Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Shu Qing went to Qiu Ye to listen to a lecture, and then packed up luggage with Xiahou Lian, preparing to go to Suzhou. Shu Qing had received his first transaction of this year, and Qiu Ye had told him to make the cut himself this time. Xiahou Lian would only assist from the side, and after this time, he couldn’t rely on his senior fellow disciple anymore and had to make transactions alone.
He felt flustered as they passed by flowers and brushed past willows on the way. The road loomed in the forest, and the light that filtered down between the leaves shone on his hands that held the reins, like a ball of fire burning on the back of his hands. Cicadas chirped one after another in the forest, and the wind soughed with a rustle next to his ear. Sometimes, small flying black insects would bump into him head-on, frightening him into shrinking his head. As the sun set in the west, the two of them had to sleep in the open in the city outskirts. He made a fire, roasted a rabbit, and his senior fellow disciple closed his eyes to rest opposite of him. He looked at the round moon at the horizon and thought about Liu Shao’er.
They arrived at Suzhou’s courier house. The entire way, they saw small rivers parallel to the streets, pavilion buildings and water pavilions with glazed tiles and red-painted doors, shops crowded with people, and shop signs with black words on red backgrounds, on of which were written white vermicelli, complete drinking vessels, manufactured gold and silver jewelry, female workers’ combs with steel needles, and whatnot… Everywhere they looked was lively. On the streets, there were shirtless people doing acrobatics, craftsmen who wore cloth shoes and linen clothes performing puppet shows, and a few showgirls performed at road intersections, their babbling voices able to be heard from half a street away.
The unlucky devil this time wasn’t someone in the martial arts world. He was a salt merchant who lived on Renfeng Lane 1, and crossing Hudun Bridge 2 and walking around ten steps forward was his house. It had the biggest garden, in which a big pond which led to the canal outside had been dug. Water corridors had been built on top of it, a water pavilion had been constructed in the middle, rockeries were piled, and lotus flowers were planted in patches on all sides.
His employer was his first wife, and he had been in the business for his entire life, transported salt for his entire life, and hooked up with debaucherous women for his entire life. It was rumored that he had once been improper with a high-ranking concubine of another salt merchant. Some people had seen the two of them hooking up in Junpu Hall, as at the time the two salt merchants had been invited by the prefect of Suzhou Prefecture to go to an opera.
He was old now and his improper thoughts hadn’t changed, but his mind had become a lot more muddled. He had married seven or eight concubines in the past, and he never relented on money, giving all of his concubines’ sons only as much as they should get. Now, he had taken a prostitute back from Nanjing and had actually sent five or six shops to her name in one go. His first wife had bit her lip, became anxious, and simply used a shop to buy an assassin to send the old man to be reborn in the Land of Bliss a little earlier.
Xiahou Lian and Shu Qing flipped over the wall and entered the garden. The night was dark and the moon shone high in the sky, the moonlight that was like misty water, melancholic. Flowering trees that covered the ground were soaked in moonlight, dissolving into one expanse. The lotuses in the pond had bloomed just right, and they were dark red in the night, having a different freakishness. The old man and his new madam were in Shengyun 3 Water Pavilion in the center of the pond, and pond water was on all sides, isolating a small land of idyllic beauty. The water corridor with cyan-black tiles and white walls was winding and turned several bends, connecting the water pavilion to the land.
The masters and servants were asleep, so it was as if the garden was muted, only having the rustling of leaves and the chirps of bugs in the shadows. But upon listening closely, one could also hear that there was a woman’s sweet laughter in the water pavilion, sounding along the wind riding on the ripples. Shu Qing and Xiahou Lian snuck in the darkness, bending their waists and touching the turtle-patterned brocade and red-painted door. A soft smoky screen had been pasted on the window frame, and Xiahou Lian pierced a layer of the window screen so that they were able to see two indistinct people sitting on top of each other.
Xiahou Lian gave Shu Qing a meaningful glance, and Shu Qing shook his head vigorously. Xiahou Lian made a gesture of a slash. He was wearing a mask, so Shu Qing couldn’t see his expression and could only see the ruthlessness that only assassins had. He had heard Qiu Ye say that before, his senior fellow disciple was the same as him, not daring to make transactions himself. For two years, he would follow behind other assassins as a decoration, and the name of Xiahou Good-For-Nothing had even been spread around Garan for a while. But now, Xiahou Lian was ruthless when he acted, and when Hengbo was drawn, it had to see blood and had to slit a throat. How was he like Xiahou Good-For-Nothing?
