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Really adding it up, Tang Fan and he had not seen each other for nearly five or six years. That did not at all prevent familiar memories from rising up as soon as he saw his face.
The other must have learned that Tang Fan was coming earlier, so he didn’t look as surprised as he did, only looking at him with a slight smile.
Keen-eyed, Fan Yuezheng quickly detected Tang Fan abnormal attitude towards the Luling Magistrate. “Are you and Magistrate Ji old acquaintances, Sir?” he asked with a probing-esque smile.
Tang Fan smiled a bit. “More than just acquaintances — Ziming and I were friends. But, after he left the capital, we lost contact. I didn’t expect that while we haven’t met on a far-off horizon, fate brought us together from a thousand li apart. Wouldn’t you say, Ziming?”
Hearing his name, Ji Min came half a step forth and cupped his hands in greeting. “This humble official, Magistrate of Luling, greets you, Sir Tang.”
Tang Fan held his arms, preventing him from bowing, and grumbled, “Why so polite?”
Ji Min smiled. “Personal relationships are personal relationships. Public decency cannot be discarded due to personal reasons; please don’t stop me, Sir.”
Even with that, his tone held no estranged undertones. Tang Fan relaxed a bit knowing that he didn’t wish to distance himself, then stopped blocking him, allowing him to give a respectful bow.
As friends of old times meeting again, the two naturally had a lot they wanted to say, but because this scene wasn’t appropriate for that, they could only put away their ideas for the time being. Tang Fan cast him a regretful look.
Seeming to understand what he wanted to say, Ji Min nodded slightly at him, a smile in his eyes that was just like before.
Very many people had followed Fan Yuezheng to welcome Tang Fan, pretty much all Ji’an officials, as well as local gentry. In comparison, Ji Min, the Luling Magistrate, was much too inconspicuous.
Amongst this crowd, Shen Kunxiu’s figure did not appear. That was only natural. As a third-rank Consul, there was no need for him to lower himself to come curry favor with Tang Fan, despite the latter having an imperial ambassador’s halo. If Shen Kunxiu had come in person, no one would have said anything, but with his character, he definitely wouldn’t do something like that.
However, after individually introducing him to some important people present, Fan Yuezheng pointed out a youth to Tang Fan. “This is the Don of Mister Consul’s family.”
Wuh? Shen Kunxiu’s son?
Was there something wrong with Tang Fan’s hearing?
During his speechlessness, the other had since bowed to him. “This talentless Shen Si greets you, Sir Tang.”
Truthfully, one could roughly make out someone’s personality through what clothes they wore. As an example, whether it was the color, style, or material that Sui Zhou wore, they all gave off a perceptions of meticulous strictness, which was not without connection to his conduct.
Meanwhile, this Don Shen before him had a dark-red, Tang-styled jin hat with a massive, gold-inlaid piece of jade embedded in it, and was wearing a Suzhou silk zhidou the color of faded reddish-purple, tied up on the side with an intricately-carved jade ornament strung on a gold-threaded cord. Even his belt had cloud patterns embroidered in multiple colors, truly glittering with golden light.
It was… simply unbearable to look straight at.
Was it that Shen Kunxiu couldn’t come himself, so he had asked his son to come in his place? But… really, what kind of taste and style was this?
Shen Kunxiu was a stately Consul, no matter what, and his own taste ought to be approximate to modern scholars that revered elegance. Why was the son he raised this out-of-the-ordinary?
Tang Fan ultimately had profound self-restraint. His dumbstruck state lasted only a short moment, quickly after which he resumed his normal one, slightly smiling as he returned the bow. “You’re too polite, Don Shen. How has Consul Shen been?”
Shen Si laughed, saying carelessly, “Not too good. He’s been losing his temper recently, which made staying at home terrible for me, why is why I left.”
After being startled for a moment, Tang Fan said with a laugh, “I will visit him myself tomorrow, so I must trouble you with informing him after I return.”
Shen Si nodded thoughtlessly. It was unknown if he had been listening.
