Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
The trees were withered, and looking up, thin branches stretched out, imprinting on the blue-white sky like cracks that extended out on blue and white porcelain. The stone steps at the mountain gate had been cleaned, and snow piled thickly on the two sides like small hills. Tang Shiqi sat cross-legged on the round cushion in the Main Hall of the temple, rubbing his hands that were red from the cold. Looking out from the door, the mountain was a vast and bleak expanse of white, and one could vaguely see a bit of the withered and yellow thatched roofs of the assassins’ huts that were exposed. Long bluestone steps stretched down, disappearing in hazy snow and fog.
Assassins wrapped in cloaks and with covered heads and faces entered one after another, took a pill from the black-lacquered bowl on the altar, and then went to the charcoal stove to warm themselves. Tang Shiqi heard someone curse in a low voice, “How come it still hasn’t been repaired, what a tattered place!” Tang Shiqi looked up at the roof with a big hole. Wind and snow drifted in from there, landing on the assassins’ jet-black heads.
Garan of Seven Leaves was a strange place. Upon coming, Tang Shiqi had felt cold, and even his bones trembled. The Buddha statues they worshipped here were all black, and the original mild and benevolent faces appeared inexplicably ferocious under the black paint. The Buddha statues were very old, and the paint on most of them was peeling. The mottled Buddha faces hung down slightly, its eyes half-closed, and their indifferent gazes looked down at the assassins sitting below. Tang Shiqi felt that his neck was cold, as if someone had cut it.
The abbot sat under the Dipamkara Buddha, flipped open an old scripture, and began chanting. Everyone hung their heads, and someone who was leaning on a beam fell asleep. The abbot’s voice was flat, like the tones of a dead person. Snores sounded from the other side of the main hall, long first and then short. It was high and low with extreme regularity, as if playing an erhu 1, and accompanied with the sounds of the abbot’s flat chanting, it was strangely pleasant-sounding. Tang Shiqi wanted to laugh, and he was bored for a while before starting to look around. He saw Chi Yan sitting at the feet of the Manjushri Bodhisattva. He wanted to chat with him, but he remembered that he had disguised himself as Xiahou Lian and couldn’t get into trouble, so he held back after thinking about it.
Xiahou Lian had gone to Tian Mountain. After he and Shu Qing attended Qiu Ye’s funeral, Shu Qing had gone to the Western Regions, and Xiahou Lian had found Tang Shiqi, bringing Cicada Wing Sabers. He had shown him the flowing water and cloud pattern on it and compared it to Tang Lan’s notes; sure enough, they were extremely similar. He had given Tang Shiqi a skin mask, taught Tang Shiqi vocal imitation, told Tang Shiqi to disguise himself as him and stay in Garan, and then gone up Tian Mountain. He had saved the pill that he had originally brought for his mother at the time. His mother had died in Liuzhou and hadn’t eaten it, so it happened to give him a year now to look for meteoric iron.
During this period, Tang Shiqi could control Xiahou Lian’s deposits of silver at will. Xiahou Lian was extremely rich, as he had made a lot of money from making transactions these years. He didn’t do much and didn’t gamble, visit prostitutes, or support performers. At most, he drank some wine and got a few sabers to play with, so he had indeed saved a large sum of silver.
Tang Shiqi had been thrilled, and he ate, drank, and had fun everywhere with Xiahou Lian’s face. He spent a few hundred taels of silver to support a famous performer in Jinling. Every time she went onstage, he was sure to send people to send countless red sashes, gold hairpins, and jade hair clasps. He had married two underage prostitutes in Hangzhou and rested and recuperated in Yanchun Brothel for two days. The Eastern Depot had sniffed his smell and chased after him, but he had given tens of taels of silver to every person, left behind his gold ring with a silk ribbon and jade fan pendant, patted his behind, and left. He heard that to date, a girl still hadn’t remarried because of him. When beautiful women on Qinhuai debuted, he definitely had to sprinkle gold foil on painted pleasure boats. When Yangzhou harlots got married, he would definitely send people to send ten miles of red dresses.
