Arc Four: Shop Sanmi
“1918…” Wen Shi quietly read the year out loud.
“18?” Xia Qiao didn’t dare to interject too much, but he was still startled when he craned his head and saw the date. “How could it be 1918? The diary clearly had it down as 1913—”
Before he could finish his sentence, he raised his head and saw Xie Wen. As a result, he remembered what Xie Wen had said earlier: not everything stated in a cage was true. It would often be influenced by the cage master’s consciousness and differ to some degree from the truth.
“Someone wrote all the entries in the diary,” Wen Shi said without bothering to look at him.
Xia Qiao’s confusion didn’t lessen, but he still nodded obediently.
Unexpectedly, Xie Wen was the one who shot Wen Shi an appreciative glance and added, “Some things are even written on purpose, solely for the sake of letting other people read it. For instance, the diary in your ge’s pocket.”
He pointed at the rolled-up journal in the pocket of Wen Shi’s jeans and said, “If even the ‘I’ in the diary is fake, why do you still trust anything it says? To please the person who wrote it?”
Xia Qiao promptly shook his head with the demeanour of someone who had said something foolish.
As soon as he was done convincing Xia Qiao, Xie Wen’s tone of voice shifted, and he glanced at Wen Shi. “Although, someone wrote all the letters as well, so there’s not much of a difference there.”
Wen Shi: “…”
This person really was here just to stir up trouble.
Wen Shi lifted his head and stared at Xie Wen with a wooden expression on his face. Then, he opened and flipped the letter’s envelope over before he presented the section with the seal so that it was right in front of Xie Wen’s eyes.
“Look at the signature seal,” Wen Shi said.
Actually, there was no real need to explain the finer details of things like this to him. After all, Wen Shi was the one undoing the cage. There was no way Xie Wen would be able to do it with his constitution; just like Xia Qiao and the others, nothing would change whether Xie Wen knew the truth or not.
But in front of Xie Wen, Wen Shi still wasn’t able to hold back.
It was very hard to pinpoint the reasoning behind this decision. Perhaps he didn’t want to make it seem like he was being too subjective.
With the letter nearly touching the tip of his nose, Xie Wen smiled and leaned back a little to make some room. “I see it.”
The letters were indeed written by a person. Strictly speaking, they weren’t all that different from the diary, but that wasn’t the case for the signature seal.
As Wen Shi said previously, they had to gather all the information and clues precisely because not everything in the cage was accurate. After they compared it all, it would become much easier to determine what was true and what was fake.
Even if the cage master’s subconsciousness was controlling the information given, it couldn’t possibly take care of every single aspect. Something would always slip through in a lie.
The round seal on the envelope was marked with a date: May 6, 1918. There was also a date on the seal indicating the letter’s return to sender: May 17, 1918. Both of them aligned with the date written in Mr. Li’s signature at the end of the letter.
Xie Wen took the letter from Wen Shi’s hand. As he scanned through it, he asked, “What was the date in the diary?”
Wen Shi pulled out the diary from his pocket and flipped to the page with the folded corner. Upon seeing the date, he frowned slightly. “May 19.”
Holding the pages of the letter, Xie Wen said, “What a coincidence, it’s the same day as the nanny.”
Mr. Li’s letter hadn’t mentioned the exact year of the nanny’s death. However, as Wen Shi looked at the diary, he suddenly had a suspicion that “May 19, 1913” most likely wasn’t a random date chosen in passing.
He started rummaging through the letter box again. This time, his objective was extremely clear—if the nanny truly had committed suicide by hanging on that day, in that year, there was a high possibility that Mr. Li would’ve brought it up in a letter, considering his habit of corresponding with his wife.
Mr. Li was an organized person; he had arranged all the letters he received by date. Wen Shi swiftly found the letters from five years earlier, and he selected the three that were dated post-May.
Before Wen Shi could even explain the purpose of this, Xie Wen had already pulled a letter from his grasp. “One letter per person. We’ll go through them faster this way.”
Xia Qiao also took one of the letters when he heard that, though his expression was very puzzled as he did so.
“Do you know what to look for?” Xie Wen said.
Xia Qiao was already flushed. That color evidently indicated that he had absolutely no idea.
