At night, the carriage arrived in Binzhou.
Binzhou City was not large, and the inns in it were far less luxurious than in the capital.
The place Qi Hui found was surrounded by jujube trees, full of flowers but not in fruit yet.
They had dinner in the lobby, surrounded mostly by travelling merchants. They spoke various dialects, mostly the ones Xia Xun didn’t understand.
One of the tables, though, made him take a few extra glances.
—They spoke Bai Yue, the local dialect of Lingnan.
Under their table, there was a straw basket. Xia Xun was very familiar with this kind of basket. He had carried it up the mountains to pick medicine and catch snakes, and he had woven many of them with his own hands.
The first real money he and his eldest brother made was by selling their own hand-woven straw baskets.
Qi Yan was concentrating on eating. The injuries on his back were not completely healed and his every move was very slow.
Xia Xun didn’t know what his purpose for going to Qingzhou was.
Qi Yan was so calm and unruffled that Xia Xun could not tell from his face whether what he was going to do in Qingzhou was easy or difficult.
Qi Yan noticed that Xia Xun was looking at him and slowly raised his eyes to meet his gaze.
Xia Xun’s fingers that he had bitten began to ache faintly again.
He looked away.
Qi Yan suddenly smiled at him:
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to share a room with me for a few days.”
Xia Xun dropped his chopsticks on the table:
“Is Lord Zhongshu so rich that he won’t even pay for an extra room?!”
Qi Yan said mildly, unperturbed:
“Let me ask you, if I let you live alone, what would you do? I’m afraid you will be gone before it’s time to go to bed.”
Xia Xun replied straight back:
“Why would I run away if you didn’t catch me? Since you know that I want to leave, why don’t you let me go back to Lingnan? When I return to Douzhou, we will be far from each other and comfortable, and there will be no need for Lord Zhongshu to bother so much!”
Qi Yan was not angry, holding his chin and looking at him with a smile.
Xia Xun’s heart throbbed suddenly, and he immediately looked away.
Qi Yan was very good-looking, far better-looking than him.
Xia Xun had grown up in the capital since he was a child. He has seen countless princes and nobles. Born into families of bells and whistles, they each had their own temperament.
But no one could match Qi Yan.
The emperor’s favorite daughter, Princess Jin, was a great beauty that captivated the world. Xia Xun was fortunate enough to meet her when he was a child.
Her eyes were like autumn water, she was slender and graceful, and her smile was heavenly. She was a national beauty who lived up to her name.
But she was still not as beautiful as Qi Yan.
Xia Xun’s favorite thing was Qi Yan’s eyes. His eyes were deep, always with a faint red tinge under them, and there was a small mole at the corner of his eye.
He looked romantic and uninhibited, free and unforgettable.
When he stared deeply at you, even a stone heart would stir, while Xia Xun, as a young kid, was not even as good as a stone.
It was only right that he would like Qi Yan in the first place; who wouldn’t like him?
Qi Yan was very aware of his good looks. And now he was using his old skills again, deliberately looking at Xia Xun with such affectionate eyes as if he thought he could still be fooled.
Xia Xun took a bite of food, pretending that nothing had happened.
Qi Yan spoke softly, his voice deep and mellow:
“Even if I let you go, you are penniless. How can you travel across half the country and return to your Lingnan?”
He blinked slowly, with a smile on his face:
“I keep wondering why you always have your heart set on going back. Is there someone there who is better than me?”
Xia Xun rubbed his fingers over the smooth teacup and said slowly:
“In Douzhou, there are more demoted officials and exiled criminals than the local Bai Yue people. Bai Yue people are hardworking and cheerful, but they don’t understand our language. Prisoners in exile are sentenced to forced labor and survive for two or three years at most. Officials are afraid of being demoted again, so they keep silent. Such a place, not to mention the capital, even this small city is a hundred times, a thousand times better than it.”
Qi Yan’s expression gradually became serious.
Xia Xun looked into the depths of his eyes:
“That place has one advantage. With this one advantage, in my heart, it is far better than any corner of the world — there is no you, and a place without you is the best.”
