Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Shen Jue ordered that all goods transported by water must be reported to yamen before they could be cleared, to check the goods at the water post stations at docks of every prefecture, and for the Eastern Depot and Embroidered Uniform Guard to set up checkpoints one by one, burning Bliss Fruit on the spot. Whoever was discovered to have taken Bliss Fruit were imprisoned and forced to withdraw. However, Bliss Fruit had the toxicity of azalea flowers, so one would bleed from the seven facial apertures and be numb in the limbs upon withdrawal. Many people couldn’t bear the excruciating pain of withdrawal, so they simply committed suicide in their cell. When the yamen opened the prison door the next day and looked, corpses were already piled into mountains.
The corpses were moved out one by one from the prison and thrown into mass graves. Popular discontent gradually arose everywhere, and mobs even charged at the prison. The local officials were helpless and could only let the people out. Because of this matter, Shen Jue had recently been extremely busy, and he had discussed with a few grand secretaries in the Grand Secretariat for three days and three nights, but they hadn’t come up with a regulation.
People who took Bliss Fruit couldn’t be arrested, but Garan assassins still had to be investigated. Xiahou Lian led underlings to check people’s household registrations and travel permits from door to door along the neighborhood’s alleys. All refugees were sent to prison to check their origins, and people whose identities weren’t clear were taken to the Eastern Depot to be interrogated. Sure enough, they uncovered many Garan spies. On the streets, when people saw a fierce-looking man leading a dark and dense mass of underlings galloping by on horses, they immediately gave them a wide berth.
Because of this, changing his name was also useless, as the senior lead officer of the Eastern Depot, Shen Lian, had also entered the assassins’ gazes and was added to Garan’s kill list. In half a month, Xiahou Lian had encountered five assassinations. It was often when he was stopping for a rest at a tea stall at the side of the road and hadn’t sat down steadily yet when a saber would stab down toward the top of his head. Now, Xiahou Lian even held his saber when he slept. The fifth time, he had actually encountered Leading Mechanism Silk, but fortunately, Xiahou Lian was alert, and only by holding a torch on his way home had he discovered the killing weapon hidden in the air.
However, changing his name had some advantages. If Garan found out that Shen Lian was Xiahou Lian, he was afraid that they would directly send the Garuda.
Xiahou Lian strictly forbade his subordinates from reporting these trivial matters to Shen Jue, and when he was occasionally injured, he would go home and change into clean clothes before going back to the Eastern Depot.
After the end of the year, it was still freezing cold, and snow drifted sparsely. What little had been left of Xiahou Lian’s savings had been entrusted to the post stations to send to Shiqi’s wife and child. There was a hole in his old coat, so the cotton had fallen out. He didn’t have enough money to buy a new coat and he was also too embarrassed to ask Shen Jue, so he could only endure it.
Xiahou Lian blew warm air onto his hands and stomped his feet as he went to take morning roll call. He ran into a few colleagues, and they all saluted with clasped hands as they said “Sir Xiao Shen 1.” Xiahou Lian was a little confused as he turned around and looked at their backs. Sir Shen was Sir Shen, but what did they add “Xiao” for? Not taking it personally, he turned a corner and ran into Shen Wenxing. Xiahou Lian’s eyes lit up; had Shen Jue come to the Eastern Depot?
Shen Wenxing smiled as he walked over. “Gege, are you going to see Godfather?”
“Your mouth is so sweet today, why are you calling me gege?” Xiahou Lian walked as he said, “Is the governor in the duty room? Just in time for me to report.”
“He’s in the duty room reviewing recent documents. A lot has accumulated, so he should be staying in the Eastern Depot today.” The duty room was ahead, and Shen Wenxing slowed his footsteps down slightly, smiling. “Although I recognized him as my godfather a few years earlier than you, gege, you’re older than me, so I should call you gege.”
Xiahou Lian was a little muddled, and he asked, ‘What the hell? Recognize what godfather, who recognized a godfather?”
Shen Wenxing was also muddled. “Didn’t you just recognize our governor as your godfather half a month ago? You even changed your surname, the news is spread outside.” He was blank for a while before changing to an understanding expression. “Gege, there’s no need to feel embarrassed. Your age is about the same as Godfather’s, but you can’t help that Godfather is the governor. Don’t look at how young Godfather is, the people in the palace call him ancestor! When local officials come to the capital to report, their faces are thicker and rush to call him father. With their ages, they’re more than twelve years older than Godfather!”
Xiahou Lian listened for a long time and finally understood. Outsiders had seen that he had changed his surname, so they thought that he had recognized Shen Jue as his godfather. What the hell was this called, he had inexplicably become Shen Jue’s son?
Behind him, Shen Jue’s voice suddenly sounded. “What are you two talking about?”
Shen Jue had just come back from the outhouse and walked into the corridor when he heard Shen Wenxing saying “Godfather” and whatnot. When he went to the side to take a look, he happened to see Xiahou Lian standing there, stunned. On such a cold day, he was wearing a thin layer, and there only seemed to be an undergarment underneath his yesa robes. Shen Jue frowned upon seeing this.
