Book One, Chapter 41: Lanzhou

As his tunic rucked up, pale skin spilled into the darkness, cool as moonlight. No caresses, only a rending and tearing between them. A stream of snow-melt welled from within the saturated night, and Xiao Chi’ye caught it cupped within his hands. With a mighty effort he lifted himself away, surfacing from the fevered depths, and between harsh breaths, caught sight of Shen Zechuan’s eyes.

There was not a flicker of the heat of abandonment in those lucid eyes. Even now, they only reflected his own absurdity back at him.

A shearing pleasure cut through Xiao Chi’ye, quick as a dagger, and he set to work with his hands, kneading heat into Shen Zechuan, setting the mirror-surface to ripple and spill. He bore Shen Zechuan down from the clouds, caught in his arms, pressing and pushing unforgivingly, licking and biting as he pleased. He sank his teeth into Shen Zechuan’s nape, and the taste of him was like the drought of oblivion on his tongue.

Night itself dripped with wetness, and the sheets under them grew damp with sweat. Limbs entangled, they made turbulence amongst the sheets, and within their rough and urgent tussle Xiao Chi’ye began slowly to fumble upon pleasure. He improved expeditiously, succumbing to that plume of soft cloud, then stiffening within it again. He thrust wordlessly into that softest place within Shen Zechuan, until Shen Zechuan was swallowing hard, his neck thrown back and heedlessly exposed before him.

Xiao Chi’ye kissed that neck, hiking both of Shen Zechuan’s knees up in his palms. He was no longer that straight-laced false front of a gentleman, but only a common and mortal man, making the beast with two backs in the darkness. He would drive the Chashi sinkhole from Shen Zechuan’s mind, and at the same time etch this incendiary night deep into his memory.

Neither of them had a single straw to grasp at that might preserve them. The unbridled abandon tonight was their only escape, and the pleasure of it was a conflagration that set them ablaze. Shen Zechuan stretched a hand out for the headboard, but Xiao Chi’ye dragged him back, imprisoning him in his arms.

“Come on, let’s go all out,” Xiao Chi’ye murmured at his ear. “You want to fuck me up? How dare you run? Didn’t you want to see which of us flinched first? I’m not afraid of you.”

Shen Zechuan panted, his eyes shut, cheek pressed into the sheets, and the look of anguish and overwhelm on that face was a mesmerising come-hither.

Why did he look like that?

Xiao Chi’ye caught his chin in his hand and kissed him, giving him no chance to gasp for breath, no chance to rest, and as a frisson ran down the small of his back, he came like a deluge upon him.

And as Shen Zechuan shuddered through the aftershocks, Xiao Chi’ye, making no pause, turned him over and entered him again. 

A winter gale howled endlessly outside the window. Half-swallowed sounds of panting mingled in the darkness. Dripping with sweat, Xiao Chi’ye kissed Shen Zechuan, and kissed him again.

He was not ready to concede.

But he had already lost.

Xiao Chi’ye fell asleep.

His fierceness and his rage melted away between his brows, softening into an unhappiness creased with a touch of artlessness. He had held on to one of Shen Zechuan’s wrists, so that they created the facsimile of two creatures nestled together in a winter’s night, where even those cruel kisses were turned into searing braziers.

Snow fell outside the whole night, like willow catkins drifting in the still air, empty of sound.
Sometime just before daybreak, Shen Zechuan pulled his wrist away. Xiao Chi’ye’s fingers pursued him, twitching a little amongst his sheets.

Chen Yang, by the door, watched as Shen Zechuan emerged.

“Training yards,” said Shen Zechuan, succinctly.

Chen Yang nodded, and as he was about to move aside, caught sight of the wound on Shen Zechuan’s lip. He opened his mouth, then shut it again.

Shen Zechuan glanced at him, missing nothing. “It won’t be long now before the Brocade Guard’s reassignment orders are released,” he said. “Thank you for your care in these past few days.”

Chen Yang said, “The other day—”

“Let’s not dwell on what we’ve put behind us,” Shen Zechuan interrupted. For some reason, his manner was a little cool today. “Going forward, we will hardly be able to avoid running into one another around Qu capital. I will tread carefully, and I would urge our brothers in the Imperial Guard to do the same.”

