There are some people in this world who, no matter what they do, can’t really be argued with. To Xiao Jingrui and Yan Yujin, Xia Dong was one such person. So, although both had unhappy expressions on their faces, neither dared to actually voice a single word of protest.
“Come on, let’s see where you’ve hidden the poison for your suicide.” Xia Dong bent down, pulled the leader of the assassins up, and forcefully grabbed his dislocated jaw, causing both of his legs to jump in pain, his face growing pale as wax. She clicked her tongue. “So it’s really still hidden in the teeth, huh? What a lack of creativity, can’t you find a new place?”
Although she spoke casually, the masters Xiao and Yan, who were listening nearby, couldn’t help shuddering and exchanging a glance.
An assassin who would commit suicide if he failed was among those ranked highest in his field, and were not only difficult to find, but also exceedingly expensive. What kind of result had Xia Dong’s investigations in Bin province achieved, to have provoked a reaction of this degree?
“There’s no point asking you questions like this, we’ll have to take out the poison pouch first.” Xia Dong ignored the paling faces of the two nearby and considered how to extract the poison pouch from the teeth of the assassin so she could relocate his jaw for the interrogation. Women were usually inclined towards cleanliness, and though oft-mistaken for a handsome gentleman, Xia Dong was no exception. She gripped his jaw and examined it for a long time, but couldn’t think of any way to extract the poison pouch without putting her fingers inside, and, finally growing impatient, delivered a hard punch with her fist against his cheek. With a smothered groan, the assassin spewed forth a spray of fresh blood along with a few teeth and a tiny pouch.
Xiao Jingrui and Yan Yujin exchanged another glance, their faces turning green. She was still a devil behind that pretty face then, every bit as vicious and merciless as she had been in those years….
Xia Dong nonchalantly wiped the back of her hand on her robes, then relocated the assassin’s jaw with a loud crack. She didn’t hurriedly start asking questions, but instead took his wrist and twisted hard, immediately breaking the bone, and making him scream out in pain until he could only take loud gasping breaths, like a dying fish, his body spasming uncontrollably, as he turned a poisonous glare on her.
“Still dare look at me like that?” Xia Dong let out a cold laugh, then grabbed his other wrist, squeezing up along his arm as the sounds of breaking bones filled the air, until his arm was limp as clay. The assassin, yelling in pain, fainted, and then was quickly awakened again by the intense pain.
“Xia Dong jiejie!” Although he knew this was an assassin who would not have so much as blinked before murdering them, Xiao Jingrui still couldn’t stand it. “Wait, stop, this is too…. And anyway, don’t you need to ask him questions? If you torture him to death, that won’t do you any good….”
“You’re right, I’d almost forgotten.” Xia Dong pulled the assassin’s head up by the scalp and stared him straight in the eye, her voice dripping with ice, “I prefer beating prisoners up to asking questions. So don’t answer me too happily, and deprive me of the chance to use a few of my punishments….”
“Xia Dong jiejie….” Xiao Jingrui was about to continue when he was pulled to one side by Yan Yujin, who urged, “Don’t get involved, Xuanjing officers have their own way of doing things, we won’t be able to intervene.”
“Is this kind of questioning under torture really effective?”
“He’s a suicidal assassin, he might not say anything if she isn’t ruthless enough. If you’re not used to it, then don’t look. Not everything on this earth can be done with warmth and kindness, with politeness and modesty.” Yan Yujin glanced back, then sighed. “It looks like the case with the Duke of Qing isn’t so simple. I wonder how much trouble it’s going to cause.”
“I find it strange,” Xiao Jingrui said, frowning. “Everyone knows it’s a bad idea to get on the wrong side of the Xuanjing Bureau. Why bother putting so much effort into attacking Xia Dong jie when they could have stopped the accusers from entering the capital? If they had sent assassins of this capacity to kill Grandfather and Grandmother Hu¹, they wouldn’t have been able to escape into East River territory…. Now the case has already been raised, and Xuanjing officers have already received the secret imperial order to start investigating, isn’t it much more difficult to try to silence them now?”
