Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
New Year’s Eve.
The capital became desolate at once, as everyone had closed their doors and were cooking main dishes to celebrate the new year. The streets were empty, not a single figure to be seen. Even the patrolling captain of the Five City Warden Department had reduced shifts. Lifting one’s eyes and looking out, one could only see a row of snow-white and empty streets, and few people wrapped in coats and hurrying with their heads lowered could occasionally be seen; they were also rushing home.
Lian Xiang was afraid Xiahou Lian would be lonely spending the New Year alone, so she told Xiahou Lian to come to Shen Manor to celebrate the New Year. Xiahou Lian was too embarrassed to go empty-handed, so he came to the door holding a chicken and a duck. Upon getting there, he discovered that there was a pile of New Year gifts sent by court officials behind the screen wall. There were countless gold and silver utensils, and there were ten luminous pearls alone. Xiahou Lian stood there carrying the chicken and duck that continuously struggled, feathers flying wildly. He instantly felt that he was very rustic.
Lian Xiang complained that he regarded her as an outsider, coming to eat New Year’s Eve dinner but still sending a gift. She sent him to stay in Shen Jue’s room and went to take care of the New Year’s Eve dinner herself. Actually, this New Year’s Eve dinner was Shen Manor’s servants’ own New Year’s Eve dinner, and it didn’t include Shen Jue. It was too busy in the capital, so Shen Jue never came back to his manor during New Year, and staying up all night was also a common thing.
Shen Manor wasn’t peaceful, as there was an endless stream of people coming to send gifts. Servants went in and out, hurriedly putting big and small priceless treasures into the warehouse. There was also an official of a local government who had rushed to the capital from another place. He didn’t know what nerve had been wired wrong in their brain, as they had sent a group of beautiful entertainers, both male and female. When they passed by Xiahou Lian, a woman turned her head and winked at him. Xiahou Lian instantly got goosebumps, and he turned back and returned to the courtyard.
Shen Jue had always lived cleanly and didn’t like to do those filthy things. They had also been sent in the past, and Shen Jue had sold all of them away. Xiahou Lian wasn’t worried that he would be charmed by these strange things, he was only worried that he would be busy in the palace by himself and whether he would be able to eat New Year’s Eve dinner.
Ah. Xiahou Lian rested his head on his hand and his heart began scrambling again. How come being governor was this annoying, it would be better for him to be an underling like him; at least they could warm the bed-stove with their wife and children on New Year.
Xiahou Lian was extremely bored, so he went to the kitchen to wander around. Everyone in the kitchen was from the capital, and they were cooking cuisine from the capital. Northerners liked to eat cattle and sheep, and they used rough material, things like wild boar meat and northeast goose, dishes that were often found on nobles’ tables. The dishes also had big portions, one plate was enough for four or five people to bury their heads in it and eat. He reckoned that it was also similar in the palace. Xiahou Lian looked for a long time, then got a pot to roast a Jinling duck. He also kneaded a few glutinous rice candied lotus root and steamed cakes and put all of them into a food box. He told someone to pass a message to Lian Xiang saying that he wouldn’t be eating New Year’s Eve dinner here. Then, he slipped out from the back door.
He went to ask Situ Jin to borrow an ivory block to enter the palace and directly went into the palace, going into the duty room of the Directorate of Rites. Inside, people were so busy their feet didn’t touch the ground, and they didn’t even look up. No one paid attention to him, and he searched for a long time but couldn’t find Shen Jue. He pulled someone over and asked before finding out that Shen Jue was still taking care of the evening banquet in the palace’s back garden. He didn’t dare to go to that boundary. He had originally sneaked in, and wandering around in the Directorate of Rites was fine, but he couldn’t roam around in other places. He held the food box and went to the duty room, put the food box onto the kang table, and sat down on the throne, resting his chin on his hand to wait for Shen Jue to return.
Sunlight shone through the pine-green soft smoky window screen and lantern brocade window lattices, casting dim spots of light in the room. Xiahou Lian looked at the inlaid pearls and gold traces that filled the room blankly, and sleepiness slowly overwhelmed him.
He seemed to hear the rustling of the branches of thousands of trees outside the window, and the heavy footsteps of the Feathered Forest guards seemed to be far and near, sounding for a while and then resting for a while. Someone was dragging a chair in the neighboring room, and the wooden legs scraped on the brick floor, grating his ears. There was also a little eunuch speaking, his hoarse voice like a broken gong. Xiahou Lian muddledly thought, How can this voice serve in the emperor’s presence? However, all sounds seemed to be very far away from him, like a dream from a past life.
