Thank you to Ani and Tan for the Ko-fis!
Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
The Xie Wen holding the candle lamp stopped in the doorway. He first glanced at Wen Shi before his gaze shifted past Wen Shi towards the other version of himself. Then, he lifted his eyebrow ever so slightly.
That expression was indeed very Xie Wen, and even Wen Shi was taken aback for a moment. He scanned that Xie Wen up and down, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he turned to look behind him.
The Xie Wen behind him just laughed.
When the others turned into the hallway, they were greeted by the following scene: two Xie Wens stood face to face, with a Wen Shi stuck in the middle.
They instantly screeched to a halt and shrank back around the corner.
Filled with question marks, Lao Mao thought: She even dares to copy him??? Before he could speak, Xia Qiao let out an “oh god,” followed closely by Zhou Xu’s “fuck!” Da Dong…
Da Dong had already collapsed mentally.
He just sent away a fake Haozi not too long ago with the support of a wall, and now there was a fake Xie Wen. What the hell?
Most embarrassing of all, even though the two Xie Wens in front of him clearly weren’t doing anything, he actually had a subconscious urge to take a few steps back.
For a moment, he didn’t know whether he should concede that he was afraid of ghosts or humans.
“Lao Mao, he’s your boss, so you go identify him.” Zhou Xu pushed Lao Mao forward with his fingers.
But then Lao Mao shuffled back again, round belly swaying. “I’m not needed.”
Zhou Xu: “Why???”
In the midst of their confusion, they saw Wen Shi glance at the Xie Wen behind him before he cast his gaze back towards the person holding the candle lamp. He asked evenly, “Are you really Xie Wen?”
The one holding the candle lamp nodded. “I am, so I’m quite curious—are you?” He looked behind Wen Shi.
Wen Shi didn’t turn his head. He heard the person behind him chuckle and say, “I suppose I must be the fake one then.”
The one holding the candle: “…”
The people hidden around the corner were all stupefied.
Da Dong blurted out, “Does that fucking work?”
That did fucking work.
Several seconds later, Wen Shi bluntly patted Shen Manyi’s shoulder and sent her away, causing her leather shoes to patter through the hallway as she ran off into the distance. The little girl didn’t laugh this time, probably out of anger.
When the lights turned back on, everyone felt that the corridor was a little brighter than before.
Da Dong had sharp eyes, and he noticed that Wen Shi was holding an extra candle lamp, so he asked, “Where did you get that lamp?”
Wen Shi looked at him like he was a fool. “Shen Manyi was holding it.”
Da Dong said incredulously, “You’ll even take something like that?”
Wen Shi was even more bemused. “If it can be used, why not?”
Da Dong was about to lose it, whereas Xie Wen merely laughed.
After considering those two completely opposite reactions, Wen Shi tossed the stolen candle lamp to the second person.
Xie Wen raised his hand and caught the lamp. Then Wen Shi tilted his head and said, “Come over here and flip back these rugs.”
Xie Wen was briefly startled.
Wen Shi liked to do things silently on his own, and he rarely took the initiative to invite others along with him. For one, he was worried about dragging in innocent people if something troublesome happened, but he also didn’t want to waste time explaining how to do a certain task. The most ideal situation was one where he resolved everything that he could take care of alone, while the others just stayed on the sidelines.
Xie Wen knew this better than anyone else. That was a problem Wen Shi had possessed ever since he was young; it was deeply rooted, and he treated everyone in the same manner. Only one person was ever an exception.
Wen Shi took a few steps forward, but when he looked back, he saw that Xie Wen hadn’t budged. Instead, he was twirling that candle lamp in his hand, lost in thought.
After a few seconds, he finally noticed Wen Shi’s gaze, and he curved his eyes in a smile before walking over.
“What were you thinking so deeply about,” Wen Shi muttered. His eyes swept over the rug in the hallway as he silently counted the number of sections it had.
Right as he finished counting from the section where they originally came from to the one under his feet, he heard Xie Wen say, “Nothing much, I just suddenly remembered some…”
He couldn’t seem to find the appropriate words, and he paused for a while before he finished, “Things from the past.”
Stooped over, Wen Shi was in the middle of lifting the corner of the square-shaped rug closest to them. When he heard that, he glanced up and waited for him to continue. However, Xie Wen didn’t seem to have any intention of elaborating; he simply swept the candle lamp across the edges of the rug and the places where they connected. “What section did you just finish inspecting?”
