Thank you to eli for the Ko-fi!
Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
His question came out of nowhere, catching Wen Shi off guard, and a beat passed before he turned his head. “What?”
“It’s nothing.” Xie Wen said.
No lamps were turned on in the room, but it wasn’t completely dark, since their room was near the back door of the Shen residence with the window directly facing the courtyard. The cold, gray light of the moon filtered into the room through the window glass, dazzling Wen Shi’s vision.
As he narrowed his eyes, he heard Xie Wen say, “I was just wondering if you were dreaming about someone, and you mistook me for them.”
It was extremely quiet in the room. The only sound came from Mr. Li’s soaked hair, which was dripping water that streamed stickily along the side of the bed and flowed into small pattering rivulets.
When Xie Wen spoke, his eyes were still slightly curved, as if he was merely asking an off-handed question that he hadn’t put much thought into.
But his voice was very low, and it seemed to be a little indistinct in the dim, murky light of night, layered with something that was deeper and vaguer.
Wen Shi felt like his heart had been scratched lightly, just once, and he suddenly didn’t know how to answer him.
They sank into a charged silence, a singular moment that was dragged out infinitely long.
Quite a while later, Wen Shi parted his lips.
Although Xie Wen was originally looking at him, he averted his gaze now. Almost like he was abruptly coming back to his senses, he directed his line of sight towards the window.
He was quiet for a few seconds before his deep and mild voice fell into Wen Shi’s ears. “It was just a random thought that came to mind, no need to answer it. Do you hear that noise?”
Wen Shi stayed silent, brows furrowed. At first, he thought that Xie Wen was just casually changing the topic, but then he really did hear a strange noise—
A creak broke through the stillness of the room.
Because it was the dead of night, every sound was abnormally amplified. It seemed to be extremely close by, and it was hard to tell where exactly the sound was coming from.
It came again, leisurely and slow, still originating from some unknown source.
Wen Shi initially assumed that the wind had blown open one of the doors. However, after the same noise occurred three times, he finally understood what it was. “It’s the sound of a rope.”
Xie Wen didn’t appear to be particularly surprised, but what came out of his mouth was a different reaction entirely. “You’re sure?”
“Mn.” Wen Shi was focused on the noise, so he didn’t notice the subtle shift in Xie Wen’s expression when he withdrew his gaze from the window.
“What kind of rope? Puppet string?” Xie Wen pointed at Wen Shi’s hands.
Creaking and groaning with the slightest tug—imagine if someone gave you this kind of puppet string, would you want it?
Wen Shi stared at him. The words were already on the tip of his tongue, but due to the indescribably ambiguous atmosphere from earlier, he swallowed it back down and explained, “Hemp rope, the type that’s twisted together.”
He was truly seldom able to hold himself back in such a display of patience. As a result, he spoke dryly in a voice that he kept quite low.
Yet Xie Wen seemed to be very intrigued by his utterly soulless explanation.
As he was talking, the sound returned once more. It was exceptionally rhythmic, and the interval between each creak was almost exactly the same, as if there was a heavy object hanging from the rope, swinging back and forth.
Xie Wen listened to it briefly and said, “It’s coming from someone pulling on the rope.”
Wen Shi pressed his lips together in an attempt to restrain himself, but he failed. “Why don’t you try pulling on it then.”
Xie Wen laughed.
He probably hadn’t gotten enough of the dry commentary, so he still wanted to hear a harsher upgraded version. He asked, “So how is this sound being made?”
“The rope is likely bound around a wooden roof beam or pole. Whatever it’s tied to must not be especially sturdy either, which is why—” At that point, Wen Shi suddenly frowned.
Because Mr. Li, who was sitting nearby, finally did something new—
Amidst the creaking noises, he slowly lifted his head, tilted it back, and stared at the spot directly above his head without blinking.
Wen Shi also looked up and saw a long, straight roof beam.
Hemp rope, wooden beam, a heavy object tugging at the rope: when all three of those things were linked together, it was really too easy to arrive at one conclusion—Mr. Li died from being hung.
Wen Shi turned his head back to survey Mr. Li’s neck.
Mr. Li wasn’t wearing Western-style clothes. Instead, he was wearing a long Chinese-style cloth garment with an upright collar that was buttoned properly all the way up. It just happened to cover up everything.
Before, his head was lowered as he scraped at the bed frame with his fingernails, so Wen Shi could only see the back of his neck. Now that Mr. Li’s head was tilted back, the dark bruised mark at the base of his neck was made very obvious.
But if he was hung to death, why did he have this kind of appearance?
Was he hung outside and drenched in the rain? Or was he hung in the bathroom?
