Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Winter came early in the capital. When there were still drizzles in the south, it was already snowing in the capital. Today was the winter solstice, and feather-like large snowflakes enveloped the entire city, the world a vast expanse of white. The air was refreshingly cold, and only sucking in one breath seemed to make one’s entire chest freeze.
Xiahou Lian got off work and followed a group of brothers, their arms around one another’s shoulders, as they walked toward the gate. They got on their horses and submerged in the blizzard, disappearing without a trace in the blink of an eye. Xiahou Lian walked home. He actually also had a horse; it had been given to him by Shen Jue, and it was a first-class Mongolian horse. However, there wouldn’t be a single bit of his monthly salary left after the end of every month. Just buying horse feed was bad enough, he couldn’t afford a saddle at all. He was too embarrassed to say it, so he could only let the horse stay at home and fatten up.
Snow and ice blew against his face, and the wind poked into his collar like a saber. Xiahou Lian rubbed his hands as he walked, and he thought of Shen Jue.
The end of the year was approaching, so Shen Jue was so busy his feet practically didn’t touch the ground. The general program for the minister of officials, the sacrifices led by the emperor, and the banquet in Fengxian Hall in the first month of the year all had to be dealt with by him. Shen Jue had stayed in the palace for nearly half a month, so Xiahou Lian seldom saw him. He had lived for over twenty-four years, and he would be twenty-five years old in the twelfth month of this year. It was the first time Xiahou Lian felt the taste of lovesickness. It was as if his heart and liver had been put in a frying pan and tormented, as unbearable as his heart and liver breaking. Every day, he would go to Lian Xiang’s to get free meals and chat. Actually, it was because he wanted to try his luck to see if he could see Shen Jue. In the end, he had bumped into him once, and that guy hadn’t even stayed for several minutes before he had said “stay properly and don’t make trouble” before going back to the palace.
Halfway, he glimpsed a wine shop. Xiahou Lian wanted to go inside and buy two jars of wine when a carriage rattled as it drove over, stopping next to him. It was a plain carriage and white horse, with a light on the carriage crossbar that fended off the gradually thickening color of the night, revealing a small bit of clearness and brightness. Shen Wenxing was sitting next to the servant driving the carriage and waved at him. Shen Jue lifted the curtains, revealing half of his face, and called, “Get in.”
Xiahou Lian felt pleasantly surprised, but he didn’t reveal it on his face. He did as he said and got onto the carriage, sitting face-to-face with Shen Jue.
“How come you have time to come out of the palace today? Don’t you have to have a banquet in the palace?”
It was dark in the carriage, so Xiahou Lian couldn’t see his face and could only hear the anxiety contained in his words. “Forget it, I came out to get fresh air. People are what the palace doesn’t lack the most, there’s no need for me to do everything myself.”
“Good,” said Xiahou Lian, “you should take a rest, don’t tire yourself out.”
The carriage moved slowly; the ground was uneven, so it was a little bumpy. Shen Jue leaned his head on the carriage curtains and closed his eyes to rest. Xiahou Lian looked quietly at him, and although there was only a faint silhouette in the dim light, it was still beautiful. The moon had come out, and the carriage drove into the street at the alley in front of his house. The night market opened on the winter solstice, so there was a hubbub of voices the entire way. Xiahou Lian opened the curtains to take a look, and moonlight mixed with the light on the carriage lintel shone in. Xiahou Lian turned his head and saw that there was a bruise at the side of Shen Jue’s forehead, hidden underneath the hairnet under his black gauze hat and not very conspicuous.
“What happened to your head?” asked Xiahou Lian.
Shen Jue opened his eyes and said casually, “It was an accident, I fell.”
He could even fall when he was walking? Xiahou Lian felt strange, but he didn’t ask further, and they didn’t speak along the way. They arrived at his home, so Xiahou Lian had to get down from the carriage. They had only seen each other properly this one time in half a month, so his heart was actually reluctant. Xiahou Lian said goodbye to Shen Jue and jumped down from the carriage. Moonlight shone on the snow, an expanse of white and brightness. He walked a few steps, creating a few deep and light footprints. Should he let him stay? Originally, before, he could say this extremely smoothly, his expression not changing and his heart not jumping. Now, however, his mind was changed, and everything was different; he couldn’t get a single word out.
It was the end of the year, so Shen Jue would only get busier and busier. Could it be that they would see each other for another half a month? Xiahou Lian finally made up his mind and turned around to call out “Young Master.” Just then, he also heard Shen Jue calling him from the carriage. Their two calls collided, so it couldn’t be heard clearly who had called whom first.
“Speak first, what is it?” Shen Jue asked him through the window.
