Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Xiahou Lian spent a long time coaxing him into talking, and Zhu Shunzi poured out everything.
Zhu Shunzi was a young master of an inexperienced rich person in the countryside. He had originally come to the capital to take the imperial examination, but he had taken it for four or five years and hadn’t been able to even see the back of the head of the person in last place on the Gold List. He had had nothing to do, so he went to hear a few earfuls of some nonsense in storytelling at a teahouse, saying that once someone entered the Eastern Depot, they would be able to become a master who had a retinue and guards to yell to clear the way in two years. He had gritted his teeth and resolutely handed in his registration, being people’s lackey whom anyone had the right to punish. Reality proved that he had been lied to. He had worked for a year and a half, but he hadn’t even been able to see the shadow of a promotion. He was still idling away in the position of a small officer, only a little better than ruffians and hooligans.
In order to distinguish himself, he had spent a large sum of money to get a direct connection to be in front of Wei De, relying on his little cleverness from stealing corn to catch loaches in his childhood to embarrass himself in front of Wei De. Yan Xiaobei had also happened to be on the side. Yan Xiaobei was an officer in the fourth division of the Eastern Depot, and he had opened a herbal medicine shop at home. Zhu Shunzi was in the second division, so the two of them had greeted each other but hadn’t spoken much. He had only heard that Yan Xiaobei’s saber techniques were very great, and every time he competed in the yamen, he would always obtain cheers.
The two of them had kneeled in the yamen and begged Wei De for an assignment. Wei De had lifted his eyelids, used the cover of his cup to whisk the tea foam, and said, “Okay, can you recognize Shen Jue? Go, give his head to me.”
Shen Jue’s head hadn’t been gotten, and they nearly hadn’t kept their own heads. Thinking to that day’s assassination, Zhu Shunzi still had lingering fear up to now. Zhu Shunzi continuously emphasized how Shen Jue’s saber techniques changed unpredictably. There was no need to talk about him, but even Yan Xiaobei couldn’t make it past five moves under Shen Jue. The two of them had scrambled to run away. Fortunately, Shen Jue’s servants had dispersed and there had only been one, so he hadn’t chased them.
Shen Jue was a natural talent at saber skills, Xiahou Lian knew this since childhood. He didn’t say anything else, and the two of them parted at Yunxian Building.
Zhu Shunzi went home to pack a cloth bundle, so Xiahou Lian took the opportunity to help A-Chu deal with Yan Xiaobei’s corpse. Then, he caught up to Zhu Shunzi at the city gate and galloped quickly on horseback to Jiading along official roads. They set off in the early morning, passed by three posthouses, changed horses three times, and at the starry night, they had just arrived at Shili Village’s 1 posthouse.
lt was only a village posthouse in the outskirts after all, so it wasn’t big and had one main hall and one back hall, and there were five wing rooms on the left and right, a ten-stall stable behind it. In the pitch-black curtain of night in their view, only two red lanterns hung on this big red-painted door, shining dimly. Only after going forward a few tens of meters could they see other households. Entering the hall, a small oil lamp had been placed on top of a few greasy, jet-black tables. Small unknown bugs mindlessly bumped into it, burning into ashes. Besides the two of them, there didn’t seem to be any other officials staying in this posthouse. After eating their fill, they each went to their rooms to sleep. They had ridden horses all day, so it was indeed too tiring, and Zhu Shunzi already couldn’t stand it.
However, Xiahou Lian couldn’t fall asleep. He lit a lamp and repeatedly flipped the letter Wei De had entrusted them to give to King Fu. In order to maintain secrecy, there was no signature on the envelope. It had been sealed tightly with wax, and he reckoned that there was only one piece of paper inside it, as it was light in his hands.
He felt that this matter wasn’t quite right.
King Fu was the eldest prince, and it was said that he was a crippled fatty. He had been crowned a king a long time ago, and he had been delaying for a long time, not willing to leave the capital and go to the vassal state. He really couldn’t keep delaying, and only when all of the court’s civilian and military officials had scolded him did he bid farewell to the old emperor and the old empress, and go to his fief. There was also a second prince, who was only ten, and he was still climbing up and down barefoot in the imperial palace. The old emperor was about to kick the bucket, so Wei De wanted to seize the opportunity for private gain and welcome King Fu back to the capital. It wasn’t very possible that he would send them two small ants that could be trampled to death in one step to aid him, as no matter what, it would have to be ranked officials.
