Qi Yan cupped his palms around Xia Xun’s hand that held the wooden man.
“After your death, I haven’t dreamed of you for many years. I thought that you must have had a grudge against me and refused to come to my dreams. But I really missed you. One day I woke up and suddenly found that I couldn’t remember what you really looked like. I was afraid that I would forget you. From that day on, I started to learn wood carving. Every moment, I would recall your voice and your smile. I thought, in this way, I would never forget what you looked like.
“A few months ago, I missed you terribly. I said to myself that no matter what the price was, I wanted to see you. I secretly found a wizard. Ironically, in the past I didn’t believe in gods and ghosts at all. When I heard others talking about it, I would just think it was absurd and ridiculous. But now that I had something to ask for, such an illusory spell became my only lifeline.”
The wizard told Qi Yan that if he wanted to summon the spirit of the deceased through Yansheng spell, he needed to carve out the face of the deceased from paulownia wood, engrave the eight characters of his birthday on the back of the wooden man, and then take something that belonged to the deceased person as a support. That thing and the wooden man together had to be enshrined in front of the memorial tablet on the night of the full moon, so that he could meet that person in his dream.
Qi Yan picked up the brocade bag placed next to the incense burner that contained a strand of Xia Xun’s hair.
“The last time we saw each other, I quietly took a strand of your hair, and I used it as a primer to call for your soul.”
Qi Yan did everything the wizard said and specially bought acacia leaf cold cakes and put them on the table.
He thought that if Xia Xun really came back, he would have his favourite snacks to eat.
He knew what Qi Hui thought of him. He must have regarded him as a lunatic a long time ago, but Qi Yan didn’t care anymore. As long as he could meet Xia Xun, he would gladly give up his life.
Qi Yan said in a daze:
“That night, I really dreamed of you… I dreamed that you walked in from the outside and saw the pastry on the table, so you sat down to eat. I didn’t even dare to breathe too loudly for fear of disturbing you. I walked slowly behind you and called your name. You turned your head. I haven’t seen your face clearly yet. A large stain of blood suddenly appeared on your chest, and more and more blood soaked through your clothes until there was so much that it started dripping to the ground. I wanted to hug you, walked a few steps forward, and when I looked down, I suddenly saw a knife in your chest, and the handle of the knife happened to be in my hand… You looked at me plaintively and said nothing…”
Qi Yan’s hand moved up along Xia Xun’s arm, touched his shoulder lightly and gently exerted strength to pull Xia Xun into his arms.
“I actually remember very clearly that you told me that Xia Hongxi didn’t know your real birthday. I carved the eight characters of your birthday on the back of the wooden man and it must have been inaccurate. But I still dreamed of you. I guess it probably was because I missed you too much and felt too guilty. For so many years, I always believed that I killed you… I love you so much, how could I, how could I fail to save you…?”
His voice was breathless, so plaintive it sounded almost like crying.
This time, Xia Xun did not refuse his hug. He put his face against Qi Yan’s neck and murmured:
“That’s why you went to Douzhou…?”
Qi Yan pressed his cheek to his ear, as if still in a dream:
“I thought you had a wish, that’s why you entrusted this dream to me. Next day, I rushed to Lingnan. Fortunately, I went there… Fortunately, fortunately…”
His arms held tighter and tighter. In front of Xia Xun’s memorial tablet, his years of agonising thoughts had finally come to an end. The love of his life was still alive, breathing and had a heartbeat… still snuggled in his arms.
Xia Xun breathed deeply and through the layers of thin clothing felt Qi Yan’s heartbeat reach him.
Just when Qi Yan’s empty heart was finally about to be full again, he suddenly realized that something under his touch was a bit abnormal.
His palm was resting on Xia Xun’s back and he could feel some faint crisscrossing ridges under his clothes. Horrified, Qi Yan rubbed harder and realized that Xia Xun’s entire back was in a similar situation.
He hurriedly asked, “What happened to your back??”
Xia Xun didn’t expect him to ask this question and said calmly:
“It’s the scars from the caning.”
Qi Yan was stunned and shrunk back a little:
Xia Xun looked at him strangely:
“According to the law of this dynasty, prisoners sentenced to exile are punished with thirty sticks before they are exiled. Weren’t you the deputy of the Judicial Review Court? Don’t you know?”
Qi Yan looked like he was struck with lightning. He said in a trembling voice, “…what?”
But he had already awakened.
His heart thudded suddenly and his mind seemed to explode. He was numb all over and the only feeling he still had was the sensation of sinking down, as if he was stuck in a quagmire.
He served as the deputy of the Imperial Court of Judicial Review for three years. How could he not understand the laws of this dynasty? How could he not know that exiled prisoners had to be caned thirty times before they could leave the capital?
But he just forgot.
The joy of reuniting with Xia Xun was so overwhelming that his brain and his heart fooled him.
Before today, he had always thought that Xia Xun had not suffered any pain, especially after he found out that he was still alive.