Chen Yang stilled.

But Shen Zechuan smiled, and went on. “The Imperial Guard’s easy days have been hard-won, but the wheel of fortune never stops turning. Who can say what the future will bring?”

And before Chen Yang could make up a response, he had gathered his robes and stepped out.

Ding Tao dusted snow from his shoulders, then flipped himself over the roof and hung there in mid-air, brush held between his lips, frowning at Shen Zechuan’s retreating figure.

Chen Yang asked, “What’s up?”

Ding Tao said, “Don’t you think he looks a little sad today?”

Chen Yang turned around, and caught only the disappearing corner of Shen Zechuan’s robes. “Does he? I reckon he’s fine. Was smiling and everything.”

Ding Tao pulled his little notebook from his tunic, and made a few notes as he hung there, extemporising, “Maybe it’s because of the fight he had with Er-gongzi last night. They made a real racket.”

Chen Yang, slightly thrown, looked up across the rooftop and asked, “Gu Jin, haven’t you taught him about the birds and the bees yet? The kid’s sixteen, if you do the math. In Libei, he’d be married.”

Gu Jin did not answer.

Chen Yang called, “Are you listening?”

“He’s wearing cotton buds!” Ding Tao tucked his notebook back in his shirt and flipped back up. He plucked a wad of cotton from Gu Jin’s ear and yelled, “Jin-ge! Chen Yang’s talking to you!”

Gu Jin flinched, and nearly slipped off the roof. He pushed Ding Tao’s face away, and then his head appeared over the eaves, frowning. “What?”

Chen Yang pointed at Ding Tao, and said, “Get rid of him. Sell him and buy yourself a few more drinks this month.”

Gu Jin slung an arm around Ding Tao’s neck, and lamented, “I’d get chicken scratch, even if I sold him by the pound.”

Movement came from inside, and all three of them shut up. Some minutes later, Xiao Chi’ye emerged, pulling on his robes. His eyes swept over them, and landed on Ding Tao.

Da-ge will be coming up to the Capital in a few days.” Xiao Chi’ye felt his lip sting as he spoke. He touched his tongue to it, but immediately gave it up. “There’ll be no need to report the irrelevant.”

Ding Tao nodded vigorously, like a chick looking for rice.

Xiao Chi’ye waited a second, then said, “Why are you still here?”

Ding Tao scratched his head, confused, and looked at Chen Yang, then Gu Jin, and finally back at Xiao Chi’ye. He said, “Gong-zi, I’m on duty today.” 

Xiao Chi’ye said, “And where’s the guy you’re supposed to be watching?”

Ding Tao said, “H- He left…?”

Xiao Chi’ye made no further comment. When Chen Yang brought his horse over, he got on, and as he rode out the door pointed a finger towards Ding Tao. “Throw him away.”

Halfway up his own horse, Ding Tao had no time to react before  he was seized by Chen Yang and Gu Jin. Aghast, he clutched his notebook to himself and cried, “Noo— Gongzi! Gongzi! But I haven’t screwed up lately—?”

He had already been tossed out the door.

After taking out the trash, Chen Yang returned, and said, “Master, Teacher should be arriving today.”

Without a second word, Xiao Chi’ye spurred his horse towards the city limits.


Shen Zechuan did not in fact head for the training yards at Feng hill, but returned to the Temple of Penitence in the snow.

It had been quite some days since Ji Gang had last clapped eyes on him, and he rushed off to buy a roast chicken as soon as he had let him in. It had been just as long for Grand Tutor Qi, presently squinting over a brush at his writing desk. When Shen Zechuan entered, he promptly tossed his brush aside and cried, “Lanzhou!”

Shen Zechuan gathered his robes and sat himself down before the Grand Tutor.

Grand Tutor Qi asked, “The Brocade Guard’s reassignments must be   coming down soon, eh? Where are you thinking of going?”

Shen Zechuan replied, “The Imperial Carriage Division, I think. Closer to the Emperor that way.”

The Grand Tutor nodded. Then he noticed the wound on Shen Zechuan’s lips, and asked, “Has something happened on the outside?”

