Xiu Niang smiled and withdrew her hand.
Her lips were covered with the lip coloring Shen Shiliu bought. Her pale and dignified face became even more beautiful than before, as if a flower that had fully absorbed blood.
”I know that you have been wondering about this matter. As we’re having this chance today, let’s make it clear: you really are not my own,” said Xiu Niang. “Did it make you feel better inside after hearing this?”
Chang Geng’s eyes twitched a bit; he was still young and have not yet learned how to conceal his emotions.
In this world, no matter how good a friend is or how good a teacher is, no one can replace a mother. Even a father couldn’t – it’s not that Chang Geng never yearned for a mother, only that sometimes, knowing that your wish could never be true yet refusing to accept your fate, then that would be the most painful of all. Even he would have pitied himself.
Chang Geng had thought countless times: he could never be Xiu Niang’s own son. Now, he suddenly got his answer. His heart felt nothing but the emptiness that he himself did not understand.
The foreboding premonition in Chang Geng’s heart gradually strengthened and he was immediately alert: “Why are you telling me this out of nowhere?”
Xiu Niang looked at her face in the mirror. It may be that too much powder had made her face a little pale, so she carefully scooped a little of lip coloring and applied it evenly on her cheeks.
”‘Chang Geng‘ is the childhood name I gave to you,” Xiu Niang said. “The people of the Central Plains have a saying: ‘Qi Ming in the east, Chang Geng in the west.’(1) It raised at dusk, the warden of carnage, ominous. Flowing in your body is the world’s noblest yet filthiest blood. Born to be a disastrous monster, there is no other name more fitting than this.”
Chang Geng replied coldly: “Was I not the result of when you wandered to the western mountains and got captured by bandits? Even all ten fingers cannot count the numbers of my ‘fathers’ – the son of a prostitute and a bandit, what is this nobility you spoke of?”
Xiu Niang was stunned for a brief moment. She did not look back.
A hint of pain flashed in her expressive eyes.
But it quickly subsided and fell into calmness.
Chang Geng’s earliest memory was inside the mountain hideout of bandits. Xiu Niang always locked him inside a cabinet that reeked of the musty scent of old wood.
Through the small cracks of the rotten wood, young and tiny Chang Geng could see those drunken mountain bandits barging in.
Those cruel and savage men either beat her or ravished her right in front of little Chang Geng’s eyes.
At the beginning, the bandits were very strict with guarding Xiu Niang. Slowly, seeing that she was weak and fragile and did not know how to resist or defend herself, they became more lax with her. Later they even let her out and made her serve them like the other old servants in their camp. Xiu Niang poisoned all the wells and the hundreds of altar of wines, even God did not know how she had his much poison on her.
She used a small bowl to fetch the poisonous well water for Chang Geng to drink. However, after he really did swallow it down, she seemed to regret it and desperately dug at his throat to make him vomit it back out.
Xiu Niang put the half-dead Chang Geng into a bamboo basket and carried him on her back, a steel knife in her hand. If there’s someone who was not yet dead, she came forward to stab them.
Chang Geng remembered that she was wearing a long red dress that was stained with blood. She used the oil and Ziliujin that the head of the bandits secretly stored to burn this place down to the ground then left with him.
In his short lifespan of more than ten years, Xiu Niang had attempted to kill him many times; gave him poisonous wine, stabbed him with a knife, tied him to a horse then dragged him along, and even for countless midnights, when he was jolted awake finding that his limbs were powerless, it was Xiu Niang trying to suffocate him with a quilt…
But every time, she would always stop right in front of the cliff, keeping his puny life.
This also left him with an unrealistic fantasy.
Chang Geng said with as much calmness as he can muster: “You think too much, I have never thought of you as my mother. But I have always felt that the reason you despised me was because I am the stain that the bandits left on you.”
Xiu Niang sat in front of the mirror, her face becoming paler and paler. After a long time, she suddenly sighed:
”Little child, I have wronged you.”
In that moment, Chang Geng’s thousands of layers of defense and resentment almost collapsed; he then realized that the grievances from his childhood until now could be easily resolved by just this simple sentence.
The fourteen-year-old boy used all his strength to hold back his tears, then asked tiredly: “What do you wish to achieve by telling me this now? Has your conscience told you to detoxify me? Or to just simply kill me off?”
Xiu Niang looked at him with a strange expression as if the boy was a valuable artifact: “You knew…”
Chang Geng: “I certainly know that from the day we arrived at Yanhui Town, there is not a single time where I didn’t have nightmares. Even if it was a nap during the day, I will still undoubtedly wake up from bad dreams.”
The night before was the only exception – Chang Geng’s thoughts ran astray for a brief moment. He suddenly regretted that he got mad at Shiliu.