From this conversation, Tang Fan understood that Shen Si’s appearance here had definitely not been Shen Kunxiu’s idea. To say nothing of the man’s temper, he had not yet been set free from his homicide accusation — why would he let his son run off here to greet the imperial ambassador? Even if Shen Kunxiu had a son come greet on his behalf, in regards to Tang Fan’s reputation, he would absolutely never dispatch such an odd character.
For the first time in his life, Tang Fan had no idea how to keep the conversation going with someone. Magistrate Fan appeared to detect his awkwardness, quickly resolving it. “Sir Tang, this humble official has prepared a welcoming feast for you to rest from travels. Please enjoy it!”
Unlike other places, Tang Fan didn’t refuse this time, nodding with a smile. “Then I’ll have to bother you, Magistrate Fan.”
Seeing his appreciative face, Fan Yuezheng’s smile grew a bit more sincere. “This way, Sir.”
The large batch of people that had welcome him was to be disregarded; when they arrived at the restaurant, the miscellaneous gentry were all arranged in outer rooms. Very few people ended up being able to eat at the same table as Tang Fan in his private room. Touched by his light, Ji Min earned a seat, as did Fan Yuezheng, Ji’an’s Sub-Magistrate Sun Yu, Shen Si, salt merchant Xu Bin, cloth merchant Fang Huixue, then Tang Fan and Lu Lingxi themselves.
Ranking arrangement was very important for an occasion like this. Lu Lingxi was a trusted confidante Tang Fan had brought, but he had no rank, making it not his place to sit beside Tang Fan. He was arranged together with Ji Min.
Tang Fan was at the seat of honor, obviously. To his left was Fan Yuezheng, but to his right was not Sun Yu; it was instead Fang Huixue. Xu Bin appeared to be quite a bit unhappy with that, yet said nothing.
This piqued Tang Fan’s interest towards Fang Huixue. A merchant able to both sit alongside officials and also receive a seat next to Tang Fan would naturally not be an ordinary one.
Following Fan Yuezheng’s introduction, Tang Fan learned that Xu Bin had a friend in a certain Nanjing official, while Fang Huixue’s daughter was married as the local Envoy of Education’s second wife.
Xu Bin was whatever. Fang Huixue was in his early forties, fully-bearded and possessing an air of elegance, less like a merchant and more like a scholar. He was very capable of leaving a good impression, however… it seemed like his daughter’s age wouldn’t exceed twenty, then. Thinking of the Jiangxi Envoy of Education’s age, Tang Fan mentally shook his head a bit and declined to comment.
Thinking that he saw Tang Fan being not too interested in these two, Magistrate Fan also believed that he had the bias of other officials where they despised merchants, so he purposefully added on a few things while introducing them. “You wouldn’t know so, Sir, but Brother Fang here is known as Great Benefactor Fang. Apart from becoming rich by being a traveling merchant, he has also done many great deeds for this area — his role in every single built bridge, paved road, and congee given to refugees is indisputable. After Solon Peng retired and returned home, he had heard of Brother Fang’s righteous acts, and once personally made calligraphy for him of the words ‘A Helper of Those in Need’, which still hangs in his family’s main hall today.”
There it is, Tang Fan thought.
Peng Shi was an elder that had lasted through three Courts, good from start to finish, of rather high prestige, and a coincidental native of Luling County. Even though he had passed on a few years ago, the locals still had a lot of respect for him, which made Fang Huixue’s meteoric rise in worth unsurprising, if he could obtain Peng Shi’s calligraphy. Now that he was also become the Envoy of Education’s support, he had even more respect than the Sub-Magistrate.
He smiled lightly. “You must be extraordinary to have received the appreciation of a Lord of Belletrism. I will have to admire that calligraphy myself some other day; the Great Benefactor must not drive this official away, when the time comes.”
“This is all Mister Magistrate praising me; how could this commoner dare to think so?” Fang Huixue said on repeat. “If you wish to visit, my humble home will certainly be lit up by your presence!”
