Yu Xiaozai held the hem of his robe up and was about to squat down when Xiao Chiye let his wine cup drop. Han Cheng, being near, ended up having his robe dirtied. Yu Xiaozai left the cards and went to get a handkerchief for Han Cheng to clean himself. Cen Yu was still squinting at his cards when the wine splashed him. He hastily tried to dodge it too, making Kong Qiu laugh loudly.
Han Cheng tugged at his robe and said to Xiao Chiye, “Your Lordship, you’ve had too much to drink; even your hands are unsteady now!”
Xiao Chiye raised his hand in apology and said, “Apologies, I’ll get someone to send you a replacement tomorrow as compensation.”
“There’s no need. Just how much is a set of robes worth?” How could Han Cheng really let Xiao Chiye compensate him? He did not even dare to pull a long face as he said with a smile, “We’ll treat this cup as a toast from Your Lordship!”
Shen Zechuan had already withdrawn his foot. He leaned over and picked up the card from the floor. As he placed it on the table, he heard Xiao Chiye laughing. The lingering warmth on his ankle where Xiao Chiye had squeezed grew hotter amidst the laughter.
Kong Qiu was already drunk. He looked completely opposite of how he usually did when he was in court as he struck a porcelain cup with his chopsticks and sang out incomprehensible lyrics alone in the chaotic atmosphere.
Cen Yu, seeing Kong Qiu stir up such an improper and unsightly ruckus, tugged on his sleeve and said, “Boran! Stop singing. Let’s go home and sleep! You still need to sit in Xi Hongxuan’s trial the day after tomorrow!”
Kong Qiu held up his cup, struck it with increasing glee, and said, “I remember that. I’m investigating him!”
Cen Yu could not keep a hold of him and said, “Thankfully, I was the one who invited you to the feast today, or else you would be impeached for sure for behaving in such an audacious, unrestrained manner.”
“Okay then, let them impeach!” Kong Qiu said, “Let them impeach! Imperial censors ought to have the courage to speak.”
“Right, well said!” Han Cheng also laughed, “Before spring, we were saddled with such a massive pile of work that we could scarcely breathe. How many times could we enjoy ourselves to the greatest? Let him enjoy himself to his heart’s content!”
“It’s almost time to wind down. If we make a ruckus too late into the night, the Secretariat Elder won’t be happy with us.” Xiao Chiye got to his feet and called to Chen Yang, “Send His Excellency Kong back in my horse carriage!”
The attendants swarmed all around, and Chen Yang helped Kong Qiu out the door. Cen Yu wiped away his hot sweat and said to the remaining men, “You don’t know this, but Boran was also once an unconventional and uninhibited person, but because Secretariat Elder is particularly set on self-restraint and observance of proprieties, he put him in order and whipped him into shape. It’s not advisable to drink too much of this wine. Why doesn’t everyone wait for a moment while I’ll tell the cook to boil some soups to sober you up? Drink it up before you leave!”
“I was just thinking about your residence’s dough drop and assorted vegetable soup!” Han Cheng forwent the formalities. “Add some vinegar to mine. I’ll drink it before leaving.”
Shen Zechuan bowed and said, “The imperial prison still has urgent cases to be processed tomorrow morning, so I won’t stay. Everyone, please enjoy your meal. If time permits in the future, I’ll invite everyone for another round.”
Han Cheng knew that he was indeed busy of late and told him, “When you previously held the post of the Southern Judge, the military craftsmen kept a close eye on you. Now that you’ve transferred to the office of the Northern Judge, there’s no need for you to rush between both ends until you are too busy to do anything else. The subordinates will remember your kind treatment of them and naturally won’t make things too difficult for you.”
Shen Zechuan uttered a sound of acknowledgment. Cen Yu insisted on sending him off. It would not do for Shen Zechuan to decline, so they walked out of the doors together. It was raining heavily outside, and everything was covered in a thick layer of fog. The drift of fresh air on their faces dispelled the wine-induced heat from their bodies, making them feel much more refreshed.
Cen Yu led Shen Zechuan down the stairs and said, “To find time to attend the feast tonight, you must have pushed back a great deal of work.”
“Not quite. The urgent cases that need to be dealt with have been sealed and finalized before today.” Shen Zechuan replied with a smile.
Cen Yu nodded and said, “That’s good. Assignments cannot be delayed.”
Cen Yu accompanied him all the way to the gates and then ordered someone to hold up an umbrella and lantern for him. He truly valued Shen Zechuan for his talents, but it was a pity that Shen Zechuan served in the Imperial Bodyguards.
Finally, Cen Yu said, “All the cases in the Imperial Prison are major cases that not even the Three Judicial Offices can interfere with. You could be said to have enjoyed a meteoric rise with this position, so you must speak with caution and act with prudence. It is often said that being close to the sovereign is as perilous as lying with a tiger. Those who can handle affairs in the presence of the emperor are all born intelligent and quick-witted. That said, you needn’t worry too much about qualification, for you are already considered to have reached success in your youth. You still have a long time to go and a long way ahead of you, so remember, there is no need to be anxious about anything else other than your assignments. The Marquis of Dingdu is not a narrow-minded man either. You are bound to have to work together on missions in the future. The hatchet has been buried tonight with wine. Even if you cannot become soulmates with him, it’s still better to be friends who can look out for each other than to fly into a rage each time you meet each other. Lanzhou, I value your talent, and I hope that you will work hard and achieve success in your career!”
