Chapter 3: Jade-Like Beauty
Xiahou Lian wasn’t used to his new bed, so he didn’t get a good night’s sleep. He got up at daybreak and opened the door to see that the light in Xie Jinglan’s room was on. Xiahou Lian brought in a cup of tea and saw that Xie Jinglan was sitting at his desk, holding a scroll, and that the candle on his desk was almost burned to the bottom.
This guy didn’t read the entire night without closing his eyes, did he?
Xiahou Lian’s guess was right; Xie Jinglan had sat there the entire night. The books he had picked up in the past were either missing pages or corners, or they had been filled with Xie Jingtao’s messy and nonsensical annotations, so this was his first time getting such a good scroll. He had read the entire night, and he savored the parts he understood while rotely memorizing the parts he didn’t, finishing most of the book.
He was like a poor person, hungry and thirsty, when it had just rained after a long period of drought. He practically wanted to swallow the entire book.
Xiahou Lian didn’t dare to disturb him, so he slowly left the room and went to the kitchen to get a tray. He carried the tray around, pretending to be a busy servant as he strolled around the manor.
The first task of a good assassin was to get familiar with the terrain and plan the best assassination and escape route.
When he was younger, he would follow his mother down the mountain and follow behind her while surveying their surroundings. Although she had maps that Garan’s spies had provided, his mother would always want to personally walk through the streets, ditches, wells, and secret warehouses.
Xie Manor was very large, at least five times the size of Garan. Xiahou Lian walked for a long time before reaching the outer wall, and seeing that there was no one around, he climbed over it. Right when he landed, a large hand covered his mouth and picked him up. Xiahou Lian turned around to see that it was actually Uncle Duan, whom he hadn’t seen in a long time.
Xiahou Lian became excited, as Uncle Duan must have come to assign him a mission.
"Brat, haven’t you gotten punished in there yet? Look at you, you’re like a monkey, and you can’t behave yourself even when you’ve become a servant." Uncle Duan gave him a few steamed buns to eat and lit a cigarette for himself, opening his mouth to blow out several floating smoke rings.
"Uncle, hurry up and tell me who I should assassinate, I guarantee that I’ll do it cleanly and beautifully!"
"You think a weakling like you could assassinate someone? It’ll be good if you can just stay alive. Behave yourself in there and don’t get into any trouble. I have something to do, so I’ll need to go to North Zhili. Your mother went to the Western Regions, and she’ll only return more than half a year later. Stay here, and if there’s trouble, find an old man in the manor who carries firewood," exhorted Uncle Duan as he gave him two taels of silver.
Xiahou Lian finally understood, and he said angrily, "No way, didn’t you say that if I succeeded this time, you would hang up a plaque for me? It turns out you just found somewhere for me to stay so I won’t get in your way!"
"What do you mean, hang up a plaque? You’re like a prostitute in a brothel, you think hanging up a plaque will make you better? With your clumsiness, you won’t even get near someone before you get sliced up." Uncle Duan poked his head. "You brat, this is for your own good, do you think it’s very easy to be in our line of work?"
"I want to be like my mother, a mighty assassin that everyone is terrified of!"
Uncle Duan shook his head and looked at Xiahou Lian for a while before sighing. "You’re old now, so it’s time I tell you the truth. Do you know what your mother is doing on this trip?"
"Assassinating the Chakravarti of the Western Regions. I know it all, I’ve seen his documents. He’s proficient at using mechanisms and poison, unorthodox, and his skill with the machete is stylish and unparalleled. But so what? Now that he’s fallen into my mother’s hands, he’ll be dead like the others."
"Then do you know that the two assassins Garan has already assigned to kill him have both fallen to him? The Western Regions are very far, and there are unpredictable sandstorms. It’s very different from the Central Plains. Even though your mother’s saber skills are outstanding, there is only a one in ten chance of her surviving." Uncle Duan had dropped his joking demeanor, as he rarely did. Seeing his solemn expression, Xiahou Lian felt a little perturbed. "This transaction of human lives has always been work where one’s head hangs on their belt, and many assassins have exchanged their life for a life. Let me ask you, have you seen an assassin in Garan over the age of forty? It’s not because Garan doesn’t take in older assassins, it’s because most of them can’t even live to that age!"
"N-Nonsense! My mother is different, she reached the position of ‘Garuda’ at the age of twenty. Weren’t the leader of the Golden Saber Sect and the successor of the Blizzard Saber Sect in the North both the best of the best? Yet upon encountering my mother, were they not killed?"
"Right, right, your mother is the greatest, I won’t argue with you. Anyway, it’s enough if you’re clear about your own ability. With your current saber technique, you can hunt pheasants and rabbits, and maybe even deal with tigers or leopards, but forget about assassination. I’ll wager that if you start assassinating with your current skill, you definitely won’t live past the age of twenty. Your mother entrusted you to me, so if you dare to seek your own death and die, don’t expect me to burn incense paper for you!"
After saying this, Uncle Duan put on his straw hat and picked up the shelf of goods he had placed next to the wall. In the blink of an eye, he had turned into a peddler, and no one could tell that he was an assassin from the martial arts world 1 who killed people without even blinking.
