“Isn’t this Xihe-Jun’s outer coat?”
By the time Mo Xi had exited from the Frost Chamber, the prison officer’s soul had nearly scattered in fright.
Previously, Wangshu, the merciless officer, had come to interrogate Gu Mang. When he had exited, his sapphire blue silk robes were clean, and the moonstone1[月华石 (lit. stone of moon essence) is actually granite, but I took some liberties and assumed Meatbun used it for its “moon” relation, since Wangshu is a moon-related name in mythology.] pendant hanging in front of his chest was not even the least bit askew. Yet, when he had entered to take a look—what a decent fellow. Gu Mang had been entirely drenched in blood.
Without getting any blood on himself, Wangshu-Jun had managed to torture Gu Mang until he was such a state. Now that Xihe-Jun’s Imperial Guard robes were nearly dyed through with blood, did it not mean that Gu Mang—
This line of thought made his knees weak, and nearly caused him to collapse onto the floor. Luckily, his disciple beside him caught him in time, so he could just barely remain standing, quaking, and bow to Mo Xi. “May Xihe-Jun have a safe journey back.”
Face pale, lips pressed tightly together, Mo Xi silently walked out of the gloomy, freezing corridor of the jail without looking back. Against the cold tiles, his iron-plated military boots produced a crisp ring.
“The Heavenly Scented Elixir of Life!! Hurry up hurry up hurry up!!”
The prison officer bore the miraculous elixir that could regrow flesh and expel rot in shaking hands, and led the charge into the Frost Chamber with a mass of healers. Even before he could remember to steady himself, he froze.
Gu Mang was lying on the stone bed, wrapped in a black and gold fur coat that kept the cold away. Half of his gaunt face peeked out from the depths of the wool-lined edge, but it was clean.
His disciple froze. “Shifu, what, what’s this…”
The prison officer’s gaze swept across him and landed on the complex, interlocking gold serpent pattern along the edge of the coat sleeve. His heart lurched—wasn’t this the insignia of the Northern Frontier Army?
Another thought flashed through his mind. Earlier, when Mo Xi had entered, he clearly had on a warm coat, but had left in a suit of black, form-fitting robes. This coat…it couldn’t be…?
He swallowed, went forwards a few steps, and gingerly peeled a corner of the coat away. Indeed, Gu Mang was curled up underneath in sleep, his breaths even, the wounds on him no longer bleeding. The prison officer could not help but be somewhat stunned; distinctly, he sensed that there was something amiss, but once he recalled Mo Xi’s usual lofty and arrogant demeanour, and that Gu Mang had once stabbed his heart clean through without any mercy, this bold spark of thought was extinguished very quickly.
His little disciple peeked over too, and after a while of looking, he finally had a realisation. “Aiya! Isn’t this Xihe-Jun’s outer coat?”
“Shifu, shifu. Don’t they say that Xihe-Jun is a germaphobe, and he never lets anyone touch his things???”
The prison officer looked back wordlessly. “Do you think that he’ll still want this coat back?”
“Oh…” His little disciple scratched his head sheepishly. “That’s true.”
He paused, then asked with a curiosity that could kill a cat, “But didn’t Xihe-Jun come to interrogate him? Why did he treat the prisoner so well?”
“He isn’t the merciless official.” Even though the prison officer had his own murmuring suspicions, he still understood what he could speculate about, and what he should not. So he patted his disciple’s shoulder, and said with a sombre tone, “Not everyone likes to see blood shed as much as Wangshu-Jun does.”
“All of you, be more cautious about this incident today, don’t speak of it to others.” The prison official instructed the rest of them. He glimpsed the shimmering, lifelike golden serpent pattern on the coat out of the corner of his eye, and said in a low voice,
“Remember, a loose lip births trouble.”
Mo Xi walked along the main road where the heavy snow was falling hard, the west wind whipping at his face. He was missing his coat, but he did not feel cold. The light in his eyes was burning deeply, his heart beating like a drum. That line Gu Mang had mumbled softly kept echoing by his ear.
I want to… have a home…
It felt like sparks of fire had fallen onto a pile of hay in his heart, incinerating a path all the way from his chest, burning the edges of his eyes red.
He was increasingly certain that Gu Mang might not have suffered mental damage; otherwise, why would he have mumbled this line out of all others while unconscious?
The flames leaping in his chest were a kind of torture, but also a kind of hope. Turning the thought over and over in his mind, he did not even notice his blood-drenched front drawing the side glances of passers-by.
As the snow grew heavier, the light in Mo Xi’s eyes grew brighter. He thought, after this current case had been concluded, he would acquire Gu Mang from Murong Lian no matter what.
It was only through this way, that he could live with Gu Mang and spend time with him day in and day out. Only then, did he have the opportunity to test whether Gu Mang was faking mental incapacitation or truly mad.