Xiahou Lian thought under the light and decided to escape tomorrow to go to Nanjing and find Shen Jue.
A strong wind started outside, blowing the window open. The posthouse was in high terrain, and the forest on the hillside surged like a tide in the wind. The leaves that filled the mountain lifted and overturned, making crackling sounds. The moon as yellow as egg yolk was half-covered by dark clouds, and a while later, it disappeared entirely. Xiahou Lian put the side of his forehead against the window lattice and looked at the dark and heavy night. He and Shen Jue hadn’t seen each other for so many years, and their past friendship has already faded. They had originally been so close they could wear the same trousers, yet they had now become enemies. Xiahou Lian’s heart had mixed feelings, and he didn’t know how he would see Shen Jue when he arrived at Jinling.
Never mind, it’s useless no matter how much I think.
Xiahou Lian went to bed. In a daze, there was a clamor downstairs, and the stairs outside creaked from being stepped on. There was occasionally a man’s shout and the sounds of chainmail striking together.
The footsteps stopped at the door, and the door was forcefully kicked open. A crack sounded in midair, and a whip carrying strong wind was lashed over. Xiahou Lian was greatly startled and got up from the bed, but he still didn’t have time to dodge, and his back was swept by the tail of the whip, a burning pain. Xiahou Lian fell off the bed and rolled on the spot. The whip followed behind him as if it had eyes, crackling. Xiahou Lian picked up a round stool and blocked a blow from the whip, and a layer of the coat of paint on the stool was instantly hit off. Xiahou Lian took advantage when the whip was still being pulled back and brandished the stool by grabbing a leg, and the stool hit the side of the person’s forehead. Xiahou Lian picked up another stool and pinned the person to the wall.
Behind him, the light of a saber flashed past. Xiahou Lian looked back and saw a group of Embroidered Uniform guards drawing their sabers out of their scabbards, pointing the tips of their sabers at Xiahou Lian. The black flying fish on their flying fish clothes was so colorful they were almost ferocious.
It wasn’t that Yan Xiaobei’s crimes had been exposed and the Embroidered Uniform Guard had come to arrest him, was it? Xiahou Lian knitted his brows tightly.
“Let go.” The person holding the whip pointed at the stool in front of him, wiped the side of his forehead, and sucked in a breath of cold air. “You dare to fucking hit me, do you want to die?”
“Misunderstanding! It’s all a misunderstanding!” Zhu Shunzi ran in from outside, his yesa robes still messy. “Ah, how come you even started fighting!” Zhu Shunzi pulled Xiahou Lian away and pulled out a handkerchief, covering the side of that person’s forehead. “Look at my brother, he knows nothing! Bumping into Platoon Commander 2 Gao, I hope you have magnanimity, sir, and will spare him this time!”
“Who are you?” Platoon Commander Gao looked at Xiahou Lian with malicious intentions. “Give me your name, I’d like to see who is so fucking capable to dare to hit me.”
“And who are you?” Xiahou Lian raised an eyebrow. “I was sleeping just fine here, but you indiscriminately and groundlessly rushed in and hit me. What’s the matter?” Xiahou Lian swept his gaze across the Embroidered Uniform guards forming a circle in the room. “A lot of people picking on a few?”
Zhu Shunzi poked Xiahou Lian and effortfully gave him meaningful glances.
Platoon Commander Gao flashed his ivory block 3. “I’m Platoon Commander Gao Sheng of the Embroidered Uniform Guard. The judge of the South Administrative Court of the Embroidered Uniform Guard is my godfather, and Eunuch Wei, Wei De, is my god-grandfather. What the fuck are you, daring to talk nonsense with me?”
“We dare not, we dare not, a fiber in his brain can’t turn around, please don’t take offense!” Zhu Shunzi said carefully.
In these years, all civil and military officials rushed to be sons to Wei De, and if some people couldn’t squeeze up to the title of son, they would recognize Wei De’s godsons as fathers and readily be grandsons. However, in a few year’s time, Wei De’s grandsons and great-grandsons sprang up everywhere, able to be counted all the way to the eighteenth generation, achieving the wonder of eighteen generations living under the same roof.
