support for these sort of things.
"I should start training again," the boy mumbles. The surface of the sun looks like its contorted into a face, which is certainly unfortunate considering that most faces from distant memory were faces he'd rather forget. Teacher narrows his eyes, does that thing where he inspects him up and down while making his pupils look like they're still staring straight at him.
"Sure. Let's spar then," the older man says abruptly.
The young man turns towards Teacher like he wasn't just lying on the ground like a corpse just moments before, eyes shining impossibly bright. It's positively blinding.
No wonder the girls liken him to a puppy, Teacher thinks. If he were less stupid, he might even be considered a teenage heartthrob.
"Yeah. I'll knock you out on the first blow and walk home without you," Teacher says. "So in short, no. Go back to your bed and rest well unless you want to greet heaven and wake up with a headache so bad you'd wish you'd never been born."
"Maybe that's a life experience I need to have," the boy argues. He gets to his feet, wobbling slightly, and picks up his discarded sword, though not without great difficulty.
Teacher examines him again, though less subtly this time. He squints and thinks.
"Okay then. But without a sword," he concedes.
"What?!" The boy's sword is dropped without second thought, and this time, it is Teacher's turn to cringe. That could've stabbed a foot.
"You heard me, get into stance."
The two men circle each other on the side of that river, the sun beating them like a drum. It sounds like that too, like ears ringing and vibrating with newly formed adrenaline. The young man has waited his entire life for this moment.
He leaps forward first. Teacher intercepts. He kicks. Teacher intercepts. He hunches and throws a fist. Teacher intercepts. He grits his teeth in frustration and for one second, blinks.
In that time, Teacher grabs his arm and pulls until he loses his balance. He sucks in a breath. Teacher leans in. There is a dull noise on the back of his head, then the sound of something hollow being struck.
He slumps. Teacher extracts his hand from the position it once held taut. The older man sighs as he watches the boy's body bob up and down on river, unconscious.
That one really is stupid, he thinks, kneeling down to pick the boy out of the water. Despite what he said before, he'll end up hauling him back home anyways.
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:
past chapter: https://theprose.com/post/406134/chapter-nine-on-bitter-truths-and-bloody-parties
-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.
Ren Liufang’s parents die when she is young. For awhile, that explains everything.
It rains during the procession. Her parents’ photograph sits heavy in her hands as she marches silently down the damp concrete road, almost slipping on the slick surface. The edges of the picture frame dig into her palms.
Ren Liufang worries needlessly that her bandages will get wet during the funeral. She stands through anyways, and they get soaked. After she staggers home, she peels the cloth off and does not weep, whether it be from the pain or from the grief. It would have been better had she never thought about it in the first place.
The custody battle is fiercer than execution of her parents’ will. Ren Mingshou wins her and the house, which he ends up selling anyways. The other relatives protest, but a decision is a decision, and Ren Liufang goes with him. It is natural; he had taken care of her the most when she was young anyways.
Ren Liufang goes to school. She skips a few grades and shows interest in nothing. Soon enough, she is out of her family owned private school and into university. Ren Mingshou says she will return in less than a decade. Ren Liufang doesn’t say it’s a promise she can keep. She goes to college. She thinks it’ll remain the same.
She is wrong.
When Ren Liufang’s parents are still alive, they bring in a little girl and tell her to take care of her. Then, they go away and leave them with Ren Mingshou.
The girl is small, frail. Her name is Xiu Lihua, and she skips dinner sometimes but likes to jump out of her window. She can’t read very well, and Ren Mingshou looks at her weirdly for some reason. For the first time in Ren Liufang’s life, she is charmed.
“Why do you keep doing that?” She yells one afternoon—as loud as her dainty vocal cords can handle anyway—at Xiu Lihua, who was six inches out the window, bare feet dug into the metal windowsill.
The girl blinks at her.
“Uh, because it’s fun. Wanna try?”
That day, Ren Liufang jumps out of a window. She hits her head on a tree branch and falls face first onto the dirt. It hurts a lot.
From above, a strange sound rains down. Ren Liufang stifles her sniffles and looks upwards, right at the laughing girl overhead, who holds her waist and positively shakes with glee.
“You—you just—I—” Xiu Lihua wheezes, practically choking on her amusement. She’s guffawing so loudly that Ren Liufang is sure the entire neighborhood can hear them.
And for some reason, she finds that she doesn’t mind that at all.
Ren Liufang starts minding when she gets older. Like when Xiu Lihua giggles at something another person said or nudges her other friends teasingly or falls into their arms while laughing in that bombastic way.
It doesn’t feel good at all.
Around the school, they’re known for being joined at the hip. Get Xiu Ying, get Ren Ju. Package deal. Buy one get the other free.
They walk home together, live together, even go to the bathroom together!
I swear, it’s like those two are long lost sisters or something!
Ren Ju and Xiu Ying sitting in a tree! K-I-S-S-I-N-G—
It’s one of those rumors that aren’t necessarily malicious, but they’re good enough for teasing that they don’t fade after a month. Ren Ju doesn’t hate it though, in fact she quite likes it. She would like to be with Xiu Ying forever. And she would like to never leave her side. And maybe marriage wouldn’t be too bad either—
Nevermind. Out of the question.
Nonetheless, it probably didn’t bother Ren Ju as much as it should’ve.
Unfortunately, it was not the same for Xiu Ying.
“Hey Ren Ju, I have long practice tonight. Don’t wait for me and go home first, please.”
“Uh Ren Ju, I mean I sit with you every day at lunch so can’t you let me sit with someone else for once?”
“Haha Ren Liufang? She’s just a friend. We aren’t that close actually. Let’s not talk about her anymore. She’s unimportant.”
And the worst one:
“Ren Ju? Oh, so you heard about that? It’s only because I’m so clingy. We’re not like that.”
