Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Snow fell silently, a thin layer of snow grains covering the ground. One after another, officials who had come to mourn passed by Shen Jue, their thick black riding boots crunching as they stepped on the snow. The hall of Mr. Dai’s house was too small, so the mourning officials could only insert a stick of incense in front of the altar tablet, and then hastily back out. However, no one dared to stay in the courtyard in front of the hall, because Shen Jue was kneeling there.
White snow covered his head and shoulders, as if his temple hairs had turned white overnight. An icy sea tide seemed to be silently surging around him, completely separating him from other people. No one dared to approach, and they even forgot to say “condolences, Chief Officer.” They had never seen Shen Jue like this before; he always seemed to be lofty, and with a light sweep of his gaze, one could see the glint of sabers and swords, the bright flames of war. However, everyone suddenly discovered that he was only a young man around twenty years old, the same age as their children.
Now, his teacher was dead. In this world, there would never be someone who would amiably yet sternly call him “Jinglan.”
Xiahou Lian led the underlings to investigate everywhere, and they searched through all of the cellars in the capital. They even searched and confiscated the gambling houses and brothels of two families whose backgrounds were unclear; they only didn’t turn over the bricks in the capital one by one, but they still didn’t find Tang Shiqi or any assassins. That man who was sometimes cowardly and also sometimes a little vulgar had vanished just like this, without even leaving behind a piece of the corner of his clothes. Xiahou Lian felt anxious, but he couldn’t do anything at all.
Shen Jue was still kneeling in Mr. Dai’s house, but he couldn’t accompany him. Xiahou Lian felt as if charcoal was burning in his chest, roasting his heart.
Snow was still falling, and underlings that had been sent out came back team by team, reporting to him that they had gotten nothing. The snow was heavy today, so there weren’t many people on the streets. Overturned dustpans rolled on the ground, and miscellaneous items were piled on the empty stalls. A beggar was rummaging through the items, hoping they could find something to eat. Xiahou Lian suddenly felt dazed; Garan was like an illusory mirage, and it was as if he had had a dream for no reason. The fight with Garan had only occurred in the dream, or else why had the assassins evaporated along with the moonlight at dawn, disappearing without a trace.
Xiahou Lian had run for a very long time, from morning to night. The sky gradually darkened, and the sunset stretched out from behind the distant mountains, a thin layer of red, like cut window paper whose color had faded in a poor family’s house. It was pasted at the end of the sky, able to fall down when washed by rain. There were even less people on the streets. The weather was cold, so the businesses of peddlers were dismal. Their thin shadows were cast on the snow, one by one, all of them alone and desolate.
“I’m rich, I’m rich!” A person rushed out obliquely, his hair loose. He was only wearing unlined garments in the cold weather, and the collar was open, revealing his pale chest.
Xiahou Lian paused in his steps, and the underlings stopped behind him, silently looking at the man.
An old woman holding a cane walked out of the alley and grabbed the man with difficulty. “Son, son, hurry and come home with me!”
“So much gold, so much gold, I want to pick up the gold! Hahaha, it’s all mine, all mine, I’m rich!” The man crazily scooped the snow on the ground into the fold of his clothes. The snow grains filled the front of his robes, yet he unexpectedly didn’t feel cold.
“Son, come home with me! Heavens, why are you like this?” The old woman pulled the man’s hand, weeping bitterly.
An underling said in a low voice, “It’s Bliss Fruit. That guy took Bliss Fruit and is behaving abnormally.”
Xiahou Lian frowned slightly. Although they were vigorously checking the goods entering the capital, there would still be some that slipped through the net. In order to bring Bliss Fruit into the city, some foreign peddlers wouldn’t hesitate to cut a wound on their body and sew the pills into the wound. Some simply hid the drug in dirty places and smuggled it into the city. If it weren’t for someone dying a sudden death in their home because they had wounded themself and the medical examiner finding clues when performing the autopsy, they wouldn’t have even known that this was a method.
Xiahou Lian sighed and said, “Go, take him back to his house and tie him up, don’t let him run around anymore.”
Shen Jue was still kneeling.
The setting sun covered his entire body, and the snow on his body melted bit by bit. Then, new snow would land on him, the iciness slowly seeping into his body. Shen Jue’s body was cold and numb, as if he had turned to stone all over, and even his fingertips had turned to icy stone. The people paying their condolences had finally all left, and there wouldn’t be any more new people coming. In such a large hall and small courtyard, there was finally only him and his teacher lying in the black coffin left.
