Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Xiahou Lian began living the life of a young master, sleeping after eating and eating after sleeping.
When every courtyard closed their doors, they were each a small world. Not only was Xiahou Lian injured, Xie Jinglan indulged him, and no one dared to discipline Xiahou Lian, no matter how domineering he was. Thus, in this period of time while he was recuperating, he was practically more of a young master than the actual young master.
Xie Jinglan didn’t really not care about the matter of someone wanting to hurt the Xie clan. He told Lian Xiang to tell the chamberlain about this matter and remind him to watch the doors and windows, and closed the door to read. He expected that the chamberlain would take care of this matter, and that the kids didn’t need to worry.
A little less than half a month passed, and his wound was nearly completely scabbed over. Xiahou Lian laid in bed on his side all day long and occasionally ran into Xie Jinglan’s room to pester his studying. Having practiced keeping a quiet state of mind in a noisy environment and the skill of remaining steadfast no matter which way the wind blew in Zhuiyue Building, he turned a deaf ear to Xiahou Lian’s noisiness.
When he occasionally acknowledged him, Xie Jinglan would listen to Xiahou Lian’s past life without betraying his feelings, and replaced the robbers and thieves he talked about with assassins, which was pretty close to reality.
Xiahou Lian’s life sounded novel, but it was also very boring after a long time.
People all thought that Garan was probably an epitome of debauchery, and that the assassins sang all night long with arms around beauties while drinking wine, long sabers stained with human blood lying across flowerbeds. However, in reality, they lived on a big mountain with a very rustic name, and Garan’s boss was a monk who was so old he was almost dead and who guarded a shabby temple. The Garuda, who made people terror-stricken, would chase her worrisome son around the entire mountain, and would even go to neighboring families to beg for rice with a thick face.
All assassins ingested a poison called “Mid-July 1,” and they ate the antidote once every year, or else they would be tormented and die on the fifteenth of the seventh month. Every year when heavy snow sealed the mountain passes, the assassins would gather in that temple that was on the verge of collapsing, hold a cup of hot tea in their hands, and listen to the abbot read a scripture even more foul and longer than the foot bindings of old women. Then, they would report the numbers of heads they had taken this year and take their antidote for the next year from a bowl.
Every year, the faces everyone saw would change a little. Some people never returned to the mountain, their bodies rotting in mud like salted fish. No one mentioned their names again, and their positions would soon be replaced by other assassins. Xiahou Lian had always felt that the abbot chanted the scripture every time to perform the chaodu ritual 2 on them, though every time after he listened to half of it he would fall asleep.
His mother would frequently be away, so he would jump about by himself in the mountain forests like a wild monkey. Although he fiddled with and made a lot of quite wild stuff, such as bird droppings pellets, wooden caltrops, and so on, if he accidentally hit another assassin that lived on the mountain, he would inevitably be caught and given a beating. Xiahou Lian’s skin, which was as thick as the bottom of a pot, had probably been trained from this.
There weren’t many assassins who stayed on the mountain, and the only one who stayed there all year round was the old bald donkey 3. However, that old geezer never spoke properly and would only mumble as he chanted scriptures. Sometimes when he had been very naughty, Uncle Duan would catch him and bring him to the temple under the statue to listen to him chant scriptures, and it really was so painful he would rather die.
More often, Xiahou Lian would lie down in the forest and space out. He had stolen from every bird nest in the mountain’s trees, and he had waded through every brook. The creatures in the mountain were all a little intelligent, and they knew the terribleness of this brat. Wherever he walked, the birds and beasts were basically extinct.
Thus, layers of mountains overlapped layers of hills, the soughing of the wind in the pines surged endlessly, and the assassins’ huts would be empty. Xiahou Lian would sit at the bottom of Garan’s steps and drowsily listen to the old bald donkey mumble ceaselessly. He could only recollect the ghost stories the Garuda had told him before over and over again, revisiting the mountain forests he could reach with closed eyes again and again, day after day.
