Shen Zechuan suddenly imitated Xiao Chiye’s action from the last time and splashed water droplets onto his face, then seized the chance to grab the clothes from his hand.
Unable to open his eyes from the spray of water, Xiao Chiye reached out an arm to pull off a dry towel. He covered it over Shen Zechuan’s head and rubbed it at random. Shen Zechuan was still putting on his clothes, and Xiao Chiye’s rubs sent half of his body swaying. Seething with hate, he used his bare leg to kick out at the latter’s chair.
With the chair under Xiao Chiye’s butt pushed back from the kick, Xiao Chiye immediately stretched out his legs, clamped them around Shen Zechuan tightly, and forcibly dragged the latter towards him. Then he continued to rub Shen Zechuan’s head as if he was wiping down a puppy.
“In that case, I’ll do as I please!” Xiao Chiye snapped.
“As you… you… son of… ‘Er!” The towel rubs caused Shen Zechuan’s voice to break up intermittently.
Xiao Chiye pulled off the towel. Without saying another word, he pinched Shen Zechuan’s chin with one hand, while his other hand slid down along Shen Zechuan’s nape to his waist and hips.
“Son of a bitch.” Xiao Chiye said, “Did you call me a son of a bitch?”
Shen Zechuan’s waist belt was not properly secured, and the outfit on his body was Xiao Chiye’s old clothes. Thus, it hung loosely on his body, exposing his collarbones. The water droplets on his body wetted Xiao Chiye’s fingertips as the latter moved his hand down, blending into one with that satiny touch.
“I didn’t say that.” Shen Zechuan backhandedly pressed down on Xiao Chiye’s hand to hold it in place. “As they say, one should reflect daily on three aspects.1 Second Young Master, you should really do some reflection.”
“You don’t understand.” Xiao Chiye’s nimble fingers turned over to grasp Shen Zechuan’s hand instead. “The first word I knew of was ‘son of a bitch’. I’ve long told you that your Second Young Master is a jerk. There’s absolutely no need for me to reflect. And isn’t this waist of yours too slender?”
“It’s you who have touched too little.” Shen Zechuan said callously.
“That’s right.” Xiao Chiye pretended not to understand and wandered into another direction. “I naturally haven’t touched your waist that many times.”
Shen Zechuan had no wish to put on a show with him any longer. He tightened his waist belt with one hand and said, “Since you have touched me back, then this matter is closed.”
Xiao Chiye released his legs that were wrapped around Shen Zechuan, and Shen Zechuan fastened his waist belt. Even his face had turned red from the rubs Xiao Chiye was giving him with a handkerchief.
Feeling hot, Xiao Chiye rose to pick up the eastern pearl on the ground and happened to see Shen Zechuan’s bare legs again. It dazed him for a moment, then he swiftly straightened up and took two steps back before pressing in another two steps. He said, “Sleep.”
Shen Zechuan poured a bowl of hot ginger soup. After rinsing his mouth, he sneezed again.
Xiao Chiye found the way he looked when he sneezed amusing, just like a cat… He soaked the handkerchief with cold water and wiped his face.
“Don’t go that way.” Xiao Chiye undressed and pointed to his bed. “You sleep in my bed.”
Shen Zechuan wiped his mouth and said, “Then I won’t stand on ceremony.”
He dispensed with the formalities and sat on Xiao Chiye’s bed.
Xiao Chiye shifted the tables and chairs away, and then dragged the xumi couch2 in the room to the vacated spot about the distance of a stepping block away from Shen Zechuan. He rolled over to lie down, then pillowed his head on both arms and said, “Lan Zhou, extinguish the lamp.”
Shen Zechuan blew the lamp out and lifted his blanket to lie down with his back facing Xiao Chiye.
It was still snowing outside, but the inside of the room was warm and quiet.
Xiao Chiye shut his eyes, looking as if he was sleeping. The sensation of touching Shen Zechuan lingered on his fingertips, and it was becoming more and more vivid at this time in the darkness. Xiao Chiye opened his eyes to stare at the roof and began to think about the skies in Libei.