Thus, besides this title of the Nameless Ghost that made people terror-stricken, he had another nickname of “Loafer of Suzhou.” Prostitutes everywhere took pride in Xiahou Lian personally going to their curtain. The Eastern Depot searched for him everywhere in brothels, and prostitutes would compete to say that Xiahou Lian was in their rooms. The Eastern Depot ran around, but they couldn’t even see Xiahou Lian’s shadow. Tang Shiqi would hide on the side and laugh happily.
But Tang Shiqi was also very upset. Xiahou Lian had enemies everywhere, and the biggest one was the Eastern Depot. He didn’t know which of the Eastern Depot’s nerves Xiahou Lian had struck, but the streets were full of his portraits and notices nowadays. Every day, Eastern Depot underlings with their hands on their sabers would walk around streets and see if the passersby were Xiahou Lian, one by one. Xiahou Lian had run to Tian Mountain, and that nook didn’t even have people, let alone the Eastern Depot. But Tang Shiqi had to hide from the Eastern Depot and also hide the truth from Garan, so it was indeed mentally and physically exhausting.
Usually, he had just stepped with his front foot and hugged a girl’s waist, and an underling would noisily come at his back foot. He could only kiss the girl’s lips like a dragonfly skimming the surface of water and jump out of the windowsill in the girl’s reluctant gaze, running as he promised to come back next time to see her.
The assassin’s snores changed tunes, and it was now three long sounds and one short sound. The abbot stopped chanting scripture in the snores and glanced faintly. Someone used their elbow to nudge the sleeping assassin, and the assassin opened their eyes blearily. The abbot put the scripture down and stood up. Tang Shiqi looked over. On the wooden partition to the west, thirty or so sandalwood plaques hung neatly. A name was written on every plaque, though they weren’t people’s names, they were sabers’ names. The plaques on the top were Garan’s Eight Legions, and only their plaques had the Eight Legions’ titles written in ink. It was empty under “Garuda.”
Tang Shiqi saw “Hengbo” hanging at the very bottom, an inconspicuous position. The abbot walked over, took down some of the plaques, pulled out a few plaques from the fold of his clothes, and hung them up. He took out “Hengbo” and put it underneath “Garuda.”
“Xiahou Lian,” said the abbot.
Tang Shiqi was abruptly shocked, and the assassins turned their heads to look at him. There were a few tens of gazes, and they were all unfamiliar and indifferent. Tang Shiqi felt that he was like a living person who had intruded on a group of ghosts.
“Here!” Tang Shiqi mustered up the courage to reply.
The abbot walked over, put his hand on top of his head, and said, “From now on, you’re the twenty-ninth generation of Garuda.”
Tang Shiqi’s head was lowered, and his heart thumped like a drum being beat. It was as if five cold and hard crude irons were clamped on his head, and he didn’t know if it was because it was too cold and the temple too damaged, but cold air poured into his head chillingly. The skinny hand on his head didn’t have any heat at all, and it had the gloomy and cold smell of a dead person.
What should he do now? Shed bitter tears, kowtow, and express his gratitude? He secretly hated Xiahou Lian for not explaining things clearly. What did assassins do upon being appointed with a title?
Without waiting for him to finish being conflicted, the abbot had already taken his hand away. He lifted his hand, and two assassins moved a charcoal basin to the center. The abbot sat cross-legged before the charcoal basin and put the wooden plaques he had taken down from the wooden partition into the charcoal fire one by one.
“We assassins have no name and no surname, no king and no father, no home and no country. We hold the Bodhi saber, the blade of life and death. We kill innocents, sinners, ordinaries, generals and ministers. The darkness is our brother, the long night is our relative. We are the shadows in light, the ghosts in night, the moths in fire. We commit sins, kill gratitudes and grudges. We enter the gate of liberation and obtain immortality. May you and the souls of our ancestors be reborn in the Land of Bliss and return to eternity.”
The assassins looked at the wooden plaques that became charred in the charcoal stove and repeated in low voices, “Reborn in the Land of Bliss and return to eternity.”
Everyone’s voices were like heavy bells, reverberating back and forth in Tang Shiqi’s ears and shaking Tang Shiqi dizzily. He dazedly followed the crowd out of the door. Gray shadows passed through his vision; those were assassins looking steadily forward as they passed by him.
He recalled the abbot’s words from just then and felt as if his heart was covered in ice. He couldn’t help but turn his head back, and he saw Chi Yan standing under the eaves. He was quietly looking at Tang Shiqi, his gaze clear and faint, like rustling winter snow. Tang Shiqi became clear-headed and was afraid that he would tell that he was a fake. It was as if he oiled the soles of his feet as he slipped away without looking back.
