Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
It had just rained, and the cobblestone road was wet. The human trafficker forced the children to squat and huddle together under the eaves as they waited for the maids inside the manor to take them. Xiahou Lian was among the crowd, and he occasionally scraped the mud off from his feet. There was something firm on the side of his ankle. It was a dagger, given to him by Uncle Duan before he left, to use for self-defense.
He was good-looking, especially his eyes that were like his mother’s and which sparkled like stars that filled the night sky. On the way here, young girls had often tried to strike up a conversation with him, but he completely ignored them.
In his view, he was different from those girls. They had long hair but little knowledge, and all they knew was to be sold into Xie Manor, where they could receive food and clothing. Those who were a little scheming wanted to climb into their masters’ beds. Xiahou Lian was different. He was the youngest assassin in Garan of Seven Leaves 1. He hadn’t come here to become a servant, he had come to kill.
He casually rested his head on his hand, his gaze sweeping around. It was early morning, so the alley was deserted and quiet, save for a few beggars who were lying down at the street corner and dozing off.
Xiahou Lian thought, There must be someone from Garan among those beggars. After he successfully got into Xie Manor, someone outside would throw in a paper slip, telling him the target of the assassination. Someone might even come to his window in the middle of the night to tell him where Garan’s mole was.
Although he had never participated in one of Garan’s assassinations before, his mother’s bedtime stories had always been like this——the Garan assassin would come and go like a shadow, conceal himself and blend into the background, and carry out the assassination undetected.
He had stayed on the mountain for twelve years, practicing the saber under his teacher. In his free time, he would hunt pheasants and chase hares. He had finally had the opportunity to come down the mountain to take part in an assassination. Uncle Duan had said that if he succeeded this time, he would hang a plaque with his name engraved on it in Garan, making him a true assassin. Although he had never competed with others, his mother was Garan’s best assassin, and he was his mother’s son, so he would inevitably become the best assassin as well.
As the human trafficker walked over and counted the number of children, Xiahou Lian obediently kept his head down and held his breath quietly.
All assassins were inconspicuous like this.
Two nursemaids and a few other maids opened the door and stepped outside. The trafficker plastered on a smile and greeted them. "They’re all here, and all of them are good, hard-working children. Each one is five copper coins, which is Jinling City’s 2 cheapest price."
The lead nursemaid made the children line up before checking them one by one. After confirming that none of the children were injured or missing any limbs, noses, or eyes, the nursemaid bargained with the trafficker for a bit before leading the children into Xie Manor.
Xiahou Lian’s hearing was keen, and he heard the trafficker weigh the taels in his hand and mutter to himself, "How stingy!"
The maids and nursemaids were wearing shabby clothes, and only the clothes of the lead nursemaid were in better condition. She wore a jade bracelet on her wrist, whereas there was even a patch in the robes of the woman in the back.
"Hey, you over there with the grey coat, come here." Hearing this sudden call, Xiahou Lian looked up and saw that the lead nursemaid was pointing at him.
Xiahou Lian walked over, and the nursemaid pushed him toward the woman with the patch in her robes, saying, "This kid looks pretty smart, you can take him back with you to use. Don’t say that I don’t treat the third young master well."
"Nursemaid Liu, please give me another one. Not long ago, the madam transferred two girls away at the same time, and so there is only me and a young maid left in our court, which is not enough." The woman’s face was sunken, and her lips were dry and walnut-like, as if they had been wrinkled from being submerged in bitterness.
The nursemaid scoffed, "The third young master is just a kid, how many people does he need to serve him? Do you think that everyone in the manor should go to serve your third young master? Xie Manor is so big and people are needed everywhere. You should be happy that I’m giving you one of these children that I just bought. How dare you be so ungrateful and ask for more?"
"No, no, please calm down, one is enough." The woman hastily bowed and apologized before holding Xiahou Lian’s hand and walking away.
There were a lot of calluses on the woman’s hand, which rubbed against Xiahou Lian’s hand and hurt it. However, Xiahou Lian was already used to it, since his mother’s hands were even more coarse from wielding sabers 3 for so many years.
