Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
After eating, Shen Jue took Xiahou Lian to Jinggong Lane. The carriage rattled past Fuxiang Temple, and Xiahou Lian lifted the curtains. There was a hubbub of voices outside, and men fanned big cattail leaf fans and swung their arms as they strolled past. There was a row of incense candle stalls on the side of the road, each shout louder than the last. There were even shirtless men of the martial arts world doing acrobatics in the clearing in front of the temple, three men with tattoos all over their backs piled together with heads holding up feet and feet stepping on heads, standing fairly tall. The carriage turned into the alley behind the temple, and all of the worldly customs were separated behind the wall. Voices came from afar, as if a clean and pure land of idyllic beauty had opened from amid the noisy world. However, one only had to take one step to escape into the clamoring sea of people again.
“Senior was very good at choosing places. This place is a little noisy, but it is good in that life would be convenient. There are places that sell food and drinks outside the alley, a high-quality flour place across the street, and there is a place that sells grain and oil after turning left. The house has three entrances and three exits, so it’s also quite quiet at the innermost area and is not noisy. It’s just that there’s fewer shops for cutting clothes, but it doesn’t matter, you just come to my manor and ask for clothes, shoes, and socks. Homemade is better after all, there’s no need to do it through outsiders.” While Shen Jue spoke, he lifted the curtains and came out. Xiahou Lian put a footstool on the ground and reached his hand out to him. Shen Jue was slightly stunned, but he placed his hand in Xiahou Lian’s palm. Warmth passed over, heating even his heart to be warm.
“My mother loved liveliness.” Xiahou Lian walked over and touched the stone lion before the gate, saying, “When she had nothing to do, she loved to watch other people do acrobatics and perform martial arts onstage. She was clearly a lot better, those moves and beats were like pieces of cake, but she just liked that liveliness.”
He lifted his head. Before him were cyan-black tiles and white walls, and layers upon layers of ivy climbed on the walls. To the right was a jet-black gate, and two stone lions squatted at the gateway. It looked like an ordinary person’s house, the same as the thousands upon thousands of houses in the capital, with small doors and small windows, enough to eat and enough to wear, closing their doors and living their own cozy and happy life of a small family.
Shen Jue pushed open the gate and led him in. There was a lotus leaf and lotus screen wall upon entering the gate, and passing the screen door and inner courtyard was the central room. Furniture and things were all available. There were two rows of red sandalwood official-hat chairs and footrests, and there was a ceylon ironwood table in front of them, a landscape stone screen on top of it. Xiahou Lian was experienced and knowledgeable, so he knew that these were fine wood crafts of Wu land. None of the items were carved, let alone were there gold outlines or inlaid pearls; they were plain and simple. Xiahou Lian knew at a glance that they had been arranged by Shen Jue. If it had been in his mother’s hands, the entire room would definitely be full of sabers, spears, and clubs, and the central room would definitely have a spiked club as a talisman to protect the house.
“Thank you, Young Master.” Xiahou Lian smiled faintly.
Shen Jue sat down on a chair and coughed, saying, “What are you thanking me for, it’s not like I bought the house.”
“You tidied these household items, right,” said Xiahou Lian.
“It was nothing. In any case, I just wrote a few lists, and my subordinates naturally bought and set all of it up. It didn’t take much effort.” Shen Jue acted casual. He didn’t say that, in reality, the household items in here had taken him a lot of effort, and everything had had to be looked over by him before it could be put inside. For instance, that table had outstanding craftsmanship and was very expensive. At first, the person had refused to sell it at all, and he only reluctantly sold it because he feared his power.
Xiahou Lian walked into the courtyard to take a look. He walked a circle around the grape framework and crossed his arms as he said, “Young Master, when did you have such a deep friendship with my mother? How come I didn’t know?”
Shen Jue didn’t answer and took him to the wing room. Shen Jue was a lot more familiar with this house than he was, and he was very clear about what was where. Xiahou Lian even felt that Shen Jue understood this house even more than his own manor. Shen Jue moved a locked sandalwood box out from the treasure shelf. He opened the lock. Inside, there was a title deed, a prescription, and a pill.
The title deed was probably the contract for this house, but he didn’t know what the pill was. Xiahou Lian picked up the pill and asked, “What is this thing?”
