Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
“There are only two people total in this room. If she wasn’t looking for you, then she was looking for him.” Xie Wen pointed at the person on the bed.
Zhou Xu was still deeply asleep. The bedside light illuminated his face, and though the lamp was evidently emitting a yellow glow, it made his complexion seem green-gray by contrast, perhaps because of the emerald-colored lampshade.
Xia Qiao watched him enviously. “He’s sleeping so soundly. Why couldn’t I fall asleep? If I were asleep, I wouldn’t have had to see those shoes.”
Wen Shi: “Different species.”
A question mark popped up over Xia Qiao’s head, but he quickly remembered that he was a puppet, so he truly wasn’t the same species as a human.
With that thought, he grew even more dejected. “All the other puppets are super impressive; they’re huge and they can also fight. Why isn’t that the case when it comes to me? I’m timid and I can’t fall asleep.”
Why exactly did that unknown puppet master create him? To act cute and be a decoration?
He was downcast for a while. Then, clinging onto the last sliver of hope, he said to Wen Shi, “Ge.”
Wen Shi: “Speak.”
Xia Qiao: “Am I missing some kind of catalyst? Will I receive enlightenment one day and be able to transform from that point on into something like the giant python or the Golden-Winged Dapeng?”
Wen Shi: “…”
Of course Xia Qiao wasn’t actually entertaining any such fantasies—he was merely seeking some solace. Unfortunately, his Wen-ge’s mental capacity in this area was likely completely defunct. Not only was Wen Shi unable to provide any consolation, the words “you’re dreaming” were also written across his face, clear as day.
Unexpectedly, Xie Wen ended up being the one to acknowledge him. “Is ‘giant python’ referring to that puppet your ge unleashed earlier?”
Xia Qiao was lost. “Uh-huh.”
Xie Wen laughed.
Xia Qiao didn’t understand what was so humorous about that. He turned to ask Wen Shi, “Ge, is that puppet not a giant black python?”
Wen Shi’s expression was chilly.
Of course that wasn’t some giant black python. That was one of the eight deities belonging to the Qimen form of divination: the Tengshe1, encased in the flames of a blazing inferno, capable of summoning clouds and mist. Except Wen Shi was currently restricted when it came to using his puppets, which was why the Tengshe’s original form couldn’t be displayed.
“It’s about the same.” He gave a perfunctory reply before he shot a glance at Xie Wen.
“Why’re you looking at me?” Xie Wen was standing right next to him, a step away. As he spoke, he tilted his head towards Wen Shi slightly, causing his mild, deep voice to sound in Wen Shi’s ears.
Wen Shi rubbed the side of his neck. A moment later, he suddenly said, “Why are you so certain?”
Xie Wen was startled. “Certain about what?”
Wen Shi: “My puppet.”
Xie Wen explained, “I noticed that there were two hard protrusions on its back, and it seemed like there should be something wrapped around them. Pythons don’t have structures like that on their backs.”
There wasn’t anything wrong with what he said. It was true that such a clue could be obtained through a closer examination. While he was explaining, he also gestured simply with his fingers, and the position that he pinpointed wasn’t entirely accurate either.
Wen Shi furrowed his brows very lightly and withdrew his gaze from Xie Wen’s face.
Xie Wen: “So, what is it?”
Wen Shi: “A python with tumors.”
Like hell it was a python with tumors.
Xia Qiao was dumbfounded as he listened to their conversation from the side. He thought to himself: It’s way too obvious that my ge’s spouting pure nonsense, it’s basically written across his face. He snuck a furtive look at Boss Xie and discovered that the other person didn’t seem to mind that he had been deceived. He even nodded cheerfully upon hearing the answer; he truly had a good temper.
Then why did Xia Qiao still feel a bit afraid of him?
In the midst of his confusion, Xia Qiao heard Xie Wen speak again. “Who did this room originally belong to?”
He didn’t bother getting to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Wen Shi’s puppet. Instead, he switched back to the issue at hand.
“Ah? You don’t know?” Xia Qiao was taken aback.
Appropriately, Xie Wen reminded him, “I wasn’t here.”
Xia Qiao slapped his forehead. “Oh right right right. You weren’t here when they were introducing the backstory, Boss Xie. The nanny’s son and the Shen family’s little young master stayed here.”
As he spoke, he glanced at the motionless embroidered shoes and the fast asleep Zhou Xu again. He murmured internally: That nanny must’ve come to see her son, right.
Right as he was thinking that, Xie Wen suddenly asked him, “Has that been confirmed?”
Xia Qiao was a little blindsided by the question. He raised his head and asked, “What do you mean?”