Speaking of it, Xie Jinglan was his first friend.
“In the future, besides carrying on their craft and wandering the world to make a living, do you not have any other path to go down?” asked Xie Jinglan.
“Us people, once we’re born we only have two paths to go down. Either we follow our seniors and wander about the world to make a living, or we stay on the mountain forever and die of old age in the forest.” Xiahou Lian nudged the charcoal in the basin and said, “I don’t want to be trapped on the mountain my entire life, so I can only learn the craft from the adults.”
“That old monk is this formidable? He can trap so many of you?”
Xiahou Lian didn’t want to waste his breath explaining the “Mid-July” thing, so he only sighed and said, “Even my mother can’t beat him.”
Sunlight shone through the carved windows, striking half of Xiahou Lian’s body, as if there were a lot of patterns engraved on his body, bright and dim, layers upon layers. Half of his face was hidden in shadow and his eyes were lowered, his right hand poking the charcoal in the charcoal basin from time to time.
Xie Jinglan thought, It turns out that someone as simple-minded as him also has times of dejectedness.
“Actually, I’m quite envious of you, Young Master Jinglan.” Xiahou Lian said softly, “Before, didn’t you ask me why I wanted to help you?”
Xie Jinglan was stunned.
“I’m destined to have no hope,” Xiahou Lian looked up, his eyes twinkling with a smile, “but you do. You can study and become an official, cultivate yourself, regulate your family, and bring justice to the world. You’ll leave a lasting reputation, and people will sing your praises generation after generation, how wonderful.”
He and Xie Jinglan were completely going down two paths, one toward bouquets of flowers and piles of brocades, the other toward where there was no light.
It was as if Xie Jinglan’s heart had been pricked with a few small needles, sometimes hurting and sometimes not.
He opened his mouth. “I…”
Did he really want this?
At first, he had studied because he had wanted there to be a day when the Xie clan would bow their heads, kneel, and regret that it was already too late. Later, he studied with Dai Shengyan and changed his original, despicable idea.
However, from start to finish, what he was most concerned about wasn’t the bustling common people who were seeking fortune in the streets and alleys.
They were too far and too many.
Moreover, his heart was very small, the bottom of his heart bumpy, and it was only enough to fit a little bit of things.
“I will save you. The day when I’m in charge of political affairs will be when you leave the sea of bitterness. No matter how strong your boss is, he’s no match for thousands of troops.”
Xiahou Lian’s hand that was fiddling with the charcoal stopped, and he scratched the top of his head sheepishly. “The way you say this makes it seem like my beauty can cause the downfall of states and countries, and that you have to use the power of a whole country to forcibly take my hand in marriage.”
Xie Jinglan had originally been a little perturbed, as he had been scared that Xiahou Lian would laugh at his overestimation of his ability. After all, how could he predict the future accurately, and how could he be certain that he would definitely reach the highest-ranking position someday?
Even if he was certain, could Xiahou Lian wait until that time?
However, he hadn’t expected that in the end, Xiahou Lian was ignorant and incompetent. His mind contained too many talents and beauties, generals and princesses from boring storybooks and opera highlights. One sentence from him made Xie Jinglan speechless.
Xie Jinglan glanced at Xiahou Lian. “You don’t look bad, you’re worthy of this title.”
The days flew by quickly, and in the blink of an eye, it was spring. Xiahou Lian was in a basin, stepping on Xie Jinglan’s undergarments. His pant legs and sleeves were rolled up, revealing slender arms and legs. He had been washing clothes for a long time, and his hair was soaked in sweat, sticking to his cheeks. He was a youth of twelve years, and his body was sturdy, with a vigor similar to sunshine.
He didn’t dare to step for too long. After all, if Xie Jinglan knew that he washed clothes like this, he would definitely be so angry he would die and come back to life. Ever since that brat Xie Jinglan “wet” his pants at night, he hadn’t been willing to give his clothes to Aunt Lan and Lian Xiang to wash. In any case, Xiahou Lian knew about this matter, and he didn’t want to wash his own clothes, so he simply threw his clothes to Xiahou Lian.
