Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
“Do I look like I would sing in an opera? Though I do know a little shaman dancing.”
Xie Jinglan suddenly recalled the white light that had shot out from Xiahou Lian’s wrist before they had gotten on the boat, and he grabbed his right hand, pulling up his sleeve. Xiahou Lian was unprepared and caught red-handed. Xie Jinglan took a closer look and said in surprise, “What is this thing?”
On his wrist, he was wearing an iron bracer, and there was an exquisite small crossbow on the bracer. Xie Jinglan looked at him suspiciously and said, “How come you have something like this?”
“Uh…” Xiahou Lian stuttered for a bit but didn’t give an explanation.
“Before, in the library, you also brought up your mother, and just now, you said that you traveled around with her. Could it be that…”
Xiahou Lian’s forehead was covered in sweat and his hands and feet were clammy as he thought about how he could resolve this. It would be very bad if Xie Jinglan discovered that he was an assassin. Once an assassin’s identity was revealed, they would have to withdraw.
Although, he hadn’t had a plaque hung up for him yet, so he didn’t count as a true assassin.
Xie Jinglan seemed to come to a realization. “Your mother is also a thief, and stealing is your family trade? Then this isn’t petty theft, it’s robbery.”
Xiahou Lian said, “…If you say so…”
Xie Jinglan put down his sleeve and said, “You have to be careful with keeping that, lest other people see it. I’ve always known that books can be passed down in a family and martial arts can be passed down in a clan, but I didn’t think that stealing could also become a family trade. Stealing isn’t gentlemanly, so it’s good that you left and can work properly in the future instead of this fishy business.”
Xiahou Lian readily agreed and inwardly wiped the cold sweat from his head.
Xie Jinglan gazed at the faint, wispy clouds on the horizon. Occasionally, a bird flew by, disappearing without a trace a moment later.
Could becoming the oblivious clouds and birds in the sky allow one to be without resentment and hatred?
He said softly, “Xiahou Lian, tell me about your parents.”
“I originally thought that even though my mother is dead, at least I still have a father who is just far away in the capital and thus can’t take care of me, but he probably still misses me. I didn’t expect that he would completely forget that he had me as a son.” Xie Jinglan smiled mirthlessly. “Tell me about your parents. I’m very curious as to what it’s like to have parents.”
“Um, actually, I also don’t have a father.” Xiahou Lian scratched his head. “Since I was young, I’ve been with my mother. Back when I lived on the mountain, my mother was the greatest in our line of work and would often undertake transactions outside. But as long as my mother was free, she would take me to hunt pheasants, catch rabbits, and steal from bird nests on the mountain, which was very fun.
“The conditions on the mountain weren’t very good, especially the remote area we were in. There were frequent famines, and even if we had money, it was hard to spend it. Sometimes, when we were out of food, my mother would take me to walk several miles to go to another family to beg and pester for food. Sometimes, my mother is honorable and we can eat a meal, and sometimes, the other families were also out of rice and would use a broom to chase us out. However, my mother taught me that people shouldn’t be afraid of losing face, since the food is yours once it’s in your mouth.”
Xie Jinglan didn’t know what kind of expression he should have, and he considered which words to use for a long time before commenting slowly, “Your mother really is… exceptional.”
It seemed that not having a mother was still better.
Xiahou Lian naively thought that Xie Jinglan was actually praising her, and he smiled sheepishly. “Although my mother is quite unreliable sometimes, making the holes bigger when she sews clothes and practically burning the house down when she cooks, she’s very well-known in our line of work.” Xiahou Lian excitedly waved his hands around and offhandedly told a lie, but it was enough to express that his mother was extremely great, “There’s nothing in this entire world that my mother can’t steal, and even if it was the luminous pearl 1 in the old emperor’s golden crown, it would be like taking candy from a baby.”
Xie Jinglan corrected, “The emperor doesn’t wear a golden crown, he wears a wushamao 2, and there is no luminous pearl on it.”
“Who cares, it’s all the same.” Xiahou Lian waved it off dismissively. “As for my father, ah, I’ve also spent a long time investigating who my father is. I think that my father might be a hero. After all, based on my mother’s personality, she wouldn’t fall for a pale-faced scholar. Sooner or later, there will be a day when he rides his horse here to pick me and my mother up, and when the time comes, we’ll wander the world and be happy and unfettered.”
Sometimes, not knowing the truth could actually lead to hope. For Xie Jinglan, his mother had died while giving birth to him and his father was clearly right in front of him, so it was not possible for him to have a heroic father or a mother who was a skilled thief.
Although, the two of them both knew very well that Xiahou Lian’s heroic father was also like mere foam in water, and poking it with a needle would cause it to instantly disappear without a trace.
“Then where is your mother now, and why did she sell you to a trafficker?”
“My mother took on a transaction and went to the Western Regions. Before she left, she entrusted me to my uncle, and my uncle thought that I got in the way, so he sold me off. He said that when my mother returned, he would buy me back.”
