Xiao Chi’ye plundered Shen Zechuan’s mouth with deliberate malice, so that everything in Shen Zechuan’s head fell into disarray. Unable to draw breath, minute by minute, his tightly clutching fingers slowly lost their grip.
Because he could not catch his breath, Shen Zechuan’s head spun faintly. In this dim, shadowed sliver of a space, he had fallen into Xiao Chi’ye’s trawling net, and as the sense of asphyxiation grew stronger, he seemed to sink ever further into the drowning depths. Xiao Chi’ye contained his floundering within his arms, turning himself into his only means of sanctuary in this moment.
Yu Xiaozai walked over to the bed. His shoes hovered right by the two of them.
Hurried footsteps came suddenly from outside. Chen Yang called, “Here he is! Please follow me, Master Censor— the books and documents found in the study require your personal inspection.”
And so Yu Xiaozai followed him out again, papers under his arm, asking, “Where is the Master Adjudicator?”
Chen Yang dared not let his eyes wander in the room. He led Yu Xiaozai out, and as he shut the door behind them replied, “The Master Adjudicator was just having some tea in the duty room. He should be heading over now.”
Yu Xiaozai said, “But wasn’t he coming this way earlier?”
Chen Yang said, “Look at the weather, it’s freezing out. You’d need a cup of tea to warm up and get you going…”
They went further and further away into the distance. Finally, Xiao Chi’ye lifted a little from Shen Zechuan’s lips.
Lying beneath him, Shen Zechuan fought for his breath back. His eyes, nearly glazed, were downcast, and his throat worked, swallowing, with each rise and fall of his chest. The kiss had left his lips scarlet and glistening wet. He had almost lost his life to this exchange.
Xiao Chi’ye was also breathing hard.
One of Shen Zechuan’s hands reached out from beneath the bed. He wanted out. He said, “You— “
Xiao Chi’ye reached out and seized his outstretched wrist. He nudged into him with the tip of his nose, and dove down into another kiss.
Shen Zechuan had called him a starving animal last time, and he had clearly held on to that grudge. This time, even his kisses were slow and savouring, stoppering the broken sounds Shen Zechuan made, dissolving them between teeth and tongue, and then swallowing them into his belly.
When Yu Xiaozai saw Shen Zechuan again, it was a little under an hour later. He came up to him to bow, and then, aghast, cried in concern, “Sir, what— “
“Scalded myself,” Shen Zechuan said expressionlessly.
On either side, Brocade Guards were still rummaging through the ocean of books. Ge Qingqing came over, and shook his head at Shen Zechuan.
They were only ever going through the motions here. Shen Zechuan saw that it was about time, and so said to Yu Xiaozai, “They’re just about finished here. Shall we head back to the precinct, and make our report to Chief Censor Fu?”
Yu Xiaozai agreed, and looked once more about himself. He said, “The Governor-General’s still sitting out there so’s to keep his distance. We’ve got to let him know before we leave.”
Shen Zechuan mutely touched the tip of his tongue to the corner of his lips, and gave a nod as acquiescence.
When they went out, Xiao Chi’ye was indeed still fishing by the lake, all wrapped up in his rain cape as though he had been sitting there all day, and had gone nowhere at all.
“The light’s leaving us. Won’t you two gentlemen stay for dinner?” Xiao Chi’ye sat with his fishing rod propped on a leg. Heaven knows if he had caught any fish at all.
Yu Xiaozai demurred, “We’ve troubled you all day, Governor-General, and we can’t take any more of your time. Next time, I’ll be host, and treat both of you sirs to a cup of wine.”
“I’m always up for wine.” Then Xiao Chi’ye flicked his rod, and lifted a small silver carp from the water. He laughed aloud, flung the fish into his basket, then laid down his fishing rod and walked over with the basket. Ducking slightly, he emerged from the copse of trees, and threw the basket into Yu Xiaozai’s arms. He said, “I’ve been looked after by Censor Yu today. Take the fish for a small gift, as my special thanks to you.”
A light snowy fog had fallen. Yu Xiaozai was looking down at the basket of fish, taking no notice of the two of them.
Shen Zechuan looked towards Xiao Chi’ye, and Xiao Chi’ye absently rubbed his left ear with a thumb. Shen Zechuan immediately looked away again.
Very much taken aback, Yu Xiaozai was beginning to say, “How can I accept this…”
“Why,” Xiao Chi’ye clapped Yu Xiaozai on the back, saying, “Is the Censorate going to call these few fish bribery too?”
Yu Xiaozai said hurriedly, “That’s not it…”
“Come by again any time,” Xiao Chi’ye moved aside. “Chen Yang, let’s see our guests out.”
