Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Although Xie Jinglan had the title of young master yet not the authority, he had an arrogant attitude. In his view, the young master in the main courtyard would be trampled under his foot sooner or later; it was simply a matter of time. Once he was ranked on the Gold List 1 and paraded through the streets on a horse, these people in Xie Manor would kneel down in front of his horse, crying and begging him for forgiveness.
Every time he was being bullied, he would think about the future and the glorious scenery that lay ahead. As he swallowed his broken teeth mixed with blood, his anger still not dissipated, the teeth and blood would jab holes in his heart. He hadn’t remembered Mengzi’s saying of “win people by virtue,” and only remembered Sima Qian’s saying of “ten years is not late for a gentleman’s revenge.”
If he wanted to succeed and stand out, the only path was through the imperial examination. The Xie clan was scholarly and had generations of officials. Unfortunately, in the current generation of the master of Xie Manor, Xie Bingfeng, the number of men was declining, and Xie Bingfeng had been seeking fame and fortune for his entire life, yet he still only was in the sixth rank of the Censorate. However, he had been mentored by the knowledgeable and prestigious Dai Shengyan 2, and he had integrity and a sense of justice as an official. Moreover, he was well-read and had a good reputation.
It was a wide practice to judge people based on their character, so a spotless reputation could put food on the table. Xie Bingfeng didn’t have any practical abilities, but he could guide all of China’s students, and literati and scholars were all proud to follow the Xie clan’s teachings. Since he had inherited the family line, he upheld their ancestors’ traditions. The Xie clan placed great importance on their children’s education and had hired their most prestigious scholar to supervise the clan school.
The madam had a son that was like a pile of mood that couldn’t stick to the wall, and she was scared that Xie Jinglan would surpass him, which is why she didn’t let Xie Jinglan go to the clan school to study, much less give him distributions of brushes, ink, papers, or inkstones. Thus, Xie Jinglan could only pick up Young Master Xie Jingtao’s old books from the warehouse and hide behind the wall to eavesdrop on the clan school teacher’s lessons, using a stick to write on the ground. With this erratic method of studying, he had actually learned most of “Four Books and Five Classics,” and even the serious students in the school couldn’t compare to him.
Xie Jinglan ignored Xiahou Lian as he sat by himself at the desk, picking out bits of toilet paper from the pile and gluing together the scraps of paper one by one.
These books weren’t the virtuous or informative type, but they were his stepping stone. Only after stepping on these incomprehensible principles could he be above others.
When Xiahou Lian saw the pile of paper scraps, he instantly felt overwhelmed. He randomly picked up a few pieces and saw that although he recognized the characters on them, the characters on them didn’t recognize him. Aunt Lan had wanted him to help, so he could only stand at the side and watch.
The sun sank in the west, and the dim light of the night gradually darkened. There were no oil lamps in the room, only candles. Xie Jinglan was afraid that the flames would burn the paper, so he refused to put the candles on the desk. Thus, he kept strenuously sticking pieces together under the dim light. In the run-down room, their two shadows were stretched out on the walls, like two faded ghosts.
Xiahou Lian took a nap on the desk, and when he woke up, he saw that Xie Jinglan was still gluing.
His body was frail, and he was clearly twelve, the same age as Xiahou Lian. However, while Xiahou Lian was strong and sturdy, Xie Jinglan seemed to be able to be blown over by a gust of wind. He had been at it for a long time, and his eyes were already blurring. Xie Jinglan kept rubbing his eyes, and even Xiahou Lian, with his heart of steel, felt a bit of pity for him.
Xiahou Lian was very restless and energetic, and even when it came to practicing the saber, he had never done it for more than four hours at a time, not to mention sitting here sticking torn books together. When he had been on the mountain, he would chase pheasants and catch rabbits for seven out of ten days, while the remaining three days were spent on reciting saber scrolls and practicing saber techniques.
He picked up a piece of toilet paper that Xie Jinglan had thrown on the ground and saw that there were also characters on it. The characters weren’t written well, as the ink was blotchy and feathering. It looked like the brush that had been used to write them was very bad quality with rough and uneven bristles. He looked around and sure enough, he saw a stubby brush, its bristles sticking out in different directions and still covered in ink.
This sissy is quite capable. Although Xiahou Lian was lazy, he respected people who were willing to work hard.
“Hey, um, Young Master.” He still wasn’t used to being someone’s servant, and it felt awkward when he said “young master.” Xiahou Lian scratched his head and said, “It’s so late already, why don’t you go to sleep?”
Xie Jinglan didn’t even look up as he said, “If you’re tired, you can sleep. You’re useless anyway.”