Despite what Xiu Ying says, they do talk. They talk just loud enough for the other girl to not hear but for Ren Ju’s sensitive ears to pick up every word. The only thing that really changes is that they stop asking her invasive things directly and they start whispering behind her back words that Ren Ju will google later and falter at.
She isn’t. She isn’t, right?
But she is. Xiu Ying is the normal one. Ren Ju is the strange one. The clingy one. The
One day, Ren Ju is walking home. Alone. She coughs into the back of her hand and glances in the direction of the right hallway before she crosses into it. At that moment, Xiu Ying comes barrelling out of the gym doors, arms around the shoulders of two other jocks. Her laugh bounces out of her lips, and Ren Ju inhales a sharp breath, turning in her direction as if begging to be noticed.
Xiu Ying’s eyes meet hers. They falter. Her giggles splinter out and melt into the wood.
The air feels heavy.
Ren Ju’s heart stabs itself. She tears her gaze away and stalks off. She can feel eyes on her back, but nothing is more painful than the indecipherable emotion current drawing lines in her chest with a knife.
Later, she waits by the dining table for Xiu Ying to come home. During that time, Ren Mingshou comes home from work as principal and thanks her briefly for making dinner before cursing at Xiu Ying under his breath. Ren Ju doesn’t pay attention to it. She lets the food get cold.
Later, when Xiu Ying climbs in through the window—just to avoid Ren Mingshou, like always—Ren Ju jumps out of her chair and meets her there.
Xiu Ying looks ruffled, her cheeks flushed. There’s a new stain on her shirt—one that Ren Ju will scrub out before Ren Mingshou sees—and her hair is all over the place. Ren Ju swallows dryly. The dopey smile on her face fades when she sees her.
“Dinner is ready,” Ren Ju breathes out. Xiu Ying looks vaguely guilty.
“I already ate,” she replies. Ren Ju purses her lips.
“Are you still hungry?” she offers, voice pleading. Xiu Ying’s eyes flick over her face before redirecting away.
“No,” she says, lips pursed and face forced closed. Ren Ju just watches as Xiu Ying shoves past her and back into her own room.
Xiu Ying must hate me, Ren Ju thinks, and she believes.
When Xiu Ying is fifteen, Ren Mingshou finds her climbing through the window close to midnight. He takes one looks at the heat on her face and screams at her through the night. It ends with a padlock on the window and tears on Xiu Ying’s end.
“Shushu, her cheeks get flushed easily when it’s above eight degrees!” Ren Ju says desperately in Chinese when they’re alone, “She wasn’t doing anything illegal; it’s just the after game get-togethers!”
“Then it’s probably best that she doesn’t go to another one,” Ren Mingshou spits. “In fact, I already knew that this was going on for awhile, but I can’t overlook it any further.”
“Quiet child! Your parents don’t have the good health to deal with a child that acts like this every night! I’m just taking temporary measures for them. Once Xiu Lihua has proved she can take care of herself, I’ll stop it.”
And it ends there. Ren Mingshou already has a license, so all he needs to do is pile a few terrible textbooks by Xiu Ying’s door and yell at her every hour to keep reading and reading. Ren Ju keeps going to school.
Since last year, all the kids—now gangly teenagers—kept away from her. She blames it on Xiu Ying, with all of her clever avoidance strategies and “Haha, it’s Ren Ju that’s weird! Don’t bother her.“s. Still, a few of Xiu Ying’s soccer friends do come up to her and ask her about where the other girl is, even if they look halfway between weirded out and scared.
Ren Ju tells them that Xiu Ying is fine. That she’s being homeschooled now and that she quit soccer. The jocks look at little sad at that, and they pad away quietly without another word.
Nonetheless, Xiu Ying is forgotten quickly. Her name disappears within a week and completely dissapates in a month. She’s replaced by another good player, another someone to drag to the soda fountain after dark. Ren Ju pretends it doesn’t make her want to turn heel and scream at them: “Wasn’t she your friend?!”
But worst of all, it gets better for Ren Ju. Because people start talking to her again. She gets invited to book club meetings, student council outings. She is the headmaster’s niece after all. It only helped to be on good terms with her.
The rumors are shoved to the side. Beyond everything, it’s about the time they actually start caring about teacher’s opinions and public relations which means now that everyone’s bending over backwards for Ren Ju. It’s fine. She numbs herself to it. It is fine.
At home, it is not fine. Xiu Ying is not fine.
Most of the time, she’s holed up in her room, doing who knows what. Ren Mingshou forbids them from talking, and guilt makes Ren Ju obey him, because her parents are still the hospital and hey maybe Xiu Ying really was drinking that night and maybe if she tries hard enough she can go outside again and maybe her parents wouldn’t have to worry so much and tire themselves more and maybe Ren Mingshou wouldn’t have to tire himself out either because the hospital bill is piling up and—
But Ren Ju is also selfish. So one day, when Ren Mingshou is out of town and won’t be back until the next morning, she steals the keys to Xiu Ying’s door and breaks in.
Xiu Ying looks startled. She also looks like she hasn’t slept in weeks. Ren Ju sucks in a breath, suddenly forgetting why she was there.
“What do you want?” Xiu Ying says first. Her voice is hoarse but her eyes dig into Ren Ju’s chest like a dagger. Ren Ju swallows.
“Why—why did you avoid me, back then?” She asks, suddenly feeling very stupid. Xiu Ying looks surprised. Her fingers flex, and Ren Ju finds her eyes unexplainedly attracted to her knuckles.
“You—we—it was for the best, wasn’t it?” This, Xiu Ying says with much hesitance, “It was what you wanted.”
Ren Ju steps back. Her shoulders tense, and she suddenly wants to hit something. A wall. A table.
“What did I want?” she asks, voice icy. “You avoided me first. You said all of those—things. So, what did I want?!” Her voice pitches at the last part. Xiu Ying flinches, but she coils like a rattlesnake ready to strike.