His thoughts suddenly became very light, and things from his childhood flashed past his mind, scene by scene. One moment, it was Mr. Dai roasting charcoal in a stove and teaching him and Xiahou Lian at Wangqing Pavilion; the next moment, it was Xiahou Lian skipping class as he braced himself while listening to Mr. Dai tell ghost stories in which faces grew on arms.
Everything seemed to have happened in a past lifetime, and he silently gazed at the snow in front of him. In the distance, separated by a faint layer of the setting sun, he saw that emaciated old man nodding, pleased, and a youth writing and pondering below.
He looked up; Mr. Dai’s boy was standing in front of him. This child was no older than fifteen or sixteen, and the tear marks on his face hadn’t dried yet. Perhaps this was his first time encountering this kind of grief, so he hadn’t had time to react yet. He had been caught off guard, but in the end, he would be like Xie Jinglan back then, growing up strongly and without hesitation.
He was holding a few scrolls in his hands, all of them wrapped firmly in oilpaper. He knelt down in front of Shen Jue and gave the scrolls to Shen Jue.
“These are Mr. Dai’s posthumous manuscripts, they’re his entire life. Mr. Dai didn’t even have time to cut and publish them. I think that he must have wanted to give them to you so you can complete it.”
Shen Jue looked down at the stack of manuscripts in his hands. The manuscripts were very heavy, and they pressed on his elbows, like an extremely weighty boulder.
He said astringently, “I’m not worthy of these manuscripts. Give them to someone else.”
“Shixiong,” the boy pressed the scrolls into Shen Jue’s hands and sniffed, saying, “there’s something you don’t know. Actually, when he found out you were still alive, Mr. Dai was very happy. Do you know, when he was in Lulin, Mr. Dai’s health already wasn’t too well. When he got sick, he wouldn’t get well for ten days or half a month. After he arrived at the capital, because of the fatigue from the journey, he always woke up in the middle of the night and coughed, and he could only eat a little bit. However, ever since he found out you were still alive, Mr. Dai could eat more than half of a bowl, and he would sometimes go frequently to the bookstore and take a few books back to read. Occasionally, when he heard neighbors talking about you, he wouldn’t be able to walk.
Shen Jue lowered his head and slowly gripped the scrolls.
“Last time at the joint trial by the Three Divisions, Mr. Dai suddenly fainted. When the doctors came out later, I heard them say that although Mr. Dai’s body was weak, it wasn’t to the point where he would faint. When you said you wanted to see Mr. Dai and I went in to request instructions, I happened to see him looking through the poems you wrote in your childhood.” The boy looked deeply at Shen Jue. “Shixiong, Mr. Dai pretended to faint. He didn’t want to put you on trial, and he didn’t want to send you to your death. Mr. Dai has been fair his entire life, having a clear conscience for anyone. However, he was also selfish. This selfishness was for you.”
The boy got up from the ground and saluted deeply with clasped hands toward Shen Jue. “I have given the manuscripts to my shixiong, so Mr. Dai’s last wish has been fulfilled. Shixiong, take care.”
The grief in his heart surged up like the sea tide, submerging him completely, like a calamity. His tears fell down drop by drop, dripping onto the scrolls between his elbows and imprinting mottled spots. He prostrated deeply, his kowtowing on the icy snow. Sobs spilled out from his throat, gradually and unable to be suppressed. He was like a helpless child, wailing and crying bitterly.
A pair of hands pulled him up, and his head was pressed into a warm embrace. He heard Xiahou Lian say in a low voice, “I’m sorry for being late, Young Master.”
Xiahou Lian’s warm breaths enveloped him, and the snowflakes on his temple hairs were brushed off, his body once again feeling warmth. It was as if he was grabbing onto a life-saving straw as he tightly grasped the front of Xiahou Lian’s robes, his tears seeping into Xiahou Lian’s collar. Xiahou Lian gently patted his back; he didn’t say anything, he only held him like this.
Shen Jue slowly calmed down, and Xiahou Lian took him back home. He had knelt for too long in the snow, and he was sorrowful and grieving, so had a fever upon returning to his manor. Shen Wenxing said that he hadn’t eaten anything all day, so Xiahou Lian force-fed him some porridge and medicine, taking care of him all the way until the middle of the night. The subordinates were extremely tired, so Xiahou Lian sent them to rest, only leaving behind Shen Wenxing and two little eunuchs to keep watch in the outer room.