“It’s Bliss,” Shen Jue said slowly, “the antidote for Mid-July.”
Xiahou Lian was shocked, and he looked up at Shen Jue. The expression on his face was very ordinary, and he paused before saying, “Ten years ago when your mother took you out of the imperial palace, she made a ten-year contract with me before she left. She told me the whereabouts of the spies in the capital and asked me to develop the antidote for Mid-July for you.”
“She told you about the spies in order to…”
“Turn them into test subjects.”
“So you hunted down Garan assassins and spies everywhere also in order to make them your test subjects?” Xiahou Lian knitted his brows tightly.
When Shen Jue saw the appearance of his tightly knitted brows, he felt unhappy and suddenly became angry. He scoffed, “What, you blame me for being cruel and merciless, harming your Garan colleagues?” Xiahou Lian was there flipping through the prescription and not saying anything. Shen Jue paused for a long time and then was afraid that he really was unhappy, so he said sullenly, “Did those Garan colleagues of yours really take good care of you? Let alone them leaving you alone and not caring about you in the palace, your mother even died in the hands of a mole in Garan.”
Xiahou Lian saw that he was angry and laughed in spite of himself. “I don’t blame you, what would I blame you for?” He sidled beside Shen Jue and leaned against the wall, shoulder to shoulder with Shen Jue. “I haven’t even had time to thank you yet, you helped me do so much without even saying anything. I was like a fool, I obtained your care and even thought that you wanted to kill me. Actually, if you really want to discuss guilt, I’m the first-class sinner. Mid-July was in the grasp of Shi Xin and I killed him, killing all of Garan.”
“Your abbot is the mole who killed your mother?” asked Shen Jue.
Xiahou Lian nodded.
Shen Jue was silent for a while. He had planted agents inside Garan, so he knew what the spies knew. Xiahou Lian’s biological father being Shi Xin was an open secret in Garan, so he naturally also knew. Xiahou Lian had assassinated Shi Xin alone, so he had also guessed that Shi Xin was his true enemy who had killed his mother. But that had been speculation after all, and now that it had been personally confirmed by Xiahou Lian, there was another tang in his heart, an ache that went all the way to inside his bones.
Shen Jue said hoarsely, “What have you been through all these years?”
“That’s very long, like an old woman’s foot-binding cloth, long and foul. Do you really want to listen?” Xiahou Lian smiled.
“I want to listen.” Shen Jue lifted his quiet and deep eyelashes and gazed at him fixedly. “As long as it’s about you, I want to know everything.”
Xiahou Lian showed a helpless expression, pulled Shen Jue to a round-backed armchair and sat him down, and slowly started speaking. His voice was low, deep, and flat, silently sounding in the stiflingly hot autumn afternoon. Rays of sunshine moved on their foreheads and bodies, slowly fading. The time of ten years circulated in his mouth. The fragments of those memories were like those of an ancient relic, picked up piece by piece.
The sky darkened, the moon rose, and the room dimmed down, filled with moonlight. Shen Jue listened silently. The colors of those frightening flights and deaths were diluted in Xiahou Lian’s narration, as if looking at dark red blood through a gauze curtain, making it no longer shocking. But he knew that that past that dripped with blood were scars on Xiahou Lian’s body that couldn’t be erased, month after month and year after year, tossed about into wounds.
“I’m done.” Xiahou Lian got up and went to the cabinet, getting a candle out and lighting it.
Shen Jue closed his eyes. His fingers lightly knocked the table, the tapping sounds giving away his thoughts that weren’t very calm.
“What are you thinking?” asked Xiahou Lian.
“I’m thinking that you’re stupid.” Shen Jue sneered, “Shi Xin, Duan Jiu, and your shifu all have sinister motives. They used you as a saber, yet you were still happy to be ordered about.”
Xiahou Lian was silent for a while before saying, “Don’t talk about my shifu like that.”
“Don’t you feel it yourself?”
Xiahou Lian said, “I do, but I don’t care. In any case, it’s all about killing Shi Xin and destroying Garan, why care so much? You say that my shifu used me.” Xiahou Lian looked down and smiled. “If he used me then so be it, he didn’t force me, this is the path I picked myself.”