While they conversed, Magistrate Fan had the food brought out, saying, “This humble official knows that you are here to investigate the case of the imperial exams, and I dare not disturb you much, so I have already prepared a room in the posthouse that you may check in to. After today, if you have any summons, you only need to send someone, and I will certainly come over to visit you.”
Tang Fan waved his hand. “Delicious delicacies are on the table! Discussing serious business is rather too depressing. We should have as much fun as possible; anything else can wait for discussion tomorrow.”
Eager for him to not talk about it, the other smiled at that, “That is very true, Sir. How about I toast you, before all else?”
After three rounds of drinks, the mood of the feast grew energetic. Since Tang Fan was no longer accepting toasts, merely having everyone go their own ways, everyone else could see that he was much more interested in the food than the wine. Thus, they set down their wine cups, and switched to introducing the dishes on the table to him.
“You’ve just come from Suzhou, Sir, so you’ve likely been eating the utmost of exquisitely. However, you must not think that our Jiangxi is inferior in exquisiteness to the Su-Heng side,” Sun Yu said with a smile. “When it comes to food, we have a lot to offer that they don’t. Take this loach-bored-tofu; first, you need to boil bones for seven or eight shichen for stock, then take it off the heat and let it cool. After that, a whole block of tofu and live loaches are set into the broth. As soon as a low fire heats them up, the loaches will desperately bore into the tofu, and by the time they’re hot enough, both will be fully cooked, the two flavors penetrating into each other. The tofu is soft and tasty, with the fish’s umami flavor; it’s the most delicious thing!”
The man introduced it to him so enthusiastically, Tang Fan wanted to be nice. He ladled a piece of tofu into his bowl, lowered his head to have a taste, then nodded in praise. “It really is tasty!”
Sun Yu was not simply introducing dishes to Tang Fan, but also hoping to use this chance to leave a good impression on him. He had several same-year friends with posts in the capital that he frequently exchanged letters with, and he had learned from one mouth that there was an Administrator surnamed Weng in their Department of War who had originally been only a County Magistrate in some minor area. Because he had assisted Tang Fan in handling a case, outstanding in abilities and well-known to people, after his Magistrate term expired, his had transferred to serve as an Administrator of War.
The capital’s Six Ministries were not all cushy jobs, the monetary grease of some bureaus occasionally being inferior to local officials’, but the statuses of central government bureaus were not to be mentioned in the same breath as bureaus in other locations. Anyone with the notion to go up in life would definitely hope to get into the Six Ministries. Had Administrator Weng not received Tang Fan’s favor and recommendation, who would have ever taken notice of a minor County Magistrate?
That was why it was said that while competence was important, it was also important to have the appreciation and support of nobles.
Sun Yu had no sort of backing bloodline, but he was quite well-informed. Knowing that Tang Fan had no lack of impatience, he wanted to double up on the flattery. If Tang Fan took a liking to him and mentioned a bit about him, that would be all the better.
Still, he’d had no idea that Mister Tang would have a food obsession, a major, bona fide foodie. Seeing his encouragement, he believed himself to be using the right toadying method, increasingly ecstatic and describing things all the harder.
However, Don Shen was heard to suddenly say, “Doing nothing but chatting is rather boring. Finding some entertainment would be better, as that would make this meal more flavorful!”
As soon as Magistrate Fan heard that, he felt that it made some sense. “In your view, Don Shen, what entertainment should be found?” he asked with a smile.
Shen Si answered, without thinking, “Why not a few girls to play, sing, and liven things up?”
The instant that was said, the corners of everyone’s mouths drew back at the same time.
In this Dynasty, officials that visited prostitutes would be sacked, never to be hired again. If songgirls were only asked to come over, play instruments, and sing, that would be fine, though.
The problem here was that an imperial ambassador had come to investigate a case. It was his old man’s case, even, yet he was in the mood for people to come over and sing — how was that okay?
Shen Si also appeared to notice that his statement wasn’t appropriate, hurriedly laughing. “I’m a commoner that can’t say much of anything elegant. How about all of you come to a decision?”