“Perhaps the Duke of Qing didn’t know about it in the beginning.” Yan Yujin thought it over. “Maybe the people over in Bin province figured they could handle it themselves, and didn’t send word over, not expecting us to meet the accusers and help them arrive safely into the capital. And only then did those implicated in the case start to get scared….”
Xiao Jingrui shook his head. “If the Duke of Qing didn’t know all the details in the beginning, then at worst, it would only have been a crime of conniving with his relatives, so why would it have come to sending assassins after a Xuanjing officer?”
“Maybe Xia Dong jie found out something else in her investigations in Bin province, maybe these assassins have nothing to do with the Duke of Qing, maybe she made some enemies with that temper of hers,” Yan Yujin raised an eyebrow. “The possibilities are endless. I don’t like mulling over things like this, it’s too bothersome. Let Xia Dong jie do the worrying for herself. Once she’s investigated thoroughly, we can ask her directly, and avoid standing here letting our imaginations run wild.”
“Oh!” Xiao Jingrui suddenly cried out in fear, and Yan Yujin jumped in fright, following his gaze to see Xia Dong dropping the limp body of the assassin onto the ground as if she were throwing down a dead dog, then draw out a silk handkerchief and wipe her hands, her crescent eyebrows furrowed.
“What is it?” Yan Yujin asked.
Xiao Jingrui looked solemn, and slowly ground out two words: “He’s dead.”
“Xiao Rui’s eyesight is pretty good,” Xia Dong threw them a glance. “He is dead indeed. It’s really too bad, wasting all my efforts to capture him. I didn’t know there was more poison hidden under the corner of his lip. He stretched out his tongue, touched it, and died. The strange and nauseating part is, he wasn’t afraid he would touch it accidentally when he wasn’t ready to die….”
“Then did you find out anything?” Yan Yujin stepped closer, glanced at the swollen, green face of the corpse, and hurriedly looked away. “He was the leader, so he must know something.”
“He only said four words,” Xia Dong spoke impassively. “‘It is not over’.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means this hasn’t ended.” Xia Dong’s leg flew up as she kicked the corpse and swore, “Damn it, as if I needed for him to tell me that! They’ve provoked me this far, I wouldn’t let it be over even if they wanted it to be over!”
“Xia Dong jiejie….” Yan Yujin wiped at the cold sweat on his forehead. “You’re a lady, you shouldn’t swear, it’s so inelegant….”
“Oh?” Xia Dong’s voice was sweet as she turned a tender smile towards him, charm lacing the corners of her eyes and mouth. “The young master Yan has grown up and knows what a lady is. Come here and tell jiejie, how should a lady speak to you?”
Yan Yujin stumbled backwards and hid behind Xiao Jingrui, deeply regretting his quick tongue. “Nothing, nothing, our Xia Dong jiejie is beautiful and clever, the most extraordinary lady in Da Liang.”
Xia Dong laughed and said, “How could I be the most extraordinary? But I hear the most extraordinary lady is finally taking a husband? How did that go, has she found one yet?”
Yan Yujin was astonished, and turning to look at Xiao Jingrui, saw that he was equally stunned.
Actually, since leaving Shuren Courtyard, the two had not often had the chance to meet Xia Dong, and so didn’t know how she felt towards Princess Nihuang. But no matter what, Nihuang was a princess, known for her noble behaviour and unsullied morals, and Xia Dong, as a Xuanjing officer, served under the court, so it wasn’t proper for her to speak so teasingly of the Princess.
“What, Xia Dong jie doesn’t like Princess Nihuang?” Xiao Jingrui couldn’t help asking.
“Do I have the right to like or dislike?” Xia Dong’s tone had suddenly grown hard, and somehow, there was a sense of grief in her voice. “She is a remarkable woman, and should have married long ago. I told her ten years ago when I was helping out in her camp, that as soon as she married someone, I would consider her a good friend.”
The more they heard, the more confused they were, and they couldn’t understand what kind of attitude Xia Dong bore towards Princess Nihuang. After being stunned for a long time, Yan Yujin asked quietly, “Xia Dong jie‘s meaning is that, as long as the Princess doesn’t marry, you won’t see her as a good friend?”
