With tears in her eyes, Zhi Gui said to Xia Xun:
“I was sold by my parents when I was a child and moved to the capital to work as a maidservant, bouncing from one rich family to another, without a single day of freedom! Can you believe that, Young Master? I’ve been in the capital for over ten years and I don’t even know what the city looks like! I’ve never even been to the main street, the busiest in the capital, not even once!
“A few years ago, I was bought by Lord Qi, who was very generous and treated his servants well. But I couldn’t even leave the house, so what use was all the gold and silver that he rewarded me with?
“I cannot accept it! Just because I come from a poor background, do I have to lose my freedom for the rest of my life, to be a slave and a servant forever, and to die in this high and mighty house? I’m not willing to do that! Why do I have to?”
She was breathing hard with emotion.
This was probably the most disrespectful thing she had ever said in her life.
Xia Xun looked at her calmly: “…That Hu man promised you that he would take you away after the deed was done?”
Zhi Gui slowly shook her head.
She told Xia Xun that the Hu man had only promised a heavy sum of money and nothing else.
Xia Xun asked again:
“So what is your plan? Try to take advantage of the chaos to leave Qi Yan’s side and then take the money and go far away? Don’t forget that your deed of sale is still in Qi Yan’s hands and he can get you back at any time. If he’s a little more petty, he might even file a complaint against your parents to the authorities and have them convicted.”
Zhi Gui closed her eyes, tears flowing down her cheeks:.
“…this slave can’t care about this anymore, this slave thinks it is the only chance to escape… I’ll take the money, hide in a town where no one knows me and live my life in anonymity from now on. It is still better than being a servant forever, it is better than being a slave until you die.”
Xia Xun said gently:
“The day Qi Yan was injured, everything was in chaos, why didn’t you take the opportunity to leave?”
Zhi Gui’s eyelashes trembled slightly.
“…this slave, when I learned that the lord and the young master were injured, I really couldn’t bear it… moreover, this place is already very close to Qingzhou, I miss my parents at home, really…”
Xia Xun thought about it and said:
“Wait until you get to Qingzhou, then you can leave. This jade belt hook is very valuable, pawn it and the money you get in exchange will be enough for you to live.”
Zhi Gui stood shocked and stunned.
“Young Master, you… don’t scold this slave, but why do you… still want to help me?”
Xia Xun snorted, answering the question, “It’s not that I emptied my pockets to help you. It wasn’t mine to begin with.”
Zhi Gui was unrelenting and asked persistently:
“Why should you help this slave?”
Xia Xun glanced at her.
“Look at you, I’ve deliberately changed the subject, aren’t you usually more tactful? Why are you still asking?”
She looked at him steadily, obviously not giving up until she got an answer.
Xia Xun could not resist her.
He hung his head and said softly:
“Once upon a time … I had a maid who was also from the Hu people…”
Zhi Gui seemed to somewhat understand as she asked, “Was she much like me?”
Xia Xun shook his head, “Not at all, if she was half as smart as you, she wouldn’t have been missing, who knows dead or alive …”
His expression darkened.
After a moment, he reluctantly pulled himself together.
“Stop asking so many questions and nagging, just tell me if you’re leaving or not?”
Zhi Gui hesitated for a long time, and finally, clenched the jade belt hook tightly in her hand.
Xia Xun said approvingly:
“That’s right, people can only walk the path by themselves. You have to have the courage to break through. Just leave, Qi Yan will not pursue this matter.”
Zhi Gui said with apprehension, “How do you know that the lord will not— ?”
Xia Xun looked at the candle flame.
“I could have guessed that you had leaked the information. And Qi Yan is far smarter than I am, so I guess he must have thought of it already. Do you think he has any intention of punishing you?”
Zhi Gui froze and said dully:
“The lord, the lord, he…”
Xia Xun sighed softly, “Take this thing and go, consider it compensation for your years of slavery.”
He waved his hand as Zhi Gui tried to speak.
“No need to say more, I want to rest.”
Before she left, she looked at Xia Xun several times.
After she had left, Xia Xun closed the door to his room and slumped heavily onto the bed.
“Just a few days,” he muttered in the darkness. “In a few days, I can go too.”
The next day, at Qi Yan’s request, Chen Jingyin had to return to the capital.
She refused to go and did not want to leave until Qi Yan’s injuries healed.
Qi Yan advised her, “I am afraid that your father has already learned of your private departure from home, so you should return to the capital without delay so as not to make him worry.”
Chen Jingyin had to leave, but she was very reluctant.
Finally, Qi Yan sent her away and approached Xia Xun’s room.
