Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
On summer days in Jiangnan, rain came suddenly. When Xiahou Lian arrived at Huizhou Prefecture, it happened to be just in time for the season of dense rain. The fine and dense raindrops stuck on the bluestone road, like densely packed pins. Small boats with black canopies moved forward along the river course in the thick water vapor. On the two banks were black tiles and white walls, green willows and red peonies.
Wanchun Building 1 faced the river bank, and the few painted pleasure boats under it belonged to it. It could be said to be the biggest brothel in Huizhou Prefecture. It didn’t receive guests during the day, but it couldn’t relax. Servants who took turns being on duty had to buy fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, and meat, and chefs were busy making cold dishes of which freshness didn’t matter.
Xiahou Lian was a servant who specially served the young lady named Yue Nu. His work wasn’t that heavy, so he was sitting under the covering of the corridor and lazing around.
Now, Yue Nu was the most glamorous person in Wanchun Building. The attention she received even overshadowed that of the most popular courtesan, because she was about to marry the old general, Lu Qingcang, who had recently returned in a glorious homecoming. Last month, Lu Qingcang had come into the building to listen to music, and in one glance, he had had his eye on Yue Nu, who had been helping the most popular courtesan hold her qin. This was extremely great luck, as it had only been a few months since Yue Nu had been sold into Wanchun Building. She was thirteen years old and still a virgin, and she had been learning to do chores. Unexpectedly, Lu Qingcang had had his eye on her in one glance.
Becoming a concubine in a wealthy family was something that all of the girls in the building wanted, even in their dreams. They hadn’t expected that Yue Nu, a little girl who did chores, would encounter it. The girls didn’t show it out in the open, but they secretly said countless sour things.
The thirteen-year-old girl didn’t even know much yet. She only knew that she should be sad about being sold into the brothel by her parents, but she still didn’t know that she should be happy about marrying a sixty-year-old general. Thus, Xiahou Lian was the servant that had been newly bought for her, and he was to go into Lu Manor with her. The day before yesterday, the Lu family had come to send betrothal gifts. In the flickering light, Yue Nu lifted her small face that was as big as a palm and asked Xiahou Lian in a low voice, “Xiao Lian, are you afraid?”
What am I scared of, the one who should be scared is you, Xiahou Lian thought dully.
But it was okay, Xiahou Lian would kill Lu Qingcang before he touched Yue Nu, or he would be killed by him. All in all, this wedding night had no way of being completed.
“You have this leisure time to worry about others, it’s better to worry about yourself.” Behind him, a familiar voice sounded. Xiahou Lian looked up and saw Qiu Ye slowly walk in.
He was like a worm in Xiahou Lian’s stomach. Every time, he only had to look at Xiahou Lian’s expression to know what he was thinking.
“Qiu-shifu, what are you doing here?”
“This time, I’m your ‘sheath.’ After you and your mother succeed, I’ll hide people at the end of the alley to cover your retreat.”
Succeed? Xiahou Lian was a little dazed. He had assassinated three times and failed three times. Could he really succeed this time? As he used his foot to scrape the mud in the gaps of the stone brick, Xiahou Lian said, “Can you persuade my mother and tell her not to do this? I can do it alone. At worst, one person will die, so is it worthwhile to force me like this? It would be okay if I succeed, but if I die in there, Lu Qingcang will come out of the gate and kill her too. The entire family dying neatly in Lu Manor, what is this!”
“The things your mother decides on can’t be pulled back by even ten horses. I can’t do anything about it.” Qiu Ye used the end of his fan to knock on his palm and said, shaking his head.
“Ah.” Xiahou Lian sighed. The rain gradually became small, and Huizhou Prefecture revealed its face in the gradually dispersing mist, as if uncovering a thin veil. The weather was better, so people should be happy, but it was as if something was pressing down on Xiahou Lian’s heart, and he couldn’t relax.
“Shifu,” he gazed at the azure sky and said, “tell me, why do we have to do this job, is it meaningful? Lu Qingcang is indeed old but licentious, wanting to marry a little girl at such an old age. But, he was in the military for half of his life, forcing Japanese pirates to retreat southward and repelling Oirats 2 northward. His two sons, one old and one young, both died on the frontlines. Now, he has finally returned home and thinks he’ll be able to live an easy life in his old age. However, he hasn’t even slept soundly for many days before he’s disturbed by us. If we kill Lu Qingcang, won’t we become sinners of Great Qi?”
