Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
Wen Shi was startled for a moment before he suddenly opened his eyes.
“You…” He stared straight at the person in front of him.
Xie Wen: “What’s the matter?”
Because of his frequent coughing, there was a slightly husky edge to his voice.
Wen Shi pressed his lips together. A beat later, he shook his head once. “Nothing, I misheard something.”
He almost thought that Xie Wen was the one who said that line to him, but thinking back on it now, Xie Wen had only pressed his index finger against his lips. He hadn’t spoken at all. Those indistinct words were merely part of a memory that had abruptly flashed through his mind, nothing more.
Besides, a phrase like “be good” was much too intimate. If Xie Wen said something like that, it would truly be…
Wen Shi retracted his gaze, and his hands shifted a little at his side. Just like that, the black mist surging unceasingly into his body was severed, but it didn’t disperse immediately. Instead, it curled around his fingers.
Since his eyes were open, he couldn’t see anything—he could only feel the mist. He could sense Xie Wen’s black mist winding intricately between his fingers; as it faded and scattered, it swept past the edges of his joints.
That sensation was made all the more delicate precisely because he couldn’t see it.
Xia Qiao was waiting with bated breath for his ge’s verdict, but he saw his ge stand in place for a while before his fingers suddenly twitched, as if he had just snapped out of a daze. As he turned around, he pressed his thumb against the knuckles of his index and middle fingers, making them crack loudly.
His skin was pale, so the joints that he exerted pressure on were suffused with red. It was especially obvious in contrast to the white cotton thread.
Xia Qiao knew that his ge had several small unconscious habits that usually appeared after he was done spacing out or when he was abruptly pulling himself together.
He just didn’t know what his ge was thinking about.
“How is it, ge? Did you identify him?” Xia Qiao asked.
Wen Shi let out an “en.” “Yes, I did.”
Everyone relaxed, and Da Dong said hastily, “What are you waiting for then? Which one is the fake one? I’ll go and send her off—”
He rolled up his sleeves with the intent to be a brave soul for once, so that he could lift up Shen Manyi’s veil and send her on her way. But before he could finish his sentence, both Xie Wens simultaneously directed their attention to him and looked at him calmly.
Da Dong swallowed hard and allowed his sleeves to fall back down.
Wen Shi was genuinely fearless, and he had no qualms about leaving his back open to the two Xie Wens as he walked over to Xia Qiao and the others. Unwilling to admit defeat, Da Dong lowered his voice and said to him, “Hurry up, send Shen Manyi away first.”
Except Wen Shi replied, “There’s no rush.”
Da Dong was dumbstruck. “No—”
Like hell there was no rush.
Da Dong almost swore out loud.
But Wen Shi spoke again. “Let’s leave her here for now.”
“Do you know what exactly you’re leaving here ‘for now’?” Da Dong said incredulously, “What’s the point of leaving something that isn’t human on the team? Have you gone mad, or do you think that I’m mad???”
Without sparing him a single look, Wen Shi retaliated, “I’m sane, but I don’t know about you.”
After being hit by that frosty response, Da Dong suddenly thought of something, and he cast a sidelong glance at Wen Shi. “Did you even manage to identify which one is real and which one is fake?”
Wen Shi finally lifted his eyes and looked at him.
Da Dong felt like he had guessed correctly. “If you couldn’t identify him, do you mind just saying that? Don’t put up a front, okay?”
Wen Shi was a little speechless.
Since Shen Manyi was watching them from behind, he originally didn’t want to lay it out too clearly. Unfortunately, there was something wrong with this Da Dong person’s head, so Wen Shi had no choice but to be a little more straightforward. “If she gets sent away, are you going to play with her when she comes back later?”
Da Dong: “…No.”
Wen Shi had sent her away twice, so he had more or less figured her out. Miss Shen Manyi possessed an indomitable energy—however many times you sent her away, that was how many times she would reappear.
Most troublesome of all, she even knew how to improve, and she put on a better show each time she returned. Next time she showed up, who knew what she would become?
Xie Wen’s “shh” gesture earlier had reminded Wen Shi, along with the sentence that flitted across his mind afterwards. He could take full advantage of how easy it was to tell this Shen Manyi copy apart by choosing not to send her away and forcing her to stay with them.
That brat Zhou Xu was clever, and he was the first one to understand.
The fool said to Wen Shi in a “you have no conscience” tone of voice, “She’s only eleven years old.”
Wen Shi thought that he was being ridiculous.
Xia Qiao, Lao Mao, and Sun Siqi all calmed down too.