He turned out to be a distant grandson. Xiahou Lian couldn’t help but criticize him inwardly.
“We of the Eastern Depot came out to complete an assignment on the orders of Eunuch Wei.” Xiahou Lian put Yan Xiaobei’s waist tag 4 down on the table, which specially emphasized the two words “Eunuch Wei.”
Sure enough, Gao Sheng became fearful, and he glanced at the Eastern Depot waist tag as he grinded his teeth.
“Platoon Commander Gao, look, we’re all on the same side! Why bother making things difficult for each other? Haven’t we talked things out now, it’s all right, it’s all right!” Zhu Shunzi smiled in welcome.
Gao Sheng pushed Zhu Shunzi aside and sneered at Xiahou Lian. “Since you’re working for my god-grandfather, of course I have to do you a bit of a favor. I’ll forget about this matter of you occupying my room…”
“Occupying your room? Is your name written on this room?” Xiahou Lian also smiled.
“This is the only main room in Shili Village’s posthouse, so how dare you stay here!” Gao Sheng stepped aside. “All right, I won’t fuss about this matter with you. We brothers have rushed about all day, the posthouse is small and it just happend to be full, so unfortunately, there aren’t beds for the two of you. Please make room and help yourselves in the forest!”
“No problem, no problem, isn’t it just moving somewhere!” Zhu Shunzi pulled Xiahou Lian’s sleeve.
“…” Xiahou Lian stood where he was and didn’t make a sound for a long while.
The Embroidered Uniform guards folded their arms and looked jestingly at the two of them.
Gao Sheng clasped his hands behind his back and passed by Xiahou Lian, purposely bumping into his shoulder. He let out a low laugh. “You’re only two dogs, where can’t you make a nest?”
Xiahou Lian looked up at him, and his dark look appeared a little scary.
Zhu Shunzi gripped Xiahou Lian’s hands and said, “Lao Yan, calm down! Calm down! We can’t cause trouble!”
Xiahou Lian stood for a while, turned around, and took his clothes and cloth bundle hanging on the mahogany rack, as well as the goose quill saber on the wall, pushing the Embroidered Uniform guards aside and going out the door. Zhu Shunzi went to his own room and got his cloth bundle before catching up to Xiahou Lian from behind and saying continuously, “Slow down! Lao Yan, slow down! Wait for me!”
They led their horses out of the posthouse and rode their horses in a trot along the road. Zhu Shunzi sighed in despair. “People with a higher rank can crush us, not to mention he’s also Eunuch Wei’s god-grandson. Let’s tolerate it a little!”
Of course Xiahou Lian understood, otherwise he wouldn’t have swallowed down this resentment. The world was just like this; in these years of wandering everywhere and experiencing hardships, he had been the most lowly of refugees and received many contemptuous looks, and he had tolerated all of it. After all, he was no longer an assassin who did as he pleased. If the saber in his hands could not see blood, then it wouldn’t see blood.
He lifted his head and gazed at the pitch-black dome of the sky, not making a sound.
“Ah, I originally also planned to recognize a godfather and god-grandfather.”
Xiahou Lian looked over and asked him, “Then why didn’t you?”
“Before when Shen Jue was still in power, I’ve held his stinky feet before. But his sights were too high, and he put on airs and ignored me!” Zhu Shunzi wagged his head, pleased with himself. “It’s still Eunuch Wei who can tell greatness from mediocrity with discerning eyes! Fortunately, Shen Jue didn’t accept me, otherwise I’d be unlucky with him now.”
Xiahou Lian was stunned by these people’s faces that were as thick as city walls. He didn’t say anything else, and the two of them rode their horses, cantering, to see if they could stay overnight at a household ahead.
It suddenly became bright behind them, and a clamor came distantly. Xiahou Lian turned his head back and saw that a fire was rising in the direction of the posthouse, practically turning half the sky red. Zhu Shunzi was stunned, and Xiahou Lian said alertly, “Go into the forest, hurry!”
