Book One, Chapter 23: Deluge

A burst of wind cut across the hunting grounds. The firelight guttered for a fraction of a second, and in that moment the air exploded with the clash of blades.

There was chaos at the tables. Hai Liangyi scrambled to his feet, and with an unexpected strength rushed headlong into Pan Rugui, crying, “Despicable eunuch! You will not harm my master!”

Up on his horse, Li Jianheng was shaking from head to foot as flashes of cold steel danced all around him. He clung to the horse’s neck and screwed his eyes shut, bawling, “Ce’an! Ce’an, save me!”

Xiao Chi’ye slammed Ji Lei back with his foot, and thrust his sword behind himself without a backward glance. The Brocade Guard coming up to ambush him was run clean through. Scalding blood spattered against his side. He yanked Avarice out, took two steps forward, and cut an approaching Eight Battalion soldier to the ground.

Chenyang vaulted onto his own horse, snagged Li Jianheng’s reins, and whistled sharply to the prince’s bodyguards. “Follow me! Protect the Crown Prince, we’re breaking out from the east side!”

Before the horses could step out, Ji Lei growled, “Stop them—”

But even as he spoke, a blade came cleaving down upon his head, and he raised his own sword to parry. Next second, an immense weight bore down on his arms, and they went numb under Xiao Chi’ye’s blow. An involuntary sound tore itself from Ji Lei’s throat. He stumbled back from the momentum, staring incredulously at the man before him.

Xiao Ce’an!

“You played us all for fools,” Ji Lei growled, taking a steadying step back, and then matched him head-to-head in strength and heaved their interlocked blades back up. He roared, “I judged you wrong!”

There was a rush of air to Xiao Chi’ye’s side. He turned away to avoid it and swept his sword sideways, dashing off a bloody arc to his right. Then he clashed with Ji Lei again.

Snowbreaker charged in, knocking tables astray, dragging a tablecloth across the bonfire. Flames bloomed instantly, catching on tent cloths and dry grass. As the galloping horse’s shoulder brushed past his own, Xiao Chi’ye leapt onto his back. He slapped the flat of his sword on the rump of Prince Chu’s horse and growled, “Go!”

“Protect His Majesty!” Xue Xiuzhuo rushed forward to pull Hai Liangyi away from the melee. “Elder Hai! Let’s escort His Majesty away!”

The Emperor’s breaths came in stutters, his lips as pale as his face. Xue Xiuzhuo bent to pull the Emperor onto his shoulders, then made off with the rest of the civil ministers, avoiding the flames.

Xi Gu’an made to go after them, but Hua Siqian pointed straight towards Prince Chu. “His Majesty’s days are numbered. It doesn’t matter if we kill him or not. But Prince Chu must die tonight! If he escapes, you and I will be treasonists. Ji Lei, gather the Brocade Guard. Join forces with the two thousand garrison soldiers at Tuan city, and surround the hunting grounds. You must kill Prince Chu! Xi Gu’an, fly back to the Capital, and seal it off with the Eight Battalions!”

Having made these arrangements, he felt his nerves settle.

“The heir to the throne is in our hands, and Her Majesty the Dowager sits in power. As long as we hold Qu Capital steady, and Prince Chu is eliminated, not even Qi Zhuyin can make any rash moves! As for the Xiaos, there will be ample time to deal with them in the days to come.”

Xiao Chi’ye stank of blood. His lips were pressed tight as he carved an indiscriminate path through the chaos. Regardless of their allegiance, if they dared get in his way, Avarice would see that their heads were relocated tonight!

Li Jianheng’s stomach roiled, but he pressed a hand to his mouth and dared not let himself throw up.

To either side of him rode forty-odd men, all Xiao Chi’ye’s personal soldiers. Beneath him, his horse raced onwards tirelessly. Behind, the Brocade Guard pursued them like a grim tail.

Just as they approached the woods, Xiao Chi’ye called, “Scatter!”

And the forty-odd men flung off their guardsmen uniforms in unison, to reveal riding outfits identical to the one Li Jianheng wore. A second later the company burst apart, and each man plunged into the forest from a different spot.

The moon hid behind dark clouds, and their pursuers were some distance behind. In the turbid darkness, it was impossible to tell which direction Prince Chu had fled.

Ji Lei reined in his horse just outside the forest, and spat viciously to the side. He shouted, “Seal off the hunting grounds completely! Do not leave a single stone in this forest unturned! If you encounter Xiao Ce’an, do not go one-on-one with him. Form a minimum of a team of four, and attack together!”