After finally finishing washing the clothes, Xiahou Lian hung the clothes up on a clothesline, tidied himself, and went to the library to pick Xie Jinglan up. These past few days, Dai Shengyan had gone to Mochou Lake 4, so Xie Jinglan had gone to the library by himself to read. Tonight, there was a temple fair, and Xiahou Lian had shamelessly pestered Xie Jinglan for a long time before making him agree to sneak out and watch the festive lanterns with him at night.
Xie Jinglan’s head was lowered over the square pear wood table, and there was a small mountain of books piled up in front of him. He was wearing a lined coat the color of white lotus roots. Its contrast with him made him seem even more like a white wall, though his body was a little thinner, filled with an air of sickliness like he was a person made of paper paste, and a gust of wind could cause him to float away without a trace.
Xiahou Lian called out “Young Master,” and Xie Jinglan looked up, glancing at him lightly. He was excessively good-looking, and even a casual glance from him was alluring. In his mind, Xiahou Lian stuck out his tongue and changed his form of address: Missy Jinglan.
Xiahou Lian helped him tidy the book boxes and place them onto the bookshelves, and helped him put on the servant disguise he had brought. This wasn’t their first time doing something like this. Xiahou Lian naturally had a devilish air to him, and whoever was tainted by him would be led astray, never returning from the crooked path. Even Lian Xiang had been taken by him to sneak out of the manor to stroll around once. However, when Lian Xiang had gone out of the manor, she had only walked in circles in cosmetics shops. After that, Xiahou Lian had sworn to never take her outside again.
“We can only play for an hour,” warned Xie Jinglan.
Xiahou Lian nodded nonstop. “Okay!”
The two of them took a small trail and flipped over two walls in succession, finally getting out of the manor. When they were about to leave the alley, they suddenly heard a surly voice behind them. “Third Young Master, where are you going?”
The two of them were instantly stunned, and their bodies were already half-frozen as they slowly turned their heads. It was Nursemaid Liu, her face covered in bulging flesh that made her look vicious. Her eyes were squinted and shot out a cold light.
“I caught you two. You’re a little too brazen, and if it weren’t for me keeping an eye on you two, the madam wouldn’t even know that you’re this bold.”
Xiahou Lian inwardly resented not taking precautions against that spy, Nursemaid Liu. Usually, Xie Jinglan would stay in the library until very late, and the library’s location was very remote, so no one went there much. They had originally wanted to pretend that they were still studying in the library, when in reality they had already gone to watch the lanterns, but they hadn’t expected that they would still be discovered by Nursemaid Liu.
Xiahou Lian stepped forward and said, “It was me who instigated the young master to sneak out of the manor, if you want to punish someone then punish me!”
“Xiahou Lian, it’s not your place to speak here!” Xie Jinglan grabbed Xiahou Lian’s wrist and said, “Nursemaid, you don’t need to say anything, the madam can punish me if she wants.”
Nursemaid Liu didn’t let either of them go and escorted the two of them to the central room. The moon was high above the willow trees, and the festive lanterns had all been lit, though the dim light couldn’t suppress the gloomy shadows of the beams and pillars. Mrs. Xiao and Xie Bingfeng were sitting at the head of the table, and shadows concealed Xie Bingfeng’s face, making him appear inscrutable.
Xie Jinglan lifted his robes up, knelt down on the ground, and kowtowed properly once, saying, “I come to plead Father for forgiveness.”
Xie Bingfeng felt that he hadn’t lived up to his expectations and said, “As your father, I thought that you were good-natured and could study peacefully, and I didn’t expect you would also be this mischievous. Say, where were you planning to have fun?”
“I originally planned on going to the temple fair to wander around.” Xie Jinglan meekly kept his head down, gentleness, modesty, and courtesy written all over his face. “I recognize my mistake, and I request Father to punish me severely. I don’t dare to repeat this mistake again.”
