The Two Chivalrous Warriors of Skill and Gracefulness

translated by Kikuchi Makoto (菊池 誠) [1]

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/42097.html)

Chapter 37 – The Jade Zither Scholar Subdues an Intruder; The Wanderer of Jiang Nan Springs a Trap in the Wine-Scent Pavilion

Liu Qing Hua leapt up and exchanged three stances with the intruder before the last note of the qin had faded. Although the lantern had been extinguished, the moon was bright, and his sharp eyes could discern the black-clothed figure easily. Liu Qing Hua moved his right palm to parry while striking at his opponent’s shoulder with his left. When the other man attempted to evade, Liu Qing Hua changed the direction of his attack, forcing his opponent to leap back to avoid being struck in the chest.

They exchanged thirty more stances in the time needed to drink a bowl of tea, and Liu Qing Hua smiled to himself. Although the assailant’s wu gong [2] was not bad, without a weapon he was at a huge disadvantage. Liu Qing Hua suddenly struck out with both palms, intending to end the fight quickly with the fifth technique of the “Silent Lotus Palms.” Who would have thought a wave of his opponent’s hand would redirect his attack, sending his left palm sliding harmlessly past the other man’s head while his right palm turned back on his own shoulder? Liu Qing Hua was forced to retreat two, three paces to avoid being injured.

The assailant lunged forward, not giving Liu Qing Hua a chance to recover. His palm struck out fiercely. Although the power of this palm was no match for Liu Qing Hua’s, it was very fast. Liu Qing Hua twisted his body to the side to avoid the worst of the blow, and the attacker’s palm grazed his shoulder as it flew past, not strong enough to break any bones but enough that Liu Qing Hua would remember it for at least ten days.

Stunned, Liu Qing Hua thought to himself, How can his wu gong have improved so much in just one month?

At first he had assumed that he could win easily and so had treated the situation in a playful manner. Now Liu Qing Hua saw that his opponent had learned some new and weird stances. He was secretly angry at himself for not noticing this sooner, but he smiled charmingly as he advanced again.

This time Liu Qing Hua struck out with palms that suddenly turned into fists, or soft strokes that suddenly became fierce and aggressive. Out of ten moves, perhaps only one was real, but that one was always ferocious. Once or twice, the assailant managed to meet him with a powerful palm stroke that stirred the wind around them, but Liu Qing Hua quickly gained the advantage.

Forcing his opponent against a wall, Liu Qing Hua smugly pulled the black mask down. The other man responded by shifting his position, slipping a thigh between Liu Qing Hua’s legs and a tongue between his lips.

When they parted, Liu Qing Hua murmured, “Is this how you’ve been dealing with your enemies, Brother Feng?” For of course the “assailant” was actually none other than the “Wanderer of Jiang Nan” Zhang Feng.

Zhang Feng rolled his eyes and said, “Only the really stubborn ones. It’s like they say: ‘the cunning rabbit can capture a tiger.'”

Liu Qing Hua scoffed. “No one says that.”

Zhang Feng said, “Really? They should. It makes a lot of sense.” He traced his fingertips over Liu Qing Hua’s mouth, then down over his chest, then down again to part his robes, slipping a warm hand inside.

Pressing closer, Liu Qing Hua absent-mindedly stroked the line of Zhang Feng’s hip and said, “It makes no sense at all. When has a rabbit ever caught a tiger?”

Zhang Feng didn’t answer. He only made a quiet “hmm” sound as he kissed Liu Qing Hua’s throat, sometimes licking, sometimes sucking the tender skin. Liu Qing Hua sighed with pleasure and curled a hand around Zhang Feng’s nape.

After a few moments, he said, “The cunning rabbit has three bolt-holes.”

Zhang Feng looked up in surprise and said, “You want to leave?”

Liu Qing Hua chuckled. “No, that’s the real proverb. I just forgot to mention it before because you were distracting me.”

Zhang Feng rolled his eyes. “Since when have I cared about proverbs? I’m more interested in this!”