Sun Siqi didn’t understand anything about cages, and he treated everything in this place as some kind of ghost. As a person who was still alive and well, he couldn’t understand the baffling logic behind compelling a ghost to remain with them.
Lao Mao tucked his hands in his sleeves and didn’t say a word. This was nothing new to him, as it felt very much like a certain person’s way of doing things.
Only Xia Qiao kindly shot a few meaningful looks at Da Dong, which allowed him to finally understand.
Upon seeing Da Dong’s enlightened expression, Wen Shi extended his hand towards him and said succinctly, “Give me the string.”
“What string?” Da Dong was taken aback.
Wen Shi shot a glance at the white cotton thread wrapped around his fingers.
Da Dong instantly hid his hand behind his back and asked warily, “What are you trying to do?”
This reaction caught Wen Shi briefly off guard. Only then did he remember a rule—others were not permitted to touch a puppet master’s string.
Actually, there were no fixed teachings regarding the art of puppetry. Some people used cotton thread, others used silk; oftentimes, it was just whatever happened to be on hand, and there wasn’t that much etiquette to follow. When the string wasn’t in use, it was merely an ordinary, unremarkable object that anybody could utilize. But the moment it was coiled around a puppet master’s fingers, it became special.
A puppet master controlled their string via their spirit. During that span of time, the string was linked to the puppet master, and they would be able to sense it if someone else touched their string. The more powerful the puppet master was, the deeper and more sensitive the connection became.
For the strongest puppet masters, the string was like a part of their body, or sometimes even a part of their soul.
However, puppet string wasn’t something that could be touched on a whim. Usually, someone would be injured before they could even touch the string. If another person wanted to grab a puppet master’s string, that person would either have to completely suppress them, or the puppet master would have to yield voluntarily.
Considering Wen Shi’s level, nobody would be able to touch his string under normal circumstances. So if it wasn’t for Da Dong, he really would’ve forgotten all about this rule.
“Then do it yourself.” Wen Shi changed his mind. He had no interest in Da Dong’s thread; unintentional suppression was also an inadvertent offense, so he didn’t want to touch him if he didn’t have to.
“Do what?” Da Dong looked over at where Wen Shi was pointing. The two Xie Wens stood there, one on the left, one on the right. If someone didn’t know better, they would think that there was a mirror placed between the two of them.
“We each get one, so the rest of you can tell them apart.” Wen Shi wrapped his own white cotton thread around his hand. His meaning was very clear—since he and Da Dong both had puppet string, they would each pick a Xie Wen to tie their string around. That way, they could differentiate between the two Xie Wens and avoid mixing them up as soon as they turned around. They wouldn’t have to identify them over and over again either.
Wen Shi didn’t particularly mind having a few more meals, but he had to consider whether Xie Wen was willing or not.
Besides, what if Shen Manyi wanted to leave? With the puppet string tied around her, it would also prevent her from running around and scaring people.
Though Wen Shi had thought it through quite thoroughly, Da Dong was crumbling a little. He thought, Not only do I have to let an inhuman little girl stay on the team, I have to be fucking tied to her too???
Am I out of my mind???
Wen Shi glanced back and forth between Xie Wen and the “Xie Wen” that Shen Manyi was disguised as. After a beat of hesitation, he ended up pointing at the real Xie Wen as he said to Da Dong, “You can tether yourself to him, I’ll be in charge of the one on the right.”
Comparatively speaking, Shen Manyi was still a bit more dangerous. In light of Da Dong’s lack of courage, Wen Shi chose to keep the little girl close to himself.
Except Da Dong misunderstood.
He assumed that Wen Shi wanted to keep the real one for himself and gave the fake one to him instead. As a result, he leaped forward and said, “I’ll make my own choice.” Then he controlled and tied his string around the wrist of the rightmost Xie Wen, successfully attaching himself to Shen Manyi.
Wen Shi was dumbstruck by this idiot’s perceptive abilities, and he had absolutely nothing to say in response.
He shifted his gaze away and locked eyes with Xie Wen, who had just glanced away from Da Dong and Shen Manyi. Xie Wen probably found them a little amusing, so his eyes were filled with laughter when he looked at Wen Shi.
He straightened upright and walked over to Wen Shi before he raised his hand unprompted and said, “Should I be bound?”
For a second, he reached towards Wen Shi’s puppet string with his slightly bent index finger, as if he wanted to tie the string around his wrist by himself. It was only when Da Dong cast a suspicious glance over that he seemed to suddenly remember something, and he withdrew his finger the moment before he touched the string.
