Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Eastern Depot yamen.
Shen Jue was sitting at the head, listening to the answers of people below. A large red, golden, and black plaque hung high, on of which was written “Good Reputation for Hundreds of Generations,” and behind him was a relief sculpture of a hornless dragon that was lying coiled with bared teeth and brandished claws, all of its fangs showing. Two ebony candlesticks stood on his two sides, and there were two round-backed armchairs made of nanmu wood that had been polished by the flow of water, with gold-traced green drapes over their backs. Shen Wenxing was standing at one side, holding a cattail leaf fan and fanning Shen Jue lightly, and Situ Jin was standing at the other side.
Shen Jue’s expression was weary, without much energy. He had been busy for more than half a month with his feet barely touching the ground, and he rose early and slept late day after day. He also hadn’t slept well last night because of the matter with Shang Erlang, and even an iron person wouldn’t be able to endure it. The sun outside was bright, and the brutal sunlight shone into the central room. Shen Jue squinted his eyes and looked at the dust that fluttered in the light, like many tiny green midges, rushing back and forth.
“Governor?” the battalion commander below called softly.
Shen Jue came back to his senses and made a “mn,” saying, “Go ahead.”
“A remaining member of Wei De’s faction, Xu Shou, left the capital yesterday. I sent people to follow him from afar according to your instructions. As long as he meets with others of the Wei Faction, we’ll arrest them in one fell swoop. He’s going west, so I think he’s going to go to sea at Tianjin 1, and I have already sent people to guard it.”
“Do as you see fit for these matters, no need to go back and forth with me. Wei De’s big flag has already fallen, so these small fish and shrimp are holding their heads and running around. In any event, they have two ways, going to sea or leaving the border. Search for them along the way, there’s no fear of not finding them.” Shen Jue put his hand on his forehead and closed his eyes as he said, “What’s important right now isn’t the remaining members of Wei De’s faction, it’s the trouble you bunch of short-sighted things have caused me. After I gained power, all of you can’t figure out anything. Let alone there being a thief in Shen Manor, there’s the temple to a living person that was erected in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Huguang. I haven’t died yet, yet you’re rushing to erect an ancestral hall for me. Could it be that I even have to thank you all for your kindness? When that group of pedantic literati of the righteous class gets leverage, they can drown people using only saliva. The one being drowned is me, so doesn’t it have something to do with you all?”
“I dare not, I dare not.” The battalion commander’s sweat ran down like rain. “Governor, please calm down. The people below are also filial, praying for your longevity. A few days ago, Commander Wei of Jizhou even sent a white deer. They’re all kindhearted and didn’t expect that it would cause you trouble! This group of bastards who don’t have eyes, I’ll give instructions now to search everywhere and tear down the temple, and to never do it again!”
“As an official in the court, you must speak and act cautiously. A white deer is an auspicious sign that falls from the sky, so it should be given to His Majesty to enjoy, what’s the point of sending it to me? Send it away.” Shen Jue knitted his brows.
The battalion commander continuously said yes.
Another eunuch in charge of punishments ran in with small steps and bowed as he said, “Reporting back to the governor, the entirety of Shen Manor has been searched, and besides an official document, nothing else is missing. The document has already been found on Shang Erlang, so I imagine that he stole it from the study.”
“Official document? Is he really a remaining member of Wei De’s faction?”
“We still don’t know. He woke up once and attempted to escape. He injured several yamen workers, and he nearly succeeded. Fortunately, I arrived in time and tortured him before he quieted down.” The eunuch in charge of punishments paused and asked, “How should this person be dealt with? Should I continue to interrogate him, or…”
Shen Jue knocked the table and muttered to himself. Although that man was Xiahou Lian’s friend, he had repeatedly challenged his bottom line and was really detestable. Furthermore, he had stolen an official document from Shen Manor, and he didn’t know what his goal was. It was a period of trouble now and he had just assumed power, so the foundation was unstable. The righteous class was looking fiercely at him like tigers, and the empress dowager 2 was also a woman who was hard to deal with. All sides were staring at his faults, and if he was slightly careless, a big fuss would be made. His creed had always been that it was better to kill ten thousand people than to wrongly let one person go, and in the end, keeping that person would be a hidden danger.