He hooked one foot around Liu Qing Hua’s leg and turned them around, pushing Liu Qing Hua back onto the bed. Of course Liu Qing Hua could have countered such an obvious move, but he didn’t want to. Instead, he fell back lightly, his dark gaze pulling Zhang Feng down with him as if he had seized his collar. Zhang Feng stretched himself out over Liu Qing Hua’s body, kissing him fiercely, and Liu Qing Hua spread his legs even wider so Zhang Feng could settle between them.

He kept perfectly still while Zhang Feng undressed him, just to prove that he could. Although his heart was thumping so hard it was almost jumping out of his throat, Liu Qing Hua managed to press himself down into the mattress rather than up into Zhang Feng’s light, trailing fingers. The more Zhang Feng touched him, the quicker his breathing became, but still he forced himself to remain motionless. Even when Zhang Feng slipped a hand, slick with fragrant oil, between his legs, Liu Qing Hua kept his arms at his sides as he gazed up at Zhang Feng through lowered lashes.

Zhang Feng seemed to recognize the challenge. He undressed himself slowly, rising and standing away from the bed as he did so. The thick tension was not weakened by this distance; it intensified, like a silk knot pulled tight between them. Just when it seemed unbearable, Zhang Feng lowered himself back to the bed and kissed Liu Qing Hua again and again, and Liu Qing Hua could feel his rigid length pressed hotly against him without entering.

No longer thinking, Liu Qing Hua groaned and rolled them over, straddling Zhang Feng’s waist. Zhang Feng looked up and sucked in a surprised breath.

“You look beautiful that way,” he said. “I’d almost forgotten.”

Liu Qing Hua frowned imperiously and said, “Not beautiful.”

Zhang Feng replied, “You only say that because you can’t see yourself right now.”

After a pause, Liu Qing Hua relented and said, “I suppose there are worse things to be called.” When Zhang Feng opened his mouth to speak again, Liu Qing Hua moved back, taking him in fully with a single downward thrust.

Zhang Feng pushed his head back into the bed, his thoughts scattered as his eyes slid shut and his lips parted in a silent gasp. He ran his hands over Liu Qing Hua’s thighs before bringing one up to wrap around him.

Liu Qing Hua hissed in approval and increased his pace, riding with all the skill of an Imperial scholar. [3] Zhang Feng arched up off the bed, muscles taut and gleaming as he supported Liu Qing Hua’s weight.

They had not met for a month, so it was not surprising that their frantic pace quickly reached its peak. Liu Qing Hua felt Zhang Feng fill him to overflowing, and as he bent to kiss him, he felt a sharp shock of pleasure rip through his own body. He had just enough time to realize that Zhang Feng had bitten his throat before he spilled himself, messily, over Zhang Feng’s belly and chest.

Fortunately Liu Qing Hua’s servants had prepared a hot bath during this time.

Afterward, with his hair brushed, his fingernails trimmed, and his old clothes replaced by newly tailored ones of light green satin, Zhang Feng found that his reflection looked surprisingly suave and refined. In truth, he felt a little embarrassed.

To distract himself, he asked, “What was that you were playing before? I liked it.”

“That was an original composition of mine,” Liu Qing Hua said with a small smile of pride. He came over to help Zhang Feng straighten the silk band he wore around his waist. “I only need to name it, and I’ll be finished.”

“Oh, that’s the easy part.”

“Really.”

Zhang Feng said, “Of course! What could be easier? Just call it ‘Plum Blossoms on Flowing Water.’ Or ‘Lotus Appearing Under the Autumn Moon.’ Those kinds of titles are very popular.”

Liu Qing Hua gave a wry smile. “Are they.” He decided not to remind Zhang Feng that lotuses didn’t bloom in the autumn.

Zhang Feng continued, “Or you could call it ‘Meeting at the Wine-Scent Pavilion.’ That’s a good idea, by the way. I haven’t eaten since this morning.”

