Fresh vegetables were a rare sight in winter, and so the ones that fetched a high price in Qudu now were all green vegetables. Having been rewarded by Li Jianheng, Xiao Chiye’s dinner table tonight included a plate of crisp, shredded cucumber.
“Side dishes that accompany the main dishes help to invigorate the spleen and eliminate toxins.”1 Xiao Chiye scooped up a bowl of hot soup and pushed it towards Shen Zechuan. “You’ve been standing outside for so long. Warm yourself up and have a refreshing meal before you take a rest.”
“As the saying goes,” Shen Zechuan wiped his hands and took a seat. “One who is unaccountably solicitous is hiding evil intentions.2 So, what instructions does the Second Young Master have?”
“Plenty.” Xiao Chiye said. “We’ll talk as we eat.”
Both men lifted their chopsticks together.
There was no one else inside the room. The two bowls of rice were quickly eaten clean, as was the plate of shredded cucumber that they split between themselves. Neither of them touched the meat dishes.
“The Spring Festival3 is right around the corner, and my shifu is coming to the capital.” Xiao Chiye drank the soup. “If Ji Gang-shifu is free, we can arrange for both elders to meet.”
“A new year celebration, or a Hongmen banquet?4 You have to make it clear.” Shen Zechuan set down the chopsticks. “My shifu doesn’t stake his life on games.”
“New year celebration.” Xiao Chiye said. “There are only both of them left in this generation, and they have not seen each other in so many years.”
“Sure. I’ll prepare a big gift later and ask shifu to come out of obscurity.” Shen Zechuan had eaten his fill.
Seeing him get up, Xiao Chiye said, “Rest in my room as usual tonight.”
Shen Zechuan looked back and smiled as he said, “Naturally, I won’t run. We’ll take our turns in the bath. Take your time. I’ll go first. “
With that, he lifted the curtain and headed inside to wash his face and rinse his mouth.
Xiao Chiye called for the servants to clear the table. As he stood by the window, he saw that it was snowing outside. He turned his head and saw Shen Zechuan’s silhouette through the hazy curtain fabric.
Shen Zechuan removed his outer garment. It was as if he was peeling away a layer of coarse shell to reveal the fresh, tender, and succulent flesh within. When he lowered his head to undo his waist belt, the curve of his nape danced with tangerine-yellow light as if to add a velvety touch of exquisiteness to that already smooth part.
Looking at him through the curtain fabric was just like scratching an itch through a boot. It magnified that temptation, which was brimming with desire, and scattered it, sending it wandering aimlessly through his limbs and bones. It tickled him so badly that it made him irritable and gave him certain violent thoughts. The man being like jade himself counted for nothing. What bothered Xiao Chiye the most was Shen Zechuan’s desire.
That pair of eyes. And that kind of smile. Whether by design or accident, he seemed to exude such a sexual desire.
“Come and hug me.”
“Come and touch me.”
“Come and sweat it out with me to your heart’s content.”
This desire was as unaggressive as a drizzle, but unbeknownst to him, it had invaded his mind. Shen Zechuan himself seemed oblivious to it. He retained another kind of indifference that was diametrically opposed to lust as he breezily threw out this contradictory puzzle for others to think about.
Xiao Chiye did not want to continue to think. He was keenly aware that the “eagle” this time was not that easy to tame. He could only be his own master; he could not tolerate himself getting so easily and repeatedly aroused by his impulses.
Xiao Chiye turned back his head, closed the window, and went to the bath hall.
◈ ◈ ◈
Both men slept on each side with a block in between. Their backs were to each other, and their breathing was steady as if they had already fallen asleep.
Xiao Chiye kept close to his thumb ring and thought of many matters.
This thumb ring did not belong to him. At first, it belonged to Feng Yisheng of the Suotian Pass. When Feng Yisheng died in battle, he left the thumb ring to Zuo Qianqiu. Wearing this thumb ring, Zuo Qianqiu made a name for himself during the battle at Tianfei Watchtower, where he shot an arrow at his wife, killing her.
It was because of this that Zuo Qianqiu’s hair turned white, and also because of this that he never recovered from the setback. He had achieved fame and glory, but the person was dead. There was no way Zuo Qianqiu could go on the battlefield again. His hands, which once made significant achievements at Tianfei Watchtower, could no longer wield the bow freely.
As a child, Xiao Chiye had followed Zuo Qianqiu to ask him, “How did you end up shooting your wife to death?”
Zuo Qianqiu sanded the bowstring and asked, “Do you really want to be a general?”
Xiao Chiye nodded.
