Lightening flashed, and thunder rumbled. Rain fell like curtains over the night.
Qiao Tianya stood back up. He handed the slim blades to the men behind him for safekeeping and said, “Xiao Ce’an was hit by one of the bolts. He won’t be running far.”
At the bottom of the slope, Xiao Chi’ye and Shen Zechuan sprawled flat in the mud, holding their breath.
At the moment, not only was the forest teeming with Brocade Guards, unknown assassins laid in wait for them too. It would be easier for the two of them to spontaneously grow wings than to escape without detection. But fighting their way out was even worse. Xiao Chi’ye was the fatal element here— the arm that was grazed by the bolt, his left, was going numb. One more hour, and the effects of the would spread throughout his body, paralysing him.
Qiao Tianya swept an untidy thicket of grass aside with his foot, and found a frenzied patch of footprints. He raised his hand soundlessly and pointed down the slope.
The Brocade Guards behind him fanned out, closing in on the low-lying creek with cautious, crouched steps.
Xiao Chi’ye listened as the squelch of mud drew closer, his body a taut bow. He had the grip of his sword pressed into his palm. The moment anyone took an unwary jump, he would lunge out and cut them down.
He could see Xiuchun swords swinging over the edge of the slope. Xiao Chi’ye surged forward— to be caught back by his wet sleeve. He turned to look at Shen Zechuan, and met his quiet, calm eyes.
In that moment several figures swooped down from the trees above, and began to tangle with the Brocade Guards. Qiao Tianya drew his sword to enter the fray, but there was a flicker of small blades through the air, and several Brocade Guards fell to the ground. Their assailants lunged forwards, driven by the advantage.
As havoc broke out above their heads, Shen Zechuan put away his few remaining blades. Without needing another word from him, Xiao Chi’ye leapt up and scaled the muddy slope on the other side, tumbling into the tall grass at the top.
“Catch them!” Qiao Tianya shouted.
The Brocade Guards pulled back from battle in mid-air. Xiao Chi’ye reached above him and caught a thick branch, then swung himself up in a flash. Shen Zechuan had just reached the bottom of the tree in his wake, when the Brocade Guards behind him arrived too. With the force of a tiger lunging down a mountain, Xiao Chi’ye leapt down at them, and Avarice cleaved unyieldingly into their midst, forcing the Brocade Guards to take a step back en masse.
Qiao Tianya sprung up from the rear, sweeping his blade towards Xiao Chi’ye before he could draw his sword back. Xiao Chi’ye ducked swiftly, and Qiao Tianya’s sword slammed into a scabbard.
Shen Zechuan braced back against the scabbard and stepped onto Xiao Chi’ye’s crouched back. As Xiao Chi’ye surged powerfully back up, he was launched into Qiao Tianya’s space, the slim blade in his other hand driving for Qiao Tianya’s eyes.
Qiao Tianya did not flinch. Two Brocade Guards on either side cut in to deflect the blow.
Xiao Chi’ye, upright again, slammed his foot into Qiao Tianya’s chest. Both sides sprang back simultaneously. Qiao Tianya flung droplets of blood off his blade. A piece of hair over his forehead had been sliced off in Shen Zechuan’s frontal strike.
Xiao Chi’ye and Shen Zechuan took two steps back, and without a word to each other, turned tail and ran.
Qiao Tianya kept his eye on their retreating forms and ordered, “After them!”
Xiao Chi’ye reached out and yanked Shen Zechuan over. “Head east!”
Swiping branches out of his way, Shen Zechuan argued, “There’s a man every five feet, and a squad every ten on the perimeter. And there’re Tuan city garrison troops in the East.”
Xiao Chi’ye slowly took his hand back, but said with absolute certainty, “Our way out is on the east.”
“Our dead end might be right here.” Shen Zechuan threw his blade on the backhand, and the man in the tree crashed to the ground. As Shen Zechuan passed him, he snagged his Xiuchun sword.
Xiao Chi’ye held his sword point-down, and a second later cut through the pitch black to intercept two steel blades in the rain. He could no longer feel his left arm, and now even the fingers on his right hand were freezing up.
It was going to be a rough night!
Shen Zechuan took their assailants’ heads off in a swing of his blade, and kicked the headless torsos to the ground.
When Xiao Chi’ye wobbled in the middle of a stride, he drove his chest into Shen Zechuan’s back, and sent the both of them tumbling down an undulating bank of tall grass to splash into a creek.
Rain was still falling. Bone-chilling creek water washed over them. Xiao Chi’ye was panting heavily, his harsh breaths pressing right up against Shen Zechuan’s neck, creating the strange duality of scalding heat and freezing cold.
