There was a knock on the door, abruptly pulling Xia Xun out of his memories.
Qi Yan pushed the door open.
Xia Xun turned his back to him, “What is it again?”
Qi Yan said softly.
“I… I have one thing I want to give you. You just walked away too fast.”
Xia Xun looked sideways and said decisively: “Whatever it is, I don’t need—?!”
With his peripheral vision he suddenly saw what Qi Yan was holding in his hand; the very same comb that Xia Xun had given to the prison guard.
Stunned, Xia Xun asked: “—How… Where did you get it?!”
Qi Yan looked regretful, choosing his words for a long time, then finally said to Xia Xun with difficulty:
“A few years ago, I was the deputy of the Imperial Judicial Review Court, responsible for rectifying the improper trend of prison guards taking bribes from prisoners. One of them took the initiative to confess in order to escape a heavy punishment and presented all the pilfered goods he had at home.
“He said that a prisoner entrusted him to bring this comb to me. But I have not seen it since it was given to you. I asked the man why it was not handed to me at that time. He said that he felt that the prisoner was certain to die and had no intention of actually doing anything for him. He just carried the comb in his pocket for a few days, returned it intact and lied to the prisoner that I didn’t accept it.”
Qi Yan apologised.
“I am sorry, at that time I did not fail to accept it, I was unaware of the matter from beginning to end, so… for many years thereafter, I was bitterly regretting that… I am sorry…”
Xia Xun wanted to pretend to be indifferent, wanted to say a painless “no need, I have long forgotten”.
But as soon as he opened his mouth, he heard himself saying instead: “If… if you had seen it, you… would have come to see me?”
Qi Yan paused and put the comb into his palm, then wrapped his fingers tightly around it.
Xia Xun stared at him fixedly, without looking away, just like when Xia Mansion was seized.
And Qi Yan reacted just as he did then.
He did not answer his question, nor did he meet his eyes; his throat rolled up and down, but he never said a word.
Xia Xun did not wait any longer and asked in a cold voice: “Is it hard to answer this question? Then what is the point of you talking to me about this?”
He suddenly raised his hand and threw the comb out of the window fiercely.
“I don’t need it anymore, and since you don’t want it either, then let’s throw it away.”
Qi Yan’s eyes followed the comb as if a part of him fell down there in the darkness outside the house.
Xia Xun took two steps to the side.
“If there is nothing else, please go back.”
Qi Yan walked out of the room. When Xia Xun thought he had left, he slowly lowered his head and took a few deep breaths.
Outside the window there was a dense bush of golden cherry blossoms, and the comb that he had thrown out just now had fallen into the bush.
A few moments later, he heard a noise outside the window and unconsciously raised his eyes to look.
It turned out that Qi Yan did not leave, but bent down over the bush. He groped among the leaves and the branches with his bare hands.
He was looking for the comb.
The golden cherry leaves are thorny and sharp. Yuzhu’s ear had been cut by it and even though his ears were furry, the leaves left a bloody slash there; not to mention Qi Yan’s hands.
In the night when even the moonlight was blocked by clouds, Qi Yan groped in the darkness, inch by inch exploring the ground under the bush.
Xia Xun stared at his figure in a daze, motionless.
After a long time, Qi Yan finally found the comb deep in the bush, picked it up, returned to the room and once again pressed it into Xia Xun’s hand.
His hand was covered with tiny scars and his fingers were wet and sticky with dirt.
He looked at Xia Xun intently and Xia Xun stared back at him.
He thought Qi Yan was finally going to say something to him, but after a long silence, Qi Yan only whispered:
“The hour is late, rest.”
Without waiting for Xia Xun to say anything, he walked out sluggishly, his steps heavy and dragging.
Xia Xun’s gaze followed him as he watched him walk away.
In the winding corridor, the hem of Qi Yan’s clothes sank into the night, and his hair fluttered in the wind, making him look dejected and isolated.
The night was windy.
The next day, the capital officially entered the autumn season.
Xia Xun woke up early in the morning and felt that his throat was dry and itchy, and after breakfast, he suddenly started coughing repeatedly.
Qi Yan wanted to call a doctor for him.
He said, “No, I’ll go to the doctor’s office and get the medicine myself.”
Qi Yan was about to argue, but when the words were almost on his lips, he changed his mind and swallowed them.
He understood why Xia Xun wanted to go by himself.
Back then, there was Zhi Gui to chat with him to relieve his boredom, but now there was only a pond of koi to keep him company.
He was so bored that if Qi Yan didn’t let him go out, he would have to sneak out over the wall.
Qi Yan thought for a moment and nodded in agreement.
“…good, you go, in the east of the city, there is Ruiji Guan clinic—”
Xia Xun interrupted him.
“I know what clinics there are in the city, I grew up here.”
Qi Yan pulled out the money bag from his sleeve and put it in his hand: “Even if you know the capital like the back of your hand, you don’t have any money on you, do you? Take it and use it, don’t be stingy, ask the doctor to bring some good medicine for you. I will check it when I come back.”
Xia Xun said, “You don’t know anything about medicine, what’s the use of showing it to you?”
Qi Yan looked at him with his eyes smiling.
“Do you want to go out or not?”
Xia Xun bristled and grabbed the money bag.
“Since you pay for it, you can check it.”
This time, he could finally walk out through the gate of Qi Mansion openly. The carriage was parked outside the gate, waiting to send Qi Yan to the court. Xia Xun looked at the busy street, took a deep breath and sighed.
