Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
A feathered arrow congealed with a cold light suddenly emerged in the sky, passed over the top of Shen Jue’s head, and shot into the Ferghana horse’s head.
The horse neighed and knelt, its huge body sliding on the ground. It slowly rolled next to Shen Jue and Wei De, and the dust it splattered up landed all over both of their heads and faces. The eldest prince screamed as he was flung out and hit the ground forcibly.
Shen Jue turned his head. In the distance, there was a grim-faced young man riding on a horse, a longbow still raised in his hands.
The eldest prince’s head was broken and bleeding from the fall, and his head was dizzy for a long time. The pain in his calves surged up later, quickly and overwhelmingly occupying all of his nerves.
“It… It hurts…!”
The underlings panicked as they surrounded him. Wei De pushed everyone aside and shouted for someone to get the imperial physicians while examining the eldest prince’s injuries. A few other underlings hurriedly pulled Situ Jin down from his horse and pushed him in front of Wei De.
“Eunuch, this person… this person shot the horse to save people, but he caused the eldest prince to fall off his horse. How should we deal with him?”
Shen Jue pursed his lips and moved a few steps forward on his knees. He kowtowed and said, “Captain Situ is pardonable for saving people, please be lenient for his punishment.”
Situ Jin knelt on the ground calmly, as if the one suffering a great disaster wasn’t him.
“Nonsense!” Wei De shouted sternly and said, “How can my mere life compare with the prince’s? If it were exchanged for the prince’s good health, why not give up my life? As a captain, you don’t distinguish between severity, so you ought to be punished! Guards, take him to the dungeons and wait for the emperor to deal with him!”
Shen Jue gritted his teeth and didn’t say anything else.
No matter how many objections he had, he would still lose due to his humble position and the little weight in his words. He was only an ant, and saving himself was still a large effort, so how could he also save the person who caused the prince to fall from his horse and break his legs? Even though he had saved him.
Shen Jue’s silent appearance was seen in Wei De’s eyes. This young child was either vigorous and impetuous, his mouth full of long and useless brotherliness, favors necessary to be repaid, when in reality it went beyond his abilities, like a moth darting into a flame; or, he recoiled timidly, hiding when anything came up, uncourageous, especially being scared out of his wits upon encountering unknown, filthy things, not even able to speak neatly.
When this child had seen the person who had shown him favor be arrested, he had had the courage to step out and speak, so he evidently wasn’t ungrateful. After being unable to make him change his mind, he hadn’t insisted on it, so he evidently could understand the situation. A bit of interest arose in Wei De’s heart, and he helped Shen Jue up from the ground, saying, “Just now, what did you say your name was?”
The opportunity had come.
Shen Jue suppressed his frenzied heartbeat and said, “I am Shen Jue, and I work in Fourth Qianxi Premises.”
“Shen Jue is a good name, who gave it to you?” Wei De said pleasantly, as he rarely did.
“It was my mother,” lied Shen Jue, his expression not changing. “My mother has read some books before.”
Women who had read books before were either cultured daughters of a family who lived in a large residence, or they were prostitutes in brothels. The eunuchs in the palace usually came from humble backgrounds, otherwise they wouldn’t have done this business of dying without descendants. Wei De understood a little in his heart and said, “Are you literate?”
“I know some characters.” Shen Jue didn’t know Wei De’s intentions, so he replied cautiously.
“Okay, not bad. This is none of your business, go back and rest.”
The underlings lifted a stretcher and moved the eldest prince away. A few overdue imperial physicians attended around him, continuously using handkerchiefs to wipe the dense beads of sweat on their foreheads. Nowadays, being an imperial physician was a highly risky profession, comparable to that of assassins. At every move, it would be “what’s the use of raising you all” and “if you don’t cure them, you’ll be buried with them” striking them in the faces. Not to mention, this prince was the only son and heir that had been raised with great difficulty and the hard work of many years. If something happened to him, they would all follow in losing their heads.
Wei De restrained his expression and followed.
