Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Capital suburbs, Shili Hillside 1.
On the martial arts field, two soldiers were having a competition. Both of them were using goose quill sabers, which had narrow backs and long blades. They exchanged several tens of moves back and forth, the lights of their sabers like rolling snow, looking dazzling. A circle of people had crowded around them, and they cheered from time to time.
Situ Jin was wiping the weapons on the weapon rack, and he took a few looks at the situation on the field from time to time.
The second day after he had come here, he had been shown severity from someone putting on airs. The barracks weren’t like the Feathered Forest Guard. In the Feathered Forest Guard, they were all military officers that had come up either by properly taking the imperial examination on military knowledge and skill, or were disciples that had been chosen from well-known clans. However, some of the soldiers in the barracks were good, some bad, and there were a lot of people that had been born as rogues and beggars. When new recruits had just entered the barracks, they couldn’t avoid being tormented by the older soldiers, and serving tea and water and pouring chamber pots was common. Or, they would take refuge with a boss and follow and serve them closely as a servant. In his second year, he would become an older soldier himself, and would be able to bully other new recruits.
This barracks had traditions passed down from the ancestors, and the army ruffians couldn’t do anything else, so they only carried this out thoroughly.
Situ Jin was considered relatively lucky. Because he had an unapproachable appearance, the soldiers judged him to seem hard to bully, so they gave him a job of wiping the weapons. Situ Jin liked this job a lot. He didn’t have many friends, so sabers and swords were his closest companions, and he felt that it was easier to get along with sabers and swords than to get along with people.
The people on the field were fighting so that they were hard to separate. Situ Jin finished wiping the last spear and stood in the outer ring, craning his head to watch. Now, it was clear that the man with the long face had the upper hand. He cut in a circle several times, practically forcing the other person to the edge of the raised platform. His saber moves were simple and unadorned. To put it nicely, they went on a wide and open way, and to put it a little worse, they were using sheer force. A fine goose quill saber was being brandished like a big hammer, relying on brute force to smash on the opponent’s blade. The two sabers made unbearably long wails.
Situ Jin shook his head. This kind of person didn’t understand sabers.
The long-faced man chopped at his head again, and the opponent’s toes tapped the ground, spinning to dodge. The long-faced man turned around and slashed horizontally, the light of his saber as bright as snow. Situ Jin sighed lightly. “Wrong.”
“Oh? What’s wrong?” someone nearby came over and asked.
Situ Jin said moderately, “Using a saber like a hammer, he doesn’t understand sabers.”
Sure enough, before Situ Jin even finished speaking, the long-faced man cried out in pain. It turned out that the opponent had used the spine of his saber to firmly hit him on the ankle. The situation where he had originally had the upper hand abruptly reversed. The man lost his balance and rolled off the raised platform. Everyone cheered, and Situ Jin turned to leave.
“Hold on,” the man who had questioned him just then spoke. “This comrade commented clearly and logically just now, he must be quite accomplished in saber skills.”
Situ Jin slowly got a little sense that something wasn’t right in these words, and he turned, looking at the man uncertainly.
The long-faced man that had been hit off the platform from just then walked behind the man and called in a low voice, “Big brother.”
The man smiled a little maliciously and said, “We brothers started learning the saber from our father starting from the age of five, and we learned the North’s strongest, Twelve Blizzard Sabers. Until now, no one has ever said that we brothers don’t understand sabers. It can’t be helped for my brother. He’s still young, so his saber techniques aren’t advanced. Although my humble saber techniques can’t be said to be unparalleled, if that Garan of Seven Leaves’s Garuda encountered my saber, he’d have to think about it first. Hmph, but I don’t know about this comrade, what abilities do you have?”
Situ Jin: “…”
Twelve Blizzard Sabers was the North’s worst street saber technique. Almost everyone could do a few of its moves, something like “Swan Goose Imprinting Snow” and “Returning Wind and Revolving Snow,” but in reality, nine-tenths of the saber scrolls spread on the streets were fake. Situ Jin had never looked at those saber scrolls, as he had only muddledly trained with the sabersmen who passed by the small town. They had taught him a few moves, so he had learned a few moves.