He thought that Xia Xun had not been bullied by the guards in prison. He thought that he had got on the prison cart safely. He thought that when he arrived in Douzhou, he had escaped faking his death smoothly.
He thought that although Xia Xun hated him, he still protected Xia Xun very well. He saved his life. Although the manpower he placed in Douzhou did not come in handy, after some twists and turns, Xia Xun was still able to regain his freedom.
He always thought that although this journey was bitter, the ending was ultimately successful.
So he forcibly brought Xia Xun back. He always believed that as long as Xia Xun knew the efforts he had made for him, he would forgive him, he would forget all the past, cross the gap between them and be with him again.
They would treat each other sincerely as before.
During all this time, he unconsciously ignored a lot, but now, all the details from the past emerged in his mind thunder-like.
When he looked from upstairs in Guangning House, he was completely wrong. Xia Xun was not asleep. He had just been caned and was unconscious on Xia Wen’s lap.
Xia Xun always cried in pain in his dreams, always whispering his name, not because of his hand that was burned by Xia Xing, but because of his back that was once covered in open wounds.
Xia Xun would say that his back hurt, Xia Xun’s physique was much weaker and Xia Xun didn’t want his back to be touched by him.
Xia Xun started coughing as soon as autumn started.
It was not acclimatisation at all, it was clearly caused by the caning that year.
After being hit with a three-inch thick stick on his back a full thirty times, even a strong man with a robust body would be bruised and battered, losing his health. If he was hit lightly, his bones and tendons would be damaged; and if he was hit heavily, he would be killed on the spot.
And Xia Xun had to carry such bloody wounds and travel three thousand miles to the barren land of Lingnan.
If Xia Xun did not die on the road, it was because God had mercy.
Waves of sorrow surged in Qi Yan’s heart, making him wish to cry loudly. Painful shudders racked his body. He hugged Xia Xun tightly, buried his head against his neck and swallowed his whimpers.
Xia Xun couldn’t bear to see him so sad, so he comforted him in a soft voice:
“So you didn’t know? Actually… it didn’t hurt as much as you think. I’m fine now. What’s more, He Cong helped me at the beginning. He— it’s all over anyway. I forgot about it myself, why do you bother to mention the old things again?”
Qi Yan hugged him with all his strength, and Xia Xun was squeezed by him almost painfully.
The sadness in Qi Yan’s heart flowed out like a monstrous torrent pouring for thousands of miles, out of control.
Xia Xun was his treasure, Xia Xun, who he wanted to save even if he had to give up his life, and Xia Xun, the only one he had ever loved, paid such a painful price for his decision.
Now, after what he had done, what right did he have to keep him by his side?
Qi Yan gritted his teeth, leaning on Xia Xun’s thin shoulder, and shook his head stiffly.
He regretted it, and he was doomed to regret it for the rest of his life.
He asked hoarsely with a dumb voice:
“Xia Xun… do you still want to go back to Lingnan…”
Xia Xun was startled and did not answer.
Qi Yan understood his silence. His throat was bitter. It was as if a thousand-pound burden was pressing on his chest, making him breathless.
He swallowed with difficulty, his throat hot and astringent, as if he had swallowed a thousand silver needles.
He squeezed out the words:
“Fine… I’ll let you go… Xia Xun, I’ll let you go…”
Three days later, on the bank of the Shou River in the western suburbs, by the Chang Pavillion.
Qi Yan was doing the final inspection.
He bought a sturdy carriage and hired a groom whose hometown was in Douzhou. He was worried that Xia Xun would not have enough to eat and enough warm clothes on the road, so he personally bought a lot of things and stuffed the carriage full.
He counted the bags one by one, and after counting for the first time, he counted them the second time from the beginning.
Xia Xun was watching him from the side, not trying to stop him.
After counting back and forth all the way, Qi Yan finally relented and turned around to tell Xia Xun:
“I have prepared everything you might use. If you need something, don’t rush to buy it, go and check your bags. If you really can’t find it, then spend money to buy it. In addition to food and clothing, I prepared a bag of broken silver for you. When the time comes, give it to the soldiers that inspect along the way and they will not cause you trouble. Also, I bought you a water bag. If you cough, you should drink some water from time to time to moisturise your throat. In addition—”
Xia Xun couldn’t listen anymore:
“Fine, I have remembered it all, you have said it three times.”
Qi Yan’s eyes widened:
“Never mind three times, I will say it thirty times as long as you can return to Douzhou safely, so listen to me patiently. In addition, I have already sent a letter to your eldest brother, telling him that you are going back and asking him to prepare in advance.”
Xia Xun nodded:
“Good, is there anything else?”
Qi Yan endured it and said:
Xia Xun turned around, preparing to leave: “Then I’ll get in the carriage.”
Qi Yan stopped him:
Xia Xun looked back at him: “What?”
Qi Yan took out a simple square wooden box from his sleeve, opened the lid and showed him two gold bracelets inside.
After a pause, Qi Yan said:
“This is my mother’s dowry and the only thing left from her. After I returned to the capital and restored my name, it took a lot of effort to get it back. Now… I will give it to you.”
