Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
In the dark night, Chengqian Palace 1 was brightly lit.
A woman’s screams and moans resounded throughout the palace building. Under the swaying lanterns, palace maids carrying basins of bloody water filed out, and another line of maids carrying golden basins that had been washed clean filed in again. There was a frighteningly large amount of blood, and the bright red color burned people’s eyes to be hot. Imperial physicians were standing outside the door, huddling their heads together and discussing in low voices. The wrinkles on their faces became increasingly deeper, like cracks on a tree trunk.
Women giving birth were like passing through a gate of hell, and clearly, Noble Consort Ma’s passage wasn’t going very smoothly.
Situ Jin stood motionlessly under the eaves. The fluttering drizzle landed on his face patteringly, and he blinked lightly.
He was twenty years old this year. His face was delicately pretty and coldly determined, the tips of his brows sharp, and his nose arched. This was an unapproachable face, and in addition to the fact that he rarely spoke, people who didn’t know him thought that he wasn’t very easy to get along with, but in reality, he was just not very talkative. Because of this, he had very few friends, and when the Feathered Forest Guard captains made appointments to drink with prostitutes and gamble with dice, they usually didn’t bring him along, and when they chatted about the gossip of the emperor’s harem and the front court and back buildings, it was none of his business. Although he originally wasn’t interested, he would inexplicably feel a hint of loneliness.
He had been in the Feathered Forest Guard for almost three years, and he could only talk to someone who was from the same village as him, which was more or less a failure.
Sometimes, he would feel that as a Feathered Forest guard, he didn’t only have to guard the imperial palace; drinking, boasting, and chatting with his colleagues were also responsibilities within his duties. Although he answered roll call on time and was strict with himself, in the end, he had still neglected his duties.
“Ah, this noble consort really is dogged by bad luck. She escaped Consort Gao’s scheme, but she couldn’t escape an assassin’s assassination. It was a fine birthday banquet, but not only did the assassin cause a disturbance, she was also so scared that she delivered prematurely,” a companion who was also a Feathered Forest guard said in a low voice, his face full of pity.
Another person said, “Say, exactly who sent this assassin here?”
“Could it be Eunuch Wei? Who doesn’t know that the noble consort always hasn’t liked the eunuch and often instigates the emperor? Last time when the Yellow River flooded, she even suggested that the eunuch keeping his wealth was useless, so why not confiscate Eunuch Wei’s family wealth for disaster relief. I heard Eunuch Wei lost his temper in private, and the next day, he presented a group of showgirls to the emperor.”
The rain gradually got heavier, and raindrops flowed along his armor 2 and into his clothes, making the color of an area of his light yellow yesa robe darken. Situ Jin moved slightly.
He also knew about that. The showgirls had come from Yangzhou, and they had the unique delicateness and gentleness of Jiangnan women. The looks in their eyes were so enchanting it was as if water was about to drip out. When they had been dancing, he happened to have been on duty in the hall.
The companion shook his head and sighed. “It’s still the noble consort’s means that are powerful, Eunuch Wei racked his brain to obtain the emperor’s favor as well, but he couldn’t succeed. However, the noble consort is giving birth, why isn’t the emperor here?”
“A few days ago, the Tatars invaded the border and grabbed quite a few women and gold and silver back to the big desert, and the emperor is in the front court discussing with officials. I reckon that they should be dispatching troops this time to properly teach the Tatars a lesson.”
A low-ranking eunuch hurriedly ran over in the rain and grabbed an imperial physician, asking, “How is the noble consort? The emperor has orders that if something happens to her and the little prince, he’ll have you all buried with them!”
The few imperial physicians all trembled in fear and looked at each other, none of them daring to say the truth.
The low-ranking eunuch shouted croakily, “Say something, the emperor is waiting for a message!”
