Thank you to LifeHasBeenWeird for the Ko-fi!
Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
If this was Wen Shi as a child, he definitely would’ve bluntly tossed out the question before waiting for a response.
However, he was no longer the kind of person who would do such a thing.
Those gradually returning memories told him that being straightforward would never get him the real answer when it came to Chen Budao.
During his childhood, Wen Shi used to believe that Chen Budao was an immortal who answered only to the heavens and the earth, who was capable of anything and everything. Nothing in this world could faze him, and there were no predicaments that he couldn’t resolve. He wouldn’t age, nor would he ever die.
So no matter what the other person said, Wen Shi always believed him.
It took some time for Wen Shi to slowly realize that Chen Budao could also shed blood and be injured. He had his share of burdens and troubles, but he never mentioned them of his own accord; he would simply skip over the subject casually and lightly.
As for those explanations that Wen Shi had once accepted as the truth—in the end, they were nothing more than all-encompassing shields.
Like the hand that withered abruptly before regaining its original appearance. Like the bird that died stiffly before suddenly coming back to life. Like all of his worldly bonds that Chen Budao almost shouldered for him instead.
In exchange for being straightforward, he had only ever received the gentlest lies.
So long as Wen Shi spoke in such a manner, he would most likely forever be that little disciple from Mount Songyun to Chen Budao, the one who depended on him, followed him around, and needed his protection.
Wen Shi wouldn’t be much different from any other person in this world. He was merely a bit closer to Chen Budao, that was all.
But the current Wen Shi didn’t want things to be that way.
He wanted to stand side by side with Chen Budao. He wanted to figure out why the other person was here, and how long he was going to stay.
The kitchen was a bit quiet.
Neither of them had spoken since Xie Wen’s nod.
There was a gloomy distance separating them. Their gazes were concealed in that darkness, and it was very hard to tell whether they were evading or meeting each other’s eyes.
Not too far away, either Da Zhao or Xiao Zhao let out an indistinct and muffled murmur, which made the silence in the kitchen seem all the more charged in comparison. It was like a thin layer of ice formed over a stream that was on the verge of cracking.
It made you feel the urge to say something, yet at the same time, you weren’t entirely sure what to say.
Wen Shi’s eyes flicked in the direction of the twins, and he parted his lips. “You…”
Xie Wen just happened to speak at the exact same moment.
Two voices overlapped and collided together before pausing simultaneously.
Xie Wen couldn’t help but laugh, gaze piercing through the darkness towards him. “What were you going to say?”
Wen Shi shook his head.
All of a sudden, he didn’t really want to expose the other person’s identity anymore.
Because a certain instant earlier had given him the barest hint of an illusion: it was as if he and the person in front of him had broken away from their master-disciple relationship, broken away from all the things borne by the names “Wen Shi” and “Chen Budao.”
It resembled a moment that had taken place many years ago. While the other person was walking up the stone steps that led to Mount Songyun, Wen Shi had flipped his way up from another side path. They had shared a look there, like they were two travelers unexpectedly meeting by chance in the mundane world.
“It’s nothing, you can go first.”
Wen Shi lifted his chin as he spoke words that he would’ve never said in the past.
“Okay, I’ll go first.” Xie Wen agreed.
He paused ever so slightly. Then, he raised his hand and touched his lips. “The skin is broken here, you should stop the bleeding.”
Wen Shi went quiet for a second before he let out a vague hum from his throat. Withdrawing his gaze, he averted his face and licked the edge of his lips. Sure enough, he was met with the taste of blood.
A series of beeping noises abruptly sounded outside. This wasn’t Wen Shi’s first day living here, so he was already somewhat familiar with that sound. Someone was standing in front of the house, opening the electronic door lock.
The taste of blood on the tip of his tongue was slow to disperse. Wen Shi picked up the cup that he had just washed clean and poured some more water into it.
As he tilted his head back to drink from the cup, he glimpsed Xie Wen’s glance towards the living room. “Your little brother and Lao Mao are back.”
Wen Shi swallowed the water and gave an “en.”
There was a noise from the villa’s front door, and rustling sounds came from the entrance hall, probably because Xia Qiao and Lao Mao were switching to slippers. Pots of medicine bumped against each other, interspersed with a few lines of chatter. After that, someone turned on the living room’s main light with a crisp click, all at once shattering the darkness and quiet that was originally present.
Xie Wen’s gaze traveled back towards him.
He was still facing away from the light, but his expression was a lot clearer now. At first glance, he looked the same as he usually did.
“So what were you going to say earlier?” he asked.
Wen Shi set the drinking glass down.
In reality, there wasn’t anything that he wanted to say. And since his ability to make up something on the spot was extremely limited, he had no choice but to seize and use the people who had just returned home as a pretext.