However, this wasn’t something that he could say in front of Mr. Li, at least not before Wen Shi figured out what the tutor wanted to do. Wen Shi thought a bit and asked, “Can you speak? Why are you looking up?”
Mr. Li continued to stare above him. Apart from that roof beam, the ceiling was completely empty, and there wasn’t anything worth noting. After a long moment, he finally turned to look at Wen Shi belatedly.
Only then did he seem to realize that there were other people on his bed with him. His eyes widened, causing streams of water to seep out from his dark, empty sockets.
All of a sudden, the clock in the Shen manor’s living room rang out again. It was the middle of the night, and it was abrupt enough to make someone’s heart jump.
Mr. Li’s ghost-like body flickered briefly like an overly exposed old photograph, as if he was about to disappear from the bed in the next second.
As Wen Shi crinkled his brows, he heard Xie Wen say quietly, “Seems like it’s time.”
“Time for what?” Wen Shi looked back at him.
He saw the outline of Xie Wen’s body also grow blurry for a moment, as if he was going to vanish with Mr. Li.
“I’m not sure, probably time for you all to wake up.” Xie Wen said.
Wen Shi said coldly, “I’m already awake.”
Upon hearing his tone of voice, Xie Wen felt an inexplicable urge to laugh. “You’re a bit stronger than the rest, so you’re an exception. I’m saying that it’s probably time for normal people to wake up.”
Wen Shi wasn’t very pleased.
Only that long? Mr. Li didn’t get to do a single damn thing. What could they even accomplish in such a short span of time?
The clock struck again.
Xie Wen said, “Look, it’s already starting to rush us along.”
Just like Mr. Li, his silhouette was growing more and more faint, yet something was also subtly different. Perhaps it was because he was still considered a living being.
“Let it do whatever it wants.” Wen Shi frowned. As he spoke, he bluntly looped a thread of his puppet string around both Mr. Li and Xie Wen’s wrists. Then, he raised his hand and tapped on the center of Mr. Li’s forehead.
Mr. Li’s head was like a melon full of liquid. When Wen Shi’s knuckles rapped against his forehead, it created a crisp, empty noise.
Wen Shi’s face went stiff.
However, the same moment this sound rang out, Mr. Li’s body—which had already been reduced to a transparent afterimage—suddenly sharpened again, as if he was about to leave but ended up being forcefully hauled back.
Accompanied by several crunching noises, he swiveled his head around and looked at Wen Shi in rigid confusion.
Wen Shi said to him, “You can’t leave anymore.”
Mr. Li: “…”
Wen Shi turned around to do the same to Xie Wen, only to be stopped by Xie Wen grabbing his hand.
Xie Wen had reached out casually, and there wasn’t much force behind his grip, yet their hands accidentally ended up in a half-laced, half-interlocked position, one that felt a bit unexplainably intimate.
Both of them were a little caught off guard.
A beat later, Xie Wen finally said, “Are you going to turn me into a puppet?”
Wen Shi looked at him. “How do you know that?”
Would an amateur know how to turn a living being into a puppet?
Xie Wen: “I read it in a book.”
Wen Shi: “Did the book say that this is temporary?”
Xie Wen: “It did.”
Wen Shi’s gaze swept across Xie Wen’s gradually fading body before focusing back on his face. “So you would rather disappear completely than accept the idea of temporarily becoming my puppet.”
Xie Wen remained silent; it wasn’t clear what he was thinking about.
He stared into Wen Shi’s eyes. A moment passed, and he loosened his hold on Wen Shi’s hand before he said a bit helplessly, “Go ahead.”
Compared to turning Shen Manyi and Mr. Li into puppets, it was inevitably different when it came to turning a real living person like Xie Wen into one. After all, the success of this process depended on two things: first, the other person’s willpower, and second, whether the puppet master could completely suppress them or not.
Wen Shi’s current state was no match for what it used to be in the past, but it still shouldn’t be a problem for him to suppress anyone from the later generations of panguan. What’s more, Xie Wen was someone who had been struck off the name register.
But when Wen Shi tapped lightly on Xie Wen’s forehead, he was still somewhat astonished.
Because he couldn’t sense the slightest bit of resistance whatsoever. Unexpectedly, it felt almost identical to Shen Manyi and Mr. Li.
At that moment, he thought that something wasn’t quite right, but he didn’t have time to pursue that train of thought.
Mainly because there was another sound out there that was wreaking havoc—
The clock in the living room rang four times. When it wasn’t able to send off Mr. Li and Xie Wen, it instantly went crazy in an attempt to summon them.
The clanging noise clamored away endlessly, and people finally started to wake up in the two neighboring rooms. Wen Shi could already hear their doors opening, but he was more annoyed by the peals of the clock that were aimed straight at the soul.
