It was completely quiet in the hallway, and nobody else was present. When I peered around, all I could see was a lifeless darkness with no end in sight.
Lines of ice crept bit by bit toward me along the floor, and even my breaths came out in puffs of white mist. In front of me was a wooden, beige-colored door with a little glass window set in it. I could see the classroom through it, dyed a warm yellow from the setting sun.
Unlike the darkness I was in, that place seemed cozy and bright. Two teenagers wearing school uniforms sat in the very center of the room… locked in a wanton kiss.
At this hour, there shouldn’t have been anyone else in the classroom. “Everyone is gone, so I won’t be discovered”; that was my thought process, so presumably, that was theirs as well. The love that they couldn’t reveal and had to suppress during the day could finally be fully divulged here in this quiet classroom.
The teenager with his back to me was slender, and his right hand was propped weakly against the chest of the person in front of him, as if he was incapable of bearing the brunt of such a passionate kiss and wanted to push the other person away. However, before he could do anything, the other teenager grasped his pale wrist firmly, encompassing it entirely in a wheat-colored palm, not giving him any chance to refuse.
Not only that, the other person also sunk his fingers into the smaller teenager’s ink-black hair, constantly tightening his grip and forcing their kiss to deepen even further.
Veins snaked across strong arms, and the outlines of his bulging muscles were sleek and beautiful, brimming with power. The taller teenager’s hair was cut very short, making it seem both stiff and prickly, but also exceptionally neat. His eyebrows were dark and elongated, causing his eye sockets to appear particularly deep in contrast.
Clearly, they were wearing the same school uniform and were the same age. But while one of them still exuded the fragile air of a youth—even from behind—the other one had already started showing the makings of a “man.”
My lips opened and closed fruitlessly. My voice was stuck in my throat, and not a single sound came out.
This name was like a taboo; I couldn’t even say it properly in my dreams.
I watched him—I watched as he reveled in that sweet kiss, as tenderness softened his entire face. Even though we were only separated by a single door, it felt like we were in two entirely different worlds.
Suddenly, Ran Qingzhuang’s eyes flashed open, as if he had sensed a third party spying on them, despite being immersed in intimacy just a moment earlier. His ice-cold, piercing gaze shot straight towards me, like a fierce beast that had discovered its prey, and his intimidating, alert expression scared me into hastily backpedaling.
A second later, the ice underneath my feet shattered with a loud crack, and I plummeted into the darkness.
“Number 47 Ji Ning, number 47 Ji Ning, please come to Room 1 for your consultation.”
I opened my eyes. My heart was racing fiercely, as if it was about to leap out of my chest at any second.
I was still a bit muddle-headed from being abruptly woken up, and I sat there for a while to recover. It was only when they began calling my name for the second time over the broadcast system that I quickly got up and entered the nearby Room 1.
An older doctor sat in the consultation room. He wore gold-rimmed glasses and had a very kind appearance. He was one of Chonghai’s best neurosurgeons, and he was also my attending physician, surnamed Wu.
“Xiao Ji, has your head still been hurting lately?” As he spoke, he pulled out two CT scan images from the bag I handed to him. He inserted the photos into the X-ray film viewer next to the desk and started examining them closely.
“It hurts occasionally, but it stops after about ten seconds or so. It isn’t too hard to endure.” I sat across from him and recalled bit by bit the recent changes in my health. “It’s just… I’ve noticed that my memory has worsened. There are a lot of things that happened in the past which I can’t remember very clearly anymore.”
For example, all of a sudden yesterday, I couldn’t remember the name of the senior high school I had attended no matter how hard I tried to recall it. Even though it was clearly on the tip of my tongue, I just wasn’t able to say it. Panicking, I overturned everything and searched for my graduation photo for a long time, only to remember in the middle of the night that the photo was back at my old home. I hadn’t brought it to Chonghai at all.
Doctor Wu gripped his pen and gestured in a circle over the image. “The tumor hasn’t grown any larger, which is good. But considering how dangerous its location is, there’s still a risk that it could ‘explode’ at any moment. Have you made your decision yet? Will you proceed with conservative treatment, or will you undergo surgery?”
