Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Thirty people were too conspicuous, so they went to the North separately. Xiahou Lian was afraid that Chi Yan would be kidnapped midway, so he put him on the same team as himself and Shen Jue. They went northward along the entire way, and the further north they went, the colder it became. The weather of the fourth month was still freezing in the North, and all of the passersby on the road had pale faces, seemingly without vitality. In order to conceal their tracks, they couldn’t stay in official inns, and they were afraid of underworld informers, so they also couldn’t stay in village guest houses and could only sleep in the wilderness the entire journey.
When they arrived at a deserted village, they stayed in a dilapidated courtyard. There was a big hole in the central room, so the wind rustled as it poured inside. Half of the south wall had collapsed, and looking out, there were indistinct dancing shadows. Five of the accompanying depot guards were young men, youthful and strong, so they weren’t affected by the cold. Xiahou Lian and a few depot guards removed the cobwebs from the tables, stools, and dustpans, then chopped them into firewood to burn. They left two people at the village entrance to keep watch during the night, and the rest of them stayed in the central room. Xiahou Lian and Chi Yan went into the forest to catch a few wild rabbits to roast, and everyone crowded around the fire to warm themselves. Shen Jue sat at one side analyzing Garan’s saber scrolls, as he wanted to find the twelve flaws.
The rabbit finished roasting, so Xiahou Lian used a handkerchief to wrap the meat and handed it to Shen Jue.
“I’m vegetarian,” said Shen Jue, and took out a handkerchief from his cloth bundle to eat steamed buns.
Xiahou Lian gave it to Chi Yan and distributed the rest to everyone, not leaving out the ones at the village entrance. At night, the North was unusually quiet. The world was like an expanse of wilderness, and besides their flame here, it seemed that the surrounding open ground was sunk in airtight darkness. Someone pulled out their saber to swing it a few times, and the steel balls in the blood groove rolled and collided. The fine and scattered sounds dissipated into the wind, so quiet it was a little lonely.
The firewood crackled, and as Xiahou Lian warmed himself by the fire, he said, “Why did you all want to come with us to the North?”
A dark-faced man threw a few tree branches into the fire and said, “I’m doing it for revenge. Xi Zhong, who was decapitated by Leading Mechanism Silk on Lutan Ancient Road, was my brother. Our parents died young, so it was my brother who raised me, and it was also because of my brother’s recommendation that I was able to serve the Eastern Depot. In the twenty-fourth year of the Qianyuan Era, everyone in the capital was talking about a fox demon, so I was ordered to investigate, but I had no leads after a long time. Scoundrel Wei was furious and wanted to behead me, but my brother knelt in front of Scoundrel Wei’s manor for an entire night, and only then did Scoundrel Wei spare my life. The detestable Scoundrel Wei was vicious and said that if he wanted me to live, my brother would have to be whipped forty-eight times.”
“Did your brother take all forty-eight lashes?” asked Xiahou Lian.
Xi Xuan wiped the corners of his eyes with his sleeves. “He did. My brother was bedridden for a month and nearly didn’t make it. My poor brother finally endured Wei De until he died, yet he still couldn’t avoid Garan.”
A depot guard next to Xi Xuan patted his shoulder. “My condolences, friend. Your brother was so good, he’ll definitely be reincarnated well in his next life.”
“How about you?” Xiahou Lian lifted his chin toward him.
The person sighed deeply. “I don’t have a home or any ties. I’m alone anyway, so no one would miss me if I died, and if I go to the North, I can still be a hero. If I can return alive, I’ll be promoted three ranks, and maybe I can even be a lord.”
Xiahou Lian shook his head. “When we arrive at Xue Mountain, stay at the foot of the mountain to be ready to assist, you don’t have to come up the mountain with us.”
The person was stunned and stammered, “S-sir…”
“Risking your life for a title isn’t worth it.” Xiahou Lian looked at him.
In the firelight, Xiahou Lian’s eyes were profound, and the person originally wanted to say something, but he shut his mouth in the end.
“How about you?” Xiahou Lian looked at the last person. He recognized that person; it was one of the few underlings that survived on Lutan Ancient Road, Yun Xiu.
The man was sitting a little far from the fire, and he plucked a few upright elderberry plants from the ground as he said in a low voice, “I’m doing it for Sir Situ.”
