Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
In the beginning of the third month, tree branches sprouted new buds, and it gradually became not so cold anymore. Rain gradually increased, falling endlessly all day long. When one looked up at the sky, it was always overcast and low, as if it would press on people’s heads.
The thread in Xiahou Lian’s shoulder had already been taken out, leaving behind a crooked and extremely ugly scar. It stretched from his shoulder all the way to his shoulder blade, and it looked shocking. Shen Jue had said that he would go and find some scar-removing ointment, but Xiahou Lian had refused. For men, scars were medals, and fully smooth bodies were for sissies.
His wound had healed, so Shen Jue allowed him to occasionally go out for walks, and to others he said that his smallpox had already been cured. The old eunuchs unanimously praised Shen Jue, saying that he was loyal to his friends and kind-hearted. If it was someone else and the eunuch they did things together with had gotten a disease like smallpox, it would be considered good if they didn’t cover their nose and keep a distance from them. Serving him closely without resting was practically a daydream.
When Xiahou Lian had been recuperating, Shen Jue would often go to the imperial kitchen and buy some of the masters’ leftover edible bird’s nests and vermicelli soup to replenish his body. The palace was used to extravagance and wastefulness, and although the consorts’ appetites were small, they were still served everyday with a table full of delicacies, yet they used only a few bites for each dish. The eunuchs in the imperial kitchen had smart brains, so they would sell these leftovers to greedy eunuchs and palace maids, and it was a good way of making money.
A few days ago, the imperial kitchen had changed its supervisor eunuch. The meal in Shen Jue’s food box had suddenly doubled, and from time to time, there would be some shark fins and such. Shen Jue had kept quiet and didn’t hesitate to keep it.
As usual, he got a food box from the imperial kitchen and carried it in his hands as he rushed back. Eunuchs were servants, dogs raised by masters. When they walked, they couldn’t hold their heads up and throw out their chests; they had to keep their heads down, and if they encountered nobles on the road, they had to bow and kneel. He had gradually gotten used to these postures, and he did them effortlessly.
He knew that he couldn’t be anxious about everything. If he were to be above tens of thousands of people one day, he had to first be low in the dust.
He had just walked past Tian Street 1 when a person suddenly pounced out from behind him. Shen Jue was holding a food box, so it was inconvenient to move, and he was pounced onto directly.
“Eunuch Liu, what do you mean by this?” As Shen Jue was pressed against the palace wall, he suppressed the surging desire to kill at the bottom of his heart and spoke coldly.
The imperial kitchen’s supervisor eunuch, Liu Deyi 2, was taller than him by a head. The complexion of his face was dark, and he often had a smile on his lips, looking very well-behaved. He said unhurriedly, “Every day, I treat you with good food and dishes, yet you still don’t know what this means? Can your bit of silver afford such good shark fins?” He looked Shen Jue up and down a few times and sighed, a little pityingly. “I’ve raised you for so long, how come you’re still so skinny, it hurts to hug you.”
“Right now is when the imperial kitchen is busy, if you don’t go watch over it, aren’t you afraid it’ll cause a delay?” Shen Jue lowered his head, and his expression was inscrutable. Only this tone was calm, as if he didn’t know what kind of matter he was facing.
Liu Deyi thought that he hadn’t rejected it, and he secretly rejoiced. His hands went a step further and held Shen Jue’s shoulders, rubbing them carefully.
“Be obedient, and I’ll be able to go back as soon as possible.”
Shen Jue sneered, “Two broken teapots without spouts, are we considered mirror-grinders or cut-sleeves 3?”
Liu Deyi smiled obscenely. That coarse hand slid down along his arm and covered his palm. Shen Jue stared fixedly at his own hand. If he had a saber in his hand, he might have chopped off both of these hands.
“What kind of talk is that? Are there few absurdities in the imperial palace? The higher the position, the more absurd things are. The emperor commits incest with his daughter-in-law, noble consorts fornicate, princes quarrel internally. So what if we men touch each other a bit? It’s a trivial matter! Speaking of it, other people don’t regard us as men, but we have to think highly of ourselves. But, never mind me, even though I’ve been castrated, no one would regard me as a bitch, but as for you…”
Shen Jue asked, “What about me?”
Liu Deyi poked Shen Jue’s face and said, “Look at you, you’re naturally a seducer, very alluring. The way I see it, you must have been born in the wrong womb, but the fates of bitches will be the fates of bitches, in the end you still couldn’t escape getting that extra thing cut off.”
Shen Jue smiled ominously, and a shadow gradually spread in his eyes, making them become bottomless. He said, “Is that so, it turns out that this is my fucking fate.”
