Chapter 69: Heart Like Iron
Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Xiahou Lian was sitting in the winding corridor and tying rabbit lanterns. Lian Xiang’s son, Rong-ge’er, and the daughter of a maid in the manor were beside him and waiting expectantly. They were only four or five years old, and they had changed into new shirts. Their cheeks were red, and a dab of rouge had been dotted in the center of their eyebrows, like the Sudhana 1 next to a bodhisattva.
Xiahou Lian picked out the macerated reeds from the water basin and first built the skeleton, twisting two reeds into a circle as the waist, and then pulled out two and threaded them through the inside of the waist, weaving them to be crossed together, so if he was worried he could still add a horizontal bar in the center of the waist. Then, he tied the head. The head was easy to weave; he made two circles and pasted them together, tugging out a section on top for the ears. When he opened his hands, a lantern frame was complete.
The two little children looked, stunned, and Xiahou Lian inadvertently looked up and saw the little girl he had saved last night standing behind a pillar in the corridor in front of him. Lian Xiang had said that her name was Li Miaozhen, the daughter of a concubine in the Li clan. She was a child without a mother and must have been treated harshly by the mistress before, as there wasn’t half an ounce of flesh left in her entire body, and she also didn’t like to speak. She originally should have gone to the Royal Academy, but Shen Jue had passed a message to the Court of Judicial Review and changed her into an official’s servant, putting her in Shen Manor.
She had changed into a new dress, with a dark reddish blue coat and an azure apron. She was peeking with dark eyes, and she still didn’t say anything. When she saw Xiahou Lian discover her, she immediately hid back.
Xiahou Lian smiled and looked down to paste the paper. He was afraid that the children would break it, so he pasted three layers of kraft paper. He then used red and black to dot the eyes and hung them onto poles. He hung small tassels below them and picked it up to see, and two small, fat, and round rabbits swayed next to his hand. The two children cheered and reached to grab the rabbits. Xiahou Lian raised the lanterns high and said, “Go and bring that sister over.”
The children shouted okay and jumped over to tug her sleeve. The girl looked like she was about to cry, but she shuffled over. Xiahou Lian tied another lantern, dotted on the eyes, hung it onto a pole, and distributed them to them one by one, saying, “Everyone gets a share!”
The two children cheered and ran away holding their lanterns. Li Miaozhen was holding her lantern and still stood in place.
“Do you have something to tell me?” Xiahou Lian asked her.
She slowly took out a mutton fat jade pendant, wrapped it in a handkerchief, and handed it to Xiahou Lian.
Li Miaozhen nodded and said, “Thank you for saving me.” Her voice was very small, like a mosquito buzz, and Xiahou Lian took a long time to hear it clearly. She lowered her head and spoke again. “My mother left this to me. Mother said that gratitudes have to be repaid. I don’t have money, I only have this jade pendant, so I’ll give it to you.”
Xiahou Lian laughed in spite of himself and rubbed the top of her hair. “I can’t take what your mother left you, keep it well yourself. It’s not too late for you to give me money when you have it later, I’m not greedy, giving me a copper coin is enough. Okay, go and play.”
Li Miaozhen made a heavy mn, held the rabbit lantern, and trotted away. Xiahou Lian stretched and cleared away the water basin and kraft paper, going into Shen Jue’s courtyard.
Shen Jue’s courtyard was very sparse. He didn’t really like others entering his territory, so only a few servants and Lian Xiang were in charge of cleaning. Under the dim sky, whirling tree shadows wandered back and forth on the courtyard. The wind blew over, rustling. His courtyard wasn’t as exquisite and beautiful as the rest of the manor, like the dignified landscape of literatis’ paintings. Those places were for guests, for others to see. Only this courtyard was his own world.
Thinking of it this way, Shen Jue really was a contradictory person.
He clearly had great power, yet he had self-discipline like a monk’s. He had no desire for food and he wasn’t fond of women. In such a big courtyard, besides two pots of withered lotuses and a pear tree, there was no other scenery. Cyan-black tiles and white walls, as desolate as ruins, without a slightest bit of liveliness. Others only saw him with a fastened broad belt and wearing yesa robes when he entered the imperial court, and the mountain-like ostentation when he was surrounded by civil and military officials. However, they didn’t see his plain and white clothes when he lived alone in his small courtyard, his heart as calm as still water.
