Xia Xun was not ready.
Were these Fumeng Tancha’s people? Was this the kind of commotion he was going to make?
What’s more important…
Had Qi Yan already known about it?
“When did you… find out?”
Qi Yan looked very relaxed, as if completely unconcerned about his own fate.
He said: “I felt something wrong yesterday, and as soon as I came here today and saw the location of Tongchang teahouse, I had a little premonition.”
He smiled and asked:
“Are the people outside the ones you found? They really don’t do things carefully enough. The hoofprints of their horses can be seen on the mountain road outside and a jar of oil was broken at the entrance, the smell of the oil used to polish bowstrings unmistakable.”
Xia Xun was shocked.
“Did you know long ago? Then why did you come here? Why did you let Qi Hui leave your side?”
Qi Yan held his left hand tightly:
“I am really happy to see that your hand can now move freely. When I was injured, you carried me to the county magistrate, so I am already very satisfied… If you wanted to kill me, you could just tell me, why go to such great lengths?”
Xia Xun’s heart was beating like a drum, blood rushing to his brain. He could no longer think clearly.
He heard himself saying:
“I didn’t want to kill you. I just want to leave. If you let me go, let me go back to Lingnan, the people outside will not hurt you.”
Qi Yan shook his head: “I can give you my life, but as long as I live, I will not let you go.”
Xia Xun was anxious and angry.
“Why?! I just want to leave! Is it that hard for you?”
Qi Yan looked at him steadily and said without hesitation:
“It is hard. It’s more painful for me to watch you leave than to be killed.”
Xia Xun stammered: “You—!”
Qi Yan raised his hand and touched Xia Xun’s face with his fingertips, his touch full of affection.
For the first time, Xia Xun did not dodge.
Qi Yan asked obsessively: “Do you pity me? Pity a dying man?”
Xia Xun gritted his teeth. “…I told you, I don’t want your life!”
Qi Yan ignored his words, urging him instead.
“Do it quickly, I asked Qi Hui to withdraw but he is very keen, before long, he will find out that something is wrong.”
It was already dark and the archers outside the house lit torches, the firelight dancing in Qi Yan’s eyes.
Xia Xun stood up, overturning the table. The tea set on the table broke and the oil lamp fell on the floor, its light extinguished.
The room was pitch black. Xia Xun almost hissed:
“Don’t you think I won’t dare to kill you?!!!”
He had a short dagger hidden in his sleeve and was already holding its hilt in his palm.
Qi Yan walked towards him step by step, broken porcelain crunching under his feet.
“Do it. Dying by your hand is the happiest way to go I can think of.”
Xia Xun did not want to kill Qi Yan. But later, he did it anyway.
He stabbed Qi Yan, but Qi Yan took him and jumped with him into the lake to protect him.
Xia Xun was saved by Qi Hui, but Qi Yan was still in the lake; he might still be sinking, or might be lying in the mud and sand at the bottom of the lake.
Xia Xun, drenched in water, sat by the lake and watched as Qi Hui led his men to capture all the archers, and then watched him order his men to light fires at the lake and jump into the lake himself to find Qi Yan.
The night at the foot of Yun Mountain was pitch black without the slightest trace of moonlight spilling from the sky. And the lake was darker than the sky, even the dim starlight swallowed by it.
After Qi Hui entered the water, many of the people he brought with him also jumped into the lake one after another.
In a short time, the governor of Qingzhou, Chu Anyu, arrived with his troops, and more people jumped into the water.
The lake was noisy and chaotic. Chu Anyu’s team of men captured the teahouse owner and his fellows. Everyone was there, lined up nicely, gasping for breath and talking eagerly.
Only Qi Yan was nowhere to be found.
Frozen, Xia Xun thought that even if Qi Yan were a koi spirit, after so long, he could not still be alive.
Had he died long ago?
Xia Xun looked down at his chest. His chest cavity was intact, his heart was still pounding inside. But he felt an incomparable emptiness, as if his internal organs had been taken out, leaving him just a pale skeleton.
His eyes felt hot; the urge to weep was so strong that he was certain he was weeping. But when he touched his cheek, his skin was dry. Even the lake water that had previously surrounded him was gone, no trace of it left.
Qi Yan died, and he did not even drop a single tear.
When Xia Xun realized this, his tears finally flowed out.
He hunched over, hands propped on the ground, breathing hard.
His tears were so raging that they poured out in a stream, hitting the ground heavily and making one small crater after another in the dust.
Xia Xun gasped hard, opening his eyes wide in disbelief, not knowing whether he did not want to accept that he was crying for Qi Yan, or could not accept that Qi Yan was dead.
He knelt on the ground, his hands clutching the dirt, his back hunched. In the end, he had to use the back of his hand to support his forehead, so as not to fall limp to the ground.
He could not stop crying. There was dull pain swelling in his heart, and then suddenly, it spread out through his entire body, from his chest to his limbs.
He suddenly remembered something, shuddered and lifted his head, scanning the surroundings of the lake.
Why hadn’t he seen Fumeng Tancha?
He took a few breaths, staggered to his feet, and headed for the teahouse on the other side of the lake.
Chu Anyu’s men had long noticed him and, seeing him up, tried to take him to Chu Anyu for questioning.