This wasn’t my first time coming to see him. Half a month ago, he had already distinctly explained the two paths to me—conservative treatment: although I didn’t know when I would die, at least I could still lead a decent life for quite a few more days; surgical treatment: although it gave me a fighting chance at survival, it was highly likely that I wouldn’t even be able to leave the operating table.
“If I choose conservative treatment, how much time do I have left?” I asked, staring at that blurry, circular shadow on the CT scan.
Doctor Wu hesitated briefly before he said, “At most, half a year.”
Half a year. Perhaps I could hang in there until my little sister finished her college entrance exams… I could also take advantage of this period to earn some more money and cover the cost of her university. That way, even once I was no longer here, my mom wouldn’t be too worried about money.
“Then half a year it is. That’s enough time.” I said.
Doctor Wu nodded. “Your forgetfulness and headaches are most likely caused by the tumor. Since we can’t remove the origin of those symptoms, all I can do is prescribe some painkillers for you. Your illness will become more severe as time progresses, so make sure to exercise a lot and stay free from worries. Perhaps that can help alleviate it somewhat.”
After thanking him, I put the CT scan images into my bag and left the consultation room, holding the file containing my medical history. As I was walking out, the next patient squeezed impatiently into the room, accompanied by their family members. The patient was extremely thin and pale, and they appeared to be shockingly haggard.
I unconsciously substituted myself into their shoes and felt a bit apprehensive. Maybe I would also end up looking like that in the future.
Right after I returned to my apartment, Fang Luosu called and reminded me not to forget about tonight.
I glanced in passing at the cello resting in the corner and said, “We’re meeting at six tonight at the pier, I remember.”
Fang Luosu and I were both cellists in the same symphony orchestra. She was clever and knew many different people, so sometimes when our orchestra didn’t have any performances going on, she would accept a few private events on her own—providing musical accompaniment at a cocktail party, livening things up at a wedding reception. If she needed more people, she would pull me in too every now and then so that I could also make some extra cash.
“Did you tell Nan Xian yet?” I asked.
Nan Xian was my university classmate and a Chonghai local. He returned to Chonghai after graduating from college, whereas I happened to come to Chonghai for my job. He had always been the extremely friendly type, so when he saw that I was all alone in a new city, he often invited me out for meals or hikes. Occasionally, he also came to listen to our concerts, and over the course of time, he and Fang Luosu fell in love and got together.
Strictly speaking, I could be considered their matchmaker.
Nan Xian didn’t end up joining an orchestra after graduation. Instead, he became a cello teacher at a youth organization. His personality was warm and kind, while Fang Luosu was bright and candid; they were especially well matched, and their relationship had always been very solid. Once upon a time, I used to think that they were the epitome of love.
That was all the way up until two weeks ago, when I discovered Fang Suolu having an affair.
That day, I accidentally lost a little trinket that was attached to my phone. My younger sister was the one who had given it to me, and while it wasn’t anything particularly valuable, it held quite a bit of sentimental value to me. So when I discovered that it was missing, I immediately started recalling all the places where it could’ve possibly fallen off. In the end, I remembered the theater’s changing room.
In order to check whether or not I had dropped the keychain in the changing room, I turned around and went back to the theater, even though I was already almost home.
Thick carpet covered the floor of the hallway, and it created no noise at all when you stepped on it. The door to the changing room was cracked ever so slightly open, allowing ambiguous sounds to drift out from inside.
My hand, which was about to wrap around the door handle, drew back like it had been electrocuted. I stared at the narrow gap in the doorway, bewildered and uncertain. It was just a few noises, but I felt like the female voice inside the room sounded a bit familiar.
“Lao Xin, this time… no matter what, it should be my turn now, right?” The woman’s voice was a breathy mess, and it lilted seductively at the end.
I wasn’t a security guard at the theater, so it didn’t matter to me who wanted to seek a thrill inside the changing room. I should’ve left at that point for the sake of not inviting trouble. But because I wanted to confirm if the woman inside was Fang Luosu, not only did I stay, I even held my breath and continued to eavesdrop.