“You don’t understand,” she starts, but Ren Ju doesn’t want to hear it.
“You’re the one that doesn’t understand. For fuck’s sake, you don’t have to be vague. Just tell me—just tell me why you hate me!” she spits with all the venom she can muster, slamming her fist into the nearby bookshelf. Then, she sees the look on Xiu Ying’s face. That look.
No no no, Ren Ju never wanted the conversation to turn out this way. She shouldn’t have pried. She shouldn’t have asked, but now Xiu Ying really hates her and—
“Hate you?” Xiu Ying says, looking like she’s heard the world is about to end. Ren Ju clenches her teeth.
“Don’t... don’t run away,” she says softly. Xiu Ying sucks in a breath, and she starts pulling on the skin of her arms, eyes flying everywhere.
“No I—I never wanted—no I, I never hated you!” she protests, looking so grief-stricken that Ren Ju suddenly wants to hug her and never let her go. She doesn’t, but her heart hurts in place of that warmth.
“Then why?” Ren Ju asks, almost angrily. Xiu Ying inhales a shuddering thing.
“You’re—you’re a Ren,” she whispers, “And I’m just... a random orphan that makes too much trouble. A disappointment that hasn’t stayed in one home for more than a month until now.”
Ren Ju opens her mouth to protest, but Xiu Ying cuts her off, “All those rumors were terrible. I can’t—I knew you didn’t want any of that. And the bigger problem was me, right? Because I was so clingy and so needy and so stupid that you had to hang around me all the time and that I practically forced my way into your house and forced you to spend time with me and now that these rumors had started, I was going to be even more of a burden. So I—So I—if I just removed myself from the equation then you would go back to normal and no one would say bad things about you anymore,” she finishes quietly, bottom lip trembling.
Ren Ju suddenly can’t breathe. “You—but you—all your friends—”
Xiu Ying looks like she wants to abstain from speaking—she’s spilled too much already—but Ren Ju can tell from her expression. The eyes that Xiu Ying hides and the energy thrumming around them.
“They were never really your friends, were they?” Ren Ju says it aloud so that Xiu Ying doesn’t have to. The girl nods, ashamed for all the wrong reasons, almost curled in on herself completely.
Ren Ju thinks this is all going too fast. She feels indignant and shocked and sad and like she’s about to throw up all at the same time. Because Xiu Ying had been thinking about her. She had been thinking too much. She’d made all the decisions for Ren Ju and desperately tried to keep the both of them safe but at the same time—
“How could you?” Ren Ju murmurs. Again, Xiu Ying looks up like the sky is falling, but instead, it’s only Ren Ju’s wobbling voice and pained expression. “How could you?”
“How could I what—”
“How could you decide all that for yourself?!” Ren Ju bursts out. Xiu Ying tenses as Ren Ju steps forward, across the floor strewn with textbook pages. “How could you decide what I wanted without asking me first? How could you just—” she wrings her hands, trying to find the right words to say— “How could you be so selfish?”
It becomes so silent that you could hear a pin drop.
Xiu Ying stands up, eyes blazing as she stalks up to Ren Ju and shoves her until her back hits the door. Ren Ju gasps as the wind is knocked out of her. Xiu Ying opens her mouth but nothing comes out. Instead, she grabs Ren Ju’s shoulders and bashes them weakly into the wall, eyes shining with angry tears and teeth drawing blood from her lip.
Ren Ju wants to brush those tears away. She wants to go back in time and retract everything she had said, say everything she should’ve said, and tell Xiu Ying that it’s going to be okay. That out of everything in Ren Ju’s life, Xiu Ying is her world and the only reason she hasn’t resigned herself to early grieving. Not yet.
But she doesn’t. Instead, she lets Xiu Ying slam her into the wall again and again and cry. Because Ren Ju isn’t ready to admit that everything she just said to Xiu Ying also applies to herself.
“I’m sorry,” Ren Ju says hoarsely, when Xiu Ying looks almost done with abusing her shoulder.
“What are you sorry for? You’re right, aren’t you? I was selfish. It was me. I was wrong,” Xiu Ying replies bitterly, voice scratchy. Her fingertips dig into Ren Ju’s arm. Ren Ju places her hand on top of them.
“You were thinking about me,” she manages firmly. She reaches forward and pulls Xiu Ying’s stupid head to her chest and hugs her as hard as she can. Because Xiu Ying has been trapped in this room for so long for something she didn’t do and because Ren Ju is a coward.
The other girl’s breath hitches, and she struggles for a few seconds before eventually relaxing into Ren Ju’s unrelenting grip. Her frame trembles.
“I’m sorry,” Xiu Ying sobs, even though Ren Ju knows she’s not sorry at all. That she truly believes all those things about herself and that she would do everything again.
Ren Ju hates it.
“The rumors, I didn’t care,” she admits, not quite the truth but most definitely better than what Xiu Ying had in her head, “But it bothered you.”
“It didn’t!” Xiu Ying says quickly, “It really didn’t! But…” she trails off. Ren Ju sighs.
“Next time, don’t go through it alone. Don’t leave me alone. Tell me. Don’t decide how I should feel about things. You are—” Ren Ju struggles—”You are more important to me than my reputation.”
Xiu Ying sniffles and mumbles indecipherably. Ren Ju holds her, and they sit there for a long time until the sun goes down.
Maybe it’ll be fine now.
It is not fine. It is not fine.
Xiu Lihua runs away at sixteen. Ren Mingshou lets her, in fact, he spurs it on. It is Ren Liufang’s fault.
Ren Liufang’s parents die a few days after that. The doctors sit her down for a talk, but the only word she remembers is hereditary.
Ren Mingshou finally moves back to his own house and Ren Liufang with him. She does not speak to him.
Ren Liufang does practice tests. She attends the mandatory meetings for her clubs, and she gets in contact with a professor from a nearby college and publishes a research paper with her name stamped in the front of it.