In a trance, Xia Xun pushed the man’s hand away and turned around over and over again, muttering:
“Where is Fumeng Tancha…? I’m going to find him…”
The man stopped him from leaving, and Xia Xun burst out with an unexpected strength, pushing the man back several steps: “Don’t stop me! I need to find someone…”
Xia Xun hobbled along the lake, staggering every few steps, when not far away a cry of alarm suddenly came: “Found! Found! The lord is here—!!”
Xun Xia was stunned, then moved and ran forward.
He stumbled to the place where the shout came from, and in the reeds Xia Xun saw the unconscious Qi Yan.
Next to him, Zhi Gui sat, dripping with water.
She was not wearing an outer robe and her hair was not in a bun but tied messily behind her head with a strip of cloth.
Her jewellery was all taken off, her face clean of makeup and there was a pool of water trickling from his hair and clothes.
—Zhi Gui did not leave; it was her who saved Qi Yan.
Xia Xun was so stunned that he couldn’t find words.
“How did you—?”
Zhi Gui was still gasping for breath:
“When this slave was small… learned to swim, this slave… still remembers!”
Chu Anyu’s people quickly gathered around and Qi Hui swam out of the water and rushed over.
Qi Yan was badly injured. He was not dead yet, but he might be dying.
He was lying on the ground, wet, his hair full of mud and tangled with water plants from the bottom of the lake, and no matter how much Qi Hui called, he did not open his eyes.
But his chest was still rising faintly.
Was his chest really rising?
Or was it just wishful thinking on Xia Xun’s part?
Xia Xun couldn’t really remember what happened after that. When he came back to his senses again, he was already back at Chu Anyu’s house.
There was chaos all around, with people everywhere, talking all together. Someone came up to him and said something to him, but Xia Xun didn’t hear anything, only saw the person’s mouth open and close.
After a while, the person sighed, glanced at him with dissatisfaction and left.
Xia Xun stiffly moved his eyes and looked at the bed again.
Qi Yan was lying there.
The clothes on his upper body were removed, revealing two gruesome stab wounds, their edges whitened by the lake water, hideously turning outward, showing the insides of the wounds, red of flesh and blood and white of bone.
The doctor was heating a small knife on the fire, planning to use the knife to pluck out the flesh on the outside of Qi Yan’s wounds to expose the fresh tissues so that the wound could be closed.
Xia Xun looked steadily at the knife held in the doctor’s hand digging deeply into Qi Yan’s flesh.
Even Qi Hui could not bear to look, closed his eyes tightly and turned his head to the side.
And Xia Xun kept staring.
The blade went in and out of Qi Yan’s wound, quickly dyed red with blood. The intense pain caused Qi Yan to react; his consciousness did not return but his body stirred.
He jerked up, instinctively trying to dodge the doctor’s knife.
When Qi Hui heard the movement, he forced himself to kneel at the head of the bed, pressing Qi Yan’s shoulders down.
Qi Yan could not struggle anymore and the pain was unbearable. His hand reached up into the air in vain, as if trying to catch something.
Before it fell, Xia Xun moved his wrist forward.
Qi Yan grabbed it and clenched his fingers on it in a death grip.
There was so much strength in his hold that Xia Xun’s wrist made a faint creaking sound.
It must be painful. Qi Hui thought that when he looked at Xia Xun.
Xia Xun was leaning against the bed, expressionlessly letting Qi Yan hold his wrist, as if the hand that was turning purple did not belong to him.
He stared at the doctor’s every movement without blinking, until the foul flesh of Qi Yan’s two knife wounds was cut off by the doctor.
When the excruciating pain finally came to an end, Qi Yan’s body slackened and he fell limply on the bed.
Only his hand that was holding onto Xia Xun’s wrist was still refusing to let go.
The doctor wiped off the sweat from his forehead, sprinkled the prepared medicinal powder thickly on Qi Yan’s injuries and with the help of Qi Hui wrapped the bandages tightly.
Qi Yan’s body was covered with scars, and all of them he had received after reuniting with Xia Xun.
Xia Xun vaguely thought it was as if since he returned to the capital, Qi Yan kept being injured. Each one of the scars that crisscrossed Qi Yan’s chest was related to him.
Snow-white bandages wrapped his body and Xia Xun finally could not really see the scars hidden beneath them.
After treating the wounds, the doctor called Qi Hui to the side with a grave look and said solemnly:
“The lord’s injuries are extremely serious. Although I have tried my best to treat them, it is difficult to guarantee that they will heal, you still have to… be prepared.”
Xia Xun also heard what he said.
He shook his head unconsciously, not believing it at all.
Qi Yan was still holding his hand, he was still so strong, how could he die?
He looked at Qi Yan’s profile.
Qi Yan was resourceful, deep, far smarter and sharper than Xia Xun.
No matter how you look at it, Xia Xun should be the first one to die.
Since Xia Xun was still alive, Qi Yan would not die.
Thinking of that, Xia Xun felt much more at ease. He rested his head on his arm and quietly waited for the moment when Qi Yan opened his eyes.
He would soon wake up, and would soon change back to the original calm and collected Qi Yan.
He would smile at Xia Xun, curving his eyes, just like many years ago, that night when the begonia petals floated in the wind and Xia Xun, full of expectation and longing, jumped in front of him and gave him a burnt black rabbit.
Outside the room it became more and more lively, the noise unbearably chaotic, and with it, there was a sound of footsteps coming in a flurry.
Chu Anyu, with his people, barged into Qi Yan’s room.
He pointed at Xia Xun and ordered:
“I interrogated the archers overnight and they confessed that this man is the mole! Come on, arrest him!”