While he was preoccupied with his thoughts here, a sharp cry sounded abruptly in the distance. “Ah–!!”
Mo Xi halted in his steps, lifting his eyes to trace the source of the sound.
As the capital was currently on high alert, he instantly sprinted towards the source of the scream. It came from a tavern; the tables and benches were wrecked, and a good few of the wine jars piled by the wall had been shattered. Aged lihuabai2[Literally translates to Pear blossom white wine] pooled on the floor, filling the room with a potent wine fragrance.
Customers fought to scramble out of the door. Only a few cultivators, who happened to be drinking here, were currently gathered in a private room on the second floor. Yue Chenqing was among them.
Yue Chenqing was clutching at the still-bleeding wound on his arm, and cursing furiously. This was a rare sight, because he had a good temperament and was not easily angered. At this moment, however, it was as if steam rose from the top of his head, and he was muttering, “Scaredy-cats! Little turtles3[seal: The term for “bastard” in Chinese is 王八, which is a type of tortoise, so calling someone a “little turtle” is like a babey edition, much like saying “poopy face” instead of “asshole”.]! There’s not one bit of brotherhood to speak of!”
He had a pure and extroverted character, and usually rarely cussed. Thus, he only repeated those few phrases over and over, and even considered “little turtle” a vulgarity.
“It hurts so much!”
Mo Xi reached the upper floor very quickly, just in time to see Yue Chenqing bluster, “You big bad dog!”
He was lifting his head, and just so happened to curse in Mo Xi’s direction.
Yue Chenqing froze, his eyes widening into saucers. “Xihe-Jun? Why are you here? That, erm, I wasn’t talking about you…”
“What happened?” Mo Xi glanced at Yue Chenqing. “You have been injured?”
“Yes, yes! Just now, there was a capable fighter in black who suddenly jumped in through the window, and wanted to kidnap this tavern’s Xiao Cui-jiejie.” Yue Chenqing was angry and exasperated. “Xiao Cui-jiejie is always very cute, every time she sells wine, she’ll give us brothers a little more, and she’ll throw in some shelled peanuts and bean paste cakes4[芸豆糕 (yúndòu gāo) – they’re dessert cakes originating from Beijing made out of kidney beans, where the outer layer is white kidney beans, and the inside is red kidney beans.] for free sometimes. Although the cakes aren’t that tasty—”
“…Get to the important part.”
“Oh, the important part, the important part.” Yue Chenqing pondered for a while, and said indignantly, “The important part is, once I saw that something was amiss about the situation, a few friends and I rushed up to stop that man in black. But that fellow used some unknown and unorthodox technique, he sliced me even before I could even touch a corner of his sleeve. My friends, though, once they saw that I was injured, they all fled in fright! They’re all little turtles!”
He grew more infuriated as he spoke, like he was about to spit up blood.
“How can our Dashing Gentlemen of Chonghua be a group of such useless things, they’re such a let-down!”
The Dashing Gentlemen of Chonghua was a small club that Yue Chenqing had formed with a small group of those from the younger generation. A group of young masters whose favourite hobby was to put on cultured airs, they swaggered around in public all day long, flaunting their prestigious statuses. They had even bestowed themselves jianghu titles in secret, names like “Pompous Dragon of the Sky”, or “Tiger in Brocade Robes5[锦衣虎 could be a reference to actual Ming-dynasty imperial organisation 锦衣卫, which was in charge of collecting secret intel, interrogation, and crime-solving and reported directly to the Emperor.]”. Mo Xi had already thought them half-witted, and at this moment, after hearing Yue Chenqing say as such, naturally, he reprimanded severely, “I told you to spend less time hanging around those people, but you refuse to listen. Are you injured badly?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine.” On Yue Chenqing’s face was an expression like he had nothing left to live for. “It’s just that my heart feels cold, after being betrayed by my brothers. I can finally understand Xihe-Jun’s feelings now, back then when you—”
Halfway through, he suddenly realised that he was saying something that should not be said, and stopped instantly, peeking at Mo Xi with wide eyes.
Mo Xi was silent for a while, before he asked, “In which direction did the man in black run?”
“I don’t know. He was too fast, it’s like he isn’t a living person at all. There was a whoosh, and I couldn’t even catch a glimpse of his shadow. I pity Xiao Cui-jiejie…Xihe-Jun, do you think he’s that quick-shot brothel guest…”
Mo Xi frowned. “He’s what?”
Yue Chenqing only remembered then that Mo Xi, who had been so busy recently, would not have gone to listen to that ridiculous account of the murder case by the storyteller, and said, “Oh, that Hongyan Brothel killer.”
“Let me see your wound.”
Yue Chenqing showed it to him pitifully.