“Wouldn’t match-phrase be better? If you can’t match, then you drink. How about it?” Fan Yuezheng asked.
“Everyone present is a learned scholar, aside from me, who is unlearned and unskilled,” Xu Bin said with a smile. “If we play like that, this humble one will definitely lose every turn, so I have a bit of a crooked idea. How about we set up an ivory chip to play twirl-’n-sip? Whoever’s turn it is has to answer everyone’s match, and if he doesn’t get one, he’ll have to drink a cup. What do you all think?”
Twirl-’n-sip was really just guess-’n-sip. Nowadays, the popular ‘ivory chips’ were not counting rods made of bone or ivory, but a clay tumbler doll spun on a table. Whoever it ended up facing was whoever would have to answer questions asked by the others.
Everyone felt those game rules to be more invigorating, successively agreeing. Tang Fan had no other ideas, so the initiating Magistrate Fan had the first turn. He forcefully twirled the painted ‘ivory chip’; the doll quickly revolved on the table, then slowly slowed its velocity until it stopped on Lu Lingxi.
He scratched his head, smiling shyly. “I’m not great at match-phrase. Can I skip?”
No regard for superiority was given at the banquet, to say nothing of the fact that Lu Lingxi was only someone Tang Fan had brought, not Tang Fan himself. Everyone, inevitably, said no with smiles.
He helplessly cupped his hands. “This boy is talentless. Please have mercy, gentlemen!”
Magistrate Fan went first. “Bamboo blooms blue after frost.”
The difficulty of this couplet was quite low. He wasn’t going to deliberately make things hard for him, of course; having heard him say his level was lacking, he had quickly spoken a phrase that would be hardly any problem.
Lu Lingxi thought for a minute. “Blossoms stir before snow frosts.”
Tang Fan knew that this guy was clearly dressing up as a pig to devour these tigers. He even had a County Honorate title, so why would he be bad at match-phrase? He couldn’t help but secretly glare at him, then say, “A view from a high place has no obstructions.”
Lu Lingxi grinned. “When the mind is open, its waves are clear.”
Sun Yu and the rest wouldn’t make it hard for him either, of course. All of them gave blasé couplets, and he matched them all without a hitch, avoiding his fate of drinking.
However, when it came to be Xu Bin’s turn, the other laughed and said, “At Sir Tang’s side, Don Lu must be influenced and read many books of poetry. If this humble one gives one that’s too easy, it will be a disrespect to you. Don’t you think so?”
Lu Lingxi smiled. “You regard me too highly, Merchant Xu. I may be talentless, but I cannot lose Sir Tang face. Please put forth your question.”
“Someone questioned a couplet of me before, but I’ve never been able to match it. Now that I’ve come across a lot of sages, I can ask for pointers. The couplet is this: Han’s waters, vast and yawning, streams and lakes torrential, waves arising.”
Every single person was stunned.
The first half of this couplet was plain, but all of the original characters contained the three-point water radical. That meant that the second half would have to use an equivalent method.
This was merely a drinking game at a welcoming banquet, intended to be fun and amusing, yet Xu Bin had immediately given a couplet like this one. The target was even Lu Lingxi, young and obscure — there was quite a bit of an implication that he was making things hard for him.
Tang Fan’s eyes slightly flashed. He glanced at Xu Bin, but the other was the same as ever, just watching Lu Lingxi with a light smile, waiting for him to answer the couplet.
The others were also intrigued by this couplet, beginning to ponder it themselves.
Magistrate Fan mentally reproached Xu Bin, thinking to himself that if Lu Lingxi couldn’t match it, would that not sweep Tang Fan’s prestige away. As the conventional saying went, beating a dog depended on its owner; if Tang Fan then became unhappy, would it not be he, the Prefectural Magistrate, that would end up unlucky?
Tang Fan appeared to not be worried about Lu Lingxi, however. Indeed, right when he sipped his soup, Lu Lingxi said, “Lightning in firmament, thundering vibrations while rain spills steadily. Do you think that second half completes it, Merchant Xu?”
