Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Dai Shengyan hadn’t actually abandoned this little disciple he had accepted as his last. Upon receiving the message a servant delivered, he had cast aside the old friend he had just met with and had worriedly rushed back. On the way, he had been so anxious that he pinched off several hairs of his beard.
“You child.” Dai Shengyan looked at the stubborn Xie Jinglan and said faintly, “I thought you were a ‘wise person’ who understood the situation and would never go head-to-head with your father. Never mind, you’re only twelve years old after all and can’t escape your juvenile nature.”
Xie Jinglan said dully, “If this can be tolerated, what cannot?”
Dai Shengyan sighed deeply and pondered for a while before saying, “Jinglan, do you wish to leave home and come with this old man to brave the wind and dew, making the four seas our home?”
Xie Jinglan looked up abruptly, looking at the old man in front of him in disbelief.
He had known long ago that Dai Shengyan’s personality was undisciplined, and he had always stayed in one place and then gotten tired of that place, so it was impossible for him to be willing to stay in Jinling and spend his remaining years in comfort. He had originally thought that Dai Shengyan simply cherished talents somewhat, so he had been willing to give him some advice during his stay in Jinling and give him the good name of “Dai Shengyan’s last disciple,” making his life a little better.
He hadn’t expected that… Dai Shengyan was actually willing to bring him along.
“If you don’t mind, I’m willing to follow the example of Zilu and Yan Hui 1, and travel on horseback with you!”
“Hahaha, I don’t have money or power, so it’s fine if you don’t mind suffering.”
“To be like a wild crane or a floating cloud, hidden in the mountains and plains, how can these worldly things compare?”
The tip of Dai Shengyan’s beard that was curved up quivered imperceptibly. “I’m ashamed, I abandon worldly customs yet the worldly customs still know me, so this cannot be considered seclusion. It is merely enjoying the scenic landscape and abandoning one’s work to do other things.” With this, he looked up and glanced at the little disciple that was sitting upright by his side, cleared his throat, and said, “Jinglan, today, as your teacher, I will not be teaching and will only be discussing.”
Xie Jinglan said respectfully, “Please go ahead.”
“May I ask what the words of the sages are?”
This question stumped Xie Jinglan.
This question was so big it was practically boundless. Words of sages, the Four Books and Five Classics, added together was how many words? Could it be that he wanted him to recite all of it?
Xie Jinglan thought for a while and said tentatively, “Ethics of human relations 2?”
“Oh? Why are the noisy colloquialisms of villagers not the words of sages? Wanting to eat when one is hungry, wanting to put on more clothes when one is cold, are these not ethics of human relations?”
Xie Jinglan said, “Everyone knows these principles, sages cannot say these.”
“Anyone can say broad principles. In the world, there are no words of sages.” Dai Shengyan said amiably, “That being the case, sages can do what cannot be done, bear what cannot be beared, and tolerate what cannot be tolerated, Jinglan.”
Dai Shengyan’s words were meaningful, and his eyes with drooping eyelids looked unblinkingly at this little disciple of his, who was deep in thought. Xie Jinglan looked down, gazing at the complicated texture on the edge of the table.
“As your teacher, bringing you away is firstly to broaden your horizons and focus on your studies, and secondly so that when time has passed, you will look back on the past and know that there is nothing you cannot let go of. If you get to my age, even if you wanted to take it to heart, you won’t have that strength anymore. The sky is high and the clouds are vast, why must you restrain yourself to a small house and courtyard?”
But, after all, he hadn’t gotten to Dai Shengyan’s age yet.
The age of twelve was precisely the most vigorous and impetuous time. Although he was steadier than ordinary people, he couldn’t escape the bothers in his mind. Gentleness, modesty, and courtesy were the exquisite exterior he had made using his utmost effort. That large amount of resentment that had accumulated from small amounts couldn’t be declared out loud, nor could it be expressed, so he had heaped all of it at the bottom of his heart, where it would someday grow into a powerful demon.
Being patient for a moment indeed made one an outstanding figure, but what if he, Xie Jinglan, was willing to become this narrow-minded villain?