Later, Ren Mingshou asks Ren Liufang to inherit the position of headmaster from him. Ren Liufang agrees. She goes to university that fall.
She drinks a little. She parties a little more. She tries to regain control. She is interested in nothing.
Ren Liufang’s parents die when she is young. For a while, that explains everything.
Until it doesn’t.
Through highschool to college, no one catches Ren Liufang’s eye. It’s okay because she knows Ren Mingshou won’t ask about it, but also it isn’t because her slightly more invasive aunts and distant relatives will.
“Meet a nice boy yet?” they ask every family dinner.
“Too busy,” she replies, and that’s good enough because her grades are good enough.
Conveniently, that weekend, Ren Liufang ends up going to an off-campus party.
She’s the youngest person there. She isn’t allowed to drink, but she finds herself with a red solo cup in her hand anyways, filled to the brim with cheap beer. The disco ball casts fragments of colored light all over the pulsing walls, vibrating with the nauseating beat of the music. There are people grinding on the dance floor, and Ren Liufang cringes away from it, dumping the contents of her cup down the drain.
When she turns back around, there’s a guy waiting for her. Smoothly, he leans over the sink towards Ren Liufang, Adam’s apple bobbing. Ren Liufang quirks an eyebrow.
“Can I help you?” She asks, confused. He coughs.
“You’re beautiful,” the guy says, smiling with dimples blown, “You wanna have a good time?” he tilts his head towards one of the bedrooms in the loud apartment complex.
“Uh–” Ren Liufang’s eyes dart away, eventually landing on some random young woman in the middle of some kind of drinking ring—”I don’t—”
The guy’s eyes follow hers, and he comes to some kind of conclusion, “Oh, I get it. Don’t swing that way?”
“What?” Ren Liufang blinks, but he’s already heading away from her, waving an arm behind his head.
“I gotcha!” he yells and disappears into the living room, leaving Ren Liufang alone in the kitchen, bewildered.
Then, from that drinking circle from before, she hears a horrible sound. Ren Liufang looks away as the woman in the middle suddenly throws up on the carpet, drawing a couple of disgusted groans from the others in the ring. The woman coughs and curls up into a little ball in the center, and Ren Liufang wonders if she has any friends to escort her back home.
The symbol on her hoodie suddenly catches Ren Liufang’s eye, and she realizes that it belongs to a different university than where this party is being hosted. She turns her head worriedly, knowing that somebody must’ve let her in if she didn’t go to this uni, right?
A couple of minutes pass that feel like hours, and it’s then that Ren Liufang takes matters up to herself. Sighing, she pads into the fray, dodging several couples making out and a couple of wet ping pong balls. Briefly, she can feel some lacquered nails drag their way up her waist, but Ren Liufang simply shoots a vaguely apologetic look at the person before making her way towards the inebriated woman in the center.
Ren Liufang grunts as she throws her arm over her shoulder and stands up, muttering: “She’s with me, sorry.” to anyone that might catch it. The body shifts in her grip but only snuggles closer, not doing much for Ren Liufang’s already wobbly walk towards the exit. She throws the door open, and upon meeting with the fresh air, the woman sneezes on Ren Liufang, eyelashes fluttering. Ren Liufang takes that moment to go through her pockets, mentally reminding herself that she’s looking for an ID, not pickpocketing.
And of course, since Ren Liufang’s a lucky bastard, there is no ID.
The woman shifts in her grip, and Ren Liufang stumbles, almost face planting into the wet concrete. Her eyes flicker in the direction of her apartment.
The university only required undergrads to stay in dorms for one year, so as soon as possible, Ren Liufang got out of there. As much as she preferred not spending too much money, no way was she staying one more year in that hellhole.
She thanks herself as she limps towards her complex, deadweight in hand. The woman’s hot breath ghosts over her neck, and Ren Liufang cringes, hustling along faster. She can’t get to her floor fast enough, jingling out the keys and practically shoving the door open along with the intoxicated woman.
Ren Liufang briefly questions her sanity before sighing and closing the door behind her.
Ren Mingshou would never know.
Ren Liufang almost forgets that she brought a random female—who literally could’ve been a serial killer—into her house last evening. She drinks her hot chocolate, and she leans back into her chair, sucking on the straw lazing as she types quickly into her laptop. She almost forgets because it’s a beautiful morning, and the sun is streaming beautifully through the translucent curtains and the hot chocolate was made just right and it’s quiet.
It’s shattered when a woman bursts through her bedroom door and yells:
“OHMYGODIMSORRYDIDWESLEEPTOGETHERLASTNIGHT?!” at the top of her lungs.
Ren Liufang’s morning is ruined. Along with her reputation, if the neighbors have been awakened.
“Good morning,” she says lightly, silver eyes still fixed on her chromebook screen. The woman’s chest heaves, and she takes a moment to look around the practically empty—sterile—apartment. Her eyes narrow.
“Wait a second, how old are you?” She asks slowly.
“Eighteen,” Ren Liufang replies nonchalantly. The woman lets out another inhuman shriek.
“Oh my God, I just slept with someone who can’t even drink yet fuck fuck fuck. I didn’t take your virginity, did I? Oh God, I’m so sorry your first time was with someone like me—”
“Please stop talking,” Ren Liufang interrupts, unwilling to hear any more. “We didn’t copulate. You were inebriated, so I brought you to my home.”
The woman’s mouth hangs open, “This is the first time I’ve heard a kid say stuff like “copulate”.”
For no reason at all, Ren Liufang flushes. “The range in my vernacular is just… slightly larger than the regular person. And I’m not a child, I can vote.”
“Just because you can vote doesn’t mean you’re not a child,” the other woman dismisses, “Okay, so we didn’t fuck?”
Ren Liufang’s ears color at the vulgarity, “No,” she says. The woman exhales a large breath in relief.