“But why? Unless the friendship between women depend on whether or not they are married?”
Xia Dong’s gaze was like ice as she looked at them coldly, saying, “You are too young. There are many things you do not know about. Since it’s nothing to do with you, don’t ask any further.”
“We’re too young?” Yan Yujin cried out. “How much older is the Princess compared to us?”
“Everything can change in the blink of an eye, and sometimes, a year can become a lifetime.” Xia Dong looked forward steadily, her face a little pale, a few strands of hair drifting around her neck, and though her expression had not changed, her whole person suddenly seemed weaker. “She herself is actually not too clear about the events of that year, but she was involved in the events, and so cannot remain free from them. But you two are different…you are complete outsiders. The events of the past are like a mountain buried deep in thick snow, and those who had nothing to do with it would find it very difficult to enter. Why must you keep trying to find out more just to satisfy your curiosity?”
The masters Xiao and Yan looked at each other, still not comprehending, but as they had already been told to stop asking, they didn’t continue pressing the matter. Besides, the person before them was the lady devil of the Shuren Courtyard, so they wouldn’t have dared to keep pushing anyway.
“You still haven’t answered me, what kind of husband has the Princess chosen?” Xia Dong shook her head and the glaring white patch of hair on her forehead disappeared under thick black strands, as if she had shaken aside the memories that had risen up a moment ago. “Such a large competition, there must have been some good candidates chosen, right?”
“Nothing has been decided yet, the written test is tomorrow.” Yan Yujin sighed. “But there’s still the one-on-one martial arts competition with Princess Nihuang, and if you lose that, then there’s no hope. I think none of those chosen can compete against her, and she doesn’t seem to be especially interested in any one of them, so I guess she isn’t planning to marry this time.”
The corner of Xia Dong’s mouth lifted in a smile. “You look a bit disappointed.”
“Of course I am.” Yan Yujin frowned. “What’s wrong with me, that she didn’t even give me a moment of serious consideration?”
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Xia Dong didn’t tease him for once. “But to Nihuang, you are a bit young. She is the sole commander of her army, so she would probably only consider those more mature than herself.”
Yan Yujin let out an exaggerated sigh, and said mournfully, “I wasn’t born yet when the Princess was born, and when I was born, the Princess has already grown old….”
“Hey,” Xiao Jingrui didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as he kicked him. “Stop talking nonsense. Who are you calling old?”
“Ah ah ah,” Yan Yujin hurriedly covered his mouth. “I misspoke, I misspoke, I should be beaten. But you understand what I mean, I’m only mourning the fact that I wasn’t born a few years earlier…. If I was Brother Su’s age, then the Princess wouldn’t keep treating me like her little brother….”
“Don’t drag Brother Su into this,” Xiao Jingrui glared at him. “How can the difference in Brother Su’s maturity and steadiness compared to yours be measured in years alone?”
“Yes, yes, no one can compare to Brother Su in your eyes. But what he thinks about the Princess, and whether the Princess has any feelings towards him besides admiration, I can’t tell….” Yan Yujin was going to take the chance to exclaim over what had happened in Wuying Hall today, but suddenly remembering that Xia Dong was an officer of the Xuanjing Bureau, and that the matter involved different parties in the palace, and that Mei Changsu had refused to explain more about the matter, only saying that news would certainly be carried out tomorrow for everyone to hear, he thought there was some mysterious element involved, and that it would be better not to say anything at all.
“Don’t indulge in foolish thoughts.” In the end, Xiao Jingrui was still treating Mei Changsu with the love and respect of a younger brother to an older, and he refused to let anyone talk about him behind his back; plus, he was worried that, in his merry chatter, Yan Yujin might let slip the events that had taken place after the Emperor had left and thus bring needless trouble to Mei Changsu, and so he immediately interrupted him and said, “Xia Dong jie has just returned, why don’t you talk about something serious and tell her about the ten finalists?”
