Book One, Chapter 19: Truth and Lies

Wind sifted through the hot night. A bright summer moon perched amongst swaying branches.

Xiao Chi’ye was a hale young man, warmed easily by wine in his belly. Right now, heat prickled under his skin. Watching Shen Zechuan come down the steps, he said, “I didn’t realise the Temple of Penitence could make a chaste and sober soul of someone like you.”

Shen Zechuan dismissed his escort and said, “I’ve always been good at turning the other cheek.”

Xiao Chi’ye accepted a cup of tea from an attendant to rinse his mouth. He wiped his lips, saying, “At least spin me a better tale. I don’t think you even know how the phrase is written.”

“I thought I was playing for the stage,” Shen Zechuan wiped his fingers too, smiling at him. “Now you’re being earnest about it.”

Xiao Chi’ye did not look at him, throwing his used cloth back onto the platter. “Who’s going to believe you if you overplay it? Someone had to sing counterpoint there, and I was perfect for the part. You seemed pretty happy to watch my show, in any case.”

“That sword is a gem,” Shen Zechuan’s eyes shifted downwards.

Xiao Chi’ye lifted a hand to block his gaze. “And the person isn’t?”

One of the lanterns upstairs went out. Shen Zechuan sighed. “What am I supposed to say to that? Sounds so forward and all.”

“You’ve got a good eye on you,” Xiao Chi’ye moved his hand aside, fixing him with a hard, piercing stare. “Not many people would recognise a good blade.”

“The wielder’s a gem, isn’t he?” Shen Zechuan replied obligingly. “Naturally he must be wearing good stuff. Even a blind cat will walk into a dead mouse sometimes. I was only taking a shot in the dark.”

“Now, why does it give me the creeps when you say nice things about me?” Xiao Chi’ye asked.

“You must not hear them enough,” Shen Zechuan said sympathetically. “We haven’t even started on my real feelings yet.”

Around them, everyone else had gone.

Xiao Chi’ye said evenly, “You’ve got a good poker face.”

“Great schemes are ruined by little gripes. My time in the light comes later,” Shen Zechuan smiled. “Be patient.”

“Great schemes,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “What can there be in this piffling city that you have to scheme for?”

“Well, you see…” Shen Zechuan paused for a few beats, then gave Xiao Chi’ye a rather fond look. “You actually thought I’d tell you? Er-gongzi, I really couldn’t have picked you for the innocent type.”

“I’m just a rich boy basking while the sun shines,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “How am I to know that the world is cruel, and there’re bad people like you who lie to me?”

“Shame on me,” Shen Zechuan made to move on. “I did think you were quite a sad sight with your fangs and claws sealed off. Was it satisfying to put your sword to some use tonight?”

“A little.” Xiao Chi’ye put out a foot to bar his way. “Where’re you going? We’re not done talking here.”

“I’m walking you home,” Shen Zechuan said. “Since I’m so grateful to have been rescued by you tonight. There’s no way I could ever make it up to you.”

Xiao Chi’ye smirked. “What a mouthful of lies. How many people have you swindled already?”

“Not many fall for it,” Shen Zechuan turned to look at him. “Everyone finds the need to tell a few lies now and then, lies like ‘I’m loaded’, and such.”

Xiao Chi’ye withdrew his foot. “I’d pale in comparison to you.”

“You see,” Shen Zechuan said mildly, “You’re being modest again.”

There’s no speaking to this guy.

Because you couldn’t tell if he was lying or telling the truth, every statement sounded like equivocation. You went around in circles with nothing to show for it in the end.

Xiao Chi’ye turned to whistle over his horse. “You’re cosying up to me because of what happened tonight, but there’s no one around now. If you keep this up it’ll get trite.”

“What then?” Shen Zechuan peered up at him with lambent eyes, soft and tame in the light of his hand-held lantern. “Shall I bite you again?”

Xiao Chi’ye took a sudden step forward into his space. He said comfortably, “Fancy that you were gifted this face, but all you do with it is string people along. Looking at me like that, what were you hoping I’d think?”

Unruffled, Shen Zechuan returned lightly, “What can I do? I was but born with these soulful eyes.”

