Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
In the evening, Jinling City had its first snowfall of the winter. All around, black tiles were covered in white snow, and snow weighed down tree branches as if the trees were full of pear blossoms.
The madam, Mrs. Xiao, sat upright at the head of the table. She had a pair of intimidating phoenix eyes 1, her red lips were so thin it was as if they were only a line, and her ten fingernails were painted like she had just dug out a person’s heart. Unlike her husband, benevolence and righteousness wasn’t written all over her face, and she had a clearly harsh appearance which clearly told others “I’m not to be trifled with.”
Mrs. Xiao looked toward Xie Jinglan patronizingly and spoke in a thin voice, her tones jumping all over the place, kind of like she was singing opera. “Xie Jinglan, very good, I misjudged you, I didn’t expect that you could even stuff yourself full with knowledge in that filthy Qiuwu Courtyard. If you had had proper instruction, you would rank among the Three Ducal Ministers 2 in the near future!”
“I dare not. Madam, thank you for your undeserved kindness, but who can accurately predict what will happen in the future?” sneered Xie Jinglan.
His words were very modest, yet they didn’t contain a trace of modesty. On the contrary, it had the hateful implication of “sooner or later, I’ll make you kowtow and admit your mistakes.”
Mrs. Xiao’s expression was scornful as she said, “And here I thought you had some skills, but you’re just a little kid who can’t even hide his own thoughts. By relying on a little bit of trivial cleverness, you think you can turn things around and become a phoenix? What use is being stuffed with knowledge? I can still make you suppress it and make it so that you can’t even throw it up.”
Xie Jinglan’s gaze stagnated.
“I had originally wanted to pretend for me to be motherly and you to be filial. After all, that old man Dai has some power and isn’t easy to deal with. However, the moment I see you, I think of that seducer.” Mrs. Xiao stared at Xie Jinglan, her gaze bone-chilling. “You look too much like her.”
Xie Jinglan couldn’t hold back, and he said angrily, “It is common for men to have many wives and concubines. You’re being a little too jealous.”
“Jealous?” Mrs. Xiao’s smile didn’t reach her eyes. “I was born in the Jiangzuo 3 clan who has had generations after generations of officials. My father is the Censorate’s left censor-in-chief, and if that good-for-nothing Xie Bingfeng didn’t have me, he wouldn’t have even been able to get the position as a sesame official 4 in the sixth rank! You men, you all use flowery language, but there’s not one good thing about any of you. Only because I believed your good-for-nothing father’s oath of eternal love did I marry down into the Xie clan, but before I was even pregnant for ten months, he hooked up with your mother!”
“Then that’s also my father’s fault, so why target me?”
Mrs. Xiao looked down and picked at her fingernails, her smile derisive. “Who made it so that I can’t do anything to teach Xie Bingfeng a lesson? Him and I, we’re bound together for good or ill. But as for you little brat, I still have my ways.”
The derision on her face became even more pronounced, though it was unclear as to whether she was ridiculing Xie Jinglan or herself.
Xie Jinglan said, “You…”
“In the past, I was kind and raised and fed you well, since you were just a weed that no one wanted and didn’t pose a threat. Who would’ve thought that you actually dared to cast your greedy eyes on my son’s things. Stealing books and secretly studying wasn’t enough, you actually caused a disturbance in the Wangqing Pavilion and stole the spot that should’ve belonged to my son. You came and sought your own death, which was beyond my control.”
Xiahou Lian spoke, unafraid of death. “Madam, are you not aware of your son’s stupidity? That day, if Young Master Jinglan hadn’t participated in the class, I’m afraid not one of the Xie clan’s disciples would have even been seen by Mr. Dai.”
Mrs. Xiao narrowed her eyes at Xiahou Lian and rebuked, “Where did this bastard come from who dares to speak nonsense in front of me! Servants, flog him twenty times with the heavy stick 5!”
Two nursemaids walked over and moved Xiahou Lian, one on his left and one on his right, to the bench. Xiahou Lian kicked and thrashed around on the bench like a fish on the chopping board about to be cut into pieces yet would rather die than surrender. The two nursemaids’ hands were like iron pliers, firmly pressing his shoulders down. In the end, his legs were also caught, and Xiahou Lian, the flailing fish that would rather die than surrender, still became a dead fish to be slaughtered.
When the first blow landed, the skin and flesh on Xiahou Lian’s leg seemed like it was about to be split apart, and it hurt like his heart and lungs were being torn apart.
