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.

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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.”

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Book One, Chapter 39: Beasts of Prey

A charcoal fire toasted in the main room.

Chen Yang had been kneeling for a little under an hour by this point. Xiao Chi’ye sat in the central chair, reading a book on military tactics. Beyond the room’s curtained doorway, every Imperial Guard officer remained in attendance on their knees. There was silence, inside and out.

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Book One, Chapter 38: Military Discipline

Snow fell ceaselessly for several days, and Xiao Chi’ye grew ever lazier in that time, even making fewer trips to the training grounds. He had befriended a few merchants from the Longyou trading group of late, and made arrangements for the purchase of some valuable goods: pearls from Yongquan harbour, jade from He province; small, intricate pieces like those.

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Book One, Chapter 37: Hand Cannons

The world darkened before Shen Zechuan’s eyes, and suddenly he was a lot closer to Xiao Chi’ye. He heard Xiao Chi’ye say, “What d’you know, it really is the smell on me. God it’s strong.”

Shen Zechuan pivoted on that point. “You brought in hand cannons for the Guard?”

“Copper cast.” Xiao Chi’ye lifted his fingers to Shen Zechuan’s nose so he could sniff them. “Mixed up with the scent on you, I almost couldn’t make it out.”

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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.

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Book One, Chapter 35: First Snow

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.

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Book One, Chapter 34: Interrogation

“What.. what the hell…” At the sight of the smile on Shen Zechuan’s face, Ji Lei abruptly began to shuffle backwards along the rails. “What the hell do you want with me!”

“You’re asking me, are you?” Shen Zechuan said cheerfully. “Is that the question you’re asking me?”

His eyes darkened. Shen Zechuan beckoned loftily at Ji Lei. Ji Lei did not move. He pressed his back against the wall, unwilling to come an inch closer to Shen Zechuan.

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