Thank you to Blacksoy and Imalicia for the Ko-fis!
Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
Perhaps because his soul had been separated from his body for much too long, it felt a little foreign upon returning to him. One part of him was rejecting it, while another part was pulling it closer. As the two sides tugged back and forth, the victim of the suffering ended up being Wen Shi himself.
He slept deeply for a very long time.
The pain came in intermittent spurts, sometimes light and sometimes heavy. Since it was the same pain he felt when the worldly bonds emerged to plague him, it was a little hard for him to tell if it was being generated by his soul’s re-entry or if it was a figment of the memories.
However, in the end, all of the pain was eclipsed by that last foolish, ambiguous dream.
It was also raining outside when Wen Shi woke up.
The sound of the rain drumming against the windowpane was a bit similar to the sound of it striking the roof of the traditional-style residence on Mount Songyun; both were quite muffled. As the rainwater trickled and flowed everywhere, the liquid noise of it streamed along the roof and the bottom of the walls—it followed the curve of his ear and seeped into the crevices between his bones.
It was night here too, the same as his dream. There was only one lamp in the room, and it was turned on its dimmest setting. Like that tiny candle flame from back then, the lamp silently cast down a circle of light that was far from harsh on the eyes.
But Wen Shi still raised his hand and shielded himself from it.
He narrowed his eyes underneath the cover provided by the back of his hand. The faint light spilled in through the tapered spaces between his eyelashes, reflecting a streak of brightness amidst the shadows.
“Awake?” Someone suddenly spoke.
It was Xie Wen.
His low and deep voice was just like the sound of the rain: it didn’t seem out of place at all in the quiet room.
Yet Wen Shi’s fingers twitched briefly as he used his hand to block out the light.
A moment ago, he had just heard this person’s voice in his memories, except it wasn’t so clear.
In his dream, the other person was draped in a long white robe, and he leaned against the door with a lantern held aloft in his grasp. As the muffled thunder of early spring rumbled outside the mountain, Wen Shi sat on his bamboo daybed, gaze lowered. He was drenched in sweat, his heart hammering away like a drum.
Wen Shi closed his eyes for a second before he pushed himself up from the bed.
He gave a short “en,” a perfunctory response to Xie Wen’s question.
Because he was lying down for too long, all of his joints had grown tight and stiff, and they cracked and popped when he moved. Wen Shi let his head droop forward as he massaged the back of his neck. His lips were pressed together, and they were very pale in color. It was hard to tell what his current mood was just by looking at his face, and it was even harder to tell how much of his past he had recalled in his dream.
Xie Wen, who was standing next to the bed, bent down to turn the bedside lamp brighter.
As Wen Shi’s gaze skittered down the other person’s elbow towards his slim, pale fingers, the scene from his dream abruptly materialized in front of him again.
The drenched puppet string was stretched taut, entwined and tangled together in segments of varying length. That was an extension of his soul—it was a part of him.
The hand in his dream was also fair and slender. It gently gripped his puppet string as a low voice said to him, “Greet me.”
For a very long period of time in the past, that was something Wen Shi was unable to brush aside—
That was the person who gave Wen Shi his name and his origin. Over a decade later, he ended up becoming Wen Shi’s unspeakable bond to the mundane world, the subject of his foolish and absurd desire.
When Wen Shi looked up, he was met with the sight of Xie Wen’s profile, illuminated by a faint yellow glow. The top two buttons of Xie Wen’s shirt were undone, and his sleeves were rolled up, revealing the sculpted bones of his wrists as he rotated the knob at the base of the lamp with his thumb. It was the same as back then, when Xie Wen stood in his doorway carrying a lantern in his hand, draped in a long robe.
All of a sudden, Wen Shi couldn’t recall how his nineteen-year-old self had ultimately dealt with those hidden feelings.
Without a doubt, he must’ve kept silent about it, suppressing and concealing it deep within himself. Then, he must’ve eventually used the Soul Cleansing Array that he found in the book to wash everything away all at once. Following that, after he came of age, he must’ve left Mount Songyun together with his fellow disciples.
He abruptly realized why he only ever seemed to remember things from his childhood. Perhaps it was because from that point on, there were no more close interactions between him and Chen Budao. Instead, there was a somewhat restrained distance separating each of their movements and gestures.
