The cave was fairly dry and Qi Yan inserted the branches that were used as torches in the rock crevices on the wall.
He searched for a higher ground, took off his robe and spread it there, saying to Xia Xun:
“Come and rest for a while, I’ll be guarding the entrance. If Qi Hui comes nearby, I will hear right away.”
Xia Xun couldn’t accept it:
“Lord Zhongshu, there is no need to do this. I’m a convict sentenced to exile and used to sleeping on the ground and living in thatched huts. On the contrary, with your life of luxury, you’re not accustomed to it.”
Qi Yan didn’t say anything and just looked at him quietly, with imperceptible distress in his eyes.
Xia Xun settled down as far away from him as possible and lay down on the ground, wrapping his clothes tightly around himself.
He turned his back to Qi Yan but could still feel his gaze.
Xia Xun was very tired.
He put his head on his arm and curled up and it wasn’t long before he began to get drowsy, his eyelids growing heavy and his consciousness slowly fading away.
After a while, he heard footsteps behind.
He picked up his robe and wanted to put it on Xia Xun but was afraid of waking him up. He hesitated repeatedly while holding the robe and finally moved away without putting it down.
Hearing his footsteps drift away, Xia Xun could no longer resist and fell asleep.
He had that dream again, the nightmare he hadn’t had for a long time.
He dreamed that he was lying in a prison cart on his way to Lingnan.
On the way to Douzhou, he started getting sick, and when he arrived in Lingnan, he fell completely unconscious.
This gave his eldest brother a sufficient opportunity to fake Xia Xun’s death of illness and let him escape.
But Xia Xun was too sick at that time and spent his days in a coma.
Xia Wen was still a convict and had to work hard every day.
He hid Xia Xun in a dilapidated temple, and only when the day’s work was over could he sneak out to feed him a few sips of water.
Even that was a big risk.
If the guards knew that he had sneaked out, he would inevitably be whipped.
Xia Xun’s condition was getting worse and his fake death was about to become a real one.
At this critical moment, He Cong came.
He heard the news of Xia Xun’s death in the capital and rushed desperately to collect his body, only to discover the truth.
He spent all the money he had, bought a hut, hid Xia Xun, brought a doctor and got some medicine for him.
Thanks to He Cong’s efforts, Xia Xun managed to survive.
After he recovered from his illness, he was extremely weak and couldn’t even sit up. He lay on the bed for more than half a month before he was barely able to stand up and walk a little.
He Cong stayed with him from beginning to end and didn’t leave until Xia Wen also found an opportunity to get out.
Before leaving, he told Xia Xun that he would come back to him when the storm passed.
“I’ll take you away then! We can go anywhere, to the ends of the earth!”
Xia Xun closed his eyes and did not answer.
He Cong’s excitement gradually cooled and the light in his eyes dimmed.
“I knew it…”
He was very reluctant.
“I knew you couldn’t forget him! In the few days when you were the sickest, I was by your side to take care of you. You had a fever and kept talking. Do you remember what you said while you were in a coma?”
Xia Xun shook his head, begging him to stop talking.
He Cong was unrelenting:
“You were calling Qi Yan’s name! He did this to you, but you still wanted him to save you!”
Later, Xia Xun often had similar nightmares.
He dreamed that he was in constant pain. This physical pain was endless and there was no respite from it. He said repeatedly:
“Qi Yan, it hurts so much, why don’t you come to save me?”
Sometimes, he would even wake himself up from his dreams calling Qi Yan’s name.
He didn’t want to sleep close to Qi Yan, afraid that he would call for him in his sleep again.
Qi Yan had already abandoned him, left him without looking back.
Xia Xun would never let himself show such a fragile side in front of him.
He wanted Qi Yan to understand that even without him, he could live well.
Qi Yan leaned back against the rock wall, sitting behind Xia Xun, his gaze locked on him.
The torch was burning, sometimes bursting in flames.
In the swaying light, he watched Xia Xun, as if entranced.