For the past few days, Xia Xun had stayed in his room from morning till night, the doors and windows closed tightly, and did not even come out to look at his favourite koi.
Qi Yan stood at the door for a while, raising his hand to knock, then lowering it again, going back and forth three times, but in the end he did not knock on Xia Xun’s door.
He glanced in through the screen, but it was so dim inside that he could not see what Xia Xun was doing.
He lingered for a moment and turned to leave.
A few days later, Qi Yan received an order from the emperor stating that he could finally move.
They were less than a three day journey away from Qingzhou.
In the carriage, Xia Xun remained silent.
Qi Yan did not force him to speak either, and sat quietly next to him.
After a long time, Xia Xun suddenly asked, “What are you going to do in Qingzhou?”
Qi Yan said:
“Chu Anyu, the governor of Qingzhou, served in Douzhou many years ago. At that time, Duke Chen was still living in his fiefdom in Douzhou and had not entered the capital. In order to cover up the matter of the jade mine, he paid off officials extensively. Chu Anyu was young and impetuous at that time, straightforward by nature and unwilling to accept bribes, so he was suppressed by Duke Chen and was framed and imprisoned.”
Xia Xun continued to ask:
“How do you know such secret details?”
Qi Yan said indifferently:
“The man who delivered the letter on his behalf knew that I was not on good terms with Duke Chen, so he sent it to my mansion on purpose. At that time, I was the deputy of the Imperial Court of Judicial Review, working on a special assignment investigating prisons, and His Majesty ordered me to check this case.
“In the end, although Chu Anyu was released and Duke Chen was not reprimanded, His Majesty only allowed him to leave his fief and bring his family to the capital, while Chu An Yu was sent to Qingzhou as the governor.”
Xia Xun pondered.
“So… you go to Qingzhou to look for Chu Anyu in order to get clues from him about the jade mine?”
Qi Yan shook his head.
“Duke Chen is cautious in his dealings, Chu Anyu refused to take his money, how would Duke Chen reveal such confidential matters to him? I’m afraid he doesn’t know anything about it.”
Xia Xun said: “In that case, you go there to knock the mountain and scare the tiger? (deliberately show strength as a warning) You go to see Chu Anyu to make Duke Chen think that he had some extraordinary evidence and you are coming to ask for it from him? Duke Chen will be terrified and will reveal himself?”
Qi Yan smiled and confirmed it.
Xia Xun’s worry surged.
He thought that Duke Chen had attacked them several times, and now, for him, it was a close call. There was no guarantee that he would not regroup his men and strike at Qi Yan once more in Qingzhou. Whether or not he had thought of letting Qi Yan live before, this time he would not show mercy.
Xia Xun glanced at Qi Yan.
Qi Yan looked like he had it all figured out, maybe he had another plan.
It was just that.
Xia Xun leaned back in the carriage and closed his eyes.
The only thing he had to think about now was how to find the right time to leave.
The wheels of the carriage kept rolling.
The city of Qingzhou, their destination, gradually came into view.
Chu Anyu invited Qi Yan to live in his residence, and Xia Xun, introduced as his attendant, lived next door to him.
That night, a black crow landed silently in front of Xia Xun’s window with a note tied to its ankle.
It was a message from Fumeng Tancha that said: —There is a teahouse called Tongchang at the foot of Yun Mountain, east of Qingzhou. Bring Qi Yan there tomorrow night.
He would cause a commotion there and take Xia Xun away.
Xia Xun had doubts and sent a note back to Fumeng Tancha, asking him to come and see him in person.
The crow flew away with the note and before long, Fumeng Tancha appeared in Xia Xun’s room quietly like a wandering spirit.
Xia Xun glanced at the door that had been tightly closed but now was opened slightly. Fumeng Tancha must have come through the gap.
The brown-haired Hu man was rather impatient.
“Why do I have to come and see you? Do you know how much effort it took me to shake off the men sent to spy on me by Duke Chen?”
Xia Xun asked, puzzled: “I can just go to the teahouse alone, why do I need to bring Qi Yan with me?”
Fumeng Tancha called him stupid.
“Have you used your head? I could take you with me right now, but the question is, will you be able to leave? If we leave the city, Qi Yan will probably find out and come after you at any moment. Do you want to be chased all the time?
“And have you thought about it, even if Qi Yan doesn’t chase after you, how do you know there are no Duke Chen’s men in Qingzhou City? If they found out you were out of the city, would they still leave you alive? Of course I have to cause a little commotion so that both Qi Yan and Duke Chen’s men will be left to fend for themselves and you will have a chance to run!”
Xia Xun thought about it and nodded.
“…This is also right.”
