Wind stole into their sleeves, the cold sinking needle-like into their bones.
Then Shen Zechuan turned away and sneezed, shattering the charged stand-off between them. Sopping wet from head to foot, he flapped a hand at Xiao Chi’ye, and asked stuffily, “Have you got a handkerchief?”
Xiao Chi’ye took one step forward, and handed one to him.
The tip of Shen Zechuan’s nose was pinkish from the cold, as pink as the tips of his fingers. He held that blue square of cloth over his nose and mouth.
Xiao Chi’ye finally decided to open his umbrella, taking his time about it, still standing in Shen Zechuan’s path. “Where were you?”, he asked.
Shen Zechuan replied, “Out having fun.”
“Strictly speaking, as my personal guard, haven’t you got to at least let the Notary know when you run off to play?” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Vanishing without a trace like that, you’ll worry people.”
“I left my badge in the bath house, Er-gongzi, didn’t you find it?” Shen Zechuan could smell the scent on that handkerchief. It was actually quite pleasant. Not the perfume favoured by rich boys of the Capital, but a scent like a fierce gust of wind on a scorching, sunny day. It was the smell of Xiao Chi’ye.
What a heady scent.
Shen Zechuan’s eyes dipped low, almost mesmerised. The scent was sunlight beyond his reach, and a fire in his spirit that he would never have again. He was a little disinclined to return the handkerchief, and so, tipping his gaze upward, he cast a sideways look at Xiao Chi’ye from the corner of his eyes, as if there was something on his mind he would not say.
“No, I didn’t.” Xiao Chi’ye felt around in his own shirtfront, did not find what he was searching for, and looked around to trip right into Shen Zechuan’s gaze. He was caught short for a second, then asked, “What treachery have you been up to? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Heavens knows,” Shen Zechuan replied, faintly smug. “I’ve done so many treacherous things, after all.”
“Tell us one or two, to pass the time,” Xiao Chi’ye said.
“Hearth-side conversations belong indoors. It’s too cold to be standing around out here.” Shen Zechuan coughed a little. “Is the bath house still open?”
“It’s closed,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “If you want a bath you’ll have to come to my rooms. Shall I call a physician for you, if you’re going to be sickly?”
“What more could I ask?” Shen Zechuan countered. “If Er-gongzi sends for one on my behalf, it’ll save me the consulting fee.”
“If you’re still an invalid, it’s even more concerning that you’re running amok. I’ll have someone come with you in future.” Xiao Chi’ye stepped aside chivalrously. “Let’s go. Er-gongzi will take you back with his umbrella.”
Shen Zechuan looked at the difference in the height of their shoulders, then back at him, and commented with a quirk of his lips, “I could take the umbrella, if I went on tip-toe.”
“I’d rather not hit my head.”
Xiao Chi’ye’s face, viewed in profile, was something to savour. The line of his nose rose steep and straight, cutting a pleasing silhouette. “You’re too short,” he added.
Shen Zechuan stepped through the gates with him. “You’re the one who is far too tall.”
“I was a few heads shorter than da-ge when I was a child. Carrying around a name like mine, I got pretty anxious about living up to it, and so I practised hard every day, and made sure to drink cow’s milk before bed every night.” Xiao Chi’ye stepped over a puddle on his long legs, and continued, “I didn’t expect to start sprouting skyward when I turned thirteen.”
“Isn’t that nice,” Shen Zechuan said. “My brother was very tall too.”
The rain had petered away, but snow fell thicker.
Xiao Chi’ye tipped the umbrella up, watching the snow fall. “It’s another year,” he said.
Shen Zechuan looked to the snow as well. “It is yet another year,” he echoed.
“A new Emperor has ascended. A total amnesty has been declared.” Xiao Chi’ye paused. “The Dowager’s power has waned. You could leave the Capital, go anywhere.”
“I could change my name, hide my identity, forget my past, and live out the rest of my life in unremarkable obscurity,” Shen Zechuan continued levelly. “That’s not something I’d expect to hear from someone who hates me.”
“I hate the Wasteland Riders,” Xiao Chi’ye said flatly, “And Shen Wei.”
Shen Zechuan said, “You should hate me.”
Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes flickered.
Shen Zechuan continued, “I am a person subsisting on hate.”
Snowflakes stippled the slate tiles, each one melting in an instant.
Xiao Chi’ye said, “You understand, now more than ever, what I meant five years ago.”
“A life more agonising than death,” Shen Zechuan huffed a sudden laugh. He let a breath out, then said to Xiao Chi’ye, “No, I’m not in agony. Hate is a slow, drawn-out flaying, a knife that gouges into skin and flesh, day after day. You get numb eventually. There’s nothing in this world now that can make me feel ‘pain’. I am comfortable in myself now, living like this. You’ve tried to talk me into giving up several times, and yet you also know, more than anyone does, that ‘letting go’ has never been a choice for you or I to make. If a little warmth will make you feel better about it, then I don’t quite mind playing this game for a little while longer.”
