Thank you to Tan for the Ko-fi!
Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
Before Zhang Lan left the residence, she made the bodyguard, Xiao Hei, divine her fortune.
Xiao Hei earnestly did as instructed and said, “The Disperse hexagram: prosperous. The suppositious existence of an ancestral shrine will benefit a monarch when fording a wide river and upholding unswerving loyalty.”
Facing a window, Zhang Lan lined her lips with a blood-like lipstick. “I didn’t specialize in divination, so don’t use that fortune-telling nonsense with me. Put it in plain-speak.”
Xiao Hei explained, “It means that as long as a sovereign personally pays a visit to an ancestral shrine, it will greatly aid in overcoming crises, along with staying true to yourself and the correct path.”
Zhang Lan: “…I’m only going to visit someone, why’re you blowing it so out of proportion with all this sovereign stuff? Just tell me if it’s auspicious or inauspicious.”
Xiao Hei: “Auspicious.”
Zhang Lan muttered, “How come I don’t believe that at all?”
The window was opened from inside. Looking at his older sister’s bloody maw, Zhang Yalin debated whether to splash the tea in his hand onto her face. “You clearly have a mirror in your room, why are you always so fond of drawing on lipstick in front of my window?”
“This is called a touch-up. You don’t even know how to phrase things nicely, what a waste of an education.” Zhang Lan faced Xiao Hei and pulled her lips back in a smile. “Does it look good?”
Xiao Hei respectfully praised, “It is a blessing to have a large mouth, for it is advantageous to becoming proficient in the ways of the world.”
Zhang Lan: “…”
Zhang Yalin choked on a mouthful of tea, causing his entire face to go bright red. Perhaps he thought it was a disgrace to his refined image, or perhaps he couldn’t hold back his laughter any longer. Either way, he shielded his face and started to walk away, only for Zhang Lan to grab ahold of him.
“Give Xiao Hei an inspection sometime. For some reason, I feel like his fortune-telling has become more and more inaccurate these days,” Zhang Lan said.
“You don’t understand the art of divination, so don’t blame my puppet.” Zhang Yalin said, “I borrowed one of Bu Ning’s spiritual items to make him, you know. How inaccurate could he possibly be?”
One of Chen Budao’s direct disciples, Bu Ning specialized in divination and array-casting, since he had a natural disposition for them. He was also another unmentionable ancestor. Zhang Lan pondered a bit and said, “You either bought another fake, or there’s something wrong with your puppet-making skills.”
Though Zhang Yalin thought that his blood sister was spouting pure nonsense, he restrained himself for the sake of his cultured upbringing. “You said it yourself, you’re just going to visit someone. Do you really need to divine your fortune and bring my puppet along? It’s not like you’re about to meet some particularly powerful figure.”
The person that Zhang Lan was about to visit was none other than that Shen family disciple, the one that couldn’t even make it on the name register mural.
She planned on having him join the patrol team, partly because it was easier to keep an eye on him that way, and partly because it would provide her with more opportunities to test him out.
After all, in the modern age, the Zhang family presided over most of the panguan-related affairs; she had to at least act the part.
“It’s mainly because my eyelid keeps twitching today, so I don’t feel reassured.” Zhang Lan said, “Besides, all the people on patrol duty have already made it onto the name register mural, which is why it’s still a little out of the blue for me to seek him out using this as an excuse. If he’s aware of the mural requirement, he could disregard me completely.”
“The Shen family’s old man isn’t even here anymore, those two juniors are the only ones left.” Zhang Yalin said, “It’s not like they’re usually in contact with the other families either, so how would they know all this? As long as there isn’t anyone well-informed with them—”
‘Aren’t you just intending to trick them however you can anyway?’ was written very obviously across Zhang Yalin’s face.
“Also, how could they possibly ignore you? When it comes to patrol duty, who isn’t fighting for a chance to take part in it?”
Zhang Lan thought, That’s true.
