Lightning flashed and thunder boomed. Rain poured like curtains of waterfalls.
Qiao Tianya stood up and handed the blade to the man behind him to put away. He said, “Xiao the Second has been hit by an arrow. He won’t be able to make his escape.”
At the bottom of the slope, Xiao Chiye and Shen Zechuan lay prone in the mud with bated breath.
Right this moment, Imperial Bodyguards were everywhere around them, and there were also unknown assassins in hiding. It would prove to be harder than ascending to Heaven for both men to escape. But breaking through the encirclement was even tougher. The most fatal of all was Xiao Chiye. His left arm, which the arrow had grazed, was going numb. In just an hour, the drug would spread throughout his body and paralyze him.
Qiao Tianya brushed aside the tousled grass with his foot and saw the messy tracks of footprints. He silently raised his hand and pointed down the slope.
Behind him, the Imperial Bodyguards filed out, crouching as they slowly surrounded and edged towards that sunken ditch.
Xiao Chiye’s body tensed as he listened to the approaching sound of men stepping on mud. The hilt of his blade was pressed against his palm. As long as someone jumped down prematurely, he would immediately leap up like a wolf and end the other party in a single blow.
The Xiuchun Blades1 had already swung their way to the edge of the slope. Xiao Chiye suddenly—was stopped by Shen Zechuan who had grabbed hold of his soaked clothes. He shifted his gaze over and saw Shen Zechuan’s calm eyes.
Right at this moment, several figures suddenly sprang down in the forest to engage the Imperial Bodyguards in a battle. Qiao Tianya drew his sword at them and saw a flash of flying blades. Following right after, a few Imperial Bodyguards toppled to the ground. With their morale boosted, the other party instantly pounced.
Once chaos descended above them, Shen Zechuan kept away the few remaining blades he had left. Without needing him to say more, Xiao Chiye had already leaped to his feet. He climbed along the muddy slope and rolled into the thick growth of grass on the other side.
“Catch them!” Qiao Tianya bellowed.
The Imperial Bodyguards streaked across the air in a retreat. Xiao Chiye extended and hung his arms up on a tree trunk and swiftly flipped atop it. Below him, Shen Zechuan had only just reached when the Imperial Bodyguards behind him arrived too. Like a ferocious tiger springing down the mountain, Xiao Chiye swiftly hacked down on them with Langli Blade like a hot knife cutting through butter, forcing the crowd of Imperial Bodyguards simultaneously back in a retreat.
Qiao Tianya sprang up from behind and brandished his blade to sweep it towards Xiao Chiye, who could not retract his own blade in time. Xiao Chiye abruptly ducked his head. Then there was a “thud” as the edge of Qiao Tianya’s blade collided into a sheath.
Shen Zechuan pressed his sheath against the other blade. With one foot, he stepped onto Xiao Chiye’s back, whose powerful lift of his own body raised Shen Zechuan’s whole body up to close in towards Qiao Tianya. The thin blade between his fingers on his other hand suddenly went assailing towards Qiao Tianya’s eyes.
Qiao Tianya did not dodge. The Imperial Bodyguards at both sides swiftly cleaved down their blades to obstruct the attack.
Having already gotten up, Xiao Chiye lifted his leg to kick Qiao Tianya right in the chest. Both parties retreated in unison. Qiao Tianya flung off the droplets of blood on his blade. The locks of hair before his forehead had already been sliced off by Shen Zechuan earlier.
Xiao Chiye and Shen Zechuan took two steps back. Without even saying a word, they turned and ran.
Qiao Tianya stared at their backs and said, “Give chase!”
Xiao Chiye reached out an arm to pull over Shen Zechuan and said, “East!”
Shen Zechuan brushed aside the stray branches and said, “There’s one man in every five steps and a squad in every ten. Not to forget there’s still the Tuancheng Garrison Troops in the east!”
Xiao Chiye slowly retracted his arm. He said resolutely and decisively, “The east is the way out.”
“The gate of death is right before us.” Shen Zechuan backhandedly tossed out his blade, and the soldier hiding in an ambush in the tree promptly fell headfirst to the ground. When Shen Zechuan passed by him, he conveniently extracted the other party’s Xiuchun Blade.
Xiao Chiye backhandedly grasped the hilt of his blade. The next moment, he sliced through the pitch-black night to hold up two blades in the rain. He had already lost all sensations in his left arm. Even the fingers on his right hand were now slightly stiff.
It would be a tough battle tonight!
Shen Zechuan brandished his blade to slay the man, then kicked over the body.
As Xiao Chiye strode forward, he staggered. He suddenly pressed his chest against Shen Zechuan’s back and brought him tumbling into the billowing waves of grass and rolling into the stream.
