Early morning, two quarters into maoshi (5-7 am).
In a short while, Xia Xun would return to Xia Mansion. He was happily eating breakfast with his hand bandaged, unaware of what would happen next.
Qi Yan looked at his innocent demeanour, and his chest suddenly throbbed with dull pain.
Although he was clearly prepared for everything, ready for the moment when the dagger would strike, panic suddenly surged in his heart.
Even seeing Xia Xun stumble a little, Qi Yan would feel terribly distressed and want to catch him. But now he had to personally send him to jail, send him to the unpredictable road of exile.
Qi Yan didn’t dare to think how Xia Xun would look at him after the truth was revealed and what he would experience during the long three thousand miles of exile.
His fear grew stronger and stronger, his breathing becoming chaotic.
He kept comforting himself that his plan was free of loopholes. As long as he endured these few months, he would be able to rescue Xia Xun safely. At that time, he would explain everything to Xia Xun everything and no matter what the cost, he would beg for Xia Xun’s forgiveness.
Then the two of them could live in peace, with no more past events standing between them.
Qi Yan breathed a sigh of relief, patted the chair and asked Xia Xun to sit beside him.
“Your hair is messy, come here and let me comb it for you.”
Xia Xun sat down obediently; Qi Yan picked up the comb and combed his hair carefully.
While Xia Xun was not paying attention, he quietly cut off a strand of his hair and hid it in his sleeve.
He thought about the saying that a man’s soul was in his hair. If he kept this strand of hair, Xia Xun would surely meet him again no matter where he went in the future.
“Alright.” He said softly to Xia Xun: “It’s all done.”
Xia Xun twisted his combed hair in a bun and walked into the gate of Xia Mansion.
Two hours later, when he walked out of it again, his family was ruined. He was shackled and taken into a prison carriage, while Qi Yan rode a horse and quickly disappeared behind the corner of the street.
Qi Yan couldn’t stop; if he stopped, he wouldn’t be able to restrain his impulses.
If it hadn’t been for years of hatred that forged his willpower, he would have rushed to Xia Xun’s side, would have taken him away in front of everyone and would have gone with him to the end of the world.
He clenched the reins so tightly that the tough cowhide left bloody marks in his palms.
His heart hurt as if pierced with a knife, but he didn’t look back.
Xia Xun went to the prison of the Judicial Review Courty and together with Xia Wen waited for the emperor to announce their sentence.
These ten days were the most difficult days in Qi Yan’s life. He could barely eat or sleep, he was restless, he couldn’t even drink water. He lost a lot of weight in just a few days.
Qi Hui couldn’t watch it anymore, so he said:
“My lord, since you are so worried, why don’t you visit Young Master Xia? If you don’t show your face, Young Master Xia will definitely think that you were just using him from beginning to end and did not care about him at all. Even if he gets out safely in the future, he will resent you. How will it be possible for him to get along with you without holding a grudge?”
After the death of Xia Hongxi, Qi Yan was immediately given an official title, and Qi Hui no longer called him “young master”, but started calling him “my lord”.
Qi Yan said in anguish:
“Do you think that if I go to see Xia Xun, he will forgive me easily and believe that I was sincere with him? When I chose to kill Xia Hongxi, it was equivalent to cutting off all his friendship with me! But if I didn’t kill Xia Hongxi, how could I be worthy of my parents and brother? How could I live with myself in this life?! It’s my dilemma, and no one can relate to it! It’s my heartache, and who can understand half of it?”
Qi Hui tried to persuade him again, but Qi Yan said:
“I know what you want to say, but have you ever thought that His Majesty is watching me closely, always checking my loyalty? What if at this point I personally go to the prison to meet the son of the enemy who killed my father? His Majesty long suspected that I had some selfish interest when I begged him to let Xia Xun and Xia Wen live. If he finds out, all of us will die without a grave and my calculations of all this time will come to naught! In order to save Xia Xun’s life, even if my heart hurts, I can only bear it, can only endure it for the sake of our future!”
Qi Yan said it so bitterly that Qi Hui couldn’t help but feel tears in his eyes.
“This subordinate understands… this subordinate has seen the difficulties of my lord with his own eyes! It’s just that… There is still something I don’t understand, though. It’s enough to protect Young Master Xia. Why did my lord want to protect Xia Wen as well?”
