Xi Hongxuan trembled as he puked, his face terrifying pale. Han Jin, who was behind them, saw that the situation did not bode well and hurriedly waded over to stop them. Xiao Chiye released his hands and watched as Xi Hongxuan was lifted into the sedan. The rain was still pouring, and all the major and minor officials were crying as they chased after Li Jianheng’s sedan and swarmed their way back to the palace gates.
Pan Xiangjie ran until his shoes fell off. The old man lifted the hem of his robe, panting and not forgetting to cry out “Your Majesty”. Everyone around them was more or less the same. Only Hai Liangyi was as dignified as ever as he followed the sedan the entire way back to the palace.
The imperial physicians, who have long been waiting, rushed over to meet them in a fluster, and the chaotic procession continued into the inner palace where a plainly dressed Mu Ru came to receive them. The moment she saw Li Jianheng all covered in blood, her tears began to flow.
The Empress Dowager let Hua Xiangyi help her out and said in a hostile tone to Han Cheng, “It’s one thing for you to be anxious, but why did you call a bunch of elder excellencies to run along? All of them are advanced in age, and they have all got caught in the rain. Won’t it exacerbate the situation further if anything were to happen to them?!”
There was a rustle as the Imperial Bodyguards kneeled. Han Cheng said, “This humble subject deserves death.”
“Hurry over and get them to prepare the soup and distribute clothes.” The Empress Dowager then said to the ministers. “It touches me to see how sincere and loyal everyone is. Now that His Majesty is already back at the palace, there’s no need for any rush at this point in time. The weather is so cold. Everyone, please head to the side hall to seek shelter from the wind and have a bowl of hot soup. Do not fall ill at this juncture.”
The various officials kowtowed to say their thanks.
The Empress Dowager said again, “Grand Secretary and the Grand Secretariat, as well as the excellencies of the various bureaus, please come in for a talk.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Cen Yu was not around. He remained at Donglong Street to dredge up the public sewers together with Xiao Chiye. Yu Xiaozai, who was of low official grade, followed behind them and helped Cen Yu to carry the straw raincoat.
Xiao Chiye’s head and face were thoroughly drenched in water. The chilly wind blew until everyone all around was trembling, yet he was not the least bit affected. While digging up the two men earlier, he had alone lifted up that weight that was near a hundred jin.1 At present, he was wrapping a handkerchief around the area between his thumb and index finger, with an expression that did not look too good.
“It’s all poverty-stricken households living in the low-lying area. It isn’t easy for them to have a house built out of broken wood to live in. Nine out of ten did not give their agreements when they heard that the houses are going to be demolished.” With his bare feet soaking in the water, Cen Yu lifted the hem of his soaked official robe and tucked it around his waist. He continued, “Only Donglong Street is flooded today because Donglong Street is right next to Kailing River. If this rain doesn’t stop, Viceroy, then the water level on the other streets will rise tomorrow too.”
“If the imperial court is willing to give those poverty-stricken households whose houses are demolished a subsidy of five taels of silver, then they will all be willing.” Partially covered in mud, Tantai Hu said, “They just want to have a place to stay. As long as we are willing to subsidize them money, then it won’t be a problem. This humble subject feels that those who obstruct the dredging are the big residences. Each of those residences violated the regulations to expand their lands, and there have been many cases where they come to blows with one another in private. Who would be willing to wreck a perfectly good house for just five taels of silvers now that we are telling them to tear down their houses? They won’t even respond if we knock on their doors!”
“I’m afraid we can’t come to an agreement regarding the subsidy.” Cen Yu, who had run around in official circles for a long time, was very much aware of the ins and outs of it. He said, “It is on account of the Grand Secretary Hai that the Ministry of Revenue is willing to take out the money to offer aid reliefs to the disaster victims. This sum of money still has to be separately counted when the time comes. They will never agree if they still have to subsidize each household five taels of silver.”
“Your Excellency, don’t hold it against this uncouth fellow for saying something unpleasant, but why are you still thinking about the money at this juncture?!” Tantai Hu’s chest heaved. “A plague might break out once this water rises and people die! At that point, it’d be pointless keeping the silver!”