Xie Wen’s gaze flitted across Wen Shi’s face, but it wasn’t clear what was going through his mind at that moment. Maybe he was lamenting the large gap between Wen Shi and Xia Qiao, even though they were “brothers” from the same family.
“Check to see if the letter mentions anything about the nanny’s passing.” Xie Wen said.
Xia Qiao nodded hastily and began opening the letter.
Right after Wen Shi opened his mouth, he closed it again, saved from having to explain anything. He also lowered his gaze and started tearing apart the envelope. A beat later, he still couldn’t help but ask, “How did you know that?”
Xie Wen glanced up at him briefly before he curved his eyes and looked down once more. As he unfolded the letter, he said, “Are you the only one who’s allowed to be smart?”
Wen Shi should’ve fired back a retort or ignored it altogether, just like he usually did. But this time, he stared at Xie Wen for a long moment before he suddenly averted his eyes and said flatly, “Yes.”
There was a cracking noise nearby—that was the sound of Xia Qiao snapping his head up too forcefully. He looked at his ge in shock, and for a short while, it was hard for him to tell if his ge was just acting abnormal or if his identity had been stolen.
Xie Wen also looked over.
But Wen Shi didn’t speak again. He simply ducked his head and began scanning through the contents of the letter in his hand.
This was a reply letter from Mr. Li’s wife, Xu Yarong. The date on the seal was July 2, 1913, whereas the date in the letter’s signature was June 14, 1913.
By the time he got to the second line, he had already found something related to the nanny.
「In the past, you would regularly write about the butler and the Shen family’s young master, but this Cai-jie did not come up often. You only said that she came to stay at the Shen residence with her son Ah Jun, so I did not expect your mention of her this time to be connected to such an incident. It is truly quite saddening, why would she suddenly hang herself out of the blue?
That son of hers, Ah Jun, is around the same age as the Shen family’s young master, isn’t he—nine or ten years old? Having nobody left to rely on at such a young age, what will he do from this point forward; the rest of you should look after him well.」
Although there wasn’t much else written, it was enough to confirm one thing—Mama Cai did indeed pass away on May 19, 1913.
Wen Shi focused on the first question in the letter before he abruptly raised his head and asked, “Who has the August letter?”
Xie Wen: “I do.”
Wen Shi: “Did it mention why the nanny hanged herself?”
Typically speaking, since Xu Yarong had asked why the nanny would suddenly hang herself out of the blue, Mr. Li should’ve discussed the reasons to some extent in his next letter. In that case, it was very likely that Xu Yarong would’ve also brought it up in her reply back to him.
As expected, Xie Wen pointed to a line in his letter and said, “Conflagration.”
That word choice was a bit outdated, and Wen Shi shot Xie Wen a look before he took the letter from him. In it was written:
「Although it is extremely dangerous for the bed curtains to catch on fire, Miss Shen was saved in the end, and she did not sustain any injuries either. All Cai-jie needed to do was give a sincere apology and pay a bit more attention in the future. Worst comes to worst, she could have resigned from the job and returned home. Why did she have to take it so harshly?
Ah, I am in no place to comment, as there is much I do not know. I merely feel that this Cai-jie was also quite pitiable.
Has Miss Shen recovered at all? In your letter, you said that her fever wasn’t receding. I am also a tad worried, since she is the same age as our Nannan. I have no sense of what the young lady looks like, but my mind is filled with our darling’s face every time I see you mention Miss Shen in a letter. It is always a fright if a child comes down with a fever, so you must take care of her well, as she is still growing.」
Even though there were only a few relevant lines in the letter, a general understanding of the situation could still be pieced together from them—
Presumably, Mama Cai was a bit careless that day and lit something on fire in the room, almost resulting in an accident with Shen Manyi. Fortunately, the blaze was extinguished in time, avoiding a tragedy; it was simply a false alarm.
But Mama Cai couldn’t overcome it. Just as Mr. Li had said in his letter, she was once a young lady in a respected household, and she only came to the Shen residence after her family suffered financial hardships, so she was often depressed. Perhaps she was afraid that she would be blamed for the fire, or perhaps she thought that there wasn’t much meaning to her everyday life. Regardless, in a moment of despair, she took her own life.