Shen Jue lifted his eyes slightly and said gloomily, “No need to keep him, kill him.”
“Yes.” The eunuch in charge of punishments excused himself.
Shen Jue picked up a cup of tea and used the cover to whisk the tea foam. He suddenly remembered something and asked, “I asked you all to check Shang Erlang’s background last time, has there been any results?”
An underling saluted with clasped hands and said, “We have already checked and gave the document to you a few days ago. You are busy and must have forgotten to look at it. The origins of this person are not very clear, as he doesn’t have a household identification or registration. We only found out that he joined the army in Taizhou a year and half ago, entered the capital half a year ago, and helps around in Yunxian Building now. Right, Shang Erlang isn’t his real name. In Yunxian Building, his name was Xiahou Lao’er, and the name he used in Taizhou was Shang Erniu, so we don’t know which is his real name.”
The porcelain cup fell to the ground with a clatter, and tea splashed all over Shen Jue’s body. Everyone was greatly startled, and Shen Wenxing made an “ah” as he hastily tugged his sleeves to wipe the tea stains on Shen Jue’s knees. Shen Jue waved him away, and his eyes practically popped out as he asked, “Say it again, what’s his name?”
Shen Jue’s face was deathly pale, and the underling didn’t know which sentence had offended Shen Jue. He said blankly, “Xiahou…”
Before he even finished speaking, Shen Jue suddenly stood up and walked outside with quick steps while shouting, “Hurry! Hurry and call the eunuch in charge of punishments back!”
Everyone got the order and didn’t even ask why as they hastily started running.
Shen Jue’s face was pale, and he also rushed outside. It was as if the sun had pierced through the clouds and mist in his mind, and he understood everything at once. Shang was homophonous with up, the antonym of down, which was homophonous with Xia 3. Erlang, Lao’er, Erniu… Second 4 was Xiahou Lian’s seniority among his siblings! That idiot was Xiahou Lian, which was why he knew face-disguising, why he knew Jingtie, and why his eyes were so familiar!
But he had just sent someone to kill him, it had been his own orders!
Shen Jue’s insides seemed to be about to split, and the rims of his eyes instantly became red. He started running, and the sounds of the wind whistled in his ears. He dragged a grand long line of people behind him, and all of them followed him as they sprinted, continuously calling “Governor!” He turned a deaf ear and passed Jingzhong Hall, then passed a small drawing room. The winding corridors had twists and turns, and there were layers upon layers of vermillion columns. For the first time, he hated that the Eastern Depot yamen was so large and so complex.
The hair at his temples had come loose, but he didn’t care. He lost his balance when he descended some steps and rolled down, but he also didn’t care. He got up from the ground, and tourmaline beads, seals, and ribbons clattered as they rolled on the ground. He didn’t have time to turn and pick them up, and he also didn’t have time to care that the knees and sleeves of his robes were dirty. He only ran toward the prison as if he was crazy.
He hadn’t been this unseemly in a very long time. The steady Shen Jue, the calm Shen Jue, and the strategizing Shen Jue had all disappeared without a trace. He was Xie Jinglan, and he was going to find the bookboy he had waited for and searched for for ten years, Xiahou Lian.
Shen Wenxing and the group of underlings panted heavily as they followed bitterly. When they saw Shen Jue fall down the steps, they were stunned, but Shen Jue immediately got up again and ran. Shen Wenxing shouted “Governor” as he picked up the items he had dropped on the ground. Situ Jin knitted his brows and said, “Stop chasing, hurry and get an imperial physician here. Prepare another carriage, the governor might want to bring Childe Xiahou back to the manor in a bit.”
