Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
The courtyard was deep, and moonlight scattered all over the yard.
Under a solitary light, Xie Jinglan closed an eight-legged essay selection that was newly released, closed his sore eyes, and called, “Xiahou Lian, pour tea.”
Only when he said this out loud did he realize that Xiahou Lian had already gone back home. The wind soughed throughout the courtyard, and a few dog barks sounded from far away. The scenery was still the same, but it was just that Xiahou Lian’s noisiness was missing. Clearly, only one person was missing, yet he felt as if the entire courtyard was empty, and that the entire Xie Manor was no longer lively.
Xie Bingfeng now completely ignored him. Mrs. Xiao’s rash had just healed, so she was still inside recuperating and didn’t have time to bother him. He finally had a relaxing life again, and he still went to Dai Shengyan’s house everyday to learn. When he returned home, he would sit in the library until late at night. Aunt Lan was old, so there was no way for her to stay up with him. He also wasn’t used to being served by others, so he would stay close to a lantern light and a scroll by himself, not even knowing when the tea got cold.
He picked the brush up, planning to practice his penmanship. The brush lowered to the paper and unconsciously formed the character “Lian.” He recalled Xiahou Lian’s unsightly penmanship and wondered if that guy would still practice his penmanship when he returned to the mountain.
He was very sleepy, so he tidied the brushes and ink, extinguished the light, and walked out. The night was cool, and the dog barks had gotten a little closer, barking very loudly a few times and then stopping abruptly. Xie Jinglan was a little worried that the dogs outside might dart into the manor, and he held a lantern as he carefully walked on the dark path.
There seemed to be a commotion like boiling water in a courtyard. Xie Jinglan craned his head and listened carefully, hearing a racket that sounded like an argument faintly reach his ears. Matters outside of Qiuwu Courtyard had always had nothing to do with him, so he didn’t think too much of it and continued walking forward. Suddenly, a hand reached out from behind him and covered his mouth. The lantern fell to the ground with a “crack,” and he was forcibly dragged into a pitch-black room.
He mustered up all of his strength to resist, and the other person rigidly endured a few punches, saying angrily, “Stop hitting, stop hitting! It’s me!”
“Xiahou Lian!” Xie Jinglan stopped his movements in surprise and looked at the figure near him in the darkness. “Why are you here?”
He finally adjusted to the room’s darkness, and only then did he discover that Xiahou Lian was wearing a white mask on his face and dressed in black, which outlined the thin muscles on his body. An ominous foreboding arose in Xie Jinglan’s heart.
Xiahou Lian peeled off his clothes like he was crazy and said, “Take off your clothes, quick.”
“What are you doing! Exactly what do you want to do!” Xie Jinglan looked at Xiahou Lian, dumbstruck. “Say it clearly!”
“We’re running out of time!” Seeing that he wasn’t moving, Xiahou Lian began to peel off his clothes and was met with fierce resistance from him. “Garan is going to exterminate your entire clan, if you don’t leave now, it’ll be too late!”
A clap of thunder seemed to fall on his head. Xie Jinglan seized Xiahou Lian’s collar and said in disbelief, “What did you say?!”
As if to confirm Xiahou Lian’s words, rapid footsteps sounded from the doorway. Xiahou Lian covered Xie Jinglan’s mouth, and the two of them squatted next to the door, terror-stricken. Outside the door, someone was crying helplessly and begging for mercy. Their voice was very familiar, and they seemed to be a servant from a courtyard. The piercing cold light of a saber flashed by, and a scream sounded shrilly. In an instant, the paper pasted to the door was splattered with black drops of blood, like a bunch of crooked plum blossoms. Xie Jinglan’s pupils suddenly contracted.
The assassin outside the door didn’t detect the two people inside the room. They left, carrying their saber. Xie Jinglan turned his head and grabbed Xiahou Lian’s shoulder as he asked, “Didn’t you say that your target was Xie Bingfeng? Why are you going to exterminate the entire clan! Why!”
“I…” Xiahou Lian’s lips trembled, and he took a moment before saying, “Your father, he…”
“Wait, Aunt Lan is still in Qiuwu Courtyard, I’m going to save Aunt!” Xie Jinglan seemed to come to a realization, and he stumbled as he got up from the ground and went to open the door, but Xiahou Lian hugged his waist.
“Don’t go, it’s too late! Qiuwu Courtyard is close to the small side door, the assassins came in from there! If it weren’t for the library being so far away, I wouldn’t have been able to make it ahead of them to come and save you!”