Xu Bin smiled. “It does, as expected! You are really too talented, Don Lu! Looks like I’ll have to punish myself!”
Saying so, he lifted up his cup and drank thrice, rather heartily. Everyone also smiled about this turn of the page.
When it came to be Don Shen’s turn at a first couplet, he racked his brains to think one up. It appeared that the hard-up one was not the one matching, but the one giving. His brows twisted in deep thought for a very long time. “Uh, well… that’s a… got it! Warm food, fragrant dishes, springtime fills the inn!”
Lu Lingxi held in his laughter. “Windows clear, tables clean, the guests come as clouds do.”
Shen Si heaved a big sigh of relief, aware that his own skill was lackluster, laughing. “Brilliant, Don Lu!”
“This match was suitable for the occasion, Don Shen: simple and without frills,” Lu Lingxi replied. “It really makes me feel rather cordial with you!”
Immediately overjoyed, Shen Si’s sense of self-assurance surged, his impression of Lu Lingxi quickly changing. As it was, they were seated next to each other and also close in age, so they soon chatted about other subjects.
The tumbler revolved twice around, for Magistrate Fan and Fang Huixue’s turns, respectively. As a second-roll Palace Honorate, it wasn’t odd that Magistrate Fan was able to match everything. Fang Huixue was a merchant, yet also ended up matching most of them, only having to drink once. Evidently, despite being a merchant, his belly was not completely inkless.
Tang Fan was seated beside him. Seeing the man’s graceful demeanor and lack of copper stink on his breath, he automatically got a good feeling about him, speaking to him on his own initiative. Fang Huixue was immensely flattered. Able to conduct business in every Southern province, his insight and spirit were incomparable to that of ordinary merchants, and he certainly didn’t have ordinary subjects of conversation with Tang Fan.
Coincidentally, both of them were extremely invested in the livelihood of citizens. As an official, it was natural that Tang Fan was concerned — what was rare that Fang Huixue, as a merchant, was quite understanding of it. On top of that, his words held no pleasure for profits that typical merchants had, instead considerable reverence for the righteous merchant Xian Gao of the Spring and Autumn period.
Having heard that Tang Fan had just come from Suzhou, he asked, “Sir, this villein heard that Wujiang had a famine last year, and the deaths from it are uncountable. Have things improved by now?”
“This year’s circumstances are a bit better, but if the refugees want to return to their homelands, I’m afraid they’ll have to start all over again.”
“It’s best to teach people to fish so they can feed themselves. If you don’t hate the idea, this commoner is willing to fund the rebuilding of the refugees’ homes, then give them some money for them to plan out their own livelihoods.”
“Are those free alms?” Tang Fan wondered.
Fang Huixue smiled. “Of course not. If I said it was, you would likely not believe me. The citizens living on the edge of Lake Tai have fished and farmed for generations. Those skills are definitely still there, they just have had their homes completely destroyed, with no money to pick themselves back up. I can help them buy boats or rent new fields. As long the weather comes to be favorable in three years, they could then return that capital and profits to me, and three years later, those things will be theirs to have.”
In that way, he certainly wouldn’t be making any money, maybe even reaping losses. “Suzhou is not my domain,” Tang Fan said with a smile, “but I can pass that along for you. However, like that, your business will lose money. Did you consider that?”
The other grinned breezily. “Benevolent people cannot be wealthy, and they will be divinely punished with time in hell. What someone does, and how much of it they do, is all watched by the Heavens, and recompensed when the time comes. Besides, it may seem like I would lose money in this moment, but in reality, given that public praise spreads for me, everyone will come to know that my fabric business cheats no one and treats fairly. That will actually increase my business all the more. This is why it’s better to think in the long term. I’ve earned a lot doing business these years; if I still didn’t understand the logic behind giving alms, I would inevitably invoke calamity one day. I wish to emulate Tao Zhugong, not Shen Wansan!”
Tang Fan really appreciated his carefree attitude towards money. “How generous! If all the merchants in the land were like you, the Court would never need to worry, and the citizens would be blessed!”