He completely lost the little restraint and dignity he had had to begin with, took a deep breath, opened his mouth, and began wailing hysterically. He took his ability to cry out for his parents in his womb, as well as the effort he had used to train his vocals with the village girl to sing folk songs, and this wail sounded as if thousands of pigs were being slaughtered at the same time. When it got to its height, his voice finally broke, as everyone was expecting.
Mrs. Xiao had a former chronic headache, and when she heard Xiahou Lian being so loud, she nearly passed out.
Xie Jinglan thought that Xiahou Lian really couldn’t hold out any longer, so he threw himself in front of Xiahou Lian, exclaiming, “Stop hitting! Stop hitting! He can’t take it anymore! Madam, I’ll learn whatever rules you want me to learn! Just stop hitting him!”
Mrs. Xiao’s head throbbed as she told the nursemaids to back away and drank several sips of tea before her headache got a little better.
Xiahou Lian laid on the bench in exhaustion. His buttocks didn’t hurt much, but his throat burned uncomfortably.
He couldn’t directly deal with it and could only go at it indirectly, so Xiahou Lian craned his neck and said, “Madam, although Young Master Jinglan isn’t your biological son, if he is ranked on the Gold List one day and has a glorious homecoming, he won’t be the only one with honor, it’ll be the entire Xie clan! At the end of the day, you’re still Young Master Jinglan’s aunt 6, and if he has losses, you won’t bear all of the losses, but if he’s fortunate enough to get first place on the imperial examination, you’ll definitely get all the glory!”
“You’re not very old, but you have a sharp tongue!” Mrs. Xiao wasn’t moved in the slightest, and there was still an unchanging sneer on her face. “Remember this well, even if the Xie clan wants to prosper, it would be my sons, Jingtao and Jingtan, who bring prosperity to the Xie clan, and it definitely won’t come to this bastard Xie Jinglan!”
Xie Jinglan’s eyes slowly dimmed, and his mouth curved into the hint of a bitter smile.
Mrs. Xiao spoke affectedly again. “However, Jinglan, now that your identity is indeed out of the ordinary as you’re the disciple of old Mr. Dai, it’ll be hard for me to make things difficult for you at will. It’s just that Mr. Dai is a moral scholar, so if you don’t understand etiquette, won’t that cause the Xie clan to lose face? People will also say that I haven’t disciplined you properly as your aunt. You’ll learn how to ‘kneel’ for today, and I’ll teach you other things another day.”
Mrs. Xiao gave the two nursemaids next to her a meaningful glance, and they stepped out and forcibly moved Xie Jinglan to the snowy ground. A nursemaid kicked the backs of Xie Jinglan’s knees, causing Xie Jinglan to kneel down with a grunt.
Xiahou Lian turned pale with fright. “What are you doing!”
A nursemaid picked Xiahou Lian up and placed him next to Xie Jinglan. Xiahou Lian struggled vigorously, but all of the nursemaids here seemed to be frighteningly strong, and the large, scorching palms that pressed down on his shoulders seemed to bear the weight of Tai Mountain 7.
Xiahou Lian gritted his teeth; this house was full of old crones!
The nursemaid’s voice was gruff as she said, “Kneel and pay attention to have a straight back and even shoulders, no hunching. Hands on the sides of your trousers, no putting them elsewhere.” Xiahou Lian sat back on his calves. The nursemaid kicked Xiahou Lian directly into the snow so that he got a mouthful of slush. “Let alone can you sit back. Kneel properly!”
Fuck you! Xiahou Lian was so angry he was practically about to explode, and he wished he could jump up and fight to the death with these old crones.
He had escaped the beating but not the kneeling, this old crone had made up her mind to rectify the two of them.
Mrs. Xiao stood on the steps, towering over and looking down at them. Her gaze made it seem as if she was looking at two ants, contemptuous and icy.
“Kneel for two hours and you two can go, but…” Mrs. Xiao blew on her fingernails as she said casually, “if the nursemaids notice that your posture is incorrect, add two hours for every mistake.”
Mrs. Xiao went into the room, leaving the two nursemaids to sit in the corridor to watch Xiahou Lian and Xie Jinglan.
Xiahou Lian had only been kneeling for several minutes, but his knees were already terribly sore and hurting, and his back was also extremely sore, not to mention it was already dusk. The cold wind became even fiercer, freezing his face and practically about to make him lose consciousness. He turned to look at Xie Jinglan. He was unmoving like a wooden figure and looking down, and Xiahou Lian didn’t know what he was thinking about.