“Don’t worry, you’re definitely going to be the new principal cellist.” The man panted roughly as he said vulgarly, “My precious darling, since I’m doing so much for you, you better please me properly tonight.”
After receiving the man’s promise, the woman seemed to be in an extremely good mood, and she let out a flirtatious hum.
“I knew you’d be good to me…”
I had never heard Fang Luosu sound like that before. My stomach turned abruptly, shock mixing with disgust, and I essentially bolted out of there with a hand propped against the wall for support.
That nauseous feeling only receded bit by bit once I was outside and breathing in fresh air.
Not long ago, the symphony’s former principal cellist had resigned due to some personal reasons. As for who would become the new principal cellist, both Fang Luosu and I were among the candidates in the symphony who were held in the highest regard for that position.
I knew that Fang Luosu was very ambitious and wanted the position, but I didn’t think that she would actually go that far to get it.
There was no way I could go back to find the keychain now, so I went home instead. After tossing and turning for an entire night, I went to work listlessly the next day. As I was tuning, Fang Luosu arrived in front of me with a smile and extended her hand. A tiny yellow lemon dangled from her fingers.
“You left this in the changing room yesterday. I saw it and picked it up for you,” she said.
She didn’t seem to feel any guilt whatsoever.
Lowering my eyes, I took the keychain and stuffed it into my pocket. “Thanks.”
Fang Luosu: “No problem.”
She turned around to walk away.
“Actually, I did go back to search for it yesterday. Congratulations on becoming the new principal cellist.”
My bombshell came out of nowhere and caught Fang Luosu completely off guard. Even now, I still remember her panicked appearance and how the blood drained from her face entirely when she looked back at me.
I gave her a choice—either I would tell Nan Xian, or she could do it herself. She chose the second option. However, two weeks had already passed since then, and she still hadn’t done a single thing about it. I wasn’t sure if she was purposefully dragging it out, or if she truly was having a hard time broaching the subject with Nan Xian; perhaps both were true.
“Give me a little more time.” Fang Luosu’s voice was a bit obstructed over the phone. “It’s not that easy to bring up this sort of thing. I love Nan Xian, I don’t want to see him suffer…”
I interrupted her. “I’ll give you one more week.”
Whenever she showed her affection for him before, I was always happy for their sake. But now, I only felt that it was ironic and even unbearable to listen to.
Fang Luosu paused before she said weakly, “I understand.”
Humans were born inferior by nature. The slightest carelessness was enough to send us spiraling down the wrong path. Like a discordant note that was played incorrectly, any deviation would instantaneously destroy this song called “Life.”
Starting from birth, we should be carefully considering every decision we have to make. That was what my mom had taught me since I was young, and the negative example she gave was also exceptionally persuasive—my dad, Ji Xueguang.
When I was eight years old, my dad found himself a mistress while my mom was pregnant with their second child, and he frequently met up with the mistress in private under the pretense of working overtime. With her big belly, my mom would always wait for him late into the night. She thought that he was working hard to support the family, so she even stewed quite a bit of nourishing soup for him during that period of time.
Perhaps she had nourished him a bit too much. Those comfortable days didn’t last long before he suddenly suffered the wrath of the heavens. Due to a little too much excitement, he ended up dying in the middle of sex on the mistress’ bed.
How absurd, how utterly shameful.
My mom didn’t even hold a memorial service for him. Instead, she directly cremated him and dumped all of his ashes into the ocean.
She started to believe in religion after that, and she was always going on about things like the causality of karma. In addition, she gradually grew more and more extreme when it came to her children’s education. She was severely strict, and we weren’t allowed to make any mistakes; as if by doing this, she could prevent our fundamentally “inferior” genes from causing mischief.
I didn’t become religious with her, but after listening to her for so many years, my ideologies did end up assimilating somewhat. I didn’t believe in anything else, but I did believe in “retribution.” If you did something wrong, you would be subject to retribution; you reap what you sow.
So, you had to do your best to make things right, to improve upon them before they became “even worse.”