An old imperial physician pondered an excuse and said evasively, “The noble consort has always had a cold constitution 3. ‘Blood and Qi, likes warmth and has an aversion to cold; when it is cold, Qi cannot flow 4.’ She has yin energy inside her, her hands are cold and her tongue is red, and she is sleepless in the middle of the night. We were waiting for a safe pulse and found that her pulse was weak, so I even gave her a prescription of tonifications for blood and qi. Originally, she got a little better, but who knew that she would be frightened like this today. Yin evils entered her body and moved the Qi that nourishes the fetus. The effort we made before was all…”
The low-ranking eunuch listened for a long time before understanding, and he stamped his feet anxiously. His attention was drawn to the palace maids carrying bloody water outward. The noble consort seemed to have run out of strength, and the moans from inside the room had gotten a little weaker. An imperial physician hastily called for some maids to boil ginseng soup. The low-ranking eunuch said, “The emperor is already forty, and this is only the second prince to arrive. If something serious happens to the prince, can you afford to bear this responsibility?”
The child hadn’t been born yet, so how was he so resolute that it was a prince? The imperial physicians hunched their shoulders and grimaced, not daring to respond. It was difficult for the emperor to get an heir, he was over forty when he had finally gotten one son, the eldest prince. Everyone in the palace knew that he attached very high importance to the child in the noble consort’s belly and had patted the noble consort’s belly a long time ago, saying that this was definitely a little prince.
An imperial physician mustered up his courage and said, “To protect the little prince, there’s still a way. The child is already full term, so performing a cesarean section is also a feasible method…” He was only halfway through speaking when an old physician pinched him, and he instantly swallowed his words down.
Situ Jin and a few Feathered Forest guards were standing nearby, and they heard their conversation through the pattering rain, all of them shuddering.
A few maids holding ginseng soup that were covered with an oilcloth lowered their heads as they walked up the steps with small, quick steps. Situ Jin cast his eyes over them and saw that there was a very unfamiliar maid.
Situ Jin knitted his brows and stepped forward, stopping that maid. He said, “Which palace are you from? How come I’ve never seen you before?”
The maid’s voice was a murmur as small as a mosquito. “I’m new here.”
A few Feathered Forest guards walked over and asked, “What is it?”
Situ Jin gazed at the maid for a while and lifted the oilcloth. Underneath, surprisingly, a dagger was laying next to the bowl of soup. Everyone turned pale with fright, and at this moment, the maid suddenly launched an attack, throwing the tray at Situ Jin. The instant Situ Jin turned his head, he kicked the maid’s abdomen. The maid grunted and did a backflip in midair like a swallow, sweeping into the wind.
“Assassin! There’s an assassin!” the Feathered Forest guards roared loudly.
The woman knelt on one knee in the rain, and the pearls and jade on her head fell to the ground. Her inky hair was let down like a waterfall, and she ripped her skirt open, revealing her slender and straight legs. The lanterns’ radiance flowed on them, like first-class warm jades, their luster flowing. A short, black saber was tied on the outer side of her thigh. The woman slowly drew the saber, and the chilly radiance pierced Situ Jin’s eyes.
The Feathered Forest guards all pulled their sabers out of their scabbards and surrounded the assassin in a circle. The assassin remained unmoving, and rainwater flowed down along the hair on her temples and lower jaw.
“Surrender yourself, you won’t be able to escape!” someone roared.
“Escape?” She laughed sinisterly, and the rouge smeared all over her face made that smile extremely weird. “Who says I’m going to escape? The Garuda of Garan of Seven Leaves, sending the noble consort on the road to her death!”
Just as she said this, countless black shadows crept out of the flowering trees, brandishing long, terribly white sabers, and they clashed with the Feathered Forest guards. The original circular formation was instantly scattered. The low-ranking eunuch screamed in fright and used his hands and feet together to crawl into Chengqian Palace.
In the center of the crowd, the blade-like woman shot out like an arrow, and her blade’s radiance was as desolate and cold as the moon. Situ Jin drew his saber and moved forward, helping his companion block the assassin’s fatal blow. The two of them were saber to saber, face to face, and Situ Jin felt her icy gaze and breaths that were like a venomous snake’s.
The woman’s saber was extremely fast, one saber after another, one cut after another, two cuts in the shape of a cross followed by two stabs. After the stabs was a direct critical hit, landing like a dense downpour in a gale. Situ Jin practically couldn’t keep up with her movements and repeatedly fell into dangerous situations. He heard his own heart that was beating like a drum.