Xie Bingfeng saw that he had taken the initiative to admit his fault and that his attitude was well-behaved. Half of his anger dissipated and he said, “Never mind, you’re still young, it is inevitable that you’re playful. Go back and review your studies well, and I’ll disregard this.”
Xie Jinglan kowtowed and was about to retreat, but Mrs. Xiao spoke. “Hold on, master, our Xie Jinglan has always been diligent and studious. You’re not home all year round so you don’t know, but I understand this the clearest. This child works hard and only needs to go through more painstaking studying. I’ve never heard of something like him sneaking out of the manor to wander around at a temple fair. I’m sure that someone instigated him and led our Xie Jinglan astray.”
Xie Bingfeng’s gaze shifted to Xiahou Lian, and he said in faint anger, “Xiahou Lian, what do you say?”
Xiahou Lian was just about to speak, but Xie Jinglan rushed to reply first. “Father, Xiahou Lian has indeed brought up the matter of going to the temple in the past few days, but it was I myself who decided I wanted to go watch. I live secluded at home, so even when it is the festive season, the madam pities my weak body and tells me to stay at home to recuperate. She has never taken me out before, so I have been looking forward to it this entire time, but I have been too embarrassed to say it out loud. Today, I momentarily misunderstood and brought Xiahou Lian with me to sneak out. I already recognize my mistake, so if you want to punish me, I do not dare to disobey.”
Xie Bingfeng glanced at Mrs. Xiao and coughed, saying, “Your mother is still well-intentioned. If you want to go with them, just directly say so, it’s not like she’ll restrain you.”
Mrs. Xiao hadn’t expected that the blame would be turned on her. She gnashed her teeth in anger and glanced meaningfully at Nursemaid Liu.
Nursemaid Liu emerged from the back and said with a mysterious expression, “Master, there’s still one thing you don’t know about.”
Xie Bingfeng saw her attitude and wasn’t very happy as he said, “If you have something to say, say it quickly, don’t play tricks and whatnot at home.”
Nursemaid Liu hastily said, “Not only did this Xiahou Lian instigate the young master to go to the temple fair, he also instigated the young master to go to Wanxiang Building 5 to listen to music, and I don’t know how much silver he’s tipped them. The young master was originally able to keep it under control, and only this Xiahou Lian spends all of his monthly payment. However, the day before yesterday, I was helping the young master make his bed, and I actually found…”
Xie Bingfeng suppressed his fury and said, “What did you find?”
Nursemaid Liu pretended to recoil. “I found a sweat towel 6, and on it was embroidered something ‘your heart,’ ‘rock’ something, ah, I’ve never read, so I don’t know what was written on there.”
“Could it be ‘your heart is as enduring as a rock, and my heart is as resistant as a bulrush’?” Mrs. Xiao covered her scarlet lips, a gloating air revealing in between her brows. “Master, look at this Xiahou Lian, he really is a scourge. It’s fine if he doesn’t study well himself, but he even led Xie Jinglan astray.”
“You’re talking nonsense! How have I ever gone to some Wanxiang Building, it’s all your nonsense!” Xiahou Lian said angrily.
Nursemaid Liu said, “If the master doesn’t believe it, go to Xiahou Lian’s room and search it to see if there’s any money left, and then search the young master, he carries that sweat towel with him every day.”
“Father, please reconsider clearly, we have never gone to Wanxiang Building before. My room has always only been cleaned by Xiahou Lian, when have I let Nursemaid Liu touch it? This servant is talking deceitfully and is very detestable. Father, you can summon the people from Qiuwu Courtyard here to question them, and you’ll know that what I said is true.”
Xie Jinglan felt anxious and said to himself that this wasn’t good. Madam Xiao was targeting Xiahou Lian, and Xiahou Lian’s monthly payment had all been used to buy snacks to eat, so how was there any left? In all likelihood, Nursemaid Liu had somehow hidden that sweat towel on them, so they absolutely couldn’t let them search them.