“What’s—what’s your name?” she asks shakily, as if trying to grapple with reality.
“Ren Liufang,” she answers politely, “And you?”
“Wang Huiyin,” the woman replies quickly. “Now, uh, can I buy you breakfast?”
Unfortunately for Wang Huyin, she does not end up buying Ren Liufang breakfast. They do in fact, however, eat lunch together at a quaint little cafe a few blocks down from the other’s college that Wang Huiyin apparently frequented often.
“I have to make up for being such a burden last night, don’t I?” Wang Huiyin says over an iced americano and several sandwiches. Ren Liufang shakes her head hastily.
“It gave me quite a convenient excuse to leave,” she admits. Wang Huiyin quirks an eyebrow.
“Speaking of which, why were you there anyways? You’re underage,” she points out. Ren Liufang turns her head away and stares out the window. She doesn’t catch Wang Huiyin tracking the movement of her eyelashes.
“I don’t know,” Ren Liufang says distantly. Wang Huiyin stares for a few more seconds before averting her eyes.
“You shouldn’t go to these things,” she scolds, “It isn’t a good environment.”
Now, it’s Ren Liufang’s turn to snort, “If I recall, it was me that dragged you out of that party last night.”
Wang Huiyin flushes, and she splutters, almost spilling her coffee. Ren Liufang watches her and can’t help but to feel a deep pang in her chest.
“My sister, it was all my sister’s fault!” Wang Huiyin declares loudly. As if on cue, the phone in her pocket buzzes. Ren Liufang tilts her head in a silent question as the woman fumbles the device out and presses it to her ear.
“WHERE ARE YOU?!”
The both of them jerk as a loud high pitched voice screams from the phone, screechy and staticky. Hurriedly, Wang Huiyin turns off the speaker and turns down the volume, turning her back to Ren Liufang and speaking in hushed tones to the person on the other side. Ren Liufang watches with an unexplained curiosity as Wang Huiyin gestures animatedly as she talks.
Finally, after about five minutes of rapid fire whispering, Wang Huiyin whirls back around and slams her phone onto the table, mood visibly dampened.
“Is everything alright?” Ren Liufang asks gently. Wang Huiyin sighs.
“It’s my sister,” she explains tiredly. “Seriously Wang Qingshan I swear… yesterday that girl decided to ditch me at the last second but screams at me when I’m not back on time. Like gosh, I know I’m supposed to be the elder sister and all that but aiyah that girl is really…” Wang Huiyin takes an exhausted gulp from her americano. Without meaning to, the corners of Ren Liufang’s lips curl up a little bit.
“What’s so funny?” The other woman huffs when she sees her. Ren Liufang’s smile only widens.
“You just reminded me of someone I used to know,” she says.
That night, Ren Liufang dreams of Xiu Lihua again, of her shiny hair and her crooked smile and grinning voice. When she wakes up, her chest hurts. She feels like she has betrayed something.
For some reason, Wang Huiyin and Ren Liufang keep running into each other after that, despite not even going to the same universities. They get coffee together most times, though sometimes Wang Huiyin comes and goes too quickly for her to catch. Sometimes the other woman is mild mannered and sweet while other times, she seems cranky and tired. Ren Liufang boils both down to college mood swings, having experienced some herself. Nonetheless, she learns to enjoy both versions of Wang Huiyin.
(Ren Liufang wonders if Xiu Lihua is out of high school yet. If she ever went back to school. If she ever found a home that loved her like she deserved. Sometimes, she entertains morbid visions of Xiu Lihua dying on the streets, no one to hold a proper funeral for her. No one to remember her.
Before, she used to go to parties to erase her mind. Wish she could drink all while nursing a glass of water. But now, she calls Wang Huiyin, and they talk for hours even though Ren Liufang knows she’ll only feel worse afterwards.)
A year passes since Ren Liufang meets Wang Huiyin. They meet at Ren Liufang’s house with glasses of sweet tea and limeade. The older woman sheepishly sneaks in a bottle of wine, but she promises to not open it. Ren Liufang has a fruit knife in her hand and she really does not want to see Ren Mingshou’s face if he hears that she’s been drinking, so Wang Huiyin’d better keep that promise.
They talk. Wang Huiyin seems to be in a mood again, but it’s strange in the way that Ren Liufang can tell she’s happy too. She doesn’t think much of it.
Before midnight, Ren Liufang starts to forget why she never let Wang Huiyin stay at her home past the next day, despite their first meeting. She doesn’t notice how wine gets opened and poured. She doesn’t notice until she swallows it, and Wang Huiyin’s face is inches from hers.
Ren Liufang sees Wang Huiyin’s nose hovering above hers, and she feels the wine rush down her throat. She’s not drunk, but she finds that she wants to get drunk. And she’s not drunk, but she finds that she wants Wang Huiyin to come closer.
Her hands come up to grip the other woman’s biceps, and Ren Liufang breathes out a glassy exhale, eyes half lidded. Wang Huiyin sucks in a breath, and she seems hesitant. Ren Liufang’s hands tighten on the arm of her sleeve, consenting.
She isn’t drunk yet. She can still smell Wang Huiyin and her perfume, the one she uses every time they meet. She can still see the constellations of freckles dappled across Wang Huiyin’s nose, the mole under her ear.
(Xiu Lihua appears again. This time, Ren Liufang shoves her image away. She’s done hurting like this.)
Wang Huiyin’s eyes close. They’re so close that their lips are nearly touching, not quite brushing. Ren Liufang steels herself. Unconsciously, she apologizes, but she doesn’t know who she’s apologizing to. She closes her eyes too and leans in.
Wait, something’s wrong.
Ren Liufang’s eyes snap open, and she shoves Wang Huiyin—no, not Wang Huiyin—away as hard as she can. The woman stumbles, and she grunts as her back hits the living room wall.
