Book One, Chapter 59: Nocturne

Yuan Liu met a brusque end in prison, and Chen Yang oversaw his final affairs. On Xiao Chi’ye’s instructions, he set up a new house for Yuan Liu’s wife in Dan city, and hired a good teacher for his son.

Xiao Chi’ye’s illness lingered until the season of snowmelt was upon Qu Capital. When he was able to attend Morning Court again, Xi Hongxuan had been promoted to Vice Director of the Bureau of Evaluations within the Ministry of Personnel.

Shen Zechuan returned Xiao Chi’ye’s Imperial Guard waist-badge to him, and Xiao Chi’ye used the moment to look him up and down, thoroughly undressing him with his eyes.

“Thanks,” Xiao Chi’ye plucked the badge from him, “Master Adjudicator.”

“Don’t mention it.” Shen Zechuan’s fingers curled into themselves a little, as though sorry to have let go.

Xiao Chi’ye waved the badge at him. “Did you get attached?”

Shen Zechuan smiled and said, “I did. I’ve grown used to fiddling with it these past weeks.”

Everyone else was some distance away, and so Xiao Chi’ye said, “Is my badge all you’re going to fiddle with? How unaspiring of you.”

Shen Zechuan folded his hands behind his back and said to him, “You’re a convalescent, Er-gongzi. Mind yourself while returning to your debauched lifestyle.”

“I’ve lived like a monk for the better half of a month,” Getting drowsy in the sunshine, Xiao Chi’ye shifted his weight a little. “And the heartless man I pined for day and night never came to see me once. Now that I’m free, I’ve got to do something to repair my broken heart, haven’t I?”

A gust of wind swept over Shen Zechuan. He said, “Men like that, those bad eggs whose passions migrate as quickly as their gazes, who accumulate untold scores of old and new loves, they’re better off forgotten about, I’d say. Don’t squander your youth on the likes of them.”

Xiao Chi’ye said, “Bad what-now?”

Shen Zechuan said, “Er-gongzi.”

Xiao Chi’ye itched to reach across and squeeze the back of his neck, but as he couldn’t while they were standing out here, he said instead, “Very well put, very clever, I feel an urge to follow that with a round of applause.”

“You’re too kind,” Shen Zechuan demurred. “It’s the thought that counts.”

“But that suggests you’ve gone and looked up who the old loves were,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “Does that mean you care?”

“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Shen Zechuan said, “But if one sits down for a cup of wine at Xianghui House, one might hear all manner of salacious things. For example, that Er-gongzi is a regular, and a connoisseur of the nocturnal arts.”

“Impressed?” Xiao Chi’ye said.

“Indeed, indeed,” Shen Zechuan said, and looked towards him, his tone growing languid, “But hearsay is no substitute for a taste of the real thing. The man of the legends and the man I encountered… don’t quite seem like the same person.”

“It’s early days yet,” Xiao Chi’ye lifted his fingers and hooked his badge back on. “Come by to play a few more times, and you’ll understand better. We’ve already had a taste of the ‘slow and savouring’ approach, haven’t we? How did you like it?”

As he watched, Shen Zechuan’ lips pressed into a thin line.

Xiao Chi’ye grinned. “So he remembers. Then you’ll also remember the other thing you promised me?”

“To pass word from you to Xianghui,” Shen Zechuan said. “To act as your go-between and marriage-broker, so I can earn myself a cup of wine at your blessed nuptials. Of course I remember.”

“I knew I could count on you,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “How should I thank you, if this all pans out?”

“Consider it my wedding gift,” Shen Zechuan said absently, a little unfocused as his gaze trailed the paving stones all the way out.

Han Cheng emerged from inside at this time, beckoning to the two of them. The little eunuch beside him trotted over.

“Please come this way, sires, His Majesty awaits!”

Li Jianheng sat in his throne, listening to his ministers confer amongst themselves. Spring was imminent, and the commencement of planting season across the land was a major subject, as everything from mulberry trees to hemp went into the ground. In the midst of this, Left Chief Censor Cen Yu reported evidence of illegal encroachment upon the public drainage system in all of Qu Capital’s residential areas. As the city began to thaw, if the blocked gutters could not be kept clear, come rainy season they would inevitably overflow onto the streets.

This was such a small thing— or at least, it seemed so inconsequential against the other matters of discussion surrounding it, that Li Jianheng let it slide by without even having caught the details. His attention was pulled away by the carrying bray of Zhongbo’s Administration Commissioner’s voice.

Cen Yu attempted to speak again on several occasions, but was interrupted every time.

After court, Cen Yu was on his way out of the Palace when someone hailed him from behind. He turned around, and saw that it was Shen Zechuan.

Shen Zechuan bowed and said, “Forgive me for holding you up, Chief Censor Ce. I hoped to ask you a question.”

Cen Yu said, “Please speak, Adjudicator Shen.”