With the way she bluffed people, it shouldn’t take more than a minute for her to resolve a little inexperienced noob.
“Wanna come with me?” Zhang Lan invited.
Zhang Yalin sipped his tea, looking uninterested. “No thanks.”
Zhang Lan said irritably, “All you ever say is ‘no thanks, no thanks.’ You might as well change your name to Zhang No Thanks. Don’t you worship the puppet patriarch, Wen Shi? You don’t want to meet his progeny?”
Zhang Yalin was unmoved. As he lit a stick of incense and went to pay his respects to the wooden box, he tossed behind him, “He has plenty of followers, each generation more than the last. If you’re so skilled, let me meet the actual person himself. I’ll kneel the entire way over.”
Zhang Lan rolled her eyes and said to Xiao Hei, “Let’s go and swindle a handsome guy.”
Before she left, she had checked with Zhang Biling.
Apparently, those two brothers were the only ones staying in the large Shen villa. It was isolated, deserted, and empty, as if it was of no importance to anyone else, making them seem quite pitiable.
Young people like them, whose existence was easily overlooked, needed to be acknowledged more than anything else. Who didn’t want to get on the name register mural as soon as possible and win some honor for their ancestors?
That was why Zhang Lan expected the meeting to go like this—
Since she was the face of the Zhang family, her taking the initiative to visit the Shen home represented a type of importance and recognition in itself. Those two brothers would undoubtedly be a little moved, and they would invite her in.
Respect aside, they would at least feel happy and welcoming.
After that, everything would proceed as anticipated.
She would toss out an olive branch, they would hastily accept it, and this matter would then be settled.
As a result, she stood in front of the Shen villa’s door bright and early in the morning and pasted on a fox spirit’s smile. Right after she knocked on the door and called out “hey handsome, good morning,” she came face to face with a sickly Xie Wen.
The fox spirit’s smile instantly cracked.
“What a coincidence, why are you here?” The fox spirit felt like she had seen a ghost, but she still had an aura to maintain.
As everyone knew, Xie Wen wasn’t close to anyone. It was always other people going to find him at Xiping Gallery, and nine times out of ten, you wouldn’t even be able to see him there. There was no such thing as him going out to visit other people.
For him to actively pay someone a call—that was basically the same as red rain falling from the sky.
Zhang Lan didn’t really want to get drenched in this red rain today.
Because despite the fact that Xie Wen was an amateur who rarely entered cages and couldn’t undo them either, he understood the current established practices very well. In any case, he knew the ins and outs of the “patrol duty” she was here to talk about.
With this guy present, like hell Zhang Lan would be able to dupe anyone.
She felt like she had picked the wrong time to drop by. Even if she had to come back in a few hours after Xie Wen left, it would be better than entering the house right at this moment.
What a great fortune you divined for me!
Zhang Lan shot a glare at Xiao Hei and decided to make up some excuse to leave.
Unexpectedly, that idiot Xiao Hei misunderstood her and thought that she was just being lazy again, so she wanted him to do the work for her. Consequently, he said rhythmically to Xie Wen, “Is it convenient for us to come in and discuss something?”
Zhang Lan: “…”
Actually, it isn’t very convenient for me.
Xie Wen didn’t notice the stiffness of her smile, or perhaps he saw it and deliberately pretended like he hadn’t. His gaze swept over the two of them before he stepped aside and said, “Come on in.”
Zhang Lan thought, You really do know how to make yourself at home, as if this is your own house or something.
Xiao Hei, the traitor, closed the door behind them. While surveying the interior of the room, Zhang Lan started plotting silently in her head. Since she was already here, she might as well chat a little.
She could wait until Xie Wen, this plague god guest, was sent away before she broached the main topic. It wasn’t like she had any important business today anyway, so she had ample time to spare on seeing who could out-dawdle the other.
“This is my first time coming here,” Zhang Lan said.
“This is actually my second time,” Xie Wen answered casually as he headed deeper into the house.
