Book One, Chapter 60: Shackles

“There’re so many things coming up with spring around the corner, and we haven’t figured out a game plan yet. If you run off now, who knows when we’ll be able to meet up next?” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Why don’t you stay for the night.”

Shen Zechuan broke into a smile. He said, “Don’t misbehave.”

The words trailed as he spoke them, insinuations curling around his tongue. What was that in the cant of his eyes but a clear come-hither? Even the fingers that uncurled while he spoke stirred up currents of desire.

This wicked person.

Xiao Chi’ye thought, watching Shen Zechuan.

This was the real bad egg right here, constantly pawing at his receding bottom line, slyly and yet naively treading on his self-control. He might as well be curled up at his ear, calling, come misbehave. This fox-shaped demon would wind his furry tail about your legs while his eyes still laughed at you.

“It’s serious business,” Xiao Chi’ye shut the windows. “We’ll talk seriously.”


“About those drains— have a report written up tomorrow morning, and I’ll talk to His Majesty about it.” Xiao Chi’ye lay in his wicker chair and idly picked up the robe that had slid to the floor. He reached into its sleeve-pockets and set each item he found on the cabinet beside him.

“It can’t be you.” Soaking in the water, Shen Zechuan thought it over and said, “You’re Governor-General of the Imperial Guard. Neither public works nor public complaints are in your purview. None of this has anything to do with you. If you raise the issue out of nowhere, you’ll definitely draw suspicion.”

“Then you do it. You live there, so it’s within reason you’d bring it up. I’ll tag along as an attending supervisor.” Xiao Chi’ye fished out an ivory fan and asked, “Why’d you carry around an ivory one?”

As they called it “a piece of elegance kept in the sleeve”, the literati of the time looked for austere refinement in their accessories, and held the highest disdain for the likes of ivory and ebony, considering them unbearably tacky. Therefore, it followed that when an aristocrat left the house, whether he was literate or not, he would never carry a sandalwood or ivory fan, and usually opted for one made of moso bamboo, with an inscription from some famous calligrapher.

Shen Zechuan said, “For fun. Tacky things suit me best.”

He had spent five years of his life in the Temple of Penitence. He could not play at refinement with the aristocrats— he needed to be the philistine who clumsily aspired to it. That was how it should be— that was what was right for him. Forget about carrying an ivory fan around everywhere— even the jade piece he wore on his belt was of a make he had chosen for its vulgar extravagance.

Xiao Chi’ye finished plundering his pockets, and realised that the two of them were really the inverse of each other.

Xiao Chi’ye seemed like someone with distinct preferences, an easy subject to decipher. But when you really went to figure him out, you would find the waters far murkier than you imagined. Most of the activities he appeared to enjoy, he could forget in the blink of an eye, never having actually paid any attention to it. Rather, it was the tasks he seemed to muddle along in which received all of his painstaking attention in private. He did not have a favourite dish, or a favourite type of wine. If the subject came up, people would only say “Er-gongzi likes his wine”. But what kind of wine did Er-gongzi like? It would be anybody’s guess.

Whereas Shen Zechuan looked like he had no preferences, and would easily accommodate anything. But if you slid your fingers into his fur and gave him a good once-over, every one of his likes and dislikes would leap to your fingers. He did not like strong tea, and if he’s tasted it once he would not touch it again for anything. He liked to eat fish, and in the right setting, if no one was looking at him, he’d pick every bit of meat from the spines as cleanly and neatly as a cat.

Xiao Chi’ye found that intriguing.

He held the robes as if he had Shen Zechuan’s waist under his hands. If he started from this spot, then slid his palm upwards, he would be able to feel Shen Zechuan’s torso and his back. He’d know that pair of shoulder blades even with his eyes closed.

False tiger.

Xiao Chi’ye thought, as he looked down at the robes he held.

At first glimpse he might pull one over on you. But bundle him up in your arms a couple more times, and you’d begin to be able to discern the moods behind his mild-mannered courtesy. Like the the moon in the puddle tonight, if you prodded him, you wouldn’t think you’d made a wrinkle, when in fact he would have immediately remembered you for it, and you’d better be sure he’s going to find a chance next time to kick you back.

Shen Zechuan came out, wrapped in a robe and his hair still damp. He turned to find Xiao Chi’ye sat in his chair, playing with that fan. His own clothes hung neatly to one side.

“We haven’t finished,” Xiao Chi’ye got up. “Have some ginger broth and sit down— we’ll continue.”

Shen Zechuan reached out for the door curtains, but Xiao Chi’ye got there with the fan first. When the two of them came out into the inner room, most of the lights had been put out, and only a glass lamp remained.

Shen Zechuan was becoming a little feverish, and downing that bowl of ginger broth made him feel a little better. He’d been alright in the day, but his head was beginning to feel heavy now.

“Xi Hongxuan managed to be transferred to the Ministry of Personnel with the performance review coming right up, and he just happens to be with the Bureau of Evaluations,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “He’ll be able to intervene in the evaluations. Did you come up with this?”