Chang Geng: “I have never made any grand achievements, but I have never done any immoral deeds either, how can there be so many ghosts that come knocking on my door at midnight? Or is there a strange disease that causes nightmares every night?”
An unusual and wicked smile formed on her bright red lips, her eyes slowly falling on the iron wristband exposed on Chang Geng’s wrist. There was a sharp glint in her eyes like a pair of poisonous arrowheads: “What else do you know?”
Chang Geng subconsciously pulled back the iron wristband back into his sleeve, as if even a glance from her can taint the object.
”I also know that outside of town two years ago, the wolves that chased after me did not get there by themselves, they were summoned. That is you warning me that I can’t ever run from you, that you have dozens of ways to finish me off, right?”
Chang Geng quietly said, “Only a barbarian knows how to manipulate wolves. After we arrived in Yanhui Town, you have been in contact with the barbarians. I have a guess you are also a barbarian woman. Back then when you locked me inside a cupboard, I saw a man coming in to tear away your clothes. There was a symbol of a wolf on your chest.”
Xiu Niang laughed softly: “Barbarians…you actually call us barbarians…”
Her laughter continued to get louder and louder until she was eventually out of breath.
Xiu Niang’s sharp laughter came to an abrupt end. She grabbed her chest and coughed harshly. Chang Geng instinctively raised his hand as if attempting to help her, but he retracted it upon realizing his action, his fingers balling up into a fist.
A trace of blood flowed through Xiu Niang’s fingers and landed on her soft-yellow dress with a shocking purple-black color.
Chang Geng was stunned. In the end he stepped forward: “You…”
Xiu Niang grabbed his arm and tried with all her might to straighten her back, shaking like a withered leaf under the cold wind. She grabbed a half piece of a jade pendant at the bottom of her makeup box and pushed it into Chang Geng’s hand, bringing together with it all her blood.
Her face was as white as snow, the blood smeared on her lips were more blinding than the lip coloring itself, she glared at Chang Geng with a pair of bloodshot eyes:
”My name is not Xiu Niang, that is the name of your Central Plains’s women. I am called Hu Ge Er, meaning Ziliujin at the heart of the earth…”
She was choked by her own words. After a painful coughing fit, she spurted out blood, dyeing the front of Chang Geng’s robe in red.
”Unlucky….Ziliujin.” The woman let out an odd cry, her breathing gradually becoming erratic. “My elder sister is the Goddess of Longevity, even the Wolf King worshipped her, you…
”You are the little monstrosity that I raised with my own hands.” She gave a dying laugh, “No one will love you, no one will treat you with sincerity…”
She struggled to hold onto Chang Geng’s wrist. Her sharp nails pierced his flesh and the iron wristband on the boy’s arm: “This is the Yun Pan wristband, a portion of the Black Armor – especially made by those dark demons of the Black Iron Camp, who gave you this? Huh?”
Chang Geng immediately pushed her away as if he had just been burnt.
The woman fell onto the makeup table and curled up, her charming phoenix eyes widening, the whites of her eyes struck terror into one’s heart.
”You have the ‘Bone of Impurity’ that I personally cast on you. I have given it the name of the Chinese dialect, also called ‘Chang Geng’.
”Does it… sound good?”
Her face violently twitched, blood and white foam mixed together trickling down her lips, her voice was indistinct, but it did not hinder Chang Geng’s hearing.
”‘Bone of Impurity’ is unparalleled, no one can detect it, no one can cure it… One day, you will grow into the world’s most powerful warrior, and will also begin to be unable to distinguish between nightmares and reality… You will become a ruthless madman- “
Chang Geng stood in the same place; he felt that these incomprehensible words could freeze all the bones in his body.
”The blood of the Goddess is also flowing in my chest. I will bless you with the infinite power of longevity. You… In all your life, you will only have hatred and mistrust in your heart. You must be violent and destructive. Disaster will fall down onto wherever you go… All the people in your life will never…meet…a good…”
The word “end” slipped out of her lips, and the woman’s body spasmed violently. It seemed as if she was struck with something, she slowly turned her head to look at a small scented pouch that hung down beside the bed. There was a totem for peace inside. On one occasion when Xu Baihu came home from duty, he had prayed in a temple outside the city and gave it to her as a gift.
The woman’s eyelashes gently trembled, and suddenly it seemed to be filled with tears. The tears washed away the malevolence in her eyes, in that moment they seemed almost gentle. But it was only a moment of gentleness.
Her contracted pupil was like a lamp running out of oil. Death hung in the air. The woman in gorgeous makeup gave her final breath together with the most vicious curse in the world, then with the very last bit of warmth, she heavily fell down.
No one will love you, no one will treat you with sincerity. In all your life, you will only have hatred and suspicion in your heart. You will be violent and murderous. You will bring disaster every where you walk. You are destined to pull all the people you knew to their demise.