Shen Zechuan gathered himself for a moment, and said, “Now that the Emperor has Hai Liangyi as his guardian and chaperone, even that piece of dry rot might serve for a bastion. When I saved Xiao Ce’an that day, it was because the Emperor’s accession had become a foregone conclusion. Killing him would have unbalanced the game board.”

“There is nothing to an unbalanced game board. What you must never unbalance is yourself.” The Grand Tutor looked at him. “In the days you’ve spent at Xiao Chi’ye’s side, have you any new insights?”

Shen Zechuan rubbed at the ink smudge on his fingertip, and took a moment to consider before saying, “It’s a great pity that he was born after Xiao Jiming. It is one thing if his brother manages to hold him under his thumb for the rest of his life, but if he can’t…”

Shen Zechuan looked towards Grand Tutor Qi, and left it at that.

But the Grand Tutor said, “Lanzhou, you still don’t understand.”

Shen Zechuan paused, caught off balance.

The Grand Tutor rose to his feet, took two slow steps away, and stopped to watch the snow in the yard. Then, suddenly, he sighed deeply. “You killed Ji Lei.”

Shen Zechuan went still.

The Grand Tutor’s manner was uncommonly grave. He said, “Lanzhou, for as long as we’re imprisoned here, we may live off the hate in our hearts, but we must not allow it to extinguish us. Five years ago, you could not have done such a ruthless thing. In five years’ time, you are a force to be reckoned with, and what you could not have done, you cleanly and deftly did. Though I taught you poetry and politics, it was not my wish for hate to steer you as it does me. When you take a life, you also take a step further from humanity, and one who falls too far will lose his way back. Until you eradicate the demons in your heart, you will be caught forever in your nightmares. Ji Lei deserved to die, but a clean death would have been no different a death. Lanzhou— now and then, think upon the good times in Duan province. Do not walk alone and affectless. You say it’s a great pity that Xiao Chi’ye was born after Xiao Jiming, but what I have to say is the very opposite.”

“Think for a moment— if Ji Mu was the scion of Libei today, and he had left you in Qu capital— would he have done it out of nothing but resignation?”

“The edge of a good sword derives from its honing. Xiao Chi’ye is a sword, but he does not know it yet. His elder brother has held high hopes for him all these years, and Libei has never stinted in its praise for him. If he was only a spare wheel, coddling him would have been the kinder choice. But not only did Xiao Jiming take him into battle, he gave him his own command. Xiao Jiming was backed into a corner, but did he really hand over his little brother only for him to suffer? Five years ago, Xiao Chi’ye of Libei did not know discretion. Today, he has learnt to cloak himself. Everything his brother might have taught or shown him, could have sunk no more than skin-deep. True wisdom is won from suffering, and unearthed with his own hands. Xiao Jiming is a good brother, and it is not the slightest shame that Xiao Chi’ye was born after him. Lanzhou, between them is a sympathy that you might have understood best of all. Instead, it has become the one kinship you know the least about today.”

The Grand Tutor fell then into a long, melancholic silence. When looked toward Shen Zechuan again, he came to kneel before him., and with a dry, withered hand, gently patted the top of his head.

“I taught you poetry and politics, and named you Lanzhou.   
The orchid blooms in even temper,   
though it blossoms on the highest steps.   
The boat which sails the shoreless night  
Slips safe above the dire depths.

Let your heart hold the measure of a hundred rivers,
and your eyes find light across a million mires. 

You are a good child, Lanzhou. Taking a man’s life begets nothing but his skull in the dirt. Hate is a thirsty friend, and you must guard your heart against its warping. Lanzhou, oh, Lanzhou, you’ve still got your teacher, and you’ve still got me, haven’t you? How did you drive yourself into such a desperate place? The hurt and unhappiness of these five years… will you tell a few of them to us?”

Shen Zechuan looked at the Grand Tutor, unable to say a word. 