Shen Zechuan shook his head with a mouthful of ginger broth. He swallowed, then said, “Should be Xue Xiuzhuo’s idea.”

“I’ve got people in both the Ministry of Ceremony and the Ministry of War. If they get transferred out because of this round of reviews,” Xiao Chi’ye looked at him. “Our loss will have outweighed our gains.”

Shen Zechuan nodded and said, “You don’t have to worry too much about that. Apart from Vice Minister of Ceremony Jiang Xu, who is Deputy General Zhao Hui’s brother-in-law, everyone else is well out of sight. Xue Xiuzhuo may not have figured you out entirely, so just have everyone carry on as usual. In any case, the evaluation isn’t a unilateral process. Elder Hai will be sending his people down as well, so Xi Hongxuan can’t be too brazen.”

“The review this year will have repercussions on Zhongbo. That bout of heavy snowfall a while back struck it hard, and more than a dozen people froze to death. I expect Hai Liangyi will be sending people over this year to give it a proper work over,” Xiao Chi’ye said.

“Zhongbo,” Shen Zechuan seemed to be drawing on a recollection. “Zhongbo… isn’t an easy place to manage these days. If they send a civil minister, he may not be a match for the outlaws, and won’t have solid command over the new garrison troops. That region requires some careful consideration. Even Elder Hai must be vexed.”

“There’re no suitable candidates in Qu Capital at the moment, but as long as they don’t send someone from the noble families, I’ll take it. Ci province has close associations with the northeastern supply route, and if that falls into their hands, there’ll be trouble in the future. We need to think ahead……think ahead.” Xiao Chi’ye lowered his voice, looking across at Shen Zechuan’s exhausted face.

Since his promotion, Shen Zechuan had practically split himself down the middle. He often had to spend his evenings at Ouhua Lodge, keeping company with Xi Hongxuan. Now, Xi Hongxuan was accustomed to spending his days with ladies in his lap, idling away at an easy post, and since he began writing songs for Li Jianheng, he had even been excused from Morning Court, and had all the time in the world to nap. On the other hand, Shen Zechuan was required to attend Court everyday as an armed Imperial escort. He got no sleep at night, and had to spend his daytime hours dealing with all manner of weapon-smiths and technicians. When he was on assignment he would be even busier, and might not even have time to eat.

When his neighbours blocked out the light to his house, he’d had no time to attend to it. He’d only noticed yesterday that his yard had gone underwater, and that the bedding in his house had grown too damp to sleep in. He could send Qiao Tianya off to live with his teacher and tutor in the Temple, but he could not do the same himself.

Forget about gaining weight over the festival season— he looked to have lost some.

Xiao Chi’ye watched him for a while, then reached across the low table to put a hand on Shen Zechuan’s cheek. It was appallingly hot, way more than just ‘a little feverish’. The rash on his neck had not had anything put on it. Xiao Chi’ye wanted to wake him, but he did not want to wake him.

Shen Zechuan roused at his touch. Fighting to clear his head, he said, “…Mm, yes, you have to think ahead, the scion…”

Before he could finish, Xiao Chi’ye was upon him. Those strong shoulders took Shen Zechuan’s weight effortlessly. The bowl was knocked from the table, and Xiao Chi’ye kicked it aside. He said lazily, “Come to your bridal chamber with Er-gongzi.”

Shen Zechuan brushed a hand over his sweat-damp forehead, and from where he was draped over Xiao Chi’ye, said, “Have we finished with the serious business tonight?”

“We have,” Xiao Chi’ye said, clasping a hand over his back. “And now it’s time to repay your debts.”

Then he leaned over, and lowered Shen Zechuan into his bed.

Shen Zechuan put a hand up against the glow of the lamp, murmuring, “No lights.”

“All the better to see you with.” In this position, Xiao Chi’ye undid Shen Zechuan’s robes.

Shen Zechuan felt the robes fall open over his chest, and shortly after, something cold touched his neck. He looked out at Xiao Chi’ye through his fingers. Xiao Chi’ye dipped his fingers in an ointment, then applied it onto the rash. The process was akin to rubbing oil into a piece of jade, and the more he worked at it, the more slippery it became, and the slickness under his fingers drove Xiao Chi’ye to distraction. He really wasn’t made to be a gentleman.

“I’ll have to tie you up later, so you won’t roll around. Otherwise I’ll have done all this work for nothing.” Xiao Chi’ye put the lid back on the ointment, drew out his handkerchief, and sat at the edge of the bed slowly wiping his fingers clean. He said wryly, “Er-gongzi has only ever provided his services to you alone.”

Shen Zechuan slid into the blankets and turned his face away to go to sleep.

Xiao Chi’ye sat for a while, then got up and blew out the last bit of light. The bed dipped. From behind, Xiao Chi’ye wrapped a hand around Shen Zechuan’s waist and scooped him over, imprisoning him in the crook of his arm.

“You’re all tied up now,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “If you kick me I’ll throw you out.”

Shen Zechuan lay with his eyes open, looking out at the faint light coming through the windows. His icy fingers felt their way onto the wrist locked around his waist. He said, “You’re so hard.”