“Who are you?!” Ren Liufang yells, teeth clenched. She can’t see straight.
The person at least has the decency to look guilty. She stands up, unable to meet Ren Liufang’s eyes.
“Wang Qingshan,” she answers.
Ren Liufang suddenly flashes back to all those times Wang Huiyin seemed to appear from nowhere, looking more sullen than normal. It had taken a while for her to get used to, but they were able to converse fine. More than fine actually.
“Get out,” Ren Liufang purses her lips, “Please get out.”
Wang Qingshan looks like she’s about to protest before she looks at the wine on the table and the look on Ren Liufang’s face. Her eyes dart away, and she leaves in a flash. The door clicks behind her.
Alone, Ren Liufang breathes shallowly. She lays down and holds her knees to her chest.
Once again, Xiu Lihua appears in her head. She is laughing.
Ren Liufang squeezes her eyes shut and begs it all to go away.
The next months, Ren Liufang spends trying to forget. She has no boyfriend, but she now mentions a man in passing every family dinner. Maybe a barista at the cafe. Maybe a business student.
She stops meeting with Wang Huiyin. She starts going to parties again. The number is blocked and deleted. She moves on.
Ren Liufang graduates. She moves to a grad school that is good enough for Ren Mingshou to allow her to live across the country for. She studies.
When Ren Liufang is twenty-two, she’s introduced to a man. Surprisingly, it’s non-romantic, considering how frustrated the aunties are getting at her. It’s a younger boy who visits his fathers’ grave every other day and has a mother who spent ten years in prison.
“Please take care of him,” an older woman makes her promise. Ren Liufang agrees, all while eyeing the timid Cheng Bowen, who shies away from her.
At first, their relationship is strained. It’s mostly Ren Liufang’s fault, but after a few guilty visits to her parents’ graves and even Cheng Bowen’s father’s grave, she decides to try a little harder.
(“Ren Liufang,” the boy says to her, eyes fixed on his fathers’ grave. A bouquet of white chrysanthemums trembles against the stone, and he brushes some of the dust away.
“What?” she stands behind him, hands folded over her stomach.
“How did you stop grieving?” he asks quietly. Ren Liufang takes a second to respond, before she says:
“I never did.”)
Which brings them to now.
There are hands everywhere. Ren Liufang shoves Cheng Bowen into her apartment’s cold bed. He pulls her down with him, and his fingers ghost over her waist, her stomach. She yanks his topknot out, and his long hair falls down his shoulders. Their mouths never meet, but there’s tension hung in the air like a power cord waiting to snap.
Everything’s rushed. Ren Liufang isn’t even thinking straight. The both of them are sober, but they pretend for the moment that they’re drunk and young. Ren Liufang’s hands wander again and Cheng Bowen makes a noise. She keeps going because she doesn’t know, she doesn’t know and Cheng Bowen pushes her in that direction and she goes further and further down—
“Wait,” he croaks. “Please, wait.”
Ren Liufang pulls away, and she waits as Cheng Bowen exhales deeply, eyes flicking rapidly from her body to the bed and to the window.
“I don’t—I don’t—” he whispers, fists curling— “I’m sorry, I don’t—
“I don’t like women.”
And it’s like Ren Liufang has been splashed with cold water. Her eyes widen, and Cheng Bowen looks like he’s about to run.
“I do,” she blurts out, and suddenly, it feels like Ren Liufang can breathe again. It’s been eight years since she could breathe, she realizes. The rumors were true. Xiu Lihua was right. They were all right.
“You—what?” Cheng Bowen blinks stupidly. He sits up, criss crossing his legs over one another, back straight like some sort of puppy waiting for instruction.
“I like women,” Ren Liufang repeats, except it’s more trancelike than anything. “I like women.”
“Oh,” Cheng Bowen says, “You like women.”
Ren Liufang nods. He stares between her and her unbuttoned blouse and the rumpled bed sheets.
“We were about to do something very stupid, weren’t we?” he says. She sighs.
“For once, you’re right.”
(Ren Liufang will try to have a phone conversation with Ren Mingshou a few months later.
“How are you doing? I hope you’re keeping up with your studies. I didn’t let you go that far away for masters for no reason.”
“I’m doing fine, Uncle. Busy.”
“That’s a good thing. You’ll be even easier when you get older.”
“Speak up, child.”
“Uncle, I—I don’t—”
“I don’t like men. I like women.”
“... That doesn’t matter. You’re too busy to have… a girlfriend anyways.”
“... Thank you, Uncle.”
After that fiasco—which Ren Liufang and Cheng Bowen agreed to never speak of again—everything seems to go back to normal.
That is, until Cheng Bowen barrels into Ren Liufang’s apartment one night excitedly exclaiming that he had a boyfriend.
“What’s his name?” she asks, pouring him a cup of orange juice. He gulps the entire cup down at once, slamming the glass onto the table.
“I don’t know! We only met last night!” he says brightly. Ren Liufang wants to slam her—or his—head into the table.
“Then how are you two dating?” She raises an eyebrow.
“We had sex, didn’t we?” Cheng Bowen says, as if it’s obvious. “The elders at the temple always said that sexual intercourse should come after marriage, but since I’ve broken that rule and you told me they were too old fashioned, doesn’t this mean we’re dating?”
Ren Liufang pinches the bridge of her nose.
“I am sitting!”
“I mean—just listen okay—”
The next evening, Cheng Bowen bursts into her house again, except he has a face full of tears. Ren Liufang has half the mind to murder someone, but he looks far too distraught for her to break the law.
“We weren’t dating!” he wails, blowing his nose loudly into the tissue. Ren Liufang hums sympathetically and pats his back awkwardly.
“At least you aren’t a virgin anymore?” she says, trying to be comforting. Unfortunately, this only makes Cheng Bowen cry louder.