In the raging fire of the summer evening, Chang Geng stared blankly at the gorgeously dressed body on the makeup table, clutching his blood-covered iron wristband in a daze.
Why did she have to kill herself?
Why did she resent him this much? Why did she have to raise him until now?
… What is the iron wristband of The Black Iron Camp?
In the end, who is Shen Shiliu?
Xiu Niang’s curse seemed to have already taken its effect. A child’s initial trust for the world came from the love and care of its parents, but this is the one thing that Chang Geng has never experienced.
Even if he was naturally born generous and benevolent, but when forced to face doubt and suspicions again and again, he still only resembled a wounded dog running away with its tail between its legs.
Even if he longed and yearned for that kind of familial warmth, he would still continuously push it away in fear.
Chang Geng was suddenly struck with a strong urge – he had to find Shen Shiliu. He had to ask this yifu face to face, what kind of grand character was he? What intentions did he harbor?
However, before he could step out from the chamber that reeked of the scent of blood, he was already terrifed.
”That’s right,” Chang Geng suddenly thought, “From the vast knowledge that sometimes Teacher Shen accidentally let slip out, how can he be just some demotivated student who never passed his exams?”
Although Shen Shiliu spent day by day idling about, he held the manners of a descendant of noble families. Even if he lodged under one’s roof, you will not see from him the slightest hint of poverty… How could he be just an ordinary improper loiterer?
These things should have been clear as day from the beginning, but when he closed his eyes, he inevitably thought of the figure of Shen Shiliu propping his head up with one arm, watching over him when he was ill.
If that was also a false affection 一
The old maid who was trying to peek at them saw that the door has opened up. She immediately came over with a smile: “Young master, today…”
Chang Geng looked at her, his eyes red.
The old maid was scared by his eyes. It took a while for her to calm down, she patted her chest and complained: “What are you do一.”
She didn’t finish yet when she noticed the scene inside the chamber.
The old maid froze in place, then she stumbled back three steps and fell flat onto the ground. An inhuman screech immediately left her throat.
At the same time, an ear-piercing warning siren suddenly sounded in the city.
No one knew who had released the alarm sound in the tower. The two-foot-tall whistle brought with it white smokes that had been dyed with Ziliujin and flied into the sky, its sound resembling water ripples, spreading out for thirty or forty miles, breaking through the peace and quiet of Yanhui Town that had lasted these fourteen years.
Shen Yi was burying his head in fixing steel armor when suddenly, he heard the Shen family’s door being kicked opened from the outside. Shen Yi raised his head and immediately grabbed the sword that has been removed from the steel armor.
”It’s me,” Shen Shiliu whispered.
Shen Yi lowered his voice: “The barbarians have made their move sooner than we thought?”
This sentence was short and low, but the ‘half deaf’ Shiliu heard it without missing a word: “There are Barbarian’s spies on board. On the returning ship was not our people.”
Shen Shiliu spoke while moving into his inner chamber without delay. He raised his hand and cut the bed into half. There was nothing under it.
But, a set of dark iron armor was actually hidden under the wooden board.
The hands of Shen Shiliu dexterously opened the dark hidden space on the chest of the steel armor and retrieved a Black Iron emblem. Its cold material casted a cold blue glint onto his fingers.
He promptly turned around, his back that was usually strengthless now resembling an iron spear.
The wind blowing outside the wide open door picked up his light and thin white robes and only brushed past his shoulder as if intimidated by his killing intent.
Shiliu: “Ji Ping.”
‘Ji Ping’ is the name of Shen Yi that has never been called in front of outsiders before. On usual days, the two often bicker over mundane household matters as close as real brothers. Yet, at this moment, Shen Yi took a step back and quickly moved into a kneeling position:
”Your subordinate is present.”
”Since they came so soon, we can take advantage of the confusion and conveniently haul in this net – I am entrusting His Highness the Fourth Prince to you. First, escort him out of the city.”
Shen Yi: “Roger.”
Shen Shiliu quickly grabbed an outer coat and a sword at his bedside, then immediately turned to leave.
T/N: This chapter is ˚‧º·(˚ ˃̣̣̥⌓˂̣̣̥ )‧º·
(1) 东有启明，西有长庚; Dōng yǒu qǐmíng, xī yǒu chánggēng; Chang Geng(长庚; lit. Excellent West One; English name is Lucifer*.) is how people of ancient China refer to the planet Venus when it raised at dusk(evening Venus); an unlucky star. Qiming (启明; lit Opener of Brightness) refers to the morning Venus.
*In many accounts, Lucifer would specifically be for morning Venus, and Vesper would be for evening Venus. But in the context of this novel, Lucifer is preferred. Besides, morning and evening Venus is just the same Venus haha