Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
The moon glowed as it hung above the treetops, so white it was a little bluish, like an upside-down porcelain plate. Occasionally, dim and gloomy clouds could be seen, the peeling glaze on porcelain that hadn’t been fired.
Liu Shao’er laid alone on a bed with a carved frame. The mosquito netting bed curtains hung, and moonlight penetrated the half-open grill window, shining directly on her body. She fanned a circular fan from time to time, and her eyes gazed at the talented scholars and beautiful ladies in red clothes and green skirts that were drawn on top. She suddenly felt confused and upset for no reason. She threw the fan, and the end of the fan hit the ground, rolling into under the black-lacquered incense stand and disappearing without a trace.
She opened a trunk, inside of which were clothes and skirts she had bought in recent days. A bright red and gold sleeveless jacket 1, an apron woven with gold and silk, and a coat woven with a pale rose color and embroidered with gold; each one was prettier than the last. She took out every one and held them in front of herself, walking back and forth in front of the mirror. Only when she thought to herself that even royal princesses couldn’t compare to her beautiful looks did she go to sleep in satisfaction.
Just as she was sleeping soundly, a pair of icy hands reached into the covers. Liu Shao’er tossed about and woke up, greatly startled at once. She hastily covered herself with the blanket and sat up, shouting loudly, “There’s a thief! There’s a rapist!”
“Liu Shao’er, Liu Shao’er! It’s me!” The comer covered her mouth, stopping her sharp voice. Only when Liu Shao’er take a closer look did she discover that it was Shu Qing.
He had become a lot more gaunt, his chin was unshaven, and his face was covered in travel fatigue. Liu Shao’er covered her heart and calmed her breathing down for a while before saying, “Do you want to die?! Frightening me like this!” Saying this, her eyes became rimmed with red. “You devil, you go away for several months. You still sent letters in the beginning, but there was no news later. I even regarded you as the same as other men, abandoning me!”
Shu Qing smiled placatingly and said, “But I brought back money every month! I was busy later, so I couldn’t manage to write letters.”
Liu Shao’er lifted her head, revealing her porcelain-white chin and saying hatefully, “I won’t be afraid if you abandoned me! I still have a likable face anyway, so I wouldn’t starve to death.”
“Where are you talking to?” Shu Qing became anxious, and he couldn’t help but raise his voice. His attention was drawn to Liu Shao’er’s red-rimmed eyes, as if the corners of her eyes and the tips of her brows had been smudged with red makeup. His heart softened again, and he said in a small voice, “Liu Shao’er, trust me, I won’t leave you behind and not care about you. Even if I died, I would leave you enough money to have no worries about food or clothing for the rest of your life.”
The moon shifted a little to the east, and the window lattices separated the moonlight into grids, like shattered white porcelain shards all over the ground. Liu Shao’er helped Shu Qing take off his clothes, placing his clothes and hat on the rosewood clothes hanger. His shoes were unpresentable dirty, so she put them by the door for maids to come by tomorrow and take them to wash them.
The two of them laid together, hugging each other. Liu Shao’er nestled in Shu Qing’s arms and asked, “Darling, the autumn imperial examination is so close, so don’t fool around with that Xiahou Lian these days. Studying at ease is proper.”
Shu Qing immediately started stammering as he said, “I… I…”
“Although your sworn big brother indeed helped us with a lot of money, in the end, he isn’t a decent person. Nowadays, you’re still hoping for him to provide your traveling expenses, so it’s hard to cut off contact with him for the time being. In the future when you pass the provincial civil service exam and become a recommended man, you can’t fool around with him anymore.”
Shu Qing’s heart practically twisted into a fried dough twist. He wanted to do what Xiahou Lian had said and tell Liu Shao’er that he was a murderer and a fugitive, but he couldn’t open his mouth no matter what. He spoke ambiguously for a long time before saying in dejection, “Liu Shao’er, I’m not going to take the imperial examination, so don’t think about it.”
“What! That Xiahou Lian isn’t willing to supply you anymore!” Liu Shao’er sat up abruptly.
Shu Qing got up and said with his head lowered, “I’m not made for studying, so give it up. Making transactions with my shige is very good. That’s it, stop talking about it.” After saying this, he went back to sleep and turned his back to her. No matter how Liu Shao’er thumped him, he didn’t make a sound.
Liu Shao’er sat on the bed blankly, and she looked at her pale hands and feet that were airing under the moonlight. It was as if the moonlight was mixed with ice, cool when it shone on her hands and feet, and hands and feet became more and more white, actually seeming transparent.
Liu Shao’er had seen many people like Shu Qing and Xiahou Lian, mixing in the martial arts world and doing some work to serve the wealthy. Some struck it lucky and could make a lot of money, but even more capsized halfway through and couldn’t float back up for the rest of their life. Moreover, Shu Qing followed others to make transactions, and how precarious was living by depending on someone else!
That person whose name was Xiahou Lian looked like he had a bit of brains, and there was a toughness in his eyes; he could make money. Which one of the clothes in her trunk and the jewelry in her dressing box hadn’t been bought by Shu Qing using Xiahou Lian’s money? But others were others, and if a fool like Shu Qing couldn’t take the imperial examination, then he couldn’t do anything.
She had probed him before. Shu Qing was a man with no support, and he didn’t have a father, a mother, or money and resources. Before, he had mixed in the martial arts world with his master, and now he mixed in the martial arts world with Xiahou Lian. How could he have a good future?
Liu Shao’er put down the bed curtains, and it was instantly pitch-black. Moonlight roamed outside, unable to get in anymore. She laid down. Shu Qing was extremely tired and had already fallen asleep. She listened to the man’s heavy breathing and slowly closed her eyes.
The next day, Shu Qing left with Xiahou Lian. Liu Shao’er stood on the tall building and silently watched the two of them sit in a cargo boat and slowly get further away. The one wearing black linen clothes was Xiahou Lian, and he was squatting on a bag of salt, talking about something with the cargo people. The one wearing a moon-white scholar shirt with a cross collar was Shu Qing, and he was still waving to her. Liu Shao’er turned around indifferently and left with her maid.
Xiahou Lian rushed back to Garan. Besides worshiping Xiahou Pei and celebrating the New Year, Xiahou Lian basically didn’t return to Garan. Garan Village at the foot of the mountain was small and lonely as usual. Thatched houses were squeezed together, and young teenagers were in the clearings between them, sparring with each other with sabers. When they saw Xiahou Lian and Shu Qing ride their horses past them, they stopped their sabers and looked. The expressions in their eyes were dark with an icy energy, like rusted iron that had been buried in a grave for a long time.
Xiahou Lian knew that they were looking at the saber that hung on the side of the horse. When they had a saber, they could hang up their plaque and leave the mountain. But they didn’t know that most people never came back.
Xiahou Lian first went to the top of Black-Faced Buddha to visit Chi Yan. That guy had come back from the Oirats a few days ago, and he had even put on a glazed earring inlaid with gold that the Oirats wore. They were said to have been taken off from the ears of human heads, and they were very expensive in the Oirat area so only people with an identity could wear them.
“You don’t want me to make a hole in my ear and wear it, do you?” Xiahou Lian held the earring and turned it around under the sun. The smooth and bright glaze reflected colorful light under the sunlight.
Chi Yan lifted his own hair; there was an earring that was the exact same on his right ear. The light-colored glaze was extremely similar to his eyes, clear and flawless, reflecting the constantly changing light of day, shadows of clouds, and the entire bright and beautiful world. Only then did Xiahou Lian discover that Chi Yan had only given him one earring.
“Such a sissy.” Xiahou Lian looked at his ear and said, “What are you wearing this thing for no reason for, it’s so womanly.”
“The Oirat men also wear them.” Chi Yan said, “The exact same earrings and the exact same you and me, it is just right.”
“We’re Great Qi people, not Oirat people.” The corners of Xiahou Lian’s mouth tugged, and he put the earring back into the pouch, saying, “I won’t wear it even if you beat me to death.”
Chi Yan looked a little dejected, but he didn’t say anything and only turned his eyes to look at the setting sun. In the depths of the mountains, the sun had already set halfway down, like a thin and tattered red paper cut-out pasted on the horizon. The mountain wind rustled as it blew past, cool on their faces. The two of them sat on the top of the mountain and seemed to be surrounded by iridescent clouds. All around them were mountaintops that were like ink, and feather-like clouds and mist floated between them, flowing slowly.
“Chi Yan, do you know where Garan’s document storehouse is?” Xiahou Lian suddenly asked.
The reason he had come back was because of the document storehouse. Garan’s rules were strict, so the assassin’s assassinations were recorded in documents, including the preys’ life, likes, family property, time of assassination, location, weather, as well as the people selected to be the sheaths. They were all on record and archived in the document storehouse.