Zuo Qianqiu said, “Then don’t start a family. A general dying in a hundred battles is actually not that terrifying. What’s terrifying is that the general, in all likelihood, will come to be confronted with choices. What you want, and what you must shoulder, are all different things.”
Zuo Qianqiu looked at the bow in desolation. The grassland wind caressed his white hair. He said in a daze, “I hope you will never be trapped in such a desperate situation. When a man reaches that stage, he will die no matter what he chooses.”
“You saved tens of thousands of people at Tianfei Watchtower.” Xiao Chiye leaned over the railing. “Why didn’t you want to be conferred a title?”
Zuo Qianqiu laughed and said, “Because I died in battle.”
It was not until Xiao Chiye grew up to be a youth that he understood Zuo Qianqiu’s words. In the battle at Tianfei Watchtower, Zuo Qianqiu’s beloved wife was taken prisoner. Between opening the gates to surrender, or shutting the gates to fight to the death, he could only choose one.
Zuo Qianqiu chose neither. He headed out of the city all by himself and drew his bow to shoot his beloved wife to death.
Legend had it that the shot was the most steady shot he had ever fired in his life. He hit his target among countless people. The rain was pouring that night. No one knew if he had cried himself hoarse, or when his hair turned white. When the soldiers retreated at dawn, Zuo Qianqiu stood upon the white expanse of bones to collect his wife’s corpse and bury her.
From then on, his reputation of “Thunder Sinking the Jade Stage, Zuo Qianqiu” spread far and wide. Those who respected him would also curse him behind his back. A man who was that heartless would only make the common man think of him as a scourge, as if generals like him were all naturally born to be this cold-blooded.
Xiao Chiye treasured this thumb ring very much. But he also feared it. He was afraid that he would one day be caught in a dilemma too. So he had never spoken of ‘like’ lightly.
Chen Yang had been with him for so long, and he still did not know what Xiao Chiye was fond of. The wine he loved. The food he liked. The clothing he preferred. The truth was so mixed up with falsehood that no one could really tell.
It was as if only this word was the destiny he had no way of hiding. He already had a taste of being in someone else’s control because of desire. So how could he court trouble for himself again?
Xiao Chiye sat up soundlessly and looked at Shen Zechuan. He raised his hand. He just had to exert some force, and he could smother this desire to death.
Shen Zechuan looked like he was having a nightmare. As he frowned, his temples were both drenched in a cold sweat. His back was already a little damp.
Xiao Chiye bent over to look at him and saw a Shen Zechuan he had never seen before.
Shen Zechuan was trapped in the tide of blood. He was soaking wet all over. He touched himself. It was blood. The dream repeated itself every single day. He felt as if he was going mad.
All of a sudden, Shen Zechuan gave a few subtle twitches. His tightly pursed lips slowly loosened apart to mutter something in his sleep amid his outbreak of cold sweat.
He was this helpless.
Something else from that deep, heavy fear suddenly dawned on Xiao Chiye. He scrutinized Shen Zechuan, like a massive beast observing its prey.
Shen Zechuan was not invulnerable. Other than that unexplainable probing and dreading of each other, what they had was an even more inexplicable empathy between fellow sufferers.
Shen Zechuan felt weary. He would no longer cry in his dreams, or strive to dig through the corpses. He had seen through the nightmare. He knew Ji Mu was dead.
It was as if Shen Zechuan was an apathetic bystander.
Let’s get this over and done with.
He urged it on brutally and ruthlessly, even wanting this blood to spill even more, and this snow to fall even harder. How else could he lay bare this nightmare? He no longer had any fear. This flesh and marrow had already been soaked rotten in the blood! He was a stray dog feeding on rotting flesh. The filthy water and abhorrence were merely evidence of his existence.
Shen Zechuan suddenly opened his eyes and reached out to put his hands against Xiao Chiye’s chest. In just a few moments, he asked calmly while dripping with cold sweat, “Can’t sleep?”
Xiao Chiye’s chest was scalding hot. He could feel the iciness of Shen Zechuan’s palms through the thin fabric. He replied, “I ate too much.”
Shen Zechuan said, “A timid person would have been scared to death if he saw a person right upon opening his eyes in the middle of the night.”
“I heard you calling me,” Xiao Chiye said without batting an eyelid. “I have to determine if you were cursing me.”
“If I curse you, it wouldn’t be in my dreams.” Scalded by Xiao Chiye’s body temperature, Shen Zechuan wanted to retract his fingers.
Unexpectedly, Xiao Chiye pressed his hands back and asked, “Are you cold?”
Shen Zechuan’s temples were still soaked. He smiled and said, “Yeah. I’m so cold.”
