Clothing was shoved up high, and skin that radiated out like moonlight felt icy cold to the touch. There were no caresses, only the tearing apart of each other. The thick, tangible night melted away into an expanse of spring water—into a night of heated passion and intoxicating pleasure. Xiao Chiye scooped up this water. He struggled to prop himself up among the tidal waves of emotions and saw Shen Zechuan’s eyes as he gasped for breath.
In this pair of eyes, there was none of the temperature of one drowning in lust. They even reflected his absurd behavior at this very moment.
Xiao Chiye felt a wave of thrill cutting through him like a blade. He fondled Shen Zechuan until he made him hot—until he made this water rage. He bound Shen Zechuan from high in the clouds into the crooks of his arms and squashed him hard as he licked and nipped at him wantonly. Biting down on the back of Shen Zechuan’s neck was like taking in a mouthful of enchantment potion1 into his mouth.
The night was thoroughly wet, and the bedding was soaked in sweat. Intertwining limbs thrashed around on the bed, and it was in these urgent collisions that Xiao Chiye gradually got a grasp on happiness. He progressed swiftly, surrendering himself in that mass of soft clouds, and hardening in the same mass of soft clouds. He pushed up hard silently against Shen Zechuan’s vital spot, so much that Shen Zechuan had to strain to gulp even as his raised neck fearlessly exposed itself before Xiao Chiye’s eyes.
Xiao Chye kissed this neck and scooped up both of Shen Zechuan’s knees. He was no longer a hypocrite untempted by lust.2 He was an ordinary man who stormed the enemy’s den and went in for the kill in the dark. He made it impossible for Shen Zechuan to remember the Chashi sinkhole, and made it just as impossible for Shen Zechuan to forget this intense merging of bodies.
They had no life-saving straw to clutch at. This was a night of indulgence to break free of their misery. Pleasure blazed through their bodies like a raging inferno. Shen Zechuan reached out for the headboard, and Xiao Chiye dragged him back and locked him in an embrace.
“Go on, show me how feral you can get.” Xiao Chiye whispered, “You want me to go wild with abandon, so how dare you run? Don’t you want to see who is more savage? I’m not afraid.”
Shen Zechuan’s cheek chafed against the bedding as he closed his eyes and gasped for breath. The expression of pain, of being unable to take it, on this face was all a captivating seduction.
How did he blossom into such a visage?
Xiao Chiye pinched his chin and held it up to kiss him without letting him pant or rest. In the time the sides on the back of his waist3 were numbed, he ejaculated completely into him.
Shen Zechuan was still shuddering from the climactic high, but Xiao Chiye did not stop. He turned Shen Zechuan over and thrust in again.
The cold wind howled endlessly outside the window, and the suppressed sounds of panting cut through the darkness. Xiao Chiye dripped with sweat as he kissed Shen Zechuan over and over again.
He did not want to concede defeat.
But he had already been vanquished.
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye fell asleep.
The ferocity and fury in his features had all dissolved away into a kind of displeasure from being brash. He held onto one of Shen Zechuan’s wrist, making it seem like both men were snuggling against each other this winter night, consequently turning those merciless kisses into a scalding hot furnace.
Outside, the snow fell for the entire night, drifting gently like willow catkins. The sound of wind was nowhere to be heard.
When it was nearly daybreak, Shen Zechuan extracted his wrist from Xiao Chiye’s grip. Xiao Chiye’s fingers chased after him, moving under the bedding.
Chen Yang, who was outside the door, saw Shen Zechuan come out of the room.
“Military drill grounds.” Shen Zechuan said concisely.
Chen Yang nodded. As he was about to make way, he caught a glimpse of the injury on Shen Zechuan’s lips. He looked as if he was about to say a word, but hesitated.
Shen Zechuan glanced at him and saw through what he was thinking, so he said, “The Imperial Bodyguard’s reorganization deployment order should be issued these few days. Thank you for your kind treatment during this period of time.”