“Mm,” Xiao Chi’ye was silent for a while. Then he said, “I’d urge you not to try further down.”

Shen Zechuan bit his tongue for a bit, then said, “I meant your waist-badge.”

“Is it my waist-badge,” Xiao Chi’ye turned his head slightly, pressing in close to Shen Zechuan’s ear, and repeated, “Is it my waist-badge?”

The question scalded Shen Zechuan.

Xiao Chi’ye said, “I whisper in your ear and you’re overwhelmed, I ask you a couple of questions and you quiver out of your skin. Where’d you get the cheek to heckle me for being out of practice?”

Shen Zechuan breathed for a moment, then said, “Why don’t we switch positions and see how you put up with it.”

Xiao Chi’ye gave Shen Zechuan’s waist a squeeze, and then really did roll over, drawing Shen Zechuan up so he sat above him. He took his hands away, and began to smile.

“Undo my clothes, unknot my belt,” Xiao Chi’ye took Shen Zechuan’s hand and slid it slowly downward, “You can do whatever you want.”

Shen Zechuan’s breath came in unsteady huffs, possibly from his fever, or possibly from the heat beneath his hand. He said, “Tonight— “

Xiao Chi’ye grabbed him by the back of his head, caught him in a hard kiss, and brought Shen Zechuan’s hand down to the right place. Shen Zechuan flinched, and Xiao Chi’ye kept laughing at him, teasing him until Shen Zechuan lost his temper and began to struggle.

Then Xiao Chi’ye flipped them around abruptly, once more pinning him under himself. The bed boards creaked, the bedding sank, and Shen Zechuan’s palms were damp from the scorching heat all around him.

After that languid prelude, the hot charge of desire set its spurs into the two of them, its near-drunken murmur unfurling by their ears. Shen Zechuan hated the febrile frisson of its searing heat, but while he shoved at Xiao Chi’ye, he also pulled him closer.

Xiao Chi’ye tore the obtrusive robes away and pushed his hands upwards along the plane of Shen Zechuan’s back, just like he had imagined in his wicker chair.

Shen Zechuan had wrapped his arms about his neck, and he was biting into him, the tips of their noses nudging into each other, an unusual intimacy arising again from this frenzied, terrible moment.

Xiao Chi’ye kissed him, and said, “You’re a lunatic.”

Slowly, the urgent, lacerating kisses turned warm and lingering, each of their defences melting away between soft lips and yielding tongues. And it was like this, in between their quiet, broken murmuring, that the lunatic fell asleep.

Xiao Chi’ye stroking a thumb over Shen Zechuan’s face, and pushed himself up a little. Shen Zechuan’s fingers were still twined into locks of Xiao Chi’ye’s hair. He slept soundly. Xiao Chi’ye gazed down at him, and in that split second, many thoughts ran through his head.

Desire was a pair of shackles.

When Xiao Chi’ye invited Zuo Qianqiu to the Capital, he had really only wanted to ask his teacher,

Can desire be surmounted?

But in the end, the question never left his lips.

Because this was a question which even Zuo Qianqiu did not have an answer for. The only one who could answer it for him was himself. So many people have remarked that he was born at the wrong time, but in fact he had been born, and was alive in the world right now. It was not his fault that he desired.

He was a human.

His name was Xiao Chi’ye.

He and Shen Zechuan were completely different, and yet exactly alike. Shen Zechuan was the only person in this world who, without the need for a single word, understood all of Xiao Chi’ye’s agony and grief. From the very first kiss they shared, they were open books to one another.

Xiao Chi’ye kissed the the space between Shen Zechuan’s eyebrows. He kissed the bridge of Shen Zechuan’s nose.

No matter what the name of this emotion might be, they were invading each other, laying claim to conquered territories, and in the maelstrom of their conflict drawing closer and closer together. No one could fill the Ravines of Desire, and no one could sight land in the Sea of Misery. The intimacy of skin on skin, cheek against cheek was a means to wear away at misery, but the method grew more and more addictive, until it was as though they only had to be next to each other for the pain to begin to ebb.

After that first reckless tryst, they each began, unbidden, to shed their outer coats, unveiling their true forms before each other. The ravine between them had levelled into a puddle, and it looked like if only one of them took a leap, or the other one reached a hand out, they would sail over it, and meld into one.

Xiao Chi’ye kissed Shen Zechuan again. In his sleep, Shen Zechuan’s fingers tightened a little around his hair.

The pale moon in the puddles rippled gently, laden with a clear breeze. A faithless soul and a heartless man lay their heads upon pillows of moonbeam, and slept soundly through the night.

12 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 60: Shackles

  1. crying screaming throwing up etc. etc. !!!!!!!!! thank you so much for the fast update! you are my favourite ALWAYS


  2. You spent time during your week off to make another update- thank you, this has made my day! Also, hnnnnnnnnnnnn, these two make me feel so!!


  3. I started reading this just about 24 hours ago and I haven’t done much else. Your writing style is gorgeous! The descriptions, grammar, phrasing is all so very evocative! I really hope we’ll continue this journey to chapter 300 with you, thanks so much.


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