Too fast! Too fast! Attacks this quick were bound to consume a lot of her strength. Situ Jin gritted his teeth so hard they were practically going to break, and he did his best to stall, waiting for the moment her strength collapsed, which was when Situ Jin would counterattack.
After a few breaths, her movements paused. Situ Jin’s eyes lit up; it was time!
Raindrops as big as soybeans fell on his blade and hands, icy and cold, stimulating his nerves. He roared loudly and cut through the curtains of rain with his saber, slicing glaring sparks on the woman’s blade. Behind her blade that was as bright as silver, there was an evil smile in her eyes.
Situ Jin realized something and wanted to withdraw his saber and fall back, but it was already too late. A short blade slid out of the woman’s sleeve and made a very deep cut on his arm, blood gurgling out.
Situ Jin looked up and saw the woman’s right hand holding her saber in the back, and her left hand holding her short blade with a reverse grip in the front. The smile at the corner of her mouth was surly and arrogant.
Garan’s dual-wielded sabers.
Situ Jin gripped the goose quill saber in his hand tightly. Blood flowed along his arm to his fingers, falling to the ground drop by drop.
No one noticed that a hideous shadow had emerged from the flowering trees, like a monster that had crawled out of mud. He raised his head and shot a blowdart at the window paper. The blowdart penetrated the window paper, and the candlelight in the palace building filtered out of a tiny hole. The noble consort’s moans stopped abruptly. Screams erupted from inside the palace building, and palace maids ran out, panicked, some people losing their balance and rolling down the steps.
“The noble consort is dead! The noble consort has been assassinated!”
The Feathered Forest guards were horrified.
As if they had gotten an order, all of the assassins withdrew and went in all directions, escaping over the walls like leaking tidewater. At the same time, reinforcements arrived and shot arrows at the assassins using crossbows. The woman’s offense became twice as fast, and every blow was like a thunderbolt. The momentum of her saber was bitterly cold and impenetrable, and Situ Jin was too weak to sustain it at all.
It turned out that their strengths that had been barely evenly matched from just then had only been a false impression. He wasn’t her match at all, she had just been drawing his attention.
His body was struck several times in a row. The woman didn’t desire to continue fighting, and after she cut down the few people that were blocking the way, she climbed up a pagoda tree to the palace building eaves. Arrows from the soldier’s crossbows chased after her, but it was as if she had eyes on her back. She constantly changed routes, and all of the arrows missed. In the blink of an eye, the woman disappeared without a trace.
“Cesarean section! Cesarean section! The prince can still be saved!” The imperial physician who had rolled under the eaves seemed to come to a realization, and he got up from the ground, dragging the old physician into the room. When he opened the curtain and looked, however, he saw that between the red bed curtains, on the noble consort’s icy corpse, a very thin blowdart was pierced on top of her belly. With the blowdart as the center, black veins that were like reptiles covered half of her skin.
In the pattering rain, Shen Jue woke up from his sleep. Xiahou Lian was sleeping very restlessly, and he kept stirring. Shen Jue slept lightly, and he had been woken up many times this night.
Shen Jue touched Xiahou Lian’s arm, and it was so hot that he withdrew his hand. He hurriedly propped himself up and reached toward his forehead, feeling abnormal sweating.
“Xiahou Lian!” Shen Jue shook him lightly.
Xiahou Lian opened his eyes muddledly and his breaths were weak as he said, “So uncomfortable.”
Shen Jue dipped a cloth in water and covered Xiahou Lian’s forehead with it. “I’m going to go to the Imperial Medical Bureau to get you some medicine, you wait and don’t move.”
Xiahou Lian nodded imperceptibly and closed his eyes.
Shen Jue put on his clothes and ran out. The night was like ink, and palace buildings stood erect in the darkness, like phantoms in the air. The long street stretched far into the night, and Shen Jue heard the tapping of his footsteps. He didn’t know why, but it seemed as if there was no one around, and he didn’t see a single guard. Shen Jue didn’t feel relaxed, and on the contrary, he felt oppressed.
When he arrived at the Imperial Medical Bureau, the gate was open, and medicinal herbs were scattered in a pile, the palace maids, eunuchs, and imperial physicians nowhere to be seen. Shen Jue didn’t know what had happened, and he suppressed the uneasiness and doubt in his heart as he hurriedly rummaged through the cabinets. He got medicine for metal-inflicted wounds 5 and packages of herbal medicine for reducing fever and carried them in his arms. He had just wanted to go out when a flurry of rapid footsteps sounded outside the door.