In Xia Qiao’s October letter, there was even less mention of this incident. The only pertinent lines were: 「Do you still remember the Zhu family from our county? Their third child also had a high fever when he was young, and he ended up in this state as well. His illness is quite similar to Miss Shen’s.」
Wen Shi folded the pages again and put them back in their envelopes before he walked over to the patio door, holding the box. He placed those letters, which were once buried at the bottom of the well, into Mr. Li’s hands.
The tunic-clad tutor stared blankly at the copper box. Then, he peered upwards, as if he was still sitting in that dark, skyless deep well.
Except this time, he was able to see the eaves of the roof and the moon.
With shaking fingers, he hastily opened the copper box and flipped through its contents eagerly. Once he saw that the sender of every letter was Xu Yarong, his shoulders finally slumped downwards slowly. After that, he hugged the box close to himself like he was holding all of his belongings in his arms.
In that instant, the wisps of black mist floating around him lashed out abruptly, similar to a horde of snakes that had been startled awake, and began to display signs of a rampage.
That muddle-headed person finally remembered what it was that he desired.
He remembered all that he couldn’t bear to part with, all that he couldn’t bear to let go of; he remembered his strongest, deepest fixation before death; he remembered the reason why he had to linger in this world for so long without ever departing.
Just like Shen Manyi from earlier.
Similar to uncontrollable willow leaf-thin blades, the black mist ricocheted outwards, leaving behind several extremely thin but extremely deep cuts as it brushed past Wen Shi’s arms. Yet Wen Shi didn’t avoid it, nor did he walk away.
Amidst the twisting, ravaging black mist, he bent down and asked Mr. Li, “What kind of illness did Shen Manyi have?”
Mr. Li stared at him before he picked up a branch and wrote stiffly in the mud of the garden: No memory retention, no physical or mental growth.
Wen Shi turned to look at Shen Manyi. Kneading her fingers, the young girl tilted her head back and gazed at him in bewilderment.
“How old are you?” Wen Shi asked.
The young girl began counting on her fingers. Even though she had clearly counted all the way to sixteen, she said softly, “I’m eleven.”
She had almost died in a fire, and she had also personally witnessed Mama Cai—the person who helped raise her, the person who stitched bows for her—hang herself from a roof beam.
That room’s window faced the back garden. Back when Shen Manyi used to swing on the hanging swing, Mama Cai would sit right next to the window and work on her sewing. Every so often, she would glance up at Shen Manyi and warn her not to swing too high or else she might fall.
The window was also open that day. Mama Cai was still next to the window and—ah, she was suspended so high in the air. When the wind blew into the room, she slowly revolved in a circle on the rope.
Shen Manyi had an on-and-off fever for more than half a month, and she kept dreaming throughout that period of time.
She dreamed that she was playing hide-and-seek with her younger siblings and Ah Jun. She took it very seriously and hid underneath the bed, wrapped in the dangling bed curtains, but she accidentally fell asleep. By the time she woke up from her slumber and opened her eyes again, she was surrounded by flames.
She also dreamed that she crawled out of the blaze and was met with the sight of Mama Cai’s embroidered shoes hanging high in the air.
She slept for a long, long time and only gradually awakened once she stopped having those dreams. From that point on, time stopped forever for her, and she was frozen in that summer of 1913.
The fever left behind residual effects. Her younger brother and sisters continued to grow, as did Ah Jun, yet she remained the same size from beginning to end. Whenever her clothes tore, she would go sit on the bed in the downstairs bedroom with her dress in her arms and wait for Mama Cai to come stitch up the rips. Whenever she flew high on the swing, she would turn her head to look at the window and wave in its direction.
Mr. Li no longer insisted that she complete her homework, and Mama Cai also stopped teaching her the domestic arts. As a result, she had ample free time to play.
What she liked most was actually the swing, but for some reason, the people in her home were always unhappy. She wanted to make everyone laugh, so she came up with many games and made many people play those games with her.
Ah Jun was the most unhappy, which was why she always made sure to bring him along.
After all, she was the older sister.
Except—this older sister wasn’t able to play with her younger siblings for very long before she died in the summer of another year. Ah Jun was especially unhappy that day, so she did everything in her power to cheer him up; she laughed and she messed around, all the way up until she was hidden in the sofa.