“Then who am I going to marry?!” he bawls. Ren Liufang sighs. That night, they order Cheng Bowen’s favorite takeout and then some. She mentally mourns for her wallet, but she supposes she’s missing the money less than Cheng Bowen currently misses this random guy he hooked up with yesterday.
“You’ll marry someone you… love,” she responds, cringing at herself. Cheng Bowen sniffles.
“My heart is broken,” he says.
“That’s rough buddy,” Ren Liufang thinks. She does not say it out loud. Instead, she says: “It isn’t that bad if you get used to it.” which is decidedly worse.
Cheng Bowen stops, slowly turning to look at her.
“Xiong Jinli, have you been in love before?” he asks.
“No comment. And don’t call me that, please,” Ren Liufang says quickly, already regretting her birth and that stupid nickname. Cheng Bowen leans towards her, eyes staring into hers.
“You have!” he concludes quickly, shoving a piece of orange chicken into his mouth. Ren Liufang averts her eyes.
“Let’s not talk about it,” she stands up and starts gathering up the empty boxes thrown everywhere. Cheng Bowen’s gaze tracks her until he eventually looks away, not for lack of resisting.
“I want to get drunk tonight,” he declares. Ren Liufang is already halfway to the wine cabinet.
Later that night, when Cheng Bowen is drawing stars on her couch and Ren Liufang is on the floor somewhere, he rolls over and looks at her again, strangely forlorn.
“What was she like?” he half asks, half mumbles. Ren Liufang covers her mouth as she hiccups, eyes glazed over.
“She was—she was—such an idiot,” she sniffed, “So stupid. Always so stupid and selfish.”
“Then why did you like her?” Cheng Bowen says. Ren Liufang would’ve wondered if he was sober had she been. Instead, she coughs.
“I don’t—I don’t like her,” she croaks stubbornly.
“You just said you did though,” he points out. Ren Liufang slaps the ground in response.
“No I didn’t!” she insists, “I never said I liked her! Just that I—I really—”
For some reason, Ren Liufang’s chest has started hurting again. She coughs, body heaving as she presses her palms into her watering eyes. Her knees press into her chest.
“I really loved her,” she rasps, “But I couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t tell her before she left. It was all—all my fault.”
She inhales, but it comes out more as a sob, and before she knows it, there are tears coming out her eyes. She can hear Cheng Bowen crawl over and start rubbing her shoulders, infinitely better at being affectionate than her, and she cries even harder.
“I almost—I almost kissed that woman—” she blubbers, “But then I’d be betraying her—it was all my fault—I can’t allow myself to ever love another person—ever again.”
“That’s so sad,” Cheng Bowen murmurs.
Ren Liufang doesn’t respond. She’s already too loose-lipped under the influence of alcohol. The worst thing she can do next is spill all of her deepest darkest secrets to a guy who’s already got enough issues on his plate.
“Cheng Bowen.” She turns over to face him and grabs his cheeks roughly, squeezing them beneath her wet hands. “Make sure, if you find someone you love, to tell them, okay? If you really love them, don’t sacrifice them for your other problems. Make sure you care for them properly and don’t be selfish. Don’t—” Ren Liufang sucks in a breath— “Don’t make the same mistake I did.”
Cheng Bowen looks startled, but he nods nonetheless.
“You still have a chance. At love,” he says. Ren Liufang lets go of his face and scoffs.
“Then I wouldn’t deserve it,” she replies. “The person that I fall in love with next? It’d be better if we never met.”
Cheng Bowen pauses before saying softly: “That isn’t right.”
“No one wants someone who can’t move on. And I won’t. I won’t allow myself to.” Slowly, Ren Liufang picks herself up from the floor, wincing as a knife of pain shoots through her head.
“You should get home,” she wobbles a little as she walks, hand supporting the wall as she hobbles down the hallway, “Or stay over. The couch is open. So is the bedroom, if you want. Just wash the sheets afterwards while I take the couch—” Ren Liufang’s knees buckle, and she falls. Cheng Bowen rushes over, but she’s already standing by the time he gets there.
“I want to sleep,” she croaks. Cheng Bowen nods, supporting her around the shoulders. Ren Liufang’s eyes blink blearily before heaviness forces them closed.
The last thought she has is that she doesn’t want to see Xiu Lihua in her dreams, but she supposes she’s doomed herself to it.
For as long as Ren Liufang can remember, Xiu Lihua has haunted her life. From the open windows of their early lives to the rain of their sixteenth year. Like a shadow, wherever Ren Liufang went, Xiu Lihua followed, though in reality, it was the other way around.
After all this time, Ren Liufang was still chasing the same girl from her past.
When Ren Liufang wakes up, her cheeks are wet. She looks to her side to see the naked shoulder of a stranger staring back at her. The clock is ten minutes from nine.
At five minutes from nine, Ren Liufang flips a pancake with one hand and scrawls a messy note for the woman in the other.
At nine, she’s out the door.
That night, she goes to another party.
Nobody could’ve predicted how much Ren Liufang would go to parties in college. Maybe it was her strict upbringing. Maybe it was the childhood she half lost in her parents’ hospital room.
She doesn’t tell them that it’s Xiu Lihua.
So anyways, it’s a party. Ren Liufang is wearing white again, even though she knows it’s an acutely stupid idea considering that this is a college frat party where off-the-body shots are the main attraction.
She has a solo cup in her hand again. She keeps her eyes off the center of the mess, where people are vomiting and probably drinking away their lives.
Well, they have one thing in common at least.
Ren Liufang’s eyes are everywhere and nowhere at one. She swirls the liquid with her wrist, leaning against the table. A couple of times, someone comes up and propositions her, but she refuses each time. She came with Cheng Bowen but he’s already frolicked off somewhere, trying to find true love in hook-up culture.
The music is too loud. It’s just the way Ren Liufang likes it. She drains her cup and heads to the table to pick up another one.
Then, from the corner of her eye, she catches something that she never thought she’d see again.