He didn’t even know the names of these moves. He would cut at wooden stakes day after day with straight and blank eyes. The unnamed moves had already been integrated into his bones and blood a long time ago, and as long as he held a saber hilt, he would know how to wield the saber.
Only until he had encountered the Garuda in the imperial palace did he know that what he practiced turned out to be Blizzard Saber. The Garuda had assassinated the successor of Blizzard Saber before, so she had seen the true Blizzard Saber. If she said it was, then it must be.
He recalled the impoverished small town in the North at the time. In the rustling, heavy snow that was as dense as a curtain, the bold and unrestrained sabersmen had cut down with a stunning stroke.
True Blizzard Saber could cut open heavy snow.
Situ Jin actually really wanted to say, If you encountered the Garuda, even having eight lives wouldn’t be enough to survive. However, he had always been gentle and restrained as a person, so he merely said, “I only said your little brother doesn’t understand, I didn’t say you don’t understand.”
The man humphed. “In that case, why don’t the two of us have a competition? I’ll ask you for advice, and we’ll see if I actually understand sabers or not!”
“What does you understanding or not have to do with me?” Situ Jin was finally a little impatient. “I haven’t wiped the weapons on the other side yet, I’m very busy.”
“Give him a saber!” The man glared at him with a pair of incompetent eyes as big as copper bells, roaring recklessly.
Someone threw a goose quill saber to Situ Jin, and Situ Jin caught it helplessly. The man unsheathed his saber and stared at him ferociously.
Boring people always liked to do boring things. Situ Jin had no way out, and he estimated that he could deal with him in a few moves. He made sure there wasn’t a delay in wiping the weapons and also unsheathed his saber. He held the saber hilt with a reverse grip, hiding the blade behind his elbow.
Upon seeing this, everyone laughed. How could a reverse grip face the opponent?
The man also laughed and said, “Who taught you this move? A pig butcher?”
Situ Jin glanced at him and didn’t say anything. His gaze contained a casual indifference, as if he was looking at insignificant dust. Only one glance made an evil fire surge up in the man.
The man roared loudly, raised his saber with both hands, and charged toward Situ Jin.
Situ Jin didn’t move. He maintained the posture of holding his saber with a reverse grip and didn’t even look up. The powerful wind of the saber was close by, and the man’s saber was like a hammer of a thousand pounds 2, accompanied by the momentum of the wind and thunder as he chopped down at his head. Situ Jin leaned to the side and dodged, stepping one step forward. The two of them made contact for only an instant, and they met in that instant and then separated again, standing back-to-back.
Victory or defeat had already been assigned.
Everyone only had time to see the man’s chop that had been like moving and lifting a mountain, yet no one saw the long blade in Situ Jin’s hand flash past in a clear arc. Only the man was aware of it, and he panted rapidly, reaching out to touch his waist. The cloth and silk at the side of his waist had been split by a long tear, revealing the bronze skin inside.
Everyone was so silent, not even a crow or sparrow could have been heard. Situ Jin impassively put the saber back into its scabbard and said in a low voice, “You let me win 3.”
The man’s face was red for a while and then white for a while. He had been finished by one move and lost all of his face. From now on, he wouldn’t be able to even think about mixing in in the barracks. Suddenly, a wave of applause sounded, and a man wearing helmet and armor walked in, clapping and laughing loudly. “Your age is young, but your skill isn’t bad.”
Everyone saluted with folded hands. “Greetings to Lu Dusi.”
Lu Dusi looked at Situ Jin and asked, “What’s your name?”
“It turns out to be you,” Lu Dusi said, nodding. “You’re Xuanhe’s 4 eighteenth top martial scholar, I’ve heard your name before.”
Everyone sucked in a breath of cold air. Only the man snorted in contempt. Since he was the top martial scholar, why had he come to this barracks to be a soldier? He internally criticized him happily, and in a moment of carelessness, he also scolded himself into it.
