Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
When Shen Jue sent Wei De to Liuli Gate 1, the sky was already completely dark. The stars hung high, and Xiao Yan knelt next to the carriage. Wei De stepped onto his knee and onto the carriage, dragging a line of underlings as he left windingly.
What was the use of being the second lead officer 2 in the Eastern Depot? He still had to be Wei De’s stepping stone.
The light in Shen Jue’s eyes was somber. He adjusted his clothes and hat and followed the palace road back to the inner court. Because he had been answering in the duty room, he hadn’t eaten yet. Since leaving Fourth Qianxi Premises, it had already been many days since he had seen Xiahou Lian. Tomorrow was the Ghost Festival on the fifteenth of the seventh month, so there were a lot of trivial matters that had to be done in the palace. Shen Jue pondered for a while and got two servings of food.
Now, his status wasn’t ordinary anymore, so the imperial kitchen specially left meals for him, and he didn’t have to fight over them with the other eunuchs. He added a serving of crystal shrimp dumplings that Xiahou Lian liked to eat and went to Fourth Qianxi Premises.
The cold palace was still desolate. The lanterns hadn’t been changed in a long time, and the old kraft paper was covered with dust, making the lights appear even more hazy and dreamlike. The flowers and plants on the paths hadn’t been trimmed in a long time, and they all climbed onto the road, holding the corners of pedestrians’ clothes in pity.
The eunuchs that had worked together with him in Fourth Qianxi Premises in the old days greeted Shen Jue joyfully and led him in.
“Eunuch Shen really does keep old friendships in mind. You went to the Document Secretariat, but you still think about our Eunuch Si Xi! He’s not feeling well today, so he went to bed early. I’ll help you call him out?”
Shen Jue tilted his head slightly and frowned. “He went to bed without eating dinner?”
“Tell me about it,” said the little eunuch. “Actually, he hasn’t been feeling very comfortable these past few days, but he just didn’t take notice of it. You know that with our status, we can’t get doctors, so we can only endure it ourselves. However, with you here to greet him, Eunuch Si Xi’s illness will definitely get better!”
Shen Jue made a “mn,” and his footsteps quickened slightly. That brat had always been as strong as an ox, and he even dared to use well water to wash his body in cold weather, so how had he fallen ill? He hadn’t known about this, so he hadn’t brought medicinal herbs when coming. Shen Jue knitted his brows and thought about going to the Medical Bureau tomorrow to get some honeysuckle 3.
The two of them walked in the dark corridor, one in front and one in back. The dim light illuminated the colorful fine clouds and river flowers on the knees of Shen Jue’s robes 4, and when he moved about, the skirt of brocade lifted into arcs that were like floating clouds. When the little eunuch saw this, his face was full of envy.
“Eunuch Shen, you’re in the Document Secretariat now, so it can be said that you’ve rapidly risen to a high position. Who doesn’t know that the Document Secretariat of our inner court is the Hanlin Academy of the outer court. The outer court has the Grand Secretariat 5 that can’t be joined unless you do very well on the imperial examination, and we have the Directorate of Rites that can’t be joined unless you’re in the Document Secretariat. You’re also Wei De’s godson, so I’m afraid the next seal-holder will…”
“Silence!” Shen Jue coldly looked at him sideways, and his face that had always had gentleness, modesty, and courtesy revealed a bit of the fierceness of the coldest days of winter. “You can’t keep your mouth shut. Next time if someone else catches you, don’t blame me for not reminding you.”
“Yes, yes, you’re right!”
The little eunuch shuddered from fright and hastily lowered his head.
When they arrived in front of the door of Xiahou Lian’s room, Shen Jue nodded slightly toward the little eunuch. Then, he turned and entered the door, closing the door tightly and shutting it in the little eunuch’s face.
The little eunuch touched his nose, recalled the expression in Shen Jue’s eyes from just then, and left with a little lingering fear in his heart.
Xiahou Lian hadn’t turned the light on, so the room was pitch-black. When Shen Jue came in, Xiahou Lian still didn’t make a sound. He stood next to the door, quite at a loss, and didn’t know how to say the first sentence.
They had parted on bad terms.
Xiahou Lian would rather die than agree to Shen Jue regarding his enemy as kin, and he had almost picked up Jingtie and fought with Shen Jue. He had always had this kind of fiery temper and was this unyielding, and when he got angry, he would act recklessly. He had never thought that Shen Jue was no longer Xie Jinglan. Xie Jinglan could study and become an official, be honest and upright, and exercise self-restraint, but Shen Jue couldn’t.
However, as long as Xiahou Lian was willing to stay, Shen Jue was willing to coax him no matter how he lost his temper.
Shen Jue sighed deeply and curled up his fingers to knock on the doorpost. “Xiahou Lian, I brought crystal shrimp dumplings. Do you want to eat them?”
Xiahou Lian didn’t make a sound.
