The skin on Xia Xun’s palms was very rough.
Qi Yan sat by the bed, looking at his stubborn back, thinking about it.
When they met the snake just now, it was the first time Xia Xun took the initiative to touch him.
He held down Qi Yan’s hand and told him not to act rashly.
At that time, Qi Yan discovered that Xia Xun’s palms were covered in calluses, so hard that when he touched the back of Qi Yan’s hand, it felt as if he was about to be cut.
It was not like this before.
In the past, Xia Xun’s hands were white and soft, even softer than a teenager should have. Anyone who would see these hands would say that their owner was from a noble family and had never done any hard work in his life.
Qi Yan glanced at his fingers, as if the heat of Xia Xun’s skin still remained there.
He brought his fingers to his nose, took a deep breath, and smelled nothing.
Just like Xia Xun, who was in his arms a few moments ago, smelled of nothing.
The clothes Xia Xun used to wear were always smoked with incense.
He was not favoured and couldn’t get any precious spices. Shaobo used ordinary incense to make his clothes fragrant, so that he didn’t lose to any noble young master of another family.
Every time Xia Xun showed up, Qi Yan knew he was here as soon as he smelled his fragrance.
Now, Qi Yan could no longer smell it.
His mind was blank, and a dull pain spread from his chest to his limbs. It turned out he had come too late.
He walked up to Xia Xun and called him softly:
Xia Xun didn’t respond; he must have fallen asleep.
Qi Yan bent down and picked him up. Xia Xun was very thin; he had grown taller, but he weighed much less than before.
Qi Yan put him on the bed, wrapped him thoroughly in a quilt, and lay down beside him with his clothes on.
Xia Xun frowned in his dream, clenched his fists and clutched the quilt tightly. His eyelids kept moving, as if he was having a nightmare.
Qi Yan touched his head:
“Xia Xun, it’s fine, you’re just dreaming…”
Xia Xun didn’t wake up but whispered in her dream:
“It’s so cold…”
Qi Yan covered him with another quilt:
“Is it still cold?”
Xia Xun’s lips moved; Qi Yan leaned over to listen, but he didn’t hear anything.
He could only hold him harder and rub his back constantly.
Xia Xun’s hands were still very cold; he shrank into a ball and his expression was getting more and more uneasy.
Qi Yan took off his robe, opened the quilt, covered the two of them together, held Xia Xun’s hand and pressed it to his chest.
Xia Xun felt the warmth and pushed his whole body closer, resting on Qi Yan’s arm, with his face next to his chest.
A few strands of hair stuck to his cheeks and were gently tucked away by Qi Yan.
Qi Yan asked softly:
“Is it still cold?”
Xia Xun stopped complaining about the cold, his expression much calmer.
But it didn’t take long for him to start talking again.
His mouth flattened, the corners of his eyes bent down, his expression looking quite aggrieved, as if everyone had bullied him.
He called his name in a very small voice.
Qi Yan was startled.
He opened his eyes wide, unable to believe that he would appear in Xia Xun’s dream.
He held his breath and asked cautiously “What?” fearing to disturb him.
Xia Xun was quiet for a while, then muttered:
“I… I’m hurting a little…”
Xia Xun never cried out in pain; no matter how many injuries he suffered, he never cried out in pain.
At this moment, he called Qi Yan’s name in his dream, saying that he was hurting a little.
Qi Yan’s heart felt as if it was squeezed hard by someone, the severe pain in his chest making his face freeze.
He resisted the pain, put one hand on the back of Xia Xun’s head, and stroked him back and forth with the other hand.
“Where does it hurt? Where does it hurt? Is it your hand?”
His voice was extremely sour, his heart throbbing painfully with every heartbeat.
Xia Xun did not answer.
Qi Yan picked up his hand, put it to the side of his face, and kept kissing the rough calluses.
Xia Xun felt itchy, put his hand in the quilt, frowned and said:
“Still… it hurts a bit…”
Qi Yan could do nothing, couldn’t think of any other way to comfort him, and couldn’t even find any wounds on Xia Xun’s body.
He picked up Xia Xun’s face and kept pecking and kissing his lips.
Between kisses, he kept telling him:
“Good boy, it won’t hurt anymore… I promise…”
His eyes were sour, and he almost burst into tears.
The sadness on Xia Xun’s face had not disappeared, but he no longer talked in his sleep.
Perhaps experience told him that no matter how many times he called Qi Yan’s name, the man he waited for would not appear; so he gave up asking for help and gradually got used to healing alone.
He avoided Qi Yan’s kiss and shrank deeper into the quilt, leaving only a little bit of his face visible.
Qi Yan brushed his fingers over his cheek and patted him on the back as if comforting a child.
Xia Xun’s eyelashes gradually stopped trembling and his hands clenched into fists loosened.
He let out a deep breath and fell asleep deeply again.
Qi Yan held him in his arms and did not close his eyes all night.
On the next day, when Xia Xun woke up, the room was empty.
After he finished washing, he went downstairs. Qi Yan, sitting at the table, beckoned him to go over for breakfast.
As soon as he sat down, he vaguely heard the familiar Bai Yue language again, and when he looked back, he saw another group of Lingnan people.
They chatted vigorously in Bai Yue, the topics they talked about being all trivial matters of the journey. At first glance, there was nothing wrong with them.
They all were different people, not the ones they met yesterday.
It seemed that there was nothing strange about them.
Qi Yan was calm and relaxed, and after eating a bowl of porridge, he announced to everyone:
“We have to rush to Taichang at the next stop. The journey is relatively long and there are no stations along the way. If we set off now, I am afraid that we will miss lunch. It is better to wait until lunch before leaving the city.”
