Book One, Chapter 10: Drunk

Xiao Jiming stood under the light of a lantern, wrapped in his heavy cloak. Zhao Hui kept watch behind him. “Looking at the time, he should be back about now. The servant sent to fetch him said gongzi rode off by himself. I wonder why he isn’t back yet.”

Xiao Jiming breathed into the cold air, and watched the night sky quietly for a time. Then he said, “When he was unhappy, he used to take off to race his horse beneath the Swan Goose Ranges. He hasn’t changed.”

Zhao Hui said, “At least the Imperial Guard is a place he can get going with.”

Xiao Jiming turned his gaze to him. “Do you know what dad’s greatest regret is?”

Zhao Hui shook his head honestly.

Xiao Jiming said, “It’s bringing A’ye into the world too late. Do you remember, three years ago, when we were ambushed under the Swan Goose Ranges? Dad’s reinforcements were still on their way. With just the twenty riders assigned to him as protection, A’ye rode across River Hong under cover of darkness, spent half the night groping his way through a quagmire, and managed to set fire to the Wastelanders’ grain store. When I saw him again, he was covered head-to-toe in mud and stink, and the wound on his leg was soaked through and infected. He was just fourteen that year. I asked him if he’d learnt his lesson. He said he’d thoroughly enjoyed himself. Dad often said that the Lu’s are the eagles of the great desert, and the Xiao’s are the hounds of Libei. I didn’t like hearing it, but as time passed, I saw that when we sent our troops to battle, we did go like dogs on a chain. That feeling of exhilaration we had just a handful of years ago was gone. As it is today, the fire in me is long extinguished. The Xiao’s are not dogs, but the only one who has truly kept his wolf blood is A’ye. Even in his dreams he yearns for Libei’s mountains, but now we tell him he must stay in Qu Capital and forget what it feels like to gallop under an open sky. Both Dad and I have let him down.”

Zhao Hui was silent for a moment, then looked at Xiao Jiming. “Don’t put yourself down, my Lord. Gongzi has a reckless streak in his nature. He would not be a good choice for a General who must carry Libei’s legacy. Whether he was born a little earlier or a little later, Libei cannot be placed in his charge. A commander must have the tenacity of Damascus steel, and the fortitude of bedrock. Gongzi won’t do for that.”

Xiao Jiming did not speak again.

The wind was strong that night, and the lantern swayed wildly above them. Master and deputy continued to wait for a little over an hour, before someone came riding from afar.

“My Lord!” The person scrambled from the horse. “Gongzi‘s in trouble!”

Zhao Hui put a hand on his sword. “Where is he?”


An hour ago.

Shen Zechuan, in shackles again, was being prodded down the steps by Xiao-Qi.

“Sing,” Xiao-Qi urged from behind. “Come on, quick, sing something!”

Shen Zechuan kept his mouth shut. He looked toward the figure crouched in the shadow under the wall. When he laid eyes on the gyrfalcon, his chest began to throb again. He pinched his lips together and stayed right where he was.

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Come closer.”

Shen Zechuan huffed out a breath of warm air, and slowly shuffled his feet until he stood just a few steps from Xiao Chi’ye.

Xiao Chi’ye got up. “What’d your mum do?”

Shen Zechuan said, “She was a danseur in Duan province.”

“So surely you can sing,” there was a chilling look in Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes. “If the old mongrel Shen didn’t teach you, you must have learnt something from someone else.”

Shen Zechuan ducked his head and avoided his gaze, as if very much afraid of him. “…I can’t.”

“Lift your head,” Xiao Chi’ye nudged the lantern aside with his toe. “You scared of me?”

Shen Zechuan had no choice but to raise his head. He could smell alcohol.

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Alright, don’t sing. But find me what I’ve lost.”

Shen Zechuan spread his hands, indicating the manacles he still wore.

Xiao Chi’ye frowned. “Do it like that.”

So Shen Zechuan crouched down and scraped around a little in the snow.

Xiao Chi’ye’s cold eyes bore into the top of his head. “Stand up again.”

Shen Zechuan braced his hands on his knees and straightened up again.

Xiao Chi’ye said, “You can get up and down easily, clearly there’s nothing wrong with your legs. Were the Brocade Guards too tender with their staves, or are vermin like you harder to kill?”

“Of course it is that vermin are harder to kill,” Shen Zechuan mumbled. “I got lucky.”

“Doesn’t bear out,” Xiao Chi’ye’s riding whip jabbed into Shen Zechuan’s chest. “I struck to kill a vermin. You’ve got good foundations.”

Shen Zechuan began to shake beneath the horse-whip. He shrank into himself fearfully. “I’m only… only just hanging on, that’s all. Er-gongzi is a virtuous man, why trouble yourself with lowlife like me? As it is today, I’ve gotten what I deserve, please let me go.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “You mean it?”

Shen Zechuan was sobbing softly by this point. He nodded emphatically.

Xiao Chi’ye withdrew his whip. “Anyone can say those words, but who knows if they mean them or not. Alright then. Bark like a dog for me. When I’m satisfied with your barking, I’ll let you off tonight.”

Shen Zechuan kept silent.

Xiao Chi’ye’s expression was giving Xiao-Qi a nervous breakdown. He shoved at Shen Zechuan again. 

