Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
The coldest time had passed, the weather gradually warmed, and the occasional bird chirp could be heard. Dai Shengyan was very playful and took Xie Jinglan and Xiahou Lian with him all over the city. One day, class would be held in Fuzimiao 1 and the next day, it would be held in Stone City, and the day after that, it would be changed to Wuyi Alley.
Since he was young, Xie Jinglan had never gone out much, so he had only gone on Qingming spring outings to the outskirts 2 a few times, much less ever released lanterns along the river during the Ghost Festival. Now, he had been taken everywhere by Dai Shengyan, and in just a few days, he had enjoyed the view of Jinling’s lakes and mountains. The haze in his heart from the past had been instantly swept away, and his mood was a lot brighter.
With Dai Shengyan’s protection, along with Xiahou Lian being mirthful all day long and who was often by his side, Xie Jinglan became a lot more cheerful. Dai Shengyan saw this and was very pleased.
Speaking of it, Xiahou Lian really was poisonous. The day before yesterday, Xie Jinglan had suddenly discovered that when he read or wrote, he had started shaking his leg. This scared him quite a bit, and he had hastily corrected his habits. He couldn’t help but pay attention when he walked, sat, or laid down, afraid that he would become as improper as Xiahou Lian.
As for Xiahou Lian, what Dai Shengyan was doing was what he wanted. His behind naturally had a grudge against stools, and he could never stay still. Right when he sat down, he would either need to use the restroom or drink water, and afterward, he would directly disappear without a trace.
Even with Dai Shengyan’s very good temper, he couldn’t stand it anymore. He said helplessly, “Xiao Lian, you have to save me some face. I’ve already boasted about this a lot, and these days, I frequently receive letters from friends congratulating me on obtaining a cherished disciple. They also said that they wanted to read your writings. What do you want me to do?”
“How can my sloppy handwriting even be looked at, why don’t you send out the young master’s writings and just say that I wrote them? Some time later, you can say that ‘being bright at a young age does not necessarily bring success upon growing up,’ and then write something like ‘Regret for Zhongyong 3’ for everyone to see so I won’t have to pretend to be a child prodigy anymore.”
Dai Shengyan wasn’t sure whether to cry or to laugh. “All right, all right, since you’ve already come up with the idea, I’ll do as you say.”
Today, Dai Shengyan brought the two of them to Zhuiyue Building 4. Zhuiyue Building was very tall, and when one looked up and gazed out from it, houses and streets were scattered everywhere, surrounded by the towering city walls. Even further were green-black mountains enshrouded by clouds and mist. Xie Jinglan had never been to Tai Mountain, but in this moment, he had the feeling of having “climbed Tai Mountain and seen the world as smaller.”
However, Zhuiyue Building faced the street, and it was located in the middle of the most prosperous marketplace. There was a hubbub of noises, peddlers and servants jostling one another in the crowd. Xie Jinglan frowned and said, “How can I study peacefully with all this noise?”
Dai Shengyan asked him back, “Today I’m teaching the ‘national style,’ so how could you know the national style without taking a trip to the marketplace?”
Xie Jinglan had a straight face as he thought, It isn’t that this old man wants to play outside, but is also too embarrassed to leave his disciples behind and not look after them, right?
He wasn’t very willing to accept Dai Shengyan’s theory. He was just about to tell Xiahou Lian to grind his ink and prepare his brushes, but when he turned, the stool was already empty.
Ah, never mind, he already had no hope for Xiahou Lian.
Near noon, Dai Shengyan finished saying what he wanted to say. The two of them sat for a while and drank a pot of tea, but didn’t see a trace of Xiahou Lian. Dai Shengyan shook his head and said, “It looks like Xiao Lian has already lost interest in my ghost stories.”
Xie Jinglan forced himself to speak up for Xiahou Lian. “He’s playful and active by nature, I hope you won’t blame him.”
“Hahaha, this is natural. It’s a shame, the story I’m going to tell today is a hundred times more splendid than before, so it’s Xiahou Lian’s loss that he won’t hear it.”
Xie Jinglan became interested. “Oh?”
Dai Shengyan stroked his beard, yet wasn’t in a hurry to talk about his encounter. Instead, he asked:
“Jinglan, have you ever heard of ‘Garan of Seven Leaves’?”
Leaves had withered and fallen for a long time, leaving only bare branches around. The layers of cyan-black roof tiles were set off by tree branches, and from a distance, they looked like the scales on the back of a grouper. Xiahou Lian was used to walking in high places. One moment he was dangling from crossbeams, swinging back and forth, and the next he was running and leaping on roof tiles. Occasionally, passersby saw Xiahou Lian’s monkey-like figure and wanted to berate him to get down, but in the blink of an eye, Xiahou Lian had already disappeared between the roofs and walls.
