“Then you should definitely take it off.” Xiao Chi’ye untied his vambraces, then placed them, and his great-cloak and over-robes, on a wooden rack under the eaves. The soldiers within the facility’s interior hall made to approach and greet him, but he stopped them with a gesture. Turning back around, his eyes fell back on Shen Zechuan with idle amusement. “Let’s have a look at how a body honed by the Ji Family Precepts differs from mine.”
“Since we’re of the same sect,” Shen Zechuan put Avarice aside, “We would naturally fight the same way.”
“Not necessarily true,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “My teacher assimilated other styles into his fist-work. By the time he passed it on to me, it would have been considerably different to the original Ji Family Fist. If they were identical, my training wouldn’t have escaped you that night.”
“If you want to spar, then say so.” Shen Zechuan slid one foot back in a smooth arc. “Don’t say “take your clothes off” like some savage.”
In that single moment, to Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes, he seemed to transform into someone else entirely. Autumn rain and valley fog overlaid to fade away Shen Zechuan’s features, drawing the eye to his long, slender form instead.
“It’s my goddamn aspiration to live like a savage in gentlemen’s clothing.” Xiao Chi’ye stepped down into the veil of rain. “Five years ago I kicked you to the ground. Do you hate me for it?”
Shen Zechuan said, “If I say that I do, would it not suggest that you fill my thoughts in every waking hour? I don’t. Not even a little.”
Xiao Chi’ye took up his opening stance. He said, “That’s a pity. If you hated me, you could have your revenge today.”
The wind rose, piercingly cold, and Xiao Chi’ye added lazily, “— if you’re up for it.”
Rain pelted down. Meng took a few hops under the corridor, and suddenly snapped open both his wings. In that split second, Xiao Chi’ye leapt first.
He led with a punch and struck amiss, but that formidable momentum sent water droplets flying into Shen Zechuan’s face.
Xiao Chi’ye followed his miss immediately with a sweep to the left. Shen Zechuan brought his hands up to block. When their arms collided, Shen Zechuan winced and stumbled back a few steps.
The Ji Family Fist!
Shen Zechuan pinched his lips together, but couldn’t help a smile.
His Teacher’s fists were forceful and gravely self-assured. What Xiao Chi’ye’s lacked in gravity, he clearly made up for in ferocity. His strength was staggering. Even that glancing impact had sent pins and needles down Shen Zechuan’s arm.
He was the kind of successor the Ji Family Fist was meant for, a through-and-through complement of the style. Xiao Chi’ye’s physique privileged him to stand above the crowds, but did simply winning the lottery of life mean that he would win this bout?
The last thing Shen Zechuan believed in was a person’s lot in life!
Shen Zechuan lashed out with his foot in mid-air, and raindrops showered Xiao Chi’ye. His sweeping kick was swift and vicious. Any other person would have weighed their odds, and chosen to side-step the edge of that assault.
But he would not be Xiao Chi’ye if he did not meet the challenge head-on. He raised his forearms, and with a thud, parried Shen Zechuan’s kick, taking a steady step forward under the impact.
Shen Zechuan would not have time to withdraw his leg now. One took on Xiao Chi’ye much like taking on a wild beast crouched to spring. At the smallest wavering, or the slightest aversion of your eyes, or if you shied away a little in your movements, Xiao Chi’ye would strike immediately and relentlessly, pressing his advantage. He would never let a single opening slip by.
Xiao Chi’ye on the defensive would be far easier to deal with than Xiao Chi’ye on the offensive!
Shen Zechuan bore down with his foot, forcing Xiao Chi’ye to slow down a fraction. In the next quicksilver second, Xiao Chi’ye had flung Shen Zechuan into the air. Shen Zechuan threw himself backward, caught both palms on the ground, and then sprung back up like a supple willow-branch in the wind. As he leapt up, his leg swept forward again.
Xiao Chi’ye parried again with his arms, but this time his eyes were cool as he said, “You’re beating your head against a brick wall. Should I reproach you for biting off more than you can chew, or be touched by your admirable courage?”
Almost before he was finished speaking, Xiao Chi’ye had reached around and seized Shen Zechuan by his lower leg. Xiao Chi’ye’s shoulder heaved downwards, attempting to throw Shen Zechuan to the ground.
Shen Zechuan, already slung half-way into the air, planted an expedient foot onto Xiao Chi’ye’s shoulder. His astonishing core strength came into play again as he wrapped his legs about Xiao Chi’ye’s neck, and brought Xiao Chi’ye slamming down onto the ground with him.
Xiao Chi’ye’s hand slid up unhesitatingly along that taut line, and caught hold of that sinuous, arching part of him. The pliancy under his palm was incredibly smooth-skinned.
The whole point of this had been to lay his hands on Shen Zechuan.
