Xiao Chiye fixed the date for the feast before the Banquet of a Hundred Officials. Chen Yang went to deliver the invitation, but Ge Qingqing was the one who came to receive it.
“Lanzhou has been on duty in the Emperor’s presence lately. He doesn’t have any free time, so I’ll receive this on his behalf.” Ge Qingqing kept away the invitation. Once he was done exchanging conventional greetings with Chen Yang, he said. “The Imperial Army now has the world at its feet. I suppose Deputy General Chen is busy as well?”
“The Viceroy has been working hard on official documents every day. As men who follow and serve him, there’s no such thing as being busy.” Chen Yang drank the tea and said, “Ge-xiong received a blessing out of misfortune this time and was promoted to Judge.1 Your future is bright. That’s truly impressive.”
Both men feigned civility as they spoke cordially with one another and tried their best not to disgrace themselves. Conflicts had arisen between the Imperial Bodyguards and Imperial Army lately, resulting in some discord. They were now at a point where they would loathe each other on sight.
It was only when his cup was changed to a fresh cup of tea that Chen Yang got up to say his farewell. Ge Qingqing saw him out, and Shen Zechuan, who was inside, lifted the curtain to walk out.
“This invitation came at a bad time.” Ge Qingqing handed the invitation to him. “Are you really going?”
“Why not?” Shen Zechuan opened the invitation and saw Xiao Chiye’s forceful and bold calligraphy.
“Xiao the Second’s inhibition of the Imperial Bodyguards is building up momentum these days. Our missions keep getting intercepted by the Imperial Army. Furthermore, he has the trust and favor of the Emperor. If he were to do something right this moment…” Ge Qingqing’s voice trailed off.
“What he wants to do couldn’t be any more obvious.” Shen Zechuan closed the invitation. “He wants to suppress the Imperial Bodyguards and turn Qudu into a territory under his control so that His Majesty only has his Imperial Army to rely on. As to be expected, he will still deal a few more blows to the Imperial Bodyguards.”
“Exactly. It’s too risky at present to take Uncle Ji along to the feast.” Ge Qingqing said.
Shen Zechuan offhandedly tossed the invitation onto the table and said, “This involves Zuo Qianqiu. He won’t lay a trap here.”
Ge Qingqing still did not feel too reassured.
The wound on Shen Zechuan’s lips had healed. He put on his overcoat and said, “I’m going out for a while.”
Shen Zechuan waded through the snow and headed out. The snow was not heavy today, but the wind was strong. He arrived at Donglong Street and made his way to Ouhua Pavilion at the opposite corner of Xiangyun Villa.
Xi Hongxuan had recently composed some classical poems.2 The tunes on the music scores were handed to the courtesans on Donglong Street to sing, and it unexpectedly turned into a grand occasion. Best of all, he had hollowed out the ground at the foot of Ouhua Pavilion stage and filled it with open-mouthed copper jars with only a layer of wooden plank spread out on top. At the same time, he also bought a new batch of young girls from Juexi. After training them for many days, he secured bells on their ankles, so that when they danced on the stage with their wooden clogs stepping out a rhythm, the sounds of the bells would merge into the copper jars. It was ethereal and wonderful.
At present, those on the stage were still singing Xi Hongxuan’s poem. Grasping his folding fan, he reclined against a rattan chair on the third floor and listened with closed eyes. A maidservant did not make any sound as she stepped on the woolen rug wearing only plain socks. She kneeled outside the bead curtain and said softly, “Second Master, the guest has arrived.”
Without opening his eyes, Xi Hongxuan shut his fan.
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The maidservant rose to her feet and lifted the curtain for Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan entered and saw another girl kneeling at Xi Hongxuan’s feet to massage his legs for him.
“Invite Young Master Shen to take a seat.” Xi Hongxuan was still tapping out a rhythm as he focused on the singing.
The kneeling girl shuffled over on her knees and attempted to help Shen Zechuan take off his shoes. Shen Zechuan raised a hand to stop her and sat down on a chair.