Xiahou Lian’s house was tattered like ruins that were a few hundred years old. Tang Shiqi complained about Xiahou Lian as he walked in. He thought for a while and felt that this place was quite suitable for Xiahou Lian. Didn’t ghosts who had crawled back from hell stay in ruins without liveliness? Fortunately, Xiahou Lian had told him that a few jars of pear flower white wine were buried in the back of his room. He puffed as he dug out the wine and drank, getting completely drunk.
Uncle Duan was passing by Xiahou Lian’s house, and he stood outside the fence and saw Tang Shiqi lying on the snowy ground. He pushed the fence as he asked worriedly, “Xiao Lian, what’s the matter with you? Why are you lying on the ground? It’s cold outside, hurry and go back to rest.”
Tang Shiqi squinted his eyes and saw the big man with a wide face before his eyes. “Where did this big pancake face come from, go away! You’re delaying my drinking!”
Uncle Duan was extremely angry and scolded, “You damned brat!” When he saw his dizzy appearance from being drunk, he shook his head and said, “I’ve heard about the matters of you outside. Our Garan has always been particular about being low-profile. You’re so widely known, sooner or later, there will be a day when you get into big trouble! What, you avenged your mother and don’t have any other proper things to do!”
“Do!” Tang Shiqi laughed and said, “Of course I have proper things to do. Girls of Qinhuai River and Hualiu Alley line up to wait for me to do them!”
“You! You!” Uncle Duan was so angry his face was completely red, and he left with a flick of his sleeves.
Tang Shiqi laid for a while, felt cold, and scrambled back inside.
At night, the moon was behind thousands of mountains, white and dazzling as it hung on the desolate curtain of night. Among the dark rises and falls of mountain peaks, the assassins’ huts lit up, like fireflies that flew alone and would be swallowed by the darkness if they were careless. The abbot lit an old oil lamp in the monastic room, and a lone flame trembled on the edge of the lamp holder, shining so that shadows shook around on the walls.
The entire Uncle Duan went over, the flowers on the flower path had wilted, leaving behind intersecting withered branches that were pressed under the snow and lying on the ground. As Uncle Duan walked, his ankles were scraped painfully the entire way. He entered the door and sat down, looking at his feet under the light and complaining, “Shi Xin, when are you going to repair this dilapidated temple?”
Shi Xin sighed and said, “Next year, it’ll wait until next year.”
“You also said this last year.”
“There’s no money, Duan Jiu.” Shi Xin poked the lampwick.
Duan Jiu curled his lip. He knew where Garan’s bounties had gone, so he didn’t say anything else.
Chi Yan leaned against the grill window and looked blankly at the fluttering snowflakes outside the window screen.
“I don’t think that brat Xiao Lian can do it anymore,” said Uncle Duan.
Shi Xin’s movements of stirring the snuff of the wick paused.
“Have you heard of his absurd things?” Uncle Duan sighed. “Ever since he avenged his mother, he’s been slacking off. He visits brothels and prostitutes all day long, not proper at all. How can he succeed your position like this? Shi Xin, the saber you forged is useless.”
“I’ve heard.” Shi Xin knitted his brows and said, “He originally had no interest in women. Yue Nu, whom I had him serve, and Liu Shao’er from some days ago both couldn’t tempt him.”
“I heard that there’s someone named Tang Shiqi by his side. He’s a true libertine, and I’m afraid this son of a bitch led Xiao Lian astray.”
“Perhaps we can kill Tang Shiqi,” said Shi Xin. He tucked in his sleeves, sat onto a round cushion, and looked at Chi Yan. “Chi Yan, what do you say?”
Chi Yan took his gaze back from looking at the snow and put his hands on his knees, upright. He lifted his eyes, the silent and desolate light in his eyes fixed on that bit of light. “Xiahou Lian has already entered crooked ways and harbors evil intentions. He is beyond remedy.”
“Hence, you are the only one who can go to the North, Chi Yan.” Shi Xin said, “I do not have a perfect plan. Our ancestors died under the ice and snow, and after that, those people learned well, so only Garan’s abbot can see them. But you have no heart, so you cannot obtain their approval.”