"In the future, call me Aunt Lan. What’s your name?"
"Xiahou Lian," he answered timidly, so as to keep up his obedient front.
"The Lian in ‘beyond the boundless green fields, a reflection falls upon the glittering 4 waves.’"
Aunt Lan glanced at Xiahou Lian in surprise and said, "You can even recite poems?"
Xiahou Lian was startled. He had forgotten that the kids who were sold by traffickers all came from poor families. They could probably barely even read, let alone recite poems. He hastily lied, "I’ve heard other people say it before, so this is the only line I know."
Aunt Lan smiled. "It’s good to know poems. Our Young Master Jinglan loves to read, so if you can recite some lines, perhaps he’ll be pleased. Are you literate? Have you read the ‘Hundred Family Surnames’ or the ‘Thousand Character Classic’?"
If erotica and saber scrolls are considered books, then… "I’ve read a little, and I can write my name."
Aunt Lan patted Xiahou Lian’s hand and smiled warmly. "That’s already very good. I myself only know how to read a few numbers."
On the way, they passed by many servants and maids. Aunt Lan would always either stop at a distance and salute them, or avoid them by taking a detour. The servants and maids paid no attention to Aunt Lan, and Xiahou Lian couldn’t help but sympathize with her.
"I heard that the master is returning tomorrow, so the madam is very happy. We’ll have to be quick to tidy the master’s room today." Two girls were talking, and Aunt Lan bowed as they neared, though they merely brushed past her.
"Are you sure she’s happy? I heard the master offended Eunuch Wei and got dismissed from the palace. Let’s be careful, lest something bad happens."
"Why would the master go and offend Eunuch Wei? All for nothing."
Their voices faded in the distance, and Xiahou Lian continued walking with his head lowered. A round-faced maid who looked to be around thirteen or fourteen years old walked up to them and said, "Aunt! I’m here to escort you back. Eh, how come you brought back a little boy?"
"Come, Xiao Lian 5, this is Lian Xiang-jiejie 6," said Aunt Lan.
"Lian Xiang-jiejie," Xiahou Lian greeted obediently.
Lian Xiang glanced at Xiahou Lian and said unhappily, "What can a little boy do? We’d have to take care of him anyway. The madam is taking it too far. Everyday, we need to sweep the manor, wash clothes, and weed the gardens. Does she think we can be in two places at once?"
Aunt Lan stopped Lian Xiang and shook her head. "Never mind, don’t say that, we three are enough to serve the young master. Ah, what are you doing outside? How could you leave the young master inside by himself?"
"It’s okay, the young master is still napping."
Aunt Lan was worried, so the three of them quickened their pace as they rushed to Qiuwu Courtyard 7. As they rushed through the entire manor, Xiahou Lian noticed that the surrounding scenery was getting more and more dilapidated. It took them tens of minutes 8 to arrive at a side door of Qiuwu Courtyard. Before they entered, the three of them heard a commotion inside, as well as a shout.
"Give the book back to me! Give it back!"
Aunt Lan and Lian Xiang rushed inside, and Xiahou Lian followed them. The lonely courtyard was a mess, and a teenage boy was pressed down on the ground by a few servants, his face covered in dirt. A fat, white-faced boy was standing to the side, his nose and ears like shiny, round meatballs. Since coming to the manor, everyone Xiahou Lian had seen was skinny, probably because all of the fat content in the manor had been consumed by this person.
The youths in Jinling had a habit of putting on makeup, and the fatty seemed to have a very deep self-awareness of his own appearance. He had also put on rouge and powder, though it was a little excessive. Xiahou Lian was several steps away from him, but the smell of the face powder overwhelmed his senses, making him dizzy.
"What do you mean, give it back to you? This book was originally mine, and even if I don’t need it anymore and threw it outside, it’s still mine. Who let a bastard like you pick it up and read it?" The fatty tore the book apart and said viciously, "You think someone as stupid as you can read? What, do you want to take the imperial examination? You want to become an official? Keep dreaming, you son of a bitch, you’ll only ever be my lowly servant!"