Not long after, Xia Xun seemed to feel cold, pressing his hands to his chest, his whole body curling up tightly, shrinking into a small ball.
He got up and wanted to put his robe on him.
But before it touched Xia Xun, the smell of incense from his clothes spread out.
Xia Xun smelled it, frowned tightly and buried his face against the ground, avoiding Qi Yan’s smell.
Qi Yan’s outer robe was made of cloud brocade woven from silk, the moon coloured fabric embroidered with faintly visible dark patterns.
The maids in the mansion used tonka bean spice to aromathize his clothes every day. This spice came from the distant kingdom of Zhenla and did not melt in summer, its fragrance fresh and lingering.
But Xia Xun seemed very disgusted and curled up tighter.
Qi Yan slowly put his clothes back.
He stood up, took off the torch, glanced at Xia Xun and quietly walked out of the cave.
He wanted to find some dry branches to light a fire in the cave so that Xia Xun could keep warm.
He had never made a fire. Before today, he had never even noticed whether the branches were dry or wet.
He bent down and picked up a few branches that didn’t look too damp.
Just as he grabbed a branch, he seemed to think of something, stopped abruptly, maintaining a half-kneeling posture, and froze in place.
He knew that life in exile was hard and that a place where prisoners were sent would not be a place of gentle care in any case.
After meeting Xia Xun again, he deliberately avoided this question. He didn’t let himself think what kind of life Xia Xun had lived in the past few years.
He told himself that the past could not be retrieved.
He was the one who had wronged Xia Xun. He had thought he would never have a chance to make it up for him, and every time he thought of it, it hurt him to the core of his heart.
Now that Xia Xun was back, he would do everything he could to make amends; he would make sure the two of them went back to the way they had been.
He thought so.
But he was not as strong as he thought.
Right now, he heard just a little bit about the past seven years of Xia Xun’s life but his heartache was overwhelming.
He propped himself on the ground with one hand and clutched the clothes on his chest with the other.
His heart constricted, heavy like a stone, jammed in his chest so tightly that no matter how hard he tried to take a breath, he could not fight the pain that flooded him.
His hand on the ground was stuck in the soil, his fingers cut with sharp gravel.
He closed his eyes and swallowed dryly a few times, forcing himself to disentangle from the crushing heartache.
Xia Xun was still in the cave, still waiting for him to go back and light a fire to keep him warm.
The sudden sound of footsteps aroused his attention.
Qi Yan managed to calm down, asking sharply:
“Who is it?!”
Qi Hui walked out of the bushes:
“My lord, it’s me! I think you are unwell, do you need to——”
Qi Yan breathed a sigh of relief: “It’s you…”
Qi Hui quickly walked over and helped him up.
Qi Yan closed his eyes and asked:
“…how is it? Did you find the ones who followed us?”
It was not Qi Yan’s whim to suddenly get Xia Xun out of the carriage, nor did he unexpectedly think about taking Xia Xun for a walk to enjoy the flowers.
At that time, as the carriage drove among the mountains and forests, Qi Yan suddenly noticed that someone was following them.
His itinerary was secret and no one except for the few people in the carriage knew it.
The people following them were far away, and Qi Yan guessed that they might have recognized his carriage and targeted him.
He made an excuse to get out of the carriage and took Xia Xun to the mountain path but, in fact, he wanted Qi Hui to stay in the carriage and move on, leading those people away in order to find out their identity and purpose.
Qi Hui replied:
“As soon as the carriage arrived in Wuyuan, those people quickly surrounded it. I asked Zhi Gui and the groom to stay in the carriage and hid deep in the dense forest, secretly observing their movements.
“Today is a day of rest and there were many people in the garden. Perhaps because there were too many people, that group did not act excessively, not even getting too close to the carriage. But they were staying in the vicinity, probably waiting for an opportunity.”
Qi Yan continued to ask:
“Did you find out their identities? Were they sent by Duke Chen?”
Qi Hui replied that he didn’t know.
