Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
When his injuries had almost healed, Xiahou Lian brought Chi Yan back to the house Xiahou Pei had left behind. He hadn’t come back in quite a long time, so there was a layer of dust in the house. They swept the entire hall clean, and pushing open the doors, the sunlight in the courtyard was just right. The warm sunlight climbed onto the melon shack shelf, the green vines intertwined together, the lights and shadows shimmering on the ground. The neighboring house’s red apricots had stretched over the wall, the bloomed rouge-colored petals lively as they shook in the wind. Many plantain herbs had grown in the gaps of the dirt walls, a glossy dark green, and there were a few small unknown yellow flowers that mottled the center, like stars scattered among the grass.
Xiahou Lian opened a jar of wine by himself and sat under the eaves. Sunlight shone on his eyes, so bright he couldn’t open them. Xiahou Lian suddenly recalled that the capital hadn’t had such good weather in a long time.
Chi Yan was weaving flowers in his hands, as he had been learning Leading Silk techniques from Xiahou Lian recently. This brat looked foolish, but his brain was actually very smart, and he learned as quickly as Shen Jue did.
Xiahou Lian looked at him. The side of his face was tranquil and calm, as if the myriad of things couldn’t disturb his peace of mind. Xiahou Lian didn’t really know what kind of feelings Chi Yan had toward Xiahou Pei, and he didn’t even know if they had met before. All in all, Xiahou Pei rarely mentioned Chi Yan in front of him, and if the Mahoraga hadn’t had a slip of his tongue during the extermination of the Xie clan, he wouldn’t have even known that he had a twin brother that was living on the top of Black-Faced Buddha.
“Chi Yan,” Xiahou Lian hesitated before poking his arm, “have you seen our mother before?”
“I have,” said Chi Yan.
Xiahou Lian’s eyes lit up. “When? Did you know she was our mother at the time?”
“When I was eight years old. She was very strong. Before she died, I never defeated her.” Chi Yan lifted his head, looking at the sunlight that filtered down between the gaps of the leaves. It was fine and fragmented, like gold scattered all over the ground, so bright it was a little striking.
The first time he had seen Xiahou Pei, the weather had also been like this. That woman wearing black archer clothes had been carrying a saber in a black scabbard when she went to the top of the mountain, raising an eyebrow at him and smiling. “It’s our first time meeting, I’m your…”
Her words were interrupted by a blow toward her head, and she blocked his saber, dumbstruck as she said, “You jump so high!”
He had been too short at the time and his strength hadn’t been enough, so he was soon subdued by Xiahou Pei. Xiahou Pei took his saber and hung him onto a treetop. His limbs didn’t have anything to lean on, so he could only look at her impassively. Xiahou Pei smiled. “Now we can talk properly. I’ll say it again, it’s our first time meeting, I’m your mother, Son.”
She always chose a time when Shi Xin went out to come. Chi Yan was stubborn, insisting on fighting her every time he saw her, and then getting hung onto the treetop again. She would painstakingly tease him there, while he looked at his toes and thought back to which move had gone wrong just then.
He remembered: she had used “Snake Step” on the third move, so he should have used “Swallow Slant,” not “Moon-Cutting.”
“Hey, dear son, say something, I’m begging you,” Xiahou Pei said from across from him.
He didn’t make a sound.
With a “thud,” a pellet-like thing struck the front of his robes, and the shell of the pellet broke into pieces, some foul and sticky thing bursting out from inside. It dripped on his gray cotton clothes, windingly creating a stain.
He sniffed and smelled a stench, and he finally had a different expression——frowning.
“What the hell is this? Why did it also burst?” Xiahou Pei was also stunned, and she put down the slingshot, tearing off a leaf to wipe his body. “It seems to be bird droppings… Sorry, sorry, I thought this was an ordinary clay pellet. Xiahou Lian made this, when I go back I’ll definitely take care of him properly to vent your anger for you.”
“Who is Xiahou Lian?”
“A stupid thing.”
Xiahou Lian said dejectedly, “No wonder my bird dropping pellets would inexplicably go missing for a period of time, it turns out she took them away.”
Chi Yan said, “She gave me a lot, but that thing starts to smell if kept for a long time, so I could only throw them away.”
The last time she had gone up the mountain to see him, it had been dusk. The red clouds of the sunset at the end of the distant mountains were like burning flames in the horizon, and the red sun in the depths of the sky fire was like a drop of blood. On the mountain, the dense kudzus and upright elder plants were dyed with a thin layer of red, as if they were burning. She didn’t go inside and instead stood in the grass that was slightly dyed red, waving toward him.
“Fight?” Chi Yan used a white cloth to wipe Shana. In his hand, the sharp blade was as thin as a leaf.
“I’m leaving in a bit.” Xiahou Pei said, “Dear son, promise me one thing. In the future, if you meet someone who looks exactly like you, be gentler, that guy’s saber skills are very poor, he won’t be able to beat you.”
“Those who trespass on the top of Buddha must die.” Chi Yan said, “I cannot violate the abbot’s words.”
