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Wu Xi was in the middle of preparing to eat dinner, and seeing Jing Qi come at this hour astonished him some.
Jing Qi put the sable down, allowing it to go have fun in the courtyard. “Give me a knockout drug that can be undetected in wine,” he said frankly.
Wu Xi was taken a bit aback, but didn’t ask, only saying to Nuahar, “Go and bring that to the Prince.”
Jing Qi paused, then suddenly called out to stop Nuahar. “Is there still any of that Dream Stupor that I accidentally inhaled last time?”
“Go bring Dream Stupor,” Wu Xi ordered, then.
Nuahar didn’t dare to delay, promptly fetching a small bottle. Wu Xi took it, handed it to Jing Qi, then meticulously informed him of the dosage amount. Jing Qi forced out a smile, thanked him, and didn’t remain seated, getting up and leaving.
Suddenly remembering something, Wu Xi stood up. Catching up with him, he embraced him by the shoulders, then lightly patted him. “No need to worry. This is a good drug. People who drink it will dream of what they want to have the most. At least in the dream, they will be very happy.”
Jing Qi smiled lightly, shook his head, and went.
Wu Xi continued to stare at his receding back in thought. “Shamanet, what’s the matter with the Prince?” Nuahar couldn’t help but ask. “Why did he want Dream Stupor?”
“He has to go do something bad,” Wu Xi replied softly. “Every single time he goes to do something bad, he has that empty sort of smile.”
Nuahar startled. “The Prince does things that are… bad?”
Wu Xi sighed and sat down once more. “He’s done a lot of bad things, but not one of them were what he wanted. I believe that’s how he is, because I like him.”
Liking a person, not liking a person, life within a drunken stupor, living in a drunken stupor — those were all fuzzy and confusing things. Sometimes, people had to spend their lives relying on belief. If they believed something to be true, then it was.
Helian Pei sat for a rare spell in the study. He wasn’t sure if it had been too long since he had stayed here or what; he felt that the things on the desk seemed to be somewhat familiar, yet also somewhat strange. He dismissed the attendants, leaving only Eunuch Xi in attendance. “We sometimes think that we have done wrong,” he suddenly mumbled to himself.
Eunuch Xi smiled apologetically. “From where have these words come, Your Majesty?”
Helian Pei raised his head and looked at him steadily, the look he had a bit dull, with peppered hair crowning his head. Although his complexion wasn’t bad, he had wrinkles. His hands had fat, but his skin hung loosely, giving one the illusion of emaciation at first glance. Even if he had recovered from his sickness, he was still a senior.
Excluding the dragon robe he wore, his wooden expression was exactly the one all lonely seniors in the realm had — haggard, lifeless, and with a bit of a heartbreaking, vacant hope.
It was as if all he had left was that robe.
It took until the time Eunuch Xi’s smile had gone stiff on his face for Helian Pei to slowly speak. “Good Subject Jiang has served as our Court official for many years, having toil yet no credit for it. Tomorrow… tomorrow, he leaves the capital, and you’ll go see him off on his excursion. Don’t allow him to go to that humid and damp place to suffer. They’re not going to be in the capital, so there’s no need to make the many subjects frightened.“
Eunuch Xi jolted, unable to resist raising his head to look at Helian Pei, then bowed. “This slave accepts your orders.”
People were as floating cotton, lives were as grass — the gentry and higher ranks were still so, so how would it be for ordinary citizens? If one didn’t stand high enough, then they needed to be intelligent enough, heartless enough, and deeply shrewd enough to adapt to opportunities.
Just to be able to live.
This night, Liang Jiuxiao had a dream. He dreamed that he was in a big garden resembling the place he lived in as a child. It was halfway up a mountain and had peach blossoms as far as the eye could see; when they flourished, they seemed to cover the world. The garden was surrounded by a winding bend of shallow water that lingered all the way down the mountain, and when looked down on from the top, it looked like a faintly-seen white ribbon in a sea of flowers.
The backmountain also had waterfalls, small springs, and water-like moonlight, the summit deep blue and naturally towering.
And… there was his sect-brother.