Fumeng Tancha said disdainfully: “Aren’t you usually very smart? Can’t you figure out this bit of reasoning? Do I have to come and explain it to you personally?”
Xia Xun hesitated: “I thought you still wanted to attack Qi Yan… Forget it, you can consider me stupid.”
Before leaving, Fumeng Tancha admonished him.
“Tomorrow night, make sure you bring Qi Yan with you to Tongchang teahouse, don’t forget.”
He had just left, and before Xia Xun could sit down, there was a knock on the door.
This time it was Qi Yan.
As soon as Xia Xun opened the door, Qi Yan asked worriedly:
“I vaguely saw a figure outside your window just now, are you alright?”
Xia Xun said coldly: “Even if Duke Chen’s men did follow you to Qingzhou, if they want to kill, they will kill you first. So why are you worried about me? You’d better think about your own situation. If you push Duke Chen too far, it’s possible he’ll do something.”
Qi Yan was stunned for a moment, then, slowly, a relaxed smile appeared on his face: “You are right, if they want to kill, they will definitely kill me first. So would you like to accompany me, a man who is in a precarious situation, for dinner?”
At the dinner table, Xia Xun was so submerged in his thoughts that he was not aware what he was eating.
Every now and then, Qi Yan placed some food into his bowl.
Usually, Xia Xun would have avoided it with disgust. But today, he was distracted and ate whatever Qi Yan gave him.
…until he ate a piece of eggplant.
This was his least favourite food. Even when he was at his poorest in Douzhou, he would rather starve than eat the eggplants Xia Wen bought.
“Yuck— was it an eggplant?”
He frowned and, disregarding his image, spat out the piece of vegetable that he had already started chewing.
Qi Yan laughed lightly.
“I thought you had grown up and wouldn’t be such a picky eater as you used to be. I didn’t expect you not to have changed at all.”
Xia Xun glared angrily, “Did you deliberately put that in my bowl?
After thinking about it, he felt something was wrong.
“Is Lord Zhongshu so idle? I have my own hands, I can pick my own food!”
Qi Yan got his way and laughed more and more: “I saw you looking like you were lost in thought and was just trying to bring you back to your senses. The eggplant itself doesn’t have any strange taste, I really don’t know why you hate eating it so much.”
Xia Xun didn’t bother with him and prepared to pick out all the eggplants in his bowl.
Qi Yan pushed his own bowl in front of him.
“Don’t waste it, eat it or give it to me.”
He was then responsible for all of Xia Xun’s eggplants.
After the meal, the two of them sipped their tea, and Xia Xun said, pretending to be distracted.
“I heard that there is Yun Mountain on the outskirts of Qingzhou, and at the foot of the mountain, there is a teahouse called Tongchang. Since I have nothing to do, I want to go there tomorrow.”
Qi Yan said, “Of course it is good that you are willing to go out for a walk, tomorrow I will ask Qi Hui to send you—”
Xia Xun interrupted him, “Would you like to go with me?”
Qi Yan was stunned, and the tea in his cup almost spilled onto his lap.
Frozen in disbelief, he asked: “You, you want me to go with you? Really? You’re really willing… for me to go with you?”
He repeated the question several times, half in delight and half in surprise.
He was so happy for a moment that he didn’t know what to say when he received Xia Xun’s affirmative answer.
“Why do you… suddenly…?”
Xia Xun closed his eyes and hid his cold sweaty hands in his sleeves.
“Don’t get me wrong, I just think it’s hard to drink tea alone. Can we take Qi Hui and Zhi Gui with us there, too?”
He was secretly relieved. He had prepared a long list of words in order to convince Qi Yan. He had not expected him to agree so quickly, not even having a shadow of suspicion about him.
Qi Yan was so happy that he did not notice his abnormality.
“Of course you can! You can do whatever you want!”
Xia Xun immediately got up, “Then I’ll go back to my room first.”
He did not stop along the way and walked hastily back to his room.
Zhi Gui was in the process of preparing bedding for him when Xia Xun hurried in and closed the door behind him.
He breathed out slowly and sat down in a chair, his rapid heartbeat unsettled for a long time.
Seeing him look so strange, Zhi Gui stepped forward and asked with concern: “Young Master, what’s wrong?”
Xia Xun paused and said: “Tomorrow we are going to Yun Mountain, take the jade belt hook I gave you. After nightfall, you will have your own chance to get away.”
Zhi Gui was stunned, “This slave, this slave— “
Xia Xun waved his hand, “Go down, I am tired.”
She dared not say anything else and left in disbelief.
Xia Xun blew out the candles in the room.
In the darkness, he whispered to himself, “It’s all right… soon you’ll never have to see Qi Yan again…”