“Ah, Si Xi has even told me that he had those thoughts toward you before, and I originally thought you looked like you had a fiery disposition. For me, I’m particular about being attracted and attached to each other. I don’t play like that, forcing people to do what they’re unwilling to do, so I didn’t think about doing anything to you. I didn’t expect that that Si Xi, that mangy dog, would actually succeed. Look at you two being so intimate with each other all day long.” Liu Deyi touched his chin and said, “If I make a move, how can I let that shameless person beat me to the draw? Si Xi doesn’t have a future, why don’t you come with me? You only need to nod your head, and I’ll get you out of Fourth Qianxi Premises.”
Shen Jue slowly looked up, and the corner of his mouth hooked up into a smile that implied ruthlessness. Liu Deyi was looking down at him. His pupils were dark and filled with haze. In the deepest depths, there seemed to be a demon that appeared quietly. Liu Deyi’s heart was instantly a little uncomfortable, and he said to himself, Why is the look in this Shen Jue’s eyes so creepy?
“Then do you know, if you want to be together with me, you’ll have to pay a price,” said Shen Jue, enunciating every word, each word making Liu Deyi uneasy.
Liu Deyi had been born in a hunter family, and he had grown up in mountain forests since childhood. His mother would often tell him stories about mountain ghosts eating people at night. In the gloomy, cold, and damp forest, what travelers who walked alone had to be on guard against wasn’t the beasts which could pounce out at any time, it was the mountain ghosts that lay dormant in the darkness. Behind trees, underneath leaves, inside rock piles: as long as there was darkness, there could be mountain ghosts.
He had often been frightened by his mother so that he couldn’t sleep, but he had never seen a mountain ghost before, so he gradually realized that his mother had been tricking him. But at this moment, he seemed to see the gloomy and cold look in a mountain ghost’s eyes, like a tiger casting greedy eyes on its prey, teeth-grinding and bloodsucking.
Although he trembled a little in his heart, for his face, he still forced a smile and asked, “What price, let’s hear it.”
Right after he said this, a dull punch hit the side of his face, accompanied with an earth-shattering roar. “Are you fucking blind, you dare to touch my brother!”
Liu Deyi’s brain was muddled from the punch. Before he even reacted, his collar was grabbed, and he was kicked in the abdomen. Liu Deyi leaned against the wall and retched out clear water. Xiahou Lian added a hook, knocking him over to the ground. His feet weren’t idle either, he kicked him like a hurricane. He cried out in pain and shouted for mercy.
“Thing raised by a whore, what kind of muddy pig and mangy dog would dare to get ideas about my brother! If I don’t beat you up until you’re looking everywhere on the ground for your head, then my name isn’t Xia… ahem, Si Xi!”
Shen Jue was still stunned, as Xiahou Lian had appeared too suddenly. He had originally been planning on dealing with Eunuch Liu, but in the blink of an eye, Liu Deyi had been beaten by Xiahou Lian so that he had shouted for his father, mother, and ancestors, one by one.
“Si Xi!” When Liu Deyi heard his name, he suddenly screamed, “You son of a turtle 4 who wants all the good things to yourself, only you can touch, and I can’t use?!”
“Use, like hell you are! I’m going to fucking make you feel so good right now!” Xiahou Lian was so angry his vision became black, and he lifted his robes and sat on Liu Deyi’s waist, dealing blows to his face with both hands as he asked, “Does it feel good? I’m asking you, does it feel good?!”
Liu Deyi’s snot, tears, and saliva streamed, and he was slapped so that he couldn’t even spit out curses. Xiahou Lian’s hands were very strong, and in a little while, Liu Deyi’s face was swollen into a pig’s head.
“Don’t hit my face! Don’t hit my face!” seizing a gap, Liu Deyi shouted. However, Xiahou Lian was deliberately secretly vicious, and every slap was to his face, one after another without pause, slapping until he was dizzy and saw stars.
After slapping him a few tens of times, Xiahou Lian finally stopped. His hand was already sore, and the wound on his shoulder had been involved in the movements from just then. It throbbed with pain, and he didn’t know if it had split or not.
Liu Deyi cried as he said, “Grandfather Si Xi, spare me!”
Xiahou Lian pressed his head to face Shen Jue’s direction and said, “So what if you beg me for mercy? Beg your father for mercy, hurry up and call him father!”
Liu Deyi cried, “Father Shen, spare my life! Hurry and make him stop, I’m going to die!”
Shen Jue’s face darkened. “You’re the grandfather and I’m the father?”
“Sorry, sorry, I got it wrong, I got it wrong!” Xiahou Lian punched Liu Deyi again and said, “Do you know how to speak? Call him Grandfather Shen!”
“Ah, ancestors! I won’t dare ever again, I’m begging you two to let me off this time!” Liu Deyi was suffering unspeakably, and he cried miserably, his pig head smeared with tears.
Xiahou Lian stood up from him and dusted off the hem of his robes. “Okay, I’ll let you off this time. Next time I’ll directly kill you, you son of a bitch.”
