Author: Su Youbing
As the head of the county, Tao Mo was busy receiving gifts. There were both ceremonial and congratulatory gifts.
Old Tao received them without exception.
Tao Mo originally showed his disapproval, but Old Tao recorded those gifts one by one in a ledger and then presented gifts with the equivalent value in return. In about three or four days, all kinds of entries in the ledger had been evened up.
Hao Guozi flipped the ledger over and over again, then gloomily asked, “Is there really nothing left?”
Old Tao answered, “There’s nothing left.”
Hao Guozi said, “Accepting these gifts is truly a loss.”
Old Tao smiled but did not respond.
Tao Mo spoke, “This is actually good. These gifts mustn’t be owed.”
Old Tao said, “Young Master, as the appointed official by the imperial court, shouldn’t return politeness for their politeness. However, this is the officialdom’s corrupt practice. If he stubbornly refuses to do so and keep people at a distance of 1,000 li, he would make people feel resentful. Therefore, we have to put forth this unwise decision.”
Hao Guozi asked, “Are you comfortable with those people?”
“Regardless of whether he’s comfortable or not, at least it doesn’t show on his face.” Old Tao added, “Also, it’s not as bad as harboring hard feelings.”
Tao Mo was suddenly touched. He said, “How about if we prepare a few gifts for Mr. Yichui and Mr. Lin.”
Old Tao asked, “What about that Gu She…Young Master Gu She?”
Tao Mo’s eyes opened wide. “He helped me. Of course I should give him a gift.”
Old Tao shook his head.
Tao Mo frowned and asked, “Why?”
“Young Master, although I agree that you should be on friendly terms with them, it should be a kind of friendship that is based on equality. If you blindly fawn on them, they would look down on you instead.”
“Look down on me? Will they?” Tao Mo recalled what Hao Guozi said before that if he was too obedient to Gu She, Gu She would think he was dull. Now, Old Tao added this “look down on him” phrase. He inevitably felt a bit nervous and confused.
Seeing that he was lost in his thoughts, Old Tao instantly knew that Tao Mo was thinking of Gu She again, so he sighed and said, “Young Master, the officialdom is sinister and crafty. We don’t know when someone will hide a dagger behind their smile and throw stones on you if you fell into a well. You have to advance gradually and dig in at every step. You shouldn’t easily leave behind information that could be use against you to other people.”
Tao Mo answered, “I’ll be careful.”
“I heard that it hasn’t been long since Gu She came to Tan Yang. He rose above many litigants in Tan Yang in a short period of time and became Mr. Yichui’s outstanding disciple. His skill must be extraordinary. Moreover, I heard that he’s very particular about the basic necessities of life. Even if he was not of noble birth, he’s definitely from a family of scholars. I fear that if we get in deep with such a figure, perhaps we’ll invite disaster upon us.” Old Tao put forth his weighty and earnest advice.
Tao Mo also knew about these few points. It was just that he could not control his feelings.
Seeing his dejected look, Old Tao could not help but relent and say, “Young Master, if you really have to be homosexual, then we can’t help it.”
Hao Guozi looked at him with his eyes opened wide.
“However, carrying on your ancestral line is still a must. After you take a wife, look for a few male concubines with clear family backgrounds to hide at home. Just don’t make it widely known.” Old Tao sighed.
Tao Mo’s lips moved. After quite a while, he was able to say, “I still haven’t thought about it this far.”
Old Tao nodded and said, “Indeed, now’s not the time to worry about this. First of all, it’s essential for you to gain a firm foothold in Tan Yang.”
Tao Mo yielded to Old Tao, but he inwardly kept on thinking about Gu She.
Gu She was just the kind of person who would not let himself serve as someone’s concubine, let alone would he be willing to accept Tao Mo, even if Tao Mo sent himself to Gu She’s door to become one.
Old Tao looked at his expression and was about to add something when he saw Hao Guozi secretly hint at him with his eyes.
The two of them quietly left the room.
Old Tao asked, “What’s the matter?”
Hao Guozi replied, “Old Tao, you don’t understand Young Master’s temperament as thorough as I do.”
“Is that so?”