“…” Mo Xi examined where Yue Chenqing had been injured closely, and his straight eyebrows knitted even more tightly together. “…It is the Water Parting Sword Technique…”
Yue Chenqing was aghast. “The grandmaster of the Water Parting Sword Technique, Li Qingqian?”
Mo Xi shook his head, neither confirming nor denying it, and only said, “You head home first. It has been very chaotic in the capital recently. Do not run around outside unless necessary.”
“My father went to Mt. Magma to cultivate in seclusion, and my Fourth Uncle is very aloof—he ignores me, and I can’t stand staying in the manor all by myself.”
“Then go to your elder brother’s.”
Yue Chenqing hesitated, then grumbled, “He isn’t my elder brother…” Due to the subconscious influence by the members of the Yue clan since childhood, Yue Chenqing’s impression of Jiang Yexue was not too good in actuality. He was of the opinion that Jiang Yexue was a useless good-for-nothing who brought shame to the Yue clan. However, in front of Mo Xi, it was improper of him to bring up more of this matter, so he changed the topic. “Right, Xihe-Jun, where did you come from? Why is there blood all over your robes?”
“…” Mo Xi lowered his head to take a look. Half a beat later, he replied, “I dealt with someone.”
“Dealt, dealt with someone?” Looking at his blood-covered front, he hoped that Xihe-Jun hadn’t beaten that person to death.
“No more questions.” Mo Xi said. “The kidnapped maiden Xiao Cui, can you draw a portrait of her?”
“Sure, let me try!”
He asked the lady boss running the tavern for paper and ink, and very soon, the features of a youthful girl leapt into existence on the page. Mo Xi looked on beside him, but even as Yue Chenqing finished the last stroke, he could not tell what was special about this maiden. Just as he was intending to inquire the lady boss about the maiden’s background, Yue Chenqing suddenly picked up the brush that he had set down.
“Wait! There’s still something missing!”
He hastily dotted a beauty mark at the tail of Xiao Cui’s eye. Only then did he say with satisfaction, “Yeah, it’s only correct like this.”
Mo Xi’s eyes widened slightly. “She has a tear mole too?”
“Ah? What do you mean by ‘too’? Who else has one?”
Mo Xi said, “…Among the five courtesans taken from the Hongyan Brothel, one of them has a beauty mark like this at the corner of her eye.”
As he explained this to Yue Chenqing, he wondered if this tear mole could be a very important unique trait to the “rapist”, to the extent that it was a golden death pardon for that courtesan?
While he was deep in thought, he heard Yue Chenqing pipe up hesitantly, “Xihe-Jun, actually, there’s something else I want to tell you.”
“That is…I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but although I didn’t see his face when I was fighting that man in black just now, I had the constant feeling that there’s a smell on him that is very familiar to me.”
Mo Xi asked, “What smell is it, and where have you smelled it before?”
“It’s not like I smelled it either, it’s a sort of…erm…I can’t describe it, a sort of atmosphere that I think I’ve felt somewhere before. But it was too pressing a fight, and he left too quickly—before I could distinguish it more clearly, he already vanished.” Yue Chenqing sighed. “Xihe-Jun, do you think he’s that Hongyan Brothel killer?”
“…I cannot be sure.” Mo Xi said, considered it briefly, and said, “We will do it like this. Yue Chenqing, first head to Shennong Terrace to have your wound treated, before passing by the Bureau of Public Safety along the way to pass them a piece of information.”
Mo Xi looked at the portrait of Xiao Cui and said, “If my conjecture is correct, that rapist is searching for women in possession of certain unique traits. The tear mole should be one of these unique traits. Tell the Bureau of Public Safety to put up notices throughout the capital inviting maidens who fit the criteria to seek temporary sanctuary at the Bureau of Public Safety.”
“Oh, sure, sure.” Yue Chenqing agreed. Just as he got ready to leave, he suddenly thought of something, and turned back hastily to say, “Oh, right, Xihe-Jun, I heard that Murong-dage had the Emperor’s mandate to interrogate Gu Mang at any time. Did you know about this?”
“To you, Xihe-Jun, Gu Mang seems to still be of use too. If Murong-dage interrogates him, he’d probably leave him near-death. Before he gets to him, do you want to…”
“It is not a problem.” Mo Xi shook his head, subconsciously fidgeting with a silver and black ring on his thumb, the light in his eyes slowly darkening.
Earlier, while he was treating Gu Mang’s wounds, he had already implanted a tracking talisman unique to the Mo clan into Gu Mang’s body. For as long as it was in effect, if anything out of the ordinary happened to Gu Mang, the ring on his hand would feel hot to the touch. It would also help him discern Gu Mang’s location, as well as what condition he was in.
He really did not want to see the state Gu Mang would be in after being tortured by others ever again.
Mo Xi said, “I have made my own preparations. Regardless of what Murong Lian does from now on, I will have knowledge of it. You do not have to worry.”