This sage hadn’t even finished his studies, yet he had learned a lot of irritating skills. Xiahou Lian had a good temper, so he didn’t bother with him. “At this rate, you’ll be gluing until goodness knows when. One of these days, I’ll steal a book from the library for you. I heard the Xie clan’s Xiuwen Hall has a large collection of books that are printed using woodblock. The books in Xiuwen Hall are the finest in the Wu region, with wide covers and large characters, which makes reading them very effortless. The best books are right in front of you, so why bother gluing these?”
Xie Jinglan finally looked up from the pile of paper and said, “Steal? How did you make a living before? Don’t bring your sly tricks you’ve learned elsewhere in here. If you get caught, you’ll implicate all of us.”
“Okay, you’re noble and upright, with high morals and virtue. You can keep taking your time to glue.” Xiahou Lian felt bored and got off of the desk, about to leave. “You’re clearly a young master in the Xie clan, what’s the big deal about a couple of books? They’re supposed to be yours anyway, yet you don’t even dare to take them. You’re gluing paper here like a turtle hiding in its shell. If that fatso knew, he would definitely laugh his head off.”
“Hold on.” Xie Jinglan stared at Xiahou Lian with a sneer.
“No matter how low I, Xie Jinglan, fall, I’ll never stand for you making fun of me.” Xie Jinglan stood up and grabbed Xiahou Lian’s collar, saying fiercely, “You’re my servant, and I don’t need you to lecture me!”
“Give me a break.” Xiahou Lian pushed Xie Jinglan away. “Your life isn’t even as good as a servant’s, much less a young master’s.”
Xie Jinglan suddenly sprang up and punched Xiahou Lian’s face. Xie Jinglan was so skinny that he was practically just skin and bones. When Xie Jinglan’s bony fist made contact, Xiahou Lian’s face instantly became bruised, and it smarted painfully. Xiahou Lian also became annoyed, and without a second word, he raised his fists. Xie Jinglan’s body was frail and he didn’t have much strength, so he wasn’t even a close match for Xiahou Lian. Just two moves later, he was pinned down by Xiahou Lian, unable to get up no matter how he struggled.
“Do you give? With your physique, did you really think you could take me on?” Xiahou Lian patted his face and smiled triumphantly. “Look at you, you couldn’t beat that fatso so you wanted to take out your anger on me? Although I’m under you now, you can’t just bully me when you feel like it!”
Xie Jinglan struggled for a while to no avail, and he completely slumped down on the ground. As he gazed at the roof with holes in it, all of the grief, indignation, and shame surged into his heart, and his eyes suddenly welled up with tears. He hastily covered his eyes with his hands, gritting his teeth without saying anything.
During the day, when Xie Jingtao had humiliated him, he hadn’t shed a single tear. However, at this moment, his tears flooded out uncontrollably like a dam had opened up.
“Why are you crying? Ah, don’t cry!” Xiahou Lian frantically got off of Xie Jinglan and helped him up. “Didn’t I just touch you a few times? Don’t cry!”
“I’m not crying!” Xie Jinglan turned away, not letting Xiahou Lian see his red eye rims.
Before, Xiahou Lian only knew that he was scared of girls crying, but he hadn’t thought that he couldn’t stand boys crying, either. He immediately surrendered. “All right, all right, I’ll apologize to you, okay?”
“Get lost, I don’t want to see you!”
“Ah, don’t be like this. I’m sorry, I was in the wrong, and I shouldn’t have spoken so rudely just then.“
Xie Jinglan remained silent, and Xiahou Lian didn’t know what to do. He helplessly sat with Xie Jinglan for a while before saying, “I’m going to go to bed, you don’t have to cry anymore.”
Xie Jinglan turned his head away from him, so Xiahou Lian could only stand up and leave.
It was finally quiet, and the candles had gone out already. The heavy darkness pressed down on him from all directions, and as Xie Jinglan sat by himself on the ground, his tears started falling again. When his eyes had adjusted to the room’s darkness, he stood up, holding the stool for support. One of the stool’s legs was shorter than the others, making it wobbly and unsteady, and he nearly fell back down.
He pushed the door open and walked into the courtyard. The lonely courtyard was covered in fallen leaves, and the lotuses in the two pots already wilted a long time ago, leaving behind only the blanched stems.
Twelve years of bitterness flooded his heart altogether and at once. Everyone else had their mothers, and only he didn’t. Although he had a father, it was practically like he didn’t. He had grown up alone in this remote courtyard, and he was like a rice ball, able to be pinched and kneaded by everyone. Now, even his servant didn’t hold him in high regard.