He had to get an answer. Whether it was the Ji Family Fist or the Ji Family Sword, if a person was to practice it for years on end, his training would show in his musculature. But not only was Shen Zechuan able to feign as though he had never practised martial arts, he had deceived both Chen Yang and Qiao Tianya’s veteran eyes into thinking that he was feeble, anaemic, and sickly.
Shen Zechuan reared back off the ground, and rammed his elbow backwards at Xiao Chi’ye’s head. Xiao Chi’ye ducked it, but his hand was still locked around Shen Zechuan’s waist, and he pulled him in tightly against his chest. The hand on Shen Zechaun’s waist swept upwards towards his sternum.
The pearl was still hidden in the front of his robes!
Shen Zechuan gave a hard buck backwards, clasped his arm onto Xiao Chi’ye’s, and threw him over his shoulder into the sodden ground.
The splash of rainwater soaked his hair.
Shen Zechuan made to pull back, but one of Xiao Chi’ye’s long legs caught and tripped him towards himself. Shen Zechuan tipped towards Xiao Chi’ye, but in the next instant had rebounded like a reverberant zither string, precariously steadying himself in the wet.
Xiao Chi’ye leapt up again, throwing out an uppercut which did not find its mark, but instead caught an errant length of Shen Zechuan’s unbound hair as he spun away to evade it.
That length of hair was drenched in rain, and its clinging strands slipped reluctantly from Xiao Chi’ye’s fingertips, faintly damp and ticklish.
“That’s enough.” Xiao Chi’ye clenched his fingers into his palm. He looked at Shen Zechuan. “The rain’s getting heavier.”
Shen Zechuan glanced back at him. “Done feeling me up?”
Xiao Chi’ye said with a straight face, “Neither too firm nor too soft.”
Shen Zechuan taunted lightly, “I was beginning to think you were going to start on my clothes next.”
“If I wanted them off,” Xiao Chi’ye said, “Everything would be out in the open by now.”
Then he lifted his other hand, and the thin blades that Shen Zechuan always carried on his person waggled between his fingertips.
“The Ji Family Precepts were made for the sword. If all you’ll use are these little things, you will never stand a chance against me, at least not in this lifetime. And if you can’t beat me, how will you avenge yourself?”
Shen Zechuan’s blades were kept close against his upper thigh. He glanced down, then up again at Xiao Chi’ye. He said, “All this talk of violence makes us sound quite disagreeable. Isn’t it much more pleasant to keep up our two-part pantomime?”
Xiao Chi’ye said, “If only I could believe that there wasn’t a knife’s edge to your smile. I wouldn’t like to turn around to find a dagger in my side.”
“Only the character for lust bears a dagger over its head.” Shen Zechuan spread his hands. “Er-gongzi has nothing to fear as an honourable gentleman.”1
Xiao Chi’ye placed the thin blades back into Shen Zechuan’s palm. He said airily, “Haven’t we just established that your “Er-gongzi” is a savage in gentlemen’s clothing? Why do you keep mistaking me for a man of honour?”
Shen Zechuan began to draw back his hand.
Xiao Chi’ye, however, caught his wrist. “Given how good you’ve been today, Er-gongzi will show you a good place to relax.”
“Governor-General,” Shen Zechuan suddenly turned serious, “Please, I don’t like men. Can’t we part ways as friends? Why must you hound me so?”
Xiao Chi’ye halted, nonplussed. Then he looked to the side, and saw the peanut gallery of Imperial Guards crowded around the doors and windows of the interior hall.
The Deputy Governor-General of the Imperial Guard was that scar-faced man who had led the assassination of the Eight Battalion patrol unit that autumn night. He led the wolf-whistling now, hanging out of a window.
“Are ya fighting or harassing him, Gov’nor? Why ain’tcha ever give us a smile when you’re reaming into us on the daily?”
“He’s badgering him!” They darted significant looks at each other, building up a good heckle. “It ain’t the same, is it, when you’re badgering a fella! The Governor’s twenty-and-three, and he hasn’t got no missus at home to spoil. There’s all that steam in him to be let off on the other guy. It ain’t the same at all!”
Xiao Chi’ye felt rather than saw Shen Zechuan inching away, and yanked him forcefully back towards himself, a bright smile on his face. “I do enjoy a good chase, Lanzhou. Where do you think you’re going? I’m not done hounding you yet! If you don’t like men, it’s only because you haven’t had a proper taste of one. Come, Er-gongzi will show you.”
When it came to boorish behaviour, Xiao Chi’ye would yield to none save Li Jianheng. The “sexual predator” play-book was hardly new or original. Did he hope to stump him with a simple move like this? Who did he think Xiao Chi’ye was?
Without giving Shen Zechuan a single chance to respond, he dragged him away.
In their wake, rubbing at his scarred face, Tantai Hu asked the soldier beside him, “Who’s that? Why ain’t we seen him in the Guard before?”
“His family name’s Shen,” the man beside him waggled his eyebrows. “The one from Zhongbo.”