Chen Yang said, “A few days earlier—”
“What’s over is over; there’s no need to speak of it.” Shen Zechuan was gratuitously cold today. He said, “We will all be patrolling Qudu in the future, so it’ll be inevitable for us to bump into each other. I’ll act with caution, and I’d advise the various Imperial Army brothers to be prudent as well.”
Chen Yang paused.
But Shen Zechuan smiled and continued, “It hasn’t been easy for the Imperial Army to be where they are today. But time changes, and every dog has its day, so who can say for sure when it comes to the future?”
Without waiting for Chen Yang to answer, he lifted his robe and left.
Ding Tao patted the snow off his shoulders and fell over to hang in mid-air. Swinging with his brush in his mouth, he gazed at Shen Zechuan’s back with a frown.
On seeing this, Chen Yang asked, “What’s the matter?”
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Ding Tao said: “Don’t you think he is a little sad today?”
Chen Yang turned his head to see the corner of Shen Zechuan’s robe. He said, “Is that so? He seems fine to me. He’s smiling.”
Ding Tao fished out his book from his bosom and wrote a few characters while suspended in mid-air. He lamented, “Maybe it was because he had a fight with the Second Young Master last night. That was quite the commotion from what I’ve heard.”
Feeling a little embarrassed, Chen Yang looked up and said, “Gu Jin, didn’t you teach him about the birds and bees? From my calculations, this lad is already sixteen. In Libei, it’d be time for him to marry a wife.”
Gu Jin did not reply.
Chen Yang said, “Do you hear me?”
“He has cotton stuffed in his ears!” Ding Tao stuffed the book back into his bosom and turned back to remove the cotton in one of Gu Jin’s ears. He shouted, “Jin-ge! Chen Yang is calling you!”
Gu Jin gave a start and nearly slipped down from above. He shoved Ding Tao’s face away and frowned as he poked his head out to ask, “What?”
Chen Yang pointed to Ding Tao and said, “Send him away. Sell him and add to your wine budget this month.”
Gu Jin grasped Ding Tao by the neck and said, “He can’t sell for much going by this weight.”
There were movements inside the room, and all three men simultaneously fell silent. After a while, Xiao Chiye came out of the room. As he put on his clothes, he swept a glance around, then looked at Ding Tao.
“Dage will be coming to the capital in a few days,” Xiao Chiye’s lips hurt a little when he spoke. He pressed his tongue against it but gave up quickly. “There’s no need to submit reports of trivial issues.”
Ding Tao nodded his head hard, like a little chick pecking at grains.
After a moment’s pause, Xiao Chiye asked, “Why are you still here?”
Ding Tao scratched the back of his head in puzzlement. He looked at Chen Yang, then at Gu Jin, and finally back at Xiao Chiye. He said, “Young Master, I’m on duty today.”
Xiao Chiye questioned, “Where’s the man I told you to keep an eye on?”
Ding Tao said, “He, he already left…”
Xiao Chiye said nothing. When Chen Yang led the horse over, Xiao Chiye flipped onto it. Just before he left, he pointed to Ding Tao. “Throw him out.”
Ding Tao had yet to climb up the horse. Before he could react to Xiao Chiye’s words, he was already hoisted up by Chen Yang and Gu Jin. The color drained from his face as he clutched his little book and said, “Please don’t. Young Master, Young Master! I did nothing wrong these days—”
He had already been tossed out.
After throwing him out, Chen Yang stepped forward and said, “Master, shifu should be arriving today.”
Without saying a word more, Xiao Chiye spurred his horse on and headed out of the city.
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan did not go to the military drill grounds at Mount Feng. Instead, he braved the snow to return to Zhao Zui Temple.
Ji Gang had not seen him for several days, so he rushed to buy roast chicken after letting Shen Zechuan in. It had been a while since Grand Mentor Qi last saw him too. At this moment, he was holding a brush and squinting his eyes to write characters. On seeing Shen Zechuan enter, he hurriedly threw the brush away and called out to him, “Lanzhou!”
