With impure intentions, Xiao Chiye raided and seized Shen Zechuan’s lips and tongue, throwing Shen Zechuan’s mind into chaos as he was kissed until he could not breathe for air. As the time ticked by, his tightly clenched fingers slowly lost their strength.
Being unable to catch his breath caused Shen Zechuan to feel vaguely dizzy. In this murky gray narrowness, he fell prey to the net Xiao Chiye’s set as a trap. He seemed to sink deeper into the water in which he was drowning as the sensation of suffocation intensified. Xiao Chiye kept him in captivity in his arms, holding in his struggles, thereby making himself the one and only person Shen Zechuan could rely on at this very moment.
Yu Xiaozai moved to the side of the bed again, his shoes shuffling right beside both men.
The sound of hurried footsteps suddenly rang out outside. Chen Yang said, “So Your Excellency the Censor is here! Please come with this humble servant. Your Excellency is needed to personally look through the documents found in the study.”
Thus, Yu Xiaozai followed him out with the document under his arm. He asked, “Where is His Excellency the Judge?”
Chen Yang did not dare to look around the room. He led Yu Xiaozai out and said as he shut the door, “His Excellency the Judge was drinking tea at the duty office room earlier. He should be on the way here right now.”
Yu Xiaozai asked, “Didn’t His Excellency come over way earlier?”
Chen Yang replied,” It’s so freezing cold. He will only feel refreshed and energized if he drinks a cup of tea to warm up…”
They moved farther away into the distance. Only then did Xiao Chiye leave Shen Zechuan’s lips a little.
Lying beneath him, Shen Zechuan recovered his breath. His almost blanked-out eyes were lowered. As he swallowed the saliva, his throat bobbed in tandem with the fall and rise of his chest. His lips had been kissed until they had gone bright red and moist. This bout of kiss near about ended him.
Xiao Chiye was gasping for breath too.
Shen Zechuan reached a hand out from under the bed. He made to get out and said, “You—this—”
Xiao Chiye extended a hand to grab his outstretched wrist, pressed the tip of his nose against him, and kissed him once more.
The last time, Shen Zechuan had said that Xiao Chiye was “ravenously gorging himself”. The latter obviously bore a grudge with him for this. This time, Xiao Chiye “took his time savoring and devouring” as he played around with the kiss, cutting off Shen Zechuan’s voice that rang out intermittently and dissolving his words between their intermingling tongues before making him swallow them all back into his tummy.
◈ ◈ ◈
It was a little less than an hour later when Yu Xiaozai saw Shen Zechuan again. He stepped forth to pay his obeisances and turned pale with alarm. Deeply concerned, he asked, “Your Excellency, this…”
“Got scalded.” Shen Zechuan replied expressionlessly.
The Imperial Bodyguards nearby were still flipping through that extensive library of books. Ge Qingqing came over and shook his head at Shen Zechuan.
They were originally just here to go through the motions. Seeing that it was almost time, Shen Zechuan said to Yu Xiaozai, “The checks here are almost done, so why don’t you and I head for the office compound first to report back to His Excellency Fu.”
Yu Xiaozai concurred and surveyed the place again. He said, “To avoid suspicions, the Viceroy is still sitting outside. Before we leave, we have to notify him.”
Shen Zechuan silently pressed the tip of his tongue against the corner of his lips and nodded his head in response.
Sure enough, when they went out, Xiao Chiye was still sitting by the side of the pond1 fishing with the same woven raincoat draped over him. It was as if he had been sitting there all day and had gone nowhere else.
“It’s already late. Why don’t both Excellencies have your meal first before you leave?” Xiao Chiye was holding up the fishing rod with his legs propped up. Who knew if he had even caught a fish yet?
Yu Xiaozai declined the offer and excused himself. “Having imposed on Your Excellency for the entire day, I wouldn’t dare to tarry any longer. Next time, I’ll play host and treat both Excellencies to a cup of wine.”
“Sure, if it’s drinking.” Xiao Chiye shook his rod and lifted a small silver crucian carp out of the water. He laughed out loud, tossed the fish into the basket, then set aside the rod, and carried the basket over. Bending over slightly to emerge out of the grove, he tossed the basket to Yu Xiaozai and said, “I owe it to the consideration Your Excellency Yu has shown me today. These fishes are a small thank-you gift from me.”
Some snowy fog fell upon them. Yu Xiaozai was still looking at the fish basket with his head lowered; thus, he was not paying any attention to the two men.