There was only a lamp in the room, and the faint candlelight illuminated a small world. Shen Jue’s alcove bed was in that piece of light, and he could faintly see the desolate figure in the bed curtains. Xiahou Lian lifted the curtains and sat against the bed column, feeling his forehead. It already wasn’t burning anymore, so he reached into the quilt and touched his limbs; they also weren’t burning. Only his clothes were wet with sweat, so he had to change into new ones, lest he catch a cold.
Xiahou Lian found a clean nightgown and dove into the bed curtains before closing them, not letting the cold wind enter. He looked at Shen Jue carefully; his eyes were still closed, and his brow was subconsciously furrowed. He was originally such a good-looking person, but his face was pale from his sickness, like a paper paste person’s. He pulled him up from inside the covers and let him sit leaning against himself. Xiahou Lian took off his clothes for him and put on clean ones.
The aura in the palace was good, and he was also a natural beauty. Between this silk material and his skin, he actually didn’t know which was finer and smoother. However, Xiahou Lian wasn’t in the mood to let his mind wander. He swiftly helped him clean up and then wrapped him into the covers, tucking the corners behind his neck.
However, Shen Jue had been woken up by the fuss, and he opened his eyes, gazing at the patterns on the bed ceiling for a while and waiting for Xiahou Lian to come back from throwing out his dirty clothes. Xiahou Lian took off his clothes and was just about to go to sleep on the small daybed when he heard Shen Jue say, “Come here.”
Xiahou Lian entered the bed curtains and sat cross-legged on the bed, reaching out to touch his forehead. “What is it? Are you still uncomfortable?”
Shen Jue didn’t say anything and only sat up, wrapped in the blanket. He spread a hand, wanting Xiahou Lian to also sit inside.
Xiahou Lian was wrapped in the covers together with him, and the two of them sat shoulder-to-shoulder against the headboard.
“You can’t fall asleep?” Xiahou Lian turned his head to look at him. Under the dim light, his eyelashes were long, lowered and covering his eyes, containing an indescribable haziness. “Then let’s talk, what do you want to talk about?” asked Xiahou Lian.
Shen Jue was silent for a while before speaking. His voice was hoarse from being sick, so it sounded low. “A-Lian, I’m actually different from you.”
Xiahou Lian didn’t understand what he meant. “Of course we’re different. You’re Shen Jue and I’m Xiahou Lian, how can we be the same?”
Shen Jue glanced at him and looked down at his own hands as he said, “I’m a bad person, I have been since I was young. You and Mr. Dai misjudged me. That day when I took him as my teacher at Wangqing Pavilion, Mr. Dai asked me why I study. I answered ‘to have a clear conscience and to have no regrets and to hold no resentments.’ These are all lies, pretty words to deceive people. What I really wanted was to step on everyone in the Xie clan who had slandered and bullied me. I wanted to see them cry and regret what they did. I wanted myself, Xie Jinglan, to be superior and never have to look at anyone’s face.”
“I know,” said Xiahou Lian. “Didn’t I want to help you step on them at the time? In the end, they were exterminated by Garan before they could be stepped on.”
“But Mr. Dai never knew. He always thought that I was qualified and talented, yet he didn’t know that I got to this point by my own choice.” Shen Jue said hoarsely, “Beating the Dengwen Drum and knocking on the palace gate, impeaching Wei De for several great crimes, rushing through academies and invigorating discussions, and fighting against the entire eunuch faction by himself. He did it for the common people and for the injustice against the Xie clan, and he also did it for Xie Jinglan, for such a despicable and lowly me.”
“Idiot. Why would you say this about yourself? If you’re despicable and lowly, then I bring calamity to the country and its people.” Xiahou Lian tugged on his sleeve and said, “Young Master, I don’t care about those things, you’re the best in my heart anyway.”
“But what if,” Shen Jue lowered his eyes, “I also deceived you?”
Xiahou Lian was taken aback. “Deceived me about what?”
Shen Jue’s heart shrunk slightly, and his breathing was a little suffocated. He clenched his fists, but in the end, he still said, “A-Lian, I’ve deceived you about three things.”
“What three things?” Xiahou Lian asked him.
“First, the first night when you were injured in the palace and were saved by me, I saw your mother, but I didn’t tell you.”
“Didn’t you already tell me this?” Xiahou Lian touched his shoulder. “I don’t blame you.”
“Second, when I told you at the time that an old beggar sold me into the palace, it wasn’t true, I entered the palace by myself,” said Shen Jue.
Xiahou Lian didn’t say anything and only asked, “Then what’s the third thing?”
Shen Jue looked at him fixedly, the shadows in his eyes deep amid the candlelight. He paused before enunciating, “I am not a eunuch.”