“How come you’re wearing so little?” Shen Jue touched his hand; it was like a block of ice, even colder than his own hand. Xiahou Lian had always had a warm body temperature, so if he wasn’t freezing, how could it be this cold?
“It’s not convenient to move when wearing thick clothes, and it’s not cold anyway,” said Xiahou Lian.
“Not cold? Your hand is so cold.” Shen Jue frowned at him.
“My hand is exposed outside, I’m not cold in other places.”
Shen Jue glanced at him and put his hand into the fold of his clothes to cover it, pulling him into the duty room. There was a heating channel in the room, so it was warm upon going inside. Shen Jue shoved his own hand warmer into his hands and sat down as he said, “What were you two talking about just now?”
Shen Wenxing told him, and Shen Jue was also depressed when he heard it. How could his good wife have become his son?
Shen Jue frowned for a long time and didn’t speak. Shen Wenxing couldn’t figure out what this ancestor was thinking about, so he used a horsetail whisk to scratch his temples before saying, “The day before yesterday, Sir Dai donated money to the Ministry of Revenue, and I heard that he sold his farmland house in his hometown of Luling.”
Shen Jue furrowed his brow and sighed. “Why is this necessary, his money isn’t even enough to stuff the gaps in one’s teeth with. Forget it, Shen Wenxing, sell my villa in the capital and donate it to the national treasury.”
Xiahou Lian said, “I’ll also contribute.”
“What will you contribute?” Shen Jue looked sideways at him. “Are you going to contribute your underpants?” He reached out and pinched his thin sleeve. “Where did you spend your money? Drinking, gambling, or prostitution? You can’t even afford to make a coat anymore. I told you to come to my manor to make clothes, but you refused, and now you’re frozen like a quail.”
Xiahou Lian tugged back his sleeve and said, “How do I have the time to gamble and hire prostitutes, I drink a bit of alcohol at most. I have a lot of Tibetan sabers, they’re all famous weapons, I can get a lot of money from selling them.”
“Save it.” Shen Jue waved for Shen Wenxing to leave before going to the wardrobe and getting out a thick coat.
It was the spare coat Shen Jue had put in the duty room. The outside material was brocade, it had a dark passionflower pattern, and it was scented with dipterocarp incense. Xiahou Lian held it in his hands, and his nose was filled with Shen Jue’s scent.
“Put it on.” Shen Jue sat back down in the official-hat chair. “If you feel embarrassed, I’ll give you my old clothes from my place. I cut new clothes diligently, so some old clothes are a waste. You’re the senior lead officer now, so your monthly salary should have increased by a lot. Use my account first and it’ll get deducted from your salary next month, what do you think?”
Freezing like this all the time wouldn’t do, so Xiahou Lian compromised. “Okay.”
“Lest outsiders say I’m mistreating my own godson.” Shen Jue smiled very derisively.
Xiahou Lian: “…”
This brat was addicted to being a father. Xiahou Lian ignored him and lowered his head as he undid his belt while reporting, “According to the results of the inspections for this half of a month, Garan indeed doesn’t have any more secret dens. The spies have dispersed into ordinary shops as waiters, accountants, and the like. Some are also peddlers and servants, and they’re living in rented houses in the capital. About half of the servants in the neighborhood’s shops and small households have been checked, but…”
“There are many people with fame and prestige in the capital after all, so randomly singling one out will be a marquis or baron whom we can’t afford to offend. I’m guessing that there are definitely some spies that mixed into wealthy families to be servants, but this is difficult to investigate.”
Shen Jue sneered, “What’s difficult to investigate? When the Eastern Depot raids homes, it can even raid that of the Senior Grand Secretary, and we can’t touch them? Tomorrow, I’ll borrow the emperor’s title and issue an edict for them to prepare their houses’ servants’ deeds and household registrations. Just examine them one by one, and you only need to report whoever dares to disobey to me, I’ll teach them a lesson.” After saying this, he shook his head. “Screening like this is still too slow, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. Have you caught any alive, and have you gotten anything out of interrogating them?”
Xiahou Lian took off his yesa robes and started undoing the belt of his lined coat. “No. Most of the ones we caught are spies on the lowest level. They’ve only heard the name of Lord Yama, and they don’t even know if they’re male or female. I also asked about the Eight Legions, but they didn’t know. Garan has one-way contact now, and it’s strictly hidden. They only know that the Garuda has come to the capital, but they don’t know where.”
“They’re hidden deeply, probably because they have an identity on the surface and an identity behind the scenes, which is why they’re so hard to find. If we can’t find Lord Yama, we’ll find Duan Jiu. In a while, tell me about Duan Jiu’s appearance, and I’ll draw a portrait.”
“You can even draw?” Xiahou Lian looked up at him.
Shen Jue let out a short laugh. “Why not? You think that everyone is incompetent like you?”