Inexplicably thanked, Yu Xiaozai was still befuddled when he walked out the door.
Just as he came to his carriage, Shen Zechuan suddenly reached up to touch his left earlobe. All the rubbing by that scumbag must have damaged it, for it scalded maddeningly.
Fu Linye was at the Imperial Guard’s operational headquarters. He sat one leg crossed over the other, and Meng Rui waited on him to one side. Having watched him drink one cup of tea after another, while his behind budged not one bit, Meng Rui knew that the man was not leaving until he had dug something up today.
Meng Rui was over it, but none of that showed on his face, and he kept the good tea coming as he said, smiling, “Now you’ve seen all of the Imperial Guard’s ledgers, Chief Censor Fu, and each of the gentlemen from the Ministry of Revenue has gone through the calculations. If there is anything else you’d like to look at, Chief Censor, please don’t hesitate to let me know.”
Unperturbed and self-assured, Fu Linye replied, “The thing about ledgers is, they’ve got to be gone over very carefully, again and again— and then who knows! There might be a spot or two where something’s been missed or mistaken. You can’t hurry these things. We’ll keep looking.”
Wei Huaixing had claimed that Xiao Chi’ye’s recent construction projects at the headquarters and Feng Hill had been funded from unclear sources. In fact, those sources were very clearly recorded in the Imperial Guard’s ledgers. Fu Linye had known that Xiao Chi’ye would be a challenge to investigate, but he had to stir something up from those crystalline waters, or he would not be able to answer to Wei Huaixing. Besides, as Li Jianheng had always favoured the Imperial Guard before now, everyone had handled Xiao Chi’ye with a light touch, basically never filing a complaint against him without good cause. But this time, Li Jianheng had obviously gotten tired of him. Sensing the way the wind was blowing, it was about time that Xiao Chi’ye suffered a little too.
The folks from the Ministry of Revenue clattered loudly upon their abacuses. Lamps were lit in the main hall, and each one of those men scrutinised those ledgers with intense focus, as though they hoped to recalculate every item at least seven or eight hundred times over.
When Shen Zechuan arrived, he spotted Tantai Hu in the corridors. He said nothing, and Qiao Tianya, appearance disguised, entered behind him as another Brocade Guard.
In the incessant clatter of abacus beads, Fu Linye put down his tea cup and rose to greet Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan bowed to him, and the two men sat down together.
Fu Linye asked, “Did it go smoothly at the family estate?”
Shen Zechuan replied, “Xiao Ce’an held us up for quite some time.”
Fu Linye thought to himself that it was just as he had expected, but said, voice full of concern, “Did he get physical? That scoundrel’s always such a bully. You’ve had a tough time of it, Master Adjudicator.”
Shen Zechuan thought, it got physical, but that’s none of your business. He matched Fu Linye’s smile, and said, “It’s no trouble. What’s a little hardship when we’re serving His Majesty’s purposes? Xiao Ce’an wasn’t going to allow me to search his rooms, but thankfully Censor Yu talked him around after a lot of work.”
As though indignant on his behalf, Fu Linye said hatefully, “We’re acting on Imperial orders, but Xiao Ce’an thinks he can obstruct us anytime he wants to. He’s got no respect for you or me, and no respect for His Majesty either.”
Shen Zechuan looked into the main hall, and asked, “Aren’t you finished here yet, Chief Censor?”
Fu Linye said, “They’re finished, but we’ve got to check over it a few more times. As you know— ledgers and such, they’re very easily falsified.”
Shen Zechuan understood his meaning. He paused a little, then said, “As you are the leading official in this investigation, sir, I shall be obedient to your direction.”
Fu Linye smiled, and said nothing. He and Shen Zechuan drank tea for some time. At a quarter-hour to midnight, the newly rechecked ledgers were presented to them.
Fu Linye flipped through them a little, then suddenly asked Meng Rui, “At the beginning of Spring last year, the Palace intended to build a temple, and the Ministry of Works entrusted the major responsibility of material transport to the Imperial Guard. But the temple was never built in the end, and the Governor-General held up the Ministry of Works asking for money, didn’t he?”
Meng Rui said, “That’s right, that payment was delayed for several months, and the Imperial Guard had earned it with our blood and sweat. The Governor-General got impatient, and went to ask for it in person.”
Fu Linye closed the ledger, and said, sneering, “The Treasury’s expenditures wouldn’t have been finalised at the time, and the Office of Ceremony wouldn’t have dared sign off on it without authorisation. So how did the Governor-General get his money?”
Meng Rui said, “We didn’t get coin. At the time, the Secretary of the Ministry of Revenue, Wang Xian, made the decision to pay us with a batch of silk imported from Quan city instead, and the Imperial Guard traded it for coin. This transaction was recorded in our ledgers, and can be clearly traced.”
