Book One, Chapter 36: Scent

In a swift flick, borrowing Xiao Chi’ye’s move from some time ago, Shen Zechuan sent a spray of water flying at his face, and amongst the distraction grabbed his clothes back from him.

Momentarily blinded by the water in his eyes, Xiao Chi’ye reached up for a dry towel, looped it over Shen Zechuan’s head, and proceeded to ruffle the absolute life out of him. Caught in the middle of dressing himself, Shen Zechuan swayed bodily with the force of this manhandling. Furious, he kicked out at Xiao Chi’ye’s chair with his bare foot.

As the chair under him skidded backward, Xiao Chi’ye threw his legs out and snared Shen Zechuan between his thighs, then dragged Shen Zechuan in against himself and set to work roughing up Shen Zechuan’s head as if ruffling at a small dog.

“Then I’ll touch where I like!” Xiao Chi’ye said viciously.

“Where…you…bast-…-‘an!” Shen Zechuan’s words were rumpled into unintelligible syllables by the towel.

Xiao Chi’ye yanked off the towel, and said not a word, but caught Shen Zechuan’s chin with one hand, while his other hand found his nape, and followed it downwards to the small of his back.

“Bastard?” Xiao Chi’ye asked. “You called me a bastard?”

Shen Zechuan’s sash was untied, and the robes he wore now were Xiao Chi’ye’s old ones. They hung loosely on him, exposing his collarbone. Wherever Xiao Chi’ye’s hand travelled, the drops of water that still clung to him dampened Xiao Chi’ye’s fingertips, melding into the smooth slickness of his skin.

“I didn’t say it,” Shen Zechuan reached behind himself and pinned Xiao Chi’ye’s hand down. “They do say that one must reflect thrice upon himself each day, Er-gongzi. Well done on the self-reflection.”

“You don’t understand,” Xiao Chi’ye’s quick fingers twisted around to clasp around Shen Zechuan’s hand in turn. “”Bastard” was the very first word I learnt. We’ve already gone over this: your Er-gongzi is a degenerate. I don’t have to do any reflection at all to know that. This waist of yours is a little too slim, isn’t it?”

“As slim as the chances you’ve had to paw at it,” Shen Zechuan sniped.

“Of course,” Xiao Chi’ye deliberately misunderstood him. “It’s your waist after all, naturally I haven’t had many chances to have a feel.”

Disinclined to continue this clown-show with him, Shen Zechuan cinched his sash tight with one hand, and said, “You’ve returned the favour now, so this ends here.”

Xiao Chi’ye unclasped his legs, and Shen Zechuan knotted his sash securely. The harassment under Xiao Chi’ye’s towel had rubbed a tinge of pink into his cheeks.

Xiao Chi’ye suddenly felt much too warm. He got up to retrieve the pearl from the floor, but then unwittingly caught a glimpse of Shen Zechuan’s bare legs as he did. He stared, then straightened up very briskly, took two steps back, and then advanced two steps forward again. He said, “Go to bed.”

Before bed, Shen Zechuan downed a bowl of ginger tea, rinsed his mouth, and sneezed again.

Xiao Chi’ye was privately amused by the way he sneezed, like a small cat… He soaked his towel in cold water, and ran it over his own face.

“Don’t go over there.” Xiao Chi’ye pointed at his own bed as he shed his clothing. “You’re sleeping on my bed.”

Shen Zechuan dabbed water from his lips, and said, “Then I won’t stand on ceremony.”

Without demurring, he settled on Xiao Chi’ye’s bed.

Xiao Chi’ye shifted a table and some chairs aside, and then dragged a simple, square couch into the vacated space, barely a footrest’s space apart from Shen Zechuan. He threw himself onto it, put his head on his arms, and said, “Get the light, Lanzhou.”

Shen Zechuan blew the lights out, ducked under the covers, and laid down with his back to him.

It was still snowing outside. Inside, there was warmth, and silence.

Xiao Chi’ye closed his eyes, as if falling asleep. Vestiges of the feeling of Shen Zechuan’s skin lingered on his fingertips, becoming now, in the darkness, ever more distinct. Xiao Chi’ye opened his eyes, stared up at the ceiling, and began to think about the grey-blue skies of Libei.

Only those empty of desire may ascend.

When his teacher first taught him to hold a bow, they had been in the middle of one of Libei’s lush, wet seasons. He was sat atop the fences on the edge of the horse ranch, his face turned up towards the clear blue sky.

Zuo Qianqiu had asked, “What are you thinking about?”

The thumb-ring had dangled on Xiao Chi’ye’s neck then. He had swung his short little legs, and said, “I want a falcon, Teacher, I want to fly.”

Sitting to one side, Zuo Qianqiu had patted him on the back of his head, and said, “You, too, are a man filled head to toe with desires. But in this world, only those empty of desire may ascend. Oftentimes, the presence of desire becomes a cage to bind you.”

Incapable of sitting still, Xiao Chi’ye had taken hold of the top rail with both his hands, and flipped himself off to hang upside down on the fence, showering his own face with dirt and bits of grass from his robes in the process. He had said, “Well, it’s only natural to want things, isn’t it?”

