Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Amid the evening drums, A-Chu was sitting next to a diamond-patterned window and gazing at the courtyard. Outside, it was raining with patters, and the winter daphne flowers drooped in the curtains of rain, very listless.
A few days ago, Eastern Depot underlings had suddenly visited in the dead of night and turned Yunxian Building upside-down. All clients and prostitutes had been rushed into the yard, everyone squeezed into a pile like startled chickens. When the underlings visited, they were no different from evil spirits visiting to claim lives. Upon seeing those black yesa robes, everyone’s legs had gone weak, and they had trembled as they laid on the floor, no one daring to move.
A-Chu had also been among that crowd, hugging her sisters as they looked around together in a panic. She saw the bawd’s corpse dragged out by the underlings and laid across the bluestone ground. That old woman’s mottled and white-powdered face was deathly still. She was normally in high spirits, still not feeling old, but now she was dead, and the flesh in her face was limp, like a ball of mud.
Her sisters all covered their mouths, revealing their panicked eyes. Immediately afterward, another corpse was dragged out, and A-Chu recognized it instantly; it was Xiahou, her servant. A-Chu wanted to run over there, but her sisters pulled her tightly, and a few clients had also stopped her, not letting her move. She could only cover her mouth and weep silently. The world seemed to have suddenly gone into a turmoil, changing at once.
The underlings ran in and out of the courtyard with an east and west entrance, and they found many hidden medicine pots, wine jars, and even flower vases of Bliss Fruit. They threw everything into the center of the courtyard, and the women’s faces paled when they saw. The government had forbidden buying and selling Bliss Fruit long ago, and although it still circulated around places that didn’t see light like gambling houses and brothels, once it was found, they would be put in prison for life.
The lead officer in charge used a saber to poke the vases and pots, then raised his eyes to glance at the frightened women, humping. “Sure enough, they’re Garan rebels, take all of them away!”
In an instant, cries and wails shook the sky all around, and A-Chu was also at a loss. Where had this much Bliss Fruit come from? Did she also have to go to jail even though she hadn’t taken it before? Her sister cried as she begged, “Sir, investigate clearly, those were given to us by our mother, what Garan, we don’t know!”
The underlings turned a deaf ear. The clients were picked out to stand on one side, and the officials were lined up and pushed out of the courtyard. The captain raised a whip to rush them from behind, and they looked exactly like a group of animals being herded. The women’s usually beautiful charm had disappeared, and their soft words turned into shrill wails.
A-Chu was dizzy from being pushed, and only when she was almost out of the courtyard did she remember that she still had this savior, Xiahou Lian. She hastily lifted her apron and stumbled to kneel below the whip, saying sorrowfully, “Sir, I am Sir Shen Lian’s old acquaintance, I’m begging you to let me see him, he’ll definitely want to save me!”
“You’re A-Chu?” The lead officer walked over from the side.
“Yes, yes, that’s me.” A-Chu nodded hastily.
“You don’t have to follow, go there.” The lead officer pointed to the corridor.
She still hadn’t had time to rejoice about surviving a calamity when A-Chu heard her sisters behind her begging her to save them. She was hastily about to continue kowtowing and begging, but the lead officer put his hands into his sleeves and said, “Miss A-Chu, do you know why Yunxian Building is being investigated? Your bawd was a spy for Garan. The governor investigated Garan for so long, and whether it’s a relative of the emperor or a common person, they have to die if they were tainted by Garan. You’re lucky, the governor ordered that you be left alive, but don’t even think about the others.”
A-Chu said in a fright, “Is there some misunderstanding? Our mother had been in Yanzhi Alley since her childhood, and she was friends with many officials. Just ask and you’ll know, how could she be a Garan spy?”
The lead officer used his saber to point at the corpse on the ground. “Today, your bawd sent a jar of wine to Sir Xiao Shen, and once Sir Xiao Shen drank it, he passed out. We came to arrest her, but she had already committed suicide by hanging herself. Do you still say it’s a misunderstanding?”
“What happened to Sir Xiao Shen!” A-Chu abruptly widened her eyes.
“What happened? He nearly died!” He humphed. “That one named Xiahou in the brothel was also a spy, didn’t he also commit suicide? Originally, Miss, you were the most involved, but the governor kindheartedly let you off the hook, so just keep your own little life and have fun, don’t wildly go making trouble out of nothing.”In a bit, we still have to inquire about these matters, so I ask that you cooperate and don’t make things difficult for us.”
A-Chu nodded blankly and retreated to the corridor, watching helplessly as her sisters were taken away. Her mind was blank, as if it had rusted, unable to turn. She had been too muddled these past two days, so she already couldn’t think anymore, and she also didn’t know what she should do next.
Seals were soon pasted onto Yunxian Building. She had been shut inside, not able to go out, and she relied on underlings to send her three meals a day. A-Yuan hadn’t come to see her, and she thought that it was better that she didn’t come. A-Yuan was only a little marquis from the remote mountains, so once she was tainted with the accusation of being a Garan rebel, Chief Officer Shen taking her life was nothing more than a matter of moving his lips.
