Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
There was another clock hanging in the study, but this one was much more pleasant than the one in the living room. It merely ticked along quietly and didn’t chime chaotically. As such, Wen Shi tolerated its existence.
He stared at the clock hands for a bit longer before he suddenly turned his head and asked, “What was the time on that grandfather clock just now?”
Like a student that was called on out of the blue, Xia Qiao said in a panic, “I-I wasn’t paying attention.”
Wen Shi: “…I wasn’t asking you.”
Xia Qiao let out an embarrassed “oh,” and Wen Shi directed his gaze at Xie Wen.
Actually, Wen Shi was also a little startled when those words left his mouth. Because in previous cages, he always acted as the person who was either answering the questions or the person who was too lazy to even do that, opting for direct action instead and taking complete charge.
He was seldom one to ask questions. First of all, he didn’t talk much. Second, other people might not be able to notice the same things he could, and if he didn’t notice something, then it was even more unlikely that someone else would be able to. Third, by the nature of his personality: no matter how many years passed, he still didn’t like to trouble other people.
To him, “discussions” and “inquiries” were essentially tantamount to useless labor. So he would inevitably feel a little stunned upon breaking his habit; he almost wanted to say, “Never mind, pretend that I didn’t ask.”
Fortunately, Xie Wen spoke before he could. “One o’clock.”
Wen Shi let out an “en.” Something settled in his heart, as if another person who could speak had suddenly appeared on this path that he was originally walking on alone.
He began to say that different times were displayed on the grandfather clock and wall clock—perhaps there was a special meaning behind that.
However, before he could say anything, a certain someone with the surname Xie spoke again. In a joking manner, he added, “It was most likely one o’clock, but I’m not entirely sure about that. After all, you really did slice apart that clock awfully fast. If you were just a tiny bit slower, I would’ve been able to see the time clearly.”
Wen Shi looked away from the clock and heavily swallowed those words back down. He decided that a certain person should just obediently play the role of his puppet; as expected, those that kept their mouths shut and didn’t speak were better.
Mr. Li had already slipped behind the desk. There was a comprehensive set of papers and pens on the desk, as well as calligraphy brushes of varying sizes on the shelf. Several old-fashioned fountain pens rested in a stone drawer, but he was still rummaging in search of something.
“What’s he doing?” Even though Xia Qiao was a little afraid of Mr. Li, he couldn’t help but want to assist him.
Xie Wen was the last one to enter the room. He surveyed their surroundings and said, “Searching for ink, probably.”
By the time he finished speaking, Wen Shi had already yanked open a rusted metal cabinet. He unearthed a few bottles of ink from inside, and an unpleasant, foul odor instantly saturated the entire study.
Xia Qiao made a retching noise before he pinched his nose and said, “What is this smell?”
Ever since he read Young Master Shen’s diary, he had become very sensitive to strange smells in the Shen home. He was extremely afraid that he would encounter another incident of a person being hidden away in a sofa or a cabinet or something similar.
“The ink went bad,” Wen Shi said.
His expression was also quite ugly. Enduring the stench, he twisted open the cap before he took one glance inside the bottle and promptly threw it in the trash.
Except then, Mr. Li threw himself over and snatched the bottle back, as if it was some precious treasure.
“That ink has long since dried up,” Wen Shi said with a frown.
Unwilling to give up, Mr. Li scraped at the ink a few times with a calligraphy brush. Sure enough, he couldn’t write anything with it. All the ink bottles they found were dried up; not a single bottle was usable. It was almost as if something was deliberately trying to stop him from writing.
Wen Shi made a circle around the study without stopping once. Accompanied by loud bangs, he opened every single cabinet in the room, and though he didn’t find any new ink bottles, he did spot a chest made of camphor wood.
It was an extremely unremarkable chest, something that appeared very often in study rooms from that period of time. Yet it still managed to attract Wen Shi’s attention, because there was a lock on it.
What kind of important item would be placed in a chest?
As Wen Shi pondered over that question, his puppet string was already flying out.
The instant the tip of the string slid into the keyhole, the entire study suddenly flashed—the snow-white walls glowed orange, and soft crackling noises filled Wen Shi’s ears. A gust of hot wind blasted out of nowhere and swept past his face, unexpectedly a little scalding.
Xia Qiao sucked in a quiet breath through his teeth.
