Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
The candle flame sputtered as it jumped. The shadow on the wall moved, and a dark shadow suddenly separated from it, standing face-to-face with Shi Xin’s shadow. Xiahou Lian was startled, and only when he focused his eyes and looked did he realize that someone had been standing behind Shi Xin the entire time. The shadows had overlapped together, but he had stepped away now, so there were two shadows.
Xiahou Lian tiptoed a few steps toward the right and, through the gaps of the bookshelf, he saw that the person was wearing a black cloak, his entire face hidden in the darkness.
“Ah, why are you bothering with this again?” The man took the file in Shi Xin’s hands and said, “At the time, you drew this thing for three days and three nights, and when Xiahou saw it, she laughed at you for three days and three nights. After she finished laughing, she ran to me and asked me, saying that she clearly looked exactly the same as the person in the portrait, so how come she felt that it was different when she looked in the mirror. How would that fool who only knows to kill people and set fires know that the only other fool in the entirety of Garan thinks that she’s a woman.”
The man’s voice was a little hoarse and he seemed to be sick, as it had a thick nasally sound.
But Xiahou Lian could still tell that this voice belonged to Uncle Duan. The Uncle Duan that would bring him daggers from outside for him to play with and storybooks for him to read.
His fingertips became cold, and his heart sank down, bit by bit. He suddenly didn’t dare to keep listening, but he must keep listening. No matter what they said, he must keep listening.
“It’s all things of the past, there’s no need to mention them again.” The silent man finally spoke. Xiahou Lian saw him slowly stand up, and his black kasaya robes swept past the bookshelf like dark butterfly wings.
“Do you regret it, Shi Xin?” Uncle Duan said softly, “Actually, there’s nothing to regret. Xiao Lian still doesn’t know about this matter, and Chi Yan has no feelings toward Xiahou Pei. They’re your sons. If there is a day in the future when Xiao Lian knows, just push it onto me. In any case, Xiahou’s sheath was me, and it was also me who watched helplessly as she died in Liu Guizang’s hands.”
“You’re wrong.” Shi Xin’s voice was indifferent and cold. “Where do we have the qualifications to regret? We’re on the path of Asuras and we step on the points of sabers, stained with blood at every step. Perhaps there is still a ray of hope going forward, and I always feel that it’ll be the end after taking a few more steps, but once I look back, it means that I’d have to taste the pain from the past again.”
Uncle Duan sighed lightly and said, “Are you really not going to recognize him?”
“I’m a sinner, Duan Jiu.” Shi Xin looked at the candle flame in his palms. “If I hadn’t been greedy and immersed in young love at the time and shrunk back, the Eight Legions wouldn’t have been buried under ice and snow. Our shifu and our brothers wouldn’t have become desolate souls in the North, unable to return to Garan, unable to return to their homeland. A dutiful son is obliged to pay his father’s debts, and since I already don’t have a chance, I’ll let my child go to that killing field, kill that fated enemy, and bring back Garan’s ancestors.
“But since I’m going to send my child to a death trap, how can I dare to excessively demand that he call me father? Besides, the head of Garan has to be careful not to be hindered and can only press forward. This is my lesson, and it is also his future.”
“When are you planning to tell him this secret?”
“Only the abbot can know all secrets. He’s not strong enough yet, but when he is strong enough to be the head of Garan, Garan’s secrets will be opened to him.”
Uncle Duan was silent for a while and said, “Shi Xin, say, how nice it was for all of us at that time. We sat in front of the mountain gate and listened to you playing the xun. Xiahou felt sleepy when listening to it, and the other assassins angrily climbed out of their covers to drive us away. Why do you think it’s become like this now?”
“It’s because of me, it’s all because of me.”
“No, Shi Xin.” Uncle Duan smiled bitterly. “It’s all fate. If you couldn’t beat Xiahou, Xiahou wouldn’t have challenged you every day, and you wouldn’t have fallen in love with her. If we hadn’t been beggars who wandered the streets, we wouldn’t have been brought back to Garan and lived like this. It’s all fate.”