That day was May 19, the same day the hem of Mama Cai’s dress first floated across the windowsill.
That year, Mansheng and Ah Jun were both fifteen. They were already tall like adults, while she was still eleven years old, a slight young girl.
There was also dust and cobwebs under the sofa, just like the space underneath the bed, which was where she used to hide when she played hide-and-seek. The only difference was that she didn’t need to snap her neck and limbs to play hide-and-seek, and it wasn’t as painful.
It was as if everything had traveled through time: a life for a life.
The young girl crouched next to the patio door. Bit by bit, her confused expression faded, and the corners of her mouth slowly tugged downwards.
At that moment, whatever was binding her to the cage loosened briefly, and the entire Shen manor trembled like it had been struck by an unexpected earthquake.
With one question, Wen Shi woke her up.
Xia Qiao was given a scare, and he steadied himself by sinking into a half-squat. He said in a panic, “What’s going on?”
Xie Wen: “The cage is going to come apart soon.”
Xia Qiao: “Really? Why?”
“Suppose you’re hiding behind a curtain with quite a few toy balls in your grasp. All of a sudden, some of those balls fall uncontrollably. Wouldn’t you be in a rush to come out and pick them up?”
“It’s the same principle here.” Xie Wen began walking towards Wen Shi. “Your ge is luring the cage master out.”
At that, Xia Qiao abruptly felt like nothing was safe around them. It seemed as if someone was always staring at them from behind; after all, the cage master had yet to make any sort of appearance. “Where could they be hiding?”
Without looking back, Xie Wen said, “Anywhere’s possible, as long as a person can show up there.”
Xia Qiao nervously shot a glance behind him before he hurriedly chased after them.
As Xie Wen came to a stop next to Wen Shi, he raised his hand and swept aside a patch of black mist. While doing so, he heard Wen Shi ask Mr. Li, “Where were you trying to go with the letter box?”
Mr. Li swayed in the wake of the tremors and wrote two words down on the ground using the branch: Police station.
Quite a while later, he added another word under the first two: Home.
“You were going to first file a report at the police station, and then you were going to return home with your letters, never to come back. Is that correct?”
It had been a very long time since Mr. Li last thought about the topic of this question, so when those words clearly left Wen Shi’s mouth, Mr. Li subconsciously shrank backwards.
That was a stance of fear and repulsion.
However, a good while later, he still ended up curling his hands into fists and nodding once.
That’s right, he had almost forgotten all about it. He was going to file a report at the police station, and after that, he was supposed to return home.
He wasn’t a particularly courageous person. Even if he discovered the truth about something, he wouldn’t outright say anything about it. At the time, he had planned it out quite thoroughly: once it was the dead of night, he was going to scoop up his precious copper box, as well as a letter to hand over to the police. Then, he would leave through the backyard so that he wouldn’t alert anyone else.
The wall surrounding the backyard wasn’t tall. If he stacked a rock on top of the well, he could stand on tiptoe and easily leap over the wall; it wasn’t a problem even for someone of his height.
Afraid that the others would overthink things or feel worried, he left a short note on the coffee table stating that an urgent matter had come up at home, requiring his temporary departure.
After that, he fumbled his way over to the backyard wall with his most important possession in his arms. But never once did he expect for someone to already be waiting for him there.
As he dropped down the well with the hemp rope looped around his neck, he heard the grandfather clock in the Shen manor’s living room strike once, like the toll of a bell at the entrance to the netherworld.
In that moment, many thoughts flashed across his mind.
He thought: he shouldn’t have adjusted the time on the grandfather clock. Every night when the clock rang, the butler would wake up for a while and get up to drink a glass of water. If the clock hadn’t been adjusted, the butler would’ve woken up a little earlier, and he definitely would’ve discovered what was happening in the backyard. Perhaps the butler could’ve saved his life.
He also thought: Yarong and Nannan would never be able to receive his letters again. He didn’t know if that would make them cry.
And he thought: how wonderful would it be if this was all just a dream.
This must be a dream.