Fortunately, the underlings treated her relatively politely, and besides not being able to move freely, there weren’t any hindrances. It was even a lot more leisurely than usual when she would play instruments and sing. She didn’t have anything to do, so she could only sit next to the window in a daze.
Yunxian Building was a place where the nine schools of thought and three religions gathered, and she had mixed in it for these years, so she could be considered very knowledgeable. A few years ago when Garan had prospered, there would often be someone who embraced three or two singers in his arms, and they would mysteriously pull out a white porcelain mask, saying that they were one of Garan’s Eight Legions. They were called all kinds of things, like Garuda, Kinnara, Feydanra, Dishara 1, and other strange names that she couldn’t recall. Actually, most of them were fake, since Garan’s white porcelain masks were worn all over the streets, and there would often be children wearing them as they ran on the road. They impersonated Garan assassins actually because they wanted to deceive the brainless prostitutes into drinking tea and going to bed at no cost.
She thought, How can that foolish servant possibly be a Garan spy? If he wanted to spy, he could only be considered a dull gong, and even if the paint surface was broken from being knocked, it still wouldn’t make a sound. She laid back down on the arhat bed and sighed deeply. She thought of her sisters suffering in prison and of Xiahou Lian, not knowing if he was alive or dead. She was sad and anxious, but she couldn’t do anything at all.
The diamond-patterned window was knocked on with two thumps, and she abruptly sat up and went to open the window, yet she saw Baili Yuan standing below. She turned pale from fright and hastily looked left and right. When she was sure there were no underlings, she hastily let her climb inside from the window.
Baili Yuan was covered in muddy water. Her woven blue silk apron embroidered with gold was already so dirty it was unsightly, and the hairpin on her bun had loosened, the tassels hanging directly on her face. A-Chu wiped the mud for her as she scolded, “What did you come for? If you’re seen by an underling, aren’t you afraid you’ll be arrested and put into the imperial prison?” Her apron couldn’t be wiped clean and had been completely ruined. A-Chu threw the cloth away and said angrily, “How is there a marquis like you in this world, crawling through dog holes and going into girls’ bedrooms every day.”
Baili Yuan looked at her pitifully. “I’ve only gone into yours.”
When A-Chu saw her appearance, her heart softened, and she sighed, turning to make tea. She suddenly remembered the matter of Xiahou, so she turned her head, wanting to tell Baili Yuan slowly, but she hesitated for a moment and didn’t open her mouth in the end. She had finally gotten a brother, yet he had died just like this, so she would definitely be sad. A-Chu sighed inwardly and turned to get the teapot. Baili Yuan pulled her skirt band and followed behind. When A-Chu turned she also turned, and when A-Chu stopped she also stopped, like a little dog following her every step.
“Be obedient and sit down, why are you following me?” A-Chu was helpless.
“Do you blame me for not coming to see you?” Baili Yuan widened her big eyes that contrasted sharply between black and white as she looked up at her.
“What would I blame you for?” A-Chu flicked her forehead. “It was right that you didn’t come.”
Baili Yuan felt hurt, and she pouted. “That day when the Eastern Depot came to search Yunxian Building, I originally sent people to snatch you away on the road, but you weren’t in the crowd. Someone in my family became sick and you were fine, so I didn’t come to see you.”
A-Chu squatted down and looked at her. “Someone in your family is sick, is it serious?”
Baili Yuan lowered her eyes and said, “He originally had a disease, so I gave him medicine so he was fine. I thought that he would be fine as long as he kept taking the medicine, but I didn’t expect that a few days ago, it relapsed, and he bled a lot. My uncle said that there’s no saving him and that he’s about to die.”
The daylight outside penetrated the window hole and shone on Baili Yuan’s bun, coating it with a very light layer of silver. She looked up at A-Chu, and A-Chu saw the deep fear and grief in her pupils. “A-Chu-jiejie, will he die?” Baili Yuan asked softly.
A-Chu hugged her and stroked the top of her head. “Don’t be afraid, A-Yuan, it’ll pass. Just like drinking medicine, the bitterness will pass in a wave.”
“A-Chu-jiejie, what does it feel like to die? Lying by himself inside a coffin and lying in the mud, will that be very cold? Can he hear sounds from outside? If someone passes by above his head or talks above his head, but he can’t move, will he be very sad?”
A-Chu felt very sorrowful. A-Yuan was still so young, but she had already experienced the departure of so many relatives. She hugged her tightly and said, “No, A-Yuan, when people die they get reincarnated. He’ll go on the road to the netherworld and cross the Bridge of Irreparability, and drink Meng Po’s soup.”
“Then will we still meet again?”
“You will,” A-Chu smiled softly, “you definitely will. Maybe he’ll reincarnate into a child and pass by in front of you, and you’ll still recognize him.”