The room was silent, and Shen Jue gazed at the two closed bed curtains through the faint darkness. Inside, Xiahou Lian’s figure was like a heavy black cloud. Shen Jue lowered his eyelashes that were as dense as feathers and put the food box on a small square table. He lit a short candle and said, “Xiahou Lian, why can’t you understand? The eunuchs in the palace are originally servants of masters, layer upon layer of dependences that can’t be shed. Besides relying on the emperor’s concubines, relying on eunuchs with authority is the most convenient shortcut. Regarding my enemy as kin is just a temporary wrong. When I wield power, why worry about today’s disgrace that is hard to wash away?”
Inside the bed curtains, he didn’t even move. Shen Jue gradually became irritated, and he raised his voice. “Xiahou Lian, did you hear me?!”
He strided forward in two or three steps and opened the curtains, yet he saw Xiahou Lian lying with his eyes shut. His head was covered in sweat, and his hair stuck to his face as if he had just been fished out of water. Shen Jue instantly panicked, and he hastily shook Xiahou Lian, shouting, “What happened to you? Why are you so sick?”
Only then did Xiahou Lian muddledly wake up, but even opening his eyes took effort. He said weakly, “What are you doing here?” His head was so dizzy he couldn’t tell up from down or north from south. He was still concerned about the matter of Shen Jue regarding his enemy as kin, and he still murmured, “Young Master, don’t recognize that castrated scoundrel as your father…”
Shen Jue reached out and felt his forehead, which was burning hot. He frowned and said, “You have a fever. Wait here, I’ll help you fill a prescription of medicine.”
He was just about to get up and leave when Xiahou Lian used his strength, which he didn’t know where it came from, and grabbed his wrist, gritting his teeth and pulling him back. “Don’t go!”
“What are you doing?!”
“Don’t go anywhere, listen to me!” Xiahou Lian was panting. “Young Master, studying is the righteous way!”
Shen Jue laughed in anger. “I’m a eunuch now, so how can I take the imperial examination? Have you ever seen a scholar-official who’s a eunuch without a spout?”
“Can they take off your pants to look?!” Xiahou Lian’s mind cleared a little with difficulty, and he struggled to prop himself up to talk to Shen Jue. “If you’re worried about expenses, don’t worry, I’ve saved up some silver these past two years, and it’s more than enough for you to study.”
He began to ramble, “I’ve saved up one hundred twenty taels of silver in total. Twenty taels for building a small house in the capital, and thirty-six taels every year at most for basic needs. You don’t know anything about washing clothes or cooking, so twenty taels to buy you a maid. Ah, it seems that there isn’t enough silver…”
Shen Jue: “…”
“It’s okay, my mother has money, find her and borrow some. You’re so smart, there’s no way you’ll have to take the examination for your entire life. Perhaps you’ll be able to rank on the Gold List in two or three years.”
This fool, he didn’t even know that the imperial examination opened only once every three years. “Take your time to add it up, I’ll go and get medicine.” Shen Jue stood up.
“Don’t… Don’t go!” Xiahou Lian reached out of the curtains with half of his body, but unexpectedly, his body ached and was weak all over, and he nearly rolled off the bed. Shen Jue was greatly startled by him and hastily held his arms to hold him up.
Xiahou Lian laid back onto the bed and sighed deeply. “I’m not sick! This… This is poison.”
Shen Jue was suddenly shocked. “Someone poisoned you?”
“No.” Xiahou Lian laid back and collected his strength for a while before saying, “It’s Mid-July. Garan assassins have to take the medicine every fifteenth of the seventh month, and I forgot to bring the medicine along. The medicine you get will be useless.”
“Why didn’t you say so earlier? In that case, why would you still stay, are you seeking death?!”
“I thought I could get through it…”
“Have there been previous cases of getting through it?”
Shen Jue was so angry he nearly spat up blood.
“I mean, no one has tried before, so I wanted to give it a try.” Xiahou Lian let out a short, bitter laugh. “However, it seems now that it’s a little difficult.”
It wasn’t just difficult, it was extremely dangerous. Xiahou Lian’s entire body was weak, and it was as if his four limbs had been stuffed full of cotton, soft and unable to exert strength. Just then, he had been a little better, but now, even his eyes were starting to go weak. When he looked at Shen Jue’s figure, he was sometimes far and sometimes near. His mind was stuffed full of paste, and he couldn’t use it, making him muddled.
Xiahou Lian said in an astringent voice, “Pour me a cup of water.”
He leaned against the bedpost and sat up, and Shen Jue put a cup of water into his hands. When Shen Jue pulled his hands away, the cup fell onto the ground and shattered into pieces.
He couldn’t even hold a cup.
“Xiahou Lian…” Shen Jue’s voice fluttered. “You…”
“It doesn’t matter.” Xiahou Lian shook his head and wanted to say some words of consolation. He looked down and saw that his hands were covered in blood, and his scalp instantly tingled, making him confused at once.
In hindsight, he touched his own nose and mouth and discovered that he had been bleeding from the beginning. Bright red blood dripped onto the blanket, and it looked shocking. Xiahou Lian laid back, trembling, his eyes staring blankly at the cloth curtains on top of the bed. In a short while, and his breaths seemed to only go out.
It was over, he was already bleeding from the seven facial apertures. This time, he was afraid that it was really over.