Shen Zechuan looked at Xiao Chiye, who casually rubbed his right ear with his thumb. Shen Zechuan promptly averted his eyes.
Overwhelmed by the favor, Yu Xiaozai said in response, “Oh no, how can I…”
“Why?” Xiao Chiye patted Yu Xiaozai and said, “Don’t tell me the Chief Surveillance Bureau would even consider these few fishes a bribe?”
Yu Xiaozai said hurriedly, “It’s not that…”
“Come over often in the future.” Xiao Chiye moved aside to make way. “Chen Yang, send them off.”
Being inexplicably thanked threw Yu Xiaozai off. He was still unsure what to make of it when he stepped out of the door.
Shen Zechuan was about to get into the carriage when he suddenly touched his right earlobe, feeling as though this spot had been rubbed rotten by that jerk. It was so scalding hot that it made him feel vexed.
◈ ◈ ◈
Fu Linye was in the Imperial Army’s office compound, sitting in anticipation with his legs raised. Meng Rui attended to him at the side. Seeing him drink cup after cup of tea without even shifting his butt, Meng Rui knew that he would not leave unless he pried something out of them.
Meng Rui was fed up deep down, but he did not dare to let it show even the slightest. He continued to serve him premium tea and said with a smile, “Your Excellency the Censor-in-chief Fu has already looked through the Imperial Army accounts books. The various lords of the Ministry of Revenue have tallied them too. If Your Excellency has something else to check, please feel free to tell this humble servant.”
Fu Linye said unperturbed, “Things like account books have to be carefully audited again and again. There may well be an omission or mistake somewhere. It can’t be rushed. Take another look.”
Wei Huaixing said that Xiao Chiye’s repairs of the compound and expansion of the military drill grounds in recent years could not be accounted for. But in truth, it was all detailed in the Imperial Army’s account books. Fu Linye knew that Xiao Chiye was not an easy one to investigate, but he still had to churn out some dirt from this clear water. Otherwise, he could not report favorably back to Wei Huaixing. Moreover, Li Jianheng was always shielding the Imperial Army in the past, so when it came to Xiao Chiye, everyone simply let him be and steered clear of him by default. But this time, Li Jianheng obviously spurned him. The way the wind was blowing now, it was time to make Xiao Chiye suffer a little.
The officials from the Ministry of Revenue who had followed along noisily flicked the beads of the abacus. Lamps had been lit in the hall. Each of them dug into the account books with great focus, loathing their inability to tally each account seven or eight hundred times.
When Shen Zechuan arrived, he even saw Tantai Hu in the corridor. He said nothing, while Qiao Tianya, who was in disguise as an Imperial Bodyguard, followed him from behind and stepped through the door together with him.
The sound of the abacus beads being flicked in the hall rang out endlessly. Fu Linye set aside the teacup and rose to his feet to greet Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan exchanged greetings with him, after which both men took their seats together.
Fu Linye asked, “Did the compound search go smoothly?”
Shen Zechuan said, “Xiao’Er delayed us for quite some time.”
Fu Linye inwardly thought to himself, I knew it, and said with concern, “Did he make a move? That hoodlum is the most overbearing ever. This trip has been hard on Your Excellency the Judge.”
Shen Zechuan thought, he did make a move, but it has nothing to do with you. He smiled as well and said, “It doesn’t matter. I can still endure this bit of hardship for His Majesty. Xiao’Er initially did not permit me to search his compound. Fortunately, His Excellency Yu was there too and tried his best to persuade him.”
As if venting on Shen Zechuan’s behalf, Fu Linye said hatefully, “We are acting on His Majesty’s orders. By simply hindering us whenever he wishes to, Second Young Master Xiao not only belittles and disrespects us, but His Majesty too.”
Shen Zechuan looked into the interior of the hall and said, “Your Excellency, is the investigation here not done yet?”
Fu Linye replied, “It’s done. But it needs to be re-audited a few more times. As you know, account books are the easiest to fake.”
Shen Zechuan could tell what he meant from those words. After a moment’s pause, he said, “Your Excellency is the chief official of the search this time, so I’ll do as you say.”
Fu Linye merely smiled and did not respond. He drank tea with Shen Zechuan until the third quarter of the hour of zi,2 when the newly audited account books were presented before them.
Fu Linye flipped through them and suddenly asked Meng Rui, “At the start of spring last year, a temple was constructed in the palace on imperial decree. The Ministry of Works entrusted the important task of transportation to the Imperial Army. But then, the construction of the temple fell through. The Viceroy even blocked in the Ministry of Works to demand for money, is that right?”
