Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
That old man Dai Shengyan seemed to particularly like the Wangqing Pavilion, as even his classes were held there. It hadn’t snowed in the past few days, and there were several basins of charcoal fire placed around the pavilion. Xie Jinglan was wrapped like a fur ball, though he was no longer bothered by the severe cold on the lake.
In the deep winter, the scenery of Yanbo Pond was even more vast and intoxicating. The sky and the water was practically the same color, all of it a vast expanse of white. In the middle were distant mountains that were like a thick smear of ink. As if in a trance, everyone seemed to be sitting inside a landscape painting.
Xiahou Lian was purely there as a bystander, and every class, he would put on an act by standing a book up on the desk and hiding a storybook under it. When he was interested, he would listen to an earful of benevolence, righteousness, manners, wisdom, and trustworthiness 1, and when he wasn’t interested anymore, he would either sleep or read storybooks.
When Dai Shengyan saw that he wasn’t making any progress and hadn’t lived up to his expectations, he initially urged him, but he later also left him be.
Xie Jinglan listened single-mindedly and with complete concentration. Within a few days, his books were full of dense annotations, and the moment Xiahou Lian looked at them, he would feel dizzy and his scalp would tingle.
Dai Shengyan’s classes were very interesting. He only lectured in the morning, and in the afternoon he had Xie Jinglan read while he himself sat on the observation deck on the first floor and fished. If Xie Jinglan had questions, he could go and consult him. During consultations, Xie Jinglan would stand at the side and ask humbly, and this often took nearly an hour. Xiahou Lian would be at the side, overcome with boredom and wholeheartedly looking forward to when he could go home after school and catch sparrows for fun.
When Dai Shengyan saw this, he shook his head and said, “The value in learning is thinking. If you think then you must have doubts, and if you have doubts then you must have questions. Little Lian, do you not have anything you want to ask?”
Xie Jinglan said, “He doesn’t even read the books, what can he ask? He’s probably only curious as to what method of catching birds works the best.”
Xiahou Lian smiled. “It’s still the young master who understands me best.”
Dai Shengyan sighed helplessly and said, “You kid, you need to use your head.”
Xiahou Lian also felt helpless, so he said, “Okay, sir, you wanted me to ask this.”
“Oh? Then let’s hear it.”
Xie Jinglan looked sideways at him. He stuck out his tongue and said, “May I ask you, was Confucius the most knowledgeable Confucian?”
Dai Shengyan said, “Naturally.”
“Then did the grand old man have to memorize the ‘Mencius’ and Tang poetry and write eight-legged essays?”
Dai Shengyan smiled. “At the time of Mencius’s birth, Confucius had already been deceased for a hundred years, so how could he memorize the ‘Mencius’? There is even less need to talk about Tang poetry and eight-legged essays. Xiao Lian, your question is indeed a little random.”
Xiahou Lian made a long “oh” and said, “Even the most knowledgeable Confucian didn’t need to learn these things, so why do we need to learn them?”
Dai Shengyan was speechless. “No matter, no matter, I’ll leave you alone.”
From then on, Xiahou Lian was free, and he only needed to turn in a few poems 2 everyday to pass. However, these poems were indeed laborious. Xiahou Lian would scratch his head and rack his brain, from time to time peeping at Xie Jinglan’s practice compositions and then randomly making things up before he could force out a few lines. These days really were difficult, and Xiahou Lian practically felt that his hair was going to become white in his youth.
However, Dai Shengyan’s classes couldn’t count as extremely boring. During breaks in the middle, he would often tell them anecdotes from his wanderings or ghost stories he had read in books.
Dai Shengyan looked thin, frail, and honest, a standard upright teacher. However, his taste was very heavy, and nine out of every ten stories he told would be ghost stories. Some were even very weird, such as “Arm Sore of a Human Face,” “Ghost Hand Reaching from Under the Bed,” “Flowers with Smiling Faces in the Mountain,” and so on.
Actually, Xie Jinglan felt that it was very boring when Dai Shengyan wasted time talking about these things, and that it would be better if he talked more about Mencius’s philosophies, but it was inconvenient for him to speak out and intervene. He had originally planned to let Dai Shengyan talk and continue reviewing subjects on his own. However, he hadn’t expected that, in a lapse of concentration, his attention was drawn by Dai Shengyan, and he unwittingly listened to countless ghastly and terrible ghost stories.
Xiahou Lian was innately bold, so to him, these ghost stories were small snacks after a meal, as he had heard things even weirder and bloodier than these. However, this was Xie Jinglan’s first time listening, and they made his scalp tingle and goosebumps rise all over his body. Contrary to what was expected, he couldn’t control his ears, and even though he felt scared, he couldn’t help but listen in concentration. At night, he tossed and turned and couldn’t help but get up to check if a human face had grown on his arm or not.