It was only when the tune ended that Xi Hongxuan sat up. As he drank his tea, he pointed at the girl with his fan and said, “She’s new and untainted.”
Shen Zechuan did not look at her.
Xi Hongxuan laughed. Looking at him, he said, “Don’t tell me you’ve really involved yourself with Xiao the Second? What? You still want to keep yourself chaste for him?”
The hair on Shen Zechuan’s temples looked as if they were soaked in ink, yet in this warm room, the contrast made his facial features seem distant. It gave him an otherworldly aura. He said, “Since you’ve called me here, then cut the chatter.”
Xi Hongxuan spread open his folding fan. With his obese body crammed into the rattan chair, he said, “We are buddies. I see you having a hard time staying by Xiao the Second’s side, so I called you here today to let you have a good time. If we were to speak of being pitiful, then you, Shen Lanzhou, wins hands down. Xiao the Second gave you a kick in the past, sowing the seeds of illness and making you chronically sick and frail. And now you still have to pretend to be chummy with him. He is really your nemesis.”
“That’s right,” Shen Zechuan did not evade the topic. He seemed resigned. “He’s such a jerk.”
“But from how I see it, he doesn’t seem to be planning to leave the Imperial Bodyguards any leeway.” Xi Hongxuan said. “Lanzhou, looks like your pillow talk didn’t really sway him.”
“You are a besotted man.” Shen Zechuan accepted the warm handkerchief the girl presented to him to wipe his hands. A smile at the turn of his eyes, and that coolness he wore when he stepped through the door vanished without a trace and subconsciously embellished his usual expression. “You think of your dear sister-in-law with such perseverance and consistency. After bedding her once, you shower her with favor and love her to bits. But it’s just a one-night stand between Xiao’Er and me. How could it be considered love?”
“So what you’re saying is…” Xi Hongxuan picked up the chopsticks. “You’re just having a fling?”
“Even having a fling is an art.” Shen Zechuan said, “Everyone tumbled in bed once, each with his own needs. It’s over once the merrymaking is done. If you keep thinking of it every day, then it wouldn’t be purely a fling anymore, would it?”
Xi Hongxuan clasped his hands and laughed out loud. He said, “Well, well! What a fine Lanzhou. I was afraid he might have you by the balls, and you’d forget that we are the ones who are comrades in the same boat. Here, here. Come and taste this dish. These are wild vegetables delivered with the greatest urgency from Qinzhou. It’s good stuff that even the Imperial Kitchen doesn’t have.”
Both men picked the dishes to sample.
Xi Hongxuan said, “This Xiao the Second is truly something else. No one paid him any attention in the past, and then he showed his true mettle in the Autumn Hunt. Now he can’t hide it anymore, so he simply charges head-on with disregard to obstacles posed by the others. He took over the military affairs of the Eighth Great Training Divisions, yet handed all the key positions to his trusted aides. As a result, none of the Eight Great Clans has any real power. But he kept up his pretenses so flawlessly that no one could get any dirt on him at all. Tell me. Doesn’t that piss you off? Isn’t that hateful?”
Shen Zechuan saw a dish of shredded cucumbers on the table, but he did not touch any of it. He said, “Xiao’Er burned all his boats at the Nanlin Hunting Grounds. He staked it all on the chance that His Majesty will remember their friendship and let him go. But this hope was all in vain, much like drawing water with a sieve. What’s more, he ended up being closely watched by the Six Ministries. He can’t turn back time, so he could only ensure that he holds real military power in Qudu. Compared with the Eight Great Training Divisions, the Imperial Army is like fireflies and the bright moon. They are useful, but not that useful. It hasn’t been easy for him to finally gain the upper hand now. Naturally, he will not pass up the opportunity.”
“In the past, there was still Pan Rugui in the Twenty-four Yamen, and the Eastern Depot could, no matter what, take him down a notch. But now that Pan Rugui is dead, the Eastern Depot has gone into decline too. Fine then, there’s really no one in such a big Qudu who can beat him, Xiao Ce’an!” Xi Hongxuan took a bite of the food and said, “I’ve not been in His Majesty’s favor these days. His Majesty now listens to Hai Liangyi, having made up his mind to be a wise monarch of a golden age. He’s no longer that willing to play with me now.”
