The chill was bitingly cold as the wind blew at their sleeves.
Right at this time, Shen Zechuan suddenly turned his head and sneezed, dispelling the confrontation that was on the verge of erupting. He was soaking wet as he waved his hand at Xiao Chiye and said in a muffled voice, “Have a handkerchief?”
Xiao Chiye strode a step forward and handed him one.
The tip of Shen Zechuan’s nose had been frozen red; even his fingertips were red. He took the blue handkerchief and covered his mouth and nose.
It was only then Xiao Chiye unhurriedly opened up the umbrella. Without making way for Shen Zechuan, he asked, “Where did you go?”
Shen Zechuan replied, “To play.”
“In any case, you’re my guard. You have to inform the office when you head out to play.” Xiao Chiye said, “It’s really worrying if you run off without so much a word.”
“I left my authority token in the bathhouse. Did the Second Young Master not see it?” Shen Zechuan sniffed the scent on the handkerchief. It smelled rather good—not the usual incense customarily used by the nobles, but more like the surging waves of strong, valiant wind under the scorching sun. It was the scent on Xiao Chiye.
What a nice smell.
Shen Zechuan lowered his eyes, almost fascinated by this scent. This was the sunlight beyond his reach; the spirit he no longer possessed in this life. A part of him did not want to return the handkerchief, thus he raised the corners of his eye to glance at Xiao Chiye out of the corners of his eyes, looking as if he had something to say but was hesitant to.
“Nope, didn’t see it.” Xiao Chiye felt around his chest but did not touch the object he was looking for. He turned his eyes just in time to see Shen Zechuan’s gaze on him. Taken aback, he said, “What conscienceless deed have you done for you to look at me in such a way?”
“Who knows?” Shen Zechuan said a little smugly to him. “I’ve done plenty.”
“Let’s hear a couple.” Xiao Chiye said.
“A heart-to-heart talk in the night should be done inside the house. It’s rather cold to be standing here.” Shen Zechuan coughed and said, “Is the bathhouse still open?”
“Closed.” Xiao Chiye replied. “You can only go to my room if you want to take a bath. Your health is so bad. Should I call for a physician to take a look for you?”
“That’d be great.” Shen Zechuan countered his move. “With the Second Young Master stepping in, I’ll get to save on consultation fees.”
“You have yet to recover from a major illness, and running around all over only makes it even more worrying. I’ll get someone to follow you in the future.” Xiao Chiye chivalrously made way for him. “Let’s go. Second Young Master will hold up the umbrella for you and send you there.”
Shen Zechuan looked at Xiao Chiye’s shoulder, which was even taller than his own self, then looked at him again. He smiled and said, “I can stand on tiptoe to hold up the umbrella too.”
“I’m afraid of veils.”1 Xiao Chiye’s side profile was tasteful, with a straight nose and a nice silhouette. He said, “You’re too short.”
Shen Zechuan strode through the main entrance with him and said, “You’re really the one who’s too tall.”
“When I was young, I was a few heads shorter than my dage, and with such a name to boot. It made me anxious, so I trained hard in martial arts every day and made it a habit to drink milk before going to bed.” Xiao Chiye strode over the puddle of water with his long legs and continued, “Who would have expected my height to shoot through the roof when I was thirteen or fourteen?”
“Ain’t that great?” Shen Zechuan said, “My dage was very tall too.”
The rain receded, but the snow intensified.
Xiao Chiye raised the brim of the umbrella to gaze at the snow and said, “It’s yet another year.”
Shen Zechuan gazed at the snow too and echoed. “Yet another year.”
“The new Emperor ascended to the throne and granted amnesty to all.” Xiao Chiye paused. “The Empress Dowager’s power and influence have weakened. You can leave Qudu and go anywhere you want.”
“Then conceal my name to live incognito, forget my past, and remain a mediocre person for my entire lifetime.” Shen Zechuan said mildly. “This isn’t something a man who hates me should say.”