It’s only when one is without desires that one can become a sage.
When his shifu taught him to hold the bow, it happened to be the season when the pastures of Libei were luxuriant. He had sat on the fence at the edge of the horse ranch and looked up at the azure blue sky with his head propped up with his hands.
Zuo Qianqiu had asked, “What are you thinking?”
Hanging around Xiao Chiye’s neck was the bone thumb ring. He swung his calves and said, “I want an eagle. Shifu, I want to fly.”
Zuo Qianqiu sat on one side and looked at him. He patted the back of his head and said, “You are also a lad burning with desires. But in this world, it’s only when one is without desires that one can become a sage. There are many matters that will end up being your cage once you harbor the desire for it.”
Restless, Xiao Chiye grasped hold of the railing with both hands and swiftly hung upside down from it, his little robe covering his face in turfs of grass and dust. He said, “It’s only human nature to want.”
“Wanting is the prelude to joy and misery.” Zuo Qianqiu carried his own great bow in his arms and wiped it carefully. “If you acknowledge that you are but a mortal with desires, then you will be swayed by considerations of gain and loss. If you want it, you must get it. You will be a little wolf with such a character. But A-Ye, there will be many things in the future that you want, but will never get. What should you do then?”
Xiao Chiye landed on the grass. He grabbed at the hem of his robe and caught hold of a big locust. He pinched the struggling locust and said half-heartedly, “Father said, where there is a will, there is a way; there is nothing that can’t be obtained.”
Zuo Qianqiu sighed, thinking he was still too young after all. So he helplessly pointed to the sky and said, “Alright. You want to fly, but can you really fly?”
Xiao Chiye released the locust and raised his head to look at Zuo Qianqiu. He said in all seriousness, “I can learn how to tame eagles. Once I tamed one, then its wings will belong to me. The sky it flies past will be the sky I fly past. Shifu, a man has to be adaptable.”
Zuo Qianqiu looked at him for a long time before he said, “You are stronger than me… I’m a fool who can’t adapt to circumstances.”
Imitating an eagle, Xiao Chiye spread his arms open and ran a few steps on the grass in the wind. He said, “I want to tame a horse too.”
“Eagles and horses are both strong-willed creatures.” Zuo Qianqiu followed after him and said, “Looks like our A-Ye likes people who are recalcitrant and hard to tame.”
“Taming.” Xiao Chiye said, “That’s the kind of process I like.”
Xiao Chiye thought.
It was not that he liked such a process. He enjoyed it. He was fascinated by it. It was just like torturing an eagle.3 He would not let the eagle sleep for seven days, and not feed it for four. He would hang it until the feathers on the top of its head puffed up, and torture it until its “eyes were comparable to that of sesame seeds.” Only when it obeyed his orders that he could take it out for hunting.
And now, “sexual desire” was his newly acquired eagle.
Xiao Chiye tilted his head slightly and looked at Shen Zechuan’s back. That slanted clothes revealed Shen Zechuan’s nape. In the darkness, it was like a piece of unpolished jade that felt wonderful to the touch.
Xiao Chiye was hard again.
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He did not move, nor did he look away. He did not believe that this kind of shallow lust could dominate him. He did not believe that he would succumb to this kind of crass instinct.
Before dawn the next day, both men sat up in unison as if they finally have had enough of it.
The guard who had been sprawling on the roof all night huffed out a breath of hot air and watched as the maidservants entered the room in a single file. He said, “Huh, nothing happened last night.”
The one drinking wine said, “He didn’t succeed.”
The one holding the brush asked suspiciously, “And you know that how?”
The one drinking wine shifted his body and watched as Shen Zechuan stepped out of the door. He said, “Look at him. He’s moving as per normal today. Other than the black circles under his eyes, he clearly looked rested.”
Both men systematically turned their heads as their eyes followed Shen Zechuan. Then they looked back at Xiao Chiye, who had just stepped out.
The one holding the brush said, “… Second Young Master doesn’t look too happy.”
The one drinking wine said, “He’s sex-deprived.”
Chen Yang draped a coat around Xiao Chiye. Seeing his grave expression, he said, “Viceroy, did he screw something up?”