Shen Zechuan finished his food and said unhurriedly, “A person who has lived for over twenty years would have already formed a fixed temper. If a mere few words can make him mend his ways, then nothing else in this world will be difficult.”
Xi Hongxuan’s chopsticks paused. He said, “You mean…”
“Hai Liangyi is a gentleman among gentlemen.” Shen Zechuan set aside his chopsticks. “He’s like the water so crystal clear you can see its bottom. His encounter with the current Emperor is like water coming into contact with hot oil. Sooner or later, it will explode and splatter all over. Xue Xiuzhuo has long reached this position, but why isn’t he willing to go further? Grand Secretariat, isn’t it? It’s not like he isn’t qualified. What the Central Administration lacked right this moment are precisely talents.”
Xi Hongxuan mulled it over in silence.
Shen Zechuan said, “Now that foreign enemies are before us, how can the Eight Great Clans still stand divided and do things their own ways? You have already become the head of the Xi Clan. As they said, fortunes rise and fall. Now that the opportunity is within reach, don’t tell me you’re going to let it go?”
Xi Hongxuan set aside his chopsticks. He wiped his sweat with his handkerchief and looked at Shen Zechuan to ask, “You want me to contact the Eight Great Clans and get them to join forces to deal with Xiao the Second?”
Shen Zechuan said, “Xiao’Er is only just one of them. Nowadays, the civil officials are in favor. Consequently, the Imperial College looks to be on the up and up. Within a few years, the sons of common birth from humble families will enter the official ranks one after another. When that happens, what’s going to happen to all the precious sons of the Eight Great Clans who are used to loafing around? If the poor rise in power, leading to an emergence of new nobles, then Second Young Master,3 the Eight Great Clans will no longer be the ‘Eight’ Great Clans.”
Xi Hongxuan said, “Even so… this is too thorny an issue. Leaving everything else aside, that Yao Wenyu will never agree. He’s Hai Liangyi’s student, one whom Hai Liangyi himself personally instructs. These years, he has traveled over the world for his studies and made the acquaintance of countless talents and sages. He definitely won’t form an alliance with us.”
Shen Zechuan said with a smile, “Eight Great Clans just mean the eight great clans. There’s no reason for it to be just these eight clans. If the Yao Clan doesn’t cut it, then just change to another one.”
Xi Hongxuan did not eat anymore. He pushed aside his chair and walked around the room. After some time, he looked at Shen Zechuan. “But do you have any way to keep Xiao the Second still? If he wants to protect the Emperor, then he won’t just sit and do nothing. I’m not worried if it’s just him. But there’s the Libei Armored Cavalry standing behind him. With Xiao Jiming around, Xiao Ce’an can’t be touched nor harmed. He’s too tough to deal with!”
“Xiao Jiming is formidable, but his power and prestige all lie at the frontier.” Shen Zechuan propped up his head. The eyes under the shadows could not be seen clearly. He gave Xi Hongxuan one last push. “Qudu is your place. As they said, a mighty dragon is no match for a serpent in its territory.4 Ways are aplenty if you want Xiao’Er to be too up to his neck dealing with his own affairs to interfere.”
Xi Hongxuan was so deep in thought that he did not realize that Shen Zechuan had said “your” and not “our”. He asked, “What ways?”
Shen Zechuan let out a soundless laugh and said, “Xiao’Er’s influence depends entirely on His Majesty’s trust. They have been buddies for many years with merry days of drinking behind them. What’s more, Xiao’Er has saved his life. So there’s indeed nothing to be done about it for a moment. But things like friendship are just like autumn dew hanging on branches. It’ll be gone once you leave it out to dry under the full, blazing sun.”
Xi Hongxuan looked at Shen Zechuan. He recalled Ji Lei on that rainy night, and all the mountain games and wild vegetables he had swallowed earlier churned in his stomach. He forcibly braced himself so that he would betray nothing in his expression and said with a smile, “Since you have got it all worked out, then tell me.”