“I hate the Biansha Cavalry,” Xiao Chiye said coldly, “I hate Shen Wei too.”
Shen Zechuan said, “You should hate me.”
Xiao Chiye’s eyes stirred.
Shen Zechuan continued, “I’m a man who lives on hatred.”
Snowflakes fell upon the stone slabs and melted in a twinkling of an eye.
Xiao Chiye said, “The current you understand those words from five years ago best.”
“Living is much more painful than dying.” Shen Zechuan suddenly laughed. He exhaled and said to Xiao Chye, “That’s not right. I’m not in pain. Hatred itself is death by dismemberment; it’s like a knife gouging out your flesh. Day after day. Anyone would eventually become numb. There’s nothing else in this world that can make me feel ‘pain’ again. I feel comfortable living like this. You’ve repeatedly advised me to drop the matter, but you yourself understand it best that ‘stopping’ has never been something you and I have the luxury of choosing. If warmth and tenderness can make you feel better, then I don’t mind playing on for longer.”
Shen Zechuan raised his hand as he spoke and drew that icy finger across Xiao Chiye’s sturdy back. He said in what seemed to be a whisper.
“There are some things that are vividly beautiful when seen through the mist; but when you take a closer look, they are just a pile of dead men’s bones.”2
Xiao Chiye waited for him to retract his hand before shaking his umbrella impatiently. He said, “Dead men’s bones won’t touch people like this.”
Shen Zechuan smiled and was just about to stride forward when Xiao Chiye grasped him around the shoulder.
“You sure have guts…” Xiao Chiye wrapped his arm tightly around his shoulder, “… to touch your Second Young Master while you are reeking so heavily of blood. Over ten men in the courtyard can’t even keep an eye on you, so what room are you returning to? Just sleep with me.”
Shen Zechuan was caught off-guard. Xiao Chiye said, “The favor you did me by saving my life has always been on my mind, and I’ve repeatedly given you chances. Yet you just have to treat me like some kind of fool to coax. Is it that delightful to keep teasing me? If so, then why aren’t you smiling? Shen Lanzhou, come on, didn’t you say you don’t mind playing on for longer?”
As soon as he said that, he tossed away the umbrella, strode a step over, and simply hoisted Shen Zechuan over his shoulder.
A wave of dizziness washed over Shen Zechuan with his head dangling down. He immediately covered his nose and mouth with the handkerchief and fumed, “Xiao’Er—”
Xiao Chiye said, “If you dare to move, then I’ll dare to turn Qudu upside down immediately to see who’s the one who collaborated with you from the inside and outside to kill someone in the middle of the night.”
“Go investigate then!” The moment Shen Zechuan opened his mouth, Xiao Chiye gave him a jerk so hard that he almost threw up.
“Look at how fast you flee when there’s a hole in the bathhouse for you to dig your way through.” With Shen Zechuan over his shoulder, Xiao Chiye leaped over the railing and passed through the courtyard with withering greenery. He swiftly made his way through the moon gate3 and headed right for his own room.
The sprawling man shadowing them on the rooftop poked his head out for a look and clicked his tongue in wonder. “He was still smiling and chatting in the snow earlier, looking all courteous and refined. Why the sudden urgency?”
“That guy doesn’t want to be with Second Young Master, okay?” The guard who was always watching Shen Zechuan took a gulp of his shaojiu wine4 and continued, “He fled so fast yesterday likely because he was afraid the Second Young Master would force himself on him tonight. I went to the Imperial Army to ask around this afternoon. Everyone all knows about this matter.”
“Do we report this to the Hereditary Prince?” The one who had poked out his head to look around fished out a little book, licked his brush, and pondered over it. “Ugh, this isn’t going to be easy to write.”
“He carried him into the room so brazenly.” The one drinking wine took a few glances. Xiao Chiye had already kicked the door close with a “bang”. He thought for a moment, then said, “Or let’s just not… Being a homo5 can’t be said to be a major issue, but it isn’t a minor one either. It’d be tough to explain to both sides if we say it wrong. The Second Young Master will get a beating.”
