On Qi Yan’s eighth birthday, his parents were beheaded at the execution ground.
He and his elder brother were locked up in prison and knew nothing of their parents’ death.
Ten days later, they learned about it from a new prisoner.
His brother broke down in tears, and Qi Yan kept tugging at his sleeve, not knowing what to do.
His brother was only two years older than him, and like him, he was just a child.
The two of them could not understand what “beheaded” mean.
Qi Yan wondered:
“Is it that Father and Mother have lost their heads? Mother is so beautiful, but now she doesn’t have a head either?”
His brother dried his tears, reached his hand that was not much bigger than Qi Yan’s and clenched his fingers.
“Don’t be afraid and don’t be sad, we will soon be reunited with Father and Mother.”
Qi Yan asked him: “Are we going to die too?”
His brother nodded and said to him: “Father and Mother are gone, and we are their sons, so how can we possibly live? Soon someone will come to kill us.”
There was no fear of death in Qi Yan’s heart, only the anticipation of seeing his parents again.
A few days later, in the early hours of the morning, someone did appear outside their cell.
Qi Yan was awakened by the visitor and rose sleepily to his feet, asking through the bars: “Are you here to kill us?”
Without speaking, the man raised his hand and split the chain on the cell door.
His brother also woke up and stepped in front of Qi Yan, shivering. “You… start with me first! You better move fast! We’re still young and we’re afraid of pain!”
The man said nothing, picked up the two children, took them out of the cell and put them into a carriage.
The carriage didn’t stop for a moment; the man kept whipping the horses until they were outside the city. In the darkness of the night, they galloped for fifty miles and stopped in a small town on the outskirts of the capital.
The man who had rescued them let the two children out and said to them:
“I can only send you so far. The favour I owe Lord Qi has been repaid, in future you can go wherever you want, to the north or the south, but in any case leave the Central Plains and do not return to the capital.”
Saying these words, he left swiftly in the carriage, never to be seen again.
His words sounded good, but for two penniless children, trying to travel to a distant land could be considered impossible.
Qi Yan and his brother had to hide in an abandoned storehouse in the town for the time being, barely surviving by collecting other people’s leftovers.
It did not take long for news of their escape to reach the emperor.
The emperor then was still the previous emperor, who was more ruthless and venomous than his son, and as soon as he heard that the two children had run away, he immediately ordered a city-wide search for them.
Officials and soldiers searched every inch of the capital, but found no trace of them.
The old emperor was furious and ordered a wider search.
The town where Qi Yan and his brother were hiding soon became the focus of the investigation.
When they saw the sudden increase in the number of troops on the streets, his brother immediately realised that these men were here to find them.
He took Qi Yan away from the storehouse and hid in a pigsty, not daring to come out for days.
On the fourth day, Qi Yan couldn’t help himself and asked his brother if he could go out and find some water.
His brother was only ten years old, and he was still a child in need of care too.
Qi Yan was thirsty, and he wanted water no less than Qi Yan.
“…all right!” He couldn’t really resist, “Let’s go together, have some water and come back.”
In the southeast part of the town, there was a well with the water that was so bitter that none of the town’s residents drank it, so it was usually used to feed the camels.
The two brothers lay by the well, holding the bucket of water, and gulped it down for a long time, until their bellies became round.
When the bucket was empty, Qi Yan’s brother pulled him up.
“We can’t drink any more, we must hurry back.”
Qi Yan obeyed and followed him quickly.
When they turned around the corner of the street, they were not paying attention and accidentally bumped into a child.
The child was about seven or eight years old, about the same height as Qi Yan. He was knocked to the ground and threw a tantrum: “Are you blind? Don’t you look where you’re going! How dare you bump into this young master!”
His voice sounded familiar to Qi Yan, and when he looked at the boy, he saw that he was Xia Xing, the second son of the Xia family, a fellow student of his.
Xia Xing also recognised him.
“You— what are you doing here?”
Xia Xing had heard from his father that Qi Yan and his brother were both fugitives from justice and that the authorities were searching for them.