A few assassins dressed in black sprinted over. Shen Jue was horrified and hastily turned, hiding behind the door. Their hoarse voices sounded indistinctly.
“Boss, aren’t we going to look for that brat Xiahou Lian?”
“Look for what, that brat didn’t find the previous dynasty’s map of the palace, it’s difficult for us to even withdraw safely. We’re too busy to even take care of ourselves, how do we have time to deal with him? The noble consort is already dead, our duty has already been fulfilled, that brat Xiahou Lian can fend for himself.”
It was Garan assassins. Of course Xiahou Lian couldn’t find the previous dynasty’s map of the imperial palace; after memorizing the map, Shen Jue had burned it, so now, only he knew the palace buildings’ secrets. Perhaps this group of assassins knew that there was a secret passage inside the palace, but they didn’t know the specific location, so they needed the map to point out the direction.
It turned out that Xiahou Lian’s function hadn’t been to assassinate, but to search for the map.
When the assassins left, Shen Jue turned out from behind the door and lowered his head as he swiftly left the Imperial Medical Bureau. He had just turned a corner when behind him, and the thumping of iron boots accompanied by shouts of “catch the assassin” passed by behind him.
He finally entered the back garden. Forest trees interweaved, shadowy and looming, as if in every shadow, there was an unknown danger hiding. Shen Jue sprinted on the path and only wanted to return to Xiahou Lian’s side sooner.
Suddenly, a flurry of rapid footsteps sounded. Shen Jue was startled and turned to hide behind a tree.
“Who’s there!” Situ Jin shouted sternly.
Shen Jue’s body was tense, and his hands were clenched tightly.
“Come out!” Situ Jin was holding up a torch in his hand, approaching the depths of the path, step by step.
A leaf as big as the mouth of a bowl was blown onto his face. It was silent all around, and there were only the sounds of the clanking of the chainmail on the Feathered Forest guards’ bodies when they moved.
“Situ, did you see wrong?” someone asked in a low voice. In the night, the flowering shrubs were too dark, and the water-soaked moss on the ground was wet and slippery. The Feathered Forest guards’ hearts jumped fiercely and uncontrollably.
The torch burned, flaming, and supported a square inch of light in the darkness. Everyone was back to back, facing the flowering shrubs on both sides, their hands holding their sabers as they slowly moved forward. The assassins were adept in concealed assassination, so they helped each other defend the blind spots behind them so the assassins wouldn’t have any opportunity to take advantage of.
Those assassins were too formidable. They had lost twelve people in Chengqian Palace and had only killed three and captured one alive, the rest of them fleeing into the night. And, the assassin that had been captured alive had also used their saber to cut their own throat. Blood had gurgled as it flowed, flooding past Situ Jin’s boots. Situ Jin had picked up the assassin’s long saber, and on it was engraved in small seal script, “Tianxiabai 6.”
It was ridiculous, the weapon of an assassin who walked in the shadows was actually called “Tianxiabai.”
The bright firelight got closer and closer. Shen Jue knitted his brows deeply and was just about to take the initiative and show himself when suddenly, he heard the whistling noise of a crossbow arrow, and a Feathered Forest guard screamed and fell to the ground. From a tree three steps away from Shen Jue, a shadow jumped down, landing right at the side of two Feathered Forest guards. Before they turned, two sabers in two hands severed the throats of two people.
In an instant, three people lost their lives.
The Garuda threw away the short sabers in her hands and picked up the goose quill saber from the ground. She used her underarm to clamp the saber, and then slowly drew the saber out. The bloodstains on the blade were wiped clean, revealing a blade as bright as snow. She was still wearing the ragged imperial maid clothes, and her body was covered in bloodstains. In the darkness, she looked up, revealing her appearance that was beautiful yet filled with killing intent.
The remaining two Feathered Forest guards were stunned, and they backed away in panic.
“Hey, have you seen a person this tall, wearing black clothes, the same as those people before?” the Garuda measured a height in front of her chest, and tilted her head as she asked.
