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Since even Xie Bi noticed Xia Dong’s cold attack and blatant hostility, naturally the others did as well.  Grand Princess Liyang immediately got down from the carriage, calling out, “Honourable Officer Xia….”

Xia Dong ignored her, her gaze never wavering as she continued slowly but steadily forward, step by step towards Xie Yu, not stopping until she stood three feet away from him.

But Xia Dong did not stop because she wanted to, but because Xiao Jingrui stood before her, blocking her way.

Because it had not even been a month since he was seriously injured, Xiao Jingrui was still pale, his cheeks sallow, but his gaze was still gentle, though also heavy with grief and loss.  Standing before Xia Dong, who had been his teacher, and who was like an older sister to him, he raised his fists in greeting and asked in a steady voice, “What is Xia Dong jiejie here to seek, is it anything Jingrui can help with?”

“What do you think I am here for?”  The corner of Xia Dong’s lip lifted in a cold smile, murderous energy radiating off her in waves.  “You do not need to help, you have only to stand aside, and that will be enough.”

Xiao Jingrui met her fierce gaze without the slightest hesitation.  “My honoured mother is here, and my beloved brother as well, please forgive Jingrui for not being able to stand aside.”

“I bear no ill will towards the Grand Princess nor Xie Bi, what does this have to do with them?”

“But the person Jiejie intends to hurt, that person has very much to do with them.”

Xia Dong’s gaze pierced through Xiao Jingrui like a knife as she looked him up and down.  “Do you think……you can stop me?”

“Whether I attempt to stop you and whether I am able to stop you are two different matters.  Jingrui only wishes to do his best.”

“What is the use of your best?  I can step on your body like a stepping stone as I make my way over there.”

Xiao Jingrui nodded calmly.  “Then let Xia Dong jiejie try to take this step.”

At his words, Xia Dong’s pupils contracted, and her ice-cold glare fell like a knife onto the face of this young man before her, her gaze fixed on him unwaveringly.

Xie Bi wrung his hands, uneasy over the tense atmosphere, and glanced over at his mother, whose face was grave.

But Xiao Jingrui still stood there unmoving.  He quietly bore Xia Dong’s glare, seemingly as if in defiance, but in reality because he simply did not care.

After the tragedy of that night, how would Xiao Jingrui still care about something as mundane as whether Xia Dong would truly step on him?

Against his silent resistance, Xia Dong maintained her fierce glare.  But as time passed, the corner of her lip gradually softened, and eventually began to turn up, until suddenly she exploded into loud gales of laughter, and when the laughter ceased, her entire demeanor seemed to change until she was once again the Xia Dong they all knew – a little devilish, a little haughty, always seeming to have an ironic smile on her lips, but nonetheless managing to command respect from all who met her.

“What are you all worrying about?”  Xia Dong tossed back her hair, glancing fluidly around her.  “What could I be here to do except to see the Marquis off?  Let us call it a return for the favour Marquis Xie did me that year when he brought my husband’s bones back to the capital.”

The female Xuanjing Officer’s murderous energy had transformed into a dimpled, smiling face, and everyone let out a sigh of relief.  Xie Bi’s eyebrows lowered in relief as he said, “Xia Dong jiejie, you still haven’t changed your habit of playing tricks on people.  What kind of a time is this, to pull such a trick on us now?”

“Sorry,”  Xia Dong apologized carelessly.  She stayed where she stood and did not take a step forward, but her gaze had locked onto Xie Yu’s face as she said slowly, “Xia Dong has come on purpose to see the Marquis on his way, pray the Marquis take care.  You must know the road ahead is a dangerous one; I fear peace and tranquility must be far from your heart at present.  The Marquis must be careful, and must not let down his guard for even a moment.  Gui Province is cold and bitter, you must bear your exile with patience.  There are many fates on this earth worse than death, you must hold firm and endure yours in the days to come.”

That day, when Xia Dong went to Sky Prison with Prince Jing, they had gone in secret, and Xie Yu did not know that they had stood just on the other side of the wall.  But whether it was because Xia Dong’s expression just now had been so frightening, or whether it was due to the sensitivity borne of a guilty heart in the face of those they had wronged, Xie Yu had not relaxed along with the others at Xia Dong’s change of attitude, but instead had immediately become certain that Xia Dong knew the truth.