Fu Linye slammed his hand on the table so suddenly that the teapot made a loud clang, and if Qiao Tianya had not deftly caught it, the tea would have gone down Shen Zechuan’s leg. Shen Zechuan sat where he was, his faint smile unchanged, and waited to hear the second part of Fu Linye’s thesis.
This transaction dated back to early spring of last year. At that time, Shen Zechuan had still been confined to the Temple of Penitence, but he nevertheless knew about the matter. In truth, the eventual resolution of this debt was not the work of Wang Xian, but of Xue Xiuzhuo. Xue Xiuzhuo, who was Chief Steward of Revenue Oversight at the time, had come forward to mediate, and settled the debt for Xiao Chi’ye with Quan city’s silk.
Shen Zechuan tapped his knee lightly with his knuckles, and thought—
This transaction is a liability.
And exactly as expected, Fu Linye put on his most imperious attitude and demanded of Meng Rui, “It says here on this ledger that six hundred and sixty units of silk were alloted to the Imperial Guard at the time. You’ve put it down as low-grade Quan silk, but the Capital warehouse records have it all down as high-grade Quan silk! The discrepancy is only in a word, but the difference between them is four thousand liang! Answer me this: where have those four thousand-odd liang gone?”
Meng Rui, very quick on the uptake, replied steadily, “The allotment we received was genuinely low-grade Quan silk. The Ministry of Revenue handled the transfer, and the transfer papers all had it as low-grade.”
Fu Linye threw the ledger down, and said, “Of course it did. Wang Xian, wasn’t it? He’d have been in cahoots with you from the start. He might have written “low-grade Quan silk” on the transfer papers, but the warehouse records clearly state that it had been high-grade Quan silk which was removed. What did Xiao Chi’ye promise Wang Xian, that he would falsify papers like this!”
Taken aback, Meng Rui said, “This is all speculation! Chief Censor Fu, simply—”
“The way I see it, the Imperial Guard is nothing but a sieve for skimming cream off the milk. Xiao Chi’ye has made his fortune off of you. Hasn’t all the world seen how he’s been living it up on Donglong Avenue these few years? He’s got Wang Xian before him to conspire with, and Yuan Liu behind him to gift him peaches and kiss his ass. Behind His Majesty’s benevolent back, Xiao Chi’ye has done nothing but enrich himself as a dirty middleman!” Fu Linye was grinning twistedly. “Master Adjudicator, do you see? This first-rate favourite is really a first rate thief! If you and I give this another thorough look tonight, we’re bound to find more of this sort of filth!”
Shen Zechuan looked at Fu Linye, until the man faltered under his gaze. Then he said, “This affair has no connection with the assassination, and is outside the scope of my current duties. It is entirely yours to arbitrate, Chief Censor.”
Fu Linye had meant to drag Shen Zechuan into this messy business with him. As Shen Zechuan had refused the bait, he now became a little hesitant. On the other hand, this affair would count as a major finding if reported, and he was reluctant to forfeit the credit. In an instant, he set his teeth and slammed a hand decisively on the table, crying, “Keep going! Tonight, I’ll have all of the Imperial Guard’s ledgers from every past year gone over a hundred, no, a thousand times!”
A smile flickered over Shen Zechuan’s face, and he shifted his gaze away to pick up his teacup again. Though he maintained a faint smile, his heart quietly sank. If Xue Xiuzhuo had not had a hand in that transaction, it might not have come to his attention at all. Xiao Chi’ye himself had probably forgotten it already.
Had Xue Xiuzhuo already begun taking precautions against the Imperial Guard, even back then?
Sitting silently, Shen Zechuan blew some foam from his tea.
6 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 55: The Ledgers”
Ahhhh the tl was chef’s kiss! As always thank youuuuuu!! ❤
updates are so fast these days, it almost feels like i’m dreaming! you’re on a roll ❤ i can't wait till we get to see the endemic arc!! thank you!!!
SZC being unable to resist XCY’s feral energy is so good!!!!!!!! He complains so much but in the end he cares about XCY 🥲
Thanks for the chapter! I love how you conveyed the feeling of suffocation in the kiss scene by using the ponctuation. That’s incredible ❤
Thank you Lily!
will never get over how lanzhou complains about how wild xiao chiye is with his affections, even though it clearly has an effect on him, and leaves him thinking about the other man whether he likes it or not. but also, i love how lanzhou’s smiles are either unsettling or charming to look at depending on the context. like, he’s not being malicious in his conversation with Fu Linye, but him smiling did make the man hesitate. i wish i had his power to make people unsettled by not doing much.