Liu Qing Hua thought that sounded reasonable, and he was about to agree when he heard light footsteps just outside the door. Wondering who would be visiting his home so late at night, Liu Qing Hua signaled for Zhang Feng to be quiet as he went to see who it was. But instead of simply being quiet, Zhang Feng hurried to hide himself behind a screen as the door slid open. Liu Qing Hua had to stop himself from rolling his eyes. Seeing a man hide himself, wouldn’t that make a person even more suspicious?

It was a good thing there was only a little girl standing at the door. Liu Qing Hua pretended to be surprised to see her.

The little girl looked at Zhang Feng’s disappearing form out of the corner of her eyes. Then she turned her attention to Liu Qing Hua and presented a letter with both hands. Liu Qing Hua was about to ask who had sent the letter, but the little girl turned and ran off, disappearing down the dark street. Suddenly, Liu Qing Hua felt a presence at his back, and Zhang Feng reached a hand over his shoulder to snatch the letter away.

“The letter will be right here for you to read,” he said, tossing it onto a table, “but if I don’t eat soon, I’ll have to leave this world!”

Liu Qing Hua said, “Who ever starved to death in one day?” but he let Zhang Feng pull him out the door.

Although Wu Zhen was not very big, its Wine-Scent Pavilion had a good reputation. The dishes they served were rather ordinary, but they were prepared with skill and care. The restaurant’s name came from the aroma that constantly surrounded it like a fragrant mist, particularly that of the famous “Flowery Carving Wine” from Shaoxing city, also in Zhejiang province. Those who passed the restaurant’s doors, how could they resist following that sweet smell inside?

Because of this, the Wine-Scent Pavilion was usually very loud and bustling, but it was already deep into the night. Only a few groups of people were scattered around the wine shop. Liu Qing Hua wanted to go up to a room on the second story, where he and Zhang Feng could speak freely without much fear of being overheard. Before he could say anything, though, Zhang Feng had already chosen an empty table in the corner and ordered some wine, along with rice and a few dishes to accompany it.

As they were finishing their third round, a loud crash rang out through the restaurant. Liu Qing Hua turned his head to see that a man had thrown a bowl against the wall, smashing it to pieces. He wasn’t very tall, but his body was muscular, making him seem to tower over the frightened waiter at his feet. His bald head shone under the lanterns, and though a black beard covered the bottom half of his face, the top half was very red. Obviously this man had already drunk a lot of wine. His five companions sat around the table, laughing raucously and goading him on. All six men wore rather expensive brocade.

Liu Qing Hua had not lived in Wu Zhen for very long, and he spent most of his time studying. Because of this, he was not familiar with these men. However, he could hear two other patrons talking in low voices.

“I haven’t seen those ruffians in so long, I was starting to hope that they wouldn’t be coming back,” said one.

“They must have met a stronger opponent on the road,” the other said with a sigh. “Whenever those scoundrels meet their match, they come running back here to pick a fight and make themselves feel better.”

By this time, the bearded man had seized the cowering waiter by the front of his shirt, and he was shouting, “How dare you serve plain water and call it wine? If I wanted a bath, wouldn’t I have asked for one?”

Liu Qing Hua snapped his fan shut in annoyance. Even when surrounded by so many other aromas, he could pick out the fragrance of the wine the waiter had served these six men. It was a particularly fine green wine, infused with a number of precious medicinal herbs. A person could know nothing about wine, and still he would be able to tell that this was a valuable sample. Obviously the bearded man was only looking to bully an innocent person. Liu Qing Hua felt his blood rise in anger, but how could he teach these ruffians a lesson without giving away his true identity?

Before he could think of an answer, Zhang Feng yawned and stretched himself.

“Serving such fine wine to a pack of dogs and a monkey . . . Ah! Such a waste, such a waste.”

Although his voice was soft, it was strong and clear. The bearded man immediately turned his attention away from the waiter and focused on Zhang Feng instead.

“Bastard! What did you say?” he thundered, his face growing even redder than before.

Zhang Feng ignored him, walking over with a sleepy smile and speaking to the waiter instead.

