Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Xiahou Lian looked blankly at Shen Jue and forgot to speak.
He wouldn’t have expected to encounter Shen Jue here, even in his dreams, but his suspended heart slowly sank down.
This brat was living well, quite well.
Shen Jue turned the head of his horse around and met his gaze. They looked at each other through the crowd, and Shen Jue’s eyes were indifferent and unfamiliar. It was as if Xiahou Lian had been licked by a flame, and he hastily looked away, spurring his horse to move back a little.
Zhu Shunzi was practically stunned, and he stammered, “We’ll… We’ll not disturb you! I was too rude, I am really sorry!” As he said this, he gave Xiahou Lian a meaningful glance. “Hurry, hurry!”
“Why do you two regard us as such outsiders? It is fate that we have met.” Shen Jue bowed slightly on his horse and said with a smile, “It has not been very peaceful on the roads lately. There are many bandits, so we can also look out for each other if we travel together. I am Xie Jinglan, honored to be in the position of eunuch-in-charge of the Eastern Depot. Please call me Eunuch-in-Charge Xie.”
Xie Jinglan… Upon hearing these two words, Xiahou Lian’s heart tugged, and his hands gripped the reins.
Zhu Shunzi was so frightened his calves trembled. “This… This…” He aimed his eyes toward Xiahou Lian.
“In that case,” Xiahou Lian strained to pull out a smile, and he saluted with clasped hands, “it is better to accept deferentially than to decline courteously.”
Zhu Shunzi stared at Xiahou Lian. Xiahou Lian ignored him and spurred his horse to follow the underlings. Zhu Shunzi was helpless and could only follow as well. They went as fast as wind and lightning the entire way, marching secretly at night. The underlings rushed silently, like a soundless and fierce tide. The horse hooves splashed up dirt, and from a distance, they looked like short black arrows wrapped in wind and dust. And Shen Jue was the arrow at the very front, His cutting edge was completely exposed, icy and sharp.
They ran for an entire day, and they only stopped when it was approaching evening, camping on the spot. Zhu Shunzi was so tired he wanted to lie on the ground, but he still forced himself to seize the opportunity to get close to Xiahou Lian to discuss countermeasures.
“Lao Yan, what do we do now?” Zhu Shunzi had a splitting headache. “Although our faces were covered during the assassination so Shen Jue can’t recognize us, we’ve entered a wolf den now, so how are we going to retreat!”
After a while, Zhu Shunzi spoke again. “It’s over, it’s over, my right eyelid keeps twitching. What does twitching of the right eye mean again? Forecasting fortune or forecasting disaster 1?”
The sky was cloudy, and before long, raindrops started falling. They were caught by the cold wind and fell to the ground, imprinting black stains the size of copper coins. The underlings hastily pitched tents and barricades, started stoves, and made a fire to make food. Zhu Shunzi was buzzing by his ear and saying some unknown things. Xiahou Lian looked past the coming and going people and looked at Shen Jue, who was ahead. He was avoiding people and standing on a small hillside a few tens of meters away.
The distance was too far, so Xiahou Lian couldn’t see too clearly. He could only see his pitch-black figure, lonely and unreasonably alone.
“Hey, Lao Yan, did you hear what I said!” Zhu Shunzi tugged his sleeve.
Xiahou Lian turned his head and said, “They were definitely operating in secret and were seen by us. There’s no reason to let us go, so it’s already not bad if they don’t kill us.”
“Then… Then what do we do? Eh, why don’t we hide here and find an opportunity to go to a posthouse, and secretly send news to Eunuch Wei!”
“Come on, stay quietly for me. If you make trouble again, I’ll beat you to death!” Xiahou Lian stood up, pulled an underling over, and asked, “Your eunuch-in-charge is getting wet in the rain, aren’t you going to give him an umbrella?”
The underling shook his head. “The eunuch-in-charge has orders, we’re not allowed to approach him when he’s alone.”
Xiahou Lian knitted his brows and said, “You aren’t going to approach him just because he said not to? His body is weak, what if he gets sick later?”
The underling still shook his head and looked at Xiahou Lian baffledly, thinking what a busybody he was.
Xiahou LIan looked left and right and picked up an oil paper umbrella from someone else’s things. He ignored the person’s calls of “ah, what are you doing” and walked toward Shen Jue.
When he got to the side of Shen Jue, Xiahou Lian opened the umbrella. Drizzling rain fell steadily, and there was a vast world enclosed by twilight as the cyan oil umbrella held up a small world for them. Xiahou Lian was afraid of him being drenched, so he leaned the umbrella toward Shen Jue, covering his entire person under the umbrella. To take care of his head, he couldn’t take care of his own head. The raindrops gathered on the umbrella and flowed down along the edge of the umbrella, hitting Xiahou Lian’s shoulder with patters like beads whose string had broken. Shen Jue clearly hadn’t expected that Xiahou Lian would come over. He was first stunned, and then curved the corner of his lips, saying, “Many thanks.”