“But aren’t I not dead?”
“Because you are very strong, I cannot beat you. When I become strong, you will die.”
“Ah, you child, you speak so straightforwardly, you won’t be able to marry a wife in the future.” Xiahou Pei smiled casually. “You won’t kill him. Chi Yan, you two are brothers, he is another you.”
Chi Yan: “…”
Without waiting for Chi Yan to reply, she turned around and waved her hand. “I’m leaving!”
Xiahou Lian said softly, “She was saying goodbye to you.”
“Mn.” Chi Yan nodded and said, “Xiao Lian, I actually do not really know what mother means. However, I know that she liked me, and I also liked her. I did not want her to die, but when the abbot told me, she was already dead. Although even if I knew beforehand, it would not have saved anything.”
Xiahou Lian was taken aback, and he suddenly understood that Chi Yan was explaining what he had asked him at the time on Black-Faced Buddha. He recalled the two of them silently looking at each other in the bleakly rustling wind. His fists were tightly clenched, his mind filled with bitter grief and resentment. The wind poured into Chi Yan’s sleeves, fluttering like the wings of a moth.
“Did you already know the truth about my mother’s death?”
“If the abbot told you to come and kill me, would you come?”
In the roaring and reverberating sounds of the wind, his voice was even colder than the wind.
“Good, that’s very good. I would also kill you, so you and I both don’t need to show mercy.”
Xiahou Lian tugged the corner of his lips, and he thumped his shoulder, saying, “I don’t blame you, Chi Yan. A lot of things are impossible, none of us wanted to get to this point.”
“I am stupid, Xiao Lian.” Chi Yan looked down at his own palms, which were covered with coarse calluses. “I am not like you, who knows how to do many things. I can only swing a saber. But such a stupid me still obtained the care and concern of so many people. The abbot, Xiahou Pei, you, and… Baili.”
Xiahou Lian was silently stunned, but he immediately reacted and asked in a low voice, “You also like Baili Yuan, right?”
“I do not know. They treated me very well, so I want… to repay their love.” Chi Yan said in a low voice, “In my own heart, I also hoped that all of the dust would settle, and everyone could be okay. But in the end, everyone died. I can only do my best to realize their unfulfilled wishes. This way, on their way to the netherworld, perhaps their journey can be a little smoother.”
The golden light landed in Chi Yan’s eyes that were as clean as glaze, like melting liquid gold. This extremely strong assassin had pure eyes that ordinary people didn’t, as well as a heart that was as clear as water.
Xiahou Lian put an arm around his shoulders and patted him forcibly. “Chi Yan, listen, everyone has their own wishes, and one’s wishes should be fulfilled by themself. Love doesn’t ask for repayment. I don’t know what the old bald donkey and that Baili Yuan thinks, but in any case, our mother’s and my beliefs are definitely the same.” Xiahou Lian looked into his eyes, saying, “Chi Yan, you have to have your own wishes, and live for yourself.”
Chi Yan was taken aback, and he silently looked back at Xiahou Lian.
“For example, is there anything you want, money? Beauties? …I know you definitely don’t like these, what about an unparalleled saber scroll?” Xiahou Lian scratched his head. “Anyway, so on and so forth.”
Chi Yan shook his head.
Xiahou Lian understood; he had no desires in this world.
Xiahou Lian pondered for a long time and suddenly put his head close, lowering his voice as he asked, “Chi Yan, you’re still a virgin, right. Why don’t I take you to stroll around the Eight Great Alleys? You’re too familiar with Yanzhi Alley, so we’ll go to Lianzi Alley 1.” He coughed a few times and said, “As for me, I’ll drink some tea and rest my feet, you can do what you want to do.”
Chi Yan faintly felt that there was another meaning in his words. He thought for a long time but didn’t understand, and looked at him in confusion.
“Ah, you, did you properly read the ‘The Plum in the Golden Vase’ I gave you?” Xiahou Lian had a headache. “Holding a girl’s little hand, laying down and chatting for a while, then smacking your little mouths, your feelings getting deeper and deeper, this and that and that and this… you understand.”
“…” Chi Yan was silent for a long time before saying, “Xiao Lian, stop talking.”
“I do not want to listen.”
It was already dark when they returned to the manor. Xiahou Lian changed his clothes and went into the study to find Shen Jue. Shen Jue was still revising orders; there were so many memorials to the throne they were practically endless, and before he even finished revising the ones by his hand, new ones were sent from the palace. There was a garlic-head vase on the desk, and a kerria flower branch that had been picked early morning was inserted inside. Shen Jue was behind the rouge-colored flower, his eyes lowered.
Xiahou Lian moved a stool to sit across from Shen Jue, resting his head on his hand as he looked at him.
“Your old acquaintance sent a letter over,” Shen Jue said without even looking up.
Only then did Xiahou Lian see the letter next to Shen Jue’s hand, and that its seal had already been ripped. Xiahou Lian didn’t take it and asked, “What did she say?”