Qiu Ye sat down and smiled. “Our Xiao Lian is a good person.”
“All right, I know, Garan’s orders must not be violated. I’m just complaining.”
“Originally, I shouldn’t tell you this, but as long as you don’t tell anybody, there’s no harm.” Qiu Ye said, “Xiao Lian, do you know who wants to kill Liu Qingcang?”
“His enemy. He’s fought and killed his entire life, so he must have sworn enemies everywhere.”
“It’s the Oirats.” Qiu Ye said, “The Oirats have twenty-eight tribes, and each tribe is offering one hundred cattle and one hundred sheep, just for Lu Qingcang’s head. The war is already over, and the imperial court has already made peace with the Oirats. Lu Qingcang is aged, and he’ll never go on the battlefield again, so the Oirats doing this won’t bring them any benefit. However, they haven’t forgotten their warriors that have died on the battlefield, the warriors who were buried by Lu Qingcang. Even if their monarch has forgotten, those women who have lost their husbands won’t forget, and the children who have lost their fathers won’t forget. This hatred and resentment can only be eliminated by Lu Qingcang’s head. Xiao Lian, do you think Lu Qingcang should be killed?”
Xiahou Lian was stunned for a long time before saying, “We can’t raise so many cattle and sheep on our mountain.”
“Moreover, how can right and wrong have a final verdict? People have lived for hundreds of generations. Yesterday’s rights become today’s wrongs in the blink of an eye, and today’s wrongs become rights again tomorrow. Let me give you another example. The founding emperor came from the fields, and both of his parents died in a famine. But, he became the emperor and collects tax and uses unpaid labor all the same. The nobles are superior, and the peddlers and servants whom he used to be the same as are still as lowly as dirt and mud. What he hated bitterly in the past have become what he practices, and the ones he pitied have become the ones he tramples on. In the end, what is right and what is wrong?”
Xiahou Lian was used to being ignorant and incompetent, and he was dizzy from his mind being turned in circles by Qiu Ye like this. “What the hell is this, didn’t he turn bad on his own?”
“Because this is as fate ordains.” Xiahou Pei suddenly emerged from behind them. She propped her long leg up and sat down next to Xiahou Lian, taking a bite from an apple. “For example, houses have earth and rock as their foundations, brick and wood as their bones, tiles as their tops. Since there are houses, there is earth and rock, and someone is destined to stay at the very bottom. Similarly, since there is hatred, there is destined to be Garan, and there is destined to be these people like us to repay those debts of gratitude and grudges for them.”
Xiahou Pei went on, “If you don’t want to make these transactions of human lives, of course it’s fine. Look at how the founding emperor didn’t want to be a farmer, so he started an uprising and overthrew the previous dynasty. Naturally, you can also…”
Qiu Ye smiled slightly and continued for her, “destroy Garan.”
“You jest. If I destroy Garan, all of us will be tormented to death by Mid-July,” said Xiahou Lian.
“Making a choice and bearing the consequences, this is the price you must pay for going down this path.” Xiahou Pei shrugged. “Otherwise, obediently do your job.”
After all the trouble, he still didn’t have any way out. Xiahou Lian said angrily, “Easy for you to say, why don’t you two go yourselves?”
“Because we’re not good people.” Xiahou Pei laughed. “I didn’t think that I, who can’t help killing and whose name of the Garuda is used by common people to stop children from crying at night, actually raised a son who’s a good person.”
“Get lost.” Xiahou Lian stood up and turned into the door, ignoring them.
Qiu Ye and Xiahou Pei were still sitting under the eaves, and it seemed that they were interested in chatting.
“How are the wounds on your back?” asked Qiu Ye.
Last time when Xiahou Lian had let Xie Jinglan go, he originally should have been whipped eighty-one times. He had passed out at the thirtieth whip, so Xiahou Pei had received the remaining whips for him. However, at the time, Xiahou Pei’s old wounds she had received under the Chakravati hadn’t healed yet, and new wounds had been added. After some time, they had left behind lingering effects, and she frequently had unbearable pain.
“Same as usual, it’s fine, don’t worry.” Xiahou Pei crossed her legs and looked at the water droplets in front of the steps that had flowed into a line.