The smile on Qi Yan’s face was gone completely, a frown gradually appearing between his eyebrows; the corners of his eyes bent down, making him look sad and painful.
And Xia Xun couldn’t even tell whether Qi Yan’s seemingly affectionate and sad face was a pretence.
He put down the teacup, got up and walked out.
Back in the room, Xia Xun took out the extra set of bedding and spread it on the floor.
When Qi Yan came in, he was about to lie down.
Qi Yan walked to the table and put down the food box he was carrying:
“… you didn’t have enough to eat just now, did you? I went down the street and bought some snacks, come and try them.”
Xia Xun didn’t look back:
“I am very full, please help yourself, Lord Zhongshu.”
Qi Yan stopped, and suddenly said something senseless:
“Let’s make a bet. If you win, you will sleep on the floor. If I win, you will sleep in bed.”
Xia Xun sneered: “Boring!”
Qi Yan sat down at the table, poured out a little tea, dipped his finger in water, wrote a word on the table and then said to Xia Xun:
“I bet you don’t know the word I wrote.”
Knowing that it was a provocation, Xia Xun still took the bait.
He came closer:
“Do you think I haven’t read a book in my life?! I—?”
Qi Yan wrote the word “overflow” and asked him:
“Then tell me, what does this word mean?”
…Xia Xun really didn’t know and was stunned.
Qi Yan couldn’t hide his smile: “I knew you didn’t know.”
Ashamed, Xia Xun became angry:
“Do you have anything to do with me? What do you know about me??”
Qi Yan’s smile became more and more obvious, and finally he burst out laughing.
After he stopped laughing at last, he pointed to the word and said to Xia Xun:
“If you were willing to spend your time studying when you were a child, you wouldn’t lose today. This character is from The Zuo Zhuan, the one you had to copy fifty times and still didn’t memorize.” (The Zuo Tradition or The Commentary of Zuo, an ancient Chinese narrative history)
Xia Xun remembered.
On the next day after his sixteenth birthday, he climbed over the wall as usual and went to Qi Yan.
His face was bruised, his knees were swollen and he was walking with a limp.
Qi Yan asked worriedly, “What’s the matter?”
Xia Xun looked quite happy:
“It’s fine! I just fell! Nothing to worry about!”
Qi Yan asked Xia Xun to sit down, found the medicinal oil, poured it on his palms, warmed it up and applied it to Xia Xun’s knees.
His knees were red and purple, mottled, and looked miserable.
Qi Yan put more effort and rubbed the most swollen places harder, trying to rub the congestion away.
Xia Xun ate the pomegranate peeled by Qi Hui and let him rub without moving or saying anything.
After a while, Qi Yan suddenly asked:
“Doesn’t it hurt?”
Xia Xun immediately demonstrated how miserable he was: “Of course it hurts! It hurts!”
Qi Yan looked distressed but asked curiously:
“Then why don’t you scream in pain when I rub so hard?”
Xia Xun blinked a few times and said innocently:
“A few screams won’t make it any less painful. Besides, I’m used to it! I get hurt a lot, so I can tolerate pain well!”
Qi Yan’s expression gradually changed and became a little complicated, which Xia Xun didn’t understand.
After rubbing his legs, Qi Yan put away the medicinal oil and asked again:
“How did you fall? Hurt yourself so badly?”
In order to delay answering, Xia Xun stuffed a handful of pomegranate into Qi Yan’s hand.
“Eat fast! It’s not sour at all! You bought it, if you don’t eat it, I will eat it all!”
Qi Yan stared at his face, contemplating putting the pomegranate in his mouth.
After a plate of pomegranate was divided, Qi Yan wiped off the red juice on Xia Xun’s face with a handkerchief:
“After thinking about it all night, I still think that the wooden waterwheel as your birthday gift is really too simple. I prepared a new gift for you this morning. It’s outside, go and take a look.”
Xia Xun didn’t care about the pain in his knees and stood up excitedly: “What what? What is it??”
Qi Yan said, “It’s koi.”
Xia Xun liked koi very much; he also raised them in the pond of Xia Mansion.