He let out a short laugh of ridicule, and Xiahou Lian’s words echoed in his mind——You’re clearly a young master in the Xie clan, what’s the big deal about a couple of books? They’re supposed to be yours anyway, yet you don’t even dare to take them. You’re gluing paper here like a turtle hiding in its shell. If that fatso knew, he would definitely laugh his head off.
Xiahou Lian was right; the books were supposed to be his. He stood there for a while, and when the wind had dried the tears on his cheeks, he curled his hands into fists and walked out the side door.
It was silent and deserted everywhere. In order to save money, the madam had even turned off the lanterns in the corridors. It was late winter, and the cold, biting wind caused his cheeks to sting. It was pitch-black on the path, but fortunately, Xie Jinglan knew the way to the library and used his memory to stumble toward it.
After walking for tens of minutes, he finally reached the library. Only when he got closer did he see that the door was locked. He didn’t have the key, so there was no way of opening the door. He walked a circle around the library but didn’t see any gap he could climb through, and the windows were all firmly shut.
He stared blankly at the door for a while, and only when the wind practically froze him did Xie Jinglan seem to come to a realization. He turned around, about to walk back. Right when he turned his head, he saw a youth walking out from behind a pillar and smiling cheerfully at him.
He made a “tch” sound and tilted his head. “Why did you follow me here? Did you come to ridicule me?”
“How can I dare?”
Xiahou Lian pulled out a thin metal wire from his sleeve and wiggled it in the keyhole. With a click, the lock fell, and the door opened a small gap. Xiahou Lian pushed it open and waved for Xie Jinglan to go in. Xie Jinglan pursed his lips, but in the end, he followed him inside.
“Hurry and get whatever books you want,” said Xiahou Lian after he closed the door lightly.
Xie Jinglan didn’t say anything as he looked at the pitch-black room, thinking, This room is pitch-black, how am I supposed to find anything?
Just then, Xiahou Lian pulled out a flame stick and blew on it lightly. A cluster of flames ignited between his fingers, dimly illuminating their faces. They were face to face, separated only by the flames and standing very close to each other.
Xie Jinglan looked at him. Xiahou Lian had cleaned himself up. His face was clean and his skin was a little dark, a healthy honey color. His eyes were very good-looking and shone like stars. Xie Jinglan was twelve, so he didn’t understand how to judge people by their knowledge, and only knew how to judge if someone was pleasing to his eye or not. He had been born with good looks, and he also had high standards for other people. After seeing everyone in the manor, he felt that they were all repelling, especially Xie Jingtao from the main courtyard, and he couldn’t stand the sight of them.
Xiahou Lian’s appearance was worthy of the word “okay,” and Xie Jinglan felt that he was quite pleasing to the eye. However, the scene of Xiahou Lian pinning him down made him uncomfortable. His heart twisted for a moment, but he kept ignoring him.
When Xiahou Lian saw his cold expression, he felt that it would be a little troublesome. “Are you still angry? Young Master, show some kindness and stop being mad at me, won’t you? Here, look, I’ll salute to you to plead for your mercy and to spare me this time.”
“I’m not mad at you. Hmph, I’ve just never seen a servant as presumptuous as you. You’re lucky that you met me. If you were to serve Xie Jingtao, you’d already have died eight hundred times!” huffed Xie Jinglan. Then, he took the flame stick and turned to search for some books.
“Of course. I’m lucky to have met such a benevolent and kind-hearted master like Young Master Jinglan. You care about your servants, so you won’t argue with them.”
Xiahou Lian was well-versed in smoothing ruffled feathers, and Xie Jinglan’s expression became a lot softer.
The shelves in the library were densely packed, and there was only enough space between the shelves for two people. The shelves were very tall, and they seemed to touch the ceiling. The entire room smelled musty, and there seemed to be a chill in the air. Xiahou Lian felt a little creeped out, and he poked Xie Jinglan’s back to tell him to hurry up.
Xie Jinglan walked past three bookshelves and saw that the books were arranged in the order of Qilüe 3. The two of them searched for several minutes 4 before finally finding the “Book of Rites” by Chen Hao of the Yuan Dynasty, which was on the seventeenth shelf. Xie Jinglan only took the first volume, intending to finish it before coming back to get the second volume.
“Will someone notice that there’s a book missing here?”
“Notice, my ass. Can’t you see that there’s dust on the books? The books in here haven’t been taken out for a few hundred years.”
“Don’t use foul language!” Xie Jinglan flicked Xiahou Lian’s forehead and retrieved another volume. “Then, I’ll take another one.”
Xiahou Lian took the first one and flipped it open offhandedly. He widened his eyes at once.
“What is it?” Xie Jinglan noticed Xiahou Lian acting oddly and leaned in to take a look. He was instantly stunned.
The book was filled with vivid erotica, with male and female bodies intertwined, their expressions lifelike.
“W-What is this?” Xie Jinglan slammed the book shut, his face hot enough to steam an egg.
“Erotica! If I’m not wrong, this is the famous ‘Pleasure in the Imperial Bedchamber’ by Yuan dynasty painter Zhao Xiyan. My mother has a fake copy of it, could this be the real one?” Xiahou Lian marveled, “This painting is rich and dazzling. The people are exquisite, and even the patterns on their clothes and the flowers and plants are finely portrayed. It can even be said to be the best of all erotica. Look, this one’s called ‘Red Plum Blossoms Hanging Upside-Down,’ this one is the ‘Oriole Twittering in the Spring Morning,’ and this one is ‘Relieving Summer Heat in Jiangnan.’”
As Xie Jinglan listened to Xiahou Lian ramble, he focused on the most irrelevant part. “What? Did you just say your mother?”
Xiahou Lian had been momentarily excited and accidentally let that slip. He hastily said, “No, no, I said that your father is quite the hypocrite, hiding his erotica in the library!”
Xie Jinglan’s face became even redder, and he frantically stuffed the illustration back into the shelf, saying, “I won’t take this one, I’ll get something else.”
“Wait.” Xiahou Lian took back the illustrations, his lips curving into a mischievous smile. “Let’s take it back to analyze it! Reading something like this at night is a whole different feeling! Young Master Jinglan, you definitely haven’t experienced these before, right? Aren’t you curious?”
Xie Jinglan refused firmly. “No!”
“I didn’t think you were such a goody two-shoes.” Xiahou Lian smiled. “If you don’t want to read it that’s fine, but keeping this could be useful.”
Xiahou Lian wanted Xie Jinglan to take him to the fatty’s study. Xie Jinglan didn’t know what he had up his sleeve, but he couldn’t shake off Xiahou Lian’s persistence and could only take him there. The two of them cautiously sneaked into the main courtyard, and Xiahou Lian used the same trick to unlock the study and slip in.
Xie Jinglan’s heart was in his throat, as it was his first time doing something sneaky like this, but when he saw Xiahou Lian’s confidence, he didn’t want to be outmatched. He gathered his courage and pretended that he wasn’t scared at all. He followed behind Xiahou Lian as his eyes roamed around the room, taking in the furnishings and decorations.
There was a plaque in the middle of the room that read “Mountain Room of Sweeping Leaves 5.” Xie Jinglan scoffed; someone like Xie Jingtao really had tainted this elegant name. On the desk, there were inkstones, fancy brushes, and top-quality paper from Jingxian, Anhui. He carefully touched the flat and soft rice paper 6, faint waves of envy rising in his heart.
He stood in place and hesitated for a while, wondering whether he should take a few pieces of paper with him or not. That unlearned fool, Xie Jingtao, definitely wouldn’t notice anyway. After thinking about it for a bit, he dismissed the idea. Xie Jingtao wouldn’t notice, but his servants might, and it was best not to deliberately create problems for himself.
Xiahou Lian found a pile of books on the desk and took out “Book of Rites.” Sure enough, it had the same cover as the one they had taken from the library, both of them original carvings from the Xie clan’s Xiuwen Hall. Xiahou Lian put the fake “Book of Rites” on top and took away the real one, motioning for Xie Jinglan to leave.
When Xie Jinglan saw this, he understood Xiahou Lian’s plan immediately.
Xiahou Lian wagged his head, pleased with himself, and smiled. “Today when I arrived at the manor, I heard a maid say that the master is returning tomorrow. Your hypocrite of a father cares the most about his children’s studies. Guess what he’ll do when he comes back to this?”
Xie Jinglan understood and his heart warmed, though his mouth wasn’t willing to express his gratitude. “It’s an unwise idea, and it might not even work.”
Xiahou Lian smiled brightly. “Then let’s just wait and see.”
- The list of jinshi (people who passed the final level of the imperial examination).
- Lit. Sages’ words.
- ”Seven abstracts”. The oldest bibliography of ancient China that recorded all books stored in the libraries of the imperial palace.
- Specifically the time it takes to drink a cup of tea, which is around ten minutes but can vary a lot. I’ll use “several minutes” to refer to this in the future.
- Also the name of a famous bookstore in Jiangsu during the Ming and Qing dynasties known as the “Saoye Publishing House.”
- A kind of paper originating in ancient China used for writing or painting. Rice paper is renowned for being soft and fine-textured.