Qingzhou City was not large, and after leaving the city gates, one could see a vast expanse of farmland.
Xia Xun walked after the crow through the early autumn fields full of beautiful golden wheat. Every now and then the crow landed on a scarecrow’s shoulder, waiting for him to follow.
It flew over acre after acre of wheat fields, and finally stopped at a water tank at the edge of the field.
Xun Xia slowly walked over to it.
The water tank looked abandoned for a long time; the bricks around it collapsed in many places, and under the messy rubble, a human hand was revealed.
Xun Xia was startled and took half a step backwards.
The crow cried out, as if urging him.
Xun Xia understood; he knew whose hand it was.
He kicked away the bricks and the figure below was gradually revealed, first its thick curly brown hair, next a very familiar scimitar, and finally, the owner of the scimitar himself — Fumeng Tancha.
His face was bruised black and swollen and there was blood at the corner of his mouth.
Xia Xun squatted down and slapped him on the face heavily a few times.
“Wake up, wake up!”
Fumeng Tancha did not move.
Xia Xun saw his wine bag in the pile of rocks, picked it up and weighed it; there was still wine inside.
He opened the lid and poured the wine all over Fumeng Tancha’s face.
The wine was poured into his nasal cavity, and Fument Tancha choked and coughed hard, and finally opened his eyes.
He slowly lifted his eyelids, licked his dry lips, and his first words were to criticise Xia Xun.
“You are really… wasteful.”
Xia Xun said indifferently: “You can still talk, it seems you’re not dead yet.”
Fumeng Tancha gave a dry laugh, moved his eyes and looked at his abdomen:
“One foot… on Naihe Bridge… is not dead now, after a while will be dead…” (Naihe Bridge, a bridge every soul has to cross before being reincarnated)
Xia Xun followed his line of sight and saw a large bloody wound in the left part of his abdomen.
Fumeng Tancha was dying.
“Tell you first, I did not break my promise… it was the people of Duke Chen who captured me… this big hole in my stomach… also, thanks to them…”
Fumeng Tancha’s actions were detected by Duke Chen’s men; they caught him, tortured him until he told them that Qi Yan was going to Tongchang teahouse.
Before the operation, fearing that Fumeng Tancha would leak the information, they stabbed him and threw him into this water tank.
Fumeng Tancha did not die, surviving in the pile of bricks for several days.
Xia Xun looked at his wound and said: “…you might be hopeless.”
Fumeng Tancha grinned and said with difficulty. “Don’t need you… to say that!”
Xia Xun thought for a while and asked him, “Do you have any wish?”
Fumeng Tancha closed his eyes and said breathlessly: “I… betrayed you, and you still want to help me…?”
Xia Xun said, “Don’t talk nonsense. If you don’t get down to business, it may really be too late.”
Fumeng Tancha laughed dryly, overwhelmed with dizziness, and closed his eyes.
Xia Xun knew he was not dead yet and waited quietly.
After a long time, Fumeng Tancha had gathered enough strength to speak again.
“I really have a wish… use my knife, cut a strand of my hair…”
Xia Xun took the knife and cut off a strand of rough curly hair.
Fumeng Tancha gasped.
“Very good… it and this knife together, help me… send them to Shanshan! This is… my homeland.”
With the darkness floating before his eyes, on the verge of death, Fumeng Tancha told Xia Xun about his origin.
Fumeng Tancha was born in the western region, in the capital of Shanshan. When he was nine years old, he was abducted by a man and sold to the capital to Duke Chen.
He was sold together with a number of the Hu people, and Duke Chen hired someone to train them and turn them into his assassins.
If they refused to obey orders, they would be torn apart by wild dogs set free by Duke Chen.
In order to survive, Fumeng Tancha had to work for Duke Chen, and over the years, killed many people for him.
“This is retribution, right…” Fumeng Tancha coughed out a few mouthfuls of blood: “Once I killed people, now people kill me… and I deserve it, do not deserve sympathy… but I really, really want to go home! You take my knife and my hair back, bury them outside the west gate of… the capital of Shanshan, there, it is my home…”
Fumeng Tancha’s voice weakened little by little, until his mouth was still opening and closing but no sound came
Xia Xun moved closer and tried to hear what he was saying.
What he repeatedly murmured endlessly was a phrase in the language of the Hu people that Xun Xia happened to have learned from Shaobo.
Fumeng Tancha was saying, “Mom, Mom… take me home…”
Not long after, his mouth slowly closed and never opened again and the subtle rise and fall of his chest also gradually stopped.
The early autumn wind brought a burst of coolness, the wheat ears rubbed against each other, emitting a faint rustling sound. Under the brilliant sunlight, Fumeng Tancha breathed no more.
Xia Xun looked at him for a while and saw that the veins on his neck were still vaguely fluttering. He immediately reached out his hand and pressed it to Fumeng Tancha’s heart.
—His heart was still beating slowly.
He was not even breathing, but his heart still refused to stop, still struggling with the last ounce of strength, fighting for life.
Fumeng Tancha’s heart was not willing; he did not want to die.
Xia Xun took him by the wrists, dragged him out of the broken bricks and pulled along the gully in the field, straining to drag him forward.
Fumeng Tancha was very heavy; Xia Xun walked for a short while but his back was already tingling with the familiar sensation.
He stopped, threw down Fumeng Tancha’s arms, straightened his back, took a few breaths, then tugged him up and continued to walk forward.
Repeating this several times, Xia Xun finally dragged him to a dilapidated temple.
This temple he had seen on the way here had no one in it, and even the clay statue of the land deity was missing half of its arm.