“This is the smell of freedom, right?”
Qi Yan was worried.
“There might be people in the city who can recognize you, you’d better put on a veiled hat to be safe.”
Xia Xun did not want to listen to his nagging and took a few steps down the stairs.
“I’m leaving, I’ll be back before it gets dark!”
Qi Yan raised his eyebrows.
“Dark? It’s just a trip to the doctor’s office, you’ll be back by lunch at the latest…”
Xia Xun turned his back and raised his hand, speeding up, reaching the corner in a few moments, turning right and disappearing into the crowd almost immediately.
After he left, Qi Hui asked:
“My lord, you let the young master go alone, aren’t you worried about him leaving the capital?”
Qi Yan looked away.
“…He won’t. Back in Qingzhou, he had many opportunities to leave, but he stayed anyway.”
Qi Hui felt happy for him: “Does that mean that the young master cares for the lord—?”
Qi Yan was noncommittal.
“Not necessarily. He may have some unfulfilled wish.”
Qi Hui asked again: “Does this subordinate need to send someone to follow him secretly to protect the young master’s safety?”
Qi Yan shook his head.
“If it were the old him, I would have done so, but now… now he is sharp-witted, smart and cautious, and no longer needs my protection…”
He stepped into the carriage: “Let’s go, it’s almost dawn.”
The carriage with the master and the servant steadily drove towards the palace.
Xia Xun felt more and more comfortable as he walked along the bustling street, and even his coughing stopped unconsciously.
He was like a bird that had been living in a cage for a long time and had managed to escape and return to a familiar forest.
At the moment, it was the beginning of the day, and the streets were getting crowded.
The vendors who were selling breakfast shouted, bringing out delicious food from steaming pots.
Xia Xun walked through the noisy crowd with a solid feeling of having his feet on the ground.
He was temporarily away from his painful past, away from the love of his life he had fallen for so recklessly when he was young, away from the love-hate tangle that bound him like shackles.
He returned to the place where he grew up, and the few happy memories of his childhood associated with the city gradually came to mind.
He smiled relaxedly and felt happier.
Next, he would walk down the road to the medicine store where he had been so many times as a child; the owner of the medicine store should still be the same uncle who gave little Xia Xun a lot of candy to eat.
That’s how it should have been.
—Then Xia Xun got lost.
He stood under the familiar door of the medicine store, but did not see the familiar plaque.
Where the medicine store used to be, it was a liquor store now; its doors were closed, not opening for customers until the evening.
He looked around. Seven years passed, and everything in this square, except for the towering gate, was no longer the way he remembered it.
When he thought of the way he boasted in front of Qi Yan, Xia Xun couldn’t help but have a hint of regret.
He scratched his head.
“…Where is that Ruiji Guan he mentioned? The east of the city?”
Ruiji Guan was not as famous as other big medical clinics in the capital. An ancient two-story building was hidden in the half-acre bamboo forest in the east of the city, its location quite concealed.
Most of the people who came here to see the doctor and get medicine were regular customers, either those who were introduced by acquaintances or the people who lived in the surrounding area.
When a fresh face appeared in front of the counter, the attention of the young apprentice was immediately caught. He quickly went up to greet Xia Xun.
“Young master, are you here to see a doctor?”
Xia Xun said: “I know the prescription, I’ll tell you, just get me the medicine, no need to see the doctor.”
The young apprentice was not convinced.
“That’s not good! The relationship between the five organs, seven meridians and eight channels is quite complex, there are various kinds of involvement between them. If you do not let our doctor check your pulse, Ruiji Guan will not dare to give you medicine! You should not take it lightly, thinking that coughing is not a serious illness, in case—”
Xia Xun grabbed his arm, so that he did not have to say it.
“Fine, fine, I understand, I’ll see the doctor.”
The young apprentice pointed to the second floor.
“Master is upstairs, he’s seeing someone else, just go straight up and wait outside the room!”
Xia Xun went up the stairs and came to the corridor that led to several different rooms. A vague sound of voices was coming from one of the rooms.
Xia Xun followed the sound and walked closer.
The room did not have a door, only a thin curtain hanging on the door frame.
In the room, a white-haired doctor was concentrating on the patient’s pulse and did not notice Xia Xun outside the door.
Xia Xun waited patiently.
The doctor was attending to a lady with a little maid standing beside her.
The little maid saw that the doctor checked the pulse for such a long time without saying a word and could not help but feel a little anxious and urge in a small voice:
“Doctor, you know that my lady is not allowed to enter the capital according to the law! If people see her and report her to the authorities, we will be in trouble! Please hurry up!”
The doctor seemed to be well aware of this secret and said comfortingly:
“Madam, don’t worry, my place is clean and remote, very few people come here. You’ve been here many times before, have there been any mishaps?”
The lady said a few words, but Xia Xun could not really hear them.
He wondered since when there was such a strange law in the capital that specifically restricted a woman from entering the capital?
Curious, he took a look at the lady.
She was dressed like a commoner, with no expensive hairpin on her head, and the side of her face that Xia Xun could see was only slightly powdered, as if she was not a woman from a distinguished family.
Xia Xun felt even more puzzled, why would a commoner be treated like this?
The doctor finished checking her pulse and began to write the prescription. The lady turned her head sideways, looking at the words he was writing.
Xia Xun was so shocked that he could not help but suck in a breath of cold air.
—The lady was none other than his sister Xia Yin.