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The skies gradually greyed, and the surrounding scenery seemed to have been draped in muslin, casting hazy shadows in the pre-dawn mists.
The a.s.sa.s.sin had madly rushed to the long-ruined back courtyard, and while pa.s.sing through the garden had taken a few leaps and taken several shortcuts, secretly entering the caved-in rear hall.
After the building had been struck by lightning debris was strewn all around, and the roof eaves overhead were on the verge of collapse, creaking with the least bit of pressure. The a.s.sa.s.sin hardly cared, striding over a wall which had been split in half, and going around a scorched screen, before he knelt on the ground and began to move aside a large slab of broken rock, clearing out a three-foot square of open s.p.a.ce.
There was a hidden door on the open s.p.a.ce of similar colour to the surrounding stone. The a.s.sa.s.sin pulled it open with effort, and a breeze rushed forth from within—that was actually a secret pa.s.sage!
The a.s.sa.s.sin blew out a long breath, yet suddenly began coughing, the sound so deep that it seemed like his entire chest would shake open, and it was only after a long while did he manage to close his mouth and forcibly suppress it.
Then he stood up, without even carrying a lantern, and walked straight down the hidden pa.s.sage, turning his hand around to close the hidden door above his head.
The tunnel steps were steep, yet he seemed to walk it routinely with ease, and after turning a few times in the dark, the terrain underfoot gradually levelled. He stood still to grab from the wall a torch and a fire-starter1, igniting it lightly with a snap, and everything was illuminated before his eyes.
—this place unexpectedly opened up to an underground secret room.
The secret room was not simple and crude, on the contrary it was decorated gorgeously. Pepper-red walls and embroidered flowery purses2, screens and decorative items arranged out, writing-desk and high backed chair3 laid out with everything needed available; the floor was laid with blue-stone tiles with a lotus pattern, the four treasures of the study4 were laid out on the rosewood and marble desk, and upon the wall hung a gold-framed painting of a beauty viewing flowers.
What aroused fear in people, was that right out in the middle of the secret room there laid a coffin.
The materials used to make the coffin were extremely valuable, cedarwood and black lacquer, the glossy finish gleaming like polished metal. Who knew how long it had been put there, for it to seem newly made.
The a.s.sa.s.sin approached it in a daze, pulling a low stool in pa.s.sing to sit next to the coffin, and suddenly exploded with a deep and urgent cough, as if trying to forcibly expel his heart and lungs through his throat.
As he coughed, that sound gradually became a bitter cry, lasting until it was impossible to stop once begun.
The a.s.sa.s.sin's shoulders shuddered as he stooped over the coffin, tears bubbling up from his eyes, as he took down the mask from his face, and discarded it to the ground right there.
"Young Master Fu," in the darkness behind him there suddenly came a hoa.r.s.e and deep male voice.
The a.s.sa.s.sin abruptly got up and turned around: "Who?!"
—the fire-light shone upon his pale and tear-stained face, who else could it be but Fu Wenjie!
A rather tall figure with a heroic silhouette walked out from the shadow, dressed in monk's ca.s.sock and carrying Buddhist prayer beads, with thick dashing eyebrows and eyes like stars, with both hands carrying a sword set before his chest. Although a bloodstain snaked down the temples of his forehead, yet it did not affect the man's handsome and robust face.
That was surprisingly Shan Chao.
Fu Wenjie backed up a half-step, knocking over the low stool with a clatter: "You… how did you find your way here? How did you know of this place?!"
Shan Chao looked around at his surroundings, his gaze resting on the portrait of the beauty with her artful smile5, and then continued to Fu Wenjie: "Is this place arranged in the style of the boudoir shared between husband and wife, as when the Young Madam was still alive?"
"The Young Madam's coffin is as bright as new, in all likelihood since the day of her death, you had not buried her at all."
Fu Wenjie glared at Shan Chao for a very long time, his chest undulating incessantly, and after a long time did he finally give a cold laugh: "I thought that you were already killed by the Mysterious Demon School beneath the cliff, it seems that the one surnamed Jing is indeed not trustworthy."
He paused, and with a pat on the coffin crowed: "—why should I bury her? As far as I'm concerned she has never left, she has always been here!"
From the moment they b.u.mped into each other for the first time by the West Lake, Young Master Fu had always been a cultured and refined yet pale and delicate person, although he had difficulty walking, yet he still had a bearing to him, so much that he gave people a favourable impression at first sight.
Yet right now he stood tall and straight there, blue veins red and swollen as he shouted himself hoa.r.s.e, and his red eye sockets still contained tears, akin to a wild beast forced into desperate straits and prepared at any time to rush forth and take down people in mutual destruction.
"……" Shan Chao softly blew out a breath, sighing: "I see. In your heart everyone is the murderer responsible for the Young Madam's death, even including the infant who died in birth… thus you buried the baby separately in the ancestral tombs, and after killing the Young Mistress, you exhumed the infant from its tomb and exposed it in her room; and then you intentionally led the Old Madam to the back mountain villa, so that in front of your wife and child, you could use the tunnel and personally kill her with an explosion, disguising it with the façade of the lightning strike killing her…"
Fu Wenjie stared at Shan Chao with fixed eyes, unexpectedly not denying it at all.
"…when you did all of these," Shan Chao paused in incomprehension, and asked: "Could it be that in your heart… you did not hesitate a bit at all?"
The underground tunnel was extremely quiet, with only a torch burning, and the light and shadow on the wall swaying slightly in accordance.
Fu Wenjie unexpectedly began to laugh slowly, but that smile was filled with the implication of madness.
"First answer a question of mine, Master. Had you been forced apart from the one you love before, for all eternity, in the parting of life and death, to never see each other again in this life?"
Shan Chao wanted to say no, but in that moment, what appeared in his mind was the vast desert and the boundless moonlight night.
Silver sands stretched ten thousand li without pause, and the Silver River spanned the dome of the heavens, filling the whole sky and resplendent like the sea of stars in ancient times.
A warm voice lightly said: "The Heart mansion, Celestial Pivot, Twinkling Brilliance, and that bit was known in ancient times as the flare of the Dipper and Bull mansions…"
Yet right after that within yellow sands under a scorching sun it was replaced by another callous voice:
"The flare of the Dipper and Bull mansions implies two swords, the one that kills you here today, is the Seven Stars Longyuan…"
Within the underground chamber, Shan Chao opened his mouth, and in that moment even he himself could hear the distraction and hesitation in his tone:
"I don't know."
Translator's Notes Chapter 15: Chinese furniture defined from the Tang dynasty
For all of Fu Wenjie's oh-so-creepy interior decorating, the furnishing of the underground chamber as described in this chapter conforms with the status which his late wife deserved.
The high backed chair I put a footnote here deserved a mention, for both the author's depth of research and for historical authenticity.
High backed chairs, especially single ones, were used as thrones as far back as the Eastern Zhou (771-256 BCE), and folding chairs were designed adapted from the nomads of the north and west in earlier times. is a website on Chinese furnishings.
1 ZH: 火折子 - a tube of paper which is set alight and then put out, the glowing embers kept for starting fires. First recorded around 577 CE.
2 ZH: 椒墙花囊 - a word referring to bright wedding decorations.
3 ZH: 胡床 - ancient folding-chair.
4 ZH: 笔墨纸砚
5 ZH: 巧笑倩兮 - From the Shijing, Odes of Wei, "Tall Person".