“It turns out that you also believe in fate, Duan Jiu,” Shi Xin said as he put his hand on Uncle Duan’s shoulder.
“I’ve always believed in it, you just didn’t know.” Uncle Duan held Shi Xin’s hand. “It is said that people who kill too much will be reincarnated as a brute in their next life. Shi Xin, we’re both old, and we’ll become brutes soon. The wound on my body won’t heal. Before, it would hurt once every ten days or half a month, and now it flares up every two or three days. Qiu Ye is also dying. He used miraculous ointment on the sores he got from being stung in the Miao area last year, but he’s also not getting better. Old friend, you must hurry and first let Xiao Lian succeed the Garuda, he’ll do well.”
Xiahou Lian was abruptly startled and turned his head to look at Qiu Ye.
The light was too dim, so he had never noticed that Qiu Ye actually looked very gaunt. If the candlelight shone over to them, he would see that there wasn’t a trace of blood in his face, as if it was paper paste, and only his lips were dull-red like a withered flower.
Qiu Ye gave him a soothing look and held his hand, signaling for him to continue listening.
Xiahou Lian’s nose ached slightly, and he silently mouthed, “Shifu.”
Shi Xin and Duan Jiu talked for a while more before strolling away. The cave returned to absolute darkness, and the sounds of Shi Xin’s and Duan Jiu’s footsteps slowly became further and further away, coming extremely muffledly along the stone walls and ground. In the end, they disappeared, and there was a deathlike silence.
To Xiahou Lian, the abbot was a pitch-black shadow, the faint writing in a pile of old papers, obsolete and vague. He was always sitting in the Main Hall of the Buddhist temple, and he was either striking that wooden fish that was missing a corner with thunks, or he was flipping through tattered scriptures and reciting in a mutter. He would sit quietly in the mountain temple like a dull ancient Buddha statue, and Xiahou Lian would run wildly outside the temple.
In his childhood when his mother wasn’t there, he would go barefoot in the mountain, climbing up and down and touching left and right. The moss would whisper softly underneath his feet, and even when stones cut the soles of his feet, he would run as usual. He would pick rushes and morning glories, put them on the altar, bring a small drum from a pile of sundries, use a chopstick to strike it with thumps, and imitate the abbot in babbling as he recited scriptures. Sometimes, there was no rice at home, so he would quietly bypass the Main Hall of the temple that the abbot was meditating in, step with crunches on the ground that was covered with fallen leaves, and go to the monastic room in the backyard to steal rice. He remembered the thin iron wire he had hidden under the begonia tree. He would turn the lock twice to the right, then use his hand to pat it, and it would open with a clatter. He would run after the setting sun, pick up stones and hit crows, and he would even sometimes hit the abbot’s bald head. He had grown up driven away like chickens and ducks, disliked by people and hated by dogs. When every assassin heard the thumping sounds of footsteps running past outside their door, they would know that it was the little bastard of the Xiahou family being mischievous again.
The abbot never scolded him. When he stole rice and oil, and even when he stole the lovage root herbs on the altar later, the abbot would pretend not to see him. He would only flip over a side of a scripture and continue reciting. Later, he had somehow found out that the abbot was his biological father, so he had run to the mountain temple, and the abbot was still that dark shadow with his back to him. He had kicked over all of the water buckets in the courtyard, and the water gurgled as it flowed past the moss and past the stone steps, reflecting the abbot’s steadfastly firm back and Xiahou Lian’s tearful face.
For years, the abbot had always been that back. Before, it had been tall, and later it had slowly become thin and slowly become stooped, but it was pitch-black and lonely as always. Xiahou Lian didn’t know exactly what kind of person the abbot was. He never spoke much, never did much, and had never concerned himself with Xiahou Lian. Now he knew that the abbot wasn’t the Buddha that Qiu Ye had once said, and he wasn’t the old bald donkey that Xiahou Pei spoke of. Instead, he was Garan’s fiercest demon, its evilest ferocious ghost.