He just had this temperament, not having time to care about those twists and turns. He went on his own path, and if Garan was going to be finished, then Shi Xin would have to die. Others could play however they wanted to play, but he didn’t care. After all, he was Xiahou Pei’s son, and the Xiahou family succeeded the bloodline of reckless madness. Violent blood flowed in his arteries, and he would kill all deities and ghosts who stood in the way.
However, Shen Jue suddenly asked, “But what if you chose the wrong way?”
As if a basin of cold water had been poured on his head, Xiahou Lian was stunned and asked, “What do you mean?”
“People grow a mouth and can say anything. It’s not impossible to say that I ran across a ghost in broad daylight. If I said I killed Wei De in order to be dutiful to the throne and rescue the emperor, helping the country, would you believe it?” Shen Jue squinted as he looked sideways at him. “Mouths can deceive people, but traces cannot.”
He said this bitterly, and Xiahou Lian didn’t know how to reply. Looking back, Xie Jinglan had also once been determined to plead for the people. Fortunately, Shen Jue didn’t expect Xiahou Lian to reply. Xiahou Lian gathered his thoughts and said solemnly, “You mean someone deceived me?”
“Not someone, it’s everyone.”
Xiahou Lian: “…”
“So, you have to see what they did, not listen to their nonsense and exaggerations, idiot!” Shen Jue used his finger to knock on Xiahou Lian’s head, saying, “Let me ask you, who led you into the document storehouse?”
Xiahou Lian said hesitantly, “It was Chi Yan.”
“Who does Chi Yan work for?”
“Shi Xin.” Xiahou Lian knitted his brows and said, “But it was me who asked.”
“If you didn’t ask, he would still have other ways to make you enter the document storehouse.” Shen Jue said slowly, “It wasn’t you who entered the document storehouse, it was Shi Xin who made you enter. What you saw and heard were what Shi Xin wanted you to see and hear. You think you’re going on your own path, but you’re wrong, Xiahou Lian, you’re going on the path Shi Xin chose for you.”
“My goal was to kill him. Is he sick? He made me kill himself?”
Shen Jue smiled in ridicule. He didn’t know if he was sick or not, but either way, Garan was a den of bastards. Besides Xiahou Lian, there wasn’t a single good thing. Xiahou Pei didn’t fear life or death, but she had been genuinely and sincerely good to Xiahou Lian, so she could reluctantly be counted as half of one. He couldn’t say this to Xiahou Lian, so he looked down and muttered to himself, “We won’t discuss the minor details, but on the whole, Shi Xin conveyed three pieces of information to you: one, your mother was killed by him; two, you’re the successor of Garan’s abbot; three, you have to go to the North to assassinate.”
“According to you, these three things are also purposely to deceive me?”
“Not entirely.” Shen Jue stood up and leaned against the wall as he touched his chin and mused, “What happened after you came out of the document storehouse? Qiu Ye incited you to destroy Garan, and not only did you not succeed the abbot, you instead disappeared without a trace. It also wasn’t you who went to the North, it was your brother. Among these three pieces of information, only one came true in the end, that your mother died.”
“He killed my mother, so I had to take revenge on him. After all is said and done, the conclusion you deduced is still that he led me to kill him,” said Xiahou Lian.
“So, he must have had another goal.” Shen Jue glanced at Xiahou Lian and said slowly, “After you killed Shi Xin, what happened?”
“…” Xiahou Lian was silent for a long time before saying, “I left Garan and survived.”
He had always wondered how he had been able to survive. He knew that perhaps there was something hidden in the tea Shi Xin had given him to drink before the decisive battle. But he didn’t want to remember, and he didn’t want to delve into it. In his mind, Shi Xin must be a bastard who was too evil to be forgiven and disowned everyone he was close to. Only in this way could he take his life with a clear conscience.
“You said that everyone deceived me, who else?” Xiahou Lian asked in a low voice.
“Your shifu.” Shen Jue said, “He’s the most important character in this play. Xiahou Lian, haven’t you noticed, every one of your steps has been following his lure. Killing Shi Xin, going to Qixia Mountain, which one didn’t he tell you?” Shen Jue dipped his finger into the tea and wrote down the names of Shi Xin, Qiu Ye, and Duan Jiu on the table. He circled Shi Xin and Qiu Ye, saying, “In my opinion, these two were in cahoots.”