Xiahou Lian sat for a while in the yard, felt sleepy, and went inside to take a nap.
He was sleeping soundly when a clamor suddenly started outside. The bed curtains were suddenly opened, bright light shining in, and Xiahou Lian muddedly opened his eyes. A few servants dragged him up in a flurry, and he instantly became wide awake. He struggled desperately and squeezed out of the gap in the crowd, getting and putting on the clothes on the sandalwood rack while he was at it. He was both shocked and angry as he said, “What are you doing!”
“Bold servant! While the master is away, you’re actually lazy and snuck into the master’s room! Where’s Lian Xiang, call her over for me!” A woman’s sharp voice sounded from the doorway. Xiahou Lian looked over; a plump woman was standing in the doorway. She had combed a falling-off-the-horse bun, her head was covered with pearls and jade, and there were two pendants inlaid with sapphire under her ears that glimmered under the sunlight, like two dewdrops that were about to fall.
A servant helped her walk inside and sit down on a drum stool. She had been against the backlight before, so he hadn’t been able to see clearly, and only now did Xiahou Lian see her appearance. She looked okay, and her big and round basin-like face looked quite blessed. It was just that she had applied a little too much powder, adding an old air. When women wore makeup now, even their own mothers couldn’t recognize them, so Xiahou Lian couldn’t estimate her age.
Shen Manor only had one master, and it was Shen Jue. Someone calling him a servant had come out of nowhere, so he couldn’t figure out her background. He could only well-behavedly salute with clasped hands and say, “I have a bad memory, I wonder which manor you are from? Other people aren’t allowed to enter the governor’s courtyard, so it’s better if you move away quickly.”
A lot of people came in from outside, and Xiahou Lian turned around and looked outside. He saw a bunch of servants moving and lifting things below. The two pots of withered lotuses had been moved away, Loads of winter daphnes, peonies, calliopses, and several pots of pomegranate flowers were crammed into the yard, instantly creating a blazing expanse of colors. There were also people hanging palace lanterns onto trees, red and green, and the various colors clashed together in a mess.
Xiahou Lian was stunned. What the fuck is going on?
The woman coldly glanced sideways at him and said, “Who am I? I’m this manor’s manager mistress!”
Xiahou Lian was shocked. When did Shen Jue get another mother?!
She picked up a cup of tea, sipped the tea with an air of elegance, and sighed. “I know that the governor doesn’t come back often and also treats his servants extremely well. But there are just some who don’t have eyes. You’re treated well, yet you get more and more arrogant. When the master isn’t here, you call yourself the overlord! I saw it today, what about in the past when I didn’t see? Who knows what you servant did, you might even steal away the family resources one of these days! Forget it, the governor is kindhearted, so I’ll be the villain. Servants, take this thieving and shirking thing away, not too much, hit him with the stick twenty times, sell him away, and don’t let him enter the Shen Manor again!”
Xiahou Lian: “…”
Xiahou Lian didn’t really know how to deal with women, as he practically hadn’t seen a normal woman in his life. There were practically shadows in his heart as he forced himself to say, “Madam, you misunderstand. I’m not a servant in the manor, I’m an officer in the Eastern Depot. The governor permitted me to rest in his courtyard, you can ask the governor if you don’t believe me.”
Lian Xiang hurriedly ran over and said, “Madam, you really misunderstand! Officer Xiahou is the same as me, we were old servants of the governor’s and often saved the governor from water and fire, so we have deep friendships. Officer Xiahou can walk in the manor without needing to report it, there’s no need to avoid it, the entire family knows about it!”
“Oh? Is that so?” Zhu Xia looked Xiahou Lian up and down for a while. He was dressed in black ramie clothes; to put it nicely, they were inconspicuous, and to put it worse, they were unsightly. Thus, she hooked up the hint of a perfunctory smile and said, “How else could I have said that our governor is kindhearted! I’m the clearest about the governor, he keeps old friendships in mind. It was ancient history of more than ten years ago, yet he still treats others well. However, some people have to know their limitations and know their place. The governor gives him face and gives him dignity, but he also can’t shamelessly stick to him!”