“Childe Xiahou?” Shen Wenxing widened his eyes in surprise.
“Hurry,” Situ Jin urged him.
Shen Wenxing understood and said “oh” several times in a row, holding tourmaline beads, seals, and ribbons as he left briskly.
Shen Jue was still running. He hadn’t seen that eunuch in charge of punishments on the way, and his heart chilled. He finally arrived at the prison with great difficulty, and the smell of blood that turned one’s stomach wafted over. It was as if he couldn’t smell it, and he pursed his lips as he continued going inside. The eunuch in charge of punishments and a group of underlings were hovering at the doorway of a cell. Seeing him come, they all bowed and came over to greet him.
He had stopped them, they still hadn’t made a move. His heart settled slightly and he turned as he entered the cell. Situ Jin had also arrived, and he drove the people away. A yamen worker’s head was lowered, and he seemed to be hiding something in his hands. Situ Jin grabbed them and reached into his sleeve, pulling out a string of glistening red star-moon Bodhi beads. Situ Jin’s face was cold as he handed him to an underling and turned around into the cell.
Shen Jue walked over with stiff legs. A figure was lying on the ground, facedown and with disheveled hair. His hands were already unable to be looked at. The hands that had originally had distinct bones and joints were swollen like steamed buns, covered in blood, red and black, stuck together.
It was as if his heart had been gripped tightly, and he hurriedly picked up the person on the ground, calling him shakily, “Xiahou Lian!”
Xiahou Lian didn’t respond. His eyes were closed and his lips were dry and white, cracked like hardened fields. It had only taken a night and a morning for the Eastern Depot to torture him like this. Shen Jue felt heart-wrenching pain. He didn’t dare to touch his hands and only embraced his shoulders, calling him continuously.
“Governor, don’t panic, Little Eunuch Shen has already gone to the physician, carry him out first.”
“Right, right, carry him out.” Only then did Shen Jue’s mind return. No matter how capable someone was, when their chest was hit in a weak spot, they would still be at a loss. Moreover, it had been himself who had stabbed the knife into his own heart. There was nowhere to hate and nowhere to resent, he could only blame himself.
He scooped the person up and carried him to the wing room, placing him on a carved bed. The imperial physician that had already been waiting there looked closely and told Shen Jue that they were only flesh wounds and hadn’t damaged his bones, and that he would be fine after slowly recuperating for some time. As he said this, he applied some medicine to Xiahou Lian and wrapped his wounds with bandages. Shen Jue was still worried, so he asked again several times, only feeling at ease when he wrote down the medicines he had to take.
Xiahou Lian was sleeping in the mauve bed curtains. Shen Jue ordered a servant to bring water, and he wrung a handkerchief, wetted it, and wiped the dirt on his face. There were partly hidden and partly visible scars underneath his white ramie coat. Shen Jue unfastened his coat, and the scars all over his body came into view. They were shallow and light, spanning across bronze chest and abdominal muscles. It was practically as if this man’s body had been hacked by thousands of cuts, as there practically wasn’t an intact piece of flesh on his entire body. His gaze moved upward. There was an old wound on his right shoulder, and it had been sewn. The skin gathered tightly at the scar and sank slightly, like a long ravine.
It had been sewn by Shen Jue himself.
The name could be changed, the face could be changed, but the body couldn’t be changed. It was him, it really was him, Xiahou Lian.
Shen Jue’s tears rustled as they fell down, and he turned his head to look at the star-moon Bodhi beads that had been placed at the head of the bed. He picked up the Bodhi beads and coiled them circle by circle around Xiahou Lian’s wrist that was hanging at his side. The dark red beads were smooth and shiny, like red beans, filled with his yearning and prayers during days and nights of years.
It turned out that there were Buddhas in this world, and they had heard his wish.
But he did things too cruelly and too extremely. Buddha wanted to punish him and the Creator wanted to play tricks on him, so they had sent the person intact to his side, yet wanted him to destroy him with his own hands.