Xiahou Lian gazed at the names on the table. It was hot, so the tea dried quickly. Qiu Ye’s name was already gone, and there was still a bit left of Shi Xin’s. Past memories were like a mess, disorderly and entangled. In his mind, it was Shi Xin’s emaciated cheeks in one moment, and Qiu Ye’s dying exhortations in the next. At Garan Mountain Temple, the leaves were like pouring rain, the mountain was filled with the sounds of autumn, and everywhere was vast.
——Leave Garan, change your head and replace your face.
Xiahou Lian said hoarsely, “Shi Xin and Shifu wanted me to leave Garan. I killed Shi Xin and there was internal disorder in Garan, so they had no time to care about me. Shifu provided directions to Qixia Mountain and I changed my head and replaced my face, so Garan will never be able to find me.” He was silent for a moment. The candle flames on the table leapt, lights and shadows mottled and criss-crossed on his face. He looked down and smiled, saying, “Young Master, are you saying that this old bald donkey Shi Xin still had familial feelings toward me? He took so much effort to kill my mother and put on a big show, just to let me leave Garan.”
“I do not know.” Shen Jue put his hand on his forehead. “However, seeing this situation, wanting to leave Garan indeed has a great price.”
Xiahou Lian didn’t make a sound.
“There is someone who is very crucial.” Shen Jue rewrote Duan Jiu’s name. He dragged the last stroke out to be very long, like a cold and stern blade.
On the table, the water traces of Qiu Ye and Shi Xin had already dried, and only a bit of light marks could be seen. Duan Jiu’s name stood out, thick and heavy in color. Shen Jue said, “The years when I was searching for you, I slowly hid my people into Garan. The threshold of your Garan Mountain Temple is too high, only children without parents can enter. I could only hide people in courier houses and brothels everywhere. However, in the first three months after you left Garan, they all went missing. The last message I received was ‘Duan Jiu is acting as the abbot and oversees internal affairs. He kills decisively and is feared by all.’”
“Was a purge conducted in Garan?”
“Not only that, secret dens everywhere disappeared cleanly. After that, Garan disappeared from the scene, as if they had been erased from this world for no reason. I assigned people to search for unidentified bodies everywhere and ordered coroners to check whether there was Mid-July in their bodies. There wasn’t, not one.” He rubbed the center between his eyebrows and said, “Shi Xin’s show wasn’t just for you to see, it was also for Duan Jiu to see. This Duan Jiu cannot be underestimated. At least, he’s a figure that can frighten your abbot.”
“Hearing your talk, does Garan still exist? But Mid-July takes effect once every year. Shi Xin is gone, so where did they get the medicine from? Could Shi Xin have already given the prescription to Duan Jiu in advance?” said Xiahou Lian.
Shen Jue sat down on the arhat daybed and looked up at the sky outside, seeing that it was already eleven at night. He hadn’t slept well in these two days, and it was like he was a little unable to keep on now. Shen Jue put his elbows on his knees and held his forehead with his palms, closing his eyes as he said, “Xiahou Lian, do you know how Mid-July is made?”
Xiahou Lian saw his muddled appearance and said, “I don’t know. Are you tired, why don’t we talk tomorrow?”
“No, if I’m going to say it, I should say it all at once, lest you can’t understand it in the fog.” Shen Jue pulled himself together and said, “The raw material of Mid-July is something called azalea. This flower grows in the Miao area, and taking it can make one drowsy, as if they’ve been drugged. In the past, traveling doctors used it to treat insomnia. This flower can’t be taken over a long period of time, and it also can’t be taken in large quantities. It’s easy to get addicted to, and after getting addicted, one would have to use it every year and would be paralyzed if they didn’t. That pot of flowers you found in Black-Faced Buddha was most likely azalea.”
“Then what?” asked Xiahou Lian.
“To make Mid-July, one first has to mash the azaleas together, crush them into flower pulp, boil in water, then add some other materials, roll them into balls, air-dry them, and they’ll be about done. A pot of azalea flowers has twenty or so, so it’s about enough to make five or six Mid-Julys.”
“There are more than a thousand people in Garan, so for everyone to have a Mid-July, there would have to be at least several thousand azalea flowers. I’m the most familiar with the mountain, and I haven’t seen a trace of these flowers at all. But Shi Xin only had one pot,” murmured Xiahou Lian. He suddenly looked up. “He wasn’t making the poison, he was detoxifying it!”