It’s just that the yard where he lived was very remote, far away from the pond, and the promenade for viewing the pond was in his parents’ courtyard, so he didn’t dare to go in at all.
After he met Qi Yan, the thing he regretted the most was the dry pond in Qi Yan’s yard.
If it were full of water, how many koi carp could be raised there?
Learning that Qi Yan gave him koi fish, Xia Xun was so happy that he was practically jumping up and down:
“How come you have the money to fill the pond with water?”
Qi Yan shook his head:
“Of course I don’t have that much money, but I can still buy a fish tank and raise a few koi carp.”
He motioned to Xia Xun to look at the corridor, where there was a brand new fish tank.
“Go and count, how many red carp are there in the fish tank?”
Xia Xun rushed over happily, poked the water lilies on the water and saw more than a dozen carp.
They all were very small, not yet grown up, but they were precious for Xia Xun.
He kept flicking the surface of the water, making the fish swim around.
Shaobo stood in the room, her face unhappy, looking worried and full of resentment.
Qi Yan had long since noticed that, so he had sent Xia Xun away just to ask Shaobo:
“How on earth did your young master get hurt?”
Shaobo’s mouth flattened, her eyes filled with tears, and she said to Qi Yan:
“The lord is so biased! Second young master spends his days without learning anything, drinking every day, and the lord never asks! And little master is just doing some wood carving, he just doesn’t like him! He’s always looking for a reason to punish him! He’s so biased!”
Xia Xun didn’t like reading; he was particularly bad at memorizing texts.
The other day when the teacher taught The Zuo Zhuan, he assigned an ancient text for the disciples to study at home and recite their own understanding.
Today, during a random examination in the classroom, the teacher asked Xia Xun if he had his own opinion on that text.
Xia Xun couldn’t tell.
The teacher asked him to recite another passage, but Xia Xun stumbled over the words.
In a rage, the teacher punished him by copying the text fifty times.
After Xia Xun returned to the mansion, his study companion informed Xia Hongxi of the incident. Xia Hongxi was furious and ran to Xia Xun’s courtyard to question him, just in time to see Xia Xun fiddle with a small piece of wood.
In a fit of rage, Xia Hongxi cursed at him, saying he was uneducated and neglectful, and sent him to kneel in the ancestral hall.
Shaobo said angrily:
“He went to kneel without eating lunch! Knelt until just now! His knees are swollen from kneeling! It was not a fall at all!”
Qi Yan lowered his head and said nothing.
Shaobo complained to him:
“You didn’t see it, did you? There is a cut over the little master’s eyebrow from the oil lamp the lord threw at him! He didn’t want you to see, so he deliberately covered it with his hair!”
Qi Yan looked at Xia Xun.
In the afterglow of the setting sun, Xia Xun sat by the fish tank, happily teasing koi with a carefree look.
Anyone who would look at him would think that he was a pampered rich young master who grew up without any worries.
Qi Yan thought for a while, and asked in a loud voice:
“Xia Xun, why is there an injury over your eyebrow too?”
Xia Xun repeated the old play:
“I fell! I fell on my knees!”
Qi Yan and Shaobo looked at each other, and Qi Yan said:
“Xia Xun, it was your eldest brother who hurt you all over, right?”
Xia Xun poked the leaves of the water lily, unaware of the trap:
“How can it be! Although my eldest brother doesn’t like me, he never bullies me. This is all my father—”
He realized he was caught and shut up quickly.
When he turned his head, Qi Yan’s reproachful and distressed eyes met him
He understood at a glance that Qi Yan knew everything.
He panicked and tried to lie:
“No, it’s not— listen to me—”
“Even now you still want to hide it from me?” Qi Yan chided.
Xia Xun gave up and sighed, saying awkwardly:
“How did you find out? Shaobo told you? Oh, didn’t I tell her not to tell you! I didn’t mean to hide it from you, it’s mainly because… I feel a little embarrassed. I’m not a kid, to be punished by kneeling, it’s really…”
The more he said, the smaller his voice became, his face flushing with embarrassment.
Qi Yan beckoned to him: