Footsteps trampled amongst the bushes. As if scenting something, the dog burrowed its nose into the leaves and scrabbled around a little.
Dirt showered onto Shen Zechuan’s neck, but as he could move neither up nor down, he held himself frozen still.
Xiao Chi’ye was even more uncomfortable. The position they were in did not allow him any kind of respite. He was pressed unforgivingly into an exquisite, silken softness, so that it felt as though he was not being straddled by a human but a shred of cloud. He was cocooned in a dripping mist, on every side and in every space at once.
With those thoughts fanning the flames, that long-neglected part of his body remained stubbornly erect. He was so painfully hard that he all he could wish for in the moment was an ice cold bath.
Droplets of rain dampened his hair.
In the midst of this interminable stand off, Xiao Chi’ye finally began to recover some of his strength. He twitched his fingers. The numbness was slowly ebbing away.
The man above them finally walked off into the distance, but Shen Zechuan’s tightly drawn body did not relax. In this small, hidden corner of their forest of perils, they had pressed themselves into a different but almost equally precarious situation.
Xiao Chi’ye calmly held his gaze.
He could not look away. If he showed even the slightest evasion, it would look like he actually harboured some sort of intention towards Shen Zechuan.
“You’re squashing me,” Xiao Chi’ye said casually.
Shen Zechuan did not reply.
For the first time, Xiao Chi’ye fully grasped the aphorism, “It’s easy to get on a tiger, but harder to dismount”. He badly wanted to lift his head up and gasp for air, but he did not, because it would make him look like a ravening sleazebag.
He swore he had no intentions of any kind.
They were just too close, and that soft glide of skin and distinctive scent had been instinctively enthralling to him, his body succumbing to its animal impulses.
Xiao Chi’ye felt Shen Zechuan slide down along his chest. Only when Shen Zechuan had pulled away completely, did he finally release a quiet breath of profound relief.
But before he could come to the end of that breath, there was a jerk at his collar and he was up, grazing past rock lichen to be thrown hard into the creek.
As he crashed into the water, Xiao Chi’ye twisted his arm around to catch Shen Zechuan’s wrists, and then hooked a foot around him to trip him over. When he had fallen into the water next to him, Xiao Chi’ye flipped himself up and over, holding Shen Zechuan’s wrists high above him, pinning him heavily under himself.
“Delicate matters should be resolved in delicate ways,” Xiao Chi’ye held Shen Zechuan down firmly. “It’s boring if you start a fight.”
Shen Zechuan’s pinned hands were spread loosely open, his hair undone by the flow of the creek. He was forced to tilt his chin slightly upwards to catch his breath. The corner of his lip tugged faintly, and he said, “Forcing yourself on someone is not a great choice.”
“I had no such intention.” Xiao Chi’ye practically ground the words out.
Shen Zechuan pressed a knee up against him, his eyes well eloquent.
There was a hint of suppressed suffering in Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes. He let his head fall forward and shook his wet hair out, drops of water spattering all over Shen Zechuan’s face. Before Shen Zechuan could react, he reached out and gave the back of Shen Zechuan’s neck a vigorous rub, finally scrubbing away those pestilent little specks of mud, and then tied Shen Zechuan’s collar into a dead knot.
“Things get cold and damp when it rains at night,” Xiao Chi’ye let go of Shen Zechuan and got off him. “Watch that body of yours!”
And then without giving Shen Zechuan a chance to respond, he plunged head-first into the water. When he came up again, water sluicing off his face, he was pretty much recovered.
Xiao Chi’ye flicked a hand through the water. His eyes were razor-sharp again as he grabbed his sword and said, “It’s almost daybreak. Let’s go.”
It was almost daybreak, and no one had been found. Ji Lei was becoming more agitated despite himself.
Qiao Tianya peeled away the mercenaries’ clothing, but found no distinguishing marks.
“This lot belongs to Xiao Ce’an,” Qiao Tianya mused, crouched on the ground. “But there are eyes on his every movement in Qu Capital. When did he procure such well-trained mercenaries?”
“Right now the most important thing is to find him!” Ji Lei looked to the north-west of Qu Capital. “The Eight Battalions should have all of the Capital’s main city gates under control by now. We cannot panic ourselves over hypotheticals.”
Qiao Tianya noticed that Ji Lei had not let go of his sword tonight, and had an inkling that the reason for his agitation was not simply that Xiao Ce’an and Prince Chu had not been found. It felt like there was something else.