“She said that Baili Yuan appeared in Yunxian Building the day before yesterday.”
Xiahou Lian was taken aback. “Baili Yuan didn’t leave the capital!”
“That’s right, this dwarf is very cunning, what the depot guards in the Kaiping Guard saw a few days ago was merely one of her substitutes. She has a lot of substitutes, and they take different roads to the North. We found three just on land routes.” Shen Jue scoffed. “I’m afraid your old acquaintance has been bewitched by Baili Yuan, Baili Yuan appeared in Yunxian Buildling the day before yesterday, but she only sent the letter today. I sent people to search for her, but she actually already left the capital.”
“Don’t say that… Chi Yan said that Baili Yuan treated the two of them quite well, this is only human nature.” Xiahou Lian sighed, and Shen Jue’s face was taut, not speaking. Xiahou Lian asked, “A-Chu is a prostitute of the Royal Academy, how can she leave the capital? Did Baili Yuan help her change her household registration?”
“Mn.” Shen Jue revised orders as he said, “I already sent people to keep an eye on her, perhaps Baili Yuan will even come to find her. However, I’m not counting on it too much. That girl Baili Yuan is a bit scheming, she probably wouldn’t take such a big risk.”
The trail had broken again, and the two of them sank into silence. The difficulties in intercepting Baili Yuan wasn’t only her substitutes, it was more in the underworld’s secret help. Once those snakes and mice that hid in the shadows of Great Qi assembled into a group, it would be a terrible disaster.
Wind chimes jingled outside the window, and in the distance, the meowing of the cats in Chi Yan’s courtyard could be heard, indistinct and drifting in the wind. Xiahou Lian stroked Shen Jue’s paperweight, and the star-moon Bodhi beads on his wrist struck it, emitting a crisp sound.
“Chi Yan says that we’re setting off in ten days,” Xiahou Lian suddenly said.
The tip of Shen Jue’s brush paused at once, suspended in midair, and a drop of cinnabar ink dripped along the tip of the brush and onto the paper, bright red and dazzling.
It was very quiet in the room, so quiet that they could hear their breathing. The wind chimes were still sounding, and the shadow of the moon moved imperceptibly on the window paper, the colors of the kerria flower in the garlic-head vase seemingly fading under the moon.
“Seven months.” Shen Jue said, “You returned last year in the eighth month, and it’s been seven months in total now.”
Xiahou Lian pinched Shen Jue’s face. “Young Master, smile. So ugly with a sullen face.”
Shen Jue caught his hand and caressed his coarse palm. Shen Jue lowered his eyelashes as he said, “I always feel that when we’re together, we seem to be about to separate at every moment, never staying for long. We sleep together the night before, but the next day when I open my eyes, you’ve already left.”
Xiahou Lian called in a low voice, “Young Master…”
“I have schemed to deceive you and conceal things from you, I have caught assassins to be test subjects and mixed formulas, I have sought doctors, asking for medicine and practicing Qigong, and I have also prayed to Buddha and asked the gods. I have done everything. But…” A teardrop slipped past Shen Jue’s cheek, landing in Xiahou Lian’s palm, “in the end, I couldn’t make you stay.”
Icy sorrow filled Xiahou Lian’s heart, and he walked around the desk, embracing Shen Jue in his arms. Shen Jue hugged him back and closed his eyes. Eleven years seemed to be a tremendous eternal cycle: twelve-year-old Xiahou Lian walked step by step out of the alley in the dim twilight of the setting sun, leaving him behind in the decaying and old house. Fourteen-year-old Xiahou Lian was brought away by Xiahou Pei in the autumn night chilly with moonlight, and he was left alone in the imperial palace lurking with dangers, advancing step by step.
Now, Xiahou Lian was going to leave again, and he would be alone in the end.
“Young Master, in my next life, I’ll reincarnate as a woman and be your wife, okay?” Xiahou Lian patted Shen Jue’s back gently and gazed at the moonlight outside the window, smiling faintly. “You’re the eldest young master of a landlord’s house, and I’m a dark-skinned girl from an impoverished household of a small farmer. One day, I’m counting ants at the village entrance, and you spur your horse, passing by underneath the archway. You fall in love with me at first glance and take me home to give birth to chubby children for you.”
Shen Jue remained silent, and as Xiahou Lian spoke, he felt dissatisfied. “No, no, I’ll change it. You’re the little young master in the family of a concubine of a high-ranking official, and since you’re frail, you never go out. I’m a female assassin who robs the rich to assist the poor. One day, I go to your house to steal money and happened to encounter you reading a book under the moon. I’m dizzyingly enchanted by you at once, so I knock you out and carry you away to be my husband. Is this good, hm?”
“I don’t like dark-skinned girls, nor do I like female assassins,” Shen Jue said muffledly.
“Then what type do you like?”
Shen Jue hugged him forcibly and tightly as he said hoarsely, “I only like this one and only Xiahou Lian in this world, from ancient times to now, the only Xiahou Lian.”