“One second,” he told his three newly acquired “puppets” in the room. Then, he opened the door and exited.
Shen Manyi and Mr. Li sat in an upright and proper position on the edge of their beds, and they didn’t dare to move. But that “puppet” with the surname Xie was very disobedient. He followed calmly behind a certain someone and watched as that person walked into the living room, pulled out a puppet string that could “cut through metal like it was mud,” and started to slice apart the clock in silence.
As Xie Wen passed by the nanny’s room, he heard a creak come from the door.
He swept a glance in that direction and saw Lao Mao poke his head out from inside the room.
Lao Mao was momentarily startled when he saw Xie Wen. He murmured, “So you really did get slept back? I thought that you—”
“That I what?” Xie Wen stopped in his tracks and waited for Lao Mao to finish.
Lao Mao cautiously shot a look towards the living room before he lowered his voice and said, “I thought that you left on purpose again to search for his soul.”
Xie Wen raised an eyebrow and didn’t comment.
He skimmed the inside of the room and asked, “Are they all awake?”
“Not yet.” Lao Mao shook his head. “They’re sleeping like logs. I’m waiting for them to wake up, or else it’ll seem too out of place for me to be the only one with my eyes open.”
“You’re not the only one.” Xie Wen jerked his chin towards Xia Qiao and Zhou Xu’s room. “Isn’t there another one right over there.”
It was extremely unlikely for puppets to fall unconscious or be led astray in cages. After all, they weren’t human. Xie Wen was clearly referring to Xia Qiao, but Lao Mao was a smart bird. “If he’s awake, then I definitely can’t be awake. Otherwise wouldn’t that tell the whole world that I have the same constitution as him?”
Xie Wen: “You’re overthinking it. The elderly sleep less.”
Lao Mao: “???”
His chest had already puffed up, but his anger didn’t last very long before he thought of something else. “Oh right, Boss. Something felt incredibly wrong to me for a few seconds earlier.”
Xie Wen: “Wrong in what way?”
Lao Mao: “I can’t really explain it. The last time I got such a feeling was back when your incident took place, Boss.”
Xie Wen gave a mild “oh.” He pointed distantly in Wen Shi’s direction and said, “That’s most likely because he turned me into his puppet just now.”
Realization washed over Lao Mao, and he also let out an “oh.”
Three seconds later, he suddenly quivered and flapped his arms a couple times, nearly revealing his original form. “He turned you into what???”
Xie Wen: “His puppet.”
Lao Mao forgot to breathe, and he was one tiny step away from dying on the spot.
Xie Wen: “Your acting is a bit too much. It’s not like I didn’t let him try the same thing in the past.”
That’s true. What didn’t you let him try?
Lao Mao silently spat out a mouthful of blood.
The grandfather clock toppled onto the ground with a crash. It had been sliced into numerous smaller chunks, and it completely ceased all activity. As soon as Wen Shi turned around, Lao Mao shrank his head back into the room.
“Who were you talking to?” He spotted Xie Wen from the other end of the long hallway. As he headed towards him, someone in the neighboring room just happened to open their door. A figure shot out with a whoosh and clung onto Wen Shi’s arm, trembling and shaking.
Wen Shi looked over: it was Xia Qiao.
“Did you see a ghost?” he asked, puzzled.
Xia Qiao’s little face was ashen, and he nodded furiously. He swallowed before he pointed at his room and said, “Shoes.”
Wen Shi walked over and pushed over the door. Immediately, he understood what Xia Qiao meant—
At some point, those scarlet embroidered shoes, which were originally supposed to be placed next to the nanny’s bed, had stopped next to Xia Qiao and Zhou Xu’s bed instead. The tips of the shoes were facing the bed.
“When did it arrive?” Wen Shi asked.
Xia Qiao huddled behind him and Xie Wen. “After that clock rang, Zhou Xu instantly fell asleep, and he wouldn’t wake up no matter what. But I just couldn’t fall asleep, and I also didn’t dare to move, so I could only lie on the bed with my eyes closed. Then I heard someone open and close our door. After that, footsteps made their way over to the bed and came to a stop next to me.”
Xia Qiao got goosebumps as he spoke. “I waited for a long time, but nothing ever happened, so I cracked my eyes open a little to take a peek. Except no one was standing next to the bed!”
At the time, cold sweat had erupted all over his body, and he ended up playing dead on the bed, stiff as a board. This lasted until the clock started to ring again, more and more frantic with each stroke. After he faintly heard Xie Wen and Wen Shi’s voices, he finally flew off the bed.
It was only when he got up that he actually saw the embroidered shoes parked next to the bed. It was almost as if someone had been standing there since the moment they fell asleep, watching them quietly.
“Who did she come to find?” Xia Qiao asked.