Xiahou Lian was tired from climbing, so he climbed up an old pagoda tree and pulled out a pastry from the fold of his clothes, ready to take a good rest.
There was a yard close to the bottom of the pagoda tree, whose bare and dense branches were above the yard. In the yard, there was only a small tile-roofed house. The doors and windows were tightly closed, and it seemed to be uninhabited.
Just as he stuffed himself with two mouthfuls, the wooden door was pushed open by someone. The comer was wearing a black yesa robe 5, and he stepped past the shadows on the ground cast by the pagoda tree branches, stopping in the center of the yard. Xiahou Lian could only see his back. There was a ferocious flying fish 6 embroidered there, its eyes like bronze bells and its fangs bared.
An Eastern Depot underling 7? Xiahou Lian became suspicious.
The person looked around in a circle and said to the air, “The eunuch has orders to kill Xie Bingfeng. Upon seeing the head, three hundred taels of gold will be given.”
The three words “Xie Bingfeng” sounded in Xiahou Lian’s ear like thunder, and the pastry got lodged in his throat. He almost coughed out loud, but he forcibly covered his mouth and slowly swallowed the pastry.
A blur of black robes flashed out from under the eaves. Xiahou Lian heard a weird voice that was like the hiss of a venomous snake as well as the strings of a guqin being sawed, hoarse and grating. “Garan’s rules are to do a good deed first and obtain a good reward after.”
Garan! Xiahou Lian was suddenly surprised.
“Three hundred taels isn’t a small amount, how will the eunuch know that you can succeed?”
“We are evil Asura spirits, the butcher knife in Buddha’s hand. When an evil spirit claims a life, who can escape? If you don’t believe in deities and Buddhas, then you should naturally believe in spirits and monsters.”
“I’ll pay one hundred taels as front money, and when you succeed, I’ll give another two hundred taels.”
“When you go to the temple to pray, can you also haggle this much?”
The underling sneered, “Do you really think that you’re Buddha? It’s your blessing that the eunuch is going to you for business. The Embroidered Uniform Guard already has their eye on you, and if the Eastern Depot assists them from the side, it’ll be hard to guarantee that you can be as unfettered as you are today.”
The man in black made a soothing gesture and said, “I never said that I was Buddha. The only Buddha in Garan is the abbot. His name is Buddha Shi Xin 8, and we’re all spirits and monsters ordered about by him.” His mouth hooked with the hint of a ridiculing smile, and he continued, “You and I both know very well who the people the Guard has caught are. I’m afraid the abilities of your Eastern Depot can’t compare with the Guard.”
The underling’s expression changed, and he humphed. “Okay, then call your Buddha out to talk with me.”
The man in black shook his head and smiled. “The abbot is superior, how could be tainted with the dust of the worldly affairs? My time is limited, so I’ll count to three. If the transaction isn’t made, then I’m going to leave.”
Without waiting for the underling to speak, the man in black casually counted out the first number. “One.”
The corners of the underling’s mouth turned down slightly, and he looked angry.
The man in black slowly counted a second time. “Two.”
The underling’s hand that was on the hilt of his saber moved slightly, and he seemed to want to speak.
“Three.” The man in black sighed. “What a shame.”
“Hold on.” The underling said, “Tomorrow at three quarters past noon, go to the east city gate. Three hundred taels of gold will be placed in the coffin going out of the city.”
The man in black smiled. “Your wish has been heard by Garan.”
Just as he said this, a strong wind suddenly blew past. The pastry in Xiahou Lian’s arms was completely blown over, and the crumbs floated down and landed all over the underling’s head and face. Xiahou Lian turned pale with fright and stood up to climb higher. The underling shouted and threw an iron claw 9 at Xiahou Lian.
Xiahou Lian didn’t have time to dodge, and the iron claw caught his left shoulder. In an instant, the sharp claw tore through his skin and flesh. Blood immediately rushed to gush out, and the pain was excruciating. The underling pulled the rope back, and Xiahou Lian’s body was instantly airborne. He tumbled to the ground like a burlap sack.
He turned around to look at the man in black. That person was standing still under the eaves, and a hood covered his face, revealing only his pale chin. He didn’t seem like he was going to do anything at all.
Fear pressed on his heart, and frost hairs seemed to grow along his back. There was only one word in Xiahou Lian’s mind: “Run!”
In that moment, he suddenly understood exactly what it meant to be an assassin. It wasn’t their saber cutting down at the lift of a hand, and it wasn’t hunting souls and claiming lives. Instead, it was like being followed by a shadow that was death.