Fang Huixue mocked himself humorously. “If that was so, then how could I have received the attention of both Lord Peng and you, Sir?”
The two looked at each other, both starting to laugh.
While they chatted merrily, the tumbler was spun again, then stopped facing Tang Fan. He smiled, saying, “Looks like it’s my turn to embarrass myself. If you please, Magistrate Fan?”
Giving an imperial ambassador something to match was not simple. Say an easy one, and it wouldn’t embody his skill level, instead portraying that they looked down on him. Say one that was too hard and he couldn’t match it, the one that had asked the question would be out of luck.
Tang Fan was famed for cracking cases, which everyone here knew of, but they had not much of a clue about his literary talents. People like Magistrate Fan and Ji Min must have heard the tale that he had once narrowly become Prime Scorer on the golden palace roll, only to later turn into a mere fourth-ranker, but after he became an official, no collections of his essays or poetry circulated the scholarly circles. For that reason, Magistrate Fan dared not take any risks. After thinking and thinking some more, he finally thought up a couplet that was not too high or too low in difficulty, and once the other matched it, he even let out an inward sigh of relief.
At Ji Min’s turn, he smiled. “I can’t think of a good one for right now, so I’m going to just use that painting on the wall of a squirrel on a peach branch as one. Behind the branch, a squirrel gazes at peaches and plums.”
There was hardly any difficulty to speak of in that. “Atop the well, a nimble monkey covets the sun and the moon.”
Peaches and plums grew on the branches, and the sun and the moon could be reflected in the well. Tang Fan’s matching couplet was clearly rich in wit, and everyone praised it.
Several others had their turns presenting first couplets, none able to get one over Tang Fan. When it was Xu Bin’s turn, he said, “If this commoner is remembering correctly, you were ranked fourth on the first golden roll, Sir Tang. Common verses would disgrace you. I have another couplet that I ask you to enlighten me on.”
Earlier, it could be said that he had only a slight feeling, but now, Tang Fan was completely, doubtlessly sure that the other was gunning for him.
However, he didn’t know Xu Bin personally, nor had he ever heard of him before. Why was he being so rude over and over again?
Tang Fan smiled mildly. “There’s no harm in doing so.”
Sneering on the inside, Xu Bin cleared his throat. “A whiteheaded bulbul leads an ox over Changshan, but the ox’s knee drops and breaks upon hitting a stone of bone.”
Several names of medicines were implicitly contained within this match: ‘whitehead’ for pulsatilla root, ‘leads an ox’ for morning glories, ‘Changshan’ for gigil root, ‘stone of bone’ for talc, and ‘ox’s knee’ for oxknee.
He had believed that match to be quite difficult, scarcely imagining that not long after he had said it, Tang Fan would say, “A yellow-haired girl scorches grass heaped upon fertile ground; lost protection from the wind burns the grass into black.”
That also have five names of medicinal ingredients: ‘yellow-hair’ for bitter yam, ’scorch(ing) grass’ for licorice, ‘fertile ground’ for foxglove rhizomes, ‘protection from the wind’ for siler roots, and ‘grass black’ for aconite. The matchup worked, unable to be nitpicked.
Not accepting this, Xu Bin added another first couplet. “The whiteheaded bubul, wielding a giant ji, straddling a seahorse, fights a hundred meetings with bandits of wood and foes of grass, whirling back around to return to Court, proving itself to the General and its old countrymen.”
‘General’ and ‘old countrymen’ were alternate names for rhubarb and licorice, respectively. The others — ‘giant ji’ for spurges, ‘seahorse’ for dried seahorses, ‘bandits of wood’ for horsetails, ‘foes of grass’ for shell ginger, ‘whirl(ing) back’ for yellowhead, and ‘hundred meetings’ for lilies — were all names for herbs, too.
Everyone simultaneously smelled a hint of gunpowder. They couldn’t help but hold their breaths and pay attention, afraid that Tang Fan wouldn’t be able to match that.
