Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Xie Jinglan already couldn’t count how many roads he had walked.
The black clothes on his body were dirty and disheveled, and they were already covered with dust and stains. His hair was as messy as a henhouse, and he hadn’t washed his face in several days, gray marks intersecting on it. His throat was so dry it was smoky, as if there was a rusty sheet of iron stuck in its center. He couldn’t cough it out or swallow it down, and his saliva had a bloody taste. Even more tormenting was the hunger. His belly was empty, he was so hungry his stomach hurt, his head was dizzy, and the world seemed to be spinning around.
Before he had left Jinling, he had originally wanted to pawn the earrings in exchange for traveling expenses. However, he hadn’t expected the shopkeeper to frame him for stealing someone else’s earrings, and not only did he take the earrings, he also ordered his servant to beat him up. He had run out, flustered, and discovered that the short saber had also fallen in the shop.
He had been hungry for very long, so hungry that he would pick up the swill that chefs carried out of restaurants to eat. However, restaurants would rather feed the swill to pigs than to beggars, so they frequently sent people to hold a broom and come out to drive him away.
A few days ago, he had seen a child squatting in front of the door of his house, eating a sugar pancake. He was only five or six years old, and he was eating the sugar pancake as he watched the passersby coming and going on the street. Xie Jinglan stood behind a wall, hungrily looking at that sugar pancake that was being held by those tiny hands, as if it was the last sugar pancake in the world. There was a celestial war in his heart, hunger urging him to grab the sugar pancake, and reason telling him that it was shameful to rob a child.
When there was one last bit left of the sugar pancake, he finally couldn’t stand it anymore. He swiftly flitted past before the child’s eyes and snatched the piece of small pancake covered in sugar powder. The child squatted where he was blankly, his hands still maintaining the position of holding the sugar pancake. By the time he reacted, Xie Jinglan was already long gone, and he burst into tears, stumbling back into his house to cry and complain.
Xie Jinglan had squatted in an alley not far away, swallowing the bite of the sugar pancake along with his tears. Ever since then, he had patrolled the streets and alleys and aimed for food in fragile children’s hands like a stray dog searching for bones. Although he was sometimes inevitably caught by adults and given a beating, it was barely enough to fill his stomach.
Later, he didn’t know how long he had been walking for, much less where he had walked to. The country fields were dry and cracked, like the dry skin of an old person, and all around were starving refugees. Some had their families with them, and some walked alone. He couldn’t even rob food anymore, since everyone was in abject poverty.
Sometimes, he would see skinny children with scarily big stomachs because they had eaten Guanyin soil 1, causing their stomachs to distend, and they would lie on the ground with pale lips, waiting to die. Later, he no longer saw children and old people on the road anymore. Xie Jinglan was very scared that he would be caught and eaten, so he specially chose remote and uninhabited trails to walk on. When he was hungry, he would eat some weeds to barely satisfy his hunger.
Water and food occupied his entire mind. He was already too occupied to hate Wei De and miss the time before, and too occupied to care about whether or not Garan of Seven Leaves would find him one night, shrinking in a corner and sleeping. He only thought about filling his stomach, and apart from this, he couldn’t think about anything else.
However, he was still wearing the black clothes Xiahou Lian had given him, and he carried the mask in the fold of his clothes. He didn’t dare to take it out, since he was scared that other people would see it and snatch it away.
Later, he recalled that Xiahou Lian had once said that if he placed the copper coin at the highest spot in the city, then he could see him again. Thus, Xie Jinglan climbed up the bell tower, the blazing sunlight shining so that he couldn’t open his eyes. Every step he took was like stepping on cotton, and he used his hands and feet together to climb up. He placed the mask next to the big bell. The pigeons in front of the bell were startled and flapped their wings as they scattered in all directions and flew away.
Perhaps when Xiahou Lian comes, I’ll already have died of hunger, Xie Jinglan thought dazedly as he leaned against a wall.
Sweet water flowed through his mouth and into his throat. He was abruptly wide awake and took the canteen, pouring it into his mouth. A steamed bun was sent before his eyes, and Xie Jinglan snatched the steamed bun, wolfing it down.
“Slow down, slow down, don’t choke yourself.” The man smiled as he stroked his back.
Xie Jinglan looked up. The man in front of him looked like a scholar, and his eyes seemed to naturally have a smile in them, as gentle as water.
He swallowed the steamed bun in his mouth and said hoarsely, “I recognize you.”
“That night in Xie Manor, it was you who let me go.” As he recalled the Asura killing field 2 from that night, Xie Jinglan’s eyes became a little red.