After Shen Zechuan left, Xi Hongxuan lay back on the rattan chair and got the waiters to clear the table. It was a challenge for him to turn over, so he needed someone to help him. He felt alarmingly stifled for no reason and had the men open the windows.
Xue Xiuzhuo came out from the partitioned-off area. Xi Hongxuan lamented, “You heard it too, right? Fortunately, he was born as Shen Wei’s son. If he were to rise in power, he would be even more difficult to deal with than Xiao the Second.”
“To use someone, you have to use the right method.” Xue Xiuzhuo poured tea. “There is no one in this world who has no desires and wants. Shen Lanzhou has his weaknesses too. As long as we have a grasp on it, then even the most vicious dog is nothing to be feared.”
“But we can’t find any.” Xi Hongxuan tapped the center of his forehead with his fan. “Look at how callous he is towards Xiao the Second. It’s obvious he turned his back on him after getting off the bed. Humiliation and flattery don’t work on this kind of evildoers. You can’t even threaten him.”
Xue Xiuzhuo swallowed the tea, smiled, and said in a gentle and refined manner, “What’s the hurry? Just do as he says. Success or not, it’s all a disaster for Xiao the Second. When the time comes, he will expose his own true motives.”
Shen Zechuan headed downstairs, but did not rush to leave. The procuress greeted him. She only knew he was Xi Hongxuan’s honored guest, so she fawned on him and said, “What’s Master looking at? Looking cannot be compared to trying them out in person.”
Shen Zechuan sized up the gorgeously dressed courtesans and asked, “Do you have male courtesans?”
The procuress twisted her body around and said to the person behind her, “Lead this Master upstairs and get a few clean, tender-faced boys to serve him.”
Shen Zechuan sat in the room for a short while before three male courtesans entered. He swept a glance at them; they were all neatly tidied up.
The procuress was astute and knew how to choose appearances. After looking through the entire building, she could not find anyone who was more gorgeous than Shen Zechuan, so she took the unconventional gambit of sending him delicate-looking youths.
The boys stepped forth to take off Shen Zechuan’s shoes, but Shen Zechuan slightly shifted his feet away; thus, they kneeled and did not dare to move again.
Shen Zechuan gazed out of the window. After a while, he said, “Strip.”
The three of them obediently shed off their clothes. Shen Zechuan looked at those fair shoulders when they were midway through stripping, but from start to end, his heart remained as calm as still water. He then looked at their hands; each looked like girls’ hands, as if they had led pampered lives.
There were no calluses on their hands. And they were not wearing thumb rings either.
Shen Zechuan slowly breathed out a sigh and rose to his feet. Without even bothering to announce his departure, he pushed the door open and left, leaving behind the three male courtesans to look at each other in astonishment.
Ding Tao had been following Shen Zechuan. Seeing him finally walk out of Ouhua Pavillion, he meticulously jotted down a note in the little book that was now crumpled from being clutched by him. By the time he was done recording, he saw Shen Zechuan merging into the crowd. Ding Tao did not dare to be negligent, so he hurriedly chased after Shen Zechuan and followed him at a safe distance.
Shen Zechuan was not really walking that fast, yet, in just a blink of an eye, he disappeared.
Ding Tao let out an exclamation of surprise and hurried over, only to have his path blocked by a tall and sturdy man wearing a bamboo hat. As soon as he neared the other party, he knew that this was a man well-versed in martial arts!
It was jam-packed with people all around. Ding Tao did not wish to hurt them, so he endured it and did not act out. This, consequently, allowed Shen Zechuan to shake him off. He shook a fist, but then he felt a sense of familiarity from that tall and sturdy man earlier.
The snow intensified as soon as it was dark.
The tall and sturdy man walked for some distance while holding down his bamboo hat. But the moment he turned, he entered a blind alley.
Shen Zechuan stood behind him and cast a glance at him. He said, “You’ve been following me for half a month. What do you want?”
The tall and sturdy man pressed his bamboo hat lower, but let out a laugh and said, “How sharp. To think you noticed it early on.”