At six in the evening, I arrived punctually at the pier, dressed in performance wear with my cello on my back.
By the time I arrived, Fang Luosu was already there, chatting with the other people on the pier. When she saw me, she made her way over of her own accord and naturally introduced the other members of this temporary, small-scale orchestra to me. I shook hands with each of them and gave a simple self-introduction. Soon after, the crew members in charge of ferrying us to our destination arrived as well.
Even though the crew members were all dressed very formally in suits and dress shirts, large stretches of tattoos could be seen on the exposed skin of their arms and necks. Various eyebrow, lip, and nose piercings also adorned their faces, revealing the unusual nature of these people.
“Is everyone here? If so, let’s go, don’t waste time.” The young, unusual-looking crew member counted the number of people present. After he confirmed that everyone was there, he brought us onto a white yacht moored nearby.
The yacht was extremely spacious and decorated luxuriously on the inside. There were barely any bumps as it sped along the surface of the ocean, and there wasn’t an unpleasant scent of diesel fuel either.
“Are we going to that legendary ‘Lion King Island’ today? Do you think we’ll encounter any of those classic movie situations, like human trafficking, an arms deal, or a gambler’s hand being chopped off?” a young woman asked Fang Luosu in a whisper. She hugged her violin close to her and shot a glance at the closed cabin door.
“You’ve seen way too many movies. It’s hardly going to be that extreme.” Fang Luosu said, amused, “There is a casino on the island, but it’s on the east side, and we’re not going there today. The Jin family lives in the ancient castle on the other side of the island. I’ve been there a few times before this, and I haven’t encountered any murder, arson, or mysterious events. They’re more or less the same as any typical wealthy family.”
“But typical wealthy people don’t have this many henchmen working for them…” The girl shot a meaningful look towards the bow of the yacht.
The Jin family?
I paused in the middle of wiping my glasses and asked, “Helian Group’s Jin family is hosting tonight’s banquet?”
Even though I wasn’t from Chonghai, I had heard a lot about the Jin family. In university, Nan Xian always liked to share the Jin family’s gossip with us.
On the surface, Chonghai’s Jin family operated the city’s largest casino—Helian Resort. But there were always rumors that they were colluding with numerous politicians, engaging privately in unclean business transactions, and building an extravagant money empire on a small island far from Chonghai. Like termites in wood, they were emptying out this country bit by bit from the inside.
To the average Chonghai citizen, the Jin family was essentially synonymous to “mysterious and wicked.” Even the people who worked for them were labeled as “lackeys,” a term of address filled with loathing.
“Relax, it’ll be fine. Today is Mrs. Jin’s birthday banquet, and many notable figures will be there. It won’t be dangerous at all.” Fang Luosu could see that I was concerned, and she spoke to appease me.
Ever since I found out that she was having an affair with Director Xin, I had started to grow skeptical of every word that came out of her mouth. On top of that, my right eye had been twitching nonstop since we got on the boat, so even with her pledge, I still wasn’t reassured.
Fortunately, the yacht ultimately reached the shore without a hitch. After undergoing a strict security check, our group arrived at the castle’s ballroom.
We rehearsed twice before the banquet promptly began at eight. All the guests appeared to be dignified and… ordinary, just like those ladies and gentlemen who came to listen to music at the theater. It was impossible to tell that they were important figures who could stir up trouble in every territory with a mere twitch of their fingers.
Unlike our performances at the theater, we were only here to act as background music. Not many people were earnestly listening to us, so I also spaced out a little as time went on, and I started to peer around curiously.
The banquet was being held in the Jin family’s castle. Allegedly, this ancient castle was centuries old, but I didn’t know which dynasty’s king had left it behind, because I wasn’t listening too closely when we were walking inside. I only heard our guide say: “Even today, the castle is still perfectly intact in its original form, including the dungeons…”
We weren’t lucky enough to visit the dungeons, but it was evident from the ballroom that the castle was indeed preserved considerably well. You could even catch a glimpse of the bygone royalty’s lavish lifestyle through the sumptuous decorations adorning the room.