Without bothering to look up, he brushed past Xie Wen while kneading his knuckles. “I wanted to ask you when they were coming back. I’m looking for Xia Qiao.”
Student Xiao Qiao1 was carrying a bag in each hand. As he clattered along in his slippers, he was about to say something when he heard his ge’s voice. Immediately, he called out happily, “Ge you’re awake?!”
Wen Shi: “Mn.”
Xiao Qiao charged over, still carrying the bags.
Wen Shi stepped to the side to avoid being run into.
Because of inertia, Xiao Qiao couldn’t slam on the brakes in time, and he nearly launched himself at Xie Wen. Luckily, his ge casually reached out and grabbed onto the hood of his sweatshirt before he could do so.
“Boss Xie,” Xia Qiao greeted him sheepishly.
Wen Shi shot a glance in his direction.
In the past, he used to think that Xia Qiao’s fear of Xie Wen was inexplicable, but now, he realized that it was probably born out of a puppet’s instincts. Just like Lao Mao, Da Zhao, and Xiao Zhao—no matter how powerful they were, a puppet master was still suppressing them, so they were filled with varying degrees of reverence by nature.
Xie Wen spotted the bags in Xia Qiao’s hands and asked, “Did you bring over all the medicine?”
Xia Qiao nodded obediently. “Yep, I took whatever Uncle Lao Mao told me to take. This should be pretty much everything.”
Wen Shi watched Xia Qiao from behind, observing his cowardly appearance and the way he promptly answered every question. He thought to himself, Don’t tell me that Chen Budao created this fool?
Normal puppet masters were selective when it came to making puppets. After all, their spiritual essence was limited, and they couldn’t squander it randomly, just for fun. But Chen Budao was different. He had ample time to spare.
If it piqued his interest, this person could craft a gaggle of little playthings that were otherwise completely pointless. Then, he would instruct those puppets to climb Wen Shi like a tree.
Wen Shi contemplated a little and decided that it was indeed possible for a certain person to have created a puppet like Xia Qiao—who was powerless, feeble, and rather useless; who didn’t have any distinctive features apart from being a coward and having a sharp nose.
“Why are you holding everything.” Xie Wen lifted his chin in Lao Mao’s direction. “He came back empty-handed, belly out?”
Eyes wide and round, Lao Mao bore the brunt of a completely uncalled-for attack.
It was mostly because this sort of incident had left a shadow on Lao Mao in the past. Back when Wen Shi was still young, he had also carried armfuls of stuff before, just like this. Whenever that happened, Chen Budao would make a remark similar to the one he had just made, teasingly goading the little disciple into rubbing Lao Mao’s head!
As a bird, what could he have said? He didn’t have any choice but to obediently accept his unfortunate fate.
So as soon as Lao Mao heard Xie Wen speak in that elder-like tone of voice, he felt afraid. This was a conditioned response brought forth by years and years of training.
Fortunately, Xia Qiao behaved with integrity.
He waved his hands and explained, “No no no, Uncle Lao Mao is getting up there in years, I can’t make him do such strenuous labor. As a strong and vigorous young man, it’d be even more unacceptable if my hands were empty.”
Lao Mao: “…”
There were too many parts of Xia Qiao’s statement that could piss someone off, and Wen Shi went numb just listening to it. Kneading his throat, he stared at the back of Xiao Qiao’s head with a complicated expression on his face.
For whatever reason, Xie Wen swept another look in their direction as a touch of laughter emerged in his eyes. It wasn’t clear if it was because of Xia Qiao’s words or Wen Shi’s expression.
After narrowly avoiding a catastrophe, Lao Mao hastily took a bag from Xia Qiao and called Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao over into the kitchen to boil the medicine.
“What kind of medicine is this?” Wen Shi asked lowly while Xie Wen was lifting his gaze.
Immediately after, he felt as if he had exposed himself a little again.
In reality, he knew what kind of medicine this was; he had known as soon as he smelled it. In the past, on Mount Songyun, he would often soak his hands in this same medicinal bath whenever he wasn’t feeling well, and it would swiftly clear away half of his various ailments.
Xie Wen looked at him. He was quiet for a few seconds before he said, “It expels the cold and subdues pain. It’s fairly effective. Once they’re done preparing it, you can try soaking in it for a while.”
Wen Shi nodded. Only then did he remember that he had already woken up, and the pain had also long since passed.
Except Xia Qiao, that wooden club, just had to ask worriedly, “Ge, does it still hurt a lot even though you’re awake now?”
Wen Shi fell silent for a moment before he squeezed out a single word: “…Yes.”
This was probably the first time in his entire life that he was admitting something hurt.
Not by choice.
This was also probably Xia Qiao’s first time ever hearing such a stiff acknowledgement of pain, and he was a bit at a loss of what to do. A second later, he saw his ge jerk his chin coldly towards the sofa, indicating for him to go over there so that they could have a talk.
