Yuan Liu died a sudden death in prison, and Chen Yang was the one who went to collect his body and bury him. As per Xiao Chiye’s wish, he settled Yuan Liu’s wife and son down in a new house in the City of Dancheng and hired a decent teacher for Yuan Liu’s son.
Xiao Chiye’s illness lasted until the snow in Qudu melted. By the time he could step out to attend court sessions, Xi Hongxuan had already been promoted to the Secretary of the Bureau of Evaluations.
Shen Zechuan returned the Imperial Army’s waist tablet to Xiao Chiye. In the time Xiao Chiye took the tablet, he eyed Shen Zechuan all over thoroughly.
“Thanks.” Xiao Chiye extracted the waist tablet from Shen Zechuan’s hand. “Your Excellency the Judge.”
“I’m not deserving of it.” Shen Zechuan’s fingers curled slightly, as if he could not bear to let go.
Xiao Chiye swung the waist tablet and said, “Got attached to it?”
Shen Zechuan laughed and said, “Yeah. Got used to feeling it these days.”
Xiao Chiye saw that the people around them had all retreated far away from them, so he said, “It’s too pathetic to just feel my waist tablet alone.”
Shen Zechuan clasped his hands behind him and said to him, “You’ve just recovered from a major illness. Second Young Master, you can dally all you want, but you have to know when to stop.”
“I’ve been pure of heart and free of desires for more than half a month.” Xiao Chiye felt sleepy as he basked in the sunlight. He shuffled his feet. “The heartless cad I’ve been yearning for day and night did not even visit me once. Now that I’m out, I have to find a way to heal my broken heart.”
Shen Zechuan bathed in the breeze and said, “It’s better to forget that kind of bad egg who often ditches the old for the new and has countless new and old flames before it’s too late. Wasting the prime of one’s youth for him is so not worth it.”
Xiao Chiye said, “Bad what?”
Shen Zechuan said, “Second Young Master.”
Xiao Chiye wanted to squeeze his nape. But it was inappropriate to stand here and squeeze him, so he said, “Well said. It’s so well-worded that this Second Young Master wants to applaud.”
“That’s very kind of you.” Shen Zechuan said modestly. “It’s all good as long as you feel my sincerity.”
“So, I see you’ve made a point of checking out who some of those old flames are.” Xiao Chiye said. “You’re that bothered, huh.”
“Check, I didn’t.” Shen Zechuan said. “I can pry out all sorts of love affairs just by sitting and drinking wine in Xiangyun Villa. For example, how the Second Young Master is a regular patron and an old hand when it comes to romantic liaisons.”
“Admirable, isn’t it?” Xiao Chiye asked.
“Indeed, indeed.” Shen Zechuan looked at him as he spoke and slowed down. “But hearsay cannot be compared to personal experience. The legendary man himself doesn’t seem to be the same person as the one I’ve encountered.”
“To be fair, you didn’t get that many opportunities.” Xiao Chiye raised his fingers to hang up the waist tablet. “You will understand it better once you’ve played with me a few more times. It’s not like we haven’t tried ‘taking the time to savor and devour’. How was the taste of it?”
Shen Zechuan pursed his lips tightly under Xiao Chiye’s gaze.
Xiao Chiye smiled and said, “Looks like you still remember it. Then, do you still remember what you have promised me?”
“To pass Xiangyun a message on your behalf.” Shen Zechuan said. “Playing the matchmaker for the two of you and earning myself a cup of wine to drink at your wedding feast. Of course, I remember.”
“I knew you were reliable.” Xiao Chiye said. “How should I thank you if this matter succeeds?”
“Just treat it as gift money for your wedding.” Shen Zechuan said absent-mindedly as he lazily looked out along the stone slabs.
Han Cheng just happened to exit the hall. He waved his hand at both of them as the little eunuch beside him came running over.
“This way, my lords. His Majesty is waiting!”
Li Jianheng sat on the dragon throne and listened as the others discussed official matters. It was soon to be the beginning of spring,1 a time when the planting and cultivating of mulberry and flaxseed were major issues. Cen Yu, the Left Censor-in-chief of the Chief Surveillance Bureau, submitted a memorial and mentioned that there were signs of public ditches in the various residential areas in Qudu being illegally occupied. At present, the snow was starting to melt. If they could not keep the clogged ditches unobstructed, then the streets would be flooded once the rainy season hit.
This was such a minor issue, at least compared to what was being discussed, that it seemed insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Li Jianheng did not even hear him clearly before letting the matter drop as the loud voice of the Provincial Administration Commissioner from Zhongbo drew away his attention.
Several times, Cen Yu tried to speak again but was interrupted.
When Cen Yu left the palace after court was dismissed, he suddenly heard someone calling him from behind. He looked back and saw that it was Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan paid his obeisances and said, “As presumptuous as it is of me to stop Censor-in-chief Cen, this humble official has an issue to seek your advice on.”
Cen Yu said, “Judge Shen, please speak.”
Shen Zechuan said, “I heard the Censor-in-chief mentioned the clogged public ditches in your memorial during the court session earlier. Are you referring to the unexpected upsurge of ditch water in the residential area on Donglong Street?”