His complexion wasn’t very good, and it was so white it was like paper paste. There was an extremely thin red mark on his right cheek, and one couldn’t see it unless they got close and looked. He reckoned that this brat had fought with someone else before and had actually gotten his face scratched. Fortunately, it wasn’t too serious, so it shouldn’t leave a scar.
The past was chaotic like smoke, and Xiahou Lian thought about things of the past. That frail but proud little young master had already grown up. He was tall and his waist and back were straight, and he was faintly able to see his former silhouette. He couldn’t help but think, he wasn’t a Garan assassin anymore and Shen Jue also wasn’t the governor of the Eastern Depot anymore, so could they still reconcile and be together like they were in their childhood?
When he thought about it, he also felt that he was very ridiculous. They were already strangers, so there was no need to bring up old matters again. Xiahou Lian stuffed the umbrella into Shen Jue’s hands and turned around, wanting to leave.
Shen Jue suddenly stopped him. “Platoon Commander Gao, it’s boring to idle around, why don’t we talk for a while?”
He had stayed long in the capital, so when he spoke, he also had an accent of the capital dialect. Xiahou Lian was stunned, said okay, took the umbrella in his hands, and held it for him.
It was called chatting, but the two of them were silent. It seemed that they were holding their breaths, waiting to see who would speak first. Only the rustling sounds of the rain were heard, and the wind wrapped in raindrops lunged over, making their entire faces wet and cool.
Xiahou Lian gradually couldn’t stand the boredom. He looked randomly all around, then lowered his head and happened to glimpse a string of red star-moon Bodhi beads hanging on Shen Jue’s right wrist. He finally spoke and said, “Do you believe in Buddhism, Eunuch-in-Charge?”
Shen Jue lifted his wrist and looked down at the Bodhi beads. The red and shining beads were one after another, and a tourmaline Buddha tower dangled underneath. He lowered his eyelashes and said, “I believed for some time. I was consecrated, prayed and drew divination sticks at temples, and set up longevity tablets 2. I did those random things in temples, one by one. But what’s the use, the heavens can’t hear your prayers, and gods and Buddha also can’t see your kowtowing. The things you can’t ask for still can’t be asked for.”
“Perhaps it’s not time yet.” Xiahou Lian said, “Just now, you said longevity tablets, could you be wearing these beads for someone else?”
“For an old friend,” Shen Jue said softly. The wind blew past, and his forehead was cool. “I went to the most effective temple in the capital to pray for them to be safe and sound, and to have a long life. But they still died.”
Xiahou Lian wasn’t a stranger to death. In the past ten years, death had followed him like a shadow. Up to now, although he still couldn’t be indifferent and think of it as meaningless, he could face it calmly. Shen Jue was so brooding for this old friend, they had probably been lovers in the palace. Xiahou Lian considered his words and sentences for a while and said, “No one can break the time someone is destined to die. If they should leave, then they’ll leave. She is in the heavens and definitely wouldn’t want you to be sad. It’s better not to grieve too much.”
It was as if Shen Jue’s entire body was shocked, and he enunciated, “No one can break the time someone is destined to die, indeed! In that case, these star-moon Bodhi beads are just some useless things in the end, I’ll throw them away.” Shen Jue took off the Bodhi beads on his wrist and threw them toward the curtains of rain. The Bodhi beads landed at the bottom of the slope, stained with soil and rain, their brilliance dimming.
“Why did you throw them away!” Xiahou Lian knitted his brows, shoved the umbrella handle into Shen Jue’s hands, and picked the Bodhi beads up from the bottom of the slope. He used his sleeve to carefully wipe clean the stains on it, holding it out in front of Shen Jue. Xiahou Lian stood at the bottom of the slope, and raindrops wetted his hair, which stuck greasily to his face. Shen Jue stood on the slope, holding the umbrella and looking down at him.
“Keep it. At least you’ve stroked 3 it for so long, it may as well be a memento. Or, perhaps when you go to the netherworld, you’ll be able to see them again.”
“The netherworld?” Shen Jue smiled in ridicule.
“Perhaps the next life.”
“Next life?” Shen Jue said, “I don’t care about future lives, I only ask about this life.”
Shen Jue returned the umbrella to Xiahou Lian and clasped his hands behind his back as he walked to the underlings’ camp. There, the smoke from cooking had already risen, and Zhu Shunzi was waving toward Xiahou Lian. One side of Xiahou Lian’s shoulder was already drenched, but he didn’t take notice and only looked down at the Bodhi beads. Raindrops had stuck to the ruddy, round, and bright beads, like agate jade. Xiahou Lian put the Bodhi beads into the fold of his clothes and also walked toward the camp.
After eating dinner and resting for two hours, they continued to hurry on their way. Seeing them travel at double speed in the starry night, Zhu Shunzi mustered up his courage and pretended to be sick, shouting that he wanted to rest and for them to go first. The underlings gave him no chance to explain and carried him onto his horse, and some even pressed the hilts of their sabers, the expressions in their eyes containing a dangerous meaning. Zhu Shunzi pulled a long face and could only follow.