At the top of Black-Faced Buddha, Chi Yan was playing the xun. The sounds of the xun tossed about and fluttered like drifting wind in the valley. It had no traces when it came, and it also had no traces when it left.
“Chi Yan,” Xiahou Lian called to him.
Chi Yan turned his head back and looked at him quietly.
“I ran into Chi Yan and Uncle Duan down there,” said Xiahou Lian.
“You already knew, right?” Xiahou Lian’s voice was unusually calm. “At the time when you caught Liu clan disciples for me to practice my saber on, the abbot had instructed you to do it, right?”
Chi Yan nodded.
He never lied, so when others asked him something he would answer, not a single false world. For no reason, Xiahou Lian suddenly hated him a little for being like this. He suddenly wished that he could tell a lie, anything was fine.
As long as he didn’t let Xiahou Lian know that he also had a share in Xiahou Pei’s death.
“Did you already know the truth about my mother’s death?”
“…” Xiahou Lian turned to leave, and he walked a few steps before stopping again. He asked, “If the abbot told you to come and kill me, would you come?”
The mountain wind ruffled Chi Yan’s hair, and his white sleeves fluttered. He sat by the cliff, and behind him was the boundless starry night. He looked at Xiahou Lian’s back, and there was a desolate loneliness at the bottom of his eyes.
He said, “I would.”
“Good, that’s very good.” Xiahou Lian said, “I would also kill you, so you and I both don’t need to show mercy.”
Xiahou Lian and Qiu Ye went down the mountain together. The wind was still blowing, filling up his sleeves with coolness. Chi Yan held the xun and lifted his head to look at the brilliant galaxy in the sky.
“But I would lose to you, Xiao Lian,” he said softly, but no one heard him.
Xiahou Lian returned to his bamboo house. He hadn’t come back for a long time, and weeds filled the small yard. Unknown bugs called out indistinctly, and grasshoppers even jumped on his feet. Many fallen leaves had landed on the stovetop under the shed, and there were also some in the pot. When Xiahou Lian walked by it, a gray rabbit burrowed out from underneath the stove.
Xiahou Lian brought out a bench, found an old item of clothing to wipe it clean, and let Qiu Ye sit. He went back to his room, got two jars of pear flower white wine, and put it before Qiu Ye before hesitating.
“Shifu, can you still drink wine?”
“Why not?” Qiu Ye smiled, bit off the stopper, and opened his mouth, pouring it in.
Xiahou Lian swallowed a mouthful of wine. The spicy wine trickled through his chest cavity like a saber rolling past, and the heat in his entire body rose. Xiahou Lian slowly let out a breath. The night was a gloomy blue, and fog had risen in the mountains, making it hazy all around. Clusters of verbena plants and hydrangeas were like a painting on rice paper that had been dipped in water, red and purple jumbling into an expanse.
“Shifu, you also knew, right?” Xiahou Lian suddenly asked.
“Yes, I knew.”
“My mother also knew. Starting from the twenty-sixth year of the Qianyuan era, all of her transactions were in rainy seasons, so it wasn’t possible for her not to have been aware of it.”
“Mn, she also knew.”
Xiahou Lian smiled, but in the end, it didn’t have the relish of a smile. “Only I was kept in the dark.”
“Don’t blame your mother.” Qiu Ye sighed. “Even if there were no deliberate arrangements by Shi Xin, your mother couldn’t have lasted long. It’s not only sabers and swords that can make an assassin go to the end, but also injuries and illnesses. Your mother’s body was already heavily damaged long ago. She knew long ago that she would leave sooner or later, but you know your mother. She wasn’t very knowledgeable and was clumsy in speech, so she didn’t know how to say goodbye to you… which is why she left so suddenly.”
“What happened with your sores, can they still be cured?” asked Xiahou Lian.
Qiu Ye smiled and shook his head, saying, “Xiao Lian, don’t you want to know some other things?”
Xiahou Lian was silent for a while and asked, “At the time, what happened to you all?”