Liu Deyi got up from the ground and scrambled forward a few steps. When he was sure he had maintained a safe distance from Xiahou Lian, he turned his head back and spat toward him and Xiahou Lian, saying viciously, “Little bastard, mark this down for me, I’ll definitely make you suffer the consequences!” After saying this, he covered his head and ran off.
Xiahou Lian disagreed and made a “tch” sound. “Coward.”
Shen Jue knew that in the following days, they might have to eat spoiled food, but he didn’t say anything and called Xiahou Lian, saying, “Let’s go, everyone should be starving.”
Xiahou Lian agreed and followed behind him. Shen Jue was quiet, and he didn’t know what he was thinking. He didn’t speak the entire way. These few days, Xiahou Lian’s vigor had recovered, so he had originally wanted to help Shen Jue share the burden of general affairs. Today, he had seen that Shen Jue hadn’t returned even though it had been very late, so he had gone out to search for him. He hadn’t expected that he hadn’t walked many steps before he saw a eunuch pressing Shen Jue against a wall, his hands groping. He had instantly flown into a rage and, without even thinking, threw a punch toward that damned eunuch’s face.
In this dynasty, male homosexuality prevailed, and Emperor Chengzong and Emperor Muzong were both were both famous cut-sleeves. The seal-holding eunuchs of the Directorate of Rites at the time had all relied on their abilities to flatter and win their masters’ favors to rise to their positions, turning the laws and discipline of the imperial court into a mess. If an upper beam wasn’t straight, then the lower ones would become crooked. The atmosphere in the palace became more and more rotten. Eunuchs with a little bit of power didn’t get enough women, so they also reached their dirty hands toward men. The same went for civilians, and male entertainers playing guqin and singing songs was a common sight and delighted the rich and powerful. The brothel run by Garan also couldn’t do without these singers, and it was said that Qiu-shifu had debuted like this.
It couldn’t be helped for others, but Shen Jue was from a well-known clan, so how could he suffer these kinds of pent-up grievances? Xiahou Lian’s heart ached, yet he was limited by his stupid mouth. He thought for a long time but couldn’t think of any good words to console Shen Jue.
Xiahou Lian quickened his pace and took the food box in Shen Jue’s hands, and turned his face to the side. The sun was shining on Shen Jue’s face, coating it with a layer of warm gold. He was impassive, and his face was, as always, sickly and pale. Nowadays, his thoughts were becoming more and more unfathomable, and Xiahou Lian was a little muddled.
They stepped through the palace gate, and Shen Jue put down the food box and went inside. Xiahou Lian sent the meal to the rooms of the crazy noble consorts one by one. Some of the women were singing and some were embroidering, and only Consort Gao was flailing randomly. There were clusters of flowers and piles of brocades stuck on her head, making her look like a rooster whose feathers were standing upright. The old eunuchs had said that recently, Consort Gao was very ill and was even more crazy. Before, she would sit on the wall and call for the emperor all day long, and now she would go onto the roof tiles and say that she was an unmatched hero. Xiahou Lian chased after her for a while before getting her to eat her meal obediently. After finishing his job, he didn’t have time to eat and went inside the room to see Shen Jue first.
He had just entered the room when he saw Shen Jue half-naked and standing next to the washbasin rack. His body was very good; his skin was jade-white, his muscles were well-balanced, and his skeleton was slender, though he looked slightly thin and weak. He wasn’t like Xiahou Lian, whose body was covered in scars, as if he had walked through a mountain of sabers and a sea of fire and back. Shen Jue’s back was facing Xiahou Lian, so Xiahou Lian could only see his disgusted expression in the brass mirror, practically gritting his teeth. He was holding a wet cloth in his hand and fiercely scrubbing the places on his shoulder and arm where Liu Deyi had touched. Even though his flesh and Liu Deyi’s hand had been separated by a layer of cloth, Shen Jue seemed to wish he could peel off his skin.
“Stop scrubbing!” Xiahou Lian seized Shen Jue’s cloth and said.
Shen Jue said angrily, “What are you doing!”
“Do you want to lose a layer of skin!”
“It’s none of your business! Get lost!”
Seeing Shen Jue’s face filled with anger, Xiahou Lian felt a lot more at ease. Before, when he had had an impassive face, Xiahou Lian had been uneasy.
“Don’t move.” Xiahou Lian opened the curio shelf and took out a piece of soap. He carefully spread foam on Shen Jue’s shoulder and arm, and then used his palms to rub them gently. Because Xiahou Lian held a saber all year round, his palms were covered in calluses and were very coarse, yet when they touched his arm, they were surprisingly comfortable and fitting. The bottoms of Shen Jue’s ears instantly became red, and he mumbled, “I already said that it’s none of your business.”