He shuddered, took several deep breaths, and steeled himself, pushing the door a little open and going in with a bent waist. Xiahou Lian followed behind him. They walked like ghosts, noiselessly.
The old man had eaten and drank to his heart’s content, so he pressed the woman facedown onto the table, pulled out a small square box from his sleeve, and took a pill from inside, swallowing it. The woman’s back was to them, and Shu Qing saw the old man pressing her down, his bloated stomach pressing the smooth and naked back out of shape, like a dough that had been kneaded flat.
Xiahou Lian sliced his finger across his own neck and pointed at the old man.
Shu Qing squeezed a spring mechanism, Dizhong Saber silently sprung out of its flute scabbard, and he quietly walked behind the old man. The hairs of the two people on the table were intertwined, their bodies shook fiercely, and the woman’s high and mellow cries filled Shu Qing’s ears. This cry was a little familiar, and Shu Qing suddenly hesitated, his saber raised in midair and not falling for a long time.
Xiahou Lian shook his head behind his back and drew out Hengbo, planning to help him. Shu Qing shook his head and stopped thinking wildly. He brought the saber down extremely ruthlessly, and the saber sliced past a fierce arc, cutting off the old man’s head. The head tumbled from the wine table, and blood sprayed all over the woman.
Liu Shao’er had originally been crying out in a high-pitched voice. The old man’s strength was far inferior to Shu Qing’s, and his thing down there also wasn’t enough to look at at all. But she had still cried out desperately, and she also had to be loud and pleasant-sounding. Fortunately, she had learned Kunqu Opera and had a resounding and powerful tone, making the old man delighted.
Just as she was crying out, her neck was suddenly sprayed with a warm and sticky fluid, and she suspected that the useless old man had vomited. She opened her eyes to look, yet she saw herself covered in blood. The old man was still lying on her body, and she turned her head in terror. She saw the neck that had lost its head, the tidy cut, and blood that gushed like a spring.
“Ahhh——” Liu Shao’er wanted to push away the old man’s headless corpse, but he had been holding her very tightly, so she couldn’t push him away no matter how she tried. She turned around, and the neck that was spraying blood dove straight into her arms.
“Liu Shao’er!” A familiar voice sounded in her ears. Liu Shao’er shuddered and lifted her eyes to see Shu Qing carrying a bloodstained saber in one hand and holding a plain porcelain mask in one hand, blankly looking at her.
Another black-clothed man was standing outside the bead curtains, and she recognized in a glance that it was Xiahou Lian. She understood at once.
“You’re both assassins! You’re both assassins!” Liu Shao’er wanted to move the old man’s hand aside, but she lost her balance and fell to the ground together with the old man. “Servants! Servants! He’s been killed! He’s been killed!”
“Liu Shao’er, stop shouting, I’ll take you!” Shu Qing threw away his mask and walked over to help her up.
Liu Shao’er backed away in terror, bringing the corpse backward as well and dragging a long line of blood on the ground. She shouted at the top of her voice, “Stay back! Assassins! Murderers! Help, help!”
“Leave her alone, let’s go!” A flurry of footsteps sounded outside, as well as the light of torches. Xiahou Lian went over to pull Shu Qing.
“Liu Shao’er!” Shu Qing was still looking at Liu Shao’er as Xiahou Lian pulled him along and ran.
The naked woman who was entangled with the corpse on the ground became further and further away from him. The night was unreasonably dark, and the wind burrowed into his sleeves like a dove, flapping its wings under his clothes. The goat’s beard grass 4 by the rockeries were as sharp as sharp sabers, stabbing out from all directions. Wisteria wrapped around trees like weary snakes, hanging down from the tree branches.
Xiahou Lian pulled him the entire way and didn’t let go. Their sheath received them, and spies covered their retreat. They entered a winding alley, going back to the courier house from the back door.
Shu Qing squatted in a corner, buried his head, and kept silent. The warm breeze of the summer night blew in bursts, and moonlight was vast and rippling like water. He only felt that it was cold, bone-chillingly cold.