His health was poor, and his face was as pallid as paper and his lips had lost their color. Xiahou Lian wasn’t worried about himself anymore, and he instead worried about Xie Jinglan. Kneeling for two hours, wasn’t this too far? How could there be any life left in that small body of his?
However, those two nursemaids had started a fire to keep warm and were glaring intently at the two of them.
Xie Jinglan suddenly spoke. His voice was very low as if he was half-dead. “I can’t win against her. No matter how high I climb, she can still crush me to death.”
“Don’t think so foolishly, this old crone is so deceiving, it’s infuriating me.” Xiahou Lian said, “Ah, Young Master, do you think I can run out to ask for help? Where does Mr. Dai live again? Would asking your father for help work?”
“You can’t run out, there are two nursemaids here and there’s five or six maids in the room. The yard entrance and backyard also have a lot of servants, and if all of them pull you back, you won’t be able to even move.” Xie Jinglan’s gaze was somber and awfully dim, with no light in it at all. “I was too naive, I thought that once I became Mr. Dai’s student, I would be on a flat, broad road and would only have to go down the path of the imperial examination. Distinguished talent, recommended man, advanced scholar 8, step by step, and sooner or later, I would turn things around and succeed.
“But I forgot that I’m in the Xie clan, a renowned family of literati, not to mention this dynasty values filial piety greatly. If the madam lets my unfilial reputation get out, my official career would be ruined. If she wants to ruin me, there are a thousand, ten thousand ways.”
“That old crone is trying to scare you, don’t believe her.” Xiahou Lian consoled him with difficulty. “Look at her, she doesn’t seem like the mistress of a household at all, and she isn’t the least bit dignified. I don’t know which eye your father was blind in to have fancied a hag like this.”
Xie Jinglan shook his head weakly. “She’s true to herself and disdains putting on an act with me. If I had encountered a mistress who hides a dagger behind her smile and is ruthless and greedy, that would be miserable. I’m afraid I wouldn’t even have had the opportunity to talk to her before I was dead in Qiuwu Courtyard.”
This was his first time feeling so powerless, as if he was a drowning child flailing around in the water, creating layers of splashes yet still continuously sinking.
This feeling of powerlessness was like a tide, slowly submerging him.
More and more snow fell, covering their heads and shoulders. From a distance, the two of them looked like they had become white-haired. Xie Jinglan’s entire body was icy, and this coldness seemed to be able to penetrate his cotton coat and seep into his bones. Snow landed on the hair on his temples, and a layer of frost had formed on his eyelashes. His face was pale, and at first glance, one actually couldn’t distinguish between the color of the snow and the color of his cheeks.
His consciousness seemed to gradually drift away, and his vision gradually blurred. His body was suddenly enveloped by a warm cotton coat, and a pair of hands slightly warmer than him reached out, brushed away the frost and snow on his face, and held his hands.
He looked up dazedly, his voice a murmur as small as a mosquito. “Xiahou Lian?”
Xiahou Lian didn’t care about posture anymore and held Xie Jinglan tightly in his arms, rubbing his hands and his face.
He had taken off his coat, so the cold wind surged into his collar, freezing him so that nose was runny. The two of them were like frozen birds about to die in the wind, shivering in a heap.
“We’re going to die! We’re going to die! Are you still not going to let us go!” yelled Xiahou Lian.
One of the nursemaids looked like she couldn’t bear it, so she went into the room to ask for instructions. When she came back out, she still didn’t say a word as she sat back down next to the fire and turned away, not looking at them.
“Fuck! This old crone, serves her right that she gave birth to Xie Jingtao, that worthless piece of trash.” Xiahou Lian held Xie Jinglan tightly, their foreheads pressed together and their warm breaths shrouding their vision. “Young Master! Don’t scare me!”
It took effort for Xie Jinglan just to open his eyes, and he weakly looked up to glance at him, not saying anything.
Xiahou Lian said in a low voice next to his ear, “Young Master, do you have money? Give me money!”
“You won’t be able to buy them,” murmured Xie Jinglan.
“No, give the money to me, even a copper coin is enough.” Xiahou Lian said through gritted teeth, “I’ll help you get rid of that old woman!”
The transactions of Garan assassins had always started at one hundred silver taels, but he didn’t count as an official assassin yet, so it was fine to give Xie Jinglan a cheaper price.