“Although my young master’s infatuated, he’s not particular to passion. If you really want him to take in a male concubine, then just let him go and look for one. If he really sees one to his liking, Young Master should be enjoying his married life with his bride by that time. They’ll be joined at the hip and he’ll slowly drift apart from that Young Master Gu on his own,” Hao Guozi said with a smile.
Old Tao frowned.
“If you don’t believe me, think about that Young Master Yiyu.” Hao Guozi reminded.
Old Tao responded, “Young Master Yiyu is probably different.”
Hao Guozi said, “Anyway, this is much more effective than forcing him to forget Gu She.”
Old Tao muttered, “I understand. I’ll take this into consideration.”
Hao Guozi did not know what Old Tao wanted to consider. Later on, he was soon preoccupied by thoughts of the Lantern Festival where people mingled. Tao Mo originally did not want to go, but he was unable to resist Hao Guozi’s pestering and had to agree to go with him.
Both of them wore felt hats and dressed in long coats when they went out. They blended in the crowd so that they would not look conspicuous.
Tan Yang’s most distinguishing feature was that there were many litigants, so one of the Lantern Festival’s distinguishing features was that the litigants debated with each other.
As Tao Mo and Hao Guozi feasted their eyes on the lanterns, they were attracted by a huge lantern that was surrounded by the crowd.
Hao Guozi was small and thin. He squeezed himself into the crowd with three or two tries.
Tao Mo had no choice but to wait outside of the crowd.
After a while, Hao Guozi came out and excitedly said, “There’s someone having a heated debate inside.”
“Having a heated debate?” Tao Mo anxiously asked, “What is it about? Is it intense?”
“Oh, they’re only bickering. It’s not intense. They’re some people who spoke of archaisms.” Hao Guozi pulled his hand. “Young Master, come with me.” Hao Guozi had already squeezed his way through the crowd once. He was faster when he did it for the second time.
Tao Mo was not as agile as Hao Guozi was. He staggered along the way and his wrist was bruised from being held. It was hard to make their way to the center. Before he could even bring this matter up, his attention was seized by the figure in the midst of the crowd.
“Huh, Gu She?” Hao Guozi frowned. If he had known earlier that Gu She was here as well, he would not have come with his young master.
Hao Guozi’s mood was the complete opposite of Tao Mo’s, whose gaze was completely fixed on the most indifferent and jejune figure in the world.
“Young Master Gu, you should make an arbitration. Do you think it’s Young Master Wang or Young Master Chen who’s right?” A middle-aged man asked with a forced smile on his face.
Young Master Wang and Young Master Chen, whose names were mentioned, simultaneously looked at Gu She. The determination to win reflected in their eyes.
Gu She answered, “Each has his own merits.”
The middle-aged man smiled. “This is really hard for me. You must know that there’s only one King of the Lanterns. It can’t be divided into two,” he said as he pointed to the biggest lantern.
Young Master Wang smiled and said, “Young Master Chen’s theory on women’s remarriage made me gasp in amazement. This King of the Lanterns should be won by Young Master Chen.”
Young Master Chen smiled hypocritically and replied, “Young Master Wang’s theory on polyandry is even more brilliant. This King of the Lanterns should be won by Young Master Wang for his talent.”
Young Master Wang suddenly stopped smiling. “Why is Young Master Chen’s quote out of context? When did I talk about polyandry?”
“If that’s the case, did I talk about remarriage of women?”
The two looked at each other and gradually became angry.
Gu She, who hinted at the middle-aged man, finally opened his mouth and said, “They’re two of a kind. It’s unnecessary to point out who won and who lost.”
Young Master Wang and Young Master Chen, who were originally glaring at each other, simultaneously shifted their anger to Gu She. “What do you mean, Young Master Gu?”
Gu She answered, “Your contentions had long been bound by the imperial court’s laws and decrees. The laws and provisions are as fine as an ox’s hair. In all kinds of situations, there are arbitrariness. As for the topics of your discussion, you only spoke in general terms, had no evidence, had no basis, and disregarded cause and effect. No matter how I commend or criticize you, it’s nothing but sheer nonsense. Why bother to distinguish who won and who lost?”