The door suddenly opened, and sunlight spilled in. There was a hazy expanse of light in his dark vision, a resplendent dizziness of red and blue and orange. Someone had come inside, turning past the heavy curved screen with four panels and slowly approaching him, and he seemed to hear the rustling sound of clothes. He was still tired and couldn’t wake up, and all of his feelings were like hallucinations. The sounds neared, and it was suddenly dark before his eyes, as if someone was blocking the light. Something was lightly imprinted onto his cheek that was facing up, containing a bit of warmth, and also a bit of moistness and softness. It swept past the side of his face like a flying flower, and also like a graceful butterfly alighting. It was so soft, so quick, but it was also comfortable, a little intoxicating.
His heart suddenly felt reluctant to part with it; he hoped that that flower, that butterfly, would stay for a little longer.
When he woke up, it was already dark. He was wearing a snow weasel cloak; it was Shen Jue’s. He turned his head. Shen Jue was sitting on the round-backed armchair and revising orders, and the candlelight’s gold color reflected on his face, contrasting with the flawless white jade of the side of his face.
“You’re getting bolder and bolder, you rely on me to protect you, yet you actually dare to sneak into the palace.” Shen Jue lifted his head and glanced at him, humphed coldly, and looked down to continue revising memorials to the throne.
Xiahou Lian was still a little dazed. In his mind, he was thinking about the dream he had just had; the dream had been like a kiss.
“What are you looking at me for?” Shen Jue noticed his gaze and frowned as he asked.
He was dreaming, how could Shen Jue have secretly kissed him. Xiaou Lian shook his head vigorously and felt a lot more clear-headed. “Nothing, I had a dream just now.”
“What dream?” Shen Jue asked, pretending to be casual.
“A spring night’s dream 1.” Xiahou Lian didn’t dare to say the truth, so he said, “I dreamed that a fairy kissed me.”
Shen Jue’s movements of holding the brush stagnated, and he sneered, “I think you’ve been single for too long, you’re longing for love. There was an entertainer before who made eyes at you, and now you’re starting to have spring dreams.”
Xiahou Lian was stunned and asked, “How do you know she winked at me?”
Shen Jue coughed and said, “Of course I know what happens in my manor. Someone saw that that actress didn’t know her place and thought that you had come to my manor to mess around, so they came to report it. What, now you’re interrogating me?”
Xiahou Lian became anxious. “How was I messing around, don’t listen to other people’s gossip.” After saying this, he said resentfully, “Who had nothing to do after eating their fill and messed with me behind my back on New Year. See if I won’t pull off their tongue!”
Shen Jue was afraid that he would continue inquiring, so he said, “All right, I know, I never doubted you, I just casually said some things for fun, yet you took it seriously. I haven’t asked you yet, why did you come to the palace and not stay at home?”
Xiahou Lian picked up the food box and put it in front of him. He lifted up layers upon layers of lids, revealing the golden Jinling duck inside and the white and tender glutinous rice candied lotus root and steamed cakes. “Isn’t this me wanting to eat New Year’s Eve dinner with you? Ah, they’re all cold, you have a small kitchen here, right, I’ll go and heat it up and also add a few dishes.”
“Why do you have to eat with me, didn’t Lian Xiang call you?”
“A family reunion is called New Year’s Eve dinner.” Xiahou Lian called someone over to take away the dishes and heat them up. “These are dishes I made myself, you have to give me some face.”
Shen Jue’s brush paused. He knew everything that Xiahou Lian did. Today, an entertainer had winked at this idiot, and he had immediately ordered for that thing who didn’t know its place to be sold away. He also knew that Xiahou Lian had personally roasted the Jinling dishes and snuck into the palace. At that time, he had been in the palace’s back yard dealing with the young emperor. That good-for-nothing had fancifully wanted the palace banquet to be in the Leopard Room, wanting everyone to eat New Year’s Eve dinner together with the tigers. Heavens knew how much he had wanted to kick that damned child flying and go to the Directorate of Rites to see Xiahou Lian.
Although he and Xiahou Lian lived apart, one inside the palace and one outside, he knew Xiahou Lian’s each and every move; it was just that this fool didn’t know.
After working every day, the only thing worth being happy about was reading the notes his servants reported, on which the whereabouts of Xiahou Lian that day was written.
Shen Jue pressed the corners of his mouth and said indifferently, “All right, do as you like.”
After saying “a family reunion is called New Year’s Eve dinner,” Xiahou Lian was suddenly a little stunned. He still hadn’t found Chi Yan, and he didn’t know whether he was dead or alive. If he was alive, he also didn’t know whom he was eating New Year’s Eve dinner with.
Shen Jue saw his alarm and asked, “What is it?”
“Nothing, I just thought of my brother.” Xiahou Lian stood up and leaned on the window. The sky outside was as pitch-black as ink, and in another two hours, fireworks would be set off everywhere in the palace; the fireworks would make the entire sky as bright as day. “I’m a little afraid, I’m afraid that my brother is actually already gone, but I still haven’t made a spirit tablet for him. Without a spirit tablet, he can’t hear my prayers, and he can’t find the way back. He’ll become a lonely wild ghost without a home to return to.”
