“It tastes like dead rat,” Arran said, face twisted in disgust at the bitter taste of the potion.
The gray-haired woman scowled. Arran had learned that her name was Doctor Zhang and that she was Lord Jiang’s personal healer. Lord Jiang had put her in charge of treating Arran, but to Arran’s dismay, her treatments mostly consisted of vile-tasting potions.
“You’re a man. Act like one,” she said bluntly.
Arran sighed. The woman was right, of course — however foul-tasting her potions might be, he had to admit that they worked extremely well. Between her potions and the technique Lord Jiang had given him, it had taken him just a week to recover from most of his injuries. Without them, he thought, it would have taken months — if he would have recovered at all.
He took a deep breath, then swallowed the potion. The taste made him gag, but he managed to keep it down.
“Good,” Doctor Zhang said. “Now, you can eat.”
At this, Arran’s eyes brightened. While the potions the woman gave him were absolutely vile, every meal he had eaten since waking up had been an absolute feast.
He ate in silence, trying to ignore Doctor Zhang’s watchful gaze. Although the food was amazing, the woman seemed to worry that he did not eat enough, and she took it upon herself to make sure that he did.
Not that Arran had any trouble eating — just this meal had roast chicken, duck, dumplings, braised pork belly, and a variety of vegetables, each of them better than anything he’d ever tasted before he arrived here.
By the time he finished eating, he was so full he felt like he could barely move.
Doctor Zhang nodded in approval. “At least your appetite has made a full recovery.”
“I was thinking… perhaps it’s time for me to get up and go outside,” Arran said hesitantly. “Don’t you think some exercise and fresh air would be good for me?”
Doctor Zhang looked somewhat doubtful as she gave his words some thought, but to Arran’s surprise, she eventually nodded.
“You’re not completely recovered yet,” she said, “but I think some light exercise might do you good. Very well. Finish your practice first, and I will send the girl in an hour or two.”
“The girl?” Arran felt a tinge of discomfort as he realized Jiang Fei would join him. She had visited him every day since he had woken up, but although at first, he had been glad for the company, he soon discovered that she fussed over him even more than Doctor Zhang did.
Her normal cold and aloof personality seemed to have disappeared entirely. Now, she acted like an over-concerned mother looking after a sick child, constantly worrying whether Arran was eating and resting enough. And no matter how hard Arran tried to convince her that he was — in truth, most of his time was spent either resting or eating — the look of worry did not leave her face.
“You thought I’d let you go out by yourself?” Doctor Zhang said, raising her eyebrow in disbelief.
“Alright, I’ll go with Jiang Fei,” Arran said. He had long since learned that once Doctor Zhang made up her mind, there was no convincing her otherwise. And at least he would finally be able to leave the room, even if it was with Jiang Fei at his side.
“Now get to work,” the woman said. With a last stern look, she exited the room, leaving Arran behind.
After a few minutes of idle thought, he set to work, practicing the technique Lord Jiang had given him.
The technique, he had discovered, was remarkably simple. All it required him to do was to close his eyes and circulate Essence — Shadow, since that was all he had available — around his body in a specific pattern, making sure he reached every part of his body.
The pattern was a complex one and it had taken him two days to get it right, but after that, practice had been almost as easy as breathing.
At first, he thought that something that simple could not possibly have much of an effect, but he soon found that after each practice session, he felt his injuries improve and his body growing stronger, if only slightly.
Time passed by unnoticed as Arran practiced, and he was startled when he heard a knock on his door. A moment later, Jiang Fei entered.
“Doctor Zhang told me you’re allowed to go out today,” she said. From the look on her face, it was clear she did not agree with the woman’s judgment.
“She said some exercise would be good for me,” Arran replied.
Jiang Fei looked doubtful, but she did not argue. “Just tell me if you get tired,” she said with a concerned frown.
Soon after, Arran stepped outside for the first time since he had woken up.
Immediately, he was startled at his surroundings. The room he stayed in, he now saw, was part of a small cottage that stood within a vast garden that stretched as far as he could see.
“What is this place?” he asked.
“It’s Uncle Bear’s estate,” Jiang Fei said with a look of veneration in her eyes. “He’s lived here since the early days of the Jiang Clan. It’s one of the holy places of the clan.”
With that they set off, Arran following closely behind Jiang Fei as they walked through the seemingly endless garden, following small paths past ponds, carved rocks, herb patches, and orchards.
Occasionally, Jiang Fei would point out rare plants and trees, and Arran found himself impressed at both the extent of her knowledge and the vastness of the estate.
Along the path, they encountered a few cottages and pavilions, but they met no other people, despite walking around for several hours.
“Just how large is the estate?” Arran finally asked.
“Are you getting tired?” Jiang Fei asked in response, and Arran could see concern flashing across her eyes.
“Not at all,” Arran lied. In truth, he was starting to get a little tired, even if he enjoyed the feeling of finally being on his own two feet again. But if he told Jiang Fei, he knew that she would take him back to his room immediately. “I’m just wondering where the people are.”
Jiang Fei gave him a questioning look. Then, suddenly, her eyes went wide. “Of course, you don’t know!”
“Don’t know what?” Arran asked, wondering whether he was missing something.
“This,” Jiang Fei said, waving her hand around, “is Uncle Bear’s personal estate. Very few people are allowed to enter it.” She turned her head to Arran, a serious look in her eyes. “You have to understand, even within the Jiang Clan, fewer than two dozen people are allowed inside the estate.”
“How many people are there in the clan?” Arran asked.
Jiang Fei knitted her brows in thought. “I don’t know exactly,” she said. “Throughout the Empire, perhaps five million.”
Arran gaped in shock. “Five million?!”
“As I said, I don’t know exactly how many there are,” she said. “But I do know that every single one of them would be shocked if they knew you were here.”
“Then what about you?” Arran asked. “When you told Stormleaf that you would ask your uncle for help—”
“I lied,” Jiang Fei interrupted him. “Clan members are allowed to petition Uncle Bear when they disagree with the clan elders’ decisions, but actually meeting him… That’s an honor very few within the clan can claim. When I spoke to Stormleaf, I tried to make myself seem more important than I am, to dissuade him from harming us.”
She smiled wryly. “I did not expect that he would see my lies as an opportunity to gain influence for the Academy.”
Arran nodded, finally starting to understand why Stormleaf had put so much effort in winning over Jiang Fei. With Jiang Fei’s words, the man had probably thought she was some sort of princess of the Jiang Clan.
“But to tell you the truth,” Jiang Fei continued, “just being here makes everything I’ve done worth it. Having met Uncle Bear in person…” She shook her head, smiling brightly. “Just that is enough to make my voice carry weight within the clan for as long as I live. And I have you to thank for it.”
Arran remained silent, feeling uncomfortable at Jiang Fei’s grateful expression. If anything, he thought, he should be the one showing gratitude. While Jiang Fei’s hands were no longer covered in bandages, he could see some small scars on them, and he knew that he was the one responsible.
When she saw that Arran remained quiet, Jiang Fei asked, “Are you alright?”
“I’m just a bit tired,” he said, trying to smile.
Immediately, her expression became concerned once more. “I’ve made you walk for far too long! We should go back right now!”
By the time they returned to the cottage, Arran truly was starting to feel tired.