“You treat me very well, and I don’t want to lie to you.” Xie Jinglan looked down and said, “I am narrow-minded, and I seek grievances for the smallest matters. If you do not like such a Jinglan, then it’s okay if you do not bring me along.”
Dai Shengyan shook his head helplessly. “You child, you really are difficult. If you are like this, then I really do have to take you with me. Without me taming you, I’m afraid these three characters ‘Xie Jinglan’ would go into the ‘Record of Sycophantic Officials.’”
“You worry too much, I won’t wreck the country and bring ruin to the people.” Xie Jinglan laughed in spite of himself, saluted with clasped hands, and said, “However, since you are willing to take me in, thank you for your trouble.”
Xie Jinglan brought this news back to Qiuwu Courtyard, and everyone was bursting with joy. Xiahou Lian was leaning against the door, also smiling faintly, his eyes containing glimmering light. When Xie Jinglan saw him, the joy in his heart instantly faded, as he suddenly remembered that Xiahou Lian couldn’t leave with him, since Xiahou Lian had to stay in Jinling and wait for his mother.
In other words, the day Dai Shengyan set off on his journey was when the two of them were to part.
“Young Master, you have to study well. In the future when you become a high-ranking official, don’t forget about me, I’ll be relying on you when the time comes!” Xiahou Lian smiled.
Xie Jinglan agreed softly and asked, “When you return to the mountain, will you have the opportunity to leave the mountain?”
Xiahou Lian scratched his head. “If I carry on my mother’s mantle, then I definitely have to leave the mountain.”
“If you don’t do this business, you don’t have any way of leaving?”
Xiahou Lian was silent for a while before saying, “Yes, I would become a mountain farmer and stay on the mountain for a lifetime, planting rice and flowers and whatnot.”
In order to guard the mountain temple, Garan didn’t allow people outside their assassins to enter the mountain. People who accidentally trespassed on that mountain never left alive. Others all thought that it was because the mountain was too big, so they had lost their way in the mountain and gotten eaten by jackals, tigers, leopards, or whatnot. No one knew that the most ferocious jackals in this mountain were Garan assassins. Correspondingly, if the people of the mountain temple didn’t become assassins, they also couldn’t leave the mountain. The assassins’ offspring either became new assassins, or they became prisoners of the forest.
Xiahou Lian was to make this choice soon. Before, for freedom, his belief in becoming an assassin had been very firm. But now, he had suddenly understood that this act of killing wasn’t as easy as he had imagined. He recalled the chamberlain’s corpse that had cooled slowly, and he recalled his shoulder that had been caught by the hooked claw, the fear as if Yama 3 was strangling him. Assassins traveled together with death, and he wasn’t strong enough yet to not fear life or death.
“Where is the mountain, wait for me, I’ll save you,” said Xie Jinglan.
Xiahou Lian shook his head with a bitter smile. “I can’t say.”
Xie Jinglan said, “That’s okay, I’ll find out.”
“I should carry on my mother’s mantle.” Xiahou Lian winked at Xie Jinglan and said, “In time, if you really have the ability to challenge us, I’ll go with you. When the time comes, I hope that Official Xie will bestow on me a bowl of rice to eat. I, Xiahou Lian, don’t have ink in my belly, but fortunately my martial arts is passable. I’ll be your gatekeeper and guard your home for you.”
“All right. Every month, I’ll give you two taels of silver, enough for you to eat and drink and enough for accommodations, but not enough for a wife.”
“Hahaha, how generous.”
The two youths looked at each other and smiled, their eyes filled with shining starlight.
Outside, the lanterns had been hung up, and Xie Jinglan and Xiahou Lian came out of the study. Xiahou Lian went to the kitchen to get food to eat, and Xie Jinglan drew the curtains and turned, going into the main room. Aunt Lan had already set the meal, and she greeted Xie Jinglan, telling him to sit down.
Xie Jinglan looked around and saw that all of the servants were present, though Lian Xiang was missing. He asked, “Where’s Lian Xiang?”
Aunt Lan said, “I don’t know, I haven’t seen her since this afternoon. I reckon she went to find girls from another courtyard to play with, she should be back in a bit.”