The grin curdled on Tantai Hu’s face. He stretched his neck out and peered after them, then turned back around and growled, “That’s the Shen boy who fucked up Zhongbo? What’s the Gov’nor having him around for! Shen Wei did in so many people, if he had eight heads it wouldn’t’ve been enough for the taking! We smashed up the Lord of Jianxing’s house, but here he is in Qu Capital livin’ it up, while the orphans up and down Chashi river are still gnawing on mud! Fuckin’ hell, why didn’t you say something earlier?!”
Xiao Chi’ye took Shen Zechuan up Feng hill.
A narrow stone stairway had been carved into the hill, water running from the steps in icy streams that soaked through the soles of their shoes, appallingly cold. But Xiao Chi’ye never looked back once, sweeping aside a dripping canopy of maple leaves to turn onto a narrower path. Both their shoes were weighed down by mud, and they squelched unevenly inward.
The better part of an hour had passed before Xiao Chi’ye finally stopped.
The little thatched house that rose out of the rain and fog was charming, but did not look like a place someone would live.
He turned and said to Shen Zechuan, “You saved me once at the Nanling Hunting Grounds. As reward, I’ll share half of this place with you.”
“I was hoping to be paid in coins and silver,” Shen Zechuan said. “…not a shared bath.”
“Fortune and fame are but worldly pursuits,” Xiao Chi’ye stretched his arms out comfortably, then flung aside the door curtains and went in. As he stood in the entrance shedding his clothes, he called, “Not even the almighty Emperor has had this privilege.”
Shen Zechuan lifted the curtains to see that Xiao Chi’ye had already stripped his upper torso bare. The clean, sharp lines of his well-muscled shoulders and back looked as though they might have been whittled into form.
Apart from a small, curlicued clothes stand, the only other occupant of the room was a hot spring that led to the exterior. Xiao Chi’ye’s clothing hung from one side of the stand, the other side having evidently been left for him.
Xiao Chi’ye took off his boots as well, and shot Shen Zechuan a look over his shoulders. “Are you going to turn around and strip, or do it while staring at me?”
Shen Zechuan untied his belt, and turned his back on him. The pearl dropped into his palm, and he smoothly tucked it into his sleeve-pockets. Those eyes never shifted from his back. Shen Zechuan’s hands hesitated, then pulled off his over-robes.
Xiao Chi’ye watched as that article of clothing slid to the ground. At last the unveiling, as the paleness at Shen Zechuan’s neck swept downwards, like a slip of pear-blossom parchment saturated by moonlight. The planes of his back appeared both insubstantial and smooth to the touch.
So Xiao Chi’ye thought to himself.
This was it. After all that time spent staring at the back of Shen Zechuan’s neck, this was the moment he seemed to have been waiting for.
How could the nape of a man’s neck possess such startling beauty? It surpassed all that Xiao Chi’ye thought he understood of the world, and not only amazed, but also confounded him.
The little wolf from Libei had sharp fangs indeed, but they had never been set upon a neck like this, or a person like that. His gaze traced an almost palpable path as it dragged slowly from the nape of Shen Zechuan’s neck, along that gently undulating curve, gliding lower, lower.
Xiao Chi’ye came back to himself with a jolt, mouth dry as a desert. He hastily cut his gaze away again.
Have you lost it?!
He thought to himself.
How many girls were there on Donglong Avenue! And which of them could he not call a genuine, certified beauty? Why would the mere sight of a man’s back set him ablaze with ravenous desire now?
Xiao Chi’ye had always held those who were easily swayed by lust in the greatest contempt. All of the elders he looked up to were men of strong will, each one of them an upright gentleman, imperturbable in the face of temptation.
Like his father, or his brother, or his teacher.
Great military generals came and went, but he had never admired Qi Shiyu, precisely because Qi Shiyu was a skirt-chaser. After the battle of Zhongbo, he came to loath Shen Wei more than anyone else, and that was also because he had been a lecher as well as an unconscionable criminal!
But in this moment he found himself a little lightheaded, as that involuntary part of him, reeled in by beauty, quickened by desire, showed signs of raising its head again.
With all his will, Xiao Chi’ye held his gaze in check, acutely experiencing the conflict between his soul and his desire. He had no love for this person, but for the second time now, in the wake of that beauty, there arose in him the urge to press him into his arms, to ravage him, to tear at him with his teeth.
“Aren’t we going down?” Shen Zechuan turned around, oblivious, and walked closer.
Xiao Chi’ye gritted out, “…Yeah.”
Author’s note: The nape of the neck does allude to sexual desire 🤣
Translator’s note: …No! *shocked pikachu face*
 The character for lust, 色, bears a 刀 (dagger) radical on its head.
One thought on “Book One, Chapter 31: The Nape”
Awesome chapter! Thanks for the tl!
Seriously, thank you for all your hard work. I can never as I’m terrible with mtling and languages, so much respect for you, hun. ❤