Xiao Chiye replied, “Uh-huh. You could say so.”
Alarmed, Chen Yang said, “Last night, he…”
“He’s pretty proficient in feigning sleep.” Xiao Chiye secured Langli Blade and braved the snow to descend the stairs. “Let’s go. To the military drill grounds at Mount Feng.”
Chen Yang chased up to him and said, “There’s no one on duty today. And it’s snowing. Viceroy…”
Xiao Chiye flipped atop the horse and lowered his voice, “I’m going to see the new equipment that has just arrived. Tell Gu Jin and Ding Tao to keep an eye on him.”
Chen Yang nodded.
Xiao Chiye raised his head and shouted to the two men on the roof. “If you lose him again, both of you can scram too.
The two heads that had popped out from the rooftop gave a uniform nod and shrank back again.
Ding Tao put the brush and book properly back in his bosom and said, “This is just great. We have turned from Second Young Master’s guards into his guards.”
Gu Jin shook what was left of his wine and said, “I feel that he can fight eight men on his own. We’ll just keep an eye on him.”
“Just keep an eye on him.” Ding Tao readied himself, then placed both hands mannerly on his knees. After sitting for a while, he said, “But, where is he?”
Both men looked at each other, then rose at the same time and said, “Shit!”
◈ ◈ ◈
Eating his steamed bun, Shen Zechuan opened the back door to Zhao Zui Temple.
Ji Gang was shadowboxing in the courtyard. When he saw him coming, he wiped his sweat with a towel and asked, “Why are you here today?”
Shen Zechuan replied, “I’ll be busy in a few days. It’s convenient today.”
Grand Mentor Qi was sleeping among a stack of papers. His snores boomed like thunder, so Shen Zechuan and Ji Gang did not enter the house but sat under the eaves to chat.
Wiping his face, Ji Gang asked, “You didn’t use your martial arts lately, did you?”
Shen Zechuan lifted his sleeve up to reveal the bruises, courtesy of the sparring with Xiao Chiye the day before. He said, “I fought once with Xiao’Er.”
Ji Gang was stunned, then he flew into a rage. “He actually dared to hit you?!”
“My guess is that he wants to see my internal martial arts.”4 Shen Zechuan put down his sleeve and said, “Shifu, he’s truly blessed by Heaven. His physique is a notch better than the Prince of Libei. I countered his blows with the Ji Clan’s Boxing Style, but it was just like an ant trying to shake a tree.5 I couldn’t move him at all.”
“Back then, Zuo Qianqiu left the capital to head to Suotian Pass, where he met Suotian Pass’s Feng Yisheng.” Ji Gang said, “Feng Yisheng took in Zuo Qianqiu as his adopted son and imparted the Feng Clan’s Art of Broadsword to him. By the time it was imparted down to Xiao the Second, it has probably already become a skill that incorporates a blend of martial arts from various schools, thus differing from us. But the Ji Clan’s style naturally has the Ji Clan’s strengths. If you can truly have a match with him on broadsword techniques alone, then you will be able to compare the differences.”
“Langli Blade was forged by a famous craftsman on Commander-in-chief Qi’s payroll. It slices through metal like cutting through mud. Common blades are useless when facing up against it.” Shen Zechuan said thoughtfully.
“The blades forged by the Qi Clan’s craftsmen are all ‘General’s Broadsword’, specially designed for combat on the battlefield. Look at Xiao the Second’s Langli Blade; if it can make an appearance on the battlefield, it would be able to split human bones with one straight slash. It was entirely made to fit the arm’s strength of that lad.” As Ji Gang spoke, he stamped the snow off his shoes. “As for us, we might not necessarily get used to wielding it even if we have the chance to. But you don’t have to worry about your blade. Shifu has already found one for you.”
“My blade?” Shen Zechuan was slightly taken aback.