“Do you think you could feed your animals outside from now on?” he asked. “The noise is really distracting, and the smell is even worse.”

With a roar, the bearded man threw the waiter to the ground. The waiter crawled away as quickly as he could with his arms folded protectively over his head, while the seated men pounded on the table and burst into fresh peals of laughter.

“Did you hear that, Second Brother He?” one of them shouted. He had thick eyebrows and a very thin mustache. “This little bastard must be tired of living!”

Hearing the laughter and shouts of his companions, this Second Brother He’s face broke into an evil grin. He grabbed the iron saber at his waist, and the men at the table stood and drew their sabers as well. The rings on the sabers clamored and clanked against each other. Whether the men or the sabers were louder, it was difficult to say.

Second Brother He pointed his saber at Zhang Feng’s chest. Zhang Feng looked down at the blade and smiled a little wider.

“You know what that means, don’t you?” Zhang Feng said. “Pointing your saber at me?”

“It means you’re going to die!” Second Brother He roared, thrusting the point forward.

But before he was even able to move, Zhang Feng had leapt straight up into the air, his legs stretching out to brace his feet against the rafters. When he dropped back down, he held a bright green bamboo stick that gleamed like jade. Obviously he had hidden it among the rafters earlier.

Striking down at Second Brother He’s left thigh, Zhang Feng said, “It means you can’t blame me, no matter what happens!”

Although he was a coarse and crude man, Second Brother He’s wu gong was actually not bad. He parried the blow with his saber, but Zhang Feng didn’t care at all. He simply lunged forward with a laugh as clear as water, and in the blink of an eye, he had already knocked three of the other men to the floor. These men were obviously much weaker than Second Brother He, and they immediately dropped their sabers and crawled away, fearing another blow from Zhang Feng’s bamboo stick.

Seeing Zhang Feng’s ability, the three remaining men approached more cautiously. They moved a little at a time, slowly surrounding Zhang Feng while keeping their eyes firmly on him.

Liu Qing Hua knew that the level of these scoundrels’ wu gong could not be compared to Zhang Feng’s. Even if they had fifteen or twenty men, it wouldn’t matter. But he was annoyed that he couldn’t fight these arrogant men himself, and watching Zhang Feng fighting alone only made him more annoyed. Fanning himself lightly with one hand, he reached for his wine bowl with the other. Who would have expected that this elegant and refined young scholar would launch two sleeve-arrows from his outstretched hand?

In general, Liu Qing Hua disliked carrying weapons. Aside from his zither, he felt they gave him a crude air and made it difficult to catch others by surprise. But hidden projectiles were light and unobtrusive. Furthermore, few people were skilled enough to perceive Liu Qing Hua’s swift motions.

Two of the men cried out in pain and dropped their sabers, gripping their hands where the sleeve-arrows had struck them.

“Well thrown!” said a low, raspy voice that was nevertheless oddly clear.

Startled, Liu Qing Hua turned his head. Sure enough, there sat Shi Jian Ya, wearing those same dirty, worn clothes and with that same expression that looked like he was either just waking up or about to doze off into a sleep. Kang Lan sat beside him, clapping her hands delightedly.

“How admirable! Even after becoming a real scholar, it’s impossible to sit still while Feng’er is in trouble!” she said with an alluring laugh.

Hearing Kang Lan say “Feng’er,” Liu Qing Hua suddenly understood how Zhang Feng had managed to improve so much. With these two teaching him, of course his palm technique would be many times better than before. Actually, Liu Qing Hua was angry at himself for not figuring it out sooner. Where else would Zhang Feng have learned such strange and mysterious stances?

Liu Qing Hua rose slightly out of his seat in respect and clasped his fist, saying, “Hero Shi Jian Ya and Heroine Kang Lan are too kind. Junior was simply trying to amuse himself.” Because Shi Jian Ya and Kang Lan had such strange temperaments, Liu Qing Hua still could not quite trust them, but he knew it was best to be courteous.