“Twenty five years ago, His Highness the Crown Prince left this world. I spent every waking hour yearning for revenge, and every dark night seething in resentment. If I could only suffer that killing stroke in his place, if I could only tear our enemies from limb to limb. Simmering in my hatred, I became what I am today. I became your mentor. I— ” The Grand Tutor’s voice broke. “I wanted you to fell my foes, but I cannot have you turn into a weapon, I cannot have you forget who you are… You are a human, Lanzhou! Do not forget those halcyon days in Duan province. Ji Mu is dead, but his death was not your doing, but the irretrievable hand of fate! You survived the Chashi sinkhole, not to live as a vessel of blame, but to live for him, and to live for each of those forty thousand soldiers! Silly child, for all of Ji Gang’s careful treading, could he not keep you from falling into this mistake, from blaming the wrong person?”

Shen Zechuan shut his eyes.

He heard Ji Mu’s beckoning voice, and across that, once again, was the scent of Xiao Chi’ye. He finally realised, in that moment, the reason for his obsession with that scent. It was the open clarity of a midday sun, the light that would break him free from the Chashi sinkhole.

If only for a second, he could forget the swamp of blood, the hail of arrows, the cold, the bodies. He no longer remembered those days in Duan province. They were too far away, so distant that they seemed like memories from a previous life. He could no longer even remember what Ji Mu’s face looked like when he laughed. He had fallen into the mire of his nightmares, become one with them, and he tormented himself every day and every night.

Ji Mu was dead.

Why hadn’t he died that day instead?

The absolute lack of blame from Teacher was his greatest condemnation. A lifetime of guilt cleaved to him, and he would never be able to fight free from under it. He could not tell Grand Tutor Qi the truth: that working upon the task, day by day, he had finally achieved the task of annihilating himself.

Xiao Chi’ye was like a reflection on the other side of the glass, who had everything he had not. He watched Xiao Chi’ye, and mimicked him clumsily, trying to make himself seem like a real person. He could not explain to anyone that the Shen Zechuan who lived in this meat-suit was, in reality, a hideous murderer.

He was standing on the very edge of the abyss.

Shen Zechuan lowered his eyes beneath the Grand Tutor’s hand, like a child attending closely to his mentor’s words. He listened with unfeigned devotion, but in that single moment, also discovered himself no longer capable of tears.

He made a small movement in his throat, and when he finally spoke, the words came from him reassuringly, “You’re right, sir… thank you.”


Three days later, the Brocade Guard assignments were released. The Assistant Commissioner of the Eight Battalions, Han Cheng, had been reassigned to lead the Brocade Guard as its Director. All of the Twelve Divisions had undergone a shuffle of personnel, and Shen Zechuan left the Elephant Handlers for the Imperial Carriage Division. Ge Qingqing was promoted from the post of sergeant to Division Adjudicator. 

The words “Imperial Attendant” were imprinted on Shen Zechuan’s new badge. The Imperial Carriage division was *the* place to be, placing one in close vicinity to the Emperor, all the easier to gain his favour.  

Xiao Chi’ye, already Governor-General of the Imperial Guard, was now also Commissioner in Chief to the Eight Battalions, achieving complete control of the Capital’s patrol and defence. In the aftermath of that night, he welcomed Zuo Qianqiu into the Capital, and had remained at the training grounds at Feng hill since, until Shen Zechuan moved out of the Imperial Guard’s compound on his new assignment. In all that time, they did not meet again.

“Master,” Chen Yang reported quietly from his place by his side, “It was originally arranged that he would go to the Imperial Stables, but for some reason, when the orders came down, it’d turned into Imperial Carriages.”

Xiao Chi’ye’s fingers slowed on the nine-ring puzzle he was fiddling with. “He didn’t care for our meddling, then.”

Chen Yang puzzled, “But if he puts himself close to the Emperor, isn’t he more likely to attract the deadly kind of attention? Back in the day, Elder Hai was one of them who’d pushed hard for the late Emperor to kill him.”

“He’s out for a debt of blood, and has no intention of playing the game of law and order.” Xiao Chi’ye threw the puzzle away, and explained, “Ji Lei’s dead, and Han Cheng was patched in from the Eight Battalions to fill his hole. The Brocade Guard is free estate at the moment. He puts himself out there at a time like this, what do you think he’s angling for?”

Chen Yang mulled this over for a second, and said, “If he succeeds…”

“If he succeeds,” Xiao Chi’ye looked out across the training grounds. “He will have a force of his own.”

