Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
The Imperial Clan Court.
The setting sun embellished the decorative golden dragon painting, expanded bit by bit, slowly shifted onto the lifted corners of the eaves, and finally arrived at the crouching beasts 1 on the roofs, bright red like blood. Situ Jin pushed open the red-lacquered gate of the Imperial Clan Court for Xiahou Lian, revealing the pitch-dark inside.
“I’ll wait here for you. The government yamen is going to be locked soon, hurry,” said Situ Jin.
Xiahou Lian nodded and stepped across the threshold. Situ Jin stood under the setting sun and watched him submerge step by step into the darkness.
Zhu Xia was facing the wall and sitting in the cell. She was wearing white prison clothes and her long hair was draped over her shoulders. From a distance, she looked like a female ghost that had been abandoned. Xiahou Lian walked over, sat on his knees outside the bars, and placed his goose quill saber onto the ground.
“You came.” Zhu Xia sighed faintly, as if she already knew today’s ending long ago.
“Yes, I came,” Xiahou Lian said in a low voice.
“Did the chief officer send you to kill me?”
“No, I came by myself.” Xiahou Lian lowered his eyes and said, “I don’t trust you. You were Empress Dowager Li’s personal maid before she got married, and you two were companions for many years, so you have a deep and affectionate relationship. The empress dowager knows the governor’s secrets, so you are also clear about them. I’m very sorry, I must kill you.”
Zhu Xia was stunned, and after a long time, she chuckled. “A deep and affectionate relationship… Yes, I accompanied the empress dowager, from a girl in the harem to a lady of talents in Fifth Qianxi Premises. I watched the empress dowager climb to the top step by step, and become the most honorable woman in the Forbidden City. But in the end, she still lied to me. She said that she would let him live, she said that she didn’t want me to be a widow. But later, offering incense at Guangling Temple was an invitation to enter the urn 2, and the chief officer was the softshell turtle in the urn! She wanted to kill the chief officer, not leaving him any chance of survival!”
Xiahou Lian looked at her quietly.
Zhu Xia slowly stood up, walked to the bars like a puppet, and looked at the empty darkness. “But is the chief officer genuine? What mutual affection, it was all a lie. Him sending me rouge and being concerned about and caring for me were all lies, he only wanted to snoop about the situation with the empress dowager from me. They’re all completely aware, only my brain was muddled, and I couldn’t tell true from false. I even thought that the empress dowager treated me like a sister, and I even thought that the chief officer truly loved me.” She looked down at Xiahou Lian and smiled sadly. “Say, is what I said right?”
Xiahou Lian looked at Zhu Xia. In the dim candlelight, clear light leapt in her eyes, miserable and grieving. He didn’t know how to answer; Shen Jue owed her, this was the truth.
Xiahou Lian was silent for a long time before saying, “I have no intention of defending the governor. I only hope that you remember that it is me, Xiahou Lian, who killed you. When you go to King Yama to indict, don’t indict the wrong person. The governor never ordered to kill you, it was me, Xiahou Lian, who acted on my own.”
Zhu Xia laughed in ridicule. “Oh? Are you not afraid of suffering retribution? You’re going to bear his evil debts, aren’t you afraid King Yama’s imps will come for you!”
“Miss Zhu Xia,” Xiahou Lian looked down at his own palms that were covered with fine scars and calluses; they had been rubbed from many years of holding sabers. “People like us who walk in the dark, we’ll see ghosts sooner or later. I’ve already made preparations long ago. I will atone for the governor’s sins, and I will bear the governor’s retribution. What good and evil, I already can’t care about that much anymore. People who walk in the dark only care about likes and dislikes, not right or wrong.”
“Why do you treat him like this? Is it for your childhood friendship?” Zhu Xia put her forehead against the bars and looked at Xiahou Lian. “You’re also as foolish as I am… Xiahou-xiongdi, he’s also only using you. He treats you well because you have outstanding skill, so in the future, you can still block sabers for him.”
“Miss Zhu Xia, you don’t understand. He is other people’s hell, but he is my bliss.” Xiahou Lian didn’t want to say more. He picked up his goose quill saber, stood up from the ground, and pushed open the cell door. “Miss, the time has come, it’s time to go.”
Zhu Xia looked directly at Xiahou Lian and suddenly understood something. She said softly, “You’re the same as me, do you also love him?”
Xiahou Lian didn’t say anything.
Zhu Xia smiled. “I guessed right. Yes, who wouldn’t love someone like him? When I first saw him, he was walking on Tian Street. In the vast crowd, only he was the most eye-catching. Even his crow-blue round-collared shirt couldn’t block his brilliance, as if he had come down from the horizon. If you ask me, none of those concubines in the Forbidden City who self-proclaim themselves as goddesses can compare to him.”
She really liked him a lot! In such a large palace, only he treated her the best. Her family only regarded her as a money tree, so most of the letters they sent were asking for money. Her masters only regarded her as a servant, and to her, the empress dowager was also a superior master, so she couldn’t overstep at all. Only him, he was the same as her; they were two lonely people in the deep palace. She thought that they could warm each other up, but who would’ve expected that it turned out that she had never gotten into his heart.
