Book One, Chapter 40: Savagery

Fresh vegetables were a scarcity in winter, and these days, the highest prices in Qu Capital were commanded by green produce. Xiao Chi’ye had received a bonus from Li Jianheng, and tonight, there was a plate of crisp, slivered cucumber on his table.

“”Pickles for your side dish, to rouse the spleen and cure dullness.””1 Xiao Chi’ye ladled some hot soup into a bowl, and pushed it towards Shen Zechuan. “You’ve been standing out there for ages. Warm yourself up and have something refreshing before going to bed.”

“The proverbs have it right,” Shen Zechuan wiped his hands and sat down. “He who volunteers solicitude for no good reason is either a swindler or a crook. What does Er-gongzi want?”

“I want far too many things,” Xiao Chi’ye replied. “Let’s talk while we eat.”

They took up their chopsticks together.

They were the only people in the room, and the two bowls of rice were polished off in short order. Between the two of them, they also cleaned out the plate of cucumber, whereas neither paid much attention to the meat dishes.

“My teacher will be coming up to the Capital for New Year’s soon,” Xiao Chi’ye said over his soup. “If Master Ji Gang has time, we could arrange for the elders to meet up.”

“For a New Year’s party or a black banquet, you’ll first have to clarify,” Shen Zechuan put down his chopsticks. “I’m not walking my teacher into an ambush.”

“It’s a New Year’s party,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “They’re the only ones left in their generation of the Ji’s, and it’s been many years since they’ve met.”

“Easily done. I’ll prepare a greeting gift for the occasion, and invite my teacher out of retirement,” Shen Zechuan said. He was finished with dinner.

As he rose, Xiao Chi’ye added, “You’re still sleeping in my room tonight.”

Shen Zechuan looked around at him, and his lips curved. “Of course. I’d never run off on you. But let’s take turns for the bathroom— you enjoy the rest of your dinner, I’ll go first.”

Then he lifted the curtains and went inside to wash up by himself.

Xiao Chi’ye called for the table to be cleared. As he stood by the window waiting, he saw that it had begun to snow outside. He turned his head, and through the veil of curtain cloth, caught sight of the shape of Shen Zechuan’s shadow.

Shen Zechuan had shed his outer robes, as if peeling off a layer of coarse husk to reveal delicate, succulent flesh within. As he looked down to undo his belt, a warm orange glow skimmed along the curve of his nape, as though it would coat that smooth arc again with a little more silk.

A view like that behind curtain cloth was like an itch in a boot. That hungry allure only became amplified, and wandered diffusely through every bone in his body, setting off prickles of agitation wherever it went, stirring up the impulse to ravage and devastate. His jadeite appearance was inconsequential— what Xiao Chi’ye minded most was Shen Zechuan’s desire.

Those eyes of his, that particular smile — he seemed, at all times, knowingly or unthinkingly, to be giving off that singular sense of erotic desire.

“Come hold me.”

“Come touch me.”

“Come to me, and spend yourself to your heart’s content.”

That desire, like a fine mizzle, was an unobtrusive presence which nevertheless made its quiet way under your skin. And yet Shen Zechuan himself seemed entirely unconscious of his effect. He had kept for himself a cool indifference that was antithetical to that desire, and had lightly flung off the conundrum of his contradictory nature for everyone else to dwell upon.

Xiao Chi’ye did not want to dwell upon it any further. He sensed acutely that this time, this “falcon” of his may not be quite so easy to tame. He would have no other master but himself, and he would not suffer himself to be so easily and so frequently roused to impulsiveness.

Xiao Chi’ye turned his head back around, closed the windows, and went off to the common bath house.


They slept again on opposite sides of the footrest, back to back, breathing slow and easy, as though both were fast asleep.

Xiao Chi’ye, thumb ring pressed against his skin, was remembering many things.

This bone-hewn ring did not always belong to him— in the very beginning, its owner was Feng Yisheng of Suo Tian Guan. When Feng Yisheng perished on the battlefield, he had passed the ring to Zuo Qianqiu. Then, wearing this ring on his hand, Zuo Qianqiu had risen to prominence in the course of a single battle at Tianfei Gate, where he killed his own wife by arrow-shot.

Zuo Qianqiu’s hair turned grey after that battle, and he never rose again from that blow. His name had gained indisputable renown, but the man himself was dead. Zuo Qianqiu would never again be able to ride onto a battlefield. His hands, which had once seized the triumph of Tianfei Gate, would never again hold a bow with fluid ease.

Xiao Chi’ye had studied under Zuo Qianqiu as a child, and once asked him, “How come you shot your own wife?”

Zuo Qianqiu, polishing a length of bowstring, had asked him, “Do you really want to be a general?”