Tears struck the beads, drop by drop, and Shen Jue bent over, laying his forehead on Xiahou Lian’s arm and closing his eyes. It was a prayer, and it was also repentance.
When Xiahou Lian woke up, it was already afternoon.
The blue-green satin bed curtains covered the light, so when he opened his eyes, he saw the shadowy silhouettes of the table, chair, and bottle outside. The mattress underneath his body was ridiculously soft, and he felt that it was as if he was lying in clouds. A fragrance wrapped around the tip of his nose, emanating from the bedding. He knew that the bedding of rich families had fragrance infused in them. His hands had been bandaged like two big steamed buns, hurting dully.
Only when he sat up and lifted the bed curtains did he realize that his coat had already been changed. It was a half-old leno weave undergarment, light, and he couldn’t feel its weight as it hung on his body. It had been worn by someone else, and it seemed to have that person’s temperature and breath, wafting to the tip of his nose in waves.
This room was also someone else’s. There was a carved alcove bed, an arhat daybed with a curtain that had the Eight Immortals on it, and a nanmu wood armchair and footstool that had been polished by the flow of water. A cloisonné square bottle about two feet tall stood by the door. He had slept too long, so Xiahou Lian’s mind was still a little confused. Whose room was this? He stood up and walked a few steps, barefoot. There was a python robe with golden embroidery thread and a bright red background hanging on the wall. He suddenly understood; it was Shen Jue’s.
His black ramie cloth clothes hung on the sandalwood clothes rack. His hands were like steamed buns and difficult to command, so he put on the clothes extremely laboriously, and then put on his shoes before opening the door and walking out. He had stayed in the room for too long, so the light outside was glaring. Xiahou Lian squinted his eyes and adjusted for a long time before he could clearly see the small courtyard before his eyes. The ground was covered with blue-gray bricks, and there were two pots of lotuses under the steps that had wilted and a pear tree outside the wall.
It was like Qiuwu Courtyard.
Past events landed on his eyelashes one after another like crow feathers, and he seemed to see the two youths from many years ago, one studying diligently and one looking for grasshoppers in the flowerpots. He slowly sat down on the steps and gazed at the courtyard in a daze.
A woman came in through the moon gate, lifted her eyes and saw him, and made an “ah.”
He stood up and bowed toward her, saying, “Aunt, I wonder where the chief officer is, please show me the way.”
“Look at yourself, your body is still weak, why did you get up?” The woman hobbled over and grabbed his elbow. “Still aunt? You called me sister before, why has it become aunt now, are you cursing me for getting old faster than you? I’m Lian Xiang, Xiao Lian, you don’t recognize me anymore?”
Xiahou Lian was stunned, and he widened his eyes as he called, “Lian Xiang-jie?”
The woman smiled. Her face was round, and her eyes creased as she smiled. The puffy and soft hair at her temples swept upward, and a swallow bun hung upside-down at the back of her head. It had been smeared with osmanthus hair oil, pressed to be jet-black and glossy. She was wearing a moon-white gauze dress, and it was tilted to the left when she walked, as her legs and feet had been broken at the time in Xie Manor.
After a long separation, Lian Xiang had changed a lot. She looked much plumper, and her hair was in a married woman’s bun, so it seemed that she had already gotten married. He hadn’t expected that Shen Jue would be able to get Lian Xiang back, and Xiahou Lian felt happy.
“Ah, you brat, you’re already grown up yet you’re still so worrisome.” Lian Xiang held his hands and asked, “It’s so swollen, I don’t know how long it’ll take for it to return to normal.”
Actually, this was considered a minor wound for Xiahou Lian. His tendons and bones hadn’t been injured, and it had just been a little uncomfortable while he had been tortured. Before when he had wandered through mountains of corpses and seas of fire to make a living, he had walked a circle at Yama’s and then come back several times, so this small wound was really nothing to him. Xiahou Lian said it was fine, and Lian Xiang asked him, “Are you hungry? I’ll go to the kitchen and bring you some food.”