“…” What kind of family is this?
Xie Jinglan suddenly felt that the fact that Xiahou Lian had been able to grow this old while still being intact must be the blessing of a past life of cultivation.
“But my uncle said that our line of work gambles using lives, and of the people on the mountain in this business, no one can live past the age of forty. This time, we’ve already lost two seniors when they went to the Western Regions, so I don’t know if my mother can make it back safely or not.”
“It’s that dangerous? If that’s so, why would she accept this transaction?”
Xiahou Lian didn’t want to give an in-depth explanation, so he said vaguely, “Ah, in our line of work, we’re coerced by people and do things involuntarily. We have a boss, and if we don’t do as he says, we’ll be killed.”
Xie Jinglan didn’t understand, but fortunately, he wasn’t the type of person to get to the bottom of things, and when he looked at Xiahou Lian, he guessed that this was their secret so it was inconvenient for him to say more. He could only console awkwardly, “It’s okay, your mother is so great, she’ll definitely return safely to pick you up.”
Xiahou Lian agreed perfunctorily.
Uncle Duan had said that the Western Regions were dangerous and unpredictable, but he stubbornly believed that his mother was invincible and unparalleled. It wasn’t because he really believed his mother’s power, but because he wasn’t willing to think too deeply about it.
They were silent for a bit. The alcohol had made Xiahou Lian a little dizzy, and his face was flushed. He turned to look at Xie Jinglan, who was frowning slightly and had a lonely expression.
Xiahou Lian moved closer and hugged Xie Jinglan, grinning. “What, you don’t want me to leave? Don’t worry, I’ll visit you from time to time! We’re good brothers!”
Xie Jinglan turned away and humphed. “Who’s your good brother? You’re my bookboy, my servant!”
Then, he lowered his eyes, his eyelashes that were like crescent moons casting a curve of shadows under his eyes and concealing the emotion in his eyes. He had understood a long time ago that no one could accompany someone forever. His mother had left, Aunt Lan would also leave, Lian Xiang would also leave, and Xiahou Lian naturally wasn’t an exception; the only difference was when they would leave.
Since they would part sooner or later, some feelings shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
He carefully broke away from Xiahou Lian’s hands and walked quietly on the cobblestone path, and no matter what Xiahou Lian shouted from behind him, he didn’t look back.
When Lian Xiang and Aunt Lan heard the good news, they were both extremely delighted. Lian Xiang saw that Xiahou Lian had really helped Xie Jinglan, so she didn’t treat him coldly anymore like she had in the past. At night, when she made rice cake, she unprecedentedly also gave Xiahou Lian a slice.
However, Xiahou Lian gradually discovered that no matter what he did, it was as if Xie Jinglan couldn’t see him, as he never had the slightest reaction. Even when Xiahou Lian accidentally spilled tea next to Xie Jinglan’s feet, Xie Jinglan only glanced at him faintly before moving elsewhere to continue reading. His mouth was firmly shut, resolutely refusing to say any more than what was necessary to him.
According to his past temper of a missy, when he would disdain even the smallest of stains, he should have hit the ceiling and flown into a rage a long time ago.
Slowly, Aunt Lan and Lian Xiang both noticed that something was off about Xie Jinglan and secretly discussed how the young master’s temper had calmed quite a bit; had someone stroked the tiger’s whiskers and enraged the young master? The two of them reflected on themselves and felt that they could be cleared of suspicion, so they pulled Xiahou Lian over to question him, but poor Xiahou Lian himself was also bewildered.
Before Xiahou Lian could figure out the reason, the madam’s people had come bringing a pile of books, brushes, ink, paper, and inkstones, as well as a complete set of a desk and drawers. When the lead nursemaid entered the courtyard, she exclaimed, “Ah, how could the third young master live so disgracefully, he doesn’t even have a study. What do you servants even do? Don’t you know to report the leaky roof to the chamberlain so someone can come fix it? Servants, hurry up and tidy this place and clear out space for a study!”
Lian Xiang was surly as she muttered, “I wonder what evil wind brought that weasel here.”
This really was strange. So many people had come to Qiuwu Courtyard, which no one usually cared about, at once, each of them noisier than the last and giving Xie Jinglan a headache. That nursemaid was either criticizing Aunt Lan for being clumsy or nitpicking about how Xiahou Lian was behaving too stealthily. She set aside four or five maids and servants to stay to serve Xie Jinglan and also insisted on giving him a bookboy. Xie Jinglan had to firmly refuse in order for Xiahou Lian to keep his job, and he assigned the other boy to do chores in the study.
Actually, Xiahou Lian quite hoped to be promoted. How good could staying in the study all day long curled up and reading storybooks be?