Qi Yan walked up to him and covered his mouth, “Shh! Don’t make a sound!”
Xia Xing and Qi Yan were not very close.
Xia Xing was a foolish boy who had no talent for learning anything, and his personality was so reckless and domineering that he was not well received in the school.
He was often scolded by the teacher for his poor schoolwork.
Qi Yan was the opposite of him.
He was gentle and generous, tolerant and sincere, and at a young age he had read many books and often made very insightful comments in response to the teacher’s questions.
All the children in the school liked to play with him and the teachers admired him.
Only Xia Xing did not like Qi Yan.
He was jealous and hated all those who were better than him, and since he himself was no good, he hated almost everyone around him.
Qi Yan was the one he disliked the most.
Everyone in the school was sad when the Qi family met a disaster, especially the teacher, whose eyes were wet several times during the lecture.
And Xia Xing was secretly so happy that he could barely hold back not to burst with laughter.
Later, when he heard that Qi Yan had become a fugitive, he rolled on his bed giggling and guffawing
In future, no one would ever praise Qi Yan in front of him again.
A few days ago, Xia Hongxi suddenly said that the little town was so beautiful that he wanted to bring him and his mother to stay here for a while.
At first, Xia Xing was not happy about it.
He disliked the place, thinking that it was dirty and dilapidated, not as magnificent as the capital.
Who would have thought that today he would run into Qi Yan? What a wonderful thing!
With a gleam in his eye, Xia Xing immediately pretended to be submissive and did not struggle, allowing Qi Yan to cover his mouth.
When Qi Yan saw that he had no intention of calling out for help, he hesitated for a moment and let go of his hand.
Xia Xing pretended to be concerned and asked him repeatedly:
“Qi Yan? How are you? I was so worried about you! I thought, I thought you were dead! I was so sad!!!”
He spoke with such sincerity that the brothers soon fell for it and did not hide from him
Qi Yan whispered to him: “We escaped, you mustn’t turn us in or we’ll both lose our heads!”
Xia Xing pretended to be sad: “…yes, I forgot, Uncle and Aunt Qi are gone…”
Qi Yan added: “We can’t stay out too long, we have to go, can you pretend you haven’t seen us?”
Xia Xing swore: “Of course! I’ll keep my mouth shut and tell no one! But… I’ve just come from that street, there are officers everywhere! Don’t go there, go around to that alley to the east!”
The two boys believed it and thanked him many times.
After saying a hasty goodbye to Xia Xing, Qi Yan’s brother dragged Qi Yan straight to the alley Xia Xing had mentioned, without the slightest suspicion.
Xia Xing was lying to them.
The alley was heavily guarded and the streets were full of soldiers.
As soon as the two boys showed themselves, they were recognised.
They turned and ran, but the two children could not outrun the able-bodied soldiers and were caught before they could make more than a few steps.
The old emperor did not kill them taking into account their young age but sent them to the palace as slaves.
At first, the two boys were glad that their lives were spared.
Even though it was hard to be a slave, as long as the two of them lived together, there was nothing they couldn’t bear.
But it was not long before their happiness turned to humiliation.
—To be a slave in the palace meant to be purified. (turned into a eunuch)
This time, his brother also stood before Qi Yan and went into the purification room first.
He did not live long and died in Qi Yan’s arms of blood loss less than two days after he came out.
He had just turned ten years old.
His death stirred the old emperor’s remaining compassion, and Qi Yan was eventually released by him, ordered to be expelled from the capital and forbidden to come back to the court for life.
Qi Yan was secretly adopted by his father’s old friend, changed his name and was raised in Jiangnan.
It was not until the old emperor died and the new emperor ascended to the throne that he took the examinations under a false identity and returned to the capital to join the court.
Later, at the behest of the new emperor, he got rid of Xia Hongxi for him.
The emperor felt grateful for his service and cleared his father’s name, and Qi Yan got his original name back.
Seven years later, in a little town in Binzhou, he asked Xia Xun: “Do you think Xia Xing should have died or not?”