She looked at Xiahou Lian with tears in her eyes. “See, you’re a man, but you also love him.”
“What kind of feeling is liking someone?” Xiahou Lian asked her.
Zhu Xia tilted her head and smiled. “Probably the feeling of happiness. I always feel that I have suffered so many hardships in my life, suffered so many wounds, all to meet him. Upon meeting him, suffering isn’t bitter anymore and wounds aren’t painful anymore, I’ll be happy for my entire life.”
This time, Xiahou Lian was silent for a very long time. He had always been unable to distinguish between the feelings of relatives and lovers. Situ Jin had said that liking was warmth, and Zhu Xia had said that it was happiness, but were there not these feelings between relatives? Exactly who was Shen Jue to him? He felt that he had also tasted this share of happiness, but he was different. He felt that he hadn’t only suffered one lifetime of hardships, he must have suffered many lives of hardships in order to meet someone as good as Shen Jue.
He pressed his own heart; his heart was beating again and again in his chest. There was a shadow of a youth who was like sorrowful frost hidden there, his unspeakable treasure.
He suddenly understood; Shen Jue was his relative and also his lover. He loved him, so he wanted to become relatives with him, never separating in this lifetime. In that instant, he suddenly tasted the flavor of love. It was his first time in twenty-four years, and his heart was sore and itchy, unable to say whether it was sweetness or numbness. However, this taste made one willingly indulge in it, never looking back.
Zhu Xia smiled gloomily. “Unfortunately, I met the wrong person. My joy contained sabers, and I swallowed it, seeking my own death.”
Xiahou Lian constrained his mind and said in a low voice, “You’re a good girl. I hope that you won’t misjudge people again in your next life.”
She lowered her head and wiped her tears. “Kill me, Xiahou-xiongdi. You’re right, you can’t trust me. In the end, the empress dowager is my master, so if I live, I must seek justice for the empress dowager. Kill me, and everything will be over.”
Xiahou Lian didn’t say anything else. He lowered his eyelashes and slowly drew his saber. The blade reflected the candlelight, glimmering nonstop in the dark cell. Xiahou Lian said, “Miss, have a good journey.”
Zhu Xia smiled sadly. “Did the empress dowager already pass on?”
“Mn, she left an hour ago.”
“Good. If I go a little faster, I might even be able to catch up to the empress dowager and go together.” Zhu Xia adjusted her appearance, moving her loose hair behind her ears. She took a deep breath, knelt upright facing Xiahou Lian, lifted her neck, and closed her eyes. Lights outlined her features, and in that moment, she suddenly had a breathtaking feeling of beauty.
Xiahou Lian raised the saber with both hands. Their shadows were cast on the wall, one person raising a saber and one person kneeling. Then, the shadow of the saber flashed, and dark red blood splashed onto the stone wall. The woman’s head tumbled to the ground, and her bun was still flawless, the light of the gold hairpin gleaming in the light, like an exquisite puppet.
He looked at Zhu Xia’s head for a while before putting his saber back and leaving the cell, walking out of the Imperial Clan Court with his body covered in blood. Situ Jin was standing under the setting sun and waiting for him, so he silently walked over. Situ Jin lent his own cloak to him.
“How do you plan on telling the governor?” Situ Jin said, “Because of Mr. Dai, the governor might not have agreed to kill her.”
“But I had to kill her.” Xiahou Lian pressed the goose quill saber at his waist and lifted his eyes to gaze at the horizon. The red sun was sinking in the west, the setting sun like blood, the horizon an expanse of blood-red, as if it was a killing field in which a war had just been fought. “Do you still remember what Xu Ruoyu said when he reported the governor?”
Situ Jin recalled, “For his crimes, he should be torn limb from limb by five horses, and his corpse should be thrown into the marketplace, exposed for a hundred days, and its flesh eaten by dogs.”
“The corpse thrown into the marketplace and its flesh eaten by dogs,” Xiahou Lian said, “was how my mother died.”
Situ Jin was stunned. He recalled that assassin; many years ago, he had fought with her in the imperial palace. He had been seventeen years old at the time, and although he had been young, he could still be considered a master at Blizzard Saber. But when facing that assassin who was like a demon, he had been like a chicken to be slaughtered, barely having the strength to fight back.
Situ Jin understood. Seeing his own mother’s corpse on the street was a scene he wouldn’t be able to forget for his entire life. There was a scar so deep that bone was visible in the heart of this man whose name was Xiahou Lian, and he definitely couldn’t let his last loved one repeat the Garuda’s mistakes.
For this, even if it destroyed himself, he would not hesitate.
Xiahou Lian went to Shen Manor to ask if Shen Jue was there or not, and Lian Xiang said that Shen Jue had entered the palace. Right, the young emperor hadn’t been told yet, so Shen Jue had to go and placate him. The sky was already dim, and the moon showed a faint shadow. The branches of dead trees were cast in the sky, like stretching cracks on celadon. All families were already resting, the shops on the street were closed, and even the stray dogs had gone back to their dens. Xiahou Lian walked on the empty street for a while, thinking about Shen Jue.