Xiahou Lian watched his back recede. He had broad shoulders and a sturdy build, and the thick cloth of his shirt couldn’t conceal his bulging muscles. When he wielded a saber, he was a strong and capable Garan assassin. Once, he had pursued the Senior Grand Secretary at the time for thousands of miles 2, and the Embroidered Uniform Guard [/efn_note]Imperial secret police that served the emperor.[/efn_note] had tightly enclosed the inn the Grand Secretary had been staying in, only for the innkeeper to open the door the next morning and see the Grand Secretary’s headless corpse. No one knew how he had snuck into the inn, nor how he had taken the Senior Grand Secretary’s head.
Every assassin had their own story, and they also had the same ending——an untimely death and burial in a remote location
At this moment, Uncle Duan was carrying the shelf of goods and walking on the cobblestone road. There was a hole in one of the straw shoes on his feet, revealing his coarse big toe. For some reason, Xiahou Lian detected a hint of desolation in him.
He stored the taels into the fold of his clothes and kicked a rock on the ground. Xiahou Lian put his hands in his sleeves and went to Longfu Temple Street in the western suburbs to buy brushes, ink, paper, and inkstones. He had never been one to save money, so he spent the silver Uncle Duan had given him just then like water, leaving only a few copper coins behind.
When he returned, he saw that there was a chariot in front of Xie Manor and knew that the master had already returned. He returned to Qiuwu Courtyard retracing his earlier path and gave the brushes, ink, paper, and inkstones to Xie Jinglan.
Xie Jinglan was speechless in surprise, and Xiahou Lian felt proud, waiting for him to be grateful and moved to tears. Unexpectedly, Xie Jinglan grabbed his hand and said sternly, "Where did you steal these from? You have to get rid of this bad habit!"
"How do you know I stole it?" Xiahou Lian was just about to protest, but he thought again. Buying the entire set of brushes, ink, paper, and inkstones had been quite expensive, so if he said that he had bought it, he would also have to explain where his money came from. Thus, he could only say dejectedly, "Okay, I stole it, so what?"
"You!" Xie Jinglan was so angry he didn’t know what to say.
Xiahou Lian rolled his eyes. "Don’t worry, no one saw me and you won’t get implicated. Just relax and use them."
Xie Jinglan was even angrier. After Xiahou Lian had taken the risk to steal books for him yesterday, he already unwittingly regarded Xiahou Lian as one of his own. He was worried that Xiahou Lian would be caught and have his hand broken as punishment, rather than scared that he himself would get implicated. He hadn’t thought that Xiahou Lian would be so audacious as to sneak out, and had only thought that he had stolen it from inside the manor. The madam was as vicious as a snake and had a sharp tongue, as well as greedy and stingy. If she had caught Xiahou Lian, he wouldn’t have been able to escape a severe whipping.
Xie Jinglan had a difficult personality, and he tended to be stubborn and hard-headed. He simply couldn’t say mushy things to express his concern for others, so he said angrily, "Yes, I’m scared that you’ll implicate us! It’s already hard for us to make any progress in this manor, and if you cause trouble, I’d like to see how you would clean it up! I won’t use these things, and this better not happen again!"
Xie Jinglan gathered the brushes, ink, paper, and inkstones and hid them under a cabinet, making up his mind to let them gather dust there. Xiahou Lian’s kindness had been taken for ill intent, and not only did he feel sorry for his two taels of silver, he felt miserable and angrily went to the yard to work, the two of them ignoring each other.
Lian Xiang suddenly ran into the courtyard happily, exclaiming, "Young Master! Young Master! I have good news to tell you."
"What good news?"
"Just now, the master was in the study checking on the first young master’s homework. Can you guess what he found?"
He already knew without guessing that he must have found the erotica Xiahou Lian had put on his desk.
Lian Xiang was too excited to wait for Xie Jinglan’s response, so she said it first. "The master actually found an erotica wrapped in the cover of the ‘Book of Rites!’ The master was very angry, and he personally whipped the first young master, who was frightened out of his wits. Even the madam couldn’t talk him out of it. Hahaha, now the first young master won’t be able to bother us, I heard the master whipped him for an entire hour. I’m afraid the first young master won’t even be able to get out of bed."
Xie Jinglan opened the window and saw Xiahou Lian washing clothes next to the well. He hesitated as he wondered whether he should apologize to him or not. Just as he was feeling conflicted, Xiahou Lian suddenly held up a pair of underpants and turned his head, looking at Xie Jinglan with malice.
Xie Jinglan saw that the underpants looked very familiar, and he hastily turned around and opened a drawer. He saw that the underpants that had been in them were no longer there; Aunt Lan must have taken them.
Just then, Xiahou Lian said slowly and irritatingly, "Young Master Jinglan, did you wet your pants last night?"
"Xiahou Lian, shut up!" Xie Jinglan shut the window with a ‘bang.’
Xie Jinglan ignored Xiahou Lian for three entire days, though Xiahou Lian didn’t think too much of it. He did his job as usual, in the meantime stealing from a bird nest that was next to Qiuwu Courtyard.