“Brother Hu, don’t get worked up.” Yu Xiaozai raised his hands to soothe everyone. He said, “You don’t have a clear idea of this account. The Ministry of Revenue has their own difficulties. They don’t really begrudge this amount. As it nears the inspection, they will have a peace of mind if they can do a wonderful job on this matter. It will make them look good, so they will only be too happy to do it, won’t they? But why are they unwilling? It’s all because they are embarrassingly short of cash! Let’s say they take this sum of money out now to deal with the emergency at hand. In a few more days, it will be the spring plowing farming season in the various lands. There is not a single harvest in the places affected by disasters last year. Based on the localities’ reports, the Ministry of Revenue has to consider allocating money to the localities so that the affected local prefectural yamen or Provincial Administration Commissioners can use the money to buy seeds from the neighboring provinces with bumper harvests. This is a major issue concerning the meals of hundreds of thousands of people. So how would they dare to act rashly and touch the existing money in the state treasury? Moreover, since these people are expanding their lands against the law, they should be found guilty and punished according to the law if the matter of illegal occupation of the public ditches was to be investigated and pursued. The imperial court has not even punished them, so how can they dig into the coffers to give them money instead? If they don’t run through this matter clearly, then our Chief Surveillance Bureau will have to impeach their Ministry of Revenue in the future. That’s why everyone is in a spot.”
Yu Xiaozai had the ability to calm people down. When those slightly accented words left his mouth, even the most major of issues could wait. What he said was the truth, not because he was taking sides with anyone. The problem was precisely what he had said.
The localities’ plowing and planting season in spring directly concerned Dazhou’s course of action this year. The army provisions of two major strategic frontier lands depended on the grain harvests of Juexi’s thirteen cities and Hezhou’s frontline. So no one dared to be slipshod. This was their number one priority.
What could they do?
Forcibly going ahead with the demolition would rouse public wrath. Half of the men from the Imperial Army were currently from military households in Qudu. There weren’t many of them who lived in Donglong Street, but there weren’t just a few either. When Hai Liangyi entrusted this matter to the Imperial Army, he was, in fact, entrusting it to Xiao Chiye. Because once this matter was handed over to the Eight Great Training Divisions, then there would be no consideration of any compromise. Han Jin would directly call for the place to be leveled outright. But there was no way they could simply overlook the potential danger that could arise as a result of this.
He had meant for Xiao Chiye to think of a way.
Xiao Chiye bandaged the area between his thumb and index finger tightly. Just as he was about to speak, he saw a man walking over in the rain.
Shen Zechuan cupped his hands in greeting to them and said, “Just as I’ve guessed. All the gentlemen are here. How’s the progress for the public ditches?”
“It’s a tough one to deal with.” Cen Yu let out a long sigh. “We can’t very well just tear them down.”
“Ultimately, what makes it hard for the Ministry of Revenue is that they can’t figure out the expense quota for the upcoming spring plow.” Although Shen Zechuan looked calm, his cheeks were tinged with red. He looked at the rain and said, “This account can actually be estimated. This untalented one has seen the Imperial Bodyguards’ records archives, so I have some insights regarding it. Would the Viceroy mind hearing what I have to say?”
Xiao Chiye stared at him and said, “Judge, please go ahead and voice it.”
Shen Zechuan thought for a moment, then said, “Last year, when the new emperor ascended the throne, there was general amnesty granted to various lands. Consequently, Juexi was exempted from 30% taxes. They had a bumper year last year. Other than Huaizhou and Dunzhou of Zhongbo, both of which reported damages caused by disasters, the others all had no problem. Viceroy, Dunzhou is hard-pressed for food this year. The prefectural yamen will definitely have to buy grains from Cizhou, whose granaries are filled to the brim. There was heavy snow at the start of the year, with the snow in Zhongbo blanketing all the houses. Didn’t the Hereditary Prince set aside 40,000 taels from Libei Armored Cavalry’s military funds this year for Cizhou so that they would have enough for aid relief? You can get Cizhou to repay this favor now. Ask the Hereditary Prince to send a letter to Cizhou’s Magistrate of Municipality, Zhou Gui, and get him to give a rebate for the grains he sells to Dunzhou based on that 40,000 taels. That way, the Ministry of Revenue will be able to save on their allocation of funds to Cizhou and use that money for the current house demolition subsidies.”
Yu Xiaozai pondered over it again and said, “But the matter of illegally occupying public ditches is still a crime if it were to be pursued further. The Ministry of Revenue can’t do it, right?”
“The illegal occupation of public ditches is indeed punishable by the law. But special times require special treatment. We can’t just follow the set rules and apply the same old rigid rules to the situation every time.” Shen Zechuan paused for a moment. “The imperial court can’t meet the disaster victims. So this subsidy is a kindness, an act of imperial magnanimity. It’s most appropriate for His Excellency Cen to be the one to step forth and discuss this matter. The Ministry of Revenue is really not that hard-hearted either. As long as it isn’t wrong, the account is clear, and the money is sufficient, they are sure to proceed right at once.”