Wen Shi turned his head and saw Xia Qiao covering his arm with his hand. Xia Qiao repeatedly waved his other hand and said, “I’m okay, I’m okay. I think I must’ve bumped into something just now, it hurts a bit.”
Immediately after, Xia Qiao crinkled his face in confusion for a moment and amended, “That’s not right—it burns a bit. It feels like I was burned.”
He lowered his hand to check it out, but the skin there was perfectly intact. It wasn’t even red.
“What about you?” Wen Shi looked at Xie Wen.
“I’m fine.” Xie Wen was standing in the corner, and he rubbed the wall with his thumb. “This room was most likely burnt before.”
Indeed, the scene that flashed by earlier in the blink of an eye was especially similar to the site of a fire.
He lowered his head and asked Shen Manyi, “Has your house ever caught on fire?”
Shen Manyi peered up at him and said, “It hasn’t.”
Then what was that all about?
Wen Shi’s brows furrowed, and his puppet string slipped into the keyhole once more.
As the lock turned lightly, the entire study was suddenly plunged into a sea of fire!
Roiling waves of heat surged towards them. Even from a distance, the red-gold flames surged with enough intensity to lick off a layer of skin.
The fire churned in the air. Right as it was about to tear into and engulf Xia Qiao and Xie Wen, Wen Shi—who was in front of the chest—made a sweeping motion with his hand, and that chain-wrapped Tengshe shot straight out with bared fangs. It slithered its way in a circle around the study and completely swallowed the impending torrential rush of flames.
Covering his face, Xia Qiao squawked and ran around chaotically in the fire, but when he lifted his eyes, he saw his ge’s puppet gliding forward with its mouth open. Just like one of those “snakes” in arcade games, it consumed everything in its path; not even a spark was left behind in its wake. So long as it didn’t crash into a wall, it could swallow flames until the end of time.
As the flames continued to recede, Xie Wen pushed through the blaze and walked over to stand behind Wen Shi. He bent over to examine that chest, and he didn’t seem to be panicked at all.
Mr. Li and Shen Manyi didn’t really react either. One grabbed a fountain pen from the drawer, while the other blinked and stared at him like she was looking through a kaleidoscope.
Xia Qiao thought a little. Then, he covered his face with his hands again—because it was embarrassing.
He let one eye peek out from between his fingers as he shuffled over to his ge and Boss Xie. With a metallic clank, the copper lock on the chest fell onto the ground, successfully undone.
The flames leaped a few times before they finally retreated in defeat. Wen Shi’s left hand closed in a fist, sending away the Tengshe. At the same time, he opened the lid of the chest with his right hand.
They thought that they were going to be greeted by the sight of something unusual, like a photograph, an old possession, or a notebook with important information recorded in it. Unexpectedly, this chest was filled entirely with pieces of paper that had words written densely across each sheet.
Wen Shi randomly picked up a few sheets and swept a look over their contents.
Behind him, Xia Qiao murmured, “What is this? Excerpts from famous poems?”
“The homework that Mr. Li assigned us.” A little girl’s voice sounded abruptly.
Shen Manyi nodded and crouched down next to the chest. She said earnestly, “The homework that Mr. Li assigned us, so that we can practice writing characters. We had to turn it in every day.”
She paused for a moment before she added softly, “I don’t like to practice writing characters, so I didn’t turn it in very often.”
The handwriting on the topmost sheets was extremely familiar, as it was precisely the same as the one in the diary. The strokes of the characters were somewhat soft and youthful, but they were drawn with extreme care and diligence. It was most likely the handwriting belonging to the Shen family’s little young master.
Wen Shi found his signature on the third page: Shen Mansheng. The name was rather elegant, and the characters paired well together, which made the diary entries seem all the more bone-chilling by contrast.
Mr. Li’s mark, written in vermillion, followed after the signature. It was a mere dab of ink, indicating that he had read it over.
Wen Shi riffled through a small portion of the chest, but everything he came across was similar—Shen Mansheng would have two to three pages’ worth of character practice, and Mr. Li would note down a single mark. He never left any comments, and it seemed like this really was just a collection of simple and frequent daily assignments.
Why would this be locked up?
In the midst of his confusion, Wen Shi suddenly heard a strange noise come from nearby, as if something had been stabbed into flesh and was slowly tearing said flesh apart.
He turned his head and saw that the tutor, Mr. Li, was currently slumped over the desk. There was an old-fashioned fountain pen in his hand, and he was slashing his arm open with the tip of the pen.