The relief he had just felt at the reprieve he had been granted immediately vaporized, and fear filled his veins like fire, and the emotional whiplash of the past few minutes was almost enough to drive him to his knees.  Xia Dong was different from Xia Jiang, what she bore was single-minded hatred and enmity, and she had no need for worry over her own self-preservation.  And so, she would take her revenge, and she could do so at any time and in any place, and it would be an exceedingly brutal revenge, all this he knew beyond a doubt.  And there was nowhere he could turn for help.

Xia Dong stood before him now smiling slightly, but there was no hint of laughter in her dark eyes.  To her, the first step had been accomplished, and Xie Yu would now begin his journey of exile out of his mind with fear.  And in the days to come, she would have countless opportunities to achieve her goal.

“It is time for the Marquis to leave, I must not delay your journey today.”  Xia Dong turned and walked to the side of the road, Xiao Jingrui following behind her, but Xie Yu did not take a single step forward.  His disheveled hair hid his face, but from the beads of sweat falling heavily from his brow, from his rigid posture and faint trembling, his fear was almost palpable, it was only that Liyang and her sons did not know what it was he was so afraid of.

The two bailiffs looked up at the sky and exchanged a glance, and then strode forward and each seized Xie Yu by a shoulder and said, “It is time to leave!” before almost dragging him away between them, down the road towards the south-west.

After watching her husband depart, Grand Princess Liyang turned slowly and looked at Xia Dong, asking quietly, “Is Honourable Officer Xia returning to the city?”

“Yes,” Xia Dong nodded coolly.  “And you four?”

“We as well.”  The Grand Princess had not caught the strangeness of the question as she replied absentmindedly.  It was Xiao Jingrui who raised an eyebrow and glanced around.

It was not as if Xia Dong could not count, so since she had said “you four”, then there must certainly be another.

This person was not difficult to find, and the traces of her presence became obvious after a quick glance at their surroundings.  Standing very far away on a small slope was a small figure, her pink robes and yellow dress half-hidden behind an old willow tree.

The Da Chu ambassadors had left long ago, but she alone had not gone with them.  It was clear that both Yuwen Xuan and Yue Xiuze doted on her, so how had they consented to allow her to remain behind alone….

Xiao Jingrui had first been injured, and then Xie Qi had died in childbirth, and the Grand Empress-Dowager had passed on in her old age, everything happening all at once, and so Yuwen Nian had not had a chance to make her request.  But she did not have to speak for everyone to know what it was she wanted – to bring Xiao Jingrui back to Da Chu.

Grand Princess Liyang had not stopped Yuwen Nian from seeing Jingrui, whether in the Princess’ Residence or at the temple, she had always let this young lady come and go as she pleased.  But from her mother’s perspective, she was not willing to let Xiao Jingrui out of her sight for the time being, not because she was afraid of losing him, but because she knew very well that although her warm-hearted son did not appear much disturbed on the surface, there were deep shadows hidden in his heart that he had not yet allowed to emerge.

This kind of crippling pain was not something that could be healed with consolation.  It required time for a person to slowly attend and adjust to.  Grand Princess Liyang wanted to be with her son during this time, and did not want him to depart for a foreign country to meet his stranger of a father, and to face a whole new torrent of emotions.

If in the future after Xiao Jingrui’s emotions had stabilized and he wanted to meet his birth-father, or wanted to go and live by his side, then Grand Princess Liyang was prepared to give her consent.  But at present, she needed to see Xiao Jingrui by her side, and so although she had not kept her away, the Grand Princess had largely ignored Yuwen Nian while she lingered around them in the past days.

But Miss Nian Nian’s perseverance was also admirable, and she showed no sign of giving up even after all this time of following them around.  As long as the Grand Princess was not around, she would come forward and find some topic to chat to Xiao Jingrui about.  Although Xiao Jingrui found it difficult to banish the memories of that night whenever he looked at her, this was still his little sister, and so he treated her kindly and gently, and not only answered when she spoke to him, but even spent considerable effort in making sure she was safe and healthy.

Yuwen Nian felt that she was coming to like this brother of hers more and more, and her determination to bring him back to Chu grew greater and greater.