It became quiet at once in the room, and Shen Jue looked up from the saber scroll. Xiahou Lian subconsciously looked at Chi Yan. Chi Yan didn’t react and was leaning against a column, his eyes closed, his breaths long.
He’s probably sleeping, it’s best he doesn’t hear, thought Xiahou Lian.
“I remember when I first entered the yamen, it happened to be my turn for night duty. I’m single, so no one sent food when I was starving. Sir Situ came through the hallway and happened to meet me face-to-face. I originally thought that since I was a captain who had just come, someone like Sir Situ definitely wouldn’t recognize me. Who knew, he immediately called out my name and heard that my stomach was growling from hunger, so he even invited me to eat a late-night snack. We went to the wonton stall on Deshengmen Street the most often, and we liked it most when there was a lot of stuffing with thin skin.” Yun Xiu said, “Later when Sir Situ left, that wonton stall also went bankrupt.”
“There are over a thousand people in the Eastern Depot, and Sir Situ remembered every person. Even if he couldn’t say their name, he still remembered their division number.” Xi Xuan sighed. “I’m an uncouth man with a violent temper, so I often offend people. At the time, it was precisely because I offended my superior that this difficult case of the fox demon landed on my head. But ever since Sir Situ came, this kind of thing never happened again. Only later did I know that my superior had said to transfer me to Yunnan several times, but Sir Situ never agreed.”
Everyone fell silent, and only the sizzling sounds of the fire could be heard. Shen Jue wanted to say something, but Xiahou Lian pressed him down and said, “Chi Yan is my older brother, his debts are my debts. Before we go to Xue Mountain, all of you can come to find me for revenge at any time.”
Yun Xiu shook his head. “This matter has nothing to do with you, Sir Xiao Shen. Actually, we also know that Childe Chi Yan was trapped in Garan, not of his own free will. However, I have a question that I want to ask Childe Chi Yan face-to-face.” He turned his gaze to look at Chi Yan, who was behind Xiahou Lian. The man was as quiet as a rock, seemingly isolated from the world. “Childe Chi Yan, when you killed Sir Situ, did you ever hesitate, did you ever… regret it?”
The wind was quiet, and the sizzling flames swayed in the darkness.
Chi Yan opened his eyes at the edge of the firelight and said, “No.”
The room was silent. In the silence, Yun Xiu spoke, not knowing if his tone was admiring or taunting. “Childe Chi Yan, sure enough, you’re magnanimous.”
“He was a respectable opponent.” Chi Yan turned his head, his big and black pupils reflecting the orange firelight. “His Blizzard Saber was unmatched in the world. I respected him, so I put in all of my strength.”
Yun Xiu looked at him blankly. The man closed his eyes again, held his saber, and suppressed his speech and breathing.
“I understand,” Yun Xiu said softly.
Ten days later, they joined the other teams and entered the snowfield. Only Chi Yan had gone on this road before, so Shen Jue had Chi Yan lead the way, the three of them forming a small team as they scouted the way ahead. Shen Jue guessed that perhaps there would be sentries, so they switched to advancing in the dark at night; sure enough, they discovered lights at the foot of Xue Mountain.
Everything was silent. The weather had been very good these past few days, without wind and without snow, but they were still stiff from the cold. The night was heavy, and stars filled the dome of the sky, as long as a brocade galaxy flowing quietly. Xiahou Lian and Chi Yan were laying in the snow and crawling forward. All around them on the snowfield, lights were scattered like a checkerboard, and they soundlessly approached one of the lamps.
His fingers ached from the cold, and Xiahou Lian exhaled a mouthful of white smoke. In the silent darkness, they heard a few desolate barks.
Xiahou Lian and Chi Yan glanced at each other, and Chi Yan threw out a dead yellow weasel from his cloth bundle.
The barks became closer and closer, and the night watchman came running with a dog. He had black clothes and a mask, Garan’s disguise.
The black dog stopped in front of the weasel and sniffed it. The night watchman carried a lamp as he looked and smiled. “It turns out to be a yellow weasel.”
Just when he was about to go back, a sharp pain came from the back of his head, and two short arrows instantly pierced his and the black dog’s heads. He widened his eyes as he knelt down, and two tall dark figures covered in snow stood up behind him. Xiahou Lian put on his mask, dusted off the sleet on his body, and swaggered into the sentries’ log cabin. Then, he dragged out a corpse, leaving two alive and tied in the snow. Chi Yan buried the corpse, and Xiahou Lian extinguished then lit the candle in the room, repeating it twice.