The rain was still falling, and penetratingly cold water scoured their bodies. Xiao Chiye’s heavy breathing weighed down beside Shen Zechuan’s neck, forming a bizarre duality of scalding heat and icy cold.
“Killing me won’t do you any good.” Propping himself on Langli Blade, Xiao Chiye raised his body a little. “So I’m counting on you for the rest of the journey.”
Shen Zechuan wiped his face with the stream water and said, “There’s no point in saving you either.”
“You are here to look for Prince Chu.” When Xiao Chiye heard him, he pinned him down again. “What’s to be done? The Imperial Bodyguards can’t ferret him out either. Only I know where he is. You have already missed your opportunity. No doubt the Empress Dowager will fail tonight! Dote on me. I’m your way out.”
Shen Zechuan looked back, and the tips of both men’s noses came face to face with each other. He said coolly, “I’ll hack you to death. We can all just die together.”
“You expended so much effort to get out of imprisonment.” Xiao Chiye said, “Just to die with me in the name of love?”
“You might as well use that mouth to have a chat with Qiao Tianya.” Shen Zechuan grasped hold of Xiao Chiye’s hands with his icy fingertips. The next instant, Langli Blade swept back and beat the pursuing troops back for a moment.
Having received an opening, Shen Zechuan lifted his leg to shove Xiao Chiye aside. He grabbed Xiuchun Blade with one hand, carried Langli Blade in the other, and calmed his panting caused by the sprint earlier.
“Put that life of yours on account.” Shen Zechuan looked as Qiao Tianya dashed closer to them and tightened his grip on the blade. “After tonight, I’m your master.”
Snow-white light glinted in the ink-like night. Without giving Qiao Tianya the chance to speak, Shen Zechuan slashed down on him head-on.
Sprays of water splashed along with his footsteps. Every single one of Shen Zechuan’s blow was deadly. As blades collided, the edge of his Xiuchun Blade was damaged. Qiao Tianya flung it aside with his own blade and sent it flying.
The two men instantly separated. Shen Zechuan’s empty left hand soaked in the stream water, which washed away the blood that had trickled down.
“A beauty should sit high behind a curtain in a pavilion.”2 Qiao Tianya looked as though he had caught a whiff of some scent. “Carrying a blade will hurt the hands. What if you break them?”
Shen Zechuan weighed Langli Blade with his right hand. “Isn’t breaking my hands and legs just the thing to make me compliant?”
“There is a kind of people in this world who cannot be provoked.” Qiao Tianya said. “Men like you who can even be ruthless to your own self.”
Shen Zechuan strode forward to attack.
Langli Blade was heavy, so he could not wield it smoothly and effortlessly enough. But being heavy had its own advantage. Just like how Qiao Tianya was now too occupied to counteract his blows as he relied on the forcefulness of the Ji Clan Blade Technique to hack away at the former.
As Qiao Tianya retreated, the pressure almost made him fold over backwards. However, the moment he drew near to the stream, he had an ill sense of foreboding. Sure enough, he saw Shen Zechuan’s injured left hand suddenly splashed up from the water. The dirty mud spattered into Qiao Tianya’s eyes, causing him to momentarily expose a weak point. Then, his chest received yet another heavy blow as Shen Zechuan kicked him down and sent him crashing into the stream.
When reinforcements arrived, Shen Zechuan retreated a few steps. He would definitely not persist in engaging in combat, so he started dragging Xiao Chiye in an attempt to leave. How could he have expected Xiao Chiye to be so tall with such long legs that he could barely hoist him away?
◈ ◈ ◈
The search intensified, and time passed particularly slowly.
Everyone they found in the entire forest was all smokescreens. What’s more, they were well-trained men who would give their lives for the cause. Once they fell into the Imperial Bodyguards’ hands, they would take their own lives by biting off their tongues to deny Ji Lei of the chance to interrogate them.
Exactly where was Prince Chu?
Only Xiao Chiye knew!
“Little bastard!” Somewhat frustrated, Ji Lei rose to his feet to survey the place. “Get Tuancheng Garrison Troop search along the hunting grounds!”
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan climbed out of the water and dragged Xiao Chiye out. But this slope was too steep. He bit down on Xiao Chiye’s back collar and hauled, finally dragging him up.
The wound on Shen Zechuan’s left hand bled incessantly. He tore his clothes, rinsed it in the water, and wrapped it around the wound.
Xiao Chiye leaned against the moss-covered rock and said, “There’s a handkerchief in my bosom.”
Shen Zechuan reached into the clothes on his chest and fished out a handkerchief that was a pile of mud. He squeezed out all the muddy water onto Xiao Chiye’s chest.
Xiao Chiye asked, “When will the effects of this drug pass?”
“Two hours. Soon.”