“Pretty much.” Shen Jue said, “This matter is very strange, even your abbot doesn’t have the antidote to Mid-July. He was still effortfully refining the antidote himself, secretly letting you take it. There is only one explanation——”
“Garan’s master isn’t Garan’s abbot,” Xiahou Lian continued for him. “Then where is the real master of Garan?”
In the dim candle shadows, the two of them looked up at each other and said at the same time, “The North!”
Garan’s ancestors had been buried in the North not because they were assassinating, it was because they were rebelling! Garan had never been in the control of the abbot, and even the abbot was also only a marionette of the person behind. Xiahou Lian felt confused. He had been born in Garan and had grown up in Garan, but he had never truly understood this place. It was like a ghost town that stood outside the world, and every assassin was a looming ghost, their faces blurry.
Shi Xin had taken painstaking efforts and racked his brain just to send him out of Garan? He felt that it was inconceivable and unbelievable.
“This is just a guess, you don’t have to think deeply.” Shen Jue closed his eyes and leaned against the round cushion, murmuring, “There are still many doubtful and unclear points. Exactly who is Duan Jiu, and what is he thinking? He seems to want to revolt, but then rebuild Garan in the end. The previous Eight Legions went to the North together, yet your generation knows very little, why is this? But we have too little information after all, so there’s no way to scrutinize. So be it. All in all, Garan’s matters still aren’t over, they’ll return sooner or later.”
“Young Master, I want to go to the North,” said Xiahou Lian.
Shen Jue suddenly opened his eyes and said, “You’re not allowed to go!”
Shen Jue stood up, walked in front of Xiahou Lian, and looked stern as he said fiercely, “If you dare to go, I’ll break your legs! You don’t have to look into Garan’s matters anymore. Rebel factions of the martial arts world will naturally be dealt with by the imperial court, what does it have to do with you! There’s no more than twenty or thirty people who can fight among those bits and pieces of things from Garan, they can easily be kicked into the mud. You’re foolish, insisting on risking your own life!”
Xiahou Lian sighed and said, “I’m not doing it only for Garan, it’s also for my brother. Shi Xin developed an antidote, so maybe he also gave it to my brother. My brother went missing in the North, maybe I’ll be able to find him.”
“There’s no need for you to bother.” Shen Jue said sulkily, “How many places can you walk alone with your one pair of legs? I’ll have the Eastern Depot help you search. Stay obediently in the capital and wait, you’re not allowed to go anywhere. Right, there’s something I forgot to tell you.” Shen Jue lifted his chin. “Go, look at your title deed, what’s written on it?”
Xiahou Lian followed his words and opened the title deed. The yellowed paper expanded, and he saw his own name: Xiahou Lian.
“How is this possible?” Xiahou Lian looked up at Shen Jue and said, “I’m a refugee, I don’t have a household registration. How could I have been registered?”
“You’re not a refugee. A few years ago, I received a secret report from Jiaxing saying that a woman claiming to be my relative entrusted the Jiaxing government office to log the name of two boys into the yellow booklet of registered households of Mrs. Xiahou in Jiaxing, saying that these two boys had been abducted and trafficked from childhood. Although it was logged into the pedigree of Mrs. Xiahou, it wasn’t reported to the government office as registered residences. It’s been recovered now, so it was specially added.”
Xiahou Lian was first stunned, and then reacted, saying, “That woman was my mother. Among those two children, was one me, and the other my brother?”
“That’s right. Eldest son Xiahou Chi Yan and second son Xiahou Lian, a pair of twin brothers. Your mother bribed the Xiahou clan in Jiaxing and recorded your names in the pedigree. Now, the two of you are people who have identities and an ancestral home. Your clan has studied for generations. Your father, Xiahou Yan, died early, and your mother, Mrs. Xiahou, raised the two of you by herself. Your names can be found in the government’s yellow booklet of registered households, and Jiaxing can also find the people of your clan. You can study and become an official, and you can also go home and become a farmer. You’re not an assassin of Garan of Seven Leaves, nor are you a refugee with no fixed residence. You don’t have to hide from place to place, let alone wander as a vagrant.” Shen Jue gazed at him, his eyelashes quiet and deep. “Xiahou Lian, what your mother left you wasn’t only a house.”