“What nonsense… What nonsense are you talking about?” Xie Jinglan felt that he was cold both inside and out, and that he didn’t seem to be a person but a piece of ice instead. Xiahou Lian’s voice became further and further, and he almost couldn’t hear him clearly.
He didn’t even know whether he had actually spoken those words out loud just then.
“You’re forgetting that I’m a thief. Not only do I steal money, I also steal lives. Feel my shoe.” Xiahou Lian pulled Xie Jinglan’s hand into the shaft of his boot. Xie Jinglan touched a firm object that even had patterns engraved on it, and the edges were clear. He instantly shivered and became wide-awake.
He used the little strength he had left to grab Xiahou Lian tightly, his voice practically forced out from between his teeth. “If you dare to act recklessly, I’ll… I’ll…” Xie Jinglan repeated “I’ll” several times, but he couldn’t think of what means he could use to threaten Xiahou Lian, so he simply bit his shoulder.
Xie Jinglan’s bite was very firm, and Xiahou Lian grimaced in pain. When Xie Jinglan tasted blood in his mouth, he let go.
Xiahou Lian’s anger finally exploded, and he said furiously, “Are you a dog?! Never mind if you take my kindness as ill intent, but you also want to bite a hole out of my kindness!”
“How come they’re fighting among themselves?” The voice that was so cold it caused trembles sounded, and Xiahou Lian looked up. Mrs. Xiao was looking at them coldly, and she looked up at the sky before saying, “I’m going to sleep, so I’ll let you two off today. You can go back.”
Xiahou Lian sighed in relief.
Xie Jinglan was already about to pass out. Xiahou Lian touched his forehead and was instantly startled. It was clearly so cold outside, yet his forehead was as hot as charcoal.
“Hey! Young Master!”
Xie Jinglan slid down from Xiahou Lian and collapsed on the ground like mud. He was dazed from his fever, and he mumbled some nonsense.
Xiahou Lian didn’t have any other way, so he carried Xie Jinglan on his back and made his way to Qiuwu Courtyard with difficulty. He had knelt for two hours, so his knees were cold and numb. On the first few steps, he practically fell down with every step, and the two of them were buried in the snow together, unable to stand up for a while.
The way back seemed to be even longer than before, so long that the end couldn’t be seen. Xiahou Lian really wanted to go and find Lian Xiang and Aunt Lan for help, but he was also scared that when they rushed back, Xie Jinglan would already be frozen into ice.
“Don’t… Don’t be so reckless,” whispered Xie Jinglan. If his head wasn’t buried in the crook of Xiahou Lian’s neck, Xiahou Lian almost wouldn’t have heard what he had said.
After being so cold for so long, Xie Jinglan couldn’t feel the cold wind anymore. He only felt dizzy, and when he opened his eyes, everything spun. There seemed to be something stuck in his throat, making him want to throw up.
He thought irrelevantly, If I were to throw up on Xiahou Lian, would he go crazy right here and now?
“Don’t worry, I won’t be reckless.” Xiahou Lian adjusted Xie Jinglan a little higher, saying, “Young Master, don’t sleep, talk to me. Don’t you die on me.”
Xie Jinglan was a little more awake, and he said with his eyes closed, “If I die, you won’t lose anything. Anyway… Anyway, you’re going to leave, sooner or later.”
“But I would be very sad. I, Xiahou Lian, haven’t made any friends before, so you’re my first good brother.” Xiahou Lian used his head to touch Xie Jinglan’s. “Why don’t… Why don’t you come with me? I’ll take you up the mountain, and although it’s very poor in the mountains, there are a lot of wild animals, so you won’t starve. My mother probably won’t mind having another son.”
A smile tugged at the corner of Xie Jinglan’s mouth, and he laughed weakly, as if he was half-dead. “Are you going to take me to elope?”
- An eye shape with the inner corner pointed slightly downwards and the outer corner like a “tail” that sweeps up toward the temple.
- Collective name for the three highest officials in ancient China.
- Lit. left of a river.
- Used contemptuously to refer to the lower ranks.
- A common punishment in ancient China which is extremely painful.
- Word used here refers to the wife of the concubine a person is born to.
- A famous mountain in China.
- Xiucai, lit. “distinguished talent,” is someone who passed the entry-level exam. Juren, lit. “recommended man,” is a qualified graduate who passed the provincial exam. Jinshi, lit. “advanced scholar,” is someone who passed the imperial examination.