The curtain of night was pulled down like a large scroll. They didn’t go on official roads and instead went on paths in the forest. There were layers upon layers of leaves in the forest, their shadows dancing, and they swayed back and forth in the wind, making rustling sounds. Horse hooves stepped on muddy water, splashing up mud drops half a feet high. After running for an hour, the rain suddenly became heavy. It was as if a tear had collapsed in the dome of the sky, and rain arrows scrambled to plunge into the earth. Thunder and lightning rushed, like dragons and snakes. The instant the lightning tore the blue dome of the sky, the dark night was like day. The figures of the underlings running in the darkness appeared, wearing straw raincoats and with grim faces.
The roar of the man named Situ Jin sounded in the heavy rain. “Everyone, divide into three paths and outflank Hengtang Inn! Lawfully kill the people who come out of the inn!”
“Yes!” the underlings roared in reply.
At the same time, their formation swiftly changed, and the troops systematically divided into three teams and advanced side by side. Xiahou Lian and Zhu Shunzi were wrapped into a team and were in a dilemma.
Xiahou Lian was horrified. These underlings weren’t going to Jiading, they were raiding for thousands of miles! Could it be Wei De’s real troops inside Hengtang Inn?
Zhu Shunzi looked at Xiahou Lian, panicked and at a loss, but Xiahou Lian was also powerless. The two of them were squeezed in the middle of the underlings, intentionally or unintentionally. They had no way at all to escape, so they could only move forward with the strong current.
They entered Hengtang Town, and everyone stopped their horses across the street from the inn. The underlings took off their straw raincoats and swiftly changed into black clothes and wore white porcelain masks. Xiahou Lian widened his eyes and realized in terror that the Garan assassins in Shili Village’s posthouse had been them!
The underlings flipped off their horses. The red lanterns at the corner of the street illuminated the goose quill sabers at their waists, which were long, narrow, and straight. The crossguards of the gold-traced sabers were carved with complicated patterns, gorgeous and ferocious. Situ Jin made a gesture, and the underlings silently dispersed all around the narrow alley of the inn. The sounds of the rain covered their footsteps, and in the dark night, they were like silent ghosts.
Watchmen guarded the inn’s front and back doors, so a few underlings climbed onto the rooftop opposite of the inn, drawing their crossbows and putting arrows on. Sharp arrows whistled as they submerged into the curtains of rain, and in an instant, the watchmen fell to the ground in response. At the same time, two teams of underlings made their way to the doorway, sneaking into the inn like shadows of ghosts. Time elapsed bit by bit, and a commotion sounded inside the inn. Firelights lit up one after another, and sounds of wailing sounded from across the curtains of rain. The front door of the inn suddenly opened, and someone rushed out in panic. They were soon dragged back into the inn by his legs by an underling who had chased him outside.
Xiahou Lian knitted his brows tightly and stared at Shen Jue’s tall and straight back. Shen Jue was in front of him, silent and unmoving.
The commotion in the inn became smaller and smaller, and Shen Jue turned around and glanced at the two of them. Suddenly, he lifted up an icy smile toward Xiahou Lian. “Right, I forgot to tell you. It was me who sent people to kill Yan Xiaobei.”
Xiahou Lian’s pupils shrank, and it was as if frost hairs grew out of the gaps between his bones, densely covering his back.
Situ Jin, who hadn’t spoken much the entire time, said, “This Squad Commander Zhu must be Zhu Shunzi, Officer Zhu.”
“What… What are you saying? Lao… Lao Yan, why don’t I understand?” Zhu Shunzi looked at Situ Jin in terror and then looked at Xiahou Lian.
“When you and Yan Xiaobei escaped from the eunuch-in-charge’s manor, we kept a close watch on you two, so we know your identities. You’re too inexperienced and shouldn’t have immediately gone home after the assassination, nor should you have not checked whether or not you were being tracked,” said Situ Jin.
“Then what does Lao Yan, Lao Yan being killed mean?”
“You were originally only two ants, so there was no need for me to act and flatten you to death.” Shen Jue’s gaze swept over icily. “But that Yan Xiaobei injured my cheek, and although it was just a small wound, it couldn’t be forgiven.”
Zhu Shunzi couldn’t manage to worry about his own dangerous situation. He looked at Xiahou Lian, dumbfounded, and said, “So… So…”
“So,” Shen Jue looked at Xiahou Lian, “exactly who are you? Such excellent face-disguising technique…” The expression in Shen Jue’s eyes gradually changed like melting ice, and something different was revealed. He gazed at Xiahou Lian and asked, “Xiahou Lian, is it you?”
- Refers to a traditional saying that twitching of the left eye forecasts fortune, whereas the twitching of the right eye forecasts disaster.
- A tablet set up by people for someone. The worshiper burns incense and bows their heads in front of the tablet every day to pray for that person to have a good life and prosperity.
- It is typical to stroke Bodhi beads to make them polished and have a natural luster.