Xiahou Lian sent a letter asking Wanxiang Building exactly what had happened, and Liu Xiangnu sent a letter saying that a month ago, the salt merchant had come to Wanxiang Building to watch a play and had had his eye on Liu Shao’er in one glance. Liu Shao’er wanted to go and no one could stop her, so they were planning on waiting for Shu Qing to come back to tell him, but they hadn’t expected that Shu Qing would run into her in Suzhou.
Tang Shiqi came over to express his sympathy, but he could only criticize her after it was already over, saying that he had seen long ago that Liu Shao’er wasn’t law-abiding and that one had to marry a pure family’s girl.
Xiahou Lian drove him away and let Shu Qing be alone.
Shu Qing sat in the yard and stared blankly day after day, and he looked up at the second floor’s layer upon layers of square-patterned window sashes. They opened one after another like densely packed pages, and opened and closed in the wind. He remembered when he had been in Wanxiang Building, Liu Shao’er would earnestly comb her hair behind such a window sash and tie her hair into a falling-off-the-horse bun 5. When she lowered her eyes, she was gentle like a spring river on a moonlit night. He still remembered her round arms, her wrists that were as tender as lotus roots exposed under her moon-white sleeves with dark emerald-green bracelets hanging on them, and the faint fragrance of begonia that floated over when she helped him tuck in the hair on his temples.
“Shige, if it were you, what would you do?” Shu Qing asked Xiahou Lian one night.
Xiahou Lian was baffled. He hadn’t even thought about marriage before, so how could he think about being made a cuckold?
“Why did she do this to me?” Shu Qing said in pain, “I’ve already decided everything. I’ve decided how many children to have, what names to give them, and I’ve decided that when we’re old, we can live in Garan Village and be buried in the saber graveyard when we die. But I didn’t expect that she would betray me.”
Xiahou Lian’s lips moved. He wanted to say that there were no assassins who could live to be old and live until they died. But he didn’t say anything, as having hope was always better than not having hope and having wishes was always better than not having wishes, and he didn’t want to expose them.
Shu Qing wiped his eyes, and his hands were covered in tears.
After he stared blankly for three or four days, Tang Shiqi ran over hurriedly. Shu Qing didn’t want to talk to him, so he stood up and was about to leave.
“Liu Shao’er was put into prison!” shouted Tang Shiqi.
Shu Qing paused in his footsteps.
Xiahou Lian turned and walked out from behind a screen wall, asking, “What happened? Don’t make unnecessary fuss all day long, say it clearly.”
Tang Shiqi panted as he said, “That old man’s wife is a cruel character. She bribed the county magistrate into convicting Liu Shao’er of murdering for money, and she was locked into prison. However, there’s not enough evidence so there isn’t a sentence, she’s just locked there. But by doing this, those shops that Liu Shao’er got will be returned to the wife.”
Xiahou Lian and Tang Shiqi looked at Shu Qing together, waiting for him to make a decision.
Shu Qing held his head and sat on a small stool, not speaking.
“If you ask me, leave her the hell alone. Let her be taught a proper lesson and see if she still dares to make men cuckolds!” said Tang Shiqi.
“Shut up!” Shu Qing roared, his eyes red, and Tang Shiqi stopped talking. Shu Qing said to Xiahou Lian, “Shige, can you help me one more time? I’m going to save her.”
Xiahou Lian wore Hengbo on his waist and said, “Let’s go.” He lifted his chin toward Tang Shiqi. “You come with us too and help us keep watch.”
Tang Shiqi used Jinghong Arrow 6 to take care of the two yamen workers guarding the entrance. Xiahou Lian and Shu Qing directly entered without resistance, knocking down yamen workers the entire way. These yamen workers usually only knew how to gamble and drink, so their skills were terrible. When they encountered someone like Xiahou Lian who had waded across mountains of sabers and seas of blood, they only had the part of admitting defeat.
The prison only had a passageway through to the end, and the end was a grim and cold black. The two sides were separated into cells upon cells, and every cell was covered with straw as the criminals’ beds. The ground was covered with gloomy and cold stone bricks, and the walls were covered with dirt, some looking like bloodstains. Slippery moss grew in the cracks, and small unknown bugs dragged out wet traces as they crawled back and forth.
Liu Shao’er was singing in her cell, babbling notes and high and low tones. Her throat was hoarse from singing, as if a handful of sand had been rubbed inside her throat, grinding out pitifulness. Shu Qing didn’t dare to walk forward anymore, as he was afraid of seeing her. He stopped at the corner and shed tears silently.