Magistrate Fan’s expression was getting uglier. Xu Bin had an unusual backer, so he didn’t want to offend him, but how could he have expected that the other would insist upon provoking Tang Fan?
Tang Fan laughed a little. “The matchmaker, inserting a golden hairpin, wearing silver patterns, surpasses five-fold the mudans and peonies, and cistanches leave the pavilion, just like the cloud-mother of divine immortals.”
“Wonderful! Absolutely wonderful!” Magistrate Fan shouted.
The others, coming back to themselves, successively cheered.
That matching couplet really was wonderful, which went without saying. ‘Cloud-mother of divine immortals’ was the final dot on the eyes.
Muscovite, the ‘cloud-mother’, could be used as medicine, and ‘divine immortals’ referred to ‘divine immortal grass’. The fantastic thing about them was that they could also refer to people, and happened to complement ‘generals and old countrymen’.
Before Xu Bin could speak, Tang Fan arched his brows. “You said one match per person. Aren’t you breaking the rules, Merchant Xu? Should you not be accepting punishment?”
“Correct. Drink, drink!” Magistrate Fan said quickly.
Xu Bin was really unhappy with this. He had thought that he would be able to embarrass Tang Fan in public and make him lose face, not having expected it to backfire. He lifted his cup, smiling forcefully. “Those willing to bet must be ready to lose! I’ll drink!”
He ended it with three cups in a row.
At that time, Shen Si started whining. “Everyone’s bosoms are filled with scriptures, which bullies me for being unlearned. Match-phrase is pretty dry — why don’t we play guess-the-character riddles?”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Lu Lingxi echoed, “but let’s not play twirl-’n-sip. We’ll just solve the riddle directly by ourselves, and whoever answers correctly first, wins. What do you all think?”
Tang Fan grinned. “That’ll be how it goes, then.”
“As the seat of honor, Sir Tang will take the lead, and present us all with a puzzle first,” Magistrate Fan hurriedly said.
“Just now, Magistrate Ji used the first couplet, ‘Behind the branch, a squirrel gazes at peaches and plums.’ I’ll be lazy, and use ‘behind the branch, a squirrel’ for the puzzle’s base.”
While everyone was in the middle of thinking, Ji Min laughed. “The answer in hidden in the base itself. Has this humble official guessed correctly?”
The instant he said that, everyone had a sudden realization — was the wood radical (木) not in those characters twice? The ‘rat’ character in ‘squirrel’ corresponded to the time of the Rat, which was represented by the zi character (子). Wood plus zi naturally made the character for plum (李).
Tang Fan gave a smile. “You’re a real talent, Ziming!”
“You’ve overpraised me, Sir.”
Truthfully, Lu Lingxi had already figured out the answer, but he had been just a second too slow. Seeing Tang Fan and Ji Min smile at each other, looking like their mutual understanding had no bounds, he immediately became mighty upset.
The translator says: Ji Min last showed up in the first arc, chapter 6.
To clarify a little, this ‘match-phrase’ game is less memorizing preexisting couplets, but making new ones that fit. The one with the similar radicals was definitely preexisting, though.
As for the final ‘riddle’… and all those plant names… don’t worry about them. Just don’t. I don’t want to think about them anymore.
The author’s mini-theatre:
Lu Lingxi: Eunuch Wang, isn’t this wrong?
Wang Zhi: What is?
Lu Lingxi: You clearly said that I would only have to confront Sui Zhou. Why has this Ji guy now shown up? With so many feelings of meeting up after a long time? And they’re smiling at each other?
Wang Zhi: What’s that have to do with me? How was I supposed to know that Tang guy is so liberal with his affections?
Tang Fan: …We purely have a friendship between men, got it?!
Sui Zhou’s heart is stopped up.
 Behold: 河汉汪洋，江湖滔滔波浪涌. (To emulate the feeling of the couplet, every English word in the first part has ‘a’ in it.)
 Behold again: 雲霄雷電，霹靂震震霈雨霖。(This part has all ‘i’s.)
 Take a gander: 枝后松鼠