“Nothing in particular, I’m just bringing it up.” Xie Wen said, “After all, not all of the backstory might necessarily be true.”
Xia Qiao was stunned.
All of a sudden, he realized that there had been inconsistencies between the backstory of the escape room and the true version of events this entire time. In addition, the backstory was also part of the cage, so it too would be influenced by the cage master.
Before this, the cage was completely leading him along by the nose. He subconsciously believed everything that he heard, but the moment there was a contradiction, his thoughts would start to form knots. For example, the nanny was alive in the diary and the backstory, but she was actually dead in reality.
Upon hearing Xie Wen say that, Xia Qiao felt a layer of cold sweat immediately skitter across his back.
That’s right, what if even the backstory was deceiving them? How were they supposed to undo this cage???
Right as his mental state was beginning to crumble a little, his ge spoke in a voice that was as calm and collected as ever. “It’s not just the backstory. There’s a possibility that anything spoken in the cage might not be true.”
Great. Now he was in even more despair.
Xia Qiao looked at Wen Shi in terror, only to see his ge lift his right hand and say to Xie Wen, “That’s why we should bring along everything that we obtain. Once we piece together all the clues, even the blind could see what’s true and what’s fake.”
Ah, no wonder!
Xia Qiao finally understood why Wen Shi still told them to search for the diary remnants back on the second floor, even though they clearly had a direction to proceed in, as well as why he still told them to take the group photograph, even though it clearly didn’t provide many details. In the end, after they finished resolving Shen Manyi’s dilemma, Wen Shi also brought the diary, photograph, and even Shen Manyi herself downstairs.
Xia Qiao glanced over at Wen Shi’s raised right hand and discovered that there were three puppet strings extending out from it. Two strings led to the butler and Mr. Li’s bedroom, while one string was… tied to Xie Wen???
The long white cotton thread dangled on the ground, like a kind of ambiguous connection.
Xia Qiao remembered what Wen Shi just said a moment ago about bringing along everything they obtained for the sake of piecing together all the clues. Confused, he asked, “So ge, what clue is Boss Xie?”
As soon as he finished voicing that question, Xie Wen and Wen Shi simultaneously shifted to look at him.
The corner of the long hallway suddenly descended into a charged silence, and nobody provided an answer.
Xia Qiao blinked. Even though he didn’t understand why, he let out a decisive “I’m sorry” before he cleverly changed the topic. “Those two strings—one is bound to Shen Manyi, so what about the other one? Who else did you catch?”
“Catch” was quite the word choice; it made it seem like his ge was actually the great monster.
But Wen Shi didn’t mind. He twitched his fingers, and Shen Manyi scampered over a short while later, followed by a sluggish Mr. Li.
Shen Manyi only hesitated briefly right as she was coming inside, and it wasn’t very obvious. Mr. Li, however, came to a sudden stop outside the door. While streams of water gurgled out of his dark, empty eyes, he faced the bed, looking either at the embroidered shoes placed next to it or the person asleep on top of it.
He stared in that direction for a long time. Then, he abruptly moved—he raised his hands and curled them into fists before his neck.
Almost as if… someone was using a rope to hang him, and he was struggling and clutching at the rope looped around his neck.
So did someone really kill him by hanging him?
Wen Shi watched him.
If Mr. Li’s reaction was genuine, the person who killed him was right inside this bedroom.
Was it the invisible nanny standing next to the bed? Or was it the person Zhou Xu represented, who was lying on the bed?
Xia Qiao suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, I understand now.”
At some point in time, Xie Wen had walked over to the wardrobe, and he was currently holding the wardrobe door open as he peered at the clothes inside. When he heard Xia Qiao speak, he first shared a look with Wen Shi before he turned his head towards Xia Qiao. “What do you understand, why don’t you tell us.”
Xia Qiao pointed at Mr. Li and said, “This movement of his. Someone most likely—”
Xie Wen gave another apt reminder. “It’s best if some words aren’t said so bluntly.”
“—You all understand.” Xia Qiao was extremely obedient, and he immediately swallowed the words “strangled him to death” back down. “His build is about the same as mine: not tall, but also very skinny. But if someone wanted to you-know-what to him, they’d have to have some strength, right? How old was the Shen family’s little young master again?”
He then pointed at Shen Manyi. “In any case, he was definitely smaller than her, since he’s her younger brother. How could a person that small possibly be a match for Mr. Li?”
Actually, he was already quite suspicious earlier. Although Shen Manyi was quite short, she still couldn’t be killed by a little boy who was even smaller than her, right?
He gestured to his own body and assessed, “In order to deal with Mr. Li, the culprit should at least be a boy in his teens. That’s why I think that the little young master definitely didn’t do it, it must’ve been the nanny’s son. Didn’t the diary talk about him? He was called Jun-ge, wasn’t he?”