He felt delighted; Xie Jinglan was also a hypocrite. See, he had only taken a few glances at erotica, yet his thoughts had been awakened. Xiahou Lian hid this little secret in his heart, and every time Xie Jinglan made a face and lost his temper, he would think of this to amuse himself. Along with his natural tendency not to take things to heart, he easily dealt with Xie Jinglan’s foul temper.
As for Xie Jinglan’s personality, he felt that he already knew it clearly.
This guy had the temper of a missy, and the more one pampered him, the more spoiled he got.
First of all, he was infuriatingly obsessed with cleanliness. His clothes must be washed clean without any stains in them, and his tableware must be scrubbed to the point that one could see their reflection in it, and washing them any less than four or five times wouldn’t pass his standards. Secondly, after he was done eating and had nothing else to do, he would actually mind that Xiahou Lian chewed with his mouth open, didn’t wash his hands before eating, and didn’t rinse his mouth after eating.
Xiahou Lian was used to being a slob. In the past, how could there have been this many rules on the mountain? Besides, he was a male, and an accomplished man didn’t bother with such trifles. Fussing about whether his clothes were neat or not and whether he ate properly or not was very naggy. He didn’t understand Xie Jinglan’s efforts to improve his propriety, nor did he understand his pursuit of gentlemanly conduct. He only felt that Xie Jinglan was purely asking for trouble and naturally made a big deal out of nothing.
But who made him into only a servant? And he was Miss Jinglan’s personal servant as well, so he had to spoil him even when he clearly shouldn’t spoil him. Xiahou Lian summarized his experiences into a resolve that when he got married in the future, he definitely couldn’t marry someone like Xie Jinglan.
On the third day of ignoring Xiahou Lian, after Xie Jinglan ate dinner, he returned to his room to read, as usual. When he opened the scroll, surprisingly, a small golden flower was in it. Contrasted with the yellowed pages, it was very pretty.
"Do you like it?" Xiahou Lian poked his shaggy head in from the window.
Xie Jinglan picked up the flower and said with a disgusted expression, "It got flattened, it’s so ugly."
"Ahh, but I walked a long distance and spent a lot of thought on choosing it out. This flower represents my feelings for you, Young Master Jinglan!" Xiahou Lian said, putting on an aggrieved act.
When Xie Jinglan saw his exaggerated appearance, he felt uncomfortable, so he turned away, not looking at him.
"Let’s talk business. The master didn’t return by himself this time, he brought back someone else. You’ve probably heard of him before, Dai Shengyan. You know him, right?"
Xie Jinglan opened the scroll and replied casually, "Mn, I do. He’s my father’s teacher, and he’s the Qiyuan era’s 3 twenty-eighth top scholar 4. He was selected to be a Shujishi [/efn_note]A title for select members of the jinshi rank (people who passed the imperial exams).[/efn_note] and is a Honglusi Chief 5. He has students all over the world, and he’s praised as the Hanlin Chief Examiner 6."
"Exactly, Honglusi Chief is the fourth rank, which is a lot better than your hypocrite of a father." Xiahou Lian jumped in from the window. "He’s looking to accept a disciple, and tomorrow, he’ll be in the Lanfang 7 Pavilion to test the knowledge of the Xie clan’s children one by one. Young Master, this is a good opportunity, so we have to think of a way to sneak in."
Xie Jinglan had originally wanted to reprimand Xiahou Lian for jumping in through the window, but when he heard that Dai Shengyan was looking to accept a disciple, he widened his eyes. Dai Shengyan had always valued talent and didn’t hesitate to step down to let the bright younger generation shine. If he could become his student, then Xie Jinglan’s life would be a lot easier.
However, he was worried. "I’ve never actually been in school, and I’ve only overheard a few lectures before. I haven’t even finished reading all of the books. Can I do it? Moreover, since it’s been exposed that I’ve been secretly studying, the madam will definitely have already made preparations. I’m afraid I won’t even get to see Mr. Dai."
Xiahou Lian put an arm around Xie Jinglan’s shoulders and smiled. "It doesn’t matter if you can do it or not, we’ll just go and give it a try, since it’s no skin off your back. As for that madam, I’ll naturally have a way to deal with her."
When Xie Jinglan saw Xiahou Lian’s confidence in his plan, he couldn’t help but feel a little suspicious. "Xiahou Lian, why… why are you trying so hard to help me?"
Because I’m kindhearted! Xiahou Lian thought immediately. Just as he was about to say it out loud, he turned and saw that Xie Jinglan was looking at him earnestly. His eyelashes fluttered lightly like wings, and his cheeks were as white as fine porcelain, with thin vellus hair growing on them.
Xiahou Lian had lived for twelve years, and he had never seen such a handsome young man. He grinned. "Who made my Young Master Jinglan so good-looking? I can’t help but feel affection for you upon seeing you, and you bewitch people in one glance! I, Xiahou Lian, am willing to climb a mountain of sabers and plunge into a sea of fire for you!"
Xie Jinglan held his forehead; he shouldn’t have asked.