Shen Zechuan said, “I was listening to the Chief Censor’s report regarding the obstruction of public gutters just before, and wished to know if you were alluding to the rapid rise in water levels in the gutters within Donglong Avenue’s residential areas?”

Cen Yu gestured for Shen Zechuan to walk with him as he replied, “Indeed. There have been incidents of encroachment upon the public gutters in Donglong Avenue since the years of Xiande. In previous years, the gutters have also caused the residential areas to flood in early spring, but because there were never any fatalities or accidents, no one has ever paid much attention to it.”

Shen Zechuan smiled a little wryly. “To tell the truth, Chief Censor, I happen to live there at the moment.”

Cen Yu was astonished, and quickly asked, “Has it already begun to flood?”

Shen Zechuan said, “My house sits on slightly higher ground, and both my neighbours have occupied gutter spaces and expanded their estates so far out that their eaves are pushed up right against mine. Wastewater doesn’t drain, and as of last night has begun to seep into my yard. Before Morning Court today, I took a detour into the surrounding residential areas, and houses in the lower-lying regions are already standing in water.”

Cen Yu fretted, “If we run into some sort of epidemic, we’ll be in terrible trouble. And even if we put aside the flooding, because everyone has been fighting over the same few inches of land, houses are practically squeezed in next to each other, with no stone or brick between them— it’s all wood. If there should be a fire, it’s going to be a disaster.”

Shen Zechuan thought about this, then assured him, “Please put your mind at ease, Chief Censor. I will have a discussion with the Director, and see if we might submit to His Majesty and send for the drains to be unblocked as soon as possible.”

“Very good, and I will discuss it again with Elder Hai as well.” Cen Yu turned to leave, but then looked back and smiled at Shen Zechuan. “Thank you for your aid, Adjudicator. If this can be quickly resolved, it’ll be a service to the people.”


The red plum blossoms in the courtyard were fading away. When Shen Zechuan arrived, Xiao Chi’ye was standing in his study, contemplating their remnants on the branches.

“Snow’s melting, and it’s awfully damp everywhere.” Xiao Chi’ye reached out and flicked his fingers over a branch. “That house of yours must be uninhabitable.”

It was true enough— the problem had been weighing on Shen Zechuan’s mind lately. He tugged his collar lightly, and as he bent to take off his shoes said, “My yard’s already flooded.”

“When I went by that patch five years ago, Chen Yang’d already mentioned the problem with the gutters,” Xiao Chi’ye turned around. “It’s incredible that no one’s done anything about it in all this time.”

“It’s only the low-bred scum who’ll be stewing in there anyway, plus it’s a drain on time and labour to fix,” Shen Zechuan said mockingly. “Who’s going to jump at the chance?”

“Aren’t you pulling up your sleeves for it?” Xiao Chi’ye walked over, looking at him. “It’s the first year of Tianchen— there’ll be a performance review by the Censorate this year. If something really happens, every official in court, civilian or military, will be fighting for the job.”

“I doubt it.” Shen Zechuan put a hand on the wall to step up onto the mats, but Xiao Chi’ye stopped him. He flicked his eyes up and said, “Hm?”

Xiao Chi’ye bent over and picked up Shen Zechuan’s boots. He prodded the leather a little, then said, “Is the Brocade Guard so cheap that it can’t even fork out for a pair of deerskin boots?”

The bottom half of Shen Zechuan’s socks were wet through. Xiao Chi’ye called for a charcoal brazier to be lit in the room and warmed the space up. So that was why Shen Zechuan’s colour had looked off today— he’d been freezing.

“Even deerskin boots won’t stand up to that much time in the water.” Shen Zechuan shifted his feet away so that Xiao Chi’ye couldn’t catch them. He cast his eyes down to look at Xiao Chi’ye and said, “It’s mostly cheap brothel houses that sit in the low-lying areas of Donglong Avenue. They’re all standing in dirty water now.”

Xiao Chi’ye stayed where he was crouched and looked up to say, “As a rule, those brothels don’t pick their customers and will take anyone who comes. Hand over a few copper coins and use her as you please. They can’t afford taxes at all, and wind up in arrears every year. Those small-timers who count copper coins for a living in the Ministry of Revenue are pretty scummy too— they’re leaving them hanging like this on purpose.”

“The residential areas are flooded too,” Shen Zechuan said.

“They’re all used to waiting it out. They’ll hold on till the end of spring, and then it’ll be over.” Xiao Chi’ye stood up and said, “There’re many pairs of hands around the place, but too few who’ll do anything that won’t get them any recognition. I haven’t had any food since court ended. Come eat with me.”

A serving girl came over with a pair of wooden clogs for Shen Zechuan. Even shuffling along in clogs, he was not as tall as Xiao Chi’ye. Xiao Chi’ye looked at the fine, pretty ankles emerging from his white socks, and was reminded of the medication the man had used to take all the time.

“Even the festival season hasn’t managed to fatten you up any.” Xiao Chi’ye opened the door and led him out.

