The second month of the lunar year was crucial for planting mulberry and flax in spring. The various localities hurried to submit their reports and urge the Ministry of Revenue to allocate funds. With mountains of trivial affairs piling up, the various departments were so busy they were burned out from exhaustion. Li Jianheng dished out the rewards and conferments, and Xiao Chiye was promoted to the rank of Marquis of Dingdu. Meanwhile, Shen Zechuan received a skip in grade and was promoted to a third-grade Vice Commander. He also concurrently took up the portfolio of the Northern Judge and began to take charge of the imperial prison.
The Grand Secretariat initially did not agree to this, but Cen Yu submitted a memorial to make a strong case for a recommendation. Hai Liangyi also saw Shen Zechuan in a new light because of the epidemic, and so it was decided.
Xiao Chiye carried the earring case on him, but he never found the opportunity to run into Shen Zechuan. Shen Zechuan was on the go all over the imperial prison, having to go through all the cases accumulated before the new year one at a time. He was so busy he skipped sleep and meals. On the other side, he still had to get Qiao Tianya to lie in wait and keep a watch on Xi Hongxuan so that he could find a way to get Qi Huilian and Ji Gang back.
Young swallows made a ruckus on roof beams, while the young shoots of weeping willows spouted. The vermilion walls and green glazed tiles of Qudu gradually showed as the weather remained clear and sunny for several days in a row. On the day when spring rain fell uninterrupted, Cen Yu hosted a feast and invited a few friends from the latest incident. Hai Liangyi was not one to attend private banquets, and it just happened that he had yet to recover from his illness, so he did not partake in the feast.
By the time Shen Zechuan arrived, it was already late. He was led straight to the main hall. When he lifted the curtain, he saw that it was full of officials who were familiar faces to him.
Han Cheng, Kong Qiu, and Cen Yu shared a table. Xiao Chiye already had his third round of wine, and he was listening with propped arms to Yu Xiaozai – whose seat was at the bottom – telling jokes to an entire hall of important ministers.
The moment Shen Zechuan entered, Yu Xiaozai hurriedly paid his obeisances and greeted him. “Your Excellency is late. Please hurry and have a seat at the head of the table.”
Shen Zechuan removed his cloak and said with a smile, “There’s much to do in the imperial prison, so I’d like to ask of Your Excellencies to please bear with me. I’ll sit at the bottom.”
Cen Yu stood up and beckoned to him, saying, “Those etiquettes for public display won’t work at private banquets. Once you are here, we are all friends despite our age differences. So why still stand on ceremony? Old Han, you tell him!”
Han Cheng said, “It’s as he said. Lanzhou, come on up and sit here. The few of us old and useless ones have the honor of being in the company of the Marquis today too. Your Lordship, you could be said to have lowered yourself for us!”
“Commander-in-chief, what you’re doing is putting me down.” Xiao Chiye seemed to be a little drunk. He did not look at Shen Zechuan and merely smiled, “Who present here is not a respected elder? I’ll still have to look to all of you for advice in the future.”
Shen Zechuan had already taken his seat, which was a little distance away from Xiao Chiye across the table where he would be able to reach the latter if he stretched out his legs. Both men did not look at each other, nor did they greet the other. Kong Qiu looked left and right at them and said with a smile, “I’ve long heard that both of you have beef with each other. Why won’t you even say a word on meeting each other? You worked on this assignment together, and it seemed all good to me. So why still take those past grudges to heart?”
“The way I see it, both of you are young and promising, and you don’t deflect the responsibility to each other when you’re working. So why not take the chance today to bury the hatchet with a smile?” As Cen Yu spoke, he raised his hands. “The Imperial Bodyguards and the Imperial Army have to mutually look out for each other, too. There are plenty of opportunities for both to continue working together in the future. Your Lordship, what do you think? Would that do?”
Xiao Chiye lazily cast a look at Shen Zechuan. His gaze was indecipherable. He only said, “How would it not do for me? What is there that I can’t do with a smile from his Excellency the Judge? I should say my proper thanks to His Excellency for this time too.”
“When have I never greeted Your Lordship with a smile every time I see Your Lordship?” Shen Zechuan touched the wine cup. “I’ve long forgotten the past. It’s just that there has been no opportunity before, isn’t it?”
Han Cheng was the one who had the most drinks with Xiao Chiye. On seeing this, he picked up his chopsticks again and said as he picked out the food, “Then, let’s have a drink. Your Lordship, please do me the favor!”
Yu Xiaozai, who had not sat all this while, promptly filled both of their cups to the brim with wine. Xiao Chiye held his cup with both hands and said without getting up, “Then, let’s toast.”
Going by their official grades, it was indeed the case that Xiao Chiye should not get up. Shen Zechuan stood up, revealing his wrist bones as he lifted his cup.