“Wanting is the origin of both joy and suffering.” Zuo Qianqiu had been holding his own longbow in his lap, meticulously wiping it down with a rag. “If you concede to living as a mortal man, fraught with desires, then you will always be anxious of what you could have, and what you might lose. If you want something, you must have it— that is your nature, little wolf. But A’ye, in your future, there will always be many things which you will want, but may never have. What will you do then?”

Xiao Chi’ye had landed on the ground, and caught at the hem of his robes, trapping an enormous grasshopper in his hand. Holding the struggling grasshopper between his fingers, he had answered distractedly, “Dad says when there’s a will, there’s a way. There’s nothing that can’t be had.”

Zuo Qianqiu had sighed, reflecting that he may be too young after all, and in resignation had pointed at the sky, asking, “Alright. You said you wanted to fly, but can you really?”

Xiao Chi’ye released his grasshopper then, and lifted his head to look at Zuo Qianqiu. He said solemnly, “I can learn falconry from other people. When I have tamed a falcon, then its wings will belong to me, and the skies it has flown in will be skies I have flown in. Teacher, you have to be adaptable.”

Zuo Qianqiu had looked at him for a long while, then said, “You’re a wiser man than I… I am a fool who has never learnt to adapt.”

Xiao Chi’ye had spread his arms wide like a falcon, and zoomed around a little in the grass fields, running against the wind. He had said, “I also want to train horses.”

“Both the falcon and the horse are strong-willed creatures,” Zuo Qianqiu followed along behind him. “Looks like our A’ye likes them wilful and indomitable.”

“Taming,” Xiao Chi’ye had said, “I like the kind of process it takes.”

Xiao Chi’ye thought now—

He didn’t like the process, he relished it, he was addicted to it. Take manning a falcon, for example. For seven days one must not allow the falcon to fall asleep, and for four days one would not feed it. It must be kept wanting, until the feathers on its head fluff up in exhaustion, and its pupils are “smaller than sesame seeds”, until it would heed one’s commands, and can be taken out on a hunt.

And now, “lust’ was the name of his newly acquired falcon.

Xiao Chi’ye turned his head slightly to look at the form of Shen Zechuan’s back. Where his robes had slipped askew, Shen Zechuan’s nape lay bare in the murky darkness, a piece of uncut jade with a lustrous texture.

Xiao Chi’ye was hard again.

He did not move, or shift his eyes away. He did not believe that this skin-deep lust could hold any power over him, and nor did he believe that he would yield to such a brutish instinct.

The sun had not risen on the next morning when the two of them, as if reaching the ends of both their tethers, sat up at the exact same time.

On the roof, the two guards who had spent the night there huffed warm breaths into the frigid air as they watched the serving girls stream into the house. “It was pretty quiet during the night.”

The one with the liquor said, “Didn’t work out then.”

The one with the pen queried, “How’d you know that?”

The one with the liquor shifted himself, so he was watching Shen Zechuan come out of the house. He said, “Look at him. He’s moving about normally. Apart from the dark circles under his eyes, that’s a man who’s clearly had some rest.”

Then they turned their heads together, to look at Xiao Chi’ye, coming out the door behind him.

The one with the pen said, “…Er-gongzi doesn’t look too happy.”

The one with the liquor said, “It’s frustration, innit.”

As Chenyang helped Xiao Chi’ye into his greatcoat, he noted his grim demeanour, and asked, “Has he upset one of your plans, Governor?”

Xiao Chi’ye replied, “Mm, you could say that.”

Startled, Chenyang asked, “So last night…”

“He feigned sleep like a pro.” Xiao Chi’ye knotted Avarice to his belt, and walked down the steps into the snow. “Come on, we’re going to the training grounds at Feng hill.”

Chenyang ran to catch up. “We’re not on duty today, and it’s snowing too, Governor…”

Xiao Chi’ye mounted his horse, and commanded, “I’m going to take a look at the new equipment. Tell Gujin and Dingtao to watch him closely.”

Chenyang nodded.

Xiao Chi’ye raised his head to yell at the two figures on the roof, “If you lose him one more time, the two of you can bugger off too.”

The two heads that had appeared over the rooftop bobbed hastily in unison, then shrank back down from view.

Dingtao tucked his brush and notebook safely back in his shirtfront. “Great. Now we’ve gone from Er-gongzi‘s bodyguards, to his bodyguards.”

Gujin swished his dwindling supply of liquor around, and said, “I think he’ll do for himself one on eight. All we need to do is keep an eye on him.”

“Just have to keep an eye on him.” Dingtao prepped himself, placing both hands neatly on his knees. He sat like that for a moment, then said, “But where is he?”

The two of them looked at each other, leapt up simultaneously, and cried, “Oh no!”


Baozi in his mouth, Shen Zechuan unlatched the back door to the Temple of Penitence.

Ji Gang was practising his Fist movements in the yard. Catching sight of him, he wiped himself off with a towel around his neck, and asked, “How come you’re here at this time in the morning?”