Shen Zechuan lifted his robe to sit upright opposite Grand Mentor Qi.
Grand Mentor Qi said, “The Imperial Bodyguards’ deployment order is about to be issued soon, right? Where do you want to go?”
Shen Zechuan replied, “The Imperial Carriages Office. Close to the Emperor.”
Grand Mentor Qi nodded. On seeing the wound on Shen Zechuan’s lips, he switched the topic and asked, “Has something happen outside lately?”
After a moment of silence, Shen Zechuan said, “Now that His Majesty has Hai Liangyi to protect him, I fear that even a hopeless case can pose as a pillar of the state, much like a rotten wood pretending to be a beam.4 Back then, when I saved Xiao’Er, it was because the ascension of His Majesty to the throne was a foregone conclusion. Killing him would, on the contrary, mess up the chessboard.”
“A messed-up chessboard is nothing. What’s to be feared is a messed-up heart and mind.” Grand Mentor Qi looked at him. “Have you gained any new perspectives all these days you were staying by Xiao the Second’s side?”
Shen Zechuan wiped the ink stains on his fingertips and thought for a long time before saying, “It’s too much of a pity for him to be born after Xiao Jiming. It’s fine if they can keep him under control in this life, but if they can’t…”
Shen Zechuan looked at Grand Mentor Qi, but did not continue his words.
But Grand Mentor Qi said, “Lanzhou, you still don’t get it.”
Shen Zechuan was slightly stunned.
Grand Mentor Qi stood up and paced for two steps. Gazing at the snow in the courtyard, he suddenly let out a long sigh. “You killed Ji Lei.”
Shen Zechuan stopped wiping.
In a rare philosophical state, Grand Mentor Qi said, “Lanzhou, we are both trapped here. We live on hatred, but we mustn’t let ourselves be killed by hatred. Five years ago, you couldn’t have done such an utterly ruthless act. But five years later, you can already take charge to do such a clean and efficient job of it. I imparted the classics to you, but I don’t want you to be manipulated by hatred. It’s hard to be righteous when you take the lives of the living. You won’t be able to turn back if you fall too far. Without exorcising your inner demons, you will forever be trapped in a nightmare. Ji Lei deserves death, and it’s still death for him even if you end him in one slash. Think about your days in Duanzhou. I have no wish to see you walk a cold-blooded and cold-hearted path. You said it’s a pity Xiao Chiye was born after Xiao Jiming. What I’m going to tell you is the exact opposite.”
“Just imagine for a moment that Ji Mu is the Hereditary Prince of Libei today. Can there be no other reason for him to leave you in Qudu other than a lack of alternatives?”
“The sharp edge of a treasured sword comes only by honing it. Xiao Chiye is a sword. He has yet to notice it himself, but his elder brother has, for many years, placed high hopes on him. Libei has never been stingy with praises that he deserves either. If he’s a son without a use,5 they would have chosen to dote on him to make him happy. But Xiao Jiming not only took him to battles, he even gave him a free hand in leading the troops. Since he’s already left with no room for retreat, then was his handing over his younger brother really just to make him miserable? Five years ago, in Libei, Xiao Chiye did not know how to exercise restraint, but now, he has already learned how to rein in his arrogance and willfulness. Everything learned from word-of-mouth can be superficial; It’s only those you come to understand through your own sufferings that are the real masterstroke. Xiao Jiming is a great elder brother. Being born after Xiao Jiming is never the most pitiful thing about Xiao Chiye. Lanzhou, this brotherly sentiment should be something you understand the most. Yet it has now become the brotherliness you understand the least.”
Grand Mentor Qi paused for a long time, looking somewhat gloomy and depressed. Then he looked at Shen Zechuan again and kneeled to pat Shen Zechuan slowly on the head with his wizened palm.