Qi Yan sighed：
“The road to exile is difficult and there are countless people who die on the road. If Xia Xun is alone, who will take care of him? I thought about it, and the only person who can take care of him all the way is Xia Wen. Xia Wen is upright and responsible, and has nothing to do with the death of my parents. Why not let him live and let him accompany Xia Xun to the place of exile?”
Qi Hui couldn’t help but say:
“My lord has worked so hard just to protect Young Master Xia. I hope that God will have mercy and keep Young Master Xia safe.”
Qi Yan closed his eyes wearily.
“Don’t say these useless things, go to Guangning House and rent the entire top floor. I will use it in the future.”
Qi Hui saw that he was extremely tired, so he didn’t ask anything else, left the mansion and went straight to Guangning House.
Only on the day Xia Xun left the capital did Qi Hui understand the purpose of this request of Qi Yan.
The exiled prisoners were taken out of the capital in prison carts through the west gate. Guangning House was the tallest building in the vicinity of the west gate. Standing on the top floor, you could see the scene outside the west gate at a glance.
That day, Qi Hui got the news and hurried to report it:
“My lord! Young Master Xia is leaving the city! The prison cart has already passed the central street!”
Qi Yan rushed out of the door, got on his horse and galloped all the way to Guangning House, ran to the top floor and hurried to the window, gasping for breath, just in time to see the prison cart slowly passing by the west gate.
In the cart, Xia Wen and Xia Xun were wearing prison uniforms. Xia Wen sat with his back against the cart rails, and Xia Xun lay, resting on his lap.
Qi Yan looked at him over and over again. His face was pale and his hair was slightly messy. Apart from this, there seemed to be nothing wrong.
Qi Yan felt a little relieved and looked at his face seriously again.
Xia Xun’s eyes were closed tightly, as if he was asleep.
Qi Yan muttered to himself: “…what a child, he can still sleep so soundly in the prison cart…”
Qi Hui said with relief:
“It seems Young Master Xia isn’t ill, which is really a good thing.”
Qi Yan looked at Xia Xun frantically.
“I specifically ordered the prison guards not to treat him badly. It looks like they were indeed obedient.”
As the wheels rolled forward, Qi Yan gradually lost sight of the cart. He forced himself to turn away and close the window.
Just when Qi Hui thought he was about to leave, he suddenly clutched the clothes on his chest and squatted down slowly, leaning against the window frame.
Big beads of sweat appeared on his forehead, his lips were purple, blue veins standing out on his neck, his expression extremely anguished.
Qi Hui rushed to him.
“My lord? My lord?! What’s the matter with you?!”
Qi Yan’s chest was going up and down as he said desperately:
“It’s fine… don’t worry about me… the people in Douzhou, how are the preparations going?”
Qi Hui pulled himself together and said:
“All ready! As soon as Young Master Xia arrives, he will be able to escape!”
Sending Xia Xun to exile from the capital was only the first step in Qi Yan’s plan. After learning that the emperor had sent him to Lingnan, Qi Yan immediately organised manpower in Suzhou, the place of exile. As soon as Xia Xun arrived, they would help him fake his death and take him to a safe place to hide.
As soon as the limelight passed, Xia Xun would be free.
This was originally a foolproof plan, but Qi Yan missed a fatal point.
The road to exile was thousands of miles, and it took more than a month to reach the destination. On the way for many days, trudging through mountains and crossing rivers, without food and warm clothes, nine out of ten prisoners would die on the road and just a few would reach the place of exile safely.
Xia Xun was not a lucky one, he was not one of the few.
A month later, Qi Hui received the imperial bulletin and as soon as he glanced at it, blood surged away from his face. He was shocked, as if struck by lightning.
Qi Yan noticed his abnormality; his heart jolted suddenly and he asked anxiously:
“What’s the matter?!
Qi Hui crumpled the bulletin hurriedly: “Nothing, nothing!”
His eyelashes trembled and his hands were covered with cold sweat. Anyone who was not blind could tell that he was lying.
Qi Yan had an ominous feeling. He said coldly:
Qi Hui held the bulletin, the sweat on his hands soaking into the paper.
“My lord, you… but hold on…”
He spread out a thin piece of paper and delivered it to Qi Yan.
Qi Yan looked down at a few lines and his whole body went stiff.