Branches whipped across Li Jianheng’s face, forcing him to put a hand up time and again to ward off the stinging lashes. The soldiers around them had completely dispersed. He was left only with Xiao Chi’ye and Chenyang to his left and right.

“Dismount.” Xiao Chi’ye snagged Li Jianheng again and threw him to the ground for Chenyang to catch.

Li Jianheng went head over heels and came up with a faceful of dirt. He wailed, “Ce’an, Ce’an, what are you doing?”

“Your Highness will come with me,” Chenyang pulled Li Jianheng up. “It’s too conspicuous for us to go on horseback in the woods. The Brocade Guard specialises in encirclement and assassination. Horses are a living target. We cannot take that risk!”

“I’m not going!” Li Jianheng tugged his arm back quaveringly. He pled, “Ce’an, you’re the only one who can protect me!”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Knock him out and carry him!”

And before Li Jianheng could respond, he turned his horse around and hurtled off into the depths.


Lightning flashed in the sky, throwing the trees into ghastly shadows. From every direction there was the thumping of hooves, the shriek of swords, the rustle of running feet, but never once the sound of a human’s voice.

The scent of an oncoming storm hung in the air. Xiao Chi’ye did not know how long he had been riding, when Snowbreaker drew to a gradual halt.

There was suddenly a dead silence.

Rain fell from the sky in heavy drops. A drop skimmed past Xiao Chi’ye’s eye. From the darkness behind the soundless pattering, an immense creature seemed to be looming closer. Like a tightly-woven web, countless Brocade Guards advanced on Xiao Chi’ye in an oppressive black mass.

No one gave an order.

Rain spattered down. The edge of a Xiuchun sword sliced through a raindrop, and in the next instant was at Xiao Chi’ye’s throat.

As Xiao Chi’ye ducked forward, Avarice flashed out of its sheath, and with a crack, the back of his blade snared the Xiuchun sword on its withdraw. Then he forced Avarice down into its sheath again, and with an ear-piercing screech, the edge of the Xiuchun sword curled and split. The sword, together with its wielder, was punted back to fall back into the rainwater.

At once, countless shadows leapt out from every direction.

Xiao Chi’ye slammed a hand down on the back of the horse, and leapt clear of the saddle in one. Avarice flew out of its sheath once more, and this time, it cut a bright streak crosswise, rending flesh along its arc. Blood spurted onto his face and trickled to his chin as bodies hit the ground.

Xiao Chi’ye dropped back onto the saddle, but not to sit. He crouched in his stirrups, his sword half-sheathed.

The whisper of breath. The spatter of rain.

In the pitch-black, groping darkness of this night, he had been making the utmost of his sense of hearing. Not one of the Brocade Guards wounded just now had made a sound. Fine, fleet footsteps circled not far from Xiao Chi’ye, forming an impenetrable ring with him at its centre.

In this moment, the first man to lose his patience would give himself away.

Xiao Chi’ye waited silently. On the other side of the darkness, Qiao Tianya saw, for the first time, a true ‘lone wolf’.

He had such patience, as if the more perilous his circumstances, the calmer and more inscrutable he became. When he unsheathed his sword tonight, he had bared his fangs.

Qiao Tianya felt a rare stab of agitation. The source of this feeling was the order he had been given not to kill Xiao Chi’ye. For a predator like that, trapping him or hindering him was far more difficult than simply killing him. Often, there would only be a single opportunity to get close. If you did not seize him then, he would take your life.

Qiao Tianya shut his eyes. When he opened them again, there was nothing but ruthlessness.

He drew his own Xiuchun sword, and took one step forward. In the next instant, his form blurred as he exploded upwards, his sword plunging down onto Xiao Chi’ye’s back.

Xiao Chi’ye parried on the backhand, and spun around to land a kick on Qiao Tianya’s abdomen. Swords descended upon him from three other directions, and as he blocked with one arm, someone caught his opening on the left, and a blade came slashing down on his face. Xiao Chi’ye struck the flat of the blade with his elbow, sending it awry, and followed through to elbow the man on his face, knocking him to the ground.

Qiao Tianya came hard on his heels.

Torrential rain drove down unrelentingly. There were no human cries, only the clash of blades. Awash in rain, Xiao Chi’ye’s features seemed sharper and fiercer. He maintained his singular acuity in the endless onslaught, driving back his assailants, Qiao Tianya in the lead, again and again, treading a slim path on thin ice in the dark.

Qiao Tianya’s attacks pressed harder and closer. They truly did specialise in encirclement tactics. What was there to fear from the lone wolf? Surround him, wear away at his patience and calm, let him exhaust himself on the ceaseless attacks, and he will make a misstep!