Xia Xun’s hands and feet were cold and his body was covered in cold sweat.
He thought, Xia Xing really deserved to die; even his father, Xia Hongxi, deserved to die.
Whatever Qi Yan wanted to do to him, he seemed to deserve it, and it was the Xia family that owed Qi Yan in the first place.
Xia Xun couldn’t control his breathing, his chest rose and fell violently as he gasped for air. He asked with difficulty:
“Then why… didn’t you kill me along with him? Why… are you still letting me live?”
Qi Yan did not answer. He looked at Xia Xun and said word for word:
“Have you forgotten? The first day I met you, I told you my real name.”
The dark light in his eyes struck Xia Xun.
Xia Xun covered his heart and took several steps back, propping himself up against the table as he could barely stand.
“No need… to say any more…”
He waved his hand, not waiting for Qi Yan to speak again, and turned towards the door.
He walked so shakily that he nearly tripped over the threshold.
Qi Yan was coming up to help him when he escaped.
Xia Xun was previously unaware of the Qi family’s past with the Xia family, and for the past few years, he and Xia Wen had, uncharacteristically, avoided mentioning the matter.
Only in the prison cart on the way to Lingnan Xia Wen had said that it was Xia Hongxi and Lady Xia who had conspired to have Qi Yan’s parents killed.
Xia Wen’s own mother had died very young, and by Lady Xia, he meant Xia Xing’s mother.
Xia Wen seldom interfered with his father’s official business, and usually, apart from working diligently to deal with his official duties, he spent his time at home accompanying his wife.
Xia Xun’s elder sister was born to the same mother as Xia Wen and had married off early, so she was even less aware of the details.
So much so that when Xia Xun asked how Qi Yan’s parents had died, Xia Wen could not tell him the exact story.
Even though he had only heard a few words, Xia Xun was greatly shaken at that time.
He still remembered that he said to Xia Wen feebly:
“So it seems… right that he should do this to us…”
Xia Wen did not know that Xia Xun and Qi Yan had known each other for a long time. He stroked Xia Xun’s head and said soothingly:
“It’s just that you’ve been dragged into this, you haven’t done anything wrong, but you’ve suffered greatly…”
At this moment, the shock Xia Xun received was far greater than that day.
It turned out that Qi Yan had had a brother, and it turned out that his brother had died so tragically.
All of this, actually, was caused by the Xia family, Xia Hongxi killing his father and mother, Xia Xing killing his brother.
Xia Xun thought that actually, Qi Yan didn’t do anything wrong, right?
If it were him, he would have risked his life to seek revenge on his enemies.
Then what did Xia Xun do wrong?
He knew nothing from the beginning to the end, he was only four years old when it happened and could not even read or write.
He loved Qi Yan so much, trusted him unconditionally and treated him as the only treasure he had.
However, from the time Qi Yan brought his men to seize the Xia family, he had not even glanced at Xia Xun.
He had never once come in the months when Xia Xun was in prison.
Only seven years after his death did he make a trip to Lingnan, and even that was on business.
He only thought of Xia Xun as the son of an enemy and thought he deserved to die too.
He didn’t have even the slightest bit of affection for him.
Xia Xun’s mind was about to explode.
Qi Yan had done nothing wrong, he had done nothing wrong, so who was to blame?
He couldn’t walk anymore and slowly crouched down.
Blood rushed to his head, his temples throbbing. His head was in a mess, like a pot of mush, and he couldn’t keep thinking.
There was only one thought that beat unceasingly in his mind.
—He did not want to stay here, nor did he want to see Qi Yan again.
Chen Jingyin walked out of her room just in time to see Xia Xun’s strange appearance and took a few steps towards him, asking with concern: “Master Xia, are you all right?”
Xia Xun took a few breaths and stood up shakily.
The trees cast dappled shadows on Chen Jingyin’s face, and in her innocent expression, Xia Xun vaguely saw his old self.
He really did not want to see the same thing happen again, but he could not do anything about it.
He could only run away.
He asked Chen Jingyin: “Miss Chen, do you know the Hu people?”