Qiu Ye lowered his head and his gaze became very distant, as if he had fallen into a memory from a long time ago. He said, “I don’t know much, as I had just entered Garan at that time. Half a year before I entered Garan, a very serious internal disorder happened in Garan. There were heavy casualties, and assassins passed away. The former abbot selected children from Garan Village to fill the vacancies, and selected fugitives from outside who were good at martial arts into Garan at the same time. I was one of them. For outsiders like me, we get pushed aside a lot at the beginning. Your mother’s temperament was arrogant, so she was always unpopular. Similarly afflicted people have mutual sympathy, so she and I became confidants.
“At that time, Garan’s Eight Legions were very different from now, they were all masters that the former abbot personally cultivated. Shi Xin was the Garuda at the time.”
Xiahou Lian was stunned and said, “He was the twenty-seventh generation of Garuda?”
“That’s right.” Qiu Ye said, “Although your mother was regarded as the world’s best saber, Shi Xin was the truly unparalleled one at that time. He killed a person in one step and formed rivers of blood in ten steps, blood lotuses growing at his every step. His saber is named Bushenglian 1. Twenty-one years ago, your mother was pregnant with you and your brother. The former abbot suddenly issued a Garan order and gathered Garan’s Eight Legions to go to the North together. They went for over three months, and no one knows what happened in the North.
“The day you were born, it was night. Garan Village’s midwife swaddled you and Chi Yan, and Shi Xin suddenly came back. His entire body was covered in blood, and the midwife nearly died from fright. He didn’t say anything, picked up a child, and left. Your mother forced herself to get up from the bed and asked him what he was doing. He said that he was going to take a child away, and that he wanted to end the feelings between him and your mother.”
“What a man he is!” Xiahou Lian sneered, “Bullying a woman who had just given birth, why didn’t he die in the North and not come back!”
“Actually, he was not much better than your mother at the time. Shi Xin’s temper was originally very good, otherwise he couldn’t have been together with your mother. But that day, he insisted on taking a child away. Your mother said, the child can’t go, come here first and kowtow one hundred times for me. He said, can I use one hundred kowtows to exchange for a child? Your mother said, we’ll talk about it after you kowtow.”
“He kowtowed, fully a hundred times. Your mother also didn’t expect that he really could finish kowtowing. But she still didn’t agree to let him take the child away, so the two of them started fighting. Both of their strengths were exhausted, but both of their tempers were stubborn. In the end, they practically exchanged blows with each other without any moves. Your mother didn’t make it, and she laid down first. Shi Xin said, I’m taking the child away, from now on, you can’t meet him.”
“The one he took away was Chi Yan,” murmured Xiahou Lian.
“That’s right. Your mother lost, and she kept the promise. In seventeen years, she never went to see Chi Yan. Besides Shi Xin and his bosom friend Duan Jiu, no one knows exactly what happened in that tragic assassination twenty-one years ago. After that, Shi Xin succeeded Garan’s abbot, new Eight Legions were selected, and Garan was back on track.”
“Now it seems that he got cold feet. The former abbot and the other seven legions were all killed, so he took the blame and thought of this way to atone for his sins? How ridiculous, ridiculous!” Xiahou Lian buried his face in his hands and said, “Shifu, tell me, would he not have wanted to kill my mother if I had become stronger earlier?”
“Xiao Lian, this isn’t your fault. Actually, the one he chose at the very beginning should have been Chi Yan, but for some reason, he changed his mind again. Perhaps it was because Chi Yan doesn’t have a heart. No matter how strong someone without a heart is, they cannot become the head of Garan that leads all assassins.” Qiu Ye turned his head and looked at Xiahou Lian. Under the moonlight, his pupils were silent as water. “Xiao Lian, are you going to take revenge?”
“Of course, I must kill him. As for this head of Garan, whoever wants to be it can be it.” Xiahou Lian stood up, and there was a sinister cruelty in his eyes. “What Shi Xin, let him repay his debts in hell!”
Qiu Ye suddenly said, “Xiao Lian, did you find your mother’s last letter?”
Xiahou Lian was stunned and said, “No. She leaves her things around, and I searched for a long time but couldn’t find it. Perhaps it’s already been bitten by mice.”