It was true that the diary they found on the second floor frequently mentioned Jun-ge.
According to what was written in the diary, Shen Manyi regularly dragged Jun-ge into dressing up as a bride with her and often put him in a bit of an awkward position that made him lose face. Mr. Li seemed to nitpick him a lot as well. Perhaps it was because he was the nanny’s son, so he treated him a little differently compared to the young master and misses.
But Young Master Shen was very close to him, as could be seen from the way the young master’s room was set up on the second floor. The simplistic bed was untouched, but there were two sets of bedding on the bigger bed.
Not only did the little young master have a pretty good relationship with Jun-ge, he even complained of Jun-ge’s injustices, and he also loathed Shen Manyi and Mr. Li.
“Maybe the young master came up with the idea, and Jun-ge carried it out?” The more Xia Qiao thought about it, the more certain he grew. “How old was that Jun-ge? Did the diary say anything? I saw that there were bigger and smaller pieces of clothing in the wardrobe. It doesn’t seem like they belonged to two people of the same age.”
Xie Wen cheerfully stepped to the side a little and opened the door even wider.
Indeed, as Xia Qiao said, the clothes inside the wardrobe were of varying lengths and sizes. The smaller set would likely be worn by a child who was nine or ten years old, while the larger set would have to belong to someone who was at least fifteen or sixteen.
“The smaller clothes were definitely worn by the Shen family’s little young master. The bigger ones should be Jun-ge’s.” Xia Qiao plucked down one of the clothes and held it up to himself as a comparison. “Even I can wear it. If a guy around this size did something to Shen Manyi and Mr. Li, it would make more sense.”
He felt a bit bashful after his lengthy analysis. With a reddened face, he scratched his head and said to Xie Wen and Wen Shi, “That’s what I’m thinking, I just don’t know if I’m right or not.”
Wen Shi didn’t comment; he merely pulled something out from the pocket of his jeans.
It was a photograph. If Xia Qiao wasn’t mistaken, it was the photo that he and the others found on the second floor.
Wen Shi wedged it between his fingers and flipped it over so that it was facing in the right direction for Xia Qiao. “Look at this.”
“What is it?” Xia Qiao leaned closer. For a moment, he didn’t understand what his ge was trying to imply.
“Look at these two people.” Xie Wen also walked over. He extended his hand past Xia Qiao and tapped gently on the far right side of the photograph.
Understanding finally washed over Xia Qiao—
On the rightmost section of the photograph, there were two people standing next to Shen Manyi. Even though a large chunk of the photo was missing, and none of the people on this side had heads or faces, it was still clear that those were two boys, based on their style of dress and their heights.
One was wearing Western clothes and a little vest, and he had held himself properly. The other one wore a short Chinese-style unlined garment and long trousers, with his hands clasped behind his back.
There were only two people in the entire Shen residence who could fit into their identities: the little young master and Jun-ge.
But the two people in the photograph seemed to have similar builds, and their shoulders were also of the same height. Clearly, they couldn’t be that far apart in age. If the Shen family’s youngest son was too small, he couldn’t do anything to Mr. Li. The same problem applied to Jun-ge.
Xia Qiao was dumbstruck. “How could this be…”
He had conducted an extensive analysis, and everything initially seemed to be clear and logical, only for it all to be destroyed by a single photograph.
Just as Xia Qiao was at a complete loss, Wen Shi put the photograph away. In an exceedingly straightforward manner, he walked over to the doorway and asked Mr. Li, “Why won’t you come inside? Who are you afraid of?”
What the hell? This kind of questioning was okay too???
Xia Qiao felt like his ge was trying to create a bug.
He said in astonishment, “How could Mr. Li possibly be so obedient?” Even Shen Manyi struggled and resisted at the very beginning.
Wen Shi raised the string bound to his index finger and said, “He’s my puppet right now. If he doesn’t listen to me, who else would he listen to.”
Reality proved that the puppet version of Mr. Li truly was very compliant.
As soon as Wen Shi asked the question, Mr. Li opened his mouth.
Then, a long chunk of his tongue tumbled down.
Wen Shi: “…”
Perhaps he was afraid of being hit by this cold-faced puppet master; Mr. Li promptly turned around and walked hastily away. The three of them swiftly gave chase and followed behind the short man as he turned two corners before entering another room.
It was the downstairs study.
“That’s right. Even if he can’t speak, he can still write,” Xia Qiao said brightly.
- Literally ‘flying dragon/snake’. A mythical creature that is similar to a legless dragon – think Chinese dragon without legs but with wings ^