The autumn harvest had concluded.
There were inevitably a few setbacks due to the large number of farmlands, but it nonetheless ended in triumph.
When they had finally amassed all the autumn grain, Fan Jin Chuan felt like he had shed off a layer of skin out of extreme fatigue. He journeyed back to the county yamen, lay torpid for three whole days, and sought out Fang Feng Sheng the moment he awoke.
Unlike him, Fang Feng Sheng’s days were leisurely. She wasted away her time reading books and practicing calligraphy, and had even gained some weight.
“Worthy Brother, are you practicing your calligraphy?”
When Fan Jin Chuan popped in, Fang Feng Sheng was in the midst of writing. He stalked towards the desk to sneak a peek.
Feng Sheng replied, “Yes, my lord.”
“Is Worthy Brother still mad at this brother?”
“Me? How could I dare be mad at my lord?”
“You never used to call me ‘lord’ outside of official business.”
Feng Sheng was unresponsive.
Fan Jin Chuan examined the writing on the desk and praised, “Worthy Brother’s characters are bold and powerful, neat and refined. They are indeed excellent.”
Left with no choice but to pay him some heed, Feng Sheng faced him and said, “My lord, instead of dallying here to observe my calligraphy, why don’t you check if there are official affairs that haven’t yet been managed? While you were away, a lot of those have accumulated in the county yamen. After all, there are some things that neither I nor Assistant Magistrate Liu can help you with.”
Fan Jin Chuan flushed in embarrassment. “Then, I’ll go ahead and deal with them first.”
After he rushed out, Zhi Qiu walked to her side and asked, “Young Master, are you still mad at Lord Fan?”
“Why would I be mad at him? You’re both so strange. All I did was practice my calligraphy. What can I possibly be mad at? I’ll stop here. Inspector Gou invited me to watch a play, so I’m going out.”
When talking about the best opera house in Taizhou City, Anqing Lou ranked first.
At this time, Anqing Lou was without a single empty seat, all fully occupied. On the stage at the center of the hall, there was an ongoing performance of ‘The Drunken Concubine.’1
The actor playing the role of Yang guifei had a soft and delicate feminine physique, with a mellow and distinct singing voice. At this point, he was draining his second cup of wine with a fan obscuring his face. His cherry mouth gently bit on the cup, and his limpid and passionate eyes gazed downwards, rendering a sight that made one desire to live or die for him.
“The way I see it, that Xuan Zong is clearly on stage, but this Yang guifei‘s heart is off stage,” teased Feng Sheng as she gently waved her fan.
Gou Qing was half-reclined on his seat, clutching a cup of wine in one hand. Hearing this, he smiled but uttered no response, merely taking a swig from his cup.
After that encounter at the Zhao Gong Bridge, Feng Sheng had once again stumbled upon him, and Gou Qing proposed to buy her a drink the second time around. A repeated refusal would have been unbecoming of her, hence, she acceded. When one offered a drink, it was only natural for the other to recompense. After reciprocated invites, the two quickly became familiar.
Gou Qing set his wine cup on the table, still smiling, and said, “I heard that the honorable county lord has returned from outside, so I thought Advisor Fang wouldn’t come today. I never would have expected you to grace me with your presence.”
“When his lordship returned, the official affairs awaiting him were aplenty, and he was immediately kept busy. A lot of those have nothing to do with me. Besides, Inspector Gou and I already made an appointment days prior, so I naturally couldn’t miss it.”
Gou Qing snaked his arm behind Feng Sheng’s chair and tilted his head over to probe, “How does Advisor Fang find this Xiao Tao Hong?”
He was at such close proximity. So close that Feng Sheng could catch a whiff of alcohol on him.
Feng Sheng shot him an incredulous look and countered, “What is Inspector Gou insinuating with this question? The actor’s costume isn’t at all suggestive, but it is admittedly somewhat alluring. However, everyone knows that Xiao Tao Hong and Inspector Gou are intimate. Asking me this, are you trying to sound me out?”
Gou Qing hadn’t anticipated her to so frankly unveil his motive. He held his forehead and laughed, “Advisor Fang is actually quite straightforward.”
“A gentleman always assists people in effecting their wishes. Hence, I dare not steal other people’s things. What’s more, I prefer beautiful women. As for this kind——” she peered at Xiao Tao Hong on stage and continued, “Although, the beauty is indeed a beauty, in the end, he is regretfully still a man.”
“Man or woman, does it really matter?”
At that moment, a voice rang out behind them, “Worthy Brother!”
Astonished, Feng Sheng looked over. “My lord.”