Xiahou Lian waited at the side, but he waited for a long time and didn’t see Shu Qing move. Liu Shao’er had already stopped singing, and rustling sounds came from her cell. Xiahou Lian kicked the wooden railing irritably and pulled his hair. “What are you dawdling like a woman for, if you’re not going to go then I will!”
Shu Qing lifted his head up as if he had woken up from a dream. He walked to Liu Shao’er’s cell and used the key he had found on a yamen worker to open the door.
Liu Shao’er had disheveled hair and a dirty face as she sat on the ground. She was wearing dirty prison clothes and a blanket covered her knees. In a few day’s time, she had turned from a famous radiant and dazzling Jinling prostitute into a prisoner on her last breaths. When she saw Shu Qing, she wasn’t joyful. Her eyes gazed fixedly at Shu Qing from the bottom up, and the corners of her mouth hooked upward. Her lips became a thinly curved line, with a little bit of pale red.
When Shu Qing saw her smile, he suddenly felt as if a basin of cold water had been poured onto his head, the cold starting from his heart and going all the way to make his fingertips cold.
She already didn’t seem like a person anymore, she was like a ghost.
“You came, Darling Shu!” She smiled, the corners of her mouth grinning and revealing chilling white teeth.
“I’m taking you to leave, hurry and get up,” said Shu Qing, frowning.
“Leave? How can I leave?” Liu Shao’er laughed, and she lifted the blanket on her lap. Only then did Shu Qing discover that she wasn’t wearing trousers. Her fair legs were covered with wounds, and looking more upward, it was muddy between her thighs.
Xiahou Lian, who was standing at the side, shifted his gaze away and knitted his brows tightly.
“Liu Shao’er…” Shu Qing’s eyes were red.
“Why did you come!” Liu Shao’er held the wall and stood up, her entire body trembling. “Why did you come! Originally… Originally, I already got those shops, and they’re all extremely good locations. One bookshop, two wine shops, and one pastry shop. How nice, when that old man stopped breathing, I would’ve come out and lived alone. I have silver, so I can do anything! But you came, you came! What did you come for! How many women in the world dislike the poor and love the rich, why did you just have to destroy me!”
“I didn’t know…” Shu Qing reached his hand out.
Liu Shao’er avoided him and screamed, “Now you’re satisfied! I’ve been locked into prison, and those brutes bullied me, one by one! Last night, how many slept with me? Let me count… Ah, there’s too many to count. Why was I so stupid? You murderer, fugitive! You’re also a brute, you wanted to turn me into the same as you, unable to see the light and unable to see people!”
Xiahou Lian and Shu Qing were shocked all over.
“Knock her out and take her away!” Xiahou Lian roared at Shu Qing.
Liu Shao’er saw Xiahou Lian and pointed at him. “And you, you brute! I see, you two are in cahoots with Wanxiang Building, you’re all in cahoots! Mother Liu wanted to give me to you and have children for you murderer! You’re also a brute, you’re both brutes!”
Liu Shao’er suddenly leapt and pounced toward Xiahou Lian. Xiahou Lian swiftly retreated and put his right hand on the hilt of Hengbo. Shu Qing yelled, “Don’t!” Liu Shao’er’s pounce missed, and she brushed past the front of Xiahou Lian’s robes, hitting the wall Shu Qing heard a dull sound, and Liu Shao’er slid down along the wall. She stiffly laid facedown, and dark red blood came out of her body like a snake. First, it was one, then two, and then many converged into a heap. In the end, they became a circle that spread slowly.
Xiahou Lian stayed in Suzhou with Shu Qing for a month and arranged Liu Shao’er’s funeral affairs. Shu Qing buried her in behind Hanshan Temple and contributed a rebirth memorial tablet, wishing that she could be reborn to a good family in her next life.
Shu Qing chanted scriptures for the deceased together with monks in the Main Hall, and Xiahou Lian and Tang Shiqi squatted by the water that flowed from the eaves, resting their heads on their hands as they waited. The iron horses on the corner of the eaves jingled, and their noses were filled with the pungent smell of incense, so Tang Shiqi kept sneezing. The sounds of the monks chanting scripture seemed to come from a very deep and very faraway place, continuous and endless, as slow and heavy as bells and drums.
“Hey, Shiqi, do you think that there really is bliss in this world?” asked Xiahou Lian.
“There isn’t in this world, but there definitely is outside the world,” Tang Shiqi replied, grinning.