The Feathered Forest guards shook their heads blankly.
“Oh, that’s a pity.” The Garuda raised her mouth in a smile and raised her saber, cleaving toward them.
Situ Jin pushed everyone aside and met the Garuda with his saber held horizontally. However, in that instant, the Garuda lowered herself and knelt. Her long saber sliced past Situ Jin’s blade, and her body swept past the side of his body. At the same time, a sleeve arrow shot out of her left sleeve and pierced the throat of the Feathered Forest guard behind him. Situ Jin wanted to turn back and save his two companions, but he couldn’t get faster than her pace. She was like a ghost as she approached the Feathered Forest guard, and her long saber swiped from down to up, slicing a straight red line on his neck and cheek.
The smell of blood spread from the flowering shrubs, and her saber was vertical as she stabbed it into the Feathered Forest guard’s body. Blood splashed onto her cheeks, and the person on the ground went completely silent.
Situ Jin despaired. The gap between him and her was too big, and he didn’t have the power to fight back at all. Situ Jin gripped the saber in his hand tightly, slowly let out a breath, and stared at the woman in front of him intently. She was standing under flower vines, and her entire person was hidden in the shadows. Only the goose quill saber was as desolate and cold as frost, and the point of the saber was dripping with bright red blood.
“Hey, I’m in a hurry, let’s not fight, okay?” she spoke lazily.
Situ Jin didn’t know what she had up her sleeve. He said coldly, “It’s my responsibility. Today, either you die, or I die.”
“Boring,” she muttered.
Before she finished muttering, Situ Jin suddenly made a move.
His strength was no use, so he could only defeat her using surprise!
In practically an instant, Situ Jin bent his legs slightly, like a fully drawn bow, and then let go of the bowstring. He was like a sharp arrow that wouldn’t return as he was accompanied by the momentum of wind and thunder, lunging toward the Garuda’s face. He held his breath, and there was only the wind whistling in a frenzy next to his ears. He saw the woman, who was so gorgeous she was almost sharp, look up, and under her loose hair, her brows and eyes were as rich as an outline in the ink of a brush.
She swung her saber in the shape of a full moon, and the arc blocked the blow that had taken all of Situ Jin’s effort. The Garuda didn’t forcibly meet Situ Jin’s saber. Instead, in the instant that saber met saber, she tilted her body and moved forward. Her long saber slid past Situ Jin’s blade, emitting the sound of metal rubbing together. When Situ Jin breathed out the breath he had been holding, he felt an icy blade cut through his chainmail and the muscles between his ribs. Warm blood spurted out, and his armor was completely drenched.
“Your Blizzard Saber still hasn’t been trained to perfection. Without skill, how can you talk about responsibility? Young man, you should value your life more. Ah, it’s a pity, another successor of Blizzard Saber has been lost.” She carried her saber on her shoulder and left a slovenly view of her back for Situ Jin.
Situ Jin leaned on his saber as he knelt on the ground. He touched his ribs tentatively, and sure enough, his hand was covered in a hot dampness.
Suddenly, a figure turned out of the forest. It was a black-clothed eunuch with a frail figure, and Situ Jin looked up strenuously to see the little eunuch’s face that was a little pale.
“Don’t be scared, she shouldn’t be coming back.” Situ Jin said softly, “You’re Eunuch Shen of Fourth Qianxi Premises, I recognize you, I’ve been on duty at the Fourth Residence before.”
Shen Jue’s face was enveloped by the shadows of the floral leaves. “You knew I was hiding here?”
“I discovered you long ago, I just didn’t expose you.” Situ Jin’s attention was drawn to the medicine packages in Shen Jue’s arms, and he said, “You went to steal medicine? No wonder you came out so late.”
“My roommate is sick. With our humble status, we can’t seek a doctor, and the medicine was all used up, so I could only make this bad move.”
“He must be your very good brother.” Situ Jin’s eyelids became heavier and heavier, and his voice fluttered. “That’s nice. My brothers are all dead.” He looked at the ground covered in corpses. Blood soaked the soil, and the dark brown soil had been dyed a dark red. Although they might not have regarded him as their brother, he wishfully felt that people who fought side by side and partners who lived and died together were brothers.