The distant wailing became more and more clearly audible, and the paper on the window reflected the shadowy figures of people running. Xie Jinglan angrily pushed Xiahou Lian and said, “No, I’m going to save her! Xiahou Lian, you bastard! Let go of me!” Xiahou Lian still held onto him and didn’t let go. Xie Jinglan grabbed Xiahou Lian’s collar and punched him in the face. Xiahou Lian fell backward on the ground from the hit, and his face instantly bruised.
Xie Jinglan turned and ran. Xiahou Lian caught up to him from behind and pulled his collar, pressing him against the wall. He roared, “Xie Jinglan! Calm down! Going would be seeking your death, do you hear me?”
“Let go of me! Xiahou Lian, are you just going to leave her there?!”
Xiahou Lian looked at him with red eyes and said, “Do you fucking think I want Aunt to die?! I can only save you! Only you!” His hands seemed to be embedded in Xie Jinglan’s shoulders. “Do you know how many assassins came today! Exactly twenty! The main door and back door are both guarded by assassins, no one can escape. Qiuwu Courtyard is closest to the back door, Aunt Lan is already dead!”
Xie Jinglan’s mind was blank, and everything seemed to be like he was dreaming. He was clearly still poring over books under the light of a candle and clearly still holding a lantern, about to go back and sleep. Why had Xiahou Lian suddenly appeared? Why had the assassins suddenly appeared?
Could he still be dreaming? Xie Jinglan looked up muddledly and reached out to open the window. Perhaps everything was a dream. Xiahou Lian held his hand, took a deep breath, and said in a low voice, “Young Master, listen to me. Put on my clothes, wear my mask, and go out from here. Don’t look back, don’t be scared, and walk out of the side door. If someone asks you something, ignore them and just get out. Do you hear me?”
Xiahou Lian’s palm was frighteningly hot, and it was like holding a ball of flames. Xie Jinglan felt his trembling and lifted his eyes to look at him. He saw that his head was already covered in sweat, and what was either teardrops or sweat stuck to his eyelashes. Xiahou Lian asked again, “Do you hear me?”
Xie Jinglan shook his head vigorously and said, “I’m going to find the teacher and go to the military chief’s manor to tell them to send troops here!”
“It’s no use!” Xiahou Lian said, “If you go to find Mr. Dai, it’ll only bring disaster to him! As for the army, you won’t be able to request them at all!”
“Because the one who wants you all killed is Wei De, the seal-holding eunuch of the Directorate of Rites 1 Wei De!” Xiahou Lian stared at Xie Jinglan’s eyes and said, “Military Chief Ying Tianfu is his foster son, if you go to him to ask for help, you’ll only be killed to keep your mouth shut!”
Xie Jinglan wriggled his lips, and his mind was a mess. He covered his face and said, “What other way is there, what other way!” The Four Books and Five Classics he read everyday had all become useless, not coming in handy at all. He pulled at his hair painfully and heard the wails, calls for help, and shouts outside mingle together.
A fire had started from somewhere, and the room was dimly lit up by the light of the distant fire. Someone was running desperately and shouting loudly, “Help! There are assassins!” Their voice didn’t continue for long before it stopped abruptly. The person’s body fell down to the ground like a burlap sack, revealing the assassin holding a saber in their two hands behind them. All of the assassins were dressed in black, their silver masks flowing with rippling moonlight. They held long sabers stained with fresh blood, like prowling owls.
“Hurry up and put on my clothes!” Xiahou Lian handed him a short, tattered saber and pulled out a pouch from the fold of his clothes. “I’ll give you this saber to defend yourself. There’s a pair of earrings in the pouch, which can be pawned for some silver, so take it for now. Remember, after you get out, the further you go the better, and don’t tell anyone that your name is Xie Jinglan.”
“Where can I go?” Xie Jinglan looked at Xiahou Lian, his shadowy and heavy eyes without light. “Tell me, where can I go?” He abruptly pounced on Xiahou Lian and clutched his neck, roaring angrily, “Xiahou Lian, did you come up with the idea to exterminate the entire Xie clan when you entered Xie Manor?! You all planned this out a long time ago, right?! What were you doing in Xie Manor? What mother coming to pick you up, what thief, you’re all liars!”
Xiahou Lian pushed Xie Jinglan onto the ground and said, “Yes! I lied to you! I’m not some thief! But the one who caused the extermination of the entire Xie clan wasn’t other people, it was Xie Bingfeng himself! He ordered everyone in the manor to know the memorial to the throne to impeach Wei De by heart, and Wei De’s shame turned into anger, which is why he wants all of your lives!”
Xie Jinglan looked at Xiahou Lian dazedly, his eyes bloodshot. Suddenly, someone seemed to slowly approach the doorway. The two of them were suddenly shocked.