Looks like we’re in the same boat then. Neither of us are more familiar than the other.
Zhang Lan felt a bit more at ease.
She subconsciously followed Xie Wen, preoccupied with thoughts about how the two Shen family brothers truly were strange. They let Xie Wen, a guest, roam around the house freely, while they were nowhere to be found.
Were they in the bathroom?
Or did they go upstairs?
Typically, if they were in the middle of discussing something, it wouldn’t be cut short like this. So judging from the situation, they were already finished? Then didn’t that mean Xie Wen was about to leave?
Zhang Lan was even more reassured, and she smiled as she said, “Did you have some business with these two brothers? You really came by quite early.”
“Not particularly.” Xie Wen came to a stop in front of one of the rooms on the first floor and knocked on the door. He said to the person inside of it, “They’ve already come inside, are you still planning on lazing around?”
After he was done, he turned around and said to Zhang Lan, “I’m not here to visit them. I live here.”
Zhang Lan: “?”
You what here???
A second later, someone pulled open the tightly shut door, and Shen Qiao’s handsome disciple appeared behind it.
That tired energy around him hadn’t disappeared yet. His thin eyelids drooped down, making him seem naturally indifferent and aloof when he looked at someone.
Brows furrowed, he said, “Who’s here so early in the morning?”
Xie Wen shifted to the side and revealed Zhang Lan, who was half-obstructed by him earlier.
Even though the Shen family disciple pressed his lips together and politely swallowed down what he wanted to say, Zhang Lan could still see the remnants of it lingering on his face: Why is it you again?
Zhang Lan thought, What am I trying to get out of this…
Wen Shi indeed didn’t know what this woman was trying to get out of this.
He turned off the air conditioning in his room and tossed the remote onto the bed before he gave a somewhat unenthusiastic “wait a moment.” Then he went into the bathroom and grabbed his toothbrush along with his cup, which he began silently filling with water.
Getting ready after waking up was, in fact, a very private affair. The Great Lady Zhang was fairly tactful, so she obligingly went back to the living room with the bodyguard, Xiao Hei, and sat down on the couch to wait.
Shoulders hunched forward, Wen Shi propped a hand against the edge of the sink. As he watched the water slowly fill his cup, his peripheral vision was focused on the door—Xie Wen was still standing there. For some reason, he hadn’t left with Zhang Lan.
He could sense that Xie Wen was looking at him, and that made him a little uncomfortable.
Because half a minute earlier, after he closed the door in Xie Wen’s face, his unexpected first instinct was to change out of his sleep-wrinkled T-shirt and pants.
At the time, piercing rays of light were filtering in through the window, forcing him to narrow his eyes. As he walked away, barefoot, from the wardrobe, he had unconsciously raked his hair back a few times.
But his right hand had grasped onto nothing except for the short strands of hair on the back of his head. It was only then that he realized something: a moment ago, he wasn’t attempting to brush back his hair because he felt like his bangs were in the way. Instead, he was trying to bind his hair.
It was as if time had reversed back to some unknown year in the past, when he had to endure his overwhelming grumpiness each time he got out of bed for the sake of tidying himself up before going to see a certain person. Otherwise, he would end up having to bear the brunt of another round of teasing and joking.
Most likely because of the disorientation brought about by that intact but blurry dream, Wen Shi was dazed for several seconds. Frowning, he stood in the dazzling sunlight all the way until someone knocked on his door again, after which he finally snapped out of it and went to answer the door.
Meanwhile, the hair that he had raked his hand through fell scattered in front of his eyes, even messier than it had been previously.
Wen Shi set the water cup down on the marble counter. When he reached out to grab the toothpaste, he glanced up at the mirror just in time to meet Xie Wen’s eyes through the reflective surface.
However, it only lasted a second before Xie Wen averted his gaze and left for the living room.
It seemed like he was only looking this way because he was abruptly lost in thought, ruminating over some unrelated matters and nothing more.