The two of them urged their horses into the forest. Xiahou Lian dismounted his horse, climbed up a tree, and squatted in a high spot with his hands shading his eyes to look at the posthouse. In ardent fire, there were assassins dressed in black and wearing white masks on their faces walking around everywhere. The flames were reflected on their masks, flowing with a red light that was like blood, every one of them like an Asura from hell bathed in blood and flames. Posthouse soldiers screamed as they fled in all directions. Assassins caught up to them and slit their throats. The Embroidered Uniform guards fought stubbornly with their backs to a wall, but they couldn’t withstand the assassins’ offensive and fell into the flames one by one, letting the flames lick their clothes and bodies.
Zhu Shunzi was frightened upon seeing this and stammered, “Ga… Garan assassins!”
“No, they’re not using Garan’s saber techniques,” said Xiahou Lian, knitting his brows.
“How do you know?” Zhu Shunzi asked in surprise.
Xiahou Lian didn’t answer. He only pulled out the letter from the fold of his clothes and ripped open the seal. Zhu Shunzi rushed to stop him, shouting, “You’re crazy!” Xiahou Lian avoided Zhu Shunzi’s hands and shook out the letter paper. Upon seeing it, Zhu Shunzi was dumbfounded. The paper was blank, and there wasn’t anything on it.
Xiahou Lian looked at him silently.
“This is impossible! Why is there nothing? Wait… I know! It must be that kind of invisible ink, I heard that this type of ink can only be visible after pouring water on it!” Zhu Shunzi said decisively. He hesitated for a while, then untied his waistband and urinated onto the letter paper. He urinated for a long time and the paper became sodden, but the words still didn’t appear.
“How can this be?” Zhu Shunzi had a long face.
“How else can it be, we’ve been tricked!” Xiahou Lian pinched his nose. Zhu Shunzi must’ve been inflamed lately, as the smell of his urine was very strong. “That old scoundrel Wei De didn’t want us to aid some King Fu at all. We’re two targets, used to attract forces from all sides. Other people must have gone to aid that King Fu.”
“You mean that those assassins came to assassinate us?”
Xiahou Lian nodded and said yes. “Fortunately, we narrowly escaped and were chased out by the Embroidered Uniform guards, otherwise it would’ve been us.”
There was still lingering fear in Zhu Shunzi’s heart. Xiahou Lian slid down the tree along the trunk and mounted his horse again. “Let’s take advantage of how those assassins haven’t reacted yet and run quickly.”
“Where are we running to?”
“To Jinling!” Xiahou Lian spurred his horse into a gallop, his black clothes blending into the dark night.
The two of them went south. The sun was high in summer, and it shone on them, making them dizzy, but they still had to go nonstop. They didn’t dare to stay in posthouses, so they would sleep in the forest every night, bitten half to death by mosquitos. They ran facing the sun, and bushes swept past their ankles, making rustling sounds. Forest leaves piled into clusters, so green it was as if they were about to drip down. There was a thin expanse of clouds in the sky, and behind them was the dome of the sky, pale blue like duck egg shells and looking like embroidered cloud shadows on cotton blue clothes.
Zhu Shunzi had a distressed expression and sighed in despair every day. It was no wonder, as he had thought that Wei De was a good judge of talents that occurred only once in a thousand years, yet he hadn’t expected that he was the Yama who urged people to die sooner. His dreams of being promoted and getting rich had become bubbles, and even keeping his life was difficult now.
Xiahou Lian didn’t have much of a reaction, as if he hadn’t encountered this unluckiness. Zhu Shunzi looked at him secretly and felt that this Lao Yan wasn’t the same as before. Although the Lao Yan from before didn’t like to talk much, he would still talk. When he was silent now, he had a grim aura. He would smile sometimes, but he always felt that he had a sorrow that was engraved into his bones.
Zhu Shunzi guessed that something must have happened to him at home. If it wasn’t the death of his father or mother, then it was the death of his wife.
“Hey, Lao Yan, how did you know that those people weren’t Garan assassins?” Zhu Shunzi found words to relieve his boredom.
“When I wandered in the martial arts world before, I’ve seen real assassins a few times,” Xiahou Lian said perfunctorily.
“Oh.” Zhu Shunzi spurred his horse to be side-by-side with Xiahou Lian. “Garan hasn’t seemed to crop up these few years. When ‘List of Garan’s Ghosts’ got to the Nameless Ghost, it stopped, I still wanted to continue reading. Have you seen the Nameless Ghost before?”