Zhu Xia picked out a few gold and silver coins, handing them to a servant serving by her side. “I can guess what you mean by coming to the manor on the holidays. Even the emperor has poor relatives, not to mention our governor. Here, this is your reward, take it to use. There’s a lot going on in the manor today, and the governor still has to come back in the evening. I’m afraid we’re not free to entertain you. Servants, see him off.”
The maid held a pile of gold and silver coins in front of him. Xiahou Lian glanced faintly at Zhu Xia and didn’t take the money. He said goodbye and turned around, leaving.
Lian Xiang wrung a handkerchief as she followed behind Xiahou Lian as he went out, saying angrily, “What kind of person is this! She swaggers here and really thinks that the young master regards her and cares for her as his darling! It angers me to death! Xiao Lian, go back first today and I’ll tell the young master later, see if the young master won’t kill her!”
Xiahou Lian said never mind and asked, “Exactly who is this person?”
Lian Xiang was about to speak but hesitated, and she struggled for a long time before saying, “Never mind, I’ll tell you! The young master originally didn’t let me say, but it really makes me uncomfortable to hold it back!” She pulled Xiahou Lian over, walking to a secluded place. “She’s the match given to the young master by the former emperor!”
Xiahou Lian was shocked; it turned out that Shen Jue already had a wife!
“Xiao Lian, you used to wander in the martial arts world, so you’re not clear about matters in the palace residences! These masters, nobles, and whatnot make it sound nice, they match you with a wife and help you start a family. But in reality, it’s like matching cats and dogs, they’re happy to look at it themselves! They don’t even think that our young master has suffered that old sin, and he’s already, already…” Tears rolled down Lian Xiang’s cheeks, and she wiped them with a handkerchief. She inhaled before saying, “already impotent! Placing a woman in front of him, yet he can’t… isn’t this poking his heart!”
Xiahou Lian knitted his brows. “Is there no other way to send this woman away? He hasn’t touched her anyway.”
Lian Xiang shook her head. “How could we! She’s the empress dowager’s personal maid. On the surface, she’s a match, but in secret, isn’t she just a spy! The young master has some power, but in the end, he’s not a formal master, so how can he not want her just because he says he doesn’t? That woman comes to our manor and makes trouble again and again, she gets uncomfortable all over if she doesn’t make something happen. To be honest, isn’t it just to establish her power! She serves people in the palace, but she’s the master when she comes to our manor, as if afraid other people wouldn’t know. This time, she used you to do it, Xiao Lian, I’m really sorry!”
Xiahou Lian shook his head and said that it was fine. He looked down and thought for a long time before smiling. “All right, I didn’t go to the market today anyway, so meals can’t be served at home. I’ll still stay here and not leave, let’s see what she can do to me!” Xiahou Lian tidied his appearance and walked back with vigorous strides. Lian Xiang was muddled and followed behind with small steps.
Zhu Xia was still in the courtyard, sitting by a square table for eight people. The front gate was open and she towered down, pointing from afar at the servants in the yard and telling them how to place the flowers and porcelain. Xiahou Lian pressed his hand on his goose quill saber as he entered and sat down boldly at the square table, putting his goose quill saber onto the table with a clatter. Zhu Xia was greatly startled, and she put a hand over her heart as she stood up and backed away a few steps, saying in a trembling voice, “Why… Why are you back!”
Lian Xiang stood beside Xiahou Lian and was also a little blank.
Xiahou Lian rested his head on his hand as he looked at Zhu Xia, his eyebrow lifting and with a rascally ruffian-like look at the corners of his eyes and the tips of his brows.
“Sister-in-Law, why don’t we chat for a while!”
Zhu Xia said fiercely, “What would I have to chat with you about! Servants, drag this ruffian away!”
Immediately, a few servants came up to drag him. Their appearances looked unfamiliar, so it seemed that they had been brought by this woman. Xiahou Lian’s thumb flicked his crossguard, and a section of the goose quill saber slid out. “Sabers and swords don’t have eyes, everyone, but we’re in the governor’s territory in any case, so it’s not suitable to see the shed of blood.” Everyone became afraid and looked at each other. Zhu Xia trembled in anger and wanted to say something else.