Xiao Chiye suddenly said, “Since this is wine to settle old grudges, then it naturally can’t be drunk in such a common way. Judge, how about a nuptial exchange of matrimony wine?”1
Han Cheng promptly laughed. He pointed at Xiao Chiye and shook his head as he said with a sigh, “Your Lordship, that’s too unethical of you. Why put Lanzhou in a spot?”
“How is this putting him in a spot?” Xiao Chiye said, “I can’t even begin to love and honor him. Aren’t we doing all this as an expression of our determination?”
Knowing Xiao Chiye’s temper, Cen Yu thought that Xiao Chiye was still harboring animosity over Zhongbo and that he was intentionally making things difficult for Shen Zechuan. Just as he was prepared to speak up to dissuade Xiao Chiye, Shen Zechuan laughed.
“Sure.” Shen Zechuan said. “We’ll do as His Lordship says.”
Shen Zechuan held up the cup and leaned over, where Xiao Chiye could see his faintly discernible collarbone. Both men’s arms intertwined. As Shen Zechuan drank the wine, his Adam’s apple throbbed. Xiao Chiye’s gaze seemed to let out a gurgle too as it followed the wine down into that robe.
Xiao Chiye drank very slowly. He held the wine in his mouth, his gaze never once leaving Shen Zechuan. All the time his arm was hooked around Shen Zechuan’s arm, Shen Zechuan could clearly feel his sturdiness.
Xiao Chiye seemed to let out a laugh when he finished drinking, but no one heard it; only Shen Zechuan lowered his eyes to look at him. His gaze was naked, and brimming over with dangerous desire.
Shen Zechuan extracted his arm and sat back, his back dripping with sweat. Xiao Chiye seemed unfazed as he put up his arms again and inclined his head to listen to the conversation.
Cen Yu said, “After the spring plow, it’ll be the spring examinations.2 The Imperial College wants to recruit new students this year. Looks like the Ministry of Revenue will be getting another headache.”
Kong Qiu snorted a laughter and said, “What would Wei Huaigu ache over? He’s the money keeper! He ought to compute them. To begin with, all these should have been suitably arranged way earlier. For him to wait until now to do so is already considered a dereliction of duty.”
“He’s the money keeper, and you’re the living King of Hell!” Han Cheng set down his chopsticks. Having had his fill of wine and meal, he said, “Zhongbo is in such a mess at present, and the number of cases submitted to the Ministry of Justice is as innumerable as the number of hairs on an ox. It won’t do for them to keep delaying sending someone over to take charge of the situation there, would it?”
“I think the Secretariat Elder is mulling over whom to send over.” Cen Yu lamented. “If Lanzhou formally joins the central administration as an official, then he might have a chance this time.”
Whether it was due to the heat or the wine, Shen Zechuan’s face was a little red. He said, “I can’t. I’m not qualified and experienced enough to be assigned out of the capital. I won’t be able to quell the unrest.”
“Just gain more experience and it’ll be fine.” With his interest piqued, Han Cheng said, “It is said that officials from the capital are wily. But how can the capital officials be as slippery and sly as the local officials? Some years ago, I went down with the Chief Surveillance Bureau to check the accounts, and all those ‘capital lords’ and ‘old masters’ were all very crafty and cunning! There were two copies of all the account books in their residences. Even if you, Cen Xunyi, went, you would not be able to distinguish the real accounts from the fakes. Every year, when the imperial envoy heads down, there would be a great flurry of activities. Having long heard the news, they would drive out all the disaster victims and refugees in their territories before your arrival to prevent you from seeing them. This is the so-called ‘no hunger concern in the territory’ you see in the evaluations. Once you arrive, they would hold a banquet and think up reasons to dunk you with wine. You’d drink until daybreak, then sleep until nightfall. You’d be so drunk that you can’t even stride out of the prefectural yamen. So what energy would you still have to check the accounts? Once the time is up, and the silver is in the pockets, the evaluation would be marked as outstanding. Then it’s off to the next place to drink. And that’s considered the end of the check.”
“But there are still those who do their jobs. You can’t taint them all with the same brush.” With that, Cen Yu sighed again. “When Xue Xiuzhuo went down a few years ago, he was a formidable sight to behold. All the accounts of the Thirteen Cities of Juexi were sorted out in perfect order without a single error. I originally thought he would be assigned to the Ministry of Revenue. But who would have expected the Secretariat Elder to transfer him to the Court of Judicial Review instead?”
“Can he get anywhere being Wei Huaigu’s subordinate?” Kong Qiu leaned against the chair. “The current vice minister of the Ministry of Revenue exists in name only. Wei Huaigu alone calls the shot and has the final say in the overall management of financial affairs. Won’t he be rendered useless if he goes over? The Secretariat Elder has the intent to polish him; he’s meant to achieve great things in the future.”