An assassin used their saber to push open the door and slowly walked in, sinisterly prowling the small, pitch-black room. Xiahou Lian and Xie Jinglan hid behind a dustpan and wooden barrel, their two pairs of terrified eyes exposed. The assassin walked between the shelves, using their saber to nudge sundries. They slowly got closer, as if strolling idly in a courtyard. They only needed to turn past the last shelf to arrive in front of the two of them.
Xiahou Lian glanced at Xie Jinglan, put on his mask, and suddenly crawled out. Hearing a sound, the assassin turned suddenly.
“It’s me,” said Xiahou Lian.
“Brat, what are you doing here?” the assassin spoke ominously, their expression malicious.
“Can’t I take a leak?” Xiahou Lian pretended to tidy his clothes.
“Hmph.” The assassin laughed disdainfully. “I’m afraid you were scared out of your wits and hid, not daring to come out.”
Xiahou Lian turned his head away, putting on an ashamed appearance of having been exposed.
“Wimpy coward, hide well, don’t get scared and lose your mother’s face.” The assassin used their scabbard to pat Xiahou Lian’s face and walked out, laughing loudly.
When the assassin was far away, Xie Jinglan crawled out from the back.
Xiahou Lian lowered his head and took off his clothes, saying in a low voice, “Hurry up and change your clothes.”
“Didn’t you say that your mother was powerful and one of the best, that your position was very high, and that others didn’t dare to provoke you?” Xie Jinglan looked at Xiahou Lian and said, “Why did that other person treat you like this?”
Xiahou Lian scratched his head, he seemed to have bragged to Xie Jinglan like this before. Though his brag had been exposed, he didn’t feel embarrassed and merely stuffed his clothes into Xie Jinglan’s arms, saying urgently, “Don’t worry about so much, Young Master, hurry up and change your clothes.”
“What about you, what’s going to happen to you?” Xie Jinglan asked stubbornly. “If you let me go, what’s going to happen to you?”
“I already said not to worry about so much!” Xiahou Lian pulled at his hair fretfully and grabbed Xie Jinglan, peeling off his clothes. “If you stay here, you’re sure to die, and I won’t die, it’s that simple! Quickly change your clothes for me, don’t look back, don’t shake, and don’t speak! Don’t let anyone discover that you’re Xie Jinglan!”
Xie Jinglan looked at him silently for a long time before hanging his head and changing his clothes.
“Young Master, the world outside is not safe, you… take care of yourself.” Xiahou Lian pressed Xie Jinglan’s shoulders and said, “Remember, don’t look back, and don’t speak.” Then, he opened the door and pushed Xie Jinglan out, not even giving him the chance to change his mind, and swiftly closed the door.
The dark night was heavy, and a corpse that was already cold laid at the bottom of the stairs. It stared at Xie Jinglan with big, empty eyes, as if it still had remnants of undispersed hatred. The tree shadows were deep, as if an unknown danger was hiding in every shadow. Xie Jinglan touched the scabbard at his waist, and its iciness stimulated his nerves. He took a step that didn’t know the way forward toward the perilous night.
The spooky path was endlessly long, and to get to the side door, he had to pass through a garden and two courtyards. He did his best to take deserted paths and did his best to ignore screams and wails in his ears that were becoming clearer and clearer. His legs seemed to be filled with lead, and every step took his utmost effort. He finally walked to the garden, and the winding corridors were full of twists and turns, like a neverending labyrinth. The lanterns had been extinguished, and as far as the eye can see, everything was shadowy mountains, trees, and rocks.
At a distance of the shot of an arrow, there was a dry well. An assassin dropped down from a tree and looked toward the mouth of the well. A cry of horror immediately came from inside the well. The assassin raised their right hand, three sleeve arrows shot into the mouth of the well, and there was instantly no more sound from the dark well. Xie Jinglan shivered imperceptibly and plucked up the courage to continue walking forward with a steady gaze.
Out of his peripheral view, he saw the assassin turn and stare at him, the light of their saber that was silver like water spinning on their fingertips. He forced himself not to look at the assassin and steadily walked forward, step by step.
When he stepped past a doorway, he suddenly heard a familiar cry.
“Young Master! Third Young Master! Where are you!”
He suddenly lifted his eyes. Aunt Lan stumbled as she crawled on the steps, her body covered in blood. He wanted to run over, but when Aunt Lan saw his mask and black clothes, she started screaming in fright and turned to run the other way. He reached out, wanting to stop Aunt Lan, but at this moment, an arrow carrying the momentum of slicing wind whizzed past his ear.
In that instant, his mind seemed to have been stuck by something, and his thoughts and movements became very, very slow. He watched dazedly as the arrow passed before his eyes, the patterns on the arrow turning brightly.
The arrow penetrated the center of Aunt Lan’s back extremely, extremely slowly, and a red circle spread on her back like small ripples. Aunt Lan screamed and fell to the ground, never getting up again.
“Is this side all cleaned up?”
“Yes, let’s go to Lao Duan’s 2 side to take a look.”
The assassins sprinted past him, bumping into his shoulder. Xie Jinglan was like a puppet that couldn’t feel anything, and he stood where he was, stupefied. Black blood flowed under Aunt Lan’s body, blooming in circles like ink marks on rice paper. In his peripheral view, the assassin who was spinning their silver blade on their fingertips appeared again. He was standing under the tree shadow and watching Xie Jinglan silently.
“Xiahou Lian,” they spoke, their voice flowing like a clear spring, “what are you doing?”
Fear grew like frost hairs in his heart, and his body trembled slightly and irrepressibly.
Don’t look back. Don’t shake. Don’t be scared.
Xie Jinglan clenched his fists and took a heavy step past Aunt Lan’s corpse. The strong smell of blood came overwhelmingly, making him want to throw up. He gritted his teeth and walked in front of Aunt Lan’s corpse. Underneath his mask, tears streamed out of his eyes, dripping down from his chin the instant he turned the corner.
He was here. He was here. He saw the door. Xie Jinglan resisted the urge to sprint and walked forward step by step, pushing open the unlatched door. An assassin was playing hopscotch in the alley, their long saber leaning against the wall.
When they saw Xie Jinglan, they stopped. That gaze was like a block of ice, and Xie Jinglan turned stiffly, walking toward the other end of the alley.
One step, one step, one more step. He would be at the corner soon, he would leave that assassin’s field of vision soon.
“Hey, where are you going?” the assassin suddenly asked from behind him.
Xie Jinglan froze.
“The temple block hasn’t sounded yet. According to the rules, you can’t leave.”
“Hey, are you mute?”
How should he reply? No, he couldn’t speak, his voice would reveal his identity. Xie Jinglan thought wildly, What to do, what to do, what to do, yet he was at a loss.
“Let him go back, it’s his first time following us out, he should be frightened.” Another voice suddenly emerged. Xie Jinglan turned and saw the assassin who was holding the silver blade.
Under the moonlight, their gaze was as gentle as water.
“Tch, coward,” scoffed the assassin who had been playing hopscotch.
Xie Jinglan held the wall, turned the corner, walked a few steps, and then broke into a sprint. Xie Manor became further and further away from him, yet the nightmare of blood and fire followed him like a shadow. Aunt Lan’s corpse that was covered in blood seemed to be right in front of his eyes, and Aunt Lan’s ruined body was there whether he opened or closed his eyes.
Before, he had clearly been crying and shouting to go save Aunt Lan, yet when he had faced the assassin, he had been scared out of his wits. He was a coward, he was a coward! A stone tripped his feet, and he fell heavily to the ground, his face and hands getting scraped with wounds. He laid on the ground and pounded the ground forcibly with his fists until they dripped with blood, and the dirty ground was covered in bloodstains.
His hands were sore from the pounding, so he sat up and sat, leaning against a wall. The streets were empty, and the lanterns hanging under the eaves were like will-o’-the-wisps that floated in the air.
He suddenly realized that already didn’t have a home to return to, much less anywhere to go. He had never left Xie Manor before, and a small Jinling City was the entire world to him. Where should he go now? Who should he go to for shelter? Mr. Dai? No, he was too close, so finding him would bring him trouble. What relatives did he have left? None, he didn’t have a maternal family he could rely on, much less did he know if he had any distant relatives. He was like a fledgling that had lost its home, panicked and at a loss in the frosty wind.
Right, Wei De, that bastard, it had been him who had instructed Garan of Seven Leaves to exterminate the entire Xie clan. He suddenly had a direction, as if he had grabbed onto a piece of deadwood while floating in the sea, and once he grabbed on, he couldn’t let go. He wanted revenge, and whether it was Wei De or Garan of Seven Leaves, he wanted them to die a graveless death!
Xie Jinglan got up from the ground and staggered toward the endlessly long night. He knew that Xie Manor’s Little Young Master Xie Jinglan had already died this late night. From this day onwards, he would continue living, as a ghost.
- The Directorate of Rites actually doesn’t have anything to do with rites; it’s a powerful inner court that manages eunuch and palace affairs. It’s one of the Twelve Directorates of the Ming Dynasty, and along with the Four Offices and Eight Divisions, constitutes the Twenty-Four Yamens, or Twenty-Four Court Institutions. The seal-holding eunuch of the Directorate of Rites holds the most power out of all twelve directorates, and he’s responsible for completing the final review and stamping the seal on the emperor’s instructions and orders.
- Lit. Old Duan. Refers to Uncle Duan.