The tight mesh of impenetrable swordwork was slowly driving the breath out of Xiao Chi’ye. The downpour drowned out a few small details, such as the crossbow slipping from the darkness.

As he got into the swing of battle, Xiao Chi’ye only grew more ferocious. Blood streamed endlessly from his curved blade. But then Qiao Tianya made a sudden gesture, and the mob of black shadows fell back with him. Xiao Chi’ye was once again enclosed in impenetrable silence. The rhythm that he had just established was broken up.

Rain streamed down the back of his hand. Xiao Chi’ye could no longer hear footsteps. The deluge drenched him through and through. Even Snowbreaker, under his saddle, pawed the ground with some unease.


The sound of a crossbow’s latch clicking into place was very soft, but it was a deafening clap in Xiao Chi’ye’s ears. He slapped Snowbreaker’s flank, and the horse shot forward, while he rolled off the saddle onto the ground. In the next splinter of a second, several short bolts punched into the mud behind him in a neat row.

Xiao Chi’ye wiped the rain off his face, only to hear soft clicks coming from all around him. He jumped up and ran for it.

He couldn’t seem to get away from the sound of those maddening footsteps!

Out of the blue, a bolt grazed past Xiao Chi’ye’s upper arm. As blood beaded up in a fine line, a prickling numbness set in.

A paralytic!

They really were hunting him like a beast!

The ground dipped ahead of him. Xiao Chi’ye leapt with all his strength and flew right over the creek. Just as he touched ground, a cold rush of air came at him from the side.

Xiao Chi’ye rolled forward using his momentum, and a sword cleaved down on the spot he had occupied a moment ago. Before the assassin could pull his sword back, his throat constricted, and Xiao Chi’ye bore him down into the wet mud, snapping his larynx with his bare hands.

Crossbow bolts hammered carelessly into the tree trunk beside him. Before Xiao Chi’ye had a chance to straighten up, someone landed a kick on his back. He was caught off-guard, not expecting anyone behind him, and tumbled into a tussock of grass. Despite this momentary lapse, he caught himself against the ground and regained his balance almost immediately.

When Xiao Chi’ye caught a clear glimpse of the person he was facing, he licked the blood off his teeth and called, almost like a lover, “Ah, Lanzhou.”

Shen Lanzhou had also landed with one hand to the ground, slim blades held between each of his five fingers. Their eyes met in the rain, and he pounced.

Xiao Chi’ye’s palm grazed the hilt of his sword, but Shen Zechuan was already there. He slapped Avarice back into its sheath, seized Xiao Chi’ye’s collar, and threw him to the ground.

In the shower of mud, Xiao Chi’ye’s arm hooked around the back of Shen Zechuan’s neck, and Avarice, freed up, flipped clear to drive up towards Shen Zechuan.

Shen Zechuan ducked low, bringing his head directly over Xiao Chi’ye’s upside-down face. In the split second their eyes met, he struck the flat of Avarice’s blade with the side of his hand. Beads of fresh blood from the stained blade spattered onto his face, mingling with rainwater as it tracked down to his chin, and dripped onto Xiao Chi’ye’s brow.

The Brocade Guards were coming up close behind them. Shen Zechuan made to get up, but Xiao Chi’ye slid his palm upwards and pinned his head down, so that each of them could almost feel the other person’s breath on their face.

Xiao Chi’ye said, still slightly out of breath, “So eager to get yourself killed with them?”

Shen Zechuan looked down at him. “Even a wolf can’t keep running after he’s been shot. Look how slow you’re getting. You’re on your last legs, aren’t you.”

Xiao Chi’ye rubbed his fingertips along the nape of Shen Zechuan’s neck, almost teasingly. His thumb slid down to press firmly against the knot at Shen Zechuan’s throat.

“If it’s just to break a neck like yours, I figure I’m still up for it.”

Dark figures sprung from the tall grass. Without looking, Shen Zechuan sent his blades flying in a single motion, and the figures crumpled to the ground. The deadly intent in his eyes did not soften, but he shoved off Xiao Chi’ye’s wandering hand and dragged him sliding down a slope.

When Qiao Tianya arrived, moments too late, there were only two dead bodies on the ground for him. He checked them over cursorily, and plucked away the blades caught in the dead men’s throats. His eyes narrowed. “These don’t look like Xiao Ce’an’s things… and how did these assassins get in here? Xiao Ce’an is the leash that holds Libei, and he absolutely must not be killed. Isn’t that the fucking consensus?”

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