Shen Jue was someone who was so busy all year round his feet couldn’t even touch the ground. He didn’t have the rest that others had; the emperor could go to the Leopard House for amusement, but he still had to sit in the Directorate of Rites and revise orders. Xiahou Lian recalled Shen Jue’s agitated appearance when he had left Mr. Dai’s house. When others were sad, they could rest and catch their breath, but Shen Jue couldn’t, he still had to put on a smile as light as clouds and wind and go to the palace to deal with various people.
Xiahou Lian cared about him, but he couldn’t do anything. He only had a saber and he could only kill people. He couldn’t help him with the rest.
Xiahou Lian went to the Eastern Depot to ask about news of Garan, but the eunuch in charge of clerical work said that they hadn’t found any suspicious people. There was also no recent news of Chi Yan and Tang Shiqi. Someone had indeed seen someone who looked like Chi Yan in Pingliang Prefecture, but that had been news from before Chi Yan had gone missing. There was even less trace of Tang Shiqi, and spies in Tang Sect had sent a message saying that Tang Shiqi hadn’t returned to Tang Sect.
“To tell the truth, the boundary of the North is very desolate, there are snowfields everywhere. If he encountered blizzards on the mountain and could still survive, then he really is a manifestation of Bodhisattva,” the clerical eunuch said awkwardly.
Xiahou Lian nodded and said that he understood. He knew what the clerical eunuch meant; actually, he hadn’t held out much hope, he had just been unresigned. His nerves had been tense these days, and he felt tired. He turned around and left, going straight home.
He hadn’t bought servants, so he lived alone. In the courtyard that had three entrances and three exits, only the doors of the central room for reception and back room for sleeping were open, the other rooms were all locked. It was getting cold, and there was a desolate aura permeating such a large courtyard, without any smell of smoke and fire. He was too lazy to cook, so he directly went to the well and took a shower with cold water, put his clothes over his shoulder, and went back inside, half-naked, to sleep.
He had just opened the door and lit the lantern on the small square table when the dim light lit up, illuminating a figure lying on the square table for eight people.
It was Shen Jue.
He was asleep, his head resting on his own arms. His cloak with flowing clouds hadn’t been taken off yet, and it dragged behind him. When had this guy come? Hadn’t he gone back to the palace? Xiahou Lian had thought that he would be resting in the palace and didn’t expect that he would get out. Xiahou Lian sat beside him and lowered his head to look at him.
He must be extremely tired; it was slightly bluish black underneath his eyes, and his face appeared haggard. At this moment, his usually pale face was even more like paper paste and an ice sculpture, without a bit of vigor.
Xiahou Lian sighed, and he loosened his bun, carrying him onto the bed. He undid the golden buttons on his collar, took off his cloak, then undid his belt and took off his yesa robes, undergarment, and silk pants. Shen Jue opened his eyes muddledly and closed them again. Xiahou Lian took off his black riding boots for him, pushed him inside, and put on a blanket, tucking in the gaps at his neck so as to keep the wind out. Only then did he blow out the candlelight and also go onto the bed.
The bed curtains were put down, and it was instantly dark in the shelf bed, without any light. It was as if they were surrounded by all sides, enclosing a very, very small world, and there was only him and Shen Jue in this world. Xiahou Lian opened his eyes and adjusted for a while, before being able to faintly see Shen Jue’s rising and falling silhouette more clearly. He was fast asleep, and his head was tilted toward the inside. His arm was next to Xiahou Lian, and through a thin layer of silk, Xiahou Lian could feel his warm and delicate skin.
This is also quite nice, Xiahou Lian thought. It wasn’t crossing the boundary or crossing the line; he would accompany him, and in the blink of an eye, a lifetime would pass. They were two grown men, so even if they were together, they wouldn’t be able to have babies, and hugging and cuddling all day long also seemed a little strange. With Shen Jue’s identity, it was also easy for people to talk about him. Why not just be like this? He would accompany him in the name of a servant, and they could stay together all the same.
He closed his eyes and felt satisfied. The aura of night diffused silently, containing a bit of a faintly discernible chilliness and sweetness. He was also tired, and his breaths slowly evened, about to sink into dreamland. The person beside him suddenly leaned over, and his icy hands touched his waist, slowly embracing him.
Xiahou Lian opened his eyes in surprise.
“Let me hug you for a moment, just for a moment.” Shen Jue’s voice was hoarse, containing deep exhaustion.
Xiahou Lian hugged him back, gently patting his shoulders and back again and again. He gazed at him quietly in the dark. He thought, Don’t worry, Young Master, you are my last relative. No matter what, I will protect you.
Shen Jue’s face was on his shoulder, and he heard Shen Jue’s low voice say, “A-Lian, I suffer so much.”
Xiahou Lian lowered his head and touched his forehead. “Young Master, don’t worry, you have me. Each of us two has a half, so we won’t suffer as much anymore.”
- Chinese imperial roof decorations on official buildings.
- An idiom that comes from a story where the emperor was talking to a guilty official and made him confess by first telling him a story about how he would heat up an urn with charcoal and then ask prisoners who hadn’t confessed to go inside. He then asks the official to go inside the urn, and the official admits his guilt.