“Third Young Master, only now sending over the four treasures of the study 3 and other necessities is unfitting. The madam personally had people go out and buy them, and she also invited an artisan to come to the manor and build the drawers and desk. Look, this is top-quality pear wood. I hope you won’t blame us,” said the nursemaid as she went up to him and bowed.
Xie Jinglan nodded impassively and didn’t say much else. He pointed at Xiahou Lian for him to take the brushes, ink, paper, and inkstones and bring them into the room, at the same time prohibiting people outside of Xiahou Lian to enter his bedroom.
The nursemaid’s expression changed a little as she thought, I didn’t expect this kid to know to be so authoritative at such a young age.
If Xiahou Lian knew what the nursemaid was thinking, he definitely would have laughed until his stomach hurt. Xie Jinglan actually only disliked that outsiders weren’t clean. After all, the only person who could enter his bedroom, Xiahou Lian, had to take three baths a day under his coercion, although Xiahou Lian’s three baths were pouring three buckets of water on his head.
The craftsman was fixing the house, and the clanging and banging were neverending. Xie Jinglan turned a deaf ear and greedily stroked the paper he had always dreamed of, the soft texture bewitching him. In the past, he had always used coarse toilet paper to practice his penmanship, and even though Xiahou Lian had given him rice paper last time, he hadn’t dared to use it. Today, he was finally able to openly and honestly use top-quality rice paper.
He looked at it carefully and saw that it was the same as the paper in Xie Jingtao’s room.
He eagerly grinded the ink, dipped a brush in it, and began writing. When the tip of the brush touched the surface of the paper lightly, ink bloomed on the paper. He wrote a few characters, which were just barely pleasing to the eye. He looked up and saw that Xiahou Lian was flipping through his new books in boredom, so he handed him the brush, wanting Xiahou Lian to write a few characters for him to see.
Xiahou Lian didn’t decline and immediately wrote his own name on the paper. Xie Jinglan looked and could only feel that he had tarnished such a good piece of paper. The characters were very crude, and randomly intersecting overgrown branches or an arbitrary pattern formed by ants were prettier than these characters.
“I haven’t practiced before, I’m just casually writing, and you’re casually looking.” Xiahou Lian put the brush down and rested his head in his hands as he looked at the chaotic scene outside the window. “The madam is just as disgraceful as your father, both of them are sanctimonious. See, you became Dai Shengyan’s disciple and she eagerly sent so many things.”
Having the brushes, ink, paper, and inkstones, Xie Jinglan’s mood had brightened a lot. He was just about to reply to Xiahou Lian when he remembered that he should be ignoring him, so he adamantly held back what he was going to say and picked the brush up, concentratedly practicing his penmanship.
Xiahou Lian was bewildered, and he beat his brains out but couldn’t figure out how he had offended him. He stared at Xie Jinglan for a while and suddenly discerned a hint of alienation from his behavior over the past couple of days.
Besides not talking to him, this guy had even avoided being face-to-face with him. They clearly lived under the same roof and saw each other all the time, but these days, Xie Jinglan adamantly hadn’t looked him in the eye. If it wasn’t for the madam’s people sending over the brushes, ink, paper, and inkstones today and Xie Jinglan disliking that outsiders weren’t clean, he wouldn’t have even been able to come into his room.
But they had been perfectly fine, so why would this guy want to alienate him?
There was a sudden knock on the door, and Xiahou Lian opened it. Nursemaid Liu, who had been talking before, stood in the doorway and said to Xie Jinglan. “Young Master, the madam said that you have been in great shape these days, so the rules of daily etiquette can’t be abandoned. These past few years, she has taken pity on you because your body was fragile, so she hasn’t properly taught you the rules. Now, you’re Mr. Dai’s disciple, so you naturally need to understand etiquette. In the evening, after finishing your meal, the madam invites you to the main courtyard to learn etiquette. When you’re learning, don’t make any mistakes or you’ll make a laughingstock out of yourself.”
Xie Jinglan nodded indifferently. “I see.”
The two of them lapsed into an awkward silence, but Xie Jinglan didn’t think anything of it and picked up a book to read.
Staying in the study made Xiahou Lian bored. That stony fool only knew to study and practice his penmanship, and he never reacted or talked. Xiahou Lian was overcome with boredom and secretly snuck into the room to nap, but was caught red-handed by the newly arrived Nursemaid Liu.
Nursemaid Liu disliked Xiahou Lian, and in just one afternoon, she had slanderously told Xie Jinglan about this matter several times. Xie Jinglan got a headache from listening to this, so he simply let Xiahou Lian lie down and sleep in the study.
The door was closed anyway, so other people wouldn’t know whether Xiahou Lian was serving tea and water or sleeping inside.
However, when Xie Jinglan saw him sleeping lazily on his back, he couldn’t help but question exactly who the young master was and who the servant was. Although he was at a loss for words, Xie Jinglan still resignedly refilled his own tea, grinded his ink, and pulled up Xiahou Lian’s blanket that had slipped down while he was at it.