The inspection was just around the corner, and the assessments and evaluations were related to the promotion of personnel from the various bureaus. Everyone would be more than willing to get an “outstanding”. So, as long as it was reasonable enough, they would certainly be willing to do it.
“Let’s talk about Cizhou again.” Shen Zechuan looked at Xiao Chiye. “Zhongbo wants to construct the former city this year. Although we still don’t know which excellency will be assigned, it is still going to be an expense to deploy manpower when the time comes. The Viceroy is in Cizhou’s favor because of the matter this time. When the time to construct the former city, you can tag that manpower expenditure on those whose houses were demolished today, and let the various households allocate manpower to Cizhou for about a month or so to provide manual labor with the Imperial Army escorting them. It can also be considered a punishment for illegally occupying the public ditches. These five taels of silver won’t be delayed or owed; the ones issuing them and the ones receiving them can all do so with a peace of mind.”
Not only that, with this matter, Cizhou would also shift from being indebted to Libei to a relationship of mutual help and assistance. As long as Zhou Gui was not a fool, he would understand this to be an opportunity to make friends.
As soon as the words left Shen Zechuan’s mouth, Yu Xiaozai shook open the straw raincoat and draped it over Cen Yu.
Cen Yu was going to do it right away. He strode forward and patted Shen Zechuan’s shoulder heavily and said, “Your Excellency the Judge, time is pressing, so I won’t say more. Once this is over, I, Cen Yu, shall prepare some simple meal with wine in my humble abode and respectfully await your visit!”
He put on his bamboo hat and left with Yu Xiaozai.
“How is it going in the palace?” Xiao Chiye grasped hold of Shen Zechuan’s wrists.
Tantai Hu made as if to speak, but stopped and said nothing.
Shen Zechuan backhandedly hooked the waist tablet on his waist and looked at it for a moment before saying, “The Empress Dowager has summoned the top ministers of the various bureaus, ready to settle accounts with them. It’s just as well you aren’t among them. The public ditches have to be dredged as soon as possible. There are some remarks made out of courtesy earlier. But you have to understand that if you still don’t unclog the ditches these few days, then you will be called to account.”
It was inappropriate for Xiao Chiye to touch Shen Zechuan again as both men stood at this spot. But when he saw Shen Zechuan getting doused with the rainwater until he looked visibly sick, he said, “The Secretariat Elder told you to keep a watch in the palace, so go back. You just need to sit in the office to drink a cup of hot tea with your eyes on the door.”
“That’s Han Cheng’s job.” Shen Zechuan turned his head. “… It worries me that shifu is at Zhao Zui Temple. There’s no time to lose. Go about your work first. I have to follow the men from the Ministry of Revenue and handle the aid reliefs for the disaster victims behind the scenes.”
Xiao Chiye still wanted to say something, but Han Jin, at the other end, was already lifting his shoes and calling out to him. So Xiao Chiye could only release his hands and retreated a few steps to turn around and leave with Tantai Hu and Chen Yang in tow.
Shen Zechuan had a splitting headache, although the pouring rain cleared up his mind a little. He turned around to call out to Ge Qingqing and brought him towards the low-lying area.
Dredging the public ditches was not an easy task. The work was dirty and tiring. The men from the Ministry of Revenue even had to change their shoes and lift their robes when they went into the water. Those on the job were all cowering under the awning, not even wanting to get wet. In any case, this was a task Hai Liangyi gave to the Ministry of Works and the Imperial Army. They were merely here to assist.
When Shen Zechuan arrived, he saw that there were not even enough of those gathered to count with all his ten fingers. He knew that those at the bottom ladder of the Ministry of Revenue who were used to muddle along were the most slippery; unless they had something to gain, they could not be ordered about.
Ge Qingqing asked, “It’s about to be dark soon. Why are there so few people?”
Fawning and bowing to Shen Zechuan in subservience, the official invited him for a seat and said, “We couldn’t get them all here. The Imperial Army ahead of us didn’t finish digging, did they? It’s not too late to call for more people tomorrow morning once they are done digging tonight. No rush. Your Excellency, come and sit! Look at how soaked you are! Have this cup of hot tea. At least warm yourself up. Don’t let yourself get frozen!”
Shen Zechuan did not move. He looked at the awning and smiled, “Did you set this up yourself? Good job.”
That official held out the tea and grinned from ear to ear, “Of course! Everyone has been so busy; who’d be worrying about us? We could only build it ourselves…”
His voice trailed off. The Imperial Bodyguards stood solemnly behind Shen Zechuan and watched him without so much a smile.