Xia Qiao hugged the remaining bag close to himself and obediently made his way towards the sofa.
Wen Shi also started to walk over before he suddenly turned his head, as if he had just thought of something. “Were you also soaking in this medicine last time?”
Originally, Xie Wen was going to check in on the kitchen and act as a supervisor. Upon hearing that question, he paused and turned to look at Wen Shi. “Which time are you talking about?”
“Xiping Gallery,” Wen Shi stated succinctly.
Back when he and Xia Qiao first found Xiping Gallery, gurgling noises were coming from the little room that Xie Wen was in, as if something was being boiled in there.
Xie Wen gave an “oh” as the memory came back to him. “You actually remember that, you have quite the sharp eyes.”
“I just happened to recall it.” Wen Shi parted his lips. “Why were you using this medicine?”
Xie Wen: “To drive away the chill.”
Wen Shi: “Why?”
Xie Wen: “I have an inherently weak constitution, so I can’t endure the cold.”
Wen Shi pressed his lips together and stared at him.
Over the span of that short exchange, an inexplicably tense atmosphere descended between them again.
He only retracted his gaze once he noticed from the corner of his eye that Xia Qiao was dutifully seated on the sofa. After that, he swiveled on his heel and started walking over.
The leather sofa creaked. Xia Qiao watched as his ge sat down next to him, elbows braced against his long legs and back bowed forward. Seemingly lost in thought, he played with the rim of his ear, eyes downcast and focused somewhere on the ground.
After quite some time, he finally tilted his head and glanced over. He pointed at the phone in Xia Qiao’s hand and asked in a low voice, “Is Zhou Xu in here?”
Xia Qiao: “Huh???”
It took him several long seconds before he realized that Wen Shi was trying to ask if he had Zhou Xu’s contact information.
What a coincidence. He didn’t get it after the first cage they were in together, but he added him as a friend as soon as they got out of the most recent cage, and Zhou Xu was the one who prompted the exchange to boot. Xia Qiao was extremely certain that the rebellious chuunibyou had been won over by his ge’s puppet skills.
Because Wen Shi was too glacial, that brat Zhou Xu probably didn’t dare to seek him out directly, so he tactfully chose the roundabout path and went to Xia Qiao instead.
Xia Qiao could understand it completely if Zhou Xu was looking for his ge, but he was extremely bewildered when the opposite scenario manifested itself.
Xia Qiao said, puzzled, “Are you looking for him? What do you need from him?”
Wen Shi: “I want to ask him something.”
Xia Qiao began to suspect that he was going deaf, or that he was mishearing things.
But he actually wasn’t. Wen Shi was truly intending to seek out Zhou Xu.
According to the rumors, Xie Wen was a “member of the Zhang family” whose name had been struck off the register. How he got to the Zhang family, what he experienced while he was here, why everyone viewed him as a “Zhang family member”—besides Xie Wen himself, only a person from the Zhang family would likely be able to explain some of it.
Zhou Xu was part of the Zhang family, and he had also lived in the main residence for a while. On top of that, he was the type who liked to stick his nose into everything, who wanted to know everything. And his mother, Zhang Biling, was one of the few people who had interacted with Xie Wen before.
So if Wen Shi asked Zhou Xu, he could definitely get some information from him.
In the end, although Xia Qiao was utterly lost, he still didn’t dare to defy an imperial decree. He sniffled and unlocked his phone under Wen Shi’s attentive gaze, searching for Zhou Xu’s contact.
“I can give him a call, and then you can chat with him?” Xia Qiao asked.
Wen Shi glanced in the direction of the kitchen before he answered with a resolute and decisive “no.”
Xia Qiao was even more perplexed. He thought, It can’t be that he wants to talk over text?
Xia Qiao switched over to messaging mode and got into position, both thumbs suspended over the keyboard. “Okay, ge, you talk and I’ll type.”
As he spoke, he first tossed an emoji over, which acted as a greeting to Zhou Xu.
Unexpectedly, his suggestion earned him another “no” from Wen Shi.
Xia Qiao was stupefied. He thought, What the… Don’t tell me that you want to type it out yourself???
Has an old-timer from the early 1900s ever learned the five stroke input method on a T9 keyboard2???
Just as they were stuck in a stalemate over this, the Zhang family, with Zhou Xu and Da Dong at the center… Accurately speaking, it was more like all the various families—apart from Wen Shi and Xia Qiao—were currently going crazy over the name register mural.
- Should’ve mentioned this much sooner, but if “Xiao Qiao” shows up, it isn’t a typo. Xiao (小) = little, it’s just giving Xia Qiao a nickname. ^
- A lot of Chinese people used to use this method to type – basically it utilizes the stroke order for pinyin, which is connected via software to the T9 keyboard (nine-box keypad, not QWERTY), and allows them to type a lot faster. More info here. ^