"I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you! Don’t insult my mother! Don’t insult my mother!" The youth struggled with all of his might, his face red and his eyes bloodshot.
Lian Xiang and Aunt Lan knelt down, kowtowing nonstop and crying, "Young Master, please let go of the third young master, please let him go!"
"Get out of the way! Servants, search this entire courtyard and see if he’s hidden any of my other books. Find all of them and destroy them!"
The servants ransacked the area, and practically the entire court building was turned inside out. Even the toilet paper 9 in the latrines had been torn apart, leaving a pile of paper scraps on the ground. There were barely any books, and even along with the toilet paper, they merely formed one small pile.
The third young master stared blankly at the pile of shredded paper and slowly looked up, his gaze focused coldly on the fatty. "One day, if I make it to the top, I’ll personally make sure you die without…"
Before he could finish, a servant kicked him onto the ground and laughed. "Do you really think you can make it to the top? No one can change your fate of rolling around in the mud!"
Xiahou Lian was crouching near the wall. He felt resentful, and his hand unconsciously touched the dagger in his shoe. However, when he thought about it again, he stopped himself. Assassins couldn’t expose themselves. He forced himself to move his hand away and shrank like a quail.
The fatty squatted down in front of the third young master and picked up a piece of paper from the ground. He grabbed the third young master’s face with his left hand and used his other hand to stuff the paper into his mouth. The third young master kept struggling, but the servant held him down tight and laughed when he saw him cough uncontrollably. Aunt Lan and Lian Xiang wanted to rush over, but they were stopped by the other servants and could only watch with red eyes as the third young master laid on the ground.
"Xie Jinglan 10, listen up. At the time, your whore of a mother climbed into my father’s bed when he was drunk and had you. You’re just a bastard, yet you’re under the delusion that you can study to become an official? Just give up already. My mother only gave you the title of young master to save your face, and if you don’t behave, I’ll make you and your mother scrub the toilets."
The fatty sprinkled paper scraps onto his head, and they landed on his face like snowflakes. The group laughed as they sauntered away.
Aunt Lan and Lian Xiang helped Xie Jinglan up and dusted him off, their eyes filled with tears.
"How could the first young master bully you like this? He didn’t want these books anymore, which is why our third young master picked them up from the storehouse, yet the first young master tore them apart like this." Lian Xiang was indignant, but when she saw Xie Jinglan pursing his lips without saying anything, she softened and said, "Young Master… Why don’t we stop studying, ah, we don’t have paper or ink, and now even the books are gone. It’s best to give it a rest."
Xie Jinglan ignored her. Aunt Lan brought over a broom, about to sweep away the paper scraps on the ground. Xie Jinglan stood up and stopped her, saying, "Don’t sweep it up, gather them and put them in my room. I can still stick them back together."
"But they’re so shredded, and several books are mixed together. Can you really stick them back?"
"Yes, I can."
"Right, Xiao Lian, whom I brought back today, is literate, so he can help you. Xiao Lian, where are you? Come here and greet the young master."
When Xiahou Lian heard this, he hastily ran over, clumsily bowing with his hands folded toward Xie Jinglan. Only at this close distance did Xiahou Lian see the little young master’s appearance clearly. Although his face was covered in dirt, it didn’t cover the exquisiteness between his brows. The corners of his eyes seemed to have been brushed by a brush pen, as they were angled slightly upwards, outlining his elegance. However, his face was pale and sickly, as if he didn’t get enough to eat.
It turned out he was a sissy; no wonder he hadn’t been able to fight back. All of the men in Garan had strong bodies and bulging muscles when they took off their clothes. In his time on the mountain, the men Xiahou Lian had seen were all well-trained and toughened from arduous training in life-and-death situations. He had never seen such a delicate little young master, and he instantly looked a little down on him.
Xie Jinglan looked up and glanced at Xiahou Lian. Seeing his dishevelled hair and the grey and black smudges on his face akin to a muddy monkey, he couldn’t help but frown and say, "What is this? I don’t want him, take him back."
Xiahou Lian: "…"