Outside the window, the pattering of rain gradually sounded, accompanying the howls of the cold wind, and the roof tiles clanged from the beating of the rain drops. Xie Jinglan really couldn’t fall asleep, so he went barefoot and dragged his blanket outside to find Xiahou Lian, only to see an empty bed and blankets.
Where had this brat run off to in the middle of the night?
He hadn’t been abducted by a female ghost, right…
Of course Xiahou Lian hadn’t been abducted by a female ghost. At this moment, he was walking under the eaves, and in a few bounds, he flipped through the window into Xie Bingfeng’s study.
Xie Bingfeng’s study was a lot bigger than Xie Jingtao’s, and it contained an immense number of books, dazzling to the eye. Xiahou Lian went directly to the desk, opened the drawers one by one, and took out a stack of letters he had found. These letters had been arbitrarily placed in an unlocked drawer, so they didn’t seem to be confidential. Xiahou Lian used his photographic memory to memorize all of the names on the letters and glanced at the letters’ contents while he was at it.
Xie Bingfeng’s life outside work really was very boring. The letters either discussed guqin 3, chess, calligraphy, and painting, or current political affairs, such as a severe drought in Eastern Zhejiang, a flood of the Yellow River, Tatars assaulting the border, and so on. They even included some words and sentences that angrily rebuked the eunuch faction.
Suddenly, chaotic footsteps sounded from outside. Xiahou Lian was horrified and hastily placed the letters back into the drawer, closed it, and turned to hide inside a shelf.
The door was opened, and two people collided into the desk, accompanied by rapid panting and lustful passion.
Who would be so bold as to fight in Xie Bingfeng’s study?
“You devil, hurry up and close the door.” In between pants, a delicate female voice sounded.
“Okay, okay, I’ll close it now,” replied a man’s voice.
Xiahou Lian didn’t dare to make a sound. He shrank in the shelf, motionless.
The two people were caught in a moment of passion, making the desk shake continuously. The woman’s moans grew louder and louder, and the man’s heavy breathing was mingled in between them.
Xiahou Lian wasn’t an innocent youth who didn’t understand human affairs, and he had secretly flipped through several pornographic books in his mother’s collection. Although he hadn’t had any firsthand experience with it, he was still very clear about what was happening between the man and the woman, and his face instantly reddened.
He lightly opened a slit in the cabinet door and saw two bodies intimately intertwined with each other. The woman’s eyes were closed, and her expression seemed to be of both pain and pleasure. The man’s back was facing Xiahou Lian, and with every thrust, the desk shook violently.
The woman’s hand caressed the man’s back and slid up along his spine. Suddenly, that seemingly soft and supple hand pinched a section of the man’s spine and gripped it forcibly. The sound of a bone snapping abruptly sounded, and immediately afterward, the man let out a grunt and fell to the ground like a burlap sack.
His eyes were glassy, and he was clearly dead.
This was Xiahou Lian’s first time seeing an actual dead person. It turned out that dead people looked this hideous, not the few black and white lines of tiny text in storybooks or a simple slash of a saber that his mother spoke of. The corpse still emanated warmth, and it stared with bloodshot eyes. As Xiahou Lian gazed at that ashen face, he felt his hand that was holding the cabinet door gradually grow colder.
He covered his mouth and closed the cabinet door in fright, waiting for the woman to leave.
Suddenly, the delicate female voice sounded again. “Little thief in the cabinet, come out.”
He had actually been discovered!
Xiahou Lian was agitated as he hesitated as to whether he should go out or not.
Suddenly, a saber as thin as a cicada wing pierced through the slit in the cabinet door, only an inch away from Xiahou Lian’s face. Xiahou Lian stared at the blade that shone silver like water, and his heart nearly jumped out of his throat.
“When I stab again, I’ll draw blood.”
Xiahou Lian covered his eyes with a hand and resignedly crawled out of the cabinet, saying, “Jiejie, spare my life, I didn’t see anything and I don’t know anything!”
“Eh? I was wondering who would be this bold to sneak into the master’s study in the middle of the night. It turns out to be Kid Xiahou.”
Xiahou Lian put down his hand and saw a glamorous woman looking at him with something that resembled a smile. The woman was wearing Xie Manor’s maid attire, and after the “war” from just then, she hadn’t had time to tidy herself yet. Her clothes were half off, revealing round shoulders and breasts.
The woman reached under her underarms, and with a tear, those two white spheres were actually torn off just like that. She raised her hands again and peeled off a skin mask, revealing her original beautiful and elegant face. She rolled her neck, stretched her hands, and with the sound of cracking bones, she instantly grew several inches taller.
Under Xiahou Lian’s stunned stare, he had changed from a woman into a man.
