Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
Capital suburbs • Shili Hillside.
There was no moon tonight, and the bamboo forest was pitch-dark. Depot guards raised torches, barely able to see the road beneath their feet clearly. A gale blew past in the cold night, and the bamboo leaves that filled the hillside tossed and turned, the leaves rustling desperately. It was dark, without any brightness, and it pressed heavily on people’s hearts. Bamboo leaves overlapped over the tops of their heads, making it appear even more oppressive.
Xiahou Lian silently led the way. Behind him was Shen Jue, following with alternating heavy and light steps. The other nine depot guards surrounded them, paying attention to minor disturbances in the bamboo forest.
Tang Shiqi had disappeared, and they had turned over the entire capital in these three days without seeing a trace of him. Shen Jue told him that there was no need to be too anxious, since while Garan knew that there was a mole, they didn’t know for certain that it was Tang Shiqi. It wasn’t just Tang Shiqi; the registered spies they had in other places had also withdrawn. It was extremely likely that Garan had summoned their spies back to be investigated to check for the mole, so as not to leak even more information. However, Xiahou Lian was still worried and had used the title of searching for assassins to look everywhere, but he still hadn’t found half of the corner of Shiqi’s clothes.
He felt that he seemed to have gone back to when he was seventeen years old. He was faced with imminent disaster, yet he was at a loss and didn’t have any ideas. He looked back at Shen Jue; his face was as pale as a porcelain doll’s, as if he would shatter at a touch. Xiahou Lian knew what he was afraid of, but Shen Jue and Xiahou Lian were different. Xiahou Lian had time to sit down and be upset, but he still had to endure it as he attended imperial court sessions in the early morning, made revisions, and reviewed big and small memorials to the throne sent from the Six Ministries and Three Judicial Departments. Barbarians were revolting in Liaodong, so the Grand Secretariat was thinking of ways to raise military spending, and he had to listen to the old men scold and argue with each other in the Grand Secretariat every day. He spent most of his time there, so he didn’t even have time to be alarmed.
Occasionally, some animal would scurry past the grass and make rustling noises. As they walked forward, Shen Jue suddenly tugged at Xiahou Lian. “Go to the back, don’t walk in the very front.”
“It’s okay,” Xiahou Lian said in a low voice.
Shen Jue made a gesture, and a few depot guards went to the front to lead the way. They walked for a while longer, and a blurry figure appeared in the darkness ahead. Everyone stopped, and a depot guard shouted, “Who are you?”
A flame appeared ahead, and the orange light illuminated the old man’s face. The old man was tied with rope, cloth was stuffed in his mouth, his white hair was messy, and his chest heaved as he panted. A hand was pressed on his shoulder; a pitch-black figure was standing behind him, the two eye holes in his white porcelain mask looking fixedly at Shen Jue and the group of people. The assassin was holding the flame in his other hand, and the firelight leapt unsteadily.
Dai Shengyan also saw Shen Jue and Xiahou Lian, his expression apologetic.
Xiahou Lian shouted, “Mr. Dai!”
Shen Jue grabbed Xiahou Lian’s sleeve and dragged him to the back.
Low and heavy footsteps sounded from all around. The moon came out, the wind was soft, and spots of silver light splashed among the bamboo leaves. Assassins appeared from the bamboo forest like ghosts emerging from underground, gloomily peering at Shen Jue, who was in the center of the depot guards.
Xiahou Lian pulled his saber out of its scabbard, the light of the saber as desolate and cold as the moon.
In the depths of the bamboo forest, a black-cloaked person walked out. His hood covered half of his face, only revealing the faint mustache on his lips.
Xiahou Lian’s pupils shrank, and he slowly clenched his hand holding the saber.
“Calling me out in the middle of the night, you want to negotiate with me, right?” Shen Jue calmly glanced around and smiled coldly. “Is this the sincerity of your Garan?”
Duan Jiu smiled and bowed. “You jest, Chief Officer, how can we dare to disrespect you?”
Duan Jiu clapped twice, and three assassins led three other assassins over, using their sabers to make them kneel under the moonlight.
“What is the meaning of this?” asked Shen Jue.
Duan Jiu pulled out his pipe and tapped the top of an assassin’s head. “These are three of the assassins who massacred the entire Xie clan at the time. They are Garan’s gifts for you, Chief Officer.”