Lord Zhongshu spoke, so no one had any objection.
After breakfast, Zhi Gui went to pack the bags, Qi Hui went to feed the horses, and Xia Xun and Qi Yan were left alone, sitting opposite each other.
Qi Yan said, “There will still be some time until noon. I heard that there is a river outside of Binzhou City. Let’s go for a ship cruise.”
Xia Xun categorically refused:
“No need, I’d rather sit in the room.”
Qi Yan said with a smile:
“Okay, then we will go back to the room. You will sit in a daze, and I will watch you in a daze. We will just sit like this until noon.”
Xia Xun changed his mind immediately:
“Where is the river?”
To the east of Binzhou City, there was a river that separated the downtown area from the suburbs.
Farmers in the suburbs often had to ship their products into the city for sale, and merchants in the city often had to make purchases from the other side of the river.
On the river, there was an endless stream of boats.
It’s just that these boats were not cruise ships, brightly painted and with carved beams, but real merchant boats that were used not only to carry people, but also to transport goods.
In order to make more money, boatmen often kept loading more and more people aboard, until a small boat would be crowded with people and cargo.
Qi Yan and Xia Xun were standing on such a boat.
At Qi Yan’s feet was a cage with a rooster.
The rooster was so active that he pecked his clothes with his beak from time to time, his red crown rubbing against Qi Yan’s legs.
As soon as Xia Xun turned his head, he faced a baby.
The little baby was carried by his father in a bamboo basket on his back, and his little hand kept grabbing Xia Xun’s hair and pulling it in different directions.
The baby did not have much strength, otherwise Xia Xun would have gone bald from his manipulations.
To add insult to injury, the boat was overcrowded and packed so tightly that his and Qi Yan’s shoulders were pressed together and there was no place to avoid each other.
Xia Xun asked stiffly:
“—Is this what you call a cruise ship?”
Qi Yan tilted his head, smiled at him slightly, and held his hand under the cover of their sleeves.
Xia Xun’s expression changed; he immediately wanted to pull it out, but Qi Yan held harder.
He glared at him:
“What are you doing?!”
Qi Yan held his hand and looked at the river:
“Stand still, it’s time to sail.”
The boat swayed gently and slowly sailed away from the shore.
Xia Xun finally pulled out his hand:
“There is no need for Lord Zhongshu to bother. The boat is crowded like this, you can’t fall even if you want to.”
Qi Yan didn’t respond, and the two stopped talking.
They didn’t make a sound, but the boat was very lively.
The people on the boat were very familiar with each other. Everyone was chatting loudly, the voices occasionally mixed with the squeaks of chickens and ducks.
Xia Xun’s scalp was sore from his hair being pulled by the baby, and the hem of Qi Yan’s clothes was about to be covered in holes by a rooster.
In the chaotic atmosphere of a marketplace, Qi Yan suddenly asked:
“Your left hand still seems to be thinner than your right?”
Xia Xun was startled and blurted before he had time to think:
“There is no such thing, you think too much.”
Qi Yan stopped talking again, staring straight somewhere for a long time without looking back.
Xia Xun followed his gaze.
In the corner of the boat, someone was carrying a few rabbits. They were still cubs, sleeping huddled together in a cage.
Most of them were white, only one of them black.
Xia Xun only glanced at it and knew at once what Qi Yan was thinking.
Qi Yan’s zodiac sign was the rabbit.
Many years ago, Xia Xun carbed a rabbit out of wood and gave it to Qi Yan as a gift on his birthday.
The wooden rabbit was supposed to be light brown, but for various reasons, it had turned black before it was delivered to Qi Yan.
Discovering that Qi Yan was looking at the rabbit, Xia Xun sneered:
“It’s hard for you to remember, you threw that rabbit away a long time ago, didn’t you?”
Qi Yan spoke softly:
“…it was burned.”
Xia Xun was indifferent:
“Well, it was born in a fire, so it was reasonable to destroy it in a fire.”
Qi Yan shook his head:
“I didn’t burn it, it was Qi Hui. A few years ago, because of Qi Hui’s negligence, there was a fire in Qi Mansion, and many things were burned. The rabbit you gave me was one of them.
“For a long time, it was the only thing you left me. I took it with me wherever I went. After a long time, the dry wood became moistened and shiny from my touch, so it looked just like a new one.
“Knowing that it perished in the fire, Qi Hui felt very guilty and knelt in front of me, asking me to punish him. I was so exhausted that I didn’t even have the strength to talk to him. I just told him to leave and never show up in front of me again.
“In order to apologise, Qi Hui cut off his little finger with his dagger before I had time to react. He held up his bloody severed finger and said that he would do anything, even if he had to cut off all his fingers, as long as I didn’t kick him out.”
Qi Yan’s words were calm, but Xia Xun listened to them in alarm, his breath caught in his throat.
“How could he be so determined一? It’s just a worthless thing, why would you need him to…?”
Qi Yan gave him a wry smile:
“That’s because you don’t know what that rabbit meant to me in the years after your death… Losing it was like watching you die in front of me again. How could I not be heartbroken?”
Xia Xun lowered his eyes.
Qi Yan continued:
“Later, I forgave Qi Hui, but then I had a heart attack and lay in bed for a few days, so I have no way of knowing how his injuries were treated. But he moves freely now, and the fact that he has a severed little finger does not affect his bravery.”
Xia Xun was silent.
After a long time, he spoke slowly:
“…this bloody piece of wood should have been destroyed.”
Qi Hui was not the only one who was injured over the wooden rabbit. Since Xia Xun started making it, the storm around it had not stopped.