“It’s been so busy that I’ve only had four hours of sleep a night,” Shen Zechuan clomped his clogs softly. “I thought the South Adjudicator was an empty office, but the armourers and weapon-smiths have their own bureaucracies too.”

“If Xi Hongxuan can’t save your skin anymore,” Xiao Chi’ye turned to look at him, “You should switch your banner to Er-gongzi‘s right away.”

“Then I probably won’t even get my four hours,” Shen Zechuan said, trailing behind him. “Most of the people left in the Brocade Guard these days have inherited their fathers’ posts. These are people making an honest living off their ancestors. They’ll turn their noses up at the Imperial Guard’s grease.”

The courtyard was soggy with the past few days of snowmelt. Xiao Chi’ye stepped over the puddles, turned around, and simply watched Shen Zechuan for a while.

Schlepping along in his clogs, Shen Zechuan’s moon-white robes made ingresses towards the puddles if they were not gathered high. Night had fallen, and a pale, fair moon hung on the distant horizon. In its clear light, the surroundings took on a lucent, crystalline quality, and Shen Zechuan’s reflection in the puddles was weightless and captivating. As he spoke, he focused on watching his step, and did not notice that Xiao Chi’ye had stopped. From the other end of the puddles, he gathered his white robes in his hands and hopped over like a child, coming to a stop right before Xiao Chi’ye.

Without a second thought, Xiao Chi’ye bent over, wrapped an arm around his waist, and scooped him over his shoulder. The clogs slipped to the ground, and Xiao Chi’ye picked them up. With the clogs dangling in one hand and his captive gathered in the other, he headed for the room they had had drinks in the other day.

Chen Yang took a few steps back and motioned to the guards behind him, noiselessly waving everyone out of the courtyard. Up on the rooftop, Ding Tao dared not make a sound, only his two eyes visible he watched Er-gongzi walk off with his burden. Qiao Tianya and Gu Jin, each squatting on a corner of the eaves, took a simultaneous swig of wine.

“Your colour wasn’t right in the morning,” Xiao Chi’ye said. “And you’re very warm. You’re not well, are you?”

Shen Zechuan lay over his shoulder, watching the moon on the ground. He said, “…Maybe not.”

“Grand plans and mighty ambitions aren’t accomplished overnight,” Xiao Chi’ye walked up the stairs, and kicked the door open. “Your life’s more valuable.”

“That’s not how it went when you hated me,” As he was put down, Shen Zechuan folded softly to the floor. He looked at Xiao Chi’ye. “It’s nothing serious. I’ll be better when I’ve had some sleep.”

Xiao Chi’ye did not look at him, and took off his own shoes, then shed his outer robes. Serving girls streamed in, laying out dishes on the low table.

Shen Zechuan cleansed his hands, then went to tug at his collar again. Xiao Chi’ye reached out a hand sideways and did it for him, brushing the collar lightly from his skin to see the hint of a rash.

“It’s been too damp,” Shen Zechuan nudged his hand aside with the back of his own. “My neighbours were fighting for space, and now their eaves block out all the light.”

Xiao Chi’ye seemed not have to paid it much attention, and moved on with a brief “hm”.

They sat down at the table, and as they were eating, Xiao Chi’ye asked, “That house of yours doesn’t suit your position anymore, so why haven’t you moved?”

Shen Zechuan said, “It’s close to the Temple, and makes it easier to visit Teacher. And it’s on Donglong Avenue, so if Xi Hongxuan gets up to anything I can look into it.”

Xiao Chi’ye watched him eat and said, “Master Ji Gang can’t work as a servant at the Temple forever. Find a new house and move in together, it’ll be more convenient that way.”

Shen Zechuan said, “I’ll have a look around then, to see if there’re any houses that might suit.”

He actually held the deeds to Grand Tutor Qi’s house as well, but he could not live there at the moment— it would attract far too much attention. It would be easy enough to move in, but Xi Hongxuan’s close scrutiny would be difficult to evade. He dared not play dice with his teacher and tutor’s lives.

When they finished, it was very late in the evening, and still cold outside. As Shen Zechuan got to his feet and made to take his leave, Xiao Chi’ye opened a window and whistled at the roof.

Three bodyguards and one Meng looked over the edge.

Xiao Chi’ye braced his arms on the windowsill, and as he watched Shen Zechuan get his coat, he called to them, “Shut the doors. Master Adjudicator won’t be leaving tonight.”

Shen Zechuan looked back.

Xiao Chi’ye wasn’t smiling. All the dissolution of his daytime manner seemed to have been scattered by the night wind. Behind those veiled eyes were the shadows of a deep forest and an impenetrable fog, and in the moonlight his gaze was both dreamlike and intense.

Maybe he really was a connoisseur.

Shen Zechuan thought.

Just that look in his eyes would do it.

6 thoughts on “Book One, Chapter 59: Nocturne

  1. i will never get over how flirty cezhou act with each other honestly. xiao chiye is not shy about making it very clear that he’s into lanzhou at all, and will bring it up.


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