The other one frowned and drew a few strokes, then said, “Well… then I’ll just record it but not report it yet. If the Hereditary Prince comes to settle scores later, we’ll just say we buckled under the Second Young Master’s abuse of power6 and did not dare to report it without grounds.”
“But how on earth did he escape?” The one drinking wine pillowed his head on his arms, still unable to fathom it.
◈ ◈ ◈
There was a heater in the room. Xiao Chye did not release Shen Zechuan, but looped an arm around his waist as he circled around the room to rummage through his clothing chest.
“There’s more than enough hot water. Feel free to pick the fragrances7 and bath beans8 as you like.” As Xiao Chiye spoke, he turned his head aside to sniff openly at Shen Zechuan’s waist. He said, “You are not the kind of person who needs to bathe in milk and flower petals and pearl powder,9 are you?”
Shen Zechuan said, “Put… I’m going to puke!”
“Then puke the way you are now.” Xiao Chiye took out the clothes stowed away at the bottom of the chest and closed the chest. Ignoring the mess of clothes dangling out through the closed gap, he took Shen Zechuan further inside.
He lifted the hanging screen. There were two small sections of space separated by a screen inside. One side led to hot water, while the other side was a clothes rack. Xiao Chiye hung the attire up on the rack and easily shifted the screen away with one arm. Then he placed Shen Zechuan by the edge of the pool and dragged a chair over with his leg.
“Take your bath.” Xiao Chiye sat without inhibitions and raised his chin at Shen Zechuan. “Everything you need is all prepared. I’ll see how you run.”
Shen Zechuan’s face turned white as he asked in astonishment. “You watching?”
Xiao Chiye stretched out his long legs and folded his arms. He said, “You shy? Don’t run, okay?”
“I’m afraid the one who’s shy isn’t me.” Shen Zechuan retorted sarcastically.
“Then, go ahead and strip.” Xiao Chiye was calm and unruffled. “Let’s see which of us throw in the towel first.”
Without saying another word, Shen Zechuan pulled his waist belt open. Xiao Chiye looked right at him without the slightest intent to avert his eyes. By the time Shen Zechuan stripped to his inner garment,10 his knuckles had already turned white.
“Whether you are in pain or not, I don’t know.” Xiao Chiye teased him. “But from the looks of it, you’re pretty angry.”
He had not even finished his words when Shen Zechuan’s clothes were tossed onto his face.
Xiao Chiye grabbed the clothes and smiled for a moment. By the time he removed them from his face, Shen Zechuan had already entered the water.
Shen Zechuan leaned over on the other side without turning or looking back. Water droplets condensed on that fair and smooth back of his; it was so silky and moist it looked like jade petals with dew.
Xiao Chiye sat for a moment, then said, “What a short temper. Don’t you always have a way with your words in the past?”
Shen Zechuan said, “Not as hardcore as the Second Young Master.”11
Never mind if he used such a double entendre for the first time. But after saying it several times, whatever bit of bashfulness Xiao Chiye had was all but snuffed out by him.
So, he remained firmly seated and answered with composure, “Of course.”
After a moment, Xiao Chiye probed, “Aren’t you going to tell me where you went to play tonight?”
“You’re omnipotent.” Shen Zechuan said, “Go check it out yourself.”
“There are a few places where you can get to kill people at this time.” Xiao Chiye took the eastern pearl out of Shen Zechuan’s clothes and pinched it between his fingertips to size it up. He said, “The Empress Dowager is still rich. Things are already at such a stage and she still has to put on such an ostentatious display when sending secret messages. You couldn’t have been dazzled silly by this pearl and set your heart on being her lackey because of it, could you?”
“Who doesn’t love money?” Shen Zechuan said, “Even though His Majesty favors you and trusts you now, you still have to make up for the Imperial Army’s equipment shortfall. You know better than me the benefits of having money.”