“Your breath-concealing skills are outstanding.” Shen Zechuan said. “Didn’t you teach me some tricks yourself? You disappear without a trace the moment you are released from prison, so that they’d chase after you out of Qudu. You sure have gone to great pains.”
The man lifted his bamboo hat to reveal a face with stubble. Qiao Tianya blew at the wisp of hair before his forehead and said, “It’d have been fine for you to lure me into a wine shop. Do we have to stand here and talk?”
Jade Rabbits are hard to catch.” Shen Zechuan looked at him for a moment and said, “Should I call you Qiao Tianya? Or Songyue?”
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“As you please.” Qiao Tianya said, “Call me Qiao Tianya, and we’d be acquaintances. Call me Songyue, and you’d be my master.”
“Your Excellency is a capable man. How did you come to bow down and submit to my teacher?” Shen Zechuan asked.
“What can I do?” Qiao Tianya let out a self-mocking laugh. “I owe my life to Grand Mentor Qi, and I have to repay it by toiling hard like an ox or a horse for him for the rest of my life.”
“So the reason everything went smoothly at the hunting grounds that night…” Shen Zechuan said. “… was because of your help.”
“Taking you as my master means that it’s your cues I’m taking.” Qiao Tianya said, “You originally wanted to kill the Prince of Chu that night, but you didn’t expect Xiao the Second to be so bold as to stuff him right before the Imperial Bodyguards to dupe them and lead them on a wild goose chase. However, you are quick-witted. You could actually even seize the opportunity to give Xiao the Second a helping hand.”
“That’s all the capability I have.” Shen Zechuan said.
Qiao Tianya patted the snow off his shoulders and said, “I’ll follow you in the future, Master. If there’s meat to eat in the future, don’t forget to give me a bowl of soup to drink. I’m much easier to provide for than those guards of Xiao the Second.”
“Ding Tao is young,” Shen Zechuan threw the money pouch at him in passing. “Chen Yang and Gu Jin are the ones who are the tough nuts.”
Qiao Tianya took the money and said, “You have gotten such a clear handle on Xiao the Second. But he is still thinking about how you’ve saved his life.”
Shen Zechuan smiled, “You really want to follow him, huh.”
“I’m a guard with unwavering loyalty,” Qiao Tianya innocently raised his hands. “If Xiao the Second is willing to buy me for a thousand gold, I’ll naturally be willing to go through fire and water5 for him.”
Shen Zechuan said, “A pity it’s already crowded around him. How would there be any place left for you?”
“My littler master…” Qiao Tianya tilted his head and squinted an eye to say, “… has a truly vicious mouth.”
Shen Zechuan put on a “you flatter me” expression.
“But this line… “Qiao Tianya grinned, “… is applicable to both of us.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Eight days later, Shen Zechuan and Ji Gang arrived as planned.
Ding Tao had obviously made his complaint known. Gu Jin, who did not drink today, stood outside the door. From a distance away, he saw Qiao Tianya, who was following behind Shen Zechuan.
Ding Tao immediately tiptoed and whispered, “Jin-ge, that’s him. He’s the one!”
Shen Zechuan and Ji Gang were led through the door by Chen Yang. Qiao Tianya naturally had to remain outside. But he did not have that self-awareness, and his leg that was about to stride forward was blocked by Gu Jin.
“I heard you stood in this lad’s path a few days ago.” Gu Jin looked at the bamboo hat with sharp eyes. “What kind of hero are you for bullying a child?”
Ding Tao snorted with righteous indignation and parroted, “What kind of hero?!”
Qiao Tianya burst out laughing. He backhandedly took off his bamboo hat and said with a cheeky grin, “Aren’t we here for a meal tonight? So why are we still going to fight? It’s the first time I’ve seen this little buddy here. Bro, have you gotten the wrong person?”
Ding Tao let out an exclamation and fumed, “How can you say that? I wouldn’t mistake you for someone else!”
Gu Jin stopped Ding Tao and faced Qiao Tianya.
Two men of almost the same height came face-to-face until they were almost bumping against one another.