Baili Yuan didn’t smile. She turned her head and gazed at the faraway mountains outside the window. They rose and fell continuously, forming a pale line of ink, gradually disappearing in the clouds and mist. Wind swept past outside, and the iron horses underneath the eaves jingled nonstop, connecting into a long and crisp string, like a melody for calling back the spirit of the dead. After people in the North died, their spirits always had to be called back, so they would hang many small bells made of copper inside their rooms. When the spirit flew back, there would be wind, so the bells would sound. Family members would prepare a meal for the returning spirit as a final farewell for them.
She reached out and touched the wind, as if wanting to touch a few wandering souls and wild ghosts that were drifting there. The wind went through the gaps between her fingers, leaving no trace. Baili Yuan took her hand back and suddenly said, “Jiejie, I’m leaving soon.”
A-Chu’s hands that were holding her stiffened.
“I’m going back to the North, and I won’t be coming back until next year,” said Baili Yuan.
“A-Yuan…” A-Chu really wanted to cry, and there was the sourness of tears in her nose, but she endured it. The child still hadn’t cried, so she, an adult, couldn’t cry first.
“Come together with me, okay? It’s not stable in the capital, and Xiahou Lian can hardly fend for himself, so he can’t protect you. Come back to the North with me, that’s my territory. I’ll take you back to Xue Mountain, I have a lot of gold, you can have whatever you want.”
When A-Chu heard this, she wanted to both cry and laugh. “You child, you say nonsense all day long.” She sniffed. “I’m an official prostitute of the Royal Academy, I can’t leave.”
“You can.” Baili Yuan lifted her hand and touched her round and bright bun. “Jiejie, trust me, I can do it. I’m leaving at the end of the month, I’ll come to pick you up when the time comes.”
She hesitated; if there was a way, it was naturally best to get away. She asked tentatively, “Will it be very troublesome?”
Baili Yuan shook her head and said that it wouldn’t be.
A-Chu made a decision and nodded. “Okay, I’ll wait for you to come and pick me up.”
Baili Yuan climbed out of the window hole and went back the same way she had come. The world was enveloped in the dim layer of twilight, and it had also started raining. Shop owners were spreading their door panels one by one and closing the latches. There were children making a fuss on the street, chasing back and forth, as if they would never stop. A few swallows flew past above the shop signs, their black wings slicing through the curtains of rain before disappearing underneath the eaves of people’s houses. She passed by below the arch of Chu Building, and there was someone polishing a mirror across, packing up. When she passed by, she saw his lip language, which meant that Xiahou Lian hadn’t died.
She didn’t make any reaction and went directly back to the marquis manor. There were ethereal sounds of a xun, and she walked forward, following the xun sounds. It was just like many years ago, when that young man in gray clothes had sat in the corridor, lonesomely playing a ghost-like melody. The sounds of the xun were intermittent in the wind and rain, like beads that couldn’t form a string.
Baili Yuan called amid the mix of the sounds of the rain and xun, “Gege.”
Chi Yan put down the xun. His face was still very pale, yet his pupils were very tranquil, reflecting the rustling wind and rain that filled the world, like a quiet and deep ancient mirror.
“Do not call me gege anymore, Baili, I am going to kill you,” he said.
“But you’re going to die, you can’t kill me.” Baili Yuan sat in the winding corridor across from him, and the two of them spoke across the curtains of rain. “Are you afraid? You’ll be cold when you die, and you’ll never be warm again.”
“I am not afraid.” Chi Yan reached out and caught the raindrops falling on the tiles. “Everyone dies.”
“But why doesn’t Xiahou Lian have to die!” Baili Yuan’s expression became ferocious. “Gege, he didn’t die, he’s living just fine. See, Shi Xin loved him, Xiahou Pei loved him, and the heavens also love him, only you weren’t cared for. He achieved success and is carefree, yet you have to suffer, why don’t you hate him?”
“You are wrong.” The light in Chi Yan’s eyes was silent, and one couldn’t say if it was joy or sorrow. “We are brothers, we are connected by blood, and our fates are linked.”
“But in the end, you two still can’t meet.” Duan Jiu was holding an oilpaper umbrella as he walked over. “Your days are numbered, Chi Yan. Perhaps you won’t be able to see your little brother in this life ever again.”
Chi Yan looked down, and there was unconcealable grief on his pale face.
“I’ve said it before, I’ll give you a chance.” Duan Jiu took out Shana from his cloak and put it evenly into the rain. Raindrops landed on Shana’s black scabbard, splashing water droplets. “Kill Shen Jue, and I’ll give you freedom to find your little brother.”
“When do you plan to kill him?” Baili Yuan asked from behind Duan Jiu.
“Yama, the day you leave the capital, I will use Shen Jue’s head as your farewell.” Duan Jiu smiled. “Chi Yan, killing Shen Jue is very difficult. You’re Garan’s strongest assassin, so only you have hope to do it. Do you promise?”
The rain drifted in front of the steps, as fine as stitches. Twilight closed in on them as they stood in the rain, silently looking at each other.
“Okay.” Chi Yan said, “I promise.”