Qiu Ye stroked the ridged patterns on the wine jar and said slowly, “Your mother left you some things outside…” He suddenly stopped and spoke again after a while. “Xiao Lian, do you want to leave Garan?”
“What do you mean? My mother…”
“Xiao Lian, when she was still alive, she told me that she wanted you to break the plot.” Qiu Ye walked before Xiahou Pei’s clothes grave and poured all of the wine before her grave. “Your mother was very different from us, not because her saber skills were outstanding, but because she was an assassin from birth. Before, all Garan assassins were homeless beggars. Only your mother found Garan herself. She said that she took hold of her own fate, and that she hopes that you can, too. And you don’t belong to Garan.”
“She wanted me to run away? She didn’t want me to take revenge, she wanted me to run away?” Xiahou Lian looked at the tombstone. On it were words he had engraved himself——The Grave of Xiahou Pei. His mother didn’t count as having been married, so she had no married name. When he thought about it, it was true. His mother had been bold and arbitrary for her entire life, so how could she be subordinate to her husband’s surname after death. Only the three characters Xiahou Pei were written on the tombstone, and they were completely enough.
“No.” Qiu Ye lifted his eyes, the glint of sabers and swords in his eyes. “If you want to take hold of your fate, there’s more than this one way. Xiao Lian, you can destroy Garan!”
“How is that possible? If I destroy Garan, what about Mid-July, you all would die!” Xiahou Lian said in shock.
“It’s not ‘you all,’ it’s ‘we.’” Qiu Ye said in a low voice, “Xiao Lian, do you know what kind of place Garan is? Every year, Garan Village receives fifty children from outside. Most of them are boys with strong hands and feet and no parents, and they treat Garan as their home. Every year, Garan Village also sends twenty children into the mountain temple, and the abbot gives them sabers and hangs up their plaques. Three days later, half of the plaques are taken down. That half of the children had died on the killing field. Every year, at least seven experienced and skilled assassins die, and among them, probably only the bones of three assassins can be transported back to the saber graveyard. Year after year, the bones under the saber graveyard are already piled up like a mountain. Yesterday, there was one more grave there, and I watched it be erected. Xiao Lian, shouldn’t this kind of place be destroyed?”
“Just now, you must have seen the medicine cave in Black-Faced Buddha. The others only know that I catch assassins who have defected and hand them over to the abbot to be beheaded. They’re wrong. The abbot sends them into Black-Faced Buddha and uses them as test subjects to test medicine on. I don’t know what the abbot is developing. Perhaps it’s Mid-August or Mid-September, but I do know that he is a sinner. In this Garan, everyone is a sinner. No one’s hands aren’t covered in blood, no one’s crimes aren’t inexpiable, and no one shouldn’t die! Including Chi Yan, including me, and including you.”
“Shifu, you and Chi Yan are different, and Shu Qing, he…”
“It’s no different. We’re all sinners, don’t you admit it?” Qiu Ye let out a low laugh. “Xiao Lian, your mother wanted you to break the plot and take hold of your own fate. The abbot wants you to succeed the head of Garan and kill that enemy that’s faraway in the North. And I want you to… destroy Garan!”
Silence, deathlike silence.
The fog became more and more dense, and it was as if Xiahou Lian was surrounded by it. The air around him became viscous as he was wrapped by the fog that came from all directions, suffocating him. His heart became very messy. He thought of Chi Yan’s silent look, and he also recalled Shi Xin holding a candle. In the end, he saw Xiahou Pei’s skeleton lying on the ground, gazing at the high and faraway dome of the sky.
Xiahou Lian lowered his head and looked at his palm, on which was the arrow scar Liu Guizang had left.
“What do I have to do?”
Qiu Ye laughed lightly. His smile was gentle as always, like a warm breeze that brushed past under spring flowers.
He suddenly stopped smiling, and his expression was as solemn as the gods’ and Buddha’s in the main hall of a temple. “Kill Shi Xin, and burn the medicine cave. Mid-July will kill us all!”