In the darkness, a group of people and horses silently entered the courtyard, and Shen Jue dismounted his horse. Xiahou Lian brought over an official-hat chair, and Shen Jue lifted his cloak as he sat stably on it. Shen Jue was wearing very thick clothes, with snow-white fox fur wrapped around his neck, contrasting his face to be even paler like snow.
The two night watchmen shivered in the snow, and they lifted their eyes, looking over. Shen Jue was looking at them out of the corner of his eye, the tip of his eyes reddened from the cold, flying up obliquely and indescribably bewitching.
“It’s you, Shen Jue! Why are you in the North!” A night watchman gritted his teeth. “Kill us, we won’t say anything.”
“Do you know why I kept two people?” Shen Jue lifted his right hand slightly. “To let them see.”
The underlings began shoveling the snow with shovels. The frozen soil was firm, so it took an entire two hours to dig out two deep holes. The underlings buried the two people inside, only exposing their heads. The two of them looked at each other, their expressions panicked.
“I heard that when someone is frozen for a night in the snow, their face will first turn pale, then green, and later red, because at this time, in order to keep warm, their blood will surge up to their head. Finally, it’ll be frozen back, and they’ll turn purple. When their face turns purplish red, the person will die.” Shen Jue stood up and walked outside. “You two take a proper look for me and see if that is the case. I’m tired, I’ll rest first.”
The two people panicked, at a loss, and their faces were flushed from fright. They said hastily, “I’ll talk! I’ll say everything! What do you want to know?”
Shen Jue turned back around and enunciated, “The defensive troops of marquis manor, and the password for each screening point.”
The two people still died, though Shen Jue put them out of their misery, slitting their throats with a saber and burying them outside the courtyard.
The twenty underlings pounced into the dark night, and sentry lights flickered one after another at the foot of Xue Mountain, like intermittent and connected stars. Inside, Shen Jue spread out the defensive diagram that had been copied according to the night watchmen’s dictation just then. He said, “There are ten people at the sentry post at the southern corner gate, and they rotate once every two hours. There are fifteen people on patrol outside the gate, and it takes exactly half an hour to walk back and forth. We’ll make a move at the farthest sentry post from the marquis manor, and at the same time, we’ll replace the patrollers at the southern corner gate. We’ll replace the sentries at the gate at the same time they return to the manor to go inside, and then I, Chi Yan, and Xiahou Lian will enter the manor for the assassination. But we must return to the corner gate within two hours, otherwise our people will be replaced by the assassins taking over the post.”
Xiahou Lian nodded and asked, “Will we carry out the assassination during the day or at night?”
“The northern slope is steep, so there are no sentries there. Once we go up the mountain, other than the terrain, we can proceed without hindrance. I’ve estimated that if we climb quickly then we can reach the mountainside by noon. Although there’s the cover of darkness at night, their sentries will be doubled, so our people won’t have the upper hand.” Shen Jue pondered to himself, “So we should make our move during the day.”
“We can’t check the map at all times in the marquis manor.” Xiahou Lian asked Chi Yan, “Do you remember the way?”
Chi Yan said, “I remember.”
“Okay, don’t make a sound when we encounter people, the young master and I will respond.”
Shen Jue glanced at Xiahou Lian and said, “You also shouldn’t speak, it’s enough if I speak.”
Xiahou Lian mumbled, “Oh.”
“Once our identities are exposed, withdraw immediately. The people staying behind at the side gate will set fires everywhere to cover for us,” said Shen Jue.
All of the underlings clasped their fists. “Yes!”
Chi Yan silently gazed at Shen Jue, and Shen Jue rolled up the defense map as he said, “Do you want to say that you don’t plan on leaving alive, so even if our identities are exposed, you’re still going to kill Baili Yuan.”
Chi Yan nodded.
“All right,” Shen Jue said coolly, “if you don’t listen to my instructions, I’ll turn around and castrate your little brother, you can figure it out yourself.”
Chi Yan was stunned.
Xiahou Lian: “…”
The underlings sighed and successively patted Xiahou Lian’s shoulder, going outside one by one.