Cen Yu motioned for Shen Zechuan to talk as they walked. He said, “That’s right. Donglong Street’s illegal claiming of the public ditches has been ongoing since the reign of Xiande. At the start of spring in previous years, it would flood the residential areas. But since it has not resulted in any deaths or accidents, no one really gives it that much thought.”
Shen Zechuan promptly gave a faint, bitter smile and said. “To tell Your Excellency the truth, this humble official is currently living there.”
Startled, Cen Yu hurriedly asked, “Has it already been flooded these days?”
Shen Zechuan said, “The place this humble official lives in is on higher grounds. In my immediate neighbors’ attempt to lay claim on the public ditch and expand their courtyards, the eaves of their residences are already pressing up against mine. Owing to the obstructed flow of passage, sewage water had already begun to inundate my courtyard. Before this morning’s court session, this humble official made a trip to the surrounding residential area. The low-lying civilians’ houses are already all underwater.”
Cen Yu said worriedly, “It’d be bad if we were to encounter a plague. Let’s leave aside the matter of the flooding for now. Because everyone wants to snatch those few inches of land, their houses are all built close to one another with no bricks and stones in between; it’s all wooden planks. It is a major accident waiting to happen if a fire were to start.”
Shen Zechuan thought about it and comforted him, “Your Excellency, don’t worry. This humble official will speak to His Excellency the Commander-in-chief to see if he can report to the Emperor and send men to clear out the ditches before it’s too late.”
“Alright. I’ll also talk to the Secretariat Elder again.” Cen Yu lifted his foot to leave, then turned his head back and said to Shen Zechuan with a smile, “I appreciate the Judge’s thoughtfulness. If we can resolve this matter as soon as possible, then it’d count as one merit.”
Shen Zechuan cupped his hands in respect to him and saw him off.
◈ ◈ ◈
The red plum blossoms in the residence had withered. When Shen Zechuan arrived, Xiao Chiye was standing in his study, looking at the remnants of those plum blossoms.
“It’s so terribly damp everywhere with the snow melting these few days.” Xiao Chiye plucked a plum blossom branch. “That house of yours is not inhabitable now, is it?”
Shen Zechuan had indeed been fretting about this matter recently. He gently pulled at his collar and said as he changed his shoes, “The courtyard is already flooded.”
“When I passed by that place five years ago, Zhao Hui mentioned the issue about the public ditches.” Xiao Chiye turned back. “It has been so long. To think no one has gone to fix the problem.”
“Anyway, those who soak until they rot in there are all lowly lowlifes. What’s more, it takes time and effort to fix the issue.” Shen Zechuan said with a mocking expression. “Who will be willing to do it?”
“Aren’t you going to do it?” Xiao Chiye looked at him and walked over. “This year is the first year of Tianchen. There will be a merit and achievement appraisal by the Censorate. If something were to happen, the entire imperial court of civil and military officials will fight over themselves to do it.”
“Doubt it.” Shen Zechuan supported himself against the wall and was about to step onto the mat when Xiao Chiye blocked his way. He raised his eyes and said, “Hm?”
Xiao Chiye bent down to pick up Shen Zechuan’s boots. He pressed a few times on the leather and said, “Is the Imperial Bodyguards so stingy that they can’t even give you a pair of deerskin boots?”
Shen Zechuan’s socks were half wet, so Xiao Chiye asked the servants to fire up the charcoal basin to heat the room. Shen Zechuan did not look too good today, and it turned out that he was freezing.
“Deerskin boots won’t be able to withstand the soaking either.” Shen Zechuan shifted away his foot, refusing to let Xiao Chiye grab it. He lowered his eyes to look at Xiao Chiye and said, “The low-lying areas of Donglong Street are all impoverished brothels. They are all now soaking in filthy waters.”
Xiao Chiye remained squatting the way he was and raised his head to say, “Those brothels normally don’t pick patrons. They accept everyone who has a few copper coins to spare and let them do as they please. They can’t afford to pay taxes at all, and are always in arrears year after year. The lower levels at the Ministry of Revenue who pass their days counting copper coins2 are a worthless bunch with the specific intent to leave them out to dry in the air.”
“The residential area has also been submerged.” Shen Zechuan said.
“They are all used to waiting; it’ll be fine once spring is over.” Xiao Chiye got up and said, “There are plenty of people available to work on it, but those who are willing to handle work without any merit to earn are few and far between. I have yet to eat after court dismissal today. Let’s have our meal together.”
The maidservant came over to prepare wooden clogs for Shen Zechuan. Even after putting on the wooden clogs, they did not make him taller than Xiao Chiye. Xiao Chiye looked at Shen Zechuan’s slender and pretty ankles in those socks and thought of the medicine the latter had been consuming in the past.
“I don’t see you gaining weight during the new year.” Xiao Chiye pushed the door open and led him outside.
“I’m so busy that I only sleep for four hours a day.” Shen Zechuan pattered on the ground with his clogs. “I initially thought that the Southern Judge was an idle position with little to do. Who knew that the ways of the military craftsmen would be that many?”