Since childhood, he had been a fiend, fearing nothing in heaven and on earth, and he had even dared to steal the abbot’s rice. However, now that he was on the border of death, he discovered that he was still afraid of death.
What would it be like after he died? He didn’t have time to think. Many figures swam before his eyes, and the first one was his unreliable mother. He was going to die in the palace, and she was presumably still off in some brothel, living a life of indulgence, or perhaps she was at some sect, unbridled as she perpetrated a mass killing, the light of Hengbo Saber like water, the prey racing to escape. She had always been that way, leisurely and carefree, doing whatever she wanted to do. To her, Xiahou Lian wasn’t a son, he was a burden.
A bit of sadness that was like a lonely swan goose stepping on snow arose in his chest that had always been simple-minded. His bones would be buried in a desolate court, unknown. From now on, his mother, master, and Uncle Duan really would never be able to find him again.
His fingers grasped emptily a few times, and a pair of warm hands held his up. He turned his head to the side and saw Shen Jue’s eyes that were filled with tears.
“Xiahou Lian, how do you feel? Don’t scare me!”
It wasn’t considered too bad, at least he had a good brother to take care of him in his last moments and give him a proper burial.
“I…” Xiahou Lian opened his mouth. Blood flowed out of his lips, and Shen Jue pulled out a handkerchief to help him wipe it. After wiping, it flowed again, and no matter how he wiped, he couldn’t wipe all of it away.
“My body is so soft, it feels like I’m going to become an immortal.” Xiahou Lian said softly, “Say, will I really become an immortal, maybe I’m the reincarnation of an immortal in the heavens, and the heavens are now taking me back.”
Shen Jue gripped Xiahou Lian’s hands tightly, as if he could keep him like this. He buried his face into Xiahou Lian’s palms. “A-Lian, don’t die, I don’t allow you to die!”
“Young Master, listen to me, I’m going to say my last words.” Xiahou Lian wiped away the tears on Shen Jue’s face and smiled weakly.
He had always had this kind of gentle and kind temperament. Clearly, it was him who was about to die, but he was still busy consoling others.
Actually, he had always hid guilt toward Shen Jue, guilt that he hadn’t understood earlier to tell Shen Jue about Garan’s assassination, and that he hadn’t been able to save Aunt Lan. Shen Jue had experienced great hardships at a young age, and now, he was about to lose him. Him dying was fine, as all of his other troubles would end as well. He would be unconscious anyway, so he didn’t need to think about anything. However, Shen Jue still had to continue suffering in the palace.
He had promised Shen Jue that he would take him to see the lanterns, stay to accompany him, and help him take revenge. In the end, he had failed to achieve any of these.
I’m really sorry.
“If you have the opportunity to get out of the palace, old rules. Go to the highest spot in the city, put Jingtie there, and my mother will come find you. Her name is Xiahou Pei and she looks very beautiful, though her temperament is a little strange. You don’t have to say much, just say that Xiao Lian was unfilial and won’t be able to provide for her in her old age and give her a proper burial. Tell her to take care of herself, drink less wine, remember to bring a ‘sheath’ the next time she goes to kill, and not always feel she’s invincible. I hid some silver under the third tree in front of the gate of Garan Mountain Temple, one hundred twenty taels. Tell her to get it and give it to you. My mother doesn’t lack money, so I’ll give all of this inheritance to you.”
“I don’t want it!” Shen Jue shook his head desperately, tears covering his cheeks. Suddenly, he thought of something, and he looked up abruptly. “Your mother, right, your mother must have medicine that can save you, I’ll go and find your mother!”
Xiahou Lian pulled him as if he was half-dead. “Find what, how can you find her in the palace?”
“No…” The expression in Shen Jue’s eyes was a little evasive. “The… The night I found you, I saw your mother. She was looking for you, and she even killed a few Feathered Forest guards.”
Hearing this, Xiahou Lian was stunned on the spot. He asked, “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I was afraid that if you knew, you would go and find her… I…” Shen Jue didn’t dare to look at Xiahou Lian. He closed his eyes fiercely and stood up. “I’m going to find her now, perhaps she’s still in the imperial palace. If I don’t find her, I’ll think of a way to leave the palace. Wait for me!”
Shen Jue didn’t even look back as he rushed to the door and opened it. A tall figure with a blade of straw in her mouth was leaning against the corridor, and this time, she wasn’t wearing a headful of chicken feathers. Her shiny black hair was let down behind her body, setting off her skin to be as white as snow and the color of her lips like blood. When she saw Shen Jue come out, she lightly swept her gaze over him. In the quiet moonlight, that gaze was as calm as water.
This wasn’t Consort Gao. Shen Jue backed away alertly.
“I,” the woman pointed at her own nose and raised her mouth in a smile, “am Xiahou Pei.”
- Lit. Glazed Gate.
- There are around a hundred lead officers in the Eastern Depot, and each lead officer has several underlings under their command.
- Specifically Japanese honeysuckle, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine.
- Specifically xilan, a kind of decoration for the knees of clothing.
- A central government institution during the Ming and Qing dynasties.