On the other side of the restaurant, Zhang Feng and Second Brother He were still exchanging strokes. Unlike the other five men, Zhang Feng could not scare Second Brother He off with just a light blow. He would have to strike seriously if he wanted the fight to end.

Suddenly Zhang Feng swung his bamboo stick around with so much force that it knocked both him and Second Brother He off their feet. Second Brother He crashed into his own table, splitting it in half and flinging the dishes up to crash and shatter against the rafters. The wine fell like pungent rain, and broken fragments of the dishes clattered to the floor with a tinkling sound. At the same time, Zhang Feng flew backward, braced his feet against the wall, and flipped himself back around. He landed on the center table and whirled his bamboo stick, still smiling like an innocent child. Seeing that Second Brother He was completely knocked out, he slipped the bamboo stick into the band around his waist.

“What are you waiting for? Come and help your second brother up!” Zhang Feng called. “I tapped him a little too hard, and now he doesn’t want to spar with me anymore.”

For a while, there was no movement in the restaurant. Then the man with the thin mustache scrambled back inside, hurrying to Second Brother He while trying to avoid Zhang Feng’s eyes.

Zhang Feng made a show of studying his face, then said, “I remember you! You were the one who called me ‘little bastard,’ weren’t you?”

The man with the mustache froze and all the color drained from his face. He still could not believe this stupid looking kid had managed to defeat his second brother. With a trembling voice he said, “This . . . this lowly person deserves to die . . .”

Zhang Feng laughed. “Who said anything about dying? I don’t like to bully others.” Then he frowned and playfully scolded, “But I don’t like to watch others bullying the weak either.”

The man with the mustache bowed and said, “This lowly person would not dare.”

Zhang Feng said, “Good!”

Jumping down from the table, he walked back over to Liu Qing Hua. The man with the mustache quickly supported Second Brother He out of the Wine-Scent Pavilion, afraid that Zhang Feng might suddenly change his mind.

He should not have worried. As soon as Zhang Feng saw Shi Jian Ya and Kang Lan seated at the table beside theirs, he forgot all about Second Brother He and the others. Kneeling, he greeted them both happily.

Shi Jian Ya and Kang Lan were angry with Zhang Feng for disappearing like he did, but in all honesty they were impressed that he had managed to find his way through the complicated pathways of Twin Wolf Forest. Furthermore Zhang Feng’s capricious nature actually suited their own very well, and they had already become very fond of their disciple. After seeing him aid an innocent person who was facing danger, their anger vanished entirely.

Still, Kang Lan had to lightly scold, “Little rascal, have you decided that you’d rather spend all your time playing than studying martial arts?” When she said “playing,” her wide black eyes moved to Liu Qing Hua.

“Disciple wouldn’t dare,” Zhang Feng said, lowering his head and blushing.

Shi Jian Ya laughed, a dry, crackling laugh that shot shivers down one’s spine. “That kind of act may have worked one time, but you won’t fool us again. I don’t believe you’re bashful any more than I believe you’re stupid!”

Zhang Feng stuck out his tongue and laughed. “Would I dare try to trick Shifu? [4] Disciple was only hoping Shifu would give him a few pointers on his moves.”

“You want advice, little devil? Come back to Twin Wolf Forest within three days, or I’ll gouge out your left eye and cut off three of your fingers.”

With wide eyes and a big smile Zhang Feng said, “Ah! Which three fingers?”

Kang Lan laughed as she and Shi Jian Ya walked to the door. “That depends. If we’re in a good mood that day, we’ll let you choose. How does that sound?”

“Sounds like I’ll go back to Twin Wolf Forest within three days,” Zhang Feng said to Liu Qing Hua. “But the way back is so scary. It would be dangerous if I went alone.”

Liu Qing Hua rolled his eyes. “Then you should hurry to catch up with your shifu.”

He gave the owner of the restaurant a large ingot of silver, more than enough to pay for the damages as well as all the food and wine that had been served that night. Liu Qing Hua then asked to be moved to a room upstairs so there wouldn’t be any other disturbances. The restaurant owner was thrilled with the money he had received, and he hurried to comply. He quickly prepared a room, along with fresh dishes and wine. Then he left with strict orders from Liu Qing Hua not to disturb them.