Xiahou Lian shook his head.
Zhu Shunzi still wanted to ask, but the clopping sounds of horse hooves suddenly came from the distance, and a group of troops rushed out from surging sand that flew up. The two of them stopped their horses and gazed distantly at the group of troops from a hillside.
It was a group of extremely refined and capable men. Their black yesa robes tightly wrapped the firm and tensed muscles under their clothes, and every one was like a saber that was in its scabbard. Once it was drawn, it would definitely be sharp and unmatched, unable to be held back.
“Eastern Depot underlings?” Xiahou Lian frowned.
Zhu Shunzi’s eyes lit up, and he didn’t wait for Xiahou Lian to react before he spurred his horse down the mountain while shouting loudly, “Wait! Wait!”
Eastern Depot underlings on official roads could be the other group of troops Eunuch Wei had sent to aid King Fu. Even if it wasn’t, if the two of them could travel together with them, they would be like water drops entering the sea. Their traces would be hard to track, so it would be very difficult for those assassins to find them.
Zhu Shunzi’s sluggish brain unprecedentedly whirled quickly for once, and he didn’t have time to elaborate to Xiahou Lian. With one person and one horse, he rushed down the mountain like a flying arrow, only leaving Xiahou Lian reaching out his left hand and grasping air behind him. Xiahou Lian hesitated for a moment, but he couldn’t let go of that blunderer and also followed him down the mountain.
When the group of troops heard the shouts, they indeed stopped. Zhu Shunzi excitedly saluted with clasped hands and said, “Thank you all very much for waiting, we’re…”
Xiahou Lian caught up from behind and interrupted Zhu Shunzi’s words. “We’re from the Embroidered Uniform Guard, and we’re going to Jiading to handle a case. I am Platoon Commander Gao Sheng of the Embroidered Uniform Guard, and this is Squad Commander Zhu. These are our ivory blocks.” Xiahou Lian handed over an ivory block and an underling took it, glanced at it, and gave it back.
Zhu Shunzi looked at Xiahou Lian putting the ivory block into the fold of his clothes as if he was seeing a ghost. When had this person stolen it from Gao Sheng? At the same time, he reacted extremely quickly and continued Xiahou Lian’s excuse. “Yes, yes, we encountered bandits yesterday and nearly lost our lives. It’s good now that we’ve encountered you colleagues. I wonder if we can travel together for a while, and it’s also good to look out for one another.”
The underlings were silent and looked the two of them up and down impassively. Zhu Shunzi had observed nothing and was still smiling placatingly, but Xiahou Lian’s heart was already suspended.
He really wanted to beat this paper paste head next to him to death. At a glance, this group of underlings weren’t ordinary people and were completely different from Zhu Shunzi, this swindling and bluffing stupid person. Their scabbards and clothes had dried up blood, and he knew at a glance that they had done some unspeakable things.
Would they be Wei De’s people? Or…
The underlings cleared the way, and a man came out of the crowd on horseback. It was as if his face had been carved by an axe, chisel, and saber; every line was extremely cold and harsh, and when he frowned, he appeared very indifferent.
“No, please go back.” The man spoke coldly, not leaving even a bit of leeway.
Zhu Shunzi made a miserable expression and opened his mouth, wanting to say more, but Xiahou Lian stopped him and used his expression to signal to him to quickly leave. Zhu Shunzi stalled and wasn’t willing to move, as he still planned to plead.
At this time, another chilly voice came from within the crowd, low and cold like a chilly and dark trickle in a flowing spring.
“Situ, do not be rude. Since we are friends of the Embroidered Uniform Guard, we should naturally do all we can to help them.”
Xiahou Lian turned his head, and his gaze passed through the heavy crowd, landing on the person concealed at the very back.
His back was to them, and he was clearly wearing the same black yesa robes, yet he wore a very different demeanor. It wasn’t refinement, nor was it grace. Instead, it was indescribable pride. He turned his face to the side, revealing the tips of his eyes that lifted up slightly, as if it had been swept across by an ink brush, outlining an elegance. It was just that the expression in his eyes was a little excessively cold-blooded, containing a hidden indifference.
“Thank you two for not giving up. We happen to also be going to Jiading, so let’s go together.”