“If Xi Hongxuan can’t keep you.” Xiao Chiye turned his head aside. “Switch over to this Second Young Master’s camp while you still can.”
“Then I reckon I won’t even have four hours to sleep.” Shen Zechuan followed after him. “The remaining men from the Imperial Bodyguards are mostly those who inherited the positions and follow in their fathers’ footsteps; they rely on their ancestors for their meals. The benefits that come with the Imperial Army aren’t worth much in their eyes.”
The snow was in the midst of melting these few days, and so the yard was wet as well. Xiao Chiye strode across the water puddle and turned back to look at Shen Zechuan for a moment.
Although Shen Zechuan was wearing the clogs, the hem of his lunar white3 robe would trail into the water unless he held it up. At present, it was already dark. Their surrounding was bright and clear set against the backdrop of the white, charming moon hanging up high far on the horizon. The contrast also made Shen Zechuan’s reflection in the water puddle thin and pleasing. He was so focused on the road as he spoke that he did not notice when Xiao Chiye had stopped. He lifted his white robe and, like a child, skipped over the water puddle and landed right before Xiao Chiye.
Without even thinking, Xiao Chiye leaned over to hug him around his waist and hoist him over his shoulder. The wooden clogs slipped to the ground, and Xiao Chiye picked them up. With one hand carrying the wooden clogs and one hand around Shen Zechuan, he headed back to the house where they had drank wine the last time.
Chen Yang retreated several steps back and gestured to the guards at the back, dismissing everyone in the yard with a silent wave of his hand. Ding Tao did not dare to utter a sound on the rooftop and only showed his eyes as he watched the Second Young Master carry Shen Zechuan over his shoulder. Qiao Tianya and Gu Jin each squatted at the projecting tiles of the eaves and took a sip of wine in unison.
“You didn’t look too good this morning.” Xiao Chiye said. “You’re burning up. Have you fallen ill?”
Sprawled over his shoulder, Shen Zechuan watched the moon on the ground and said, “… Perhaps.”
“The grand ambition for supremacy is not something that can be accomplished at a single stroke.” Xiao Chiye ascended the stairs and kicked the door open. “Life is the most precious of all.”
“This wasn’t what you said back then when you hated me.” Shen Zechuan landed on a mass of softness. He gazed at Xiao Chiye. “Just a minor illness. I’ll sleep it off.”
Without looking at him, Xiao Chiye took off his own shoes and removed his outer robe. The maidservants entered in a single, ordered file and set the plates on the small table to serve up the dishes.
Shen Zechuan finished washing his hands and was about to pull at his collar again when Xiao Chiye reached out his hand from the side to pull it for him. He used his fingers to part the collar gently and saw some red rashes.
“It’s been too damp lately.” Shen Zechuan nudged away Xiao Chiye’s hand with the back of his hand. “In order to stake their claims on the site, the eaves of the neighbors’ houses have even blocked out all the light.”
Xiao Chiye seemed to pay it no mind and let the matter drop with an “uh-huh”.
Both men took their seat. As they were eating, Xiao Chiye said, “That residence of yours is no longer befitting of your status. Why haven’t you moved?”
Shen Zechuan replied, “It’s close to Zhao Zui Temple, which makes it convenient for me to see shifu. It’s also on Donglong Street. If there’re any movements from Xi Hongxuan, it’d be easier to look into it.”
Xiao Chiye watched him eat and said, “Ji Gang-shifu can’t keep staying at Zhao Zui Temple as an errand-runner. It’d be more convenient for you to act if you were to relocate and live together.”
Shen Zechuan said, “Let me see if I can find any suitable residences these days.”
As a matter of fact, he still had Grand Mentor Qi’s residence in his hands. But it would not do for him to live in that residence now; it was too ostentatious and would draw too much attention. Moving house was simple; what was hard was that Xi Hongxuan was keeping a close watch on him. He dared not put his shifu and teacher at risk.
It was already very late after their meal, and the weather was still cold. Shen Zechuan stood up and prepared to take his leave, but Xiao Chiye opened the windows and let out a whistle at the rooftop.
Three guards plus one Meng poked their heads out in unison.
Propping himself against the window ledge, Xiao Chiye watched Shen Zechuan pick his coat up and said to them, “Close the doors. His Excellency the Judge is not leaving tonight.”
Shen Zechuan looked back.
Xiao Chiye did not smile. His flippancy in the morning seemed to have been blown away by the night wind. Concealed in those eyes were the secluded forest and thick fog, made even more hazy and deep under the moonlight.
Perhaps he is really an old hand when it comes to romantic liaisons.
Shen Zechuan thought.
Just the expression in these eyes of his alone was enough.
- 立春 Lichun or Beginning of Spring, i.e., the 1st of the 24 solar terms in the lunar calendar.
- i.e., staffers who only care about collecting their salary
- The actual word here used is 月白, which is supposed to be a pale blue shade. But t97 used white later on in the same paragraph. Since Shen Zechuan is frequently portrayed in white, we’ll assume she literally means “moon/lunar white”.