“You’re sending gifts to me?” Shen Jue smiled, but his expression suddenly changed, wind and thunder dense between his brows. “Tying up Mr. Dai but also sending some assassins’ lives, dealing a blow and then giving a sweet jujube, what do you take me for?”
“Chief Officer, don’t be impatient. I am from the wilderness, so it’s inevitable I do things thoroughly, and I hope you’ll forgive me.” Duan Jiu clasped his hands behind his back and said, “Chief Officer, you have messy grudges against Garan, it is indeed hard to understand. In the end, it’s still the extermination of the Xie clan thirteen years ago that formed the stakes. Chief Officer, good people are blessed by the heavens, with great luck and escaping from death in a great calamity, and you even ascended to such a high position. In eight years, you have pursued Garan relentlessly, and Garan has had countless casualties. All assassins who fell into your hands have disappeared without a trace, and most died without a burial place. However, eight years have passed, and although you’ve tried your best to kill Garan, things are not always as people wish, and Garan is still as safe as ever.”
Duan Jiu had said a lot of nonsense, but he just wouldn’t get to the point. Shen Jue felt upset and completely lost his patience. The corner of his mouth twitched, and he smiled coldly. “Oh? Did you come to show off to me? What, you think I won’t dare to touch you because you tied up Mr. Dai?”
Duan Jiu smiled, his tone still amiable. “I rambled too much. In short, the Eastern Depot has fought endlessly with Garan for eight years with heavy casualties, and neither side has benefited. Even if there is a day when Garan obtains your life, there will still be a second chief officer and a third chief officer, and the battle will still be endless as before. In my view, why don’t you withdraw everyone, have a nice discussion with me, and see if there is a way to satisfy both parties.”
Shen Jue’s expression was somber, and he was silent for a long time without speaking. Over there, Dai Shengyan’s expression was anxious, and he strenuously struggled twice. The assassin behind him lifted his hand threateningly, and a red mark appeared on Dai Shengyan’s neck. A stream of light swept past behind his neck, flowing into the assassin’s palm.
Xiahou Lian’s pupils froze; it was Leading Mechanism Wire.
Duan Jiu clapped first, and besides the assassin holding Dai Shengyan, all of the assassins everywhere retreated, disappearing without a trace. Shen Jue also waved his hand and said, “Retreat fifteen meters.”
All of the depot guards retreated, and only Xiahou Lian still remained next to Shen Jue. Duan Jiu looked toward Xiahou Lian and smiled. “This must be Sir Xiao Shen. I heard that you’re an expert at saber skills, and you even used to have the same name as our Garan’s Xiahou Lian. A few days ago, I originally wanted to invite you to Garan to have a cup of tea with Mr. Dai, but I never thought that there would be no fate to bring us together, and I was unable to make the trip. I hope that you’ll forgive me, Sir Xiao Shen.”
Shen Jue’s expression didn’t change. “You’re even more capable than you were four years ago. Not only did you find out my original name and background, you even know his original name.”
“Chief Officer, you don’t know that the country and the underworld are of the same breath and branch, and Garan’s intelligence network is even stronger than you imagine.” The curve of Duan Jiu’s smile deepened. “Sir Xiao Shen is the chief officer’s favorite, turning from an unknown little underling to the senior lead officer of the Eastern Depot in one leap, so of course Garan wants to express respect for you. Not only do I know that your original name is Xiahou Lian, I also know that you once joined the army in Taizhou to exterminate Japanese pirates. One person killed over eighty people in a row, who the Japanese pirates looked at but didn’t dare to approach. If it weren’t for your face not being similar at all to the Nameless Ghost’s, I practically would have thought that you were Xiahou Lian, the traitor of Garan who has been missing for a long time.”
This bastard was suspicious. The light in Xiahou Lian’s eyes froze slightly; indeed, he had too many flaws. If Garan’s intelligence network got to the point where it was pervasive, they could even get all the way to Qixia Temple, and when the time came, he wouldn’t even be able to conceal the secret of changing his face. Forget it, if he couldn’t conceal it then he wouldn’t! He, Xiahou Lian, had never been afraid. He had already fought the Garuda, was he still afraid of other assassins?
Xiahou Lian wanted to speak, but Shen Jue raised a hand and stopped him. His fluid glance narrowed, glaring at Xiahou Lian so that he stopped talking. Xiahou Lian silently stepped back, and Shen Jue looked up at Duan Jiu, smiling coldly. “What do you mean by the country and underworld being of the same breath and branch? Don’t you want to rebel?”
“Chief Officer, you worry too much. Garan only requests to smoothly make transactions.” Duan Jiu smiled. “As long as you nod, relax the screening for the first level of prefecture governments, and order Eastern Depot cavalrymen to stop pursuing Garan assassins, turning the hostility to a friendship, not only will Garan send Mr. Dai home in one piece, but we will also offer the heads of these assassins who once participated in the extermination of the Xie clan, and we will also pay you ten thousand taels of silver as tribute every year. If you dislike anyone, you just have to send a note to Garan, and Garan will be willing to be the blade in your hand, wielding life or death, all according to your thoughts.”
The fists under Shen Jue’s narrow sleeves clenched tightly. Having been in charge of the Eastern Depot for so long, this was the first time he was being played with in someone’s palm. It had always only been him plotting against people, but now, he had actually let Garan seize his weakness. What deal? They were clearly pressing his head and wanting for him to agree, and if he dared to say “no,” Leading Mechanism Wire would take Mr. Dai’s life.
He had been too careless; he had only taken care of Xiahou Lian, yet he had forgotten about Mr. Dai. He had gotten to this point, and the worst taboo was his fatal weakness being grasped by someone. In the end, it had been grasped, and it seemed that there was no other choice besides agreeing. Shen Jue’s mind made thousands of twists and turns; the country and underworld being of the same breath and branch? Originally, Garan had only cooperated with the underworld, but it seemed now that this wasn’t the case. Garan must be using Bliss Fruit to control all gangs and sects, and that Yama dwarf had really become the emperor of Great Qi’s back. It was practically preposterous!
Dai Shengyan abruptly started struggling, and the Leading Mechanism Wire on his neck nearly cut him. The assassin was greatly startled and hastily pressed him down, scolding in a low voice, “Don’t move!”
Shen Jue glanced at Dai Shengyan; Dai Shengyan was looking at him with an anxious gaze. He silently returned the gaze and clasped his hands. “For such a big matter, why did you come to discuss it with me? To be honest, I also have some means, and I know almost all of your Garan’s matters. I’ve heard of your Garan’s Yama long ago, though unfortunately I have only heard the name but not seen the person. Normally, I am at least the grand governor of the Eastern Depot and the number one of the Directorate of Rites, what, do I not to deserve to see your Yama?”
Duan Jiu said, “If you want to see the Yama, Chief Officer, it is not impossible. If you agree to cooperate with Garan, you’ll naturally be Garan’s honored guest. Even Garan’s mountain hall would be open to you. However, the Yama is feeling unwell today, so they didn’t come. I, however incompetent, have the honor to be above the Eight Legions of Garan, so discussing this matter with me is just as effective.” Duan Jiu pulled out a yellow paper from his sleeve and gave it to an assassin next to him. The assassin held the paper and walked down, handing it to Xiahou Lian. “If you agree, Chief Officer, let’s make a contract. You and I will each have a copy. How about it, Chief Officer?”
After making a contract, signing his name, and putting his thumbprint, if he wanted to deny it in the future, announcing this contract to the world would be enough to ruin his standing and reputation at once. Shen Jue furrowed his brow as he looked at the contract, each word and sentence like blades suspended above his head.
“Young Master,” Xiahou Lian suddenly called in a low voice.
Shen Jue didn’t even look up. “Shut up, stop bothering me.”
“You also have a bargaining chip.” Xiahou Lian used a voice only the two of them could hear to say, “Garan has always wanted to catch me. Hand me over in exchange for Mr. Dai.”
“A-Lian,” Shen Jue took a deep breath, calmed himself down, and looked up at Xiahou Lian, enunciating, “If you dare to say half a word in a bit, see how I’ll deal with you when we get back.”
Xiahou Lian: “…”
Shen Jue looked back down and thought rapidly; he definitely couldn’t easily give them this leverage. Yama, Yama. He recited Lord Yama in a low voice; that person hiding behind Garan was a half-sized dwarf, and he hadn’t expected that they would be this formidable. The Yama controlled Bliss Fruit prescriptions, so they were Garan’s lifeblood. That dwarf wasn’t willing to show their face no matter what; exactly why was this? Could it be that their identity was their fatal weakness?
If he could know Garan’s fatal weakness and pin each other down, there may still be a chance to fight.
“Chief Officer, how is your thinking going?” pressed Duan Jiu.
Shen Jue folded the contract, smiled coldly, and said, “If you want me to agree, I can.”
