Arc Five: Grave of the Common Folk
It was true that texting wasn’t a problem for Zhou Xu, but it was a big problem for an old-timer from the early 1900s.
The old-timer didn’t really know how to use a phone, and there were also always people coming and going around him, interfering with his actions and train of thought.
When Xia Qiao offered up his phone to his ge, he thought that even if the five-stroke input method was out of the picture, pinyin should still be fine. This was because he remembered something that his ge had said in the past: “I died in 1995, not 1965.”
In order to prevent the same misunderstanding with the soda from occurring again, Xia Qiao decided not to seek out trouble for himself and directly switched from the T9 keyboard to the QWERTY layout. He pointed at the keyboard and said, “Ge, just change every character to pinyin and type it in one at a time. Then all you have to do is pick the character you want from this row here.”
The old-timer furrowed his good-looking brows and stared at the letters on the QWERTY keyboard for several seconds before he said shortly, “I’ve never learned pinyin before.”
Upon hearing that, Xia Qiao could confirm that his ge at least knew what pinyin was, but he was even more confused as a result. “How come? Pinyin should’ve been very widespread by 1995.”
Wen Shi lifted his gaze to look at him. “I can recognize the characters, so why would I learn pinyin.”
Xia Qiao: “…”
Xia Qiao: “I’m sorry, I’m an idiot.
“In that case… let’s do handwriting.” Xiao Qiao admitted the error of his ways extremely quickly, probably because he was afraid of being verbally attacked. He rapidly switched over to the handwriting keyboard and said, “This one is super simple. Write whatever character you’re looking for and pick the correct one from the top, and that’s it. It’s just a little slower than using pinyin, but there aren’t any other issues.”
Wen Shi most likely took the part about it being slower to heart. Consequently, he began writing out the characters extremely swiftly.
He scribbled a series of lines across the screen.
Xia Qiao stared at that for quite a while. It was undeniably very cool, but he couldn’t decipher a single word of it.
If even he couldn’t recognize it, of course the input software wasn’t going to be able to either. It spat out the resulting phrase: “Tongue orchid fork thing enough.”
Xia Qiao thought, Oh my god.
Wen Shi: “…”
The owner of the cool handwriting was evidently extremely dissatisfied with the input method, and he directed the phone screen towards Xia Qiao. “What is this?”
Xia Qiao silently extended a finger and deleted that line of gibberish for him.
He was about to teach him something else when he heard the sounds of a discussion travel over from a nearby room.
The medicine had most likely finished brewing in the kitchen by now. Lao Mao was in the middle of a rapid-fire debate with the twins—they were probably searching for some item. Then Da Zhao shouted in their direction, “Xiao Qiao, are you busy?”
Xia Qiao called back loudly, “Hey, what’s the matter, jiejie?”
Wen Shi also raised his head and looked over at the kitchen.
“Are there any towels?” Da Zhao said in a crisp voice.
“Or a potholder is fine too,” Xiao Zhao added.
Xia Qiao: “Yeah, there are.”
Da Zhao: “Where are they? We couldn’t find anything.”
“It’s in the cabinet over there—”
Wen Shi pulled back the phone and cut in. “You should go help, we can talk about this later.”
That was precisely what Xia Qiao was thinking. He hastily obeyed and hurried over to the kitchen, slippers clattering against the floor.
The living room quieted down after that. Wen Shi was the only one left in it, and he sat there hunched over the phone in his hands.
Xie Wen, who was leaning against the kitchen door, suddenly turned his head to glance towards the living room. Wen Shi’s gaze collided with his, and Wen Shi went still for a moment before he lowered his line of sight.
He cast his eyes down again as he fiddled with Xia Qiao’s phone.
A few seconds later, he heard the soft whisper of footsteps head in his direction.
It was actually a very quiet noise, far more muffled than the racket being made by the people in the kitchen. But in Wen Shi’s ears, it was exceptionally clear.
So long as he heard that sound, he would know who it was.
Wen Shi didn’t lift his head. His eyelids merely flicked up briefly before falling back down, as if he was tossing a careless look at a certain piece of decor on the coffee table. However, by doing so, Xie Wen entered his peripheral vision.
The sofa that Wen Shi was sitting on was quite long, and three people could easily fit on it. Now that Xia Qiao was gone, the seats on either side of him were both empty.
Xie Wen came to a stop in front of the coffee table, right at the edge of his vision. Out of the corner of his eye, Wen Shi could only see Xie Wen’s tailored, fitted dress pants, a small portion of which was concealed by the table.
After watching him for a while, Wen Shi glanced up. “Is the medicine done brewing?”
“It is.” Xie Wen’s head tilted towards the kitchen, but his gaze didn’t waver. He continued to look at Wen Shi, eyes lowered. “Lao Mao and the others will bring it over in a bit.”
Wen Shi let out an “en.” Despite parting his lips briefly, he didn’t actually say anything else.
Even though they were still looking at each other, they both suddenly fell quiet.
The abrupt silence made the atmosphere turn a bit strange. It was like fur and static electricity on a fall or winter day: every strand of fur stood upright, yet it was also soft and gentle.
Xie Wen’s gaze shifted a little and swept in the direction of the kitchen; Wen Shi had also already redirected his attention elsewhere. As his thumb stroked across the phone screen, he said evenly, “Why are you just standing there?”
Xie Wen didn’t reply. Perhaps he couldn’t pinpoint the exact reason either.
He simply gave a vague hum in response and said, “I was about to sit.”
From his peripheral vision, Wen Shi saw the tip of Xie Wen’s foot pivot around, as if he was about to walk straight towards the empty seat next to him…
But Xie Wen ultimately ended up halting next to the armchair.
“Is it hot, Uncle Lao Mao? Let me do it!” Xia Qiao’s voice started traveling closer.
“Step aside,” Lao Mao replied. “Put the potholders down on the coffee table so we don’t ruin the surface.”
Numerous footsteps accompanied the arrival of the voices.
They were truly making quite the commotion, and Wen Shi finally raised his head again, just in time to see Xie Wen glance away from him.
It seemed as if the other person was merely doing a casual sweep around the room, or as if his gaze had only landed on Wen Shi for an extremely brief moment, like a dragonfly lightly skimming the water, after which it was cast towards the loudest part of the room—
Carrying a stone medicinal basin, Lao Mao made his way over in a patter of small, rushed footsteps. Da Zhao and Xiao Zhao followed close behind him, while Xia Qiao was holding two round potholders.
The liquid in the basin was still boiling, and the surging steam immediately spread everywhere.
As Wen Shi stared at the scalding white steam, he suddenly remembered something that he had heard before in the past—
If you see him looking at you, then he too most certainly knows that you saw him looking at you.
Back then, one of his disciples said this in order to tease someone else; it had nothing to do with Wen Shi whatsoever. He overheard it since he was nearby, and it left an impression on him only because of its particularly circular reasoning. In that moment, he abruptly recalled those words once more.
After that fleeting dragonfly-like glance, Xie Wen didn’t turn his head again. He stepped back to make room when Lao Mao charged over, nearly retreating back to Wen Shi’s side as he warned Lao Mao, “Aim at the table, don’t rush towards me. Are you trying to splash it on me or what?”
“I wouldn’t dare. This side is just closer, so it’s easier to put it down here,” Lao Mao said, feeling wronged. He sank into a stable squat next to the coffee table, occupying Xie Wen’s previous spot, and he instructed Xia Qiao, “Stack the two mats on top of each other.”
Xia Qiao complied obediently, and Lao Mao finally set down the basin of medicine. He even adjusted its placement on the table so that it sat squarely in front of Wen Shi.
Wen Shi extended his hands out of habit, only to hear Xia Qiao say, “I’ll go get a bowl and a spoon.”
Lao Mao was perplexed. “Why do you need a bowl and a spoon?”
Xia Qiao was even more confused than him. “To ladle out a portion to drink. Otherwise are you supposed to just pick up this big basin and chug it?”
“Who said that this is meant to be consumed.” Lao Mao said irritably, “You soak your hands in it.”
“Is that true? It’s effective as long as you soak your hands in it?” Student Xiao Qiao’s horizons were broadened, but he was still a little skeptical.
“The so—” Just as Lao Mao was about to explain the impact of the medicine on the soul to him, he remembered that he was only Xie Wen’s employee right now. He would know of the soul, but he wouldn’t have had much exposure to it.
As a result, he shot a hasty glance at Xie Wen and said vaguely, “Anyway, it’s good for the body.”
Xie Wen: “…”
“Why are you looking at me?” Xie Wen said crossly.
Lao Mao realized that he had given himself away, and he swiftly said, “Just looking around.”
To someone who didn’t know better, Lao Mao’s amendment didn’t mean much, but it served as a covert reminder for Wen Shi. He withdrew his hands, which were stretching toward the basin, and pretended like he wasn’t aware that this medicine was meant to be submerged in, not consumed.
But Xia Qiao, this fool, exposed him. “Ge, you’re so smart. You actually knew that you were supposed to soak your hands in it.”
Wen Shi: “…”
“I didn’t know that.” Wen Shi’s voice was chilly. “Which one of your eyes saw that I knew?”
Xia Qiao didn’t expect to receive such a retort after giving out a compliment. He sat down next to Wen Shi, aggrieved, but he didn’t dare get too close out of cowardice. Maintaining a bit of distance between them, he said, “You were reaching out…”
“To test the temperature,” Wen Shi said tightly without looking up.
He still wasn’t skilled at coming up with lies, so he had to rely on the manner of his delivery. He had already decided internally—if Xia Qiao asked one more unacceptable question, he was going to leave.
Fortunately, Xia Qiao didn’t continue. The twins, on the other hand, were being exceptionally attentive, and they informed him enthusiastically, “It’s still hot right now, and it has to cool down a little, but the medicinal steam is also good for you. There’s no harm in absorbing some of it, which is why we brought the basin over.”
Wen Shi nodded.
Steam spilled out from the medicine in front of him. The smell was very strong, but it wasn’t unpleasant, and it seemed to carry with it a faint trace of Mount Songyun’s scent.
In reality, this medicine could do more than just dispel the cold and ease pain. Wen Shi himself had figured out a few other variations of it later on. The core elements were still the same, but new results were produced with the slightest pinch of different ingredients. For example, Zhong Si excelled at Spirit Fixation Talismans; burning two of those talismans and adding the ash to the medicine allowed for better concentration and spirit stabilization. Wen Shi had boiled it for himself many times before.
He depended on this medicine when he wasn’t using the Soul Cleansing Array. Every time his hold over his thoughts started to give way, he would use this to keep it under control. However, the medicine couldn’t help much—it was like drinking poison to quench thirst.
Back then, he would ask Zhong Si again and again for those talismans. Because the other person didn’t know what their purpose was for, Wen Shi made Zhong Si worry for a while that he couldn’t keep his puppets in check and that he was going to suffer backlash.
Later on, when Zhong Si noticed that Wen Shi didn’t even put any chains on his puppets upon releasing them, he finally cupped his hands and took his leave, his worries laid to rest.
Meanwhile, Wen Shi’s current condition probably wouldn’t improve even if he were to burn and dissolve ten of those talismans into the liquid medicine. As for Zhong Si, who used to wave his talismans around and dupe his fellow disciples by saying “there’s more than enough spiritual talismans, I’ll draw however many you need, just give me something good in exchange”—he was already long gone.
He retracted his gaze from the medicine and tapped the phone screen with his finger.
The screen, which was originally starting to dim, brightened again. This was a technique he had learned from observing Xia Qiao. He shifted his fingers and wrote out the message that he was trying to send once more.
The result was still a bunch of unintelligible nonsense.
Lao Mao continued to stand obliviously next to the coffee table, half-blocking the armchair. And because nobody was letting Lao Mao know, his boss couldn’t sit down for a good while.
After quite some time passed, Wen Shi felt the soft sofa cushion sink down a little as Xie Wen finally ended up taking a seat next to him.
Even though it was summer, Xie Wen wore a button-down with long sleeves. The thin material brushed lightly against Wen Shi’s arms and his short-sleeved T-shirt. They clearly weren’t pressed up against each other, yet he could still sense the other person’s body temperature and breathing.
Wen Shi’s fingers paused for a second.
He suddenly realized that excluding their time spent in cages, it seemed like Xie Wen had never stayed so close to him before. Rather, Xie Wen always seemed to keep a short distance between them.
The last time they were slightly close to each other was back at Xiping Gallery, when Xie Wen was soaking in that medicine because of his severely sickly aura. At first, Wen Shi was intending to leave, but then the other person had patted his shoulder gently and said, “I’ll walk you out later.”
Eyes downcast, Wen Shi subconsciously repeated his attempt at writing the same sentence from earlier.
“This thing is a little dumb. It won’t recognize it if you write in cursive script,” Xie Wen said abruptly.
Wen Shi tilted his head to look at him.
The other person was leaning forward, just like him, and his long index finger pointed at the phone screen without touching it. His gaze was half-lowered, and his brow bone and nose bridge cast a shadow over his eyes, making them seem deep and dark. At the same time, his lips were very pale.
Wen Shi swept a glance at him. “Why are you watching me write?”
“I accidentally caught a glimpse of it as I was sitting down.” Xie Wen pointed at his eyes.
For once, student Xia Qiao had a modicum of sense. He added on behalf of his ge, “My ge didn’t like to use cell phones in the past. That’s why he isn’t accustomed to the keyboard.”
“I know.” Xie Wen lifted his gaze and flicked a look at him before he nodded and said, “I’ve heard you mention it before.”
When he saw that Wen Shi still wasn’t moving his fingers, he propped up his left palm as a pretense of blocking the screen for Wen Shi. “Now I can’t see it anymore, go ahead and write.”
Xia Qiao wanted to say, Maybe we should switch places.
But then he saw his ge bend his index finger, push Xie Wen’s hand a centimeter to the side, and silently begin writing… and Xia Qiao couldn’t bring himself to say anything.
Although the atmosphere was a little difficult to describe, Xia Qiao had the following suspicion: perhaps his ge thought that this was a pretty good solution.
As a matter of fact, Wen Shi really didn’t have a strong desire to move.
He switched to regular script and wrote, “This is Chen Shi, is now a good time.” Soon after, he received Zhou Xu’s response.
Then Wen Shi wrote: Want to ask you something.
Zhou Xu continued to reply very quickly: You’re asking me about something??? About what? Are you positive that you don’t know the answer, but I do?
Wen Shi: Mn.
Zhou Xu: I only know a lot of gossip about those people in my family
Zhou Xu: Or panguan-related unofficial history and popular legends
Zhou Xu: You wouldn’t be asking about that second one, right?
Wen Shi: You should know at least a little.
Zhou Xu: hello?
Zhou Xu: Are the messages lagging?
Zhou Xu: Considering how powerful you are, you’re definitely not asking about anything related to panguan. So you want to ask about someone in the Zhang family? Who?
Wen Shi: What lag
Zhou Xu: …
Zhou Xu was probably on the verge of collapse, and he started blasting out stickers.
Wen Shi wore a wooden expression. On one hand, he thought that Zhou Xu was actually quite clever; on the other hand, he had to endure it as those extremely foolish images slid past his eyes.
Once the other person came to a stop, he finally moved his index finger again.
He wanted to write Xie Wen, but just as he was sketching out the first radical, he suddenly felt that this scene was a bit indescribably familiar—as if he had already written this name before, a very long time ago.
Wen Shi was momentarily startled. Immediately after, that sense of familiarity vanished almost entirely, and he couldn’t get a grasp on it anymore.
He subconsciously shot a look at Xie Wen. The other person was in the middle of talking to Lao Mao, but his palm was still faintly blocking the screen for Wen Shi.
The phone buzzed. Unwilling to accept the silence, Zhou Xu pressed: So who do you wanna ask about?
Zhou Xu: Who? Who?
Xie Wen. In the end, Wen Shi still wrote out those two characters and sent it over. Then, he locked the phone, turning the screen dark.
By the time he checked the messages again, it was already after midnight.
Zhou Xu lived up to expectations. He wrote a lot, and Wen Shi had to scroll up quite a few times before he finally reached the beginning of it all.
Zhou Xu said: I knew it! So many people are curious about him. But I didn’t expect you to also be like that, you really scared me to death there.