Seeing her like this, Qiu Ye sighed deeply and spoke again. “Lu Qingcang has killed a lot, and his sins cannot be undone. If a person like this who has crawled out of mountains of corpses and seas of blood becomes Xiao Lian’s first drop of blood, he will certainly become the most powerful assassin in the world.”
“You still believe this?” Xiahou Pei smiled.
“To refine a truly sharp blade, you must use hatred, and you must use blood.” Qiu Ye’s eyes looked over, his gaze quiet and deep. “Xiahou, you know this better than I.”
Thousands of rain arrows landed in the river between the black tiles and white walls, the raindrops splashed half a foot high. The entire world boiled like a tide.
Outside the room, the wind and rain were wild; inside the room, the spring night was warm. Yue Nu’s low and muffled crying gradually started, and it couldn’t be heard clearly in the rain.
Under the corridor, Xiahou Lian said, “Before I die, can I ask you a question?”
“Does Qiu-shifu like men or women,” Xiahou Lian asked, smiling.
“Fuck off. Hurry up and go in.” Xiahou Pei kicked Xiahou Lian into the bridal chamber. Behind him, a passing servant exclaimed, “Who are you.” Xiahou Pei pulled her saber out, turned, and sealed the last word into that person’s throat.
The red candles burned brightly, and an old but muscular man was kneeling at the head of the bed. Yue Nu’s face was covered in tear streaks, and she pulled hard on the red blanket to cover her jade-white body.
Xiahou Lian was a little embarrassed, and he scratched his head.
Lu Qingcang got out of the bed, half-naked. He was a burly man, and his body was covered in scars from wounds by sabers, like centipedes spanning across his chest. Compared to Xiahou Lian, he appeared more dangerous, like a ghost that had crawled out of the netherworld.
“I already said that I don’t want a girl who has a lover in her heart. What I want is a clean girl that is most willing to marry into Lu Manor. That brothel owner is too greedy for money, I should have sent people to properly investigate.” Lu Qingcang squinted as he looked at Xiahou Lian. “You dare to come to my Lu Manor to take her, you’re quite a bold one.”
“General, you misunderstand. I’m not her lover.”
“He’s my servant.” Yue Nu spoke in a low voice, a murmur as small as a mosquito.
“I’m not that, either.” Xiahou Lian pressed his left hand on the hilt of his saber. “I come from Garan of Seven Leaves. On the abbot’s orders, I send the general to be reborn in the Land of Bliss.”
“Hahahaha, it turns out to be someone from Garan.” Lu Qingcang’s voice was like a large bell. “Eight years ago, I saw the methods of Garan’s Kinnara. He used a cicada wing saber to assassinate my subordinate general. It was a banquet, and my subordinate general was holding a cup with his head lowered, so everyone thought he had fallen asleep. Only when the banquet was over did we discover that the meridian on his neck had already been broken, and that blood had flowed all over the ground. Everyone had been drinking too happily, so no one had noticed.”
“The Kinnara is my senior.”
“My blood debts are heinous, so I’m not surprised that Garan wants to kill me. I just didn’t expect that they would actually send a little kid like you here. What, in your Garan’s eyes, I can’t even compare with a subordinate general?”
“General, you speak too strongly. I’m going to make you see Garan’s sincerity!” Right after he said this, Xiahou Lian pulled his saber out of its scabbard. The light of Qianji Saber was as cold as frost.
Lu Qingcang kicked toward the saber shelf, and the long saber flew into the air. He jumped to his feet and pulled out the long saber. In the candlelight, the two blades locked together and radiance flowed on the saber tips, as icy as jade.
“You’re still not qualified to kill me, child.” Lu Qingcang glanced in the direction of the door and laughed loudly. “You should get that one outside the door to come.”
In an instant, their blades had collided tens of times. Lu Qingcang’s attacks were extremely tough, and every time, it made Qianji Saber emit a wail, as if it was going to fracture in the next moment. The two of them collided in the lights of their sabers that were like rolling snow, separated, and collided again. The meeting of the two sabers made a melodious clanging sound that was like that of a zither. Tens of times later, the two of them backed away for a short pause. The part between Xiahou Lian’s thumb and index finger was already cracked.
“You don’t look much older than Yue Nu. Has a teenager already become my enemy?”
“Fourteen years is enough.” Xiahou Lian was panting heavily.