“You get nothing from killing me,” Xiao Chi’ye said, propping himself up on his sword to lift himself away a little. “So for the rest of this little journey, I’ll be handing it to you.”
Shen Zechuan wiped his face in the creek. “I’ll get nothing from saving you either.”
For that, Xiao Chi’ye pressed himself back onto Shen Zechuan. “You’re here for Prince Chu,” he said. “But how now? Even the Brocade Guard can’t dig him out. I’m the only one who knows where he is. You’ve missed your window, and the Dowager will lose this battle tonight! You should take good care of me, I’m your only way out.”
Shen Zechuan looked around. They were nose to nose. He said witheringly, “I should chop you to pieces, and we can all die together.”
“You spent so much effort getting out of that temple,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Did you do it just to perform lover’s suicide with me?”
“Why don’t you use that mouth of yours to have a chat with Qiao Tianya?” Shen Zechuan’s ice cold fingers grasped Xiao Chi’ye’s hand. In the next moment, Avarice lashed backward, warding off their pursuers for a beat.
Catching some elbow room, Shen Zechuan lifted his leg and shoved Xiao Chi’ye off. He held the Xiuchun sword in one hand, and Avarice in his other, and took a moment to steady his rapid breathing from their recent sprint.
“I’m putting this on the books,” Shen Zechuan watched Qiao Tianya speed towards them, tightening his grip on the swords. “After tonight, I own you.”
A snow-white flash in the ink-black night. Shen Zechuan gave Qiao Tianya no chance to open his mouth at all, and struck directly at his head.
Water splashed and sprayed violently with the dance of his feet. Shen Zechuan struck with deadly intent again and again. As steel edges clashed, his Xiuchun sword cracked, and was sent flying by Qiao Tianya.
The two of them sprang apart. Shen Zechuan’s left hand was empty. He dipped it into the creek, and the water carried off trickles of blood.
“Pretty boys should just sit behind curtains on a pedestal,” Qiao Tianya looked like he could smell something on the air. “Swords are so dangerous. What if you break your hand?”
Shen Zechuan hefted Avarice in his right hand. “If you snap their hands and feet, they’ll be nice and obedient, doesn’t that suit you?”
“There’s one kind of person you shouldn’t trifle with,” Qiao Tianya said, “And it’s people like you who’re capable of being savage even to themselves.”
Shen Zechuan lunged.
Avarice was heavier than ideal for him, but there were advantages to its weight. In the present situation, it was a perfect complement to the Ji Family Sword’s forceful style, and Shen Zechuan was able to press Qiao Tianya into the defensive.
Qiao Tianya was forced almost to bend over backwards as he retreated, but as soon as he stepped near the creek, he sensed trouble. And he was right, for Shen Zechuan’s injured left hand flicked up suddenly from beneath the water, and mud spattered into Qiao Tianya’s eyes, creating a moment’s opening. Immediately, he received another brutal blow to his chest as Shen Zechuan kicked him to the ground, sending him falling into the creek.
The reinforcements had just turned up at the scene, and Shen Zechuan backed up several steps at once, having no desire to fight it out with them. He hauled Xiao Chi’ye up to get going, but Xiao Chi’ye was so tall and long-limbed that he almost couldn’t heft him.
The search grew more urgent as the hours crawled by.
All they could find in the forest were disguised and well-trained mercenaries who, upon falling into the Brocade Guard’s hands, enacted suicide by biting their own tongues. None gave Ji Lei a chance to interrogate them.
Where in the world was Prince Chu?
Only Xiao Chi’ye had a clue!
“The little bastard!” Ji Lei was losing his composure. He got up and looked about him. “Tell the Tuan city garrison to search along the perimeter of the hunting grounds!”
Shen Zechuan pulled himself out of the water, and dragged Xiao Chi’ye to shore. The banks here were too steep, so he seized the back of Xiao Chi’ye’s collar between his teeth, and yanked him up the slope somehow.
The gash on Shen Zechuan’s left hand still streamed blood. He tore a strip from his tunic and only rinsed it briefly in the water before wrapping it around the wound.
Xiao Chi’ye watched him, propped up against a lichen-scarred boulder. “There’s a handkerchief in my robes.”
Shen Zechuan slipped a hand into his front, and came up with a gobbet of muddy wet cloth. He squeezed the mud all over Xiao Chi’ye’s chest.
Xiao Chi’ye asked, “When does this drug wear off?”
“In two hours. It’ll be soon.”