Xiao Chi’ye had nodded.

Zuo Qianqiu said, “Then don’t have a family. They say “The general dies in his hundredth battle”, but that is nothing to fear. What you should be afraid of is this: as a general, you will almost certainly find yourself faced with impossible decisions. At those times, what your heart will desire, and what your shoulders must carry, will be two different things.”

Zuo Qianqiu had looked down at his bow with desolation in his eyes, the wind on the plains stirring his grey hair. He murmured absently, “I hope that you will never find yourself in such desperate straits. In a place like that, whichever choice you make, you will die for it.”

“You saved thousands of people at Tianfei Gate,” Xiao Chi’ye had folded himself atop a fence. “Why didn’t you want your title?”

Zuo Qianqiu had smiled at that. He said, “Because I was dead.”

It was only in his teenage years that Xiao Chi’ye finally came to understand what Zuo Qianqiu had meant: In the battle of Tianfei Gate, Zuo Qianqiu’s beloved wife had been taken hostage, and he had been asked to choose between surrender and a fight to the death under siege.

Zuo Qianqiu had chosen neither. He had ridden out of the city alone, drawn his bow, and ended his wife’s life by his own arrow.

Legend had it that it had been the steadiest shot of his career. Over the heads of thousands of men, his arrow had struck fatal. That night, under torrential rain, no one knew if he had wept, or when in the night all of his hair had turned grey. After the retreat at daybreak, treading over the corpse-strewn battlefield, Zuo Qianqiu had collected his wife’s body for burial.

From that day on, Zuo Qianqiu, the “Sleeping Thunder of the Jade Tower”, had soared to fame. But even those who respected and admired him would criticise him when their backs were turned. A man with such a heart of stone was, to the everyman, no different from a mythological beast of calamity— as though men who became generals were different men, born with ice in their veins.

Xiao Chi’ye treasured that ring, but he also feared it. He dreaded one day falling into such an impossible dilemma, and therefore never cast his favour lightly.

Chen Yang had been with him for the longest time, but to this day, he did not know his master’s preferences. What kind of wine he preferred, which dish he favoured, how he chose to dress himself— truth was shuffled with pretence, until no one could tell one apart from the other.

Libei, Libei!

It seemed as though that name was the only vulnerability he could never hide from the world. He had already had a taste of how it felt to be hamstrung by desire. How could he seek out more trouble for himself?

Xiao Chi’ye sat up soundlessly, and looked towards Shen Zechuan. He lifted a hand. Just a little further, a little tighter, and he could throttle his desire where it lay.

Shen Zechuan seemed to have fallen into a bad dream. His brows knit together in his sleep, his hairline damp with cold sweat. In the small of his back, his clothes were beginning to soak through.

Xiao Chi’ye leaned forward to look at him, and saw a Shen Zechuan that he had never seen before.

Shen Zechuan was mired in a swamp of blood, wet to the skin. He touched a hand to the wetness, and it, too, was blood. It was the same dream that repeated itself to him every day, day after day. He could feel himself going mad.

As he watched, Shen Zechuan made a few slight, convulsive movements, and his tightly pinched lips eased themselves open, murmuring something beneath cold sweat.

He was so helpless.

Something was dawning upon Xiao Chi’ye. From within the depths of his profound unease and mistrust, he tasted a mote of something rather different. He cast a contemplative eye over Shen Zechuan, like some colossal predator watching its unwary prey.

Shen Zechuan was not invulnerable, after all. Beyond their noncommittal mutual probing, beyond that inexplicable mutual apprehension, they shared an even less explicable fellowship in suffering.

Shen Zechuan was incredibly tired. He would no longer cry in terror in his dreams, or clutch at the corpses there. He recognised his nightmares now. He knew that Ji Mu was dead.

Hurry up.

Shen Zechuan thought, like a cold-eyed bystander.

Hurry up. Get to the end already.

He goaded the dream darkly, savagely, almost willing the blood to swirl faster, the snow to fall more thickly. What else did this nightmare have to shove in his face? There was no fear left in him anymore. His flesh and bones, his very marrow, had been soaked through and through! He was a feral dog with rotten carrion between his teeth, and these filthy waters, this seething hatred, was proof that he was still alive.

Shen Zechuan’s eyes snapped open, and a hand shot up to brace against Xiao Chi’ye’s chest. A flicker of a moment later, still drenched in cold sweat, he calmly asked, “Sleepless night?”

Xiao Chi’ye’s chest was scalding hot. Through the thin layer of fabric, he could feel the icy press of Shen Zechuan’s palm. He answered, “Ate too much.”