Gu Jin said, “Today is not the right time. Let’s set a date for later.”
“I’m not free.” Qiao Tianya tugged at that wisp of hair before his forehead and threw Gu Jin a provocative smile. “After all, my Master only has me. Where on earth would I have that much free time to raise a younger brother for fun?”
Gu Jin coldly spat out a mouthful of saliva and said, “Tell me your name. There will be plenty of occasions for us to meet in the future.”
“This humble servant is Qiao Yueyue.” Qiao Tianya tapped his temple at Ding Tao with two fingers. “Also known as Xiaosongsong.”6
Chen Yang led Shen Zechuan and Ji Gang inside. This courtyard was deep. They passed the chaoshou veranda7 and stepped through a moon gate8 to the elegant view of an entire courtyard full of red plum blossoms.
Xiao Chiye was standing under a tree waiting when Shen Zechuan stepped in. They exchanged glances for a fleeting second, but before that subtle feeling could be conveyed, both men simultaneously averted their gazes.
Xiao Chiye welcomed Ji Gang and greeted him with a smile, “Please excuse me for not going out to meet shishu even though shishu has braved the snow to come here. The wine and dishes have been prepared. Shifu has been waiting inside for a long time.”
Ji Gang looked at Xiao Chiye and stopped him from paying his respects. He said, “Your shifu has broken away from the Ji Clan over twenty years ago, and your martial arts now has a distinctive style of its own. Since we aren’t from the same school of martial arts, there is no need to be overly polite.”
Xiao Chiye said, “Our martial arts can be traced to the same origin, and so that means we are from the same school. It’s all thanks to the initiation of the Ji Clan Fist Style that I could master the blend of martial arts from various clans today. I’ve long heard of shishu’s reputation, and I admire shishu for it. So no matter what, this respect must be paid.”
Xiao Chiye bowed in respect and led Ji Gang inside. He did not forget to turn his head and said to Shen Zechuan, “Lanzhou and I have not seen each other for a long time, too.”
Shen Zechuan strode through the door and said with a smile, “Shixiong has such power and influence now. You must be busy.”
“We are from the same school of martial arts.” Xiao Chiye said in a neutral tone. “I’ll have to leave some time aside for you no matter how busy I am.”
“How would it do for you to delay your work because of me?” Shen Zechuan said, “I’ve been on idle duties every day lately, and this is already all thanks to shixiong for looking out for me.”
“With pleasure.” Xiao Chiye lifted the curtain. “If you want to be busy, just come to me. I will sweep the couch clean to await you any time.”9
Shen Zechuan’s nape started aching when he heard the word “couch”. There seemed to be a lingering heat at those spots where he had been bitten before; it was so scalding that his smile faded.
Zuo Qianqiu was dressed in a wide-sleeved robe with slanting collars, with white hair pulled up into a bun. He did not look like a refined scholar or an awe-inspiring general. He was clearly several years older than Ji Gang, yet he looked younger than Ji Gang. If he had to be described, then it would be that he had an otherworldly aura to him. It seemed that the rumors in the martial fraternity of him becoming a monk were not totally groundless.
Zuo Qianqiu turned around and saw Ji Gang.
Ji Gang was dressed in short-length plain cotton clothing10 with a thick jacket. He stood there, with a disfigured face, and looked at him. In an instant, the past came surging forth. Cheers and laughter of youths rang close in his ears, but the man before him was already old and white-haired.
Xiao Chiye broke the silence and said, “Both shifu shall have their meals in here, while Lanzhou and I shall wait outside.”
“Chuan-er, fasten your overcoat properly.” Ji Gang looked lonely as he turned sideways and urged Shen Zechuan, “Come in if you feel cold.”
Shen Zechuan nodded.
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Zuo Qianqiu said, “A-Ye, take care of your shidi.”
Xiao Chiye smiled in acknowledgment, and both men retreated out.
It’s cold outside, yet it’s a rare clear night.
Shen Zechuan descended the stairs and saw the deep woods of red plum blossoms. There was a bridge within. This courtyard was so refined it did not seem to be Xiao Chiye’s style.