Once Wen Shi was done washing up, Lao Mao and the twins had already come downstairs.
With a bird’s nest on his head and a reddened face, Xia Qiao rummaged through the kitchen. Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao were actually quite skilled, and they took the jar of tea leaves that Xia Qiao unearthed before they poured Zhang Lan a cup of tea, as if they were taking care of a customer in the shop…
Then they obediently sat in a row next to Zhang Lan on the couch, completely occupying all the space that she had specially left for Wen Shi.
There was an unpleasant look on the Great Lady Zhang’s face.
At first, Wen Shi was still a little residually grumpy, so he wasn’t in that great of a mood. But when he saw that crowded, chaotic scene, he paused in the middle of rubbing his throat and suddenly felt the faint urge to laugh.
His smile disappeared in the blink of an eye. By the time he settled down in the armchair, he had regained his usual cold appearance, though his throat was turning a bit red because of his kneading.
“Is there something you need to discuss with me?” he asked Zhang Lan.
“Yes, there is.” With a face of heavy makeup on, Zhang Lan chuckled a few times before she seemed to suddenly remember something. She said to Xie Wen, “Oh right, weakling, isn’t your Xiping Gallery going to open for the day soon?”
The meaning behind her words was very obvious.
But Xie Wen responded calmly, “There’s no rush, I can sit here for a while longer.”
Zhang Lan: “…”
If this person insisted on playing dumb, Zhang Lan couldn’t just sit here and stare at them all day long either. Beating around the bush was useless; she might as well get right to the point. “It’s like this. That day, Ling-jie… oh, I mean, Zhang Biling. She and her son both praised your performance in the cage, which made me quite surprised.
“I’m close to Ling-jie, so first of all, I wanted to thank you. Second, I also wanted to extend an invitation to you.”
Wen Shi: “Invitation for what?”
“Patrol duty. It’s more or less considered a daily routine that has to be performed by those in our line of work. Basically, different people are in charge of different areas every day. This way, if there’s a cage anywhere, it can be found and resolved as soon as possible in order to prevent even more innocents from being dragged in. When I encountered you guys that night, I was on duty.”
It was true that this was an unfamiliar phrase to Wen Shi, but the intrinsic nature of it was actually like new wine in an old bottle.
Back in the earliest days, panguan always found, entered, and undid cages based on their personal desires and abilities. If they ran into each other, they would work together. If not, they would do it on their own.
Later on, some people started putting the cart before the horse, and the focus was no longer on undoing cages. Instead, the emphasis became using cages as a method of cultivation. Gradually, the ideas of delineating territory and competing for cages emerged.
But that was all fairly vague, and only a portion of people behaved in such a way. It wasn’t something they acted openly on either.
Eventually, the respective families grew stronger and stronger, and entire clans started engaging in that type of secretly competitive behavior, not just singular people. The moment a community was involved, “competition” developed into “coordination.”
Naturally, the so-called coordination appeared to have its benefits—for example, each family would occupy a stretch of land; there wouldn’t be any overlap, nor would anything slip through the cracks.
However, in the end, each region had its own unique circumstances. As a result, with the passage of time, those people who still wanted to compete honed in on the power provided by coordination instead of a certain piece of territory.
The strongest family would always have the final say.
Patrol duty was clearly a concept that the Zhang family had created using such logic.
Wen Shi had seen this kind of thing take place in quite a few reincarnation cycles. Even with the guise of a new name, they couldn’t trick him into doing it.
This was also why his branch rarely had any contact with the other families.
Wen Shi swept a look across that long name register mural, ultimately landing on the colorful honorable founder portrait placed next to it.
Sunlight from the courtyard permeated through the checkered window and reflected off the surface of the painting, turning the appearance of the portrait subject indistinct and fuzzy. Abruptly, Wen Shi recalled the dark red and white layered robes from his dream…
If that person from his dream was still here and heard about the things going on in today’s world, perhaps he would find it all quite absurd and ridiculous.