He, who disappeared and reappeared like a ghost over these years and was busy with all sorts of routine junk, was smiling lightly, with all his features even relaxed. He carried two pots of bamboo-leaf green wine, drinking one himself as he tossed one to him, after which he told him that he said he wouldn’t leave. Every year, he would return to this little garden when winter passed; once the peach blossoms bloomed, he would take him to roam jianghu with him.
Liang Jiuxiao couldn’t resist laughing.
Yet, there was no sun nor moon in the mountains, and a thousand years had since passed in the world.
By the time he woke up, it was already nightfall of the next day. He rolled up into a sit from the bed, rubbed his eyes, and stared mutely at the dark sky outside. It was a good minute before he could tell what time it was. He was a bit surprised; he felt like it was the exact same time that he had laid down, so why did he open his eyes now?
He sat for a time. His head didn’t hurt, but his mind was sluggish and couldn’t get into motion too well. For that reason, he got up with excruciating slowness, poured himself a cup of tea, and drank it down, sobering up a little then. The scene from his dream was before his eyes, which wasn’t a bit like how it normally was, where he would forget most of it once he came to. Remembering Zhou Zishu’s smile under the big peach blossom tree — no matter how real it seemed — entered his soul, and he couldn’t help but giggle unconsciously.
Suddenly, someone gently pushed the door open and came in. Seeing him awake, he exclaimed. “Hero Liang, you finally woke up.”
Liang Jiuxiao turned to see that it was Ji Xiang, then was somewhat embarrassed, rubbing his forehead. “Take a good look. The Prince said the wine’s strength was great, but I didn’t take him seriously. I made a fool of myself once I drank too much, right?”
Ji Xiang just smiled. “You didn’t do anything. Even if you drank too much, you didn’t shout at anyone. Should I bring you water so you can freshen up?”
“Which shichen is it?” Liang Jiuxiao quickly asked.
“You slept for one day and one night.”
Liang Jiuxiao was taken aback for a short moment, then stood up with a bang. “Gah, that can’t be, I promised Sir Jiang that I’d see him off! This…” He paced in place a few times, then strongly smacked himself on the forehead a few times. “Letting myself drink is letting myself screw up again!”
“Don’t worry, Hero Liang. The Prince noticed that you weren’t getting up when called, so he already went with all the other officials to see Sir Jiang off in the meeting this morning. He had to have explained things, so Sir Jiang won’t blame you.”
“He won’t blame me, but would Xiao Xue still not remember to hate me for a lifetime?” Liang Jiuxiao frowned, then ran out like he had made up his mind. “No, I have to chase them down the official roads. Brother Ji Xiang, tell the Prince—”
His voice hadn’t yet fallen before his person bounced away, no trace of him left.
Currently, Jing Qi was actually in the study, standing by the window and watching. Seeing Liang Jiuxiao’s image flash by and then disappear from view, there was no expression visible on his face.
“Prince, Hero Liang has left,” Ping An brought up quietly from behind him.
A long time after, Jing Qi nodded. “Go to where Young Master Zhou is. Let him know that I could only keep him here up until now. He’ll have to do the rest by ear.”
Ping An agreed and withdrew.
Wu Xi, who was reading behind the desk, had not turned a page for a long time now. Jing Qi stared blankly out the window, and he stared blankly at his back. A minute passed, and then he saw Jing Qi suddenly use a hand to cover his chest, stoop over slightly, and lean his side against the wall.
Wu Xi hurriedly stood and came next to him. “What’s wrong?” he asked, deeply worried.
“My heart hurts.” Jing Qi’s eyes closed slightly. His dense lashes trembled slightly, his brows creased into a ball, and his lips moved gently, as if he were sleeptalking. “My conscience hurts…”
Wu Xi stood silently beside him for a time, then slowly raised his arms and tentatively put them around Jing Qi’s waist. The man wouldn’t automatically lean into his embrace, of course, so he pressed in, putting his chest on his back. Through its slight curve, he could feel the other’s heartbeat — it was very slow, and getting slower, seeming to have a hint of heaviness and decay.
Jing Qi didn’t shrug him off.