Duan Jiu nodded and smiled.
Shen Jue was about to continue speaking, but a shout suddenly sounded. “Hold on!”
Duan Jiu furrowed his brow and looked over; it turned out that Dai Shengyan had spat out the cloth in his mouth. Dai Shengyan saw that he was about to order for him to be gagged, so he hastily said, “My life is in your hands. I only want to teach my disciples a lesson, what can letting me say a few sentences do?”
“It’s not too late to teach when you get home.” Duan Jiu smiled.
“If you don’t let me speak, I will hang myself when I get home.” Dai Shengyan took a breath and said, “Xie Jinglan, if I hang myself, what use will signing this contract be?”
Shen Jue gritted his teeth. “Sir!”
Duan Jiu said helplessly, “As long as you won’t take your own life, go ahead.”
Dai Shengyan looked at Shen Jue and said warmly, “Jinglan, you child, why is your will so weak? Did you forget what I taught you at the time?”
His tone was still kind and gentle as always, yet these words alone made Shen Jue speechless.
In any case, surrendering was surrendering, and even if they fought again in the future, it couldn’t erase him betraying the imperial court and betraying the affairs of Great Qi. But how could he helplessly watch Mr. Dai die? Shen Jue clenched his fists and said, “Sir, I am sorry. In the future, I, Jinglan, will willingly receive punishment.”
Dai Shengyan still wanted to speak, but Duan Jiu sighed. “Sir, don’t say any more words of persuasion, you’re making this difficult for me!”
Dai Shengyan smiled. “Okay, okay, I won’t. Then let me talk about my origins with Garan.”
Duan Jiu was slightly surprised. “Oh? You have origins with Garan?”
“Yes.” Dai Shengyan was talking to Duan Jiu, yet he looked at Xiahou Lian. “If I haven’t guessed incorrectly, it was me who gave Xiahou Lian, who rebelled against your Garan, his name. Dare I ask if Xiahou Lian’s mother was the Garuda in the Xuanhe period?”
Duan Jiu nodded. “That’s right, his mother was the twenty-eighth Garuda, Xiahou Pei.”
“Then I’m not incorrect.” Dai Shengyan said, “At the time, I was sent to serve in Jiangzhou, and I happened to run into the Garuda assassinating the king of Jiangzhou. I overestimated myself and lifted my saber against the Garuda. The Garuda defeated me with one blow and said that if I named her son, she wouldn’t take my life and would allow me to draw her portrait for an arrest warrant. I saw that her saber was named Hengbo, so I recalled a poem: beyond the boundless green fields, a reflection falls upon the glittering waves.”
Xiahou Lian was stunned. This poem was one of the few he could recite, because his mother had told him that he was named after it. He had even thought that his mother seemed like she only knew martial arts, but it turned out that she specially had ink in her stomach. For a time, he had been impressed by his mother, but he hadn’t expected that Mr. Dai had named him.
Dai Shengyan continued, “I have also seen this child Xiao Lian before. When Jinglan was still in the Xie clan, Xiao Lian followed him in recognizing me as his teacher. This child had a pure nature, willful and bold, and he was quite chivalrous. Unfortunately, fate plays tricks on people. Many years later, I heard stories of Garan’s Nameless Ghost committing countless murders with a heavy blood debts. I never would have imagined that this assassin was Xiao Lian at the time.”
Xiahou Lian was taken aback, and he lowered his head slightly. Mr. Dai had a keen mind; with just a few words from Duan Jiu just then, he had guessed his identity and even understood that he had to cover for him. He clenched his fists and didn’t make a sound.
Shen Jue furrowed his brow, not understanding why Mr. Dai would say these at this time.
Duan Jiu shook his head and sighed. “I didn’t expect that you have seen Xiahou Lian before. However, he defected from Garan long ago, and his whereabouts are unknown. Garan has pursued him for a long time but has gotten nowhere.”
“When I lectured, Xiao Lian would be mischievous and often skipped class to play secretly, and I never admonished him strictly. I also need to take responsibility for him making such a grave mistake.” Dai Shengyan sighed lightly. “Mr. Duan, do you know what the line after ‘beyond the boundless green fields, a reflection falls upon the glittering waves’ is?”
Duan Jiu replied, “I don’t know.”