Chi Yan lowered his head and caught a snowflake that drifted in from a crack in the window screen. The snow melted as soon as it landed in his palm. He said, “There will be a way. You said that there are some things of which you are fully aware are mountains of sabers and seas of fire, but you still have to charge in.”
“You’re right.” Shi Xin said, “Besides me, who else remembers the matter of twenty-one years ago? Only I remember how their heads were cut off, how their blood melted into the snow. Only I remember who they were, their appearances, their voices. So, only I can avenge them! Go, child, I’ll draw up a plan for you to safely arrive in the North and meet those people. As for the rest, I can only leave it to you.”
Tang Shiqi was hot all over, and his head hurt terribly. He got up from the bed-stove and poured some water to drink. Outside, crunching footsteps sounded, and someone came in with wind and snow. Tang Shiqi squinted his eyes to look. Hazy light penetrated through the window screen, shining on the comer. Tang Shiqi recognized the person’s silhouette with difficulty; it was Chi Yan.
Chi Yan sat down on the bed-stove and handed him a letter.
“This is my last letter, please give it to Xiao Lian.”
Tang Shiqi had a splitting headache, and he put the letter at the head of the bed. “What the hell are you talking about, I am Xiao Lian!”
“You are not Xiao Lian, I can tell.” Chi Yan said, “I am going to the North, and I may not come back. Uncle Duan said that assassins have the custom of leaving a last letter to give instructions of what to do after their death and split their inheritance. I do not have any inheritance, I just have some things to say to Xiao Lian.”
“Ah, if you have things to say then tell him directly, why would you write a last…” Tang Shiqi’s head was dizzy, and Chi Yan’s words seemed to come to his ears across a layer, rumbling and unclear.
Chi Yan didn’t say anything, and anyone could see the sadness in his eyes. But the room was dark, so Tang Shiqi couldn’t see it.
Chi Yan was silent for a while and said, “Before, I did not like to go down the mountain because I felt that the lights below the mountain, the flowers below the mountain, and those people’s noisiness all had nothing to do with me. I felt that I was like a gust of wind, not leaving a trace anywhere I go, and that I would disappear with a puff. But Xiao Lian came, and only then did I know that there is a person in this world that looks exactly the same as me. We are brothers whose blood is thicker than water, and he is my connection to this world.” He looked at Tang Shiqi. “I am used to being alone, so I do not really know how to speak. Can you understand?”
Tang Shiqi nodded his head muddledly.
“I heard that after crossing the Bridge of Irreparability 2, as long as you do not drink Meng Po’s soup 3, you will not forget events of the past. I will try my best not to drink Meng Po’s soup. Can you ask Xiao Lian for me, if I come and find him in my next life, will he still be willing to be my little brother?”
Tang Shiqi got up abruptly and said, “Ah, I got it, I got it! My head is dizzy and I want to throw up, so can you hurry and finish talking!”
Chi Yan was startled. He stood up and was dazed for a while before saying, “Apologies, I will go.”
Tang Shiqi lied back down, and Chi Yan stood in the darkness for a while before leaving quietly.
The next day, Tang Shiqi woke up, and his head still hurt a little. He pushed open the window. Outside, heavy snow was falling, all over the mountains and plains, drifting everywhere. He looked back at the empty room. Last night, Chi Yan seemed to have come, but he couldn’t remember very well and kept feeling that he had been dreaming. Why would Chi Yan come at night? He knocked his head and felt that he was dazed from sleeping. He didn’t see that, underneath the pillow, the corner of the letter was sticking out.
Winter passed, and Tang Shiqi finally left Garan, going back to the place of relaxation with women below the mountain. When he saw Yanchun Brothel, tears practically welled up in his eyes even more than if he had returned home. He smelled the familiar fragrance of rouge and powder, so sweet it was sickly. Bright red octagonal lanterns were hung in a row, and the girls underneath the eaves fluttered bright sashes, a thin layer of red shining on their faces from the lanterns. In the yard, people were noisy, and the sounds of women’s laughter were piercing and sharp. A guest was drunk, couldn’t walk steadily, and fell into the pond, causing a bout of laughter.
“That damned eunuch Wei De and his godson Shen Jue really are despicable!”