Shen Jue originally wanted to follow behind, and the words he had already thought of rose to the top of his throat. However, they were pressed down tightly by the shame in his chest. Shen Jue’s mind was very confused. He clenched his fists tightly and opened his mouth, but in the end, he still didn’t make a sound.
After all, he was a youth of fourteen years, and the arrogance in his bones was indelible. Even if he bowed and knelt, his back was still firm. Only people who crawled out of a pile of mud and felt that their life was innately cheap could be without burden as they acted obsequiously and greeted people with a smiling face. Shen Jue’s skill was still far from perfect, and even though he had restrained his pride, he still couldn’t put on that level of a likable smiling appearance.
Shen Jue sullenly returned to Fourth Qianxi Premises and distantly saw Xiahou Lian sitting on the threshold of Shunzhen Gate, craning his head and looking. His heart unconsciously warmed, as comfortable as being warmed by hot charcoal.
At the wooden gate, one heard the barking of a dog, as they returned on a windy and snowy night 1.
Outside, no matter how much glinting of sabers and swords he experienced, wasn’t it just so he could get back home and be pulled by the ear and told, “where’d you die off to, how come you’re back so late”?
When Xiahou Lian saw Shen Jue, his eyes lit up, and he hastily came up to him. When he saw his bloodstained sleeve, he said in shock, “Didn’t you say you weren’t going to assas… that so-and-so! How did this happen?”
If he hadn’t said anything, Shen Jue would’ve forgotten that he had been injured. He casually glanced at his wound and said, “It’s nothing, I just cut a bit of my skin.” With this, he looked sideways at Xiahou Lian and said, “Do I know how to cultivate immortality or what, I can take his head off under everyone’s watchful eyes?”
He hadn’t done something foolish, so Xiahou Lian felt at ease. He dragged him back to the room and got bandages and medicine for metal-inflicted wounds as he asked, “Then what did you do? Did you see Wei De? What does he look like?”
“Like an ordinary person,” Shen Jue replied without looking up.
Xiahou Lian looked up at him and saw that his expression wasn’t that happy. He measured in his heart that it must be that he had seen the enemy who had exterminated his clan, yet had no ability to take his measly life, so he was uncomfortable in his heart. Thus, he said gently, “Young Master, don’t worry, there will always be an opportunity to kill that bastard.” Halfway through, Xiahou Lian recalled something, and he said exultantly, “Right, there actually is a thing to take off his head off under everyone’s watchful eyes. Have you heard of Leading Mechanism Silk 2?”
“No,” Shen Jue squinted as he looked at him, “for killing among the multitudes, I’ve only heard of Zhang Liang’s sledgehammer 3.”
Xiahou Lian completely exposed his own ignorance and incompetence. “What the hell is that? ——Ah, what I’m talking about is a type of weapon used by Garan assassins three generations ago. It’s shaped like silk, but it’s so sharp that if you place a hair on it and blow on it, the hair will break, and it can even cut through gold and jade. That thing is very thin, so if your eyesight isn’t good, you won’t be able to see it. If a person walked past it, they wouldn’t feel anything. After walking a few steps, they’ll look down, and oh no, their body has been cut into two halves.”
Shen Jue didn’t believe it very much; even the sharpest saber couldn’t neatly cut through the human body, and killing a pig still needed several chops. He said doubtfully, “Then why don’t you use it anymore now?”
“Its crafting process is too difficult. Mech Silk has been passed down for three generations, and in the three generations, only the Garuda could use the furnace and smelt this thing. Not only is it hard to smelt, it’s even harder to control. Controlling one is okay, and it’s also easy to lay down a net of a hundred Mech Silk in advance, but if you want to make an array and transform the layout of the silk net, making it impossible for the enemy to escape or retreat, it’s hard. Moving a part slightly would affect the entire thing, so if you want to learn silk arrays, you also have to first learn ‘The Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art’ and whatnot, and know the various silk net changes extremely well, before you can control silk arrays.” Xiahou Lian shrugged. “But you know, we saber-wielders have no leisure to learn arithmetic, and being able to read all of the Three Character Classic is considered good fortune.”