As he spoke, Shen Zechuan lifted a hand, and his ice-cold fingertips trailed across Xiao Chi’ye’s solid back as he almost whispered in his ear,
“Some things, when seen through a cloud of fog, are so lovely you could almost taste them; but when you come closer and look again, you’ll only find a pile of bleached bones there.”
Xiao Chi’ye waited until he took his hand back, then wiggled the umbrella testily. “Bleached bones don’t feel people up like that.”
Shen Zechuan smirked, and was just about to step away when Xiao Chi’ye caught his shoulders in one swoop.
“Laying hands on your Er-gongzi, when you reek so strongly of blood?” Xiao Chi’ye’s arm was tight around him, “You’ve got some nerve. A dozen-odd people in this compound and they still couldn’t keep their eyes on you, so why head back to your room? You might as well come sleep with me.”
Before Shen Zechuan could respond, Xiao Chi’ye continued, “Seeing as you saved my life that one time, I allowed you chance after chance to come clean, but you kept playing me for a moron. Were you entertaining me? Why aren’t I laughing if you’re so entertaining? Shen Zechuan, bring it on. Weren’t you just saying that you didn’t mind a long game?”
At his last word, he threw the umbrella aside, took one step forward, and hauled Shen Zechuan up onto his shoulder.
Shen Zechuan’s head dangled towards the ground, and the world spun about him. He brought the handkerchief up to his mouth, and snapped, “Xiao Chi’ye— “
Xiao Chi’ye said, “If you move a single muscle, I’ll immediately turn Qu Capital upside down, and find out for myself who it is you’ve been conspiring with to commit murder in the dead of night.”
“Go ahead!” As soon as Shen Zechuan opened his mouth, Xiao Chi’ye jostled him hard, and he almost threw up.
“Is there a hole in the bath house for you to slither through? You left pretty quickly.” Xiao Chi’ye jumped a fence, and crossed the wilting yard with him on his shoulders. He ducked through a set of moon gates quickly, and headed directly for his own rooms.
The lookout poked his head out from where he was sprawled on the rooftop, and clicked his tongue in wonder. “Weren’t they just having a nice chit-chat in the snow, all civil-like? Why’d they get mad all of a sudden?”
“The guy doesn’t wanna go out with Er-gongzi, probably.” The guard who had been tailing Shen Zechuan took a swig of shaojiu, and added, “Like as not, that’s the reason he skedaddled yesterday too. So Er-gongzi couldn’t have his way with him, like he’s gonna tonight. I went asking around in the Imperial Guard this afternoon, and everyone there knows about it.”
“Should I report this to my lord the scion?” The one who had stuck his head out dug up a little notebook, licked his pen, and mused, “But it’s tricky to put into words.”
“Carrying someone into his rooms in broad…moonlight.” The one with the liquor looked over as well, but Xiao Chi’ye had already kicked the door shut with a bang. He thought for a bit, then said, “Nah, better to leave it… having a taste for cut sleeves isn’t a big deal, but it’s not nothing either, and if you get it wrong, you’ll have a hard time answering for it on both ends. I figure Er-gongzi would be in for a beating.”
The other one frowned, and put a few scribbles down in his book, saying, “Hm… then I’ll note it down, but I won’t report it for now. If my lord the scion takes it up with me, then I’ll say we succumbed to Er-gongzi‘s tyranny, and didn’t dare tell on him.”
“But coming back to it, how did he get away?” The one with the liquor rested his head back on his folded arms, perplexed.
The rooms were supplied with heating. Xiao Chi’ye did not release his victim, but went on a little turn about the room, rummaging through his chests of clothing, his arm hooked around Shen Zechuan’s waist.
“There’s as much hot water as you want, peilan oil, or bean soap, whichever.” As Xiao Chi’ye explained, he turned his head, and brazenly sniffed around at Shen Zechuan’s waist. “You’re not the kind of person who can’t take a bath without petals or milk or powdered pearls, are you?”
Shen Zechuan choked, “Put… I’m going to throw up!”
“Then just throw up.” Xiao Chi’ye pulled up some clothes from the very bottom of a chest, then shut its lid. Ignoring the jumble of clothing that spilled out, he continued on towards the inner chambers.
A curtain flipped aside to reveal two small rooms within, separated by a screen. Hot water was supplied on one side, and the other held racks for clothing. Xiao Chi’ye hung the clothes on the racks, and with his spare arm shifted the standing screen aside easily. Then he deposited Shen Zechuan by the bathing pool, and dragged a chair over for himself with his foot.