Xiahou Lian shook his head again. He didn’t have time to eat for the time being, as he was still full of questions he wanted to ask Shen Jue. After asking, he still wanted to apologize.
Xiahou Lian said, “Lian Xiang-jie, where is the young master? I want to find him.”
“You’re really not hungry?” Lian Xiang didn’t answer and asked him again. Seeing Xiahou Lian shake his head, she said, “Before seeing the young master, I want to take you to a place first.”
Xiahou Lian was bewildered, but he still followed Lian Xiang.
On the way, Lian Xiang rambled to him, and only then did he know how Lian Xiang had seen Shen Jue and how she had entered Xie Manor. Lian Xiang had already become a wife and mother. It was difficult for her to find a husband after being crippled, so she only got married off at twenty years old. Later, she had come to the capital to seek a living, and when she had been selling flatbread, she had coincidentally run into Shen Jue, who had been riding by. At first, she still didn’t dare to recognize him, so she called Xie Jinglan loudly to her brother. Shen Jue had looked over, and she had known that this must be the young master.
Shen Jue had taken their family into the manor to manage affairs. Her husband worked in the back kitchen, and she was the manor’s chamberlain. A few days ago when Shen Jue had fallen from power on the surface, she, her husband, and her children had gone to Situ’s house to take refuge, only coming back after Shen Jue destroyed Wei De. It had only been a matter of a few days. Her husband still didn’t know anything and still thought that Lian Xiang had lucked out, and that he had benefited from association. Lian Xiang pursed her lips as she smiled and pulled Xiahou Lian through a side door.
“The young master has told me a bit about your matters, but I don’t know everything. But I also don’t want to know this much. I, ah, only want you two to be safe and peaceful.” Lian Xiang lifted her skirt and stepped across the threshold, entering the secondary gate. She pointed forward, and Xiahou Lian looked up to see two large words on an ebony plaque——“Ancestral Hall.” There were vertical couplets on either side, and looking in, the courtyard was deep and the shadows of trees swayed. This ancestral hall was very strange. Other people’s ancestral halls often had their clan’s surname written on them, such as Xie Clan Ancestral Hall or Li Clan Ancestral Hall, but this plaque only had the two bare words.
There was a sandalwood shelf in the center of the ancestral hall, and Hengbo was lying on top of it. Behind Hengbo was an altar, and there were only two spirit tablets 5, one on the left and one on the right. They were quiet and peaceful, as if they had been waiting for many, many years.
Xiahou Lian walked in blankly. There was a very strange feeling in his heart, as if a string was pulling him and leading him along, making him go inside.
“Go in and have a look, Xiao Lian.”
Xiahou Lian glanced at her. His lips closed and opened, but he didn’t say anything. He lifted his foot and stepped over the threshold, slowly going inside. The further in he went, the clearer the words on the spirit tablet on the left became. Behind the spirit tablet was a blue and white porcelain jar. It wasn’t very big, and it was like a wine jar.
It was an urn.
As he walked, tears began coming out. He looked back at Lian Xiang. She was still standing at the threshold, waving a handkerchief to rush him. “Go in, she’s been waiting for you for a very long time.”
He turned his head back and walked in, step by step. He stepped past the spreading moss on the stairs and stepped past the whirling dark green shadows of trees. Spots of light shone on his face, swaying and shifting. He seemed to have gone through many years’ time before he entered that silent ancestral hall.
Hengbo Saber lay quietly on the saber shelf, and the jet-black sharkskin scabbard constrained all of the sharp brilliance, simple and silent. Her full name had been written on the red sandalwood spirit tablet using regular script. Years ago, this name had once been tossed about in the mouths of countless people in bloody storms, known to every household and known by the entire world.
The gratitudes and grudges, joys and sorrows as heavy as iron that had accumulated at the bottom of his heart for years surged like a tide, turning into tears that burst out. He knelt down, his head buried between his arms, and his tears fell like heavy rain.