“What world is this, a fourteen-year-old child is already holding sabers. Does Garan of Seven Leaves have no people?!”
“Person whose surname is Lu, has no one taught you before not to talk while killing?!” Xiahou Lian roared and pounced with his entire body toward Lu Qingcang. The momentum of his saber was graceful yet piercingly cold, like a black butterfly that used its wings as blades.
However, Lu Qingcang wasn’t in a hurry to make a move. He squatted down slightly and hid his saber behind his elbow. When Xiahou Lian was three steps away, he pulled his saber out, and the cold and stern light of the arc flashed before his chest, like a thunderbolt slicing across the heavy and dark night sky. In the instant the two blades were about to collide, Lu Qingcang suddenly twisted at an angle, and his body followed in turning sideways. When the blades grated against each other, they made a sound that made one’s teeth ache. The blade continued forward and cut Xiahou Lian’s left arm. Instantly, the two of them separated with their backs facing each other, and Lu Qingcang stood, lifting his saber.
This change in a saber’s momentum that was so subtle it was done in the span of a breath could only have been used by someone like Lu Qingcang, who had such long experience with being on the killing field. It was impossible for Xiahou Lian to dodge it.
Blood flowed along his wrist toward the hilt of his saber, and piercing pain tormented Xiahou Lian’s nerves. He heard Lu Qingcang say, “Stop it, child. You might be able to kill me ten years later.”
“Old general, you’re too naive. The moment I stepped into this place, only a death could end this!” Xiahou Lian turned and held his saber as he moved forward. In the faint candlelight, his black robes flew up like wings, and he was like a moth darting into a flame.
Exactly what was the point of killing? Did Lu Qingcang deserve to die or not?
He didn’t know, and he didn’t have the mind to think.
He only knew that he didn’t want the assassin outside the door to die here!
He wanted to live on!
Outside the door, the rainstorm was wild. Xiahou Pei cut the throat of the twentieth person, and blood gushed like a tide, splashing on her blade with the rain and streaming down along the blood groove. Xiahou Pei turned around and faced the terrified servants around her, and she cut down with a stunning stroke.
Inside the door, Xiahou Lian chopped down, and Lu Qingcang spun to avoid it. The table was instantly broken into pieces, and the red dates, chestnuts, and lilies sprayed everywhere like rain. This time, they no longer used the swift and fierce offense that would allow for a decisive victory in one blow, and instead used continuous chops that were as fast as ghosts. The lights of their sabers that were as fine and meticulous as weaved threads enveloped their entire bodies, and the two of them were like beasts fighting in an arena. The instant they collided and separated, they pounced with their entire bodies, not panting at all and not stopping at all. They were teeth-grinding and bloodsucking, with bared fangs.
However, Xiahou Lian no longer went head-to-head with him. He had learned Liu Qingcang’s changing of his saber’s momentum, so the moment their blades met, he would reverse his angle, his blade shifting where its power was released. Thus, every one of Lu Qingcang’s blows that he used all of his strength in missed, and when he didn’t have time to dodge, he was even cut by Xiahou Lian. After several tens of moves, quite a few small cuts were added to Lu Qingcang’s body.
When death was so close, Xiahou Lian was surprisingly calm.
He clearly knew the gap between him and Lu Qingcang. However, Lu Qingcang was old after all, and his strength was limited. As long as Xiahou Lian kept stalling him, the moment he was exhausted was Xiahou Lian’s opportunity to achieve a decisive victory.
In the turbulent continuous chops, he pounced toward his opponent again and again, the momentum of his saber without break and never stopping. Suddenly, Lu Qingcang leaned to the side and dodged like a ghost, and Xiahou Lian’s saber actually missed!
Once the momentum of his saber was cut off, there was no way to continue. When Xiahou Lian didn’t have time to turn, the tip of Lu Qingcang’s saber pointed up and then swung down, dropping a chop that was like moving and lifting mountains. That instant suddenly became extremely long, and Xiahou Lian looked at the chop that was like mountains and seas as it slowly dropped, about to split his head.
He suddenly understood; it wasn’t that Lu Qingcang couldn’t beat his continuous chops. Lu Qingcang had only lured him into falling into a “momentum” that he couldn’t break out of, and waited for the continuous chops to turn into cycles. The moment he had adapted to the extremely fast rhythm and had no way of changing moves was when Lu Qingcang would counterattack.