“Take your bath.” Xiao Chi’ye sat himself down carelessly, and lifted his chin at Shen Zechuan. “Everything you need is right here. I’ll watch you try and run this time.”
Faintly pale, Shen Zechuan said incredulously, “You’ll watch me?”
Xiao Chi’ye stretched his legs out, and folded his arms. “Feeling shy? Don’t be a runaway then.”
“I just think I might not be the one who’ll get shy about it,” Shen Zechuan fired back.
“Then go on and strip,” Xiao Chi’ye said easily. “We’ll see which of us chickens out.”
Without a second word, Shen Zechuan pulled off his sash belt. Xiao Chi’ye looked on openly, without the slightest intention of averting his gaze. By the time Shen Zechuan had gotten down to his under-robes, his knuckles were blanched white.
“I don’t know if you “feel pain”,” Xiao Chi’ye quipped, “But you do look pretty pissed off right now.”
Before he could finish, Shen Zechuan’s clothes hit him in the face.
Xiao Chi’ye laughed for some time, clutching the robes. When he pulled them off again, Shen Zechuan was already in the water.
Shen Zechuan settled on the other end of the pool, neither turning around nor looking back at him. Drops of water beaded on his smooth, luminous back, like morning dew on the petals of a gardenia flower.
Xiao Chi’ye sat for a while, then said, “What a quick temper. Didn’t you use to have comeback after comeback?”
Shen Zechuan said, “Not as quick as Er-gongzi.“
The double entendres might have worked the first time, but by the second or third re-iteration, Xiao Chi’ye would have squashed his tiny capacity for embarrassment into nothingness.
And so he kept his seat quite composedly, and answered evenly, “Naturally not.”
Some minutes later, Xiao Chi’ye spoke up again, “Aren’t you going to come clean about where you went frolicking tonight?”
“You’re the all-powerful one,” Shen Zechuan said, “Find out yourself.”
“How many places could there be these days that you can use as a murder-house?” Rummaging within Shen Zechuan’s clothes, Xiao Chi’ye retrieved the pearl, and held it at his fingertips for inspection. “The Dowager’s got money, if nothing else. Even a secret message from her has to look ostentatious. Did its dazzle scramble your brain? Is that why you were dead set on working for her?”
“Who isn’t fond of silver?” Shen Zechuan said. “You haven’t exactly been shy about acquiring provisions for the Guard, since you’ve had His Majesty’s eye. When it comes to the benefits of having money, you know better than I.”
“So when she tells you to kill someone,” Xiao Chi’ye said, “You’ll commit murder?”
Shen Zechuan decided he had had enough of a soak, and reached out for his clothes. But Xiao Chi’ye hooked the stand away with his foot, and got up. “Answer the question.”
Shirtless, Shen Zechuan answered, “Yeah.”
“Liar.” Xiao Chi’ye took down the clean set of robes, and said to Shen Zechuan, “This pearl was soaked into an absolute mess that night. How would you have been able to read what the Dowager wanted you to do? The person you killed tonight was someone you wanted dead, wasn’t he?”
Shen Zechuan said, “…mmph.”
“Don’t “mmph” at me,” Xiao Chi’ye let the fabric run between his fingers. “A vague answer doesn’t count as an answer.”
“He was someone I wanted dead,” Shen Zechuan stretched his hand out. “You’re right.”
“Ji Lei,” Xiao Chi’ye asked, “Or Pan Rugui?”
Shen Zechuan’s fingertips were in reach of the robes. He said, “Why couldn’t it have been you?”
The robes whooshed up high. Xiao Chi’ye held them out of his reach. “You can’t go a few sentences without twisting your tone, can you? Er-gongzi doesn’t hold with sarcasm. Whether it was Ji Lei or Pan Rugui you’ve killed, you can be sure that the Court of Judicial Review won’t be leaving it at that in the morning. The Dowager doesn’t know about you saving my life in the Autumn Hunt yet, but I could break the news. And when she does find out, you’ll be one of my people whether you like it or not. So stop fooling your Er-gongzi around, and let’s have a proper conversation.”
Shen Zechuan reached for his clothes, and Xiao Chi’ye lifted them higher. Shen Zechuan tolerated it once, then twice, and finally leapt up from the water and seized the robes, snarling, “A proper conversation? In the nude?!”
Xiao Chi’ye leant in closer for a look, and said, “There, this is a proper conversation. Don’t put on your spooky skeleton act with me. Ghost stories don’t scare me.”
Then he paused.
“And since you felt me up before, I’ll have to return the favour. We’re not so close that we don’t have to keep score. Here, where shall I go?”