Xiahou Lian was one step ahead and said, “Sister-in-Law, I advise you to think twice before you act. The governor and I are friends who have risked life and death together. You’ve enjoyed wealth and comfort, so I’m afraid you don’t know what risking life and death means.” He rolled up his sleeves and showed her the scars on his arms. “See, this one nearly lost me an arm, I blocked it for the governor. And this one, this one, and this one over here, they all are!”
Zhu Xia looked at those frightening scars and became uncertain. Originally, she had thought that he was just a poor and indecent person who had come to ask for money and the governor wasn’t willing to drive him away on account of old friendships, so she would be the villain. Now it appeared that there was a bit of weight. Zhu Xia put on a smile and said, “It turns out to be Xiahou-xiongdi 2, it’s all my fault for not having eyesight, I misunderstood my dear brother. Servants, hurry and bring him a cup of tea!”
Xiahou Lian and Zhu Xia sat, looking at each other. Zhu Xia felt upset and wished he could leave earlier. Shen Jue would come back in a bit, did they have to eat at the same table with this rogue? She still wanted to be together with Shen Jue and admire the moon and worship the rabbit together! She expected that they wouldn’t have to. After all, he was an underling, so how was there a reason for him to be at the same table with the governor. Zhu Xia still felt uncertain, so she summoned people to bring wine and a few side dishes, and called Xiahou Lian. She hoped that he would get drunk so that he had to be carried away.
Who would’ve thought, Xiahou Lian didn’t get drunk even after drinking jars of wine. He sat steadily and looked as if he could still fight three hundred battles in war.
Zhu Xia: “…”
She endured it with great difficulty until it was getting dark, and Shen Jue finally returned from the palace. Xiahou Lian and Zhu Xia were sitting face-to-face in the central room, and when she heard footsteps outside the courtyard, Zhu Xia stood up delightedly. Under the gloomy sky, Shen Jue turned as he entered the gate, weary from travel. When he took a look, his eyes were filled with red blossoms and green willows, and he thought that he had gone the wrong way. He turned his head back before seeing that Zhu Xia was standing by the door and Xiahou Lian was sitting beside the table, smiling broadly at him.
Zhu Xia stepped out of the threshold and rushed up with small steps to greet him. Unexpectedly, a black shadow brushed past her and stood in front of her, grabbing Shen Jue.
“Xiao Jue, you’re back!” Xiahou Lian held Shen Jue’s hand with one hand and gently held Shen Jue’s waist with the other, leading him inside and sitting him at the table, not forgetting to instruct the servants. “Quickly serve the dishes!”
“Xiao Jue?” Zhu Xia was stunned.
Xiahou Lian slapped his forehead and said, “In a moment of happiness, I called out his nickname! You don’t know that I and the governor have a deep friendship, so we always directly call each other by our nicknames. I call him Xiao Jue, and he calls me Xiao Lian.” After saying this, he turned his head to ask Shen Jue, “Right, Xiao Jue?”
Shen Jue looked at him. Under the lights lamp shadows, Xiahou Lian’s eyes and brows were curved and his jet-black eyes were mixed with light, like golden fluorescence. He smiled too exaggeratedly, and he acted too obviously. However… it was a little cute. Shen Jue pursed his lips and smiled as he said, “No.”
Xiahou Lian hadn’t thought that Shen Jue would pull the rug from under him, and he was instantly stunned.
Zhu Xia was delighted and was just about to speak. However, Shen Jue spoke again. “You remember wrong, I’ve always called you A-Lian. Too many people call you Xiao Lian, but only I can call you A-Lian.”
Xiahou Lian was stunned, and he suddenly realized that he was still holding Shen Jue’s hand. He wanted to let go, but Shen Jue was gripping his hand back, not letting him move. He was a bit at a loss. Their hands were held together underneath the table, their fingers interlocked. Shen Jue’s hand was cold, a lingering effect left from his childhood. It couldn’t be warmed, and his palm was held by him, chilly. It occurred to Xiahou Lian that something was wrong.