This was a true person in the killing field. He had extremely strong saber skills, and he also had extremely strong strategies.
But who said that he would stop here?!
A sharp roar erupted out of Xiahou Lian, loud, continuous, and tearing, like an invisible sharp blade, piercing toward Lu Qingcang’s nerves. In this moment, he was a lone wolf that had fallen into a mire, letting out a desperate roar, enough to shock the seasoned veteran. For only an instant, the momentum of Lu Qingcang’s saber faltered. However, this instant was enough for Xiahou Lian. He held his saber horizontally and moved forward, the desolate and cold light of the arc horizontal in front of his chest, blocking that blow that could topple mountains and overturn seas.
He had blocked it!
However, an ear-piercing crack sounded. The light of the arc abruptly fractured, and Xiahou Lian’s head buzzed as he subconsciously backed away and fell to the ground. There was a sharp pain in the front of his chest. Lu Qingcang’s saber had torn a cut on his chest, and blood gurgled out.
Qianji had broken!
Lu Qingcang seized the opportunity and pounced forward with his entire body. Xiahou Lian smoothly picked up a stool, holding it in front of himself. Lu Qingcang sat on top of Xiahou Lian’s body, holding his saber in both hands and pointing the saber tip down, aiming directly at Xiahou Lian’s face. Xiahou Lian gritted his teeth and used the stool to firmly resist Lu Qingcang. The point of that saber was only an inch away from him.
The point of the saber quivered, gradually approaching Xiahou Lian’s forehead. It sliced out a wound on his brow, and blood flowed along his eye socket. The point of the saber continued downward: three inches, two inches. In a moment, it would reach Xiahou Lian’s right eye. Xiahou Lian saw Lu Qingcang’s pale brows that flew up in all directions like a dragon’s whiskers and his eyes that were crimson, like an angry ghost’s.
Blood flowed out of his chest nonstop, taking away his strength. Xiahou Lian gritted his teeth, the veins on his forehead ferocious.
Suddenly, Lu Qingcang shook all over, and the force Xiahou Lian had been resisting instantly loosened. He blankly propped himself up, and Lu Qingcang fell off from his body, revealing Yue Nu behind him.
Yue Nu let go of the short saber in her hand and fell to the ground, backing away. Her lips trembled as she said, “It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me… It wasn’t me who killed him… I didn’t want to, but… but I don’t want to marry him…”
It was as if a string that had been taut for too long had been loosened. Xiahou Lian lost all of his strength and couldn’t even stand up.
Lu Qingcang laid on the ground, his eyes wide open and staring fixedly at Yue Nu. He hadn’t expected that he hadn’t died on the battlefield, nor had he died in the hands of an assassin, yet he had died in the hands of a fragile woman. Xiahou Lian saw the strength in his hands slowly loosen, and his angry eyes became empty dry wells. He had become an unconscious dead body.
Xiahou Lian took a deep breath, picked up Lu Qingcang’s saber, and pushed the door, going out.
The rain pelted down, and the corpses in the yard were piled up into a mountain. Bloody water flowed on the ground, as if everyone in the manor was here. At this moment in Lu Manor, besides the sound of rain and wind, there was nothing else. The ghostlike assassin’s back was facing him as she looked up at the sky from which rain was pouring down, and her lean back was like a lonely ancient bamboo.
Xiahou Lian wiped the blood from his face and called, “Mother, I won.”
It had clearly already ended, but he didn’t feel a single bit of happiness in his heart. He unconsciously took another deep breath, and inhaled a noseful of the smell of blood.
“Xiao Lian, you’re a true assassin now.” The assassin’s voice was a little hoarse. “A true man should work hard. I can’t cover you all your life. You have to learn to protect yourself, and then protect the people you want to protect.
A long lightning bolt flashed across the sky, like a ferocious fissure that had been torn in the sky. The world turned white for an instant, and it was in that instant that Xiahou Lian saw that there was a dark area on her back, like a jet-black ink mark.
She was wearing black clothes, so he couldn’t clearly tell. Was it rain, was it sweat… or was it blood?
The answer soon came. Xiahou Lian looked at the ground. Next to Xiahou Pei’s feet, a dark red bloodstain was winding out, crawling like an icy snake and converging with raindrops where it spread into red ink.
Xiahou Pei was trembling like a withered leaf in the cold wind, and her back slowly lowered.