“Nothing much,” Xiahou Lian said. “Today is the winter solstice, why don’t we drink some wine together? There’s a superb wine shop ahead, and there’s a view of the street from the second floor. Are you coming?”
Shen Jue also got down from the carriage. He was wrapped in a thick cloak, and he was even holding a hand warmer in his hands. Shen Wenxing carried a lantern for them as they entered the wine shop and asked for a private room facing the street. Shen Jue went inside first to change his clothes, so Xiahou Lian and Shen Wenxing waited at the door.
Xiahou Lian turned his head and asked Shen Wenxing, “The governor doesn’t seem to be in a very good mood?”
Shen Wenxing made a long “uh” and said perfunctorily. “I also don’t dare to guess my godfather’s mood. Master Xiahou, ask him yourself.”
He said these words as if covering up the truth. Xiahou Lian noticed the suspiciousness and thus asked, “What happened with that bruise on the governor’s forehead?”
Shen Wenxing scratched the hair on his temples and said, “What else could it be, my godfather wasn’t careful when walking and fell.”
These eunuchs never prepared a draft when lying, they could make up a load when opening their mouths. This ground was covered in bits of snow, so how could he get such a large bruise from falling? Xiahou Lian knocked on his head and said, “Tell the truth.”
Shen Wenxing grimaced. “My godfather doesn’t allow me to say it.”
Xiahou Lian carried him by the collar to a water tank and pressed his head as he threatened, “Are you going to say it or not? If you don’t, I’ll throw you inside.”
Shen Wenxing grabbed onto Xiahou Lian’s waist and didn’t dare to move, saying with difficulty, “The emperor hit him. Originally, he should have attended a lecture, but His Majesty stayed in the Leopard Room and refused to leave. My godfather knelt and pleaded with His Majesty to study. You also know that His Majesty is still a child and has a temper. If he doesn’t get what he wants for a bit, he’ll throw a tantrum and smash things wildly. My godfather was unlucky, the handle of a fan happened to fly out and hit him on the head, so wouldn’t he get bruised by this?”
It turned out to be like this. Xiahou Lian loosened his grip and furrowed his brow as he sighed. No wonder he had come out of the palace; he had been hitten on the head by the young emperor and felt angry, so he also put down the palace matters and stopped caring about them. Yes, with an identity like his, what would he become with a head covered in bruises? People would laugh at him.
Shen Wenxing put his hands in his sleeves and sighed desolately like an old man. “The present is not like the past, my godfather is determined to be a loyal official. A few days ago, the Censorate impeached Associate Administrator Liu of the Embroidered Uniform Guard for accepting bribes. Actually, it was only a hundred taels of silver, and if it was in the past, he would’ve chided him a few times and it would be over. Now, however, my godfather directly dismissed him. Dismissing is easy, but what subordinate would be willing to work if there weren’t profits? Not to mention, he was used to extorting excessive taxes in the past, but he was asked to stop all at once. Cutting off someone’s financial source is equivalent to killing them!”
“Will they oppose the governor?” asked Xiahou Lian.
“Hard to say.” Shen Wenxing drooped his eyebrows and shook his head. “The high-ranking officials still have to reform politically, and the first is to remove sinecure officials. The Eastern Depot is also included, and with the hook of a red brush, my godfather actually agreed. Opposing the emperor, opposing his subordinates, and cutting his own wings, how can this be good? Recently, His Majesty has favored a new person, his name is Gao Decai, and he urges His Majesty every day to establish the Western Depot. Fortunately, a few days ago, former ministers made a fuss, wanting to remove the former empress dowager’s name from the Jade Ring List and even not allowing her to worship at the Imperial Ancestral Temple. His Majesty relied on my godfather to mediate with the officials and ministers, and only then did he not agree. Otherwise, our lives would be even more difficult than they are now.”
“Shen Wenxing, do you not want your mouth anymore?”
Shen Jue’s voice suddenly sounded from behind them. Shen Wenxing shuddered and hastily bowed while hitting his mouth. “I spoke too much! I should be hit!”
Xiahou Lian restrained him and said, “It was me who wanted him to talk.”
Shen Jue shot Shen Wenxing a piercing look before flicking his sleeves and going inside. Xiahou Lian gave Shen Wenxing an ingot of silver, told him not to worry, and asked him to buy wine for them. Then, he followed Shen Jue inside and closed the door.
Shen Jue had already changed out of his official uniform and was wearing homely jade-colored robes 1 with dark patterns of auspicious clouds. He was leaning on his side against the diamond-patterned window and looking at the noisy street below. Sounds of shouting rose one after another on the street, connecting into one. Lanterns hung as an entire line, and the whole street was as bright as day, very beautiful. Shen Jue didn’t look at Xiahou Lian and merely said, “You don’t need to worry about those things, I have my own calculations in my mind.”