“She told you to kill someone.” Xiao Chiye said, “And you simply went to kill?”
Shen Zechuan had already soaked enough and reached a hand out for his clothes. But Xiao Chiye used his leg to hook the clothes rack away. He got up and said, “Answer me.”
Bare-chested, Shen Zechuan said, “Yeah.”
“Liar.” Xiao Chiye stretched out his hand to take down the clean clothes and said to Shen Zechuan, “This pearl had been soaked rotten that night. How could you have been able to see the Empress Dowager’s instructions clearly? The person you killed tonight is someone you wanted to kill, am I right?”
Shen Zechuan said, “… Uh-huh.”
“Don’t uh-huh me.” Xiao Chiye caressed the fabric. “An ambiguous answer is equivalent to no answer.”
“It’s someone I want to kill.” Shen Zechuan reached out a hand. “You got it right.”
“Ji Lei?” Xiao Chiye said, “Or Pan Rugui?”
Shen Zechuan’s fingertips had already reached the clothes. He said, “Why can’t it be you?”
There was a swish as the clothing was lifted high. Refusing to give it to him, Xiao Chiye said, “Just an exchange of a few words and you’ve changed your tone. Second Young Master doesn’t buy sarcasm. Whether you kill Ji Lei or Pan Rugui, the Court of Judicial Review will definitely not let the matter drop tomorrow morning. You saved my life during the Autumn Hunt. The Empress Dowager doesn’t know about this yet, but I can let her know. Once she finds out, you’ll be my man even if you aren’t now. So speak properly and don’t tease your Second Young Master for fun.”
Each time Shen Zechuan attempted to reach for the clothes, Xiao Chiye would raise it high. Shen Zechuan put up with it again and again until he finally rose from the water to grab the clothes. He fumed, “Speak properly, while I’m naked?!”
Xiao Chiye leaned in for a closer look and said, “See, this is what I mean by speaking properly. Why put on an enigmatic dead men’s bones’ act before me? Ghost stories can’t scare me.”
Having said that, he paused for a moment.
“Since you’ve touched me, I’d have to touch back. We aren’t on that good of a term for me to be nonchalant about it. So, where do I touch?”
- 盖头 in ancient times refers to a red veil to cover a bride’s head. (also refer to a white head covering for mourning and a general veil to shield a woman’s face while outdoors.) He basically means Shen Zechuan is so short that the umbrella will cover right above his head as if he’s wearing a veil.
- 一堆白骨. A pile of white bone. Interestingly, there’s a demon named white bone spirit, or baigujing (白骨精), from the novel Journey to the West. She is a shape-shifting demoness, and in her true form she is depicted as a skeleton. 白骨精 also describes a sly, cunning person.
洞门 An opening in a wall separating different courtyards within a residence or palace. It’s also known as a moon gate (月亮门).
- 烧酒 shaojiu, also known as baijiu (白酒), is a spirit that is usually distilled from sorghum or maize.
- 断袖之癖 lit. cut sleeve (idiom); fig. an euphemism for homosexuality.
- 淫威 as a word refers to abuse of power, although reading it as 淫+威 can be read as the power of horniness
- 兰草 or 佩兰 Eupatorium fortunei is a plant species used as a herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), while the fragrant stems and leaves are used to make fragrant oils. These are placed together in steaming bathwater to scent it.
澡豆 Literally, bath beans, or soap in a ball/bean shape.
- 珍珠粉 pearl powder is a traditional Chinese medicine well known for beautifying the skin and soothing of nerves.
里衣 (or also 中衣) This is the set of garment people in ancient days wore under their outer robes. They usually sleep in this.
- The original line in Chinese is 硬不过二公子 which can be literally taken to mean “can‘t beat the Second Young Master when it comes to being hard.” The 硬 is short for 硬脾氣 (obstinate or stubborn temper) and/or 嘴硬 (stubborn to admit mistakes or defeat) in response to both xcy’s comments, but it’s also a dig at you-know-what ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)