“You’re not going to go in to see him?” Lian Xiang asked the man who was leaning against the wall.
Shen Jue turned half of his body away, gazing across the courtyard at Xiahou Lian kneeling in the ancestral hall. He could only see Xiahou Lian’s black back, which was like a withered leaf in a frosty wind, trembling desolately.
Shen Jue shook his head. He had clearly looked forward to today for many years, thinking about it when he was dreaming and thinking about it even when he wasn’t dreaming. Yet when he was a step away, he was afraid. What he was afraid of, he didn’t even know himself. He had walked on the points of sabers for so long and had never known what fear was, yet at this moment, his heart was suspended, unable to be put down.
Xiahou Lian stayed for a long time in the ancestral hall. The sun’s shadow slanted westward, and the orange-yellow sunlight shone in, covering the ground with a layer of tiger stripes. Xiahou Lian walked out and asked Lian Xiang where Shen Jue was, and Lian Xiang pointed him in his direction. In the direction her finger was pointing, the horizon was as red as if it was on fire. The winding corridor was deep, and red maple leaves floated down, crunching underneath his feet. That person was sitting in the depths of the winding corridor, revealing a solitary and white back.
He wasn’t wearing yesa robes, and his long hair that was like splashed ink was loose behind him. He was wearing a plain-colored deep garment 6, without extravagant golden embroidery outline, and without ferocious clouds, dragons, and pythons. He had unloaded the lonely coldness of ice frozen for three feet and the nobleness that was beyond reach, only leaving a thin and tall back, sitting in the courtyard, listening to the sounds of autumn that filled the yard.
Xiahou Lian walked over and sat down beside him.
A cup of wine in the spring breeze under peaches and plums, ten years of roaming in rainy nights with solitary lights 7.
They didn’t ask anything and didn’t say anything as the two of them sat shoulder to shoulder. The soughing of the wind filled the sky and maple leaves rustled as they fell, their edges rimmed with brilliant light of the setting sun as if they were burning. It seemed as if there was only this small courtyard left in the heavens and earth. The wind blew back and forth, and daylight and shadows of clouds wandered back and forth on the ground. Potted plants that hadn’t been trimmed well squeezed out of their basins and dense trees swished, like bits of whispers, surging like tidewater.
Gradually, the wind stopped, and everything was quiet. A leaf was perched by their feet, and a clumsy ant climbed up, and then climbed down again.
Xiahou Lian asked softly, “Young Master, you said before that you wanted me to be your gatekeeper and guard your home for you. Does the offer still hold?”
Does it still hold?
The wind started again, and Shen Jue turned his head to look at him. Lights and shadows fell into his eyes, like crushed sunlight, black mixed with gold. The youth’s spirit and the assassin’s fierceness melted into an indescribable unrestraint, but that heavy smile was the same as before, no more and no less.
For years, thousands upon thousands of yearnings had been in deep sleep in Shen Jue’s heart, like gloomy chrysalises. At this moment, they finally broke their cocoons and became butterflies, their gorgeous and colorful wings interweaving together, as brilliant as iridescent clouds.
He smiled, tears soaking the rims of his eyes.
It has always held.
- A coastal city in Northern China.
- The title given to the mother of the emperor.
- The 尚 (shang) in 尚二郎 has the same pronunciation as 上, which means up. The 夏 (xia) in Xiahou Lian has the same pronunciation as 下, which means down.
- The Er in all of his names (二郎, 老二, 二牛) means two or second.
- A placard used to designate the seat of a deity or past ancestor as well as to enclose it.
- Specifically shenyi, a historical Chinese attire.
- A line from a poem that is used as the titles for the two volumes of this novel. The first part is the poet talking about the joy of having fun and being together with a friend in their youth, and the second part is about how they have been apart for ten years, forced to roam in harsh conditions and missing each other as they gazed at solitary lights.