“Teacher taught you the classics and gave you the courtesy name Lanzhou. Unruffled is the orchid6 that grows on stone steps. Boundless is the horizons of the boat7 that crosses the sea of misery. Wide is the heart that accommodates a hundred rivers, and broad is the vision that encompasses a thousand lakes. You’re a good child. Killing is merely a means to an end.8 Hatred may be hard to eliminate, but your heart must never change.9 Lanzhou, oh Lanzhou, don’t you still have your shifu and teacher? Why must you force yourself into such a corner? It may not be a bad idea to just voice out your unhappiness these five years.”
Shen Zechuan stared blankly at Grand Mentor Qi.
“Twenty-five years ago, His Royal Highness the Crown Prince left. How I long every day, and resent every night, for not being able to take that blow for him, to kill the enemy with my own hands. I stewed in resentment until I turned into this state. I became your teacher. I.” Grand Mentor Qi choked a little with emotion. “I want you to kill my enemy for me. But I can’t have you turn into a blade who has forgotten who you are… You are a person, Lanzhou. Don’t forget your carefree days in Duanzhou. Although Ji Mu died, he didn’t die because of you. It’s Heaven’s decree. What is past is past. You did not escape and survived the Chashi sinkhole to shoulder a sin. You are the continuation of existence for him, for those 40,000 soldiers! Silly child, Ji Gang has been so careful, so how did he still let you lead yourself so astray that you’d blame the wrong person?!”
Shen Zechuan closed his eyes.
He heard Ji Mu’s calls, and he thought of Xiao Chiye’s scent. At this very moment, he finally understood why he was so infatuated with that scent. That was the brilliance of the scorching sun—the light that could allow him to escape from the Chashi sinkhole.
Even if it were only for a moment, it would allow him to forget the tides of blood and the rain of arrows, to forget the cold and the corpses. He could no longer remember the days in Duanzhou. They were too distant. So distant that they seemed to be the memories of his past life. He could no longer even recall Ji Mu’s heartily laughing face. He had plunged into a nightmare, tormenting himself every single moment.
Ji Mu was dead.
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Why wasn’t he the one to die that day?
The fact that his shifu did not blame him was the greatest reproach of all. What he could not struggle free of was the sense of guilt that would haunt him for a lifetime. There was no way he could tell Grand Mentor Qi candidly that, with the passage of time, he had finally killed off himself.
Xiao Chiye was the reflection on the other end who had everything he did not have. He observed Xiao Chiye, clumsily trying to imitate him so that he could let himself look more like a person. He could not tell anyone that the Shen Zechuan living in this body was a repulsive killer.
He was already standing at the edge of the abyss.
Shen Zechuan lowered his eyes under Grand Mentor Qi’s palm like a child respectfully listening to his teachings. He listened devoutly. Yet, it was in this very instant that he realized he was no longer able to shed tears.
His throat throbbed slightly. Eventually, he said, feeling comforted, “It’s… as Teacher said.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Three days later, the Imperial Bodyguards’ deployment order was announced. Han Cheng, the original Assistant Commander of the Eight Great Training Divisions, was transferred over to be the Imperial Bodyguards’ Commander-in-chief, while staff from the Imperial Bodyguards’ Twelve Offices were reassigned. Shen Zechuan was redeployed from the Domesticated Elephants Office to the Imperial Carriages Office, and Ge Qingqing was promoted from Company Commander to Judge.10
Shen Zechuan’s new waist tablet had the word “Emperor’s Entourage”. The Imperial Carriages Office was a great place to go, since being close to the Emperor would make it easiest for him to get into the Emperor’s good graces.
Xiao Chiye, originally the Imperial Army’s Viceroy, also took on the post of the Eight Great Training Divisions’ Commander, thereby legitimizing his authority over the patrols of Qudu. After that one night, he welcomed Zuo Qianqiu and stayed at the military drill grounds in Mount Feng. Even until the time Shen Zechuan left the Imperial Army’s residence, both men never saw each other again.