Lu Dusi spoke again. “I heard that you were demoted. Young people shouldn’t be discouraged, your path is still long. Being demoted for a while isn’t a big deal, you can still make contributions in the Fifth Barracks Battalion, isn’t that right everyone!”
Everyone roared in unison, “Right!”
“Isn’t this the opportunity coming right away! Word has come from the higher-ups that the emperor is going to hunt deer in the Xishan 5 Imperial Hunting Ground this afternoon. I’ll pick someone to hunt with the nobles. This is a good opportunity to get promoted, so who wants to offer their services!”
Everyone looked at one another and took a step back.
Lu Dusi’s talk was even more pleasant than singing. “Hunting with the nobles” was actually hiding in the forest, looking at which prey the emperor’s sons and descendants had their eyes on, and then shooting that prey. Eunuchs would hold the prey that had been shot and merely said that it had been shot by the nobles. If they encountered a noble that had slightly better shooting skills who happened to shoot a prey, and the prey had two arrows in it, the eunuch would quietly pull out an arrow, leaving only one arrow in it, and still hold it up.
It would’ve been fine if it had just been this; it was just hiding in the forest and shooting a few deer, nothing difficult. However, they were afraid that some ignorant and incompetent nobles’ arrows would fly everywhere as if they didn’t have eyes. The year before last, a soldier in the Three Thousand Battalion 6 had been extremely unlucky and had gotten shot by an arrow from some duke or uncle in the royal bloodline, dying on the spot. The imperial court had paid some silver and it had been considered over, but the poor family of old and young had been relying on his meager salary. He was gone after they said he was gone and the family had no more hope, so the old people had brought the children and jumped into a river together.
The eyes of the man who had competed with Situ Jin turned, and he pointed at Situ Jin, saying, “I have a candidate. Top Scholar Situ is highly skilled in martial arts, and he’s also a first-class master at archery, why don’t you let him go.”
Lu Dusi smiled. “I was just thinking the same thing.” With this, he turned his head and looked at Situ Jin. “Go back and prepare, come here to me in a little while.”
Situ Jin lowered his head and agreed. The man walked in front of him and smiled. “You indeed understand sabers very well, but I don’t know if you understand arrows, or if arrows understand you. Hahaha!”
The forest was as deep as an ocean, and a strong wind suddenly arose.
The surging waves of the branches and leaves rose one after another, and the rustling sound of leaves and overwhelming chirping of cicadas crowded into one’s ears. Daylight passed through the gaps between the leaves and filtered down like cascading gold shavings, fragmented and bright dust fluttering among it.
Situ Jin was sitting on a horse and carrying a longbow on his back, looking from a distance at the people and horses ahead of him. In the forest, excluding him, there were also several archers. Everyone went in small groups and scattered all over the forest, so as to be able to hunt the prey the nobles had their eyes on at any time.
The one leading in the front was the eldest prince. He was riding a maroon Ferghana horse, which was said to be the foreigners’ new tribute. The eldest prince was extraordinarily courageous, and he had tamed this horse on the spot in front of Fengtian Hall 7. Emperor Xuanhe had been very pleased, so he had given it to the eldest prince. The one following closely next to him was the seal-holding eunuch of the Directorate of Rites, Wei De. He was wearing a Tatar hat on his head and narrow-sleeved clothes patterned with clouds and flying fish. There was a red-lacquered waist saber made of sharkskin at his waist, and a bow bag and quiver of arrows were hanging from his horse. A line of underlings followed behind him, all of them wearing gold-traced black gauze hats and round-collared sunflower shirts.
Wei De seemed not too able to ride horses, as a little eunuch in black clothes was leading his horse and walking slowly. Situ Jin looked at the little eunuch. His head was lowered, and his every movement had a respectful and submissive aura. His figure was frail, his shoulders and back had become thin, and he looked a little familiar.
An archer behind him lamented in a low voice, “Look at this ostentation, and look at this attire. If no one said anything, who would know that Eunuch Wei is a servant? The way I see it, even when he’s in front of the prince, he’s not much worse off.”
“Tell me about it, it’s not too much to say he’s half a master. This time really is strange, people with stems 8 can’t match people without stems, why don’t we all just cut them off,” someone agreed.