His mother had once promised him to ask Garan for a sheath, but at the time when he had gone to Liuzhou to find Xiahou Pei, no one had known that the person who was dead in the north market was Xiahou Pei. At the time, he had thought that Xiahou Pei had been deceiving him, but now it seemed that it was very likely that Xiahou Pei had only asked for one sheath. And it was very likely that that sheath hadn’t gone to support Xiahou Pei at all and had used some method to be exempt from being held accountable by Garan.
So as long as he knew how to find Xiahou Pei’s documents, he could find that sheath and know exactly who had harmed his mother.
Chi Yan didn’t speak for a long time. Only when the sun had almost set did he lower his eyes and ask, “Are people who are already dead that important? Are they more important than living people?”
Xiahou Lian was stunned and asked, “What do you mean?” He turned his head to look at Chi Yan. Chi Yan’s eyes were lowered, and the shadows of his eyelashes fell on his eyes, showing a depth that he usually didn’t have.
Chi Yan didn’t say anything else. He only led Xiahou Lian to the cave and pulled away the vines on the wall. A dark cave half the height of a person appeared like a wild beast’s bottomless mouth, waiting to drink blood and eat people.
“Black-Faced Buddha is hollow, the document storehouse is in Black-Faced Buddha’s stomach,” said Chi Yan.
“It turns out that the abbot gets up from here!” Xiahou Lian said, “Why didn’t you say so earlier, you made me climb the mountain for so long every time.”
“You originally cannot go in.” Chi Yan murmured, “But…” He lifted his eyes and looked at Xiahou Lian, his big and black pupils tranquil and calm. “As long as it is your desire, I will help you realize it.”
“…” Xiahou Lian didn’t know what to say, so he thanked him dryly and bent his body to go in.
Chi Yan suddenly stopped him and asked, “Xiao Lian, do you want to be the abbot?”
Xiahou Lian looked back and said in confusion, “What would I do that thing for? I don’t want to be bald, striking wooden fish and chanting scripture all day long.”
Chi Yan didn’t say anything else. He put down the vines, and the cave was instantly pitch-black. Xiahou Lian pulled out a flame stick, blew it, and fire abruptly leapt up. Xiahou Lian stood where he was for a while, thinking about what Chi Yan had said just then. He felt a little unhappy in his heart. Chi Yan was someone who didn’t have desires, so he regarded his desires as his own. But in this way, he seemed to owe Chi Yan something, and the earring in his pouch suddenly became heavy. It suddenly occurred to him that he had never thought about bringing something for Chi Yan.
Ah, never mind. Xiahou Lian stopped thinking so much and concentrated on going down the steps. He didn’t know how many steps he had gone down, at least a hundred or so, when it suddenly became spacious and bright before him. It had originally been a large clearing, and a row of big tables had been placed in it, bottles and jars covering them. Xiahou Lian walked a few steps, and there was suddenly a small round stone underneath his foot. Xiahou Lian picked it up and took a look; it turned out to be a small pill.
Several pots of flowers and plants were placed below the surrounding stone walls. There was a flower in the middle that had no leaves and only had a red flower as big as the palm of one’s hand. The layers upon layers of slim flower petals curled toward the center like fangs stained with blood, and looked to have an indescribable freakishness.
This place isn’t where the abbot makes the addictive drug, right? Xiahou Lian looked it up and down as he thought. He had an impulse to burn this place down, lest the abbot continued to scourge people. However, he thought about it and dropped the idea, as he had come to check the documents after all, so it was better if he didn’t deliberately create problems.
A thin groan suddenly came from ahead of him. Xiahou Lian hastily blew out the flame stick and felt around in the dark to move forward. The groaning sounds became closer and closer, and candlelight flickered in the cave ahead, so Xiahou Lian bent his waist and walked over. He saw the row of beddings next to the stone wall. There were about a little more than ten, and they were filled with people lying in them. Their faces were pale and their mouths were half-open. Some could even make a small groan, and some were already silent. From the looks of it, they didn’t have long left and were already mostly dead.
Xiahou Lian walked over and actually saw a few familiar faces. One was an assassin who had defected last year, was caught back by Qiu Ye, and later disappeared without a trace. Xiahou Lian had thought that he had already been beheaded, and he hadn’t expected that he would be here.
Xiahou Lian didn’t delay more and continued to walk down. Sure enough, the next floor down was the document storehouse. Bookshelves taller than people were densely packed on the ground, and the space between the bookshelves only allowed one person to walk through. He widened his eyes and searched through the files that were covered in dust, finally finding the file for “Garuda” on a bookshelf in the middle. Inside it were all materials about the past Garudas. He flipped to the end, and sure enough, he saw a portrait of Xiahou Pei.