Shen Zechuan replied, “Things will be getting busy in a few days. Today’s the only good time.”

Grand Tutor Qi was asleep in a mound of paper, his snores thunderous. Consequently, Shen Zechuan and Ji Gang did not enter the building, but sat under the eaves, chatting idly.

Wiping his face, Ji Gang asked, “You haven’t lapsed lately on practising, have you?”

Shen Zechuan flipped back his sleeves to show him the bruises from sparring with Xiao Chi’ye the day before. “Had a fight with Xiao Ce’an,” he said.

Ji Lei startled, then exploded, “He hit you?!”

“I think to get a look at my internal style.” Shen Zechuan let down his sleeves, and said, “Teacher, he’s extraordinarily gifted. His physique is a step above even the Lord of Libei. Going up against him with the Ji Family Fist, I felt like an ant trying to uproot a tree. Nothing I did could move him.”

“When Zuo Qianqiu left the Capital, he travelled to Suo Tian Guan, and encountered Feng Yisheng there,” Ji Lei said. “Feng Yisheng adopted Zuo Qianqiu as his surrogate son, and passed the Feng Sword Style to him as well. By the time it reached Xiao Ce’an, it’s probably become a hybrid form of its own, quite different from our style. But the Ji style naturally has its own strengths. If the two of you were to duel on the basis of swordsmanship alone, you would see the difference.”

“Avarice was made by a master swordsmith under General Qi’s banner. It cuts cleanly through iron as though through mud. An ordinary sword would still be useless against it,” Shen Zechuan mused.

“The Qi family’s swordsmiths only make “General’s Blades”, forged for the battlefield. Take that Avarice, for example: if it went to war, a direct blow would crack a man’s bone in two. It was made to perfectly complement the lad’s arm strength,” Ji Lei explained, knocking snow off his shoes. “As for us, even if we had a go with it, we may not find that it suits us. But don’t you worry about your sword, your Teacher’s had one scoped out for you for a long time.”

“My sword?” Shen Zechuan was caught a little off-guard.

“The Brocade Guard is a treasure of a place,” Ji Gang smiled at him. “You’ve only been in it a little while, but as time passes you will slowly come to realise that many of Dazhou’s hidden talents are tucked away there. Qi Zhuyin may have her master swordsmiths, but we’ve no lack for them in the Brocade Guard either. I have my eyes on that sword of Ji Lei’s. Just you wait: when Teacher gets hold of it for you, and has it reforged by an old acquaintance, it’ll not be coming off second best against that Avarice of Xiao Ce’an’s!”

“Doesn’t Ji Lei use a Xiuchun sword?”

“He usually carries the Xiuchun sword, but he’s also got my dad’s sword stashed away,” Ji Gang harrumphed. “Why hasn’t he died yet? The sooner the Court of Judicial Review passes his sentence, the sooner they can get that sword impounded. The moment it’s in the vault, I’ll have my ways to get hold of it.”

“After such an extended period of punishment,” Shen Zechuan said peaceably, “He must be coming to the end of his rope.”

“That man I had you seek out before the Autumn Hunt, have you found him?” Suddenly reminded, Ji Gang hastened to ask.

“I did,” Shen Zechuan smiled. “As it happens, I’m just waiting for him to be released.”


As Xiao Chi’ye had not turned up even by dinnertime, Shen Zechuan retired to his own room. In the middle of the night, he heard hurried footsteps outside, and then someone knocked on his door.

Shen Zechuan was about to pretend not to have heard, but then his window creaked, and Xiao Chi’ye propped his window open with his scabbard to whistle at him.

Meng landed on the windowsill, and put his head to the side to look in as well.

“We agreed to sleep together,” Xiao Chi’ye said reprovingly. “Why have you snuck back here again?”

Shen Zechuan flung his pillow at the window, and Xiao Chi’ye caught it. Shen Zechuan was left with no option but to get up with his blanket in his arms, and open the door.

Xiao Chi’ye held his pillow in his arms, and sniffed at it suddenly. “Do you use perfume?”, he asked.

Shen Zechuan replied, “I put on 10 jin of powder everyday.”

“Is that so,” Xiao Chi’ye laughed.

Shen Zechuan walked on ahead. With Xiao Chi’ye looming behind him, he could no longer even feel the night breeze. Then there was a cold touch at the back of his neck, and he whipped his head back.

Xiao Chi’ye had grazed him with a finger, which he was now sniffing, a little quizzically.

“What’s that smell on you,” Xiao Chi’ye asked, “It smells…”

Shen Zechuan hurled his blanket over Xiao Chi’ye’s head, and coolly replied, “You’re smelling the gunpowder on yourself.”

Xiao Chi’ye stood for a moment, then in a lightning-swift movement flipped up the edge of the blanket, and scooped Shen Zechuan in with him.

Up above, Dingtao’s head poked out from the roof’s edge, and he whipped out his little notebook, cheering, “Good job Er-gongzi! You caught him!”

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