As soon as the owner was gone, Liu Qing Hua asked, “Why did you hide your bamboo stick in the rafters?”

Zhang Feng answered, “You told me it would be too suspicious if I carried it with me.”

Liu Qing Hua said, “It’s too suspicious to fight with it! I told you not to draw attention to yourself. How could you think fighting in the restaurant would be a good idea?”

Zhang Feng replied, “I knew it would draw attention, but I couldn’t ignore what the old scoundrel was doing. Even you wanted to fight, isn’t that true?

Liu Qing Hua sighed. “Even if I want to, there are some things I can’t do anymore. With the provincial examinations, didn’t I have to hold myself back? If I were the jie yuan, [5] people would pay more attention to me, and my past would become known. If you draw attention to yourself, the same thing could happen.”

“If you came back to jiang hu, [6] you wouldn’t have to worry anymore.”

“You know that’s impossible.”

“It’s not impossible! You proved that you could be a real scholar if you wanted. Isn’t that enough to appease your parents’ spirits?”

Liu Qing Hua didn’t know if it was. Instead of answering he said, “It’s been so long since we last saw each other, and you’ll be returning to Twin Wolf Forest soon. Do you really want to spend the time we have arguing?”

Zhang Feng made a face, but he quickly forgot his bad mood after drinking another bowl of wine and sampling all the delicious things Liu Qing Hua had ordered. He asked Liu Qing Hua about his scholarly pursuits, listening with interest to his explanation of archery and exclaiming indignantly at his anecdotes of officials who had no real talent yet managed to win important positions through friendships with prominent aristocrats. In turn, Zhang Feng told about his own wanderings and how he had become Shi Jian Ya and Kang Lan’s disciple. Then the conversation turned to their first meeting and the adventures that followed. They nearly finished the entire pot of wine while they talked.

For him to reminisce like that, it seemed the wine was even stronger than Liu Qing Hua had expected. He was not quite drunk, but he was strongly aware that he was not far from it.

As usual, Zhang Feng became drunk after the first few bowls. Now that they were talking about their life together in the realm, he started trying to persuade Liu Qing Hua to come back again, promising many opportunities to improve himself and praising his present abilities.

He laughed as he raised his bowl and said, “When it comes to planning, there’s probably no one better than the ‘Jade Zither Scholar’ here!”

“Lower your voice,” Liu Qing Hua said, glancing at the door. “Even though this is a private room, we’re still in public.”

Zhang Feng apologized and poured another bowl for Liu Qing Hua, leaning heavily against his shoulder as he did. He didn’t move when he had finished. Instead he wrapped his arms around Liu Qing Hua’s shoulders, one hand tracing the line of his jaw while the other sprawled lazily over his knee.

“Come back to jiang hu,” he said softly in Li Qing Hua’s ear. “Without you, I’m just Zhang Feng.”

“Is that something to be ashamed of?” Liu Qing Hua murmured, brushing his fingertips over Zhang Feng’s knuckles.

“No, but it’s very lonely.”

Zhang Feng shifted his hold and moved in front of Liu Qing Hua, bracing himself against the edge of the table. He pulled Liu Qing Hua forward and brought their mouths together. As they kissed, he slid back slowly, pushing the dishes out of the way until he was lying fully on the table and Liu Qing Hua was forced to stand over him to reach.

Liu Qing Hua understood exactly what Zhang Feng wanted. He tried to pull away.

“There are people eating here,” he said huskily.

Zhang Feng’s only reply was to hook his legs around Liu Qing Hua’s waist to draw him closer.

Liu Qing Hua was not easily embarrassed, and he was certainly a match for Zhang Feng’s passions. But the thought of cutting the sleeve [7] in a wine shop flustered him. Even worse, it tempted him.

Zhang Feng reached into his shirt, took out a small bundle, and tossed it on the table.