“Crouching in a tree is better than taking cover in the water.” Xiao Chiye looked at him and saw that he was soaked to the skin. His back collar was slightly open, and there were still specks of mud on his neck. The contrast between them was very…
“The Imperial Bodyguards have offices for domesticating beasts. Animals can smell the scent of blood.” As Shen Zechuan spoke, he lowered his head and took a light sniff of the fingertip that had bled earlier.
Xiao Chiye watched him.
What sorcery was this? This man was still wielding a blade to kill earlier, and he wasn’t acting like a woman, so why had he thought of such a term?
He must have really been possessed by Li Jianheng! Harp, harp, harp. The latter had kept harping on and on about this every day that even he himself had come to think and see it this way, just like those old men in Qudu with their special fetishes.
“Your swordsmanship is pretty good.” Xiao Chiye’s gaze looked as though they could peel off Shen Zechuan’s back collar. “You must have trained hard in the temple. And yet one can’t tell from your body’s physical appearance alone. Did you use medicine on yourself?”
Shen Zechuan looked askance at him. Following his gaze, he raised his hand to touch the back of his neck. He asked in response, “How many times a day do you have to look at it? Are you that obsessed with it?”
Xiao Chiye licked the residual taste of blood with the tip of his tongue and said, “The way you put it is so ambiguous. You make it sound like I’m a lecherous ghost.”
Shen Zechuan reached over and covered Xiao Chiye’s face with the dirty handkerchief and said, “I thought you only fool around with women and courtesans. I never expect you to have a taste for both men and women.”
Xiao Chiye said, “What’s this flirting? This Second Young Master just wants you to wipe the mud off your neck.”
“Do you want me to wipe it?” With the handkerchief serving as a partition, Shen Zechuan’s fingertip stopped between Xiao Chiye’s eyebrows. “Or do you want to wipe it for me?”
Icy cold rainwater trickled down along his fingers and dripped between Xiao Chiye’s eyebrows. As if they had fully absorbed that alluring temptation, the droplets that dripped all blossomed into ripples of water that flowed tide after tide into his collar, stirring up in him a wet, ticklish restlessness.
Xiao Chiye wanted very much to drink some water. At the same time, he wanted Shen Zechuan to stay a little farther away from him.
After a moment of silence, he smiled and said, “You sure are something.”
“You think too much.” Shen Zechuan tightened his collar around him, held his blade, and spoke no further.
The rain gradually abated.
The barking of hounds in the woods rang out from afar. Neither man moved. This rock was propped against the side of the stream, and it was covered with shrubs above. It was an exceptionally small and narrow hiding-place, large enough for just one man.
Xiao Chiye waited for quite a while, listening as the man leading the hound closed in on them. Shen Zechuan wedged Langli Blade in midair and crouched over to climb his way in from below.
Xiao Chiye felt a weight on his body as that man edged along his legs to his chest. Both men squeezed, body to body, into this narrow space. Xiao Chiye could feel the heat of their thighs rubbing against each other when the other man straddled him. He could also feel the latter’s breathing as he leaned in close beside his temple.
Xiao Chiye covered his eyes. In the darkness, he could freely visualize Shen Zechuan’s posture. He could not shake off the image of that white-as-lotus-root neck either.
“I beg of you.” Xiao Chiye sighed. “Sit on my stomach. Don’t sit farther down.”
Shen Zechuan did not move, because the rustling sound above came closer.
Xiao Chiye adjusted his breathing. But if he raised his head up in this posture, he could touch Shen Zechuan’s chin. Move down a little, and the tip of his nose could nuzzle along the contour of that neck.
Shen Zechuan was originally listening attentively to the movements when he suddenly lifted Xiao Chiye’s handkerchief to look at him without saying a word.
Xiao Chiye was also looking at Shen Zechuan. He did not know if the scent of blood tonight had gone to his head, or whatever it was that was going on. In any case, that gradually hardening part of his was pressing up against the man above. It made both men uncomfortable. Fabrics that had been soaked through by rainwater clung so closely to their skins that it was akin to physical contact between bare skins. It was as if he shifted just a little more, he would be intentionally creating friction to ignite a fire.
The hound above was still sniffing around.
P/s: for those who haven’t seen it yet, there’s a Revised Character Clan Chart for those still confused about the characters in the novel and their clans as well as departments/divisions in the imperial court. Use the chart with the Character Guide for more details about a character. Note that this is only for characters who have appeared up to chapter 23. (This is to avoid spoilers and also to avoid confusing readers further). The clan chart and character guide will likely be updated at various stages in the future as more characters appear and alliances change.
绣春刀 Xiuchun Blade is the blade of the Imperial Bodyguards during the Ming Dynasty.
- The impression here is one of a noblewoman or enchanting beauty who sits high and pretty behind a hanging screen in a pavilion, far removed from things like battles. Kind of like sitting pretty like a doll on a shelf. (I’m keeping to the original quote to preserve the imagery of it).