A multitude of enormous floor-to-ceiling arched windows lined one side of the long and narrow ballroom. Meanwhile, the opposite wall was embedded with mirrors that were the same exact shape as the arched windows. The ceiling too was covered with clearly reflective brass. When all the crystal chandeliers were turned on, their light illuminated the brass ceiling and mirrors, turning the entire ballroom into a dazzling, glorious sight—as resplendent as a crystal palace.
Just as I was marveling at the exquisite opulence of the ballroom, the thick and heavy doors at the entrance of the room opened once again.
Everyone unconsciously looked in that direction. After they saw who the arrivals were, many people raised their wine glasses and started making their way towards them.
Judging from the state of things, it seemed that today’s stars had arrived at the scene.
The performance stage was raised a little off the ground. As a result, I was able to observe the situation at the entrance without any impediments.
The couple at the front was most likely the head of the Jin clan and his wife. The man looked cultured, refined, and somewhat scholarly. Even though he was already in his fifties, his age wasn’t reflected much on his face. The woman had long, wavy hair, and she appeared to be slightly younger than the man. At most, she was forty years old, and she was very beautiful.
A young man in his twenties followed close on their heels. He had an elegant, graceful appearance, as if he had combined all the best parts of the Jin couple’s features. However, there was a faint air of impatience on his face, and his brows were furrowed, making him seem quite unapproachable. He held a little chubby child by the hand; the child was about seven or eight years old and looked rather similar to the young man. It was clear at first glance that the child was the young man’s little brother.
Nan Xian once told me that the Jin family had two sons. I couldn’t remember what the older one was called, but the younger son’s name was particularly delightful: Jin Yuanbao1.
Two men followed the family into the room, shoulder to shoulder. One was bald and had an eyebrow piercing in the shape of a silver ring, while the other one…
The other one… was tall and broad, with chiseled facial features. Unlike all the other neatly- and appropriately-dressed attendees, he only wore a white tank top underneath his suit jacket, making him seem almost too much like a troublemaker. His hair was cut quite short, and it appeared to be stiff and prickly. He didn’t seem to be in a very good mood.
He surveyed the interior of the ballroom once before he swiftly left again without staying for long. His eyebrows were knitted together slightly, as if he wasn’t especially fond of locations with a lot of people.
When I saw him disappear in the doorway, I shot to my feet. Utterly disregarding the fact that I was still performing, I started to chase after him, but before I could straighten up completely, a sudden, severe headache forced me back into my seat.
This tumor could’ve acted up at any other moment, yet it just had to do so now?
I propped a hand against my forehead, in so much pain that cold sweat rapidly covered my palm.
Chaotic, fragmented scenes from my memory flashed before my eyes: wheat-colored arms, well-defined joints, muscles filled with explosive energy…
And that bone-chilling line: “I don’t want to see you ever again, Ji Ning.”
The face that had already become blurry in my memories gradually sharpened once more because of that unexpected reunion.
“…Ji Ning? Are you okay?” Noticing my strange state, Fang Luosu stopped playing and leaned over to ask how I was doing.
My head was still somewhat dizzy, but it didn’t hurt anymore. “I’m fine, my stomach just aches a little. I’m going to the restroom, I’ll be right back.”
I set down my bow. Without waiting for Fang Luosu’s response, I stood up and started walking quickly towards the entrance of the ballroom.
(press the “^” to go back to your spot in the chapter!)
- Jin Yuanbao (金元宝) literally means gold ingot (sycee). ^
Yan: New (but also somewhat old) pit! This is my favorite HNQ novel, so I’m very happy to finally be sharing it. (I would read my review on NU if you want a more in-depth description about who I think would enjoy this story.)
Updates will be sporadic – I do have some chapters already translated, so those will probably be uploaded once a week or so until I run out. Feel free to join the Tiny Salt discord for updates! I’ll also be going with BXXD as the abbreviation for this novel rather than IBN (秉性下等/Bing Xing Xia Deng), just because I like it better. Use whatever you want! Thanks for stopping by 🙂