Tang Shiqi was hugging a girl’s slender waist and feeding each other wine, and some people were chatting at an opposite table.
“Master Xiahou, why did you come only now?” the girl snuggled in his arms and complained softly.
“Sorry, my little darling, I got caught up in some shit and was too busy to attend to other things.”
The opposite table was chatting happily. “Tell me about it! Do you know the case from ten years ago when the Xie clan was completely exterminated?”
“Of course I know! Master Xie, Xie Bingfeng, a pillar of the righteous class, this dynasty’s main beam! He was seen by Wei De as a thorn in his flesh, so that old guy Wei De bought assassins and exterminated his entire clan. Poor Elder Dai, at such an old age, he rushed about for years for his disciple and finally found evidence identifying Wei De as the culprit behind the scenes!”
“Master Xiahou, how long are you going to stay this time?” The girl hugged Tang Shiqi’s chest and tapped his chest.
“I don’t know, it depends on when the Eastern Depot comes!” Tang Shiqi laughed loudly.
The two people toasted each other and continued being filled with righteous indignation. “It’s a pity that the emperor is absurd and insists on shielding Eunuch Wei! Elder Dai beat the Dengwen Drum 4 for a day, yet the emperor actually pretended not to hear it!”
“I heard that Eunuch Wei even told Eunuch Shen to send people to beat Mr. Dai. Fortunately, a righteous person was passing by, and Mr. Dai narrowly survived!”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Dai said that if something happens to him, it’s because Eunuch Wei used vicious methods! Now, Eunuch Wei doesn’t dare to do shit, and he specially sent underlings to protect Elder Dai! He’s afraid that the old man is too old, so if he gets a headache and a fever and doesn’t make it, it’ll be blamed on Eunuch Wei!”
“You two are chatting so happily!” At this moment, a dark-faced man walked over and icily looked at the two people.
The two people had drunk too much, so they stood up and pushed him. “What’s the matter? What’s the matter, you? Are we in your way?”
“Recklessly discussing national affairs, you two would better go to the Eastern Depot and then have a long talk!” The dark-faced man waved his hand, and several Eastern Depot underlings wearing black yesa robes suddenly emerged from all around.
The two people turned pale from fright, finally became clear-headed, and begged for mercy in terror. Seeing this, Tang Shiqi slowly backed away, and he was just about to retreat to the door.
The dark-faced man turned around, and his eyes suddenly glimpsed Tang Shiqi. He glared abruptly and roared, “Xiahou Lian! Catch him!”
Tang Shiqi wailed inwardly and regretted coveting Xiahou Lian’s face looking too handsome and not tearing off the skin mask. He sprinted away. On the streets, someone was walking their horse, so he snatched the reins, mounted the horse, and ran toward Yuelun Peak 5. The underlings chased closely behind him, their robes swishing, like a group of ferocious black eagles.
The entire way, all pedestrians screamed and dodged them. Wind cut his ears like a saber, and Tang Shiqi heard the howling of the wind and the horse hooves behind him that were like thunder. He pulled out Jinghong Crossbow and shot backward. A few underlings were shot and fell off their horses, but another few underlings filled in their vacancies. Tang Shiqi cursed fiercely.
There was no path ahead, so Tang Shiqi stopped his horse at the cliff. Seeing that he had no way out, the dark-faced man was just about to rejoice. However, he saw Tang Shiqi dismount his horse and sprint toward the cliff, as if he was going to jump off the cliff. He chased him and wanted to stop him, but Tang Shiqi ran too quickly, so he couldn’t catch up at all. He pounced into midair like a bird, and the wind filled his clothes, making them swish. Everyone was dumbstruck and thought that he was going to fall off the cliff, yet they saw him spread out two three-foot iron bones behind his back, black oilcloth connected to them. From a distance, they looked like a bat’s black wings. Tang Shiqi stopped falling and rode the wind toward Qiantang River underneath him. People on Liuhe Pagoda 6 saw and cheered.
The dark-faced man roared, “Get arrows!”
“Sir, the governor has orders to catch him alive!”
“Catching him dead is always better than not catching him!” The dark-faced man drew his bow and aimed it at Tang Shiqi. The bow was fully drawn like a full moon, and he took a deep breath, pointing the arrowhead at Tang Shiqi’s dark shadow that was becoming smaller and smaller. With a clang, the string abruptly quivered, and the arrow carried the momentum of wind and thunder as it rushed toward Tang Shiqi in the air.