Kong Qiu never had any social dealings with Wei Huaigu and Pan Xiangjie. That he was only friendly to them on the surface but estranged from them deep down was a fact everyone knew. So he was not afraid to speak out in Han Cheng’s presence.
Han Cheng laughed out loud and said, “Don’t discuss state affairs at a private feast! How can you forget this? Old Kong, you ought to be punished!”
Thinking that they were almost done with their meals, Cen Yu said, “When Youjing3 returned a few days back, he told me about a game. It still seems early to me, so why don’t we give it a try? Youjing, take those cards of yours out.”
Yu Xiaozai readily agreed in response. He took out a wooden box, opened it to take out small carved wooden cards and said, “This is something this humble subordinate saw others playing when I went to Yongyi Harbor for supervision and inspection—matching cards to pair couplets. Your Excellencies, give it a go?”
Han Cheng said to Xiao Chiye, “I’m not good at playing literary games like these. Your Lordship, how about giving me some advice?”
Xiao Chiye drank his wine and said, “Does the Commander-in-chief think so highly of me, Xiao Ce’an? Do I look like a man who reads?”
“It’s just for fun. Let’s just go along with it. Youjing, deal the cards!”
Yu Xiaozai dealt the three of them the cards. Fiddling with his wine cup, Xiao Chiye was just looking at the cards when something brushed against his calf. He paused suddenly and fixed his gaze on Han Cheng’s cards.
Han Cheng looked at his cards with a frown and said, “The heck are these flowers and plants putting me in a spot! Your Lordship, do you recognize this?”
Xiao Chiye said, “Throw them both a line based on the foxtail grass. I guarantee—”
That foot with a clean sock tapped Xiao Chiye’s knee, and its sole stepped on his kneecap, as if testing the position.
“Guarantee they’ll be stumped!” Han Cheng tossed a card out and said with a smile, “The swallow teases the foxtail, spring arrives. I randomly made up the first line of a couplet. So now, Xunyi, pair it up!”
Han Cheng truly was not a learned man, but he did not let it hold him back. On hearing this, Kong Qiu and Cen Yu laughed. While the three men were talking, Xiao Chiye cast a look at Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan grasped his fan, a little moso-bamboo fan that Xiao Chiye had sent someone to deliver to him. He tapped the fan intermittently and listened intently to the conversation. As if sensing Xiao Chiye’s eyes on him, the corners of his eyes lifted in a little smile.
That foot had already slid in between Xiao Chiye’s legs. It nudged against the inside of his thigh, as if wanting for more. Xiao Chiye held the wine cup with his thumb pressed against the rim as he remained motionless.
“Isn’t it a fox?” After a while, Xiao Chiye let out a laugh. He lifted his hand to pick out an ink-traced fox from Han Cheng’s cards and tossed it onto the table. “Moist is the night as the rain seeps through my roof; sultry is the fox’s song in my dream. Where to seek the tide of spring? That wet, persistent drip is the hint—sorry for the obscenity!”
Han Cheng exchanged toasts with Xiao Chiye, then laughed and said, “We are being serious here, but why is it that you just had to turn a fox into a vixen when it’s your turn?!” A foot reached out from under the table. Its toe slowly slid up Xiao Chiye’s calf, playing back and forth a few times along the curve of his calf.
“But men like me…” Xiao Chiye drank his wine and looked at Shen Zechuan. “… simply attract foxes.”
“How is any respectable person able to continue with that? It’s too crude.” Kong Qiu laughed and sighed. “You, Xiao Ce’an, don’t even close the door tight when you sleep, and you still blame the others for looking for you. You’re obviously looking forward to it yourself, right?”
Xiao Chiye did not say a word. But when that foot stepped down on him gently, he laughed. The upper half of Shen Zechuan’s body was so steady that nothing seemed off. He rubbed his fingertips, which had been tapping on the fan. In this room full of heat, even the corners of his eyes were about to redden.
It just so happened that Cen Yu threw the card onto the ground. Yu Xiaozai quickly stopped what he was doing and made to lean over to pick it up.
Shen Zechuan prepared to retract his foot. But unexpectedly enough, Xiao Chiye reached his hand down to grab hold of his ankle. His sole was stepping on Xiao Chiye’s unmentionable spot through the fabric. Xiao Chiye slipped two fingers into the clean sock and stroked Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan’s fan rested on the tabletop. Yu Xiaozai had already lifted the hem of his robe and his waist was already slightly bending over as he said, “Your Excellencies, please lift your legs. Let this humble subordinate see where it has dropped to…”
Xiao Chiye was not the slightest bit flustered as he steadily grasped onto Shen Zechuan’s ankle. He exerted a little force with his thumb, caressing Shen Zechuan until Shen Zechuan felt a tingle of numbness run up his spine and tightened his grip on his fan.
Many thanks to Kotoni and Alex for the hornee consultation.