Zhu Xia forced a smile as she said, “Sure enough, the governor keeps old friendships in mind. I didn’t expect that your friendship was this deep.”
“How is it only deep?” Shen Jue smiled lightly. “A-Lian’s mother became injured for me, and she later passed away suddenly. A-Lian himself has also suffered many injuries for me. What I owe A-Lian can never be completely repaid.”
Zhu Xia said sorrowfully, “It turns out that this past is inside, why didn’t Xiahou-xiongdi tell me? There were many misunderstandings before, I hope my dear brother won’t take it to heart.” She sat down beside Shen Jue and continued, “My dear brother is the governor’s benefactor, so you’re also my benefactor. In the future, if you have any difficulties, just tell me and I will definitely do everything I can to help.”
Xiahou Lian only frowned and said to Shen Jue, “What are you talking about? What does my mother’s matters have to do with you?”
Shen Jue didn’t answer. Xiahou Lian still wanted to say something, but the servants served the dishes, placing them on the table.
Xiahou Lian closed his mouth. His hand was still being grasped by Shen Jue, and he maintained his composure as he pulled with all of his strength, but Shen Jue just wouldn’t let go. He glanced at Shen Jue; the latter’s eyelashes were lowered. Under the candlelight, his long and curved eyelashes were like moth wings, casting faint shadows under his eyes and containing a gentle beauty. He couldn’t see through Shen Jue’s expression and could only give up. He turned and saw Zhu Xia sitting next to Shen Jue, and she was even kind of close. He felt a little upset and said, “Sister-in-Law is from the palace, why don’t you know the rules?”
Zhu Xia was stunned. “What?”
Xiahou Lian sighed and said, “I think that the governor has indulged you too much. It should be that the governor and I chat while you wait at the side to serve tea and pour water. May I ask which family has a reason for the wife to be at the table? Even in my humble house, the wife should eat in the kitchen, so why are you sitting here so steadily?”
Zhu Xia stood up stiffly and gritted her teeth as she smiled. “What you said is right, what you said is right.”
Shen Jue smiled almost imperceptibly and finally let go of Xiahou Lian’s hand, picking up his chopsticks to distribute the dishes to him.
Zhu Xia stood at the side and watched, gnashing her teeth in hatred. It originally should have been her admiring the moon and having a drink with Shen Jue, but now Xiahou Lian was sitting in her place, and she could only stand at the side and suffer from hunger.
When they finished eating, the sky was already dark. The moon was full today, and it hung on the pitch-black curtain of the sky like a thin paper cut-out with a light behind it, lighting it up.
Xiahou Lian shaded his eyes with his hand and gazed at the moon. He felt that this moon was big and round, a little like Zhu Xia’s plate-like face.
There was an incense burner table in the yard, and a clay sculpture of a white rabbit sat in the center. It was dressed in a red coat, with a “Fu 3 character written on its chest. Its eyes were curved, crinkling from its smile, and it looked very joyful. Zhu Xia followed behind Shen Jue, wanting to worship together with him. Xiahou Lian cut in from the side while saying very apologetically, “Sorry, sorry, I’m tall, so stand a little further away, Sister-in-Law.”
Zhu Xia’s mouth became crooked from her anger. She and Shen Jue were two fine people, yet Xiahou Lian was inserted in between them. Seeing this, Lian Xiang set up another round cushion below the incense burner table. Shen Jue noticed but didn’t stop her. Thus, Shen Jue and Zhu Xia were on the left and right, and Xiahou Lian was in the middle. The three of them knelt on the round cushions together, burned joss sticks, and worshiped three times.
When they stood up, Zhu Xia asked Shen Jue what he had wished for. Shen Jue didn’t reply and asked back, “What did you wish for?”
Zhu Xia looked down shyly and said in a small voice, “I don’t have much to ask for, and you are also someone born to roll around in the dust of wealth and have all you desire. I only hope that you can be safe and sound and that everything goes well.”
“Roll around in the dust of wealth?” Xiahou Lian smiled.
Zhu Xia hated hearing him speak, and she held her breath in her heart as she said, “What would you say?”
“I think that the governor is someone who has herded sheep in ice and snow for nineteen years.”