Xiao Chi’ye tapped the end of his riding whip inches from Shen Zechuan’s brow, mocking, “What a waste that the soul in there is full of nothing but deceit.”

“I was born wretched,” Shen Zechuan lifted his fingers to nudge the whip slowly aside. “How can I level the playing field without some maneuvering?”

“Everything I did tonight I did for myself,” Xiao Chi’ye said callously. “Don’t even think about deluding yourself.”

“But there’s such a lovely moon tonight,” Shen Zechuan said wistfully, “Why do you have to ruin my delusional mood?”

Xiao Chi’ye swung himself into his saddle, and looked down at him for a moment, reins in his hands. He drawled, “I’m just afraid you’ll latch onto me for showing you a little kindness, and plague me with your dewy-eyed gratitude.”

“You’re not drunk,” Shen Zechuan observed politely, “You’re gravely ill.”

“Who knows which it is,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “It’s not as if you haven’t done shameless things like that before.”

The night fell silent.

Xiao Chi’ye withdrew his gaze, and marked this as a win for himself. He had cantered a few steps ahead when he heard the cheerful voice behind him say:

“Whatever it was you’d lost five years ago, have you found it yet?”

Xiao Chi’ye’s head snapped around. He reined his horse, collected himself for a second, and said coldly, “Give the ring back to me.”

Shen Zechuan simply looked at him. Xiao Chi’ye thought he saw something quite wicked in those eyes.

Shen Zechuan said, “You want the ring back? That’s easy. I’ll give it to you if you bark like a dog for me.”

The gyrfalcon swooped onto Xiao Chi’ye’s shoulder. Both man and raptor fixed their icy gazes on Shen Zechuan. The hour was late. Some nameless night watchman rapped his clapper, and the lantern in Shen Zechuan’s hand snuffed out.

Darkness on the street.

A few days had passed before Li Jianheng ventured to show his face around Xiao Chi’ye again. To his surprise, he seemed not to have cooled off in that time. As they sat listening to the girls sing, Xiao Chi’ye’s frosty demeanour showered their radius with chips of ice. Not one of the milk-skinned girls dared approach to serve.

Li Jianheng whispered behind a raised teacup, “Still angry?”

Xiao Chi’ye crunched down on a piece of ice in his mouth. “Nope.”

Li Jianheng’s hair stood on end from the snapping sound it made. “It’s almost autumn now, please stop eating ice like that, it’s unsettling.”

“They put away a whole vault of it every year. It’ll all go to waste anyway.” Xiao Chi’ye propped his legs up and tilted backwards.

“Let me tell you something that’ll cheer you up then.” Li Jianheng shifted in his seat, unable to resist. “That Feng Quan, do you know who he is?”


“That girl I’ve been talking about— ” Li Jianheng was practically oozing glee, a shifty look in his eyes. “— Feng Quan is her little brother. She’s an absolute darling of Pan Rugui’s these days, so of course Pan Rugui gave him one hell of a promotion. This Feng Quan has a silver tongue too, and Pan Rugui’s been buttered up to the seventh heaven. He’s even thinking of raising him like a son!”

“It sounds,” Xiao Chi’ye propped his head up on one arm, and glanced sideways at Li Jianheng, “Like you’re actually serious about that girl.”

“Of course I am,” Li Jianheng said. “Anyway, it was the bastard Ji Lei who came up with all that the other day. Feng Quan had to do as he was told, being his ‘son’ and all.”

“Reading between the lines, you want me to let him off?” Xiao Chi’ye said.

Li Jianheng was an adaptable man with none of the airs of royalty. He slid off his chair nimbly and crouched before Xiao Chi’ye, pleading, “Brother, for the sake of my marriage prospects, let him go this once. Besides, haven’t we already made him throw up that day? He’s Pan Rugui’s man after all, we can’t take it too far. It’s only been a few days since the business with Xiao-Fu’zi blew over, His Majesty is still watching.”

Xiao Chi’ye suddenly fixed him with a look and sat up. “You touched her, didn’t you?”

Li Jianheng gurgled something.

“You touched Pan Rugui’s woman? Right under his nose?”

“If he was a real man I wouldn’t have,” Li Jianheng turned peevish all of a sudden, standing. “But an old eunuch like him can only pull the same sick old stunts to get himself going, and he’s whipping the sweet little thing into tears every day! That girl was mine in the first place! If it were you, wouldn’t you have done it too?!”