He had reverted to that seductive Shen Lanzhou. He did not care the least whether Xiao Chiye had been tempted. This kind of ability was innate; it came to him naturally. He was a scum.
Xiao Chiye gripped his hands and pinned them down at the head of the bed. Sniffing his scent in the darkness, he said, “You sleep in my bed. You know very well what I think of every night. You said that I’m impressive. Shen Lanzhou, the impressive one is you. “
“Uh… what’s to be done then?” Shen Zechuan still sounded a little hoarse. He said nonchalantly, “I didn’t do anything.”
“I want to do it.” Xiao Chiye bent his head down to stare at him. “I want to do you.”
“Choose some other ways to let me die.” Shen Zechuan let him clasped both of his hands together. “It’s too much of a failure to die in bed.”
“I changed my mind.” Xiao Chiye caressed aside Shen Zechuan’s damp hair with a freed hand and looked at him as if he was scrutinizing a jewel he had bought. “I don’t want you to die.”
Shen Zechuan said, “I’d advise you not to bite this neck.”
“Lanzhou.” Xiao Chiye said his name with a sigh and jested, “Will you let me off even if I didn’t?”
Shen Zechuan looked at him.
Xiao Chiye asked, “Is it such a pleasure to tease me?”
“Yeah.” Shen Zechuan sensed Xiao Chiye gradually drawing closer to him. “It pleasures me to see the pitiful look of a little wolf at a loss.”
“Then, we can be even more pleasured.” Xiao Chiye said, “The Empress Dowager has been putting up with it without making any moves. What did she promise to give you? Throw it away. I’ll give you much, much more.”
“Uh-huh…” Shen Zechuan laughed, “I guess freedom is not included in the list of things you’re giving me. Xiao’Er, how is it that you never know that everything you want is all written in your eyes. You want to lock me up right this moment, am I right?”
“I want to make a gold chain.” Xiao Chiye said, “It’s too much of a pity for this neck not to be adorned with something.”
“Dog chains were originally used to leash wolves.” Shen Zechuan was so close to Xiao Chiye that he could hear the latter’s breathing. He said, “I want to put a gold chain around your neck too. For each word you say, I’ll yank it once.”
“Let’s not.” Xiao Chiye raised his eyebrows. “With your salary, you won’t be able to afford it even if you empty your pockets.”
The tips of their noses were about to bump into each other. Xiao Chiye’s thumb ring was pressing against Zechuan’s wrist, which had already reddened from his grip.
Xiao Chiye said, “Since it’s—”
Shen Zechuan raised his head and kissed him on the lips. Icy derision followed right on the heels of this encounter of soft lips.
“Want to go wild with abandon?” The expression in Shen Zechuan’s eyes was deranged as he murmured, “Do you dare? Try tearing me apart, Xiao’Er. I don’t care.”
The tightly wound string that was Xiao Chiye’s limit snapped with a “twang”, and those already tempestuous waves of emotions gushed forth with a roar. Amidst this mocking and instigation, he ruthlessly pinned down Shen Zechuan and kissed him back as if he was biting him.
Lust interweaved with murderous intent. Hatred entangled with pity. Exactly who between them was the more detestable and pitiable one?
Tongues intertwined in this wet kiss, where Xiao Chiye kissed Shen Zechuan, and Shen Zechuan gave all he could to respond. There was the sensual sound of licking between their lips and teeth as desire burned up two abnormal men.
Xiao Chiye suddenly released his grip on Shen Zechuan’s wrist and supported his back up, wanting them to press against each other intimately, skin to skin.
This was mutual loathing.
Tainting the other party with the filthy stain that was their own. Letting hatred turn into a bond that could not be torn apart. It was too much of an agony to live like this, being the only ones who could hear their own howls in the night. So why not come together and tear each other bloody? Let this visceral intimacy metamorphose into a form of solace they could rely on.
This life was already rotten enough.
- 小菜佐食，醒脾解浊 from Suiyuan Shidan, or Recipes from the Garden of Contentment: Yuan Mei’s Manual of Gastronomy 《随园食单》. It’s a work on cooking and gastronomy written by the Qing Dynasty poet and scholar Yuan Mei (袁枚).
- 无事献殷勤，非奸即盗 rape or robbery are the “evil intentions” specifically mentioned in the idiom
- Spring Festival, which celebrates the start of the new year from the first day of the first month in the lunar calendar.
- 鸿门宴 Hongmen Banquet; a banquet set up with the aim of murdering a guest. Refers to a famous episode in 206 BC when future Han emperor Liu Bang (刘邦) escaped attempted murder by his rival Xiangyu (项羽).