Shen Zechuan said, “If I’d been the timid sort, I’d have died of fright, opening my eyes in the dead of night to see your face.”

“I heard you say my name,” Xiao Chi’ye said, barefaced. “I had to find out if you were saying bad things about me.”

“If I wanted to mouth off at you, I wouldn’t do it in a dream.” Shen Zechuan’s fingertips were burning against Xiao Chi’ye’s skin, and he made to pull back his hand.

Xiao Chi’ye swiftly pinned it back in place. He asked, “Are you cold?”

Shen Zechuan, hair still damp from sweat, gave him a small smile. “I am. I’m very cold.”

He had transformed back into that alluring creature, who did not care at all if Xiao Chi’ye had, in fact, become seduced by him. He carried his allure in his very nature. He was a wicked person.

Xiao Chi’ye took his hands and pinned them down against the bed above him. In the muzzy darkness, breathing in the scent of him, he murmured, “You’re in my bed. You know where my head goes every night. Did you call me impressive before? Shen Lanzhou, you’re the one who’s truly formidable.”

“Ah… dear me,” Shen Zechuan’s voice, still a little hoarse with sleep, said irresponsibly. “Whatever it is, I didn’t do it.”

“But I want to,” Xiao Chi’ye’s eyes bore down into his. “I want to.”

“Take me out some other way,” Shen Zechuan’s hands were limp under Xiao Chi’ye’s grip. “It’s too embarrassing to die in bed.”

“I’ve changed my mind.” With his free hand, Xiao Chi’ye smoothed away damp strands of Shen Zechuan’s hair, as though examining a piece of jewellery he had just acquired. “I don’t want you to die.”

Shen Zechuan said, “I’d advise you not to bite down on this particular neck, for your own sake.”

“Lanzhou,” Xiao Chi’ye said his name on a sigh, and chuckled. “If I didn’t, would you let me off?”

Shen Zechuan looked at him.

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Has it been fun, leading me on?”

“Very.” Shen Zechuan was conscious of Xiao Chi’ye drawing slowly closer. “I’ve had such a lot of fun, watching the poor little wolf pup run circles around himself, at a loss for what to do.”

“Then we can have even more fun together,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “The Dowager is waiting for something. What did she promise you? Throw it away, Lanzhou. I’ll give you more.”

“Hm…” Mirth slipped into Shen Zechuan’s voice. “I’m guessing that my freedom isn’t amongst these gifts you’re offering. Xiao Ce’an, haven’t you ever realised? All of your desires have always been written plainly in your eyes. Right now, you’re thinking about locking me up, aren’t you?”

“I’m thinking about having a gold chain made,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “It’s too much of a shame to leave that neck bare.”

“Dog chains were first used for tethering wolves.” Shen Zechuan was breath to breath with him now. He said, “I want a gold chain too, for your neck. I’d yank it every time you made a sound.”

“Better not,” Xiao Chi’ye said, lifting an eyebrow. “On your sad allowance? You couldn’t afford it if you cleaned yourself out.”

The tips of their noses were almost touching. Xiao Chi’ye’s thumb ring was pressed into Shen Zechuan’s wrist, pinching the skin there into redness.

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Since we’re—”

Shen Zechuan arched his neck up, and kissed him on his lips. Softness met softness, carrying the cool touch of mockery.

“Do you wanna get fucked up?” Shen Zechuan murmured, his eyes wild. “Do you dare? Tear me up, Xiao Ce’an, do your worst, I don’t give a fuck.”

The taut string in Xiao Chi’ye snapped. The surging tide, already tumultuous, came roaring out of its dam. Against mockery and provocation, he bore down viciously, and returned Shen Zechuan’s kiss as though sinking his teeth into him.

Lust mingled with deadly intent, and hatred was tangled in pity. But which of the two was more worthy of hatred, and which of pity?

Tongues dipped within the slick press of lips. Xiao Chi’ye kissed Shen Zechuan, and Shen Zechuan met him measure for measure with everything he had. There were soft, wet sounds between the graze of their lips and the nip of their teeth. The conflagration of desire swallowed two twisted souls, and burnt them to nothing.

The hand Xiao Chi’ye had clamped around Shen Zechuan’s wrists released him abruptly, only to lift him up by the small of his back, so they were pressed tightly together, closer than close.

Come, despise each other.

Smear each other with your own filthy colours, and spin the hatred between you into unbreakable threads. It hurt too much to live like this, howling into the night for your own lonely ears. Better to plunge into savagery together, biting and tearing into each other, forging a sort of blood-soaked dependency.

Life was wretched enough already.

[1]: From 《随园食单》(Menus from the Garden of Contentment), by 袁枚 Yuan Mei.

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