“You’re… You’re Qiu-dage 4!”
The Kinnara, Qiu Ye 5, one of the Eight Legions 6 of Garan. Xiahou Lian had seen him often on the mountain, and his temper was very good, so he was usually his and his mother’s first choice to get a free meal from.
Xiahou Lian abruptly remembered something. Wasn’t that saber from just then Qiu Ye’s saber, Qiushui 7?
He hadn’t expected that their first encounter away from the mountain would be so… hard to explain in one word.
Xiahou Lian couldn’t speak for a long time.
“You seem to not know my ability?” Qiu Ye smiled brightly at Xiahou Lian. “This is the skill of shrinking bones and disguising faces that’s passed down in my family.”
“I’ve heard of it but haven’t seen it before. Seeing really is… believing.” An egg could fit into Xiahou Lian’s mouth.
Qiu Ye kindly helped Xiahou Lian close his mouth, and he smiled. “This really is coincidental of us to meet like this. Just now, my Qiushui nearly killed you.”
Xiahou Lian didn’t make a sound, but he thought, I would be fine without this kind of coincidence.
Qiu Ye continued, “Xiao Lian, I see that your skeleton is delicate and extraordinary, and that you’re gifted. How about this, if your mother is accidentally finished in the Western Regions, just come find me and ask me to be your shifu 8. Learn these skills with me, and in the future, if you want to hook up with women you can hook up with women, if you want to seduce men you can seduce men. What do you say?”
No way, he didn’t want to learn to be neither male nor female.
Xiahou Lian shook his head like a rattle drum.
Qiu Ye tapped Xia HouLian’s head in disappointment. “You little kid, you don’t understand the benefits of shrinking bones and disguising faces. Other people want to learn, but I won’t even teach them.”
“Learning saber skills is enough for me.” The image in Xiahou Lian’s mind of Qiu Ye as a warm big brother had been completely overturned, and he felt awkward even talking to Qiu Ye. “Using the saber in my hand, I’ll naturally be invincible and unparalleled, so I won’t need to trouble you. Moreover, my mother will definitely return safely.”
“You don’t even have a decent saber, are you still going to be unparalleled?”
“I’ll have one in the future.” Xiahou Lian said dully, “Qiu-dage, why are you also here? Did someone buy this person’s life? He looks very familiar, he seems to be Xie Manor’s chamberlain.”
“Have you forgotten Garan’s rules? Each person does their own thing and can’t hinder others. Hurry up and go to sleep. When I have time, I’ll find you to play.”
Xiahou Lian left, looking back several times. He actually really wanted to ask Qiu Ye how he had tricked the chamberlain into believing that he was a woman.
Weren’t the anatomies of men and women… different? Could it be that all erotica was deceiving?
In the end, Xiahou Lian didn’t ask.
Qiu Ye sent Xiahou Lian away, pulled out another skin mask from the fold of his clothes, and put it on his face. Then, he took off the clothes of the dead person and put them on himself. Before he left, he didn’t forget to wipe off the footprints Xiahou Lian had left on the windowsill and clean up the scene. Only then did he close the door and leave, carrying the corpse on his back.
If someone happened to pass by, they would definitely be frightened out of their wits, because the person carrying someone on their back and the person they were carrying actually looked exactly the same.
Xiahou Lian returned to Qiuwu Courtyard in a daze. When he opened the door, he saw Xie Jinglan sitting next to his daybed with a blanket draped over him and dozing off, his head even bobbing up and down.
Xiahou Lian’s heart nearly jumped out of his chest. How long had this brat been sitting here?
Xie Jinglan rubbed his eyes and looked up, saying dazedly, “Where did you go, how come you’re back only now?”
“I went to the latrine.”
Xie Jinglan looked at him suspiciously. “Do you have constipation from too much yang 9? You went for this long?”
“Perhaps a little…” Xiahou Lian lied guiltily. He pushed him and said, “What are you sitting here for? I’m going to sleep.”
Xie Jinglan stood for a while before saying hesitantly, “Um… It’s cold outside, do you want to come with me to sleep in the inner room?”
“How is it cold? There’s two heating stoves in here.” Xiahou Lian saw Xie Jinglan’s conflicted expression and suddenly understood. “Are you scared to sleep by yourself?”
“Get lost, you’re the one who’s scared! I’ve always slept by myself.”
But recently, Mr. Dai improperly told a lot of ghost stories…
Xiahou Lian already knew the answer in his mind, but he didn’t say it out loud to save Xie Jinglan’s face. He good-naturedly picked up his pillow and blanket and pushed Xie Jinglan as they went back to the inner room.
“Go, go, it’s indeed a little cold outside.”