Zhang Lan was still explaining, “Of course, Zhang family members aren’t the only ones patrolling. There are participants from each family, and every living panguan is included. Nobody is left out, which is why I came to find you two.”
She felt like she had phrased her explanation pretty well. It wasn’t overly enthusiastic, since that would only make her seem fake. At the same time, it relayed a message to these two brothers: Maybe the name register mural doesn’t recognize the two of you, but we do.
Anyone would be a bit touched by this, right? Zhang Lan thought.
She noticed that the teenager called Xia Qiao already seemed to be a little moved, as his expression had changed. Very satisfied, she turned to glance at the one called… the handsome guy she didn’t know the name of, except he wasn’t even looking at her. Instead, he was staring at the wall.
Zhang Lan: “?”
Was the wall better-looking than her???
“So what do you two brothers think? Do you want to join?” She coughed and cast her gaze back on the emotionally moved Xia Qiao. However, Xia Qiao merely blinked and looked silently at his brother.
Then, his brother directed his line of sight away from the wall and said flatly, “No.”
Great. What a waste of my lipstick.
Her Great Ladyship thought to herself.
She still wanted to try and persuade him a little more.
But the handsome guy spoke again. “Your family has a lot of members, you all can patrol on your own. Is there anything else?”
Zhang Lan: “…”
Right as he said that, Wen Shi heard someone laugh nearby. It was low, throaty, and a bit faint.
Wen Shi turned his head just in time to see Xie Wen stand up from the couch. A smile glimmered in his eyes as he said to Wen Shi, “Alright, I won’t listen any longer, I’m starting to get sleepy from this conversation. It’s getting quite late, and I have some business to take care of, so I’m going to make a trip to Xiping Gallery.”
Zhang Lan thought, Why the hell didn’t you do that earlier?!
The laughter in Xie Wen’s eyes disappeared as he looked up. With an indifferent expression on his face, he swept a glance over the name register mural before he headed for the front door. Lao Mao and the twins stood up as well; they bid a farewell and followed after Xie Wen.
“Why are you following me?” Xie Wen said.
Lao Mao: “?”
Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao were also startled. They said in unison, “To go to the shop.”
Xie Wen gazed at them calmly.
Several seconds later, the twins suddenly let out an elongated “oh—” before they quietly retreated back to the couch. They sat down again next to Zhang Lan and smiled at her.
There was no way Zhang Lan could stay here any longer.
In the end, these were simply two newcomers from the younger generation. No matter how difficult it was to estimate their skill levels, it still wasn’t worth her time to try so hard to curry favor with them. It was enough that she brought it up at all. If they didn’t want to join, then so be it.
She stood up and said her goodbyes to Wen Shi and Xia Qiao before she also got ready to leave. As she reached into her purse for her car key, she grabbed onto a talisman.
“Oh yeah!” Pinching the talisman, Zhang Lan asked Wen Shi, “There’s really something wrong with my head. I talked for such a long time, but I kept forgetting to ask—what’s your surname and given name?”
Wen Shi blurted out the first word that came to mind. “Chen1.”
As soon as he said that, he felt like something was off.
Almost all panguan were oversensitive to the syllable “chen.”
After he spoke, everyone in the room froze and stared at him. Even Xie Wen, who already had one foot out the door, glanced towards him.
Zhang Lan: “Which Chen?”
Wen Shi: “…”
Wen Shi: “Ear-east Chen2.”
“Oh, a good surname,” Zhang Lan said. “What about your given name?”
Wen Shi: “The Shi from time.”
He was too lazy to bother changing that.
Zhang Lan: “Chen Shi.”
She repeated it out loud as she rolled up the talisman between her fingers. “Got it. Well, I’ll talk to you two another time then.”
The instant Zhang Lan got back to her car, she received a call from her little brother, Zhang Yalin. “How’d it go?”
Zhang Lan: “Fuck that extremely auspicious divination.”
Zhang Yalin: “Don’t use profanity, it’ll ruin your elegant image.”