“Master.” Chen Yang attended to Xiao Chiye at the latter’s side and said in a soft voice, “The original arrangement was the Domesticated Steeds Office. Who would have expected it to be the Imperial Carriages Office when the deployment order was issued.”
Xiao Chiye was solving a ‘Chinese Rings’ puzzle.11 His hand movements slowed as he said, “That could only mean he didn’t care for it.”
Chen Yang said, “But isn’t going to work in the Emperor’s presence makes it much easier for him to meet with misfortune that’ll cost him his life? Secretariat Elder Hai was the one who urged the former Emperor to kill him back then.”
“Demanding repayment right on the crux of the matter. His heart is not on carrying out his duties lawfully.” Xiao Chiye tossed away the rings and said, “Ji Lei is dead. Han Cheng is a stand-in from the Eight Great Training Divisions. The Imperial Bodyguards is now without a master. What do you think he wants to do by stepping up now?”
Chen Yang pondered for a moment and said, “If he becomes…”
“If he succeeds.” Xiao Chiye looked towards the military drill grounds. “Then he will have his claws and fangs.”12
Chen Yang did not venture to speak.
A little while later, Xiao Chiye continued, “The Ji Clan dominates the Imperial Bodyguards. He has Ji Gang as his shield. It’s simply effortless for him to move up using past relationships and old sentiments as his blade. Although we can’t get our men in, we can limit his chances. There has to be a justification for getting a promotion and riches. If nothing goes wrong before the Emperor, then he can be held back from making any moves. Since the Imperial Army now has the responsibility of patrolling, then why trouble the Imperial Bodyguards?”
Chen Yang said, “This subordinate understands it now .”
Xiao Chiye drank a mouthful of water, thought for a moment, then said, “Pick a low-key place and lay the table for a feast. Him and I – we’ll pick our fights and we’ll still have our meals.”
He pursed the part of his lips that had been bitten.
“After all, we could be considered fellow disciples of the same school of martial arts.”
This chapter is the uncensored version.
- 迷魂汤 mythological magic potion to bewitch someone
- 坐怀不乱 In the Spring and Autumn Period, Liuxia Hui of Lu stayed at the city gate overnight where he met a homeless woman. Fearing the woman would be frozen from the cold, he sat her on his lap (or embraced her in his bosom) and blanketed her with his clothes. The night passed without him making a single indecent move. This later came to describe an upright man unaffected by temptations even with a beautiful woman close by.
腰眼 either side of the small of the back
- 朽木(也能)充栋梁 rotten wood pretending to be a pillar; i.e., a hopeless case posing as a pillar of the state.
- 废子 It’s also a term in Weiqi to mean a useless stone (worthless chess piece). But it can also be literally read as useless son
- From his name “lan” 兰 orchid; one of the Four Gentlemen (四君子) in Chinese art that refers to four plants: the plum (梅), the orchid (蘭), the bamboo (竹), and the chrysanthemum (菊).
- From his name “zhou” 舟 boat. The word Lanzhou (兰舟) as a whole also refers to a boat made of lily magnolia wood; i.e., a poetic term for boat.
- 杀人不过点头地 used as a metaphor to leave yourself some leeway doing things. Don’t go too far so as to avoid hurting innocent people or bringing more pain and misfortune to others, which isn’t necessarily beneficial to yourself.
- He’s basically telling him to be magnanimous and broad-minded. Don’t push his enemies too far. He may hate, but he mustn’t let hatred change him.
- 镇抚 Judge of the Imperial Prison, which specialized in using torture to suppress corrupt officials. During the Ming Dynasty, there was a Southern and Northern Prison (镇抚司) subordinated to the Imperial Bodyguards. The Southern Prison was in charge of interpreting military laws and managing military craftsmen while the Northern Prison was responsible for cases entrusted by the Emperor.
九连环 literally ‘nine interconnected rings’. Also known as Baguenaudier, a disentanglement puzzle featuring a loop that must be disentangled from a sequence of rings on interlinked pillars.
- 爪牙 also refers to lackeys or pawns or accomplices