“You’ll have better cover in the trees than staying in the water.” Xiao Chi’ye looked him over. He was sopping wet head to foot, his collar was hanging slightly loose in the back, and spots of mud lingered at his neck. He looked very…
“The Brocade Guard has beastmasters. The animals will scent blood.” As he said that, Shen Zechuan bent his head and sniffed lightly at the fingers on his recently bloody hand.
What a strange fucking thought. The guy had literally just finished cutting a few men down. There was nothing womanish about him. Why would a word like that even come to mind?
It’s goddamn Li Jianheng’s fault, going on about it day after day after day, and now he’s caught his lurgy, thinking like that, looking at him that way, like the old perverts in Qu Capital.
“You’re not bad with the sword.” Xiao Chi’ye’s gaze could almost physically peel the back of Shen Zechuan’s collar off. “Must’ve trained pretty hard in the temple, but you’d never be able to tell from your physique. Are you dosing yourself?”
Shen Zechuan slanted a look at him, and his hand followed Xiao Chi’ye’s line of sight onto his own nape. He shot back, “How many times a day do you have to look at it? Is it that riveting?”
Xiao Chi’ye swept the tip of his tongue over the last traces of blood in his mouth. “That’s a very misleading question. You make me sound like a sex fiend.”
Shen Zechuan reached over and covered Xiao Chi’ye’s face with the muddy handkerchief. “I thought you only frittered your life away amongst the rouges and paint, but apparently you fare on both men and women.”
Xiao Chi’ye said, “Stop flirting, Er-gongzi just wanted you to wipe the mud off your neck.”
“Did you want me to wipe it off,” Shen Zechuan’s finger poked at Xiao Chi’ye’s forehead, pressing lightly through the handkerchief, “Or did you want to help me wipe it off?”
Ice-cold rainwater trickled down the finger and dripped between Xiao Chi’ye’s eyebrows, saturated with temptation. With every slight movement, droplets shivered free to dribble into his collar. They caught against his skin, a dripping and ticklish kind of aggravation.
Xiao Chi’ye really wanted to drink some water. He also really wanted to ask Shen Zechuan to move away.
He said nothing for a while, then laughed lightly and said, “Your methods are formidable.”
“Your mind is running away from you.” Shen Zechuan tucked his collar in firmly, then sat hugging the sword to himself, making no further sound.
The rain eased.
Distant barking came to them from somewhere in the woods. Neither of them moved. Their boulder abutted the creek, and bushes grew over its top, creating an exceptionally narrow hiding place. Realistically, the space was only large enough for one person.
Xiao Chi’ye waited for some time, and heard the man with the dog draw closer. Shen Zechuan wedged Avarice above them, then crouched down and climbed under.
Xiao Chi’ye felt a weight lower onto him as the guy found his way up his legs, and then over his chest. Then they were crammed, body against body, in this narrow space, and Xiao Chi’ye could feel the heat from the rub of their thighs as Shen Zechuan came up to straddle him, as well as his soft breaths at his temple.
His eyes covered, Xiao Chi’ye was left free to picture in the darkness how Shen Zechuan’s limbs might be arranged in his current position. That lotus-white neck would not leave him alone.
“I’m begging you,” Xiao Chi’ye sighed, “Sit on my stomach, not down there.”
Shen Zechuan did not move, because the rustling sounds above them had drawn close.
Xiao Chi’ye tried to modulate his breathing, but as they were, if he moved his head up a fraction, he would bump against Shen Zechuan’s jaw, and if he lowered it a little, the tip of his nose could just about skim along the entire curve of that neck.
Shen Zechuan had been listening intently to the movements above, but all of a sudden he whipped Xiao Chi’ye’s handkerchief off his face, and looked at him, saying nothing.
Xiao Chi’ye looked back at Shen Zechuan. He did not know if it was the heat of the battle tonight that had gone to his head, or something else. But whatever the reason, that part of his body currently pressing up between them, slowly making its presence known, was not making life any easier for either of them. Their rain-sodden clothing clung tight against their bodies, creating the illusion that they were wearing nothing where they touched. If he moved even a fraction now, it would seem like deliberate provocation.
The dog above them was still snuffling around.
2 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 24: Rainy Night”
ce’an going through his sexual awakening all because lanzhou was attractive trying to kill their pursuers is peak ce’an actually. bro couldnt just fall in love normally, all it took was to watch lanzhou in a fight and his brain and body were like “thats the one for me.”
tbh I can judge him constantly for his neck fetish but I can’t fault him for this, lanzhou fighting is v sexy 🤣