“The Imperial Bodyguards is a good place.” Ji Gang smiled at him. “The amount of time you’ve been there is still short, but you will slowly come to understand in the future that it’s a place full of hidden talents in Dazhou. She, Qi Zhuyin, may have a famous craftsman, but we have no lack of them in the Imperial Bodyguards either. I keep thinking of that blade of Ji Lei. Once shifu brings you that blade and hands it to an old friend to reforge, it will be no less inferior to Xiao the Second’s Langli Blade!”
“Isn’t Ji Lei’s blade Xiuchun Blade?”6
“Xiuchun Blade is the blade he generally carries along with him, but he also has my father’s blade hidden in his collection.” Ji Gang said with a snort. “Why isn’t he dead yet? Once the Court of Judicial Review sentences him, that blade will be sealed into the armory. As long as it is in there, Shifu will have a way.”
“He has been tortured for such a long time,” Shen Zechuan said softly. “He won’t be able to endure it for much longer.”
“Did you find the person I asked you to find before the Autumn Hunt?” Ji Gang remembered this matter and hastened to ask.
“I’ve found him.” Shen Zechuan smiled. “I’m just waiting for him to come out.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Xiao Chiye did not return even during dinnertime, so Shen Zechuan rested in his own room. It was in the middle of the night when he heard hurried footsteps outside. Following right after, someone knocked on his door.
Shen Zechuan wanted to pretend that he did not hear it when he heard a sound at the window. Xiao Chiye raised the window with his sheath and whistled at him.
Meng landed on the edge of the window and tilted its head to look inside too.
“We agreed to sleep together,” Xiao Chiye was not pleased. “Why did you run back here again?”
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Shen Zechuan threw a pillow out of the window, and Xiao Chiye caught hold of it. So Shen Zechuan could only get up and hugged his blanket to open the door.
Carrying his pillow in his arms, Xiao Chiye suddenly took a sniff and asked, “Did you put on some fragrance?”
Shen Zechuan replied, “I apply ten catty7 of rouge a day.”
“Is that so?” Xiao Chiye smiled and said.
Shen Zechuan walked in front. With Xiao Chiye standing behind him, even the night wind could not blow onto Shen Zechuan. Sensing a coolness on his nape, Shen Zechuan swiftly looked back.
Xiao Chiye scraped him with a finger, then sniffed his own finger a little dubiously.
“What is this scent on your body?” Xiao Chiye wondered, “A whiff…”
Shen Zechuan swung the blanket over Xiao Chiye’s head and replied calmly, “That’s the smell of gunpowder on your own body.”
Xiao Chiye stood for a brief moment, then lifted the edge of the blanket with lightning speed and enveloped Shen Zechuan within it too.
With his head protruding from the eaves, Ding Tao speedily fished out a small book and exclaimed in excitement, “Way to go, Second Young Master! You caught him!”
Thanks to Rie for spotting the typo!!
- 日有三省, from 曾子曰、吾日三省吾身、為人謀、而不忠乎、與朋友交、而不信乎、傳不習乎。In Chapter 4 of Book 1 of the Analects of Confucius, Confucius’s follower Zengzi lists three questions that he asks himself every day to make sure that he remains on the straight and narrow: whether he had been true to others’ interests when acting on their behalf, sincere in his interactions with friends, and practiced what he had been taught.
- Xumi couch (须弥榻, ), also known as the Mile couch (弥勒榻) or short couch (短榻), is basically a shorter couch.
- 熬鹰 literally torturing falcons, it’s one of the ways to train them by not allowing it to sleep and torture it to exhaustion to wear down its wild nature.
- 外家拳/功夫’ external’ martial arts, originates from Shaolin, where one uses one’s physical strength in combat to go on the offensive. The opposite 内家拳/功夫’ internal’ martial arts originate from Zhang Sanfeng, where one mobilizes one’s internal energy instead. The latter is more concerned about the spiritual and mental aspects rather than the physical aspects. An example of internal martial arts is Taiji/Tai Chi.
- 蚍蜉撼树 literally, an ant trying to shake a tree; i.e., overrate oneself.
绣春刀 Xiuchun Blade is the blade of the Imperial Bodyguards during the Ming Dynasty.
- 斤 jin, catty; measure of weight. 1 catty = 0.5 kg