He was too embarrassed to say that to this day, Uncle Duan would even write his own name incorrectly.
“How could they do it, then?” Shen Jue snorted in contempt. “Clearly, the morals of the world are getting worse day by day, and each generation is worse than the last.”
“The Garudas of those three generations all had the surname of Ban, and it’s said that they’re the descendants of Gongshu’s 4 mechanism techniques. Three generations later, their clan died out, so it’s not strange that it couldn’t be passed down.”
“Can’t you think of a way, if you can restore Mech Silk, you might be able to kill the abbot and take control of Garan of Seven Leaves yourself.” With this, he glanced at his arm that had been tightly wrapped by Xiahou Lian and said helplessly, “It’s just a small injury, why bandage it?”
“Look at your delicate skin, how dare I be careless?” Xiahou Lian used scissors to cut the bandage and tied a beautiful traditional decorative knot. “What’s good about being the abbot, I’d have to shave my head and wouldn’t be able to take a wife, how bitter. I’m not like you, having high ambitions. Besides, I’m going with you now, and in the future when you sit in the top spot of the governor of the Eastern Depot and match me with a palace maid as beautiful as a fairy, I’ll be satisfied.”
Shen Jue was full of admiration. Fortunately, this guy hadn’t been born in a wealthy family as a young master, or else he would certainly be eating, drinking, whoring, gambling, treacherous, lazy, and cunning——a child of the rich who engaged in every evil imaginable. Forget it, in any case, Xiahou Lian was staying nicely inside the palace now, and when he had power and influence, Xiahou Lian could have any woman he wanted, as long as it wasn’t a noble consort or a princess in the palace.
Shen Jue himself had already planned to be a eunuch for a lifetime, so for him, descendants were like flowers in a mirror or the moon in water. He couldn’t get close, and he hadn’t even thought about going over to get them. When Xiahou Lian had a family, he would let him have a few more sons, and he himself would choose the smartest among them to provide for him in his old age and give him a proper burial.
As Shen Jue thought about it, he suddenly felt sad. When Xiahou Lian had a new family, what about him? What would he be? On the moonlit night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, Xiahou Lian would be hugging his wife and children, worshiping the moon rabbit, and eating mooncakes. He and his family would be overflowing with joy, so wouldn’t he feel ashamed if he joined them as an unmarried man? Shen Jue was extremely spiteful and acerbic toward himself, and it was like a file had been firmly stabbed into his heart, hurting dully.
How could this be!
Shen Jue looked up abruptly and glared at Xiahou Lian, saying, “You wish!”
This glare made Xiahou Lian bewildered, and he blankly stayed where he was, at a loss. Shen Jue’s bad temper came suddenly, even more sudden than the wind and rain in the sixth month, and it didn’t even have a forewarning. Xiahou Lian had been afflicted with great suffering, but he still couldn’t make out a pattern. He asked with straight and blank eyes, “What did I do now?”
Shen Jue didn’t say anything and only looked at Xiahou Lian with hidden bitterness.
“Exactly what did I do, say it?”
What could he say? Could it be that he wanted Xiahou Lian to follow him and not take a wife or have children for a lifetime? Xiahou Lian agreeing to stay in the palace was already a great gift to him. Shen Jue turned his face away and pushed open the grill window to look outside. The sky had already darkened, dim and heavy, and a few stars that were more dead than alive hung under the dome of the sky, as if they would fall down in the blink of an eye.
Xiahou Lian lost his temper. If he wasn’t going to say it then don’t, did he think he was pleased to serve him! He kept silent as he lowered his head and tidied the scissors and bandages. In the blink of an eye, he saw Shen Jue carrying his wooden saber and walking outside.
“You’re sick 5!” Xiahou Lian walked over to snatch his wooden saber. “You don’t want your hand anymore?”