“I’ve actually been found out by you.” Qiu Ye laughed lightly. “Although your body shape is very similar to Xiao Lian’s, your walking posture and gaze when looking at people are completely different. I often disguise myself as other people, and this little trick of yours can passably deceive those assassins, but it’s not enough to deceive me.”
“Although you let me go, you’re also a killer who exterminated my clan, so I won’t thank you.”
“I don’t expect your thanks.”
“What about Xiahou Lian, why didn’t he come?”
Qiu Ye’s eyes darkened, and he didn’t reply. “You shouldn’t put the mask here, if someone from Garan saw it, you’d be dead. It’s fortunate that the person who came was me, otherwise Xiao Lian’s painstaking efforts would’ve been in vain.”
“What’s the difference between starving to death and being killed by you?”
Qiu Ye placed an ingot of silver in his palm and said, “Take good care of your life, Xiao Lian exchanged his own life for yours, so you shouldn’t let him down.”
Xie Jinglan was suddenly taken aback. “Xiahou Lian, what… happened to him? Didn’t he say that he wouldn’t die?”
Qiu Ye’s expression became a little sad. He gazed southward and said, “He violated the Garan’s temple regulations by helping you escape assassination, so he was punished with eighty-one whips from the abbot. When I came out, he was still lying in bed, unconscious. I don’t know how he is right now. No news is the best news, and Xiao Lian’s always been firm and determined, so he’ll definitely be fine.”
“What about the Garuda? Isn’t he the Garuda’s son? Why didn’t the Garuda save him?!”
“The temple regulations are very strict, even the Garuda can’t defy them.” Qiu Ye looked at Xie Jinglan, and his gaze became a lot more profound. “Sure enough, Xiao Lian treats you differently, he even told you that the Garuda is his mother.”
Xie Jinglan turned his head away. “He didn’t tell me, I guessed it myself.”
Qiu Ye sighed and said, “Today is the last time we meet, don’t come looking for Xiao Lian anymore. You’re a registered prey of Garan, so the assassins will search for traces of you like hounds. Go to the capital, there are a lot of nobles there, you can go hungry anywhere but you can’t go hungry in the capital. You might even be able to run into a noble from inside the palace who has set up a congee tent to give out free congee.”
Xie Jinglan was a little stunned.
Would he never be able to see Xiahou Lian again?
“Little Young Master, we won’t meet again. I wish you good luck.” Qiu Ye stepped onto the city wall and smiled slightly at Xie Jinglan. His body slowly fell down, his inky hair flying in the wind like silk.
When Xie Jinglan poked his head over to look around, Qiu Ye had already escaped in the wind like a falling leaf, without a trace.
After that, Xie Jinglan listened to Qiu Ye’s words and followed the tide of refugees toward the capital. Everyone’s faces were indifferent and covered in dust. Their eyes and lips had lost their color, like clay dolls, and also like walking corpses. Their shoes were worn out, revealing dirty toes. Fortunately, it was hot, so it wasn’t cold for their toes to be exposed.
After three days of being turned away from the city gates, Xie Jinglan snuck into the capital while a group of refugees were making trouble. The corner of the city was already full of sleeping people, their clothes tattered, and limbs so skinny they were like sticks of bone. There were soldiers picking through the pile of people, picking out the dead people, and putting them on carriages to be transported to mass graves.
Xie Jinglan didn’t look more and blankly walked toward the direction of the imperial palace. The sky gradually darkened, and the lanterns along the streets were hung up one by one, shining all over the streets so they were as bright as day. Luxurious, decorated carriages crowded the streets and alleys, and fireworks bloomed in the sky, one after another. The deafening sound that came from the horizon gradually became smaller, like it was a sound from another world.
It turned out to be the Mid-Autumn Festival.
There were no fluctuations in Xie Jinglan’s heart. He only squeezed into the crowd silently and indifferently stole someone’s pouch. The crowd suddenly separated as if expelled by something, and everyone stood to two sides. A carriage drawn by four horses rattled over from the street corner, its wheels flattening out two parallel ruts. Behind the carriage, two lines of Eastern Depot underlings were riding on tall horses. They had black clothes and black sabers, the embroidery on their chests with bared fangs and brandished claws, and all of them were impassive, like evil Asura spirits in the night.
Someone in the crowd whispered, “How imposing, Eunuch Wei is getting more and more prosperous! A mere eunuch can already be powerful to this degree, I really don’t know what the use of serious studying is in this time.”