With Xiahou Lian in the room, Xie Jinglan instantly felt a lot more at ease. The rain had already stopped, and he heard Xiahou Lian’s breathing and the occasional rustling when he turned over.
“Young Master, are you asleep?” Xiahou Lian asked softly.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“If an official was discovered to have formed a faction to seek private gain, what kind of punishment would they receive?”
“If there are friends, there are factions, and literati tend to scorn each other. Either teachers and disciples form factions, or they divide into friend and foe according to region. The Niu Faction, Li Faction, Zhe Faction, and Hui Faction, they’re found everywhere. This matter can be big or small, so it depends on who they’re forming the faction with and what the private gains are.”
“Uh…” Xiahou Lian pondered for a long time and racked his brain to form words.
Form what faction? He definitely couldn’t say the names of Xie Bingfeng and his dubious friends.
Seek what private gain? They didn’t seem to have any selfish interests, as it was nothing more than tasting tea, appraising paintings, and insulting the eunuch faction.
What should he say? This was Xiahou Lian’s first time feeling that reading was still a little useful, as he could at least eloquently deceive people.
“Can you give me a few examples?”
Xie Jinglan thought for a bit and said, “Do you know the Disasters of the Partisan Prohibitions in the Han dynasty… Never mind, you definitely don’t know. Grand Commandment Dou Wu and scholar-officials led soldiers into the palace, wanting to get rid of Eunuch Cao Jie’s faction, but they were captured by Cao Jie. All of Li Ying’s scholars-officials sent pleading letters, but Cao Jie falsely accused them of an attempt at conspiracy. Li Ying, Du Mi, Fan Pang, and other major scholars at the time were all executed, and over seven hundred people were involved.”
Gosh, so scary.
Xiahou Lian recalled the contents of the letters. They hadn’t mentioned leading soldiers into the palace to force the emperor to abdicate or anything like that, so it shouldn’t be this serious.
“Then what if they’re drinking tea together, appraising paintings, rebuking the eunuch faction, and asking girls to sing some songs?”
“That’s called a gathering of literati. Even if they were put into play, at most, officials aren’t allowed to solicit prostitutes so they’d just pay a fine or something. However… the eunuch faction has always been narrow-minded, so a worse case could be that they might be labeled with laziness and malfeasance.”
Xiahou Lian sighed in relief. It seemed that Xie Bingfeng was fine, so there was no need to worry.
Xie Jinglan asked, “Why are you asking this out of nowhere?”
“Nothing, I’m just casually asking. What if I picked up an official position in the future, and also needed to form a faction and find backing?” blabbered Xiahou Lian.
“Tch, there’s no chance of that, you won’t even be able to pass the examination for distinguished talent 10. However, your limbs are well-developed 11, so maybe you can get your hands on a job in a yamen.”
Xiahou Lian didn’t reply, and the room was suddenly quiet. The moon had moved out of the clouds, and moonlight shone in the room.
“Hey, Young Master, in the future, will you take refuge with the eunuch faction?” Xiahou Lian turned over to look at Xie Jinglan.
Xie Jinglan was stunned, and he said, “The teacher said that ‘no matter how difficult the world is, the heart must remain noble and kind,’ so I naturally won’t be the eunuch faction’s lackey. At most, when the eunuchs turn the capital into a mess, I’ll be sent to serve as an official elsewhere and keep peace there. After the chaos with the eunuchs subsides, I’ll return to the capital and help ensure peace for the country.”
“What if you encounter a dilemma and have no choice?”
“Life and death are fated, so I can’t decide life or death, but I can at least decide the path I want to go down.”
He still wanted to say some more, but when he turned his head, he discovered that Xiahou Lian had already stopped responding, and he could only hear his long snores.
He had actually fallen asleep.
Xie Jinglan turned over to gaze at Xiahou Lian’s serene sleeping face. The moonlight shone through the window paper and struck his fine, porcelain-like cheeks, coating him with a layer of light. He stared for a long time before finally closing his eyes and also falling into a deep sleep.
- The Five Constant Virtues.
- Specifically a type of poem that was commonly used in the imperial examination and had five characters per phrase, two phrases per line, and six or eight rhyming lines.
- A plucked seven-string Chinese musical instrument.
- Lit. oldest brother. Polite form of address for someone around one’s age.
- Lit. Autumn Leaf.
- A group of Buddhist deities. The list of figures within this category can vary, but the most common are as follows: Deva, Nagi, Yaksha, Gandharva, Asura, Garuda, Kinnara, and Mahoraga.
- Lit. Autumn Water.
- Lit. Master.
- A type of constipation in traditional Chinese medicine caused by excessive internal heat and yang.
- Entry-level examination.
- First part of the saying “well-developed limbs and a simple mind,” which is somewhat equivalent to “all brawn and no brains.”