Even entertaining anecdotes grew scarce in number, and they were hardly anything to write home about.
He had buried it too well, evaded it too thoroughly. In Chen Budao’s eyes, Wen Shi was most likely just a disciple who was clingy and reliant during his childhood but suddenly became withdrawn and detached upon growing up.
As for all of that—Wen Shi couldn’t remember any of it.
“Does your head still hurt?” Xie Wen’s voice was submerged in the babble of the rain.
The lamp was significantly brighter now. Wen Shi’s fingers remained pressed against the nape of his neck, kneading away aimlessly as his gaze landed on the shadow next to Xie Wen’s feet.
Looking at him, yet also avoiding him.
“It doesn’t,” Wen Shi answered, his voice tinged with sleepiness and a slight hoarseness.
He averted his eyes from the spot next to Xie Wen and licked his dry lips.
Then, he heard something clink lightly at the head of the bed. He peered over just in time to see Xie Wen pick up a glass cup from the bedside table, after which he straightened upright and started walking towards the door.
As Wen Shi raised his head, Xie Wen paused in place briefly before he turned to cast a glance back at Wen Shi. He hefted the glass in his hand and said, “I’ll go pour you a cup of water.”
Only then did the shuffle of his footsteps continue out the door.
“Are you awake?”
“You’re finally up?”
Two crisp voices suddenly chimed out simultaneously. Wen Shi looked over and saw the two girls, Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao, plastered outside the door as they stretched their heads into the room. One girl’s face was a bit rounder, while the other’s was a bit sharper, but their expressions were exactly the same.
Before this, Wen Shi already had a feeling that there was something a little strange about these two girls. Now he knew why he had felt that way—they were both puppets.
There were quite a few children on Mount Songyun. Since Chen Budao was often away from home and couldn’t be there to take care of them all the time, he eventually crafted a pair of puppets: Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao.
However, Wen Shi didn’t have a particularly deep impression of them. Maybe it was because they weren’t like the Golden-Winged Dapeng, who was constantly perched on Wen Shi’s shoulder. As a result, nearly every single one of Wen Shi’s childhood memories contained the shadow of that bird.
More often than not, Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao stayed on the mountain. They were usually only in charge of food and lodging, and they weren’t always present. Occasionally, if a disciple fell sick, the girls would stick around for a bit longer to boil medicine and simmer soup.
So whenever they noticed that someone wasn’t feeling well, they simply couldn’t help themselves.
“Do you still feel uncomfortable? The water’s already boiled, we’ve been keeping it warm.” Da Zhao said.
Even though he didn’t have a very deep impression of her, the way she looked when she glued herself to the door frame and stuck her head into the room still managed to bring Wen Shi abruptly back to Mount Songyun.
And it dawned on him then: although Xie Wen seemed to be surrounded by a lively group of people, with someone or the other always trailing after him—in the end, not a single one was human.
“Can we come in?” Xiao Zhao asked.
Wen Shi’s voice was still somewhat raspy. “Why wouldn’t you be able to?”
“Boss won’t let us, ow—” Da Zhao pinched her, causing Xiao Zhao to let out a grumble, “—go in.”
It took Wen Shi a moment to realize who she was referring to as “Boss.”
It was like this before as well. When the other disciples were feeling unwell, Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao were the ones who rolled up their sleeves to busily take care of them. But Wen Shi was the exception.
Because of his unique constitution, and because there were too many things hidden inside him, he was always afflicted by more than just a headache, fever, or chills every time he fell ill. It would inevitably be accompanied by the retaliation of those intense worldly bonds.
Every time that happened, Chen Budao would personally come attend to him. Meanwhile, Da Zhao, Xiao Zhao, and even Lao Mao couldn’t do anything other than watch from the window or the bird stand.
“What are you revealing about me?” Xie Wen’s shuffling footsteps started heading back towards them from the living room.
Right as Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao were about to sneak furtively inside, they were startled into a flustered scramble, and they instantly slunk back out of the room.
Da Zhao shook her head. “Nothing, nothing.”
Xiao Zhao added, “We wouldn’t dare, we wouldn’t dare.”
But Xie Wen didn’t seem to have any real intention of stopping them. After the two girls timidly made way for him, he entered the room with the cup in his hand.