“Xiao Ce’an is our safety token,” Qiao Tianya studied Ji Lei quietly. “But unknown assassins have slipped in tonight. Do you have any thoughts about that, Sir?”
“The Xiaos have offended plenty of people. If someone wants to take advantage of tonight,” Ji Lei suddenly fixed Qiao Tianya with a stare. “How would I know who they are?”
Qiao Tianya spread his hands easily. “Seeing as we can’t find Xiao Ce’an, Sir, he must have come prepared, to be able to string us along the whole night. Now that the sun’s almost up, and we’ve been sent around in circles the whole time, it almost feels like we’ve fallen into his trap.”
“His trap?” Ji Lei’s brows tightened.
“He may have leapt into the fray himself to stall for time.” Qiao Tianya stood up, casting his eyes towards the plains in the distance. “I’m guessing he’s got reinforcements.”
“There have been no military movements from any direction. Where would he find reinforcements?”
Qiao Tianya did not reply, because he did not know the answer either.
Xi Gu’an rode back to the capital. As he entered the city gates, he noticed a general quiet all around. Suspicion rose in him immediately. He drew his sword without dismounting and asked his lieutenant, “Has there been anything unusual in the Capital tonight?”
The lieutenant-commissioner had come up to take his horse. Noticing the tension on his face, he replied, “No, all as usual.”
Xi Gu’an ordered, “Gather the men. Apart from those barricading the city gates, have every remaining hand come with me to secure the Palace!”
And with that, he turned his horse towards the Palace grounds. His wife was still in the Palace. The Empress Dowager was never going to allow him to see his wife before the night was over, so even if he had to give his life to do it, he was going to make sure that the Dowager was kept safe tonight.
The lieutenant-commissioner was on his way to relay dispatch instructions, walking with a patrol unit, when they encountered a band of drunken Imperial Guards.
The Eight Battalions had always looked down on the Imperial Guard. Without even bothering to dismount, he struck out with a whip and barked, “Get lost!”
The deputy governor-general of the Imperial Guard was a man with a knife scar on his face. Catching a whip on his hide, he fell giggling to the ground, rolling about before the hooves of their horses, yelling, “We both work in the same system! My rank is even a little higher than yours! Why did you hit me? How dare you hit me!”
The lieutenant-commissioner sneered, “Lowlife Imperial leeches. Get out of the way! The Eight Battalions are on important business.”
But all of a sudden, the man rolled nimbly to his feet and cracked a frightful leer at the lieutenant-commissioner. “Important business? We’ll make licking your Grandpa Guardsmen’s boots your ‘important business’ tonight!”
As one, those cavorting, drunken Imperial Guards drew their swords in one smooth motion. As the lieutenant-commissioner pulled his reins back in shock, the file of men behind him had already had their throats cut.
The lieutenant-commissioner cried, “Are you out of your mind? The Eight Battalions—”
There was a flash of steel before his eyes, and he toppled off his horse, his blood spilling to the ground.
The man kicked aside the lieutenant-commissioner’s head, and wiped his blade clean on his headless torso. He said steadily, “Keep fucking dreaming. The winds are turning. It’s time for us Grandpa Guardsmen to take our turn pissing on all of you!”
A faint white line appeared on the horizon. The sun was coming up.
Qiao Tianya grabbed a couple of mouthfuls of water while he could, then tossed the water bladder to his men behind. He wiped his mouth and said, “Keep searching.”
But as he took a few steps forward, something twanged lightly in his brain, and he spun around, looking over each of his subordinates carefully from head to foot.
Where was Prince Chu hiding?
He could not have broken out of their barricade, so why could they not find him? Because they had been chasing ‘Prince Chu’ this whole night, but Prince Chu may already have turned into a Brocade Guard!
Qiao Tianya immediately ordered, “Waist-badge verification! Every badge on the record today will be checked against your faces. Do it now, right this moment!”
The Brocade Guards removed their waist-badges and handed them one after another to the adjudicator to be matched against their faces. The adjudicator swept his eyes over each person as he marked off their badge. He proceeded down the line like this, relying on his eidetic memory, until he reached the very end.
“Waist-badge.” The adjudicator looked up, pinning the man with his hawk-like eyes. “Hand me your waist-badge.”
The man slid his waist-badge onto the tray. The Brocade Guard right next to him suddenly began to shake, his head lowered, unable to meet his eyes.
The Adjudicator seemed not to notice, and made a check mark on his record. “Which division?”
Chenyang said, “The Swordsroom.”
“Never seen you on missions,” the Adjudicator said. “First time?”