Xia Dong had left by herself, and Grand Princess Liyang had gotten back into her carriage to return to the capital, and Yuwen Nian followed at a distance on her horse, not drawing near, but also unwilling to be left behind.

Just before they entered the city, they happened to come across Yan Yujin.

Although in fact, it was only a chance meeting from one side’s perspective.  Yan Yujin had in fact come hurrying over when he heard that today was the day Xie Yu was being sent to exile.

After the heartwrenching birthday evening, with the injury and the days of national mourning, Yan Yujin had not found a chance to say a few words to his good friend.  So today, he had intended to find Xiao Jingrui and drag him along to a wine house, and to tell him that no matter what circumstances Jingrui found himself in, Yan Yujin would forever be his best friend.  And if Xiao Jingrui was sad, then he would console him.

But it was only after he came face to face with him that he knew he was wrong.

When Xiao Jingrui got down from the stopped carriage, his demeanor and tone was as it always was, and when he spoke, there was even a faint smile on his face.  “Yujin, what is it?”

“Can’t I come find you without any reason!”  Yan Yujin was laughing at first, and tried to use the same tone and attitude he had always used in the past.  “Say, how long do you think it’s been since we went out together?  You’re not busy today, right?  Come to Taibai House with me, go on.”

Xiao Jingrui shook his head lightly.  “Sorry, Yujin, I need to take my mother back.”

“Then I will go with you and we can go out after we take Her Highness back to her residence.”

“I’m sorry, ” Xiao Jingrui was still shaking his head.  “Find someone else to go with you, alright?”

“It’s not like you have anything to do, and I came all this way just to see you.”  Yan Yujin took Xiao Jingrui by the arm and started walking.  “It’s settled then, let’s go, come on, we’ll take the Grand Princess back first.”

Xiao Jingrui slowly withdrew his arm and gently pushed him back.  “Thank you for inviting me, but I truly am not going, find some other friend to go with you.”

By this time, Xie Bi had also stuck his head out of the carriage, and he stood there now without speaking, watching silently.

“Jingrui, it’s only going to the winehouse with me……I want to talk to you….”  Yan Yujin could not keep the smile on his face any longer, and his eyes were wide as he stared at his friend.

“I am sorry,” Xiao Jingrui apologized again, the expression on his face as bland as it had been all along, emotionless.  “Another day.  I must go now.”

After saying this, he turned and returned to the carriage.  Xie Bi reached down a hand and pulled him inside, and the carriage slowly resumed its journey.

Yan Yujin stared blankly after it.  When he had seen Xiao Jingrui’s wasted figure, and Xie Bi’s lowered eyelids, he had suddenly realized, there was no going back.

There would be no returning to that youthful joy and laughter, to those shining days of friendship.

Although he maintained that nothing had changed, that Jingrui was still Jingrui and still his best friend, to Jingrui, to Xie Bi, and to perhaps countless others on this earth, everything had already changed long ago, and had changed so completely that there could be no turning back.

It was he himself, maintaining that “nothing had changed”, who was trying to fool himself and everyone around him.

As he stared after the departing carriage, Yan Yujin stamped furiously on the sandy road, feeling a nameless rage and helplessness that he had never felt before rising within him.

No matter how much he wanted to help Jingrui, he could not repair the life that had already been torn apart before their very eyes.

The sand he had kicked up was rising in a cloud around him.  Yan Yujin rubbed his eyes, feeling them redden with pain.  In his blurred vision, he suddenly saw a figure on a horse stop and dismount in front of him, looking at him quietly.

Yan Yujin recognized Yuwen Nian, Jingrui’s younger sister from Da Chu.

“You are a good friend,” Yuwen Nian said softly after she saw that he had noticed her.  “But this is something Gege must endure by himself.  We can only stand and watch from his side, and not let him fall.”

Yan Yujin gaped at her and was not able to formulate a reply before Yuwen Nian mounted her horse again and rode off behind the carriage, both of them growing smaller and smaller as they disappeared into the distance.

Translator’s Notes

Guys I don’t even know how many weeks it’s been.  I just switched rotations (3 months per rotation so I’m done one out of four!) and oh my god this new place is so crazy.  I knew it would be.  But it doesn’t change the reality.  Sorry for the delay.

This chapter hurt my heart.  What’s my tag again?

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