Qi Yan was so busy these days that he was out all day and came back only at night, and that day was no exception.
It was late at night when he returned home. Before Qi Hui could open the door for him, a small, fluffy white dog rushed out from the yard, pouncing around Qi Yan and barking.
Qi Yan took a good look at it.
“Yuzhu? Why are you here? Where is your master?”
He looked around, thinking that Xia Xun had also come.
Yuzhu put its paws on his knees, trying to reach his hand to make him touch its neck.
When Qi Yan touched it gently, a rolled-up slip of paper fell out of Yuzhu’s collar.
He unfolded it and took a look.
On the paper two fragmented characters were written in a crooked and twisted way.
The first thing Qi Yan recognised was the word ‘人’ (people), a character with only two strokes, and even in it one stroke was not connected to the other.
After looking at it for a long time, he could barely make out what the previous character was.
—It was the word for ‘save’, and ‘攵’ in it was written as ‘文’.
Both of these characters were written by Shaobo.
She had wanted to write ‘save life’, but when she opened the character book that Xia Xun had bought for her, she could barely recognise ‘save’, but she didn’t know how to write ‘life’, so she had to write ‘save people’.
She thought, Qi Yan is so smart, he should be able to understand.
Qi Yan frowned and read it aloud.
“Save… people? Something happened to Xia Xun?”
The steward of Xia Mansion was Qi Yan’s spy planted beside Xia Hongxi, so Qi Yan immediately asked Qi Hui to bring the man here to ask him questions.
In the past, in order not to arouse suspicion, every time the steward came to deliver a message, he needed to find the right time for it. After receiving Qi Yan’s order, it often took several hours before the steward could come out to meet him.
This time was different; in less than an incense stick’s time, he appeared at Qi Yan’s place.
Qi Yan didn’t have time to wonder about it and asked at once: “What happened to Xia Xun?”
The steward told him the whole story.
He was not present when it happened and had no knowledge of it then; only afterwards did he hear Xia Xing’s servant mention it.
The man described it in graphic detail, and the steward listened with trepidation. Qi Yan had ordered him to protect Xia Xun as much as he could without revealing his identity.
Not only had he failed to do so, but he had also let Xia Xun suffer such a serious injury, knowing nothing about it.
He had been on tenterhooks all afternoon, and in the evening, he finally waited for Qi Yan to summon him.
When Qi Yan heard him out, he turned pale.
Still keeping calm, he suppressed his anger and asked: “…Xia Hongxi is at the cusp of the storm and Xia Xing comes for Xia Xun, why does he want to cause more trouble at this point?”
The steward replied: “The only thing I can say is that I have tried to get to Young Master Xia secretly to check on his injuries, and when I went to his courtyard, I found that the front and back courtyard gates were tightly closed and there were special guards, so it would be difficult for Young Master Xia to get out even if he had wings. Xia Xing is obviously not just making trouble, there is another plan.”
Qi Yan asked in a deep voice: “Has there been anything strange about Xia Mansion recently?”
The steward said: “My lord, have you not noticed? As soon as I received the message, I rushed here! The only reason I got out of the house so smoothly and without the need to avoid the eyes of the others was because there was no one in the mansion!”
He told Qi Yan that Xia Xun’s injury had occurred at noon.
After lunch, Xia Hongxi suddenly called all the Xia family except for Xia Xun into the main hall and announced that he was taking the whole family to the mountains to pay respects to the Buddha.
He told the family that he had taken a special seven-day leave of absence to show his devotion.
They would be staying at the temple in the mountains for these seven days and they would bring as many people with them as possible so that there would be someone to take care of them when they lived in the mountains.
Xia Xing and Lady Xia agreed eagerly. Xia Wen was puzzled and asked:
“These are not special days, there is no festival, and it is not the Buddha’s birthday, so why should the family go to pay respects to the Buddha now and to stay for seven days there?”
Xia Hongxi scolded him: “What are you talking about? Do we need a special day to honour the Buddha? We must always keep the Buddha in our hearts and worship him every day! What’s wrong with seven days? I think it’s even too little!”
Xia Wen was filial; he did not argue with his father and agreed at once.
The trip was decided.
Later that day, they boarded carriages and set off for the mountains north of the capital.
They took a number of servants with them for this trip and the cortege went along the main street of the city specifically in such a grand manner as if they wanted everyone in the capital to know that Xia Hongxi had left the city.
The steward said: “The lord of the Xia family is not here and there are not many servants left. Xia Hongxi wanted to take his youngest son with him, but Xia Xun insisted on staying behind to look after the house, so he did not go.”
Qi Yan pondered.
Qi Hui reminded him:
“My lord, could Xia Hongxi’s action be related to his recent situation? His Majesty is becoming more suspicious of him, is it possible that he wants to play some trick to remove himself from suspicion?”
Qi Yan said slowly: “Are you saying that he wants Xia Xun to take the blame for him? That’s why he deliberately injured Xia Xun and refused to allow anyone to treat him, then took his whole family out of town and let everyone know that he had left the capital. In the meantime, Xia Xun has no one to save him and is likely to die of his injuries at home. Xia Hongxi will pretend not to know about it, and then after seven days, will return to the city with his family, fake Xia Xun’s suicide note and finally put all the blame on him, exposing it to His Majesty himself, acting like a righteous man…”
Qi Yan knew Xia Hongxi well; what he guessed and what Xia Hongxi planned were almost indistinguishable.
Qi Yan slowly stood up and said with suppressed anger:
“…really shameless, to be so cruel to your own son. Qi Hui, come with me, I am going to take Xia Xun away.”
Instead of obeying his orders as he always did, Qi Hui stopped in front of him and begged:
“My lord! You mustn’t! This is the most important moment! You must not be impulsive!”