“Do you want to die? Careful an underling hears, watch your life!”
“Ah, I heard that tomorrow afternoon, outside Dong’an Gate 3, a eunuch in the palace is going to come out and take people into the palace to work. Say, let’s go and give it a try, and in the future, we might even be able to become the governor of the Eastern Depot.”
“This is a matter of dying without descendants. You can go by yourself, I won’t join in on this.”
Suddenly, a beggar with tattered clothes rushed out of the crowd, waving a string of firecrackers in his hand. He ran toward Wei De’s carriage and roared loudly, “Eunuch Wei, Shandong’s six prefectures have bodies of the starved everywhere, yet you’re here enjoying times of peace!” The firecrackers crackled, brilliant sparks bursting out, and the person threw the firecrackers toward Wei De’s carriage. Right when they were about to startle the horses, an underling caught the firecrackers midair and threw them far away.
Immediately, another underling dismounted his horse and seized the beggar. The beggar struggled vigorously and shouted, “Wei De is wrecking the country and bringing ruin to the people. Shandong’s six prefectures are practically about to die out, God, open your eyes!” The underling cursed inwardly, took off the beggar’s chin, and twisted his hands and feet, breaking them. Only then did the beggar collapse on the underling’s hands like a burlap sack, only staring with red eyes.
A hand wearing Canaan Buddha beads reached out from inside the carriage curtains and gestured vaguely.
When the underling saw the gesture, he sliced horizontally with his saber. The beggar’s throat instantly gushed blood in torrents, his body spasmed a few times, and he went silent.
The beggar was moved away by the underling, and the carriage slowly left. The crowd aggregated again, and a hubbub of voices began again. Peddlers and servants repeatedly hawked their own things, and rattle drums rumbled nonstop.
In this world, a person being killed was like a grain of sand being carried away by a wave, leaving no trace, and no one cared.
Wei De, it turned out that the person inside that carriage had been Wei De? Xie Jinglan looked at the carriage that was disappearing around the street corner, and he slowly clenched his fists tightly.
If there was a day when he, Xie Jinglan, would hold a lot of power, could he also wield life or death like this and regard human lives as weeds! Could he also, with one person’s anger, take the lives of a hundred people and exterminate an entire clan? Wei De was below one person and above tens of thousands of people, so he would be second to none and above tens of thousands of people! From here on, anyone who bullied him, hurt him, and betrayed him would die without their souls and with their bones scattered, nobles would bow to him, and the emperor’s descendants would bow their heads to him.
He looked up, his eyes like bottomless, completely dark abysses, and a demon at the bottom of his heart slowly opened its eyes.
The moon set and the sun rose, the shops all opened their doors, and owners of noodle stalls turned flour into dough. Xie Jinglan made a mark under an old pagoda tree in an alley and buried Xiahou Lian’s mask under the tree. After doing everything, he stood up, adjusted his clothes by looking at his shadow, and turned out of the alley. There was already a long line outside Dong’an Gate.
Some people had castrated themselves, and there was still a pool of blood on the front of their robes, their footsteps weak as they walked forward with the line. Some people were too old, and they were kicked out of the line. They rolled on the ground, crying and shouting about wanting to enter the palace as a eunuch. It was finally Xie Jinglan’s turn. The eunuch who was writing looked up and glanced at him, saying casually, “How old?”
“Twelve years old.”
“Where are you from, what’s your name?”
“I’m from Jinling.” Xie Jinglan was silent for a while, and he saw the jade pendant the eunuch was wearing on his waist. He said, “Shen Jue, jue as in jade pendant.”
The eunuch wrote down the two characters “Shen Jue” on a wooden tag and gave it to Xie Jinglan. Xie Jinglan held the tag and followed behind the other beggars that had been selected, walking toward the towering palace gates. The vermillion palace gates opened heavily, revealing the imperial road and many palace gates. Under the imperial palace, they were like a line of ants marching slowly, tiny and fragile.
The vermillion gates closed heavily behind him. Xie Jinglan looked back, and the last beam of sunlight before they closed struck his face, illuminating his face that was neither sorrowful nor joyful.
- A type of white clay that was eaten in desperation during times of famine. Eating too much will cause intestinal dysfunction, obstruction, and abdominal distension, eventually leading to death.
- An Asura is one of the Eight Legions, and they’re typically known for being murderous and evil. An Asura (killing) field is, like its name implies, a killing field between Asuras. It’s also been extended to mean a tragic battlefield.
- Lit. East Safety Gate. It’s the east entrance to the city.