“You’ll find something useful in there,” he said.

While Liu Qing Hua opened the bundle, Zhang Feng wriggled out of his pants with a triumphant smile. Liu Qing Hua gave a wry chuckle, pulling a small bottle of oil from the bundle.

He asked, “Don’t you think about anything else?”

Zhang Feng replied, “When I’m hungry, I eat. When I’m thirsty, I drink. When I’m with you . . .” He smiled and parted his knees.

Dizzy with wine and desire, Liu Qing Hua ignored his better judgment and spilled the oil into his hand, then slid his fingers up Zhang Feng’s thigh, around to cup the curve of his buttock, and down to circle at his entrance. Zhang Feng’s hands moved restlessly over his back one moment, fisted in the fabric of his robes the next. He tightened his legs around Liu Qing Hua’s waist and made a quiet, pleading sound.

Liu Qing Hua bent his head, his lips brushing over Zhang Feng’s pulse, his teeth scraping roughly over the jugular vein. When Zhang Feng gasped and jerked up, Liu Qing Hua pressed one finger inside him, then two. He ran his tongue over Zhang Feng’s jaw, then thrust it into his mouth, kissing him slowly and deeply while Zhang Feng pulled at the front of his robes, dragging them apart.

Zhang Feng’s hands came back up to cradle Liu Qing Hua’s head and push him gently away.

In a voice that was almost a whisper he said, “Now. Please.”

Liu Qing Hua braced one hand against the edge of the table and slid inside, lost in the slick heat as he felt Zhang Feng relax to accept him. Then he found that hidden place inside that made Zhang Feng buck like a startled mount.

“You’re still really good at that,” Zhang Feng said, his voice a long, unsteady moan. “Found someone else to practice with when I’m not around?”

“I probably should have,” said Liu Qing Hua. He wanted to grin smugly, but it took all his effort just to keep his own voice from shaking with desire. “Maybe then I wouldn’t be so desperate for you right now.”

They moved together. Zhang Feng brought his knees up to angle Liu Qing Hua in deeper, but Liu Qing Hua held himself back. Drunk as he was, he didn’t trust himself to be gentle.

But Zhang Feng wasn’t satisfied with just half of him. He ran his hands up Liu Qing Hua’s arms and gripped them with enough strength to bruise most other men.

Through gritted teeth he said, “You’re not going to break me.”

Hearing those words, Liu Qing Hua lost his self-control. He surged forward, and Zhang Feng rose to meet him, matching him thrust for thrust. Their breaths became rapid and shallow. If a real assassin were to arrive at that moment, Liu Qing Hua would have absolutely no chance, but that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but Zhang Feng, under him, around him, everywhere. With each rough shove, Liu Qing Hua’s only regret was that they had to be quiet.

Suddenly his body went rigid, and he bit his lip bloody to stop himself from crying out. Zhang Feng followed soon after, thrusting a few more times before going still. Liu Qing Hua collapsed on his chest, completely exhausted. He realized that once again Zhang Feng had managed to get him to do all the work, but he didn’t really care.

Zhang Feng nudged his shoulder and said, “I know how you feel, but I don’t think we should sleep here.”

Liu Qing Hua muttered, “I know that. I’m just resting my eyes.”

Zhang Feng said, “Yeah, but I think the garrison has cleared out the wine shop and surrounded us by now. Haven’t you noticed how quiet it’s gotten?”

Liu Qing Hua had noticed, of course. But even though his new life had not dulled his senses, it had made him less suspicious.

“Why would the garrison want to surround us?”

“Because I helped Lu Zhen Tian escape.”

Liu Qing Hua raised himself up on his elbows and frowned down in confusion.

Zhang Feng continued, “I also took your five hundred taels of silver back from Clerk Xie. Although he said he was inclined to leniency, he actually intended to execute Lu Zhen Tian. It’s really unforgivable. Executing a man for avenging his sworn brother’s murder is bad enough. How dare he steal from you?”

Liu Qing Hua asked, “What about the prison guards?” He worried that Zhang Feng had killed them all.