Shen Jue frowned. “It’s not like I injured any tendons or broke any bones. It’s just a bit of broken skin, what are you making a fuss for?”
Fuck, it’s turned into me being worried about pickled radish that wasn’t salty enough 6. Xiahou Lian was so angry he saw black, but on second thought, if this brat wanted to torment himself, then let him torment away, what did he indulge him all day for? Even if he wasn’t sick, the indulgence would make him sick!
No! The indulgence had already made him sick!
His attention was drawn to Jingtie, which was on the bed. Xiahou Lian deliberately didn’t correct him and said, “All right, you want to practice, don’t you? Today, I’ll let you touch a real saber, see if you can do it.”
The two of them walked outside. The palace steps were as cold as water, and faint fireflies wandered about in the tree shadows like stars. The wind soughed past, and the rustling sounds of the leaves were like endless whispers. Xiahou Lian wasn’t wearing his mask, and half of the face he had revealed for the first time was covered by the tree shadows, yet they couldn’t block his eyes that were full of starlight. Shen Jue looked for a while and silently shifted his eyes away.
Xiahou Lian drew Jingtie and handed it to Shen Jue, saying, “Use the spine of the saber to face me.”
Under the moonlight, Jingtie laid quietly on Xiahou Lian’s hands, its jet-black blade constraining all radiance.
In the martial arts world, so-called famed sabers all had their own legends, something like the caster of the saber had sacrificed himself for the furnace, using his flesh and blood to cast the unmatched famed saber. It was destined to drink all blood, and that each generation of wielders of the saber wouldn’t die a good death. Another example was a demon saber that had already cut off eight thousand six hundred seventy-six heads, and from the moment it cut off nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine heads, it would be invincible and could kill any god or Buddha it encountered.
But these were usually fabricated by craftsmen to make the sabers easier to sell. How could there be something so magical in the world? He didn’t even know if Gan Jiang and Mo Ye 7 were real or not.
Jingtie didn’t have a story. It had come into being from Garan’s saber-smelting furnace, and Xiahou Lian was its first master.
It didn’t have a past, and its future was also unknown.
Shen Jue gripped the hilt. In that instant, he seemed to feel the frenzied heartbeat under the quiet blade.
Xiahou Lian said, “Their saber is an assassin’s lifeblood. In my life, Garan only gives me this one, so you have to hold my lifeblood well. I’ll be angry with you if you drop it.”
Shen Jue: “…”
Xiahou Lian continued, “Before you wield a saber, you must be familiar with it, like being familiar with your own body. Look at the saber carefully. Jingtie’s blade isn’t sharp enough, so if you place a hair on it and blow on it, the hair wouldn’t break. However, it can penetrate armor, and it’s a saber for use on the battlefield.”
“A saber for use on the battlefield, yet you use it to assassinate. Why?”
Xiahou Lian made a low sigh and said, “It can penetrate armor, so it can naturally crush bone. The abbot said that I wasn’t vicious enough, so a rougher suited me better. This method of crushing bone would be good if it was smashing the spine, since the opponent would suffocate and die. However, the skull is different. They wouldn’t immediately die, or they might become a fool, be tormented by their headache, and then die.
“I heard that when butchers with compassion kill a pig, they would feed it a bowl of anesthetic powder and kill it while it’s oblivious. We assassins don’t have compassion. As long as it can kill, we don’t hesitate to use unscrupulous methods.”
Shen Jue sneered, “How do you know he fed the pig the anesthetic powder because he has compassion, maybe he just doesn’t want to listen to the pig’s screams.”
Xiahou Lian was stunned, and he smiled bitterly. “What you said makes sense. The cries of pigs when they’re being killed is indeed unpleasant.”
Shen Jue held the saber in both hands and sliced out a swift and fierce arc. “Stop talking nonsense, bring it on!”
He raised his eyes that were usually lowered. The light in his eyes were clear and chilly, and wind and thunder were secretly stored between his brows.