He struggled to stand up, but he didn’t have the strength to break free from the restraints of the iron claw. The underling pulled out an embroidered spring saber 10 and walked toward Xiahou Lian. Xiahou Lian gritted his teeth and raised his right hand, and a piercing sharp arrow flew out of his sleeve.
Suddenly, a short blade as thin as a cicada wing and that shone silver like water, which was released after, got there first. First, it cut through the sleeve arrow and then headed straight for Xiahou Lian’s chest.
The short blade pierced through the skin and flesh on Xiahou Lian’s chest, and he distinctly felt the icy temperature of the point of the saber as warm blood gurgled and gushed out. However, the blade didn’t go in any further and instead retracted into the hilt.
Xiahou Lian readily clutched the hilt on his chest and collapsed onto the ground. He bit his tongue and forcibly spat out a few mouthfuls of blood, stretched his neck, stared, and stopped moving, playing dead perfectly.
“Sorry you had to see that, this is a little imp from Garan. I’m afraid he was secretly eating pastries here and happened to bump into our transaction.” The man in black smiled apologetically. “However, rules are rules, and I’ve already taken care of him. I wonder if you’re satisfied?”
“Garan really has good discipline, they can even kill their own people, and a kid whose hair hasn’t even grown completely at that. Of course I’m satisfied, very satisfied.” The underling forced a smile and glanced at the crumbs all over the ground. There indeed weren’t any stupid thieves who would bring pastries while they were eavesdropping, but this matter had high stakes. He thought for a moment and said, “Since something like this happened, forget this transaction. Tomorrow, you don’t need to wait anymore.”
The man in black nodded.
The underling pushed the door open and left. Xiahou Lian waited for a while, and only when he was sure the person had left did he get up.
The man in black pulled down his hood, revealing an elegant and pretty face.
Qiu Ye looked at Xiahou Lian sadly. “You unlucky child, I really don’t know what to say.”
Xiahou Lian said weakly, “I didn’t do it on purpose…”
Qiu Ye carried Xiahou Lian back into the house and bandaged his wound for him. He exhorted carefully, “You and I know about what happened here today, don’t let a third person know. You ruined an important affair, and Garan lost three hundred taels of gold all at once. The abbot originally wanted to renovate the temple on the mountain to improve food and lodging for everyone. If he finds out about this, he’ll definitely tie you up and take you back to the mountain to be whipped.”
Speaking of what had happened just then, Xiahou Lian struggled to sit up, and he said, “Qiu-dage, you’re going to kill Xie Bingfeng?”
Qiu Ye glanced at Xiahou Lian, and that glance didn’t have the gentleness it usually did. It implied an inhumane sternness, making Xiahou Lian swallow his remaining words back into his throat.
“Xiao Lian, I thought you looked like you weren’t serious but still had a scale in your heart. You’re tough and arrogant like your mother, but you still have to respect Garan’s rules. Remember this well: don’t ask questions, kill without inhibition.”
Xiahou Lian lowered his head and replied, “…Yes.”
Qiu Ye continued to help him wrap the bandage. He changed the subject and said, “My Qiushui is also passed down in my family. Think over it, if you ask me to become your master, I’ll also pass Qiushui down to you.”
Xiahou Lian: “…”
“Garan of Seven Leaves? Isn’t that the rebel faction in the martial arts world that’s wanted by the government? I heard that a few days ago, the Embroidered Uniform Guard caught quite a few Garan assassins.”
Dai Shengyan shook his head and smiled. “Those were all irrelevant rookies who stole their title to cause trouble. Garan assassins are hidden in the martial arts world, marketplaces, and even the palace courts and living quarters, how can they be caught so easily? The Guard simply wanted to have a good report of their mission and left the mistake uncorrected.”
Xie Jinglan saw the reason in Dai Shengyan’s words and understood. “Have you seen a Garan assassin before?”
There was a distant look in Dai Shengyan’s eyes, and he gazed at the stacked buildings outside the window. “That was a matter of twelve years ago.”
That was twelve years ago, when Dai Shengyan had been sent to serve in Jiangzhou Prefecture. As custom, after taking office, one had to pay a formal visit to the vassal king of Jiangzhou. The vassal king of Jiangzhou was a famous libertine, and at the time, the practice of judging character was even more extreme than it was today. Filial sons, virtuous descendants, child prodigies, and talented people gathered everywhere, and at every turn, there would be talk of an outstanding figure who had emerged from some village, district, valley, or some other place.
Moreover, this vassal king relied on his ability to indulge in eating, drinking, and merrymaking to be famed. He stood out among numerous famous poets and intellectuals, which wasn’t considered easy.