Qi Yan’s gaze was cold.
“What do you mean? Do you want me to sit here and wait for Xia Xun to die just one wall away from me?”
Qi Hui fell to his knees with a thud.
“I dare not! But time is crucial, once you step into Xia Mansion, there will be no guarantee that your identity will not be revealed!”
一The deputy the emperor sent to Xia Hongxi was none other than Qi Yan.
The emperor had the country firmly in his hands and recognized Qi Yan’s identity and purpose as early as when he first returned to the capital.
Qi Yan was the youngest son of the Qi family that didn’t exist anymore. He had a grudge against the Xia family and had changed his name to return to the capital to take revenge.
Six months ago, the emperor ordered Qi Yan to be secretly brought into the palace and made a deal with him.
The emperor had long wanted to get rid of Xia Hongxi, but he had never found the right reason to do so.
But Qi Yan had a clue, and he reported to the emperor that Xia Hongxi was using the water transportation for profit.
Only through years of investigation did Qi Yan come to know about this matter.
After hearing this, the emperor promised Qi Yan one thing.
He would give Qi Yan an official position as Xia Hongxi’s deputy, so that he could find evidence of his misconduct and corruption.
When the job was done, the emperor would execute Xia Hongxi, clear the Qi family’s name and avenge the death of Qi Yan’s relatives.
In order to get closer to Xia Hongxi, Qi Yan lived in a deserted house next to Xia Mansion, and that was where he met Xia Xun.
Qi Yan did have a personal agenda. The kindness he had shown to Xia Xia was mostly fake. He was trying to win Xia Xun’s trust so that he could obtain information about Ha Hongxi.
But he soon discovered that Xia Xun was not at all favoured and did not see Xia Hongxi for months, let alone know details of his crimes.
Not only that, but his character was so naive and simplistic that it would be impossible for him to spy for Qi Yan.
To Qi Yan, Xia Xun had no use whatsoever.
Qi Yan intended to give up on him. As long as he found a random excuse to cold-shoulder Xia Xun, Xia Xun would not keep coming to him.
But he couldn’t let go.
Qi Hui once advised him: “Even if Xia Xun is innocent, he is still Xia Hongxi’s son and has a long-standing feud with us. You cannot be soft-hearted.”
Qi Yan did not want to admit that he had softened towards Xia Xun, so he told Qi Hui: “I am not, I just look at him with pity and barely tolerate him.”
Qi Hui did not say anything, but he actually did not believe it.
In fact, even Qi Yan himself did not believe it, so he deluded himself by adding: “Don’t worry, I won’t show him any mercy.”
But what was he doing now?
A few months ago, he had successfully become Xia Hongxi’s second-in-command and, so close to his enemy, he had gathered many small clues.
It just wasn’t enough; he needed decisive proof.
Xia Hongxi had been an official for many years and acted with great vigilance.
Sensing the emperor’s suspicions, he became more cautious, not revealing a single flaw, while secretly trying to eliminate the evidence.
Unfortunately, he had made too much money and spread his net too wide to be able to close it up quickly.
He was at his wits’ end, so he came up with the idea of using Xia Xun.
Xia Xun was a child born of a prostitute, already disliked by Xia Hongxi, so now it was the right thing to use Xia Xun’s life in exchange for the the life of glory and fortune for the rest of his family.
Xia Hongxi thought it was worth it. Unfortunately, he didn’t remember Qi Yan’s face, let alone know who he really was.
After all, he had killed Qi Yan’s parents more than ten years ago and he certainly could not have imagined that the youngest son of the Qi family, who had disappeared, was Qi Yan.
Qi Hui clung to Qi Yan’s legs desperately.
“My lord! Now that Xia Hongxi has already met you and worked with you for several months, if you barge into Xia Mansion and take away Xia Xun, and the Xia family servants know it, when Xia Hongxi returns and they describe you to him, there is no guarantee that he will not suspect that you are the one who took away Xia Xun! How will you explain yourself then? How will you continue to be his second-in-command?”
He kowtowed to Qi Yan.
“With all due respect, if this matter of Xia Xun goes according to Xia Hongxi’s plan, when the storm passes, Xia Hongxi will think he has washed away the suspicions and will let his guard down! At that time, do we still need to worry that we won’t find evidence to incriminate him?”
Qi Yan smiled instead of being angry.
“Good, good! You are a loyal servant, Qi Hui! Then tell me, if everything goes according to Xia Hongxi’s plan, what will happen next?”
Without waiting for Qi Hui to answer, he continued.
“Xia Xun will die in agony, and after his death he will be vilified for using his father’s position for profit, for killing himself and for being a bad man who deserved to die, right?”
Thinking of this fate for Xia Xun, Qi Yan clenched his fists tightly, a dull pain in his heart.
This pain was like nothing he had ever tasted before.
The pain in his heart grew more intense and he had to clutch his chest.
“This is how my father and mother were killed by Xia Hongxi, and after their death, their names were disgraced! Now he’s trying to do the same thing again, to get Xia Xun killed in the same way! My parents were innocent, but isn’t Xia Xun innocent? To avenge my parents’ death, should I sacrifice the lives of innocent people? I can never do such a thing! If I did, what difference would there be between me and Xia Hongxi?
Qi Yan said it with the integrity of a righteous man. But he alone knew in his heart that these words were only used to shut Qi Hui’s mouth.
He knew very well that Qi Hui had a good point and that if he wanted to succeed in his revenge, Qi Hui’s proposal was the most feasible and the safest one.
But Qi Yan just couldn’t do it.
It was only at this moment that he was forced to face his own feelings.
He was not pitying Xia Xun, nor did he want to use him.
…He really loved him.