“They were all dressed as commoners, not even masked, looking inexperienced. I don’t know if they were in disguise.”
Qi Yan pondered for a while, then said, “What is the situation now?”
Qi Hui said that after dark, the group of people seemed to have dispersed on the spot.
However, the carriage had not yet returned to the city, and Qi Hui was worried that they were still lying in ambush nearby.
“I sent a message back to the mansion and called a few guards. If my lord is not in a hurry to return to the city, please stay here for one night and wait until I can take someone to find out the details before going back.”
Qi Yan nodded: “Well done, go ahead.”
Qi Hui took his orders but did not leave immediately.
Qi Yan said, “Is there something else?”
Qi Hui said hesitantly:
“I saw you and Master Xia hiding in a cave? Were you looking for branches just now? How can you do this kind of rough work yourself? Let me do it.”
He was quick in his movements and, after a short while, picked up a large pile of branches.
Before leaving, he repeatedly told Qi Yan:
“You haven’t made a fire before, be careful when lighting branches!”
Qi Yan hugged the branches and returned to the cave.
Xia Xun was still asleep.
He just lay on the ground like this, in the open, without a bedding, without a cover and even without a pillow.
Qi Yan found a place not far from him and started a fire.
The flames rose up, the chill in the cave immediately dissipating.
Obviously it was no longer cold, but Xia Xun still held himself tightly.
He pulled up his legs and bent over his chest, hugging his shins and burying his face against his knees.
He slept like a child, but his sleep was not peaceful.
His whole face was crumpled, his lips moving as he whispered something in a low voice.
Qi Yan listened.
Xia Xun’s muttering was vague at first, but then gradually became clear and audible.
Hearing the content of his sleep talk, Qi Yan froze on the spot, almost unable to breathe.
A sharp blade seemed to be plunged in his heart, the pain making his whole body go numb.
Xia Xun whispered unceasingly in his dream, calling his name over and over:
“Qi Yan… I’m so cold…”
He repeated it again and again, saying the same thing.
It was like he was in the midst of suffering and would only expect one man to come to his rescue.
Caught in the overwhelming sea of guilt and heartache, unable to move, Qi Yan almost turned into a stone statue.
In the past seven years, Xia Xun must have called his name countless times.
What was he doing during those times?
He was far away in the capital and never heard.
Qi Yan couldn’t stop shivering, feeling as if the blood in his body was almost solidified.
His heart clenched, the pain making him unable to breathe.
There were countless nights he had spent in this agonizing pain.
Every time the doctor came to treat his heart disease, he said that he was too overwhelmed with worry and must have suffered from heartache time and time again before the disease struck.
Qi Yan didn’t take his illness to heart, and even regarded it as a punishment for himself.
It seemed that as long as his heart hurt enough, he could forget Xia Xun’s death.
At this moment, in the cave, the pain made him feel as if a sharp thorn was stuck in his throat. He could not help but cough violently several times and could not cough up anything.
He clenched his fists fiercely and stood still for a long time before exhaling a shuddering breath.
His previously blurred vision gradually became clear, his limbs recovering their strength.
He took a few deep breaths, squatted down slowly, spread his robe on the ground, then lay down facing Xia Xun and gently took the boy trapped in the nightmare into his arms.
Xia Xun was twenty-four this year, but in Qi Yan’s heart, he was still the sixteen-year-old boy like when he first met him.
Qi Yan adjusted his position so that Xia Xun lay on top of him, away from the cold ground.
Xia Xun frowned, still calling his name:
Qi Yan hugged him, resisted the sourness in his eyes, and stroked his back gently.
“I’m… I’m always…”
He choked, unable to continue, trembling violently.
Placing his hand on the back of Xia Xun’s head, he pressed his face to his heart.
Xia Xun’s hands were still clenched into fists, curled against his chest. His expression was not so painful anymore but he was still frowning.
However, he stopped whispering.
At least now, in Qi Yan’s arms, he could get a moment of rest.