He was too preposterous. His manor was the epitome of debauchery, and even the spittoons were beauties’ mouths. It was so much so that the common people all called him Lord Joy, and his original title was gradually forgotten.
Dai Shengyan had been the officialdom for many years, so he was an old man who had seen the turmoils and struggles of society, but he still couldn’t help but be dumbstruck at this Lord Joy.
However, what surprised him wasn’t Lord Joy’s degree of luxury. Instead, it was that this person was extremely fat, like a small mountain of flesh. When Dai Shengyan went up to propose a toast, he unconsciously maintained a distance of three steps away from him. After all, if His Highness lost his balance, Dai Shengyan would become a joke who had been crushed into a meat pie on his first day of taking office.
After three rounds of wine, Lord Joy spoke first. “I heard Official Dai has been widowed for many years, presumably because you’ve never found a satisfactory person. I have an abundance of beautiful women here, plump and skinny, whatever type you want. If you take a fancy to someone, you can directly take them away. Consider it my sincere regard.”
Dai Shengyan said, “Although my wife passed early, I miss her all the time, and the things she left behind have never left my side. I appreciate Your Highness’s kindness, but I don’t have any intentions of remarrying yet, so I hope Your Highness will forgive me.”
Lord Joy clearly didn’t believe Dai Shengyan. He said in a low voice, “There’s no one else here, you don’t have to regard me as an outsider. Your wife died young, I’m just afraid that you haven’t yet tasted the true flavor of women.”
Lord Joy smiled mysteriously, two piles of meat piling on his cheeks, and his originally small eyes squinted into two slits that seemed to have been cut out by needlepoint. Dai Shengyan’s heart thumped, and he felt that something bad was going to happen.
Music started playing quickly, and two rows of female showgirls holding iron pipas 11 filed in. The showgirls were only wearing a strand of chiffon, and the iron pipas happened to block the front of their private parts, faintly revealing their fair breasts. Candlelight flowed on their skin, which was like lustrous, circulating mutton fat jade.
The showgirls danced gracefully, and swaying, celestial music flowed like water from between their fingers that were so glittering they were practically transparent. These showgirls had grown up in the manor since childhood, and they had been specially instructed. Their every frown, smile, and movement were just right to be attractive and moving.
Dai Shengyan nearly poked his eyes out.
He had been tired of all of the deception and cheating in the imperial courts, so he had requested to be sent to serve away from the capital. Other people had all thought that his brain had been kicked by a donkey, as he hadn’t wanted the glory and wealth of the capital and had come to Jiangzhou, where bitter bamboo grew densely. He prided himself in being above politics and worldly interests and laughed at others for not being able to open their eyes to the real world. He had packed his things and hurried to Jiangzhou without stopping, wanting to peacefully live a leisurely life.
He hadn’t expected that Lord Joy would make him regret it despite it being too late, and that he would rather return immediately and continue arguing and scolding one another with those geezers in the capital.
He covered his eyes and said bitterly, “Your Highness doesn’t know that I have passed the age of forty, so my health isn’t as it used to be. I haven’t been able to… get it up since a long time ago.”
In order to protect his good name, he could only make this bad move and hope that Lord Joy would let him off.
Lord Joy came to a realization and showed a lamenting and regretting expression. “How could this be, I didn’t know about this and committed a taboo for you, please don’t blame me. Quick, quick, all of you leave and stop swaying in front of the official!”
Dai Shengyan sighed in relief and saluted with clasped hands, wanting to take his leave, but Lord Joy spoke again. “Although there is no way to get a taste of beauty yourself, there are other ways.”
“…I think I’d rather not, self-cultivation can be considered a kind of hobby.”
Lord Joy only acted as if Dai Shengyan was still putting on airs and unwilling to reveal his true nature. He clapped and said, “Bring out my fragrant wine!”
A servant brought him a jar of wine, and Lord Joy personally poured a cup for Dai Shengyan. Right when the stopper was pulled out of the jar, a mellow aroma permeated their surroundings. Just smelling this wine’s fragrance already made Dai Shengyan drunk.
Overcome by a sudden impulse, Dai Shengyan picked the cup up and sighed. “This is indeed good wine, I wonder what the name of this wine is?”
“This wine is named ‘Fragrant to the Bone.’” Lord Joy smiled proudly. “Do you know how I brewed such an aromatic, fine wine?”
“May I dare to ask Your Highness?”