Each long, endless night from that day onwards, Mr. Li would always sit up in his bed in that bedroom after all the others had fallen asleep. He would write down his note for the butler, and then before anyone could wake up, he would go to the wardrobe to search for his copper letter box.
That was his family property. As long as he took it with him, he would be able to leave this place. But even though he searched for it every single night, he could never find it.
He hugged the letter box tightly and scratched out more words with the branch: Now, can I go home?
Right as the last word was written, the Shen manor started to shake even more violently.
Remembering what Xie Wen said earlier, Xia Qiao counted silently to himself: Two balls have dropped.
It was likely that the cage master really was beginning to feel alarmed, because the entire Shen manor was suddenly suffused with reddish-gold. Flickering flames were reflected on the walls, and there were several silhouettes quivering in the blaze.
That was followed by an endless surge of crisp crackling noises, like the sound of firewood burning in a furnace.
Then, a scalding wind swept towards them from the depths of the hallway, and waves of heat distorted all the straight lines in the room.
They seemed to be in the middle of a strange fire—every other aspect was present except for the flames themselves.
As soon as that thought flashed through his mind, Wen Shi suddenly raised his head and looked towards the end of the hallway.
“Close the door!!!” someone bellowed in the distance.
The voice wasn’t especially loud or clear, but it carried extremely well and pierced straight into their eardrums.
Before the tail end of the word “door” could taper off, several figures shot around the corner and raced frantically towards them!
The newcomers’ chaotic footsteps overlapped and echoed through the entire hallway, creating a tense and uneasy atmosphere.
Da Dong was at the front of the pack. As he sprinted, he gestured furiously and roared, “Fire! The fire’s catching up to us!”
The people who were previously fast asleep in their rooms had all woken up somehow. Even though there clearly weren’t many of them in number, they still managed to make quite the impressive sight while running.
Xia Qiao was completely lost, and he shouted at them, “What’s going on?”
“I had a dream!” Sun Siqi swiftly surpassed Da Dong as he beelined directly towards Xia Qiao. Since his momentum was too great, Xia Qiao was forced to back up several steps when Sun Siqi collided into him, knocking them both against the wall.
“I was that—that grandma!” Sun Siqi struggled to get up from his position next to the wall. “I was originally on my way to that little room to replenish the oil for the eternal flame candles, but then that room caught on fire!”
Xia Qiao was stupefied. “What happened after that?”
Sun Siqi slapped his thigh. “After that, it really did catch on fire! The entire building started burning!”
“Who started the fire?” Wen Shi asked.
“Ah Jun!” Sun Siqi was taken aback for a moment when those words came out of his mouth. He probably wanted to amend his declaration, but it was already too late for that.
The building began shaking even harder, and the windows upstairs and downstairs all started to rattle wildly.
It was obvious that Sun Siqi had merged with someone in the cage via his dream, causing him to accidentally dream about the experiences belonging to the Shen family’s cook. Usually when this type of situation occurred, he should’ve stayed asleep all the way until Wen Shi undid the cage, yet he had unexpectedly woken up.
“How did you wake up?” questioned Wen Shi.
Sun Siqi covered his cheek with his hand and turned to point at someone behind him. “Lao Mao slapped me so many times!”
Wen Shi raised his head and saw Lao Mao running at the very back of the group. As Lao Mao turned the corner and rushed in their direction, a lengthy coil of flames surged straight towards him with a boom.
In an instant, the blaze swallowed up the people who were still running.
Sun Siqi and Xia Qiao gasped in unison as their blood ran cold.
At that exact moment, Xie Wen’s fingers twitched in the air at his side. Immediately after, a long, sonorous cry rang out from the fire like a gust of wind whistling down a mountain ridge, passing through an endless stretch of pine trees.
An enormous feathered wing, gilded entirely in gold, swept through the sea of flames, leaving behind an insurmountable and impenetrable wall of wind in its wake!
The roaring inferno struck the wall of wind head-on and instantly billowed outwards like a huge fire lotus. However, not a single spark was splashed onto the rest of the group.
Da Dong, Zhou Xu, and Lao Mao ran out from the blaze, completely unharmed due to the sweep of that feathered wing.
Under the glow of the flames, they turned to look behind them in fright, but all they saw was the lingering afterimage of a golden wing.