Xie Jinglan nodded and didn’t think too much of it.
Xiahou Lian was squatting under the eaves and quickly finished shoveling the food into his mouth. He put the bowl and chopsticks back in the kitchen and had just lifted the curtains when he bumped head-on into Lian Xiang.
“Xiahou Lian, do you not have eyes?” Lian Xiang rubbed her head and said angrily.
“Is your head made of iron? It hurts so much to bump into you.” Xiahou Lian curled his lip. He looked up and saw the pouch in her hands, asking, “Eh, isn’t this the pouch I use to keep itchy flowers 4 in? How come it’s with you? Nice going, stealing my stuff!”
“Bah, who stole from you, it’s just your lousy pouch, it’s not like I want it!” Lian Xiang rolled her eyes and threw the pouch at Xiahou Lian.
Xiahou Lian was baffled and opened the pouch to see that the itchy flowers inside were already gone.
He usually picked itchy flowers in the manor. The flower looked very pretty, and its body was pink, the tips a little purple. It was just that one couldn’t touch it casually, since touching it slightly would cause a red rash that was terribly itchy. Xiahou Lian had the hobby of collecting strange things, and itchy flowers were one of the objects of his collections.
Lian Xiang must have taken his itchy flowers to play tricks on people. Xiahou Lian decided to check his bedding well. The two of them were naturally incompatible, so maybe this imp wanted to play a trick on him.
Dai Shengyan had found Xie Bingfeng to discuss the matter of Xie Jinglan leaving with him. As expected, Xie Bingfeng was anxious to be far away from Xie Jinglan, and it was best if he never came back. This matter was settled between the two willing parties just like that, and Dai Shengyan told Xie Jinglan that they would set off as soon as the weather warmed. If everything went well, then their next stop would be in the North 5.
Besides learning every morning, Xie Jinglan stayed in the library. As usual, after Xiahou Lian finished washing clothes, he would go to accompany Xie Jinglan and serve him. After what had happened last time, in addition to Xie Jinglan leaving soon, Xiahou Lian didn’t run off anymore and obediently followed Xie Jinglan, not going anywhere.
Today, he was picking flowers from the flowerbed, overcome with boredom, when Aunt Lan ran into the library, stumbling, and shouted, “Not good! Not good!”
“What happened!” Xiahou Lian held Aunt Lan up and asked. Xie Jinglan also walked over.
“Lian Xiang… Lian Xiang…”
“What’s wrong with Lian Xiang?” asked Xie Jinglan.
“Lian Xiang… The madam said that Lian Xiang poisoned her, and she wants to… to kill her. Young Master, hurry to the main courtyard, Lian Xiang has already been dragged there!”
Xiahou Lian and Xie Jinglan glanced at each other and quickly ran toward the main courtyard, hoping that the people in the main courtyard would act slowly.
The way suddenly became very, very long, Xie Manor unusually big, and the winding corridors in twists and turns, as if stopping them from getting to the main courtyard quickly. Rockeries and rocks lay across the middle, blocking the way, and the gardens and landscapes that had been elegant in the past were all detestable in this moment.
The setting sun glowed red as it hung in the sky, and the horizon seemed to have been burned by fire, a shocking crimson. An occasional bird flew toward the iridescent clouds, seemingly plunging headfirst into the boundless fires of hell.
The two of them were panting as they ran to the doorway of the main courtyard. Two servants carrying a corpse whose face had been covered up walked out of the threshold.
When they turned, the corpse’s hand was revealed from underneath the bed sheet. It was a hand that had been taken very good care of, white and with fingers slender like a cut scallion, and didn’t have a single hangnail. When Xiahou Lian saw that hand, he fell apart, tears streaming out of his eyes as he rushed up, wanting to grasp that hand.
Lian Xiang had always treasured her hands and wouldn’t wash clothes or dishes, only doing needlework. She had said that her hands needed to help Xie Jinglan make knots and embroider patterns, so they couldn’t be spoiled. Every day in the early morning, she would use balm to wipe her hands, and every few days, she would cut her nails. At this moment, this kind of treasured hand had wood chips between its fingers, pinched out from when she had been beaten on the wooden bench.