It’s true, Xiahou Lian thought. This brat Shen Jue is fast at learning anything and good at learning anything. In their childhood, he had gotten dizzy from memorizing those sentimental poems, but Shen Jue only needed to take one glance, and he would be able to compose poems himself.
Xiahou Lian took off his lined coat, revealing his cotton undergarment that was stiff from being washed and kneaded. Shen Jue leaned against the back of the chair, resting his head on his chin as he watched him. He trained all year round, so his figure was so good it seemed to be carved out by a saber, and even the stiff cotton couldn’t conceal that smooth line of muscle.
Just as he was going to put on the lined coat, his undergarment was tugged on by Shen Jue, revealing his strong and solid shoulder. Shen Jue said, “Change your undergarment too, it’s so hard from being washed, is wearing it comfortable?”
Xiahou Lian was stunned and said, “No need.”
Shen Jue pulled with both hands, and a hole was instantly ripped in his undergarment. “Ah, it ripped, so you should change into mine.”
Xiahou Lian: “…”
Shen Jue seemed to be very dedicated to making him wear his clothes. Xiahou Lian was a little helpless and could only agree. Shen Jue took out his own undergarment, which was made out of smooth silk. Holding it in one’s hand, it was light and seemingly weightless. It was still scented with that scent that belonged solely to Shen Jue.
Xiahou Lian took off his undergarment, and his body of muscles was completely exposed in the air. The color of Shen Jue’s pupils deepened a little, but he suddenly frowned and reached out to touch a new scar on his arm. “How did this happen?”
“Oh, I accidentally scraped it on a dook hook,” said Xiahou Lian.
“Are you deceiving a ghost? It’s clearly a saber scar.” Shen Jue squinted at him. “Tell the truth. If you don’t tell the truth, I’ll ask your subordinates. I’ll flog them a few dozen times with the heavy stick, and I’ll see if they still dare to hide things from me in the future.”
Shen Jue really would do this kind of thing. Xiahou Lian could only tell him the truth. Shen Jue’s expression was frighteningly somber, and he fiercely glared at Xiahou Lian as he said, “Your courage is getting bigger and bigger. I gave you power, not courage, yet you dare to hide such a large matter from me. Don’t you have depot guards at your side? Is it worthwhile for you to fight assassins yourself?”
“Ah, I’m used to it.” Xiahou Lian lowered his head to look at his own scar. “Look, I have so many scars on my body, isn’t one more or one less the same?”
Shen Jue also lowered his head to look at him. There practically wasn’t an inch of good flesh on his body. Old scars of many years ago hadn’t disappeared and new ones were added, and they criss-crossed, a shocking sight.
Xiahou Lian consoled, “Isn’t it just an injury, what man doesn’t get injured?”
Shen Jue touched the ferocious scars on his body. The one on his left shoulder had been sewn by himself, and the one on his waist and abdomen had been from when he was an assassin. He touched all the way to his back, where there was still a large area of whip scars. The scars were already faded, but they would never disappear. Shen Jue heart ached when he saw them, and he said in a low voice, “Xiahou Lian, do you think that getting injured is a little deal?”
“This needs a why?” Xiahou Lian was confused. Could someone without a few scars on their body still be called a man?
“Then let me tell you now, Xiahou Lian, getting injured is a big deal, a very big deal. Because getting injured will leave a scar, it won’t get better, and you could even die.” Shen Jue helped him put on the clothes and fasten the belt, saying with a hoarse voice, “And one last thing, it makes my heart ache.”
Xiahou Lian was stunned. He suddenly knew why he felt that getting injured was very normal; it was because assassins had always walked alone. They were alone when they lived and died, so very few people cared when they were injured. Even his mother didn’t care; she would only say “how big of a deal is it, endure it and you’ll get past it.”
Many people hated him, feared him, and blamed him. There really were very few people who cared about him.
Except for Shen Jue.
He smiled slightly and said, “Mn, I see.”
Baili Yuan sat under the eaves, looking at the snow. Snowflakes landed on her vermillion apron, blotting dark red marks.
“Lady, the Bliss Fruit that was supposed to be transported to Tongzhou Posthouse was privately taken by the leader of Qingzhou Gang. How should he be dealt with?”
Duan Jiu’s rough voice sounded from behind her. She didn’t look back and merely said indifferently, “Kill him.”
“The three months who defected last month have been brought to the North, how should they be dealt with?”
She fiddled with the tassel on her waist and replied calmly, “Kill them.”
“Recently, the senior lead officer of the Eastern Depot, Shen Lian, has been thoroughly investigating the refugees in the capital, and we’ve lost many of our spies. Lady, are there any countermeasures?”
She swayed her legs and still said, “Send people to kill him.”
Duan Jiu nodded. “Yes, I understand.”
Duan Jiu was just about to leave, but Baili Yuan suddenly spoke. “Wait.”
Duan Jiu paused his footsteps and nodded slightly.
“The one I want you to kill isn’t that guy named Shen Lian,” she turned her head, her smile having no temperature amid the snowflakes, “it’s Shen Jue.”