“Since when have I ever been associated with elegance.” Zhang Lan said, “Right now, I’m seriously suspecting that Grandfather Shen Qiao didn’t teach them anything at all. Patrol duty is such a great thing, yet they actually replied with a ‘no’!”
She copied Wen Shi’s cold tone of voice before she released the talisman she was holding in her hand.
Zhang Yalin knew her quite well. “I heard the sound of a talisman paper.”
Zhang Lan said, “I asked him for his name, and I also got a strand of hair from his clothes on my way out. It’ll be easy to keep an eye on him now. I’ll tell the juniors on daily patrol duty to be on the lookout for him and to enter the cage with him if he does go into one, so they can scope things out. It shouldn’t take much effort.”
The talisman that she released could be used to pursue a relevant trail. Usually, people used it to find lost items, and it could float outside for numerous days without any issues. It could also covertly monitor that “Chen Shi.”
After releasing the talisman, Zhang Lan sped away in her car and went to take care of some other business. She didn’t spare another thought on this matter.
An hour later, that talisman shot straight into the Zhang residence and smacked flat onto Zhang Yalin’s window.
Zhang Yalin tugged it off the glass, his face covered in question marks.
In the Shen villa, Wen Shi stood in front of the fridge, locked in a staring contest with Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao. Similarly, his face was also covered in question marks.
“Why are you two following me and not Xie Wen?” he asked, puzzled, while popping open a can of iced cola.
“Boss doesn’t need us today.” Da Zhao said.
“We’ve been abandoned,” Xiao Zhao chimed.
“He has to take care of something, and he only brought Lao Mao with him,” Da Zhao said, aggrieved.
“So we can only follow you.” Xiao Zhao started getting into it, and her eyes instantly reddened.
“Seniority really is everything.” Da Zhao’s eyes also reddened.
“We’re just too young.” Xiao Zhao had already begun shedding tears.
Wen Shi: “…”
He felt like Xie Wen had left behind these two girls for the sake of messing with him.
What kind of trivial matter requires you to be so picky.
Wen Shi roasted Xie Wen internally.
Xie Wen, who just arrived at Xiping Gallery, leaned against the back door and coughed a few times before he lifted two fingers and beckoned.
A moment later, a man wearing a black hooded jacket walked over from afar. Like a ghost, he went from being several hundred meters away to being close by in the blink of an eye. Another second passed, and he was standing in front of Xie Wen.
Belly sticking out, Lao Mao let out a confused noise. “Isn’t this the jacket that Xiao Zhao accidentally bought the men’s version of?”
Xie Wen: “In any case, it’s not like she wanted it, so I borrowed it.”
The first time he went to the Shen home, this was the jacket that was draped over his arm. At the time, he had borrowed the huigu’s spirit-sniffing abilities to discover Wen Shi’s whereabouts. Xie Wen’s original intention was just to take a look at Wen Shi before departing; he planned to leave behind a clothing puppet to take care of Wen Shi from a distance.
Unexpectedly, the right person was found, but his soul was missing.
The purpose of the clothing puppet, which was supposed to be in charge of looking after Wen Shi, unavoidably changed. Xie Wen coaxed Wen Shi into believing that he had lost the jacket on the mountain, while in reality, he had deliberately dispatched it.
From the moment this puppet opened its eyes, it started roaming around and stealthily searching for traces of Wen Shi’s soul. Today, it finally returned with some information.
“Where?” Xie Wen said.
“Shop Sanmi,” said the man wearing the black hooded jacket.
- Same Chen as Chen Budao – meaning ‘dust’ or ‘mortal realm.’ ^
- 陈 (pronounced same as Chen Budao’s Chen). Comprised of an “ear” radical on the left (simplified 耳) and the character for east (东) on the right. Personally… I think this is the superior Chen B) ^
Yan: Hehe, this is my favorite arc in terms of cages, it’s a fun one! (think: escape room)