After parting ways with Yue Chenqing, Mo Xi returned to his manor and took out the jade scrolls of those five courtesans again.
He put Xiao Cui’s portrait beside that of the courtesan with a tear mole, and trained his gaze on the other four faces to peruse them.
The other four females did not have any unique features that were too noteworthy; based on a portrait like this one alone, it was impossible to discover any more details.
However, this situation did not last for too long. As the number of missing women in the city grew, Xihe Manor also acquired more and more portraits. After sorting them out, Mo Xi discovered that among the women, it was either the shapes of their lips that were extremely similar, or their noses which were strangely identical.
Thus, Mo Xi used these features as a guideline and ordered the Imperial Guard to invite all maidens who met the requirements to the Bureau of Public Safety for protection as a precautionary measure.
Indeed, before long, the occurrences of women disappearing halted temporarily, save for the occasional kidnapping of those few maidens who had not been taken in by the Bureau of Public Safety in time. Instead, it was the cultivators who were now extraordinarily worried—
“Even Elder Yu of Chengtian Terrace was no match for him. If he wants to dig our hearts out, what shall we do?”
“Sigh, I haven’t dared to head to the wilderness alone to cultivate recently.”
As the end of the year drew close, the originally bustling city of Chonghua descended into a quiet stillness instead. Citizens always left their houses in groups, and hurried home before the sky turned dark. The sale of protective boundary talismans by the Yue clan had never been better. Many who failed to purchase the talismans kept their weapons about their bodies, not even daring to put them away when they went to sleep at night.
As for those who could not afford it, they wailed and begged the Yue Manor to be charitable, asking if they could put it on credit, and pay sometime in the future.
Yue Chenqing could not make decisions about this matter as his father was absent, so his uncle went out and chased those destitute low-levelled cultivators away angrily, cursing, “Why are you making a ruckus! Are you even qualified enough to get rowdy outside the manor of a first-ranked cultivator!? The talismans of the Yue Manor are impervious, and therefore, worth this price! Don’t have the money to afford them? Ask to borrow money from your friends!”
The storyteller stopped telling stories; with the situation growing worse, who would still dare to come listen to his stories with a cheery mood?
Stuck in front of the Yuelai Tea Shop, the little piece of red paper on which “Brothel customer murders seventy in rage” had been written on was gradually creased and torn by the wind and snow. Rain soaked the ink on it, and it was difficult to distinguish the characters on it any longer…
On this night, the snow had stopped falling. The clean white moonlight shone on every corner of the capital.
Mo Xi sat in the courtyard of the Xihe Manor, flipping through the scrolls of reports accumulated over the past few days as he unconsciously rotated the silver serpent-patterned ring on his thumb.
These days, he had developed this constant tic. This tracking ring was like a tie that he had discreetly tethered between him and Gu Mang out of his own private desire; he could only be at peace when it was unscathed.
But it was on this silent and lonely night, just as he was about to roll up his scrolls and retire to bed, when this ring suddenly began to scorch with a blistering heat!
Mo Xi flicked his line of sight over, and saw that the serpentine pattern on the ring had started to coil and twist, slowly morphing into the shape of a needle, pointing towards the southwestern side of the capital. The silver body of the snake had also gradually started to change in colour; after a moment of glowing luminescence, all the scales finally shone with a greenish-blue light.
When the scales turned this colour, it meant that the one tracked had been drugged with some kind of potion. This was not surprising: Murong Lian usually forced a variety of hallucinogens on the prisoners he was interrogating.
The problem lay in the coordinates; the southwest corner of the capital was not where the prison was, but rather the burial grounds of Chonghua’s heroes. The Mountain of War Spirits.
Why did Gu Mang leave the prison suddenly, and why was he being transported towards the Mountain of War Spirits?
Almost as soon as this thought had formed, all of the boundary shields in the city shimmered with golden light, and he heard the heavy city bell6[戒严洪钟: More accurately speaking, it’s a city bell meant to convey news of martial law.] toll. One low peal after another, thirteen in total.
–A felon had escaped prison and was on the run!!
Gu Mang broke out of prison!?
The author has something to say:
How to curse others:
Yue Chenqing: You little turtle!!! Big bad dog!!!! I’m so angry!!
Jiang Yexue: You are not fit to even be beneath my shoe.
Gu Mang-mang: Even this daddy’s feet are nicer-smelling than your mouth.
Princess Xi-xi: Get lost.
A-Lian: Keke, with such features, you, esteemed guest, are not even qualified enough to scrub the toilets in the Luomei Garden Villa.
Jiang Fuli: If you’re mentally ill, take your medication.
Fourth Uncle: … (This person does not speak, but his eyes convey five large, sterile words: Can’t be bothered with you.)
ps. Considering the above choices as a whole, I choose to argue with Yue Chenqing only…= =