The good thing was that in the incense burner, there was still a pile of incense ash accumulated over the years.
Xia Xun peeled away the outer robe of Fumeng Tancha, picked up a shovelful of ash and, without hesitation, forcefully poured it in the bloody hole in his lower abdomen.
The pain that must have been unbearable for ordinary people pulled Fumeng Tancha back from the edge of death. He jerked up, his eyes bulging, the veins on his neck bursting out, and if Xia Xun had not firmly pressed his wound, he would have rolled on the ground in pain.
Unable to escape the pain, he let out a wail, his fingers scratching the dirt on the ground, his legs twitching. His whole body kept spasming on the ground, twisting like a beast caught in a trap.
And Xun Xia was that cruel beast trap.
He ignored Fumeng Tancha’s reaction, grabbed another handful of incense ash and filled the wound.
Eventually he simply picked up the incense burner and poured the ash inside directly on the wound.
After the whole furnace of incense ash was used up, Fumeng Tancha was like a crushed snake, drenched in sweat and limp on the ground, gasping for breath.
Xia Xun also had no strength; with his hands limp, he fell back and sat on the ground.
Fumeng Tancha could not speak. His open mouth was catching air and his eyes turned to look at Xia Xun.
Xia Xun slapped the incense ash off his hands and told him: “Your Shanshan is thousands of miles away from the capital, who wants to travel this far for you? If you want to go home and see your mother, then go and see her yourself.”
Fumeng Tancha said brokenly:
“Tell the truth… Did you just retaliate… against me? Retaliate against me… for betraying your whereabouts…? To actually put incense ash… into my stomach…?”
Xia Xun leaned back and lay down on the ground:
“Don’t you know any better…! My back hurts so much, otherwise I’d really punch you.”
Fumeng Tancha pulled up the corners of his mouth in a forced smile.
Whether Xun Xia could see it or not, he considered it as a thank you to Xun Xia.
Xun Xia looked at the broken leaky roof of the temple, suddenly remembered something and asked him:
“Where’s your bird? Why don’t I see it?”
Fumeng Tancha hurriedly glanced down.
“…It’s still there! It’s in my crotch…! Scared me to death, I thought I was castrated by those bastards—”
Xun Xia sat up swiftly.
“What are you talking about?! Who asked you this? I mean your crow!!!”
Fumeng Tancha closed his eyes and said tiredly:
“You mean it ah… it is very smart, will find a safe place on its own…”
His head lolled back and he fainted again.
Xia Xun slowly climbed up and made a fire beside him, so that after nightfall, the beasts would not dare to come close.
It was almost dark, he had to rush back to Chu Anyu’s house and could not stay here.
Before going, he closed the broken wooden door of the temple, the only thing he could do.
Duke Chen’s men were captured by Chu Anyu; no one would continue to hunt Fumeng Tancha. It was up to him whether he could survive.
The next few days, Qi Yan’s condition stabilised, but he was slow to wake up. Xia Xun sometimes took wound medicine and food and went to the broken temple to help Fumeng Tancha.
The Hu man was strong and healthy; he had suffered a knife wound in his bowels but he actually healed faster than Qi Yan. Within a few days, he could eat the meal Xia Xun brought, talked and laughed.
Most of the time, it was he who chatted unilaterally, always trying to inquire what the relationship between Xia Xun and Qi Yan was.
Xia Xun at first kept his mouth shut and did not utter a single word, but later got tired of being asked and asked back:
“Let’s not talk about me, what are your next plans?”
Fumeng Tancha thought about it and said:
“I’ll send you back to Lingnan. I promised you before, how can I break my promise? Didn’t you say that Qi Yan is still sleeping? It’s a good opportunity for you to get ready, we’ll be on our way in a couple of days!”
Xia Xun hesitated for a moment and then refused.
“…Let me think about it again.”
Fumeng Tancha added: “Right! A barren place like Lingnan is not suitable for living… Why don’t you and I go back to the West! You saved my life, in the future, as long as I have food to eat, you will not go hungry!”
Xia Xun said disgustedly: “Forget it, Shanshan is not as good as Douzhou!”
After a while, he reacted belatedly and asked the Hu man:
“Are you… ready to go?”
Fumeng Tancha laughed aloud and said:
“You have guessed! You are really more cunning than the foxes of the steppe! That’s right, thanks to your incense ash, my wound is much better! I’m going to go north to hide with Hu merchants for a while to recuperate, so that I can go home in peace after the downfall of Duke Chen. I wanted to leave during the day but I waited for you to come to say goodbye to you.”
Xia Xun nodded: “You do the right thing, it’s a safe way.”
Fumeng Tancha’s brown eyes stared at him intently.
“I’m asking you one last time, are you really not going back to Lingnan? This is the only chance you have left.”
Xia Xun shook his head firmly.
Fumeng Tancha slowly stood up. His wound still caused some pain but for him, who was used to suffering, this pain was nothing.
The black crow flew down from the eaves and landed on his shoulder.
He picked up his scimitar, hung it on his belt and said goodbye to Xia Xun for the last time.
“Goodbye— no, I’m afraid I won’t have the chance to see you again. So, farewell.”
Xia Xun looked at him calmly.
The Hu man waved his hand in an exaggerated manner, then carried his wine bag and stepped out of the door of the temple.
Just like many times before, his figure disappeared quickly into the night without a trace.
It was time for Xia Xun to go too.
He stood up, stomped out the fire and returned to Qingzhou City in the moonlight.
When he entered Chu Anyu’s house, he was greeted by Zhi Gui’s happy face.
“Where have you been, Young Master? I was searching for you! Good news! The lord is awake!”