“I know. Do what you think you should do, I won’t try to persuade you.” Xiahou Lian opened two jars of wine and handed a jar to Shen Jue. The two of them clinked their jars together and each took a sip. “Does your forehead still hurt?” Xiahou Lian asked him.
Shen Jue shook his head and said that it didn’t, and then said, “Actually, I came out today to tell you something. I’ve thought about it for a very long time, and I still feel that it is good this way. There is an empty position of battalion commander in the Taizhou Guard. Pack up your luggage tomorrow and go there to take office.”
Xiahou Lian was stunned and asked, “What do you mean?”
Shen Jue knitted his brows. “What else can I mean, I’m telling you to go to the Taizhou Guard to work. You being a low-ranking underling in the Eastern Depot all day long isn’t what you should be doing. As a true man, you have to have a proper job. You’ve fought in Taizhou before, so you’re familiar with that place. The Japanese pirates over there have been nearly taken care of, you just have to go there and exterminate a few bandits as a deed of merit. With merit, it’ll be easy to get promoted. After being promoted through merit, other people won’t dare to gossip about you, and you can come back to the capital to take office so you can be a proper military officer.”
Xiahou Lian wanted to speak, but Shen Jue lifted a hand and stopped him. He continued, “In the future, slowly distinguish right and wrong here with me and make a few friends in the righteous class. After a long time, no one will remember that you once worked below me.”
Xiahou Lian laughed angrily. “And then what? I become an official in the same court as you, and when we see each other, we even have to pretend that we have no relation. I respectfully call you Chief Officer and ask you whether you ate well in the morning, right?”
“A-Lian,” Shen Jue saw that he was unhappy and softened his tone, “this is for your good. It’s not easy to wear the hat of a eunuch. Having a proper official position yourself, you’ll be able to protect yourself, and you can also help me openly and secretly, no?”
What help? It was all coaxing. Xiahou Lian also knitted his brows tightly. When he frowned, there was a ferocious look between his eyebrows, making it so that people didn’t dare to approach. Shen Jue sighed, and exhaustion showed in his features as he called again, “A-Lian.”
“You don’t want me to help you, you’re just afraid that if you fall from power, you’ll also crush me as well,” said Xiahou Lian.
Shen Jue was silent. He shook the wine jar, and the smoke of the styrax perfume on the square table rose, enveloping his face hazily so that he couldn’t see his expression clearly.
“A-Lian, this is for your good.” Shen Jue put the wine jar onto the windowsill and pressed the center of his forehead. “Do you know what the endings of the Eastern Depot’s governors of past dynasties were? The recent Wei De was killed by me. The one before that lost the emperor’s favor because he bought a house that was said to have the emperor’s auspicious aura was demoted to Nanjing by Emperor Muzong, and he inexplicably died on the way. There’s also Liu Yao, who was famous during the Jinghe era. He was the governor for eight years, and when he stopped, he died by a thousand cuts.” He paused and lifted his eyes in the hazy smoke to look at Xiahou Lian, his face containing no sorrow and no joy. “I also won’t be able to escape, A-Lian.”
“Is that so?” Xiahou Lian reached over and gently held Shen Jue’s hand. His hand was chilly, always seeming like it couldn’t be warmed. He had always been like this; these lingering effects had been left from when he had knelt in the snow in his childhood. His body temperature was always lower than normal people’s, with an aversion to cold. Xiahou Lian put his hand in his palm to warm it and said slowly, “I don’t seem to have told you that I became the Garuda before I left Garan.” He laughed. “Although, the first person I killed after being promoted was Shi Xin. Do you know what the endings of the Garudas of past dynasties were? My mother was the twenty-eighth generation of Garuda, and her head was severed from her body, her corpse was thrown into the marketplace. Shi Xin was the twenty-seventh generation, and he died by my hands. He was cut by Leading Mechanism Silk and broken into pieces. The twenty-sixth generation of Garuda, Su Mo, died in a Garan rebellion, probably cut to death by random sabers. I can’t remember the ones before that, but all in all, they weren’t good endings.”
“You’re different, A-Lian, you already aren’t the Garuda anymore.”
“But I’m Xiahou Lian.” Xiahou Lian held his hand. “Young Master, you’re so strange, you worked so hard to get me back, yet you always want to push me away. You did this last time, and you’re also doing it this time. Don’t push me away, Young Master. How many times do you need me to say this before you understand, Xiahou Lian’s life is yours. Even if this path leads to destruction, I will still go together with you.”