Cen Yu bared his heart out with such sincerity that Shen Zechuan was wholeheartedly convinced. He bowed, and Cen Yu helped him up again, saying, “The road is slippery on rainy nights. Be careful on your way. You may go.”
Shen Zechuan draped the pristinely white fur coat that Li Jianheng had bestowed on him and bade farewell to Cen Yu. He did not get in the sedan, but let Qiao Tianya hold up the umbrella for him as one master and one servant walked into the rain.
The two had not been walking along the streets for long when they heard the sound of hoofbeats behind them. Qiao Tianya shook the rainwater off before stepping aside, and as expected, saw Xiao Chiye on horseback galloping towards them at full speed.
“Good timing. I—”
Qiao Tianya did not even get to finish his sentence as Xiao Chiye bent to pick Shen Zechuan up and left with him. The water droplets kicked up by the horse’s hooves splashed all over Qiao Tianya. He spread his arms open and slowly finished his sentence, “… want to drink some shaojiu.”1
Xiao Chiye was well-built. Even with Shen Zechuan in his arms, he did not find it inconvenient. It was in this way he hugged Shen Zechuan as he effortlessly rode his horse away. The chest backing Shen Zechuan was firm and muscular, as if it was an indestructible iron wall of silver.
Lang Tao Xue Jin galloped into the rain like a bolt of lightning flashing through the pitch-black rainy night. It trod into countless puddles of water, splattering them as it charged straight for the city gates.
“Who goes there riding his horse this late in the night?!” The guard at the top of the wall raised his lantern and demanded.
Xiao Chiye pulled at his cloak to wrap Shen Zechuan under it before raising his own waist token. He said, “Open the gates.”
“Vice… Marquis!” The platoon commander at the top of the wall immediately paid his obeisances, then waved his hands and ordered, “Quick, open the gates!”
The gates opened with a loud rumble, and Lang Tao Xue Jin galloped straight out. With the night wind whipping against their cheek, Lang Tao Xue Jin galloped faster and faster, while a circling gyrfalcon charged out from the rain and followed closely behind.
Shen Zechuan held onto the back of the horse and said, “We can’t go too far. Tomorrow morning—”
Xiao Chiye grabbed Shen Zechuan’s chin, pulled it toward himself, and tilted his head to kiss him. Shen Zechuan was not gifted at horsemanship, and other than Xiao Chiye, he had nowhere else to hold on to as they raced forth like the wind. With one hand pressing against the jerking back of the horse and the other clutching onto Xiao Chiye’s body for support, there was no way for him to look at the road in front. The pitter-pattering rain wetted his eyes as they kissed.
They had not seen each other for seven or eight days.
Xiao Chiye embraced Shen Zechuan tightly with one hand, pressing him to his chest as he kissed down along his cheek to the side of his neck.
Shen Zechuan’s clothes were in disarray. The official robe beneath his white fur coat had been tugged open slightly. When he lifted his eyes, all he could see was the jet-black rainy night. The water droplets trickled down along the curve into his collar, drenching his clothes, and even himself. His caresses wrinkled Xiao Chiye’s robe even as Xiao Chiye made him gasp for breath.
The rain poured even harder and noisier as Lang Tao Xue Jin ran blindly into the night. The path in front of them was already hidden in the long, dark night, and the horse was like the lone boat carrying a pair of lovers on a secret rendezvous.
Shen Zechuan closed his eyes while taking all of it, shivering while bathed in sweat and rainwater. Xiao Chiye did not say a word as the horse’s hooves trod on mud. The path was so uneven and hard to navigate that a few ensuing bumps and jolts caused the sounds to escape from Shen Zechuan’s throat.
Xiao Chiye was also sweating a little. Spurred on by the potent wine, he grasped Shen Zechuan amidst this frenzy of pleasure, making every rise and fall hit just the right spot. He was in even more high spirits after drinking wine, and he used his strength skillfully, making Shen Zechuan incapable of resisting and unable to escape.
“Does the friction feel good?” Seeing that Shen Zechuan wanted to lean away, Xiao Chiye clasped his hands and pulled him back in an embrace.
Pressed against him, Shen Zechuan said, “Mmm…”
Xiao Chiye said, “Next time, I’ll grind the right spot.”
Xiao Chiye stroked Shen Zechuan’s earlobe and fastened an object. He pushed aside those drenched locks of hair and kissed it.
As Shen Zechuan raised his head, the jasper swayed with his movement. He dazedly touched the pendant. Several times, he opened his mouth to speak, but he was always disrupted by his gasps for breath. As he rode on the tidal waves of euphoria, he gazed at Xiao Chiye with a contradictory blend of understanding and incomprehension.
Xiao Chiye killed off the only remaining tenderness he had left.
It was really bad for the spring days to warm up again after a cold spell, for this was the season to have fun. Scoundrels all like having fun. As long as they were together, they could create a stir where there was none. The suggestive look in their eyes when their gazes met and the tingle of numbness that sprang up their spines was so strong that they itched to tantalize the other into ripping apart his mask of decency. No one understood the debauchery taking place underneath their official robes.
As long as there was no one else, they would show their true colors.