“I almost forgot.” Xie Wen looked at the thread with partially downcast eyes. He paused briefly before he lifted his gaze and said to Wen Shi, “I’m not very proficient at this, and I don’t use it often, so I don’t remember all the etiquette. You should do it.”
Wen Shi let out an “en.”
His ring finger twitched, and the snow-white puppet string tumbled down before it swiftly looped around Xie Wen’s wrist several times.
“Can I tighten my string a little?” Da Dong said abruptly. Feeling extremely uneasy, he curled his hands into fists and relaxed them again, rotating his right wrist. “Usually when I’m tying my string around something, I’m exerting all of my force, and it’s only over after I snap whatever it is off. This is my first time binding something so gently. It’s not like we’re here to take a stroll together, it’s so damn uncomfortable.”
He grabbed the candle lamp from Zhou Xu and illuminated his own arm. “Do you see this? I even have goosebumps. I’m very sensitive.”
To the people who knew what he was talking about, it sounded like he was boasting about how amazing he was. Before anyone could reply, Zhou Xu—who knew Da Dong in and out—couldn’t bear to listen to him any longer and averted his face first.
Xie Wen said, somewhat carelessly, “Loose or tight, it doesn’t matter.”
He was actually saying that for Wen Shi’s sake, but Miss Shen Manyi was in the middle of perfecting her copycat show. When she heard him say that, she also chuckled and said, “A trivial matter, you can do as you like.”
The instant Da Dong heard that, he moved his ring finger three times in a row. That finger conducted power, and three tugs produced enough raw force to haul a metal door open.
The puppet string abruptly constricted and almost sent Shen Manyi away on the spot.
A little girl’s sobs immediately echoed through the hallway. It sounded like she was crying right next to their ears, but the whimpers also seemed to float through the air. The three candle lamps all flickered once.
Da Dong quivered, causing his fingers to spasm in fear, and the puppet string tightened even more.
Shen Manyi wailed out loud again.
Da Dong received another shock, and his fingers convulsed for the third time.
Shen Manyi didn’t want to play anymore.
Wen Shi was also feeling a little regretful. He now felt like this “one Xie Wen per person” idea couldn’t get any worse. It was one thing if that idiot Da Dong wasn’t going to behave properly; since he wasn’t tethered to a human anyway, it wasn’t a big deal if he tightened his string.
But the same couldn’t be said for Wen Shi.
He knew that he was bound to the real Xie Wen, so he had to curb his strength to a certain extent. The puppet string couldn’t be too tight, or else he would eventually only be left with a severed hand as he walked along.
However, it really was odd to fasten the string loosely…
When Xie Wen lowered his hand, the puppet string coiled around his arm slid down a little to rest slackly against his protruding wrist bone.
Wen Shi: “…”
In terms of sensitivity, he was probably ranked among the highest echelon of puppet masters.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could tell that Xie Wen was peering down at the puppet string wrapped around his wrist, lost in thought. A long moment later, Xie Wen looked up like he had something to say.
But Wen Shi spoke before he could. “Let’s go.”
His voice was very collected, and no emotions were visible on his pale face. It was even harder to tell that he was currently enduring the distractions brought about by the puppet string.
In the eyes of those who didn’t know better, they would merely assume that he wasn’t particularly skilled, so his connection to his thread was too shallow. That was why he was able to remain so calm even when he was tied to a person.
They searched all the way to the biggest room. Judging from the decor and the items in the wardrobe, this room likely belonged to the master of the Shen family—it was where Mr. Shen and his wife stayed.
The room looked like a model room with how neat and tidy it was. It didn’t contain much character, and it was clear that its inhabitants were rarely present. The piano and sofa were covered with white linen cloth to prevent them from gathering dust, as were some decorative shelves that tended to get dusty easily. However, when the candle lamps gave a cursory scan of the area, the room truly bore a striking resemblance to a mourning hall.
“What the fuck!” Zhou Xu yelped suddenly before he turned around and latched onto Xia Qiao.
He nearly tore Xia Qiao’s shirt collar. Xia Qiao hastily tugged his shirt back up and said, “What’s wrong?!”
“There’s a person!” Zhou Xu pointed at one of the corners.
Wen Shi raised the candle lamp in that direction and saw a humanoid object standing bolt upright in the corner with a dust cover draped over it.
Zhou Xu and the rest cried out and huddled up again. They didn’t dare to look twice at it.
Wen Shi’s head throbbed because of their screeching. “That’s a coat rack.”
“A coat rack?” Zhou Xu swiveled his head around skeptically.