He changed the subject too quickly, and Wen Shi was caught momentarily off guard before he pointed at one of the sections. “This one.”
Xie Wen nodded and bent over. Starting from that section of the rug, he began scanning the other pieces.
That badly damaged diary mentioned several people in it. The one surnamed Li was most likely the Shen family’s tutor; Mama Cai was the nanny; Uncle Qi was the butler.
The diary stated that because Mr. Li smelled a strange odor, the young master smashed a perfume bottle to conceal the scent.
Since it was used as a cover-up, that perfume bottle must have been smashed somewhere very close to the weird smell. The diary also noted that Mama Cai had changed the rug, which meant that place should have traces of the rug being switched out. So long as they found that swapped out section of the rug, they would be near Shen Manyi.
Xie Wen understood everything, so Wen Shi was saved from having to give him an explanation.
He should’ve returned to the left half of the corridor and continued his inspection of the rug’s edges over on that side. But then Xie Wen abruptly looked up with a faint smile on his face and asked him quietly, “Are you going to be my supervisor?”
Wen Shi cast his eyes down at him. For a split second, he really didn’t move.
Just like that, he stood next to Xie Wen for a moment. It was only when he heard Da Dong talking behind them that he turned towards the left side of the hallway. Kneading his knuckles, he replied in a low voice, “Do your own search, I’ll examine this area.”
“Why are you guys digging at the rug to find the diary? If it was hidden under there, it would definitely bulge upwards, and you’d know as soon as you walked across it.” Da Dong thought that they were trying to find the remnants of the diary, which was why he irritably grumbled that complaint. However, rather than stopping them, he followed after them and started rummaging through the ornamental shelves lining the mirrors in the hallway.
Some artistic decor pieces were displayed in the glass lattice shelves, which were embedded into the wall. For example, there was a miniature wooden carving and a tiny bonsai tree, as well as porcelain cups and plates.
Xia Qiao was the type of person who approached every task quite seriously, especially when he was searching for something.
While he brainwashed himself by chanting “I’m not afraid, I’m just looking around, I’m in an escape room,” he pulled open the door to each glass square and peered closely inside of it. He scrutinized every edge and corner, almost pressing the tip of his nose against the mirror wall.
With that kind of search method, perhaps they could also find something. As a result, Wen Shi merely glanced in their direction and didn’t say anything.
For a while, the hallway was occupied solely by the sound of their shuffling footsteps, the soft tapping noises of the glass shelf doors being opened and closed, and the drone of Xia Qiao’s recitations. After listening to that for a long time, it seemed to take on a mechanical cadence.
Accompanied by that muffled rhythm, Wen Shi worked his way through the rug, section by section.
He had lost count of what section he was on when Xia Qiao suddenly called out quietly, “There’s something here.”
“What is it?” Everyone congregated around him.
Wen Shi also straightened up and walked over to Xia Qiao.
In that glass square was a rectangular picture frame with a beautiful woven blanket mounted inside of it. The frame was wedged into the shelf very tightly, and it was difficult to even remove, yet somehow Xia Qiao had managed to dig out a photograph that someone had stuffed behind it.
This was a black and white photo that had been dampened before, as well as ripped apart and pieced back together. The traces of its fragmentation spiderwebbed across the surface, and there was also a large chunk of the photo missing from the upper left corner. Consequently, the people near the edge didn’t have heads, as if someone had cleanly cut off everything above their necks.
Even the intact people were quite damaged. The only thing left were big white faces—the nose and mouth weren’t very distinct, and the eyes were merely black dots.
Wen Shi flipped the photograph to the back. Crisscrossing strips of paper were glued over the cracks, but he could faintly make out an annotation from between those strips. The words were covered by the paper, so it wasn’t entirely complete, but the original note could still be pieced together—
A group photo in front of the house with Mama Cai, Uncle Qi, Manshu, Manshan, Mr. Li, Manyi, and Jun-ge. Once Mother and Father are back, we can take another picture.
This was most likely also written by that young master. Judging purely from the strokes in the annotation, he seemed to be gentle and earnest, but it was eerily jarring when combined with the torn apart photograph. That uneasy sensation grew even more prominent upon remembering how this young master used the same meticulous handwriting in his diary.