Shen Zechuan wasn’t too bad as he received the tea and took a sip.
The official toadied up to him. “This is fine tea from Hezhou, especially steeped for Your Excellency—”
Shen Zechuan flipped his wrist and splashed the tea all over his face. The official yelled in shock and backed off. Shen Zechuan tapped on the bottom of the upside-down teacup with his fingertips and cleared the cup of the tea leaves, all the while with the smile still on his face. Amidst the downpour, his smiling face was even more luscious and pleasing to the eyes.
“As for this tea…” Shen Zechuan spoke gently, “Consider it a toast from me to you. Why didn’t you drink it?”
The official hastily wiped the tea leaves off his face in a fluster and said, “T-too quick…”
“When the King of Hell calls for you, it won’t do for you not to respond quickly.” Throwing aside the teacup, Shen Zechuan said, “The Grand Secretary gave strict orders to the Imperial Bodyguards to supervise and oversee the matter of aid relief. I reckon the order of immediate execution hanging around your neck isn’t as tight as we’d like. You must drink up all this tea that I’ve splashed on the ground. Since you can’t receive it standing, allow me to send you on your way so you can finish the drink when you’re six feet under.”
The official kneeled to the floor in a panic and said, “Y-Your Excellency, how can you do this?! At any rate, this humble subordinate is a sixth-grade official of the imperial court. H-how can you execute as you please…”
“The Imperial Prison has never taken in anyone below fourth-grade!” Ge Qingqing lifted the hem of his robe and kicked him into the water puddle. “If the Judge has ordered you to drink, then drink you must. You can decide whether you’d like to drink it alive, or drink it in the underworld when you are dead.”
The official rolled into the water. Seeing Shen Zechuan staring at him with his hand on his blade, he immediately cupped the water in his hands and stuffed it into his mouth, crying, “I will drink it! I will drink it!”
The surrounding men standing and sitting in various postures jesting and clowning around all quietly stood to stand well-mannerly at the side.
Shen Zechuan swept a glance at them and said, “Can this task be done immediately?”
Everyone answered in unison, “We are at Your Excellency the Judge’s disposal.”
“I’m just a mere supervisor and inspector; what would I know about the ins and outs of things?” Shen Zechuan took out the blue handkerchief to wipe his hands and said with a smile, “I wouldn’t dare to put the various gentlemen at my disposal. Us Imperial Bodyguards will just follow you gentlemen. So, shall we go?”
Who would still dare to remain behind?!
That official trembled as he tried to come up as well. Shen Zechuan glanced at him, and he retreated and stammered, “Your, Your Excellency…”
“We’re on this street.” Shen Zechuan said soothingly before leaving, “Drink it all up before you come over.”
The sky had already completely darkened, but the rain still showed no signs of stopping. No matter how imposing and awe-inspiring the Imperial Bodyguards were, they also had to enter the water and soak in it until they reeked all over. Feeling the world spinning when he got up, Shen Zechuan braced himself with a hand on a public ditch plank and composed himself for a moment. Everyone around him was busying around, so no one noticed it.
Only Ge Qingqing hurriedly tried to persuade him in a whisper, “There’s no hurry for now. It’s fine to rest for a moment!”
Shen Zechuan forced a smile, feeling as if he must not open his mouth; the taste of nausea was already pushing up against his throat. Bracing himself against the plank, he went up and felt around for a water bag under the partially collapsed humble abode.
There was a sudden weight on his back as someone covered up Shen Zechuan’s head. Shen Zechuan was still crouching, and the obstruction before him was lifted once again. Xiao Chiye gasped for breath as he suddenly burrowed his way in and stuffed the still warm lunchbox to him. The next moment, he burrowed his way out and lifted his foot to leave.
Shen Zechuan pushed aside the overcoat that was covering his head. That man who had already taken a few steps away returned the way he came. He stepped on the collapsed debris and crouched down to cup Shen Zechuan’s face in his palms, then kissed him hard. After he was done kissing, he rubbed Shen Zechuan’s cheeks vigorously.
Rainwater poured noisily. Xiao Chiye was panting hard. He looked at Shen Zechuan under the dimness for a split second. Without saying a word, he turned and ran. He flipped over with agility and vigor, putting on the dirty, wet robe hanging over the crook of his arm again as he sped off into the alley.
If it weren’t for time constraints.
Xiao Chiye tugged at his collars as he made his way across the ruins. Stepping on the filth as he hurried over to where the Imperial Army was, he cursed—