Naturally, Gou Qing also saw Fan Jin Chuan, but made no move of standing up. He artlessly cupped his hands towards him in greeting, “My lord. What a rare guest.”
Fan Jin Chuan stared at Gou Qing, and then shifted his gaze on Feng Sheng, whose cheeks were faintly rosy. “Advisor Fang, this official has been looking all over for you to discuss some official business. I didn’t expect to find you here.”
“Inspector Gou, we’re leaving first.” After saying that, Fan Jin Chuan yanked Fang Feng Sheng up, and the two of them exited Anqing Lou.
It was already dusk, and the slight chill was palpable on that late autumn day.
After Fan Jin Chuan had dealt with his official duties, he began looking for Fang Feng Sheng. Hearing that she and Gou Qing were out to watch a play, he turned pale with fright and promptly dashed out to scour for her.
He had come there on horseback, so there was only a single horse. Returning with company, he naturally couldn’t ride back, so he left the horse at the opera house and ordered some servants to tend to it before fetching it at a later time.
“Worthy Brother Fang, how were you and Gou Qing introduced?”
“Inspector Gou can also be considered a colleague in the county yamen. Isn’t it normal for us to be familiar with each other?”
Fan Jin Chuan studied her face, yearning to say a few words but not knowing where to begin.
Feng Sheng was originally born fair. Once she drank, her complexion would faintly redden, such that one could say her cheeks were glowing. It was truly too conspicuous. If no ill will was involved, then he would have paid no mind. But because of Gou Qing, that person, Fan Jin Chuan couldn’t help but view the matter with a kind of scrutiny, belatedly understanding why Gou Qing often dropped by to ‘tease’ Advisor Fang.
“Worthy Brother Fang, you may not know that Gou Qing, he, he……”
“He likes men!”
Feng Sheng blinked. “How did my lord know?”
“I heard it from someone.”
“Then, you must be misinformed. My days of acquaintance with Inspector Gou couldn’t be considered short, and I wasn’t able to detect anything out of the ordinary.”
Fan Jin Chuan anxiously persisted, “How could he let you see through him? He, towards you……”
Feng Sheng shifted closer and clarified, “Towards me, what?”
“His intentions towards you are impure!”
Feng Sheng snickered and shook her folding fan incessantly. “My lord really misunderstood. I truly can’t detect Inspector Gou’s so-called impure intent. People are accustomed to take heed of idle chatter. How come my lord also made such a mistake?”
“Everyone in Taizhou City knows that Gou Qing likes embracing those actors. Do you understand what it means to embrace actors?”
Looking at Fang Feng Sheng’s smiling eyes, an image abruptly flashed in Fan Jin Chuan’s mind.
This incident happened shortly after they were acquainted. Since then, he hadn’t caught sight of anything inappropriate, and with the busy county affairs, it was temporarily consigned to oblivion.
When Fan Jin Chuan recalled those two page boys, an icy cold feeling crept over him.
“……This matter of frolicking and splitting peaches will erode one’s aspirations. Such acts violate……”
Could it be that Brother Fang also had similar urges, such that he could regard Gou Qing like he was normal? Perhaps the two men already had a tacit understanding in their hearts, and were just waiting for the canal to form where water flowed.2
Fan Jin Chuan suddenly felt that he couldn’t face Feng Sheng. However, because they were traveling side by side, he had no way of excusing himself. He could only let his emotions simmer in silence.
Noticing his oddity, Feng Sheng was somewhat nonplussed, but she also lacked the interest to fathom, and thus didn’t pry. When they returned to the county yamen, the two retreated to their respective rooms to rest.
1 ’The Drunken Concubine’ is a story that is said to have happened in the Tang Dynasty (745-755AD) Emperor Ming Huang (Xuan Zong). It is said that among all the concubines, he had a favorite one; Yang Yu Huan (Yang Guifei / Noble Consort Yang). The emperor and his concubine are said to have made arrangements for a rendezvous at the pavilion in the Imperial Gardens one evening. After waiting for a long while, she suddenly comes to the sudden realization that the emperor would not be coming as he had made plans with another concubine. Two eunuchs, Gao Li Shi and Pei Li Shi, who were waiting on Yang, decide to finally inform her of her humiliating position. This humiliation infuriates and depresses her at the same time leading her to decide to have the banquet alone. This story would be responsible for showing her disappointment, the drunken charm that she has while intoxicated and also her flawless beauty.
2 水到渠成: lit. where water flows, a canal is formed (idiom); fig. when conditions are right, success will follow naturally; all will fall into place in due time