Wei De had started out insignificant. He used to be a self-castrated eunuch who hadn’t been chosen by the imperial court. On his way of being sent to exile, he had encountered the carriage of the previous emperor. The imperial horses hadn’t even arrived in front of them when he had rushed out of the line of prisoners and knelt in the dust. No matter how the Embroidered Uniform guards used whips to hit him, he hadn’t gotten up. The late emperor had felt pity, so he had brought him into the palace as a companion to Emperor Xuanhe, who had still been the third prince at the time. The Emperor Xuanhe’s mother had died when he had been born, so he had been disliked by people and hated by dogs since childhood. Even when he was beaten by the other princes until his head was broken and bleeding, he was ignored. He was also a little stupid, so he would often receive beatings from the imperial teacher’s ruler as discipline, and every time he returned to his bedroom, his palms would have an area of red.
Only Wei De had taken the utmost care of him. When the other princes hit him, Wei De couldn’t fight back, so he would hold him in his arms, and even when there were several footprints on his back from being kicked, he would appease him as if nothing had happened. When his palms had hurt so much he couldn’t fall asleep, Wei De would use his mouth to blow on them over and over again. When no one played with him, Wei De would be a horse for him to ride and a dog for him to order about.
Difficulty in having children was a disease that had been passed down by the ancestors in the Gao family, so the Gao ancestors had had large harems, gone everywhere to pray to Buddhas for help, and had even smelted pills of immortality 9, but they were still helpless. Fortunately, relying on so little male offspring, Great Qi was still passed on well for over ten generations. When it got here to Emperor Xuanhe, there were more brothers and sisters than before: three sons and a daughter. However, the first two brothers had turned on each other to seize the throne, and both sides were defeated and wounded, both of them stretching their necks, kicking their legs up, and dying. Like a meat pie that had fallen from the heavens, the throne had landed on Emperor Xuanhe’s head.
Emperor Xuanhe had nearly been knocked unconscious, but his temperament that had originally been suppressed by his two brothers had been released. Since taking the throne, he had built Leopard Houses, traveled to the south 10, chosen beauties, and repeated absurd things, ignoring political affairs. The right to revise orders thus fell into Wei De’s hands.
Thus, the Eastern Depot had flourished, prisons prospered, and the eunuch faction’s strength and influence had become vast, causing all officials to panic. The emperor only cared about indulging in eating, drinking, and merrymaking, and Wei De had hidden the truth from the public. Even high-ranking officials had to respectfully salute with clasped hands when they saw Wei De.
These words couldn’t be said out in the open, so everyone only dared to sigh in their hearts. The Eastern Depot underlings seized every opportunity, and even the dominoes that officials drew in their homes could get back to the palace, much less these whispers. If Wei De knew people were gossiping about him behind his back, they would certainly find themselves in serious trouble.
Situ Jin didn’t respond. He looked at Wei De’s black horse and frowned slightly.
He didn’t know whether it was an illusion, but this horse seemed to walk a little crookedly.
Over there, the eldest prince had talked to a point of enthusiasm, and he laughed loudly a few times. He cracked the horsewhip, making the horse start galloping. Wei De waved toward the little eunuch, and the little eunuch stepped back and stood to the side. Wei De also raised his horsewhip, just about to catch up.
Everything changed abruptly.
It hadn’t run many steps when the black horse suddenly made a long neigh, its two front hooves kneeling, and the entire horse fell down to the side. Wei De turned pale with fright, his body maintaining a brief, precarious balance, but in the end, he couldn’t hold on, and fell down from the horse’s back.
Everyone’s faces were covered in terror. However, the underlings were too far, and distant waters couldn’t put out nearby fires. They could only watch helplessly as Wei De fell down like a withered tree and grass.