Wanxiang Building? There were countless entertainment venues on the banks of Jinling’s Qinhuai River, so why did they insist on it being Wanxiang Building?
Mrs. Xiao said loudly, “Of course questions need to be asked, but bodies also have to be searched. Servants, search them for me!”
The old maids at the side immediately stepped forward and seized Xie Jinglan, searching him up and down. In the end, one of them reached a hand into the inner layer of her coat and pulled out a bright red sweat towel. When the others watched from outside, they only saw that it had been taken out of the fold of Xie Jinglan’s clothes and didn’t know that the sweat towel had originally been hidden in the inner layer of the maid’s coat.
When Xie Jinglan and Xiahou Lian saw that sweat towel, their faces instantly paled.
Mrs. Xiao pretended to be distressed. “How old are you two, already tainted by such an obscene habit, you’re already going this far? Xiahou Lian, not only did Mr. Dai recognize your worth and help you buy your freedom, the master also favored you and left you next to the third young master as a study companion. But look at you, you actually led the young master astray. What were you thinking!”
Xiahou Lian was unable to defend himself, and he could only be anxious inside.
Xie Bingfeng took the big red sweat towel, and its fragrance overwhelmed him, nearly causing him to sneeze. A short verse was embroidered on one corner, and it was signed “Liu Xiangnu.” When he hadn’t seen it, he had felt that it wasn’t a big deal, but upon seeing it, he was immediately so fuming that steam came out of his ears.
Liu Xiangnu was the maiden name of Wanxiang Building’s top plaque 7, Liu Ji. She had a high opinion of herself and didn’t go downstairs lightly. It had taken even him, Xie Bingfeng, a lot of effort to study countless fresh and beautiful words intensively to win the beauty’s heart. The same sweat towel was also lying in his pocket, and it was embroidered with the same name, though the verse was “May I be a star and you a moon, and our light shine brightly on each other every night.”
So this Liu Ji prepared a lot of sweat towels like this and had a copy for every customer? And the poems weren’t even duplicated?
Xie Bingfeng didn’t know whether he was angry at Xie Jinglan for wandering in brothels at such a young age, or angry at the sweat towels of this Liu Ji which didn’t have duplicate poems, or angry that the father and son had actually accidentally been intimate with the same prostitute. He picked a teacup up from the table and hurled it at Xie Jinglan. Tea drenched his entire body, and the fragments of the teacup were scattered on the ground with a shatter.
The room was so silent, not even a crow or sparrow could have been heard. Xie Bingfeng threw the sweat towel onto the ground and roared, “You bastard, look at what you’ve done?! Why do you have Liu Ji’s sweat towel?”
Xie Jinglan had been hit by the teacup, but he acted like nothing had happened. His face was still cold, showing no emotions. He picked up the sweat towel, looked at it carefully, and threw it back to the ground, saying, “This sweat towel is not mine.”
Xiahou Lian also sidled up to take a look. He saw the “Liu Xiangnu” in the corner, and his expression became a little complicated.
Mrs. Xiao adjusted her bun and lamented, “Master, when the Xie clan’s disciples gathered at Yanbo Pond, it was such a big spectacle, but only this brat got into Mr. Dai’s good graces. You even said that our Xie clan had finally produced a promising child and was hoping that he would bring glory to our clan and ancestors. In the end, he was young and couldn’t withstand temptations by others.” As she said this, she glanced at Xiahou Lian and said, “This matter can’t be known by your friends, or else I can only imagine how they’d laugh their heads off.”
Xie Bingfeng had always regarded his dignity as more important than his life, and even the mildew in his stomach had to be concealed with a golden covering. Xie Jinglan’s worth being recognized by Dai Shengyan had originally given him a good reputation. Those literati had unanimously praised him, saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” and “the Xie clan is a family of scholars,” and the more he put on a facade, the more he cared about it. He had gotten used to the acclaim, so the slightest offense was even less tolerable.