Xia Xun looked at it for a while and shook his head.
“I can’t accept such a valuable gift. You should keep it by your side for your mother to feel at ease. Besides, as a man, when I can use it, you leave it for—”
Qi Yan interrupted him:
“This is not for you, but for your… future wife.”
As soon as these words came out, the two of them fell silent. The seemingly relaxed atmosphere they had created with joint efforts turned into a handful of ash, scattered as soon as the wind had blown.
The heavy understanding that they were parting engulfed the two of them like a tide.
Qi Yan took a deep breath and smiled, but unfortunately his smile was uglier than crying.
“The gold bracelets are a gift for your bride. When you get married in the future, they will naturally come into use. At that time—”
Qi Yan felt as if his tongue turned wooden. He couldn’t open his mouth but he forced himself to continue.
“…At that time, don’t forget to write a letter to let me know, I will prepare another gift for you, which is guaranteed to be more valuable than this item, all right?”
Xia Xun stood still for a long time before moving. He took the wooden box and stuffed it into his sleeve.
They were not the only ones to say goodbyes by the Chang Pavillion. There were many men and women parting by the Shou River. Some of them would be able to meet again soon, and some might never see each other again in this life.
Those who stayed would break off a willow branch and give it to the long-distance travellers who were about to leave. In early autumn, the leaves of the willow tree had long since fallen out, leaving only bare branches.
Qi Yan lowered his eyes and whispered:
“I won’t give you the willow. Douzhou is the place where your heart wants to go, how can I be so cruel to ask you to stay. It’s just… From now on, I will never have any wishes for the rest of my life, but I wish you peace in your life and eternal well-being.”
Xia Xun said “en” in a low voice.
“…Then I’ll go.”
He turned around quickly and boarded the carriage, as if he would change his mind if he stayed for a moment longer.
The groom waved the reins, and the wheels slowly moved forward.
Qi Yan stood by the carriage, watched him leave and said a final farewell to him:
“Xia Xun, goodbye.”
Xia Xun didn’t dare to look at him again, so he waved his hand hurriedly and hid in the carriage.
In the shadow in the depths of the carriage he removed all his disguises. He hugged his knees and shrank into a ball, overwhelmed with sadness.
The wooden box given by Qi Yan was humble, but it was like a soldering iron in his sleeve, making his heart ache.
He took out the wooden box but instead of putting it far away, he held it tightly in his hand.
He thought suddenly that, in fact, everyone had changed.
Xia Wen used to love his sister-in-law so much but he settled down in Douzhou and married a new wife.
He Cong liked him, and in order to save him, he did not hesitate to sever relations with his parents. A few years later, he was a father of two children.
His eldest sister-in-law married Xiong Qian, and Shaobo became Madam Raobi. Xia Yin had forgotten him. Even Zhi Gui and Fumeng Tancha left far away after a brief encounter with him.
Even he himself was no longer the naive and simple Xia Xun he used to be.
Only Qi Yan had not changed.
He stayed in the gap of time, letting the torrents of the sea rush past. With his love and longing for Xia Xun, he stayed in the same place forever, and he would never take a step away in this life.
Whenever Xia Xun was willing to look back, he would always see him behind.
Even if everyone was gone, even if everyone forgot him, Qi Yan would still love him unfailingly.
The treasure that Xia Xun thought he had never got had always been in his hands.
Thinking of this, he couldn’t help but stick out the window of the carriage and look back at Qi Yan.
Under the dome of the Chang Pavilion built of white stone, there were three levels of stairs, and Qi Yan sat on the last level of stone steps.
The carriage had already driven a long distance away, and Qi Yan’s figure was blurred, but Xia Xun could still clearly see that the man he had loved all his life buried his face in his hands and cried silently.
Xia Xun’s heart clenched in severe pain, and tears flowed down unexpectedly. He couldn’t help but say, ”Stop the carriage…”
His voice was too soft, the groom didn’t hear it, the wheels were still moving forward and Qi Yan was getting farther and farther away from him.
Unable to endure the emotions churning in his chest any longer, Xia Xun shouted:
“Stop the carriage!”
The groom hurriedly pulled the reins, and Xia Xun jumped down and ran wildly.
When Qi Yan heard the movement, he raised his head and looked over in amazement.
Xia Xun ran towards him in one breath, but when he was still a few steps away, he stopped slowly, adjusted his breathing and walked towards him step by step.
Qi Yan looked at him in disbelief, his face still wet with tears.
Xia Xun grabbed his hand:
“Didn’t you tell me to give the bracelets to someone who will marry me in the future?”
He placed the pair of gold bracelets in Qi Yan’s palm:
“It’s for you.”
Qi Yan wanted to laugh, lifting the corners of his mouth, still in a bit of disbelief:
“I suddenly felt that the capital was also very good.” Xia Xun broke off a willow branch and put it in his sleeve: “You don’t need to give me the willow, I’m not going anywhere.”