Chen Yang did not venture to reply.

A few moments later, Xiao Chi’ye said, “The Brocade Guard is the Ji family’s domain. With Ji Gang as his shield, and their nostalgia for the good old times as his blade, it would be child’s play for him to rise through the ranks. While we may not be able to slip our own people in there, we can smother his chances. He wants a promotion? He’s got to have a reason for it. If nothing exciting happens while the Emperor’s looking, he will have to remain exactly where he is. Since the Imperial Guard has been put in charge of the city’s safekeeping, why should we trouble our busy colleagues in the Brocade Guard?”

Chen Yang said, “I understand.”

Xiao Chi’ye took a sip of water, then sank back into thought for a few seconds. “Find someplace out of the way, and throw us a dinner party. He and I, we’re not done with each other, but it doesn’t stop me inviting him to dinner.”

He pressed his lips hard together, where the bite had been.

“…We’re technically sect-brothers, after all.”

[1] Shen Zechuan’s courtesy name, Lanzhou, was given him by the Grand Tutor when he came of age. Here, the Grand Tutor explains the name he chose, 兰舟, and its relation to Shen Zechuan’s given name, 泽川.

Shen Zechuan’s given name, 泽川 (ze2 chuan1), is broken down into:
泽: a place where water collects; a mire; the sheen of moisture
川: rivers

Taken together, Zechuan can be a rather boggy name. It’s no accident that in his dreams, Zechuan is sinking into a thick sea of blood. But:

Let your heart hold the measure of a hundred rivers,
and your eyes find light across a million mires. 

The Grand Tutor turns its meaning away from hopelessness and entrapment. He turns that name into a blessing: may you be magnanimous and far-seeing. Zechuan’s rivers are the tributaries, shimmering in the sun, that come to enrich his heart.

His courtesy name, 兰舟 (lan2 zhou1), is broken down thus:
兰: the orchid, one of the four ‘gentlemen’ of the botanical world (plum, bamboo, and chrysanthemum complete the quartet). The orchid is self-contained in dignity, learned, and incorruptible.
舟: a canoe, a small boat.

The orchid blooms in even temper,   
though it blossoms on the highest steps.   
The boat which sails the shoreless night  
Slips safe above the dire depths.

As is customary, the courtesy name calls back to one’s given name. As complement to Zechuan’s watery given name, and the shoreless sea of despair he seems at times to drown in, the Grand Tutor gives him a boat to slip above the waves, and navigate safely through the hardship to come.

14 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 41: Lanzhou

  1. I have to say, I like your version of the translation SO much better. Thank you for doing this, and I hope I get to see you reach the end of this novel soon.


  2. hello c: can you please consider translating the last volume + extras of Qiang Jin Jiu first? that’s the hardest to find translated so it would be great! it’s just a suggestion I hope I didn’t come across as rude!! I’ll follow along with your translations either way hehe !! great work c:


    1. Thank you for reading and commenting :> I started off translating qjj as a latecomer, and as a courtesy to Lianyin (who was there first!) am moving along at my snail pace, in chronological order. It felt a bit rude to jump in and translate the more “in-demand” chapters out of nowhere. I’ve been a bit out of the loop recently (hence the hiatus), and I’m not sure where her project is with the extras. I’m happy to begin translating those if she is taking a (well-deserved) break from it all, but otherwise will stick to my slow lane 🙂 Thank you for following along regardless!


    god, your translation flows so nicely, it’s seriously top-grade. do you accept donations? i honestly feel like i should pay you for letting us read your version.


    1. Hello Raven! Thank you so much :> Apologies for the snail-like pace, life got a little in the way, but chapter 42 is in the works and should be along in the next week or so. I’m doing this strictly as a hobby (and can’t commit beyond that), so although your sentiments are greatly appreciated, I won’t be taking donations, haha. If you’d like, and havent already, do go support the original author on JJWXC! 😀


      1. that’s too bad. i have already bought the novel of course!! i’m so happy you’re continuing the translation!!! i know lianyin’s already finished but i love your version so much and i want my initial experience of the novel to be from here so i stop myself every day from reading further. i hope everything in your life gets sorted out soon. thank you once again for doing this!

        Liked by 1 person

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