“‘In the distant cold mountains without roots, the pass of Zen enlightenment is seen amid the whirling wind and frost.’” Dai Shengyan’s eyes were lowered, his gaze as gentle as water. “Among all living beings, who is not suffering? I, Dai Shengyan, lost my father at a young age, experienced strong gales in the deep winter, walked for miles to attend school, lost my wife when I was middle-aged, had a poor career as an official, was sent to serve in Jiangzhou, lost my son in my later years, and stood alone facing cold lights. But I have my Zen. Although the road is full of hardships, I also have an indomitable spirit and look back without regret. Jinglan,” he paused and seemed to call “Xiao Lian,” “where are your Zens?”
This question was too, too heavy. Shen Jue and Xiahou Lian both couldn’t answer, and their throats seemed to be bound by rusty iron rings, making them unable to speak. Dai Shengyan gazed at the two young men and said, “As a teacher, I have never feared being a cold cicada, buried underground for a long time. Instead, I fear that I will walk in the dark my entire life, never seeing the sun. If I can see the daylight in this life, so what if I die?”
Duan Jiu furrowed his brow coldly and said, “Sir, you have said quite a lot. Chief Officer, have you finished thinking?”
“Not a lot, not a lot.” Dai Shengyan smiled lukewarmly. “There is still one thing left that I haven’t said. At the time, ever since I lost to the Garuda, I have paid close attention to exercising, and I even learned some clever tricks. For example…” he reached his hands out from behind his back, “untying oneself.”
Duan Jiu was abruptly shocked. An ominous feeling surged in Shen Jue’s and Xiahou Lian’s hearts, and they wanted to run over.
Duan Jiu shouted loudly, “Gandharva!”
Dai Shengyan smiled silently, his old and lowered eyes filled with a clear light, a clarity Shen Jue and Xiahou Lian had never seen before. He turned abruptly and used his hands to tightly grip the Gandharva’s hand that was pulling the Leading Mechanism Wire. No one would have expected that such an old man would have such shocking speed, and before the Gandharva reacted, the old man leaned back forcibly. The sharp Mech Wire pierced the skin of the old man’s neck and came out from the other side. The old man’s head separated along with it, tumbling down from that withered body. Blood splashed out, drenching the Gandharva’s head and face.
Time seemed to slow, and Shen Jue watched helplessly as Mr. Dai’s head fell midair and rolled onto the ground. His hair crown fell to the ground, his pale hair coming loose, unusually bright underneath the moonlight.
At that moment, the world seemed to lose its sound, and he couldn’t hear anything. He seemed to lose the ability to think and could only feel extremely deep sorrow surging in his chest, like torrential tidewater, practically drowning him. However, not even a single tear could flow out; he could only look blankly at that head that gradually became colder, the moonlight covering it like frost and snow, wind and dust.
In the deathlike silence, Duan Jiu’s sharp shout sounded for the second time. “Gandharva!”
The assassin leapt up, the whistling of his blade tearing through the wind like the wail of a ferocious ghost. Xiahou Lian stepped forward to block Shen Jue, slightly crouching down. Before his eyes, the sharp blade was coming headon!
Xiahou Lian drew his saber out of its scabbard.
The goose quill saber brushed past the assassin’s blade, slicing out an arc as desolate as the moon. Then, it chopped down with unparalleled speed. With the extreme swiftness and ferociousness accompanied by a sly angle, the blow from the goose quill saber seemed to chop mountains and seas, and the assassin’s blade instantly cracked into two pieces.
Japanese saber • Quick-Draw Saber Technique.
The Gandharva wanted to retreat, but it was already too late. A black saber reached out, brushing past the side of Xiahou Lian’s waist, and pierced into his abdomen. Blood flowed out with patters along the blood groove, and the Gandharva looked down in disbelief, seeing the inscriptions on the black saber’s blade. “Jingtie…”
Shen Jue impassively sent the saber even closer, the sounds of the saber tearing through flesh sticky and bloody. The Gandharva’s body trembled violently and his mask fell down, revealing a young man’s face. The white porcelain mask made a crisp sound on the ground as it broke into two pieces. The sound of the blades meeting was like a signal, and a battle arose in the distance in response, the sounds of hand cannons like thunder. Firelight abruptly appeared in the bamboo forest like stars, swiftly approaching Shen Jue’s direction; they were the troops of the Divine Machine Battalion who had been waiting outside the bamboo forest.
The old man’s headless body had fallen among the withered grass, blood seeping into the icy mud.
Duan Jiu had already submerged into the darkness, his voice sounding distantly along the wind.
“Chief Officer, we will meet again.”