He shot a glance behind him. “What nonsense did they tell you?”
Wen Shi said lowly, “They didn’t say anything.”
A few seconds later, his lips parted again, and he looked up as he said, “What kind of nonsense could they possibly be telling me about you.”
The room went quiet for a second. Xie Wen turned to face forward, gaze half-lowered as he met Wen Shi’s eyes.
Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao—who were still plastered against the door frame, one above and one below—suddenly fell completely silent.
For a fleeting moment, Wen Shi thought that the other person was going to say something in response to that.
But Xie Wen merely curved his eyes and brows ever so slightly.
“Who, me?” He handed the cup over, his voice mild and deep as it echoed in Wen Shi’s ears. “There’s quite a lot, but I’m assuming those two girls don’t have the guts to spill it anyway.”
It was very strange.
Xie Wen’s actions and movements were clearly more or less replicas of moments that had taken place centuries ago on Mount Songyun. He still possessed that same calm and composed manner of caretaking, occasionally using some nearby person or creature as the subject of a few lines of teasing banter. At the same time, everything was entirely different from back then.
When Wen Shi took the cup, his fingers brushed against Xie Wen’s fingertips.
He froze for an instant before he shifted his ring finger back the tiniest bit, avoiding the sensation of touch. Then he switched the cup to his left hand and tilted his head back slightly to drink from it, eyes half-closed.
As Wen Shi subconsciously kneaded the knuckles of his right hand, he thought to himself: No wonder it feels different.
In his youth, this kind of atmosphere would’ve never existed between him and Chen Budao—
A tranquil and steady tone of voice, but biting and antagonistic words. It was just like the lake nestled in the cradle of Mount Songyun; during the tides, there were no ripples on the surface, yet the undercurrents below were already surging violently and turbulently.
As a child, he was always well-behaved, reticent, and easily dependent.
If he were to trace this manner of speaking back to when it first started, he would find that it began after he became an adult.
Without fail, every time he came out of the Soul Cleansing Array, he bristled with thorns for several days. Bu Ning and the others often joked that the Soul Cleansing Array was indeed capable of producing remarkable results: it could transform a person as cold as frost and snow into an icy arrow, one that stung you if you so much as bumped against it.
But none of that was actually intentional.
It was simply because Wen Shi had to watch all of his foolish desires dissipate and sluice away under the effect of the Soul Cleansing Array, before then standing in front of Chen Budao with an appearance that was clean and untouched by the mundane world, making irrelevant small talk in an indifferent and unaffected way. He couldn’t help but reveal a side of him that was prickly and filled with sharp opposition.
Only when he was being confrontational and belligerent could he separate himself from the little disciple that he used to be in his childhood. And only then could he find a trace of misperception, a hint of a response, in the corners of Chen Budao’s eyes and the tips of his brows.
At the time, Wen Shi thought that he was being contradictory and stubborn.
Thinking back on it now, he realized that he was merely unable to suppress his emotions—and the more he tried to hide it, the more conspicuous it became.
“What are you thinking about?” Xie Wen spoke abruptly.
As Wen Shi snapped out of it, he finally noticed that he had been silent for a long time, with the empty cup still grasped in his hand. Meanwhile, Xie Wen had unexpectedly chosen to stand there next to him the entire time, watching him with a downcast gaze. Who knew what exactly he was looking at.
All of a sudden, Wen Shi saw the other person reach towards him with slightly bent fingers.
For a split second, those fingers seemed like they were about to brush lightly against his face.
Wen Shi’s eyelashes flickered, only to see the other person wrap his hand around the cup.
“Nothing much.” Wen Shi drew his hand back and threw the blanket aside so he could get out of bed. “I can do it myself.”
After he said that, he started to head towards the door, barefoot, carrying the empty glass.
He was very tall, and he was clad in a large T-shirt and long casual pants. As he walked through the doorway, he ducked his head a little.
It wasn’t as if Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao had never seen his appearance as an adult before, but for whatever reason, they were still briefly startled. They shrank their heads back and took a step to the side.
Perhaps because his face was mostly expressionless, the two girls hesitated despite wanting to say something. They retreated all the way to the corner before they began whispering to each other.
Da Zhao fanned herself with her hand and said, “My face is hot.”
Xiao Zhao agreed and said softly, “My face is also hot.”