He didn’t know who had drawn this portrait, but besides the face, there was practically nothing that was like Xiahou Pei. The drawn woman had clever features and a sweet and faint smile, like a harem girl who was ignorant of worldly affairs. How was she like the Garuda who committed countless murders? But Xiahou Lian stroked the small portrait, and his eyes still became rimmed with red. He forcibly wiped his tears and flipped further in the file.
The file recorded all of the assassinations Xiahou Pei had gone through, starting from age twelve all the way to age thirty-five. Xiahou Lian directly flipped to the back, wanting to see Xiahou Pei’s last battle, but he discovered that that side had already been ripped out by someone, only leaving behind a bit of the root of the page clamped in the book seam like a row of yellowing teeth.
Actually, Xiahou Lian had already predicted this and had only been unresigned, holding onto a little bit of hope. Now, this hope was like sand between his fingers, slipping away with the wind all at once. Xiahou Lian stayed blankly where he was for a while before flipping a few pages forward.
Twenty-seventh year of the Qianyuan era, autumn, seventh month, fourteenth day, Baichi Cliff 4, rain. The Garuda beheaded He Kun, patriarch of the He clan at the He clan’s decorated archway.
Twenty-seventh year of the Qianyuan era, summer, sixth month, eleventh day, Taozhu City, heavy rain. The Garuda pursued Mu Qing, second-in-command of Gentleman’s Saber; surrounded by ten people and killed all.
Xiahou Lian flipped a few pages in a row. Starting from the twenty-sixth year of the Qianyuan era, heavy rain, heavy rain, rain, rain, heavy rain… It was all rain! It turned out that that person had already wanted his mother to die long ago! Qingzhou was near the ocean, so the fourth month was the rainiest. Baichi Cliff was near the ocean, so there were repeated rainstorms in the summer and autumn seasons. Taozhu City was the same. That person had purposely made his mother go on assassinations during rain seasons, because they wanted to aggravate her injuries!
Exactly who was it who could distribute the powers of the transactions of Garan’s Eigh Legions? Who was it…
Xiahou Lian had a throbbing headache. He knew the answer, and that pitch-black silhouette emerged in his mind, becoming clearer and clearer, clearer and clear.
But why would he do this? Xiahou Pei was Garan’s best saber, and she had never betrayed Garan. Why? He flipped back to the side where the small portrait was drawn. There was a line of faint ink at the bottom of the page; it was the drawer’s name and was practically invisible.
On it was written: Shi Xin.
Xiahou Lian’s hands trembled and the file seemed to be as heavy as thousands of kilograms, practically making him unable to hold it. His shoulder was suddenly patted, and Xiahou Lian was abruptly startled.
“It’s me.” Qiu Ye turned and emerged from behind him. “I just knew that you would come here.”
“Shifu.” Xiahou Lian’s eyes were red.
Qiu Ye put the file back onto the bookshelf and said in a low voice, “Let’s go, we’ll talk about it outside.”
Right after he said this, footsteps sounded from the floor above them, startling the two of them. Xiahou Lian swiftly blew out the flame stick and hid in the depths of the bookshelves with Qiu Ye.
The sounds of the footsteps gradually came closer, and a man holding a candle appeared ahead of them. Xiahou Lian bent his body and peeked at the person’s face from the gap on top of the files. The person’s face was blocked by the bookshelves so in the ball of light, Xiahou Lian could only see a solitary and long shadow dragged out on the wall, shaking again and again. Xiahou Lian felt that his eyes were a little blurred. As he looked, he seemed to see the entire cave pulsating with that flickering ghost shadow, again and again, filling the cave.
The man didn’t say anything. He was silent and stood where Xiahou Lian had just been standing. He put his hand on the Garuda’s file and paused for a long time.
Finally, he drew out the Garuda’s file and flipped to the page where Xiahou Pei’s portrait was. He cautiously ripped it off, bit by bit, and put it onto the flame of the candle. The flames licked the small portrait, and Xiahou Lian’s heart tugged as he saw Xiahou Pei’s bright smiling face turn into ashes in the fire, scatter into the air, and disappear without a trace.
- Specifically bijia, a typical form of women’s clothing in the Ming dynasty.
- This day of the month was made up by me, the translator. The author used the system of the sexagenary cycle to write it, and it is only possible to calculate the actual date using the year, but it is unclear exactly what year the twenty-eighth year of the Qianyuan era is. Editor’s note: Thank you for your hard work.
- Lit. South City Street.
- Lit. Hundred-Foot Cliff.