“I’m not interested in these finalists,” Xia Dong said indifferently. “But this Brother Su is rather interesting. I heard you two discussing him over and over when I was lying in the grass just now; he seems quite a character. What, so is he one of those with an ounce of talent who came into the capital brimming with ambition, ready to chase after fame and glory?”
“Brother Su isn’t like that!” Xiao Jingrui was extremely unhappy. “Xia Dong jie doesn’t know him, how can you judge him?”
“It looks like you respect him deeply.” Xia Dong’s expression grew cool. “Don’t know him, huh? Then I will go and get to know him. The Crown Prince and Prince Yu are fighting over him, his worth must be placed even higher than Princess Nihuang’s. With someone like him in the capital, how could a Xuanjing Officer such as I not go and get to know him?”
Xiao Jingrui and Yan Yujin exchanged a few nervous glances, communicated quickly with their eyes, and finally it was the son of the Imperial Uncle who stepped forward and said seriously, “What Xia Dong jie has mentioned, we also need to explain. What you heard just now was largely our own speculation, and some of it was unhappy venting due to disputes between friends. Brother Su is our friend, and has not had any errant behaviour since he entered the capital. We ask Xia Dong jie to please not hold any bias towards him as a result of our careless words….”
“Don’t worry,” Xia Dong looked at the serious expressions of the two young people before her, and couldn’t help smiling. “Naturally I will first investigate the matter. We will not bring only winds and shadows of suspicion before the Emperor, or do you take us Xuanjing Officers for gossips?”
Of course, this answer was not satisfying, but if they kept protesting, it might only increase Xia Dong’s interest towards Mei Changsu, and in any case, she had heard both what she should have and what she should not have, and they had only themselves to blame for not being more alert, and couldn’t blame the listener for drawing her own conclusions.
“Looks like we won’t be having any more unexpected visitors today.” Xia Dong had seen the two’s expression, but acted as if she had not noticed, casually straightening her robes and saying, “Let’s enter the city together. Give me Xiao Yan’s² horse, you two can ride Xiao Rui’s horse.”
“Ah,” Yan Yujin grumbled, “The two of us men on one horse….”
“You can come over and ride with me,” Xia Dong laughed lightly. “Who’s coming?”
The two paled and shook their heads furiously.
“Then I’m afraid I’ll have to trouble you. Xiao Rui, hurry up and bring the horse over.”
Xiao Jingrui obediently led the horse, who was grazing with its head bent, over and handed her the reins, saying quietly, “Xia Dong jie, should we take care of your wound first? It looks like there’s some blood seeping out.”
“In the end, you’re the considerate, attentive one.” Xia Dong smiled slightly. “No matter, we can take care of it after we enter the city.”
“Xia Dong jie really got hurt?” Yan Yujin concernedly stuck his head over. “Where?”
Xia Dong stretched out a hand and flicked his forehead. “Little brat, you only realized now? Those assassins weren’t amateurs, if I didn’t show them some real blood, how could we have so easily gotten that cowardly assassin to show his face?”
Xiao Jingrui glanced over at the corpse and said frowning, “We’re not going to do anything about him?”
“A dead person who can no longer speak is like a broken knife that has been thrown away by its master. What is the use in picking it up?” Xia Dong’s voice was cold. “After we get back, we’ll let the capital guards send someone to bury him. He’d bother people if he’s just left here.”
“I guess that’s the only way. The body of an assassin must be clean, so they probably won’t be able to trace anything. Let’s go.” Yan Yujin vaulted onto the horse, holding onto the saddle, and when Xiao Jingrui had jumped up behind him, he cheerfully pulled on the reins, ignoring everything else.
“Hey, do you have no bones, leaning against me so comfortably?” Xiao Jingrui scolded him, smiling, not really minding much. The sun was setting to the west, and amidst the soft hoof-beats and long shadows, the three rode steadily towards the city gates of the capital.
¹here, grandfather and grandmother are used as titles of respect, not to indicate familial relations; he is referring to the couple they met on the road before they entered the capital with MCS, who were bringing an accusation of ‘land seizing’ against the Duke of Qing’s relatives, and whom Yan Yujin escorted into the capital
²another way of referring to Yan Yujin, like ‘Xiao Jin’