Ren Liufang isn’t a particularly short woman, but evidently, she isn’t tall either. Quickly, she shoves her way through a couple of sweaty bodies, heart beating in her ear. Her eyes stay glued to that one part of the room.
But when she finally ducks out of that crowd of bodies, she can’t see her anymore.
No, she’s here. She’s heading out of the party, cheeks red. There’s a man next to her.
Ren Liufang can’t breathe. In the first second, accusations flash in her head, but after that, all that’s left is a bitter yearning that she thought she drank away earlier. She thinks about the intimate way Xiu Lihua holds onto the man’s arm and how they talk so familiarly.
“It’s okay if they’re dating. It’s okay if Xiu Lihua is straight. Just…”
Cheng Bowen suddenly appears at her side, blundering through the crowd with his annoying height and slim muscle.
“Hey, Ren Liufang! I’m not going to be coming home with you tonight!” he chirps. Ren Liufang doesn’t respond, eyes still glued to the two people halfway out the door. Cheng Bowen follows her gaze.
“Hey, I know the guy! I have his number!”
“What?” Ren Liufang whirls around, eyes wide. Cheng Bowen nods.
“I’ll send it to you!” he says knowingly. Ren Liufang hates how perceptive he is.
“Did you?” She says, the half-question hanging in the air. Cheng Bowen shakes his head.
“He said I wasn’t his type,” he pouts, “Oh well, that’s okay because I found someone after that too!”
“Go hook-up,” she pushes him away, even though her stick arms can’t do much against gym rat Cheng Bowen. He pulls a face.
“It’s going to go somewhere this time!” he proclaims. Ren Liufang just pushes him harder until he goes away.
That night, she is messaged a number from Cheng Bowen, a man by the name of Zhang Yuting. Along with the text are a bunch of well meaning but eyesoring emojis. Against her will, she smiles, but her chest internally collapses a little. She sits on it for an entire night and a few more hours before finally gathering up the courage to type up a small text.
From Unknown Number: Hello, this is Ren Liufang from university. I noticed that you are good acquaintances with someone I used to know and would like to get back in contact with.
From Unknown Number: May I please get Xiu Lihua’s phone number?
first chapter here: https://theprose.com/post/383820/chapter-one-on-rogue-cultivators-and-old-blood
prologue to chapter eight
Finding the man that killed A-duan is easy.
Cheng Bowen remembers the asshole from the day in Zhoucheng, always prattling on and on about the doctors—namely the doctor’s son—all while eating their food, enjoying his free service, and filling his pockets with money that his brother makes across town.
Oh well, his shizun taught him to be honorable, but she’ll never know that the paper money he burned for the city wasn’t his.
Cheng Bowen leaves Ren Liufang on the horse while he drags the man towards a small secluded house in the middle of nowhere. The body twitches in his grip, like a half-dead fish still fighting for life.
Well, Cheng Bowen muses, It depends on what kind of fish you’re talking about.
There is a chair in the house, just like Cheng Bowen remembers. He hauls the unconscious body onto it, setting him upright on the shaky frame. The man’s head rolls back, revealing a pattern of snarling black crawling across his skin. Cheng Bowen adjusts the neck to where the mark isn’t visible anymore, chin to collarbone.
At the very least, he can allow himself this luxury.
He has never been good at tying knots. Cheng robes are sacred, so he wouldn’t dare touch them, but he unravels a few of the old bandages on his chest and uses them as ropes instead. Shi Jinghui would probably burst a vein if he saw Cheng Bowen actively endanger his health, but at least it’d be fun to watch. Shi Jinghui was interesting like that. He pulls the bandage around the leg until it goes taut and the blackened skin around it starts leaking pus. Then, he unknots it and ties it tighter.
It repeats in that order.
When Cheng Bowen is done, the man is completely secure to the chair, no way of removing himself from the bandages bound tightly around all of his limbs. The curse mark pulses on his chest, but it’s subdued for the moment, probably due to the beating it took awhile ago.
Cheng Bowen steps back, and he stares at the man. Immobile. Neck soft and easy to slice through. If he were being crude, he’d compare it to killing a lamb. He’s had plenty of practice beheading people. It’d be over in a single stroke. So easy. Just. Like. That.
Cheng Bowen touches the tip of his sword’s hilt, and he imagines swinging it so hard that blood flies across the room and the ground trembles and a part of the wall caves in from the pressure. Was that how it went? Was that how it worked? Was it really that easy? So insignificant that he didn’t even have to act hard to pretend it never happened? Should he give it a try just to see how it feels?
To, just for a second, see what it was like being in Ren Liufang’s shoes?
Cheng Bowen’s grip on his sword tightens, and he turns away. He kicks dirt into the man’s eyes, and he leaves that house to get Ren Liufang.
The woman is still unconscious when she comes into view, resting discontentedly on top of his horse. Cheng Bowen drags her off without looking at her face, holding her by the back collar. He doesn’t want to touch her skin. Not the blisters on the back of her neck. Not the darkened splotch half covering her body. Not even the normal part, the human part. It’s all the same. She’s still the same. Everything’s still the same.
Except it isn’t. Not anymore.
Cheng Bowen doesn’t want to think about it. He doesn’t want to think about anything. He should’ve killed Ren Liufang half a year ago to keep it simple. Stabbed while she wasn’t looking. Accident in a night hunt. Infection in the doctor’s office. It wasn’t his fault she showed her back to him. It would blow over well for the Cheng sect, though the Ren sect might collapse from the inside out. Better for them. Justifiable once the truth got out. Public execution.
But that was half a year ago, and what was he doing now? Saving her life?
It was too late.
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:
past chapter: https://theprose.com/post/398685/chapter-seven-on-unwelcome-home-returns
next chapter: https://theprose.com/post/406134/chapter-nine-on-bitter-truths-and-bloody-parties
-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.