They kept their voices extremely quiet. On the other hand, Xie Wen said in a low voice, “Put on your slippers.”
Wen Shi paused in place.
In front of him was the dim living room. The only source of light came from a thin strip of pale yellow a bit further away in the kitchen, which Xie Wen had most likely turned on earlier when he went to pour water for him.
It was still raining outside, and it drummed against the flowers and plants in the courtyard in a steady pitter-patter.
Wen Shi turned his head to glance at Xie Wen. Suddenly, he asked, “Why do you care what I do?”
Xie Wen looked back at him. “What do you think—if you catch a cold, you’ll be the one suffering.”
Wen Shi stared at him wordlessly for a while before he turned around again and tossed behind him: “I can’t stand the heat.”
Actually, he fully could’ve said “I had a dream” or “I remembered some things.” If he wanted to be a little more straightforward about it, he could’ve even said “I know who you are now,” but these words circled around in the depths of his throat for quite some time before he inexplicably swallowed them back down.
He himself didn’t know what his reasoning was for doing such a thing.
This rainy season was indeed stifling hot. The air conditioner wasn’t on, and the others were nowhere to be found.
It gave Wen Shi a sort of illusion, as if he and Xie Wen were the only two people in the entire house. But although Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao always liked to pick one corner to curl up in, they couldn’t be completely ignored either.
As a result, it ended up making this space feel ever so subtly intimate.
Wen Shi walked into the kitchen and pushed the flat sink tap up, giving his used glass a careless rinse under the stream of water.
“Where’s everyone else?” he asked without bothering to look back as he heard shuffling footsteps follow after him.
“Are you referring to your little brother?” Xie Wen’s voice rang out behind him. “You were taking a while to wake up, and you also kept breaking out in cold sweats every so often in your sleep, along with mumbling some other unintelligible nonsense.”
He paused there for some unknown reason.
Wen Shi set his cup down and turned around. Xie Wen was standing with his back to the light filtering in from the doorway, eyes half-hidden in shadow. A moment passed before he finally said, “I just happened to have some medicine in my shop. Since he was wandering aimlessly around in the house, I told him and Lao Mao to go fetch it.”
“What was I saying?” Wen Shi asked.
Xie Wen: “I didn’t hear it clearly. What were you dreaming about?”
Wen Shi parted his lips slightly as the kitchen descended once more into a beat of silence. Even though he was looking at Xie Wen, he discovered that he couldn’t see his eyes very well, so he couldn’t tell if the other person was hoping that he had dreamt about something in particular, or if he was hoping that he hadn’t.
But quickly enough, he realized something else: if Xie Wen was hoping that he had, then he wouldn’t have asked such a question in the first place.
By contrast, it was more like a probing sort of test.
An unexplainable emotion suddenly flooded through Wen Shi. He never would’ve thought that he would one day find himself stuck in such a situation with this person—an oscillating game of tug-of-war.
“I forgot,” Wen Shi said.
Xie Wen let out a light “ah” and nodded.
Wen Shi could only make out the outline of his silhouette. At that instant, the other person’s shoulders seemed to ease the slightest bit, as if they were relaxing because of that answer.
Sure enough, he still didn’t want Wen Shi to find out who he really was.
But wasn’t that extremely contradictory? If you didn’t want someone to know your identity, then why would you deliberately seek them out from afar and go through the effort of renting out this place, as well as moving over all those old, unaltered relics from the past?
A long since withered white plum tree, the pool that housed the koi fish, the little turtles that were once substitutes for two other people…
And also the Golden-Winged Dapeng, Da Zhao, and Xiao Zhao.
In the cage, back when Wen Shi first realized who Xie Wen was, he was angry—angry that the other person never said anything. But now that he had remembered too many things from the past, he was abruptly filled with emotions that were even more complicated.
He was a little confused.
Ever since he was young, there was only one reason why he hid or concealed something and didn’t tell the truth: he was trying to cover up something that would otherwise be noticed…
In that case… What about Chen Budao?
Yan: I am back!!! And hopefully I will actually have time to upload more frequently now :’) Also quick update about the jj situation – we will not be locking or taking down anything on our website for now. If you’d like to stay updated on the situation, or if you’d like more clarity on our stance, you’re always free to join our discord – that will be the first place I notify if anything changes.