“What a weirdo,” Sun Siqi couldn’t help but say.
“Keep it for now, perhaps it’ll be useful later.” Xie Wen’s mild voice floated over from behind them. He wasn’t fond of squeezing next to other people, and he always stood at a measured distance from the crowd. But since he was tall, he could still see everything that he needed to see.
Xia Qiao nodded and stuffed the photo into his pocket. As soon as he finished doing that, he heard several muffled coughs.
It took a few seconds for everyone to react. Then they simultaneously froze—because the stifled coughing noises weren’t coming from the same place as the person who just spoke.
Brows furrowed, Wen Shi glanced over. Sure enough, he was met with the sight of two Xie Wens again.
Miss Shen Manyi most likely had it out for a certain someone.
She learned her lesson from last time after being directly exposed by a few short sentences. This time, Shen Manyi imitated Xie Wen even more closely. His tone of voice, his expressions, his mannerisms—they were almost all watertight.
Xia Qiao and the rest pressed their backs against the mirror wall, looking left and right; they couldn’t come to a conclusion, nor did they dare to move. Even Lao Mao was a tiny bit hesitant.
Initially, Da Dong wanted to push Lao Mao forward to identify the correct Xie Wen, but when he saw the look on Lao Mao’s face, he was immediately filled with a trace of despair. Upon turning his head, however, he discovered that there was another person who hadn’t pulled back—that eldest disciple from the Shen family.
“What? Can you identify him?” To tell the truth, Da Dong was extremely doubtful. After all, even the person who was always following Xie Wen around wasn’t completely certain. “I remember the diary said that if you guess wrong, you’ll have to play with that Shen Manyi forever. You might be trapped in this cage for the rest of your life.”
For any panguan, being trapped in a cage for the rest of their life was a daunting threat. Da Dong thought that his warning was appropriately emphatic, but unexpectedly, that eldest Shen family disciple merely let out an “oh.”
Xia Qiao ended up being intimidated instead, and he anxiously called out a “ge.”
Without even looking over, his ge said flippantly, “It’s fine, I can identify him.”
Xia Qiao glanced at Lao Mao, dumbfounded. “How?”
His ge said calmly, “I’ll taste him.”
Xia Qiao: “???”
Xia Qiao: “…”
Oh right. He almost forgot: his ge relied on eating Xie Wen to survive.
Xia Qiao thought with a wooden expression on his face.
“He’s gonna do what to him???” Da Dong, Zhou Xu, and the rest shared stunned looks with each other. Meanwhile, Wen Shi had already gathered his concentration and closed his eyes, revealing the spiritual forms of the two Xie Wens in front of him.
Lao Mao couldn’t be blamed for his uncertainty. Both Xie Wens stood there with their eyes shut, filled with the same surging karmic debt and black mist. The flowing Sanskrit on half of their faces and the things wrapped around their wrists were also identical.
Even Wen Shi, who could directly see a person’s spiritual form, was taken aback—let alone Lao Mao.
But Wen Shi knew very well that any falsely created existence would always be similar only in shape and appearance.
So with a twitch of his lowered fingers, the heaving black mist poured towards him from both sides like coiling dragons plunging into water.
The instant it flooded into his body through his fingertips, everything became clear. One side was infused with a familiar aura, while the other side was an empty mirage.
The one on the left was Xie Wen.
Perhaps the contrast between the fake Xie Wen and the real Xie Wen was too obvious, or perhaps it was because the heart was on the left side. Either way, this was the first time Wen Shi could sense those things rush into his body so distinctly through his fingers, filling the emptiness bit by bit.
This process was drawn out luxuriously, and Wen Shi’s fingers curled slightly next to his sides.
He subconsciously wanted to break off the process, but he was also a little instinctively hesitant to do so. Right as he was about to bring it to a close and point out which one was real, Xie Wen suddenly opened his eyes.
In his spiritual form, he was even more pale and sickly than usual. When he stared at someone, it made them want to back up, yet at the same time, they found themselves unable to move.
He curved his eyes. Before Wen Shi could wrap it up and say something, Xie Wen extended his index finger and made a “shh” gesture next to his lips.
For some odd reason, when Wen Shi saw him make that gesture, a muted voice abruptly flashed through his mind. It said lowly, “Be good, and wait a bit to say it.”