Xiahou Lian looked sideways at him. “Be content, I rush to serve you, yet you’re making a face toward me. Usually when I wash myself, I’m not even this diligent.” In this life, Xiahou Lian had never been very diligent when taking baths. It was as if he was wiping the most precious blue and white porcelain, afraid that he would touch or knead it and break it, and it was only missing being waxed.
He didn’t know how it had happened. He only felt that this person Shen Jue, by nature, should be respected and worshiped. He had such good looks and he was full of poetry knowledge, who could compare with him? He should be an official who waited for the emperor to appear in the court in the early morning and whose name went down in history, and even if he didn’t seek to provide shade for his descendants, he could still get into the imperial court. The heavens were playing tricks. Now, he had become a eunuch, his fame had become running water, his descendants had become bubbles, and he was also ravaged by filthy people like Si Xi and Liu Deyi. How could this make one not hurt and hate?
The heavens’ will was difficult to violate. If the heavens wanted you to fall into a mire, even if you grew wings of gold, the heavens would likewise melt it.
Xiahou Lian held back the anguish that arose in his heart and wetted a face cloth, wiping the foam on Shen Jue’s arm clean. The fine and dense foam dissolved into the cloth, revealing smooth skin underneath. The soap had been mixed with osmanthus perfume, making his arm have a faintly discernible fragrance of osmanthus, which smelled very pleasant.
“All right, it’s clean!”
Shen Jue turned his head and said in a low voice, “On my face, too.”
Xiahou Lian agreed and wetted the soap, rubbing it gently on his face and then using his fingertips to knead gently.
A strange feeling arose in Shen Jue’s heart, as if a feather was tickling his heart, making it itchy. He wanted to push Xiahou Lian’s hands aside, but he was also reluctant to, and just as he was conflicted back and forth, Xiahou Lian had already finished helping him clean. Xiahou Lian withdrew his hands, and when he threw the face cloth into the basin, Shen Jue actually had a type of feeling of being lost.
It wasn’t that there was no one who treated him well in the palace. However, there were precautions hidden in his heart, and he had built tall walls. He was respectful and courteous toward everyone as if they were guests, seemingly separated by a layer. When he suffered bitterness and suffered hardship, he could only swallow it into his stomach. He was used to enduring it, so this was nothing. However, upon facing Xiahou Lian, he would relax at once.
How nice, he thought. He was like a stray dog that didn’t have a home to return to, and he had been walking in the boundless and lush world, walking until his fur was dirty and his claws were broken, when suddenly, he had found a shed that was a shelter from the wind and rain. From now on, no matter how many beatings he received outside, how many sins he suffered, at least there was a place he could rest at.
However, he seemed to have thought too wishfully, as this shed was clearly a little drafty——Xiahou Lian had originally wanted to put the soap back into the curio shelf, but with a fumble, it fell to the ground and became stained with dust.
Shen Jue’s face was a little dark. “I only have this one piece.” He disliked the soap in the palace, which had a weird smell. He had saved two months’ worth of salary and asked someone to bring this osmanthus soap in from outside the palace.
Xiahou Lian apologized repeatedly, cleaned the soap up, and put it back to its original spot. Shen Jue looked gloomily at the osmanthus soap that had suffered a calamity and thought, Forget it, I’d better throw it away.
Xiahou Lian carried the washbasin outside to pour out the water. Just as he was about to open the door, Shen Jue’s voice suddenly sounded from behind him.
“Xiahou Lian, I don’t need your pity.”
This brat, he was determined to save face. Xiahou Lian said helplessly, “I don’t pity you.”
Shen Jue didn’t say anything, so Xiahou Lian thought that he was fine. He put his hand on the door and was just about to pull it open, but the front of his robes were suddenly tugged from behind. Xiahou Lian turned and saw Shen Jue’s lowered eyes, his loose hair covering half of his face so that Xiahou Lian could only see the corners of his eyes that were red.
“What is it?” Xiahou Lian was unable to stand people crying the most, especially Shen Jue, and he was thrown into a panic immediately.
“You’re not allowed to leave,” Shen Jue suddenly moved close to and hugged Xiahou Lian tightly, “Xiahou Lian, I won’t allow you to leave!” Shen Jue’s voice sounded next to his ear, and Xiahou Lian heard that almost imperceptible trembling and fear.
Yeah, he had forgotten that Shen Jue had always had the personality of being determined to save face. No matter how scared his heart was, how pained, he would still have to struggle to keep his back straight and to still have his tattered reputation. In Xie Manor he had been like this as a little young master who no one cared for, and in the imperial palace he was also like this as a servant who was trampled upon by many people. He had always had his own pride.
Xiahou Lian was silent for a long time, silent to the point that Shen Jue felt his blood was going to grow cold. Finally, Xiahou Lian sighed deeply, carried the basin with one hand, and freed his right hand to stroke Shen Jue’s back. He said softly, “Okay, I won’t leave.”