The dewdrops on the flower vines dripped onto his cheeks, icy and cold, as if they could penetrate his heart. Spring in the capital was very cold, and he thought muddledly, I can barely hold my saber anymore.
The light in Shen Jue’s eyes was quiet and solitary, and he said in a low voice, “Mn, he is the person who treats me the best in the world now.”
“Go back quickly, Fourth Qianxi Premises isn’t far. Avoid the shadows and walk in places where there’s light. Where there are shadows, there are assassins, there is… the Garuda.” Situ Jin finally couldn’t hold on anymore. His hand loosened on his saber, and he fell face down onto the ground. Half of his face was buried in the soil, and his body was covered in bloodstains and dirt.
Hearing this, Shen Jue was shocked, and he stepped forward, asking, “What did you say, the Garuda? Was that woman from just now the Garuda?” Situ Jin already couldn’t answer anymore. Shen Jue frowned and was silent for a while before he turned and left.
When Shen Jue returned, Xiahou Lian was still sleeping lethargically. He tested the temperature on Xiahou Lian’s forehead, and it hadn’t seemed to have gotten hotter. He took off Xiahou Lian’s clothes and reapplied the medicine for metal-inflicted wounds from the Imperial Medical Bureau. This medicine was a lot better than the herbal medicine he had randomly applied before. When the fine, dense powder was sprinkled onto his red and swollen wound, Xiahou Lian felt a coolness on the burning wound, and his breathing became a little smoother.
He finished decocting the medicine and fed it to Xiahou Lian to drink. After two hours, he tested his forehead again, and it had already stopped burning. Shen Jue sighed in relief and pushed open the window lattice to look outside. The world had been washed to be entirely new by last night’s rain. The overarching sky glowed with the blue of when day met night, tall and vast. There were palace buildings one after another, as if they would keep connecting until the morning color of the horizon.
Xiahou Lian woke up and sat up with bleary eyes and a headful of hair as messy as a pile of thatch.
Shen Jue brought water for washing his face and handed him a wet handkerchief. Xiahou Lian closed his eyes and wiped carelessly. The charcoal had burned out, so Shen Jue brought charcoal wood, using fire tongs to put them one by one into the brazier.
“Xiahou Lian,” Shen Jue suddenly spoke, “um, I saw the Ga…”
“What’d you see?” Xiahou Lian was still muddled, and he shook his head vigorously.
“…” Pausing in his movements of changing the charcoal, Shen Jue lowered his eyes.
The poorer someone was, after they got rich, the more scared of being poor they would be. He recalled his first year of entering the palace. In the cold days of winter, he had swept the neverending snow all alone, and later, he had finally gotten a job in Duanning Palace 7, but because he had delivered a meal a quarter of an hour late, he had been fiercely slapped in the face by a consort. There was also the Si Xi whom he had killed himself, and the disgusting feeling of his greasy hands touching his body…
The palace gates were as deep as a sea, and both in front and behind them were boundless. Although Fourth Qianxi Premises was peaceful, it was a place he would never make it out of for a lifetime. The few palace maids and eunuchs under him laid in bed and rested most of the day, only waiting for the day they took their last breath. Their thin coffins would be covered by a board, and this life would be over.
He couldn’t idle away here, he had to get out. However, this Forbidden City was somewhere he wouldn’t be able to escape for the rest of his life, and he had finally gotten a person he could drift in the sea together with. Just like a person who was used to bitterness and who had tasted a tiny bit of sugar, how could he give this up?
The color of his eyes darkened a little, and in the end, he shook his head. “Nothing.”
- Lit. Palace of Heavenly Grace. Chengqian Palace is one of the Six Eastern Palaces in the Forbidden City.
- Specifically a type of armor used during the Ming Dynasty made out of many sheets of metal.
- A body constitution in traditional Chinese medicine that has excess yin, or yang deficiency. Symptoms include paleness, cold hands and feet, sensitivity to low temperatures and wind, etc.
- A quote spoken by physician Qibo from the Huangdi Neijing, an ancient Chinese medical text.
- A traditional Chinese herbal medicine for external incised wounds caused by swords or other metal weapons.
- Lit. White world.
- Lit. Upright Peace Palace.