Xiahou Lian recalled her delicateness and insolence, and then recalled the day she had snuck to the woodshed to bring him steamed buns and water. Her cute smiling face was still vivid in his mind’s eye, but in the blink of an eye, she was already cold.
A few servants rushed over and held Xiahou Lian, pressing him onto the ground. Xiahou Lian struggled strenuously and looked on helplessly as Lian Xiang was carried away.
Mrs. Xiao was wearing a face covering and standing on the steps, her gaze indifferent as she looked at Xie Jinglan and Xiahou Lian. The face covering was made of translucent tulle, and they could faintly see that there were a few red spots on her face.
“This girl poisoned me, so I told Chamberlain Liu to punish her. Xie Jinglan, what can you do?” Mrs. Xiao and Xie Jinglan looked at each other from a distance through the doorway.
Chamberlain Liu? Where did Chamberlain Liu come from, hadn’t he already been raped and killed by Qiu-dage? Xiahou Lian turned in confusion and looked at the person in the courtyard that should have been dead a long time ago. He had a familiar smile on his face——that smile belonged to Qiu Ye.
A wave of terror filled his chest, and frost hairs seemed to grow little by little along his back.
In the place a Garan assassin passed through, there was bound to be enough bloodshed to form rivers. He recalled the transaction between Qiu Ye and the Eastern Depot underling that day. Qiu Ye had disguised himself as Chamberlain Liu; had he come to kill Xie Bingfeng?
“How could I dare to do anything? We just came to see an old servant off, are you not even going to give us this bit of kindness?” Xie Jinglan pushed the servants away and pulled Xiahou Lian up.
“Who knows whether or not you’re the one who instigated this girl to poison me!”
“Oh, so what if I did? Are you going to kill me as well?” Xie Jinglan said coldly.
Xie Jinglan turned toward Xiahou Lian and said, “Go back first to accompany Aunt, I’ll send Lian Xiang off.”
There was a deep sorrow hidden in the eyes of both of them. Xiahou Lian held Xie Jinglan’s wrist and said, “Young Master.”
Xie Jinglan shook his head and said in a low voice, “I’m fine.”
Xiahou Lian nodded and glanced at Qiu Ye. Qiu Ye saluted to Mrs. Xiao with clasped hands and followed him out at a distance.
When Xiahou Lian walked to the garden, Qiu Ye had caught up.
“Qiu-dage, why are you disguised as…”
Qiu Ye held his index finger against Xiahou Lian’s mouth. “Sh, don’t ask questions.”
Xiahou Lian turned to leave. Qiu Ye helplessly stopped him and said, “That girl isn’t dead.”
Xiahou Lian paused and said, “What did you say?”
Qiu Ye winked and said, “I know that she’s your playmate, so I left a breath in her, though I don’t know if she’ll still be able to walk the same.”
Xiahou Lian was extremely moved. “Qiu-dage, thank you!”
“Xiao Lian, do you still want to become an assassin?” Qiu Ye said as he touched the top of Xiahou Lian’s head.
“Actually, there’s nothing wrong with staying on the mountain, it’s just a little smaller, but this world isn’t necessarily not a huge prison.”
“Qiu-dage, why don’t any of you want me to become an assassin? Uncle Duan is like this, and you’re also like this. Am I really not suited for it?”
“You have to ask yourself whether you’re suited for it or not, how would I know?” Qiu Ye smiled and pushed Xiahou Lian, saying, “Okay, hurry back and pack your luggage, your uncle’s here to pick you up.”
Xiahou Lian was dumbfounded. “What? So fast!”
- Two well-known disciples of Confucius.
- Specifically refers to the Three Fundamental Bonds and Five Constant Virtues, Confucian terms for the most important human relations (i.e. loyalty between ruler and subject, filial piety between father and son, and female devotion between husband and son) and social virtues (i.e. benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and trustworthiness).
- The deity of death and ruler of the underworld in Chinese religion and Buddhism. This is referenced many times throughout the novel and is more important later on, so it is important to know.
- Not an actual plant.
- Specifically north of the Great Wall of China.