He had instantly flown into a rage, and he pointed at Xie Jinglan’s nose as he scolded, “You corrupted our clan values, this dirty thing was found in your clothes, yet you still dare to quibble! If it’s not yours then it’s this good study companion of yours’s! I fathered and raised you, just for you to do something this obscene?”
Mrs. Xiao saw that Xie Jinglan was impassive and unaffected, and she couldn’t help but feel loathing for him. She added in exaggeration, “Chickens lay the same kind of eggs as themselves. The one laying the egg was bad, so can this egg still be good?”
Xie Jinglan looked up abruptly and stared at Mrs. Xiao.
Xie Bingfeng coughed and said with an awkward expression, “Why are you bringing his mother up out of nowhere?”
“What, can I not speak about her? You were the one who got drunk at the time and acted like you were possessed. Not only did you father this improper scumbag, you also dropped three ranks in succession, and your great future is gone just like this.” Mrs. Xiao sneered, “You have to pay for your own evils.”
Xie Bingfeng said impatiently, “How many times have I said this, don’t bring up that bitch.” Right when he said this, he remembered that Xie Jinglan was still here, and he couldn’t help but glance at him. When he saw his hanging head and lack of reaction, his faintly revealed pale chin looking a lot like his mother’s, a guilt rose up that he couldn’t suppress. The weariness in his heart rose like a vine, and he closed his eyes. “Never mind, never mind, Xie Jinglan, go to the ancestral hall, kneel, and reflect well on this. From now on, you’re forbidden from going out of the courtyard, and besides going to Mr. Dai to learn, you’re not allowed to go anywhere. As for Xiahou Lian, my Xie Manor can’t afford a Buddha like you. When Mr. Dai returns, tell him to take you away!”
In the end, Xiahou Lian couldn’t hold back. He said angrily, “The dead are gone, yet you’re still being so bitter, not worthy of being a well-known clan!”
Xie Bingfeng said angrily, “Brat, it’s not your place to speak here!”
Xiahou Lian spat in his mind and looked at Xie Jinglan. Xiahou Lian was kneeling behind him, so he could only see his back.
Xie Jinglan’s head was lowered, and his pale face was hidden in the shadows, his expression inscrutable.
He heard the servants around them whispering, hissing like a bug dragging its thin wings across a table. The candle on the table burst, and the light and shadows on the ground shook along with it. Outside the walls, a night watchman 8 struck a temple block 9, sound after sound, seemingly hitting the bottom of his heart, making it hurt dully.
He suddenly spoke, and although his voice wasn’t loud, everyone heard it clearly.
“This sweat towel is not mine.”
“Oh? So are you saying that it’s Xiahou Lian’s?” Mrs. Xiao’s red lips hooked upward as she smiled.
Xie Jinglan looked up slowly and stared fixedly at Mrs. Xiao, his eyes shadowy and heavy. As if in a trance, Mrs. Xiao seemed to see a demon hiding in them.
“If I’m not wrong, its owner should be your son, Xie Jingtao.”
- More precisely the fifteenth of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, so not exactly Mid-July, as the date varies every year. I just translated as such for simplicity’s sake. It’s also the day when the Ghost Festival is celebrated.
- A ritual that includes chanting Buddhist scriptures so that ancestors or dead souls can atone for the sins in their lives and be blessed. Typically performed on the Ghost Festival.
- Used as a derogatory name for monks.
- Lit. Sorrowless Lake.
- Lit. Night Fragrance Building.
- A towel or handkerchief typically carried around for personal use, such as wiping one’s face and hands or tying one’s hair. Longer ones can be fastened to the waist. They can also be decorated or embroidered with words.
- Prostitutes in ancient brothels who had a plaque or sign hung up with their name on it. The top plaque was the most popular prostitute.
- The person responsible for announcing the time at night by striking a percussion instrument.
- A wooden percussion instrument originating from East Asia.