This was truly a horrific scene!
“What are you doing?” Wen Shi immediately tightened his grip on the puppet string, wanting to put a stop to Mr. Li’s shocking behavior. Except then, pen still in his grasp, Mr. Li haltingly swiveled his head to look at Wen Shi.
The tutor’s eyes had already rotted away. There was no way to see where his gaze was directed, nor was there any way to make out the expression contained within them. But perhaps because of the water that trickled endlessly from his sockets, he always gave the impression that he was crying, yet he also seemed to be exceptionally determined.
The skin surrounding the injury on his arm was flipped outwards. A large pool of water poured out first before blood sluggishly began to seep out of the wound.
Mr. Li stared at it. Once a small puddle of blood gradually accumulated, he carefully dipped the tip of the fountain pen into it. He was using blood as ink.
“I…” Xia Qiao couldn’t get any words out. After being stunned for quite a while, he couldn’t help but say, “You can also write if you dip your pen into water, don’t slice open your arm!”
However, it seemed like Mr. Li couldn’t bear to hear the word “water.” He gave a shudder before he lowered his head and forcefully wrote down a character on a piece of paper.
It was most likely a bit too forceful; even his fingers were trembling, causing the character to emerge crooked and warped, difficult to distinguish. Despite that, Wen Shi and the others were still able to recognize it.
That was the character for “Shen.”
After Mr. Li was done writing the character, he stared fixedly at it and nearly snapped the fountain pen in half. Perhaps a bit dissatisfied, he looked at it for several seconds before he blotted out the misshapen character and found another empty space on the paper. He lowered his pen again… and wrote another “Shen.”
Xia Qiao: “?”
He didn’t understand the meaning behind this action, and he shot a glance at Wen Shi, face covered in question marks—except his ge didn’t even bother to raise his head as his gaze remained focused on the sheet of paper. He didn’t seem to have any intention of pressing Mr. Li, and he allowed him to do as he pleased.
As a result, the tutor wrote a character and crossed it out over and over. In a short span of time, he filled up a full sheet of paper.
The entire paper was covered in the blood red character for “Shen.” At first glance, it was quite a ghastly sight. Moreover, the writing style grew increasingly frantic and rough, and Mr. Li also started to become increasingly agitated.
Xia Qiao finally remembered Wen Shi’s question from earlier. He had asked Mr. Li: “Who are you afraid of?”
If he couldn’t say it, then he would write it. Thus, Mr. Li completely filled a piece of paper with the character “Shen.”
“So the one he’s afraid of is still that young master, Shen Mansheng?” Xia Qiao looked at the chest.
Wen Shi was quiet for a moment before he unexpectedly shook his head.
“Is it not?” Xia Qiao pointed at the characters drenched in blood on the paper. He said in astonishment, “He’s even writing using his blood.”
“Then why isn’t he writing the full name?” Wen Shi asked in return.
Xia Qiao couldn’t give an answer.
Rather than being filled with intense hatred, causing every character to bleed red, Wen Shi felt like Mr. Li was more so locked in a struggle—perhaps he wanted to write something else, but this was the only character that he could produce when he lowered his pen to the paper. That was why he ended up writing and crossing out the same character again and again.
Right as that thought flashed through his mind, Xie Wen suddenly spoke. “Come take a look at this.”
Wen Shi raised his head just in time to see Xie Wen extract a piece of paper from the very bottom of the chest. He placed it on the corner of the desk and lightly tapped the signature with his index finger.
This was still Young Master Shen Mansheng’s handwriting homework. However, this time Mr. Li’s remarks consisted of more than a single dash—it was a short paragraph.
His notes were authored in vermillion ink, and because it had weathered through time, the ink had corroded until it was the same color as Mr. Li’s blood.
He wrote: Do not copy Ah Jun’s handwriting all the time. He started learning late, so he is considerably farther behind than the rest of you. I know not whether you all are playing around or if there is another motive at hand, but no progress will be made if you keep up with this. Should this continue for a long time, you will not be able to break the habit, and it is also impolite.
Yan: If anyone happened to buy the physical novel, you might have noticed that Musuli changed a lot of the content (in terms of cutting out certain parts, changing words, or changing terms altogether). This translation will still be based off of the web version, though I will be translating the book exclusive extra eventually, whenever we finally get there :’)