Xiahou Lian looked at the thin title deed in his hands. It was a weightless piece of paper and could be blown away by a gust of wind, yet at this moment, it was as if it was a thousand kilograms in his hands. He put his hands on his forehead and his shoulders trembled, not knowing whether he was laughing or crying.
In his childhood, he had admired his mother for being famous and unparalleled in the world, and he had always wanted to be the same as his mother, relying on a saber to be invincible. Only later had he understood that killing wasn’t a joke. Killing would cause bloodshed, the shedding of other people’s blood and the shedding of his own blood. Storybooks and play booklets sang of the glint of sabers and swords and they sang of repaying kindness and revenge, yet they didn’t sing of blood flowing into rivers and sins becoming mountains.
He began thinking how nice it would be if he was an ordinary person. He would get out of bed every day, brush his teeth and wash his face, eat three meals, do a day’s work, come home when the sun set in the west, tease his cat and walk his dog, and go to bed. He didn’t ask for a family and didn’t ask for children and grandchildren, let alone did he ask to live to a hundred years old and to have a good fortune and long life. He only wanted to be safe and stable, the sun shining on him warmly.
But he knew that that was a wild wish. He was full of sins, and his debts of blood piled up. He was a sinner, and sinners shouldn’t live.
“Xiahou Lian, have you heard your mother’s wish?” Shen Jue touched his shoulder and said softly.
“I have.” Xiahou Lian said hoarsely, “She wants me to live my own life, to live the life I want to live. But I’m a sinner, so can I?” He asked himself, “Can I?”
“You can,” said Shen Jue. “With me here, you can. Xiahou Lian, just let the past pass. People cannot be trapped in the past for a lifetime. You finally got out of Garan in one piece, it’s not worthwhile to go back and put up a desperate fight against it. If you really can’t let it go, in any case, there is me, I’ll help you destroy it. Although I won’t be able to find its traces for a little while, there will always be a way in the future.” Shen Jue looked at him fixedly and said, “All in all, Garan is your past. Your future is here with me.”
Hearing these words, each sentence warmed into the bottom of his heart, and Xiahou Lian practically didn’t know what to say. Despite Shen Jue usually being cutting, angering him so that his brain hurt, when he said appropriate words, they were even warmer than an earthenware hot-water bottle. Xiahou Lian had walked on the road of isolation for too long, assassinating, fleeing, wandering as a vagrant, tossed around the world, his way filled with suffering, and with flesh and blood dripping. He thought that he was a wisp of grass without roots, destined to drift around in the world, yet he hadn’t thought that he would still be able to land on the ground, take root, and sprout.
He suddenly had hope, and he suddenly rejoiced that the heavens had kept him alive. For people who lived in the world, didn’t they just have that bit of will to live? Having a nice and warm place to stay, and having an intimate friend to accompany them. He didn’t have a wife, but fortunately… he still had Shen Jue.
Shen Jue opened the curtains and went out the door. The moon gleamed as it hung, enveloping his entire body with a clear and bright light.
“It’s too late, I have to go now, we’ll talk tomorrow.”
Xiahou Lian stopped him, grabbing his wrist. Shen Jue stiffened for an instant and turned his head to look at him. The sky was dark, and his face was bright and dark, but Shen Jue still saw clearly. The wetness in his eyes glistened, as if his eyes were filled with starlight.
“Young Master, I originally didn’t have a will to live. These years, I felt that I was like a walking corpse, going where I go, and if I died then I died, as no one would remember me anyway.” Xiahou Lian’s voice was hoarse, and it was as if his dull and lonely heart had been injected with blood, warming up slowly.
He lifted his eyes and gazed at Shen Jue before him, a faint smile rising at the corners of his eyes and the tips of his brows. This smile seemed to have been lost for a very long time. It had tossed and turned for many years, and had finally returned to his face. The sorrow as heavy as a tombstone that had pressed down on his body for many years dissipated. He was no longer a wandering soul and wild ghost who was forced to roam about. Instead, he was an ordinary person with a name and surname, Xiahou Lian.
He said, “But now, I want to live. Not for myself, but for you. Young Master, I cannot live for myself. I’ll live for you, okay? You’re too good, I probably accumulated great merits in my last life to have been able to meet you in this life. I have nothing, only this life is still worth some money. I’ll give it to you. Do you want it?”