“You…” Being told like that, Young Master Wang and Young Master Chen both looked flustered. They both swung their sleeves and left.
That middle-aged man hurriedly took down the big lantern and gave it to Gu She. He said with a smile, “This year’s King of Lanterns seems to belong to none other than Young Master Gu again.”
Gu Xiaojia suddenly appeared and said, “You give it as a present to my young master every year, but he never accepted it. Why do you have to bother?”
The middle-aged man smiled and answered, “What he could not accept yesterday would reemerge today. Yesterday, he was not willing to accept it, but today may not be the same.”
Gu Xiaojia was about to refute when he heard Gu She indifferently say, “Such being the case, you can give it to him as a present.”
The middle-aged man’s gaze followed his finger which was pointing to Tao Mo, who had a foolish look in his eyes. “This is Young Master Gu’s…”
The corners of Gu She’s mouth slightly raised as he turned around and walked away.
Tao Mo was inwardly moved. He was about to catch up to Gu She when he was suddenly stopped by the middle-aged man, who had just managed to take down the big lantern that was hung on a high place. He gave the big lantern to Tao Mo. “Congratulations, Young Master.”
Hao Guozi carried the lantern with everyone lending a hand. They were afraid that it would be ruined and that they might bump and make it fall down. It was neither light nor heavy. It was very distressful. “What’s this?”
The middle-aged was suddenly dumbfounded. “The two of you aren’t citizens of Tan Yang?”
Hao Guozi replied, “We’re just staying here for a few years.”
The middle-aged man smiled and said, “This is the King of the Lanterns. There’s only one for every year. It’s only given to the winner of the debate competition. As a matter of fact, although Young Master Gu didn’t take it every year, he attended the competition every year. Up until now, I’ve never seen anyone take the King of the Lanterns from his hand.”
Hao Guozi whispered, “He didn’t want it, yet didn’t give it to others. He’s so unreasonable.”
The middle-aged man said, “Although Young Master Gu doesn’t go to the court, he studied under Mr. Yichui’s guidance so he could be considered as a famous litigant. It’s understandable that he can’t let others take the King of the Lanterns.”
Suddenly, Tao Mo asked, “Who came up with this King of the Lanterns custom?”
The middle-aged man proudly said, “I did.”
Hao Guozi asked, “Who are you?”
The middle-aged man threw out his chest and answered, “I’m the proprietor of Jade Hare Lantern Workshop.”
Hao Guozi nodded and said, “I finally understood why there are no familiar faces taking part in the King of the Lanterns Competition except for Gu She. It’s not interesting to win and humiliating to lose.”
The middle-aged man: “…”
Hao Guozi initially wanted to throw the lantern away, but Tao Mo insisted to keep it. In his heart, the lantern was a gift from Gu She. How could it be discarded before he could even treasure it? Seeing Hao Guozi hold the lantern willfully, he feared that the lantern would get damaged, so he just substituted Hao Guozi in carrying it.
Walking in the streets with such a big lantern really attracted attention. There were incessant numbers of people who looked at them.
Tao Mo was not aware of this at all. While walking, he asked, “Can you see where Gu She went?”
Hao Guozi conveniently pointed with his finger. “It seems like he went that way.”
Tao Mo took a few hasty steps. As soon as he reached the corner of the street, a figure suddenly appeared. He could not stop himself and almost bumped into the other person, but the other person supported his waist and prevented him from slipping over.
“Sorry.” The other party’s voice was as elegant as a flowing spring.
Tao Mo moved the lantern away and his eyes suddenly lit up.
He only saw the elegance of the man in front of him which was as unearthly as the snow moon and his magnificent disposition that could not lose to Gu She’s by half a point.
“Please forgive me for my rash act just now, Brother. May I ask, how can I get to the county’s yamen?”
Hao Guo scurried out from Tao Mo’s back. “You want to go to the county’s yamen? What are you going to do? File a lawsuit?”
“No, I’m going there to look for someone.” The young man calmly answered.
Hao Guozi looked at him with doubt. “Who?”
The young man smiled slightly and answered, “Old Tao.”