Meng Rui replied, “That’s right. The money was delayed for several months. It was all the Imperial Army’s hard-earned money. The Viceroy was anxious, so he personally went to ask for it.”
Fu Linye closed the account books and said with a sneer, “Back then, the state treasury’s expenditure hadn’t been accounted for yet. Even the Directorate of Ceremonial didn’t dare to approve it arbitrarily. How did the Viceroy get the money?”
Meng Rui said, “Our Imperial Army didn’t get the money. It was the Secretary for the Ministry of Revenue, Wang Xian, who made the decision to give a batch of silk from Quancheng to the Imperial Army, and the Imperial Army traded them for money. This account was also recorded in the book, with its coming and going all clearly accounted for.”
Fu Linye suddenly smacked the tabletop with a force so hard that the teapot clattered. If not for Qiao Tianya’s sharp eyes and swift reaction in catching hold of it, the tea would have poured all over Shen Zechuan’s legs. Shen Zechuan remained smiling in his seat as he waited for Fu Linye to continue.
This was an account from the start of Spring. At that time, Shen Zechuan was still staying at Zhao Zui Temple, but he knew of this debt. The reason this debt could be eventually resolved was, in truth, not because of Wang Xian, but Xue Xiuzhuo. Xue Xiuzhuo, then the Chief Supervising Secretary of the Ministry of Revenue, was the one who stepped forth to mediate and settle the debt by offering Xiao Chiye those silk from Quancheng.
Shen Zechuan tapped his fingers on his knee. He thought,
This account is a loophole.
Sure enough, Fu Linye put on a show of authority and questioned Meng Rui, “This account book indicates that a total of 660 silks were allocated to the Imperial Army. You people recorded it as low-grade silk from Quancheng, but Qudu treasury records state that they were all top-grade silk from Quancheng! It’s just a word difference between low-grade and top-grade, but the difference is 4,000 taels! I’m asking you, where did these 4,000 plus taels go?”
Meng Rui’s reaction was swift. He answered methodically, “Those allocated to us were indeed low-grade silk from Quancheng. The stuff was dispatched by the Ministry of Revenue themselves, and the handwritten transfer order indicated them to be low-grade silk from Quancheng.”
Fu Linye flung down the account book and said, “Of course. Wang Xian, right? He has long been colluding with you people. He wrote low-grade silk from Quancheng on the handwritten transfer order, but the treasury records clearly state that it was top-grade silks from Quancheng that had been taken out. What benefits did Xiao Chiye give Wang Xian that would make Wang Xian forge such a fake order?!”
Shocked, Meng Rui said, “You have no proof! Your Excellency Fu, just—”
“The way I see it, the Imperial Army is a front for harvesting ill-gotten gains. Xiao Chiye has been making a fortune through you people. Anyone with eyes can see it for themselves how he has been fooling around on Donglong Street all these years eating, drinking, and making merry! He has Wang Xian working in cahoots with him prior, and Yuan Liu currying favor and offering him peaches after. All Xiao Chiye does with the backing His Majesty’s favor accords him is to engage in shady deals to line his own pockets!” Fu Linye laughed nastily. “Your Excellency the Judge, see this? The number one rising star is the number one thieving traitor! Tonight, you and I shall do another in-depth investigation. There will surely be more of such rotten accounts!”
Shen Zechuan looked at Fu Linye until Fu Linye felt apprehensive. Shen Zechuan said, “This matter has nothing to do with the assassination case, so it’s not within the scope of my duty this time. I’ll let Your Excellency decide.”
Fu Linye had initially intended to drag Shen Zechuan down with him and make an accomplice out of him, but he wavered a little when he saw that Shen Zechuan did not fall for it. But this matter could be considered a big deal if he reported it to the top. He was not willing to lose the merit for this, and so he steeled himself, slapped the table, and said, “Run another audit! Check all the Imperial Army’s account books over the years for hundreds and thousands of times!”
Shen Zechuan suddenly smiled and averted his gaze as he sat on the chair and drank his tea. Although he was smiling on the surface, his heart was gradually sinking. If it were not for Xue Xiuzhuo’s involvement in this account, he might not even have noticed it. Most likely, Xiao Chiye himself had forgotten about it too.
Could it be that Xue Xiuzhuo was already on guard against the Imperial Army from that time onwards?
Shen Zechuan blew at the tea foam in silence.