In that instant, his killing intent was like a mountain. Shen Jue made a low huff, and when the spine of his saber collided with the blade of the wooden saber, a nick was soon chipped out of the fragile wooden saber.
Shen Jue’s swiftness and fierceness stimulated Xiahou Lian, and his blood that had been still for a long time churned like a tide. It was as if he had returned to the years of bloody battles, and killing intent roared inside of him, like a ferocious trapped beast. He didn’t fight Shen Jue with cuts and instead chose to dodge to the side. Even the spine of Jingtie was enough to cut the wooden saber into two pieces.
The wooden saber flipped in his palm, and the two sabers entangled in the air. The wooden saber was soon covered in wounds, full of bumps and hollows, like a child’s crooked teeth that hadn’t been fully grown yet. The momentum of Shen Jue’s saber was ferocious, and in his hands, Jingtie was like a bloodthirsty ghost in the night, all of its fangs showing. However, he after all hadn’t learned the saber for very long, and in addition to his fighting style that disregarded his own life, Xiahou Lian was able to quickly seize a gap in his movements. His wooden saber parried a heavy cut from Jingtie, and with an oblique thrust, it tapped Shen Jue’s shoulder.
Shen Jue didn’t stop. His hands still slashed the saber down, and it landed at Xiahou Lian’s neck.
“Hey, I hit your shoulder, so you already can’t move at this time.”
“I can.” Shen Jue’s gaze was firm.
Of course he could.
He was manly and would be as firm as iron until death. As long as he was still breathing, he could cut his saber into the enemy’s chest.
“…” Xiahou Lian sighed. “Okay.”
The days were like water, quietly slipping out of the gaps between one’s fingers.
Xiahou Lian put on his pants and suddenly discovered that the legs of his trousers were short by a section. He already couldn’t clearly count how many days he hadn’t contacted Garan in. Garan hadn’t sent people to search for him either, so he reckoned that they believed that he had died in the imperial palace. He had now already been abandoned by Garan.
Xiahou Lian thought irrelevantly and wondered what his mother would think once she knew. That guy usually went out for trips that would take an entire year, and when Xiahou Lian was eight, he had been indifferently left on the mountain by her. At present, she was off in some nook, eating, drinking, whoring, and gambling, so how would she have the time to care about Xiahou Lian?
An unspeakable melancholy arose in his heart. Before when he had been on the mountain, he hadn’t had much feeling. After all, all of the children on the mountain didn’t have fathers or mothers, and he at least had a powerful mother whom he could brag everywhere about. Only when he came down the mountain did he know that other people’s mothers never let their children out of their sight, and they cut new clothes for them and fed them. When mothers of poor families worked, they wouldn’t forget to carry their child on their back.
Only his mother was like she wasn’t even there.
He pushed the door open and was just about to walk out when he nearly bumped into a little eunuch. Xiahou Lian held him up and said, “Do you look where you’re going?”
“Sorry, sorry!” The little eunuch apologized with a thin voice.
When Xiahou Lian heard this pitch of voice, he got goosebumps all over his body, and he hastily waved for him to leave. Suddenly, his attention was drawn to a pile of paper lotuses he was holding in his arms. He asked, “What’s this?”
“Lotus lanterns, the Ghost Festival is in a few days. When the time comes, the emperor will permit us to release lotus lanterns on Yuqing Pond.”
Xiahou Lian was stunned, and he murmured, “The days pass by so quickly! It’s already the Ghost Festival?”
A clamor suddenly started from the palace gate, and Xiahou Lian hastily walked over. A eunuch wearing a round-collared shirt with sunflowers on the front and back walked in holding clothes and a hat and stopped in the courtyard. He lifted his slender brows and swept his eyes around, saying with a high-pitched voice, “Is everyone dead, no one welcomed me in and no one handed me tea. Call your Eunuch Shen out.”
This eunuch’s manner was very imposing, and he frightened all of the little eunuchs into shrinking their necks and standing still. Xiahou Lian was just about to go up and greet him, but Shen Jue had already come out holding tea. He saluted respectfully and cautiously. “The lower people aren’t sensible and they’re a little neglectful, please don’t blame them.”