“This courtyard was bought with money from the Yao Clan.” Xiao Chiye seemed to know what Shen Zechuan was thinking. He stood behind Shen Zechuan and raised his hands to brush aside the red plum blossoms to reveal the surrounding clear stream. “Pretty. And expensive too.”
“And you still bear to part with the money.” Shen Zechuan did not look back.
Xiao Chiye bumped lightly into Shen Zechuan’s back with his chest and raised a hand to cover the top of Shen Zechuan’s head. He leaned in close to Shen Zechuan’s ear and said flippantly, “Red plums blanketed in snow. Fragrance enveloped Lanzhou. His smile’s worth a thousand gold.”
“You must have even put up your pants as collateral.” Shen Zechuan really began to smile slowly.
“I had to spend a sum, yes. But Yao Wenyu was already selling it at a low price.” Xiao Chiye paused and continued, “You ran pretty fast. To avoid me, you’ve spent a lot of effort too.”
“It’s not that I’m avoiding you.” Shen Zechuan lifted his finger to push away Xiao Chiye’s palm. “But is there an important matter we need to discuss face-to-face?”
Xiao Chiye smiled and said with a little ruthlessness thrown in, “Can’t you dote on your Second Young Master a little after bedding him?”
Shen Zechuan took a few steps forward to leave Xiao Chiye’s chest, then turned to scrutinize Xiao Chiye without saying a word.
In this starry night adorned with plum blossoms, both men finally, in retrospect, came to understand something.
Xiao Chiye discovered that what he had grabbed that night was water. Once it flowed past, it was really gone. Shen Zechuan was not even the slightest reluctant to leave. After the frenzy of biting and tearing at each other, that lingering heat had also ended up buried under the colors of the night. In the ecstasy where Shen Zechuan had raised his neck in intoxication, he had not seared him – Xiao Ce’an – into his memories at all.
Once again, Xiao Chiye distinctly realized one thing.
He was the only one who was defeated by lust that night.
“I advised you before.” Shen Zechuan raised his fingers to hold down the plum blossoms branch and said bewitchingly to Xiao Chiye, “That it’d be best not to bite this nape.”
“Bedroom pleasure…” Xiao Chiye revealed a frivolous smile. “… is not something I can do alone.”
“The greatest difference between you and me is desire. You are covered in desire all over. You spare no effort to hide your wild ambitions. A nape is merely one of the minor adversities. You hold me back, wanting to resist it, wanting to defeat it, but in the end, you still lose to it. But Ce’an.” Shen Zechuan plucked a plum blossom, tore the petal, and delivered it to his mouth. “I don’t even have lust. So how are you going to pit yourself against me?”
Xiao Chiye drew a step closer and grabbed Shen Zechuan’s flower-holding hand. He bent over to press in close to him and said breezily, “What is one time? So boring. We should do it a few more rounds. You couldn’t use those courtesans from Ouhua Pavilion, and you didn’t dare to touch those boys too. You pretend to be a celibate and aloof sage. But I wasn’t the one who gasped and panted so delicately that night.”
Xiao Chiye pulled Shen Zechuan’s hand to his lips, pressed against it dangerously, and scoffed.
“It’s true I’ve lost to lust. But if you are that steadfast, then why did you try stirring up a storm under the sheets11 with me? Shen Lanzhou, you are much more afraid of succumbing to desire than I am, aren’t you?”
- 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.
- 词 Ci, a type of classical Chinese poetry.
- Refers to Second Young Master of the Xi Clan.
- 强龙压不过地头蛇 One with great power cannot defeat a local villain in the latter’s own territory.
- 赴汤蹈火 go through fire and water; brave dangers and death.
- The Xiao in Xiaosongsong means little, so “little songsong”. He’s cutesifying his name here.
抄手游廊 a kind of veranda
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).
- 扫榻以待 literally, sweep the couch to wait, i.e., clean up to await guests. A couch (榻) is a long and narrow wooden couch that also functions as a →bed←
- 云雨 literally cloud and rain; a literary term for making love, sexual intercourse