Xiahou Lian gazed at the sky for a while and spoke again. “If I die, remember to burn some incense paper for me.”
“Of course.” Tang Shiqi patted Xiahou Lian’s shoulder. “I’ll burn a big house with three entrances and three exits, four paper paste concubines, and seven or eight servants for you to ensure your satisfaction!”
A servant of the courier house hurriedly walked up from below the stairs. Xiahou Lian stood up and beckoned to him.
The servant panted as he ran up and said to Xiahou Lian, “Master Xiahou, hurry and take Master Shu back to the mountain. News has come from the mountain temple, Master Qiu’s health is not well!”
Leaves of old pagoda trees spun as they landed on Xiahou Lian’s shoulders, and dim light filtered through the dense pagoda leaves, scattering bits of light on Xiahou Lian. Withered multiflora roses climbed on the bamboo fence, and the petals were gray-black and hard like pieces of paper. The bleak autumn breeze filled the entire yard, and Qiu Ye’s chicks sat in the nest with their wings covered, peeping softly.
Qiu Ye was Garan’s most beautiful man. He had affectionate eyes and rosy lips, and he always spoke gently, like curling autumn waves in Dongting Lake. No matter how angry he was, it was nothing more than a few rolling spindrifts. Since childhood, Xiahou Lian had liked running with him. Xiahou Lian would follow when he went to Garan Village to buy rice and oil, Xiahou Lian would follow when he went into the forest to chop bamboo, and Xiahou Lian would also follow when he played with his chicks.
But leaves had to fall in the end, and Xiahou Lian had no way of following behind him ever again, calling him “Dage” and calling him “Shifu.”
Shu Qing wiped his eyes as he walked out of the room. “Shige, Shifu tells you to go in.”
Xiahou Lian stood up and pushed open the old wooden door that creaked. Qiu Ye was lying on a bed-stove, a floral silk blanket wrapped around his thin body. One of his hands rested on the edge of the bed-stove, the small bones on the edge of his wrist practically bursting out of the thin skin.
He reached his hand out to Xiahou Lian, the corners of his lips curving into a faint smile.
“It’s time to say goodbye, Xiao Lian.” Qiu Ye sighed lightly.
“I’ll accompany you,” Xiahou Lian said in a low voice.
Qiu Ye took out a small box from the head of the bed and put it in Xiahou Lian’s palms.
“Inside are my twelve Qiushui Cicada Wing Sabers. Four are for you, and eight are for your shidi.” Qiu Ye opened the box. Dazzling Qiushui Sabers were stacked inside, and every one was the length of a finger, was as thin as cicada wings, and had faint flowing water and cloud patterns on its blade. Xiahou Lian picked up a saber and suddenly felt that the textures on it were very familiar.
“Shifu, what are Cicada Wing Sabers made out of?”
“Meteoric iron from Tian Mountain. The first generation of the head of the Qiu clan gathered it from Tian Mountain.” Qiu Ye said, “You have to preserve them well, and although they don’t have to be passed down to future generations, you can’t cast them aside like old shoes.”
Xiahou Lian closed the box and nodded solemnly.
“There’s one more thing.” Qiu Ye gazed at him deeply. “I have a shixiong 7, his name is Qiu Shan 8, and he lives in seclusion at the foot of Qixia Mountain 9. He knows this world’s true face-disguising technique——cutting bone and flesh, changing one’s head and replacing one’s face. If there is a day when you can leave Garan, there is no harm in finding him.”
“Yes, I understand,” said Xiahou Lian.
Qiu Ye had a clear and shallow smile as he nodded and closed his eyes. Outside the window, the wind gradually started. Xiahou Lian looked through the lattice patterns shaped in a capital “I” at the deep pagoda leaves outside, the branches that trembled, and the dark red sun that hung. In the distance, the bells of the mountain temple rang, following a slow beat and ringing again and again.
Xiahou Lian put Qiu Ye’s hand into the covers and said softly:
- Lit. Benevolence Lane.
- Lit. Tiger Squatting Bridge.
- Lit. Growing clouds.
- A literal translation of a name for carex callitrichos.
- A ancient style of hair bun where the bun hangs off the side of one’s head.
- Lit. Startled Swan Goose Arrow.
- Lit. Fellow disciple.
- Lit. Autumn Mountain.
- A mountain in the northeast part of Nanjing.