Wu Xi counted his pulse unconsciously, as if by doing that, he could try to understand the man’s intermittent feelings of discomposure, or could sniff out the tracks of what had happened off of him. But… he couldn’t. He thought sorrowfully that his world eternally went in a straight line, while Jing Qi’s mind had countless circles tangled together in it, winding around until maybe not even he himself understood where they started and where they ended.
Outbound the capital, past the rest stop, out the gates. Mortal sounds resonated on Xianyang Road. One government lane went south, gradually getting wilder, gradually getting farther. The narrower the path became, the darker the sky was.
Liang Jiuxiao ran like wild. He thought of how Jiang Zheng’s group was mostly made of the old, weak, and invalid, and couldn’t have traveled very fast. They were only a day away, and the congregation would’ve had to stop for a rest — his on-foot journey would take half a night to get there.
Along the sides of the road were several towns and villages, and he went inquiring house by house. Jiang Zheng’s parade had many people and objects, so even if someone had only caught a wink of them, they would remember where they had come or gone. He followed their trail the whole journey. The further away from the capital he went, the greater the distance between settlements became. When he came to a place more than fifty li south of the capital, it happened to be the main city of the large county of Qinghe. Surmising that they were around here, he knocked on the doors of inns to ask in turn.
However, he had gone knocking all over the place, and every single one of the woken-up servants had impatiently shaken their heads, as if Jiang Zheng’s party had never arrived. He suddenly had an ominous premonition, jumped on his horse’s back, and ran back from where he came, thinking the whole way as he sped. Someone in the town before had clearly said that they saw the group, so how did they suddenly disappear?
Since they weren’t staying in the country, nor in that town, where could they have gone? Could a pack of elders, children, and family property stay in a mountain forest overnight?
He now slowed his speed, keeping a close eye out as he walked, and didn’t even leave out the ruined temples at the wayside by going in to check them out. Most of the night had passed, but he still had nothing.
He planned to improvise for the night in a ruined temple, thinking that he’d wait until tomorrow morning to ask around again. With a fire lit, he intended to curl up on wildgrass for a minute, but once he laid down, his eyes suddenly swept over some marks in the corner of the room.
Abruptly jumping up, he looked over the flames to see them — they were bloodstains.
His pulse quickened in vain. Following along the both dark and bright stains to the back, he pushed the rear door of the abandoned temple open, and froze on the spot.
The yard was filled with corpses, all collapsed in a jumble. In spite of them being mangled and mutilated, he could still make out a few familiar faces… and there was a tiny figure shrunk into the wet nurse’s embrace, a blade having stabbed through them both at the same time.
He involuntarily let out a yell; hoarse, deep, tuneless, and discordant. The continuous sound of buzzing was in his head. He thought that this was impossible, that it was definitely an especially real dream again.
The torch he held landed on the ground, rolled a couple of times, and went out.
Moonlight fell down coldly, shining on those that had died with their eyes open. The infinite pain of the human world never made any distinction.
Ages after, he walked out, tripping on the threshold. He staggered over to the side of Jiang Xue’s little corpse and knelt down with a thud. With shaking hands, he pushed away the nursemaid that held her, but rigor mortis had already set into the woman’s arms. He tried a couple of times without success. All he could see was that tiny face between the gaps in her arms.
Her eyes, which had always been in crescents from laughing, were wide open, yet had no light.
He stood there dumbly for a time, standing in stupefaction. “No,” he began to mumble, “I can’t let Xiao Xue freeze outside…”
Frantically, he searched out a space, then madly began to dig in the dirt using the sword at his waist, but that was too slow, so he began to use his hands to snatch it, face listless.
It went until someone abruptly embraced him from behind; he was already a complete mess from head to toe, and it wasn’t clear whether he was digging a pit, or about to bury himself alive. He turned his head around woodenly. A large group was standing behind him with torches, the flickering lights hurting his eyes badly. Only after a long time did he recognize that it was his sect-brother, Zhou Zishu, that was holding him.
He, at last, burst into tears.
[End of Book 2: Flowers that Don’t Know of Fate are Exceptionally Beautiful]