“No!” Xiao Chi’ye exclaimed, exasperated.

Li Jianheng pled, “Ce’an, we’re brothers! Is this worth it, really? Just keep an eye closed on this and let it pass. You let Feng Quan go, I’ll get you something else to play with!”

Xiao Chi’ye laid back down again, and said nothing.

If Pan Rugui found out about this, even if that business with Xiao-Fu’zi counted for nothing but a fart on the wind, that old mongrel would be out for their blood. You could tell how much he treasured that woman just by his attitude towards Feng Quan these days.

Pan Rugui was sixty-five, with no sons of his own. In all these years, none of the girls by his side had hung around as long as this one has. If he had really taken this woman for a little wife or concubine, there would be nothing he would not dare to do, including dismembering Li Jianheng with a cleaver.

As Li Jianheng nattered on, Xiao Chi’ye asked, “If you’re doing it like this, tell me you have it in the bag?”

Li Jianheng sat on the carpet, head bowed, scuffing at his moso fan. He muttered, “…Not really… I just heard…I heard, that Pan Rugui used to keep a boy or two as well. Can’t I just send him one of those to play with instead?”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “There won’t be many who’ll outdo your girl, will there?”

Li Jianheng, very much discomfited, came clean in the end. “That… Shen Lanzhou, lots of people have been asking around about him…”

“Asking around about what?”

“About how much he is, and whether they can afford to keep him.” Li Jianheng looked up at Xiao Chi’ye’s expressionless face, and clutched at his chair anxiously, “Money isn’t an issue, but I haven’t got the nerve to approach him. If he’s pushed too far and does something desperate… Ce’an, help me, just this once, as long as we can get him to Pan Rugui, after it’s all over I’ll pay him in silver! Or even gold!”

Xiao Chi’ye sat in silence, hands on his knees.

Li Jianheng thought he might have a shot at this, and added, “Don’t you hate Shen Wei? After this, Shen Zechuan will never be able to strut around in front of you again! Think about it. He got out of a death sentence, but wait, there’s a twist of fate! If he gets into this line of work in Qu Capital, he’d be better off dead! Besides, the Dowager doesn’t really— “

“I thought you were talking out of your head today,” Xiao Chi’ye drew his legs back slowly. “Turns out your head’s filled with fucking glue.”

“Ce’an, Ce’an!” Li Jianheng gathered up his robes and chased him out the door.

Xiao Chi’ye exited the building, got on his horse, and left without looking back.

Li Jianheng wanted to offer Shen Zechuan as Pan Rugui’s private toy, but would Pan Rugui dare take him? This was a person whom the Empress Dowager had had her eyes on all this time. If Pan Rugui dared put his hand out, he would be sealing his own fate. Li Jianheng was out of his damn mind!

But if Li Jianheng really had the nerve to do it.

If Li Jianheng really had the nerve to do it…

Where did Li Jianheng suddenly find the nerve to do this?

Shen Zechuan was coming off duty. He had just taken off his waist-badge, and was barely a step out the door when he sighted that fine stallion of Xiao Chi’ye’s outside.

As he went down the steps, he asked, “Come to get your ring?”

Xiao Chi’ye snapped a twig and put it between his teeth, looking at him. After a few moments he said, “It’s daytime now, are you still dreaming? Give it back to me, enough with the bullshit.”

“You weren’t this crabby that night.” Shen Zechuan watched the sun in the sky. “The Governor-General won’t be able to face his peers if he barked like a dog here, so he probably didn’t come for the ring. What is it? Speak out.”

“Don’t you already know why I’m here?” Xiao Chi’ye sat himself down on a boulder, elbows propped on his long legs. “When Prince Chu wanted to beat Xiao-Fu’zi up, you caught wind of it even from inside the Temple. I forgot about that then, but thinking about it now, you must have someone at his side? Either a spy, or someone to whisper in his ear.”

“If I had such mighty powers,” Shen Zechuan said, “I wouldn’t be cleaning up after elephants now.”

“Who knows if that’s true,” Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes were cool and unfriendly. “You’ll have to give me the whole story before I can pick which parts to believe.”

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