Only the little eunuch saw the situation, and he rushed out like an arrow released from a bowstring. He just happened to rush underneath right before Wei De fell down, and he acted as a flesh mat for him. This year, Wei De was already in his early sixties, and the black horse was a little taller than a person, so if his old bones fell down like this, even if he didn’t fall to pieces, it would still take away half of his life. Although the little eunuch’s body was skinny and bony, it at least served as a cushion. The two of them fell to the ground at the same time, and Wei De shouted out with an “ouch.” The Tatar hat on his head rolled to the ground, slowly turning in a few circles.
The instant the little eunuch fell to the ground, Situ Jin saw his face clearly. He had chilly brows and eyes, and his lips were tightly pursed; it was Shen Jue, whom he had seen before.
Shen Jue held Wei De, and his arm knocked against a sharp rock. Blood instantly started dripping, smearing half of his sleeve. It hurt excruciatingly, but he forced himself not to make a sound as he slowly sat up, about to help Wei De up.
In front of him, Wei De still hadn’t recovered from the shock. The hair on his temples was disheveled, and he panted heavily as he examined the black horse that had fallen to the ground and couldn’t get up. He said with gritted teeth, “Someone wanted to kill me! Someone wanted to kill me!” Wei De put a hand over his heart and recovered his breath with difficulty. He pointed at Shen Jue and asked, “What… What is your name, who was responsible for feeding this horse? Guards, guards! Get that useless Yan Ang over here for me!”
Shen Jue knelt on the ground and kowtowed, replying, “I’m Shen Jue of Fourth Qianxi Premises. The horse was originally looked after by Eunuch Cao, who’s in charge of the stables of the Directorate of Imperial Horses. A few days ago, Eunuch Yan said that Eunuch Cao has been sick, so he asked me to help take over his shift. I… I didn’t expect today’s accident would happen at all, I hope Eunuch Wei will forgive my offense!”
With a pile of words, he had picked himself clean. Shen Jue’s head was on the ground, hiding the chilling shadows in his eyes.
“What would Yan Ang ask you to meddle in the affairs of the Directorate of Imperial Horses for?!” Wei De was so angry his eyes were about to pop out. “That damned Yan Ang, I haven’t breathed my last breath yet, and he’s already plotting against me!”
When the eldest prince heard the activity, he turned his horse around and asked, “What happened?”
Suddenly, a cold arrow was shot obliquely into the Ferghana horse’s behind. Blood instantly flowed, and the Ferghana horse was pained, abruptly charging toward Shen Jue and Wei De. The eldest prince turned pale with fear, and he exerted all of his strength, wanting to tighten the reins. However, the Ferghana horse didn’t listen to his commands and recklessly charged forward. He roared loudly, “Get out of the way! Hurry and get out of the way!”
The horse’s hooves stepped on the ground, causing dust to splatter and fly up. The clopping sounds were like beating drums, and Shen Jue and Wei De could practically feel the quaking of the ground. They were too close, and they didn’t have time to dodge at all. Shen Jue’s pupils contracted, and Wei De was so frightened his face was ashen. He watched dazedly as the iron gray horse hooves swiftly approached. In an instant, Wei De’s brain flashed like lightning and flint, and his withered, claw-like hands gripped Shen Jue’s arms tightly. In the instant the two of them faced each other, Wei De pulled Shen Jue in front of him.
He actually wanted to use Shen Jue as a meat shield to block the horse hooves!
Wei De widened his eyes, his pupils muddy like a deep pool, reflecting Shen Jue’s pale face in them. Shen Jue didn’t have time to struggle, and the sounds of the horse’s hooves were already close by!
- Lit. Ten-Mile Hillside.
- Actually a thousand jin. One jin is equivalent to 1.1 pounds.
- He doesn’t actually mean this, it’s just a common humble thing to say after winning something.
- Title of Song Huizong, the eighth emperor of the Northern Song Dynasty.
- Lit. Western Mountains.
- One of the Ming dynasty’s three elite military divisions stationed around the capital. The other two are the Five Barracks Battalion and the Divine Machine Battalion.
- Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest hall within the Forbidden City.
- Similar euphemism as spout, people with stems means they haven’t been castrated.
- Created by ancient alchemists using gold, lead, mercury, etc., and they believed that taking it would grant immortality.
- Specifically south of Yangtze.