“Usually, wine is brewed in spring. Only my wine is brewed in winter. It’s cold in winter and the wine has no way of fermenting, so I order people to use their bodies to warm the wine. This candidate also needs to be chosen particularly, it has to be a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old stunning beauty who holds the wine jar in her arms as she falls asleep. Only wine brewed like this is fragrant enough and mellow enough. There is no harm for you in tasting it carefully and seeing if there is the body scent of a young woman.”
Upon hearing this, Dai Shengyan was dumbstruck, and he reached his limit. “Your Highness has been very kind, but I am not lucky enough to enjoy this. I feel unwell, so I can’t stay long, farewell!”
“Hey! Everything is going fine, why do you want to leave?”
Dai Shengyan stood up to leave. Just when he stood up, he dazedly seemed to see a blurry figure in the drapery up ahead. It was a brief glimpse so he couldn’t see all of the person completely, only that icy light in their eyes that had seared deeply into the bottom of his heart.
He was greatly startled, but when he fixed his eyes there again, there was nothing at all.
Lord Joy’s noisy voice sounded again. “Official Dai, I still have many treasures I haven’t shown you yet. It is indeed boring to enjoy things by oneself. The last prefect, Mo Zhinian, never reacted or talked much, how come you also can’t understand my joy for these?”
There were more “treasures”?!
Dai Shengyan was scared upon hearing this, and he hastily walked out.
Lord Joy panted as he chased after him. Unexpectedly, that fatty for whom it was strenuous to even sit down was quite fast as he ran out with small, quick steps. Dai Shengyan lifted his robes up and ran out, scared he would catch up.
The dark night was heavy, and lights flickered everywhere. A line of servants chased after the two of them, shouting nonstop, “Lord, slow down!” At the very end of the line, someone wanted to shout along with the others. Suddenly, his back was suddenly poked, and he turned in confusion. An arc flashed before his eyes, and a slash of blood was instantly added to his throat. The lantern in his hand fell to the ground with a clatter and the candle fell out, faintly igniting a fire.
The several people in front heard the sound, and just when they turned around, an afterimage swiftly swept past their sides. In a moment’s time, they had all stopped breathing. The servant at the very front was still chasing with perseverance, and he chased until he was out of breath, but he couldn’t catch up. He put his hands on his waist as he panted heavily when he suddenly discovered that the people behind him had disappeared.
“Eh, where is everyone?” It was silent and pitch-black all around, and there was only the light in his hand. His back was to an icy brick wall, and he suddenly felt a little unperturbed in his heart.
He walked a few steps back. Suddenly, his chest hurt and he looked down, seeing an inch of a sharp, bloodstained blade protruding from his chest.
A few hundred steps ahead, Lord Joy wiped the sweat from his head and scolded, “You really don’t know how to be grateful for other people’s kindness!”
“Why must Your Highness be so unrelenting? Isn’t it enough that tomorrow, I’m going to write my letter of resignation and return home to farm!” Dai Shengyan said angrily.
“You! You! I prepared a grand banquet for you, yet you don’t appreciate it! Where are you putting my face?”
“You can put it wherever you want, just don’t put it anywhere near me!”
Lord Joy was so angry he saw black, and he stroked his chest several times before he calmed down. “No matter, no matter, you ungrateful thing, I won’t fuss with fools like you.” He turned his head and said to the servant who had caught up behind them, “Come here, help me back to the manor, ah, I’m so exhausted.”
The servant stood in the shadow of the wall and didn’t move for a while.
Lord Joy was angry and said, “Can’t you understand human speech? Hurry up and come help me!”
The person made a low laugh and drew something out from their waist. A piercing cold radiance dazzled them, and Dai Shengyan and Lord Joy subconsciously raised their hands to block it.
What was this? So bright.
Could it be…
Dai Shengyan abruptly reacted. That was a saber, that person was drawing a saber!
They weren’t a servant of the manor, they were an assassin!
- A Confucius temple in Nanjing.
- Some customs of the Qingming Festival included going on a spring outing.
- An essay written by Wang Anshi about a child prodigy named Fang Zhongyong. Later, his parents made money by showing him off, so he didn’t get time to study and ended up as an ordinary person.
- Lit. Moon Chase Building.
- An ancient Chinese robe worn during the Ming dynasty.
- A two-horned creature that has a long carp’s body and a dragon head.
- The Eastern Depot was a Ming dynasty spy and secret police agency run by eunuchs. The specific word used here, which I translated as underling, refers to a low rank within the Depot, and their job is basically to arrest criminals.
- Lit. Heart-Killing.
- A type of weapon with a metal hand or claw on the end of a chain or rope.
- The standard weapon of the Embroidered Uniform Guard.
- A traditional Chinese musical instrument that’s plucked, also known as the Chinese lute.