Looking at him in horror, Qi Hui said carefully:
“My lord, there are many important things in this world… You, you must take care of yourself—”
Qi Hui couldn’t talk anymore. His words had never sounded as pale as at this moment.
There was only one sentence in the imperial bulletin:
——Xia Hongxi’s third son, Xun, was exiled to Lingnan, but before he arrived, he died of illness in Luyang on the 29th of last month, at the age of 16.
Qi Yan just looked at it in a daze, without saying a word, his expression frozen.
Qi Hui was surprised and uncertain, lowered his voice and said carefully:
“My lord, if you feel pain, just cry! If it doesn’t work, you can scream! When you are like this, like this— Qi Hui is scared!”
As if he was not awake from a deep dream, Qi Yan murmured:
“I’m fine… you can go down first…”
How could Qi Hui leave him?
“My lord! You must not blame yourself! You have done everything you could, but it was the will of heaven! It was fate! You are not a god, you can’t change the way of heaven!”
Qi Yan said softly:
“I see, you can go down…”
He was insisting; Qi Hui couldn’t continue to stay and walked outside nervously but didn’t dare to go too far and stayed by the door.
Not long after, there was the sound of stumbling footsteps in the room, and then the door was pushed open vigorously, and Qi Yan staggered out, his face pale.
“Qi Hui… Prepare horses, I’m going to Luyang…”
He looked shaky, as if he would fall to the ground in the next instant.
Qi Huijian stepped forward to support him.
“My lord! My lord! Why are you… why are you talking nonsense?! Luyang is 2500 miles away from the capital! Even if you run the horse to death, you can’t make it in time!”
Qi Yan pushed him away and insisted on walking forward. When he stepped on the stairs, he missed a step and fell to the ground, still talking intermittently:
“Xia Xun is waiting for me… I have to pick him up…”
He looked straight ahead, his hands grasping the air as if he was trying to hold something.
Qi Hui held back his tears, ran to his side, and helped him up.
Qi Yan’s internal organs seemed to be twisted into a ball, and there was sharp pain spreading from his neck to his chest and abdomen, and he couldn’t tell where it was hurting.
Everything turned pitch black in front of his eyes; he could no longer see.
Qi Hui held his hand, only to feel that Qi Yan’s palms were wet and cold, so he touched his wrist to check the pulse.
Under his fingertips, Qi Yan’s pulse was messy and thin, and even without medical skills Qi Hui could realise that this was not a normal pulse.
At this time, there were no other servants in Qi Mansion and there was not even anyone who could help. Qi Hui could only take Qi Yan back to the house before going to the doctor.
He put Qi Yan’s arm on his shoulder, trying to carry him.
Qi Yan refused, saying over and over again: “Go to Luyang… go now… Xia Xun is waiting for me there…”
Qi Hui said, “I’m sorry” and hit him on the back of the neck with his palm.
Qi Yan fainted helplessly; Qi Hui picked him up and rushed into the house.
Qi Hui couldn’t see Qi Yan’s tears slip from the corners of his closed eyes, roll into his hair and gradually disappear.
Seven years later, in the secret room of Qi Mansion.
Qi Yan told Xia Xun:
“I’ve been in a daze all these years, I don’t know how I got through them. I always felt that I had died long ago, died on the day I heard of your death. If not for my longing for you, I would have long become a white skeleton under three feet of yellow earth.”
Xia Xun stroked the eyebrows of the wooden man. The knife marks carved by Qi Yan were deep.
Qi Yan said bitterly:
“You asked me before, if I saw that comb at the time, would I go to see you? I didn’t want to lie to you and at that time I really didn’t know how to answer. Now I can tell you… No, I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. If I couldn’t prove that I had nothing in common with you, I wouldn’t be able to save you…”
Xia Xun raised the wooden man and brought it to the candlelight outside the dark room, taking a closer look at the texture of the wood.
“This is not ordinary wood, but paulownia. There is my name and birth date on the back of the wooden man. This is not an ordinary thing.” Xia Xun held his breath and concentrated, as if he was saying something treacherous: “This is… Yansheng.”
Qi Yan’s face was like a quiet lake, his eyes calm.
Xia Xun felt his mind shaken, sweetness, sourness and bitterness mixed together in his heart.
“If the matter of Yansheng is discovered, all your household will be exterminated. Why do you… want to perform such a dangerous spell?”