When the eunuch saw Shen Jue, it was as if his brows and eyes bloomed like flowers, and he instantly smiled. He hastily ordered people to take the teacup from Shen Jue’s hands and said, “You jest, I’m Secretary Eunuch Cao Ling of the Document Secretariat 8. On Eunuch Wei’s orders, I’m sending you clothes.” While he spoke, he squinted and looked Shen Jue up and down. Eunuchs bent their waists and backs all year round, so nine out of ten would have hunchback problems, and their body shapes were loose and listless. However, this Shen Jue was like pine and bamboo, and even the arc of his bow seemed to be just right. No wonder Eunuch Wei looked at him favorably.
“You don’t know yet, Eunuch Qian of the Document Secretariat was promoted to brush-holder 9, leaving a spot open. Without a second word, Eunuch Wei instantly checked your name.” Cao Ling’s brows curved. “In a few days, when the eunuch is free, he even wants you to serve him tea and recognize him as your godfather! In the Document Secretariat from now on, please look after me.”
When he heard this, it was as if Xiahou Lian had been struck by lightning.
Recognize him as his father?! Who would fucking recognize a castrated scoundrel as his father?
He subconsciously looked toward Shen Jue, yet he saw him standing quietly. As always, his appearance was unmoving, and his cheeks that were like fine porcelain had neither sorrow nor joy.
Shen Jue stared at the clothes and hat with interlacing gold threads, his gaze quiet and deep. Secretary eunuchs of the Document Secretariat were servants who served in the presence of the emperor, so according to regulations, they had to wear gold-traced black gauze hats and round-collared sunflower shirts, the same as this Eunuch Cao. But from now on, he was Wei De’s godson, and to put it worse, he was the lapdog raised by Wei De, available at his beck and call and calling him father from time to time, festive and lively.
He hadn’t fought for it; this damned luck had landed on his head by itself. Could it be the heavens’ will?
He reached out and took the clothes and gold-traced black gauze hat, and a mirthless smile slowly rippled out of the edge of his mouth. “Naturally. I still have to rely on you for more guidance. In addition, can I trouble you to send my godfather greetings for me, and to tell him to work hard in government affairs and look after his health, so I won’t worry?”
- From a poem by Liu Changqing. The title roughly translates to “Lodging on Furong Mountain on a Snowy Night.” I really like it, so here’s my rough translation of the poem:
At twilight, the green mountains grow distant;
In the cold weather, the thatched cottage appears shabby.
At the wooden gate, the barking of a dog is heard;
- I’ll sometimes shorten this to Leading Mech Silk or Mech Silk in the future for simplicity’s sake.
- Zhang Liang was a military strategist and politician who hired a strongman and forged an iron hammer weighing around 160 pounds for him to kill the first Qin emperor. They laid in ambush for the emperor’s convoy, and the strongman threw the hammer at the most decorated carriage, though the emperor wasn’t actually in that carriage.
- Refers to Lu Ban, also known as Gongshu Yizhi or Gongshu Ban. He was a structural engineer, inventor, and carpenter during the Zhou Dynasty and is revered as the Chinese Deity of builders and contractors.
- As in “you have a problem” or “you’re crazy.” Here and in a lot of other places, “sick” basically means having a problem, but I kept them as “sick” to fit with the title of this novel.
- Adding more salt to pickled radish makes it so it can be stored for longer and won’t spoil as easily. The saying represents a nosy person who makes a fuss out of little things and is disliked by others.
- A swordsmith couple discussed in literature involving the Spring and Autumn period, some of which were historical and others mythological. In one historical text, they were ordered to forge a pair of swords for a king in three months, but the blast furnace failed to melt the metal. In one account, Mo Ye sacrificed herself by throwing herself into the furnace to increase its human Qi.
- An organization of eunuchs that handles the emperor’s confidential edicts and paperwork.
- A very high position, second only to the seal-holder.