After he said this, everyone was stunned. Zhu Xia covered her mouth as she smiled. “The one who herded sheep was Su Wu 4. It’s not like the governor was seized by a foreign country, what does he have to do with Su Wu? Xiahou-xiongdi, you used this allusion a little unskillfully. However, our governor is indeed an unyielding character, so it fits just barely.”
Shen Jue tilted his head and gazed at the courtyard that was filled with moonlight. Only he understood that Xiahou Lian wasn’t talking about being persevering and unyielding, it was that he was like an approaching winter, his heart as calm as still water.
Shen Jue looked at the sky and said to Zhu Xia, “It’s getting late, are you going to go to bed? I’ll see you off?”
His words contained an unshakable certainty. Zhu Xia still wanted to stay a while longer, but Shen Jue had already picked a lantern and was waiting for her, so she could only follow him outside. Xiahou Lian originally wanted to follow, but Shen Jue told him to stay where he was.
It was silent the entire way, and the servants had fallen behind in the distance. The palace light in Shen Jue’s hand swayed, illuminating an area the size of a square inch at their feet. Zhu Xia’s heart pounded. After waiting for so long, it was finally time for her to be alone with him. She purposely slowed her pace down, and Shen Jue noticed and also took smaller steps. The winding corridor had twists and turns, surrounded by clusters of shadows of leaves. Zhu Xia curved the corners of her mouth slightly, feeling that in this moment, heaven and earth belonged to them alone.
“Xiahou was born among commoners, so his temperament is unpredictable. Bear with him a little,” Shen Jue said as he walked.
“How could I sink to his level?” Zhu Xia maintained her smile. “He speaks interestingly, I find it amusing.”
“Is that so?” Shen Jue smiled and said, “Are you using the rouge I sent you last time today?”
Zhu Xia nodded and said, “You are very good at choosing colors, this is just right for me.”
“Your base is naturally good, so just applying a little is very good-looking. I heard that conch eyebrow liners from Persia are also very good. The next time the foreigners pay tribute, I’ll try to find some for you.”
Zhu Xia said with a smile, “It’s good that you have these intentions, Governor. Only the noble consort can use that and it’s fine for me to use bronze eyebrow liner, so there’s no need to bother.”
When they arrived at her courtyard, Shen Jue stopped at the gate and handed the palace light to a maid. Zhu Xia felt disappointed; it was clearly such a long way, so how come they had finished walking it so quickly?
“If you want to use it, you naturally have to use the best. So what if the noble consort uses it? Are you afraid I can’t find it?” Shen Jue smiled faintly. His smile always hadn’t been deep, with a shallow hook of his lips. However, his smile was even warmer than a spring breeze.
Zhu Xia has always liked him; she liked his countenance, and she also liked his mildness. She had never seen him lose his temper, and he was gentle toward everyone, having a sense of propriety and politeness. She knew that he was impotent and also knew that he didn’t like others seeing his scar, but only because of this defect did she feel that she could match him.
She lifted her head and looked at him. He was also looking at her, his head slightly lowered, with a faint shadow of a smile on his porcelain-white face, an expression of tenderness and pity. Zhu Xia saluted with a slight bend and her hands at her waist, said goodbye to him, and turned around, slowly stepping into the courtyard. She walked for a while and turned her head back, wanting to see him again. He was still standing in his original spot, looking from a distance.
He liked her. She was sure of it, and it was as if something had collapsed with a thud in her heart, as if destroying withered woods and weeds. She ran over hurriedly, as if the person before her eyes would be gone in the next moment. Shen Jue lightly held her, who was panting for breath, and asked, “What is it?”
She lowered her voice so that only the two of them could hear. “Be careful of Wan Bohai, the newly appointed commander of the Imperial Guard.”
The shadow of a smile on Shen Jue’s face became even deeper, and he watched her go inside. When the lights went on inside, he turned around and walked back to his main courtyard.
- Lit. Child of Wealth.
- Lit. Little brother; friendly address for a man younger than oneself.
- Lit. Happiness, blessing, good fortune.”
- Based on a story of Su Wu, a Chinese diplomat and politician who was captured and detained for nineteen years. He endured many hardships and servitude by herding sheep before he managed to return home.