Zhang Feng said, “Oh, they were better men than Clerk Xie. They know that Lu Zhen Tian is a chivalrous person, and they’re grateful for your gifts. I had to injure them a little so they wouldn’t be implicated, but I was careful not to hurt them too badly.”

Liu Qing Hua’s head was still heavy with wine and tiredness, but he started to understand. While Zhang Feng had been careful not to implicate the guards, he had taken even more care to implicate Liu Qing Hua in several ways.

First, he had rescued a prisoner Liu Qing Hua had been trying to help. Second, he used his qing gong [8] to attract attention as he escaped across the town to Liu Qing Hua’s home. Third, he had kept Liu Qing Hua from reading a letter that was most likely from Clerk Xie, questioning him about any involvement. Fourth, he had acted suspiciously when the letter was delivered. Fifth, he had fought in the Wine-Scent Pavilion using his unique and well known style. Sixth, he had used the name “Jade Zither Scholar,” speaking loudly enough that it would be no surprise if someone overheard. Seventh, he had implied that Liu Qing Hua was the one who had planned the entire thing.

Zhang Feng said, “By the way, I poured most of my wine into your bowl when you weren’t paying attention. It took a lot of practice to do it right.”

Liu Qing Hua laughed and said, “You scheming bastard.” In truth, he was too proud to be angry.

Zhang Feng said, “I didn’t want to have to trick you, but you were being stubborn. This place is all wrong. Dishonorable people become high-ranking officials and use their power to hurt good people. If I didn’t rescue you from here, how could I call myself a man?

With a teasing smile Liu Qing Hua asked, “Why do you want me to come back? You don’t even need me anymore.”

Zhang Feng protested, “That’s not true! I just borrowed the plan you used to rescue Ren Qiu Shuang and trap Zhao Hai Peng.”

After a moment of thought, Liu Qing Hua realized that it was true. By making a few changes, Zhang Feng had managed to trick him with his own plan.

Zhang Feng quoted soberly, “Watch your words and your deeds, for your words shall be spoken and your deeds mimicked.”

Liu Qing Hua laughed. Then he sighed in resignation. “What do we do now?”

Zhang Feng said, “That’s a stupid question.” He reached for Liu Qing Hua’s hand and brushed his lips over the slender fingertips. “Now the ‘Two Chivalrous Warriors of Skill and Gracefulness’ will fight their way out.”


Translation Notes
[1] “風華雙俠” in the original Chinese. This is Liu Qing Hua and Zhang Feng’s shared epithet, which is formed by combining the last characters of their names into “風華”, meaning skill and gracefulness. “雙” means “two” or “duo,” while “俠” stands for “a chivalrous man or woman” (often translated as “hero,” though the connotations are slightly different). Put all together, “風華雙俠” means something like “The Two Chivalrous Warriors of Skill and Gracefulness,” which is unfortunately rather long and awkward in English.

[2] “Martial skill.” Focuses on fighting prowess and improving the physical condition of the skeleton, muscle groups, ligaments, and joints.

[3] This line refers to horsemanship, one of the “Six Arts” Imperial examination takers were tested on. The other five arts were music, archery, arithmetic, writing, and knowledge of the rituals and ceremonies of both public and private life.

[4] “Master” or “Teacher,” usually of the martial arts.

[5] Title for the provincial graduate who ranked #1.

[6] Literally “rivers and lakes.” Used to refer to the martial arts world, where justice is upheld by the society of martial artists rather than government officials, who were often portrayed as corrupt.

[7] Reference to Emperor Ai, whose lover, Dong Xian, fell asleep on his sleeve. Not wanting to disturb his rest, the emperor cut off his own sleeve before rising. Thus, “passion of the cut sleeve” became a literary euphemism for sexual love between two men.

[8] “Lightness skill.” The ability to move lightly, thus allowing extremely high vertical leaps as well as travel over great distances. Characters in wuxia are often able to run on water, leap over rooftops, and flit from tree branch to tree branch.

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