Shen Zechuan whispered, face pale, “…at least…just to you…”

“Shove off,” Xiao Chi’ye said shortly.

Xiao-Qi relaxed immediately. He turned to Shen Zechuan and said cheerfully, “Shove off! We’ll shove off…”

Xiao Chi’ye’s glare sliced across Xiao-Qi’s face. Xiao-Qi’s legs turned to jelly, and he pointed at himself, “M-me? Just me? O…Okay!”

He grit his teeth and hugged his knees, then curled himself into a ball and shoved off to stand a small distance away.

Shen Zechuan shyly inched a little closer, and leaned in to whisper by Xiao Chi’ye’s ear, “…you’ll let me off, but does that mean I’ll let you off?”

A fleeting flurry of snow, and Xiao Chi’ye had Shen Zechuan by his arm. He shoved down hard, a flinty look on his face. “And the fox shows his tail. I figured you were playing the meek lamb too well!”

The two boys crashed violently into the snow. Both hands caught in his manacles, Shen Zechuan kicked Xiao Chi’ye in his midriff and scrabbled away to push himself up. “The Emperor ordered me confined to my quarters, and the Xiao family dares to defy his edict and take my life. After tonight— “

Xiao Chi’ye hooked onto Shen Zechuan’s manacles and dragged him  bodily towards himself.

Shen Zechuan thumped to the ground. He snarled between gritted teeth, “— all of you will be accomplices to the Xiao family’s insubordination! It’ll be no loss if I die, but I’ll have all of the Imperial Guard buried with me tonight!”

Xiao Chi’ye trapped Shen Zechuan’s neck from behind, forcing his head up. He laughed sharply, then growled, “D’you think you’re a gold nugget? Buried with you— as if you’re worth it! I can kill you as easily as I’d squash an ant!”

Straining for air, Shen Zechuan whipped his manacles up to hook around the back of Xiao Chi’ye’s neck, and yanked down with all of his strength. Xiao Chi’ye was caught off guard. The moment his arm loosened, Shen Zechuan struck him in the chest with his foot, and the two of them tumbled to the ground again.

“Squash me like an ant?” Shen Zechuan stared down into Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes, finally meeting him eye-to-eye in the midst of turmoil. He said hoarsely, “You’ve missed your chance. From here on, it’ll not be so easy to say who is the leveret, and who the hound!”  

“Who’s helping you in secret?” Xiao Chi’ye snarled, his rage rising. “I’ll kill every single one I find!”

This abrupt downturn of events was absolutely making Xiao-Qi pee his pants. He rushed over, calling, “Sir! Sir, you must not kill anyone!”

“That’s right!” Shen Zechuan called sharply, “Er-gongzi is trying to kill me tonight!”

“You shut your mouth!” Xiao Chi’ye struck out with a hand to silence him.

But Shen Zechuan caught his hand in his mouth and bit down like a vice. He had trapped half of Xiao Chi’ye’s body under his own weight, and his teeth pierced the flesh of Xiao Chi’ye’s hand.

Xiao Chi’ye spat, “Do you imagine you can hide by playing underhanded games? Your kungfu skills are far from ordinary!”

Xiao-Qi couldn’t get between them, and began to call for help, “Quick, drag them apart!”

Shen Zechuan’s mouth was bleeding, but he would not let go. Xiao Chi’ye had sobered up by this point, and was dragging him away from himself by the back of his collar. There was a searing pain in the web of his thumb, but it was Shen Zechuan’s eyes in that moment that Xiao Chi’ye would remember with ice-like clarity.

Gongzi!” Zhao Hui hollered, riding towards them.

Xiao Chi’ye turned his head and saw that his brother had come on the same horse. Xiao Jiming had already vaulted off the horse, and was striding swiftly towards them. In that single instant, Xiao Chi’ye was struck with humiliation, as if he had been stripped of his human coverings and cast back into the shape of a useless beast.

Xiao Jiming came down on one knee, and Shen Zechuan opened his mouth immediately. The web of Xiao Chi’ye’s hand was a torn and bloody mess, etched with distinct teeth marks.

“How did you start fighting?” Zhao Hui, following close after, noticed the wound.

“Lock him back up,” Xiao Jiming ordered.

Zhao Hui snatched Shen Zechuan up and headed for the door.

Gongzi was drunk,” Xiao Jiming looked towards Xiao-Qi. “There will be no need to let anyone else know about what happened tonight. I will beg His Majesty’s pardon myself tomorrow.”

Xiao-Qi kowtowed several times at him, repeating, “As my Lord says!”

Xiao Jiming stood back up. Zhao Hui had flung the boy back where he came from. Returning, Zhao Hui looked around him and said, “Much obliged to our brothers in the Imperial Guard here for returning gongzi to our manor safely tonight. It’s not an easy job standing guard in a winter night, please accept my treat of a round of hot wine for everyone.”

Xiao-Qi would never have dared say no, and agreed obediently.

Xiao Jiming finally turned his eyes on Xiao Chi’ye, but did not say a word.

Blood was still smeared on Xiao Chi’ye’s hand. He started to say something, but his brother had already turned around and got back on the horse.


Xiao Chi’ye called feebly.

Xiao Jiming heard him, but he rode away.

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