“Did you hit him?” An underling shaded his eyes and stood on tiptoe to look.
The dark shadow in the air shook, but he didn’t fall, and he rode the wind, slipping into the dense forest on the opposite shore.
Tang Shiqi’s shoulder had been hit by the arrow, and if that arrow had only been a little lower, it would’ve shot through his mechanism wing and pierced his heart. He endured the pain and stumbled toward Xiahou Lian’s secret nest, and from then on, he remained inside. Garan sent news saying that someone had put Jingtie in the capital’s bell tower, but he didn’t know what Jingtie was at all, so he put it aside and ignored it, forgetting it immediately.
Spring went and summer came. Withered ivy came back to life and was shiny green as it crawled all over the shack. Winding vines hung from the grape framework, the lotuses in the water tank were white and tender, and the little lotus leaves were round, like circles and circles of ripples on the surface of the water. Tang Shiqi was lying on a reclined chair and sunbathing. Recently, a lot of things had happened. Shu Qing had defected in the Western Regions, so the newly appointed Kinnara had led a group of spies to chase him. Chi Yan was missing, and it was said that he had encountered a blizzard on some mountain in the North, so no one knew if he was alive or dead.
The Eastern Depot was still catching Xiahou Lian, though it was just that that dark-faced cavalryman wasn’t seen again. They investigated everywhere and destroyed several of Garan’s brothels and courier houses, and the assassins and spies were all sent to the capital. It made people panicky, so when they didn’t have transactions, everyone shrunk in their houses and didn’t dare to go out. A large area of the underworld was dragged into it, and underlings went to gambling houses, restaurants, and brothels everywhere every once in a while to question them. They checked household registrations and travel permits one by one, and if someone didn’t have them, they would be sent to prison. Everyone kept silent like cicadas in cold weather, and several places closed down.
It gradually got colder, and the lotuses in the tank withered, leaving a few withered and yellow stems. One day, there was light rain, and the rain curtains were misty like fine needles as thin as ox hairs, falling onto the ground with crisp sounds. Tang Shiqi rested his head on his hand as he sat on the threshold of the door. A man wearing a straw raincoat and a bamboo hat suddenly appeared in the rain curtains, the jet-black hilt of his saber partly hidden and partly visible underneath his raincoat.
Tang Shiqi stood up and shouted, “Boss!”
Xiahou Lian walked underneath the wide eaves and took off his hat and raincoat. He shook his black hair that was plastered on his face and shook the rain on his body. “Get me a bowl of hot soup.”
“Okay!” Tang Shiqi carried soup over and asked him excitedly, “How about it, did you get meteoric iron?”
Xiahou Lian went inside and took off his clothes, revealing the firm honey-colored muscles and crisscrossing and ferocious scars on his body. Loop upon loop of silver silk thread was wrapped around his body, like the fine and dense silk of silkworm pupas. He took the silk threads off from his body and put it on the square table for eight people. He put on a pair of silver gloves and twisted up a thread. The thread was extremely thin, like a faint light. Under the daylight that shone in from the door, it shimmered slightly. Xiahou Lian stretched the thread tightly, and a fly circled as it flew over. It didn’t see the Leading Mechanism Silk between Xiahou Lian’s fingers, and it rashly flew forward. The moment it passed between Xiahou Lian’s fingers, it was neatly cut into two halves and fell onto the table. Tang Shiqi was dumbfounded.
“After resting for a few days, I’m going to go back to Garan.” Xiahou Lian said, “To kill Shi Xin.”
- A two-stringed bowed musical instrument.
- The entrance and exit to the underworld in Taoism and Chinese folk beliefs. Ghosts must pass over this bridge before they can be reincarnated.
- Meng Po is the goddess of forgetfulness in Chinese mythology. She serves soup that wipes the memories of people who cross the Bridge of Irreparability so they can reincarnate into the next life without the burdens of the previous life.
- A drum hung outside the court that people could beat if they wanted to set up a lawsuit for unjust or urgent cases.
- Lit. Full Moon Peak.
- Lit. Six Harmonies Pagoda. A multi-story pagoda in southern Hangzhou facing the Qiantang River.