Li Jianheng was vibrating so hard that Chenyang knew they were never going to pass now, so he went ahead and relaxed. “First time strangers, second time friends. When you’ve seen me around a few times, you’ll remember me.”
The adjudicator pointed his brush at Li Jianheng. “Waist-badge.”
Li Jianheng fumbled at it several times, but the badge remained attached to him. The adjudicator smiled and reached out a hand, as if to help him take his badge off.
The second the Adjudicator reached out, Chenyang tensed. But he was still caught by surprise when Li Jianheng, having already given it all up for lost, flinched back from the Adjudicator’s hand and threw his arms around his head, crying, “Don’t hurt me!”
At that pivotal moment, there came a piercing whistle, and a white-breasted black stallion burst from the woods. As dawn broke, the gyrfalcon too returned at last, spiralling his way across the sky, leading his charges towards their target.
Hua Siqian heard movement, then following the sounds caught sight of a contingent of mounted troops sweeping across the plains towards them. He said sharply, “The Eight Battalions?”
But these men wore unmarked armour, and carried no banner.
Chenyang saw that the time had come, and took hold of Li Jianheng to steady him. He raised his voice and declared, “The Imperial Guard has mobilised on defense of the throne! The penalty for bearing arms before His Highness the Crown Prince is certain death. Stand back immediately!”
Hua Siqian took two steps forward, disbelieving, and turned to bellow, “Prince Chu has been taken hostage by traitors. What are you waiting for?!”
Li Jianheng had shrunk back as far as he could go. As the adjudicator lunged forwards, he let out a scream. A long sword hurtled out of the woods and plunged into the ground before Li Jianheng.
Xiao Chi’ye leapt from his horse. He took off his own waist-badge and tossed it in the tray, growling, “The grand army has arrived. Who’s making the next move?”
Ji Lei had only just turned up on his horse, and hearing this, he shouted, “What a pack of lies! What can you miserable Imperial Guards— ”
The gyrfalcon landed on Xiao Chi’ye’s shoulder. Xiao Chi’ye stroked him lightly, as if in praise, and said, “Lao-Ji, if you’ve got the guts, you can try us.”
Ji Lei looked to the plains again. The Imperial Guard’s vanguard had arrived, but the army unfurling behind them stretched out beyond sight, as if there was no end to the lines of men. Their banners snapped open in the wind, revealing the colours of Qidong’s Cang county. And now they could see that the rider galloping at the forefront of the army was none other than Qi Zhuyin.
Hua Siqian took several steps back in quick succession, and clutched at Pan Rugui, muttering bitterly, “Letters to Qidong were intercepted, how could they… without a word…”
“If all correspondence from Qu Capital has to pass through the Brocade Guards,” Xiao Chi’ye sheathed his sword, “That’d be way too inconvenient, wouldn’t it?”
Hua Siqian could only watch as the tide turned against him before his eyes. He sat on the ground, mumbling, “There’s still the Dowager…”
“The Empress Dowager is getting on. For the sake of her health, she has entrusted Qu Capital to the Imperial Guard for its defense and administration.” Xiao Chi’ye had spent the whole night running about, and he pulled Li Jianheng up now, adding, “Your Highness has spent a gruelling night on the road. Please accept my apologies.”
Qi Zhuyin had arrived on her horse at his point. She vaulted off and went to her knees before Li Jianheng, making her obeisance. She spoke loudly and clearly, “Please set your mind at ease, Your Highness. Two hundred thousand troops under Qidong’s banner stand at the ready behind you. Your subject, Qi Zhuyin, will do her utmost to ensure the safety of Your Highness the Crown Prince!”
Li Jianheng looked like he might still be in a dream. He stared at Qi Zhuyin dumbly, and then checked to his left and right. Qiao Tianya, quickest on the uptake, saw how the chips had fallen, and immediately went to his knees. Once he did, the rest of the Brocade Guards followed, one by one, dropping their swords and falling to their knees.
Li Jianheng’s empty hand closed tightly into a fist, as if he had caught hold of some sort of a lifeline. He wept, almost from joy alone, and tears spilt from his eyes before his voice became audible.
“As I stand today as the Crown Prince… for the great kindness each of you here has shown me, I will repay those debts lavishly in the days to come!”
One thought on “Book One, Chapter 25: Daybreak”
nothing like ce’an suffering and trying not to seem like he’s into lanzhou all because he’s sitting on him, and is way too close to him while they’re in hiding. we also can’t forget ce’an pinning him down on the creek while prince chu is struggling not to be found out.