Xiahou Lian gazed at the pitch-black night sky, and Shen Jue gazed at Xiahou Lian. When Xiahou Lian looked at the dome of the sky, he always had an extremely desolate feeling, like a person who had wandered for a very long time, making one’s heart ache. Shen Jue walked behind him and said, “He isn’t.”
Xiahou Lian looked back at him.
Shen Jue lowered his head and held up Xiahou Lian’s hand. The star-moon Bodhi beads he had given him hung on Xiahou Lian’s wrist, the glistening red Bodhi beads like red lucky seeds. It couldn’t be said clearly whether they had originally been like this, or if the lovesickness had made them become so round and full.
“This string of beads is very spiritual. Wear it, and Buddha will hear your heart’s wishes.” Shen Jue said, “Have you heard of a kind of saying among the Japanese, they say that deities are not bred by heaven and earth, they rely on the beliefs of mortals to be born? If there is a day when people don’t believe in them anymore, this deity will also be gone.”
“No, you understand Japanese, but I don’t.”
“Now you’ve heard it.” Shen Jue said, “It’s the same, as long as mortals keep believing in their deities, their deities will exist forever. So, it’s okay. As long as you keep thinking about him, he will definitely survive.”
On the night of New Year’s Eve, Yunxian Building was brightly lit. Red sashes hung on the beams and fell straight down, covering dim red light of the bright red octagonal lanterns. It was as if the entirety of Yunxian Building was enveloped in a faint layer of the color of rouge. Under this layer of rouge, light flowed on women’s skins like first-class mutton fat jade. Babbling opera was being sung on stage; that voice was tactfully clear and melodious, twisting and turning, sounding out all the way to very far away.
A young man wearing a tattered sheepskin coat and a pair of cloth boots entered the backyard of Yunxian Building. He was carrying a patched cloth bundle on his back, and his head was lowered the entire way, silent and not speaking. The prostitutes of Yunxian Building looked down on this type of rustic people, and some even felt that he was dirty, so they walked around him.
However, the bawd felt that this child was clever, unlike that group of idlers in Yanzhi Alley who were extremely greasy and also liked to hook up with her girls. Last time, a libertine had made the talent she was planning to support raise a child, and it had angered her so much that she hadn’t slept well for five nights in a row. However, she could tell at a glance that this child didn’t have those kinds of thoughts, and one could see the bottom of his eyes at a glance. What he was thinking could be seen in his eyes, making her feel that he was reliable.
“Where are you from?” the bawd piled on a kind smile and asked while leading him into the courtyard.
“The mountain,” the young man said.
“Oh, you really do come from the countryside, I knew when I saw your appearance.” The bawd pulled open a door and lifted her skirt as she stepped across the threshold. “Why did you come to the capital? You can’t keep farming at home? Did you flee from famine?”
The young man followed the bawd into the door. Inside was a courtyard, and there were many flowers planted in the center, though they had already withered, leaving behind only messy flower vines. There were wing rooms on two sides, and the lights were on in all of them. Warm voices sounded from inside, and halos of light penetrated out from the window gauze, a dim yellow color; every light halo seemed to hint at a secret world.
“I came to find my little brother.” The young man lowered his eyes. “I lost him.”
“Ah, the crowds are vast and the capital is so big, he won’t be easy to find.” The bawd took out a key and opened the door of the woodshed. “Here, sleep here in the future. Before, someone who helped around slept here, but I don’t know what good luck he got, he obtained the Chief Officer’s favor and became wildly successful. He left a few pieces of clothing here, see if you can use them, keep them if you can.”
The young man walked inside and put his cloth bundle onto the wooden table. There were a few coarse clothes in the trunk next to the wall. He picked it up and took a look, then nodded and said that he could wear them, though they were out of season.
“You, ah, stay here and work for me, the wages definitely won’t be unfair for you. If you want to find your little brother, don’t be afraid, there’s a way. Who doesn’t know that our Yanzhi Alley is the place with the most unimpeded news. Slowly ask around for information, and you’ll eventually find him,” the bawd said.
The young man nodded.
“Is he a new servant!” A clear voice sounded. The young man looked up and saw a slim figure turn from the door. There was a red lantern behind her, and the enchanting light reflected on her face, her exquisite and bright features seeming to be about to melt in the light.
“What’s your name?” A-Chu asked.
Fireworks rose in the sky, and the sounds of the explosions were as loud as thunder. In the bright radiance, the young man’s figure finally became clear. He had a tranquil face, his eyes were clean and clear like pure glaze, and his right ear had a bit of a dazzling light.
“Xiahou.” He said, “My surname is Xiahou, you can call me Xiahou.”