The color had just returned to Da Dong’s cheeks. Right away, he interjected belatedly, “Yeah, why don’t you take a closer look? That thing’s at least two meters tall, who would normally have that kind of height.”
Xia Qiao and the rest let out a sigh of relief. “That’s true.”
Sun Siqi: “There’s probably a hat on top of it then, which is why it really seems like a person.”
Everyone relaxed after the false alarm. Da Dong took the lead and started rummaging through the room, searching for the remaining part of the diary. It shouldn’t have been a difficult task, but the “Xie Wen” he was tethered to wasn’t very cooperative and kept straying extremely far from him.
Da Dong was already inside the room, but “Xie Wen” was still hovering around the corridor outside, like a kite that was about to soar up into the sky at any moment. Da Dong’s hand ached from having to drag her around.
The real Xie Wen leaned against the door frame and enjoyed the show. He watched as Shen Manyi stood far away in a corner of the hallway, still wearing his appearance. Perhaps it was because no one else was there, or perhaps she was about to lose it because of how Da Dong kept intermittently yanking her around. Either way, she braced a hand against the wall and stared in the direction of their room with the attitude of someone who was observing from the shadows.
“Are you especially afraid of this room?” Xie Wen said.
Shen Manyi: “I’m not.”
“Could this be where you’re currently located? Those two rugs show traces of being switched out before.” Xie Wen spoke again.
Shen Manyi: “It’s not.”
“Why don’t you come over here then?” Xie Wen asked.
Shen Manyi remained stubborn. “I won’t.”
Xie Wen turned his head and called, “Da Dong, the one you’re tied to is wandering away again. Is the puppet string a little hard for you to control?”
He spoke in a very mild manner, but those were the words that Da Dong found the most intolerable, so he instantly reeled in his string.
A second later, because of the string, Shen Manyi was forced to walk stiffly over.
“You could try to walk a little more gracefully. If you’re this rigid, it’s quite easy to identify you as the fake one,” Xie Wen suggested to her.
Wen Shi had discovered the marks that indicated the rugs were swapped out, and he was in the middle of flipping the rugs back when he heard Xie Wen say that. A bit speechless, he shot a glance at Xie Wen before he looked over at Shen Manyi.
Except that little girl wasn’t even attempting to hide it anymore. She said to him brokenly, “I’m the fake one.”
Wen Shi: “I can’t tell.”
Shen Manyi: “…”
“I’m really the fake one!” she repeated. “You can call it out, call me out. I want to leave now, I don’t wanna play anymore.”
Wen Shi: “Then prove it.”
Shen Manyi was a little unwilling. She seemed to be very fond of other people’s bodies and appearances, and she stared fixedly at Wen Shi. However, the puppet string bound to her was still drawing her towards the room, pulling her in, controlling her.
Right as she was about to step into the room, she finally mumbled in a small voice, begrudging and reluctant, “But—I’m not that pretty right now.”
“You look just fine right now, though I don’t know about your original appearance.”
Wen Shi responded to her subconsciously; he only realized how strange that sentence sounded after he said it.
Xie Wen turned to look at him.
With a forcefully blank face, Wen Shi said, “Don’t look at me, that’s not what I meant.”
Xie Wen noticed Wen Shi’s expression and chuckled lowly as he leaned against the door.
The hell are you laughing about.
Wen Shi ignored him. Unexpectedly, Shen Manyi understood what he meant and corrected, “I was quite pretty before, but then I became not so pretty.
“Do you want to see?” Shen Manyi said quietly.
The moment she said that, she discarded Xie Wen’s appearance like a snake shedding its skin. The overall process was indeed a bit ghastly and shocking, causing Wen Shi to furrow his brows.
After that, she twisted her neck to the right and to the left. Similar to a collapsible chair, she unfolded herself from a tiny lump: first it was her legs, then her arms, before she finally straightened her neck with a crack.
Her braided hair was disheveled and loose. Because it had collapsed significantly out of its original form, it looked like… the skin on her head and face were also being dragged downwards.
Da Dong had reeled in all of his puppet string, so when he swiveled his head, he came face-to-face with this Shen Manyi.
Before he could draw in a single breath, he immediately lost his cool again.
Yan: *update schedule news* Since I just finished translating ICDI (my other project), I can devote more time to Panguan, which means more frequent updates! However, I’ve found that I really don’t have a good time when I’m forced to stick to an update schedule, so going forward Panguan will be updated randomly – that being said! I would still expect around 2 updates a week, maybe less depending on the chapter length (some of these get quite long). ^^